Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thank You, Glorious Hot Oven!

Toward the end of September, a gas leak was discovered at our apartment complex. The city turned off the gas while they inspected the problem, and we were left without heat or hot water. After one long week of taking very quick, very cold showers and boiling big pots of water on the stove for baths (the only time I've ever appreciated having an electric range), we finally got our hot water back. But, two and a half months after the big shut-off, the gas line to our furnace is still out of commission. On this wintry day in December, we are relying on one small space heater to keep our entire house warm (we have blown some fuses, yes we have!). And when I say the space heater is keeping the house warm, I use the word "warm" very loosely. It's pretty chilly.

So I'd like to issue a big, hearty thank you to my oven  for churning out lots of wonderful supplementary heat (along with some pretty decent food) over the past few months. Any meal that emerges from a hot oven is a treat at this time of year, but I've devoted myself to the oven with a special intensity lately. Dishes that require long hours of slow roasting or braising create the opportunity for lots of luscious, wonderful heat to leak out of the oven and into the house. These dishes also tend to be meltingly tender with lots of deep caramelized flavor. Both outcomes are most welcome. I've dusted off old some old recipes from winters past and also discovered some good new recipes in my quest to make the oven serve double duty both as both a food-cooker and a house-heater. Some recent oven-as-furnace favorites include pot roast with root vegetables (3.5 hours oven time), a french onion soup that uses oven-braised caramelized onions (2.5 hours oven time), carnitas with corn tortillas and green sauce (4 hours oven time), and roast chicken with roasted smashed red potatoes (1.5 hours oven time). Recipes to follow. Stay tuned. Thanks again, oven!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whole Wheat Banana Bread

This banana bread recipe uses whole-wheat flour, which gives the bread a hearty, nutty flavor and makes it seem just a little bit healthy (try not to pay attention to the butter or sugar in the recipe, or the "healthy" illusion will be ruined!). Note that this banana bread is easy to overbake. Pull it out of the oven the very minute it's done for a moist, dense, loaf. And, for the best banana flavor, use very ripe bananas.

Whole Wheat Banana Bread
Adapted from New York Cookbook, edited by Molly O'Neill, recipe contributed by Bette Duke. Makes one loaf.
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose white flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2  bananas, mashed (about 1 cup)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5" loaf pan. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, sour cream, and vanilla and mix until very well-blended. In a separate bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and baking soda. Add half the flour mixture to the batter, then the mashed bananas, then the other half of the flour mixture, stirring well to incorporate each addition. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake 45 minutes to an hour. Begin checking the bread with a cake tester or knife as soon as you think it might be done. The moment you find that the tester comes out clean, remove the bread from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack. If in doubt, it's better to underbake than to overbake. Sometimes the center doesn't rise quite as much as you think it should, but you'll enjoy this bread much more if it's a little bit doughy than a little bit dry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip

The summer before my senior year in high school, I worked as a file clerk in the accounting department at my dad's company. The job was terribly boring, but the experience provided me with a really nice recipe for spinach and artichoke dip. Our payroll clerk brought a big bowl of this spinach and artichoke dip to every office party and it's delicious. This particular recipe is different than most because it doesn't have any mayonnaise or sour cream in it. Instead of being slightly tangy, the flavor is soft and mild. The dip is cheesy and creamy and very good.

The recipe is simple. You stir together cooked spinach, chopped artichoke hearts, cream cheese, and Parmesan cheese and heat it gently until everything melts together. The cream cheese makes the dip soft and smooth, and the Parmesan gives it a nice sharp, salty flavor. Tortilla chips, wheat crackers, or thin baguette slices all make nice accompaniments. 

Spinach and Artichoke Dip
Adapted from a recipe shared by Robin Roitz. Makes about 2 cups.
    • 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed (fresh spinach is good here, but frozen works just as well)
    • 1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts in water (again, fresh artichokes are a fine choice, but canned artichoke hearts are tasty and  easy)
    • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese
    • 1 cup (3-4 ounces) grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
Begin by steaming the spinach over low heat in a covered saucepan with a little bit of water until the spinach is soft, about 5 minutes. Drain the water from the pan and press a spoon against the spinach to squeeze out any additional water. Give the artichoke hearts a rough chop and add them to the saucepan with the spinach. Mix in the cream cheese and Parmesan cheese and stir over low heat until all of the cheese is melted and fully incorporated. You can stop there and get right to the eating, or you can spoon the dip into a crock or a small, shallow casserole dish and bake it in a hot oven until it's bubbling. The dip is best served warm, but you can also serve it at room temperature if you thin it with a little bit of milk or water. A clove or two of minced garlic is a nice addition if you want a little kick.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Colorado Cherry Bars

I've made batch after batch of cherry bars this summer, and they always seem to hit just the right note. Their rich fruit flavor and crumbly, buttery crust make them a pleasure to eat. And, their tidy, portable form makes them perfect for picnics. No fork or spoon required.

