Friday, November 28, 2008

A Small Thanksgiving

Here's an epic post for an epic meal...

Well, it wasn't really an epic meal at all, but a rather small one (as far as Thanksgiving goes), since it was just us, and a couple of our bachelor friends. Everything went perfectly this year as far as timing, preparation, and choice of recipes. Despite a minimal amount of advanced preparation, some last-minute recipe decisions, and a few minor setbacks, everything flowed smoothly along and made for a (mostly) delightful meal.

Per our agreement to a "cooperative" meal, the girls made the pies, doing 90% of the work themselves. I was standing by to guide them and help out with the trickier parts (like transferring the very-full-pumpkin-pie to the oven, etc.)--I'm pretty sure the pies were THE high-point of the meal!

The bird itself was a bit disappointing; though it was a humble 8.5 lbs, and I refrained from filling it with stuffing, it still took almost 4 hours to cook(!). It may have not been fully defrosted (there were still some ice crystals lingering in the neck cavity, even though it had been in the fridge for three full days prior), but I'm starting to wonder if it has to do with the altitude--since I don't adjust most recipes for our high altitude, I never considered whether or not roasting a bird would be impacted. Although the USDA's reference site claims this is not a factor, every bird I've ever cooked takes longer than it should. Maybe it's time to switch to Mark Bittman's 45-minute approach, which would be more economical and use less energy and probably easier to get a more consistent doneness. The flavor was good and it was nicely moist, though.
I neglected to pull the rolls out of the fridge early enough, so they didn't have enough time to rise sufficiently to be soft, and were instead, dense and doughy...but nobody complained! And I used a new pie crust recipe/technique this time, and although it was also very flaky (as touted), it was tough and crispy instead of light and tender. Plus, it was so buttery that the excess butter dripped out of the pie crusts onto the bottom of the oven while baking and fumigated the house! In fact, when my daughter noticed it was foggy outside at the same time, I was accused of causing the whole forest to smoke up!

But, here's what DID work superbly and will surely be recreated again (and again...).

Pumpkin Pie with Chai Spices

After combing cookbooks and computer for pumpkin pie recipes, I settled on a combination version based on what I had on hand. It was wonderful. The texture was perfect, though I thought it could use even more spices.
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh pumpkin puree, strained and drained
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk (non-instant)*
  • 1/4 cup chestnuts, finely ground (optional or sub almonds or toasted hazelnuts)
  • 1/2 cup chai-flavored syrup**
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbs cornstarch
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp each cardamom, cinnamon, ginger
  • 1/4 tsp each nutmeg and black pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix until well blended. If your batter is lumpy, blend in a blender briefly to combine. Pour into prepared pie crust or baking dish and bake 1 hour at 350 degrees F, checking at 45 minutes. The pie is done when the edges are set and the middle is still wiggly.

*This approach lends a creamier taste without the added fat, but you can probably leave it out without any problems, or substitute cream for some or all of the milk.

**If I hadn't had the last of the bottle to use up, I would have substituted 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup molasses

Honey-Pecan Tart

I had two things firmly in mind for this year's pecan pie. It is my favorite holiday pie of all time, and while I can eat even the sweetest and eggiest of them all, I decided that putting the mixture into a tart pan would make for a better nut-to-filling ratio, and I was right. I was also determined to avoid using corn syrup in the recipe. I basically adapted the lower-sugar version here by substituting honey for the corn syrup straight across, and also I omitted the molasses since half of the honey I used was very dark and had a molassesy flavor itself. Everything else was the same (except for the pan size of course). I think the only thing I'll change next time is to use a tart crust or short crust instead of traditional pie dough.

