Thursday, January 29, 2009

Noodle Pudding

I have been a very bad blogger lately. I apologize. But of course, I'm always ready with an excuse. I'm working on a BIG, food-related project that resulted in my hands looking like this:

If you can't tell the palms are dyed red. Not a good look on me...or anyone really. I'll post the project this weekend. (Hopefully.) But if you're curious, it involves baking, layers, and obviously a lot of food coloring.

Another reason for my lack of blogging is that several of my recent dinners turned out to be better in theory than in reality. Such as the chicken stroganoff I made to use these egg noodles with in the first place. But it was pretty horrible, so I decided to repurpose the egg noodles. This is a great recipe for an cooked, leftover pasta that uses things you probably have on hand already. It's not a very fancy dessert, but it doesn't have too much sugar in it (and I used skim milk and low-fat sour cream) so it can be a pretty good treat for the middle of the week.

This recipe is really flexible. I reduced the amount of milk in the original recipe to add the sour cream, but you can use two cups of milk and no sour cream. You can use raisins instead of dried cranberries, or any other dry fruit, or no fruit at all. But that would probably taste pretty boring. You can change the spices. Next time I think I'll try adding some cardamom and white raisins.

Now I'm going to go make some chicken soup and watch reruns, because I've come down with a nasty little cold.

Noodle Pudding
Adapted from The Minimalist column in the NYT, written by Mark Bittman (I know I need to start reading other people's recipes)

1 1/2 cups milk
2 tbs. unsalted butter
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup low-fat sour cream
1/2 of a 1 lb. box/bag of pasta or noodles, cooked (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
2 eggs

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
-In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk, butter, sugar and spices. When the butter is melted, remove from the heat, and whisk in the sour cream. Let cool.
-While the milk heats, butter a small baking dish. Put the noodles into the baking dish with the dried cranberries. Toss the noodles and the cranberries to combine.
-When the milk mixture is cool, whisk in the eggs.
-Pour the milk mixture over the noodles.
-Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Homemade Refried Black Beans

I think my love for refried beans started when I was about 9. The only fast food restaurant my mom would let us eat from was Taco Bell, and even that was a rare treat. But we couldn't have anything with ground beef. This might have been around the time of one of the Mad Cow media frenzies, but I can't be sure. That basically left two choices from the Taco Bell menu: chicken soft taco or a bean burrito. I got one of each. I liked the chicken soft taco, especially with those little packets of hot sauce (this was before the introduction of the fourth level of heat: fire), but I loved the bean burrito. The ooey gooey beans all melted together with the cheese and the little cubes of onion. MMM.

When I was 19, I was introduced to my next level of refried love. At Rosa Mexicana. A sort-of upscale Mexican restaurant in D.C that served all of their meals with rice and refried BLACK beans. O. So. Good. Why hadn't I found these before?

Turns out they're also basically the easiest thing to make ever. So this isn't really a recipe, it's just more like a really good idea I felt the need to pass along. Try them in tacos, quesadillas, or my favorite--simple bean burritoes with cheese and little cubes of onion. They're so much better than the stuff from the can.

Refried Black Beans

1 lb. cooked black beans (or 1 can), drained, with the cooking liquid reserved
glug of olive oil
1/2 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 ancho chili (or a few shakes of cayenne pepper)

-In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Saute the garlic and onions until they are soft and fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes.
-Add the beans, cumin, chili powder, and chili and cooking stirring occasionally about 20 minutes or until the beans start to split and get very soft. If the beans start to get dry and stick add some of the cooking liquid, one tablespoon at a time.
-When the beans are soft, remove the whole chili, and mash with a potato masher or put in a food processor and process until smooth.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Spaghetti Carbonara w/ Brussels Sprouts

When I lived in Cairo, my Belgian roommate, Sara, met an Italian guy named Georgio. He had a slight speech impediment and he couldn't roll his R's, so when he introduced himself it sounded like "Jojo." He made us pasta and sauce one night, and he was talking about how he didn't understand how Americans eat pasta.

"In Italy, spaghetti carbonara is just eggs and bacon and cheese, but in America I order spaghetti carbonara and there is all kinds of other stuff in there!"

He said it in a good-natured way, not suggesting that the pasta was bad in America, just that it wasn't really spaghetti carbonara, and we should call it something else. Something all our own.

