Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Salade Niçoise Sandwiches

Although a specialty ingredient is required for this recipe, it's still really fun to make -- if you can get your hands on some olivada, a intense black olive paste made from pitted and brine cured black olives. We could not find this ingredient, and I'm afraid to say that the sandwiches suffered slightly as a result. Instead, we used an olive tapenade made primarily from green olives. I can only imagine how good the sandwiches with the black paste are -- I'm still looking for some good olivada, and I'm sure that Treasure Island, a "European-Style" market we go to often, has it somewhere.
Anyhow, these sandwiches are great to bring for lunch if you have access to a fridge, excellent paired with a bowl of soup for a dinner, and are easy to make in bulk. You just need some time to let them sit in the fridge. The recipe is another one from The Bon Appetit Cookbook (sponsored link) which I truly, truly love. It's a hefty tome, but it's beautiful and bright (I love the orange text and dust jacket, and the white embossed cover is a really nice touch) and it stays quite flat so you don't lose your place. I hold it open with a big binder clip when necessary and that works perfectly.
We made these sandwiches over the weekend while working on our graduate applications. He's done now, but at the time I believe he had two left, and we were working most weekends trying to get everything put together. These were a simple distraction and allowed us to continue our work practically uninterrupted as they sauced around in the fridge until it was eatin' time. We served them with some state fair potato salad (recipe forthcoming) and it was a splendid, fatty meal. Although fish is quite good for you, and we halved the amount of mayonnaise in both recipes, so it wasn't as naughty as it could have (or should have) been.
The recipe is named after a traditional French dish from Nice, Salade Niçoise (pronouced ne-shwa) that consists of tuna, egg, capers, green beans, artichokes, cucumbers -- a slew of things that aren't in these sandwiches. I suppose that's because they're a variation on the dish and wouldn't taste as good in this form, but it's hard to explain why they chose this name in that case. Most likely because it sounds fancy, and this is a fancy sandy. You could even serve it at a dinner party if the theme was right. The original recipe makes six, so something tells me that's exactly what the maker intended. I have cut it in half, to make three sandwiches -- save one for later and split it with a bowl of soup for a tasty lunch or dinner, if you've got a lot of soup. I'll bet this would be fantastic with red lentil soup.

Salade Niçoise Sandwiches
Start with a 1-pound loaf of soft french or italian bread. Cut into three sections crosswise, then cut each piece in half. These will be the bases for your sandwiches. Open the slices so that you are working with six pieces of bread.
Mix 1 drained can of tuna packed in water with 2 tablespoons drained capers, 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise, and 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Season with ground pepper. Make sure the tuna and sauce are combined well.
Spread 1/2 a tablespoon of olivada on each piece of bread and cover each slice with a fair amount of arugula or watercress -- trim off the bitter, hard-to-chew stems as you're washing the leaves.
Spread the bottom slice of bread with approximately 1/3 of the tuna mixture -- there will be no leftovers that aren't in sandwich form -- and top with thin slices of tomato and red onion. Place the top piece of bread on the sandwich.
Wrap each individual sandwich tightly in aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least an hour. They get saucier the longer you can wait, so bear with the clock for as long as you can before digging in. The result? An intensely briny, delectable sandwich with just enough zest and flavor. Plus, it's not very complicated to make, and most of the ingredients are already in my kitchen. You can substitute the olivada with a homemade version by throwing some pitted, brine-cured black olives in a food processor and hitting "puree" until they form a tasty paste.

This post was edited on 2/6/2007 to add a link to the Red Lentil Soup recipe.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

15 Minute Mashed Cauliflower

I have trouble with portion control. I'm often way too hungry to eat the small amount of recommended food, but I don't want to fill up on junk calories -- be it potato chips or an extra slice of chicken breast. That's why I adore vegetables. It's pretty difficult to eat too many veggies, which means that I can fill up my plate with cauliflower, spinach, green beans, peas... the list is endless. And vegetables are tasty, too, and can be very hearty while being simple to prepare.
Take last night, for example. We made some Amy's Chicken Sausages, which aren't entirely healthy on their own due to their high sodium content (although they are made from chicken rather than beef, which makes them better for you than standard sausage) and had some leftover onion soup. One sausage and a half a bowl of soup probably wouldn't fill me up, especially since my lunch usually consists of a pita, two small slices of cheese, a tablespoon of hummus, and a handful of baby carrots. So we boiled some broccoli, serving with 1/2 tablespoon of butter and a healthy sprinkle of black pepper. It was fantastic and provided the perfect accompaniment for the spicy sausage (we had the gouda and apple flavored kind, by the way. The cheese melts in little pockets when you boil rather than grill and oozes out deliciously.) The texture of well-cooked cauliflower or broccoli is really the most important thing, in my opinion, because you're going to be eating it as a side dish anyhow. I never add salt because it just detracts from the healthiness of the dish.
At the grocery store, we tried to buy cauliflower, but it was mostly brown-spotted. You want your cauliflower to be firm and perfectly white. Brown spots indicate that it's going bad, and it doesn't look as nice when it's on your plate if it is spotted. I prefer cauliflower -- I can't really say why, just that I'd rather eat it than broccoli. I think it has something to do with the texture, really, and cauliflower seems to take slightly longer to cook and is less prone to turning mushy.
I love that cauliflower is high in vitamin C -- just one cup provides more than 90% of your daily intake value -- is low in fat, and is in season during the winter, when many vegetables and fruits are not. It keeps for about a week in the fridge after purchasing it, which is an ample amount of time to get around to cooking it as opposed to a lot of other vegetables purchased during the wintertime. Store it stem side down to make sure that the florets don't accumulate moisture and spoil.
I saw this recipe when watching Jacques Pepin: Fast Food My Way (link plays sound effects) a show on our local PBS affiliate. I really enjoy watching this show, because he prepares everything from scratch and does it really fast -- not like Rachel Ray, whose "30-minute meals" would take at least 45 after you prep all the ingredients. He does almost everything right there and doesn't seem to rely on an unseen sous-chef to prepare his ingredients. There's nothing wrong with a sous-chef, but when you're touting "fast food" or "30-minute meals," it's important to deliver a product that actually meets those standards.
This recipe only takes about 15 minutes from start to finish and most of it is hands-off, leaving you free to prepare the main course as the cauliflower boils. We serve this as a side to nearly everything, but I prefer it with fish or poultry. It is so easy to make and it turns out spectacularly well that I don't think you need much vegetable experience to make it successfully. If you're wary about cooking veggies, try a simple recipe (such as this one) and you'll find that the product practically delivers itself, both in taste and simplicity.

15 Minute Mashed Cauliflower
Begin by bringing 1-1/2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. As the water heats up, turn a whole small cauliflower so the stem is facing up and cut through the core to remove the stem and leaves. Separate the cauliflower into bite-sized florets and wash throughly. Drain.
Add the florets to the boiling water and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Do not stir, as stirring breaks up the florets. Drain the water and add 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter and some ground pepper to taste into the pot. Using a knife, chop the florets in a stirring motion to break them apart, chopping into fair-sized chunks.

