Monday, November 7, 2011

Mystery Monday: The Girl Who Didn't Eat Swedish Meatballs Part II (Lingonberry/Cranberry Jam

Swedish meatballs are accompanied by two things: boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam. Seeing as lingonberries are not local to California, and if I wanted to make the trek to Ikea to try to "source" some I would probably just go ahead and spend the $2.99 to get the whole meal instead of spending hours trying to locate an ingredient within that vast, spiraling, monstrosity. (I learned my lesson the hard way when I tried to pick up a bottle of elderflower syrup. Don't do it!)

So, to make long story short (is that possible since I've already told most of the long story?), the tart little red lingonberries can be replaced by the similarly tart little red cranberries, which as all good Americans know are currently in season (as are turkeys for that matter, but more of that later).

Now, I have to admit something. I am a little obsessed with Thanksgiving recipes. I have a stack of back issues of November food magazines that I have collected, and I bring them out and re-read them annually. However, the one thing that I am immune to (other than the idea of oyster stuffing - how gross does that sound?) are all of the crazy cranberry sauce recipes. Chutney? No thanks. Relish? What does that even mean? Salsa? Are you kidding? What's wrong with you!?!? I just looked at Bon Appetite's Cranberry Sauce Slideshow, which suggests among other things, Cranberry Salsa with Cilantro and Chiles; Cranberry-orange chutney with Cumin, Fennel and Mustard Seeds; Chipotle Cranberry Sauce; Cranberry-Mustard Relish; Beet Chutney (wait, what? How is that Cranberry Sauce?); Cranberry Sauce with Red Wine, Pomegranate Molasses, and Mediterranean Herbs; Cranberry, Tangerine and Crystalized-Ginger Relish...Need I go on? You Get the idea. Fussy and complicated to the max.

Anyways, my point it this. My grandma's recipe, which as it happens, is exactly the same as the one printed on the back of the package of Ocean Spray Cranberries (I think maybe she helped them develop it?), is just a simple jam made of cranberries, sugar and water. It's easy, an impressive step-up from the canned stuff, and wonderfully straightforward. The world is complicated enough. Cranberry sauce should be simple. (Maybe I should re-title this post The Mystery of Why Anyone Would Complicate Cranberry Sauce Thereby Adding to the Stress of Thanksgiving Whilst Taking Away from its Deliciousness).
Which brings us back to the real subject of this post: the Lingonberry or Cranberry Jam from Falling Cloudberries which accompanies the recipe for Meatballs with Allspice and Sour Cream from last weeks Mystery Monday. This recipe, I hope, is the Swedish (or Finnish) equivalent of my grandmother's cranberry sauce recipe. It uses a few more ingredients, but they play supporting roles to the main point which the making of a tart, bright sauce to accompany the rich spiced meatballs and their creamy sauce. Lemon juice and zest adds an extra zing, while grated apple supplies body and natural pectin which helps thicken it. The end product, while different than what I am used to eating at Thanksgiving, was versatile enough to be spread onto cornbread muffins as well as roast chicken. This is a recipe that benefits from sticking to its main purpose, resulting in a cohesive and balanced meal. What more could you want from cranberry sauce?

Lingonberry or Cranberry Jam
Adapted from Falling Cloudberries

Makes about 1 cup

2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen lingonberries or cranberries
1/2 cup superfine sugar (I used regular granulated sugar)
Finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 small apple (peeled and cored)

Rinse the berries and pat them dry. Mix the cranberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a non-reactive bowl and let them macerate overnight storing a couple of times (I forgot this step and just let them sit for a couple of hours which didn't really do much, leading me to believe that if necessary this step could be skipped).

Coarsely grate the apple and put it into a small heavy bottomed pan along with the grated lemon zest. Strain all the juice from the berries (or just add the sugar and lemon juice), along with roughly half of the berries receiving the other half to add later. Add 1/2 a cup of water and simmer the mixture for 20-30 minutes, or until the apple is softened and the mixture is thick. Add the rest of the berries and cook for another 5-10 minutes until they are heated though (Keep in mind that cooking the berries for a little longer will take away some of their bite by both breaking them down and stewing them in sugar). Pour the mixture into sterilized jars and seal, or alternatively, if you want to use the jam quickly just store it in a clean container in the fridge.
Spoon generously alongside your Swedish Meatballs and boiled potatoes (but perhaps not your turkey, unless you want to be really wild).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ratatouille: Third Time's the Charm?

One of the best ways we enjoyed our ratatouille was smashed inside of a buckwheat crepe. Buckwheat crepes sound fancy, and they are a bit of a pain, but if you have the foresight to make your batter the day ahead of time and the patience to stand over the stove doing what amounts to glorified pancake flipping duty then what are you waiting for?

The combination of the succulent and fragrant vegetables with the earthy crispy-yet-tender buckwheat crepes was very tasty (the parmesan we added to the mix didn't hurt either).

I used the recipe for buckwheat crepes (ok, galettes) from David Tanis's cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke.

Grease and heat your pan sufficiently. And don't worry if a few don't turn out perfect.
What, you want a recipe? Go buy the cook book already! Jeez. (You'll thank me later.)