Well, Georgio, I'm sorry. I couldn't think of something all my own to call this. But just for you, I acknowledged that there is in fact a foreign ingredient in this spaghetti carbonara...

...and it is delicious.

My thought process went something like this: Brussels sprouts taste good cooked with bacon...I like to put cabbage in my lo mein...Brussels sprouts are basically baby cabbage...I could shred Brussels sprouts and put them in pasta...with bacon...spaghetti carbonara is made with bacon...I'll make spaghetti carbonara with Brussels sprouts!

A quick weeknight meal is born. Plus the Brussels sprouts make me feel less bad about eating a huge bowl of pasta tossed with bacon and eggs. And Nic and I both thought that we didn't really like Brussels sprouts, but when you shred them up (and saute them in bacon fat) they are actually very tasty. So give them shot. If nothing else, it is an excuse to eat bacon.

Spaghetti carbonara w/Brussels Sprouts
Serves 4-6

1 lb. spaghetti or other long pasta
2 tbs. olive oil
6 to 8 oz. (about 6 to 8 slices) of bacon (or pancetta)
20-25 Brussels sprouts
3 eggs
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
salt/fresh ground black pepper

-Put a large pot of water on to boil to cook the pasta.
-While the water is coming to a boil, heat a large saute pan (I used my cast iron skillet) over moderate heat with the olive oil.
-Dice the bacon into 1/2 inch cubes, and add to the skillet when it is hot, stirring occasionally until crispy and the fat is rendered.
-In the meantime, remove the bottoms of the Brussels sprouts and any tough outer leaves, wash, and shred in a food processor (with a 2 mm blade) or with a sharp knife.
-Push the bacon to the side of the pan, and add the shredded Brussels sprouts, stirring occasionally. Let the Brussels sprouts sit in one spot long enough to brown slightly before stirring. The sproats should still be bright green but tender with just a few browned spots when done. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
-In a bowl, beat the three eggs then add the 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano cheese and stir until combined.
-When the spaghetti is done cooking, drain, reserving the cooking liquid.
-Immediately return the pasta to the pot and toss briskly with the egg and cheese mixture. Add the Brussel sproat and bacon mixture (with all the cooking fat that might be unabsorbed) and continue to toss until combined. If the pasta is dry, add a little bit of the cooking liquid and toss.
-Top with more grated cheese and black pepper to serve.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Nic made this great dinner last night while I was at the gym, struggling through an intense speed workout. My marathon is in just over three weeks so I'm trying to get in more quality time in my running shoes, which means a little less time in the kitchen.

Nic took the liberty of substituting the bacon from the original recipe with salami. I wouldn't have thought to do that, but it was tasty. This is a great, hearty winter meal, but I have to say it didn't taste quiet like what I remember eating in Hungary...probably because they don't use salami. I also told Nic to reduce the amount of caraway seeds from the original recipe because they're not my favorite.

I like my goulash over egg noodles, but you could serve it over mashed potatoes or with crusty bread or even on it's own like a soup. We halved the recipe, and it was plenty for a dinner and a lunch for the two of us. And it reheats very well, like pretty much any soupy-stewey food.

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, which Adapted from Gourmet


1 cup of salami, finely diced (or 5 slices bacon, chopped)
3 lbs. boneless chuck, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 tbs. vegetable oil
4 medium onions, diced finely
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbs. paprika
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup tomato paste
5 cups beef broth
1 to 5 cups water or beer (preferably beer, use the smaller amount for stew, the greater amount for soup)
1 tsp. salt
2 red bell peppers, finely diced

-In an 8 quart heavy kettle, cook salami (or bacon) over moderate heat, stirring, until crisp and transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.
-In the fat remaining in the kettle, brown chuck in small batches over high heat, transferring it as browned with slotted spoon to bowl. (If there is not enough fat to brown the beef, add a small amount of neutral oil, like vegetable or canola.)
-Reduce the heat to medium and add 2 tbs. vegetable oil. Add onions and garlic and cook until golden, stirring occasionally.
-Stir in paprika, caraway seeds, and flour and cook 2 minutes.
-Whisk in vinegar and tomato pasta and cook 1 minute.
-Stir in the broth, beer (or water), salt, bell peppers, bacon, and chuck and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Simmer the goulash, covered for 60 to 75 minutes, stirring occasionally.
-Season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Delightful Ginger Cookies, One Month Late

Well the long, long weekend is winding down. Soon all the tourists in town for inauguration will go home, and D.C. will quiet down to the normal gray, late winter humdrum. Sad. I liked the excitement in the air for the last week. D.C. was even on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations last night! And for those of us who live inside the Beltway, but over the river, Bourdain spent about as much time in Northern Virginia as he did in the District itself. (And no time in the Maryland suburbs.)

