Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I Always Knew I Was A Dishrag

You are Dishcloth Cotton.You are a very hard worker, most at home when you're at home. You are thrifty and seemingly born to clean. You are considered to be a Plain Jane, but you are too practical to notice.
Take this quiz!
Needle tip to Mary for this quiz.

When I was in high school I wrote a poem called "Life Is a Dishrag." I won't embarrass myself by posting it here (even if I could find it), but I was very proud of how well the metaphor worked when I wrote something along the lines of "grab hold of the dishrag of life and squeeze . . . squeeze . . . squeeze."

Apparently I was wrong. Life isn't a dishrag, *I* am. And while I don't find the above description very flattering, I have a horrible feeling it's pretty apt. Except for the thrifty and born to clean part--where did that come from?

The last, horrible irony? I actually have that yarn.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Yikes! Another Mistake

I've since corrected it, but if you copied the Buttermilk Cocoa Cake from the post below, you might want to change the oven temperature from the 250 deg. F. I mistakenly typed to the correct 350 deg. F.

Then go make it. It's delicious.

No, No, Vinaigrette

I'm very picky about my salad dressing. It can't be too acidic, too sour, too sharp, or too sweet. It has to be the perfect blend of all of those components for me to fully embrace it. And while I've always secretly wished I was one of those people who could just ask for "oil and vinegar" on the side, I want more flavor than that.

I was raised on store bought, which definitely skewed my idea of what salad dressing should be. For me, the salad was merely the vehicle by which I would consume mass quanitities of dressing. I would pour on so much that there would be a huge puddle at the bottom of the bowl when the salad was gone, which I would happily slurp up. If a salad was naked I wanted no part of it.

But over the past few years, as I've become a more conscious eater and have worked to eat as few processed foods as possible, I've discovered that my tastes have been changing. I love the taste of fresh fruit and vegetables all by themselves. When you rid your palate of all of the additives that get thrown into processed foods, you can start to taste more of the natural properties of fruits and vegetables.

I remember a recent conversation I had with my nephew. We were talking about fruit. He doesn't eat it very much--doesn't care for the taste. He told me it never tastes as sweet as fruit-flavored candy. I knew what he meant. When you eat foods that have a lot of sugar in them, it makes it harder to taste sugar that occurs naturally. When I first decided to try to eat more whole foods, I didn't particularly enjoy them. But I stuck with it and, after a short period of time, I bit into an apple that was so sweet and tasty it almost made me cry. I could taste the difference between kinds of apples. Oranges were a burst of flavor. Vegetables had a subtle sweetness that I could taste for the first time.

Which brings me back to salads. Over the past couple of years, I've come to love salads for the basic ingredients--the lettuce, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and whatever else I happen to throw into one. I still don't like to eat one naked, but what I'm looking for in a dressing has changed since the days when I would go through a large bottle in three or four salads.

Now I want my dressing to enhance the salad, not drown it. I've played with making my own in the past, but I could never achieve the right balance of oil, sour, sweet and sharp. But this recipe I found in The Best Vegetarian Recipes by Martha Rose Shulman is just what I was looking for. It has a balanced base, to which I have enjoyed experimenting with additional flavors.

This is her basic vinaigrette recipe. The book has a whole section on variations. When I make it, I add the rest of the olive oil, rather than adding it with each use. She also recommends that you remove the garlic if you're not going to use the dressing right away, as it can get bitter. Being the garlic lover that I am, I don't bother with that. So far no problem.

I added some tarragon to this batch. It's good, but I didn't add enough. I also used Trader Joe's Orange Muscat Champagne vinegar instead of balsamic, because that's what I had in my fridge.

I use 1/3 cup each of the olive and canola oils, then add another third of a cup of olive oil at the end. At some point I plan to try it with the yogurt.

This dressing lasts me far beyond three or four salads.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Sauces

Vinaigrette for the Week

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
5 Tbsp. sherry or red wine vinegar
salt to taste
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. canola oil (or olive oil)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c. yogurt, or additional olive oil

Whisk together vinegars, salt and mustard. Whisk in 1/3 c. each olive and canola oils. Transfer to a container and refrigerate.

