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A toast to (g-chat) friends

19 May

“You should get g-chat,” I told my dad during dinner a few nights ago.

“All day, you could talk to your coworkers, or friends, or even me,” I
persisted despite his shaking head.

“Who do you talk to?” he asked me.

And I paused, thinking of my chat list’s mostly gray, inactive friend user names.

My ex’s, once at the top of the list, had disappeared after an ugly online parting of ways. And thanks to an even uglier breakup engineered by my ex–best friend, her name had likewise been deleted long ago.

So now, offline and unavailable friends overwhelm my list.

It has barely–but luckily–retained J.–always flagged with a red “busy” sign reminding me of his admirable patience in reading my frequent rants against Republicans or patriarchal chauvinists or pronatalists.

New-mom T., once my staunchest ally in the relentless nine-to-five battle known as corporate America, has wisely retreated from the full-time fight to the relative peace of part-time work (i.e., limited IM connectivity) and civilian family life.

My family–at least my tech-savvy brother and cousin–have remained available. Yet the friendly green dot beside their user names conceals the impossibly busy, can’t-chat-now schedule of a marketing programmer, an expert photographer, and the thousands of other rare professionals fortunate enough to be actually passionate about their jobs.

I’m just lucky to have one, I told myself during a period of IM silence a few months ago as I observed the job search of my friend–and former coworker–R.

She’d made the intrepid decision to leave a comfortable position in Chicago and begin a bold new adventure in Tennessee. And as she slowly charmed the Nashville employment scene, she only rarely had time for her smart phone’s IM list during those long months.

So when finally I could celebrate her well-deserved new job, I secretly felt less happiness for her than for myself.

Because my most loyal g-chat conspirator had returned. Now we can silently complain about our coworkers’ annoying habits of clipping fingernails in the next cubicle or playing songs on repeat all afternoon. We can plan each evening’s activity (Glee and The Bachelor, anyone?) and itemize our menus for dinner. And, even more important, we can debate the mouthwatering merits of restaurant options for lunch.

These lunch discussions, conducted from miles apart, have served as bittersweet reminders of our past workday lunches together, when we’d chat about boys or coworkers or sometimes even work as I enjoyed my pre-gluten-free days of Portillo’s or Qdoba.

But most often, we ate at Quiznos.

And now, of all the forbidden sandwiches in the world, Quiznos is the most tempting.

Yet the soft, toasty bread, along with the tomatoes, lettuce, and mayonnaise that I always requested as an alteration to Quiznos’ standard veggie sub recipe, are not so different from the ingredients of my favorite homemade sandwich, I realized recently. I simply needed to add some melted muenster cheese and–the key ingredient–a generous heap of sliced black olives to recreate that perfectly toasty Quiznos sub.

So, with Udi’s amazing whole-grain gluten-free bread, I can take a bite at my desk and almost taste those long-ago lunches with my dear friend at Quiznos. Only now, we’re talking on g-chat.


Old loves

17 Apr

My ex was married yesterday.

And as I slogged through my Saturday chores of sweeping my floors, washing my towels, and dusting my furniture, I–for some masochistic reason–envisioned him straightening his bow tie, admiring his bride, and embarking on his honeymoon . . . .

And then I relived the honeymoon of our own relationship–ended just a little more than a year ago–as I recalled his first admiring gaze across a P.F. Chang’s dinner table, our third date to a favorite Chinese carryout spot with tofu and crab pot stickers, and his first time cooking grilled cheese sandwiches for me.

In fact, almost every one of my favorite dishes and restaurants evokes a memory of him.

But he wasn’t the one who came to mind yesterday as I made my favorite new breakfast . . . and brunch . . . and, sometimes, late-night dinner.

Instead, this dish evoked memories of cold nights spent cooking in my warm, cozy kitchen with my new boyfriend. He’d been the first person–since my father, who used to fry up the family’s Saturday morning breakfasts–to make me French toast.

The thick fluffy slices, dusted in powdered sugar and drenched in real maple syrup, proved even better than my father’s so long ago. And unlike his, these were gluten free.

