Monday, December 14, 2009

Starting Fresh


I'm back! Which I guess is the great thing about blogging: you can check out for two months, then announce "I'm back!" and make it seem like you were away on some exotic journey that didn't include 15-hour workdays, two ho-hum holiday parties, a few sick days, lots of nights in, and a bunch of clean-out-the-refrigerator vegetable soups. Not like that's what my little blogging hiatus consisted of, or anything. But if it did, you'd never know it.

My usual approach to returning to Red Ramekin after some time spent away is to apologize profusely to my dear and numeriferous readers, but this time I think I'll skip all of that. Suffice it to say that I've been busy indeed, with work of course, but also with entire weekends filled with yoga, a trip to Minnesota for Thanksgiving, more holiday cookie-baking than one would think is humanly possible, and even a bit of writing*.

But I've missed blogging, and I've missed sharing the tasty things that tend to come out of my kitchen every now and again. And so, I'm back!


There have been too many instances over the past few weeks that were so close to being blogging moments; those kinds of moments where the dinner is on the table or the cookies have just come out of the oven and I've thought that surely this would be the recipe that brings me back here, to share and pass it along. And maybe I'll eventually share the fruits of those almost-moments, but today I have to share something that just could not be anything but blogged. And eaten, obviously.

Here's the thing: I own just about every kitchen appliance and cooking implement that you can think of. Ravioli stamper? Check. Vitamix? Oh yeah baby. Tagine? You'd better believe it. The one thing I've never had is a waffle maker. When I was growing up, my mom had one and would make the most delicious waffles on a lucky Sunday morning. Ironically, even people I know who don't do much cooking tend to at least have a waffle maker. But it never seemed like a practical investment (both of money and counter space) when pancakes required no special equipment and were made with essentially the same batter. Besides, the last thing I needed was one of those dreaded single-purpose items that tend to make a flurry of appearances at first and then slowly fade into the dark recesses of the storage closet.

Which all made perfect sense until I discovered the existence of vintage waffle makers. We're not talking electric plugs and red lights and non-stick surfaces, here. We're talking two irons, heavy and checkered, ready to be greased and thrust into the cooking fire. Truly old-fashioned, and truly adorable. Since I just so happen to be the luckiest girl in the world, Jonathan ordered me such a device (not quite an appliance, but not merely a pan) while he was making another purchase from Lodge (so great I've been known to write poetry about it). It is now my incredibly bad-ass waffle iron: two inter-locking, waffled pieces made of cast iron that fit snugly and turn out deliciously thin and homey waffles. I even had to season it myself.


I pounced on the first Saturday morning I could to make my first batch of waffles using the new iron, and it was quite the experience. It took a bit of getting used to, but by the end of the batch, my waffles were ever-so-slightly crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. They may essentially be made of pancake batter, but these are no pancakes. The only setback was the timing. Since I don't have a gas stove or a huge firepit in the middle of my kitchen, I had to heat the irons and then cook the waffles in the oven, which, even at 450 degrees, took nearly 15 minutes per waffle. Not exactly quick and easy, on-the-go breakfast material. But on a Saturday, especially a well-below-freezing Saturday, sitting around and waiting for the waffles wasn't such a bad thing.

And what of the recipe? To maintain the whole vintage-novelty theme, I went with my trusty old Joy of Cooking, useless for anything fancy or inventive, but truly invaluable when it comes to things like Saturday morning waffles. I went with the basic recipe, which calls for whipping the egg whites separately to provide extra fluff and lightness to the finished waffles. I also used whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose or cake flour, which probably counteracted some of the egg white lift, but no matter. These were hearty, and maybe even a tad bit healthy, and were quite the decadent vehicle for our Grade B, extra-mapley syrup. Next time I might try the fancier yeasted waffle, or maybe even do something savory, but for a first go with my new favorite toy, these were pretty darn good.


In lieu of the simple JoC recipe, and in the spirit of favorite new kitchen gadgets and the fact that we've now entered the present-centric time of year, what are your favorite kitchen tools? Although it surely is nothing new to post a list of the "Essential things I cannot cook without," I'll admit that I love reading what other people call their "essentials." Here are a few of mine - perhaps they'll serve as gift inspiration:

1. Dutch oven. Le Creuset if you can afford it, Lodge if you can't (I can't). So great for everything - soups, stews, roasts, etc.

2. Rimmed baking sheets. Essential for cookies, but also for roasted vegetables, granola, and toasting nuts.

3. Small whisks. More versatile than a large whisk, and good for everything from breaking up clumpy flour to tempering eggs.

4. A good, super-sharp chef's knife. Seems obvious, but you wouldn't believe how many people don't have one. I use Global knives, but anything sharp and sturdy will do.

5. Large iron skillet with lid. Works on the stove and in the oven. I use mine for frittatas, chicken, sauteed vegetables, and cornbread.

6. Food processor. Not necessarily one of the absolute basics, but O.M.G. is this thing useful.

7. Kitchen scale. For fussy recipes, especially ones that you want to scale up or down, a kitchen scale is a hundred times more useful than a measuring cup.

8. Silicone stirring spoons and spatulas. Not only are these easy to clean, but they are essential if you're cooking for someone with a wheat/gluten allergy.

9. Recycled, quart-sized yogurt containers. Super classy, I know. But these are always the perfect size for leftovers, and they're (basically) free! I always save mine, and don't feel bad tossing them when they start getting a little ratty.

10. Pretty cake server. OK fine, this isn't essential. But it will make your life (and your parties) so much better, believe me. Just buy one.


And of course, if you're like me, you can go ahead and add "old-fashioned, vintage, cast-iron waffle-maker" to the list. Perhaps it will never be the most used tool in your kitchen, but it will certainly make it easier on those chilly winter Saturdays to start fresh.

* So, about this writing thing. I've been lucky enough to do some guest writing for the online newspaper The Faster Times. Check me out in the "Sweets" column, where I have articles on boozy desserts (always popular), gluten-free baking for the holidays (completely useful), and (coming soon!) holiday cookies (obviously amazing). Check it out and tell me what you think!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leftovers


Leftovers are truly a staple here at the Red Ramekin kitchen. I can't start my week without making a big pot of something on Sunday night so that I can bring the leftovers to work for lunch. I bake big batches of muffins, banana bread, and granola bars and freeze them individually so that Jonathan and I can grab a quick snack whenever the urge strikes. I've even taking to saving my quart-sized yogurt containers to store all of these leftovers, because that 32-piece set of tupperware I bought a while back is really not adequate for my food storage needs. Seriously. I think there are at least five yogurt containers in my fridge right now, and that doesn't even include the one that actually contains yogurt.

But tonight I'm not writing about how to make a pot of soup that will last you the week, or how to whip up some spicy daal to have on hand when you get home from yoga and need some proper nutrition (though I just happened to have done that and would highly, highly encourage it...).

