Monday, November 29, 2010

Ain't Mis-beet-havin'

A perusal of The Messy Apron archives will indicate that it’s been a long time since I’ve complained about beets. I miss that.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of beets from the end of the summer/fall CSA share lurking in the refrigerator, all nutritious and long-lasting…and unpalatable. Or that there won’t be more coming in the winter share boxes. Oh no, there are plenty of beets. There will always be plenty of beets.

I’m getting braver with my beets, trying to find new dishes in which to hide them, and with my latest experiment I had some fear that I might be taking things a bit too far. I worried that I was creating a conflict between good and evil on the scale of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” I was going to introduce the unholy beet to possibly the most pure and beautiful food in all the world. Yes, I took the ultimate risk. I put beets in a cake.

I started with this recipe from Cooking Light magazine. The recipe writers promised me that this would be like a carrot cake, which made good sense, since even I know that carrots and beets are a pretty good match. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance, however, and added more flavor to the cake wherever I could. I swapped out vegetable oil in favor of butter and exchanged milk for orange juice. I also added some vanilla, extra cinnamon and orange zest. The frosting, which contained no beets, was very promising on its own, but I fiddled anyway. It called for orange zest, but, since I only had one orange and its zest sacrificed itself to the cake batter to fight the taste of the beets, I put in some Grand Marnier instead. The liqueur matched the orange in the cake, but also gave the frosting an extra air of sophistication. You could replace it with milk and put the orange zest back in if you wish.

The original recipe was for a double layer cake, but I thought that was too much pressure. If the taste was too beety to be enjoyed, that would have been too much work and too much waste, so I made half the recipe. (Besides, only two people would be eating it.) The result is one 9-inch round cake with plenty of cream cheese frosting (I halved that recipe, too).

The cake batter is quite shockingly purple-red, but bakes up golden brown. I shredded my beets using the food processor, so they were more coarsely shredded (ie, in larger pieces) than they would be if you use a box grater. The authors of the recipe suggested, “You may want to wear an apron while grating the beets because they tend to splatter.” Way ahead of you…but even armored with an apron, being up to my elbows in beet juice is pretty unappealing to me. If you use a box grater, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

I have to say I really like this cake. I can taste the beets, but only a little. The holiness of cake prevailed over the beets, perhaps even converted them to the side of light. The flavor of the orange pulls the beets out of the abyss and, surprisingly, keeps it from being cloyingly sweet. The frosting, which is quite sweet, but which I could nonetheless eat with a spoon, is a smooth and rich accompaniment that probably does more than its fair share of the work in making this a delicious dessert. You can hide a lot of sins and misbehavior with cream cheese frosting.

And so, I found one more reason to stop complaining about the healthy and bountiful beet. I will bake and eat this cake again. Perhaps it can even bring me to renounce my beet-hating. Well, let’s not get too excited just yet.

Beet and Orange Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine

½ pound beets
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup butter, melted
1 egg
1 teaspoon finely shredded orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

4 ounces cream cheese (I used reduced fat)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier (optional)
1 ½ cups powdered sugar (aka confectioner’s sugar)

1. Prepare the baking pan: Trace the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan onto parchment paper. Cut out the circle. Spray the sides and bottom of the inside of the pan with nonstick cooking spray (or use a generous amount of oil or butter). Place the parchment circle in the bottom of the pan and spray it with cooking spray.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Trim the ends of the beets and peel off the skin. Shred the beets in a food processor or with a box grater. (You should have about 2 loosely-packed cups of shredded beets.)

3. In a large bowl or in the bowl of a heavy duty mixer fit with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar, brown sugar, melted butter and egg. Beat on medium speed until smooth. Add the orange zest, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and shredded beets. Mix until well combined.

4. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Stir with a whisk or sift to combine. Add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and beat at medium-low speed until well combined. Add ½ of the orange juice and beat to combine. Repeat with another 1/3 of the flour mixture and the rest of the orange juice. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat to combine. Stir the batter with a spoon or rubber spatula to ensure no dry spots remain.

