Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cookbook review: Poor Girl Gourmet

Remember Poor Girl Gourmet? My blogging sister-in-arms? (See my post here.) I finally got a chance to check out her cookbook. And to meet her last night, at a pork cook-off! She's very cool. Of course the pork she made was excellent.

Her cookbook, as you might expect, is filled with the sort of resourceful, make-the-most-of-what-you-have-and-what's-in-season recipes that I love. But she also lists an expected cost breakdown for each recipe, and gives you lists of what you might be able to make in each price range. (Unlike my cost breakdowns, hers are truer to real life--she assumes that you're buying all of the ingredients, at supermarket prices. My costs reflect the fact that I shop in bulk, and already have a vast array of spices, pantry supplies, and homemade stock at my disposal.) She has a kale lasagna recipe I can't wait to try.

In a sense, she's written my cookbook before I could. (Though never fear--I'm working on the Broke Foodie cookbook as we speak.) So if you like my blog, be sure to check out hers, and her cookbook.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fudge ripple ice cream

This recipe is courtesy of David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop. (There's a new version coming out soon; check out my review of the old version here.) Warning: you will eat this all in one sitting.

Vanilla ice cream:

1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 large egg yolks
Splash of vanilla extract

Warm the milk, 1 cup of the cream, sugar and salt in medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the mixture, and add the rest of the bean. Cover, remove from the heat, and let steep for 30 minutes.

Pour the remaining 1 cup of cream into a large bowl, and set a mesh strainer on top. Whisk the egg yolks together; slowly pour the warm mixture into the yolks and whisk together, then pour everything back into the saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat until the mixture thickens. Pour it through the strainer, put the vanilla bean back in, and add the vanilla extract.

Cover and let chill thoroughly in the fridge. Then put it in your ice cream maker, and follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Fudge ripple:

1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk everything except the vanilla together over medium heat, whisking constantly until it begins to bubble. Continue until it reaches a low boil, and cook for one minute. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and let chill thoroughly in the fridge before using.

Don't mix the two together in the ice cream machine. Wait until the vanilla ice cream is complete, then in the container you're going to put the ice cream into, add a layer of fudge ripple. Then a layer of ice cream. Then a layer of fudge ripple. And so on, in the Tupperware (or whatever). Put it in the freezer to set.

Like I said, you will eat this all in one setting, and it will taste so much more vanilla-y and fudge-y than the stuff you get in the store.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My very own mushroom patch

I recently ordered a shittake mushroom growing kit from Fungi Perfecti. ($26, or 3 for $65.)

Kinda freaky looking, huh? My husband claims it's actually some sort of space alien, and it will eat us one night like the plant in "Little Shop of Horrors."

But look! It's growing shittake mushrooms!

For your money, you get the mushroom pod thing, which you put in a dark corner and mist with water several times a day. Within a week or two, it'll start sprouting mushrooms (like above). I'll keep you posted as to how many shittakes I get from this thing, and how long it keeps producing.

If this kit is successful, I'll try my hand at some of the other varieties they have. I love fresh mushrooms, especially the exotic varieties, but they're so expensive in stores. I'm hoping this provides me with a cheap, and relatively long-lasting, supply of shrooms.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gardening update

I spent most of yesterday repotting the tomato seedlings. By the time I was done, I was simultaneously thinking, "Damn, this is a lot of tomatoes," and "I better have a bumper crop of tomatoes come August!"

Most of them look like this:

But I have a few that already look like this:

I'm so proud.

So far I've got cherry tomatoes, Cherokee Purple, Amish Paste, Pink Ponderosa, and Jubilee. I'm betting the cherry tomatoes are most prolific, but I'm hoping for some contenders from the other varieties.

Here's what the herb/container garden looks like right now:

As you can see, I have a lot of green activity! And my husband keeps complaining that it smells like "dirt" in the sunroom.

That's because I've essentially turned it into a greenhouse. Check out my exceedingly high-tech setup:

Yep, those are $10 Home Depot shop lights set on piles of bricks (free, from the mysterious brick piles in the yard that came with my house), with a space heater at one end (purloined from work). Not fancy, but it seems to be working. I keep the space heater set at 65, and the shop lights are plugged in around 16 hours a day (I plug them in when I get up, and unplug them when I go to bed).

When this is all over with, I'll do a post summarizing my gardening expenditures, and whether it was cost-effective at all. It's hard to tell right now, because I've had so many one-time-only expenses (hoe, rake, shovel, hose, lights for the seedlings, seed trays, etc.) which I won't have again next year. I'm also starting a compost pile, which will hopefully reduce the need for so much potting soil next year.

Temperatures here in MA are still way too cold for my liking--40s during the day, 30s at night--but I've planted some cold crops outside. Kale, spinach, beets, etc. No sprouts yet.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Taza Chocolate

Taza Chocolate may be the greatest chocolate in the world.

And it's made right near me, in Somerville, MA!

I discovered this stuff last night. Why is it so great, you ask? Well, it's 100% organic and stone-ground. Not that I care so much about the "100% organic" tag, but in this case, it means the chocolate is made from the best ingredients. The best cacao beans, the best cane sugar (real sugar and not beet sugar or corn syrup), real vanilla and cinnamon (most of what we think of as "cinnamon" is in fact cascia, but that's another post).

