Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sometimes, Simple Is Best

Freestyle Weekends #4

I tried to get all fancy last night with short rib sandwiches. The dish turned out good—you really can’t go wrong with beef and bones simmered all day in red wine, and, admittedly, a list of ingredients the length of my forearm—but the star of the dinner was the roasted butternut squash.

And all I needed was squash, olive oil, salt and pepper, and, on a tip from my friend Bethany, a drizzle of honey.

The squash was soft and sweet, and the caramelized bits, which I greedily pried from the pan, were smoky and crunchy. Delicious.

Roasted Butternut Squash
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons honey

Preheat the oven to 425˚. Toss the squash, olive oil and salt and pepper on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with honey and toss again. Spread in a single layer. Roast until squash is soft, about 25 minutes. Turn once.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Dessert to Die(t) For

Freestyle Weekends #3

My husband and I have accepted a weight-loss challenge from our employer. The target: lose 20 pounds in 11 weeks. The reward: a $20 gift card to Kohl’s.

It’s $20. It’s Kohl’s. I’m in.

This does not mean I’m dieting. I have never dieted and I don’t intend to start now.  People on diets don’t eat pear-cranberry turnovers, something I just ate yesterday. Freestyle Foodie is not going to turn into a diet blog. A diet is something you do so that you can fit into that sleek black dress you bought on a ridiculous sale. Or so that you can get into that cute bathing suit. Or so that you can slim down for an anniversary trip with your husband. It’s a crash course in weight-loss. A diet implies something temporary, something short-term, something New Year’s Resolution-ish. I don’t diet. I also don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.

What I do is try to follow some simple eating rules I made up for myself a few years ago when I noticed that my metabolism, up to that point always in overdrive, was slowing down. My body was developing padding in places it hadn’t had it before, not entirely a bad thing, you understand, given my former Olive Oyl-ish physique. A little padding turned out to be a good thing, but I didn’t want to keep adding it until I looked like Courtney Cox in a fat suit.

Hence the rules. They’re really just for maintenance. I try to be flexible; I’m not a slave to rules. But by and large when I follow them it helps.

Now that I’m past my mid-thirties, though, my metabolism is slowing even more. It’s becoming harder to maintain. This challenge presents the perfect time to set in motion some things I’ve been thinking about for a few months now: losing a few pounds, improving my overall health, and preparing for life in my 40s. With that in mind, here are my eating rules; the first two original, the others added recently:

1. Don’t take seconds.
2. Don’t eat after 7 p.m.
3. Eat more plants.
4. Eat more whole grains.
5. Eat fewer animals.

And that’s it. Not a big fan of rules, except in grammar, I try to keep things simple. And wouldn’t you know that when I opened my January issue of Bon Appetit magazine, there was an article by cookbook author Mark Bittman who started doing almost the exact same thing a few years ago. Lucky for me, he included a few delicious recipes that have helped him with his rules, recipes like the one for Pear-Cranberry Turnovers.

Pears, softer, juicer and more mellow than apples, are probably my favorite fruit. They’re best in the winter, too. So here I saw an opportunity to eat more plants. I used red pears in this recipe, my favorite.

Turnovers, heavy on fruit and light on pastry, are a win-win dessert, even for someone in a weight-loss challenge. Even though you use butter, there’s less fat in each turnover than in a piece of pie or frosted cake or a bowl of ice cream. The pear juice and sugar make a delightful syrup, and there’s really nothing better than the crisp layers of phyllo pastry. Add to that the occasional tart bite from the cranberries, and round out the flavors with citrus zest, (I used orange because I had no lemon in the house), and you have a perfect dessert.

I definitely recommend the parchment paper; the turnovers will ooze a little juice and the parchment paper will save you some scrubbing time.

I think I need to accept a challenge to eat more pear-cranberry turnovers.

