Thursday, December 30, 2010

Recipe: Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Pecans

These roasted sweet potato discs come out of the oven crisp on the outside and fluffy and tender on the inside. The dressing and goat cheese cut the sweetness of the potatoes while the celery and pecan enhance the texture with a satisfying crunch. Leave any unused potatoes undressed. If warmed up in the oven, their original crispy crusts return and you have leftovers much fancier than typical reheated fare.
topped sweet potato rounds alongside red pepper soup
Roasted sweet potatoes with goat cheese and pecans
25 minutes, serves 3-4 as a side
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
  • 2 large sweet potatoes (weighing around 1 lb. each)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus a bit more for brushing
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 oz. goat cheese
1.   Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2.   Rinse and scrub sweet potatoes and slice into 1″ discs.
3.   Line a baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray. Brush both sides of the sweet potato discs with olive oil and lay on the foil.
4.   Sprinkle the discs with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and place in the oven for 15 minutes.
5.   While the potatoes are roasting, whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar and dijon mustard to make a dressing.
6.   Finely chop the celery stalks and add the celery and the pecans to the dressing. Crumble the goat cheese and set aside.
7.   Remove the potatoes from the oven and flip them. The tops should be browned and slightly puffy. Sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper and return to the oven for an additional 10 minutes.
8.   Remove potatoes from the oven and transfer to a plate. Top with the celery/pecan mixture and goat cheese.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comfort Food

While I am a bit sad that Christmas has now passed (though, admittedly relieved that the end of the sugar cookie coma is now in sight), I am thrilled that I returned from Illinois with many servings of leftover soup packed away with the rest of my holiday loot. Today’s lunch was chicken tortilla, tomorrow will be chili. Wednesday evening will be two servings of red pepper soup (That’s how Tom knows I like him, I’m willing to share my favorite soup), followed by potato sausage. The list of soups I got to try while I was home goes on and on. Have I mentioned how much I love the holidays?
With the conclusion of the holidays also comes the conclusion of my financial wiggle room. After Christmas presents, plane tickets, and trips home have been paid for I’m feeling the need to channel Ebenezer Scrooge for the next month when it comes to any flexible spending. Groceries included. So I’m eating out of the pantry this week. Which I should probably do a bit more often anyway, so it’s a good exercise. I figured I might like a supplement to my leftover baked chicken, but was looking for something really tasty, as the chicken, well, it had left something to be desired the first time around so I was not expecting anything magical for round two. Enter my favorite standby side dish: poppy seed noodles. But, alas, tonight I encountered one minor problem just as I’d finished tossing the egg noodles through the melted butter: I was out of poppy seeds.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not above eating butter and noodles and calling it a meal. In fact, it wouldn’t be the first time that had gone down in my kitchen on a cold Monday night. But poppy seed noodles with no poppy seeds? I mean, it’s just not right. I scoured the contents of my spice cabinet to see what else I could work with. I began coming up with several additions that would have surely been delicious: garlic powder, italian seasoning, nutmeg. But when I moved back the first row of spices to reveal the taller containers, I knew the answer was clear.
Are you ready? Because this will actually blow your mind. Or at least your tastebuds. Maybe not. But it’s an improvement on poppy seed noodles. So give me a break.
Butter. Noodles. And crushed red pepper.
It’ll change your life. And I may or may not have eaten tomorrow’s lunch helping as my second dinner serving. Oops.
My overactive imagination sees this as the moment that changes the hearts for all of those poppy seed noodle haters of my past. In all actuality, it will probably be just one glorious night in the kitchen where I discovered a food that will make me lick the spoon, the plate and the pot I cooked it in. I do think I may be on to something here…but for now, I have a twist on an old, comforting standby. Maybe I’ll wait a while before I pick up more poppy seeds.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cook Book Confession