The leftovers I'm writing about are in the form of a lovely, delicate little cake that I've meaning to write about for a long, long time. And frankly, if I'd had it my way, I wouldn't be sharing the leftovers of this cake, but the fresh, baked-today version; the one that doesn't have a few slices missing or a few crumbled crumbs providing the incriminating evidence of being a day old.

I first made this rosemary grape cake several weeks ago, after having bought a sticky container of seedless Concord grapes from my beloved farmers market. Now, I know that fall baking is all about apples and pumpkins. And trust me, apples and pumpkins get plenty of attention around here. In addition to eating at least two apples a day, I've been known to get an impromptu crisp into the oven in five minutes flat. But grapes are one of those overlooked fruits that you don't hear much about when the season starts to change. It's unfortunate, really, because real grapes - not those gumdroppy ones you find in the produce section in February - are a fine treat indeed. I'm partial to scuppernongs and muscadines, but a Concord grape has this kind of genuine grapiness that you just can't find anywhere else.

So when I found my Concord grapes - seedless Concord grapes - I thought of making them into something special. I wanted a cake that was light and not too sweet; something that would go well with a cup of tea after dinner. And while I do love my simple, not too sweet cakes, I like them to have a distinctive flavor and textured crumb to prevent them from slipping into blandness. So for this cake, cornmeal and olive oil popped into mind, and from there the lemon zest and rosemary just seemed like a natural, if unorthodox, extension.

Needless to say, I baked the cake, it tasted lovely, and it even made for a great midnight snack after I'd finished cleaning up the remains of the dinner party at which I'd served it. And I wish I could have told you about it earlier, but despite all of my pre-packed lunches and ready-to-go snacks, time has been rather elusive these days. And despite my best efforts, it seems that the only time Red Ramekin has been getting lately has been the leftovers - after work, after making dinner, after yoga, after self-medicating with a leisurely gander at the Sunday Styles, I save the leftovers for my blog.

But, no matter. Leftovers are certainly not a bad thing in my book, and in fact, they often just hit the spot. Yes, it would have been nice to share my pretty grape cake with you at its most pristine, but frankly I've never been one to turn down a piece of cake, fresh from the oven or a day (or two) old. I'd even go so far as to say that, whether it's slivers of cake or slivers of nighttime just before bed, sometimes it's the leftovers that really make the whole thing worthwhile.


Rosemary Grape Cake

1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. cornmeal (polenta)
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4-1/2 tsp. very finely crushed rosemary
3 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. plain yogurt or buttermilk
zest of 1/2 lemon
A couple big handfuls of seedless Concord grapes
1-2 tbs. turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Directions:

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, sugar, rosemary, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, mix eggs with oil, yogurt, and lemon zest. Combined wet ingredients with dry ingredients and stir gently just until everything is evenly mixed. Pour batter into a greased 7-inch round cake pan. Scatter whole grapes over the cake batter, and press them down lightly. Sprinkle with a bit of turbinado sugar. Bake the cake at 375 degrees F until cake is just starting to turn golden and brown slightly at the edges, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool before slicing and serving, preferably with a cup of tea.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Refreshed


Since last I posted here on Red Ramekin, Jonathan and I took a lovely (if too short) vacation to Italy - Tuscany, to be more precise - where we ate, relaxed, and found a bat (like, the animal, with wings) in our bathroom, among other things.

We were there for a week - the perfect amount of time to break the routine, get some sun, and just be somewhere else for a few days. And it didn't hurt that we had the good fortune to stay in an extremely spacious and beautiful villa in the Tuscan hills. Except for the whole bat-in-the-bathroom thing, the place was absolutely magnificent. Old stone walls, huge windows, a gorgeous kitchen, and a crystal-clear swimming pool overlooking the valley below. Yes, it's a tough life, but somebody has to live it.

Our plans didn't include anything terribly exciting; we mostly walked around quaint little towns, did some extensive nocciolo "research," and hiked around Cinque Terra, a series of tiny seaside towns built into cliffs along the ocean. Our flight home was out of Rome, so we took a train there on Saturday morning, spent the afternoon walking, sightseeing, and completing more of the afore-mentioned gelato research. After much waffling and indecisiveness, we even found a place to eat dinner, where we enjoyed our last few hours in Italy before leaving early Sunday morning for the airport.

[boats at Cinque Terra]

But let's get to the point. Everyone knows that the real reason one goes to Italy is the food. Real, live, Italian food, at the source. Needless to say, this was the part of the trip about which I was most excited. And for the most part, I wasn't disappointed.

I'll be honest and say that the food in Italy didn't blow me away. Of course, we didn't eat at the best restaurants, and were fairly limited in our choices due to the location of our villa. We stayed in a pretty remote part of Tuscany, far from major cities, so our cuisine was mostly local, simple, and basic. However, we still managed to have several lovely farro salads, some delicious pasta dishes, and a good salad or two, filled with olive-oil-soaked Italian tuna. And let's not forget the nocciolo (for those unfortunately uninitiated, nocciolo is hazelnut-flavored gelato).

I was pleased to find that the local markets had plenty of good produce and other foodstuffs. On my first day in town (Bagni di Lucca, in case you're interested), I picked up a large carton of juicy, green figs - by far the best I've ever had. I've always loved figs, but I didn't know they could taste so good. In terms of the dry goods, Jonathan and I stocked up on farro (we brought about 5lbs. home with us, and would have brought more if space had permitted), and our favorite giant white beans.

[figs]

But the most memorable of our eating experiences had to be the dinner we had at our new friends' house. We met a nice Australian couple one morning at the local cafe who were around Jonathan's mom's and stepdad's age (did I mention that we traveled with them?). We got to talking, and before we knew it, had an invitation to dinner at their house, not far from where we were staying. However, this was no ordinary dinner. It was pizza, made in a real, outdoor pizza oven. Now, I'm a big fan of homemade pizza, but I've never had the opportunity to use a real pizza oven. I've read about it, seen it on television, have spent hours exploring the possibility on all manner of pizza-devoted websites, but this was my first chance at actually using one.

And it did not disappoint. I came prepared with some homemade, whole-wheat dough to complement the white that Cheryl, our hostess, had on hand, and we got to work topping them both (after a tour of their grapevines and some prosecco, of course). The pizza had the distinctive char and crunch of real pizza - something you just can't replicate in a regular oven. I'll admit that the white-dough pizza was a tad tastier than the whole-wheat (I don't usually eat white flour but give me a break - I was on vacation), and had a crackly texture that the chewier whole-wheat couldn't muster. But both were delicious. And the company wasn't bad, either. We finished off our meal with little drams of sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur that I found surprisingly refreshing.

