30 December 2011

New's Year's Eve, Schmeve

Everyone gets all worked up about New Year's Eve parties, but I really like New Year's Day better.  The neighborhood is silent, thanks to hangovers and football games, and you have license to sleep in, schlep around in your pajamas until afternoon, and eat lots of fatty, starchy foods to sop up the leftover alcohol you poisoned yourself with the night before.  I also really love brunch food, but rarely have time to sit around pigging out on eggs and Bloody Marys at 11am.  So, New Year's Day can be pretty decadent, when you think about it.  I'm going to start a new tradition and throw a New Year's Day party this year--it will start at 1pm and go until people are full.  Here's what I'll serve:

Chocolaty Morning Muffins
Morning After Skillet
Coffee-laced Red Beans and Rice
Green Chili Potato Gratin
Cajun Martini (like a Bloody Mary but more...vodka-y)
atomic-strength coffee

27 December 2011

Cocktails that won't make you feel like a blimp

I am not weight-obsessed (though I was once accused, behind my back, or looking anorexic by a rather tubby hippie from San Francisco); I just don't want my drinks to make me feel so full and bloated that I cannot eat the hors d'oeuvres at the next table.  There are so many great holiday beers out there, but I feel like the Michelin Man after having one.  Ditto for regular Bloody Marys or anything with Bailey's Irish Cream in it.  Here are a few drinks that allow you to keep some space open in the food stomach; be a friend and serve some of these at your parties this season (but be sure to stock up on the meatballs, too):

Mimosa: Rub the rim of a champagne flute with the inside of a quarter-inch wide slice of fresh orange peel, then toss into the glass.  Pour in four ounces of sparkling wine, and ounce of club soda, and an ounce of orange juice.

White Wine Sangria: Pit and slice four peaches and four plums and cut 1 pound of green grapes in half.  Place fruit in a punch bowl and cover with three bottles of sparkling wine, a 12-ounces can of diet lemon-lime soda and a 12-ounce can of club soda.  Chill for at least one hour and serve over ice.

Bloody Mary: Combine 2 oz. vodka, 4 oz. low-sodium Spicy V-8, and a half oz. lime juice.  Add 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce.  Mix well, add salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with a stalk of celery and a lemon slice.

23 December 2011

Chocolate-cherry shortbread and Ginger spice cookies

I have no introduction for this.  I just really like these cookies. And it's never too late to make holday treats, even if it's December 23rd.

Cherry Chocolate Shortbread
Makes  about 40 cookies

1 cup butter, softened
½  cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose four
¼ cup corn starch
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped dried cherries
¼ cup semi sweet mini chocolate chips (or finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate)
1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 300⁰F.

Cream butter, ½ cup sugar, and vanilla extract in a large bowl.  Gradually blend in the flour, corn starch, and salt.  Add cherries and chocolate.

Form dough into 1-inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets.  Pour remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar onto a plate; dip the bottom of a drinking glass in the sugar and gently press down on each a ball of dough to flatten.  Repeat this process with all cookies.

Bake 20-30 minutes or until bottoms begin to brown.  Cool on the pan five minutes, then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I drizzled some melted what chocolate on top. 

Ginger Spice Cookies
Makes about 40 cookies

1 cup granulated sugar, plus more for rolling cookies
¾ cup butter, softened
1 egg
3 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¾  teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350⁰F.  In a large bowl, cream together butter and 1 cup of the sugar.   Stir in egg and molasses.

Add all dry ingredients (baking soda through salt)and blend well.

Pour some sugar onto a small plate.  Form dough into 1-inch balls and roll each in the sugar.  Place balls on greased cookie sheets and bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.

19 December 2011

Jenifer Rubell gets a little sloppy..and I love her for it.

My last cookbook review is a departure from the other three--there's steak and chicken all over the place, and the emphasis is on tasty but quick and relaxed cooking styles. I love it, and it has revolutionized the way I host.  (And it's not too late to order for the socialite on your Christmas list.  Yes, I said Christmas.  This is a book with steak recipes in it, after all).

Look how much mad fun she's having!

Jennifer Rubell: Real Life Entertaining.  Published by Harper Collins, 2006.

The author promises “easy recipes and unconventional wisdom” underneath a fun-loving picture of her partying down in the kitchen as she cooks.  It makes you want to be like her--fun!  Not stressed out!  Hangin’ with the guests!  And actually, this is a great handbook for getting there.

Rubell’s recipes are very simple and quick without relying on pre-packaged food; the premise is that, as the hostess, you want to spend time with your guests rather than being chained to the oven all night.  The other premise is that you live in a city with tons of friends who drop by in large numbers without warning, and you need to be able to whip up something tasty on the sly.  I do not suffer from this particular problem too often, but I have certainly suffered from the former, and it’s nice to have an arsenal of tasty, impressive-looking dishes at your disposal to make entertaining more fun.  It’s also nice to be able to do it on a weeknight for your family, guests or no.  She also cleverly includes a list of staple pantry items so you can pull these recipes off without running to the store just as the guests show up.

