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Cooking with Yogurt

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Taken on camel safari in Jaisalmer, India 

Want to impress a first come over to my house and I’ll cook you dinner date?  Need some time for yourself but still have to feed your family?  This recipe fits the bill.

So you’ve met a new someone special.  You’ve been out a few times, and now it’s time to save some money and enjoy some cozy couch time.  This is an Indian inspired dish, which takes care of half of the planning for you.  What to watch: how about a Bollywood movie?  Mood music: soft Indian classical music on the Pandora channel will set a romantic tone.  Candles and floor seating with pillows?  Yes please!Bollywood movies work just as well for a family movie night.  They’re all great for the family with fun musical numbers.  Also, the kids will love sitting on the floor.  Serving some spinach raita with the spicy chicken will get them to eat spinach without even trying.  They will have to to cool off from the spicy chicken and practically shove the spinach in their little mouths.
IMG_2792If you’re like me, I get very nervous before dates.  Very nervous.  Can hardly think straight.  If you are hosting, there are many, many, many things to do.

  1.  Clean house.
  2. Make amazing meal.
  3. Make self look amazing.

You may be thinking, “But Mandy, that’s only three things.”  Yes, but in those three things are many sub steps that could trip you up.  Why this really works and you should make this recipe or look for a similar one (remember this book is only one penny on Amazon!) is it begins the night before.  Or three hours before if you forget or don’t read the steps until a few hours before you are making your meal.

To begin the chicken, you mix a few spices and oil to make a paste, which you then rub on the chicken and put in the fridge.  To marinate in the spicy goodness and make your house smell lovely.  Then make the raita.  This was a very easy process, and was in the fridge and ready to go for later.  Now you can move onto more important things.

As in a select your adventure book, you either:

a) Commence in cleaning the house and making it spotless for your new love interest.  Go ahead, turn up the music and get to it.  The tunes will help and distract from feelings of nervousness.
b) Sit down and read a book.  It’s time for you, baby.  Put the kids down for a nap or shove them outside to commune with nature (safely in the backyard, of course).  It’s your time to finally find out what happens in that book that you haven’t had time to read.  Go ahead and make yourself a cup of chai to go with it.

Right before date time, make some basmati rice.  Heat up some naan in the oven (I’ve seen it at the Indian food store or my local Sprouts carries it as well-it shouldn’t be too hard to track down).  You are practically ready.

Kids driving you crazy with their hunger pleas?  Set them to make mango lassis.  Delicious and on point with the theme of the night.

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The Jodhpur Lassi

There’s a knock at the door.  You welcome your date into your home.  You offer them a glass of Kingfisher beer or a nice champagne.  Fun fact: champagne or sparkling wines actually go great with spicy foods.  The sweetness of the wine offsets the spiciness of the dish.  And helllooooo romantic beverage.  You are going to have romance exuding from your pores.

Now is the point to impress: you’ve got a clean kitchen-all of the pre-cooking dishes are already cleaned and put away.  Now it’s just time to cook the chicken.  Heat up the skillet, cook the chicken which makes your house smell even more wonderful.  This dish is easy to plate in an aesthetically pleasing way: white rice next to beautiful chicken with a pop of green peas.  You pull the pre-dished raita from the fridge and pull the heated naan from the oven. Calmness and confidence exudes from you because this dish is incredibly delicious and does not have any places for you to actually make an error.  Trust me, I would have messed it up if I could!

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THE GOOD THING about doing a cooking challenge is cooking with ingredients you wouldn’t normally cook with or even buy at the store. Next on the list to make: two new recipes with a common ingredient: figs. Fancy.

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I know what you are thinking-but no, I did not just buy fig newtons and cut them up!  They are actual dried figs.

I wonder how hard it would be to make homemade fig newtons?

  1. Fancy Fig Muffins

My first recipe was for muffins. Easy to make, at first they were not very impressive to me when I tried them. As I didn’t try one fresh out of the oven but the next morning, I found it to be a bit dry. It was good, just not as satisfying as other muffins that I have made.

