Saturday, December 27, 2008

Venezuelans 1: Swiss 0

As my friends all know, when I find something I really like, I get very excited about it and have to tell everyone I meet about it. From time to time, I suspect I'll be moved to share that excitement here on EATS!.

Evan and I often like to have a cup of hot cocoa of an evening after Elspeth has been tucked in bed. We've tried all of the (ridiculously expensive) luxury brands such as Dagoba and some others I can't remember the names of. We had high hopes for Theo's chipotle sipping chocolate since we love their other products, but while Evan liked it, I didn't like the spice blend very much. Eventually we settled on Ibarra. Though it's not very chocolatey, it's satisfying in its way. We never even bothered re-trying the Swiss Miss type instant cocoa of our childhoods, knowing that they taste nothing of chocolate and are full of fake stuff. Even the lure of built-in marshmallows couldn't tempt us.

The Chowhound General board pointed me in the right direction after someone inquired about the best mail order hot chocolate. Many users said that Chuao hot chocolate, made by a pair of Venezuelan brothers, is wonderful. I decided to take a chance and ordered a set of the Abuela and the Spicy Maya from Amazon for a Christmas gift to Evan.

We exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve and couldn't wait to try the cocoa. We started with the Abuela. The serving size is 1/2 cup because it's more of a sipping chocolate than a hot chocolate. I was leery because it calls for just water rather than milk (it's got dried milk powder in it), but this stuff is fantastic! It's easy to make and doesn't leave unmelted dregs in the pan like the Ibarra always does. Evan drank it straight, but I had to mix mine with an equal portion of whole milk to cut the richness of the chocolate. Next time I would warm the milk first. We're eager to try the Spicy Maya. I wanted to get the gift set of 3 types (including a 'Winter' blend) but I could only find it at the Chuao website and the shipping was insanely expensive. The cocoa itself isn't cheap, but I feel it's worth the investment.

There you have it: Venezuelans score while the Swiss (Miss) doesn't even get near the goal.

Strained Yogurt and Two Sauces

The yogurt part is hardly a recipe. However, some parents I talked to hadn't thought of this idea and I think it's a good one for babies and toddlers. If you're in the pro-dairy camp, or at least the pro-probiotic-dairy camp, yogurt is a great food for little ones. Unfortunately, it's often so runny that it's difficult to get it to stay on the tiny spoon. Once they start feeding themselves, the problems worsen. I was considering buying Greek (style) yogurt, but I was surprised to see that there were more ingredients than just milk and cultures. Instead, I either buy Straus organic whole milk yogurt or the Trader Joe's European Style organic whole milk yogurt (quite possibly made by Straus, really) and strain it. This yields a delectably thick and rich yogurt that stays very well on the spoon. The past two mornings Elspeth has basically fed herself huckleberry yogurt without making that much of a mess and managing to get quite decent amounts into her mouth at a time (though she still likes some supplementation from my spoon from time to time).

When serving the yogurt, I almost always mix it with fruit of some kind--mashed banana, cooked pears or berries, prune puree--and some flax- or pumpkin- seeds. I've also been adding a big spoonful of Hippie Grain Porridge for added fiber and nutrients. Along with some Ezekiel raisin bread or some Flax Bran Muffin, you've got a well-rounded breakfast.

I made the pear and huckleberry sauces to accompany Evan's homemade sourdough waffles from the Christmas brunch we hosted for the first time this year. (The starter came from his parents and is the same used in the Delicious Crusty Bread recipe). I had been making the pears for Elspeth for quite some time to mix with yogurt or eat by itself, but the huckleberry sauce was new to her and she couldn't get enough. We have some cute photos of her with huckleberry stains all over her face. Both of these sauces are easily made in the microwave, though you could make them on the stove, of course.

PEAR SAUCE INGREDIENTS
1-3 organic pears, cored and cut into pieces (I don't peel mine)
1 whole clove per pear
A dash of water

DIRECTIONS
  1. Place all ingredients in a microwave-save dish and cover loosely (don't seal the lid or else it might explode)
  2. Cook on high power for 5 minutes
  3. Check the pears; the texture should be very, very soft. If needed, cook another few minutes
  4. Once the pears are soft, puree them using an immersion blender, blender or food processor
HUCKLEBERRY SAUCE INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 c. huckleberries (I'd frozen a bunch from this summer)
1/4 to 1/2 of a cinnamon stick
2 TBSP sugar or agave nectar (or to taste)
A dash of water

DIRECTIONS
Place all ingredients in a microwave-save dish and cover loosely (don't seal the lid or else it might explode). Cook on high power for 3 minutes. Serve hot, warm, or cold. Use as a topping for pancakes or waffles, mixed with yogurt or as an ice cream sauce.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Energy Treats

The Whole Life Nutrition book strikes again. I like to call them homemade Lara bars, though these may even be nicer. Elspeth thinks they're delicious and we do, too. They're a great pick-me-up without any of the crap that conventional energy bars contain. Plus, the recipe is super simple and quick to make.

