Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Blonde Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

I've been fantasizing about these this squeeky-looking tart from Orangette -- can't you just feel your teeth biting down on that beauty? The texture just looks amazing -- dry, spongy, with some resistance in the mouth... and without consulting my brain, I ran home to make it after work yesterday. Unfortunate news: there's a severe chocolate drought in my apartment. Sure, we have a package of frozen thin mints, and the requisite container of Ghirardelli's hot chocolate mix, but that's about it. Certainly no chocolate bars, dutch cocoa powder, or chocolate wafers -- all key ingredients in this delicious tart. So I had to revise. Dramatically.
I couldn't have picked a more drastically different dessert to bake: oatmeal raisin cookies. It's a standard recipe -- you can find it on the underside of any container-top for Quaker Quick Oats. They call it a "vanishing" cookie, and I see why: they're perfectly bite-sized rounds, have a roughly pleasing texture, and can be eaten straight from the oven. Next-day, they're still soft in the center and not a bit crumbly. In fact, I just ate one right now, in two quick bites. They've got a slightly smoky flavor, which comes from the cinnamon and large amount of brown sugar. I could eat these for every meal, especially breakfast. They're perfect with a cup of coffee or hot tea. And they take no time: in less than a half hour after my flash of cookie-baking genius, I was eating them. The tart, while easy, would have taken much more effort. I will bake it, though, as I can't stop thinking about the texture that I'm sure it must have. It seems to be the perfect chocolate tart.

Blonde Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Let me begin by explaining the "blonde" part. I'm a big raisin fan: I like juicy and plumply dark rounds from California especially, but there's a soft spot in my heart for golden raisins. They're tangier and more complex than an ordinary dark raisin, and I try to keep some around. They're excellent in couscous, divine in salads, and can be used in sweeter dishes as well -- like oatmeal cookies. In addition, they match the oatmeal well, creating a cookie that looks much plainer than it tastes. It's such a surprise to bite down on a cookie and be greeted by this delicious fruit.
Begin by preheating the oven to 350º. In a large bowl, beat together 1/2 a cup of softened butter, 1/2 a cup of brown sugar (I used light brown sugar, which is more delicate-tasting than dark) and 1/4 cup of white sugar. I always use extra-fine sugar for baking. Since sugar is technically a liquid ingredient, I want to help it melt as best I can by using smaller grains.
When the sugars and butter are combined into a creamy, slightly crumbly mixture, add one egg and 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla. I know that I should be using real vanilla beans when I bake, but I can't bring myself to pay for the darn things. I'm sure the cost is worth it, but... like Deb over at Smitten Kitchen says, I'm afraid to turn over to the dark side of vanilla. Once I use the real thing, I'm sure I'll never be able to turn back. Besides, I just bought a new container of extract last week! Shame on me.
After beating the mixture to a fine batter, add 3/4 a cup all-purpose flour (I sifted mine, but that's optional. I think it makes the cookie airier) with 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon. The recipe also says to add 1/4 teaspoon salt, but I skipped it. It would probably add more depth and flavor, but I just didn't feel like adding it. After mixing well, stir in 1-1/2 cups of oats (not instant! quick or old-fashioned oats are what you need here) and 1/2 a cup of golden raisins. Stir until combined.
The batter at this point is fairly rough and pliable, thanks to the oats. This makes it easy to drop onto the cookie sheet in standard-looking rounds. I do this with a tablespoon, but I've seen people do it with a small ice-cream scoop. With the tablespoon full of batter in one hand, I wedge a second spoon along the edge of the batter to drop the round onto an ungreased cookie sheet. They can be fairly close together, as they don't tend to spread very much.
Bake for 11 minutes until just slightly golden on top. I mentioned this the last time I spoke about cookies, but I'll say it again: your cookies will not look done when they're ready to come out of the oven. They continue to cook after being removed, so take them out right when they start to brown on top. Be sure that they're all one solid piece, though -- the bottom shouldn't stick to the cookie sheet. If it does, they need more time.
Cool for about 2 minutes while they're still on the cookie sheet, then remove and place on a wire rack to finish cooling. After those two minutes, though, they're ready to eat. They might be hot, but the centers will be deliciously gooey. Try it: hot cookies never hurt anyone. You could also make bar cookies out of this by spreading the batter in an ungreased 13x9 baking pan and baking for 30 to 35 minutes. The recipe makes about 24 cookies, but they're small.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mulligatawny Soup

Edited to add: All you Chicago-dwellers! It's election day. The ballot is very short, and it's important to vote whenever they give us the chance to do so. So take the time and vote. You have until seven pm. to get in line tonight, so hurry!

Baby, it's cold outside. The brief spurt of warmth has been taken over by fog and hail: check out this intense picture from last Saturday. It's not grainy because of effects: that's hail, and the light inside of a fluffy cloud. Living where I do, I spend a lot of time in the clouds -- literally. Goes well with my nature, I suppose. It can get exhausting, always seeing white and nothing else when you look out the window. When it's clear, though, it's a different story. It looks pretty nifty, doesn't it? Better to look at than to walk through. Fog and general dreariness such as this always calls for soup, of any kind, and while I ate my easy to make and we already have all these ingredients matzo ball soup on Saturday I was secretly dreaming of mulligatawny.
I have a wonderful, dog-eared little book that was originally a gift from me to my mother, The Soup Book: Over 800 Recipes by Louis P. DeGouy, that I used exclusively throughout my young adulthood in the kitchen. My mom and I would try to make a new soup every week, and some of my favorite soup standbys are from this book: Manhattan clam chowder, mulligatawny, leek and potato... the list is nearly endless. They even have recipes for calf's brain soup and other oddities. It was published in 1974, before people were worried about eating cow brain, but most of the recipes are still good. Now, the book is in my hands -- my mom isn't much of a soup-maker, and when she does make soup, she's more into the "refrigerator soup" type of deal -- throw whatever you've got in there and let it boil. I'm all for that (in fact, I saw a great episode of Fast Food My Way this past weekend where Jacques Pepin did just that -- but he grated all the vegetables and served the soup over cheese, yum) but sometimes? A real, bona fide soup with a recipe is what I need.
I do this thing with soup, as with sauce, where i make as much as my dutch oven can hold -- sometimes it spills over the sides and causes the flame to go out. Then, I freeze the bulk of it. A few minutes in the microwave on a busy day and I've got hot, fresh soup, ready to go. A hunk of bread and dinner's been made with zero effort and no time. The reason I'm saying this is... I don't have any pictures of this soup. We ate the last of it nearly a month ago, before I owned a digital camera. But the next time I make it -- most likely soon, since now it's in my mind -- I'll update this with some shots. It's a pretty standard-looking soup though: vegetables swimming around in broth. The first time I made this in Chicago it was just after St. Patrick's day, when we boiled corned beef and were left with some amazing beef stock. After throwing it in the fridge, which helps the fat coagulate at the top to be skimmed off, we used it as the base for this soup. God, it tasted fantastic -- a cultural faux pas, most likely, but yummy all the same. It's a chicken-based soup, so if you have the wherewithal and necessary tools to make real chicken stock, go for it.

