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Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

Veggie Tales

I used to eat just two kinds of vegetables when cooking for myself: green beans and broccoli. If you count potatoes as a veg, I guess that would be three. I wasn’t anti-vegetable; I was just kind of unimaginative and eating out most of the time anyway. Then, when Alec and I first got married, we cooked mostly meat-and-potatoes type meals and got weirdly addicted to Jewel store brand crescent rolls.

Our eating habits changed for the better when we signed up to get a biweekly box of mystery produce from Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks. (This is every two weeks. Did you know that biweekly means both every two weeks and twice a week? So stupid.) We started making vegetables the main focus instead of the protein, and I discovered the joys of Romanesco broccoli and ramps and rainbow chard. I learned how to handle nettles (i.e. not with bare hands) and that I really didn’t like nettles anyway. And as a bonus, we’re supporting a local small business that in turn works with local farmers.

Today Fresh Picks hosted an open house for their customers. We drove out to Niles and found their offices in a drab industrial park. I was pretty excited.

There was a raffle, information about their farmers on display, food samples and beer from Half Acre. (We used to live down the street from Half Acre in Lincoln Square/North Center and never stepped foot in there. Silly.)

The best stuff was from MANA Food Bar in Wicker Park, which made their own ricotta and served squares of it with pesto and pickled radishes. We kept going back for more helpings, pushing old ladies and children out of the way.

The Bleeding Heart Bakery was also there with cake balls and breakfast pastries.

And then there was a tour of the warehouse! I love this stuff. When I was living in New York, a friend who worked at Fresh Direct took me on a tour of the company’s warehouse in Queens and it was awesome. Conveyor belts of groceries, a cavernous room of only bananas…anyway, Fresh Picks’ set-up is like a super miniature version of that. Here’s Irv getting everyone ready to see where the magic happens.

Some more shots of the warehouse:

All in all, a very educational and tasty trip to the ‘burbs!

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Oscar Nom Noms

Five years ago, a boy named Alec invited me to an Oscars party at his apartment in Park Slope. We weren’t dating yet, but I did want to impress him with my baking skills and knowledge of cinema, so I made red velvet cupcakes (I called them “red carpet cupcakes”) and drew little Oscar statuettes and envelopes on each one with icing. They looked pretty cute. Then the tops got smushed while I was transporting the cupcakes on the subway, making the designs totally unrecognizable by the time I got to Brooklyn.

That was just the beginning of what would become an escalating annual tradition of making themed Oscar snacks. For the 2008 awards, Alec granted me co-hostess status and I reprised the red velvet cupcakes (the invitation e-mail’s subject line was “There Will Be Cupcakes“). I also made hamburger cookies in honor of Juno.

We are now committed to making a themed or punny snack for each Best Picture nominee. Brainstorming starts early, like months before the nominations are even announced, as we try to predict who will be in the running. Then I handle most of the cooking while Alec makes clever table cards on Photoshop.

This year seemed to be more challenging than others. We were still scrapping around for ideas for several of the nominees, like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” days before the party. For “The Help,” I suggested buying kombu crackers and calling it “The Kelp.” Alec said: “That is literally the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

I’m pleased to report that despite some tricky titles, this year’s spread turned out great!

And here are each of the dishes. The award for favorite pun goes to War Hors d’oeuvres, which are the sausage and cheddar balls I made for the holiday dinner party in December.

My runner-up for favorite pun is “Extremely Loud and Incredible Toast,” which The Kitchn had also suggested. We made shrimp butter toasts and ended up with a crazy amount of leftover shrimp butter, which we are going to spread on everything. It is so good.

For “The Descendants,” I baked pineapple cookies with brown sugar icing and called them Hawaiian Island Cakes because their texture was more cake- than cookie-like. I wish the pineapple flavor had come through more, but it’s hard to argue with the brown sugar icing, which was divine.