Can you believe how easy that is to make? I suggest serving it with a dish that has a sauce because it will soak that right up from the plate. You can also serve it as is with some extra ground pepper for spice, or with some chopped chives for added zest. It's a delicious and nutritious side dish for many meals, and it's so very easy to prepare.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée (French Onion Soup)

It must be wintertime, because my dutch oven is getting a lot of use. I love making soup -- it's always been one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen, partially because it's very easy and quite foolproof. Don't have enough potatoes? Only chicken, no beef? It's ok, because a traditional, homestyle soup calls for nothing in particular: just what you have on hand. Another aspect of soup that I adore is that you can use almost dead vegetables, giving you extra mileage in the kitchen for that worn out stalk of celery you didn't get around to using, or those dingy looking carrots that aren't suitable for lunches or general human consumption. No one will know if the carrots started out a little sorry in the end -- they'll be too busy eating!
My parents were kind enough to bestow upon me their original two-volume edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, complete with box, after I mentioned that I had procured only the second volume at a book fair. Now I have two copies of volume two, but they're different editions -- which doesn't mean much. Still, if I ever lose one copy, I guess I have another to complete the set. Good to have, I guess. Anyhow, my father is fond of making the infamous French Onion Soup, found in the first volume, so I'm pretty thrilled that I own a copy of the book now so I can make it. Growing up, we had a very important birthday tradition: anything you want to eat was made to order on your birthday. My two most requested meals? Onion soup with chicken wings was one, and the other was vanilla milkshakes and bacon. I can't imagine eating onion soup and wings now (or vanilla milkshakes with bacon for that matter) -- much too heavy -- but when I was a kid, it was like being in heaven. My two favorite things together on one plate! Oh, the possibilities!
It's been cold here, cold enough to freeze the lake over halfway to Indiana, and one of the best winter meals is a hearty bowl of soup. This onion soup is easy to make, because all you need are onions, broth, butter, and vermouth. And time -- it requires a good amount of stirring and pot-watching, but that makes a fine excuse for staying out of the cold.

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée (French Onion Soup)
Begin by slicing, in thin strips, five cups of yellow onions (five cups is equal to about 1-1/2 pounds, if you buy one of those mesh bags full. We got a 3 pound bag and used half of it, for example.)
Once the onions are sliced, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pan over low heat.
Add the onions and cover, cooking over the low heat for 15 minutes.
Uncover and add 1 teaspoon of salt with 1/4 teaspoon sugar, which helps the onions caramelize and turn a delicious golden brown. Raise the heat to medium and stir frequently, cooking for 30 to 40 minutes more. Do not let the onions burn on the bottom of the pan -- you will probably need to be in the kitchen for this entire amount of time, or nearly all of it. About 20 minutes in, start boiling 2 quarts of beef stock or broth (or brown stock as per Julia Child's recipe, also found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which isn't extremely difficult but requires meat pieces and a fine strainer or cheesecloth. It's not hard, but it's an involved recipe.) Your onions will turn a beautiful golden brown and you'll want to eat them right away. Don't -- the best is yet to come.
Add 3 tablespoons of flour to the onions and stir for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Stir in the boiling stock or broth. Add 1/2 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine (we used vermouth, which is a nice ingredient when cooking because it's not really used in volumes as a drink mixer, leaving the same bottle to hang around for years before it's all killed off in one martini-binging "lets get rid of this old vermouth" afternoon.) Season with salt and pepper to taste (and, at this point if you so desire, my dad's "secret ingredient": Frank's hot sauce, just a few dashes.) Simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 more minutes, stirring and skimming occasionally. You really do want to skim, because a lot of the fat and flour rise to the top and form an unpleasant skin.
While you are waiting for the soup to finish, heat the oven to 325º. Cut a loaf of french bread into 1-inch wide rounds, one slice of bread per customer (or two, if you're serving small bowls.) Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. After baking, brush each side with a bit of olive oil, then put back in the oven to cook for another 15 minutes.
Slice a few pieces of cheese -- the recipe recommends swiss or parmesan, but I'm fond of Gruyère -- and also grate a bit as well.
When the bread and soup are both ready, turn on the broiler to high. Place a slice of bread (which is referred to in the recipe as a "croute") in the bottom of a bowl. Ladle over a healthy portion of onion soup. The croute will float; place a few slices of cheese directly on the croute, being careful not to drop them into the soup.
Arrange the bowls on a baking sheet and put under the broiler for about 3 minutes, watching carefully. You do not want the cheese to burn, nor do you want to serve it without the cheese melting. It's a difficult balance to strike properly, but diligent watching will ensure that nothing goes wrong.
Serve, with a bowl of grated cheese on the side as garnish.
As Miss Child would say: "Bon appétit!"

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Store Review: Sur La Table

Today, it was grey and dreary outside, and we didn't make it past the doorstep until three pm. After lounging around and having a morning equally dismal to the sky (I spent the time working on another grad school application -- 11 down, three to go! -- and he cleaned up a storm. Pretty boring for a Saturday, if you ask me) we decided that it was high time we own a strainer. And a pastry brush. One that wouldn't burn if we got it hot. And a new oven mitt -- ours had a giant hole in it, from a burner/hot pan incident, and he was forever concerned that I was going to burn myself again through the hole, which was highly possible. Also, we were in need of some metal tongs and some cookie cutters, for the scones. We made away with two fancy cutters: a nice flower shape and one in the shape of a dachshund! I couldn't believe how many crazy cookie cutters this place had. Plenty of dinosaurs, but no simple squares (unless you bought a set, which I do not need.) I even saw a squirrel-shaped cookie cutter. I would love to know what kind of a person purchases and uses a squirrel-shaped cookie cutter, but I'm afraid it's someone a lot like me: I considered buying it.
So we went to Sur La Table, a fancy-pants kitchen utensil store within walking distance of our apartment. Of course we didn't walk, being that the windchill put the temperature at below zero, but we took a bus down Michigan that landed us three blocks from the store.
It's a great store to visit, especially if you're into kitchen gadgetry, although the salespeople tended to be a bit on the fake-helpful side. By that I mean they kept asking us if we needed help. Over and over, the same two people -- now, if I didn't need help ten minutes ago, why would I need help now? As we went to check out, they all disappeared, and we stood there, goods in hand, waiting for one of them to stop bugging the other patrons and deal with us, now that we were ready. Slightly annoying, but... that's what shopping is. People falling over themselves to help you until you actually need their help.
I'm throughly satisfied with everything that we bought, although I regret not getting the ice cream scoop we had debated on: it's perfect for portioning out the scones and for making meatballs. A very versatile tool that I'd love to have, unnecessary as it may be. Here's a picture of me using the new strainer to wash some baby carrots. You can see our new silicone oven mitt in the background, mouth open and ready for something hot to grab onto. I have to get used to it, though, as I'm not really comfortable with having my entire arm exposed to the hot oven. However, the larger silicone mitts are pretty awkward, since they're not as pliable as the standard fabric. One other great thing about this mitt? It's dishwasher-safe, which means that after getting melted chocolate all over it after baking scones? I just have to pop it in the dishwasher and it'll be clean as a whistle. Not so with our old, now discarded, fabric/rubber contraption: it was stinky and couldn't be washed, even in the laundry. So long, lame-mitt!

