Saturday, July 30, 2016

Delicious Nutritious Smoothies - Ninja or Vitamix?

Smoothies are very popular once again, and why not? They are thick, smooth drinks made of fresh fruit and vegetables pureed with some ice and sometimes diary products. They are delicious, nutritious and refreshing.

Julian's Super Green Smoothies
The smoothie shown above is only 70 calories per drink and tastes really wonderful. It contains no dairy, just fresh ingredients and a little ice. Today I'm sharing a couple favorite recipes including this one, but also helping you decide which blender works best.

Equipment Selection: The big brand name in the equipment category is Vitamix. They are promoted heavily at Costco and other stores with live demonstrations. But are they really worth the $500+ price tag?  Could I just use my old Sears blender instead?

I tested the inexpensive classic blender. The traditional test is called the 'snow test', which means 'can it turn ice cubes into snow?' The answer for my very old Sears brand blender was clearly no. You probably know this if you've tried to make frozen drinks in the summertime with something similar. While it will crush the ice, it leaves chunks of various sizes that won't go through a straw and can't give you that professional restaurant quality blend when making a cocktail that is nothing but liquid flavors and ice.  So it was clear to me I needed a new device. But did I want to invest in the Vitamix?

I have several friends that have the Vitamix and they all reported using them some at first, but relegating them to storage a few months later. It must be tended while it's running and you use the plunger to push food down into the device. You stop and start it on your own to get the correct consistency. I found this takes some practice. The device is quite heavy and really single purpose. At our island home, CalypsoBlu, we have a standard Ninja drink blender. I knew it worked well but wasn't sure if it would do a good job at fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Ready to make a Super Green Smoothie
Online I found several tests and many reviews of the various options. I finally selected the Ninja Blender Duo with Auto-IQ Technology. There are various models, with different attachments, so select any of these so long as it has the Auto-IQ feature. This is a powerful line of blenders that are easy to use. This is because they change speeds and pause and restart all on their own. This permits the contents to sink down toward the blades and the result is a super smooth drink of every kind. It has made perfect frozen margaritas and daiquiris as well as a myriad of fruit and vegetable smoothies. All have been the perfect consistency. I chose the model with the large traditional blender pitcher as well as the smoothie cups of various sizes. As I have a large food processor, I did not select the model that has this, but if you are looking for a single appliance, I would recommend you consider a all-inclusive model like this one. Another nice feature is you can make your drink right in the serving cups and take them with you on the go.    

Julian's Ninja Demonstration Video

Here are two of my favorite recipes. You can really do many combinations and my Nutra Ninja Duo came with a large recipe book. I purchased mine directly from Ninja Kitchen as they come with a one-year warranty there, and Amazon only gave a 90 day warranty. Both sites offered recipe books with the product.

Super Green Smoothie

Ingredients (1 serving)
1/4 cup spinach, packed
1 1/2 inch piece cucumber, peeled and cut lengthwise
6 green seedless grapes
1/2 cup honeydew melon, cut into chunks
1/4 orange, peeled, cut in half
1/4 - 1/3 cup ice cubes

Place all of the ingredients into the small travel cup (18 ounce) in the order listed. Close the cup with the blade attachment. Lock the cup into the blender base. Turn unit on then select Auto-IQ Nutri Ninja BLEND. The machine will do the rest as shown in the video above.

Strawberry Banana Smoothie

Ingredients (1 serving)
1 banana, peeled and halved
1 cup low-fat milk (substitute almond milk)
2 tablespoons sweet juice (agave or mango work well)
1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled

Place all of the ingredients into the regular 24 ounce travel cup in the order listed. Close the cup with the blade attachment. Lock the cup into the blender base. Turn unit on then select Auto-IQ Nutri Ninja ULTRA BLEND.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Peppercorn Crusted Beef Tenderloin - Grill Version with Horseradish Cream Sauce

For a special family gathering, consider a whole beef tenderloin. It will surely be a memorable treat, especially when served on a large platter.

Julian's Platter of Sliced Beef Tenderloin
with a Peppercorn Crust and Horseradish Cream Sauce
Today I'm cooking on the grill rotisserie but you could as easily prepare a beef tenderloin directly on the grill. However I make it, it's always the same basic technique. The inconsistent shape of the tenderloin requires just a bit of preparation to even it out, by tucking the thinner end under to provide more consistent cooking. The rich rare to medium-rare beef pairs well with the coarsely crushed peppercorns, which do not overwhelm the pallet when served.

