Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chicken Salad with Quinoa, Mango Chutney and Avocado

Chicken Salad with Quinoa and Mango Chutney

Every once in a while a dish comes together so unexpectedly wonderful that sharing is a must.  This Quinoa and Chicken Salad features some of my favorite ingredients and last night, became a dinner the entire family enjoyed.

While quinoa has become an all time favorite ingredient of mine, my family has been a little slower on the uptake.  Frequently looking at my concoctions with a, "No thanks... I think I'll have something else" attitude, they haven't really embraced the ancient grain (actually a seed) like I have.  Enter a little education** along with a dose of peer pressure and lately they have become more accepting, even mentioned that this salad is welcome any day I'd like to make it.

Protein packed with the quinoa/chicken combo, nutrients achieved an even higher level with the addition of a perfectly ripe California avocado.  Adding jicama for a crunchy texture, a dressing flavored with mango chutney rounded out the picture.

Perhaps not the most beautiful dish in town, Chicken Salad with Quinoa and Mango Chutney makes up for it with flavor.

Chicken Salad with Quinoa and Mango Chutney

Monday, June 17, 2013

Garlic Parmesan Kale Chips (on the grill or in the oven)

About six months ago Liv discovered Roasted Kale, or Kale chips.  As she has always been somewhat averse to anything green (with the exception of my beloved avocado), her discovery gave us reason to celebrate.  The fact that even asks for roasted kale simply makes my heart sing!

However... enter my oven.  Said oven, some 17 years old and not of high quality to begin with, has taken it upon itself to randomly beep an overheating error code even when it's off, having us flip the breaker to make it stop.  With the little breaker switch not looking so sturdy itself, I've simply not been using my oven.  But things like kale chip requests have me searching new cooking methods and my trusty grill (it never lets me down) solved this problem.

Oiling our organic kale with avocado oil (I've been using one from Chosen Foods that I found at Costco) and crushed garlic, I placed my baking sheet onto the grill and before long my neighbor actually popped his head over the fence to ask what was smelling so good.  Leaving one side of the grill off and the other side on high, the kale was nice and toasty at about 12 minutes, and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan Cheese brought a delightful saltiness that had us both impatient for the kale to cool.

So whether you are avoiding heating that oven on a hot day or dealing with an oven on its last leg like me, the grill does a fabulous job.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Watermelon Banana Smoothie... seeing things in a new way with Lensbaby.

Watermelon Banana Smoothie #Lensbaby
Nothing says summer quite like a platter filled with sweet, juicy watermelon.  Whether it be cut into easy to eat triangles or chopped into a fruit salad, I see watermelon as something to take a bite of.   The crispness, as well as an occasional dribble of juice down the chin, brings happy memories and thoughts of fun in the sun.

With two watermelons on my counter though, I've been researching uses other than the usual slice and eat, and found recipes for smoothies popping up time and again.  Ready to experiment, we mixed Liv's favorite fruit - banana - along with  mango and a yogurt in the blender.  What resulted was a smoothie worthy of gushing, and I'm beginning to see watermelon in a new way...

Seeing things in a new way isn't always easy for me, a self proclaimed creature of habit, and often takes me a little time to adjust.  Such is the case with photography.  I've always been a straight forward, tack sharp sort of photo girl, but some of those more artistic shots, you know, the ones... those with blurred edges and off center focus, always have me wishing I could master that skill.  Now I can.

Watermelon Banana Smoothie

Partnering with the amazing people at Lensbaby, I've been "playing" with the Lensbaby Composer Pro in combination with a set of macro converters for about a month.  Have you heard of Lensbaby?  I'm ready to gush!

Receiving the lens a few weeks ago, I do admit to experiencing a bit of a learning curve, or more accurately, a slowness on my part to see things in a new way.  I usually shoot in manual, but I do use the auto focus feature on my camera (Canon 60D), and as such I experienced a bit of difficulty figuring out the manual "sweet spot" in my shots.  Practice, though, soon had me bringing home incredible shots that a month ago I would never have pictured myself taking.

