Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baking up a Blizzard

I was snowed in today. All day. I baked. I drank. I played in the snow. It was a good day.

I've been waiting all week to try the Lemon Poppy Seed Sandwich Cookies from The Washington Post feature on cookies. They're rollout cookies, so I knew they would take some time. Then we were hit with a blizzard. Excellent. Time for baking!

Oy! These cookies were a lot of work. What rollout cookies aren't? However, there are rollout cookies that are worth the work and then there are these cookies. The dough was so unforgiving, breaking up into crumbly bits, as if on command, after the first re-roll. Damn. Frankly, I am not even going to put the recipe up here. Feel free to investigate the link.

The cranberry jam, on the other hand, was fabulous. I only wished I had a brunch to go to this morning to share this jam with others. Tart, but sweet and just how I like it. I had hoped the jam would be able to save these cookies, which it did, to an extent. If it weren't for the jam, I probably would have thrown the cookies out. They weren't bad, but they were a little floury and flavorless for all the effort (and butter) I put in.

So after hours of boiling, pureeing, rolling and baking, I finally looked up to see over a foot of snow on the ground outside. Holy blizzard, Batman! Having lived in DC for almost 5 years, I didn't realize how much I missed a healthy snowfall. After staring dejectedly at my cookies for half an hour, I tugged on my duck boots, tossed a scarf around my neck, pulled a hat on my head and struck out into the wintery wonderfulness.

Okay, I may have been that girl walking up and down my neighborhood, occasionally singing, but mostly humming Bing Crosby tunes to myself as I jumped and tromped into snow drifts, chasing that satisfying crunch of loosely packed snow. It was grand.

And then it hit me, why not make some mulled wine to warm up after my snow adventure - which is exactly what I did. This is my blizzard mulled wine, which consists of whatever wine, fruit and spices I had on hand.

Blizzard Mulled Wine

2 750-ml bottles of Charles Shaw Merlot
1 lemon, sliced
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3 generous tablespoons of sugar

Combine all ingredients in a large pot or slow cooker. Cover and simmer on low for at least an hour, but be careful not to let it boil. Ladle into mugs, snuggle up with someone special and sip contentedly.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pistachio Cookies

Nothing gets me in the Christmas spirit like Christmas movies. Now, I am not talking about cheeserific junk like Prancer or The Santa Clause. I hate the cheapness of those movies. I mean, really, there is no challenge. Is it really that hard to be in the Christmas spirit when you find a new pet reindeer? Or your Dad suddenly becomes Santa Claus? I like the Christmas movies that make their characters work for it, like Die Hard, Scrooged, and even more traditional picks like It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Life is decidedly not wonderful in It's a Wonderful Life; it begins with a guy wanting to commit suicide. And Miracle actually has Santa committed. Do you know what state-run, mental hospitals were like in the 40s? That's dark. Not to mention that no-bullshit little girl, who tells Santa to his face, that she doesn't believe in him. Those are some big, dramatic obstacles. And then there are the terrorists.

What I am trying to say is that Christmas spirit shouldn't be handed to you on a serving dish. You have to go through some tough times to realize just how nice you've got it. Which brings me to my next cookie recipe. Having watched "Die Hard" while I was baking my German Chocolate Cookies, (fitting, no?), I thought Scrooged, which is all about realizing the wonderfulness around you, would be the perfect picture to watch while I baked Pistachio Cookies. Why? Maybe because Frank Cross is like a pistachio, with a touch exterior and a sweet and salty sensitive side. Or maybe I just like watching Carol Kane hit Bill Murray in the face with a toaster.

Pistachio Cookies
(from The Washington Post cookie special)

3/4 cup (4 ounces) shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios (plus about 50 for garnish)
2 tablespoons, plus 1 cup sugar
1 2/3 cups almond flour
2 large eggs

Yields about 30 cookies

Combine 3/4 cup pistachios and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a processor; pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and mix in remaining cup of sugar and flour, using an electronic mixer. Beat on low speed to combine, then increase speed to medium and add eggs, one at a time. Cover and refrigerate dough for at least 8 hours. (It looks a little bit like baby food, but it tastes wonderful).

Position racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Scoop out spoonfuls of dough and roll between your hands to form 1-inch balls. (More on this step later). Use a little bit of water to moisten your hands, if they start to get sticky. Place cookies on sheets about 1 inch apart. Press a pistachio on top of each ball, flattening the dough slightly. Bake on the upper and lower racks for 7 or 8 minutes, then rotate the sheets back to front and top to bottom. Bake for 7 or 8 minutes until cookies have spread slightly and the edges are a light brown. Cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Done!

I have one editorial note to make about the original recipe. I have absolutely no concept of size when it comes to anything smaller than a foot. I actually keep a desk tape measure in my kitchen utility drawer, not to actually measure things, but to give myself a mental image of what whatever measurement I am supposed to be using. Therefore, my cookies were a probably bigger than 3/4 of an inch called for in the original recipe. Hence, my only getting about 30 cookies out of this recipe.

All in all, these cookies were a great success. Don't be put off by their crunchy appearance; they are light and the perfect amount of chewiness. And they were SO easy. I made the dough in about 10 minutes on Wednesday night, and woke up early to bake them on Thursday morning. I was a little bummed that I didn't get more cookies out of the recipe, because I hoped to bring them to the work holiday party. However, Mom always taught me, if you don't have enough to share with everyone, don't bring anything at all. Boyfriend was delighted. Several times that morning, I caught him scurrying out of the kitchen with a couple freshly baked cookies tucked behind his cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

German Chocolate Cookies

What gives?

I'm just not feeling the holiday vibe this year. I feel like something is missing. I am not talking about the cheesetastic store displays or the crazies at the mall (they are still there and they still don't know how to drive in parking lots). I'm taking about all those little things, like obnoxious holiday movie marathons, outrageous home decorations, shopping list freaks-outs and, of course, cookies!

What I didn't realize about all these little things, was how much they function as an early warning system that, yes, in fact, the holidays are coming, and, no, you can't scratch that frenemy off your holiday party invite list. Junk.

Panic was setting in on Saturday, until I somehow rationalized that the holiday season couldn't start until I had a tree, a cute three- or four-footer with lights and ornaments and that great tree smell! Sadly, after Boyfriend and I spent two hours driving from store to store looking for one, it started to sink in that a real tree just wasn't going to happen for me this year. Blerg. (The little fake one from a few years ago held up pretty well, even if I put a few too many ornaments on there). So, if I can't fill my apartment with the warm, comforting smells of a real Christmas tree, I can certainly brew up some bountiful baking aromas. Thanks, Washington Post! Project Christmas Cookie: Launch!
Whoa-dee! These cookies were good. Seriously. I rarely get excited about a cookie recipe. Frankly, I rarely get excited about cookies, period. Cookies really have to be something special to get my attention and these were really interesting. My usual Ambrosia Macaroons may have a rival as my go-to cookie. Unsurprisingly, coconut is still involved. I might make them bigger next time; these little devils were addictive.

(Okay, they may not look like much, but that pack a lot of flavor!)

German Chocolate Cookies 
(from Sally Sampson's "Cookies")
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
1 cup peans, lightly toasted, then coarsely chopped
4 ounces Baker's German chocolate


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cream butter and sugar with electronic mixer. Beat on low speed, then increase to medium speed until the cream and sugar are smooth, scarping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

To toast pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 325-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, for 15 minutes. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

Add the egg and the vanilla extract to the butter and sugar mixture, beating between additions. Add the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt; beat until everything is well incorporated. Add the coconut, pecans and chocolate, mixing until well combined.

