Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's in there

Have you ever asked yourself why it is socially and culinarily acceptable to include certain vegetables in baked goods, but not others? Carrot cake = divine; green pepper muffins = move on? The talented Jessie over at Cakespy asked herself the same question not too long ago, and the results were instructive. Snap pea cake, delicious! Brussels sprouts cake, heinous! Personally, though I haven't yet ventured into the world of radish-cake-making, I have long been enamored with the vegetable-baked good. I count carrot and zucchini cakes among my very favorite desserts. Even if it usually has mostly to do with the cream cheese frosting, I still like to pretend that the complexity and unique flavor profile of the vegetable is the reason why I reach for these sweets.

So while I was engaged the other day in what appears to be my new pastime -- flipping through food- and cooking-related catalogs for recipes because purveyors have gotten wise and realized that the way to make me look at the exact same wares in issue after issue is to pepper those pages with recipes -- I was pleased to discover a vegetable-baked good that looked delicious: chocolate zucchini muffins from the Penzey's catalog. (Penzey's is fabulous at this new catalog strategy, by the way. Their catalogs are chock full of recipes -- good-looking recipes for sweet and savory dishes alike -- that spur me to consider every page.) I immediately ripped out the recipe and got myself to the store. As I was picking out the zucchini in the produce section Husband asked me what they were for, most likely expecting me to answer with something healthier than "chocolate muffins." For the record, my answer -- to most questions -- is "chocolate muffins."

And what a good use of fresh veggies these muffins are. They give off the most pleasing, rich cocoa aroma and they're so ridiculously moist and studded with chocolate chips, it's like, where did the zucchini even go? Ah, but it's in there...flexing its little vegetable muscle to cut all that chocolate with a slightly pungent (in a good way!) note. In addition to making my taste buds happy, these muffins also made me rather selfish: I thought about bringing some of them to work, but then decided that I didn't really need to share, after all.

I get like that about my vegetable-baked goods. Hands off, people.


Adapted from the Penzeys catalog

1/2 c. milk
1/4 t. white vinegar
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. safflower (or vegetable) oil
1 3/4 c. sugar
2 large eggs
2 t. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. cinnamon (Ceylon, if you have it)
1/2 t. kosher salt
2 c. zucchini, peeled and finely grated (about 3 small zucchini)
1 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
1/2 c. pecans or walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line 2 standard muffins tins with papers.

In a liquid measuring cup, mix together the milk and vinegar and set aside. In a large bowl, beat together the butter, oil and sugar until creamy. Add the eggs, vanilla extract and milk/vinegar mixture. Blend well.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. (It's important to sift to remove and lumps from the cocoa powder.) Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and stir by hand, using a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, to combine. Add the grated zucchini and 1/2 c. of the chocolate chips and stir well. 

Using a spring-loaded ice-cream scoop, dish the batter evenly into the pans, filling each paper about 2/3 full. Sprinkle the muffins with the rest of the chocolate chips and the pecans/walnuts.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack, then, consume!

Makes 24 muffins.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A little less bright

It is with great sadness that I interrupt my regular blogging schedule to pay tribute to Luta Roberts. She was a dear friend of my family's -- a surrogate grandmother to me -- and she passed away yesterday morning.

You have read about Luta's fantastic personality, memorable exploits and delicious recipes several times in this space -- she is my muse when it comes to chicken divan, pecan pie, cream of mushroom soup and spaghetti brownies. There are plenty more tales and recipes where those came from, and I look forward to sharing them with you in the coming months in memory of her.

Luta and her husband, Jack, played a huge part in my formative years. They were fine, fine people -- caring and gracious and loving and compassionate in every sense of the words. And they were hilarious. I am so grateful to have known them both, and the world is a little less bright without them around. Especially without Luta's sparkling eyes and kind smile.

To Jim, their son: thank you for finding me today to relay the sad news. It means the world to me and my family that you've made the effort to find us again after all these years. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and Marcia during this difficult time. To Jack: I'm happy that Luta has found her way to you again, and I'm certain she'll be dragging you all around heaven in no time.