Adding to the list of things I wish I had purchased but didn't, due to my penny-pinching ways:
1. Another oven mitt. One isn't enough for properly grabbing things.
2. A really really nice kitchen knife. I didn't even bother looking, after seeing the price tags on the wall. But a girl can dream, right?
3. The plastic hot dog basket. He wanted one of these, and I should have gotten it for him! But I didn't, for some reason. He's a hot dog fanatic, and it would be really fun to have a bona fide basket for the house.
4. A garlic press. This, though, I can live without, because I love the smell of garlic on my hands. But it's a good thing to have around.
5. A silicone baking mat, or some silicone muffin cups. I'm really into the whole silicone bakeware thing right now, and I really would like a nice mat to use for prep and for baking.
6. A pickle fork, for him. Also doubles as an olive-picker, or so he says.
7. The ice-cream scoop, or possibly a meatball maker scoop (which they also had). Reasons listed above.

All in all, though, it was a highly successful trip to the store. I recommend Sur La Table for their fantastic selection, knowledgeable staff, and their prices -- some of which are high, I admit, but for most stuff it was very reasonable.

Sur La Table
52-54 East Walton Street
Chicago, IL 60611
To find another location, click here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Baked Chicken with Dijon and Breadcrumb Coating (Plus Quick Smashed Potatoes)

My favorite thing about this recipe has to be how easy it is. When we hit that middle of the week rut and we're all out of fresh vegetables and fruit it can get pretty depressing. Often we'll resort to frozen pizza or something equally lame, but if we can handle the kitchen for about fifteen minutes, I'll throw together this quick baked chicken while he makes a delicious side dish (usually mashed potatoes). We usually have all the ingredients for this one on hand, since most of them are stock pantry items, except for the chicken -- he'll stop at the grocery store in his office building on the way home to grab some more veggies and fruit and also snag some chicken on the way out.
You can make this with standard chicken breasts, but I like to cut the breasts into strips for smaller chicken tenders. I like doing this because it helps control portion size, leaving a few for leftover that can serve as sandwich filler for lunch the next day. Another great thing about this recipe is that if you make mashed potatoes for a side, the timing works out remarkably well. If you throw the potatoes on the stove after preparing the chicken (but before putting it in the oven to bake) everything should be ready at once, allowing you to serve a hot meal all together. This is the mark of a truly successful dinner -- getting the timing just right.

Baked Chicken with Dijon and Breadcrumb Coating
Begin by preheating the oven to 400º. Line a baking sheet (or 9x13 inch pan) with foil.
You can use either fresh bread or pre-made breadcrumbs for this recipe, but since I don't own a food processor (have I mentioned this before? A few times, perhaps?) I always use ready-made, which turns out just fine. If you're going to go with fresh, use about 1/2 a loaf of french bread and tear it into pieces. Pulse the pieces in the food processor until they're finely ground.
In a large bowl, stir together 1 cup of breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon of sage (fresh or dried -- I use dried), and salt and pepper to taste. If you're using seasoned breadcrumbs you don't need to add extra salt, but I still grind in some pepper and throw in the sage. Probably unnecessary, but it adds an extra zing to the breaded coating.
In a separate dish, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Mix in 1 1/2 tablespoons of dijon mustard.
I always rinse raw chicken before using it, but that's probably because I'm insane. In any case, pat the chicken dry. For this recipe, I usually use about one pound of chicken, which works out to six tenders or two breasts.
Brush the pieces with the mustard butter, or if you're not too squeamish, coat them using your hands. That's what I do, because I don't own a kitchen brush either! Mine melted in the Great Hot Frying Pan Fire of 2006 (Tip: Don't use a non-silicone brush on a hot frying pan. It will melt. And quite possibly burn.)
Throw the coated chicken pieces into the bowl of breadcrumbs and coat. You'll have some breadcrumbs left over (the original recipe wants you to use two cups, but I almost cried after seeing how much I threw away so I cut it down to one cup, which works just fine).
Arrange the chicken on your foil-lined baking sheet (another reason this recipe is so damn great: virtually no clean-up! no greasy pan to wash = love.) Bake for 25 minutes, until they're slightly browned on top and the chicken is done all the way through.

Quick Smashed Potatoes
If you want to make the mashed potatoes, here's a simplified version of the recipe. He usually makes these, so my portions might be off for the butter and milk -- just add a little at a time until the potatoes are the consistency you want.
Peel 3 medium sized russet potatoes and cut into large chunks.
Place in a pot and cover with cold water. The water should just cover the potatoes.
Place on a hot stove and boil for 20 to 25 minutes. Test to see if they're done with a fork or a knife. If they're easy to poke, they're ready to mash.
Mash, using a whisk or a large fork, or a Kitchen Aid Mixer (I! love! my! Kitchen! Aid! Mixer! -- and I'm not the only one, see? Mine is an extremely old model, though, and from the days when it only came in white. Can I have an orange one next time around, please?), together with approx. 1 tablespoon butter and about 1/3 cup of milk.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Squash Lasagna

Making a whole new dinner with leftovers can be challenging, especially when your goal is to transform the food into something entirely new and different than the original dish. This lasagna uses butternut squash soup in lieu of the more traditional tomato sauce. You're left with a dainty, lighter version of vegetable lasagna that's as spectacular cold as it is hot. We like to make a whole 9x13 pan and bring the leftovers for lunch. You could also make two smaller casserole dishes full and freeze one, then pop it in the oven to bake it whenever you desire.