I will tell you that I halved the recipe and I found buckwheat groats in the bulk section at Whole Foods, and, last but not least I stuffed each crepe generously with re-heated leftover ratatouille and a generous pinch of parmesan which melted (and was delicious).
Ps. I just realized that I combined an Alice Water's recipe with a David Tanis recipe. I think that it must have been fate.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ratatouille: This Time with Pasta!

Pasta and whole grains, are often the best way to stretch both a dollar and a meal. Instead of reaching for a can of tomatoes (or *gasp* a jar of store-bought sauce), I decided to dress up my pasta and bulk up some of my leftover ratatouille by combining the two.

This may not be the most traditional way of enjoying leftover ratatouille, but it was the quickest, easiest, and had all of the heft and charm of a homemade meal with none of the work.

Pasta a la Ratatouille

Pasta of your choosing (I like something small, like fusilli or penne, which I find easier to eat than spaghetti with a chunky sauce like this one)

As much (or as little) leftover ratatouille as you would like, or can spare

Cook your pasta in one pot, and heat up your ratatouille in another (just make sure it is large enough to accommodate the amount of pasta you are cooking). When the pasta is al dente, drain it - setting aside some of the starchy cooking water - and add it to the ratatouille. Add a spash of the pasta water to loosen up the mixture so that it coats the pasta, and cook for a couple of minutes until everything is well combined and the pasta is cooked to your liking.
Gobble it up and try to figure out what you are going to do with all the time you bought yourself by cooking with leftovers. (Maybe watch Bridesmaids for the fourth time? Just wait until you've fully digested dinner before watching it.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Genius by Proxy

Yesterday was a big day for me. Here are some of the exciting things that I did (in no particular order).

1. I cooked an enormous pot of butternut squash stew (I'll tell you more about that later).
2. I parted my hair on the wrong side, on purpose (long story short - I think my hairline might be receding a teensy bit on the right side).
3. I started day 1 of my participation in NaNoWrMo (National Novel Writing Month).
4. I cleaned the apartment for several hours to avoid my new writing responsabilities.
5. I snacked on of the delicious honey cornmeal fresh-cranberry quick bread muffins that I baked over the weekend (I will tell you more about that later too. Suffice to say that if you think that the title is a mouthful just wait until you try one of the muffins!)

But that was yesterday, and this is today. And today is a very big day for you because I am going to share one of the best new recipes I've tried in quite a while. It's from Food 52's Genius Recipe series, which features lots of great recipes that for some reason or another stand out from the rest of the pack.

Now, this recipe is not really a hard sell. It's by Alice Water's for one. And it's ratatouille (which is just naturally likable for it's sing song name alone). The clincher, however, lies in the technique that sets this recipe apart and raises it to Genius Status. It requires neither superhuman skill or the use of expensive gadgets. It is actually simpler than most. Instead of cooking each vegetable separately, this recipe uses a trick my grandma has bragged about many times, in which the vegetables are added to the pot at intervals according to their relative cooking times. Oh, and it tastes fantastic. Savory and rich without being heavy, meaty without having any meat...

One of the best things about this recipes, in my eyes, other than the fact that it is relatively managable and doesn't break the bank, is the fact that once you've made it there are so many different ways that you can enjoy it. This means that if you make a big enough batch, you can enjoy your leftovers is a myriad of ways, therefore avoiding the tedium often associated with repeated eatings. Out of our first batch we enjoyed ratatouille four ways: over rice, in buckwheat crepes, tossed with pasta, and stuffed into home-made calzones. If I could have made it stretch any further I would have had some over polenta too. I think that that would be very, very good. (I already have it penciled in for next Monday.) Also, I used rosemary, which I had on hand, instead of expensive limp store-bought basil. It worked well.

Genius Ratatouille
Adapted from Food 52's adaptation of Alice Water's recipe
Serves 6-8

2-3 small eggplants (chopped into 1/2 inch cubes)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onion, or 1 large (chopped)
4-6 garlic cloves (chopped roughly)
1/2 buch of basil (tied into a bouquet) -or- 1 sprig of rosemary
small pinch of dried chile flakes
2 red bell peppers (chopped into 1/2 inch pieces)
3-4 medium zucchini or summe squash (chopped into 1/2 inch cubes)
3 medium tomatoes (chopped), -or- 1 can diced tomatoes
salt to taste

First chop the eggplant and toss the chopped cubes with a teaspoon of salt. Set the salted pieces in a colander to drain for 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, chop up the onions, garlic, bell peppers and squash.

When the eggplant is done draining, pat it dry. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy bottomed pot. Cook the eggplant, stirring frequently, until golden. If the eggplant sticks to the pan you can add a little more oil. Remove the eggplant from the pan and set it aside.

In the same pot, add the onions with a pinch of salt and cook for 7-10 minutes, depending on how much oil was left from the eggplant you may need to add a little more olive oil. When the onions are soft and translucent, add the garlic, basil -or- rosemary, dried chili flakes.

Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the peppers. Let those cook for another 5 minutes or so, and add the summer squash. After the summer squash had completed its 5 minutes in the mix, add the tomatoes. After 10 minutes, add the eggplants back into the pot. Give the whole thing a good stir, and cook for 15 minutes more, or until all of the vegetables are soft. Remove the basil -or- rosemary, and season to taste with salt.

Eat away! But not too much, because you are going to want leftovers.
Ps. My boyfriend came home just as I finished making this, and was really excited because he told me that he had smelled something delicious wafting from outside of our apartment building and then realized that it was coming from our apartment. Which is just another reason, among the many others, that you should make this.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mystery Monday: The Girl Who Didn't Eat Swedish Meatballs

I waited patiently throughout all three enormous volumes of the "Girl Who" trilogy for Swedish meatballs. No luck. I had to laugh when the crazy old government agent, who plays a pivotal role in the final book, was silently disappointed when a young whippersnapper went on a lunch run and returned with sushi. He would have much preferred some good old-fashioned Swedish meatballs. Me too.
I have been wanting to make Swedish meatballs for a few years. I bookmarked a recipe from Gourmet's book club but never got around to making it. When I mentioned that I had been toying with the idea of making them for my Mystery Monday series, my boyfriend gave his full and undivided encouragement. And, after eating our second day's worth of boiled potatoes, meatballs with brown sauce, and homemade tart cranberry-sauce, he is still very enthusiastic. They were (and still are) very tasty.

Making these meatballs does take some patience, but it does make enough for either a big group or several meals. First and foremost, I would not recommend making the meatballs tiny like I did. A "walnut" is not a "Tablespoon." Having fewer meatballs to brown would have saved a lot of time and a little bit of stress. Also, don't despair (as I may have), if the sauce doesn't look perfectly smooth. It's rustic and homemade (i.e., not from Ikea). The most important thing is that it tastes good.

Swedish (ok fine, Finnish) Meatballs
Adapted from Gourmet, who sourced it from Falling Cloudberries

Serves 6 (or two people, three times)

3 slices sandwich bread, crust removed
2/3 cups milk
2 1/4 lb mixed ground pork and beef
1 large egg
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
4 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup sour cream

Boiled potatoes (boil waxy potatoes in salted for 20-40 minutes or until done)
Lingonberry or cranberry jam (recipe forthcoming)

Soak the crustless bread in the milk, and set aside while you chop the onion. One the bread has absorbed all of the milk and is very soft, mix it with the meat, egg, onion, allspice, salt, pepper. Knead together well (don't worry about over-handling the meat). Form into small balls about the size of walnuts, rolling them between damp palms so that they are compact and won't fall apart when cooking.

Heat 2 Tablespoons butter with the olive oil in a nonstick skillet (I just used my Le Creuset). Fry the meatballs in batches, turning once during cooking so that they are browned on two sides. Be careful not to burn the butter. Transfer the cooked meatballs to a heavy bottomed saucepan with any onion that is on the bottom of the skillet and continue with the next batch (I set mine aside on a plate, then returned them to the Le Creuset later).

Once all of the meatballs are browned and set aside, sprinkle flour into the skillet and mix with a wooden spoon until it is smooth. Add the remaining butter and let it melt. Continue cooking, stirring almost continuously until it is a golden color. Remove the pan from the heat and very slowly pour in 2 cups of hot water, stand back a bit (it can splatter) then return the pan to the heat. Stir in the sour cream and mix well, then carefully pour over the meatballs (in my case, I returned the meatballs to the sauce). Season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook, covered, over very low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until you have a thick, creamy sauce with soft meatballs to serve with berry jam and boiled potatoes. (I reduced my sauce a little further after removing the meatballs, I just simmered it for a little longer to thicken it).
Dig into this cold-weather comfort food! I for one am proud that I finally conquered both a recipe and a series that I had been intending to get around to for a looong time. It may have taken several years, but it was still worth it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mystery Monday: The Girl Who Drank Lots of Coffee

I am finally reading The Girl With trilogy, and let me tell you they are very addictive! Because of their sheer size, they take a sizable chunk of time to get through, and once you get started you can't stop! Aside from some sandwiches, frozen pizzas, and a single slather of cloudberry jam, the most prevalent item consumed by everyone in the books is coffee. Thermoses of coffee abound. It's everywhere, all the time. It keeps the people going, which keeps the story going. One of the main characters drinks so much coffee it makes him sick. It also plays an important role in the life of the poor overworked readers. These books call for some wide-eyed late-night cram sessions. You're not going to sleep until you've read it. Pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee and get back to work! (Only 500 pages left...I can totally finish tonight right?)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Never Bake on the 13th

I made a series of errors today. First, I baked on the 13th. Never a good idea. Secondly, I baked on a day in October in which the temperature reached well into the 90s. So hot. Even hotter with the oven on. Thirdly, I started baking in the morning, before breakfast. I was groggy and had a headache, which led to mistakes, which in turn led to a baking disaster. And then, post-baking disaster, I stubbornly would not give up, so I decided to bake some more, because apparently I NEEDED HOMEMADE BAKED GOODS. Luckily, despite a little smoke coming from the oven (left over from baking experiment #1), which burned my eyes and made me a little worried about the smoke detector, my second attempt was eventually a modest success.