One of my favorite things about post-college life is the fact that I have been able to go many, many semester-length segments without packing up my entire life and moving it down three flights of stairs and four blocks over. When I did have to move, I have extremely vivid memories of my least favorite box to pack: the books. Why? Because it’s so satisfying to pack a box perfectly full of them (and their shape makes them the easiest thing to pack, in that way) only to realize it weighs about 200 pounds. The books always seemed to get spread out over many other boxes and thus, when I unpacked, I never had all of them out of the boxes at the same time.
And maybe this is how I became the lady that owns 31 cookbooks.
Literally, 31. The top six sit in my kitchen and the rest are stored just around the corner. And the rest’s rest (because even my overflow has overflow) are in the bookcase across the living room. Might I have a problem? Absolutely not. I swear.
The part that I really hate to admit is that while I have definitely thumbed through all of them and cooked something from almost all of them, I’ve never really gotten into very many of them to figure out what the heck is going on between all those pages. And for the effort I’ve put in dragging those cookbooks up and down stairs and over state lines, I think we should be a bit better acquainted.
We had two particularly snowy weekends the first two Saturday of December in darling Indiana (isn’t avoiding this crap weather so early in the season part of why I moved here?). I took the opportunity to shut myself in my apartment, curl up with some hot tea, put a movie on, and thumb through cook books. I was reminded of some recipes and techniques that I’ve been meaning to try out and haven’t gotten around to as well as things I have tried and loved (or didn’t love so much), but mostly I discovered a ton of recipes I am now dying to make. 172 of them to be precise. And I was being a little picky about which ones made the list. Maybe it would help if the list of ingredients I didn’t like was closer to the number of cook books I own.
I have no particular goals in mind with these recipes in terms of getting them cooked within a certain amount of time. I’m sure I’ll feed my addiction and buy more cookbooks in the meantime, not to mention all of the little treasures I’ll come across in my food blog trolling. I must say, though, it’s nice to feel like I’m getting to know the cook books better. (I realize that statement sounds simply silly. They’re books, not people. I get it!) I’ve always had a familiarity with the style of each, but really peeling through the pages makes me feel like I’ve sharpened the tools that are at my disposal. Do I need a quick 30-minute weeknight recipe? Do I want to challenge myself and my dishwasher’s load capacity? Rutabagas were on sale…who will know what to do with these? These are the kinds of things that get a bit easier to tackle when you know what resources you already have.
So, while I don’t necessarily hope you find yourself snowed in (or having to box and move cook books, for that matter), I do hope you take some time to dust off those old recipe receptacles and see what you come across. If it’s anything worth sharing, I’d love the ideas. After all, I have many more than 172 meals that I’ll need to eat in 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Meal Planning

