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….and then came the snow

November 29th, 2009 | 8 Comments »

Whew….that one’s out of the way. I didn’t sweat this Thanksgiving, I just did a traditional take on an age-old meal. And I loved the smiles all around the table, the deep sighs of contentment, the numerous trips back to the bowls of food. Like I told my sibs…” I didn’t make a lot of different food, I just made a lot of food.” Even with them toting home care packages with glistening pieces of turkey and perfect wedges of pumpkin pie, my fridge is still loaded. That makes me ultra-happy. Today, I can relish the quiet and not think about meal planning. It’s a perfect day for my post-Thanksgiving indulgence.

That’s right. I make a mountain of stuffing with the sole purpose of having plenty on hand to eat cold, straight from the bowl. Tell me I am not the lone oddity about this. Another delicious and gratifying treat with leftovers? Good bread, toasted and topped with slices of brie, a smear of cranberry relish and some pecans. Warm or cold, it’s delightful.

And speaking of cold…..

We’ve had snow already in Minnesota, thick on the gold leaves of early October and wholly unwelcome at the beginning of our beautiful Autumn. To wake up to this dusting was not such a surprise, but it seemed far more acceptable running after the heels of Thanksgiving, pushing November off the calendar. Even a light snowfall looks far more natural when viewed among the bare and spidery (almost) December landscape.

What else can be accomplished on a post Thanksgiving Sunday? Griffin will be certain to plop on the sofa with the NFL. I may be powerless to join him in my lethargy. A good cardio pumping hike might be best though, before succumbing to a languid Sunday afternoon. I’ll be thinking of leftover magic too. What are some of your favorite ‘second meal’ options when faced with the remains of your turkey, stuffing and potatoes? I like to make potato cakes. Form a handful of cold mashed potato into a cake and dredge them in seasoned flour. Heat butter in a small skillet and cook the potato cake until a brown crunchy crust has formed on one side, then carefully flip it over and brown the other side. It’s so not healthy but it fills your tummy in a comforting and warm way, kind of like I feel when my big brother embraces me. With a poached egg on top, it’s a breakfast of late November, and like a brotherly familial greeting, perfect in every way. I like chopped turkey and apples together, the sweet crunch against the mellow meat, maybe a bit of dijon mustard mixed in with some nuts for a good salty crunch. We’ve already established that I can pick handfuls of stuffing out of the bowl until I sigh deeply in my satiety. There likely will be soup, probably tomorrow. And even though I saw plenty of second helpings for my perfectly roasted carrots, I did notice there was a small container of those remaining as well. The bread box is stuffed too. I am a happy, albeit tired gal.

Now we can gaze down the month of December, with the flip of the calendar page and look ahead to Christmas. There’s a cookie exchange looming ever closer -a week!!!- and I have yet to even make up my mind about my offering, much less bake 8 dozen pieces to pass out. There’s the requisite party or two. With wine. A tree must be hunted down, brought home and lovingly adorned with a lifetime of memories. Then I’ll have to sit by it and deeply inhale it’s piney, Christmas-making scent, in the dark with the lights twinkling. The cats will be intrigued and probably knock a few ornaments off of it. We’ll see more and more houses lit up in the spirit of the season. I’ll have to plan another meal with my family. With both families. I’ll miss my mom like crazy and play the Christmas CD that often makes me cry. I’ll send out a Christmas card. And like every year, I’ll be glad when it’s over and life can settle down to some pattern of normalcy, whatever that may be. There’ll be lots of paths to explore.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear a bowl of stuffing calling my name.

Giving thanks……

November 24th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

I’m finding more and more, and sometimes quite rapidly, that what brings me the most pleasure in life is really quite simple.

Whether it’s a shock of color discovered on my daily walk, or the foods that pass through my life, I’ve learned, with some astonishing insight, that often the greatest pleasures we can embrace are found in the tiniest of places and means.

There’s a lot of fodder in the blog world, at least in the North American contingent, regarding preparations for Thanksgiving. I’ve been skipping a lot of these posts, and not because I’m not interested, but mostly because it seems that there is a huge amount of anxiety involved in putting this meal together and making it perfect and I just can’t read about it. Where has all that come from?Somehow, some standard has been ridiculously raised and everyone is straining to jump to new heights, to take a day set aside for gratitude and thanks and make it perfect, flawless and exacting. Mark Bittman even talks about it, and gives a timely and very wise message to cooks everywhere. ‘Just Chill’ he says. He nails this one.

