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Focaccia, with a helping of inspiration

March 30th, 2009 | 7 Comments »

Sometimes, when I frantically yank on my ‘Iron Chef’ hat with dinner staring me in the face, what I pull from my pantry and fridge to make a meal is memorable, but never something I would do again; it worked for the moment but that’s about it.

Not this focaccia. This one will be here to stay.

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I’m still loving this book, and legally can possess it without monetary fine for another few weeks before the library politely expects its return so I’m trying to dig in deep and fill more pages with flour and watermarks, but so far I’ve managed to use this focaccia recipe enough that the book falls open to the page with little effort.

I love me a good focaccia.

This particular bread is a wonderful canvas for a wide array of toppings- everyone loves a good sea-salt sprinkled chunk, dipped in a little olive oil touched with fresh ground pepper; you can top a foccacia with grated parmesan cheese and herbs, tomato slices and asiago, red wine soaked mushrooms and rosemary……the list is endless. And unlike some bread recipes, this focaccia has one rise, then you form it in your baking pan, leave it for maybe a half hour to puff up a bit, then bake it. The hardest part, really, is waiting for it to cool enough to slice.

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Read on…….

Come in to my kitchen…

Savory Millet Risotto

March 25th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

I am one of those cooks who use recipes only as a fundamental guideline to a finished product. I can trust my own cooking skills enough, and what I know about how my family eats, to be confident when I look at a recipe in determining what ingredients in it won’t work, or what needs to be enhanced. Even simple basic products can be made better with a little creativity and an eye towards a higher nutritional value.

Take a jar of spaghetti sauce. It’s high on the convenience scale, and has a reasonable amount of nutritional value, provided you avoid the sugar-laden brands and stick with a purer variety. With the addition of sauteed onion and garlic, along with shredded zucchini, carrot and spinach, a few chopped fresh roma tomatoes, some fresh basil or rosemary and a little tomato paste to bring it all together, you get a pasta sauce brimming with vegeteble content, better flavor and more nutrition.

I often come across recipes too, that when I do follow them to the letter and get that anticipatory excitement of what the finished product will be, I often end up sorely disappointed, especially if I ignore my inner urgings to add something of my own liking. It is a rare occurence indeed when I work through a recipe and come to a conclusion,  after following the prescribed steps, that what I see in front of me might be way better than what the original end result offered. That was the case with this Savory Millet Risotto.

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The recipe, from the current issue of Eating Well magazine, was supposed to be for a Millet Cake, similar in structure and use to Polenta. Even though I have given up on using Polenta in any of my meals after repeated attempts to enjoy it always fell flat, I earmarked this recipe as an option. The millet cooks with shredded vegetables, parmesan cheese, fresh thyme and lemon zest to a creamy consistency, at which point it would be cooled, then shaped into patties to sear in a pan. It never made it that far.

Come in to my kitchen…

A low-fat Brownie? Please!

March 21st, 2009 | 10 Comments »

ew-brownies-009Tell me if you think those look like they are low in fat.

Uh huh, yeah…… a low fat brownie. Oh, and do they look like they might taste pretty good? Rich and fudgey like a true brownie should? Gooey in the center with a nice firm edge that’s chewy, but soft too?? A low-fat brownie that may never pass as one if you didn’t give it away?

Well that was the goal, for certain; I was just convinced -utterly convinced -that it would never happen. I mean- a Brownie! Low fat?!- doesn’t seem possible, especially one that tastes like a fudge filled chunk of chocolate dynamite in your mouth, a small chunk so totally satisfying, but surprisingly light and full of all that good earthy brownie flavor that you crave, that sends you into chocolate nirvana. Can it be achieved without 2 sticks of butter, 2 cups of sugar and 4 eggs?

Apparently, it can. But I was mighty skeptical.

There are few baked goods that scream pure decadence like a really good chocolate brownie, yet all that richness comes at a pretty high cost calorie wise, and in fat. While they’re nice once in a while, to have them around when you’re trying hard to look good for the very-quickly-approaching time of year when the layers are shed and the body is finally exposed again, they wouldn’t be on the top of the list to indulge in. So what do you do when a Brownie Craving hits you like a freight train? Well….