To serve, add 1 part olive oil to 3 parts dressing.

Makes 1 cup
from The Best Vegetarian Recipes, by Martha Rose Shulman (Morrow, 2001)

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Cakes (with a Gingerbread Coda)

Today is my friend Melinda's birthday (Happy Birthday, Melinda!). I knew I was going to see her Saturday so I decided to bake a cake to take to her. I had some buttermilk left over from the gingerbread I made last week and I had just finished the chapter on chocolate cakes in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking, which just happened to have a recipe for buttermilk cocoa cake. It sounded so good I thought it would be the perfect cake to make.
This is how it came out. The batter was thick and rich and the cake cooked up light, but solid. Melinda was kind enough to share it with us at the shop yesterday after I gave it to her, and if I do say so myself, it was rather good. Light, not too sweet, loaded with that deep dusty cocoa flavor. It's supposed to be one of those cakes that gets better every day. I definitely plan to test that out soon. I'll get back to you.

Melinda's friend Beth had invited some friends over for a dinner to celebrate both Melinda's birthday and that of another friend, who's birthday was a couple of weeks ago. So after spending the day at the shop we hopped on the bus and rode over to Beth's house. She has a beautiful place full of wonderful knick-knacks, art (some by Beth, some by others), all things dog including Romeo, the sweet, loveable, most beautiful dachshund I've ever seen.

Beth is a wonderful cook. After enjoying a beautiful arrangement of hors d'oeuvres which included a delicious cheese, figs, dates, caper berries (more on those later, I think), olives and crackers, we sat down to a wonderful chicken tagine with couscous. Over the course of the meal the conversation got so engrossing and lively that the salad course was completely forgotten! But that was ok, because it left more room for dessert.

Which leads to cake number two:
This is all that's left of the more substantial amount I brought home with me last night. Even though I knew I wanted to take a picture of it, I couldn't stop nibbling away at it. It is one of the most delicious cakes I've had in a long time. Beth told us it's made mostly with ground almonds and very little flour, and some port that is reduced to three tablespoons. She served it with whipped cream and mangoes and it was the perfect combination of cream, mango, and rich creamy chocolate. There was the most lovely little bite of a tang that hits just before you swallow, I suppose from the port.

Both recipes came from Julee Rosso's Great Good Food. I think I'm going to have to get my hands on that book. Beth said she stayed at their bed and breakfast and it was heavenly. If the two dishes I had last night are any indication, I can believe it.

As for the Gingerbread, I was able to ration it out over five days (really!). It got darker, richer, moister, and spicier each and every day.

Here's the recipe for the buttermilk cocoa cake:

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Cakes and Pies

Karen Edward's Version of Buttermilk Cocoa Cake

1-3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. and butter and flour a 9x2" round cake pan.*

Mix together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda and salt

To these ingredients add buttermilk, vegetable oil or butter, and vanilla. Mix. Turn batter into the pan, bake the cake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean, and let it cool for 5 minutes before turning it out of the pan.

*I only had a 9x1-1/2" cake pan and it came out fine.

from More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin (Harper Perennial, 2000)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Black Beans and Corn with Lime and Cilantro

I cooked up some black beans the other day. I froze half for later and put the rest in the refrigerator to think about what I wanted to do with them. I could have made Ten-Minute Black Beans with Tomatoes and Cilantro, a recipe I got from my sister which is fast, easy and delicious and which I will someday share with you. Or I could have made Southwestern Black Bean Soup, or Caribbean Vegetable Stew, or some other more complicated recipe. But I wanted something I could throw together fast and I don't want to get tired of the Ten-Minute Black Beans and I've been making them a lot lately.

I had some Trader Joe's roasted corn in the freezer. I love black beans and corn together. And we had been talking about lime-cilantro rice at the knit shop the other day, which reminded me I had made up a lime-cilantro corn dish a couple of weeks ago. It seems like I was starting to get the shape of what I was looking for.