I tried one again the next morning, but I heated it up in the microwave and it worked wonders. The muffin no longer tasted dry and gave the fig a more complex taste. Maybe my taste buds were off on the first day.  Everyone assured me they were tasty and every muffin I had after the first one was delicious.

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Next time I make these, I will de-stem the figs first. As I don’t normally get figs just to eat, I didn’t think to remove the stems while chopping them up, short as they were. Even though they were quite small, the hard stem would jar you when you bit down on it. A shock if you are not expecting it.

Muffins are pictured with a green smoothie.  I never use a recipe, but I always blend spinach first, then add yogurt and whatever fruit I have on hand.  A great addition to any breakfast or mid-morning snack.

  1. Fancy Yogurt with Sautéed Figs and Honey-A Dessert

I made these for my parents one evening when they came over after dinner to see my little one. A plus about this cooking challenge-it is upping my entertaining game. What was great was I didn’t have to cook a full meal and we had a great chat.

I had wanted to make this dish a couple days prior but was thwarted by my major shortcoming-not fully reading a recipe before trying to make it, or even buying the ingredients. I was all set to make them with the leftover dried figs from the muffins. In fact I bought the bigger package in order to have enough figs for both recipes, two birds one stone and all that. I was doing my “close” reading of the recipe right before commencing cooking when it jumped out at me:

4 plump fresh figs, sliced into rounds.

Did you catch that?

FRESH FIGS!!!

Big stumbling block. The kind that brings your cooking to a halt because you absolutely do not have the right ingredients to keep on going. Note to self: READ ENTIRE RECIPE CLOSELY. So, I had to put off making the sautéed figs for another time.

It’s now another time (time flies in writing land!). I had people to eat the dessert and the right ingredients. I sliced the now fresh figs into rounds and began to sauté. Everything moved along nicely.

I sautéed.

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Then I cooled.

Then I topped and drizzled with honey. Ta da!

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They were a nice treat on a summer evening. Looking back, two things could have made them better.

  1. I could have thickened up my yogurt by using a piece of cheesecloth. Remember, I make my own yogurt so it comes out a little more soupy than when bought at the store. The result was that my delicate sautéed figs sank a little bit in the yogurt.
  2. I could have divvied up the yogurt into little bowls before topping the figs. I put the figs and yogurt into one big bowl, and then when I served them into small individual bowls I lost my pretty aesthetic. Hindsight.

I do suggest when making anything with figs check out Louis C.K.’s bit on pig newtons.  Especially if you have kids in your life.

The recipe for today is Cod in Mustard Sauce.  We all love cod fried with some tartar sauce or some good vinegar (FISH AND CHIPS) and most people under the age of 12 like it in stick form, but those recipes are not in the yogurt book.  What is in the yogurt book is a baked form of cod, which with some fresh veg is a pretty healthy meal.

One of the things I struggle with cooking is the amount of time it takes up, time when I could be doing anything but cooking.  What I am starting to learn is that most cooking is not that involved.  It just takes practice and time management.  While making this meal, it still took me a long time, but after I saw places I could have done better.  Using bag spinach might have been worth the cost so that I didn’t have to clean and cut the spinach I used for the side dish.  I’m also learning to love love love my vegetable steamer.  Just throw in the veg, put water in the pot it sits on, and crank up the heat.  I don’t even time it.  If I’m feeling fancy, I could make a nice sauce for it, or even butter and salt it.  Buuuuut I usually just steam and put on the plate.

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Back to the cod.  What made me feel like a sophisticated chef was the fact that this has you make a sauce from scratch.  Using lots of spices, such as whole allspice, bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme you encourage the flavors to meld with each other and pour them over the fish to add complexity to the dish.  Looks fancy, actually pretty easy to make.  You might notice in the picture the cod looks sauce-less.  Just not much of the sauce transferred from the baking dish to the plate, but I can assure you the flavors were baked into the fish.

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Do you like my zucchini star?  We’re all hoping I’ll get better at veg garnishing.

I also made a zucchini and spinach puree to go along with the carrots and radishes for the side dish.  The puree recipe came from French Kids Eat Everything.  We’ll have more on that later, but this first recipe was a tryout for our little one who will be eating tons of this in the near future.  She just doesn’t know it yet-she still thinks milk is the best thing ever.