And to Luta: I miss you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ye olde favorite

There are certain ingredients -- and words -- that attract me to every recipe in which they're found. Peanuts. "Spicy." Mint. Chickpeas. Peanut Butter. "Thai." Rigatoni. Pistachios. Cumin. Extra-firm tofu. Kalamata olives. Walnuts. Meyer lemons. This is how I end up with several different iterations of rigatoni with pistachios and Meyer lemons, and more than a dozen recipes for noodles with a spicy peanut sauce. For as much as I want to branch out, ye olde favorite foodstuffs just keep pulling me right back in.

Today I share with you one of those dozen-plus recipes that involve noodles, Asian flavors and peanuts. To me, there are few foods that pair better than noodles and peanut. Maybe tofu and peanut is a close second, but I don't know. (This is -- of course -- discounting chocolate, which is clearly the most divine partner the peanut could ever have. But I am trying to be "healthy" here, so bear with me.) There is something magical about the way an al dente noodle cozies up next to a crunchy, earthy peanut. It is extraordinarily fun to chase around the peanuts, one by one, with chopsticks, like Mr. Miyagi catching flies only the peanuts are to be savored while the flies, not so much. This recipe is pleasing and fresh, relying on the peanut for its base and other verdant ingredients -- like cucumber and mint -- for the occasional burst of clean, bright flavor. I could eat dishes like this until the cows came home, which would be a long while because I don't have any cows.

This cold noodle dish is quick and easy to make, perfect for a healthy meal after a nice workout. Which is how I ate it tonight: after a nice run and while watching "The Biggest Loser." (Black Team, oh Black Team. You should have sent Joelle packing.) It would also be a great lunch on a busy workday, though you might want to keep the sauce separate until you're ready to eat. I just love how the buckwheat-y soba soaks up the ginger, lime and soy, punctuated by the occasional crunch of cucumber and soft flavor of the mint. Clearly there is a reason I gravitate toward recipes like this.

Now, excuse me while I go categorize my chickpea recipes.


Adapted from "Everyday Food"

8 oz. soba (buckwheat) noodles
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. freshly-squeezed lime juice
1 T. safflower or vegetable oil
1/2 t. fresh ginger, grated
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
2 scallions, thinly sliced on the bias (scallions are so lovely when cut on the bias)
1/2 cucumber, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 c. unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 c. fresh mint leaves

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook noodles until al dente, about 4-5 minutes. Watch carefully so they don't overcook and get mushy. Drain, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. If you're anything like me, you will find it goes against your better judgement to rinse noodles of any kind. Go ahead; it's the right thing to do for this recipe. Drain well.

In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the soy sauce, lime juice, oil, ginger and black pepper. In a large bowl, combine noodles, scallions, cucumber, peanuts and mint. Toss the noodle mixture with the sauce, and serve.

Makes 4 servings, or maybe 3 if you're hungry.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I think about that breakfast all the time

I am going to go all Sophia Petrillo on you. 

Picture it: Australia, 2005. The second morning of our honeymoon. Husband and I are in Sydney, not entirely over our jetlag, and hungry. We had fallen asleep at about 6:30 the evening prior, convinced that we were just going to take a nap. I woke briefly at 11:00 p.m., looked out the open balcony window at the twittering lights of the Sydney Opera House, listened for a second to the lapping water of the world's most glittering Harbour, pinched myself to make sure I was truly, indeed, in my beloved Australia, then rolled over and went back to sleep. Jetlag's enough trouble as it is; it's even worse when it comes on the heels of feverish wedding planning and the big, raucous day itself. I felt like it was the first time in at least six months that I could really sleep and, hell, what better place to sleep than the Park Hyatt Sydney?

