March 30th, 2011
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Little in life is predictable. And this is especially true during the month of March in Minnesota. Despite the warmth and rain that melted almost all of the 90″ of snow we’ve received this past Winter (because, officially it IS Spring!) we got socked with yet another snow storm that dumped a wide range of snow depths around the Twin Cities. And, obviously, generating a great deal of complaints from a state’s population that should be anything if not aware of what March can bring around these parts.
But is is Spring, after all. The sun is high enough to melt this stuff fairly quickly. One would hope, anyway. According to my gardening journal, last year at this time, the ice was out on the lakes in my area. We aren’t even close to that this year.
My boy was on Spring Break recently. To him, a week off school is a huge sigh of relief. This kid can’t wait to get beyond the expected and into what he truly wants to do. It was also a week to sleep late, and to spend time with me, just one on one. And on a quiet Tuesday, we did just that. Mentioning I had a gift card for Panera Bread, his face lit up with excitement and I knew there needed to be no more discussion on where we would enjoy lunch that day, after a trip to the chiropractor and a quick run through Target.
I’ve never been in a Panera at lunchtime when it’s not insanely crowded, weekend, or weekday alike. People love the place, for so many reasons. At our recent Twitter party for Panera, the TweetChat room I was in was relentlessly spitting out tweets from eager participants, so many of them, in fact, that Panera was trending on Twitter that day. And I was struggling to keep up with the words speeding by my eyes. What do they love about the place? The breads. The pastries. The muffins. The cookies. The soups. The salads. The sandwiches. The breads. Everything, it seems. You look around the room, during the crowded lunch hour and you see a wide range of people who are blissed out over their meal; elderly couples sharing coffee and rolls, families with a table full of trays, napkins, drink cups, loud conversation, shouting children and parents watching their kids enjoying a good meal. I saw folks engaged in a quick business lunch, carefully brushing crumbs off the suits and skirts of the corporate world. And it was clear that my boy wasn’t the only young person radiating Spring Break happiness. The place was full of kids.
One aspect of the Panera Twitter Party that I took away was how many parents really loved the fact that Panera offered a better option for their kids than fast food joints. Kids can be so fickle with their appetites, but take them to Panera and they’ve got dozens of options to satisfy them. Who doesn’t love a bowl of Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken soup? The thick noodles in their Chicken Noodle Soup just shout out ‘Comfort food!’. And then there are sandwich options to quell even the pickiest of eaters. And of course, when all else fails, there’s Mac and Cheese, PBJ sandwiches and Grilled Cheese. You can get hot Panini sandwiches. There’s basic green salads available, and a wealth of varied options that include Thai Chopped Chicken, Asian Sesame Chicken and a Fuji Apple Chicken Salad. Calorie counts are clearly listed, yet another appealing aspect of having a meal there. People like to know what they’re eating; they like to know what goes in their mouths, how it affects them and where they stand with their food.
And of course, Panera offers a full espresso service, coffee and tea by the Republic of Tea company, which has some amazing flavors of teas. You can get fruit smoothies, made with Stonyfield Farms Organic yogurt, one of the best commercial yogurts available. And every Panera has free WiFi for surfing, or working. Then there’s that cozy fireplace to gather around when the snow falls. And falls. And falls.
Griffin and I indulged fully that day for lunch, taking advantage of a free cookie from my PaneraRewards card. For every visit to Panera, they swipe your card and the rewards start piling up. A free espresso drink. A free bagel. Free pastries. And best of all, it’s free to join. Just grab a card at any Panera and fill out the information on their website.
He always orders the same thing when he goes; a bowl of Wild Rice soup and half a Sierra Turkey sandwich. He gets chips as a side with his soup, those deliciously crunchy kettle chips that are perfect for dredging through a bowl of hearty soup. Given his slight exacting nature, he always takes apart his sandwich to rearrange the filling. “It’s more even that way.” is what he always says, plus he can remove the offensive raw onions and most of the greens. For my lunch, I ordered an Italian Combo sandwich, thick with roast beef, turkey, ham and salami (and yes, I deconstructed it to ‘make it more even’ as well.) and also half a Chicken Cobb salad. We shared a Mint Crinkle cookie afterwards, marveling at the crunchy chewy edges surrounding the soft pliable center; cookie nirvana, if you ask me. A perfect mix.
