Archive for April, 2010

Spontaneity, Black Beans & Bliss

Monday, April 26th, 2010

I originally intended to write about salad dressings for this week’s post. They are one of my specialties – balsamic , citrus, tarragon and rosemary-infused.  And I will write more about various varieties in the not-too-distant future. But I started cooking this past week in anticipation of this blog post and I got a little off track… I began with one of my favorite salad dressings – Lime, Pepita & Cilantro. It’s something I concocted a few years ago and I love its tangy, highly flavored punch. So I whipped up a batch to toss onto thinly sliced cabbage, as I usually do. Then I got to thinking…

I used to pair this Mexican-influenced slaw with grilled halibut for zesty soft tacos. And that is still a delicious pairing. But I’m a vegetarian today so thought I’d heat up some black beans. Then I had a crazy idea. Why not make them from scratch? Something I had never done. Too much trouble, I had thought. How very, very wrong I was! Sure, it takes some forethought. But I’m a meal planner, after all.

So I soaked the beans according to the package – choosing the “quick soak” method because I am, at my core, impatient. Following a quick boil and an hour-long soak I drained and rinsed them and returned them to medium heat with some fresh water and let them simmer for a few hours while I went about my day. When they started to soften I added a small can of diced green chilies and a few tablespoons of cumin along with a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. The cooking continued and what resulted was a pot of black beans with an earthy aroma, a soft bite and a taste so far superior to canned beans that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back. I made the entire bag and was able to freeze half so I have some waiting in my freezer for another day. Bliss.

Once the beans were done I slathered them on a tortilla and topped it with my cabbage, carrot and onion slaw mixture (see recipe below) and a dusting of crumbled cotija cheese (jack cheese would do just as well) and sat down to a healthy, fresh and terribly inexpensive meal.

What I love about how this transpired is that it wasn’t planned. Amazing things can happen in your kitchen if you follow your instincts and listen to your stomach and feel empowered to try new things. What resulted for me this week is a new, favorite dish.  Something I will prepare again and again. I hope you will try it. Or at least let yourself go to explore new possibilities and expand your culinary horizons.  ¡Buen apetito!

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 Tri-Colored Slaw with Lime, Pepita & Cilantro Salad Dressing

Ingredients

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup pepitas – AKA pumpkin seeds (roasted and salted)
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Zest and juice of two limes
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 head red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup grated carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

Instructions

Combine the garlic and pepitas in a blender or Cuisinart or the bowl section of a submersion blender. (A quick note about these tools – they are indispensible. I use them for blending dressing, chopping nuts and garlic, blending hot soups, whisking sauces. The uses are endless. A great investment, in my opinion. If you’re not familiar with these amazing utensils – read more at this link.)

Once the garlic and pepitas have formed a paste, add the water, lime juice and zest and honey. Mix until well blended. Add half the cilantro and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Mix the dressing with the cabbages, carrots, onion and remaining cilantro. It’s best to let this mixture sit for about a half hour before serving.

As noted, serve alongside any kind of soft taco you like. Or it can be served as a separate salad. The dressing can also be used to make a salad entrée – served over lettuce, corn, red peppers, and whatever protein you prefer.

Springtime Asparagus

Monday, April 19th, 2010

When I think of spring vegetables – asparagus comes immediately to mind. It’s so fresh and earthy and…well, green. The verdant spears, often tinged with purple at the tips, would make a beautiful bouquet, I think. Asparagus is tender and succulent, healthy and extremely versatile.

In sunny California the first crops are picked as early as February, however, the harvest season here in Washington usually begins in early April and lasts through June. The warm spring days and cool nights provide perfect growing conditions for this perennial crop. 

According to the Washington Asparagus Commission, the vegetable is “the leading natural source for two nutrients that prevent disease and promote a healthy body – folacin and glutathione. Folacin (folic acid) is important for the formation of blood cells and helps prevent birth defects. Asparagus provides 60% of the USDA recommendation of folacin. Glutathione has been shown to be one of the most potent anticarcinogens and antioxidants found within the body. Of all foods tested none was higher in glutathione than asparagus.” 