The last lesson is this: if you need to bake some comfort food (which is what all muffins, cakes, cupcakes, breads and cookies essentially are), choose a comfortingly reliable recipe. Nothing fancy. Nothing risky. Because if you do fail at your comfort food-baking then you will be sent inevitably into a downward spiral of needing more comfort food to make you recover from the sadness and frustration of failing at cooking your inital comfort food. And the least comforting thing in the whole world is an ENORMOUS pile of dishes in your sink from NUMEROUS semi-sucessful baking projects.

So here is my recipe for reliable, delicious and definitely comforting Oatmeal Cookies. I added cranberries and peanuts, so they taste like granola bars to me, which means they're healthy, right?
Granola Cookies
Adapted from Smittenkitchen

Makes about 22-24 cookies

1/2 cup butter (softened)
2/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soa
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup cranberries
1/3 cup peanuts

In a medium bowl cream together the sugar and butter. Mix in the egg and vanilla. Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and rolled oats. Stir to combine. Lastly, add the cranberries and nuts, mix so that they are evenly distributed.

Scoop the dough into tablespoon-sized balls, arranging them on a plate. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or more to chill them before baking (this will help them stay thick when they bake).

Pre-heat oven to 350.

Bake them on a parchment-lined baking sheet, arranged a couple of inches apart from each other (they don't spread excessively). Check them after 10 minutes. It may take 12 minutes for them to get nicely bronzed.

Cool on a cookie rack. Eat your heart out.
ps. These cookies are perfect for breakfast since they have cranberries and oatmeal. Definitely heart healthy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mystery Monday: The Ubiquitous Hot Dog

My cabinet clean-out has coincided with the seasonal ant invasion, therefore my priorities have been a little different this past week. Hopefully these things will be behind me soon, and I will be able to dive headfirst into the soups, ciders, and spiced baked goods I have been eyeing. But first, the ants must go! Go away ants!

Now, for Mystery Monday! I would like to honor Mrs. Pollifax (and her eponymous series) today: she's a strong and inspiring little old lady who, finding herself desperately bored in her life as a widowed grandmother, finally follows her childhood dream and joins the CIA. Needless to say, she thrives in her newfound work, and quickly becomes an often-underestimated but always essential asset on her numerous missions. Mrs. Pollifax surely would know how to effectively deal with ants, being perhaps the most practical CIA agent the known to the fictional world. As the home-y little old lady she is, I had been toying around with the idea of making a batch of blueberry muffins and tea for her and calling it a day, but then I came across this passage and knew it what I would be making for her:

"She sighed, never enjoying suspense. It held one in thrall, plucking at tired nerves, and she was already tired. She would love to have a warm bath now - how many days had it been? - and then sit down to an America dinner. "Of hot dogs," she heard herself say, and was looked at in surprise by Farrell.

"Hot dogs?" he said. "Are you all right, Duchess?"

She laughed. "Just wistful."

Hot dogs? Yes please. We even had some in the fridge, along with some leftover hamburger buns that we reappropriated. I think that Mrs. Pollifax would have applauded our resourcefulness, and I for one, applauded their tastiness.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mystery Monday: Death by Apples

This weeks mystery monday is a recipe for success! No, not the successful murdering of your guests by making them eat tons of apple cores (the seeds contain trace amounts of arsenic, or so my mom told me growing up - fun fact!), but rather the successful writing of mysteries which, according to my extensive research, depends on having a bag of apples at your disposal at any and all given times. One of my favorite characters in Agatha Christies mysteries is Ariadne Oliver, a mystery write herself who is perhaps a vague parody of Agatha herself. There are two things in life that Ariadne relies on: her woman's intuition and her apples. Of the two her apples seem to aid her the most (her intuition on the other hand, seems to merely lead her astray). She is never without her bag of apples, munching furiously as she plugs away at her manuscripts.
Clearly I have been reading a lot of Agatha Christy lately. What can I say? She's a master of mystery, and that's that. Oh and Ariadne Oliver is seriously the funniest character ever.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Less is More

The school year has finally begun, accompanied by cooling temperatures and early-evening darkness. I for one am excited about these changes. I am more than happy to make like my grandma and put on my warm slippers, make a cup of tea, curl up with a good Agatha Christie and enjoy the relative gloominess outside (when it's especially dreary I like to pretend I'm in England).

In terms of cooking for fall, I am most excited about soups. Simple hearty vegetable-and-bean soups. Boring? I prefer reliable. Delicious and warming? Mmmhmm. But before I get to those, I have set my heart on a little transitional changing-of-the-seasons pantry clean-out.
I am hoping to not go grocery shopping, other than for milk, for the next week or two, in an attempt to use up as much of the ingredients that I have accumulated (stockpiled might be a better word). It is difficult to stock a pantry, especially nowadays, with everyday cooking spanning the globe. My cabinets are overflowing with indian spices, vinegars (asian, wines, cider), oils, flours (all purpose, corn, buckwheat), grains, canned goods, and small quantities of an endless variety of goodies. It's stressing me out. (ie. OH MY GOD I FORGOT ALL ABOUT THE BUCKWHEAT GROATS I BOUGHT A YEAR AGO TO MAKE CREPES.) It's now or never little buddies. And I haaaate wasting ingredients so it will be now. Hopefully I can use up as much of the extraneous items I have hidden in the nooks and crannies of my tiny kitchen cabinets.

