Saturday, December 27, 2008

Blini Toasts

Blini Toasts:
1 pkg 32 mini-toasts (TJs and Whole Foods have them)
1 3-oz pkg smoked salmon
Sour cream
Fresh dill

  • Lay out the toasts on a plate.
  • Smear a small dollop of sour cream on each toast.
  • Tear off a piece of salmon, about 1" square (two "ribs" worked), try to pile it on the sour cream smear
  • Drop another bit of sour cream on top
  • Stick a sprig of dill onto the sour cream
  • Serve on a simple white platter for max visual effect
  • What, am I writing my own recipe? Only by accident.

    It would be nothing short of startling if someone didn't think to get me a Barefoot Contessa book for Christmas, and sure enough, my thoughtful (and French) mother came through with Barefoot in Paris. I was thrilled to find that I'd already made at least 5 recipes in the book, two of which have become staples.

    I'd seen Ina make Blini with Smoked Salmon on her show once, and then as I sat down to pore over my new cookbook, came across it again. Great idea!

    On the surface, I picked an odd event to try a sophisticated appetizer. But a 5-year-old birthday playdate, with lots of kids and 4 other moms, is, believe it or not, the perfect venue. Most of the time at these things, the moms very rarely sit down, and at any moment might have to drop everything, so small bite-sized "grownup food" is a real treat for them. But they're a discriminating audience too: they don't have time to mess around with anything that's less than great. The proof is how empty the serving plate is in the end.

    Rather than making the buckwheat pancakes called for in the recipe, I cheaped out and bought mini-toasts. Ina herself points out, "No one will have less fun if you don't make everything yourself." After you decode the triple negative, that boils down to: "Go ahead -- buy stuff." The core of the recipe is the smoked salmon, creme fraiche, and dill sprig anyway.

    But my tub of unopened creme fraiche wasn't fraiche at all. With 20 minutes before guests arrived, I made a hasty switcheroo with sour cream.

    Ina calls for putting the salmon directly onto the blini pancakes. I found that the salmon doesn't stick to the dry toasts. You want the whole item to stay together if it gets tipped, so I modified it by putting the sour cream on first. But then, the dill doesn't stick well to the salmon, and the appetizer loses its visual punch -- the dill looks great against the white. The solution was a little dollop of sour cream on either side of the salmon. The downside to this is that the toasts get mushy by the end of the party, but this is worthwhile to have the appetizer stay together.

    I say "dollop," but sour cream isn't that easy to dollop. I imagine creme fraiche is worse. I had to use two spoons to push off a drop of sour cream onto the tiny toasts. Come to think of it, investing a moment to put the sour cream into a plastic bag and cutting off the tip to squirt it might have been worthhile.

    Modifications and all, these were a huge hit. Even my suspicious husband begrudgingly tried a piece when I pointed out to him that this really is just lox, bagels and cream cheese with herbs (he didn't like the dill though). Next time, I will try the plastic bag for squirting the dairy product of choice, and I think assembly will go much faster. This will be a party staple.

    Friday, December 26, 2008

    Blueberry Pancakes

    Blueberry Pancakes

    I'm only calling these "Blueberry Pancakes" because that's what the recipe says. I usually don't put blueberries in, since I'm the only one in my family who likes blueberries in pancakes (sigh). But the base of recipe -- and technique -- makes for the fluffiest, yummiest buttermilk pancakes I've ever made. The blueberries, to me, are a bonus, easily dropped in per-pancake after they're poured.

    This recipe, from a Cook's Illustrated magazine (and I lost the issue with the date, but it's sometime in 2007 or 2008), is fairly simple and has nothing radical in it. It pulls together various elements of good pancakes: some melted butter, a little sugar (my mother would be mortified, but it does add something), and buttermilk.

    The real epiphany is the basic idea of mixing wet and dry ingredients separately, then pouring the wet ingredients into a well made in the dry. Then a little verrry careful stirring, with lumps remaining -- that piece of old wisdom applies -- and within a few minutes, right onto a hot griddle. I used to make pancake batter ahead of time, but with this recipe, you can see the batter rising and later falling, so you want to pour it onto the hot griddle at the max rise moment.

    The syrup in the background is just for show; we don't even bother with it for these flavorful breakfast treats.

    My kids are an easy sell on pancakes, but my husband isn't. So the highest praise came spontaneously, when he called out to me from the kitchen, "These are so yummy!" Random outbursts of approval, especially when it comes to food, are rare indeed from him.

    With a great recipe under my belt, now my pancakes' weak spot is my cheap thin griddle, and temporary ceramic smooth electric cooktop. Blah. These are crying for a nice heavy cast-iron griddle with a ton of thermal mass and heat-retention inertia, and a pair of kick-*ss gas burners under it. It's a few months yet until I get my 6-burner DCS cooktop, but one of the first things I'll make is fluffy, yummy pancakes.

    Thursday, December 25, 2008

    Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts and Pancetta

    Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts and Pancetta

    I'm not a big stuffing fan. But on Christmas Day, with a carb-gobbling family, it seemed like the right thing to do.

    This recipe caught my eye on a Giada de Laurentiis show a year ago. I even bought a bag of frozen chestnuts to make it, which languished in my freezer the entire year. Then my talented sister-in-law made a fabulous sausage and bread stuffing for Thanksgiving, and I was intrigued about the concept of meat in stuffing.

    I'm not sure this recipe would be possible without Trader Joe's ultra-handy tiny-diced pancetta. What a time-saver. I used a flaxseed ciabatta bread, left out the celery (have I mentioned before, I hate celery), and halved the recipe. To my surprise, the only ingredient I didn't love was the chestnuts. Maybe jarred ones, as the recipe calls for, are moister. And pre-peeled.

    When I do like stuffing, it's because it's loaded with apples and raisins, all dealbreakers for my husband. But this stuffing was GREAT. Really tasty, nicely balanced, full of flavor without bowling you over, I think because of the nicely distributed tiny pieces of pancetta. Of all the things I made for Christmas Dinner, this was the standout to me. And it was pretty easy to make, too.

    I've never baked stuffing before, so it'll take a little practice to tweak the moisture in it. It was crisp on top, and moist enough for me inside, but my husband would have liked it a tad moister. He missed the celery too, but I draw the line there. Maybe fennel next time. The way Christmas fell for us this year, only my immediate family served as the only testers, so I pretty much knew we would have leftovers. I can usually count on my middle son (my favorite sous-chef, who turns 5 tomorrow) to try things, and he liked it. My older son and daughter...oh, never mind.

    And there will certainly be a next time. This stuffing was really, really good. I especially hope to impress my inspiring sister-in-law next year!

    Monday, December 22, 2008

    Fig Clafoutis

    Fig Clafoutis

    Another favorite book that I haven't used enough is Simple Soirees, by Peggy Knickerbocker. I love how it lays out various entertaining menus, though I'm nowhere near well set up to actually follow them. Still, there are plenty of individual recipes to pick out. I'd been meaning to make this one for a while, then forgot about it.

    Until one day I had a hankering for a fig, but could only buy them in pints. I love figs, but can only eat so many. Your tongue stings after a few, what's that about? For an unrelated reason, I thumbed through Simple Soirees again, and stumbled across the fig clafoutis recipe I'd backburnered. So for no other reason than the coincidence that I happened to have a near-pint of figs not to waste, I made the clafouti recipe.

    I've made a Pear Clafouti before, and loved it. So much so that I searched high and low to find a white 10" round baking dish just for clafoutis, which I found in an unlikely place: a $10 quiche dish at Macy's. So I'm set.

    Clafouti (not sure if the 's' in this recipe is part of the name or a plural) is so easy to make there's little to say about it, though clafouti itself is very fun to say. Eggs, cream, sugar, and voila: custard.

    The only thing I found about setting fresh figs cut into disks atop the batter is that they sort of floated on the batter, and made for an odd appearance. The recipe says not to worry if they sink, but I wish they had sunk, so they looked less like a pizza topping.