[cantuccini, and other yummy treats]

The second-best food of the night, however, was the amazingly delicious eggplant caponata that we ate before digging into the pizza. It was my first introduction to the stuff and damn, was it good. Eggplant, peppers, olives, capers, pine nuts, vinegar and plenty - and I do mean plenty - of olive oil. Although I haven't had the chance to recreate that night's amazing pizza, I've already given that caponata a couple of tries. I haven't quite made anything as good as Cheryl's, but I've come close. And with an ingredient list like that, how can you really go wrong?

So, for today, no pictures, as I haven't quite perfected my caponata technique. But here is a starter recipe for basic caponata. You can also find plenty of recipes online and in cookbooks - this stuff is a staple, and for good reason. One good tip is to salt and drain the eggplant before cooking. It helps get rid of excess water and also helps to mitigate the eggplant's natural sponginess. The measurements here are very rough - just taste and adjust as you go along. Buono appetito!

[me and Jonathan at Cinque Terra]
Copycat Caponata
2 Japanese or other small eggplants
Kosher salt, for sprinkling
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 small, hot pepper (optional, but good), diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thinly
1 large onion, red or yellow, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
~1 small can crushed tomatoes
~1/4 c. each capers and chopped green olives (or to taste)
2-3 tbs. toasted pine nuts
big handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
3-4 tbs. red wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 - 1/2 c. olive oil
1 tsp. sugar
Italian herbs (oregano, basil, etc.), to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

Dice eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Set in a colander and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Allow to sit for about an hour. After an hour or so, squeeze eggplant to remove excess water. Pat dry with a paper towel. In a heavy pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add eggplant and cook, stirring, until eggplant is soft, about 5 minutes. Remove eggplant from pot and set aside. Heat a bit more oil in the same pot, and add onion, celery, and peppers. Cook until very tender, about 10-15 minutes. Halfway through, add the minced garlic. If vegetables start to brown, add a splash of vinegar, white wine, or water to the pot. Once vegetables are cooked, add tomatoes and eggplant back to the pot, and cook for a few minutes more, until everything is thoroughly cooked and incorporated. Season with the sugar and a bit of salt, pepper, and herbs. Add the capers and olives to the pot, along with a few splashes of vinegar and another drizzle of oil if the mixture looks a bit dry. Once everything is heated through, add the fresh parsley. Taste for seasoning, and add extra vinegar according to your tastes. Add the toasted pine nuts at the very end, reserving a few for garnish. Serve with bread or crackers. Serve the leftovers with rice or pasta for a delicious lunch.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On cooking


I know it's been slow around Red Ramekin lately - fitting, perhaps, for the slow kind of feeling that the end of summer seems to bring.

And really, I have plenty of excuses for avoiding the kitchen. I've been working later, and Jonathan is out of town, meaning that dinners are sometimes had standing by the counter, picking at the odds and ends in the fridge and the pantry. And in true New England fashion, the heat of summer is at its peak. It's been the kind of hot that sits you down and makes you listen.

But the truth is, I haven't been avoiding the kitchen at all. Despite the heat and my temporary solitude, I've found just as many reasons to stand stirring by the stove; to bake frantically at odd hours of the night; to spend hours slicing and mixing and chopping.

I'm not sure I can put my finger on it, exactly, but lately I've been wanting to cook, plain and simple. And I'm not cooking to blog, or to impress, or even to eat, necessarily. Sure, as long as I'm standing by the stove I'll make a quick dinner, but dinner doesn't seem to be the goal, just an incidental output.

I love the quiet isolation of my kitchen; the thick heat of it and the utter silence in which I find myself there. I love coming home and shedding my baggage like a scaly skin, only to find a new energy in whatever project lies ahead. Baking granola, canning peaches, putting away the clean dishes - whatever the task I am ready to tackle it, sleeves rolled and shoes strewn. My day begins again as I heat the oil in the pan. I love the hours spent without speaking, syncing my thoughts to the breath of the knife.

And, though I love the physical demands of my silent kitchen, I am sorry too, that I'm compelled more to do than to write these days. I can't explain my addiction to sweating over pots and burners; to staying planted on my feet until I can feel my pulse in my ankles. But it's there, and its hungry, so I have no choice but to cook.

Last night before coming home, I stopped to pick up another dozen canning jars, inspired by the recipes in this week's New York Times Magazine for brandied peaches. Within minutes, I had three burners going at once; two for the peaches, one for the lentils that served as dinner, eaten in big bites from the wooden spoon. Before I had a chance even to change out of the workday's dress, it was 11pm, and the two peach-filled jars were cooling on the counter, seals stuck and tight.

I managed to snap a few shots of the finished product this morning, before heading out and starting the day. No pictures of marking the fruit with shallow Xs, of blanching it in the big brown pot. No pictures of peeling the skin with scorched fingers and digging into the flesh to dislodge the pits. No pictures of boiling the syrup, simmering the fruits, or processing the cans.

There was no time, after all. I was too busy cooking.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When Life Hands You Tart Cherries

One thing I love about the culinary blogosphere is the way in which seasonal cooking - something so earthly, tangible, and local - manifests itself on the collective blogging menu. With fall comes the onslaught of butternut squash and apple crisps, winter fills my reader with hearty stews, spring comes bursting forth with waves of shelling peas and asparagus, and by mid-summer, I've read about so many zucchini breads that I'm compelled to make a few loaves myself, despite my non-existent garden surplus (which arrives, without fail, from my nonexistent garden).

Aside from the sheer uncanniness of this phenomenon, though, I love it because it teaches me some wonderful things about food and cooking. Until I started Red Ramekin, I had no idea what a garlic scape was, for example. Fava beans? Meyer lemons? Cavolo nero? Sure, I'd heard the names tossed around here and there, but it was blogging that brought them into my kitchen.


And so it was with the latest of the obscure fruits and vegetables to have entered my world of cooking: tart cherries. I know, it doesn't sound all that exotic, but tart cherries are really quite a find. Unlike ubiquitous bings and worth-their-weight-in-gold Rainiers, tart cherries are not meant for casual snacking. In fact, they are tart enough that there really is nothing you can do with them but bake. Or preserve. Or anything else, I suppose that introduces a whole lot of sugar into the mix.

But back to how a quart of tart cherries ended up in my kitchen: I've been reading about plenty of cherry pies, cherry bars, cherry cobblers, etc., lately, but hadn't felt overly compelled to get my hands on any of the fruit myself. The thing is, I'm not really a pie person, and that seems to be the most common tart cherry application. I have nothing against pie, really, but it's just never appealed to me all that much. I'd much rather have a crisp or a crumble, or for that matter, a fat slice of chocolate cake.


But, I was on my weekly Trader Joe's excursion on Saturday when I saw a shelf full of quart-baskets of tart cherries. For $3.99 each. Now, I'm no tart cherry expert, but that seemed pretty cheap (especially since I've seen Rainiers at Whole Foods for $12.99/lb.). And since they were right there, and I didn't even have to go to some specialty store to get them, and since I could always use an extra excuse to bake something, I bought them.