Udi’s gluten-free breads, available in a white sandwich variety and a faux whole-wheat “whole-grain” version sold in nonspecialty local grocery stores such as Dominick’s, have given me back countless pre-Celiac bread-based meals, including breakfasts of toast and Welch’s grape jelly, lunches of imitation Quiznos veggie sandwiches (more on these later), and now, late-night dinners of omelets and French toast.

And during those late-night dinners, my boyfriend gave me–an egg-scrambling, omelet-frying failure–yet another gift: the recipe.

7 to 8 slices of Udi’s white sandwich gluten-free bread

3 eggs

about 1/4 cup of milk or cream

dash of vanilla

generous sprinkling of cinnamon

1 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter

various toppings (powdered sugar, maple syrup, sliced strawberries, oranges, and/or bananas)

If bread is frozen, microwave it until soft. Then whisk together eggs, milk or cream, vanilla, and cinnamon. Dip both sides of each bread slice in egg mixture and fry in unsalted butter until slices are browned on both sides.

Then top with sugar, syrup, or fruit, and share with a new–or old–love.

Loving life

1 Mar

February 14, 1995.

That date, accompanied by my childish drawing of requisite hearts, is scrawled in the top corner of a crumpled notebook page tucked into a special photo album labeled “Andrea’s Recipes.”

The recipe on that crushed page had languished among my collected scraps of food ideas for five years–ever since the move to my first apartment with its tiny kitchen promising countless nights of home-cooked meals. To prepare for them, I’d searched the corners of my mom’s spacious kitchen, where I’d found, buried within her old blue folder bulging with unused recipes dating back to the ’70s, this relic of the ’90s.

Those years had been consumed with the stomach-wrenching anxiety of my dad’s first fight with intestinal lymphoma. The diagnosis had left my family choking on our favorite simple meal, affectionately called “rice and sauce,” and then smiling wanly over subsequent casseroles donated by well-meaning church friends.

“Church cookbook,” my mom had appropriately noted as she’d taken down the recipe for the best of those numerous noodle casseroles. But perhaps its generous use of egg noodles–laden with gluten that was unknowingly feeding the cancer in my dad’s intestines–had somehow subconsciously deterred us, for we made the casserole only that one time on Valentine’s Day in 1995.

Now more than 15 years later, I finally returned to the dish this past month. After all, February seemed like the perfect time to celebrate my love for life–and for my dad’s–both made possible by gluten-free adaptations that, every so often, make dishes even tastier than their original versions.

So, based on that original recipe for chicken noodle casserole, here’s my vegetarian, gluten-free take on Rice Quorn Casserole.

2 cups uncooked jasmine rice
1 tsp. salt
3 cups water
1 and 1/2 cups frozen Quorn Chik’n Tenders (my new obsession–and the most authentic fake meat on the market)
Olive oil, garlic salt, black pepper, and dried basil
1 12-ounce package Pacific Natural Foods Organic Cream of Mushroom Condensed Soup
10 ounces frozen salted peas
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
5 to 7 Velveeta slices

Combine the first three ingredients, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 15 minutes until rice absorbs water.

Meanwhile, in a nonstick pan, season Chik’n Tenders generously with garlic salt, pepper, and dried basil, and fry in olive oil until slightly brown.

In a separate bowl, whisk together mushroom soup, cornstarch, milk, and peas. Then combine all ingredients in a medium-sized casserole dish, top with Velveeta slices, cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, and enjoy this comforting Quorn casserole.

It’s sure to be love–whether or not it’s Valentine’s Day.

Stolen sandwiches

31 May

“Do you want to go out to eat?”

My answer to that question is almost always “yes.”

Sure, I usually decline my family’s invitation to dine at The Clubhouse, given their bland flavorings and limited gluten-free menu (featuring some admittedly rich mashed potatoes and delicate gluten-free buns), and I often reject my mom’s pleas to join her at Egg’lectic Cafe, given their paltry gluten-free selection and painful reminders of now-forbidden breakfast favorites (Banana Bread French Toast, anyone?), but I’m always eager to meet my brother at Chipotle or join my best friend at Honey.