I grew up in Colorado, and before I moved away I discovered this cherry bar recipe in a Junior League of Denver cookbook. As far as I can tell, nothing about these bars has anything to do with Colorado, but I like the "Colorado" in the original recipe name because it makes me think of home. Today (this very day!), my brother is moving back to Colorado, and I've decided to mail him some cherry bars as part of a housewarming care package.

These bars are great because they take only about 5 minutes to put together (plus another 30 minutes to bake), and with the exception of the cherry preserves, the ingredients are all pantry or refrigerator staples. So, if you're careful to always keep a jar of good cherry preserves on hand, you can throw together a batch of these sweet, tasty treats at a moment's notice.

The starting point for the recipe is a crumb mixture made of oats, flour, and brown sugar, mixed with lots of melted butter. Some of this mixture gets pressed into the pan to form a bottom crust and the remainder is used as a crumb topping. Cherry preserves form the middle layer. The bars go into the oven until the top is lightly browned and the cherries are bubbling through to the surface.

The key to making this recipe outstanding instead of just pretty good is using high-quality cherry preserves that are slightly tart and filled with lots of whole fruit. I like Bonne Maman preserves, which seem to be available at most grocery stores. Cherries are the best fruit for this recipe because of the way their tartness counterbalances the very sweet crust, but other fruits work well too. Blueberry, peach, or strawberry preserves all produce nice results if you stir in a just a little bit of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar for added zing. 

Colorado Cherry Bars
Adapted from Colorado Colore: A Palate of Tastes by the Junior League of Denver. Makes 16 bars.
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats (old-fashioned, not quick-cooking)
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 (13 ounce) jar of cherry preserves 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan and set it aside to cool slightly. 

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the oats and brown sugar and stir to mix. Pour the melted butter into the mixture and stir first with a spoon and then with your hands until the mixture is moist and crumbly.

Press 2/3 of the crumb mixture into a greased 8x8-inch pan. Spread the preserves over the surface of the crust, leaving a 1/4" border around the edge of the pan (to prevent the preserves from bubbling out to the edges, where they will burn and stick). Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the crumb mixture over the top. Squeeze the crumbs together as you take them from the bowl to give the topping a texture like small pebbles. Try to cover the fruit entirely with the crumb mixture, if possible.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until the bars are brown and bubbly. Cool completely, then cut into squares.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Corn with Green Onions and Quinoa

Fresh corn is sweet, delicious summer fare. It's good on the cob, but for something different, try a quick sauté with green onions. And, for something more substantial, mix in some tasty, high-protein quinoa. This dish is good by itself, and it's also great with grilled chicken, steak, barbecue ribs, grilled veggies--basically any of the usual suspects at a summer barbecue.

Start by cutting the corn from the cob. Get out a baking dish (something you might make brownies in), stand each ear of corn on its tip in the middle of the dish, and cut along the cob from top to bottom with a sharp knife. The kernels drop into the dish, and the sides of the dish should be high enough to prevent the corn from bouncing out onto the counter but not so high that they interfere with the action of the knife. Once the kernels are free from the cob, mix in some sliced green onions and sauté over high heat in a little olive oil until the corn is hot and lightly charred, a few minutes. Toss with cooked quinoa and season with salt and pepper for a quick, lovely summer dish. 

I've provided specific quantities below, but you can use as much or as little of any of the ingredients as you like. You need some corn, some green onions, some butter and olive oil for the pan, and some cooked quinoa. The only ingredients that really need to be measured are the quinoa and stock. You can use any amount of quinoa, but the ratio of quinoa to liquid should be one to two, by volume.

Corn with Green Onions and Quinoa
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Serves 2-4 as a main dish or 4-6 as a side dish.
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 4 ears of corn, shucked, with kernels sliced from the cob
  • 1 bunch of scallions, sliced, including the white and green parts (reserve some of the greens for garnish)
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper
Pour the stock into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Measure the quinoa into a sieve and give it a brief rinse under cold water (Quinoa has a natural dusting of a bitter substance on the outside of each grain to discourage critters from eating the seeds. Some quinoa does not require rinsing, but better safe than sorry if you're not sure.) Add the quinoa to the boiling stock, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes, until most of the water is absorbed and the grains are soft and slightly chewy.