Upon arrival at my apartment, I popped one into my mouth to see what I had been missing out on all these years. Hrmm. Not much: it was tart, yes, but lacked the bright pop of a lemon or the deep flavor of a kumquat. It tasted a little watery, actually, which was a bit disappointing. In fact, when I was tasked with making dessert for a small crowd that evening, I opted for a brownie/blondie duo instead of the obvious cherry pie.

Come Sunday, it was time to use up the cherries, but I most certainly did not want to have a whole pie sitting around the apartment. Instead, after spending a good chunk of the day hunting for a cherry pitter (success came at Williams-Sonoma, haven of all things unnecessary, where I snagged the VERY LAST ONE in stock), I wound up making a wee little batch of tart cherry jam.



Let me first note that, when pitting tart cherries, a cherry pitter is wholly unnecessary. At least I'll be prepared for the next time I make a pie. But back to the jam: I followed a loose recipe from David Lebovitz, who claimed that tart cherries would make my jam extra delectable. And, once I finally got those slimy suckers onto the stove, I began to understand why.

Tart cherries are the cherry of canned pie fillings, pastries, and other vaguely cherry-flavored things. The smell of them cooking on the stove is really quite lovely, and the prospect of jam became more attractive as my cherries cooked down into a concentrated, chunky cherry sludge. Gotta love that cherry sludge.


A mere 40 minutes after starting my jam, I was pouring the finished product into one perfect jar. After a rest in the fridge, I couldn't wait to give it a try.

So I did. And, to my dismay, I found that I had overcooked my jam. Yes, indeed. Overcooked my singular quart's worth of (probably) the season's last crop of lovely tart cherries. I didn't even know that it was possible to overcook jam. The finished product was a sad, sad hybrid of jam and botched pate de fruit; too thick and stiff to spread on toast, and too sticky to do much of anything but eat it straight from the jar. Luckily, the flavor is still wonderful, so this isn't as hefty a burden as it seems. So no, not a total loss - still tasty and edible, if not photo-worthy - but I'm rather bitter that I'll have to wait until next year to give my jam another go.


On the bright side, I've found something new to add to my list of seasonal goodies. I encourage you to do the same, keeping in mind the all-too-important lesson that I learned this weekend: when life hands you tart cherries, it's best to keep an eye on the stove.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Salad: The Xtreme Edition


Today's topic? "Xtreme" salads. For a post with this kind of title, I'd ordinarily start off with some kind of apologetic, sarcastic bit about how my yuppie life is so predictable that eating salad might qualify as being extreme.

But not today. Because even if my yuppie life was completely wild and crazy (and not, um, boring), today's salad would still be extreme. And not because it has raisins, or buttermilk, or (gasp!) mayonnaise, but because the main ingredient is kale. No, not kale. RAW kale.

Honestly, I didn't ever expect the words "raw kale" to appear in a recipe on Red Ramekin. Indeed, the only time I'd ever encountered raw kale in my kitchen before was when I was reaching deep into my refrigerator, pushing the raw kale aside to get to that jar of something or other, or perhaps when I was depositing the now rotting (raw) kale into the trash can despite my good intentions while grocery shopping.

The thing about kale is that it often just doesn't taste all that good. Sure, I've done the reading and seen the stats and know just how unbelievably healthy kale is. It is, after all, one of the darkest and leafiest greens I've ever seen. It's mostly for this reason that I'd tried time and again to prepare it so that I actually want to eat it. But, while I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, I'd never been successful. In soups it's too tough, in sautes it's too bitter, and in general, eating kale usually brings to mind an image of the cook chopping up dark green rain slickers and tossing them into a frying pan with garlic and olive oil. Garlic and olive oil can hide some flaws, but not flaws of kale-like proportions.


Since I'm into the whole "health" thing, it always bothered me - just a little bit - that I didn't like kale. But despite my healthiness, I don't eat food that isn't delicious, and chard or spinach or bok choy always seemed like an infinitely more appealing source of leafy-greenness than kale. However, I'm not one to just give up on something kitchen-related, especially if it involves vegetables.

I've been inspired by the regal-looking lacinato kale at my farmers market this season to finally find a good way of preparing it. After a bit of experimentation, I can finally say that I've found it. And, as you might have guessed, the method doesn't even involve cooking.

But let me just be frank for a moment. Kale is still kale. Although now that I've learned how to use it and I really and truly like it, it's not going to replace my soft bunches of rainbow chard or my always-have-it-on-hand frozen spinach. What I've learned about kale is that although you might think it's like chard or spinach - versatile and easy to toss into sautes, soups, stews, and anything else you can think of, it's not. It's more like broccoli, in fact, both in terms of flavor and texture. It has a distinct sulfury potency (which can be delicious, but not in everything), and even after a veritable braise it will hold its shape, sometimes quite stubbornly.


No, kale is no chard, which will become supple with a bit of heat and oil and yield to a pinch of curry powder or some minced garlic. When it comes to kale, you need to douse it with vinegar, drown it in buttermilk, pummel it with almonds and raisins, and beat it into submission with a healthy glop of mayo. But damn if it's not tasty, and we all know that no amount of mayo can take away the unadulterated healthfulness of the stuff (but don't worry, I only used a smidge).

So, here it is. My raw kale salad, most notable for the fact that it actually tastes good. Almost like a good cole slaw, but kale-ier. Kale slaw, if you will. The recipe below was inspired by the recent proliferation of raw broccoli salads on the blogosphere (see here and here), all of which seem to include buttermilk, mayonnaise, and a dried fruit and nut combination to round out the taste of the raw vegetable. Given the afore-mentioned similarities between broccoli and kale, I thought this technique might be a winner with kale, and I was right. I considerably reduced the amount of mayo in this recipe because it's not something I usually use, but I happened to have some on hand and it does help the consistency and flavor of the dressing (and seriously, it's just canola oil and eggs - not nearly as "gross" as people claim it to be).

The key to this salad is slicing the kale in very thin ribbons, to ensure that it gets appropriately softened by the dressing. I slice it by first removing the stalks (you must remove them), then by laying the leaves on top of each other and slicing almost into a chiffonade. You should also let the salad sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving, if possible. And finally, this amount of dressing is perfect for an average-sized bunch of kale; adjust accordingly for larger or smaller bunches, but be aware that there is supposed to be a good amount of dressing on the greens. I'm all for a lightly dressed salad now and then, but you don't beat kale into submission with a drizzle of your finest olive oil, trust me. This should do the trick, though. Who knows? Maybe you'll be the next convert to the wonderful ways of kale.