The recipe in the book is called 'Raw Energy Balls', but that just makes Evan and me snigger, so I have dubbed them energy treats instead. Besides, in March 09 I finally tired of making all the balls, so I pressed them into an 8inch pan sprayed with cooking spray and cut them into squares. I will not waste any time rolling again and have changed the recipe below accordingly.

This recipe is easily adaptable to whatever dried fruit you have on hand and whatever spices seem nice. You could even try adding a bit of orange or lemon zest for extra brightness. Dried apricots might work well, too. The recipe specifies raw almond butter. We're still snowbound and couldn't get to the store that carries the raw stuff, so we used the normal kind with no ill effects. I suspect that raw is used for health reasons--some folks believe raw is more nutritious. I'm not really a proponent of the raw food movement, myself. More importantly in this case, though, there is such a small amount of almond butter relative to the raw almonds used earlier in the recipe that I can't imagine it makes that much difference even if raw is nutritionally superior.

INGREDIENTS
1 c. raw almonds (I bet you could also use storebought almond meal)
1 c. dates, pitted (medjool are supposed to be the best dates)
1/4 c. dried fruit (I used a blend of cherries, blueberries and strawberries from Trader Joe's; our friend Melanie used cranberries and that was delicious, too)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/3 c. (raw) almond butter (I increased the amount from 1/4 c. when using the squares method)
Shredded unsweetened coconut for top and bottom

DIRECTIONS
  1. Use a food processor to grind the almonds finely (mine didn't end up as fine as almond meal, but they worked anyway)
  2. Add the remaining ingredients except the almond butter and process until very fine
  3. Add the almond butter and process until well combined. The mixture should start to pull away from the sides of the bowl. (You could add a bit more almond butter if the mixture doesn't hold together; I didn't add more and even though the treats seemed crumbly to make, they didn't taste dry at all and did hold together well enough)
  4. Spray an 8 inch square pan with cooking spray and sprinkle with shredded coconut
  5. Press mixture into the pan and squash around until it's relatively even thickness. Sprinkle with more shredded coconut and then cut into bite-sized squares. You can leave the squares in the pan or store them in another container
The recipe states that these may be kept at room temp for 3 days or refrigerated up to a week. I had thought that I might try freezing them, but quickly realized once we tasted them that we would not have any lasting beyond a week!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Magical Elixir

I'm trying for whimsical as opposed to maudlin or cloying here, but who knows if I'll quite hit the mark in my mildly tipsy state. We've all had varying degrees of a bad cold for ages, it seems. We keep cycling through them and being hit again just when we think we're improving. We blame it on preschool--that place is a cess pit of germs. I thought I was going to escape, but then I got that funny feeling in my throat again this afternoon. Sigh.

I'm afraid I can't give proportions here, because the key ingredient to this magical elixir, also known as hot toddy, is the fact that I don't make it for myself. Evan is kind enough to do the honors and after I consume it, not only does the incipient throat tickle seem to have faded, but I somehow also seem to be a fonder and more skillful parent and more cheerful wife. Hmm. Magical elixir indeed!

INGREDIENTS
Black tea
Honey
Lemon juice
Scottish whisky (and don't be stingy with the measure, I say!)

DIRECTIONS
Mix all ingredients together. Heat up (but don't boil or you might lose some of the 'health benefits'). Serve to frazzled love-of-your-life. Watch her face loosen and become wreathed with smiles. Don't let her operate heavy machinery or kitchen knives.

Happy Snowed-in Sunday!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shepherd's Pie

It's very cold here with snow and ice, so I thought the family needed a hearty and warming meal that didn't require much effort. Enter Shepherd's Pie. Yet again, I've added a vegetarian label to this meal even though what I made had meat. In fact, we only had just shy of 1 lb. of ground beef in the freezer, so I also used a package of Yves' Ground Round fake beef. It would be quite simple to make an entirely vegetarian version (though it sure was tasty with grass-fed, farmers' market beef). It was nice, because even in December most of the ingredients for this meal were locally sourced: carrots, beef, potatoes, onions, garlic, and chicken stock (homemade from farmers' market chicken parts).

I looked in both Fanny Farmer and The Joy of Cooking for Shepherd's Pie recipes and then proceeded to ignore both of them! I took the addition of freshly-ground nutmeg from the Joy and the ingredient proportions of butter, stock and flour from Fanny and then did my own thing. I didn't have any leftover cooked meat (lamb and beef are both traditional), so I had to make up something anyway. I added tomato paste based on a British friend's vegetarian Shepherd's Pie recipe; I like the sweetness and warm color it adds. The butter, flour and stock work together to make a lovely gravy without any of the mad stirring of a traditional roux.

Other vegetables that might be tasty in this dish are (you guessed it) greens or peas. If you're making a vegetarian version and want to avoid fake meat, I'm sure you could also make a respectable dish using beans.

Both the meat and veggie recipes would be tasty with button or crimini mushrooms, reconstituted porcinis, shittakes, or a combination of the fresh and dried. We didn't have any in the house, or I would have added some. I would add the mushrooms in with the onion to get some of the liquid out--otherwise you might have a watery end result. You could use the (strained) soaking liquor from the reconstituted dried mushrooms in place of chicken/beef stock, as well.

