Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Buckwheat Birthday Pancakes

I am finally settling back into my apartment after a couple of family trips. Hopefully, now I can get back into a regular writing, and cooking, routine.

My mom's birthday was the impetus for my most recent foray from the comforts of my tiny apartment kitchen. Happily, my parents newly remodeled kitchen is both beautiful and extremely well equipped. I think it is safe to say that it currently serves some of the best coffee in town. The enormous gleaming six-burner stove also heats up a griddle like a charm. My sub-sized electric apartment stove's burners are both rickety and too small, leading to an unevenly heated griddle which produces splotchy pancakes that must be cooked individually).

Stoves aside, birthday breakfasts are an important meal. I am a strong supporter of early-morning present opening. There is nothing better than getting up extra early and going downstairs to find a pile of presents at your place on the dining table. On days like these, a shared breakfast of something comforting and satisfying is essential. Lingering over pancakes, and making plans for the day is something I would not give up. Sleeping in is overrated!
For my mom's birthday this year, I whipped up a batch of my favorite griddle cakes (from the Nero Wolfe cookbook). This time, however, I made a buckwheat version, which is one of my parent's favorites. They turned out perfectly. Nutty from the buckwheat flour, moist and tender thanks to the buttermilk, just a little bit sweet, and the perfect combination of crispy on the outside and cake-y in the middle.
All that you need to accompany them are coffee and your family.

Buckwheat Griddle Cakes
From The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, by Rex Stout

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or more)
2 tablespoons melted butter

Sift the flours, baking powder, salt, and sugar into a bowl. In a separate bowl beat the eggs until lemon-yellow in color and add the buttermilk. (Buttermilk can be made by adding a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt to sweet milk and allowing it to stand for a few hours in a warm place.) Add the dry ingredients to the egg-milk mixture and beat with a wire whisk or electric hand beater. Add the melted butter gradually while beating. Ladle out the batter with a dipper onto a hot, lightly oiled griddle. When the bubbles on top have opened and the underside is golden brown, turn each cake and cook for 1 or 2 minutes more. Serve hot with butter and a sweet topping. (Makes 12 buckwheat griddle cakes)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Very Good Thing

I keep a recipe scrapbook of all my cuttings from magazines and newspapers. I especially love the pictures that almost always accompany these recipes. Whenever I flip through the pages of my book I am immediately filled with ideas and inspiration.

This week, I came across a recipe I had clipped from Martha Stewart Living, for pasta dressed with plain yogurt and tossed with matchsticks of ham and slivers of fresh raw zucchini. What originally caught my eye was the use of plain yogurt to make a creamy sauce. Not being a fan of ham, I had reservations about trying the recipe verbatim, so I decided to go with what sounded especially interesting and good to me--namely, the yogurt and raw zucchini. I decided to use whole wheat fusilli, and threw in some fresh raw corn and green beans for good measure. Delicious! It's healthy, easy, light yet filling, and tastes fantastic. Perfect for an easy summer dinner. Next time I might even try basil instead of the mint (and there will be a next time).
Fusilli with Zucchini, Corn, Green Beans, Yogurt, and Scallions
Inspired by Martha Stewart Magazine
Serves 2

Whole Wheat Fusilli (two servings' worth)
1/2 cup plain yogurt (not Greek)
1 small zucchini, sliced thinly into rounds
1 cup green beans, sliced into bite sized pieces
1 ear of corn, kernels sliced off of the cob
1/4-1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions or chives
Mint leaves, thinly sliced (to taste)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, wash and slice the vegetables. Toss the cooked, drained pasta with the yogurt and add the chopped vegetables and herbs. Drizzle with the olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mystery Monday: Tisanes are Fatal

There is nothing better than curling up with a good Agatha Christie. If it stars Poirot then all the better. Poirot is infamous for his perfectionism, insights, and his odd taste in drinks. Much to the chagrin of his English friends, the persnickety yet indulgent Belgian detective begins every morning with a cup of hot chocolate instead of coffee or tea. He is also fond of the sweet blackcurrent juice, or sirop de cassis, which he often drinks and futilely offers to guests. Perhaps the most important of his favored libations, is the tisane, which he credits for the superiority of his grey cells, as well as with the ability to cure all ills.

Tisanes may be better known in Europe, but in California they are all but unheard of. I was surprised to come across a recipe for tisane in a cookbook I was looking through, and in an effort to improve upon my own grey cells, I boiled up a batch.

