Wednesday, February 26, 2014

0 For 18

Okay, I wasn't expecting to open a farm, but really?  None of the pepper seeds sprouted.  And I had a post half-written in my mind about pickled peppers.  I'm going to assume my problem was that it was too warm in the window and I ended up with dirt-covered roasted pepper seeds.  Let's pretend they were trying to save my stomach by not growing, and it was truly a self-sacrifice on the seeds' part.

This is not going to stop me from trying to grow pumpkins.  I'm stuck at home while construction crews fix my bathroom.  The shower pan cracked and slowly destroyed the floor over several years.  HUGE thing to fix, much more than your basic remodel, and it smells terrible.  Thank goodness I have another bathroom to use in the meantime.

This is the planter with two hills
Where was I?  While I'm stuck at home, I have plenty of time for gardening, cooking, writing, sewing, playing cryptograms, and any other in-house pastime I've been ignoring.  I cleared one pumpkin bed each day that I got bored, then bought vegetable soil and planted all the hills in one hour.  Yes, it's earlier than I planned to do it, but I got really bored and it's plenty warm enough at night.  I'm a bit concerned about the length of daylight in one of the locations.  You can see the shadow in the photo already creeping down, and that was 11am.  Hoping that's no longer an issue by the time they have their third leaves.  At the very least, the two anemic bushes in that planter will rebound from the fresh soil and extra watering, so it won't be a total waste.  Without the pepper patch, I'm doing one more hill of pumpkin than originally planned, and that's the only one with full, all-day sun.  They all have protective twine fences for now, so the gardener knows what I'm trying to do.  We're supposed to get the heaviest rainfall in two years on the first day they might start to come up, and all the work may wash away.  I'm so in love with the idea of growing my own Halloween decorations that I'll probably buy another pack of seeds if these fail.

As for the smaller space I was going to use for the overflow peppers, I bought a kale seedling.  I've been eating more of it lately, and it's taking forever for the lettuces to grow.  The kale will look like a small bush when it's full-sized, a good match for the front yard.  That doesn't mean I'll never try to start seeds indoors again, but I've missed that growing window for this year.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mac'n'Cheese with Bacon

Because the only thing better than a creamy serving of macaroni and cheese is if there's bacon in it.

I'm not into extreme couponing, but I got a 12 ounce package of macaroni off the discount rack for 25¢ by stacking discounts.  Way too good a deal to pass up.  Most of the things there are either out of season or the package size changed and they have to get rid of the last few of the old size.  I don't buy the dented cans.  They're probably safe if you use them soon, but I would rather not risk it.

All of the recipes I researched for this missed the obvious.  They use butter to cook the onion and thicken the sauce.  Hello, you just cooked bacon!  Rendered bacon fat is clear and flavorful.  It brings the taste to every bite, not just the ones including the bits.  I bought bacon ends because it was going to get diced anyway, and there's always a lot of fat in the package to cook down for flavoring.

I had a little cream left, so I mixed that in with the milk.  It did make it richer, but is not necessary.  The wine isn't necessary either, but it does make the cheese melt better and stay creamier.  Plus, the smell when it gets stirred in after the horseradish is pungent and enticing.

Note the side salad.  My little lettuces aren't growing as fast as I'd hoped, but they have definitely taken root.  I picked a few of the outer leaves from the four stronger plants, enough for one small salad when supplemented by my winter cherry tomatoes, which I turned into oven-dried so they wouldn't go bad.  I find this much more satisfying than growing flowers.

2 C dry macaroni
4 slices thick-cut bacon (or 6 oz bacon ends)
*1/2 C diced onion
butter if needed
3 Tb flour
*2 C milk
*1/2 C white wine (optional)
*1 tsp prepared white horseradish
*1/2 tsp paprika
*1/4 tsp turmeric
*dash nutmeg
8 oz cheddar, shredded (about 2 C)
2 Tb grated parmesan
2 Tb breadcrumbs or instant oatmeal

1.  Separate meat from fat of bacon and chop the meat into bits.  In a medium saucepan, cook the bacon  bits over medium until crispy.  Divide into two even amounts and set aside.  Put the bacon fat in the pan and continue to cook until fat has rendered off, then discard pieces.  If necessary, add butter to make the total amount of fat about 3 Tb.

2.  Add diced onion to saucepan and cook until it just starts to brown, about 5 minutes.  Stir occasionally.  It's going to look soupy in all that fat.  This is a good time to start boiling a pot of water for the pasta and preheating the oven to 375º.  You can also use the time to mix together one of the portions of bacon bits, the breadcrumbs, and the parmesan.  Keep that to the side.  It's the last thing we're going to use.

