Peanut Butter and Purple Onions

Sounds crazy until you try it.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Chill in the Air

It's finally getting cold here. The leaves are turning in Central Park, the sky veers from steely blue to iron gray and back again. On the streets, the fwick-fwick-fwick of sandals has surrendered to the softer thumping of boots. I walk to work with my cheeks glowing and my hands balled up inside my pockets.

As a transplanted coastal Californian, regular daytime temperatures of below-50 are new to me, and I've been eagerly awaiting the falling thermometer. The summer weather here was dreadful, worse than I had anticipated, and it seemed to last forever. I know I was a terrible trial to Dimples, who grew up in Florida and found summer in New York to be no big deal. I whined, I grumped, I pouted next to the blasting air conditioner. I never seemed to learn that while it is true that overcast skies in a San Francisco July suggest sixty-five degrees, the same phenomena in a Manhattan July suggest something rather higher. But at last! My first East Coast autumn! I'm giddy!

I'm also, apparently, somewhat wimpy. A few days ago, a visitor at work eyed my sassy green coat and murmured, "Hmmmm, breaking out the wool already?" This may not bode well for when it gets really cold here, but whatever. I can't wait for my first snowfall!

In celebration of the brisk air, I present a quick and fabulous tomato soup recipe, with cubed bread to give it some heft. We slurped up huge bowls of this with grilled cheese sandwiches while sitting on the couch, wrapped in our extra quilt. Now how cool is that?

Tomato Soup with Pancetta
adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

I rarely cook with pork, but this recipe does need the pancetta to give it a savory base. I've also tried this recipe with vegetable broth rather than chicken broth, with poorer results.

1 T. olive oil
4 oz. pancetta, chopped roughly
1 sm. onion, chopped finely
3 (3/4 in. thick) slices rustic bread, cubed (I used leftover slices of Peppered-Cheese bread)
6 c. chicken broth
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1/2 c. chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (lower to 1/4 tsp. if you're sensitive to chiles)
salt and pepper
1/4 c. mascarpone
1/4 c. nonfat sour cream

Take the mascarpone and sour cream out of the refrigerator. Heat the oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until crisp and golden, about four or five minutes. Add the onion and saute until tender. Be careful not to let the onions and pancetta get too dry. Meanwhile, toast the cubed bread, then add the cubes and toss with the pancetta and onion. Cook until the bread is crispy and the pan drippings have disappeared, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, tomatoes, basil, oregano, and red pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the flavors blend, about ten minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Stir the mascarpone and sour cream in a small bowl to blend. Ladle the soup into bowls and dollop a spoonful of the mascarpone mixture atop each bowl.

Serves 4 to 6, depending on how many grilled cheese sandwiches you serve alongside.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Short Cut to Mushrooms

I'm envious of many traits possessed by experienced cooks -- a light hand with pastry, an ease with carving (ahem), a deep imagination. I especially long for the instincts, described by so many food bloggers, for what ingredients mesh well with others. I want that awareness and intuition that leads the cook unerringly to the right combinations -- or, if not unerringly, at least frequently.

I know this takes time, experience, and practice. I'm cultivating patience, as best I can. (It's not normally listed among my virtues.) The point of this instinct, after all, is that it is in fact an instinct. I could memorize color-coded lists of which spices complement which dishes, and I suppose that would be helpful. But at the end of the day, I think I have to understand these things on a less mneumonic, more visceral level.

So I'm practicing. And I'm pleased to report, I had a flicker of intuition this evening.

I've been craving wild mushrooms since last Friday night, when I ordered a savory mix of mushrooms at a nameless restaurant in the West Village. (I'm sure the restaurant does actually have a name, but I have absolutely no idea what it is. I have no excuse.) The mushrooms were heaped atop a garlicky piece of toast and adorned with a lovely little fried egg. The combination was so, so good, the earthy mushrooms oozing intense woodsy flavor into the toast. I haven't been able to stop thinking about the dish. So I thought, hey, this doesn't seem all that complicated. I'll try to make it.

I found a recipe for wild mushroom saute on Epicurious, which was straightforward and had earned good reviews on the website. I had a few puzzled moments when told to finely chop the Italian parsley with a clove of garlic -- a few passes with the knife took care of the parsley, but I had to chase the garlic clove back and forth across the herbs, so I don't know how effective that was. Anyway. The mushrooms were sizzling on the stove, rendolent with garlic, when I thought -- hey -- don't I have some fresh thyme? Thyme with the mushrooms! Could it be an instinct??