Squash Lasagna
Start by boiling a large pot of lightly salted water. Add a package of lasagna noodles and cook according to the directions on the package -- about eight to ten minutes should do it. You could use no-boil noodles in this recipe (which we do sometimes) but the boiled noodles aren't terribly hard to work with and they taste slightly better. No-boil noodles tend to be a bit tougher to chew, in my experience.
As your noodles boil, prepare the cheese filling by mixing together: 2 cups of ricotta cheese (1 16-oz. container), 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, 1 egg, 1/4 teaspoon of oregano or basil, and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg.
Drain the noodles and rinse with cold water, which will prevent them from sticking to one another. Allow them to cool slightly.
Put about 1 cup of the butternut squash soup in the bottom of a 9x13 inch pan. Lay noodles, side by side (slightly overlapping, if you're using no-boil) on top of the saucy soup.
Layer with about 2/3 a cup of the cheese mixture. Pour another 1 cup of the soup on top of the cheese, then layer with more noodles.
Repeat the layering process until the dish is complete. It should be about three layers, total. The top layer will be the soup, then sprinkle some extra mozzarella and parmesan cheese for the topping.
Cover the dish with foil and place in a 375º oven for 25 minutes.
Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes, until it is bubbling and lightly browned on top.
Another way to transform this dish (and make more manageable portions) would be to make stuffed shells or lasagna rolls. Simply boil the shells or lasagna noodles and spoon the cheese into each shell (or put about a tablespoon of cheese onto each lasagna noodle, then roll into a cannoli shape). Put 1 cup of the butternut squash soup in the bottom of a 9x13 pan, then arrange the shells or rolled up noodles. Cover with 1 1/2 cups of soup and bake at 350º for about 45 minutes (cover with foil and remove halfway through, as with the recipe above) until it bubbles and becomes golden.
Time to eat! I love this recipe, mostly because it allows you to create a brand new dish made from easy to store leftovers. The soup becomes more solidified and easier to manage as a sauce after it's been refrigerated for about a day, which makes this an ideal planned-leftover situation.
As I mentioned, this is also really great cold. It becomes more solid, and unlike a red-sauce lasagna, it isn't too gooey, which means you can eat it with your hands like a sandwich. Perfect for lunch or a quick snack. And it's relatively healthy, especially if you take a piece that has a little less cheese!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Butternut Squash Soup

This is a recipe that we came up with after using cannellini beans for the first time, in a hummus-like dip that is just fantastic (recipe located here). These beans are extremely creamy and we thought it would be an excellent addition to the squash soup I made all last winter. This recipe is great because the carrots and squash make it a very vibrant orange, and the whiteness of the beans only enhances the color.
I usually make an extra-large batch and freeze at least half of it. I serve about a quarter of the remainder (saving any leftovers for the next day) and reserve the rest for a tasty squash lasagna -- the recipe for that will be up tomorrow, so make the soup now and be ready to use the leftovers! I used this same recipe for Thanksgiving and it was a huge hit. Even my youngest cousin, who refuses all vegetables (he says they're "grody") ate his entire portion. And then he asked for more. Sorry, cuz, it's all gone already!

Butternut Squash Soup
This recipe makes enough soup for leftovers and a lasagna, so if you want less, cut all the amounts by half for a more manageable sized soup.
Peel, seed, and cube two large butternut squashes. I recommend you do this first because it's quite an involved task and takes some time. You can also buy pre-cut squash in many grocery stores. I've made it both ways and I must admit that the pre-cut, although more expensive, makes your job a lot easier and takes about an hour off of the total cooking time.
(Equipment Aside: I had a really crummy vegetable peeler for the longest time, but one day by boyfriend surprised me with a brand new "Y" peeler, made by Oxo Good Grips. It was later revealed on America's Test Kitchen that this is the peeler to own. For only five dollars, I'm not struggling with difficult-to-peel vegetables like squash anymore, and I run a zero percent chance of slicing off the tip of my finger with this puppy. It just plain rocks.)
Anyhow, after your squash is ready to go, begin by mincing 1 large white onion and 2 cloves of garlic. Cook the onion on a low heat in the biggest soup pot you own with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil until it is nearly translucent, then add the garlic. Garlic, by the way, cooks much faster than onions do, and you don't want it to burn. Burned garlic does not taste very good. Add a few dashes of the following to the pan: pepper, salt, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon. Cooking the spices at this stage helps them bloom, leaving a less harsh spice-like flavor to your soup.
Chop and add 4 to 6 stalks of celery and 4 to 6 large carrots to the soup. A rough chop will do, since the soup will ultimately be blended using a processor (if you have one -- did I mention that I don't?) or a blender if necessary. Add the squash and cook over the heat for just a few minutes until the spices are evenly blended onto the vegetables.
Make a "hot spot" in your pan by pushing the squash and other veggies out of the way as much as possible and pour 4 cans of well-rinsed cannellini beans onto the hot spot. Stir them to incorporate into the vegetables.
Add 2 32-ounce cans of chicken broth (I prefer low sodium and low fat, because it really doesn't make a difference when it's made into soup anyhow) to the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the squash is soft and breaks apart when you press it gently with a spoon.
Turn off the heat and let the soup cool a bit, then transfer it into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. You may have to do this part in stages, depending on the size of your blender. Transfer it back into the soup pot and bring to a low boil. It's ready to serve! You can garnish it with some sour cream if you'd like, but I never do that. Ever. Just eat it alone, because it's marvelous and can really stand up for itself without add-ons.
Another way to make this soup is to substitute the butter and oil with bacon fat. You can chop the bacon -- quite finely -- and then throw it in the food processor or blender when you puree the soup. This adds more depth and flavor to the soup, but also more fat.
Tomorrow, I'll tell you how to make a delicious and vegetarian-friendly (if you don't make the soup with bacon, that is) lasagna from the leftovers. It's really easy, fun, and is pretty healthy for a lasagna.

This post was edited on 2/2/2007 to add a link to the White Bean Dip recipe.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Candied Sweet Potatoes

We had a long day yesterday, and after stopping at two stores on the way home, we were exhausted and just didn't want to prepare a complicated meal. Good thing we had some sweet potatoes kicking around waiting to be eaten. I adore sweet potatoes: it's something we never had in my house growing up, and I love baking them in the oven (400º for about an hour) right in their jackets, then popping them open for an easy and healthy side dish. You don't even need to top them with butter; their sweetness alone makes them rich and creamy enough for automatic consumption.
We were to hungry to wait for an hour, and these were gigantic potatoes, which means that baking them, naturally, would take even longer than that. So we scrounged around for a good, easy recipe -- a quick scrounge, I might add, since we were practically starving at this point -- and found one in our good old standby, the American Heritage Cookbook (last mentioned here, in the post about Macaroni Pudding, or Mac'n'Cheese.) Out popped a recipe for Candied Sweet Potatoes, which was ridiculously simple to prepare and really good to eat. Comfort food, I like to call it.
I ate it plain, with nothing on the side, since I was too lazy to make anything else. The three potatoes made a huge batch (a full 9x13 inch pans worth, to be exact) and there are plenty of leftovers. I think he supplemented his with meatballs, which we made last Friday (recipe forthcoming.) Just potatoes is not enough for a growing man. We made a half-batch, considering that we only had half the amount of potatoes the recipe called for, but like I said -- plenty of food to go around. I can imagine this dish on Thanksgiving tables around America, as it would be a fantastic accompaniment to turkey or chicken.