3.  Add flour to onions.  It will absorb the fat and get pasty.  Start to add the milk, about 2/3 C at a time.  Let it thicken between additions.  Your water is probably boiling by now, so stir in the macaroni and keep one eye on the pot so it doesn't boil over.

4.  When all of the milk is in, add the horseradish, paprika, turmeric, and nutmeg.  Start to stir in the shredded cheddar a handful at a time.  When about half of it is incorporated, the sauce will start to get very thick.  Stir in the wine and untouched half of the bacon.  Add remaining cheese and gradually bring the sauce to a low boil.  Remove from heat.

5.  Assuming your pasta is done, drain and rinse.  Return it to the large pot.  Pour about half of the sauce over the pasta and turn to coat.  Add the rest of it and make sure all pieces of pasta are swimming in yummy cheese sauce.  Pour into a 2 qt casserole.  Sprinkle top with the breadcrumb mixture and bake about 15 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and crumbs are crisp.  Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving, to make it easier to handle and less likely to burn tongues.

Serves 2 - just kidding, 4 to 6

Difficulty rating :)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cream of Corn Soup

I'm doing a bit of Pantry Project cleaning.  It's not the chometz purge I do before Passover, just getting rid of things that have been hiding in the freezer and pantry.  Found a scary, long-ago opened jar of marinara in the fridge.  A bit wary to see what else is hiding back there.

So I had half a carton of unsalted chicken stock, frozen kernel corn, and an opened pint of light cream.  That and the half an onion I always seem to have in the crisper kind of made this a no-brainer.  It's super easy, cheap, and elegant if presented with a light garnish.

*2 C unsalted chicken stock or low-sodium broth (can sub veggie)
*2 C corn kernels, either frozen or canned and drained
*1/2 C diced onion
1 Tb olive oil
*sprigs of a fresh herb for flavoring and garnish (I used thyme)
salt and white pepper to taste
*1 C light cream

1.  Heat oil in a deep-sided skillet or medium saucepan and cook onions on medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes.  Add chicken stock, corn, and two sprigs of whatever herb you're using.  Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cover.  Cook until kernels are very soft, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2.  Fish out the herbs.  In batches, purée corn mixture in blender.  Strain and return to heat.  Straining was the hard part for me, and took a while as I pressed the liquid out with the back of a ladle.  However, you do get a perfectly smooth soup out of it.  Discard skins and solids, unless you want to use them as garnish.  Stir in cream and bring back to a simmer.  Taste and add salt and white pepper as needed.

3.  Dish into serving bowls and garnish with a sprig of herb, adding a swirl of cream if desired.  Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pumpkin Scones

Last pumpkin recipe for a while, I promise.

I went off looking for a pumpkin scone recipe and found this Starbucks Copycat recipe.  Since I like their pumpkin scones, I decided to go for it.  The main change I made was to up the baking powder a little, as I find their scones a bit dense.  I prefer my scones fluffy.  The photo in the post looked flat, too, which could have been from taking time to do the photos prior to baking, thereby using up the baking soda's usefulness.  I often forget to do photos of my cooking process because I'm too busy figuring out the most efficient way to make everything come together at the same time so I can pass along the method.  I  couldn't find anything wrong with the recipe as written, and feel free to go back to the mere 1 tsp if you don't like fluffy scones.

I did come up just a wee bit short on the pumpkin.  The rest of the jar of apple butter came to the rescue.  Apples and pumpkin benefit from the same spices, and the consistency was the same.  I seriously doubt it made any difference in the final product.

These were soft and cakey.  If you like your scones a bit dry for dunking, bake two more minutes.  And you have to be patient with the icing.  Cool the scones completely before the first layer, and wait 30 minutes for that to set before doing the drizzle.  Speeding up the process will just make a mess.

2 C flour
1/3 C packed brown sugar
*1 tsp cinnamon
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
*1/2 tsp cloves
*1/2 tsp ginger
*1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
*1/2 C pumpkin purée
3 Tb milk
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla

2 C powdered sugar, sifted
milk as needed (about 3 Tb)
1/8 tsp each cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg

1.  Preheat oven to 400º.  Line a baking sheet with silpat or parchment.

2.  Sift together flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.  Add chunks of cold butter and work into flour with fingers or a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

3.  Separately, whisk together pumpkin, milk, egg, and vanilla until smooth.  Make a well in the flour and pour liquid ingredients.  Stir together into a soft and rather sticky dough.

