Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baking Class: Flaky Biscuits

10/01/09 UPDATE: I have since discovered that these biscuits are even better with buttermilk. For more information and a tutorial with photos, go to this post.
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I'm not really one to celebrate or memorialize things, but this here is post number 500 on Dejamo's Distracted. I've been blogging since August of 2005. While I was not exactly a pioneer in the blogosphere, I can claim some chops for longevity.

And while the world certainly may not have needed another knitting blog, I guess there can't be too many food and cooking blogs.

Not long after I left home, I found a biscuit recipe that was pretty much fool-proof. It was extremely easy for the novice baker I was at the time, and the biscuits always came out light and fluffy, with that unique biscuit flavor. I made them so often that I no longer needed the recipe.

Which was unfortunate, because inevitably, as so often happens, I stopped making them regularly. And then I stopped making them at all. By the time I was ready to make them again, I no longer had the recipe memorized, and I had no idea where the written copy was. It wasn't in my regular recipe box, nor in any peripheral recipe pile or stack. I didn't even remember from where the recipe had come.

I tried the recipe I did have in my recipe box, but it fell flat. Either my skills had changed, or there was something particular to that recipe, but none of the recipes I tried after that worked. Maybe those biscuits had grown in my memory over the years, but nothing even came close.

While I was thumbing through the Tassajera Bread Book again, I came across another biscuit recipe. I copied it down and put it in my files, but I never got around to trying it. I rediscovered it recently and decided to give it a try.

I was very pleased with the results. More pleased than with any of the other recipes I've tried over the years. These aren't so much light and fluffy as light and flaky, which makes them better to my mind. And the whole wheat to all-purpose flour ratio is perfect. I use whole wheat white flour, which helps keep it light. I will probably experiment and increase the whole wheat to all-purpose ratio, perhaps even going all whole wheat if I can make it work.

What makes these biscuits stand out is the rolling method. After a quick kneading, they're rolled and folded, turned, and rolled and folded again three times. Don't omit this step - it's what makes the biscuits so flaky.

I tested these about a month ago. I've since made them every week. They are fast and easy, and come in handy when I don't have any bread on hand and need something to go with eggs at breakfast or soup at lunch. They are particularly good with a fried egg laid over them, like a poor man's Eggs Benedict without the Benedict.

One batch makes a good 12 to 15 biscuits. All biscuits are best fresh out of the oven, so I have taken to cutting the recipe in half when I make it. If you aren't going be using most of the 12 biscuits right away, I would suggest you do the same.

I also don't usually go to the trouble of cutting out the biscuits, then rerolling the scraps, and cutting out more. Especially when I'm making a half-batch, I just cut the rolled out dough in half lengthwise, then in thirds crosswise so I have six square biscuits. Quick and easy, and they taste just as good.

There is much argument over whether one should use butter or shortening in biscuits, piecrusts, and other pastry products. The general issue seems to be that butter, while flavorful, will not produce as flaky a product as shortening will produce. Shortening has partially-hydrogenated fats (trans fats), and my (granted, one-time) use of the shortening that does not have trans fats was not successful. (And those products actually still have trans fats, they just have less than the .5 gram limit allowed by the FDA. Check the label - it will still show partially hydrogenated oils.) Which should you use? I would say it depends on your preferences. I know my original biscuit recipe used butter (and at the time, I would have been using margarine). The differences seem to be that butter is more flavorful, but can be more tough and will not be as flaky. Shortening has less flavor but will be lighter and more flaky.

I have been using butter, for both my biscuits and my pastry dough, and I have no issue with the flavor and the flakiness. You may feel differently. If it matters to you, experiment and use whichever gives you the end result you like the best.

I suppose the true test for me will come with our old family peanut butter cookie recipe, which calls for shortening and I haven't made since I stopped using shortening. I'll get back to you.

2/7/10 UPDATE: After recently acquiring some hand-rendered lard, I made a batch of biscuits using it instead of the butter. They were the best so far - still tasty and flaky, and super tender. If you can get hold of some, you should definitely try it. Also, if you use buttermilk instead of milk, the biscuits rise a little higher if you add 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda.


Makes 12

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda (if using buttermilk)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter (or lard)
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk (or buttermilk - it's better!)

Preheat oven to 450 deg. F.

Combine flours, baking powder and salt. With a pastry cutter, cut butter into the mixture until the butter is pea-sized. Make a well in the center. Add the eggs and milk. Beat the eggs and milk until smooth, then stir to gradually incorporate the flour and butter mixture until all is moistened. Do not overwork. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a floured board or the counter top, then knead the dough just enough to bring it together. If the dough is really sticky, add more flour as you are kneading it, but just enough to keep it from sticking to your hands or to the board as you are rolling it.

Roll the dough into a1/2-inch thick rectangle, then fold in thirds. Turn dough a quarter turn. Repeat rolling, folding and turning process two more times.

Roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds with floured cutter or glass, or cut dough in half lengthwise, then into six pieces crosswise. Place on ungreased sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 8-10 minutes until bottoms are browned lightly and tops are slightly golden.

from The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown (Shambala, 1986)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ad of the Week: Stouffer's Lasagna with Meat & Sauce

We weren't much of a convenience food family when I was growing up. I think it was partly because convenience foods were more expensive and we couldn't afford to eat them, and the other part was that in those days most women were reluctant to be seen as not taking care of their families by cooking for them, even those like my mother who did not like to cook.

