Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Braised Eggplant

Ok, I know this is my third braised eggplant post in almost as many months. What can I say? I absolutely love eggplant cooked this way, and I am on a mission to convert all of you eggplant haters. It's relatively quick and definitely easy, and it absolutely melts in your mouth.

I made creme fraiche the week before the holidays, but never made the dish with which I had intended to use it and I didn't know what else to do with it so I looked online and found that you can freeze it. So I divided it into a few small jars and threw them into the freezer before heading down to Austin.

And promptly forgot that they were in there. Until the happy night that I decided to braise this eggplant and was rummaging around the kitchen to find enough liquids to make the sauce. I didn't have much on hand and I did not want to defrost an entire jar of vegetable broth just to use the small amount I needed. But I did have an orange, and I finally remembered that I had the creme fraiche. I knew I was onto something good.

I use oranges a lot in my stir fries. It usually makes the sauce sweet enough that it can replace any sugar. I based this sauce on a similar principle - orange juice, soy sauce and sherry. When the eggplant was done and removed it from the pan, cooked down the sauce, and added the creme fraiche just before removing the pan from the heat. I spooned it over the eggplant, then topped them with toasted chopped pistachios. De-licious!

A word about the frozen creme fraiche - it gets grainy when you defrost it, so you can't use it straight from the bowl. But it works beautifully in sauces.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Baking Class: Banana Applesauce Spice Cupcakes

I haven't posted about sweets lately, so I thought it was time I trotted out these lovely banana applesauce spice cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. I am very proud of them, because I was able to successfully adapt a recipe without having the result explode in my oven. And they taste delicious, too!

I eat bananas on an almost daily basis. I try not to buy more at a time than I can eat before they over-ripen, but I am not always successful. When this happens, I usually will decide to let them go all the way, and then I will bake something with them.

Usually, it will be this banana bread recipe that has been in my family for ages. That that takes three bananas, and there was a recent occasion when I only had two bananas that were heading into over-ripe territory, so I looked around to see if I could find something that only used two. I was also looking for ways to use leftover applesauce from all of the granola I was making, so I combined the two and did some online searching.

And found a recipe for banana applesauce cake that called for two bananas. What luck! So I whipped up a cake, covered it with cream cheese frosting, and had a taste. And it was . . . just ok. It was not terrible, but it was not great. I took it into work with me and the feedback I got matched my experience - good, but not great. It had potential, though, so I upped the spices and tweaked the rest of the ingredients and tried it again.

I made cupcakes this time, and I was delighted with the results. They were moist and spicy, and full of flavor. I have been going lighter with the sugar on the cream cheese frosting and it contrasted beautifully with the sweetness of the cupcake.

They were a big success at work, too. I have already made them again.

A cautionary note: because I have been going lighter on the sugar in the frosting, it does not set as firmly as regular frosting does. If you are going to transport them, be sure there is plenty of room between the frosting and the top of the container, or you will mash them down and end up with more frosting on the bottom side of the lid than you will have on the cupcakes themselves.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes


Makes 18-20 cupcakes

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1-1/2 cups white whole wheat or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 over-ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
4 Tbsp milk
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Cream Cheese Icing:

8-oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
Approximately 1 cup of confectioner's sugar, or to taste

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Line a cupcake pan with paper holders.

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt and sift into the creamed butter, sugar and eggs. Mix well.

Add the bananas, applesauce, milk and spices and beat for another minute or so to combine all of the ingredients.

Spoon the batter into each cupcake liner, about three-fourths full. Bake for 25 - 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

Let cool before icing.

For the icing:

Cream the butter and cream cheese until it is fluffy (a hand mixer is not necessary, but definitely makes it easier). Add vanilla and beat well. Add the confectioner's sugar, a 1/4 of a cup at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency and sweetness. The original recipe calls for a 1-lb. box of sugar, but I have used as little as a cup.

Using a table knife or a small spatula, spread the icing in a circular motion over each cupcake, lifting up from the center at the end to create a swirl effect.

inspired by a recipe found on Chris and Nic's Recipes.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stir Fried Bok Choy with Fried Shallots

This is my latest contribution to Project Vegetable, where I have decided to make 2012 the year of the vegetable in my kitchen. You might think it bears a striking resemblance to my Stir Fried Bok Choy with Almonds, and you would be correct. But there is a slight difference, and it is one worth mentioning.

And that difference is the fried shallots. I wanted to add the shallots to the stir fry, but I was afraid they would just disappear into the mix if I cooked them with the bok choy. I remembered an article I had read a few years ago in Saveur magazine about an Indonesian method of frying shallots. In my memory, it was a simple process of slicing a bunch shallots as thin as possible and frying them in peanut oil. I decided to try the method with one shallot.

