Friday, June 25, 2010


Instead of writing about this (quite good) egg cassarole I made for work, I joined and made a mix. I can't pretend to be as good or as experienced as Lindsey (who is practically legendary), but here's a link to my meager effort at some nice summer tunes:

Egg and Potato Cassarole:
I just threw this cassarole together in a flash. I pre-cooked the potatoes (and asparagus) a la Dan with some fresh rosemary and a clove of garlic. I chopped up a chipotle pepper and threw it in for some heat. The following morning, eight eggs, some Dijon mustard and a cup of half-and-half went in. I embedded a couple slice of ripped stale bread in a baking pan and poured the egg/potato mixture over the top. I sprinkled crumbled queso fresca on top and baked it for 45 minutes at 350. And that's that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In the Heat of Summer

Last night, I sat on the porch and watched the sun go down on the longest day of the year while turning pages in a book that I am actually reading for pleasure. That tree kind of blocks the view, but the pink-purple-blue-yellow streaks of cloud still peaked through. We get some of the best sunsets in the Midwest.

Last summer was a season of live music and cold salads. (I cannot wait for the tomatoes to ripen.) This year I think it will be a summer of outdoor adventures and (somewhat) spicy Mexican cuisine--I'm kind of a baby when it comes to heat. I've already embarked with friends on several biking adventures. However, those may be put on hold for a couple reasons, one being that I ran over my own bicycle and bent the front wheel so badly it won't rotate all the way around. My friend just gave my bike a marvelous tuneup last week. For one glorious ride, my bike shifted gears with ease and made barely a squeak. But Sunday I was in a hurry and pulled out of my garage packed with three bikes and a stupid lacrosse goal (that dang lacrosse goal). My mirror hit the handlebar of my bike and knocked it over and I just kept driving. I didn't actually run it over per se, but jammed it between the wall and my car. You know those times when maybe you walk out of the house with like 10 things in your arms and you're already late for work and then you drop something and instead of picking it up again you just kick it because you're annoyed--that's pretty much what I did to my bike. I am such an idiot.
So far nothing has spoiled my summer of Mexican food. I plan to fully embrace my discovery of the hot pepper and queso with a diversity of cooking. Or maybe I'll just remain content with an easy tortilla dish. I thought for sure I already shared this chili-chicken recipe on here, but I can't find it. It's got to be on this blog somewhere because this is one of the first things I really cooked for myself and kept cooking. I got the recipe from Weight Watchers who recommends cooking the chicken in Pam's light cooking spray. Now that I'm completely off that healthy kick, I douse with olive oil--the "heart-healthy" oil.

Chili Chicken Tortillas: serves 4
2 chicken breasts/thighs whatever, just cubed
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon chili powder
big dash seasoned salt
dash pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika

Toss uncooked chicken in a bowl of flour, chili powder, seasoned salt, pepper and paprika. Cook in a saute pan with olive oil until the chicken is cooked through. You might need to experiment with the seasonings on this to your preference. Serve in a tortilla garnished with whatever you've got that might go with Mexican food (i.e. cheese, peppers, salsa, tomatoes, sour cream and so on).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Potluck

Here's hoping the rainstorm clears out so I can enjoy the longest day of the year by staying outside until the sun goes down. Summer is officially here, though I feel like I've been enjoying it for a good month now. I've been embarking on weekly adventures, usually via bicycle, with friends. Last Friday, we ended up looking out on the city from atop this abandoned railroad bridge that spans the Missouri River. Downtown was lit up and airplanes landed overhead while we sipped a PBR. Life isn't always that good.

Saturday, Amanda and I threw a summer potluck. We pushed the table back and welcomed scads of food to the buffet. I made way too much of this chipotle white bean dish, and now our fridge is as packed with food as our apartment was with people. I didn't get to try all the food because I was full by 8:15 (when only two people were at our house). Sean brought kimbab and homemade kimchi (which was never opened), the Wagenknechts brought a couscous salad and a summer cocktail. There were blueberry brownies, and Adam's cookies weren't gone by the end of the party, but they are now. Amanda threw together a lemony pasta. We had a variety of dips, crackers and beer. A summer storm brewed overhead, and friends talked, ate and played music until nearly 2 a.m.