INGREDIENTS
2 lb (or thereabouts) baking potatoes (though you could probably use red potatoes in a pinch)
2 TBSP butter
Salt, pepper, and freshly-ground nutmeg to taste
Milk to thin potatoes as needed

2 lb ground beef/Yves' Ground Round/Quorn Grounds or a combination (or 4 c. cooked beans)
4 TBSP butter
1 large onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 c. carrots, diced or in small coins (if using small carrots)
1 tsp dried thyme or to taste
1-2 TBSP tomato paste
2 TBSP flour
3/4 c. chicken/beef/mushroom stock (or water)
1 bunch greens, washed and finely chopped or processed (optional)
Freshly-ground nutmeg to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Red wine vinegar to taste (or even red wine)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 or 375 (depending on how long you want the baking to take)
  2. Scrub the potatoes and cut into evenly-sized chunks (I don't peel them if they're organic)
  3. Place in a large pot and cover generously with water
  4. Bring to a boil and simmer until the potatoes are very tender
  5. Mash potatoes with the 2 TBSP butter and beat with a wooden spoon (so says the Joy) until very fluffy. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Use some milk to thin the potatoes if needed--I think you're supposed to use warmed milk to help the potatoes avoid gluey-ness
  6. Set aside
  7. In a large skillet, melt the 4 TBSP butter and add the onion and garlic
  8. Saute over medium heat until softened
  9. Add the ground beef and carrots and saute until beef is cooked through
  10. Stir in the tomato paste and fake meat, if using
  11. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg
  12. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir in
  13. Add the stock and stir
  14. Let the mixture bubble for a minute or two. Taste and adjust the seasonings--you may want to add more tomato paste or some red wine vinegar. Keep in mind that the filling will be toned down somewhat by the potato topping so you may want to overseason slightly
  15. Pour the mix into a large baking dish (I used our oval ceramic 2 qt dish)
  16. Attempt to spread the mashed potatoes over the filling. Because I had made my mashed potatoes earlier in the day, they were a little too dry and cold for easy spreading, even after I had added some milk warmed in the skillet I used to cook the filling. Plan B involved taking little clumps of mashed potato and putting them on the top of the filling until the whole dish was covered. This worked just fine--there were plenty of potatoes to cover and the appearance didn't give away the clump method. As long as the potatoes cover the filling, you'll have a good finished product
  17. Bake at 325 for one hour, covering the dish with foil. (We went to meet a delightful newborn baby while our dinner was cooking, so I didn't want it to finish too quickly). If you'd rather get dinner on the table in 35-40 minutes, bake at 375 and don't cover with foil
  18. Serve. This dish is a meal on its own, but would also be nice with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, broccoli or cauliflower

Smoothies

In addition to Flax Bran Muffins, one of my regular work morning breakfasts has been smoothies. I like to make them with frozen berries to get a nice, slushy texture. As I'm not fond of banana (a common smoothie 'smoother'), I always use yogurt. These days, I haven't been eating smoothies much. However, I've been searching and searching for new breakfast ideas for Elspeth.

As wonderful an eater as she has been, she seems to have very strong ideas about how she'd like the food presented to her at a given meal (or at a given moment in that meal). For example, sometimes she really only wants food in chunks that she can pick up from her tray, while other times she would rather select a chunk from a dish you offer her or have a larger piece she can use to practice her biting technique. She'll often reject a spoon, though sometimes that's just because she wants to have a spoon of her own. We get into a cute rhythm where she 'feeds' herself with the spoon but becomes impatient with how little she can manage to get in there on her own, so she'll accept a bite from me in the intervals. One of her preferred ways to take in food these days is by drinking it, hence my newfound appreciation for smoothies. I can't believe it took me this long to think of it!

The inspiration for the toddler breakfast smoothies came from The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook: Whole Food Recipes for Personal and Planetary Health by Alissa Segersten and Tom Malterre (the same cookbook that gave us the delicious Turkey and Wild Rice Soup recipe). I had also looked in Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, but I must say I found it pretty useless--my general experience with that book, unfortunately. Segersten and Malterre didn't let me down. They have a large number of smoothie recipes, all of them non-dairy. Many of these recipes call for 'weird' ingredients such as greens or lettuce, which I haven't tried yet, but am not opposed to at all. Well, I'm not opposed to offering it to Elspeth and seeing what she thinks; I'm too strange about food to try them myself, though I bet Evan would.

I tried two different smoothies this week and Elspeth loved them both. Of course, I didn't follow the recipes as written, so instead of copying them, I'll just give a basic recipe with the different options.

With no further ado, here are two smoothie recipes.

