Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dinner with Michael LaDuke & New Foodie Friends

With Executive Chef Michael LaDuke.

Meeting the chef. Knowing where your food comes from. A restaurant that listens to its costumers. That focuses on healthy eating. On fresh ingredients. These are not conventions commonly associated with a chain restaurant. But conventions change all the time. And this time it is being done by Red Lobster.

I was thrilled to have been invited to meet executive chef and Red Lobster's Senior Director of Culinary Development (and a regular judge on the Food Network) Michael LaDuke yesterday. Red Lobster has dramatically changed their menu to incorporate dishes that use simple, wholesome ingredients but most importantly taste good. An emphasis is being placed on healthy eating. Chef LaDuke and his team recognize that "food" and "healthy" should just go together. Plain and simple.

New items on the menu include Mango Jalapeno Shrimp Skewers, Maple Glazed Chicken - with a sauce that could make cardboard palatable - and a wide selection of fresh fish choices that are, in some places, characteristic of the region. For example, walleye and halibut feature predominantly on Minnesota menus. Furthermore, locals head chefs have full control over these selections. And being someone who appreciates the simplicity of flavors, I was quite impressed.

Yes, this a restaurant chain that is receptive to the wants of its customers. While you can still get traditional fare such as coconut shrimp, crab legs, and oh-so-good-but-with-a-billion-calories cheddar biscuits, this is a vibrant, modern family restaurant that's worth every morsel of fish and crumb of rich, dark chocolate cake.
Clockwise from top left to right: Maple-Glazed Chicken, Chocolate Wave, Tilapia in Spicy Soy Broth, New York Style Cheesecake with Strawberries, Maui Luau Shrimp and Salmon, Lobster Pizza, Mango-Jalapeno Shrimp Skewers, and Warm Chocolate Chip Lava Cookie.

This was also a great opportunity to meet three other Minneapolis bloggers. From left to right in the photo below:

Jennifer @ Prior Fat Girl

Four Minnesota Bloggers.

One final group shot with the chef.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lemon Parmesan Crusted Tilapia Fillets

A common joke in Minnesota is that we have only two seasons: winter and construction. I would say the more precise categorization would be winter and exercise seasons. A recent magazine article listed Minneapolis as one of the best places to be active in the country. It seems that from the first day that the mercury rises above fifty, the masses are out jogging , walking, kayaking or swimming around Minneapolis lakes. I among them. I especially like the days when there is clear, just azure blue, and the wind is just gusty enough to create gentle undulations on the surface of the lakes but not strong enough to blow my exercise cap off! Perfect weather for hours of outdoor activity.

But all that exercise does work up an appetite. There's plenty of choices around the lakes, and around Minneapolis in general, for standard summer food. Hotdog stands, and fish fry, burger, and pizza joints. But such foods will eventually defeat the purpose of exercise if eaten on a regular basis. So I often make my own post work out meals. Since fish is an excellent source of protein but light in fat calories, I think it works well for this purpose. Filling and flavorful, my parmesan fish recipe uses freshly grated cheese, tons of fragrant lemon zest, a little bread crumbs and herbs. It's great on a salad, in a sandwich, with rice or on it's own. An almost, guilt-free dish. Enjoy!

Lemon-Parmesan Crusted Tilapia Fillets
Makes 4 servings

4 tilapia fillets
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/4 cup bread crumbs (seasoned or unseasoned)
zest of two lemons
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice of one lemon

1. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Set oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Using paper towels, pat the fillets dry. Set aside.
3. Combine the cheese, bread crumbs, lemon zest, cilantro, salt and pepper (I used 1/2 tsp of each but add to your preference.) Coat each fillet with cheese-herb mixture, gently pressing the mixture unto each side of the fish so that it creates a thick coating.
4. Space fillets evenly on baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes until the entire fillet is opaque throughout. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the top before serving.

And we have a winner....

The winner of the CSN gift certificate is Rachel Engstrand of New York! Thanks to all that entered and stay tuned for more giveaways.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Giveaway

It's time for a new giveaway. I'm partnering with CSN stores again; this time the prize is a $40 gift certificate to be used at any of their online affiliates. To see a list of their stores and products, click on the following link: Vanity.

Qualifying is easy. All you have to do is comment of any one of this month's posts (excluding this one) or become a follower on this page, Facebook, or Twitter. A winner will be randomly chosen on Monday 20th at 5 pm. (Only US and Canadian addresses please.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Low Fat Vanilla Pudding with Fresh Blueberries

If I had to chose, I would say that blueberries are my favorite of the berries. They are the perfect fruit for snaking: small enough to eat by the handfuls, sweet and nutritious. Perfect for watching a movie. Instead of popcorn, I would sometimes have a large bowl of blueberries. And at eighty calories and four grams of fiber per cup, it's not a bad idea.

