Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Post-St. Patty's Day

Still recovering from St. Patty's Day? You are not alone, my friend. I take this mostly as an indication that I am getting old.

I don't know about you, but my St. Patrick's Day consisted of lots of Guinness and Bailey's, mostly in coffee and brownie form. Our friends Kellie and Lauren had a lovely St. Patty's day brunch with all kinds of delicious noms. Throw some Korean BBQ in there for good measure (I know, not Irish, but a delicious addition to the weekend), and my body is offended by the lack of vegetables over the past week.


Chicago does St. Patrick's Day to the extreme. I would compare it to a Penn State football weekend but spread over an entire city.

People wear kilts (isn't that Scottish?) and break out their paddleboards.

For the love of God, do NOT fall into that river.

Some people even take their fanciest cars for a spin.

 The elusive car-boat

There's a parade and bar specials out the wazoo starting at 9 AM and all that, but my favorite part of the weekend is the dyeing of the Chicago river.

Yes, the river is really THAT green.

You see it in pictures, sure, but you always think to yourself that it must be Photoshopped. I say to you, readers, that is the real, non-retouched version. Definitely my favorite!

After a weekend of too many noms, I was looking for a recipe that was healthy but still delicious and sort of decadent. I came upon this recipe from the nifty blog Iowa Girl Eats. I tweaked it a bit based on what I had and what I could get at the store. My favorite modification was the use of roasted grapes rather than fresh cherries. The juices from the grapes act as a sort of dressing when combined with the balsamic reduction, so you don't even have to add anything extra!

This recipe has a few parts to it, but don't be intimidated; they're all simple to do. I broke the recipe down by section so that it is hopefully a little easier to follow. When I made the salad, I reduced the balsamic vinegar while doing the other stuff in the oven, as this part took the longest. I would recommend putting the chicken in the oven first followed by the grapes and then the goat cheese. That way, you have nice warm goat cheese for your salad, and the chicken has had a chance to rest. Alternatively, you can bake the chicken and roast the grapes at the same time if you're in a rush then bake the goat cheese.

Almond-Crusted Goat Cheese Spinach Salad with Roasted Grapes & Chicken

Inspired by Iowa Girl Eats
Serves 2

Balsamic reduction:
1 cup balsamic vinegar

1 boneless skinless chicken breast (about half a pound raw)

2 cups red seedless grapes, removed from stems (about 1/2 to 3/4 lb)
Olive oil flavored cooking spray or olive oil
Salt to taste (1/4 to 1/2 tsp)
Pepper to taste (1/8 to 1/4 tsp)

Goat cheese:
3 oz goat cheese
2 tbsp toasted unsalted sliced almonds (I bought the pre-toasted kind from Trader Joe's)
Olive oil for brushing

4 oz baby spinach (about 4 cups)

For the balsamic reduction:
1) Pour balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan.
2) Heat on medium heat until the vinegar thickens and is roughly the consistency of maple syrup. The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.
Pro tip: If you have a fan above your stove, turn it on. The reducing vinegar is quite pungent and will burn your nose if you breathe it in!

For the chicken:
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2) Place chicken in a baking pan or dish (with sides! Or you'll wind up with chicken juice all over the bottom of the oven and the fire alarm going off. Not that I know this from experience or anything...).
3) Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Flip chicken over and repeat.
4) Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the inside is no longer pink and juices run clear.

For the grapes:
1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (or 400 F if you're doing this at the same time as the chicken).
2) Place grapes in a baking dish or on a baking sheet in a single layer.
3) Spray with cooking spray or drizzle lightly with olive oil. Roll grapes around by shaking the pan so that they are coated evenly with oil.
4) Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Roll grapes around again to coat evenly with salt and pepper.
5) Roast in oven until grapes begin to split but before grapes begin to brown, about 15 minutes (slightly longer at 400 F), shaking the pan occasionally to prevent the grapes from sticking.

For the goat cheese:
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet or baking pan with parchment paper.
2) Cut the goat cheese into four rounds ~1/4 in thick. Place on cookie sheet.
3) Lightly brush the tops with olive oil. Sprinkle sliced almonds over the surface of the goat cheese, pressing lightly so the nuts stick to the cheese.
4) Bake 5-7 minutes or until soft and warm.

1) Divide baby spinach between two plates.
2) Top with grapes, chicken, and goat cheese.
3) Drizzle with balsamic reduction and sprinkle with additional almonds if desired.
4) Enjoy!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Strawberries & Thoughts of Spring

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you...

the BIGGEST strawberry I have EVER SEEN.

Actual size!

Seriously, though. I couldn't even get my fist to close around the berry because it was SO LARGE.

Godzilla berry!

If the berry crop is this vigorous already, I can only conclude that warmer days are just around the corner! I have to admit, I felt a little betrayed when Punxsutawney Phil decreed an early spring only to get several inches of snow dumped on us in the midst of below-freezing temperatures. Now that things are looking brighter, what better way to get into the springy spirit than with a light (both in texture and in calories) yet decadent muffin?