YOGURT BERRY SMOOTHIE
Makes 1 adult or 2 child servings

INGREDIENTS
1 c. plain yogurt (non fat or whole both work)
1/2 c. frozen mixed berries (cherries are the only berry-type fruit that doesn't work; for whatever reason, the uncooked cherry/yogurt combination should be delicious but is terribly lacking)
1-2 tsp sugar or to taste (you could also use agave nectar but molasses would be too strong-tasting)
1 TBSP ground flaxseed or pumpkin seed or wheatgerm (or a combo)
Milk to thin, if needed

DIRECTIONS
Place all ingredients in a blender and pulse until the berries are blended (strawberries can resist the blades and pulsing works best for them). Then run on high for a bit (30 seconds to 1 minute). Thin with milk (cow's milk or non-dairy 'milk') if desired. Serve.

NON-DAIRY FRUITY NUT SMOOTHIE
Makes 1 adult or 2 child servings. Vary the types of fruit and nuts depending on your mood and preference; the basic recipe stays the same. The recipe doesn't call for any sweetener, but if you feel it needs some, you could add some evaporated cane juice or agave nectar. Vanilla extract might also be nice. You could even try some cinnamon, ginger or clove. You could also add your Omega-3 fatty acids by putting in some fish oil in lieu of the flaxseed. To my mind, the only thing missing from this smoothie is complex carbohydrate. Next time I make one, I'm going to throw in a large spoonful of Hippie Grain Porridge (my only success from Feeding the Whole Family, as it happens, though I changed the cooking method significantly).

I'm editing this post to add a comment. It occurred to me that, if you're looking for ways of getting more 'good' fat into your or your child's diet, you could consider adding 1/4 to 1/2 of an avocado to the smoothie. You'd have to taste and maybe boost the berry content to offset the avocado flavor. I bet you'd have an incredibly smooth beverage, however.

INGREDIENTS
1/4 c raw almonds or cashews (cashews make the smoothest smoothie but both are nice)
1/4 c water
1/2 c water, non-dairy milk such as rice or oat, or fruit juice
1/2 cored pear or banana in chunks
1/4 c frozen berries or cherries (blueberries, huckleberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries or a mix of the above--in this context cherries are fine)
1 TBSP ground flaxseed and/or pumpkin seed or wheat germ or a combo
A couple of torn leaves of washed spinach, chard or kale if you're brave

DIRECTIONS
  1. The night before you're going to make your smoothie, combine the nuts with the 1/4 cup of water in a small dish or jar. Leave at room temperature overnight. This make the nuts much easier to blend--you're essentially making your own nut milk
  2. In the morning when you're ready to make the smoothie, drain and rinse the nuts
  3. Place nuts in the blender with 1/2 cup (new) water, juice or non-dairy 'milk'. The original recipe only calls for water, but I'm guessing that the other liquids would work, too, though they're not really necessary
  4. Blend until the nut milk is smooth and creamy
  5. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse/blend until very well mixed
  6. Thin with more water/milk/juice if desired
  7. Serve and watch your little one get smoothie all over her upper lip, nose and forehead

Monday, December 15, 2008

Spritz (Christmas Cookies 4)

This recipe is the only one that has a non-cookbook pedigree (though I suppose it could have been hand copied from a cookbook...). My parents' friends the Hayden's passed along this recipe for Spritz. It was on a green piece of lined paper and it, too, was greasy with butter and sugar stains. Thankfully, I was able to copy the recipe before the ink was too coated to read. Yet again (the reader will be unsurprised), these are my favorite Spritz cookies of all I've tasted. (If you were kind, I guess you could call it loyalty to the tastes of childhood. We won't go into what the unkind could say).

For all I love them, though, Spritz have consistently been the bane of my existence because of the dreaded cookie press. We had electric cookie presses when I was a kid, and I think I may well have learned to swear at my mother's knee because of the pain of dealing with them. In fact, it was only when I was in high school that I learned that one could have non-electric cookie presses. Since then, I've never gone back. I think all went well with cookie pressing in my Europe years (some shop in St Andrews had one that worked decently), but the past few years have been hell. I had a Wilton 'ergonomic' stainless steel on that was fine for a while but that I grew to despise for its refusal to move the dough through well. (Possibly related to my use of whole wheat pastry flour making a thicker dough?) This year, I had had enough and looked to Cooks Illustrated to show me the way. They recommended a Wilton press, but it was different from the one I had and hated. The only good thing I can say about the sorry piece of shit is that it cost us less than $10 (before tax). I know, so far this blog has used only family-friendly language, but I'm telling you that Spritz bring out the worst in me!

Anyway, to make a long and painful story short, I decided in the end to abandon the press altogether. I didn't want to roll and cut out the cookies, either, or smash them as I did the sugar cookies, so I opted for the peanut butter cookie method of smashing with a fork dipped in water. I felt such a failure and worried that the cookies wouldn't be thin enough and wouldn't taste right. It's true that they're not as thin as pressed cookies are, but I can honestly say they taste fine. In future, I think I'll always make them this way. My language might be more fit for Elspeth's ears and I won't have to store a piece of kitchen equipment that is only used once a year!

