Archive for the ‘I Cook Sometimes’ Category

I was going to write a Lent update today, but when looking at posts from Lent last year I discovered this one about J discovering how delicious peanut butter is. That actually never became a problem– he doesn’t eat it on a regular basis so my stash is still my own– but what I was floored by was how the price of peanut butter has changed. Less than one year ago, I wrote that I paid 3.50 EUR for a jar of peanut butter at the Stockmann grocery store (which, as far as I know, is the only place that sells the American brands). Do you want to know how much I paid for a jar from that same store about 2 weeks ago? 5.60 EUR.  That’s $7.50! I know it’s ridiculous, but I was desperate. Fortunately we’re going to the States again in just a few short weeks (I can’t believe we’re going again so soon!) so then I can stock up on peanut butter that isn’t absurdly overpriced.

So the price of peanut butter changing is clearly not so nice. But some change is good– like, for example, J getting a new job at an exciting Estonian company! Our everyday routine is much different now, mainly because he used to work from home so he’d pretty much always be here. Now he works long days and gets home after 7, which means I have some time to myself at home (which used to happen very rarely) plus I’ve been cooking more so that dinner will be ready when J gets home (yes, I’m such a good little soon-to-be-wife). Hopefully some of my cooking will make it onto the poor neglected blog eventually as well.

Oh, one more change just came to mind! Please don’t hate me when I say this (it kind of makes me hate myself a little bit), but I’ve become one of those people who loves exercising in the morning. I used to be a solid after-work-and-on-weekends runner and I thought that exercising before work would make me get sleepy during the day. But somehow I discovered that waking up just half an hour earlier and running before work leaves me feeling amazing for the rest of the day. I know, what an annoying thing for me to say… but it’s true! I must confess that there was also an external factor motivating me to get up in the mornings– every since the new year began it has been so hard to get a treadmill at the gym after 5 pm, but in the mornings? The place is practically deserted, and I rather like the feeling of having the gym to myself!

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I’m sure we’re not the only ones this happens to: we’re eating out somewhere (usually on vacation), something delicious crosses our lips, and we look at each other and say, “We should totally make this at home.” More often than not we realize that the components would be easy to find (and if not, then we immediately start thinking of reasonable substitutes that would be available in Estonia). Such was the case with poutine*, which J tried for the first time when we were in Montreal in September. I mean really, can it get any simpler? Traditional poutine has only three components– french fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds.

The poutine we shared in Montreal… delicious.

In our first-ever at-home poutine attempt, we decided not to go totally traditional. Although we could have found a reasonable substitute for squeaky cheese curds in Estonia, we found ourselves drawn to the smoked cheese corner of the dairy case and decided that a smoky-flavored cheese would suit poutine just fine (if the Canadians can create variations on the classic, then so can we!). I also must confess that we bought frozen french fries, which I am usually categorically against because potatoes are so much cheaper. But for the sake of texture and consistency we baked frozen french fries in the oven until crisp and they were perfect (though next time I may make my own oven fries).

Chopped smoky cheese

What I did make from scratch, however, was the gravy. I’d wanted to make a nice toasty roux ever since my New Orleans cooking class, so I combined my fat and flour and then stirred my little heart out. I was thrilled when the roux actually started taking on a nice brown/beige tint, but I didn’t push it too far after that since I was afraid of burning it. Still, it smelled delicious and definitely enhanced the flavor of the gravy.

Waiting for gravy to thicken…

I cooked the gravy for quite some time and it still didn’t get quite as thick as I’d hoped (I feel like this always happens to me! What’s the secret to thick gravy? Do I have to add starch?). I knew it would thicken up a bit when I took it off the heat, plus we were getting impatient, so we went ahead and dished up some (mostly) homemade poutine.

You can see from the picture how the gravy is lighter and more liquid-y than the gravy we had in Montreal, but the flavor was great! It was all there– crispy fries soaking up the salty gravy (I actually like it when the fries get soggy!), with creamy smoky cheese bits mixed in. Certainly not an everyday food, but so. very. good. I think this “recipe” could come in handy next time we have hangovers…

* J insists on calling it “Putin”. Does anybody else do this?

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As I mentioned in my last post, J surprised me with two awesome gift certificates for my birthday– one for a manicure and pedicure right before our vacation so I could kick off the trip with pretty nails, and the other for a demonstration cooking class in New Orleans!! I was so excited to have such a fun activity waiting for me in Nola.

The class took place at Crescent City Cooks in the Riverwalk Marketplace, which is pretty much a long mall right next to the Mississippi River. The classroom had a wall of windows overlooking the Mississippi, about three rows of tables that were set with recipes for us and local potato chips to snack on, and a demo kitchen in the front of the room.

I sat in the front row because I’m like that.