4.  Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead several strokes until uniform.  Roll out into a 10" by 7" rectangle.  I happen to have a cutting board with grooves at 11" by 7", so I used that.  Cut rectangle in quarters, then each smaller rectangle in half on a diagonal.  (If you want smaller scones, roll out 15" x 4" and cut into 3 squares of 4 triangles each.  Making 8, they were kind of big.)  Place all triangles onto baking sheet at least 1/2" apart and bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned around the edges.  Allow to cool on pan for several minutes, then remove to rack to cool completely.  Place baking sheet under rack, because you're going to glaze them and don't want the sugar all over your counter.

5.  To make glaze, add milk to sifted powdered sugar.  Add two tablespoons at first, and let sit for several minutes to hydrate completely before deciding if you need more.  Add 1 tsp at a time after that until desired consistency is reached.  Spread a thin layer over the cooled scones, using a little more than half of the mix.

6.  As the first layer is drying, add spices to the remaining glaze.  Wait 30 minutes for the first layer to set, then drizzle this decorative layer over the scones.  Allow to sit about half an hour more for the glaze to set fully before serving.

Makes 8 Starbucks-sized scones, or 12 smaller ones

Difficulty rating  :)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Leavening Agents

So, I've just been blindly throwing out baking recipes for three years without explaining why they work.  For those of you who try a recipe off the internet and can't figure out why you don't get a proper result, a little knowledge about leavening can help you fix the problems in most baked goods.  The kinds of leavening agents I use are, in order of complexity: air, steam, baking soda, baking powder, and yeast.

Air:  This refers to mechanically beating air into a batter, which then solidifies when the starches or proteins in the product set.  It is what makes meringue fluffy and sponge cakes light.  It makes whipped cream stiff.  When you force millions of tiny air bubbles to stay in suspension, they create volume.

Steam:  This is what puffs up cream puffs, Yorkshire pudding, and puff pastry.  It is responsible for the flakiness of pie crusts, biscuits, and croissants.  It's when you put something moist in your batter or dough (usually water or butter), then bake it at high heat for a short period of time.  The moisture creates steam quickly, which stretches out the dough.  The dough then gelatinizes.  When the steam bakes away, the solid shell of baked product remains.  It's like when you make a papier-mâché balloon, then pop the balloon inside once the paper has dried.

Baking Soda:  I'm not going into the chemistry lesson.  When mixed with moisture and a slight acid (buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, chocolate), baking soda foams into small bubbles of carbon dioxide which run their course fairly quickly.  You need to bake this product within a short period of time, 15 to 30 minutes.  It is what gives cookies their crumble and pancakes a fine grain.

Double-Acting Baking Powder:  Again, not boring you with the chemistry.  Baking powder combines baking soda with an acid and a stabilizing agent, so you don't need to add acid to the dough.  It activates when exposed to heat.  This means you don't have to bake it the same hour the dough is made.  The crumb is a bit larger and more solid.  It's used in cakes, biscuits, scones, and quick breads.  Often, you'll see it in combination with baking soda.  This is usually when there's an acidic batter that can take advantage of the soda to produce a slightly smaller crumb.

Yeast:  Yeast is an organism, specifically a fungus.  Ew, gross.  It munches on the sugar in dough and creates carbon dioxide and alcohol as a byproduct.  The "yeasty" smell we associate with bread is the alcohol.  Because you have to wait for the little yeasts to do their work, this method takes longer.  Generally, you let them go at it for an hour to create texture, punch down and shape the dough, then give them close to another hour to rise again.  The heat of the oven kills the yeast (it dies around 115º), so don't worry.  You're not eating live fungus.  Save that for raw mushrooms.  Because of the long gluten strands created during kneading and rising, yeast leavening is used for bread and certain pastries such as croissants and danish.  Some waffle batters are leavened by yeast, but the most common recipes use baking powder.  Sourdough and sponges are an offshoot of yeast leavening, when you let the yeasts work their magic over a much longer period of time to achieve a more acidic flavor.

Hope this clarifies some recipes and contributes to successful baking.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pumpkin Cookies

I'm only buying one box of Girl Scout cookies this year, to try the new cranberry ones.  Nothing against them; I love them and it supports GSA programs for the year.  But I still have three boxes in the freezer from last year, plus blog goodies stacking up.  I just don't need them.

