Wednesday, October 29, 2008

No Quiz This Friday

I am spending some time up north with my sister and her kids - with three of the adorable little buggers around, I won't be able to post a Learn To Cook recipe this week.

Have a wonderful Fall weekend!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sort of a PSA for Runners

Sweetie ran the half-marathon at the Silver Comet Trail this weekend. In the spirit of camaraderie and support, he wishes to pass along the following statement:

"Running tights are not as opaque as people think they are."

Friday, October 24, 2008


It's far from a perfect world, but a perfect recipe exists. For years I've proclaimed Cooking Light's Asparagus [or Green Beans] With Balsamic Browned Butter to be their best vegetable recipe ever, and possibly my favorite of any source. In CL's anniversary issue (20 years, I think) they reviewed their very best ever recipes in various food categories, and they agreed with me that they outdid themselves on this one. And it's straightforward enough to be this week's No Fuss/Learn To Cook recipe.

Much to my surprise I'm still finding asparagus at the DeKalb Farmer's Market, and it's not crazy expensive, either. At least not any more crazy expensive than asparagus is in the summer... Fresh green beans work fabulously well with this sauce instead of asparagus, as will zucchini or yellow squash (I like to make a melange of zucchini and yellow squash to add color to the plate).

I've served this asparagus with simply grilled fish, with roasted chicken, with pork tenderloin - all kinds of things, very simply prepared. The key, particularly if you're new to culinary adventures, is to have only one strongly flavored dish per meal. If you're serving herb-crusted rack of lamb, then plain mashed potatoes will work soooo much better as a side than rosemary roasted potatoes. It's the culinary equivalent of over-accessorizing.

According to this very detailed article on asparagus (who knew there was so much to say??), select asparagus that is firm and green, with compact tips. If it's soft, sparse-looking on the flower end, or yellowish, skip it. And since this is roasted, get the thicker spears if you can, since thin will cook very quickly and will need to be watched carefully.

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Browned Butter
40ish asparagus spears, trimmed (about 2 pounds)
Cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or two or three dashes of regular table salt)
3 or 4 twists of black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce (or Tamari, if you need a gluten-free option)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (it has to be balsamic for the sweetness; other vinegars will be too sour and won't work)

1. Trim the asparagus by snapping off the woody end wherever it naturally snaps. If you're crunched for time and can't sweet-talk someone into doing this step for you, just line up the asparagus on your cutting board, ends aligned, and chop about the last 2 inches off.

2. If you need easy cleanup, line a baking sheet with foil and spritz the foil with cooking spray. Skip the foil if you wish.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

4. Arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet so that none of the spears are overlapping. This will help them to cook evenly. Spritz the asparagus with cooking spray.

5. Sprinkle the asparagus with salt and pepper. Bake for 12 minutes (check on it at 10; if it's a little brown, take it out).

6. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook for 3 minutes or until slightly browned, stirring occasionally. You can do this step while the asparagus is in the oven.

7. Remove the skillet from the heat; stir in the soy sauce and the balsamic vinegar.

8. Drizzle over cooked asparagus. My preference is to move the asparagus into the serving dish, then drizzle. Toss the asparagus to make sure all pieces have some of the sauce.

I honestly don't know how well the leftovers keep, because we never have any left.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Spice Road

I was craving, in the worst way, something rich and spicy that didn't take all day to prepare and/or six hours to simmer. In other words, I wanted Chicken Vindaloo.

You know, I hesitate to say it's Indian because I suspect it's an Americanized version that may bear little resemblance to actual vindaloo. Much like from-Italy Italians are horrified by what we consider pizza, I imagine people from India get their hopes up here when they hear "vindaloo" and then wonder what the heck is on their plate.

Regardless of its origins and authenticity, it's a terrific dish. When recipes move out of their country of creation, they adapt to whatever food is locally available and favored in the community (meaning "if this was originally made from a part of the chicken I'm not used to eating, it would never have been made in my kitchen").