Fruit and Grain Stuffed Acorn Squash

OK, so everyone (including myself) was disappointed that there was no bread stuffing on the table, but this dish was a winner, even with the bachelor crowd! I loved the addition of the kasha, figs and chestnuts. The amounts given are, of course, estimates, and should be changed up to suit your tastes and/or pantry contents. There was more than enough stuffing for 2 large (halved) and 2 small acorn squash; I would recommend it for 4 large, halved squash instead, but plan on half of a half as one serving size as a side dish.
A note on leftovers: I couldn't get over my craving for bread stuffing, I got myself a couple of day-old loaves at the House of Bread (garden herb and whole wheat), cubed up a few slices of each and tossed it together with the leftover stuffing. I scooped out what was leftover of the squash flesh, chopped it up a bit, and threw it in too. Tossed everything together with some broth, the leftover gravy and some additional spices. Yummy again!
  • 1 cup cooked red quinoa
  • 1/2 cup cooked kasha
  • 1 cup chopped dried figs
  • 1 cup chopped apples
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries, raisins or currants
  • 1/2 cup chopped chestnuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted (walnuts or hazelnuts would good, too)
  • 1 Tbs poppy seeds
  • 1/3 cup white wine, orange or apple juice
  • 2 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup water or broth
  • 1/2 tsp orange zest
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp each coriander, allspice and cinnamon
Saute onions and celery in 1 Tbs oil until onions are translucent. Toss together with remaining ingredients. Spoon into hollowed out squash halves and bake for 45 minutes to one hour at 350 degrees. Note: I suggest baking them covered, at least for the first 30 minutes, otherwise the top layer of grains will dry out and get very crunchy.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Mustard Seeds

“I never knew I liked Brussels sprouts” were one of our dinner guests exact words upon tasting this dish. While I don’t cook them very often, I usually enjoy Brussels sprouts any way they are prepared (even mushy and over-cooked), so it’s good to get affirmation of this dish from the non-indoctrinated. This was sort of a last-minute “what can I do with the Brussels sprouts” concoction that ended up a winner; including bacon in the mix was a no-brainer.

  • 1 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 5 slices smoked maple bacon
  • 1 onion, sliced into thin wedges (about ¼-inch thick)
  • 1 Tbs prepared mustard
  • 1 Tbs maple syrup
  • 1 Tbs apple cider vinegar or wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp whole mustard seeds
Halve or quarter the sprouts, depending on their size. Steam 7-9 minutes or until tender. Rinse in cool water briefly to stop their cooking. Meanwhile, chop bacon and fry over medium heat until done (you don’t want it to be crispy unless you want a few crispy crumbs for the top). Remove bacon and let drain on a paper towel. Using the reserved cooking fat, fry onions and sprouts over medium-high heat until onions are soft and sprouts have browned somewhat, about 6-8 minutes. Sprouts should not be too soft, but not too firm, either. While the vegetables are cooking, whisk together maple syrup, mustard and spices. Deglaze the pan with the wine and stir in the mustard mixture to coat all the vegetables. If desired, top with garlic-seasoned bread crumbs (melt 1 Tbs butter or olive oil in a pan, stir in ¼ cup bread crumbs, pinch of salt, garlic powder and pepper, and cook until browned).

Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes

Use your preferred method of preparing potatoes for the mashing. We prefer the skins on, so we just give them a good scrub, cut out any bad spots or eyes, boil them whole for 2o-30 minutes or so (depending on the variety), drain, reserving 1 cup of liquid and mash with additional warm milk to desired consistency. Splash in a good dose of good quality olive oil, and some salt and pepper.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tropical Fruits Upside-Down Cake

A far cry from the traditional cake made with canned pineapple and candied cherries, this cake arose from the fact that we had a number of such "tropical" fruits on hand all needing to be used up at once. That, and I'm still trying to use up my vanilla-infused rum, and this recipe helped a lot! This presentation would be stellar (pun intended) with the use of sliced starfruit and kiwis side by side. Please note, however, if using bananas, be sure to serve the cake as soon as you can, otherwise the bananas turn brown-black.

I did not use the typical upside-down cake recipe, but instead, my standby coffeecake recipe for the base. Also, I baked it in an 8-inch square pan, but I thought the cake part was a bit thick as a result; I suggest using a 9-inch pan for better cake-to-fruit ratio.

