August 30, 2011

Challah Back

Whole Wheat Challah Bread

Forgive me, my gluten-senstive friends, but I baked some bread over the weekend that you definitly cannot have. I apologive, but I just had the time! I had enough toilet paper, wine and apples to last me through whatever the hurricane brought, my apartment was obnoxiously clean, I already had a chicken roasting in the oven...and I just had the time for some rising action.

I've mentioned before how I am not a baker- still true. Given the choice I would much rather cook than bake, but I am inspired now and then. I'm frequently inspired more by the physical process that goes into baking a loaf of bread, than by the baking and icing of a cake (this is not to say that the making of a cake is not incredibly important- more celebrations than I can think of are commemorated with cake- I mean who doesn't love a nice slice on their birthday?!) I will continue to make and frost cakes indefinitly, but its the live yeast, the kneading and the magical rise of the sticky, elastic dough that just absolutely fascinates me.

August 28, 2011

Emergency Treat

Popped Amaranth Granola

I don't seek out granola or buy it often, but I'm always ready for something that tastes a whole lot better made in my own kitchen than off the grocery store shelf. I now also realize its a handy non-perishable item to have around, say, in the event of a hurricane?

I have granola notes from Martha Stewart, from the Food Network, and from an old roommate's ex-girlfriend. I do mix and match for the most part, but my favorite take on granola is from one of my favorite sites, It uses the grain Amaranth (I found mine at MOM's, but I've seen it at many other organic markets or health food stores) a grain that was first cultivated 8,000 years ago by the Aztecs. It's interesting to work with, especially in this recipe, where you start by roasting the grain in a pan and watch it begin to dance around and pop like popcorn. It has a nutty taste, and is quite crisp, allowing for a very fresh batch of granola.

August 25, 2011

Where's the Beef?

Summer Eggplant and Tomato Gratin

Despite having recently moved within walking distance of some incredible farmers markets here in Alexandria, Virginia, I have sadly never made my way to a single one. Actually, I have even passed a few while driving and have not stopped. No cash handy? No time? No idea. This isn't to say I haven't picked some pears or figs off a tree at Green Valley Farm this summer, or herbs from a garden or two, I've just managed to not find myself at any local markets or stands.

It wasn't until I found one large, chubby ShopRite eggplant in my parent's refrigerator, did the desire to head out and get some farm-fresh produce strike. I had a meat-less, all veggie gratin recipe I wanted to try and that eggplant would come in handy, along with a few fresh, local additions...

August 17, 2011

Pantry Party

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I sometimes say that my very organized pantry and refrigerator are probably just ways to over compensate for the many unorganized areas of my life. Well, if that is actually true, so be it, because I could just rearrange and stare at my perfectly placed and staggered assortment of jars and canisters for hours. Pale pink lentils here, large swirly, spotted beans there...its a beautiful sight. There is actually one productive aspect of all this time spent behind the pantry door and its that I'm always well-aware of what I have or what I need.

Although not much of a baker, two items I still try to always have on hand (and are quite pleasing to the eye, in fact, as I scan and scan and scan...) are homemade vanilla extract and vanilla sugar.

I do some actual baking with the vanilla beans, but also really enjoy using the leftover and remaining fresh beans to make homemade vanilla extract or infuse some store-bought white granulated sugar. I use small glass bottles (small port, dessert or sauternes wine bottles are perfect) and corks I have laying around, and end up with attractive bottles of vanilla extract, ready to use in a few weeks. A mason jar filled with sugar is just as simple, and will be scented and ready to go within just a few days. Use it whenever white sugar is called for, as the subtle hint and nudge of vanilla will compliment most baked goods or treats (think shortbread, sugar or butter cookies, custards, pound cake or just a sprinkling over tarts or pies)

These also make thoughtful, inexpensive gifts for the baker in your life, or maybe the baker you want in your life.

Vanilla Extract
(adapted from Food & Wine magazine)

*1 1/2- 2 cups vodka
*Up to 10 split vanilla beans (I prefer bourbon Madagascar vanilla beans from Olive Nation)

Place the vanilla beans in a tall bottle or jar and cover with the vodka. Cover with up to 1/2 cup more vodka if necessary. Cork or seal and store in a cool, dark spot. Shake every so often. After about six weeks, when dark and fragrant, the extract is ready to use.