In making the chipotle beans, I got to try out a few new things: making dried beans, cooking with queso fresca and using adobo sauce. I was a little nervous about the dried beans; Amanda said they take forever to cook. These great northerns were actually fine, and if I ever have the foresight to presoak some beans again, I would. Queso fresca is amazing. I've had it before in Latino soups before but had never bought it plain. It's like feta but creamier and less salty. I used it in three recipes this weekend--this may be the summer of Mexican. I bought canned chipotle peppers for this recipe and ended up using those beauts in an egg cassarole (with queso fresca obviously). Good.

Chipotle White Beans: from 101 Cookbooks
1 pound white beans
1 bunch kale, chopped

Tomato Sauce:
olive oil
1 large clove garlic, diced
1 teapsoon red pepper flakes
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers
1 teapsoon dried oregano

Cilantro Pesto:
1/3 cup cilantro
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup olive oil

1 cup breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil

Soak the beans according to directions for your specific brand of beans. Place beans in a pot of water (with water one inch above the beans and with the lid cracked), bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender. Remove from heat once cooked through and salt the bean broth. Let sit for 10 minutes and then drain.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce and then the cilantro pesto. Saute the garlic, red pepper flakes and salt in olive oil for one minute. Add the tomatoes and oregano. Bring to a simmer then remove from heat. Stir in the adobo sauce. Taste and season with more sauce or more salt if needed.

In a food processor, pulse the garlic and the cilantro. While the processor is running, add the olive oil until you have a smooth paste.

Preheat the oven to 425. In a fireproof pan, toss the beans, tomato sauce and chopped kale together. Top with crumbled queso fresca. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cheese has browned ever so slightly and the beans on the top of the pot have crispy skins. Serve garnished with bread crumbs, cilantro pesto and more cheese.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Peach-oat Scones

I'm still on a quest to make the perfect scone. I feel a little closer this time than ever before, but I'm not there yet. What could be so difficult about making a scone, you might be asking yourself. Well, it's got to be sweet, but not too sweet, flaky but not dry and not chewy. Perfect scones are possible. I've eaten them before, but I'm beginning to think they were manufactured in a plant using chemical compounds to deliver the right amount of crips exterior and bready interior.

It's been blazes hot lately, and I'm loving every minute of it. I adore summer: its heat, sun, watermelon, tomatoes, ice cream, not its mosquitos, its pools, campfires, bike rides, everything. When I'm inside, I long for the outdoors. It was so hot the day I made these peach-oat scones that the butter melted instantly, which is not a good thing in this situation. The dough for the scones swiftly turned to batter when I turned it out on my new table. They stuck everywhere. Amanda tossed copious amounts of flour onto the mixture, while I scraped the peach-flavored goo onto the baking tray. According to Martha Stewart's instructions, I put the scones in the freezer for half an hour or so before baking.

They turned out pretty good. Amanda asked if I would start a bakery with them. No, I wouldn't. So they're not that good. I think that's a pretty good gauge of whether I would make something again or not. So I guess these scones don't cut it. They're fine. Good. The oats lend a heartiness. They're probably the best scones I've ever made, but still. I'm not there yet.

Peach-Oat Scones: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
1 cup oats
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks cold butter, sliced
1/2 cup dried apricots or peaches, coarsely chopped
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon cream
sanding sugar

Stir together the oats, flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in the cold butter, mixing until it forms crumbs. Fold in the dried fruit.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Add the wet mixture to the crumbly one, mix with a spatula until the mixture comes together. Turn out the dough on a (heavily) floured surface. Form the dough into a rectangle--try not to get too sticky--that is about one-and-a-half inches thick. Cut the rectangle into triangles and arrange on a baking sheet. Place sheet in the freezer for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 when you're ready to bake. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolk with the cream and brush it over the scones. Sprinkle sugar atop the scones. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the scones are golden brown.
Read about my other scone escapades here, here and here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Lovely Patch of Wilderness

I haphazardly planted herbs and vegetables this year (and a few impatiens). Last year was such a disaster what with the chiggers, lead contamination, snakes, overabundance of weeds and no tomatoes to speak of. Scoring the current apartment almost makes last year's ordeal worth it. Our current landlord fixes things AND has someone mow the lawn every week. Amazing. Our neighbors are fantastic: Pat gave me tips about weeds and has extended an open invitation for wine at his and his wife's fire pit; Eric the chef had a block party and loans me tools; and Patrick helped me push my car out of the snow. The only ones I'm not fond of are the downstairs neighbors who still use our dryer but no longer have loud sex (thanks to our awesome landlord). In fact, Amanda found a ginormous pair of men's underwear in the dryer that she tried to explain away as one of our friend's until she realize how big it was at which point she tossed it quickly on their washer.