Come in to my kitchen…

Bread for the blues

March 15th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

Seemingly a whole lifetime ago, I worked for five years in the office of a wholesale bakery and I have to say,  the smell of yeast has been and still is one of my most favorite smells of all. I loved walking through the production area in the early afternoons as the baking staff began their daily preparations; I loved standing by the enormous mixing bowls as hundreds of pounds of bread dough, pungent with the scent of yeast and flour, spun and smacked around inside. It was a happy day indeed when my boss would inform me that they would be making test batches that day because I knew he would be bringing me endless samples of warm bread to critique. And the best perk was free bread for the taking- crispy baguettes that snapped when you broke them, showering golden shards of crust everywhere, tangy sourdoughs, pillowy stirato loaves, rustic wheat breads and a mouth-watering marble rye that was my favorite sandwich loaf. The best lunch I could indulge myself in was a sliced baguette spread with a little of their scratch aioli and a few slices of salty ham. I was in carb heaven. I still miss the amazing bread, and it’s been a very long time since I last walked through those doors. I can buy the loaves in the grocers, and the flavor is still good, but I miss the experience of picking up a loaf off the rack that was only hours out of the oven, ethereal in it’s taste.

breadsI still love really good bread and for a long time I routinely spun loads of flour, water and yeast in my bread machine, so much so that I managed to effectively kill the thing outright, but I’m happy to have gotten my money’s worth. Since then, which was quite a while ago, I haven’t made a lot of bread from scratch despite having the time and the desire for it. I experimented with this amazing no-knead bread and loved the rich dense crumb and tangy flavor, but I am plagued with a ‘Must Have It Now’ mentality sometimes, and this just doesn’t work well with the patience and time required for a good loaf of scratch bread. There are some high quality artisan bakeries in the Twin Cities, including my old employ, and for a short trip in the car I can pick up a few loaves of bread to indulge myself in, but what I really need to do instead is lose the impatience inside of me and buckle down to make myself a good loaf on a regular basis.

On a recent trip through the library, I came across the publication of a local group called The Saint Paul Bread Club. I barely hesitated before slipping the slim book off the shelf. It’s basic and fundamental, nothing glossy or fancy, just page after page of bread recipes from a local group of passionate bread bakers, along with plenty of insider tips and hints to making better breads at home. After a few perusals and some thought to the first loaf to try, I rolled out of bed on a particularly gloomy morning after a simply pathetic night’s sleep and all I could think about was the smell of yeast, a warm glowing oven and the taste of a fresh warm loaf. The weather promised everything from rain to an eventual accumulation of upwards of 6″ of snow. It instilled in me both a bluesy melancholy, and a fierce need for the routine of baking, the rhythmic kneading and the promise of carbohydrates.

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This loaf contained bulgur and millet and I had both on hand. Bulgur  is cracked and parboiled wheat and really simple to use- it requires little else but a soak in hot water. Millet is a hulled, wheat-free cereal grain- the outer husk is removed leaving tiny yellow balls. Millet requires cooking, but this recipe didn’t make any mention of pre-cooking the grain so I didn’t, and it plagued me on whether or not this would result in a tooth-cracking slice. It didn’t.

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This recipe started with a sponge- honey, warm water and yeast were whisked together until foamy, then stirred with whole wheat flour, bulgur, oil and salt and allowed to sit until all puffy and fragrant. I mixed in the bread flour and millet, and pretty soon was faced with a coarse hairy blob of dough, and tiny grains of millet popping all over the kitchen. It seemed like hours before I stopped feeling their little hard knobs under my feet, even with obsessive sweeping. But the magic of kneading kicks in- and magic it is- taking a rough and craggy blob and transforming it into something smooth, elastic and uniform, dotted with the tiny yellow points of millet and smelling alive and warm.

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The rest is your basic bread instructions; rise until doubled, punch down and allow another rise (which I skipped for time purposes) shape the loaves and place in a pan, rise to double again and then bake. I won’t bore you with instructions.