Extreme Raw Kale Salad

1 bunch lacinato kale (also called dinosaur or Tuscan kale)
4-5 scallions, minced
generous 1/3 c. buttermilk
2-4 tbs. plain yogurt
1 tbs. mayonnaise
1 tbs. apple cider vinegar
generous 1 tbs. grainy mustard
1 tsp. honey
salt and pepper, to taste
handful of raisins
handful of chopped or sliced almonds

Directions:

Carefully wash kale and remove the stalk from each leaf (the entire stalk, not just the bottom part). Stack leaves and slice into very thin ribbons. Place kale in a large bowl, and add the minced scallions. Toss to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, yogurt, mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, and honey. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing over kale, and toss until kale is evenly coated with dressing. Add raisins and almonds and toss again, lightly. Transfer salad to a container with a lid and let sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving. Adjust for seasonings once more before serving.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jicamuffins


In my kitchen, there are generally two types of recipes that come to be made and eaten. The first are the planned, schemed, dreamed, or otherwise formulated recipes that I make after lots of thinking about ingredients and flavors. They are the ones that start with a simple idea or combination (pistachio and coconut? beets and curry? tahini and lemon?) and then finally come to fruition after lots of thinking, mental tweaking, and, generally, a trip to the grocery store.

And then there are the by-the-seat-of-your-pants recipes - the ones that just sort of happen, depending on my mood or the time of day or the slightly past their prime specimens in the refrigerator that need to get used up sooner rather than later. No, I don't dream about the happy marriage of things like cabbage and goat cheese, but sometimes the whims of my pantry demand a little open-mindedness.

Today's recipe is of the latter variety; something born out of a combination of necessity and curiosity. The starring ingredients? Jicama, cottage cheese, and Chinese 5-spice powder. Just like mom used to make, right?


Well, though they may not sound like a winning trio, they sure got the job done with these quick and lovely mini-muffins: jicamuffins, if you'll indulge my weakness for cloyingly cute recipe titles.

So how did they come to be? It started with the farmers market. Here in cold and dreary Boston (It's rainy day #14 and I'm about to build myself an ark), the farmers market doesn't get started until May, and even then, it's slim pickings. When I went during those first couple of weeks, all I could find were a few greens and an army of seedlings, which don't really have a place in my balcony-free apartment.

But I've resumed my semi-weekly trips recently, and it seems that in a matter of mere days, the farmers market has exploded into summer and is bursting with all sorts of good things to eat. Which is all to say that, when I used only half of that bulb of jicama a week ago, I wasn't expecting it to get fully eclipsed by so much delicious, fresh produce. But it did, and there I was, with an unloved, half-eaten, slightly desiccated chunk of the stuff in my refrigerator.


And then there's the cottage cheese. Fat-free cottage cheese, no less, which seemed like a fine and proteinacious idea when I was at the store, but ultimately, was not. It's that kind of fat-free stuff that has a weird texture to over-compensate for its leanness and that really has no place in my fridge when for about 2 calories more I could just eat a perfectly reasonable 1% version. Without the sliminess.

Finally, there's my 5-spice powder, the product of a recent buying spree at one of my favorite online retailers, Penzey's Spices. Every time I go, usually just to stock up on cinnamon or Telicherry peppercorns or some other necessity, I find something new. And this time, it was 5-spice powder. I had seen it used before and it seemed like something I would love, and I was so excited when it arrived a week or so ago. However, I hadn't yet found the time to use it, and I was getting anxious, so jicama and cottage cheese seemed as good complements as any, and before I knew it, there I was, mixing up a batch of jicama, cottage cheese, and 5-spice mini-muffins.

The verdict? Well, I am in love with the 5-spice powder, that much is obvious. The subtle hit of anise, mixed with warm spices and, my favorite, ginger, is really wonderful. And the muffins? Surprisingly enough, they were a hit, too. Even Jonathan sang his praises, despite the relative healthiness of this recipe and the chunks of chopped, crystallized ginger that I couldn't help but add to the batter.

It turns out that jicama, when grated and added to baked goods, lends an apple-y sweetness and plenty of moisture, almost like carrot or zucchini in their respective baking applications. And the ginger, of course, is perfect with the flavor of the 5-spice. It also serves to add a little extra sweetness to these generally not-too-sweet muffins. While I found the mini size to be perfect for these muffins, I've received several (OK, one) request to make them standard size in the future. That must be a good sign, right?

As always, a couple of notes: I grated the jicama for these muffins using the large holes of a box grater. Once grated, I gave the jicama a good, hard squeeze to get rid of extra water. I then fluffed with a fork and measured. I decided to weigh the jicama, because when it comes to volume of grated, squeezed, fluffed jicama, my 2 cups could be somebody else's quart, or teaspoon, for that matter. So, 200 grams of squeezed jicama it is. But if you have to use volume, shoot for about 2 cups. Or a big ole' bunch, or a small-sized bulb's worth...you get the idea.


When mixing up the batter for these, you'll see that it is at first very dry. This is because the jicama has lots of moisture, and a wet batter will results in overly chewy, gummy muffins. And I like my muffins a tad on the crumbly side. So, just keep stirring and smooshing until the batter is uniform and moist. It should be a bit stiff, but definitely still muffin batter-y. If it is truly too dry, add a splash or two of milk to moisten things up.

Finally, I used cottage cheese for the afore-mentioned reasons, which necessitates a spin in the food processor (to get rid of the chunks). Although I haven't tried it, using yogurt, sour cream, mascarpone, or some other soft dairy product would probably be fine, too. I'll leave it to you, and to whatever your fridge happens to be demanding of you at the moment. Enjoy!


Jicamuffins (makes 24 mini-muffins)

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 tbs. turbinado sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch ground nutmeg
200 grams grated, squeezed jicama (about 2 c.)
1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 c. cottage cheese
1 egg
2 tbs. olive oil
1/4 c. applesauce
1 tbs. agave nectar or honey

Directions:

Mix flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices in a mixing bowl, and set aside. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cottage cheese, applesauce, agave, oil, and egg. Blend until smooth, and set aside. Grate a large chunk of jicama using a box grater, and thoroughly squeeze to remove excess water. Once squeezed, weigh jicama using a kitchen scale - you should have 200 grams, or about 2 cups' worth of squeezed, fluffed jicama. Add wet ingredients, jicama, and ginger to the flour mixture and stir to combine. The batter will seem very dry at first, but continue mixing; the jicama will still have plenty of moisture to release to create a stiff muffin batter. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into mini-muffin tins, filling to the top. Bake at 375 degrees for about 18 minutes, until golden brown and firm to the touch.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And While I'm at it...

In the spirit of using this generally recipe-rich space to announce things like guest blog posts and the like, I thought I'd also mention that I'm (finally) on Twitter.

It took a while for me to warm up to the idea, but now I'm tweeting away, like a whole-grain-loving, vegetable-consuming, bread-baking songbird.