Drop the dough by heaping teaspoons onto the baking sheets, spacing cookies about 2 inches apart. DO AHEAD: the dough can be made and frozen for up to 2 months. Bake one sheet at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, until the undersides of the cookies begin to firm up. The tops may still look shiny. Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

(Note: The only thing I changed was that I only used a teaspoon of vanilla extract, rather than a full tablespoon called for in the original recipe. A tablespoon seemed like a lot).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pear and Cranberry Pie

I did it! I made a pie. I. Made. A. Pie. It wasn't pretty, but it sure was tasty. Okay, so there is a definite Frankenstein-esque look to it, but I've never made a pie before.

Stop number one on my trip to pie-discovery: L'Academie de Cuisine for a course on (obvi) pies and tarts. Man, did our instructor make it look so easy. One, two, three: pie crust. Riiiiight. No one in the class was really buying that it could be that easy either. Throughout the class, we shared stories about personal rolling pin showdowns and pie crust disasters. (Ahem.) Once upon a time, Mom might have been known to grumble, yell and even swear at pie crusts. Such behavior may or may not have caused Dad to hide in the upstairs den, pretty much as far away from the sounds of the kitchen as possible. But don't quote me on that. My instructor also told a story of a woman in one of her classes who ran crying from the kitchen in the middle of class. So don't be discouraged (or run away); commit to the pie crust, as ugly as it may be. As Mom always said, after the alleged swearing and rolling pin slamming, "Well, it doesn't matter how it looks, does it? It will taste good, right?" Absolutely, right.

Crust for a Two-Crust Pie
(from Chef Christine Ilich, c/o L'Academie de Cuisine)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks of unsalted butter, cold but pliable
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup cold water

In a large bowl, mix together flour, salt and sugar. Using your hands, mix in butter until the mixture resembles a course meal. Mix egg with water and add about a tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition, until dough is just moist enough to hold together. Shape dough into two discs, wrap in plastic and chill 30 minutes.

It goes without saying that I enjoy these classes. There is a level of know-how that each chef brings to the class that helps me learn just what all this cooking business is about, such as the relative benefits of butter or shortening when making a pie crust or the affect of adding some egg to your dough. These kinds of explanations are the difference between knowing how to make a lot of recipes and knowing how to cook.

And I get to eat pie for lunch:

(From left to right) Sweet Potato Pie with Bourbon Cream, Maple Walnut Pie, Pear and Frangipane Tart and Apple and Cranberry Crumb Pie. And yeah, the pictures are fuzzy because taking pictures with my Blackberry kinda sucks.

Stop number two: my farmers' market for some sweet, juicy pears. I was so excited to make my first pie, I headed out into the rare D.C. snowfall last Saturday to visit my farmers' market in search of fresh pears. What a wise decision. These pears were the perfect ripeness. After tossing my crust discs in the fridge for a good chill, I sat down with my pears and the new "Star Trek" movie for some peeling, coring, slicing and avenging Romulans.

Pear and Cranberry Pie
(recipe from Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook)
3 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cup cranberries
6 large ripe pears (about 3 pounds), peeled, cored and sliced
2 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl mix cornstarch, cinnamon and 3/4 cup sugar. Add cranberries and pears; toss to combine. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out one of the discs of dough. Try to roll out your dough to be a few inches wider than your pie plate. You can always do a little patching later. making sure that the dough is lightly floured so that is doesn't stick, gently roll dough around your rolling pin and transfer to pie plate. Using a butter knife, trim the excess dough from around the pie plate. Keep the scraps to patch any holes in the bottom or top crusts. Spoon pear mixture into pie crust. Place dabs of butter over mixture. Roll out second disc, and place over filling. Cut a couple of slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Sprinkle pie with 1 tablespoon sugar.

Place sheet of foil underneath pie plate, folding up edges of the foil to form a rim. The foil will catch any sticky drips. Bake 20 minutes. Turn oven temperature to 375 degrees. Open the oven a crack for a minute or so, (don't walk away!) to allow the oven temperature to reach 375 degrees, close oven and bake 60 to 70 minutes longer, until filling is bubbly in center. Cool pie on wire rack for 1 hour. Serve warm.

Stop number three: my belly!

Pasta with Ratatouille

Shocking. Shocking is the only word I can think of to describe my food habits over the last few weeks. After all the roasting, baking and eating of Thanksgiving, I lost all foodie focus. Out of sheer laziness, I have made meals out of a bag of Pirate's Booty, Easy Mac (because regular mac and cheese seemed too much to handle), and the better part of a jar of kosher dills with a side of turkey pepperoni. Not to mention the fact that I recently had leftover roast beef with horseradish cream sauce - for breakfast. I feel like I have been on a food bender. Disgraceful.

This week, I was back on the wagon, ready to purge myself bad, post-holiday habits with a hearty helping of Pasta with Ratatouille.

Look at those bright, friendly colors!

I may not have been creating good foods after the holiday, but I was exercising my inner foodie outside of the kitchen. I had been visiting a lot of bookstores, perusing new, old and used books, when I decided to pick up a copy Ellen Helman's The Uncommon Gourmet. Mom has been cooking from this book for years. Ellen Helman provides a varied collection of simple recipes which are suitable for everyday, but often elegant enough for company. I'll be cooking from this book again soon. And so should you.

Pasta with Ratatouille 
(Adapted from The Uncommon Gourmet)
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped into 1/2" cubes
2 medium zucchini sliced into 1/2" rounds and cut in half
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red pepper, sliced
1 large green pepper, sliced
1 large red onion, halved and sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 - 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste
28-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup black olives, sliced
1 tablespoon capers
1 pound gemellli (or other textured pasta which will hold a liquidy sauce)
Makes 6 servings. Place eggplant and zucchini in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for about 30 minutes; rinse and pat dry. Warm 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute eggplant and zucchini until lightly browned. Remove vegetables from pot and set aside.

Add another 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to pan. Add peppers and onions; saute until soft. Add garlic, parsley, basil, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste. Add at least 2/3 of can of tomatoes or more if you like. (I started by adding 2/3 of the can, which looked right, but I like tomatoes, so I tossed the whole can in there). Simmer for about 5 minutes. Return eggplant and zucchini and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook and drain pasta according to directions on box.

Add olives and capers to the vegetable pot and simmer another 5 minutes, uncovered. Toss veggies with pasta in a large bowl and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Makes great leftovers for the lunch box.

Boyfriend liked this dish so much, he said, "I don't even mind that there isn't any meat in it." So there you go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I'll Julienne You, You Fuzzy Little Foreigner

Chef knife? Serrated knife? Ninja star? What, oh what, is the right tool? I'd really like to know. Solution? L'Academie de Cuisine's Basic Knife Skills class. (This class is held monthly, and sells out frequently, so reserve your spot early). What an eye-opener. I don't pretend to know the first thing about correct form or whatever. However, during the demonstration part of the class, I saw many of my "techniques" kindly explained as, "What not to do." Oh. Whoops.

ONIONS (recreated for your viewing pleasure)
I felt pretty confident on my onions, thanks to some detailed diagrams in one of my cookbooks. I knew that one cuts an onion in half lengthwise, cuts off the bottom and slices down from the root, about as far apart as you want your chop. Then slice the onion crosswise and you get lovely, little cubes. Thank you, Good Housingkeeping for preventing me from looking like a complete ass on onions.


I didn't really learn anything about carrots, other than when cutting up round veggies (what veggies aren't round?) cut a little off one side to create a flat side on which the veggie can rest. With a flat side, your veggie isn't rolling all over the place, forcing you to chase it with your free hand and your knife. There is always a chance that a wily veggie may hightail it out of there, leaving only your fingers and knife to duke it out amongst themselves.

