Thursday, July 29, 2010

Zero to Hero [in the kitchen]

When I moved to Virginia three years ago, I had no idea how to cook. I didn't even know how to scramble eggs (I know, pathetic!). My mom always did the cooking at my house, so I was never forced to learn. In college, I lived in a sorority house, which meant I could rely on the house-cook who prepared our meals everyday. Needless to say, when I moved out here I had yet to learn how to cook much more than shells and cheese and canned tomato soup. That counts as cooking, right?

It's funny thinking back to my first summer in Virginia, when making over-easy eggs would nearly bring me to tears (I can't lie, I still get upset when I break a yolk in the pan) and every time I grilled any sort of meat, I insisted that Jesse double-check it to make sure it was done. After a few months of practice though, I started to settle into cooking. And after a year or so, I noticed that I was modifying the recipes I found to work better for Jesse and me. I took pride in what I was making and the fact that I could be so successful with something that felt so challenging.

My first homemade lasagna (Spring 2008)

Looking back to my first days at the stove makes me laugh. I can't believe that at one point I was intimidated by raw chicken or that eggs made me feel defeated. During my three years of home-cooking, I finally feel like I've found my sea-legs and that I can do just about anything.

While I know many of you are already settled-in in the kitchen, I have a little advice for anyone that is new to cooking - start small, but reach far. There have been several times when I've stretched way out of my cooking comfort zone to try a new dish or cooking method to prove to myself that I can do it, and 99% of the time it pays off. I usually try to pick one part of the meal to jazz up, while keeping everything else simple. For example, taco night - Jesse and I eat tacos just about every week. I usually use ground beef or turkey and I either mix up my own taco seasoning or cheat and use store bought mix. But one thing I love to make from scratch, that takes taco night to the next level, is guacamole. I never realized how simple it is to make homemade Guac. Restaurants charge anywhere from fifty cents to $1.50 extra for a tiny cup of Guac, but a whole avocado only costs about $1.25 ... talk about major markup!

The thing I like about making guacamole is that you can modify it based on your personal tastes and what you have on hand. But beware, avocados have a very short shelf life. It's best to buy them the day before you want to use them because it only takes about 24 hours for a medium-hard avocado to ripen.

I know there are many variations of guacamole, but here is my very easy, pantry-friendly, version. The nice thing about this recipe is that it's very easy to multiply the ingredients and prepare for a larger group. I've made this for several weeknight dinners and it's always a hit! I am giving you exact measurements for each of the ingredients, but I've found that it's best to go by taste. Some avocados seem to be a little more needy than others. :)

Holy Guacamole!

Serves: 2
Time: 10 minutes, plus chilling time

1 large ripe avocado
1 medium roma tomato
3 tablespoons diced red onion
2 tablespoons lime juice
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

1. Start by prepping all the ingredients. De-seed and dice the tomato. De-seeding prevents the guacamole from getting watery. Then, dice the red onion and the avocado (tips for slicing an avocado are below the recipe).

2. Place the chunks of avocado into a medium mixing bowl. Take a fork and mash the avocado until no large chunks remain.

3. Add the diced tomato and red onion to the bowl and mix together.

4. Add the lime juice, tasting as you go to make sure there is enough "zing," but not too much. Next add the salt until the zing, otherwise known as acidity, is balanced out. Finally, add a little freshly ground black pepper for flavor.

5. Chill for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than 3-4 hours to maintain freshness. Serve with tortilla chips or on tacos.

Ways to jazz it up:
For a little bite, mince one small garlic clove
For a lot of bite, dice up one small jalepeno pepper (be sure to discard the seeds)
For extra creaminess, spoon about 3 Tbsp. of sour cream into the avocado mixture
For a fresh bite, chop a little fresh cilantro into the guacamole

Slicing an Avocado
Start by slicing the avocado in half, keeping in mind the pit in the center. Once you've cut around the avocado, you should be able to twist each half apart.

Remove the pit with your knife by chopping into it and twisting the knife to loosen the pit from the avocado.

Deeply score each half horizontally and vertically being careful not to break through the skin.

