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Archive for January, 2009

I saw some little green stalks peeking through the cold ground yesterday, and it made me feel excited for when spring comes and the weather is wonderful and everything is blooming…spring is undeniably magical!  But in the mean time, I’m not one of those people who dreads the winter.  For me, cold, rainy, gray wintery days are wild and romantic, and I love being inside, cozy and warm and preferably, cooking.

We’ve had a couple weeks of true winter here, including some snow, which I must admit I never thought I’d see again once we moved to North Carolina!  All this cold weather has made me crave some hearty soups and stews and chilis, so we’ve been eating a lot of that lately.  We had a particularly good combo this week, and since they are two of my very favorite recipes in my arsenal, I thought I’d share them with you for your next wintery day!

The first is one of my all-time favorite soup recipes.  This is saying a lot, because soup is probably my favorite thing to cook – I love having a big pot bubbling away and being able to stir in a little of this and that, depending on your taste and your mood.  Soup is by far the easiest type of recipe to adapt; it was by starting to play around with different ingredients or spices in making soup that I think I really began to learn how to COOK.  I’m pretty much at my happiest in my kitchen when the lights are glowing because it’s already dark outside, NPR is on the radio, and I’m chopping onions and garlic to throw in hot olive oil and scouring my fridge for something else to throw in the pot.  A LOT of my favorite recipes are soups or stews that involve this type of cooking.  So when I say this is one of my favorite soup recipes – basically, you should try it. 🙂

This soup is called Lentil Sausage Soup, from the Barefoot in Paris cookbook.  It’s actually pretty healthy, with lots of veggies and of course, the lentils.  The slices of sausage (using easy Polish Kielbasa or another smoked sausage) add great flavor and boost up the heartiness factor.  Our favorite part of this soup, though, is that you serve it with a drizzle of truffle oil and a shake of parmesan cheese.  That combo adds AMAZING flavor, not to mention a delicious aroma, to the soup.  Serve this with a nice crusty French bread on the side and you have the perfect winter meal.

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/lentil-sausage-soup-recipe/index.html

The only thing that could make it  better, really, is a scrumptious wintery dessert.   I have a few favorites in this category, but Carrot Cake is really one of the best.  My mom was just telling me that this recipe came from my grandmother, who when she first made it, called it Surprise Cake, because she was afraid if she called it Carrot Cake, no one would eat it!  Isn’t that funny?!!  I honestly think this recipe is the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted.  The cake is dense and very, very moist, and the cream cheese frosting is to die for…I could eat it with a spoon straight from the bowl.  I used to bake this cake in college and it would take FOREVER because I didn’t have a food processor to grate the carrots, and would use the box grater.  Not only is this dangerous for your fingers by the time you get to the end of the carrot, but little orange bits go flying all over your kitchen.  It’s quick work in a food processor and that change makes this a really easy cake.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit because I love the whole family of fall baking spices anytime cinnamon is called for – I upped the cinnamon slightly and add dashes of nutmeg, allspice and ground cloves for a deeper flavor.   The cake can be made with raisins, walnuts, both or neither – I prefer it with raisins.  As with any cake, mix it only until the flour is just incorporated – finish mixing by hand to keep the cake light.  For the frosting, you should use a very soft, room temperature or just slightly melted butter, and an equally soft, room temperature cream cheese.  It is important that the cream cheese and butter are very well blended (no chunks) before you add the confectioner’s sugar – blending them at room temperature helps ensure the smooth texture.  I whip the butter and cream cheese together for several minutes on the highest setting of my KitchenAid mixer, using the wire whisk attachment.  This adds a lot of air into the frosting, which makes it high and light and totally delectable.  You want the consistency to be such that it fall off the whisk, when raised, in slow and heavy glops.  Add enough milk or cream at the end to get to this consistency – usually a few tablespoons.