If you're looking for my recipe for a center cut beef tenderloin that is often served in thicker cuts on a special occasion, then check out this recipe.

Julian's Peppercorn Crusted Beef Tenderloin

The most important matter to consider here is to avoid over-cooking. Even people that say they prefer beef more well done will appreciate the tenderloin cooked only to a medium-rare temperature of about 125-135F degrees. With a thinner cut as I'm doing here, anything more will ruin the dinner.

Ingredients (Feeds 12-14 adults)
1 whole beef tenderloin, 5-6 pounds
1/4 cup Dijon muster
3/4 cup black peppercorns
butcher's twine
Optional: Potatoes, onions, peppers

Unwrap the beef tenderloin and examine the meat. Note the thick and thin ends, and any untrimmed fat and silver skin. While some fat will make for nice cooking, the silver skin must be removed. This tough connective tissue surrounding the muscle is a pearlescent membrane that is removed before cooking to prevent curling. Using a sharp and pointed knife, slide the knife just under one end of the silver skin and run it along underneath removing only the unwanted membrane. Repeat until all silver skin is removed.

Fold the thin end under.
Fold the thin end of the beef forward tucking it under the tenderloin until you have approximately even thickness throughout. Using your sharp knife, cut a list about halfway into the folded end all the way across to create a flat end on the tenderloin allowing it to fold under more easily. Using butcher's twine, tie the tenderloin tightly every few inches to hold the meat in shape.

If using the rotisserie, slide one of the forks onto the spit. Insert the spit into the center of the tenderloin from the end and carefully guide it through the meat and out the other end lengthwise. Add the remaining spit fork and secure the tenderloin into the center of the spit.  If not using the rotisserie, skip this step.

Coarsely crack the black peppercorns. This can be done with a pepper mill, a food or coffee bean processor or with a mortal and pestle. Do not grind the pepper corns very fine. Sift out any finely ground pepper and discard or save for another use. If you prefer a more mild pepper flavor, simply heat 3 tablespoons oil and peppercorns together in small saucepan over low heat until faint bubbles appear. Continue to cook at bare simmer, swirling pan occasionally, until pepper is fragrant, 7 to 10 minutes. Using fine-mesh strainer, drain cooking oil from cracked peppercorns. The cooking process will make the peppercorns more mild.

Peppercorn encrusted. Wrapping for Storage for an Hour.
Paint the tenderloin with Dijon mustard. Pat the crushed peppercorns into place all over the meat. Let rest while you prepare the grill or oven. You can do all of this ahead and store in the refrigerator for several hours if you prefer. If spit roasting, remove the grates if necessary, to make room for a pan of sliced potatoes, onions and peppers beneath the roasting meat if you desire, which will catch any drippings.   Heat the grill or oven to about 400F degrees.

Add the prepared beef tenderloin and roast for about 40-55 minutes until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the beef reads 120F (rare) -130F (medium rare) degrees. Remember that thinner parts of tenderloin will be slightly more done, for those guests who prefer it.

If not using a rotisserie, turn the meat halfway thru cooking. While the meat roasts, prepare the horseradish cream sauce below. When the meat reaches the desired temperature, remove it and let it rest on a cutting board for 20-30 minutes before removing the spit or carving. Remember, temperature will continue to rise by five degrees it rests.  A very sharp knife or an electric knife is preferred for carving into thin slices, about 1/4 inch thick. Lay the sliced meat out onto a platter with the sauce for guests to spoon over each serving.

Roasted and Ready to Carve

Horseradish Cream Sauce
Mix together the following ingredients and let sit at room temperature until the meat is ready to serve.

8 ounces sour cream
2-3 tablespoons prepared horseradish (more to taste)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

A Platter of Tenderloin

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

GelPro Kitchen Floor Mat Review

Replacing the kitchen rugs with GelPro mats seemed like a no brainer as I cook quite a lot and find myself standing in the kitchen for long periods. So when I saw them at Costco I thought seriously about purchasing them. GelPro floor mats are ergonomically designed with a shock-absorbing gel core. As I like to do a bit of online research to see what others think, and as the color selection was quite limited in the store, I didn't initially purchase them.

