Saturday, September 27, 2008

Strawberry Cream Cake

Cakes rarely get me all hot and bothered, but, whooee, my heart is just going pitter-patter over this one. See that picture? That was my third piece. Gone, apparently, are the days of traumatic cakes. Long past is the trepidation leading up to the birthdays of my children. This is a new era. I am evolving.

I wanted something simple for Little Miss Piggy's first birthday. No giant party. No pinatas, no invitations, no goody bags. She was turning one, for pity's sake, and wasn't the least bit aware of the significance of this day. We still have plenty of birthdays ahead of us in which we can go completely overboard and buy a lot of stuff she doesn't really need and fill her little head with unrealistic expectations that will need to be surpassed in each successive year.

Simple was what I was after. A little cake. Something that The Big Boy and I could put together with any old recipe. No computations whereby we would need to recalculate recipes to fit larger pans. No decorations, not even a single piped rose. Single batches of batter. Less than one box of butter.

Isn't that really what life is all about anyhow? Limiting oneself to less than one box of butter? Somebody call Paula Deen. I might be on to something here.

Of course, being myself, I still waited until the last minute to search for a cake recipe. It wasn't like I didn't know this day was coming, but procrastinating I was. I just, oh I don't know, I guess maybe I think it best not to plan desserts too far in advance. The anticipation probably would have killed me for one thing, because truly when a girl craves something sweet, she doesn't exactly want to wait a couple weeks to satisfy the yen. And I'm fickle. I could have planned to my stony little heart's content, but you know I would have changed my mind 7.9 times between then and now.

And so it was that two days ago, as I was making my grocery list no more than 15 minutes before heading to the market, I scratched that little stress point behind my ear as I rolled my eyes up in dismay at the realization that I still needed a cake recipe. Ack. To a normal person, this might not have been such a big deal. After all, how hard is it to reach up and pull down your trusty little cookbook and choose a recipe from the three or four options listed under 'cake?' Not hard, you say? Try being me sometime, and you'll see. I have more than one cookbook. More, even, than two.

I have an embarassing quantity of cookbooks. I don't really want to count them. Please don't ask me to.

And that doesn't even take the internet into consideration. Do you have any idea how many cake recipes there are on the web? I had FIFTEEN MINUTES, I'm telling you, 15 little old minutes to make my list and go to the store. Just thinking about it now is making me scratch that little stress point again. I am feeling traumatized, and it was only a few paragraphs prior that I said, and I quote, "Gone, apparently, are the days of traumatic cakes."

Anyway. Lucky for me, I keep a 'To Be Cooked' binder of clipped recipes, categorized by type, and I remembered there were at least a handful of cake recipes that I had put in there as possibilities for the kids' future birthdays. So I paged past the Chocolate-Espresso Roulade (which I will obviously make for my own birthday) and something involving Kahlua (which didn't seem entirely appropriate either) and then I came upon this one. A recipe I had clipped more than a year ago from an issue of Redbook, of all unlikely places, for Strawberry Cream Cake. The best cake recipe for a 12 month-old dimpled, curly-headed, always-dressed-in-pink little girl? Check. Simple like I had planned? Not so much.

Multiple trips to the grocery store ensued, along with more than a handful of phone calls to my sister-in-law and mother-in-law who know much more about cakes than I do. Did you know using cake flour is imperative in a recipe that calls for such? Were you aware that cake flour is not the same thing as pastry flour? Had you ever noticed that cake flour is in a box near the cake mixes instead of in a bag next to all the other bloody flours?

Me neither.

This cake isn't for the faint of heart. It isn't June on this side of the country, and strawberries and raspberries are most assuredly NOT in season anywhere in this state. Cake flour is probably not a staple in most people's kitchens. But the recipe is not at all complex, and really doesn't take that long to put together. I made it a day ahead of time (because I have a painful fear of being late) and stored the cake in the refrigerator overnight which, as it turns out, was an unplanned stroke of genius for which I will take credit anyway since it allowed the macerated berries' juices to seep down into the bottom layer of cake, infusing it with flavor and giving it that wondrous soggy texture that you get with a Tres Leches cake. It was like an upscale strawberry shortcake, with real whipped cream instead of that frightening whipped topping that comes in a tub, and cake that tastes like cake, not like a box.

Cakes don't usually do very much for me, but I'm already planning to make this again next week. If the proper occasion doesn't present itself, I'll just make something up.


STRAWBERRY CREAM CAKE (from Redbook, serves 12 to 16)
  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising - look for the stuff in the red box by the cake mixes)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 lb strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 6 oz raspberries
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup strawberry jam (I liked Dickinson's Organic Fruit Spread), divided
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans and then line the bottoms with waxed paper. Grease the paper as well, and then flour the pans, tapping out excess flour.
  2. Sift cake flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl.
  3. Combine milk and 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract in a glass measuring cup.
  4. In an electric mixer on low speed, beat butter until creamy.
  5. Gradually beat in 1 1/2 cups sugar.
  6. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat the mixture for four minutes.
  7. Beat in eggs, 1 at a tiime, until well blended, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
  8. With mixer on low speed, beat in flour mixture in thirds, alternating with milk mixture, just until blended.
  9. Spoon batter equally into prepared pans and spread evenly.
  10. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick or knife comes out clean when inserted into the center.
  11. Remove pans from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes (do not wait much longer than 10 minutes though, or it will be more difficult to remove cakes from their pans).
  12. Run a knife around sides of pans and invert cakes onto wire rack (or parchment paper-covered baking pans) to cool completely.
  13. Combine strawberries and 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl. Let stand for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves and juices form. Gently stir in raspberries.
  14. In an electric mixer on high speed, beat heavy cream, sour cream, confectioner's sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract until stiff peaks form when beater is lifted.
  15. Peel waxed paper off cake layers and place one cake round on serving platter (this is what those fine little cake stands are for).
  16. Spread bottom cake layer with 1/4 cup of the strawberry jam.
  17. Spoon 1 1/2 cups of the berry mixture (using most of the juices) over jam, spreading evenly. Do not worry about liquid seeping off the cake and pooling around the edges. This is a good thing. I'm getting all hot and bothered again just thinking about it. Set remaining berry mixture aside until cake is served.
  18. Top berry mixture with 3/4 cup of the frosting.
  19. Top with second cake layer.
  20. Spread top cake layer with remaining 1/4 cup of jam.
  21. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.
  22. Refrigerate for at least a few hours to allow juices to seep into cake.
  23. Serve cold, topping the slices with remaining berry mixture.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Summer Corn Soup

My trepidation over the end of the summer crops has manifested itself in painfully obvious ways in my recipe choices lately. There was that recent Summer Vegetable Risotto, a Summer Vegetable Saute, and now I bring you a Summer Corn Soup. It's just that summer is almost over, you see, and I want to devour the last of the season while I still can.