Mulligatawny Soup
The literal translation of mulligatawny is "pepper water," and although this dish contains little pepper, it's still full of fragrant spices and interesting vegetables. I'm fairly certain that this recipe is totally atypical and far from traditional -- I've had it in Indian restaurants and the experience was wildly different -- but it tastes great all the same. It's a pretty intensive recipe, calling for lots of chopping and stirring and roux-making, but it's well worth the effort. Make a big lot of it, freeze the remainder, and you'll be happy the next time a cold snap strikes.
Cut up 2.5 pounds of chicken "as for a fricassee," as the book says. I don't do this, because I'm not about to haul an entire chicken home. Instead, I use a combination of thighs and breasts and slice them into long, thin strips. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet or a dutch oven and add 1/4 pound of diced salt pork. I don't do this part either: it's hard to get salt pork around these parts. The butcher pretends he doesn't know what it is, and the closest I can seem to get to it is bacon, which doesn't work for this dish in my opinion. So I use a bit of olive oil, which doesn't taste nearly as good as salt pork fat, but it does the trick in a pinch.
Add the chicken to the oil and fry, lightly, over a low flame until it begins to color. Turn the pieces very often -- almost constantly -- to ensure an even coloring. After the chicken begins to color, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour mixed with 1 heaping tablespoon of curry powder into the pan. Continue cooking and turning until the meat is firm but not quite done.
I like to use my dutch oven for the whole process rather than doing what the book instructs, so I simply skim out most of the fat -- if there even is much -- and then add 10 cups of stock. Chicken, vegetable, or veal stock will all work here; like I mentioned, I used beef stock and the results were fabulous. Add 1 cup diced carrots, 1 small diced onion, 2 whole cloves, 6 bruised peppercorns, salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of cayenne pepper. The recipe also calls for a bay leaf, but I never use bay leaf in anything I cook. Maybe it makes me less fancy, but I am not about to fish around for that darn leaf right before I serve the soup. That's the point when I'm the hungriest and have no patience left!
Now comes my favorite point in the recipe. DeGouy uses wonderful language when writing about soups, although it's a tad bit confusing and stilted at times. Case in point: "[b]ring to a rapid boil, reduce the heat and let simmer very gently as slowly as possible for one long hour." I don't know if it's all those modifiers or what but that is a crazy sentence. Try diagramming that one, Sister Bernadette! (God that book rocks my world.)
After the long, slow hour, which passes like years if you're hungry, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary. I often find it imperative to add more curry and cayenne, and I usually do so closer to the beginning to give it a chance to soak in. At this point, add the following garnishings: 3 tablespoons cooked rice, 1 eggplant, diced and sautéed in butter slightly after being parboiled, and 1 cup leek sautéed in butter. I often sauté the leek and eggplant in the same pan at once. To parboil the eggplant, simply throw the chopped pieces into a pot of boiling salted water for about 3 minutes. Cook the soup for 10 minutes longer or until the garnishings are all cooked. DeGouy suggests serving it "piping hot with a side dish of plain rice," but I often settle for just the piping hot part. No side dish is necessary, really: this soup is full of flavor, teeming with vegetables, and can stand up on its own.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Saturday Night Apple Cake

I have this darling little cookbook (I've mentioned it before) that we picked up at a local book fair last summer, and it's been... well, collecting dust ever since I traded over a dollar for it. Why? It's weird. It's the Congressional Club Cookbook from 1970 -- the eighth edition -- and while it's an entertaining jaunt into the past, it's full of jello molds, tuna casseroles, and ingredients like Oleo (from what I can gather, a particular brand of margarine.) It's a great treasure trove of the odd stuff our elected officials used to eat, supposedly, and includes some nifty tidbits: charts outlining the chain of command and where to seat specific members of the house, senate, and their wives (senate wives outrank house members) and what to do when the President invites you to dine at the White House. Never decline the invitation, even if you had other plans: just write the people you're brushing off a letter explaining that you've been invited to dine with the President, and naturally, that is more important than anything else you may have committed to.
It's a neat cookbook, but like I said -- hard to find something I'd actually want to eat in its pages. So when we decided, once and for all, to just use the darn thing this past Saturday, I was thrilled to find a recipe for Saturday Night Apple Cake. Perfect! We had a busy and full day -- complete with a ridiculously delicious lunch and a milkshake at the Eleven City Diner (I hadn't had a milkshake in years, people, and it was fabulous: supposedly one of the best shakes in Chicago, and I agree) and I was in no mood for a heavy dinner. So we settled on this apple cake -- which I imagined would turn out much like a zucchini or banana bread, but it is much sticker -- and some matzo ball soup. And the best part? The apple cake was perfect for Sunday morning breakfast. Can I just brag, for a second, about how wonderful yesterday was? The sleet mushed about outside, and we were so cozy with our two newspapers and our apple cake and an Oscar-nominated movie that there was no need to go out. By the way: Last King of Scotland? Great movie, but... I covered my eyes at the end, there. Also, I cried -- not tears of sadness, but tears of ohmygod no one would ever actually do that to another human, right? (wrong, by the way.) I recommend it -- although the plot was too predictable (I kept calling out what was going to happen, which is an annoying habit of mine) it was very well done and Forrest Whitaker totally deserved that Oscar. What an actor.
In any case, apple cake is good. And it's brought to us by Mrs. Mark O. Hatfield, the wife of the senator from Oregon (in 1970, obviously.) The women don't use their real names; in fact, they don't even sign their recipes with their name, only with the name of their husbands. Because no one knows (or cares) who they are. They just make the food, behind closed kitchen doors. And after the dinner was finished, the men took out their cigars and began yammering... and the women retreated, back to the kitchen, for a Virginia Slims cigarette and coffee. Their advertisement on the cookbook's paste-down says it all:
Saturday Night Apple Cake
Begin by creaming 3 tablespoons of shortening. Add 1 cup of sugar, gradually, until the mixture is crumbly and well-combined. As usual, I used my KitchenAid for this -- any time I'm making a batter, the KitchenAid gets to play. I'm not one for mixing by hand. When I was a child (and this, I assure you, is a true story) I was instructed to make the batter for a brownie mix. Simple, right? Add the egg, the water, and mix. By hand. I was young, so I interpreted this literally. There was batter everywhere -- a photograph exists as proof. I think that was probably my dog's happiest day alive. The moral of the story? Don't trust me alone in the kitchen.
Add one large egg and 1 teaspoon vanilla to the sugar mixture and beat well. Now, mix in 3 cups of diced firm apples. We used 3 red apples which was plenty, and D diced them into small ( about 1/4 inch) chunks. We wanted some substance to the apples, so we didn't grate them, and we went with red because those looked best at the grocery store. I know most people bake with Granny Smith apples, but... I wanted something sweeter. And the Granny Smiths looked kind of sorry anyhow.
Sift in 1 cup of flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Another quirk of this cookbook, by the way, is that they use soda and baking soda interchangeably. So this recipe, in actuality, calls for "soda," which we (correctly) interpreted to mean "baking soda." Very strange, no? This cookbook is wild. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or brazil nuts. The recipe calls for walnuts, plain and simple, but -- shock of all shocks -- we couldn't find them in the store. We opted for the brazil nuts instead, because they were cheap and unseasoned, and I was very happy with the results. A nice nutty flavor without being overwhelming. We used our little Cuisinart Chopper, which could have turned them to butter if we weren't being careful, and the result was mostly powdery with some small chunks. I liked that -- I'm not that interested in chewy chunks in my bread.
Turn the batter into an ungreased 9-inch pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes at 350º. By the way: I used a springform pan, and I'm really glad I did. The resulting cake is pretty spongy and sticky, and I can't imagine the mess it would leave in a standard ungreased pan. You might just want to smear a bit of butter in there, especially along the sides, if you're not using a springform. It can be served warm (yummmmm) or cold, and be sure to save a slice or two for breakfast the next morning. And possibly lunch. As a matter of fact, I didn't eat anything but apple cake until dinner yesterday. Glorious.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Potato and Onion Soup

