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Monday, April 14, 2014

Passing on Passover


Now that we are empty nesters and no one is around, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for childless holidays is somewhat lackluster.  As a result, Ted and I have become very lazy when it comes to actually celebrating holidays.

This week starts Passover.  In past years, I would have spent the entire three days prior to the first seder cooking.  And then cooking some more.  I would have put together a lovely menu, incorporating not only the traditional foods of the holiday, but also some new twists on tradition.  I would have set a beautiful table.  I would have pulled out the good china and the crystal stemware.  Yup, I would have gone all out.

But things have changed.  I can finally admit that I really don't like matzo, and as such I am declaring my house a matzo free zone this Passover.  I don't eat much bread or bread products anyway, nor does Ted, so we'll just think of the next week as a low-carb holiday.  No need to run out to the store to purchase kosher for Passover substitutions for leavened foods.  We'll just do without.  No fuss, no muss.  When the holiday ends, there'll be no leftover matzo, potato starch, matzo cake meal, or Passover Gold noodles to chuck into the trash.

I'm feeling good about this.

For those of you who are observant, good for you.  I admire you for removing every last crumb of leavening from your house.  I admire you for cleaning your kitchen top to bottom so that it's kosher for Passover.  Most of all, I admire your creativity in finding recipes that make an unleavened cookie palatable.  I wish I wanted to do it.

But for now, I'm taking a year off from Passover.  This doesn't mean that I'm not going to observe the rules of the holiday.  It just means that I'm not going to buy $150 worth of kosher for Passover products that I don't think taste good.  I'll be creative within the confines of the holiday.  And I won't cheat.

There is however, one Passover food that, when done well, is sublime.  The coconut macaroon is a thing of beauty.  For years I made Ina Garten's coconut macaroons, and as far as I was concerned, they were the Passover Gold standard.  This year, I'm going rogue.  This recipe from Smitten Kitchen makes a coconut macaroon so delicious I might be tempted to make it at other times of the year too.





Recipe:  Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroons
(Smitten Kitchen)

Yield: About 4 dozen small cookies

Ingredients:

4 ounces (115 grams or about 1/3 cup) unsweetened chocolate (sometimes sold as 99%), chopped small
14 ounces (400 grams) sweetened, flaked coconut
2/3 cup (130 grams) granulated sugar
6 tablespoons (30 grams) cocoa powder
3 large egg whites
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon flaked sea salt or level 1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Heat oven to 325°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Heat approximately half of chocolate chunks in a small saucepan until just melted, then, off the heat, stir in the remaining chunks until they’re smooth. The residual heat should be enough to melt them and leave the mixture lukewarm; if it’s not, heat the mixture again until just melted, but not very hot.

In a food processor, blend the coconut for one full minute. Add sugar and cocoa powder, blend another full minute. Add egg whites, salt and vanilla and blend until combined, then the melted chocolate until smooth. With a tablespoon measure or cookie scoop (I used a #70 scoop), scoop batter into 1-inch mounds. You can arrange the cookies fairly close together as they don’t spread, just puff a bit.

Bake cookies for 15 minutes, until the macaroons are shiny and just set. Let them rest on the tray for 10 minutes after baking (or you can let them fully cool in place, if you’re not in a rush to use the tray again), as they’ll be hard to move right out of the oven. They’ll firm up as they cool, but still remain softer and less dry inside than traditional macaroons. Thank goodness.

Dust them with a little powdered sugar once they’re cool. They’ll keep in an airtight container for about one week.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Slow and Steady


Here's the good news.  On the heels of yesterday's successful zucchini bread, I actually had a little hankering to flip through a cookbook.  This may not sound like a big deal to you, but as we have discussed, I haven't been much in the mood for cookbook perusing.

It's amazing what you can come up with when you look at a cookbook that you haven't looked at in a long time.  It's almost as rewarding as pulling on a pair of jeans that you haven't worn in a while only to find they're loose.  Things like that just put you in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Such was the case as I paged my way through Weeknights with Giada.  I'm not sure I've ever made anything from this cookbook, despite having owned it for several years.  In fact, I'm not even sure I've ever spent the time to really consider what was inside because everything, and I mean everything, sounded really good to me.  Go figure.