Beside their anti-oxidant properties and sweet-subtle flavor, blueberries are quite easy to cook with. Especially when used in desserts. Because they are so flavorful and visually pleasing, they take center stage in pies, pastries, muffins. Here, I glazed them with liquid jam and ate them by the spoonfuls on vanilla pudding.

Low Fat Vanilla Pudding with Fresh Blueberries
Serves 3 to 4

1 cup low fat milk
1 packet unflavored gelatin
2 - 3 tbsp honey
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz fat free or low fat cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup fresh blueberries
jam or honey

1. Scald milk in microwave on high for two minutes, just as tiny bubbles form . Remove and transfer to larger bowl, if necessary, and whisk slowly while adding the gelatin. Transfer to blender, add honey, cream cheese, and vanilla extract. Puree until smooth. Pour into serving dish ( or individual servings glasses) and chill until firm, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
2. In a saucepan on medium heat, melt jam or honey to a syrup-like consistency. Remove from heat, add berries and toss to coat, being careful not to mash the berries. Spoon glazed berries over chilled pudding and serve.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Two Weeks in New Zealand

Onereo Beach on Waikehe Island, one of New Zealand's best.

Every vacation, no matter how close or how far from home, raises the questions of what sights to see and what activities to do. (And which ones to skip.) Needless to say, my recent trip to New Zealand required much planning. We had only two seeks to explore a country the size of England but with four climate systems, both Polynesian and European histories, and dynamic natural landscapes.

Our flight landed in Auckland at 5:30 am. Thankfully, our hotel allowed early check-in. After a 12 hour flight, all I wanted to do was lay down! But there wasn’t going to be too much of that because we had a whole new time zone to get adjusted to. So, off we went on a self-guided tour of the city, with the help of four maps (just in case one wasn’t enough.) Walking along Hobson Street, we ended up at Viaduct Basin. Built in 2000 for the America’s Cup Regatta, the area is still thriving with restaurants, apartments, shopping and, even though this was not boating season, just enough yachts to add that picture postcard view. This area is a great place to stroll, take photos, or just sit and enjoy the sun, and let the fact that we were finally in New Zealand sink in! (A long time dream of ours.) Before we knew it, it was almost noon and we were getting hungry. We soon came to realize that this is not a bad place to be hungry because there was literally restaurant after restaurant for a good couple blocks. All I knew was that I wanted fresh seafood (must have been all that ocean breeze.) Fresh seafood was what I got at Waterfront Cafe. We ordered mussels in white wine, a calamari salad, and the best tasting oysters I have ever had in my life! Period. Hands down. No contest. Fresh, crisp, clean, euphoric!

The rolling hills of Stonybridge Vineyard on Waiheke.

The following day, we did more self-guided exploration, visiting the Auckland Museum and Sky Tower. But on day three, we planned to explore one of the smaller islands that are also considered part of the city. Auckland has an impressive ferry system with some ferry companies extending their service to include tours of the various islands. We chose Fullers Ferry company and its full-day tour of Waiheke’s vineyards. From Stonybridge to Wild on Waiheke to Mudbrick, the views were simply breathtaking! I have never been to Italy or the Mediterranean but the vineyards here reminded me of photos I’ve seen of such places. Rolling hills. Varying shades of red, orange, yellow, blue, green. An afternoon sun that turned the ocean into a sea of glass. Glistening. And might I add, very romantic. There’s no doubt about it: Waiheke is stunning.

Wine-tasting in Waiheke.

Branches of olives on the Rangihou Estate.

Also part of the tour was a stop at Rangihou Olive Estate. Just like the wine growing areas of Europe and the Mediterranean, Waiheke is ideal for olives. Rangihou grows different types of olives and therefore produces different flavors of oil. However, one thing was consistent: delicious olive oil in every bottle. We sampled five of their productions, including a batch that was being pressed as we pulled up to the compound! Talk about fresh! Depending on the type of olive used, the qualities of its flavor profile really stand out the fresher it is. And in case you were wondering how to determine freshness: there should be a date on the bottle; the key is to purchase within two years of this, the production, date. And always make sure to buy dark bottles and store in a cool dry place since light denatures the good fatty acids in the oil turning it rancid.

On day four, there was something foul in the air. Literally. We were in Rotorua and that smell was sulphur, due to Rotorua’s location on geothermically active earth. But nothing about this noxious odor is indicative of what Rotorua had to offer. After three days of Auckland’s vivacity, we were now in the center of the north island for the next three days. The goal: to experience some of the country’s most popular and beautiful natural wonders and it’s proud Maori culture.

The view of Lake Rotorua from our room at the Koura Lodge!