Something to keep in mind - the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the higher quality each of those ingredients needs to be. For those of us on a budget, dishes with lots of ingredients have some leeway.

If you cook a lot with, say, coriander, then it's worth it to invest in Penzey's or some other highly-regarded brand. But if you don't keep cardamom on hand and you just want some for this recipe, try going into a Hispanic market or the Hispanic aisle of your local supermarket. You'll find small packets of spices for a dollar or so. You won't take up space in your kitchen or drain your wallet for something you'll rarely use. To be honest, in a dish this highly seasoned an expensive spice isn't likely to stand out and be noticed, anyway.

I like to serve this on top of hot rice or barley, with a salad on the side. The leftovers make a terrific lunch.

Chicken Vindaloo
1/3 cup white wine vinegar (plain white vinegar is fine if that's what you have)
6 large garlic cloves, peeled (they mellow out, I promise)
3 T BSP chopped fresh ginger (yes, fresh ginger root. No substitutes here)
1 1/2 Tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
2 TBSP yellow mustard seeds (eh - it's optional in my book)
2 pounds chicken, cut into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces (this is easier if the chicken is still partially frozen and you're using a good, sharp knife)
4 TBSP olive oil (or regular vegetable oil or canola oil)

2 1/2 cups chopped fresh onions (you can go up or down 1/2 a cup with no ill effect)
1 14 1/2 to 16-ounce can of diced tomato in juice
1 cinnamon stick (they're pricey and, I think, overpowering. I'd use less than 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Note: If you want to do serve this on a weeknight, make the marinade and cut up the onions the night before. Store them in the refrigerator, and when you get home from work you've just got the cooking to do, which is hands-off.

Combine the vinegar, garlic cloves, ginger, curry powder, cumin, cardamom, cloves, and red pepper in a blender or mini food processor. Add the mustard seeds and blend until smooth. [At this point, you can refrigerate the marinade]

Transfer the spice mixture to a large bowl. Add the chicken, 2 Tablespoons of oil, and toss to coat.

Heat the remaining oil in a heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden (about 5 minutes). Add the chicken mixture, stir, and cook for 3 - 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes WITH their juice, the cinnamon (stick or dash of ground cinnamon), and bring to a toil.

Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Season with salt & pepper (optional) and mix in the remaining one Tablespoon of mustard seeds (also optional). Simmer uncovered until the sauce is slightly thickened. If you used a cinnamon stick, remove it and throw it away. If you're using cilantro, stir it in just before serving.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Just In Time To Practice for Thanksgiving!

For real. You can serve these alongside a turkey and people will love them.

Speaking of which, if you're cooking for Thanksgiving and you've never in your life cooked for Thanksgiving, get in a practice turkey or at least a turkey breast before the Big Day. Should we cover that in the next few weeks?

Here's a dirty little secret of Thanksgiving dessert - a can of plain pumpkin and a saucepan of painstakingly cooked-down fresh pumpkin look and taste EXACTLY the same. The difference is that cooking down fresh pumpkin takes a good 3 hours longer. If using the fresh pumpkin fulfills a spiritual need within you, have at it. I'll nap and meet up with you later with my can opener.

Anyway, todays Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe is Mustard-Roasted Potatoes! A friend brought amazing roasted potatoes to a dinner for the homeless. Heartless heathen that I am, they smelled so good that I discreetly helped a teensy piece of potato off the tray and had a taste. Phenomenal. And it sent me on a quest to find a better roasted potato recipe than the one I had, and I landed on this one. Since it is a holiday recipe, it's written to serve ten. In other words, double the quantities (but NOT the cooking time) for a crowd.

Mustard-Roasted Potatoes
Serves 5
Nonstick cooking spray
1/4 cup whole grain Dijon mustard (plain will work, but whole grain is better)
1 Tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon butter, melted (hint on this below)
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced (one for a mild flavor, two for a more assertive garlic flavor. If you're not an experienced cook, do one and know that, next time, you can add more if you wish)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel - I don't measure this, really. I zest half a lemon and figure it's fine.
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds tiny unpeeled potatoes, cut in half

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. If you don't have/don't want to use a microwave to melt the butter, just put 1 tablespoon butter in a large non-plastic bowl. Set the bowl on the stovetop; the heat of the oven will melt the butter. And if you don't use a bowl, it'll melt all over the stovetop.

