Shish Taouk – Lebanese Chicken Skewers

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Spring is here!  Maybe not officially, but it seems to have finally come.  My favorite time of the year has to be Spring, while Fall is a close second.  I love when the trees and flowers start to blossom around town, and throughout the countryside.  It’s absolutely beautiful, but it wreaks havoc on my seasonal allergies.  But hey, that’s what medications are for :)  Here, I go, getting off topic again.  Anyhow, the Spring time offers the perfect weather for outdoor activities, such as cycling, running, hiking, and gardening!  The only problem with spring is that summer is right around the corner, which means hot, dry desert weather.  It can get up to 115 degrees during the hottest part of the day during the summer months.  Blech.  The thought of it is nauseating.  But the great part of spring and summer is the longer days, and the endless time spent grilling anything and everything!

My grill has been on a hiatus since late fall.  I wish I could be an avid griller all year around, but I’m just not hearty enough to grill during the dead of winter.  And plus, it’s too dark to grill outdoors during the winter months.  I suppose I could buy some lighting accessories, but I guess I’m not THAT motivated.  Besides, that’s what the broiler setting is for!  Anyhow, the weather is supposed to be in the upper 60s during the day for the next few weeks.  So it was the perfect time to redo my drip irrigation system around the front and backyard, plant some vegetable seeds and starter vegetable plants, and cleaned the grill!  Yes.  It was a busy day for me.  But I was really excited because I got to fire up the grill to make chicken kabobs as left overs for pita sandwiches, wraps, and as a topping for my lebanese fattoush salad.  Winning.

Shish Taouk – Lebanese Chicken Skewers

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into large cubes
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon paprika
3/4 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, or to taste
Bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes

In a small bowl, mix the minced garlic, yogurt, tomato paste, olive oil and lemon juice. Add in the dried spices, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Coat the chicken with the marinade and cover bowl. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours up to 8 hours. Any longer and you’ll have mushy chicken because the acidity of the lemon juice and Greek yogurt will “cook” or break down the texture of the chicken.

Thread chicken on skewers and grill or cook under a broiler. Grill the chicken over moderately high to high, or broil for about 5-7 minutes per side, flipping once, until you see visible char marks and the chicken is cooked through.

Makes 2 servings.

Baked Lemony Kale Chips… A Guilt-Free Pleasure.

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Chips are my one vice in life.  I love chips of all forms… tortilla chips,  potato chips, pita chips, corn chips, banana chips.  It can be fried, baked, or air-popped.  Whatever it is, just gimme!  It’s almost a requirement to have a bag of chips with a side of sandwich.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It’s almost a Pavlovian response to want chips with a sandwich.  In my very honest opinion, sandwiches just don’t taste as good without the crunchy texture from the chips.

My most absolute favorite type of chips are the Flamin’ Hot Limon-Flavored Cheetos.  Mmmmmmm.  Those really are the tastiest.  I had a small bag of these each day at work with my sandwich.  However, an hour or two after consuming the Cheetos, I was parched.  And to remedy this, I would drink a few glasses of water, and then I would balloon up from all the sodium!  Check this, one small snack bag of Flamin Hot Cheetos not only contains 330 calories, but it also has 380 mg of sodium.  I knew this.  I would remind myself of how bloated I was, and that I was no longer going to consume it thereafter.  But alas, I found myself the very next day at the cafeteria, purchasing a small snack bag of Flamin’ Hot Limon-Flavored Cheetos.  Such a vicious, addicting cycle.

When I started my diet, I cut out the Cheetos.  For good.  It was difficult, but I succeeded!  Unfortunately, I soon found myself wanting something crunchy with my sandwiches.  Someone at work showed me the way to barbecue-flavored Pop Chips.  I was hooked immediately.  This was my new addiction.  And they were “healthier” than the Cheetos… 120 calories for a small snack bag of Pop Chips with 250 mg of sodium.  It wasn’t the most ideal for my diet, but it was a great substitute that satiated my chips craving.

