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.