Thursday, July 29, 2010

Are these leftovers still good to eat?

Jim often asks, “Are the leftovers from (whenever) still good?” My usual response is to sniff it and taste it. If I don’t see mold and it doesn’t smell funky I say it’s safe to eat – but is that the right response? If cheese looks and smells fine I don’t have a problem with it being in the fridge for a month – or longer, and even when mold does appear I cut it off before Jim sees it. I do the same thing with his bread – just pinch the mold off before making him a sandwich with the last two slices of (moldy) bread. Am I slowly killing my husband?

Is yogurt still safe after the sell by date? How long can you keep thawed ground beef?

I get asked these questions all the time and I don’t always know the answer, but I was on and they pointed me towards a terrific site that can tell you whether to keep or toss an item: Still Tasty has a database of thousands of food items that you can browse the shelf life of, and they also feature an FAQ section that I found invaluable last week when I cleaned out the pantry and fridge. I’d like to add that Still Tasty has no idea who I am, I’m sharing the link to their site simply because it’s a new discovery of mine that will really help me out and I want to share it with you also.

Our pantry BEFORE.

When I say we cleaned out the pantry and fridge, I mean that we gave the kitchen an overhaul starting with emptying the cupboards, cleaning, organizing and re-arranging. This included our completely disorganized and stuffed PANTRY and the FRIDGE that may have housed hazardous material. With Jim’s help we pulled the contents of the pantry out on the kitchen table, shelf by shelf. We checked all the dates, referenced Still Tasty, and tossed quite a few items. Some things were no brainers, like granola bars dating back to 2007.

Our (new and improved) pantry AFTER.

The result is an organized pantry that has easy to access items grouped logically on my shelves. Even better, I was able to refresh my memory on WHAT was in the pantry. Instead of buying ANOTHER can of black beans at the grocery store, I now know that we have three. It was like finding money. As we tossed items, we made a list of what needed to be replaced. I thought we had plenty of crackers, but they were actually all stale. I would recommend doing this at least twice a year.

And the answers to your burning questions:

What do you do when you find yogurt in the back of your fridge and the sell-by date was a week ago? Eat it or toss it? Still Tasty says that yogurt that has been properly stored will generally remain safe for at least 7 to 10 days after the "sell-by" date on the package. They even reference the safety specialists at Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension. Bear in mind the temperature of your refrigerator must remain at or below 40° Fahrenheit at all times. If mold appears on yogurt, or if it develops an off odor, flavor or appearance, you should always discard it immediately.

If you thawed some ground beef in the fridge today, and your dinner plans change – what do you do with the meat? Still Tasty says you’ve got some breathing room. Ground beef that’s been defrosted in the fridge can be safely kept for an additional one to two days in the refrigerator before cooking, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And since you thawed the ground beef in the fridge, you can also safely refreeze it within that same time frame, says the USDA. None of this would apply, on the other hand, if you had thawed the ground beef in the microwave or in cold water. You should immediately cook meat thawed under either of those methods, advises the USDA, since it could easily warm up to the 40°F temperature at which harmful bacteria begins to multiply rapidly.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Italy, Day 4

Honeymoon, Day 4 in Italy began by boarding a bus and traveling 75 miles north through Umbria and Tuscany. The countryside to Florence was truly picturesque, although I must admit to napping through most of the drive. Our first stop of the day was Orvieto, looming over vine-covered hills from atop a volcanic plateau.
The people who founded Orvieto were drawn to it because of its good defensive possibilities. If I were attacking the town, I too would have turned around after the first 15 minutes of walking up hill. The cliffs rise starkly from the valley below, although once Jim and I reached the top, we found the town to be relatively flat.

In the center of Orvieto is their world-famed cathedral, known for its elaborately adorned facade, rich statuary, marble bas-reliefs and mosaics.
Lucky (or unlucky) for us we arrived on a VERY special holiday for Orvieto, the Feast of Corpus Christi. I was honestly asleep during the explanation of this celebration on the bus. Jim was kind enough to paraphrase for me, and I am going to paraphrase for you.

Way back in the day, a priest was performing communion and was doubting the transubstantiation (the incarnation of Jesus Christ - His body being bread and the blood becoming wine) and when he broke the bread or cracker blood dripped out. Some other crazy stuffed happened, something about the alter being carried out and breaking. I may be completely screwing up the story, but in the end - the people of Orvieto celebrate the miracle. Every year they reenact the miracle and everyone in the town dresses up and parades around. The festival was quite a site to see. The downside - for us - everyone in the town was in the parade and not a lot of places were open on the day we visited.

The views from the city were breathtaking.
We took a guided tour to explore the honeycombed tunnels and Etruscan caves under the towns cobblestone streets.
Some of these tunnels were VERY tiny and although I'm up for an adventure, my tiny bit of claustrophobia kicked in a little here.