So I made up this lovely dish. I'm calling it Black Beans and Corn with Lime and Cilantro. Not very original, I know, but it does the job, descriptively speaking.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Beans and Vegetables

Black Beans and Corn with Lime and Cilantro

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped fine
salt to taste
1 14.5-ounce. can diced tomatoes, with juice
3 cups cooked black beans, or 2 14.5-ounce cans, rinsed and drained
1 pound bag frozen sweet corn*
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

*Especially good with Trader Joe's Roasted Corn

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and saute for approximately two minutes. Add garlic and salt. Saute for approximately five minutes more.

Add tomatoes and cayenne and simmer for five minutes. Add black beans and corn and cook approximately ten minutes, until heated through.

Take off heat, stir in lime juice and cilantro. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More a Nod Than a Bow

Even though I already had most of the ingredients on hand, I just couldn't get myself up and out to the grocery store to buy the few things I needed for my feast of St. Joseph minestrone yesterday. It was a lazy day at home--I mostly worked on some finishing for the knit shop and took some White Bean Stew out of the freezer.

So today I thought I should make something Italian in honor of St. Joseph, although since I'm not Catholic I doubt my lack of activity yesterday meant anything to anyone but me. But what to make? I still hadn't made it to the grocery store so I had to rely on what I have on hand.

Which is: garlic, canned tomatoes, and pasta. And a flash of inspiration: some not-so-fresh spinach that should have been eaten days ago. I was going to saute it in olive oil and garlic and then make some pasta sauce when I had my magical thought. Why don't I just add the spinach to the pasta sauce?

Et voila (pardon my French) -- Farfalle Florentine:
This sauce is a recipe I've been making for the past couple of years, and I've pretty much perfected it. The final touches came from Mario Batali's Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home. His basic tomato sauce recipe called for thyme and basil.

What? No oregano? I was skeptical to say the least. But I tried it, and, with a nod to Mikey's sibs, I liked it. A lot. I still use oregano, but not for this recipe. The thyme and basil give the tomato just the right amount of sweetness; sometimes oregano can be overpowering.

I also don't put onions in this sauce. I'm not sure why that is, but after years of putting onions and garlic in *everything* I make, I've decided there are some things that are better without both (but never either). Maybe it's because I can taste more subtle flavors since I quit smoking, but I like to mix things up more now than I used to.

It's a pretty standard technique. I use whatever vegetables I have on hand for this. Tonight was actually the first time I used spinach. I often use Trader Joe's frozen artichoke hearts, which I add while the pasta is cooking, or zucchini, which I saute with the garlic. Sometimes I'll cook an eggplant in the microwave and scoop it into the sauce at the end. This is especially good with polenta.

Farfalle Florentine

2 Tbsp. olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 28-oz. can tomatoes, any style (although lately I'm liking with basil added)
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. basil
salt and pepper to taste
1 10-oz. bag fresh spinach, rinsed and drained

10-oz. bag whole wheat farfalle

Fill pasta pot with water and turn heat on high.

Heat oil in large skillet. Add garlic and saute until just translucent or golden brown, depending on your mood. Add salt and pepper toward the end. Add tomatoes, thyme, and basil. Bring to low simmer and cook for twenty minutes or so, until sauce thickens.

When water for pasta is boiling and sauce has thickened, add pasta to pot and cook per package directions. Add spinach to sauce, stirring until spinach has reduced into the sauce.

By the time the pasta is cooked, the spinach should also have cooked into the sauce. Serve sauce over drained pasta.

Makes 4 servings.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Luck of the Irish

As it turns out, corned beef and cabbage is about as Irish as Spaghetti and Meatballs is Italian. At best it can be considered a recent Irish-American tradition for St. Patrick's Day. Most cattle was used for milk, not for eating. Apparently, they were fond of pig. You can get the full story here.