And somewhere along the way, amidst all this tactile interaction and flour/yeast transformation, a tiny sliver of light knifed through me, lifting the melancholy, driving it far away. Was it the nap I took during the first rise? Maybe. It likely was something else altogether; the bread making lifted my spirits, even with the late winter storm blowing hard outside and the yeast saturated me with it’s own little charm. It could have been the workout I gave my arms and shoulders as I kneaded, driving a much appreciated blast of endorphins into me, or it could have been the fact that a hands-on loaf of bread is a thing of beauty. It transports you back to a simpler time, before cellophane loaves were the norm, where you watch a few pantry staples work a magic trick right before your very eyes. It’s nearly impossible to bury yourself in the blues with that happening in front of you.

And the taste….well, that’s enough right there to lift your spirits. This loaf was moist, a nice dense crust and crunchy little bites of millet throughout. It made awesome toast too- to me, the best indicator of a good bread. I’m thinking that I need to buy this little bread book.

(recipe after the jump)

Come in to my kitchen…

Fire Roasted Vegetable Soup

March 12th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Yeah, here I go again……taking pictures of soup.

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But….with surprisingly good results this time! I credit the extra sunshine from Daylight Savings Time. Say what you will about it; that extra light in the evening has a very magical effect on us weary winter dwellers.

In case you missed it, my birthday was a little over a week ago. And one of the gifts I received was The Eating Well Cookbook.  This book is loaded with colorful photos and easy to follow recipes, no different than the magazine, which is always a welcome sight in my mailbox. I earmarked a lot of recipes to try too and am pretty excited about them.

This vegetable soup caught my eye right away. I’ve been really enjoying soup making this winter and we’ve had some wonderfully soothing bowls. Although I took a lot of liberties in evolving this recipe to what I envisioned it could be, it didn’t deter from the quality of the end result. It was fairly quick and full of flavor.

The original recipe only called for roasting a poblano pepper to enhance the flavor, but since I’ve been kind of ga-ga over roasted vegetables lately, I thought it would be awesome to simply place ALL of them under the broiler (instead of trying to char them all on a stovetop gas flame as the book suggests….which, um…..ick) and in doing so, created a soup that simply sang in the bowl. Broiling peppers gives them a densely sweet and delicious flavor; I love how it also mellows onions too, bringing out the taste of them without the ‘onion’ after-affects. Broiling, or grilling onions is one of the few ways I will actually eat them while they are still crunchy. Otherwise, they can’t have any toothy-ness to them or I still, like my former 7-year old self, will push them aside on the plate.

Once the vegetables were sufficiently charred, and with a can of fire-roasted tomatoes and two cans of pinto beans, this soup comes together in about 10 minutes. I added a jalapeno for a little bite, and we applied liberal amounts of cilantro, toasted blue corn tortilla chips and a nice shredding of garlic-herb co-jack cheese for added taste. Some lime juice would have been perfect, but the limes languished in the fridge, forgotten. It didn’t even matter. The soup had depth and a ton of flavor. Mike and I slurped it up, wiping our dribbling chins and exchanging happy grins. Griffin ate some leftover meat.

Typical.

(jump for recipes)

Come in to my kitchen…

I like breakfast for dinner

March 6th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

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Or is it that I just like something delicious and easy for dinner when I’m really worn out and tired?

Those are my delicious Banana Whole Wheat Pancakes; they were thick moist and delicious, covered with a tart lemon curd that I mixed with cream cheese for a decadent topping. What is it about lemon for me lately? When I think about desserts, or sweets of any kind I just think about something with lemon.

I’m not a wimpy pancake kind of gal. My pancakes require heft. They need height. They won’t be some slim disc that falls apart once covered with a river of warm syrup or jam, not a chance. And they need flavor. Oh yeah, and they’ve got to be nutritious.

No small order for my stacks, is it??

The origin of this recipe was Mark Bittman’s Rich Buttermilk Waffle recipe and I’ve revamped and tweaked it repeatedly to get it from ‘pretty good’ to ‘WOWOMG, that’s SO amazing!!’. I swapped out some of the regular flour for whole wheat, and added ground flaxseed and wheat bran. You could easily make these with all wheat flour too, or some buckwheat or even rye flour.  I also eliminated the half stick of melted butter.  This variation is so tantalizing that I can make Griffin’s eyes roll back when he sees them, and if I can do that without serving him meat, then I know I have been successful.