I seized the moment (of thyme?), and, my goodness. I've never enjoyed a bowl of mushrooms more. I have hope!

Wild Mushroom Saute
Adapted from Epicurious

1/2 c. packed fresh Italian parsley
4 garlic cloves
5 T. extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
2 lb. assorted fresh wild mushrooms, quartered if large and halved if small
1 T. fresh lemon juice
6 sprigs fresh thyme

Finely chop 1/2 c. parsley with 1 garlic clove; set aside. Finely chop remaining cloves, and whisk together with 4 T. oil and 1/2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Add mushrooms and toss to coat.

Heat the remaining T. oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the mushrooms and saute until they're brown and tender, about 10 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and mix in parsley mixture and lemon juice. Strip the thyme sprigs and sprinkle the leaves over the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper.

These would make a fantastic side dish, or you can do what I did: toast thick slices of bread, spread lightly with butter, and spoon the mushroms over the toast. Top with one or two over-medium eggs and swoon.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Leisurely Autumn

Sometimes, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, all you want to do is bake. The challenge for me is to rein in my impulse to bake more loaves, muffins, or whatever than we can eat, freeze, or give away. Forbearance is not a noted virtue of mine, but I'm working on it.

Dimples requested corn chowder earlier in the week, and he so rarely asks for a particular recipe that I always try to comply. (The less said about the Great Brownie Caper, the better.) Plus, I adore making vegetable stock. Adore. I always feel so triumphant for making something out of those odds and ends that might otherwise get tossed out.

But sometimes corn chowder can veer into bland territory, so I wanted to make something with a little zing as its sidekick. I love cheddar in bread, and of course anything with red pepper is a friend of mine, so Peppered-Cheese Bread it would be.

I'll be honest: this dough resisted coming together. I don't know if it was the humidity in the kitchen or just the general laziness of a rainy Sunday, but I spent much more time fussing with it on the counter than in the past. Still, when I pulled it from the oven, I did the Dance of Gorgeous Shiny Bread in the kitchen. Without dropping the baking sheet! Double points.

This bread is flavorful without being overpowering, and stands up well to soaking in soup. It also makes killer grilled cheese sandwiches, although the shape will be a little weird.

Peppered-Cheese Bread

Adopted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

1 1/3 c. warm nonfat milk
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. coarsely-ground black pepper (sometimes I add 3)
1 tsp. red pepper flakes (I almost always add 2)
1 egg, beaten
3 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. grated extra-sharp Cheddar

Pour the milk into a large bowl and add the yeast. Let it stand until foamy, about ten minutes. Whisk in the salt, pepper, pepper flakes, all but one T of the beaten egg, and 1 c. flour. Whem smooth, start adding the rest of the flour. When the dough fights taking any more flour with the spoon, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.

Flatten the dough with your hands into a rectangle, then scatter half the cheese over the dough. Knead it into the dough -- this will take longer than you think it should, and the cheese may not evenly distribute itself. That's okay; it'll sort out in the end. Repeat with the rest of the cheese. Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, turn once, then cover and set aside until doubled in bulk. That should take between 45 and 60 minutes.

Push the dough down gently, then shape it into a tight ball and place it on a baking sheet. Cover and set aside until doubled in bulk again, about 45 minutes. Heat the oven to 375. Slash an X in the top of the loaf, then brush it with the rest of the beaten egg. Bake 45 minutes, then turn onto a rack to cool.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Butternut Bonanza

My sundry and assorted magazine subscriptions are finally straggling in. I don't know why it takes so long for magazines to get with the program after I give them a new address, but anyway. So having been deprived for several months, I've been cutting out recipes with a frenzy over the last two weeks.

And since I needed a use for the handsome butternut squash I procured at the Greenmarket, this offering from Cooking Light looked perfect. I was a little apprehensive about browning butter, something I'd never done, but I really needn't have worried, since it was quite possibly the easiest step. (Grating a pound of squash, on the other hand? very. slow. going.)

I cannot begin to do justice to how achingly good this is -- the squash melts into a velvety sauce, the cheese adds just enough salty punch, and the browned butter with sage and pine nuts puts it over the top into perfection. I know I saw this posted on another food blog, but I cannot for the life of me find that blog again, so I'm posting the recipe as well. I'm already plotting when to make it again.

I didn't have quite enough Parmesan, so I made up the difference with pecorino romano. I also doubled the sage, because I love it dearly.