    The recipe offers an alternative to fresh figs, which is to reconstitute dried figs in port. Mm! Now we're talking! I think that right there trumps the fresh-fig route. Not to mention, you can make this any time of the year, outside that short weeks-long window when you can buy fresh figs.

    Alas, but these are all nits. I love clafoutis, with their mild flavor and ambiguous use (dessert, breakfast, afternoon tea snack). Figs raise them to a new class level. Naturally, I'm the only one in my family who would dream of touching this, so it'll have to wait for a fig-appreciative audience.

    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    Cinnamon-Apple Walnut Torte

    Cinnamon-Apple Walnut Torte

    (Is it possible it's been two months since I've posted? It's ironic that overseeing a grand new kitchen remodel, baking once a week for the construction crew, and somehow hosting and cooking for parties at our temporary digs has kept me from blogging! Too much cooking, not enough writing.)

    I love this book: Coffee Cakes, by Lou Seibert Pappas. I think I picked it up at Borders one day, in one of those browsy moods when you just feel like buying something. Rarely do those purchases work out, but this book has become one of my favorites.

    So it's odd that I pick this recipe of all to post about, since it really didn't work out all that well. It's described as a "torte," and uses very little flour, only 1/4 cup. Perhaps I don't know what a "torte" is (OK, I don't), and perhaps I was fooled by the comment that says to bake until the "cake" is set. There was nothing cakey about it. In fact, it was much more like a gooey crisp than a cake, and needed a spoon to be scooped out.

    But the bones were unbeatable: how can you go wrong with cinnamon, apples, cranberries and walnuts? As with all the recipes in this book, the taste was unbeatable, and the instructions were clear.

    This photo makes it look like it held its shape, but that is the result of careful staging. The texture was more like that of a chunky pudding.

    Not that anyone complained -- it's hard to go wrong with cinnamon and apples in the winter -- but when I'm bringing something to a gathering at which most people are sitting on couches with plastic plates teetering on their laps, I like to bring treats that can easily be handled with fingers.

    I'll most certainly make this again, since I suspect user error above all else. Meantime, perhaps I'll catch a clue about what a torte is.

    And now, I have some more catching up to do!

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    Turkey Osso Buco

    Turkey Osso Buco with Parsley and Rosemary Gremolata

    It's not often I can be inspired for a recipe from the truly right place: my nose. But this one came straight from there, via our family daycare lady's new husband, who likes to cook Italian. I picked up my daughter one day and olfactory senses were sent straight to heaven. Conveniently, this recipe was online, courtesy Giada di Laurentiis.

    My Italian is limited to "grazie," but I'm fairly certain "osso" means "bone." So I went against this recipe first thing, with the title ingredient no less, and used boneless turkey breasts. I know my family better than that, and anything with bones in it doubles the work for me cutting everything up.

    Still, the rest of the ingredients are no-brainers: onions, carrots, wine, tomato can you go wrong? Naturally I omitted the celery, as I was born with the rare CTA (Celery Tastes Awful) gene.

    This was overall easy to make, the most labor-intensive thing being chopping herbs for the gremolata (??whazzat??) and that wasn't bad at all. I sure could use a good roasting pan that can easily transfer from the stovetop to the oven though -- the cheap dented one I have kept spinning on the cooktop.

    The cooking smells filled the house as promised, and the final result also looked beautiful.

    My first attempt at accompanying risotto failed completely, but I just called it "fat dry rice" and no one knew the difference.

    My picky husband really liked it, my somewhat-picky son liked it, and my eats-everything son loved it. My daughter, who indirectly started it all, detected the faintest speck of green and instantly rejected it, but with enough exposure to those fabulous smells at her daycare, she'll come around.

    Saturday, September 20, 2008

    Pear Mince Streusel Bars

    Pear Mince Streusel Bars

    This is ridiculous -- over two months since I've posted?! But I've been baking like crazy. At least once a week, I bake something to bring to the construction crew at our house-under-construction for our weekly Friday jobsite meetings.

    I tried this recipe in my quest to solve The Peach Challenge: how to bake with peaches in such a way that can be easily cut up, given away, and consumed with just hands? Most peach-baking is pies and cobblers, strictly plate-and fork affairs.

    From my now all-time favorite baking book, "Cookies for Christmas" by Jennifer Darling, this Pear Mince Streusel bar recipe looked like it could be adapted for fruit other than pears. Thanks to my CSA fruit subscription, I had an excess of peaches, plums and pluots, and couldn't bear to throw them away when they got too ripe to eat in hand. So I thought I'd substitute them for pears.

    It took me a few tries to get the "bar" concept. You bake a crust first, to give structure to what's really more like a cookie than a cake, and then add filling and topping and bake it again. The filling for this recipe is terrific, and flexible also, using orange juice or brandy, and raisins or currants. I've tossed cranberries in there as well, though anything larger than a currant is supposed to be snipped. As it's cooking, the fruit, brown sugar and brandy fills the house with Christmas-y sorts of scents, it's great.

    I had a willing helper who thought snipping raisins was a fine idea.

    It took me a try or two to get my oven temperature to cooperate, but I did succeed in making cuttable, holdable, distinct bars. The result has been universally popular, and is an attractive and fun thing to bring to a gathering.

    I'm looking forward to trying this with pears!

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    Grilled Portobello Mushrooms

    Grilled Portobello Mushrooms

    Among the various offerings inside a grilled veggie sandwich at a reasonable Italian restaurant I had one day, my favorite was the portobello mushroom. Mild flavor, consistent smooth! So when I saw a package of portobello mushrooms at Trader Joe's that afternoon, they were instantly mine. With access to an outdoor gas grill in our rental house, I look for any excuse to grill.

    But what recipe? I quickly searched and found one that called for marinating in a balsamic vinegar mixture. Perfect! I'm into balsamic these days. The recipe called for onion, but I did it with some red onion I had handy anyway. Mix it up, pop it on the grill...sounds easy!

    Sure, if you know what you're doing. The recipe called for gill-side-up for grilling the portobellos, making for a little reservoir for the marinade. Leave it on or off? I decided to leave it on and not flip the mushroom.

    There's a lot of margin for error in grilling portobellos, I think, because they're perfectly edible uncooked. As much as I love balsamic flavor, the balsamic overwhelmed the mild mushroom flavor, rendering the portobello a mere vehicle for the strong vinegar. But that wasn't so bad.

    I really liked this, but it's hard to go wrong with portobellos anyway. As is so often the case, I was the only one in my family who'd even try it. Fine, because I only had two caps anyway.

    I need a lot more practice before I dare present this to mushroom aficianados, but I'm looking forward to that.

    Friday, July 11, 2008

    Pan-Seared Ahi with Blood Orange Sauce

    Pan-Seared Ahi with Blood Orange Sauce
    Ah, TJ's...a never-ending source of inspiration. I try not to buy ingredients without having a basic plan for it, but this Wild Ahi looked too good to pass up. Even if a small package was ten bucks.

    This new thing about actually having heat in my temporary kitchen opens all sorts of doors. I've seared fish before, with rubbery results, but with some serious firepower under the pan now, it was worth trying again.

    I found this recipe for Pan-Seared Ahi with Blood Orange Sauce on Like most reviewers, I didn't happen to have blood oranges, let alone enough to squeeze out a cup, so plain-old store-bought OJ would have to do. I heeded the advice that the recipe calls for far too much cook time, with one reviewer accurately quipping "more than a few minutes, then you might as well open a can of tuna and call it a day."

    The sauce was easy to make, and the fish easy enough to cook. The tricky part was: how long? It became immediately clear that the quality of the ingredients, and skill or luck of the cook would make or break it. Well, I managed to cook it in range, despite my lack of familiarity with my hot new cooktop, but another 20 seconds and I'd have gone over. The fish itself was really outstanding to begin with, so it was really mine to mess up.

    I loved this. The sauce was light and a little sweet, not overpowering, and a perfect complement to perfectly (well, almost) lightly cooked fish. I will certainly make this again, but only if I find the right fish to begin with.