For the cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour (white/whole wheat combination)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 Tbs rum (optional)
For fruit:

  • 1 kiwi, peeled and sliced thickly
  • 2 pineapple slices, quartered
  • 1 small banana, sliced thickly or quartered
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 Tbs rum
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 Tbs butter, melted
For topping:

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 Tbs sliced almonds
  • 2 tsp sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine butter, brown sugar and rum in baking dish, swirl or stir briefly to combine. Lay fruit slices on top of sugar-butter mixture. Stir together dry ingredients. Add remaining cake ingredients and stir just until combined. Pour batter over fruit and bake for 25-30 minutes or until done. Meanwhile, combine topping ingredients in a small skillet and briefly toast, stirring constantly, until coconut and almonds begin to brown slightly (about 4-5 minutes over medium-high heat). Set aside. Remove cake from oven and let sit 2-3 minutes. Invert onto tray or platter (the best way to do this is to invert the tray/platter onto the pan and carefully flip the whole thing over, tap the pan gently to remove the cake and fruit). Sprinkle coconut-almond mixture on top, slice and serve.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Banana Flats (aka Bananadillas)

OK, so we couldn't decide on the best name for these "inventions" (actually inspired by several sources including PostPunkKitchen and chaos in the kitchen), but they sure were a hit with the kids! Don't be afraid to come up with your own combinations...these make a great after-school snack! All steps are easy enough for kids to do by themselves, except maybe the grilling and flipping of the tortilla.

PBC&B (Peanut Butter, Chocolate and Banana) version:
Flour tortillas (we used whole wheat)
Peanut Butter
Thinly sliced bananas
Chocolate chips
Butter or vegetable oil for grilling

Spread peanut butter over half of tortilla. Sprinkle peanut butter with chocolate chips. Lay banana slices on top of chocolate chips and fold. Press gently. Over medium-high heat, melt a little butter in a skillet large enough to hold the tortilla. Place the folded tortilla in the pan and grill for 1-2 minutes on each side, or until browned and crispy and bananas and chocolate have softened. Cut into wedges and enjoy!

Coco-Choco-Banana Flat version: for this one we used cream cheese instead of peanut butter, and sprinkled shredded coconut and cinnamon sugar on the bananas. Both versions were a hit, so it was hard to pick a winner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Five-Spice Soup

There is something about the combination of sweet soy sauce and Chinese five-spice blend in this soup that is deeply warming and comforting--perfect for a blustery autumn evening. While the name I picked for it is generic, the soup is really a combination of favorites: Vietnamese Pho and Thai Jabchai Yaowalak (a soup of hard boiled eggs, five-spice and sweet soy sauce). You can really use any combination of vegetables that you favor and/or have on hand (green cabbage, baby corn, mushrooms, and mung bean sprouts would be good). Substitute chicken, beef or pork for the tofu if desired, and feel free to use rice noodles or jasmine rice in place of the soba.

We got these beautiful purple Watermelon Radishes in our CSA bag this week--
  • 3 quarts broth or water
  • 4 hard boiled eggs (or one per person)
  • 1/2 pound firm tofu
  • 2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder*
  • 1 large shallot head, sliced thinly
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbs sweet soy sauce (substitute black bean sauce, oyster sauce, or 1 Tbs soy sauce + 1 Tbs brown sugar)
  • 1 Tbs soy sauce
  • 1 bunch tatsoi, chopped (substitute spinach, cabbage or other vegetables)
  • 1 large yam/sweet potato, sliced
  • 2-3 small turnips, cut into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)
  • 2-3 scallions, cut on the bias
  • 1 lime, quartered
  • Cilantro
  • 1 package buckwheat soba noodles, cooked according to package directions
*substitute 1/4 tsp each ground cinnamon, anise, cloves, ginger and coriander or one 2-inch stick of cinnamon, 1 star anise, 4-5 whole cloves, one 1-inch piece of gingerroot.

