Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Freeze the icing: cupcakes topped with nature's goodies

I really, really wanted to love frosting and food colorings. But I don't. They might look good and yummy, but my cultural background is always there, reminding me that colors and frosting were (at that time) just for industrial cakes. This was the common sense when I was a kid growing up in the early 70's back in my home country. So, when I started baking cupcakes for my kid's birthdays to celebrate at school, I was always facing the dilemma: to top them with frost or not?

After a couple of years testing an alternative for covering cupcakes, I found a very easy and healthy one, tested about five times, that had an amazing result on preschoolers. My goal was always to have the kids eating cake and not just what was covering them.

So, instead of cake mix boxes, I adapted one recipe of yellow cake from Wiltons, changing its ingredients. The secret is  to give each cupcake a swirl of the kid's favorite jam: Bonne Mamán Raspberry Jam. After baking them I covered the beautiful little yummies with irresistible fresh blueberries and half strawberries, using sprinkled powdered sugar as a last cover. Believe me, after eating the fruit they really go for the cake.

Cupcakes with Swirl of Jam, Berries and Sugar Snow

Cake (for about 24 servings)
3 cups unbleached all purpose flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cups Earth Balance Natural Butter Spread (Original) at room temperature
1 3/4 cup organic brown or caster sugar
2 large Free Range Omega 3 eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoon French bourbon vanilla
1 1/2 cups milk or almond milk
1 cup red fruit jam
1 cup half cut strawberries
Enough blueberries to be at the top of each cake

Sift all dried ingredients together. Preheat oven to 350 F, and while oven heats, beat butter and sugar to a fluffy creamy texture. Add each egg, one at a time, to mix and vanilla extract at the end. When all looks creamy, start adding milk and flour alternately. Beat until mix looks homogeneous and well-integrated.

Pour batter in the cupcake cups. Pour jam into freezer bag and open a tiny slit at the end of one of its tips. Squeeze a swirl of jam in each cupcake. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes.

While cupcakes are still cooling, sprinkle powdered sugar with the help of a strainer over each of them and add the pieces of fruit. Add more sugar at the time of serving.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Playdate Special: It's a wild, wild rice

Last week was all about baking. Cupcakes, Holiday cookies and birthday cakes were still in my mind - and palate -while I was planning the playdate menu. French Vanilla scent was still exhaling from fresh batter and  present in he whole house when I began to develop this recipe. Such a familiar smell would probably be too predominant to let me cook something unusual. But, as I heard  once, adversity may act as fuel for creativity. And that lunch would either be a success or disaster.
I wanted to test a very simple recipe for the kids. And that was pasta with three cheese sauce. On the other hand there was something there - an antidote for all those sweet goodies and comfy food. So, in bout of pure instinct and need for excitement, I chose to cook some novel ingredient in my pantry: And that was the beginning of a new adventure with Wild Rice.

The result was a multi-textured dish with delicate taste and unexpected ingredients that were like a party for the mouth. Kids were navigating in a more comfortable zone of pasta and Parmesan cheese. But my older boy was too attracted to the looks of the dark rice not to try it. Unfortunately he was not pleased by the texture and nutty taste of the rice. But for the grown ups it was a success. And that was good enough to cheer me up on that busy Friday of endless baking.

Wild Rice with Edamame, Blueberries, Apple and Brie

A good brand of  Brie cheese will do the trick on this recipe. Be careful not to overpower it, and use the amount recommended below as a reference.

6 cups cooked Wild Rice
1 cup frozen Edamame (soy beans)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt to taste
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup pieces of Brie cheese, divided in 2 parts.
1/2 cup finely chopped apples with skin on

Cook rice as directed in package, with salt and garlic. When almost cooked (about 5 minutes before the timed cooking time),  add soy beans and blueberries.
When all ready and al dente turn off the heat and add part of the Brie to the rice and stir carefully. Add more brie and chopped apples to the rice  when dishing the food. Serve it hot.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Second Helping: Popovers

For years, I was under the impression that popovers were impossibly tricky, prone to collapse unless coddled in their own special popover pan.

And now I'm kicking myself for missing years of popover happiness. They're so easy, my 5-year-old could make them himself if he wasn't afraid of the blender. We use an ordinary muffin pan.

I love their versatility as a snack, a breakfast treat, or even a light meal. Serve them humbly on their own, with a bit of butter, or dress them by filling with chicken salad. At a recent playdate, I paired cardamom-kissed popovers with hard-cooked eggs and persimmon and fennel salad. The kids passed on fruits and vegetables, but they devoured the popovers, both plain and with a touch of maple syrup or apple butter. I imagine lemon curd would be tasty with these.

Best of all, they're fun to bake with kids. Hand the little ones a pastry brush and let them coat a muffin pan with butter. Put the batter in a small pitcher or measuring cup and help them fill the cups. Then turn on the oven light and peek through the window -- don't open the door! -- to watch the magic.

For a delightful breakfast treat, try dipping your popovers in cinnamon sugar with David Lebovitz's recipe for Sugared Puffs.

Do you have a favorite popover topping or filling?

Lemon-Cardamom Popovers

This makes 9 popovers in a muffin pan, or 6 in a popover pan. If you don't care for -- or have -- cardamom, substitute cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice.

2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Beat egg in medium bowl. Add milk and whisk well to combine. Stir in flour, cardamom, and lemon zest until smooth, then let batter rest for 30 minutes. Alternatively, you could combine the ingredients in a blender briefly.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Brush muffin or popover pan cups with butter -- kids can help with this part. Fill about half to two-thirds full with batter. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more. Do not open the oven while the popovers are baking!

Remove popovers from pan and enjoy while still hot. Apple butter is my favorite topping; you could also serve with butter, syrup, jam, or lemon curd.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Playdate Special: Persimmon and Fennel Salad with Lemon

091204_persimmon salad_3

This easy, delicious salad has only three primary ingredients: fennel, persimmon, and preserved lemon. If you're aren't familiar with all of them, it's time to be introduced -- they're all in season now. Your taste buds will be forever in your debt.

My 5-year-old has been on a persimmon kick, but I was bracing for him to balk at trying it with any seasoning. To my surprise, he loved it. Unfortunately, he was in kindergarten Friday and couldn't encourage his friends to try our new favorite salad. But they were happy enough to munch on delicately spiced popovers and Granny Smith apples.

The secret to the flavoring of this salad is preserved lemons. They're common in Moroccan food, and you'll find lots of tagine recipes requiring them. I've never made a tagine, but I've added preserved lemon to seafood, vegetables, grains, chicken, and salad. All you need are some lemons, kosher or coarse sea salt, a jar with a tight lid, and a month to watch that sunshine-yellow jar with anticipation. While you wait, however, you can enjoy this salad with simple lemon zest. The preserved lemons will stay good for a year or two.

Fennel, also known as sweet anise, looks a bit like celery. This recipe uses the fat bulb and the dill-like fronds; you can also use the stalks just like celery and enjoy with dip or flavor soups.

Persimmons are plentiful around here. Fuyu persimmons, used in this salad, are round and best enjoyed on the firm side. Hachiya are somewhat heart-shaped and need to be very ripe and soft (I use those for baking).

If you have still more persimmons, try Winter Jewel Salad, with persimmon, pomegranates, and dates in a cinnamon-orange dressing that tastes like fall, and Persimmon Compote, which is delicious stirred into yogurt or oatmeal or spooned over ice cream..

Persimmon and Fennel Salad

You probably won't need to add salt if you use preserved lemons (recipe below).

