Thursday, March 29, 2007

Stuffed Shells Florentine with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

I rarely cook simple Italian-American food. Tomato sauce doesn’t thrill me (though it’s a great way to get your lycopene!), and the lack of green things in a dish of even the best baked penne leaves me cold. I love pasta dishes that are heavy on vegetables like swiss chard, mushrooms and caramelized onions, or legumes like chickpeas. My favorite pastas involve no red sauce at all, like spaghetti alla carbonara (possibly with arugula tossed in) or my favorite, pasta puttanesca. My lasagna’s got to have at least one vegetable in it, and whole wheat noodles are almost always my first choice.

My way isn’t necessarily better; it’s just my preference. And if you load your spaghetti down with veggies, it feels like you’re eating twice as much. Everything I’ve just written should be sufficient evidence to show that these Stuffed Shells Florentine are quite an about-face for me. Thank goodness I’m not too set in my ways. Making and eating them was an absolute pleasure.

The Roasted Red Pepper Sauce follows the usual method for making marina sauce, but the freshly roasted peppers and a few anchovy fillets give the red sauce an unexpected twist and an extra layer of flavor. Assembling stuffed shells is not too fussy a proposition for relaxing weekend cooking. Of course, I had to get a green vegetable in there somewhere, and the spinach stuffing only serves to make these more delicious and visually alluring (if you aren’t a spinach lover, you might disagree).

If you have one of those days when you don’t know what to cook, or nothing sounds good to you, try going out of your comfort zone. Stuffed shells are hardly an exotic food, but I rarely make that kind of dish in my own kitchen. What kinds of things do you rarely make?

Stuffed Shells Florentine
I glanced over a couple recipes for guidance, then put this together myself.

Serves 4 (this recipe is easy to double)

Salt and pepper, to taste
About half a pound large shell pasta (you will need 16 good shells)
1 tbs. olive oil
¼ c. finely chopped onion or shallot
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 ¼ c. ricotta cheese
pinch of nutmeg
1 egg white
¼ c. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish
1 to 1 ½ c. Roasted Red Pepper Sauce (or your red sauce of choice)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt and cook shells according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds to one minute. Add the spinach, season with salt and pepper and cook until all the leaves are soft and wilted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, nutmeg, egg white and Parmigiano. Season with pepper and bit of salt (the cheese already provides some salt). Stir in the spinach mixture.

Coat the bottom of an 8x8 or similar size baking dish with a thin layer of sauce. Fill 16 shells with the ricotta mixture and nestle them into the baking dish. Spoon an ample amount of sauce over the top of the shells. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle some Parmigiano over the top and bake uncovered for 5 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted (I skipped the extra cheese, but still baked it uncovered for 5 minutes). Let the shells rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Adapted from 50 Great Pasta Sauces by Pamela Sheldon Johns
If you want to make this sauce vegetarian, leave out the anchovies.

Makes about 3 cups

2 large red bell peppers
2 tbs. olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
5 anchovy fillets from a jar or can
2 c. chicken broth
1-28 oz. can whole tomatoes (use a brand imported from Italy, if possible)
¼ c. chopped fresh parsley

Roast the bell peppers under your broiler or directly on the burner of a gas stovetop until skins are completely black. Cool, then peel off the skins. Remove the stems and seeds, chop the peppers and set aside until you are ready to make the sauce. This may be done up to one day ahead.

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly browned, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Add the anchovies and stir to combine. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes and their juice, the chopped roasted peppers, and the parsley. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes.

Use a hand blender to puree the sauce, or do it in batches in a blender. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if desired. The sauce may be made and refrigerated up to 3 days ahead.

Monday, March 26, 2007

One-Skillet Lemon Chicken with Red Potatoes

Isn’t it rewarding to execute the proverbial “one-pot meal?” Protein, starch and vegetables all nestled cozily in a single cooking vessel should make anyone sigh with relief on a busy night, yet I never make it a point to cook one-pot meals. Maybe the stigma of crock pot cooking and the idea of haphazardly tossing an "all but the kitchen sink"-style array of ingredients into a large vat deterred me (disclaimer: I do own a crock pot, and admit that it has its own unique set of benefits). I am happy to say that this succulent, moist chicken that creates its own rich, lemony sauce as it roasts, reintroduced me to the very delicious possibilities of one-pot meals.

In all honesty, I am still raving about how wonderful this lemon chicken is and fighting Mike over the leftovers. The method used to create the bright, luscious lemon sauce is ingenious. I wish I could take the credit, but I got this recipe out of one of my Cooking Light cookbooks. I slightly increased the scant amount of olive oil they called for and added extra kalamata olives and grape tomatoes (why on earth would they restrict me to 10 grape tomatoes in their original recipe?!).