The nice thing about that sort of lunch with my boy is knowing how happy it makes him to spend time with me, and with eating food that he really loves. We could be sharing a pizza or hoagies, or tacos, chips and salsa, but more importantly, we’re sharing time together. Sometimes we talk endlessly. Other times, we’re both just content to be right there next to one another, silently appreciating the companionship. He may be a teenager that strives for his own dependence, but it also seems that the further he stretches in an attempt to gain his own footing in the world, the more he needs to know, without a doubt, that we’re there to fall back on, regardless. A lunch, a shared cookie, the menial task of running errands and managing our time during my days off, it all matters. He never needs to say anything to me about what he needs; I just know. Like I know of a good place to have a decent lunch that I’m happy to feed my teenager, the time we need together is instinctive. We gravitate towards it naturally. Like everyday people to the food they can trust.
I was financially compensated for writing this post, and provided with the gift card that bought our meal.
All comments, claims and opinions are mine, and were not influenced by Panera or it’s associates.
Twitter handle: @panerabread
Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/panerabread
March 20th, 2011
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More sugar. Must be winter’s end…..
I’ve been lamenting a lack of fresh foods lately. The transition season is approaching rapidly; that between the depths of winter when root vegetables and long slow aromatic braises seem to be the elixir we all need to the first snap of green vegetables that promise warmer days and less outerwear. March comes along and it’s like we all draw a long slow breath, eagerly awaiting the day where the very air shifts and the warmth blows in and we forget about 85″ of snow, the endless drifts, the nerve-wracking commutes. Our winter has been memorable, and it’s a noticeable grimace when flakes continue to fall and the slack jaws at the produce counter scan the same old, same old and try to drum up a different beat for those carrots, the sweet potatoes and rutabagas.
For me, some respite came with one definitive twist of a channel knife, cutting through the thick zest of a fat lemon and releasing the minuscule spray, that spritz of aromatic citrus that at once says to my weary winter white brain ‘Sunshine!’ ‘Warmth!’ Because we all know that those golden orbs carry the very essence of the sun within their tart flesh; with a firm grip they release their juice, carrying an altogether different sensation to our nose. The white of winter, the stinging scent of a fresh snowfall and a glacial chill in the air is quite distinctive, and it settles into us with a thud as those flakes fall, fall and fall, but among that endless snow, the never-ending white, I twisted up a bowl of lemons, ground the zest off their hides and, in addition to all that sunshine filling my kitchen (if I closed my eyes I could see white sand, a hammock and the blue of the Caribbean) I crushed up three stalks of lemongrass, with it’s sharp citrus-y aroma and racy bite and turned it all into the most amazing and tantalizing Lemon Bar I’ve ever had the pleasure of biting in to. Spring is a tease in March; we have days of sunshine, fickle sun, torrents of rain and then a bone-chilling wind descends to remind us that we’re not quite out of the woods yet, so finding this Lemongrass Bar recipe in the current Bon Appetit, with it’s crumbly tender Coconut Shortbread crust was a perfect tonic for the weary landscape of white that turns gray and gritty as we slip through the doorway to another season.
And yes, sugar. Sweet sugar and the tang of lemon, but cut with the flavor of lemongrass, a perennial grass native to the Philippines. Widely used in Asian cuisine is soups, teas and curries, it’s suitable for all meats, and can be made into lemongrass oil which is used as a pesticide and preservative, and is known to have anti-fungal properties. I’ve used lemongrass in savory recipes and love the simple flavor it adds, but the addition of it to these Lemon Bars was genius; the tender white bulb is ground fine with your sugar, then blended with eggs and a little flour to create a luscious filling. The bonus to these bars? Coconut in the crust.
Recently I was given several bags of sweetened shredded coconut that I tossed in the freezer to await inspiration. I do love coconut, but find the sweetened version too overwhelming to add to my oatmeal or muffins as I prefer, but in this recipe, cooked into a tender buttery shortbread crust, it was perfect. With the addition of the lemongrass in the filling, adding an extra level of flavor but without the cloying teeth-clenching sweetness of your standard Lemon Bar, these offered up a nice dose of Springtime to push all thoughts of late Winter faster to it’s timely demise.
