Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Apple crisped

Sometimes you have a good idea. Sometimes that idea is somebody else's and they tell it to you, but you can't stop thinking about what a good idea it is until it is so familiar in your head that it becomes your idea. And then you are making apple crisp and topping it with vanilla yogurt, even though you don’t like vanilla yogurt. I’ve tried to get into yogurt before – who hasn’t tried switching to plain Greek for ten o’clock snack once or twice? I just couldn’t stick with it. But after making this apple crisp, I am back on the yogurt wagon. It’s a gateway drug. Next come the Tupperware, walnuts, and honey. Ship me to Russia. First, let’s talk about apple crisp.

Over at smittenkitchen it has been proclaimed that the crisp is not just for dessert. If this is revolution, I am Heath Ledger in the Patriot. Fruit and granola? Of course this is breakfast food! The apples go juicy and soft, like apple pie filling, while the granola browns into a chewy crust (with the help of butter and honey). Less sugar, no butterscotch sauce, ice cream swapped for yogurt. I could be writing a health blog.

On a side note, I appreciated that this recipe allowed for flexibility: I didn’t have nuts on hand, I added allspice for kicks, I measured nothing, and my crisp still turned out delicious. These are ingredients you can’t mess up.

So hear me when I say, “I made an apple crisp and topped it with vanilla yogurt.” Now think about it until you have to make your own. Viva la revolution!

Gateway Apple Crisp (adapted from smittenkitchen)

6-ish (mixed) apples, peeled, cored and chopped

Juice of half a lemon

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon allspice

Freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly grated cinnamon


4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup honey

1/2 cup flour

2 heaping cups oats

Preheat oven to 350°F. Squeeze lemon half over apple slices. Mix in sugar, flour, allspice, and dust with freshly grated nutmeg and cinnamon for depth. Pour mixture into that 9-inch spring-form pan you bought thinking you would never use it until you realized you have no other smallish baking dish. Melt butter in a small saucepan and add honey. Combine flour and oats and melty, sticky saucepan contents. Pinch of salt! Pour this over the apples and bake until the apples are bubbling and the granola is toasty brown—about 1 hour (maybe more if your oven is like my oven and cannot regulate its temperature to cook a chicken).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mustard greens, three ways

The colder it gets, the harder it is to shop for fruits and vegetables exclusively at the farmers’ market. I miss strawberries on my cheerios. I crave plantains like it’s my job. Eating seasonally is rough, but eating local is even harder. I can make do without asparagus until spring, but it’s clementine season and I don’t think there are any thriving groves in Chicago. Eventually I’m going to break down and buy more than the occasional lemon or lime, but I’m trying to stick to the market for now.

This week market shopping paid off as we picked up our first pound of mustard greens (not to be mistaken for “big parsley”). I know neither Alex nor I would ever have chosen mustard greens at the g-store, where the commonplace mixed-lettuce bag reigns supreme, but in a basket on a folding table, next to a big pile of sweet potatoes (because what else is there?), the mustard greens found their moment.

We’ve had three preparations of mustard greens this week, each showcasing a different element of their exceedingly pleasing character.

The first was a salad. Raw, these curly leaves are delightfully spicy and crisp, without being watery. They have more chew than your regular salad lettuce, but there is no lack of bite. I dressed the greens in olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, then added anything I found in the fridge in an attempt to disguise the raging pep of the mustard. Apples, toasted almonds, radishes, goat cheese. The apple/almond/goatcheese pairing was spot on, but not for the reason I’d thought. (The radishes were a mistake: unnecessary and out of place. I pushed them to the side (not pictured).) The toasty nuttiness, sweet juice, and creamy tang were just right with the peppery greens, intensifying the zing, not masking it. Alex described it as “light… with a bite... [and] topped with crunch.” Take what you will from that.

The real winner for me this week has been my lunch sandwich: sourdough toast, fresh goat cheese, and mustard greens. Tang and zing—bangarang! It is fantastic. It is such a simple sandwich, however, complex in flavor. The key is the quality of the ingredients. Bread, cheese, and veg are all fresh and local. These ingredients are like three fifth-grade girls with broken necklaces that say “Best” and “Friends” and “Forever.”