Yesterday was, by all accounts, a spectacular day. D got some very good news, but he had to stay late at work -- which gave me ample time to whip up some celebration food for both of us. Unfortunately, I was too damn lazy to go out to the store, so I was stuck with whatever we had in the house. It wasn't much, and we had just made a mixup meal, so I wasn't really interested in throwing a bunch of stuff together randomly and seeing how it turned out. I wanted to make something hearty, exciting, and comforting. What I really wanted to do was whip up some onion tarts like this beauty from Orangette... or these cute babies from Simply Recipes... but I didn't have the time, patience, or energy to spend on the dough, which is quite an effort and would be much better with a food processor. Which I do not own. Anyhow... no tarts, yesterday. But I did have a lot of onions, a bunch of gorgeous potatoes, and a giant container of milk that I didn't know what we were planning on doing with.
Then it hit me: potato onion soup. God. I used to eat this all the time, growing up. Sometimes with leeks, sometimes with celery and garlic... the memories of this comforting, simple meal came back in a flood. And I decided to make the soup, all over again, sans any real recipe. I knew that it would be slightly thin: the milk was skim, and I have a recollection of using whole milk and heavy cream, but I figured that the potato starch would help thicken up the soup. And a handful of flour would work some magic on the consistency. I was right: the soup was thin, but not alarmingly so. It didn't really diminish the flavor or quality of the soup -- it was still quite hearty and filling.
D loved it, as did I. We nearly ate the whole pot for dinner last night. True, I didn't make a gigantic amount of it, but it was more than enough for two people. And with all the milk and potatoes, it's a stick-to-your-ribs kind of soup, so a small amount does go a long way.

Potato and Onion Soup
Begin by slowly melting 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan -- as usual, I used my dutch oven, as I always do when making soup. Dice 2 large onions and add to the melted butter. Stir to coat the onions in butter and, with the heat on low, cover the pot for about 10 to 15 minutes to allow the onions to steam. While the onions are cooking, chop about 2-1/2 pounds of baby potatoes. Any kind of potato will do, but I was fortunate enough to have a sack of rainbow colored baby beauties. I have no idea what they're actually called, but I got them at our new favorite grocery store. It's just a Jewel/Osco, but -- unlike most of the groceries in downtown Chicago -- it has an outdoor parking lot, spacious aisles (lord how I hate being pushed in the grocery store; you don't even know) and all sorts of fresh, bright, squeezable produce. Andreas Viestad, my favorite Norwegian chef (although a bit too bourgeois, in my opinion... but his cuteness makes up for that) had a glorious episode centered on potatoes, and he mentioned that if you ever see any small odd-shaped "nubbly" potatoes to snatch them up immediately. He was right: these potatoes rocked -- it was a healthy mixture of mostly yukon gold and small red potatoes, smattered with a few baby purple potatoes for good measure. God, am I ever glad I didn't use them all in the soup. I want to make potato salad with the rest of the lot. I chopped these potatoes into odd-sized bites: since this is a five-ingredient recipe mostly consisting of potatoes I really wanted them to look great. That part was really fun, because I got to get a little creative with my knife and make crazy slices. I kept the skins on, mostly for color, although they could be taken off if you're so inclined.
I made sure to stir the onions a few times while steaming them so they wouldn't burn, but that wasn't really a concern since the heat was so low. After rinsing the potatoes, I dried them quickly with a paper towel and threw them into the pot with the onions. Another pat of butter was added at this point -- if I'm using skim milk, I might as well use enough butter to make it rich. I also added some salt to the vegetables in order to make the onions sweat a little, as well as a hearty dose of freshly ground black pepper. Most people would use white pepper in a white soup, but I don't own any -- I don't like the flavor of it as much as I like the flavor of black pepper. At this point, I also added about 1 tablespoon of flour, which would act as a thickener for the soup when the milk was added. After steaming the potatoes in with the onions for about ten minutes or so, I added four cups of skim milk. Stirring frequently, I brought the soup to a slow boil and allowed it to simmer until the potatoes were soft and gorgeous. I left the top on the pot, for the most part, in order to help the soup cook faster -- at this point, I was starving, so I was willing to do anything in my power to make it finish fast. After about 30 to 45 minutes of the slow simmer, the soup was finished. It was so, so, so, good. And for five ingredients and about an hour, total, cooking time? It was well worth the minimal effort.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rice Pilaf with Black Beans and Tomatoes

Face it: some days, you just don't feel like cooking. Let me rephrase that. Some days I just don't feel much like cooking. If you're lucky, you have a pantry full of canned goods that you can throw together for a quick yet tasty dish in a pinch -- at our place, we call this type of dish a mixup, in case you were curious. Such was our luck last night: while I napped on the couch, D prepared this delicious meal in less than a half hour. The speed it took to prepare this dish almost annoyed me because it meant I couldn't keep loafing about: it was time to eat. But after tasting it? I was in heaven.
This made a lot of food -- enough for leftovers, which I'll probably want to eat cold. There's nothing that I like more than cold rice and beans. Is that strange? Most likely, but... try it out sometime. They're good. And even though we used only one fresh ingredient, it was quite healthy. A little bit salty for my taste, but that's due to the seasoning in the pilaf and the beans. But I'm not that into salt anymore. When I was growing up, though... I used to shake salt, straight from the giant pantry canister, onto my potato chips. I am totally serious about this. It makes me shudder to think about it now.

Rice Pilaf with Black Beans and Tomatoes
Begin by preparing 1 box of Near East Rice Pilaf. See how easy this is going to be? I recommend buying this stuff whenever it is on sale and keeping it around until you need a quick and healthy side dish. It can be a bit expensive, so just keep your eyes out for a sale. My grocery store has a buy one get one free deal every month or so. You can make the rice pilaf from scratch, which doesn't seem like too big of a pain, but we're talking about adding an extra half hour at least (depending on what type of rice you use) so if you're making this in a flash, just go with boxed.
Making rice pilaf isn't that difficult, actually. Here's an adaptation of a recipe from Simply Recipes, which is a wonderful blog (it won the "Best Food Blog Overall" award in the 2006 Food Blog Awards.) Measure out 2 cups of dry white rice, preferably long grain. Measure out the amount of liquid for two cups according to the package directions, but instead of using water, you'll use chicken broth or any other type of flavorful stock. This is a great rice secret: always cook your rice in some type of broth or stock. It will give the rice so much more flavor and depth than it would have were it made with plain water. If you're running low in the stock department, you can substitute about half of the liquid with water.
Begin heating the liquid in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. In the meantime, add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the rice and stir occasionally so that it browns evenly. After the rice begins to brown, add 1 small chopped onion (or green onion) and 2 minced stalks of celery. At this point, season the rice with a dash of cayenne pepper and some fresh-ground black pepper. Salt is probably unnecessary, since canned broth or stock is usually salted. Cook until the onions begin to soften.
Mix the browned rice in with the now-boiling liquid. Pouring the liquid into the rice pan is the traditional way to make pilaf, but either way will work: use whichever pan is big enough to fit the rice and the liquid comfortably. Bring to a simmer and then cover the pan. Cook according to the package directions on the rice (usually about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the brand.) Do not remove the cover while the rice is cooking: this will cause some of the liquid to evaporate, which might make your rice stick to the bottom of the pan. After you cook for the recommended time, remove the rice and let sit for ten minutes with the cover still firmly in place.
While your rice cooks, dice one medium-sized onion and cook in 1/2 tablespoon of butter or olive oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan (we used our much-adored dutch oven) until it is soft. Add 1 28-oz can of crushed or ground tomatoes and 1 14-oz can of black beans in sauce. You want to make sure that the directions on the can don't instruct you to rinse the beans: pick a bean that comes in edible sauce. Stir everything together and correct the seasoning, if necessary. Allow to cook for about 20 minutes.
Once your pilaf is done, simply add it to the tomatoes and beans mixture. With the heat still on, stir everything together until it is well-mixed. Serve with some fresh cilantro on top, and some tortillas or tortilla chips on the side if you desire. If you want more protein in this meal, I suggest cooking some chicken and throwing it in the sauce as you wait for the rice to finish. This would be a perfect way to round out the meal.
PS: Anyone have some great dessert recipes that they'd like to share? (Sarah, I'm looking right at you: I want your carrot cake recipe!!) I realize that the only sweet food on this whole blog happens to be chocolate chip cookies, and if you know me at all, you know I have a sweet tooth. So someone offer me up something sweet to make!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Green Beans, Blanched and Provencale