Well, I recently made a decision to wean myself from the Pop Chips.  I seem to wean myself from a lot of things, but I digress.  I’ve decided to stop consuming Pop Chips because I just don’t need to spend $1.50 per bag each day at work.  I just need to stop eating chips all together if I want to continue succeeding on my diet.  However, I knew I would fail myself, because I’ll always long for something crunchy with my sandwich or wrap.  Fortunately, I knew what was going to be a guilt-free, healthier and cheaper alternative… baked kale chips!

Baked Kale Chips

1 bunch kale, strip out the center core or stalk, tear kale into small pieces, washed and dried
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
Sea Salt

Preheat the oven to 350˚F.

Whisk together the olive oil, and lemon lemon juice.

Toss in the dry kale and coat them evenly. Arrange the kale in a single layer of the baking tray. Season with sea salt.

Roast the kale for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until they are crispy. Turn the kale once or twice for even crisping.

Calories per 1 cup of baked kale chips: 60

Roasted Beet, D’Anjou Pear, Mache Salad with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

Sleeeeeeeeeeeepy. I can barely focus.  You know what’s worse than not being able to cook and practice food photography?  Restless, sleepless nights.  Ones where you don’t fall asleep at all.  Tossing and turning, keeping yourself entertained with your laptop, iPhone, or TV to pass time.  Trying to lay still to not stir anyone from their dreamy night by counting sheep, but your mind races with thoughts that don’t make sense so you can’t really focus on the sheep.  Wanting to try a hot cup of almond milk to soothe and calm yourself, but it’s too damn cold to get out of bed.

I’ve had a lot of those nights lately.  So what do I do to remedy that?  Prescription sleep pills.  Something I didn’t think I ever needed.  Ever.  I was and still am a light sleeper, but I never had problems falling and staying asleep until the last few years, but it’s only gotten worse.  I used to poke fun at friends who couldn’t sleep without a prescription sleep aid.  Karma sucks.  I finally broke down and asked my nurse practitioner for a prescription sleep aid.  I told myself it was only going to be for when I absolutely needed it… like trying to fall asleep, but after an hour of trying and failing, then I could take the pill.  But then it got to the point where I would anticipate possibly not falling asleep, so I used it as a crutch.

I’ve recently decided to wean myself from the prescription sleep aid, and the result of this is lack of sleep.  I think this is going to be a long, painful process of little to no sleep for a long time while my body adjusts to the change.  It’s very interesting how your body can adapt and change to something easily, but takes a long time to adjust back.

So while I lay sleepless the other night, I came across a recipe calling for roasted beets with a honey roast garlic dressing that looked mouthwatering.  I thought it was going to be a great recipe to adapt with all the red beets that I just purchased from the farmers market.

Roasted Beet, D’Anjou Pear, Mache Salad with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette (adapted from No Recipes)

For roasting:
2 beets
1 head garlic, top cut off

For salad:
2 D’Anjou Pears, sliced into O’s, core ones with seeds, and then slice in half
3 cups of Mache salad
Blue Cheese
Candied Walnuts

For vinaigrette:
3 cloves roasted garlic, mashed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon honey
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Wrap each beet tightly in foil. I usually like to double wrap mine in foil. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle a little salt onto the garlic bulb, and wrap tightly in foil. Place both the beets and garlic on a baking sheet. Roast garlic for about 30-40 minutes, and beets for about an hour (or once you can poke a knife all the way through).

While the beets and garlic are roasting, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

Once cool to handle, peel “skin” off the beets. Slice beets into 1/8-inch slices. Dress the beets with enough vinaigrette to coat in a separate bowl. Do not do this in the same bowl where the vinaigrette was prepared, or else you’ll have a purple dressing. But if that’s okay with you, then by all means, go for it!

To assemble the salad, place three slices of beets on a plate. Place three slices of the pears onto each slice of beet, with the round shape of the pear facing out. Lightly dress the mache lettuce with the vinaigrette, and place a handful on top of the beets and pears. Top with some crumbled blue cheese and candied walnuts. Repeat the same process for three more plates.