Here's a memo from the Land of the Obvious. Rather than try to cut out the tops and seeds, pumpkin-style, cut down the sides. Slice the pepper down from the stem to the tip into 4 or 5 long chunks, then slice into strips. This lesson is generally helpful for all different kinds of peppers, especially when you're trying to avoid touching too many spicy chili seeds.

This was just cool. I am constantly putting minced garlic in sauces and dressings. I mince as finely as I can, but I am always a little worried that one of my guests will get a chunk of raw garlic to bite down on. Because I have an irrational hatred of the garlic press, this little trick made my day. (Yes, I lead a simple life). Mince the garlic a finely as you can; squish and pull the garlic with the flat of your knife, a little bit at a time, continuing to squish and pull the garlic from right to left across your cutting board. Voila! Garlic Paste. So Obvious. (However, does not photograph well).

Finally, I picked up this handy trick for slicing basil. I usually stack up a bunch of basil leaves, largest to smallest, and attempt to slice vertically from the tip to stem. However, if you take your little stack of leaves, roll them up, and slice across your little basil rollie, presto! sexy, basil slices. Who would have thought?

I also learned to de-bone a chicken, but it is a little too complicated to recreate here. It was wicked cool. These are just a few of the things we learned. And we got to make lunch!

My table partners were both chatty and friendly; we easily talked in small groups about our favorite kinds of cooking styles and interests. It was a little like begin in science lab on the first day of sophomore year. You have to share your space and tools, but you don't want to encroach or be grabby. After the demonstration part of the class, we were set free to wreak havoc on our own platters of unsuspecting veggies, which we turned into a stir fry. Our stir fry came out well, although I may have been a little generous with the chili oil. As we have all learned, when it comes to the spicy, I am wicked heavy handed. I even tried to hold back a bit this time, but I was so proud of my brunoise jalapeno (which, I learned, it was you call julienne strips if you dice them into cubes), that I dumped the whole thing in there. Sue me.

Despite the fact that I was exceedingly nervous about cooking in front of a room full of strangers (not among, mind you, but in front of, because in my mind all eyes are on me, right? Why else would I have started a blog?), I really enjoyed this class. Even if you are a little farther along in your culinary training, I am sure you'll enjoy yourself and learn something, too!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chocolate Cake Challenge: Part Deux

As you read the title of this post you may ask yourself, "Why is she attempting another chocolate cake" Fair question. In the borrowed words of Captain James T. Kirk, let me respond: "because it is there." OK, baking a cake may not have a lot in common with climbing a mountain, except that it represents a personal challenge to oneself. I love chocolate cake, therefore, unless I want to weight 300 pounds, I must devise a chocolate cake recipe that Boyfriend will truly enjoy. I sought inspiration from his favorite holiday cocktail, the Grasshopper. What I came up with was a fluffy chocolate cake, with a subtle mint flavor.

Chocolate Grasshopper Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
(1 package instant chocolate pudding mix)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup creme de menthe
1/4 cup creme de cacao
3/4 cup softened butter
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour bundt pan. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, (pudding mix), baking powder, baking soda and salt. In small bowl, combine milk, creme de menthe and creme de cocoa.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Alternatively, beat in dry and wet ingredients, a few scoops at a time, until incorporated and batter is smooth. Transfer to bundt pan. Bake about 45 minutes. Cool for a few minutes and turn out on baking rack.

(Green in good. If you ask me, there isn't enough green food).

Grasshopper Glaze
1 1/2 tbsp creme de cacao
1 1/2 tbsp creme de menthe
1 1/2 tbsp milk
1 cup confectioner's sugar

Mix all ingredients together until smooth. Drizzle over warm cake.

I wanted to make a bundt cake because I have noticed that people generally feel less bad about munching away on a bundt, while a whole slice of cake can feel like a big commitment. However, if a conventional layer cake is really your thing, this recipe could easily be made with 3, 8" layer pans and your favorite frosting. (Note: if making a layer cake, reduce baking time to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean).  I'll have to come up with a creamy, mint frosting for the layer cake version. (Part III?)

My only reservation is that I meant for this recipe to be more spongey. I realized after I put it in the oven that I forgot to add the pudding mix, which I believe would have achieved that effect. Even more regrettable is the box of pudding mix that will stay on my shelf for the next month, mocking me, until I bake this cake again. Perhaps I can impose on my parents' good natures and make this cake for them while I am in Boston over the holidays. What do you say, Mom? This cake is really fluffy and delicious. I promise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Better Baking with Beer

Once upon a time, a few years ago, I tried to make a Guinness Chocolate Cake. The operative word in  that sentence being, "tried." It did not go well. However, never one to be bested by inanimate objects or ingredients, I knew I had to try again. Despite or perhaps because of Boyfriend's taunt of, "You remember what happened last time you tried to mix Guinness and chocolate, right?" I felt compelled to try Modern Domestic's scrumptious Chocolate-Guinness Oreos. Yum! 

At the time, I'd never made a layer cake before and was very excited about the idea. I love chocolate cake and Boyrfriend loves Guinness; what could be better than a decandent chocolate stout cake? I ran right out to the store and bought some one-use cake pans. (Big Mistake #1).

As I mentioned, I have never made a layer cake before. Come to think of it, I don't think I had made a cake, period, other than my trademark (read: idiot-proof) pistachio bundt cake, before attempting this four-layer edifice. Suffice is to say, I had no idea what I was in for. As you can see, the recipe calls for 4 cups of flour. Having little or no previous cake experience, this did not strike me as a large amount. So I went along my merry way, sifting and mixing and happily humming to myself, as I often do when baking.

Holy mackerel, did I make a mess. Big Mistake #2: I didn't let the cake layers cool enough before trying to stack and frost. Big Mistake #3: when my not-porperly-set cake layers started to crack and fall apart I tried to "glue" them back together with frosting, which, of course, was melty rather than sticky because the cake was still warm. Right about now, my kitchen had started to resemble the scene from "Sleeping Beauty" when the little green fairy tries to bake a birthday cake without magic - or an oven. If I had a broom, I certainly would have tried to prop my cake layers up with handle. (Big Mistake #4: Not making a fantastic "Slime Rickey" from YumSugar, to get me through the hard times). Unfortunately, at this point, panic had set in. As softball-sized chunks of semi-frosted cake goo tumbled to the floor, I  frantically attempted to salvage the base layer, by throwing - yes throwing! - falling, double handfuls of cake across the room into the garbage bin. (Big Mistake #5) By this time, I am literally covered in cake and frosting, nearly up to my elbows, not to mention that I have stepped in cake and am tracking it all over the kitchen. All the commotion drew Boyfriend, who, surveying the scene, kindly informed me that, "It's ok; I don't even like chocolate cake." Blerg!!

The moral of this story? Well, there really isn't one. I can tell you that throwing mounds of semi-solid cake across the room creates more problems than it solves. Right. How about: if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. 
Chocolate-Guinness Flavored Success!

P.S. It has been brought to my attention that I didn't actually write about these amazing cookies in this post.  Therefore, it should be noted that these cookies were yumtastic. It has to be a pretty exceptional recipe to get me excited about roll-out cookies. These were well worth the effort. They weren't too soft or too sweet. As one of my work colleagues put it, "Ohh, that cookie was a moment."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Colossal Chili Fail

As my father so affectionately put it, "How the hell do you screw up chili?" I am chili-cursed. Seriously.