But I digress.  I am a big fan of meatballs.  I just love them.  I'm especially fond of the little ones, kind of the size of Swedish meatballs.  (In my opinion, the only reason to ever go to an Ikea is because they have those cute little meatballs.  Otherwise, who really needs a Durg or an Iptu?)

But enough with Ikea.  Back to the meatballs.

These are little balls of heaven.  First of all, they're lamb, and who doesn't love lamb?  Secondly, they're packed full of all those delicious Greek flavors: cumin, oregano... You have the idea.  They're lightly fried and then simmered in a jar of marinara sauce.  What could be easier?  What could be tastier?




So things appear to be looking up on the dinner front.  I cooked and it was good.  I didn't even mind getting my hands dirty and rolling those cute little meatballs.

All in all, I think the slump is lifting.  Let's see what tomorrow brings, shall we?

Recipe:  Sweet and Spicy Greek Meatballs (Keftedes Me Saltsa Domata)
(Giada DeLaurentiis)

Ingredients:

Meatballs:
1 pound ground lamb, or 20-percent fat ground beef
1 cup cooked and cooled couscous
3 scallions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 egg, at room temperature, beaten
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons dried mint
1 ½ tablespoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Sauce and Finish Meatballs:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (25-ounce) jar marinara sauce
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Instructions:

Meatballs:
In a large bowl, mix together the lamb, couscous, scallions, garlic, egg, parsley, olive oil, mint, oregano, salt, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Form the mixture into 15 to 16 (2-inch diameter) meatballs.
To make 1 cup cooked couscous, bring 1/2 cup water or stock to a boil. Add 1/3 cup uncooked couscous and cover the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Fluff with a fork and a

Sauce and Finish Meatballs:
Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs and cook until brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Add the marinara sauce, cinnamon sticks, and ground cinnamon. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, turning occasionally, until the meatballs are cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes. Discard the cinnamon sticks. Transfer the meatballs and sauce to a large bowl and serve.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Baby Steps


It's official.  I am in the worst cooking slump of my life.  Not just the worst slump in recent years, but the worst slump ever.  This slump is so slumpy that it harkens back to the days when I though cooking was dumping a can of cream of mushroom soup over some chicken pieces.  In fact, given my lack of motivation, I am somewhat surprised that I haven't resurrected that delectable recipe and served it up to Ted for dinner.

Yes.  It's that bad.

Not that there's anything wrong with cream of mushroom soup.

But here I am.  Another week.  More dinners to slog my way through.  This is not, by the way, an attitude that suggests delicious multi course meals awaiting Ted when he gets home from the office.

What to do?  What to do?

Start small.  Make something I like.  Make something for which I have all the ingredients already on hand.  Make something I know will work.  That's the ticket.  No fuss.  No muss.  No disasters.

What could be better than a quick little quick bread to get the dust off and get me back into the mood?  I always find making a loaf of something, anything, to be very satisfying.  And easy.  And successful.

I had a couple of zucchinis hanging out in the frig, probably from when I thought I would make them to go along with dinner.  Well, that didn't happen, now did it?  Nope.  But here they are, a couple of weeks later, looking a little tired.  Clearly they're a little past their prime and in no condition for even a supporting role at dinner.

Zucchini bread it is.  And since I'm all about success in this venture, who better to turn to than Smitten Kitchen?  I always say: "Check Smitten Kitchen first".  And so I did.

And I am happy to report that the results were encouraging.   The loaf rose nicely and looks pretty.  And it tastes really good too.  Too bad I can't make a main course out of zucchini bread for dinner tonight.

Maybe tomorrow?

Recipe:  Zucchini Bread
Adapted from several sources/Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

3 eggs
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 cup dried cranberries, raisins or chocolate chips or a combination thereof (optional)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease and flour two 8×4 inch loaf pans, liberally. Alternately, line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil and sugar, then zucchini and vanilla.

Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt, as well as nuts, chocolate chips and/or dried fruit, if using.

Stir this into the egg mixture. Divide the batter into prepared pans.

Bake loaves for 60 minutes, plus or minus ten, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Muffins will bake far more quickly, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Consciously Regaining My Groove


I haven't been in the cooking mood lately.  Rather, I haven't been making anything that either works or is worth posting about lately.  I'm sorry, even us food professionals fall flat occasionally.