Thirdly, we had wilted mustard greens. The greens in this preparation are blanched in boiling water, then cooled to stop the cooking, drained of excess liquid, chopped, and sautéed in butter and garlic. (My own BFF, Sarah, sent me a recipe; clearly, I worked from different quantities.) With less than a pound of starting material, we had barely two servings of cooked greens but they were worth it. I’d describe the finished product with one word: Bitter—in a good way. On a plate with chicken in cider-mustard sauce (see what I did there?) and cheese-crusted squash, the bitter greens provided a much-needed balance. I’d go so far as to say, “They put the must’ in mustard greens.” Except I don’t want to sound lame.

So I’ve discovered a new flavorite, and it’s been recipe-successipe here this week. I am planning on cheating soon, though. These are on my Christmas list:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cranberry teacake

Let’s talk about cranberries.

I made Everyday Food’s cranberry upside-down cake as our Thanksgiving offering, and it was pretty good. But cold from the fridge, two days old: it is wonderful. I guess it needed to ripen? In any case, it couldn’t compete with pumpkin pie in the Thanksgiving dessert lineup, but slam this puppy down with tea and sandwiches and you’ve got a winner!

I worried about the cake turning out, what with the “upside-down” concept, but it flipped with ease, and a satisfying, graceful plonk. Truth be told, the hardest part was getting the batter from the bowl onto the cranberry layer in the pan (the batter was quite sticky and I had to mash it to the edges of the cake pan with my fingers).

On a cake stand, the cranberries glitter a deep, syrupy red and the whole thing becomes a shiny jewel—like in the Cave of Wonders when Abu’s eyes gleam with the reflection of that ginormous, forbidden ruby. It is as pretty the first day, as it is delicious the next. The cranberries are tart, juicy, and fantastic, while the cake is not too sweet, and dense without being dry. It really is more of a teacake than a dessert cake.

You’ll go ruby-eyed for this one: it’s right-side-up flavor, in an upside-down package.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

From chicken comes broth.

I didn’t know this at the time, but the best part about roasting a chicken is the soup you make with the leftover carcass. After I failed to roast my chicken, I embarked on a new journey with the remains: Chicken broth. I plopped that medium-rare salmonella fest in my Dutch oven, filled it with water to cover, turned on the heat, and walked away. I thought about adding some herbs and aromatics—I keep onions, bay leaves, and rosemary on hand—but I didn’t want a stock, I wanted a broth.

I let the chicken simmer for about two and half hours, then I strained it with a fine sieve and transferred the liquid to Tupperware containers, storing half in the fridge and half in the freezer. Next, I picked through the bones and muck, separating out all the nice (fully cooked) chickeny bits. Fantastic: I had a homemade Make Your Own Chicken Soup kit.

And not a moment too soon. Alex has come down with what my sister refers to as a “man cold.” It’s been three weeks and he’s still coughing, and whining about it. In an effort to appease his inner little baby girl with some wholesome, genetically relevant food, I gave my chicken soup kit a Mexican twist.

When I cook (not bake), I don’t like to follow recipes. Rather, I prefer to go to experts I trust for a method (in this case, shock, I looked to Martha Stewart and Rick Bayless). Once I know how they would do it, I pare down their recipes to something that I consider more reasonable—I mean, yeah I think Rick es muy fabuloso, but I don’t keep any epazote in the house).

So I arrived at this simplified, yet delicious, chicken soup for el alma.

Tortilla soup, serves two

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 small onion

1 cup shredded chicken

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon chili powder (I am a wimp—if you like more heat, up this)

3 and half cups of chicken broth (rescued from the chicken you undercooked)

Salt and pepper

Mandatory garnishes

½ cup shredded Chihuahua cheese

1 diced avocado

1 sliced lime

Tortilla strips (Take four corn tortillas, brush them with vegetable oil, cut them into strips, salt them, and bake in 400-degree oven for about fifteen minutes.)

Heat up your soup pot with some oil. Add the chopped onion. Season with a nice pinch coarse salt and a few cranks of freshly ground black pepper. When the onion is translucent, add the chili powder and tomato paste. Stir to incorporate and cook for about two minutes longer before adding the chicken broth and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil, then take the heat back and allow to simmer for however long you can. We waited about ten minutes because we were hungry.

