Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Modern Apron on Sweetnicks

I sent another contribution to the ARF/5-a-day Roundup on Sweetnicks. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Happy Birthday: Lemon Squares

Once upon a time, a man made me lemon squares. When a man makes you lemon squares—good lemon squares—there’s only one thing you can do. You marry him. So I did.

Today that man turned 40. When I asked him what he wanted for his birthday “treat,” (that is, above and beyond the chocolate cake with vanilla frosting that our children insist he must have, and in the making of which they will take part) he said, “You can make lemon squares.” I think that lemon squares should probably be served at both of our funerals—they seem to play a major role in our relationship. The only down side is that at least one of us won’t be there to enjoy them.

So for probably the trillionth time in since we’ve been married, I dug out the spattered and smeared recipe card with the recipe from the Wellesley Cookie Exchange cookbook, given to Alex by his sister-in-law, Maureen (Hi, Maureen! Hope you’re having a nice executive retreat!) many years ago.

So spattered has the original become that some years ago Alex went back over her handwriting with ball point pen in an effort to save the legibility of the measurements. I feel I’d better post this recipe to preserve it. I wouldn’t want such a lifetime classic to be lost. Plus then you can make these too. And you'll be glad you did.

These lemon squares are, I must confess, almost tooth-achingly sweet, but sometimes that’s what you want. Also, they’re incredibly rich because of all the butter. As a result, you’re more than satisfied with a very small square. In fact, if you eat more than two or three small squares, you’re apt to feel slightly ill for the rest of the day, unless you perform some feat of physical fitness. However, in some ways, those are good things: you don’t eat too many because you don’t really want to feel ill, and after eating them you feel like you really ought to counter them by exercising. Portion control and exercise motivation in one flaky little lemony tidbit—what could be better?

So here, for posterity, is the recipe that won my heart, and has served us well on so many occasions throughout our married life. I am recording it exactly as written on the recipe card. Happy birthday, Alex!

From the Kitchen of: Maureen (Wellesley Cookie Exchange)
Recipe for: Lemon Squares

2 cups flour
½ cup powdered sugar
1 cup melted butter
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup flour

Mix together 2 cups flour, powdered sugar, and melted butter. Spread into a 9 x 13” pan and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Mix eggs, sugar, lemon juice, baking powder, and ¼ cup flour and pour over baked shell. Bake at 350 degrees for an additional 25 minutes or until set. Dust with powdered sugar when cool. Cut into bars of desired size. Makes at least 36.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Worth The Trouble: Homemade Granola

A friend who’d been reading the entry on Breakfast Parfaits asked me recently if it really was worth it to make my own granola. He said he’d considered it, but still continued to buy the bulk stuff at our local Town & Country market. I would never not make my own granola for a few reasons: I don’t like the store-bought stuff very much, I can control what goes in that which I make, and my children will actually eat it when I make it at home (well, three out of the four will)

Kellogg’s used to make a low fat granola with and without raisins (as I recall) that I thought was pretty good, but I haven’t seen it in years, and I’m sure it was loaded to the gills with things like high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. I didn’t used to care about that sort of thing, but now I do. And if memory serves, the mass produced stuff really just tasted only faintly like the ingredients of which it was made. All the flavor seemed to have been processed out of it.

When I make my own I can vary the kind of nuts I use, or add different spices, or change the flavor with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. The most recent batch I made used sliced almonds, chopped pecans, and sunflower seeds, along with some cinnamon and ground cloves. The batch before that included chopped hazelnuts (I was feeling splurgy; you have to feel splurgy to pay the exorbitant price that chopped hazelnuts command), and ground allspice instead of ground cloves. I can include dried fruit or not, depending on the intended use (when I make these parfaits, I leave out the fruit).