The following day after breakfast - wonderfully prepared by our hosts Tom and Louise of Koura Lodge I must add - we set out for the sites along Terawera Road, stopping first at the Blue and Green lakes. Next was the Buried Village. This was an area of Maori activity and high tourist traffic (by the standards of that era) during the late nineteenth century, thanks to the areas Pink and White Terraces - pools of hot water enclosed by step-like formations from silica deposits from two geysers. As the name suggests the buried village is... well... buried. Mt Terawera erupted on June 10, 1886 killing 150 people and destroying the terraces, along with the nearby village. The landscape and demographics of the region were also forever changed for, as our guide noted, so popular were the terraces that, had they still been around, the main tourist hub for the region would have been this village and not Rotorua. Even though the terraces no longer exist, a walk through the area was well worth it. And don’t miss the twenty minute trail to the impressive Wairere Falls.

Standing at the Impressive Wairere Falls.

By the second day in Rotorua, we realized that three days were not enough to explore this region. Even so ,we were able to visit Wia-O-Tapu, an excellent example of geothermal activity, and an excellent opportunity to get close to what’s beneath the Earth’s surface. Maybe even too close. Well marked paths took us around sulphur lakes, bubbling mud pools, sunken craters. Another must do is a Hangi - traditional Maori meal- and a Maori concert. deciding which concert to choose was a tough choice because they were all so highly rated. In the end, we choose the Mitai because of their convenient shuttle service: a delightful perk, especially for my husband, since he did all of the driving - driving on the left side of the road took much getting used to!

On the Boardwalk in Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland.

We drove from Rotorua to Wellington on day seven, a drive that was necessary but grueling. It took us about six hours to get there and another hour or so to get lost before we found the hotel (next time, we are definitely getting GPS world edition.) And it rained all of the two days that we were there. While we didn’t get to see much of the city, we had the chance to visit Te Papa - the immense new museum that’s highly interactive, and dedicated to New Zealand’s dynamic cultural and natural history. Taking one of the complimentary tours was a great way to see the main exhibits in one day.

When you think of New Zealand, what comes to mind? Mussels and wine, no? This was to be the next segment of the trip. The following day, we took the Interislander ferry to the Malborough Sounds. If New Zealand is the mussel capital of the world, then Malborough Sounds is the mussel capital of New Zealand. As the ferry approached the Picton Harbor, it was clear that we left the gloom of Wellington behind as we were greeted by an impressive full double rainbow. Picton is the hub for exploring the wine growing areas of the Sounds and a good place to see how mussels are farmed. Luckily we were able to do both in one day, on one tour, and luckily still, we arrived in the off-season so we were the only ones on the tour.

Picturesque Picton.

Our driver and tour guide was Aussie, and, as his name suggests, he is from Australia. He came over for a month’s vacation - it’s been seven years since. He explained that once his relatives visited for him here first time, they too were mesmerized. Now, his parents and sister call Malborough their home. I couldn’t help feel a tinge of jealousy as we left Picton and proceeded to Blenheim. Vineyards and mountains were the only structures that interrupted each other. Sheep and cattle were grazing. It was still early and cool enough in the morning that there was also a slight mist in the valleys. Everything about this area spoke of a harmony between nature and humanity. Yes, given the opportunity and timing, I too would move here.

Our first stop was Saint Clair winery (on vacation, it’s never to early for wine tasting ) to taste for ourselves why Malborough wines are some of the best in the world. The advantage of being the only people on the tour (and booking the Icon’s package) was that we had the option of visiting an additional attraction of our choice. Being more of a chocaholic than I am, my husband requested that we make a quick stop at Makana Chocolate factory. The fact that chocolate is not intrinsically New Zealand means nothing to him and the thousands of visitors to stop at Makana each year. Just goes to show how universal the taste for chocolate is and how good it is here.

We had lunch at the Slip Inn (the braised lamb here was very good) in Havelock, superbly located on the marina from which our boat for the mussel part of the tour would depart. And what a tour it would be! It turned out that this was one of my most memorable events of the entire trip, for both positive and negative reasons. Its easy to see way many Kiwis have their summer homes here. This area was created when the northern tip of south island sub-ducted under the pacific continental plate, resulting in numerous hilly peninsulas and islands of all shades of green, that protect the water in most of these sea valleys from the tumultuous cook strait. The result: miles of coastline for beach frolicking, for romantic walks, for the ultimate seclusion. And the prefect ocean conditions for growing mussels.

The one negative aspect of the tour started out as a challenge: to eat a raw mussel. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy fresh oysters but the thought of eating raw mussels seemed abnormal.

“People have them raw all the time! Here, tell ya what, we’ll cut it in half so you don’t have to eat the whole thing.” That was Aussie.

“Do you have some sort of hot sauce?” my ever-so-caring husband chimed in. “Maybe the hot sauce will make it easier for her,” speaking about me in the third person, and not looking me in the eye. He had already tried the raw version, convinced me that I had to try it because it was better than oysters, and now, seemed to be secretly laughing at my momentary digust.