INGREDIENTS
1 c. (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.) butter
2/3 c. evaporated cane juice granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp almond extract
2 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour (or 12 1/2 ounces)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, make sure the oven racks are in the middle and prepare two baking sheets
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar (using a stand mixer, hand mixer, or your own strength)
  3. Add the egg yolks one at a time and mix
  4. Add the almond extract and mix
  5. Add the flour a little at a time and mix
  6. If using the Laurel-Keeps-Her-Sanity method, do the following. Roll the dough into balls a bit smaller than a walnut and place on the baking trays. Place some water in a small bowl. Dip a fork in the water and smash the dough ball one way with the fork; then smash the other way to make a tic-tac-toe pattern. (If you're a masochist, put the cookies through a press)
  7. Decorate the cookies with colored sprinkles in any combination you like
  8. Bake for 5-7 minutes or until just set (I tend to like mine a little darker than some people do). If you do the fork-smash method, you will probably need to increase the baking time a bit
  9. Cool on a rack and then store in an airtight container. Cool cookie sheets before making next round

Russian Teacakes (Christmas Cookies 3)

Russian Teacakes are also known as Mexican Wedding Cakes and probably several other names besides! This is one of the Betty Crocker specials. The original recipe calls for walnuts or almonds, but I've only ever made them with walnuts. In recent years, I've briefly toasted the walnuts first, too, to enhance the flavor. You could easily skip this step since the difference it makes is subtle.

In my household, one of the things that made Christmas extra special was that we got to use REAL butter. There was this weird mystique about it. At all other times of year, cookies were made with stick margarine. In fact, for a while, I think I preferred the taste of margarine because butter was so strange to me. These days, I only use unsalted butter for all of my cooking needs. I think they make trans-fat free margarine now, but I'm not sure if it can be used in baking. I've also heard that coconut oil can be substituted for butter if you're so inclined.

INGREDIENTS
1 c. (2 sticks, 1/2 lb) butter
1/2 c. sifted evaporated cane juice powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour (or 11 1/4 ounces)
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 c. chopped walnuts (toasting optional)
Evaporated cane juice powdered sugar for rolling

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, make sure oven racks are positioned in the middle and prepare two baking trays
  2. In a medium bowl, weigh or scoop the flour. Stir in the salt and set aside
  3. Cream together the butter and powdered sugar (using a stand mixer, hand mixer, or your arms)
  4. Add the vanilla extract and mix
  5. Add the flour/salt mixture a little at a time and mix
  6. Add the chopped nuts and mix
  7. Roll dough into balls the size of a walnut. These cookies don't spread, so you can fit more on a baking sheet than the other recipes
  8. Bake 10-12 minutes or until set and lightly golden
  9. Immediately roll the hot cookies in powdered sugar. This will melt a bit into the cookie and provide a nice base layer
  10. Once the cookies are fully cooled, roll a second time in powdered sugar to make them look like snowballs
  11. Store in an airtight container. Cool cookie sheets before making next round

Sugar Cookies (Christmas Cookies 2)

This sugar cookie recipe was my attempt to substitute for the family sugar cookie recipe that, I am ashamed to admit, I somehow lost or destroyed when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10, when I took over the family holiday baking. My mother was so upset with me! She never felt that this recipe tasted like the original, but I think it does, especially if you let the cookies get quite brown and you smash them quite thin. This recipe comes from that Junior League-type cookbook that also gave us the Cowboy Cookies. I believe they were called 'French Butter Cream Cookies' in the book.

These sugar cookies taste unlike any others I have had, which is why I love them so much! I'm not a fan of the rolled-out frosted sugar cookie, though I can understand why kids would have a good time making them. I don't like frosting on anything--just too sweet. Most of the time the cookie underneath isn't all that great, either, to my tastebuds. They have to be heavy enough to stand up to being rolled and frosted and end up being heavy and tasteless. The French Butter Cream Cookies are great because they melt in your mouth. They're very fragile and don't mail well, but I always send them along anyway because they're my dad's favorite. Even in pieces, they're tasty. But then, when it comes to holiday flavors, I'm completely biased!

I'll take this moment to encourage any bakers out there to invest in professional half-sheet pans in lieu of the usual cookie sheets you can get at Target or whatever. If you go to a restaurant supply store, they're likely to be cheaper than the other kind and will certainly be cheaper than what you can by in a fancy kitchen store. The advantages of the half-sheet pan are that Silpat sheets fit them exactly (Silpat is too big for the other kind of cookie sheets I had) and that these sheet pans will not buckle in the oven. I always get a nasty feeling when I hear that ominous 'POP!' from the oven--professional half-sheet pans will spare you that.

