Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Creamy Fava Bean Soup with Mint

Does that photo of a simple (yet elegantly presented) soup get you excited? Not really? Well, it should! No, it's not a fudgy brownie or a tender scone, but it's been making me incredibly happy lately.

Since I made this Carrot-Curry Soup, I've been having a field day with my immersion blender. And to think I would never have purchased such a gadget if left to my own devices. It was actually given to me by the kitchenwares buyer when I worked in the corporate advertising office of Filene's, the venerable department store chain in the Northeast that has since been absorbed by Macy's. I worked as an assistant buyer there right after college, then moved to advertising and had to deal with buyers who loved to drive me crazy by changing the items, prices or photos they wanted to feature in the print ads and catalogues we produced.

Anyway, this little immersion blender was one of the many samples used for photo shoots that were always laying around the buying offices. This was about 6 years ago, and it's only recently that I've truly learned to love my blender. You can make pureed soups in a regular blender, in batches, but a hand-held model does the job in no time with less potential for mess.

So, I've been making pureed soups every chance I get. I did a nice one with celeriac which tasted vibrantly of celery (shocking), but it was an even duller green color than the picture above, so I didn't post it. The thing about soups like this is that you don't need a recipe after you try it once or twice--you can just choose any vegetables or legumes that take well to being pureed (anything too seedy, fibrous or stringy may not work; or it may need straining), combine them with herbs and spices of your choice, add some diced potato or cauliflower for incredible creaminess with a neutral flavor, and go crazy! I'm in love with the creamy texture I can create with just potato or cauliflower and not a drop of cream.

In this particular soup, fava beans add quite a bit of creaminess on their own, so I went with cauliflower instead of starchier potato as my thickener. The flavor is mild, like fava beans, and it's nicely underscored with fresh rosemary. Don't skip the sprinkling of fresh mint or drizzle of lemon juice; with such a simple soup, it's the little things that take it from basic to memorable. Mint is an incredible accompaniment to vegetables--it's a classic with peas, and I've been loving omelets with sauteed zucchini, goat cheese and mint. And finally, I always serve my creamy vegetable soups with either sour cream or yogurt swirled in. The cool tang elevates the other flavors, and it looks beautiful.

Creamy Fava Bean Soup with Mint

Whole Foods markets sell great frozen, shelled fava beans year round. If you can’t find frozen (or fresh), use lima beans. This soup gets its amazingly creamy texture from the pureed beans as well as cauliflower, which has a neutral flavor in this soup. Make it vegetarian--use vegetable instead of chicken broth.

Makes 4 main course servings

1 tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbs. fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 head cauliflower, trimmed and florets chopped into approx. 1-inch pieces
2 1/2 cups frozen, shelled fava beans, or lima beans
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (2 to 3 tbs.)
Yogurt or sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently until onion is soft and golden. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add broth and cauliflower and season with salt and pepper; cover and bring to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes or until cauliflower is tender; add fava beans and cook for 5 to 8 minutes more, or until heated through and tender.

Remove pan from heat and puree using a hand held immersion blender (alternatively, puree in batches in a regular blender). Return to low heat, but do not simmer, or soup might splash out of the pot. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice; taste and adjust seasoning and/or add more lemon juice, according to taste. Ladle into bowls and dollop with yogurt or sour cream and sprinkle with mint.

Here are some more soup recipes from the archives...I love them all.

Creamy Eggplant-Lentil Soup
Quinoa Soup with Spinach and Corn
Golden Split Pea Soup with Leftover Ham
Green Lentil Soup with Indian Spices and Coconut Milk (scroll down)
Vegetable Barley Soup with Poached Egg

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Derby Day Brownies with Bourbon-Soaked Raisins

Let me start by saying that putting raisins in brownies is not something I would normally do. With a few notable exceptions (chocolate dipped strawberries come to mind), I don't usually like chocolate and fruit together. When I came across a brownie recipe with raisins that actually sounded appealing, I had to embrace that feeling and give it a try.

I am usually a little late with getting holiday or themed recipes on the blog--for example, I forget St. Patrick's Day was right around the corner and missed my chance to make some green pistachio cookies I wanted to try. Last weekend, Mike mentioned that the Kentucky Derby is coming up on May 3rd, so I made a mental note to blog about an appropriate, preferably bourbon-laced, recipe since the Mint Julep is the official derby drink.