I have found there is one element of cooking that does not discriminate on any level. It is the same whether you cook once a day or once a month, if you cook for one or a family full of teenage boys, if you’re a beginner or a seasoned chef. And that is that the best intentions in the kitchen can go amazingly awry without a plan.
Now, before you assume I’ve just turned a painfully obvious statement into an entire blog post (yawn), hear me out. How many times do you go to your fridge, open the door, stare mindlessly at the contents until your face begins to get clammy only to shut the door and sigh “I have nothing to eat.”?
I have the same phenomenon happen with the clothes in my closet. And if you know me, you know the statement “I have nothing to wear” is absolutely false. But it feels that way more often than it should when it’s ten minutes until I need to be out the door and I’m just staring…waiting for an outfit to jump from the hangers and onto my body. The fix for my wardrobe’s lackluster appeal in the morning was pretty easy – pick the outfit out the night before. Not only do I select something with a brain that’s been firing on all cylinders for several hours (not like the pre-coffee brain I have in the morning), I’m more likely to stick to it because it’s already out and waiting for me. No running around for that cardigan that I swear I just washed or a pair of pantyhose without a run in them, just the simple act of getting myself into an outfit, topping it off with accessories, and moving on with the rest of my morning.
The same logic can be applied in the kitchen. If you plan ahead as to what you’ll be cooking in the coming week, you’ll be much more prepared when it’s actually time to step up to the stove. I’m sure if you ask ten people how they go about meal planning, you’ll get ten different answers, but there will be a few things that will stay more or less the same:
  1. Inventory of ingredients on hand
  2. Decide what meals will be made when
  3. Create grocery list
Inventory of ingredients on hand: Often times, this is the best place to start. It gives you an idea of what you have on hand and, if refrigerated, what you need to use up before it hits its expiration date. I make some notes of what I’ve got and then let the wheels start turning. For more seasoned cooks, recipes will come to mind pretty easily. For beginners, this can be the hardest step. Luckily, there are a few resources that should help you out. One is the index of any cookbook (any one worth its weight in paper, that is). Look up the ingredient or ingredients you’re working with in the back and see what recipes your book has to offer. Many recipe sites have search engines based on ingredient. has one I’m particularly fond of because you can search by multiple ingredients and also set ingredients to exclude. If you’re a little more comfortable with tweaking recipes, you can search for recipes that call for similar ingredients to what you’ve got on hand, i.e. you have tomatoes and the recipe calls for red peppers. Though, on a personal note, I would never pick a tomato over a red pepper. Just saying.
Decide when you’re making what: Once you’ve selected your culinary creations of the week, pick out when you’ll make them. I have a dry erase board that lives on my fridge that I fill out for the week that notes what I’m planning on having for lunch and dinner each day. Before I start, I mark out any days I’ll be out of town or nights I already have dinner plans. All of the sudden that week you’re planning for can go from fourteen meals to eleven and that can make a big difference when you’re planning what to cook when. Another important element in this step is to figure out how many servings each recipe is going to make. The recipe itself is usually a good guide for number of servings. Consider that number minus any additional mouths you’ll be feeding and you’ll know how far that dish is going to go for you. Plug your servings in to your calendar accordingly, rinse and repeat until the calendar is filled
Create grocery list: Now that you’ve figured out when you’re eating what, you’ll be able to figure out when you need what ingredients. Unless you have a necessity for super-fresh ingredients, shopping for the week will usually work. Look at the recipe to determine how much of each item you’ll need and write a list out accordingly. Also, a handy trick I learned from my momma: Write your list in the order that you come to the items in the store. It may take a few trips before you have the lay of the land, but being able to get everything on your list in one pass at the grocery store sure makes things easier.
Perhaps actually putting this process into words is making it sound more complicated than it is? Let’s look at this week in my kitchen as an example. This is more or less the thought process that happens whenever I sit down to plan:
  1. Inventory Ingredients:
    Leftover mac and cheese, a couple of zucchini, and mashed potatoes needed to be eaten up. I was also out of milk and needed to restock on fruit. I also have a spaghetti squash on hand.
    Recipes for the week? Haven’t had a taco night in a while. And that’s a good enough reason for tacos, right? I can use up that spaghetti squash with that Lentil and squash recipe.
  2. When am I eating what:
    This week I’m having dinner out on Thursday, so no cooking for me that night.
    Mac and cheese leftovers will be good for two lunches and I’ll take some veggies to supplement it. Potato pancakes will be good for two meals as well.
    I’m eating tacos with Lily on Tuesday, so there will be plenty of leftovers – I’m probably good for three nights of that. Three night of tacos? I can make one a taco salad to break it up a bit. The lentils and squash will be with Tom. We’ll probably split the leftovers, so I think I can plan for two servings of that.
    Let’s plug it into a calendar:
    • MONDAY: leftover mac and cheese (lunch), potato pancakes (dinner)
    • TUESDAY: leftover mac and cheese (lunch), taco night (dinner)
    • WEDNESDAY: leftover potato pancakes (lunch), lentils and squash (dinner)
    • THURSDAY: taco salad (lunch), dinner out
    • FRIDAY: leftover lentils and squash (lunch), leftover tacos (dinner)
    • SATURDAY: pancakes (lunch), chilli (dinner)
  3. Create Grocery List: Mac and cheese and potato pancakes are taken care of. For tacos I’ll need lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, black beans, refried beans, and taco shells. For lentils and squash I have everything except the onion. I need to pick up milk as well, plus some fruit for the week. Bananas and tangerines should do it. I can probably hold off on buying the chili ingredients until the end of the week.
There are plenty of things that can go wrong even when you plan. “Boy, that onion cooked way faster than expected”, “I swear there were three cups of chicken stock left in here”, “Oops! Didn’t remember to pull the fish out of the freezer”, “That’s what I forgot to pick up at the store”, “how long has that lasagna been in the oven for…”, etc. Any of this sounding familiar? In addition to helping you save money on groceries and reducing waste, having a plan in place from week to week will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that can make cooking frustrating.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to Cook: Spaghetti Squash

