Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Melting pot menus: quick posole

Though I know many serious foodies (or foodies who take themselves too seriously) harbor a not-so-secret disdain for Rachael Ray, I admit to being a fan. Sure, she shouts at the camera, but I appreciate her approach: uncomplicated, home-cooked food that you can get on the table with maximum flavor and a minimum of fuss. No coordinated tablescapes, no canned frosting--just good food that brings your family together.

Here's a quick version of a traditional Mexican stew that was happily slurped up at our table. A certain eight-year-old even had seconds. It's comfort food for a cold winter night. If you like chicken noodle soup, it's not much of a stretch to try this hearty stew. I like the balance of the smoky pork and cumin flavors with the brightness of the tomatillo salsa and lime juice. And if you can believe it, I streamlined Rachael Ray's recipe (she makes her own salsa from fresh tomatillos, while I just use jarred salsa)!

The aforementioned eight-year-old is making a family coat of arms for a school project this week. All by himself, he decided our family motto should be: "Never underestimate the power of food!" It's reassuring to know that family values really are passed on at the dinner table.

Quick Posole
adapted from Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals

1 1/2 lbs boneless pork loin chops, diced in 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 T. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano (or fresh, if you have it)
1 tsp. dried thyme (again, fresh if you have it)
1 cup green salsa
1 large (28-oz.) can hominy, rinsed and drained
6 cups chicken broth
2 limes

Toppings: shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, broken tortilla chips or baked tortilla strips

In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the pork in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the pork is mostly browned on all sides, add the onion and garlic. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the cumin,oregano, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the salsa, hominy and broth. Bring the stew to a simmer and let it simmer gently for about 15 minutes (or more...just put the lid on the pot so the liquid doesn't all cook away). Just before serving, stir in the juice of one or two limes, to your taste.

Ladle the stew into bowls and let everyone choose their own toppings!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Melting pot menus: sesame noodles

As I veer off the baking path, I thought I'd share some recipes that are great weeknight meals. Inspired by the cuisines of other countries, these are certainly not authentic, but I think in their own way they are truly American. Where better to celebrate the melting pot of our nation than at the dinner table?

Today's Asian-inspired noodle dish can be a side dish or a meal in itself. I usually supplement it with steamed and salted edamame (the kids won't eat peas, but they'll eat a great bowlful of edamame!), and maybe some potstickers or other dumplings from the frozen food aisle (Trader Joe's has some decent ones, as does our local Asian market). Once we even served these noodles in little cardboard takeout containers for a party! They are best served at room temperature, so they're perfect for a buffet or a lunchbox (and for kids who don't like their food too hot or too cold). And once you stock your pantry with the basic ingredients, you can add this recipe to your repertoire of quick pantry meals that you rely on when you don't have a meal plan (or your plan falls apart, as often happens around here!). Adjust the proportions to your taste...spice it up with more chili oil, add more soy sauce or vinegar, or substitute soy nut butter if you have peanut allergies to contend with.

Sesame Noodles
adapted from New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant

1 lb. soba (buckwheat) noodles
1/2 cup peanut butter (add 1 T. brown sugar if using natural peanut butter)
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup hot water
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp. chili oil
3 T. toasted sesame seeds
3 scallions, sliced
Optional: 1 cucumber, seeded and diced; 1 cup fresh bean sprouts; 1/2 cup shredded carrots

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to package directions (usually 5-6 minutes). Set aside 1/2 cup of the hot pasta water.  Drain and rinse the noodles.

In a large bowl, whisk together peanut butter, tahini and hot water until smooth. Whisk in soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chili oil. Add some of the reserved pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, to thin the dressing. Add the cooked noodles to the bowl and toss gently until coated. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with cucumber, bean sprouts and carrots (I like to keep them separate, both for the picky eaters and because leftovers store better separately).

Coming soon: Quick Posole (Pork and hominy stew)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brown sugar bars (with oatmeal and coconut)

Here's another one for the "I Need a Cookie and I Need it NOW" file. From Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, it's a base recipe that invites endless variation. Today's version is Oatmeal Coconut Bars, but tomorrow's could be Chocolate Chip Walnut Bars, or Cherry Almond, or White Chocolate Macadamia, or Leftover Halloween Candy Bars, or all of the above. Use your imagination. It's like Mary Poppins' bottomless carpet bag: it will accommodate more than you think it will.

Another virtue of this recipe is that it only makes enough for an 8-inch square pan--just enough to eat up before they begin to get stale (or guilt sets in). On the other hand, it doubles nicely in a 9x13 pan, or even in a 10x15 sheet pan (cut them really small for a big party tray).

And just to gild the lily, you can make this in a single mixing bowl! Don't dirty the mixer--you'll want to dig right into these gooey bars and you don't need a sink full of dirty dishes to postpone your pleasure.