Finally, separate from the skin using a spoon or your fingers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Green (and by green I mean black) Thumb

I’m back from my week long hiatus. Sorry for the lack of communication, but I took an unexpected trip to Orlando early last week and then Jesse and I spent the weekend celebrating our first wedding anniversary!

Now, back to the blog ...

I've wanted to plant my own herb garden since we bought our house, but somehow I've killed every plant I've owned to date. I got a beautiful orchid as a gift a few years back. Dead. When Jesse and I bought our house his mom helped me pick out a little plant for our porch. Dead. A few months ago, I bought a new plant for the planter on our porch. Dying. Can you say black thumb?

I'm not sure why I think I should keep trying, but for some reason I'm determined to grow something, preferably herbs. I thought about buying a window box and filling it with my favorites like basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary, but I would feel like a big failure if I killed them all at once!

As a way to sort of test the waters, I've been eyeing the little basil plants that sit in the entryway of my local grocery store, wondering if I could keep one of the little guys alive. Until a few weeks ago, I just passed them and thought that there was no way I could do it. Then, as though it were a sign from the grocery store gods, or just my lucky week, I was shopping at Whole Foods and the basil plants were on sale. They were setup in simple little planters waiting for someone to take them home – and that someone was me! I purchased my little basil plant for a whopping $2.50 and set it up in my kitchen window to soak up the rays.

I really have no idea how long this will last, but I'm going to do my best to keep him alive for at least a few weeks. And, to keep all of you involved in the life of my little guy, I dropped a counter on the right side bar (many thanks to my husband for whipping that up for me!) to show how many days he's survived ... wish me luck!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sunroom Preview

We completed the next phase of "The Lentz Townhouse Revamp" yesterday. Marc came over to paint the sunroom and I can't wait to show you how it all turned out. I am planning to do a full room makeover the same way I did for the kitchen, but until I have time to put it all together, here's a little something to whet your appetite.

Before - boring white walls and emptiness .... womp womp

After - The soothing blueish-gray paint (Benjamin Moore, Wedgewood Gray) envelops the room, while the mineral green curtains (thank you Pottery Barn for the natural sounding color name) and bundle of white twigs bring the feeling of the outdoors in ... ta-da!

I hope I'm not giving too much away, but I will say this: I'm. In. Love. :)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Movin' on up: Kitchen Renovation

When we bought our house last summer, we were very lucky that it was in good condition. We were hoping to find a community with new construction, in hopes that any renovations would be minor. It took a lot of searching, but after about three months of looking, we found a townhouse that was built in 2004 with most of the things we wanted (i.e. garage, community pool, master bathroom, walk-in closet).

The only room that didn't fit the bill was the kitchen. I had visions of granite and stainless steel, but we were dealt laminate countertops and white(ish) appliances. While we haven't been able to upgrade everything on our wish list, we've made significant progress, including a few small changes that went a lot further than we expected.

The pictures below show what we started with and what we've done since we moved in to make this space our own. While the house has a great foundation, the space needed a little face-lift, so that's just what we did!

Pre-Renovation Pros and Cons
Pros - wood flooring, solid wood cabinetry, tile back splash, recessed light above the sink, Kohler faucet

Cons - bland white walls, gun-metal looking knobs, laminate countertops, wood plate covers, humongous fluorescent light, dated appliances

Before & After
We painted the walls, replaced the wood plate covers, put in granite counters, switched out the gun-metal hardware for brushed nickel, tore out the heavy fluorescent fixture and replaced it with recessed lighting and installed under cabinet lighting for the countertops. Enjoy the walk-through of our "new" kitchen!

Before I get into the nitty-gritty details, here's an overall view of our kitchen.

And, after several months of projects and little bit of moolah, here are the results!

Before - Boring white walls and the laminate counters made the space feel bland, while the pot rack covered all the natural light from coming through the window.

After - The granite counters and creamy-yellow paint are meant to warm up the kitchen, while taking down the pot rack and blinds opens up the space above the sink.

Before - Close-up of the wooden plate covers, white walls and laminate counter.

After - The stainless steel plate covers blend into the backsplash much better than the wood covers. And even though there isn't much wall space in the kitchen, we hired a professional painter for the project, since we were painting the entire first level at the same time. The addition of a little color - Benjamin Moore's Jicama - made a huge difference.