Of course we're up the next morning with the sun. And hungry; yes, very hungry. Our Aussie friends Kerrie, Greg, Matthew and Nicole have left us a wonderfully welcoming gift basket in our room, with all my favorite treats and adult beverages from Down Under. I snack on an early-morning Cadbury Crunchie while we wait for 8:00 a.m., an hour we figure it might be reasonable that restaurants could be open. We leave the room and began wandering through The Rocks, an old section of town very close to the hotel. What we find is Gumnut Teagarden, an unassuming tearoom with a lovely outdoor garden and a kitchen that's serving breakfast. We take our seats outside at a re-purposed sewing-machine table under a canopy of Vittoria umbrellas and native birds perched atop eucalypt branches.

(Gumnut Teagarden on a perfect morning in September 2005.)

It is one of those meals that stays with you for a lifetime. Not because it is gourmet dining in a world-famous restaurant. But because the moment is perfect. Newly married, on holiday, without a care in the world, relaxing under a gorgeous blue Sydney spring sky, sipping coffee and eating a simple and delightful morning meal of grilled crusty bread with sweetened ricotta and honey. It was a meal that lives in legend, unable to be recreated at home (or so I thought). Because Northeast Ohio looks nothing like The Rocks, and a maple is not a gum tree and a cardinal -- no matter how beautiful -- is no rainbow lorikeet. You know, even if we were to go back to Gumnut Teagarden for another meal, I'm certain it wouldn't be the same. It would still be delicious and lovely, but it wouldn't be that moment.

(Husband snapped this photo of my breakfast that morning.)

I think about that breakfast all the time. I think about that sweetened ricotta. But I'm aware of how difficult it is to relive the pleasures of travel at home, even if it involves only six ingredients. However, I gave it a shot this morning. Honestly, I should not have waited so long. Grilled bread with ricotta, honey and cinnamon is a perfect little breakfast or a fantastic afternoon snack. Or both. In the same day. It is something worth savoring even if its cinnamony, crusty-breaded goodness does not transport you anywhere beyond your breakfast table.

But it does transport me.



8 thick slices of crusty bread (I like ciabatta from our local bakery, Great Lakes Baking Company)
4 T. butter
1 c. ricotta
2 t. sugar
1/4 t. ground cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling
Honey, for drizzling

Heat a grill pan (cast iron, if you have it) over high heat. Spread one side of each slice of bread with about 1/2 T. of the butter. Place in the grill pan, butter side down, and cook until it smokes and develops nice grill marks. Flip the pieces and grill the other side for about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the bread sit in the pan while you prepare the ricotta.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon. Stir to combine.

Divide the ricotta mixture among the slices of bread, spreading to coat. Drizzle with honey to taste and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Makes 4 servings.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Leaning a little bit one way or the other

I think it's fair to say that people are generally divided between those who prefer sweet treats and those who reach for the salty snacks. I mean, of course there are those of us who like both -- often switching from sweet to salty and then back to sweet during the same snacking session -- but given a choice, we all have a preference. Or at least we're leaning a little bit one way or the other. Ask yourself: Oreos or Baked Ruffles? Ice cream or pretzel rods? Chocolate chip cookies or olives? Hunk of brown sugar or chunk of aged cheese?

For me -- except in the notable case of the brown sugar vs. cheese, as I have always loved eating brown sugar out of the bag, ever since I was a tot, so much so that one memorable day Mom poured the sugar into a bowl, handed me a spoon and said, "Here. You like it so much? Have at it." I think I was supposed to learn a lesson, but instead I just ate a bowl of brown sugar -- I lean savory. As much as I love baked goods, 9 times out of 10 I'm going salty. It must be my body chemistry or something. It's a powerful force.

Now, I enjoy biscotti. Especially homemade biscotti, especially homemade biscotti like the chocolate-peanut butter biscotti Sister made at Christmas. But I seldom, like, die over biscotti. (Except for the chocolate-peanut butter biscotti Sister made at Christmas.) Every so often, though, I see a recipe for savory biscotti and my eyes widen a bit. Like when I spied this cheddar-Pecorino biscotti.