Meanwhile, heat the butter and olive oil over high heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the corn and green onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are bright green and the corn is slightly charred, about 3 minutes. The corn will be somewhat crunchy. If you prefer softer corn, cook over medium heat for a longer time. 

When the quinoa is ready, stir it into the skillet with the corn and green onions. Scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Stir in lots of salt and freshly ground pepper, and garnish with the reserved sliced green onions. Enjoy hot or at room temperature.

What is quinoa? Read this description...

"Quinoa: A Sacred, Super Crop" by Nicole Spiridakis on 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Brown Sugar Cookies

I was traveling to New York for a wedding last week and  I made the mistake of showing up at the airport with no personal identification whatsoever. For some inexplicable reason, when my ride showed up to take me to the airport, I grabbed my suitcase and purse and left my wallet behind.  Embarrassing? Um, yes. Lucky for me, it turns out that it is possible to get through security and onto the plane without identification. Also lucky for me, my next door neighbor was kind enough to offer to use her spare key to retrieve my wallet and then mail it to me so that I'd have it for the return trip. To say thank you, I made her some brown sugar cookies. I hope she will taste the pure gratitude that was baked into this particular batch.

In most cookies, the flavors of butter and sugar serve as a backdrop for more exciting ingredients like chocolate chips, nuts, or dried fruit. In typical sugar cookies, butter and sugar are the stars of the show. It's true that butter and sugar can be pretty exciting all on their own, and I love sugar cookies for their pale, plain, buttery sweetness. These brown sugar cookies are like typical sugar cookies, but the sugar and butter are replaced with brown(!) sugar and brown(!) butter.  The result is a sugar cookie with deep brown color and warm toffee flavor. These cookies have crisp exteriors and soft, chewy insides. Mmm.

Brown Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated. Makes 2 dozen cookies.
  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups packed dark brown sugar (this should be fresh and moist)
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Start by browning the butter. Melt 10 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, then continue to cook until the milk solids in the butter turn a dark golden brown color. Be careful not to let the butter burn. Swirl the pan as the butter cooks. Use a light-colored so that you can see the color of the butter. Transfer the brown butter to a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to the bowl and allow the fresh butter to melt together with the brown butter. (This step adds some fresh butter flavor to the cookies and helps the hot butter to cool more quickly). Set the butter aside for 15 minutes. Note: if you're going to use an electric mixer, you should put the butter in the bowl of the mixer. However, you can definitely make this recipe without a mixer, if you don't have one handy.

While the butter is cooling, adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, mix the granulated sugar and 1/4 cup packed brown sugar. Rub the mixture between your fingers until it is well-combined. This mixture will be used to coat the cookies before they go in the oven. Set the mixture aside for now.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set the mixture aside.

Take the bowl with the melted butter in it and add the remaining 1 3/4 cups brown sugar and the salt. Stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. Stir in the egg, yolk, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and mix until the dough is well-combined.

Form the dough into 24 balls, each about an inch and a half in diameter. Roll the dough balls in the reserved sugar mixture and place them on the prepared cookie sheets with about 2 inches between each cookie. The cookies need about 12-14 minutes in the oven. It's hard to tell when the they're done because the dough is dark, so they don't really change color as they cook. Instead, poke the cookies gently to decide whether they're ready to come out. They should be somewhat firm around the edges, but still fairly soft in the middle. If you're not sure, it's better to underbake than to overbake. Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for a few minutes, until they are firm enough to move, then transfer them to a rack and let them cool to room temperature.

Lots of cookies taste best warm from the oven, but these cookies are actually better a few hours later. The cookies come out of the oven with a doughy center and crunchy exterior, but given some time, the center becomes firmer, the edges become softer, and a nice chewy texture develops throughout the cookie.

Store in an airtight container. Note that both the dough and the cookies freeze nicely, if you want to enjoy some cookies now and save the rest for another day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Stuffed Strawberries with Mint

It's strawberry season, and the first ripe, red berries of the year are showing up at the market.  Usually, I'm quite happy to give strawberries a quick rinse and eat them straight out of the berry bowl. But when the occasion calls for something more elaborate, this stuffed strawberry recipe is a perfect choice. The berries are filled with sweetened, lemon-spiked cream cheese and topped with fresh mint. They are elegant and delicious, perfect for a dinner date or a brunch with friends. 