When shopping for this delectable treat, look for firm, uniformly sized spears with closed, compact tips. I’ve been told that the larger stalks are more flavorful and tend to agree. Try to prepare it soon after purchase – asparagus does not seem to like sitting around in the fridge. If you need to wait a day or two, wrap the cut ends in a moistened paper towel and wrap in plastic. 

There are a number of ways to prepare Asparagus. Regardless of the method you prefer, make sure you take off the bottom of the stalk – which can be hard and woody. A favorite tip of mine is to snap the whiteness end of one spear – it will break to delineate the tender top from the hard bottom. Then you can line up the remainder of the bunch of stalks and cut off the bottoms in line with the one that snapped naturally.

I’m listing basic cooking instructions below followed by some favorite recipes. Many people have long considered asparagus to be a delicacy and reserved it for special occasions. Considering its versatility and considerable health benefits – I hope it becomes a spring staple in more kitchens. I know I’ll be picking up a bunch whenever I see it.

Steaming – cut asparagus into 2 inch pieces and place in a steamer basket, dropping it into a pan of shallow boiling water. Turn the heat down to medium, cover the pan, and cook the asparagus 2 to 5 minutes or until crisp tender.

Boiling – bring water to boil in a shallow pan. Cook asparagus in boiling water until crisp-tender, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove immediately and place in ice bath to shock to stop cooking process.

Sautéing – heat olive oil in a sauté pan until quite hot. Add asparagus (whole spears or cut into pieces) and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Roasting – Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss asparagus spears in olive oil and sea salt. Spread prepared asparagus on a baking sheet in a single layer. Avoid overcrowding as the asparagus will steam rather than roast. Roast for approximately 10 minutes.

Grilling (my personal favorite) – Have the grill heated to a medium heat. Toss with olive oil and sea salt. Place the stalks on the grill so that they are perpendicular to the grates. You can even thread them onto skewers or use a grill basket. Grill the asparagus for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them slightly every few minutes to provide even grilling.

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Pasta with Asparagus & Goat Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches asparagus
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2  tablespoons finely chopped shallot
  • 12 ounces short pasta (fusilli, penne, gemelli, etc.)
  • 1 small log soft goat cheese (5 ounces)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
  • Zest of one lemon

Instructions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for pasta.

Remove tough ends from asparagus and cut into 2-inch lengths. In a medium bowl, toss asparagus with 2 tablespoons olive oil and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper. Place asparagus on a large rimmed baking sheet. Try to avoid having pieces touching – this will result in steamed as opposed to roasted asparagus. Set bowl aside for later use. Roast until tender, tossing occasionally, approximately 10 minutes.

While asparagus is roasting, generously salt boiling water. Add pasta, and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Set aside about one cup of the pasta water; drain pasta and return to pot.

In the medium bowl used for tossing the asparagus, combine goat cheese, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 cup pasta water. Season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Add goat-cheese mixture and asparagus to pasta; toss to combine, adding more pasta water if necessary for sauce to coat pasta. Toss in chopped oregano. Serve pasta garnished with toasted pine nuts and lemon zest.

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Chilled Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sea salt

 Vinaigrette Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Roast asparagus according to instructions for Pasta recipe above – but keep spears whole rather than cutting into pieces. Grilled asparagus would also be delicious for this recipe. Cook only until al dente – closer to 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Place in Ziploc bag and place in refrigerator to chill – approximately 1 hour or overnight.

Prepare the vinaigrette by whisking all ingredients together until smooth and starting to thicken a bit.

To serve, place asparagus on serving platter and spoon vinaigrette over the spears.

Mom & Me … Strawberries & Rhubarb

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

I love pie. Almost every kind. My two favorites, however, are rhubarb and strawberry. Not the popular combination of the two. Plain rhubarb in a regular old pie crust – which is tart and refreshing and just sweet enough. And plain strawberry with a graham cracker crust – the almost savory notes of the crust combining perfectly with the sweetness of the berry filling. Two separate pies. Because, really, can you have too much pie?