5. Pour or spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. If you wish to test to ensure that the cake is done, insert a wooden pick into the center of the cake. It should come out without any raw batter attached.

6. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Carefully invert the pan to remove the cake and peel off the parchment circle. Cool completely on the wire rack.

7. To make the frosting, in a medium bowl beat together the cream cheese, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract and orange liqueur if using with an electric mixer. Add 1 cup powdered sugar and beat slowly until the mixture is smooth. Add the remaining powdered sugar and beat until smooth.

8. Spread the frosting over the top of the completely cooled cake, all the way to the edge. Some of the frosting may dribble over the side.

Makes 8-10 servings. Store leftovers, covered, at room temperature for a few days.

Another beet and orange recipe: Black Beans with Beets and Oranges

Monday, November 22, 2010


I’m all in favor of feasting. I think the best way to celebrate something, anything, is with a collaborative effort of creative culinary minds resulting in a groaning board that is quickly but gratefully dismantled by hearty eaters. My best and fondest memories are of such events, almost always with family, and occasionally with good friends. It usually seems like it’s all about the food, but cheerful chatter and lots of laughing are always a big part of the celebration, too. I’ve been fortunate that way.

I’ve never really hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for more than two people (including myself), but I contribute when I can (this year, again, I’m bringing the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce), but I’d have to be an idiot to not recognize the effort that goes into choreographing such an event for a crowd. As difficult and perhaps stressful as that huge meal can be to put together, especially with the average Thanksgiving dinner expectations, it’s becoming just as difficult to keep genuine gratitude at the forefront of the celebration. If one were merely to watch television commercials to determine the gist of the American cultural scene of late autumn, one might think Thanksgiving is merely the kickoff of the Christmas shopping season with the Big Dinner as a carbo-load for Black Friday shopping. And this kickoff date seems in danger of creeping ever earlier (as soon as the Halloween candy and decorations are sold off at clearance prices, the Christmas stuff takes their place on the shelves). Will we soon be tricked into skipping Thanksgiving altogether because it’s not as marketable as other holidays?

I think we’re smarter than that. I think we need holidays and activity to help us through the dark and the cold and the snow of the approaching winter, but we know what they really mean at their core, and that doesn’t have to be the same thing for all of us. I think most of us know what we are fortunate to have and we are grateful for it, even if it is not the same kind of thing for which others are grateful. You don’t have to subscribe to a particular or any religion or feel that you owe someone to celebrate and give thanks.

So, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, and hope you have a fabulous celebration. I also hope you can take some time between unfastening your tightening belt and the football game and the shopping spree to remember what is good in your life, especially the simple things. Laugh a little. Have some fun. Dig in to a good meal if possible. Offer a toast or two, or a prayer if that’s your preference. Actually say, “Thank you,” to the folks in your life who deserve it. And, for goodness sake, thank the person or persons who cooked your Thanksgiving dinner!

While it’s probably best if you already have your Thanksgiving meal planned by now, here are a few recipes from The Messy Apron archives that I think would go well on a Thanksgiving table.
Broccoli Stem and Kohlrabi Slaw
Cranberry Sauce (the can is out of the question!)
Crunchy Cabbage, Cauliflower and Apple Salad
Grandmama’s Pumpkin Pie
Red Cabbage Slaw with Apples and Cranberries
Roasted Vegetables
Spaghetti Squash Salad with Greek Flavors
Spinach Salad with Apples and Maple Walnut Vinaigrette
Sweet and Tart Broccoli Salad
Wheat Berry Salad with Roasted Vegetables and Maple Walnut Vinaigrette

And, if you’re serving people who prefer a vegetarian meal, you might consider main courses such these:
Quinoa Stuffed Squash
Winter Vegetable Galettes with Cheddar, Mustard and Caramelized Onions
Winter Squash and Leek Empanadas with Sage
Winter Squash and Onion Curry with Yogurt Sauce

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spiced and Spiked: Mulled Apple Cider

And so the season begins. The season of fighting off the gloom and depression of the dark and cold days of winter with holidays and celebrations and gatherings and, say it with me, really great food. Many of us visit and give thanks and give gifts. Some worship, some cook, some feast, some fight, and some shop ‘til they drop. Some spice up the days to get by, while others prefer to have their holidays spiked.