My first thought for “The Artist” was to make black and white cookies, but I already made those last year for “Black Swan” and didn’t want to repeat myself. I found a Martha Stewart recipe for black and white cheesecake squares, and they turned out delicious. I will say, however, that if you’re making this recipe, you might need a little more of the cream cheese filling. Also, you only need to reserve about 3/4 cup of chocolate dough, not 1 cup, for the topping. (I had lots left over, so I pressed it into the bottom of a muffin tin and made mini chocolate bowls for serving ice cream.) And don’t worry if the chocolate dough doesn’t press into the baking pan that well. Stick it in the fridge for the specified time and the dough will be much more malleable when it’s a little colder.

We had to do a little bit of improv for this next dish. It was our plan all along to do crudite with dip for “The Tree of Life.” But the prosciutto and pears? Originally, I was going to do little pear cubes served in baked prosciutto cups. But minutes before the party was going to start, I realized I had forgotten to start the dish, and I was too stressed to worry about the prosciutto cups. So we just made the pears and prosciutto part of the crudite platter. Our guests were none the wiser! (The dip was zucchini and ricotta, very tasty.)

As for “The Help”? I made deviled eggs, a traditional Southern appetizer, from The New Best Recipe. Yeah, I know the obvious joke is to make chocolate pie, but I didn’t want to go there.

The only non-homemade item we provided, besides the beverages, was a variety of French cheeses from the Marion Street Cheese Market to represent “Hugo.” I should also note this marked the one annual usage of our cheese board, which we registered for because we assumed that getting married would usher us into a sophisticated lifestyle of regularly eating nice cheese, when in fact we are kind of lactose intolerant.

And finally, there were the Moneyball cake pops.

OK. A word on cake pops. First of all, I know I am about four or so years behind the cake pop trend. Whatever. Secondly, while these turned out pretty cute, I will probably never make cake pops again. The most satisfying part of the process was reducing an entire chocolate cake to crumbs in a big bowl. It’s all downhill from there. Trying to get an even coating on the cake balls was pretty tedious. And then there was the matter of drawing the red seams on the pops. Aggggghhhhh. Baseball seams are very tricky! Alec drew me an example using a Sharpie and an orange, and I studied it intensely before attempting my own using red candy melts and a toothpick as a little stylus. I got the hang of it eventually, but then decided I absolutely must draw the stitches too, and my bowl of red candy melts hardened before I could finish the stitching. I could have reheated the bowl and kept going, but at that point I was just so sick of everything and full of self-loathing for having attempted the stitching at all. So I just stopped.

Also, cake pops are incredibly sweet. I thought I was going to have a diabetic coma from eating just one. (My friend’s two-year-old ate like six of them at the party. He seemed to be just fine, although I’m not the one who had to put him to bed that night.)

So there you have it, an exhaustive recap of this year’s Oscar snacks. Special thanks to our friends for their excellent company and for bringing treats, including some very delicious monster cookies and toffee from Chicago’s very own Terry’s Toffee. Please visit again, especially if you’d like to help us finish the leftover shrimp butter!

 

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Alec and I cooked dinner at home for Valentine’s Day this year. I had originally wanted to broil lamb rib chops as an indulgent treat, but they were $22.99 a pound at Whole Foods. I am not even joking.

At first, I was in denial of my own sticker shock, loudly telling Alec at the meat counter,”It’s Valentine’s Day! Let’s go CRAZY!” while the butcher patiently waited for us to decide. But Alec was like, “You really want to spend $23 a pound?”

So we got shoulder chops instead ($9.99 a pound!) and made a few sides from stuff we already had on hand at home: cauliflower, baby broccoli and a few slices of bread. Dinner was grilled lamb shoulder chops, cauliflower gratin, sauteed baby broccoli and garlic bread.

Cooking the baby broccoli was the perfect excuse to use a new kitchen gadget that had just arrived via Amazon Prime: the Vebo. It’s a collapsible silicone basket for steaming, boiling and straining vegetables. Here’s the Vebo with the baby broccoli inside. It’s got holes punched in it so you can use it like a colander.

And then you just stick the basket inside a pot of boiling water. I was blanching the baby broccoli, so I needed it fully submerged (and needed to push it down with a wooden spoon) but you can also leave the veggies suspended over the water if you’re just steaming.