Candied Sweet Potatoes
We began by heating the oven to 400º. The recipe wanted it to be at 350º for over an hour, but like I said -- we were too hungry to wait that long. And they're potatoes, not a tough cut of meat or some kind of dainty vegetable, so they can stand the heat and resulting slower cook time.
I peeled 3 good-sized sweet potatoes and began slicing them into rounds, which were too large for a normal person's mouth, so I halved the rounds and was left with nice moon-shaped pieces.
As I continued chopping, he took over the stove-top, melting together 2 tablespoons of butter, 1/2 cup light brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of water over medium heat until the sugar dissolved and the butter was completely melted. He then added some salt and pepper, to taste. This turns into a delicious sauce, a light brown and slightly watery topping for the potatoes.
We arranged (not too carefully; a more accurate term would be "we threw") the potatoes in a 9x13 inch Pyrex pan and poured the sauce over them. Into the hot oven it went (top rack, back half, which is the hottest part of our oven) for about 30 minutes, then we took them out and stirred it up with a spatula. The recipe says to "baste once or twice," but I don't own a baster, and I don't think that would have dramatically different results than the simple stir did.
Back into the oven they went, for about 10 more minutes and another stir. They still weren't done (as we had feared) so we ate some leftover guacamole and waited another 10 minutes for them to finish baking.
These were just splendidly delicious. I think that they could use slightly more sauce, or perhaps the sauce needed some more spice (I'm thinking allspice would be perfect, which I use on sweet potatoes frequently) but they were light, refreshing, and a wonderful full meal for me. I think they would be an excellent side dish for poultry or a heavier fish, but they really were splendid on their own.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Easy Guacamole

This is a recipe that I made up. It's probably not real guacamole, and it's not very spicy, but it really hits the spot on a cold day. Especially when there's a game on.
I must note that I'm not a big sports person -- I didn't play them as a child, went to a college that didn't have a football team, and would be hard-pressed to name a positive experience relating to phys-ed in high school. Still, though, living in Chicago has sparked an interest in both football and baseball in me, an interest that is superficial at best. I trace it to the food. Hot dogs, chicken wings, nachos -- naughty, naughty food that's not even prepared well. And yet... it tastes so great. Hooray for processed cheese!
Anyhow, my artificial interest in the Chicago Bears somehow paid off, since we're going to the Superbowl this year. Superbowls were always a big thing when I was growing up: we didn't have a television set in our house, but there was one that went unplugged in the basement for the majority of the year. Superbowl Sunday, though, that TV came out, along with a red-checkered picnic blanket, and we would pig out on wings and nachos on the floor for hours. What fond memories I have of that, even though our team at the time (The Buffalo Bills) never won a Superbowl. At least we made it three times, right?
Anyhow, yesterday we made some guacamole, which is a deviation from our usual Sunday game tradition, which involves copious amounts of chicken wings and celery. I was all winged out from last week, though, as was he, and we decided that a guacamole detour was just what the doctor ordered.
We served it with some local tortilla chips, which are really great because they make a no salt version. If I'm dipping, I don't need salt on my chips.

Easy Guacamole!
I start with the fillers in this recipe, because the avocados tend to brown when they're out in the open for too long without their skins. Dice 4 good-sized vine tomatoes, 1 small onion, and 1 small clove of garlic.
Add 5 peeled and pitted avocados.
Mash with a fork until the avocados are fairly smushed. A few chunks are OK, though, since they add a nice texture to the dip.
Add about 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro. Grind in some pepper, a few dashes of salt, and a healthy dose of cayenne pepper to taste.
Put the avocado pits back in the guacamole and cover with lime juice (about 1/2 a lime should do -- save the other half for the leftovers). The lime juice goes a long way in preventing browning.
Cover the bowl with some saran wrap or tinfoil (if you're out of saran wrap, as we were -- whoops!) and let the dip sit in the fridge for at least an hour.
Serve with tortilla chips after stirring to incorporate the lime juice (and removing the pits from the dip). You may want to save the pits, though, to put back in any leftovers you may have. Along with the lime juice, the pits will keep the guacamole from becoming brown. It's OK to eat brown avocados, but it's just not as pleasant to look at.
We had so much left over that we used it as a topping for hamburgers. That was also delicious.
Sometime later this week (in preparation for the Superbowl!) I'll give my patented wings recipe, which has fans all over the globe panting for more. It really is that good.

This post was edited on 2/1/07 to add a link to the Authentic Chicken Wings recipe.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

German Pancake with Lemon and Sugar

Oh, Saturday morning. I love you almost as much as Sunday, which is only better because we get two newspapers on Sunday, and they're both really chunky. Saturday, we only get two sections; Sunday, there are at least twenty different sections of paper to mull over. It could take an entire day to read the Sunday paper. Glorious.
We made Saturday a wonderful day anyhow, sans buckets of newspaper on the floor. We started the day off right with some coffee and a German Pancake. This pancake is phenomenal. It makes a delightfully light and refreshing breakfast, especially with the addition of lemon juice. I tend to drench mine in powdered sugar, which makes it even tastier, but that's really a matter of personal preference. The recipe is so easy to make that you can do it with your eyes closed, which is an important feature since I know I'm not awake until I've had a few cups of coffee, and by that time I'm starving.

German Pancake with Lemon and Sugar
Start by putting 1 tablespoon of butter in a 9-inch pie pan. Begin preheating the oven (to 425º) with the pan inside. The butter will melt as the oven preheats. This part is extremely important because it allows the sides of the pancake to rise as it bakes without the use of a traditional leavening agent, such as baking soda or baking powder.
As your oven is heating, beat together with a wire whisk the following ingredients: 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, and 2 eggs. Add a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of salt to the mixture.
When the oven is ready, take out the pan and pour in the mixture. It will start sizzling and you might worry that the bottom will burn too much. Don't fret, it won't burn at all.
Back in the center of the oven for 12-15 minutes.
To serve, sprinkle with lemon juice (fresh, if possible) and powdered sugar.
After the pancake (and several cups of coffee) we went ice skating. The rink is practically in our backyard, and the ice had just been Zambonied. It was entirely empty when we began, which allowed me to get hold of my "ice legs" before the crowd arrived. No showing off for me, though, since I can barely keep both feet on the ground without tipping over. I didn't fall once, however -- a feat of epic proportions! Especially since a grown man, children in tow, fell and broke his glasses. His kids thought it was hilarious, he just kept muttering about how he never takes risks and shouldn't have been so careless. He had been skating at the pace of a snail, so I'm not sure what the risk was. Going on the ice in the first place, perhaps? That made me pretty sad, but there wasn't much I could do. So, I skated on.