Vanilla Sugar
(adapted from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells)

* 4 cups sugar
* Up to 4 fresh or 4 split and used vanilla beans

Pour the sugar into a large jar or airtight container. Push and pack the vanilla beans down into the sugar. Cover and let vanilla infuse the sugar for a few days, or up to a week. Continue to replenish as the sugar is used, and add or replace vanilla beans every few months.

August 15, 2011

Quiche Undressed

Crustless Leek and Mushroom Quiche

This is one of those "kitchen sink" kind of dishes. Sad, limp herbs laying around? Fantastic. Remaining corners of miscellaneous cheeses? Great. Mushrooms about to get soggy or greens that have seen crisper days? Even better. Bread you don't know what to do with? PERFECT.

The quiche gets its structure from pieces of cubed bread spread in a single layer along the bottom and up the sides of a pie dish or circular cake pan. When baked, the inner filling begins to melt and set, holding together the once-thought-useless bread and a lovely crispy crust is formed. More substantial than a frittata, yet light and tender as an omlette. Each bite is cheesy and herby, with just a touch of crust, and delicious regardless of what is thrown in. I decided on mushrooms, leeks and ham, but andouille sausage, pancetta, corn or even shrimp...the possibilities are almost endless. This dish makes a great breakfast, lunch or dinner, and is equally good hot or cold.

So, the naked truth? Your best dressed quiche may actually have no covering at all.

Crustless Leek and Mushroom Quiche

*Half a loaf, or several slices bread (fresh or day old), cut into 1 inch cubes
*3 oz. ham, finely chopped
*1/4-1/2 c. each mushrooms and leeks (or veggies of your choice), chopped
*1 1/2 c. grated cheese (gruyere, mozzerella, chedder, etc.; feel free to add a variety)
*2-3 eggs
*2 Tbsp. milk (sour cream or greek yogurt can also be substituted for 1 of the eggs or milk, to thicken filling
*1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
*additions of your choice (a few chopped sage leaves, a handful of dill or parsley, a few scallions)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Spread cubed bread in a pie dish or baking pan, about 8 inches in diameter.

In a seperate bowl, whisk all other ingredients. Pour into the baking pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until center is firm and the top is golden.

Let quiche cool for several minutes. Cut into wedges.

August 12, 2011

Good to the Grain


I just wanted to send out a short post for what could be a no-prep, no-cook, minimal-clean-up required salad, perfect for summer picnics, a quick side dish or a light, last-minute supper.

Tabbouleh should mainly consist of parsley or a combination of parsley, basil and mint, along with the grain. Outside of the Middle East it is usually more grain-based, but the herbs should take the lead. This recipe calls for hits of horseradish, chopped baby gherkins, some garlic and a squeeze of lemon to balance out the sharp flavors, but still give it a some zing. Once the olive oil is added and the flavors and ingredients begin to mingle, the salad becomes fresh and zesty. Let it sit for as long as you like (well, use your best judgement on that, of course) as the flavors will continue to become even bolder.

Note: This tabbouleh is made with bulgur, but can also be made with wheat berries, farro, barley, or any other nutty, chewy grain. I am sure brown, long grain or jasmine rice could work in a pinch as well, why not? I recently began using amaranth (a grain with a colorful and very interesting history) and am now curious how that would be, actually. And wait, for the risotto-loving crowd, I bet carnaroli or arborio rice would work nicely. Quinoa would also be a great alternative for those sensitive to gluten.

A change in grain may technically change the name of the dish, but its OK... going against the grain can be fun...


*1 cup bulgur (Bob's Red Mill brand available in most grocery stores)
*2 handfuls fresh parsley, finely chopped
*1 handful fresh basil, finely chopped
*1 handful fresh mint, finely chopped
*1 small bunch scallions, finely chopped
*1-3 garlic cloves, depending on preference, finely chopped
*1 Tbsp. cocktail gherkins or cornichons, finely chopped (as well as a bit of juice from the jar)
*1 pint firm cherry tomatoes, halved
*6 Tbsp. good olive oil
*2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
*1 Tbsp. horseradish (optional)
*salt and pepper, to taste
(pita bread and pastrami, also optional, to serve)

Put bulgur wheat in large bowl and add enough cold water to cover by an inch. :et stand for 30 minutes, and add a little more water as it is absorbed by the bulgur. Drain, pat or squeeze dry and transfer to a larger, dry bowl.

