Monday, June 4, 2007

Riffing on a new fave

I’m not a Nervous Nellie in the kitchen, but I’m also not like my friend Meera. In my eyes, at least, Meera is some kind of culinary genius. She can taste a dish at a restaurant and then recreate it at home. She understands how ingredients work together and is adept at coming up with her own recipes.

I, on the other hand, am no slouch on the culinary knowledge front, but I’m also a fan of a good recipe. Now, once I’ve made and understand that recipe, I’m not afraid to tweak. But let’s just say you won’t find me writing my own cookbook any time soon.

If you’re a cook like me, hoping to be one more like Meera, you’ll love my newest cookbook addiction: The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. Or, if you’re just looking for some great new recipe ideas—especially basics that can be reappropriated in several different ways/as several different dishes—you’d also do well to check it out.

You’re sure to get hooked on at least one of Schneider’s simple but sophisticated offerings. Like the corn cakes that I’ve now made twice in a two-week period—and for which I’m still coming up with new variations.

Hmmm … guess I have some improvisational cook in me after all.

Corn cakes with smoked salmon
Follow the recipe for corn cakes given here, adding slices of smoked salmon, cream cheese or sour cream, and a sprinkling of fresh herbs (I like fresh chives) to finished cakes.

Corn cakes with black beans
While you’re making your cakes, throw a pot of quick black bean soup on the stove. Sauté chopped onions and garlic in olive oil along with cumin, coriander, and a minced chipotle pepper with some of the adobo sauce thrown in. Once the spices are reasonably aromatic, add two cans black beans—one drained and one undrained. Simmer for 10 minutes, until flavors absorb. Serve soup with a cake nestled into the side of each bowl, allowing diners to scoop up a bit of cake with each bite of soup. It’s black bean soup with corn “dumplings”!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A show-stopping sandwich topping

Sometimes, all you feel like “cooking” is a sandwich. If you’ve recovered enough from hearing me, the girl who refused to bring sandwiches in her lunch from kindergarten on up, speak semi-promotingly of this food group, feel free to read further here.

You’ll discover that my new affection for certain, and by certain I mean very specific, types of sandwiches and sandwich filling combinations, wasn’t born out of necessity. Even the heat-soaked July and August days for which New England is famous couldn’t compel such a significant conversion—even though I was desperate to make dinner without my stove.

But sandwich toppings? Well, that’s a different story.

The make-it-yourself condiment to which I credit this transformation is not only tasty, it also met with The Apartment Gourmet’s specifications for quick, easy, and short on ingredients. You can go here for that terrific new recipe.

And once you’ve mastered tomato jam, branch out with this delish sandwich addition from the bloggers at Cookthink.

Oh, but maybe you should make sure you have enough bread and sandwich fixings on hand first …

Grated celeriac and carrot salad

What you’ll need:
Box grater
Large bowl
Tablespoon and teaspoon measures
Fork or citrus juicer
Stirring implement, such as a wooden spoon or spatula

1 small celery root, peeled and coarsely grated
2 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
2 T mayonnaise
1 T lemon juice
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Grate the celeriac and carrot into a large bowl. I like the celeriac shredded on the largest holes of the grater, and the carrot hacked into ragged coin-shaped pieces on the blades on the side. (Just watch your knuckles.) Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

The Cookthink folks suggest piling this salad onto a sandwich made with whole grain bread, roasted turkey, and cheddar. That is, if you have enough left to put on a sandwich …

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A beverage to beat the summer blues

The day it hit 95 here in Boston, I was still without an air conditioner. Well, I had one. It was just sitting on the floor of my bedroom, waiting for the help of a stronger, sturdier friend and his drill-wielding wife.

It was a hot day (and night) but the air conditioner-free living paid off. Desperate to cool down, I suddenly remembered a gem of a beverage that I hadn’t thought about in years.

My most recent food-related musings—and this recipe—were the result.

So, too, were several blissful hours spent sipping what I have since decided is the nectar of the gods. But don’t take my word for it. Go give your blender a whirl and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Variations on a (quesadilla) theme

My earliest quesadilla memory (can you believe I even have one?) is from an outing to Chili’s—the “Mexican” version of TGIFridays, where the main draw was a ridiculously thick chocolate shake served in a frosted beer stein with chocolate sprinkles on top. By the time I’d finished half my shake (and had indulged in a generous helping of the chips that came before the meal), I usually had room for about two bites of lunch. But they were a tasty two bites—or so I thought at the time. I always ordered the same thing: A chicken quesadilla.

As almost-fast-food fare goes, Chili’s chicken quesadilla was a pretty decent offering. Chunked, char-grilled chicken, a mix of shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, a nicely-cripsed tortilla, and salsa for dipping. I usually had two days worth of leftovers afterward, and reheated in the oven, they were good, too.

