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Archive for September, 2009

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There’s a booth at the Calabasas Farmer’s Market, tucked way in the back, that’s easy to walk past if you’re not paying attention;  they caught my eye a few weeks ago, and they have quickly become one of my favorite stops on Saturday morning, as they sell hefty, fat bunches of fresh herbs, 6 for $5.  You can mix and match, so I always come home with basil, parsley, cilantro and usually some green onions or radishes (also on the 6-for-5 table).  This time, since I had planned for making tomato sauce to freeze this week, I needed basil, and went ahead and bought more than I could ever use in a batch of sauce.

A quick check of my fridge confirmed that I had everything I needed:  it was time to make some pesto.

Pesto may be really one of the few things I can just keep on eating by the spoonful.  There’s just something about the fresh green hint-of-anise of  basil, the hot bite of raw garlic, the earthiness of the pine nuts and the sharpness from the Parmesan (or Pecorino, if you’re being a traditionalist) that is absolutely delightful to me.  It’s remarkably versatile, from a pasta sauce to being stirred into a steaming bowl of minestrone, or mixed in with mayonnaise to make a sandwich or a burger more interesting.

If you’re up for doing something the way it was once done, you can follow the description noted by Waverly Root in The Food of Italy:

The soul of pesto is basil, and the patience and care characteristic of Genoese cooking appear from the very start of pesto making in the meticulous preparation of the basil. It is first deprived of its stems and central veins; only the deveined leaves go into the mortar in which it will be ground. Pesto makers are adamant on this point: no one can chop the ingredients fine enough; they must be ground, and, it is specified, in a marble mortar (with a pestle “of good wood,” one recipe adds, but does not insist on any specific sort of wood). You begin by crushing the basil leaves carefully with coarse kitchen salt and a clove of garlic. The tender green color of this mixture is your guide for the rest of the process. It should be maintained as the other ingredients are added; if it weakens, put in more basil. Next you add equal parts of young Sardinian pecorino cheese and old Parmesan (if you want a stronger taste, increase the proportion of the sharp Sardinian cheese; if you want it milder, decrease it). As you grind this with the rest, add olive oil (preferably Ligurian) drop by drop until you have achieved the desired density (you may want it thicker for soup than for pasta). The last ingredient is pine nuts (some persons use walnuts instead), which must also be crushed so thoroughly that they become so indistinguishable part of the whole pungent creamy mass.

Or, pull out the food processor.

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This is one of those things I really don’t use a recipe, but this is a pretty basic ratio:

3 cups fresh washed basil leaves

2 cloves of garlic (I like mine garlicky, I’ll use about 4-6 cloves)

1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

1/2 cup toasted Pine Nuts

1/2 to 1 cup olive oil (use less if you want more of a paste)

salt to taste (expect around 1/2 to 1 tsp)

Put basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese in processor and pulse while drizzling in olive oil until pesto is a desired consistency.  Stir in salt and use immediately, or pour into an air-tight container.  To keep your pesto from turning dark on the exposed surface, pour a layer of olive oil on top, just enough to cover the pesto fully. It will be good in your refrigerator for a week, or if you plan to use it later, pesto can easily be frozen.

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Make a batch before basil goes completely out of season.



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Today was the hopefully the last of the year’s triple-digit weather, and we spent a good part of our day running errands in the heat.  There are grand plans in the works for next weekend, as it will be My Birthday Observed, where Choo and I will have two of our favorite people over, and there will be cooking, eating, and drinking;  I decided to shop for some new table linens and to replace some chipped plates.  Hauling bags around in the heat made us weary and hungry, and by the time we got home, we needed a fast lunch, and we had everything we needed from our Saturday morning trip from the Calabasas Farmer’s Market for this:

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Sure, an Insalata Caprese can be an elegant thing, but it doesn’t have to be–in fact, I like it simple and stripped down to the basic elements:  good fresh tomatoes (homegrown or farmer’s market), mozzarella cheese, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper.

It’s one of the things that I love about summer, and when June rolls around, I’m waiting for the first great tomatoes to show up at the farmer’s market.  This will more than likely be our last Caprese of the season–any tomatoes in our possession are being turned into sauce and canned/frozen.  I’m not sad, since all the wonderful fall produce is starting to show up (hello, Acorn Squash, I’m looking forward to roasting and stuffing you), and I know come next year, I’ll be ready for a summer full of tomatoes and basil.

