Saturday, February 24, 2007

No-Oil Pesto

When I saw this recipe in this cookbook, from which I've been cooking a lot lately, I figured I had to give it a whirl. Literally. Our Hero pleased me boundlessly this Christmas by giving me a 14-cup stainless-steel Cuisinart food processor. And I have fallen deeply in love.

I was intrigued by this pesto recipe, especially because it did not call for the requisite extra-virgin olive oil. Instead, ingredients are blitzed in the food processor with low-fat cottage cheese or ricotta (I chose the former for its superior protein content). It was embarassingly easy to throw together. Its lovely pale green color and bright flavor helped to simultaneously cheer me and remind me that winter is not, in fact, interminable. I tossed together a quick green salad with orange segments (for color and sweetness), and it made a nice busy-evening meal. I served it with whole-wheat fettucine.

Garlic Parsley Pesto with Pasta
1 1/4 cup low-fat cottage cheese or part-skim ricotta
5 T. Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup very hot water
1/2 cup loosely-packed flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh basil
2-3 large cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot cooked whole-wheat pasta

Combine all ingredients (except pasta) in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add water a bit at a time to get the right saucy consistency. Toss with hot pasta quickly, as cheeses will melt. Could be used over veggies, chicken, rice, etc.

Incidentally, as Our Hero plugs away at his dissertation, I am widowed often on weekend evenings. This, from Orangette, made a perfect winter salad dinner. Our Hero enjoyed it as a snack when he returned home from school at 9:30pm. I used pecorino romano instead of the Parmigiano.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

If You Can't Beet 'Em

Beets and I, we are just getting acquainted. Our first meeting (outside of a can or a pickle at family reunions) was a bit bumpy. As a rule, I try a new-to-me food at least once a month.

Let me just get this out in the open, and excuse my French: beets are a bitch. I roasted them (possibly not long enough, but they were reasonably tender), and getting the blankety-blank (better Ma?) skins off took me more than twice the time it took me to prepare the rest of my meal. I read tips: "rub the skins off with paper towels." I swear I used half a roll. Dear me, it was rough. From all the hot pink schmears all over my kitchen and hands, it appeared that I had murdered a My Little Pony. Or maybe Barbie. Does Barbie's blood run pink? Out, out, damned spot!

However, when all was said and done, the dinner rounded out well: broiled salmon with a spinach salad with feta, toasted walnuts, sweet onion, and roasted beets topped with a dijon vinaigrette. It was easy to assemble, once I had attended to the beets, and it looked so gosh darn pretty on the plate. Maybe you'll have better luck with the beets.

Roasted Beets
4-8 small beets (figure 2-3 per person)
Olive oil or cooking spray

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place beets, stalks trimmed to one inch, on foil-lined baking sheet. Toss with a little olive oil or spray with cooking spray. Roast, turning halfway through 45 minutes-1 hour, until very tender. Let cool until you can work with them. Rub skins off with layers of paper towels. Gloves might help make this easier. Quarter.

I just put some baby spinach in serving bowls, topped with the beets, some toasted walnuts, half-moons of sweet onion, and a little feta. I drizzled a homemade honey-dijon on top (dijon mustard, olive oil, honey, white wine vinegar). While I assembled the salad I broiled salmon for about 7-8 minutes. Ready to eat!

A Matter of Taste

In a previous post, I mentioned that Our Hero doesn’t like broccoli. Chewing meditatively on my tofu-broccoli, I thought: “This stir-fry has a peanut sauce. Our hero loves peanut sauce. And it’s truly delicious how the tops of the broccoli florets soak up the creamy heat of the sauce. Maybe Our Hero would like broccoli this way!” So I undertook a little experiment and made another batch (a much larger batch) of the stir-fry on Monday night. And Our Hero went back for more. Just goes to show the power of peanut sauce.

But really, the whole issue got me thinking – what is this literal matter of personal taste? Certainly some culinary dislikes come from unshakeable childhood associations, but others aren’t as simple to pin down.