I believe it’s a basic fact of human nature that we need these celebrations too keep us from going off the deep end during the late fall and winter, especially in places with excruciatingly short days and cold temperatures and snowy roads. I really think, however, that we put too much pressure on ourselves (as well as our friends and families) when it comes to these year-end celebrations. Sure, we set out to give honor and thanks to and for what is important to us, and generously wish to find the perfect gifts for loved ones or make the season brighter for those who may not have enough. But, let’s face it: we all too often make ourselves crazy in the process.

Because we need to calm down a bit to stay sane, to sit back and relax and contemplate what is meaningful to us, or what we are thankful for, or why exactly it is that we can’t stand to be in the same room with Aunt Mildred, I offer you a warm and flavorful apple cider drink for your sipping pleasure. Because we also need to spice up these darkening days, this cider is steeped with a handful of sassy spices as well as a few strips of orange peel. Because a spiked drink may be just what the nerves seem to need, there is also an optional plug of apple brandy.

This cider is quite spicy, and I really went through the cabinet in hopes of creating an especially complex flavor. I recognize that the average kitchen, even during the holidays, might not be stocked with quite so many whole spices, and I think you could leave out what you don’t have and still make something pretty good. Heck, I forgot to put the cardamom in last time I made this and, while I, tasting critically, could tell it wasn’t there, the cider was still delicious and comforting. Really, the cinnamon is the most important part and you could probably make a delightful cider without anything else added. Don’t put the added pressure on yourself of going out to gather spices in the cold.

The apple brandy (I used Apple Jack) brightens the flavors of the final beverage, and it might also serve to brighten the conversation at your next gathering. You can leave it out, and if you do, this becomes a nice drink for breakfast or an afternoon break. I tend to split the batch and spike half of it for evening relaxation and leave the rest untainted for morning or daytime sipping.

Whatever you celebrate or use as an excuse to gather over the next six weeks or so, I hope you have a pleasant and peaceful time. Spiked or just spiced, you make the call, but perhaps also take the time to sit back and sip rather than gulp in the whole holiday season while giving thanks, enjoying your loved ones and taking in some really great food.

Mulled Apple CiderThe amount of alcohol in this drink is modest. Adjust it to your liking or leave it out entirely.

8 cups (2 liters) fresh apple cider
6 cardamom pods, crushed
3-4 small chunks crystallized ginger (about 1 heaping tablespoon or 15 ml)
6 whole cloves
6 whole allspice berries
2 whole star anise
3 4-inch (about 10 cm) cinnamon sticks
1/4 inch (about 0.5 cm) chunk whole nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon (1 ml) grated nutmeg
4 1-inch (2.5 cm) wide strips orange peel
½ cup (125 ml) apple brandy, such as Calvados or Apple Jack (optional)

1. Pour the cider into a large pot. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the brandy. Cover and bring to a boil.

2. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered, for 30 min. Turn off the heat and let stand 30 minutes more.

3. Strain out the spices or remove them with a slotted spoon. To serve, return the cider to the heat and warm until hot. Stir in the brandy if using. Serve hot or refrigerate and rewarm as needed.

Makes 10-11 6-ounce (175 ml) servings.

Another recipe like this one: Ginger Spice Ice Cream

One year ago: Cranberry Sauce

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Soup for Supper

When I made this soup, it seemed a quaint reminder of when it used to get cold this time of year, and one liked a bit of hearty soup for supper to help keep oneself warm. Though it wasn’t particularly cold outside, I happened to have lots of lovely red potatoes, many nice, large leeks, one honking huge head of Napa cabbage, and a soup recipe from the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special cookbook. The days were getting shorter, even if they weren’t as cold as they have since become, and I was feeling a little under the weather, so soup it would be.

This soup is creamy but manages to remain light-feeling because the creaminess is provided by reduced fat cream cheese rather than cream. I also sneaked in some Gruyere cheese, which I love in cream soups with potatoes. The cheese brought along some additional richness, but not so much as to leave and oil slick on the soup. Its sharp, nutty flavor is subtle alongside the cabbage and the spices, but it’s definitely there, and is worth stirring in.

