Tag Archives: Recipes

Best of 2011: Little Big Kitchen

26 Dec

These are my favorite food-related posts from 2011.

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Recipe: Dirt Candy

11 Oct

So, beets. Let me start by saying I like beets. I like them, a lot. Okay? I know people get weird squeamish food prejudices about vegetables because they’ve been subjected to subdued canned versions growing up or in school cafeterias, but I even like canned beets. I think they’re great.

Raw beets, however, are not as tasty to me. I like them baked wrapped in foil or pickled, but I’m not as keen on them even when sliced attractively thin on a plate mixed in with carrots. I could probably grow accustomed to that musty-earth flavor, but I’m too busy eating them other ways to try.

Enter, dirt candy. This recipe for curing root vegetables (and butternut squash) in sugar caught my eye and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Curing the vegetables in this way allows them to retain the crispness of texture while softening the raw bite of their flavor through curing. The sugar pulls all the moisture out of the vegetable, shrinking it and transforming the flavor. It came to mind immediately when I noticed golden beets at the Farmer’s Market.

In the interest of eating the whole plant and thereby saving money, I first cooked the beet greens.

Golden beet greens are less photogenic than regular beet greens because they do not have the shockingly ruby red veins contrasting against the dark green leaves. I used this recipe, which was delicious but I don’t have a photo. Cooked greens are not photogenic.

I had a few beets to work with and before I made candy I sliced some up and made beet chips using the same method I used for the butternut squash. I loved them, though not as much as I loved the squash chips. Their earthiness translated almost to a smokiness, which was nice.

(That dip you see next to them was a mixture of sour cream, Greek yogurt, and dill. And I had rather more than what is pictured on the plate.)

While the chips were baking and the greens were bubbling I started on the candy. The instructions are as follows: 1. dice beets, 2. cover with a pile of sugar, 3. wait. Aside from some light stirring that happens over the course of a couple days,that’s it. You cover it, set it in the fridge, and let nature do its thing.

Nature doesn’t mess around. After the first half hour I drained off this much liquid already.

I know what you are thinking: that looks like Mountain Dew at best and a very sick person’s urine sample at worst. That’s 100% sugary golden beet juice.  I thought about reducing to a syrup and adding to Greek yogurt. Twitter was not enthusiastic about this idea.

After I took the photo, of course, I poured the liquid back over the beets and stashed them in the fridge and waited, stirring intermittently, for two days. But you don’t have to wait that long! Thanks to the magic of the internet I can show you the result…

The liquid darkened. The beet pieces had shrunk but remained firm and they glowed as if from within. They were good. They were very good.

They tasted like beets but without that full raw bite. And the concentration of sugars made them sweet, like, well, candy. As I ate them I thought, wow. I bet these would be even better roasted. Totally unnecessary of course. Gilding the lily, really. But once I had the idea I couldn’t let go of it, so onto an oiled baking tray they went. Ten minutes later…

They were gorgeous. The exterior sugars caramelized and scorched in places while beets became a mixture of chewy in some places and crisp in others. I could have eaten a popcorn bag full. Add some sea salt and it was better than candy. They would make an amazing garnish.

Stuffed Mushrooms

9 Feb

There’s something to be said for dinners alone. Dinners when you don’t have to think of anyone’s needs or tastes but your own. When you can eat whatever weird thing you want and your secret stays between you and your pantry cupboards.

While Anthony was gone I decided to try this recipe for stuffed mushrooms. Not that Anthony doesn’t love stuffed mushrooms, because he does and very much would have liked this recipe. But I was angling to eat only stuffed mushrooms for dinner, something he wouldn’t have been down for.

I decided to make this recipe on a whim, and right before I went to the store, so beyond the mushrooms I had very little of what I needed to faithfully recreate this recipe. If you’ve stuffed any vegetable before, you know that stuffing ingredients are extremely flexible. (See also: rebaked potatoes.)

Here’s what I lacked, and how I made up for it:

Shallots: A bit of onions and more garlic

Walnuts: Skipped nuts all together (I was counting on sharing with Isobel)

Parsley: I added some celery greens, but damn, I missed parsley

Dried thyme:  planned on getting fresh sage from the yard

Bread crumbs: Panko. I had bread crumbs, I just like panko better.