The time I made the batch with the hazelnuts, three of my children had to be forcibly restrained from eating the whole pan (of course, the one with the nuts that cost as much as a semester’s college tuition. Enjoy that granola kid; that’s your freshman Biology class in that pan). I let it harden in the pan, and broke off pieces which they then ate like candy bars. Watching three children under age three snack on granola like it was candy was so rewarding that I would never consider buying even the most pristine, certified organic, all natural, fair trade, hand crafted small batch [fill in desirable quality in purchased food product here] granola in the world. Two years ago I would have scoffed at granola for a snack (well, for myself, anyway). Today it sounds like a pretty good idea.

And so, although I’ve provided this recipe before, I’m presenting it again with an urge to you to give it a try it and a picture of a recent batch. Don't, however, be wedded too closely to the recipe. Change the spices, add more cinnamon and nothing else, add some ground nutmeg, add some ground cloves, use maple syrup instead of honey, use a different combination of nuts. Maybe there's even another grain you like--add it.

Also, for those interested, I ran a quick (semi-scientific) tally on the nutritional content. It breaks down to around 285 calories and 16 grams of fat per 1/3 cup, with about 4 grams of fiber. These figures don’t include any dried fruit, which would up both calories and fiber, of course. Doubtless you could mitigate this somewhat by cutting the oil with some kind of fruit juice or maple syrup, swapping out some of the nuts with some more oats, and possibly adding more wheat bran. I haven’t tried this, so I can’t vouch for the success or failure of such changes, but if you’re concerned with calorie counts and similar, you may want to consider some or all of these modifications. But however you try it, do try it, because this beats store-bought granola by a mile.

adapted from Shelia Lukins' U.S.A. Cookbook
makes 4-6 cups of granola (the higher number if you use the dried fruit, the lower number if you don't), which serves me for a pretty long time; your mileage may vary

2 cups whole oats
½ cup wheat bran
2/3 cup sliced almonds
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup safflower oil
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup honey
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375. Combine oats, bran and nuts in a large bowl. In a small pan over medium heat combine oil, sugar, honey, spices and salt until melted and combined. Pour oil mixture into a large bowl, and slowly whisk in oat mixture, stirring to combine. Spread granola into a 9x13 pan (lining the pan with foil makes it easier to get the granola out after it's cooked) and bake 30 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Granola will not be crisp at this time, but will crisp up as it cools. Allow to cool 10 minutes, then pour into a bowl and (optional) add in dried fruit as desired (dried blueberries, dried cherries, chopped dried apricots, raisins or golden raisins—combined to equal about a cup and a half). If not adding dried fruit, allow granola to cool in the bowl, then store in an airtight container.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Play it Again: Chocolate Chip Scones

Some things you make over and over again. Casseroles that bring back childhood memories (even though they aren’t quite as good as the way mom made them), chocolate chip cookies, spaghetti with meat sauce, pancakes on Sunday morning.

Our over and over is chocolate chip scones. Long ago, before I realized that their over-the-top approach to recipes was beyond what even I could absorb, I bought an Cook's Illustrated cookbook: The Quick Recipe. I’ve made a few things from it, nothing that really wowed me, but they do have a solid, reliable go-to recipe for scones that I make just about every week. Commercial scones are expensive, and usually of questionable quality.

This recipe turns out a very nice, generally reliable scone. I’ve been told some weeks that they’re more cakey, some weeks that they’re more flaky (I don’t eat them myself—I eat granola with yogurt for breakfast mostly these days; I make these for Alex). But always they turn out fine. I have tinkered with the recipe a little. Despite what they say about having perfected it, I still felt it needed some fine tuning.

Their recipe is for currant scones, but I make them with mini chocolate chips. They also call for heavy cream, which I use now and then, but golly that’s a lot of fat. Usually I just use whole milk (we have a lot of it hanging around since we still have one baby who drinks it). I don’t notice a huge difference in the texture. I’ve also started adding a dash of vanilla to the milk before I add it to the butter and flour mixture.

The biggest changes I made were to use homemade baking powder, and use less of it. I made these one time (actually, the time shown in this picture, which was also the time that I patted them too flat and they didn’t really rise up very nicely, which is a caveat I’ll get to) and they were so sour. I was the only one that noticed (aren’t we all our own most demanding critics?). I made faces and thought about the possible cause.

