Sunday, August 31, 2008

Resolved: Two Easy Luches

Once upon a time, when I was a young bride…well, scratch that because I got married at almost 30, so I guess I was technically never a “young” bride. Anyway, back when I first got married, before I lost my mind and had four children (and the jury is still out on which of those things happened first), weekday lunches used to be leftovers from things I’d made for dinner the night before. My coworkers used to heat up their Marie Callendar frozen dinners while I was zapping my Star Anise Simmered Chicken with baby bok choy.

On weekends lunch was a fairly elaborate event. If we didn’t go out, I made something at home. I remember one time making mushroom crepes from an old Cooking Light. The recipe for these started out along the lines of, “Make the crepes…” and I did. I made crepes from scratch, sautéed mushrooms, made a light Béchamel sauce for them, and then baked them. It was through this recipe that we discovered that portabella mushrooms don’t sit well with Alex (although the recipe calls for generic mushrooms plus shiitakes, I recall that I used Baby Bellas, which resulted in…well, anyway, we don’t eat portabella mushrooms anymore, let’s just leave it at that).

But then I began accumulating children, and now lunch is a far simpler affair, even those I take on weekdays. Recently I found two recipes in Cooking Light’s Dinner Tonight column that turned out to be godsends. I didn’t make them for dinner; I made them on Sunday afternoon and immediately transferred them to containers for weekday lunches. Because each recipe made only two servings, it was perfect: one for me, one for Alex, and two days’ worth of lunches were taken care of.

One of my problems with making something like soup or risotto or a casserole is that I find I get really tired of it long before the week ends, especially if it was a dinner one of the weekend nights. I used to have a friend who couldn’t eat the same type of food two days in a row: if she’d had Mexican the night before, we couldn’t have Mexican for lunch the next day, even if the “Mexican” she’d had the night before was the Rice and Beans Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen dinner. I’m not quite to that point, but I have discovered I can’t eat the same thing for lunch more than two days in a week without getting bored.

But another thing that happens every year around the end of summer is that I start to make resolutions. When I was in school, I always resolved at the end of August that I would do my homework on Friday nights this year, not leave it until Sunday afternoon; that I would study harder; that I would be really organized and keep my paper and books tidy. September seems a good time for resolutions, with the new school year starting, so even though I don't think I've ever kept a "school year" resolution (or a New Year's resolution either, for that matter), I keep making them. This year one of my resolutions is to take lunch to work more often, and find ways to keep myself from getting bored. These two recipes got me off on the right foot.

The shrimp curry recipe comes together in literally minutes (I think it took longer for me to thaw the shrimp than to chop the onion), and the pasta takes only a little longer than that. They give a time of around 40 minutes, but if you cook the pasta while you’re making the sauce, it’s really only about 20 or so minutes. I upped the curry paste in the shrimp recipe, and it was a little fiery (tempered by the basmati rice I had with it). If you like things spicy (like Alex does), you’ll want more than a ¼ teaspoon of curry paste; if you’re a wimp like me keep it to a ¼ or a ½ teaspoon. Also my shrimp were about an ounce each, which means if you want to taste it before you dish it up, you should add a “tasting shrimp.” Normally I leave out the crushed red pepper when recipes call for it, but I was feeling daring when I made the ziti, so I left it in, and it does add a nice kick.

And so here, to encourage you to take your lunch to work, or to give you two fast dinner choices, are the recipes from the current Cooking Light (September 2008):

Thai Coconut Shrimp Curry
from Cooking Light, September 2008
makes two servings, perfect for lunch

1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon red curry paste (such as Thai Kitchen)
1 teaspoon sugar
12 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 cup light coconut milk
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and curry paste to pan, and sauté 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Stir in sugar; sauté 15 seconds. Add shrimp; sauté 3 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring frequently. Stir in coconut milk and fish sauce; cook 30 seconds or until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat; stir in green onions and basil.

Nutritional Info
CALORIES 255(26% from fat); FAT 7.4g (sat 2.6g,mono 1.8g,poly 1.9g); IRON 4.6mg; CHOLESTEROL 259mg; CALCIUM 111mg; CARBOHYDRATE 10.2g; SODIUM 740mg; PROTEIN 36.1g; FIBER 1.1g

Ziti with Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes, and Gorgonzola
from Cooking Light, September 2008
makes lunch for two!

4 ounces uncooked ziti (you're right--that's penne in the picture; we didn't have ziti--penne works too)
1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
6 tablespoons half-and-half
3 tablespoons Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 cup fresh spinach
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain.
2. Heat extra-virgin olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cherry tomatoes, salt, crushed red pepper, and minced garlic to pan; cook 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Stir in half-and-half and Gorgonzola cheese; cook 2 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring constantly. Stir in spinach and pasta; cook 1 minute or until spinach wilts, tossing occasionally.