To create this fantastic lemon sauce, all you do is line a large oven-proof skillet with lemon slices. Then you toss the chicken in a lemon-rosemary-garlic vinaigrette and layer it on top; toss the red potato wedges in the same vinaigrette and tuck them in around the chicken; and finally sprinkle the olives and tomatoes over all. After baking totally unattended for about 55 minutes, you have a complete meal bathed in the luscious sauce mentioned above. The use of boneless, skinless chicken thighs helps create the rich sauce and is guaranteed to be moist. On a night when I thought I would just be throwing together something simple and unchallenging, this one-pot dinner was an incredibly tasty surprise.

Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken with Red Potatoes
Adapted from The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook

Serves 4

1 to 2 large lemons, sliced
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 tbs. lemon juice
¾ tsp. coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
5-6 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 ½ lb. small red potatoes, cut into 1-inch wedges
½ pint cherry or grape tomatoes
12-16 kalamata olives, pitted

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In your largest oven-proof skillet, arrange lemon slices in a single layer along the bottom. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, salt and pepper, garlic and rosemary. Toss the chicken pieces in the vinaigrette and arrange in a single layer over the lemon slices. Add the potatoes to the bowl and toss in the remaining vinaigrette. Place potatoes in the skillet over and around the chicken and pour in any excess vinaigrette. Sprinkle the tomatoes and olives over the potatoes. Transfer the skillet to the center of the oven and bake for 55 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and the chicken is cooked through. Divide the chicken and vegetables between serving plates and spoon the lemon sauce over. The cooked lemon slices may be eaten as well.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Honey Cornmeal Scones

Sometimes I think breakfast pastries make me even happier than dessert. After all, I can consider them an actual meal even though they tend to be mostly simple carbs. Then I eat a proper dessert like a chocolate mousse tart or really good tiramisu and know that no muffin or scone could ever match its creamy decadence.

Happily, I don’t have to choose between these two loves, although I try not to indulge in a sweet breakfast and a fabulous dessert on the same day (always moderation!). My favorite kind of baked breakfast item is the scone. The scone is a much maligned and misunderstood food, and I can understand why. Many, especially the big, American coffeehouse-style scones, are way too sweet and have a tendency to leave you with a leaden feeling in your stomach and butter oozing out of your pores. They are good for a few bites, but regret inevitably follows.

I generally like all kinds of scones from the light and dry English style to the dense, substantial types, loaded with fruit, nuts, oats and anything else that strikes your fancy. One thing I have discovered is that shocking amounts of butter and sugar are not required to make a good, moist scone.

I adapted the recipe for these honey-cornmeal lovelies from Once Upon a Tart, a cookbook from two New York City bakery owners who clearly have jumped on the heavy American scone bandwagon. There are over a dozen enticing scone recipes all loaded down with butter and sugar. I love butter (click here and scroll down for butter-related rant). I believe in its power, but this was too much. The original version of this scone has 16 tablespoons and I reduced it to 10. I cut the brown sugar from ½ cup to ¼ cup. I also replaced two cups of the AP flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and I swear, you would never know it.

The point of all this tinkering was not to make a healthier scone or a low-calorie scone; but, in my opinion, a better scone. I think I succeeded. Cutting the sugar allows the flavor of the honey to come forward, and the scone is still pleasingly sweet, like a denser version of cornbread covered in honey butter. As long as you use the right technique—mixing cold cubes of butter into the flour mixture just until it looks like coarse crumbs and quickly folding in the liquid until just combined—there is plenty of butter to give the scones ample moisture and richness. They may never measure up to your favorite dessert, but these scones make breakfast a treat.

Honey Cornmeal Scones
Adapted from Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau

Makes 12 scones

2 large eggs
1 c. buttermilk
½ c. honey
1 scant tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 ½ c. yellow cornmeal (medium ground if you like a little crunch; fine ground if you don’t)
1 tbs. plus 1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ c. packed light brown sugar
10 tbs. unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled for at least 20 minutes before using
1 egg, beat with 1 tsp. water, for glazing (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk the 2 eggs, buttermilk, honey and vanilla together in a large bowl. Set aside.

In another large bowl, whisk together the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and brown sugar. Add the cold, cubed butter and mix it in with your fingers to create a very loose, sandy consistency. You want to smoosh and break up the butter cubes slightly with your fingers, as long as you don’t cause them to melt into the dough.

Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and gently combine just until all the flour is moistened (if you over mix, you will get tough dough).

Use a half-cup size measuring cup to scoop the dough out onto the cookie sheet into 12 free-form scones. Use a pastry brush to dab the scones with the glaze. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until tops are golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on baking sheets for a couple of minutes, then move to wire racks to finish cooling.

More scones to try from other bloggers:
Scottish Scones from Orangette--I tried this recipe myself, and they make a delicious simple scone, not too heavy or light, with minimal butter and sugar.
Yogurt Scones from Chocolate and Zucchini--I've never used yogurt before; must give these a try!
Sweet Potato & Vidalia Onion Scones from Tartelette--Now I can eat scones for lunch and dinner too!
Lemon Poppy Seed Scones from The Wednesday Chef
Meyer Lemon Scones from Baking Sheet--Another way to use my favorite lemons!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Exotic Rack of Lamb with Spiced Quinoa

What do you consider exotic? I wonder if the more I cook and eat, the fewer things will be able to fit in that category. I think of hard to find ingredients as exotic, so that would include things like kaffir lime leaves, zucchini blossoms and wild game. Dishes from other cultures that I’ve never tried certainly are exotic, if not always appetizing (fried grasshoppers, anyone?).

In my mind, the word exotic conjures up a stereotypical image of a sultan’s tent with bright fabrics flowing from overhead, music involving a sitar and the scent of warm, aromatic spices wafting through the air. That is what I had in mind when I made up the spice mix for my rack of lamb. I did not adhere to the culinary traditions of any particular culture, but included all my favorite exotic spices to create a vaguely Turkish blend, resonant with the bitter vanilla tang of cardamom, the smokiness of cumin, the wintry spice of cloves and the heat of pepper. I toasted most of the spices whole and ground them in a mortar. The result was an intensely sweet, smoky and spicy crust all over the edges of the meat due to a quick sear followed by roasting to a gorgeously rare interior.

The only thing that could go with the lamb was an equally exotic quinoa dish that took on a more Moroccan bent with its spicing of intense Vietnamese cinnamon and good, sweet paprika. This recipe came from a Passover menu in the latest issue of Bon Appetit. I love using currants in grain dishes like this or the couscous I made here.

The inspiration for this exotically spiced meal was our wedding anniversary. The actual date was Monday, but it has gotten a bit drawn out over several days of celebration. We went out for a romantic dinner on Saturday, but we also wanted to cook something special at home since that is one of our favorite ways to spend time together both now and before we were married one year ago. Even though I use my “exotic” spices as often as anything else in my pantry, they still transport me out of our Florida condo and into that mysterious sultan’s tent. That great bottle of Zinfandel, lush with blackberry, may have had something to do with it too.

Exotic Rack of Lamb
I like to grind whole spices because you get the most intense, fresh flavor this way. If you want to substitute any of the whole spices in the recipe for ground, go right ahead. If you don’t have one of the spices, leave it out. These quantities are just a guideline, so alter them to suit your tastes or your pantry’s inventory.

Serves 2

8 green cardamom pods
1 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. whole coriander
½ tsp. anise seeds
¼ tsp. red chile flakes
5 whole allspice berries
½ tsp. black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 frenched rack of lamb (8 rib chops)
coarse salt to taste
1 tbs. olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add the first 8 ingredients to a dry skillet (not nonstick) on medium heat and toast until very aromatic, 2-4 minutes. Add the spices to a mortar or spice grinder, remove the cardamom seeds from their pods, discarding the pods, and grind the spices. Stir in the cinnamon.

Lightly score the fat side of the rack of lamb my making “X’s” with a paring knife. Rub the spice mixture all over the lamb, covering it thoroughly. You may have some leftover. Season all over with salt.

Heat the oil in a large oven-proof skillet over high heat. Sear the lamb, fat side down, until browned. Turn with tongs and sear on all sides, about 6 minutes total. Transfer the skillet to the center of the oven and roast for 12 to 15 minutes for rare to medium-rare meat. The meat should still feel somewhat soft when pressed with tongs. Let it rest in the skillet for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a cutting board and cut into individual chops. Serve immediately over the quinoa.

Spiced Quinoa with Carrots, Zucchini and Currants
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Serves 3

2 c. low sodium chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
1 c. quinoa
¼ c. dried currants
1 tbs. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 zucchini, diced
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. sweet paprika

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the quinoa and currants, return to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes or until quinoa is tender.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and continue cooking until the vegetables are soft and lightly browned. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat until quinoa is done.