I have got to get over it, but everything they do irks me: the dryer, the satellite dish, hideous lawn ornaments (an angry dog gargoyle, mushrooms and a stone starfish) and running the air conditioner when it's 70 degrees outside. Truly, now that they don't keep me awake at night, they keep to themselves, so it's not big deal. I hardly ever see them even though I'm out weeding in the backyard daily. They probably think I'm this crazy girl who hangs her washing on the line and is obsessed with her plants. It's true I'm totally obsessed.
I give Amanda and my mom daily updates on the progress of the plants. The tomatoes all have flowers and one even has the teeniest tiniest tomato. There is a little bity cucumber. And the herbs (dill, cilantro, rosemary, sage, thyme and two kinds of basil) are proliferating. The basil leaves are humongous and, come last weekend, were in desperate need of pruning. I could practically hear them speaking to me, "Pesto, we would make the best pesto. Put us in a bruschetta. Tear us into a tomato salad. Please, anything." Without ripe tomatoes, pesto was the best choice. I paired it with cream cheese and crackers at a barbecue, and it disappeared.
Pesto recipe here. I added a teaspoon or so of lemon juice to give it some zing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Salmon with Creme Fraiche and Capers

Today I'm thinking about life. What makes a good one? What makes one happy? Does happiness equal a good life? Before I even start, I'm afraid I don't have any answer. I know the things that make me happy: coffee in the morning, just being with friends and family, cooking and eating, cooking and eating with friends, doing anything outside (doesn't matter what) but especially bicycling. But we humans, we're all so complicated.

I've realized lately how many things I'm afraid of. There are dumb things like spiders and close spaces, but then there are real things like being lonely (I hate being lonely), leading a boring life, being made a fool of, being left behind. But these are all things I'm just going to have to deal with. There will always be spiders and, geez, I make an idiot of myself on a regular basis. And as much as I wish I were immune to it, loneliness will find me some day or another. But then there's always the good things. I have the best friends you could ask for and an even better family. I live in a country where there is always food, though I realize some people are not so lucky. I guess, even though I don't possess everything I want and even some of the things I want more than anything, my life is pretty good even when I have to sit inside.

Salmon with Creme Fraiche and Capers: for one
(This is the easiest recipe, ever. Plus, it gave me the chance to use some of my herbs from my now prospering garden.)
1 salmon filet (with the skin)
1/4 creme fraiche
curry powder
salt and pepper

In a skillet, heat some olive oil on medium. Lightly salt and pepper the salmon. Place salmon filet in skillet, skin side down, and cover with a lid. The steam will cook the top of the salmon and the skin with be extra crispy. Cook until the salmon turns a lighter pink color and flakes all the way through when you stab it with a fork.

Meanwhile, stir together about a teaspoon of curry powder with the creme fraiche and season with salt and pepper to taste. Top the cooked salmon with the curry creme fraiche, capers and fresh dill.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Breaking Hearts

I typically get artichokes from a can or maybe a jar. Marinated and salty, I love the texture biting into the hearts, how the leaves sort of smush and juice seeps out. They are so Mediterranean--I can just see these hearty souls taking blasts of salty wind whilst clinging to the side of a Grecian cliff. More than likely, this artichoke came from California where it was hacked from its stem by a machete-wielding migrant worker. This was my first real artichoke. I liked it.

I followed Julia's instructions, except that I didn't boil it long enough so the pulp didn't quite slide off the leaves the way it's supposed to. The outside leaves were tough to tear off and tough to eat. But the closer to the heart we got, the more succulent. Amanda (the new roommate) and I pulled the meaty parts of the leaves off with our teeth after it was dipped in melted butter. It's hard to imagine snobby French people eating such an ugly vegetable and discarding sucked-on leaves right at the table, but that's what we did. I'm so glad my life is largely devoid of pretense.

Artichokes are just so weird (they're hairy!), but in a way, they are kind of beautiful. All those spiky leaves and the hair (some of which is quite pokey) protect the heart. It took a lot of pulling and pealing to get to the center, but I think it was worth it. I would try it again.

