Spring in Chicago is being its usual capricious self. Warm, sunny days mix it up with cold, blustery, rain-filled stretches. The range of our outerwear this time of year says it all. Leather jackets, sport coats, shirt sleeves, raincoats and, sadly, even our down parkas all see action.
It’s the same story in the kitchen. Longer days and soft breezes have us longing for fresh asparagus and other tastes of spring. Sudden blasts of cold send us running for comfort food. This soup delivers both. The sweet, green flavor of peas is filled with promise; the thick, hearty, potato-rich base soothes even on an unseasonably chilly night.
I’m normally not a huge fan of peas – unless they’re fresh peas which we often shell and devour on the way home from the store. But the peas in the deconstructed chicken pot pies I cooked a couple of weeks ago reminded me how much they taste like spring. The cold reality of springtime in Chicago, on the other hand, called for the comfort of a hearty potato soup. I decided to put them together.
Many green pea and potato soup recipes call for puréeing everything. While I like some creamed soups – especially vichyssoise – I generally prefer some recognizable chunks in mine. By puréeing only some of it, you get a nice creamy soup with actual stuff in it.
Creamy Green Pea and Potato Soup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced into thin half moons
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
2 cups water (plus more as needed)
1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3 large potatoes) peeled and cut into a bite-sized pieces
2 cups frozen peas
Freshly ground pepper
Salt, if needed
1. Melt butter in a large, heavy stock pot or Dutch oven over medium flame. Add leeks and sweat until tender, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid browning. Clear a space in the middle of the pot and add tarragon and garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add broth and 2 cups of water and stir to combine.
2. Add potatoes and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until potatoes are tender, at least 20 minutes. Stir in peas and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Carefully purée 2 to 3 cups of the soup (see Kitchen Notes) in a food processor or blender, working in batches, if necessary. Return to pot and stir to combine. Season with black pepper. Taste and add salt, if needed (depending on the saltiness of your broth, you may not need it). If soup is too thick, thin slightly with water. Reheat until warmed through and serve.
The thick and the thin of it. I say in the recipe to purée 2 to 3 cups of the soup. I did 3, which made the soup velvety thick. You can do less if you prefer a “soupier” soup. You can also adjust overly thick soup by adding a little water, milk or even half and half. Adding milk or half and half will give it a richer, creamier flavor.
Make it vegetarian. You can do this by substituting vegetable broth for the chicken broth—or even water. In either case, I would add a little soy sauce to approximate the umami taste the chicken broth delivers.
Many years ago, I picked up a recipe card in the checkout line at a grocery store in London. It had a complicated fish recipe, but what attracted me was the artichoke tartar sauce. That card sat in my recipe file for years, until I rediscovered it and decided to give it a go. The recipe was a complete dud. Weird ingredients, lengthy procedures and it just didn’t come together. It left me with a bowl of gloopy, oddly colored mess. So I threw the card away (and the sauce).
But the idea stuck. A tangy, creamy sauce with a nice bite from artichoke hearts that would be a great accompaniment to seafood. So I persevered and came up with this version. I first took it to a friend’s house for a fish fry – they fried the fish caught that morning. It was a big hit, so I wanted to share the recipe. But it has taken me another few years to figure out how to do it.
I don’t particularly enjoy frying fish myself, so no duplicating the tartar sauce’s triumphant debut. Then it hit me – crab cakes. Like a semi-deconstructed crab and artichoke dip. I fiddled with a classic crab cake recipe, paring it down to basic flavors so the tartar sauce wouldn’t be overwhelmed. And pressing the mixture into little muffin tins makes them easier to cook and perfect bites for a party – the tins can be filled and refrigerated just until ready to bake. A little dollop of tartar sauce makes them pretty, and the mini-sized, crispy sides make them easy to eat.
Crab cake bites
Makes 24 crab cakes
For the crab cakes:
1 pound lump crabmeat (see note)
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
1. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Pick over the crabmeat to make sure there are no pieces of shell, then add the crab to the eggs. Add the melted butter, mayonnaise and parsley and fold together gently. You want everything well combined but try not to break up the crabmeat.