As for the unconventional wisdom, I would say most of it really falls into the category of giving you permission to not be a perfectionist.  She has tips in little yellow boxes scattered throughout the book offering advice on how to enlist guests in some of the prep work while keeping a fun party atmosphere, how to lay a classy table with odds and ends from the Salvation Army, and when it’s OK to serve buffet style and make people get their own damn food (hint: most of the time).  She offers recipes along with hosting advice organized into themes: Drop-In Dinners (that’s when the freeloaders show up looking for chow), Sit-Down Dinners (an elegant yet casual affair in Rubell’s mind), Brunch, Lunch Buffets, One-pot Meals, Dinner for a Crowd, and Get-togethers.  Her chapter on desserts is mostly to report that she doesn’t really like dessert, so she artfully arranges some chocolate bars in mismatched bowls and passes around the brandy.  How could you not love this style?

Perhaps it would have eventually come with age, but when I first read this book in my early 30s, shortly after moving into my first house with my (husband’s) first real, grown-up job, I was killing myself playing hostess.  Rubell’s style is welcoming, relaxed, and makes having guests a pleasure for all, and this was a revolutionary idea to me.  I can honestly say that, whether or not I follow her recipes (they’re pretty good, but there’s a lot of steak), I have become a much better hostess from adopting the ideas in this book.

From the book:

Mashed Potatoes with Figs and Parmesan (from the chapter entitled Sit-Down Dinners)

Serves 8

7 dried figs
10 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ cups grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a pot of water to boil.  Place the figs in a bowl and cover with some boiling water ladled from the pot.  Soak for about 10 minutes.  Place the potatoes in the pot.  Boil them until they’re fall-apart tender, about 10-12 minutes, then drain and place in a serving bowl.  Remove the figs from the soaking water but don’t throw the soaking water away.  Chop the figs and add them to the potatoes with ¼ cup of the soaking liquid, the butter, olive oil, Parmesan, salt and pepper.  Mash everything with a fork until it’s well-combined but still a little lumpy (homemade style).   To be served with Grilled Skirt Steak with Orange-Mint Chimichurri and Thyme-Roasted Brussels Sprouts.”

16 December 2011

Recipe for chocolate muffins

I hate breakfast; I know I need to eat something, but I am always too groggy to decide what it should be.  And I have learned from experience that Chili Cheese Fritoes, at least at my age, will not get you through to lunchtime.

I have taken to making and freezing large quantities of muffins so that I don't have to do much thinking in the morning.  This recipe delivers some healthy ingredients (veggies, grains, fiber...) in a tiny chocolate cake package: a perfect reward for getting out of bed. These are also dessert-like enough to please friends and family who are visiting this time of year, the freeloaders...

Chocolaty Morning Muffins
 Makes about 20

Cream together:
1 ¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup vegetable or canola oil

½ cup milk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Then add:
1 ¼ cup whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
¼ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 cups shredded zucchini
¼ cup walnut pieces
1/8 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/8 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 °F.  Mix batter thoroughly and pour into paper-lined muffin tin.  Bake 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean.  Cool thoroughly on a wire rack.  Will keep, frozen, up to one month.

12 December 2011

Cookbook Review #3: World Vegetarian Cuisine

I know, I know--it's another vegetarian cookbook.  But why am I apologizing?--everyone knows vegetables are more interesting than meat.  Consider it my gift to you--healthy eating in the new year.  And it can be your gift to someone who needs it in your family...

Celia Brooks Brown: World Vegetarian Classics.  Published by Pavilion Books, 2005.

This book was a gift from my sister-in-law, who sampled one of its recipes at a dinner party.  I can honestly say that if she never gives me another gift, I will be perfectly satisfied to have gotten this from her.  It’s that good.

I love travel, but  am cheap. This book sets out to share recipes (entirely executable, despite the daunting task of trying to emulate other cultures) in tandem with some basic geographical and cultural facts, and each section is edited by a chef who claims expertise in that area.  The photography is also beautiful, though being British, Brown uses measurements which occasionally translate awkwardly for Americans (she provides the conversions, they’re just strange amounts).  Almost all ingredients can be easily procured in the local supermarket, and the flavors really open up new worlds of cooking.  Chapters are organized by geographical region: North America, Latin America/Caribbean, Northern Europe/Russia, Southern Europe, Middle East, North and West Africa, Central, East, and Southern Africa, Japan/China, India/Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia (who knew they’d have such interesting recipes!?).  This book is not only a great collection of recipes, it’s a fascinating trip around the world.   One of my favorite casseroles comes form here:

From the book:

Photo courtesy of pink-apron.com.  Check her out!

Macaroni Baked in Yogurt (Armenia)

Serves 4-6

Olive oil, for frying and greasing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
7 oz. dried macaroni or other pasta shapes
2 medium eggplants (about 1 lb. total), sliced into rounds about ¼ inch thick
2 cups plain yogurt
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons dried dill
1 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
3 large tomatoes, sliced into thin circles
3 ½ oz. feta cheese
1/3 cup slivered or flaked almonds

Grease an 8 x 12 inch casserole dish with olive oil and set aside.  Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Bring a large saucepan of water to boil and salt well.  Cook the macaroni until al dente.  Drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add a shallow pool of oil.  Add the eggplant slices and fry until soft and golden.  Drain on paper towels.

Beat together the yogurt, egg yolks, fennel seeds, dill, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl.  Stir the pasta through this mixture to coat evenly.  Scoop into the baking dish and smooth the surface.

Cover the pasta with interleaved rows of sliced cooked eggplant and tomato.  Sprinkle the feta and almonds over the top.  Cook in the oven until hot and bubbly and golden on top, about 20-25 minutes.  Serve with a crisp green salad.”