It might be surprising, but green beans aren't exactly the easiest vegetable to cook. It's not that preparing them is actually difficult: you just snap off the ends, throw them into boiling water, and that's about all there is to it. But it's not a forgiving vegetable, like the potato or even the cauliflower. It's a fine art to find that perfect consistency: soft, with a bit of snap. Overcooking them -- even by the slightest amount -- will leave you with mush. No one likes to eat mush, unless they are a dog. But even dogs deserve properly cooked green beans, if that's what they want to eat.
Green beans are commonly called string beans, but if you want to go all fancy-pants, say "Haricots Verts." This is (of course) how Julia Child refers to them in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and since we're using her recipe, we might as well be fancy here. One of the great things about green beans is their nutritional value: they're high in vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin A, and shockingly low in calories. We're talking very, very low here: 43 calories per cup. You could eat two rolls of Smarties and get stuck with a higher calorie count than that. These beans are great for so many other reasons, too: consider the preferred storing method. Just throw them into a plastic bag and stick it in the fridge. They should last a whole week before starting to turn that way, which gives you ample time after purchasing to actually eat them. So many vegetables don't keep in the refrigerator for that long, and it's always a shame when Thursday rolls around and you're nixing the veggies entirely because you just don't have any good ones left.

Blanched Green Beans

Whatever recipe you choose for your beans, always give them a preliminary blanching in a very large kettle of rapidly boiling salted water. Depending on what you plan to do to them later, boil them either until tender or until almost tender, and drain immediately. This essential step in the French art of bean cookery always produces a fine, fresh, green bean of perfect texture and flavor. (Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961, 443.)
Green beans require very little cooking, actually -- despite their hearty appearance, they're actually quite fragile little things. Their outer shell, though tough, is only a thin shield for the tender, airy inside portion. It has a large surface area for a vegetable, which gives ample opportunity for those tasty nutrients to escape from the bean as it is being cooked.
One way to watch out for this loss of nutrients is to pay close attention to the color of the beans: they should be vibrantly green when they are fully cooked. Overcook them a
nd you'll end up with a greyish green blob: if you notice your beans beginning to turn grey, they're already overdone (although probably still edible at that point.)
You will start this recipe by bringing 6 quarts of water to a rapid boil. To help the water boil faster, and also help the green beans cook properly, add about 1 tablespoon of salt to the water when you put it on the stove. That may sound like a lot of salt, but it's not: the green beans won't really absorb most of it, but it will help preserve that essential green color.
As the water does its magic and works itself into a boil, prepare the beans. Snap off each end and pull slightly to remove any stringiness that may be attached to the end. This stringiness is less common now than it used to be: most farmers breed their beans to make them less stringy, so you may not have to worry about this. Still, though, you want to snap off the tip on each end before eating.

When the water is boiling, drop in the beans -- about a pound and a half of green beans total for this amount of water -- a handful at a time into the water. Bring the water back to a boil as quickly as possible (I do this by putting the lid back on the pot for a moment or two) and allow the green beans to cook for about eight minutes. After eight minutes have passed, start testing the beans: they should taste slightly nutty and a bit sweet. If they are still too raw, they'll have a kind of freshly-mowed grass flavor, so be on the lookout for that. In addition to the nutty sweetness, they should have a tender texture with just the slightest hint of crunch when they're fully cooked.
Drain immediately in a strainer or colander. Julia Child then suggests that you flip them into a hot, dry pan and toss until the water has evaporated, but I find this step unnecessary if I strain them properly. Maybe that's because I'm lazy, but I just don't find that the extra effort makes the beans any better. If you do decide to dry them in a pan, do not stir the beans -- this will break them -- but toss them gently. These beans will keep for a day or two in the fridge, and all you have to do to reheat them is boil a new pot of water, throw the beans in for just a moment until the water boils again, then drain. This simple reheating technique makes it worth it to prepare a whole pound or two at once, rather than trying to portion out just enough for the amount of mouths you have to feed.
We like to serve these with nothing more than a bit of red pepper flakes and a dash of salt, but there are many ways to jazz up these babies. One of the more exciting recipes in this book is for Green Beans Provencale, which is an involved recipe that will transform the beans into a whole salad. Peel 4 plum tomatoes and cut into wedges. Slice an onion in half, then cut into long, thin strips -- as thin as you can get them. Cover the bottom of a saucepan with water and bring to a simmer. Add the onions, along with a few dashes of dried basil and thyme. Throw in one clove of garlic -- with recipes like this, I merely skin the garlic and roast it in the pan along with everything else, then I remove it when the dish is ready to serve. This allows all the flavors of the garlic to seep into the dish with minimal effort. Bring the water back to a simmer, then cook the onions for about 2 minutes until they are soft but still retain their shape. Pour off most of the cooking juice and reserve.
Add the tomatoes to the pan with the onions and bring to a simmer again, cooking for only one or two minutes. Add some reserved juice if necessary to keep the dish from drying out. You should be left with about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquids in the pan. Drain off any excess or add some reserved liquid to make this possible. Stir in about 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil and heat for only about 30 seconds, until the oil coats all the vegetables.
Remove the pan from the stove and allow the vegetables to rest until the green beans are ready. Stir in the beans and coat them evenly with the tomato and onion mixture. Allow the dish to rest for about ten minutes before serving -- the longer you allow it to rest, the saucier and tastier it will get. You may add grated cheese if you wish, but any other deviations will take away from the overall fresh, open-air flavor of this particular dish.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pork Chops with Dijon and Thyme

We don't eat pork often, but when we do, we like to fry up some pork chops in a skillet -- or on the grill, if it's nice enough out -- and serve them with some vegetables on the side. It's a simple meal that's a great alternative to our usual protein staples: chicken and red meat. D isn't a big pork eater -- I don't think he had it when he was growing up at all -- but we used to eat it occasionally. Probably because it was on sale.
That's actually the precise reason we got some pork chops last weekend at the grocery store: it was cheap and it looked fantastic. The chicken was looking a bit grey around the edges, the meat was unspeakably gross, and all we wanted was something to eat that didn't require thawing out for Monday night. So we went for the pork chops and were, as usual, pleasantly surprised. They were the perfect texture, with just enough fat around the edges to lend the whole chop a slightly buttery taste, and they were the perfect thickness: about a half an inch or so, which makes for an evenly-cooked yet juicy pork chop after it's done.
We served this with green beans on the side (recipe forthcoming) and, since there were three chops per package, ate one and a half each to round out the fact that we didn't serve them with rice or bread. That was kind of foolish: a starch would have perfectly rounded out this meal, making it whole. At least we did the beans, though: there's nothing I dislike more than a piece of meat sitting lonely on a plate.
We adapted, pretty radically, our recipe for Baked Dijon Chicken for these pork chops. Omitting the breadcrumbs, we opted to slather each side of the chops with a layer of mustard and fresh thyme. Instead of baking the pork chops, like we would with the chicken, we opted to sear them in a pan. We did this for two reasons: one, I've never baked pork, and I just didn't feel like researching it while starving; two, we were starving and didn't want to wait for the oven to preheat. With the green beans boiling away on one side of the stove, cooking the chops was easy. Everything was done at the same time this way, too, which is one of the best things that can happen in the kitchen. Hot food! All in one moment!

