Ugly But Good

June 6th, 2010

I realize I just recently wrote about a gift I received – the healthy granola that a neighbor brought over as I was recuperating. But I feel the need to write about another gift I received during my convalescence. I don’t know if people realize the impact that homemade food can have on someone, but for me at least, freshly made soup or baked goods made a tremendous difference. Just knowing that someone cared enough to cook for me often left me speechless. So I want to do all I can to share these amazing recipes with you.

The soup and baked goods I mention were brought over by Mary and Jeanne – two friends I seldom see but whose vibrance mixed with their culinary skills make them a favorite pair of visitors. They opened the door bearing a large cloth box filled with Italian soup (that recipe will likely grace these pages at a later date), bread from a local bakery, freshly grated parmesan cheese, a few chilled DRY sodas, organic treats for the dog … and the strangest looking little cookies I had ever set eys on.

These baked goods were miniature and oddly shapen. I was at first a bit skeptical that they would be all that good. Being a true American, I am used to the obscenely oversized cookies oozing with chocolate and smelling of butter. These were altogether different. But considering the source, I overcame my initial concern and dug in. And…light, airy, chewy, just sweet enough – divine. A new favorite cookie – by a long shot.

Their Italian name is Brutti Ma Buoni – which translates to “Ugly but Good.” I’ll say. Despite their name – they are refined. And they are one of my favorites not only because they taste sublime. Comprised of mostly feathery almond “powder”, they are studded with chewy apricots and crisp walnuts. Additionally, they are healthy (no saturated fats, high in protein from all the nuts), easy to make and the perfect treat for my gluten-free friends (no flour!).

A number of different recipes resulted from a simple Google search. But I wanted to recreate the ones my friends brought over – I just can’t imagine any better. So the recipe below is copied exactly from a feint xerox copy my friend emailed. I don’t know its origin. The only change I made was to refrain from flourig the baking sheets. Parchment and a mist of cooking spray make these truly gluten-free and this approach worked just fine.

I hope you’ll try them. Don’t be dismayed by their appearance. Just one bite and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be an “Ugly” convert. Buon appetito!

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Brutti Ma Buoni (Ugly but Good)

Makes about 32 cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups blanched almonds (8 ounces)
  • 1 1/3 cups powdered sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 3 tablespoons minced moist dried apricots
  • Parchment paper
  • Vegetable oil cooking spray

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and mist lightly with cooking spray. Set aside.

Grind almonds in food processor until finely powdered and beginning to hold together – it will start to look a bit like small, dry couscous. Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides of the work bowl (about 3 minutes).

Blend in sugar, vanilla, almond extract and salt. With machine running, pour in egg white through feed tube and blend until mixture forms a ball. It will turn into the consistency of marzipan – I used a metal spoon to scrape it from the bottom of the mixing bowl – no mere rubber spatula would suffice.

Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Mix in the chopped walnuts and apricots.

Grab a bit (roughly a teaspoon) of dough and arrange on prepared sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. It will be sticky and a bit messy - but persevere!

Place both sheets into oven. After 10 minutes exchange the top sheet and the bottom sheet. Bake another 3 to 7 minutes until just beginning to brown. Cool on racks. Store in airtight container

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Sunny Citrus

May 31st, 2010

Memorial Day in Seattle. Elsewhere in the country people are frolicking in the sun and the waves. Here … we have gray skies and a forecast of rain for days. Sigh. I should be used to it by now but I keep hoping that sunshine will become a more common phenomenon around these parts. I suppose for now I’ll have to keep on wishing.

On gray days like this I tend to want to lighten things up in the kitchen. And I immediately think of citrus. Obviously lemons and limes, oranges and grapefruit do not grow around these parts. We must rely on our neighbors to the south and east to supply these delights. But I am reminded of warmer climates when I cut into a juicy orange and during these cooler days I feel the purchase of produce from afar is worth it.

One of my favorite treats featuring these sweet yet tart fruits is a salad dressing comprised of three basic members of the citrus family – oranges, lemons and limes. A friend brought this salad to a dinner party last fall and I fell immediately in love. Bright pomegranate seeds and crunchy roasted hazlenuts strewn about add just the right complements to the tart dressing.

I haven’t changed it much – just made it a bit easier. It pairs extremely well with the butter lettuce – but would be equally delicious with any other kind of greens. I inevitably have dressing left over which I like to drizzle on grilled asparagus or other vegetables. And I am planning to incorporate this dressing into a cold brown rice or quinoa salad featuring nuts and dried fruit and whatever vegetables I have lying about. It is, as I have described, extremely versatile and I hope you’ll give it a try. Especially if you’re looking for a recipe to cheer you up on a gray day.