On the rare occasion when we did have frozen food for dinner, it was either Swanson or Banquet TV dinners, whichever had been on sale and was cheapest. And even though they weren't terribly good, it was always a treat to get that compartmentalized aluminum tray and pull back the foil covering to reveal the fried chicken, salisbury steak, or turkey dinner - with dessert! - that lay hidden below. The vegetables were tasteless mush, of course, but so were my mother's so there was nothing lost there. But there was the meat, the potatoes and gravy, and that little brownie or apple crisp of a dessert so it was all good.

I don't know when I became aware of Stouffer's. That's what some of my friends' mothers had in their freezers. Their entrees were much more expensive than Banquet and Swanson's, so we never tried them. But even without knowing anything about them I knew they were of a much better quality than what we were eating. So I would have assumed that their ingredients were more natural, less processed, and healthier as well.

And they may well have been, back then. Not so much now.

The tagline on their ad: "Stouffer's - made from real ingredients with no preservatives."

Ok, so let's see those real ingredients:

Blanched Macaroni Product (Water, Semolina), Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Part Skim Mozzarella Cheese (Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes), Beef, Water, Dry Curd Cottage Cheese (Cultured Skim Milk, Enzymes), Modified Cornstarch, Salt, Modified Food Starch, Bleached Wheat Flour, Dehydrated Onions, Sugar, Spices, Skim Milk, Flavor (Yeast Extract, Soy Sauce [Soybeans, Wheat, Salt], Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Soybean Oils, Dextrose), Flavors, Yeast Extract, Dehydrated Garlic, Carrageenan.
Warnings: Contains milk, soy, wheat ingredients.
Here's what bugs me about this kind of tagline. Everything is made from real ingredients; not to get too philosophical about it but everything that exists is real, even if it is synthetic, or bad for you. Partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils (transfats, in case there's anyone out there who still doesn't know that) are real ingredients. Technically, what Stouffer's is claiming is true. They may be bad for you, but as far as I know they are not preservatives.

So where does that leave us? When I first started making these "Ad of the Week" posts, I was afraid that I was going to run out of products about which to write. I don't know whether to be glad or disturbed that the more I look, the more I find. And I have to give most of these companies credit. They have found ways to imply that their products are healthy and wholesome without actually lying.

I guess that's their right. Caveat emptor. I guess the onus is on us to look beyond the ad. After all, it's all right there on the label.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Beet Borscht

The beets have been beautiful at the Green Market this month and I am in beet heaven. I don't know how I could have ignored them for so long, but I've been more than making up for it these past couple of years.

We've also had a pretty mild summer, for which I am most grateful. But I know the heat will be coming soon and I am always on the lookout for light, easy dishes that require little cooking and can be eaten cold. My gazpacho has always been a reliable standby, but every now and then you want something new.

I don't know why I've never made borscht before. I guess maybe it's because I hated beets as a child, so borscht was yucky by association - just the thought of it was enough to make me gag. Thank goodness I have gotten over that. I love me some beets!

The Polish restaurants in Chicago offer borscht as one of the buffet options and I have gotten into the habit of ordering it there. So I guess it really wasn't that much of a stretch for me to finally decide to try my hand at it. I was at the green city market with a friend and bought two beautiful bunches of beets. I usually enjoy beets in salads and the occasional saute, but they were so red and so beautiful that I just knew I wanted to make borscht.

I stopped at the Apple Market on the way to home to buy some beef stew meat for the soup, but when I got home and started looking at all the recipes, the beef versions all involved a lot of cooking and looked like they would make a heavy cold-weather soup. I wanted something lighter for summer so I threw the beef in the freezer and will do something else with it.

I looked around a little bit more and found some lighter recipes. I took ideas from all of them and came up with a bright, refreshing summer soup that is a breath of fresh air on a warm summer day. A little sweet, a little tart, a lot of flavor.

And beautiful too. This picture does not do justice to the almost flourescent magenta hue the dish takes on after stirring in the sour cream. It practically glowed in the dark.

I have already made this a few times this summer, and I have learned a thing or two. You might be tempted to chop the beets in the food processor instead of grating them. It was not terribly successful. It grated most of the beets too fine, and left several bigger lumps as well. It doesn't take long to grate them, and it ensures a nice, even texture to the soup.

Several of the recipes I looked at said to use the cooking water for the soup, but the first time I made it I drained the beets before I remembered that I needed the liquid. I used my vegetable stock and found that I liked it better than a later batch when I did remember to use the cooking liquid from the beets.

The beets came from the green market, so they were probably more expensive than they would have been had I bought them at the grocery store. Even so, this soup comes in at a bargain.

Total Cost: $8.93
Cost per Serving: $1.49
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

6 Servings

2 bunches of beets
4 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup lemon juice (can use vinegar)
1/3 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 small bunch chopped fresh dill (or to taste)
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream, for garnish

Wash beets thoroughly under running cold water, making sure to remove all dirt. Trim the leaves from the beets, leaving about an inch of stem still on the beet. Do not remove the root. Place in a pot with cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until beets are knife-tender (a paring knife slips easily in and out of the beet), about 40 minutes, and drain.

