Thursday, December 30, 2010

Burger with bulgur

I started the new Weight Watchers PointsPlus program a few weeks ago and am working hard to rethink my approach to high-fat, low-fiber, carb-clogged and generally points-heavy foods. So far, it's been a creative and mostly satisfying experience, but not everything can be made points friendly. Or can it?

I've been craving a juicy grilled burger but was appalled by the points value of how I prepared them. Tonight, eager to take our new Cusinart Griddler for a spin, I decided to dial down the fat while boosting the volume, fiber and flavor. I did it with some coarse bulgur (the real deal, imported from Turkey) and fresh ground beef from a local halal butcher.

I started with just 3/4 lb ground beef for two generously sized burgers and one, mine, a little smaller; I used to make three big boys out of a full pound. Then I boosted them with nutty bulgur. In a small ramekin covered with plastic wrap, I bloomed 2 tablespoons of the golden grain in hot water for about 10 minutes. After draining thoroughly, I added this to the meat, along with about half of a small onion (grated), and 1 teaspoon each Worchestershire sauce, herbs in duxelle and Mexican oregano. Just before grilling, I added a generous surface sprinkle of hearty hickory-smoked sea salt.

The bulgur did not affect the meaty flavor; in fact, you could barely detect the secret ingredient. Graham had no idea and practically inhaled his. Even tucked into an onion knot bun from Fresh Market, it was so much leaner and tastier than my old standard that I felt no guilt topping it with a melty (if thin) slab of blue cheese.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Roasted butternut squash, al orange

It sat on the counter for nearly two weeks like a giant scold daring me to make soup. No, I thought. Not this time.

I have an arsenal of cookbooks to help me with such tasks, but I had a vision -- not of sugarplumbs, mind you, but of a slightly sweet and savory glaze that would transform a hulking 5-pound-plus butternut squash into proper size chunks of glistening beauty. And, I'm happy to report, it worked.

The key ingredient was blood orange-infused olive oil, a vacation souvenir that has surprised me with its extraordinary shelf life. A light drizzle proved to be just the thing that turned common roasted squash into something geninely special.

If you're not so lucky as to have blood orange-infused olive oil in your pantry, add the freshly grated zest of an orange -- then eat the orange. They've been really, really good this year, and you deserve it.

If you opt to try this with a small squash, which makes sense unless you want to eat leftovers for lunch for several days (I did, and it was great), adjust ingredients accordingly. Likewise, if you go ginormous, you could add some broth, pull out the stick blender and turn the balance into terrific soup.

1 5 lb. butternut squash
2-3 tbsp blood orange-infused olive oil (or olive oil and orange zest)
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim ends, scoop out seeds and cut squash into manageable 3-inch chunks. Arrange, skin-side down, on baking sheet covered with foil and coated with vegetable spray.

Blend seasonings together and distribute evenly over squash, then drizzle with oil. Roast about an hour or until tender, nicely browned and glistening. If you're like me, grab the best-looking piece for a taste test, then arrange the rest on a serving dish. Devour.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stuffed cabbage, but not from grandma

My grandmother lived in an apartment across the street from my high school. It was a great pleasure for me to slip off campus now and then to meet her for lunch. I have a particularly strong memory of her calling one night to invite me to join her the next day for stuffed cabbage, one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.

I instantly said yes; not only because I adored her, but also I was astounded that this woman -- who rarely cooked anything that required more than a toaster oven or a single pot -- was willing to go to such effort to please me. The only recipe I knew she relied upon was one I still view as an ideal  party snack: equal parts dry-roasted peanuts, chocolate chips and golden raisins, served in a classic Stangl bowl that is now mine.

I never said a word when, after she served the already-plated dish, and I praised and devoured every last bite, I noticed the tell-tale Stouffer's box in her trash can.

I've always wanted to make stuffed cabbage myself, but I imaged it to be one of those highly complicated affairs best left to employees of Jewish delis, or perhaps Mrs. Stouffer. But now that I've seen how easy it is, I'm disappointed that I denied myself this pleasure for so long.

Chef Ricky Moore, a North Carolina native who honed his skills in kitchens around the world and once battled Michael Symon on Iron Chef,  last week lead the first in a promising series of classes at Bickett Market, a rustic little shop in Five Points that sells seasonal produce and a variety of artisan foodstuffs. It's a natural progression for owner Jason Stegall, a proponent of all things local and good.

Moore's recipe -- unfortunately, scaled for the group class and not the home cook -- was simple and flavorful. The cabbage bundles were braised in an almost translucent and tangy tomato au jus and served atop a creamy blob of smoked grits. I don't mind admitting that I had seconds.

The grits contained the fun culinary trick of the evening. Moore guaranteed success if cooked in a ratio of one part grits to four parts liquid -- in this case, one cup of Carolina Grits & Co. stone-ground grits to 2 cups water and 2 cups of 2% milk. I was surprised to see his assistant quickly dump the grits into the mix. The last time I tried that it turned into one great gluey grit.

Moore explained that, if added while the liquids are at a rolling boil, the grits will join the party and stay reasonably separate. It took a fair amount of stirring, and a little more water was added to ensure creamy results, but they came out as perfect as promised.