Put the vegetables over medium-low heat and add the cooked quinoa to the skillet along with the cinnamon and paprika. Toss to combine and cook for 2-4 minutes to toast the quinoa and bring out the flavor of the spices. Remove from heat, drizzle lightly with olive oil and serve.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Mini Corn Cakes with Guacamole

We often find ourselves cooking up tapas or nibbles or afternoon snacks on the weekend. In fact, it is one of my favorite ways to relax. The routine is usually as follows: Go to the gym; eat a late breakfast (for me) or early lunch (for Mike); run errands; hang out with a cocktail and a bite to eat; then go on to whatever we’re doing for the night.

This past weekend took on a similar pattern, except it was even better because we were celebrating our first wedding anniversary on Saturday (the real date is today, but Saturday is a better time for celebrations than Monday). To tide us over until dinner at a romantic Italian restaurant by the water, we made these easy corn cakes. To me, they are an all-American version of blinis, and you can do just about anything with them to create a light appetizer.

If you want to top them with crème fraiche and salmon roe, I think it would be just as appropriate as my southwestern guacamole version. I would also try them with chutney or any variety of fresh or prepared salsa. They would even make a nice crostini for grilled shrimp.

Here are some other variations on corn cakes that I found in the food blogosphere:

Corn Cakes from The Domestic Goddess
Mini Corn Cakes with Avocado and Lime Salsa from The Passionate Cook
Unfried Corn Fritters from Something in Season
Bill Granger's Corn Fritters from The Wednesday Chef
Corn Fritters (made with polenta!) from Fresh Approach Cooking

Mini Corn Cakes with Guacamole
Adapted from this recipe from
These corn cakes can be made with either finely ground corn meal or medium ground, if you like a little more crunch. The very coarsely ground corn meal (the kind you might sprinkle on pizza crust) will not have enough time to soften during the quick cooking process. If you are using fresh corn, taste to make sure it is good to eat straight off the cob. If not, you can remove the kernels and cook in the microwave for 1-2 minutes to soften them up and bring out some sweetness.

Makes 24-28 corn cakes

½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. fine or medium ground corn meal
¼ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
couple of dashes cayenne pepper, or to taste
4 eggs, beaten
1 tbs. water
3 scallions, white and light green parts, minced
1/3 c. fresh corn kernels or frozen, defrosted and patted dry
3 tbs. melted butter
canola oil, for skillet

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, corn meal, baking powder, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. In another bowl, combine the eggs, water, scallions and corn. Stir the egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Add the melted butter and stir to combine.

Coat a large cast iron or nonstick skillet with a thin film of canola oil and heat to medium-high. Place spoonfuls of batter in the skillet to make pancakes about two to three inches in diameter. Cook until lightly browned on the first side, then flip and finish cooking. As you cook more batches, your skillet will get very hot, so lower the heat slightly as you go if the pancakes are browning too much. You can keep them warm in a low oven on a baking sheet covered with foil while you cook all the batter. They will stay warm for awhile on a serving tray covered with foil as well; or, you can make them a couple hours ahead and reheat wrapped in foil in the oven, or in the microwave.

Serve topped with prepared or homemade guacamole, fresh tomatoes and sour cream.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Cranberry-Orange-Coconut Muffins

I have heard people say that enjoying a lovely homemade muffin for breakfast is the equivalent of downing a piece of cake. I beg to differ. Cake has frosting.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about muffins. A bad muffin (you will know them by their rubbery appearance and dry, crumbly texture) is a sad waste of calories, but a great muffin is a jubilant start to your day. I adore and often physically crave breakfast pastries. Scones are my supreme favorite, but when I say I need a doughnut, I really mean it. I overlook the simple muffin sometimes, and it took a request from Mike for me to come up with this recipe.

Muffins are quick breads, so you’ll have these in the oven in 15 to 20 minutes. These particular muffins require an electric mixer to cream the butter and sugar, which gives them a fine, tender crumb (sort of like a c-a-k-e). Muffin recipes that call for the ingredients to be simply stirred together result in a coarser texture, which is especially good for whole grain muffins.

The base for this recipe comes from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion and is intended as an all-purpose muffin batter to be dressed up any way you fancy. It makes muffins that are not nearly as sweet as a cake and are very moist thanks to the sour cream. I love the high, craggy tops that turn crisp during baking. In the end, there is only one thing that makes these muffins similar to your favorite cake—they are best enjoyed with a really good cup of coffee.

