Friday, June 29, 2007

What's Your Splurge?

I think every serious cook has a few pricey items in their cooking rations that they just adore. Some folks swear by an expensive balsamic vinegar or an exotic oil, while others insist upon using only the freshest, most expensive organic produce available. While I have my share of vinegars, oils, and organic produce, my current favorite splurge is a store-bought pesto: Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto. At about five bucks for a six-ounce container, it is not cheap, especially when one is living on a graduate student's budget. But my goodness, is it ever versatile! I love it in pasta and on Boca Chik'n patties (vegetarian fake chicken patties). It mixes well with ricotta cheese (for pasta) or a bit of mayo (for sandwiches), and it works well on its own. For some fancy eggs, it also mixes well into scrambled eggs. (I picked up the latter tip from a recipe in Rachael Ray's Cooking Round the Clock, which is a fun cookbook to peruse, although like almost all her books, it's pretty heavy on the meat, butter, oil, and cheese. If you are on a diet, you might want to stay away from Ray's books!)

So what is it about this pesto that makes it so great? I think it has a wonderful balance between basil and all the other pesto ingredients. That being said, I would like to try my hand at making my own pesto this summer, especially because I find the smell of fresh basil intoxicating. Since my kitchen basil plant is now deceased, I am stuck buying my fresh basil at the grocery store, but perhaps now is the time to buy a new plant and throw the remains of the old one away. Right now the dead plant reminds me of a Japanese zen garden in winter with its long bare sticks. It also looks a bit pathetic next to my lemon tree which is green and lovely. So here's to basil pesto: rich, green, and worth the splurge!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Important Things to Do

Memo to self re: important things to do:

1) Paint toenails
2) Eat giant ice cream-filled waffle cone

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pie in the Sky

I'm a very busy graduate student. These days I am working simultaneously on three papers, one of which will be my very first first-author paper--hurray! A first-author paper (meaning a paper on which my name is first and in which most of the work was done by my hands) is a very big deal in the life of a research scientist, especially the FIRST paper. This flurry of papers is preceding the resubmission of a grant in August, and the papers are a key element to improving my chances of receiving the grant. Bottom line, I'm busy and stressed out these days. So in my kitchen, Monday through Friday, meals are either reprises (read: leftovers) or super-simple recipes that take less than 30 minutes to put together. One of these meals, my Pesto-Ricotta Pasta, will be featured on this blog soon because it is so yummy and it deserves to be shared. But the truth is that I much prefer dishes that take a long time to complete: slow-simmered soups and stews, homemade bread, roasted vegetables...and it turns out that in general, meals are tastier when there is plenty of time to cook. Yesterday, I had a whole Saturday to myself and therefore plenty of time to cook. For dinner, I made Mollie Katzen's Polenta Pie, and it was delicious! Basically, this Polenta Pie is a thick layer of polenta, made on the stovetop and baked to lightly crisped perfection, topped with layers of shredded cheese, fresh tomato slices, sauteed Italian-herbed vegetables, and a final layer of cheese. The fully assembled Polenta Pie is then broiled (or baked in my case--I scared of my broiler, but that's another story altogether) for a few minutes to melt the cheese and marry the flavors together. Yum! I ate a big slice of it accompanied by a light salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Very filling.

So how much time did it take me to make Polenta Pie? I don't know! I made the polenta in the morning while puttering around my apartment. Later in the day, I prepped all the pie toppings, which took a while because there are so many vegetables in it and I had to shred my cheese on a shredder. I suppose that makes this a recipe that I'll make in the future when time is on my side. I think Mollie's estimate of 75 minutes total is probably accurate.

Since Mollie Katzen has published this recipe on her own website, and her website has lots of fun food stuff, I'll give you the link rather than the recipe right here:

By the way, if you are not a mushroom fan, you can leave out the mushrooms and your Polenta Pie will taste perfectly fine. I left out the mushrooms and used a medium zucchini (rather than a small one) and had plenty of vegetable topping for the pie.

Hurray for pie! I do believe I need to make pie more often. Perhaps a dessert pie next?

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Banana Battles

I have a confession: I love bananas. Passionately. I do believe they might be one of the world's most perfect foods. Sweet, fragrant, satisfying, and they even come in their own wrapper. You don't even have to wash them before eating! And if you believe my parents, the peels make for great plant food for rosebushes. Since my parents always have roses blooming in the backyard during the warmer Michigan months, I'll take their roses as proof that roses love bananas too.