I’ve said Our Hero is a real sport when it comes to trying new foods, and he’s an absolute pleasure for whom to cook. I do remember a couple of misses: West African tomato-peanut sauce (I loved it, he found the tomato-peanut combination strange), gazpacho, and pasta with fresh figs and chili peppers (made it for my brother and his girlfriend – the rest of us enjoyed every bite). Did not go over big. All the same, there are things I’ve cooked that left leftovers I did not relish eating. I can’t think of them specifically, but I’m sure I’ve not recreated them since.

And as I’ve said, I’ve little to no tolerance for the picky eater, but some understanding that we may all have our little idiosyncrasies. My dad hates peanut flavor outside of a sandwich (this includes both sauces and cookies, so he is an equal-opportunity—sweet and savory—peanut eschewer). Other than that, he’ll eat practically anything. I have another friend who swears up and down she doesn’t like rice. Weird? Maybe. But from her varied diet and adventurous appetite one could hardly call her picky. And hell, I’ve got my own list of things I do not like to eat, but will if prepared for me by others:

Green Beans. I know, I know, “Wellunderstood! Fresh green beans are delicious, lightly steamed, tossed with a bit of flavored oil and toasted almonds.” Blah blah blah. This is one childhood association I just can’t shake, though I’ve tried and tried. I think this is a texture thing. I remember choking down those awful, squeaky, leathery one-inch-long green beans that came in the bags of frozen mixed vegetables (sorry ma and pa). They were awful.

Green Bell Peppers. Okay, this one is totally founded. I think they are indigestible. The flavor is immature, undeveloped. They are not ripe yet, people! They should be eaten when a ripe, sweet red or yellow or orange or purple. Not green.

Shrimp. Give me a scallop any day. I don’t have a violent negative reaction to shrimp. When cooked well, it can be tolerable, occasionally tasty. Still, there’s just something about shrimp that puts me off.

So you see, we all have these things. Dear reader, what are your things? What is the embarrassing food secret you hold close to your chest? Mushrooms? Sushi? Share.

My Tagine's Smarter Than Your Honor Student

Lookie! Look at the perfect, creamy yellow glaze! Look at the gracefully curving neck!

I came home today, after a super crappy couple of days (work-related), wanting comfort food, a big glass of wine, and a quiet evening. Waiting for me in the arms of a genial UPS man was BIG BROWN BOX. Inside the box? This gorgeous creature! All thanks to my fellow tagine-fan and bestest friend a gal could have, A. THANK YOU A, I LOVE LOVE LOVE every last inch of my new tagine!

Thursday nights I traditionally make up the grocery list for the next week, and this one's sure to include several tagine recipes! Perhaps a chicken dish, a lamb dish? The possibilities are endless!

And yes, I'm aware I've used lots of exclamation points in this post! Well, I am very excited! So there!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dinner for One

Our Hero went out of town this weekend to visit his brother, so I did what I always to when he is out of town - I buy lots of broccoli.

Don't get me wrong, Our Hero is not a picky eater. I hate picky eaters. Our hero loves spicy food. In fact, he loves almost all food; even tofu, properly prepared. However, one thing he doesn't fancy is broccoli. He'll tolerate it on occasion, but doesn't enjoy it like I do.

So this Saturday night was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a simple stir-fry, a semi-trashy movie, and a cup of tea.

After much-needed theraputic phone conversations with two of my favorite women - my mom and A - I got some brown rice simmering and chopped up a broccoli crown and half a block of tofu.

A couple years back, I used a bottle of store-bought stir-fry sauce. After following some basic recipes, though, I discovered that homemade stir-fry sauces taste much better and are easily made in less time than it takes for the rice to cook. This recipe makes enough for one, with leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. The sauce recipe isn't scientific - just add what you like, tasting as you go. In fact, same goes for all stir-fries.