2. Spray a large, rimmed cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

3. In the bowl where you melted the butter (aren't you energy conscious??), add the mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, lemon peel, and salt. Use a fork or spoon to stir it briskly and combine everything.

4. Add the potatoes to the bowl, and give them a few stirs. Your goal is to have every side of every potato have some contact with the seasoning. Try scooping from the bottom, stirring, and scooping again - then stir in the other direction.

5. Place the potatoes - but NOT the extra seasoning liquid - on the baking sheet, and spread them out so that none of the potatoes are touching. This will let them crisp up.

6. Put them in the oven and let them cook for 20 minutes.

7. After 20 minutes take them out, turn the cookie sheet around so that the left side is now on the right and vice-versa. Put them back in the oven for another 25 minutes. Check them at 22 minutes - if they're crispy outside and tender inside, they're done.

I once served these with a roasted chicken and the Creamed Spinach Au Gratin from last week - it was a warm, tasty, terrific meal.

Happy cooking!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Atkins Was Too Annoying, Anyway

Aren't you glad the Atkins Diet craze is over? I got so tired of all those people shaking in terror at the sight of a cracker, or santimoniously pointing to my plate at a cocktail party and ticking off "good (green pepper), good (cheese), bad (carrot)." What could possibly be bad about a carrot stick???

That wasn't the weirdest moment of that years-ago party, though. I met a guy whose name sounded soooo familiar - and, yes, mutual friends had been trying to set us up. The tacky guest criticizing my crudites? Set-up guy's boyfriend. "Ummmm, my friends don't know I'm gay," he said. "No shit," said I. Happy New Year!

Where was I on the cooking thing? Right....

Moderation in all things. And if you're going to indulge, indulge on something that's worth it. It's a sad fact in life that crappy candy does not necessarily have fewer calories than really good candy.

And let's defend our humble potato friend, shall we? They're the inspiration for an awesome children's toy (of the Mr. Head variety). They are high in potassium and, as long as you leave the well-scrubbed skins on, high in fiber. They're way inexpensive and, unlike fresh corn or good fresh green beans, always available.

Not only are we not in a potato famine, we are awash in different varieties. And they ARE different, and using the right kind of potato can help ensure excellent results.

Russet potatoes - these are the corky-looking, kinda dirty-looking longish potatoes. They don't have as much water as other potatoes, so when baked they get light and fluffy and soak up butter or sour cream really well. These are also called Idaho potatoes (long story).

Red potatoes - no surprise what these look like. These are usually smaller, rounder, and smoother-looking - just overall cuter - than russet potatoes. If you're making mashed potatoes or boiled potatoes, these are the ones to use.

Lastly, we have our great compromise potato - the Yukon Gold. This is smooth in appearance like one of our spunky red potatoes, and may be similarly shaped but is larger. The skin is yellow/brown. They are known for their buttery taste, and who doesn't love that? They're my go-to for mashed potatoes.

So it should be obvious by now that we're not making rutabaga or celeriac this week. Everybody needs a good recipe for Roasted Potatoes, especially with cooler weather coming, and these are terrific. They accompany any meat dish beautifully.

You'll need:
Whole grain Dijon mustard (or regular Dijon if you don't have whole grain)
olive oil
lemon juice and lemon peel - in other words, one lemon
fresh garlic
1 1/2 pounds tiny red-skinned or tiny white-skinned potatoes. These may be called "creamer potatoes" or "fingerling potatoes" - either is fine.

Friday, October 10, 2008


This one is so easy we're just going to do the shopping list & the recipe on the same day. Really, it has nothing to do with jumping for glee at getting rid of our 18-year-old refrigerator this weekend and replacing it with a Craig's List beauty and setting up the new fridge just the way I - I mean "we" - like it.