Julian's Gel Pro Green Kitchen Matts
As you can see above, I eventually purchased them online, directly from Gel Pro. On the website they have a large selection of colors, styles and patterns. I chose the Gel Pro Elite. I'm hoping to concur with the majority (about 66% on Amazon reviews) who have been very happy with this family of products. The elite and professional grade models have higher ratings, but the number of reviewers is quite small, so I'm not sure you can purchase based on that. I've had mine now for only six months, so I suppose they still could have issues, but the company seems to stand pretty strongly behind the product.

The most common issue noted online is the corners and sometimes the edges, curling and peeling. The mats alone are pretty thick (see below) and until you get used to them even in mint condition, they can be a slight trip hazard if you are used to no mat, or just a kitchen rug. We have hard wood floors and non-backed rugs tended to slide. Rubber backed rugs wore out quickly because of the need for regular washing.

Showing the thickness.
The new Gel Pro mats are easy to care for and we mostly just wash them with a damp cloth. If something sticky gets on them, perhaps a little soapy dishwater is all that's required. The housekeeper is familiar with caring for them, as many of her homes have them. She cautions that you must make sure the floor is completely dried before putting the mats back in place and that we must follow the instructions on the Gel Pro website, which we do.

As far as functionality, I really like them. Standing in the kitchen is something I do quite a bit, as you can tell from this blog. And they do make it easier on the feet, legs and back. I wear a gym shoe, kitchen clog or sandal for most cooking projects, and they are fine on the mat. They caution about wearing pointy heals as it could make a hole in the mat as they are soft and spongy. I can't imagine anyone cooking in stilettos but if you do, you can't use them on these mats.

After my limited six month experience, I can say that they are very attractive and quite functional. I'm hoping they last a while, because they are quite expensive at just over $300 for the pair. I'll update this entry after having them for about a year to let everyone know how they are holding up.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Strawberries and Cream - An Elegant Adult Dessert

A simple yet impressive summer dessert, these are quick and easy to make. You can just read through the recipe below and then sort of estimate based on your own tastes.

Julian's Strawberries and Cream Cheese
(in one of my deviled egg holders)
My version does include orange liqueur in the recipe (Grand Marnier) which I think adds a nice flavor and makes for a small adult themed dessert. If you want to skip the liqueur you certainly can. Add more or less for your own taste. If you don't use any liqueur you can substitute vanilla extract, which only takes a half teaspoon or so.

8 large fresh strawberries
4 ounces cream cheese
2-4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2-4 tablespoons orange liqueur (Gran Marnier)

Wash and dry the strawberries, leaving the green tops in place. Slice each berry in half. Using a small melon scoop/baller, cut out the white centers and discard.

Mix the cream cheese with a hand mixer or spoon until softened. Mix in the sugar and orange liqueur. Taste and adjust as needed using. Using a piping bag or even just a spoon, fill the centers of each berry. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours and serve.

Center scooped out.

Grilled Thai Pork Medallions with Coconut Rice and Garlic Snow Peas

Add a bit of Asian flavor to your grilling this summer with this super simple recipe. You can actually substitute chicken or shrimp if you prefer. While the rice was cooking in my rice maker, I sauteed the peas and grilled the pork outdoors. A lovely summer dinner.

Julian's Grilled Thai Pork Medallions
with Coconut Rice and Garlic Snow Peas
Below I provide you my recipe for the Thai marinade but you can substitute store-bought sauce. I had a bottle of marinade that we received in a gift basket and it worked very well for me too. I've made it both ways now and no one could really tell the difference.

Marinade Ingredients
1/4 cup cilantro
3 green onions
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (optional)
Juice of 2-3 Limes
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 serrano or jalapeño chili peppers
4 large Cloves Garlic

Marinade Instructions
Blend everything in food processor. Can be used to marinate pork 8 hours or overnight, chicken 4-6 hours, or shrimp 1-2 hours.

Side Dishes: To make the rice, simply substitute the water in your white rice recipe/cooker for coconut water and two tablespoons of coconut milk. For the snow peas (also called pea pods), clean and saute in a little oil with crushed garlic, salt and pepper.

Grilled Thai Pork Medallions

1-2 pork tenderloins
Thai marinade (above or store bought)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Slice the pork tenderloins into medallions about 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick. Combine the sauce and the meat in a large zippered storage bag and put it in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight. Turn the bag over halfway through to ensure an even distribution of the marinade.