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I think colorful bowls can make anything healthy just a little bit more enticing-even for adults.

The final verdict is that this is a recipe to repeat.  Not only does it taste good right out of the oven, but the cod heats up for lunch nicely the next day.  No weird smells or textures come out when nuked.

This dish looked amazing in the photograph. Perfectly seared white fish ever so delicately topped with a colorful mixture of baked vegetables. I had had a few successes so far with my yogurt recipes, and this one yearned to be the next one I conquered. I think my book laughed at me silently as I made my shopping list and quietly chuckled, “We’ll see about that. We’ll just see.”

Off to Sprouts I went. Garlic and Ginger, check. Lemon and Coriander, check check. Fresh Sole? Not due till Saturday. I made a mental note that I could check my other usual grocery spot, Homeland. Just in case I threw in a frozen bag of Tilapia. It could be used as a substitute or stashed in the freezer for a rainy day. Next wrench in the monkey kitchen: no canned green lentils.

Homeland did not have either of those necessary items, either. My mom suggested I just get bagged lentils since they are quick to make. No rinsing and slow cooking over night. Sure enough, the bag read they only take about 15 minutes to cook. Crisis averted. The only really bad thing that happened at the grocery stores today was my bad joke to the fish counter personnel after I asked about the sole. “But do YOU have SOUL?” I got a courtesy half smile. I’ll take it.

Next hurdle: cooking with a newborn after having a full day. She humored me while I boiled the lentils and chopped the spinach and coriander, but then demanded to be fed. At a stopping point, I drained the lentils and left the tilapia to defrost in the sink. Sitting down was actually a welcome pleasure since I had been going since 7:30am. I’ve got quite the smart and considerate little newborn.

Back in the kitchen, I chopped away, reading and re-reading the instructions, always worried that I would misread a direction. Which of course happened. Many of the fresh ingredients would be added in together, the spinach, lentils, garlic, cumin and lemon juice. So I was just chopping away and putting them in a big bowl together until their sautéing time came. As is my habit, I re-read the directions and realized I had in fact gone wrong: “reheat pan and sauté onions until glassy.” STOP THE AUDIO BOOK so as to concentrate fully. Jim Gaffigan, you are very funny but obviously distracting me from my cooking.*

Sauté the onions. By themselves.

I sadly glanced at my bowl of chopped veg, where the onions were happily sitting on top of the spinach, under the coriander that was dusted with the cumin. Did I mention the onions were finely chopped? Ugh.

I carefully picked out what I could, collected my determination and excitement, and resumed cooking. Sautéed the onions, mixed in the veg, added the lemon from the fridge skipping the fresh squeezed, and topped the fish. Which was when Ty walked in the door from work and I realized I had again decided to take a detour from the recipe: mix in yogurt, and THEN top fish and bake.

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh!

Teetering on losing total control of my emotional (STARVING) facilities, I scooped what I could off of the delicate fish back into the bowl, mixed in the yogurt, re-topped the tilapia, and finally put the pan in the oven to bake. At this point I also skipped adding fresh lemon zest to the top of the fish. The fish would have to dazzle us with flavor without the crutch of lemon zestiness.

Fifteen minutes later, out it came and to the table it made its way, looking like a sad rendition of the picture. As my mom had said the night before about a new recipe she had made, I announced to Ty, “It may not LOOK good, but it’s good FOR you!”** And we tucked in.

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And it was delicious. Moral of this cooking story, wrenches may be thrown in your kitchen, but with a little quick thinking and perseverance, it can still come out a winner. The only thing we threw out was the wine, which was a bottle that had been sitting in our fridge for over two months with a broken seal (accidentally opened by us, not from the store). Not the tastiest with faint hints of vinegar, it just made the bottle of beer we split taste oh so much better.

A RECAP of the finished dish: pan seared tilapia smothered with a topping of lentils, spinach, coriander laced with garlic, ginger and cumin mixed with yogurt, this dish is a protein punch. Great for breastfeeding mammas and any kind of folks getting fit, I’d make it again. Next time I’ll try it with the suggested sole, top it with lemon zest to get the full flavor, and I’ll take the time to put on some soul music. Because I’ve got soul.