Brown Sugar Bars (or Blondies)
from How to Cook Everything

8 Tbsp. melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla (or almond extract)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

Optional additions:  1/2-3/4 cup each of chocolate chips, oatmeal, shredded coconut, chopped nuts, dried fruits, etc.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Beat in brown sugar, egg, vanilla and salt with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add flour and stir until just incorporated. Stir in whichever additions you choose. Press dough into a greased 8x8 pan (my trick is to spray my fingers with nonstick spray and quickly press the dough flat) and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and set in the middle.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oven baked fries

Another simple dinner:  fish and chips.  The fries are homemade, the fish is from a box (a fabulous deal from my recent foray into the crazy world of couponing).  I hesitate to even call this a recipe.  My prep time:  15 minutes.  Baking time:  30 minutes.

I have made my own deep-fried fish, but let's face it, deep frying is pain.  But making oven fries is easy, so that's one less bag of frozen food to resort to.  And conveniently, the frozen fish and your homemade fries bake at the same temperature.  Bring out the tartar sauce, ketchup or malt vinegar, and you've got yourself a fast, finger-friendly dinner.

These fries are soft, not crispy.  I think I remember reading some technique in Cooks' Illustrated for getting crispy oven fries, but since the kids are not regular fast food fry eaters (we usually opt for the apples in those Happy Meals), they are content with soft fries.  I like to use a waxy potato (in our stores, pretty much anything but a big baking potato) so that the fries hold their shape.  I find that smaller potatoes are perfect.  It doesn't take long to slice them into fries, and there's no need to peel their thin skins.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees (turn on the convection if you've got it).  Rinse 4-6 medium potatoes.  Cut them into 1/2-inch fries (I sliced these in quarters lengthwise, then sliced those into fries).  They don't have to be perfect, but if they're roughly the same size, they'll all cook at the same rate.

I lined my baking sheet with a silicone mat, but you could use foil or nothing at all.  I just find that they stick a little less on the mat.  Drizzle the fries with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  I also added some granulated garlic and paprika.  (You know those curly fries at Arby's?  I was thinking of those.)  Toss the fries, oil and spices with your hands so everything is well distributed, and spread them out in a single even layer.  Bake the fries for about 30 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender and golden brown.

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chocolate banana bread & simple cooking

After the frenzy of cooking and baking around the holidays, we've been keeping it pretty simple for the month of January. I'm always trying to balance what we would like to eat with what the kids are likely to eat, which doesn't make for novel or exciting fare. What it does make for is repetition. As in most areas, kids seem to like repetition in food--until they get tired of it, that is. So I've baked a lot of buttermilk bread lately (since school started, we're back in the lunch packing routine), and we have pizza or tacos about once a week. Both are pretty frugal meals, often using ingredients left over from earlier meals. Chicken soft tacos always come a couple days after a roast chicken, and pizza is a popular choice for Friday night (I save any extra dabs of tomato sauce in the freezer--just enough for a pizza or two).  Pasta with pesto and soba noodles with sesame peanut sauce are two more recurring players on our menu.

Which is all to say that I haven't tried many new recipes to share with you lately, aside from this yummy Chocolate Swirled Banana Bread from Our Best Bites.  It's similar to the Coconut Lime Banana Bread--more yogurt, less butter, less sugar--but you add some melted chocolate to part of the batter and swirl the two together.  I'll need to practice my swirling technique to more evenly distribute the chocolate, but it's yummy.  I substituted white whole wheat flour for half of the white flour, which made it slightly drier, but that hasn't bothered anyone here (especially when it's toasted and buttered!).  Right at home for breakfast, snack or dessert.

So here's my plea to you readers:  What would you like to see more of on this blog?  Should I expand and include recipes beyond baking?  Is there an elusive recipe out there that you just can't conquer?  Give me some ideas and we'll practice together!
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sandwich bread series: No-knead buttermilk bread

I have a confession to make.  I frequently fall down on the job of keeping the kitchen stocked with freshly baked bread.  I don't usually put bread on the grocery list because if we buy bread, then why would I bake more?  But because I haven't gotten into a consistent baking routine, there are often days without any bread at all.

If I were into making New Year's resolutions, keeping up with the bread baking would be on the list.  And this buttermilk bread recipe might bring me a step closer to achieving my goal.  It's easy.  I can mix it up in the time it takes for my morning cup of coffee to brew.  Everybody likes it--it's a soft crusted white bread, ideal for toast and sandwiches--so we eat it up before it goes stale.

I have finally tweaked the recipe so that it works well for me.  I'm learning that there's a getting-to-know-you period with every bread recipe.  You need to meet several times and figure out a comfortable working relationship.  With the buttermilk bread, I had to reduce the salt a little, use a little less flour, and get to know how much dough fits in my loaf pans.  This is a recipe that's on its way to the easy predictability of an old friend.

Mixing in the flour

Buttermilk Bread
adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes 2 large loaves

2 cups lukewarm water
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 Tbsp. active dry yeast
1 Tbsp. Kosher salt
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. melted butter

Dusting risen dough with flour in preparation for shaping
Mix the water, buttermilk, yeast, salt and sugar in a 5-quart bowl or lidded food storage container.  Add the flour and stir until all the flour is incorporated.  (I use a large silicone spatula, but a wooden spoon works fine, too.)