I've been trying to figure out what the problem has been.  Is it that it's just the two of us, or is it that nothing is really appealing to me lately?  I've been trying to cut back on the amount of bread and sugar I've been eating, but is that why?  I doubt it.  Rather, I am choosing to attribute my lack of interest in the kitchen to current events.

Gwyneth and Chris have announced that they are consciously uncoupling.  What?

Gwyneth is a tough person to like.  It's not as though most of us can identify with her.  For one, no woman of her age should look as good as she does.  It's just not fair to the rest of us.  And as much of a shopper as I am, I do not curate my wardrobe.  I also cannot imagine anything more unpleasant or unappealing than subjecting myself to the Tracy Anderson Method seven days a week.  Or even one day a week.  This latest new-agey divorce declaration has done nothing to make me like her more.  If she and Chris, (who btw has been wise to fly under the radar of her self important empire) can actually grow spiritually through their conscious uncoupling well, then they are far better people than I could ever aspire to be.  Make no mistake, I would be no picnic to uncouple from.

Just saying.

I used to think Gwynnie and I could be friends.  We both like to cook, and we're both mothers.  Lifelong friendships have been built on far less.  But then she went all holier than thou on me.  I have enough trouble occasionally posting to my blog and getting myself on the treadmill every morning.  I just could never handle the pressure of even having Gwynnie as a neighbor.  Nope,  sad as I am to admit it, Gwynnie and I could never go the distance.

But I digress.  A lot.  Back to dinner.  I actually consciously forced myself to make a dinner worth eating last night.  It wasn't complicated, but it was surprisingly delicious.  Baby steps.  I even diverted from my normal salad of romaine, tomatoes, mushrooms, and kalamata olives.

I was consciously ambitious... At least for a moment.

Pan-fried Balsamic Pear Salad with Pancetta, Gorgonzola and a Warm Honey Dressing
(Lorraine Pascale)

Ingredients:

Two 5-ounce bags baby arugula
16 slices pancetta, about 6 ounces
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 pears, peeled, cored and quartered
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
6 ounces gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

Directions:


Distribute the arugula evenly among four serving plates. Put the pancetta into a medium skillet over medium-high heat and cook until really crispy, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Put 2 tablespoons butter and the oil into the skillet and reduce the heat to low. When the butter has melted, place the pears in the pan and season with salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons honey. Turn up the heat to medium and cook until the pears are lightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon vinegar and cook for another minute. Remove the pears from the pan, reserving any juices that may be left.

Arrange the pears and pancetta on top of the arugula so each serving has 4 pear quarters and 4 slices pancetta. Put the pan back on medium heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, remaining 1 tablespoon honey, remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, mustard, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Cook briefly until the dressing is heated through. Pour the dressing over the salads, then scatter over the gorgonzola crumbles. Serve immediately.

Baked Kitchen-Cupboard Chicken with Lime, Honey and Soy
(Lorraine Pascale)

Ingredients:

8 chicken pieces (either drumsticks or thighs, or a mix of the two), skin removed
8 garlic cloves, peeled and gently crushed
1 tsp chili powder
Leaves from 3–4 sprigs of thyme
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh mint leaves or flat leaf parsley for garnish (optional)

Glaze:
3 tbsp honey
1 tsp English mustard powder
1⁄2 tsp soy sauce
1⁄2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Zest of 1 lime

Sauce:
1 1⁄4 cups chicken stock
2 tsp corn starch

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the chicken pieces in a large roasting pan with the garlic, chili powder, thyme, lime juice and salt and pepper. Lay them out in a single layer and pop them into the oven to bake for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the honey, mustard powder, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and lime zest in a small bowl to give a sticky glaze.

Once the chicken has been cooking for 10 minutes, remove it from the oven and brush over half of the glaze. Then brush over the remaining glaze after another 10 minutes of cooking. Pop it back into the oven for the remaining 5 minutes or until the chicken is piping hot in the center and cooked through. Remove from the oven, transfer the pieces to a serving plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

Put the roasting pan on high heat on the stovetop. Pour in all but about 3 tablespoons of the chicken stock, stirring all the time and scraping up any yumminess from the bottom of the pan. Blend the corn starch with the remaining stock to give a smooth liquid and pour this into the pan, stirring constantly. Let this bubble away for 2–3 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until reduced and thickened. The sauce may have a few lumps, which you can just sieve out before serving if you like. Season to taste and remove from the heat.