09 December 2011

Warm Mushroom and Leek Salad

OK, I realize this is going to make me seem schizophrenic after my last, somewhat unhealthy post with a recipe for potatoes baked in cheese, but I actually don't eat like that every day. I also have to try harder in the winter not to pig out on heavy stuff, as hot food is the main way I keep warm in this drafty old house.  In the summers, it's easy  to keep my dinners light by grazing in my garden and making salad, cutting up some cheese and fresh bread from the farmer's market,  and maybe throwing in some kind of olives (often from my martini).  But in the winter, a plate of Romaine lettuce and some hard carrots just doesn't do it for me; it leaves me feeling even colder than before dinner.  Warm salads (a poetic way of labeling sauteed vegetables) are my winter solstice answer to the problem of overstuffing myself at dinner; this one will also work well as a topping for rice or pasta (perhaps some ramen?) for a more filling meal.

Warm Mushroom and Leek Salad

Serves 4

2 small leeks, washed and sliced
12 oz. dried shitake mushrooms
8 oz. white button mushrooms, quartered
½ yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 heaping tablespoon white miso paste
2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon  soy sauce

Soak the shitake mushrooms in hot water in a large bowl for 1 hour or until they are soft and pliable.  Remove mushrooms from liquid, reserving 1 cup of the soaking liquid for the broth, squeeze out excess moisture, and chop into bite-sized pieces.

Heat a large skillet or wok over medium heat and add the peanut oil.  When it shimmers, add the onion, garlic, and leek.  Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are very soft, about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms and soy sauce and continue to cook until mushrooms release their liquid, about another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the reserved mushroom soaking water, miso paste, and ginger.  Pour over the mushroom mixture in the skillet and stir thoroughly to incorporate.  Serve warm with bread, rice, or pasta or as a side to accompany fish or poultry.

05 December 2011

Cooking with Photographer Heidi Swanson

Continuing my December project to share with you the greatest cookbooks in my kitchen, I humbly present to you photographer and cook Heidi Swanson.  You can follow her blog, 101 Cookbooks, to get a better sense of her style.  If you like this (it's what got me hooked), I guarantee you will appreciate her published works, as well.

Heidi Swanson: Super Natural Every Day.  Published by Ten Speed Press, 2011.

Swanson is a gifted, minimalist food photographer, which just adds to the food-porn nature of this beautiful book.  Written in a calm, Zen-like language and employing a whole heck of a lot of slow-cooked grains, one might dismiss this book as a one-note hippie handbook from a Californian artist.  She’s vegetarian, cooks heavy on the fresh produce, and uses spelt generously.  But the recipes are easy to execute and consistently delicious.  And perhaps more than any cookbook of late, I have learned so much from it.  These recipes may sound simple, but Swanson manages to come up with some rather unique flavor and textural combinations that I had never thought of, all while using very simple, down-home techniques.  She freely mixes and matches different cooking traditions in Harissa Ravioli, Dilled Green Beans with Seitan, and Chanterelle Tacos, among others.  She also gives some great tips on utilizing leftovers, cooking slow things (like beans and heavy-duty grains) ahead and freezing, and has a terrific section on homemade snacks that will keep you from feeling tempted by those crappy, dried out Starbucks pastries in the middle of the afternoon (see below).

Some ingredients will be difficult to acquire in rural areas, but all are available online in bulk.  And yes, the recipes basically all have whole grains and vegetables as their base (and cheese…SO much cheese!), but each one manages to taste unique and exciting, nonetheless.  The book looks good, reads good, and makes you feel like a better person just for owning it.  And the wonderful surprise about a book like this is that you will actually use it, and be healthier (and happier) for it.  It’s a great choice for anyone interested in being healthier and not sure where to start (or for people who are already eating this way and want some new options).

From the book, one of our new favorite recipes in my house:

Oatcakes (In Swanson’s charming introductory essay to this recipe, she mentions the ubiquitous nature of at cakes in her local San Francisco coffee shops, describing the disappointment in how dry and heavy they are. This is her at-home replacement, smaller, tastier, and lower in calories):

“Makes 12

3 cups rolled oat
2 cups spelt or whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
 2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup flax seeds
¾ cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup peanut or coconut oil
1/3 cup unsalted butter
¾ cup maple syrup
½ cup natural cane sugar (we use brown sugar in my house)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the top third of the oven.  Butter a standard 12-cup muffin pan.

Combine the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, flax seeds, and walnuts in a large mixing bowl.  In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine the oil, butter, maple syrup, and sugar and slowly melt together.  Stir just until the butter melts and the sugar has dissolved, but don’t let the mixture get too hot.  You don’t want to cook the eggs on contact in the next step.

Pour the oil mixture over the oat mixture.  Stir a bit with a fork, add the eggs, and stir again until everything comes together into a wet dough.  Spoon the dough into the muffin cups, nearly filling them.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the edges of each oat cake are deeply golden.  Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for a couple of minutes.  Then, run a knife around the edges of the cakes and tip them out onto a cooling rack.  Serve warm or at room temperature.”

02 December 2011

Time to get fat on cheese and potatoes!

This is a little fussy, but it makes a boatload of food and it's totally worth it.  It's salty, it's spicy, and it's full of cheese.  If this crappy weather is what we have to put up with until April, then we've earned this.