But since you're probably wondering... it's white (old one was nasty beige), has the freezer on the bottom with a shelf & racks in the door, and according to Sweetie there's some kind of a wine holder in the fridge that I'll be able to see when we take it off the dolly.

And sincere thanks to our neighbor, Dad of The World's Best-Behaved Dog, who helped get it into the house!

So are you throwing the last few burgers on the grill as Fall approaches? Sauteeing some chicken or tossing some ham on the dinner plate? Just plain having sandwiches for dinner?

Cumin Carrot Fries are super-easy and a nice change from regular french fries. Unlike frozen french fries, you know exactly what's in these. And if you have kids who don't like spicy foods, just leave the spices off of some of them and voila - kidfriendly and parentfriendly on different sides of the same cookie sheet. Beat that.

You'll need:
1 1/2 pounds of peeled carrots, cut into 3-inch sticks. No, they don't have to be exactly 3 inches and yes, a bag of baby carrots will work just fine - just split the larger carrots in half lengthwise

2 Tablespoons olive oil - vegetable oil or canola oil will work just fine instead of olive
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon regular table salt

If everyone is having spiced carrots, then measure the oil, cumin, and salt into a ziploc bag. Seal and shake to combine. Add the carrots and seal & shake again.

Turn the carrots onto a baking sheet (I like to line mine with aluminum foil for easier cleanup). Roast - which means to cook uncovered - in a 400 degree oven. They will cook for a total of 30 minutes; be sure to take them out briefly at 15 minutes to turn each carrot over. Otherwise they'll burn on one side.

If some of your crew is having spicy carrots and some plain, then add 1 TBSP olive oil, a little salt & pepper, and half the carrots to a Ziploc. Seal and shake and turn out onto one side of the cookie sheet. Using the same bag, add 1 TBSP olive oil, a little salt & pepper, and HALF a teaspoon of cumin. Seal and shake, then add the rest of the carrots and seal and shake.

Add those carrots to the other side of the cookie sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for a total of 30 minutes, flipping each carrot at 15 minutes. A pair of tongs makes this a breeze, but a fork works well, too.

Happy cooking!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

But Do They Leave The House?

Apparently "French Women Don't Get Fat" for a number of reasons. They eat freshly prepared, non-processed food. They insist on high quality. They exercise portion control. They walk a lot.

And according to the comments in this British newspaper - the British possibly not an unbiased source of information about the French - they also smoke a lot to stay slim.

I've read several bloggish reports of American women who gave the FWDGF approach a serious and enthusiastic go. Croissants, wine, dark chocolate, and creamy soups drum up lots of enthusiasm. And they loved it.

One of the things routinely commented upon was lingering over meals. For hours and hours, as a part of the daily routine. And it did sound languid and luxurious and all that... rather vacation-y.

My most recent Saturday morning - before 10am - included taking the dogs out for their unleashed frolic at the local tennis courts, loading up the car with all the recyclables, doing a few loads of laundry, vacuuming the downstairs and probably scrambling an egg with chopped vegetables. That was before getting the dry cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.

I can not imagine the weekend when I would whip up a batch of beaten biscuits, only eat one of them - if they were up to snuff - and gaze thoughtfully at two perfect strawberries. For an HOUR.

I wasn't there and she didn't provide a schedule, but I imagine my sister spent last Saturday getting her 6- and 4-year-olds to various soccer games and birthday parties and keeping the toddler from destroying the house, and certainly at some point they ate some cereal and bananas or something.

Just a guess, but I'm pretty sure it's a treat for her to remain seated for five consecutive minutes at mealtime, let alone ponder a glass of milk and wonder if the cow that provided it led a charmed existence.

There's a lot to be said for cooking your own food, watching portions, and savoring judicious treats. Sweetie and I have always believed that eating together - with the TV off - is an important part of our day.