The fun twist of the recipe was the smoked part, which came from smoked, whole heads of garlic. Moore said he smoked them indoors in a jerry-rigged contraption made from a cast iron skillet and a lot of singed foil, but I suspect it would be easier (and more smoke-alarm friendly) to try his alternate method of smoking them outdoors on a grill. Either way, plan on 15-20 minutes on the heat, then another 15-20 minutes off heat but still snugly cocooned in foil. When squeezed, the smoked cloves oozed forth like browned butter, just as if they had been slow-roasted more traditionally in the oven.

There are a few kinks to be worked out in the Bickett Market cooking series -- a modest overhead video set-up, designed to slide from work station to cooktop -- was tempermental, making it difficult to observe technique for more than a few minutes at a time. But those attending were more amused by the fickle camera than annoyed, and Moore was gracious about demonstrating steps and making sure all questions were answered.

This debut class was informative and fun, the dish was delicious and I'm confident I can recreate it. Additionally, the foodies I dined with were great company, and the upcoming roster is full of tempting classes. To borrow a phrase, how bad is that?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs

One page from the stack of new recipes I intended to make for our Thanksgiving feast last week got set aside when the reality of how much I'd already cooked for three diners eventually dawned on me. I finally made the last side dish tonight, and I won't wait until the next holiday to make it again.

I wish I could take credit for the idea, but Roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs was first posted on Food52. I made a half-batch with a deep purple variety -- found at Kroger,  not usually my first choice for fresh produce -- and it looked glorious when speckled with roasted brown spots.

Suffice it to say, I haven't been to the store today and still have no panko crumbs. In their place I tore up a potato sandwich bun and tossed it into the processor, which converted it into appealingly feathery bits.

The recipe is self-explanatory and the gremolata bread crumbs come together quickly. Since it was served with another vegetable side Graham dislikes, he assumed it was all for him, leaving us just a sampling. By the end  of the meal, all that was left was some flavorful crumbs, which Graham used to jazz up the kibble in the pups' bowls. Glad to report they, too, are content members of the clean plate club.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Latke night!

As a child, I'm not entirely sure I associated latkes with potatoes. All I knew for certain is they appeared, along with the electric menorah, each year at Hanukkah. The arrival of that familiar little box from Manischewitz -- or Streit's, depending on what side of town my mother shopped that day -- was a happy sight. Just add an egg and water, let the oil shimmer in an electric skillet and, l'chaim, latkes.

As recently as a few years ago, I used boxed latke mix for our annual Hannukkah soiree, during which Tim regaled neighbors with his coloful version of noble Judith tempting wicked Halofrenes with salty cheese and jug wine. I'm a bit embarassed by that now -- not just because I used a mix for guests, but because the real deal not only is easy to make but also takes scarcely more effort.

This year I decided to try Golden Panko Latkes, one of the recommended picks on Food52. Just before dinner, though, I realized I had no potatoes. Or applesauce. Or sour cream.

After returning from the store, I wished I'd taken another look at the recipe before I left, as I only had a handful of the key namesake ingredient. While it's generally smarter, not to mention better culinary etiquette, to make a recipe as directed the first time, I decided I'd rather punt than return to the store.

So after adding a pouch of cheddar mashed potato mix to the panko -- don't snicker; I've done it before and it works -- I decided I might as well change it up some more. I added about half of a small onion, shredded, and a handful of minced parsley.

The mix yielded a generous batch of latkes, which hardly absorbed any oil. That was a good thing because -- must I say it? -- I was almost out of canola, too. Not sure if I should credit the miracle of the everlasting Hannukkah oil or the seemingly oil-repellent coating, but about a cup of oil was plenty for the entire recipe.

Serve with sour cream and applesauce, of course, and crank up Hanukkah Rocks by The LeeVees.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Browned-butter sage pesto with pepitas

Last week I splurged on two small bags of handmade pumpkin pasta, which I intended to use in some sort of post-Thanksgiving feast. It got lost, however, in my overstuffed refrigerator. When rediscovered, it was no longer the pale tender curls admired on day of purchase, but I was pretty confident it would improve if coated in a shiny glaze of brown-butter sage pesto with pepitas.

I was right. And it could not have been easier.

1 stick unsalted butter
3-4 tbsp fresh sage, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted; reserve 1 tbsp for garnish and chop the rest
1 lb fresh pumpkin pasta (or whatever you've got)

Cook pasta according to directions. Save about a cup of pasta water and set aside before draining.

While pasta cooks, melt butter in pan with heavy base on medium-low heat. Stir in sage and red pepper; simmer until it begins to turn amber. Add chopped pepitas and stir to combine. When the sauce turns an irresitible brown, add the drained pasta and a splash of reserved pasta water; blend thoroughly. Tongs are the perfect tool for this task. Add more pasta water if needed.

Transfer to serving bowl and top with a sprinkling of pepitas.

If you have leftovers, add a little reserved pasta water for improve reheating.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Adobo chicken with rice

I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first Penzys spice shop to open in the Carolinas, but my neighbor beat me to it. It's OK, though, since she thoughtfully brought me a spice blend that I didn't even know had been woefully absent from my cupboard.

I am now the happy owner of an aromatic jar of Adobo seasoning, which Penzys says includes onion, garlic, Tellicherry black pepper, Mexican oregano, cumin and cayenne pepper. Sounds simple enough, but there really is something quite lovely about the balance that made tonight's dinner so good that it was gone before I thought to take a photo.