No, there are no pictures. Yes, it was that bad. I don't know what went wrong, but - oh, man - did it go wrong. Every time I try to make chili something invariably goes wrong. And not just, let's-throw-some-junk-in-there-and-fix-it wrong. Irrevocably wrong. Grrr.... argh.

Rather than use one of my mother's handed-down chili recipes, I thought I would try my hand at this Bon Appetit recipe. Why? I don't know. I am masochist? Obvi. So, I whipped up this disaster over the weekend to my acute disappointment. Note: I made this recipe more or less as written. I did make a few minor substitutions, but nothing that should have altered the overall flavor of the dish. Or so I thought.

The overall appearance upon serving was a little disconcerting; my immediate thought was, "This is chili. It ain't always pretty." But, secretly, I knew. I knew as Boyfriend and I tried our first bites and a heavy silence enveloped the apartment. I have to give bonus points to the boy for waiting until I pushed my own bowl away (and had emitted several grumbly curses to myself) before he gave off any obvious signal that it was inedible. Good boy.

But seriously, does the god of chili have it in for me? The first time I tried to make chili, I inexplicably doubled the amount of chili powder called for in the recipe. Hot. At the time, I managed to balance it out enough with extra tomatoes, black beans and anything else that was in arm's reach and vaguely complementary to chili, so that it was cool enough to eat, but the story doesn't end there. A few months later, I tried to make this chili again (with the appropriate amount of chili powder) and it was ... just ... missing ... something. Unfortunately, I didn't write down what I added to my first attempt, which apparently were the key ingredients to making it delicious. Of course.

When all else fails, do what you should have done in the first place: listen to your mother. Mom has given me not one, but two tasty, fool-proof chili recipes. Have I made either of them? No. Knowing my penchant for screwing up chili, did I decide to go with the tried-and-true favorites, which have been served at our and our family friends' tables for 30 years? No. I had to give over to my hubris. I was high on my braised pork patties and eager for more glory. And what did I end up with? Funky meat glop, that made a disturbingly familiar thhh-plop sound as I spooned it into the garbage bin.

Now I have guilt.

Poor Boyfriend had to wait all day, smelling the deceptively appetizing aromas emanating from my beloved dutch oven, Rosy, only to be robbed of dinner and many successive and anticipated leftovers.  Mac 'n' cheese anyone?


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cookbook Review: "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean"

If you happen to find yourself planning a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts any time soon, one of the many fantastic places at which you should eat is Oleana. My family and I went here last year and the meal we shared ranks as one of my all time most mind-blowingly awesome meals. To this day, I have no idea what I ate, but whatever it was, it engaged all five of my senses in a complete full-body experience.

So I decided to buy the cookbook. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

For weeks I have been dying to try anything from this book; it is so neat. The book is organized by flavor combinations rather than courses. Given the increased likelihood of my spectacular failure when dealing with new flavors, I opted for the galette of tender pork with cumin and cider, which looked like the exact, right amount of effort for a Sunday afternoon cooking adventure. Armed with all the ingredients and a brand-spanking-new dutch oven, I set to it.

[Love note to my dutch oven: Hi, Gorgeous. Look at you, with your inviting, burnt red enameling. How could I resist? You idly glance over at me from the stove, like a giant cat dozing on a warm radiator. Well, hello. I just know we are going to have a long and filling relationship of meats, stews and casseroles. Welcome home. Let's try not to make the other cookware jealous].

Waiving my novice flag high, here, I'll admit that I have never worked with a multiple pound cut of pork before. I was nervous, but it wasn't too difficult once I decided to go all-in in cutting it up. Then I rubbed the pork down with a ton of salt, garlic and cumin and braised it in cider for several hours.  The worst and best part of braising is the smell. At first, all I could smell was the garlic and cumin, mostly because I was smelling myself. Having worked both into the meat somewhat vigorously, I inevitably rubbed it well into my own skin. Not that I have a problem with that. After about an hour of braising, the warm, spicy smell of cider began to waft through my apartment. YUM! I took the meat out to cool before I ripped it apart and reformed it into patties for pan frying. Believe it or not, I used to be afraid of touching raw meat and chicken. Embarrassing. Really. However, I have come a long way; I really enjoyed pulling the pork apart with my fingers, separating out the fat and other bits. Ah-ha! My inner germophobe knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, let me tell you!

I also tried my hand at the dolmas, which is just a grape (or other) leaf, stuffed with rice or other deliciousness. These little Swiss chard rice bombs were frakkin' amazing, despite the fact that I haven't quite figured out Swiss chard. Swiss chard has so much going on flavor-wise, but the leaves are huge. Every time I saute rather than blanch it, I feel like I am fighting lobsters into a pot. The giant leaves loll out the sides like legs or giant tongues trying to escape my skillet. "Ged in there!" ( I suppose I could tear/chop them up a bit, but where is the drama in that?) The dolmas, which were filled with spicy rice with onions, garlic, red pepper paste and a hint of mint, were surprisingly easy to make. I served everything with a side of greek yogurt to complement the spicy rice. Highly recommended.

Although a lot of the recipes in this book are somewhat labor intensive and certain ingredients may be difficult to find, (Hence my going with recipes that included ingredients with which I was already familiar.), it will be a great addition to my library, especially as my skill improves. So if you're looking to branch out into some exciting flavor combinations from Europe and the Mediterranean, check out this book.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Food Notes from My Sick Bed

Activity in my kitchen came to a screeching halt last week when I managed to contract not only strep throat, but the flu as well. Before I got sick I had all sorts of different post ideas in mind, which I no longer have time to develop in full. In the interest of purging my head of these buzzy bees, I thought I would do my own little weekly blog roundup, made up entirely of my mental cranberry stew of half baked reviews, recipes and Theraflu induced-reveries.

Art and Soul. As I mentioned, my parents were in town a few weeks ago. The first stop on my parents foodcation in D.C. was Art and Soul. For me, the meal began and ended with the lamb loin hoecake. Everything was delicious, but this little plate was so packed with flavors, from the tender lamb to the sweet pickled onions and cucumbers and light dressing. It was like a heavenly gyro. When the food gods want a gyro, they call out for one of these hoecakes.

Founding Farmers. Apparently, I am the last person in the D.C. area to know that this restaurant is awesome. I ordered the mixed grill (fried chicken, bratwurst, pork ribs and cole slaw), so I could sample as many meat dishes as possible as well as a side of mac 'n' cheese. Extravagant, I know, but as my favorite foods go, mac 'n' cheese is right up there with bread pudding. And I had heard things about this mac 'n' cheese. This mac 'n' cheese is the best mistake you'll ever make. Holy Mackerel! I wanted to bury my face in the stuff. Whew. Also, the pot roast was singular is its unique depth and subtle sweetness which we couldn't quite place (anise? allspice?).  All of our portions were big, so come hungry.

Finally, I continued my love affair with Fall. I had hoped to whip up some true Oktoberfest fare, with beers, brats and sauerkraut. Yum! Sadly, all I could muster was was a Pumpkin Bread Pudding and some pumpkin beer. I substituted dried cranberries for the raisins, but I didn't even get around to making the caramel sauce. The morning after I baked the pudding, I was hit and hit hard by the flu. I only tried one piece before my convalescence. Unfortunately, I can't really remember much beyond that other than it was pumpkiny. After that, I was on a strict diet of oatmeal, oatmeal and bread for days.

