Sunday, February 27, 2011

Textured, with the Warmth of Cinnamon

Today I completed my final training run for the Armadillo Dash Half-Marathon.  The race is next Sunday.  I’m carbo-loading in anticipation.

Oatmeal Shake

I’ve been craving carbohydrates even more than usual, so it’s really no extra effort on my part to get my muscles ready for their 13.1-mile jog on March 6.  I like to cook and eat according to my cravings; this is one perk of eating by yourself most of the time.  There’s been lots of pasta and bread.  Quaker Oats Cinnamon Oatmeal Squares topped with a spoonful of peanut butter and a cold pour of milk is downright addictive; I’ve been eating that for dessert lately.  But I’m also finding that it’s quite nice to drink my carbs too, and I don’t mean in the form of beer.  I have nothing against bread in a glass, as I’ve heard some people describe Guinness, but I’m talking about oatmeal in a glass.  Specifically, an oatmeal shake inspired by a much-loved item on the menu at Irazu, a Costa Rican restaurant in Chicago.

My friend Daine told me about the oatmeal shake.  He sent me an e-mail and wrote, “An oatmeal shake tastes like the best horchata you've ever had, and isn't as chalky or chunky as you'd expect something with oatmeal in it to be.”

I thought, Horchata!  I like horchata.  I was intrigued.

He went on to say, “I'm planning on experimenting on it soon, and will be sure to send off any results if they're share-worthy, but I thought I'd pass on the culinary experience either way, just in case you haven't had the glory of Costa Rican oatmeal shakes and wanted to try your hand at it.”

Indeed!  Once Daine planted the idea in my head, I had to have my own oatmeal shake.  Since I no longer live anywhere close to Irazu, I’d have to make it in my own kitchen.  I asked Google what it thought about the issue, and it gave me this lead, from which I came up with a recipe sketch.  I particularly liked Brooke’s advice in the comments (scroll down, she’s near the end) because it meant I didn’t have to hunt for horchata in my small town.  Oatmeal, cinnamon, milk, and sugar are easy to come by here, but more exotic ingredients can be hard to find.  (On an unrelated note, anyone want to send me some Mexican chocolate?)

My oatmeal shake is thick and textured, with the warmth of cinnamon and a touch of sweetness.  I like to eat this one at home, as an afternoon snack or a healthy dessert.  I think the flavor is terrific, though I think the texture could be controversial, so I’ll say this: you might like this better with less oatmeal.  You could try 2-3 tbsp. instead of the 1/3 cup (~5 tbsp.) that I’ve been using.  With less oatmeal, I imagine you’d still get the flavor of oats, but your shake would be smoother.  Alternatively, you could strain it if you’re feeling up to the task.


Oatmeal Shake—An Irazu Knock-off

Inspired by my friend Daine and this blog post

Serves 1

Now, before I get into any trouble, I just want to emphasize that I have never actually had Irazu’s oatmeal shake.  Maybe this is similar to what they serve; maybe it tastes nothing like their shake.  Regardless, I like this version and can drink it quite happily.  The oatmeal does tend to settle over time, so it’s nice to drink it with a straw that can double as a stirring utensil.

2/3 cup milk (I use regular dairy milk here)

1/3 cup water

1/3 cup oatmeal, or less (to taste)

2 tsp. vanilla sugar

1 tbsp. plain malt powder

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1)  Place the milk, water, and oats in a measuring glass and let them sit for 1 1/2 hours or longer.  You can tuck this in the fridge if it makes you nervous to keep fresh dairy at room temperature.

2)  Dump the oatmeal mixture into a blender, along with the vanilla sugar, malt powder, and cinnamon.  Blend like the dickens!  Or blend for at least a minute on a high speed.  You want to pulverize those oats into something drinkable.

3)  Pour the shake into a glass and serve, preferably with a straw.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pasolivo Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Pasolivo Box

Pasolivo’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made in beautiful Paso Robles, California, has justified my entire Project Olive OilIn a word, it is outstanding.

It is also expensive, but I think the price is worth it.  I first tried Pasolivo in July of 2010 when I ordered a few bottles.  Although there are stores that carry Pasolivo’s olive oils, those stores are nowhere near me, so mail-ordering was my best option.  I bought three bottles: two bottles of the Tuscan blend and one of the tangerine oil.  I kept a Tuscan and the tangerine for me, and the second Tuscan was a gift for Matt, with whom I visited Paso Robles so long ago.  Each bottle was 200 milliliters, which is about 6.8 ounces.  For 15 dollars a bottle (on sale!), you get what amounts to less than a cup of oil.  We’re talking fancy-pants gourmet prices here.  Is this oil worth that kind of money?  Absolutely.  But I have to add that I think the prices have come down a little bit.  Pasolivo has new packaging now: a tin containing 375 milliliters (~12.7 ounces) of the California oil is currently selling for twenty-two dollars.  So let’s do the math:

Old price: $15/6.8 ounces = $2.21 per ounce

New price: $22/12.7 ounces = $1.73 per ounce

See?  Better prices now!  Of course, if you’re like me, you have to pay for shipping, but I’m going to set that issue aside for now because your shipping price will depend on where you live and how much olive oil you order.  Okay, math lesson over.  There will be a quiz next week, so bring your calculators and your number two pencils.

