Saturday, October 10, 2009

Trusting my Tastebuds

On a recent beautiful fall day I decided to make soup. I had a few things in my refrigerator: onions, celery, broccoli, some garlic. I decided on broccoli soup so I did what I always do and turned to Google. My experience with this approach hasn't always yielded the best recipes or results. During my search I found broccoli soup recipes with the bare minimum of ingredients (water, broccoli, salt) and others that included butter, flour, cream, potatoes, oatmeal and any other number of ingredients and still called itself broccoli soup.

Oh dear, I was going to have to go out on my own. Free-wheeling it isn't my style which isn't a helpful trait when it comes to creative endeavors. In all the crafts I've tried -- knitting, sewing, beading, card making -- I've always followed the directions pretty much to the letter. I'm a little more experienced in cooking so I feel pretty confident in straying somewhat off-recipe, but a recipe is firmly in front of me when I cook. Imagine my surprise when I had no recipe but managed to produce a rather fine broccoli soup. Better than fine. It's really, really good and it's low-fat and it's healthy. And it's easy and elegant and tastes luxurious.

I started by creating my soup "base" from which I would add or subtract flavorings to get to my final recipe. My base was simply onions, celery, garlic and broccoli simmered in vegetable stock until tender then pureed in our super-powerful Blendtec blender (love that thing!). I then ladled a tablespoon of this base into a small bowl and started adding things and tasting. Did my addition help? Is it better with more of it? Another tablespoon in a new bowl and another try. More salt? A little nutmeg? Some lemon or scallions? Some cream?

My final recipe tastes like the best Cream of Broccoli soup but doesn't use cream. I found any dairy (with the exception of the butter I used to wilt the onions and celery) just muted the deep and savory flavor of the broccoli and other vegetables. I got the texture I was looking for by pureeing the cooked vegetables until they were velvet on a spoon. I liked the back note of nutmeg and the lift of lemon zest, but didn't like the sourness of lemon juice. Salt, and it needed a good amount, black pepper for that pleasant back of throat bite, and I was done.

The key to this soup was to use as much broccoli as possible to thicken the soup without the need for other ingredients. Too much broccoli turns it into a pureed vegetable side dish, too little and it's thin and watery. You need as least as much broccoli as vegetable stock. One thing to emphasize is the need to puree it very well in order to get the creamy texture that cream or flour or some other thickener would normally provide. Our blender has a "Soups, Syrups, Fondues" button that starts slow then ratchets up to high and stays there for a full ninety seconds. Ninety seconds doesn't sound like a long time, but the noise it makes will chase you out of the kitchen. Time yourself, and if your blender isn't super powerful, go a full two minutes or longer. Also, don't fill the blender more than half full and remove the center of the lid and cover with a kitchen towel to allow the steam to escape when you start blending. Trust me on this.

No-Cream Broccoli Soup
serves 4

5 to 6 cups broccoli florets (from 2 large heads of broccoli)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon butter (you could easily substitute olive oil)
4 cups (one 32 oz. container) vegetable stock (Wolfgang Puck brand recommended)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1. Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, cover and cook over medium to medium low heat until the onions and celery are tender, stirring occasionally. You don't want to brown the vegetables, just wilt them.
2. Add the garlic, vegetable stock and broccoli. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat, cover, and let simmer for 15 or 20 minutes until the broccoli is very tender. You'll know you're there when a knife can run through the broccoli with no resistance.
3. Ladle the hot broth and vegetables into a blender and puree until very smooth. Do this in batches to avoid over-filling your blender. The puree needs to be absolutely smooth to get the creamy texture.
4. Return the puree to the soup pot, add salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon zest. Bring back to a simmer for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. I liked this best served warm, not super hot, so take it off heat for a few minutes before serving.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Amazing Tomato Salad

I've never been a raw tomato lover until I met this salad. You will clear my salad plate and find a pile of uneaten tomatoes almost any time of the year. I love cooked tomatoes (mmmm, marinara sauce) but raw grocery-store tomatoes are almost always disappointing. That was until I learned how to dress them up a bit, and now this raw tomato salad is one of my signature dishes. If you've ever been to dinner at my house, chances are you were served this as a topping for bruschetta as a starter.

This is a great example of simplicity at its best. Tomatoes are cut, salted a bit, let to stand to concentrate their flavors, then dressed in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar with some garlic and herbs. In this case my herb will be the fresh floral taste of oregano, but basil is classic. Most often I use this salad as a topping for grilled bread (classic bruschetta) but you could also toss in some cubes of fresh mozzarella, use basil as the herb and serve it as a deconstructed Caprese salad on the side of almost anything grilled. This would also be amazing over freshly cooked pasta (use plenty of salted water!) with a touch of extra olive oil to dress the dish right before serving.