Friday, January 19, 2007

New Scandinavian Cooking: Halibut with Herbs and Rosemary-Lemon Butter

Today, I'm featuring a delightful cooking show that airs on our local PBS station*: New Scandinavian Cooking. The show is produced in Norway and about to begin its fourth season, and rumors are that a new chef will be taking the hot seat: Claus Meyer, a Danish chef -- or gastronomic entrepreneur, as his website boasts. Although his website seems pretty firm on the details, providing stills and even a CV, the official website of the series ( says that Andreas Viestad, the beloved season one and two chef, will be back for a fourth season.
I'm inclined to believe Chef Meyer's website, mostly because the Scandcook website is kind of crazy. For example: click on the link to read Andreas's bio and you're taken to Tina Nordström's bio page. She's the host of the third season, and I dare say I like her even more than Andreas. I caught the show with her as the host, and when I stumbled upon a repeat of season two, I got pretty flustered. "Where's Tina? Her theme song is so much better!" (the theme songs for this show totally freaking rock, by the way). But I got used to Andreas and his wacky ways, and now I'm sad that neither of them will be back for a new season. But I'm excited for Danish food, which will be a new type of cooking for the series. Andreas specializes in Norwegian food; Tina, in Swedish.
The best thing about this show has to be the way that the food is made. Unless there are some serious weather conditions -- and I mean serious -- the food is prepared outdoors on a sort of fold out kitchen table/stove combination. You even get to watch the chef put together this contraption in fast motion, which is a trip. Watching it real-time would be a drag, but with the cool music and tah-dah pose at the end of the setup, it's one of the highlights of the show. When I mentioned weather conditions, I was understating dramatically. This guy makes ice cream on a glacier in one episode. He's not even wearing gloves, people. He churns his own butter, milks cows, rides horses, stays up all night and day making bread. Tina catches fish and guts them right on the boat (throwing the remains out to "his old friends -- a tasty treat!")

Halibut with Herbs and Rosemary-Lemon Butter
One of my favorite episodes of all time is Andreas's Royal White Halibut, which happens to be the first episode of the first season. They really knew how to launch this show, I tell you, because this episode has to be one of the more sensational ones (besides the glacier making ice cream escapade, which takes place later in the same season). One of the best things about the show in general is that they visit a particular area, cook some food local to that area, and offer up some interesting (I believe they call it "rich") history of the place. This episode is in Alta, which is far, far north. It's impossible to grow nearly anything in this climate, what with the rocky soil and the freezing temperatures, but the halibut is plentiful. We visit some local fishermen, who offer to let us trek onto their boat for an expedition out to sea. The theory is to catch some halibut and then cook it after returning to land; Andreas one-ups them by making them an appetizer on the boat, ten minutes after the fish has been caught. Wow, dude. Way to feed those hungry sailors! (Tina is fond of finding "hungry sailors" and feeding them her creations, by the way, and she says so in several episodes).
They soon return to land, 20-pound halibut in tow. He starts by cleaning the fish (thanks for the instructions, because next time I have a 20-pound fresh halibut in my kitchen, I'll know exactly what to do) and rubbing the skin on both sides with sea salt. He then sets to rubbing it with massive quantities of rosemary, chopped parsley, thyme, chopped fresh bay leaves (although he mentions that dry will suffice), and marigold.
Andreas sets to digging a pit in the sand on the beach; I'm sitting on my couch thinking: the hell? What's going on here? He's going to cook the fish in the hole. Sand and all. He starts by laying down some seaweed, then, some sticks and brush. He lights those on fire and covers them with a few large slabs of rock. More seaweed; then, the fish. A fish and seaweed sandwich, with rocks and sand for garnish! Tasty!
No, really, he's actually cooking the fish in the sand-pit. I'm quite impressed. Also worried about the texture of the sand, but he seems to think it will be fine. He begins to stuff the fish with more ridiculous amounts of the herbs above, and sets it on the seaweed bed. More seaweed on top; then, after it's covered, he pours a bottle of dry white wine (saving a glass for himself, which he drinks straight from the bottle immediately) over the entire thing. Then, a layer of sand is shoveled on top of the whole mess. Steam is pouring out from all directions. How will he know when the fish is ready to eat? Why, of course! A high-tech thermometer was placed carefully in said fish before cooking and the digital output rests on the mound of steaming sand. Brilliant! That's how they did it in the old days.
Two hours later, and the fish is ready to eat. Andreas and some of his fishing buddies dig their old friend out from his steaming grave and place him on a giant platter. It takes two men to carry it to the carving table and feeds a large crowd of twenty or so people mingling about. I wonder, did they see the steaming sand pit and say: look! Someone must be cooking halibut! More likely they were invited to the shoot, but still, it's funny to imagine them all happening upon the fish during a chilly stroll on the beach.

Want to make this at home? Substitute the 20-pound halibut for four 1/3 pound halibut steaks. Rub them with about 2 teaspoons sea salt, then create a bed of herbs in the frying pan out of 1 cup of parsley, 1 cup total rosemary, marigold, thyme, and 4 bay leaves. Use about half of the total amount on the bottom, the rest should cover the fish as it cooks.
Place the fish on the bed of herbs and cover with the remaining spices. Pour about 3/4 cup dry white wine ("Use wine that you would actually drink," Andreas recommends; otherwise, your fish won't taste any good) over the top and cover the dish. Bake in a 400º oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the fish is opaque throughout. We just made it directly on the stove, which turned out splendidly and took less time than baking. Brush off the herbs to serve.
You can make a rosemary butter sauce to serve with the fish, which I highly recommend. Reserve and cook down the liquid from the finished fish, until you have about 1/4 cup of the juices left. Put this to the side.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter ("until it bubbles enthusiastically"). Add 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary, 1 teaspoon chopped thyme, and 1 bay leaf. Cook for about two minutes, then add 7 more tablespoons of butter. After it melts, drop in 1 teaspoon chopped tarragon, 2 teaspoons chopped parsley, and 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest. Cook for about five more minutes over medium heat. Be careful not to let the sauce boil; otherwise, the butter will burn. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice, the 1/4 cup reduced marinade from the fish, and season with salt and pepper. Strain sauce and discard any chunks of herb that remain.
Pour the sauce over the halibut (tip: keep the fish warm by covering it while you make the sauce) and it is ready to eat.
Jättegott! (Delicious!)
If you ever get the chance to watch this show, I highly recommend it. It's really a treat to watch experienced chefs brave the outdoors and conquer food in its natural setting. It is much more informative, exciting, and delightful than anything you'll find on the Food Network Channel. Not to knock the Food Network, which has its place, but this program far surpasses most other cooking shows on-air today.

*The website says that the show is available to 347 public television stations in the US. It's also available on cable television (no stations listed) and DVDs can be purchased on the official website.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Early Morning Breakfast: Chocolate-Chip Orange Scones

