Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I can haz fotograff!

Yippee - the picture uploader worked this time! I love how the melba sauce matches our new placemats perfectly.

At last, a dessert recipe

On Saturday night BFFT and I had our first-ever Columbus houseguests. (Well actually, our first-ever houseguests given that we've always lived in apartments until this month. In most parts of California, Fresno being the only possible exception that comes to mind, it costs an arm and a leg to even rent a house. Never mind owning... you have to be over the hill for that!) Ken and Amanda came here for dinner, and I must admit I was a tad nervous beforehand. Not only do both Ken's blog and the buzz among our mutual friends suggest that he's a very competent, experimental cook, but moving to a new area and expanding your social network also means that you have a new group of people to whom you can (or shall I say must!) prove your culinary skills. It's sort of like re-entering the dating world after a major breakup. On one hand, you have an opportunity to start completely fresh and not be pigeonholed anymore (e.g., as "the crazy one" or "the control freak"... of course I was never either of those things). On the other hand, however, you need to get to know somebody else and his/her likes and dislikes all over again.

Fortunately for everyone, the dinner was a success. For the main course, I made slow-roasted chipotle salmon fillets with pineapple-"cilantro" rice. (Amanda, who happens to share my cilantro aversion, was relieved to discover that I'd substituted parsley.) I'll post those recipes in the not-too-distant future, but for now I wanted to share the grand finale: a peach trifle. Some of you might be wondering what took me so long to post about dessert, in particular because of my gigantic sweet tooth. If that were a literal phrase, I'd probably resemble one of those cartoon donkeys with ridiculous-looking buck teeth. So much so that whenever I go to dinner with BFFT's family and the waiter asks if we'd like to see a dessert menu, they all point to me and reply practically in unison, "She would!" I'm pretty sure I inherited this dessert fetish from my paternal grandma. As it happens, the following peach trifle recipe is from Cuisine at Home, the magazine she subscribed me to a few Christmases ago.

For the peaches:
Peel 1 lb fresh peaches (about 1 medium and 1 large) and slice into wedges. (I made 12-16 wedges per peach.) Combine with 2 T sugar and juice of 1/2 a lime (about 1 T). Toss to coat.

For the pound cake:
Cut 3 cups (about 9 ounces) of prepared pound cake into 1" cubes. Drizzle 1 T rum per trifle (or per layer, if you're like me and you have a hankering for booze in your dessert :)) over the pound cake during assembly. The alcohol flavor will mellow as the trifle sits.

For the melba sauce:
Combine 1 cup fresh raspberries, 1/4 cup raspberry jam (blackberry works fine too), and juice of 1/2 a lime in a blender. Puree until smooth.

For the whipped cream:
Combine 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, and 1/2 t almond extract in a bowl. Beat cream on high speed using an electric hand mixer until soft peaks form, 4-5 minutes.

For the topping:
Thinly slice 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves and set aside. Rinse 1/2 cup sliced almonds (this was way too much for us to finish; 1/4 cup would suffice) under water. While wet, combine with 1/2 cup powdered sugar so a gummy paste coats them. Spread nuts on a baking sheet coated with nonstick spray and bake at 400 degrees for 5 minutes, then stir. Return to oven for another 3-4 minutes, or until garden. Spread almonds on parchment paper and let cool.

To assemble the trifle:
Layer the components two times in each glass in the following order: peaches (3-4 wedges per layer), pound cake (3-4 cubes per layer), melba sauce (2 t per layer), whipped cream (2 T per layer). Don't pack the layers down too much - having spaces will allow the flavors to blend properly. Cover the trifles and chill at least 1 hour and up to 24. Garnish with sugared almonds and mint just before serving. The ingredients above make six individual trifles in 10 oz glasses. Use whatever glasses you have, but make sure they're clear so that you can show off the layers!

Notice that I said the recipe serves six, and there were four of us at dinner on Saturday. Turns out I had some of each ingredient left over and didn't think to take a picture before I served it. But then BFFT, who usually isn't too big on sweets, told me this was his all-time favorite dessert of mine. So the following evening I just had to make two more trifles (darn it!), in order to show all of you.

Argh! I just tried to upload the pretty picture, only to encounter an "internal server error". Check back later!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Betcha can't tell this tofu isn't fried!