Authentic or not, it tastes good. This was the third of the slow cooker test recipes. I think by the third time I had a better sense of how the slow cooker works. I cut down on the cooking time a little since my cooker seems to run hot. The recipe said to add water just to cover the meat. It was a lot of water, which was why I had a bad feeling about it. But it turned out ok. You cook the beef and vegetables first, then you cook the cabbage after you take the other stuff out. Ironically, the cabbage was a little undercooked, but that was easily fixed in the microwave. And better undercooked than mush, as I always say.

I had originally planned to make Irish stew, but I couldn't find any lamb so I changed plans mid-shopping. The only real difference is that I had already put the boiler onions into my basket and forgot to switch them out for a regular yellow onion, so I just used the boilers. I don't think it made a difference, except that boiler onions get really sweet when you cook them. They tasted fine, but I think regular onion might blend in a bit better.

I also made a point of getting the whole cloves the recipe called for rather than using ground. I'm glad I did that because I think that's one of the things that made the Lucky Chili taste funny. I also substituted vegetable broth for the beer.

And I just realized I used two tablespoons of brown sugar instead of the two teaspoons. That was simply a mistake--I assumed it was two tablespoons. Who firmly packs two teaspoons of brown sugar?

This was ridiculously easy to make. It's probably not the healthiest way to eat beef, but every once in a while you just need to go for it.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Slow Cooker

Corned Beef and Cabbage

6 med.-size red potatoes, quartered
4 med.-size carrots, cut into 2" chunks on the diagonal
1 med.-size yellow onion, cut into 6 wedges
one 3-4 pound corned beef brisket with seasoning packet, rinsed
3 cloves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 12-ounce. can beer, strong or mild flavored
1 medium-size head white cabbage, cut into 8 wedges, each secured with kitchen twine
1/2 Cup Dijon mustard for serving

Put potatoes, carrots and onion in slow cooker. Lay corned beef on top of the vegetables and sprinkle with the seasonings from packet, the cloves, peppercorns, and brown sugar. If the meat is too big to lie flat in your cooker, cut it in half and stack the pieces one atop the other. Add the beer and enough water to just cover the brisket. Cover and cook on low for 9-11 hours.

Remove the corned beef and place in a serving casserole. Arrange the vegetables around the beef; cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Put the cabbage in the cooker with the cooking liquid and turn the setting to high. Cover and cook until crisp-tender, 20-30 minutes.

Serve the beef, sliced across the grain, with the mustard, vegetables, and cabbage. Pass the juice from the crock in a bowl.

Serves 8

from Not Your Mother's slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger (Harvard Common Press, 2005)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Spicy Goodness

I have a confession to make. I've never made gingerbread. Nope, not once. I've wanted to. I've meant to. But I never found a recipe that appealed to me enough that I just HAD to make it.

And then I started re-reading Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, a series of chatty essays on food and cooking that I'm going to review on the new cookbook blog that's starting up in a couple of days.

I loved this book as much this time around as I did the first time. It's funny and charming, but it has a bite. Kind of like gingerbread. And when I got to the chapter on gingerbread, I was suddenly (and finally) inspired to make some.
Here it is fresh out of the oven. My apartment smelled so warm and spicy while I was making it, and then as it was cooling. I don't know why I've never made it before. It's delicious! In addition to the ginger, Laurie's recipe calls for cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. She also mentions a molasses called Steen's Pure Ribbon Cane Syrup. I'd love to get my hands on some of that.

This is the picture I'm going to use for my review. I'm trying to get more creative with the camera. It's interesting, because I start to think of things like "I should put a little sprig of mint on the plate with the gingerbread." Which is a good idea, if I happened to have any fresh mint lying around. But I don't, and right now I can't afford to be buying food just for the visual appeal. But wouldn't that be pretty?

The tea is a black currant tea I bought a couple of months ago at Argo when I was there with Lynda. It's dark and fruity with just a teensy hint of sweetness. It went well with the gingerbread.