Adapted from the New Mayo Clinic Cookbook, Serves 2

2 cups water
1 heaping Tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons lime juice
2 Tablespoons fresh mint leaves, packed
2 Tablespoons honey
Slices of lime and sprigs of mint (to use as garnish)

Put the water, ginger, and lime into a small sauce pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and add the mint leaves and let the mixture steep for another 5 minutes. Strain into two teacups, add a Tablespoon of honey to each, garnish with a sprig of mint and a slice of lime.
I'm sure that Poirot would have approved of the honey sweetened beverage, with it's wholesome citrus bite and it's slow but strong ginger burn, a combination which I'm sure could obliterate any ailment. Personally, next time I would choose hot chocolate.

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Never Too Late to Hydrate!

I am a dedicated water drinker. The reasons for this are as follows: I grew up in a non-soda household, I value my health, and I dislike overly carbonated beverages because they give me terrible hiccups and make my stomach hurt. Plus water is great! It's simple, free, and refreshing. What more do you really need?

Unfortunately the water in the greater Los Angeles area can leave a little to be desired taste-wise, even after the requisite filtering and chilling. I think I have found a solution to this problem, which perhaps might make water-drinking a little more exciting (and perhaps even chic) for those who are wary of it: Spa Water. It's beyond easy, it looks fantastic, and it tastes delicious. It's the only thing I have every come across that seems both incredibly indulgent and entirely wholesome.

Spa Water

1/2 Small cucumber, thinly sliced into rounds
Sprig of mint, leaves pinched off the stem

Place the cucumber slices and mint leaves in the bottom of a bowl or pitcher. Cover with cold filtered water. Add ice cubes. Let sit until chilled. Ladle into cups.
Sit back, relax, take a sip, and pretend that everything in your life is as fancy, effortless, and simple.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sweet Summer Corn

Corn is one of the very best things about summer. You can get decent tomatoes all year round but corn remains strictly seasonal. However, corn has changed over the years, and the corn of today is significantly sweeter than that which preceded. This has rendered old fashioned cooking methods such as long boiling times in sugar sweetened water unnecessary, for which I am thankful. The best way to enjoy our sweet modern corn is to cook it quickly. Just a dip into boiling water, or a quick roll around the grill and it is ready to be devoured. If you have an especially good batch it doesn't even need that. I have vivid memories of picking corn from our garden when I was little and eating it raw, it was incredibly delicious. I highly recommend giving it a try if you get your hands on some nice fresh sweet corn.
Lately I've been taking full advantage of the inexpensive, easy, healthy, deliciousness of simple grilled corn. (Four for a dollar? Yes please.) I used to give them a light coating of olive oil, but I've stopped doing even that. I just shuck them, rinse them, wipe as many of the hairy fibers off as possible, and toss them on the grill with whatever else is cooking. The one thing that I've learned is that it is much easier to cook them when they are laying parallel with the bars of the grill. It is much easier to cook them evenly when they aren't constantly rolling back to the side that you've just turned them from. They really need to be eaten right away, not because they will taste any less fantastic after a few minutes, but because they will all be gone.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back Bearing Cupcakes

I've just returned from a trip which kept me from both cooking and writing. Fortunately, I didn't stop eating and have a little treat to share: an utterly delicious and adorable cupcake. Yes, I did it. I went to Georgetown Cupcake.
There are too many cupcakeries these days, and many of them simply cannot live up to their hype. But this one surprised me. It was well run, but in an orderly, thoughtful way, neither sterile nor snotty. And while the store relies heavily on cute branding, the ingredients and quality of the cupcakes are still clearly a priority, which in the end is all that really matters.
We got the chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, and it was delicious. The cake was moist and richly chocolatey, the frosting was tangy and creamy, with just the right amount of sweetness to be indulgent but not toothache-inducing. With it's chocolate cake and vanilla frosting it tasted how I had imagined the ding dong would taste, if it were freshly made with premium ingredients, no preservatives, and close attention to detail.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mystery Monday: Unsolved Recipe

I love The Closer. Brenda Leigh Johnson is a funny, smart modern female detective (chief). While her addiction to chocolate is perhaps not her most innovative characteristic, her current candy-drawer stash is pretty hilarious. Every day is Halloween in her office!
But it's the way that she unwraps her little foil-wrapped chocolate cakes and luxuriates in them made me want to have a taste. She makes them look so good.