I used to be that way, that awful anxious and stressed person, endlessly making lists, sweating through details and cringing if foods came out less than perfect, and I am really thankful that it’s quietly slipped out of my life. Making my way through life is often all I need for producing an inordinate amount of anxiety, and when I step in my kitchen, I don’t want to be in a position to add anything to that. My kitchen should relax me and strip the rest of the world away. It’s in there that love should surpass most anything else.

These days I’m pretty thankful for that love, in any form it takes. There’s my family, a terrific husband and a pretty amazing teenager, and I’ve got my sibs who provide yet another constant. There are my amazing friends who can both hold a mirror up to me with exceptional grace and then catch me when I see what’s in it. And there’s my huge extended family on Mike’s side that fills me to overflowing. When I think about all of that, I could be reduced to tears from the gratitude I feel.

And my family, well all they really want is to come together and dwell in that love. They aren’t here on Thanksgiving for a feast beyond all belief. They don’t want to be “WOW”ed by the food, in fact, they react often with disappointment when I wander off the playing field and start tossing experimental ideas in the air. The playbook of their holidays is tattered at the edges from overuse. But it has a worn and familiar feel that they need. When they walk into my house, it’s more about who stares back at them from across the flickering candles. It’s about returning to better times in our lives when we had no idea what it was like to be a grown-up. Now I can take those tastes, the ones that stem from years of tradition, and I can make them better and more modern and they look to me for that. But they also just want their mashed potatoes, their gravy with some lumps and a pan of stuffing that they can attack and conquer. They know that I can make it all delicious, so all they really have to think about is whether or not they should refill their wine glass, which game comes out next, or the remembrance of some far distant holiday memory that still brings peals of laughter even when told for the hundredth, no, thousandth time. What’s on their plates is important, but it never has to be perfect. The setting, the faces and the laughter is perfect enough.

And I’m so very thankful for that. This past year has been challenging in so many ways, and the one comfort I’ve derived through this madness that is my life is what happens when the stove comes on and my hands become busy. I pour it all into my food, so my food can give it all back to me; the comfort, the solace and the firm realization of good that I find in my meals. But the simple truth is, I could share a takeout pizza with my guys at home on any given night and as long as I’m staring at their faces, what’s on my plate is irrelevant. Mike’s serious back injury this past May was a huge perspective shift. And Mike and Griffin, my whole world, were both in the car when it was totaled in July. Then, in September, my beloved Harmon was diagnosed with cancer. Holidays always bring about emotions that rise and fall every year: I lost a sister almost 18 years ago. My mother died unexpectedly 15 years back. The holes in my family portrait are acute and tender, and that is never going away. Between now and the end of the year, I feel those losses deeply. And it makes me that much more thankful for everyone who still sits down at my table, who asks for pumpkin pie, who loves the crunchy edges of the stuffing almost as much as I do, who cares little for something extraneous or unusual. Perfection is impossible, and family is forever. I know which one is so much more important.

My hope for everyone is that somewhere in the chaos of your family traditions and meals that you stop to embrace what you have, the faces that smile at you and take the time to appreciate them deeply. Be very thankful for the food on your table, whatever form it takes,  as we celebrate through some very tough times. Please remember that not everyone is as fortunate as you may be. Show gratitude. Speak tenderly. And have a wonderful, feast-ful, delicious and tantalizing Thanksgiving, from my house to yours.

Farro Pilaf with Gold Beets

November 21st, 2009 | 3 Comments »

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Pictures can be amazing, can’t they?

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I sometimes surprise myself when I am going through the photos I’ve taken of my recipes. There are, without a doubt, the ones that hastily cause you to hit the ‘Delete’ key, shuddering in horror; they’re too close or too cloudy or they just don’t allow for one to discern what’s on the plate. They’re overexposed. Ugly. But those tiny slips caught in the wink of the shutter are evened out by beauties that can convey taste, aroma, and feel with one glance. The beauties that make you go ‘Wow’ and when you place them in your post, they literally tell the story without you needing to do much else. But every food has a story. Sometimes the tale tells of a feet-first plunge headlong into love with a certain food, a single bite causing your taste-buds to explode while the endorphins engulf your brain. You’re whupped and there’s no going back. Or it may be a telling of how we find a food that quietly asserts itself into our life, a slow and deliberate culinary courtship. Maybe the first exposure isn’t mind-blowing, but it isn’t a dud either. You look forward to the next time. You know there’s more to it than this. After a few meetings, the quiver in your heart starts to build and when you spy your current food crush, it’s silly how your chest seems to collapse in relief that you’ll be together again.

