Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Through my guesstimating eyes...

As the author of a food blog, it goes without saying that I really enjoy cooking and like to think that I am sometimes moderately successful. However, blogging about food has turned out to be quite a bit more complicated than doing the actual cooking. One of the main reasons for this is having to write down exact recipes for all my creations -- a task that I have always put off in the past. Being a scientist, I am no stranger to following precise recipes mixed to exacting specifications. But I must say, that when it comes to everyday cooking, I’m pretty much of a pinch-of-this and a splash-of-that kinda gal. I don’t always know how many tablespoons (although I can estimate those pretty well) or how many ounces (I can’t estimate those at all) of any given ingredient goes into my recipes. I also believe in using what you have on hand rather than hunting down specific ingredients. And since I don’t usually bother writing down my recipes, they never turn out quite the same every time I make them. This allows for plenty of variety, but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I had written down exactly how I made that ancho mole sauce I made for Thanksgiving in 2006. Perhaps I have been playing to increasingly tougher crowds, but I am yet to receive as many rave reviews on anything as I did for that sauce!

Starting this food blog has hence been a blessing and a bane. On the one hand, my cooking speed has been considerably slowed down since I now measure out all my ingredients in order to be able to recreate them in my posts. On the other hand, I have finally started a collection of recipes that I enjoy making and eating – this should, in theory at least, make the question: “What’s for dinner?” a lot easier to answer in the future.

However, for old-time’s sake (and because I’m a bit pressed for time today), I thought I would share with you one of my recipes as seen through my guesstimating eyes. Here’s what’s for dinner, tonight. Enjoy!

Tomato Spinach shells with Basil-Saffron Cream sauce

Half a package of Tomato Spinach Shells, cooked al dente
1 pat butter
2 small splashes extra-virgin olive oil
A couple of tablespoons of pumpkin seeds
One large spoonful of minced garlic
One large spoonful of minced basil
4 dried red chili peppers, crumbled
(On a 3-star spice scale, this will definitely earn you 4-stars; not for the faint-of-heart)
A handful of thinly-sliced red onions
A fistful of all-purpose flour
2 small splashes of half and half
About 2 C milk (I used skim milk)
A dash of grated parmesan
Half a cup of petite peas
2 small pinches of saffron strands
(The sweetness of the saffron balances the spice of the chilis nicely)
Salt to taste

Toast pumpkin seeds lightly in hot skillet and remove
Melt butter in same skillet, add onions, garlic, chili peppers and basil to butter and sautee until fragrant
Add olive oil to skillet and sautée for an additional minute or so
Add A/P flour and sautee for a couple of minutes
Add half-and-half, milk, and parmesan; toss in peas
Salt to taste and allow sauce to simmer and thicken
Stir in saffron
Serve atop shells with a side of steamed corn-on-the-cob.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Paper Chef 38: Of figs and olives

As I learn more and more about the food blogging world, I have come to realize that everything that I can possibly think of creating...has been done before! So having come to a cook's block of sorts, I started trolling the web for inspiration and came across various food blog competitions that one can choose to participate in. One of the first ones that piqued my curiosity is one hosted by Paper Chef. The general idea, if I got it right, is that for every competition, 4 random ingredients are provided and it is up to the contestant to come up with a recipe that encompasses all four.

This cycle's ingredients were listed as: figs, mint, polenta, and ...anchovies! Oh no, I thought, there goes that idea since I don't eat anchovies. But, wait, it turns out that if dietary restrictions so dictate, it is ok to substitute certain ingredients for acceptable alternatives. Hmmm...what better way to get creative and break out of that culinary block I've been suffering from. Also, a great way to cook polenta for the first time in my life -- let the games begin!

My first struggle was -- what do I substitute for anchovies? Having been raised a vegetarian, I have never tasted anchovies. After interviewing colleagues, friends and my husband, the most often used phrases to describe the taste of anchovies were: salty (helpful) and fishy (not so helpful). After racking my brains all afternoon, I decided to go with kalamata olives as a vegetarian alternative for anchovies in a bid to create a very salty and intense (though, I hope, not quite fishy) flavor.

Having settled on the ingredients, all that remained was to come up with an actual recipe. Well...I ended up creating two! I can't really decide on one over the other, since they both fared well in impartial taste-tests. But I think I personally favored Recipe 1, Minty Mediterranean Croquettes, a little bit more and have chosen that to be my entry for Paper Chef 38. I am, however, posting both recipes if you would like to try them out for yourself.

Recipe 1
Minty Mediterranean Croquettes
(Polenta croquettes with figs and olives in a minted panko crust)

3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
3 cups cold water
1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 C Pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
3/4 C Mission figs, diced
1/4 C dried spearmint
(wash and pat dry 3C fresh mint leaves. Spread thinly on a cookie sheet and bake at 180 deg F for 2-4 hours, until dry. Crumble.)
1C Panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs)
Thinly sliced cave aged Gruyere, 10 slices
1 large egg
Olive oil for brushing onto croquettes

Cook polenta with water and salt until it is thick and starts to pull away from the pan. Let it cool slightly until it can be handled, but is still warm.

Stir in figs and olives into polenta and shape into patties 3” in diameter and 1” in height.

Top with sliced Gruyere and let it melt on top of polenta.

Beat egg in bowl and set aside.

Mix dried mint into panko and set aside.