2. Mix the breadcrumbs, baking powder, Old Bay, and mustard powder together in a small bowl. Add to the crab mixture and gently fold through. Again, you want everything combined, but don’t break up the crabmeat. Refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour, but several is fine. This binds the mixture together and makes it easier to fill the tins.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 24 mini-muffin cups well with nonstick cooking spray. Fill each cup with crab cake mixture, pressing it in to fill it well. Press a rounded teaspoon down in the middle of each cake to make a little well in the center (this will keep them from mounding up and create a nice flat surface for the tartar sauce). You can cover the tins with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for several hours at this point.
Bake the crab cakes for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown, then cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Use a knife to loosen the cakes and remove them from the pan. Spoon a little tartar sauce on top of each cake and serve immediately, though these taste lovely at room temperature.
Artichoke tartar sauce
For the tartar sauce:
4 medium sized whole artichokes hearts (see note)
2 egg yolks
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup safflower, grapeseed or canola oil
Drain and rinse the artichoke hearts well and pat dry. Drop them in a food processor (I use the mini) and add the capers, egg yolks, parsley and garlic cloves. Pulse three to four times to break everything up into a rough paste; scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the motor running, drizzle the oil into the bowl in a thin, steady stream. Process until the sauce is thick and creamy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl halfway through. Scrape the tartar sauce into a container and keep covered in the fridge until ready to use. It will keep overnight.
I prefer pasteurized lump crab meat that I find in containers at the seafood counter at better grocery stores.
I generally used canned artichoke hearts in brine, rather than the marinated, quartered ones in jars because the marinated ones have some flavor additions. If you can only find those, rinse them really well. If you can only find quartered, use 12 quarters.
Bacon fried pecans
I don’t know who makes these decisions, but there is an endless list of “National Days” celebrating foods, dishes and ingredients. I recently saw that it was National Pecan Month, so I thought I better pull out a preparation for the iconic Southern nut. These are a salty, crunchy snack for a party, or on top of a salad, and once again prove that everything is better with bacon.
Makes 8 ounces
1 pound bacon
8 ounces pecan halves
1. Cook the bacon in a skillet until crispy. Drain the bacon on paper towels, then transfer the bacon grease to a medium sized skillet and let the bacon grease cool.
2. Use a sturdy knife to chop 6 strips of bacon. Save the rest of the bacon for another use.
3. Have a plate lined with paper towels ready by the stove. Reheat the bacon grease over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles, but do not let it smoke. Drop a handful of pecans into the hot fat and stir around. Remove with a slotted spoon to the prepared plate after about 15 seconds. Just let the pecans turn a shade darker, watch carefully and do not let them burn. Immediately sprinkle the hot pecans with salt. Continue with the remaining pecans. If the fat starts to smoke, remove from the heat for a few seconds to cool down.
4. When the pecans are cool, toss them with the chopped bacon and serve in a big bowl.
Be sure to let the bacon grease cool, then reheat it for frying. The nuts burn quickly and reheating allows more control over the temperature.
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Did you know that once you open a package of Oreos, you should eat them shortly thereafter if you want them fresh and still crunchy? Honestly. Usually when I buy a package of Oreos, I already have a recipe in mind to use them in so an open package doesn't stick around long in my pantry. I try not to actually eat them straight out of the package but prefer to incorporate them into baked goods – such as these cupcakes.
This turned out to be a good vanilla cupcake recipe. It was moist and tasted delicious. The addition of the Oreos added flavor and a little crunch but I think if you wanted a plain vanilla cupcake recipe, you could also omit the Oreos and serve these unadorned, they are that good. If you want to keep the crunch of the Oreos as garnish, don't sprinkle them over the frosting until right before you serve it. Otherwise the exposure to air plus sitting on top of frosting will soften the Oreos. I prefer a topping with crunch, so I sprinkle the chopped-up Oreos on top of the frosting at the last minute.