Makes 4 servings.

Roasted Ratatouille Bisque with Parmesan Crisps

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ratatouille, ratatouille soup, ratatouille bisque, roasted ratatouille, roasted vegetables, vegetables, parmesan crisp

I’m losing my mind.  I have been so forgetful lately.  And I feel like it’s only getting worse.  I’ll think of something that I need from the bedroom, walk to the bedroom, and completely forget what I needed in the two seconds it took to walk to the bedroom.  I know the example is a common problem for a lot of people.  However, I seem to be doing this many times during the day, several days a week!  Here’s another example that I have been doing a lot of lately… I go to the grocery store with a huge list of items to purchase, gather all the stuff, place all the items on the belt at the cash register station, and just as I am about to pay I realize that my wallet was left at home!  It wouldn’t be so bad if I went to the grocery store a few blocks away, but the two places I love to shop at is a 15-20 minute drive EACH way.  So what should be a 45 minute endeavor, ends up being an hour and a half grocery store trip from hell!  No bueno. This cuts into my limited cooking time.

Ratatouille Bisque with Parmesan Crisps (adapted from Modern Comfort Food)

For the soup:

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into quarters
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 red bell peppers, seeds and pith removed, sliced
1 small eggplant, peeled and diced to large cubes
1 medium-sized zucchini, peeled and diced to large cubes
2 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes (mix of heirlooms, cherry, vine and plum tomatoes), cut into halves
6 sprigs of thyme
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
3 cups of chicken broth
1/4 cup fat-free half and half
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Spread the tomatoes, red bell pepper, eggplant, zucchini, garlic cloves and onions onto a baking tray.  Use two baking trays to not overcrowd the baking tray with too many vegetables.  I find that when I “crowd” the baking tray, the veggies tend to “steam” rather than roast properly.  Drizzle with 1/2 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until caramelized.

Remove vegetables from the oven and transfer to a large stock pot. Add 3/4 of the chicken stock, thyme, cayenne, and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid has reduced by a third.

Remove sprigs of thyme from the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth. Return soup to medium heat, add cream and adjust consistency with remaining chicken stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Garnish with a parmesan crisp.  Forget the crouton.  Do the crisp.

For the parmesan crisps:

2 cups shredded parmesan cheese

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone baking liner. Sprinkle four 1/4-cup mounds of parmesan about 2 inches apart onto each prepared baking sheet; slightly flatten with a spoon. Bake until golden-brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool for 30 seconds. Using a thin metal spatula, drape the crisps over a rolling pin until hardened into shape, about 3 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Vegan Cheesecake… It’s a Close Second to the Real Thing!

I’m by no means a vegan. Not a chance. I am too much of a carnivore to be one. However, with that being said, I do enjoy having vegan and/or vegetarian days. Especially more so now that I’ve discovered vegan desserts. I really love desserts. It’s something that definitely contributed to my weight gain. Well, that and my lazy, inactive butt on the couch watching trashy reality TV shows. So finding vegan recipes that almost mimick “the real thing” is a fun challenge that I’ve engaged myself in.

I cut out desserts almost completely when I started my diet and exercise plan back in late August 2010. It was on a strict caloric intake per day and coupled with exercise has led to my success now. However, cutting out sweets was a really difficult thing. I love a good port with something sweet at night. I started having sugar withdrawals when I cut out the sweets (no way could I cut out my evening night cap!). I’ve slowly introduced desserts back, but only if it’s vegan. It amazes me how lower in fat vegan recipes can be compared to recipes that use butter and shortening. And that’s the thing, butter and shortening. The two very ingredients that can make anything taste good. But finding butter, egg, gelatin, shortening alternatives has been a wonderful and interesting learning experience.

Vegan Cheesecake (adapted from Happy Herbivore)

1 prepared graham cracker pie crust
14 ounces silken tofu
8 ounces Tofutti cream cheese
1/2 cup raw sugar
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare pie crust if you have not already done so.