I know I sound like an annoying Vebo saleslady right now, but I just love kitchen stuff and this worked out really well. (Note: I tried plunging the whole Vebo into a bowl of ice water after the broccolini was done blanching, but that didn’t quite work, so either I needed a much bigger bowl or it’s not meant for that sort of thing.)

As a bonus, the Vebo comes in cute packaging.

Hooray indeed! Hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day!

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Weekend Eating

As far as cooking for big groups goes, brunch is much easier than dinner. Unless you are doing something really ambitious like making eggs to order or something, you can make a lot of crowd pleasing brunch dishes (French toast casserole, strata) by assembling them the night before and just shoving them in the oven the next day. Something like pancakes or waffles requires more immediate attention, but you can keep them warm in the oven if you’d like to serve everyone at once and be able to eat with your guests rather than slave over the stove like a short order cook.

My family (five adults and a toddler) came over for brunch on Saturday. I made a sausage, mushroom and Monterey Jack strata from the ever reliable The New Best Recipe. While preparing the dish the night before, I had just one hiccup – I forgot to lay down the second layer of bread slices before adding the second round of filling and cheese. I should pause here to say that whenever I’m baking or cooking late at night, I almost always make little errors, and without fail I throw disproportionately large tantrums. (This has become such a recurring pattern that whenever I breezily tell Alec, “I’ll just make everything when I get home from <insert late evening event here>,” he’s learned to brace himself for hysterics.)

In the case of the strata, I predictably and melodramatically declared the dish to be ruined, but Alec very calmly took a spatula and lifted up the top layers so I could stick the bread underneath. The strata baked up nicely the next morning and tasted pretty good even though I skipped both the parsley and the recommended step of weighing down the mixture with boxes of sugar to make sure the egg distributed evenly.

On Saturday morning, I made brown sugar muffins with dried cranberries, a last-minute substitution for the blueberry muffins I planned because I discovered we were out of white sugar and we couldn’t drive to the grocery store because our car battery was dead.

My mom brought over two kinds of bread (which you can see in the strata photo above), bacon, wontons and soup dumplings. Did you know you can buy frozen soup dumplings at the Chinese grocery store? I did not. What a wondrous thing! We cooked everything but the wontons and had a feast.

Sunday was, of course, the Super Bowl. I say “of course” but I actually had totally forgotten until my brother mentioned it at brunch. (Also, I didn’t know who was playing. My best guess was the Sharks and the Jets.) We invited my brother, sister-in-law and niece over to watch the game – and this meant making snacks! Hooray. I made guacamole hummus (1 avocado + 1 can of chickpeas + garlic + cilantro + olive oil + lemon juice whizzed in the food processor) and bacon-wrapped red potatoes with rosemary. My brother ordered two pizzas from Sarpino’s and we had ourselves a Super Bowl party! I even taught my niece how to vogue during Madonna’s halftime show.

Yup, that’s the bacon from brunch. And we’ve got wonton to finish up this week too. Thanks Mom and Dad!

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The Girl with the Breadmaker

My brother and sister-in-law got me a breadmaker for my birthday and I made my inaugural loaf for a meeting of my book club, a group of girls that get together quarterly for dinner, wine and thoughtful literary discussion. We just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and my friend Rachel, who hosted this installment of book club, found a website with book-themed recipes…including suggestions for The Hunger Games! She made a delicious lamb stew and I tackled Peeta’s raisin and nut bread. Or rather, I put everything in my trusty new Breadman TR520 and let the machine do all the work.

I was going to do a dark crust to mimic the burnt loaves that Peeta gives Katniss, but I opted for medium instead. The bread turned out a little misshapen, but quite dense and filling and yummy.

You can read more about our meal (and see the recipes) at Rachel’s blog. As she mentions, our next book is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m the host, so you can bet there will be more themed food!

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Framily Dinner

A few months after buying that big ol’ dining room table, we finally took advantage of its full potential this week when we hosted some of our dearest friends for a holiday reunion potluck. Or, as my friend M. would say, a “framily dinner.”