Let cool. Cut the tips and the root from the beets and, using fingers, rub off the rough outer peel (to see how it's done, check this post). Beets should be smooth and somewhat slippery.

Pour 4 cups of vegetable broth into a 3-quart saucepan. Grate the beets into the vegetable broth, then bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and add lemon juice and sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook at a simmer for about ten minutes, to allow flavors to blend. Taste and adjust for sugar/lemon juice balance. Add salt and pepper as desired.

Remove from heat and add dill. Chill before serving. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, to be mixed with the borscht just before eating.

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Baking Class: Sour Cream Cinnamon Drops

I'm not sure what prompted me to make Sour Cream Cinnamon Drops when I saw them in Nick Malgiere's Cookies Unlimited. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the ingredients; the only thing I don't usually already have on hand was the sour cream. So I put it on the shopping list and set aside some time to get busy in the kitchen.

These were easy to make, and did not take too much time. But the cookies were uninspiring. They weren't awful, or inedible. They were just . . . blah. They had a soft puffy texture that might have worked better if they had any flavor, but they were disappointingly bland. The recipe said to sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar over the cookies, but a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar was too subtle to do anything more than hint at what could have been a better cookie.

If I were to make them again, I would add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter. I think that would give them a flavor boost that would elevate them to a flavorful cake-like cookie that would live up to its name, rather than the puffy bland slightly cinnamony cookie that I produced from the recipe.

So far I am one for two on Cookies Unlimited. Which seems to match the ratio of positive to negative reviews of the book on Amazon. I will be curious to see how the next one will turn out.
Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies


Makes 48 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 cup sour cream

1 tsp ground cinnamon and 3 Tbsp sugar, combined

Preheat oven to 375 deg. F.

Combine the flour, salt, and baking soda and mix well; set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together, then beat in the egg and beat until smooth. Add half of the flour mixture and beat until just blended. Add the sour cream and beat until the batter is smooth. Add the rest of the flour mixture.

Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of the dough 2 or 3 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar on top of each cookie. Bake for 12 - 15 minutes, until they have spread out but are still fairly pale. Do not let them get too dark.

Remove from the oven and let cool on racks. Store in a container with a tight-fitting cover.

from Cookies Unlimited, by Nick Malgieri (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2000).

Exported from Home Cookin 5.7 (

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ad of the Week: Ronzoni Smart Taste Pasta

New World Pasta now owns most of the regional pasta brands with which we grew up: American Beauty, Creamette, Prince, and Skinner, to name a few. Nostalgia moment: I totally recognized the Skinner package from when I was a kid in Texas.

Ronzoni Smart Taste is a new product at New World Pasta. "It's the first white pasta to be enriched with fiber and calcium," according to their website. They also say it's lower in calories and fat than traditional pasta. I'm not sure what that means, because none of the pasta whose ingredients I looked at showed any fat in the first place.

I'm a little confused about the fiber and calcium. "Three times the fiber and calcium equal to an eight-ounce glass of milk." This is one of the most grammatically ambiguous sentences I have ever seen. Is it three times the fiber and calcium equal to a glass of milk? There's no fiber in milk, that I am aware. Or is it three times the fiber, plus calcium equal to the milk? If that's it, then three times the fiber of what?

But that's just clouding the issue, which is this: If one is eating a healthy diet with a variety of foods, then one shouldn't need to have any of their foods enriched with anything else. Who in their right mind would think it a good thing to be getting their calcium from their spaghetti and meatballs? If your child (for whom the calcium is intended) isn't getting enough calcium in his or her diet, then just give them more milk or some yogurt. There are better ways to get calcium into your child than pumping calcium phosphate into pasta. Just put some cheese over the damn pasta and there's your calcium right there.

Let's take a closer look at the ingredients (you knew I would). It looks like fiber (in what form? from where?) and calcium aren't the only extras in this product:
INGREDIENTS: Semolina (wheat), Durum Flour (Wheat), Modified Wheat Starch, Calcium Phosphate, Niacin, Iron (Ferrous Sulfate), Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid.
It looks like most of these items either replace what one would find in a whole wheat pasta, or add things (like calcium) that would not (should not?) be in regular pasta.

So what are the ingredients in the Bella Terra Organic brand of whole wheat pasta I usually use? I just knew you'd ask:
100% Certified Organic Hard Amber Durum Whole Wheat
Hmmmm. I am just now noticing that it is called "macaroni product" instead of pasta. I'll have to investigate that.

Before you go all "Eeeeewwwww, whole wheat pasta" on me, let me tell you that I, too, had that reaction when first I tried it. I bought some bulk whole wheat spaghetti (feeling very crunchy and righteous, let me tell you) at the original Whole Foods in Austin in the early '80s, whipped up a batch of spaghetti sauce, boiled up the spaghetti, and loaded both onto my plate.

And threw the whole thing away. It was chewy, gummy, and doughy and not at all like the pasta I was expecting. I didn't go near it for years.