At the farmer's market on Saturday, I searched each of the tables before I came upon one lonely stand with a box of corn still available. This soup recipe was in the August issue of Bon Appetit (which arrived in my mailbox in early-July) and I clipped it straightaway, adding it to my binder of Recipes to Try this Summer. But there were just so many of those sorts of recipes and then the summer, as it is wont to do, got away from me.

I might have just left this particular recipe in the binder with all the others that I am saving for next year, especially with corn season having passed so fleetingly this year due to the continued drought, but the cook's notes actually said, "When corn season is over, this soup is one of the dishes I miss most."

Well, doggone it, I can't just let that go. I want to know what I'll be missing come October. It's a character flaw. One of many.

So like I said, there I was on Saturday morning, groggy with too little sleep, crook-hipped from the 20-pounder tucked into the baby sling, bent precariously over a tattered box of barely-holding-on corn. The cobs were small, the husks dried and papery, and the kernels a little worse for the wear towards the ends. I might have chalked it up to bad timing and just moved on, but there wasn't a single piece of Zephyr squash left, my potato farmers weren't even at the market that day, and I was still a bit bummed over the lack of onions. Besides, they were practically giving the corn away at $0.60 per ear.

I tinkered around with the recipe a little to work with what I had on hand and to make up for the fact that I would most certainly not be using bacon in my garnish. And then, well, the recipe was a little fussy to be honest, and I was going for a more rustic texture than the strained silkiness the magazine was after, so I simplified matters considerably.

We were all very pleased with the final result and once again found ourselves with a dish that just oozed the tastes of summer. The texture was a little like a chowder with chewy bits of chopped corn kernels; the onion-carrot-celery trinity added it's pronounced flavor to that of the sweet corn and, oh, it was such a beautiful summery color, a pale orangish-yellow that seemed such a splendid way of enjoying soup in the heat of the summer. To go alongside, I sliced thick slabs of fresh whole-wheat sourdough bread and toasted it lightly on both sides before topping it with shredded Smoked Gouda and then running it under the broiler to melt the cheese. Soup just isn't soup without cheese toast to dip in and get soggy with added flavor.

For lunch the next day, I tasted the soup cold and decided I liked it just as well that way, too. 'Tis my kind of meal, to be sure. Next year, I think I shall take this soup along on a picnic with crackers and goat cheese. Actually, if I can find even a few ears of corn this weekend, I might just still do that.


SUMMER CORN SOUP (adapted from Bon Appetit, serves 6)
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 4 ears of fresh corn, kernels cut from cobs, 1/3 cup of kernels reserved for garnish, cobs broken in half and reserved
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled, thinly sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp rubbed thyme (or 2 large fresh thyme sprigs)
  • 2 fresh rosemary sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ground white pepper
  • 1 green onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  1. Bring milk and corncob halves (not the kernels) just to a boil in a heavy medium pot, taking care not to scald the milk. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep while sauteeing vegetables. Set aside.
  2. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.
  3. Add onion to pan, sprinkle with salt, and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not let onion brown.
  4. Add corn kernels (all but the 1/3 cup set aside for the garnish), carrot, celery and garlic to the pan; cook until vegetables are soft, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes.
  5. Add 2 cups of water, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, and milk with corncobs. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Cover partially (tilt the lid), reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.
  6. Remove and discard the corncobs, the fresh herb sprigs, and bay leaf. Using an immersion blender (taking care to NOT turn it on until already immersed in the liquid - I speak from experience), puree soup until smooth. Conversely, soup can be pureed in a stand blender in batches, removing center piece of lid to let steam escape and covering the top with a dish towel to avoid nasty burning splashes.
  7. Season soup to taste with salt and ground white pepper.
  8. In a small bowl, combine reserved 1/3 cup of corn kernels, green onions, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper.
  9. Divide among bowls, sprinkle with garnish.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tastes Like Summer

Apparently, I haven’t been paying very careful attention to the seasons. I live in The South, you see, where we tend to sweat on Thanksgiving, complain bitterly in early February when the afternoon temperatures refuse to reach sixty degrees, and all don our bathing suits on the first hot day in March (even though we've been known to have blizzards before March is over).

There have been signs that summer was coming to an end. The heat has finally broken here, and I think I even made it through the whole day today without choking on the still, humid air that’s been hovering so oppressively for the past three months or so. I mean, I knew it was ‘late summer,’ as I like to refer to the month or two following the end of berry season, and I was well aware that school had started back in session, but I hadn’t gotten anywhere close to putting away the flip-flops so it was with no small measure of alarm that I reacted to the news that the first day of Autumn is next week.

Next week? And here I thought I was so attuned to seasonal eating, yet I had absolutely no idea that I should start looking ahead for some new sweet potato recipes. Corn is on it’s way out, the figs are long gone, squash is getting harder to come by, I can’t find a local fresh onion to save my life, and the first day of Fall is on Monday?


My refrigerator and countertops are flush with summer produce at the moment, so there truly isn’t much call for panic yet. Just a couple of days ago, I picked up green tomatoes, mushrooms, okra, garlic, Swiss chard, pole beans, potatoes, spinach, zucchini, and corn from Locally Grown so it still looks like summer in my kitchen. And Friday, in a desperate quest to calm my anxiety over the approaching shortening of the daylight, I made it my mission during menu-planning to make the next few evening’s dinners taste like summer as well.

I’m still sitting atop a fairly intimidating stack of recipes for summer produce and I want to wade through as many of these as possible before I have to pack these away into a folder for next year like so many swimsuits. And even though I said there was no need to panic, the truth is, I’m suffering near-anxiety attacks at the moment. Even with the afore-mentioned pile of vegetables in my house, I still got up a little ahead of the crack of dawn this morning to hit the farmer’s market and snap up whatever else I could still get my greedy little hands on.