I'd offer you some, but by the time you read this post it will probably be all gone.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

They're Dropping Like Flies

OK, here's my theory for 24: It's the last season so they're just going to kill everyone off and end the world. The only person left alive will be President Logan, standing on top of the pile of rubble that was L.A., shaking his head and crying "What was I supposed to do?"

Just so you don't think I've stopped knitting, I finished the socks I started in Austin.
I'm quite happy with them. They fit well. Now I get to decide which sock yarn to use for the next pair.

Corned beef is in the slow cooker. I have a baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad feeling about this . . .

Monday, March 13, 2006

The "I"s Have It

It's a big week for the two "I"s. For the Irish, as everyone knows, this Friday is St. Patrick's Day. What you might not know is that the following Sunday, March 19th, is the day Italians celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph. (It's also when the swallows come back to San Juan Capistrano, just so's you know).

I have plans for St. Patrick's Day. While the Texan Jew in me is screaming at the abomination I am about to perpetrate on a poor, hapless brisket, I am going to try my hand at Corned Beef and Cabbage in honor of ol' St. Paddy. I'm actually killing two birds with one stone, because the recipe I'm using is from the slow cooker cookbook and will be the third of my test recipes for my review. I felt so Irish as I loaded up my cart with the spice-packet-included brisket, carrots, potatoes and, of course, a big ol' head of cabbage:
Where's the mesquite and the spice rub? Ok, then what about the prunes and sweet potatoes, nu?
Oi Vey!

I was going to make Chicken Cacciatore in honor of the Feast of St. Joseph, but then I found out there isn't any meat (you know, Lent and all). So I'm not sure if I'll come up with anything by Sunday.

Once upon a time I actually thought I was part Irish, but it turns out I misheard a conversation between my grandmother and my mother. Nothing west of Germany (and a scant bit of that) coursing through these veins. Except, of course, on March 17th, when everyone is Irish!

Friday, March 10, 2006

My First Food Blogging Event

When it comes to spices, I consider myself to be pretty knowledgable. Growing up, we had the common spices in our house--cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, paprika, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. When I moved to Austin and discovered TexMex, I learned about cumin, serrano peppers and cayenne. Later on, when I started experimenting with Asian and Indian influences, I discovered curry powder (although I've never mixed up a batch of my own), turmeric, coriander, cardamom, and mustard seeds. I even found some asafetida for an eggplant stew recipe I found in Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian that has since become a standard of mine.

And then there's the romance of spice. Wars have been fought and lives have been lost to gain control of the ancient land routes and waterways that traders used to transport their spices. Empires were won and lost fighting over them. They're exotic and intriguing, and there is nothing like the way the smell of a freshly-ground spice travels through your nostrils straight into your brain. I love playing with them, and learning their properties.

Barbara Fisher over at Tigers and Strawberries has launched a monthly Spice Challenge and I'm pretty excited about it. I've been lurking at Is My Blog Burning for years, wishing I had the nerve to participate in one of the events. Barbara's spice challenge seems like the perfect place for me to jump in.

The event is open to anyone who wants to participate, whether or not you have a blog. You can find the rules on her site here. The theme for April is "Ancient Spices," to be determined by what your personal definition is of an ancient spice. I've already started looking through Herbs and Spices to try to decide what spice I'm going to use.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Slow Cookin' Blues

Here you see the ingredients for my second Slow Cooker cookbook test recipe. I'm trying to balance the dishes I make so I get a broader feel for how the recipes are going to come out. The first recipe was the Lucky Chili (not so lucky). These here vegetables are for Ratatouille.

My mother discovered Ratatouille when I was in high school. At that time, we'd only recently discovered zucchini and eggplant was something we'd only heard about but hadn't yet seen.

Ratatouille (can you tell I like typing this word?) was one of the rare dishes where it actually paid off that my mother didn't particularly like to cook and spent as little time as possible in the kitchen. She always threw dinner together at the last minute so sauces and stews had little time to thicken. It wasn't until I was living on my own and left my spaghetti sauce on the stove for a couple of hours that I discovered you weren't supposed to have that greasy-orange puddle of water lying on the plate under your spaghetti. It worked for the Ratatouille, though, because zucchini can overcook by the time you type the word Ratatouille, and her zucchini was always nice and firm in her ratatouille.