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Butter Lettuce Salad with Citrus Dressing

Adopted from a Bon Appétit December 2009 recipe

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

Citrus dressing:

  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • Juice and zest of one large orange
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • Juice and zest of one lime
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Salad:

  • 2 heads of butter lettuce, coarsely torn
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, quartered, cored, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (dried cranberries are a good substitute)
  • 2/3 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

Instructions

Citrus dressing:
Combine vinegar and citrus juice and zest in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Salad: 
Mix all ingredients in very large bowl. Toss with enough dressing to coat.

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The Gift of Healthy Granola

May 28th, 2010

As I have mentioned, I’ve had a few health issues of late. So I have found myself sitting around the house, not able to drive because the pain medications I’m taking strongly advise against “operating heavy machinery.” And I’ve also found myself a bit out of sorts because said medications are making me a bit groggy at times. So – combining my inability to drive to the store with a general restlessness and you get a not-so-happy foodie. I am not, at present, able to control what is in my refrigerator. I have had to learn to rely on others to take me to the store. Or, even worse for a control freak like me, I have had to provide a shopping list for friends and neighbors to shop for me. Gone, for the time being, are the days when I can select the brand of parmesan cheese or choose which package of strawberries to purchase. It has been, not to be overly dramatic, agony.

In the midst of this situation, my dear neighbor brought me a bag of homemade granola. I don’t typically purchase granola because of its high caloric count. And a number of store-bought brands use hydrogenated oils as binders – which just won’t do. But when I tried this homemade variety – I was hooked. It is crunchy and flavorful and just the right balance of savory nuts and sweet, chewy dried fruit. My immediate instinct was to sprinkle it over my morning Fage yogurt and strawberries and blueberries. Heaven. It is without question my new favorite breakfast. And then…I ran out. Which brought equal amounts of despair and inspiration. Certainly I could make it myself, right? Sadly, moments later the drugs kicked in and I returned to the couch and took an afternoon nap. That was a few days ago.

Then – yesterday the boredom and agitation got the best of me. I asked my neighbor to pick up a few things from the market and I asked for her delicious granola recipe. It was time, finally, to bake. As soon as I saw the recipe in my inbox I pounced. And I was delighted to find that I had every single ingredient in my pantry – kismet!

I tweaked the directions from the 2006 USA Today recipe slightly – reducing the amount of oil and adding flax seeds. And I made my very own variety – adding orange extract and candied ginger and dried prunes (I ran out of dried cherries…). I mixed the ingredients together and placed the pan in the oven. Not 10 minutes later and my kitchen smelled of cinnamon and brown sugar and maple syrup. Then I added the fruit – the dried cherries and slivered candied ginger and the diced prunes. And I waited. And I peeked and smiled when I saw the oats begin to brown and crisp. Less than an hour from the time I received the recipe in my inbox and I was left with lovely, healthy granola.

I am including my version of the USA Today recipe below along with a number of the excellent tips featured in the original article. I am confident I’ll be making this frequently. As I know from personal experience, it will make a great gift. And considering I was able to take my mind of any discomfort and easily put this together in less than an hour, I figure it’s surely a keeper. What a gift.

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Master Granola Recipe

(Makes 1 quart)

Main Ingredients

  • 2 cups old-fashioned oats (do not use “quick” oats)
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons flax seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup Extra Ingredients (see complete list below)
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons flavorless oil, such as vegetable or canola
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Flavoring (see below) 

Instructions

Adjust oven rack to middle position, and heat oven to 275 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch metal pan with cooking spray, and then set aside.

Mix oats, wheat germ, brown sugar, salt and Extra Ingredients — except dried fruit — in a bowl.

Bring syrup, oil, water and any Flavoring indicated below to a simmer in a saucepan over low heat. Drizzle over oat mixture, and stir to combine.

Pour mixture onto prepared pan. Working a handful at a time, squeeze cereal to form small clusters. Bake for 30 minutes.

Stir in dried fruit. The mixture will be quite warm – so work quickly. Continue to bake until golden brown, about 15 – 25 minutes longer. Let cool. (Granola can be stored in an airtight tin for up to two weeks.)

Variations:

Kathryn’s Version

Extra Ingredients: 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, 1/4 cup chopped almonds, 1/4 cup chopped dried cherries, 1/4 cup chopped prunes (or use all cherries if you have an adequate amount), 2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger
Flavoring: 1 rounded teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon orange extract

Nutty Granola

Extra Ingredients: 1/4 cup slivered almonds, 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, 2 Tbs. sesame seeds, 6 Tbs. currants
Flavoring: none

Tropical Granola

Add the coconut along with the cashews and banana chips.
Extra Ingredients: 1/4 cup chopped roasted unsalted cashews, 1/4 cup chopped banana chips, 1/4 cup sweetened flake coconut, 1/4 cup chopped dried pineapple
Flavoring: 1/2 tsp. ground ginger

Trail Mix Granola

Extra Ingredients: 1/4 cup chopped roasted unsalted peanuts, 1/4 cup sweetened flake coconut, 1/4 cup dark or golden raisins, 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips*
Flavoring: none
*Stir chips into the granola only after it has completely cooled.