Cranberry-Orange-Coconut Muffins
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
I used a combination of whole wheat pastry flour, white flour and regular whole wheat flour. I would have gone with whole wheat pastry entirely, except I ran out. I cannot tell the difference anymore between my WW pastry flour and all-purpose in most baked goods. Use whatever you prefer, but I would not recommend using all regular whole wheat, as the result will likely be a bit heavy. King Arthur notes that the batter can be made and kept in the refrigerator for up to a week and baked at will.

Makes 16 muffins

1 ½ c. dried cranberries
1 c. orange juice
Butter, for greasing pan
3 ½ c. all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 stick unsalted butter (8 tbs. or 4 oz.), softened
1 c. sugar
3 large eggs
1 c. sour cream
2 1/2 tsp. grated orange zest
¾ c. sweetened, shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine the cranberries and orange juice in a small bowl and set aside to soften cranberries. Grease 16 muffin cups of two regular size muffin pans (preferably nonstick) with butter.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer at medium high speed until light and fluffy, 2-4 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the sour cream and orange zest. Add the dry ingredients in two additions, beating on the lowest speed or stirring with a large spoon until just combined.

Drain the cranberries, discarding the orange juice. Fold the cranberries and coconut into the batter. Divide the batter among the sixteen muffin cups. The cups should be nearly full in order to make sixteen big muffins. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

If you like these, check out some more tasty cranberry-orange recipes from other food bloggers:

Cranberry Orange Bran Muffins from Farmgirl Fare
Very healthy, very vegan Cranberry Orange Muffins from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen
Orange Cranberry Bread from Baking Sheet
Orange Cranberry Pecan Cinnamon Buns from Confessions of a Cardamom Addict

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fabulously Simple Whole Wheat Bread—No Yeast Required

It officially does not get any easier than this. This Quick Whole Wheat Molasses Bread is a little sweet, tender as a muffin and ready for the oven in 10 minutes—no rising necessary. And thank goodness, because I was feeling no tolerance for difficult bread recipes this week.

I had a bad run of luck last week due to two attempts at a whole wheat yeast loaf that failed to rise both times. I had made this recipe successfully once before, so it was even more irritating. Consequently, I was a little put off by yeast breads. I had recently pulled this recipe from the
New York Times because it reminded me of my favorite Irish Soda Bread both for its simplicity and its use of whole grains. While Irish soda bread may always be my favorite healthy quick bread, this Whole Wheat Molasses loaf is a very tasty and very different option.

The lack of yeast means this is a quick bread, or a baked good that uses baking soda, baking powder or a combination as its leavener (muffins and scones also fall into this category). It does not have the chewy crust of a yeast loaf, but the crumb is dense and soft, kind of like banana bread. Molasses provides the sweetness that develops into a wonderfully nutty flavor that reminds me of a cross between maple syrup and soy sauce (never mind that description; it’s just good).

The molasses can be considered either the best or worst thing about the recipe depending on how you feel about this syrupy sweetener. During the cooking and baking process of this bread, I was very afraid. I thought I would have to redo it with honey because the molasses scent was strong and not entirely appealing. If you feel this way too, stay the course! Once the bread was cool and I slathered it with Irish butter, all was forgiven. Aside from moisture and a completely unique sweetness, the molasses gives this quick bread incredible moisture and a dark sugar-brown color. I know I will jump back on the yeast bread train eventually, but this is a handy recipe to have around when you want bread that is hearty, delicious and fast.

Quick Whole Wheat Molasses Bread
Adapted from Mark Bittman for the New York Times
This is a distinctly flavored bread, but that’s why I like it. If you are wary, Bittman says you can lighten up the texture and flavor and still keep the simplicity of quick bread by doing the following: use 1 ½ c. whole wheat flour and 1 ½ c. white flour; omit the cornmeal; substitute honey for the molasses; beat one egg into the wet ingredients.

Makes 1-9 x 5 inch loaf

Butter, for greasing pan
1 2/3 c. buttermilk or 1 ½ c. lowfat milk mixed with 2 tbs. white vinegar
2 ½ c. whole wheat flour
½ c. stone ground corn meal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
½ c. molasses

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. If you are using milk and vinegar, combine them in a bowl or measuring cup and let them sit while you measure the dry ingredients. Grease a loaf pan (preferably nonstick) thoroughly with butter.

Whisk the flour, corn meal, salt and baking soda together in a large bowl. Mix the molasses into the milk-vinegar mixture or buttermilk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir gently just until combined. Pour the dough into the prepared pan and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until bread is firm and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Curried Lamb & Lentil Stew, Plus a Bonus Lentil Soup Recipe

Lentils never fail to provide warming, hearty and healthy sustenance. Unfortunately they are not the most photogenic legume. I have made two very different lentil soups in the past week, and both yielded wonderful results, but very ugly photographs. My standout favorite, a Green Lentil Soup with Indian Spices and Coconut Milk, also happened to be the ugliest.

