Monday, November 30, 2009

A Slightly Less Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

I usually go home for Thanksgiving, but this year has been a little bit of a challenge, what with the economy and all, so I stayed home. I could have found somewhere to go, but I found myself looking forward to a nice long four-day weekend all to myself. When I first moved to Chicago, after the first year I stopped going home. Every other year, my brother would come up with his family and we would make a mass migration down to the Melrose for their turkey dinner, but as the kids got older and space became more of a challenge that stopped. And then about six years or so ago I started going down there for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this year it just didn't work out. I'm sure you understand.

I'm not a huge fan of turkey, although I do like the sides. But I am definitely not one of those for whom it's just not Thanksgiving if there isn't a turkey. I thought I would take advantage of having the day to myself by coming up with a Thanksgiving-themed meal that wasn't the traditional fare.

I also wanted to utilize as many ingredients as I already had at hand, so I wouldn't have to make a big trip to the store during what is arguably the busiest week of the year at the grocery store. I did end up at the giant Whole Foods in Lincoln Park the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and it was a zoo. It's the third largest Whole Foods in the world, but it seemed much bigger to me than the larger one in Austin. (Oddly, though, the largest one is in London. Go figure.)

I was actually there meeting some knitting friends in the cafe, but I was getting a ride home so I took advantage of the opportunity to do a little shopping. It was crazy, and obscenely excessive, and somehow seems totally incongruous with the Whole Foods I remember from the early '80s, and with their local, sustainable message, but I have to admit if you can blind yourself to all the hoopla, their organic produce was quite good, and not too expensive. I got some lovely carrots, some beautiful red and green Swiss Chard, and a flat parsley a vibrant, healthy green the likes of which I had not yet seen this season. I am already looking forward to picking up some more items when we meet again next Tuesday.

My friend and knitting student just got accepted into Tulane University in New Orleans, so we won't be seeing her for a little while, which makes me sad even though I am quite happy for her and a little envious of her morning coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde, and those lazy strolls through the French Quarter.

Because she was leaving Thanksgiving Day, she gave me a lovely bag of gifts a little early this year. She told me not to open until it was a little closer to Christmas, except that I should poke around for a little box because that could actually be used for Thanksgiving (I haven't opened anything else yet, I promise!). So I poked around, found the little box, and unwrapped it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw that it was a package of Bell's All-Natural Seasoning. Apparently, Martha Stewart has been using it for years,and it is the secret ingredient in her stuffing. Not being a huge fan of Ms. Stewart, I was unaware of this product until, coincidentally enough, it was mentioned in a thread on the cooking newsgroup in which I have lurked for years just a few weeks earlier.

I am not much of a spice blend cook; I usually like to mix my own masalas and combine my own herbs and spices from what I have on hand. I think that is as much because I did not grow up with them, and I like the idea of the variety that combining spices as I use them gives me. But the minute I opened up the box and took a whiff I fell in love with it. It's got the usual suspects of a poultry seasoning - sage, thyme, oregano and marjoram, but it also has rosemary and ginger, which gives it an extra fresh sharpness of flavor. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to cook on Thursday, and I knew I would find a way to incorporate the seasoning into my meal.

I had planned to make some kind of stuffing with greens and sausage for my main course, but I also wanted to make empanadas. That started to seem like too much starch, so I decided to stick with the empanadas and just make greens as a side dish. I knew I wanted sweet potatoes (sweet potatoes are what defines Thanksgiving to me - it just isn't Thanksgiving without them), which is how I came up with my Cranberry Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup. After I made the cranberry sauce for the garnish for that soup I realized that, after years of doctoring it up with orange juice, walnuts, apples and ginger, I really like it best when it is made without all of the bells and whistles, so I decided to use the rest of the bag of cranberries to make more sauce. I thought it would go well with the empanadas.

I thought about making a pie for dessert, but I already had piecrust with the empanadas, so I thought maybe a Jack Robinson cake would fit the theme. It's a yellow cake (that's actually more white than yellow, even though there are two whole eggs in it) with a brown sugar meringue baked on top of it. It's a recipe that has been around in our family since before I can remember, but I have only made it once or twice. I don't know how I thought of it, but once I did I know it was the perfect dessert. An extra bonus is that it is easier to take cake to friends than pieces of pie, and I knew I was going into the knit shop on Friday so I would not have to eat the whole thing by myself.

The only wrinkle I ran into with my meal was that I thought I had some ground turkey in the freezer from my last batch of empanadas, but I was mistaken. The last time I made empanadas, I used ground pork and that is what I had. But I decided not to let it get me down. I used the same seasoning I would have used for turkey, and while it definitely was not turkey, it was close enough.