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Kiddo is obsessed with waffles.  Every morning, it’s pretty much the same thing:

Mama, wake up.

[grumblegrumblesnort] Ok.

Want waffles and Spongebob.

Wouldn’t you want some oatmeal and CNN?

No, waffles and Spongebob.

How about Rice Krispies and Good Day L.A.?

Waffles.  Spongebob.

Eggs?  Fox News?

WAFFLESANDSPONGEBOB, MAMA! And chocolate milk, please.

Part of the problem was that I sadly lacked a waffle iron, so we were forced to buy frozen waffles.  It felt rather silly to spend about $4 a week on something I knew I could make easily, and in large batches that I could freeze.  They’d certainly be of better quality, and if I bought a mid-range waffle iron (about $30, I figured), it would pay for itself in 3 months.

Over the weekend, we finally broke down and bought a waffle maker.  My first batch of waffles were the standard recipe that came in the box, and with me switching out half of the all purpose flour with whole wheat, I think they turned out rather fine.  Of course, now I’ve been having flashes of ideas of what I could throw together in a bowl and turn into a waffle.

This morning, the last of the frozen waffles were consumed.  Now, it was time to stock the freezer with homemade goodness!

Banana Pecan Waffles

1 cup pecan halves

1/4 cup flax seeds

1 cup All Purpose flour

1 cup Whole Wheat flour

1 Tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

3 medium bananas, very ripe

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 stick butter, melted and cooled

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1. Toast pecans in either a 325° oven for about 10 minutes, or in a skillet on medium heat, tossing frequently, for about 3.  Set aside and let cool completely.

2. Put cooled pecans and flax seeds in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, about the texture and size of uncooked couscous.

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Lesson Learned, Part I:  Flax seeds don’t break up very easily in the food processor.  I didn’t want to buy the whole bag of flax meal (I never get through it all before it gets old), so I bought a small amount of seeds from the bulk department, thinking I could just break them up in the processor.  HA!  Also, yes, I’ve said Kiddo doesn’t like nuts, but it’s a texture thing–I figured if they’re chopped so small that he wouldn’t notice them, he wouldn’t mind–I mean, he eats peanut butter like a fiend.

3.  In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, cardamom (yes, cardamom with bananas, why don’t you trust me on this?), nutmeg, and the nuts and seeds.

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4.  Return the work bowl back to the Cuisinart, and add the bananas, eggs, and vanilla extract; pulse together until they are smooth.

5.  Pour the banana-egg mixture  into the dry mixture, followed by the melted butter and buttermilk.  Fold the batter until all the flour is incorporated and there are no dry streaks.

6.  On a pre-heated waffle maker, pour approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the batter (depending on size of your waffle irons) onto each square, and cook as per the machine’s instructions.

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Lesson Learned, Part II:  In fact, this was a lesson that I think will work out in my favor;  with the ratios I used, these waffles turned out soft.  I don’t think this is particularly a bad thing, considering that the main reason why I’m doing these is to freeze for future use.  The extra moisture will come in handy when they’re cooking a second time in the toaster.

Since these were to be frozen, they were laid out on a wire cooling rack until completely cool.

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Once cooled, they were stacked with slips of parchment paper (or wax, if you prefer) so they don’t perform some Vulcan-Waffle Mind Meld in the freezer.  Trying to pull waffles apart at 6:15 AM is not high on my list of pleasurable morning activities.

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Store in a freezer ziploc bag or tightly wrapped in saran. This recipe made 20 4″ square waffles.

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Oh, you know I went there.  And it was good.

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Sometimes here at El Rancho Destructo, the word pizza is a source of contention.  Choo and I are from entirely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to our pizza likes.  He loves the New York style, with its thin, chewy crust that has a bit of crispness on the very bottom and the light hand when it comes to toppings; I, on the other hand, am a sucker for Chicago-style deep dish pizzas, with their rich, buttery crusts stuffed full with cheese, meat, and sauce. Really, I was in pizza heaven on my first trip to Chicago (and sadly, the only at this point), and I was introduced to Lou Malnati’s.  We could both see the merit in each other’s tastes, but we had our favorites, and boy, we couldn’t be any different.

