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Archive for December, 2009

Mashed potatoes evoke strong feelings: they must have chunks, or have no chunks. A ricer/food processor/drop of water must never touch them. You must you this or that kind of dairy.

caramelized onion mashers.jpg

One way around the whole controversy is to make a variation on the traditional dish. Everyone will be so suprised that you put nutmeg in that they’ll be quiet about your preferred mashing tool. Or at least, we can hope.

Mashed potatoes with caramelized onions, brandy, and nutmeg
Adapted from a recipe in the Boston Globe, November 22, 2009

1 T. canola oil
6 T. unsalted butter
2 lbs. onions (about 4)
Salt and pepper
1/2 c. brandy or cognac
1/2 t. nutmeg
2 1/2 lbs. potatoes (5 to 7 potatoes)*
1/2 c. half-and-half

First, the onions. Peel and dice them, then heat a skillet with one tablespoon of butter plus the canola oil over medium heat. Add a pinch of salt and the onions and cook until they soften, then turn the heat down to medium-low. The slower you can stand to cook these, the sweeter they will be, and as long as the butter is bubbling and popping, they’re cooking. You want to cook them to a medium brown color, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes on medium to close to an hour on a lower heat. All of the ways produce onions mellow enough to use, but the sweetness of really caramelizing them slowly is worth the wait.

When the onions are getting close to done, peel the potatoes and chop them into roughly one-inch cubes. It’s best to do this one potato at a time, peeling and chopping and then putting the pieces in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.

Set up a pot with a steamer basket big enough to hold your potatoes. Add enough water to come close to the bottom of the steamer, and put it on to boil.

Meanwhile, rinse the potatoes in a couple of changes of cold water; this helps remove excess starch. You can hold the potatoes in a bowl of very cold water (I sometimes even add ice) until the water boils. Once it does, put the potatoes into the steamer basket and set a timer for ten minutes.

steaming potatoes.jpg

When the onions are caramelized, stir in the brandy and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, until it no longer smells like evaporating alcohol. Stir in the nutmeg and remove from the heat.

When your timer goes off, carefully pull the steamer out of the pot and rinse the potatoes under cold running water (more starch removal!), then put them back in to steam until they’re tender all the way through. This will take 10-15 more minutes, depending on the exact size of your chunks.

While that’s happening, warm up the half-and-half and melt the remaining five tablespoons of butter.

ready to mash.jpg

When the potatoes are done, you need to start squishing them. The easiest way to do this is with a potato ricer, which is like a garlic press on steroids, but of course, mashing with a potato masher or even forks will do the job. Or you can fake a ricer by pushing the potatoes through a medium-mesh sieve with the back of a spoon.

Once they’re mostly squished, add the melted butter. (You’re going to want to mix gently if you used a ricer; if you’re mashing by hand, keep at it.) Add the half-and-half a bit at a time, until you’ve attained nearly your preferred level of squishiness. Then mix in the onions, which will make them just a bit squishier, salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

*I am a huge fan of Yukon Gold, which is a medium-starch variety, for mashing. If you use a starchier potato like russets, you may need more half-and-half. Stay away from waxy potatoes (like the little red-skinned ones) for mashing; they’re better for salads.

**You can caramelize extra onions and freeze them, and then you’ll have them ready any time you want them! When you defrost, they’ll be pretty soft and mushy, but that’s the nature of caramelized onions anyway, so it’s fine for nearly all uses. Just take your extras out before you add the brandy!

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Alice Waters is pretty my much idol. She was into local food before it was a thing people were into, and now that she’s got that sorted, she’s moving on to saving school lunch.

carrot soup.jpg

So even though this carrot soup recipe looks ridiculously simple, you’re going to want to take her word for it that it’s a good idea.

Alice Waters’ carrot soup
Adapted from Soup’s On! via Serious Eats

2 T. unsalted butter
1 onion
1/2 sprig thyme or about 1/4 t. dried
1 1/4 lbs. carrots (about 6)
1 t. salt
3 c. stock (Alice uses chicken; I used Imagine brand no-chicken)

First, peel the carrots and then slice them thinly. If you’re me, this means using a food processor with a slicing blade or a mandoline, but those with better knife skills should not hesitate to use them. If your carrots are fat, you might want to halve them before slicing.