Follow me here: @MiaRoseM

Tweet you later!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being the Guest, for a Change


Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to play host. It's a rare weekend indeed when I'm not hosting at least one dinner, dessert, or brunch. I figure that if I don't host a get-together every so often, I won't have anyone to eat all of the culinary creations and experiments that come from my kitchen. And the quality time spent with family and friends is pretty great, too.

But today, I'm the guest (of sorts). Not quite a dinner guest, but something even better: a guest blogger!

If you like what you see in the picture above, head on over to the Oldways Table Blog, the official blog of one of my favorite organizations: Oldways. Oldways is a food think tank that creates and sponsors nutrition and public health initiatives. They are responsible for the Whole Grains Council, something near and dear to my heart, along with other interesting projects, such as the Latino Nutrition Coalition.

All of which is to say that I think they do great work, and jumped at the chance to be their guest for once, if only on a blog (and if only in such a way that I was still responsible for the cooking...). My post at the Oldways Table deals with the sticky and divisive subject of what to make for a workday lunch.

What did I make? I'll give you a hint: it's probably pretty obvious from the picture above. But if you want all of the juicy details, you'll just have to go on over to Oldways to check it out.

Friday, June 5, 2009

I Spent a Week in San Francisco...


And all I brought back were two bags of Rancho Gordo beans, some chili powder, and a dog-eared (but still precious) Madhur Jaffrey cookbook.

Yes, it's true, Jonathan and I took yet another trip to San Francisco, the city that foodie dreams are made of. And although I only brought back a small smattering of the city's good things to eat, rest assured that while I was there, I did my fair share of sampling and seeking. I savored my favorite Slanted Door salad on two separate occasions, devoured my mandatory loaf of Acme cranberry-walnut, witnessed the making of (and then taste-tested) fresh Cowgirl Creamery cheese, and stopped by the Bi-Rite Creamery for the yummiest, zingiest ginger ice cream imaginable.


Oh, and I also languished in the Sonoma dusk just long enough to enjoy a splendid meal at Estate, and shared my first-ever Zuni roast chicken, preceded by a subtle mint-black lentil soup.

So yes, my fair share indeed. I wish I had some lovely, candid, mouth-full photos to share with you as a San Francisco souvenir, but sometimes eating just has to be about the eating and enjoying, you know what I mean?


But, in addition to my Rancho Gordos, I did bring back a little something to share with you all. Less tangible or crumb-y than, say, an Acme boule, but still worthwhile. On my Saturday jaunt at the Ferry Building farmers market, I sampled one of my favorite non-homemade granolas: Galaxy Granola. They were offering tastes of a new product, little granola clusters (intended for snacking), that were studded with grains of quinoa.

Now, I love quinoa, but I was skeptical. Quinoa granola seemed a bit, well, crunchy. Too crunchy. Like break-your-teeth-from-eating-raw-quinoa crunchy. But I was amazed at how pleasantly-textured this granola was. Crunchy, but in a good way, and with that subtle taste of quinoa, to boot.

All of which is to say that my souvenir is merely the idea - encouragement, even - to add some quinoa to your next batch of homemade granola. Once home - happy to be back, but rather hungry - I gave the quinoa granola thing a try.

I've been tweaking a new granola flavor combination recently, so it seemed fitting to add quinoa to the recipe. This granola takes its inspiration from another breakfast favorite: buttermilk pancakes. Blueberry-buttermilk pancakes, to be precise. With maple syrup.


Now, the ingredients for this granola are a bit out of the ordinary, but really not that hard to come by. The space-ageish freeze-dried blueberries are from Trader Joe's, and buttermilk powder is widely available. And because I am in love with malted barley, I had to add some of that, too. If you can't find it, try brown rice syrup or extra maple syrup. The other ingredients are standards in my pantry, but other nuts/seeds can be substituted.

Pulverized freeze-dried blueberries = blueberry powder


For me, the blueberry powder (which is made by crushing freeze-dried blueberries with a rolling pin) is the best part of this recipe. The granola is surprisingly blueberry-y, and berries are a nice and nutritious way to add some sweetness. And the buttermilk? Yum. Now, I won't say that the quinoa makes a marked difference in the flavor of the granola, but it's a nice textural element, and besides, it's quinoa! What's not to love? Not that I'm keeping track, but this recipe is also chock-full of nutritious stuff: oats, flax, berries, quinoa, pumpkin seeds...


As always, this recipe is only minimally sweetened, so add more maple syrup if you like a sweeter granola.

The gift of granola: what better way to celebrate the world's premier hippie/foodie/earthy-crunchy city? Enjoy!

Why cry over spilled milk when you have fresh granola?

Blueberry Buttermilk Granola (your pancakes will be jealous!)

1 1/2 c. rolled oats (not quick or instant)
1 c. puffed brown rice cereal
1/4 - 1/3 c. sliced almonds and/or pumpkin seeds
3 tbs. quinoa, uncooked
2 tbs. each flaxseed meal and wheat germ (or oat bran)
2 tsp. dried buttermilk powder
generous 1/4 c. freeze-dried blueberries
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4 c. egg whites (I use pasteurized)
1 tbs. barley malt syrup
1-3 tbs. maple syrup
1 tbs. almond or peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

Line a baking sheet with foil, and preheat the oven to 325 F. Mix together oats, pumpkin seeds, nuts, and quinoa, and spread evenly on baking sheet. Toast in the oven for about 10 min., until nuts and pumpkin seeds are just starting to turn golden. Meanwhile, make the blueberry powder. Place freeze-dried berries in a zip-top bag, and use a rolling pin to crush them into a fine powder. In a large bowl, mix together remaining dry ingredients, buttermilk powder, spices, salt, and blueberry powder. Remove oat mixture from oven and incorporate into dry ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together egg white, sweeteners, nut butter, and vanilla extract. Pour wet mixture into dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to mix thoroughly, but carefully. All dry ingredients should be evenly coated with wet mixture. Lightly oil the foil-lined baking sheet, and pour granola mixture onto it. Spread evenly and bake in the 325 F oven for about 15 min. After 15 min., check and stir granola, and then continue baking until just crisp and starting to brown slightly, stirring and checking every 5-8 min. (be careful, granola can burn very quickly!). Baking time should be about 25 min., total. Allow to cool fully, then store in an air-tight container in the freezer.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I Hate Peanut Butter Cups


So, here's the thing: I hate peanut butter cups.

When I was of trick-or-treating age oh so long ago, Reese's peanut butter cups were all the rage. They were the coveted morsels in many a re-purposed pillow case; sometimes saved for a rainy day, sometimes eaten all at once in defiance of the gods of belly-aches and sugar comas.