I really wanted to make a homemade version of these magical little cakes, which I have learned are called "Ding Dongs," but since I have unfortunately (or fortunately?) never had one I didn't think I could be trusted to replicate it. So I dove in, and strictly for research purposes, I bought a box of 12.
First of all, I love how they are wrapped. Brenda has made an art-form out of unwrapping them. (Secondly, I can't believe that a single serving is two cakes). Upon biting into the actual item, however, I have to say I was a disappointed by the bland flavor and dry texture. The upside is that I can now fully imagine what they should taste like. What they have been tasting like in my imagination this whole time. I can't wait to make my own decadent, moist, and richly chocolatey version. They will have to help me deal with the inevitable depression that will come when The Closer comes to an end at the end of this season.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer Food Writing to Savor

My favorite (and most used) cookbooks are A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke, by David Tanis. Accessible, deliciously written and photographed, not to mention both inspiring and educational (but not preachy!), the sentiments of the books as well as the recipes are soul-and-stomach-satisfying.

That being said, I was absolutely giddy when I found out that David Tanis would be writing a regular column for the New York Times. And celebrating cooking in small city kitchens no less!

I think that the summertime launch of his column was perfect, his simple recipes make summer produce shine, while allowing the cook to remain perspiration-free. His writing is relaxed, conversational, smart, straightforward, intuitive, and informative while remaining retaining his unique sense of romance and imagination and above all else his sincere and obvious love of cooking.

In his article, "Chicken, Simmered and Chilled," he recommends buying "the best chicken you can, even if it costs more (it will). Factory chickens always taste flabby no matter what you do. Choose a free-range bird for the flavor, the food politics and not least, the muscular thighs." For me that says it all. It's not pretentious, but informative. Encouraging, but not critical, and, mainly, focused on a desire for simple deliciousness.

What I love is that he gives you information in such a way that you can make your own (educated) decisions, while making you happy to take his advice, because you know why he gave it. And he makes it sound so good. Take a look at his columns for City Kitchen, I dare you not to get hungry.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fresh Fruit for Friday

Tonight I sliced up my mango. Carefully selected from a mountain of either bruised or hard fruits, I had high hopes for this blushing sweet-smelling beauty. After a languid ripening period in the summer heat, it finally reached maturation.

After carefully peeling and slicing the flesh from the large seed within, I found myself with a pile of golden sweetness, which I immediately made use of. I made popsicles with a portion, whizzing the fruit with a glug of orange juice and a splash of lime. Then, I indulged in the rest, chopping it and mixing it with a scoop of my homemade frozen yogurt. The combination of tangy frozen yogurt and sweet fresh mango was a perfect way to start the weekend.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fro Yo...

It has been hot! hot! hot! Catapulting that cold sweet soothing food-balm known as the "frozen desert" to the category of necessary evil. This week, in an attempt to expand my repertoire (beyond popsicles), I set my sights on Frozen Yogurt. It's healthy right? And it neither requires much work nor many ingredients.

I know. FROZEN YOGURT. There are fro-yo places everywhere in Los Angeles, to a ridiculously absurd extent. Names have been mimicked, repeated, tweaked, colors changed (red, pink), fruits swapped (berries, mangoes), but they seem to be one and the same, indistinguishably alike (in a word, generic). I for one never jumped on the F-Y bandwagon. In fact, I've never even tasted the much ballyhooed fruits of Pinkberry, and while we have gone to a local off-brand joint a couple of times, I'm always dismayed by the distinct overtones of chemicals that underscore their fruity flavors.

So, I decided to make some. It's really easy, and tasty. Actually, I think that's why there are so many chains. Ice cream shop with signature flavors? Big old scoop of double trouble! Frozen yogurt? Easy peasy (and squeezy too).

The great things about (homemade) frozen yogurt are as follows: 1) easy 2) simple 3) tasty with a delicious tanginess 4) you can make it as sweet or not-sweet as you want 5) no chemicals needed 6) pairs well with fresh, ripe, summer fruit, as well as frozen, ripe, summer fruit 7) you can adjust desired fat content 8) pride & boasting rights (with minimal exertion required).
Frozen Yogurt
This recipe is adapted from David Lebovitz

3 cups Greek yogurt (or 6 cups plain yogurt strained to make 3)
3/4 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla (optional)

Stir the sugar into the greek yogurt until it dissolves. Add the vanilla. Chill thouroughly. Freeze in ice cream maker.