    Bonus: my husband liked it and my sons wouldn't try it! All the more for me!

    Friday, July 4, 2008

    Endive, Pear, and Roquefort Salad

    Endive, Pear, and Roquefort Salad

    Yet another little gem from my all-time favorite Barefoot Contessa episode, "French Made Easy." I'm not sure how French this recipe really is, but it sure sounds French when you say "on-DEEV" instead of "en-dIve."

    I made this salad in the most intimidating of circumstances: not in my own kitchen, in a rural area in Pennsylvania without access to a Whole Foods, and for a large group of people that included a genuine professional chef -- and my mother. I didn't have Roquefort cheese or champagne vinegar, so ordinary bleu cheese (see, it's French if you write "bleu" instead of "blue"), and very ordinary white wine vinegar would have to do.

    I'd never made an emulsified dressing before, but as soon as you put fresh fruit in a salad, I'm willing to try anything. The dressing was actually simple to make, despite needing some actual technique of whisking up the olive oil at the end. Fortunately I was able to find some appropriate pears, Bartletts, and at the right ripeness.

    As always, I over-toasted the walnuts and ended up liking them better that way. I don't know if that's a shared sentiment though.

    I've had endives in salads before and liked them, so I was surprised when my sister said she found them bitter. And now that I made a whole salad based on endives, I had to agree. In fact, the only thing I didn't like much about this salad, other than the dull cheese, was the endive base itself. They make for a nice presentation, but I think a different "green" would taste better. Maybe radicchio?

    Fortunately for me, I'm still in the stage of cooking that everyone wants to encourage me instead of offering genuine criticism (sort of like you always tell your 4-year-old that the picture he drew was great), so reviews all around were good. Still, I think there's much room for improvement the next time -- and there will be a next time, as this simple combination is exactly the sort of twist on basic ingredients that I love.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    Grandma's Banana Bread

    Grandma's Banana Bread

    I haven't posted in a while, but I have a good excuse. Behold my kitchen.

    We've moved to a rental house while my miserable old kitchen is being...well, vaporized. That's brought me into the modern age with a cooktop and oven in our rental house that actually work, and it's throwing me for a loop. I haven't boiled water like this for years!

    One casualty of our move is my beloved cookbooks, including a (paper!) scrapbook I keep of recipes I find, print, and make notes on. They're still buried in a box somewhere, as was my printer's power cord until recently. So how can I find or follow a recipe? And here I am with some uber-ripe bananas were just crying to be made into banana bread!

    The answer sprang out as I struggled to fit baking ingredients onto a shelf...there it was on a bottle of molasses: "Grandma's Banana Bread." Really, just like that, right there. The karma was too strong to resist.

    This was a good test of my temporary kitchen setup. Mixing bowls, measures, ingredients, muffin didn't exactly flow, but things did come together enough for me to actually mix and bake this simple recipe. There's more batter than fits in my Williams-Sonoma 24-well mini-muffin pan (in the medium-sized box under a pile of bath linens), so the overflow went to my Wilton 12-well mini-muffin tin (in the big box of trays and cutting boards in the garage), made from a material that's not as heavy.

    And my temporary oven, a perfectly competent Kenmore, actually fits both muffin pans side-by-side!

    This is significant, because the muffins baked in the smaller lighter pan had a crust to them, making this sticky recipe a little easier to handle. The muffins in the heavier tin were moister and tastier though. The recipe didn't have baking times for muffins, but with a new oven I had to wing it anyway.

    Overall, this recipe is cakier than bready, and the molasses gives it an odd bite that I think is too much. My eats-everything 4-year-old said much the same thing, in kid terms: "Mmm, a little funny-tasting, Mommy." I like banana bread with bigger crumbles, with some semblance of banana remaining in appearance and taste. The orange zest suggestion sounded great, but it too was obliterated by the molasses.

    I'm a ways off from being back in business addition to absent cookbooks and strangely arranged utensils, all my usual haunts for foofy ingredients aren't very convenient anymore! Well, if The Next Food Network Star can combine fish and froot loops, then I guess I can shop at Safeway.

    Monday, May 26, 2008

    Cranberry Pockets

    Cranberry Pockets

    Another gem from Cookies for Christmas by Jennifer Darling. By the time Christmas comes around, I'll have made every cookie in this book!

    As soon as I saw port in the ingredient list, I waited anxiously for a grown-up event as excuse to make these. Now there's a fun ingredient to dab your fingers into! And I happened to have some "cooking" port, designated for a lamb recipe I still haven't tried.

    These cookies required a lot of steps. First, the filling. The recipe calls for dried cranberries, and if I'd had more time to experiment with consistency, I'd have tried fresh cranberries. It seemed like a small amount of filling, but the quantity came out just right. The cranberries, port and sugar actually made more a more subtle filling than I expected. It could have been tarter, but that's really being picky.

    The dough was easy enough to make and roll out. I don't know if I'm violating any cookie-rolling statutes, but I chill my dough in a fat disk shape instead of a ball. It's so much easier to roll out that way, and it chills faster. I've also started rolling it on a piece of floured wax paper, using the same plastic wrap I chilled it in on top, to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin. This works really well to keep pieces of dough from getting pulled up on the rolling pin, and spares me frequent flouring. I don't think this negatively affects the dough.

    Incredibly, I had a 3" cookie cutter -- really, a biscuit cutter. That $2.95 item will justify at least $500 worth of future "you neeeever know when you might need this!" purchases.

    Cutting them out, filling and folding -- no problem. As the recipe suggested, I used a fork to seal and flute the edges. More work than drop cookies for sure, but this was so much fun. I'm easily amused when it comes to cookies.

    Then, the fun part -- the icing. The recipe calls for "port glaze" and icing, even though the port glaze is also icing of drizzling consistency. It's just confectioner's sugar moistened with port -- mm! Inexplicably, the recipe suggests coloring it, but the port will give it color anyway. I made just port icing, put it in a plastic zipper bag, snipped off a tiny corner, and drizzled away. This is a messy process; the icing always comes out the top of the bag and gets all over your hands. Mm, too bad.

    If I had it to do over, and I will, I'd try to make the dough thinner, and put more filling in. Handling 1/8" thick circles of dough is outside my expertise right now, but I sure am going to enjoy learning how. I can't wait for Christmas!

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Broccolini and Balsamic Vinaigrette

    Broccolini and Balsamic Vinaigrette
    My husband and I went out to a nice restaurant (yes, it does happen from time to time) a few weeks back, and a dish he ordered included broccolini. He'd never heard of it before, and I knowingly explained it was a variety of broccoli. Or immature broccoli. Or is it overgrown broccoli? OK, OK, so I don't really know either. Of course nowadays, we're all one Google away from knowing too.

    But I did remember having seen my unknowing mentor, Ina Garten, make a sophisticated broccolini dish. Some judicious searching on Food Network's web site turned up this recipe.

    Broccolini itself is fairly bitter, but this straightforward balsamic vinaigrette is strong enough to overcome that. It really could be used as a salad dressing too, though cautiously. I thought it was a great way to dress up this vegetable, which is half flowers and half dark leafy greens -- the holy grail of nutrition.

    I didn't dream of giving this to my sons, who are quite happy with ordinary buttered broccoli, and what mom is going to mess with that? My husband isn't big on vinaigrettes, and found the broccolini itself hard to chew.

    Naturally, I liked it, and don't mind using a knife to cut the tougher stems, but I don't count for squat around here. So this will get added to my fast-filling shelf of recipes to save for other grownups!

    Sunday, May 18, 2008

    Leek, Potato & Gruyère Frittata

    Leek, Potato & Gruyère Frittata

    I caught this recipe in a Williams-Sonoma catalog, included as a sidebar to sell their special frittata pans. I'm not universally opposed to dish-specific cookware -- I do have a waffle iron -- but $135 and a lot of storage I don't have, for a dish I've made with plain old regular general-purpose pans, seemed excessive. Not to mention that I need to scale the frittatas based on my audience -- sometimes a 10" pan isn't enough. Besides, I like the exercise of hauling my 500-lb 12" Le Creuset pan off a shelf.