Under different circumstances, I would have liked to cook a big meal for everyone. But the week between Christmas and New Year’s was totally jammed and I had no time for that kind of undertaking. Fortunately, all of my friends are talented cooks and were amenable to a potluck. I provided an appetizer and the main course, both of which could be partially prepped the night before. I also chose a main dish that could be done in the slow cooker because I knew I’d be racing home from work to meet the guests.

For the appetizer, I made a heart-friendly platter of sausage-cheddar balls. I prepared all of them the night before and popped them into the oven when I got home. Quite a heavy starter, I know, but it’s the holidays and I really wanted to try the recipe. They turned out well, with a nice kick from the cayenne pepper.

The main course was Hawaiian-style short ribs from the Thanksgiving issue of Everyday Food. The original recipe serves 6 and I increased it by 50 percent to feed our group of 10. Alec had the Whole Foods butcher cut the ribs into 3.5-inch pieces. I marinated the meat in the cooking liquid (brown sugar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Sriracha) overnight. While the other liquids got scaled up by 50%, I kept the amount of brown sugar the same because it already seemed like a lot of sugar, plus I used canned pineapple and figured it would be a little sweeter because of the juice. The sauce turned out fine, but next time I will add more Sriracha. Heck, I think one of my 2012 resolutions should be to add more Sriracha to everything.

Anyway, we jammed all the meat and cooking liquid, along with some red onions, garlic and ginger, in our slow cooker. The thing was stuffed to the brim and as a result, all the fat bubbled out of the crock pot and congealed into an enormous lake of grease on the counter. On one hand, this saved us the cooking step of skimming the fat off the top before adding the pineapple. On the other hand, it was TOTALLY DISGUSTING and an enormous hassle to clean up. Thank you Alec and Bar Keepers Friend  for doing all the dirty work!

You’re probably wondering what all this food looked like. Well, I forgot to take photos of the beautiful spread, so you’ll just have to squint at this dark photo of my half-eaten plate:

The other dishes were salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and three (!) kinds of olives; pumpkin lavender bread, sweet potatoes with golden raisins and walnuts; homemade chocolate truffles; chocolate fondue and a gluten-free angel food cake that was truly delicious and would hold its own against a traditional angel food cake.

Of course, the company was the best part. I wish we could get together more often!

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California Pizza Kitchen

I recently got back from a fantastic long weekend in California, where I celebrated my 30th birthday and Christmas with my in-laws. While discussing what to do for Christmas dinner, Alec’s brother proposed making pizza at home instead of going out to eat. We splurged on ingredients at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley: Vero Lucano bread flour, housemade rosemary pine nut sausage, a very nice tomato sauce whose name escapes me and Tumalo Classico goat cheese. OMG that goat cheese! I can’t stop thinking about it.

The Pasta Shop is one of those high-end shops where everything is super aspirational – a huge block of outrageously expensive pink salt that you’re supposed to keep on your table so guests can grate it directly onto their food! A tiny bottle of pinecone bud syrup! It’s not a place for regular grocery shopping, but it’s fun for the occasional extravagance. And I think the quality of the ingredients really came through. Here are some photos of the prep work:


My BIL made the pizza dough by combining two recipes, one from Alton Brown and one from Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (we did not do an overnight rise). We made two pizzas. The first was all veggies, with garlic, peppers, olives, zucchini and the goat cheese. Alec’s mom already had the garlic, peppers and zucchini in the fridge. I used a vegetable peeler to get thin shavings of goat cheese.


The second pizza had mozzarella and provolone cheeses, along with the sausage and bacon. We had bought salami too, but the pizza was already so loaded with meat it couldn’t handle any more! (The photo below is pre-bacon.)


The pizzas were baked on an Emile Henry stone that we picked up at Sur La Table for the occasion. I don’t own a pizza or baking stone, but I kind of want to get one now. The instructions said you can use it to grill fish or meat, bake tarts, etc. And it’s dishwasher safe, although I’m not sure it would fit in our dishwasher.

Anyway, here are the pizzas in all their glory. I lost count of how many pieces I ate!

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas with good eats!

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