My goal is to end up with a little more of a streamlined collection of ingredients. A little simpler, a little more focused. Out with the old. In with less (and better quality) new? At the very least I will get rid of some of the clutter.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Food for Thought

I just finished Marcella Hazan's autobiography, and while I'm not completely in love with the book I liked what she had to say about American grocery stores and how the produce that is available affects what and how we eat:

At my local Publix or Whole Foods now, when I feel the rock hard peaches and pears, or I try to pick up a scent from the unforthcoming melons, when I bring home green beans or zucchini that have little more taste than the water with which they have been abundantly irrigated, not to mention the times that the musty smell of long storage forces me to discard what I have just bought, I think of the fragrance and juicy sugary flesh of the primazaro's fruits, of the concentrated flavor of his vegetables, and I wonder why we in America can't have better-tasting produce. Why aren't we showing the people who raise our produce how to be better farmers? Not necessarily organic farmers, or more efficient farmers, just plain old cultivators of good food. If our vegetables had taste and cooks were shown what they need to do with them, which is very little, everyone would eat more vegetables. Italians don't eat as many as they do because a government agency or the press tells them how healthy it is for them. They eat them because they taste so good. It is through irresistibly good taste - never mind "organic" or other fashionable categories - that food makes people happy and healthy.
As someone who likes to eat lots of fruit, vegetables, and fresh herbs but doesn't have the money to even shop at musty old Whole Foods, I am constantly disappointed by the mediocre quality of the comparatively inexpensive produce I buy. Sadly, even if I do spend a lot it rarely makes a difference, unless I am getting my produce from a local farmers' market. I find it really frustrating both that I can't get good quality produce, and also that eating healthfully has become so demonized in America. Eating healthy foods, lots of vegetables and fruits and fresh homemade meals is great! It tastes great and makes you feel great. If that's not good living then I don't know what is. (And I certainly don't think that eating a ton of really unhealthy processed foods all of the time qualifies).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Pesto is the Best-o

I love pesto. My parents always used to make fresh pesto with their Magimix when I was growing up. Fragrant and brightly colored from the fresh basil and pungent from a generous amount of garlic, it was always a special and loudly appreciated treat.

When I was a little older I remember going to my older brother's best friend's house for pesto dinners. They had a little ritual: every time we would go they would make pesto made from the Joy of Cooking. It was fun, and probably one of the first times that I was involved with a group of young people cooking and sharing dinner sans adults. It's also funny to think that two young men would be so obsessed with pesto. My brother and his friend would always get into the same fight over the amount of oil to use. Stubborn in his adamant belief that it is necessary to use a generous quantity of oil, my brother even encourages coating the top of the container of pesto with extra oil to keep it from turning brown. His friend, on the other hand, held equally strong feelings about using less oil (the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup). Regardless, their pesto was always delicious.
Nowadays, pesto pasta is one of my favorite dishes to make. Pesto is my boyfriend's favorite, and to my shock and horror he had never had a homemade version before I made it for him. Now he buys me pine nuts as a present (they are so expensive!), and he assures me every time I make a batch that it is "the best batch yet." If that's not encouragement I'm not sure what is.

Note: As much as I would like to agree with my brother (he is family after all) I have to agree with his friend in regards to the excessive amount of olive oil called for in the Joy of Cooking's pesto recipe. Other than that I've cut down a little bit on the parmesan (I like to sprinkle a little on top at the end), and I like to brighten the flavor of the sauce with a squeeze of lemon juice (which keeps the color bright too).
Basil Pesto
Adapted from the Joy of Cooking
Serves 4-6

Fresh basil (a large bunch, leaves washed and picked off the stems)
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 cloves of garlic (or to taste, peeled and roughly chopped)
1/4 cup pine nuts (toasted and cooled)
1/4 cup olive oil
Lemon (to taste)
Salt (to taste)


Using a food processor blend together the basil, parmesan, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and a squeeze of the lemon juice. Once everything is thoroughly blended, taste the pesto and season it with salt and add more lemon if it needs it. The flavors should be bright and strong and balanced.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta, then when it is done cooking scoop out a 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set it aside before you drain the pasta. Stir the pesto into the drained pasta and add a little bit of the cooking water if it needs it. (The hot starchy water will help the sauce get a creamy looser consistency.)