I used a cupful of rich, gelatinous turkey stock, the final gift from our holiday bird, which I feel sure was the magic that pulled all the flavors together. It's an indulgent ingredient, however, and one that I'll use in Scrooge-like fashion until the last luscious cube is gone from the freezer. If you're not so lucky, substitute your favorite store-bought broth.

2-3 tbsp canola oil, divided
6 skinless, bone-in chicken thighs
2 tsp Adobo seasoning (or to taste)
salt, pepper
1 small onion, diced
2 tbsp dry sherry
1 1/2 cups brown rice
1 can diced tomatoes with jalapeno
1 cup homemade turkey broth (or store-bought chicken broth)
1 cup water
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar (optional)

Pour 1-2 tbsp oil in clay cazuela or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Generously sprinkle meatier side of chicken thighs with Adobo, arrange spice-side down in pot. Dust other side lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook chicken until lightly browned, about 5 minutes, then flip. When done, remove to a dish and keep warm.

Add remaining oil to pot along with diced onion. Reduce heat and sweat 4-5 minutes, then add sherry, stirring well to loosen any browned bits. When mostly reduced, add rice and stir well to coat. Add stock, can of tomatoes (with juice) and about a cup of water. Increase heat and bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, covered, about 10 minutes.

Give the rice a stir then tuck in the chicken pieces and any juices. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes. If rice is still soupy, remove chicken and simmer uncovered until thickened. Return chicken to pan for last minute, then serve. If desired -- and we did -- garnish with cheese.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pumpkin kugel

With Hanukkah coming so close on the heels of Thanksgiving, I am happily changing gears to decorate the house tomorrow. I also have made the transition from thinking about a juicy turkey to crispy latkes. While there are no visions of sugar plums in this house, but I did entertain a somewhat festive take on kugel today, thanks to an abundance of canned pumpkin in the cupboard.

I have to credit Bittman with the inspiration (No. 35), but I wound up making essentially the same kugel I make every holiday, only substituting a can of pumpkin for the more traditional jar of apricot preserves. There were a few other tweaks, too, like some brown sugar, nutmeg and orange zest.

1 16 oz bag egg noodles
3 eggs, beaten
1 24 oz container low-fat cottage cheese (such as Light 'N Lively)
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1 cup 2% milk
1 15 oz can pure pumpkin
1 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
zest of one small orange
4 cups corn flakes, crushed
2 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook egg noodles to al dente in a large pot of salted water. Drain and rinse lightly to cool.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, cottage cheese, sour cream and pumpkin; stir well to combine. Add milk, stir until smooth. Mix in brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and zest.

Add noddles, stirring well to combine. Coat 9x13 casserole lightly with vegetable oil spray and pour mix into dish. Top with crushed corn flakes and dot with butter.

Bakes 45 minutes or until set. Cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lost, then Found

I have only the most vague recollection of having snipped the recipe from the newspaper, an event that probably happened some 20 years ago. I'll never forget, however, the panic at realizing the directions for the single-most important part of my Thanksgiving feast -- my savory, jewel-toned cranberry-apple chutney -- was missing, and that even a friend with whom I share such treasures also could not find it.

I spent several years trying to recreate this lost gem with very mixed success. In the days before Google, locating an unsourced recipe was a mostly fruitless challenge. Thankfully, I finally found a copy I'd saved electronically, and promptly taped it to the inside of a kitchen cabinet.

This year, however, during a fit of purging old magazines and boxes of dusty clippings, I came across the original, yellowed with age and spotted with the evidence of past holidays. It was almost like finding a forgotten childhood photo. The kind where you actually look good.

Suffice it to say, as many times as I've made this, it's easier to get it right when you've got the directions in front of you. I've changed it a bit: a Granny Smith apple instead of a Jonathan; the zest of a lemon; more nuts and no cloves. I've also used fresh apple cider instead of water. Watching it transform from bright chunks into into a deep-hued jam is lovely thing, and the thought of not only enjoying  it with the tomorrowq's dinner but also later dolloped on sandwiches is, for me, proof that Thanksgiving is worth every bit of effort.


3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup water
1 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 cups raw cranberries (not frozen)
1/2 cup celery, diced
1 medium Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup diced walnuts

In a large saucepan, stir together brown sugar, water, lemon juice and zest, salt and spices; stir over medium heat to combine. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes.

Cool about 10 minutes then check for flavor balance. If too tangy, add more brown sugar or a spoonful of honey; mix well. Refrigerate, ideally at least 24 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Linguine with Carolina Clams

We're all eager for Thanksgiving here, but the arrival of the holiday also signals the end of our weekly deliveries of fresh seafood from Walking Fish, our excellent community supported fishery.

With just one more post-turkey day delivery left, we decided to make this most of this week's generous order of three bags of clams. We had expected one bag and some flounder, but Tim arrived late and they apologetically explained this was all that was left. We were delighted.

It's been a long time since I've made linguine and clams, so I relied on Bittman  for directions. Since I didn't have fresh tomatoes, I added a can of drained, diced tomatoes with garlic. It came together quickly and the plump clams retained their briny charm while soaking in the white wine broth, which was delicious mopped up with ciabatta.

My concern about whether the leftovers would reheat well vanished along with the mountain of clams, which Tim and Graham opted to stack in decidedly different styles. It was easy and delicious. Even Gimel agreed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Can you guess?