Coming up: I try my hand at a couple Eastern Mediterranean-inspired meals from my new cookbook: Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spicy Soba Experiment

I love pasta. Love. It. I could eat pasta everyday for the rest of my life and die bloated and happy. But, sigh, pasta does not reciprocate my feelings, forcing me into erratic encounters with these comforting carbohydrates, usually when I feel I "deserve" some pasta after a hard day at work or several successful dieting days. Rather than dieting and binging, I have been trying to find tasty recipes for healthier pastas. I have even experimented with tofu substitutes, such as House Foods Tofu Shirataki noodles, which aren't bad, if you know how to dress them.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, Mark Bittman showed me just how easy it was to make a satisfying soba salad. Having braved the squishy, slipperiness of Tofu Shirataki noodles, I was confident I could tame the sometimes tricky soba.

I knew I wanted to do something with fresh ginger and garlic. No-brainer, right? That is like saying, "Gee, maybe I'll try a recipe with tomatoes and basil." Obvious, I know, but we are taking baby steps, here, people. Baby Steps. I also had a hankering for some mung bean sprouts, which are so satisfying to munch. (Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can hear my dad saying something like, "muncho bean sprouts." Not sure where that is coming from). Finally, I walked down to my local Whole Foods and saw some snow peas, also of the satisfying munch variety, and decided I had rounded out this recipe pretty well.

Spicy Soba Noodles

Makes 4 servings.

8 oz. soba noodles
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tbsp sriracha
about 1 cup snow peas
about 1 cup mung bean sprouts

Cook soba noodles according to package, rinse with cold water until cool. Set aside. Heat olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add ginger and garlic and saute for about 1 minute. Transfer to a large bowl. Add peanut butter and honey and mix until melted. Whisk in next four ingredients. Add noodles and toss to coat. Add snow peas and toss again. Let the mixture cool until it reaches room temperature, tossing occasionally so that sauce evenly coats noodles. Add mung bean sprouts, toss and serve. (I would have liked to top each serving with chopped peanuts, but I didn't have any on hand).

The fresh, crunchy veggies and spicy sauce make this dinner an excellent candidate for lunch box leftovers. (Note: I originally used one whole tablespoon of sriracha, but as my boyfriend told me between sniffles and gasping breaths, that may have been too much. You may wish to go with the half tablespoon or even less. My feeling is that as long as the heat doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients, a spicy dish isn't hot enough unless I have a couple of sniffles, [clear out those sinuses!], but I always err on the side of spicy).

Coming up: a huge weekend of dining out with Mom and Dad at Art and Soul, Founding Farmers and others.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pistachio Bundt Cake, Just Like Mom Used to Make

I have to admit, I don't know the genesis of this recipe, but it is an instant favorite with everyone who tastes it - and it is so EASY! My mom started making it when I was in high school. I couldn't say whether it was a recipe from the Milton Junior Women's Club or a recipe from one of her co-workers, but it is so moist and light that everyone will want to know your secret.

Pistachio Bundt Cake Recipe

1 box white cake mix
2 boxes instant pistachio pudding mix
4 eggs
1 cup club soda
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp almond extract
2 squirts green food coloring
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tbsp softened butter
2-3 tbsp skim milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour bundt pan. In a large bowl, beat together first seven ingredients. Fold in nuts. Transfer to bundt pan. Bake for 55 minutes. Mix together 3 glaze ingredients and drizzle over warm cake.

When I was a younger I was a tom-boy (and a cynic); I assumed that women's clubs were brain-washing social institutions for stay-at-home-moms seeking to increase their numbers through assimilation and quiet judgmental-ism. More often I  sought the company of nerdy males, with whom I could safely and adequately debate the finer points of Star Wars and Star Trek lore.

As a grown woman, I now realize the merits of shared wisdom and friendship that these organizations embodied. I often wish I could find a modern equivalent with friendly female gastronomes who could impart their learned kitchen customs. Until then, I'll have to make-do, pilfering tried-and-true recipes from my mother's Junior Women's Club collection.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Brunch at the Blue Duck Tavern

Although the Blue Duck Tavern is not a place I am likely to visit outside of the affordable confines of Restaurant Week (yikes!), my aunt and uncle were in town helping my cousin set up her new apartment and graciously invited me to the Blue Duck for an interesting brunch.

Interesting could be the watchword for this restaurant. Walking in was like entering a scene form Stargate. I felt like I was entering the foodie temple of the Sun god. The entrance itself is a set of huge, black, double doors that a) don't look like they open, and b) have no discernible sign that they lead to the restaurant. (Leap of Faith?) Once inside, one immediately goes up and down a series of small stone steps, while sunlight floods through a wall of windows. We had seats by the kitchen, which apparently is the place to be, so one can watch the chefs as dishes are prepared and served.

If anything Anthony Bourdain writes it to be believed, having an open kitchen must be absolute hell for a chef. I was expecting a milder version of Bourdain's wild, profane kitchens or even the fast-paced world of Bill Buford, but what I got was more akin to a sedate episode of Iron Chef America. Frankly, I forgot they were there. Perhaps it is a little more exciting for dinner service, instead of a sleepy brunch, but let's be serious here, folks, we all know I was more interested in eating the food. Luckily, the food was as interesting as the ambiance.

We started with mimosas and croissants, which were excellent. The jams, cream and honey were perfect. I ordered the sour dough pancake with port poached figs and fig molasses. (!!) The tangy and gooey chunks of fig combined with the light and fruity fig molasses (oh my), balanced the denseness of the pancake, keeping it from feeling too heavy. It was a sin to leave a morsel on that plate, which was not even a plate. My giant pancake was served in an equally huge skillet. In the succinct words of my uncle: "Big? That thing is a Buick." After croissants and jams, it easily defeated me.

My one reservation about this restaurant, as I mentioned, was the price. My aunt's eggs benedict looked a little on the small side for $17. Now, I know I am not brunching at Denny's or IHOP and that the best ingredients cost a little more, but I am still going through vicarious price shock for this brunch. (Thankfully, my aunt and uncle were picking up the tab).  Sure, I had a truck of a pancake, but I have to wonder if I had ordered another, smaller, dish, would I have left hungry and poor? Perhaps the added cost is a necessary offering to the Sun god. That being said, I loved my fig pancake and would be happy eating here again.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fluffernutter Fans Unite!

I absolutely, positively love the Fluffernutter. Check out this effort to make it the official sandwich of Massachusetts. If you have not tried this Northeastern delicacy, believe me, my friends, you are truly missing out. Nothing complements peanut butter like a sweet, sticky layer of Marshmallow Fluff (which is very low in calories. Bonus!). When I was a kid, my mom and grandmother used to make these babies for me, always cutting them up into triangle-shaped quarters because I was convinced they were more filling (and fun!) that way. My dad and I used to eat them together with an extra layer of grape jelly to make lunch time extra specially ridiculous.

Lately, I've been bringing Fluffernutters to work for lunch. Let me state for the record, nothing takes the edge off that 20-something-being/dressing/acting-like-a-grown-up-sucks angst like sitting on a bench, reading a book and eating a Fluffernutter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Soups and Spaghetti Squash: Hooray Fall!

Fall is easily may favorite season. (Favorite!) Not only because I love the cooler weather and changing leaves, but because it is the best season for being with family and eating some tremendous food. As part of my ongoing efforts to celebrate the beginning of Fall, I decided to indulge my wistfulness with a Italian Sausage and Tortellini Soup. Initially, I liked the recipe because it is similar to my mother's meat sauce recipe, (which will be making an appearance at some point), but in soup form. My thought was that if I made my mother's sauce, my delicate sensibilities would be completely overwhelmed with nostalgia; Thanksgiving is just too far away to start getting homesick now. My hope was that this soup would fill my current flavor needs, while allowing me to continue developing some new recipes and cooking traditions of my own.

