Monday, January 25th, 2010
Friday, January 15th, 2010
Whenever I try something new and it turns out wonderful, whether in the kitchen or elsewhere, I find myself in complete confusion as to why I had either a.) not known about it sooner, b.) not tried it sooner, or c.) let my “fear of the unknown” issues get the best of me. Oven dried tomatoes definitely fall into category A. Where have you been, you amazing, delectable – able to resurrect even the saddest out of season tomatoes to glorious vibrancy – all the winters of my life? But before I wax on any more poetically about my newfound perfect savory winter treat, I must back up for a moment and tell you a tale about resolutions, working out, and the irony of how I stumbled upon this wonderful discovery.
I’ve never done new year’s resolutions. Making resolutions feels like a recipe for failure, for which perfectionists and OCD types like myself have an innate strong distaste. I’ve always tried to work on new and old goals throughout the year, so new year’s resolutions seem like a carryover of what wasn’t accomplished in December, or the fall, or 2009 – or maybe the last decade. Besides, I tend to like challenges better anyhow.
Perhaps simply a matter of semantics, but a challenge feels like something I am competing against myself to conquer, rather than a resolution, which feels so insipid, flatline, and mocking to my internal personal interpreter. Resolutions tend to remind me of one of Albert Ellis’ infamous therapy quotations – “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” Good mental health is certainly promoted when we shed a few “shoulds” in our lives. But I have digressed. This is really a story about how I started going to the gym last fall to work on getting back into shape after having my son, J.
You see, I have made no new year’s resolutions in this regard, but am still plodding along faithfully showing up at my local YMCA three times a week to move my arms and legs semi-rythmically in mouse wheel fashion beside several dozen other homo sapiens on the modern contraption known as an elliptical machine. I hate it. Except for the one thing that makes it bearable – Ina Garten, the Food Network and my white earbuds that connect me to the 12 x 12 screen attached to the machine.
So there I am, every other day, faithfully showing up to burn my minimum of 300 calories (I know, hardly a brownie’s worth of a workout), eating up all of Ina’s tips on how to cook everything in the oven, make simple dinners, and most recently, these fabulous oven dried tomatoes. And since Ina comes on at 5:00, right before I go home to make dinner, hunger pains are a regular side effect. But we don’t have cable at home, and if Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten is what it takes to get me motivated to go get on the mouse wheel, so be it – just don’t work out behind me if you think it might have the opposite effect on you.
I know these tomatoes in their original form in these pictures look lovely and perfect, but actually they were your typical winter tomatoes – orangey red, strangely mealy textured, and lackluster in flavor. But after sitting patiently in a 200 degree oven for a couple of hours, drizzled in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a sprinkle of sugar, it’s like these poor, bedraggled winter tomatoes suddenly found themselves. They emerged bright, tangy, a little juicy, and overall just plain amazing. I could not believe it. I feel like its my own personal little discovery and now I can have delicious tomatoes in the winter for the first time ever. Woohoo!
You can pair the tomatoes with any number of items – a caprese salad (as Ina did), use on top or in a quiche, make a regular old sandwich or grilled cheese amazing, sit on top of chicken or fish, or add to a pasta – as I did.
Oven dried tomatoes
Inspired by Ina Garten.
5-6 Roma or plum tomatoes, sliced into 1/3 inch circles, seeds removed
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1.5 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
few cracks of freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
2. Place sliced and seeded tomatoes onto a baking sheet or pan covered in aluminum foil being careful to leave space between each slice.
3. Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, sugar, and few cracks of freshly ground black pepper.
4. Bake for two to two and a half hours. The tomatoes will still be moist, but have concentrated flavor. You may leave them in the oven longer if you would like them to be less moist, and eventually (after many hours) I imagine they would completely dry and be tasty in a different way, though I have not tried it this way. These tomatoes may be added to salads, pasta, sandwiches, quiches, sauces, fish, chicken, dips, cheese, or eaten just as is. My batch did not last long enough to test out in the fridge, but I hear they store well for a good length of time.
*For a simple caprese salad, alternate oven dried tomatoes with slices of fresh mozzarella, top with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar (if desired), a dash of sea salt, and sliced fresh basil leaves.