These are my favorites because they are the ones mom used to make. She made the strawberry version for Easter dinner. As you can see from this picture – featuring the two of us in the dresses she sewed by hand – Easter was a time of celebration in our family. And, much more than the enormous ham and various side dishes, I remember the pie. And the rhubarb was always dad’s favorite. And quickly became one I requested during the spring – when rhubarb was plentiful in the garden.

As you may have gathered over the many posts that reference my mother – she had an enormous impact in my culinary abilities and inclinations and my general love of food. I am thinking of her today more than ever. My mom passed away two years ago to the day today. April 11, 2008. A year ago, on the first anniversary of this difficult day, I was in a different place. I was angry and miserable and sad and felt very, very alone. I am happy to report that, though I miss mom more than words can say, today I have found a bit of peace. Today I wanted to celebrate my mom. So I baked pies.

I thought up this concept weeks ago as I searched for the best way to honor her. I asked dad to email the recipes. I conjured up how I was going to photograph the gorgeous crimson fruits. Oh, how I planned. And then, life threw me a curve ball.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer last week. Mom was diagnosed with almost the exact same kind of breast cancer at age 56 and recovered – surviving for nearly 14 years before succumbing to pancreatic cancer. The news was, obviously, a blow. The past week involved a last-minute trip to California to spend time with my brother and father (who is going through radiation treatments for prostate cancer and is unable to fly up here to be with me). It has also included 7 doctor’s visits, a more thorough understanding of the Swedish Cancer Institute than I ever anticipated (or desired) and a few changes in my plans for the summer.

I don’t want to focus too much on my cancer in this blog. This is a place for talking about cooking and nurturing and musings about glorious dishes and recipes. Naturally, some of my future writing will be informed by my situation. My interest in fresh produce and healthy eating has been amplified since my diagnosis.

But today I just want to focus on remembering mom. And eat pie for breakfast. And share it with dear friends. And with you.

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Strawberry Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 8-inch graham cracker crust (see below for recipe)
  • 2 pints (4 cups) strawberries – divided
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Instructions

In a medium saucepan, crush 1 pint (2 cups) of slices strawberries with a fork, potato masher or pastry blender. You don’t want a puree, but you’ll want most of the berries to be unrecognizable at this point. Mix in the cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly. You can continue to mash the berried throughout the cooking process as they warm and become more pliable. Cook approximately 7-10 minutes until clear and thickened. It will turn syrupy and glossy and a beautiful, deep red. Remove from heat and cool.

Halve or quarter remaining pint of strawberries – depending on their size. You’ll want them bite-sized but not too big that they’ll need to be cut when in the pie. Once the strawberry mixture is cooled, mix these sliced strawberries in until combined.

Pour the mixture into the crust and refrigerate until chilled – at least one hour.

Graham Cracker Pie Crust

Ingredients

  • 6 1/2 ounces graham crackers (12 crackers), finely ground (1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 1/2 ounces (5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pulse graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar, and salt in a food processor until combined.

Firmly press crumb mixture into bottom and up sides of an 8-inch pie dish. Bake until crust is fragrant and edges are golden, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

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Rhubarb Pie

I have to admit, this was the first time I attempted a double-crust pie. For what it’s worth – the final product I placed in the oven was not pretty. The top crust was patched together, resembling a quilt more than a nice, pristine sheet of dough. However I am trying, hard, to be less of a perfectionist. To “not sweat the small stuff.” And it’ll taste just as good, right? Another note – rhubarb is, by its nature, a watery vegetable (yes, it’s a vegetable – not a fruit). So the consistency of the pie might be runny. I seem to recall mom used instant tapioca instead of the cornstarch from time to time. Something to consider for the next pie I bake.