But tastes change. Palates demand variety and nuance. And while I still enjoy a homemade Mexican-themed quesadilla on occasion, my quesadilla fixation has broadened to include a whole array of tortilla-encased options. To read about how I got launched on my quesadilla improvisation, go here. Or simply rustle up some tortillas of your own and start experimenting.

Quesadillas are, quite simply, sophisticated grilled cheese. Grilled cheese for grownups, in fact. Oh yeah. And they make good appetizers, too.

Spinach and sun-dried tomato quesadilla (Variation 1)
I recommend using cream cheese for the spinach and sun-dried tomato quesadilla, but if you’re feeling in the mood for something Greek, substitute 2-3 T crumbled feta for the cream cheese and add 1 T chopped kalamata olives to the mixture before spreading it on the tortilla.

Spinach-mushroom quesadilla

What you’ll need:
Microwave-safe bowl
Cutting board
Box grater
Small mixing bowl
Small frying pan
Large frying pan

Generous handful baby spinach
2 T water
2 thin slices of onion (slice it down the middle, NOT end to end) pulled apart into rings
1/4 cup sliced white mushrooms
1/2 T butter
Handful of shredded Pepper Jack cheese or 2 T cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
Burrito-size flour or wheat tortilla
Optional: Cooking spray or olive oil for pan

Place spinach and water in microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave until wilted—1-2 minutes, depending on strength of your microwave. Let spinach cool slightly, then drain, squeezing out excess water, and chop thoroughly. Meanwhile, melt butter in small saucepan. Add mushrooms and onions and sauté over medium heat until mushrooms release their juices and onions turn translucent. In mixing bowl toss spinach together with mushrooms and onions (leave the juices behind or the quesadilla will get too wet) and a dash or two of salt and pepper. If using shredded Monterey Jack, mix that in as well. (If you’re using cream cheese, spread entire tortilla with the softened cheese before adding the filling.) Otherwise, pile filling into one half of tortilla and fold over other half, pressing gently to seal. Heat frying pan over medium-high heat. (You can oil the pan beforehand if you like your tortillas crispier.) Add quesadilla and, pressing down with spatula occasionally to aid sealing process, cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until the cheese begins to melt and the outside is nicely browned. Cut into wedges and enjoy.

I created this recipe based on a wonderful crepe filling that also calls for chicken. If you have leftover chicken breast, feel free to shred some of that up and add it to your mixture. The main trick with quesadillas—as with pizzas you make at home—is not to over-load them. If worse comes to worse, instead of one enormous quesadilla, make two with less filling. That way, your creations will stay together in the pan … and make it all the way to your mouth.

Friday, May 18, 2007

They're tasty, they're quick, and you bake them in the microwave

Recently, every time I’ve spoken to my parents about what they’ve been “cooking,” I’ve mentally put the word cooking in quotation marks. “Cooking,” because they’re having their kitchen redone, and the only “cooking” they’ve been able to do is in the microwave.

That’s right: the microwave.

But back in Boston, inspiration has been bubbling on the microwave “cooking”—even the microwave “baking”—front ever since some West Coast pals of mine moved into an apartment without an oven.

To read about my radical microwave conversion experience, click here.

Once your mouth is watering, whip up a batch of these brownies. That’s one definite perk of microwave baking: It provides nearly instant gratification.

Microwave Brownies
Adapted from The Quick Recipe
Makes 5 brownie “slices” or 10 small brownie squares

What you’ll need:
Two mixing bowls, plus two smaller bowls
1/4 cup measure
1/2 tsp measure
Whisk or fork
Microwave-safe 8x4 inch loaf pan**

Cooking spray
1 1/2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
4 T (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted (you can do this in one of the small bowls in the microwave on low power) and cooled slightly
3/8 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutched cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Handful of semisweet chocolate chips
Optional: 1/4 cup toasted, chopped walnuts

Lightly coat loaf pan with cooking spray.

Crack one egg into one of your smaller bowls and whisk as you would to make scrambled eggs. Carefully pour half of whisked egg into large mixing bowl; save the other half for breakfast. Add second egg and sugar, whisking to combine. Whisk in melted butter in a steady stream. In other mixing bowl combine flour, cocoa powder and salt, whisking until flour almost disappears into the cocoa. Using the spatula, stir dry mixture into wet mixture until thoroughly combined, taking care to scrape dry bits off the bottom of the bowl. Add vanilla, chips, and nuts if using. Stir again. Scrape batter into prepared pan.

Microwave on high until a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan comes out clean, or with a few crumbs, 5 to 7 minutes. You can tell the brownies need more time in the microwave if, when titled, the brownies slouch to the lower side of the pan. Cool for 10 minutes, cut (do not use a sharp knife for this or you’ll ruin your pan), and serve warm.