They use authentic Oaxacan stone mills to grind the beans, instead of steel refiners. It's minimally processed, and they don't conch. "Conching" is a process that gives chocolate its characteristic velvety mouthfeel. Taza Chocolate, because it's stone-ground, has a unique texture--almost sandy, because larger particles of chocolate and sugar remain. That's actually good, because the larger particles pop in your mouth, making the flavor much more explosive.

They also light-roast the beans. Most chocolate, like most coffee, is dark-roasted, to disguise poor-quality beans. That bitter, heavily-roasted aftertaste you get from Starbucks? That's from crappy coffee beans. It's like cooking a poor-quality steak to well-done, to disguise the poor-quality meat. (Which is why you should never order a well-done steak in a restaurant, but that's another post, too.) Most dark chocolate tastes sort of, you know, dark. It's faintly bitter, which is why a lot of people don't like dark chocolate. That's because of the dark roast. Taza's light roast allows the true flavor of the cacao to shine through. In its un-messed-with state, it's almost fruity.

So, to sum up: this chocolate tastes like (and is) real chocolate, and not like a Hershey's milk-and-sugar bomb.

Basically, this is really, really good chocolate. It uses the best ingredients, and they don't process the hell out of it. This is chocolate the Aztecs would have recognized. Go buy some and eat it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Truffled mushroom grits

This dish tastes like a million bucks and costs next to nothing. And it takes only about 10 minutes to prepare, from start to finish. Essentially it's cheese grits, with mushrooms sauteed in truffle oil, all mixed together. I even added some bacon-bourbon jam to it, though of course that's optional. (Really damn tasty, though.)

Make a batch of grits. (Quick grits: 3 cups water to 1 cup grits.) When done, stir in two handfuls of shredded cheese. I used a combination of smoked gouda and comte. Meanwhile, slice a package of white button mushrooms, and saute them gently in a mixture of truffle oil and a little button, until they're dark and soft. Stir into the grits, and serve.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grits n' greens

This dish came from a thwarted mac n' cheese craving.

I had macaroni, I had cheese. What I didn't have was milk. Or cream. So I couldn't make mac n' cheese.

DAMMIT, I thought. How else can I use up this cheese?

Hmmm, cheese grits, I thought. Oh wait, I don't have any milk. How am I supposed to make grits?

So I went rooting around through the back of my cupboards, hoping for inspiration, and came upon a package of quick-cooking grits.

"Quick grits?" I thought. "How do I have these?" But I checked the directions, and it claimed I could make them with just water. Not milk. I was skeptical, but figured with enough cheese, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

And I was right. More to the point, my cheese grits were ready to go in under five minutes. (Granted, quick grits are not as toothsome as the original, long-cooking, with-milk kind. But whatever, there was cheese involved. In this case, a shredded mixture of smoked gouda and comte.)

In order to give my cheese grits some semblance of healthiness, I pulled out a head of collard greens from my produce drawer, sliced it into ribbons, and sauteed those for three or four minutes in some sesame oil, until they just started to wilt down.

I stirred about half into the cheese grits, and mounded the rest on top.

Tomorrow: more adventures with quick grits!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Orzo with sundried tomatoes, toasted walnuts and feta

I got this idea from Poor Girl Gourmet's cookbook (which I'll be reviewing soon). Her version of this included a few more ingredients, but this makes an excellent pasta salad, warm or cold, with just the following things:

a box of orzo, cooked
1 cup diced sundried tomatoes
1 cup toasted walnuts
2 handfuls feta cheese
Italian seasoning, salt and pepper to taste
A drizzle of olive oil

(If you have fresh parsley, basil, and/or oregano, any/all of those would be fabulous.)

Also, I've been posting workplace horror stories over on my other blog, Two Blind Cats. Scary but true. Part 3 tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bacon-bourbon jam

Oh. My. God.

But first: a little story.

My weekends, like everyone else's, are typically devoted to those projects I don't have time for during the week. (Or am too lazy to tackle during the week.) Gardening lately, but also cooking--preparing stuff for the week ahead, working on things for the upcoming week's blog posts, cooking more complicated things that I don't have time/energy for after work.

What I cook during the weekend is selected based on the following criteria, in order:
1. Something needs to be used up.
2. It sounds interesting.
3. I feel like it.

I read several different food blogs, and subscribe to a few food/wine/cooking magazines. I also have a hefty collection of cookbooks. Whenever I run across a recipe that sounds particularly interesting, I print it out/mark it/copy it and add it to my "make this at some point" pile. That pile of paper is running about eight inches tall. Every couple of weeks, I go through the pile, pulling out things that I'll want to make in the near future (based on what I have on hand; if I don't have one or more of the ingredients already, it goes back on the pile).

Last week I was going through the pile, and I happened upon this recipe for bacon-bourbon jam I'd printed out several weeks ago.

I remembered I had a big new package of applewood-smoked bacon from Whole Foods. I scanned the recipe and realized I had all of the ingredients on hand.

Out it came.

And that became one of this weekend's cooking projects.

Of everything I made (a pizza, a couscous salad, a pasta salad, a batch of ice cream), this was the clear winner.

Go make some now.

The flavor complexity is out of this world. My next project will be figuring out how to can this so I can give it to people as gifts.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mushroom and broccoli pizza

Someone asked me recently if there's anything I won't consider as a pizza topping.

So far, no.

But it's helpful to think of "pizza toppings" not so much as "toppings," but more "things that go well with bread and cheese."

And as we all know, there is very little in this world that doesn't go with cheese.

Sushi, maybe.