Then I remembered this Lamb & Lentil Stew that I made in January, but never blogged about. I don’t know why this oversight was made because this is just the kind of meal I love: a big pot of something fresh and hearty that will provide ample leftovers. We were able to have the butcher at Whole Foods cut the proper-sized chunk off a boneless leg of lamb for us, but you can also get a pack of lamb stew meat already cut into bite-sized pieces at many grocery stores. Beef would be a fine substitute, but I love the flavor of lamb. It is also my favorite kind of meat for Indian curries, so this soup was doubly appealing.

I know I cannot mention how wonderful the un-photogenic lentil soup is without giving the recipe, so that one follows as well. It is from a book I love, and it was even better eaten for lunch the next two days with Irish soda bread. This one is vegetarian, so if you were put off by the lamb, give this soup a try.

Curried Lamb & Lentil Stew
Adapted from the Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
I use French lentils because they hold their shape and have a toothsome texture when cooked. You may have to get them at a health food or gourmet store. Brown lentils are a good substitute.

Serves 4-6

1 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
1 ½ lb. boned leg of lamb, cut into half-inch chunks
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs. red curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
cayenne pepper, to taste
4 c. low sodium chicken broth
1 c. green lentils (also called French or de Puy)
½ lb. baby spinach (the better part of a pre-washed bag)
1- 28 oz. can diced tomatoes with their juice

Heat the oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper and add to the pot. Cook until browned on all sides, turning occasionally. Add the carrots, celery and onion; cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder, cumin and cayenne. Stir to combine.

Add the broth and lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, then add the spinach, a couple handfuls at a time, stirring until wilted. Simmer for 3 to 5 more minutes, uncovered. Remove from heat and serve.

Green Lentil Soup with Indian Spices and Coconut Milk
Adapted from Once Upon a Tart by Jerome Audureau and Frank Mentesana
I resisted grinding whole spices for a long time, but now I love doing it. For a small amount of extra effort, the payoff is a fuller, more intense, more genuine flavor. I recommend it highly for the cardamom and cloves, especially in a simple recipe like this that relies on a few key spices for its unique flavor. However, if using ground spices makes it convenient enough to make this soup on a chilly night, then I absolutely give you my blessing. The spices are toasted in clarified butter before adding to the soup. If this seems unnecessary, just add them with the thyme and turmeric. I liked the toasting technique, and it is easy to do, but it is a little fussy. Click here to learn how to clarify butter, or you could simply use ghee or olive oil.

Serves 6

1 tbs. unsalted butter
½ tbs. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 ½ tsp. fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tsp. dried
1 ½ tsp. ground turmeric
6 c. low sodium chicken broth (I really like the flavor of Swanson’s)
1 ½ c. French green lentils, rinsed (called lentils de Puy)
2 tbs. unsalted butter, clarified; or ghee; or 1 ½ tbs. olive oil
8 green cardamom pods
5 whole cloves
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1 can lite or regular coconut milk

In a large stock pot or dutch oven, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook until lightly golden, stirring often. Add the garlic, thyme and turmeric and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute. Add the broth and the lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 25 minutes.

Bruise the cardamom pods with a heavy object (rolling pin, glass jar) or in a mortar and pestle until they begin to open. Pop out the cardamom seeds and discard the green pods. Grind the cardamom seeds along with the cloves in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Warm the clarified butter, ghee or oil in small saucepan over low heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook on low, swirling the pan often, until the spices become aromatic, about 2 minutes.

After the soup has finished simmering for 20 minutes, add the spices with the butter, ghee or oil. Stir into the soup. Shake the can of coconut milk well, open and stir into the soup. Simmer for 5 minutes more, taste for seasoning and serve immediately.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Gingery Pork Tenderloin with Riesling Plum Sauce

In a classic example of the dangers of buying in bulk, I ended up with far more ripe black plums that I could eat this week. Since I can be greedy when it comes to fresh produce and because I hadn’t laid eyes on appetizing plums in several months, this came as no great shock.

Luckily, my greed is balanced by my determination not to be wasteful. The result was gingery pork tenderloin with Riesling-plum sauce, and it helped me mow through half of the plum bounty. I don’t buy pork tenderloin very often which is silly. It’s very healthy (although I wouldn’t mind if the meat was little fattier) and incredibly easy to cook. We always find it in packs of two that weigh about two pounds total, so we cook once and get a couple of meals with leftovers. In the past, we have even used totally different seasonings for each piece of tenderloin so we could have, say, spicy Cajun pork one night and garlic-rosemary pork another.

