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.