Monday, July 30, 2007

My Improvised Blondies

I was inspired to bake some blondies recently after practically drooling over Joe's Maple Butterscotch Macadamia Nut Blondies which he posted on his website, Culinary in the Desert, last week. I loved how he used toasted macadamia nuts (one of my boyfriend's favorites), and maple extract in the recipe to create a blondie with a little kick in it. Well, I was determined to follow the recipe to a tee so on Sunday, I set out in search of the ingredients. I went to my local Trader Joe's where I picked up the macadamia nuts but could not find any maple extract. Still determined, I headed over to Pavillion's where once again, I struck out in finding this apparently elusive item. They carried the ubiquitous vanilla extract of course, I spotted a few bottles of almond extract, and heck, even rum extract was on the shelf, but no maple was to be found. I asked the friendly store clerk who politely asked me if I tried Trader Joe's yet? I smiled and nodded. Feeling let down, I drove home. It was a hot day and I really didn't feel like driving to a third store so I decided to make the blondies anyway using...maple syrup! I know what you're thinking. It's not the same. It's definitely not as potent as the extract. But you know what? The blondies were a hit nonetheless. First of all, they smell delicious. I wish this could be a scratch and sniff entry because then you'd know what I'm talking about. The taste of the blondie is rich and chewy with hints of maple and butterscotch. Sure I'm still on the lookout for some maple extract, but in the meantime, I think I'll have another blondie.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Morning Breakfast--Bran Muffins

I’ve been baking so many muffins these days that sometimes I think this site should be named “PBJ on Muffins!" Seriously though, I just love a good muffin, especially when I’ve baked it myself.
One of my favorite kinds is the classic bran muffin. I must confess that I used to frequent Winchell’s Donut Shop almost on a daily basis on my way to work just for their bran muffin. Theirs were about the size of a very large baseball, was super sweet, and had lots of raisins speckled throughout. I loved it! These days though, a sugar-laden, humongous muffin isn’t really what I should be, or want to be putting into my body. Nope. Instead, I try to bake with more whole grains and less sweeteners while at the same time, still producing a muffin that is satisfying and delicious to eat. I adapted this recipe for bran muffins from the farmgirl fare blogsite. They're made with whole wheat pastry flour, honey and molasses. You can do your own variation by adding dried fruit or nuts if you like. I personally enjoy the full flavor of the bran so I like mine simple. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Wholesome Bran Muffins (yields 12 standard size muffins)
2 cups wheat bran
1 cup oat bran
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup soy milk or regular milk
2/3 cup lowfat plain yogurt
1/3 cup coconut oil (can substitute with canola oil)
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses (or regular molasses)
1/3 cup honey

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F; grease a standard size muffin pan (I use an olive oil cooking spray).
2. In a large bowl: combine the first 6 ingredients and set aside. In a small bowl, combine the eggs, milk, yogurt, oil, molassess and honey and mix well. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.
3. Fill the muffin cups with batter (I was able to fill pretty much to the top)
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick placed in the center comes out clean. Allow the muffins to cool for 10-15 minutes, remove from the pan and eat them warm or allow to cool further on a wire rack.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Do You Fideo?

I had never heard of the word Fideo until I saw an episode of Top Chef several months back where one of the contestants prepared a dish using this pasta. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia: Fideo is the Spanish word for a noodle of any type. In Mexico, its name refers to a type of pasta similar to angel hair spaghetti. It is also known as vermicelli. In Spain it refers to very short noodles used in place of rice in some dishes.

Since I love trying out new ingredients I eagerly looked for fideo in my grocery store and came home with a couple of bags. I used a recipe I found on Allrecipes that had minimal ingredients, was simple to do, and more importantly, was pretty darn quick to make. All in all, I enjoy fideo. I found the pasta to be hearty, versatile, and easily adaptable. It's certainly a nice alternative to your more traditional pasta and I can see many uses for it in dishes like casseroles or soups. Let me know what you think.

Cooking Lamb The Slow Way

The first time my boyfriend tried lamb Osso Bucco was at a restaurant called Vert in the Hollywood and Highland complex on Sunset Blvd. I remember the night clearly because we had only been dating for a few months and we were still learning about each other’s likes and dislikes in the food department. That evening I learned that a big “like” for him was lamb, and the delicious shank that Vert served up fit the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, the menu at Vert has changed since that memorable dinner date and the restaurant no longer offers this savory dish. So what’s a girl to do? Well, how about try cooking it herself? I reached for assistance in the form of my hand dandy slow cooker and one of my most used cookbooks, Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook. I was happy to find several lamb shank recipes and even one that didn’t include garlic (my BF isn’t too crazy about the stuff). I think the most challenging part of preparing this dish was finding a store that carried lamb shanks. There were certainly plenty of legs of lamb, and lamb chops but the shanks were a little trickier to come by. I finally found my bounty at my third grocery store and happily bought 6 shanks, totaling about 5 pounds. I cooked the meat for an hour less than what was instructed because from previous experience, I’ve overcooked meat in my slow cooker before when I followed the directions exactly. The end result was a flavorful and tender lamb with meat falling off the bone. The carrots also cooked up perfectly in the pot and took on a lot of the juiciness from the lamb as well. I think this dish would have been wonderful with some plain white rice or even a hearty thick slice of bread to mop up the juices. Needless to say, my boyfriend enjoyed his meal and I’m pretty confident he doesn’t miss Vert’s version of lamb shanks one bit!

