Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Super Simple Chicken Masala

When I sat down with this dish at the lunch table, I literally had people asking me where I had ordered Indian from.  They were shocked to hear I had prepared it myself and even more shocked when I explained to them how quick and easy it was.  The star ingredient that brings this whole dish together is the masala sauce.  But guess what, it's already done.  Trader Joe's does all the work for you.  TJ's for the win, yet again!  Now don't get the wrong impression; I'm not huge on prepared sauces but I'm telling you, this one is fantastic.  Plus, it saves you some major time and effort.  Believe it, restaurant quality chicken masala is just a few simple steps away!

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 large chicken breasts, cut into chunks
1 small yellow bell pepper, sliced
1 small red bell pepper, sliced
1/2 pound french green beans
1 jar Trader Joe's Masala Simmer Sauce
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large pan over medium heat and saute garlic until fragrant.  Cut chicken breasts into cubes and add to pan.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  The chicken will only take a few minutes to brown, so just be careful not to over cook.  Add bell peppers and green beans to the pan, and lower heat so that veggies are cooked, but still maintain a slight crunch.  Pour entire jar of masala sauce over chicken and veggies and allow to simmer until entire mixture is heated through.  Serve atop some brown rice- I love Brown Rice Medley (also made by TJ's) as seen here.  Sprinkle with cilantro and there you have it, Indian takeout in a flash!     

Makes about 3 servings.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oatmeal Pancakes with Blueberries & Flax Seeds

When I was growing up, we would have pancakes on Sunday mornings at least once a month; or as often as my brother and I could talk my Dad into it.  And while my Mom was normally the executive chef around our house, my Dad undeniably held domain over pancake prep.  Now these weren't fancy pancakes, we generally just used plain Bisquick mix, however they were colorful!  My Dad always allowed my brother and I to choose which color we wanted our pancakes that morning and we'd add food coloring accordingly.  Sometimes we'd even have to make two different colored batches when my brother refused to eat "girly", pink pancakes.  Not surprising to anyone who knows him!  Although I now live across the country from my family, the pancake tradition continues in one way or another.  It was my Dad, in fact, who gave me the idea for this recipe.  I borrowed a basic recipe for Oatmeal Pancakes from and jazzed them up a little with the addition of blueberries, flax seed for a nutty crunch and Omega 3 boost, vanilla extract, a touch of cinnamon and a little lemon zest.

1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. all purpose flour
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
Generous sprinkle of cinnamon, to taste
3/4 c. rolled oats
1 c. nonfat milk (or whatever you have in the fridge!)
1 1/2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 1/2 tbsp. toasted flax seed
1/2 c. frozen blueberries (or as much as you like)
Zest of 1 small lemon

Mix whole wheat flour, all purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl combine oats, milk, eggs, oil and vanilla extract.  Slowly add oats mixture to dry ingredients and stir until combined.  Stir in blueberries, flax seed and lemon zest.  Heat skillet over medium heat.  Lightly butter the pan and pour batter in roughly 1/4 c. circles.  Cook until golden brown on both sides.  Drizzle with maple syrup and indulge!

Makes 4 servings.  Whip up a batch on a Sunday morning, enjoy some then, and save a few for an easy breakfast during the work week!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spinach Salad with Chicken & Figs

You know those "I can't believe I've lived this long with out ____" moments?  I have them frequently.  A great pair of heels, a fun shade of nail polish, a fantastic bottle of wine- I'm sure I have far too many "life changing" experiences on a weekly basis, to really be taken seriously.  Not surprisingly, many of these moments coincide with my discovery of new ingredients and flavor combinations.  This summer, I definitely had one of those moments with figs.  Up until a couple months ago, I had never eaten a fresh fig.  And now that I'm rather obsessed with this little fruit that manages to be sweet yet slightly tart simultaneously, it's hard to imagine how it ever slipped me by in the first place.  The only place I know to lay blame is the Fig Newton.  I am not a fan.  Thankfully, fresh figs and their distant cookie cousins are completely different entities.  So if you've been scared off for similar reasons, have no fear!