Dig in!
*If you want, you can add chopped up chicken or chicken sausages to the pesto pasta to make it heartier.*

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everything's Coming Up Yogurt

Yesterday I had yogurt for breakfast, dinner, and dessert. It was, to say the least, too much. Here's what I've learned from my yogurt overdose: yogurt is incredibly versatile. It can go from sweet to savory, it can be used to sauce, marinate, and tart up just about anything. It works in a pinch as a substitute for sour cream, mayonnaise, and if stirred into some milk makes a great tangy faux-buttermilk. While it is in fact a great breakfast, it is even better with dinner.
One of my new favorite recipes, which I wrote up recently, is pasta and fresh raw vegetables tossed in a little bit of yogurt and olive oil. It's easy and delicious. It's no cream sauce, it's better. I've been making different versions all month. At my parents we made it with zucchini and fresh corn sliced right off the cob, and topped it with chopped chives and fresh basil. And this week, we had it with just zucchini and basil. My favorite relegation comes from my father regarding this recipe. He suggested chopping the zucchini into sticks rather than rounds (which have a tendency to stick together). As usual, he was right.

For dessert I made strawberry-banana yogurt popsicles. Just watch the sweetness on these suckers, they tart up significantly when they freeze. Desserts may not need to be overly sweet, but they definitely shouldn't be overly sour. Lesson learned.
I was especially exited, due to my recently increased yogurt intake, to read the Wall Street Journal article on the effects probiotics (found in yogurt) have on the brain. "Reduced levels of 'Psychological distress'"? Yes, please!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mystery Monday: QP is for Quarter Pounder

Today brings us back to Kinsey Milhone of Sue Grafton's Alphabet series. I love love looove Kinsey Milhone. She is so funny and crazy - a quintessential nut. The perfect mixture of completely out of control risk taker, and neat freak homebody. Other than her ability to keep her tiny abode clean as a whistle, she is completely devoid of any domestic skills. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches are as fancy as she gets in the confines of her own kitchen, so she sustains herself primarily with foods found outside of her making. One of her absolute-favorite moan-inducing standbys is the QP as she calls it. QP standing for Quarter Pounder.

Now after reading repeatedly about this ah-mazing sinfully delicious readily available item, I have held my ground and steadfastly avoided trying one myself. Now I have to admit it: I've never been to McDonalds. Never ever. I'm afraid that if I met Kinsey in real life that she wouldn't like me very much. Now that I think about it she probably would think that I was a health nut who took food a little too seriously. I have taken up exercising in the mornings though, so maybe we could go jogging together? Oh who am I kidding, Kinsey is a lone wolf, and I refuse to eat crummy fast food! We'd drive each other craaaazy.

In order to get a taste of this much talked about burger, I decided to take on the challenge and made my own version. A simple 1/4 lb beef paddy spiked with some garlic and worcestershire sauce grilled to perfection and topped with a generous squeeze of ketchup and yellow mustard a sprinkling of chopped white onion and topped off with a classic sesame bun.
Mmmmm! Next time I'm making it a double!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Books by Cooks: Amarcord

I came across a copy of Marcella Hazan's autobiography, Amarcord, several months ago at the library bookstore and bought it on a whim. I finally pulled it out of the cookbook section of my bookshelves where it had been languishing. I really didn't know much about Marcella, beyond general sense that she was perhaps the italian culinary equivalent of Julia Child. All I know is that I have been trying to get my hot little hands on a copy of her magnum opus, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, for some time now to no avail. I did, however, recently find a copy of one of her earlier cookbooks, The Classic Italian Cookbook, which was buried in a pile of bargain books at the used book store. I snatched it up for the steal of $2 and gave it a prominent place in my cookbook collection.

So far, I especially enjoyed her description of her first encounter with American food. While humorous, her grief over her inability to connect with or understand American cooking is clear.
Victor had taken me to a coffee shop where he ordered what he called the national dish, hamburger. He poured some red sauce from a bottle over it and encouraged me to try it. "It's called ketchup," he said, "and it's tasty." I was not prepared for its cloying flavor and I found it inedible. (That sweet taste over meat was an experience that I would be subjected to again, bringing me grief at my first Thanksgiving dinner.) The coffee tasted as though I had been served the water used to clean out the pot. I thought to console myself with dessert. I was able to figure out what the words "coffee cake" on the board meant, and that was what I ordered. It was stupefyingly sweet and loaded with cinnamon, which I loathe, yet with not the slightest trace of coffee flavor. "This must be a mistake," I said to Victor, "there isn't any coffee in here." "Oh, it's only called a coffee cake because it is served with coffee." To this day, I am mystified. A chocolate cake has chocolate, an almond tart has almonds, an apple pie has apples; why doesn't a coffee cake have coffee?
In comparison to her struggles trying to find comfort and familiarity in the foreign and often alienating supermarkets of New York, when she returns to Italy she quickly falls into a natural rhythm when it comes to her cooking. With her return to her homeland she finally finds comfort and confidence, cooking intuitively, seasonally, and joyfully.
My cooking was very simple, usually guided by the vegetables that looked best to me that day. We might have pasta with zucchini or fresh tomatoes or cauliflower, or a frittata with asparagus or green beans or peppers and onion, sausages with fresh borlotti beans, veal stew with foraged mushrooms, or my mother's veal roll-ups, of which Victor was so fond. From a trip to the fish market, I might have brought back sgombero, small mackerel that I cooked over the stove like a pan roast, in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. Or a kilo or more of our tiny Adriatic clams, peppery and soft like butter, a small mountain of them sauteed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and parsley, which we would eat with nearly their weight in marvelous crusty bread, sopping up their juices. Those noontimes together at home gave us such strength and encouragement.
Great, now I want to move to Italy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Great Hot Air