Back to the olive oil.  I’ve become such a rebel lately in the kitchen; I don’t know what’s gotten into me.  While I was cooking with Pasolivo, I threw out all my Project Olive Oil tasting guidelines.  I just cooked what I felt like eating, and if it seemed like a good candidate for some fancy olive oil, I uncorked the Pasolivo.  I nursed my bottle of Tuscan blend for several months, and during that time, I did try a variety of dishes with it: salads, simple bean-and-vegetable dishes, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil.  But my Pasolivo never saw the inside of an oven: it seemed like a waste to bake with such an expensive oil.  I could, however, imagine blending Pasolivo with a less expensive oil to add some depth of flavor.  I’ll have to save that idea for next time, as I am currently waiting on the arrival of my 2011 Pasolivo order.

Pasolivo’s Tuscan blend has a flavor that is not all that different from the other olive oils I’ve tried during Project Olive Oil.  It’s fruity and grassy, and it smells great, like the perfect summer day poured into a glass bottle.  The way in which Pasolivo stands apart from those other oils is with its intensity: there is more flavor packed into each drop of olive oil, which I think is why these expensive oils are recommended as “finishing” oils—the kind you drizzle on top of your soup or fresh tomatoes, just a tiny bit to make your meal transcendent.  In this way, the olive oil reminds me a bit of other potent garnishes, like fresh herbs or a judicious grind of fresh black pepper.  It’s those little touches that make cooking an art and a pleasure.

In my mental cooking catalogue of ingredients, Pasolivo’s olive oils belong in that category of “tasty extras,” along with the fresh herbs, sprinkles of freshly grated Parmesan, or dabs of sour cream.  These lovely flourishes won’t make or break your meal, but they add a lot of flavor for very little effort.  I often have a hard time remembering these things, especially on weeknights when I’m tired and hungry and just want to eat something, anything.  I can recommend cooking with Pasolivo in situations where you need one or two tablespoons of oil for a dish, but if you need more, I’d recommend using a few tablespoons of the good stuff and making up the difference with something a little less pricey.  The flavor of Pasolivo will come through, and you’ll be able to enjoy your oil for a little longer before shelling out for a new bottle or two.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Taste Buds Demand Something New

Occasionally, I try enough new things to accumulate a critical mass, which allows me to justify a blog post devoted to new edibles.  “New” is, however, a relative term.  It means new to me.  I’ve never claimed to be a trendy person.  I like wearing clothes I bought in high school and listening to old CDs.  So please, take it easy on me here!  I may not be breaking new ground, but at least I’ve got some good peanut butter to share.

Trader Joes Peanut Butter

* Trader Joe’s Organic Creamy Peanut Butter Made with Valencia Peanuts.  This stuff is my sister-in-law’s favorite peanut butter, and I can see why.  It has a terrific peanut flavor, a very creamy texture (after a little stirring to incorporate the oil that separates), and it contains just two ingredients: Valencia peanuts and salt.  I’ve become a big fan of the peanut butters made with only two ingredients—they’re delicious and wholesome and simple.

On a sad note, there is no Trader Joe’s anywhere close to me in Texas, so I’ll be buying more of this peanut butter the next time I’m in the Mitten.

Dark Chocolate Almond Milk

* Silk PureAlmond Dark Chocolate Almondmilk.  Yum, right?  Indeed, this is tasty stuff.  I’ve become a big fan of almond milk, and Silk is my brand of choice.  This dark chocolate version is a nice option for making almond milk-based drinks.  I like it mixed with my strawberry kefir for a blender-less milkshake of sorts.  I also think it would be terrific with some fizzy water for a super-simple fake chocolate egg cream.  The only downside to this dark chocolate almond milk is the sugar content: at 22 grams per cup, this is very, very sweet and in my opinion, not nearly as versatile as the original plain flavor.

Mi-Del Honey Grahams

* Mi-Del 100% Whole Wheat Honey Grahams.  Full disclaimer: I bought this box because it was 99 cents.  What a steal!  But after tasting these graham crackers, I changed my mind.  I don’t like them very much.  They don’t taste like the traditional graham crackers I love; instead, they are less sweet and have a strange, slightly bitter flavor that I can’t quite place.  Perhaps it’s the molasses?  Anyway, these aren’t sweet enough to stand up to bitter flavors like dark chocolate, which is sad because I love graham crackers with a few squares of fabulous dark chocolate.  To make them more palatable, I paired them with sweeter things, like peanut butter fudge sauce, which was tasty.  These graham crackers kind of go with mild buttery cheese, like havarti.

I think if these crackers were made with a bit more honey or sugar, they’d be terrific.  For now, I think I’ll pass on them, even if I see another sale at the hippie food store.

Starbucks Strawberry Smoothie

* Starbucks Strawberry Vivanno Smoothie.  I’m not a regular customer at Starbucks; I like to make my own coffee and smoothies at home.  Plus I’m too frugal for Starbucks’s prices (or should I say $tarbuck$’$ price$?).  But last Friday, I finished my work early and had some free time between the end of my work day and my evening plans, so I decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by getting something to eat and walking around campus.  I chose a smoothie—a healthy treat and caffeine-free.  This smoothie is a mixed cup, so to speak.  It’s certainly refreshing—not too sweet with a nice fruit flavor.  But it also has a weird bitter taste to it that I do not like.  Starbucks uses a “special powder mix of whey protein and fiber” in their smoothies, which I suspect is responsible for the weird flavor.  I’d rather they skip the extra nutrients to make a tastier smoothie.  Also, at $4.60 for the cup you see above, this smoothie is a little expensive for my budget.  I don’t think I’ll be getting one of these again.