There wasn’t a single piece of yellow squash in sight, and the last few ears of corn, which I madly stuffed into my tote bag, were looking a little worse for the wear. I did score some whole-wheat sourdough bread from Luna Baking Corp which set my senses afire, and I happened upon some lovely yellow and red bell peppers that I stocked up on as well, but the end of summer is clearly staring me down right now.

I’m coming undone, I tell you. And frankly, I’m wasting time here imitating the rabbit from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when what I should be doing is sharing the last of my summer recipes, right? There’s just no time to waste.

Today, with a discordant array of vegetables in stupendous enough quantities that I can’t really drag my feet on cooking them, I scrabbled around for a recipe that would use the widest variety and I stumbled upon a recent Cooking Light offering for a Corn and Summer Vegetable Saute (note please how much lovelier their photo is than mine). To be sure, it seemed entirely too simplistic for my taste, but since I will be subsisting on the slightly less-flavorful frozen vegetables in a month or so, this is the perfect time of year to tread lightly and let these sweet veggies stand on their own. And let’s be honest, I’m always wary of new recipes and yet most of the time, I’m pleasantly surprised.

This evening, along with Mushrooms with Mozzarella using local shitake mushrooms, and Italian Egg Sandwiches made using local eggs and that glorious whole-wheat sourdough bread that rocked my whole world, I quickly threw together the vegetable sauté dish and was nearly knocked over by the simple beauty and purity of taste. It was flat out scrumptious, and frankly I can’t figure out exactly why. There was nothing unexpected, no exotic amalgam of spices, no complicated techniques, just a few fresh vegetables sautéed in olive oil and a little bit of garlic, tossed with fresh herbs and seasoned with salt and pepper. Simple, in the best sense of the word.

But you’ll have to hurry. Unless you live in Florida or California, you’ll have a most difficult time finding fresh vegetables of this caliber for much longer.


SUMMER VEGETABLE SAUTE (adapted from Cooking Light, serves 4 as a side dish)
  • 2 to 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions (about 4)
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 cup sliced fresh okra (about 4 ounces, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick)
  • 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels (from about 2 ears)
  • 12 ounces cooked black beans (or a 15-ounce can of black beans, drained and rinsed)
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  1. Heat 1 Tbs oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onions and garlic to skillet; saute for 1 minute.
  3. Add okra to skillet; saute for 3 minutes, letting it char in spots (yum).
  4. Reduce heat to medium and add bell pepper and jalapeno to skillet; cook 5 minutes, adding more oil by tablespoonsful if needed.
  5. Add corn; cook 5 minutes (adding oil if needed), allowing corn to char in spots.
  6. Add beans to skillet and cook for another 2 minutes, or until beans are heated through.
  7. Remove from heat, stir in parsley, a pinch of salt and a couple grinds of pepper. Taste and add more salt & pepper if needed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A New Sermon

I think it is high time we all took a little break from discussing my farmer's market jaunts ad nauseum, don't you? After all, I've droned on and on about squash and cucumbers and kale and all the rest for long enough now. And ya'll have been so patient with me, even going so far as to encourage me in this madness of healthfulness.

I appreciate you guys, really I do. And that's why I've baked you a present. And taken a picture of it, because there just wasn't quite enough to share, as it turned out. But I will let you have the recipe. And then I promise to stop beginning all my sentences with contractions.

I failed to go to the farmer's market this past Saturday, and sometime early this week, I realized we had cooked our way through every single one of the vegetables that had been rolling around in the crisper drawer and lolling about on my countertops. It was a lonely feeling actually, but since I didn't particularly feel like going to the supermarket and loading up on foods from far-flung places, I poked around in my freezer and pulled out some of the sauces I had frozen from our CSA produce earlier this summer, and went about my business making some easy pasta dishes for us to subsist on. After all, it would only be a few days until Thursday, today, when I would be able to go to Locally Grown and re-load on some more fresh veggies.

The thing is though, I get bored in a hurry. So since I wasn't having any fun planning dinners and coming up with new ways to cook squash, I poked around looking for a new dessert recipe to satisfy my urge to tinker in the kitchen. Ack, but everything I ran across just seemed so, well, wrong, I guess. It's not as if I have anything against sugar (far be it from ME) or serious dessert binges (you guys haven't forgotten last winter's calorie meltdown, have you?), but this time of year, I just don't feel like going all out with candy-making or triple-layered-brownie-baking or any of that sort of thing.

Before anyone thinks I've lost my rocker, you DID see that picture of pie a few inches north of this paragraph, right? Oh yeah, I made a pie. And it was chocolate.

See, a while back on 101 Cookbooks, Heidi posted a recipe for a chocolate pie that used tofu (!) and chocolate, one lonely egg, a hunk of cream cheese, a graham cracker crust using honey instead of sugar, and very little else. I was intrigued. With a capital 'I,' no less. And this seemed like the perfect time to pull that recipe out and give it a little whirl.

I mean honestly, if it weren't for the graham crackers, this would be health food. Which is why I was a wee bit nervous about the whole thing, if I'm completely honest. Tofu? In a pie? Under normal circumstances, I might have considered that a deal-breaker, but I was feeling adventurous. And I really wanted some chocolate pie.

Oh, my. Now you KNOW I wouldn't have posted a picture of this thing if it hadn't blown me away. Imagine the consummate chocolate cheesecake, with the perfect firm, thick texture and rich, luxurious mouthfeel. Then subtract the cloying aftertaste, the overly-sweet flavor, and most of the calories and the fat.

Can I get an Amen?

Using honey instead of sugar gives the crust more of a light, floral flavor, and lends a cohesiveness that is often lacking in graham cracker crusts. And I went for dark chocolate chips in the filling, which makes for a rather elegant, grown-up dessert when it's all said and done (although neither of my children got that memo and it turns out, they love it equally). We ALL enjoyed it quite well actually, even The Conservative Carnivore who, you would think, might be the first to take umbrage with having tofu in his pie.


HEAVENLY PIE (adapted from Country Wisdom and Know-How and 101 Cookbooks, yields 8-12 servings, depending on how self-controlled you claim to be)
  • 2 cups well-crushed graham crackers
  • 1/3 cup (about 7 Tbs) melted butter
  • 2 Tbs honey
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 8 oz silken tofu
  • 1 egg
  • 6 oz dark chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli 60%), melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  1. Combine the cracker crumbs, butter and honey. Press mixture into a 9-inch pie pan.
  2. In an electric mixer at medium speed, blend together the remaining ingredients until lumps are gone and mixture is very well-combined.
  3. Pour the filling into into the pie pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Pie will be fully set, but will not have cracks in the filling.
  4. Chill completely, for at least a few hours, before serving.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Highly Addictive

This little recipe should come with a warning label. Honest to goodness, it is more addictive than those Crispy, Flattened Potatoes that I've been running on about all summer long. Orangette posted the recipe for these mushrooms, adapted from Jamie's Italy, back in May (in MAY!) and I was intrigued enough to bookmark it, but you know how time just gets away from you? Well, that's what happened.