I cut the shallot in half lengthwise, and then each half as thin as I could across the width. The slices were wet and I was afraid they would clump up when I put them in the oil, so I added a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch and mixed them well. My hope was that it would keep the shallots from sticking together, and would give them a little extra crisp.

And I was right. I fried the shallots before I stir-fried the bok choy, and let them drain on a paper towel while I prepared the rest of the dish. They made for a crunchy, delicious topping for the bok choy and added only a few minutes to the prep time.

The original recipe (which I found online) makes enough of the shallots to last for a few weeks, and calls for an inch of peanut oil. But I found it easy enough to fry them in a tablespoon of oil and to just make what I needed for this dish. And the cornstarch made them extra crispy.
Makes about 1/4 cup

Cut a shallot in half lengthwise, and then into slices as thin as you can make them. Sprinkle a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch over them and mix together until each slice is coated. Heat a wok until it is smoking. Add about a tablespoon of peanut oil. Add the shallots and let them sit for a few seconds before stirring them, them stir continuously until they have browned. Remove from the wok and drain on a paper towel. Let cool.

adapted from Saveur Magazine, Number 94 (2008)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Baking Class: White Whole Wheat Crackers

Here's one more item to add to the "I make my own" list. I have always been intrigued by the idea of making crackers, but it seemed impossible to me that I could come up with anything that would come close to the crackers that I grew up eating. Triscuit, Wheat Thins, Ritz, even the generic saltine - how could I make anything that would come even close?

But over the years I realized that I rarely bought crackers and when I did, it was with a specific purpose in mind. And when I did buy the crackers I liked as a child, I found that I did not enjoy them as much as I did in memory. They had no substance and were overly salty. And they all had a similar after-taste to me, no matter their flavor or type.

I have come to recognize that after-taste as the flavor of processing. Processed foods leave
a coating in my mouth that affects the feel and taste of everything else I eat, and the thought of eating beans, fruit or vegetables no longer appeals. And maybe I am overly sensitive to it, but there is a certain flatness of texture and muting of flavor that comes with processed, pre-packaged foods that just does not satisfy either my appetite or my hunger. Eating these foods just makes me want to eat more of them, but never makes me feel like I have eaten anything. It is a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.

And so it has become with crackers. As much as I love the memory of Wheat Thins, Triscuit, Ritz, and Chicken in a Biskit (at one time my hands-down favorite snacking cracker), they no longer taste good to me. And looking at the ingredient lists, I can see why. For Chicken in a Biskit:
Now a lot of those chemical-sounding ingredients are no doubt the "chicken" flavoring. How about a plain old Ritz:
Not that much better.

Here are the ingredients in these white whole wheat crackers:
Huge difference, right? These are delicious with peanut butter, pimento cheese, plain cheese, and baba ghanouj. I suspect they would be just as good with hummus and any other spread you would eat with crackers, and they are delicious all by themselves.

I will be honest, it did take me a while to get these right. If you roll them out too thick they do not get crisp; too thin and they burn. But I was able to eat all of my efforts, so it was worth the time it took to get it right. One trick I learned after I converted the recipe from all-purpose to white whole wheat flour is to let the dough sit for half an hour (I let the oven preheat during this time) before rolling out the crackers. This allows for the flour to soak up more of the liquid and it rolls just a little more smoothly.

Here is one of the batches ready to go into the oven. As you can see, after I have trimmed the edges I just leave them on the baking sheet. Those scraps make for excellent snacking.
As you can also see, I do not trim all of the edges, just the ones that stick out the most. I use a plastic ruler that is about 1-1/2-inches wide as a guide for cutting the lines. When I went freehand, I ended up with irregular, mismatched crackers and it drove me nuts.

Be sure to score deeply enough when you are cutting out the squares, or the crackers will not break easily. You could cut the crackers all the way through, of course, but that would make it extremely difficult to turn them over halfway through baking, and that is a necessary part of the process.

These are supposed to last for a few weeks in an air-tight container. I wouldn't know, as they have not lasted me more than a week. But they have stayed crispy for as long as they have lasted, I can say that.

This recipe looks long and involved, but the actual making of the crackers is fairly simple and straightforward. They might not (probably will not) turn out the way you would like them to the first time or two that you make them, but after a few times, you will figure out how to tweak production to get them to come out just the way you want them.
Home Cookin Chapter: Breads and Muffins


Makes about 5 dozen crackers, depending on thickness

2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling on top of the crackers
2 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
2/3 cup milk, plus droplets more if needed

Preheat oven to 425 deg. F. Use ungreased cookie sheets.

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk together to blend the mixture well. Add the butter cut it into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or the tips of your finters until the mixture looks like damp sand.