Tofu-Broccoli with Peanut Sauce

1 broccoli crown
1/2 block firm tofu, cubed
Canola oil
2-3 T. natural peanut butter
2 t.-1 T. fish sauce (or soy sauce, if you prefer)
2 t.-1 T. rice vinegar
1 t. fresh ginger, grated on a microplane or minced
1 clove garlic, grated on a microplane or minced

Hot water
2 T. chili-garlic sauce
Brown rice, for serving

To make sauce, combine peanut butter, fish sauce, vinegar, ginger, garlic, and chili-garlic sauce in a small bowl. Add hot water a little at a time and whisk until smooth. Add enough water to make a saucelike consistency. Heat oil in a skillet or wok over high heat. Add tofu and cook until golden. Add broccoli, saute until crisp-tender. Remove from heat, add sauce, and toss until coated. Serve with brown rice .

A Few of My Favorite Things

. . . those favorite things being figs and blue cheese. When I came across the recipe for pork tenderloin stuffed with sweet figs and tangy, creamy blue cheese in this month's Cooking Light, I couldn't resist but to give it a whirl. It seemed a perfect choice for a low-key Valentine dinner, paired with orange-chili mashed sweet potatoes, sauteed spinach, and a glass of Sauvingnon Blanc.

I've stuffed chicken breasts in the past, but never a whole pork tenderloin. It was not at all difficult, and I shouldn't have been intimidated by it at all (I was a little anxious about how it would turn out).

Fig and Blue Cheese-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin, trimmed
1/2 cup dried figs, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray or olive oil
1 T. apple or apricot jelly, melted

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slice the pork in half lengthwise, cutting to, but not through, other side. Open the halves, laying pork flat. Place pork between two sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap, pound to 1/2-inch thickness using a meat mallet or small heavy skillet. Sprinkle figs and blue cheese over pork, leaving a 1/2-inch margin around outside edges. Roll up the pork, jelly-roll fashion, starting with the long side. Secure with twine every two inches. Sprinkle roll with salt and pepper, and place on a foil-lined jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray or olive oil.

Bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Brush jelly over pork. Bake an additional 5 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160 degrees (slightly pink). Let stand for 10 minutes. Discard twine; cut pork into 12 (1-inch thick) slices.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

B.A.D. Strikes Again

This Christmas I got to spend a lovely, lovely day (and a night) with my buddy B.A.D. We shopped and ate and snarked our way through the too-short 24 hours. She is a lovely and crazy stylish and is one of the only people who tells me the unvarnished truth about whether or not this shirt makes my stomach look weird. (Our Hero can also be trusted for honesty, but his knowledge of what is stylish is more than questionable. A will also give it to me straight.) Anyway, I miss her lots. And she is in BigCity. And I am in MyTown. Sigh. Why are you all so far from me?

So anyway, B.A.D. got me this great cookbook for Christmas, since she works on farm policy issues and knows, like, everything there is to know about stuff like organic farming and CSAs and where to get goat's milk soap and whatnot. Recently I made this from the cookbook, which turned out deliciously. Maybe it's the weather (which was an impossible -1 degree when I left the house this morning), but hunching over a warm bowl of something thick and creamy keeps sounding just right to me.

This recipe has the utilitarian name "Spinach-Feta-Brown Rice Bowl." Aaaaand that's just what it is. I used short-grain brown rice, which gives this a creamier, more risotto-like texture (but without all the stirring). I also highly recommend trading your chalky "traditional" feta cheese for tangy, creamy Israeli feta, especially when it's a feature in a dish, like in this one.

Spinach-Feta-Brown Rice Bowl
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 cup short-grain brown rice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large bunch spinach or other fresh greens, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 large handful or bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
2-4 oz. Israeli or other sheep's milk feta cheese, crumbled

Heat 1 T. olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add rice and cook, stirring, until all grains are coated with oil, about 1 minute. Add 2 1/8 cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook 45-50 minutes, until tender.