Speaking of the spices, the original recipe called for caraway, which is a no-brainer with cabbage as far as I’m concerned, but I also added some coriander seed to go along with it. I like the combination, and the coriander gives the stoic, storage-vegetable taste of cabbage and potatoes a bit of a citrusy lift. I coarsely ground whole spices, which I think results in the most flavor, and I didn’t mind the extra pop of spice that the little pieces gave to each spoonful.

I used Napa cabbage here, because that’s what I had, but the original recipe called for green cabbage. I think the Napa, which is leafier and less crunchy, may have cooked more quickly than regular green cabbage, but not so much as to require a major change in the recipe instructions. Savoy cabbage would probably also be good, although I find is flavor to be stronger, so be ready for that.

To save time and dish-washing, I used an immersion blender to puree the soup. It leaves behind some fibers and spice bits that the regular blender might pulverize, but I don’t mind if my creamy soup has a little substance as well. This was one of those simple recipes that I had a feeling I’d start making pretty often, especially if a bit of cabbage or a few potatoes need using up. If, however, I keep making it as long as that gigantic cabbage lasts, I might have my fill of the stuff until next winter.

Creamy Cabbage and Potato Soup
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special

While I used chicken broth in this recipe, you could use vegetable broth or water to make the soup vegetarian.

2 tablespoons butter
2 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts, well washed
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
4 cups chopped Napa cabbage (or other green cabbage)
2 cups sliced peeled potato
3 cups chicken broth (I used fat-free reduced-sodium)
3 ounces reduced fat cream cheese
½ cup (about 2 ounces) shredded Gruyere cheese
freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Melt the butter over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large soup pot. Add the leeks and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover and cook 10 minutes, lifting the lid to stir occasionally.

2. Pulse the caraway seeds and coriander seeds in a spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder) a few times until they are coarsely ground, or crush them with a mortar and pestle.

3. Add the cabbage and the coarsely ground spices to the leek mixture. Cover and cook about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is well wilted, stirring occasionally.

4. Add the potatoes and chicken broth. Cover, bring to a boil and cook 25-30 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.

5. Remove the soup pot from the heat. Stir in the cream cheese and puree the soup, either with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender.

6. When the soup is pureed, stir in the Gruyere cheese. Taste for salt and add more and black pepper to taste. Rewarm if necessary.

Makes 4-5 servings.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Winter Instincts

I remember my school teachers going to great pains to force home the point that human beings, unlike animals, have no instincts. None whatsoever. Everything we do is learned behavior. Hmmm. Why, then, if she is not drawn by some innate drive to put on a layer of warm fat for the winter, would a cook take something relatively low in calories and high in vitamins and fiber, like, say, butternut squash, and mix it together with bread, eggs, half and half, cheese and bacon? Does she not need these additions to get her through the coming dark days?

I suppose if that cook (she shall remain nameless, but she wears an apron that’s usually pretty messy) is making a savory bread pudding to serve for supper as the days get shorter and colder and the winter squash from the CSA threatens to surpass its built-in freshness date, she could be acting within the realm of learned behavior after all. That’s not to say that this recipe is difficult or overly complicated, requiring much learning to master. If you have squash or pumpkin puree on hand, either store bought or homemade, there’s not much more to this than there is to making French toast.

I, I mean this cook, made a custard with eggs, butternut squash puree, and half and half (milk would work, too, and would have fewer calories, but it was the day before shopping day and the milk was almost gone), flavored it with Dijon mustard and a little nutmeg, and soaked homemade whole wheat bread in it. She then stirred in crisp bacon, onions that had been caramelized in the rendered bacon fat, and some nutty Gruyere cheese, and baked it all into a rich, savory and flavorful bread pudding.

It’s best to use a loaf or remnant of a loaf of bread that you can cut into thick slices and then into chunks. I’ve made this with both whole wheat and white bread, and both work well. It is also better to use day-old or older bread, since it is dry and can keep its shape and soak up the custard, plus the recipe uses up the bread that might otherwise just get stale. I did just make this with fresh bread, however, because that was all I had, and it was still very good.