Ordering a pizza is more often than not a situation that either one of us won’t really be all that happy.  We did, however, find a New York style place that I don’t consider all that bad, so that’s usually our choice when we order out.  Yet, in our desires to not only be thrifty, but to generally eat better in our day-to-day lives (don’t worry, we’re not giving up our bacon and butter!), I started making pizza at home.  I often used my sourdough starter for the pizza crust, and while tasty, it caused… digestive issues with us.  I had a pizza stone, but here I have two weak spots:  one, my home oven is unable to reach the high temperatures as compared to a restaurant pizza oven, which helps create the crisp crust Choo loves.  Secondly, I suck at using a peel–you know, that wooden/metal paddle used in transporting pizzas from counters to ovens to boxes.   I roll out my pizza, put on toppings, then I’m never quite able to get it on the peel.  Don’t even ask about some of the messes I’ve made in trying to slide that uncooked pizza onto the stone.

I looked to my beloved cast iron skillet (one of the two greatest things that came out of my first marriage) for the answer.   I didn’t have to worry about using the peel, and I knew I could load up the pizza with the amount of toppings that I preferred.  The only problem is that the crust still turned out rather soft.

The next time, inspiration struck:  What, I asked myself, is one of the benefits of a cast iron skillet? Why… it can go from stove to oven!  After assembling the pizza, I turned on the flame to a medium-high, and after a few minutes, I could smell the crust beginning to toast, and saw a bit of olive oil bubbling along the sides.  I immediately tossed that hot skillet in a preheated oven and baked it for its usual time.  What came out was just right–a top of bubbling cheese and sauce; a bottom crust that had a crunch that made my Choo happy (and me, I was relieved to finally have a solution).

Let’s start with the dough.

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Pizza Dough, makes enough for one 12″ skillet pizza

1 envelope of active dry yeast

1 cup warm water, about 105-115°F

pinch of sugar

2 1/2-3 1/2 cups bread flour–up to 50% can be whole wheat flour if you choose

1 teaspoon of salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine your warm water, pinch of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of flour, and let sit for 10 minutes.  You’re checking to make sure your yeast is working, and if the mixture after 10 minutes is foamy like this:

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You are good to go!  It means your yeast is happy and chomping away.  Don’t see any foam?  Toss it and start over with a fresh envelope.

If you’re lucky in having a KitchenAid, use your dough hook attachment as you add the salt, olive oil, and the flour.  Gradually add the flour, starting with 1 1/2 cups, and slowly work the rest in a half cup at a time until the dough is no longer sticky and is pulling away from the bowl.  If mixing and kneading by hand, knead in the remainder of the flour until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes; if using a stand mixer, about 5 minutes.

In a clean bowl, add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and add your dough, rolling it over so the dough is lightly coated in oil, and cover bowl with a clean dishtowel.  Set aside in a warm part of the room for about 1 hour, until dough is doubled in size.

While waiting for the dough to rise, prepare your toppings:

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I had some Tomato Confit that needed to get used, so I threw that in the Cuisinart, with a pinch of sugar and a 1/2 teaspoon of Nomu Veggie Spice Blend–it was on hand and quick;  I could have gone outside to clip herbs, but I also had a clingy Kiddo so it was just best I stayed inside.  A few pulses in the food processor until mostly smooth, and I had a passable pizza sauce.  It was a bit wetter than I’d like it, and if I felt like dirtying another pan, I would have cooked it for a few minutes to reduce it a bit.  I certainly don’t expect you to make your own, and I’ve bought Trader Joe’s Pizza Sauce (the fresh in the tub, not the jar), which I’ve found to be rather good.  If you do make your own sauce, do tell;  I’ve made a decent one by using a can of tomato paste, a little olive oil, a spoonful of water, some fresh herbs and garlic.

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There was a Portabella Mushroom that was once a part of a pair; I had used one, but the other lingered without purpose.  This lonely mushroom’s destiny was to be chopped and sauteéd with garlic in preparation for this pizza.  I’m not trying to be fancy, here, I just like my mushrooms to be cooked.  Mushrooms contain quite a bit of water, and they have something of a ‘squeaky’ kind of texture when they’re not fully cooked that I find unpleasant on a pizza.  Is that so weird?

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Onions and peppers, of course.   Pizza is such a great vector for eating vegetables.

Right about this time, it’s a good idea to preheat the oven to 450°.