Contributing to the pile are these cookies.  I had the defrosted pumpkin from the ravioli and had to do something with the rest of it.  Enter this recipe from Libby's, makers of the canned pumpkin you buy every Thanksgiving.  It is very easy to follow, a lot like making Tollhouse cookies.  You even end up with about as many cookies as they say you will because they use a more realistic rounded tablespoon measurement.  The teaspoon in the Tollhouse recipe was from a hundred years ago, before anyone had heard of super-sizing.

I was surprised that only white sugar is used in these.  It makes them lighter than you would expect, with a more subtle pumpkin flavor.  Oh, and make sure you get regular pumpkin and not pie mix.  The latter already has spices mixed in it.  By using baking powder in addition to baking soda, these fluff up a lot more than the average cookie.  They taste more like muffin tops, and was the main reason everyone liked them.

2-1/2 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
*1 tsp cinnamon
*1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 C sugar
1/2 C (1 stick) butter
*1 C pumpkin purée
1 egg
*1 tsp vanilla
1/2 C chopped walnuts (optional)
1 C powdered sugar
2 Tb milk

1.  In stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add egg, pumpkin, and vanilla and beat until smooth.  Start preheating oven to 350º.  Grease or line two cookie sheets.

2.  While all that's going on, set up a bowl with the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.  Stir together.

3.  Add flour to liquids in stages.  I did three, mixing well between each.  If adding nuts, stir in after batter is uniform.

4.  Spoon onto cookie sheets by rounded tablespoons.  They are not going to spread out too much because you put baking powder in them.  Give them a little over an inch to spread.  Bake 15-18 minutes, until the edges begin to brown but they aren't too dark.

5.  Cool cookies on their baking sheets for about 2 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.  Whisk together powdered sugar and milk to form a glaze.  Drizzle over cookies and allow to set for at least 30 minutes.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies

Difficulty rating  π

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Vodka Pasta Sauce

I wanted something creamy yet bright to top the Pumpkin Ravioli.  With several large cherry tomatoes ripening the last week of January, I was able to amass enough to pull off a batch of sauce.  Sure, I could have bought a can.  Most recipes use canned, crushed tomatoes in their juice.  I figured these would be cooking long enough that it wouldn't matter if I used fresh.

I had no idea how much vodka you use in a vodka sauce.  Can't stress enough that it should be cooked a minimum of half an hour.  Otherwise, you're going to have to collect keys.

Because I was putting this on the pumpkin ravioli, I didn't want to overwhelm the flavors in the pasta.  This has less of a tomato flavor and different spices than a sauce you would use over a plain pasta.  I would use the multi-purpose Italian Seasoning then.  For this, I decided that a hint of cumin would be a good savory complement to the pumpkin and spinach.

1 Tb olive oil
*1 clove garlic, minced
1 large shallot, minced
*1 C unflavored vodka
*2 C diced tomatoes
*1 C low-salt vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 tsp cumin
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 C cream

1.  Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Cook garlic and shallot until they begin to soften.

2.  Stir in vodka and allow to boil.  Once it has reduced by half, add tomatoes, broth, and cumin.  Allow to simmer and reduce until tomatoes are fully cooked and alcohol has cooked off, about 30 minutes.

3.  Stir in cream and return to a low simmer.  Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.  Serve hot over pasta.

Makes about 2 cups

Difficulty rating  π

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pumpkin Ravioli

As long as I'm hauling out leftover turkey, I still have a pint of pumpkin purée in the freezer.  If I'm going to be optimistic about my ability to grow pumpkins this summer, I'd better use up my insurance policy.

After a brief internet search, I decided to adapt my pasta recipe #2 for this.  I'm replacing one egg and the olive oil with pumpkin and adding a touch of nutmeg.  The pasta actually gets healthier.  Great for my eating-healthier trend.  Since falling off the extreme-diet wagon, I've lost the last nagging pound.  Go fig.  I credit the oat-bran muffins, and sneaked a wee bit of oat bran into this pasta.  You don't have to.

This is the kind of recipe I was talking about in the Get Over It post.  It only looks complicated because it's three recipes in one: pasta, filling, and sauce.  To make this post easier to follow, I'm doing the sauce in the next one.  Once you get over the pasta recipe and realize it's no harder than sugar cookie dough, doing the filling while the dough is resting is a no-brainer.  Instead of filling these ravioli with my first instinct of sausage and cheese, I'm opting for the lighter spinach with a dusting of parmesan.