Pear-Cranberry Turnovers
1 ½ pounds ripe Bosc pears (about 3), peeled, quartered, cored, diced
½ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
16 17x12-inch sheets fresh or frozen whole wheat phyllo pastry or regular phyllo pastry (thawed if frozen)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375˚. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Combine pears, cranberries, ¼ cup sugar, cornstarch, and lemon peel in large bowl; toss to coat.

Stack phyllo sheets on work surface; cover with plastic wrap, then damp kitchen towel. Place 1 phyllo sheet on work surface. Brush with some of melted butter. Top with second sheet; brush with butter. Fold phyllo in half lengthwise, forming 17-inch-long strip. Place scant ½ cup pear mixture on phyllo strip, about 2 inches in from 1 short side and in center. Fold 1 corner of strip over pear mixture, then fold phyllo back and forth (like a flag), enclosing filling. Brsh top with butter after each fold until entire strip is folded, forming triangle.

Transfer turnover, seam side down, to 1 baking sheet. Brush top with butter. Repeat with remaining phyllo, butter, and pear mixture. Place 4 turnovers on each sheet.

Bake turnovers until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Transfer to plates. Sift powdered sugar lightly over turnovers; serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Speaking of Christmas and foodie gifts, here's another one I received. This came from the kitchen of my friend Jen.

Isn't that light from my front window great? That, and the jellies are so beautiful I had to show them to you. They came with names like Jen's Backyard Red Grape Jelly, Wisconsin Rhubarb Strawberry Jam, 1st Batch Pepper Jelly--HOT, Orange Jelly, Blueberry Jam, and Hot Peach. There was a jar of apple butter and another of mint jelly, plus a few others. Though we wanted to try them all right away, sensibility prevailed and we opened only the Blueberry Jam. It's mostly gone now.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I got salt for Christmas. I kid you not. But don't feel sorry for me, I asked for it.

On Christmas morning, I opened up several foodie gifts from my lovely family: an apron embellished by my daughter, a book by Michael Pollan, an electric griddle (makes good pancakes!), a gift card to Whole Foods, and a box filled with salts. The apron touched me most deeply, but the salts were my favorite.

Yes, I said salts. Plural.

Check these out.

Hiwa Kai, or Black Hawaiian sea salt. Activated charcoal gives it
its color and minerals. I finally got coal for Christmas!
Smoked sea salt. The best varieties are flavored with natural wood smoke,
 not liquid smoke flavoring.A bit saltier than kosher salt with a strong smoke aroma
and slight smoke flavor. Can't wait to try this on chicken.
Sel gris. Quite salty, slight mineral taste. The minerals come from the clay lining the
salt ponds along France's coast where this is harvested.
Himalayan sea salt. Is often sold in a coarse grain, where its pink color is truly pronounced.
This fine-grained version is only slightly pink, with dots of red throughout. Has a pure
salty flavor and a fairly high mineral content. Good for use at the table.
Alaea Sea Salt (Red Hawaiian). Volcanic red clay is added to the salt to give it its color
and a boost of iron oxide. A good table salt. Clean flavor.

I like to use sea salt instead of regular ol' table salt. Most of the table salt available in the grocery store is mined from rock. After mining, it is refined so that all the minerals are removed and what's left is pure sodium chloride. Sea salt, on the other hand, is minimally processed and retains trace minerals. In addition, sometimes table salt doesn't taste very salty; therefore, it's easy to shake on a little more, thus increasing sodium intake, never a good thing. But sea salt is often quite a bit saltier than table salt; less salt is required for the same flavor. On top of all that, table salts are sprayed with an artificial iodine solution as part of the refining process, while iodine, necessary in the diet for healthy thyroid function, occurs naturally in sea salt.