This is what I ended up with for my Thanksgiving day feast:
Cranberry Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup
Pork, leek and potato empanadas
Home-made cranberry sauce
Red and Green Swiss Chard with bacon and whole-grain mustard
Jack Robinson Cake

It was pretty near perfect. I thought the gremolata would complement the empanadas, but it actually overpowered them. I decided to put them to a different use and ate the empanadas with the cranberry sauce instead. It was much better.

This was a very satisfying meal, without being excessive, which is not really fun when you are eating by yourself. I made the soup and the cake on Wednesday, and everything else was pretty straightforward on Thursday, and sat down to my feast at around three o'clock in the afternoon, after spending a couple of hours on the phone with my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephews.

The empanadas and the cake are for future posts, but I was so pleased with how the chard turned out that I thought I would share that recipe here. It's fast and simple, and goes well with anything. You can't go wrong with greens and bacon.

1/4 lb. (3-4 slices, depending on thickness) of good quality smoked bacon (applewood or maple are both good), diced
1 tsp whole-grain dijon mustard
2 bunches (1 red, 1 green) Swiss Chard, leaves removed from the stems and torn into large pieces, rinsed and drained.

Put bacon in cold skillet and render out the fat over medium heat. Once the bacon is browned and crisp, remove it from the skillet and put it on a paper-towel covered plate to soak up the grease.

Pour out all but a tablespoon of the bacon grease and put the skillet back over medium heat. When it is hot, add the whole grain mustard, and break it down. As soon as the seeds start to pop, add the swiss chard. Season with pepper (and more salt if necessary but be careful - there's a lot of salt in the bacon) to taste. Cook, stirring frequently with tongs to make sure the greens are evenly exposed to the hot skillet, until the greens have wilted to the desired consistency and are still a vibrant green. Do not overcook the greens, for this dish they should still have some bite to them. If necessary, add a little water to keep them from getting too dry.

Add the bacon back to the skillet and leave over the heat just long enough to mix it in. Serve immediately.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cranberry Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it. Happy Thursday to everyone else.

After my success in creating last year's Raspberry Chipotle Sweet Potatoes, I thought it might be a fun challenge to come up with a completely new and different sweet potato dish this year. Given how much I've been enjoying the roasted butternut squash soup this season, roasted sweet potato soup seemed like the logical choice.

I was going to keep the same ingredients as last year and make a raspberry chipotle sweet potato soup, but seeing as how it's Thanksgiving, I thought it might be interesting to use cranberries instead of raspberries. It turned out to be a good match. The natural tartness of the cranberries added a fresh zing to the velvety smooth sweet potato. The chipotle added just the right amount of smoky spice. I was careful not to add too much so it would not be too spicy. I think I succeeded. The heat builds slowly and leaves a warm tingle by the time the spoon has scooped up the last little drop.

This recipe uses the same basic techniques as the Roasted Butternut Squash and Shallot Soup I adapted from a Cooking Light recipe. The more I cook, the more I realize how many dishes are built from the same foundations. In this case, you take some vegetables, roast them up, add some liquid and puree them, and you have an almost infinite array of possibilities.

But for Thanksgiving, sweet potatoes and cranberries are definitely the way to go.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes


Makes 6-8 Servings

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 shallots, peeled and sliced lengthwise in half
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
10-12 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves stripped and chopped, stems discarded
salt and pepper
3 cups vegetable broth
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp sweet sherry or marsala wine

1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

heavy cream for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F.

Place the cubed sweet potatoes, halved shallots and garlic cloves in a roasting pan and toss with the olive oil. Add the thyme; season to taste with salt and pepper and toss again.

Roast in the 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, place the cranberries in a small saucepan with the water and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and let boil until the berries burst, about 5 minutes. Watch this constantly; it can boil over pretty quickly.

Let the cranberry mixture cool completely. Use a stick blender to make a puree, adding water if necessary to give it the consistency of a thick syrup.

Put the roasted vegetables into a large soup pot and add the vegetable broth and the chipotle pepper. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium low heat. As soon as it has started to simmer, remove from the heat and, using a stick blender, blend until smooth. Return the pan to the stove and bring back to a simmer.

Add the milk and 1/2 a cup of the cranberry puree, and stir well. Add more water or milk as necessary to reach desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add sherry and mix well.

Remove from heat. Serve immediately, garnished with a tablespoon of cream topped with a tablespoon of the cranberry syrup.

loosely adapted from
Cooking Light Magazine, November 2008

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Monday, November 23, 2009

Squash and Picadillo Enchilada Casserole

I had a half-batch of picadillo left over from my first empanada attempt (more on that later), and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it. In the past, we would scoop it up with flour tortillas, but I got out of the flour tortilla habit after I moved to Chicago and could not find a whole wheat flour tortilla to save my life. By the time they did appear, there was only one brand available and I could taste whatever additives they used to preserve them. I could have used corn tortillas, and that is what I decided to do.