Tomato Salad
serves 3 to 4 depending on how you serve it

2 1/2 cups cut tomatoes (here I used a pint of mixed cherry tomatoes but three or four Roma tomatoes would yield about that amount)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon table salt)
1/2 clove garlic, minced or put through a garlic press (careful here, as the garlic can get strong since it's raw so use less if it's a big clove)
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano (or 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
fresh ground pepper to taste

1. Put the cut tomatoes in a colander and toss with the salt. Let the colander stand over a bowl for 10 to 15 minutes to draw out some of the water and concentrate the flavor. Don't worry that the tomatoes will be too salty. If you taste one just after salting them, you'll think you've used too much salt. As they sit, the salt melts and they become beautifully seasoned. I've skipped this step but I do squeeze out some of the water and seeds when I cut the tomatoes so the resulting salad isn't too watery. If you do skip this salting step, be sure to add salt to the final dish to taste.

2. Place the tomatoes in a bowl, add the garlic, oregano, oil, vinegar and a few grinds of black pepper. Let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before serving to let the flavors develop. This can be made in advance (but only earlier in the day) and refrigerated but bring to room temperature before serving.

If you are serving on top of grilled bread, be sure to spoon some of the juice at the bottom of the bowl on top of the tomatoes to let the bread soak it up. Delicious!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Going Green

Summer has somehow interfered with my posting so it's high time I get back to it. As a simple way to ease back in I offer this recipe for Green Goddess salad dressing. Salad dressing, really? Really. You will thank me. Although versions of this recipe have been around for years, I made my first batch back in June and it's been in my fridge all summer long. I saw it on an episode of The Barefoot Contessa and it looked so good I made it that same day. It's your standard mayo-sour cream based dressing whizzed up with lots of fresh basil, lemon and garlic. It tastes fresh because of the herbs (in this case, basil), it's tangy from the lemon and scallions, and the hint of garlic and anchovy really brings it together. The flavors would be too strong if not in the mayo-sour cream base. The first time I used it was on a salad of butter lettuce and perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes and I thought it was the best salad I had ever tasted.

I've adapted Ina Garten's recipe slightly to suit my taste. I cut the recipe in half as the original says it serves six but it really should say it serves 16! Even cut in half it makes a good cup and a half of dressing and it only lasts a week or so in the fridge. I use less garlic as the garlic becomes really strong as it sits. I also use less salt (and I'm a salt freak) as it didn't need all the original recipe called for. I add some parsley to the mix to up the green quotient as I usually have some parsley on hand. If you don't have any, it would be perfectly good without it. I also use full-fat mayonnaise here but have used light (NOT non-fat) sour cream and it was still great. If you must, use light mayo and light sour cream and it'll still be awfully darn good for a light version. But try the fully leaded version once and you won't go back, trust me.

Green Goddess Dressing
adapted from
The Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup coarsely chopped green onion (about 3-4)
1/2 cup basil
1/4 cup parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1/2 clove garlic, grated through a microplane
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (use less if using table salt)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup sour cream

1. Place all ingredients, except sour cream, in a blender and whiz up until fully blended.

2. Add sour cream to blender and pulse to mix in sour cream.

3. Use right away or refrigerate for up to five days, covered. It gets stronger as it sits.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Joy of Bread Pudding

Last night we celebrated my friend Kathi's birthday with dinner out for six. It wasn't Kathi's birthday quite yet (that happens Tuesday) but she is well known for planning her birthday events well in advance and in multiples. Last night was our night on her calendar so we made reservations at Pearl Bar and Dining in Bellevue, a new favorite of ours.

We let the chef surprise us with his choices for our dinners. While I could go on about the entrees, this is really about a fun fact and the dessert.

While Matt the sommelier was uncorking our Rombauer chardonnay he told us that the family name, Rombauer, was part of the Joy of Cooking cookbook legacy. Irma Rombauer wrote the original Joy of Cooking in 1936 and it has been continuously in print ever since. I had never made the connection between the wine and the author until Matt told us that the owners of the vineyard were related and he showed us the cork. On it were the words "The Joy of Wine." Clever!

After dinner the chef sent us a special dessert that recently went on the menu. It was a luscious bread pudding, topped with a creamy vanilla sauce and fresh strawberries. We passed it around the table and declared it on par with our other favorite dessert there, the Butterscotch Sundae. Although I think of bread pudding as a decidedly wintertime dessert choice, it was surprisingly light and with the strawberries, was perfect paired with our lovely June weather.

And so for Father's Day, I tried to recreate this dessert for my family using recipes from my copy of the Joy of Cooking. I began with the recipe for Bread Pudding with Meringue omitting the meringue, and adding the recipe for Creme Anglaise, or custard sauce. I had perfectly ripe strawberries from a recent visit to the Farmer's Market. The entire ingredient list? Milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, bread, strawberries and lemon. That's it.

