Archive for December, 2008

Easing Up a Bit

December 29, 2008

Whew. We are finally done with the snow and the crazy cooking of the past few weeks has slowed down. I am not cooking for my clients this week and so some of the pressure has lessened. I feel I can cook what I want, what sounds good to me, without worrying about the wow factor.

I made this pasta salad last night for our dear friends Anna and Debbie who just welcomed twins into their lives. I know that when I had both my boys, anyone who brought us food was a total hero. Not having to worry about a trip to the grocery store, let alone cooking, and still being nourished was one of the best gifts someone with a newborn can receive. We decided to eat with Anna and Debbie but I made sure to make enough so that they would have some leftovers. I also brought along a roasted tomato soup, incredible (and incredibly easy) olive bread, and these brownies. I’m telling you, brownies are a must for a nursing mother.

So, this pasta salad. It is one I have made again and again and never tire of. You allow some raw zucchini, tomato, olives, garlic, feta cheese, olive oil, and dill to marinate together in a nice big bowl. This allows the zucchini to “cook” a bit so it has a nice texture and flavor, but without that chalky rawness or that overcooked slimy-ness. You can just let this bowl sit while you bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta. I just scoop the pasta out and directly into the bowl where the veggies are marinating so I don’t have to wash a colander. Plus a little starchy water from the pasta eliminates the need for too much olive oil.

I once read somewhere that pasta salads are best served room temperature. I couldn’t agree more. If they are too cold, the pasta seems to get extra starchy and that is all you taste. There is a lot of wonderful savory flavor here so please don’t kill it in the fridge! It can be made a day in advance, refrigerated, then brought to room temperature for an hour or so.

Penne with Greek-Style Vegetable Marinade
Adapted from Main Course Vegetarian Pleasures

Serves 6-8

1/3 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced

2 tomatoes, seeded and finely diced

12 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

6 scallions, very thinly sliced

2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh dill

1 cup finely diced feta cheese

Salt and pepper

1 lb. penne or rotini

1. Combine all the ingredients except the pasta and the salt in a large bowl. Toss and let sit for at least 30 minutes, or up to 4 hours.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water and add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Carefully scoop the pasta out and add to the bowl with the veggies. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve warm or at room temperature.

Happy Anniversary

December 24, 2008

41 years ago today, my parents got married. Yes, on Christmas Eve. My dad was a medical resident at the time and he got almost no time off. They wanted to have a wedding (which they did at the Plaza in NYC), and they wanted to have a honeymoon and so Christmas Eve it was. My family is Jewish so there was no conflict of interest in terms of the guest list. What they didn’t take into account was how they were going to celebrate in the coming years.

As a child, my parents never went out on their anniversary. Nothing, except Chinese restaurants and hotel restaurants, was open. And it wasn’t even Christmas eve for us because we didn’t celebrate Christmas. They never complained about it but I think the fact that they didn’t get to go out for their anniversary probably always bothered them.

Once I started cooking, even in the very early years when my repetoire was extremely limited, I decided to make dinner for them each year. As I got older and more experienced, I would put together delicious and time consuming menus for them to honor another year of their marriage. Once both I and my middle brother married non-Jews, their anniversary became our family celebration of the holidays. We would all gather together, give gifts, and eat the meal I had made.

This year, it was looking like, up until 5 minutes ago, we weren’t going to be able to celebrate together at all. My dad, although he is retired, occasionally does a little work in Walla Walla which is a small town in the heart of Washington wine country. With all of our crazy snow we have had in the past two weeks, none of us were sure he was going to be able to get home. None of us was sure people were going to be able to risk the roads to get to our house.

But I just got a call from my mom. Not only is she on the road but she is on the way to pick up my dad at the airport. Amazingly, he got on a flight and it looks like it is going to actually take off. I can’t tell you how happy I am that we will all be together. (We will actually be missing my middle brother and his family as he celebrates at his in-laws.)

I made this Apricot Cranberry Linzer Tart last night with the idea that positive thinking (and baking) would actually allow this evening to come together. Linzer Tarts are a favorite of both my parents and this one looked especially good to me. I am not going to share the recipe because a) we haven’t tasted it yet, and b) I found the crust to be exceptionally finicky to work with. It needs some tweaking. But it looks pretty so I thought I would share the photo.

Happy Holidays to everyone out there!