And somewhere within that decision, after I had brought the corn tortillas home with me, came the idea of making enchiladas. I thought it would work out really well to wrap the picadillo and some cheddar cheese in the tortillas and top it all with a lovely tomato enchilada sauce. I already had some sharp cheddar in the refrigerator so I decided to go with that.

With many enchilada recipes, you fry the tortillas in oil to make them pliable. I never liked to deal with the mess of that, and I also wanted a healthier alternative. I found a recipe (I believe on the back of some taco seasoning a housemate had bought years ago) that called for dipping the tortillas in the enchilada sauce to soften them up and I liked that idea much better. I have been doing it that way ever since. That may be more of a Tex-Mex way to make them, I don't know. I just know I like them that way.

But as I was working out the recipe in my mind, I realized that the tomato sauce needed something more. Something meaty. Something like . . . picadillo. That would work, but then what would I put inside the enchiladas? I didn't have many options in the refrigerator or the pantry, so I thought maybe I could just fill them with onions and cheese and top them with the picadillo-tomato sauce. There's something to be said about a cheese-onion enchilada.

But then I thought about the delicata squash I had bought a few days earlier. I had no specific plans for that, and I started to wonder how it would go with the other ingredients. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. So I cut it in half lengthwise, scooped out the pulp and seeds, and roasted it in the oven for about 20 minutes. I didn't want it to get too tender because it was going to bake again with the enchiladas.

It came out better even than I had anticipated. The smooth sweetness of the squash was balanced by the gooey sharp cheese, and the piquant picadillo sauce brought the whole thing together.

It takes a little time and effort to make the actual enchiladas, but it's easy and it moves quickly and they're done before you know it. And the end result is a hearty, satisfying meal. I hadn't made enchiladas in a long time, but now that I have started again I do not intend to stop.

This is another one of those dishes where, once you figure out the basics, there is no end to the possibilities. You can change the sauce, the fillings, even the wraps to match your mood, or what you have on hand.

As comfort food on a cold windy day, there's nothing better.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Makes 4-6 servings.

2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1 med onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 lb. ground beef, pork or turkey
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried chilies
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup roughly chopped green olives
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds

Green onions and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add onion, season with salt, and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic, green pepper and celery and cook another 3 minutes, until the onions are translucent.

Add the tomato paste and, stirring to mix it into the vegetables, cook for a few minutes until the color has deepened. Add cumin and stir for 1 minute.

Add ground beef, oregano and dried peppers. Season with more salt and brown thoroughly, breaking it up so there are no clumps and it is thoroughly mixed into the vegetable mixture. If the mixture becomes too dry, add water in small amounts at a time.

Add olives and raisins and cook until heated through and the raisins have plumped some. Add almonds and cook another minute. Serve hot.

Garnish with chopped green onions and cilantro.


Makes 4-6 servings

small amount of oil
1 Delicata or other winter squash
4 oz. cheddar cheese, grated
1 28-oz. can tomato puree (or tomato sauce)
1/2 cup water
1 tsp oregano
salt and pepper
12-12 corn tortillas
1 tsp cumin
1 cup picadillo

Preheat oven to 375 deg. F and grease a 9 x 12-inch baking dish. Slice squash in half and remove seeds. Brush with oil and place, cut side down, on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until just tender. Let cool, remove the skin and cut it into 1/2-inch slices. (This can be done ahead.)

Pour pureed tomatoes into a 3-quart saucepan over low heat. Add oregano and water and bring to a simmer over low heat.

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Remove sauce from heat and place on a heating pad on the counter, with the baking dish nearby. Using a plate or cutting board as a work space, grab a tortilla with tongs and dip it into the hot tomato sauce, making sure it is completely covered. Leave it in for just a few seconds, shake off the excess sauce, and lay it on the plate.

Spread a small handful of cheese down the middle of the tortilla. Layer some squash on top of it. Take one end of the tortilla and roll it lengthwise around the squash and cheese mixture. Place seam side down in the baking dish.

Continue making the tortillas, placing them in one layer in the dish. When all of the enchiladas have been prepared, return the pan with the remainder of the sauce to the burner and add the picadillo. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until the flavors have blended. If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it with a little water. Pour the sauce over the enchiladas in the baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and top with the remaining cheese. Bake another 20 minutes, until the cheese has browned and melted.

Serve hot.

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baking Class: Graham Crackers

So how did I end up making graham crackers from scratch? Funny you should ask. I have always been fascinated by them. They were one of the few cookie-type products that we had in our house pretty much all the time. For a quick dessert or if we were out of cereal, my mother would put some in a bowl and cover it with milk. The trick was to eat it as quickly as possible before the graham crackers became a wet soggy mess. I was fascinated by this process because, until you put your spoon under it and tried to pick it up, you never knew for sure whether it would stay intact or not. And you wonder where I got my taste for soggy, mushy food.