Green Chili and Potato Gratin

Serves 6-8

4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and sliced ¼-inch thick
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 cup prepared green chili sauce
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 oz. (1 cup) grated parmesan cheese
4 oz.  (1 cup) grated sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat a 3-quart baking dish with butter or cooking spray.

Place sliced potatoes, and broth in a large pan or Dutch oven.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until potatoes are tender but still hold together, about 10 minutes.  Drain in a colander when done, but reserve about a ½ cup of the cooking water.

Meanwhile saute the onion and garlic in a small frying pan with some olive oil over medium heat until onion is tender, about 10 minutes.  In a small bowl, combine the onion mixture, green chili, and ½ teaspoon of the salt.  Set aside.

Ladle just enough of the potato cooking water into the baking dish to lightly cover the bottom.  Then place approximately one half of the potato slices into the baking dish, overlapping slightly and dusting with a light layer of salt (about ½ teaspoon).  Top with ½  of the grated cheeses,  then all of the green chili mixture.  Cover with the remaining potato slices in the same fashion as before, then top with remaining cheese.  Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.  Remove foil and bake another 10 minutes or until the top starts to brown.

28 November 2011

Cookbook Review: Bittman's Vegetarian Cooking

Not sure what to buy your loved ones for Christmas/ Hannukah/ Kwanzaa/ Winter Solistice/ Early President's Day this year?  How about a great cookbook?  I'm not talking about one of those crappy cookbooks with poorly written recipes or boring dishes (so, no Easy Livin' Microwave Cooking, please).  Cookbooks can open a new world of flavor profiles (I learned that smug phrase from watching Top Chef), teach you better technique, and generally change your life when they're good.

This is not an acceptable holiday gift. 
So in the spirit of giving (my opinion, for free), I am adding a new feature in December: every Monday, I'm publishing a review of one of my favorite cookbooks, along with a representative recipe so you can see how genius these authors really are.  Let's start with the obvious...

Mark Bittman: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  Double B Publihsing, 2007.

There is a carnivorous version of this book, too, but as you already know, I often find meat boring, even when I am eating it.  This book has recipes to convince any meat-lover to go meatless once in a while (Bittman himself says in the forward that, although he cooks a whole lot of meat, he often eats like a vegetarian at home).  Chapters are divided into logical categories: salads, soups, eggs/dairy/cheese, fruits and vegetables, pasta, grains, etc.  Many recipes are inspired by other national cuisines (Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian all feature prominently) but all but the most authentic-sounding Asian fare can be made with basic American grocery store items.  He also includes a short essay on planning a vegetarian menu and gives sound advice on stocking the pantry and purchasing quality equipment.

I have tried most of the recipes in this over-900 page book, and they all work perfectly.  I am not even tempted to adjust and experiment as I follow along, like I am with so many other cookbooks; I have learned that if I trust Mark Bittman, he will take care of me.  Flavor combinations are not generally very surprising, and there is nothing avant garde in this book.  Directions are thorough and very intelligently written with occasional sketches to help guide technique.  And what I like best about this book is Bittman’s indefatigable practicality; most recipes have an “add-ins” or “variations” section immediately following, and he recycles leftovers in some ingenious ways.  The result is a cookbook that really teaches you the basic techniques of many stock dishes (omelets, stir fries, homemade pastas…) and then gives you tons of variations on those dishes for an incredible amount of variety.  This is a great book for novice and experienced cooks alike, and can serve as a guide for any vegetarian or omnivorous diner trying to cut down on meat without sacrificing great flavors and variety.  For a professional food writer and chef, it is laudable that Bittman gives such respect to his meatless cuisine, and this book can really serve as a bible for vegetarian cooking.

A recipe from the book:

Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

¼ cup neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, plus more as needed
4 5-inch corn tortillas
¼ cup refried beans (recipe in book) or any soft, well-seasoned beans
4 eggs
Sat and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup Salsa Roja or Cooked Tomatillo Salsa (recipe sin book) or store-bought salsa
¼ cup queso fresco or grated Monterey Jack of cheddar cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley for garnish

1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat.  When hot but not smoking, fry the tortillas one at a time until softened and heated through, about 3 seconds per side.  Make sure they do not crisp.  Drain on paper towels.

2. Spread 1 tablespoon beans in the center of each tortilla and set aside.  (You can prepare the dish to this point up to an hour or so in advance.)

3.  Use a little more oil to fry eggs sunny side up, sprinkling with salt and pepper as they cook and following the directions for Fried Eggs on p. 168.  Put an egg in the center of each tortilla, then top with 2 tablespoons salsa and 1 tablespoon cheese.

4.  Carefully transfer the tortillas to a baking dish that holds them snugly.  Bake until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes, and serve immediately.

Simplest Huevos Rancheros.  Omit the tortillas and beans.  Scramble the eggs in oil; as they are beginning to set in the pan, stir in the salsa and cheese.  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper to serve.

Huevos Rancheros with Red Mole.  A luxury, but a mist if you have leftover sauce: Instead of salsa, use the Red Mole sauce from the Cheese Enchiladas recipe on page 223.  Garnish with chopped tomatoes and scallions if you like.”

25 November 2011

Salmon Patties like me old great-grandmammy used to make

OK, that title is totally confused; my great-grandmother was Swedish-American, and she made salmon patties for special occasions. (Leave it to Midwesterners to haul out the canned fish for "special occasions".)  What can I say, I get sappy around the holidays.  I have revamped them ever-so-slightly (added some flavoring) to fulfill those nostalgic cravings from which I sometimes suffer, but if I am careful to present them just right, these are also acceptable for guests at cocktail hour. What really dresses them up is a simple salad and sauce to top the cakes.