Before - A better look at the big picture. I still can't get over the fact that the previous owner hung all their pots and pans right in front of the only window in the room ... major eye-sore!

After - Everything looks much more open and bright without the heavy, dark accessories. We replaced the cabinet hardware with this set from Home Depot.

Before - The recessed light above the sink brought light into the space, but once we installed recessed lighting everywhere else, this bulb looked a little out of place.

After - To fix the problem, we bought a recessed light conversion kit (for just $35) from Lowe's, which allowed us to screw the fixture in, just like a light bulb, over the existing recessed light - genius!

Before - The bulky fluorescent light fixture looked like it was meant for a retail space, not our kitchen!

After - We used a local contractor to install recessed lighting. The contractor charged a flat rate of $100 per canister, which included the price of the canister and the install. He also patched up the hole from the old light fixture for free - bonus!

Before - The corner by the fridge was a dark space that didn't get much light.

After - The combination of putting a recessed light in the back corner of the kitchen, installing under cabinet lighting and filling the space with a few appliances and decorative pieces, brings more light and energy to this once desolate corner.

Here are a few close-up shots of the under cabinet lighting at work. We purchased the kit from Home Depot and installed everything ourselves.
[I'll try to write a separate post soon, about how we installed the lights and magically made the cord disappear.]

So basically, I've fallen in love with my kitchen. I have to say that my favorite part are the granite counters, but without all the other bells and whistles, this space wouldn't feel complete. I still have dreams of replacing the appliances with stainless steel, but now that everything else is lighter and brighter, I don't hate the white as much ... one day we'll get there.

In the meantime, here are a few more pictures of my favorite space. And I can't lie, I enjoy cooking in here a lot more than I did when everything was so dull and bleh! :)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sunday Breakfast: Weekend Waffles

Preface: Last week was an unusual one for Jesse and me. He had surgery on his ACL and his parents stayed with us from Wednesday night to Sunday morning. Needless to say, after a long weekend of care-taking and entertaining the injured hubs, I didn't have time to plan a proper Sunday dinner. That being said, Drew still came over and I made pasta, chopped salad and semi-homemade garlic bread and we all watched Shutter Island while eating ice cream sundaes! I guess I could show you guys how I make garlic bread, but since I didn't take any pictures, I'm going to show you another favorite weekend meal of ours, which I made Sunday morning - waffles!

After moving out here, I quickly learned that Jesse likes home cooked breakfast on the weekends. We spend all week eating things like cereal and bagels, so by the weekend it's nice to have something like eggs and toast. I started out just scrambling eggs, then slowly but surely (and I mean slowly) I mastered over-easy (known to some as dippy eggs). After awhile, I started working on pancakes and waffles, but just used boxed recipes.

In the last year, I decided to get daring and started playing around making homemade waffles. The motivation to switch to homemade came when we got married and received a new waffle maker as a wedding gift. (When we first started making waffles, we used Jesse's parents' old waffle maker - the one they used since around the time Jesse was born.) Then for Christmas this year, I was pushed to a whole new level of motivation to use my own recipe because my parents bought us a professional double waffle maker. It's real serious business!

I started out with a recipe I found online, but something about the flavor wasn't quite right and the texture seemed to be a little off. I experimented with a few other recipes, but they didn't seem to have the flavor and texture I wanted either. But finally, a few weekends ago, I came across an almost-perfect recipe on I tweaked it just a little and poof, perfect waffles!

My (new) Weekend Waffle Recipe

Serves: 3 (or 2 people with enough to freeze for leftovers)
Time: 15 - 20 minutes

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 egg yolks
1 3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
butter and real maple syrup

1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Turn waffle maker on to desired heat setting.

2. In a medium mixing bowl stir together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder and salt.
[you can use a whisk for this, to minimize utensils used :)]

3. Separate the yolks from the whites into two separate bowls.

[I totally forgot to take a picture of this step, so here is a play-by-play of how to separate egg whites: Crack the egg in half and slowly let the whites drain (read: ooze) into a small bowl. It helps to pass the yolk back and forth between each half of the shell to help the draining process. When only the yolk is remaining in the shell, drop the yolk into a separate small bowl.]