The brownie recipe, from Baking by Dorie Greenspan, called for raisins soaked in dark rum, and right away I thought of switching it up to bourbon. Thus, I could complete a derby-themed recipe and indulge my current preoccupation with brownie-making. As it turned out, you can't really detect the bourbon in the final product, and the raisins--while a nice change of pace--were a little distracting to both me and Mike (despite the handful of semisweet chips I sprinkled on top because I felt a need to balance the fruit with even more chocolate). The raisins sort of got in the way of an otherwise really great brownie. On the other hand, if you like chocolate and dried fruit, you'll really like this.

The recipe produces a thick, moist (but not wet), fudgy brownie. I used fine quality bittersweet chocolate (Lindt 70%), as specified; great chocolate makes a great brownie. I also liked the addition of cinnamon in this recipe, and I raised the quantity to 1/4 teaspoon, which created a slightly spicy, but not overpowering, flavor that gives these brownies added interest. This is a nice recipe, so if you want to go with a derby theme sans raisins, just skip that part, tip in a shot of bourbon and you're good to go!

Fudgy Brownies with Bourbon-Soaked Raisins
Adapted from Baking by Dorie Greenspan

This recipe calls for bittersweet chocolate, so I would look for something with a 65 to 75% cocoa content. I love cinnamon and always have a fresh, potent Vietnamese variety on hand (Spice Islands found in most supermarkets makes a good one); if your cinnamon isn't very strong or past its prime, add a little extra or replenish your supply.

Makes 16 brownies

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
1/3 cup raisins
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Mint leaves for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish, line with foil and butter foil; or use nonstick foil and skip the butter.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and microwave on medium power for 1 minute; stir thoroughly. Microwave again for 15 to 20 seconds and stir. Repeat, if necessary, until chocolate is just melted (don't let it get too hot and watch it closely to avoid burning). Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine raisins, water and bourbon; bring to a simmer and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, salt and cinnamon.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs and sugar and beat on medium speed until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Add chocolate mixture and beat on low speed until just combined. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed for 30 seconds (flour won't be completely incorporated). Finish mixing in the flour by hand with a rubber spatula. Fold in the raisins along with any liquid in the saucepan. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle chocolate chips over the top and press slightly into the batter with a flat hand.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes (mine took 57 minutes), or until top is dry and crackled and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean (a few moist crumbs is good; wet means it's not done yet). Cool on a wire rack. Use the edges of the foil as handles and lift brownies out of baking pan. Transfer to a cutting board and cool completely (alternatively, refrigerating brownies makes them easy to cut if you don't mind chilling them). Cut into 16 squares.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lemon Buttermilk Scones with Currants

I found a great scone recipe last week. I had a craving for lemon scones, or more specifically for that bright, fruity flavor you get when you pack a scone or a pancake with citrus zest. I had buttermilk on hand from making yet another batch of these whole wheat-cornmeal biscuits (mentioned in this post), which I'm absolutely addicted to. I often find myself throwing away buttermilk that's past it's expiration date, so if I can at least make two recipes with it before it spoils, I'm happy.

I set out to find a lemon scone recipe with buttermilk (as opposed to cream or regular milk), and this one, previously published in Sunset magazine perfectly fit the bill. Plus it called for dried currants which I really like and also had on hand. You could just as easily use raisins since currants can be hard to find outside the holiday season. I also think these scones would be wonderful with dried blueberries. And what about doing an orange-cranberry version?

The texture of the scones is moist and dense (which I like) and not too sweet (which I also like). The lemon glaze is a little tart, but so good. As usual, I made a few changes to the original recipe, mainly substituting whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose. I also hear that the various white whole wheat flours now available (King Arthur and Eagle brand make versions) do really well in scone and cookie recipes, though I haven't tried them myself.

One last note on flour: I love to measure my flour by weight using a kitchen scale. It's so fast and easy, plus there's no futzing with measuring cups. However, I've had a few not-so-great experiences with too-flat cookies and scones lately, and the source of the problem finally dawned on me--most recipes are tested by spooning flour into a measuring cup and leveling it with a knife. This method results in a greater quantity of flour than if you measure by weight according to the label on the package where 1/4 cup equals 30 grams. When I went back to spooning and leveling for this recipe and another cookie recipe I tested last week, I had excellent results. The lesson is that you have to prepare a recipe the same way that it was made during testing. But, so I don't have to throw out my beloved scale, I'm going to take the weight of a spooned and leveled cup of flour and use that from now on.