24 Oreo halves, with cream filling attached
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-2/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup milk
20 Oreo cookies, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the wells of two cupcake pans with 24 paper liners. Place an Oreo halve in the bottom of each liner, cream side up.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt; stir together with a fork to blend and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and beat together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Blend in the egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract.
3. With the mixer on low speed, beat in half of the dry ingredients just until incorporated. Add the milk and beat just until combined, then mix in the remaining dry ingredients. Gently fold in the chopped Oreos with a rubber spatula until evenly incorporated, being careful not to over-mix.
4. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared cupcake liners. Bake for 18-20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Oreo cookie crumbs
24 Oreo cookie halves
1. To make the frosting, combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Blend in the vanilla extract. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar until incorporated and smooth, 1-2 minutes. Add the heavy cream to the bowl and beat on medium-low speed just until incorporated, then increase the speed to medium-high and whip for 4 minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
2. Frost the cooled cupcakes as desired. Sprinkle with Oreo crumbs and garnish with Oreo halves.
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Inspiration for my grilled cheese creations can come from the strangest places. This sandwich is no exception. At Jimmy John’s, a sub place I am known to frequent, they have a vegetarian sub that I love. (#6 for those that have been to Jimmy John’s. I order it on multigrain.) As their menu reads:
"Layers of provolone cheese separated by real avocado spread, alfalfa sprouts, sliced cucumber, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. (Truly a gourmet sub not for vegetarians only……….peace dude!)"
To me, a vegetarian sandwich can be boring and lacking. However, I consider this particular sandwich to be unique in a world of bland and repetitive vegetarian sandwiches. The avocado spread, in my opinion, is fantastic. Plus, the alfalfa sprouts are a nice touch. I had this sandwich recently, leading me to think of ways to turn this cold sandwich into a hot grilled cheese sandwich.
As the menu states, Jimmy John’s uses provolone cheese on their vegetarian sandwich. I wanted to put my own spin on the sandwich, so although I stuck with a white cheese, I went with creamy Havarti, a mild, buttery cheese:
"Havarti was first developed by a 19th century Danish dairy pioneer named Hanne Nielsen. The cheese was named after Hanne Nielsen’s dairy farm: Havarti. Today it is one of the most popular cheeses for snacking and entertaining. Danish Havarti has been popular in the USA for many years. Denmarks Finest® is the original, imported Danish Havarti. It is your guarantee of exceptional quality, consistency and authencicity." (Arla.com)
While creating this particular grilled cheese, I wanted to pay homage to Jimmy John’s sandwich, but at the same time, I wanted to add my own touch. The most evident place to do so was with the avocado spread.
One day I found a cippolini onion in the grocery store, bought it and used it in my cooking. I never really knew much about it, but I knew that I seemed to enjoy it. Therefore, when I was trying to think of ingredients to add to my avocado spread, I once again stumbled on the cippolini onion:
"Cippolini onion has various uses in many recipes and it is eaten fresh, fried, steamed, baked or boiled, for numerous salads, toppings, sauces and dips. Due to its Italian origin, the cippolini onion is used for the Italian specialties, such as pizzas, spaghettis and various pastas with meat and greens. Cippolinis are small bittersweet bulbs that come from the grape hyacinth that look and taste like small, white onions. Fresh cippolinis are difficult to find in the U.S. They are available preserved in jars and are also known as wild onions." (Recipes.Wikia.com)
Other ingredients included: garlic, lime juice, salt and pepper. I (and the sous chef) simply smashed up the avocado and mixed in the chopped-up ingredients. We did not use a blender or any such contraption. That is it. I have no idea what Jimmy John’s puts in their avocado spread, but I must say, the ingredients I included, made one awesome spread. I made this right before cooking the sandwich, only refrigerating it for a few minutes, but I imagine making it a day ahead would only enhance the flavors. Jimmy John’s also includes mayonnaise in the sandwich, but I decided to leave the mayonnaise out of the spread and the sandwich.