Anyway, when thinking about pizza, don't get hung up on pepperoni, etc. Use a pizza crust as a repository for leftovers/whatever you have on hand, cover it with cheese, and see what happens.

Which is what I did with this pizza: I had two big portobello mushroom caps and one big head of broccoli. Add cheese and voila.

In order:

pizza crust
drizzle of olive oil
ricotta cheese
two sliced portobello mushrooms, or the equivalent amount of some other kind of mushroom
one big head of broccoli, florets sliced lengthwise (no need to cook the broccoli; just add it raw and it will roast)
shredded parmesan
Italian seasoning

Bake at 475 for 15-20 minutes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Israeli couscous with roasted eggplant, caramelized onion, and feta

A lot of people don't like eggplant. If not cooked properly, eggplant is bitter and hard, and I suspect people that don't like eggplant have only ever had it cooked the wrong way. Cooked properly, eggplant is creamy, rich and smooth, with a great satisfying depth.

If "creamy, rich and smooth" does not come to mind when you think of eggplant, here's how to get it that way.

You roast it.

(You knew I was going to say that.)

You don't even have to peel it. (In fact, you shouldn't, the rind--especially on purple eggplant--is full of vitamins.) Just slice in rounds. Coat a casserole dish with olive oil, put the slices in the pan, flip to coat with the oil, and roast at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes.


You don't have to pre-salt, or soak, or any of that other stuff.

For the caramelized onion, slice the onion into half-rings, and saute on medium-low with some olive oil for a long time. At least 30 minutes. Until the onion is dark and slippery and sweet. You don't have to watch the pan or anything, just put it on low and walk away. The longer the onions cook, the sweeter they'll be.

For this dish, I used about three cups of cooked Israeli couscous (that's the large, pearl-like kind), one small roasted and diced eggplant, half of one caramelized onion, and two handfuls of crumbled feta. Mix together, add salt, pepper and seasonings to taste. Serve warm or room temperature. It makes a great brown-bag lunch, and a great way to feature eggplant.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sweet potato buttermilk rolls

For last week's dinner party, I made these sweet potato buttermilk rolls from Pinch My Salt. They were REALLY. GOOD.

Notes on the recipe:

I used two big sweet potatoes, roasted and mashed. Don't know exactly how much that was.

I used fresh yeast.

These are best hot.

These also make a great breakfast: I've been eating the leftover rolls at my desk at work all week long.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Scallops on a salt block

This is awesome.

By "this," I mean both the salt block and its uses. A salt block, for those who don't know, is just that: a big block of salt. Usually Himalayan pink salt, cured and pressed in such a way that it forms a block. (It's not Morton's table salt. If you're interested in getting one of your own, which I highly recommend, go here.)

I purchased my salt block on my road trip, in Charleston (remember that? Oh, memories), and hauled it an additional 18,000 miles across the country, on the cross-country move from New York to San Diego, and then back cross-country from San Diego to Boston before I ever had a good chance to use it.

That's right. I hauled this salt block at least 25,000 miles before using it, and never once considered jettisoning it. That is how much I value my salt.

But I digress. "What is the use of this big pink salt block?" you ask. You cook with it.

It can be heated to as much as 600 degrees, and then used to sear things table-side. Scallops. Steak. Veggies. It can be frozen, and used as a particularly decadent way to serve sorbets or ice creams. And because it's salt, it will impart a very subtle salt flavor to the dish, which is a very good thing, even in the case of ice cream. (A little salt should not taste salty--it should bring out and highlight the inherent flavors of the dish. Which is why people spend a lot of money on artisanal, funny-colored salts, because they do a much better job of that than Morton's. Different salts taste different.)

So I took my salt block on its inaugural run, by heating it on my stove and then searing scallops on it for my impressed husband and dinner guests. Should you find yourself in possession of one of these, here's how you do it:

For a gas stove, set the (clean, dry) salt block directly on the burner. For an electric stove, take the metal ring out of a springform pan and set that on the burner, and put the salt block on the springform ring--so that the salt block does not touch the burner directly.

Start on low heat. Very gradually, over about 45 minutes, increase the heat so the block warms gently, increasing all the way up to the high setting.

When the block is fully heated, you shouldn't be able to get your hand within an inch or two of the surface.

VERY CAREFULLY, and with thick oven mitts, remove to a heat-safe surface (thick cutting board, cork board, layer of trivets, metal cooling rack, or the like) and take it to your table. Make sure you don't drop it on your foot, because these things are heavy. Also make sure it's not touching anything flammable, or that can be warped by intense heat (like a Tupperware bowl nearby).

I know this sounds dangerous, but it's no more dangerous than a hot Le Creuset Dutch oven. Don't drop either one on your foot, or let your kids touch, and you'll be fine.

Throw the room-temperature whatever onto its surface. The scallops jumped when they hit the surface, it was so hot. I waited 20 seconds, flipped them with metal tongs, waited 20 more seconds, and served them immediately.

They were perfectly done. No additional seasoning needed.

I removed the salt block back to the kitchen, where it took the rest of the dinner to cool down properly.

To clean it, just scrape off the clingy bits (these things aren't non-stick, but don't add oil or anything to the surface--just let the food stick), and scrub with a little water. Let dry.

The color will change a little when you heat it, which is why this site sells "tableware" salt blocks. You'll notice in my pictures above, the block isn't as prettily pink as those. By slowly heating it, it shouldn't crack or warp, so I plan to get many years of use out of mine.