I credited my grandma yesterday for inspiring my apple eating and in an effort not to play favorites I thought I should write about my grandpa, who has also inspired one of my favorite recent snacking habits. My grandpa died more than 20 years ago, so sadly I have few memories of him and the few I do have are of when he was sick. Being the youngest and the only girl out of his grandchildren, I like to think that I was his favorite. (Since they all got to spend more time with him, I hope that my brother and cousins will forgive my needy (and greedy) delusion.)
Now what does this have to do with food? Well, since I don't have many actual memories of my grandpa, I have to rely on stories about him. One thing that everyone seems to agree on when it comes to my grandpa is his appetite and sheer ability to eat huge quantities of food while maintaining a trim figure. My grandma was famous for her cooking. My grandpa was famous for his eating.When my we moved my grandma out of her house last year I came into an early inheritance of sorts. Lets just say I can cross "casserole dishes" off my hope chest wish-list. The one thing I got though, that didn't scream Grandma, was the The Great Hot Air Popper™, which I was told belonged to my grandfather.
I love the hot air popper. Sure it's a little funky. It worries me a little bit how the plastic smells when the machine gets really hot. But it definitely beats the pants off that icky ubiquitous microwave popcorn everybody eats these days. Plus, when I make my popcorn it makes me think of the stories my grandma and dad told me about going to the drive in theater with my grandpa, and how they would fill whole paper grocery bags with popcorn and he would drive too fast over the speed bumps in the theater lot and how much fun it was.
So in the spirit of healthy snacks, especially those passed on from one generation to the next, I suggest making a batch of home-made popcorn. Oh, and my grandma suggests pairing it with a show, right now she's loving Human Target, but she also recommends Covert Affairs, and always reliable Murder She Wrote reruns.

Air Popped Pop Corn
Serves 2

1/4 cup dried yellow corn kernels
Tablespoon of Butter (optional)
Salt to taste

Put the corn in the popper, plug the machine in, placing a large bowl under the chute. Meanwhile, melt the butter either in the little container atop the machine or in a little skillet on the stove. Toss the popped corn in the butter, coating evenly. Season with salt to taste.

Or you can just eat it plain, like I sometimes do. Crunchy, healthy, easy and economical, just the way I like my snacks.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An Apple A Day

My grandma eats an apple every night for dessert. Of course she eats a handful of prunes along with her fuji for good measure. While I'm not geriatric enough to need the prunes, I am a big fan of daily apple eating. Crisp, sweet, tart, and healthy, apples are the perfect snack or dessert. It's easy to overlook something like an apple, it's so simple, basic, and wholesome.
I recently bought a box of low-calorie chocolate covered ice cream popsicles. Yum, right? WRONG. There was something so cheap and sad about the way that they tasted. They were depressing and not at all satisfying. I forced myself to eat them up as quickly as possible, not because I actually enjoyed eating them but because I wanted them gone. What I'm trying to say is this: icky sweeteners are cheap and fake, they leave a bad taste in your mouth. Apples, however, are about as real it comes. Not only do they taste good, but you can feel good about how good they are for you. It's like a snowball of goodness. Did I mention that they come prepackaged in individual servings?
Plus, I've heard that they keep the doctor away.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rip it Off like a Band-Aid

I have been feeling generally under the weather for about a week now. I think I am getting something, but I neither know what or when it will actually arrive. All that I know is that I feel icky, and that eating has been less than appealing to me.

Which is why I haven't been writing about all the things that I have been decidedly less than excited to eat.

After letting myself off the hook for a whole week, I finally put my foot down and decided to try something new. So, this morning I made myself a sandwich that I'm almost certain I won't like. I like the idea of it. I even like how it looks. But the smell makes me a little queasy, and the thought of the texture is not something I want to think about too much. I have no other choices, however, since I packed my lunch and I don't like throwing out food or (horror of all horrors) going hungry, I am going to have to force it down.
Simple Hard Boiled Egg Sandwich
Make a hard boiled egg.
I used Martha Stewart's method (sorry Grandma!). She has you put your eggs in a pan, cover them with cool water with enough to cover them by an inch. Then put the pan over medium heat and when the water boils, put the lid on the pan and remove it from the heat. Let it sit for 12 minutes and then rinse the eggs with cold water.
Spread some dijon mustard on a piece of bread, lay slices of peeled hard boiled egg atop. Generously season your eggs with salt and pepper. Rub a small peeled garlic clove on another piece of bread and top the eggs with the garlicky bread.
Although I'm not so sure I succeeded sandwich wise, I can say with complete confidence that I built the cutest cat house EVER. So What if I had to hold my nose to eat lunch - I can't be good at everything.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Heat Wave

Me oh my. We are having a last minute summer's-almost-over-but-not-quite-yet killer heat wave. I've been pretty smug up to now about not having air conditioning. I may even have said something along the lines of "we don't need it." I don't think I went so far as to actually say "people with air conditioning are dumb" but I got pretty close. Well, guess who is the dummy now. That's right, I am.

