Wednesday, September 19, 2012

30-day Recipe Challenge

As some of you know, I returned home from Europe about three weeks ago. Upon my return, I knew that I would need to keep myself busy and entertained while I searched for new job prospects. So, I decided to challenge myself to 30 days of cooking only new recipes. I knew when I started this challenge that lunch and dinner would be super simple, I usually try to have a variety of those anyways. Breakfast, however, has always been a challenge for me in the creativity department. Mark Bittman does not offer up any new breakfast ideas in his cookbook, which was fairly disappointing. However, to-date I have managed to scour the internet and my various other cookbooks and come up with new recipes for breakfast too.
The way I like to start every day: with Coffee and a Cookbook.

My two favorite breakfast creations are shown below.  Richard requested that I make grits one morning, so I made cheesy grits using gorganzola cheese and boiled corn meal. Paired with a poached egg, this was quite a delicious dish. I used poached eggs so the soft flavor of the grits wouldn't be weighed down by the oil in a fried egg. The second image is a creation of my own. I love avocado and I love finding new ways to use it. On this day, I paired avocado chunks with mango chunks and a little bit of lime juice. Then I put this mixture on top of eggs in a basket. The result was fabulous. Just a little bit tart, a little bit sweet, very creamy mixed with medium well eggs and toast. Fast, easy and definitely something I would recommend. The final picture is a meal consisting of an accidental creation and chocolate gravy. One night I was attempting to make up a banana peanut butter cookie. However, I forgot that banana can be used in place of eggs in baking, so I used both... Instead of making cookies, I made more of a banana peanut butter biscuit. However, upon trying these tasty treats I decided they would go well with chocolate gravy and make a tasty breakfast; and that they did. I believe I could recreate this recipe....but I'm not completely certain.

I & W- Cheesy grits with a poached egg

I- Eggs in a basket with avocado and mango "salsa".
I & FG- Chocolate gravy with Peanut butter banana biscuit.

So, as you can see, creating new and interesting breakfasts is not as difficult as you might imagine. Personally, I try to stay away from sweet breakfasts; however, every now and then they aren't an awful choice as long as you go easy on the sugar.

Now, on to lunch/dinner. I have a habit of using recipes for these two meals interchangeably. It has been argued that you should actually eat a heavier lunch than dinner. This makes sense considering at mid-day you need much more energy than in the evening. Nevertheless, this is a difficult concept for me, considering I was raised to have a big meal at dinnertime. This is, no doubt, a result of my parents working all day and coming home to cook the only real meal we had. I have never really gotten this out of my system. However, I have tried to make my lunches more well rounded and less light. Hence dinner and lunch have interchangeable recipes. (And often leftovers from the night before become lunch.)

MB- Rice with Broccoli, Tofu and Black Tea Sauce.
So far as dinner and lunch go, Bittman's Cookbook offers many delicious choices. I was fairly impressed when Richard and I started using this cookbook. It has many diverse recipes and several techniques I have not tried before. One recipe that hooked me on his work was Rice with Broccoli, Beef and a Black Tea Sauce. It sounds really strange, but it is really tasty. Well, I can only vouch for the flavor if you replace the beef with tofu. The flavors that bring this dish together are a cup of black tea (we used Earl Grey), ginger, garlic, red pepper, scallions and soy sauce. Somehow these flavors meld into a delicious sauce for rice or noodles. Considering it is a rice dish, this meal has the possibility of becoming very heavy. However, it was light enough that I would recommend it for lunch or dinner.

MB- Peanut Shrimp Wrap
Also shown above is another interesting recipe from Bittman. He actually recommends using tofu-sesame for this wrap, but Richard decided we should use shrimp. We also replaced the lettuce with shredded cabbage. Essentially, cook the meat you are using in sesame oil, red pepper, honey and soy sauce. Shred some carrot and either lettuce or cabbage. Chop up some tomato and scallions. Take your tortilla and spread a tablespoon of peanut butter directly on it. Then layer your protein, cabbage, carrot, tomato, and scallions. Top with a squeeze of lime juice. The peanut butter was actually quite a nice touch to this wrap. There wasn't too much so it didn't overpower the other flavors, but complimented them. The use of cabbage gave the wrap more of a crisp crunchy texture than lettuce would have, but didn't change the flavor much. All in all, I give this wrap an A+. This would make a quick and light dinner for a weeknight.

A lot of the recipes that I use as a basis for my meals come from the website If you have not discovered this website yet, and you are a food lover, you are in for a treat. This is a collection of all the best food blogs on the internet. Not all of the recipes are in English, but google can translate for you if you don't speak the language. (I was very pleased to use a French recipe for blueberry muffins the other day without having to use the translator.) You can search by category, by ingredient, by style, etc. It really is a great tool if you are looking to expand your recipe lexicon. I usually find a recipe and modify it to my own taste. With Bittman's recipes I am actually following the recipes to a T, except for the substitution of shrimp or tofu for all of the meats he suggests; however, substituting tofu is something he recommends for vegetarians.

The difference in using foodgawker and a cookbook is that you are only getting the perspective of the person writing the recipe for you. So you have to follow your own instincts about a meal. The positive aspect of using a website is that you have comments from others to read and see what substitutions or changes they've made to improve recipes. Sometimes, however, readers simply comment on how the recipe looks, not on how it tasted when they made it. Below I have posted some pictures of meals that I or Richard created using foodgawker recipes, as well as recipes that I made up (like the shrimp salad).

On the photo captions I have created a system to let you know where the recipe came from. The key is as follows:
MB- Mark Bittman
FG- foodgawker
W- other website
CB- other cookbook
I- my imagination
F- friends recipe
W- Quinoa with sweet potato, pan-fried cauliflower, cheesy bread and green beans.
F- My attempt at German pancakes....

I- Cabbage and Carrot Soup 
I- Shrimp and Spinach salad with a Lime-herb vinaigrette.
W- Spicy Dragon Soup: "Asian Get Better Soup".
FG- Peanut butter oatmeal bars- good snack or breakfast.
FG- Curry tofu, chickpeas and cauliflower
There are only 10 days left in my 30 day challenge. So far I have very much enjoyed finding new recipes every day. It's a challenge that has allowed me to buy a lot of fresh vegetables and then find something to do with them rather than planning my meals for the week. (Though if you are on a tight schedule I recommend finding new recipes and making a shopping list.) I recommend trying to challenge yourself to make new recipes for a whole month. Or even just a week. You'd be surprised what new foods you can find you enjoy (like cabbage, eggplant and brussels sprouts for me). You can also find new ways to incorporate more fresh vegetables into your meals, which is what Mark Bittman encourages as the first step towards eating like food matters.

Natural Awakening magazine printed an article last month which stated another argument for changing things up: "When children are repeatedly presented with the same foods, they don't learn to appreciate new flavors and textures, which reinforces a picky palate and a fear of unfamiliar dishes (Keith-Thomas Ayoob, registered dietitian)." They suggest  incorporating a "new-food-of-the-week meal" once every week and pairing new healthy alternatives with family favorites. A delicious substitution I have made is to use quinoa instead of spaghetti as the grain in chicken or eggplant parmesan.

I think I will try to use new recipes every day until the end of the year. This, I know, will not be as strict as my 30-day challenge because I miss some of my old favorites: fajitas, gnocchi with gouda sauce, alfredo, curry (my way), stir fry, etc. I do enjoy expanding my knowledge of recipes, though.

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