I had originally planned on crossing our lawn and picking some of the Mexican sage that grows between our property and our neighbors’.  I was really looking forward to the flavor of fresh sage, but we have been experiencing the worst Tule fog in years, and opening the door revealed a dark street (I had my lights on, and so did only one of our neighbors. Oh, and the street lamp was out). Everything was thickly coated in a shimmery blanket of cold, wet fog. I felt like leaving the comfort of my barely-lit front porch would mean entering a scene straight out of Silent Hill. With a baby.

So I decided to see what I had on hand in the old spice drawer.

Uh, yeah. It could use some organizing love.

Dried rosemary from the plant on my patio would have to do. Instead of the shallots, I used garlic and onion.

All of my spoons were too big to fill the mushroom caps. Surely, I had to have a smaller spoon somewhere?

Fortunately, Isobel let me borrow hers.

When creating food photography, be sure to include the prep mess in the background.

The photo of the end result is not that great because by the time they were ready all the available light had long since fled the kitchen room. They were good, and although I couldn’t get Isobel to share them with me (she was devoted solely to hummus at the time) she did enthusiastically shout MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM! at least five times, so I feel that’s progress.

Holiday Appetizer Inspiration

20 Nov

The holy four-day weekend known as Thanksgiving is upon us and if your family is anything like mine you turn to your tried-and-true staple dishes every year. There’s a certain comfort and familiarity in preparing the same dishes and the same way: you know exactly what to plan for, how much to buy, and who hates what. Our family has been eating pretty much the same dinner for as long as I can remember. For the last eight years or so we’ve been hosting the dinner at our house so in addition to much of the dinner I’ve also been in charge of appetizers. Family drives in from far away bringing their special, unchanging-dishes in with them while we plan in advance to create the bulk of the meal. Until Thanksgiving was hosted at our house, appetizers were an afterthought.

Since my family doesn’t eat lunch on Thanksgiving Day we rely on appetizers to hold us over till dinner. I love to plan the appetizers because I can change them each year as they are not bound to tradition. Here are some of the ideas I’m considering for this year:

JALAPENOS

One of my favorite appetizers is one I can’t always eat: stuffed jalapenos wrapped with bacon. Sometimes I can indulge my love for these and sometimes I can’t. It depends on the heat of the peppers. But they are so, so good. The cream cheese becomes molten to match the jalapeno-pepper fire in your mouth. I don’t even need to add that the bacon just makes the whole thing taste that much better. Recipe can be found here.

BAKED BRIE

I am not embarrassed (thought maybe I should be) to admit I’ve eaten whole wheels of baked brie for dinner, let alone indulging in it as an appetizer. I blame my mother in law for introducing it to me. What you do is you take a wheel of cheese. Butter the top and sprinkle it with sliced almonds. Drizzle it with honey and set it in an ovenproof dish. (I plan to have several attractive vintage ones up in the shop soon.) Put it in an oven preheated to 350 F and bake for 25-30 minutes. Cut through the rind and dip into the gooey goodness with poached asparagus spears, pear or apple slices, or my favorite: crusty bread.

EDAMAME

Healthy, green, fresh… edamame are perfect for guilt-free snacking. These beans are the young version of the soybean. Boiled and salted they are quick and satisfying. You can often find them in the frozen food section if your grocery does not stock them in the produce aisle.


FRUIT ARRANGEMENTS

I’m sure everyone’s seen the incredibly dumb edible arrangements ads on TV. I shake my head when I see them thinking wow, they’ve made something good into something mediocre. For an edible fruit arrangement to be good, it has to be fresh. Then it’s not just good, it’s spectacular. My friend Julie is amazing at putting these together, like this one that she made for my baby shower. If you want to cement your friendship with anyone who is pregnant, prepare fresh fruit for them and they will love you forever.  First she wedged a head of ice burg lettuce into a bowl that just barely fit—the heavier the bowl, the better, because that will counter-balance your skewers. Then, take bamboo barbecue skewers and thread fruit such as strawberries, orange crescents, grapes, and pineapple wedges on it. (This exact fruit arrangement led me to realize I was mildly allergic to pineapple while pregnant.) In addition to being perfectly delicious as is, fresh fruit always benefits from a slight sprinkling of balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of chocolate, or an avocado citrus dip.