Dip polenta patties into egg, followed by dipping in minted panko.

Brush with olive oil and lay on hot griddle, oil side down, to cook.

Brush top with oil and flip. Cook both sides until golden brown.

Note: Although delicious by itself, this can also be served with the minted fig chutney posted below.

Recipe 2:

Grilled olive polenta with minted fig chutney

For the chutney:

1 T Olive oil
1/4 cup Finely chopped red onion: have it
2 T fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 serrano pepper, finely chopped
1/3 C packed brown sugar
½ C cider vinegar
3 C coarsely diced (dried) mission figs
1/3 C water for soaking figs, if using dried
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
Spice mix:
2 t curry powder
¼ t ground cloves
1/8 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground allspice

If using dried figs, soak in water for 1 hour to re-hydrate. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion, ginger, and pepper; cover and cook until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Stir in brown sugar, vinegar, spice mix and figs. Cook until reduced completely. Take off heat and stir in mint.
Yield: 8 servings

For the grilled polenta:
3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
3 cups cold water
1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 C Pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
2 T or more melted butter

Put the cornmeal, water, and salt in a medium saucepan and whisk vigorously. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until polenta is very thick and pulls away from the pan.

Spread in a loaf pan and stir in chopped kalamata olives.

Refrigerate ~3 hours.

Cut into 1” thick slices and brush with melted butter on both sides.

Grill on hot griddle till slightly browned, or lay out on cookie sheet and broil in oven.

Serve with minted fig chutney. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cozy Italian Dinner

Although my last post was quite a while ago, I refuse to be relegated to the realm of blogs that have a single introductory post from three years ago and are left hanging with just the promise of things to come... I remember being quite perplexed while settling on a Blog address as I came across site after site of abandoned posts.

Seeing as it's been quite a while since my last post, I thought that I would present a complete menu here rather than a single item. Since I just moved to a new city, I have been quite busy making new friends and entertaining them with my culinary experiments. On one such recent occasion, I decided to cook an Italian meal for some new friends. After much indecision and many phone calls to my husband, I finally settled on a relatively simple menu of Leek and Mushroom Tarts with an herb salad, Rigatoni Alla Norma, and of course, Tiramisu. To avoid making this post a recipe for boredom, I am only posting the Leek Tart recipe below.

The inspiration for the Leek and Mushroom Tarts was an absolutely delectable offering at a local bakery in Portland, OR called Baker & Spice. If you're in the area, I highly recommend you check out this local gem; see http://bakerandspicebakery.com for a mouth-watering preview.

The leek, or Allium ampeloprasum, belongs to the same family as chives, onions and garlic, but has a much milder flavor than its cousins in the Allium family. I think leeks taste best either fresh or lightly sauteed, not boiled, although this is a personal preference. Apparently, leeks have been in cultivation at least since ancient Egyptian times -- thanks Wiki! I can say from personal experience that they are incredibly easy and rewarding to grow. I had ample success growing these in Wisconsin through spring, summer and fall. If you would like to grow your own, see http://www.ehow.com/how_9869_grow-leeks.html

Anyway, that's enough about leeks -- now onto the recipe!

Mushroom Leek Tarts

For the pastry:

I defrosted Pepperidge Farm's frozen Puff Pastry
--hey, I warned you I don't make everything from scratch. But if you want to make your own, Google offers plenty of recipes, including some YouTube videos as well. I rolled out each sheet ever-so-slightly and pricked it with a fork all over.

I then scored a 1-inch border all around the pastry
-- gently draw a border with a sharp knife; do not go through pastry obviously

I then brushed the whole sheet lightly with olive oil and and blind-baked (a fancy way of saying pre-baked) it at 375º F for about 10 minutes. This step will help you avoid a soggy center in your finished tart and is well-worth the effort!

For the filling, I used:

• 1 large egg
• 4 T ricotta
• 1C Sautéed Portabella mushrooms, cooled
• 2C Lightly sautéed chopped leeks, cooled
• 4T finely minced basil
• 3T finely minced sautéed garlic (ah...the leek's much-loved, albeit
smellier, cousin)
• 1/2C grated Gruyere
• Salt and pepper to taste

Now, I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of meticulously following recipes while cooking, so ALL ingredient measures are guidelines and can be adjusted to taste.

I mixed all the filling ingredients the night before and refrigerated the mixture overnight.

After pre-baking the pastry, top with about an inch of filling within the scored border. Return to oven until filling is heated through (this happens quickly) and the pastry is golden brown all over (check the bottoms, these cook slower) -- about 20 minutes.

Remove, cool slightly, cut and serve with a light salad. You could also make individual tartlets by pre-cutting your pastry into squares before baking and scoring each of the squares before filling them.


I know I promised to stop with the Tarts, but I wanted to share my pictures of Tiramisu as well.

I will, however, spare you any details about the origins of Tiramisu. Recently, there has been a glut of articles surrounding the resurgence of this dessert, so a quick Google search should yield more information than you asked for.

As for the recipe, after much searching, I pretty much followed the recipe at the Cooking for Engineers website that offers an eggless version that, in my opinion, is better than the original. If you're unfamiliar with this site, I highly recommend you give it a glance:


Now, on to the pictures. I plated fairly generous portions of this decadent dessert on dessert plates dressed with a thin layer of crème anglaise (more on that later).