Serve two pieces of chicken per person with a little sauce poured over and a scattering of mint leaves or flat leaf parsley on top.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jealousy Can Be A Great Motivator


My friend Heidi recently had a dumpster delivered to her house.  There is absolutely nothing that she could have acquired that would have me more jealous than this dumpster.  Heidi was getting to throw out that the junk she'd accumulated over the years.  I was not to be so lucky.

Back in California we didn't have a basement.  This kept the crap somewhat under control.  All we had was a garage, and there's a limit to how much stuff you can cram into a garage and still be able to get the cars inside.  After a while, Ted started storing his "treasures" (crap) at Public Storage.  My position was that as long as I didn't have to see it, I could pretend we didn't own it.

Then all hell broke loose.  We moved east and we bought a big, old house with a basement.  All bets were off.  We could now throw everything we didn't know what to do with down there.  After a while, there was so much stuff, no one individual thing stood out as being unnecessary.  Now, after eleven years in our house, the basement looks like an episode from Hoarders.

This scares me because I am, at heart, a thrower-outer.  I don't like stuff.  I'm the one who throws out the birthday cards the day after my birthday because well, I've read them so why do I need to keep them?  I'm the one who has a continual give away pile.

I am afraid that this is not the case for my beloved husband.  He has travel magazines from 10 years ago, and before disposing of even one year's worth, he has to painstakingly go through each magazine to ascertain that there is no valuable information inside.  After all, those hotel and restaurant recommendations from 1995 may prove useful.  Four years ago, his parents moved out of their home of over 50 years.  Ted collected several boxes worth of momentos and they are still in the same pile he put them in back then.  Untouched.

The point of all this is that Heidi got a dumpster and I want one too.  I really need about four dumpsters, but I'll take one.  Ted is unenthusiastic about said clean out project, but I am going to prevail.  We are going to clean out.  We are going to wade into the deep recesses of the basement and get rid of that luggage that we haven't used in 25 years.  We are going to rid ourselves of all those free tote bags advertising sporting good stores, fundraisers, and the like.  We are going to get rid of those Calphalon pots and pans that have been rusting away for at least 10 years.  We are finally going to sweep the basement floor -- once we find it.

Ted says that we need to wait for a good time to get the dumpster.  I think he really means that we need to wait until hell freezes over to get the dumpster.  But I am not to be deterred.  I'm calling today.  We are cleaning out.

Not to worry, no doubt there will be a massive donation to some worthy charity.  But somehow I doubt they'll have much use for Ted's old travel magazines.  Then again, neither does he.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Plain Jane


I tend to like things simple.  This is not to be confused with liking simple things.  In fact, sometimes the simplest things can actually be the most complicated

Take the perfect little black dress.  So simple. yet so elusive.  I know this for a fact because I have my fair share of LBDs in my closet and not one of them is perfect.  I keep buying them, convinced that "this will be the one that I wear for the next 20 years", but so far  it's been a no-go.  I've come close a couple of times, but so far I haven't hit on perfection.  (FYI: The closest I've come is with one I bought about 15 years ago at Barneys.  It fits at the moment, and whenever else it's fit over the years, I still wear it.)

For me, the perfect LBD is perfectly cut, without any embellishment.  No bows, no sashes, no collars.  No nothing.  Just a dress.  But a dress that fits like gangbusters and makes me feel like a million bucks. (It does not, by the way, have to cost a million bucks.)  It has to be timeless.  Nothing trendy for me.

The same goes for cake.  Yes, cake.  I love simple cakes.  I don't like a lot of bells and whistles when it comes to my cake.  Plain, not too sweet, simple, and yes, perfect.  I love the cakes that know no time of day -- they work equally well as a dessert or as a little something extra at breakfast.  Moist and with a perfect crumb, maybe accented with just a little extract or zest, but nothing too overwhelming.

