Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Quiet Year

It's been a year since I've last posted....what a shame! A food blog combines two of my most compelling attributes: a (relatively) new obsession with food and cooking, and a very very old compulsion to write. So why wouldn't I write about every new discovery?

There are just too many. I've been cooking and baking more than I ever have. I've become well-known at work for bringing in baked goods once or twice a week. From this experience, I'm even toying with the idea of a baking book, about how to bake efficiently and how to stage projects, focusing on things that can be given away and transported easily, like for potlucks.

For example, I love blueberry pie. But pie is not something that's easy to leave out as a leftover in a corporate break room for passersby to sample -- it's messy and needs cutting. Cookies are tops for serving convenience, but I've found that most cookies are pretty lowbrow. That's fine much of the time, but when I want to make something spectacular -- and transportable and servable without plate and fork -- few cookies make the grade.

There are thousands of baking and cooking books out there, so what business do I have butting in on an already very crowded party? None at all, but the idea just won't go away.

Now I think I'll go enjoy a homemade fresh cinnamon roll made with a borrowed stand mixer....oh wow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Roasted Shrimp Salad

Roasted Shrimp Salad

I rarely get to indulge in the guilty pleasure of sacking out and watching Food Network all afternoon, but some now-forgotten hiccup in my life let me catch a new episode of Barefoot Contessa "Back to Basics." Ah, home again. Ina, milady, talk to me.

I'm not sure why this recipe caught my eye -- salads are usually a fair amount of work, and I'm not a huge shrimp fan, but it seemed simple and portable and I liked the idea of roasting shrimp. A classic Ina twist to the most basic element. With my carb-free diabetic sister visiting, not only did all the ingredients mass muster, but I was on my way to Whole Foods anyway and could buy peeled deveined shrimp. I've deveined shrimp exactly once in my life, and that was plenty.

Raw red onion is strong to me, so I replaced it with a favorite standby: shallots. I've made this twice now, and I think next time I'll try the original red onion. The other flavors are mild enough to handle an extra onion kick. Ina knows what she's doing.

Mild, but wonderful. I couldn't believe how much I liked this. The orange and dill combination is fabulous.

Normally I'm not a huge fan of capers, but in this I wish I'd added more. Go for the capers.

I also tried substituting some of the mayonnaise with yogurt, to minimize the salty taste that screams mayonnaise...maybe that's why I wished I'd put red onions in, dunno. A little added salt could have compensated too. There are lots of minor tweaks to make, as long as the dill, orange and capers are there.

This was so good that I made it again just for myself, this time from frozen uncooked shrimp in a bag from Trader Joes -- deveined but not peeled. Just as good, but much more available, storable and much cheaper than the well-appointed fish market at Whole Foods. The frozen shrimp bag was one pound, less than half of the 2-1/2 lbs that Ina calls for, but was the right count (12 to 15). So I'm not sure what size she's using. The frozen shrimp wasn't small, I think it was called "jumbo" -- but big enough that I cut each piece in half for bite-sized pieces. For this quantity, a half-recipe of the dressing was more than enough.

These shrimp are dressed to impress, and are now filed away in my "staples" recipes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wild Mushroom Mix

Wild Mushroom Mix

I'm no food jockey yet, but I have taken one cooking class. It was at Whole Foods, and was over 3 hours long to cover a complete dinner menu, and very relaxed. I'd actually prefer an intense 1-hour class, but I did get a lot out of this class.

Including a recipe for a wild mushroom in puff pastry appetizer. But even when we made it in class, the puff pastry seemed extraneous. Who needs the carbs? And there's nothing special about frozen puff pastry. The mushroom mixture, on the other hand....very special. Note to self: make this at home when my diabetic sister is visiting, sans pastry of course.

The time came last week. Shopping for ingredients, I learned that oyster mushrooms are a stunning $18.99 a pound. Fortunately, Whole Foods sells a 6oz container of wild mushrooms for $6.99, which I supplemented with some crimini (a staple anyway).