SWEET POTATO FRIES

Our Thanksgiving meal is fixed in nature and varies only very slightly from year to year. One thing we never have on the menu is sweet potatoes. That American concoction with the scorched marshmallows on top? I’ve never had it. So I was thinking of making sweet potato fries at appetizers.  As a bonus they can be prepped (peeled, sliced, even doused with oil and rolled in seasonings) and frozen in advance. I don’t have a double oven and space is an issue sometimes, but I can make do. I particularly love curry powder on my sweet potato fries. Bake at a 400 F oven for 25-30 minutes. If you want to go all out, fry them.

CRUDITES

My family is full of health nuts and vegetable lovers (myself included). We always, without fail, have crudités as part of our appetizer spread. We do like to change up the dip from time to time. Recently I’ve been infatuated with spinach dip although homemade guacamole always goes over very well.


SOUP

I’ve been contemplating doing soup this year. Nothing too heavy, but something that can be sipped on that will tide you over till dinner. The added bonus is that soup could be prepared in advance, frozen, and then thawed and reheated the day of. Pumpkin is a natural choice, unless at this point you are all pumpkin’d out. Which is quite un-American of you, really.

 

How does your family celebrate Thanksgiving?

Dinner Update II

28 Sep

Since I first discussed my meal planning woes here on Little Big I’ve been plugging away at dinner each night, trying to get something delicious and healthy on the table in a timely fashion. I feel that dinner is a task of Sisyphusian proportions. Do it well or do it wrong, either way that boulder is rolling right back down the mountain to be pushed back up the next day. For all my complaining you might assume that I hate cooking, or find working in the kitchen a chore, but it’s just the opposite: when I have free time cooking and meal planning are what I enjoy. The problem is, I don’t always have the time, and I have my limited budget of time and energy to contend with. Like a Top Chef quickfire challenge, home cooks have to produce a wonderful meal within a narrow scope of limitations.

I learned a lot from that initial post and the subsequent post made up of all of your wonderful advice. I made some decisions and went forward with a new plan: a set weekly menu. The concept of “themes” was touched upon in the comments but I really had to go through the process of trial and error for myself before I learned what worked with that and what doesn’t. I think a lot of my problem lies in that delicate balance between preparation and spontaneity. I’ve tried planning everything out to the letter and I’ve tried cobbling dinner together each night at the last minute. Both result in unsatisfying meals and wasted money.

Predictably I became bored serving the same thing week after week, but what is working a whole lot better for us is almost the same thing week after week. The freedom and flexibility make it work. I need the structure of themes but also the room to improvise.

CHICKEN: My favorite is baked chicken with caramelized shallots, but all sorts of variations of baked chicken fit here. I keep packages of chicken in the freezer and put them in the fridge a day or two before to thaw. I stock up on chicken when on sale or at Costco to save money. Variations on the chicken theme include marinades, barbecue sauce, herb and spice blends, and pan gravy.

PASTA: Default pasta night is spaghetti, but I can only eat so much spaghetti before I long for a change. Fortunately, pasta is the kind of dish with a multitude of variables: pasta shapes, sauces, meats and vegetables can be made ahead or mixed at the last second with wonderful results. I like researching pasta recipes and daydreaming about which one I’ll use this week. Variations: seriously limitless, although a favorite of mine is spinach pasta with Parmesan cheese and sautéed mushrooms, or creamy lemon pasta with prosciutto and peas.

EGGS: I like eggs, but the true reason I devote a whole evening to them is that they are cost-effective. We splurge and by the organic, free-range eggs and even then they are still cheaper than a lot of different kinds of meat. And sometimes that’s what counts. Fortunately, the eggs we buy are fresh and delicious so I don’t mind relying on them to get dinner on the table. I love baking eggs, also. There’s something very comforting about that. Anthony is a fan of scrambled eggs and omelets, and I always have hardboiled eggs around for adding to salads.

STIR-FRY: So far this is my weakest night. I admit it. I know more variations of a theme for the other nights so I usually end up making either teriyaki chicken bowl, stir-fried veggies with rice, or a noodle-dish from prepared Chinese noodles from the produce aisle. I need to build up more of a repertoire for this night. But, I’m sticking with this night because it’s a tasty way to serve veggies and Anthony and I are suckers for Asian flavors.