Divide cheese between serving bowls, placing a sizeable mound at the very bottom of each. Laddle soup into bowls and garnish with tortilla strips and avocado chunks. Serve with lime wedge and Tabasco sauce.

Added bonus: we used the leftover leftover chicken, tortillas, and cheese for quesadillas. Bam! said the lady.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My First Roast Chicken

When I decided two weeks ago that I just had to roast a chicken, Alex and I had a long discussion about whose method to use. It came down to the big hitters: Martha Stewart and Laurie Colwin. In my favorite cookbook, Great Food Fast, Martha’s team lays out the high temperature/short time approach that I think most people (not in our family, mind—Mother makes dinner with her credit card) are familiar with. Laurie Colwin’s roast chicken “recipe” advocates for the chicken’s right to low and slow cooking. Although this may sound like a dry mess to those in the know, Laurie assures us that this chicken is tender and moist. Alex falls off the bone for meat that falls off the bone, so we decided to trust Laurie.

If only we hadn’t trusted our oven.

Sunday lunch is traditionally a meal we have in the late afternoon as we’ve no doubt had a large, late brunch. I like to use my extra time to try new things, serving up dishes like chicken pot-pie, mussels over linguine, and mushroom lasagna. And now I can add roast chicken to that list—well, whole chicken, in any case.

Since it didn’t seem likely that Alex and I would eat the entire chicken, we invited the Moms to join us for a Sunday feast.
At 1 pm I put my beautiful Gunthrop Farms chicken—which had been stuffed with lemon, surrounded by garlic cloves, and sprinkled with paprika, as per Laurie’s bequest—into a 300-degree oven, where it would cook for two hours. According to Laurie, “The chicken is done when the leg bone wiggles and the skin is the color of teak.” Super.

Laurie wanted me to baste my chicken every 15 minutes, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that my chicken released no liquid for the first half hour it was in the oven. Was I supposed to add stock to the chicken pan? I wondered. Is that a common practice that people just know? I was so desperate I called my mother. I know. She told me not to fret, Laurie doesn’t believe in panicking over a meal. I added some water to the roasting pan, which soaked in some of the garlic flavor, and, as I basted, incorporated with the chicken’s natural juices. Crisis averted, I got started on my sides.

Because I was roasting a chicken, I decided to do it up. I found four colors of cauliflower at the farmers’ market, along with apples, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, and sweet potatoes. A menu was formed: applesauce (of course), roasted cauliflower with lemon, brussels sprouts sautéed in butter with chestnuts and hazelnuts, and my new best friend, sweet potato biscuits. I even bought a scalloped-edge biscuit cutter for the occasion. And also for the occasion that it was adorable and $2.

I was able to score and roast the chestnuts while the chicken was in the oven, but the cauliflower and biscuits needed higher temps and had to wait until the chicken was done out.

Around 3 pm, I checked the chicken. It had been two hours, and the leg was wiggly, although I could not tell if the breast was the color of teak. Was teak a dark wood? Or a pale yellow? I’m not a carpenter, so I swapped it out anyway (giving it time to rest, I told myself), raised the oven temp, and popped in my cauliflower and biscuit trays (the brussels sprouts were done on the stove).
At 3:45 pm, the table was set, the Moms were seated, and Alex cut into my roast to find one side was perfectly cooked, and the other a lovely apple pink (thanks Laurie) that meant only one thing: My chicken was undercooked. The oven only roasted one side of the stupid bird! And I had to microwave it. My fresh, organic, local, slow-roasted chicken had to spend its last ten minutes of cooking time in the cancer box.

Surprisingly, it didn’t seem as bad as the time I served a 5-pound pot roast to a vegetarian and a cholesterol-watcher. Probably because the Moms were there. And the biscuits. The biscuits definitely helped.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A is for Applesauce

I make my own applesauce now. No big deal. No, actually: no big deal. It’s so simple, I almost don’t want to brag about it. After you make homemade applesauce, you feel lame calling it homemade—it’s like saying you make homemade ice cubes. Even if you make them in a Tetris mold.

My personal library service (that is, my sister) recently provided me with mom-favorite Laurie Colwin’s two kitchen essay compilations: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. These books have been bedside-table staples for twenty years, and yet, in my first reading this fall, they were completely relevant to topics we continue to wrestle with as home chefs. Laurie writes about her preference for organic meats, farmers’ markets, and wholesome cooking—and she does it well. So well, in fact, that she convinced me to roast my first chicken, which, unlike my adventures in applesauce, was an undercooked exploit.