Just One More…

December 21, 2008
Cookies. I know. They are everywhere and unavoidable at this time of year. Kind of like Halloween candy right around Halloween. Our local UPS store had Halloween candy this year. Yes, the UPS store.

Anyway, you may be sweeted out, or at least cookie’d out by now, but I thought I would give one more cookie recipe before we hit 2009. Ginger cookies suffer from never quite being right, at least in my book. I want them to be just the slightest bit chewy, definitely not crunchy, and I want the flavor to be very warm with lots of molasses and spices. So often they suffer from being too flat and with just a very sweet taste instead of the complexity that good spices bring.

I think Ina Garten has come pretty darn close. These cookies have lots of candied ginger in them which gives them a really nice spice and they have a good dose of molasses too. They are not for the faint of heart, but if you love ginger, these may be the ones for you.

Let’s talk about ginger. Most grocery stores will have candied ginger in the baking aisle. It can be very fibrous and difficult to cut (and you want really small pieces in these cookies) so, if you can, see how soft it is and get the freshest bag possible. If you live near a Trader Joe’s, by all means get your ginger there. It comes in little cubes and is much easier to cut and stores much better than the slabs.

Ultimate Ginger Cookie
Adapted from
Barefoot Contessa Cooks at Home
Makes about 16 cookies

Just like for the party I catered, I rolled 1/3 of these in red sanding sugar, 1/3 in green sanding sugar, and 1/3 in vanilla sugar. You can, of course, just use regular sugar. I did follow Garten’s advice of lining the sheets with parchment paper because there is no butter in the recipe.

2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

tsp. kosher salt

1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup unsulfured molasses

1 egg, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups chopped crystallized ginger (6 ounces)

Granulated sugar, for rolling the cookies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and salt ad then combine the mixture with a spoon. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the brown sugar, oil, and molasses on medium speed for 5 minutes. (DN: Measure the oil first, then the molasses. That way, the molasses will just run right out of the measuring cup, because it has been greased by the oil.) Turn the mixer to low speed, add the egg, and beat for 1 minute. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat for 1 minute more. With the mixer still on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the crystallized ginger and mix until combined.

Scoop the dough with 2 spoons or a small ice cream scoop. With our hands, roll each cookie into a 2 inch ball and roll the ball in the sugar of your choice. Place them on a cookie sheet and bake them for exactly 13 minutes. The cookies will be cracked on the top and soft inside. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for a minute or two, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Problem Solved!

December 20, 2008

(While these cookies may not look “perfect”, I think they are just that because my 4 year old decorated them.)

Thank goodness for the people at Cook’s Illustrated. Do you know this magazine? It comes every other month and is very slim because it has no advertising. It also doesn’t have color photographs or super trendy recipes. What it does have is tested-to-death recipes for relatively basic things. It also has equipment and ingredient testing. It’s a great place to read about whether $200 is a good investment for a saute pan (turns out – yes, but they also give good moderate priced recommendations.) The magazine is anything but snobby.

I have had a like/dislike relationship with Cook’s Illustrated. There is a lot of meat in it’s pages so 75% of the recipes are ones I don’t use. Sometimes the recipes are too basic for me – I most often looking to wow my clients after all. But the things I have made turn out great and I appreciate all the testing they do and the explanations of what they do and why. I have bought some equipment on their recommendation and have not been sorry. And now this cookie recipe.

I have written here before about how much I dislike making holiday cookies. After reading that post, my sister-in-law passed on her recipe (which she got off All Recipes), saying that she never had problems with the dough sticking. She gave me a couple for Randy to try and he didn’t really like the flavor. (Sorry Amy.) I thought I was going to have to struggle with my dough again when I got the Holiday Baking issue of Cook’s Illustrated. There, in among lots of recipes I would like to try, was a recipe for Easier Holiday Cookies.

The ingredients are slightly different than my very-tasty-but-pain-in-the-neck recipe. The biggest difference is that they stress the need for superfine sugar. I always use superfine in my baking but if you don’t, you can easily find it in the grocery store (C & H makes it in a milk carton). If you don’t want to buy different sugar, you can put regular sugar in the food processor for 20 seconds. The method here is quite different. And the result is fabulous. Amazing rich buttery taste and no sticking! This will forever by my go-to recipe for this type of cookie. Don’t get me wrong, there is still quite a bit of fuss with this type of cookie, but when the result is this good and pain-free, I don’t really mind.