3 cups of spinach, rinsed and dried (I love me a big salad)
1 chicken breast
4 black mission figs, quartered
2 tbsp. sliced, toasted almonds
Shaved parmesan cheese, to taste

Balsamic vinaigrette:
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Small squeeze lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste 

This is an extremely simple salad to make, but I guarantee you'll have everyone thinking it's much fancier.  I mean how often do figs make an appearance at the lunch table?  Begin by simply grilling a chicken breast on your grill, grill pan (the best alternative if you live in a city apartment where grilling access has been deprived of you, like me! I'm not bitter about that or anything...) or simply in a saute pan with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper on both sides.  Remove from pan when cooked through and allow to rest and cool on a chopping block.  Add rinsed and dried spinach to a large bowl.  Chop stems off of figs, cut them into quarter sections and add to bed of spinach.  Slice cooled chicken breast and incorporate along with figs.  Toss in sliced almonds and top with shavings of parmesan cheese.  Pack it all up along with this simple vinaigrette dressing on the side.  Dress your salad at lunch time and enjoy!  Hurry and pick up this delicious fruit before the end of October, while they're at their peak.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On the Side: Pancetta & Sage Potatoes

Many a weekend, I find myself wandering blissfully through Trader Joe's, admiring the wide array of products and attempting to restrain myself from purchasing the entire store. Yes, I am admittedly a Trader Joe's-aholic.  So when I noticed these adorable "Teeny Tiny Potatoes", which were clearly a new addition to the produce section, I just had to buy them.  Have I also mentioned that I automatically like things more when they're miniature?  Mini cupcakes, for instance, LOVE.  I think it's a girl thing.  Anyway, these teeny tiny tots make a fabulous side dish and when paired with cubed pancetta (Italy's answer to bacon), and woodsy sage, they're pretty irresistible.

1 lb. (1 bag) Trader Joes' teeny tiny potatoes (fingerling potatoes are also fine)
2 tbsp. pancetta, cubed
2 large sage leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste 
Light drizzle of olive oil (if desired)

It doesn't get much easier than this.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Rinse potatoes and add half of the bag, approx. 1/2 pound, to boiling water, seasoning lightly with salt just before adding potatoes.  In a dry saute pan, begin crisping the pancetta over medium heat.  The pancetta will render off some fat, similarly to bacon, but not nearly as much.  When potatoes are tender, drain water, slice in half, and add to pancetta.  Coat potatoes in pancetta and pan drippings and season with salt and pepper.  Slice sage and add to pan.  Briefly warm the sage through to release flavors and finish with a light drizzle of olive oil if desired.

Makes 2 scrumptious (and adorable) accompaniments to any meal!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Turkey & White Bean Chili

There are few things I love more than a warm, hearty bowl of chili.  It's like a hug in a bowl.  And with the cool, crisp days of Fall beginning to roll into town, it's the perfect time to cook up a bowl or ten!  Plus, this chili is incredibly uncomplicated and easy to prepare- you really can't mess it up.  A great confidence-booster for my cooking newbies out there!

This version, inspired by the rustic Tuscan cooking I fell in love with during my semester abroad in Florence, really warms my heart and memory.  Remember that hug analogy?  Well, this chili is like a hug from your hypothetical Italian grandmother, and who doesn't love little Italian nonnas, right?

1 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small jalapeno pepper, minced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 lb. ground turkey breast
1 can diced, no salt added tomatoes
1 can cannellini beans
1 tsp. cumin
1.5 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/8-1/4 tsp. nutmeg (to taste)
A spoonful of ricotta cheese and fresh basil to garnish

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot and saute garlic until fragrant.  Add diced onion and jalapeno and cook until onions are tender.  Incorporate ground turkey breast, breaking it up in the pot and mixing with onion and peppers.  Season turkey mixture with salt and pepper.  After turkey has been browned, add tomatoes and cannellini beans.  Do not drain or rinse the beans, you want all of that flavor in your chili!  Add spices and additional salt and pepper to taste.  Allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes for a greater depth of flavor.  Serve with a dollop of creamy ricotta cheese and fresh basil. 

