Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkin Bars

I was in rare form last night. Or these days, perhaps it's not so rare. I've been extra busy this month with going out of town three weekends in a row on top of all the other stuff--and I hate it. But I choose it; it's all on me. I have a serious problem saying no to people. And the crazy thing is: The less I know/love you, the more likely I am to do whatever you want. It is a lose-lose situation, wherein the people I love most (i.e. family and close friends) get the shaft. I am incredibly annoyed at myself at this moment, thinking of all the times I choose to please others over myself. Is there a group and a 12-step program for people like me?

So yesterday turned out to be frantic when I wanted it to be chill. I ran late for everything, which I hate. When I finally got around to making pumpkin bars for a work potluck, it was destined distaster. There I was, in the kitchen, throwing things into the largest bowl I could find. I discover we have no cooking oil, when I swear we had it in the old place. But genius of genius, I just so happen to have applesauce ready for an occasion such as this. But pumpkin is splattering all over the countertops and on my clothing, which was already covered in splotches of curry sauce from dinner at Mother India. I try to pull out one square of paper towel, and the entire roll comes loose. I end up having too much batter for a 15x10x1-inch jelly roll tray, so I pour the remainder onto another baking sheet, but there's not enough. So I scoop the batter out and plop it into a muffin tin.

Then comes the frosting, which got stuck in every crevice of the mixer. Why are there so many crevices in mixers--they should make them crevice-free! I ended up having to frost the whole thing before work and was late--again, I hate being late. And all I can think about is coming home from work tonight, making some soup and sitting on the couch, beer in hand. But what is actually going to happen is I go straight to dinner and drinks with friends. Why? Because of my conflicting desires to be with people and to be alone. It's a strange phenomenon that allows me to either make the best of any situation or the worst.

Pumpkin Bars: from Food Network
4 eggs
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
1 cup applesauce (or canola/corn/vegetable oil)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

For Frosting:
1 8-ounce package cheese cheese (not light)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large bowl, blend eggs, sugar, pumpkin and applesauce with a mixer. In a separate bowl (I actually did it in one bowl--my one mess-saving step), combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Incorporate into batter using mixer. Pour batter into a 15x10x1-inch baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool before frosting.

For frosting, in a medium bowl, combine softened butter and cream cheese using a mixer. Work in the sifted powdered sugar (obviously I did not sift the sugar) with the mixer. Finish by blending in the vanilla.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Suffering Succotash

Thus continues my education in the strange, edible (and nutritious) of God's creation. I found these cranberry beans at the last SoWa Market in Boston over the weekend. I have never seen these beans before live and in person (and I only just saw them once on David Lebovitz's blog pretty recently, so don't feel bad if you think I splashed paint on regular bean pods and made this blog post up). Apparently, they're similar to lima beans--I wouldn't know because my mom never ever ever made us beans when we were kids, except in chili. Probably the only thing she doesn't like are beans (of pretty much any kind but especialy of the lima variety).

And unfortunately for my future children, I totally botched up the beautiful cranberry beans while trying to make a flavorful succotash. My kids-in-the-far-off-abstract-future will never have the joy of eating these beans (in all likelihood)--they probably won't mind, just a guess. Plus who would want to date/marry me? Potentials probably read this blog are like, "Oh my gosh, I'm dating a girl who regularly makes beets, weird eggplant dishes and meals with crazy-colored beans! Not a steak in sight! Get me outta here!" Well, my future-love, it may not be good, but it will not be boring.

The vendor at the market recommended the succotash, and I got way excited about recreating a meal I had at the Boiler Room. Except I am an amateur with little-to-no experience with fresh beans and less than an hour to cook my meal. I just went all crazy, sauteing the beans in butter, tossing in the corn, then some green onions, then, sure, I've got some green peppers, let's put that in there, too. And I just bought some bacon, let's top it off with some crispy, fatty strips. Hmm, we're missing a bit of flavor, I think this needs some garlic. Still not enough, let's make it Indian and throw in some cumin, coriander, pakrika and turmeric. And let's get crazy now--Louisiana Hot Sauce!