INGREDIENTS

1 c. (2 sticks, 1/2 lb) butter
1 1/3 c. sifted evaporated cane juice powdered sugar (I did sift this year, but many years I haven't bothered and it's been fine)
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
2 c. whole wheat pastry flour (or 10 ounces)--supposedly sifted but I've never sifted the flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking trays
  2. In a medium bowl, either scoop or weigh the flour. Add the baking soda and cream of tartar and stir together. Set aside
  3. Cream together butter and powdered sugar until fluffy (using a stand mixer, a hand mixer, or your brawny arms)
  4. Add salt and vanilla and mix
  5. Add the beaten egg and mix well. At first, the mixture will look disgusting--rather slimy and slick, almost like choux pastry. If you mix long enough, though, the egg will be well incorporated and the batter will look more appealing
  6. Add the flour mixture a bit at a time and mix
  7. Roll the dough into balls the size of a walnut and put on your baking trays. (I somehow do better rolling smaller sugar cookies. However, even with a half-sheet pan I only put a dozen cookies per sheet to give them room to spread out). If the dough is too sticky to work comfortably, refrigerate for 10 minutes and try again
  8. I'm sure there are many ways to achieve the objective of a flattened cookie, but here's what we always did in my family. Put some water in a small bowl. In another small bowl, put some powdered sugar. Take any flat bottomed object that is a couple of inches in diameter (we've got some juice glasses that work really well--the key is that the bottom must be totally flat). Dip the glass in the water and then in the powdered sugar. You may have to do this a few times to get a good coating on the glass. Smash the glass on the dough balls until you have an even circle and the dough is quite thin (1/8 inch thick, maybe--I'm terrible with those kinds of estimates). I bet an older kid would love the smashing. This year Elspeth was my helper in the sprinkling department: once you've smashed all of your dough balls, cover with colored sprinkles in any combination you like.
  9. Bake cookies for 10-13 minutes. I like them a deep golden brown, but you should taste at different doneness levels to find the color you like best
  10. Cool on a rack and then store carefully in an airtight container. Cool cookie sheets before making next round

Snickerdoodles (Christmas Cookies 1)

I'm going to be posting the recipes for the family Christmas cookies. Most are not unusual and a couple I'm pretty sure come from an old Betty Crocker cookbook that my mom had when I was growing up. You know, that really huge one that, over time, loses its binding and is stuck together with Scotch tape? In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Snickerdoodle and Russian Teacake recipes were on the same page, a page that had fallen loose from the book and was covered in sugar and butter stains and, inexplicably, a burn mark in the corner. (Were we baking by candlelight or something?)

I've made these cookies in three countries and as many states. My mother early became tired of doing the baking, so my siblings and I took over. I am pretty sure, though, that I'm the only one who carries on the tradition. I now post a box of cookies to my family every year--I have to, as I insist on making four types of cookies, each recipe of which yields at least 4 dozen!

As noted above, this Snickerdoodle recipe comes from the Betty Crocker cookbook. The only changes I have made to the recipe is my use of whole wheat pastry flour and the fact that I use at least 50% cinnamon in my cinnamon-sugar mix, whereas most recipes call for a lot more sugar than cinnamon.

I tend to make all of my Christmas cookies in one day or one weekend. This way, the oven just stays on and I give a quick rinse to the mixing bowl and the baking sheets. I tend to do them in the same order, as well: Snickerdoodles, Sugar Cookies, Russian Teacakes, and Spritz. This is because first two bake at 350 and the second two at 400. Last year, when Elspeth was so little and I had very few long stretches of time to myself, I mixed all the doughs (with the exception of the Spritz, I think), rolled it into balls and then froze them on baking trays. Then, when I had time or when we wanted fresh cookies, I thawed and baked them. This year, I mixed all the doughs on Saturday, but only baked the Snickerdoodles and Russian teacakes (arguably the two easiest) that day. I baked up the Sugar Cookies and Spritz on Sunday.

If you're crazy like me and plan to make all four types (without halving any batches), you'll need to ensure you're stocked with 2 pounds butter, 6 eggs, 2 1/2 cups evaporated cane granulated sugar, 3 cups evaporated cane juice powdered sugar with extra for rolling and 9 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, plus other various ingredients like cream of tartar, vanilla and almond extracts.

One more thing--this year I decided to weigh all of my flour and granulated sugar (Fanny Farmer didn't have weight equivalents for powdered sugar or I would have done that, too). It's not that I'm super fussy about texture. Rather, I love the ease of using a big bowl, zeroing out the scale, and then dumping in the flour without having to worry about having the right sized measuring cup and leveling off, etc. etc.

INGREDIENTS
1 c (2 sticks, 1/2 lb) butter
1 1/2 c. evaporated cane juice granulated sugar (or 9 1/2 ounces)
2 eggs
2 3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour (or 13 3/4 ounces)
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Cinnamon and evaporated cane juice sugar mixed together at your preferred ratio. You'll need about 1/2 c. of the mix, I'd guess.

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make sure your oven racks are in middle positions (I always bake two trays at a time--with this many cookies it would take forever to do them one by one! I also always line my trays with Silpat, but this isn't required)
  2. Either weigh or scoop the flour into a large bowl. Add the cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Stir together and set aside
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. (A hand mixer does well if it's a powerful enough one. When I was in Europe, I had to do it by hand!)
  4. Add eggs one at a time and mix (according to Cooks Illustrated it makes things better to add the eggs one at a time)
  5. Add the flour mixture a little at a time and mix
  6. Roll the dough into balls the size of a walnut. Sigh. I always make mine too big--they're more like the walnut with the shell still on so my recipe yield was 4 1/2 dozen rather than the expected 5 dozen. It's hardly a tragedy and I'm certainly not going to weigh the dough balls!
  7. Roll the balls in your cinnamon sugar mixture and place on the baking trays. If you're using a professional half-sheet pan, you can fit 15 on each one. Otherwise, it's likely you'll only fit one dozen per sheet
  8. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden
  9. Remove to a cooling rack and store in an airtight container once cooled
  10. Cool cookie sheets before making next round

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Homemade Ramen Soup

In more low-brow food confessions, I must admit that Evan and I eat packaged ramen from time to time, particularly when we're sick and want something easy, warm, and able to be doctored with hot pepper flakes to get things moving. I'm not so thrilled about offering packaged ramen to Elspeth, however, for obvious reasons.