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Once the dough has doubled in size, it’s time to punch it down, roll it out to approximately a 14″ circle.  Drizzle a tablespoon or two of olive oil in the skillet, and then lay the dough in, folding and pressing in the overlap to form a crust.  Yeah, I know, I was kinda sloppy on this one.

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Action shot of Kiddo helping with the toppings.  I like doing sauce first, a layer of parmesan, all the veggies, then finish off with any meat (turkey pepperoni in this instance), and a good layer of mozzarella cheese on top–I’ve found that doing the cheese on top holds all the toppings in place,  it cuts up rather nicely in the end, and it disguises those vegetables long enough that Kiddo eats most of his dinner before he realizes that he’s consumed something green.

When all the toppings are added, turn the flame to a medium-high setting, and let the pan heat up for about 3-4 minutes.  When the oil bubbles up along the edges and the dough starts to smell toasty, it’s time to go right into the oven.  Bake for about 15-18 minutes, when cheese is fully melted (I like it a little browned, to tell the truth) and sauce is bubbly.  As much as you might want to cut into it right away, let it sit for about 10 minutes to settle.  It’s going to be lava-hot, and you know it.

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Serves 2-3

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I don’t hate P.F. Chang’s.  I think they have some lovely cocktails, and the food isn’t bad, but I’ve always found it ridiculous that people will wait up to 2 hours to eat there on a Saturday night for overpriced “fancy” Chinese food served by blond college kids.  I like my Chinese restaurants old-school and cheap, like Hop Louie in Chinatown or Ming’s in Bellflower.

One dish of theirs that I am fond of is their Lettuce Wrap appetizer, and I was thinking that would make a great Friday night dinner at home–fun, fast, and not heating up the kitchen because it’s still 95° outside at 5 PM. It’s not an exact replica (a quick check on Google shows the recipe is definitely out there), and it really wasn’t my intention to copy the restaurant, but to make a spicy, full-of-vegetables filling that caters to our own personal tastes.

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I just love these colors.

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For the onion and bell pepper, I diced them small.  It’s important for a stir fry to have the items that take longer to cook, such as onions, carrots, celery to be sliced thinly or diced small.  Stir fries are done on high heat and should not take more than a few minutes to cook.

I’m a fan of recycling my plastic takeout cups like these, along with a bunch of random plastic tubs that fresh mozzarella or pizza sauce comes in.  When I’m prepping a dish like this, where it’s best to have everything chopped and ready to go before the actual cooking, those little tubs come in handy.

This goes in with one of the first lessons of culinary school:  mise en place (literally, putting in place), but we definite it as “everything in its place.”  All the vegetables are chopped, the steaks are trimmed, pasta is par-boiled, the ovens preheated, utensils set in a bain marie next to the stove so they’re in easy reach–all done to make a chef’s job efficient while cooking on the line in a restaurant.  It’s a concept that once a home cook masters it, the matter of throwing together a meal becomes easier.

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See what I mean?  Nice little pieces of chicken breast, happily caramelizing in oil, hot splatters hitting my arm…

The chicken gets cooked in 2 batches;  chicken breast dries out quickly, and if I were to dump all of the chicken in at once, it would bring the pan temperature down, as well as all of that chicken giving off juices would mean there would be no quick browning and a longer cooking time–definitely not what we’d like to see here.

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Once the chicken is cooked and set aside, the onion and bell pepper go in and cook until translucent and just starting to brown; the bok choy and bean sprouts get tossed in–these cook very quickly, a minute and a few stirs, and the chicken goes back in the pan.

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Some chicken stock, some soy sauce, a little garlic, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and a tiny bit of Chinese Five Spice (go easy on that stuff, it can overpower a dish before you know it) whisked with cornstarch makes a fast sauce;  if I had thought of it before, I probably would have put a little bit of rice vinegar for a little bit of acid to brighten up the sauce, then again–I didn’t miss it, either.

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Once the sauce thickens, take the wok off the heat, stir in some cilantro, and you are ready to go.

WAIT.  I FORGOT SOMETHING.

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Call it Bibb, Boston, Butter, Butterhead or Limestone Lettuce;  I’m calling it Perfect for using in Lettuce Wraps.  Iceberg lettuce has its place (wedged, with blue cheese dressing), but the crisp texture causes it to break when you’re trying to, you know, wrap your filling. Bibb lettuce leaves are soft and flexible, and have a slight sweetness to them that works just right with the heat of the dish.   This one was sold in one of those clear boxes with the roots still attached to the bottom–instant science lesson for Kiddo while we were in the market.