Graham crackers were developed in the early 19th century by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who promoted vegetarianism (among other things) and decried the practice of adding chemicals to bread. Like the Kelloggs, Graham believed that people should only eat bland foods, and stay away from unhealthy urges.
The graham cracker was developed to offer a somewhat sweet, but still healthy, treat to help people suppress those unhealthy appetites.

Ironically enough, most commercial graham crackers today are made from the very refined white flour against which he campaigned, and have all kinds of chemical additives. I only buy them when I want to make graham cracker brownies these days, and I buy Annie's Honey Bunny Grahams, which are still made with whole wheat and fewer additives (can't say none because I don't know what those "natural flavors" are on the ingredient list). They work just fine for the brownies.

I hadn't made whole wheat bread in a while, and I decided to make some not long ago, but I didn't have enough whole wheat flour. So I put it on my shopping list. At the store, I was looking at three brands - King Arthur, Bob's Red Mill, and Hodgeson Mill. I had used both King Arthur and Bob's Red Mill, so I thought I would try Hodgeson Mill. I put it in the cart and brought it home with me.

Imagine my surprise when I got the bag home and noticed a section on the back of the bag titled "History of Graham Flour." Huh? I didn't buy the wrong thing, did I? I looked at the front of the bag - "100% Whole Wheat Flour." No mention of graham at all, until I looked more closely, where it said at the bottom: "Graham Flour Story on Back."

Long story short? Graham flour is whole wheat flour. The only thing that differentiates this bag of flour from what I usually buy is that this flour is much more coarse than the others. The minute I opened it up and started working on the bread I knew it would affect the final product. It was thicker, and heavier. It did not knead as smoothly. It did not rise as high. But it did knead, and it did rise. As I was working with it, I told myself if the bread did not turn out as well as it usually did, then I would just make some graham crackers with it, since I wouldn't be using it for anything else.

And that's how I ended up making graham crackers. I found a recipe at that was reprinted from Retro Desserts: Totally Hip, Updated Classic Desserts from the '40S, '50S, 60s and '70s by Wayne Harley Brachman (William Morrow, 2000). I tweaked it a bit, and by the third attempt (thus validating my Law of Three theory), found the perfect blend of ingredients and technique.

They may not look symmetric or even-edged, but I can tell you they are spectacularly delicious. And not just "Wow these are pretty good for a healthy treat" delicious. They are light and crunchy and almost melt in your mouth (yes, even with all that coarse whole wheat). There is a complexity to the sweetness, thanks to the three different sweeteners used, but the sweetness is not at all overpowering.

Everyone who has tried them has raved about them. They are so much better than anything you can buy at the store, and even rival other, more traditional cookies. Well, maybe not toll house cookies but let's be realistic here.

These are so good that I want to use them for my graham cracker brownies but I don't want to waste them. What does that tell you?

I won't lie, they are a bit of a bother to roll out and get on to the baking sheets. But they are well worth the effort. You can even make them in two stages - make the dough, roll it out to the first thickness, and then leave it in the fridge for anywhere from an hour to 24. You could probably even freeze the dough. You could definitely freeze the cookies.

I'm telling you, if you want to impress your friends, get some old fashioned 100% whole wheat flour and whip up a batch.

The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of rye flour. Since I don't use that, I didn't want to buy it just for this purpose, so I just upped the amount of the whole wheat flour. At some point I will probably try it with the rye flour, though, because that just seems to be where I'm heading.

You may also be tempted to omit the cinnamon; I did with the first batch I made. It was definitely better with it. You can't really taste the cinnamon, but it acts as a flavor enhancer that adds to the sweetness, somehow. I would definitely leave it in.
Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies

Makes 48 cookies

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups coarsely-ground whole-wheat flour (sometimes called graham flour)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp molasses
1/4 cup cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to mix them together. Add the cold butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 20 seconds (no more than 30).

Add the honey, molasses, water and vanilla. Pulse just until the dough comes together into a ball, another 20 seconds (again, not more than 30).

Turn the dough out onto a piece of waxed paper. Cover with a second piece of waxed paper and roll the dough out 1/2-inch thickness, being careful not to roll it outside of the boundaries of your baking sheet. Place the waxed paper-coated dough on a baking sheet and chill for at least an hour or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Remove dough from the refrigerator and cut it into three even pieces. Let sit for 5 minutes to soften a little. Put each piece between waxed paper and roll out to a scant 1/8-inch thickness. Again, be careful not to roll outside the boundaries of your baking sheet.

Line your baking sheets with parchment paper. Gently unroll the top piece of waxed paper from your rolled-out dough place it on the parchment paper covered baking sheet. Gently peel back the other piece of waxed paper.