Nutritional Info
CALORIES 335(28% from fat); FAT 10.4g (sat 5.9g,mono 2.4g,poly 0.4g); IRON 2.6mg; CHOLESTEROL 26mg; CALCIUM 129mg; CARBOHYDRATE 49.9g; SODIUM 485mg; PROTEIN 12.3g; FIBER 3.6g

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gratitude: Corn Blackberry Muffins

At last it’s blackberry season! It seems that perhaps they were later this year than in years past. Maybe as a result of the very cold spring and early summer we had here in the Pacific Northwest. But finally the brambles are showing the dark drops that are the blackberries we all love. I find it hard to complain too much about blackberry brambles; it seems a bit churlish and hypocritical to grumble and moan about them for ten months of the year, and for the other two revel in their gifts. So you’ll never hear me complaining about the blackberry bushes taking over the yard (besides, I don’t have to keep them under control; that’s Alex’s job).

I know I’m not the only one enjoying blackberries these days. Everywhere I go on the island I see people with plastic containers. Yesterday on my way home from dropping my son off at a friend’s house to play, I even saw a woman walking along the road, clearly headed somewhere, popping berries into her mouth that she’d picked from bushes along the way. Sure they’re an invasive weed, but how can you be mean about something that provides you with a free, portable snack?

This morning started out beautiful and sunny, just the perfect day for something blackberry. About 11 a.m. the clouds blew over, and the breeze kicked up, and as I type this I’m listening to the rain on the porch roof, and hearing it patter on the driveway. It may be October now, but this morning it was brilliantly August. My sons had some friends coming for a playdate, and their mom was going to be staying so she could get a house tour and chat over coffee. I am a firm believer that you can’t have coffee without something to nibble, and also that Sunday morning demands a little time spent in the kitchen making something special. Add to that the whole summer-blackberry thing, and I immediately went running for Sara Foster’s “Fresh Every Day” cookbook, which contains an admirable recipe for Corn Blackberry Muffins.

These are like sunshine in cake form, studded with blackberries. They’re August in a muffin. They can be made with frozen blackberries, but since my kids have been out picking blackberries with their nannies every day this week, we had a whole container of them in the refrigerator. They’re going to make cobbler next week, although my oldest son declared he didn’t like blackberries. “Then what,” I asked, “do you eat when you make the cobbler?”

“The cake part!” he declared. Of course. I don’t know why I ask these questions.

But I digress. These muffins turned out an outstanding product; the muffin has a slightly grainy quality, a result of the cornmeal, and the blackberries are folded in gently so that they remain whole and explode when you bite into them, releasing their juices and flooding your taste buds with summer. You could make them with any fruit, but since blackberries are free in my neighborhood, I can’t think of anything else I’d use. And, as Sara Foster says, cornmeal and blackberries just go together. The slightly corny flavor of these muffins does seem to marry beautifully with the sweet-tart richness of the blackberry.

I may be making soup for dinner if this rain keeps up, but earlier today we had summer for a few fleeting hours. So really, we have nothing to complain about.

Corn Blackberry Muffins
from Sara Foster’s “Fresh Every Day” cookbook
makes 12 large muffins--and I mean large; for a minute I was afraid they were going to do that overflow thing! They didn't.

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups yellow corn meal
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup well-shaken buttermilk
¾ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I used way more than this; possibly as much as 3 tablespoons—I heart vanilla)
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen blackberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 12 large muffin cups with liners, or spray with vegetable oil spray.

Stir the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl.

In another large bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk and vanilla together. Gradually add the flour mixture to the buttermilk mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are moist and no flour is visible. Do not overmix or muffins will be tough. Gently fold in the blackberries.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups with a 1/3 cup measure, or with an ice cream scoop. Fill tins to just below the top of the liner. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the tops spring back when pressed lightly and a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Allow muffins to cool for 5 minutes in the pan. Turn out on a rack to cool a little more. These are best fresh from the oven.

Annoyed: A Form of Retaliation

Last night we had a little tiff. Well, not really. Someone made a comment that ticked me off, and then repeatedly asked me what was wrong. "Are you OK?" he kept saying, "Are you sure?" I kept nodding and shrugging, because the truth was, I was hacked off at him, but it was up to him to figure that out, frankly (he never did; I just got over it).

At one point he asked if there was anything he could do to help (this all transpired while I was making dinner), and I said no, but later it occurred to me that there were a number of excellent forms of revenge open to a person who was cooking against a person who had said something completely boorish and insensitive.

Here's what I came up with. You can make the person:

Pick thyme leaves
Make pesto by hand
Shell fresh peas for 8 or more people
Peel tomatoes or peaches
Toast and grind spices using only a mortar and pestle (double whammy here—not only do you make him pay, but you remind him in living color that you don’t have a spice grinder)
Pit cherries
Make elaborate cocktails for you, then take one sip of them and ignore them until they’re warm
Shell, toast and deskin hazelnuts
Unwrap caramels or other candies
Pick through dried beans or lentils looking for stones and other impurities

It was such a nothing comment that now I can't even recall what it was about (lie; I remember it with sparkling clarity) but this list lives on in my mind and will one day be called into service.