This past year I crushed, big time, into total infatuation with gold beets, and their greens. It didn’t take much. By routinely visiting the organic farmer at the local markets who carried these burnished lovelies and allowing them to roast to their full potential, I became fully acquainted with their earthy solid personality. We just clicked, those beets and I. It was quality time well spent. Mike gave me an enthusiastic endorsement for sauteed beet greens and we never looked back. Beets were in the recipe box, finally. We ate them so much that it was a turgid and satiated overkill. We sighed a lot during those dinner meals. Then high summer came, the corn took hold along with eggplants so shiny and purple, followed by a parade of tomatoes and zucchini and endless grilling adventures. Beets were nearly forgotten, sad as it was. But I was sold on the roasting method, and most days couldn’t even consider turning on the oven. They simply had to wait. I realized after a while that I missed them a great deal but I knew, like any solid friendship, that we would endure through our separation.

Then I found this recipe. It was the way back to my summer love of beets and caused me to drive across town just to find a bunch, greens attached, that would do this recipe justice. The moment we connected again was like any friendship renewed after absence. No lapse of time could remove the bond and the oven, once more, shared it’s warmth with my old friends and turned them soft and supple.

I was enamored…no, scratch that… bewitched by the flavors that came from this dish. It’s simple base of whole grain farro is more than capable of standing up to the lusty flavor and texture of beets and their greens, and the beets happily share their colors with the grain to diffuse the entire dish in sunshine-y warmth. Since 2007 I’ve been experimenting with whole grains, and I found farro to be an amicable and easy friend to bring into my life, a chewy and simple grain that mimics wheatberries and a heartier barley. Never mind that it was costly. Or that only one store I knew carried an affordable brand. Of all the whole grains I’ve encountered in the past two years, this one has become a good and trusted companion, steadfast, reliable and so so good for me. We all need friends like that in our lives, in both our hearts and our pantry.

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The original recipe for this dish was in salad form, but for a November meal, a cold offering wasn’t going to cut it. Even with the warm sunshine that’s been poured upon us, the chill and darkness comes quickly with the descent of the five-o’clock hour, and something steaming, whether a bowl or a plate, more appropriately fits the season. I’ll revisit the salad option next Spring when the markets open again, and I can once more hone in on that stand, with the kind bearded farmer behind the table, the dirt still stuck to his knuckles. For this time of year, and especially with the brisk wind that came up after several days of that limpid sunshine, a pilaf was exactly what we needed.

Farro is not a quick grain to cook, and you’ll find many recipes call for it to be soaked ahead of time, but I’ve discovered that to be unnecessary. Washed and placed in boiling water, the grain cooks up deliciously chewy in 35-45 minutes, and once cooked to that al denté stage, it freezes really well with little loss of texture. And maybe it’s the way it is with you too, but I roast my beets or I simply don’t eat them. Call me picky, but I never met a beet I wanted to devour before being introduced to those that mellowed in the oven, swaddled in foil, and so perfectly tender that the skins slipped off with hardly any effort. Again, this isn’t quick. I made both the farro and the beets the day prior to creating this pilaf. It worked for all of us.

Farro Pilaf with Gold Beets
originally from The New York Times recipes for Health and Nutrition, March 27, 2009; adapted by Kate

3 large gold beets, roasted and diced, with greens washed, de-ribbed and rough chopped
2-3 c. cooked farro (can sub brown rice)
1 red pepper, seeded, cored and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small shallot, diced
1/2 c. crumbled feta or goat cheese
1/3 c. pecan pieces
salt and pepper to taste

{{Farro can be cooked like any other grain, with a 2:1 ratio of water to grain; 1 cup uncooked will yield the amount needed for this recipe. It should be tender to the bite, not too firm with a texture similar to barley. Be sure to rinse it thoroughly in a wire sieve prior to cooking. It can be very dusty.}}

In a deep skillet with a tight fitting lid, heat oil of choice and add red pepper, cooking for about 5 minutes. Add shallot, cooking until soft and slightly browned, maybe 5-8 more minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds or so. Add the chopped greens and cook, stirring continually until just barely wilted. Stir in the cooked farro and diced beets. Add about 1/3 cup of water and combine. Cover the pot, turn heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally until heated fully through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with cheese and nuts.

KATE’S NOTES:
The mellow flavors of the beets and farro simply beg for a good salty and robust cheese. Feta is perfect, goat cheese would be great but blue cheese and gorgonzola also would work nicely.

Update on Harmon

November 18th, 2009 | 14 Comments »

Thanks to those of you who still ask about Harmon. It’s been two months since he was diagnosed with cancer and really, he’s doing pretty good. It’s surprising to me, joyful and really a bit scary too.