Unfortunately, this soup only got me about halfway there. As I have repeatedly written, I am rookie in the kitchen.  I couldn't make stir-fry until I was a sophomore in college, and only then under supervision. One thing I still have to learn is to trust my instincts. If I did, I might not have used the full 2 tablespoons, each, of dried basil and oregano which was called for in this recipe. As I was adding my ingredients I read the recipe four times before I could believe I was reading it correctly. I stood over my steaming pot, holding my full measuring spoon thinking: No, no. Surely not. I pulled out my mom's meat sauce recipe as a reference; Hmm. Significantly smaller amounts of herbs. I even checked the online recipe reviews, a valuable resource for identifying recipe deficiencies. Only a few reviews mentioned reducing the herbs. Really? OK. I tipped my herb-laden spoon with the rapidity of pulling off a Band-Aid and quickly stirred the herbs about, attempting to blend in what I immediately knew was a mistake Damn!

However, this experience demonstrates a very good lesson. If something in a recipe seems off, especially when it is far off from your normal relationship with your most common ingredients, chances are it is a misprint. Or, even if it is not a misprint, I know what I like. If you know you prefer fresh herbs to dried, trust yourself enough to say, "Gee, I am not wild about a mouth full of dried herbs. Maybe I should change this recipe a bit."

The soup wasn't ruined, it was generally good, but it did have a canned, processed taste. Not to dis canned soup, but the whole point of making soup at home is to have a really fresh taste. Bygones. I only have four more servings left to go. Riiight. In its defense, this recipe does have what I like to call, a lot of wiggle room. The dried herbs could easily be replaced with fresh or cut in half or even to one-third, but the ratios of broth to meat to veggies are good, so you can safely experiment with your favorite vegetables or other ingredients if zucchini isn't your thing. (But seriously, if you don't like zucchini, you should really reconsider). In the end, I managed to accomplish what I wanted; I wanted a way to harness my warm and familiar Fall flavor memories, while learning a little more about myself as a cook and, hopefully, developing a few new recipe ideas of my own.

And just because I can't bear to have my first Fall post be a bit of a fiasco, I'll leave you will a Fall favorite that is absolutely rookie-proof.

My first spaghetti squash of the season!

Coming up on the Cranberry: sadly, my cooking class this weekend was cancelled, but I will be baking the ever-popular Pistachio Cake for a friend's housewarming. Get excited.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late Summer Corn Chowder

Is it Fall yet? Whenever I pass my closet these days, I can't help eyeing my big sweaters and duck boots. The deceptively cool weather in DC has been a real tease. So what better way to invoke the spirit of Fall than a hearty corn chowder with bell peppers and potatoes? The best of both seasons, this Corn and Bell Pepper Chowder is quick, flavorful and great for a weeknight meal (and lunch box leftovers). The only improvement I might suggest would be some crumbled bacon, if you want to fatten it up a bit.

I am not sure what will be on the menu this week. I did have a sudden and intense craving for creamed pearl onions recently. AND... I have a cooking class on Fall fruit desserts coming up. Sweet!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chorizo Cheesy Goodness

So what, you my wonder, became of all that lovely chorizo? Funny you should ask. I had the sausage; I had the cheese; I had the cilantro... Perhaps I was inspired by The Arugula Files recent corn quesadillas, because quesadillas are on the menu tonight. Chorizo makes even the dullest of dishes seem delightful, doesn't it?

Ok, I have it on good authority that this might not be the most appetizing image, but let me tell you, this chorizo cheesy goodness was delicioso.


2 medium whole wheat tortillas
2 chorizo sausages, casings removed
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
about a handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
4 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded

light sour cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sauté chunks of chorizo and onion, breaking up chorizo with the back of a spoon until both are browned and onions are soft. Add cilantro and jalapeno. Grease a large baking sheet. Place on tortilla on the baking sheet. When chorizo is cooked through (it will feel firm) spoon saute mix onto tortilla. (Try to avoid scooping too much of the sausage grease onto the tortilla. You don't need the extra fat for flavor and it will make the tortilla soggy). Top with cheese and remaining tortilla and bake until cheese it melted. Serve sliced with a dollop of sour cream.

Unintended bonus: the wheat tortilla had a subtle sweetness that complemented the spicy chorizo. Yummers.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Risk: An Afternoon of Culinary Domination

OK, I am about to bring you in on a Wicked Cranberry secret. When cooking for people who are not my boyfriend or my immediate family, I am a hot mess. Unless I have made a recipe at least twice (and know where the potential pitfalls are) I won't prepare it for anyone outside my supportive circle. But this day was about Risk, and I knew I had to be bold if I wanted to conquer not only my nervous nellyism, but the hearts, minds and tummies of my opponents. Game on.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip

1 cup (light) mayonnaise
1 cup (light) sour cream
2 cups Asiago cheese, grated
1 14-oz. jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained and finely chopped
5-6 oz. fresh baby Spinach, sautéed and chopped (or use frozen)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium loaf of sourdough
1 baguette, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the first six ingredients in a medium bowl. Hollow out the loaf of sourdough to create a bowl. Reserve the top and insides of the bread bowl. Pour dip into bread bowl, replacing top and bake for 1 hour. Serve with baguette slices and chunks from the inside of the bowl.

I used regular mayo and sour cream, as I was serving it to a bunch of dudes, but Asiago is a strong enough flavor that you could easily sub out light mayo and sour cream and it wouldn't detract from the overall taste.

"Game on," quickly became, "Better safe than sorry." Between you, me and the lamppost, I did, in fact, purchase the ingredients for an auxiliary appetizer, Rachel Ray's Chorizo and Mushroom Queso. (In my defense, I had some extra jalapenos, red onion and cilantro, which would have dressed it up some). However, now I have a lovely bunch of Chorizo sausages for dinner some night this week, because this Artichoke dip was a huge hit. Soon enough, the boys were going at the bread bowl itself, using the hunks of bowl to scrape up any errant bits of dip. Bwha-ha-ha-ha!

After a few hours of gaming, just as my guests were lulled into a beer induced buzz, my boyfriend and I hit them with a one-two, buffalo chicken bites and pasta salad combo. Having soaked cubes of chicken breast in buttermilk and Crystal sauce overnight, my boyfriend dredged them in flour and deep fried them for about 8 minutes a batch, then doused them in butter and Crystal hot sauce. Yum. (These bites are a Fry Fest original recipe, (care of our Master Guest Chef SO) from our annual deep-frying theme party).

Sadly, the pasta salad (here), which included mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes and olives tasted bland to me. I even substituted some of the oil in which the sun-dried tomatoes were packed for a portion of the olive oil, but to no avail. Although I wasn't wild about it, it was a good, cool match for the hot and spicy buffalo bites. P.S. The boys seemed to enjoy it.

Finally, the pièce de résistance! Peach and Blackberry Shortcakes with Blackberry Cream. All who remained, the few, the brave, the hungry, were taken down by this dessert. I bided my time, rising early the day before to beat the berry lines at the Court House Farmers' Market. I braved the overly moist shortcake batter (too much buttermilk, ack!) which stuck to everything, abandoned my cookie cutters as useless, formed little shortcake patties in my hands and peeled, pitted and sliced 2 pounds of peaches. And it was totally worth it. Not only was this dessert fantastic, I have a little filling and blackberry puree left over. Ice cream toppings anyone?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

DC Food Blogger Happy Hour - Success!

