Saturday, January 31, 2009

Multi-National Night

On Friday night, I had a little more time to cook, knowing the alarm clark wasn't going to be ringing well before dawn. It seemed like a good time to tackle a couple of interesting-looking recipes. The first was a Moroccan Green Bean Tagine. Here, green beans are sauteed until they begin to brown, then wrapped in a variety of spices that are eye opening, yet don't assault the tongue. A sauce follows, made of vinegar, wine, water, and tomatoes. The green beans simmer until tender, followed by a rapid boil to turn the sauce to an intense, syrupy glaze. The beauty of this recipe is its versatility. It would be amazing, I think, with cauliflower. It would be great over pasta. And every bite intrigues the palate, coaxing out hints of the flavors underneath.

We had this alongside Greek Pot Crushed Potatoes. What an incredibly easy weeknight side dish these would be. Ready in less than half an hour, with little fuss, these lemony potatoes add an incredibly bright note to the plate. Put a pot of water on to boil, and get to work thinly slicing a couple of pounds of red potatoes. Once the water is at a hard boil, slide the potatoes in and begin the rest of the dish. Slice (or chop, as I did) some garlic, parsley, and scallions. Juice a lemon. Check the potatoes--they're probably done. While they are draining, the pot goes back on the stove, filmed with a bit of olive oil. Garlic and water are added to the pan, simmering until the garlic softens. After five minutes or so, the potatoes get added back to the pot, with the parsley, scallions, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes. A few turns to gently break apart the potatoes. That's it. Brightness on a fork.

Sweet Endings

Tonight's dinners was leftovers--chimichangas made from Refried Beans with Cinnamon and Cloves. Actually, you'll read about those in a post later, which is funny, considering that they're leftovers here. But I digress. Since there was really no cooking involved to speak of, it seemed like a good time to make another dessert. I've been working my way through interesting recipes in The Splendid Table's How to Cook Dinner. Since the book works to be weeknight friendly, there are no complicated baking recipes in there. So...I was sure I'd find something quick, easy, and probably pretty darn good.

I wasn't disappointed. The Rustic Jam Shortbread Tart came to the rescue. The shortbread comes together quickly in the food processor: ground almonds, lemon zest, flour, sugar, butter, and egg yolk. Just pule them together until they begin to form lumps. From there, the mixture is patted into a buttered tart pan and partially baked. Just as it begins to brown, take it out of the oven and spread your favorite flavor of preserves over the crust, then pop it back in the oven until the jam begins to bubble. After a little bit of cooling, you can slice off a little bit of Heaven in the form of a mouthful of crumbly, buttery crust and sweet, fruity jam.

Pucker Up

I picked up some Meyer lemons, that's what started this thing. I picked them up, not knowing what I would do with them, but they were there at Trader Joe's. Four perfect sunny ovals with stems--looking up at me. Since this was the first time I had ever seen them at a price that matched my budget, I figured I'd go for it. So, I took them home, admired them on the way into the crisper drawer, and promptly forgot they existed. By the time I found them, I needed to make something, and I needed to make it quick.

Fortunately, Joe over at Culinary in the Country came riding in on a white steed to save the day. Well, not really, and even if he deed, I make it a rule to allow no white steeds in my kitchen, but his blog is a great resource for all things baking. When I saw these English Lemon Shortbread Strips, I knew I'd found the solution to my lemon problem.

This recipe couldn't be easier. The first step is unique--I've never seen this before. The sugar is placed into a mixing bowl, and lemon zest is showered over the top. A little massage follows, with your fingers rubbing the two together until the sugar is soft and almost snowy, having incorporated the oils from the lemon juice. After a whirl in the mixer with the rest of the ingredients, the whole thing is scooped into a pan and baked. After it comes out of the oven, it cools a bit, then is glazed with a zest-rich topping of powdered sugar, butter, and lemon juice.

You can try to eat just one of these, but if you hear a tiny, puckery voice calling your name in the night, you know where its coming from!

Speed Dating--Blogger Style

This will be the first in a series of several posts--allowing you to flirt for a brief time with all of the recipes from the past couple of weeks. There have been lots of keepers, and I don't want to lose track of them. So...I'll do what I can to relive the experiences for you!

Maybe we should start with the baking, hmmm???