Repeat this process with the two other batches of dough. Using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 2-inch squares. Poke each cracker with a fork at least six times - three times on each side evenly.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until they just start to brown around the edges. Do not let them get too dark. Remove from the oven and cool on racks. Let cool completely before storing them.

adapted from Retro Desserts: Totally Hip, Updated Classic Desserts from the '40S, '50S, 60s and '70s by Wayne Harley Brachman (William Morrow, 2000)

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pork and Cabbage Stew with Kidney Beans

The title of this post should be Lamb and Cabbage Stew with Fresh Shell Beans, and it would have been if the Apple Market had not been out of lamb shoulder and I hadn't been forced to substitute pork shoulder, and if any store in my area carried fresh shell beans.

Luckily, I happen to love pork shoulder so it was no real sacrifice to substitute the pork for the lamb. And kidney beans worked just fine in place of the freshly-shelled.

Last week they had beautiful heads of cabbage on sale at Treasure Island for 29 cents a pound. I bought one, and then had to decide what I wanted to do with it. I had just pulled this recipe from Bon Appetit, and this is the perfect time of year for such a hearty stew.

I don't have much to say about this stew, except that it is delicious. Marinating the meat overnight in the spices flavors it all the way through, and the cinnamon added a hint of warmth as it was simmering. There are a lot of ingredients, but it really isn't a lot of work. Most of the time is cooking time.

While this isn't the least expensive meal I've made, at just about $2.50 a serving it's not exactly outrageous, and definitely worth the splurge every now and then.

And as good as it was with the pork, I can't wait to try it with the lamb.
Home Cookin Chapter: Beef and Lamb

Serves 6 to 8
Note: Start this dish a day ahead; the meat needs to marinate overnight.

2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp dried mint, crumbled
3/4 tsp coarse kosher salt
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1-3/4 lbs. trimmed boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes (pork shoulder will also work)
2 cups chopped onions
1-2/3 cups canned crushed tomatoes with added puree
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 small cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 bay leaf
1-1/4 cups coarsely chopped peeled carrots
1 small green cabbage (about 1 pound), quartered, cored, cut into 1/4-inch
slice (about 7 cup)
Coarse kosher salt
1-1/2 cups water
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, divided
1 14.5-oz. can red kidney beans (or whatever beans you have on hand), drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Toast coriander and caraway seeds over medium-high heat in a small skillet, until they are just turning color and are emitting a toasty aroma, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Put them in a small bowl and let cool for a few minutes. Give them a fine grind in a spice mill (I use a coffee grinder) or a mortar and pestle.

Place the spices in a large resealable plastic bag. Add the mint, salt, turmeric and crushed red pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and mix everything into a paste. Add the cubed lamb, seal the bag, and squish everything around until all of the meat has been coated with the paste. Place the bag on a plate and chill in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the lamb mixture and the onions and saute until the meat is browned and the onions are translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Add carrots and the cabbage, and sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper.

Add the water and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice to the pot and stir everything together. Bring to a boil, Then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the meat and cabbage are tender, stirring occasionally, for 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hours.

Remove cinnamon stick and bay leaf from stew. Add the beans and remaining tablespoon of lemon juice. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, until the beans are heated through and the flavors have blended. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper if desired.

Stir in the parsley and serve immediately.

adapted from recipe by Molly Stevens (Bon Appetit, October 2009)

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The End of the World As We Know It

Ok, this has nothing to do with cooking, but it's really, really important. I just have one question:


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Steel Cut Oats: It's What's for Breakfast

I was one of those rare kids who loved oatmeal as a child. I didn't understand why anyone wouldn't. Of course, it wasn't until years later that I realized the reason I liked it so much was because it made an excellent vehicle for the vast amounts of margarine (no butter in our house!) and brown sugar I loaded into it as soon as I was old enough to make my own.

Once I got a little older and wanted to eat more healthfully, I didn't like it nearly so much. Without the margarine and sugar it was gluey and slimy, with no redeeming features whatsoever. I began to get the idea of why no one else liked it.

Flash forward quite a few years, when everyone began touting the potentially cholesterol-lowering benefits of the oat. I decided to give it another try, and just decided I would use the butter (yes, butter by now) and brown sugar much more sparingly - just enough to sweeten the pot, as it were. Which worked fine for a few days, but each day would find me adding just a little bit more butter and brown sugar, until once again there was just a little bit of oatmeal to go along with my bowl of bad.

And then I watched my sister-in-law add just a little bit of water to a cup of old-fashioned oats (as opposed to the quick-cooking with which I had grown up) and microwave it for a couple of minutes, after which she added about a fourth of a cup of halved red grapes. Hmmmm. There's some healthy sweetness. I gave it a try, and it wasn't half bad. I went home determined to start eating it more regularly.