I like cooking. A lot. And really (let’s be honest) the only thing I like better than cooking is just food in general. I love ingredients. It’s probably because nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than working with things I don’t understand. I’m the girl that spent the summer before I started French 101 studying French so I wouldn’t start my beginner level class as a beginner. Twenty-some years of this type of behavior has shown no signs of dying, so now I roll with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are foods I really don’t like. Ready for the most blasphemous example of them all? Tomatoes. I’m really not a big fan of them. Now, I try and try to cook things like tomatoes in a hundred different ways forcing myself to eat them because I just don’t feel right leaving a food out from my repertoire (and in this case, a very basic one) because it’s not really my thing. Over the summer when I spent weeks making tomatoes countless different ways to prove that I CAN and WILL eat them, I diagnosed this issue of an inability to truly put my foot down and refuse any food as the workings of my inner food evangelist. The personality that takes over when I hear someone say “Bell peppers are gross” or “What the hell is a pomegranate” and immediately attempts to fill the knowledge or acceptance gap.
This morning at the market, you could say my inner food evangelist took over.
It was spaghetti squash. I was standing harmlessly by one of the stands eyeing the potatoes that were laid out, innocently thinking about how wonderful the potatoes I cooked a few weeks ago with bay leaves tasted. And then I overheard the woman behind the counter say her mother used to do wonderful things with spaghetti squash, but she didn’t really know how to cook it. You can imagine what happened next. What made this morning unusual is that one conversation started almost a half dozen more. Everyone around this stand was truly curious about what you do with a spaghetti squash. I was happy to inform them, though in my own head I am thinking how sad it is that these people have been missing out on spaghetti squash all these years!! It’s different than every single other kind of winter squash, has a flavor that is both beautifully delicate and able to be brought out by so many different kinds of seasonings, and best of all makes it feel like you have a massive pile of carbs on your plate when in fact you have veggies!! …And there I go again. Needless to say, the woman thanked me for facilitating the sale of about a dozen pounds of squash that these uninformed consumers would have otherwise overlooked.
So here’s the skinny on spaghetti squash, why I think it’s wonderful, and what in the world you can do with it:
Spaghetti squash is a winter squash (like acorn, butternut, etc.) that shows up in fall and stays through early spring. The most important thing to know ahead of cooking it is that while it IS a winter squash, it doesn’t ACT the same as other winter squashes. Other winter squash you can roast, braise, stuff and bake, puree and turn into soup etc. and the results between the squash varieties will be relatively the same: a creamy-textured hearty vegetable that makes a great center or compliment to any winter meal. With spaghetti squash, there’s really only one way to prepare the actual squash. After that, you can dress it up however you would like (and I promise, straying from the cinnamon/brown sugar/cranberry variety of seasoning is both doable and eye-opening), but you need to first get the spaghetti out of the squash.
The best part about spaghetti squash (and really, most squash recipes, if you have a microwave) is that you can prepare the squash in around 10 minutes. Pierce the squash all over and place on a plate in the microwave on high for 4 minutes. Turn it over and cook it for another 5 or so, depending on how large the squash is. When it’s done, it’ll be soft to the touch on the outside (but also hella hot, so watch out). Let it cool. And I say again LET IT COOL. 5 minutes should do it, cut it in half lengthwise and let it cool for another 5 or so. Once the squash is no longer on fire, scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Take a fork and scrape the flesh out of the shell from top to bottom. It should create long, spaghetti-noodle like strands of squash. Its a little easier if you have the stem still on the squash – it makes for a lovely little handle. If not, I recommend using a hot pad and holding the squash half over a bowl and scraping into that. Once you’ve got your two shells scraped, that’s it. Seasoning time! As an aside – if you don’t have a microwave, you can bake the squash at 350 for 45 minutes or so. Line a cookie sheet with foil, slice the squash in half lengthwise, rub a little bit of oil onto the sliced sides and put them face down on the sheet to bake.
You can season it with just about any combination of spices you like. Spaghetti squash by itself has a slightly less creamy taste than other winter squashes and a more subtle flavor. It takes well to virtually and spices and seasoning because of how mild it is. I’ll put up some actual spaghetti squash recipes as the season goes on, I’m sure, but to start you off, here are a few general ideas:
  • Using just like spaghetti and topping with a pasta sauce or chopped tomatoes with basil
  • Browning a tablespoon or two of butter and tossing it with the squash
  • Use as an addition in soups such as lentil or vegetable
In terms of picking a squash, find one that is firm with an unbroken skin. Typically the ones I find at the market have some sort of dirt or buildup on the skin.  As a rule, I don’t worry about it if I can wash it off. You aren’t going to eat the skin, so as long as its intact and the squash is firm, you’re good to go. All winter squashes will keep for quite a while. Using it within a month is a good rule of thumb. But good luck keeping one around that long once you realize how easy and delicious the cooked version is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recipe: Red Pepper Soup