Lemongrass Bars with
Coconut Shortbread Crust
1-1/2 c. AP flour
1 c. sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly chilled and cut into chunks
1-1/4 c. sugar
3 lemongrass stalks, bottom 4 inches only, tough outer layer removed & finely chopped
6 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 t. fresh grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
1/4 c. AP flour
Heat oven to 350° and spray a 13×9 cake pan with cooking spray.
For the crust, whisk flour, coconut and powdered sugar together, add butter and cut butter into mixture until it resembles fine crumbs. Use a pastry cutter, two forks or knives or your bare hands. Press dough onto bottom, and 1/2″ up sides of prepared pan. Bake crust until golden (edges will darken more) about 20-25 minutes.
For filling: Place sugar and lemongrass in food processor and blend until finely ground, about a minute. Add lemon juice and zest, pulse 3-5 times. Add eggs and pulse to blend. Add in flour, and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth.
Pour filling over hot crust. Reduce oven to 325° and bake until filling is firm, 20-25 minutes. Cool bars completely in pan then cut to desired shape. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.
Recipe: Bon Appetit magazine (with small modifications)
March 16th, 2011
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Little that’s gone on lately has been ordinary, especially in other parts of the world. I’ve watched a few videos, scanned the headlines and saw a few photos, but for the most part, I’ve stayed far, far away from immersing myself in the news coverage of what’s gone on in Japan. I’m not posting on Facebook about it; I don’t tweet, or retweet about it. And quite frankly, if you want to call me insensitive, go ahead. That’s your right. Just remember that it’s my right too, to decide how I deal with it. And this is how I manage it, because the last time I was soaked in a tragedy, it ended up being stuck with me for the rest of my life.
Back when the world seemed a lot less harsh, I woke on a gorgeous September morning in Las Vegas, ready to spend my day at an International Baking Convention. I was the office manager for a large wholesale bakery in the Cities, and was there to check out new equipment, new software, and new procedures, and I never got the chance. Because that morning was the 11th, in 2001. And we all know what happened then. I watched the entire horror play out on television, right in front of me. I watched bodies plummet through the sky; I watched people on the streets, staring in terror. I watched those towers fall and I cried my eyes out. The country fell apart before my eyes, and I was stranded thousands of miles from home. Everywhere I went for the next six days until I returned home, it was like the tragedy was embedded in my skin, my ears, my eyes. It was all everyone talked about. It was on every television, in every podunk spot that the car stopped as I made my way home, across the gorgeous country amidst the worst times in recent memory. Yes, my boss and I drove home from Nevada; it took 2-1/2 days. We drove through the mountains of the West, through Utah and Colorado and were surrounded by stunning vistas while the sorrow poured out of the radio. A pall had settled on the nation and every gas station, every coffee shop, every tiny diner along the way were full of grim faces and tears. It’s been 10 years since that all happened and I still can see every detail; I can still feel my stomach sinking in agony, like it did that morning while I watched, unable to tear my eyes away. If I catch a glimpse of the clock, and it happens to read 9:11, I can’t get away from the image it leaves with me. And I can’t fill my head, again, with such sorrow.
I’m a sponge; I absorb my surroundings and it gets under my skin to stay with me. And it isn’t just events. It’s people, it’s daily situations, it’s the crabby strangers in passing, the nasty drivers on the road. Negativity can easily fill me up and just as easily take me down. I need to protect myself from drowning in it and so I simply turn away. It’s isn’t that I don’t care. The problem is that I care too much and me, this tiny individual, can’t offer much more than a solitary prayer of compassion. My repetitive tweets won’t do anyone any good; yet another posting on yet another heart-wrenching video won’t do anything. There are plenty of people to spread the news, and I just turn and walk away because to do otherwise would be more images seared in my brain that will stick with me forever. I can’t do that to myself. It’s bad enough that in the darkness I sometimes still see a burning skyscraper, and bodies falling through the smoke. After 10 years you’d think they would fade, but they haven’t. Even the few images of the destruction in Japan won’t replace the shocking pictures of that gorgeous September morning. In fact, they’ve joined them. And that’s not something I need.
So I made pancakes.
Because I needed to feel ordinary and plain, to have something of a constant come up during a time that is now written indelibly in the history books. And for me, it was Pancakes. And not just any Pancakes; these were Wheat Crumb Pancakes, made with fresh bread crumbs as the base. It was odd, to say the least, and maybe not exactly what I would reach for to try and raise some ordinary sense to my day, but it worked. Strangely enough.