Ingredients

  • Crust for two-crust pie (recipe below)
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 5 cups (~2 ½ pounds) rhubarb (cut up into 1” slices)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter (chilled and cut into small pieces)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix sugar and cornstarch together. Add to cut up rhubarb and mix thoroughly.

Line the pie pan with one of the crusts. Pour rhubarb mixture into pie pan.  Ensure the sugar is equally spread across the pie.  Dot with pieces of butter. Cover with second pie crust and cut slits in the top to allow steam to release.

Place pie on top of baking sheet (in case any of the juices spill out – not easy to clean up) and bake for approximately 40-50 minutes.

Pie Crust

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup Crisco (chilled)
  • 6 tablespoons ice water

Instructions

Mix salt & flour together. Cut in the chilled Crisco until small crumbly flakes form.

Put the 6 tablespoons of ice cold water in a small bowl. Mix a handful of the crumble mixture into the water. Pour this mixture back into the bowl full of flour and salt mixture and use your hands to blend until completely combined. Handle gently and do not over knead.

Shape dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Flatten into 4-inch-wide disks. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.

Rather than attempt to explain the process of rolling out a proper pie crust, I will defer to Martha Stewart’s instructions. You will note that I did not use her actual recipe – the one featured above is from my friend Kathleen – one of the best bakers I know. If you follow the steps listed on Martha’s site – you can’t go wrong.

Comfort Food – Thai Style

Monday, April 5th, 2010

From time to time, my food tenets (fresh, local, nutritious) need to take a backseat to an intense desire for comfort food. Happily, while I used to navigate towards junk food laden with saturated fat and sodium (i.e. bright orange, boxed macaroni & cheese or equally bright orange cheese Doritos) – today I crave foods that are at least moderately healthier. This weekend, it was sumptuous and spicy Thai food.

As luck would have it, I had the good fortune to be hanging out with like-minded friends. We hunkered down in a beautiful home on Bainbridge Island as a spring storm created white caps on the usually serene water and tried to strip the trees of their blossoms. My fellow captives and I scoured cookbooks and iPhone culinary apps for the perfect recipes for Tom Kha Gai and Pad Thai – and we stumbled upon a few winners. Off to the store we went to collect all manner of exotic ingredients – tamarind paste, galangal, lemon grass, rice noodles and coconut milk. Luckily the refrigerator was already stocked with kaffir lime leaves, tofu, fish sauce and spicy Sriracha.

Now I fully realize that this list of unusual ingredients may seem intimidating and does not support my fundamental objective of concentrating on recipes that are simple and easy to make. And I acknowledge the fact that the recipes below do not exactly feature produce newly picked from the farmer’s market – which is also contrary to my typical focus on all things fresh and local. I hope I will be forgiven for these temporary lapses in my devotion to these important principles.

From time to time, however, I simply crave food that is soothing and luxurious. For me, savory Thai food has the power to transport me away from my worries. AND – I honestly love these dishes and hope to demystify them and encourage you to try them. Candidly, while they are two of my favorite things to eat in restaurants, I had long been intimidated by the thought of cooking them at home. I am happy to report that, like most things in life, my anxiety ended up being disproportionate to the actual task at hand. By following the instructions carefully, these two dishes are easy and enjoyable to prepare.

ให้อร่อยนะ – or “hi aroi na” (the closest I could find to “bon appétit in Thai).

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Tom Kha Gai

Adapted from a recipe in Barbara Kafka’s book ‘Soup a way of life’.

Tom kha gai literally translates to “chicken galangal soup.” It is a spicy hot soup in Thai and Lao cuisine made with coconut milk, galangal (a root that is somewhat similar in taste to ginger with a nice hint of citrus), lemon grass and chicken. We made a vegetarian version featuring vegetable stock and excluding the chicken.