    The day I saw this recipe, I happened to hear a quiz on the radio, asking about a town in Switzerland that is the origin of a cheese that had won some world award. The answer was Gruyere. So I had Gruyere on the mind, and that was enough to cut out the recipe and put the ingredients on my grocery list.

    But what the heck is Gruyere cheese?

    Thankfully, there is a huge cheese counter at Whole Foods, with very patient cheese connoisseurs (what is the word for that?). The other ingredients were readily available there too -- this is a Whole Foods sort of recipe. TJ's doesn't carry leeks.

    I've made this twice now, once faithful to the original recipe, and once with sliced zucchini instead of red potato. I'm no fan of morning potatoes, but I'll be darned if I didn't prefer the red-potato version. My husband, who likes potatoes for breakfast, didn't like the red potato version. Sigh.

    It cooked just fine using my Joy of Cooking frittata "technique," if you can call it that, by setting the bottom on the stovetop, and finishing the top in the broiler.

    This is a fabulous frittata recipe, and easily adaptable. My husband didn't like it as much as my original Zucchini frittata, but that was because of the absence of pancetta and basil, easily fixable. This base recipe makes for a frittata that holds together better, is more substantial and cooks more evenly -- perhaps from the heavy cream. Or the Gruyere cheese.

    I'm still a sunny-side-up sorta gal, but this is a nice variation on scrambled eggs that I like and that everyone else in my family will eat too. It's-a-latta-frittata!

    Friday, May 9, 2008

    Orange Pumpkin Cookies

    Orange Pumpkin Cookies

    The truth is, this blog is a farce. It's a false front, pretending to display an emerging interest in food in general, when in fact, my one true calling is cookies. The other stuff is just padding to disguise it. My eating is exactly the same -- a smokescreen to give an appearance of balance when really, I could live on cookies. OK, with a little cheesecake thrown in there too (protein, you know).

    And I could curl up and go to sleep with this cookie book every night too: Cookies for Christmas, by Jennifer Darling. It's just one winner after another. Although in this one, the cookie is only a runner-up: the frosting takes the cake. Or so to speak.

    I love all things pumpkin. I shiver with excitement as October approaches, when harvest colors, nutmeg and squash varieties reign. So despite a main ingredient being out of season, I had to make these cookies. I wear white after Labor Day too.

    One must maintain a certain level of denial when one puts shortening in anything. What is that stuff? Shouldn't I be using it for hand moisturizer? Ick! I don't dare look at the label. But it does make for a nice texture.

    Not surprisingly, the cookie flavor itself doesn't exactly knock your socks off; it's mild, but with a cakey texture. I wonder what a little ginger would do...?

    The orange-butter frosting on the other hand...heaven. The garnish was the real kicker. I used a zester to get strips of orange peel, laid it on a plate and sprinkled sugar all over them. It was a messy and slow job frosting and garnishing all the cookies, but I can think of few ways I'd rather spend time.

    In other recipes, I've had trouble blending in fresh zest with an electric mixer, as the beaters collect all the zest. A friend suggested putting the zest in a food processor first and mixing it with sugar, so it'd spread out better. Great idea! Bad execution. All I got was a sugary lump of orange. As it turns out, I didn't need an electric mixer for this particular recipe anyway, as long as the butter and shortening are room-temperature, and I was basically able to blend my sugary lump with a mixing spoon.

    (By the way, I always get my eggs and any other refrigerated ingredients out ahead of time now. I can't say it makes any difference, but I sure feel like I'm baking hi-class, 'cause I'm in the know about room-temperature ingredients. However, this practice does alert my children to impending cookie-making projects.)

    The cookie itself stands on its own, but then, I'm not very discriminating when it comes to cookies and anything pumpkin. But the frosting makes it a treat, and the zing of the sugared orange zest takes it to a new level. They're attractive and earthy and fun and I just love them.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008

    Coffee Crisps

    Coffee Crisps

    This cookie recipe comes from the book Cookies for Christmas, by Jennifer Darling, an out-of-print book last published in 1999, so it falls just under my threshhold for copyright violation....or just over my threshhold for rationalization.

    Because it would be a crime to the cookie world not to share this recipe, or this book. A foodie friend brought another cookie from this book to a cookie exchange, and they were so amazing that I bought a used copy via Amazon. I love books like this, with clear instructions, beautiful photographs, helpful sidebars, and nicely organized.

    For no particular reason, I was in the mood to make a grownup cookie. The simplicity of the recipe, with the grownup flavor of coffee, and the charming decoration suggestion, made this irresistable.

    Wow. I loved these. Light, flavorful, easy to make, and despite "crisp" in the title, rather chewy. I had all sorts of fun practicing the technique of putting icing into a plastic bag, snipping the corner and squirting away. The photo in the book showed cookies with perfectly even zigzags (and white icing, impossible given the coffee in the icing recipe), but not only don't I have surgeon's control, what fun is that anyway? My favorite cookies were the ones with the random squiggles all over them anyway.

    Topped off with coffee dust (I used a rolling pin to crush coffee granules), these cookies presented beautifully and were really fun to make. And very grownup.

    Sunday, April 13, 2008

    Spinach Grapefruit Salad

    Spinach Grapefruit Salad

    Another recipe from the Frog Hollow Farm Happy Child CSA weekly flyer. I'm into salads these days, and the weekly fruit stash had a grapefruit and avocado, so it was time to try it!

    I had some trouble cutting the citrus, and didn't understand what it meant to "section the grapefruit as you would for a compote," and it turned out I didn't have a blood orange, but, no matter.

    For fun I thought I'd practice presenting the salad in such a way that would delight me if it were presented to me at a restaurant. Colorful orange disks go a long way toward that.

    I wasn't crazy about the orange vinaigrette though; too olive-oily. Still, I saved it just in case.

    A few days later, I tried again, this time with some variation. No grapefruit, a tangerine instead of an orange (which tastes great but doesn't slice well at all), and some toasted pine nuts, because, well, I just like them.

    This time, the same orange vinaigrette was much better. Some things really aren't at their best freshly made. Since then, I've made it again with even better results, using an Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar from Trader Joe's, some added salt, and letting it stew for a day or so. YUM!

    This salad "recipe" turned into more of a general guideline: a green, a citrus, an avocado is the basis, and various sorts of cheeses or nuts could be added. The orange vinaigrette ties it together, and you're on your way to a dandy snack. And it's completely worth laying it out restaurant-style on a pretty white dish, just for you.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008

    Mango Mini-Bundt Cake

    Mango Mini-Bundt Cake

    There's a reason I don't belong to Costco: I always end up "saving" money on stuff I never needed just because it was there.

    I ran afoul of this same reckless mentality when Whole Foods had a sale on mangos: $10 for a box of 10. Of course, each individual mango still only cost $1, so you didn't have to buy a box. And you could have gotten the box even if you didn't buy 10 mangos. Yet somehow I came home with 10 mangos. And a box.

    Not surprisingly, a week later, I still had a lot of mangos left, and they were getting pretty wrinkly. Usually I throw them away about then, but I couldn't bring myself to throw away that many mangos. Besides, I still had the box.

    So I peeled the wrinkly soft mangos and put the flesh into a food processor, thinking I'd bake them into something since they were too ripe for eating. I discovered to my delight that I had caught them at peak sweetness and richness of flavor, and they were all a deep orange color. And not a black stringy one among them. Unbelievable. Perfect!

    But I was already psyched to do some mango baking, and had found this recipe for Mango Cake on I was intrigued by the comments that the recipe doesn't rise much -- I've seen this before! I've found that some quick bread formulations just won't bake right in a loaf, but are perfect in a mini-bundt. And, other recipes that work fine in a loaf are too dry for mini-bundts. Clearly, there's something about that extra inside ring of baking surface area.