These twice-baked treats are cheesy, replete with extra-sharp cheddar and Pecorino, and studded with toasted pine nuts and tiny pieces of jewel-red sun-dried tomatoes. The recipe states that one should "keep a stash of these savory biscotti in your desk drawer for a quick snack." Though I initially laughed at this suggestion -- mostly because of how random it is, really? your desk drawer? next to the paper clips and file folder labels? -- I now think maybe it's not such a bad idea to hide a few of these away at the office. Snacking on homemade biscotti certainly sounds like a better idea than snacking on the dregs of the cookies that someone in marketing made last week.

Maybe someday soon I can convince Sister to share her chocolate-peanut butter biscotti recipe with me, so I can post it here for you sweet-snack-lovers. But today, it's biscotti for the savory set.


Adapted from "Cooking Light"

You could, of course, substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for the Pecorino, as the original recipe calls for it. However, whenever given the choice, I roll with Pecorino. I can't help it. I am putty in Pecorino's hands. You can decide for yourself, and tweak according to your own taste.

2 3/4 c. flour
Heaping 1/2 c. (about 3 oz.) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 c. Pecorino cheese, grated
1/4 c. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (get the dried ones that come in a bag, rather than the ones packed in oil)
3 T. yellow cornmeal
3 T. pine nuts, toasted
2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. dried basil
1/3 c. skim milk
1 T. olive oil
2 large eggs
1 large egg white

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or a piece of parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and the next 8 ingredients (through the basil). Stir with a rubber spatula to combine. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, olive oil, eggs and egg white. Whisk to combine. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture, stirring with the rubber spatula until well blended (the dough with be crumbly and slightly sticky; you might have to use your hands to bring it together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead 7-10 times.

Divide dough in half. Shape each half into an 8-inch long roll. Place the rolls 6 inches apart of the baking sheet, then flatten to a 1-inch thickness. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and cool the dough for 5 minutes on a wire rack.

While the dough is resting, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut each roll diagonally into about 12 slices, each about 1/2-inch thick. Stand the slices upright on the baking sheet. Return to oven and bake for 25 minutes. Cool biscotti on a wire rack.

Makes 24 pieces, each of which fits conveniently in a desk drawer.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A celebration of quinoa

Yesterday it was tofu, today it's quinoa. I guess 2009 is off to a healthier start after all, despite my protestations that resolutions are a waste of time. I didn't mean to go all healthy on you, but this is the food I'm craving right now. So I'm listening to myself and digging into the good stuff. And it's damn tasty, if I do say so myself.

While it should be clear to even the most casual reader that I am not all about healthy eating, I do quite enjoy a diverse range of foods. That umbrella is bound to cover some healthful tidbits from time to time. I also love trying new things and seeking out unique ingredients (someday I will tell you about The Great Maple Flake Search of 2008) and am a great fan of meticulous rows of grains and beans and pastas and different types of rice, all lined up in pretty Ball jars in my pantry. When I find a new staple to add to this array, well, I buy at least a pound. While I am no stranger to quinoa, until a few weeks ago I had never seen red quinoa. So into my shopping cart -- and into a Ball jar -- it went. And out this recipe came.

Quinoa tabbouleh. I've always thought of tabbouleh as a celebration of parsley. However, replacing tabbouleh's traditional bulgur with quinoa turns it into a celebration of quinoa. And who doesn't want to celebrate quinoa? Not that there's anything wrong with bulgur; it's just that quinoa is a little unexpected and brings a whole new texture to the dish. And since I'm apparently being healthy this week -- I even ran a mile tonight! -- I should mention that quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse that ups tabbouleh's already healthy ante quite significantly. It's high in protein and, especially important for vegetarians, its protein is complete, meaning it contains all the amino acids that we human folk need. It's's grown in the Andes....And! It's kosher for Passover! 