This subterranean city corresponds to the city constructed on the cliff almost three thousand years ago. These tunnels and caves are carved into the "tufa" (lava ash/rock.)
Whheeeeh. Thank goodness we arrived at a spot with a window. I pressed my face up against the iron window guards and took a deep breath of that valley air. Okay, I'm ready to go back under for more exploring.
Jim is loving exploring these tunnels, they have relics and structures that date from the Etruscan, Medieval, and Renaissance periods.
Lunch was on our own in Orvieto. We took our travel guides advice and found Trattoria la Grotta.

Franco Titocchia, the proprietor of La Grotta, is exuberant, confident and proud of how he runs his trattoria, which is regularly visited by the inhabitants of Orvieto, Ital­ian and foreign tourists, and food enthu­siasts and experts. His reputation rests on his experience and his trattoria is something of an institution since he's been in the business since 1945.

The antipasti include mixed crostini and bruschetta with Orvieto oil, ham and cured boar. Then you can choose from umbricelli or tagliatelle with duck ragu or all'arrabbi­ata, tagliolini with artichokes or zucchini, and excellent dishes made with locally grown chickpeas. The chicken in tegame with black olives is just one of many main courses, others being pi­geon in salmi, Iamb cutlets, grilled meats, wild boar stew or rabbit in pars­ley sauce. To end your meal you can choose between the cheese board, which assigns pride of place to local Pecorino, or a selection of home-made desserts: tiramisu, panna cotta, zuppa inglese and tozzetti with Vin Santo.

The wine list features an exhaustive range of Orvieto labels, as well as a good showing from the rest of Umbria and Italy. Although Orvieto is known for it's white wine, Jim and I chose this local Sangiovese to pair with our lunch. It was excellent, as was all the wine we drank in Italy. We loved the vino!
Ravioli al tartufo (truffle)
Tagliatelle with wild boar ragu
Of course we ended our meal with an espresso. This would not be the first or last espresso of the day.

The trattoria was small and charming. The wait staff was slow to bring the check (even when we asked several times) but this didn't take away from the amazing food we enjoyed here.

We made it to Florence! I can't wait to dive into all the wonderful meals we ate while in Florence. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a very luxurious hotel with a beautiful lobby and truly grand lounges.  The guest rooms have a refined elegance meant to evoke 15th-century Florence, with silks, brocades, frescoes, and real antiques.

I love touring hotel rooms, which is why I took pictures of all the places we stayed while in Italy. This is taken from the front door to our room. As you walk down the hallway the bathroom is on the right.

The large bathroom was beautiful, adorned in two types of Italian marble.

And look at all these amenities! I love it when a hotel has nice bathroom products. Here we have bath salts and bubble bath, and a nail care kit.

Oh! And a gift from the hotel because of our honeymoon. It was a great surprise and a welcome refreshment we enjoyed by the balcony.

Two double doors opened up and Jim and I could enjoy the fresh air and our great view of the Arno River.

Our view from the room.

Our first site to visit in Florence was the Galleria dell' Accademia. This huge building has the form of a Latin-cross church. The side wings and the Galleria dei Prigioni are located in what was formerly the medieval Hospital of San Matteo, while the Tribune was built between 1873 and 1882 to house the statue of David.

We were there to see Michelangelo's majestic sculpture of David. As you walk down the long gallery, David stands at the end. On either side of the gallery hall are Michelangelo's quartet of Prisoners or Slaves. It was absolutely amazing to look at these unfinished sculptures to help put into perspective what it was Michelangelo could do with a piece of marble. Although unfinished, each one was a dramatic representation of their struggle to free themselves from stone. Michelangelo worked on these for 40 years and sadly was never pleased with them.

Cameras were not allowed in the museum, so these pictures are from the Academia's web site. This picture was obviously taken before a madman vandalized David and damaged one of his toes with a sledgehammer. No, I can't see David's toe in this picture, but when we visited the David, there was plexiglass protecting him and surrounding him on all sided.

These pictures do not even do this sculpture justice! I was completely awe struck when I looked at him. David first stood in Piazza della Signoria but was moved to the Accademia in 1873 (a copy now stands in the Piazza as a substitute) and placed beneath the rotunda of a room built exclusively for its display. Michelangelo began working on David when he was just 29. We debated if this sculpture depicts David just before he went to face Goliath or if the sculpture depicts the moments after Goliaths defeat.

Seeing David was one of my favorite moments of our trip. I could have stood there for hours admiring his beauty and contemplating what Michelangelo gave to us, and the meaning of it all. By the way, I believe Michelangelo sculpted David in the moments before he went to face his opponent Goliath.

Dinner this evening was provided at the Grand's contemporary fine dining restaurant, InCanto.

I was particularly impressed with how creative each dish was prepared and presented. I didn't make notes on the menu, but I did take a picture of all our food.

The open kitchen offers diners a glimpse of Tuscan born, internationally trained Chef Fabrizio Innocenti as he flawlessly fuses contemporary European cuisine.