    So I tried the original Mango Cake recipe in the mini-bundt pan and a mini-loaf pan. Sure enough, the loaf didn't rise or become cakey, but the mini-bundt did. Ah-hah! A breakthrough in bundt science!

    I still had enough mango puree to make another batch, and this time I started to make the recipe my own. I fixed a few technical issues with the original recipe, like adding vanilla with the wet ingredients, and eliminating some unnecessary folding. I added extra flour, went to town on the lemon zest (Meyer, of course), yet still made sure it was mini-bundt moist.

    The result: just about darned perfect!

    Or, as perfect as a mango cake can get. Even perfect-ripe mango flavor easily gets lost in the baking, so this cake is very mild. Some lemon or lime glaze would go a long way.

    The mango puree and buttermilk make this recipe still very much the original author's, but I see no point in trying to tweak it to rise properly in a loaf. This is a mini-bundt recipe. I can't wait until the next big Mexican mango surplus!

    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    Skillet Greens with Cumin and Tomatoes

    Skillet Greens with Cumin and Tomatoes

    Another one from the April 2008 issue of Bon Appetit magazine?!

    This one is a true winner. Simple, all available and recognizable ingredients, and best of all: a great way to dress up one of the few foods that isn't restricted from any diet: greens.

    The recipe called for sauteeing garlic; I immediately departed and used shallots instead. I just like them. But I will try garlic next time, I think they'd stand up better to the cumin.

    Sauteeing some sort of onion relative and cumin together in olive oil is brilliant. Brilliant! From the first sizzle of saute, I was hooked. Then add in the greens, and it's already fabulously promising. Once the tomatoes went in, the scent of the cumin had me dancing with impatience to try it. And there isn't long to wait, since greens cook so quickly.

    I used a mixture of kale, spinach and a little arugula. I like arugula in salads, but I'd never heard of it cooked in dishes (is there a reason for that?) No matter, I really couldn't distinguish the arugula. The only thing I'd do differently with the greens next time is to keep out more stems, which the recipe wisely advises.

    And wow, it completely delivered. I loved it! The tomatoes lent a sweet punch to greens that can lean toward bitterness, but also made for a very attractive dish.

    This recipe hits the mark on every count: simple, few and easily available ingredients, super-healthy, acceptable to even the strictest vegan or diabetic, flexible, fast -- and really, really good. 10!

    Chocolate Honey Tart

    Chocolate Honey Tart

    Another find from the April 2008 issue of Bon Appetit magazine. Why did I save 8 recipes from a magazine I don't like that much? For this one, I think it was the photo with the recipe, which looked nothing like my chocolate tart.

    I had some technical issues making the crust. First, I used chocolate bunny grahams, suffering a stab of the creeps grinding up little bunnies in a food processor. They were too dense, I really needed real chocolate graham crackers. Next, I overbaked the crust so it came out too crunchy. Then I realized I'd omitted the honey -- hello, it's in the recipe name! -- from the crust. I attempted to compensate by drizzling some honey onto the crust afterward, but I can't say it added much.

    I made the full recipe and split it across 4 mini-tart pans, simply because I didn't have a single full-size tart pan.

    For chocolate, I used a mixture of 73% cocoa Dagoba chips (disks, really), and some Ghirardelli semisweet chips. I wanted a grownup chocolate, and one that wasn't too sweet, but in this form I think more semisweet and less 73% would have been called for.

    It was time to learn how to make and drizzle icing from a baggie with its corner snipped off! I mixed some confectioner's sugar and half-and-half and a few drops of honey (gotta get it in somehow), put them into a ziploc bag, snipped off the corner, and drizzled away. This was fun, until I realized I should have sealed the bag when much of the icing oozed out the top onto my hand. But it got the point across.

    A few raspberry sprinkles (from a sprinkle bottle misplaced in the baking chocolate aisle at Whole Foods -- which I took to be a sign from my cooking fairy godmother) made for a lovely presentation.

    A photographer friend was visiting, so I used the opportunity to learn how to improve my food photography. He didn't have the right lens for this sort of close-up shot, but was able to get a nice one anyway with his fancy-schmancy SLR camera.

    But even more telling is the shot he got with my so-not-fancy point-and-shoot.

    Both taken in my dim dining room. The right camera and lighting would make a big difference, but the biggest difference is in the photographer.

    I could probably improve the next tart with a better crust and slightly sweeter chocolate, but I can't say that heavy rich chocolate desserts are my favorite anyway. I like cakier things. I'm sold on the icing technique though!

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008

    Orecchiette Carbonara with Leeks

    Orecchiette Carbonara with Leeks

    My recipe ideas seem to be driven more by coincidence and impulse than any practical matter. This time, I caught a bit of Robin Miller's Quick Fix Meals, in which she made a carbonara with prosciutto. The same day I found this recipe in the April 2008 issue of Bon Appetit magazine. Add to that the coincidence of having some prosciutto to use up, and some orecchiette taking up pantry space for far too long, and the need for a trip to Whole Foods anyway for the leeks, and we have a dinner plan.

    I love ultra-simple recipes. Not too many ingredients, all easily available, each making a big mark on the final composition. It's colorful and tasted just how it looks -- soft in some places, with zing in others.

    The recipe actually called for bacon, but I really liked how the thin prosciutto added unexpected crunch with lots of flavor. In fact, this recipe doesn't even call for salt, and didn't need it -- how often does that happen? I was surprised how flavorful it was from so few ingredients.

    My orecchiette fell apart though! I only had a few actual ear shapes, otherwise it was mostly pasta pieces. And it doesn't still taste the same, since how it looks matters a great deal. Fortunately, this one really still tasted great.

    I threw caution to the winds and didn't have a mac'n'cheese backup for the kids. I often rely on hot dogs and chicken nuggets for a quick fix, but if I'm making dinner for all of us, they get grownup food. Besides, my younger son is game to try almost anything.

    My older son took one look at this mixture and said, "I'm not eating that!"

    With resignation, I served everyone and then did some quick triage in the kitchen. When I entered the dining room, I was shocked to see my husband and both boys all quietly eating it. My older son even said, "Mm, I like this, Mom!" I didn't push my luck by asking what got them to try it.

    A winner. I might have to extend my trial subscription to Bon Appetit after all.

    Friday, March 21, 2008

    Arugula and Goat Cheese Tartine

    Argula and Goat Cheese Tartine

    One unexpected side-effect of having children is joining mom's groups and hence going to a lot of potluck parties. It's always a challenge coming up with things to bring that can be easily eaten without sitting down at a table with a fork and knife. Never mind that kids will actually eat.

    But sometimes, mom's groups get together without the kids (shh, those are our favorite events), and then we can go to town with grownup food and ingredients. This tartine recipe is among them. It came again from the Barefoot Contessa episode "French Made Easy." I made it even easier by buying mini-toasts at Whole Foods -- or so I thought. The tiny size called for cherry tomatoes, which are definitely not easy to slice.

    Goat cheese also came from Whole Foods, and I wilted like an arugula leaf when one of the moms said, "You can get a whole huge log of this for $4! at Trader Joe's!" Not at Whole Foods. I've never worked with arugula before, the leaf doesn't have much body, so it sticks and conforms well to the goat cheese smear, but isn't easy to work with since it's so droopy and even stretchy.

    I thought this was a wonderful combination. The goat cheese was smooth and creamy, but not so strong that the sweetly bitter argula couldn't get a word in edgewise. Sweet cherry tomatoes are a joy all by themselves. The combination was also delightfully colorful. If I had to pick a nit, it's that the arugula leaf wasn't attractive since it wilted so quickly.

    Overall this got good reviews from the moms. From me too, though the preparation was a little more work than I'd expected, but I brought that on myself by buying such a small base.

    I have to wonder how this would do with basil too...hmm!

    Friday, February 29, 2008

    Herbed Baked Eggs

    Herbed Baked Eggs

    Ina's faithful disciple checking in here. Another simple, on the face of it, recipe from the French Made Easy double episode of Barefoot Contessa. I overall don't like mixed-up eggs, so I was very interested in this one when I caught it on TV.