This olive oil cake fits the bill.  It is deceptively simple and doesn't call for a lot of ingredients.  In fact, you probably have everything you need to whip up hiding in your pantry.  If you don't have an orange, use a lemon.  I think it would be equally as good.  Because what makes this cake perfect is the same thing that makes a dress perfect.  It doesn't try too hard.  It relies on good lines and simplicity.




Recipe:  Maialino's Olive Oil Cake
(Food 52 / Genius recipes)

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup Grand Marnier

Directions:
Heat the oven to 350° F. Oil, butter, or spray a 9-inch cake pan that is at least 2 inches deep with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. (If your cake pan is less than 2 inches deep, divide between 2 pans and start checking for doneness at 30 minutes.)

In a bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. In another bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, orange zest and juice and Grand Marnier. Add the dry ingredients; whisk until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely, 2 hours.



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Life Changing?


I tend to be dubious of anything that proclaims that it's "life changing".   After all, I have a bathroom cabinet full of serums, creams, and potions, all of which lured me in with proclamations of life changing-ness.  While my skin may be pretty damn good for a woman of my age, I'm here to tell you that none, repeat none, of those creams, potions, or serums has, despite their claims, actually changed my life.

Lately Deborah has been making this "life changing bread". No, that's not what she calls it.  The name of the recipe is  actually Life Changing Bread.  I kid you not.  Nothing like putting on the pressure.  In fact, I think "life changing" is a lot of expectation to put on bread.

But that's just me.

I have to tell you that, at first glance, this is not a bread that really sounded like something I would like.  There are some very strange ingredients called for in the recipe.  Phyllium seed husk?  What the hell is phyllium seed husk?

I'm still not sure, but there are two things you should know about phyllium seed husk.  First of all, you won't find phyllium seed husk in the department where the flax seeds or the chia seeds are.  Instead, you will find phyllium seed husk in the "health and wellness" department at Whole Foods, right next to all the other high fiber colon cleansing items.

Okay, so perhaps the phyllium seed husk has left you scratching your head.  All the other ingredients are found in the grocery aisles, not in the colon cleansing department, so let's move on from there.

I'm not going to lie to you.  This is one strange recipe.  Basically you mix the ingredients together and then let it sit on your counter for at least four hours, although I found that overnight was even better.  What happens during that time is that the oats and all the other husks and seeds soak up the liquids and sort of expand into a congealed loaf.  You then bake the bread for 20 minutes, at which time you remove the loaf from the pan and bake it face down on the oven rack for another half hour or so.




Sounds strange?  It is.  It's also surprisingly tasty.  Ted even liked it, and he rarely likes anything with any obvious health benefits.  There's absolutely nothing bad in this bread.  Rather, it's full of nuts and seeds and oats and phyllium seed husks, all of which are good for you.

While I'm not quite sure that this bread changed my life, it's worth a try.  Who knows? Maybe it'll change yours.

Recipe:  The Life-Changing Loaf of Bread
Makes 1 loaf

Ingredients:

1 cup sunflower seeds
½ cup flax seeds
½ cup hazelnuts or almonds
1 ½ cups rolled oats
2 Tbsp. chia seeds
4 Tbsp. psyllium seed husks (3 Tbsp. if using psyllium husk powder)
1 tsp. fine grain sea salt (add ½ tsp. if using coarse salt)
1 Tbsp. maple syrup (for sugar-free diets, use a pinch of stevia)
3 Tbsp. melted coconut oil or ghee
1 ½ cups water

Directions:
In a flexible, silicon loaf pan combine all dry ingredients, stirring well. Whisk maple syrup, oil and water together in a measuring cup. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix very well until everything is completely soaked and dough becomes very thick (if the dough is too thick to stir, add one or two teaspoons of water until the dough is manageable). Smooth out the top with the back of a spoon. Let sit out on the counter for at least 2 hours, or all day or overnight. To ensure the dough is ready, it should retain its shape even when you pull the sides of the loaf pan away from it it.

Preheat oven to 350°F / 175°C.

Place loaf pan in the oven on the middle rack, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove bread from loaf pan, place it upside down directly on the rack and bake for another 30-40 minutes. Bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool completely before slicing (difficult, but important).

Store bread in a tightly sealed container for up to five days. Freezes well too – slice before freezing for quick and easy toast!