PS--I like these best with a dirty martini or gin and tonic.  Anything with gin, really.

Salmon Cakes Deluxe

Serves 6

2 cans salmon, flaked

1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Vegetable oil, for frying

Heat oil in over medium high heat in a large skillet. Combine canned salmon, egg, 1/4 cup bread crumbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Form into patties about 4 inches in diameter. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels, place on serving platter, and top with cucumber salad and dill sauce.  

Cucumber salad:

1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1 tablespoons chopped fresh parley
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and top each salmon cake with equal amounts of salad.  

Dill Sauce:

2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon dill, minced
1 teaspoon wasabi paste (less for milder sauce)
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl.  Add one dollop to each cake which has already been topped with cucumber salad.  

18 November 2011

Cocktail Time: Bourbon-orange Smash

I have been slower to catch on to bourbon because it tastes so much like...well, bourbon.  But I'm starting to figure out that fruit juices make almost anything better.  And with the relatives coming over next week, you might as well whip up a batch of something strong to greet them.  Case in point:

Bourbon-Orange Smash

Serves 8
Zest of 1 orange, peeled into strips and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon bitters
3 cups orange juice
3 cups club soda
1 ½ cups bourbon (12 oz.)
In a large pitcher using a wooden spoon, mash the orange zest and sugar with the bitters.  Add the orange juice, club soda, and bourbon, stirring to combine.  Serve over ice.

16 November 2011

Countdown to Thanksgiving: showstopping sides!

Insert jazz hands here!  Alright, I took that cutesy title from an article I got paid to write, so don't judge.  But here's the thing: vegetables really get screwed over at Thanksgiving.  At best they are ignored--steamed and tossed with a pat of butter and some salt; at worst, they are abused beyond all recognition (if you're from the Midwest, you know what I'm talking about).  If we spent half the amount of time caring about the way we seasoned and prepared our vegetables as we do our meats, those side dishes would be the most interesting items on the table.  So this Thanksgiving, I am on a quiet campaign to make people care about their veggies.  No more cheese sauce!  No boiling the stuff until it no longer needs to be chewed!  Try some of these on for size...

Herbed Roasted Green Beans

Serves 6 as a side

2 lbs. green beans, trimmed
½ cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon chopped dried rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped dried thyme
½ teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a bowl; stir to coat thoroughly.  Spread out on a rimmed, parchment-lined baking sheet and roast on the middle rack of the oven at 475°F for 20 minutes or until beans are tender and starting to brown.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Steamed Carrots with Citrus-Dill Butter

Serves 6 as a side

5 cups carrots, peeled and sliced into ½-inch thick coins
4 teaspoons orange juice
1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons fresh lemon and/ or lime zest
1 teaspoon fresh dill
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Steam carrots to crisp-tender, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Drain and place carrots in serving bowl; toss with all remaining ingredients and season to taste with salt and pepper.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Zesty Brussels Sprouts

Serves 6 as a side

1½ lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt to taste

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil and then add the Brussels sprouts, cooking until they begin to brown all over, about 10 minutes.  Lower the heat to medium-low and add the lime juice plus ¼  cup water.  Toss in a pinch of salt, stir, and cover the pan.  Cook until Brussels sprouts are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes and season with salt and more lime juice to taste.

11 November 2011

A bread recipe for the impatient

I love bread (all carbs, really), and I love beer.  I do not love sitting around near the kitchen for three hours while my bread dough rises, then gets knocked down, then rises again, then...hmpf.  I'm already bored talking about it.  Are you with me?  This stuff is delish and you'll be done in an hour.  

Quick Beer Bread

3 cups al-purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning (optional)
12 ounces beer
1 tablespoon olive oil

Heat oven to 375°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 

In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients thoroughly with a fork.  Create a well in the center and pour the beer slowly (it will foam considerably).  Add olive oil and combine with your hands.  When it all pulls together, you should have a somewhat sticky blob of dough.  Arrange into a ball and place in the center of the parchment paper.  Slit a deep X on the top of the loaf and bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes.  For best results, cool on a wire rack for one hour before cutting

09 November 2011

Countdown to Thanksgiving: turkey shmurkey

I have never really liked turkey--when it's freshly cooked, it tastes like nothing, and the next day, it tastes gamey.  It's stringy, it easily gets dry, and it takes forever to thaw the damn thing out (unless your last name is Trump and you buy one that hasn't been frozen, but who does that?! Occupy Wall Street!)  I don't think I'm alone here, as evidenced by the turkey deep fryer, flavor injection kits, and various other Martha Stewartisms devised in recent years to cover up the taste of this nasty, weird-looking bird.  Can we quit with the turkey, already?  If the pilgrims could have eaten good food before slowly making enemies of themselves in the New World and destroying its beautiful indigenous cultures, they would have.  I'm sure they would have dressed a little better if they had known how, too.  I know, I know, I'm getting controversial here.  I don't want to go all Anthony Bourdain on you, I'm just saying it's not 1492.  So stop eating like it is (that goes double for you, all of central Illinois!)  Try some of these main dishes instead:

Mushroom and Potato Pie (V)

Serves 6-8

1 pre-made pie crust
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 lb. mixed mushrooms, sliced
1 large Russet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch pieces
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 eggs
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar (or other) cheese

Prebake the crust: place in the oven and turn temperature to 425°F  (no need to preheat); poke the crust around the edges with a fork and place in the oven for 10 minutes, or until it starts to look dry on the surface.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and potato and cook, stirring often, until potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and cook another 10 minutes, or until liquid has evaporated.  Remove from heat and stir in the garlic, salt, and thyme.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, and mustard.  Season with black pepper if desired.