    First was some fresh-herb chopping, which to me immediately bumps a recipe above "easy," especially for a breakfast recipe. I also didn't have a "gratin dish" as Ina called for, which turned out to matter for how deep the eggs are in the dish.

    But these things can be solved with experience, which perfecting this dish will take. I love the cooking technique (broiling, not baking, but "baked" sounds a lot better), but the first time I made it the whites weren't cooked through, and the second time, the whites were fine but the yolks got too hard.

    The herb combination on top makes for one of the most flavorful egg dishes I've ever had. Almost too much for morning, but that's a simple matter of putting just a little less of the herb mixture on.

    This is a sophisticated, brightly flavored, very grown-up egg dish, especially for those of us who like runny yolks (isn't there more appealing way of phrasing that?). I'm going to have fun getting this one right.

    Roasted Red Pepper Soup

    Roasted Red Pepper Soup -- The New Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, copyright 1997, p.98.

    My husband really likes a local restaurant's Cream of Red Pepper Soup, so I set about looking for a recipe. Having little luck in the now-usual ways, I fell back on an old standard: look it up in the encyclopedia. Joy of Cooking's recipe wasn't a "cream of," but it was close enough.

    Scanning recipes right out of an in-print book crosses my copyright-violation threshhold, so I'll refer to what I did, which was fairly close but not exact.

    First, olive-oil and roast 6 red peppers under the broiler. I call that "broiling," but "roasted red peppers" just sounds so much more appetizing.

    It helps to have a sous-chef.

    Broil -- er, roast until blistered and blackened. And I did, more than I meant to!

    But the side that didn't get black was harder to pull the peel off from, so next time, I'll turn them so the whole pepper gets black. The insides were tender and sweet, perfect for a soup.

    If there is a next time, that is. What a pain in the rear end to peel (even the black part) and slice! They're slippery and the seeds get everywhere. I went from congratulating myself on saving money buying my own fresh peppers at Safeway, to cursing myself for not shelling out for pre-roasted red peppers at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's (where even the economical TJs commands $2.99 for a jar with one roasted red pepper).

    Saute chopped onions (2c), diced carrots (1c) and chopped fennel (1c).
    Add chicken stock (5c), white wine (1c), rice (3T), chopped basil (2T fresh), chopped rosemary (1T), fennel seeds (1t). Boil, simmer 30 min, then puree.

    I'm such a soup newbie that I don't know how to solve the problem of fitting all this soup in my blender. I tried my little Braun hand-blender in the soup pot, but it just wasn't doing the job. A food processor never fails to leak for a liquid. From my years of making baby food, I developed a great respect for blenders, but my blender's capacity isn't up to the typical soup recipe. Finally, I blended the soup in shifts, which almost matched the slicing of the roasted peppers on the PITA* scale.

    A few drops of heavy cream added to the soup made for a nice presentation though. It was during this process that I discovered that my husband didn't realize that "Cream Of" soups actually have cream in them. He thought a "cream of" soup meant a pureed one, as opposed to a brothy soup like minestrone.

    Actually, this one could have used some more cream. Or something to take out the bite from, I think, the fennel. I'm a huge fan of fresh fennel, but an even bigger enemy of celery, and I think the fennel seed was a bit much in this one.

    On top of it, my husband's memory for "Cream of Red Pepper Soup" was at a local Italian restaurant that really did a nice job of it. I can't compete with that, especially not for one of my very first soups!

    I froze the extra soup, with misgivings -- would it ever get used? I had guilt on my side the next weekend, and my husband didn't have the heart to say no when I suggested he try some frozen soup for lunch. Bingo -- the extra time, and the more favorable circumstances, made it a big hit this time. I liked it a lot better too, it was much mellower and bite of the fennel was gone.

    But I'd rather find soups that are a little less effort!

    * PITA: not bread, not animal rights, but Pain In The.....fill it in.

    Zucchini Carrot Mini-Bundt Muffins

    Zucchini Carrot Mini-Bundt Muffins

    I caught this recipe in a Family Circle magazine (hey, I was trapped in a doctor's office), and the photo was enough to hook me. Besides, I keep buying packages of 6-8 zucchinis at Trader Joe's, so I've got a lot of zucchini to work with.

    I also loved the idea of the mini-bundt muffins, and then was especially intrigued by the unusual ingredient of sunflower seeds. I made a special trip to BB&B and Safeway just to get these items. What fun.

    However, the bundt pan and the sunflower seeds are all I have good to say about the recipe. I was surprised as I was mixing it, before adding the zucchini, how pasty the batter was. Did I miss a wet ingredient? The dough -- I mean, batter -- loosened up once I added the zucchini, but I couldn't pour it into the bundt wells, I had to sort of drop it in.

    Not surprisingly, the result was pretty dry. A friend suggested that maybe the recipe would work better if baked in a loaf pan, and I had baked the remaining batter in a mini-loaf pan, but it was still on the dry side. I compared this recipe to the "Muffin Madness" in my Moosewood cookbook, which is a basic muffin recipe intended for some sort of vegetable or fruit variation, and they were quite similar. Something's missing from both. I'm tempted to re-try it with a dollop of yogurt.

    The sunflower seeds idea by itself was worth it though, that gave these muffins a tasty zing. My 16-month-old liked them, though her brothers weren't interested (sometimes that's just because our neighbors sneak them candy, who knows).

    I'm sold on the form factor of my mini-bundt pan though. I tried the lemon yogurt cake recipe I'd made a few weeks ago as mini-bundts, and the result was adorable (and yummy, as that yogurt cake is moist almost to a fault). There are a lot of possibilities here!

    And now I'm on a quest for truly, truly moist zucchini bread. More on that later.

    Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

    Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

    My friend at Food For Five posted about these pancakes she found on Under The High Chair, and her rave fast-tracked this recipe to the top of my Saturday morning "must make" list. Besides, I still had a pile of Meyer lemons I couldn't bear to let go bad.

    This recipe is a little more work than for most breakfast pancakes, but I've gotten used to whipping out my mixer at the drop of a hat. And I have yet to make anything with ricotta cheese that wasn't completely delightful.

    Oh my my. These pancakes didn't disappoint at all. Light, fluffy, classy -- just gorgeous. A delicate flavor too -- these aren't hearty or grainy, and my husband missed that about them as a breakfast element (though he's not really a pancake person anyway). My kids wouldn't care if their pancakes came out of a box or the freezer, but they liked them.

    My photo doesn't do them justice -- the photos on the original blog are beautiful, with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar, and a few lemon zest curls for garnish.

    But it's the inner beauty that really matters, and I just loved their light texture and flavor. My friend added flaxseed for an extra nutritional boost, and she reports it didn't affect the flavor. I didn't even bother with syrup, which seemed heavy for these pancakes anyway.

    Not recommended for carb-counters, despite the protein boost from the cheese, 'cause they're SO YUMMY you just won't want to stop!

    Friday, February 22, 2008

    French String Beans

    French String Beans
    I managed to videotape a (I think) special one-hour episode of Barefoot Contessa, and then managed to watch some of it too. At first I wasn't all that interested, but as usual, Ina drew me in with "French Made Easy," which splits her time between Paris and home. Despite my heritage, I know very little about French cooking, but after seeing at least 6 recipes on this episode that had my heart pounding, I'm hooked.

    First, a simple twist on green beans. Which, incredibly, she called exactly that: "French String Beans," not "haricots verts." I always learned that "haricots verts" is how you say "green beans" in French, but since then I've also seen that "haricots verts" are thinner and darker than the big crisp green beans in your Mom's garden.

    This recipe called foe simple roasting of vegetables, then adding them to blanched string beans. So, so simple -- like the post-it note, why didn't I think of that?