After all, Honey has reliably satisfied my comfort-food cravings with their “not-just-grilled-cheese sandwich” for months.

But lately, the recipe has changed: a gummy new gluten-free bread forms the sandwich’s base, and an increasing amount of grease saturates each slice.

With a loaf of my favorite Prairie Bread from Whole Foods, however, I’ve stolen—or, rather, adjusted—Honey’s amazing recipe to create an even better homemade grilled cheese.

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 slices of Whole Foods’ Prairie Bread, thawed
2 teaspoons of Trader Joe’s Pesto Alla Genovese
Several thin slices of Trader Joe’s Raw Milk White Cheddar
1 slice of tomato
1 handful of baby arugula

In a nonstick skillet, fry the bread in the olive oil until slightly browned. Coat one side of each slice with pesto, add the cheese, press the sandwich together, and cover the pan to melt the cheese. Insert the tomato slice and arugula and fry uncovered to wilt the arugula slightly. Then enjoy a restaurant-quality lunch or dinner—without even going out to eat!

Tofu-burger stir-fry

10 Nov

I just received an excessively early renewal notice for Glamour magazine.

And I made a mental note to consider cancelling the remaining time on my subscription.

Not only do I already have too large a pile of waiting-to-be-read magazines (and other recently read ones partially responsible for my long absence on this blog!), but I detest Glamour’s new focus on reader-driven content. “I want advice from experts! And well-crafted first-person essays from thoughtful writers!” I’ve mourned while enduring yet another list of patched-together paragraphs solicited from myriad “regular” women.

So I reminded myself to support only the best in the foundering magazine business when I heard, a few weeks ago, about the demise of Gourmet—a magazine I’d always perused in the grocery-store checkout line but never given my full attention. I’m unsure of the magazine’s policies on reader- vs. expert-driven content, but I’m assuming a commitment to the latter since I encountered a link—on, of all places, a food blog—to this impassioned article by my PBS favorite Christopher Kimball.

The America’s Test Kitchen host blames the death of Gourmet on the growth of food blogs. And then, in his final two paragraphs, he eloquently illustrates the main reason for my initial hesitation about entering the blogosphere. “Google ‘broccoli casserole,'” he challenges New York Times readers, “and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise. . . .”

So, in honor of the expertise of America’s Test Kitchen and my own continuing uneasiness with the instant “publication” of amateurs’ writing via the Internet, I’m posting one of my first self-developed gluten-free recipes with this disclaimer: I am an amateur “cook-er.” I tried this recipe four times, but I never felt complete satisfaction with the inconsistent results. Yet still I found the dish delicious. And, as hoped and anticipated, it reminded me of my pre-gluten-free favorite takeout order from a special nearby spot called Jin’s China.

2 Trader Joe’s Organic Tofu Veggie Burgers

10–15 snow peas

1 and 1/2 handfuls of carrot chips, cut lengthwise

4–5 white cabbage leaves, torn into large pieces

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 cup of uncooked rice

Boil the snow peas, carrots, and cabbage in water seasoned with garlic salt. In a separate pot, add 2 and 1/2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the rice and bring to a boil; then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until finished.

In a nonstick frying pan, saute the garlic in a generous amount of olive oil. When the vegetables are soft, add them to the garlic and continue sauteing. Then chop each veggie burger into approximately nine pieces and add to the pan. Add more oil, as well as a dash of the leftover water from the vegetables, if needed. Season with a generous amount of garlic salt.

(My boyfriend, quite unlike me, found the veggie burgers in need of a dousing in San-J Tamari Sauce. In previous “tests” of this recipe, I did try that soy sauce substitute, as well as dashes of vegetable stock, honey, and cornstarch. I returned to the garlic salt alone, however, for I believe it to be a wonderfully subtle complement—unlike the overpowering tamari—to the harmonious flavor of these veggie burgers. In fact, I’ve reread the simple list of ingredients—tofu, sunflower or canola oil, yellow onion, carrot, kale, tapioca starch, sea salt, and garlic powder—countless times as I’ve tried to discern the secret to these amazing concoctions.)