2-1/4 C flour
2 eggs
*1/3 C pumpkin purée
1/2 tsp salt
*1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1.  In a medium bowl, stir together flour, salt, and nutmeg.  Separately, beat together eggs and pumpkin.

2.  Make a well in the flour and pour in egg mixture.  With a fork, gradually whisk in flour until all is moistened.  It's still going to look somewhat dry.  Knead lightly with your hands.  If it won't form a ball, moisten hands with water and knead again.  That should do it.  Wrap ball in plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature while you make the filling, at least 1/2 hour.

  • Alternately, you can do this in the food processor.  I just don't like cleaning it if the job can be done almost as easily by hand.

8 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained (about 2 C)
*1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tb olive oil
*2 Tb grated parmesan

1.  In a skillet over medium, heat oil.  Add garlic and cook until it starts to have an aroma, about 1 minute.  Add spinach and cook until thoroughly warmed.  Remove from heat and stir in parmesan.  Set aside until ready to use.

1.  Divide dough into manageable chunks, two or three.  On a lightly floured board, roll out one of the pieces into a rectangle four inches wide and as thin as you can get the dough.  If you have a pasta roller, go for it and make long strips on one of the thinnest settings.

2.  They do make ravioli molds, lengths of squares with dents in them that seal it for you.  Unless you make ravioli more than twice a year, it's just another gadget taking up space.  Spoon heaping teaspoons of filling on one half of the pasta strip, one inch apart, leaving half an inch to the edge.

3.  Dampen a pastry brush and brush water around the fillings.  Fold the clean half over and press lightly around the fillings to seal.  With a knife or pizza cutter, cut into individual raviolis.  Set aside and get out another chunk of dough.  Repeat.
Paring knife is Pampered Chef, and totally worth it.

4.  If cooking immediately, boil 4 quarts of lightly salted water in a big pot.  Gently lower ravioli into pot and cook until they float and are al dente, about 5 minutes.  Drain, rinse, and serve hot with sauce of choice.

5.  These can also be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen.  If refrigerating, just put them in a container with a secure lid and use within 2 days.  To freeze, seal in plastic bags with all the air squeezed out of them, placing a piece of waxed paper between layers.  Defrost in refrigerator overnight, then boil just as you would the fresh ones.

Serves 4 to 5

Difficulty rating :-0

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Green Bean Casserole

Happy Groundhog Day!  Here's a recipe you might not mind eating often if this day keeps repeating itself.

I have decided that two months is long enough to haul out the remaining turkey bits from the freezer and have a Thanksgiving redux.  It's finally starting to behave like winter around here, so this becomes comfort food.  And I discovered a 4 ounce jar of my homemade cranberry sauce languishing in the back of the fridge.  There's also an unopened jar of turkey gravy in the pantry, plus half a container of fried onions.  With a staple of wild rice, all I had to buy for this meal was the green beans and mushrooms.

I realized that I have never posted my recipe for green bean casserole.  It is almost identical to the one on the back of the fried onions, but from scratch.  Less fat, far less sodium, and you get the added health benefit of using fresh mushrooms.  It's basically a modified White Sauce Base.  I get compliments because it's almost like the one on the canister, but has that special something that you only get by using fresh ingredients.

1 qt green beans (fresh and snapped or frozen pre-cut), about 1-1/2 lbs
3 Tb butter
1 8 oz package sliced white mushrooms (or slice them yourself)
3 Tb flour
*1 C milk
salt and pepper to taste
1-1/3 C (half of the larger can) French's fried onions, divided

1.  In a large saucepan, steam the beans in 1/4 C water until soft, but not mushy.  Takes 5-10 minutes.  Drain and remove from heat.  Start preheating the oven to 350º and get out a 1-1/2 quart casserole, one with a lid if you have it.

2.  In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add mushrooms and cook until they just start to wilt, 3-5 minutes.  They will give off some water, so don't be surprised if it starts to look soupy.  Add flour and stir until everything gets a bit pasty.

3.  Add milk half a cup at a time and stir, adding more as it thickens.  The sauce should be thick enough to coat the beans, but not too sturdy, because it will continue to thicken in the oven.  It should end up the consistency of alfredo sauce.  Add more milk if necessary.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then taste.  The onions are a bit salty, so don't add any more if it's close.  Stir in 2/3 C of the onions, then add sauce to beans.  Stir to coat.

4.  Pour mixture into casserole and bake, covered, for 30 minutes.  Remove lid, sprinkle with remaining 2/3 C onions, and bake for 5 more minutes, until top is crispy.

Serves 6-8

Difficulty rating  π