My mom has been making these strawberries for years, and everybody loves them. She flips them upside down, balances them on their leafy tops, cuts an 'X' halfway down into the the berry, and pipes the filling into the resulting star-shaped cavity. I prefer to hull the strawberries and pipe the filling in from the top. Either way, the berries look great and taste even better. 

In the classic version of this recipe, the sweetened cream cheese filling is flavored with lemon zest and lemon juice. For a chocolate version, skip the lemon and add cocoa powder and a little bit of chocolate, orange, or hazelnut liqueur. Garnish with chocolate shavings, candied orange peel, or chopped hazelnuts.

Stuffed Strawberries with Mint
Adapted from a recipe by Cheryl McGovern.
  • 2 pints strawberries (about 1.5 pounds)
  • 1 8-ounce block cream cheese, softened
  • 4-6 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • zest from one lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
In a medium bowl, use a fork to beat together the cream cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest, and powdered sugar. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with the petal tip (The star tip makes the filling look pretty, but you have to worry about lemon zest clogging the opening). If you don't have a pastry bag, you can spoon the filling into a resealable plastic bag and use scissors to cut off one corner. Rinse the berries in a colander, then pat them dry. Use a small paring knife to cut the hulls out of the berries. Pipe some filling into each strawberry, then garnish with a small mint leaf. Arrange on a plate and serve, or prepare in advance and refrigerate for up to four hours before serving.

This looks like something that might be worth trying....
"Prolonging the Life of Berries" by Harold McGee 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mujadarrah: Lentils, Rice, and Onions

This simple Middle Eastern dish has very few ingredients. It's made with lentils, rice, and onions, plus a little olive oil and some salt and pepper. The recipe is uncomplicated. You boil lentils and rice in salted water. Meanwhile, you fry some onions. Then, you stir everything together and add black pepper. That's the whole recipe. It's quite simple. In fact, it's almost too simple. It's so simple that you might expect it to be a bit blah. But prepare to be surprised. This plain-Jane recipe produces delightful results. It is rich and earthy and entirely satisfying.

French green lentils are ideal in this dish because they have a firm texture and hold their shape nicely. Brown lentils are a fine alternative, but they'll produce a slightly mushier finished dish. Lentils are full of protein, which makes this an excellent vegetarian main course. The rice in the recipe provides a bright, starchy accompaniment to the lentils. Long-grain white rice works well, as does brown rice. At the heart of this dish is the onions. Dark ribbons of deeply-caramelized onions should punctuate every bite. Ordinary yellow onions cook down nicely without falling apart. The onions should sizzle slowly in olive oil until they are very brown and soft. Finally, a good amount of freshly ground black pepper is an absolute must. It adds a spicy note and focuses the flavor of the dish.

Now, for a side dish. And a story. My family was visiting last weekend and I decided to prepare mujadarrah with a cucumber salad for dinner. My mouth was watering at the thought of cucumbers with a garlicky yogurt dressing, but there was a problem. I had gone to the store earlier and bought a cucumber for the salad, but it was nowhere to be found. I searched high and low, with no luck. My mom suggested that I might have left the cucumber at the store. Or, perhaps it had rolled out of the bag of groceries and been forgotten in the car. She volunteered to go out and look for it. After a few minutes, she came back into the house. "I looked everywhere," she said. Then, in a somber voice, "I regret to inform you that your cucumber has been the victim of a hit and run accident." My poor cucumber had fallen out of the bag onto the street outside my house and been run over by a car! It was very sad. It was sad for the poor, mangled cucumber. It was sad for those who had wanted to eat the cucumber. In the end, we bought a replacement cucumber for the salad. It tasted bright and fresh alongside the heavier flavors of the mujadarrah. I definitely recommend the combination. Just do your best to keep your cucumber safe from reckless motorists.

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish.
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large or two medium onions, halved from pole to pole and sliced crosswise
  • 2 cups water
  • 2/3 cup lentils
  • 1/3 cup long-grain rice
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the onions in a large skillet with the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the onions begin to brown. Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are a deep brown color. The heat should be high enough that you can hear the onions sizzle, but not so high that the onions become charred. It should take 20-30 minutes for the onions to fully caramelize. Turn off the heat and set the onions aside until the rice and lentils are finished cooking.

While the onions are cooking, bring two cups of water to a boil in a saucepan with a lid. Add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Add the lentils, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the rice, cover the pot, and simmer 15 minutes more. (Brown rice version: Use the same amount of water and salt. Add the brown rice to the water, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the lentils, cover the pot, and simmer 30 minutes more.)