Even with as much as I love to cook, I'm not willing to ascribe food that much of my day. I'm just not. A square of dark chocolate is great. A shopping trip with an longtime friend or watching Cutie sing with her church choir or digging up the flower beds is better.

Perhaps it's semantics or lower standards or rationalization. When we can sit down together to a homemade meal, fantastic. It's truly a delight to carve (well, watch him carve) an herb-roasted chicken and spoon up some homemade mashed potatoes and talk about our day and our plans and so on. But if Sweetie is volunteering one night and I'm working out and I throw together a smoothie for dinner, well, so be it.

Vive la difference.

Can Weight Watchers Get A Pulitzer For This?

Or a James Beard award or something?

I adore Thai food. I love the bright notes of lime and the creamy coconut milk and I'm good friends with curry paste. But sometimes the calories are prohibitive.

Weight Watchers magazine published this stroke of genius recently and we LOVED it. Most of the Thai food I've attempted before has been a lot flatter in taste than what we'd get at a restaurant; just not as full-bodied. That's not the case here, and it really tastes like Thai food that I went out and spent $$$ on... but it's not.

This is terrific. The only reason this isn't a Learn To Cook recipe is because some of the ingredients aren't part of the average cook's pantry. They are worth the purchase, though.

Thai-Style Chicken Breasts With Spinach

Serves 4 (I used one big chicken breast & cut it in half. We used the rest of the sauce on some leftover plain grilled chicken to have for lunch tomorrow)

1 cup light (reduced-fat) coconut milk
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 TBSP minced peeled fresh ginger
1 TBSP paprika (didn't make sense to me at first, but gives the sauce a great color)
1 TBSP reduced-sodium soy sauce, or Tamari if you need a gluten-free option
1 TBSP Asian fish sauce (or 2 more TBSP soy sauce if you don't keep fish sauce handy; fish sauce is better, though)
1 tsp grated lime zest (more intense than lime juice, but use 2 tsp juice if that's what you have)
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
4 (1/4-pound) skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves
1 (6-ounce) bag washed baby spinach leaves - or grab 3 or 4 handfuls out of whatever bag of spinach you have
3 TBSP chopped fresh basil or cilantro (I used basil since I have a plant on the deck)
1 tsp Asian (dark) sesame oil
1 TBSP packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt (are they kidding?? This is plenty salty without it)
2 cups hot cooked white rice (I used brown steam-in-the-bag rice)
4 tsp unsweetened shredded coconut (I'd use it if I had it around, but I wasn't going to buy it to use such a small amount. It works just fine without.)

1. In a large skillet, bring the coconut milk, garlic, ginger, paprika, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime zest, and crushed red pepper to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended and the mixture thickens slightly, about 8 minutes. [Note: if you need to do your prep work beforehand, you can measure and combine all the sauce ingredients and leave them in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator. If you're busy during the day, it helps to do them mix & measure the night before]

2. Add the chicken; reduce the heat and simmer, covered, just until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach, basil, sesame oil, brown sugar, and (if you're using) salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes longer.

3. Serve with the rice and sprinkle with the shredded coconut.

I served baby carrots on the side 'cause I'm classy like that. Steamed broccoli would also work really well with this.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nostinkycheese Hotline, How May I Help You?

Let's follow up on two earlier posts:

1. The Pumpkin Cake was a hit! It sold out early and raised $16 for charity. I'm so honored.

Sweetie asked if it was risky to bring a non-chocolate item to a bake sale. It's a gamble; on the one hand, some amount of chocolate is always going to sell really well. However, something seasonal (lemon poundcake in the summer, gingerbread in December, etc.) is always going to have a market and will usually provide a little diversity on the bakesale table against all the chocolate. The Pumpkin Cake was a lovely taste of fall just as the weather is starting to get crisp.

Next time, though, I'm going to bring in a naked cake and ice it when I get there. Why didn't I learn that lesson from a pro, who did my wedding cake that way?