*I was listening to Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan.  I highly suggest it-especially if you have any newborns in the house, or kids at all.

**This is a common saying in my parents’ house right before anything that is a new recipe is served. It is always delicious, as was my mom’s dinner that night: carrot and apple soup with grown up grilled cheese sandwiches.

Yogurt!

During my pregnancy, I ate a lot of yogurt. A LOT. It helped me from gaining a ton of weight. I craved shakes, which I did indulge in, but one cannot have a shake every time you crave one pregnant or not. When I craved a strawberry shake, I had a cup of yogurt. Creamy, fruity, and cold, it satisfied. I also didn’t feel guilty when I had two in a day-which was almost everyday. Calcium anyone? My daughter’s bones aren’t complaining.

My favorite were the Chobani cups. I worked in a restaurant, and when the hunger pains came, there was no ignoring them. Eat or throw up is the way of pregnancy. The cups of yogurt were easy to grab, quick and satisfying to eat, and kept me out on the floor where I needed to be.

My husband would lightly hint that he wasn’t happy about the price we were paying for the individual cups of yogurt-especially since I was consuming a large amount every week. He also was eating tubs of plain yogurt with his muesli in the mornings. So when my mother offered us her unused yogurt maker, he jumped on it.

And then it sat in the corner…as we talked about all of the money we could save from making our own yogurt. And how about the health benefits! No preservatives or added sugars!

And still it sat, until we finally broke down and took the effort to find where we could get the starter cultures (which is practically any grocery store). That same weekend fate blessed us at the bookstore where I found a yogurt recipe book in the “Discounted Gotta Go!” section.   The directions for each recipe were not too involved, and not too many ingredients. Perfect for my budding cooking skills.

The first recipe I made from the book was chilled ginger and lime soup. It was delicious. Rave reviews. Perfect on a summer evening with some grilled fish, this soup was cool and refreshing yet had a kick to it. All freshly grated ginger, garlic, and coriander melded perfectly with the lime and creaminess of the yogurt. The only thing that really took time was the chopping of the vegetables, and that really didn’t take a lot of time. It can be made in the morning or even the day before cutting your cooking time in the evening drastically.

We ate it up before I thought to photograph. So here is a picture of the bowl I served it in garnished with some coriander.  Take a page from Peter Pan and imagine the coriander floating on top of a thick white soup speckled with bits of green.  Fabulous, yes?
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Next I made some scones. While in the past I detested cooking, I loved to bake. Maybe because it was on my terms. I was not required to do it every day, and when I did it always (and still does) please and delight. Who doesn’t like the surprise of walking in the door and being greeted with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven? Or knowing that waking up in the morning a fresh croissant with melted butter is yearning to be drizzled with honey and enjoyed with a hot cup of coffee? Oh, there’s chocolate tucked inside of the croissant?  I’ll go to sleep early, thank you.

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Other than the scones being baked in a muffin pan and so resembling muffins more than scones, they were a hit, too. They called for a tenth of the sugar my blueberry muffins use which made me happy with how much healthier they were.  (A side note-I had to promise my husband I would not stop making the blueberry muffins no matter my excitement for the yogurt book or the fact I could make them with blueberries.)

I am so taken with this book that I have decided to work my way through all of the recipes. Ty expressed his doubts, as I am new to cooking I have not experienced that most recipe books contain a few great recipes, mostly moderate ones, and a few not-so-great ones. Each recipe I have made beginning with the post to follow of Sole with Spinach and Lentils continues to satisfy and amaze with the flavors that shine through.

The recipe book I am using is Yogurt by Sarina Jacobson published in 2008 by Sterling Publishing Company. I encourage you to check it out as I have been thoroughly delighted by each recipe. I did find it on Amazon for a cent. A CENT. You have to pay more for the shipping for a total cost of $4.00. You can use the money you save to buy a good quality quiet yogurt maker-because ours runs a lot in our house!