1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed well and diced, or grated zest from 1/2 a lemon
juice of half a lemon (Meyer, if you have one)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 fennel bulb
3 Fuyu persimmons
salt and pepper to taste
2 ounces baby spinach

Combine preserved lemon or zest, lemon juice, and olive oil in a large bowl. Whisk to combine.
Wash fennel bulb and remove any tough outer layers. Cut the stalks and fronds just above the bulb and set aside. Cut bulb into quarters and remove the tough core. Thinly slice fennel and put in a large bowl.
Peel persimmons and cut into eighths; add to bowl.
Stir gently, taste, and add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve on top of baby spinach leaves and sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds.

Use organic lemons -- you eat these peel and all, and it's worth the trouble to find ones that haven't been sprayed.

organic lemons (Meyer are especially good, but any kind will work)
kosher salt or coarse sea salt
large jar with tight-fitting lid
optional spices: cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaves, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, peppercorns

Be sure to have enough lemons to fill your jar, plus extras for juice.
Sterilize your jar and lid by boiling in water for 10 minutes.
Scrub lemons well. Cut away any stems. Slice the lemons almost completely in half, but not all the way through. Make another cut, perpendicular to the first, so you've cut the lemons nearly into quarters. Pack the cuts with salt and put lemons in the jar. Pack firmly! Add any spices, if you wish, and add enough lemon juice to completely cover the lemons.
Shake the jar every day or two to evenly distribute juice and salt. As lemons soften, add a few more.
After a month, your lemons are ready! They're very salty: Rinse before using, and taste before adding more salt to a dish.
I've been assured the jar never needs refrigeration, but I stick it in the fridge after opening it. The pickling juice can be reused over the course of the year.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Healthful, Tasty, and Inspiring: Fix Me a Snack

091205_apple saucersEvery so often my pantry suddenly is overstuffed with packaged snacks: cereal bars and crackers and cookies and chips and so on, and yet no one can find anything they really want to eat.

Enter Fix Me a Snack, a great blog by mom-of-two Cindy that sets out to offer "a healthier approach to family-friendly snacks." It's a wonderful resource for getting out of a snack rut. My older son clicked through the site and picked a few he wanted to try: Apple Flying Saucers were an instant hit. My younger one is averse to nut butter, so yesterday we tried the saucers with the brilliantly simple Mud Dip, with chocolate disguising the taste of sunflower butter. (And toy aliens. But he still didn't go for it.) I'm also eyeing the Oatmeal Sundae, which just might wean my kids off their addiction to oatmeal with "dinosaur egg" candy.

But Fix Me a Snack goes far beyond just making healthy food cute. There are interesting recipes for crispies, muffins, puddings, balls, and more. There's even an alternative to Jell-O flavored with coconut water and pomegranate juice. You can find snacks that can be whipped up in 10 minutes or less and honor seasonal eating. Chocolate chips and whipped cream aren't banished, but are used in moderation alongside healthy stars. I'm all for healthy moderation.

Our biggest success has been the sweet potato fries. I've tackled these a dozen different ways, and they always ended up too mushy, too crispy, too flat-out burned. But these are perfect, and even my sweet-potato-hating, picky-eating husband likes them.

What are some of your family's favorite snacks?

Friday, December 4, 2009

See, Touch and ...Taste Mickey !

Disneyland smells like candy, looks like candy and... Guess what? Has tons of candy to sell. Meet Mickey, the frozen chocolate cream bar. Buy Mickey, a strawberry lollipop. Have a Matterhorn Sundae, sprinkled with Mickey shapes. So, in three days we saw and tried lots of food. For the good and healthy eaters, not so tasty salad with not so many calories. For the average hungry eaters, there were not so creative sandwiches with obvious chips on the side. For those who can eat it all,  some unforgettable providers of energy and sugar highs were all there: from nice-looking fruit boxes to unbelievable magic desserts that looked like animated characters.

Here are some tips on what to choose and, of course, one recipe inspired on one of the best surprised I could ever imagine eating at dreamland: funnel cake.

Healthy Disneyland trip: Almost all corners have a fruit stand where you can buy cups filled with fresh fruit. Or perhaps a wholesome fruit? Good-looking bananas and apples are all there. At Toontown Mickey you can even buy a yogurt parfait with granola, fresh berries and yogurt.

Salad Bar Trip: Believe me, even with different names they are all basically the same. Lettuce, ham, boiled egg, smoked turkey, some tomatoes and carrots are the options for those not willing to surrender to wonderland food.

Magic Sweet Disneyland Experience: Go for the Matterhorn Sundae at Carnation Cafe. Don't hesitate to visit the Mint Julep Cafe Bar at the French Market (close to the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride) and order a funnel cake with brownies, chocolate fudge and cream on the top. Absolutely heavenly!!! And of course, walk all two parks six times to spend all those calories quickly.

Coffee Lover: If craving a strong espresso go for Carnation Coffee, right on Main Street. They have a nice one, served in charming pots. Also Mint Julep's little coffee shop has a good and strong one, comme il faut.

Pirate Experience: We wanted badly but finally could not make it: The Blue Bayou Restaurant is dark and cozy inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride and was mentioned in many places as the best place to eat a Monte Cristo Sandwich. I thought this was amazing: deep-fried club sandwich?

Primate Earthy-Looking Experience: Just not good-looking, but very popular whole legs of smoked turkey were happily devoured around the grounds of the Matterhorn ride. I later found that some people go crazy about it. I just didn't have the courage after Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving Dinner: Yes, you can have it all. They have a kid's portion and it is all there. I promise you that the mashed potatoes were the best ever.

So, here is a recipe compiled from about three sources of well-known chefs.

Most important of all: check if you have the necessary amount of oil in your pantry before beginning!

2 cups canola oil
2 1/2 cups flour
2 cups milk
2 eggs
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon baking powder
Powdered sugar to dust the cake

In a bowl mix eggs, sugar, milk and vanilla. When smooth add gradually flour and baking powder. Heat oil to a frying point in a deep skillet. Add 1/2 of the batter in a funnel and pour it over the hot oil in circular movements. Fry each side up to when golden and use tongs to turn it. When ready put it on a kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. The Rachel Ray solution to pour the batter is to use a plastic food bag and cut one of its tips to imitate the funnel.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sweet and Savory: Pear and Brie Risotto with Prosciutto Chips

It's the day after Thanksgiving, and we too are serving up leftovers.

"There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat," Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying, and right about now is your best chance to savor those ten minutes. Anna served up this comforting risotto blending pear and brie for Valentine's Day, but it would be a lovely light meal to share with your family this holiday weekend.

(There's plenty more to explore in our new, updated recipe index. Just click the link at right or any of the tabs at the top of your screen.)

Originally posted Feb. 13, 2009, by Anna 

When in a very famous restaurant, my choice always will be a risotto.

It requires patience, art and talent from the chef. I recalled one that I could never ever forget: pear and brie risotto from one of the finest restaurants in Leblon, a kind of Gourmet Ghetto of Rio de Janeiro. This was a long time ago, but not long enough for me to forget its perfect texture and taste. After some research, I found out very similar recipes but not any that would fit my crave for a perfect choice for a girls in lunch. For dessert, a classic shortcake cookie was cut with the help of little hands. How romantic!

Pear and Brie Risotto with Prosciutto Chips

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
3 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine, the one to drink afterward
6 cups vegetable stock
1 1/2 ripe but not soft Bosc pear
2 tbsp Parmesan Gran Pardano, freshly grated
3 oz. sliced prosciutto di Parma
1/2 to 1 pound French brie cheese, chopped in cubes

In a heavy pot melt butter and the olive oil over high heat. Add shallots. When shallots begin to brown, stir in rice. Pour in wine and wait for the alcohol to evaporate. Lower heat and start dropping in the stock to gradually moisten the rice. Keep dropping the stock every time you see that the water is drying. Add the pears and go to a simmer. Carry on dropping in the stock and add Parmesan cheese.