Some people love alfalfa sprouts, others hate them. I, for one, am intrigued by them. Their hairy, weird texture can be a bit off-putting but I think it adds a unique texture to a sandwich. This is one ingredient I knew had to be in my version of this sandwich. Lettuce and tomato is included in the sandwich description, but honestly, I don’t ever remember them being included in the actual sandwich. I thought my interpretation had enough components with the avocado spread, alfalfa sprouts, and sliced cucumbers, that I left the lettuce and tomato off. I did not miss them.
Jimmy John’s sandwich normally comes on white but I prefer it on multigrain. It makes the sandwich a thousand times better (and a lot more edible). The choices at my local grocery store were nine-grain and multigrain. The nine-grain has larger grains and is sweeter. I chose the multigrain because I believed a less sweet bread would not overpower the sandwich.
Avocado & Alfalfa Sprouts Grilled Cheese
Homemade Avocado Spread (avocado, cippolini onions, lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper)
My grade: A
The Jimmy John’s vegetarian sandwich is itself a great, cold sandwich. When ordered on multigrain, it is, in my opinion, delicious. It is not, however, a grilled cheese sandwich. With a few tweaks and subtractions, I have turned this great cold sandwich into a true grilled cheese. The avocado spread itself had the perfect bite. With the addition of the cucumbers and alfalfa sprouts, the varied ingredients created a fantastic texture. Include the multigrain bread and you have yourself a very yummy treat. If you are someone who happens to enjoy both avocados and alfalfa sprouts, this sandwich is right up your alley. I would highly recommend both the Jimmy John’s cold sandwich and my Jimmy John’s inspired Avocado & Alfalfa Sprouts Grilled Cheese.
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In the webinar I am currently teaching "An American culinary journey: From succotash to urban chickens," we are spending an entire section on Julia Child.
In many ways Julia's own journey (and I feel like I can be on a first name basis here, since her genius lay in her ability to be accessible and engaging) epitomizes the transition of American cuisine – from one that was recovering from war rations and Jell-O molds into the discovery of cuisine, food as an element able to delight the senses, engage the mind, and empower a cook to exude creativity.
Her own awakening, as it is widely known, came in Rouen, France with sole meunière.
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Paul and Julia Child, who had both worked for the Office of Strategic Services, moved to Paris when Paul accepted a job as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency.
Paul, who was an artist, poet, and photographer, had the more sophisticated palate of the couple and it was he who introduced Julia to French cuisine in a way that opened her eyes to the notion that food could be a form of high art. In her book, “My Life in France,” which she co-authored with her nephew, Alex Prud'Homme, Julia describes experiencing true French cuisine for the first time when she and Paul arrived in Rouen, France:
“Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: ‘Bon appetit!’
“I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”
To the best of my knowledge, I've never had sole meunière – at least one that I remembered like that. It seemed important in my own education of Julia Child's path to recreate this life-changing dish. As she later put it, "That lunch in Rouen.... It was the most exciting meal of my life."
With this much weight on one dish, I was a little intimidated that I would be able to do it justice. I also wanted to try it in the blur of a weeknight, since the instructions in Julia's cookbook "The Way to Cook," indicated that it could be put together in literally minutes.
At my corner market there was no sole, but there was a nice piece of local cod, which doesn't turn up too often because of heavy fishing regulations. I set out several aluminum pie tins to flour and bread the fish (Julia says she keeps several on hand for this kind of thing) and pulled out my homemade breadcrumbs from the freezer. I decided to steam colorful baby potatoes and heat up frozen succotash I had on hand to go along with it.
I clarified some unsalted butter (also known as ghee), Julia recommends this, and it only takes minutes. Simply heat tablespoons of butter in a saucepan until it boils, and let it boil away until it stops crackling. The point here is to get rid of excess moisture in order to deepen the buttery flavor. Once it has stopped crackling, pour the melted butter through a tea strainer or cheese cloth into a ramekin. Clarified butter will keep for several months in the refrigerator.