    Green beans -- actually, haricots verts -- are a staple around here, and I don't mess with staples lightly, but it was easy enough to separate the green from the red. My husband approved of the enhancement, and my younger son gamely tried the roasted peppers, since he liked the looks of "the yellow thing." Indeed, the peppers and onions make this look festive and very appealing. And I loved it -- both the preparation (overall simple), and the result (yummy, simple, attractive).

    Merci, Madame Ina!

    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Fennel Apple Salad

    Fennel Apple Salad

    Score! Simple, known ingredients, light, a real crowd-pleaser. Oh yeah, and really really tasty.

    This recipe came from the insert in a weekly box of fruit that a true foodie friend and I get from a subscription to Happy Child CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture offshoot of Frog Hollow Farms. The insert describes the week's fruit, and usually has recipes using the fruit as well.

    This particular recipe was to make use of the Fuji apples in the box, but since my apples all cohabitate, I'm not sure one of the apples I used was a Fuji. I'm sure the second apple I used wasn't a Fuji, but I love Pink Lady apples, and their slight tartness is perfect for a salad. I think even diabetic-friendly Granny Smiths would work, sliced thin enough, though I'm apple-neutral, I love all of them.

    I've only recently discovered fennel, and am fascinated by its delicate but distinct anise flavor, so un-vegetable like. I love its crisp texture too, and am only slightly put off by its resemblance to celery (which I will hate to my dying day).

    Currants and gorgonzola don't normally haunt my pantries, but a trip to TJs for these is hardly a special outing. Fennel, no, that had to come from Whole Foods, again, not requiring much arm-twisting.

    I made this salad for a cookie exchange party with a group of mom friends, and didn't even sample it before presenting it to the masses. To my delight, and, apparently, to everyone else's, it was a hit. The salad bowl was nearly empty, which says a lot at a cookie party where no one's touching the cookies! (The hostess's husband good-naturedly wondered why cookies were untouched at a cookie exchange -- 'cause we're all watching our weight of course, and the point is to give away cookies!)

    Speaking of cookie exchange, I brought "traffic light" cookies; simple sugar cookies (no leavening agent) rolled out and cut into strips, then holes cut out using a pastry bag coupler (the recipe suggested an apple corer, I don't have one). Instead of food-colored confectioner's sugar as the recipe called for, I sliced spice drops for the lights. My sons had a great time helping me put the candies in the holes.

    The fennel-apple salad is so light and tasty and crisp that even weight-conscious moms can afford a cookie or two afterward. And makes for terrific potluck fare!

    Saturday, February 16, 2008

    Coq Au Reisling

    Coq Au Reisling

    My mother was visiting recently, and was able to see first-hand that I've gotten braver -- if not better -- about cooking. She said she'd recently pulled out a cookbook she's had for years, called "Les Recettes de la Table Alsacienne," and found simple recipe for chicken in Reisling wine. So she translated and sent me the recipe.

    (Alsace is an area in northeastern France that her mother's family was from, one changed hands between France and Germany several times between the 17th and 20th century. It also boasts the origins of Alsatian dogs, more commonly known as German Shepherds.)

    I'm not only not a foodie, but I'm really not a wine-y either (whiny, yes). But I love cooking in wine, and this recipe has a bonus ingredient: brandy! I've recently learned that Reisling and Gewurztraminer wines are sufficiently sweet for my crude palette to enjoy, so it was a good excuse to find some Reisling. (Besides, I can't pronounce fact, I can't spell it either.)

    I used a bone-in skin-on whole chicken in parts from Trader Joe's...though I suspect they mix-n-match the parts a little: I've never heard of a chicken with three drumsticks!

    Of course, I had to use my hefty 12" Le Creuset skillet, but it was perfect for the jobs of sauteeing, then cooking covered in wine.

    The best part is: the chef gets to do the most enviable step of flamber -- sprinkle your fare in brandy then set it on fire!! STAND BACK! The initial flame is really rather explosive, and I was surprised to see blue flame, though it settled down to yellow and extinguished itself quickly.

    OK, now that was fun! My sons were shocked, though my older one recovered quickly and then complained that I'd just burnt their dinner. Actually, I'm not sure what the flamber step really does, aside from take off your eyebrows.

    The rest was easy, though making a sauce at the end clearly assumes you've been making sauces since you were a little girl taught by your Alsatian grandmother. Reduce the cooking liquid, thicken with with a little heavy cream and flour. Simple, right? Not for me. Mine turned out lumpy (whisk notwithstanding), and when it cooled, it separated into one lumpy part and one greasy part.

    Still, this was very tasty, as one just can't go wrong with wine, mushrooms and shallots. And, surprisingly simple, though tricky at the end if your sauce experience doesn't extend beyond jar-opening. Next time, I'll channel my Alsatian ancestors...or call my Mom.

    Friday, February 8, 2008

    Minty Orzo and Lentil and Feta Salad

    Minty Orzo and Lentil and Feta Salad

    "Mediterranean flavors are at the core of this recipe. A combination of pasta and lentils with kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onion, and fresh herbs."

    Say no more. I don't know how I stumbled on this one at, but that description was right up my alley. I made this first for a potluck party, and I absolutely loved it.

    Being cheap and lazy, I think little of using dry herbs, but since I don't have dried mint (does it exist?), I begrudgingly picked up some fresh dill with the fresh mint. And oh my, what a difference. The fresh dill really makes this one. In fact, the mint flavor isn't strong at all; I'll have to try more next time.

    A few personal tweaks. The recipe says to chop the olives...ever tried to chop squishy kalamata olives? I painstakingly sliced them into tiny pieces, for no reason, as it turns out. Half-olives work better anyway, to get a nice blast of olive flavor in bites, and more of them than the recipe calls for. I also cut down the amount of red onions, as they can be overpowering. I found the lentils needed more water and more time than the recipe calls for, but adherence to that detail isn't essential; any cooked soft lentils will do.

    This salad is filled with flavors I love, and keeps for quite a while as well. It's one ingredient (feta cheese) away from being vegan, and one ingredient (orzo) away from being diabetic-friendly, though a half the amount of whole-wheat orzo might be acceptable. There were some good suggestions in the Comments that I haven't tried yet: cucumbers instead of olives, couscous instead of orzo. Mmm.

    As usual, I'm the only one in my family who will even consider eating a bite of this (well, my younger son might), so this one lies in wait for welcoming guests. Or the next time I can't bear to throw away some fresh dill.

    Friday, February 1, 2008

    Lemon Yogurt Cake

    Lemon Yogurt cake

    Once again, the Barefoot Contessa (show) comes through. I love simple cakes, and I love cooking with yogurt, and I happen to have a huge pile of fragrant Meyer lemons from a friend's backyard.

    The only reason to modify an Ina recipe is lack of ingredients -- or excess. Two small lemons made for far more than the 2 tsp of zest called for. But why hold back? I put all the zest in, and it was fine. It's hard to bake something too lemony.

    Next, my favorite source of cooking/baking yogurt, Pavel's Russian yogurt, was unobtainium in the full-fat version. I wouldn't dream of baking with lowfat yogurt, so I put in a cup of Fage Greek yogu....oh dear, it was 2%, wasn't it? Hmm. So much for that rule. Well, for what it's worth, I used 7 oz of 2% Fage yogurt, and another (approximate) ounce of lowfat Pavel's.

    I skipped the step of pouring a warm lemon-juice-sugar combination over the cake, and then glazing it with yet more sugar and lemon juice. On the show, Ina makes a blueberry syrup and pours it over the cake instead of glazing it -- now that would be yummy. But there is no shortage of sugar in my life, and I see no need to add any extra.

    In fact, another mod I made, one I now routinely do with baking, is to shortchange the sugar measurement. I have yet to underdo the sugar.

    I also baked it in three mini-loaf pans, instead of one 8"x4" pan, as it's easier to give away (see previous note about ample sugar in life). It made for a beautiful little loaf, springy and with a pale yellow color.