And so, the cook, while adding calories to her diet for the winter, learned to make a pretty good savory bread pudding in the process. The sweetness of the caramelized onions compliments the sweetness of the squash, and the smoky bacon and tangy Dijon mustard provide a pleasant contrast that keeps the sweetness from getting cloying. This is a filling and comforting supper dish, and only needs a salad to go along side it, but it would probably be very good brunch fare as well. Perhaps the simple and wholesome squash doesn’t need bread and eggs and bacon and cheese to make it good. Well, if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that need is a relative term.

Savory Squash Bread Pudding with Bacon and Onions

4 slices thick-cut bacon
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
water for cooking the onions, if needed
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 eggs
1 cup half and half or milk
1 cup pumpkin or winter squash puree, such as Roasted Winter Squash Puree
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces (about 1 cup) shredded Gruyere cheese
8 ounces whole wheat or white bread (preferably day-old) cut or torn into 1 to 2-inch chunks

1. In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels. Chop or crumble when cool enough to handle. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat from the pan.

2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the onions and ¼ teaspoon salt to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally 20-25 minutes or until very soft and brown. Add water, a tablespoon or two at a time, if the onions seem to be browning too quickly. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the half and half or milk, squash puree, Dijon mustard, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, black pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk all together until well-combined. Add the bread and stir to coat the bread well. Let stand 10 minutes.

4. Stir the crumbled bacon, cooked onion mixture and the Gruyere cheese into the bread mixture until well-combined.

5. Spray or brush a 2-3-quart shallow baking dish or casserole with nonstick cooking spray, oil or butter. Spoon or pour the bread mixture into the dish and smooth it out so that it is even in the dish. Cover and bake 30 minutes at 350. Uncover and bake 10 minutes more. Cool slightly before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings. Refrigerate leftovers and reheat to serve.

Other recipes like this one: Sweet Pumpkin Focaccia, Winter Squash and Leek Empanadas with Sage, Winter Squash and Onion Curry with Yogurt Sauce

One year ago: Potato and Bacon Frittata

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sweet Focaccia

“Aaaawww! You didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” –Linus to Lucy as she cuts into a pumpkin in It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown

I kept the cute little pumpkin that we got in an October CSA box around until after Halloween. It served as a table decoration, but then I wanted to serve it for dinner. Typically, I realize that all of my squash are going to go bad if I don’t soon eat them or roast, puree and freeze them for later use. Then, I go into a bit of a baking frenzy and get several of the squash, including my little pumpkin, out of the way. This year, instead of taking a cleaver and mallet to the hard squash, I tried an idea from my mom (mom’s often have very good ideas) and baked the squash for about 30 minutes in the oven (I think mom uses the microwave) to soften the skin and flesh enough to cut it open more easily. I was just sure to poke the squash skin all over with a knife to allow some steam to escape and avoid explosions. It worked! I could then cut open the squash without pounding, scoop out the seeds, and continue baking until done.

If I don’t have any brilliant ideas about new recipes to try, I’ll make an old stand-by out of some of my new puree. Often, it’s a soup and/or this Pumpkin-Walnut Focaccia with Gruyere from Cooking Light magazine. Recently, however, inspired by recipes I’d seen for breakfast focaccia, I went on the sweet side. I messed around with the original savory recipe to make a sort of breakfast or snack or afternoon tea bread that has a sweeter, more buttery dough, a flatter slice, and pecans and dried cranberries on top.

Because of the presence of the pumpkin (and probably the extra butter that I added) the dough for this bread is very, very soft, moist and sticky. I just kept adding flour until I thought it looked right, which is a terrible thing to reveal if you’re trying to share a recipe with other people. I used my heavy-duty stand mixer to avoid making too much of a mess. The dough does become more manageable after the first rise, that is, it is more like a bread dough than a sticky batter. It needs to be soft so you can stretch and press it into a rimmed baking sheet, but if your end product is too moist or too stiff, I think you could shape it however you can or want.