Meanwhile, in a hot skillet, grill the slices of prosciutto di Parma until they are crunchy.

When the rice achieves a pearly appearance with an al dente texture, turn off the heat and fold the brie into the rice and integrate it slowly with a wooden spoon.

Serve the risotto in soup plates and garnish with the crunchy prosciutto broken into tiny pieces.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Second Helping: Pumpkin Pudding with Cranberry Sauce

Just because I was planning to think out of the pie, I adapted one of my favorite desserts for a last-minute Thanksgiving delight. Easy, quick and really flavorful, this is a velvety and refreshing addition to a dinner table or potluck. And forget about the crust. The texture and color will speak for themselves. And you can be creative with the sauce.

Pumpkin Pudding

Ideally it should be prepared one day before dinner party. But a good 6 hours in the fridge will do the trick if you are in a hurry.

1 can organic pumpkin or 15 oz (425 g) cooked sugar pumpkin
1 14 oz. can condensed milk
2 cups Almond Milk or Soy Milk
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 tablespoon lime or lemon zest
2 envelopes unflavored Knox gelatin

1/2 pound fresh cranberries
2 cups apple juice

In one bowl mix condensed milk, pumpkin and spice. In a saucer pan warm almond milk and dissolve gelatin in it. When dissolved and mix is warm integrate it to the bowl and mix for a homogeneous mix. Pour liquid in a plastic mold or bundt cake mold and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

For the sauce, simmer cranberries with apple juice up to when smooth. When cold, take pudding out of the mold and cover it with sauce. Fill the middle of the pudding with cooked cranberries.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tips & Gadgets: The Cook's Thesaurus

A few Thanksgivings ago, I set out to try a Sunset recipe for a dry-cured turkey. It calls for a heady blend of herbs and spices: thyme, marjoram, anise, rosemary, pepper, salt -- and dried juniper berries. I dragged my worn-out toddler to market after market, convinced that the turkey absolutely needed those three tablespoons of juniper berries, whatever those were.

I finally found the berries at an overpriced shop. But even as I swiped the debit card to take my little bag of berries home, I knew the quest had been a ridiculous waste of time and effort.


The next year, I skipped the search and consulted the Cook's Thesaurus, an amazing online resource for learning about swapping ingredients. Juniper berries, I found out, are used to make gin. I might have known that if I liked gin. The suggested substitution -- bay leaves and caraway seeds -- made for a turkey just as fabulous as the year before.

The Cook's Thesaurus has bailed me out more times than I can count. It's been there for me when it was too late to call my mom to find out how she'd fix whatever mess I just made. It helped me get through the year when anything containing eggs gave my older son hives, and the year when dairy, wheat, and corn products made my younger son throw up. It has saved me countless trips to the grocery store and salvaged more than a few batches of muffins.

If you haven't used it before, check it out -- and bookmark it!

The Cook's Thesaurus

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Playdate Special: Ricotta and Butternut Squash Pie with Turkey Bacon Chips

Our adorable Juju, the black cat, was not to be found early on that cold morning of Friday, November the 13th. Yes, that could be the beginning of a laughable mystery short story. Or better, just the gloomy start of an eventful time before a lunch playdate. I spent more than half an hour looking for our capricious feline, instead of using those precious moments on the mental preparation of our lunch, cleaning the house and developing even more my original recipe.

The house was uncommonly (more) messed up than ever. Plumbers were working outside, fixing irrigation pipes. No water for two hours. I thought that the food would overshadow that ongoing chaos. I prepared the filling for the quiche and also our unforgettable dessert on the night before. I just needed to do the crust and test a good recipe of polenta, which would be served as an appetizer for the main dish. That "just" was an irony.

The whole playdate was running smoothly. Some graffiti on the walls and on a side table were entertaining enough. My older son had hidden some Crayola with clothes, and on that morning he decided to share them with his dearest friends while I was trying to figure what the heck was going on with the quiche in the oven. In the meantime, broccoli was burnt at the Le Creuset and polenta got too cold in the fridge, and the clock was just running so fast! Things were not looking good at all.

But...The result was, after all, remarkable. Although kids mostly declined to eat the beautiful pie filling, just trying to get as much crust as they could grab, the flavor was extremely elegant. Homemade polenta was also great, even not being grilled, as it should be. But dessert called myself back to the senses. A friend brought a pomegranate that was added to my persimmon apple emulsion to accompany the pumpkin pudding at the last minute. But that is a story for the next posting, before Thanksgiving, of course.

In the meantime, black little miss Juju, the cat, was sleeping quietly on her basket. She was finally found before I began to cook on that cold autumn morning hiding under the new kid's bed, in a very improbable place. If I just had followed that clue my menu would be different. I would have started earlier, have easy food to prepare, aware that this was a Friday 13th!

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Pie

I used canned organic butternut squash and canned organic pumpkin. That is just a shame: I had pumpkins all over the place on Halloween, but they all got spoiled before I noticed! So probably the recipe will work fine for the cooked fresh produce too.

1 pound part skim ricotta cheese
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 can organic butternut squash
Kosher salt to taste
1 beaten egg (optional for vegan)
1/2 cup turkey bacon or Tofurkey , finely chopped and grilled on a skillet
1 tbsp Parmesan cheese, grated

On the night before mix ricotta and butternut squash. Season it with shallots, parsley and salt. Add egg just before baking.If using bacon, sprinkle it over bottom of pie. Some pieces of bacon and Parmesan Cheese may be sprinkled over filling. Fill the pie with ricotta and bake at 375 F for 30 minutes.


1 cup unbleached flour
3 tablespoons cold water
1/2 cup butter or vegetarian spread
Sal to taste

Mix flour, water and butter and knead with hands for an even dough. Make a ball with the dough and take it to the fridge for at least 1 hour. Stretch it on a 9 inches round cheesecake pan, making sure that a fine layer is going on all edges of the pan.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Second Helping: Lazy Chicken Stock

I use broth shortcuts all the time: granules, cubes, cans, boxes. But when chicken broth has a starring role, as in the Chicken Tortilla Soup we posted last week, it's well worth the minimal effort to make your own stock.

Making chicken stock is one of those things I didn't do for a long, long time. Because making it takes a long, long time. Which I figured meant it took a lot of work.

To the contrary, I realized, chicken stock makes itself. All you really need to do is hang around the house for hours and let the stock do its thing.

Use leftovers from a roast chicken. Or throw in chicken pieces (with bones), remove the meat once it's cooked, and return the bones and scraps to the pot. Or stockpile leftover chicken bits -- bones and skin -- in a large bag in the freezer. Keep adding to it, and when it's full, make stock. Be sure to set aside a bit of leftover cooked chicken to go into the finished soup.

Lazy Chicken Stock

Put chicken in a large stock pot. Make sure you have lots of bones in there. Bones are important.

Add vegetables, chopped into large pieces: onions, carrots, leek, and celery are all good options. I usually just toss in an onion.

Pour in some white wine if you'd like -- I use half a cup.

Add a tablespoon or two of vinegar. The acid dissolves the calcium in the bones, enriching your stock. Cool, eh? Don't worry, you won't taste the vinegar.

Tuck in some herbs -- sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano, a bay leaf. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. (Save the strong seasoning for when you reheat the finished stock to make your final soup.)