Let’s focus on my success for now: Laurie’s applesauce recipe annoyed me at first. In her own words, applesauce is “so simple to make that it almost does not require a recipe.”

I once tried to make cookies without a recipe, and I now firmly believe there are some things that you cannot wing. As a first timer, I didn’t appreciate Laurie’s relaxed attitude. “Any number of apples”? WTF, Laurie? I need answers.

But Laurie Colwin was right: applesauce is a breeze. Once you get over the seemingly lackadaisical instructions, her method is very straightforward:

  1. Core and chop apples. (I use four to seven, depending on size, and I never have any leftovers.) Laurie and I agree that variety is best for flavor. I like to keep the peels on for reasons of both nutritional and indolent natures. Laurie sweetened the pot by asserting my peel-in “result will be a lovely apple pink.” Win win.
  2. Put apples in pot/saucepan and add half a cup of cider.
  3. Cook low and slow for about a half hour, stirring sometimes.

I deviated from the path by adding a cinnamon stick at Step 2—I recommend you do the same. Our apartment smelled like a holiday cheer factory.

I’ve made a number of batches in the last couple of weeks, all in a continuing spiral of neglect for the method. However, each batch turned out fantastic. One time I had no cider, so I added water and lemon. The next time I had no lemon, so I only added water. One time I left the heat too high, all the water evaporated, and the cinnamon stick began to burn. I added more water, reduced the heat, and ate half the ’sauce still warm on a slice of buttered toast a half hour later.

You can’t lose with applesauce. It’s the dish of champions.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We Are Semi-Veganese, If You Please

One big change in our daily diet that has kept me from updating the past few weeks: we have decided to become vegetarians! So now in addition to no dairy, we also now are trying to eat no meat. We've agreed to continue eating eggs and fish, in large part because otherwise no one would ever want to invite us over for brunch or dinner, and also because it would be nigh impossible for us to eat when on the road. (There are only so many times we can eat fresco bean burritos from Taco Bell.)

I've been wanting to make the transition for a while. We rarely eat red meat--when we did, it was always not from our kitchen. I was a vegetarian for about three years when I was a teenager, but I did a horrible job of making sure I was getting what I was missing from meat. The audiobook of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen is what finally convinced Sham that we can not eat meat and still be healthy athletes.

So I've been busy trying to make sure we Do This Thing Right.

I've checked out dozens of vegetarian cookbooks from the library and I used my iPhone to take photos of all the recipes that caught my eye. The next rainy Saturday I hope to start a catalog system of these recipes on our computer. I also bought a digital subscription to Vegetarian Times for $10.

We purchased chia seeds and corn meal so that I could make iskiate* and pinole*, which Sham had heard about so much in Born to Run. Chia seeds are a surprisingly little-known super food: a energizing muscle and tissue builder, they are also high in protein, calcium, and fatty acids like Omega-3 (see here for more)!

Our typical weeknight meal consists of plate of vegetables (peppers, spinach, tomatoes), corn tortillas heated up on the stove, salsa, and Trader Joe’s incredible 99¢ refried black beans with jalapeno peppers. We make tacos out of them until we are full. It's a yummy, healthy, and fast go-to meal, but I'd like to find other quick vegetarian meals that I can prepare parts of ahead of time.

Here are some of the vegetarian recipes I've found on line that I'm interested in trying out:
* Cauliflower Mash with Miso and Sage
* Mushroom Chili Stew
* Chickpea Sunflower Burger
* Rustic Bread & Eggplant Lasagna
* Bubble and Squeak Cakes
* Curried Red Lentil Soup with Lemon
* Quick Walnut Pâté Sandwiches with Pears and Arugula
* Super Quick Tomato Basil Cream Pasta
* Pepita Fettucini with Spinach and Cranberries
* Broccoli Lentil Soup with Roasted Pepper Coulis

Have you thought about going vegetarian? Are you a carnivore who has a favorite vegetarian dish? Do you have any expert, veteran vegetarian advice for newbies?

* denotes there will be a future post about these!