The recipe came from Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book. I picked this book up at a used book store many years ago, and it languished in my cookbook cupboard for a long time. I glanced at it once or twice, but never really absorbed it, and last year in a book purge, I almost added it to the boxes I was giving away. But something made me leave it on the shelf and I’m so glad I did because what exists in those pages is a treasure trove of simple, hearty, wholesome and flavorful breakfast recipes, and everyone I’ve tried has been delicious. These Wheat Crumb Pancakes were amazing; fluffy and light and so flavorful. I added some texture to them by tossing finely chopped honey-roasted peanuts into the batter, and replacing some of the liquid with pureed mango and peaches. They cook up thick and hearty, and beg for a dousing of maple syrup. A plate of them set my emotions and grounded me, just as I had hoped they would.
Wheat Crumb Pancakes
1-1/2 c. fresh wheat bread crumbs
1-1/2 c. buttermilk
2 T. butter
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
Place bread crumbs in a large bowl. Heat milk and butter in small saucepan until butter is melted and milk is hot. Pour over bread crumbs and let stand for 5-10 minutes, stirring to fully combine.
Add flour, eggs, baking powder and salt to bread crumb mix. Fold together until just mixed and let stand for a few minutes. Cook pancakes on stovetop, or an electric skillet. Top with maple syrup and butter, if desired, or toppings of choice.
From ‘The Breakfast Book’ by Marion Cunningham
NOTE: Fresh bread crumbs can be made from several slices of good quality whole wheat bread. Place them in a food processor and process until they’re the size of peas. Do not sub in dried bread crumbs, croutons or Panko. I like to keep a ziploc bag of fresh breads crumbs in the freezer. Any leftover bread gets processed and added to the bag. The crumbs are wonderful to have on hand for many uses in the kitchen.
More Pancake love from Kate’s Kitchen:
Whole Grain Pancakes
Pumpkin Pancakes with Winter Fruit Compote
Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes
Fresh Cherry Syrup
Fresh Blueberry Syrup
March 13th, 2011
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A few recipes have crossed my path lately that call for crushed graham crackers in the base. If this is a trend, it’s one I can get behind 100%. There is little else that will swiftly chuck me deep into a well of nostalgia quite like biting into a crisp graham cracker, especially one spread with butter and sprinkled with a little cinnamon sugar.
But to come across a muffin recipe, with chocolate AND graham crackers in it? To quietly utter the words ‘Oh my’ accompanied by a deep sigh of contentment doesn’t even begin to tell you how that made me feel.
And you know I love muffins, a primordial love for a small palm sized bit of moist cake-like goodness. But it has to solidly BE a muffin, as so many of them are nothing short of a dumbed down cupcake. This was a muffin, through and through, although to the eye it was cake at it’s finest. I loved the trickery; the coy visual tease that delivered an altogether different taste once the rich dark crumbs burst across your mouth, scattered with soft chocolate chips to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Yet the word ‘sweet’ wouldn’t be what I would use to describe these muffins. I expected sweet; like chocolate-y cake kind of sweet and I didn’t get that. It solidified further the rather unscientific findings that I am coming across by removing all refined white sugar from anything I bake. Almost everything I’ve baked since last Fall has been with some alternative form of sugar, usually drastically reduced, in an effort to remove products with poor nutritional value from what I eat.
Now please, let me be clear; I have no illusions that any form of sugar is healthy; sugar is sugar and too much of it is problematic. I know this. I’m not pulling a thick armor of wool over my eyes and happily drowning myself in cookies and cake. I love to bake, but the idea of white refined sugar, and also white processed flour has quietly taken siege on my common sense and demanded change. So…. gone is white flour and in it’s place is stone ground whole wheat flour. Gone is white sugar, to be replaced by pure maple syrup, artisan honey, organic natural cane sugar and on occasion, like in these muffins, brown sugar. And yes, I do know brown sugar is refined white sugar costumed with molasses, and in this form I use much less when I bake. But from all the research I’ve read on the use of sugar, when substituting a natural form of it- as in the maple syrup, honey or natural cane sugar- you avoid the chemicals found in the processing of the product. Natural forms of sugar are more readily digestible for humans than anything refined, and have less of an adverse effect on the blood sugar levels in your body. And while I’ll never advocate relentless consumption of anything chock full of sugar, regardless of it’s origin, I will quietly say that a little sweet treat is acceptable, at least for me and my guys. And I’ll feel better about giving them some indulgent goodies, especially when I can pronounce all the ingredients.