As I've mentioned before, I love love love breakfast, and I will look for any excuse to make something delicious. Waking up is a little bit easier when you have something tasty waiting for you, amirite?

I changed this recipe slightly to use white chocolate chips rather than mini bittersweet ones (which I'm sure would be great, too), and I used half whole wheat flour, half regular flour. Other than these modifications, I stuck with the recipe just as it is written. It's basically like eating a chocolate-covered strawberry in muffin form. Awesome!

Skinny Strawberry White Chocolate Chip Muffins

Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction
Yields 10 muffins


3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce
1 egg white, beaten
2/3 cup diced strawberries
1/3 cup white chocolate chips


1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 10 muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray (or use a non-stick muffin tin like I did). 

2) In a large bowl, gently toss the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside. 

3) In a separate bowl, mix the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and applesauce until together until no brown sugar lumps remain (a fork works well to break up the brown sugar). Add the beaten egg white and stir gently with a fork or whisk until fully incorporated. 

4) Add the wet ingredients to the dry until just combined - do not overmix. Fold in the strawberries and white chocolate chips.

5) Divide the batter evenly between 10 muffin tins. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Muffins will be lightly golden in color, and a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin should come out clean.

6) Let muffins cool in the muffin tin for about 5 minutes. Remove muffins to wire rack to finish cooling. Enjoy!

The finished product

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Post-Qual & Baking with Ricotta

Hello, good people of the internet!

I know, it has been a good long while since I've posted anything. I have an excuse, I promise. At the beginning of February, I had my qualifying examination, which basically determined whether or not I got to become a PhD candidate. Gulp. I wrote a 20+ page qualifying document and presented a 30 (plus interruptions) min talk on what I've done, what I plan to do, and why I should be kept around for the duration of my PhD. Also, I shamelessly bribed my committee by making my crowd-pleasing whole wheat cherry scones.

I am happy to report that I passed(!) my exam, and Northwestern is stuck with me for a few more years. Woo! Since then, I've been keeping busy with lots of research stuff. There's no rest for the weary!

While I was working on my qual, I developed a habit of "stress baking" where when I just couldn't look at my paper anymore, I would go bake something. My research group gratefully accepted my offerings, as you can imagine.

The most exciting adventures during this time involved, of all things, ricotta cheese. I had a bunch of ricotta leftover from a Skinnytaste baked pasta recipe because when you buy ricotta cheese, it has to be in a half pound container or larger, even if you only need a 1/4 cup. Blah. Fortunately, I was inspired to use up the cheese, which led to the two recipes below.

I brought the orange ricotta muffins with me to Bloomington, IN where I visited my friend Lindsay for a weekend post-qual. They were met with rave reviews, so you have assurance that they are delicious from a non-biased source. The lemon cookies were one of the offerings that my lab received, and the cookies I brought in were gone in a matter of hours. I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I did!

Side note: I finally joined Pinterest against my better judgement. I'm addicted. :) Click on the link above to follow me!

Orange Ricotta White Chocolate Chip Muffins

Yield: 12 muffins
Adapted from Two Peas & Their Pod

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 1 orange (I bought navel oranges, so I had A LOT of zest. To me, this is a good thing.)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup white chocolate chips

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons orange juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In a small bowl, add the sugar and orange zest. Rub the orange zest and sugar together with your fingers.

3. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar and orange zest mixture together until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the ricotta cheese and beat until smooth. Beat in the egg, orange juice, and vanilla extract.

4. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Stir in the white chocolate chips. Divide the batter evenly between the 12 muffin cups.

5. Bake muffins for about 18-20 minutes, or until the tops are slightly golden brown. Let muffins cool completely.

6. While the muffins are cooking, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together powdered sugar, orange zest, and orange juice. Drizzle glaze over muffins. Let the muffins sit until glaze hardens.

Lemon Ricotta Meltaways

Yield: About two dozen cookies
Adapted from Secret Life of a Chef's Wife

1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup gran­u­lated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tea­spoon almond extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder
1/2 tea­spoon bak­ing soda
1/4 tea­spoon salt
zest from 1 lemon

Lemon glaze:
1 cup pow­dered sugar
2 table­spoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Cream together the but­ter and gran­u­lated sugar in a mix­ing bowl fit­ted with a whisk. Add the egg and mix well. Add the ricotta cheese, almond extract, and the lemon juice. Blend well.

Mix the dry ingre­di­ents and lemon zest together in a separate bowl, and and add them to the butter mixture. Mix until incor­po­rated without over-mixing.

Roll dough into balls, and place about two inches apart on cookie sheet. Using the bottom of a glass covered with flour, flatten each cookie into a circle.

Bake for 14 minutes. (The original recipe only called for 8 minutes, but my cookies were raw at that time. I needed a much longer baking time, but be sure to check on your cookies periodically for doneness!) The cook­ies will begin to brown on the bot­toms, but not the tops.

Let rest 2-3 minutes on sheet, and then remove to cooking rack. Let cookies cool completely.

For the glaze:
Mix ingredients together in a bowl, and driz­zle on cooled cook­ies.