Carlsbad State Beach | Lensbaby Composer Pro

Rose Bud | Lensbaby Composer Pro with Macro Converter

Watermelon Vinaigrette
Watermelon Vinaigrette
Adding the Macro Converters to the Composer Pro only served to grow my excitement.  A macro girl at heart, the ability to get almost right up to my subject has me beyond ecstatic and my library now includes individual grains of quinoa, flower stamens, and a nice close-up shot of Liv's eye.

Nevertheless, it's the mid-level macro converter bringing the Composer Pro close to, but not on top of my subject (a 16mm converter which lets you focus from 2.25" - 6") that has positively won my heart.  Perfect for food photography... I'm starting to see things in a new way, and I'm also beginning to wonder how I shot so long without this impressive lens.

Photo courtesy of Lensbaby
What is the Lensbaby Composer Pro?  It's a "tilting" lens that lets you bring an artistic flair to your photos and is best summed up by DPReview's description of, "The basic principle is to utilise optically simple lenses which are deliberately uncorrected for many aberrations, and therefore produce a sharp zone of focus (or 'sweet spot') in the center of the image field with ever-increasing blur outside it. This is combined with a flexible barrel, such that the lens can be tilted and the sweet spot moved around the frame, to focus on off-center subjects. The size of the sweet spot can be increased by using a smaller aperture."

A different concept from the usual camera lens, you will find yourself reaching for the Lensbaby time and again and bringing home shots that will most definitely make you smile.

Carlsbad State Beach
I've had so much fun with this new (lens) baby of mine that it has become my near constant companion.  We've walked the beach together, attended school functions, completed Dance Mom duties and simply spent time shooting around the back yard where flowers don't much mind staying still for multiple shots.  I'm enamored with the creativeness it's brought to my food photography seeming to sometimes bring a completely different mood to the scene.

I find myself setting up my food shots just as before, and shooting with my usual 60 mm lens (an old favorite).  Receiving nicely balanced shots with the crispness that used to make my heart give a little leap is now leaving me just a touch bored, and before I know it I'm reaching for the Lensbaby and shooting off center without total focus.  I'm see things in a new way.

Watermelon Banana Smoothie
Old style crisp shot...
Liv, helping me with this Watermelon Smoothie shoot, took matters into her own hands as we set the scene.  Hearing me ramble on about "seeing things in a new way", I turned my back only for a moment.  In no time, our healthy, no sugar added smoothie somehow received a dollop of whipped cream without my request (Not something we usually put on smoothies...).  But my girl simply smiled and repeated the words, "See?  You're just seeing things in a new way!  It's all good...".  And it was.

Thanks Lensbaby...

Watermelon Banana Smoothie

Saturday, June 8, 2013

California Quinoa Strawberry Salad - The Salad Bar Club Debut

Loving our new Lensbaby Composer Pro Lens!!
Berries... sweet, juicy berries.  Truly a summer treat, are they not?  I will admit to hounding my favorite farmer's market vendor as to when my beloved raspberries will arrive, but so far I've had to "settle" for the sweet, perfectly red, ripe organic strawberries.  Not much of a sacrifice, if I do say so myself.

With these beautiful berries, I usually serve them unadorned, cut into a bowl, or even simply eaten out of hand.  However this year I've stretched, and put them into muffins, even a pie, and now this fabulous, savory quinoa salad which we prepared for Wendy, The Weekend Gourmet's, new Monthly Salad Bar Club (this month's challenge is to include berries).

With the perfectly ripe berries, this salad came together better than I had expected, including a shot of lime juice and zest that brought the flavors singing to a new level.  Sweet, savory and protein packed with quinoa, this salad filled my lunch plate and had me returning for more.

Lensbaby Macro Converters get you close!
Quinoa has been my go-to ingredient of late due to its high protein punch and nutrient value.  A native to the Andean regions of Peru, quinoa is truly an "ancient grain" (though it is in reality a seed) with a near 9,000 year history.  Once called "The Gold of the Incas", quinoa is not just high in protein, but a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids.  In addition to protein, the tiny seed is a very good source of manganese as well as a good source of magnesium, folate, and phosphorus, potentially making quinoa valuable for persons with migraine headaches, diabetes and atherosclerosis.