Sprinkle half the cheese in the bottom of the pie crust.  Top with mushroom mixture, pour egg mustard over that, and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese.  Lower the oven temperature to 350°F and bake one hour, or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Beer Braised Pork Roast (not V)

Serves 6-8

1 3-lb. pork sirloin roast
1 teaspoon ground chipotle
1 teaspoon New Mexico chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons salt
2-3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
12 oz. beer (light or medium dark)
1 cup water

Combine chipotle powder, chili powder, cumin, and salt in a small bowl  Rinse the pork roast in cold water and pat dry.  Rub the spice mixture all over the pork on all sides, working it in to the flesh a bit.

In a Dutch oven over medium high heat, warm the oil.  When you see wisps of smoke, place the roast in the pan and sear on all sides (about 4 minutes per side).  Pour in the beer and water, lower heat to medium low, cover, and allow to cook on the stove 1 hour and 45 minutes.  Remove pork from the pan and allow to rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes before slicing.  Can be served with au jus from the pan on the side.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Spaghetti Squash Smothered in Indian Flavored Vegetables (V)

Serves 6

1 medium spaghetti squash
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1 tablespoon minced ginger
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 cups chopped Swiss chard or other cooking greens (if using spinach, increase to 4 cups)
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon lime juice

Slice squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, salt the insides, and lay skin side up in a casserole dish.  Pour one cup of water into the dish, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake at 425°F for 20 minutes or until the squash halves are soft.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  When it shimmers, add the onion and carrot and sauté until onion is soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.  Add the mustard and cumin seeds, garlic, jalapeno, and ginger, and sauté until seeds begin to pop, about another 5 minutes.  Stir in the greens, remaining spices (including salt), tomatoes, tomato paste, lime juice, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf, reduce heat to medium low, and cover.  Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes (the longer, the better).

When squash is done and your sauce is ready, scrape out the insides with a fork and place in a large serving bowl or on a platter. Dress with a splash of olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  Smother with tomato sauce and serve with sour cream or plain Greek yogurt on the side.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Perfect Roast Chicken (not V)

Serves 8

Olive  oil 
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus sprigs for garnish
8 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 roasting chicken (6-7 pounds)
kitchen twine
1 lemon, sliced 

Heat oven to 400°F. Lightly coat a roasting pan and rack with cooking spray. Combine rosemary, garlic and salt in a bowl. Remove giblets and neck from chicken and trim off all visible fat. Starting at the neck cavity, gently loosen skin from breasts and drumsticks; spread rosemary mixture evenly under skin. Tuck wing tips under back of chicken; tie ends of drumsticks together with twine. Season with additional salt and black pepper to taste; place breast side up in pan. Roast, basting twice with pan juices, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh (and not touching bone) reads 175°F, about 1 3/4 hours. Let stand 10 minutes before carving. Garnish with rosemary sprigs and lemon slices, if desired, and serve

04 November 2011

Ramen deserves some repec'

I love the hyperlink in this blog post's title; I have always loved ramen, and now I can hold my head high when I say that (or at least at medium height).  It's fast and cheap, yes, but ramen also has a light, airy texture when cooked, and there is a distinct wheat-y flavor you just don't quite get in other pastas.  I often turn to ramen when I am impatient and have the munchies late at night, but I dress them up just a bit...

Chamomile Poached Noodles

Oh yeah, those noodles I’m talkin’ ‘bout are ramen!  You can use soba or udon, but the delicacy and prominent wheat flavor of ramen really compliment and carry the chamomile, which is not really that strong to begin with.  Not a fan of chamomile?  Try the same amount of jasmine tea; it’s a bit subtler, but also nice.

Serves 2 as a side

1 package ramen noodles
3 tea bags or 1 heaping tablespoon loose chamomile flowers/ tea
1 teaspoon lime juice
Salt and black pepper to taste

Fill a small saucepan 2/3 full with water and the tea bags or loose chamomile flowers.  Cover and bring to a boil.

When water is at a rolling boil, remove chamomile flowers with a skimmer (tea bags can stay) and replace with ramen noodles.  Cook until tender, drain all but about 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid, stir in lime juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make this a heartier snack or side, place frozen, shelled edamame in the water for about the last 45 seconds of the noodles’ cooking time.  OR, stir in fresh chopped scallions to the finished product.

Psst...Ramen is also what I use in my Hot and Sour Sickie Soup!

29 October 2011

Happy Halloween, blah blah blah

I don't really like Halloween--small children are trained to go begging door-to-door for candy.  What kind of holiday is that?  It's lame.

I remember when I was in sixth grade (the oldest grade in my elementary school), I was sure we wouldn't have to dress up for Halloween anymore.  Don't get me wrong--I always dressed up with everyone else, but it was merely out of peer pressure and license to eat too much candy.  I wasn't going to be the only other kids, besides Terri the Jehovah's Witness, not partying with everyone.  But I had been waiting to be old enough to end the charade, and I thought, surely as the Big Kids in the school, we were far too mature for such crap.  I was wrong.  I half-heartedly dressed, once again, as a princess that year, but I was pissed about it.