Saturday, January 9th, 2010
I wonder if I still know how to write – of course I know how to type letters and words, which then make sentences and so on, but I mean really write? Or maybe I just wonder if I can still write like myself – like the self that used to fill pages and pages with words that were pictures that were the stories that painted my life and reflected my soul. Education, society, convention, adulthood, the uncontrollable in life have all taken stake in the empty pages of the journals I have kept toting around for the last decade. So, I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this writing, but what I do know is that I just ate a fat fried brown organic egg on a plate with leftover maple syrup on it from our last minute dinner of french toast (yes, I took a break after cooking nonstop the past couple of days), and it was one of the best eggs I’ve ever had. I also know that Tuesday was my dear friend S.’s birthday, and she loves Indian food and chocolate, so that’s what she got, because it was her birthday, after all.
S. is the therapist I interned under during my last two semesters of grad school. She runs her counseling practice out of her nineteenth century Victorian home on Main Street in downtown Smithfield, Va (like Smithfield Ham, yes). I would sit in on client sessions with her for training in addition to seeing clients myself and do various odds and ends administrative tasks such as scheduling and confirming appointments, helping with treatment plans, and making deposits. I drove forty minutes to be at S.’s house at 7am in the morning two days a week to do required supervision, which with S., amounted to doing yoga in our pjs in her bedroom before the first 8am client or walking up, down, and around Main Street (still in pjs) in countless repetitions, discussing cases, or whatever else was deemed urgent at the time.
I started bringing my stovetop espresso maker with me in the mornings and cappuccinos after the 8am client became a morning ritual. Soon S. became obsessed with my little espresso device and proceeded to buy at least six different types of stovetop espresso makers. You really can’t compete with S., she always wins. Some days I would come home exasperated saying to my husband, “You won’t believe what S. said to me today! The audacity!” His response, “I would have said: this, or that, or whatever,” and I would say, “No, first of all, she is evaluating me; second, I really think we can be friends once this is all over with.” It has been three years since that internship, and S. is a treasured friend – so thankful.
Last year I made chicken curry for S.’s birthday and packed it up in the car along with four month old little J., and took the birthday dinner to her house. This year, we decided to celebrate at my house, since taking a 16 month old child to someone’s house for dinner and having to leave at 7:30 due to your child’s escalating hyperactivity and exhaustion is not exactly a recipe for a relaxed, celebratory dinner amongst adults.
I decided to make chicken tikka masala from a recipe I’ve been using for several years. There are many variations to the spicing in this dish, and I cannot attest to them all since this is the only recipe I’ve tried so far, but I can attest to this one saying it is very good and tastes similar to the chicken tikka masala I’ve tried at many Indian restaurants. Chicken tikka masala is not a completely authentic Indian dish, but rather a Brit-Indi (my made up word) creation. Chicken tikka is a traditional yogurt spice marinated and grilled Indian dish that the English adapted to their tastes by dousing in sauce. Normally, I tend to be a purist in these types of matters (except I really do like Tex-Mex), but this match really works, so why argue? The Brits love their Indian food, and I hear that this tops their list of favorites. It certainly is at the top of mine.
An important step in Indian cooking is sauteing the spices (called “blooming”) in oil or butter until fragrant before adding other ingredients. This wakes the spices up by toasting them and allows their flavors to infuse the oil and thus the flavor of the rest of the dish.
One of the most intimidating things about cooking a new type of dish for me is having to go out and buy a bunch of ingredients and spices I do not have on hand and do not normally work with. I remember it took me several months to try this dish for that very reason. Grate fresh ginger? Marinate chicken in yogurt – really? Grill on skewers and then put in a spicy tomato cream sauce? Yes, really, and it is wonderful. I’ve found that grating ginger is quite simple if you cut the sides away to make a manageable, skinless block with which to work. I also like to use latex gloves when handling raw meat. Who wants to touch raw meat? Not me.