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Take lettuce leaf.  Fill with a generous spoonful of chicken.  Eat.  Be Happy.  And when the chicken is all gone, do what Choo did and fill the serving bowl with rice, to sop up all the leftover sauce and bits.

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

2 generous main dish servings; 4 if serving with other dishes

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1 Tablespoon sesame oil

appx. 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (3 medium-sized, in my case), trimmed of fat, diced small

1 yellow or white onion, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced small

1 head baby bok choy, sliced thinly

1 cup bean sprouts

1/2 cup cold chicken stock (if not homemade, use low-sodium broth)

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more)

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice

1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon corn starch

Salt to taste (I still needed about a 1/2 teaspoon when I tasted it)

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus extra for garnish, if desired

1 head of Bibb lettuce, washed, dried, and leaves separated

  1. On a high flame, heat wok or large skillet.  Add vegetable and sesame oils.
  2. Add half of the chicken and fry, stirring often, until just cooked and turning brown, about 3 minutes. Remove chicken from pan,  put into a bowl, and set aside.  Repeat this with the second batch of chicken.
  3. Add onion and bell pepper and cook until glossy, translucent, and just starting to get a little brown, about 4-5 minutes.
  4. Add bok choy and bean sprouts, toss until incorporated and bok choy is wilted, about 1 minute.
  5. Return chicken to pan.
  6. In a bowl, whisk together chicken stock, garlic, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, black pepper, Chinese Five Spice, and cornstarch; pour into pan and stir until sauce has thickened and coated everything.
  7. Take off heat, salt to taste, and stir in cilantro.
  8. Pour into serving dish, and serve with lettuce leaves.

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First, let me share a kitchen tragedy:  I have this high shelf where I store most of my dry goods, along with my most loved cookbooks and recipe card box.  My shelf, let me show you it:

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I’m not joking, really, when I say I have an odd kitchen.  It’s very long, but very narrow;  I am blessed with a fair amount of counterspace, but no pantry, and just a few cabinets for storage.  I didn’t want to fool anyone into thinking I had some huge dream kitchen.  ANYWAY.  I was after my recipe box down there at the very end, and when I moved one of those plastic containers about an inch, it pushed off a mason jar of powdered chicken stock (I know, I know, but it’s there when we need it in a pinch for flavoring rice), where it met its end on our tiled floor.  If I hadn’t been barefoot and kind of spazzing out about OMG BROKEN GLASS I’d have taken a picture because it was this perfect splat of powder and glass pieces.  It looked kind of cool, to tell you the truth.

Once all was swept and mopped, it was back to business.  I had a few zucchini hanging around in the fridge, and I remembered a favorite zucchini muffin recipe that I had kept for a long time; in fact, I distinctly recall making a batch of them when I was in Eighth Grade, 25 years ago.

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I remember spending one summer (just before 10th grade, I think) copying down some of my favorite recipes onto 3×5 cards just like this, from the pile of newspaper clippings Mom kept in a drawer in the kitchen.  I find it interesting that my handwriting hasn’t changed all that much since then.

So, it was time to update this recipe to my standards today.  To start, I didn’t quite have 3 cups of zucchini–you can do this with the full 3 cups of zucchini, but since I only had 2, I added 1 cup of grated carrots.  I would have also gladly made this with a cup of grated apple if I didn’t happen to have carrots.  That would have been mightly tasty, too.

One-and-a-half cups of oil?  Seriously?  I’m no fat-phobe, as you know, but even I think that’s excessive.  I took it down to a 1/2 cup of oil, and a stick of melted butter.  Oil’s great, but it lacks flavor, so some butter it is.  I still had to replace the 1/2 cup of oil with something that would still help keep the muffins moist–buttermilk!

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I know not everyone just keeps buttermilk on hand (I know I usually don’t), but either a 1/2 cup of warm milk with 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice added or a 1/2 cup of plain yogurt would be acceptable substitutes.  Another thing to get the heave-ho is a cup of all that sugar.  With my substitution of shredded carrots, which are naturally sweet, I wasn’t going to to miss it anyway. To add another dimension of flavor, I switched a cup of sugar to brown sugar.  Eggs were just the right amount, and I went ahead and added a teaspoon of vanilla, just because.