That, and sometimes I'm just not as smart as I like to think I look.

I mean, what could go wrong with this recipe, right? It was developed by Jamie Oliver, who has the only cooking show I still watch these days, and was heartily gushed about by Molly Wizenberg, who has arguably become one of my favorite food writers. And she made these mushrooms sound positively luscious.

So what did I do? Well, I filed it away for future reference and then, week after week, came upon it and thought, "Oh, yeah. I really ought to try that sometime."

Brilliant, huh?

In my defense, I was waiting for the day (which never did come, I might add), when I would find some local wild mushrooms at the farmer's market. This recipe is such a simple one, with only a handful of ingredients, that I knew it would be in tip-top form only with the best-quality inputs. And truly, even though Orangette made it sound mouth-wateringly close-your-eyes-and-moan scrumptious, I was still just a tad bit suspicious. After all, how could some sliced mushrooms topped with a little melted cheese really be such a delectable treat?

I have trust issues.

Finally, earlier this week, I was making a mad dash through the supermarket on a desperate soy milk run when I came to a screeching halt directly in front of a display of cremini mushrooms. Normally, especially in the summer when I'm flush with locally-grown veggies, I don't even cut my eyes to the side while rushing through the store to pick up staples, but the pull was just too strong this time. I fought the urge for a split second and then threw the package into my cart, knowing full well that I had an extra ball of mozzarella in my fridge that needed to be used and fast.

I don't even remember what else I made for dinner that night. The mushrooms were THAT good. So good, in fact, that after my eyes rolled back in my head with the first bite, I started pulling the serving dish closer and closer to my end of the table. I love my family, but not quite enough to share these. And it's kind of sad to admit this, but I wolfed them down so quickly that only minutes later, I was completely unable to actually describe their taste - not really an ideal position for an amateur aspiring food writer to find herself.

I knew I had to share this recipe though. Not having words to describe the flavor is NOT a good excuse to keep this all to myself. Really, you will love it. Would you just trust me, just this one time?

'Course, you might have trust issues, too. Lucky for us all, I've had uncontrollable hankerings for these mushrooms all week, and The Big Boy has been hassling me to death about them, so I made them again just now for a little snack.

They're enchanting, I tell you. And the taste is, oh, for pity's sake, it's truly indescribable. Have you heard of that supposed fifth flavor, umami? That word was, I swear, invented for this exact recipe. I'm not out on much of a limb with that theory either, since umami is in fact used to describe the flavor of mushrooms.

Each bite of these little slices of mushroom has hints of sweetness from the cheese that plays beautifully off the slight saltiness of the dish. And just those few short minutes under the broiler cook the mushrooms to the most perfect texture, enough to bring out the tenderness and to make them ooze a little bit of juice into the platter, where it marries with the olive oil to create the most ambrosial bread-dipping sauce you've ever had.

If I had any more mushrooms, I would make them again right now. And I wouldn't share.


MUSHROOMS WITH MOZZARELLA (adapted from Orangette and Jamie's Italy, yield: never enough)
  • 4 oz wild mushrooms, sliced thinly (about 1/4-inch thickness)
  • 2 to 3 oz fresh mozzarella
  • tsp or so good-quality olive oil
  • pinch of dried Italian seasoning, dried thyme, or 1/4 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • pinch of kosher salt
  1. Wait until no one else is around so you don't have to share.
  2. In an ovenproof platter or small casserole dish (about 8-inch by 8-inch), lay the mushroom slices in a single layer.
  3. Pinch off nickel-sized pieces of the mozzarella and scatter over the mushrooms.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil.
  5. Sprinkle with the herbs and salt.
  6. Place under the broiler for about 2 minutes, just until the cheese is bubbly and brown in spots (see photo above).
  7. Serve immediately, with bread to sop up the crazy-good juices in the bottom of the dish.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Summer Vegetable Risotto