The aesthetics of this cake are important.  It cooks in a Bundt pan, which makes such a beautifully-shaped cake.  I frost this by ladling the frosting on the top rim of the cake and letting it cascade down the sides in soft white waves.  Do this all the way around the cake and then go back around until your frosting is used up.  The recipe makes a lot of frosting,  but just get it all in there, even if it piles up in the middle and on the sides.  You won’t want to miss a drop of it.

Lastly, as hard as it is, try to resist cutting into this cake the day you bake it, and let it sit overnight, uncovered.  The flavor of the cake really seems to deepen as it sits, and the frosting will develop a nice sugary ‘crust’ and get quite light underneath.  I can’t quite explain how much better it is, but trust me, it’s better.

Carrot Cake

 

3 c flour

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp baking soda

2 ½ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp allspice

¼ tsp ground cloves

½ tsp salt

1 cup raisins (optional)

1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

2 c sugar

1 ¼ c vegetable or canola oil

1 tsp vanilla

4 eggs

3 c grated carrot

 

Frosting:

8oz block of cream cheese (do not use lower fat)

1 stick of butter

1 box of confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp vanilla

Cream or milk to thin

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a Bundt pan.

 

Sift together dry ingredients; set aside.  Mix the raisins and walnuts, if using, with some of the flour mixture; set aside.

 

Beat together the sugar, oil, and vanilla.  Add the eggs one at a time.  Add in the dry ingredients on a low speed, alternating with carrots, and blend until just smooth.  Stir in raisins and walnuts.

 

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour and 15 minutes or until cake surface is firm and springs back when touched.  Cool for ten minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

 

For the frosting, cream together the butter and cream cheese until perfectly blended and fluffy (at least 3 minutes on highest setting with whisk attachment).  Add vanilla.  Gradually mix in confectioner’s sugar and whip for several minutes again on a high speed.  Add cream or milk to thin the consistency until the frosting falls in slow glops from the beater.

 

Let the cake rest uncovered overnight before serving.

 

carrot-cake

Wherever you are and whatever you’re eating, I wish you warmth and coziness in your home this weekend!!!

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Ode to Rice.

Raise your hand if you think rice is boring.

Until recently, I would have TOTALLY agreed with you!  I am a flavor hog and always prefer the big taste and texture of whatever it is that goes on TOP of rice, pasta, or bread.  The basic family of starches have for me always been a vehicle to deliver the actual good stuff (a curry, tomato sauce, cheese, etc).  I could totally go without the flavorless rice or pasta itself.

In fact, one of the toughest parts of my four months living in Madagascar during study abroad in college was that the Malagasy eat rice three times a day – for EVERY meal!  Random fact: the Malagasy are the largest per-capita consumers of rice in the world.  It’s the major food staple and the terraced rice paddies are a dominant feature of the central highlands of the country. 

madagascar_1120

And because the country is very poor, meals often consist of plain rice and nothing else.  For example, breakfast in a typical family is leftover rice re-cooked with water, which makes it a bit mushy and goopy, kind of like oatmeal.  With almost no flavor and a distinctly gluey consistency, this was NOT my favorite dish.  Lunch or dinner was not much better, because people could not afford a lot of meat or vegetables, so you might get a very light broth with a few chicken bones and tomatoes on top of the massive plateful of rice, if you were lucky.  It depressed my fellow travelers and I quite a bit, because there’s not even a lot of caloric or nutritional value in all that rice – it just filled up the bellies with empty starch.  We’d see women bent over in the muddy rice fields and just shake our heads at all the hard, painful work that went into such a micronutrient-weak food source.

When I got home from that trip, I figured I could happily go without another grain of rice in my entire life.  However, post-college, I have enjoyed the stir-fry sauces from Trader Joe’s, like good peanut or curry sauces, with veggies and chicken or shrimp,  as an easy dinner.  Rice is really pretty useful for sopping that delicious stuff up, as long as there’s more of the ‘stuff’ in proportion to the rice.  So I started making it again.  I would just buy the regular Mahatma rice, the cheapest one.  I even dabbled in Minute Rice because I didn’t like the way the other rice I cooked stuck to the bottom  of the pan.  Then I found out Minute Rice was not really rice but more like a chemical product that resembled rice and that was the end of that. 