Self-Portrait in Sunset Light

* A Texas sunset in late winter.  Texas is a great place to spend a winter if you like things like sunshine and warmth.  I think people from the North are afraid of Texas; I literally had no idea what to expect when I made the decision to move here.  I’m now completing my second winter in the Lone Star State, and it’s been wonderful.  We’ve had some chilly days this year, and one glorious snow day, but for the most part, it’s sunshine and mild temperatures and good running weather.  The photo above is a self-portrait from last Friday; I’m wearing my favorite new top (thanks, Heather!) and feeling relaxed and happy.  Walking around Texas A & M University’s campus, I felt so grateful to be exactly where I was, enjoying the pretty evening and drinking my smoothie.  I spend too much of my time wound up with anxiety, so the calm moments feel like a gift, a temporary reprieve from my own ridiculous expectations of myself.

Have you tried anything tasty recently, dear reader?  Any good recommendations for me (us)?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Weekend Edition

Fence and Trees

Hola, mi amigos!  And happy weekend to you.  I had a good week with lots of experiments, exercise, and a few nice evenings in the kitchen.  The weather turned summery on us, and I had the pleasure of walking around campus on Friday evening, taking photos, sipping a smoothie, and breathing in all that fresh spring air.

It’s been a good week.  Today I thought I’d share with you a few of the highlights.  I love a good list, don’t you?  For starters, that photo up on top.  I walk by this fence almost every day, but seeing it through the lens of my camera is like viewing it with a new set of eyes.  I love all the colors and shapes of the trees behind it.

On the food side of things, I’ve been enjoying the fact that I now have access to a toaster at work.  This is very exciting!  In fact, yesterday, all I wanted to eat with my bowl of tomato soup was toast with butter and jam, so I threw two pieces of bread into a baggie and packed up my almost-empty butter bowl along with some raspberry jam.  There is something so elegant yet so satisfying about toast with butter.  It’s simple but deeply flavorful, and it’s a nice change of pace from the cheese or peanut butter that I usually eat with toast.

Another elegant food item: the omelet.  I made my first omelet this week!  Now, you may be thinking the same thing my friend Jesse said to me, which was, “I’m surprised that someone like you has never made an omelet before.”  To which I replied, “An omelet is just fancy scrambled eggs, and I’m lazy, so I scramble a lot of eggs.”  Still, the omelet pleased me deeply.  I think I’ll make another for lunch today.  But allow me to make a note: feta cheese and ketchup are not the best way to top an omelet.  Learn from my mistake and pick one or the other, okay?

Hello Omelet

The new issue of EatingWell showed up in my mailbox, and it is a knock-out.  I can count at least five recipes I want to make, including the Smoky Black Bean Soup that I’m going to make tonight.  Except that I’m digging into my pantry and using pinto beans and lentils instead of black beans.  I’m such a rebel.

Lately I’ve been pretty lazy about baking.  My stovetop has been busy enough, but there have been no batches of granola or muffins coming out of my oven.  Instead, I’ve been eating a lot of nuts, fresh and dried fruit, and smoothies for my afternoon snacks.  My newest favorite combination is dried apricots with either white or dark chocolate.  The textures and flavors work so well together: chewy, intense, but not too sweet fruit with melting, rich chocolate.  I only eat an apricot or two with a few tiny squares of chocolate, but it’s a powerful nibble to keep on hand.

I hope this weekend will be a simple one: grocery shopping, laundry, some cooking, dinner with a friend on Sunday night.  What’s on your weekend agenda?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

At the Risk of Garlic Breath

Eggplant in the Sun

Doesn’t that eggplant look downright leisurely, just reclining in the sun, its glossy purple skin radiating health and vitality?  Vegetables are such good photography models.  They are very good at holding a pose with nary a wobble, except when the wind blows.

I really do think that eggplants are beautiful.  My vegetable vanity, if I may call it that, is the reason I buy eggplants, even though I don’t like eating them much.  I have a category of vegetables that I call my “maybe” group.  This category contains members that I neither love nor hate and keep trying in different forms because I want to love them.  Maybe vegetables include eggplants, Brussels sprouts, and beets.  The trouble with eggplant and me is the texture: it’s kind of spongy and speckled with seeds.  A sponge with seeds is perplexing.  Then there’s the issue of peel: leave it on or take it off?  I prefer to leave it on for nutrition and appearance.  The texture of the peel doesn’t bother me; I have an easier time with it than I do with the spongy interior.

So why do I bother cooking with eggplant at all?  I do it because it keeps showing up in recipes that seem promising, like a Provencal-style stew or a salad of roasted eggplant tossed gently with a peppy, garlic-infused green goddess dressing.  Melissa Clark’s description of that salad was the selling point for me.  She writes, “These salty, browned chunks of eggplant are as addictive as potato chips, though what they lack in crunch they make up for in sweetness.  The snappy green goddess dressing isn’t strictly necessary, though it is very nice, adding a creamy, herbal character that goes well with the buttery texture of the eggplant.”