And the nice thing about pancakes for dinner is that the next morning you’ve got breakfast without very much work.

Kate’s Banana Whole Wheat Pancakes

1 1/2 c. AP flour
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
3 T. flaxseed, ground
3 T. wheat bran
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1 c. vanilla yogurt
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
2 bananas, mashed but with some larger pieces

Combine the dry ingredients and blend well. Whisk together the buttermilk, yogurt, eggs, banana and extract. Pour over dry ingredients, and with a rubber spatula, blend carefully, scraping bottom of bowl until combined.

Heat skillet or electric griddle. Drop batter by 1/4 cupfuls and cook until browned and fragrant. Serve with topping of choice. These freeze very well.

Lemon Curd Cream Cheese-
This was a total fly-by-night mixture of a partial container of spreadable cream cheese with about a half jar of prepared lemon curd. It was nowhere near as lemony as I like so I grated in zest from about half a lemon and squeezed in the juice. Then I had to stop myself from eating it all with a spoon.

KATE’S NOTES:
Although the recipe calls for buttermilk, I use vanilla soy milk in mine due to dairy restrictions. Yogurt is not an issue with me- the friendly fauna in yogurt helps to prevent stomach upset from the dairy. Buttermilk adds superior flavor to pancakes and should be used if dairy is acceptable. I really love the texture that yogurt adds to pancakes as it helps a lot with the heft and moistness.

This recipe is endlessly versatile. Swap the fruit with mashed strawberries, grated apple or chopped mango; change up the yogurt or use applesauce instead, another favorite method of mine for additional moisture.

No buttermilk on hand? Use a teaspoon of either vinegar or lemon juice per cup of regular milk to create a decent substitute, or you can use all yogurt, or even sour cream thinned with a little water in place of milk.

A worthy celebration

March 3rd, 2009 | 5 Comments »

45yrs

It was, overall, one of the best birthdays I’ve had in a long time.

And I’m really not one to blow my own horn much; attention focused solely on me makes me uncomfortable, and I’m glad no one videotaped the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ because I turned my head away for most of it.

Still, I did ‘blow out the candles’ that we forgot to place on the cake.

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And made a wish and overall, I really enjoyed having a house full of people who came to help me celebrate- friends and family alike- and at the end of it when I collapsed nearly catatonic in bed and grimaced through my aching legs and feet and the pounding in my head from so much laughter and talking and children running amok shrieking in delight- which is such an amazing sound!- I lay there thinking how lucky and blessed and fortunate I am to have turned 45 with such  aplomb.

Those amazing birthday cakes were made courtesy of my cousin Lora who has a little cake decorating business going. If you’re local and in need of a delicious and lovely cake, contact me and I’ll pass along her information.

One was a Marble cake with Bavarian cream filling…

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The other was lemon cake with lemon curd filling….

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Both were moist, tender and wonderful!! And if you notice the size of them looking rather substantial, let me tell you….there wasn’t much left when the night ended. Our families and friends LOVE cake.

The food was all good- a few standards like meatballs and sausages were nothing to write home about, but the other dishes were pretty tasty.

From the next day, here’s a superb plate of goodness.

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Starting at the top and working clockwise, we have a nice Bulgar Pilaf, courtesy of my favorite Eating Well magazine….

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Mike’s favorite Hummus, which earned rave reviews from many party-goers.

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The irrepressible Roasted Vegetable Spread which is fast becoming a go-to menu item in our house

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And a Spinach and Orzo Greek style salad that was equally enjoyed and appreciated.

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It was an exhausting day, I’ll tell you, but totally worth it. The next day, which was my actual birthday, I didn’t even get out of my pj’s until mid-afternoon and that was only because I had in my hot little hand a coupon for a free birthday drink from my favorite coffee shop and it was either go there and sip a latte, or fall face first onto my sofa and head back into Dreamland. I love me some good caffeine, and it saved the day.

Now onward and upward into fully enjoying being 45.

I'm celebrating today…..

March 1st, 2009 | 12 Comments »

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See you soon!!