Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I'm Thankful for Convenience Food

At the risk of ostracizing myself from my food blogging friends, one of the things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving is convenience food. That statement goes against every foodie* fiber in my body. But it’s true.

I have a royal ball in the kitchen whether I’m by myself or with company and I love to cook with fresh ingredients and making good ol’ home-made meals from scratch, but I’d be lost without frozen puff pastry, canned tomatoes, or tomato paste in a tube. Or canned artichokes, canned beans or dried spices. Or dried pasta in every shape imaginable or seasoned bread crumbs or boxed chicken broth or bagged lettuce mixes. I like to roast my own red peppers, but jarred ones are pretty darn good. Making my own pastry (well, when it turns out okay) is terrific, but refrigerated dough will often do just fine. I admire people who make their own pumpkin puree, but when canned is so easy, and good, why?

I take great pleasure in planting and tending my own vegetable garden and then reaping the harvest. I buy most of my groceries at a family-owned supermarket that I know buys a lot of fresh food locally. Making and canning my own spaghetti sauce is more satisfying than I would have imagined. Picking my own salad greens in the morning and then having them for lunch is just delightful. We have apple trees and blueberry bushes. My eggs come from my neighbor’s chickens (a few of whom, I’m ashamed to say, my Weimeraner killed.)

I’m a pretty frugal cook: I save leftovers and reprise them into frittatas, soups and anything else I can dream up. I save bones to make my own chicken stock. (Although not always.) And my kitchen is pretty well-equipped – there’s always something new I’ll want! -- with all the tools and appliances I need to do all that.

Still, I can be a lazy cook. And despite the fact that the kitchen is my favorite room in the house, it’s not the only room. We’re all busy people and I’m thankful that on a particularly busy day, I can go into the kitchen and between my refrigerator and pantry, I can whip up a pretty good and healthy meal in 20 minutes. Or, if I plan ahead well enough, my husband and I can come home to a slow-cooker meal, getting the comfort whiffs of a fragrant pot roast as soon as we open the door.

I also am not unaware of the irony that at this season of thanksgiving when we traditionally express our appreciation for all our blessings, especially food, that many people do not have the privilege of arguing over what kind of food is the best, the tastiest, the healthiest. I appreciate all the food science and enterprising manufacturers who make cooking easy and fun for me. I am very thankful that I have the choice to be a lazy cook now and again – and a can opener to be lazy with.

* I still hate the word “foodie” - can’t we come up with something that doesn’t make me sound like a rock-and-roll band groupie? I’m not a gourmet, not an epicurean. I’m a pretty good cook and I like to cook and try new things. I guess that makes me a foodie, but I still don’t like it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

There’s Always Room for Jell-O (Pudding Chocolate Chip Cookies)

My husband is very particular about chocolate chip cookies. Make that desserts in general. Make that things in general.

But I digress. It’s cookies I’m talking about, isn’t it?

Chocolate chip cookies have to be soft but chewy. They have to have nuts. Walnuts are the best. And, of course, they have to have lots of chocolate chips. He’ll eat a whole batch himself. Maybe not all at one sitting, but they would only last, hmmmm, maybe a day and a half.

When we were first getting to know each other and each other’s eating habits and quirks, I learned pretty quickly about his love of chocolate chip cookies. So, of course, I made them. I had always trusted the recipe on the back of the NestlĂ©’s bag of chocolate chips. Always worked for me. Since I was a teenager, the recipe worked just fine. And the dough? More than edible. A meal.

But he didn’t swoon over them. They were okay. They were good right out of the oven, but then they got too dry, too quickly. So I tried one of the tricks one of his sisters taught me: Stick a piece of bread in with covered cookies and they’ll stay moister. Yes, that worked. But the cookies themselves were still not to die for.

So I interrogated the bakers whose cookies he admired. His sister Lynn. His sister Pam. His sister Lori’s mother-in-law. And the recipe I tried next came form Lynn. And the secret ingredient? Dry vanilla pudding mix. And -- for the first time -- my husband mumbled through the cookie crumbs on his lips, “Now this is what I’m talking about!” (Or “Iff if fwhat im fwawking afouft!”)