We were also offered something to drink at the beginning of the class (and of course we got to sample all the food once it was done!). I haven’t attended many cooking classes, but I thought the setup was very nice. Our instructor was not the most polished, but his slight awkwardness made him fun and approachable. He told lots of funny anecdotes and definitely knew his stuff. (Interesting side note: the class instructor grew up just outside New Orleans, and he, like many other New Orleans locals I met, had no discernible accent at all, southern or Cajun or otherwise. That surprised me– I guess I expect everyone in the southeast part of the United States to “sound Southern”.).

The agenda for that day’s class included jambalaya, gumbo, and bread pudding. He started with the bread pudding since it had to be in the oven for an hour, then moved onto the jambalaya.

The holy trinity of cajun cooking– bell peppers, celery, and onion.

I took careful notes when he described the meats that are supposed to go into jambalaya– tasso pork, andouille sausage— since I knew I can’t get those in Estonia, but I wanted to be able to find substitutes that are as similar as possible. As he cooked the instructor also told us about the history of Cajun and Creole cooking.

After the jambalaya was left to sit in its thick-bottomed pot for an hour, he started on the gumbo. Gumbo starts with a roux, which is a mixture of flour and fat (butter or oil) cooked together. I’ve made a roux before, but never a dark one, so I looked on in fascination as he stirred the roux and it grew darker and darker, from golden to caramel and then he stopped just as it took on the look of melted chocolate. Cooking the rouz until it’s so dark lends the final product a nutty flavor.

When the roux had hit the right point he dumped in the veggies, and the smell produced by vegetables sizzling in dark roux was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever smelled. EVER. I think I may have just closed my eyes and inhaled while thinking “This must be what heaven smells like…”

While he was making gumbo I also learned about a seasoning I’d never heard of before: filé powder, which is made from sassafras and an important component of gumbo. It doesn’t have a very strong taste– sort of mild and leafy– but it also acts as a thickening agent for the soup.

The gumbo was the first thing we got to taste, served over white rice. It was lovely but I have to say the taste didn’t blow me away. It seemed kinda plain and predictable. I happily picked out the bits of seafood, but left most of the rice uneaten. I was saving tummy space for jambalaya, which is much more my speed.

I love jambalaya’s slow cayenne burn (what the instructor called “latent heat”) and varying textures in every bite from the different meats, veggies and rice. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first things I made after we got home from our trip (and I must say that the meat products I substituted for the authentic ones worked quite well!).

For dessert we had the bread pudding. One stick of butter went into the custard for the pudding and another stick went into the rum sauce that was poured over it, so of course it was outrageously delicious.

We also received an additional dessert– freshly made pralines (but we didn’t get their recipe, as it’s a secret!). The praline (which they say prah-leen) was still warm when I took my first bite. Such a simple confection, but so phenomenal! I’d love to experiment with making my own. It was the perfect sweet ending to the fun and informative class– I may ask to start taking classes every time we travel!

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When my mother was visiting Tallinn in June and July, we naturally went out a lot. Dinner at new restaurants, warm summer evenings of sipping drinks on terraces– all the kinds of things that people like to do when they’re on vacation. I like to go out to dinner as much as the next person, but by the time my mother’s birthday rolled around, just a few days before she was to leave, I was getting kind of tired of it. Going out again almost felt like a chore, so instead of heading out on the town for cocktails and a decadent dinner, I offered her a birthday dinner at our place, and she gladly accepted. And, luckily for us, she provided the beverages:

Fancy! Somebody had given her the bottle so none of us were sure of the exact retail price, but definitely out of the price range I generally look for :). While the mouthfeel and appearance were nice– lots of tiny bubbles!— we all agreed that flavor-wise it didn’t blow us away and we probably could not have differentiated between that and a more reasonably priced but still good-quality sparkling wine.

For the birthday dinner we kept it light and simple: cut-up vegetables with homemade hummus and baba ganoush, fluffy lavash bread, a Greek salad with black olives and feta, and chicken marinated in olive oil and lemon juice and “grilled” on the grill pan.

I don’t even remember exactly what went into the chicken marinade (other than oil and lemon juice), but the chicken was outstanding and you could really taste the lemon. The salad was also delicious and my mother appreciated the quiet night in and light homemade meal as much as we did.

Even without a birthday to celebrate, pretty much every time we have friends in town for more than a few days we’ll invite them for a dinner at our place. While people who are visiting like going out a lot, that doesn’t always fit into our budget, so inviting people over gives us a chance to still socialize without having to shell out as much money. In addition to being  so much cheaper for everyone involved, I think people also enjoy seeing where their friends live (don’t you get a little thrill when you see someone’s apartment for the first time? 🙂 Or is it just me?). And, as a final bonus, at home you can linger as long as you like, and you never have to worry about it getting too crowded or being pressured to order something else :). Definitely a win-win!