Then I realized I’d used commercial baking powder. Ever since then I’ve used homemade (courtesy of Edna Lewis’s Taste of Home Cooking: 1 part cream of tartar to 2 parts baking soda, combine, run through a sifter three or four times, and store in an airtight container; can be used in place of commercial baking powder in the same amounts; this “recipe” was recently featured in an issue of Gourmet magazine, and I hope it convinces everyone in the whole wide world to make their own baking powder, because it’s well worth the 28 seconds of your time it takes).

As for technique, as crazy as it sounds, it really does make a difference in the final texture of the dough as to whether you remove the lid of the food processor and pour the milk around, or just dump it down the feed tube (do the former; the latter results in a sticky dough). And when you pat them out, don’t pat them down too thin because they don’t rise that much. Some, yes, but not enough to compensate for a really enthusiastic flattening.

I make these on Sunday afternoon or evening, and each morning during the week Alex takes one for breakfast, along with a thermos of coffee. I’ve changed up the recipe and made them savory, with some cheddar cheese (cut the sugar back to a tablespoon, at most), and made sweet variations with little dried blueberries. But mini chocolate chip are the old reliable. Sometimes the best things are the ones we make without even thinking about them, they’re always there for us, always to be counted on.

Scones with Mini Chocolate Chips
adapted from The Best Quick Recipe
makes 8 scones, a weeks’ worth of coffee accompaniment with a couple left over to share

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for cutting board
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into cubes
1 cup heavy cream or whole milk
½ cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 425. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In the work bowl of a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, sugar and salt, and pulse a few times to combine. Remove cover of work bowl, and distribute butter around in the flour mixture. Replace lid, and pulse 12 times (one-second pulses) until well combined. Remove lid and add chocolate chips. Replace lid and pulse twice more to combine. Remove lid and pour cream or milk evenly over flour and butter mixture. Replace lid and pulse 8 to 10 times or until combined and just starting to pull together.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board, and press into a cohesive mass. You may need to use a spatula to scrape out the food processor work bowl, and you may need to scatter a little flour over the top of the dough to keep it from sticking to your hands. Gently press dough down to combine and make an approximately 8” circle. Using a knife, cut the dough into 8 wedges.

Place each wedge on the cookie sheet about ½ - 1” away from the other pieces. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly golden. Remove from oven, and allow to cool at least 10 minutes. Can be served warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interlude: Hostess "Recipes"

I often check out the recipes on the backs of food packaging. Sometimes they actually have good recipes (Toll House Cookies, right?), and other times, they're good for a giggle. I've also been known to browse manufacturer's websites for recipes (a bit hit-or-miss, but always interesting). So when a friend (thanks, E!) sent me some links to the Hostess site, showing various ways you can use Hostess Snack Cakes in dessert recipes, I had to go see what was up. And because I’m feeling inordinately snarkey, I decided to share them.

For starters, the site proclaims:

Hostess® snack cakes are great anytime treats, but few people know that they also make great desserts.

Leaving aside the stupidity of this statement (any product whose first four ingredients are sugar or sugar-derivatives isn’t something you’d automatically think of for dessert?), let’s take a look at some of the delightful…ah…recipes submitted by Hostess Snack Cake lovers.

We start off with perhaps a contradiction to my above statement. Who wouldn’t want some lovely Twinkie Sushi as a nice starter? Just a little something to whet the appetite, as it were. Bring on the wasabi!

Of course, Twinkie Toffee Treat is a taste sensation. Twinkies, pudding, whipped topping, and toffee bars—something for the whole family! It’s worth noting right now that pudding and whipped topping seem to feature prominently in several of these offerings. With this one, you get pudding, whipped topping, and alliteration, all in the same dessert!

And speaking of pudding and whipped topping, here they are again in a slightly different presentation, mixed with some pieces of Ding Dong to bring you: Ding Dong Mousse! Scatter with sprinkles for a festive "party" touch any night of the week.