Several days ago, I found a blog post from The Meaning of Pie  about chocolate chip cookies. Kelly said that these were her perfected cookies. So, I’m bookmarking them and making a mental note that I’ll try her version, which she said was an adaptation of a Martha cookie. But first, and as what I thought was a special treat, I’ll make a batch of my tried-and-true recipe for my husband.

“How are the cookies?” I ask.

“They’re good. Not quite doughy enough, though,” says he.

“What!?!? I thought these were the ones you liked!”

“Well, they’re the best you’ve made so far. But they’re not the best.”

Guess I’ll be trying a new recipe. In the meantime, here’s the one I have trusted for umpteen years. One caution, though: the raw dough isn’t quite as good as the original Tollhouse c.c. cookie dough.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
2-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 package (4-serving size) instant vanilla pudding mix
2 eggs
1 12-oz package chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts (not optional)

Mix flour with baking soda. Combine the butter, the sugars, vanilla and pudding mix in large mixer bowl; beat until smooth and creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually add flour mixture; then stir in chips and nuts, if using. (Batter will be stiff.)

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls, about 2 inches apart, onto ungreased baking sheet. Bake ay 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about 7 dozen.

for Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, use Chocolate Flavor instant pudding mix. (Although I've never tried it.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Roasted Squash, Apple and Spinach Salad with Feta and Walnuts

The warm roasted squash just nestled so nicely with the cool baby spinach leaves and the crisp chunks of apple in this fall salad. The feta cheese melts just enough to add a creamy tartness to the bed of greens, all topped with a sweetly sour lemon dressing. And the sprinkling of nuts was the crunch that added one more dimension to this fall salad I made.

It's pretty easy to see I really loved this salad.  I’ve been inspired lately by a new cookbook, “Raising the Salad Bar,” by Catherine Walthers, to really think about, even plan -- a novel concept! – what’s going into a salad, what greens, what combinations of fruit or vegetables, instead of my usual habit of going to the fridge and just randomly gathering what’s there for a lunch. Half a pepper, a cuke, couple mushrooms, a carrot. Pretty boring.  I was beginning to approach salads the same way I often do soups -- just chop this leftover and that and add broth or cream, some extra seasonings and have some kind of soup.

This was no leftover salad. Roasting the squash took some extra time, of course, but it was worth it. I’m still delighted to taste how roasting makes such a difference in vegetables! (Wrestling with the butternut squash to peel it, seed it, and get it cut into salad cubes was not so delightful. I’ll need more practice.)

And making the salad dressing, instead of just grabbing a bottle – my husband still loves and always will love his ranch dressing! – was also worth the tiny bit of extra time it took. Every time I make a dressing I tell myself I should do this more often. Usually, I just resort, a good resort, to sprinkling balsamic vinegar on any of my humble “whatever’s there” salads.

Actually, it was the squash from neighbor Dude and the bumper crop of our own apples that also helped with this salad. But I think I’ll be planning to make this one again. I might even get my husband to try my lemon dressing instead of ranch!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Spinach and Apple Salad
with Toasted Walnuts, Feta Cheese and Creamy Lemon Dressing

4 cups (about two small) cubed butternut squash
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 apple, unpeeled, cut in cubes
1 teaspoon lemon juice
10 ounces baby spinach, cleaned and stems trimmed
¼ cup toasted walnut pieces
¼ cup feta cheese

For Creamy Lemon Dressing
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1. To roast squash: Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Then – using your best knife! – cut the peel away from the squash flesh and cut into ½ inch cubes. Toss the cubes with the olive oil and salt in a bowl, spread on a rimmed cookie sheet and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring the cubes halfway through.

2. Cut the apple into cubes and toss with the 1 teaspoon lemon juice.

3. Make the dressing: Combine all the dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor and combine well.

4. Combine the roasted squash cubes, spinach, apple and walnuts in a bowl and toss with dressing to coat. Sprinkle the feta cheese on top and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Champagne Carrots and Parsnips with Fresh Dill

A bit of the bubbly always makes things special. And as the holidays roll around you just might have a little bit of champagne left over; although exactly how that could happen is beyond me! But if you do have a little leftover, it would come in handy making this very pretty side dish. It might just be worth opening a bottle – then celebrate something!