But things only got bad when I decided to use corn starch instead of cream as a thickener, all sorts of crazy, middle-school-type chemical reactions happened in the course of five minutes. Corn starch with cold water, it's the sort of thing I don't measure. I'm sure everyone did this experiment with corn startch and water in school at some point to test the qualities of a liquid and a solid. So I was having fun, stirring in more water, then too much water, then more corn starch, then too much corn starch, until I had what I thought would work to thicken the succotash. I poured the solid-liquid into my simmering pot--the following chemical reaction was decidedly in the "solid" category. Some of the corn starch combined with the succotash to make a nice gravy consistency, but some adhered to chunks of corn and bean. Not good. And I was in such a hurry to make it to an adventure club meeting (coolest) that I just couldn't wait for the beans to be cooked all the way through. I saved the remaining succotash in a tupperware container, even though I know I'll never finish it--I AM A HORRIBLE WASTER OF LEFTOVERS.

The succotash turned out fine, though I will critique myself and say I overdid the flavor and should have just let it be with garlic, green onion, salt and pepper. Alas, I am not as experienced/talented as Paul Kulik at the Boiler Room.

How You Should Make Your Succotash:
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound cranberry beans (or lima beans, if you're boring)
1/2 cup corn
1 scallion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
optional: topped with bacon or other cured meat

Melt the butter on medium heat in a skillet. Saute beans, corn, scallions and garlic until scallions are tender. Toss in the green peppers and saute for another minute or two. Pour in chicken stock, bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. The beans will take a good 20 to 25 minutes to cook through. Stock will reduce, then thicken with cream and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with bacon for extra goodness.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

French Leek Soup

A few years back, I read the book French Women Don't Get Fat (even though they eat bread with butter, cheese, chocolate and wine) by Mireille Guiliano. I like the philosophy of Mireille/French women to eat normal portions, good food that is filling (versus over-processed junk like chips--I love chips) without being obsessed with working out. Guiliano tells a story in the book of how people thought she was crazy to walk up 12 flights of stairs to her NYC apartment. But one day the elevator broke down, and all the people who spent an hour a day or more working out were winded walking up the stairs.

I followed Guiliano's recipes for some not-light-at-all croissants and tried (unsuccessfully) to make a baguette. But I hadn't tried her leek soup until last night. I read the book as if it were a novel, but it actually does have a guide to losing weight, and the leek soup is the jump start to weight loss French-style. Guiliano directs readers to make the soup and eat leeks and the broth and only leeks and the broth for three days. Apparently, it's some sort of cleansing method. I don't need to lose weight, so we'll just throw that three days of broth out the window, but I could use a bit of cleansing. Mostly I just wanted a light, simple meal. I was in St. Louis over the weekend for a friend's wedding and I'll be in Boston this weekend, which means once October is over I'll have eaten out far too much. And no matter where you dine, I always feel the heaviness of restaurant food (unless it's sushi).

I don't even think I knew what leeks were before this recipe. But aren't they beautiful, the stalks all braided together like that? In kind with Guiliano's joie de vivre, I took a walk yesterday. Actually, it was a run that became a walk that extended redundantly around blocks I had already passed. But yesterday was so gloriously gloomy. The trees, there was one small one on 52nd Street that looked like it was on fire with red. Soup was invented for days like yesterday.

This recipe was tweaked from a Naked Chef recipe for braised leeks. My mom gave me the biscuits, and I'll post the recipe as soon as she forwards it to me--holy crap they're good. And if they were to be listed on any diet, it would be Guiliano's. I think she would endorse eating this light soup with a cream cheese and butter laden biscuit.

Leek Soup:
2 leeks
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup white wine
1 pint chicken/vegetable stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Leeks reside comfortably in the onion family; they're much milder than white onions, more akin to spring onions. Coming from the ground, leeks can be pretty dirty, with dirt hiding between the leaves, so be careful as you wash them. Slice the ends off the leeks and continue slicing up the stalk until you get to the leafy part. Finely chop the garlic.