After posting this initially with just instructions (and after a recent reminder of how essential clear directions are – I’m looking at you, IKEA) I thought it may be helpful to go back and give some additional information and tips for the recipe.
This is an original recipe of mine and I have tried lots of different variations and landed on this version as the best. It’s like a tomato soup in the way that so much of its appeal is in the simplicity. I’ve spiced it, used roasted peppers, tried different bases, and each time I am highly disappointed I’m not eating this version.
One nice way to vary it is how much you blend your peppers. Well blended peppers will produce a finer, saucier soup while less blending will leave the peppers a bit chunky. If you’re looking for your peppers to be liquefied, I’d recommend using an immersion blender. I prefer the latter and sometimes take the chunky texture a bit further by leaving one pepper out of the food processor, chopping it into bite-sized pieces separately and adding the pieces to the stock when the other peppers go in.
A note about the main ingredient: Buying red peppers at the grocery store is highway robbery. Two dollars for a pepper? Are you kidding me? And there’s no negotiating with the produce guy for a cheaper price. I have a feeling this is the first of many “The farmers’ market is the best thing since sliced bread” rants, but it is so true in this case. I can usually get a good, fresh red pepper at the market for 75 cents. For those keeping score at home, that’s roughly a 63% discount from the grocery store. My recommendation? Get to the market, pick the reddest, biggest, most beautiful peppers you can get your hands on, take them home, turn them into pepper pulp and freeze it. So on that January evening when you’re thinking “Man, I would die for a bowl of red pepper soup right now, but it’s so not worth braving the elements to go buy overpriced, mediocre-at-best peppers to make it with” (…just wait, those exact words will cross your mind) you’ll have the perfect solution already in your freezer. Take advantage of both the bounty of the season and the wonder that is modern refrigeration.
And with that, please do enjoy this soup. It’s one of my absolute favorites and I hope it will earn your admiration as well.
4-5 large red bell peppers
4 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
1 cup milk
2 tbsp. sherry
1 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1. Quarter the peppers, removing the stem and seeds, and blend in a food processor until pureed (mixture will be slightly chunky).
2. Place butter in a stockpot over medium heat. When melted, whisk in the flour one tablespoon at a time to create a roux.
3. When the roux is golden brown, whisk in vegetable stock, milk, and sherry. Stir in pepper puree and add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes. Serve topped with freshly chopped parsley.

A Spoonful of Something

I’ve kicked around the idea of starting a food blog for quite a while now. I feel qualified for this position for a few reasons. One, I love food. And I love GOOD food. …Admittedly, I love really bad food occasionally, but overall, I’m a well behaved foodie. Two, I love cooking. I love it even more when there’s someone other than me to consume the final product, but I won’t discriminate an opportunity to make my apartment smell completely delicious. Three, I have more cookbooks than I can read in a lifetime. I have made quite an impressive list of qualifications for myself. However, perhaps the most compelling argument for food blogging is that it’s the freaking internet. And I can go on, and on, and on, and on about things like my love for greek yogurt, or my slight aversion to mushrooms, or how there is just nothing that satisfies my soul the way that a perfectly iced cake does.
The way I see it, you have to eat. You have to eat a lot of food in a lifetime. There is really no reason that food can’t be good. But good doesn’t mean gourmet or took six hours to make or had to fly to Guatemala to get half of the ingredients. Good means the kind of food that just makes you step back for a moment, realize the beauty of the substance in your mouth and smile on the inside before you go for the next bite.
I, too, live a normal human existence and therefore have the aforementioned reaction to my food about 10% of the time. I mean, that kind of reaction to raisin bran in the morning (especially pre-coffee) might be a bit too much. BUT, when a meal falls into that 10% it is a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing that really should happen more often. A thing that I was reminded of when I returned home after a mentally anguishing day and stepped up to my sink. I washed and sliced a bagful of red peppers from the farmers market, blended them in the food processor, whisked up a roux and the only thoughts that crossed my mind were remnants of stressful day. It wasn’t until I took my oversized spoon, dipped it into my bowl and put a bite into my mouth that I was whisked away from the thoughts I’d been stewing in got lost in the flavors and textures I’d created.
Romantic sentiments about food aside, I make a wicked good pot of Red Pepper Soup. Part of the reason I love it so much is because it’s an original recipe. The other reason is that it’s, um, delicious. I really hope it’s not the same sort of syndrome that I have about my mother’s Poppy Seed Noodles where I seem to be the only one under its spell. I think Poppy Seed Noodles is possibly the greatest side dish ever created. Poppy seeds. Noodles. Butter. What more could you want? But everyone I have cooked these for is quite underwhelmed by them. I mean, seriously unimpressed. I think they’re crazy, but I’ve never been known for my ability to turn down carbs covered in fat. Truly, people are missing out.
My hope is that everyone has a Poppy Seed Noodle or a Red Pepper Soup of their own. That food you eat that takes you somewhere else. That dish that only gets a long hard look when your spoon is coming up empty. That meal that literally makes you want to lick the plate. …Or, if you’re like me, actually lick the plate.