Pour the milk into the mixture in a slow, steady stream while stirring constantly until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it is too dry, add just enough milk to get the right consistency. It should be soft and pliable, but not wet. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for half an hour. Preheat the oven to 425 deg. F.

Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces (depending on the size of your baking sheets). Place one of the pieces on a lightly foured surface and roll out in a rectangle that will fit into your baking sheet. Roll
the dough to the desired thickness, making sure that it is less than 1/8 inch. Lift the rolled dough into the baking sheet and trim the edges to make a rectangle. Take a sharp knife and, going almost but
not all the way through the dough, cut the dough into 1-1/2 to 2-inch squares, or your desired size and shape. Sprinkle the top with salt and lightly press it into the dough, but be sure that the dough is then not sticking to the baking sheet or you will have trouble turning it over halfway through the baking time.

Bake the crackers for 5 to 7 minutes, until the surface has just
started to brown. Remove the sheet from the oven and turn the square
over, loosening with a spatula if necessary. Return the crackers to
the oven and bake for another 4 to 5 minutes, until well browned, being
careful not to let it burn.

Remove the crackers from oven and slide the sheet of crackers onto a cooling rack. When they have cooled completely, break them apart and place in an airtight container. The crackers will keep for weeks, but if they start to go stale reheat them in a 350-deg. F. oven for a few minutes.

adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rapini Frittata

Welcome to Frittata Post #10. Note that I did not say frittata #10. I don't post about every frittata that I make. If I did that, this would be a Frittata blog, heh heh.

But I do like my frittatas. They are so quick, easy, and versatile. The only constants are the eggs and some kind of cheese (and even that is not absolutely necessary). Beyond that, you can use just about anything else you have in your crisper.

And this time I had rapini. I'm not sure that I had a specific use in mind when I bought it, but it has been available and on special for the past few weeks and I am a firm believer in the "buy what looks fresh" philosophy of grocery shopping, rather than buying towards a menu regardless of the quality of the ingredients on my list. I certainly have some ideas of what I want to make over the course of the week, but I have gotten much better at looking around the produce section for what looks good and improvising my menu based on what I find.

Rapini (or broccoli rabe) is somewhat new to me. I have mainly sauteed it with pasta or made a stir fry with it, all of which have been delicious, but by the weekend after I had bought this last bunch I had still not found a use for it. It was a Saturday morning and I was trying to decide what to have for breakfast. From there it was a no-brainer.

As usual, for the basic recipe go here. For a pictorial how-to, go here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chili Chicken Sauce

Here is an excellent example of how to cook with what you have. I made salsa over the weekend, but even after giving some away I had more than I needed. I did not want to buy chips so I thought about what I could make to go with it that would constitute a meal, not a snack.

My answer? Oven-baked three-cheese polenta. I love this method of making polenta. It is so simple, and comes out perfectly every time. And, it allowed me to go back to using regular cornmeal instead of the much more expensive instant polenta I was buying to avoid having to stir that thick, gloopy mixture for 45 minutes. If you haven't tried this method, you really should. I will be forever grateful to Sarah Moulton for sharing this recipe on her show "Sarah's Secrets for Weeknight Meals." It has changed my cooking life.

It made for a decent dinner, if not an incredibly exciting one. And then we had our monthly lunch at work, which left us with a mountain of leftovers, some of which was grilled Greek chicken with lemon and oregano flavors. There was so much chicken left over, as a matter of fact, that there was still some left on Friday. I took it home with me, thinking that if nothing else I could make stock with the bones.

But the chicken was still good and I started thinking about ways I could use it. I also had leftover pureed tomatoes in the refrigerator and fresh cilantro in the vegetable crisper. Add those to the polenta and salsa, and I realized I had the makings for a tomato-based Mexican-inspired sauce that would be the perfect complement for the polenta and salsa. The lemon and oregano seasonings on the chicken would also complement a Mexican-themed dish.

The result was delicious, and turned a decent meal into a fantastic meal. This sauce is full of flavor, and would work just as well over rice, pasta, tortillas. In fact, it would make some killer enchiladas.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons oregano
1 28-oz can tomatoes, cushed, diced or whole
1 pound cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic. Continue to cook until the onions are translucent. Add the cumin and cook, stirring constantly,
for a minute, being careful not to burn the cumin. Add the tomatoes, oregano, and salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the mixture has thickened.

Add the chicken and continue to cook until it is heated through. Add the cilantro and remove from the heat.

Serve over polenta, topped with salsa and garnished with more cilantro, if desired.


Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Creamy Leek and Potato Soup with Bacon

We are having an unseasonably warm winter this year. Need I bother to say that I am not at all happy about it? All right, yes, I agree that it has been beautiful outside in this 30 and 40-degree (even 50 on some days!) weather, but it makes it difficult to know how to dress for the day. If I take my usual late January/early February attire, I get overheated almost immediately. But if I dress for the weather, I end up cold in the mornings and the late afternoon. I feel like such a killjoy every time someone comments on how lucky we have been this winter. I am not happy about it, and I know I am not alone.