But when I decided to eat whole foods back in 2000, I realized I was going to have to revisit whole wheat pasta. I don't remember the first one I tried, either the brand or the type, but it was one of the short pastas - rotini, penne, or farfalle. I tried a lighter sauce of just garlic, tomatoes, thyme and basil, and it was delicious. The pasta was chewy, yes, but neither gummy nor doughy. It was firm and nutty, and matched the flavorful sauce bite for bite.

For years, I only used whole wheat short pasta. For spaghetti, capellini, or fettuccine, I stuck to white pasta. But a couple of years ago it was on sale, so I decided maybe it was time to try it again. And you know what? It worked. I've used tomato-based sauces, peanut sauces, and I even made a chicken tetrazzini that rocked.

I will say that whole wheat pasta is one of the few things that doesn't replace white pasta. Many of my friends have told me that, in spite of their best intentions, they just can't make the switch from white pasta to whole wheat. I agree, they just do not taste the same. So I have found new dishes to make with whole wheat pasta that I enjoy immensely. But when I want spaghetti and meatballs, gnocchi, or fettucine Alfredo, semolina is definitely the way to go. And it's always a treat to savor the handmade pasta one can find at many of the fine restaurants in the Chicago area.

But I can't think of any reason to use Ronzoni Smart Taste Pasta. All of those extra additions seem neither smart nor tasty to me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Spiced Tomato and Red Lentil Soup

So I have this four-pound bag of red lentils I bought the last time I was on Devon Avenue. I am quite fond of masoor dal, and there are a couple of recipes that have become standards in my kitchen. But I am always on the lookout for something new. When I do find something interesting, I will clip it or copy it or enter it into my recipe program, where it often will sit for a while until I chance upon it while looking for something else or, less likely, remember that I have it.

One of my projects the past couple of months has been to organize my recipes. I am sure I am not the only one who has a massive amount of untried recipes filed away for use "some day." I have as many little sticky tabs sticking out of my cookbooks. It's nice to have a recipe available for any situation that may arise for which you need to cook something.

The problem is how to find them, and how to remember what you have. It's not perfect, but I have found a way that works for me. If you know how to use Excel, it's fairly easy.

I generated a spreadsheet for my untested recipes. I created the following fields: Recipe Name, Main Ingredient, Type of Recipe, Ethnicity (if appropriate), Location, and Source. From those fields, I can sort the data in ways that lets me find anything I have that uses a specific ingredient, whether it's a main dish, a side dish, or dessert, or from where I got it. Now, whenever I go through cookbooks or magazines, I enter the information into the spreadsheet after I have flagged it or torn out the page. Once I make a recipe, I remove it from the spreadsheet.

It was pretty labor intensive when I started, but now that I'm down to only having to add any new recipes that I find, it is working out pretty well.

For example, I had this four-pound bag of red lentils and I wanted to find a new way to cook them. I went to the spreadsheet, highlighted everything, sorted by main ingredient, and scrolled down to where red lentils were listed as the main ingredient. And that is how I found this recipe that I had pulled from the pages of Fine Cooking over the holidays.

Now I really love my curried red lentil soup, but when I saw Fine Cooking's recipe for Spiced Tomato Lentil Soup I thought it had potential. So I tore out the page and piled it onto the stack. And completely forgot about it. But it went onto the spreadsheet with every other recipe on the pile, so when I did my search for red lentils, there it was.

The recipe looked simple enough, and I already had most of the ingredients on hand. I even still had some of the Madras Tamarind Hot Curry powder I got for my birthday a few years ago.

The original recipe makes 14 servings. I figured half would be more than enough to feed me for a week, and it will.

And as much as I love my curried red lentil soup, I like this one just as well. And if I were being completely honest, I might just say that I like this just a little bit more. Madras curry has a seductively warm flavor - a hint of sour from the tamarind offset by the spicy heat. The carrots and celery give it texture, and the tomato sweetens it up.

The recipe also says that you can use either the Madras curry or a sweet curry powder. It would probably also be good with sweet curry powder, but I don't think I will ever find out. But if you do decide to make it with the sweet curry powder, you might want to add the 1/8 of a teaspoon cayenne that was also included in the recipe. The Madras powder is hot enough for me, so I did not add the cayenne.

I had some leftover dill rice so I put a spoonful of that at the bottom of the bowl before adding the soup, and it made for a beautiful combination.

It's easy on the budget, too.

Total Cost: $8.33
Cost per Serving: $1.67
Home Cookin Chapter: Soups and Stews


Serves 6

2 Tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp Madras curry powder
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1 14.5-oz. cans petite-diced tomatoes, with liquid
1-1/3 cup red lentils, sorted, rinsed and drained
1 medium celery rib, cut into small dice
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
4 cloves garlic, minced

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and salt and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook for about a minute to release the fragrance and toast the spices.

Add the broth, tomatoes, lentils, celery, carrot, garlic, water and salt to taste. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring often. Remove any scum that forms on top. Lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the lentils and the vegetables are tender. Add salt if necessary.