Pasta with Winter Squash and Pine Nuts

Adapted from Cooking Light

2 T. butter
2 T. pine nuts, toasted
2 T. chopped fresh sage
1 tsp. olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 1/2 c. water, divided
1 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and shredded
1 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
12 oz. penne
1 c. finely shredded Parmesan/pecorino romano, divided

Melt 2 T. butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, until lightly browned and foamy. Add pine nuts and sage and stir to coat. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Heat olive oil in pan over medium-high heat, add garlkic, and saute 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the squash and 1 c. water to the pan. Cook until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes for me, stirring occasionally. Add remaining water 1/2 c. at a time, stirring occasionally until each portion of water is absorbed before adding the next (about 20 minutes total). Stir in sugar, salt, and pepper.

Cook pasta and drain, reserving 1/2 c. pasta water. Combine pasta and squash mixture in a large bowl. Add the reserved water, browned butter mixture, and 3/4 c. cheese, tossing to mix. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and serve.

Yields six servings in theory, four in our corner of reality.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Darn Cat

I kinda have a quick bread problem. I mean, I love them -- so satisfying to whip up, so non-threatening and eager to please. A nice sense of accomplishment. And it happens to be a sort of litmus test on our mom's side of the family. Grandma always asks how my banana bread skills are developing, and I certainly don't want to let her down.

But really, my audience for things edible is currently one young man, with dimples, who isn't all that inclined towards nibbling on bread-y things. And two catlings, but I'm reasonably certain that stained-glass bread isn't part of the usual feline diet. My freezer's threatening to stage a revolt if I try to stuff one more foil-wrapped loaf inside.

Did this stop me from making pumpkin bread the other night? Indeed it did not. It's October, people. I had no choice in the matter. You understand.

What's more, I forgot -- until I was midway through -- that this particular recipe makes three-count-'em-three medium loaves. Uh-oh. I have but one largish loaf pan here in the streamlined kitchen, and I could have sworn I read somewhere that quick bread batter doesn't keep well. (No idea whether that's actually true; I welcome enlightenment.) But you can make muffins out of this kind of batter, right? And I happen to have a muffin tin! Huzzah! Only one burned arm later, I have one large loaf and twenty-four pumpkin muffins. And the apartment was swaddled in a gorgeous warm cinnamony cloud.

And when I turned back to the counter to take a picture of the cute little muffins, here's what I saw:

Guess cats like pumpkin muffins after all.

I took the muffins to work, because while the boy gamely ate one, he wasn't going to make a dent in the remaining herd, and I quail at the thought of our kittens on a sugar high. But I still needed help with the mega-loaf that was sitting reproachfully on the counter. And then tonight I thought -- hey -- would slices stand up to a French toast treatment?

They would. They did. I dipped them in an egg/milk mixture spiked with cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, then gave them a few quick moments on a hot pan until the sides and edges turned golden-brown and crisp. No need for butter or syrup -- the pumpkin with the spices and orange flavors was absolutely perfect, nearly gooey on the inside, crunchy on the outside.

Now I have to talk myself out of baking another loaf.

Pumpkin Bread

A basic recipe, nothing unusual here.

3 c. sugar
1 c. canola oil
4 eggs
3 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
2/3 c. water
15 oz. pumpkin

Grease three 8x4 pans (or one 9x5 pan and one 24-count muffin pan, or similar variation) and heat oven to 350. Beat sugar and oil until blended; add eggs and beat well. In a different bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add dry mixture and water alternately to wet mixture until everything's combined. Add pumpkin.

Pour/spoon batter into the pans. The original recipe says to bake the 8x4 pans for 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. I baked the 9x5 for 60 minutes and the muffins for 18 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely.

Pumpkin French Toast

Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

1 egg
1/2 T. sugar
1/4 tsp. orange zest
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. nonfat milk
2 slices pumpkin bread (from 9x5 loaf)

Whisk the egg with the sugar, zest, vanilla, and cinnamon. Stir in the milk. Pour the batter into a shallow pan and put in the two pieces of bread. Let stand 2 minutes, turning once, depending on how moist the bread is. Be careful not to let it soak up too much, or it will fall apart. Heat a smidge of butter in a skillet until it bubbles. Set the bread slices into the pan, and cook until both sides are browned.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

What to Make?