Fill your pot with water and set it on the stove. Bring it to a strong simmer, reduce the heat, leave uncovered, and simmer 5 to 6 hours (or more). Add a little water if chicken bones start sticking out above the surface, but not too much -- you want it to reduce. Stir when you feel like it. Don't bother skimming the foamy fat that rises to the surface. You'll do that later.

When it's done, strain out the solids and set the broth in the refrigerator. Leave it there a few hours or overnight. When you check on it, you'll find the fat has conveniently congealed on the surface. See! It does the work for you! Scoop off it off with a shallow spoon or spatula to reveal ... chicken jelly?!

Do not panic. Be proud: You've done well. The bones add gelatin, and that's what makes the stock taste so good. (Gelatin is protein, too.) The gelatin will melt as you heat your stock, leaving you with a deep, rich, silky stock.

Use the stock soon, or freeze it for quick, tasty soup another day. Use ice cube trays or muffin tins to freeze small amounts. You might want to add water to the stock when making soup.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playdate Special: Chicken Tortilla Soup

091106_tortilla soup_1

The domestic front has been a scene of chaos, with sweeping and dish washing and laundry and tidying all ignored as I plow through an intimidating pile of work. In the background, there's been the low buzz of disgruntled parents trying to figure out if, when, and where they can get flu vaccine to their kids, and fretting over the slightest colds.

This calls for soup. Chicken soup, specifically.

A deep, flavorful stock is essential for this soup. If you've never made your own stock, this is the time to try it. (It's easy, honest. Here's how to do it.) Orange peel adds a lovely bright note, and this particular dish included the very last of the cheerful persimmon tomatoes from the garden. The fact that it looked like a bowl of sunshine almost made up for the last-minute discovery that I had no cilantro to finish the soup. Phooey. But with stock this flavorful, it didn't matter. Much.

Soup satisfied the moms. The kids were offered quesadillas on the side, just in case they turned up their noses at the sight of vegetables. But most of them enjoyed the soup, and one even asked for seconds. Success!

Dessert was a simple apple pie, studded with raisins and currants and baked in a disappointing but serviceable refrigerated crust. It looked much better once it was dished out onto adorable Curious George tea set plates.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

091106_tortilla soup_2
Good broth is essential to making this soup sing. Use homemade stock, if you can. To bake your own tortilla strips, lightly brush corn tortillas with vegetable oil, cut into strips, and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 can diced tomatoes, drained, or about 1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes peeled, seeded, and chopped
4 strips of orange peel, each about 1/2 inch by 3 inches
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, diced or shredded
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans
juice from 1/2 a lime
fresh cilantro, chopped, to taste
salt and pepper
1/4 cup queso fresco cheese, crumbled (this Mexican cheese can be found in your grocery or at Latino markets)
baked tortilla strips or chips (see note)

Heat oil in stockpot over medium heat. Add onion and carrots and saute until onions begin to soften. Add stock, tomatoes, and orange peel. Simmer for 25 minutes.
Remove orange peel. Add chicken and black beans, and simmer 3 minutes. Stir in lime, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon soup into serving bowls. Encourage the kids to top their soup with a sprinkle of queso fresco and tortilla strips, with a generous handful of tortilla strips to enjoy on the side.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Salt to taste? Kosher, please.

About two years ago I started cooking mainly with Kosher salt. Just because I saw most of my favorite chefs talking and advertising about its unique qualities. No religious thoughts or traditions came into my mind when I chose to buy my first box of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, approved by the American Culinary Foundation. By the way, kosher salt might be kosher, but most importantly it has this name because it is used to process all meat to become kosher. And my old time love for coarse salt helped me to absorb its goodness and incorporate it on my recipes.

At that time, savory staples at my home were the family adored French roast beef, Curry-mustard chicken and turkey meatloaf. For beef I always tended to use coarse sea salt, as I learned on the best churrasco's houses of Brazil. With all of my recipes I had a short period to adjust to the measure of Kosher salt. First because you need more kosher salt in volume to achieve the same result of table salt. So, no danger to get a too salty meal. After tasting all purity of Kosher salt, I adopted it as a rule for my savory dishes. I don't bake too often, but many times I remember Ina Garten using it in her pastry.

The lingering question was always if my kids were missing something called Iodine in their diet. But after much reading I realized that currently we don't need to worry about that if we have some other sources and are using table salt too on a daily basis. And actually, some people even think that we don't need salt at all! I still think I love its taste and probably wouldn't be able to live without some salt in my food. That's the main reason for my recipe writing I don't give exact measurements for salt. I suggest that salt is to be added "to taste". Certainly this is a good way to go - salt is a personal , or may I say palatesonal, choice. But I really think you should try a pinch of Kosher - and please let me know how was your experience!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pumpkin Chipotle Chili

Halloween09 mosaic

Calvin planned most of the food for his Halloween party this weekend: mummies (hot dogs wrapped in breadsticks), magic potion punch, a pumpkin patch cake, molded candies, cut-out cookies, pomegranate, mozzarella eyeballs, and raisins and pretzels. An eclectic menu, certainly, and skewed to youthful tastes. There was a lot of cuteness to create, from the fondant ghosts haunting the cake to painting candy molds (oh, how I regret saying yes to that request).

For those averse to mummified pigs-in-a-blanket, I decided to make monster stew (inspired by Monster Mischief, a favorite in our house). But what, exactly, should go into a real monster stew?

Pumpkin. Definitely pumpkin. Maybe beans. Yes, pumpkin chili! And the rest of it came together instantly: smoky chipotle for the heat, and a bit of earthy sage because I'm obsessed with it. (I keep chipotle in adobo sauce in plastic bag in the freezer; it's easy to take out just the right amount.)

I don't know why so many people find the idea of roasting a pumpkin intimidating, exotic, or laborious. It's ridiculously easy, and it's worth the minimal effort for this recipe. You could use canned pumpkin, which is often a wonderful shortcut, but the texture would be very different. You also could substitute other winter squash.

This made a large, satisfying pot full of chili, though I was the only one who thought of it as monster stew. My grand plans for elegantly creepy menus devolved to a scrawled yellow sticky-note slapped on the Dutch oven midway through the party. If you want to get all Martha Stewarty about it, you could serve this in a large hollowed-out pumpkin.

Pumpkin Chipotle Chili

To roast a pumpkin, simply cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, and pierce the shell a few times with a fork; set halves on a baking sheet, cut side down, and roast at 350 degrees for 45 to 90 minutes. The pumpkin's ready when you can easily pierce to the center with a fork. To keep this child-friendly, go easy on the chile—but offer chipotle chile powder for those who want to turn up the heat.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
cooked flesh from 1 small Sugar Pie pumpkin, chopped (see note)
1 1/2 tablespoons chipotle chile in adobo sauce (more or less according to taste; see note)
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups cooked black beans
2 cups cooked white beans (cannelini, navy, etc.)
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish (optional)

Heat oil in Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic until softened. Add pumpkin and chile and sauté 2 minutes more. Add tomatoes, vegetable broth, beans, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, 45 minutes. Serve topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Ladies Social Circle Apple Dessert

cookbook shelf

IMG_1473_2I'm in New England, trying to stay warm despite unseasonably raw weather. The warmest refuge, of course, is in the kitchen of my childhood home, surrounded by family for an all-too-rare holiday together. We crowd into the kitchen and around the dining room table, squeezing in conversation as the young cousins run happily through the house.

There's no shortage of food. This is a home with one full-size refrigerator, a smaller supplemental refrigerator, and a standalone freezer, all so full there's a few extra bottles of white wine out chilling on the porch. This is a home where pulling together dinner from leftovers yields five main dishes to choose from.

This is a home with 469 cookbooks. Give or take a few.