While I had high hopes that serendipity would allow me to use this cookbook and get the result I wanted, it wasn't to be. It was good, but didn't have the the depth that the Pearl dish had. The Creme Anglaise could have been a bit richer (using cream or half-and-half instead of milk perhaps), and the bread pudding in my version was just a simple, lightly sweetened, eggy sponge. If I were to try again, and I will, I might try substituting brown sugar in the bread pudding for a more caramel flavor, or spicing it up some. Perhaps caramelizing the top with sugar (a la creme brulee) would be good. Maybe they used a different pastry or bread (like a really decadent French Toast with lots of vanilla, sugar and butter, mmm) in their bread pudding. I'm not an experienced baker, so my instincts might be way off. Hints are very welcomed!

Bread Pudding with Creme Anglaise and Strawberries
adapted from the Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

Serves 6

Creme Anglaise (Vanilla Custard Sauce)

2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla
5 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt

1. Heat the milk and vanilla bean over simmering water in a double boiler until hot but not boiling.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and salt together. Add a few tablespoons of the hot milk to the egg yolks to warm them, then add the egg mixture to the milk and whisk together. Place the mixture back over the simmering water.

3. Switch to a wooden spoon and cook the mixture over the simmering water, stirring often, until quite hot but not boiling. It will become the consistency of heavy cream as it cooks. You will know it's done when it coats the back of the spoon and you can drag your finger across and the line stays.

4. Once cooked, pour through a strainer (to catch any overly cooked egg) into a clean bowl. Scrape the vanilla bean with the back of a knife to collect the seeds and stir in to the mix. If you are using vanilla extract instead of a bean, add it now. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate.

Simple Bread Pudding

5 cups cubed fresh bread, crusts removed, lightly packed
3 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
The zest and juice from half a lemon

1 and 1/2 pints fresh strawberries, quartered and lightly sweetened with just a teaspoon of sugar, only if necessary

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

1. Place the cubed bread in a baking dish, pour the milk over and allow to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Whisk the egg yolk, sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice together. Pour over the soaked bread and toss lightly with a fork until combined.

3. Place the baking dish into a larger pan, place it in the oven and then fill the larger dish with hot water, coming about halfway up the baking dish. Bake for 50 minutes.

Serve warm, covered with a large spoonful of the sauce and topped with a scoop of the strawberries.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Chicken Vegetarian

I recently bought a cookbook by Peter Berley titled, The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen after reading about it on  That 1-Click setting on Amazon gets me into more trouble.  I often find myself reading the customer reviews and then clicking around the site when a reviewer mentions another book that he or she also loves.  I end up with a virtual cart full of books I didn't know I wanted and then must curtail my urge to buy them all.  This one made it in and I'm glad it stayed.

I'm not vegetarian or even close to it.  I do however have a number of great vegetarian cookbooks as I like the focus on vegetables and grains and I keep thinking I might become vegetarian someday.  The idea of it is appealing to me.  Not for the animal-rights reasons (although I find myself sympathetic to those causes, my sympathies disappear in front of a fat-streaked, 2-inch chop), but just for the healthy lifestyle aspects of it.   It's like my desire to become an avid weight trainer.  I know it would be great for me, it would help me to get toned and strong, but hard it's hard for me to, well... Just Do It.  I think I want to become a fit, buffed vegetarian someday.  It sounds so cool.  Just not today.  

I'm telling you this to confess the worst sin I could have done when cooking from a masterpiece such as The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen.  This book won the James Beard Foundation book award for vegetarian cooking in 2001.  The author is an expert.  And I substituted chicken for tempeh in a recipe.  There, I said it.  

I've never worked with tempeh.  Berley provides an excellent description of what it is (soybeans and other grains and seeds mixed with certain spores, compressed into cakes and incubated for 18 to 24 hours.  The resulting slabs are held together "by a complex web of white mold."  Um, ew.)  I don't know what tempeh tastes like.  It doesn't sound like it will taste good therefore I'm afraid of it.  I don't know where to buy it and I'm not feeling adventurous enough to try today.  I want to make the recipe, so chicken it is.  Vegetarianism will wait another day.

Other than the aforementioned major substitution, I followed the recipe very closely.  I was intrigued by the addition of caraway seeds as it didn't seem to fit this Asian style dish.  I then remembered that caraway seeds are often used as a digestive aid when eating lots of vegetables, particularly from the cabbage family, to reduce the resulting, shall we say, discomfort?  That's a small example of the genius behind this cookbook.  Although the list of ingredients is somewhat long, they are all familiar (exception already noted) and the techniques are straightforward.  The result?  Fabulous.  It's a bright, slightly spicy, creamy and lemony vegetable (and chicken!) braise served over fragrant jasmine rice.  The sauce is so flavorful that I could have easily ditched the chicken altogether.  And perhaps tempeh would be just fine if someone else cooked it for me and I didn't know.