Pear Granola with Hazelnuts And Vanilla

Extra Ingredients: 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts, 1/4 cup chopped dried cherries, 1/4 cup chopped dried pears
Flavoring: 1 tsp. vanilla extract

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Chanterelles & Cappelletti – A Recipe Testing Adventure

May 16th, 2010

(Note: parts of the following were originally posted on the lovely local food blog Farmers, Cooks, Eaters. In anticipation of my surgical procedures on May 4 – I wanted to set up a few posts that would keep people entertained while I recuperate. I felt that this post, a testament to our local food scene, would be an appropriate feature.)

I distinctly remember the day back in October of last year when I received an email from a friend, asking if I’d be interested in testing a recipe or two for a new cookbook. The book that resulted is Tender by Tamara Murphy. Tamara is a passionate member of Seattle’s food community and is the owner and chef of Brasa and the Elliott Bay Café.  She is a James Beard Foundation Award winner and Food and Wine magazine named her one of the Ten Best New Chefs in America.  Knowing Tamara’s reputation, my response to my friend’s inquiry was, “Would I?!?” I could think of nothing I’d like more.

When I read the list of mouth-watering dishes waiting for evaluation, I became increasingly excited. “Chanterelle Soup” and “Butternut Squash Cappelletti with Browned Sage Butter and Hazelnuts” especially caught my attention. They sounded like recipes I could manage fairly easily – but ones that would, ideally, stretch my culinary abilities so I could learn a new trick or two. Little did I know that “Cappelletti” meant hand-stuffed pasta. A trick that was, decidedly, not up my sleeve. Ultimately undeterred, I pressed on. And throwing caution even further into the wind, I gamely decided I would try these two enticing dishes for a small dinner party.

The Chanterelle Soup came together seamlessly. I felt so indulgent as I tossed real cream, butter and fluted Chanterelles into my shopping basket. And the aromatics …never before had I seen a recipe calling for leeks and onions – shallots and garlic. What a glorious idea. I followed the recipe exactly as written and was left with the richest, most decadent mushroom soup imaginable. As I ladled it into warmed bowls for my guests I heard groans of delight coming from the dinner table as the aroma wafted through the room. Spoons poised for mere seconds, we all dove in. Silence. Slurps. Smiles. Victory.

I wish I could say that the Cappelletti preparation was as flawless an endeavor. I won’t delay in telling you the end result – this is an extraordinarily satisfying dish. But the journey to the final destination was a bit trying. With only five main ingredients (excluding salt and pepper) the recipe for the Roasted Butternut Squash filling sounded deceptively easy. And the preparation, consisting of oven roasting the squash and blending it with fresh Ricotta and Mascarpone went smoothly. It was the actual filling of the pasta where it all went south.

I had purchased sheets of pasta from the captivating DeLaurenti Food shop down near Pike Place Market – more than enough to make all the stuffed pasta … or so I thought. The squash filling, though delicious (I just wanted to grab a spoon and dive in) was extremely fragile and loose. Try as I might, I couldn’t get it to sit daintily in the middle of the cut-out circles of pasta dough long enough so I could “fold it over in a half moon shape and seal” as instructed. It just wasn’t happening. Sultry orange filling inevitably oozed out the sides as I repeatedly attempted to seal up those half moons. However with patience – and after deciding to cut the dough into circles much larger than instructed – I managed to produce a decent number of Cappelletti. In fact, I had an abundance of filling and quickly returned to the market for additional pasta sheets. I was certainly happy I had decided to make these little gems far in advance of my dinner party. A bit of research on squash helped me realize that further baking would likely solve the “ooze” problem the next time around. A simple enough fix.

I am pleased to report that the end result was worth the trouble – soft pockets of dough filled with savory/sweet filling lavished with roasted hazelnuts and decadent brown butter sauce. And even though I managed to spatter myself with the brown butter (having never prepared it I wasn’t ready for the hot butter’s dramatic reaction to the addition of the fresh lemon juice) – I was proud of the dish I served. And my guests were once again lulled into silence as they gently cut into the supple pillows and spooned up every last butter-drenched hazelnut on their plates.

End Note: if you are interested in Tender or any of the recipes described in this post – I hope you will visit this website to reserve a copy of its first printing.