Evan was feeling run down yesterday and Elspeth and I have lingering colds, so I decided the family was in need of restoration. Thankfully, I felt ambitious and was able to pull everything together with little stress (though the state of the kitchen is something I'd rather not talk about). I even managed to throw together a berry crumble, which rounded off the meal nicely.

There are lots of parts to this recipe, but the second day of eating it requires only assembly. If you plan ahead, you can pull ramen base and infused stock from the freezer and maybe even your cooked protein. Then it would only be a matter of cooking the noodles and deciding what other goodies to throw in.

Though our dinner was not vegetarian, this recipe would easily adapt to a vegetarian version, so I've added that as a label.

Everything you add to your ramen should already be cooked to the doneness level you prefer, as you will not cook anything in the broth. Good things to throw into your soup for added texture, flavor and nutrition include seaweed such as dulse, greens, bok choy, peas and corn, snow peas, and carrots along with your protein items and noodles.

For protein, I roasted some chicken breasts we'd got from the farmer's market and also cubed up some tofu. Silken tofu would be nicest, I think, but I only had extra firm sprouted tofu (I was curious about the sprouted tofu--it tasted fine and they claim it's more easily digested and that the nutrients are better absorbed. Unsure if that's all a load of crap or not).

I ran out of steam last night, so we only had peas and corn along with roasted chicken breast and tofu in our ramen. When I cooked the noodles, I simply added frozen peas and corn to the same pot. I cooked enough so that we would have leftovers. I used the organic soba noodles from Trader Joe's.

RAMEN BASE
This recipe is based on Richard's Ramen Base. I decided to amend the recipe this go around because I've always felt it wasn't quite well-balanced. The brown sugar I added worked wonders! Evan and I felt this was the best ramen base ever, even though it wasn't spicy as we used to like it.

INGREDIENTS (for a double batch so you have plenty to refrigerate or freeze)
1 TBSP vegetable or cooking oil
1-2 tsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press
Generous grating of fresh ginger
1/2 c. miso base (I used Westbrae organic brown rice miso)
1/4 c. soy sauc OR 2 TBSP each soy sauce and mirin
Chili oil or chili flakes to taste
Dark brown sugar to taste, starting with 1 tsp (I think I used 1-2 tsp total. If using mirin, omit entirely)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Heat oils in a small skillet or saucepan over medium heat. When I make the recipe again, I'm going to try adding the sesame oil later, on the theory that its flavor is dulled by cooking and it's really more of a condiment. It works just fine if you do it as written, though
  2. Add garlic and cook briefly--don't let the garlic get brown
  3. Add remaining ingredients and stir well (a flat whisk is great in this situation)
  4. Cook for a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust the chili and brown sugar as needed
  5. Remove from heat. The ramen base seems to last a long time in the fridge, and I suspect will freeze well--it may even remain soft enough that you could easily scoop or slice off the necessary quantity
INFUSED BROTH
I used homemade chicken stock, but I'm sure you could use low-sodium storebought (since the ramen base is salty). Veggie stock would be great, too. You don't need to infuse the stock, but I think we got a deeper, nicer flavor this way and more umami because of the kombu. Of course, you could also make an Asian stock right from the get-go and skip the infusion step. Because we use stock for so many different purposes, it makes sense for us not to have a whole batch flavored this way.

INGREDIENTS
6-8 c. unsalted or low sodium chicken, pork or veggie stock
2 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on
1 inch knob of ginger, cut into several pieces
1 inch piece kombu

DIRECTIONS
  1. Place all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil
  2. Let simmer for half an hour
  3. Strain broth and discard solids
  4. Set aside until ready to assemble
ASSEMBLE THE SOUP
  1. Place about 1 tsp ramen base in each bowl
  2. Add noddles, protein items and veggies
  3. Add 1 1/2 cups hot broth (or so)
  4. Stir to dissolve and distribute the ramen base
  5. Enjoy! Evan and I agreed that this was far more restorative than packaged ramen would have been and Elspeth had a great time sipping the broth from her tiny stainless espresso cup

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

'Bean Tacos' Tostada-Style and Greens

Readers must think that we're obsessed with greens since they appear so frequently! If your family subscribes to a CSA basket, you'll understand why. Evan and I love braising or winter greens; they're delicious and one of the easiest kinds of vegetables to prepare and add to almost any dish. If prepared well, they generally don't taste bitter to me. The only green I really can't abide is collards. I've tried several times, but I just find them funky and unappealing. Thankfully, Elspeth is not at the stage yet where she rejects anything green. She'll often pick out the greens in a dish, but if we then offer them to her on a piece of bread, she eats them happily.