About 25 minutes into the rice cooking time, heat the other tablespoon of oil over medium heat in a dutch oven or large skillet. Saute onion in oil until translucent. Add spinach and cook just until wilted. Season with a little salt and pepper. Stir in dill and remove from heat. Add rice mixture to spinach mixture, stir in feta until combined. Serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


We have a friend who, telling us a story of a bachelor party dominated by men in their mid-thirties, described how one particularly intoxicated partygoer shouted "COLLEGE!" at irregular intervals throughout their debauched evening. "COLLEGE!" apparently equalled "PARTY!" or, perhaps more likely, binge drinking. But better to say "COLLEGE!" because on top of it all, it's funny.

Far less reminiscent of Animal House is this soup, which takes ME back to college days. My buddy B.A.D. used to make this, her Mom's recipe, and invite a few of us over to relax and have dinner together, like grown-ups. Yes, there are elements of college life here: it's cheap, it is made from beans (as countless numbers of my college-years dinners were), and it makes enough to have several meals worth. But the whole is so much more than its parts, and who (I ask you, who?) doesn't need a good black-bean soup recipe?

I've tried other recipes, with success, but I like this one because of its restraint. It is not doused in handfuls of spices, just a generous amount of dried thyme. It surprises me how lovely the thyme is in this dish, as I'd certainly be tempted to go an oregano-cumin route. This way is much more interesting. The only change I've made is to add a half of a minced habanero pepper to the mix, though this could easily be omitted.

B.A.D.'s Badass Black Bean Soup
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 habanero pepper (be careful handling this! VERY, VERY HOT!), minced
1 T. dried thyme
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
4 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
3 cups chicken stock or 2 cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
Sour cream or yogurt, for serving
Tabasco sauce, for serving

Saute chopped onion and pepper in olive oil in a dutch oven over medium heat until tender. Add garlic and pepper and cook 30 seconds, stirring. Add thyme, rubbing between fingers before adding to the pot. Add tomatoes, beans, and stock. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer at least 20 minutes. Puree soup, either with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender. Serve with desired toppings.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pasta + Shrooms = Good

I love pasta as a meal, and make it almost once a week. It's simple and has the ability to fill up Our Hero, which is no easy feat. I've seen him put away three quarters of a pound of pasta in one sitting. Pasta's great for improvisation and to use up whatever's laying around in the veggie bin or cupboard. And the nice thing is, for all it's quick-and-easiness, it makes lovely grown-up dinners.

This particular dish is very nice: a creamy, earthy sauce with nutty whole-wheat pasta and bright fresh parsley. The vermouth adds complexity and makes this feel like a special dish.

Gobbetti with Wild Mushrooms

1 lb. chunky whole-wheat pasta (gobbietti works well)
2 T. butter
12 oz. wild mushrooms (a blend or all one kind)
1 medium onion, chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1 T. minced garlic
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/3 cup dry vermouth
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (plus more for serving)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Cook and drain pasta. Meanwhile, melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, shallots, and garlic; cook for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover pan. Cook 3 minutes. Remove lid and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add vermouth and cook until liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Toss together pasta, mushroom mixture, cheese, and parsley. Serve with more cheese, if desired.

A Bright Winter Meal

Chicken thighs are so terribly underrated. The meat is tender and juicy, and can be stewed for long periods of time without getting dry and chalky. It seems to have more chicken-y flavor. Thighs are used to great success in this Cooking Light recipe, a tagine of chicken and the bright flavors of lemon, ginger, garlic, olives, and cilantro. Even though the dish has to simmer for an hour, if you've got the time, the recipe's great for a weeknight. I made this on Monday.

Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives

2 T. fresh lemon juice
12 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1/4 cup white whole-wheat flour
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
1/4 t. ground turmeric
1/2 t. cayenne
2 t. olive oil
2 cups chopped onion (about 2)
1 t. minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1/4 cup pitted green olives, halved
2 t. grated lemon rind
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Whole-wheat couscous, for serving

Combine juice and chicken in a large zip-top plastic bag. Seal and marinate in a refrigerator 30 minutes. Remove chicken from bag; discard marinade.