Toss sweet potato slices with oil and roast them for 10-15 minutes at 450 degrees, until tender. Set aside. Heat several tablespoons of oil in large soup pot. Saute shallots and garlic just until they start to brown. Add spice powder, eggs and tofu, stir-frying to coat (add additional oil if needed). Add soy sauces and stir until eggs are browned by the sauce. Add broth and turnips. Cover and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Add tatsoi and cook 5 more minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Add sweet potatoes and remove from heat.

To serve, scoop some noodles into a large bowl, spoon soup over noodles, including one egg per dish. Garnish with cilantro, scallions and lime wedges.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Noodle Kugel

I find it hard to believe that I've made it this far in life and never had Kugel before. I first happened across a recipe for Kugel in Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup cookbook for kids. Her version is a cold and egg-less one, simple for kids to throw together. Though intriguing, the baked version I found at Smitten Kitchen sounded much more my style, and the story she tells about it was enough to make me want to try it. I followed the recipe fairly closely, not ever having made the dish before, and it was YUMMY. The taste reminded me of blintzes, which I adore. The kids liked it somewhat, but I don't think they cared for the chewiness of the cottage cheese or the crunchiness of the noodles on top, so I had another idea...

I started with a pureed mixture of cottage cheese plus a bit of milk (about 1/4 cup to 1 cup of cottage cheese). I combined the remaining mixture ingredients and poured it over the UNCOOKED noodles in the baking dish. I let this sit overnight so the noodles would soften and soak up the extra liquid. I dotted the top with frozen sweet black cherries before baking. The result was quite similar in taste, but the texture was much softer, though the noodles held their definition. I will probably play around with it indefinitely when I make it again, as that's what I normally do, but the result was definitely satisfying!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Multigrain Soft Pretzels

I usually shy away from yeasted bread recipes between the kneading and the proofing and time it takes to produce. However, this recipe is so simple and quick (as yeasted breads go) that our family has made it several times in the last couple of months. Obviously, the kids love them for breakfast, lunches and snacks, and they love helping to twist the dough into unique shapes! *The barley flour, oat bran and flax seed can of course be substituted by your favorite flours or meals (we have used oatmeal, quinoa flour, rye, and wheat bran in different batches). I normally use a combination of half white and half whole-wheat flour in all of my baking, and if you don’t have any other kinds of flour, bran, etc. on hand, you can simply increase the amounts of both to 2 cups. I have also substituted one cup homemade sourdough starter for ½ cup each of the water and flour mixture.
  • 1 package yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (approx 90-100 degrees F)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups white flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup barley flour*
  • 1/4 cup coarse oat bran*
  • 1/4 cup flaxseed meal*
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tbs baking soda
  • Boiling water
  • Kosher salt, sesame seeds or other toppings

Stir together the yeast, honey and warm water and let sit for 5 minutes. Stir in the flours, bran, flaxseed meal and salt. The dough should be stiff. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. (You might need extra flour for the board depending on how the flours/meals you mixed in take the moisture.)

Cut dough into 8 equal pieces, roll into 15-by-20-inch ropes, twist into pretzel shapes and gently place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. (Note, if you don’t have non-stick parchment paper, I recommend a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal so the dough doesn’t stick.) To make the distinctive pretzel shape, cross the ends of the rope twice about 1-2 inches from the ends and fold the loop down over the twisted section. Alternatively, you can make pretzel braids, bagel shapes, or small balls—whatever the kids want—just make sure the shapes and sizes are relatively uniform on each baking sheet. Cover with a towel and let rise for about 45 minutes, or until double in size.

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Bring 2 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda to a boil. Submerge the pretzels one at a time in this solution for 5 to 10 seconds, pushing them under the water with a slotted spoon, then take them out carefully (you can transfer them directly to the parchment dripping wet otherwise they will start to fall apart if you try to drain them too long). Brush with a whisked egg and sprinkle with kosher salt, sesame seeds or other topping if desired. Bake at 475 degrees on the middle rack of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. They are best straight out of the oven, of course, but if you are storing them, make sure they are completely cool before placing in a bag or container, otherwise the salt will soften and “disappear.” For a healthy snack, we like to dip them in hummus or herbed yogurt cheese (stir your favorite herb blend and salt and pepper into lowfat plain yogurt and let sit in a strainer lined with paper towel overnight or up to 24 hours).