I must really love S., because it has been especially cold in Va. this week, and I still went outside and grilled the chicken on our old little Weber. Of course I shouldn’t forget that it is S. who mail ordered fake grass spray and painstakingly sprayed dead brown spots green all over her lawn in order to throw me the most lovely garden baby shower not too long ago. I told you, you can’t compete with S.
The grill flavor and charred chicken bits add both complexity and texture – I like to sear the outside of the chicken and leave the insides a little undercooked to finish cooking in the pan with the sauce, thus ensuring the chicken remains tender and not overcooked. For starters, we had roasted red pepper hummus with cilantro and pita chips, and for dessert, a decadent chocolate cake I made the night before. Incidentally, my husband and I try to let our son taste everything we eat, providing it is safe for his age, and as it turns out, roasted red pepper hummus and cilantro is a big hit.
S.’s friend M. also came. Here are S. and M., with S. in the foreground – both looking as young and beautiful as ever. Happy birthday, friend.
Chicken tikka masala
Adapted from allrecipes.com
1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1.5 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1.5 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
4 long skewers
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, ribbed, and finely chopped (add reserved seeds and ribs for more heat at end if desired)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream (I often use half & half)
sea or kosher salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. In a large bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and salt. Stir in chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. Do not marinate for longer than 1 hour, as chicken can become over seasoned. If using wooden skewers, cover in water during this time to help prevent burning when on grill.
2. Preheat a grill for high heat.
3. Lightly oil the grill grate. Thread chicken onto skewers, and discard marinade. Grill until juices run clear, about 5 minutes on each side.
4. Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for 1 minute and then stir in 2 teaspoons cumin and paprika and saute until fragrant, about 1 more minute. Stir in tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce begins to thicken, about 15-20 minutes. Add grilled chicken, and simmer till chicken is completely cooked and warm, 5-10 minutes. Taste and add salt to taste, if needed. Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with basmati rice and whole milk yogurt to cut heat, if needed.
Note: I like extra sauce to mix with rice, and usually increase the sauce recipe by one half.
Saturday, January 2nd, 2010
Happy new year. It is going to be a good year, I can feel it in my bones. My husband and I have started a company where we have finally found common ground for working together. Food. My son has opened up a whole new dimension of love in my life and gets easier to care for everyday – yes, I admit I am thankful for this side effect of children growing up. I am starting this blog and feel excited about writing for the first time since overflowing boxes (currently collecting dust in my basement) of journals in high school and college. As for cooking – that has always been exciting and stress relieving – my favorite shows at 11 years old were “Great Chefs of the West” and “European Cuisine.” Why the vocation that seems so clear to me now eluded me for 30 years of life, it is complicated to assess, however, in short – as I am sure you well know – many times in life we must take a long roundabout way to embrace what has always been close to our hearts. And so here I am. Excited. Not too nervous. But a little. I love to cook. I hope it rubs off. Now onto this cake.
What I like about the cake part of this cake is that it’s not too sweet, uses part whole wheat flour, has a subtle buttermilk tang, and is marbled with moisture supplying grated apple, giving it a wonderful wholesome and slight earthy quality. So much so that I can easily recommend it served for breakfast or brunch alongside a dollop of greek yogurt and honey.
But do not mistake this cake as all morning sunshine once drenched in deeply caramelized sugar combined with large pats of butter, pure organic cream, and a sprinkling of sea salt. Now we have something different altogether. The hot caramel poured over the warm cake seeps into the surface and sides creating a sticky, slightly chewy, moist crust. The contrast between the intensely flavored caramel and the more delicate flavor profile of the apple cake is a noticeable and well suited juxtaposition.
Homemade caramel is an example of something I had put off trying for at least one, likely all, of the following reasons: I had never made it before and had fear of the unknown, fear of not using the right recipe, fear of finally settling on a recipe and then having said recipe be a flop (hate that), and/or fear of not making recipe perfectly once perfect recipe was found. But, as is often the case in life, the actuality of the process was much less monstrous than the preceding mental haze of ignorance and learned helplessness (more on this at a later date).
Really, it is quite simple and yielded incredible return for effort, meaning homemade caramel is vastly superior to store bought and the 5-10 minutes it takes to make is a tiny investment for the amazing return received. And as for the perfect recipe? I ended up pulling from several different recipes using the tips and ingredients that seemed most appealing – and it worked. I love it when it works.