2. Pot roast is far more popular than I ever imagined. I'm glad the recipe has made it into so many kitchens.

To answer a question I've been asked twice so far - "boneless beef chuck pot roast" is not the ony cut that can be used.

What's a little confusing is that pot roast is not actually roasted - it's braised, meaning it's cooked in a simmering liquid. This technique is often used for tough meats, as it tenderizes them very well. And Pot Braise sounds silly and unappetizing in a way that Pot Roast doesn't. So if you're looking in your handy Better Homes & Gardens cookbook or on the "Beef, It's What's For Dinner" website, you would need to look for cuts of beef that respond well to braising, not roasting.

Can you use a very pricey cut of beef for a pot roast? There are some cuts that would work, but holy hell you'd pay literally 600% more than you had to and the finished product would not be 600% better. 'Nuff said.

Cuts for pot roast usually comes from the "chuck" - the shoulder area of the cow. Meats from this area tend to be fairly tough (and therefore inexpensive).

Chuck cuts for pot roast include:
* Boneless chuck roast (my go-to)
* Boneless top blade steak (also known as "flat iron")
* Boneles chuck pot roast
* Boneless arm pot roast
* Shoulder roast
* 7-bone pot roast (I've never used it and, frankly, from the diagram it looks like the meat is a pain to get to with all the bones)

Although also from the chuck, DO NOT ue country-style ribs or short ribs. They're totally not what you're going for in a pot roast.

Also try some of the "round" cuts, from the area of cow we'll politely call the rump. Some, but not all, cuts from the round braise well and make good pot roasts.

Round cuts for pot roasts include:
* Bottom round or bottom round roast (this cooks nicely, I've used it before)
* Boneless rump roast or Boneless round rump roast (it cooks well, but it has a thick layer of fat on the outside that needs to be cut off. You'll need to go up a smidge on the weight when you buy it since you'll throw some of it away)

Happy cooking - and keep asking questions!

Good Morning, Campers!

WOW, what a gorgeous day. I'm so looking forward to heading to the Greek Festival this afternoon - what's better than Greek potatoes???

If you don't have access to that Mediterranean delicacy this afternoon, you've got an excellent backup in Creamed Spinach Gratin, this week's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe.

The recipe calls for fresh, and that's a great, close-to-your-food way to go. Personally, I prefer using frozen spinach just because it's less work. With the fresh spinach you have to swish it in water to make sure all the grit is out, and go through that process of foot-tall piles of spinach leaves cooking down into a manageable amount of greens before wringing out the water. Frozen spinach still requires you to wring out the water, but other than that you just let it thaw and nothing is less work than that.

Creamed Spinach Au Gratin
Cooking Light, November/December 1997
1 (10-ounce) bag fresh spinach, or one box frozen chopped spinach
Cooking spray
2/3 cup chopped onion (optional)
1/4 cup tub-style light cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt & pepper
1 cup sliced tomato
1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs (or crushed corn flakes, for a gluten-free option)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

IF YOU'RE USING FRESH SPINACH - Remove the large stems from the spinach and throw them away. Tear spinach leaves into 1-inch pieces, place in a sieve/colander, and rinse the spinach under cold water.

Place a large Dutch oven (big saucepan), coated with cooking spray, over medium heat until it's hot. Add onion if you're using and saute 3 minutes. Stir a few times during those 3 minutes.

Add the spinach. Cover and cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts.

IF YOU'RE USING FROZEN SPINACH - allow the spinach to thaw. Squeeze the water out with your hands.

Place a large Dutch oven (big saucepan), coated with cooking spray, over medium heat until it's hot. Add onion if you're using and saute 3 minutes. Stir a few times during those 3 minutes.

Add the spinach.

Add the cream cheese, oregano, salt (just a pinch) and pepper (a few dashes or twists). Uncover and cook an additional minute or two until the cream cheese melts.

Get a rubber or silicone spatula and scoop the spinach mixture into a one-quart (small - 8x8 baking dish is too big) gratin dish or shallow casserole coated with cooking spray.