I'm feeling especially pleased with myself this evening. No, I didn't invent another recipe (though I have one in mind for later in the week!). Instead, I came up with a new cooking technique. Ever since I decided to stop preparing meat, I've become a huge fan of tofu. Yes, you probably think tofu is disgusting, and I can even visualize the shudder - complete with a gag reflex - that inevitably results whenever you hear someone utter the T-word. In fact, when I first told my mom about my regular tofu consumption, she said something along the lines of "Ewww! Isn't it made of mold?" (Nope, that's tempeh. And believe it or not I like that too.) But over time I've managed to half-convert BFFT, meaning that as long as it's cooked properly he eats it without complaining. So now it makes an appearance on our dinner table once every week or two.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tofu, "cooked properly" in our household means fried. For the past several months I've experimented with reducing the amount of oil in the pan, reducing the heat and increasing the cooking time, increasing the heat and reducing the cooking time... you name it. All to no avail. I'd still end up with a skillet that was impossible to clean without soaking it in water for at least a day. Plus, there was always the chance that Stella or Claude would jump onto the counter and start drinking up. (They actually did that with the water from the skillet in which I cooked last week's scallops recipe. Talk about disgusting.) As a result, I had resigned myself to cooking tofu in an embarrassing amount of oil and blotting out as much as I could with paper towels, meanwhile attempting to convince myself that tofu - never mind how it's prepared - is always healthy. But tonight I tried something different. I initially thought I'd just bake 1" cubes of tofu in a 350-degree oven on a cooking sheet coated with nonstick spray. I did this for about 15 minutes, noticed that the cubes were nowhere close to being done, and got impatient. So then I heated a nonstick skillet on the stovetop over medium-high (no need to put in any oil or spray beforehand) and cooked the cubes for approximately 2 minutes per side. Here's the result:

Not bad, huh? BFFT couldn't tell the difference between this and the tofu I usually make. Indeed, it was exactly what I had hoped for: a crispy exterior without all the grease (and accompanying guilt).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Apples on pizza?!

Well, I did it again and this time with a main course: I served up an original creation! I suppose I just had to start blogging to give myself a much-needed push in that direction and quit cooking like a novice. Actually, to tell you the truth, my thou-shalt-not-depart-from-what-is-written-on-paper mentality generalizes to other domains, and it is something my family and close friends love to make fun of. Take music, for instance. I began learning piano when I was 8 years old and never plunked out anything that deviated even remotely from the score. That is, until I successfully auditioned to play synthesizer for my high school's show choir. Aside from the pianists and me, the band consisted of Geoff the rough-around-the-edges guitarist, Andy the heartthrob drummer, and Dan the mysterious meditating bassist. All three of them were much cooler than my meek 13-year-old self could ever have hoped to be, and all three of them were (apparent) experts in musical improvisation. So you could imagine their amusement when I'd ask them to "teach me how to jam" or simply exclaim with exasperation, "But I don't know how to rock out like you guys do!" Clearly, what I didn't know at the time was that you can never "learn" how to jam... you just buck up and do it. And, although it took me 5 years of adhering religiously to cookbooks to realize this, the same holds true in the kitchen.

My idea for this particular recipe was inspired by a dish I saw on the menu at Spagio, our favorite wine bar/restaurant in the neighborhood. I thought apples and brie on pizza sounded great, but I couldn't convince BFFT to order one with me. So when a week went by without our consuming the wedge of brie we'd bought from Trader Joe's (we meant to eat it with champagne but that didn't end up happening - I guess we were too thirsty!), I decided to put it to good use. After all, BFFT couldn't refuse to eat a pizza I'd made especially for us, could he?

Deep-Dish Style Pizza with Apples and Brie (the dough recipe is from Cuisine at Home; it makes enough for two 9" pizzas)

For the pizza dough:

3/4 c warm water (105-115 degrees)
1 T sugar
1 package (1/4 oz) active dry yeast (2 1/4 t)
2 T oil
2 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c yellow cornmeal
2 t kosher salt

For the filling:

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and sliced
1 wedge (4-5 oz) brie, sliced, rind removed
1/3 c chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste


Combine water, sugar, and yeast. Proof (i.e., let sit) until foamy, about 5 minutes, then add oil.