Awe. Some.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Roasted green beans with shallots and almonds

All vegetables are better roasted!

And quicker.

Just toss the green beans with one sliced shallot, a few peeled garlic cloves, and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Roast at 450 for about 15 minutes. Remove and toss with sliced almonds, and maybe a little fresh parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dandelion green salad with walnuts

1-2 bunches dandelion greens (depending on how big they are)
1/4 cup walnuts
2 minced garlic cloves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon walnut oil (though I used olive oil again, and it was fine)
1 tablespoon sherry, white wine, or tarragon vinegar (I used tarragon)
salt and pepper

Tear the dandelion greens into large pieces and set aside. Toast walnuts over medium-high heat until they start to get toasty, then add the garlic and olive oil. Saute for about a minute. Remove from the heat and whisk the rest in. Pour over the greens and toss.

Optional: goat cheese.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dinner party: what I had and how much it cost

I had the neighbors over for dinner last weekend, providing me with my first opportunity for a dinner party in the new house. (I say "dinner party," even though it was really just four adults having dinner.)

It was quite lovely, and I'll be posting new recipes this week from that--including the big hit, seared scallops on a salt block.

It wasn't quite a $20 dinner party, but I wasn't trying for that, either. A lot of the vegetables came from my CSA box, so it's hard to accurately gauge the true cost of this dinner. I give market approximations, below. I didn't count the cost of flour, sugar, olive oil or spices.

Roasted chicken: $8 for two at Costco, so $4

Dandelion green salad with walnuts: $3 for dandelion greens, approximately 75 cents for a handful of walnuts from bulk bag ($11 for 2 pounds)

Roasted green beans: $2 for green beans, 50 cents for one shallot, 50 cents for handful of sliced almonds

Sweet potato buttermilk rolls: $1 for 2 sweet potatoes, $1.50 worth of buttermilk, $1 worth of fresh yeast, 11 cents for one egg ($4 for 36 eggs at Costco), $1 for one stick of butter

Seared scallops: $10.22 for 8 sea scallops from Whole Foods

Potatoes fried in duck fat and truffle oil: $3 for bag of new potatoes, $1 worth of duck fat ($5 for tub), $1 worth of truffle oil ($10 for small bottle)

Chocolate mousse: $3 for 1 bar Ghirardelli 60% chocolate, 3 eggs at 11 cents each

Wine: 2 bottles plus half a bottle of dessert wine, all gifts

Total cost: around $34 for four people, or $8.50 each.

$8.50 for that menu ain't bad at all.

Notice that if I'd eliminated the scallops, I would have come in very close to $20 total.

My weekly CSA box runs about $29 (during the summer, that will drop to $20). All the vegetables from the dinner, including the potatoes and sweet potatoes, came from the CSA boxes.

Which means that except for the scallops and the buttermilk, I had everything I needed for this dinner already. The chicken, the vegetables, the chocolate, everything. If you look at it that way, the dinner only cost me $14 and change out of pocket (for the scallops and the buttermilk).

As a side note, I really love entertaining. It was great to sit and relax with fellow adults, talking and drinking wine and eating good food. I want to do more of that.

It was also the first time that much of my dinnerware got pressed into service: serving platters and bowls, different kinds of wine glasses, the good napkins and tablecloth, matching candles. Not to mention the salt block. I've spent years slowly accumulating sets of 12: china, silverware, espresso cups, white wine glasses, red wine glasses, dessert wine glasses, champagne flutes, ramekins, you name it. Now that I finally have a table that will seat 12, it's time to put all that stuff to good use.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I have sprouts!

My arugula has sprouted!

So has the kale.

Most exciting of all, my tomatoes!

I also have definite activity from the spinach and catgrass. So far none of the pepper seeds have sprouted, or any of the herbs. I don't know if that's bad, or if that's normal.

I've rigged up a very low-tech heating and lighting system in the sunroom for the tomato and pepper seeds. Namely, a heated mattress pad under them, with two space heaters at either end of the blanket, blowing inward. They're set at 75 degrees, so now the entire sunroom is like a sauna. I also purchased two $10 fluorescent shop lights from Home Depot, and set each on a stack of bricks just above the seeds. I keep them on about 16 hours a day. I'm hoping this low-tech system will provide the appropriate amount of heat and light. If any experienced gardeners have any suggestions, please chime in!

Next weekend (if the weather holds) I'll dig out a garden patch in the yard and plant the cold-weather crops: more spinach, kale and arugula, along with chard, beets, cauliflower, peas and cilantro.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Swiss chard wraps

Are these wraps, tacos or burritos? You decide.

1 head swiss chard, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
sprinkle of dried red pepper flakes
splash of broth
goat cheese, feta cheese, or queso blanco

Saute the onion in bacon fat or olive oil until soft. Throw in the garlic, wait 10 seconds; add the pepper flakes and broth. Add the swiss chard, cover, and let cook for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and let the broth boil off. Serve on warm tortillas with cheese and salsa.

Sounds weird to have cooked greens with cheese and salsa, but these were a lot better than I thought they would be. You could leave the cheese off and have these as a sort of vegan breakfast burrito, too.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Vote for me!

On a whim, I entered a Recipe Redesign Contest, and it seems I'm one of 22 finalists. Be sure to check it out and vote for me!

I know my hand-drawn picture looks like kindergarten crap next to the other entries. Seriously, I had no idea professional graphic design would be involved. I took "recipe redesign" literally; looks like everyone else concentrated on the "design" part of that statement, rather than the "recipe" part.