In this era of incivility and assumption, it would be wrong to make a snap judgment about an unfamiliar foodstuff, especially one recommended by an elderly auntie, without even trying it. Even if it looked really weird but came from a reliable source. Right?

I'm generally suspicious of food that most people won't touch by hand -- like dark, slippery beef liver, which even hearty butchers generally pluck from a sloshy container with a long-handled prong. Tonight's presumed delicacy, a pale buttery orange in its semi-natural state, came sheathed in a baggie to keep it apart from its famously scrumptious other parts.

For me, that's about as much a deal-breaker as a finding the word fennel in an otherwise intriguing menu option. Not so for Tim. These tubular oddities intrigued him.

Since he'd started a charcoal grill for the desirable main course, he figured he'd toss these on as well. Nicely charred and apparently cooked, he carried them in for sampling. Gamely setting one on his plate, he sliced off a chunk and chewed. Then he ate another. "Not bad," he said. "Interesting."

I think a man describing something as "interesting" is akin to a woman saying something is "fine." Nontheless, I took a portion of one and gave it a try. On the bright side, I can now honestly say I have eaten jumping mullet gizzards and lived to tell the tale.

It may be that grilling is not the best technique for cooking fish offal, but the only ones who really enjoyed it was the dogs, both of whom are especially keen on salmon. Tim described it as a cross between sweet potato and liver. I found it grainy and flavorless. Graham, who refused to try it, said it looked like a couscous sausage, which is oddly accurate.

Not surprisingly, there are those who sing the praises of jumping mullet gizzards, which I've also seen labeled as roe. A posting on Walking Fish, our awesome community-supported fishery that provided said jumping mullet this week, shared this tip:

September 22, 2010 @ 6:43 pm
Hi All,
A few people said they’re going to try using the Jumping Mullet gizzards this week! If you’re one of them, but you’re are sure what to do with them, here’s a little info from Debbie’s aunt:
“I called my 85 year old Aunt (born and lived in Beaufort all her life!) and asked her advice. She said to split one side and clean out the ‘innards’, rinse and pat dry. Dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then deep fry. Now I am going to have to try to find her some as well. Got her thinking about how good they are!!” ~ Debbie
If you try them, let us know what you think!!
So here's what I think: Blech. Bring on the jumping mullet, a somewhat boney but deliciously tender catch, but feel free to save these nasty bits for those who truly appreciate them.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Kale Chips and Pumpkin Mac and Cheese

Fall has finally arrived in Raleigh. We might literally have frost on the pumpkin tonight, and the leaves are close to peak color, but that's not what confirmed it for me.

No, I know it's officially fall because earlier tonight, in a fit of energy efficiency, I decided the time had come to close all the storm windows. And, as happens every year, I forgot how heavy they are and how easy it is to trap a finger in the track. Yup, I did it again.

Needless to say, the timing was perfet for a comfort food dinner. I've been wanting to try BrokeAss Gourmet's browned-butter pumpkin mac and cheese with white cheddar. I've also wanted to try to recreate the kale chips served at The Market, one of our new favorite restaurants downtown. Both were accomplished after a quick stop a Bickett Market, where I snagged a bag of tender organic Serbian Kale and fresh-cut local broccoli.

I'd heard kale chips are simple to prepare, but now that I've made them I'll never pay for an appetizer plate again. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly coat a jelly roll pan with vegetable spray. Strip leafy greens from the tough rib and tear into chunks. Arrange on pan with minimal overlap. Using a Misto sprayer (or similar), coat generously with a sheen of truffle oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Bake about 10-15 minutes or until light and crispy; keep an eye on this because they can turn into dust if you lost track of time. The Market serves theirs with a side of their delicious housemade ketchup. Instead, I warmed a bonus cup of marinara that came with a takeout calzone. Given how quickly it disappeared, I'd call it a success.

Gabi Moskowitz's BrokeAss Gourmet is one of my favorite sites for creative, frugal fare. This recipe generated considerable positive feedback, and it sounded like the perfect pre-Halloween dinner. Expecting it to be a hit, I made made a double batch and added a few extras: a small head of broccoli, chunked and roasted; a dusting of panko, lightly coated with oil spray (a step I'll skip next time); and a big handful of raw pepitas.

The pumpkin sauce was rich and creamy, though perhaps a bit light on oozy cheese appeal -- our fault, not the recipe, as it appeared that someone found my hidden chunk of cheese and nibbled. The roasted broccoli was a hit and the pepitas added color and a tasty crunch. So good, in fact, that my finger doesn't even hurt anymore.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Roasted eggplant parmesean

Eggplant parmesean is often my measure of an Italian restaurant. I love it almost as much as I am horrified by its high fat content, which is one of the reasons I never make it. It's just too rich and inviting to have a whole casserole in the house.

But today I had an idea for a less caloric variation that tastes equally indulgent thanks to a layer of roasted tomatoes. The inspiration came from a bag of mixed organic tomatoes that were marked down at the market. I started by trimming and tossing them with kosher salt, a generous sprinkle of oregano and a spritz of olive oil spray. They roasted at 400 degrees until nicely browned, about 40 minutes.