Ingredients

  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 medium onion (finely minced)
  • 2 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste (Mae Play is a favorite brand)
  • 6 slices of galangal or ginger (no need to peel, slice into ~ 1/8″ thick slices)
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves, preferably fresh (you can substitute the zest of 1 lime if kaffir lime leaves aren’t available)
  • 32 ounces vegetable stock
  • 2 cups straw mushrooms (if you can’t find these, you can use shitake mushrooms, chopped into smaller pieces)
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons Nam Pla (fish sauce) (you can substitute 1 tablespoon of soy sauce if Nam Pla is not available)
  • 3-4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 scallions trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1/4 cup minced cilantro

Instructions

Prepare the lemongrass by removing the outer sheath and the hard ends.  Hit the stalk a few times with the back of a knife and cut into three pieces.

In a medium heavy saucepan add the oil, garlic and onion, turn heat to medium.  Cook for a minute, stirring and then add the lemongrass, curry paste, galangal and lime leaves. Cook stirring often for about 3 -4 minutes.  The onion should begin to soften.  Add the stock and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes.

Bring soup back up to a simmer and add the coconut milk and mushrooms.  Cook for about 5 minutes or. Add the lime juice, brown sugar and Nam Pla. Taste and add additional sugar for additional sweetness and/or Nam Pla for additional saltiness.

If you wish, remove the galangal, lime leaf and lemongrass now. We left it in as it is easy to fish it out.  Place in bowls and sprinkle with cilantro and scallion. Consider serving with jasmine rice.

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Pad Thai

Adapted from an Epicurious recipe.

Pad Thai, literally translated to “fried Thai style”, is one of Thailand’s national dishes and likely the top seller at most Thai restaurants in the U.S. I find that the “Americanized” version can be cloyingly sweet and learned that a number of recipes include ketchup – which solves the mystery of the reddish hue gracing many platters of this culinary delight. For those of you used to this crimson version, do not be dismayed that the following recipe results in a dark brown version of Pad Thai. This version’s sweetness comes from tamarind – which might be more challenging to find if you don’t have an Asian market nearby. But it’s worth the hunt.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces dried flat rice noodles (1/4 inch wide; sometimes called banh pho)
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Sriracha (Southeast Asian chile sauce) (you can use 1 tablespoon red chile flakes if you can’t find Sriracha)
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 4 large shallots, minced
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) package firm tofu
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 6 large eggs
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
  •  1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Instructions

Soak noodles in a large bowl of warm water until softened, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain well in a colander and cover with a dampened paper towel.

Meanwhile, make sauce by combining the tamarind paste, soy sauce, brown sugar, and Sriracha, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

Cut scallions into 2-inch pieces. Halve pale green and white parts lengthwise.

Rinse tofu, then cut into 1-inch cubes and pat very dry.

Heat oil in large sauté pan (or wok) over medium heat until hot, then fry the shallots over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until golden-brown, 8 to 12 minutes. Remove from pan, leaving the oil in the pan, and set aside.  

Reheat oil in pan over high heat until hot. Fry tofu in 1 layer, gently turning occasionally, until golden, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer tofu to paper towels using a slotted spoon. Pour off frying oil and reserve.

Lightly beat eggs with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in pan over high heat. Add eggs and cook, stirring gently with a spatula, until cooked through. Break into chunks with spatula and transfer to a towel with tofu. Wipe pan clean

Heat pan over medium heat, adding about 5 tablespoons oil (use any reserved oil from previous cooking) until heated. Add noodles and stir-fry about 3 minutes (tongs are useful here to keep the noodles from sticking together). Add tofu, bean sprouts, and sauce and simmer, turning noodles over to absorb sauce evenly, until noodles are tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in eggs and shallots and transfer to a large shallow serving dish.

Sprinkle pad Thai with peanuts and serve with lime wedges and cilantro sprigs.

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End note: as stated in a few previous posts, I do my best to take all the pictures featured in this blog. However, the first three photos above are not mine. I wanted to display the tamarind, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in their natural state – but only thought to do so after the ingredients were well on their way into the dishes. And frankly, the tamarind paste is just not all that aesthetically pleasing – hence the borrowed pictures of the seeds.