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Tea & Cookies

May 9th, 2010

I was trying to figure out what to bake the other day for a special occasion. Some dear friends were coming over to help me plan for my upcoming surgery and hospital stay – they are managing all my care and they deserved a treat. So I started off trying a “healthy” version of chocolate biscotti. And I have to admit, these were the worst cookies I have ever produced. Dry, heavy, not even close to chocolately enough. A catastrophe in my book. So I went back to the drawing board. And I decided that “healthy” was not a top priorities for the cookies I wanted to bake. These were for a celebration – they were meant to be a gift. So if white flour and butter needed to be featured – so be it. No doubt there are a number of more wholesome cookie recipes out there – but I stumbled upon this recipe for shortbread cookies and could not be swayed.

The original recipe called for lemon zest as the main source of flavor. However I wanted to tweak it a bit – change it up. So I added some finely chopped rosemary and – voila – a lovely savory sweet combination. Then I got to thinking about making a second version. I couldn’t just have one option for my friends. So I made another batch, omitted the lemon and replaced it with extra vanilla. Then I chopped up some lavender flowers and tossed them in. Another hit!

I must admit, I love it when I stumble upon a recipe that I know immediately will become a staple in my repetoire. These are so very easy to make. They’re not too sweet. They are different from what people expect, a bonus in my book. They freeze extremely well. They make fabulous gifts. The list goes on. But I will stop here. Because I want you to run out and buy butter and flour and lemons and lavender and all the other ingredients and whip up a batch. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Rosemary Lemon Cookies

(Makes approximately 50 cookies)

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks butter, room temperature
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon pure lemon extract
  • 1 ½ tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 2 ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Instructions:

Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and lemon extract, mix until well blended.

Add rosemary, lemon zest, salt and flour. Mix well.

Divide the dough in half and shape them into logs. Place on a piece of parchment paper. Roll the logs about 1 1/2″ in diameter. Chill in the freezer for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 375F. Take the logs out of the freezer. Cut the logs into 1/4″ slices and place on a parchment covered baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes until the edges are golden brown.  (If they don’t start to brown and remain pale in color, they won’t be as crispy.) Cool on a wire rack.

Lavender Vanilla version: Omit lemon zest and rosemary. Increase the vanilla to 1 tablespoon and add 1 ½ tablespoons finely chopped lavender flowers.

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Rhubarb Revamped

May 2nd, 2010

I think rhubarb is one of the most beautiful vegetables around (that’s right – it’s a vegetable). Varying from deep ruby red to pale carnation pink on the outside, the insides of the stalks are a surprisingly vivid green when cut open. So when I stumbled upon a recipe for Gingered Rhubarb Chutney I was intrigued. I imagined a jar full of majestic chunks of crimson swimming in a thick, lustrous sauce. It would be such a striking accompaniment for grilled pork or chicken or a lovely sauce for roasted vegetables. Even a stunning accessory for a cheese plate.

So I picked up a bunch of freshly picked rhubarb from our local farmer’s market and headed over to my friend Caitlin’s house for an afternoon of culinary experimentation. We were baking my favorite muffins as well as a new recipe for a healthy banana coconut version. And we agreed that the rhubarb chutney recipe sounded like a winner – so why not try it. I figured that it was meant to be when I noticed that the jaunty letters she has splayed above her kitchen matched the ruby red of the rhubarb stalks poking out of my bag…

I suppose I should have read the recipe a little closer. I was initially focused, however, on the baking. While I was elbow deep in muffins, Caitlin carefully measured all the Chutney ingredients into her lovely orange Le Creuset French oven. When I finally turned my attention to the simmering pot I was mildly surprised to note its dark brown appearance. I hadn’t realized that the balsamic vinegar would dominate the contents to such a degree. I was, admittedly, a bit dismayed – thinking that the visually appealing jars of ruby red chutney I had hoped to dole out as gifts were not meant to be.  But Caitlin was encouraging so we let the pot do its thing.

What resulted when all was said and done was a densely flavored chutney featuring a strong acidic hit from the rhubarb and vinegar, balanced by the sweetness of the currants. The various spices – the ginger, cardamom and jalapeño – all melded together to give it an unexpected dimension. And when Caitlin’s dear husband (another true foodie) tasted it, his only response was, “Word.” Which translates to “yum.” They assured me the chutney would be an excellent accompaniment to all the grilled meats they prepare. And I agree that it’s a keeper.

So – lesson learned. We started out with a stunningly gorgeous vegetable – one that I gaze at adoringly in its natural state.  And it turned into something I hesitated to photograph for this post. It just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving.  

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Gingered Rhubarb Chutney

(Adopted from a Cooking Light recipe)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 cups finely chopped rhubarb
  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup dried currants
  • 1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 jalapeño pepper, minced

Instructions

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about a half hour or until it thickens.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

This can be stored in jars in the refrigerator for several weeks.

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Spontaneity, Black Beans & Bliss

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.

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Springtime Asparagus

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.

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Mom & Me … Strawberries & Rhubarb

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.

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Comfort Food – Thai Style

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.

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