These cookies cheered me up a little tonight as I braced myself for the grueling three day work week. I mean Christmas was only a month ago, but I finally found a ginger cookie I like! And they're non-fat, which makes them perfect for January. (Is there anyone out there still resolutioning? There is a guy at my gym still coming to walk on the treadmill at 1 mph. No joke. He's very resolute.)

These cookies, from the awesome David Lebovitz, pack a punch. They're not for people who don't like a little spice in their cookie. The minced candied ginger gives them a stronger ginger flavor than most ginger cookies, and the black pepper gives you a good kick in the tastebuds at the end. David calls them gingersnaps, but they don't really snap. They're more of a soft, pillowy cookie, which I prefer so that works out pretty great. I made a few changes to the recipe, based on what I had on hand and to compensate for the fact that I have the strongest molasses known to man, which I figured out during a failed gingerbread experiment last month. Next time I'm definitely going to add some grated orange zest to the batter to compliment the spiciness with a little zing.

My one tip for this recipe: chop that ginger like mad. I mean just destroy it with your heaviest chef knife. You want really tiny bits. Unless you love eating big chunks of candied ginger, which I don't.

Non-fat Ginger Cookies
Adapted from David Lebovitz

1 cup, packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup applesauce
1/4 cup molasses (1/3 cup if it is mild-flavored)
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp.ground dried ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper (dial this back to 1/4 tsp. if you want it less spicy)
1/4 tsp. salt
zest from one orange (I haven't tried it yet in these cookies, but have in others)
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 cup very finely-chopped candied ginger
granulated sugar, mixed with cinnamon for rolling cookies

-In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the brown sugar, applesauce, and molasses for five minutes at medium speed.
-Meanwhile in a separate bowl sift together the flour, baking soda, spices, salt, and zest if you're using it.
-When the sugar mixture is done beating, scrape down the sides, and add the egg whites. Beat another minute.
-With the mixer at its lowest speed, add the dry ingredients until completely incorporated, and mix on medium for one minute more.
-Fold in the chopped ginger.
-Chill the batter very well, for a few hours or even better overnight.
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
-Pour the cinnamon sugar on plate or into a wide bowl. Scoop the cookie dough in heaping tablespoons, quickly roll into a loose ball in your hands, then roll in the cinnamon sugar. Move quickly so the dough doesn't get too warm. It will be a little sticky, but the sugar roll will make it easier to shape.
-Place the cookies on the lined baking sheets about 3 inches apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the center is just set. They should be soft cookies, so don't overcook.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The BEST Bread You Can Make At Home

I try not to use superlatives too often, because if I was getting on here everyday telling you I made the BEST X and the BEST Y, you'd never believe me and totally think I was full of it. And really not every recipe is the BEST. Most are just mediocre, some are special, and a rare handful are the BEST--the recipes that you know will become splattered with food and fingerprints because you will use them so much.

This No Knead Bread recipe is the BEST. That's right, NO kneading. A little stirring, two folds, and minimal shaping.

Okay, so I'm starting to sound like a bit of a Mark Bittman groupie this week, since this is the third recipe of his that I have posted about, but I promise after this I will put down my copy of How to Cook Everything and step away from the Bitten blog. (Bittman actually got the recipe from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, so he's really more of a messanger here.)

This bread has been raved about on pretty much every food blog, forum, and Web site out there since it was first published in The New York Times in 2006 because 1) it's ridiculously easy, and 2) it is more like fresh bakery bread than anything else you can make at home. And as soon as you make it, you will rave about it to whoever listens to you too. Trust me. I swore I wasn't going to do it. I thought I would just make it, eat it, and leave it be. But once I tried it, I knew I had to spread the word, even if there is only one person out there who hasn't heard about it yet.