Lemon Buttermilk Scones with Currants
Adapted from this recipe, originally published in Sunset magazine
Update: I used this recipe as the base for Pistachio Scones, but used white whole wheat flour and upped the butter to 8 Tbs. They were awesome!
A note on equipment: When I make cookies, I like using insulated or "double layer" baking sheets, which allow are to circulate below the cooking surface, between the two layers (one brand name is "Air Bake"), so the bottoms of cookies don't brown too quickly. BUT, when it comes to scones, a regular, heavy baking sheet works best and allows for even browning and baking. If you don't have whole wheat pastry flour, substitute all-purpose. Regular whole wheat flour will result in a strong wheaty flavor and heavier scone, so I'd advise against using it.

2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled
3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
1/3 cup dried currants
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Add flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda to the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to blend. Add the cold butter chunks and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few larger chunks. You can also do this in a large mixing bowl with a pastry blender and/or your hands.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg, buttermilk and lemon zest until blended. Add the flour mixture and the currants to the egg mixture and stir just until thoroughly moistened. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead into a ball. Pat or roll the dough out into an 8-inch circle, about 1-inch thick. With a sharp, floured knife (flouring the knife before each cut prevents smashing the flaky layers when cutting), cut the dough into 8 wedges and place on prepared baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake for 20 to 24 minutes, or until scones are lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean.

Let scones cool on pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Place parchment paper under cooling rack to catch icing drips. Combine the powdered sugar and lemon juice to make a glaze. Drizzle over scones with a spoon while still warm. Allow icing to set and serve. These scones freeze very well; defrost, covered, at room temperature.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Red Wine Risotto with Sausage, Arugula and Caramelized Onions

I know I’m not the first to use red wine in a risotto dish, but it sure looks cool, doesn’t it? I’ve wanted to try it for ages, and I’m thrilled that I managed to combine the red wine with such delicious and complementary ingredients.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you may remember a post about Butternut Squash, Mushroom and Spinach Risotto where I said risotto is one of my signature dishes – something I can make in countless different ways without a recipe and with confidence that it will turn out well. But, doing something over and over again the same way can be a little boring, so it was fun to add that splash of subtley fruity Italian red and watch it create a telltale stain on my oil and butter-slicked grains of Arborio.

The funny thing about red wine versus white in a dish like risotto is that is messes with your brain a little. I’m sure we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, so seeing the obvious evidence of the red wine somehow made its flavor more noticeable in the dish. I think I could tell the difference between plain risotto cooked with and without white wine, but I still don’t specifically notice the wine’s flavor when I’m eating the dish.

I don’t mean to say that the red wine is overpowering or alcoholic or anything negative at all. But it’s lovely pinkish color reminds you to appreciate this flavor element rather than overlook it.

As for the other flavors – they’re fabulous. I can’t take all the credit; I was inspired by a risotto dish in the March ’08 Cooking Light in an article by Michael Ruhlman on balancing the five flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami) in cooking. The bitter arugula is fresh and peppery; the caramelized onions balance with sweetness; the Pecorino Romano (along with the wine) volunteers indispensable umami; the turkey sausage is salty and savory; and the lemon, as always, adds bright acidity.

I would use red wine is many different risotto preparations, but this one is going to be a keeper in my repertoire. Have you tried red wine in risotto (maybe I’m late to the party)? Do you sometimes skip the wine altogether? Let me know in the comment section.

Red Wine Risotto with Sausage, Arugula and Caramelized Onions
Adapted from this recipe in Cooking Light magazine

You must use a wine that tastes good in this dish. I recommend a medium-bodied one that is well-balanced between fruity and earthy flavors (no jammy fruit bombs!). Italian wine would be great. The arugula wilts a lot, so it might look like too much at first – just add as much as looks good to you. Because it’s an aged cheese, Pecorino Romano has an excellent umami quality and mild, milky flavor that I love with this risotto; Parmigiano is more nutty and fruity, but it would also work. The zippy acid hit of the lemon juice is must, so don’t skip it!

Serves 3 as a main course, 4 to 6 as a starter or side

nonstick cooking spray
2 spicy Italian turkey sausage (such as Jennie O brand)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 or 2 shallots, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry red wine
arugula leaves – 2 or 3 big handfuls from a pre-washed bag
Pecorino Romano cheese for serving
Lemon wedges for serving

Lightly coat a skillet with cooking spray and heat to medium. Crumble the sausage into the skillet, discarding the casing. Stir frequently, breaking up an large pieces, until cooked through. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Wipe out skillet with a paper towel and reduce heat to low. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. When the butter is melted, add the onions and toss well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally until very soft and sweet, about 15 to 20 minutes. If onions start to brown too quickly, check that the heat is low enough and add a bit of water to moisten skillet. Add onions to the bowl with the sausage.