Here’s the same dessert all over again, only this time they’re using the chocolate covered version of Ding Dongs, Ho Hos! Otherwise, this is exactly the same as Ding Dong Mousse, except you layer the ingredients instead of mixing them all together. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? In this case, I do.

And I saved the best for last. All I can say is, now I know what we’re having for dessert on Christmas Eve!!

These people are actually serious about this. You can go check out the Hostess Recipes page and see more of this sort of thing, presented with a straight face (electronically speaking).

All pictures from

Check in tomorrow...

I have to download some pictures, but as soon as I do, I have a great old-reliable recipe for you...something to make for breakfast or brunch this weekend. Stop by tomorrow and it'll be here!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blank Slate: Mini Mince and Potato Pies

Sometimes a recipe’s biggest disappointment turns out to be its greatest charm. At least, that was what I found to be the case in these Mini Mince and Potato Pies from Donna Hay magazine # 23. I made them, hoping to be delighted, but both Alex and I looked at each other and said, “These need something.” They were a little bland, to be honest. And that’s the first time I’ve said that about a Donna Hay recipe; usually she knocks it out of the park every time.

On my way to heat some up for lunch at the office, I was walking with a coworker who was headed back to his office. He remarked on my little pies and I mentioned their lack of spunk. He asked what I thought they needed—onion? Garlic? Well, no, I said, the recipe had both of those. So what, he asked, did I mean? That started me thinking. What did I mean? Did the meat need more seasoning? Did the potato topping need more…of what? And suddenly it was like a revelation, the clouds parting and the sun beaming down. I could almost hear the chorus of angels begin to sing. Of course! They needed seasoning, punching up, but the possibilities were almost endless!

For Italian flavored pies I could stir some more tomato paste and some Italian seasoning into the meat, and then add grated Parmesan to the potatoes. For an Indian flavor, I could add curry to the meat and maybe some peas, not unlike a little samosa, and perhaps some ground cumin to the potatoes. I could go a beef stroganoff direction and stir in a little sour cream at the end, and pep up the potatoes with additional sour cream and chopped parsley.

The original recipe was a veritable blank canvas on which to paint with the seasoning palate of my choosing. Any theme I could think of that was suitable for beef and potatoes would make an interesting and unusual little tidbit. Eaten in enough quantity (three or four per person) these can make a nice lunch or light dinner, served with a salad. Of course they’re a perfect hors d’oeuvres for a cocktail party, which was their original intent.

I’m providing the base recipe here, or the recipe as I made it first. The flavor is your choice, but you do need to add something to at least the beef after it’s cooked through. At least some bar-b-que sauce, or some steak sauce (A1 or HP Sauce), or even a little soy sauce would be fine. Cook it down so it’s syrupy and cooked into the meat, then proceed with the recipe as written. These are best served hot, or warm, but can be reheated in a microwave if you’re taking them to the office for lunch. They’re not as ideal as when they’re fresh out of the oven, but they’re a big improvement over fast food.

A note on the potatoes: you can use leftover mashed potatoes. Refrigerate them overnight so that they get a little dried out and tightened up, then add the egg yolks and a splash of light cream or half and half to thin them down a bit. Obviously if you do this, you’ll be stuck with any seasoning in those potatoes, and anything you add may not combine and cohere as nicely as it would have when they were made fresh, but if you’re intending to top the pies with plain mashed potatoes, using leftovers is a fine strategy.

So this is a sort of do-it-yourself post. Your mission is to take this basic, somewhat monochromatic recipe and add zip. Make it shine. The base recipe works perfectly on its own, so all you have to do is add some pizzazz. I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Mini Mince and Potato Pies
from Donna Hay magazine #23
makes 12 pies, which made four servings of three; one to taste and determine that they needed something, and three as lunches during which I pondered what it was they needed.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 lb ground beef
1 cup beef stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
Salt & pepper
1 pound potatoes, peeled and chopped
¼ cup ½ & ½ (or light cream)
2 egg yolks
Refrigerated pie crust

Preheat oven to 375. Heat a medium non-stick skillet over high heat. Add oil, onion and garlic, and cook 1-2 mins or until soft. Add beef and cook 5 minuntes until brown. Add stock, paste and bay leaves, bring to a boil and cook down at a simmer 10 mins or until thickened. Allow to cool.