Arrange tomato slices, or halved grape or cherry tomatoes, in a single layer on top of the spinach, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs (if using) and Parmesan cheese.

Having spooned the spinach mixture into the gratin dish, sprinkle with the 2 Tablespoons of Parmesan.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 inutes or until golden brown.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Of course you like spinach!

The first time my parents visited me in my own, big-girl apartment I noticed my mother eyeing the cabinets. Go ahead and look, I told her, you probably already know what you won't find. That's right - no beets, no lima beans, no sauerkraut, no other intruments of torture from my youth.

But some of the foods I didn't like as a child, like spinach and sweet potatoes and green beans, just needed to be prepared differently for me to like them. I was in my twenties before I discovered that cooked spinach wasn't awful - at least not in Houston's spinach/artichoke dip. In fact, it's fabulous. [That is one of the few vegetables my Mom just can't stomach, so I never had it until after college.]

Since we've done a workweek's worth of entrees in the Learn To Cook/No-Fuss series, we're moving on to side dishes. Once you've mastered a few of these, you can toss out a confident "Can I bring a vegetable?" the next time you're invited to a dinner party. You can dazzle your in-laws or your co-workers - or whoever it behooves you to dazzle - with your simple, tasty side dishes. Or just plain put a dinner on the table that is the work of your own two hands transforming everyday foods into something terrific.

This week we're making Creamed-Spinach Gratin - the low-fat version. This is SO good with roasted chicken. I've been known to use the leftovers as a bread spread for a turkey sandwich, or stirred into hot rice for a variation on the side dish. This goes very well with meatloaf, too.

You'll need:

A 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach OR a box of frozen, chopped spinach (I use the frozen, but if you're pursuing a whole foods/granola/earthy vibe, rock on with the fresh spinach)
Tub-style light cream cheese. Yes, tub style. It matters.
Dried oregano - if you're buying it just for this recipe, you can go to the Hispanic section of the supermarket and get a small packet for less than a dollar - way less than the $4 or so if you get McCormick's
Fresh Parmesan cheese - cheaper if you buy a block then buy it shredded, but you're going to melt it in a seasoned dish so the taste difference between block and pre-shredded is minimal. DO NOT use that white sawdust in the green cardboard canister. The texture will be gritty, sandy, and all-around wrong.

The recipe calls for fresh tomato - it's optional and, if you choose to add it, grape or cherry tomatoes are probably a better bet at this time of year.

Breadcrumbs are also called for in the recipe, but I don't think it adds anything other than carbs. If you love a breadcrumb topping, go for it and I'll include the how-to in the recipe.

And to wrap up Iron Chef Week, when I got home from the gym yesterday Sweetie pretended to suddenly come up with the idea of burgers for dinner (he had one pre-made in the fridge, seaoned and everything). I had some of my confetti turkey burgers (recipe in an earlier month) in the freezer. We were out of frozen hamburger buns, so we had them au naturel. I sauteed some yellow squash with lemon & pepper for the vegetable.

Do I have enough gas to drive to a friend's house and not enough to drive to the supermarket? Apparently so. I'm a sucker for good food and good friends and a cute baby to cuddle, and tonight's invitation had all 3 (plus wine!). We grabbed Fat Matt's barbecue for the group and had a fun, laidback, detox-at-the-end-of-the-week evening. What greater show of friendship is there than for our host to say "I know we're all coming for the company, so let's just order out and be sure to do it together"?? Fabulous idea, good times.

High Praise

It's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss Saturday, and we're going to take a few steps backwards. These recipes are intended to help cooks of any proficiency get a quick meal on the table AND to help folks who want to become more familiar with that mysterious room known as "where the icemaker is."

If you don't yet have a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook -

I can't recommend highly enough that you get one. Get it used if you wish. I have the one in the binder because a binder lies open flat, whereas a paperback book snaps itself shut the minute your hands are too messy to turn pages and keeps all the important info in the fold of the spine where you can't really see it. Mine is probably ten years old and has the splatters on page 114 (Banana Bread) and elsewhere to prove it. By the way, that's a sign of a well-used and well-loved cookbook - food splatters.