Now I am 37 and most of my friends still like dressing up like weirdos.  I don't get it, but at least they drink instead of eating Milk Duds.  Those things suck.  Here's one for you, Halloween fans!

Dia de los Muertos Strawberry Margaritas
Serves 4
3 1/2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
2 1/2 cups crushed ice
1/2 cup tequila
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons triple sec
lime wedges or garnish (optional)

Combine all ingredients except lime wedges in a blender and process until mixture is smooth.  Pour into glass and garnish each with a lime wedge if desired.  
Eat some guacamole with these, OK?

28 October 2011

Mild Squash Soup

It is definitely becoming squash and gourd season, so here's a soup that's milder than the link I just sent you to...

Mild Winter Squash Soup

Serves 6
4 black peppercorns, plus ½ teaspoon black pepper
4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups peeled and diced winter squash
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the whole peppercorns with the cilantro sprigs.  
In a soup pot over medium-high heat, bring the stock and water to a boil, then add the pepper mixture, garlic, and squash.  Return the mixture to a boil and add the soy sauce.  Cover and let cook until squash is fork-tender, about 7 minutes.  
Turn of heat, stir in vinegar, and hand mash the soup a bit with a potato masher, leaving some chunks for texture.  Garnish with extra cilantro leaves and pepper if desired.  

26 October 2011

Eating tapas across the street from Macy's

Ondo’s Tapas Bar at Cherry Creek

Just a half-story beneath the street is a calm, chic haven from the shopping madness that is Cherry Creek.  Its spare, boldly colored décor and flamenco guitar music, while corny-sounding, is rather pleasant, and the wall fountain cleverly disguising the concrete wall that lines the front “patio” is as inviting an eating area as anything I’ve experienced in Denver. Ondo’s offers a menu exclusively comprised of tapas, heavy on the Northern Spanish culinary influence, carafes if homemade sangria, and clever twists in classic cocktails.  Sounds like a nice place after a long work week to gather with friends, right?  It is.

Cute patio at Ondo's.

Happy hour, which runs from 4-6:30pm weekdays, is worth going early: half-off sangria and 2$ pintxos (individual portions of tapas) served under glass domes at the bar encourages the spirit of taking you time and sampling at a great discount.

Northern Spanish cuisine is not exceptionally bright or spicy in flavor, but what Ondo’s does with mild staple ingredients like potato and egg is well-balanced and finely executed.  It really is a lot of egg and potato, though.  And lots of ham and cheese, as well.  I found the tapas I tried to be satisfying, but nothing knocked me over the head or caused obsessive research on my part to find out how to recreate the recipe.  I ate egg and potato torta on a piece of bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, Monte Enebro cheese with quince paste, pecans, and honey (that was a good one!),  and chick peas in a mild broth with little bits of charred chorizo.  They were all tasty, but I think I can make them at home.  That is not to say you shouldn’t go to Ondo’s; there is certainly a value in appreciating someone else’s high standards and letting them do the dishes.  I’m just warning you that you will not learn new truths about the universe from anything you try here.

Our exceptionally competent waitress (really--whoever you were serving the girl with the glasses and her bald husband, you deserve a raise) informed us that Ondo’s is particularly known for their cured meats and croquetas, and I appreciate the tip.  Their lomo (salt-cured pork) had a salty, briny taste you cannot easily pick up at Safeway, and the croquetas were a marvel of creamed spinach and pine nuts encased in the most delicate batter I have ever seen, deep fried to crisp perfection.  If I can amend my previous statement, that was the one recipe that boggled my mind, for sheer execution alone.  These were definitely the two stars on our table.

Serrano ham and manchego cheese tapas

The sangria was fine; the red wine is freshened with sparkling water and has some chopped green apple in it.  I always prefer harder stuff, but it seemed more socially acceptable before a long drive back to Greeley, and it complimented everything I ate just fine.  Everything we ate was well prepared with high-quality ingredients.  It was dressed up comfort food, to my taste, but along with the clean, urban atmosphere and peaceful, very knowledgeable service, it was a nice night out.  And we still made it home in time for Law and Order.

21 October 2011

My favorite disguise for cauliflower...

I actually love cauliflower; as a kid, I loved my Grandma's heavily steamed (disintegrating) cauliflower drowning in butter that she used to serve for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Unlike all the other sides, this one didn't go into one of her fancy crystal serving dishes--she plopped it down on the table in the saucepan where it was cooked.  Maybe she didn't want to bother because she knew what I had yet to learn: a lot of people don't like cauliflower.  I don't know why, but I have seen grown adults act like total babies when they see a piece of cooked cauliflower in their food.  But it's cheap (most of the time), nutritious, and relatively free of pesticides and other scary modern things you have all over your nice, juicy strawberries and apples from Safeway.  And if I haven't sold you yet, maybe some fried onions and a whole bunch of cheese will do the trick.  