Enjoy your deliciously cooling desert and the hot-headed feeling of superiority that comes from not getting it from an overpriced strip mall chain fro yo-ery. Next, I will teach you how to cobble your own Ugg boots.

Note: the recipe called for full fat yogurt, which is super rich. Next time I am going to try something a little lighter and see how it works. Also, I like the flavor of plain yogurt so I might cut down on the sugar next time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Salsa: My Fast Food of Choice

I read recently that people in the United States spend 30 minutes a day preparing meals. The fact that everyone else is averaging 10 minutes per meal a day either makes me incredibly inept, or means that not a lot of cooking is going on in other people's houses. Because I spend a lot more than 30 minutes in the kitchen. Cooking from scratch is a major time commitment, even if it's not fancy. It takes planning, dedication, and endless patience.

For the days that I'm just not up to it, but not willing to throw in the towel and give in to del taco or in n out, I make salsa.

Heat up a can of black beans (throw in a chopped up garlic clove if you are feeling fancy) and make some (brown) rice. While that's happening, make your salsa. Slice up some cheese, throw a couple of tortillas under the broiler and you've got dinner.

The payoff from making your own salsa? Well first of all it is simply delicious. Totally different than store-bought (which is not to say that I don't like jarred salsa). But if you want to have a homemade meal without really making much, making your own salsa will make you look good (and will make your food taste even better).

Pico de Gallo
Serves 2-4

3-4 medium sized tomatoes, or an equivalent amount of cherry tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2-1 jalapeño or serrano pepper, stem removed, seeded, and finely chopped (to taste!)
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
juice of 1/2 a lime (to taste)
Generous pinch of salt (to taste)

In a small bowl, stir together the chopped tomatoes, onion, and jalapeño/serrano. Add the lime juice, and the salt taste for seasoning. Stir in the cilantro and spoon over dinner, snacks or appetizers (fancy!).

The best thing about making your own salsa is that it turns out a different every time, a little more lime, a little spicier, maybe the tomatoes are juicier or sweeter. But no matter what, it's always the best version you've made so far.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Griddle Cakes in Triplicate

I was very excited to find a copy of The Nero Wolfe Cook Book at my local library bookstore a few weeks ago. I love the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. The books revolve around the formidable (in both mind and body) Nero Wolfe, whose powers of deduction are unrivaled and whose appetite remains unparalleled. Sequestered in his Manhattan brownstone, he solves crimes and sates his appetite with the help of Archie, his smooth talking right hand man, and the amazing butler-cum-chef Fritz, whose meticulous cooking is almost always able to meet Wolfe's high standards. Feasting on such delicacies as starlings (cooked with sage, not saffron, Fritz!), he is quite the gourmand!

One of the great things about the series is that all three of these men live in the brownstone together. While they keep separate rooms, of course, they function as funny sort of unit, working, living, and eating together. This sharing of routines is perhaps best exemplified by the griddle cakes which all breakfast on each morning. Archie eating his downstairs in the kitchen with Fritz, while Wolfe takes his upstairs in his bedroom. Work cannot commence before everyone is properly fed.

Whilst these griddlecakes may not give your brain the crime-fighting boost it gives Wolfe and Archie, they are undeniably delicious. Tender, springy, slightly sweet and perfectly corn-y, I can't think of a better way to fortify yourself for a day of hard work and good food.
Griddle Cakes
From The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, by Rex Stout

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sour milk (or more)
2 tablespoons melted butter

Sift the flour and corn meal, baking powder, salt, and sugar into a bowl. In a separate bowl beat the eggs until lemon-yellow in color and add the sour milk. (Sour milk can be made by adding a few drops of lemon juice to sweet milk and allowing it to stand for a few hours in a warm place.) Add the dry ingredients to the egg-milk mixture and beat with a wire whisk or electric hand beater. Add the melted butter gradually while beating. Ladle out the batter with a dipper onto a hot, lightly oiled griddle. When the bubbles on top have opened and the underside is golden brown, turn each cake and cook for 1 or 2 minutes more. Serve hot with butter and a sweet topping. (Makes 12 griddle cakes)