4. Slightly beat the yolks. Add the milk, oil and vanilla and lightly whisk together.

5. Using a hand mixer, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. This takes about 2 minutes (Note: Using a hand mixer takes about 10 minutes off the prep time. Trust me, I tried it by hand the first time - big mistake!)

6. Add the wet mixture (not the egg whites) to the dry mixture and lightly whisk until the two are combined, most of the lumps should be gone.

7. Gently fold egg whites into mixture, leaving a few fluffs of egg white. Do not over mix.

8. Spoon batter into the waffle iron, being careful not to overfill it. Wait for the light to turn on or off (depending on which way your iron swings) before removing waffles. This part is a true test of patience.

9. Serve with butter and real maple syrup. As extra waffles build-up, lay them on a large cookie sheet making sure not to stack them on top of each other and place in a 250 degree oven to keep hot and crisp.

I hope you enjoy these weekend waffles as much as we do :)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sunday Dinner: Veggie Skewers

With my procrastination the holiday weekend and an unusual schedule at our house this week, time has slipped right by. I intended to post this yesterday, but ended up being lil suzy house-cleaner instead. I'll tell you more about that later.

Since this Sunday was the 4th of July, Jesse and I went up to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with his family. Drew was also out-of-town for most of the weekend, but rather than skipping Sunday dinner, we planned to do Monday dinner instead. After getting back in town Monday afternoon we went straight to Trader Joe's to take care of groceries for the week. Since we were out-of-town all weekend, I didn't have time to layout my menu for the week (yes, I usually create a weekly menu ... nerd alert!), so we did a little planning in the car and walked into the store hoping for the best.

As soon as we walked into the store we saw a display case with bratwursts on sale and I thought they would be great for a holiday weekend. As we made our way through the store I kept trying to think of something to put with them. Nothing seemed to pair well -- chips and salsa: no, frozen veggies: borrrring, rice: not so much. We got to the produce department and I saw some pre-packaged vegetable skewers. Each one had a combination of peppers, onions, zucchini and mushrooms and looked really fresh. I knew they would be a lot of fun to try on the grill, and it also meant I could do the whole meal without pots and pans (I knew Jesse would be really grateful for that!). I almost picked them up, but quickly realized that I could EASILY make my own for the same price or less. So, I ran around the produce department picking out my own ingredients, then went home to begin prep. Below is my recipe for veggie skewers.

Grilled Veggie Skewers
Serves: 6
Total Time: 20 minutes

6 wooden/metal skewers
2 bell peppers (any color)
1 large onion (any variety)
2 medium zucchini
18 button mushrooms
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. dried thyme
1 Tbsp. dried rosemary
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. coarse sea salt
(all measurements are approximate)

Pre-heat grill to medium-high heat. Wash the vegetables and chop them into bite size pieces. (Quick tip: To wash mushrooms, don't run them under a faucet. Instead, dampen a paper towel and wipe off any dirt.)

To duplicate the skewers you'll need 30 zucchini slices, 36 pepper slices (half of each color), 18 onion wedges and 18 small mushrooms.

After chopping all the veggies, it's time to begin skewering. The pattern I used was zucchini, mushroom, red pepper, onion and yellow pepper. I did that three times, but on the last set I ended with zucchini, yellow pepper, zucchini instead of just a yellow pepper.

When you're all done, they'll look like this (x2).

If you are prepping ahead of time, like I did, cover them with Saran wrap and put them in the refrigerator until you're ready to grill (max: 4-6 hours).

When you're ready to begin grilling, brush the skewers with olive oil. You want to be liberal so they don't stick to the grill, but don't drown them. Then, sprinkle the skewers with thyme, rosemary, garlic powder and salt.

And now, it's grilling time! I rotated the skewers every time I rotated the brats, so about every three minutes. Depending on how hot your grill is, it may take a little more or less time. You want to get a light char on each side, so rotate them 4 or 5 times while grilling.

TA-DA, grilled veggie skewers! :)

Note: I have a gas grill, but you can easily make this on a charcoal grill or a grill pan. I also used metal skewers, so if you use wooden skewers, soak them before grilling to prevent them from catching fire.