Now, to the dry ingredients:  I stayed with the 3 cups of All Purpose Flour, but if you lean towards wanting more whole grains, you can substitute up to half with Whole Wheat Flour without hurting the texture.  I kept the same amounts of leavening, and with the addition of acid in the buttermilk, it helped give the muffins some extra lift in combination with the baking soda.  Skipped the nuts, since not only Kiddo isn’t into them, I’m sharing them at the office tomorrow and someone has a nut allergy.  As for the spices, I didn’t have allspice, and I wanted to go in a spicier direction.

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The 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg (fresh!) stayed; instead of allspice, there’s a 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon of ginger, and a 1/4 teaspoon of ground clove.  This was smelling lovely already.

Oh, can we talk about grating your own nutmeg?

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That Microplane was the best $15 I’ve ever spent.  I’m like Alton Brown in that I prefer to purchase items that can multi-task in the kitchen, and that Microplane is great for zesting citrus and finely grating hard cheeses, fresh ginger, garlic, and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.  If you’ve not had it before, freshly grated nutmeg is unlike anything you get that’s been sitting on a shelf in a metal tin for a year–it’s far more aromatic than you could imagine, and whole nutmeg stays fresh for much, much longer.  It’s worth the investment.

I think it’s time for the recipe.

(more…)

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I have found myself addicted to Foodgawker these days–if you’re not familiar, go on, take a look.  I’ll wait.

Is that not just Food Porn Central?  I probably check that site about three times a day to see what goes up.  I’ve attempted an entry, but my picture wasn’t good enough (not bitter about it–I welcome constructive criticism, and it’s made me focus on trying to take better pictures with my little camera).  Some things don’t quite spin my salad, such as anything that puts the two words Vegan and Chocolate together;  bless your little organic cotton socks, Vegans, but I’m just not going there.  Sometimes, I find a recipe that catches my interest and I think with a few of my own personal tweaks, it would make a fine meal.

For Sunday lunch, I did just that.  I went with shrimp instead of chicken, since, well, Choo and I do love shrimp, and I felt it would fit this better for us personally.  I dropped the fish sauce (not a big fan) and went with soy sauce,  just went with the juice of one lime, and skipped the sugar.  As for the vegetables, I halved the amount of red onion and substituted the other half with thinly sliced radishes.  Instead of that crazy amount of mint, I reduced the mint to 1/4 cup, and replaced the other 1/2 cup with chopped cilantro.  I sprinkled the salad with about 3 tablespoons of seasoned rice vinegar, with salt and pepper to taste.  Of course, once all was said and done, it was an entirely different recipe, and absolutely perfect for a lunch on warm Sunday afternoon.

Spicy Shrimp, Cucumber & Radish Salad

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pound of large shrimp, shell-on,  deveined, defrosted

3 cloves of garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more to taste)

juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon soy sauce

In a very hot skillet or wok, add your oil, then toss in your shrimp, stirring often.  When the shrimp shells start turning pink (about 2 minutes), add in garlic, pepper flakes, lime juice and soy sauce, and stir until the shrimp have finished cooking, approximately 2-4 minutes more.  Put shrimp into a bowl and set aside to cool.

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Mmmm, garlicky sea bugs.

While your shrimp cool, prepare the salad:

1 English “hothouse” cucumber, thinly sliced

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

1 small bunch radishes (about 8), thinly sliced

1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

3 Tablespoons Seasoned Rice Wine Vinegar

Salt & Pepper to taste

If you have a mandolin, this is the time to break it out, as having everything thinly sliced is what makes this salad special.

Toss the sliced vegetables and herbs with the vinegar, salt and pepper.

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Let the salad sit for a few minutes to marinate while you peel the shrimp.

Toss in shrimp.

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Eat with relish; fight over seconds.

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The Basics: Chicken Stock

Just because money is tight–and let’s face it, it pretty much fits all of us these days–it doesn’t mean that you have to skimp on having good things come out of your kitchen.  And, when you have a chance to turn things that would normally end up in the trash and turn them in gold–liquid gold–with only an investment of a few dollar’s worth of herbs and vegetables and your time.