Meanwhile, heat the chicken broth (do not boil) in a medium saucepan and keep warm over low heat.

In a large saucepan or soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft but not browned. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add the rice and stir constantly for 2 to 3 minutes until all the grains are slick and slightly opaque. Add the wine and simmer until almost completely absorbed.

Add two ladles full of broth to the risotto and bring to a simmer. Season with a bit of salt and pepper. Keep the risotto at a steady simmer, stirring continuously until the broth has absorbed almost completely. Add one ladle full of broth, stir until it is nearly absorbed, then add another ladle full. Continue simmering and stirring, adding broth as necessary, for about 20 to 24 minutes or until the rice is creamy and cooked al dente – firm to the bite, but cooked through. When the risotto is 1 or 2 minutes from being finished, add the arugula and stir until just wilted. Add the reserved sausage and onions; stir until just heated through. Remove risotto from heat and serve with shaved Pecorino Romano cheese and lemon wedges.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Buckwheat Crepes of Brittany

I know the last post was on pancakes, but this is a breakfast recipe I've been wanting to post for a little while now. Plus, it would be a great dinner too, so there you go.

These crepes are made with buckwheat flour and served in the style of Brittany where they are a local favorite. There was a big, beautifully photographed story (can't seem to find it online) in the April 2007 issue of Saveur on the sweet and savory crepes of this northwestern corner of France which inspired me to finally try this delicious take on the savory crepe. I'm sure they're amazing with flour made from buckwheat grown in Brittany, but they are also awesome with the stuff from Whole Foods (Bob's Red Mill brand, to be exact).

Mike and I have made these a couple times now, and we really like them. It took some fooling with the recipe, but now we've gotten a feel for it. We try to make thin, but soft crepes that we fold over ham, shredded Gruyere cheese and an egg over easy. Good Gruyere, a hard cow's milk cheese from Switzerland, should be easy to find at stores with a decent cheese selection (again, Whole Foods to the rescue). It's one of my favorite cheeses -- good with eggs, on any sandwich, in gougeres, for grilled cheese.

This is one traditional way to serve crepes in France, but you can fill them with anything. And if you don't want to use buckwheat flour, you can make simple white flour crepes or experiment with all sorts of other grains, like whole wheat, barley or quinoa flours. I haven't tried them, but if you do - or if you have your own interesting crepe recipe - let me know how it works.

Buckwheat Crepes with Ham, Eggs and Gruyère (Crêpes de Blé Noir)
Adapted from Saveur magazine

The filled crepes are called crêpes complètes if you're lucky enough to have one in Brittany. There, they separate the yolks and discard the whites so they can cook the yolk inside the crepe along with the cheese and ham. We think it's easier to cook the egg separately - plus we can eat the white too.

Makes 8 to 10 crepes

For crepes:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups reduced fat milk
1 1/4 cups buckwheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

For filling:
thinly sliced deli ham, cut into pieces
shredded Gruyere

Whisk the melted butter with the milk, flours and salt. You can proceed with the recipe now or cover and chill (lay plastic wrap directly over the surface of the batter) for anywhere from one to 24 hours.

Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat and coat with cooking spray. Ladle about 1/4 cup batter into skillet and quickly tilt to spread into a round. If the batter is too thick to spread, whisk in some water, a little at a time, until you have a consistency you can work with. Cook for about 2 minutes until light golden on the bottom; flip and spread some ham and shredded cheese over one side of crepe. When crepe is cooked through, slide onto a plate, top with a fried egg, fold in half and serve.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Orange-Ricotta Pancakes with Almonds

The weekend is near (not a moment too soon!). Time for relaxing and cooking wonderful things for breakfast. And you don’t have to eat it before noon to consider it breakfast – take it from me.

I really like pancakes. Mike does not. As a food, he sees very little value in them. A lot of people probably feel this way because of countless rubbery, foamy, tasteless and ill-made pancakes that are sadly served everyday in all kinds of places. I don’t like those either. I like lots of flavor and knowing there is some nutritional value in my pancakes so I won’t get a sugar high and want to eat again in an hour.

These orange-ricotta pancakes did the trick, and on top of that, Mike liked them too. Though I wouldn’t force a plain, no-frills buttermilk pancake on him because it’s just not his thing, I think he really objects to crummy pancakes, not pancakes in general.