This quinoa tabbouleh is more delicious than anything healthy has a right to be, frankly. The fresh vegetables and bright herbs and simple dressing combine into something truly delectable...something that hits the spot after a cold cold January night spent at the gym. I could have eaten the entire bowl, but alas, there were other people around and maybe they would like to have some? But I don't know, the way I figure it, you snooze, you lose. To the victor goes the quinoa tabbouleh.

And in case you're concerned with my exercise regimen and nutritional eating -- just in case you fear that sources of complete protein have replaced sugar and chocolate in my lexicon and pantry -- I did just grab a (large) spaghetti brownie out of the fridge. Not all hope is lost.


Adapted from "Bon Appetit"

1 c. water
1/2 c. quinoa (red if you can find it), rinsed
2 T. olive oil
2 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 T. plus 1/2 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste
1/2 c. seeded and peeled cucumber, finely chopped
1/2 c. seeded tomato, chopped
1/4 c. fresh mint, chopped
8 red or green lettuce leaves

In a medium saucepan, bring 1 c. water to the boil. Add quinoa; cover, reduce heat to low and cook until the water is absorbed, 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl to cool.

While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the rest of the tabbouleh. Whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, 2 T. parsley and garlic in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Season the dressing to taste with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside. Prepare the vegetables and herbs.

When the quinoa is cool, add the cucumber, tomato, mint and remaining 1/2 c. parsley to the bowl. Add the dressing and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning; I find it needs another few pinches of salt.

Arrange two lettuce leaves on each of 4 plates. Spoon the tabbouleh atop the lettuce and serve.

Makes 4 servings. Who am I kidding. Makes 1 serving. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I do believe that tofu yearns

I love tofu. Always have. And while I don't go quite as far as my boss does in my love of the stuff -- his license plate reads "TRY TOFU" -- I never can pass up a plate of bean curd, especially if it's extra-firm and has been sauteed until it's crisp on the edges. Yum.

You are thinking, seriously? Tofu has no flavor! Which is for the most part true, which is another reason why I love it so. It is a blank canvas. A protein-rich, healthy canvas, onto which I can project all my favorite flavors and textures and still feel good about the resulting dish. You know, because mashed potatoes are a also blank canvas, as are sugar cookies and fried chicken and a million other "unhealthy" foodstuffs. But dressing up a dish of mashed potatoes with goat cheese or topping a fried chicken breast with a waffle does feel a tad over-indulgent. Not so with tofu. It lends itself wonderfully to a range of nutritious accompaniments and is itself high in calcium, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. When I feel like eating healthfully without compromising mouth-watering tastiness, tofu is there for me.

Tonight we enjoyed planks tofu topped with a spicy lemongrass sauce -- another recipe from the archives that I don't make nearly often enough. The dish includes one of my very favorite pantry staples: fish sauce. I was very reluctant to try fish sauce at first, given its powerful fishy odor and unfortunate name. (Fish made into a sauce does not, for me at least, connote anything tasty or remotely culinarily serviceable.) But once I got past these things, I discovered that fish sauce is the je ne sais quoi in many Asian dishes -- especially Thai and Vietnamese ones -- that makes you think, mmm...this is really good. Omit it and you will be sad; only blandness results from the error of fish sauce omission. And so it serves its purpose in this tofu dish: salty but not just salty for salty's sake -- salty with complex undertones and depth of flavor. It plays so very well with the hot and sweet elements of this recipe to create a sauce that is much more than the sum of its parts. I'm consistently amazed at the complex taste that results when a few simple Asian-inspired ingredients are combined just so. A little fish sauce, a little sugar, some shallots, garlic, chile. It's alchemy, really.

I do believe that tofu yearns for a sauce this flavorful to infiltrate its every fissure, elevating it from a simple healthy bean curd to something truly divine. I like to imagine that when my boss was standing in line at the DMV, contemplating the content of his vanity plate, he was thinking of a tofu dish like this one (though he would be one to commit the error of fish sauce omission, as he is vegan). 

Try tofu, indeed.