When I scooped them into a shallow bowl to cool, their heady perfume pointed like a cartoon hand to two plump eggplant on the counter. I peeled, diced and salted them and let the chunks sit about 15 minutes in a colander. After rinsing and squeezing dry, I put them back on the roasting pan with 2 big cloves of chopped garlic and about 2 tablespoons olive oil.

About 30 minutes later, after stirring twice to make sure every bit got a chance to brown, it was time to assemble the casserole. After coating the bottom with a light smear of canned pureed tomato, I spooned in about half of the eggplant. Next I layered in the roasted tomatoes, now coarsely chopped, and about half of a 2-cup bag of shredded "Italian blend" cheeses. I spread the rest of the eggplant on top, then the rest of the cheese and a drizzle of tomatoe puree.

Since it was hours until dinner, I covered it with foil and gave it a rest in the refrigerator. It later baked, covered, for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven, plus another 10 uncovered until bubbly and golden on top.

The result was gooey and delicious, with the roasted tomatoes providing incredible depth of flavor.

"Umami," declared Tim.

"Gross," declared Graham, who instead had a private bowl of steamed broccoli.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gnocchi, without the vacuum-sealed bag

About 10 years ago, we packed our bags and headed to the mountains of North Carolina for a family vacation. We rented a house near Boone that was big enough for the three of us, my in-laws, and Tim's brother and his four kids. Considering how many people we needed to feed at each meal, we also packed groceries to make easy eat-in meals.

Among the staples we selected were several vacuum-sealed boxes of gnocchi, which apparently was not available back then in East Liverpool, Ohio. My mother-in-law, a wonderful woman who would be the first to tell you she's not an adventurous cook, decided to get a head start on dinner. After simmering the gnocchi for a while she asked me how to tell if they were done. Imagine my surprise when I saw them bubbling away, still in the plastic bag and congealed into one enormous gluey dumpling.

I've made boxed gnocchi countless times and ways since then, and enjoyed the fresh-made, tender pillows of potato goodness at fine restaurants. I've often wanted to try making them from scratch but assumed it was too difficult. Not anymore.

This month's issue of Bon Appetit features Lidia Bastianch's butternut squash gnocchi with sage browned butter. We aleady had a fresh butternut squash from the market and Tim planned to replace our summer-stressed sage plant this weekend. With the stars so obviously aligned, I decided the time had come to learn how to make gnocchi.

Like many delicacies, gnocchi really isn't hard to make. While a bit different than other versions I've since checked online -- Lidia says to peel the potato before boiling and cook the gnocchi in stages and a bit longer -- her recipe is easy to follow. The only really tricky part is rolling of each piece into the classic shape and texture. I wish I'd taken a look at this how-to video before I made my somewhat squished examples.

I needn't have worried about their looks, or whether Graham would actually eat squash. While Lidia claimed the recipe would serve six, there was not a bite left.

Accidental Black Bean Dip

I have been feeling downright sanctified since we saw the Avett Brothers in concert Friday night. The Raleigh event was a big homecoming for the North Carolina band and, while they are internationally celebrated for their exceptional shows, this two-encore marathon really was powerful. So much so, that I have felt personally empowered ever since.

Yesterday, at the neighborhood year sale, I sold set of china with orange flowers (the height of mid-1980s suburban elegance) and a boxed set of gold-plated flatware (admit it, you've always wanted some) to a woman who was at least as happy to get them as I was to see them go. And a kid wearing a NC State T-shirt and a "Legalize It" necklace hauled off a battered sofa and paid us a few bucks for the love seat, which was still in decent condition, saving us the considerable hassle of hauling them to the dump. One can only wonder at their future use as fraternity furniture.

The magic has continued today. Fueled by toasted bagels topped with melty cream cheese, locally smoked trout and one of the last Mr. Stripeys of the season, I have been cooking more or less non-stop, stuffing our refrigerator with make-ahead's I've never made before and using a recipe for just one. I am working my way through Lidia Bastianch's butternut squash gnocchi, featured in the current Bon Appetit, which we will coat in sage browned butter for dinner. To stuff some lovely red bell peppers Tim snagged cheap at the farmer's market, I have simmered garlic-scented black beans, cooked farro and sauted a colorful mix to make an appealing vegetarian filling.

More on those later. What I aim to share right now is a practically accidental creation that even Graham, who eyed it with suspicion, admitted was delicious. Made with about a generous cup of extra black beans, it is a great dip -- much better than goopy processed ones from the store. It's good with tortilla chips, but I'm thinking about making quick quesadillas topped with grated manchego. I also think it would be quite nice warmed and dolloped in the center of a zesty tomato soup.

1 clove garlic
2 tbps shallot (or red onion)
1-1.5 cups black beans (rinse well if using canned)
1/4 cup favorite salsa (such as Newman's Own peach)
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp vegetable oil
salt, pepper
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, hand chopped

Add garlic and shallot or red onion to work bowl of small food processor; whirl until minced. Add next five ingredients and pulse until chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Whirl until until desired consistency.

Transfer to small bowl and add the chopped cilantro, stir to blend. Adjust seasonings or add hot sauce if desired.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fudgy Pumpkin Muffins: A Lament

"Fools!" declared Graham upon hearing that
the muffins were not a bake sale success.
I am bummed. I made a batch of muffins for an office bake sale today and couldn't help but notice that a few of them were still on the table near the end of the day. I suppose they were eventually bought in the buy-one-get-one clearance, but even in their stylish IKEA liners, they looked like the sad kids who are picked last for the kickball team.