(Sorry there's no picture with this, but really, what would I take a picture of? Me standing at the kitchen counter looking peeved? The insensitive boor who made the comment?)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lame: Why I Haven't Posted in Awhile

So I received a politely worded complaint (Molly) that I hadn't posted anything and that perhaps the pea soup had lost the allure and glamour that it had a week or so ago.

Well, yes. Here's what happened.

I tried to make some Jam Thumbprint Cookies from a Shaker cookbook I have. I don't know if the Shakers were just more talented makers of Jam Thumbprint Cookies than I am, or if the recipe is a total sham or what, because these were a complete flop. They started out looking quite promising (as you can see), but after I baked them, the cookies refused to hold up their end of the bargain and contain the jam at all, and the jam melted everywhere and all I can say is thank God I used a Silpat, because everything came right off with no problem.

So I need to try these again (because they had awesome flavor and if I can just get the darned jam to stay in the darned cookie, we'll be good to go), and I need to write up some nice peanut butter cookies I made last week and I promise that I'll get a few things up here this week and next for your viewing pleasure.

I'm going on vacation for a couple of days this coming week so while I may not be able to post a lot, the hope is I'll be able to cook a lot and have something to post. Sometimes I think I'd have been better off starting a political blog; at least those write ups just depend on other people doing something and me forming my opinion of their behavior. Then again, that would involve my having to follow politics closely, which would probably cause me to start drooling and/or fall into a comatose state because I personally find politics to be stupefyingly boring. Food is way more interesting. And really, if all the politicians in the world were to disappear, would we continue to exist? What if all the food in the world were to disappear? See? So we can clearly deduce which is more important.

With that, I'm off the to the farmer's market!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

In the Bag: Creamy Pea and Chicken Soup

This is supposed to be an entry to this month’s “In the Bag” competition over at A Slice of Cherry Pie. If it’s too late to make the roundup, then it’s just a post of a yummy soup.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have an interesting summer phenomenon. We call it “Fall.” You see, summer kind of comes and goes. One day will be beastly hot and send us all scurrying for the swimming pool and thinking about what kind of salad to have for dinner. The next day we’ll need windbreakers in the morning, and there will be enough breeze all day long to make you feel like a little soup for lunch might be a good thing. At first this sort of annoyed me; come on, I though, pick a season. But now I rather like it. When I lived back east, in an area known for five months in a row of weather forecasts that consisted of, “Hazy, hot and humid, with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms,” we’d get to early August and I’d start thinking, “An overcast drizzly cool day would be a pretty welcome break right about now…” but it seldom happened. Now it happens all the time.

And so, because of this phenomenon, I created this soup using some springy/summery vegetables, but with a little weight in the form of the chicken to warm you and stay with you a bit. I bought the peas, but I had a yellow squash that came in my Community Sponsored Agriculture box. It was perfectly fine, but had some appearance issues. It wasn’t really pretty enough to just eat steamed or sautéed, but there was nothing wrong with it, so I added it to this soup. You could just add another half cup or so of peas if you didn’t have the squash, or you could use zucchini or another summer squash in its place.

In keeping with the In the Bag ingredients for this month, I added some grated parmesan at the end for flavor and a little saltiness. Be sure you taste the soup after adding the parmesan, but before adding any additional salt. Depending on your palate, you may find the parmesan (and the pancetta used at the beginning) make it salty enough.

This soup is going to be my lunch for the next few days, along with a slice of toasted bread with radish butter (a stick of butter with a half dozen radishes that have been diced up fine mashed into it). If you have an unseasonably cool summer day, you might give this a try. It would also be fine with frozen peas as an early Spring luncheon or starter to an early Spring dinner. It’s a lovely shade of pale green flecked with the darker green tarragon, and has the flavor of the peas and the chicken, but with a hint of licorice from the tarragon.

Creamy Pea and Chicken Soup
makes 6 servings

1 teaspoon olive oil
4 slices pancetta
1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium yellow squash, cubed (optional, or you could use zucchini, or just another handful or two of shelled peas)
1 ½ - 2 cups shelled fresh peas
2 cups chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup grated parmesan, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and pepper

In a Dutch oven or large sauce pan over medium high heat crisp the pancetta in a teaspoon of olive oil. Remove from pan and reserve. Add cubed chicken and brown, about 7 minutes. Remove chicken from pan with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Reduce heat to medium, add onion to pan and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add peas and squash and cook until soft, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Remove pan from heat and puree peas, squash, onion with a handheld immersion blender, or in a stand blender (take care when pureeing hot liquids in a blender; remove the center venting piece from the blender, but hold a dishcloth over the opening to avoid having the hot liquid spray everywhere, making a huge mess and potentially burning you and anyone in the vicinity). The soup can be as chunky or as smooth as you like. I left some very small pieces of vegetable in mine to give it a little heft.

Return the pureed soup to the heat and add the reserved chicken. Bring the liquid to a bare simmer and let cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 more minutes.

Add ½ cup cream, ½ cup grated parmesan, and 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon. Stir to distribute through the liquid. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls, and scatter with reserved pancetta, chopped, and a scattering of grated parmesan.