Monday, July 09, 2007

Creamy Coffee Pie (aka I love my life)

Sometimes I think we’ve all gone mad in our household. After the utterly painful uncertainty, anxiety and single-minded focus involved in renovating our house, followed within minutes (and slightly overlapped) by the exhaustion and complete lifestyle change brought on by the addition of a newborn baby, we have finally reached a comfortable and easy stage in the life of our family.

The house is finished (with the exception of all those projects that go on until the end of time, and a new major renovation that I'm planning), and The Carnivore has moved on to fun yard work during the weekends. Odd Toddler, who spent the first year of his life waking up all night every night, and was seemingly permanently attached to the breast, is now potty-trained, eager to hang out with his papa, and can usually even be reasoned with. The Carnivore and Odd Toddler often run errands together early on Saturdays, freeing me up to go to the farmer’s market (all by myself), and then they’ll often spend the afternoon together outside. It’s almost like having my old carefree life back – only better.

I think all mothers fall into this trap (how do you think my mother ended up with 39 children?). We wean the first kid, forget how bad labor was, finally get to sleep all night again, do the potty-training thing, and then decide life has gotten too easy. So we get pregnant and start all over again. Like I said, I think we’ve all gone mad.

I’m in my seventh month of pregnancy now, with 18 extra pounds of abdominal insulation in 90-degree heat, and feeling more like a hippopotamus than ever before. And my sweet tooth has decided that now is the time to come back. With a vengeance.

I got hooked on white chocolate Chips Ahoy when I was pregnant with Odd Toddler. And things would quickly turn ugly when the grocery store ran out of them. I’m sure it was that particular craving that at least partially explains why I gained twice as much weight during that pregnancy as I appear to be gaining in this one. Since that time, I’ve become much more adept at making my own desserts, and it’s a rare day indeed when I will even be tempted to eat a store-bought dessert (with the notable exception of chocolate truffles, of course).

I’ve recently gotten back into baking desserts on Saturday afternoons while The Carnivore and Odd Toddler are off somewhere in the yard, piddling and playing around. The house is strangely quiet at those times, so I’ll often listen to an NPR podcast in the kitchen and sift through my cookbooks looking for a new brownie recipe to surprise the boys with. Actually, ‘surprise’ is probably the wrong word these days, as Odd Toddler can hear the mixer from two acres away and he’s been known to come barreling into the house to grab his metal stepstool and scrape it maddeningly across the floor so that he can reach the counter and see what’s going on. “Mom!” he’ll shout, “Can I have a taste?” (Which he’ll repeat, growing ever louder, in staccato-like sequence until I give in and turn the mixer off so that he can grab a glob of batter and stuff it into his mouth and across his face with glee).

Last weekend, not sure if I would need to bring a dessert or a vegetable for a potluck that we’d waited until the last minute to respond to, I cut out a recipe for a Café au Lait pie from the AJC Food section, salivating at the thought of the flavor combinations and delighted at how, well, easy as pie the recipe sounded. When I found out only moments later that the hostess had plenty of desserts and was only in need of a side dish, I had already worked my pregnant self into a frenzy over the pie. Mildly disappointed, I tossed together a Black-Eyed Pea salad. And promptly decided that my little family would greatly benefit from the pie anyway.

The original recipe called for Cool Whip (blech) and a store-bought pie crust (argh) along with a mocha-flavored instant coffee that I didn’t have on hand, but the idea of a creamy, cold, coffee-flavored pie filling was too much to resist. With a little bit of tinkering and a whole lot of holding-my-mouth-just-right, I came up with my own version and waited nervously for it to chill.

We’re in love. The pie was elegant enough for a dinner party (not that we would have felt like sharing) and was rich and delightful. The crunchy, crumbly chocolate graham cracker pie crust was the perfect foil to the luscious creaminess of the filling, and the flavor was unique without being weird. It was a little rich for Big Mama’s taste (as she puts it, “The first three bites were great, but then it was just too much), but The Carnivore and I were huge fans. Granted, Big Mama did have a point – the pie was so rich that it ended up lasting us four or five days, but we were willing to make the sacrifice nonetheless. I can’t wait to make this again.

  • 1 1/2 cups chocolate graham crackers, crushed
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 Tbs instant coffee granules (I used General Foods International Hazelnut Belgian Cafe)
  • 8 oz heavy cream
  1. Stir together the first three ingredients, and press into a 9-inch pie plate.
  2. Bake crust at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes.
  3. Cool crust completely.
  4. Meanwhile, whip the cream at high speed in a mixer until stiff peaks are formed. Do not overbeat. Set aside.
  5. In a clean bowl, beat together the cream cheese and 1 cup of sugar in a mixer until creamy. Beat in the coffee, then fold in the whipped cream.
  6. Pour the mixture into the pie crust and smooth the top.
  7. Freeze for at least two hours before serving.

But now I'm curious. At what point can I call a recipe my own? I mean, I took someone else's recipe and switched out a couple of things, and whipped my own cream and made my own crust, but does that mean I can call this MY recipe? Or did I just ADAPT someone else's recipe? I need some help here...

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Grilled Potato Salad

My grill pan is my new best friend. Until maybe a year or two ago, I had never even tried grilling, and to this day, the only grilling I’ve done has been on a stove rather than an outdoor grill. Maybe it comes from not eating hamburgers or hot dogs, or the fact that neither my mother nor any of my roommates ever had a grill.