But like most things in life, bananas are not perfect. My problem is that I am very picky about the ripeness of my bananas. I don't like them when they are green and starchy, nor do I like them when they become soft, mushy, and overly sweet. I prefer them when they have just lost all traces of green, their texture is firm, and their taste is sweet. Since I live alone and persist in buying big bunches of bananas at the market, I end up with loads of overly ripe bananas. Being the frugal type, I can't throw them out, so following some advice given by Crescent Dragonwagon in her fabulous book Soup and Bread, I peel them, split them in half, place them in little plastic baggies, and throw them in the freezer. This solution is fine if one actually USES all those frozen bananas in a timely manner, but now they are threatening mutiny within my freezer! So this weekend, I plan to make Banana Nut Muffins (from Soup and Bread--hey, I should be getting paid for all these Soup and Bread plugs!), but what about the other twenty pounds of bananas in my freezer? Perhaps until I use up all those frozen bananas I should put a halt to buying fresh bananas...but that would be like ending a friendship because the person was too darn lovable!

So does anyone have any new ideas for a frozen banana stash beyond the usual muffins, banana bread, and smoothies?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sometimes Cookies Must Be Baked!

I can be a fairly compulsive person. In the lab, when an experiment doesn't work, I can spend hours obsessing over it, trying to figure out what went wrong and what I will do differently the next time. This tendency of mine probably serves me well; I don't tend to repeat my mistakes and compulsion can be necessary in order to convert failure into success. Luckily, in the kitchen my failure rate is much lower, but I still develop compulsions. For the past umpteen weeks, I have been obsessed with the idea of baking cookies. Strangely enough, though, I didn't have time to bake anything naughty until Monday night. On that night, the cookie-baking urge was too strong and I had to indulge it. So what did I do? Why, I pulled my butter out of the freezer, sprayed my cookie sheet with nonstick spray, and got to work!

I made Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies, a recipe I found long ago in one of Mollie Katzen's beautiful cookbooks. It's either in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest or Still Life With Menu; I forget which book. This particular cookie is a crispy chocolate cookie flavored with cocoa powder and mint extract and studded with semisweet chocolate chips. It's a basic drop cookie: cream butter with sugars, add egg and extracts, mix dry ingredients together, and then combine wet and dry ingredients and chocolate chips to make the dough. The dough itself smells AMAZING: minty and chocolatey, and the taste is very rich from all the butter and sugar (see what I mean about naughty baking?). I usually only taste a tiny spoonful of dough when I bake these cookies because it is so rich.

One sheet of baked cookies later, my baking urge was satisfied. I often refrigerate or freeze cookie dough so that I can enjoy fresh-baked cookies on a later date. Since I live alone, my cookies tend to last awhile. When I lived with my parents, fresh-baked cookies were virtually inhaled by the family, especially by my three brothers, so there was no point in not baking the entire batch at one time. Now, one sheet of cookies will last me the better part of a week, which is such a blessing at the end of the day when I just want to curl up with a mug of tea (decaf orange-flavored green tea these days), some cookies, and a good book. Now THAT'S the good life!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Joys of a Well-Stocked Kitchen

Am I the only person who becomes very anxious when there isn't enough milk in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow?

I LOVE having a well-stocked kitchen! Besides the security of milk for my morning bowl of cereal, a well-stocked kitchen is my sanctuary and playground. On the weekends, my cooking tends to be well-planned: I shop for groceries with specific recipes in mind, and I make big batches of soup, stew, pasta, muffins, and occasionally, when I'm feeling really earthy, a batch of homemade bread dough for flatbreads, breadsticks, or pizzas. During the week, however, my cooking becomes more improvisational and perhaps even more interesting. It is at this point that the well-stocked kitchen becomes indispensable. With a fridge filled with miscellaneous vegetables and leftovers and a pantry filled with beans, tomatoes, hominy, green chilies, salsas, dried cranberries, onions, and the occasional potato, it is entirely possible for me to drag myself home from the lab, dog-tired, and still eat a decent, freshly prepared meal. And it is often in the process of preparing that meal that I am able to reflect upon the day's triumphs and failures. In the comfort of my own kitchen, I can let down my guard and finally admit, "I messed up today." (We all mess up from time to time, right?) I can decide how remedy my mistakes and forgive myself for them simultaneously. Perhaps this solitary time for reflection is the greatest joy my kitchen gives me. And the food ain't half bad either!