One of the benefits of the old-fashioned oats is that they are whole, and if you cook them with less liquid than the instructions indicate, they are not nearly as gluey and slimy as when they're cooked with a lot of liquid. There's less liquid to absorb, so they don't soften and clump up quite so much. But of course I had to improvise on the theme. I liked to add a little milk to beef up the protein and make it a little less dry, and without even thinking about it I started nuking them with milk instead of water. It made them a little more creamy, without entering the slimy/gluey range. And the freshness of the grapes complemented the flavor of the oats rather than covering it up like the butter and brown sugar, so I was able to discern an actual flavor to the oats, and it was a good flavor. It became my regular breakfast, seasonally, for quite a few years.

Why seasonally, you ask? My sister-in-law lives in Texas, where in-season produce tends to be available for a much longer period than it is here in the midwest. I don't know about where you live, but around these parts we get good grapes for oh, about a month or two if we're lucky. They're decent another two months or so, which means that for three-fourths of the year I have no grapes with which to sweeten my oats. I had to find a substitute.

Raisins came to mind. I like raisins, but I do not love them all by themselves. I liked them best mixed with nuts and other dried fruit. I thought nuts might complement the toastiness of the oats, while the fruit would provide the sweetener. It's more healthy that way too, because as good as dried fruit is for you, it has concentrated sugar, so it is best to not to eat too much of it, so I learned to mix it at a 2 to 1 ratio nuts to fruit. It worked beautifully, and I could now enjoy my oatmeal year round.

One of the reasons I switched to old-fashioned oats is because I had been reading up on whole grains, and almost everyone agreed that you get the least bang for your buck with instant oatmeal, followed by quick-cooking, and then old-fashioned, with steel-cut oats being the grand poobah of whole-grain healthiness. I settled for next best. It takes a good half hour to cook steel-cut oats, and you have to cook it on the stove top. I had gotten in the habit of taking my oats, milk, and fruit and nut mix to work with me and nuking it right then and there for my breakfast.

After I quit my job back in '05, I had some time on my hands for the first time in a long time. One of the first things I decided to do was buy me some steel-cut oats and see about cooking them. I found them at my local grocery store, but the name brands they offered were expensive - like three times as much as the quick-cooking and old-fashioned kind, so I held off, until I was at Trader Joe's and saw that their brand was much more reasonably priced. I brought it home, experimented with it, and never looked back. You can actually find steel-cut oats in bulk in many places as well, which is also more reasonable than the name brands.

I had no idea how to cook them; I only knew they took a while, so I went online to search out cooking instructions. Luckily, the first site I happened on suggested that the oats be toasted first. One benefit is that it helps the oats cook faster; the other (but by no means secondary) benefit is that it imparts a nutty flavor that is brought out even more by the nuts. So I pre-heated my oven, toasted my oats, and the next day I cooked up my first batch.

It was quite good, and completely different from the old-fashioned oats. Even though it cooks up into a pretty good mush, there is a solid core at the center of each little piece of oat that adds texture to every mouthful. I cook it in water, and then add milk at the end.

It's better to cook steel cut oats in larger amounts than just the one serving, but it keeps beautifully in the refrigerator. When I went back to work, I got in the habit of cooking up a batch, then portioning it out into serving-size containers that I would take to work with me, add some milk, and nuke up just like I did with the old-fashioned oats. It's actually not bad with a mashed banana and cinnamon, but my favorite is the fruit and nut mixture.

I have started buying my fruit and (unsalted) nuts separately and mixing them together myself. It lets me take advantage of sales, and it is also lets me control the proportion of the ingredients. When I am feeling a little more flush, I will use cranberries and pumpkin seeds; when I'm not feeling so flush it's raisins and sunflower seeds.

I never thought I would have this much to say about oatmeal. But now that I am making it with steel cut oats and eating it with a little milk and dried fruit and nuts, it is both healthy and delicious and, as my mother would say, it sticks to your ribs. Not a bad thing with cold weather coming.

Toasting the oats:

Preheat oven to 375 deg. F. Place oats in a shallow baking dish. When the oven is ready, place the dish in the center rack. Bake the oats for about 40 minutes, checking and gently stirring them in ten-minute intervals, until the oats have turned a light brown and emit a warm, toasty aroma. Let cool completely, then place in an air-tight container.

To make 4 servings:

Place 4 cups of water in a medium (at least 3-quart) saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil Add oats (and 1 teaspoon salt if desired) and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently (be careful not to let the pan boil over at this point). Bring the heat down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until the oats have absorbed all of the liquid.

Serve with milk and your favorite oatmeal toppings. I use red grapes cut in half, a dried fruit and nut mixture, or sliced banana and cinnamon.

If you are not serving all four portions immediately, you can either store it refrigerated in one large container and spoon out servings, or save it in individual-sized containers.