Boiled Artichokes: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 artichoke

Tear off the stem of the artichoke. Cut 1 to 2 inches off the top of the choke, then trim all the leaves using kitchen sheers. Wash. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Boil artichoke for 40 minutes. Serve with melted butter or hollandaise sauce.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A (so far) Losing Combination

After last week's grand cake success, I was overdue for an ego check, which came in the form of a tart. I was inspired by my prospering basil plants and ripe summer fruit to substitute the sweet-tart strawberry for the tart-sweet tomato. My mom pooh-poohed the innovation. I never listen to her, but this time, she was right. I'm convinced basil and strawberries could pair serendipidously, but not with feta cheese or creme fraiche.

Things went wrong how they usually do with me: I tried to cut a corner. I didn't want to make an entire pastry crust so pulled some old puff pastry out of the freezer. A good idea in theory, but the pastry (obviously) puffed up and expelled the egg-mixture all over the pan it was resting on (not the easiest cleanup). Aside from that though, the tart had an inedible quality to it. I was planning on bringing it to a party, but abandoned that idea and brought Jamaican Red Stripe instead. I tried it again the next day, hoping to pinpoint exactly what turned me off to the tart, but it wasn't worth discovering and I just spit it into the trash. Sigh. I can't wait for tomatoes.
Friday last week became one of those days on which nothing goes right, until I came back from a meeting to find Tender by Nigel Slater sitting on my desk chair. The tome is beautiful (a tome it is, the cookbook has more than 400 recipes in 500 pages). It's filled with artsy pictures of vegetables from Slater's garden in various stages of production. The photos aren't even needed with how Slater describes the food--my words feel pathetic in comparison.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hail the Conquering Hero

I hate to prematurely toot my own horn, because this cake has yet to be cut into and eaten, but this photo at least proves that a cake I made and frosted existed in a perfect form. Once it was iced, I admit I started to get a little paranoid about inadvertently destroying it. I thought, "What if the roses have bugs in them that come out of the petals during the night and devour the cake?" Then when I was carrying it out the door of my apartment, down the steps, opening the garage (yikes) and placing it in the passenger seat, I imagined dropping it flat on its beautiful face.

The cake is currently safe and sound in my parents' fridge (in anticipation of my sister Allison's going away party tonight), that is until my sister Emily wakes up and runs her little fingers through the icing. She's probably doing it right now! She did. She licked it. Supposedly, you can't tell. Now if she could only resist taking another taste for the next eight hours--it's impossible. Once Allison wakes up, she'll try it. And then once my mom gets home from work, she's going to lick it too. These people have no control! The cake will probably be gone by the time the party starts! Because the cake is that good.
I made the same batter recipe as last time because it was just that splendid--just barely flavored with almond and orange, barely barely sweet. A couple days ago, I caved and bought Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. This time, for the frosting, I followed the directions exactly. I read the recipes in advance and purchased two dozen eggs in order to have enough for the batter and the frosting. I heated the egg whites in a double boiler, using a candy thermometer to exactly 160 degrees and to the point at which the sugar had completely dissolved. I transferred the egg-sugar mixture to the KitchenAid and mixed until it doubled in size and fluffed out. The sugar gave the whipped egg whites a glistening sheen. It became sticky and gooey, sort of like a marshmallow. Adding the butter, tablespoon at a time, the frosting went from goo to cream. Soft, smooth, not-too-sweet. Completely glorious.

Those of you who aren't fond of cakes--you haven't had this cake. Martha Stewart and her team of chefs are genius. I was having a borderline spiritual experience in the kitchen last night, whipping butter, egg whites and sugar into submission. It was like the clouds parted and angels burst out in the Hallelujah chorus. The cake held the frosting, nothing broke, melted or crumbled to pieces. Swirls of spackle held the layers together, enticing onlookers. This cake wants to be licked, cut apart and enjoyed. It wants to be eaten.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
4 egg whites
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 teaspoon vanilla (I also added almond extract)

Bring a pot of water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. In a separate heat-proof bowl combine egg whites and sugar. Place heat-proof bowl in the simmering water. Begin whisking and do so continuously until the sugar has dissolved. Using a thermometer, whisk until the egg mixture reaches 160 degrees. Remove from heat. Using the whisk attachment (still obsessed with my KitchenAid), beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry and let cool while you're mixing (takes about 6 minutes according to Martha's directions).

Switch to the padder attachment on the mixer. Mix in the butter a couple tablespoons at a time until the frosting is creamy and smooth. Martha directs that if the butter separates from the whites, kick up the mixer speed until it unifies. Before finishing, turn the mixer on the lowest speed to remove air bubbles. Before icing the cake, mix with a spatula to remove more air bubbles. Expect the frosting process to make quite a mess--this means you've done a good job.