Homemade stock is a cornerstone of making the best soups and sauces, and there is no way to compare canned broth to the flavor profile and richness that comes from making your own.  I don’t think it’s a difficult thing to make, but when you’re making a large batch, there is time involved, and the straining can get a bit messy.  Trust me, though, it’s worth the trouble.

First thing, you have to have your chicken.  I have a habit of buying whole chickens, because I like keeping the carcasses if I roast them whole, or if I use them for anything else, I cut out the backbone, wing tips, and save the neck, which goes into the ziploc bag I keep in the freezer for this reason.  Sure, it’s extra work, but buying a chicken whole is cheaper than buying them butchered.  If you just want to just make the chicken stock without waiting to gather enough chicken bones in your freezer, become good friends with your local butcher–things like backbones and feet are exactly what you want in your stock, but no one really buys them.  You should be able to broker a good price for the stuff he might be tossing out anyway.

By the way, the reason you want all those bones and feet for your stock, and not full, meaty pieces (other than it being entirely wasteful, since the long simmer time is going to render the meat inedible) is all the collagen hanging around in the joints and bits of skin.  That collagen is what gives stock its rich mouthfeel; it’s why a good chicken stock, when chilled, will set like jello.

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Next are the vegetables.  Today’s word of the day is mirepoix, and it’s what’s going into the stockpot. It’s a culinary term for the classic French combination of the aromatic vegetable combination of onions, carrots, and celery.   There is an actual, true ratio for mirepoix, which is 50% onion, 25% carrot and 25% celery.  For a little variation, leeks can be used for up to half of the onion.

Notice I haven’t mentioned any other vegetables.  In a classic version of chicken stock, there are no other vegetables–you may find tomato in beef stock, and parsnips in place of carrots in fish stock, but that’s it.  This also means NO GARLIC.  I’ve seen so many stock variations putting garlic, and it just burns my biscuits.  Garlic has the ability to turn stock bitter.  Don’t do it, kids.  Leave it to when it’s time to make soup or a sauce for adding garlic.

Now, let’s talk about herbs.  If we were in a fancy French kitchen, then we would be putting in a bouquet garni;  a combination of  fresh thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs, bay leaf and peppercorns either wrapped in a leek leaf or tied up in cheesecloth.  I use those herbs, but I don’t worry my pretty little head about tying them up into anything.  Considering everything gets strained out at the end of the day, I don’t bother wasting my twine.

I have a very simple ratio to use for stock, which is easily multiplied and foolproof:

1 pound chicken bones and trimmings such as feet, necks, wing tips, etc.

1 pound mirepoix

1 bouquet garni (5-6 sprigs each thyme and parsley, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns)

2 quarts water

Granted, when I make chicken stock, I do about 4 or 5 times that amount, and will produce about one-and-a-half gallons of stock once everything has simmered and been strained.

Everything goes into the stockpot.  It’s a good idea to use one big enough that you can bring everything to a boil without it spilling over.  When I’m making a large batch like I do, I don’t chop up my vegetables all that much–everything just gets scrubbed or peeled and cut in half.  Once everything is in the pot and covered with water, the flame gets turned to high and brought to a full, rolling boil.  Once that happens, the flame gets turned to low, and the stock is left to simmer for 6-8 hours.  At this point, it’ll look like this (caution–it’s not pretty):

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See?  I told you it wasn’t pretty.  The delicious chickeny smell that fills the house definitely cancels out the ugly.

At this point, it’s time to strain the stock.  I do it in a 2-step process, where I strain everything through a colander, catching all the large pieces; then the stock that is strained through a chinois to catch all the small fragments.  I will often simmer the stock for another hour or more after straining to reduce it slightly–it’s not necessary, but freezer space is in short supply, and if it means just one less container, it’s a big help.

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I also have an ice cube tray just for the purpose of freezing a few batches of stock cubes.  It’s perfect for when I’m making something that needs a little pan sauce, and this is just perfect to have on hand–I won’t need to defrost a bunch of stock when I can throw a few of these cubes in the pan and be done with it.

Once my stock is wrapped up to store (I put them into 1-quart containers), I pack them away in the freezer, and they’re good for 3 months.  I’ve got my batch ready for when it starts to cool down;  I know I’m ready for some Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, that’s for sure.