Oh well. Vote for me anyway?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

21st-century coupon deals

I've recently discovered Groupon and Living Social, and I don't know how I lived this long without them. (There's also Bloomspot.)

If you don't know, these websites offer coupons to vast groups of people, for everything from helicopter lessons to yoga classes to 50% meals at fine restaurants to gift certificates. I myself have scored two adult movie tickets for $9 (total); $10 for $20 of credit at both and Barnes & Noble; paintball tickets for $20 each; and museum admissions at 50% off. Best of all, you don't actually have to do anything. You put in your email and city at each site, and they email you the daily deals.

But it gets better!

There's apparently a resale market for these already-purchased deals.

For deals that are about to expire, or for people whose plans have changed and now they can't use them anymore, there are Coup Recoup, DealsGoRound, and Lifesta. These sites list second-market coupons that you can buy for a discount off the already-discounted original price.

For people who eat out more often than I do, this is a great way to score meals out for next to nothing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Butternut squash and black bean pizza

Looks kinda like a Jackson Pollack painting, doesn't it? Eat your art!

Remember those butternut squash pockets? Well, I had some butternut squash goop left over after making them. I also had some leftover black beans in the refrigerator. So I made a pizza out of them.

pizza crust
butternut squash, roasted and chopped
black beans
sliced peppers
feta cheese

Also would have been good on this pizza:

caramelized onions
goat cheese
parmesan cheese

Layer as you see fit. Bake at 475 for 15-20 minutes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Orange sherbet!

I've got spring fever. I'm totally over this winter, but it's not quite springtime yet.

So when I got a bunch of oranges in my CSA box, I decided to make a very spring-y dish: fresh orange sherbet.

1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of one orange
Pinch of salt
Fresh squeezed orange juice, from 6-7 oranges
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups cold whole milk

Mix everything together except for the milk. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved, about one minute. Whisk in the milk. Cover bowl and chill for 1-2 hours. Pour into your ice cream makes and process until it's the consistency of soft-serve. Put that in a lidded container and freeze until firm, around 3 hours.

So orangey and delicious!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hummus pizza

If you leave the feta cheese off, you can turn this into a great vegan pizza.

1 pizza crust
Possible toppings: sliced peppers, olives, sundried tomatoes, red onion, garlic
Feta cheese
Fresh spinach

On the pizza crust, spread the hummus out. Top with whatever hummus-friendly toppings you prefer (I used sliced peppers and black olives), plus crumbled feta cheese. Bake at 475 for 15 minutes or so. Top with fresh spinach and serve.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Butternut squash pockets

You can use puff pastry or pie crust for this recipe. I tried a pastry crust (made by cutting in cold butter and then binding it with ice water), but was too much effort and butter for what could have been accomplished with a 30-second pie crust.

So. Thaw the puff pastry or make the pie crust. Using a small plate or large bowl, cut out as many circles from the rolled-out dough as you can.

Then mix together:

1 butternut squash, roasted and chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 handful shredded parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
a small amount of chopped fresh parsley and sage (I used dried sage)
salt and pepper to taste

And in a separate cup, mix together:

1 egg
1 tablespoon water

Brush the egg wash around the edges of the circles. Put a small amount of squash filling in the middle of each circle, and fold the edges together. Crimp with a fork. Cut a slit into the top of each pocket, and brush with more egg wash.

Bake at 400 for 30 minutes or so, until browned and done.

One big one, plus a little salad, is a great still-winter-but-ready-for-spring meal.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Carrot cake oatmeal

A variation on my steel-cut oats, with shredded carrots and cream cheese added in. For the fruit, I added golden raisins (which are optional). You could add walnuts or pecans if you wanted, and more maple syrup.

Make a batch of steel-cut oats. You can do it in your slow cooker, or on the stovetop, like this:

4 cups water
1/2 cup cream
1 cup steel-cut oats
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon each cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt
Some kind of dried fruit

Put the water and cream together in a big pan and bring almost to a boil. Add the rest, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for about 20-30 minutes or until thick and gloppy. Let cool a few more minutes before serving.

That's the basic recipe. To make this, about five minutes before the oats are done, stir in two shredded carrots.

In a cup, mix about a quarter of a box of cream cheese, at room temperature, with a long drizzle of maple syrup (you can adjust the proportions, depending on how rich/sweet you want it).

Serve with a spoonful of cream cheese mix on top, and stir before eating.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The garden has begun!

It's still not quite spring here in Massachusetts. There's still (STILL) snow on the ground, and although daytime temperatures are now consistently above freezing, night temperatures remain mostly below freezing.

But spring is coming.

The days are longer, the snow is melting off, and next weekend will be Daylight Savings Time.

So, because I can't wait for concrete evidence of spring any longer, I started my garden this weekend.

It doesn't look like much. Several containers of herbs and cold-weather crops in my chilly sunroom, thoroughly watered and awaiting germination. I turned my downstairs bathroom into a seed-starting greenhouse of sorts, by jacking the temperature up in there and laying out flats of tomato and pepper seeds. Next weekend I'll rig up some cheap metal shelving with lighting, and move the tomato and pepper seeds under the lights.

Once the snow has melted and the ground has thawed enough for me to work it, I'm going to plant more cold-weather crops (kale, spinach, arugula, chard, beets, butternut squash, cauliflower, cilantro, leeks) right away. And in May, once the danger of frost has passed, of course everything will go in the ground, including all the herbs and seedlings.