Guests in town this weekend, so very little cooking achieved. But I did sneak in a trip to the Union Square greenmarket, where much joy was had. I seem to be on a "buy produce that I've never eaten/cooked" kick. This week's bounty: Chiogga beets (never eaten), broccoli rabe (never cooked), butternut squash (never cooked), and fingerling potatoes (ok, those are the exception that proves the rule). Should be an interesting week.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yes Sir, We Have Bananas

All right, NY weather gods: mea culpa. I mocked you, I admit it. I looked out the window, saw the sheets of rain, and shrugged. "I lived in San Francisco," I sniffed. "We had rain there. I can handle this."

I was arrogant, okay, but I think you're taking this "wrath of the heavens" thing a bit far. Wasn't it enough when I arrived at work wearing what had started out as a gray suit and ended up as a combination black (soaked) and brown (mud) one? Or when my umbrella shrieked in agony, turned inside out, then wrenched itself out of my grip and blew away down the street in disgust?

No? Nothing? Fine. I'll do what I usually do when it rains -- bake banana bread.

This is our great-grandmother's recipe. Correction. This is our great-grandmother's list of ingredients. She was famous for her quick breads (I only remember banana and zucchini, but apparently there was tomato. I never had it), but she would get impatient if anyone asked for recipes. "It's like falling off a log" was her usual response. Eventually she was coaxed into providing a list of ingredients for banana bread, but she refused to provide more explanation than an oven temperature. So, after many trials and some truly bizarre results, we figured it out.

This is a dense banana bread, not overly sweet, and the loaf is enormous. I make mine without nuts because, really, they just get in the way, and the batter barely fits in a 9x5 pan; if you want to add nuts, please don't tell me and you'll need to split the batter between two smaller pans. Perfect with butter, cream cheese, or, yes, peanut butter. Let the winds howl.

Great-Grandma's Banana Bread

1/2 c. shortening (hmmm. need to find non-trans-fat option)
1 c. white sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 3/4 c. sifted flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. mashed ripe bananas
1 c. chopped nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream the shortening and the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth. Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then add the mix a bit at a time into the wet ingredients until incorporated. (The batter will be quite stiff.) Add the mashed bananas and the chopped nuts, if you're using them. Pour into a greased and floured pan (9x5 if no nuts, two 8x4s if nuts included). Bake for about an hour; when it's done, the top will be firm and brown, and a knife will come out only a little tacky. I always rotate the pan at 30 minutes, probably more out of habit than any real need. Let it cool at least twenty minutes, preferably an hour, before slicing.

Freezes beautifully.


I don't have a general phobia about chicken, mind you. I have emerged victorious from numerous engagements with the bird. And when I was cooking meat regularly, chicken was easily the most frequent choice.

But I'd never roasted one. Never even considered it; it's not a dish that comes naturally to mind for me. Mom's chicken offerings were almost universally in the chopped or shredded categories -- burritos, pies, and the like. When Dad grilled quartered chickens slathered in his famous messy sauce, they looked oversized -- kind of weird, actually.

So I'm not sure how I got fixated on the idea of roasting a whole chicken. But there it was, that tickling little idea, and there was no ignoring it. Even though I really had no idea how to go about it and was reasonably terrified. Ah well. So what else is new?

Monday night found me eyeing a plump bird tucked decorously onto a makeshift rack, stuffed with a lemon half and fresh thyme sprigs, and smeared with butter (I was taking no chances. Lowfat could come later). It certainly looked like it would behave itself, and after about an hour, it emerged from the oven bronzed and gorgeous and somehow smug.

I really should have taken a picture then.

Because I then realized I needed to carve this thing. Which not only had I never done, I had never even seen done. There is a clear rule in my parents' house at Thanksgiving, the only time a whole bird graces the table -- Dad carves the turkey, Devorit assists, and Mom and I...go do something else. I have no idea how this rule came into being, and Devorit probably has something to say about it, but it is ironclad. Thus: total ignorance about how to carve.

So I grabbed The Joy of Cooking, which has helped me through many a blank spot, but -- I couldn't find carving instructions. I assume they're in there, somewhere, but I couldn't locate them in the heat of the moment. So I had to go to Lifeline #2:

I actually don't think I've made anything out of this book, but I have to have it with me. Mom's copy is so tattered and stained that it's probably some kind of health hazard, and for me, it's a kitchen talisman of goodwill. And it had carving instructions! With pictures!

...and yet. Oh, and yet. I take (small) consolation in the fact that I was hindered by utensil choice -- I only have one knife here larger than a paring knife, and even that one was really too small for the job. Carving fork? Hah. I didn't even own one in California. So, a few points for inadequate implements of destruction. Or perhaps I'm being too hasty. For indeed, destruction did commence, and how. Most of the time, I just could not get that bird to hold still, and when I did manage to pin it, my slices were...let's be honest. "Hacks" would be a generous description.