Not that I'd know anything about that.

Anyway, the recipe for fudgy pumpkin muffins was shared by my neighbor, Cathy Elsea, who praised their healthful properties -- not to mention ease of preparation. I made a test batch over the weekend and Graham was almost as disappointed when he snarfed the last one as I was when I spied the remainders this afternoon.

I'll definitely make these again for us, but next year it's back to brownies for the bake sale. It's almost an overstatement to call this a recipe, but here it is.

1 box Devil's Food cake mix
1 15-ounce can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

Optional: pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven according to cake mix directions.

Blend cake mix and pumpkin with an electric blender until well combined. Batter will be fairly stiff.

Lightly coat muffin pan with vegetable oil spray or use liners (I sprayed the liners also, as too much of the fudgy goodness stuck to the paper on my first attempt). The box says it should make 18 muffins, but this is a dense batter that will not rise like typical cake mix. I opted for a dozen filled-to-the-brim muffins and topped each with a sprinkling of pepitas. Cathy's garnish of choice is mini chocolate chips.

Bake according to cake mix directions, about 20-25 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Let cool at least 10 minutes, or jump in when you can't stand it anymore.

While the dense chocolately flavor is a big part of the appeal, I think these would be equally tasty made with carrot or spice cake mix -- or even sweet potato puree instead of pumpkin. Whatever sounds best, join the team and give them a try.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

First taste of fall

I've been feeling very relucant about giving up on summer. Not the endless 90-degree days. Not the thick humidity. It's the corn and zucchini, the tomatoes and the peaches. I'm just not ready.

Tim's cheery disposition when he brought acorn squash home from the farmer's market this weekend was too much to resist. Their rich, nutty aroma while roasting filled the kitchen and made a welcome side dish with dinner.

2 tsp ground cardamon
1 tbsp local honey
natural-style apple juice
2 medium acorn squash
salt, pepper
1-2 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Arrange in shallow baking dish. Sprinkle generously with cardamon, drizzle with honey and fill about halfway with apple juice.

Roast about 40 minutes or until tender. Cover with foil and let rest about 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, scoop flesh (reserve excess juice) into food processor. Add salt, pepper, butter and juice as needed to whirl until smooth. Lean in close and inhale the savory smell of fall. Serve.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Torteelia Encrusted Tenders

"Thank you for calling the Legislative Cafeteria. No one is able to answer your call..."

One of the peculiar pleasures of being a state employee who works in the Downtown State Government Complex is lunching at the Legislative Cafeteria. It's not great cuisine, but it's reasonably priced and convenient. Also, you never know who you might see or what you might overhear.

Even if I bring lunch or live large and go to a real restaurant, I sometimes can't resist calling the information line just to hear what's on the menu -- which is, with rare exception, the exact same thing week after week.

My favorite item -- to hear, definitely not to eat -- is a standard Tuesday special, which the uber-serious speaker carefully and emphatically pronounces as "Torteelia Encrusted Tilapia." On a slow or especially stressful day, there's just nothing so guaranteed to make me laugh. Especially on speaker phone.

So tonight, in affectionate tribute, I made Torteelia Encrusted Tenders. It's hardly a recipe, and there's little chance of rubbing elbows with legislators or reporters in my kitchen, but it does make for a quick and easy weeknight dinner.

Whether you make this or not, on some future Tuesday after 11 a.m., call 919-715-4806 to hear about the fish o' the day. Crank up the speaker phone and enjoy.

1 pkg. boneless, skinless chicken tenders
chile-lime seasoning (such as Tajin)
salt, pepper
1/3 cup Newman's Own Light Lime Vinaigrette
hot sauce, to taste
leftover favorite tortilla chips, crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Season chicken tenders with salt, pepper and chile-lime seasoning; place in small bowl. Pour lime vinaigrette and hot sauce over chicken tenders and stir to coat. Let sit at least 10 minutes (if longer, refrigerate).

Thoroughly crush tortilla chips in bag. Drop tenders into bag, two at a time. Scrunch the bag top and shake well to coat; repeat until done.

Arrange tenders on cookie cooling rack (or similar) coated with vegetable oil spray. Place over rimmed sheet pan of catch excess crumbles and bake 30 minutes or until done and crispy.

Optional dipping sauce:  Mix 2-3 tbsp. light sour cream or Greek yogurt with an equal amount of your favorite salsa, stir well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Diana Kennedy: Revolutionista

"There really is nothing like experience
in the kitchen," said Diana Kennedy.

Not long after a small but appreciative crowd listened to her describe the 14 years of research and testing that went into her new book, Diana Kennedy took her seat behind a signing desk at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

"What can I say? Two hundred people came to my last reading," she said this afternoon with an accepting shrug as fans lined up to sample some of her recipes from Oaxaca, An Infinite Gastronomy, which were prepared by Foster's Market. "I'm not Rachel Ray."

And that, to paraphrase another over-exposed media mogul cum cook, is a good thing. Admired globally for her ardent support of Mexican culture and cuisine, Kennedy is as much a revolutionary as those who claimed Mexico as their home long before the petite UK native landed there as a bride in 1957. Indeed, her call to culinary arms is as potent today as the forebears whose bold break from Spain inspired bicentennial celebrations earlier this month.