So, it is not difficult, but read the directions ahead of time, and take care not to allow the caramelized sugar to come to a rapid boil and burn – as I did on my first attempt (fear four actualized – no big deal – pour in grass out backdoor and heat up new sugar – five minute setback and now I know how to make, and not make, amazing caramel).
As for the cake, the most tedious part of the prep is peeling and grating the apple. Altogether you should be able to pull this cake off in about an hour including baking. Time is always a consideration when I cook. I find it satisfying to figure out ways to cut time and simplify prep work without sacrificing quality.
This is a versatile cake whether dressed up with the caramel to show off after dinner, or set in the sunshine for brunch with yogurt and honey. I imagine it would also work as a breakfast muffin or as cupcakes with whipped cream or cream cheese frosting. While I used whole wheat pastry flour, white or standard whole wheat flour will also work. White whole wheat will yield a milder, more delicate flavor profile while not sacrificing any of the nutritional benefits of standard whole wheat.
Next time I plan to use more cognac (if serving for breakfast I would eliminate this flavoring and perhaps sprinkle a favorite chopped nut on top), try it with a pinch of allspice and a touch more sea salt. My husband thinks a little lemon zest might add a nice extra zing. But it was great just like this.
Oh, and please take a couple of extra minutes to whip up any leftover heavy cream (an electric hand mixer works fine) with a bit of brown sugar and vanilla extract or vanilla bean seeds to serve alongside. You won’t regret it.
Apple buttermilk cake
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, white wheat, or standard whole wheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons aluminum free baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or kosher salt
1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons white cane sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg at room temperature (can let sit in hot water a couple of minutes to bring to room temp)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
1 medium sized firm apple, peeled, cored, and grated (I used Granny Smith)
1 tablespoon brandy/cognac (can use more, but I would not go over 2 T)
1 recipe for Sea salt caramel
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Grease a 9×9 baking pan or similar equivalent volume baking dish, or line with parchment paper.
3. Use a hand whisk to combine the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a medium sized bowl.
4. In a separate larger bowl or standing mixer, cream the butter with the sugars until light, about 4 minutes.
5. Beat in the vanilla and cognac, then the egg until just incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
6. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, beating slowly until just blended. Beat in half of the buttermilk. Repeat with another third of the flour and the last half of the buttermilk. Beat in the remaining flour.
7. Fold in the grated apple.
8. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake for 35 – 50 minutes (depending on size of pan used) until a tester comes out clean. In the pan I used, the cake was done after 35-40 minutes. Check frequently after 35 minutes. Do not over bake.
9. Make Sea salt caramel while cake is baking.
10. Pour Sea salt caramel onto warm cake. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm.
Sea salt caramel
1 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons organic or premium unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons organic heavy cream warmed slightly (not boiled) or at room temperature
1/4 + 1/8 (3/8) teaspoon sea salt
1. Have all ingredients out, measured and within reaching distance of your cooktop. Caramel gets very hot, so use oven mitts, be mindful of your arms and eyes, and keep all little ones away for the few minutes this takes to make.
2. Distribute sugar evenly in a large, even heating saucepan or pot (to allow room for hot caramel to foam up) and begin heating over medium high heat. Keep an eye on the sugar, as when it begins to caramelize, it is a quick process that will need your constant attention.
3. Within a few minutes, the sugar will begin to melt and caramelize. As large patches of sugar turn to liquid puddles in the pan, stir only often enough to aid even caramelization (because sugar is comprised of crystals, it tends to clump together as it is melting and stirred). As soon as all of the sugar has turned to liquid (aside from any stubborn clumps that will dissolve later or can be strained out), resembles the color of copper, and just begins to simmer/bubble around the edges, remove from heat and immediately add butter and sea salt, stirring vigorously. Add cream and stir until completely combined.
4. Cool slightly. Pour over warm cake or other dessert.
Note: If pouring over above apple buttermilk cake, you may end up with an extra 1/2 cup or so. This can be served in a a pouring dish alongside the cake, or with ice cream.