On medium-low heat, melt the butter in a medium pot. Saute the leeks for a minute or two and then toss in the garlic. Throw in the wine and let simmer until it has nearly evaporated. Add the stock. Season with salt, pepper and thyme. Bring soup to a boil and reduce to simmer. Simmer until leeks are soft, about 10 minutes. Serve. I plopped a dollop of ricotta cheese onto my soup--pretty good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Having Nothing to do With Food

Just wanted to post something because I felt like it. This is probably my favorite picture of my sister, ever. We girls throw our heads back when we laugh--not too ladylike I've heard. The pic was taken by her friend Ryan while they were studying in Italy--his photos are amazing. I'm heading to St. Louis this weekend for one of my best friend's wedding--so excited for her--and I wanted to post a little something (because I'm something of an attention-lover, let's not pretend I'm nice, thoughtful and unselfish).

One of my other favorite things (aside from food ... and reading ... and laughing with my head thrown back with my sisters) is music. I'm no snob (I freaking love Taylor Swift), but here's a taste of what I'm listening to this month.

             Five Years Time  >  Noah and the Whale
                          Challengers  >  The New Pornographers
                                 Zero  >  The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
        Fireflies  >  Owl City
              Starline  >  Joshua Radin
     Two Weeks  >  Grizzly Bear
Underdog  >  Spoon
                   Blue Skies  > Noah and the Whale

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One Gnocchi at a Time

When I was younger, I wanted to change the world, revolution-style. I lived for the play Les Miserables (had the entire three-disc soundtrack and have seen it live--twice); I defied gravity (or wished I could) like Elpheba from Wicked; I wanted to embody the spirit of the cast from Rent; the only books I ever read were about poor people by critics of society (we're talking Dickens and Dostoyesvky here); I had a huge dissillusionment with the American dream phase and read all Fitzergerarld, Hemingway and Steinbeck. When I thought about my future, I wanted to change things so people weren't poor or hungry or terrorized, and I wanted to do it in a big way. I thought by being a foreign aid worker I could end social injustice, or by teaching English I could give someone a new opportunity. Listening to Underdog by Spoon, I think "Yeah! You've got no fear for the underdog/that's why you will not survive!" But then I wonder if I've become the person smoking a pipe in my living room with my slippers set out for me.

I'm not making any changes. I have a desk job, which I love, but I write about luxury travel and restaurants. I volunteer with pretty privileged high school students. I am no where near rich, but I do own a car and rent a really nice apartment with a great roommate, and I have great friends and family and somehow have found contentedness even though, or perhaps because, I go to bed before 11 on weeknights, watch episodes of Friends on DVD and make handmade gnocchi on long Sunday afternoons. That contentedness, I want to cling to it.

So it seems the only life I can change is my own.

I'm just a little person, who can barely barely barely do (or say) the right thing--ever. I don't even have the energy to teach 200 Thai kids how to say "Hello, my name is Cheerawat. What is your name?" in English. I have no vision for the big picture that God is painting because I'm in the picture, dancing around on the canvas doing my own thing. But I have a gut feeling that is what I'm supposed to do. I'm not better than the picture, no matter how much I want it.

I think, I think what God wants me to do is love. Love him, love my friends, love my family and even love people who break into my apartment. It's so little yet so big. So excuse the metaphor, but love is one tiny, bee-shaped gnocchi, made over and over again.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi: from Gourmet
2 medium baking potatoes
1 big sweet potato (there should be twice as much baking potatoes)
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
1/3 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 cup olive oil
handful sage leaves
handful sliced almonds (original recipe calls for chestnuts)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 450. Pierce potatoes with a fork and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Peel and let cool completely. Smash together with a fork on the baking sheet until consistency is pretty smooth. Pile up and form a well in the middle of potatoes.