And they've never really lost their charm, it seems, since most people that I know still love a good Reese's every once in a while. In fact, chocolate and peanut butter in any application is always a winning flavor combination. In foodie magazines, on blogs, and in cookbooks, there is always a populist dessert or two that features chocolate and peanut butter, and, though not always the most sophisticated or refined, those particular treats seem to be the most popular.


But really, I'm not such a big fan of peanut butter. I've always felt that peanut butter cups were overrated, and I don't think I've ever made a chocolate and peanut butter dessert. Ever. It's just so over-done, unoriginal, and frankly, not that appealing. Although I wouldn't necessarily turn down a Reese's way back when, they were never my favorite kind of Halloween loot. I'd take a Milky Way, or even Skittles (as much as I hate to admit it now) over a Reese's any day.


There came a point last week though, when I really felt the urge to make a batch of homemade peanut butter cups. Without going into the details, I'll say that peanut butter cups have been a recurring aspect of my work life recently, and the team of people with which I work is quite enthusiastic about them. I'd seen a few bloggers' renditions of them over the past few weeks, and I have to say that I was intrigued. Not that I actually thought I would like them, but they looked like a fun project, and I knew I'd have an enthusiastic audience to reap the fruits of my labor.

So, for a work event last week, I melted a whole bunch of chocolate, got my hands on some of the freshly-ground peanut butter at my little Whole Foods, and had my canister of flaky sea salt at the ready. I carefully lined my mini-muffin liners with a layer of chocolate and let them hang out in the refrigerator to harden. I made a thick, almost dough-like paste with the peanut butter, some salt, and confectioner's sugar, and then patted a ball of it into the base of each chocolate shell. And finally, I covered them all with a generous layer of more melted chocolate, and an extra sprinkle of sea salt.


They looked surprisingly like the Reese's variety, with a bit more chocolate. The taste, however, was much richer, much peanuttier, and much more, well, homemade. Which I suppose is to be expected. Not that I liked them or anything. Because really, I hate peanut butter cups. I do, I swear! My team, however, was smitten with them, and did a fantastic job of polishing off the batch that I made.

Even though I really don't like peanut butter cups, these are a pretty perfect treat to make for a crowd. They are simple, but immensely satisfying - eating just one (not that I even wanted to eat any of them) is surely enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, if not an appetite. And with the fresh peanut butter and sprinkled salt, they are intensely flavorful. They do take a bit of time to prepare, what with the chilling and the filling and the pressing, but they certainly aren't challenging, and they are sure to impress.


Of course, these peanut butter cups, to me at least, are pretty wretched-tasting. Which is why I didn't eat any of them and will never make them again. But, if you have friends who are crazy about peanut butter and chocolate, you might want to make these. And if you have to taste a few, just to prove to yourself that you do in fact hate peanut butter cups, that's OK, too. I promise, you won't like them. I know I didn't. And trust me, I tasted plenty of them.


(By the way, I loosely followed this recipe, decreasing the amount of powdered sugar a bit. I also chose to chill and mold the peanut butter filling, instead of heating it to fill the cups.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pasta + Salad


On May 5th, a certain apartment-mate of mine celebrated his birthday. Now, we aren't really the type to do big blow-out birthday celebrations, but we are the type to use birthdays as an excuse to spend a little more time in the kitchen, and to eat a few things that might not ordinarily work their way into our weekly rotation.

We considered going out to a nice restaurant on Jonathan's birthday, but in the end it was quite rainy and yucky and we felt like staying in. Instead, I made something I've never made before: real, Italian, saucy, juicy meatballs. I bought ground pork (for the first time, ever) and ground beef (if not for the first time, then for the first time in quite a while), and went to town with some fresh breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs, and tomatoes. And olive oil. Let us not forget the olive oil. I'm pleased to report that they were a hit. A heavy, don't-eat-more-than-2-at-a-time kind of hit, but a hit all the same.

And for dessert? Well, what's lighter than homemade ice cream to round out a heavy meal? I made mint chocolate chip, which, I must admit, is a flavor that I've always hated. It's not the mint so much as the chocolate chips that have always bothered me; I like chocolate, but big chunks of frozen chocolate in my ice cream is quite unappealing. My version, instead of big chunks, had lovely, delicate shavings of Scharffen Berger (70%, no less), and was completely out of this world. Instead of mint extract (any store-bought ice cream and most ice cream parlors use extract), I used only fresh mint leaves, which steeped in the cream and left a soft, herbal flavor to the ice cream instead of the sharp and assertive one that you get with most mint chocolate chips.

Oh, and then there was the dense chocolate whiskey cake that came later in the week, which laced the steam in the oven so aggressively with booze that I practically got sloshed just by reaching in and taking it out of the oven. But surely you wouldn't want to hear about that, would you? (Or, check here for the recipe).

But I'm not posting today to tantalize you with last week's birthday treats, I swear. What I'm here to tell you about isn't chocolate or cream or ground pork, but salad. Yes, salad. (If you're a bit disappointed, just wait until my next post, which is full of fat and sugar. I promise.)

But back to the salad. My salad today is really much more than a salad, because it was built not around vegetables, but around pasta. So, I suppose it's a pasta salad. But really, it is not a regular "pasta salad," which is often just a sorry mush of macaroni drowned in mayonnaise, with maybe a stalk of celery or a rib of red pepper thrown in to remind the eater that "yes, this is indeed supposed to be food."

The idea for a salad, with pasta, was born on Saturday afternoon, right before I was to head to Cambridge for Jonathan's birthday party/cookout with a few friends (several of whom had birthdays last week, meaning it was quite the event!). I always volunteer to bring food to these cookouts, not only because I love bringing food, but also because the menu is usually geared toward those who enjoy meat quite a bit more than I do. If you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly a hot dogs and hamburgers kind of gal. And, while I usually manage to scrape by on what I've brought (usually a salad, or some other vegetable dish), it's not quite a meal.

I was prepared this time around, and planned to make both a pasta dish and a salad. However, I was heading to Cambridge by myself, on the bus, and didn't really want to fuss with so many separate dishes (I also had to carry that boozy cake, remember). And thus my Greek pasta salad was born. Essentially, I made a Greek salad, complete with crunchy-fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and a lemony zing, and added some cooked, olive-oil-slicked, whole wheat pasta shells to the mix. Fat (cheese, olive oil), protein (chickpeas, pasta), starch (pasta), and vegetables sing harmoniously in this easy dish, which also happens to be perfect for a cookout spread. It serves as a much-needed salad for the burger-eaters, and a welcome, filling respite for everyone else.


A few notes on the recipe: this dish is yummy and great for a regular old warm-weather dinner, in which case you don't need to do anything special to prepare it: make the pasta, chop the vegetables, dress generously, and toss everything together, perhaps over some baby greens.