My cookbook says that these brownies turn rock hard after they cool completely. But, unwilling to see four whole brownie slices go to waste, I remedied this problem by 1) Storing the leftovers in a Ziploc bag while they were still warm (which created some extra moisture) and 2) The day after, microwaving a brownie (on low power) before consuming it. The verdict? Just as good as on Day One when they were fresh out of the, um, microwave. Of course, none of this would be a problem if you simply ate the brownies—all of them—immediately after baking.

**OK, OK. I know I’ve been on a silicone kick recently, but when it comes to baking, I’m starting to believe there’s no better material. Besides my silicone baking mat and muffin cups, I also have a silicone loaf pan (which works like a dream for this recipe), and a square cake pan. For those of you with larger microwaves, you can double this recipe and use the 9x9 pan instead.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Silicone, scones, and a mat made in heaven

Yesterday morning, when I was making my favorite scone recipe from The Best Recipe, I got thinking about the difference my silicone baking mat has made in my life as a baker.

To read me waxing poetic about said mat (and to learn why it belongs on The Apartment Gourmet’s site) go here.

Otherwise, get yourself a mat of your own and treat yourself to a batch of these scones. You won’t be disappointed in the baking or the eating—I promise.

Sweet Milk Scones
Makes 8 or 9 3-inch scones

What you’ll need:
Measuring cups—liquid and dry
Measuring spoons
Large mixing bowl
Whisk or fork
Rolling pin or empty bottle of wine or the like
3-inch biscuit cutter or round drinking glass with approx. 3-inch diameter
Baking mat
Baking tray

2 cups flour, more for dusting
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 scant T sugar
4 T unsalted butter, cold
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup dried currants or blueberries (optional), plumped in warm water for 5 minutes

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients in large bowl and mix thoroughly with whisk or fork. Cut butter into small pieces and toss to coat with flour. Using your fingers, press butter into flour mixture using a squeezing motion until mixture resembles coarse meal with a few larger lumps of butter. If you’re using currants or blueberries, stir them in. Working quickly, make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the milk. Stir together with a spatula, making sure to scrape up dry bits from sides and bottom of bowl, until a wet dough forms. Thoroughly flour a work surface and your rolling pin or bottle. Turn dough out onto surface, sprinkle some flour on top, and roll into 1/2 inch thickness. Using a floured biscuit cutter or drinking glass, cut 3-inch scones and place on mat-covered baking tray, at least 1/2 inch apart. Roll scraps together into 1/2 inch thickness and cut again until all dough is used.

Bake 10-12 minutes, or until golden, rotating the tray halfway through.

Several weeks ago, I made a three-citrus curd from a recipe featured in the New York Times. As curd flavors go, it’s divine. As recipes go, it’s not the best, or the most well-tested, that I’ve ever made. The curd never thickens to a true curd-like consistency; mine turned out more like custard, as did the curd of a friend of mine with whom I consulted, despondently, after the fact. But it is, custard-like or not, great on these scones, as are preserves of any kind. After all, what are scones but a vehicle for toppings?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Glorious granita

My first exposure to granita was at a friend’s house, not on the streets of Italy or Spain. And ours was not the traditional coffee granita, but a fruit juice version—made from Meyer Lemons off their loaded, lovely tree.

While the name granita sounded like it could have Spanish or Italian roots, it wasn’t until I discovered this fun web resource that I got the real scoop—no pun intended—on this super-simple dessert.

To read more about what I have to say on the subject of granita, check out my essay here. Then make your own. Two recipes, adapted from The Perfect Scoop, will get you going. Then head to the produce—or, as I suggest, frozen foods—section of your favorite grocery store and let your imagination run wild.

This summer, everyone’s staying cool.

Strawberry Granita

What you’ll need:
Liquid measuring cup
Strainer (I like this one, which has proven more versatile--and therefore more functional--than the 8-inch version)
Ceramic baking pan or large, flat plastic container (sides should be at least two inches high)

One 1 lb. bag frozen strawberries, defrosted
3 T sugar
1/2 cup water
A few drops freshly-squeezed lemon juice

Once strawberries have defrosted, slice them and toss them with the sugar in a large bowl until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

Puree the strawberries and their juices, water, and lemon juice in the blender until smooth. Press the mixture through a fine strainer to remove any seeds.

Pour mixture into your flat shallow pan or container and set level in the freezer. After an hour, remove the container and use a fork to rake the frozen mixture from the sides of the container into the center. Break up any large chunks. Return the mixture to the freezer and begin checking every 30 minutes or so, raking the frozen bits to the center and breaking up the large chunks into smaller pieces until you have lovely, fine crystals of homemade granita. (Approximately 2-3 hours after the mixture first goes into the freezer.) If at any point the mixture gets too solid, simply leave it out on the counter until it softens enough to be raked back into crystals again.

I also like to stir several spoonfuls of this granita into a glass of Poland Spring sparkling lime spring water for a twist on the traditional raspberry lime rickey.

Pineapple Granita