I mean look at it:

Perfectly crispy and crunchy on the outside, with a fluffy, light crumb inside. Some of you might live near great bakeries, and buy your bread, but if you don't or you want to save a few bucks during this lovely recession we've got going on--try this. It takes absolutely no talent, less than a handful of ingredients, and just a little time. Okay, 24 hours start to finish. But most of that time you're off doing something else anyway. That being said, you need some sort of cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic pot that has a lid. That's the key to this bread. The pre-heated covered pot creates an oven inside your oven and the wet dough sort of "steams" itself. The other key is the long rising time, which gives it its delicious yeasty, almost buttery, flavor.

And COMING SOON: cake made from whole lemons, peel, pith and all.

Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread
From Mark Bittman
Make 1 large loaf

4 cups all-purpose or bread flour (I use bread)
Scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (I use active dry yeast and rehydrate it in the water heated to 110 degrees before adding)
2 tsp. salt
2 cups water at about 70 degrees (110 if using to rehydrate active dry yeast)
2 tbs. extra virgin olive oil (optional)
cornmeal, semolina, or wheat bran as needed

-In a large bowl combine the flour and salt. If using instant yeast, add to the flour at this point. If using active dry yeast, rehydrate in the 2 cups of water heated to 110 degrees. (Use a thermometer, yeast is very particular about its baths.)
-Add the water (either with or without yeast in it) to the flour and stir until combined.
-Cover with plastic wrap or put the olive oil in a second bowl and transfer the dough to that, turn to coat with oil, and cover with plastic wrap. (I don't like to dirty extra bowls, so I just covered mine up and called it a day.)
-Let the dough rest and rise for about 18 hours at 70 degrees. When the dough is ready, its surface will be dotted with bubbles. Dough rises faster in warmer temperatures and slower in cooler temperatures.
-Lightly flour a work surface, remove the dough, fold once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
-Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, form it into a ball. Coat a cotton (not terry cloth) towel with cornmeal or wheat bran. Use a lot. (You can also use a silicone baking mat instead of the towel.) Put the dough seam-side down on the towl, dust with more flour or cornmeal and cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours or until double in size. It won't spring back readily when poked with your finger when it is done.
-Half an hour before the dough is ready, preheat your oven to 425 degrees and put a covered pot (with the cover on) in the oven as it heats. (Mine was enameled cast iron and 5.5 qts. The recipe says you can use a 3 to 4 quart pot, but I am skeptical because my loaf completely filled my pot.)
-When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven and flip the dough over into the pot, seam-side up. Don't worry if the dough doesn't look perfect, it will even out while its baking. Cover the pot with the lid and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes until the loaf is browned. If the dough starts to smell scorched, lower the heat a little. (If you want a really crusty, brown loaf remove the lid at 20 minutes and bake uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes.)
-Let the bread rest on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fun with Stats

I was flipping through my StatCounter information today, and I came across some pretty hilarious stuff in there with the stats. For example, recent keyword activity (in other words, my blog came up in a search when someone entered these search terms) includes: home made pepper spray, cooking with pepper spray, cooks in the kitchen story, and--my personal favorite--"peppermint extract to stop cat spraying?"

First of all, I don't recommend cooking with pepper spray or making it at home, from my personal experiences. Second, what is this story about cooks in a kitchen? And finally, what are you people doing to your cats?!

I was pleased to see however that there were quite a few people looking for a kibbeh nayeh recipe that might have found some guidance from blog. However, the person looking for the "balsamic reduction for desert" is probably not going to have much luck. I never met a Bedouin who stocked balsamic vinegar. (If you didn't get the last joke, desert as in Sahara, not dessert as in chocolate cake. Also, it was a bad joke.)

I also found out that one of my best friends, MK, has been lurking in the blogosphere with a cute little blog about her life. My picture was even on this blog, and I didn't know about it! But she slipped up in her covert actions when she linked to my blog on her blog, because someone (actually several someones) clicked that little link, and so her blog showed up in my "recently came from" statistics. Caught ya!

I am going to have to start looking through these statistics more often.

Stracciatella: Egg Drop Soup w/ Spinach

You know why I love soup? You can't mess it up. Well maybe you can, but as of yet I haven't figured out how to. For example this soup was delicious, but I originally put some chicken bits in it that didn't really taste that great (actually I think it was the texture that bothered me). So I just fished them out. Don't worry I washed my hands first. So now I have chicken salad and "Italian egg drop soup." That's what Mark Bittman likened this soup to on the Bitten blog Recipe of the Day post yesterday. I'm not sure what is particularly Italian about it, except for the cheese and the name, but it is a great, comforting soup recipe that comes together in no time at all. Perfect for a cold winter night when you are feeling a little under the weather.