I only made this dish from my mother's recipe once, and it didn't turn out so well. It took so long to cook the eggplant that the zucchini disintegrated into the sauce. So when I saw a recipe in Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook that guaranteed that the vegetables would hold their shape, I thought this would be a good recipe to test for my cookbook review.
Alas, it was not so. I don't know if you can tell by looking at the picture, but those vegetables are holding on to their shape for all they're worth, and every time I scoop out a serving several more zucchini give up the ghost.

I cooked it on low for the shortest suggested periods of time for each section. An hour after I added the zucchini (which should have left another hour of cooking) I uncovered the pot to add the basil, salt and pepper. At that point the zucchini was fine and still on the raw side so I figured it would be fine the rest of the way. It was not.

It was also very oily. It calls for half a cup of olive oil, which didn't seem like that much when I put it in and mixed it with the vegetables. But when it was done and the liquid had cooked out of all the vegetables, it seemed like there was a half-inch of oil lying on top when I spooned it out to use it with the couscous. I was able to get rid of it, but I'm wondering if a fourth of a cup might not be enough next time.

I also misread the ingredients and only bought five tomatoes instead of ten, so those became salad tomatoes and I used a 14.5-oz. can of diced tomatoes instead. I think it would be worth the investment to use fresh, though, so I will also make sure to buy enough next time.

The good news? This was really good. I think I'll add the basil and seasonings half an hour after adding the zucchini, then cook for just half an hour more the next time I make it. It was especially good with whole wheat couscous made with the liquid from the Ratatouille.

And that odd flavor in the Lucky Chili I thought might just be the way things taste when you make them in the slow cooker? I didn't notice it here, so it must just have been that particular recipe.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Slow Cooker


Cooker: Medium or large round or oval
Setting and Cook Time: HIGH for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, or LOW for 4 to 5-1/2 hours

1 large eggplant (1-1/2 #), peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1 med. size yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 bell peppers (green, red, orange or yellow), cut into squares
10 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or one 14.5-oz can diced plum tomatoes, drained
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. olive oil
5 zucchini or summer squash, ends trimmed and cut into thick rounds
1-2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put cubed eggplant in colander and sprinkle with salt. Let stand 1 hour to drain. Press out excess moisture with back of spatula and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine eggplant, onion, bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic in the slow cooker. Pour olive oil over mixture and toss to coat. Cover and cook on HIGH for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or on LOW for 2-3 hours. Stir in zucchini. Cover and continue to cook on HIGH for another 1-1/2 hours, or LOW for 2 to 2-1/2 hours. The last hour, add basil and season with salt and pepper.

The vegetables will be cooked but will still hold their shape.

Serves 4 to 6

from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensberger (Harvard Common Press, 2005)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Comfort Food, Syrian Style

This Syrian dish is super easy to make and only takes about 40 minutes from beginning to end. It's called Imjadara. I tried to look it up to get more information about it, but I couldn't find much online. I did find many recipes for Moujadara, which calls for lentils and rice, unless you're Emeril. He apparently made this lentils and bulgur dish on his show but called it Moujdara. As far as I can tell, that's made with rice; Imjadara is made with bulgur.

This is one of those dishes that's simple but delicious. I'll warn you right now--if you don't like Cream of Wheat you probably won't like this. I made it yesterday and I've eaten it twice, and both times I couldn't for the life of me think of what it tasted like, and then I realized that was it. I bought some Cream of Wheat a couple of years ago to eat for breakfast and I really liked it. I stopped eating it when I started eating oatmeal, but I missed it. So I'm really happy to have discovered this recipe.

I used my favorite Trader Joe's black lentils, but any kind will work, according to the recipe. I cooked the onion more than the ten minutes the recipe called for so it would be well caramelized and it really added to the overall flavor.