I owe The Carnivore an apology. Please don't tell him I said so, of course, because I was mighty cranky with him recently when he made a crack about my Squash Ribbons, but it is because of that precise incident that I have discovered the best, most divine, end of summer dish.
We grow weary here at the cusp of Fall as I bring home the same basket of goodies each week from the farmer's market. Corn on the cob, green beans, squash, potatoes, all the vegetables that make you sing with joy in July can become somewhat cumbersome by September. The vacation fun is over, the pool is closed, the noise of football is ubiquitous, and the heat is just beginning to break, but the garden still coughs up the same old things.
Don't get me wrong. I could eat corn and beans and the like all year long if they were available, and I'm already getting hinky about the approaching season-end for these most beloved of vegetables, but I get in a rut this time of year and just plain stop trying new ways of cooking this produce. I trot out the same recipes week after week without realizing it, still appreciating the simple flavors of these fresh-picked, locally grown veggies, and before I have even noticed it, we're all just the slightest bit bored with the platters of food that keep showing up at the dinner table.
Turns out though that The Carnivore hits that threshold a little earlier than the rest of us, and when he hits it, it is quite a collision. This past Saturday, just a wee bit weary from waking up earlier than I would have preferred in order to high-tail it to the farmer's market before rushing off to The Big Boy's soccer practice which was then followed by a six year old's birthday party, I put what I thought was a remarkable feast on the table, given the circumstances. We had brown rice, Bitter Greens with Sweet Onions and Tart Cheese, Squash Ribbons with Red Onion and Pecorino Romano, and fresh Texas Pinkeye beans that I had simmered in vegetable broth and smoked paprika.
I slipped into my seat at the table happy as a clam, my plate piled high with vegetables purchased directly from the farmers that very day, and dug in enthusiastically. But I barely had the first bite in my mouth when The Carnivore picked up his fork, looked down at his plate, and grumbled, "I sure will be happy when I see the last of these squash ribbons."
Oh. No. He. Didn't.
"More for me," I blinked furiously, pushing his serving onto my plate with the back of my fork, muttering about passive-agressiveness and complaining bitterly about having to say a temporary goodbye to one of my favorite side dishes.
He tried to backpedal a little, saying it wasn't that he didn't LIKE that particular dish, just that he was sick of having it so often, but the damage had already been done and I was crushed. The truth is, we had been eating squash ribbons so often because we'd already gotten tired of the grilling and sauteeing options, and even though we both adore the squash casserole recipe that I use, it's a little too, well, casserole-like to have too frequently.
I was stumped. And there was still another two pounds of Zephyr yellow squash in the crisper drawer.
Last night, after eating Spicy Corn on the Cob and Crispy Flattened Potatoes yet again, I realized I was ready to admit that The Carnivore might have a point. If even those addictive potatoes had become routine, it was time to get a little more creative around here. It was time to go index cruising. So I pulled out the stepladder and ascended to the top of the cookbook shelves where I pulled down the usual suspects: Deborah Madison, Mollie Katzen, Moosewood Restaurant, Chez Panisse. I came up empty the first go-round, but then I noticed the Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, a ten year old book that my mother had found for me at a yard sale and which had languished, forgotten, under a pile of cookbooks on the top shelf. I felt a little silly when I happened upon it, and was appalled that I hadn't yet flipped through it. The book was put together by the people who began a very popular farm stand market in New England and who have long preached the now-familiar sermons about local and seasonal produce.
The book is filled with gorgeous line drawings and is printed in very visually-pleasing maroon and green ink colors. First and foremost, a cookbook must LOOK yummy, you know? And there are tips galore for working with different fresh vegetables along with a very diverse, yet entirely approachable collection of recipes to try. I think I've found my newest favorite summer cookbook. And, lo and behold, when I flipped through the index to see what I could find for yellow squash, I lucked into a Summer Vegetable Risotto under the Vegetable Entrees heading.
I love risotto. Love, adore, treasure, and hold dear. And this recipe, oh my glorious stars, it called for all manner of summer bounty. I made a few very minor tweaks to the recipe, and used some just-picked peppers, basil and tomatoes from my mother's garden along with the squash I'd been so worried about, to put this together for tonight's dinner.
I had a few nagging doubts about the recipe, not the least of which was the tomatoes, which made me more than a little nervous because I was afraid they would overpower the other flavors and turn the rice an odd shade of pink, but my worries were for naught. This dish was everything I love about risotto and much, much more. It was warm and creamy and a little bit rich, but had a subtle vibrancy of flavor from the fresh vegetables, and a glorious counterpoint in texture when garnished with some toasted slivered almonds.
The Carnivore agreed it was most delicious, and went back for seconds. Even The Semi-Permanent Houseguest, who generally eschews all forms of vegetables, ended up devouring his helping. The individual vegetables didn't try too hard to each be the star of the dish; instead the flavors melded together seamlessly, with only the bell peppers asserting themselves ever so slightly.
I think I'm in love.
SUMMER VEGETABLE RISOTTO (adapted from Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, serves 4 as a vegetarian entree)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 large bell pepper (I used three little purple bells), stemmed, seeded and diced
  • 2 cups diced summer squash
  • 1 cup diced peeled fresh tomatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 - 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted (stir in a skillet over medium heat for 2-3 minutes to toast)
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the broth to a gentle simmer over low to medium heat.
  2. Combine the bell pepper, squash and tomatoes in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt, toss, and set aside. Do not be alarmed if the tomatoes ooze some juice - it will help to develop the flavors of the risotto.
  3. Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion to the pan and saute until tender, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the rice to the pan and stir quickly to coat the rice with the olive oil.
  5. Add 1 cup of the simmering vegetable broth and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has been nearly completely absorbed.
  6. Add one-third of the diced vegetables to the pan, along with another cup of broth, and cook, stirring often, until liquid is mostly gone again.
  7. Repeat with another 1/3 of veggies and another cup of broth, stirring until broth is again absorbed.
  8. Repeat one last time, with the remaining vegetables and the remaining broth, stirring constantly until broth is mostly absorbed.
  9. Taste the risotto - if rice is al dente, the risotto is fully cooked and the heat can be turned off. (If the rice is not yet done, add 1/4 cup of water and stir constantly again until liquid is absorbed. Keep adding water, by the scant 1/4 cup, until rice is done.) Total cooking time will be 20 to 30 minutes, and will most likely not require the addition of any water at all.
  10. Stir in the Parmesan and nearly all of the basil, about a 1/2 tsp of pepper, and taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed.
  11. Serve immediately, topped with remaining basil and the toasted almonds.


Check out The Farmer's Market Report to find out what some other local eaters are finding at their markets.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Whole Wheat Decadence

I was trying desperately this afternoon to not accomplish anything. I start my Saturdays much earlier than I would prefer, heading out of the house before eight to get to the farmer's market and then to the soccer field for The Big Boy's extremely cute but largely unproductive "organized sports time" by 8:45 am. By the time we all return home, it is still much earlier in the day than I even used to wake up, and I'm already whooped. So today I threw all caution to the wind and made a concerted effort to ignore the laundry, the dishwasher that needed to be unloaded, the floors that were a day past needing to be swept, and the usual daunting pile of paperwork on my desk.
But I can't just sit around, you know. So I've long since learned that the best way to LOOK productive and to actually BE accomplishing something without really working is to make dessert. I mean, sure, cookies weren't exactly on my to-do list for the day, but who's going to call a woman lazy when she's in the kitchen baking cookies?
I'm not stupid.
In fact, I've been feeling a little restless lately, so I was trying to assuage my unrest by working on some new recipes. I even happened upon some very promising prospects as I paged through a few cookbooks, but I was down to my last stub of a stick of butter and was therefore operating under some strict limitations. In a fit of frustration, I pushed all the decadent chocolate cookbooks aside and went back through my binder of attempted Cooking Light recipes, some of which had been duds, but all of which used scant amounts of butter and were therefore fair game for the day.
Eureka. I had forgotten all about a White Chocolate, Strawberry and Oatmeal Cookie recipe that we had fallen head over heels for last summer and lo and behold, here I was with not only all the ingredients I needed, but a desire to experiment.
The last time I made these, I used rolled oats and straight all-purpose flour (as the recipe suggests) with wonderful results, but I've long ago grown tired of white flour and since I had used all the rolled oats making granola yesterday, I was down to a box of steel-cut oats. I had read somewhere that, in most baking recipes, half of the regular flour can generally be replaced with whole-wheat flour without compromising the original recipe too much, so I thought it worth a try. And frankly, I had no clue what steel-cut oats were but was willing to go out on a limb with them, even after I opened the box and saw that they looked nothing like regular oats. These were (don't I feel silly) cut into much smaller pieces (hence the, um, word "cut") but certainly seemed worth a shot.
So, shoot them I did, and oh my stars, these cookies were sublime. The outside crisped up nicely in the convection oven, and the inside was incredibly chewy and toothsome. The steel-cut oats provided fabulous texture and the whole-wheat flour did not make the cookies any more dense than would be palatable. And they were just sweet enough from the white chocolate chips, but were tempered by the slight tartness from the dried strawberries.
And hey, what with the oats, the dried fruits and the whole-wheat flour, they're practically a health food, aren't they?
WHITE CHOCOLATE, STRAWBERRY AND OATMEAL COOKIES (adapted from Cooking Light, yields about 24 cookies)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup steel cut oats (or regular rolled oats)
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), softened, plus a wee bit more for greasing the pans
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup coarsely chopped dried strawberries
  • 1/3 cup premium white chocolate chips (such as Ghirardelli)
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, oats, baking soda and salt.
  2. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the sugar and butter until well-blended.
  3. Add vanilla and egg to mixer and beat well.
  4. Gradually add flour mixture to the mixer, beating just until blended.
  5. Fold in the strawberries and white chocolate.
  6. Drop dough by approximate tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheets.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes on the convection setting, or 12 to 15 minutes in a regular oven, until cookies are lightly browned.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Granola Girl