In the meantime, I've got my container garden to cultivate. Kale, spinach and arugula, plus all the herbs except for basil and dill (oregano, thyme, tarragon, chervil, sage, parsley, chives, rosemary, etc.).

I hope I'll have a little army of sprouts in the next 8-10 days. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Winter tart with potatoes, mustard greens, leek and bacon

I'm not quite sure what to call this dish. It's somewhere between a tart and a quiche. And it was good, and filling, but it needed...something. Not sure what. More cheese, perhaps? Or herbs. Feel free to experiment.

Anyway, it gave me a chance to use something I haven't used in a while: pie weights.

Pie weights are little ceramic marbles. Sometimes you need to cook the pie crust before you cook the filling (like in a lemon meringue pie), because the crust will take longer than the filling. But if you just put the crust in the oven, with nothing in it, it will puff up weirdly and ruin the shape of your pie. So you gotta put something in there to weight it down while it cooks. Like pie weights. But you can also use uncooked dried beans, or uncooked rice, and it does the same thing. (You can even use the beans/rice afterward.)

Note: this recipe makes two full-size tarts. You can use regular pie pans, you don't need a tart pan.

So, to make this tart/quiche thing, make a pie crust, roll it thin, and bake it at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes (with your pie weights) until browned and done. Remove and let cool.

For the filling:

1 bunch mustard greens, chopped (or any other winter green: kale, chard, collards, etc.)
1 leek, sliced
lots of bacon, cooked
1 potato, sliced thin
4 eggs
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
goat cheese

Layer in the cooked pie crust like so: potato, greens, leek, bacon. Mix the eggs and milk together, and pour into the pie crust. You want the mixture to come almost to the top of the crust; if you don't have enough, add more egg/milk until it rises to that level. Cover with goat cheese crumbles. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, or until the custard sets. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Black bean and plantain empanadas

When I went to Buenos Aires (a beautiful, glowing, halcyon memory that warms the cockles of my March heart right now), one of my favorite experiences was going out into the South American 'burbs for an authentic asado and empanada-making lesson. A little old Argentine lady showed us ("us" being me and the other 8 or 10 people who had signed up for the day) how to make traditional beef empanadas from scratch. Then her husband fired up the grill, complete with all the traditional meats (skirt steak, short ribs, flank steak, pork loin, sausage, blood sausage, tripe, sweetbreads and beef kidney). Then we busted out some wine and ate it all. Good times.

The asado.

Isn't Buenos Aires beautiful? Sigh.

I've since tried to duplicate that empanada recipe, with only half success. I still can't quite get the dough right, and I don't know why. I'll keep trying.

In the meantime, empanadas were furthest from my mind this week. I was in a I'm-totally-over-this-winter funk and just not very interested in cooking. I ate a lot of cheese for dinner.

Then in a fit of random wandering around my kitchen, looking for inspiration, I opened the freezer and beheld a box of puff pastry.

"Mmmmm...butter," said my wintry brain, and I immediately started thinking of ways to use the puff pastry.

Here's what I came up with.

Not as good as Buenos Aires, but still pretty darn good. And with puff pastry. (And I got my cooking mojo back!)

olive oil
1 large ripe plantain, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 red pepper, chopped
2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 can)
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
cumin and cayenne to taste
fresh lime juice
1 large egg
2 packages puff pastry (four sheets), thawed
queso fresco or goat cheese

Start by sauteeing the plantain in olive oil and butter until soft and cooked, and remove. In the same pan, add more olive oil, and saute the onion and red pepper until soft.

To that, add the beans, spices, cilantro and lime juice, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, to let the flavors meld. Remove from heat. Mash with a potato masher and let cool.

Cut each sheet of puff pastry into four squares. Mix the egg with a little water to make an egg wash, and brush that along the edges of each square. Place a couple tablespoons of bean mash in the center of each square, and top with a little goat cheese. Fold the corner over to make a triangle, and seal by pressing down the edge with a fork.

Place your empanadas on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, and put a little more egg wash on the top. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes.

Don't those look good? Three will make an adult meal, and this recipes makes 16.

You can serve with salsa, but I made a traditional Argentine chimichurri instead.

For the chimichurri:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 shallots, peeled
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
a big bunch of parsley, stems and all
salt and pepper to taste

Whiz that all together in your food processor, dribbling the olive oil in. Remove and add a little more olive oil, until you have a green soupy mass. Let that sit for two hours before serving.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Survey results, and how I furnished my new house for less than $1000

Thanks to everyone who filled out the survey! (It's still running, if more of you want to ante up.) Most of you wanted more cost-cutting tips/kitchen hacks; and the biggest surprise was that many of you requested more personal info/stories/more about me.

So, I'm gonna take a leap and tell you about my other blog, Two Blind Cats. It's just plain ol' me. I suppose I should take after my heroes like Pioneer Woman and combine the two blogs into one all-purpose one--and be assured I'm planning a major blog overhaul, so that may actually come to pass. In the meantime, I'll cross-post more often, and add more stories.

I'll start with my own struggles with broke-dom. Mostly it revolves around accumulating, and now trying to pay off, a crushing amount of credit card and student loan debt. How did I accumulate all that debt, you ask?

1. Getting my MFA at an Ivy League university, and financing it entirely with loans. Pro: a graduate degree from an Ivy League university. Con: that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.