I’m afraid that I could get complacent about him. That I’ll forget that anyone even uttered the word ‘Cancer’ to me, or that he could well have a ticking bomb inside him that could burst forth one of these days and swiftly remove him from my life. I did prepare for it, and process it and felt like I at least got to a place of good reckoning. I am at peace. But for each day that he lifts his head in his customary chirp of greeting, that he settles in to snuggle against me in the morning as I sip coffee and surf or climbs on my lap when I sit down in front of the television for a movie or show, I have to remind myself that it’s one more day that is gifted to me that I never expected to receive. I have to remember that I am not promised any tomorrows with him, or even a ‘next month’ kind of scenario. I listen to his breathing. I feel and stroke his chin for any suspicious lumps that might indicate a resurgence. I note his stiff, old-age gait and the amount of time he sleeps and wonder about him. I wonder constantly. I hold him as much as he’ll allow, and to his credit, he seems so much more tolerable of being drawn close to me than at any other time in his life.

And I am more tolerable of indulging him in the foods that are usually forbidden in a feline diet, mainly anything off our table. Harmon has always had a taste for people food, with thanks to me, but lately, as I have watched his former bulk shrink to being almost non-existent, I’ve felt that to slip him a few nibbles from my plate isn’t such a bad thing. He has, of course, taken this to his full advantage. Harmon is a true gourmand. He enjoys all manner of people food, not just the normal aspects of our diet that one would expect a cat to enjoy, like meat or cheese. He eats legumes, and seems to have a particular love for them, well, unless they’re highly spiced lentils. He does spit those out. But great northerns? Black beans? Pintos? Chickpeas? He eats them all. He loves cauliflower too. Go figure. And peas, corn and green beans as well. He’s more adventurous than my teenager when it comes to food he hasn’t tried yet either, willingly accepting it and showing us his most baffled expression if he’s not so certain whether it’s to his liking. Is this guilt driven, my slipping him the good stuff? No. It’s more like my wish for him to be happy, to put something in his tummy. Although his ample belly and squishy pouch is still evident, there is no more intense reminder to me of the state of his health than the fact that his spine and rib bones, once sheltered in his former bulk along his back, are now clearly visible and sharply defined. Petting him is emotionally painful, to feel those old bones. If his time with me were to end tomorrow, the last thing I would be concerned about was sharing the grand tastes and flavors of life with him. What a way to go.

So there it is, for now. He’s well, apparently, and is quite content and happy. He is in no pain that we can tell, unless you count his old-age stiffness. He eats like a champ. He still purrs his trademark rumble, and snuggles in at every chance he gets. I’ll take it. And for as long as I can. Every day with him is a gift.

 

The truth was in the taste…..

November 15th, 2009 | 7 Comments »

If you saw a recipe for Nutella Swirl Pound Cake, you’d probably think like I did….

“That has to be amazing…..”

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It was amazing. In fact, amazing or fantastic or decadent or incredible might just begin to scratch the surface of expectation for something with Pound Cake and Nutella in the title. If you’ve got a better description, please share it with me, preferably over a slice of this cake and some dark coffee. I could use some help in making this disappear.

I don’t make pound cakes much at all. I mean, a cake in all it’s sponge-y glory is bad enough, the butter laden, sugar sweetened lofty treat. But a POUND cake? Equal gobs of butter, eggs and sugar that all come together to create a glorious dense concoction not only tastes amazing, but can do incredible things to your thighs. And not many of them good. And with Nutella on top of all that sugar. And butter. To have that temptation around, or get my guys used to such decadence would be evil for all of us. We have no resistance, no self control. I think I’ll stick to cookies. My feet can’t possibly handle all the cardio I would need to do to work off the calories in a cake such as this. I like my waistline.

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This cake came out of the oven, however, looking anything but fabulous. The top sunk, the crust was really crumbly and it seemed quite fragile. The bottom of the cake fell off as I tipped it out of the pan. But, it was utterly delicious, superbly rich and proof that even when it looks sad and forlorn, what it’s really all about anyway is how it dances across your tongue. It was so tantalizing in fact, once I was done photographing it’s sturdy swirled slices, I promptly wrapped the remainder of it tight and placed it in the freezer. If the threat of tooth-breakage looms, I won’t be so quick to indulge in a stolen bite or two. And my thighs will be pretty grateful for that. I’ll pull it out for Thanksgiving, maybe, or when there’s a need to share something that the comfort of chocolate and sugar, a close friend and a cup of tea can provide is the only requirement necessary.
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Nutella Swirl Pound Cake
From Food and Wine magazine, originally by Lauren Chattman, Cake Keeper Cakes

4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1-1/2 c. unbleached AP flour
3/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 c. butter, softened
1-1/4 c. sugar
1 13-oz jar Nutella spread

Heat oven to 325°. Spray a 9×5 cake pan with cooking spray. Dust with flour. Fill a bowl with hot tap water and place entire jar of Nutella in it to soften. Place the eggs and vanilla in a small bowl and whisk lightly to combine. Blend dry ingredients together in another small bowl.