The final product is a golden brown, sweet flatbread with plenty of pumpkin and spice flavor and a moist interior. I liked the cranberries and pecans on top, but you could use other nuts or dried fruit (I particularly like dates with pumpkin) or leave them off for a plain focaccia. While this is quite a sweet bread, which I first served with hot chocolate for a late evening non-supper and have been munching for breakfast and coffee breaks, I think it might go well on the dinner table also.

While I’d love to recommend this most as a breakfast or brunch bread, it does take time to make. The way I move in the morning, a breakfast starring this bread wouldn’t be served before 3 pm. I do think, however that the dough could be made ahead of time, and perhaps even pressed into the pan and refrigerated until ready to bake. I haven’t tried this yet, but I guess I now have something to keep me busy with the rest of my squash puree.

Sweet Pumpkin Focaccia
I use a heavy-duty stand mixer with a dough hook to make this bread because the dough is fairly moist and sticky. The amount of flour required to make the dough may depend on the moisture content of your pumpkin or squash puree. Canned pumpkin is fine in this recipe.

You could use different dried fruit or nuts to top the focaccia.

¾ cup warm water
½ cup brown sugar, divided
2 ¼ teaspoon (1 package) active dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
3-4 cups bread flour, divided
4 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup pumpkin or other winter squash puree
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup chopped pecans

1. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, combine the water, 1 tablespoon brown sugar and the yeast. Let stand at least 5 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy.

2. Add the remaining sugar, whole wheat flour, 1 cup bread flour, 4 tablespoons melted butter, and pumpkin. With the paddle attachment, stir on low speed to make a wet batter. Cover and let stand 15-30 minutes. (This makes a “mini-starter” that I find adds flavor and consistency to my breads. To save time, you could skip the standing time an move on to the next step.)

3. Add 2 cups bread flour, salt, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. Mix together until a wet dough forms. Remove the paddle attachment and replace it with the dough hook. Knead the dough on low to medium-low speed about 10 minutes, adding as much of the remaining flour as is necessary to create a smooth but somewhat sticky dough. You want it to be able to hold together as you pull or stretch it, but it will still be quite wet.

4. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Oil a large bowl or spray with cooking spray. Place the dough ball in the bowl and spray or oil the top. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough. Cover with a towel. Let stand in a warm place for about 1 hour.

5. Gently press down the dough and form it into a new ball. Let stand 5 minutes.

6. Preheat oven to 400 F. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter. Brush about half the butter all over the bottom and sides of a large rimmed baking sheet. Press and stretch the dough into the baking sheet, filling it as completely as possible. The dough should be soft enough to shape easily.

Sprinkle the cranberries and pecans over the top and press them into the dough. Cover with a towel and let stand 20 minutes.

7. Press the dough all over with your fingertips to create large dimples. Brush the remaining butter over the dough. Bake at 400 F for 20 minutes or until the bread is golden brown. Cool slightly before slicing into squares or rectangles. Serve warm.

Makes about 12 servings. Keeps well in a zip-top bag for at least a day.

Other recipes like this one: Pumpkin Oatmeal Quick Bread with Dates and Pecans, Grandmama’s Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes

One year ago: Chocolate Orange Bread

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Grains and Vinaigrette

I’ve done this before, and I’ll probably do it again. I took a vinaigrette that I like on a green salad and poured it over some cooked and cooled whole grains and a few other compatible ingredients to make a different, heartier salad. This isn’t innovative or revolutionary. It is, however, convenient, especially if you happen to keep extra cooked whole grains in the freezer. It’s also nutritious, and, when you get the combinations right, delicious.

This time, I used up some of the Cranberry Vinaigrette I made recently over some cooked barley and wild rice. The Cranberry Vinaigrette recipe makes quite a bit, so this recipe was good for using some of it up. I also cooked up the last of a little bag of pearled barley that had been sitting in the cupboard since I don’t know when. Wild rice also sounded good here, and, as the flavors seemed to be taking on an autumnal theme, I added dried cranberries and pecans. For crunch, I threw in some celery, and for a salty, chewy contrast, I added some little cubes of provolone cheese. I really would have liked to have some green onions to go along, but I didn’t have any on hand. My herb garden is still alive on the patio, however, so I used fresh chives instead, and added some parsley as well.