LEFTOVER REMIX: I like to plan dinners for 5ish meals a week. Anthony and I meet friends and family for dinner quite frequently, or often we’ll have one of those nights when he works and baby and I just kind of scrounge around for dinner. Either way I’ve learned it’s useful to have a day set aside for making smoothies from leftover fruit and soup from whatever’s in the veggie bin. If we have leftovers I’ll try to revamp them in a way that makes the most of what we have. Anthony is very good at this kind of dinner. I’m working on it. (Want to know a dirty secret? Sometimes this night just ends up being a big green salad with a baked potato with leftover roast chicken and bacon on the side.)

This revised menu works as a default plan and some weeks we deviate from it quite a lot. Maybe we’ll have chicken like usual but we’ll mix it up with Anthony volunteering for cooking duty (aside from smoothies he’s quite good at burgers and quesadillas), or perhaps I’ll volunteer to make something more elaborate. I refuse to stick to any meal plan slavishly but have learned from trial and error that no menu plan means I tend to surrender and grab dinner from a taco truck. The main thing is that I’ve planned to have the wherewithal to put any of these meals together any particular night. And that gives me freedom.

Good Idea, Bad Idea

15 Sep

 Anthony and I have been experimenting in the kitchen lately. Experimentation is a great way to learn things, and it’s also a great way to experience spectacular amounts of fail. I’m going to start with the bad idea that I had because I feel it’s just too depressing to end the post with it.

While Anthony was gone again into the wilderness hunting the elusive Sasquatch (actually he was celebrating a bachelor party by drinking beer and eating tri tip around a huge campfire–one day and two showers later he still smelled of wood smoke), I decided to make dinner by cleaning out the contents of the fridge. Although we technically have two cars now only one of them is drivable because the other one didn’t pass smog. I insisted he take the car we call The Sunday Buick while he left the jalopy home with me. If there was some sort of emergency I could leave the house of course, but I wasn’t eager to. That meant I had to get creative with dinner because all our fridge contained was some leftover grilled chicken, green beans, cauliflower, several ears of corn, and eggs. We survived two years with school and full-time jobs with only one car, so I’ve created many wonderful impromtu meals out of necessity.

I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain, and like anyone who has watched someone on TV for awhile and read their books, my brain sort of considers him a friend even though we’ve never met and probably never will. Oh that Tony! I’m on a first-name-basis with him (in my mind). One recent episode of No Reservations I spied something happening in the background that caught my eye. Someone was roasting whole cauliflower heads. Brilliant! I love to make Popcorn Cauliflower by roasting individual florets with olive oil and spices, but you do have to do some chopping and some messy mixing first. (Typing it out really confronts me with the fact that I am totally lazy. It’s not that hard to chop up cauliflower and douse it with spices, people.)

 

Anyway, I saw someone on the teevee roasting whole heads of cauliflower and I thought to myself I’m going to try that! So I trimmed my head of cauliflower, sprayed it with oil and coated it with my favorite combo of paprika, curry powder, and bacon salt. I probably should have looked up say, the time it would take to roast a cauliflower. And also, an oven setting would have been useful to note. Nope! I’m a rebel. I just chucked it in at 415 and set the timer for an hour. How different could it be from a potato?

Here’s where I get on with sautéing green beans and boiling corn. I fix Isobel and I a delicious dinner of corn on the cob with queso fresco, butter, and lime, green beans sautéed with tamari, and left over grilled chicken, which she just adores. My girl loves her some chicken.

We eat dinner and play outside while the kitchen starts to smell. Oh. Boy. I can tell by the smell that the wonderful thing that happens to cauliflower when it roasts is not happening. My acutal first thought when I smell it is, am I inhaling somebody’s socks?  This cauliflower is not roasting–it’s slowly steaming in its own cruciferous juices. It smells so bad I can’t bring myself to open the oven and pull it out till the next day. I want nothing to do with that fetid disaster.

The lesson to take from this is that it is not the cauliflower’s fault. It’s my fault. I should have looked up the temperature and times instead of just being lazy. Or I should have just roasted the individual florets like I love to do anyway.

********************

Isobel knows how to operate the pantry door now, by the way, so as I was cleaning up the kitchen later that night I opened the pantry to find poor Poppy, who had been locked in there for god knows how long. Isobel thinks it’s hilarious to lock the kittens in the pantry. Fortunately Poppy’s spirits were undaunted and when I opened the door she looked at me like, “Welcome to the party! The keg should be here soon.” Bless her feral little heart.Also note the complete disaster my pantry’s in. Each time we go to the store we just keep piling stuff on top of the mess. I’m sure I’ll clean it eventually.