In a stand mixer, blend the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides at least twice. Turn the mixer to medium-low and add the egg mixture in a steady stream, stopping to scrape down the bowl once or twice. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture, about a half cup at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. After the last addition, blend the full mixture together for 30 seconds on medium speed.

Scrape 1/3 of the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth with a spatula. With a clean spatula, spread half the Nutella on the batter and smooth. Add in another 1/3 of the cake batter, then the remaining Nutella. Spread the last of the cake batter on the top. With a clean butter knife, swirl the batter and Nutella together to create a marbling effect. Don’t overmix the two!

Bake the cake until it’s golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn cake out onto a wire rack to cool completely. This cake tastes excellent after spending a night in the refrigerator, wrapped tight in plastic. I don’t know why. But trust me on that.

KATE’S NOTES:
I may be labeled insane, but using the entire jar of Nutella is kind of overkill. The first issue is something I saw in all the photos of this cake across the internet, and is evident in mine. The Nutella sinks. It caused the bottom of my cake to scorch slightly, and the bottom fell off when I took the cake out of the pan. I think the same marbling affect could be achieved with less Nutella, and without the end result of it sinking. I think that the Nutella would be utilized better if drizzled over the layers of cake batter, and not swirled with a knife. This is just an opinion. I probably won’t make the cake again to see if it actually would make a difference. Although I might. If I’m desperate.

However, should the bottom of your cake fall off too, do what I did: I used a large spatula to gently scrape the stuck parts out of the pan and then I replaced them on the bottom of the cake. Once wrapped up and chilled, which I can’t recommend enough, it sort of glued itself back together. And despite how high and lofty your cake will look when it comes out of the oven, for whatever reason, it will sink. All the cakes I saw on the internet had the same sunken tops. Don’t despair. It isn’t your fault. It still tastes delicious.

Andean Bean Stew with Squash and Quinoa

November 13th, 2009 | 4 Comments »

November has come, and we’ve been treated to a few simply glorious days. The sunshine is most welcome here, since October winds and rain stripped the trees barren before we had our customary chance to oooh and ahhh over the coloful glory. The tone of the land is now that of bleached straw and flat brown; the deer that roam our neighborhood melt into the backdrop like a thief, vanishing in a blink.

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This little guy was quite languid and uninterested in my trespassing on his sun-bathing path. He even let me stroke his leathery skin before he casually twisted his way into the leaves to continue sunning himself.

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Yet even with these brilliant sunshine-y days, Daylight Savings Time and the calendar both make the late afternoons chilly, and those warm cozy meals are even more appealing.

I’m not one to think that feeling under the weather is all that productive -who does?-  but on a recent day, I found myself feeling uncharacteristically blah and lacking energy to do much, which resulted in a long period of time under a blanket on the couch, a cat curled up contentedly on me while I precariously balanced my computer to occupy myself with recipe searches. An hour and a half later, I did manage, with some appropriate groaning and sighing along with the displacement of one unenthusiastic feline, to pull myself to a sitting position, and there was a stack of papers almost an inch thick on the printer that made all that time worthwhile. That’s the kind of down-time productive one can appreciate. And one of those highly anticipated papers, the best kind that float around my kitchen, papers lush with promise and anticipated flavors and not a payment of some type being sought by the outer world, this thick and comforting stew filled that early afternoon darkness with warm and intoxicating smells, a bubbling pot of seductive chunks of squash and flavorful stewed beans that managed to make me feel a lot better, at least in returning some of my energy.

Mike always knows that something wonderful is happening in the kitchen when I haul out this old and beautifully seasoned cast iron stockpot. Just dragging it out of the cupboard is quite the workout. I think if it wasn’t on a upper shelf I might not be so fearful of it.

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This recipe calls for using dried beans, but rarely do I have enough foresight into my dinner preparations to put a bag of beans to soak the night before, so I used canned pinto beans instead. And although I did have to put myself through that most tedious kitchen task of peeling the acorn squash, I approached it calmly and without the usual hair-pulling hysteria that surround the words “Peel and chop one medium hard squash” Can somebody out there give me an amen? Thanks. I know I’m not the only one who despises certain culinary obligations. That probably includes soaking dried beans, since I hardly ever do it.