See, improvising such a salad is really pretty simple, especially if you know of some ingredients, particularly seasonal ingredients, that have an affinity for each other. In this case, the sweet and tart cranberry dressing went well with the sweet, crunchy pecans, simple celery, and, of course, more cranberries. Just about any grains would have worked, but I probably would not have put in asparagus or tomatoes or peppers in the mix, because I just don’t think they would have worked flavor-wise or with the seasonal spin I was putting on this salad.

Well, whatever the theory behind this dish, it’s very good, and it’s a good jumping-off point for tasty combinations based on whatever you might have in your cupboard or refrigerator or freezer. While I ate it as part of a simple supper alongside some roasted root vegetables and winter squash I also think it would be a good accompaniment on a fall or winter feast table. Of course, you could start out thinking of making a salad something like this, but end up with something completely different…and at least as delicious.

Barley and Wild Rice Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette
You could make this salad vegan by leaving out the cheese, or add some beans to increase its protein content.

2 cups cooked barley
1 cup cooked wild rice
1 cup diced celery
½ cup dried cranberries, such as Craisins
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup cubed provolone cheese
¼ cup parsley
¼ cup chopped green onions or fresh chives
½ cup Cranberry Vinaigrette

1. Combine all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette and stir until coated. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Makes 6-8 servings. Leftovers can be covered and kept refrigerated for at least a few days.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pecan Cornbread

While I made a plain cornbread with the first servings of Squash and Pinto Bean Chili, when I served the leftovers, I wanted to try something different that would hopefully match the sweetness of the chili. I set out to make a bourbon-molasses cornbread with pecans, but the resulting bread was distinctly dominated by the pecans…Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I began this recipe with my favorite cornbread recipe in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. I’ve been using an organic stone-ground cornmeal from a local mill, which is quite lovely. It actually tastes like corn. Go figure. Anyway, my usual cornbread is also good with more standard and easily available commercial brands of cornmeal, so you could use that, too. Also, instead of white, all-purpose flour I use whole wheat pastry flour, which not only boosts the WFQ* of the cornbread, but makes it taste great. I veered away from the original recipe by using molasses instead of honey to lightly sweeten the cornbread as well as give it a bit of that distinctive molasses flavor that I thought would go well with the chopped pecans.

The bourbon was for an extra little flavor boost. It was indeed subtle in the final product, but interesting nonetheless. Its flavor comes out best in a bite of warm cornbread. In fact, it really isn’t exactly a flavor, but more of an aroma for the tongue. Like the taste buds are picking up the molecules of toasty oak, caramel and alcohol that are wafting in with the bite of baked corn and wheat and eggs and milk. Subtle, but interesting.

Since the molasses flavor is not very strong, the pecans ended up being the favorite characters. They’re sweet and nutty and make the bread chunky and bumpy and crunchy, definitely a good accompaniment to the soft, sweet and earthy ingredients in the Squash and Pinto Bean Chili.

As usual, this cornbread is best the day it is made, preferably while it is still warm. The leftovers can be reheated and are still pretty good, but the bread does dry out quickly. I recommend that, if at all possible, you use a cast-iron skillet to make this or any cornbread. It will distribute the heat evenly and give you the nicest brown and crunchy edges. Baking cornbread in any other vessel just isn’t the same. You wouldn’t have to use the bourbon in this recipe if you don’t care to. I think another form of whiskey or rum might be good, or you can leave it out entirely.

*WFQ: Whole Food Quotient

Pecan Cornbread with Bourbon
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.

You could use all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat pastry flour.

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs
2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons bourbon whiskey (optional)
1 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Place 1 tablespoon butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet (or 8-inch square baking pan) and place in the oven. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the oven and brush the bottom and sides of the pan with the melted butter.

2. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Set aside to cool slightly.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. Whisk or sift to combine. Set aside.