Granola is one of my very favorite things. I’ll fight you to the death if you accuse me of being granola, and it is that precise connotation that leads me to rarely even use the word in a sentence. But see, I was raised by hippies. Not in a commune or anything like that, though my family is only slightly less odd, but where I come from, eating granola on an everyday basis is perfectly acceptable. To this day, I get a wee bit miffed when anyone laughs at the fact that I eat granola.

The stuff is just utterly delicious. It’s one of the only breakfast cereals that appeals to me, it makes a wonderful snack bar (which for some reason, no one has a problem with at all), it is a fabulous stir-in to vanilla yogurt, and I think it adds great texture when thrown into the blender while whirring up a smoothie. My uncle used to make granola when I was a kid, and one of my fondest memories is of him sneaking me out of bed one evening to munch on some freshly-made granola together after Mama had rightly sent me to my room early for some now-long-forgotten transgression.

The thing is I had never made my own granola before today. I became addicted to Kashi’s Orchard Spice when I was given a case of it this summer, but to buy it myself would break the bank. Then, my favorite vegetarian restaurant The Grit sent The Carnivore home with a big bag of their house granola recently, and I fell madly in love with it as well. To my chagrin, the recipe does not appear in their cookbook.

So I decided to bite the bullet and start looking around for a recipe to make my own. Amazingly though, even after my mini-tirade above about thinking people ignorant who would scoff at my granola cravings, I have always thought of granola-making as being a, well, a strictly hippie kind of thing to do.

Look, I never said I wasn’t capable of a double-standard.

The whole thing just seems so, I don’t know, zen, I guess. All this time I assumed I would have to find a recipe in some mimeographed 1970’s-era guide to life. I was sure that the ingredient list would be the kind of thing that would necessitate hikes to big-city health food stores, and I knew, just knew, the whole thing would be an hours-long affair.

I had horrifying visions of having to all join together, hold hands, and sing Kumbaya by the light of the moon.

So I avoided the whole prospect. Like the plague. Until this morning that is, when I ran out of granola and had nothing to eat for breakfast. I went to 101 Cookbooks for inspiration, trusting Heidi to have found a suitably natural granola recipe while still keeping me somewhere at least close to the mainstream, and she did not disappoint. Her recipe, taken from The Essential Guide to the Kitchen, came pretty close to what I had on hand so with a few minor substitutions, The Big Boy and I raided the pantry and set to work.

Turns out, granola is not only easy and relatively quick to put together, but is one of those framework recipes that I’m so fond of, whereby you can substitute to your heart’s content without sacrificing the general concept. Granola is, after all, different every time.


GRANOLA (adapted from The Essential Guide to the Kitchen, yields enough to share)
  • 6 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup sliced almonds (or whatever other nut strikes your fancy)
  • 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut (if using unsweetened coconut, add 1/4 cup of honey to the measurement below)
  • 2 Tbs flaxseed meal (sounds hinky, I know, but can be found in any supermarket)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 4 Tbs sesame oil (use the light kind only - the dark one would be far too pungeant)
  • 1/4 cup dried apples, coarsely chopped (any dried fruits will work)
  • 1/4 cup dried peaches, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup dried strawberries, coarsely chopped
  1. In a large bowl, stir together the oats, nuts, coconut and flaxseed meal.
  2. In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the honey and oil, and stir for a couple of minutes, until warm and easy to stir.
  3. Pour the warmed honey and oil over the oat mixture and stir to combine.
  4. Spread the mixture in one very large jelly roll pan or two rimmed cookie sheets, and bake at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes (until browned and slightly crispy), stirring every 15 minutes or so.
  5. Set aside to cool. Mixture will dry up slightly and crisp up a little more as it sits.
  6. Pour the oat mixture into a large container and stir in the dried fruit.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Power of Suggestion