Roasted Eggplant Salad

Yum, right?  Except that the roasted eggplant in this dish didn’t do it for me.  It’s the texture: I’m just not a big fan of the way eggplant implodes on itself.  When other vegetables, such as potatoes or broccoli, are roasted, they brown and crisp, gaining a snappy crunch.  Some spots even burn slightly, adding an extra layer of dark flavor.  Eggplant, at least in my hands, doesn’t really do that.  It turns soft and melts into bites that yield easily to the mouth.  The flavor of roasted eggplant is pretty good; I think I’d even like it if I took Melissa Clark’s suggestion to “toss it with cherry tomatoes, diced bell peppers, crumbled feta, and vinaigrette for a tasty eggplant salad.”  All those raw vegetables would add some chew to the salad; the eggplant would be almost part of the dressing.  (And the feta—oh yes!  Do not forget the feta.)  I might even sneak some wheat berries in there for even more chew and some protein.

That spunky eggplant salad will have to wait for another day.  Today I can assure you that the green goddess dressing is outstanding.  Laced with three kinds of fresh herbs and two healthy cloves of garlic, it’s a sour cream-based dressing that’s been tarted up with all kinds of greenery.  It originally called for anchovies, but I laid down my vegetarian card and omitted them.  The dressing has so much going on in it that I didn’t feel like anything was missing, but you of course are welcome to include them.

Making Green Goddess Dressing(Fear not; no bananas were used in the making of this dressing.  Even I have my limits.)

My favorite way to eat this dressing is with fresh carrots, but I’m imagining that it would be delicious in lots of places: with a vegetable-laced black bean salad, drizzled over steamed green beans, or as a dip with potato chips or even better, oven-roasted potatoes.  It reminds me a bit of ranch dressing, but more herbal and pungent.  Those two cloves of garlic don’t lose their potent kick, so we all run the risk of garlic breath here.  Maybe I’m inconsiderate, but I’m unwilling to let something like garlic breath stop me from eating my carrots dipped in green goddess dressing.  And as for anyone who might get close to your mouth, my philosophy is that they should be eating the raw garlic too.  A good romance should be able to withstand the taste of a garlic-happy mouth.  But it’s okay to take a moment to freshen up, too!

Dressing Close-up

Roasted Eggplant with Basil Green Goddess Dressing

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

Serves 2-3, with some leftover dressing

I decided to give you the whole recipe in the event that you’d like to eat your green goddess dressing with roasted eggplant.  But I would like to make a few suggestions.  First, I have no idea how a one-pound eggplant is supposed to serve four people.  After it has been roasted, one pound of eggplant is not a lot of food.  I’d recommend at least doubling the eggplant or even tripling it if you really love roasted eggplant.  You could probably cut back on the olive oil too, though I’d use a Silpat or parchment paper to make sure the eggplant doesn’t glue itself to the roasting pan.

Unless you increase the eggplant, you will almost certainly have some leftover dressing, which, like I said, could be put to any number of good uses.

The other issue is the salt.  Not all kosher salts are created equal.  I found Deb’s explanation of this phenomenon quite helpful, though one must still tread with caution when a recipe specifies “kosher salt.”  And now, of course I can’t remember exactly how much salt I used.  (I swear my memory is getting worse by the hour.)  I will tell you that I went light on the salt in the dressing, just in case.  But remember, I also left out the anchovies, which my sources tell me are quite salty.  So it’s up to you to taste and adjust the saltiness to your preferences.  As Matt says, there is a universe in a grain of salt.  And as I say, to each her own.

For the eggplant:

1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), rinsed, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch pieces (but see headnote above!)

5 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. kosher salt (I used Morton coarse kosher salt)

For the dressing:

1/4 cup sour cream

2 tbsp. mayonnaise

2 anchovy fillets, chopped (optional—you’re on your own here!)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tbsp. chopped fresh chives

1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

1 1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1)  To make the roasted eggplant, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Pour about 2 tbsp. olive oil on a large rimmed baking sheet, then add the eggplant and toss.  Drizzle the remaining 3 tbsp. olive oil over the eggplant, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and toss well.

2)  Roast the eggplant for about 30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice.  Let it cool for a bit, then spoon the eggplant pieces into a serving bowl.

3)  To make the dressing, combine all the dressing ingredients in the bowl of a food processor.  Buzz to combine everything into a silky blended mixture, scraping down the sides as needed.  Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, or anything else (more fresh basil?).

4)  Toss the eggplant with several spoonfuls of dressing, using your discretion to decide how much.  Serve.  Refrigerate any leftover dressing.  Leftover eggplant salad will keep for a few days in the fridge too.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Confessions of a Grocery Store Spendthrift


When I was growing up, my parents insisted that we live below our means.  With five kids to feed, clothe, educate, and entertain, they had a lot on their hands, and in hindsight, I don’t blame them for worrying about money.  We had many blessings in our lives—good health, a house on a tiny hill (perfect for many hours spent playing and daydreaming), friendly neighbors who looked out for us, a town that we felt safe exploring—but money was not thought to be one of our blessings.  Perhaps more than my siblings, I absorbed this sense of frugality and the need to pinch pennies.  Money still makes me kinda nervous, even though I’ve been financially independent and stable for over seven years.