Lamb Shanks With White Wine (adapted from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook): Ingredients:
4-6 lamb shanks (depending on size but totalling about 5 pounds), trimmed of visible fat
1/2 cup AP flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium size onion
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or beef broth as needed
8 large carrots, cut into thick slices
salt and pepper to taste

1. Using the tip of a knife, pierce the lamb shanks several times. On a large cookie baking pan or platter, roll the shanks in the flour to coat completely. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and brown the shanks on all sides, 5-7 minutes in all. I had to do this in batches because my skillet wasn't large enough. As they brown, transfer the shanks to the slow cooker. Add the onion to the skillet and cook until lightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the pan; pour the onions and wine into the cooker. Add enough broth to cover the lamb and lightly season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on LOW for 3 and 1/2 hours.
2. Add the carrots, cover and continue cooking on LOW until the lamb is very tender when pierced with a fork and falling off the bone; this is approximately another 3-4 hours depending on your slow cooker.
3. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy!

Notes: Use a medium or large round or oval cooker; cooking time may vary but is generally around 6-7 hours.
Serves 4-6 (or if you're like me, two of us with plenty of leftovers for the work week)!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eating Your Oats Another Way

Today I made some oatmeal chocolate chip bars with apricot preserves. I happened to find this recipe from an old Cooking Light magazine, circa 2001, that I had in my stack of old mags. Since I was going to my aunt's BBQ this evening and wanted to bring something sweet, I opted for these. Despite the gooey, rich look of the bars, these really are not too shabby health-wise. Each serving has about 6 grams of fat and 175 calories. Okay, so not super-low in fat and calories but still better than that scoop of Haagen-Dazs right? The original recipe called for raspberry jam but since I didn't have this, I used some low sugar apricot preserves instead. I think the flavors of the apricot with the semi-sweet chocolate worked out beautifully.
Apricot Chocolate Oat Bars: Adapted from Cooking Light October 2001
1 cup AP flour (or you can substitute whole wheat pastry flour)
1 cup quick-cooking oats ( I used old fashioned oats)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
5 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 (10oz) jar apricot preserves (you can substitute with a different flavor if you'd like)
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F
2. Combine the first four ingredients into a small bowl, stir well, and set aside.
3. Combine sugar and butter in a medium bowl and meat with a mixer at mediums speed until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, stir until well blended (the mix will now be quite crumbly). Remove 3/4 cup of dough; toss this with chocolate chips and set aside. Press the remaining dough into an 8-inch square baking pan and spread evenly with jam. Sprinkle with the chocolate chip mixture.
4. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool the pan completely on a wire rack.
5. Once cool, cut into squares. Yields 16 bars.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Skinny on Chinese Eggplant

An excursion to my local Chinese grocery store is indeed like an excursion to a distant land. There are so many deliciously exotic sights and smells to feast on that I sometimes really do feel like I've travelled to Asia. I headed out to the Chinese market one recent Saturday morning and found some beautiful Chinese eggplant. Egg plant is one of my favorite vegetables to cook with because it is so versatile. The Chinese eggplant is more slender and longer than the familiar American or globe eggplant. The skin of Chinese eggplants is also thinner and there are less seeds which give it a more delicate and sweeter flavor. I've adapted a recipe for a hot and sour eggplant dish that I originally found in the Allrecipes website. You will need the following ingredients:
2 Chinese eggplants
1 tablespoonful each of:
balsamic vinegar
soy sauce
Worcester sauce
1 tablespoonful mustard seeds (optional)
crushed fresh garlic (use as much or as little as you like)
finely minced fresh ginger
green onions, finely chopped (I used about 4 stalks)
3-4 dried red chili peppers, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoonful peanut oil
1. Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes with the skins on, place them in a large bowl and sprinkle this with salt. Fill the bowl with enough water to cover and let stand for about 30minutes. Rinse well and drain on paper towels.
2. In a small bowl stir together the vinegar, soy sauce, Worcester sauce, and sugar and set aside.
3. Heat the peanut oil on a large pan or a wok over medium high heat and add the mustard seeds if using, then add the garlic, green onions, and ginger, stir frequently for a couple minutes then add the eggplant and continue to stir fry until the eggplant is tender and begins to brown (about 5-10 minutes). Add the sauce and the red chili peppers, evenly coating the eggplant with the sauce.
You can eat this hot or let it cool to room temperature. It's wonderful with everything from brown rice to noodles. I even used this as a topping on my homemade pizza. Told you eggplant's pretty verstatile stuff. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Summer Baking--Apricot and Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

This recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies comes from the Dairy Hollow Inn website. I eat oatmeal in one form or another almost every day and though I can’t say this is the healthiest form of getting your oats, it sure is a yummy treat every now and then. I’ve been making these cookies for a long while now and have to say that these are my go-to oatmeal cookies. They not only taste fabulous but they also travel well. I’ve packed a bunch of these on long trips across the country to take to friends without one broken cookie in the batch.
You can follow the recipe exactly as written but this time around, I made the following modifications: I replaced the raisins with a mixture of chopped dried apricots and cranberries, omitted the nuts and added ¾ cup milk chocolate chips instead. I also added about 1 teaspoonful of grated orange zest and1 teaspoonful of almond extract. I made several "giant-size" cookies (using an ice scream scoop to scoop up the batter) and found that the baking time was closer to 15 minutes and not the 8-10 minutes that the recipe states. Keep this in mind when you bake your batch of cookies so as not to overcook or burn them as oven temperatures are known to vary.

Monday, July 9, 2007

I Kneaded That!

Well, okay, actually, I didn't, but since I love puns, I really wanted to use that line for the title of this post. I finally made the infamous “No-Knead Bread” that everyone was talking about some months back. You know, the one that was created by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, and published in the New York Times. Many food bloggers before me baked this bread and wrote about how wonderfully amazing it was. Trying it myself was on my list of things to-do for some time now and over the weekend, I finally got around to baking it. You can still find the recipe here. You have to take your time with this recipe because of the extra long rising process that it entails—around 18 hours. The reward however is a carbohydrate-lover’s dream: a beautifully golden loaf of crusty-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside white bread that without restraint, can be easily devoured in one sitting. We enjoyed a few hearty slices of this for our Sunday morning breakfast while it was still warm, right out of the oven. It’s just as delicious all by itself or slathered with a bit of butter and strawberry jam.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Summertime Blues

As in blueberries, that is! Even though it's been so hot out lately with record-topping temperatures in my neck of the woods, I've still been inspired to crank up my oven and do a little cooking and baking. My inspiration this time was my abundance of very ripe peaches and some beautiful blueberries I had in my kitchen so I decided to make a blueberry-peach cobbler. I found this juicy recipe on the Allrecipes website. To make it a little "healthier", I did modify it just a bit. I cut back on the butter and only used 3 tablespoons instead of the 1/4 cup that it called for, and I topped the cobbler off with Sucanat instead of using coarse granulated sugar. Sucanat is already naturally coarse and seemed to add a nice "rock candy" like texture to the cobbler. I loved the tarty sweetness of this dish and recommend eating it warm with a big dallop of whip cream on top. It’s so good it might even make you forget how hot it is outside.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Celebrating the First of July With Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

I was excited and eager to try out a recipe from the cookbook, Chocolate and Zucchini by a veteran food blogger, Clotilde Dusoulier. Clotilde is Parisian and has a beautiful website that chronicles her food adventures in Paris and offers plenty of useful, practical and relatively simple recipes. Her new cookbook is no different. I've been enjoying reading about Clotilde's culinary quests in the City of Light--her shopping adventures, her stories behind the recipes, her advice on how to stock one's pantry, and the beautiful photographs that she herself took for the cookbook.
There are several recipes in her book that I can't wait to make but for today I decided on the chocolate and zucchini cake. I have never baked a cake with chocolate and zucchini as its main ingredients. Zucchini bread, yes. But chocolate with zucchini? Nope!
This recipe was quite simple to prepare. The only labor intensive part was shredding the zucchini but my arm needed a work out anyways.
I used a bundt pan instead of the spring form pan that she suggests and the cake turned out beautifully.
My boyfriend thought it was "very nice" with just the right degree of moistness and chocolaty-ness. He thought it needed some frosting though. Instead, I dusted it with some powdered sugar and added a few fresh raspberries. Well, you be the judge. Bon Appetit!
Chocolate and Zucchini Cake (by Clotilde Dusoulier)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups AP flour
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powdered (I used regular cocoa pwdr and it worked fine)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt (I used regular salt)
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
3 large eggs
2 cups unpeeled grated zucchini (about 1 and 1/2 medium zucchinis)
1 cup good-quality chocolate chips (I used milk chocolate)
Powdered sugar for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and grease a 10-inch spring form pan with butter or oil (can also use a bundt cake pan)
2. In large mixing bowl: whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Put this aside and mix together the sugar and butter until creamy (I did this by hand with a strong spatula). Add the vanilla, coffee granules, and eggs, mixing well between each addition.
3. Reserve 1 cup of the flour mixture and add the rest to the egg mixture. Mix until just combined; you will have a thick batter.
4. Add the zucchini and chocolate chips to the reserved flour mixture and toss to coat. Fold into the batter and blend with a rubber spatula--do not over mix.
Pour into the cake pan and level the surface with a spatula.
5. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes, then loosen the cake and transfer to a plate.
Let the cake cool to room temperature before serving. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with fresh raspberries if you like.