Best of all, many sea salts come in a coarse variety that doesn't dissolve as easily as table salt. I like to see the grains of salt on my food and I especially like to crunch them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This Is What You Should Do with Fresh Cranberries

Freestyle Weekends #2

This Thanksgiving, I tried making my own cranberry sauce. I don’t know what drove me to do that, having been perfectly happy with canned cranberry sauce for decades now, but I would like to blame the produce manager for stacking bags of brilliant berries on the right-of-way leading to the oranges, where I couldn’t have missed them if I had wanted to. As a person given to shopping with my eyes, I found it futile to resist, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them.

I brought home the cranberries with some vague notions of tinkering with Thanksgiving tradition. Being married to a history professor who thrives on tradition, I should have murdered that thought as soon as it rose up. I am, alas, a person given to bucking tradition.

I do wish I had remembered one thought: You really can’t lose with canned cranberry sauce. Think about it. It always has that perfect sweet and tart taste, it always emerges from the can with the same irrepressible color, not to mention the unmistakable sucking sound as its gelled sides lose contact with the sides of the can, and its consistency is always—well—consistent.

That’s the thing about cranberry sauce from a can—you know what you’re getting. And unlike cranberry sauce recipes, you get the same thing every time.

I’m sure you can see what’s coming—I did not like this new-fangled cranberry sauce cooked on the stovetop, made with sugar and shallots and orange juice and actual real cranberries that popped as they got hot. I think the problem was the shallots. I’m pretty sure cranberry sauce is not supposed to taste like onion. I suppose I could try it again, leaving out the offending ingredient, but why bother? It’s much easier—not to mention traditional—to open a can.

(Canned cranberry sauce will make my family happy, too, for though they are much too polite to say so, I got the distinct feeling that none of them liked the recipe either.)

Making the recipe left me with something of a dilemma, however, a dilemma in the form of half a bag of unused cranberries. Since I have now sworn off homemade cranberry sauce, what to do with the rest of the bag?

Fortunately, I have in my Freestyle Weekends folder a recipe I’ve been holding onto for quite some time now, at least as long as I’ve been eating canned cranberry sauce. It is called, appropriately enough, “Cranberry Muffins” and lists, as its first ingredient, 1 cup fresh cranberries, quartered.

Half a bag of cranberries, in case you’re wondering, comes out to about 1 cup.

I clipped this recipe years ago from a Taste of Home magazine. The only thing I changed was to substitute lemon peel for orange. Their website calls the recipe “quick,” a designation I disagree with only because it took me a little while to quarter the cranberries. Not a lot of time, of course, but a lot longer than scooping the equivalent amount of dried cranberries from a bag.

The extra time, and stained fingertips, were worth it, however, for the muffins emerged from the oven splotched with brilliant color, not to be outdone by sweet-tartness and moist texture.

This recipe is a keeper, and now I need not fear walking the cranberry gauntlet on my way toward the oranges. I can even smile at the produce manager as I sling a bag of cranberries into my cart. Of course, since I need only half a bag for the muffin recipe, that gives me some leftovers to play with. Maybe I could try that sauce again, this time without the shallots.

Cranberry Muffins
1 cup fresh cranberries, quartered
8 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 400˚. Lightly grease 12 standard muffin cups.

Sprinkle the cranberries with 2 tablespoons of sugar and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and remaining sugar. In a small bowl, beat the egg, milk, and oil; stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Fold in cranberries and orange peel. Fill muffin cups two-thirds full. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until muffins test done. Cool for 10 minutes, if you can wait that long. Consume rapidly while warm.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Supper

Freestyle Weekends #1

Picture this: The first snow of the season covers the ground. It’s evening, dark outside already, but inside the glow of kerosene lamps lights the table around which you and your family gather for a supper of apples, hot buttered popcorn, little pickles, hot cocoa, and cake doughnuts.

Homemade doughnuts, of course.

This tradition is “First Snow Supper,” and it comes to me via the New Hampshire home of my friend Bekki, whom you met a few weeks ago. She sent me this recipe and some Green Mountain coffee to try to save us from the evil clutches of Starbucks. We haven’t tried the coffee yet, but the doughnuts, which we made on a sleepy Saturday morning, sans snow, certainly passed muster.