Also, I would like to point out that I one-upped Rachel Ray here, and this was a 15 minute meal, served with Greek salad and a wine someone brought as a hostess gift this weekend that was called "Woop Woop"--I kid you not.

That's all I have to say. I'm all talked out after my long narrative yesterday, which apparently amused a lot of people because it has the most views of any post I've ever written, unless you count the Homemade Pepper Spray post, but I don't because I discovered that people were getting sent to it by Google when they were sincerely trying to figure out how to make Homemade Pepper Spray. Something tells me they didn't stick around for long when they realized I just accidentally sauteed some jalapenos.

Adapted from Bitten blog

6 cups chicken stock
1 garlic clove
4 eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (I used Romano)
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of ginger
3 to 4 big handfuls of fresh spinach
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

-Put 5 cups of the chicken stock into a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
-Wack the garlic clove with the side of a knife and add that to the stock.
-In a mixing bowl, combine the other cup of chicken stock, the eggs, cheese, nutmeg, and ginger and whisk together until completely combined.
-Cut up the spinach into thin strips.
-When the chicken stock comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium high and add the egg mixture and the spinach and cook until the egg clumps together in small curds and the spinach is wilted.
-Season with salt and pepper and garnish with additional cheese or fresh Italian parsley.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Layer Cake, A Testament to My Intelligence

I don't really bake cakes, mainly because they're kind of impractical, especially if you are a household of two. I guess I could bake cupcakes, but unlike everyone else on the planet, I have not been swept up in the all too enthusiastic cupcake trend. Plus, I think of cake as a dessert that only really goes with birthdays. But since my dear friend Taylor was celebrating a birthday this weekend, I promised to make the cake. A lemon layer cake to be exact. The taste and texture turned out perfectly, and the recipe came from my friend Katie, but none of that is as interesting as my attempts to actually assemble the tasty, perfectly-baked cake and fluffy frosting. Consider this a tutorial on how NOT to put together your layer cake.

Okay, so when you bake a cake in two round cake pans, the tops come out a little bit rounded. No surprise. So you're supposed to remedy that for proper stackability by shaving off some of the dominess. Well, I'm cheap and hate wasting stuff, so I did minimal shaving. In fact, I took off so little it didn't really do much except let me taste the cake before I served it. Then I started spreading frosting to "glue" the layers together. Okay, going good so far. Then I plop the top layer on, and start frosting the outside of the cake.

At this point I realized something clearly wasn't going according to plan. First of all, the space between the layers was more like an abyss. Second, the icing probably needed more confectioner's sugar or less lemon or something because it was a wee-bit on the runny side and was pooling at the base of the cake. The only thing I could think to do was throw the whole thing in the fridge and hope that that would make the icing set, or something.

About an hour later Nic took the cake out of the fridge and tried to help smooth out the icing. The only reason it looked somewhat presentable was because he did this. My attempts only further damaged the cake's appearance. So I sliced up some lemon, and we decorated the cake in an attempt to distract the eye from the mishapen cake and its melting frosting.

At this point, I called my mom while I was waiting for everyone to come over for dinner and explained to her my cake decorating dilemma.

"I think I should have shaved off more of the rounded part of the cakes so that they stacked better," I said.

"Well yeah, you should really shave the bottom layer until it's flat," she said. "But at least you don't have to shave the top layer since it's already flat."

"It's already flat? What do you mean?"

This is the point where I realized that instead of stacking the cake the way any normal person would, with the flat part of the second cake on top of the first cake, I (for some yet unknown reason) stacked the cake rounded side to rounded side. I think I was thinking that I had to do this so that the top of the cake would be flat. (And look at that cake again, the top IS perfectly flat!)

"I thought you were supposed to be smart," my mom said. (The other quotes were sort of an approximation of the conversation, but that right there is an exact quote, albeit said while she was laughing at me.)