Then dice the onion.

Put the butter in a pot over medium-low heat. When it melts, add the onion and thyme, and cook slowly until the onion is quite soft, about ten minutes.

onions and thyme

Add the carrots and cook for five more minutes, stirring once in a while.

add carrots

(Dubious stove lighting, you are becoming a bigger and bigger problem for me!)

Add in the stock and turn the heat to high. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender. How long this takes depends on your slicing, but half an hour is a good first time to check.

I ate this straight up; Alice recommends a sprinkle of chives, and there’s a reason she’s Alice Waters.

Serves about four

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Normally I’m opposed to adding anything sweet to orange vegetables. They start off pretty sweet as is, so savory preparations usually seem like the way to go. Also, I somehow managed to grow up sheltered from the travesty that is sweet potato-marshmallow casserole. But I digress.

maple-glazed sweet potatoes.jpg

My point is that this recipe, despite the fact that it involves maple syrup, is not too sweet. The syrup’s taste is nearly undetectable, but the sugar helps the potatoes caramelize to a nice crust. As a bonus, these are cooked at a high temperature, which means they don’t need hours in the oven to cook through.

Maple-glazed sweet potatoes
Adapted from Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, via Serious Eats

3 medium sweet potatoes
3 T. melted butter
3 T. maple syrup
Salt

Preheat your oven to 500 F. (That is not a typo.)

Peel the sweet potatoes and chop them in half the long way. Slice again the long way, and then cut any really tall pieces in half (still the long way!) to make shapes like fries. You can cut them in half to make matchsticks if they’re unreasonably long. (You can also use other shapes, of course, but you may need to adjust the cooking time; keeping the size of chunks uniform is the part that’s key here.) If it takes you as long as it took me to do all that chopping, keep the chopped pieces in a bowl of cold water so they don’t turn funky colors.

Melt the butter in the microwave or a saucepan.

Spread the pieces out in a single layer on a baking pan. If you aren’t morally opposed to non-stick cookware, it will make your cleanup a lot easier in this case. I used two 9×13 pans for my potatoes, mostly because I made long sticks. Pour the butter over the potatoes and stir to coat, then stick them in the oven for ten minutes.

After ten minutes, the potatoes should be mostly cooked. Take them out of the oven and carefully pour the maple syrup over them, avoiding opportunities to burn yourself on the pan. (Do as I say, not as I do.) Use a spatula to turn and stir them, distributing the syrup as evenly as reasonably possible.

maple sweet potatoes - baking.jpg

Return them to the oven for another five or seven minutes, until they’re getting a bit crispy and are tender all the way through. (You can check this last with a toothpick.) Transfer to a serving dish and salt to taste.

Makes 2-3 servings; doubles easily

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One of my brilliant friends came up with an idea she calls “the roasted duck test.” The gist of the roasted duck test is to hold up any fancy preparation of an ingredient to a classic, simple, and really delicious one. I find it to be a good check on messing with a good thing.

green beans.jpg

This recipe for green beans would definitely pass whatever the green bean equivalent of the roasted duck test is, though. It only requires a couple of extra steps, and it’s really tasty. I was completely afraid it would taste too much like dill, but it was a baseless fear. The sweetness of the leeks cuts the dill perfectly, and they’re well worth washing the leeks to make.

Dilly Green Beans
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

4 leeks
1/3 c. fresh dill, well chopped
1 lb. green beans
splash of extra-virgin olive oil (a couple of tablespoons)
big pinch of salt (use sea salt if you have it)

First, you need to prepare the leeks. You want to cut off the hairy end as close as you can to where the roots start, and chop off the top where it becomes more green than white. (Don’t worry; precision is not important here.)

Cut the part of the leek that’s left into quarters lengthwise, so you have four long, triangular pieces per leek. Dump these into a bowl of water and swish around, getting as much water between layers as you can manage.

Then pull them out and dice them. (Here’s a good hint: you can wash and chop two bunches at once and then freeze the extra for next time.)