Adapted from "Cooking Light"

We enjoyed our tofu this evening with some ginger-cilantro rice. Personally I find rice to be a pleasant accompaniment to tofu, but about 12 years ago some woman in a Hunan restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, told me that tofu fried rice "makes no sense" and wouldn't serve it to me. I've never been one to make sense, so....

2 15-oz. packages extra-firm tofu (Nasoya is my very very favorite)
Olive oil for pan-frying

1 1/2 T. sugar
2 T. fish sauce
1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. shallots, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. lemongrass, finely chopped
1 dried red Thai chile, reconstituted, seeded and minced

Line a baking sheet with 4 layers of paper towel. Cut each tofu brick crosswise into 8 slices. Arrange tofu in a single layer on the paper towel, then cover with another 4 layers of paper towel. Place another baking sheet on top, then weigh down with something heavy, such as a cast iron skillet or some large cans of tomatoes. Press the tofu for at least 15 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Reconstitute the chile in a mug of boiling water -- just until it's a little soft. Seed and mince the chile.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the pan with olive oil and, working in batches, cook the tofu until brown on both sides, 3-4 minutes per side. Add a little more olive oil to the pan between batches. Place the cooked tofu on a baking sheet and keep warm in the 250-degree oven while you fry the remaining batches.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and fish sauce and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. In a small saucepan, heat 1 T. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Add the lemongrass and chile; sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Stir in the sugar mixture and cook 1 minute. 

To serve, place 4 planks of tofu on a plate and top with about 2 T. of sauce. Then, marvel at what a fantastic meal you've cooked, what with all those serious flavors mingling up against the crispy texture of the tofu. Finally, feel good about all that calcium and protein.

Makes 4 servings. P.S. This dish goes great with beer!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Overplayed January promises

You will not find me making any New Year's resolutions. Not because I am not resolute; on the contrary, I am quite stubborn when I make up my mind about something. Just ask Husband. I refuse to suffer Howard Stern, no matter how funny Husband claims Artie Lange is. Even if on the off chance I overhear something that actually makes me laugh, I adamantly refuse to admit it's funny, and will not listen.

But when it comes to New Year's resolutions, well, my resolve takes a hike. Actually, I should restate that: my resolve is as strong as ever, it's just that my resolution is not to make any resolutions. No. I just can't stand all those overplayed January promises. I will not wait until a certain date on a calendar to do something that I think will make my life better; I am not interested in shouting my dreams for a better, thinner, richer, more thoughtful life from the rooftops on one day, only to revert to my worse, fatter, poorer, harried ways in a matter of weeks. I never make New Year's resolutions. I just do things I think I need to do, when I need to do them.

Hence, you're not going to find a whole bunch of "light" and "diet" recipes in this space. Hell no. I opened the year with the most caloric, dense, sugar-laden confection I know. Take that, Martha Stewart! But I have decided that now is a good time to plumb the depths of my overflowing recipe binder and share some dishes that are either brand new favorites or that make only infrequent appearances in my culinary repertoire. After two months jam-packed with old-standby favorites from my youth, it's about time for a recipe clipped from some random publication that, on the merits of its deliciousness, ought to show up more often in my cooking but that, for whatever reason, languishes between the plastic sleeves of my binder never to see the light of day or the heat of my stove. This is your time, under-utilized yet totally tasty recipe!

Into this spotlight steps a spiced tomato and chickpea soup. This zesty and spicy number gets its body from hearty pureed chickpeas and its soul from a dreamy paste of fragrant spices and garlic. It is perfect as a first course or a lunch, and it fits seamlessly as part of an Indian dinner menu. Much zippier than a traditional tomato soup, this recipe has a flavor profile much more complex than expected, especially as it sits so unassuming in the bowl. As I neared the bottom of my bowl tonight, I did away with the spoon and just sipped and savored.

By all means, I wish you well with your own resolutions, if you have chosen to make them. But as for me, well, I'm just going to eat a lot of soup.