Adapted from Fine Cooking, December 2008/January 2009

Exported from Home Cookin 5.8 (

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Enough Already

I had a bad feeling about the future of Project Runway when I heard that Lifetime won the Lawsuit and the right to host the program. I know Lifetime is trying to change their image and be edgier, but it's like watching Olivia Newton-John's transition from good girl to disco queen in Grease - no matter what she does, she's just never going to be cool.

And no matter what Lifetime does, it's never going to be edgy. And I'm afraid it's going to soften the edges of Project Runway, and not in a good way. The promo has confirmed my fears. It looks like it's trying too hard to convince middle America that the show is really, really, good - not scary or arty or gay at all. And the tag line. "It's a Good Thing." Really? That's the best they could do? Martha Stewart should sue their asses.

But you know a show is in trouble when it hasn't even aired yet and you're already sick of the contestants. They've been airing little bios of the designers all week, and it looks like they will continue to do so until the show airs. Guess what? They all knew they wanted to be designers from the moment they popped out of the womb. Wow.

I'll watch the first episode to see if I'm right (even though I know I am). But I think I'll stick with The Fashion Show, which has been growing on me, I must admit.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Baking Class: Melt-in-Your-Mouth Strawberry Muffins

Every once in a while I fall victim to package recipes. Like I don't have enough untested recipes from cookbooks, magazines, newspapers and what I find online, right? But sometimes the timing is just right.

I opened a newly-purchased container of Stonyfield Farm Organic French Vanilla Yogurt and found a recipe for strawberry muffins on the foil covering under the lid. It was the middle of strawberry season and I had a fresh pint of strawberries on hand, and I've been in a baking frenzy the past few months, so I decided to make them.

I must first confess, however, that I am not much of a muffin person. I'm not totally sure what purpose they serve. They're too sweet to serve as a breakfast bread, but not sweet enough for dessert. The muffins that are sold in bakeries and coffee shops are huge, and if I'm going to splurge on something that decadently unhealthy I'm going to go all the way and have a brownie or a lemon bar.

But once in a blue moon I get the urge to make them. Every couple of years I will sacrifice some fresh blueberries for a batch. And I do enjoy them once I've made them.

And I did enjoy these. They're not too sweet, and they are certainly moist. I think I may have mixed the batter a little too much because they were a little tough, but I can't blame that on the recipe, much as I'd like to.

My only criticism of this recipe is that there isn't enough strawberry in it. A cup of chopped fresh strawberries isn't enough to flavor the amount of batter. The next time I make them, I will keep the cup of chopped strawberries, but maybe replace some of the yogurt with pureed strawberries so the flavor will permeate through all of the batter.

If you like muffins, you should definitely make these. And even if you don't especially like them, these strawberry muffins are pretty good. I will definitely make them again. After I ate a couple, I put the rest in a zippered plastic bag and threw them in the freezer. They held up very well, and I think they might have actually been a little better than when fresh.

I got this recipe on the whole milk yogurt container, but I have seen postings online from people who used fat-free, so it doesn't matter which one you use. I had been using fat-free yogurt and milk, but after watching Michael Pollan say that cheese with the fat taken out isn't really cheese, I started re-thinking this. I grew up on skim milk, and except for a few periods in my twenties have always used fat-free milk and yogurt, but I have always wondered if it was really the best thing to do. And then I saw that Usha had similar concerns about the use of fat-free dairy products that she expressed in this post. It was enough to convince me to make the switch. I will just use them more mindfully, as one should do with everything one puts in one's mouth. (And someday I might learn how to actually do this!)
Home Cookin Chapter: Breads and Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
1 cup yogurt
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped strawberries

Preheat oven to 375 deg. F.

In a bowl, mix together flour, sugar and baking soda.

In another bowl, mix eggs, yogurt, butter and vanila. Toss strawberries into the flour mixture. Then pour yogurt mixture into flour mixture and stir.

Spoon batter into greased muffin tin. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.

from Stoneyfield Farms Organic French Vanilla Yogurt package

Exported from Home Cookin 5.7 (

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ad of the Week: Sargento Natural Cheeses

Apparently, Sargento is all about the cheese, and as such, makes a superior product based on their commitment to producing an "all-natural" cheese.

I don't know if this is the intent, but what I am getting from their commercial is that you can either buy some form of processed cheese product (I'm thinking Velveeta), or their product, which is natural cheese. Well, anyone with half a brain should realize that any actual cheese is going to be better than that processed crap stuff.

But what about comparing like to like? Here is what I found when I looked at the ingredients of Sargento's shredded Mild Cheddar cheese and the generic brand available at my local grocery store:
Sargento: Cheddar cheese [pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, annatto (vegetable color)], potato starch and powdered cellulose (to prevent caking), natamycin (a natural mold prohibitor).

Store Brand: Pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes and annatto (vegetable color), potato starch and powdered cellulose added to prevent caking, natamycin (a natural mold inhibitor). Contains milk.*

*That was actually below the ingredients list, but because it was there I included it here.
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? The only difference I see here is that Sargento combines the first set of ingredients under the "cheddar cheese" umbrella, while the store brand lists them as separate ingredients.

Now I don't know how either of these ingredient lists would stack up against an artisanal cheddar I might find at Pastoral, but I do know there is no difference whatsoever between Sargento and the store brand.