In the past Anthony has created his own kitchen disasters so it came as a surprise that I epically failed at something while he epically triumphed. His most notable kitchen disaster happened right after I met him. It was so romantic! He was cooking me breakfast! I don’t remember exactly what he did to those huevos rancheros but it was unspeakable. He’s come a long way since that morning and particularly this summer he’s been leveling up his cooking skills. He wants to be able to cook delicious food for Isobel. Sniffle! He’s such a good dad.

As I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t a whole lot in the fridge to feed our family for breakfast, but fortunately we had those eggs. This is when Anthony stumbled upon a great idea that I’m filing away in my in my set of thrifty recipes in my brain. It was cheap and it was good.He noticed we had several kinds of leftover fruit plus some small remnants of yogurt. Instead of letting these items go unnoticed until a colony of fruit flies alerts us to their rotten presence, he decided that we need to create a new tradition of making smoothies out of leftovers before we head to the store.He chopped up a banana, threw a couple of ice cubes in to the blender, and added berries and pomegranate yogurt and produced a delicious smoothie to wash down our eggs. I sipped mine leisurely on the patio in between repotting my plants. A fancy thrift store glass is optional, of course, but it made the whole experience special. I imagine this ritual will only work in the summer months as we don’t have leftover fruit like this in the winter, but what a way to use up leftovers. Isobel loved it, too, and she went around with a pinkish mustache all morning long.

I think the moral of this story is: don’t be afraid to expariment in the kitchen. Sometimes things will turn out bad, stomach-turningly bad, but you are sure to discover some wonderful ideas, too.

Condiment Potluck

16 Jun

Last weekend we attended a potluck barbecue and Anthony volunteered to supply the condiments. In addition to typical burger fare such as ketchup, mustard and pickles we brought a platter of bacon, a bowl of guacamole, marinated red onions, and sauteed Marsala mushrooms.

Since Anthony finished school we’ve had more time together and he’s really taken and interest in the kitchen. One of the items on my Life List has been to teach someone to cook. I never thought it would be my husband.

And we’re not really there yet. He’s been learning how to make a few things, most notably bacon and guacamole, but we haven’t moved on to any serious cooking. Still, I recommend everyone have a partner who can fry up some bacon and make guacamole. Yum yum.

Anthony really likes his guacamole studded with red bell pepper and cilantro. Avocados were on sale and, holy guacamole! They were lusciously ripe and yielding. Their flesh was perfectly green and it scooped out of their leathery shells like butter. I don’t mean that just in some smooth, metaphorical sense: they were creamy and smooth and really had the consistency of perfectly soft butter. We may have drooled while we mashed them.

While he was slicing and dicing peppers for the guac I started the Marsala mushrooms. Anthony and I love mushrooms this way. Sauteed with butter, olive oil, pepper, and fresh thyme, you add Marsala wine and let it bubble down to a syrupy mushroom love fest.

Onto the onions.

All that needs to be done to these is some slicing, some grindings of black pepper, and for them to sit, jostled once in awhile, in a bath of tarragon vinegar. There’s nothing worse than getting a huge chunk of raw onion when you bite into a burger. But there’s nothing better than getting a huge chunk of marinated onion.

Who could forget the bacon?

Not us, that’s for sure.

Oh yes, Anthony and I had help.

She’s contentedly nomming a slice of bacon while playing with her Hamburgler Mobile. I tried googling that to bring up a close up photo of it, but I couldn’t find any. Remember way back when McDonald’s gave away cars with its Happy Meal? We had several but the one I remember most vividly is the Hamburgler Mobile. If you pull the car back it does wheelies and tricks in a circle. My Mother kept it all these years because it drives the cats absolutely BONKERS. She brought it over to our house one day for the kittens to play with, but Isobel just loves it. I need to get that kid some Hotwheels.

The guacamole bacon mushroom burgers were a hit and it got me thinking: we should throw a hamburger potluck where each person brings a small selection of condiments. Instead of full-sized burgers we could make sliders so we could eat a bunch of completely different, but delicious, tasting burgers. Hmmmm.