Bring potatoes to a boil in cold salted water. Boil 12 minutes or until tender. Drain and return to pan. Add cream and egg yolks, and mash well.

Cut pastry into 2 ½” circles. Press into a greased small (1oz) mini muffin tin. Spoon tablespoonfuls of the beef into muffin cups and top with poatoes. Bake 25-30 minuntes or until pastry is crisp and potato golden.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fruity: Mixed Berry Breakfast Parfaits

I recently admitted to eating oven roasted tomatoes with blue cheese for breakfast, but I do sometimes eat some quote-unquote normal things for breakfast now and again. I’ve expanded on one of my usual breakfasts (yogurt with granola), and I think it’s absolutely improved. I noticed this combination in an old issue of Donna Hay magazine, and the fruit compote looked easy enough, so I gave it a go.

It’s really nothing more complicated than some fruit cooked down with sugar until syrupy, but it’s a beautiful vibrant red from the berries, and thick and sweet from the sugar, and the pectin in the berries. Since it uses frozen raspberries, you can make it as soon as strawberries hit the market in the spring (which for us here in the Seattle area was last week; they’re California strawberries, which aren’t exactly local, but I just couldn’t resist).

Once you have the fruit cut up, this compote requires almost no attention beyond the occasional stir. The recipe as printed says it makes two servings, but they must be intended to serving ravenous beasts who haven’t eaten in a month, because you wind up with about two and a half cups of compote, and I’ve never been able to eat more than about a half a cup in a sitting. I mean, you know, sooner or later you get full.

Although it’s presented as a breakfast dish layered with yogurt and granola, I would think this would be super as a dessert topping as well. It would marry nicely with an angel food cake, a lemon pound cake, or ice cream, and would be an interesting change from the expected strawberries in a strawberry shortcake. You could even roll out puff pastry and use it as a sort of tart filling (it might be a little messy, but it would be delicious).

Combined with the white yogurt and the toasty brown granola, this compote is visually appealing as well. The contrast in the colors is quite marked, and even though it’s a simple as can be to make it and put the parfait together, it’s very impressive. It makes you feel like you’re having breakfast at a fancy resort, even if you’re just in your own kitchen.

Mixed Berry Breakfast
from Donna Hay magazine, #23
makes about 6 servings, if you’re not a ravenous beast who hasn’t eaten in a month

2 c frozen raspberries
8 ¾ oz strawberries, halved
1 green apple, cored and sliced
½ cup caster sugar
1/3 cup yogurt
1/3 cup toasted granola

Place raspberries, strawberries, apple, and sugar in a medium frying pan over high heat. Cook 20 minutes until apple is tender, stirring constantly. Allow to cool completely. Spoon fruit mixture into glasses, top with yogurt and toasted granola.

Granola recipes are a dime a dozen, but if you want yet another one, here's one I like. Because I make it specifically to go over this fruit conserve, I leave out any dried fruit. If you wanted to add dried fruit, I've included the directions for when to add it in.

adapted from Shelia Lukins' U.S.A. Cookbook
makes 4-6 cups of granola (the higher number if you use the dried fruit, the lower number if you don't), which serves me for a pretty long time; your mileage may vary

2c whole oats
½ cup wheat bran
2/3 c sliced almonds
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup safflower oil
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup honey
2t cinnamon
¼ t ground nutmeg
1t salt

Preheat oven to 375. Combine oats, bran and nuts in a large bowl. In a small pan over medium heat combine oil, sugar, honey, spices and salt until melted and combined. Pour oil mixture into a large bowl, and slowly whisk in oat mixture, stirring to combine. Spread granola into a 9x13 pan and bake 30 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Granola will not be crisp at this time. Allow to cool 10 minutes, then pour into a bowl and (optional) add in dried fruit as desired (dried blueberries, dried cherries, chopped dried apricots, raisins or golden raisins—combined to equal about a cup and a half). If not adding dried fruit, allow granola to cool in the bowl, then pour into an airtight container.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Not Too Sweet: Savory Bread Pudding

I am not enamored of sweet bread puddings. When I see one on a restaurant dessert menu, I don’t, like so many people I know, say, “Oooo, bread pudding…” in the dreamy tone of a love struck youth murmuring the sacred name of this week’s crush. No, I skip on, looking for something else.