Glazed Butter Cookies
Holiday Baking
from Cook’s Illustrated
Makes 3 dozen 2 1/2 inch cookies

They give a recipe for frosting which I didn’t use – I just feel back on my trusted one. They also give you other options of what you can do with this dough, like Toasted Almond Cookies with Honey Glaze. Yum.

2 1/2 cups flour
cup superfine sugar
tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces, cool room temperature

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tbsp. cream cheese, cool room temperature

1. In bowl of stand mixer fitted with flat beater, mix flour, sugar, and salt on low speed until combined, about 5 seconds. With mixer running on low, add butter 1 piece at a time; continue to mix until mixture looks crumbly and slightly wet, about 1 minute longer. Add vanilla and cream cheese and mix on low until dough just begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds.

2. Remove bowl from mixer; knead dough by hand in bowl for 2-3 turns to form large cohesive mass. Turn out dough onto countertop; divide in half, pat into two 4-inch disks, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate until they begin to firm up 20-30 minutes. (Dough can be refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 2 weeks; defrost in refrigerator before using.)

3. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out 1 dough disk to even 1/8 inch thickness between 2 large sheets of parchment paper; slide rolled dough on parchment onto baking sheet and chill until firm, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, repeat with second disk.

4. Working with first portion of rolled dough, cut into desired shapes using cookie cutters and place shapes on baking sheet, spacing them about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time. Repeat with second portion of rolled dough. (Dough scraps can be patted together, chilled, and re-rolled once.) Cool cookies on rack to room temperature. Glaze and decorate as desired.

Want Some Dinner?

December 18, 2008

It’s snowing in Seattle. If you are not from around here, that may not sound surprising. You look at a map of the United States and see that Seattle is north. North like Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, etc. It snows in all of those places but it doesn’t usually snow here. Our fair city is in the middle of two mountain ranges, so the clouds come off the Pacific, dump a bunch of snow in the Olympic mountains (the range to the west of us) and warm up as they move over Seattle. We get a bunch of rain and then the clouds move East and dump a bunch of snow in the Cascade range. At least, this is how I used to explain it to college friends when they asked me if we got a lot of snow.

Because we are usually snow-less in Seattle, and because this is a very hilly city, snow wreaks havoc on us when it does come. I think our entire city has three snow plows so the only roads that get cleared are the highways and very major arterials. You are a fool to try and drive – or you are my husband who pooh-poohs all the fuss and will most likely get stuck downtown tonight.

Thursdays are a food delivery day for me. I was proactive yesterday (as I always try to be) and made everything but the salad dressing for tonight’s dinner. Because I will not be delivering, I now have enough chili and cornbread to feed a small army. Any takers?

Let’s talk about cornbread. Cornbread is one of those things that used to be a disappointment for me. I love the idea of it, but always found the actual thing to be dry and tasteless. Then I found the recipe in the original Moosewood cookbook and decided that cornbread was a necessity when making things like chili or black bean soup. From there, I moved on to the recipe in the Joy of Cooking which is that much more moist and the one I still use when I want something more on the plain side. If you want to jazz it up, make this one. It is incredibly moist and rich and savory. I use three (seeded) jalapenos which gives it a little kick but not so much that it hurts the tongue. This cornbread freezes beautifully so make a whole batch even if you don’t plan to eat it all in one sitting. Also, I have made it in muffin tins and mini muffin tins and it turns out great.

JalapeƱo Cheddar Cornbread
Adapted from
Barefoot Contessa at Home
Makes 12 very large pieces

3 cups flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup sugar

2 tbsp. baking powder

2 tsp. kosher salt

2 cups milk

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 sticks butter, melted
and cooled slightly
8 oz. Cheddar cheese, grated and divided

3 scallions, chopped, plus extra for garnish

2-3 seeded and minced jalapeno peppers

Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs, and butter with a whisk. With a wooden spoon, stir the wet ingredients into the dry until most of the lumps are dissolved. Don’t overmix! Mix in 2 cups of the grated cheddar, the scallions, and jalapenos, and allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13x2 baking pan.

Pour the batter inot the preapred pan, smooth the top, and sprinkle with the remaining grated Cheddar and extra chopped scallions. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and cut into large squares.

UPDATE: Do not, under any circumstances, decide to reheat this bread in the oven. We ended up taking the whole dinner to a friends’ house and decided to warm up the bread. I stuck the whole pan in a 350 oven for about 15 minutes and it just turned into soup in the middle. I think that much butter, cheese, and milk wasn’t meant to be reheated.

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