Another thing that suffers in this abnormally warm weather is my winter cooking. It has been rare so far that I have felt the urge to make those slow-cooking, hearty, it's-below-zero-outside comfort dishes that I wait all year to make. This year I have been making pimento cheese, salsa, frittatas, and stir fries. Ok, I am happy about the stir fries, but I would be happier to be interspersing them with carnitas, stews, chicken and dumplings, and hearty soups. But alas, that is not to be.

But winter is not over yet, and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow so it looks like we are in for at least six more weeks of it. From a cooking perspective, that makes me happy, even if his accuracy rate is only 39 percent. It could happen!

So it is a little late in the season that I have made my first winter soup. It is not a true winter soup, however, as I did not roast any vegetables. But I had a beautiful leek and a pound of baby yukon gold potatoes and a last little bit of bacon ends in the freezer, and they were just begging to be put together, and soup seemed the best way to do that.

I had originally bought the leek because I had a vague thought of making a leek and potato tart with some gruyere cheese I needed to use, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of making a nice creamy soup.

It was a wise decision. The leek was the perfect foil for the potatoes, and the bacon added just the right amount of smoky goodness and a little bit of texture. This was delicious for dinner the day I made it, and traveled well to work for lunches the rest of the week.

Normally, I would have peeled and diced the potatoes and cooked them with the leeks, but these were baby potatoes and it would not have been an easy job to peel them. Instead, I cooked them whole in a separate pan until they were just getting tender, drained them, let them cool for a few minutes, and slipped the peel right off of them. Then I put them into the pan with the leeks and broth and cooked them until they were tender enough to blend. I wrote the recipe for larger potatoes, which is what I would usually use for this kind of dish, but any kind of potatoes will work.

This is rich, hearty soup that takes less than an hour to prepare. Perfect a winter evening. Add a salad and a crusty country bread and you have a delicious, satisfying meal.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Makes 4 main or 6 side servings

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
4 ounces bacon, diced
1 leek, split, rinsed well and thinly sliced
3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 cup marsala wine or sherry
1/4 cup heavy cream
Balsamic truffle vinegar for garnish (optional)

Heat oil in 4-quart saucepan. Add bacon and cook until the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and put on a paper-towel covered plate. Set aside.

Remove all but 2 Tbsp of the bacon grease from the saucepan. Add the leeks and cook until wilted, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the vegetable broth and the potatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook,
covered, until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

Using either a stick blender, a regular bender, or a food processor, puree the leek and potato mixture until it is smooth. Return to the heat and bring it back to a simmer.

Add the sherry and the cream and remove from the heat. Add the bacon, reserving some for garnish. Serve garnished with bacon bits and balsamic truffle vinegar.


Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Sunday, February 05, 2012

DIY Trail Mix

I love my granola, but even though it is much healthier than pre-packaged granolas it does have quite a bit of sugar in it. Which unfortunately means that it is not the healthiest thing to be eating every day. In addition, while it is easy to make, it does take some time so I have to plan for it if I want to be sure I have it on hand for breakfast.

With that in mind, I decided to go back to eating regular oatmeal for breakfast, adding trail mix and dried fruit. In the past I would just buy a bulk trail mix, but since I had so many of the ingredients already on hand I thought it would be just as easy to make my own.

And it was. I preheated the oven to 350 degrees, put my mix of nuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and baked them on a middle rack for about 25 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure they weren't burning. I did almost burn one batch and they were not good. They were edible and too expensive to throw away, but I will never make that mistake again. I set the timer and I check.

What I love about making it myself is that I control the ratio of the kinds of nuts, and the fruit. I use the expensive nuts more sparingly and go wild with the less expensive. I also have all of the nuts available for other uses, which I would not be able to do if I were buying the pre-mixed packages.

I don't know if making it at home is less expensive than buying the pre-packaged version. That would depend on each batch, and what you ratio of more and less expensive nuts you used. But when the prices range from about $3/lb to $15/lb for the various sees and nuts, you know the pre-packagers are using mostly the cheaper ingredients and averaging higher on the pricing.

But the main reason I like making my own mix? It just tastes better.


Note: You can use any combination of nuts and seeds, in any amounts.
2 cups raw sunflower seeds
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1 cup raw almonds
1/2 cup raw pecans
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1/2 cup raw cashews
1/2 cup raw hazelnuts

Combine all ingredients in a rimmed baking dish. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until nuts are golden. Check and stir every ten minutes.

Let cool and mix with the raisins and cranberries. Store in an airtight container for a few weeks.
Preheat oven to 350 deg. F.
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