We have this really great stove with a grill attachment, and I slowly learned to use it for tuna steaks, but I got really irritated with it when I tried to grill sliced vegetables. Inevitably, a few would fall through the grates and into the fire, and I would mourn each casualty. But then (and this shows how little I know), I saw someone using a solid-bottomed grill pan on a cooking show and I was completely blown away. Here was a way to grill inside, without having to switch out my burners for the grill attachment AND without losing any poor little pieces to the flames.

As with most purchases though, I sat on the idea for a good three or four months before I actually took the plunge. I looked around online, browsed a couple of kitchen stores, read a few articles, and held tightly to our money until it began to bleed. And then, as much as I wanted to use all my Christmas money to, say, pay down the mortgage early or add to the meager retirement account, The Carnivore (bless him) gently coaxed me into going shopping and spending a little bit of money on some things I had been wanting. I’m so grateful.

Grill pans are beautiful inventions. And I have a crush on mine. Now that summer is here and we’re eating so many fresh vegetables from the farm, the grill pan is getting used nearly every day. One of The Carnivore’s new favorite side dishes is grilled zucchini, summer squash, Vidalia onions and bell peppers. Since its such a quick and easy way to cook, I’m freed up to work on other dishes, and its now a rare day that we don’t have two or three side dishes along with our entrée.

The CSA has opened us up to a world of new possibilities though, and where I used to do fairly predictable things with some vegetables, our weekly shares are so fresh and so flavorful that I have tried to focus on more minimal techniques, ones in which the vegetable is allowed to shine on its own or with only a little decoration, rather than getting overcooked or drowned in a sauce. But even when I use these farm-fresh veggies in some of my tried-and-true, slower-cooking recipes, we’re still often shocked at the difference in flavor and texture. I recently cooked the Italian Vegetable Soup with just-picked, organic zucchini and leeks, and the improvement was obvious. The local, seasonal cooking concept isn’t just another political/environmental/feels-good-to-be-a-martyr cultish kind of thing. Nor is it even too far out of the mainstream. I mean, the raw foods or the macrobiotic diets tend to just sound weird to most people (for more than obvious reasons), but since we’re only a few decades past when there was no alternative to eating locally and seasonally, and since those few decades have seen a marked decrease in healthfulness and an increase in obesity, well, its just not that hard to see why we need to embrace a better way of doing things.

Oops. And I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t even step onto the soapbox in this humble potato post…

In my quest for new recipes for all these summer vegetables, I’ve strayed from my usual sources and have been perusing some different cookbooks, notably Chez Panisse Vegetables (recommended by the farmer who supplies us with these delicious vegetables) and The Joy of Gardening Cookbook (which my mother had picked up for me at a yard sale a few years back). But I have found the best source has been cooking magazines. Two of my favorites, Cooking Light and Fine Cooking, are very timely and tend to focus on the season at hand. While that irritates the tar out of me during Thanksgiving (because I don’t care to read any new variations on sweet potato casserole), it means great things during the summer months.

A month or so ago, I dug out my Spring/Summer 2006 issue of The Best of Fine Cooking Fresh and I found numerous recipes that I couldn’t wait to try. The most intriguing sounding of them though was the one for a Grilled Potato Salad. And while the concept sounded counter-intuitive to me, I love-love-love potatoes and so I was game to try it. Plus, since I loathe the usual cold, mayonnaise-based, family reunion-style potato salads, the fact that this one used a vinaigrette instead really piqued my interest. Allen’s Bar and Grill, a revered institution in Athens which closed down a couple of years ago (yeah - the place in that B-52's song), had a great warm, vinegar-based potato salad that I used to devour. Allen’s may have been best known for its hamburgers, but for obvious reasons, I never tried one of those.

I’ve taken stabs at a couple of other warm potato salad recipes, and I’ve never had much luck as they’ve either been too bland or the texture has come out all wrong, so I was a bit nervous the first time I tried this Grilled Potato Salad recipe. The potatoes ended up taking longer to cook than I had hoped, and I didn’t cut them small enough the first time I made them, but WOW, we loved the recipe. Actually, I loved it so much that I’ve been making it twice a week for the past three weeks or so now. And I covet leftovers so that I can eat them for lunch during the week as well. The herbs add such a fresh flavor, and the vinegar and mustard add just enough tartness. I hope to never be parted from my beloved grill pan.


GRILLED POTATO SALAD (from Fine Cooking magazine, serves 4 as a side dish)

  • 1 lb red onions, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
  • 8 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 lb baby new red potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size (aim for roughly 1-inch cubes)
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 Tbs white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup mixed chopped fresh herbs (choose from parsley, tarragon, dill, chervil, basil and chives)
  1. Heat a grill pan over medium heat. If using open grill grates, skewer the onions and potatoes so as to not lose any through the grates.
  2. Brush the onions with a little olive oil.
  3. Toss the potatoes with about 2 Tbs olive oil. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and toss.
  4. Grill the potatoes and onions over medium heat until tender and browned (20-30 minutes for the potatoes, 10-15 minutes for the onions).
  5. In a large bowl, whisk together the mustard and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in 6 Tbs of olive oil.
  6. Coarsely chop the onions and toss them and the potatoes with the vinaigrette until coated, and then toss with the herbs. Add more salt and pepper, if needed.
  7. Serve warm.