Chop the parsley, mint and basil together and add to the bulgur. Add the scallions and the next seven ingredients. Cover and let the salad stand for a few hours to allow the flavors to develop.

If using the pita and the pastrami to serve, arrange pastrami around the edge of a serving dish and pile the tabbouleh in the middle. Cover closely with plastic wrap until ready to serve. Serve along with the pita bread.

August 10, 2011

Home Slice

Union Square Cafe's Blueberry Pie
Most of the time I prefer cooking to baking. I enjoy the freedom of not really being all that accurate or precise (mostly becuase neither of these words could describe me, ever). Spoon-pouring and leveling, exact measurements and to-the-second baking times... sometimes that is just no fun. 

This pie, adapted from Emily Isaac of the Union Square Cafe in New York City, is actually one of the few desserts I enjoy following each and every step to make. From the way the berries begin to glisten like gemstones as they are heated through and their juices begin to flow, to slicing into the deep beautiful blue stained crust from the berries having bubbled up and over, this is a treat worthy of the little accuracy and steps involved. The consistency and texture of the filling is very smooth due to the heating through of the berries in the beginning, and the taste is delicate and not overly sweet. Its a comforting, homey treat, even if you never did get this at home.

A few notes:

I usually save the juice drained from the berries after cooling in a colander over a bowl. Reduced down, or not even, the excess juice makes a fantastic blueberry syrup for pancakes, to drizzle on breads or cakes, or even in yogurt or over ice cream. I was in Alaska a few years ago and my friend's father served me the most tender steak (reindeer, I think?) with a blueberry sauce, at their family-owned restaurant. The combination of tender meat and juicy, sweet sauce seemed to be made for one another... so perhaps this sauce could accompany your next meaty dinner. Please let me know what you come up with!

Also, sometimes I clean up after several steps, or sometimes I use every dish I own and create quite a hurricane in my small kitchen. This dish may require a few bowls (depending on how far ahead you read or plan). At first glance, or pour, of the simmered berries, it looks like they will somehow stain everything they touch. They stain nothing. I know this firsthand after unsuccessfully using the blueberry juice to dye my Easter eggs last year. The color was the exact opposite of appetizing and came off on my hands. Definitly a no-go for my attempt at local, organic (and somewhat recycled?) easter egg dye.

Union Square Cafe's Blueberry Pie

*2 quarts blueberries
*2 c. sugar + 1 Tbsp. (I use a vanilla sugar I make and always have on hand)
*zest and juice of one large lemon
*5 oz. cornstarch
*pinch salt
*1 whole egg, beaten + 1 Tbsp. water
*1 12 inch pie crust (see recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Rinse the berries and place in a medium pot with one cup of the sugar. Cook over medium heat for five minutes, stirring, until juices begin to flow. Remove from heat.

Strain berries in a colander set over a bowl and let cool. Transfer berries to a pie dish or shallow bowl and toss in one cup sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, cornstarch and salt. Allow the berries to macerate for ten minutes.

Roll out dough to a 12 inch circle and place on top of berries. Trim the edges and crimp with your fingers or a fork. Brush the top with egg and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Let cool.

Pie Crust

*2/3 c. flor
*pinch salt
*1 Tbsp. sugar
*6 Tbsp. chilled butter (or 4 Tbsp butter + 2 Tbsp lard or crisco for an extra crispy crust)
*1 1/2 Tbsp ice cold water

Pulse flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Drop in 1/2 inch pieces of butter until entire mixture is of pea-size consistency. Add water in droplets while running and run until the dough is pulled together and a ball is formed in the food processor. No kneading is necessary. Wrap the ball of dough in Saran wrap and chill for half an hour before rolling out for use. Great to make ahead and freeze.

August 5, 2011

Perfect Little Pockets

Gauva and Cheese Empanadas

A few years ago I had my first empanada at a potluck lunch (I swear, I attract potlucks. Or maybe they attract me? I just can't seem to get away from them). It was a lightly salted, crispy, pastry pocket with a steamy, sweet and cheesy filling nestled inside. At first, I couldn't place the guava, the first taste that bursts through as you bite into and shatter the outside, or even the cheese. But, hot and gooey, sweet and cheesy... I knew I wanted another and the recipe.