And at my store, an 8-ounce package of Sargento costs $3.79. The store brand sells 3 for $6.00.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew

Here's another dish I wrote about earlier, back in 2006. Every time I make it I promise myself I will make it more often. The peanut butter makes it creamy and gives it a rich, earthy flavor. The tomato, green pepper and onion mixture both adds texture and fills out the flavor with a hint of tartness to offset the slight sweetness of the peanut butter.

As I said in my earlier post, I am not a big fan of kidney beans. They have a musty aftertaste to me that, while subtle, cannot be ignored. That mustiness disappears completely in Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew. It is delicious served over brown rice, or all by itself.

It also travels well, so is excellent for workday lunch.

The organic all-natural peanut butter I use makes this a little more expensive than it could be, but there is such a small amount in there that I can still use it with a clear conscience.

Total Cost: $8.33
Cost per Serving: $1.67
Home Cookin Chapter: Soups and Stews

Makes 5 Servings

1-1/2 cups dried red kidney or pinto beans, or 2 15-oz. cans organic, undrained
salt to taste
2 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 large green pepper, chopped into small dice
1 tsp ground cumin
1 c canned tomato sauce, or 4 oz. tomato paste plus 1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar
1-1/2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter

Soak and cook beans; do not drain. Add salt, stir to mix, and leave in cooking liquid. If using canned beans, place in 3-quart saucepan, add salt, and heat under a low flame while you are cooking the vegetables. If you are using canned beans, empty the beans and their liquid* into a 3-quart saucepan, add salt, and heat under a low flame while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients.

Put the oil in a large skillet and set over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and pepper. Cook just until the onion has turned translucent, turning the heat down as needed. Add cumin and stir once.

Add the tomato sauce (or tomato paste with 1/2 cup water), cayenne, lemon juice, and another 1/2 cup of water. Stir and bring to simmer. Turn heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 15 mins.

Add the peanut butter to the heated beans and stir until it has been mixed in thoroughly. Pour the tomato mixture into the pot of beans. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn heat down to low, and simmer gently for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.

Serve hot over brown rice, or with a loaf of crusty whole wheat bread.

*If you are using canned, conventional wisdom indicates to be sure to use an organic brand where beans and sea salt are the only ingredients. This is important any time you want to use the liquid that comes with the beans; conventional brands have a higher sodium content and often contain other unwanted ingredients.

adapted from
Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, by Madhur Jaffrey (Clarkson Potter, 1999).

Exported from Home Cookin 5.7 (

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Baking Class: Upside Down Cobbler

Many years ago my sister and I drove down to Houston from Austin to visit my brother and his girlfriend (now his wife). They had been dating for a while, but had only recently moved in together, and if memory serves it was the first meal she cooked for us. On the menu were lemon-pepper chicken breasts that were tart and savory and quite delicious. For dessert, she mentioned there was peach cobbler.

I am not generally a cobbler person. My mother's cobblers were basically just a lot of cooked fruit with no bottom crust and a pie crust laid over the top. Since the crust was the only thing that made a pie worth eating to me, cobbler was just a waste of fruit with too little of the good stuff to go with it. So I was not looking forward to dessert, but I didn't want to offend my possible future sister-in-law.

What she brought out did not look like any cobbler I had seen before. The top looked more like a cake than a crust, so I was intrigued. And the ratio of fruit to cake seemed weighted on the cake side, which was much more to my liking. The fruit was enveloped in the batter, which was soft and moist, and not too sweet. The canned pie peaches tasted much better to me than regular canned peaches, whose overly sweet taste and slimy texture was something I struggled to get down whenever my mother served them. And the scoop of vanilla ice cream served over the top took the cobbler over the top as well.

I found myself asking for the recipe, and not because I was trying to suck-up to my brother's girlfriend.

In the next few years, I made it often. I discovered early on that I could substitute any can of prepared pie filling (blueberry and cherry became my favorites) with the same spectacular results. It is easy to throw together, and other than the pie filling I always had the rest of the ingredients on hand.

One of the things I liked the most about it, though, is that you put the batter on the bottom and the fruit on the top, and while it is cooking the batter rises up over the fruit and comes out on the top, but the fruit is mixed in with the batter as well so it is a cohesive piece, rather than a mess of fruit with a small piece of pie dough laying on top of it.

After I moved to Chicago, I forgot about it for several years. By the time I had rediscovered it, I was eating more healthfully, and when I read the label on the canned fruit pie fillings, they were loaded with HFCS and chemicals, and I couldn't bring myself to buy them.

But seeing all of the blueberries, strawberries, and rhubarb at the green market inspired me to see if I could adapt the recipe for use with fresh fruit instead of the canned pie filling. It was surprisingly easy. I have made strawberry, rhubarb and blueberry cobblers and I am so pleased with the results. I'm hard pressed to say which is my favorite. And when peaches come into season, I will happily add those to the mix.

This makes a small cobbler, so it's perfect for those times when you need something fast and delicious. It also keeps well, if it lasts that long.
Serves 4

2/3 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, slice strawberries, or chopped rhubarb, peaches or apples
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 300 deg. F.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Add oil and milk and whisk until smooth. Pour into a 1.5-quart or a 10 x 6-inch greased baking dish.