To reheat, simply place the oats on a microwave-safe container and nuke on high for 1 minutes, then at 80% power for 1 more minute. (If you do both rounds on high, be sure to keep an eye on it - it can boil over pretty quickly.) I add about an eighth of a cup of milk when I reheat it, but it isn't necessary.

You can make more or less than four servings at a time; the ratio is 1/4 cup oats to 1 cup water.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Pink Beans and Brown Rice

I love my "untried recipe" filing system. It's just a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it helps me keep track of every recipe I have pulled out of magazines, marked in a book, or snagged from the internet.They're all listed in one place, so finding something new is so much easier than it used to be.

That's how I found this red beans and brown rice recipe. I am trying to eat beans at least once a week because 1) they are inexpensive; 2) they are relatively easy to make; 3) they taste good; and 4) they are good for me. But even though I have many many recipes that I like, still I want more. I am always on the lookout for a new bean recipe that will give me a new flavor profile, or combine things in ways I have not previously combined them.

So I opened up my spreadsheet, sorted the recipes by main ingredient, and browsed the "bean" section.

When I came to a recipe for Red Beans and Brown Rice from Lean Bean Cuisine, several things clicked into place. I have liked every recipe that I have made from this book. I have always wanted to make Red Beans and Rice. The last time I cooked beans and rice together was sometime in the mid '80s, and it was quite successful but I didn't pay attention to what I was doing and could never quite duplicate it so I pretty much gave up, but this recipe looked like it might work.

I have no doubt that this recipe does not qualify as authentic to the New Orleans specialty, and I'm not terribly fond of kidney beans, so I thought I might try it with pink beans instead, something else I've been wanting to try. I bought La Preferida pink beans and, with the exception of chickpeas, they were the firmest, least mushy beans I have found in a can. They were soft and tender, but did not fall apart, which is nothing to take for granted when you are talking about canned beans. They have a nice, clean taste too. Whatever that slightly off taste is that I find in kidney beans is nonexistent here. They are somewhat similar to pinto beans, but fresher.

of course, that might just be because they are new to me. The true test will be the next time I use them.

Knowing that this was not an authentic N'waluns red beans and rice recipe, I felt free to improvise, mostly based on what was available in my kitchen. Specifically, I forgot that I needed a green bell pepper so I did not have one. What I did have was celery. I knew it would not impart the same flavor, but I knew it would add a component that could help to replace the missing bell pepper. I will definitely add the bell pepper next time, but I will add it to the celery - I liked the earthy flavor that brought to the beans and rice.

I also added the rice to the pan before I added the liquid, and sauteed it for a few minutes before adding the liquid. Especially with brown rice, I find that coating each grain with a little of the oil helps keep it from turning into one big clump of mush. The extra bonus is that toasting the grains adds an element of warmth that elevates the rest of the flavors.

I also did not feel like having a whole heap of beans and rice hanging around, so I used just 1 cup of rice, and 2-1/2 cups of vegetable broth. I could (and should) have just used 2 cups of liquid; while the flavors were there, it could in no way be considered fluffy.

But it was tasty. The 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne and single teaspoon of Tabasco sauce was quite enough heat for me. The extra vegetables add some textural and flavor contrasts to the warm comfort of the beans and rice. It travels well for work lunches.

And at barely over a dollar a serving, it counts as a budget item in my book.

Something I think I did not mention when I talked about how I come up with the prices for my dishes is that where possible, I buy organic or higher quality, so these prices, which I think are already pretty low, would be even lower with conventional, national brands. But as I have stated before, even in this economically challenging time (especially in this economically challenging time), I want to make sure that my dollars are going towards responsible, sustainable food production. The latest beef recall at the end of October only strengthens my determination to support as many local, sustainable and organic (more or less in that order) businesses as I can.

Ok, I'm stepping down from my soapbox. And getting ready to enjoy a nice comforting bowl of pink beans with brown rice.

Home Cookin Chapter: Beans and Vegetables

Makes 4 servings

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup uncooked brown rice
2 cups water or vegetable stock
2 tsp dried oregano
1-3 tsp Tabasco or other bottled hot sauce
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
2 cups cooked or canned red kidney beans, drained
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic, and saute until vegetable are translucent.

Add the rice and saute, stirring frequently, until the grains give off a rich, toasty aroma and start to pop. Slowly add the water, which will splatter from the heat, and then the seasonings.

Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Add the beans and carrots, adjust the heat to low, cover, and cook for an additional 15 minutes or until the rice has absorbed all of the water.

Fluff the rice with a fork and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

adapted from Lean Bean Cuisine by Jay Solomon (Prima, 1995)

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Baking Class: Key Lime Cookies

I am a sucker for key limes. If key lime pie is on the dessert menu, chances are good that I'm going to order it, even if I wasn't planning to have dessert. Forget the chocolate, forget the ice cream. The only thing that will trump it is butterscotch anything, but you don't see that on the menu too often around these parts.