I’m planning to write a bit more on this topic at a later date, but really….. if you sat through my little science class, you deserve a Chocolate Graham Muffin.
Chocolate Graham Muffins
1 sleeve regular (or chocolate) graham crackers
1-1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/3 c. cocoa powder
1-1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. sea salt
2 large eggs
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. pure maple syrup
1 c. buttermilk
3 T. canola oil
1 heaping teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 400°. Line muffin tins with paper liners. The recipe makes between 12 and 18 depending on the size of your tins.
Crush graham crackers, either in a food processor, or by placing contents of the sleeve in a large plastic bag and using a rolling pin to crush. In a large bowl, whisk crumbs with flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, soda and salt.
In another large bowl, whisk eggs, brown sugar, syrup, buttermilk, oil, espresso powder and vanilla until smooth and well blended. Pour into bowl with dry ingredients, and using a rubber spatula, gently fold together until just combined. Add chocolate chips and turn them carefully into batter.
Spoon into muffin tins and bake approximately 15-18 minutes. Check for doneness by either using a toothpick or touching the top of the muffin to see if it springs back. You may need a little more time if your oven, like mine, tends to be fussy. Cool muffins in pans on counter for 15 minutes or so, then turn out to cool completely.
Recipe adapted from Eating Well magazine
Other Muffin Recipes from my Kitchen:
Healthy Whole Grain Muffins
Whole Wheat Muffins with Squash and Quinoa
Oatmeal Sweet Potato Muffins
Fig Muffins with Honey Lemon Cream Cheese
Blueberry Bran Muffins
Pumpkin Maple Muffins
Apple Cheddar Muffins with Almonds
March 6th, 2011
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Sometimes I come across a recipe by accident, through a bevy of channels found by clicking here, clicking there, following some promising links and then WHAM! you spot something that looks so delicious that you know you have to make it, right there and right now.
Of course, it helps when I have everything on hand to make it, with the bonus of it being a much healthier version of tea bread, which, let’s face it, is just a big oblong cake, isn’t it? Most tea bread recipes could easily be baked in a bundt pan, or as rounds, covered with frosting of any sort and masqueraded as a cake. No one would really know the difference.
But this tea bread, with it’s luscious compote of cooked sweet dried cherries and figs comes out as something else. It’s dense and moist, yes, but it’s much more bread-like than your typical rectangular 9×5 offering. And I’m kind of a sucker for anything with figs in it. Back to my childhood, when a Fig Newton, fresh and cakey filled with thick pureed figs was my most favorite store-bought cookie, to the now of my adult life, and the soft magical collapse of a fresh fig in my mouth, or the sweet bite of a dried one in my morning oatmeal, there really isn’t a time that I’ll pass up noshing on figs. The glorious fig has no fat whatsoever, no saturated fat, and no cholesterol or sodium. They’re loaded with calcium too, a half cup worth of dried figs fills your entire daily requirement for calcium intake. They’re a complex carbohydrate, rich in fiber and loaded with essential minerals like potassium and iron. Excellence all around.
The recipe comes, not surprisingly, from Eating Well magazine, a publication that consistently offers up health, nutrition and simple good taste. You don’t need much in the way of fancy ingredients or advanced cooking skills to make the majority of offerings in the magazines, and along with consistently good recipes, they offer plenty of up to date nutritional information and honest discourse about food trends.
And recipes with figs. Enough said.
Cherry Fig Tea Loaf
1 c. dried tart cherries
1 c. chopped dried figs
1 c. orange juice
2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. honey
1/4 c. wheat bran
2 t. freshly grated orange zest
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 large eggs
2/3 c. plain soy milk
3 T canola oil
1 t. pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
Combine cherries, figs and orange juice in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Strain, reserving 1/3 cup of the fruit-cooking liquid. Set the fruit and liquid aside in separate bowls.
Stir together flour, sugar, wheat bran, orange zest, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla and the reserved 1/3 cup fruit-cooking liquid in another large bowl. Add to the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Fold in the reserved fruit. Turn the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake until the top is golden and a cake tester inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Loosen edges and invert the loaf onto a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This version was adapted slightly from the original one published by Eating Well magazine. To view that, please go here.