The collection, sprawling across seven shelves, reflects a lifetime taking care of others. There are hundreds of small magazines picked up at the grocery market checkout, stacks of large collections (The Best of Shaker Cooking, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book from the 1960s), and a dizzying array of very specific titles (The Creative Art of Garnishing, the Five Seasons Cranberry Book). Some date back to my mother's time as a newlywed (So Quick With New Bisquick, c. 1967, offers 280 recipes "to aid and abet your ingenuity"). And then there are the titles that appeared after the child-raising days (50 Splenda Recipes, for one, and ... The Hooters Cookbook?!).

The most dog-eared cookbook is the 1945 North Amherst Cookbook, created by the Ladies Social Circle of the North Congregational Church of Amherst, Mass. My mother pulled it out this week to make what is simply titled "Apple Dessert." The women clearly wrote for a savvy audience: Many recipes don't bother with measurements, oven temperatures, or sometimes any baking directions at all. It's heavy on desserts, candies, and cookies, and salted pork.


Apple Dessert, contributed by one Edith French, is similar to an apple cobbler but with "more of a cookie-like topping, instead of a cake-like topping," as my mother puts it. Her grandmother used to prepare it from this same cookbook, and my mother made it for her family when she was growing up and then for her own children. This week, she made it for a fifth generation.

The Ladies Social Circle Apple Dessert

From The North Amherst Cookbook, published in 1945.

4 or 5 apples
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. butter, softened

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and slice apples. Fill pie plate or cast iron pan with sliced apples. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon. Bake about 15 minutes.

Remove pie plate or pan from oven and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Mix remaining 1/2 cup sugar, egg, flour, baking powder, butter, and salt. Dot mixture over apples. Return to oven and bake for 35 minutes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Second Helping: Liquid V Pizza

I knew this would happen at some point of my cooking. But I was avoiding it. Here's the story: Once upon a time, a loooooong time ago I was tired of all the thought of being a meat eater without the guts to be an animal exterminator. Then I became vegetarian for a couple of years. I was a 18 years old University fresher, had nothing to lose and didn't have anybody to feed. But now, after years of being a happy meat eater, a researcher of the Culinary Arts, I found myself very concerned about the carnivorous dilemma. Just one e-mail and one website were enough to pull the trigger. And there I was on the top of my food inventions with a new challenge: Vegetarian Week, once a month, for all family. Why not?

This is part of my new plan: Will offer everything to my kids, including the veggie option, so that if they decide to go without meat during their lives, they can also recognize-it as something comfortable, home-like. So, I surprised them with something my 4,5 years old defined as liquid pizza. My first option was to experiment with the content of an inviting picture on the cover of a Trader Joe's Meatless Italian Sausage package.

For my surprise at the end of the meal they were all so happy and fulfilled. I understood that I might have a good chance on making the boys to recognize soy or wheat as a yummy treat. And happy to become aware that currently it is possible to find meat alternatives that don't resemble as the old tasteless hippie-like meals I tasted once upon a time...

Pinto Beans Soup with Meatless Italian Sausage

In this recipe I used fresh pinto beans that I cooked on the night before with salt, oil, and bay leaves. You also can use canned organic beans, and frozen brown rice from Trader Joe's will give the same results.

4 cups cooked pinto beans
2 cups cooked brown or white rice
2 cups water
2 teaspoon garlic powder
kosher salt to taste
2 meatless Italian sausage, cut into thin round slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 fresh tomato, cut in small squares to garnish
1 chive, cut to garnish
green Tabasco sauce (optional)

Over medium heat, heat beans, rice, water, garlic powder, and salt. When hot, process with an electric hand blender or regular blender.
Grill slices of sausage in hot olive oil. For each serving, set sausage slices carefully on top of the soup, making a pizza-like design. Carefully top each slice of sausage with a cube of tomato, and add single drops of green Tabasco between each circle of sausage.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Playdate Special: Sage, Apple, and Chicken Meatballs

A warm welcome to our new readers! We're so very happy to be able to share this with you, and both grateful and flattered to hear back from readers who are trying these recipes with your friends and families.

We celebrated the launch of this blog with -- what else? -- a dinner party Saturday. Good food, good friends: a perfect pairing. We each prepared a few dishes, some in advance and some on the spot, that made feeding a crowd of nearly 50 a breeze.

The menu featured a few tried-and-true favorites from our playdates: Anna dished up Turkey Chili with Mangoes, Yams with Za'atar, and Pink Pudding, and a friend contributed lemon zucchini bread (which disappeared fast!), a cake sporting our new logo, dips, and the best deviled eggs I've ever had.

I made Lemon Balm Pesto and a few loaves of bread, but decided to take a chance, a wild crazy chance, and make something up. The day of the party.

My first attempt at apple and chicken meatballs last month yielded so-so results. I made one variation with soy sauce and cilantro, another with apple juice and sage, and a third with apple juice and thyme. It came out a little dry, a little too smooth in consistency, a little too boring. Kids were happy, adults saw potential. My testers offered some suggestions, I took notes, and began planning my second attempt.

On Saturday, Anna stopped by with party supplies a few hours before guests were to arrive and found me wrist-deep in ground-up chicken and eyeing the first misshapen meatballs doubtfully. But once the first batch was done, I stopped fretting.

These meatballs were tasty.

More texture, more moisture, and a tiny tease of spice. The meatballs were satisfying solo, but even better with cranberry-apple chutney (from a jar, I freely admit).

Sage, Apple, and Chicken Meatballs

The meatball-making part can be a bit messy. Don't worry about forming perfectly shaped meatballs.

vegetable oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup day-old wheat bread, torn into small chunks
1/2 cup apple juice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2), cut into pieces
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, coarsely chopped
1 crisp apple, such as Granny Smith or Honey Crisp, peeled
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon curry
salt and pepper
1/2 cup flour

Heat oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute a few minutes until softened and fragrant.

Meanwhile, put bread chunks in a small bowl. Pour apple juice over bread chunks and let sit 10 to 15 minutes. Grate half of the apple; squeeze to remove some of the juice. Dice the other half of the apple.
Put onion and garlic mixture in work bowl of food processor. Add chicken and process briefly until chicken is ground into small pieces. Don't overdo it!

Put chicken, onion, and garlic mixture in a large bowl. Add the chopped sage, grated and diced apple, egg, curry, and salt and pepper. Squeeze juice from bread chunks and add bread to the bowl. Mix thoroughly.

Form mixture into meatballs. Put flour in a shallow dish. Form mixture into meatballs, rolling each one in flour to coat. Pan-fry over medium heat, turning often to brown evenly, until thoroughly cooked.
Makes about 30.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Playdate Special: For a Sweet New Year, Saffron Apple Chicken

This recipe was developed while we were still living in Forest Hills, New York. The thought of celebrating the Jewish New Year was a culinary challenge. I wanted to gather apples, honey and saffron. With some knowledge of Moroccan flavors and Indian marinades, I made a fusion and the result has been always great.

This year, besides our playdate mates we had included other guests. The whole potluck was carefully prepared by all. The result was great. Besides chicken we had couscous, a lovely broccoli salad, and another style of chicken - with gorgonzola, which I will share with you later. For dessert apples with honey, Darienne's apple dessert and vanilla ice cream.

Kids were too busy running around and making their sculptures with apples and marshmallows. They also had the chance of tasting beautiful meatballs brought by a guest specially for them. But mostly everybody enjoyed the collection of flavors that were on the table. Shanah Tovah!

Apple Saffron Chicken

The yogurt marinade is the key to success with the chicken texture. I used a low-fat organic natural yogurt from Trader Joe's and that worked perfectly. A good saffron also helps. This year I found a very good one by Morton and Basset from Novato, Calif. Dried fruit plays a role too: This year we had a mix of cherries, cranberries and raisins.