The plum sauce is open to interpretation, and if you don’t have a dry Riesling (which is a really good match for pork), use another white wine, switch it to red, or just use water as your liquid. I do not usually like to sacrifice too much good wine to a recipe, but in this case, it added notable flavor and complexity to my lightly sweetened plums.

A Quick Word on Butter
I know I don’t get into social consciousness-raising very often on this blog, but yesterday’s article in the New York Times titled, Trans Fat Fight Claims Butter As Victim, had me up in arms. Here’s a summary: butter, an essential ingredient that has no suitable replacement in many foods (like croissants) is, in fact, being replaced by trans fat free margarine (a fake food) and other dicey alternatives by companies (like Starbucks) who want to be able to say that their products are trans fat free. Butter, as well as milk and beef, contains a form of trans fat that occurs naturally in these foods (whether they are organic or not) and is different from the industrially derived, partially hydrogenated type.

In short, they are abandoning reason and throwing the baby out with the bath water by replacing butter with something entirely less wholesome. I encourage you to read the full article and come to your own conclusion on the issue. I’m off to email Starbucks and state my preference for eating scones and croissants made with real butter and milk. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming...

Gingery Pork Tenderloin with Riesling Plum Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2005
If plums have not yet made it to your neck of the woods, you could do the same preparation with apples or pears.

Serves 4-6

2 ½ tbs. olive oil, divided
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced, divided
salt and black pepper to taste
2 lb. pork tenderloin (usually sold in a package of two 1-lb. pieces)
2-3 tbs. chopped shallots
5-6 medium plums, pitted and chopped
2 tbs. brown sugar
½ c. dry Riesling or other white wine
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
½ tbs. unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cover a baking sheet with foil. Add half a tablespoon of the olive oil to a large skillet and heat to high. Rub the pork tenderloins with 1 tbs. of oil and all but 1 tbs. of the ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Sear the pork tenderloin in the skillet, turning until all sides are browned. Transfer the tenderloins to the baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes or until the internal temperature is 155 degrees (slightly pink), or until done to your liking. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let the meat rest until you are ready to serve.

After you remove the pork from the skillet, switch the heat to medium, and add the remaining oil and the shallots. Cook until softened and slightly golden. Add the ginger and cook an additional 1-2 minutes, stirring often. Add the plums, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for about 12-15 minutes, or until the plums are very soft. Add the brown sugar and stir to combine. Add the wine and the vinegar and simmer until reduced and slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the butter and remove from heat.

Cut the pork on an angle into half-inch slices. Top with the plum sauce and serve.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

My 100th Post! Skewered Shrimp Egg Rolls and Culinary Inspiration

Thanks to Giada De Laurentiis, my husband Mike utterly impressed me last week. We were hanging out at home, and the Food Network was on in the background. The episode of Giada’s show, Behind the Bash, was on where she covers a cocktail party put on by an exclusive Miami caterer at the former Versace mansion in South Beach. This was vaguely interesting to us since we don’t live too far from that neck of woods here in Fort Lauderdale.

Anyway, the extravagant caterer was having his staff fulfill his every aesthetic fantasy, but they still managed to turn out some really spiffy finger foods along the way. While I was puttering around doing something else, Mike saw them make these cool fried shrimp and crab rolls and decided he was going to whip some up too. Despite the fact that we’ve deep fried maybe two things in our kitchen, ever, I was encouraging. Mike is a really good cook, but it’s not everyday he goes all haute-asian, so I was excited to see how it would turn out.

I know I already gave away the ending, but let me say again that I was super-impressed. Mike pulled off the chic South Beach finger food thing with complete confidence, and I didn’t even have to lift one. He would be the first to tell you that these deliciously crunchy skewered shrimp rolls were a piece of cake. Still, how often do people see something on TV, gather the ingredients and go for it, no recipe in sight. You have to be a pretty confident cook to pull that off. It also goes to show that if you know your way around a kitchen and you know your ingredients, you can use your instincts and cook anything you want. And that's the moral of this story for my 100th post!

After we ate these fabulous shrimp rolls, we started thinking of other fillings and variations. The egg roll wrappers are a great item that you can use for all sorts of things -ravioli and samosas came to mind.

Here’s how Mike made these shrimp rolls:

1) Thread large shrimp (peeled and deveined) onto long skewers so that the shrimp are straightened out.