A little bit of dressing up takes what could be very ordinary and humble carrots and parsnips several notches up. Adding toasted pecans could take it over the top and worthy of your holiday menu.

Although parsnips and carrots look alike, aside from their different colors, they have distinctly different flavors: carrots are sweeter and parsnips, nuttier. I made up this recipe after reading up on one my sister’s (the anchovy giver) favorite ways to make carrots: carrots Vichy, which, according to The Joy of Cooking, is really nothing more than cooking sliced carrots in water, butter and sugar until the water is absorbed. The “Vichy” name alludes to its origins of using authentic spa water from Vichy, France.

The parsnips are a nice addition, not just for the contrast in color. And the fresh dill adds another layer of flavor – and color.

Champagne Carrots and Parsnips with Fresh Dill
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound carrots, peeled, and cut into ¼ inch slices, about 2 ½ cups
1 pound parsnips, peeled, and cut into ¼ inch slices, about 2 ½ cups
½ cup vegetable stock
1 cup champagne
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
¼ cup fresh dill weed, or 2 teaspoons dried dill
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted (optional)

  • Melt butter in large saucepan.
  • Over medium heat, cook the carrot and parsnip slices in the butter until they begin to brown.
  • Add vegetable stock, champagne, honey and salt. Stir to combine.
  • Adjust heat to a simmer, cover and cook on low until vegetables are just tender, not mushy, about 5 minutes.
  • Remove cover and continue cooking until liquid is almost evaporated.
  • Add lemon juice, lemon zest and dill. Stir to combine and serve.
  • Garnish with pecans, if you’d like. To toast the nuts, spread in one layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 400 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly toasted, stirring once or twice.
  • Makes about 8 servings, about 1/2/ cup each

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

From "Mmmmmm. . . . ." Ruth Reichl's Fried Rice

Most people know that Ruth Reichl was the last editor of Gourmet magazine and that she’s written a number of best-selling books, but have you ever read her first book?
“Mmmmmmm: A Feastiary” was published in 1972, and is it ever a treasure.
I was really lucky to get my hands on a real live copy of this out of print book. What a find! Her writing is so honest, sassy, sensual, funny, earthy and sophisticated, all at the same time. The recipes are practical, straightforward, un-fussy, and full of flexibility and flavor.
The first recipe I tried was Fried Rice and it wasn’t really a recipe, of course, more a formula, a how-to, as is most of the book. And the recipe was in a chapter of the book called “Fat Food for Lean Times,” full of ideas for stretching food dollars.
Here’s how she introduces Fried Rice: “Fried rice is one of my standbys. It is easy, delicious, filling and can be made with just about anything you have in the house.” And that’s exactly what I was doing in one of my “gotta use up what’s left in the fridge” modes.
Before the recipe, let me tell you how I got the book: I “borrowed” it from the school library where I was substitute teaching one day. I told the librarian how hard it was to find one of these books – last I checked on Amazon, you could get it for around $80 – and she allowed that I could keep it through the school year. (I didn’t tell her how valuable it was!) I’ve already read it several times, and now I’m really beginning to cook from it. More, soon, in an upcoming installment . . .
Now, without further ado, here’s how Ruth Reichl describes how to make Fried Rice. (One of these days, I’ll figure out how to make printable recipes; in the meantime, please muddle through with me.)

Fried Rice 
From Ruth Reichl’s “Mmmmmm . . . . A Feastiary”
  • Whatever meat or fish or poultry you have leftover in the house, shredded. If you don’t have any meat, it is fine without
  • 2 cups cooked rice
  • 1 T vegetable oil
  • Salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion diced
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • Cabbage, green pepper, carrots, if you have them
  • 1 scallion, sliced, if you have it
  • Tomatoes, if you want
  • 3 t sherry mixed with ½ cup chicken broth or water
  • 4 t soy sauce mixed with ¼ t sugar and a little pepper 
Heat pan until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and a little salt. Heat. Break egg and scramble. Add onion, garlic and other vegetables, except for scallion and tomato, if you’re using them. Add meat. Now add sherry mixture and stir for thirty seconds. Add and stir rice. Cover for 45 seconds. Stir thoroughly. Add soy mixture and, if you’re using, the scallions and tomatoes, and stir again.
Serves 2.