Place fruit, sugar and butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil. Pour over the batter and place in the oven.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cake is set and browned on the edges.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ad of the Week: Del Monte Canned Corn

According to Del Monte's latest commercial, you get a whole lot more corn for a better price when you buy a can of corn rather than fresh or frozen, and there's virtually no difference between the three.

Let's see. Right now corn is in season, so it's on sale for .19 cents an ear. A 15.25-oz. can of Del Monte canned whole kernel corn is $1.49. You can buy 8 ears of corn for $1.49, which I reckon could fill about 4 cans (which brings the total up to $5.96). And right now at my grocery store a 16-oz. bag of frozen whole kernel corn is on sale for $1.09 through October of this year. (Full disclosure: It's normally $1.83.)

Maybe there's something wrong with my math, but I don't see the price of Del Monte's corn even coming close to fresh or frozen. It gets more interesting when you look at the ingredients of the three items:
Fresh: Corn
Frozen: Corn
Del Monte Canned: Corn, water, salt
It's kind of funny. When I was younger, I preferred canned corn to frozen. Most likely it's because that's what I grew up eating. The canned corn had more flavor, and was more firm than the frozen. But now that I have been eating only fresh and frozen, I find that it was the salt in the can that made it taste better to me, and made it seem more firm. Of course fresh is best, but for my money, when it's out of season frozen is the next best thing.

Another advantage of using frozen over canned is that you don't have to use the whole bag at one time. I open the package, take what I need, close it back up, and leave it in the freezer until the next time I need it.

I know this is a little one as far as the gap between the ad and the product goes, but still, the gap is there. And even if the canned corn really were cheaper, I'd still buy the frozen. All things considered, it's still the better value to me.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Vegetable Stock

Once I realized I was going to have to put myself on a food budget, I started looking at everything that was happening in my kitchen. In addition to making the smartest choices I could at the grocery store, the butcher, and the green market, I wanted as little to go to waste in my kitchen itself as possible. And within a few days, I was noticing how many produce tips and ends were going into the trash bowl.

I make a lot of soups and stews, so I have been in the habit of always having quart containers of chicken and vegetable broth on hand. When I discovered how easy it was to make chicken stock in the slow cooker, I rarely used the store-bought stuff. But I was still buying quarts of vegetable stock to have on hand. And that stuff can get expensive.

And not only expensive, most of it is crap. Ok, ok, it's purely subjective, but most prepared vegetable stocks just do not taste good to me. It must be the ratio and blend of the vegetables that are used, and some of them are suspiciously thick for being vegetable stock. All of the mainstream brands have a nasty chemical aftertaste to them. And most of the organic brands have a muddy taste to me. That's the best way I can describe it, like the vegetable they use the most of is overpowering everything else, including the dish I want to make.

For a while, I was buying Kitchen Basics Natural Roasted Vegetable Broth at Trader Joe's, which was light and clear, with a delicate taste that enhanced my dish rather than overtaking it completely. And then Trader Joe's stopped carrying it, and I never could find the Roasted Vegetable Broth at the grocery store, and they don't have it on their website, so I think they discontinued it. In the meantime, Imagine's Organic Vegetable Broth made a reasonable substitute. While I did not care for the flavor as much, it was at least a light enough flavor that stayed firmly in the background.

But the organic brands are even more expensive than the conventional broths. I started thinking of spending all of that money for something I knew I could make myself, and probably make more to my liking than what I was finding at the store.

My father made a lot of soup when I was living at home. At some point he read a tip that you should save and freeze all of the liquid in which you cook your vegetables, and throw them into your soup pot. This was when most people were eating frozen vegetables, and there was a lot of liquid being thrown away. It was also about the time that it was discovered that there were a lot of nutrients leaching out into that water that was being thrown away.

From that point on, I would always find little jars half-filled with green, brown, and yellow liquid whenever I went into the freezer. After I graduated high school and moved out on my own, I too would periodically take my leftover vegetable liquids and throw them in the freezer. The difference is that he used all of his little jars, and I would end up throwing them out after a couple of years, by which time I had no idea what they were.

But now I was finding myself looking at every piece of food that I was using, and what I was throwing away. And within a few days I started paying particular attention to how many vegetable ends and pieces were going into the trash. And there was a lot going into the trash that had enough meat on it (so to speak) that I started thinking I could probably make a decent stock out of it.

So I began saving the tips and bottoms of all of my vegetables. I put them in a gallon-sized self-zipping freezer bag. And I even started a collection of little jars with the leftover liquids from steamed spinach and the beet, turnip and kohlrabi greens I have been enjoying. It was a challenge because my freezer is not that big, but I hoped it would be worth it.

The bag filled up pretty quickly. I was somewhat gratified to see how many vegetables I use in a short period of time. Here you can see onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, kohlrabi, asparagus, and more that I'm sure I'm forgetting. Oh yes, there are some string bean ends you can't see, and parsley stems.