2. Living in New York for a decade. Fully half my take-home pay went to rent; the rest went to student loan and credit card payments. Add in a NYC wardrobe (designer clothes and shoes), a penchant for travel, and a love for high-end restaurants. Keep in mind I was working in publishing/nonprofits, and making the crappy paycheck to boot. As an old theatre professor of mine used to say, "There's no profit like nonprofit."

So 100% of my paycheck went to bills. Literally. Rent, utilities, subway pass, student loan payments, credit card payments. That's it. Notice that list did not include food; travel; clothing; going out; medical expenses; savings; or anything else.

So the credit card balances kept growing, even though I was throwing big chunks of money at them every month.

Then when I got married, my husband brought his own credit card and student loan debt to the table. Plus a whopping child support payment.

And I had to take a 35% pay cut from my high salary in NYC, just to be able to work in California, because the economy there was so much crappier.

So once again, a good 95% of our COMBINED salaries was going to bill payment. Rent, child support, utilities, student loan payments, credit card payments. Not including food, gas, savings, 401ks, etc. Or our wedding.

Clearly that was unsustainable.

Fortunately, with the move to New England, we're both making better money. So we can afford rent on a house (a whole house in the Boston suburbs rents for only about 10% more than we were paying for an apartment in San Diego), car payments for two new cars (at 0% financing), and savings, and I'm able to budget food, gas, etc., in as line items instead of using whatever's left over at the end of the month.

But that still means almost all of our combined money is still going to debt payment. I'm paying that off as fast as I can, and I'm happy to say that I can see the (distant) light at the end of the tunnel. Not as fast as I would like, because life always gets in the way. We had to move cross-country; then we had to both get all-new winter wardrobes, since we'd moved from San Diego; then there was Christmas; I got a new job and we had to get an additional car; and of course, we had to outfit our big new house, as we jettisoned as much as possible before moving cross-country.

Which is why I run a tight ship around my house. I don't want to spend any more money than I absolutely have to on stuff I don't have to--so that we can pay off our debts faster, so that we can spend that money on fun things like travel, rather than on interest payments and electricity. I wash all our clothes in cold water; I turn the thermostat down to 58 at night; I wash out and reuse Ziploc bags; I'm the turn-the-lights-off Nazi; I quit buying paper towels, and soda, and fabric softener, and all those other things we don't need; I save all my vegetable scraps and use them to make broth. And so on.

"Yeah, okay, great, what's this about furnishing your house for less than $1000?"

So, given all that, when we moved into our new big (rental) house, we had almost no furniture with which to outfit it. We had a bed, a guest bed, a sofa, and my red leather chair, and that's about it. No desk, no bookshelves, no kitchen table, nothing for the guest room, etc.

That was the algebra problem. "Given available furniture budget is $0, and given we need all these things, how to acquire them and keep spending as close to $0 as possible?"

Answer: Don't pay retail. (And, keep your eyes open.)

Between craigslist, the Salvation Army, the local furniture consignment shop, and ebay, I got everything we needed. And then some. A piece at a time, and it's all good-quality stuff. No cheap Target pressboard furniture, only two Ikea rejects, and only one slipcover required. (See pics here.)

Let me tell you, the Salvation Army here is a treasure. A huge furniture section, and I've also scored some great board games with no missing pieces (okay, the clay in Cranium was dried out, but I can replace that with some cheap Play-Doh, and I only paid $2.50 for Cranium).

So if you need cheap (quality) furniture, do this:
1. Start by asking around. I got my grandmother's mahogany dining room table and six matching chairs for free this way. My husband got a free drafting table from a coworker, who was jettisoning some stuff in preparation for a move.
2. Scroll craigslist and Freecycle on a regular basis.
3. Trawl your local thrift shops, Salvation Army and Goodwill and the like. I wasn't expecting to find anything at the Salvation Army, but I scored a dresser, a desk, an ugly but very comfortable second sofa, and a solid cherry entertainment center for $200 total. AND, yesterday, I scored four brand-new pieces of Pampered Chef stoneware, on 50% Off Day, meaning I got all four for less than the cost of one retail.
4. Did I mention I love the local furniture consignment shop? I've found all kinds of great housewares here (including a Waterford decanter, a matching set of 8 martini glasses, and a vintage picnic basket) and of course furniture (including a mahogany china cabinet, a prep table for the kitchen, and a vintage 60s armchair). Which won't help most of you, I know, but the point is to keep your eyes open for places like this.
5. There's always Big Lots and TJ Maxx. (I found a bunch of great throw pillows recently at TJ Maxx for cheap.)
6. Yard sales. (Not an option in winter in New England, but an option I plan to exercise when yard sale season starts up again.) Here's a fun yard sale map tool.

Be creative when necessary. The $40 sofa I got at the Salvation Army was ugly as sin, but with a $20 slipcover and a bunch of cheap TJ Maxx throw pillows, you'd never know. The cheapest new Ikea sofa would have set us back at least $300. I'll need outdoor furniture when it warms up; I'd love a bunch of Adirondack chairs and a wicker dining set for 8 and a hammock, but I'll settle for a $30 table from the Salvation Army and a bunch of mismatched folding chairs for now. Nobody cares what it looks like but me, anyway.