Thanks so much to everyone who organized and attended the DC Food Blogger Happy Hour tonight. It was wonderful to see you all. I got to meet some of my current favorites, Mary of The Arugula Files and some new faces, Katy of Dirty Radish and Stephanie of Sassy Dining, whose blogs I am looking forward to checking out.

Any now for something completely different:

Fontina, Mushroom, Red Onion and Jalapeno Pizza, a.k.a. my supper.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back in the Saddle

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been a little thin on the ground the last few months. My apologies. Over the last few months there has been a noticable spike in the demands from the other parts of my life. I must admit that when it came to dinner, I was not above the occasional can of Beefaroni. I may even have a box or two of Spiderman Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese in my pantry, right now. That's right. While fresh and natural is always the best choice, sometimes, I just don't have the energy to clean, chop or saute. Sometimes I need to open a can and bless my microwave. However, several months of this kind of eating has not done good things for my health or my general living habits. Therefore, I spent the better part of a day this weekend, combing through my cookbooks and cooking magazines for some new directions.

Summer Tomato and Bell Pepper Soup. Comforting and familiar flavor combo, but ultimately gave me a wicked hankerin' for a true gazpacho.

This simple soup is ideal for those nights when you just can't bear to turn on the stove. Other than being pretty generous with the application of my goat cheese garnish,  I followed fairly closely to the recipe. Usually, when I make a recipe for the first time, I follow it closely to make sure I know how it is supposed to taste, before I change it to how I want it to taste. I served the soup as a side with sirloin steaks and onion and red pepper confit.

Grilled Chicken Breasts with Honeydew Salsa 

While just about everyone on the planet would prefer chicken with the skin on, I just couldn't bring myself to use anything but skinless. I love me some crispy chicken, but I still have some foodcation pounds that don't need any help sticking around.

The salsa was delicious. Because I was only cooking for myself and my boyfriend, I grilled half as much chicken, but made a full batch of salsa. (I really like sauces. A lot). This is a wonderful dinner for a hot summer night. I used a jalapeno, but doubled the amount listed in the recipe. As everyone knows, not all chiles are created equal, so it is important to test the strength and spiciness of one's chiles while cooking. For this reason, and because I like my dishes spicy, I always feel free to play with the amount of chiles I use. However, I still think this recipe could have stood a bit more heat, but overal this recipe is a good bet.

Apple Galette. A trusty standby.

Frankly, I cheated a bit. I've made this recipe many times, but I had a frozen Whole Foods pie crust taking up space in my freezer and a bunch of Granny Smiths that were this side of mealy. I had to make something out of them and a galette sprung to mind.

I love this recipe because it is so easy and versatile. I like to think of galettes as a lazy baker's pie. It doesn't have the same level of juiciness that a pie would, but it fills that need and takes a fraction of the time. I only had raspberry preserves in the fridge, hence the purple tinge. Previously, I've made it with marmalade instead of apricot preserves. (Sadly, my boyfriend does not like apricots. Weird, right?) You can really use whatever apples and jellies you have on hand. It is so easy and looks deceptively fancy with the apple slices arranged in concentric circles. Go to it!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Vacation Edition: OBX, NC

Seafood Spectacular! That's right, folks, I got down with my bad, raw bar self. I also ate enough shrimp to satiate a small whale. My foodcation continued, perhaps without the same level of success as the Cape, but there were still many good eats to be had. I ate 15 oysters in one sitting! Awful Arthur's Oyster Bar had huge, fresh and flavorful oysters (and didn't skimp on the portions), but the spiced shrimp were a little, "meh," and the bartender in the upstairs lounge seemed a little inexperienced. (In Arthur's defense, I tried the spiced shrimp at Dirty Dick's Crab House, by which Arthur's suffered in comparison. More on that later).

In the lounge, I ordered a Blue Moon to nurse while we waited for a table. The bartender said they didn't have any orange slices, but would I like some orange juice? -- Do people do this? - I paused for a minute and said, "Sorry, I was confused. I thought you just offered me orange juice with my beer." To which he replied, "Yeah, I did." It was just too ridiculous, so of course I responded, "Oh, yes, I'll have some." (?!) There was a split second when I contemplated pouring the shot of orange juice, which was served in a paper, 8-ounce Dixie cup, into my beer, but opted to just carry the thing awkwardly around with me until we were seated. Am I missing something? Was I meant to sip the juice as a chaser with every drink of my beer? Please, if you know, pass that knowledge this way. Moving on...

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I was warned it might happen. The signs were there all along the way. But I couldn't help myself; I got crabs at Dirty Dick's. OK, so the real shocker here is not my little confession, it is the gift shop in the restaurant, which sells - at eye-level with small children - thong underwear, printed with pictures of sultry, well-endowed lady-shrimps with the words: "Peel me. Eat me." W-O-W. Is there anything left to say? The King crab legs were good (I'd never had them before) and the spiced (peel and eat) shrimp was very tasty, but the atmosphere was that of an ice cream parlor in hell, with a huge, blue-lit bar in the center and checkerboard tablecloths on the tables. This place really needs to decide if it is a lame, dirty joke, or a purveyor of family-friendly-fish-fare. Needless to say, it did not merit a picture. Whew.

Tortugas' Lie
Delicious! Our last night my boyfriend and I stumbled on this "local favorite." We split an order of Conch fritters, because I had never had Conch. It was a little hard to tell whether or not I like Conch, with all the friedness it was coated in, but I think I did. Sadly, I can't be any more descriptive than that. However, my entree, the Coco Loco Chicken, while also fried, was full of flavors and textures. The chicken was covered with flakes of coconut and served with an addictive lime-curry dipping sauce, freshly complementing and cooling the hearty crunch of the fried coconut. If the chicken looks a little funny in the photo, it is because, yes, I had to have a bite before I took out my camera to capture this chicken macaroon. Like many of the dishes on the menu, the chicken came with rice, black beans and salsa, which I enjoyed stirring together and covering with my remaining lime-curry sauce. Delish!

Now that I have spent a large portion of my disposable income for the summer, it is back to home cooked casseroles and cakes. Fortunately, I have finally settled my dispute with Bon Appetit and new additions will be rolling in monthly. Additionally, I have a few cooking classes in the fall, which should provide new directions, even if it is in the dessert department.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vacation Edition: Cape Cod

Whew, I have just spent two amazing weeks eating myself silly, first down the Cape, then on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The first stop on my cuisine tour of the East Coast was the Blue Moon Bistro . Growing up, this location was a superb breakfast place called the Snow Goose. The place was a staple of my young summer diet. Since the Snow Goose departed, the location has been several different things, but I sincerely hope that the Blue Moon Bistro is here to stay. I started with a cup of the Gazpacho, which was thicker than I make, but with a very satisfying hint of spiciness. For my main course I tried the Butternut Squash Ravioli, which was heavy (obviously), but I was delighted that the accompanying cream sauce was light and flavorful, balancing well with the sweetness of the caramelized onions and the packed-to-capacity ravioli. This entree is offered in a smaller version, which looking back, I should have ordered, but only because there was bread pudding on the dessert menu, which NEEDED (we have discussed this) to be tasted.