I am not a morning person, but my job requires that I haul myself out of bed at the ungodly and depressingly dark hour of five thirty in order to shower and clothe myself properly before heading out into the wintry mix that is Chicagoland. I walk to work, by the lake and over the river, which may sound like a wonderful treat to those who do not live in Chicago. In 8º, 10º, or 0º temperatures -- colder by the lake, of course, and that doesn't even take the wind chill into account -- that mile-long walk is just a disaster. Maybe I'm not wearing the right gloves or something, but my hands are usually blue when I finally get to my building. I'm responsible for "processing" the morning newspapers, which essentially means that I get to carry them upstairs (thanks, guys, for putting them in the biggest puddle you could find. That is so cool of you!) and place them on sticks. Out to the floor they go, where no one ever reads them. Because they are on sticks, and newspapers on sticks are a hassle to read. Next time you're at a library that has newspapers done this way, read them, or at least shuffle them around a little bit, out of pity for the poor person that meticulously tapes down the loose pages and covers herself in newsprint before seven am.
I am fortunate enough (and oh so grateful) to have a boyfriend that will wake up with me, even though he doesn't have to be at work until eight am. Eight in the morning! Lucky dog. He prepares my tea while I blow-dry my hair (otherwise it freezes, and I'm afraid of getting frostbite on my head) and puts out a small breakfast for us. If we're lucky, the paper arrives ten minutes before I have to leave, and we get some quality time reading an article or two (often out loud, if it's me doing the reading, since I always think the news is outrageous: "Get THIS! Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz (FL; D) buys her Valentino on Ebay!) before I have to dash.
This past weekend, we made some scones for breakfast. We'd been purchasing scones at our local (and new) Trader Joe's, and while they were tasty, there were only three per bag. That's not enough for a week! After seeing this recipe (again, from Bon Appetit Cookbook) we decided, late Sunday night, that this was the perfect breakfast for the week. Especially since we didn't have any other breakfast lined up for the next morning.
These are delicious, and they have kept extremely well. I don't know if it's just me, but I like to keep my bread and bread-based products in the refrigerator. I think it makes them last longer, which may or may not be true. This recipe made 22 small scones, and I'd like to make them bigger next time around. Not owning cookie cutters, we used a shot glass to cut the dough, but I think maybe a small wineglass would make a better sized scone. I think you could even just make rounds with your hands, but what do I know? The recipe calls for a cookie cutter, so... shot glass it was!

Chocolate-Chip Orange Scones
Get the boring stuff out of the way first: preheat the oven to 400º and butter and flour a baking sheet.
I'm big on "prepping," that is, getting my ingredients ready to go and making as many containers as I possibly can dirty by putting the readied ingredients into them before they go into the recipe. Nonsensical, but it makes me feel more organized. So, I'd get the zesting out of the way first. Zest an orange, thoroughly, so you have about 3 teaspoons of orange zest. Also, chop your chocolate. We had, on hand, some gigantic milk chocolate chips made by Ghirardelli. They came in a gift basket (from his father: thank you!) in a big blue tin, and they're very tasty. I think you can use any type of chocolate you like, but the recipe says semi-sweet. We chopped up the chips, since they really are gigantic, and ended up with about 1 cup of chopped chocolate. I do have to say, I'm a big fan of using a knife to chop up chocolate, rather than just purchasing chips. You end up with a lot of different sized pieces this way (especially if you do a rough chop) and that's just more pleasant in a cookie, scone, or other baked chocolate-chip good, in my opinion.
Whisk together 2 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 3/4 teaspoon salt until they are combined. Add 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick) which should be chopped up into manageable pieces and 2 teaspoons orange peel; rub into the flour mixture until it looks like a coarse meal. I have to stop for a moment to profess my love for my KitchenAid Stand Mixer, which was a gift from my great-aunt to my mother, who passed it on to me. I use it all the time, for everything from meatloaf to cookies, and it's one of my favorite kitchen tools of all time. Nevermind that I don't own a strainer, food processor, double-boiler, vegetable steamer, or a medium-sized pot: I have a KitchenAid! It can steam vegetables, right? Plus, it's gorgeous. I can't wait until I have to move into an apartment with a tiny kitchen and eschew a microwave so that the mixer can have a proper place of honor on the counter.
Back to the recipe. Now, mix in the chocolate. Yum.
In a separate container, combine 2/3 a cup of chilled buttermilk, 1 large egg yolk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Add the liquid to the flour/butter mixture, and stir with a fork (or with your KitchenAid Mixer!) until it forms into clumps. Gather into a ball, then press out onto a lightly floured surface to about a 3/4 inch thickness. Of course, I used every last teaspoon of flour I had on the pan and in the dough, so I just used some parchment paper, and it didn't stick at all. Fabulous.
Using a 2-inch cookie cutter (the recipe says "heart-shaped," but I think they should be "crazy-shaped," or "circular," or "shot-glass shaped," which is just circular, I guess) cut out the scones, then roll up the dough and cut more scones. Repeat until the dough is gone.
Lay them out on your lightly buttered and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. You can stop now and put them in the fridge, then pop them in the oven in the morning for fresh-baked scones, but I don't have time for that. It is a really good idea, though.
Mix 3 tablespoons of sugar with the remaining 1 teaspoon of orange zest. Brush scones lightly with buttermilk and top with the sugar/orange mixture. Don't skip this step, because it makes the scones really fabulous. Bake until the scones are lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. It should be about 15 minutes, 20 if they're coming from the fridge.
Eat them, commenting frequently on how light and refreshing they are. Must be the orange zest. These scones are delicious with tea, probably very good with coffee, and are an excellent thing to bring as a dessert for after lunch.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Layered Macaroni and Cheese (Macaroni Pudding)

Made the macaroni and cheese last night, which was quite a success. I especially enjoyed making the bechamel sauce, which is known as a "mother sauce" of French cuisine. Now that's a great phrase: Mother Sauce. This macaroni and cheese, then, was the mother of all mac n cheese dishes. And boy did it taste like it.
This recipe is from 1802 (I added a year when mentioning it yesterday, making it one year younger than it actually is) and comes from the American Heritage Cookbook And Illustrated History Of American Eating & Drinking (left). We purchased this for two dollars at a local book fair along with about ten other cookbooks. One of these cookbooks, The Congressional Club Cookbook, seemed like it would be a perfect source for classic macaroni and cheese. The recipes in this book are all gleaned from the kitchens of congressional wives and makes an interesting history of dining as a senator, congressman, or president. My favorite section in the book is the "Men's Only" chapter, designed specifically for that rare senator that can cook. Lots of game, liquor-based substances, and generally gross stuff in that chapter. Strangely enough, the only recipe that slightly resembled what we were hoping to eat had ground beef in it. No. Thanks. Next! American Heritage Cookbook to the rescue.
The book, as many cookbooks do, tried to delight the reader with an anecdote regarding macaroni and cheese, but the story falls flat, at least for the modern reader, mostly because it's just plain weird. It concerns a dinner with Thomas Jefferson in which the lead character confuses the macaroni for onions and the cheese for liquor. It could be amusing, I guess, were it 1802.
I used skim milk; which, coupled with the butter, made a slightly less-fatty sauce than originally intended by the recipe. I didn't find the dish too healthy, though, as it was laden with more than three cups (by all estimates) of two types of cheddar cheese, some parmesan cheese layers, and the slightly-less-sinful-than-usual bechamel. Health concerns aside, it was delicious, which is all you can really ask for in a macaroni and cheese. The top was perfectly crusty and crisp, the bottom of the casserole dish had just enough macaroni stuck to it, forcing the eater to work a little harder for a slice, and the layers melted into one another perfectly.
Again, we ate our fill for dinner (with his sister, which was a nice treat) and had more than half left over. We had so much, in fact, that two separate dishes were made. We're saving one for later in the week -- I'm debating whether or not to freeze it, since I'm not sure if it will do well in the freezer. Will that make it taste all strange when it's finally re-baked? Nobody knows.