In the end, as long as I didn't contemplate the visual aesthetics, the chicken was a success -- tender, savory, and subtly infused with lemon and thyme. Dimples didn't even bat an eye when I set a platter of mangled chicken bits on the table. Wise man.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Purple Haze 2

So, a little bit of background. I wouldn't call myself a novice cook, exactly, but I'm squarely in the apprentice stage. The thought of pastry makes me a little wobbly, for example. But I've always loved reading about -- and eating -- really good food. When I moved east this summer, I left most of my possessions in storage, including nearly all my kitchen equipment. Naturally, I then decided it was time to get serious about learning to cook. I would master the spatula! I would conquer the double boiler!

There's a lot out there. The other night I rolled up my sleeves and tackled eggplant.

Since I've only recently discovered I like eggplant (thanks, L.), I felt this was a modestly adventurous choice. My encounters with the glossy purple globes had previously been limited to a surreptitious poke or two in the produce section. (When I was nine, honest!)

I'm currently wandering through Jack Bishop's Pasta e Verdura, not only because the recipes are generally quick to throw together, but also because Dimples is leery of vegetables but fond of pasta. I found adorable little eggplant at the Union Square Greenmarket (love!), so Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes and Fresh Herbs sounded like a good start.

The kittens swiped an eggplant when my back was turned (two seconds!), and so were banished after a madcap chase around the apartment. Naturally, pouting ensued. With the purloined eggplant regretfully tossed out (how did they manage to shred it so quickly?), I brushed the remainder lightly with olive oil, roasted them at 400 degrees until their skins wrinkled, then peeled and chopped them. Unpeeled, the roasted eggplants were charmingly burnished, but peeled, they sulked on the cutting board, oozing glumly. I may be projecting a little here. I followed the tomato sauce instructions (saute an onion for five minutes; add garlic and saute a little longer; add chopped tomatoes and their juice), then added the chopped eggplant and fresh oregano. Simmered for twenty minutes, added basil, salt, and a good grinding of pepper, and poured the resulting reddish-beige goo over rigatoni. Finishing touch was a sprinkling of grated goat cheese, another Greenmarket find.

Dimples devoured his, but I found the sauce only slightly more flavorful than unadulterated tomato sauce. I had hoped for a smokier, more overt eggplant punch, but this left only a vaguely roasted flavor on the back of my tongue. Not bad, but.

Next: I confront my fears of roast chicken inadequacy.

Purple Haze

Last night, for the first time ever, I attempted to cook eggplant. With mixed results. Not a disaster, but...I'll post more on that later, when I have the recipe in front of me.

For now, I'll just say that kittens really really REALLY like to bat baby eggplants across the kitchen floor.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Spice Road

I keep a jar of cayenne on my desk at work. (I make a point of never being without a source of culinary heat. For a while, in my college days, I kept a bottle of hot sauce in my car's glove compartment. Until someone pointed out the merits of refrigeration to me. Anyway.) It's a relatively old jar, I guess -- from a supermarket in Los Angeles, where I haven't lived in some time. (Don't worry, I've changed the cayenne itself. I go through this stuff like I go through Diet Dr. Pepper.)

I love my job, but because I have the attention span of an adolescent chipmunk, sometimes my mind wanders. The other day, desperate for distraction but unable to go online without whiling away the entire afternoon (in addition to no attention span, I have no self-discipline), I picked up my longtime cayenne companion and read the label. It amused me to no end.

"Cayenne is widely used to add zest in many Mexican and meat dishes."

I might've used "to" instead of "in," but whatever. I also would've expected some mention of spice or heat. "Zest" for "heat" seems a little deceptive. But again, whatever. Here's the part that amuses me, because I am demented:

"It is often found in sausages, sauces, cheese dishes and spreads."

I love this. The passive voice here -- I picture the cayenne materializing in sausage, all on its own, the spontaneous generation of zesty goodness. And who is doing the finding? An intrepid team of nameless wurst consumers? "Zounds! We've struck cayenne, men! Our work is done!"

It's a lot of amusement to derive from a spice label, but, desperate times, you know.

Easy Like Tuesday Morning

It's been one of those mornings -- when I feel like acting on impulse. Such mornings can be dangerous, depending on the whim selected. I guess I'll see how this one turns out.

Good morning, all. Or any.