Other than pie, I don't see too many recipes that use key limes. I have had so much success with the recipes in Tish Boyle's The Good Cookie that I didn't hesitate on this one. It is with only the least hint of irony that I confess that the recipe says you can substitute regular limes for key limes, which I did. The key limes at my grocery store always look sad and neglected, and I'm not a fan of bottled lime or lemon juices. I did already have a couple of limes in the refrigerator, though, so I decided to just use those.

I don't know how much different that made. I found these cookies to be . . . odd. Not bad, just odd. The dough itself was tasty - more crisp than tender, and not too sweet. But I didn't taste the lime until the very end, just before swallowing. Usually that's a good thing, that extra rush of something new that brings everything together, but in this case it didn't really bring things together for me so much as jumped up and took over. Limes have that sourness to them that makes a unique contrast to the sweetness of the cookie dough. There was cookie and then lime, not cookie with lime slowly adding to the overall flavor.

They were different, and that is always good in a cookie given how many similar kinds are out there. I would definitely try them again using key limes to see what kind of difference that made. And I would make them again with regular limes because they were so unusual and a refreshing break from the flavors with which I am most familiar.

But I will especially make them again so I can give some to Bob, who said they were the best cookies I've made so far.

Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies

Makes 54 cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup confectiners' sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp grated lime zest
1/2 tsp ground ginger
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
2 Tbsp bottled key lime or freshly-squeezed regular lime juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
Coarse sugar for sprinkling

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, confectioners' sugar, baking powder, salt, lme zest, and ginger and pulse a few times until combined. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour mixture and process for 25 to 30 seconds, until the butter is in small pieces.

In a small cup, combine the lime juice and vanilla extract. With the machine running, add the lime juice mixture through the feed tube and process for a few seconds, until the dough starts to come together.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface. Knead it a few times, until it comes together. Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into an 8-inch log. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until firm (or up to 3 days).

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 deg. F.

Unwrap the dough. Slice each log into rounds about 1/4-inch thick and place the cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Sprinkle the cookies lightly with coarse sugar. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 14 to 18 minutes, until very lightly golden around the edges; do not overbake. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely.

from The Good Cookie, by Tish Boyle (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Monday, November 02, 2009

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

A sure sign of fall is the appearance of winter squash. I know it's finally here when I get my first craving to make soup, and I finally succumb to the impulse to grab a pomegranate in the produce section. I never have specific plans for the pomegranate. I just want one.

We did not eat a lot of squash in our house when I was a child. We had yellow crookneck, zucchini (which was most exotic to us the first time my mother brought some home), and acorn squash baked with margarine and brown sugar, and that was about it. I liked squash, but I didn't know how to cook it outside of the few methods I learned at home.

Since I started this blog, I have become much more fearless in using ingredients with which I am not familiar. For the past few years, I have given myself the challenge to come back from every green market excursion with something I have never before prepared. Once I get it home, I do some research and figure out how to cook it. A few years ago, the unfamiliar ingredient was butternut squash. I really loved how the butternut squash saute turned out, and made a note to myself that I wanted to work with butternut squash again.

And forgot about it for three years. I don't know how that happened, but I was determined not to let it turn into four. I grabbed the first one I saw this season and brought it home with me.

I looked through my spreadsheet of untried recipes and found one I had taken from Cooking Light Magazine last fall. I loved the idea of roasting the squash with shallots and then making the soup. I pulled out the recipe and took a look at it.

Along with the squash and shallots, the recipe also called for a half-inch piece of ginger in the roasting pan. Having perfected my ginger carrot soup, I wanted to bring a different flavor profile to this soup. So I decided to leave the ginger out of this recipe.

I thought sherry might add a nice woody depth of flavor, and it did indeed provide a rich, nutty counterpoint to the sweet nutty taste of the squash. Soft as velvet, this soup will slide down your throat.
Home Cookin Chapter: Soups and Stews


2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1" cubes
6 shallots, peeled and sliced lengthwise in half
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp sweet sherry or marsala wine
salt and pepper to taste
cream for garnish
pomegranate seeds for garnish
nutmeg for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F.

Place the cubed squash and halved shallots in a roasting pan and toss with the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and roast in the 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes.

Put the roasted vegetables into a large soup pot and add the chicken broth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium low heat. As soon as it has started to simmer, remove from the heat and, using a stick blender, blend the mixture until it is smooth. Return the pan to the stove and bring back to a simmer.

Add the milk and stir well. At this point, you can either add more milk if it is too thick, or you can start adding water. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add sherry and mix it in.

Remove from heat. Serve immediately, garnished with a tablespoon of
cream and pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with a slight dusting of nutmeg, if desired.

Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine, November 2008

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (
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