But swap out the sugar for cheese, and the chocolate for herbs, and I am enchanted. I adore savory bread puddings as a side dish. They’re something different, a change from the usual, and so versatile.

I often find myself with a fairly significant amount of stale bread of varying kinds. I don’t think we’ve ever finished a baguette, or managed to get through a loaf of artisan bread before it turned rock hard and crumbly. I know that when my three boys are older, we’ll be hard put to keep a loaf of bread around a single day, but for now when they’re all eating sliced store bought wheat bread (with peanut butter and “jello” no less), and my husband and I are the only consumers of “good” bread, we’re often left with these odds and ends.

I do make breadcrumbs out of them, and freeze them, but there are only so many breadcrumbs one needs. We’re not using them to leave trails so we can find our way to and from places, after all. Sooner or later, we have all the breadcrumbs we need, thanks. When that happens, I make bread pudding for dinner.

Really any decent bread will do. I’ve used herb breads, whole wheat breads, baguette. Just about anything, short of presliced sandwich bread, will turn out an excellent finished product. And the bread can be of just about any degree of staleness. The pudding I made most recently was a combination of bread that was so dry that it crumbled to dust in my hands, and some that needed to be cut into cubes because it still retained some degree of moistness. In fact, the combination of the two makes an interesting pudding, because the bread absorbs the milk mixture to different degrees, and you get subtly contrasting textures within the dish.

Some recipes call for heating the milk with the herbs to infuse the milk with the flavor, but I skip this step in an effort to get it in the oven more quickly. I just mix everything up in a bowl, spread the bread cubes in the pan, dump the milk over the top, and push down for a few minutes to get everything really saturated. It couldn’t be easier, and the end result is so rewarding. A soft, custardy, savory pillow of bread with a crisp, cheesy crust.

As for variations, I’ve already mentioned using different kinds of bread, but the herbs and cheese can also be customized to the meal or your personal taste. Italian herbs and grated parmesan, thyme and firm goat cheese, or sage with crumbled blue cheese. Dried herbs work just as well as fresh, and in some cases even better, which makes bread pudding almost a convenience food. Leftover bread, some of whatever cheese you have lying around, and some dried herbs. Result: impressive and yummy side dish that took no time to put together and actually helped you out by using up something you might have ended up throwing out otherwise.

Savory Bread Pudding
serves 6-8, or makes enough for two with plenty of leftovers to have for breakfast the next morning, which isn’t as weird as it sounds.

8 cups torn stale bread
3 cups milk
3 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (or 1 tablespoon dried herbs), I used rosemary
Salt & pepper
¾ c grated cheese (or more, if desired, and some extra for scattering over the top), I used Gruyere

Preheat oven to 475. Spread bread into a 9x13 pan. Combine milk, eggs, herbs, salt, pepper, and cheese in a large bowl. Pour milk mixture over bread and let sit 10 mins, occasionally pushing bread down into the milk mixture. Scatter additional cheese over top if desired. Bake pudding at 475 for 25-35 minutes or until browned and crisp on top, and center is cooked through but still soft.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Breaking Things: Oven Roasted Tomatoes with Blue Cheese

I have trouble with breakfast. All the things I like are either elaborate, not very portable, or reheat poorly in a microwave (or in some cases, all three). The things that I like that are both simple and portable get kind of old after awhile. English muffins with peanut butter, a hard boiled egg, yogurt. My ideal breakfast consists of something like toast made of thick sliced rustic bread, spread with ricotta cheese, topped with sautéed mushrooms and served with a little salad of baby arugula. You can see how that wouldn’t be the easiest thing to make at the office with the basic tools that are available there (in my case a microwave and a single-slice toaster).