Adapted from:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ugali & Sukuma (Kenyan Style Grits and Greens)

I owe this post to my sister who brought back this recipe from her stay in Kenya, where it is a staple for many. Pure simplicity melds together to make a steaming bowl of comfort--especially welcomed after days of gorging oneself on candy, sweets or other rich foods! Any kind of greens can be used here; I prefer a mix of braising greens, particularly chard or collards, but spinach, kale, mustard greens and others will work as well. Traditionally, the grits are cooked to a very stiff consistency and sliced into wedges to serve. This is the best way to serve the dish if you have quite a bit of pot liquor from cooking the greens. If you prefer the grits cooked softer, as my children do, it's better to cook or strain off some of the liquid. I also really enjoy this dish served with a poached or fried egg and a basic "salsa cruda" on top.

Traditionally for the Ugali (Grits) , regular-grind WHITE cornmeal is used, but you can also use coarser hominy grits. The dish is definitely not the same with yellow cornmeal or polenta, but you can use it if that's all you have. It's hard to explain just how much cornmeal to water to use, as it depends on your preference; I suggest 2 cups water to 1 cup cornmeal for a stiffer mixture, and 3 cups water to 1 cup cornmeal for a softer mixture, but you will have to be the judge. For the stiff version, it is important to stir the cornmeal into the boiling, salted water completely so no lumps form. As it stiffens, form it into a dome in the pan, cover and cook on very low heat for 20-30 minutes. When it is done, cut the dome into wedges for serving.

Meanwhile, wash and coarsely chop your greens. You will need about 6 cups uncooked greens for the portion of Ugali listed above. Chop 1 large tomato and about 1/4 cup diced onion. Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet or wide-bottomed pan. Add onion, tomato and greens and saute 5-10 minutes over high heat, until vegetables have turned bright green and onions are cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

For the "salsa cruda" (which is traditional, it's just not called "salsa"), dice another tomato and another 1/4 cup onion, toss with salt, pepper, and crushed red chile flakes to taste.

Pumpkin Chili (I & II)

Chili is one of those things I usually make when the weather beckons it, so often it ends up a conglomeration of various suitable ingredients I have on hand. Version I may not be very “chili-like” but more of a thick vegetable stew with beans, but I also like my chili loaded up with vegetables like carrots and squash. I decided to add some pureed pumpkin that I had (instead of chunks) and it was a success—making the base thicker and richer than it would have been otherwise (not to mention more nutritious). Proportions are variable, as are contents, so only rough quantities are provided here.
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 sunchokes
  • 2 small crookneck squash
  • 2 cups cooked beans
  • ½ bell pepper
  • 3-4 jalapenos
  • 1 cup corn kernels
  • ½ cup roasted tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • 1 cup pureed pumpkin
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Cumin, chile powder, salt, pepper
  • Broth or water
Chop all veggies into bite-size pieces. Fry ground turkey with onion, garlic, chiles, bell pepper and spices in the pot you will use for your chili (no unnecessary dishwashing here!). Add carrots and cover with broth or water. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Add remaining veggies and as much broth or water as you are comfortable with. Bring to a boil again, then reduce to simmer for 10-15 minutes or until veggies are soft. Season to taste with salt and pepper and additional hot sauce if you like (my favorite: Chipotle Puree (Rick Bayless’ recipe)).

Basically Version II was the same except I left out the squash and sunchokes, used only black beans, and a bit more roasted tomato puree. A touch of molasses rounded it out nicely. The result was a thick, sweet-spicy (well, my bowl was spicy with the addition of more Chipotle Puree!) warming bowl of vegetarian chili.