In a small bowl, whisk together egg, nutmeg, and some salt and pepper. Pour part of the egg mixture into the well of the potato pile. Knead a couple times. Add half of the flour and continue to knead. Add some parmesan cheese, knead. Add the rest of the egg mixture and enough flour (knead here too) to make the dough cling together but still slightly sticky. Rip off a portion of the dough and turn it out on a heavily floured surface. Roll into a snake (just like PlayDough) that is about 1/2-inch thick. Cut snake into 1/2-inch pieces (they look like pillows). Place pillows on a baking sheet while you roll out and cut the rest of the dough in the same manner. When finished cutting the gnocchi, roll each pillow into a ball. Then using a fork run the balls of dough over the tines with your thumb and pinch at the back. (Follow the pictures below for visual instructions.) The rivets and oblong shape allow the gnocchi cook quickly, with the inside cooking without the outside over-cooking. Set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat the oil until it is shimmering. Drop the sage leaves into the oil and fry for about 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon. Drop the almonds into the oil and fry for another 30 seconds and remove with a slotted spoon. (The original recipe calls for chestnuts, which I'm sure are devine, but I knew they would be impossible to find--almonds worked really well.) Reduce heat to low. Leaving the oil in the skillet, melt the butter until it is lightly browned.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in half of the gnocchi and boil until they float (takes about 3 mintes). Remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon and place in the melted butter-oil. Simmer for a couple minutes, stirring to coat. Cook the remainder of the gnocchi and place in the melted butter. Serve topped with sage leaves, almonds and parmesan cheese.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beets (Let's Not State the Obvious)

Asparagus makes your pee smell, and I know from working at a daycare that eating too many beets can make something else strange happen--let's leave it at that they don't say "beet red" for nothing.

I grabbed these beets on a whim at the last farmer's market of the summer. I don't know what I planned to do with them--would they make a great centerpiece for a autumn-themed table setting, floating in a vase of water with a couple candels--because nothing in the world sparked my interest. Every recipe I saw just made me think of soggy vegetables from the 1950s cooked in bad vinegar--this is the only reason my mom will not eat certain foods, including every single kind of bean (except for baked and in chili).

After what seemed like the longest week in the history of work, the only thing you can do is what you know. And what I know is that everything works when fried in olive oil and doused with salt and pepper--thank you Spain for teaching me that valuable lesson.

Lucky for me, I also bought a bag of sweet potatoes at the farmer's market, so I knew ahead of time that even if the beets were awful at least I could still eat the sweet potato fries. The beets and the sweet potatoes went together like peanut butter and jelly--both barely sweet and of similar texture. And to fancy things up I made a basil aioli.

Friday at 6 p.m., sitting at the kitchen table was a sigh of relief. I was so emotionally exhausted from the past several weeks that I could have fallen asleep right then. Thankfully in the world of periodicals, you get to start again on a clean slate every week/month/day (depending).

Beets a la Sweet Potato:
2 beets
4 small sweet potatoes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

(I peeled the beets, and its juice ran all over.) Slice the beets and sweet potatoes so that they are all a similar size. In a medium sauce pan, heat oil on medium. Saute beets and potatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper until potatoes are cooked through. I like mine crispy, so you'll want to cook them just shy of burnt.

Now, I'm not great cook, but I will vouch for the effectiveness of good salt and freshly ground pepper. When cooking, I use either coarse Kosher salt or sea salt (for baking I just use regular iodized salt) and a pepper mill. I've had this container of Kosher salt for probably two years and still have a ton left. And Meg and I have both been using sea salt and black pepper mills for probably almost a year and they still aren't even halfway gone. No excuse for not getting good salt.

Basil Aioli:
1 egg yolk
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or minced
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon basil leaves
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice

In a small bowl, combine egg, garlic, salt and pepper, basil, dijon mustard and vinegar. Whisk together until consistency is relatively smooth. While whisking, slowly pour olive oil into the egg mixture. You do not need to accurately measure the oil, just keep adding it very slowly and whisking very quickly until the mixture thickens. Stop once the aioli is thick. Taste. Add lemon juice. Taste again. Add salt and pepper to your preference.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Smooth Like (Apple) Butter