I don't want to give The Anonymous Lurker a complex or anything, but do you see what you made me do? One little comment where you request that photos of the food be posted here along with the recipes, and just look what happened. I am not the typical oldest child. There is an unexplainable desire to please that comes from somewhere within me, and even after I politely declined to post recipe photos, I found myself not eight hours later crouching over a garbanzo salad with my camera, working on getting just the right lighting and wiping the edges of the bowl clean like a crazed food stylist.
I have obsessive tendencies, you see. Just a few short years ago, I decided I needed to learn how to cook something besides spaghetti and burritos if I was going to be any good at this whole stay-at-home-mom business, and so I picked up a cookbook at a yard sale. Now my bookshelves are groaning from the strain of so many cookbooks, I read food literature instead of detective novels, cooking magazines have taken the place of fashion publications in the mailbox, and most of my day revolves around planning for dinner. And has anyone noticed what this blog is about?
I know better than to even attempt food photography. I read Orangette and 101 Cookbooks nearly religiously, and both of those bloggers are expert in both the food styling and the photography itself. Learning how to cook was enough of a stretch for me, I thought, why even attempt actually learning how to use the digital camera's features as well? Besides, my camera isn't the Canon SLR that all good food bloggers use, so I get sticker shock every time I even think about upgrading.
And like I said, I can get a bit obsessive.
Plus there's that whole eager-to-please nonsense that plagues me.
Yet here I find myself, camera manual in hand, desperately trying to recall some of the tips my little brother gave me when he last visited with his own fancy-schmancy camera in tow. I had even shown him Orangette's blog so he would know what effect I was after, and then I had posed my own shot and sheepishly passed him the camera so he could fully appreciate how horrifying my dinner appeared when I tried to capture it on the camera. "Natural light," he told me patiently, as if to a small child, "Not a flash." And then he moved the plate closer to the window so that the light came from the side, turned the flash off, came in a little lower instead of from directly above, and snapped the picture. It was like night and day, ya'll.
That was six months or so ago, and as I'm sure you may have noticed, there haven't been any food pics here until today. And I feel terribly nervous about the shot above, even though I followed Josh's instructions to the letter (I think). This photograph is far from being perfectly composed, and the colors aren't ideal. Nor is the focus exactly spot-on. And, oh, if we're all totally honest about it all, that particular photo doesn't really make you want to run right out and make that dish now, does it?
And I do so want you to make it for yourself. I found this recipe in this week's New York Times Dining section, and it jumped right off the page (er, computer) at me when I saw it. THEIR photo was much more appetizing, of course, but it wasn't just that; even the title grabbed me: The Old Chickpea Learns a New Trick.
I love garbanzos. I'm sure I have said that before. I snack on them out of hand, find them essential atop a simple green salad, and serve them any number of ways, including with couscous, pasta and orzo. And just so you know, you should never, ever get between Little Miss Piggy and a bowl of chickpeas. She'll eat you alive.
I haven't always had the best of luck with The Minimalist recipes. I completely adore Mark Bittman himself and read his blog every day, but the whole minimalism concept doesn't do all that much for me when it comes to cooking. In my experience, anytime your goal with a recipe is to do the most with the least, well, the end result comes out lacking in some way or another. I prefer more in-your-face type dishes.
But this recipe kept coming to mind and when I still couldn't shake it this morning, I stopped what I was doing, pulled out a bag of dried garbanzo beans and started them to soaking. I was going to be out this afternoon and knew I wouldn't get dinner on the table until late, so this salad seemed perfect anyhow. Dried beans are, in my opinion, perfect for days like that. I was able to soak and cook the beans this morning, so all I had to do when I got home was pull the salad together.
And oh my, I really enjoyed this recipe. It is truly simple, just some beans, chopped onions and peppers, a little lemon juice and a couple of North African-leaning spices, but the taste was so bright, so fresh, and so completely interesting without being, you know, weirdly different. I served it atop a bed of Lundberg's Gourmet Brown Rice Blend (which The Carnivore and I cannot possibly recommend enough) as a companion dish to some pan-fried fish, and thought it would also make an ideal lunch. The Carnivore wasn't the biggest fan, and I don't really know what to say about that except that there is no accounting for taste.
Except for his taste in women, of course. That's impeccable.
CHICKPEA SALAD WITH GINGER (adapted from The New York Times, serves four)
  • 1 Tbs ground cumin (or 1 Tbs cumin seeds, lightly toasted and then ground up)
  • 3 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • 2 large bell peppers, or 4 smaller farmer's market mixed peppers, cored, seeded and diced (I used a jalapeno as well, a little heat never hurt anyone)
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced (or 1 tsp jarred minced ginger)
  • 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbs chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  1. In a large bowl, toss all ingredients except for cilantro.
  2. Taste and adjust lemon juice, salt and pepper as needed.
  3. Top with chopped cilantro.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

German Apple Pancake

I feel like I owe Cooking Light an apology. A very public apology. I mean, I truly enjoy the magazine. Unlike some of the more frou-frou cooking publications, Cooking Light is very accessible to the average cook, with recipes that do not tend to daunt even a beginner. For that alone, I think they deserve a medal of honor. Anyone who can make home-cooked meals seem not only possible, but something that can be accomplished quickly on a weeknight for the average joe is doing a great service to mankind as far as I’m concerned. And Cooking Light focuses on fresh flavors as a general rule, with seasonal recipes and primers on using what is readily available.

My only real complaint has to do with the, eh, ‘light’ designation in the title. See, I’m more of a happy medium kind of person. I have no desire to cut back on my butter consumption or to lower my fat calories. I do not need to lower my cholesterol, regulate my sodium intake, or lose weight.

I mean, yeah, I eat really healthfully, but see, if you don’t eat meat or processed foods, and if you tend to stay relatively low on the food chain, well, that kind of leaves some wiggle room for things like butter, olive oil, nuts, eggs and salt. So it is without fail that when I try any given Cooking Light recipe, I have to make some changes from the get-go. They use a lot of egg substitute, which gives me the willies, and I never think enough salt, oil or butter is included in their ingredient lists. Ever.

I get what they’re doing. Really, I do. I just disagree with how they go about it sometimes. Because the thing is, if you don’t eat processed foods, most likely you’re not getting too much sodium, and using a teaspoon of salt in a recipe that is split into six servings just isn’t going to raise your blood pressure, you know? And butter is not the enemy. Margarine is, but that’s another topic altogether.

So it is with some trepidation that I share my experiences with their recipes here. I cook from this magazine a lot, and many of my favorite dishes that I have shared come from them. The dilemma comes when I go to give credit where credit is due. If all I have done to a recipe is increase the salt and the sauté oil, and maybe switch out real eggs for that nasty substitute egg-ish thing, then it is only fair that I use the words “adapted from Cooking Light.” With any other magazine, that wouldn’t be an issue, but with this one, when their whole premise is based on lowering the amounts of salt and oil in a recipe, then by virtue of my adding them back, well, aren’t I in fact bastardizing their recipe beyond recognition?

Like I said, I feel like I owe them an apology.

That said, tonight I baked a luscious, crowd-pleasing and kid-friendly German Apple Pancake that was the cover recipe from the August issue of Cooking Light, and as I’m sure is painfully obvious at this point, I worked diligently to add some fat grams and calories back in to a recipe that I am sure they worked equally as hard to lighten. So I’m conflicted. Would they be appalled to see what I’ve done to their recipe? Is it even still their recipe now that I’ve done my own brand of damage to it?