Pork Chops with Dijon and Thyme
We began by chopping some thyme -- about three tablespoons in all -- in our new Cuisinart Mini-Mate Chopper. D's father had this little gadget sitting in his basement, unused and still in the original box. We snatched it up like it was candy: I've been honking about my desire for a proper food processor for some time now, and this is the next-best miniature version. At least now I don't have to chop herbs by hand, which is a pain and stains the cutting board every time I do it. Still want a food processor... but my desire is waning and is being replaced with one for a Wusthof chef's knife.
Anyhow: mix the 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme with about 2 tablespoons creamy Dijon mustard. Coat this mustard mixture on one side of each pork chop, using only half (the rest will be brushed on the other sides when the chops are already in the hot pan.) Top with some fresh ground black pepper and place, mustard side down, in a hot greased pan. To grease the pan, drizzle in about 2 teaspoons of olive oil as the pan heats up so that the oil is hot as well when you begin to cook the pork.
When the chops are in the pan, brush the remaining mustard mixture on the tops of each one. Doing it at this stage makes it easier and less of a mess, and you waste less sauce this way also.
Cook for about five minutes on each side, until the juices run clear from each piece. If possible, use a meat thermometer to ensure that the pork is cooked, especially since it comes in such variable widths. The center of the chop should reach 160º before it can be eaten. Make sure that you flip the chops about halfway through, though. A lot of the mustard will stick to the pan, but that's the nature of these kinds of things. It still imparts a lot of flavor to the pork, especially with the fresh thyme, and searing it in the pan gives the edges a nice crunchy texture that almost tastes like butter.
Tomorrow, I'll give you my recipe for green beans. They're so simple, so fresh tasting, and so easy to find that they're a staple on our dining table: we eat them about once a week or so. If you want a fresh, easy vegetable? Green beans are your best friend.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Roasted Salsa

Inspired by a recent episode of America's Test Kitchen, D and I ventured into the land of hot peppers this past weekend. The objective? Roasted salsa. We had seen an episode where they made some delicious looking huevos rancheros, but we didn't want to spend four hours in the kitchen making refried beans and salsa from scratch. Besides, I'm not really interested in eggs on my tortillas: just give me the rancheros without the huevos and I'm a happy camper.
We had been eying the hot peppers in our local grocery store for quite some time, but the most adventurous pepper we'd tried was the green jalapeño: not too spicy, not too exotic, and not a real culinary adventure. So we got a few jalapeños to start with for this salsa, along with a bunch of serrano peppers and two large yellow Hungarian wax peppers. I must admit that we didn't really know what we were doing: we just grabbed some peppers, steering clear of the ones we knew were super hot, like the habenero peppers, which looked amazing but also kind of scary. I like hot food, but... we wanted to go easy this time around.
We bought some fresh roma tomatoes and a new bag of small yellow onions. A brand new head of garlic, too, and we were ready to make some salsa. I kept thinking of the Seinfeld episode "The Pitch" with the salsa talk: "Don't you know the difference between seltzer and salsa?? You have the seltzer after the salsa! Salsa is now the number one condiment in America!" -- or it was, at least, in 1992. I would think that it would be ketchup, but D asserts that salsa, indeed, is most likely number one in the condiment race.

Roasted Salsa
Preheat the oven to 350º and begin preparing the vegetables. Slice all the peppers in half, lengthwise, and remove the seeds and ribs. You probably want to wear gloves for this part: hot peppers can burn your skin, especially if you're overly sensitive or you get the juices under your nails. Another word of warning: even if you have gloves on, do not touch your face. The last thing you need is serrano juice in your eye. We used four jalapeño peppers, four serrano peppers, and two Hungarian wax peppers (also known as medium sized hot banana peppers.) For extra heat, I would recommend keeping some of the jalapeño seeds in: it's the mildest of the bunch but the seeds will still give you a good kick. It's unnecessary to leave them in, though, unless you're into that kind of thing.
Core six roma (plum) tomatoes and slice lengthwise in half. You can keep the seeds and juices in: we're going to blend this salsa in the end, and the seeds incorporate easily. In fact, they provide some extra cooking liquid, so removing them would probably be a mistake.
Remove the outer layer of a medium-sized yellow onion and slice in half. Keep the core on the onion -- just use a paring knife to remove the outer layer of the core -- and slice into chunks, lengthwise. The core will keep the pieces from falling apart entirely. Remove the skin from two cloves of garlic.
Throw all the vegetables in a medium-sized bowl and add a few dashes of ground coriander, one dash of cayenne pepper, salt and ground black pepper, and about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Stir to coat the vegetables evenly with the spices and oil. Arrange on a baking sheet -- with a lip around the edge -- or in a large Pyrex pan and put in the oven. Cook at 350º for about one hour, until the skins of the tomatoes begin to blacken and everything looks roasted and tasty.
After the vegetables are roasted, remove them from the oven. At this point, we discarded the serranos -- the hottest peppers in the salsa -- because we didn't think that we wanted the salsa to be too hot. We were right: even without the addition of the serrano, the salsa was extremely spicy and had a great kick to it. Since they all roasted together and got saucy in the pan, the juices from the serrano flavored the rest of the vegetables wonderfully and actually including them in the final salsa wasn't necessary.
We put the onions and peppers in the blender first and pulsed it with the juice from half a lime (about one tablespoon is in a half a lime, by the way) for just a second before adding the tomatoes and about 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro. Onions and peppers are more fibrous than tomatoes and thus need a bit more blending to become smooth. We didn't it to turn into soup, so we just pulsed the salsa for a few seconds before it was ready to serve. This was a perfect combination of peppers for us -- just spicy enough, but not a real kick in the teeth to eat. It has a really fresh taste, too, especially with the cilantro added at the end. You don't want to roast the cilantro, by the way -- it will just diminish its flavor and the fresh taste.
We served this salsa with El Ranchero Tortilla Chips. Called the "best chips in the Midwest"-- by Gapers Block, no less -- and affectionately referred to as "the good chips," these are locally made deep-fried pockets of wonderful. They can withstand the heartiest dips and are perfectly crunchy without being too hard. And you can not beat the price: $1.99 for a 14-oz bag of these is nothing compared to the other brands available at the store, which are too expensive and riddled with artificial flavors and too much salt. Another thing: you can buy El Ranchero chips with no salt, which is a huge plus. I hate consuming too much sodium, so no salt chips are a big deal to me. I wish we had some more salsa at home... I'd advise making a double batch of this stuff. It went fast.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Wisconsin Style Bratwurst

We made this awhile ago, on the highly acclaimed Superbowl Sunday, but I neglected to post about it until now. So sue me -- I was busy making other tasty meat dishes (and a few healthy things on the side.) I can't believe we ate bratwurst, chicken wings, guacamole, and bean dip all in one day, by the way. Ridiculous amounts of food. At least it rocked: that's all I'm watching football for anyhow!
This is actually not my recipe, and I didn't take any part in the actual cooking of the brat: it's all D on this one. He did a fantastic job and I even ate some of it. Being a beer-hater, it's pretty difficult to get me to go near anything even beer-related, but this brat was tasty and awesome. Even though it had touched beer. Been soaked in beer, as a matter of fact. I'll give you his two recipes: one for bratwurst that has been pre-cooked, and one for brats that are raw.