This batch makes about 3 servings, but you can easily double the recipe and freeze some for future brown bag lunches or an easy heat and eat dinner!

Buon appetito!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Steak & Veggie Burritos with Heirloom Tomato Salad

Being born and raised a California girl, I love me some Mexican food.  I'm pretty sure it's a pre-requisite, in fact.  And while there's no replacing the authentic Mexican you'll find in the Golden State, these burritos really hit the spot for me.  Served alongside a sunny salad of baby heirloom tomatoes, corn and avocado- this brown bag menu will have you looking forward to your lunch hour all morning.  But I can't promise you'll be able to resist that long!

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 lb. sirloin steak
1 can black beans
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium zucchini, sliced into strips
1 medium red bell pepper, sliced into strips
Shredded cheddar cheese (sprinkle away!)
2 large tortillas (I like the whole wheat variety)

2 ears of sweet yellow or white corn
1 pint baby heirloom tomatoes (grape or cherry tomatoes can be easily substituted)
1 ripe avocado, cubed
2 tbsp. cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in pan with half of your minced garlic until fragrant.  Season sirloin steak on both sides with salt, pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, a dash of cumin and just a pinch of cinnamon.  Flavor to taste depending on your preferred level of heat.  Sear sirloin steak until just before desired level of doneness.  You don't need much oil because the steak will give off some fat (but not much, as sirloin is a lean cut) to keep it tender while cooking.  I like my steak meduim rare to medium, so this only takes a few minutes if your steak isn't too thick. Remove steak from pan and allow to rest.  Rinse black beans in a colander.  Drain your pan of the excess fat from the steak, but do not rinse- you want all that yummy flavor and bits to remain in the pan! Add another tbsp. olive oil to pan (if it looks too dry) and saute onions, zuchinni and bell peppers.  Allow veggies to cook just slightly and add black beans to warm through.  Season the pan with salt and pepper.  I like to have a slight crispness to my veggies- no one likes mush!  Chop rested steak into small "carne asada-style" cubes and add back into pan to heat entire mixture through.  Finish with just a squeeze of lemon juice to bring out all of the flavors.  Scoop into tortillas, sprinkle with as much cheese as your heart desires (if you're like me, this takes some self-restraint) and roll up into one fabulous burrito! Wrap in foil and you're done!

For the salad, begin by husking the corn and cutting the kernels off the cob by carefully running a knife down the ear from top to bottom.  Toast the corn just slightly in a warm pan to bring out its natural sweetness and remove the raw flavor.  Let the corn cool and combine it with your halved baby heirloom tomatoes, avocado and cilantro.  Toss it all together with salt, pepper and the juice of half a lemon and either serve at room temperature or place in the refrigerator, if you prefer the salad cooler.

Spice up your lunch routine with these Mexican-inspired dishes or serve them up for dinner after the work day is done.  Either way, they're muy delicioso!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chicken Lettuce Wraps with Wasabi Lime Dressing

PF Chang's may be a chain restaurant and yes they may serve up a very Americanized Chinese menu, but these guys know what they're doing when it comes to lettuce wraps.  If you've eaten there and somehow neglected to order them, you are seriously missing out.  Obviously, I have a slight love affair with these little lettuce cups of perfection, so you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that there isn't a single location in NYC.  Alas, I decided to develop my own version to satisfy my craving.  And after several renditions, this Japanese-inspired version has become my favorite.  The slight crunch of the edamame, paired with a no-nonsense punch of wasabi takes these lunch-worthy lettuce wraps to a whole new level. 

2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup diced white onion  
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/3 cup sliced carrots
1/2 cup diced mushrooms
1 cup diced water chestnuts
1/3 cup edamame, shelled
3-4 tbsp. soyaki marinade (I like Trader Joes' Island Soyaki)
1 head lettuce of any variety you choose, I like red leaf lettuce or butter lettuce best (better nutritionally than traditional iceberg)
1 sliced green onion for garnish 

1/4 cup rice vinegar (I like the light version which is slightly sweet)
1/4 tsp. wasabi paste  (more to taste if you like)
juice of 1/2-1 full lime, depending on size
a pinch of salt  

Heat vegetable oil in large sautee pan.  Add minced garlic and sautee lightly to flavor oil.  Sear chicken breasts in pan on medium heat and reduce to low to finish.  Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Sautee onions, carrots, mushrooms and water chestnuts in chicken drippings, adding additional oil if needed.  Dice cooled chicken into bite-size pieces and add back into the pan along with edamame.  Reduce heat to low and finish with soyaki marinade.  Rinse and dry lettuce leaves and fill with chicken mixture.  Top with sliced green onion and wasabi lime dressing to taste.  