Snap both ends off of the green beans. I usually do this with my fingers; a knife works too, if you don’t mind sacrificing a little bean in the name of efficiency. Rinse them in a colander under running water.

Put a big skillet over medium-high heat (this is a good time for one with a fairly thick bottom if you have it) and add the splash of oil and pinch of salt. Add the leeks and stir to coat. Keep cooking until the leeks start to get golden and crisped at the edges. You’ll want to stir frequently throughout this process to keep them from burning; it’ll take something in the vicinity of ten minutes.

Add the green beans and dill and stir to mix. Throw in a splash of water (two or three tablespoons; a little less if your lid really fits well on your skillet) and cover the pan for a couple of minutes to steam the beans. I like mine cooked for two or three minutes, at which point they’re still very crispy, but if you prefer yours more on the cooked-through side, you may want to leave them for almost twice as long. If your beans are fresh, they’ll turn bright green when they’re just barely cooked, but your mouth is your most reliable doneness gauge in this case. (If you’re making enough for leftovers, either err on the side of undercooking or remove the portion you’re not planning to eat that night a minute or two early. That way they won’t get overcooked when you reheat them.)

When they’re cooked, remove the lid and allow any remaining water to boil off before transferring to a serving dish.

Serves 4-6 as a side

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Parsnip spice muffins

I am now in the middle of my winter CSA, in that kind of scary part in the middle where you’ve gotten 2/3 of the produce but have only cooked 1/4 of it. Sure, a lot of it stores well, but it’s a pretty intimidating mountain of produce.

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Every year, I find a few produce stumpers: things I have no bad feelings about and can think of ways I could cook, but for which I can’t come up with any way I’d really want to cook it. They usually end up in a big pile of roasted root veggies, where sweet potatoes can take away their sting.

Parnsips are one of those stumpers for me, but this recipe turned into something I was delighted with: moist and rich with the same spices you’d use in pie, but not overwhelming for 8 am consumption. Don’t be scared off by the quantities of spices: through some kind of parsnip-based alchemy, nothing is overpowering in the final mix.

Parsnip spice muffins
adapted from Epicurious

3 large parsnips
3 eggs
1/2 c. canola or other vegetable oil
1/2 c. milk (I used low-fat, which is what I keep around)
1 t. vanilla extract, divided
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 c. sugar
1 T. ground ginger
2 t. baking powder
1 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. ground nutmeg
3/4 t. ground allspice
3/4 t. ground cloves
pinch salt
1/2 c. chopped walnuts*

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease your muffin pans if you won’t be using paper liners.

Trim the ends off the parsnips, and then peel and grate them. Using a food processor is not cheating. You want to end up with about two packed cups of grated parsnip.

Mix the eggs, oil, milk, and vanilla in a bowl until blended. Add all of the dry ingredients — flour, sugar, ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and salt — and mix just to combine. Avoid overmixing, which can make quick breads tough. Stir in the grated parsnips and walnuts.

parsnip muffin batter.jpg

Spoon into muffin tins, filling each about 3/4, and bake 18-20 minutes, until a tester inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean. If your oven doesn’t heat evenly, you may want to rotate the pans halfway through.

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Makes about 18.

*Walnuts can often be bought in pieces, which is handy for just these occasions, but you can also totally use your chef’s knife to make pieces by piling the nuts up and rocking your knife back and forth across them, then re-piling, turning your knife 90 degrees, and repeating until they’re appropriately fine.

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The magic line separating me from real cooks, I have long believed, is about improvisation. As I’ve learned to cook, I’ve become more and more comfortable winging it — applying familiar preparations to new combinations of things, taking “season to taste” ever more literally — but I’m not someone with a natural talent for looking at a series of ingredients and thinking “I know, a cake!”

I have a hunch I might not be the only person ever in this situation, so I want to tell any fellow fearful improvisers there about my favorite gateway improv technique: template recipes.

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Template recipes are the kind of base recipes that lend themselves well to adaptation. They have a few base ingredients and several places where you could easily swap in something else. Mark Bittman is the king of this method, but here’s my contribution, with all kinds of annotation to help you get started. Tell me about what you make in the comments!