Adding antioxidant-rich strawberries to the mix has this salad's nutritional benefits reaching for the stars while the flavor alone is something you can be proud to serve.  Thanks to Wendy for stretching my salad recipe and for starting the Salad Bar Club.  Want to join too?  Head over to the Salad Bar Club Facebook Page and become part of the team!  Next month we bring you Pot Luck Salads, stay tuned.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Arugula Salad with Watermelon Vinaigrette and an interview with author Michele Anna Jordan

Watermelon Vinaigrette

Salad... something I refused to eat when I was younger but now can't get enough of.  With recipe after recipe crossing my desk, those with store bought dressings are usually passed over in favor of those where I can make my own.  Hence, when a representative from the Harvard Common Press emailed asking if I would like to review a copy of Michele Jordan's Vinaigrettes & Other Dressings, the answer was a resounding, "Yes!".

Receiving the photo-splashed book a few days later, the continuing title of "60 sensational recipes to liven up greens, grains, slaws, and every kind of salad" had me certain I'd made a good choice.  Pouring an iced tea I settled myself in a comfortable chair in the sun and proceeded to read the book cover to cover.   Usually I turn down the pages of recipes I want to come back to, but with this book the process was pointless.  After turning down every page except the Sunday Morning Miracle - Bloody Mary Vinaigrette (I personally am not a Bloody Mary fan, but that's another story...), I gave up and realized I have some 59 new recipes to try.

Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings by Michele Anna Jordan
My somewhat worn copy...
Michele begins the book with a wonderfully informative section called "A Happy Pantry" filled with tips and ideas about basic ingredients important to have on hand to help you easily put together a quality and flavorful dressing.  Moving on she covers tools and their importance, food safety and flavor.

Arriving at the recipes, Michele brings everything from the most basic simple vinaigrette to those with more complex flavor nuances and on to classically creamy concoctions everyone is sure to love.  Finishing up with ideas for slaws, potato and pasta salads as well as a couple of bread versions, all areas of salad seem to be covered.

Each dressing includes a description, and my favorite part, a "Best Uses" section with additional ideas for serving.  Many recipes include gorgeous photos (I'm a sucker for a cookbook with beautiful photos), and with further investigation I discovered Michele styled the photos herself.

Arugula Salad with Watermelon Vinaigrette
Arugula, watermelon, red onion and feta with the Vinaigrette
Keeping my post seasonal, the perfectly ripe watermelon on my counter called my name.  I've used watermelon in  arugula salads for years, but as Michele mentioned, many vinaigrettes including boldly flavored vinegars tend to mask the sweet melon flavor.

Her version actually uses watermelon juice as a base bringing a sweet, fresh flavor to my beloved arugula.  Serving to enhance the sweet watermelon pieces in my salad, the dash of lime and sprinkle of chopped cilantro complemented the flavors beautifully actually leaving my Watermelon Arugula Salad indeed tasting like watermelon (see recipe below).

Along with the offer to review the book came an offer to interview Michele, and our few emails exchanged back and forth showed a "real" person, filled with a sense of humor and passion.  Currently living in Sonoma, Michele reaps the bounty of local crops and soon had me homesick for my hometown.  Join me as we enjoy a few moments to chat...

 Interview with Author Michele Anna Jordan

Liv Life:   Through the book, are there a few recipes that have become regulars in your kitchen?  Favorites of you or your family that return time and again or are most requested?

Michele Jordan:  My daughter Nicolle loves the Honey-Pepper Vinaigrette and the Yogurt-Tahni Dressing. My grandson Lucas is very fond of the blue cheese dressing. His mama, my daughter Gina, has a passion for the Caesar dressing. I always have either salsa verde, chermoula or chimichurri and usually a raita, too, on hand. And we all crave the Louis dressing when Dungeness crab is in season. My daily default dressing is Lemon Citronette.

LL:  I believe I read that you did your own food styling for the photos in Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings, any tips for readers on making their everyday presentation more attractive?