Heat the grill to hot. Using the vegetable oil brush on or use a paper towel soaked in the oil and your tongs to oil the grill grates. Place the pork medallions on the hot grill. Cook 2-3 minutes. Turn and cook another minute or two. Serve with the rice and peas.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Caribbean Pie ~ No Baking Necessary!

Cold, refreshing and delicious, this is a tropical fruit pie that takes just 3 minutes to assemble. I serve it at our home in St. Thomas and everyone loves it. The flavors of pineapple and coconut mirror the ingredients of the Pina Colada, so you know everyone will enjoy it.

Julian's Caribbean Pie
If you can get it, use a pre-made shortbread cookie dough crust but if not default to a pre-made graham cracker crust. If you can't get either, a regular pie crust will do.

1 can crushed pineapple in syrup, undrained (20 ounces)
1 large package (6.5 servings) instant vanilla pudding and pie filling
8-ounces sour cream
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweetened flaked coconut
1-2 ounces coconut rum or aged rum (optional)
1 prepared shortbread pie crust (9 inch)
1 can sliced pineapple, drained and halved (8-ounce)

In a large bowl, stir together crushed pineapple with its syrup, dry pudding mix, sour cream, optional rum and all but the 2 tablespoons of coconut. Stir until just combined. Spoon into pie crust and decorate top with pineapple slices and sprinkle with remaining coconut.

Chill at least 2 hours, or until set, before serving.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Fresh Guacamole ~ Easy and Delicious

Some of you may be thinking you don't like avocado... nature's Crisco. But if you haven't had freshly made guacamole you probably don't know what a great, healthy snack this famous dish can be.

Julian's Fresh Guacamole
Avocados were first cultivated in south central Mexico and as far south as Peru. The word guacamole is of Aztec origin and today you can find the dish in many Mexican restaurants. It's even popular to prepare it table side so you can see just how easy and fresh it is.

Guacamole dip is traditionally made by mashing ripe avocados with some sea salt using a mortar and pestle (called a molcajete). Williams-Sonoma carries the authentic version if you'd like to have one.  However, don't let the lack of equipment stop you. A good, ripe avocado mashes easily. I usually use my cocktail muddler for this purpose, but even a sturdy fork will work.

My recipe also includes fresh tomato, red onion, garlic, lemon or lime juice, chili or cayenne pepper, and salt. Beyond that if I have some fresh basil or jalapeño on hand I may toss that in as well. When I don't have fresh tomatoes I substitute a bit of chunky salsa. Really the recipe is not very specific beyond the avocado, so you can make it to your taste.

Selecting Avocados:  If you're going to shop and make the guacamole the same day, you'll need to pick one that is ripe. To do this, select a dark green, almost black one, which is soft when pressed. Most at the store will be green almost the color of grass, and very hard. They ripen pretty quickly sitting on your counter. They hold longer in the refrigerator. If you want to speed the ripening, you can wrap them together in a bag or foil. Sitting on the counter it typically takes about 2 days for my avocados to ripen, but thankfully my grocer always has both ripe and green on hand. Here is a great guide to selecting and using fresh avocados.

Served here with frozen margaritas.
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 avocado, fresh and ripe
1 teaspoon course salt (sea salt)
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
small tomato, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil/cilantro, chopped
1 serrano chili pepper (optional)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh lime/lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lime zest (optional)
chili or cayenne pepper (to taste)
tortilla chips

Run a knife through the avocado until it hits the center stone and then cut all the way around. Twist and pull at the same time and the two sides will come apart leaving the stone in one half. You can hit the stone with a knife and pull it out, or you can run a little knife or spoon under the stone and remove it. Then, using a tablespoon right at the edge of the skin, run it under the flesh and remove it. It should come out nearly all in one piece, although this doesn't really matter.  Mash the avocado with the course salt. You can make it completely smooth, or leave it chunky, depending on your taste. I like it just a little chunky.

Chop the onion, tomato and optional serrano pepper. Mince the garlic. Add the three ingredients to the smashed avocado. Add some fresh lime/lemon juice, lime zest and season with chili or cayenne pepper if you want it spicier. Stir ingredients until just mixed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with tortilla chips for dipping.