Cover the bowl or container (not airtight) and let rest at room temperature for about 2 hours.

At this point, you can use the dough immediately or keep it covered (still not airtight) in the refrigerator to use over the next 7 days.  Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and scoop out half.  Dust the piece of dough with a little more flour and quickly and gently shape it into a ball.  Stretch the ball into an oval and place in a greased 9x4x3 non-stick loaf pan.  The pan should be a little more than half full.

Ready for the oven
Let the dough rest for 40 minutes (or 1 hour and 40 minutes for refrigerated dough).  Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Dust the loaf with flour, and slash the top with the tip of a sharp knife.  Brush the top with melted butter.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.  Keeps well in a sealed plastic bag for about 3 days.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chicken pot pie

On the short list of Ultimate American Comfort Foods, chicken pot pie has to rank near the top.  But I'm willing to bet that, for a lot of people, the only kind they know is found in the frozen food aisle of the nearest grocery store.  And while I have fond memories of those little foil pie pans (sometimes we ate pot pies when Mom and Dad went out for the evening--I always think of it as "babysitter food"), homemade is better. Probably cheaper, too.  Our family of five ate this for dinner, and there may have been one small serving left for someone's lunch the next day.  (I realize that, in a few short years, I'll need to double the quantity of food I put on the table- I've heard those stories about teenage boys!)  It doesn't have to take very long either if you take a couple well-chosen shortcuts.  Canned or frozen mixed vegetables and some thawed pre-made pie crust (mine was frozen homemade dough this time, but I've also used a sheet of frozen puff pastry) can streamline the process.

Chicken Pot Pie

Use a Dutch oven or a large, deep sauté pan.  Sauté about 1 pound of chicken, cut into 1-inch pieces (I like boneless, skinless thighs), in a little oil or butter over medium-high heat until lightly browned.  Remove the chicken and set aside.  Add 3 tablespoons of butter to the pan.  Melt butter over medium heat, and then add 1 finely chopped onion.  When the onion is soft and translucent, whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour.  Cook for about a minute, and then slowly pour in 2 1/2 to 3 cups of milk (or a combination of milk and chicken broth), whisking constantly.  Turn the heat up to medium-high and cook until the sauce thickens, whisking frequently.  Add the chicken back into the sauce, and add one can of drained mixed vegetables (this one even had diced potatoes, which was perfect). Salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the sauce into a deep dish pie plate or similar oven-safe baking dish.  While the sauce cools slightly, heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare the pie crust or puff pastry and lay it on top of the sauce.  Press it onto the edges of the baking dish and crimp decoratively (or just fold the edges up and go for a rustic look).  Make a few slashes in the crust to allow steam to escape, and place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and you see the filling bubbling up.  Let the pie rest on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before serving.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Golden almond cake

Happy New Year!

It's too late for you to make this for New Year's Eve, as we did, but this perfect cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible will get you through many an occasion in 2011.  I have neglected this book for far too long, and I'm a little sad that I missed so many opportunities to make this cake.  I even felt a tinge of regret that I missed my chance to make this cake for our wedding.  I'm kind of a nut for marzipan, and if you could transform marzipan into cake, this is it--buttery, tender, and perfumed with almond and vanilla.  It takes no time to mix, and the only special ingredient is the almond meal, which I will be keeping in my freezer at all times from now on.  (If you can't find almond meal in your local grocery, you can grind your own toasted almonds in the food processor.  I got mine at Trader Joe's.)

I prefer cakes without frosting, and this one doesn't need a thing.  (If you keep it simple, you won't feel guilty eating a slice for breakfast...and another for tea.)  I served it with a dusting of confectioner's sugar and a drizzle of warm cherry preserves.  Fresh fruit would pair nicely with the cake.  If you want to get fancy, you could split the cake into two layers, fill it with apricot preserves, and frost it with a dark chocolate ganache.  I'll let you know when I get to that variation!

Don't cheat on the mixing times or the method in this recipe.  Not to veer off into theology, here, but this is one bible that demands a literal interpretation.  You won't be led astray.

And Papa, I believe this a birthday cake with your name all over it.  Wish we could share it with you today, but I will be more than happy to make you another one when we are together again in May!

Golden Almond Cake
from The Cake Bible

2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream
1 tsp. almond extract
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 2/3 cups sifted cake flour
1/3 cup almond meal
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line the bottom of a 9" round cake pan or springform pan with parchment or wax paper.  Grease and flour the pan (I use baking spray).

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, about 1/4 of the sour cream, and the almond and vanilla extracts.

In a large stand mixer bowl, mix the dry ingredients on low speed for about 30 seconds.  Add the butter and remaining sour cream.  Mix on low until the ingredients begin to combine, then increase to medium speed (high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 1/2 minutes.  Scrape down the bowl with a spatula.  Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.

Put the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it with a spatula.  Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes.  Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan with a small metal spatula and unmold from the pan.  Cool completely before wrapping airtight.  Store this cake 2 days room temperature, 5 days refrigerated, 2 months frozen.