There isn't another book in my collection that's as often-referenced as this one. Need to know how to cook a particular cut of beef? It's in there. Want to know if asparagus can be frozen? It's in the small-but-helpful "Canning & Freezing" section. What on earth is a "3-quart baking dish" in real-people inch measurements? They have your answer (a 13x9x2" pan - like for a sheet cake).

Groundbreaking? Not really. I bought mine when I wanted to make an apple pie. Not a Carmelized Apple Pie With Vanilla Glaze, not a Calvados-Sauced Apple Pie With Cornmeal Crust and Cinnamon Cream like I had in my other cookbooks, but a plain, Grandma-would've-made-it apple pie. It's got some cool stuff in there, but mostly it's a godsend for the basics.

Speaking of Grandma Would've Made It... My father's mother is famous for her lemon meringue pie. Since my other grandmother passed away before I got her recipes, I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. I made my own lemon meringue pie one evening. Not just "from scratch", but old-school "from scratch" - coddled egg yolks into a custard, zested fresh lemon, offered thanks to Saint Kitchen Aid while I had the egg whites & sugar becoming meringue in the stand mixer.

Sweetie took pictures of the finished, white, billowy product. We sampled the pie and I called my grandmother. "I need your recipe," I said. "This is just one I found and I wanted to see if I could make it; it's good, but the texture is a little off and the taste is a little too sharp/lemony. It's not as silky as yours."

There was a confused silence on the other end of the phone. Then, "You mean they don't make that lemon pudding mix anymore?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It's for CHARITY

"But you're such a GOOD BAKER. And it's for a GOOD CAUSE."

That's how you get sucked into providing a snacky-treat for a bake sale. Besides being vain enough to fall for that. Heaven help me, I have NO idea how I'm going to get a frosted two-layer pumpkin cake safely out of the house, let alone take the train to work without a cakewreck (like what I did there?).

It's Day 3 of the Iron Chef Challenge - no gas, so no grocery store trips. In this household there are four main ways of using up vegetables when there's too much to throw away but not enough to really be a side dish - pizza, stirfry, pasta, or quiche. I went the pasta route tonight and sauteed some yellow squash, mushrooms, spinach, and Italian chicken sausage in a skillet with some fresh basil. I put the whole thing on top of whole wheat fusilli and grated a little Parmesan on top. Done.

Really, truly, I meant to go to the gym this evening. I'm a smidge behind in my workouts this week... and baking a cake really didn't help matters. At least it was a good cake, based on the sliver-samples from planing one of the layers!

Alas, no recipe for frosting. I made it up. I took one package of Neufachtel (the low-fat cream cheese), one or two tablespoons of butter, and some vanilla extract and vigorously took a hand mixer to it. I'd stir in some powdered sugar with a spoon (so the mixer didn't send it flying everywhere before it was incorporated), beat it again, fold in more sugar, etc. until it finally looked like frosting. When it seemed too heavy I added a little milk. Hopefully it still tastes like frosting tomorrow!

Here's the Pumpkin Cake recipe, perfect for an autumn bake sale - if you find a great cream cheese frosting recipe, by all means let me know.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder (really)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (I used the regular nutmeg in my pantry)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar (I accidentally finished up the last 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar before realizing my mistake, so mine is a mix of 1 cup light and 1/4 cup dark brown sugar. Not a big deal.)
4 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil (I used 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup Lighter Bake fruit puree)
One 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup whole milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, nutmeg, and cloves.

2. In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar and eggs at medium-high speed until fluffy, 3 minutes. Beat in the oil, then beat in the pumpkin puree. Alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk in 3 batches, beating well between additions.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick (or piece of spaghetti!) inerted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to loosen the cakes, then invert them onto a wire rack to cool completely.

4. Frost when cool. Charge a lot for cake slices because it's for CHARITY.