Improvisational Quinoa
Inspired by 101 Cookbooks

1 pint cherry tomatoes
These are, for me, one of the key flavor components of the dish. You could substitute full-sized tomatoes, of course, or sun-dried tomatoes, or maybe even leave them out and use tomato pesto, but you’ll get something pretty different if you just skip them.

2 c. quinoa
When substituting grains, you want to think about two things: size and cooking time. Any other small grain you like could work here: bulgur, buckwheat, barley, couscous, rice. Because you cook the grain as a separate step, you can decide how much you care about cooking time; you could also use leftovers of something you’ve already cooked.

a few splashes of olive oil
When improvising, I recommend sticking with relatively neutral oils for cooking, like olive, canola, or safflower. If you want it, you can add a dash of a more strongly flavored oil later in the cooking process for the taste.

1 onion
Subbing members of the onion family — onions, leeks, purple onions, shallots, scallions — for each other usually works out fine. Scallions, shallots, and leeks are a bit milder in taste, so you’ll want to use more to get the same strength of flavor. Purple onions look silly when cooked, but taste fine.

1 head broccoli
This is really code for “a vegetable with a bit of crunch.” Green beans or asparagus would work well here; you could also use edible-pod peas, shredded carrots, or more than one of the above.

1 bunch chard
You can almost always substitute dark leafy greens for each other: I use kale and chard most often. You can substitute spinach too, which cooks a little more quickly. You’ll want to check on greens by tasting them after they wilt until they reach the desired level of tenderness.

1 lb. extra-firm tofu
You could substitute a mild bean here: edamame, of course, or cannellini.

1/2 c. pesto
The pesto is a key flavor in this dish. If you want to experiment with other options, go for something that’s roughly the same thickness: tahini sauce might work, but marinara probably won’t.

1/3 c. pine nuts
The key factor here is crunch: you could substitute seeds or a nut like chopped almonds without a super-strong flavor.

A note on quantities
In a dish like this, where you mix a bunch of ingredients together, you can almost always flex on quantities. I usually do this mostly to use up the quantities things come in: a whole bunch of chard or bag of spinach, one pack of tofu or cherry tomatoes.

On to the cooking!
First: roast the tomatoes.
Preheat your oven to 350 F. Chop the cherry tomatoes in half. Get out a square baking pan; if it’s not non-stick, you might be wise to line it with aluminum foil, as scrubbing off caramelized tomato sugar is not the most fun activity ever.

ready to roast tomatoes.jpg

Put the tomatoes into the pan, and add a splash of olive oil. Your goal here is to be able to coat the tomatoes lightly in oil, but too much is better than too little. Sprinkle with 2-3 pinches of salt and bake for 45 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they’re shriveled.

roasted tomatoes.jpg

Now, start the quinoa: the first step is to rinse the quinoa in a strainer. This is important because unwashed quinoa tastes like soap, and it’s usually hard to tell if the manufacturer washed it for you.

rinse the quinoa.jpg

Stick the quinoa and four cups of water in a saucepan, and put it on high heat until it boils. Then turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes. It’s done when it is tender to the bite, like rice; you’ll be able to see little curlicues in many of the pieces. It will probably just absorb all the water in this process, but drain it in the strainer if there’s any left in the bottom of the pot. Then fluff up the quinoa with a fork.

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While the quinoa and tomatoes are cooking, dice the onion. Put it in a pot over medium low heat with a splash of oil and a big pinch of salt so it starts to caramelize. Stir it once in a while so it cooks evenly.

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Now chop up the tofu into bite-sized pieces. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat with a splash of oil in it, then throw in the tofu and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s golden on at least a couple of sides of each piece. Turn it out on to a paper-towel-lined plate.

cooked tofu.jpg

(Hey, how’s that quinoa doing? I know you set a timer; I’m just checking.)

Meanwhile, separate the broccoli into bite-sized florets and devein and then finely chop the chard. (Veins won’t get noticeably softer during a short cooking process, so you can take a nibble to see how big a vein you personally find problematic.)

chopped veggies.jpg

(What ever happened to those tomatoes from step 1? Are they done yet?)