Also, that icing definitely need less lemon juice or more confectioner's sugar because by the time my friends got there to eat the cake, the lemon had separated out of the frosting and formed pools on top of the perfectly flat top and along the sides. Chris called it a "Hurricane Katrina" cake, i.e. flooded.

But hey, it still tasted good!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Banana-Spice Pancakes

After my run Saturday morning, I was really in the mood for pancakes. But not normal diner pancakes, I don't really like those. (Not that there are decent diners in Virginia, or really any diners for that matter.) I like a slightly denser pancake with more flavor. So adapted these from the basic pancake recipe in How to Cook Everything.

They were really delicious, the banana made them lighter and the cardamom and cinnamon added just a touch of spice. Next time I might add a little bit more cardamom so that it has a more dominant flavor.

Banana-Spice Pancakes
Adapted from How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbs. sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom
3 eggs
1 1/2 to 2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups mashed or pureed bananas (2-3, depending on size)

-Heat a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat.
-Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, cinnamon and cardamom in a large bowl.
-In a food processor or with a potato masher, puree or mash the bananas.
-In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add the mashed bananas and 1 1/2 cups of milk.
-Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine. If the batter is too thick (it should be pourable) add the other 1/2 cup milk slowly.
-Use butter or nonstick cooking spray to grease your skillet and give it a minute to heat, then pour batter onto skillet. The pancakes are ready to flip when the sides look set and bubbles are rising from the center. Flip and cook the otherside until light brown.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vodka Sauce, or The First Time I Ever Used a Recipe for Sauce

(Please excuse the pathetic picture. I used my phone to take a picture of the leftovers I was eating at work.)

I really shouldn't read food blogs in the middle of the afternoon. It's a dangerous time for me--lunch has worn off, but I'm still hours away from dinner. It's like going to the grocery store when you're hungry. I end up saving a lot of recipes that I probably will never get around to making. Then, every once and awhile, during this vulnerable time between meals (and actual work, which does distract me from hunger and blogs occasionally) I find a recipe that looks so good I want to leave early and go home and make it right away. Yesterday, I found that kind of recipe.

Maybe my hunger was getting to me, but I saw a Lidia Bastianich recipe for Penne alla Vodka on The Amateur Gourmet, and I immediately wrote down the only two ingredients I didn't already have (cream and parsley) and decided my dinner plans were going to have to change. I've been trying to eat really healthy all week, but the thought of brown rice and lentils just couldn't measure up to a bowl of pasta with creamy-alcohol sauce.

This was awesomely delicious, pretty darn simple to throw together, and fast. The sauce took less time to make then it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. And since I wasn't going to be eating lentils and brown rice, I tried to make it somewhat less sinful by using whole grain pasta and substituting half and half for the cream. I have to say, it felt immensely strange to be measuring ingredients for a pasta sauce, since I have never done that in the hundreds of times I have made pasta sauce, but this sauce was worth the little extra vigilance. The only change I would make next time would be to use about half the garlic and mince it. I just don't like the idea of wasting garlic by using a ton and taking it out, although I know this change would somewhat compromise the creaminess of the sauce.

Penne Alla Vodka
Adaptedfrom Lidia Bastianich

35 oz. can Italian whole plum tomatoes with their liquid or crushed tomatoes
1 lb. penne
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled
Crushed hot red pepper
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup half and half
3 tbs. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or romano cheese

-Put a pot of salted water on for the penne. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions for al dente. Don't overcook because it will cook for a few more minutes in the sauce.
-If using whole tomatoes, process in a food processor with their liquid until finely chopped.
-Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, then add the garlic cloves. Saute until slightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes to the garlic and olive oil and season with salt and crushed red pepper. Bring to a bubbling simmer for 2 minutes, then add the vodka. Lower the heat and simmer until the pasta is finished cooking.
-When the pasta is almost done cooking, remove the garlic from the sauce and add the half and half to the tomato sauce, stirring to combine.
-Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot. Pour the sauce over it and stir to coat the pasta. Add the parsley and check the seasoning, adding salt and red pepper as necessary. Bring the pasta and sauce back to a boil, stirring, until the sauce is reduced enough to stick to the pasta (just a few minutes).
-Remove the penne and sauce from the heat and stir in the cheese.
-Serve immediately.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lemon Chicken and Fresh Spinach

I never liked spinach when I was a kid. I dreaded nights when that was our vegetable because I knew it meant I was going to sit at the table for a long, long time. My mom wasn't very lenient. She didn't say, "Fine, but no dessert." (Actually, dessert was a treat we only occasionally had anyway so that wouldn't have really worked.) She just made us sit there and stare at it. And if cooked frozen spinach was bad warm, it was infinitely worse cold.