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Check out what I had for dinner on Sunday night (and also tonight actually, since I had leftovers of the ingredients):

No, I didn’t cook sushi rice during my raw experiment. Instead, I made a “nut paté” following a recipe I found on the blog Choosing Raw. The mixture of cashews, ginger, lemon juice, soy sauce and water blended together can be used in lieu of rice to make veggie sushi rolls! My sushi was not all-raw because both the nori sheets and sesame seeds are toasted, plus I believe soy sauce is also non-raw. But the cashews for the paté and the fillings for my rolls (carrot, cucumber and avocado) were certainly raw. I love using vegetables in sushi anyway, so for me these crunchy rolls weren’t lacking anything.

The cashew paté is beautifully creamy with a bit of freshness from the ginger, and it worked perfectly for making the rolls. It’s softer and doesn’t have the same sticky qualities as rice, but I was still able to carefully roll up and slice my rolls without any problems. I tried not to go overboard with the cashew concoction, since it was of course very rich! Whoever thinks raw food can’t be decadent is so wrong — you can make such amazing stuff with nuts!

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For my attempt to eat a diet higher in raw foods for a few days, I wanted to create a substitute for my usual (processed) peanut butter. So I took 150 grams of unroasted almonds, put them in my little food processor, and with a bit of patience got them from this:

to this!

It does take a pretty long time to achieve this texture. I would say that it’s creamy, but not soft. It’s quite stiff, almost like halvah or something. I added a pinch of salt and a splash of vanilla extract for flavor. I’ve never been a fan of natural nut butter (where the oil separates from the butter and you have to stir it back in), but it seems like I am a fan of the stuff I make myself :).

So far I’ve eaten this almond butter with banana as a snack, and I added a spoonful to my fruit smoothie this morning for protein and staying power. I also used it as a component of my dinner last night. I used the almond butter as a base for the peanut-sesame sauce I like (added rice vinegar, soy sauce, fresh ginger, chopped green chili, toasted sesame oil and a bit of honey), and instead of serving the sauce over noodles, I poured it over strips of carrot, cucumber and bell pepper (made with a vegetable peeler). I topped it all with green onions and sesame seeds. To be honest, I was skeptical that this bowl of mostly carrots would be a satisfying dinner, but it was! The flavor of the sauce was so good and I enjoyed my crunchy “noodles”.

When I described this dish to J, he said he’d be interested in trying it too! It’s funny that I decided to do this raw experiment when he’s out of town because I didn’t want to inflict any “weird” food on him, but actually I’m discovering that these raw meals are fantastic and satisfying, and things that I’m eager to make for him as well!

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The crazy busy period I mentioned a few weeks ago is almost over. The exam I had to take at work? It was scary, but I passed!!! Such a weight off my shoulders. However, I discovered that I need to take another (unrelated) exam soon, so unfortunately my evenings of studying aren’t over yet. Studying for the next exam will be more fun, though, because it’s a topic I actually like — I need to get a certificate to verify my proficiency in Italian, so I have a week or so to brush up on my italiano!

Now onto food: you may recall that at the beginning of the year, one of my resolutions was to try to eat a raw vegan diet for three days. Since J had to go out of town again for a few days, I decided that this upcoming Sunday through Tuesday would be the perfect time for my little experiment! It’ll be much easier to do when I’m only shopping and cooking preparing food for myself :). I’ve found a bunch of raw recipes that I’m excited to try.

However, as the end of this workweek approached, I found myself stressing out about a few days of living all-raw. It’s been a stressful few weeks, plus it seems like I just finished the last period of restriction (giving up chocolate and candy for Lent). I realized that I want this raw experiment to be fun, not something that I’m dreading, and also that going all-raw is a big step for anyone and something that’s meant to be done gradually. Rushing into it just isn’t healthy. So I’ve changed the terms slightly: instead of three days of all-raw, I’m doing five days (starting last night) during which I will incorporate more raw foods into my diet and try out raw recipes. I may not eat 100% raw on any of these days, and that’s OK. I’ll still be focused on eating a clean and plant-based diet. I will still avoid all meat and animal products and will try to avoid processed sugars, and once I finish off some dairy products in the fridge I won’t buy any more until after Tuesday. I’ll use honey because it’s the least-processed sweetener I have, although I realize it’s not vegan. Once again, I am OK with this.

Reframing this challenge for myself makes it seem much more enjoyable and reasonable, and I’m excited once again! As mentioned before, I started last night already because I found a raw recipe that looked so good and I was dying to try: raw tortilla soup! I omitted celery and added chipotle powder to give it some smokiness and heat. Then I topped my bowl with extra cilantro and diced avocado (and enjoyed it with a piece of Finnish rieska bread alongside).

This was SO GOOD. All the seasonings (lime juice, cilantro, cumin, chipotle) gave it an amazing depth of flavor, and it was so satisfying yet of course so light. The fact that it was cold didn’t bother me at all. I’m already looking forward to making this for J, because I think he’d like it too.

I’ll be sure to keep you updated on my adventures in raw food over the next few days!

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