The recipe originally calls for 1/2 c. roasted red peppers, which I omitted due to the fact that I was out of them and Husband doesn't like them, anyway. But of course, feel free to add them to the soup along with the tomatoes if you are so inclined. You can also garnish with a bit of sour cream if you like.

Additionally, the original recipe calls for one can of chickpeas, all of which are blended into a smooth soup. I prefer to add a second can of chickpeas post-puree, as the whole chickpeas add a nice texture and heartier feel to the soup.

4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 t. ground coriander
1 t. ground cumin
3/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. caraway seeds
1/4 c. olive oil
2 15-oz. cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, divided
1 1/2 c. crushed canned tomatoes, with juice
3 1/2 c. homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken or turkey stock
Parsley sprigs, for garnish

Using a mortar and pestle (or with the back of a spoon), crush the garlic, red pepper flakes, coriander, cumin, salt and caraway seeds to form a paste.

Heat the olive oil in a medium pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the garlic mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until just softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in half of the chickpeas, tomatoes and stock and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, stirring often, for 15 minutes.

Puree using a stick blender (or in batches in a traditional blender). If using a traditional blender, return the soup to the pot and place over medium heat. Add the second half of the chickpeas and cook for 8-10 minutes, just to warm the whole chickpeas. Serve with a sprig of parsley.

Serves 4.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mortal danger regardless

It's been a tough couple of weeks if you're a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Or, more accurately, if you're our Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Jet. Our beloved pup is, unfortunately, no stranger to health concerns, as she has suffered from seizures and other woes since she was very young. Those things are beyond her (and our) control and we do whatever we must to improve her quality of life and well-being. Indeed, she has been doing very well of late: seizure free for more than eight months, and healthy as a horse otherwise.

Ornery trouble-making Jet, however, is not one to allow her good health to get in the way of her bad behavior. When she is doing well, physically, Jet will find a way to get herself into some mortal danger regardless, just to keep us on our toes (and the local vet hospital in business). And so it was that five days before Christmas, while Husband and I were out doing some shopping, Jet decided to eat no fewer than 16 Christmas candles. Not tapers; no, those would be too small. She ate an entire candle nativity set, a cherished keepsake that had been in my family for 40 years. She also snacked on eight evergreen tree-shaped candles, some of which were seven inches tall. And to add insult to waxy injury, she topped off her late-afternoon candle repast with a small stuffed snowman, felt hat and all. 

To make an agonizing story short, she ended up requiring surgery two days later when it was determined that the candles weren't, um, going anywhere. Lucky for us, she is -- as we like to call her -- the healthiest sickest dog we've ever known, and she bounced back very quickly.  Even with a foot-long gash in her stomach and more staples than we cared to count. At least she left the incision alone and we didn't have to subject her to the lampshade of shame. It was challenging to keep her "quiet" and without any exercise for two full weeks, but she did it and she's back to her normal rabble-rousing ways. In fact, as I write this from Mom and Dad's house, she is tooling around the living room sniffing at candles. She will never learn.

I planned to share this dog treat recipe before Christmas, as it makes wonderful doggie stocking stuffers and is a great one to bake and give as gifts to your dog-loving friends. Yes, it was a wonderful plan. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans....I was so focused on getting her home in one piece, albeit three large bags of chewed candle wax lighter, that I couldn't even think about baking treats. So instead I present these carob crunchers to you today, in the frosty doldrums of January, when your furry friend could probably use a little homemade excitement anyway.

Jet, for her part, is happy to snack on these treats whatever month it is. And I, for my part, am just grateful that what she's eating is actually edible and intended for canine stomachs.


Adapted from Paula Moran's recipe

Human-grade bone meal is available at health-food stores and stores that sell nutritional supplements. I get mine at the Mustard Seed Market, and one container lasts a very, very long time. Just make sure you get human-grade, and not plant-grade. You can also find carob powder at such stores.

