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.