Wisconsin Style Bratwurst
Ok. First you get some tasty brats. Don't let anyone try to talk you into getting pre-cooked turkey brats (as I did for the Superbowl: I wanted to be as healthy as possible! Besides, they didn't even have regular ones anyhow!) You might need to just hop in the car and drive to Wisconsin for this, actually -- skip the cooking and get right down to the eating. If at all possible, hit the Brat Stop at the corner of Highway 50 and I-94 in Kenosha. We went there during a weekend getaway in Wisconsin and it was awesome, although there was a slight issue with the coffee: be careful when you pour. Otherwise, you'll end up with sticky feet and burned hands. But they do give you the full pot and sit it right on your table, which is something that I always appreciate.
If the bratwursts are pre-cooked or smoked, put them into a heavy-bottomed frying pan and add a little beer (something that you'd enjoy drinking, tasty beer.) It should be enough beer to cover the bottom of the pan easily. Place a lid on the pan and cook over a medium heat for about five to seven minutes, turning occasionally with tongs.
Remove the cover and add 1/2 a sliced onion, cut into skinny strips. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the liquid evaporates. Make sure you turn the bratwurst frequently with the tongs so it browns evenly. Remove the bratwurst from the pan and continue to cook the onions. Slather both sides of a roll -- for this, we used a loaf of French bread cut into pieces, then halved -- with some nice whole seed mustard and put the bratwurst in the bun. Top with the caramelized onions and serve, with a beer on the side of the same variety that you cooked the bratwurst in.
If the brats aren't pre-cooked, then you're in for a real treat. D says that you should cook these without any girls that don't like beer around, then make sure they taste the bratwurst after it's cooked so that they'll realize how great beer is. That isn't going to happen, but a boy can dream! Add the uncooked brats to a large pot and cover with sliced onions and a pat of butter. Add several beers to the pot until bratwurst and onions are completely covered and put over a medium-high heat. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the bratwursts to a hot grill and cook until browned, then place in a roll slathered with whole grain mustard. Top with the cooked onions. This, D says, is the real way to cook a bratwurst.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Szchewan Restaurant, 60611 (Restaurant Review)

Well, we're both sick now -- this time with some sort of head cold. We had to cancel our dinner plans for Valentine's day and stuck ourselves on the couch with some Chinese takeout last night in lieu of a fancy dinner at HB: A Hearty Boys Spot. HB is owned and operated by the winners of the first Next Food Network Star challenge, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, and it's a cozy little spot with brick walls, candles, and inexpensive delicious meals. We went there last year for Valentine's day and ordered the five-course couples meal and couldn't have been more surprised -- or more pleased -- with the results, which included a whole red snapper, oysters, and savory cupcakes. The cupcake flight was really amazing and I'm still thinking about it over a year later: honey lavender, orange blossom and chocolate chili, perfectly baked and topped with a mountain of frosting. Yumyumyummm.
Unfortunately, we just weren't feeling up to it yesterday, so we got some Chinese food from our favorite place in town, Szchewan Restaurant. They serve Szechuan, Mandarin and Hunan cuisines, and even offer some Shanghainese and Cantonese dishes as well. I can't even tell you how great this restaurant is, although they don't do delivery (you can have the food delivered through a service called DiningIn, but it takes over an hour to arrive and it's cold and expensive.) The crab rangoons are to die for, and the food isn't greasy or drippy or icky -- which is sometimes the case with Chinese restaurants, I'm afraid. I love the decor -- classy but not trendy, with white tablecloths and intimate seating -- and the waiters are always smiling and friendly, although we mostly do takeout.
They also allow you to request white meat only for the chicken dishes, which is huge: very high quality food. I'd recommend asking for only white meat, because it doesn't cost any extra and I just like white meat better. Last night we forgot, though, and our General Tso's chicken was mostly dark: fine when you're eating a saucy chicken, but not so good in a soup. Why do I like white meat better? It's got something to do with the texture, and the nutrition content: dark meat tends to be fattier than white. So in matters of white meat vs. dark meat, I'm in the white meat camp. But I understand the value of a dark meat, particularly when grilling or frying -- it holds up better and is less stringy. Another great thing about darker parts of the chicken? Higher iron content. So... it's a matter of my personal taste, really.
Anyhow, if you're going to eat at Szchewan Restaurant, I can't speak highly enough of the Fried Wontons (also known as Crab Rangoons) which are fried doughy purses filled with cream cheese and crab meat. You get eight of them for only $3.95, and eight are more than enough for two people to share. They're really rich and are probably the best crab rangoons I've ever had. And I love me some rangoons. We started off the meal yesterday with their Sizzling Rice Soup, made with large pieces of fresh snow peas, mushrooms, and chicken floating in chicken broth. It's something that I really like eating when I'm feeling sick because it's so fresh, hot, and light. I also really adore their Crispy Sesame Chicken, which is strips of chicken smothered in a gooey and deliciously sweet sesame sauce and topped with tiny, crunchy noodle like things. Last night, though, we went for the General Tso's chicken, a chef's special that is made with chunks of chicken (like you see in most Chinese food places here) topped in a spicy sauce with red peppers, ginger, and garlic. I'm about to cry just thinking about how tasty it is.
If you're in the Chicago area and need a great place to eat on the Magnificent Mile, don't pass up Szchewan Restaurant. And with Chinese New Year right around the corner, be sure to make a reservation if you're planning on going this coming weekend. Or you can stop by for their extensive lunch buffet on weekdays between the hours of 11:30 AM and 2:00 PM. They also serve Dim Sum on Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 to 3:00 pm. They recommend a reservation for their dim sum, which sounds like a real experience -- not good for a first date, though, they say on their page aptly titled More Information about Dim Sum. The menu is a bit pricey, but when you consider the amount of food they give you? It's just about right.

Szchewan Restaurant
645 N. Michigan Avenue (the entrance is actually on Ontario St.)
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 642- 3900

Mon- Sat 11:30am-10:00pm
Sun 11:30am- 9:30pm

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chocolate and Zucchini

The title of this post is an homage to one of my favorite food blogs, Chocolate and Zucchini, which I read regularly for ideas. Her food and her blog are much more sophisticated than mine, and her writing is really an inspiration: it's fun, it's fresh, and it stretches the limits of how I think about cooking and food. If you like my blog? You'll like hers better.
Anyhow, today I'm offering a recipe for Zucchini Spice Bread, along with some photographs of the delicious artisan chocolate from D, an early Valentine's gift. It has to be refrigerated, and he knew that it would be impossible to hide, so it was gifted last night instead of today. I was more than happy to receive it a day early, because it is so. fantastic. A chocolate experience beyond any other.
The chocolates he purchased me are from Vosges Haut Chocolat, a chocolate boutique that specializes in luxury chocolates married with exotic ingredients in an "East meets West" theme: "The infusions of rare spices and flowers combined with premium chocolate give a delicate balance of flavor, leaving you with a layered and lingering sensation of spice and chocolate." Kind of pretentious sounding, but the idea is great and the chocolate is magnificent, so it evens out in the end. It comes in a beautiful purple box -- the dark truffles didn't have a bow on them, but D asked nicely and they were happy to oblige. I tried the Balsamico truffle last night, made with balsamic vinegar with a topping of hazlenuts, and it was a delicious combination. I'm slightly jealous of D, who went with a bolder flavor: Black Pearl, made with ginger and wasabi with a topping of black sesame seeds. I'll have to get myself one of those sometime -- it seems so good! I'm a little disappointed that three of the truffles are flavored with anise, which is not something I usually enjoy, but there's a good chance that those will be good anyhow, even with that licorice flavor.
Besides the chocolates, which perked me up immensely, yesterday was not such a good day -- it snowed over a foot here, and most people didn't come in to the office. I got stuck outside for over a half an hour because the door was jammed shut, and I had to open up the library in under ten minutes. Not fun. Today it was the same story. It's a real pain being the only person here in the mornings, especially given the creep factor: the library is big, cold, dark, and completely still, although the occasional professor will sneak in after-hours, giving me a great scare as I'm running around humming to myself. Add that to a variety of other lame things -- including the foot of snow and my feet getting wet on the walk home -- and I was not a happy camper. So I decided to bake some zucchini bread. Baking always makes me happier: the careful measuring out of ingredients, the feeling of the raw dough in my hands, the scent of the bread blooming in the oven... it's so soothing. Plus, we had a zucchini that had been hanging around for quite some time in the fridge, and while it wasn't even near extinction -- it was nice and firm, rather than old and mushy -- it was time for it to become food. So zucchini bread it was.
I got this recipe from my good old standby friend, The Bon Appétit Cookbook. God, I love this cookbook -- although it was a gift, it's extremely inexpensive for the amount of recipes you get, and it comes with a free year-long subscription to the magazine. If I were in the market for a new cookbook? I'd buy this one. I also really enjoy the orange and white motif: very classy. Another thing I like about it is that its index is well-planned. So many cookbooks have shoddy indexes, which really works against them, because what kind of person wants to wade through a jumbled mess of words just to find an appropriate recipe? Not so with this cookbook: within minutes after deciding that the weird foods in our pantry couldn't be combined into one satisfactory dish, I was able to whip up this bread. Thank you, beautifully organized index! You have saved me once again!
Now, a word of warning: I halved this recipe, because it required two zucchini and I only had one. It came out perfectly; in fact, the standard recipe seems like it would be too big for the pan size it requires. I guess it would fit, but it would definitely take too long to bake: the recipe requires an hour and a half; with the halved recipe, I baked it in an hour. I think that an hour and a half is too long to wait for zucchini bread! Especially since I wanted to serve it at dinner.