So for my $1000 and a few weeks of searching, I got:
dining room table and chairs (free, plus $50 in gas money for my parents to drive it up)
two desks ($85 and $50)
four Ikea bookshelves ($125 total)
a dresser ($50)
a sofa (and slipcover) ($40 + $20)
a china cabinet ($150)
a prep table ($80)
a rug ($40 on ebay)
a chair ($60)
several lamps (some courtesy of Target, the rest Salvation Army) ($60)
an entertainment center ($70)
a treadmill ($120)
a drafting table (free)

Not bad, huh? For a few hours of effort, I won't have to worry about furniture again for...well, hopefully years.

"Which has what to do with a cooking blog?"

I have a larger point, I swear. Here it is: Saving Money Is Really Just About Paying Attention.

It all boils down to that. I could wax rhapsodic about cutting coupons or Quicken or free shipping at Amazon or the lost art of darning socks or what-the-hell-ever, it all wraps back around to Paying Attention To Where Your Money Is Going (And Where You Want It To Go).

I don't want to give the power company any more than $50 a month, so I turn off all the lights and the computers and unplug rarely-used appliances and lamps. Starbucks doesn't need any of my money, so I brew tea and coffee at home and use travel mugs. I don't want to spend $300 on a sofa when I could spend $50 instead, so I lurk through thrift shops on my lunch break. Because I'd rather have that $250 to spend elsewhere.

I DO want to travel more often, and have a comfortable cushion of savings, and eat out at fancy restaurants once in a while. In order to get there, I have to pay off the debt I have, which means buying credit card payments every month instead of buying paper towels and Doritos.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

My 25-year-old self would totally kick my ass right now.

Oh my God, I'm turning into my mother.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Roasted broccoli with parmesan

Most people object to broccoli for two reasons:

1. They've only had it cooked one way: boiled into limp, soggy oblivion.
2. The smell of cooking it that way.

Remember how I said you could roast any vegetable, and it would taste good, and you shouldn't ever boil anything? That included broccoli. Best of all, roasting it doesn't produce that broccoli smell.

All you have to do is chop a head or two of broccoli into large florets (save the stems for veggie broth), toss those with a little olive oil and salt, and roast on a cookie sheet at 400 for about 20 minutes, or until browned and crispy on the ends. Toss that with grated parmesan cheese and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I don't feel like cooking this week; and, adventures with Cheerios

Sometimes I don't. It happens.

What I really should say is that I don't feel like cooking anything NEW this week. I'll make a bunch of the old stand-bys instead, and because I'm sick to fucking death of winter, it'll all be carb-heavy and full of cheese and I'll drink a lot of red wine with it and then bitch at my husband about why he never gets on the treadmill, when really I should be getting on the treadmill my own self.

But I digress.

(I love my husband, even if we both never get on the treadmill.)

So instead I'll tell you about my latest shopping adventures, buying Cheerios.

"What's this about Cheerios? I thought you didn't buy cereal? Didn't you get all up on your high horse about not eating processed food and not spending money on convenience crap, and then you go out and buy Cheerios?"

Why, yes. Yes, that was me. I did get all up on my high horse about not eating cereal. And I fixed filling, cheap, nutritious breakfasts every morning, with homemade steel-cut oatmeal, and blueberry muffins, and poached eggs on quinoa, and all sorts of yummy things.

Which my husband refused to eat.

Well, I shouldn't say "refused." I should say, "he took it to work, buried it in the work refrigerator, forgot about it for a month, then brought home 49 Tupperware containers all at once and explained that he didn't like oatmeal."

When I asked why I hadn't been made aware of this information before I actually, you know, MADE the oatmeal, he would only say that he "grew up eating cereal" and "never got in the habit of oatmeal" and "what was wrong with Cheerios anyway, dammit?"

So mothers, let this be a lesson to you. You feed your kids crap, they grow up wanting crap. Then they ask for by name at age 42. It's a marketer's wet dream.

So, fine. I'd rather he eat Cheerios than nothing at all. (At least it's Cheerios, and not Lucky Charms or something.)

Of course, hearing that, he ran right out and spent $4.59 on a box of Cheerios without even thinking. Without even looking for a sale, or saying, "Let's go to Costco and buy some in bulk." Sigh. I could see I was going to have to take this cereal thing under my wing.

So I watched the sale flyers for a couple of weeks, and sure enough, one of the local supermarket chains announced a 4-for-$10 Cheerios sale.

Then I Googled "Cheerios coupons" and printed out a bunch. 75 cents off and $1 off 2 boxes, in multiples.

I took those to the store and used them to buy 4 boxes. The store gave me a register coupon afterwards, for $2 off 5 boxes.

So I printed off some more of those coupons.

And went back and bought 5 more boxes.

So then I had laid in a stockpile of 9 boxes of Cheerios, for a grand total of $1.20 each.

Not bad, huh?

I'll do the same again the next time there's a sale.

Now, of course, my husband thinks we have Cheerios for snack food, and he can eat nothing but Cheerios all day long and we'll never run out, because "we have all these boxes!"

So I had to institute a "Cheerios for breakfast only" rule.

(True story: one Saturday, I caught him eating a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, lunch, and then for dinner. I finally put my foot down and said, "Stop eating Cheerios! You've been eating Cheerios ALL DAY!" "I have not!" he replied. "I haven't seen you eat one single thing today that wasn't Cheerios," I said. To which he replied, "Okay, but that's not the same thing as eating Cheerios all day.")

My secret plan is to save a couple of the Cheerios boxes, and place $1 generic-brand bags of Toasty-Os or whatever inside the Cheerios box. I bet he'll never know the difference.