After I took the vegetables out of the bag and put them in the stock pot, I took a look in the vegetable crisper to see if there were any good volunteers in there. I had some celery that looked like it was starting to lose some of it's freshness and I didn't have any immediate plans for it, so I threw it in the pot. I also added some of those small garlic cloves that are a pain in the ass to peel and chop that I saved just for this purpose. I did not have too many carrot ends in the bag, but I had a couple of carrots in the crisper so I threw those in too.

I defrosted all of my little jars and added them to the pot, and then I filled up the rest with cold water. I added 12 whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves. I did not add any salt - I figured I could add that when I was ready to cook with the stock.

I brought the stock to a boil, skimmed what scum had accumulated, then turned the heat as low as it would go and simmered the stock for a few hours. I thought about using the slow cooker, but unlike chicken stock you do not need to cook this for hours and it didn't take too long on the stovetop. But you could certainly make it in the slow cooker using the same method I used for the chicken stock.

After it was done I let it cool a little, then strained out the vegetables. I put the liquid back into the pot and brought it back to a boil, just to be sure. It smelled light and sweet and I was pleased with how well it turned out. It was clear, with no hint whatsoever of chemicals. And whatever vegetable lends that super strong overpowering flavor to the store-bought varieties was absent from this batch.

It made about 4 quarts in all. I froze some of it in a quart jar, and the rest in one- and two- cup increments so I would have a variety of amounts available as I needed them.

Because I used mostly the parts of vegetables that I would have otherwise thrown away, this stock is virtually free. It makes a perfect soup base, and it adds an incredible amount of flavor when I cook grains in it.

It might seem like a lot of trouble to make your own stocks, but it doesn't really take any time at all. The items are already prepped, so there is little chopping involved. And it accumulates fast. I already have another bag in the freezer that is almost ready to go . . .

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Clapshot, Anyone? Mashed Turnips and Potatoes

No baking class today. Instead, I want to talk about turnips. I saw them at the Green Market last Wednesday, and they looked so fresh and pretty that I had to bring some home with me. It didn't help that Lynda was right there whispering in my ear about how good they were mashed with potatoes. And they had the most beautiful greens, which I am really getting into this season.

We were not a big root vegetable family. In fact, other than carrots and potatoes (do those even count?), the only root vegetable we ate with any regularity was canned beets, which I absolutely hated with a passion exceeded only by my hatred of black-eyed peas (which continues apace).

Until I tasted my first pickled beet (which was the canned beets marinated overnight in a vinegar/salt/sugar mixture with onions). The vinegar brightened up the musky, somewhat earthy taste and completely transformed them into a slightly sweet, slightly tangy salad, served chilled, that complemented the flavor of any meat with which it was served. I still did not like them any other way, but at least I recognized some value to the beet, which developed into a full-blooded passion for them over the past couple of years.

Other than that, we never came into contact with the likes of turnips, rutabagas or parsnips at our dinner table. Oh, I'm sure I must have come across them at some friend's house now or then, but to my knowledge they never passed my lips. Nor would I have wanted them to, given their reputation.

Until I was in my twenties and we were visiting my grandmother in Houston. Her cousin Sylvia brought over a huge salad made with vegetables fresh from her garden, dressed with a tangy home-made honey-mustard vinaigrette. In addition to the easily-recognizable lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, and celery, there were round white thin slices of something that was bigger than a radish, but had a similar consistency. They were milder, and slightly nutty, and I fell in love with them. Imagine my surprise when Cousin Sylvia announced that they were turnips. It immediately changed my opinion of them, and I determined to explore them when I got home.

And promptly forgot about them. Until I saw them at the market last week and (with Lynda's help) brought them home with me. I happened to have potatoes in the pantry, not something I generally keep on hand, so it seemed like fate.

I looked up several recipes and techniques for making mashed turnips and potatoes. In my searching, I discovered that it's a Scottish dish called Clapshot. Although there seems to be some confusion (on my part, at least) over whether Clapshot uses turnips or rutabaga. Some recipes that I saw called for turnips and some called for Swedish turnips or swedes, which is rutabaga. I don't think it matters much, and for my purposes the turnips worked out just fine.

So fine, in fact, that I have discovered a new love. The turnips add a light, slightly nutty flavor to the potatoes, and they also lighten up the texture. As you can see in the picture above, they are light and fluffy. And very white

I love mashed potatoes, but I have found a new love in Clapshot. And I found I didn't have to use as much liquid (read milk and butter) as I do when I'm mashing potatoes all by themselves. And it's quick and easy, too. At only thirty minutes from start to finish, this would make a brilliant side dish to any meal.

Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Makes 4 servings

3 medium turnips, peeled and cubed
1 large russet or red potato, cubed
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup milk
1/8 cup cream (optional)
1-2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp finely chopped fersh parsley, for garnish

Place turnips and potatoes in saucepan and add cold water just enough to cover. Bring to a boil and remove any scum that forms on the top. Lower heat and cook at a simmer until tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water, and return the pan with the turnips and potatoes to the burner, leaving it on low heat to get rid of any excess moisture, shaking the pan often to keep the turnips and potatoes from burning.

Remove pan from heat. Add milk, cream and butter and mash with a potato masher. Adjust amounts of milk, cream and butter to taste. Add salt and pepper to taste.

If not serving immediately, keep warm or reheat just before serving.

Garnish with parsley just before serving.


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