Mix flour, cornmeal, and salt in a bowl. Knead by hand for 10 minutes, or until smooth. Form dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Punch dough down and re-shape into a ball. Return to oiled bowl, cover, and let rise again, about one hour.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees with the rack on the bottom; coat a 9" cast iron skillet with 1-2 teaspoons oil (I used butter instead because I thought it would better complement the filling).

Divide dough in half; wrap one half in plastic and freeze for later use. Roll out remaining ball, line the prepared skillet, and blind bake for 5-10 minutes (I find that 5 is generally sufficient).

Brush crust with 1 teaspoon of butter, top with brie slices, and top brie with apple slices. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on how chewy/crunchy you like your crust. Let pizza stand 5 minutes before slicing.

my first main-dish culinary "jamming session"! Geoff, Andy, and Dan would be so proud if they could see me now.

And the verdict from BFFT? He gave the recipe a thumbs-up and encouraged me after the fact to post it here (hence no picture). I had thought about brushing the crust with apple butter, which if I remember correctly is what they did at Spagio, but I ultimately decided it would be too sweet for BFFT. Yet another testament to my newfound willingness to depart at least a little from established recipes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Deconstructed spanakopita, with a picture

For dinner tonight I got a little more experimental than I normally do... I know I say I'm an "experimenter" on my profile, but by that I mean hunting down and tinkering with others' recipes as opposed to creating my own from scratch. Now that I've started this blog, though, I'm feeling a bit more pressure to do the real thing. So when I broke out the scallops that had been sitting in our freezer, I decided to make a new side dish to accompany them. I took the scallops recipe from Caprial and John's Kitchen, which by the way is a wonderful resource for couples who like to cook together. (This doesn't apply to BFFT and me anymore. I relegated him to cleaning and dishwasher-loading about 6 months after we started dating, once I was comfortable enough to tell him I'm too much of a kitchen alpha to do the joint cooking thing!) I didn't even like scallops until just a few months ago... shellfish, except for crabmeat and calamari, was #2 on my list of most-despised foods, with cilantro of course taking the grand prize. As my girlfriend Gabe likes to say, "I can't eat anything served in the position it died in!" Well, that all changed the day BFFT brought home a gigantic bag of scallops from Costco, claiming that if I was contemplating fishetarianism (nowadays I only eat non-fish meat when it's served at dinner parties), I needed to broaden my horizons. The first time I tried them I had to pretend they were chicken; they weren't bad objectively but I was still squeamish about eating little creepy-crawlies. The second time I made them, however, I used the current recipe and started to come around. BFFT rates it as one of his all-time favorites, and although I'm still not the biggest scallops fan, I can take them in small doses, especially if they're prepared as described below.

In the interest of sticking with a Mediterranean-themed dinner, I served the scallops atop cous-cous with my original spinach-herb-feta creation - a deconstructed spanakopita, if you will. This was perhaps inspired by the delicious spanakopita I had for dinner last Thursday at Happy Greek. BFFT loved it, and I was so proud of myself for finally taking the plunge into bona fide cookhood (why am I inventing so many new words? does this mean I'm a schizophrenic? or maybe I'm just paranoid... oh wait, that's a symptom of schizophrenia too! aahhh! must get more sleep) that I just had to take a picture. Here is the recipe!

1 bunch spinach
1/4 c onion
1 clove garlic
1/2 t dried dill weed
a pinch of nutmeg
1 T fresh parsley
2-3 T feta cheese
salt and pepper

Heat a small amount of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 additional minute. Add spinach and dried herbs and saute until spinach is wilted, about 2-3 minutes. Garnish with parsley and feta cheese, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

And the scallops (to serve 2 you can make 1/3 to 1/2 this amount):

3/4 c whole-milk yogurt (I like to use Greek-style, and it can be 2% if you prefer)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T chopped fresh mint
1/2 t ground coriander
1/4 t ground cumin
1 T freshly ground black pepper
18 sea scallops
1 T vegetable oil

To prepare the sauce, combine the yogurt, garlic, mint, coriander, and cumin in a bowl, and whisk together. Season to taste with salt. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

To prepare the scallops, place the pepper on a small plate. Season the scallops with salt, then dredge them lightly in the pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a very large saute pan over high heat until smoking hot. Add the scallops and cook until just barely cooked through, about 1 minute per side.