As I’ve become more fascinated with Indian food, however, my feelings toward rice have been changing.  I started cooking with Basmati or Jasmine rice, and I really kind of feel like it’s a totally different food.  I could grudgingly admit that it smelled good when it was cooking.  And lo and behold,  it actually had a flavor – a GOOD flavor, that really added something to the curry sauce above it.  I realized my transition to a rice-appreciator, if not yet rice-lover, was complete when a couple weeks ago I wanted to cook some nice Basmati rice to go with an eggplant curry recipe that I made, and thought I was out of my supply and panicked!  Luckily I had some hidden further back in the cabinet, and as I measured the rice out into the pot, I took a really deep breath of it’s nutty smell and thought: “Mmmmmm!”.   And then I thought: “What?!?  Since when have you liked rice??”.

So I guess the real point of this musing is to ask you to consider, deep down in your foodie heart, whether you’ve really given rice a chance.  It’s so easy to dismiss it as simply a great way to get some good peanut sauce and chicken into your mouth.  But give the Basmati or Jasmine rice a try next time you’re cooking, and take a deep breath of the stuff as you pour it into the pan – see if that doesn’t add a little something to your dinner tonight!

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Good words.

I LOVE this.  I think this is my cooking philosophy, written better than I could have put it myself.  This is from Bill Smith, in his cookbook Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home.

“I am often asked to list the ingredients of a perfect meal or perhaps to recall a perfect dinner party.  The first thing on the list is always the same: good companions.  Some people are skeptical of this answer, but I invite you to chose between a delicious dinner with unpleasant company and a package of Nabs and two Pepsis with your best friend in the waiting room of a train station.

If you can combine good friends with a good dinner, you are very lucky indeed.  Then the magic of the table can really kick in.  Good wine, the faces of friends aglow in the candlelight, animated conversation, and laughter becoming louder.  Such evenings are perfect.  I have heard that the Romans have a saying that one doesn’t age at the table.  I believe that one might actually grow younger, if only for a little while.”

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Ooooooh la la!

Barefoot Contessa – Back to Basics.  Easy Sticky Buns.  Amazing.  C’est tout.

That’s the short version – which is a format I could perhaps switch to on this blog because that’s really all the information I seem to pass on!  I swear I’m not on the Barefoot Contessa payroll.

The longer version is that as soon as I read through the new Back to Basics cookbook, I KNEW I’d be making these Easy Sticky Buns soon!  Hot and gooey sticky buns, straight out of the oven on a lazy weekend morning, sounds like the most perfect thing you’d ever cook – but every other recipe I’ve ever seen for cinnamon buns or something similar are way too complicated for a morning recipe.  I’m definitely not a morning person, so if it’s got a lot of steps and it needs to happen before 9am, you can forget about it.  Additionally, I am scared of anything that calls for ‘rising’ or involves yeast.

But y’all – this is SO EASY (and aptly named) and DELICIOUS that you will not believe it!!!   It’s decadent, I’m not gonna lie.  This is not your every-day breakfast.  But for a special occasion, it will rock your world.

The recipe takes a major shortcut for the pastry by using frozen puff pastry from the freezer section of your grocery store.   I’ve seen a number of recipes call for this stuff but had never actually used it before.  I think I might agree with all those Food Network cooks that it is a nearly miraculous invention!  It’s no more difficult than pulling the 2 sheets out of their wrapping and letting them defrost, flat, on the counter.  Pastry: check.

The rest of the process is really just assembling.  You mix together the butter and brown sugar and put a spoonful in the bottom of each cup in a standard muffin tin.  Sprinkle pecans in each cup.  Then you’ll go back to your pastry, and sprinkle brown sugar, raisins and cinnamon over the rectangle and then roll it up and slice it into 12 pieces.  Each pieces lays in the muffin cup atop the butter/brown sugar mixture and the pecans.  Bake and voila!