Eyes closed, head tilted back forty five degree angle, mouth opened, in went raw tabasco-drenched mussel. Mouth closed. Chewing. Chewing. Not too bad. Somewhat sweet. Wait. What’s that? Bitter! Oh god! Chew some more. Even worse! To spit out or not to spit out? That’s not lady-like. Just swallow! Get it over with! Will never do that again!

“That was awful!!”

“Really? Maybe you just had a bad one. Try another.” Assuie again, only half-joking.

Raw mussel.

The first, and last time, I ever ate a raw mussel!

Delicious steamed mussels (the way they should be prepared) on the Greenshell Mussel tour in the Malborough Sounds.

That's a jelly fish I'm holding, a non-poisonous species.

Thus ended our tour of Malborough region: with me vowing to never eat another mussel (I seriously get a little nauseous at the thought of it now ) but absolutely thrilled and feeling so fortunate to have spent even two short days is such natural beauty. It seemed that every turn lead to a view that was more breathtaking than the last. More unbelievable but there it was, right in front of me.

The following day, we took the TranzCoastal to Christchurch. This train journey in itself can be considered a sight. Snaking along the eastern coast of the south island, we were treated to some impressive views of the Pacific ocean on one side and the Souther Alps on the other. At times it seemed that the tracks were literally on the beach, close enough for a good glimpse of the resident seal colony in Kaikoura.

When we arrived in Christchurch, it was raining and it rained incessantly for the only two full days we were to spend there. But that didn’t stop us from following through with our plan to visit a working sheep farm. Cantebury Leisure Tours took us thirty minutes outside of the city to a medium sized farm where we got to try our hands at sheep shearing. It’s amazing how much wool a sheep can grow in a matter of three to four months. Those adorable shaggy little creatures. New Zealand still produces most of the world’s wool supply and lanolin. Lanolin? where have I heard that word before? Ah yes, ten to fifteen years ago when moisturizers where still made of natural ingredients, lanolin was one of those emollients.

On tour of a working sheep farm.

Although newly sheared, these sheep are still so cuddly!

Finally on the last day of our trip when, it stopped raining and we did the one thing that was quintessentially Christchurch: punting on the Avon. The Avon is a spring fed river that flows through the city and out into the pacific ocean. While punting may look similar to a gondola ride, they differ in shape of the vessel, and method of propulsion: a gondola is steered with an oar while a punter uses a long pole to push his punt along the water.

Punting on the Avon river in Christchurch.

As we flew from Christchurch to Auckland later that day - to catch our connection back to the US - the the snow -apped peaks of the southern range were clearly visible through the airplane window; majestic, and beckoning as if to say, “You didn’t see me this time but I’ll be waiting.” Two weeks were surely not enough time to thoroughly explore this great country but enough to appreciate that New Zealand is in a league of its own. The youngest country in the world but by no means a follower. To experience New Zealand is to experience the myths of a an ancient people, the resilience of the new generations and their collective passion and reverence to the land and the way of life it has afforded them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chicken and Scallion Stir Fry

I'm back from two glorious weeks in New Zealand! A trip that was so much more than I had imagined it could be. Talk about natural beauty! It seemed that around every corner was a view that was more breathtaking than the previous one. No wonder it's uncommon that Kiwis migrate. With a nod to the exception, why would anyone what to leave this place?

But I will tell you all about it in a subsequent post - with pictures too!

Right now, I'm happy to be back home and ready to cook. This morning, I made a farmers market run. In season now are snap peas, green onions, herbs, and strawberries. At least, these were what's available on a Thursday. The greens onions were of a significant size that I thought of using them as one of the main ingredients in a stir-fry. I find that stir-fries are a lean way of cooking and, of course, a quick way to get dinner on the table. And I must encourage you to make an attempt to get local, organic scallions; personally, I find that they are much sweeter and flavorful that the store-bought ones.

Chicken and Scallion Stir Fry
Serves 3 to 4

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp corn starch
1/2 tsp chili powder (more or less if you like)
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce
10 scallion stalks

1. Slice the chicken breasts into thin strips about 2" long. Add the cornstarch and chili powder and mix well. Set aside.
2. Mix together the chicken broth, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Set aside.
3. Wash and dry the scallions well. Cut off and discard the root ends, then slice the rest of the stalks into 2" to 3 " pieces. Set aside.
4. In a wok or skillet over high heat, add the vegetable oil. Once the oil is heated, add the chicken, garlic, and ginger, and cook until chicken is no longer pink, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir to prevent sticking.
5. Add the chicken broth mixture and cook for another minute or two until almost half of the liquid has evaporated and the remainder forms a thick sauce. Add the scallions and toss together for 20 seconds. Remove from heat and serve over warm, brown rice.