2 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. carob powder
1 t. human-grade bone meal
2 T. safflower or soy oil
2 T. honey
3/4 c. soy or dairy milk (I prefer soy)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat flour, carob powder and bone meal. Whisk together to combine. Add the remaining ingredients and stir together with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. When the mixture gets too thick to mix with a spatula or spoon, bring it together with your hands into a ball. The dough will be stiff.

Sprinkle the counter top with flour and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into shapes using the cookie cutter of your choice; I like the good old-fashioned dog bone shape. You can also simply cut them into squares if you don't want to mess with cookie cutters.

Place close together but not touching on an ungreased baking sheet; re-roll dough scraps to cut more treats. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the treats in the oven until cool. Store at room temperature in air-tight containers.

Makes about 2 dozen treats, depending on the cookie cutter.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Happy birthday, blog

Go ahead and file this post under the whole terribly cliché heading of "Time is flying." But really! Time is flying!

A Stove With A House Around It turns one today. Happy birthday, wee infant blog! Though you are but a tot, you are beginning to show your little personality. You are growing into something I can recognize, something that looks a heck of a lot like me.

To celebrate, I should be making you a fantastic party cake with pretty pink icing, into which I would spear a large candle in the shape of a "1." But given my salt proclivities -- I am like a deer, nearly always in search of a salt lick -- I thought it more appropriate to celebrate with something salty. Such as homemade soft pretzels.

So far the celebration is going pretty well. Husband and I completely spoiled our dinner, as we ate nearly half of the batch of hot pretzels as an "appetizer." We sort of didn't have a choice, though; they are called hot pretzels, not room temperature pretzels. No use letting them sit around. At least that's what I'm telling myself.

These hot pretzels are surprisingly easy to make and the result is so delicious -- nearly professional-looking -- that I don't think I'll be heading to Auntie Anne's again anytime soon. They fulfill all my hot pretzel requirements (yes, I have hot pretzel requirements): crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and slathered in salt -- I'd rather knock off extra salt than wish there was more. The dough comes together easily and kneads into a perfect, soft ball with a distinctive and delightful yeasty smell. And it only rises for a total of 50 minutes! Soft pretzel making is in no way a day-long affair.

So happy birthday, blog. As the remainder of the hot pretzels await consumption and as Husband and I watch Han pilot the Falcon safely to Cloud City, we raise a glass to you. Soon you'll be walking, then starting first grade, then driving and, oh, these early days will be just a fond memory. A fond memory filled with perfect homemade soft pretzels.


Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

2 1/4 t. active dry yeast (a little more than 1 packet)
1/4 t. kosher salt
2 t. sugar
1 c. warm water
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
2 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 T. baking soda
Kosher salt or pretzel salt (if you can find it), for sprinkling

Mix the yeast, 1/4 t. salt, sugar and warm water in a small bowl, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the flour and cayenne pepper. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Slowly pour the yeast mixture over the flour mixture, stirring with a rubber spatula to combine. Using your hands, gather the dough together and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until the dough comes together into a smooth, soft ball and is no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes.

Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into 12 pieces. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or grease them with vegetable oil. Roll each piece of dough into an 18-inch rope. Form a U-shape with one rope and twist the ends together twice.

Fold the twisted portion backward along the center of the U shape to form a circle, then gently press the ends of the rope onto the dough to seal.

Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, then repeat with each of the 11 remaining pieces of dough. I find that 6 pretzels fit on a baking sheet comfortably. Let the pretzels rise for 20 minutes.

While the pretzels are rising, preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Add the baking soda to the boiling water (this step is fun; it's like a little science experiment). Boil the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time until puffed, 1-2 minutes per side. I find it's easiest to turn the pretzels with a Chinese spider. Transfer to wire racks to drain, then return the pretzels to the baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher or pretzel salt to taste.

Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Eat immediately. You can, like, serve them with fancy mustards and such, or you can just eat them, steaming and marvelous, right off the baking sheet. Pretzels will keep, uncovered, at room temperature for up to 12 hours, and you can rewarm them in a 250-degree oven if you so choose.

Makes 12 pretzels.