I didn't always know that there were certain apples for cooking and certain apples for eating. And even today, if you asked me about the uses of certain apple varieties, I may just be guessing. Fortunately, I had a friend in Spain who taught me the lesson in a way my friend Krista and I still laugh about. While studying abroad in Spain, probably the worst thing that happened was that we had to spend Thanksgiving away from home. The holiday came and went without so much as an extra day off of school. Our institute put on a dinner for which a restaurant pan fried a turkey in olive oil--hilarious. But we did make friends with an American who had married a Spaniard. His family hosted a thanksgiving meal over the weekend, and we students agreed excitedly to help make the pies. Good thing we weren't put in charge of the turkey and stuffing. One great thing about traveling is coming to a greater understanding and appreciation of your own culture, and Thanksgiving is a super-American holiday in the greatest way. All of the dishes traditionally served at Thanksgiving are New World food, so before Columbus discovered the Americas, Europe had chickens but no turkeys, and they didn't have tomatoes, potatos, pumpkins or gourds, cranberries or corn. Most Europeans haven't had the pleasure of eating a pumpkin pie--an atrocity, I know! That also meant they didn't have the canned, pureed version of pumpkin pie filling or pre-made pie crusts that make life incredibly easy. But this story is about the apples. Krista and I and another friend met at a bus stop to travel to our friends' house in the suburbs of Seville. Krista and I brought the food, and our friend brought directions to the house--a fair trade, right. We loaded onto the bus, me sitting with the giant pumpkin on my lap, Krista with the bushel of apples on hers. It soon became apparent that our friend wasn't exactly sure about the directions. Whoops, we got off the bus one or two stops too soon without a taxi in sight--I'll give her that it really is easy to miss your destination in an unfamiliar place. The three of us tromped along the hills overlooking the city, making a turn here and there--it took us way too long to admit we were lost. I hate to exaggerate the details of the story, some of which are quite hazy. But Krista and I were following our poor confused friend, she carrying the apples and I carrying the pumpkin, first in our right hands, then in the left hands, then clutched to our chests with our arms wrapped around the produce. I believe there was a dispute about who should call our friends to tell them we were lost. Phone calls were a tense game that semester because we were poor and thrifty and because, in Europe, the person who makes the phone call is the only one who pays. Our friend was extra thrifty, and we were annoyed to be the ones using the phone after having purchased the food as well. Seems so silly now, but we were pissed. Krista called and used up all her phone minutes. I called and eventually someone had to drive around the neighborhood to find us sitting on the curb. But I believe it was while we were sitting and waiting that our friend asked what kind of apples we bought because her family owned an apple orchard in Washington and she was a pro. "Gala! You can't use Gala to make a pie!" If steam could come out of people's ears, Krista would have been the first person in history to make use of it. Once we finally got to our friends' home, Krista and I soon abandoned the kitchen quickly and sat on the couch, probably still fuming and making ourselves miserable. I'd like to think we've matured since then. And thanks to our friend, I will never forget there is a difference between sweet eating apples and tart baking apples.

They didn't have apple pies in Spain, and they definitely didn't have apple butter. Seville is more of an orange kind of town, what with the freshest Valencia oranges available right at the time the orange trees on the streets are bending with the weight of the too-tart-to-stand Seville oranges. Though the Seville oranges weren't edible fresh from the tree, no city could every smell more glorious than when those trees flowered.

Apple Butter: tweaked from Simply Recipes 20 apples 1 cup apple cider vinegar 2 cups granulated sugar 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 cinnamon stick 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon cardamom 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 tablespoon lemon juice Peel, core and quarter the apples. In a large pot on medium-low heat, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir the apples frequently, mashing them as they soften. A lot of recipes require pureeing the apple butter after simmering the mixture for an hour, call me lazy but I think that's a pain and who cares if it's a little chunky. So I just mashed all the apple bits to a puree while it simmered. Taste the apple butter and adjust sugar and spices as necessary. It should take about 3 hours for the butter to thicken and turn a carmelized-ish brown color. You can even leave the apple butter on the stovetop and tour a 20th-century castle and it won't burn! Follow typial canning procedures to preserve the apple butter.