One of the areas of household spending that was a perpetual battleground for my parents was the grocery budget.  I think we all have this idea that the grocery budget is infinitely shrinkable, that if we just eat less steak and more split pea soup, if we scoop up more bargains and do less splurging, then we can essentially negate the grocery budget.  I do not believe this hypothesis, though I can see its allure.  The seduction of a larger bank statement in exchange for humble suppers has its appeal.  Luckily for me, my mother almost always did the grocery shopping, and she would let me tag along to help her.  She’d give me coupons, and I’d run up and down the aisles, diligently hunting down the items we sought.  I aided in the grocery shopping even before we left the house by clipping coupons for her for $1 a week, and when we returned to the house with a trunk full of food, I was absolutely required to haul bags into the house.  I would often help put things away too.  For all my labors, Mom would reward me with a candy bar of my choice, bought while we were at the store.  With my sweet tooth, no wonder I got hooked on grocery shopping at an early age.

Today my grocery shopping looks quite different from my mother’s.  For one thing, it’s all done on bike or foot, unless Matt is in town, in which case I feel like I’m a lady of leisure, riding to the store in his little black car.  I only buy what I can haul back in one trip without the aid of a car, so I usually shop two or three times a week.  And I’m not nearly as organized as my mother: I do make a list, but I don’t mind deviating from it when I see what looks good and what’s on sale.

Orange Scraps

Because I was raised by such frugal parents but have grown into a vegetarian, health-conscious foodie, I have conflicting feelings about grocery shopping.  It’s with mixed emotions that I read pieces about grocery budgets and meal planning.  On the one hand, I get excited: Maybe I can save more money on food!  On the other hand, I get sad: Does this mean I can’t splurge on strawberries if they look amazing, or buy some Mexican chocolate to make that hot cocoa recipe I saw?  To me, sticking too closely to the list is a sort of deprivation that makes my heart sink.  Yes, I’ll save some money, but at what cost?

Some people groan at the thought of going into the grocery store for toilet paper and walking out with a bag of apples, tomato sauce, tortillas, cat food, and a chocolate bar.  I secretly love that part of grocery shopping, or shopping in grocery stores.  When I’m not in a hurry, I love to browse, cruise the produce section, examine the different jars of jams and jellies, find out what new non-dairy milks are chilling in their refrigerated compartments.  Though I no longer live near a Whole Foods, shopping at that store is part of my agenda for a perfect afternoon.  When I’m in Michigan, I love going there with my sister or sister-in-law to pick out the goodies that I’ll take with me on my return trip.  Do I want dried cherries this time or dried mango?  Roasted peanuts or almonds?

I read some of Tina’s Grocery Shopping 101 posts with curiosity.  I wondered how my habits stacked up against her recommendations.  In her Meal Planning post, I could see that most of her advice fit right into my household methods: use a list, use recipes, use up ingredients in your kitchen and pantry, learn to love leftovers.  But one piece of advice stopped me cold, and I think it epitomizes why I cannot make my grocery budget a lean, mean, money-saving machine: “nix ‘fancy’ ingredients.”  I just…can’t.  Because I love my fresh herbs and fancy oils, my expensive butter and fresh berries and organic anything-I-can-get-my-hands-on.  Cooking with fresh herbs is one of the best sensory experiences in the kitchen; the way fresh parsley smells as you tear leaves into a little pile to be added to your soup or sauce is amazing.  Fresh basil knocks my socks off.  And fresh sage is not to be missed: it is a key ingredient in one of my all-time favorite stews, one of the top two dishes Matt has cooked for us.  And I know that fresh cilantro is on his list of favorite herbs.  I don’t blame him for loving its clean, summery scent.


I spend my money on food because it makes my life richer, both in calories and in pleasures.  It’s true that I am trying to cut down on the amount of food I waste, so I want to keep expanding my love for leftovers—not just finished dishes like leftover soup but also the fresh herbs and vegetables and stock that didn’t get used up in making that soup.  I can embrace the frugal attitude in the kitchen, especially if it saves me from going out on a night when I’d really rather wear slippers and putter around the kitchen.  But I don’t plan on shrinking my grocery budget.  I want the thrill of finding new things to try, or deciding on a whim to bake peanut butter cookies that night.  I need my shopping and my cooking to have an element of spontaneity; it keeps my kitchen experiences fun and fresh.  I don’t have a lot of room in my life for spontaneity, so I need to hold onto it wherever it blooms, even if it means that I’m a grocery store spendthrift.  At least I’m eating well.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Something Buttery and Rich

Let’s talk birthday cakes, shall we?  When choosing a cake with which to celebrate, my natural inclination is chocolate.  I happen to know that chocolate cake is incredibly easy to make.  I also happen to know that this particular chocolate cake, which is actually a black mocha cake, is very pretty when showered with powdered sugar.  Alongside a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, it’s hard to beat, especially on a warm spring evening in Texas, the kind that makes you feel happy to live in a place where “spring” really means “summer.”

(I really don’t want to discuss what summer means in Texas.  I think you already know the answer to that one.)