However, I have found something that’s reasonably portable and downright tasty into the bargain. Oven roasted tomatoes with blue cheese melted in them. I know this sounds like an odd breakfast, but really, what is breakfast? I’m not a member of that camp that says, “Eat pizza or chicken noodle soup for breakfast! What’s important is to eat something!” necessarily, but I do have somewhat traditional (or call them hidebound) ideas of what breakfast is, and these are mere self-imposed boundaries. I need to break through my own boundaries and enter into a world where breakfast is what we make of it.

While I eat these tomatoes for breakfast, they also make a great side dish with a roast or chicken, which is how I made the recipe in the first place. I had a whole menu from Bon Appetit that I made for a Christmas dinner a few years back, and one of the side dishes was Roasted Tomatoes with Stilton. I made them and loved them, and in an iconoclastic moment, I decided to eat them for breakfast.

The tomatoes start out looking like any old tomato, but they roast for an eternity to turn into something slumpy, herby and wonderful. While the original recipe called for Stilton (it was a Christmas recipe, after all), I have since switched over to the most amazing, flavorful, incredible blue cheese on the planet. It’s a French cheese called St Augr, and my husband and I now consume it by the pound. It melts down into a pool of semi-soft cream, a little white puddle inside the red, red tomato flecked with herbs.

I roast up a batch of these on the weekend, and then take them for lunch all week long. I reheat them and melt the cheese in the microwave for about 45 seconds. Since the tomatoes have already been cooked to mush, there’s nothing more the microwave can do to them. They heat up, the cheese melts, and I ascend to heaven.

The original recipe calls for draining the tomatoes, then marinating them in the herb/olive oil mixture, and then roasting them. I skip the marinating step, because I haven’t noticed a significant difference in flavor one way or the other, but the draining step is key, especially if your tomatoes are on the watery side. I also go back and forth between including a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and leaving it out because I’m too lazy to chop both garlic and rosemary. If you’re making these as a side dish for a dinner, I think the garlic is more important than if you’re planning to eat them for breakfast, as I do. Garlic is more of a lunch/dinner component. Breakfast, unless you’re troubled with vampire infestations, can be garlic-free without the sneaking feeling that what you’re eating needs “a little something more.”

There’s some flexibility here as well. You could change these up and make them more Italian in character—use chopped basil and oregano, and top them with fresh mozzarella. Or try fresh thyme and something like grated Gruyere. I haven’t gone this route—it’s the hidebound traditionalist in me, I guess—but you could.

These are a nice transitional dish for the Spring when really great tomatoes aren’t ready yet. Plum tomatoes are fairly reliable all year long, and roasting them turns them into something soft and comforting, while the blue cheese and rosemary add a little zing. With such a delightful set of contradictions, they’re a great way to end a day, or to begin one.

Oven Roasted Tomatoes with Blue Cheese
adapted from Bon Appetit, December 2006
serves 4 as a side dish, or one person four days in a row for breakfast

12 plum tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
3-4 ounces soft blue cheese

Preheat oven to 425.

Using a teaspoon, scoop out insides of tomatoes and discard. Allow tomato halves to drain on a plate for approximately 30 minutes. Spray a large roasting pan with cooking spray, and set tomatoes cut side up in the pan.

Drizzle oil over tomato halves (you may want to use a little more olive oil—I really just pour right out of my olive oil bottle, but you want at least a half a teaspoon of oil drizzled over each half; if you’re a careful measuring type, use a half teaspoon measure to do this, then determine if more is needed. If you’re a carefree devil-may-care type, just drizzle away until the tomatoes look happily bathed in oil). Scatter tomatoes with rosemary, then sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Roast for about an hour, or until tomatoes slump and the juices start to brown up.

If serving immediately, remove from oven and tuck about a half an ounce of blue cheese into each tomato half. Return to oven for 5-10 minutes, or until cheese melts.