    The cake itself....I'm not sure! It's a little heavy, a little greasy, almost. I was surprised that the recipe called for a full 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, and I had a hard time getting it all mixed in. I might try 1/3 next time. Maybe it really did need the cooked lemon-sugar mixture poured over? Or, the correct kind of yogurt. But the lemon flavor was wonderful, thanks in no small part to my friend's wonderful Meyers, and to my new Microplane grater (the Fine version, Whole Foods, $15.99).

    As it is, I give the recipe a B+, and me a B- for execution. I'm sure I can improve both grades next time around.

    Sunday, January 27, 2008

    Asian Grilled Salmon

    Asian Grilled Salmon

    Ah, Ina. How did I ever live without you?

    This is the simplest recipe for salmon, and grilled this time. The "asian" part is just soy sauce in the tasty marinade (though I have heard that soy sauce actually isn't a common or ubiquitous flavoring in Asia).

    It was helpful to see Ina do this on-screen (on Barefoot Contessa, of course), for details like which side of the fish faces the grill first (skin side), how to handle turning it (it's tricky and messy!), how long to cook it. A good tip was to grill it until it's almost completely cooked through, then take it off the grill and it will finish cooking as it's resting. She chuckled as she commented to open doors and windows, as it smokes a lot, and it certainly did. I also found that the cabinet I store my cast-iron grill pan in smelled like fish after I put it away!

    The marinade is intended for sauce after grilling too, but I found it a bit strong for sauce. As a marinade flavoring, once it's cooked, it's perfectly subtle. I loved the grilled crust on the salmon, and to my surprise, it didn't stick to my non-nonstick grill pan.

    This is now my second-favorite way to prepare salmon (first is to buy it already encrusted with nuts at Trader Joe's and broil it). Unfortunately, this one will have to be shelved for next time I want to impress a visitor. My husband liked the preparation, but isn't a fan of salmon anyway, and neither are my fish-eating sons. (I didn't need to waste any of it on my 15-month-old, as it'd almost certainly end up as floor wax.) But no matter, it made a wonderful, classy leftover for moi. Mm.

    Monday, January 21, 2008

    Plum Jam Cookies

    Plum Jam Cookies

    I pulled this recipe from some months ago, because a friend had just made plum jam with plums from the tree in her backyard. I wanted to use it in something I could give back to her, as well as enjoy myself. So, much searching turned up this recipe, though really, you could use any sort of jam.

    The recipe itself, though highly rated, has a few problems. It calls for baking soda in the instructions, but not in the directions. I looked up some other basic rolled sugar cookie recipes, and none of them used baking soda, so I left it out. Then it called for brown sugar, which I thought made it heavy. Finally, it had the very un-cookie-like ingredient of water! In the end, the batter was coarse and heavy, though easy to work with. Maybe that was the point.

    I used a tiny star cutter that came in a set of three fondant shape cutters to cut out the center, a chopstick to push out dough out of the cutter, and a 2-1/4" biscuit cutter for the main part. I managed to roll the dough mostly to the 1/4" thickness recommended, but between the dough thickness, the sandwiching, and the diameter, overall it made for a big heavy cookie!

    My new spatula was invaluable for handling the cut-out dough pieces. I knew there would be a good reason to drag my husband to Sur La Table to browse for stuff I wasn't quite sure how I'd use! (He's come to dread going out to restaurants near cooking stores.)

    With the last pieces of rolled-out batter, I used the middle-sized star cutter for the main part, and the same tiny cutter for the center. That was a much better proportion, and made for a very attractive little bite-sized cookie. Next time, I'd make all of them that size.

    Ironically, my friend's plum jam didn't have the right consistency, so I used some of her scrumptious apricot jam instead. That was stickier and thicker, and perfect for sticking two cookie halves together.

    The recipe called for baking the cookies already assembled with the jam, which I like since the jam got a sort of film on top, making the cookies a lot easier to handle and transport.

    Overall, I can't recommend the cookie recipe itself, but the basic technique of sandwiching two dough cutouts together and baking them with the jam is sound. I'm pleased with the equipment I had too (I sense another trip to Michael's for more fondant cutter shapes is in my near future). I'll use the Joy of Cooking's sugar cookie recipe for the dough next time. And most definitely my friend's apricot jam again!

    Sunday, January 20, 2008

    Chicken Chili

    Chicken Chili

    It's not easy for me to catch Barefoot Contessa these days (VCR? Tivo? pfff! Takes out the joy of discovery!), but even just a few minutes almost always yields something. This time, it was a figure-friendly chicken chili she made for her chef friend and colleague, who'd recently lost 40 pounds. And simple. Roasted chicken, peppers, onions, pureed tomatoes, spices and herbs.

    For me, the kicker was when she substituted basil for cilantro, because, the grand Ina Garten herself hates cilantro! Yoopee!

    A brief aside on cilantro here. Anectodally, I've heard the (fishy) statistic that 10% of the population finds that cilantro tastes very strange, and the (equally fishy) fact that this odd perception is inborn, not learned. There are enough cilantro haters to have formed an online support group: I am not among those. I don't have issues with cilantro per se. But I really really dislike the taste of soap, and that's what cilantro tastes like to me. And, apparently, to Ina.

    Basil, on the other hand, is one of my favorite herbs, so what a perfect substitute for the pretty, but soup-ruining Thai-food-ubiquitous cilantro. Ick.

    So following Ina's instructions, I roasted the chicken, bone-in, skin-on. These days, so much chicken is done boneless skinless, I almost didn't know what to make of this! Especially when I saw the total price on the package at the checkout at Whole Foods. That's 20 bucks worth of chicken, folks, and that's not even the expensive organic stuff! OW!

    I deliberately made the full recipe, since Ina mentioned this was one of those recipes that tastes better after being in the fridge for a few days, and that was a good freezer staple. It almost overflowed my inadequate pot.

    I made a few other mods. I only put in 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, as "hot" and I have a very dicey relationship. And, half the chili powder called for, as I actually don't like that much either. This resulted in a ratatouille-ish flavor that I love -- it had me wanting to put eggplant in it -- but the chili flavor was still acceptably perceptible. I was really surprised not to see salt on the ingredient list; I added some anyway and thought it needed more.

    As is almost always the case with Ina recipes (and her chef friend even commented that this was such an "Ina recipe"), I loved it. As is almost always the case with any preparation that mixes things together, my kids didn't. My husband, so-so on the whole thing. He was probably suspicious that I snuck some eggplant in there, as he likes eggplant about as much as I like cilantro.

    But, no matter -- I stashed some in the freezer for the next time I have a hungry grownup in the house, and what I didn't freeze made for yummy low-carb lunches for days. Occasionally I count too.

    Monday, January 14, 2008

    Pepin Potatoes

    Yukon Gold Potatoes: Jacques Pepin Style

    My gal Rachael Ray. She saved me from an elbow-busting potato-mashing on Christmas Day with this ultra-simple fabulous recipe. She gave full credit to Jacques Pepin, or rather, to his grandmother or great-great-grandmother, or whoever really originated this recipe.

    Rachael (and perhaps Jacques' grand-grand-mere) calls for Yukon Gold potatoes, but i happened to have some lovely and tender Baby Dutch Yellow from Trader Joe's. The label might say "No butter required!" but I begrudgingly side with Paula Deen on this one: keep the butter.

    A bag of these fit perfectly in my 10" saute pan.

    It's sooo easy. Braise the potatoes in chicken stock, dot with butter, salt and pepper. When they're tender, you take the lid off and let the stock finish evaporating. That's what the recipe says, though the full-fat thick stock I use from Trader Joe's never completely goes away.

    Then the fun part: once they're tender, pop them. I found that placing gentle pressure on each one until it cracked open was all that was needed, and a good test of doneness. From there, they're supposed to brown, but mine never really did.

    No matter. Tasty and tender, and popular all around. Potatoes especially are dangerous to futz with in this habit-driven household, but even my husband approved. The most rousing endorsement came from my 5-year-old son: "These are my FAVORITE POTATOES Mom!" Now that's worth inviting Rachael and Jacques into a group hug.