Which leads me to what I'm cooking, which is, to put it in a word: nothing. Are you kidding? I made a cup of coffee this afternoon and the excess heat from my stove almost made me pass out. I just keep making the same cabbage salad with peanut-ginger dressing over and over.
While I could continue my weather-related lamentations for another couple of paragraphs, I would rather discuss a type of heat that I do like, namely, spicy heat. Nothing is better than fresh homemade jalapeno-laced salsa, a good batch of spicy Indian curry, or some stir fried vegetables and rice spiced up with a spoonful of Thai hot sauce.

In no-cook weather like this, however, there is nothing better than a good burrito doused with the house-specialty salsa from your favorite mexican dive. Hungry and heat-exhausted, we went to my boyfriend's favorite Mexican place from his college days this weekend. For me the best part is almost always the salsa. Much to his skeptical chagrin, I made my boyfriend go back for more. He didn't believe that we each needed two whole containers of salsa each.
I like to think that I taught him a life lesson. Too much salsa is a good thing. Too much heat is not. He'll thank me later.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breakfast of a Future Potential Champion

I have a strict breakfast routine. That routine involves change. I have practically the same thing everyday, but with little tweaks (usually in an effort to save time and dishes), until it has eventually evolved into something very different. For instance, I abandoned my deliciously healthy kale smoothies, which were a double whammy of dishes and vegetable prep. I dived right into a canister of steel cut oats, which I love(d). Until the cooking time became unfeasible. Then I transitioned into multigrain oatmeal. Nutty, healthy, and quick cooking, it seemed like a keeper. Buuuut, I hate having to wash a pan after breakfast. Which brings us to this week's oat-based breakfast winner. Personally, I think that it is the best yet. We'll just have to wait and see how long until it takes on a new form.
I was inspired by three things. For starters, I had purchased a four pound container of plain yogurt from Costco. I didn't want to have to work for my breakfast either in the form of cooking or excessive cleaning. Also, I like eating oats for breakfast--what can I say, they stick to my ribs. So I stirred some multigrain oatmeal into some of my plain yogurt, let it sit a while to soften, then, finding the texture to be a little to much like plaster, I added a splash of water, jazzed things up with a spoonful of dried fruit and breakfast accomplished. And a cool, creamy, simple, healthy breakfast at that. (It's a little like muesli, but simplified).

For me it works perfectly. I don't eat breakfast right away, I need time to drink my coffee and maybe even run to the gym. So I just pour myself a cuppa, stir my yo'tmeal up, stick it in the fridge and eat it an hour or two later. Easy. Full of protein and fiber. Minimal dishes. What more could a girl* ask for?
Multigrain Yogurt with Dried Fruit
Serves 1

1/2 cup plain yogurt (not greek!)
1/4 cup multigrain oatmeal
splash of water
Tablespoon of dried fruit

Put your multigrain oatmeal into your breakfast bowl. Moisten it with a splash of water, then stir in the yogurt. If the mixture seems really thick you can add a little more water to loosen things up. Stick the whole thing back in the fridge until you are ready to eat it (about an hour should do it). Take it out, give it a stir, add a little more water if necessary (depending on how thick you like it - I neither take my watery nor pasty.) Top with some dried fruit, or it you have it, some fresh fruit. I especially like dried cranberries. Breakfast accomplished! Now no matter how much you mess during the rest of the day at least you know that you did one thing right.
*Disclaimer: In an attempt at quality control I wanted my boyfriend to taste this (for a second opinion), and he actually winced, sealed his lips, and eventually after much prodding only tasted the smallest tiniest bit off of his spoonful and then said nothing. His excuse: he doesn't like plain yogurt. I'm assuming it's just a boy thing, but if you also share in this aversion to the sour stuff, I would recommend the liberal application of honey.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Holiday from Mysteries

In honor of today's Holiday status, there will be no mysteries. Although, I must admit holidays and murder mysteries often find themselves intertwined (both in terms of settings and of when they are most enjoyably read).

Anyways, today I give you my reliably delicious, standby, save-the-day chicken recipe. It's no mystery, it's just great. Whenever I have no idea what to make, but need a dependably simple and tasty protein, I turn to this. It's good for parties. It's good leftover. It's low stress. It's versatile--this week we have eaten it in corn tacos, with my peanut cabbage salad, and with brown rice and vegetables (see, it can cross multiple ethnic food borders). Perhaps best of all, most, if not all, of the ingredients for the marinade can be found in your pantry (if it's stocked like mine is anyways...). Bottom line: you get a lot of bang for your buck... or your cluck?
(No, that's tasteless, and this recipe is nothing if not tasty!)

Grilled Chicken Oregano
Adapted from the Complete Book of Greek Cooking
Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tablespoons dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts

Measure all of the ingredients for the marinade into a large bowl, or a large Ziplock bag. Add the chicken breasts, moving them around so that they get evenly coated with the marinade mixture. Seal the container, and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Pre-heat your BBQ to Medium Heat.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and grill the breasts on the hot grill. Grill to an internal temperature of 165, turning once.

It should be garlicky, fragrant with oregano and wine and grilled to perfection! (If not, send it back!)