The hotel was brilliant at night. After dinner Jim and walked down the Arno to find an after dinner drink.

The original Harry's Bar is in Venice, but this chain has popped up all over Europe and can even be found in the US. The bar was made famous by Hemmingway back in the early 1950's.

Jim and I ended Day four in Florence with two Limoncello, sitting outside Harry's Bar on the bank of the Arno.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Steak and Feta Bowl with Tahini Cilantro Dressing

My main man. He's a hard worker and a good husband. When I met Jim in 2006 I wanted to impress him with my culinary skills. Only problem was, I didn't have any. Or at least I didn't think I had any. But I was going to fake it until I made it. I started by trying my moms lasagna recipe - it was the first time Jim came over to my house for a dinner date and we made this dish together. Because of Jim, I got in the kitchen and started learning how to cook and provide for the two of us. Funny thing happened, I really enjoy it and I'm not afraid of cooking and messing up anymore.

I used to be so scared of recipes with odd ingredients, or techniques I wasn't familiar with. What is the worst that could happen? You have to order out for Chinese or pizza? And I always learn something from my messes and successes. My mom has taught me to NOT be afraid, to at least TRY and that's what I'm telling you today. Try something new in the kitchen, you just might surprise yourself, and your main man.

On this particular afternoon, Jim inadvertently reminded me why I started cooking in the first place. I'm a feeder! It sounds odd, but I get a lot of pleasure out of cooking and feeding this man that I love so much. And he totally deserves it too. He remembers to take the trash out every week - and somehow remembers when it's a recycle day or not. I deeply appreciate men who take the garbage out, it's sexy!

Okay, enough being silly I have an adventurous meal to share that I know you and your main squeeze will love. I was so skeptical at first, but I'm glad I took the chance because the contrasting flavors in this Steak and Feta bowl with Tahini Cilantro Dressing will blow your mind.

The recipe is adapted from Mel a fellow food blogger at Bitchincamero who says this is a "magical bowl of goodness." Green onions, golden raisins and carrots stirred into rice, topped with seared steak, and drizzled with a tangy cilantro and tahini dressing.

Ingredient list: rice (I used white rice because that was what I had on hand), vegetable or chicken stock (I used chicken bouillon), skirt steak, carrots, green onions, raisins and feta cheese crumbles.

Bring the stock to a boil in a small pot, then add the rice. Once it comes to a simmer, reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook undisturbed for 35 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Alternatively, you could buy the single or double servings of Uncle Ben instant rice that cooks in the microwave - I love that stuff!

Side Note: You know how raisins will plump up if you soak them in a liquid. What if you added the raisins at the same time you add the rice? I didn't think to do this, but I bet the raisins would plump up with chicken stock. I think that sounds really good and will try it next time.

The dressing - it is a very important topping and so easy to whip up. I had tahini in the pantry left over from another dish and its actually how I found this recipe on Mel's site in the first place - I was looking for dishes with tahini in the ingredient list.

What is tahini? It is a thick Middle Eastern paste made from ground sesame seeds. Tahini is often used in making hummus (mashed chickpeas, flavored with lemon juice and garlic), baba ghanoush (a puree of eggplant, lemon juice, garlic, and oil), halvah (a confection that includes honey or cane syrup), and other traditional Middle Eastern dishes.

To make this dressing, use a blender or food processor and blend 2 T tahini, 2 T white wine vinegar, 1/4 C olive oil and 1 C cilantro. Taste and adjust to your liking. I added a splash more of vinegar for tang. Set aside.

The shredded carrots, green onions and raisins are stirred into the rice, and give this dish great texture and flavor.

The term skirt steak refers two cuts of beef steak, one from the plate and one from the flank. Both are long, flat cuts that are prized for flavor rather than tenderness. The types are used interchangeably. Skirt steak is the choice meat for making fajitas and to aid in tenderness and flavor, they are often marinated.

This recipe did not call for a marinade, but next time I will make a marinade for the steak and let it sit overnight. I do not like tough steak, and I think the meat (the star ingredient) can be been done better. Skirt steaks are either grilled or pan-seared very quickly or cooked very slowly, typically braised. Because of their strong graining, skirt steak is sliced across the grain for maximum tenderness.

The recipe calls for seasoning the steak with salt and grilling. I seasoned the steak with a special spice blend created by Bobby Flay consisting of ancho chili powder, ground cinnamon , ground cumin , light brown sugar, kosher salt and black pepper. Then I grilled the steak on a grill pan indoors.

Stir the carrots, green onions and raisins into the rice. Top with grilled steak, drizzle with dressing and sprinkle with feta cheese crumbles. The result is this wonderful rice bowl filled with lots of bold flavors. It didn't take long to prepare and was a very filling meal. Next time you have leftover fajitas, I suggest you recreate this meal with your leftovers.