I’ve never made ricotta pancakes before, and I was surprised that the flavor wasn’t more dominant; rather it leaves only a slight cheesy tang. The real flavor comes from the orange. I used a lot of zest, some juice, and the flavor was unmistakable. The pancakes rely on beaten egg whites for much of their structure—there isn’t much flour in the recipe at all—so they’re all lightness and soft texture. I suspected they could use a little something to make them heartier, so I toasted slivered almonds and underscored that flavor with almond extract in the batter. You could use only vanilla extract so you don’t have to purchase the almond flavoring just for these pancakes. I used whole wheat pastry flour, but you can use all-purpose too.

So, that’s something for you to look forward to this Sunday morning, maybe? Even if you don’t make these pancakes, spend some time enjoying breakfast (I go back and forth, but it may be my favorite meal), and let me know what YOU like to make on relaxed weekend mornings.

Orange-Ricotta Pancakes with Almonds
I used this recipe as a base, but it rather took on a life of its own.
Some recipes recommend draining your ricotta, others don’t. Unless yours is very dry, err on the side of caution and set it over a sieve lined with a couple paper towels for an hour (or do it overnight in the fridge). If you’d rather not bother, I’d guess the pancakes will still turn out fine.

Makes about 8-10 (5-inch) pancakes; may be doubled

Dry ingredients:
2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour or AP
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Wet ingredients:
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, drained if desired
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest, from one large navel orange
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh juice from same orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted, for serving

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to blend. In another bowl, combine the egg YOLKS only and the remaining wet ingredients and whisk to blend.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer at high speed until you get stiff peaks.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring until just moistened. Fold one-third of the whites into the batter with a spatula, using as few strokes as possible. Fold in the remaining whites in two additions. A few white streaks should still be visible in the batter.

Heat a skillet or griddle to medium or medium-low, depending on how hot your equipment runs, and coat with cooking spray or oil. Ladle about 1/4-cup batter onto cooking surface and spread slightly. Cook until a few bubbles start to form and bottom is golden. Flip and finish cooking the opposite side. Serve with maple syrup and toasted almonds. bloggers really like ricotta pancakes:

Ricotta Hotcakes for Tom Brady on Food Blogga
Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes with Sauteed Apples on Smitten Kitchen
Bill Granger's Ricotta Pancakes from Cream Puffs in Venice
Amanda Hesser's Lemon-Ricotta-Hazelnut Pancakes on The Wednesday Chef
Blueberry-Ricotta Pancakes on Culinary in the Country (love the nutmeg and WW flour in those!)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

How I Diet (and Pasta with Broccoli Rabe)

I don't really diet actually. I'm big on balance, so if I've had a weekend of rich restaurant meals, I follow it up with nutritious food prepared very simply. The real trick is making satisfying meals that fill you up. Greens, for example, are easy to prepare healthfully and you can eat a bushel of them for very few calories.

Soup is another great food for restoring dietary balance because you can make it filling and healthy and still eat a ton of it. Since last week was too hot for soup around here, I wanted something light and spicy, so I made this pasta dish with sauteed broccoli raab, chickpeas and whole wheat fettucine.

Take a look at that big, 12-inch skillet full of delicious, hearty pasta. All that food consists of just 4 oz. of pasta, a cup of beans and one bunch of greens. It's the right amount for two very healthy meals that aren't the least bit skimpy or "diety." I sort of just put this one together without a recipe, and I liked it so much that it's totally a keeper. Here's what you do:

Whole Wheat Pasta with Broccoli Raab and Chickpeas
Serves 2

- Trim and chop up one big bunch of broccoli raab and blanch for 3 minutes in boiling water. Transfer greens from pot to a colander with a slotted spoon and drain. Keep the water boiling, add salt and cook 4 oz. of whole wheat fettucine or linguine.

- Meanwhile, heat 1 tbs. olive oil in a large skillet. Saute 3 fat cloves of garlic, slivered, hot pepper flakes to taste and the drained broccoli raab until stems are tender. Add 1 cup rinsed and drained chickpeas; season with salt and pepper. Add 8 roughly chopped kalamata olives.

- Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water and drain pasta. Add pasta to skillet and toss. Add about 1/2 cup pasta water to moisten and use more if you like. Squeeze some lemon juice on pasta and check seasoning. Dish into 2 bowls and top each with 2 tbs. grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Makes great leftovers.