2) Lay a piece of egg roll dough (cut to about 3 x 6 inches) out in front of you horizontally. Lay one skewered shrimp on the end of the dough. Place about a tablespoon each of crab meat and seaweed salad next to the shrimp. Starting with the end that the shrimp is on, roll up the dough around the filling and press it together.

3) Quickly dip the skewered egg roll in beaten egg, then roll it in a combination of panko (we used whole wheat), shredded coconut, sesame seeds and a pinch of salt and pepper. Press the panko mixture firmly onto the dough so it sticks.

4) Heat canola oil in a heavy deep pot, using a thermometer to maintain the correct temperature. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes or until the panko is crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels and serve right away with spicy cocktail sauce (add fresh horseradish) for dipping. You can do this in a skillet, but if the oil is very hot, it will splatter all over your kitchen. If you enjoy these shrimp rolls as much as we did, you won’t be too upset, but cleaning up is no fun.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Gruyère Gougères- Nothing Says "Celebration" Like a Cheese Puff

No doubt that a tall pint of Guinness would be the perfect accompaniment for the Guinness Cupcakes with Espresso Buttercream in my previous post. Now I want to switch gears just a bit and give you a recipe that is a match made in heaven for champagne. While a good beer (and a cupcake!) can be a frequent indulgence, champagne is a bit more special. And because that bubbly can go to your head awfully quickly, you need an equally special snack to nibble on while you sip.

I made these gougères (pronounced goo-ZHAIR) with Gruyère cheese for the Oscars last weekend. Just because I’m not a movie star doesn’t mean I can’t pop open some sparkling wine and have an Oscar soirée in my living room. That’s the beautiful thing about food…it is an equal opportunity luxury.

Gougères are made with pâte à choux (paht-ah-SHOO), a simple French pastry dough that is also used to make cream puffs. Gougères, however, are a savory hors d’oeuvre that I would describe as the most fabulous cheese balls you’ll ever eat. They get very crisp on the outside, but stay moist, soft and airy on the inside thanks to the steam produced by their high water content and the buttery, eggy dough. They are the ultimate match, in my opinion, for a dry Champagne (brut) with toasty, yeasty flavors or—as I’ve heard wine reviewers describe it—with notes of brioche.

My philosophy is that we need to make as many celebrations in life as we can, from an overrated awards show to an intimate Sunday brunch, to Friday night (ANY Friday night). I was celebrating before we even opened the bubbly because making these gougères made me feel like a sophisticated French pastry chef. They are really easy to put together, but that’s no reason not to feel triumphant. And because I did not have to squeeze into a sample size Versace gown to walk the red carpet, I ate a rather celebratory number of these addictive little tasties!

Gruyère Gougères
Adapted from this recipe at
You can serve these golden little puffs as they are or cut them horizontally and use as crudite. I sautéed a pint of sliced mushrooms in olive oil and butter, added a couple splashes of sherry and stirred in sour cream, and used it as a topper for my gougères. I saw Sam something similar on her blog, Becks and Posh, and I think it is a brilliant idea. If you don’t have gruyère, another firm, slightly salty cheese will work fine. I think good cheddar, Parmigiano or Pecorino-Romano would be delicious.

Makes 40 1 1/2 inch gougères

1 c. water
½ c. butter
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
2/3 c. grated gruyère cheese, lightly packed
1 tsp. dry mustard powder
cayenne pepper, a couple dashes or to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Add the water to a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the water is hot (steaming, but not boiling), add the butter, salt and sugar. Stir occasionally until the butter is completely melted. Lower the heat and stir the butter mixture with a wooden spoon vigorously as you gradually add the flour. Keep stirring vigorously until the mixture comes to together and starts forming a tacky ball in the pan.

Turn the dough out into a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, beat in the eggs, one at a time on medium speed. You want the dough to be smooth, firm and waxy. I have always used two large eggs, but the original recipe on says you may need an additional egg. If your dough is not smooth after beating in two eggs, you may want to add an extra egg, or half an egg. It is important that the dough is firm enough to stand up in round balls when you spoon it onto a cookie sheet without spreading. It should be as firm as cookie dough, but it is much softer and lighter. The sticky, waxy quality is unique and you will know it when you see it. Just go with your instincts, and the dough will come out fine.

After you are done adding the eggs, use a wooden spoon to stir in the cheese, mustard and cayenne. Spoon small one inch balls of dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The gougeres are done when they are lightly browned on top and brown on the bottom. As soon as you take them out of the oven, use a sharp, thin knife (like a paring knife) to poke a small slit in the side of each puff. This will release some of the hot air inside and prevent the puffs from "sweating" and losing their crispness. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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