I also took the extra step in breading the fish, which isn't called for in the recipe but is another suggested step in "The Way to Cook." To do this, after you dip the filets in flour, shake off the excess and then quickly dip into an egg beaten with a little oil, and then into about a 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs. Be sure to add the coating only moments before you are going to add the filets to the pan, or the breading will get mushy. I forgot to pick up fresh parsley, but I decided to try capers. Up to this point, I haven't really cared for capers. This dish changed my mind.
One or 2 minutes on each side, and my sole (cod) meunière was ready. I took a bite – wow. The hurried pace of my day slowed down and I focused in right where I was. Buttery and light, the crispy outer layer gave way to a delicate fish that was, for once, not overcooked. If I could be impressed by sole meunière in a tiny Boston apartment at my first attempt, I can only glimpse what Julia must have experienced all those years ago during an afternoon in Rouen.
From "The Way to Cook," by Julia Child
4 to 6 skinless, boneless filets of sole
1/2 cup flour
5 to 6 tablespoons of clarified butter
Fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons capers (optional)
1. Layout and pat dry the fillets. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Dredge in a light coating of flour, brushing off excess with your fingers.
3. In a skillet on medium-high heat, pour in clarified butter and heat until just before browning.
4. Place filets in the pan, without overcrowding, about 3 to 4 a skillet. Brown on one side about 1 to 2 minutes, and carefully flip over to brown the other side.
5. Remove fish to platter, and if using, add capers to butter and heat for a minute. Pour capers and butter over fish.
6. Garnish with lemon and fresh parsley. Serve.
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When I bake banana bread, I’m so eager to slice the end off and chomp down that barely five minutes passes from oven to mouth. And I have my red, sore fingers to prove it. Sweet and chewy on one side, and thick and crusty on the other, the ends are definitely prime real estate on a freshly-baked loaf of banana bread. Plus, with only two of them, they are all the more alluring!
But somehow the same doesn’t hold true for store-bought bread. I can never bring myself to eat spongy Oroweat ends or even the heel of a freshly-baked baguette (they scrape the roof of my mouth). And it’s not that I’m averse to crusts either. I eat them, especially since I don’t condone my toddler not eating them. I usually end up throwing the ends out which makes my conscience prickle with guilt. (Darn those starving African children.)
Well, my husband came up with one solution: strategically face the brown ends inward when making grilled cheese sandwiches. Brilliant no? I’ll happily eat it because I can’t t tell where the ends are! But grilled cheese sandwiches are my husband’s forte and he – ahem – doesn’t cook all that much.
Recently, I was struck by a memory. I recalled trays of stale bread, including the ends, left out in the sun to dry. No, they weren’t meant for the birds. They were destined to become breadcrumbs. At that time and place, you couldn’t buy breadcrumbs at the store and my mum made her own to coat her risoles and kroket. Once the bread slices were sufficiently dry, she would break them up and pound them in her giant stone mortar until they turned to a fine, crumbly dust.
My solution? Dry them out in the oven. I used Franz’s “Milk & Honey” bread which has a light, delicate crumb. I was hoping it would turn out like panko but no such luck. However, as far as bread crumbs go, they were great! And you get none of the unpronouceables, high fructose corn syrup, soy, dairy, goodness-knows what else that shouldn’t be in bread, that they put in in a can of store-bought breadcrumbs.
How to make homemade breadcrumbs
Start collecting those ends! I store them in the fridge or freezer until I have a good number of slices. Use any type of leftover or stale bread – baguettes, ciabatta, homemade. Different types of bread will give a different crumb so go ahead and experiment. I haven’t tried whole wheat yet so I”m not sure what the texture would be like. Perhaps you could report back? If you’d like, add some dried herbs – oregano, basil, tarragon. Store the breadcrumbs in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
Time: 45 minutes (5 minutes active)
Arrange a rack in the middle of your oven. Preheat it to 250 degrees F.
Arrange your bread slices on a cookie sheet and place it on the middle rack.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until they are dry and brittle, flipping them halfway.