MJ:  Don't over arrange; there is a beauty to controlled chaos--not sloppiness, just the natural beauty of random order. Embrace asymmetry. When you learn to embrace and understand this, everything gets easier and more beautiful. As far as everyday goes, use the good stuff! Life is short. Use pretty dishes, nice napkins, etc. Spend an extra 2 to 3 minutes on how things look and you'll be amazed by the different. Forget the stacks and other over-arranging done by professional chefs. 
LL:  I see you are a Bay Area native (I grew up in Marin County), where did you grow up and what drew you to Sonoma?

MJ:  I've been connected to Sonoma County my entire life--I nearly drowned in the Russian River when I was not quite 3. I moved here as soon as I could to attend Sonoma State University and I've never left. I grew up in Vallejo, a world unto itself, but always felt an affinity to the open spaces of Sonoma, the redwoods, the fog, the rolling hills, the coast, the fertile land. It is my home.
LL:  Has food always been a part of your life?
MJ:  Yes. I had an eager and curious palate as a child and found ways to get the things I wanted to eat fairly early on. I began cooking from recipes when I was 8. I began hosting dinner parties when I as 9. My mother was a terrible cook, though she loved making candies and baking cakes and was good at that. Alas, for her, I didn't have much of a sweet tooth.
 LL:  I've read you enjoy all types of writing, do you have a favorite?

MJ:  Storytelling--i.e., nonfiction narrative--is my passion. You see this style in my book Salt & Pepper, especially, but also in all my other books. I slip it in wherever I can and am at work on a non-food-related literary memoir.
LL:  When you were in High School did you see yourself as a writer?  (more of a personal question... I have a son in high school who excels in English and writing and says there is no way he could ever be a writer.)

MJ:  When I was in high school, I could not imagine any future at all. I married at 16 (a long strange story), didn't miss a day of school, started college when my younger daughter was 3 weeks old, left my marriage at 21, with two baby girls. Somehow I always knew I was a writer, though for a long time I didn't know how I would actually make this happen. But it was in my bones from a very early age.  Junior high and high school were miserable and complicated times for me. I am probably still recovering ;-)  Not probably, actually.
LL:  Your bio describes a passion for dance, my daughter share's your passion.  How did you come to know and love the hula?

MJ:  This story will be told in the memoir but it has to do with a boy I fell in love with when I was 9.  He was Hawaiian and he and his family had a huge impact on me. They still do. I started studying hula (in the past, I'd studied ballet and I've always danced) about 11 years ago, as a way to honor him and grapple with my grief over his death. I loved hula from the beginning and have recently entered into a formal program of study. But he is the genesis and the foundation.
LL:  And speaking of choreography... tell me about choreographing the world's largers BLT??

 MJ:  In a way, it was all about choreography. I divided the sandwich into sections--8 feet per section--and had 4 people assigned to each section. Everything was prepared in advance, of course, and the most fun part was the Parade of Ingredients, lead by a marching band, me, the Mayo Queen, 3 toddler salt flakes, a head of lettuce, 2 tomatoes. Then came the bacon (each bacon team member, carrying their bacon), the lettuce and the tomatoes. Bread, mayonnaise, salt and pepper were already in place at the long table. When the Mayo Queen dropped her golden spatula and said "Let the slathering begin," the teams followed the instructions and made their section. It took maybe 10 to 12 minutes to construct the entire sandwich, which was then sliced and sold.
You can check out
Many thanks to Michele and the Harvard Press for including me in the launch of this fabulous book.  I'm honored to wholeheartedly recommend Vinaigrettes & Other Dressings: 60 Sensational recipes to Liven Up Greens, Grains, Slaws, and Every Kind of Salad to anyone looking to liven up a salad.  The book provides endless ideas for not only salads, but marinades and sauces for everything from fish to fruit to even desserts.  Pick up a copy and enjoy an afternoon reading in the sun followed by salads with endless flavor.

Watermelon Vinaigrette
Shot with our new Lensbaby Composer Pro... loving this new lens!