Zucchini Spice Bread
Begin by buttering and flouring a standard loaf pan, and preheating the oven to 350º. Whisk together 1-1/4 cups all purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/8 a teaspoon of baking powder. I must confess -- I eyeballed that last one. I'm in the market for some odd-measured measuring spoons, but I haven't gotten around to buying them yet.
In a mixing bowl, beat 2 smallish eggs (I always buy large eggs, but I picked out the two tiniest. Can you tell that the recipe calls for three eggs?) with an electric mixer until they're foamy. I used my KitchenAid for this, using the wire whisk attachment, and it only took about 2 minutes for the eggs to reach the desired consistency. Gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating until the mixture becomes thick and pale -- with a hand electric mixer, this should take about four minutes; in the KitchenAid, it took only two. Slowly beat in 1/2 a cup of vegetable oil, then add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.
On a low speed, beat in the flour mixture in three additions. You don't want to add the flour too quickly -- this prevents it from incorporating properly and you'd end up with lumpy batter. Once the batter is smooth, fold in 1 cup grated zucchini. I used a cheese grater to grate my zucchini, which proved difficult. Next time I'll just use a peeler and a knife like a normal person. You can also fold in 1/2 a cup of chopped toasted walnuts, but I didn't do that: not only did I not have any walnuts anyhow, I'm not too fond of them in my zucchini bread.
Pop the bread in the oven for about 1 hour, until a toothpick comes out clean. The top should look dry and crusty. Let it cool in the pan for about five minutes, then remove and allow to finish cooling on a rack. Or just dig in to the warm bread -- it stays together pretty remarkably, even when it's hot.
For dessert? Did I mention the snowstorm that we were hit with? Somehow, a lot of snow piled up on our balcony, and D was able to get some fresh snow for an authentic snow cone topped with maple syrup. He's been wanting to do this for years, and there was finally enough snow -- clean, pure, just-fallen snow -- that he was able to feed me two whole cups. And there's plenty more where that came from. I'm both happy and upset about the amount of snow we got: not enough to cancel work, but enough to make me a proper snow cone. Deeeeeelish.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


After traveling, there's nothing I want to come home to more than a prepared hot meal. Or semi-prepared, as was the case this last weekend, when D. made us a meatcake in celebration of my return -- I had a short visit home to see my parents this weekend. What is a meatcake? How dare you ask! Our lovely friend Sarah tipped us off to the existence of meatcake through this link, which opened up a whole new world of meatloaves for both D and I. I never thought of making a meatloaf in cake form, but it's so great: D loves meat, I love cake -- how could it possibly go wrong?
It couldn't, and it didn't. This was one of the coolest dinners I've had in a long time. The best part? When I got home, the mashed potatoes were done, as were the round meat loaves. I got to frost the cake while we cooked the crescent rolls. I love to frost, so that was a real treat.
We usually use a different recipe for meatloaf (turkey meatloaf with sundried tomatoes and roasted pinenuts is our standard fare) but I guess D decided this was a good recipe to experiment on. He threw just about everything in this loaf, and when he told me the ingredient list, I was shocked. I can't believe how much stuff he fit into that one meatcake! You could use any meatloaf recipe you like to make the cake, but I'll supply this one here, because it really is great. I think the addition of jalapeño pepper really adds a kick to the cake. We adapted Martha Stewart's Birthday Meatloaf Cake recipe to our liking and topped the cake with crescent rolls instead of cut out carrots and peas. Which would have been hella cute, but -- I don't own a "plain round tip" or pastry bags or anything like that, adding to the difficulty of creating a cute cake. But ours turned out pretty rad in the end, I must say.

Meatcake with Mashed Potato Frosting
Preheat the oven to 350º and finely dice 2 medium onions and two cloves of garlic. Cook in 1/2 tablespoon butter until soft, with a healthy handful of red pepper flakes for spice. All the vegetables in this recipe should be diced very small in order to provide a pleasant texture to the meatloaf, by the way -- we don't want no chunky loaf in our house! Add 1 diced jalapeño pepper (seeds and ribs removed, if you're wimpy like me) and 1 stalk diced celery to the pan and cook until everything is soft. In the last three or four minutes, throw in 1 handful diced mushrooms -- too many and the meatcake will get soggy, so be careful. No one likes soggy meatcake.
Set the vegetables aside to cool and mix about 2.5 or 3 pounds of raw hamburger meat with 1 cup of breadcrumbs. You can use ground turkey if you wish, but this is a meatcake, after all, so we went with pure meat. Also add 1 raw grated carrot to the meat -- grate with a zester, microplane, if possible -- you don't want long strips of carrot in your loaf. Add some fresh diced thyme -- about 2 tablespoons or so -- and mix in the cooled vegetables.
In a separate bowl, combine 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons of tasty whole seed mustard, 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, and 1 tablespoon of sundried tomato paste. Regular tomato paste would also work here, but we happened to have some sundried just hanging around, so... why not? Add these liquid ingredients to the meat and combine. You want to mix the meat by hand -- we're saving the KitchenAid for the mashed potato frosting, which needs to be as smooth as possible. Besides, this much meat won't fit in my KitchenAid anyhow. Got that? Mix by hand. Literally. Squish around in that raw meaty goodness -- it's not as bad for you as it seems. But what do I know? I always make D do that part!
After the meat mixture is throughly combined, press it very gently into two very-very-well greased cake pans (9 inch is fine.) Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes in your preheated to 350º oven or until the meat is 160º in the center -- you can use a meat thermometer for this. While the meatloaf bakes, prepare your potatoes.
Wash, peel, and cut five large russet potatoes. Rinse them to remove any lingering starch, then put in a pot and cover with cold water. Turn the stove to high and cover. Cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, until a paring knife slides into the potatoes easily. Drain the potatoes and mash with a wire whisk, a potato ricer or masher, or a KitchenAid mixer. Add milk and butter as you mash them until the potatoes are very smooth -- about 1/2 a cup of milk and 1 tablespoon of butter total, although the amount varies depending on the potatoes. You want to add the milk gradually as you mash, in order to get the right consistency. You can, if you desire, heat up the milk a bit before using it to keep the potatoes hot; alternatively, you can mash them right in the hot pot to keep them hot. Once you reach a smooth consistency with no lumps, you don't need any extra milk. If you make them with a little too much milk, simply turn the heat on medium-low and whisk until they firm up.
After your meat reaches 160º in the center, take it out of the oven and let stand in the pans for five minutes. Remove the loafs from the pans and place on a wire rack with a cookie sheet underneath it to catch any drippings. You can tent some foil over the rack to keep the meat hot at this point. Place one loaf on a cake stand (or on a platter, if you're a normal person who doesn't happen to have a cake stand lying around) and frost only the top with a generous layer of mashed potatoes. Top with some ketchup, being careful to leave a large margin around the edges so that the ketchup does not bleed through and make your cake look funny and pink instead of smooth and white. Top with the second loaf and frost the entire cake using a spatula.
You can decorate your cake a variety of ways. Martha Stewart suggests peas and sliced dots of carrot, the blackwidowbakery uses a ketchup glaze to paint a t-bone onto the cake, and we used crescent rolls -- some of which were mini (made from cutting the dough into smaller triangles.) Want cute mashed-potato roses? Fill a ziploc or sandwich bag with mashed potatoes, pressing out any air bubbles, and snip off one of the bottom corners. Squeeze the mashed potatoes onto the cake through the hole. If you know what you're doing, you can make some pretty fancy whirly things on your cake.
You just made a meatcake!! Congratulations!
You better have some company over for this one -- or some room in your fridge. Maybe even in your freezer. It makes a lot of cake.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Five Cheese Pizza with Baby Bella Mushrooms