When the rice and lentis are cooked, stir in about two thirds of the caramelized onions and lots of black pepper. Stir very gently so the lentils don't fall apart. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Serve the mujadarrah in a big bowl with the remaining one third of the onions piled on top.

Cucumber Salad
Serves 2 to 4.

  • 1 English cucumber, peeled or not, according to taste
  • kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2-3 ounces of plain greek yogurt
Slice the cucumber lengthwise into fourths or eighths. Slice the cucumber crosswise to make bite-sized pieces. Place the cucumber in a colander in the sink, sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt, and toss to coat. After about 30 minutes, some water will have drained from the cucumber and it will be very crisp. In a medium-sized bowl, stir the cucumber together with the garlic and a few big spoonfuls of yogurt. Taste and add more salt if necessary. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tiny House Salsa

I'll be in Michigan for about two more weeks, finishing up various grad school tasks that I can't do from home in California. I'm staying in my old apartment in Ann Arbor, which I've begun referring to as "tiny house." It's a quirky little upstairs apartment in a ramshackle old house with very low ceilings and no parallel lines or right angles to speak of, anywhere. 
It's been a longer-than-usual trip, and tiny house is starting to wear on my nerves. In particular, the kitchen makes me sad. It's always been small and scruffy, but now it's also severely under-equipped. I took loads of kitchen gear with me when I moved away last spring, and my little kitchen in Michigan is left with a few odds and ends and not much else. Three weeks into the trip, I've had my fill of canned soup and pasta, the only things I'm able to make.

So, I finally invested in a sharp knife and a small wooden cutting board, and I am happy to report that I'm feeling much better. Chopping things up can be therapeutic, and eating chopped-up things feels pretty good, too. 

Last weekend I used my new tools to make my favorite fresh salsa. It's one of those recipes where you have to trust your judgement on all the quantities because the ingredients are a little bit different every time you buy them.  The starting point for this salsa is a fantastic pico de gallo recipe from The Border Cookbook by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison. Their recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, green and white onions, jalapeños, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. It has a really nice flavor, but I've made a few adjustments to account for the fact that garden-ripe tomatoes and small, spicy jalapeño peppers aren't always easy to find.

Unless I have access to really nice summer tomatoes, I prefer to use high-quality canned tomatoes in this salsa. A mixture of crushed and diced tomatoes makes for a chunky salsa with a thick, smooth base. Jalapeños provide heat in the original pico de gallo recipe, but the jalapeños at my grocery store are sometimes (often) huge, bitter, and decidedly un-spicy. So, I've started using a mixture of jalapeños and serrano or habañero peppers to make certain that the salsa has some kick. 

After everything is chopped and mixed together, it's a good idea to let the flavors intermingle for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, then to taste the salsa and add additional amounts of the ingredients as necessary to get a nice balance of flavors. It's also important to stir in a good amount of salt to brighten up the salsa and make it taste more like a condiment and less like some kind of weird gazpacho. I like to make a large batch of this salsa. It's great with chips, but it also tastes amazing on tacos, over beans and rice, or mixed with avocado for a quick guacamole. 

Fresh Salsa
  • 3-4 cups of tomatoes:
    • 2 lbs chopped fresh tomatoes, squeezed gently to remove seeds and excess juice, or
    • one 14-oz can of diced tomatoes, drained, and one 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes, or
    • any combination of the above that seems appealing
  • 1 bunch green onions, white and green parts, sliced
  • 1/2 of a large white onion, finely chopped (reserve the other half in case you decide you need more onion flavor)
  • 3-4 jalapeños, finely chopped with ribs and seeds (consider buying a few serrano or habañero peppers to add as needed for additional spiciness)
  • juice of 1 lime (less if the lime is very juicy/sour/big)
  • two good handfuls of cilantro, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup) 
  • lots of salt (I like to use 3-4 teaspoons)
Stir everything together and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer. Adjust the flavors and serve.

On a related note, here's an interesting article about the flavor of cilantro... 
"Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault" by Harold McGee

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lemonade is for Lovers

After the gloom of winter, the first few days of spring feel pretty magical. The sun's rays are bright and warm. The air is charged with happy energy. It's time to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let out a long, contented sigh. Summer is on its way.

Now, can I interest you in a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade? The lemons will be bracingly sour. The sugar will be pleasantly sweet. The ice cubes will chime in the glass. And the sun will shine down on the whole concoction in a most becoming way. I can give you a bendy straw, if you like. What do you say? How about some lemonade?

