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


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


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.