While her books are highly praised by critics and she's earned the prestigious IACP Lifetime Achievement Award -- not to menton the equivalent of knighthood from her beloved Mexico -- Kennedy does not enjoy the instant name recongition and mega-sales of other culinary giants. Even her own publisher feels the need to define her as "the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine." Perhaps that's a necessity in this time when foodies gain fame for cartoonish personas, clingy on-air-wear and mass-marketed product lines that target harried home cooks.

Fellow cookbook author Sara Foster of Foster's Market
was first in line with several Kennedy titles.
Still, while "Master Chef" Rick Bayless rules the contemporary Mexican food scene, Kennedy's been at this since he was a niño de pañales. Influential and fiesty, she name-drops in a way few can: She has shared with the Officio de la Presidente that its failure to adequately support and market indigenous chiles is "disgraceful."

The no-nonsense women who live buy-local-eat-local lifestyles not by fashionable choice but necessity are the heroes of Kennedy's universe. She described how she camped in their villages, literally with her own cot and sleeping bag, to watch and listen as they shared the secrets of their cazuelas and how they used locally-grown ingredients.

"I'm really getting on in years and I've been around kitchens so long," the octogenarian said when asked how she later recreates these treasures. "I don't carry measuring spoons. There is nothing like experience in the kitchen."

Kennedy described Oaxaca, a handsomely illustrated 6-pound tome, as "very much an anthropological book."

"It is important in this day of marginalization to give credit to cooks who are surviving on the ingredients around them," she said, noting that Oaxaca's diverse microclimates produce varieties of chiles, corn and other delicacies found no where else in the world. "Writing this book taught me a great deal about how people live and why we need to know where our food comes from."

So appalled by a question about genetically-modified salmon that she merely flicked her hand in response, Kennedy urged those gathered to "take a stand" against jumbo tomatillos that have found their way into American grocery stores and to not buy dried chiles unless they clearly state their source.

"Do not buy chiles de arbol without stems," she warned. "They are from China. There also is garlic imported into Mexico from Peru! I find it quite disgraceful that our government does not put a stop to this."

Despite a tempermental laptop that would not project the enticing travelogue of photos from her book, Kennedy carried her audience on a vivid roadtrip that focused on Oaxaca's essential trinity of corn, chiles and cacao. She did not linger on particular recipes, instead plainly advising fans to buy the $50 book -- and a few others, while they were at it.

"There's a reason really good cookbooks are expensive," she said, ticking off how "first you cook your book, then you eat it, then you fight for years with your editors over foolish things like photo credits," which she insisted were published with each image instead of an easily overlooked list at the end.

"Really, it's a better deal than fiction," she said matter-of-factly. "When you consider the cost of a good cookbook over the, oh, 30 or so years it gives you pleasure, it's actually very cheap."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Creamy Pesto

We have been so consumed with household matters lately that we've barely paused to consume anything of interest. We've eaten, of course; but, after spending the better part of the past two weeks purging our attic of unnecessaries -- and converting a former "junk" room into a welcoming guest bedroom -- we've been too pooped to feel inspired in the kitchen.

Thankfully, Tim took a much needed break Sunday afternoon to visit the State Farmer's Market. We've ignored this year-round resource lately in favor of the many local markets that have mushroomed in our area. Too busy to visit our regular vendors on Saturday, he went downtown expecting to return with nothing but the basics. Instead, he brought home deep green Asian long beans, heavy Cherokee Purple tomatoes, several varieties of tender eggplant, and a big bag of fragrant basil leaves.

Basil may not sound like a big deal, but our once-endless supply was yanked a few weeks ago after wilting in record-breaking summer heat. It provided the perfect excuse to make one of the simplest, practically no-measure recipes in our repertoire: Creamy pesto, a concoction that turns low-fat cottage cheese into a deceptively rich sauce.

This is not for pesto purists, who may consider it a culinary catastrophe. We truly don't measure when we make this family favorite, which is highly tweakable based on what's in your pantry. Don't have pine nuts? Try walnuts. Tastes too green? Try some lemon zest and/or squeeze of juice. If you like it hot, add some chili flakes.

This is one of those sauces easily assembled by eyeball and taste, so be bold. It takes less time to prepare than to cook the pasta. Be sure to save some pasta water to finish sauce; keep a little on the side in case you have leftovers as a splash will help with reheating. If you wind up with more sauce than you need for the pasta, save the extra to smear on grilled or roasted salmon or chicken, or add to ground meat for awesome burgers.

Add your favorite pasta to salted boiling water. Cook as directed, omitting oil or butter.

Toast about 1/4 cup pine nuts in a dry pan until fragrant and just starting to brown. Set aside to cool.

Chunk a thick, 2-inch piece of aged paremesean, preferrably Reggiano, and add it to workbowl. Pulse until well chopped but not powdery. Set aside.

Drop one large clove of garlic, a good pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper in workbowl of food processor; whirl until coarsely chopped.

Rinse and pat dry a large bunch of basil (about 2-3 cups, loosely packed); reserve leaves and set aside. Do the same with about half as much flat-leaf parsley. Add to workbowl and chop coarsely. Slowly drizzle in olive oil while running until puree is loose and shiny.