Place tofu and Tofutti cream cheese in a blender and blend for about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape the sides, and blend for another 30 seconds. Add remaining ingredients and blend for another 3 minutes, stopping periodically to scrape the sides.

(Yes , that is a blender circa 1970.  It was my parents’ blender that I got to inherit!  It’s one of my favorite tools in the kitchen.  They just don’t make them like they used to!)

Once fully incorporated, pour into prepared pie crust and smooth top with a spatula. Set the cheesecake pan on a large piece of aluminum foil and fold up the sides around it. Place the cake pan in a large roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan; the foil will keep the water from seeping into the cheesecake. Bake for about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and place somewhere to cool to room temperature (about 2 to 3 hours). Chill overnight or for at least 6 hours before serving.

Blueberry Topping

1 pint blueberries
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tablespoons sugar

In a small saucepan add all the ingredients and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes or so until the fruit begins to break down slightly. Leave to cool before spreading on cheesecake.

Makes 6 servings.

Holla!… It’s Chicken Tikka Masala! But you can call me Tikka Masala.

Chicken tikka masala apparently is the most popular dish in British restaurants, and is referred to as Britain’s true national dish.  Interestingly, there is no standardized recipe for chicken tikka masala; then again, there really does not exist standard ways to cook kung pao chicken or chow mein.  But there are common ingredients that can be found such as chicken, and a tomato and coriander sauce.

This was the first dish that I ever tried during my first encounter with Indian food.  And OMG, it was to die for, especially when it was eaten with basmati rice and naan.  Mmmmm, naan.  It was like a party in my mouth.  I ordered Indian take out with chicken tikka masala, rice, and naan two times a week for a straight two months because it was so good.  And also because I have a slight obsessive personality.  I don’t remember venturing out of my comfort zone until I was out having dinner with a friend and tried their chicken korma dish.  And then my chicken korma addiction started thereafter.

Chicken Tikka

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and cut into large cubes
2 cups plain yogurt
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 garlic cloves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Masala Sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
1 medium onion, diced fine (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
1 fresh serrano chile, ribs and seeds removed, flesh minced (leave ribs and seeds for a spicier dish)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2/3 cup fat-free half and half (or heavy cream)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

For the chicken:
Combine garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt, tumeric, lemon juice, and yogurt in small bowl. Mix well. Place chicken in bowl and mix. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for four to six hours.

For the sauce:
Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and return to simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.

While the sauce simmers, adjust the oven rack to the upper-middle position (about 6 inches from heating element) and heat broiler. Using tongs, arrange the chicken on the foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan, and place on wire rack. Discard excess yogurt mixture. Broil chicken until thickest parts register 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer and exterior is lightly charred in spots, 10 to 18 minutes, flipping chicken halfway through cooking. Alternatively, you can also skewer the chicken breasts and cook them on the grill, which is I plan to do as the weather warms up :)

Let the chicken rest for about 5 minutes, and then stir into warm sauce (do not simmer chicken in sauce). Stir in cilantro if using, adjust seasoning with salt, and serve.

Makes 2 servings.

Vegan Graham Cracker Crust… Trust Me, It’s Good!

Graham Cracker Crust (adapted from Happy Herbivore)

2.5 cups whole wheat graham crackers
7 tablespoons applesauce
1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease an 8-inch springform pan or a comparable shallow pie dish and set aside.

Place graham crackers and slivered almonds into a food processor and pulse until they resemble bread crumbs or a heavy sand-like consistency. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and whisk in cinnamon. Add applesauce and stir until large chunks of graham crackers form. Add more applesauce if necessary, but make sure the mixture does not become too wet or soggy (this happened to me very quickly the first time I made this crust). Continue to stir until everything is evenly wet.

Press mixture into the pan or pie dish to form a crust along the base and edges. Bake for 10 minutes, until just crisp and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and allow to completely cool before using.

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