This recipe, with it’s canned bean option, comes together really fast if you don’t count tackling the squash. A quick saute of onion and garlic, then you stir in the rest and let it simmer until the squash is tender. When the quinoa shows you it’s adorable little curlicue thread, call out the diners to gather and spoon up a thick and fragrant bowl.

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Andean Bean Stew with Winter Squash and Quinoa
from The New York Times, Recipes for Health and Nutrition, Nov. 2008

1 winter squash of choice, peeled and cut into 1/2″ chunks
2 cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 T. sweet paprika
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes, with liquid (use regular if you don’t have these available)
1/2 c. quinoa, rinsed well
1 bay leaf
3 T. chopped basil or parsley

In a sturdy stockpot, brown the onion in oil of choice, about 10 minutes or so. Add the paprika and stir to coat, cooking for a minute. Add in garlic and stir, cook for 30 seconds or until very fragrant. Add in tomatoes and their juice and cook for a few minutes to combine flavors. Stir in the beans and squash. Fill the tomato can with water and empty into the pot. The solids should be only just covered with liquid. This is a thick stew. Add more if necessary and put the bay leaf in the pot. Bring to a boil and then allow to simmer, covered, until the squash is tender, but not thoroughly cooked- 30 minutes or so. Stir in the quinoa and simmer until the grain is translucent and the tiny thread appears- about 10-15 minutes more. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with basil or parsley.

This stew, like many, becomes more flavorful as it sits. It also thickens substantially. Add a little water when reheating.

Apple Crisp with Crystallized Ginger Topping

November 11th, 2009 | 9 Comments »

{{{I’m doing my first guest post over at The LoveFeast Table today! Yeah!}}}

Apple Crisp is so Fall, so perfectly suited for the October-November loop, and so willing to apply anyone’s simple signature to it’s luscious ingredients that it has sort of gone beyond being a favorite dessert, becoming more like that old dear friend that never fails to bring sunshine to a dreary day.

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The smell of apples and cinnamon baking is a comfort that threads itself under your skin. It’s no surprise that the most popular of pies and scented candles are usually ‘Apple Pie’, long celebrated as All American and breathing remnants of home and Mom. Apple Crisp is simpler than pie, ready with a few turns of the peeler and knife, chunks of cold butter cut into crumbly flour and brown sugar to bake into a delicately scented crunch atop soft and juicy warm apples.

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The addition of crystallized ginger in this recipe is wonderful; a gentle hint of warmth and a touch of it’s sweetness made the crunchy topping extra flavorful. I’ve been making Apple Crisp since I was barely old enough to see over the top of our stove, and had to stand on a chair to be able to work the peeler, my Mom by my side watching to make sure I didn’t hack off a snippet of skin here and there. She showed me how to peel an apple whole, with a long dangling strip, and how to carefully carve out apple cores and slice them uniformly so they would bake evenly. Now I have a device that peels and cuts your apples all in the turn of a crank, making any kind of apple dish quick and easy. So when I was faced lately with a chilly night and an unidentifiable need in me to seek a little comfort, a good book and a warm plate of this crisp seemed to be in order. Just taking in the first thin whiffs of the aroma seeping from the oven took the edge off whatever empty spot had formed inside.  Apple Crisp was always a prominent item in our Fall kitchen, topped with cold ice cream releasing a thin river of creamy white over the still warm fruit. It’s a memory that tastes like home, if memories come with flavor which almost all of us know that they do. And maybe that night, I needed a memory to soothe me, the feeling of someone by my side watching over me. I know Mom would have loved this version as well.

I’m a nut for almonds – ha! pun intended- but there is little in terms of dessert items that I don’t think can be helped and favored by the addition of chopped almonds. For this recipe, I scattered chopped almonds over the apples in the pan before sprinkling on the topping, and also sifted the fine almond flour from the chopped pieces into the topping mixture to add even more flavor. To do so, just pour the chopped almonds into a wire sieve and shake it over whatever you wish.

Fabulous apple and almond flavor pours through every bite, whether topped with ice cream, whipped cream or yogurt……

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Or not……

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And yes, I did eat it for breakfast. Wouldn’t you?

Apple Crisp with Crystallized Ginger Topping
adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, via The Heavy Table

Kate’s Advice- Make the topping first. Your apples won’t turn brown that way.

Heat oven to 375°. Butter a 8″square baking dish, or equivalent and set aside.

For the topping:

3/4 c. AP flour
3 T. brown sugar
1 T. white sugar
2 T. crystallized ginger (I chopped mine fine- it would have been WAY chunky otherwise)
1/4 t. salt (omit if you use salted butter)
1/2 t. cinnamon
4 T. butter, cut into chunks

Mix all ingredients except butter in a bowl. Work the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until it’s relatively chunky. Don’t mix it down to a fine sand. Chill until ready to use.