I lean toward chocolate cake so hard that when I volunteered to bake a birthday cake for someone who claims not to be a big fan of chocolate, I knew I’d have to get creative.  Whatever I baked had to be incredibly flavorful without being too sweet.  It had to have a nice texture, neither too wet nor too dry, with a good crumb that goes well with a frosting.  And the frosting!  Yes, this cake would be frosted, but it had to be a frosting that tastes like something more than a straight shot of sugar.  It had to have pizzazz and spunk.  It had to add interest to the cake.

The birthday girl in question was my friend Amutha, she who makes delicious channa masala and drinks red wine with me on weeknights(!).  Amutha’s palate leans toward the sour, so I thought a citrus cake would be nice, something buttery and rich with lemon flavor.  I also knew she was a fan of cream cheese, so a cream cheese frosting sounded like a good match for a buttery lemon cake.  To help me in my cake quest, I called in help from Moosewood.  I love Moosewood’s books, and it was with great glee that I bought their Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts a few years ago.  I had been flirting with it in the bookstore, picking it up, flipping through its pages, sniffing it when no one was looking.  It took a few visits before I took it home with me, and to continue with the romantic metaphor, I’m sure it joined me in bed a few times.  All my cookbooks end up in bed with me at one point or another.

After some page-flipping and deep thought, I hybridized two recipes to come up with a birthday cake that would suit my needs.  The cake itself is the Lemon Loaf.  It’s a butter cake spiked with lemon zest and in the original recipe, the cake is glazed with a lemony syrup.  It sounds totally delicious, but I skipped the glaze, knowing that I wanted to frost the cake.  The frosting is a basic cream cheese frosting borrowed from the recipe for a Buttermilk Spice Cake.  The frosting recipe offers the option of adding half a teaspoon of almond, lemon, or orange extract.  I jumped at the chance to add more lemony punch, giving the frosting tang from the cream cheese and the lemon extract.

Lemon Butter Birthday Cake

After all that plotting, I’m happy to report that this cake delivered on all its promises.  The cake was buttery but not too sweet, with a subtle lemon flavor.  The crumb was a little drier than I expected, but I decided that I liked how the cake’s texture contrasted the incredible creaminess of the frosting.  I don’t mean to say that the crumb was dry, but on the spectrum from dry to wet, it sits just a little off-center toward the dry end of things.  Given that the original recipe calls for a syrupy glaze treatment, I think the cake’s texture makes a lot of sense.

The frosting was totally delicious and totally addictive.  I am quite defenseless when faced with anything containing cream cheese and powdered sugar.  The frosting is much sweeter than the cake, which again, I think makes for a good contrast.  Thanks to the lemon extract, the frosting has a certain punchiness to it in addition to its creamy sweetness. 


Although we all enjoyed the cake at Amutha’s party, I ended up taking a big hunk of it home with me—we had way more food than our bellies could handle in one night.  I didn’t know what do to with all that leftover cake, so I threw up my hands and chucked the cake in the freezer, which is how I came to discover that even after haphazard cold storage, this cake is delightful.  It does get a little drier, but to my mind, that frosting can cover up a multitude of sins.  Though I can’t speak for its redemptive properties beyond the dessert fork, it is a very good basic recipe to have on hand, should you find yourself in need of a spunky, lovable frosting.

Lemon Butter Birthday Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts

Serves 8-10

Just a quick note for those of you who are close readers: I halved the original frosting recipe to make a batch more suitable for a 9-inch cake, so there’s only 1/4 tsp. lemon extract, as compared to the 1/2 tsp. extract that I mentioned above.

For the cake:

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

Finely grated lemon peel from one large lemon (~1 tbsp.)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup milk

For the frosting:

2 tbsp. butter, at room temperature

3 ounces of cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese, at room temperature

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. lemon extract

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a 9-inch round cake pan, then dust it with flour and knock out the excess.

2)  In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time and mix to combine with the butter-sugar fluff, then add the lemon peel.

3)  In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, and salt.  Alternate mixing the dry ingredients and the milk into the butter mixture, and beat just enough to combine.

4)  Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake 40-50 minutes or until golden and a tester comes out clean.  Based on my previous experience, I’d err on the side of a short baking time, but I’d trust the tester to guide me here.

5)  Let the cake cool completely in its cake pan, then invert it and place on a pretty plate or a cake stand.

6)  Make the frosting by creaming the butter and cream cheese together until fluffy.  Add the vanilla and lemon extracts, then add the powdered sugar gradually until the frosting is a nice, smooth consistency for spreading.  I think I used the entire 1 1/2 cups here, but Moosewood suggests using a little milk if the frosting is too stiff or more sugar if the frosting is too soft.

7)  Frost the cooled cake, then present it to the lucky birthday person and get out the dessert plates and the dainty forks.  Singing is optional.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Enter the Pecans

Last night was not my best evening in the kitchen.  My bag of sugar exploded all over the counter and floor, leaving sandy bits everywhere.  I overbaked my chocolate chip cake and undercooked my frittata.  Have you ever seen a frittata run when you slice into it?  It’s not pretty.  Thinking about it today just gives me the heebie-jeebies.

So, let’s talk oatmeal instead!  I promised we’d talk about my new favorite breakfast, and now seems as good a time as any.  Let’s do it.

Wednesday Breakfast

I know it wasn’t too long ago that I suggested you try a wintry version of overnight oatmeal.  Can you make room in your breakfast rotation for another oatmeal recipe, this one a warm, Southern-style version with bananas cooked into the oats and topped with buttery pecans and toasty shreds of coconut?