It wasn't until college, that I realized that spinach could actually be quite good, if it was fresh. But still wary of anything cooked, I didn't try to cook the fresh spinach until about a year ago. Of course now my mom doesn't really use frozen spinach (my younger brothers have it so easy). And we both buy ridiculously large boxes of organic spinach from Costco, so no matter how much spinach salad I eat, sooner or later, I have to start cooking it. And now I can eat my whole serving no problem, before it even gets cold.

This is really more of an idea for a fast week night meal than it is a recipe, but I did try to measure everything. I served it with whole wheat couscous on the side, which I did make in a separate pot, but on second thought you could really just add the extra chicken broth to the lemon sauce and cook the couscous right in there as well. A one pot meal that doesn't look like it. I'm sneaky like that. Also, this is my favorite way to eat cooked spinach. Good luck serving it to kids.

Lemon Chicken and Fresh Spinach
Serves 2, easily multiplied

2 chicken breasts, butterflied if they are very thick
flour for dredging
3 tbs. butter (I use Smart Balance spread, which is not really butter but not really margarine either)
2 tbs. olive oil
juice from two large lemons (this should yield between 1/3 and 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup chicken broth, plus extra needed for couscous if adding
several large handfuls of fresh spinach

-Heat a large skillet on moderate-high heat ith the butter and the olive oil.
-While it is heating, season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then dredge in the flour.
-Brown the chicken breasts on both sides in the skillet. When both sides are browned, remove from the skillet and set on paper towels.
-Add the lemon juice and chicken broth to the skillet and bring it to a simmer.
-Put the chicken breasts back into the pot, and simmer for about 5 minutes, turning often so they absorb some of the juices.
-Slide the chicken breasts to the side of the skillet (or remove to a plate if you don't have enough room) and cook the spinach in the lemon sauce. This should only take a few minutes. Cook just until slightly wilted.

NOTE: To cook the couscous in the same pot, remove the chicken breasts after they have simmered in the lemon sauce for five minutes. Add the additional chicken stock and bring up to a boil. Toss in the couscous and stir until it is cooked. This only takes a few minutes. Remove the cous cous with a spoon, and cook the spinach in the remaining juices.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Banana Bran Muffins w/Chocolate Chips and Pecans

Muffins are my favorite thing to bake. They're so easy, they're almost impossible to mess up. They're basically quick bread in individual portions. They're also extremely flexible, so you can experiment and still end up with something edible, and they are fairly healthy, if you choose to make them that way. I suppose you could go the other way and basically make un-iced cupcakes, but I tend toward the healthy so I can eat them quilt-free for breakfast. What did you say? These don't sound healthy? Hello, bran=fiber, dark chocolate=antioxidents, pecans=protein, banana= potassium. So healthy.

I make a lot of muffins, but I don't post all of them because I don't want to become the muffin lady. These muffins, however, were so good I decided they had to see the light of the blog.

The whole wheat flour and wheat bran give these muffins some hearty substance, but the banana and the low-fat sour cream keep them light. With just a small amount of chocolate chips and pecans, they have a lot of flavor without being too much of an indulgence.

Version 1.0 of these little guys was liberally adapted from the back of the Bob's Red Mill wheat bran bag, a recipe for Molasses Bran Muffins. I substituted honey for molasses and mashed bananas for apple sauce. I gave most of the 1.0 batch to my running group Saturday morning. I have no idea what they thought of them because I was still struggling through my treacherously long run when they all left, but I thought they were still a little too dense and dry. My opinion could have been slightly skewed by the fact that I ate my muffin moments after I stopped running, so I was pretty parched, but I decided to change them up some anyway. So last night I made another batch, this time increasing the amount of banana and substituting lowfat sour cream for milk. ::And she sticks the landing.:: Ok, so they're just muffins, but they're my new favorite healthy muffins.