My parents both had a swordfish special, which I am sure was fresh and delish, but since my seafood intake is strictly limited to raw bars, sushi and most crustaceans, I didn't save room to try a bite. My only reservation was that the bread pudding could have been zippier, as it has a grandma's-homemade-from-what-was-in-the-pantry feel. Personally, I feel that bread pudding is such a staple, the excitement of eating it comes from combining interesting ingredients (banana, caramel, liquor, croissants) while maintaining the comfort-food appeal. All in all, a basic raisin bread pudding still hits the mark.
If you love the Cape, as I do, and are looking for something a little more interesting that the basic family-friendly-(read: fish stick)-fare, I highly recommend the Blue Moon Bistro (even though I will always miss my precious Snow Goose.
My other notable stop was The Red Pheasant Inn, dining at which I regard as a personal, foodie victory for two reasons. One, I ordered the duck, which I have never had before. Two, the Red Pheasant has always been the parents'-night-out dinner spot, for which the kids (my brother and me) were left with a stack of VHS and a take-away pizza, while my parents wined and dined down the street. Not that I blame them. I wouldn't want to spend nearly $30 on an entree my child would merely poke at before becoming too anxious to sit still and go running under the feet of the wait-staff. Therefore, I find is doubly rewarding that my literal and figurative entrance into the adult dining world of my childhood should be greeted with a dish of which I have never partaken.

The duck(ling). There was some debate on the onset, between my father and me, as to whether or not the mouthwateringly melty layer of fat on the top of the duck should be eaten. Having never eaten duck before, I was somehow convinced that eating the fat, with the meat, was a crucial part of the duck-eating experience. Despite the fact that my father didn't agree, I followed my instincts and was back-of-the-knee-tinglingly rewarded. I was fortified by a passage I read in Bill Buford's "Heat," in which Mario Batali feeds very thin slices of pork fat to Bulford's dinner guests, while telling Bulford that at his restaurant it is served as "prosciutto bianco" so as not to upset the lardo-phobes. I usually fear an excess of fat, as it is often accompanied by grizzle (yuck!), but eating this dish whole was possibly a life altering event. I promise never again to fear the presence of fat on my plate. Cross my heart.
More to come (with pictures!): Vacation Edition: Outer Banks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Irish Invasion

The folks are coming to town this weekend and I am more than a little excited. Yesterday was a particularly craptastic day at work, so I decided to prepare for my parents' arrival and bake my bad day away with some warm treats.

For my dad, I made traditional Irish Bread. It is our family recipe and other than adding a little sugar and a lot of raisins, I am pretty sure it sticks close to the occasionally-debated "traditional" Irish Bread. In terms of food-rearing, my dad grew up in a house where my grandmother hated to cook, and always bought her potato- and pasta salads from the local deli. To further illustrate my point, my father had never tried any cheese other than American before meeting my mom. Shocking. (My mother has converted him). But Dad contributed to my young education in other ways. He is responsible for my love of the Beach Boys, Star Trek and John Wayne. Often times our conversations consist completely of movie quotes or whole scenes of dialogue. "Put zee candle beck!" And so forth.

Irish Bread

4 cups flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking soda
4 tsp baking powder
6 tbsp sugar, with extra for sprinkling
2 tsp caraway seeds
2 cups buttermilk
1-1 1/2 cups raisins

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix ingredients in large bowl until well blended. Place in a greased and floured layer cake pan. Bake for 1 hour. Remove from pan and cool. Sprinkle sugar on warm bread.

For my mom I made Ambrosia Macaroons, from the December issue of Bon Appetit. My mom is just crazy for coconut. Although she taught me to appreciate food, not just as sustenance, but as an experience to be savored and enjoyed in and of itself, she also taught me how to eat a medium Brigham's ice cream cone without spilling a drop on myself (which she can do while driving) and instilled in me a deep love of ABBA. Nothing beats baking to ABBA.

I use two 14-oz. bags of flaked coconut (there can never be too much) and only about 4 oz. of chocolate, if that. If you use too much chocolate or dip the macaroons in chocolate, you'll overpower the lovely hint of orange. If you're a macaroon dipper, try another recipe. This recipe makes a ton of bite-sized, guilt-defying tasties. Pop a couple in your mouth and enjoy!

The folks and I are hitting up Fogo de Chao and D'Acqua this weekend. While I am pretty sure that nothing can top hunks of tender, red meat, mounted on spears, periodically visiting my table, D'Acqua's menu looks promising, too. We'll see.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nerd-Culture Comes to the Kitchen

I am pretty sure that if someone made me this brownie mosaic for my birthday, I would be indebted to him for life. As it is, I am wicked jealous of my friend Daley, whose friends must love him very much. All I can say is:

"Master using it and you can have this."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dessert Before Breakfast?

Saturday, I rolled out of bed around seven, which was impressive since I usually can't muster that much forward momentum until closer to eight on weekdays. Somehow I managed to get showered, dressed and down to my farmers' market around eight. Sadly, my favorite growers had not arrived or were still setting up, so I made my way down to Jasper sans delicious apple and freshly baked bread.

L'Academie de Cuisine is in Bethesda, so I had a beautiful drive up through the Palisades neighborhood. Man, those houses are gorgeous. I bet their kitchens are huge and sun-filled.

From the outside L'Acadmie looks like a corner bistro with a yellow-trimmed, many-paned bay window. Since I attended the demonstration class, we were set up in a room on the first floor, which was decorated in what I think of as a French countryside palette of soft blues, yellows, and greens, not unlike my mother's kitchen. (Sadly, like myself, my mother has felt the frustration of being constrained by the limited confines of a tiny kitchen). The three-hour class breezed by while our instructor Chef Nichole Ferrigno taught us how to candy oranges, make a flawless caramel sauce and peppered us with helpful hints about baking and entertaining. Most of the prep work and measuring had been done ahead of time by the lovely three assistants, who would have looked more at home at a church bake sale rather than in a teaching kitchen. Frankly, their feathery, white-gray hair and plump grandmotherly appearances were at odds with everything I associate with grandmothers and cooking. Instead of being culinary and cultural experts, waiting to impart generations or knowhow and can-do in the kitchen, these ladies seemed a little uneasy finishing up for our chef as she demonstrated the first few servings of any one dish. I realize my preconceived notions may be unfair and a tall order to make of all grandmothers, but it is what it is. (My grandmothers both hated to cook. Go figure).

The menu was: Mini Cheesecakes with Raspberry Sauce, Apple Spice Cakes with Maple Glaze and Candied Walnuts, Chocolate Brioche Pudding with Warm Orange Marmalade, and Warm Banana-Chocolate Wontons with Caramel Sauce.

The spice cake, I must say, was far superior to my recipe, which is a) not really mine, and b) a total disaster. I'm looking forward to making it on my own.

The cheesecake truffles weren't really doing it for me. Plain cheesecake really has to be something special to get my interested. I must prefer flavored cheesecakes, like key lime, ginger or chocolate. However, I did go to the famous Junior's once in high school. I don't know whether it was having cheesecake with my bacon and eggs that did it, but I seem to remember that experience being pretty kick-ass.

The Brioche pudding - oh my - was so delicious. I have never met a bread pudding I didn't like. It was a little denser than what I usually make, but I invariably substitute croissants for whatever bread is listed in recipes I try. And I have never made a chocolate one before.

The real winner of the day was the Banana-Chocolate Wontons, which were deep fried, covered in a cinnamon-sugar mix, dipped in caramel sauce and embarrassingly elicited a mumbled, but audible, sigh of deliciousness from me. I didn't realize that you could purchase wonton wrappers in packages that look not unlike Kraft Singles cheese slices. This recipe couldn't be easier. Slice up some bananas, bust up some chocolate, stuff it into a little crab-rangoon-looking purse and deep fry for a couple of minutes. (Fry Fest III menu addition?) I think I actually felt the back of my knees tingle on these ones, folks. Whew.

All in all, it was a great class. I'm sure I will benefit from all the little tips and hints the chef added along the way. I think I'll try a few more demonstrations before I go all-in and commit myself to an evening of potential kitchen catastrophe in front of a room full of strangers.