Cheesy Cauliflower Pie
Serve 6
1 frozen or refrigerated premade crust
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-size pieces (about 1 1/2 cups florets)
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon dried thyme
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon prepared mustard (I prefer Dijon)

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Place frozen pie crust on a baking sheet, poke with a fork in a few places, and prebake at 400°F for about ten minutes, or until crust is getting flaky on bottom.  
Meanwhile, in a parge skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  When it shimmers, add the onion and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the cauliflower,  teaspoon of the salt, and thyme, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower softens, about 10 minutes.  Season with pepper and set aside.  
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, the other teaspoon of salt, mustard, and the milk.  When the pie crust is ready, remove it from the oven and build your pie: sprinkle half of the cheese over the bottom, spread the cauliflower mixture evenly over that, pour the eggs mixture on top, and sprinkle the other half of the cheese on top.  I generally place a pie crust shield around the outside of the pie at this point to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
Place the pie in the oven, reduce heat to 375°F, and bake until golden, about 35 minutes.  Serve with tossed salad for a filling meal! 

19 October 2011

Eating in the City of Presidents

Last Saturday night, I found myself in charming Rapid City looking for a good meal and a generous glass of wine (the wine goes without saying, right?).  Extensive research on Open Table yielded four restaurants in the city, and after a complex equation involving reading reviews and checking time availability (I‘m too old to eat dinner at 9pm, thank you very much, Corn Exchange), I chose Delmonico Grill on Main Street.

Main Street in downtown Rapid City, by the way, is adorable; a cute central area with fountains and impromptu live concerts, boutiques, the four “foodie” restaurants Open Table noted, and for some odd reason, at least eight coffee shops within a four-block radius.

I don’t know if the other three restaurants acknowledged as being “Fit for Foodies” are, but Delmonico is not.  Nicely decorated with the uniform slate gray walls, high ceilings of an early 20th century building, distressed hardwood floors, and  lots of space around tables, the look is decidedly “Midwest tries to do fancy“.  Which is fine, but nothing special.

Organization, or perhaps work schedule,  was the first apparent problem at Delmonico.  My friend and I had a reservation for 7pm; it took us ten minutes of standing at the front of the house before the hostess appeared to even take our names.  She was visible, don’t get me wrong--she was bussing tables and appeared to be trying to placate a rather fussy-looking two-top the whole time we waited.  But as a result, no one was there to actually do the job of a hostess.  Fifteen minutes more, and we were finally seated, at 7:25pm, for our 7pm dinner reservation, after watching the hostess set our table in fits and starts amidst interruptions from other customers and wait staff.  Sigh.

Our table service was excellent (thanks, Matt); the waiter appeared quickly to get our drink orders, was knowledgeable about the menu, and had that knack for appearing just when we were ready to order or had a question.  The restaurant’s policy, or perhaps it was Matt’s, regarding substitutions was also very friendly; my companion easily changed the side that was supposed to come with her dish, which is an understandably frustrating thing for some chefs to handle.

The wine list was long and represented Midwestern tastes--Jam Jar Merlot was as sweet as the Lambrusco I used to drink as a twenty-something in Italy, and there were several Rieslings and Piesporters.  There were others, too, but if you have a sweet tooth, you will definitely be satisfied with the wine selection.  I ordered the seared ahi tuna with Tonoto sauce and asparagus as my side (I loved that I got to choose my side), and it was really lovely.  The thin, mild tomato (Tonoto) blended sauce in the bottom of the dish was nothing special, but the ahi was seared to perfection and topped with a wonderful, generous garnish of fresh parsley, red onion, diced tomato, and capers.  The asparagus was not seasoned at all, but its crisp-tender consistency was just right.  I also had a homemade Caesar salad to start, and the dressing was quite assertive.  Except for the lack of salt, I loved it, actually--present anchovy and a bracing garlic flavor showed an aesthetic towards actually being able to taste flavors in your food--but it was a bold move for a restaurant filled with middle-age couples and business professionals.  I can imagine some complaints about it, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps Rapid City likes its garlic as much as I do.

My friend did not fare as well.  She started with the French onion soup, which was salty and pleasantly flavorful, with a strong presence of sherry.  Again, bravo on the bold flavors, but some may describe the lack of balance in these starters as a bit too rough for fine dining.  She then ordered the seafood of the day, which was a chili-lime rubbed seared salmon.  The sear was incredibly thick and hard, the fish inside was bordering on dry-- in other words, too much time in the pan.  The most unfortunate aspect to the fish was its flavor, however: no chili-lime to speak of, but rather fishy.  (It always strikes me as humorous when we complain about fish being too “fishy”, but after all, that strong flavor is a sign that it’s none-too-fresh, isn’t it?)   She substituted the chili-lime rice (I wonder if that flavor would have appeared!) for the rosemary-garlic mashed potatoes.  She thought they were bland; I thought they were subtly scented with rosemary and appropriately salted, like good comfort food.  We both agreed, however, that they were over-whipped to the point of being almost gummy.   I would suggest, if one is to offer something as down-home as mashed potatoes with the skins in, hand “smashed” potatoes might be more appropriate.  This over processed mash needed some texture and levity.

I will say this for Delmonico Grill: on a Saturday night in mid-October, it was filled to the gills, with no sign of slowing down when we left after 8:30pm.  This might mean it really is one of the best restaurants in town, but if so, Rapid needs a new kid on the block.  The front of the house was a hectic mess, the food was quite mixed in quality, and this made Delmonico far from the home-run that a restaurant with $30+ entrees should offer.  One would need to become a regular to learn which menu items are worth ordering, but it’s not worth the expense.