For how easy this is to make, it tastes incredibly gourmet!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lentil burritos with "cilantro"-flavored yogurt

So I finally decided to take the plunge and become one who blogs (I hesitate to self-identify as a "blogger" just yet), which was inspired by a few different things. First, ever since my friend Ken gave me the link to his cooking blog, I've been stealing his recipes left and right. I also admit to having burgled (I love that word!) quite a few from "Heidi", a random lady whose blog keeps popping up in my Gmail news feed. And I guess I figured it was time to give back to the public. :-) Second, I've been cooking for about 5 years now - ever since I had my own kitchen - and still can't name what my "specialty" is, if any. Just a few days ago another friend asked me about my cooking style, and I fumbled around for awhile before offering my usual response: "Well, a little of everything." (He then proceeded to give me a point-by-point description of how he makes the perfect omelet, which made me feel both very hungry and like a culinary impostor!) So perhaps this foray into the blogging world can help me situate myself in the world of cooks. For all you trained social psychologists out there, this is something of an exercise in symbolic self-completion theory. I am such a dork.

Anyhow, below is my first recipe, an old standby adapted from the magazine Cuisine at Home. When I first made it a few years ago, BFFT (a pseudonym for my hubby - long story but not his real initials) said it was the best thing I'd ever cooked. We have it every 1-2 months on average, and to this day he maintains it is delicious. Oftentimes I depart from the recipe as originally written, which keeps both of us from getting bored with it. The first departure is the "cilantro." I use parsley instead because I hate that blasted herb. (Funny how just about everyone I know either loves it or has an extreme aversion.) I wasn't always this way... it started out in the middle of my freshman year in college, the evening that a guy I was dating dropped a much-unanticipated bomb that he "didn't think it would work out" because "our personalities [were] different". After crying on my dear friend Jess's shoulder and complaining about what a jerk he was (though in retrospect his decision may have had something to do with the fact that I was painfully shy and all I could do was cackle nervously at his jokes, which I didn't quite get in the first place), we went down to the dining hall, where they were serving burritos with cilantro rice and cilantro tortillas. Despite not being hungry at all, I wolfed down the whole thing... and went from finding cilantro tolerable to absolutely vomitrocious. (I love that word too. I first read it in the Arthur children's book series - what was Arthur anyway? an anteater? - and don't think I've seen or heard it since then.) Who knows why it still persists after 8 1/2 years; in any case, parsley is a great substitute. All right, at long last, the recipe I promised with my personal notes in italics:

For the filling:

1 T vegetable (I like canola) oil
1/4 c onion, diced
1 t curry powder
1 t jalapeno, minced (I add way more because I love spicy)
1 1/2 c vegetable broth
1/2 c tomatoes, chopped
1/2 c red potatoes, cubed
1/4 c brown lentils
1 bay leaf
1/2 c frozen chopped spinach (tonight I tried green bell peppers; collard greens also work well, as does fresh spinach as long as you allow enough time for the liquid to be absorbed)

Saute onion, curry powder, and jalapeno in oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, 5-8 minutes (closer to 5), stirring often. Stir in broth, tomatoes, potatoes, lentils, and bay leaf. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender, 20-30 minutes. Finish lentils with spinach (no need to thaw it first), lime juice, and salt. (If using bell peppers instead, add them 5 minutes or so before filling is ready.)

For the spiced yogurt:

1 c "cilantro" leaves and stems
1/4 c scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
2 t fresh ginger, chopped
1 t sugar
1/4 t ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Juice of 1/2 a lime
Salt and cayenne to taste
1/2 c plain yogurt

Process all ingredients except yogurt in a food processor until minced. Stir herb paste into yogurt; chill until ready to serve.

For the tortillas:

Here's where I improvised the most; the original recipe called for frying the tortillas, but this is a much healthier and equally delicious alternative.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place two 10" (burrito size) tortillas (spinach or tomato are tasty if you can find them) on a baking sheet, sprinkle 1/4 c grated Monterey Jack (I like pepper jack) cheese across the center of each one, and bake for about 3 minutes.

Roll burritos and serve topped with yogurt.

Yay! My first post! I'm sorry I don't have any pictures (didn't realize it was the rule rather than exception until it was too late), but I promise to include one next time I cook this. Which will, if it's up to BFFT, be very soon.

P.S. In case you're curious, here are the links I mentioned in my first paragraph:
Ken's blog
Heidi's blog