Allow the ingredients to simmer and the vegetables to absorb flavor from the burgers. Spoon rice into two bowls, top with the vegetable/burger stir-fry, and enjoy an expertly written article from a favorite magazine subscription. (May I suggest Marie Claire?)

Grilled-cheese goodness

13 Aug

One of the worst lunches of my childhood was grilled-cheese sandwiches.

My sister would begin with tasteless whole-wheat bread (or, worse yet, halved dry kaiser rolls), drop on slices of mozzarella cheese, stick the open-faced sandwiches under the broiler, and serve up abrasive, burnt cardboard topped with bubbling, scorched goo.

I thought I’d endured my last grilled-cheese sandwich after I waved goodbye to my college-bound sister.

But then, a decade later, in the weakness and conciliation of new love, I agreed to try my boyfriend’s speciality: grilled-cheese sandwiches. Awed, I watched him slather butter into every crevice of soft, white bread, then fry the sizzling pieces in more butter before squeezing slices of orange American cheese between the squishy layers.

I’d fallen in love with grilled-cheese sandwiches—and him—just before I had to give the former up forever.

Or so I thought, until I sampled a sandwich at Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery, and duplicated that grilled-cheese at home to create a sandwich even better (Dare I say?) than my boyfriend’s.

The secret is Rose’s amazing, addictive seeded sandwich bread. I’d always thought of bread as the platform for the cheese in the sandwich bearing the latter’s name. But with so much distinctive character, with the chewy texture of the myriad seeds and the surprising lightness of the dough, this gluten-free bread becomes the celebrity of the dish.

Consequently, almost any cheddar cheese will do. I used Lucerne 2-percent, reduced-fat, mild cheddar for my most recent sandwiches, but I prefer the smoothness and taste of Trader Joe’s mild cheddar.

Fry the bread with a generous amount of butter. Then add thin slices of cheddar, close the sandwich, and press. Next—a trick from my boyfriend—cover the pan until the cheese is mostly melted. Then carefully open the sandwich and add thin slices of fresh tomato (My boyfriend prefers to add these at the beginning with the cheese, but I enjoy my tomatoes still slightly cool.). Cook, flipping as needed, until desired. I’m always careful to leave the bread buttery soft, most likely because I’m haunted by my sister’s burnt concoctions. This bread, however, can withstand a slight crisping of the edges.

Then enjoy the richness and comfort of these combined flavors, and let them take you back to your childhood . . . or not.

August garden casserole

25 Jul

I’ve altered the recipe for this favorite dish multiple times since I first discovered it in one of my mom’s old cookbooks. But when I became gluten free, I didn’t have to change this healthful comfort casserole at all.

Start by combining 2 cups of rice, 4 cups of water, two teaspoons of salt, and 2 tablespoons of butter in a large pot. Then peel and slice approximately 1/2 pound of whole carrots and place the slices in the bottom of a steamer. Next, coarsely chop one head of cauliflower and two medium-size broccoli crowns, and layer the pieces on top of the carrots.

Steam the vegetables over boiling water, and bring the rice to a boil; then simmer the rice for approximately 15 minutes until all the water has disappeared. Meanwhile, grate approximately 1 cup of mozzarella cheese (I use Lucerne, guaranteed to be gluten free. Its flavor, however, sometimes seems bitter.).

In the large pot, combine the steamed vegetables, cooked rice, grated cheese, and 2 additional tablespoons of butter (My boyfriend first sneaked the butter into the recipe about a year ago, and he attributed the dish’s better-than-usual taste to the butter. Since then, I’ve religiously—though reluctantly—included these extra but delicious calories.). Stir until the cheese is completely incorporated and melted.

Salt lightly, if desired, and pepper to taste. Then plate and garnish with additional grated mozzarella and grated parmesan cheese (Again, I use Lucerne. This is another alteration introduced by my boyfriend. He, however, usually adds approximately 1/4 cup directly into the dish, but I find it too rich and salty this way.).

Enjoy with two or three family members or friends . . . or with that special someone who, like my boyfriend, just might suggest his or her own special improvements and alterations. (If so, please share them here!)