Brown bag your lettuce, filling and dressing and prepare to wow 'em!  

Makes one lunch + leftovers. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Brown Bag Beginnings

So how did The Brown Bag Gourmet come about you may wonder?  Well, as I grew up my love of cooking never diminished, but I would say it really came to fruition until I moved out on my own during college.  After two years in the dorms and countless mediocre cafeteria meals later, I was chomping at the bit to get into my own apartment with access to a kitchen and a refrigerator larger than the "microfridge" that inhabited my dorm rooms.  And as soon as I did, I was cooking up a storm; or at least as best I could on my college budget.

While many of my friends relied on the old stand-bys of fast food, PB & J and microwaveable meals as their main source of sustenance, I would go home and actually cook the majority of my meals.  I learned quickly that I could eat well, save money (and some calories) and do something I enjoyed all at the same time.  I mean, what’s not to love!

After I graduated a year ago and stepped out into the “real world” where a mountain of new financial responsibilities greeted me, from student loans to health care and paying my own rent, I gained a whole new appreciation for that little money-saving aspect.  Especially after I decided to pick up and move from California to the most expensive city in the nation- the one and only, New York City.

If you've ever purchased lunch (or just about anything for that matter) in NYC, you know it ain't cheap.  General price over inflation, coupled with the fact that I work within close proximity of uber-touristy Times Square, means a girl really can't eat decently without dropping some dough.  Thus, I began packing my own lunch almost daily.  And I'm not talking just packing a simple sandwich here, I'm talking interesting, non-monotonous lunches.  That boring ham and cheese sandwich should be a last resort people!  My anti-conformist lunch mentality has resulted in more than a few curious glances and questions about what's on the menu for any given day and I often hear "I wish I were a good cook" or "That looks good, but I don't have time".  Well, here I am to show the corporate lunch crowd that you can be a good cook and you probably do have the time to prepare some of my creative, yet simple recipes.  Not to mention the fact that both your bank account and your waistline will likely appreciate the savings!

The Brown Bag Gourmet is a reflection of my passion for both cooking and writing; passions I hope to share with you!  You can also expect to see restaurant reviews from time to time (I do live in one of the top food meccas of the world, after all), as well as interesting culinary happenings in the New York area.  And for even more foodie fun, please follow me on Twitter @BrownBagGourmet!         

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Culinary Influences

I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where my Mom cooked dinner nearly every night of the week.  I didn’t always appreciate it as a child; in fact my brother and I lived for Mom’s Bunco nights when my Dad would pick up fast food on his way home.  Yet from the time I was a little girl, I can remember helping Mom out in the kitchen with small prep tasks (if you need green beans snapped, I'm your girl) and chatting as I watched her effortlessly prepare that evening’s meal.  Needless to say, I learned my love of cooking, quality ingredients, and everything I know from my Mom.  That's not to downplay Dad’s influence though.  In the world of grilled cheese, my father is a culinary master.

I still remember the first "recipe" I ever came up with and made on my own- oven potatoes.  That may have been an odd thing for a kid to cook up in their free time, but gosh they were good.  I would chop simple red potatoes into tiny cubes (that I wouldn't have the patience for today), drizzle them with olive oil and add a dash of salt and pepper.  A 20-30 minute trip through the oven, and out came the crispy, slightly spicy, delicious little finger foods.  So simple, yet so good- as most of the best dishes are.

Of course there was also the time that I misread the cookie recipe and added a cup of salt instead of a teaspoon.  The common sense reflex hadn't kicked in yet apparently?  It's surely been a learning process and it'll surely continue to be, but that's the beauty of life and of cooking!