Add about 1 cup of lowfat cottage cheese (such a Light & Lively) and parmesean (reserve some for garnish) to workbowl and pulse to blend. Add pine nuts (again, reserve a few for garnish), and pulse until desired consistency. We like ours to have texture, but you can let it rip for a really smooth consistency.

Drain pasta, reserving at least 1 cup of pasta water. Return drained pasta to pot and stir in creamy pesto. Add pasta water as needed to blend well. Pour into serving bowl and garnish with reserved pine nuts and cheese.

If you make this after a long weekend of household chores, take an Alleve for dessert and go to bed early.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A different burger for Labor Day dinner

We all labored mightily this weekend to clear our cluttered home of things we don't need -- including all sorts of strange must-keeps from the last purge, like at least a dozen unused, still-wrapped VHS cassettes. Tim's car is loaded with donatables and our jumbo garbage bin is too full to close. We'll actually have to ask a neighbor who was away for the holiday if we can stash more trash in his.

We feel fairly righteous about our accomplishments, and tickled to have located old family photos and other forgotten treasures. Among my weekend discoveries is, I'm pretty sure, a new understanding of where one's rotator cuff is located. Still, I can lift my arms enough to repeatedly open formerly jam-packed cupboards and closets to admire their orderly glow.

Our satisfaction is tempered, though, by the thought of next weekend's task of tackling the attic, which Tim said would likely qualify us for an episode of "Hoaders."

Despite dealing with this or running errands all weekend, we managed today to work in a bit of the traditional: the US Open blared in the background and requisite food breaks featured "angus" hot dogs for lunch and burgers for dinner. I wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary with the burgers and opted for a Thai-inspired blend that delivered savory success. We slammed them before I thought to take a photo but, colorfully flecked with carrot and cilantro and topped with buttery avocado slices, trust me, they looked as good as they tasted.

The meat we used was simply labeled "ground beef" by a local organic provider, Rare Earth Farms of Raleigh. If you want a juicy burger, choose at least 10-15 percent fat. Remember, a lot of it drips out while cooking, and what remains is flavor.

We served this with delicious Cauliflower and Potato Salad from Guilty Kitchen. I lost track of the garlic and shallots and they became rather well carmelized -- which is to say, just this side of burned. I didn't have more and decided to use them anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they added a nice chewy bite, almost like bacon bits but all veggie.

1 small carrot, shredded
1/4 cup red onion, shredded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1 1/2 tbsp chunky peanut butter (such as Jif)
hot sauce, to taste
salt and pepper
1 lb ground beef
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced
split buns, lightly grilled
mayonnaise, *mustard

Gather first seven ingredients in mixing bowl; mash or stir well to combine. Add beef and blend with a light hand. Chill about 10-15 minutes.

Form into 3-4 hamburgers. Grill to desired doneness.

Lightly grill buns; dress with mayo, mustard and avocado slices.

*Graham is in a Dijon phase (Grey Poupon, mais oui ); we used a drizzle of Gulden's Honey Mustard.

Monday, August 30, 2010

In the (Mango) Zone

I am pleased to announce that I officially joined a sort of club tonight. It's not so elite as having climbed Kilimanjaro but, for me, it was a fairly giant step into a culinary landscape I never planned to boldly tread. Simply put, I entered the Mango Zone.

Chef Sandra Gutierrez
It happened at my neighborhood Fresh Market, an upscale, mostly organic grocery store whose produce department  --  if you squint or just skip glasses altogether  --  typically displays a Monet-ish palatte of robustly splattered color. I had the idea while driving home that I would try making Sandra Gutierrez's Green Mango Salad and felt sure this was the one place on my route where I could count on finding a truly green, truly hard mango.

They had a nice display of blushingly tender mangos, but Sandra made it clear that was entirely wrong for this crisp, lime-drenched delight. I asked an employee if she would check in the back for green ones, ideally with little or no give. She looked at me like I was insane and patiently explained in a loud, clear voice -- did I look deaf, too? -- why the ones on the shelf were clearly superior.

A nice fellow who resembled a manager must have sensed a vibe of slight irritation -- not allowed at customer-friendly Fresh Market -- and instantly appeared with an offer to check again. Returning empty-handed and chagrined, he set about inspecting each available mango for minimal ripeness, a task I could tell worked against his every instinct. He offered the one least likely to appeal to anyone else.

I put it in my basket happily, grateful not only for his effort, but also the realization that I was one of them: cooks who seek out seemingly odd ingredients that really prove worth the hunt.

This particular quest was a big deal for me because, until I took Sandra's wonderful Latin Street Foods class last week, I would have placed mango in the same dreaded category as fennel -- a concept that stunned several tablemates last May at our inn in Mexico City when I bypassed the slippery slices on the fruit tray and eyed my morning juice glass with suspicion.

While the mango I bought was not ideal -- a tad too ripe, it lacked the pale color and did not slice as cleanly as the ones she used in class -- the result was indeed worth making a fuss. I even rewarded myself with seconds.

Since Sandra's first cookbook is due in Fall 2011, I think it unfair to quote her recipe. I tweaked it a bit to suit my pantry, but I suppose the basic ingredients speak for themselves. Williams-Sonoma at Southpoint, which presented her well-attended class, pledged to have her back when the book is published by UNC Press. Until then, you can follow her blog at or on Twitter, @sandralatinista.