2 cups apple juice
12- 14 saffron threads
2 cups of your favorite mixed dry fruit
6 tablespoons low-fat natural yogurt
kosher salt to taste
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 medium white onion, cut in cubes
3 pounds chicken breasts, butterflied
1 pound chicken thigh filets, fat removed
2 medium Pink Lady apples, thinly sliced

Warm apple juice and add saffron and dried fruit. Reserve for later. In a big bowl whisk together yogurt, salt, olive oil and onion. Immerse chicken pieces and marinade overnight or a minimum of 6 hours.

Heat large skillet over high heat. Remove chicken from marinade; reserve marinade. Sear each piece of chicken, being careful to just bring the meat to the surface. If not using a ovenproof skillet, transfer the seared meat to a ovenproof dish. Cover with reserved marinade, and use the slices of apple as a top layer on the dish, to work as a lid. (You can store it in the refrigerator at this point to cook later.)

Bake in oven for 25 minutes at 375F. Serve hot. Ideal sides are salads, couscous and rice.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Second Helping: The 10,000-Calorie Lasagna

CPE_lasagnaIf it weren't for this lasagna, I might never have had my two wonderful boys.


I first tasted this 14 years ago. It was Easter weekend, and I had talked a guy I worked with at the newspaper into inviting me over for dinner. This was the only thing Doug knew how to make, other than Rice-a-Roni and macaroni and cheese out of a box. It proved to be the first date of many, and now Doug makes this a few times a year when we need a satisfying, comforting meal for a crowd.

Doug learned the recipe from his grandmother when he was 6 years old. He swore it would be absolutely ruined if we strayed from the prescribed brand names or tried to do anything fancy, like add fresh herbs or swap in, say, sun-dried tomato and artichoke sausage. I finally convinced him to switch from straight ricotta to low-fat, and that's how we brought it down to 10,000 calories for the whole thing. He's made other adjustments as well -- when we moved from the East Coast to the West, some of the preferred brands were nowhere to be found. So it isn't the same, and it certainly isn't healthy, but it's still pretty darn good.

And convenient: You can assemble it a day ahead and bake it according to the directions when ready to serve. Leftovers freeze easily. And there's always way more than we need. This past weekend we fed five adults and eight children, and still had nearly half of it left.

Doug's Lasagna

Doug is rather picky about the ingredients, right down to brand names. Trust me, you can use whatever kind of spaghetti sauce you like.

1 pound hot sausage
1 pound mild/sweet sausage
1 pound hamburger
2 26-ounce jars of spaghetti sauce (he says Prego Traditional)
a cup or so of low-fat ricotta cheese
8 cups mozzarella cheese (Sargento)
1 package lasagna noodles, preferably the kind with ridges

Cut up sausage and cook in skillet; set meat aside. Cook hamburger in skillet; drain fat. Combine cooked meats and sauce.
Meanwhile, cook lasagna noodles according to package directions.
In 9-inch by 13-inch pan, layer noodles, meat and sauce, ricotta, and mozzarella; repeat. Over the top layer of noodle, spread plain sauce and still more cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Playdate Special: Hands on Gnocchi

There's always something that stirs my soul and as a whispering force says: "When sunken in chaos, let creativity flow ". After few weeks with family and friends over and adapting my kitchen to all different tastes and home to diverse lifestyles, I needed something else as a challenge. And that, translated to a dish, is... Gnocchi. Something I ate many times but never dared to cook.

I searched for a reasonable recipe in all my favorite and hated chef's websites. But none satisfied me. I was looking for something lighter, and not potato-rocks - as usually the pre-made gnocchi are.

Excited by the possibility of having kids participating on the challenge, rolling dough and cutting the gnocchi, I started to work. For my surprise, the process was very engaging for all - including mamas. It included one batch of gooey gnocchi - a mistake for a too rolling boiling water. One of my boys ate it all. Three kids were not pleased with the gnocchi texture. But all of us grown ups ate a lot and found it just perfect.

Dessert brought a little more comfort to little ones. A big round slice of sweet watermelon and few shapes of cookie cutters made them very happy. Again with hands-on and having great moments shaping their fruit they left the house with high levels of fructose and mostly no other food. The same could not be said about the gourmet audience. We all rolled and ate those yummy gnocchi, and Darienne left home with one small ball to share with Calvin, our first cook of the kid's group.

Gnocchi della Casa

As recommended by many of my favorite authors, I left all ingredients to at room temperature at the time of preparation.

12 medium (equivalent to 2 pounds) russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups non bleached all purpose white flour
2 eggs whites, beat to soft peaks
2 tablespoons mascarpone
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon garlic powder

Bake potatoes in oven or microwave. Let them cool, peel them and mash with a potato masher, or ricer to reach a creamy texture. Add salt to taste. Beat two eggs whites and add gradually to potatoes. In the meantime bring a large stockpot with water to a boil. Add plenty of salt and reduce heat to a medium- high, to keep the water very hot but not on a rolling boil. Close lid and let it on the stove. Now, back to the dough: fold in nutmeg, and mascarpone to incorporate all ingredients. Begin to powder flour gradually with the help of a strainer, and start to knead with the other hand while pouring flour. The dough should feel light to the touch, not so sticky but solid enough to be rolled into a cylinder. Flour surface and cut in 1 to 1/2 inches pieces, using the fork to stamp the top surface of each piece of gnocchi. Drop into the very hot water and take them out of the pan one minute after they emerge. Serve with your favorite sauce or just with good shredded cheese.

Tips and Gadgets: Kids in the Kitchen

Rookie Moms shares a great tip for getting kids involved with food prep: Keep a pair of safety scissors in your kitchen drawer and let your kids use them to cut up lettuce, soft vegetables, and more. There are a few other tips to encourage you to set efficiency aside and invite young ones to help get dinner on the table.

We found one of our favorite kid-friendly tools this summer at a cooking school for children. The Progressive lettuce knife is a serrated nylon knife perfect for kids who want to cook just like the grown-ups. It's blunt enough to be safe, but surprisingly good at getting the job done. My 5-year-old has used it chop up fruit, sausage, bread, and vegetables with ease.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Second Helping: Popeye Sauce

You can use it on pasta or gnocchi. And to attract a younger audience, you'd better say that you this is the one sauce that helped the famous cartoon sailor to grow strong. If they don't know yet who you are talking about, it is your chance to introduce them to Poooo-peee-ye!
Fresh baby spinach from a salad bag will do wonders. If not available, it may be possible to do from frozen. Or from the spinach in the can - just like in the cartoon.

1 bag (6 cups) fresh baby spinach
1 tablespoon water
Kosher Salt to taste
1/2 cup cream cheese or Mascarpone cheese
1 cup fresh cream
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Simmer spinach with water in a sauce pan. When cooked and tender, stir in cream cheese, black pepper, Parmesan and black pepper. Turn heat off, add cream and process everything in the pan with a hand blender. Serve it with pasta or gnocchi.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Playdate Special: Golden Gazpacho

CPE_Golden Gazpacho

It's been a weird summer in terms of weather, with a cold start and a steamy hot finish. The cherry tomatoes began appearing in July. Most of them have disappeared directly from vine to mouth -- my boys find them wonderfully sweet and tasty and pick them greedily. I rarely need to pick any myself, but I do need to hunt to find any left. Finn grabs empty strawberry baskets and heads out "to get my 'matoes," then leaves little half-filled baskets all over the yard.