A standard pizza consists of three lengthy steps: the dough, the sauce, and the toppings. If you have to make all of those things in one shot, boy are you in for some work. Fortunately for us, I keep some homemade sauce frozen at all times, so I was already 1/3 of the way finished with my pizza before I even left work last Thursday. Of course, if I weren't a sauce snob, I would have just used some canned red sauce, but... I'm picky when it comes to my sauce. So sue me: it tastes a lot better, it's cheaper, and it's not full of sugar and other insane things that I would never dare put in an authentic pasta sauce. This sauce from the freezer had roasted orange and yellow bell peppers in it, as well as a hefty dose of red pepper flakes, so the result was a nice, angry mixture of peppers and tomatoes. You can use any kind of tomato sauce, though, for this standard pizza -- the heart of this recipe is actually the crispy yet tender dough, which was a cinch to make, especially given that it was my first foray into baking with yeast. I know, I know... but I had a fear of ruining anything that had to rise. Until I made this dough.
I got the recipe from the most recent Bon Appétit Magazine -- I believe it's the March issue, but it could be April's -- which has a nice little feature on our friend, Giada De Laurentiis. Apparently she used to make pizza with her grandfather and has graciously passed on his recipe for a quick and easy pizza dough. It only takes an hour and fifteen minutes to make, which includes an hour for the dough to rise, and it's quite fun to get your hands dirty making authentic pizza dough, I must say. She likens it to Play-Do, but I kind of think it has the consistency of Gak. Remember Gak? In other words, this dough is a bit sticky, but it firms up well in the oven and has a wonderful consistency when baked. Not that I ever put gak in the oven....

Pizza Dough
Pour 3/4 a cup of warm (105º to 115º) water into a small bowl, then stir in 1 envelope of active dry yeast. You can find this type of yeast in the baking aisle of any major supermarket, and probably most minor supermarkets as well -- it's the most common type of yeast on the market, I think. Let the water mixture stand until the yeast powder has dissolved, which usually takes about five minutes.
Brush a large bowl lightly with olive oil -- not very much, a teaspoon or so should suffice -- and set aside. Mix together (in a new, non-oily bowl -- I almost messed this part up twice) 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 3/4 teaspoon salt (or less, depending on how much sodium you're willing to digest.) I did about 1/2 a teaspoon, which turned out fine. You might be wondering: why all that sugar? Sugar helps the yeast grow by supplying energy to the yeast, which makes it grow at a faster rate. Hooray for science!
Giada says that you should make this dough in a food processor (including mixing the dry ingredients by pulsing them a few times) but I used my handy KitchenAid Mixer. I think that I talk about this thing too much, but so what: it is my best friend in the kitchen (besides D.) You really do need a machine to process this dough, though -- I don't think that you could get the proper results mixing by hand. It is worth a try, though, if you don't have any blending tools handy. I just would be concerned about the dough becoming too tough as you work to incorporate the liquid ingredients with the flour mixture.
By now, your yeast should be dissolved. With the mixer (or processor) on low, add 3 tablespoons olive oil and the water/yeast combo. Mix (or process) until the dough forms a sticky ball. Transfer said sticky ball to a lightly floured surface -- this is the time where I wish I owned a silpat, because I used floured parchment paper, which didn't work as well as I wanted it to -- and knead until the dough is smooth, which should take only one or two minutes, tops. You can add more flour, one tablespoon at a time, if the dough is too sticky. I did not have to do this, but it varies from batch to batch.
Transfer the dough to your oiled bowl, turning over once to coat it evenly in oil. Wrap the bowl -- not the dough itself -- with saran wrap and let sit for one hour, or until the dough has risen to be about double its original size. The bowl needs to be in a relatively warm, draft-free area; otherwise, it will take longer to rise and may not rise properly. When the dough has risen to twice its size, punch down to remove air bubbles. You just made real pizza dough! Now to assemble the actual pizza...

Five Cheese Pizza with Baby Bella Mushrooms
Begin by preheating the oven to 475º and covering two baking sheets with foil or parchment paper. Never put waxed paper in the oven, by the way: it never turns out well. Take the dough from the above recipe and split in half. Roll one half into a ball, then place on a lightly floured surface. Roll out -- start in the center and move towards the edges, flipping every so often to keep the dough even -- until it is about 8x13 inches. The dough will be quite thin. Transfer the rolled out dough to one of the baking sheets and repeat for the other half.
Spread 1/2 a cup of marinara sauce over each pizza, leaving a border of about 1/2 an inch, and sprinkle with a mixture of cheeses. The recipe says to use 1 cup of grated fontina, 1/2 cup of grated parmesan, and 1/3 cup grated mozzarella per pizza, but I'm lazy so I bought a pre-packaged mixture of five "Italian style" cheeses: asiago, parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, and romano. I used about half of the package on each pizza.
Next, it was topping time. As I mentioned above, the sauce I used was pretty spicy, since it had nice chunks of roasted peppers in it. So that was kind of like using peppers as part of the topping. We went for a mushroom-only pizza in this case, but I'd like to try other things: olives, sausage, spinach, basil... the possibilities are endless. Y U M. We got a package of pre-cut baby bella mushrooms and used those as the topping. I put some on the pizza about halfway through putting the cheese on it, so that some mushrooms were coated in melted cheese after it was baked. I also put some red pepper flakes on the top of the pizza, along with some regular ground pepper, for added spiciness and flavor.
We baked both pizzas in one oven for 15 minutes, until the bottoms were browned and we couldn't stand the fantastic smell any longer. It's a very short cooking time for such a tasty dinner, mainly because the oven is on such a high temperature. We didn't even rotate the pizzas halfway through cooking: for maximum crispiness, we wanted to leave them alone. The one on the top rack got slightly burnt in the back, but it still tasted awesome. I'm definitely making this again, but next time? I'm thinking of using an olive tapenade instead of a red sauce, then putting mozzarella and whole tomato slices on top. Delicious!

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