To bring this dish to a barbecue, it's best to keep the elements (pasta, chopped vegetables, greens) separate until just before serving, to prevent general sogginess. If the pasta sits for too long in the vegetable mixture (which contains a fair amount of liquid), it can lost its al dente bite. So, here is what I suggest: make the pasta, and rinse with cold water until cool. Drizzle with some olive oil (only when cool; if hot, the pasta will tend to absorb the oil and clump a bit), and store in the fridge in a sealed zip-top bag. Chop the vegetables and dump directly into a portable food-storage container (with tight lid). Dress the vegetables, cover, and store in the fridge. Keep greens in a plastic bag, separate from other elements. Bring the whole ensemble to your barbecue, and just before everyone digs in, mix everything together in a big salad bowl.

And a few other things: The key to flavorful pasta is very generously salted pasta water. Don't be shy! Use sea salt, and add lots. Like, a couple tablespoons lots. Trust me. I prefer shells for this dish, because they are roughly the same size as the chopped vegetables. Farfalle would also be good, but I can never find a whole wheat variety. Although I suggest parsley and mint to flavor the salad, other herbs (oregano, basil, maybe dill) could be used as well. Roasted red peppers and/or kalamata olives would also be good additions, though I didn't have any on hand. Oh, and although I forgot to add the feta before photographing this dish, it was delicious. Yum!


Cookout-friendly Salad with Pasta (makes a whole bunch; can be halved)

1 lb. whole wheat pasta shells
1 can chickpeas, drained
6 small or 3 large carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias
3-4 green onions, sliced thinly
1 English cucumber, diced
~1 c. halved grape tomatoes
1 small block feta cheese, diced or crumbled
1 large handful fresh herbs, minced (I used mint and parsley)
1 tsp. dried oregano (use fresh if you have it)
2 tbs. mustard
1-2 tsp. honey
juice of 2 lemons
generous splash of sherry or white wine vinegar
plentiful olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
baby salad greens, for serving

Directions:

Boil pasta in generously salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse immediately in cold water until cool to the touch. When fully cool, drizzle with olive oil and set aside in the refrigerator. In a large bowl or container, combine chopped carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, green onions, chickpeas, and herbs. Prepare dressing: mix mustard, honey, lemon juice, vinegar and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Pour over chopped vegetables and stir to combine. Add cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add more vinegar or lemon juice if necessary. When ready to serve, combine pasta with chopped vegetables and stir to combine. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil, if desired. Serve over salad greens.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Here to Stay

I have to confess that the past couple of weeks haven't been the tastiest. On Friday, Jonathan and I moved to a new apartment, and for some reason it's just hard to eat well amidst the general disarray that a move inevitably brings.

It's not that our move was an especially difficult or stressful one; in fact, we only moved about a hundred feet down the road, into another unit in the same apartment building we've been living in for the past year. We still had to pack, though, and I still instituted a policy of eating down our pantry before the big day, in an effort to minimize waste and opened, half-eaten cargo.

This policy, however, seemed more effective last year, when Jonathan was moving out of the apartment he shared with two roommates, and there were more bodies around to eat the rather, um, interesting things I concocted with what was left in the kitchen cabinets. During that week, I remember making many batches of things like raspberry-banana bread (those frozen raspberries had been hanging around for months), all of which I managed to foist on unsuspecting friends and guests.

This time around, though, we didn't have the same local network of friends to help us eat our way through it all, and I ended up having to pack a few opened bags of flour, grains, and other staples. Everything (in the kitchen at least, the living room is another story) is pretty much in its place now, though, so I guess it's not so bad.

Now comes the happy task of re-stocking the pantry. Every move, of course, comes with the resolution to not accumulate so much stuff, not to let the fridge become overrun with once-used jars of who-knows-what, not to let the freezer become a substitute for the trash can. But a well-stocked pantry is a must for me, and I'm often so glad that I just happen to have some miso in the fridge, or a package of kombu in the cabinet.

Something I especially love is having lots of flavor-enhancing goodies and condiments in the refrigerator. They are quite evil when a move is imminent (I love tahini, but I've never finished an entire jar), but are also perfect for enhancing a quick, simple dinner or for punching up otherwise bland foods. Here are just a few examples:

1. Good jam or marmalade: perfect on toast with almond butter for a quick snack or breakfast; or an easy filling for tarts and other baked goods
2. "Rooster sauce" (sriracha): spicy and yummy in Asian vegetable stir-fries, or on eggs
3. Whole-grain mustard: essential in sauces, braises, and vinaigrettes
4. Vinegar - rice, apple cider, balsamic: adds acidity and flavor to just about anything
5. Ketchup: guilty as charged.

Let's focus on number 5 for a moment. I remember Jonathan being shocked to find that I, a self-proclaimed food snob and all-natural kind of gal, liked ketchup. I blame my mother, of course, who ruined my sister and me by introducing us to the uncannily delicious combination of ketchup and potato chips (it sounds weird, but you eat ketchup with french fries, don't you?).

Well, I've come a long way since my Heinz-and-Cape Cod days, but ketchup is still a winner. It's sweet, it's salty, it's acidic, it's just a bit savory, and seriously, I can't imagine eating scrambled eggs without it. Potatoes bland? Add ketchup. Chicken too dry? You get the idea.

Ketchup doesn't have to be the high-fructose corn-syrupy junk you find in the supermarket though. For starters, you can try an organic variety, which has all the deliciousness and versatility of the garden variety, but with real ingredients. Or, you can really go ketchup crazy, and make some of your own. It's surprisingly easy, customizable, and good. And it makes the best pantry staple. Stored in the fridge, it keeps well for a very long time (I'm not sure how long, but a few weeks, at least), and is good with everything.

I like to make mine spicy, to make things a bit more interesting, but it certainly could be made to taste more like regular ketchup. The recipe below is more of a guideline - instead of measuring things as I go along, I like to taste and adjust as necessary. It's been a while since I've this ketchup in my refrigerator, but now that I'm just about settled into my new kitchen, I'll have to make another batch soon. Enjoy!


Homemade Ketchup

1 box Pomi strained tomato puree (yes, it comes in a box)
drizzle of olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1-2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
few generous pinches aleppo pepper or dried chili flakes
pinch of cayenne pepper (if you like heat)
sprinkling of dried herbs (I use Whole Foods all-purpose seasoning)
generous ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (more or less to taste)
2-3 tbs. balsamic vinegar
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar
salt to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a saucepan, then add shallot and garlic. Saute for a few minutes, until softened. Add chili pepper and herbs, and cook for a minute more. Add strained tomatoes and remaining ingredients, and stir to combine. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until ketchup is reduced. This will take a while - maybe 20 minutes or so. Keep temperature just below boiling to avoid messy splatters. As ketchup reduces, taste for seasoning, and add more salt, sugar, vinegar, or spice as necessary. Cook to a ketchup-like consistency, then allow to cool before serving. If not serving immediately, store in a glass jar (it will stain plastic) in the refrigerator.