Chicken and Vegetables Braised in a Spicy Lemon-Coconut Broth
Very liberally adapted from The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen by Peter Berley
serves 4

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup thinly sliced onions
1 cup sliced carrot
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 (14 oz.) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Finely grated zest from 1 lemon
4 cups sliced green cabbage (sliced 1/2 inch thick)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1.  Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat in an 8- to 10-inch skillet and saute chicken until browned, about 3 minutes per side.  Don't move the chicken around once you've dropped it in the pan or it won't brown properly.  Remove to a plate.

2.  Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil to the now-hot skillet and saute the onions for about 5 minutes, until softened and the browned bits left in the pan have melted onto the onions.  You may have to reduce the heat so this doesn't go too fast.

3.  Add the carrot, ginger, coriander, tumeric, paprika, sugar, caraway seeds, and red pepper flakes.  Saute, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.

4.  Add the chicken, coconut milk, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lemon juice, and lemon zest.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for 10 minutes.

5.  Place the cabbage on top of the chicken and sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Cover the pan and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until cabbage is tender.

6.  Uncover, turn the cabbage gently into the sauce and let reduce slightly to thicken and coat the cabbage, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the cilantro.  Taste for seasoning (should be very flavorful as it's served over rice), and serve.


Monday, May 25, 2009

The Designer Jeans of Appetizers

I was trying to decide what recipe would start me off and get you to come back. Let's start with an appetizer.  I mean, first impressions are hard to shake.  It's like trying to decide what to wear to a party full of beautiful people. Well this recipe is the little black dress of appetizers.  Actually that sounds entirely too fussy for this little tidbit.  This recipe is really the designer jeans of appetizers. Jeans can go anywhere nowadays, just like this tasty combination.  It can be offered at the start of an elegant dinner party, or be thrown together for an impromptu cocktail in the early evening.  It has only six ingredients and there really isn't any cooking involved.  It's dead simple and really tasty. 

This recipe is simply a variation of the cheese-on-crackers theme.  In this case the cheese is a creamy, tangy goat cheese topped with the lemony-licorousy herbal taste of fresh basil, crunchy, buttery toasted pine nuts, the fresh zip of lemon zest, all adorned with a drizzle of sun-kissed extra virgin olive oil.  Although you could serve the cheese with its topping on slices of fresh baguette, I prefer the crisp snap of water crackers laced with just a hint of black pepper.

Goat Cheese with Pine Nuts and Basil on Black Pepper Crackers
Serves 4 (can easily be increased or decreased)

4 oz. log soft goat cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons fresh basil, shredded
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
A small stack of store bought water crackers with black pepper, Carr's brand preferred

Heat a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat for one minute.  Add the pine nuts and brown them by shaking the pan occasionally for about two minutes.  Don't walk away as this goes very quickly.  Remove the pine nuts from the skillet immediately once they are spotty brown as they will continue to cook and can easily burn.

Place the goat cheese on a small platter, top with shredded basil, pine nuts, and lemon zest.  Pour the olive oil over all and serve with the crackers on the side.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jumpin' In

Have you ever been shocked when you've listened to your recorded voice and thought it didn't sound a bit like you?  Or been slightly embarrassed that you sound that way?  Well, I'm sure that's how I'll feel when I re-read this first post someday.   I can already feel the cringes as I realize that someone else has actually read this.  I'm not one to take too many chances.  I have a tendency to stay in the observer chair rather than jumping in to participate even when it looks like an awful lot of fun.  Flailing around in public is rather terrifying for me.  I know what holds me back is the desire to be good at something before I even try it.  The problem is that in order to get good, you have to start.  So this is me, jumpin' in to the crowded and talented food blogging pool.

I've loved to cook for as long as I remember.  When I had a "real" job I always returned to food and cooking as my creative outlet and source of inspiration.  This blog will be my attempt to follow my passion, to provide some focus to my cooking now, to try some new things, to get outside my comfort zone.  I'm pretty sure that my family and friends will recognize me in these pages, and and maybe see some things  they didn't know about me.  I also hope to connect with others who I haven't yet met but share a passion for great food and cooking.  It's an odd notion that one can create a sense of intimacy from an impersonal computer screen but every food blogger that I love to read does that brilliantly by inviting you in to their life, their point of view, their kitchen.  Perhaps no one will visit here.  That's okay as I can already tell that in the act of writing my reasons for starting this, I feel excited.  And I haven't felt that way for a while.  

And so it begins!