The dough is very soft, so don’t skip the refrigeration step. I chilled mine overnight and it was still soft in the morning, but rollable.

A word on the potatoes. Russets make the best mashed potatoes. Bekki also uses sweet potatoes in this recipe, so feel free to try those. Whatever potatoes you use, mash them really well. If you leave them lumpy, it won’t matter too much for taste of the doughnuts, as long as the potatoes are cooked through, but aesthetically-speaking, lumps in the middle of a doughnut do not make a pleasing picture. Ask me how I know this.

After the doughnuts emerge from the fryer, drain them briefly and give them a little shimmy in sugar. And then bite into one, still warm, and discover a texture so light you can barely feel it even as you taste its spices and its sweetness.

Kind of makes even a thin-blooded Floridian wish for snow. Not that I’m waiting for it to try these again.

Wicked Good Doughnuts
(makes about 2 ½ dozen)

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 cups cold mashed potatoes (mashed with milk and butter)
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ginger
oil for deep-fat frying
additional sugar

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and the sugar. Add the potatoes, buttermilk, butter, and vanilla; mix well.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger; add to the egg mixture and mix well. Cover and refrigerate 1 – 2 hours.

Heat oil to 375 ˚On a floured surface, roll the dough to ½” thickness. Cut with a 2 ½” doughnut cutter. (Or, if you’re like me, with two glasses—one big-mouthed and one small-mouthed.) Fry the doughnuts, a few at a time, for about 2 minutes on each side, or until browned. Fry the doughnut holes, too, for about a minute on each side. Drain on paper towels layered over brown paper grocery bags. Roll in sugar, if desired.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kissing Is for the Kitchen

My friend Bekki has been an inspiration to me on a number of household fronts, including cooking. We like to trade tips and questions on Facebook. I told her about chipotle and she reminded me that toast is greater than world domination. A couple weeks ago I asked her to write something for you. You can believe everything she says here, except the part about my being a gourmet cook. I prefer the term “junior foodie-in-training.”

Please leave her lots of comments telling her how wonderfully humorous her writing is and how much you enjoyed the soup (you are planning to make it, aren’t you?); maybe the pressure will finally catapult her to start her own blog. (Please, Bekki? Please!)

 “Kiss the Cook” Chicken Soup
Hi, I'm Bekki, Rachel's friend from New Hampshire. Rachel has been teasing me to start a cooking blog for almost a year (not going to happen) and then sweetly requested a guest post for her blog last week. Mmmmhmmmm. Guest post for a gourmet cook/English professor. No pressure there.

Rachel's writing and cooking appear effortlessly graceful. I'm quite sure she's never had to fish the box out of the trash because she forgot how long the cake had to bake. After 27 hours of paper grading I envision her whipping up a pot of homemade sauce and hand-rolled tortellini while Kevin entertains her with his witty banter, not scrounging through her couch cushions to find enough change for the Dollar Menu at McD's.

And her writing? Wow, just wow. How does she make you feel like you're standing in her kitchen chatting with her while she cooks? Every time I try to write I end up channeling Martha Stewart or Mr. Rogers. Understandably, I'm nervous. But I love Rachel, and if she wants a guest post, I'll give it a whirl.

I also have a very different cooking style from Rachel. I don't own a T.V., so I missed that inspiring Iron Chef episode featuring gilded badger spleens on couscous. (Can I use so as a conjunction? See what I mean? This is stress with a capital “S”. Or is it capitol “S”? Maybe that question mark is supposed to be inside the quotation marks. I need coffee...)

I don't subscribe to any cooking magazines or have a besplattered copy of The French Laundry on my cookbook shelf. Eighteen years ago when I first married, I realized that even a hamburger was outside my skill set and started collecting recipes. Then I began noticing that technique made a lot more difference than whether or not I used Herbs de Provence or celery salt. Now I know whether I want to sear, saute, or braise the meat, and how to put together a colorful, tasty salad in the middle of February without breaking the budget. My passion is Bistro cuisine: I like to riff on simple classic menus using fresh local ingredients.