The recipe calls for chives, tarragon or basil, but this was a no-brainer: fresh tarragon. These days it's not hard to find fresh tarragon in grocery stores, and conveniently, Whole Foods had some. I was struck by the anise tint of the fresh tarragon, I need to look up its family tree. I added some fresh basil too, but it was swamped by the other ingredients. Heavy cream, a liberal dose of brandy, shallots...but would you believe: the largest Whole Foods west of Austin was out of shallots, and had been for weeks?! I had to go to SAFEWAY!

I served this as a side dish on a plate, like you would any vegetable dish with a heavy sauce on it, though now that I think about it, it could also pass for a soup. It is sooo good, such a rich classy flavor with really very few ingredients. The tarragon made it. And my sister's blood sugar didn't even notice it!

I could experiment with chives instead, but why mess with perfection? This is great.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Apricot Pistachio Lemon cake

Apricot Pistachio Lemon Coffee Cake

The more and more I bake, the fewer cookbooks I use. Isn't that interesting? Instead, I dig deeper into my favorites. And Coffee Cakes, by Lou Seibert Pappas is most definitely one of my favorites.

Thanks to my split subscription to Happy Child CSA at Frog Hollow Farm, I had a few bags of dried apricots, nectarines and other random stone fruit. What to do with it?

Then I came across this recipe that included dried apricots. Perfect! So I soaked my random dried stone fruit (that was very dry) and cut it up into regular supermarket dried apricots. The recipe referred to simply "pistachios" but I had to chop those up too. This was a fair amount of prep work for a cake!

Fresh lemons, yogurt...recipe for terrific. And it was: moist and mild with a lovely presentation. (That's chef-speak for: "it looks good.") The only thing that didn't work well was my reconstituted stone fruit. The regular chopped dried apricots, that were still somewhat squishy before chopping, worked a lot better.

My baking photography always suffers from the Denny's Menu Dilemma (it looks soooo much better in the photo), but this time, I had a really good model.

The recipe also includes a cherry-hazelnut variation that absolutely must be tried. Now all I need is a special occasion to bake it for.....hmm, no I don't!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Grilled Chicken with Brie and Baby Spinach Salad

Grilled Chicken with Brie and Baby Spinach

I haven't had much time to watch Food Network recently, and when I do, it seems whatever's on is too flashy or hip or competitive or about restaurants -- not stuff I can take into my kitchen. I was sick one day and had little energy to do much more than channel-surf, and caught a Food Network chef I really should like more than I do. Robin Miller does a lot of making a few core items and then using it in different dishes during the whole week. Somehow that never seems to work for me, but it really should. Leftovers are a sorely undervalued commodity in my house.

This recipe seemed almost too simple -- not even a recipe really, just an assembly of simple components. But the idea of melting brie on chicken was too good to resist. Served on top of a spinach salad, it had terrific visual appeal too.

It was pretty easy to make, though the steps about how to melt the brie on the chicken seemed excessive. It melted just fine on the warm chicken taken straight off the grill pan, without the risky step of putting it back onto the grill. The spinach salad was fantastic -- nothing like a little dollop of honey to transform a vinaigrette, and the bacon added a zingy touch to it. Actually, I used the tiny-diced pancetta from Trader Joe's, and "pancetta" just sounds so much more classy than "bacon.

And, as advertised, it shows great.

...though looking at it now, I see it didn't photograph great. Really, that looks like an excessive amount of brie, but it was perfect, especially when parts of dripped down onto the spinach.

As usual around here, this is a great guest dish, since everyone else in my family prefers the grilled chicken in the buff, no dressing-up. But it's good enough I might still add the fluff just for myself.

The New Kitchen

In case anyone ever reads this poor dusty old food blog again, the reason for this hiatus has been the best possible for any cook: a new kitchen!

My last post was at the end of January, when final installation details and coordination and missing materials came to a crescendo. There was a panic about the range hood, delayed flooring, the redesigned island top, the missing sink front pieced, and countless other decisions and things to deal with.