I haven't baked much in years, mostly just to avoid the calories. However, I seem to have an insatiable sweet tooth lately. So I've tried to bake a little here and there, just so there's something sweet to grab a bite of from time to time. (Of course, the fallback is Trader Joe's Pistachio White Chocolate cookies, or their Southern Pecan cookies. Yum.)

One of my quests for awhile has been to find the banana bread. I've had good banana breads--lots of them. But until now, I hadn't had the quintessential banana bread. I didn't want lime, I didn't want coconut, I didn't want fancy schmancy versions.

I wanted the banana bread that takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen, to standing beside her on the stool, helping her create love that she would share at the dinner table. My grandmother was, by no means, a fancy cook. She was a resourceful cook, one who lived through hard times, and could magically feed a family on absolutely nothing. Her magic wand was a wooden spoon, and her magic carriage a well-seasoned cast iron pan. I'm sure that some of the "magic" in her food came from its just-picked state, as a trip to the garden was always a precursor to dinner preparation.

But I digress. When I want sweet, I usually want comfort, and for me, that sends me looking for the kind of recipe my grandmother would have used. When it comes to banana bread, though, no one wants to leave well enough alone, it seems. They want to tart it up a bit instead. Or the recipes are too dry, too lifeless, and have barely a hint of banana flavor.

Well, I found my holy grail of banana bread, and it was in the Martha Stewart Bakind Handbook. The name is even simple: Banana Nut Bread. Admittedly, Martha's recipe called for coconut, but I disregarded that and doubled up on the pecans. And I ignored the whole "walnut" issue in the recipe, because that's just not the way my family rolls. And the result was everything I wanted. A delicious, moist bread with a barely-crisp crust where the banana flavor intensified, bursting onto the tongue with the first bite. Quick and easy, this kept well and is very much worth the little bit of effort it takes to make.

Ribbons of Greens and Green Apple Salad

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Don't Let a Down Economy Interfere with a Good Dinner

I love it when dinner is good enough to make two nights in a row, and the total tab for both nights is around six bucks. That was certainly the case with Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Cilantro Slaw. This adaptation from the "Fast Easy Fresh" feature in the February Bon Appetit went together quickly, needed minimal clean up, and used mostly things I had on hand. It was quick and easy enough to make last night, when I was so exhausted with a cold that I needed to be in bed two hours after I got home, and it was good enough to make again tonight, when I got home late. Now, we probably won't have it again tomorrow night, but still...two nights in a row is good, don't you think?

This works best if you come in and turn on the oven as soon as you get home. You have plenty of time to change clothes, check the mail, and mosey back into the kitchen. Four corn tortillas get spritzed with cooking spray on both sides, then go into the oven just long enough to soften. If you're fast, this gives you time to drain a can of beans and mash them with a bit of cumin, salt and pepper. As the smell of corn begins to fill the kitchen, pull the tortillas out of the oven, divide the bean mixture among them, fold over the tops, and slip them right back into the oven. In just a few minutes, you'll see the tacos begin to crisp up. That's a good time to turn them over, so both sides have good contact with the baking sheet.

Meanwhile, toss a couple of cups of coleslaw mix with the juice of a lime, a splash of olive oil, a couple of chopped onions, and a handful of cilantro. By now, the tacos are crisp, ready for the cold, crunchy topping to offset the crunch of the tacos. Really, what could be easier? Grab a diet Coke, the remote control, and dinner is served!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Soup Kitchen

The weather is turning cold here again--the high was only 61 degrees at our house today. (For those of you who are buried under snow, I DO know the reality is that you would be prancing around in your Speedo if you were here, really enjoying this. My feet, however, are only warm when they are in a bathtub full of really hot water, and this is my blog, so 61 degrees is cold!!!! We now return to the regularly scheduled blog post.) Given the fact that I needed warming up from the outside in, coupled with my intense desire to try several recipes from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper, I decided that this was the time to make Soup of Fresh Greens and Alphabets. And what goes better with soup than hot bread? Nothing--which gave me a chance to test drive another new cookbook, rebar modern food cookbook. One of their many claims to fame is their Rosemary Garlic Foccacia, which sounded like just the thing to go with my soup.

I started by making Cheater's Homemade Broth from The Splendid Table. I started with a base of No Chick'n Broth, and freshened it by simmering with white wine, tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaves. After half an hour in the pot, the solids were strained out, leaving behind a very rich, golden broth which served as the base of this soup, along with several others in the cookbook.