The butter mixture will make a bit of a mess, since it bubbles up around the ‘biscuit’ as it carmelizes.  Be sure to put your muffin tin on top of a cookie sheet (preferable a rimmed cookie sheet, if you have one).  The first time I made these, they were a bit too well done when I cooked them the full cooking time – my friend Grace had the same result when she tried this.  I pulled them out earlier when I made them for my parents this weekend, and I thought they were a little too underdone this time.  I think what you really want to go for is 25 min (instead of 30) and then watch them very carefully for the next couple minutes – they should be puffed and dark golden in color, but not browned, if that makes any sense.

Amazing things happen with all that brown sugar and butter when these cook – they are truly gooey and buttery and caramel-y.  The raisins are plump and sweet; even if you’re not a raisin fan, I’d include them the first time (maybe reducing to 1/2 cup instead of a cup) just to try it.    These are also good at room temperature and leftover.  In fact, since it makes 12, you probably WILL have leftovers and I’m warning you now, it’s VERY dangerous to have these around.  VERY.  Pack a to-go bag for your guests and make them suffer with you!

One last selling point on the sticky buns: no worries about early morning baking for this recipe!  Both times I made these completely in advance – following all the steps except for baking, and putting the whole muffin tin, wrapped in foil, in the fridge the night before.  They cook beautifully the next morning and you have nothing more serious to do than turn the oven on and set the timer.  That alone would make this a truly fantastic breakfast recipe ,if you ask me – and that’s even before you’ve tasted them!!!  ENJOY!

 

Easy Sticky Buns (From Barefoot Contessa, Back to Basics)

12 tablespoons (1 & 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup pecans, chopped in very large pieces
1 package (17.3 ounces/ 2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted

FOR THE FILLING:
2 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup raisins

 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a 12-cup standard muffin tin on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the 12 tablespoons butter and 1/3 cup brown sugar. Place 1 rounded tablespoon of the mixture in each of the 12 muffin cups. Distribute the pecans evenly among the 12 muffin cups on top of the butter and sugar mixture.

Lightly flour a wooden board or stone surface. Unfold one sheet of puff pastry with the folds going left to right. Brush the whole sheet with half of the melted butter. Leaving a 1-inch border on the puff pastry, sprinkle each sheet with 1/3 cup of the brown sugar, 1½ teaspoons of the cinnamon, and ½ cup of the raisins. Starting with the end nearest you, roll the pastry up snugly like a jelly roll around the filling, finishing the roll with the seam side down. Trim the ends of the roll about ½ inch and discard. Slice the roll in 6 equal pieces, each about 1½ inches wide. Place each piece, spiral side up, in 6 of the muffin cups. Repeat with the second sheet of puff pastry to make 12 sticky buns.

sticky-buns1

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Leftover Pizza

I think one of my new favorite things to write about is the random things we eat for dinner when I haven’t been to the grocery store! 🙂  I try to keep a few basics around that help with putting some substance behind leftover meals – pasta, rice, frozen shrimp, stir fry sauces, etc.  But definitely one of the best leftover resources is frozen pizza dough – only 99 cents for a bag of dough from Trader Joe’s!   My cupboards were QUITE bare today but nonetheless we had a great dinner of  Blue Cheese, Apple and Walnut Pizza with a Honey Drizzle.  Does that sound Bon Appetit-ish enough for ya?!!