When it is, you can turn up the heat under the onion to medium-high. Throw the broccoli in, along with a splash of water; a tablespoon or so should do it. Cover the pan for a bit to let the vegetable steam: I’d give green beans and asparagus a minute, and maybe a minute and a half or two for broccoli. You don’t want it to cook all the way through, just to turn bright green.

Remove the cover and add your chard. Cook for another couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until it is wilted and tender. Throw in the tofu and the cooked quinoa, and cook until heated through.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pesto — add more if it doesn’t taste pesto-y enough for you! — along with the nuts and tomatoes, plus salt and pepper to taste. You can serve it as is, or with more pesto or parmesan cheese on top.

For me, this makes about eight servings and takes about an hour to get on the table; it also reheats beautifully.

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Cookies and comfort

Cookies were the first genre of food that I felt like I had mastered. I started making them regularly when I was about ten and I pretty much never stopped.

Cookies are a kind of traditional comfort food: even for those of us not lucky enough to be descended from a long line of bakers, they evoke childhood, nostalgia, and affection.

For me, though, it’s the process of making cookies that is comforting: creaming the butter, cracking the eggs, the difficulty in stirring at the end, the rhythm of dolloping dough onto the cookie sheet and then lifting it off 10 minutes later. There’s something about the way it involves my body and all of my senses that makes me start softening butter at the first sign of stress.

oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.jpg

I didn’t enter the realm of oatmeal-with-other-stuff cookies until a few years back. My father has an inordinate affection for a particular oatmeal cookie recipe with no additions, and baking something that looked like his beloved treat but was actually not just seemed cruel. But even he deigned to taste these: chewy and thick, loaded with chocolate, but not too sweet. You didn’t hear this from me, but I bet they’d be good for breakfast.

Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies
Slightly adapted from Orangette

2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter (that’s a stick and a half)
1 c. brown sugar, packed
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 T. vanilla
1 egg + 1 yolk*
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips
1 1/2 c. oats**

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

In a big bowl, melt the butter in the microwave. Stir in the brown and granulated sugar, then the vanilla, then the egg plus the yolk. Stir this until it’s all well mixed.

Add the flour, baking soda, and salt all at once, and stir to blend. The dough will resemble regular cookie dough at this stage. Then add the oats and chocolate chips. You may have a hard time getting all of the chocolate chips incorporated into the dough, but don’t worry about it. You can always smush them in when you’re forming the cookies!

Grease your cookie sheets, and form the dough into little balls about 1 1/2 inches across. Because the dough is stiff, it’s probably easiest to use your hands. Conveniently, this also allows you to press the chocolate chips into the cookies, which results in more chocolate in the cookies and less burned on to your baking sheet. Everybody wins!

Bake for 18 minutes, then start checking. Mine actually took around 24 minutes. These cookies don’t brown much, so you might need to use a spatula to peek at the bottom and see if the cookie has attained cohesion to figure out if they’re done. You can also poke the top with a finger (carefully!) to see if it’s still wet.

After removing the cookies from the oven, take the cookies off the sheets — on to wire racks if you have them, or paper towels on plates if you don’t — so the chocolate can’t cement them in place. Try not to burn your tounge.

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*Separating eggs: the easiest way to do this, in my opinion, is to crack the egg open and then, before pulling the halves of the shell apart, turn the egg so you’re holding it vertically, as if it were still in the carton. Pull the top half off, and let as much of the egg white run off as you can. Then gently pour the yolk into the other half, letting more white run off. Then you’re left with just the yolk in the shell, and you can drop it into your bowl! You can freeze the white to use later, and if you’re smart, you might even think to label it with how many whites are in it. (I will next time, honest.)

**About oats: people writing recipes seem to think that there’s some vast difference between quick-cooking and old-fashioned rolled oats. In most cases, I don’t find it to be relevant and just use whatever I have on hand. For my batch of cookies, I used about half quick-cooking and half old-fashioned, but don’t get hung up on it.

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