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quinoaveg2

This stuff, this super grain, is all over the place and for good reason:  it’s high in protein (in fact, it’s considered a complete protein since it contains a good balance of all eight essential amino acids) , low on the glycemic index, gluten-free, and it’s as easy as rice to cook.  On top of all that, it’s pretty tasty.  It’s a staple in our house, and I’ll make a quinoa dish at least a few times a month.

I had a pile of leftover grilled vegetables from Labor Day.  I had picked up a mess of zucchini at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, and along with a quartered red onion,  tossed everything in olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper, and Nomu Veggie Rub (which is also fantastic on chicken and fish).

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I made a huge amount of this salad–I was cleaning out the fridge, using up all the vegetables and herbs I had left from the farmer’s market.  This is easily 10-12 side dish servings, 6-8 servings as a main. Guess what we’re having for lunch for the next 3 days?

Grilled Vegetable and Quinoa Salad

2 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed thoroughly (you HAVE to rinse it–quinoa naturally has a coating of saponin, which is bitter)

4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or low-sodium)

3 cups of cold grilled vegetables, chopped.  I had green and yellow zucchini and red onion, but other grilled vegetables such as bell peppers or eggplant would work nicely, too.

1 cup of Tomato Confit, chopped or fresh raw tomato, if that’s what you have.

4 green onions, chopped

1 batch of Herb Vinaigrette

In a medium saucepan, combine the quinoa and vegetable stock over medium-high heat, and bring to a full boil.  Turn heat down to low, cover, and let cook for 15-18 minutes, when all liquid is absorbed.  Put cooked quinoa in a large bowl, and spread out slightly to make it easier for the quinoa to cool faster.  Cool to room temperature.

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While quinoa cools, make vinaigrette:

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1 large garlic clove

1/2 bunch fresh parsley

6 large leaves basil

8 sprigs thyme with woody stems removed

1 sprig mint, about 6-8 leaves

2 tsp salt

1 tsp fresh ground black pepper

2/3 to 3/4 cup olive oil

In a blender, add vinegar, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper, and start on a low setting.   While blender whirls, add olive oil in a slow drizzle until all the herbs are incorporated and you have a somewhat thick but easily pourable dressing.

Toss in chopped vegetables and vinaigrette into cooled quinoa, and store in covered container for a few hours to let the flavors develop.

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bananabread

Do you remember when Phil Hartman played The Anal Retentive Chef on Saturday Night Live?  You can’t help but think that when you take a look at Chris Kimball, Editor in Chief for Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, that you could swear that’s where Phil got his inspiration.  All bow tie jokes aside (we won’t go into Choo’s belief that there is a Bow Tie Federation who send out messages on their plan for world domination by the color of their ties), the people at America’s Test Kitchen are serious about the recipes they publish and the products they recommend.  Their ability to be fastidious yet completely unpretentious is one of the reasons why I love just about anything they put out.  One of their cookbooks, The New Best Recipe is, out of my library of cookbooks, is one of the few that actually take residence in my kitchen (next to The Joy of Cooking and my own hand-written book).  This isn’t any fancy cooking, either;  this is the book to open when you want to roast a chicken, make a perfect macaroni and cheese, or the best way to prepare oven fries.  It’s not just how:  they explain the why. For this Banana Bread alone, they dedicate nearly a full page in describing all of the different ways they came about to deciding what worked best.

I’ve made many a loaf of banana bread in my life.  I have to say this is definitely my favorite one of the bunch. (Pun intended.)  I do make a few small personal tweaks:  I skip the nuts, since Kiddo doesn’t like them, use brown sugar instead of white (hence, the loaf pictured is a little darker than what you’ll get using white), and I add a 1/2 tsp. of ground cardamom.  Yes, cardamom.  Trust me on this, it’s really good. But, I’ll give you the recipe as it’s given in the book.

Banana Bread, from The New Best Recipe, from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pan

1 1/4 cups walnuts, chopped coarse

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 very ripe, darkly speckled large bananas (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup plain yogurt

2 large eggs, beaten lightly

6 tablespoons melted butter, cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle poistion and heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5″ loaf pan; dust with flour, tapping out excess.
  2. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes.  Set aside to cool.
  3. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and walnuts together in a large bowl; set aside.
  4. Mix the mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with a wooden spoon in a medium bowl.  Lightly fold the banana mixture into the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula until just combined and the batter looks thick and chunky.  Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
  5. Bake until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes.  Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  (The bread can be wrapped with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.)

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