There’s not really a recipe for this meal – it’s really just an order of operations.  I made thin slices of granny smith apple (from the fruit bowl), toasted walnuts (from the pantry, should be used up soon anyway), and chopped the rest of a blue cheese block from the fridge.  This was all thrown onto an herb crust, covered with mozzarella, and baked – and then drizzled with honey when it came out of the oven.  Mmmm!  Just the perfect thing to eat while watching my favorite guilty pleasure – Lipstick Jungle.  Pizza and junk TV (as my dad used calls it) – a perfect Wednesday night in!

pizza-toppings

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Michael and I headed down to beautiful Beaufort, SC last weeked to visit our good friends Lauren and Andrew.  Saturday was Andrew’s birthday and Lauren and I made dinner for a party of ten to help him celebrate.  It was so much fun to be with them, and to toast Andrew for his birthday!

 

A dinner party for ten really has to be carefully planned.  I have lots of favorite recipes I love to make for dinner parties, but when you’re talking about ten people, you’re really talking about doubling recipes, and not all recipes double well.  We wanted to pick a menu that was fancy, do-able for a large group and wouldn’t require us to be in the kitchen the entire day, since, after all, we needed lots of girl time to catch up (she’s having a little girl in April!).  What we came up with ended up being the perfect wintery celebration meal.  As usual, I borrow heavily from the Barefoot Contessa.  🙂  Some things never change.  Neither Lauren nor I had made a big piece of meat like the standing rib roast before – we were both a bit nervous, but it seemed to come out pretty well!  Often the block we have about cooking something is all in our head, and it just takes diving in to a recipe to give you the confidence to do it again.  When it comes right down to it, you just put it in the oven and follow the recipe regarding temperature – not too hard!  The recipe for Sweet Potato Muffins is a long-time favorite in my family; my parents picked it up on a weekend in Colonial Williamsburg a long, long time ago.  Do not be alarmed when they come out somewhat flat and dense – that’s the way they’re supposed to be.  Just heat those puppies up and smear them with butter! 

 

Here is the menu:

Standing Rib Roast with Mustard Horseradish Sauce: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/sunday-rib-roast-recipe/index.html

 

Parmesan Mashed Potatoes (these are gradually becoming my favorite mashed potatoes as I cook through other recipes): http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/parmesan-smashed-potatoes-recipe/index.html

 

Roasted Brussel Sprouts (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-brussels-sprouts-recipe/index.html)

 

Sweet Potato Muffins

½ c butter

1 ¼ c sugar

2 eggs

1 ¼ c canned sweet potatoes, mashed (can substitute yams)

1 ½ c flour

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

1 c milk

¼ c pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped

½ c raisins, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease 2 muffin tins.

 

Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs and mix well.  Blend in the sweet potatoes.

 

Sift flour with baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Add alternatively with milk.  Do not overmix!  Fold in nuts and raisins.

 

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full and bake for 25 minutes.

 

Lauren, thanks for being so much fun to cook with, and Andrew, happy birthday!!! 🙂  We love you both and can’t wait to meet your little girl this spring!

 

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Peanut Butter Goodness

Years ago, in college, I found a little cookbook called “The Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie” in the bargain book section of Barnes and Noble.  I bravely worked through many of the recipes in the book (tough work, but someone has to do it) and found quite a few keepers.  The best one, though, was not even a chocolate chip cookie but a peanut butter cookie with peanut butter chips.  It’s buttery and full of peanut-y flavor and super scrumptious, and it’s become a favorite of many of my friends.  I think what I like best about it is that the cookies always come out really chewy, while other peanut butter cookie recipes are often quite crunchy.

These are easy to whip up, although you will probably have to make a special trip to the store for peanut butter chips (I use the Reese’s brand).  It’s worth it, though!   They’ll melt in your mouth. 🙂

 

Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

 

2 c flour

2 tsp baking soda

½ c butter

1 c sugar

1 c brown sugar, firmly packed

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 c peanut butter

2 c peanut butter chips

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Mix flour and baking soda together and set aside.

 

Cream butter and sugars with a mixer.  Beat in eggs and vanilla.  Add peanut butter and beat until well-mixed.  Stir in sifted ingredients.  Add peanut butter chips.

 

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased baking sheets.  Bake for 12 minutes.

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