Somehow we got through it all, and moved in to our newly remodeled house on March 18, 2009. And now, almost 4 months later, we're still hardly settled in -- most rooms still have boxes and all the crummy old furniture is still here. But I did set up the kitchen!

My careful planning of where every kitchen item would go mostly worked, with a few notable exceptions (such as the silverware drawer -- situated perfectly for setting the table, but poorly for the 1000 times a day you reach for a knife to spread mayonnaise or a spoon to scoop cottage cheese). I was concerned that the ovens being so far would present a problem, but an oven isn't something you get to frequently during a cooking session. The distance does complicate stovetop-to-broiler items like frittatas, but it's livable.

Did I really need two ovens and six burners? Probably not. Most cooks -- real cooks, not posers like me -- work fine without them. However, I've found some unexpected benefits to both. With two ovens, you don't have to shift racks around as much. The bottom oven has the racks spread out to fit larger items; the top oven for flatter things. My GE Monogram ovens have glide-out racks on rollers, and that is an expected fabulousness, I absolutely love that. I actually have had occasion to use all six cooktop burners at once, but quickly found a major drawback to that: you just can't keep up with six things on the stove! But I love being able to put the three items -- which I frequently do have -- all up front. And the teakettle can stay where it is.

Since moving in, I have done lots of fun cooking and even taken some photos, but putting it together into a post has been tricky. But I'm going to resume food-blogging now, because if there's one thing I can't stand, it's a poser kitchen. This one is here to be used.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Banana Blueberry Muffins

Banana-Blueberry Muffins

This book From a baker's kitchen came from an unlikely source: my husband. He researched it carefully, looking for a book that included more than just recipes to help feed my growing baking habit. This one has a lot of information about equipment and methods, and a nice variety of baking recipes that aren't just sweet recipes. It's especially unlikely coming from my husband because he won't have anything to do with muffins.

My 2-year-old used to live on "mana-manas" (bananas). I had to hide them to get her to eat anything else for dinner. Now she refuses everything, including bananas. I still buy bananas, in the dimming hope that her former affinity might revive itself, but I keep underestimating the depth of resistance of a toddler. As a result, I end up with a lot of overripe bananas. And tonight, those bananas met my Baker's Kitchen book.

Nice when the first thing I do with a recipe is leave out one of its title ingredients. Well, sometimes one just must make do. I thought I had frozen blueberries (already unacceptable, as this recipe called for fresh), but they're either buried in the freezer or were long since snagged for something else. I almost used frozen cranberries, but instead made use of some delicious (Warren?) pears that were getting on the soft side anyway.

The method is easy and muffin-universal: mix wet ingredients first, then dry, then put them together carefully. In the first two steps, you mix well. But the combination of wet and dry should be done very carefully, so as not to overdevelop the gluten. And the batter shouldn't be pourable, it should be lumpy and dropped in glops (my word) into the wells. So says the book. This was definitely worth a try.

I was very surprised to see how little sugar this recipe calls for -- only 1/3 a cup. Even adding in the natural sweetness in a banana, that's not much. I routinely cut sugar down by at least a third, but not this one.

I also used half "white whole-wheat flour", which looks so much like plain white flour that I'm not really sure it counts. Half is more whole-wheat than I usually use, but muffins aren't supposed to be super-delicate.

The recipe also called for a higher oven temperature than most muffins -- 400 degrees. I'm not sure what that means exactly, especially since my oven treats temperature as more art than science.

Emboldened by the low sugar content, I made another popular modification: sprinkling a little cinnamon sugar atop the batter before baking. I like how this affects the appearance, and gives the first bite some bite!

My batter came out exactly like the book said it should: thick and lumpy. As a result, the muffins expanded and cracked slightly at the top, and had a nice coarse, but moist texture (lots of pear bits help that I'm sure). I don't think I've ever made true muffins before -- all previous muffins were really cakes in the shape of muffins. But these were unique!

Yummy, pretty.

And pretty yummy. Hearty and substantial, but not heavy, and definitely not oversweet. I don't think I'd change a thing next time!