Macaroni Pudding (aka Delightfully Plain and Simple Mac N-Cheese)
Begin by boiling a large pot of lightly salted water. While it is working itself into a boil, begin grating your cheese. The recipe calls for two cups, but that's just not enough. Try for three; four, if you're the adventurous type.
We used 1 1/2 cups of light sharp cheddar and 1 1/2 cups of dark, milder cheddar. We also purchased some pre-ground parmesan cheese -- again, not in the recipe, but an essential cheese in my opinion.
When the water is boiling, throw in two and a half to three cups of dried macaroni. It should only take about seven minutes to cook. Stir often to prevent stickiness and be sure to test well before the seven minute mark. You'll want pasta that's just firm to the bite, cooked al dente.
When the macaroni is finished cooking, drain quickly and begin rinsing in cold water. Be sure to move the noodles around as you rinse to prevent them from sticking to one another. I did this by setting them in our salad spinner and immersing the whole thing with cold water, stirring as I filled the spinner. This was a nice way to do it because the bowl underneath the grates held the cold water, allowing it to really get around the noodles as I stirred. I drained the spinner and left the noodles to dry.
Meanwhile, I got started on the bechamel. This is the fun part. Melt, over medium heat, a quarter cup of butter (half a stick). Don't melt it too fast -- the butter must not burn. After it is melted, add 1/4 cup of flour and begin whisking. Whisk together until the butter and flour are completely combined. I actually sifted the flour right into the butter in order to make it as smooth as possible, but that's probably an unnecessary step. I just wanted to try out our new flour mill.
Next, begin adding the milk. Like I said, we used skim milk, mostly because that's what we keep around the house. It worked very well, but I imagine that Careme is spinning in his grave. You need to add it quite slowly and whisk constantly, using 2 1/4 cups of milk in all. Add slowly; whisk constantly: this is the mantra of the mother sauce.
Your sauce will begin to thicken up as you continue to whisk. Watch carefully for small bubbles to appear on the top of the sauce, which indicates that it is beginning to thicken, and be sure that the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pan. You'll need the heat at a relatively low medium temperature throughout the process. If the sauce appears too watery, just keep whisking and turn the heat up slightly. Too high, though, and it will burn. I wish, now, that we had added some red pepper flakes to the sauce itself, just because how tasty would that be? Very.
After the sauce is done, turn the heat very low and begin assembling the dish in layers. One layer of macaroni, one of cheese, one of macaroni, one of cheese, and so on, until your casserole dish is full. You may need to take breaks in order to stir the sauce as you layer, because it will begin to get hard if it is not in motion.
Next, pour the sauce over the layered macaroni and cheese. Pour slowly so that the dish does not overflow. Top with more cheese (more cheese? how is that possible?!) and pop in a 400º oven for 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and bubbly.
Then, we eat. Yum.
We served this dish with lightly buttered green beans which were blanched in boiling water for about nine minutes, then dried in a hot frying pan. We added about a tablespoon of butter to the pan after the beans were dry, stirred it around with the beans, and added some pepper.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Spicy" "Orecchiette" aka Not-So-Spicy-But-Still-Awesome Farfalle

I've gotten into cooking a bit more lately, mostly because I have this divine new recipe source: the Bon Appetit Cookbook. It was a gift and came with a free year long subscription to the magazine, but we already have a subscription -- mysteriously, since no one will own up to purchasing it for us. It could easily be a "free offer" of some kind, but it's been delivered every month now like clockwork -- seems like a paid gift to me. Shouldn't they include a little note with that type of thing?

Yesterday, I made a "spicy" "orecchiette" with tomatoes, cannellini beans, and broccoli. It didn't turn out very spicy, and I couldn't find any orecchiette at either grocery store I went to, so I used farfalle instead. It was wonderful, and there was enough left over for lunch today for the both of us. I'm pleased to admit that he drank the small bit of remaining sauce straight from the container after the pasta itself had been consumed -- a good sign that it was a hit.

Not-So-Spicy-But-Still-Awesome Farfalle
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy saucepan.
Add 1 cup diced onion
until onion is clear and soft over medium heat, about five minutes.
2 cloves minced garlic and 1 teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes.
Saute for another minute or so, until the pepper has infused the olive oil a bit.
Now, add 28 oz. of diced tomatoes -- the recipe says canned, but I did half and half (out of necessity, I admit, but it did taste great) and 1/4 cup of water.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cook until sauce thickens, about ten minutes.
Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water for your pasta. When the water is boiling, throw in about two cups of dried pasta, preferably orecchiette. I used farfalle (also known as "little bow ties," at least when I was young) as I mentioned above. You should begin cooking the pasta when there are about seven minutes remaining on your sauce.
Cook pasta until it is almost al dente, but not quite, stirring occasionally so it doesn't stick. It should be quite firm to the bite. When you think there are about four minutes left for your pasta, add a few cups of uncooked broccoli florets. Tip: chop them up so that they are relatively bite sized; otherwise, they won't mesh well in the dish.
There should be about three minutes left on your clock now, so start corralling the diners while you add one 14 oz. can of rinsed cannellini beans and about 1/2 a cup of chopped fresh basil. Bring the heat on the sauce down to low.
Your pasta should be ready. Take about 1/2 a cup of the cooking liquid (which should be a nice green color) and stir it into the sauce. Drain the pasta and broccoli.
Add the pasta/broccoli combination to the saucepan and stir to coat.
Top with Parmesan cheese. I also recommend putting the dried pepper flakes on the table for extra topping, in case anyone dares to go spicier (which you should, in my opinion, but I like my spice).
Yell at everyone again to get to the table; dinner's ready.
You have yourself a meal. Serves two extremely hungry individuals for both dinner and lunch the next day (cold, which was just as delicious as it was hot). It would also serve four normal, non-ravenous individuals, with some left over.

I loved both making and eating this dish, mostly for it's high vegetable content. Coupled with the barely-there amount of fat, I feel really great about this pasta. I'm also slightly insane about my pasta sauce -- jarred just won't cut it, ever, and this sauce was so quick and easy that it wasn't a gigantic burden to make. Someday I'll share my recipe for authentic tomato sauce (but, like all good chefs, I promise to leave out a key ingredient so that the exact sauce cannot be properly reproduced anywhere but in my own kitchen) but I won't be making it for awhile, since tomatoes aren't in season right now and they're ridiculously expensive at the supermarket. I like to buy heirloom tomatoes during the summer straight from the farmer's market -- you can't beat the price, and they look and taste radically different than the ordinary supermarket tomato. Sorry, supermarket tomatoes, you're nice and all, but I find you... dull.

On that note, I'm off to fantasize about dinner tonight: homestyle macaroni and cheese from the American Heritage cookbook. This recipe dates back to 1803, so it must be good.

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