When taking them for breakfast, I cool the tomatoes to room temperature, store them in the refrigerator for three or four days, and take them in my lunch bag, along with a separate chunk of cheese. When I’m ready to eat them, I cut the cheese up into small pieces (about the size of a marble), and microwave tomatoes and cheese on plate for about 45 seconds.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No Fooling: Braised Carrots with Parsley and Crisp Capers

Sometimes it’s difficult to say what draws us to a recipe. Why this one and not that one? Why this time but not last time? I have looked through my Donna Hay magazines dozens of times, and never before has the recipe for Carrots, Parsley and Crisp Caper Salad pulled me in, but this time it did.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not even that big a fan of carrots. Oh I know I should like them—helping you see in the dark and all, and it’s not that I have anything against them, it’s just that I don’t adore them. Probably this is from eating way too many canned carrots as a child (“soft carrots” my own children call them, to differentiate them from “crunchy carrots”), and way too many carrot sticks during my various Weight Watchers phases.

So when I crossed paths with Carrots, Parsley and Crisp Caper Salad again, and it caught my eye, I was surprised. “Why yes,” I thought, “I’ll make that.” And immediately another voice in my head said, “Huh? You’ll what?”

“I’m buying the ingredients for that,” voice number one shot back, “and I’m making it.”

Voice number two shrugged.

And so, two bunches of organic carrots later, I was on my way to making Carrots, Parsley and Crisp Caper Salad. The carrots for this do need to be somewhat delicate and slender, which is why I bought the organic ones. The conventionally grown ones were such brutish looking things that I suspected they might be too thick and fibrous for this recipe. Probably the very best ones would be something closer to a “baby” carrot, but those weren’t an option this time.

I wouldn’t really call this a salad, so much as braised carrots with a flavor-enhancing garnish. The original recipe did call for baby spinach leaves, which I skipped. Using the cup of flat leaf parsley that the recipe originally called for would make it more saladish as well, but I ran out of interest in chopping parsley by a quarter of cup, so my version was more Braised Carrots with Parsley and Crisp Capers.

The carrots braise in a mixture of orange juice, stock, and butter. Because there were juice oranges available when I was buying the carrots, I picked up a few. I highly recommend using fresh orange juice in this recipe. It was a delicate, subtle flavor that married nicely with the carrots and cooked down to a gently sweet syrupy glaze.

I’d like to say a word here about the Crisp Capers part of the recipe. That word is YUM. I think I’ve found a new favorite food. It seems so basic—salted capers rinsed off and cooked in a frying pan with a little olive oil, but what a transformation. They become little salty bits of melting crispness. I could eat them plain, no carrots, no parsley, no nothing else. After I’d made them and tasted them, I found myself looking around my completely empty kitchen suspiciously, as though there were others around who might try to sneak a crisp caper. They’d lose a digit if they tried it, I tell you.

This whole recipe was so strange—that I made it in the first place and that I loved it so much in the second. The carrot is not my all time favorite vegetable, I’ve never loved cooked carrots, and I would never have predicted I’d like capers fried up in a little olive oil. But I loved everything about this recipe. Sometimes there’s just no telling.

Braised Carrots with Crisp Capers and Parsley
Adapted from Donna Hay magazine, issue #23
Carrots and parsley serve 4-6, Crisp Capers serve the same unless you become instantly addicted to them as I did, in which case everyone else is out of luck because you’ll eat all the Crisp Capers right out of the frying pan while standing hunched over the stove to ensure that no one sees you eating them and asks to share; you’d have to sever their arm if they reached for one.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and drained
2 bunches carrots, trimmed and peeled
¾ oz butter, chopped
¼ c fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons chicken stock
Salt and pepper
¼ to ½ cup flat leaf parsley (depending on how quickly you get bored chopping it)

Preheat oven to 475. Heat small frying pan over high heat. Add the oil and capers and cook for 2-3 minutes or until capers are crispy.

Place carrots in baking dish and add butter, juice, stock, salt and pepper. Cook 20 minutes or until carrots are tender and sauce is syrupy. Top carrots with parsley, and remaining capers, if there are any.