Mix flour and spices. Dredge chicken thighs in flour. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken in batches, cook 3 minutes per side, until browned. Remove from pan and repeat procedure with remaining chicken.

Add onion, ginger, and garlic to pan; saute 5 minutes or until tender. Return chicken to pan. Add broth, olives, rind, and cinnamon stick; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour or until chicken is tender. Discard the cinnamon stick; stir in cilantro. Serve over hot couscous.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fast and Furious

Okay, so maybe I wasn't furious; mostly just frazzled. This week was rough. Working at odd hours, still getting accustomed to Our Hero's new semester schedule, getting sick . . . ugh. Luckily the latter lasted only 24 hours.

Even so, it was not a great week for me. Whilst I work full-time, I thrive on routine. Many things upset that comforting routine for me of late. One thing that helped bring me back on-kilter (I don't think that's a word, but it should be.) was this lovely, simple dinner from the "Superfast" section of January's Cooking Light.

Cannellini-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms
4 4-inch portobello caps
Cooking spray
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 t. salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 t. dried rosemary, crushed
3/4 cup bottled (or defrosted homemade) pasta sauce
1 16-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

Preheat broiler. Remove gills from undersides of mushrooms with a spoon; discard gills. Place caps, smooth side up, on baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Broil 2 minutes, turn caps over and broil 2 more minutes. Combine ricotta, salt, garlic, and rosemary, stirring well. Spread 2 T. cheese mixture in each cap. Spoon 2-3 T. pasta sauce over cheese mixture in each serving. Divide beans among caps, sprinkle each serving with 2 T. mozzarella. Broil 3 minutes or until cheese melts.

Welcome to 1988

The snow blows, today's high temperature is EIGHT DEGREES: it is hatefully, terribly cold. We spent yesterday helping friends paint the entryway in their new house. Our Hero is basically a pro painter, so he was able to kindly and politely point out to me any errors I might be making. Let's just say I made a few and got to listen to a running play-by-play, a la HGTV of "ARE YOU WATCHING ME ROLL THIS WALL? THE TRICK IS TO MAINTAIN A WET EDGE." He even came up with a closing line for his painting DIY television program: "MY NAME IS Our Hero, KEEP ON ROLLIN'."

In all truth, Our Hero was generally pleasant to work with, and generously doled out (ahem) useful tips. He did a beautiful job, and ah heyulped!

Anyway, we got groceries on the way home, and by the time we were heading there, conditions were white-out. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, bless your hearts. This means all is bright snow-white. You cannot see the stoplights. You cannot see the cars in front of you. Terrible. Eventually, we made our way home and settled down for what the weather dictated would be an evening in.

And what is better for evil weather like this than comfort food with a tinge of nostalgia? I decided on the classic combo: tomato soup, grilled cheese (made on homemade bread), and a green salad. This soup is quite easy to make, you can have all the ingredients on hand, and freezes beautifully, which is nice for an impromptu dinner or a warm lunch break.

Tomato Soup
(Better than a can)
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. olive oil
1 medium-large onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
3 T. tomato paste
1/4 cup white whole-wheat or all-purpose flour
1/2 t. dried thyme (or a sprig fresh thyme)
3 cups chicken stock or 2 cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 28-0z. cans tomatoes in juice

Heat butter and oil over medium heat in a large dutch oven or pot. Add onion, season with salt and pepper, cook until translucent. Stir in tomato paste and flour, cooking one minute. Add thyme, rolling it between your fingers first to release the flavor. Add stock or broth and tomatoes and juice, breaking tomatoes up with your hands as you add them. Bring up to a boil, skimming off any foam that rises to the top, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Blend in the pot with an immersion blender to desired consistency, or blend in batches in a blender.

Eat, flashing back to lunchtime with mom. And for the love of god, STAY INDOORS!