This recipe came from Lean Bean Cuisine, the book I went through at my brother's house. So far I've liked every recipe I've made. I think I may have to break down and buy the damned thing.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Pasta and Grains

Lentils and Bulgur (Imjadara)

1 c. dried lentils, rinsed
4-1/2 c. water
1/2 c. cracked wheat
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, slivered

Combine lentils and water in large saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook approximately 25 minutes then add wheat, salt and pepper. Cook 15 minutes more, until lentils are tender, stirring frequently. Add hot water if necessary.

In another skillet, heat oil, add onion, and saute 7-10 minutes, until browned. Stir onions into lentil and bulgur mixture.

Serve with tossed salad and hot pita bread.

Yield: 3 or 4 servings

from Lean Bean Cuisine: Over 100 Tasty Meatless Recipes from Around the World, by Jay Solomon (Prima, 1994)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Black Gold

Forget oil. What we have here is worth its weight in gold.

A couple of weeks ago I went with some friends to dinner at a restaurant that had recently been featured on Check Please. The restaurant was El Barco. I had never been there before and was eager to try it. After we were seated, we started munching on tortillas and salsa. One of the salsas was thick, dark, and oily. "What's that?" I asked my friend who had been there before, pointing to the thick black stuff.

"Crack sauce," she said. "Oh," I said. Silly me, I thought that was its name. I spooned a little onto a fried tortilla and took a bite.

And pretty much melted into a puddle of bliss. And spooned that salsa on anything on my plate that had a flat surface.

Don't get me wrong--the rest of the food was wonderful. I'm pretty sure the refried beans had lard in them, because they were the best damn beans I've had since I left Texas. The vegetables were roasted to perfection, the ceviche was to die for, and the carne asada was perfectly seasoned and cooked to pink perfection. By the end of the meal, I understood what my friend had meant. That salsa was the crack that raised an already perfect meal all the way up to Nirvana.

We knew it was some kind smoked pepper, but I was pretty sure it wasn't chipotle. Chipotles have a barbecue-style smokiness that takes away from any other flavor, in my opinion. This was different. It was dark and fruity, spicy, and the smokiness was a clean, crisp flavor that infused every other flavor, but did not overpower.

We had to ask. Our waitress was kind enough to tell us that it was a pasilla pepper, cooked with garlic and olive oil then mashed into a paste. When we left the restaurant, I was fully sated and determined to find out more about the pasilla pepper.

My first search led me here. It's pretty well known in Mexico so I'm a little surprised I'd never heard of it. Quite proud of my deft internet searching skills, I emailed the link to my friend. A few days passed. I couldn't stop thinking about that pasilla salsa. I think it really is crack.

Having some time on my hands one morning, I decided to do a little more research and I found a recipe for a salsa that looked close to what we had tasted at El Barco. I emailed it to my friend, who emailed back that she was going to try to find some pasillas so she could make it. She found some, and was kind enough to get some for me, too.

As soon as I can plan a meal around it, I'm going to "cook" me some of that "crack".

And interestingly enough, in the few weeks that have passed since that fateful night, I have heard someone mention pasilla peppers at least three different times in three different places. Ain't it funny how that happens?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Golden Cornbread

When I decided that cornbread might go well with the Lucky Chili instead of the brown rice I had been eating with it, I realized I didn't have any cornmeal in my apartment. So I trekked on down to the grocery store and bought some Bob's Red Mill 100% Stone Ground Whole Grain Cornmeal (medium grind). This is the good stuff--it still has the germ and the bran.

I don't know what put the thought of cornbread in my head. I'm not the biggest fan--it's usually dry and stale from almost the minute you take it out of the oven. I've had good cornbread, but I've never been able to make it. But once I got the idea in my head, I couldn't get rid of the thought that it would be a definite improvement over the rice for the chili.

Since I'm not overly fond of my recipe, I decided to check out my cookbooks to see if I could find something different. Before going to my bookshelf, however, I picked up the package the cornmeal came in. Sure enough, there was a recipe on the back. And it even called for whole wheat flour, which I was planning to use anyway. What the heck, right?
Guess what? It's good. It's a little dry, as is most cornbread, but it's also soft and has some moistness at the same time. I think this will become "my" cornbread recipe from now on.