We had a very mild January here, so I ate overnight oats on most mornings.  In warmer weather, I prefer the ease and freshness of overnight oatmeal.  When it’s topped with juicy citrus segments, it’s hard to beat.  When the weather turned colder, or maybe I just felt chilled late in the evening, when I make the decision about what breakfast will be the next morning, I turned back to banana oatmeal.  But I wanted something new in my bowl, or at least some new accessories to gussy up what has become my standard banana oatmeal.

Enter the pecans, followed swiftly by toasted coconut.  What is it about nuts that just invites coconut along for the ride?  In the cupboard, I had both a half-empty bag of Mammoth Pecans (the actual name, and indeed, they are mammoth) and a jar of unsweetened coconut chips that I’d toasted myself.  The combination sounded delicious.  To finish topping my oatmeal, I turned to my standard dried cherries, chocolate chips, peanut butter blob, and a relative newcomer, ground flax.

Pause for a Photo Break

Pardon my messy bowl up there.  That’s evidence that I don’t do much primping for my photos.  What you see is what you get.  Plus, I’ve always thought that messy can be completely and totally delicious, which this bowl was.  It’s a little on the rich side with both pecans and peanut butter, but I like hearty breakfasts and both nuts go so well with bananas.  Even with my hefty bowls of oatmeal, I’m still hungry by 11:30 AM, which seems ridiculous.  My metabolism runs amok.

Banana Oatmeal with Pecans and Coconut

Serves 1

My banana oatmeal recipe has evolved as I’ve gotten into the habit of oatmeal for breakfast.  This recipe is derived from Daphna’s Banana Oatmeal, but I’ve made a few changes.  One is that I make a bigger bowl because I need more calories in my breakfast.  The other is that I’ve increased the proportion of liquid to oats to make a more porridge-like concoction.  I like my oatmeal a little soupier; Daphna’s recipe makes for a very thick texture, more like an oatmeal pudding.  It’s just a matter of preference which you like more.  You could make either version and use the toppings I suggest below if you like.

For the oatmeal base:

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup milk

1 medium banana, frozen and cut into chunks

Pinch salt

Splash of real vanilla extract

For the toppings:

1-2 tsp. ground flax seeds

A palmful of pecans, chopped

1 tbsp. toasted unsweetened coconut

6 dried cherries

A few chocolate chips (I like bittersweet or semisweet here, just a few because I love chocolate.)

1-2 tbsp. crunchy natural peanut butter

1)  Combine the oats, water, and milk in a glass measuring cup.  Cover and soak overnight.  (Alternatively, you can just mix everything together in the saucepan the next morning, but I like to soak overnight.)

2)  Spoon the oatmeal mixture into a small saucepan.  Add the frozen banana chunks and salt.  Turn the heat to medium-high, and bring the whole thing to a bubble.  Let it cook for a minute or two to let the banana melt into the oatmeal and infuse everything with sweetness.

3)  Take the oatmeal off the heat and stir in the vanilla.  Spoon the oatmeal into a serving bowl, then top with the ground flax, pecans, coconut, cherries, chocolate chips.  I like to arrange all these toppings in a ring-pattern so that the toppings are nicely distributed.  Plus it looks pretty.  Add the peanut butter on top and serve.

* * *

PS  Did y’all see Kristin’s recipe for Maple Oatmeal?  Oh my word, this sounds terrific.  Maple syrup and butter is a very hard combination to beat.  I’m adding this one to my to-make list.  Is it absurd to eat oatmeal for a Sunday night dinner?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Special Edition: Texas Snow Day!


Everything is Wearing Snow

My Footprint in Snow

Out the Window


Coffee Shot

Oatmeal on Stove

The dream came true for this snow-loving Northerner: it snowed in Texas!  After three days of bitter cold, while I was tucked in bed last night, we received a beautiful fluffy coat of snow, enough to cover the streets, sidewalks, trees, and cars.  I saw it this morning, then I ran outside to take photos because snow in Texas is seriously photo-worthy.

Now that I don’t live in a place that gets two feet of snow every winter, it feels much more special to me when there is snow outside.  It’s pretty and surreal, a reminder to me of the temporariness of both our pleasure and our discomfort.  It’s also a reminder of home, of all the winters I’ve experienced in Michigan and Evanston.  It may sound odd, but I think snow reminds of my inner strength.  I’ve spent many an hour wandering around outside on cold, snowy days.  As a kid, I had a newspaper route, and we were expected to deliver those papers in sun, rain, sleet, or snow.  Snow taught me that I am unstoppable: I may be slowed down by circumstances, but by sheer force of will, I will trudge through the snow to get the job done.

Today, I just think it looks pretty, transforming my little piece of Texas into a fairyland of white.  It’s making me feel giddy, even though I think I’ll be walking or riding my bike to the lab because the busses aren’t running today.  It’s okay because I am unstoppable.  And I had a huge mug of coffee today—see the evidence above.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wintertime and the Baking is Easy

Trees and Clocktower

They say in Texas that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  A more accurate way to describe things around here would be this: give it three days.  We went from balmy, gorgeous weekend weather to below freezing on Tuesday morning.  I’m not complaining.  It is winter, after all.  Or that’s the rumor I keep hearing.  This return of winter, or the arrival of real winter, gives me all sorts of delicious things to do, like wear my cozy sweaters, bust out my ludicrously huge mittens, and bake.  That last part is my favorite.