4. Beat the eggs in another medium bowl. Add the melted butter and whisk well to combine. Add the molasses, milk and bourbon and whisk to combine.

5. Add the egg mixture to the cornmeal mixture and stir until just a few dry spots remain. Add the pecans and stir gently to distribute evenly.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 425 F for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are brown and pull slightly away from the sides of the pan. If desired, you can test for doneness by poking a wooden pick into the center of the cornbread. If it comes out free of wet batter, it is done. Cut into wedges (or squares) and serve warm.

Makes about 6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Pumpkin Oatmeal Quick Bread with Dates and Pecans, Guinness Hazelnut Quick Bread

One year ago: Roasted Winter Squash Puree

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chili Comfort

Right about now, most of us probably need a little comfort. Perhaps you’re mourning the loss of the last of the leaves still clinging desperately to increasingly skeletal trees. Perhaps the autumn weather has finally blown in with a vengeance (or a tornado). Perhaps a raging blizzard sneaked up on you and blew away your plastic swimming pool. Whatever the comfort you might need, a bowl of sweet and spicy chili ought to do the trick.

This is a vegetarian concoction stuffed with butternut squash and pinto beans and spiced with a chipotle chile, cumin, coriander and smoked paprika. I’m always looking for more exciting ways to use winter squash, and it was about time to try a new chili recipe. I might be taking some liberties in calling this chili and not just stew. I based it on two similar recipes in different issues of the same magazine, and one called it “stew” while the other called it “chili.” Since I used it as a sort of tailgate-style comfort for all the silliness of televised professional football (prima donna players, bad officiating, analysts who won’t admit that certain teams or players aren’t as good as they thought, and color commentators, who can barely string words together into a coherent sentence, wetting themselves over superstars), I’m calling it chili.

This chili is a role model for the sweet and spicy flavor combination that I love so much. The butternut squash and corn are sweet and the chipotle chile is very spicy. The tangy tomatoes and splash of cider vinegar bring it together and the beans provide heft and body as well as a creaminess that matches the texture of the squash. The smokiness of the chile, cumin and smoked paprika kick this even more into comfort mode for me, since I can’t build a cozy fire in my apartment living room (legally.)

You could use just about any of the winter squashes for this recipe (except spaghetti squash), but I find butternut to be the easiest to peel and chop. Chipotle chiles can be very spicy, so if you want this to be milder, use less than a whole chile, or just replace it with a small amount of crushed red pepper flakes to taste (which won’t be as smoky). I buy chipotle chiles canned in adobo sauce and after I use the first one from the can, I freeze the rest, sauce and all, in a zip-top bag. When I need another chile, I just pry one out from the frozen mass or chop off a chunk. They last a long, long time.

Whether it’s sports or the weather or just a mediocre dinner repertoire that’s got you down, perhaps curling up with a bowl of Squash and Pinto Bean Chili can provide some consolation. That and the fact that the Yankees aren’t in the World Series this year.

Squash and Pinto Bean Chili
Based on recipes in Cooking Light magazine

2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 cup chopped onion
1 ½ teaspoon salt, divided
3 cups peeled butternut squash cut into ½ to ¾ inch cubes
3 cloves minced garlic
1 chipotle chile (canned in adobo sauce), finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes, preferably fire roasted (do not drain)
1 cup water
1 cup frozen corn
3 cups pinto beans (about 2 15-16-ounce cans) rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1. Heat the canola oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the pepper, onion and 1 teaspoon salt. Saute about 5 minutes, or until the pepper and onion are just beginning to brown. Add the squash and sauté about 3 minutes more, or just until the squash is beginning to brown.

2. Add the garlic, chipotle chile, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Cook about 1 minute, stirring constantly.

3. Add the tomatoes. Cook, stirring frequently, about a minute or so, or until the liquid begins to thicken.

4. Add the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Cook at a gentle boil for about 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the corn and pinto beans. Return to a gentle boil and cook 5 minutes more. Stir in the vinegar. Taste for salt and add more if desired.

Makes about 6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Chorizo and Chipotle Chili, Chickpea Stew with Dried Apricots

One year ago: Black Beans with Beets and Oranges