During the fall and winter I make soup once a week. Even my kids love soup. Of course, that could be because I always serve a dessert on soup night, but I prefer to think they actually enjoy the soup. My first soups weren't particularly memorable. Meat has a tendency to assume the flavor and texture of three-day-old bubblegum when it's been simmering for hours. Rice, noodles, and potatoes dissolve into a gelatinous mass, and vegetables become mushy. I was quite disappointed to discover this after all the stories I had read portraying the homey pot of soup bubbling away over the fire.

As it turns out, soups are much tastier when you prepare the ingredients to maximize their individual flavors and then combine everything just long enough to meld those flavors at the end of the process. I suppose it would spoil the fairy tales to stop and dismember whoever is ending up in the soup pot so you could roast the meaty bits and use the skin and bones to create a kickin' broth, though. (Maybe that should be “whomever”? And I still don't remember where that pesky question mark belongs. Time for a chocolate break...)

Without further ado, I present the speedy version of the Page family's favorite chicken soup. The idea for using a pre-roasted chicken and enriching a commercial broth is from Pamela Anderson (no, not that one!). If you, like me, prefer to start with a whole raw chicken, go to the library, check out a copy of The Perfect Recipe (also by Pamela Anderson), and flip to page 19. Unless you taste the two recipes side-by-side, however, you probably won't be able to tell the difference.

 Kiss the Cook* Chicken Soup”
3 quarts water
3 Tbsp Chicken base. If you don't have or can't find base, replace 2 quarts of the water with a quality boxed chicken stock.
1 fully cooked rotisserie chicken. Beware of weird flavors like lemon pepper or Bubba's BBQ that will ruin the soup.
2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil, just enough to coat the bottom of your soup pot.
1 large onion, finely diced so it will fly under the kid radar
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4” x 1” sticks
1 large stalk celery, halved and sliced fairly thin
2-5 cloves garlic, depending on how important kisses are to you
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, or 2 Tbsp dry
Bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried ground marjoram. Marjoram is a sweeter, more delicate version of the flavors in oregano. A favorite in Europe, it blends well with other French spices like parsley and thyme.
2 tsp lemon juice from a contented lemon grown on a south-facing slope in Spain or a bottle of ReaLemon, whichever you happen to have on hand.
¼ tsp white pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
3-4 cups cold cooked brown rice or barley. If a starch is refrigerated after being cooked it chemically changes so that it will not absorb much more liquid. The soup will taste better if the rice/barley was originally prepared in chicken broth.
2 cups fresh baby spinach or chard leaves torn into bite-sized pieces, optional

Bring water and base to a simmer over medium-high heat in a large soup kettle. While the water comes to a boil, pick the meat off the chicken and put it aside. Pop the bones and skin into the simmering water. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes until flavorful.

Strain, reserving broth, and discard the skin and bones. Return the empty kettle to a burner set on medium-high.

Add oil, heating it until shimmering, then onions, carrots and celery. Saute until soft, stirring occasionally, about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and parsley and cook just until they release their aroma. Do not allow to brown. Add chicken and broth and bring to a simmer.

Add bay leaf, marjoram, lemon juice, white pepper, red pepper, rice, and spinach/chard. Return soup to a simmer until spinach/chard is fully cooked, about 3 minutes. Taste and adjust salt and seasonings if necessary. Serve immediately with a great crusty French bread. The person you love the most always gets the poisonous bay leaf or a stray bone to choke on. (Oh dear. I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I think I'd better call it quits!)

*We have a tradition in our home that if dinner is so fantastically delicious that it all gets devoured, the cook gets a kiss. Unless, of course, you simply didn't make enough. Then you get kicked instead.