Next, the strained broth went back into the pot with wine and crushed tomatoes, followed after a quick simmer by finely chopped escarole, chickpeas, minced onion, garlic, and basil. At this point, the soup calls for a 20-minute simmer. Although I did have a solid simmer going, it took 40 minutes for the greens to begin to "melt" and the onion to lose its crunch. I wouldn't hesitate to up the heat the next time, but I would still plan on a bit more than the 20 minutes called for. Once the simmering is done, a mere half cup of dried small pasta is added to the simmering soup, where it cooks until it is al dente.

In the meantime, I started the foccacia, setting it out for its first rise just before I started the Cheaters Broth. To give you an idea of just how much extra cooking time was required, the foccacia came out of the oven just as the soup reached a point of being edible. Yes, two complete rises, the shaping of the foccacia, and the prebaking rise--all to get the "quick" soup on the table. I have modified the recipe extensively from what was in the book, and will probably make it again with my modifications to see if I like it better. I've cut the oil and the amount of salt which tops the foccacia. I would also do caramelized onions with the garlic, and cut way back on the rosemary, possibly even replacing it with sage. Some chopped kalamata olives would be good, as well, if your husband doesn't gag on sight of them like mine does.

I wish I had glowing reviews for either of these recipes. They were both okay, but only okay. The Husband's comment about the soup was, "Well, we should eat all of it, but I wouldn't make it again." I liked it better than that, but not enough to make it my secret dinner on nights when he isn't home. So, that is two for two disappointments from The Splendid Table cookbook. I do have a couple more recipes to try from there, which hopefully will turn things around to a winning streak, as there are LOTS of recipes I've marked to try. Stay tuned. I'll keep you "posted." (Yes, folks--that's blog humor there.)

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's been a couple of months since I ordered (and received) The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper. However, I have only just gotten around to looking through it, and that was prompted by my beginning efforts to reorganize my cookbook shelves again. You know how it is--you've been lugging dozens of books from one spot to another, and something new and interesting catches your eye. You pretty much have a moral obligation to stop and read the new book--at least that's how I see it.

So, a quick glance turned into a day and a half of close inspection. I can't even tell you how many of the recipes I want to try. There are many recipes that are vegetarian without this being a cookbook for vegetarians. Not much modifying I have to do, then. The recipes seem focused on relatively quick and easy weeknight dinners, something else that is a plus for me. And many of the recipes just have a fresh twist that seems to set them apart from a legion of others. That was certainly the case with Pasta with Chopping-Board Pistachio Pesto--at least in theory. I liked that the pesto focused on green onions (or chives), with basil providing back up instead of taking center stage. I really liked the idea of roasted, salted pistachios taking on another supporting role, especially since I just bought a big bag of them at Costco. And I loved the idea that cheese wasn't an integral part of the recipe, since the Husband doesn't like cheese. Easy enough to add it to my finished dish and leave it out of his.

Unfortunately, the finished dish was a disappointment. I didn't even take a picture. It looked boring. It was boring. I think I'm seeing a trend in myself that I just don't love unsauced pasta dishes. I did add back in all of the reserved pasta cooking water, but it was still dry and virtually flavorless. I added more salt, lots of grated Parmesan...still nothing to make my taste buds tingle.

So, now I'm trying to come up with some ideas that will lend some excitement to the quart of this recipe that's still sitting in the refrigerator. Any ideas? Feel free to share.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Something even the non-veg friends will eat

Wow! What a great start to the new year. I've had this recipe for White Bean Enchiladas printed out and sitting around for several weeks. Somehow, I just didn't get around to making it. My loss. These were amazingly fantastic enchiladas which would be equally enjoyed by vegetarians and omnivores alike. The filling is simple: white beans zipped in the food processor with sour cream, onion, cilantro and a little cheese. Tortillas brushed with a light coating of oil and softened in the oven. The filling is scooped on the tortillas, which are rolled and placed in a baking pan, then covered with the red sauce of your choice. Our favorite is Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce. I always stock up when I get to go. A little bit more cheese over the top, and a bake in the oven yields substantial, toothsome enchiladas which exceed the sum of their parts. While they would be good served with Spanish Rice, we just had them au naturale--and enjoyed every bite.