From small Latin-inspired restaurants in New York or here in DC, to Buenos Aires, I've now tasted some amazing empanadas. I have them for breakfast or dessert, with both traditional or unique filling combinations. I'm still waiting for Jose Andres (of DC restaurant fame) to come up with something like a mousse of baby goat and olive empanada. On a stick, dipped in cotton candy. Or gelatin. And you must hang from the ceiling to eat it. (For those who know of him, his creations are inventive.)

Regardless of what I've tasted, near and far, when making them myself I always seem to go back to Emma's traditional recipe. I have lost track of her these days, but I owe her for sharing such a no-fail, very handy recipe. Thank you, Emma! 

Guava and Cheese Empanadas

*1-2 packages of defrosted empanada rounds (I prefer Goya's package of 10, in the frozen section)
*1-2 8oz. packages of cream cheese
*1 large tin or 2 small packages of guava paste (again, I prefer Goya, for the quality and price)
*vegtable oil (or corn or canola- all but olive oil)

Begin by unwrapping and opening all ingredients. The process resembles that of an assembly line...pastry round, guava, cheese...pastry round, guava, cheese. Just a small chunk of both guava and cream cheese  towards one end of the pastry round will do, as you need to be able to fold over pastry, seal it and not worry about the filling oozing out. Sealing requires either a fork pressed all along the edge, or a crimped design using your fingers. Both seal the empanada shut, while also creating a decorative edge. You may want to run some water along the edges for extra reinforcement.

Using a large, deep frying pan, pour in enough vegtable oil to come about 1/4 or 1/2 the way up the pan. Heated on high and before the oil is smoking, begin to drop in and quickly fry the empanadas. They take about 1-2 minutes per side, flipping when they turn a golden-brown color. Some may open a bit, and some may be darker than others- its OK. Also, try not to crowd the pan (3-4 at once is best) as that will lower the overall heat of the oil and you may not acheive that crispy, crunchy texture.

Gently sprinkle with salt while they are still hot, and let cool on paper towels or brown paper bags to soak up some of the excess oil. These empanadas will last in the fridge for up to a week if properly wrapped up, or frozen, uncooked, for one to two months. An excellent make-ahead dish or to keep frozen for a quick snack, party appetizer, dinner or treat!

August 2, 2011

A Good Reason to Get in the Car

Roadtrip Pita Chips

I'm writing this as I wait for my ride down to the eastern shore of Virginia. I am headed to Machipongo, VA, or, more specifically, to my boyfriend John's, mother's home, the Green Valley Farm Bed & Breakfast, (actually for sale too, if anyone is interested) a special spot I have sadly only passed, but now get the chance to explore for the weekend. (More on the B&B soon.)

For the 4-hour trip down I quickly made some snacky roadtrip food. This is something I think I first threw together while living in Hoboken, NJ, when my roommate and I had friends over to enjoy our quaint, private backyard.

Knowing I had no chips or quick bites on hand, this appetizer came about as it was the first thing I saw in the bread basket and knowing my well-stocked spice cabinet would come in handy. I laugh becuase I use Chef Paul Prudhomme's Blackened Redfish Magic seasoning on these cut-up pita chips, yet, I don't think I have actually used it ever on fish! I happened to read an article one time where this seasoning was used, found and bought it, and it has become my magical pita chip seasoning ever since.

These are not only great in a pinch, but clearly offer peace of mind for the mindful. The pita, oil and seasoning are fresh; the chips have not been sitting in their additives and preservatives to maintain shelf-life in the supermarket for weeks or months on end, and you control the amounts of oil and seasoning to use. Be liberal and generous or let the pita soak in minimal amounts of both before putting in the oven. Either way, you've got a tasty treat worthy of a roadtrip!

Roadtrip Pita Chips

*1 Bag white or whole wheat pita bread, large size
*extra virgin olive oil
*Chef Paul Prudhomme's Blackened Redfish Magic seasoning

Preheat oven to 425ยบ and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the pita bread in half, in half again, and then begin to cut in 1 inch triangles, squares, or the shape of your choice. Mine turn out to be isosceles triangles, parallelograms, shapes that have no names, it really doesn't matter.

Drizzle the oil evenly over the pita bread, using your hands or tongs to evenly coat the bread. Generously pour or gently sprinkle the seasoning (or the seasonings of your choice) all over the bread. Mix again with your hands or tongs to evenly coat and put in the oven for 6 1/2 to 7 minutes.

Let the pita chips cool completely before bagging them up or containing them, to prevent them from becoming soggy.

Drive safely while munching and snacking!