My handful of heirloom tomato plants, however, have been slow to yield ripe fruit. It wasn't until late August that I was able to count on a few tomatoes each week. The most generous plant has been the giant persimmon tomato, yielding gorgeous orange fruits that can clock in at nearly a pound each.

Temperatures had been in the 90s for a full week. Between that and the late bounty of tomatoes, there was no question I'd be making gazpacho this week. I prepared it the night before, and by morning it was tasty but a little flat. Anna has saved several of my dishes in the past: I asked her to taste, and she recommended sun-dried tomatoes. Perfect.

To go with the gazpacho, I split a loaf of Pugliese bread in half and spread it with goat cheese, then spread some fresh basil pesto, and finally topped it with chopped sun-dried tomatoes. I popped that into the oven to toast a bit.

I tried making baked spinach balls in a desperate attempt to get my kids to eat something green. I added a bit of chopped lemon balm to make them more interesting to me, at least -- but they were left mostly uneaten. Couldn't get the kids to even try one. I ended up making some tortellini for the kids, dressed with a bit of the pesto, and they wolfed it down.

The kids didn't think much of dessert either -- balls of honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon with a bit of lime juice, honey, and mint. Must have been the flecks of green.

Golden Gazpacho

Gazpacho is very forgiving of experimentation. Play around with this one. You can puree it in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Some insist on straining with fine-mesh sieve, but I don't bother.

4 ounces white bread, crusts removed
two large orange tomatoes
1 San Marzano tomato (optional)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomatoes, divided
1 yellow or orange bell pepper
1/2 cucumber, peeled
1/2 small red onion
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

Tear or cut bread into 1-inch chunks and place in small bowl. Add water to cover, then drain and squeeze water out of bread. (If using stale bread, let it soak in the water for a few minutes.) Add bread to work bowl of food processor.

Coarsely chop fresh tomatoes, 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, onion, and garlic. Add to food processor along with vinegar and olive oil, and process until smooth -- a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate at least an hour, or overnight. Taste before serving and adjust seasoning as needed.

To serve, chop remaining tablespoon of sun-dried tomatoes and sprinkle on top of each bowl of gazpacho.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Second Helping: Welcome, Purple Soup

We've all felt like melting on a hot pot while eating delicious pizza and sipping wine last Friday. The end of Summer surprised us with a punch of heat. But never mind. It was wonderful to be with friends talking and day-dreaming about the near future, while kids were tamed by Herbie Rides Again , the movie. But today is Monday and all that hot atmosphere seems to be left behind. I've been thinking all day to become vegetarian, vegan or something else that excludes animals. And then I rushed to the kitchen to prepare a soup. A Purple Soup. On the back of my mind I knew I would have the help of nice and expensive Reggiano Parmeggiano and nice pasta for the kids.

Purple Soup

Probably whatever is available in your fridge will make this soup a huge success as far as you have purple cabbage, purple onion, and some celery, and good grated cheese -- the predominant ingredients. Darienne asked me last time if a pressure cooker would be a good acquisition. If you aim to have one, I recommend a Lagostina, Italian, sturdy and not dangerous. I've been using mine since 2003, and gosh that pot rocks!

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 purple onion, sliced
1/2 purple cabbage, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 clove garlic, halved
2 yellow zucchinis, chopped
1 (12-oz.) can organic diced tomatoes
1/2 gallon of filtered water
4 tablespoons of kosher salt
2 cups of kid's dry pasta (alphabet, stars, rings, or any small, kid-friendly pasta)
baby spinach to garnish
shaved Reggiano to garnish

In a stock pot or pressure cooker, stir-fry onions, cabbage, and celery in hot olive oil. Add all ingredients and fill pot with water (from 1/2 to one gallon depending on the capacity of pot). Cook over medium heat for 25 minutes in a pressure cooker and about 50 minutes in a normal stock pot.
Add pasta and cook for 8 more minutes.
Top each bowl with spinach and cheese.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Second Helping: The mystery of Za'atar

The smell of hot pitta bread covered with Zahatar (or Za'atar) sends me back to Old Yaffo, Israel. It was certainly not the first time I was introduced to the beautiful mix of herbs, spices and seeds. But staying on the line of Aboulafia, the Arab bakery, waiting to be served gave me the impression that Zaatar was one of the tastes that should stay with me forever. And so it did. Today I use it on many recipes. Mixed with feta cheese and olive oil to dress a salad, inside lentils and also just in the simple way of being spread in hot pitta bread with olive oil. One of my favorites is with sweet yams.
The Israeli zaatar will mainly bring a mix of oregano, thyme, marjoram,salt and sesame seeds. Sumac is added to some family recipes coming from Lebanon, and some from Palestinian recipes, as I learn form some websites, can come with caraway seeds. As with well kept family recipes, each Za'atar can have its own variations depending on the creativity and background.

Yam with Za'atar

I use always the small orange yam or sweet potato, but I believe it can also work with white sweet potatoes or even butternut squash.

6 medium jewel yams or sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon water
Kosher salt to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon za'atar

Cook yams or potatoes on microwave in the baked potato mode with the water on the bottom of the pan, counting each 2 yams as one potato. After ready wait about 15 minutes and heat olive oil in a shallow skillet. Cut each yam in half and sprinkle both sides with salt and za'atar. Leave it to golden each side for about 5 minutes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Playdate Special: Carne Gelada, it tastes so familiar!

Here's a toast to one more year of being a full-blown-full-time mom. Celebrating the years to come I have today my best friend to help. She came from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to our birthday that is just one day apart...She asks me what I am planning to cook. I wonder. Around the alleys of my local TJ's nothing really inspires me. All of a sudden, amidst frozen fish from somewhere in the Pacific and Atlantic, I have a vision. I need something familiar. Something that brings me the flavor of home birthdays dinners. I recall one of my favorites: cold beef with onions, olives and oregano.

The nostalgic memory of family gatherings was there. I consult Renata, my friend for more than 25 years, and she approves. I leave TJ's with olive oil, red onions and a medley of olives. After a brief search in the Internet, I found the best translation for my beef cut - I just knew it in Portuguese- and also many good recipes similar to what I want to cook. Headed quickly to Safeway, and ordered the cut at the counter: Round Eye Beef. And putting all of those objective feelings and intuitive thoughts I began to cook.

Dessert was also a retro experience. One of my mother-in-law staple, known as the Pink Pudding is the choice. At the end of our lunch, many clean plates came from the kid's table. Spirits were elevated and a broad smile was in every body's faces. For me it was a very special occasion of communion of my past and my present with my family and my new and old friends. What a sweet way to celebrate my birthday! Dinner time came and the same menu was shared with my friend- the birthday girl - and husbands. We had a great time and indulged toasting with glasses full of California Merlot and hope for many creative years on the go.

Three Times O's Beef or Carne Gelada

This recipe has to be prepared one night before serving. After cooked, beef sliced and sunk in a new marinade to absorb all flavors of the chosen spices and herbs. During lunch we all agreed that the plate is just like jazz. Meaning that we can improvise and soak the beef in any kind of good ingredients, from capers to mushrooms.

3 pounds round eye roast
4 teaspoons Kosher salt
4 teaspoons garlic powder
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 pinch fresh ground pepper
1 cup raw carrots, coarsely cut

Overnight Marinade :
1 large purple onion, cut in slices (divided in 4)
1/2 pound olives (divided in 4)
1 tablespoon oregano (divided in 4)
3 tablespoons olive oil (divided in 4)

Sear the whole piece of beef in hot olive oil, garlic and salt. When all the circumference of the beef is seared- and even a bit charred- in high heat, fill pan with enough water to cover it. Add celery, carrots and bay leaf, close pan with a heavy lid and cook for about 45 minutes in medium flame. If using a pressure pan cook beef for about 25 minutes. Remove beef from pan and after about 15 minutes slice it in thinnest way you can. If you have an electric knife this will be even easier. In a bowl put one layer of beef and the 1/4 of olive oil, Onion Slices, Olives and Oregano as preparing a lasagna. Let it sleep, covered in the fridge, for at least 12 hours before serving.