Lest dear readers think that it's always high-brow cooking times here at EATS!, I share this recipe from our Sunday dinner. Pre-Elspeth, Evan and I would often look to what we call 'bean tacos' as an easy supper and we decided to give it a go and see if Elspeth would agree. Our corn tortillas were a bit stale, so I crisped them in the oven (hence, the 'tostada-style' in the title). My plan was to use a can of jalapeno refried beans, but we didn't have any in the pantry. Sigh. I made my own spread, but it was quite lackluster. I have some ideas for improvement for next time should we not be stocked up or the canned jalapeno bean be too spicy for the babe.

On the plus side, I tried a new greens technique using the microwave and it was great! Some folks are anti-microwave and believe that it compromises nutritional quality or is dangerous or has something else wrong with it. I am not in this camp and have not been convinced that it's harmful, especially if you use glass or ceramic dishes instead of plastic for microwave cooking. In fact, a great tip for parents of young children who have trouble biting off carrot sticks (but who still love to practice biting) is to cut carrots into sticks and then microwave the sticks for 45 seconds. They'll still be crispy and not have that icky cooked carrot flavor, but they'll be soft enough for chompability by a toddler (with molars).

Though there are several parts to this recipe, it doesn't take that long and you could certainly simplify further by not toasting the tortillas and opting for the canned beans.

TOSTADA SHELLS
If you want to make your own tortilla chips, you can follow the instructions through Step 6. Then cut the tortillas into triangles and continue with Step 7.

INGREDIENTS
5-6 small to medium corn tortillas
1-2 tsp vegetable or olive oil
Table, kosher or sea salt to taste

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Place one tortilla on a rimmed baking sheet
  3. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush one side of the tortilla with oil
  4. Turn tortilla over and brush second side, sprinkling with salt
  5. Place second tortilla on top of first; brush with oil and apply salt
  6. Repeat with remaining tortillas (only the first one is oiled on both sides--the rest are oiled on the bottom side by the top of the previous tortilla)
  7. Spread tortillas in a single layer on the baking sheet
  8. Bake for 10 minutes and check. Continue baking until golden
  9. Serve with bean spread and greens

PINTO BEAN SPREAD
Warning: what I made was deeply boring, but the fundamental idea isn't flawed, so if you experiment I'm sure you could come up with something tasty. This is just the best I could do on a Sunday night with little inspiration. Some ideas for improving this spread: add some chipotle in adobo sauce (if spice isn't a concern); add some chopped tomatoes or a small amount of tomato paste; add a splash of red wine vinegar; use a bit of chicken stock to substitute some of the olive oil; add some salsa.

INGREDIENTS
1 can pinto beans
2 TBSP olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp smoked paprika, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste--I found I needed to add quite a bit of salt

DIRECTIONS
Place all ingredients in a (mini) food processor and blend until smooth.

EASY BRAISING GREENS
This attempt, at least, exceeded my expectations. Here are a couple of handy tips for dealing with winter greens. *Use garden shears (like you'd use to cut flowers) to stem the greens. I fold each green in half and the use the shears up the back to remove most of the spine of the green. I don't mind some spine, but you need to remove some or your greens will be tough. The shears make the job cleaner and easier than using a knife and cutting board and if you compost, you can snip the spine directly into your compost bucket. *Give the greens a soak. All greens and lettuces are best cleaned by soaking--this helps avoid a mouthful of grit! I like to bathe my greens after I have stemmed them. Place in a large tub of water and agitate to loosen the dirt. Then let sit for a few minutes. The dirt will settle to the bottom of the tub and you can lift your greens out gently.
For chopping greens, I usually use a take on the chiffonade method: I stack my leaves and then roll them up (this can be a bit tricky with tough leaves like kale but I soldier on); I then make three lengthwise cuts in the rolled up greens so that my ribbons of greens are not as long; slice the rolled greens width-wise into pieces.

INGREDIENTS
1 bunch dinosaur/lacinto kale (also known as cavolo nero) or other hearty green
Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS
  1. Stem and clean greens (using methods listed above if they sound good to you)
  2. Chop greens into bite-sized pieces (using method above if desired)
  3. Place greens in a microwave-safe bowl (ideally glass as all plastic will leach somewhat). The greens should still be moist from the soaking. If they seem like there's not enough liquid to steam them, add a teaspoon or two to the dish.
  4. Sprinkle on salt to taste
  5. Cover the bowl and microwave on high heat for 4 minutes
  6. Remove from microwave and test doneness; you may wish to cook for 1-2 minutes longer

TO ASSEMBLE THE BEAN TOSTADAS
Spread some pinto bean mixture onto a crisped corn tortilla. Top with cooked braising greens. Add hot sauce or other condiments to taste. Serve carrot sticks on the side if you're feeling really fancy. Elspeth was less critical of this meal than I was and had a great time with the carrots.