(On the subject of real winter, there are rumors we are going to get snow this week.  Snow!  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it.  Snow in Texas is very exciting.  Even if I have to trudge to work in it.)

Back in November, when fresh cranberries were in the stores, I picked up two bags, thinking I would like to make this cranberry cake and maybe that cranberry chutney.  I still think I’d like to make those things and of course it’s not too late.  Oh no, it’s definitely not too late for me because I ended up stuffing all those fresh cranberries in the freezer after a quick rinse-and-sort, keeping only the plump, good-looking ones.  But in keeping with my invigorating spirit of frugality, I decided to dig out the cranberries for something new and delicious: a tiny batch of Baked French Toast with Fresh Cranberries.  Ooh, I think my tummy just rumbled!

Snack with Paper

I do love a good sweet bready something, still warm from the oven.  Whether you call it Baked French Toast or Bread Pudding, I’m the one hovering over the stove, sniffing the air and imagining the flavors in that first bite: the brightness of fruit, the soft wheaty bread, the sweet sugary spicing.  This class of desserts has it all: great flavors, different textures, and the satisfaction that comes from making something delicious from the odds and ends bouncing around your kitchen.

The predecessor for this cranberry version is the apple version, an old favorite that makes me happy every time I trot it out for another repeat.  It’s an easily lovable dessert or afternoon snack with its sweet bites of apple and plump cubes of bread and perhaps just a tiny bit of crunch from the butter-browned bits on the top.  To adapt this recipe for cranberries, I swapped the apple for a heaping quarter-cup of cranberries and upped the sweetness factor to compensate for the sour berries.  I changed the topping a tiny bit, adding some oats just for fun.  The result is very similar to the original, except that you get the unexpected bite of sour mixed into an otherwise sweet and calming background.  It’s also gorgeous.  Those red cranberries soften and relax, eventually melting into tiny puddles of berry in the hot oven.


It’s perfect for a quiet evening at home in winter or as an afternoon snack the next day while you read papers with titles like “A set of female pheromones affects reproduction before, during, and after mating in Drosophila.”  Oh, wait, that was my afternoon.  Hmm.  Perhaps you aren’t interested in the sex life of flies as much as I am, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some cranberry bread pudding.  It’s good stuff.

Baked French Toast with Fresh Cranberries or Cranberry Bread Pudding

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 2-3

For the bread pudding:

Nonstick spray

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla

2 tbsp. granulated sugar (I used vanilla-infused sugar here)

2 tbsp. real maple syrup

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Dash ginger

Dash nutmeg

1 slice whole-wheat bread, cubed

1 good-sized wedge of cornbread, cut into bite-sized chunks

Heaping 1/4 cup fresh cranberries, frozen or not

For the topping:

1/2 tbsp. flour

1 tbsp. oats

1 tbsp. crunchy granulated sugar, such as Demerara

1/2-1 tbsp. butter

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray an 8.5x4.5-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

2)  In a mixing bowl, mix together the egg, milk, vanilla, sugar, maple syrup, and spices.  Gently toss the breads with this eggy mixture, then set it aside for a few minutes to let the bread soak up the custard.

3)  Meanwhile, prep the cranberries and topping.  For the cranberries, slice them in half carefully with a sharp knife, taking care to watch your fingers!  For the topping, put all the topping ingredients in a bowl, then use a fork to mash them into a coarse paste.

4)  Add the cranberries to the bready mixture, tossing gently.  Spoon the bready mixture into the prepared loaf pan.  Top with the topping by shaping it into small clumps with your fingers and sprinkling the clumps over the bread mixture.

5)  Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the bread pudding is set and the top is browned and gorgeous-looking.

6)  Allow the bread pudding to cool slightly (maybe 5-10 minutes?) before slicing it into serving sizes and digging in.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Come Back Tomorrow

Clouds in the Distance

I’m having a really good week over here.  I don’t say that to brag.  I know some of you are really having an awful time of it with the snow and the wind and the canceled flights.  I think my sister is probably still stuck in Chicago, where I hear that the cars are absolutely buried under snow.  People are abandoning their vehicles on Lake Shore Drive!  I’m sorry about all of that.  For what it’s worth, I sort of miss that kind of weather excitement, even though it meant trudging through the snow to get to the lab because you know, science stops for NOTHING!  Not even snow days.

This week I’ve convinced myself I might be onto something in the lab.  I had a terrific breakfast this morning (more about that soon, I promise!) and a wonderful catch-up talk with my best grad school friend.  This morning I saw snowflakes while waiting for the bus.  This evening I went for a run in the frigid cold—yes, it’s very cold here!—and came home to eat Roasted Broccoli and Tofu over rice, one of my favorites.  I’m enjoying a new book and cooking out of a new cookbook.  My new batch of Costa Rican coffee from It’s a Grind is completely delicious and is making my mornings terrific.

I even wrote half a blog post, and I hope to share the whole thing with you soon.  Come back tomorrow for a recipe, and try to pick up some cranberries if you aren’t snowed in yet.  Stay warm, dear readers!  And happy February.