Second Helping: As Time Goes By Pudding

Pink Pudding

For pudding:
1 can condensed milk (use condensed milk can as a reference for all contents of cans if they have different amounts)
1 can of light coconut milk
1 can evaporated milk
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin powder

For fruit sauce:
16 fresh cherries, halved and pitted
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup apple juice
1 teaspoon orange zest

Dissolve the gelatin in evaporated milk heating it on a pan over low heat up to all granules have been dissolved with a help of a whisker. In a bowl on the side, mix coconut milk with condensed milk. Add warm mix of gelatin and evaporated milk to coconut and condensed milk mix up to when liquid looks smooth. Cool in a Pyrex or plastic mold for at least 8 hours before serving.
Simmer fruits in juice for 25 minutes, and use cold sauce to cover pudding after taking it out of the mold.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Playdate Special: Pesto Magic!


Classic basil pesto has long been one of my favorite ways to dress up a simple pasta dish. Who doesn't love the bright flavors of summery basil beautifully blended with Parmesan, olive oil, and garlic?

Everyone else in my family, apparently.

But that hasn't stopped me. I work basil into much of my summer cooking, but more often than not my pesto features other flavors my boys enjoy more. Begin by thinking of it as green sauce and then start playing. Experiment with mint, cilantro, parsley, sage, lemon thyme -- keep going, you can think of more. Try them alone or in combination. Incorporating spinach is a nice way to get some extra-good veggies into your kids. As for nuts, try walnuts, pistachio, pumpkin seed, or leave the nuts out entirely.

090813_CPE_pesto_2090813_CPE_pesto_3It's easy to get snobby about pesto, insisting everything must be hand-chopped and that you must grate fresh Parmesan and use a lovely olive oil and mash it together by hand. But I find it easier to be practical and remember that I'm cooking for preschoolers, and a husband who eats like a preschooler. I use the Parmesan in the green can for family meals and mix everything up in the food processor. And I always make way more than I need, freezing leftovers in an ice cube tray for a quick and easy taste of summer all year long.

Lemon balm pesto has become our hands-down favorite. Our favorite preparation involves tossing the pesto with Trader Joe's tri-color ribbon pasta; a cup of shredded, cooked chicken; and a cup or so of halved cherry tomatoes from the garden. It's a rare no-complaints dinner for our family -- and the boys' friends devoured it at our playdate. Every single child, however, rejected the pan-roasted green beans I served with it. Can't win them all.

Lemon Balm Pesto

You can add pine nuts or walnuts if you wish. I sometimes throw in a bit of lemon verbena for an even sunnier taste.

3-5 cloves garlic (more or less depending on taste), peeled
3 cups packed lemon balm leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil (or more)
a squeeze of lemon
6 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)
pepper to taste

Rinse lemon balm well. Pat dry with a kitchen towel or paper towels and remove leaves.
Set up food processor (you could also use a blender). With machine running, drop in garlic cloves and continue running until garlic is minced.
Add lemon balm leaves and salt to food processor. Process until finely chopped. While machine is still running, slowly pour in olive oil and add a squeeze of lemon. Adjust olive oil according to your preference.
Add Parmesan cheese and process briefly. Add pepper and more salt as desired.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tips and Gadgets: My New Best Cooking Companion

This is all about the frying pan I just got as a birthday gift. It is round, elegant, can go to the oven up to 350 F and has wires of copper on the bottom. The original desire for a gift was a copper skillet - just like the ones I see at Ratatouille or on my favorite cooking show at Food Network. But before I assaulted my in-laws budget asking for a jewel as a birthday gift (the pan costs about U$ 300), I decided to try an alternative for 1/8 of that price. It is the Performance T-Fal.

My first dish cooked on it was a family favorite: garlic prawns. Inspired by the party atmosphere on the night before my in-laws leaved, a new ingredient was addede: white style Belgium beer, this one a Mendocino Micro-brew Summer White Ale, wonderful. The product of my gift was devoured in less than half an hour.

Bohemian Prawns

Choose large or jumbo raw prawns and don't forget to have a Belgian white beer style in the fridge to help to deglaze all the goodness from the bottom of the pan.

2 pounds raw farm-raised prawns, shell on with tale
1 tablespoon TJ's powdered California garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 stalk spring onion
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon whole pink pepper
1/2 bottle white Belgium beer

Marinade prawns with oil, salt, garlic and salt for at least half an hour. Heat pan on high heat. Add prawns and turn to other side when they start to become orange. Leave on the pan up to when they start blackening. Add pepper, lower the heat, and pour in the beer. Once you smell that most of the alcohol had evaporated, simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve hot.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Playdate Special: Chicken Salad, Hold the Mayo

My household is anti-mayonnaise. I wasn't raised that way, true, but there's no fighting it anymore. I usually get by scraping it off sandwiches, but my husband has been known to discard the top half of burgers to completely rid his burgers of mayonnaise taint. My older son used to get rashes from it.

It's easy enough to find alternative seasonings for our sandwiches and burgers. And when mayo is a necessary ingredient, I take the time to make an eggless mayonnaise with a recipe from Anna.

But what about creamy chicken salad? I adore chicken salad, but most preparations absolutely drown those lovely chicken chunks with mayo.

I use plain yogurt, preferably nonfat, cut with a bit of lemon juice to make it less cloying. To my taste, it's far brighter and lighter than mayo-based dressing.

The morning of our potluck picnic, I quickly made some whole wheat rolls (from my favorite no-knead bread cookbook), threw together the chicken salad, and tossed a bag of washed spinach greens into the picnic basket. It came together over two hours, accounting for rising and salting and getting-kid-to-preschool time, but hands-on time was under 15 minutes.

I tried out a Martha Stewart Living recipe that looked similar to my own basic chicken salad dressing. Martha being Martha, the recipe calls for roasting two chicken breasts to provide the meat -- that's too much effort for me. Chicken salad is a beautiful way to use leftovers. I usually make it with fresh leftover chicken, or with defrosted leftover chunks I've saved in one- and two-cup bags in the freezer. Her version also served the salad in wheat pitas, but I prefer the chunkiness of this version served atop greens. If you need a little more zip, try adding chopped red onion or a bit of rice vinegar.

Chicken Salad with Tomatoes and Cucumbers

Salting the tomatoes and cucumbers helps remove water content and keeps your salad from getting too drippy. Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, August 2009. Serves 8.

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 medium tomatoes, quartered, seeded, and cut into large bite-size chunks
1/2 cucumber, cut into large bite-size chunks (peeled if desired)
1 teaspoon coarse salt (half that amount if using sea salt)
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken breast, shredded into large bite-size pieces
ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
baby spinach leaves or other greens
fresh mint, oregano, thyme, or oregano -- any one or a combination of two -- coarsely chopped

Line a fine sieve with a paper coffee filter or cheesecloth. Place yogurt in sieve and set over a bowl or the sink and drain for 30 minutes. (Don't let it sit too long or it will get too thick.)

Combine tomatoes and cucumbers in a bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, gently mix together, and let stand for 15 to 30 minutes.

Drain tomato and cucumber mixture and combine in bowl with drained yogurt, chicken, lemon juice, garlic, and remaining salt. Season with pepper to taste, and stir.

To serve, place a handful or two of greens on each plate and top with chicken. Top with chopped herbs.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...