We have a little lemon tree in a clay pot on our patio, and our tree is suddenly heavy with lots of big, gorgeous lemons. Are they ripe? We weren't sure, but we figured even the sourest lemons would make decent lemonade. As it turns out, the lemons are ripe and the lemonade we made with them was fantastic.

It's common knowledge that lemonade is made of lemon juice and sugar and water. I don't have any special lemonade recipe to share. The main purpose of this post is just to write the word "lemonade" a bunch of times so that you'll be inspired to make some. Lemonade. Lemonade. Lemonade. Also, I'd like to suggest that you make your lemonade according to the common knowledge recipe (lemon juice, sugar, water), instead of resorting to a powder or a concentrate. It will take just a tiny bit of effort and taste much better than any other lemonade out there.

Start by squeezing the juice from four or five lemons. Pour the juice into a jar. Next, make some simple syrup. Mix one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a saucepan and heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Pour this syrup into a second jar. Now you're ready to mix up some lemonade. Fill a glass about 3/4 full of ice and water. Stir in tablespoonfuls of lemon juice and simple syrup until your lemonade tastes just right. After you've enjoyed that first glass of lemonade, stash your jars of lemon juice and simple syrup in the refrigerator so that you can mix up additional glasses of lemonade whenever the sun is shining and the mood strikes. Or, scale up and make a pitcher for a crowd. Yum.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Russian Cabbage Soup

This cabbage soup, or shchi, is a good soup. It tastes good. It's full of good, healthy, vegetables. The ingredients cost next to nothing. And it's easy to make.

You should make some of this soup right now, even if you're not hungry, because you will certainly want some later, after the flavors have melded a bit and the soup begins to call to you from the stove top or the refrigerator: "Eat me right now. I am hearty and delicious. I will not disappoint. I am a good soup."

I'll admit that the words "cabbage soup" wouldn't ordinarily set my appetite on fire and send me running for a wooden spoon and a stockpot. But the combination of flavors in this soup succeeds in turning ho-hum cabbage into something special. Leeks and carrots lend the soup mild sweetness. A tomato adds bright acidic flavor. And a modest addition of sauerkraut gives the soup a hefty tang that enhances the flavor of the fresh cabbage. A blob of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill provide the finishing touches that make this soup sing.

Darra Goldstein notes that shchi is "the most Russian of soups." Traditionally, winter versions of this soup are made with fermented cabbage only, while summer versions forgo the fermented stuff in favor of lots of fresh cabbage. Goldstein's recipe combines fresh and fermented cabbage to produce a light soup with rich undertones. To make the soup, begin by softening a carrot, a leek, and an onion in butter. Then add beef stock, a chopped tomato, some sauerkraut, and heaps of raw cabbage. Simmer the soup until the cabbage is tender. Very simple, very tasty. And, happily, cabbage is very good for you. Yay.

Russian Cabbage Soup
Adapted from A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality by Darra Goldstein. Serves 4 to 6.
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small leek, white part only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 5 cups beef stock (or vegetable stock, if you prefer)
  • 1 small head of white cabbage (about 3/4 pound), quartered, core removed, and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup fresh sauerkraut, drained but not rinsed
  • 1 tomato
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • sour cream for garnish
  • chopped fresh dill for garnish
Melt the butter in a large stockpot and stir in the onions, leeks, and carrots. Cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften. Do not let the vegetables brown.

Meanwhile, cut a small "x" in the skin at the bottom of the tomato and submerge it in boiling water until the skin begins to curl. Remove the tomato from the water and peel the skin away with your fingers, then slice the tomato in half and squeeze out the seeds. Chop the tomato coarsely. You can use canned tomatoes or a few tablespoons of tomato paste in a pinch, but fresh tomato is really nice in this soup.

Turn the burner to high and add 5 cups of beef stock to the pot with the onions, leeks and carrots. Stir in the cabbage, sauerkraut, and tomato. When the soup comes to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The soup is ready when the cabbage is tender. The soup is overdone when the cabbage is a mushy, soggy mess. Try to avoid this sad fate. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Ladle the soup into serving bowls, then put a dollop of sour cream in each bowl. Don't skip the sour cream if you can help it, but if you do choose to leave it out, try adding a little bit of sauerkraut juice or a dash of vinegar to the soup to get the right salty/sour/sweet balance. Sprinkle with finely chopped dill and serve.