5 medium apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 T. white sugar
1 T. AP flour

Toss apples with flour and sugar and place in baking dish. Sprinkle topping over the apples and bake for 30-40 minutes or until filling is bubbly and top is browned.

Can a food item be too healthy?

November 8th, 2009 | 4 Comments »

The FDA is pretty darn good at sounding the alarm over foods that one shouldn’t eat, or maybe not in excess. They’re just as good at recanting that advice after a year or so, more research and maybe some hand deep in their back pocket, but do they ever go the opposite direction? Can a food item be so stuffed with good ingredients, a high health quotient and incredible good taste that it’s possibly too good for you? Would the mighty FDA ever come at us like a pack of angry Chihuahuas for bypassing the french fry in favor of whole grains and fruit?

Eh, I think not. But this muffin might come a wee bit close to inducing a good health coma, if that is indeed possible.

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Muffins are one of my favorite snack items to make. There is so much that can be done to your basic muffin that I could spend from now until next November making a different variety each week and likely never run out of options. They tend to have a split personality though; as much as everyone wants to believe that eating a muffin is healthier, most of them sold in stores or coffee shops aren’t any better for you than eating a cookie or a croissant. And they’re HUGE, usually. Much too huge, and come on….who eats only half of those monsters? Uh, huh. That’s what I thought.

These basic whole grain muffins are one of my favorite recipes to play with, and they’re loaded with healthy ingredients. With their good hearty texture, they’re wonderful for any eating need from morning coffee to a late night indulgence and they adapt to any kind of extra I can dream up to mix into the batter. I’ve made them with zucchini, chopped pears and pecans, banana, blueberries and here in this version with apples. They freeze beautifully too, as any good muffin should.

Whole Grain Muffins
by Kate

1 ½ c. buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 T. butter, melted
¼ c. oil
¼ c. real maple syrup
1-1/2 c. All-Bran cereal
½ c. packaged 7-Grain cereal (like Bob’s Red Mill; 5-Grain or 10-Grain is fine too)
3 T. whole rolled oats
1-1/2 c. AP flour (can sub Whole wheat flour for half, if desired)
2 T. ground flaxseed
¼ c. brown sugar
1 t. EACH baking powder and baking soda
¼ t. salt.

Heat oven to 375°. Line muffin tins with paper liners, or spray with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, butter, oil and maple syrup. Stir in All Bran cereal, oats and the 7-Grain cereal. Let stand for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, flaxseed, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Blend in the wet ingredients and fold together until just combined. Scoop into muffins tins to 2/3 full and bake for 18-20 minutes, or until tops spring back when touched. Cool on wire rack for about 10-15 minutes, then remove muffins from pan to cool completely.

Added ingredients- 1 c. blueberries, frozen (do not thaw) or fresh; 1 c. chopped pear like a D’Anjou or Bosc; 1-2 mashed ripe bananas, 1/2 c. of any nut you prefer; 1 c. shredded zucchini; 1 medium apple, cored and chopped or shredded (or about a half cup of chunky applesauce), 1/2 c. coconut (delicious with banana and pecans)  The possibilities are endless for what you put in these!!

And yes! Pumpkin, sweet potato or even squash is an option too, but check out this recipe for a delicious muffin idea with those ingredients.

Oh those onions…..

November 4th, 2009 | 8 Comments »

Caramelized onions have become pretty common and ubiquitous. They’re everywhere, gleaming from tart crusts and mixed with all sorts of extras and I should be really tired of them, shouldn’t I?

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But I still find myself slicing an enormous pile of onions, ridiculous in it’s volume and placing them in my 25-year old skillet with the high sides to contain the mass. There’s a nice shimmery pool of olive oil and butter awaiting those translucent slices, and even though my mind is telling me that it’s way too much- did I really need to slice all five of those huge things?- I have to calmly tell myself that with patience and time, some brown sugar, a little kosher salt and a hundred or so turns of the spoon,  it will reduce itself appropriately to fit into a two-cup container. And it does. I must feel I have precious little else to do with my time but keep watch over a pan on the stove for an hour or so.

As the mass cooks and pops, and I stir, stir, stir and stir some more to cook them as evenly as possible, I find myself poking through the fridge to see what I can do to kick my inner Iron Chef into action. Sure, I may think that making a big pan of these burnished beauties is a fine idea, in reality, I often jump into a process of cooking with nary a hint of what my final outcome of that ingredient will be. But I am creative. Something always happens. I pull out the half decimated container of fresh sage leaves and wonder ‘Hey! Haven’t I heard something about frying sage leaves?’ and then I think that fried sage leaves would be amazing with those onions so pretty soon my house is even more fragrant and I find myself glad that I am home by myself at this point. It’s unfair to subject anyone to amazing cooking smells when you have no idea how you plan to utilize it all.