Does it even matter?

I had cut this recipe out a month ago, and sat upon it in the most impatient of manners, waiting breathlessly for the first apples of the season. The recipe specified Granny Smiths, but when the first tiny organic apples hit the Locally Grown shopping list with the disclaimer that they were still very tart and were best used for baking, I jumped. I spent $1.50 for three little ping-pong sized apples and cradled them gingerly on the way home and oh, they did not disappoint. Truth be told, I would have paid twice that amount. Fresh, organically and locally grown fruit is so far superior in taste to the mealy, flavorless fruit in the supermarket that any far-from-discerning palate can tell the difference.

And I just adore seasonal recipes like this one. When I see something akin to it, for apple pancakes, or for squash fritters or sautéed summer vegetables, I clip the recipe in a hurry and put it in a special binder that I save explicitly for the purpose of waiting until the starring ingredients are in season and can be purchased within a day or two of having been harvested. A little anticipation never hurt anybody.

In this case, it was worth the wait. The pancake, which is not a very apt descriptive title, is rich and thick, with a texture more similar to a custard than a pancake, and the flavors are simple and divine. Cut into wedges and served with creamy polenta made decadent with melted blue cheese, this would make the perfect brunch (or tonight's ideal dinner, in the case of my family and The Semi-Permanent Houseguest).

So, Cooking Light, please accept my apologies. I used more salt, more butter, real eggs, and whole milk, and that is how I am presenting your recipe here.


GERMAN APPLE PANCAKES (rudely adapted from Cooking Light, serves 4 to 6)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, lightly spooned into measuring cup, then leveled off with a knife
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbs sugar, plus 1/2 cup, divided
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg, plus 1/2 tsp, divided
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 Tbs butter, melted, plus 1 Tbs for greasing pan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup thinly sliced tart apple (peeling left on)
  1. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, 1 Tbs sugar, salt, and 1/8 tsp nutmeg. Stir with a whisk.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, 2 Tbs butter (melted), and vanilla.
  3. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and stir with a whisk. Do not get stressed out about lumps. Just leave them be. Let batter stand for 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  5. Coat bottom and sides of a 10-inch ovenproof skillet (cast iron is perfect for this) with extra butter.
  6. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp nutmeg.
  7. Sprinkle sugar mixture fairly evenly over bottom and sides of prepared pan.
  8. Arrange apple slices in an even spoke-like layer in pan. Perfection is not the goal.
  9. Sprinkle apples with remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until sugar is bubbly and brown.
  10. Slowly pour batter over apple mixture, and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.
  11. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees (do not pull pan out of oven) and bake for an additional 13 to 15 minutes, or until center is set.
  12. Cut into wedges and serve hot.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Snacks for Dinner

Mmmm. I’ve had bean dip on the brain all stinking day long. And it was one of those days, you know. We had family visiting for the holiday weekend, and I was sad to see them leave so I was in a bit of a funk already. The Carnivore went to work today (with plans to work uber-late) after spending a fun three days with us, and my to-do list for today was ugly. Very, very ugly. And I was getting nowhere fast on it starting from sun-up.

But last night, as I was crashed out on the sofa with an Edy’s Fruit Bar and my latest issue of Cooking Light, I came across a recipe for a bean dip that just sang my song. I’m kind of in a snacking mood anyhow. We’ve had various houseguests for the past month, so I’ve been serving relatively formal dinners each night with defined entrees and side dishes, and it was time for a change around here. Plus, anytime I’m feeling a little down, Mexican food tends to be just what I need to perk back up. There’s just something about the heady spices, the earthiness of beans, the comfortable informality of the dishes, the ooey-gooey-melty cheeses. It was what I needed is all I’m saying.

I don’t have a very wide variety of dips in my repertoire. There is a cold bean dip that is adequate enough, I suppose, a fun and very delicious cilantro dip, my favorite salsa, and of course a few others, but I’m always open to new snackies. And this one, the recipe that tickled my fancy last night, was for a chipotle bean dip, and I love the flavor of chipotle. Love, love, love.

Chipotle peppers are nothing more than smoked jalapenos, but that smokiness adds a certain meatiness, a kind of oomph, to beans, and the adobo sauce that it is generally packed in is a tangy-spicy-vinegary thick syrup that makes your tongue sing. I buy small cans of chipotle in adobo sauce at the supermarket, but since a little goes a very long way, I freeze it in ice cube trays and then shake the cubes into freezer bags for use whenever. A cube is about a tablespoon size, which is perfect for most recipes, and I’ll chop one up to add to chili, black bean quesadillas, bean and rice burritos, even cheese dip.

So you can see why I was attracted to that recipe I saw in the magazine last night. And why I kept thinking about it all day today.

At four o’clock, as I stared aghast at my mostly untouched to-do list, I decided to scrap my original dinner plans and go for the dip. I needed that dip. I had picked up some queso fresco and cilantro at the grocery store earlier in the day, planning to make a batch later this week, but I didn’t want to wait. A cursory look about the pantry unearthed a can of pinto beans, which would have to do since I hadn’t soaked any of my dried black beans today, and with a couple of other much more minor substitutions, I was in business. The whole thing took maybe 30 minutes, and I was able to throw together some simple cheese and jalapeno quesadillas on my grill pan while the dip was in the oven.

It was quick, it was delicious, and it was just what I needed. I feel much better now, maybe even good enough that I can get somewhere on that disastrous to-do list.


CHIPOTLE BEAN DIP (adapted from Cooking Light, serves 4 or so)
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 (15 oz) can pinto beans, undrained
  • 1/4 tsp salt, more to taste
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup crumbled queso fresco (a Mexican cheese found in most supermarkets)
  • 1/3 cup canned diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 chipotle chili, canned in adobo sauce
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add onion to pan and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes or so, until tender.
  3. Add cumin and garlic to pan, and cook 1 minute.
  4. Add oregano, beans and salt to pan; bring to a boil.
  5. Mash bean mixture with a potato masher; reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until thickened, stirring often.
  6. Spoon bean mixture into a small round casserole dish (2 qt size works fine) coated with cooking spray.
  7. Sprinkle cheeses on top of beans.
  8. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, until hot and bubbly.
  9. Combine tomatoes and chili in food processor and process until smooth.
  10. Spoon tomato mixture on top of bean dip.
  11. Sprinkle with cilantro.
  12. Serve warm.