This cornbread is truly golden, too. I don't know if you can tell from the pictures, but it isn't yellow at all. It still looks like cornbread, but the whole wheat turns the yellow into gold.

I omitted the (optional) sugar. I fall squarely into the "not sweet" camp when it comes to cornbread. I also used canola oil instead of the softened butter.

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Breads and Muffins

Golden Cornbread

1 c. cornmeal
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. sugar (opt.)
1 egg
1 c. milk
1/4 c. softened butter

Sift together dry ingredients. Add eggs, milk and butter. Beat until smooth, about 1 min. Do not overbeat. Bake in greased 8" square pan for 20-25 mins. at 425 deg.

Servings: 4

from Bob's Red Mill 100% Stone Ground Whole Grain Cornmeal (Med. Grind) package.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Slow Cooker Black Beans

I've mentioned the Wellfed network in a previous post--it's a network of blogs that covers all aspects of food. They're launching four new blogs this month and I'll be writing for two of them. For one, I'll be writing cookbook reviews, so I'll be testing new recipes. I figured I'd post my results here.

The first book I'm testing from is a slow-cooker book. I've always been intrigued by the idea of throwing everything into one pot in the morning, turning it on, and leaving it alone to do its thing for the rest of the day. Now that I'm home most of the time it's a little ironic that I'm finally getting around to testing these recipes, but there you go.

The first recipe I tried is called Lucky Chili. I was intrigued because it looked like a different spice combination than I'm used to seeing for black beans, and I'm always eager to find new ways to spice up familiar dishes. That being said, I had some problems.

First off, I'm not sure why this recipe has two cups of coffee in it. I know coffee is often used for flavoring, but usually it's maybe one spoonful of instant, or the equivalent of one cup. I could definitely taste it in the finished product, but it overpowered the overall flavor, rather than subtly enhancing it. The other problem was the clove. I didn't have whole cloves, so I used just a pinch of ground, and that also was an overriding flavor. There was the flavor of the beans (which was pretty good), and then there was the hmmm? of the coffee and the huh? of the cloves.

And there was something about the combination of those two flavors that kept bringing to my mind the episode of The Simpsons where Homer creates tomacco--tomatoes crossed with tobacco. I couldn't get rid of the feeling that there was tobacco in there. Maybe it was the caffeine from the coffee mixed with the taste of the cloves, I dunno.

It was most prevalent when I ate it with brown rice. Then it occurred to me it might be good with cornbread so I mixed me up a batch. That was actually better--I think the corn helped neutralize the odd combination of coffee and cloves.

So what will I do differently next time (if there is a next time--I'm still on the fence about this recipe)? For starters, I'd omit the coffee and cloves. I might try to think of some other spice to replace the clove.

There was also a subtle undertone to the tenderness of the rest of the vegetables cooked so slowly for such a long period of time. I seem to remember it from a slow cooker beef stew recipe I made years ago, and I'm wondering if it's how anything tastes that's been slow cooked. I'll be interested to find out with the other recipes I test. Not sure if I like it, or if it's even real, for that matter.

Anyhoo, here's the recipe:

Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Slow Cooker

Lucky Chili

2 c. freshly brewed coffee
2 c. vegetable broth
2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
1 med. onion, diced
4 cloves chopped garlic
4 15-oz. cans black beans, or 6-8 c. cooked
1/4 c. firmly packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. chili powder, or to taste
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
3-4 cloves, to taste
1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
Salt to taste

Large round or oval slow cooker.

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker except cilantro and salt. Cover and cook on Low for 8-12 hours, stirring occasionally, if possible. During the last hour, stir in cilantro and season with salt.

Serve in bowls with chunky mango and tomato salsa, cubed avocado, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese on top.

Serves 6 to 8

from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (Harvard Common, 2005)

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