So let’s back up, shall we? There’s the onions, the fried sage leaves crumbled to crispy bits and a container of gorgonzola. All this combination really needs is some sort of vehicle to get it to my mouth. Crostini? A spoon? Fingers?

Flatbread? With spinach pesto??

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Somebody pinch me. I’ve created heaven. If I disappear for a bit in a daze of an herb and onion induced food coma, honed to razor sharp perfection by gooey gorgonzola, this might be why.

For the flatbread recipe, go HERE.

For the spinach pesto recipe, go HERE.

And if you’re looking for something really simple but with incredible flavor, make these garlic and lemon infused white beans, and then stir some of the onions into them. Hmmm…..this could be heaven too. It’s a toss-up.

Oh and then as if that wasn’t enough, I added them to roasted garlic and sauteed shrimp and lots of fresh herbs that went over delightfully toothsome whole grain pasta, and it turns out that something celestial happened right there in that dish as well.

Sorry….have I just made you hungry???

Curried Chickpeas for the impatient

November 2nd, 2009 | 6 Comments »

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The flavors of a good curry will always be an experience that I seek fervently. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that more complex flavors in my mouth are highly desirable, and even a basic curry recipe can be so loaded with ample taste that it’s like fireworks on the tongue. A really good curry, as I have gathered from reading through some of my Indian cookbooks, is a process; it takes time to develop and gets better as it sits. In fact, Julie Sahni’s ‘Classic Indian Cookbook’ is full of recipes that simmer and bubble slowly over hours, and then goes on to say something to the extent of “Cover your pot and allow to sit for two hours or more, preferably overnight to create a deeper flavor.”Whoa now.

My love for a good curry dish is too high, too frenetic and too enthusiastic to consider making something such as Julie’s amazing dishes, then forcing myself, with a household of warming spices permeating every surface, to put aside the final product and WAIT to eat it. I may have patience for many things in life, such as a good loaf of bread, Spring to follow Winter and the ending of a long and complicated novel, but curry indulgence is not something I can set in the fridge, ignore and go about my business. When that baby is done and ready, I want to dig in. I want to indulge, feel the play in my mouth and the warmth filling every corner of my stomach and soul. Maybe in another life I was born to a land of coriander and ginger, soothed with the brightness of turmeric and weaned on cumin. How else would I have such a cuisine so infused in my blood? I’m a white girl with blue eyes, but place the aromatic Indian spices in front of me and I turn golden like a cheetah, speeding to pounce in delight on my meal.

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A quick fix is always a good thing among the tried and true, slow creations hidden in the pages of any Indian cookbook. This recipe for highly pungent -and fast cooked- Curried Chickpeas has the warm spices of those stalwarts without the long waiting period. Now I could have used dried chickpeas for a slight flavor edge but in a pinch, for this eager mouth to devour, the canned are a perfect choice. It was barely 15 minutes from start to finish, and a steaming aromatic bowl of tiny, golden infused orbs sat on my counter. One bite and they ‘POW’d and ‘ZING’d their way to every one of my taste buds, delighting me and easing the need for some kind of spicy fury on my fork. Not overwhelming, and certainly not one to make my eyebrows sweat -a sure sign of potent heat- but again with the subtle means of infusing curry to the deepest layer of my skin. And fast. With a deep breath of relief, I was soothed once again.

Curried Chickpeas
From The Los Angeles Times, 10/21/09

1 medium onion, diced
1 t. turmeric
1 t. coriander seed
1 t. cumin seed
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 T. chopped cilantro (more to taste)
1 T. each fresh squeezed lemon juice and zest (lime would work fine, in fact I think it might be better)

With a mortar and pestle, or a spice grinder, crush the coriander and cumin seed into coarse powder.

In a saute pan, heat oil of choice and add onions over medium-high heat. Saute onion until deep golden brown and crispy, about 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the turmeric, coriander, cumin and cayenne. Cook, stirring frequently until aromatic and toasted, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the chickpeas, cilantro and lemon juice. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Remove from heat and taste. Season with salt if desired. Allow to cool, transfer to a container and chill prior to serving. Adjust lemon juice and seasoning if you wish.

KATE’S NOTES:
I like the fresh flavors of using whole coriander and cumin seed in recipes. If you don’t keep a mortar and pestle, or spice grinder on hand, use pre-ground spices in the same quantity.