Banana Bran Muffins w/ Chocolate Chips and Pecans
Makes 12 standard muffins

You can double the pecans and leave out the chocolate chips, or substitute other nuts, raisins, or other mix-ins, as long as the total of the mix-ins is 1 cup. You can also make these as a quick bread, but the cooking time would have to be increased slightly, depending on the size of the loave. The best way to judge the doneness is when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

This recipe is easy to cut in half to yield 6 muffins.

1 cup wheat bran
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips or dark chocolate chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1 cup low fat sour cream
1/2 cup honey
1.5 cups mashed bananas (3-4 very ripe bananas)
2 tbs. vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin pan with paper liners or spray with nonstick spray.
-Combine both flours, wheat bran, baking soda, and baking powder in a large bowl. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
-In a separate bowl, beat together the sour cream, honey, mashed bananas, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla.
-Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
-Pour mixture into muffin pan and bake for 15 or 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out cleam.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Capellini w/ Anchovy Sauce

Well this is it. My final holiday post. I considered holding on to it and waiting until next year to share it so it would be more timely, but the truth is most people aren't going to just start making capellini w/anchovy sauce as a holiday meal. That's not really how tradition works. But considering how easy it is, you really could make it any time. Although we never do.

You may have heard of the Italian-Catholic tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. Wikipedia tells me it has been around since medieval times, so this is some serious tradition here. I have no idea how long my family has been doing it the way we currently do it, but it seems to be for as long as the collective memory can remember. Apparently there is some significance to the number seven, since it appears in the Bible a lot, but my family has never (in my memory) really been able to get that many types of fish on the table. So I guess this is sort of the poor man's version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Anchovy salad, anchovy sauce, fried smelts, and baccala (salted cod fish), and every once and awhile (although not this year) fried calamari. So we basically max out at 4 or 5. This year we served 30 people, and 4 types of fish were about all my Poppop's kitchen could accommodate. We also have salad and chick pea soup, but they have nothing to do with fish.

Why fish? Well, you're not supposed to eat meat on Christmas Eve, just like Catholics used to not eat any meat on Fridays or holy days. (The Jews and the Muslims must laugh at our idea of "fasting.")

Even people who don't like anchovies, will probably like this sauce. Mainly because there aren't that many anchovies in it relative to the amount of sauce it makes. It definitely has a distinct flavor, but if you don't tell people what that flavor is, they will never guess. (We have tested this.) You can just tell them it's your secret ingredient. You'll seem very wise and mysterious. Just make sure you dispose of the anchovy cans. You don't have to serve it over capellini (or angel hair), but I can't really imagine eating it any other way. The sauce is relatively thin, and the capellini is best because it absorbs the sauce, instead of just swimming around in it.

This pasta is the main course for our meal, and most years my mom makes it. This year we started cooking around midnight the night before Christmas Eve. My mom's patience for measuring (which is never high) was pretty low, so I had to watch and guesstimate for some of the measurements. It seems like a lot of water, but I added the water myself so I am not making this up. It does simmer for hours, so it thickens up. If you are worried that you won't have time for it to thicken all the way, add about half the water, let it thicken and then add the other half if you have time.

Anchovy Sauce
Serves 30 w/ 4-5 lbs. of capellini, (quantities for 1lb. of capellini below)

10 cloves of garlic, minced (2-3 cloves of garlic, minced)
olive oil
54 oz. tomato paste (we used 9- 6oz. cans this time, but you could use larger cans)
2 to 4 (2 oz.) cans anchovies packed in olive oil(depending on taste)
1 to 2 cups fresh chopped parsley

-With a mortar and pestle (or a food processor, I suppose), mash the anchovies in their oil.
-Heat a few glugs of olive oil in a large sauce pan over moderate heat. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes in the oil.
-Add the tomato paste and the mashed anchovies to the olive oil and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Don't let the garlic burn.
-Fill every tomato paste can you used with water 3 times, adding the water to the sauce pan (162 oz. or about 20 cups of water). If concerned about thickening time, add about half the water at first. The other half can be added if time permits.
-Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
-Cover the sauce pan with a lid, leaving it slightly off center so some steam can vent. Simmer for 2 to 4 hours. The sauce will be smooth and on the thinner side for a tomato sauce.
-Add salt and pepper as needed before serving.

Ingredients for about 1 lb. cappelini
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced

olive oil

2-6 oz. cans tomato paste
36 oz. (4.5 cups) water

1/2 to 1 can anchovies (2 oz. can)

1/2 cup parsley