Another favorite (and easy!) healthy dinner is baked salmon with mashed sweet potatoes, so that's what I had the following night. I do nothing with my salmon but coat it with cooking spray, season with salt, pepper and maybe spices like cumin and chile powder. Roast it at 400 for around 20 minutes and it's completely delicious. The only things I add to my mashed sweet potatoes are a little milk and spices like cinnamon and chile powder (and of course salt and pepper). Another healthy favorite is salmon with lentils - it really doesn't get more nutritious or satisfying than that.

When I want to eat really well, I also pay close attention to my portion sizes, even measuring and counting calories. I've sort of had an automatic calorie counter in my head since I was a teenager and, for better or worse, it does help to know just how much you're really eating.

This weekend, we're still eating pretty healthy, and we might make a batch of my carrot-ginger-curry soup, which Mike loved. There was also still plenty of room to include pizza - our favorite Friday night staple - in our healthy eating plan.

We came up with this pizza as we were sitting around waiting to have our taxes finished yesterday afternoon. It was Mike's idea to put our favorite dish from our favorite tapas bar - mushrooms in a creamy sherry sauce - on a pizza (with my whole wheat pizza crust, of course). We added shredded chicken and shaved Manchego cheese. It was an awesome and rather healthy dinner along with some Italian red wine.

So that's how I diet...what are the tricks you use when you want to eat healthy?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pear-Almond Tart

I bet a lot of you are recovered from any Easter celebrations by now. If so, you will want to try this excellent pear tart that I made for Easter. I, on the other hand, am in recovery from a weekend of delicious meals at my favorite Boston restaurants. Here's some of the things Mike and I ate over our anniversary celebration weekend:

- Shabu shabu plus skewered hardboiled quail eggs wrapped in pork belly
- Fried New England-style clams with a side of steamed broccoli (it's all about balance)
- The gorgeous antipasto platter plus a great carbonara at my favorite Italian restaurant
- The best pad Thai and Drunken Noodle
- Exquisitely delicious and creative Mediterranean Middle Eastern food here
- Shanghai-style dim sum
- Tapas

It was a long weekend, okay. And it wasn't actually gluttonous. We don't order too much when we go out, and we do tons of walking and jogging along the Charles. The worst thing about the weekend, nutrition wise, was probably the coffee and donuts from where else that we ate for breakfast more than once.

So, I'm taking it easy this week with my oatmeal for breakfast, tuna sandwiches for lunch and healthy dinners, heavy on the vegetables. If the air-conditioning in the building had not gone unexpectedly down today, I would be making soup. But with the moist 80 degree indoor temperature, I'm craving something light and really spicy...hmmm.

Despite my healthy resolve, I have no trouble talking about how good this pear and almond tart is. From my beloved Gourmet, a magazine that really appreciates the food art form known as the tart, this one is both beautiful and delicious. The key is a custard made with pear brandy, or what's apparently known in the Alsace region of France as eau-de-vie.

Just 2 1/2 tablespoons of brandy may not seem significant, but you really can taste it. It sets the tart apart and complements the low level of sweetness with a more complex, mature flavor. It is the kind of thing you would want after an elaborate meal because it's so light and worthy of the indulgence.

The recipe appealed to me because of this lightness and because we always have Belle de Brillet, a gorgeous pear cognac, in our liquor cabinet. We discovered it in a cocktail called the Naughty Au'Pear served at a great lounge in Boston, now sadly closed. If you like this kind of brandy (cognac is brandy made in a specific region of France), I highly recommend it. But there are other pear brandies that may be easier to find in any well-stocked liquor store. Don't substitute a very sweet liqueur like pear schnapps, as it has less alcohol and more sugar than pear brandy. However, other potent liqueurs like Amaretto might work. If you don't want to buy pear brandy just for this, I think the best bet would be plain brandy or cognac, possibly with an extra 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla.

I followed the recipe from the March Gourmet with one (sort of) big change: I substituted reduced fat sour cream for "2/3 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream." I wasn't in the mood to splurge for creme fraiche, and I know that sour cream is a lot more similar to it than heavy cream. I'm right, aren't I? I'm not sure why they suggested heavy cream because my sour cream worked absolutely perfectly - and is much healthier too.

Additionally, I have a large, 11-inch tart pan, which caused me to fret that I didn't have enough dough, but it turned out okay. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose, and I reduced the butter in the pastry by one tablespoon. I guess I was already anticipating my weekend of eating out in Boston.

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