When they are done, pound them in a mortar or whizz them in a food processor until no big crumbs are left and/or they are the texture you want. I prefer using a mortar and pestle because I have better control of how fine the breadcrumbs turn out.
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I've made Smitten Kitchen recipes for birthdays, potlucks, picnics, parties, and every day dinners. And what I've learned is not every Smitten Kitchen recipe is created equally. While author Deb Perelman strives to make the cooking process simple, using as few dishes as possible and streamlined ingredients, every so often she jumps the tracks and veers into really complicated territory. Hand-made ravioli? Homemade bagels? Sorry, not happening.
Now, a simple pasta topped with a pea pesto when I already have a huge bag of frozen peas in my freezer? That I can do! The one downside? I don't own a food processor (highly recommended when making pesto) or even a blender. Much like the kitchen Smitten Kitchen I was inspired by (a tiny New York number) my kitchen has zero counter space and little storage.
So what to do without a food processor? I used my favorite go-to kitchen tool, my good old hand mixer. Yes, took a little longer, and yes, my "pesto" was not as smooth as it would have been with a food processor, but it was definitely doable, and still delicious. And I'm betting there are others out there like me, cooking in tiny ill-stocked kitchens, sighing in frustration whenever an amazing recipe comes along that requires an expensive appliance they don't own. It may give your arm a workout, but this particular pesto is within reach.
I paired my pasta with an easy salt-and-pepper chicken, thrown together with ingredients I had on-hand. I have a feeling tiny meatballs would really make this dish pop, and if you want to keep it 100 percent Smitten Kitchen-themed, try the meatballs from this dish.
Pasta with pea pesto
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
2 cups fresh or frozen peas
1 small garlic clove, minced (or if using hand mixer 1 tablespoon garlic powder)
2 tablespoons unsalted nuts (original recipe calls for pine nuts, I used cashews)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for pasta water
1/3 cup olive oil
One package dried linguine, spaghetti, or fettuccine (I used linguine)
Garnish (optional): thinly slivered basil or mint leaves
1. Fill large pot half full of water, salt well, and bring to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Reserve about two cups of pasta water to use later with pesto. Drain pasta, set aside. Keep your pasta pot on the stove for later.
2. While pasta cooks, cook peas either on stovetop or in microwave for about 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Drain, and let cool slightly. If using food processor set aside 1/2 cup peas.
3. Whirl 1-1/2 cups peas in food processor or blender with garlic cloves, nuts, 1/3 cup Parmesan, and pinch of salt. Drizzle in olive oil and blend until smooth. (If using hander mixer beat all the peas, garlic powder, and pinch of salt on high speed, adding olive oil a bit at a time until mostly smooth, with only a few peas left whole. This will take about 5 minutes. Stir in Parmesan and nuts.)
NOTE: If adding a meat component to your dinner now's the time to prepare it. See below for my simple salt and pepper chicken.
4. With heat on medium-low, return pesto and reserved peas to pasta pot, add pasta, and mix to combine. Add splashes of pasta water as needed until pesto is smooth and coats all noodles. Add salt, black pepper, basil, mint, and extra Parmesan to taste. If finishing up a meat component turn heat to low while waiting.
Simple salt and pepper chicken
1 package boneless skinless chicken tenderloins, or breasts cut into thirds
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
2 garlic cloves finely diced
1 small shallot finely diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
handful of cherry tomatoes halved or quartered
1. About two hours before dinner, salt and pepper your chicken, rubbing the spices into the meat, cover and refrigerate. (You can do this even earlier if you like.)
2. About 15 or 20 minutes before dinner is ready, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat olive oil over medium heat on stove in oven-proof pan (I used my trusty cast-iron skillet). Brown garlic and shallot for about 3 minutes, then add cherry tomatoes and stir until they've released a lot of juices. Add pat of butter and stir to mix.
3. Brown chicken on both sides. For tenderloins, this goes quickly, about 3 minutes on each side. When chicken is brown, place whole pan in oven, and bake about 8 to 10 minutes, until chicken is no longer pink in the middle. Note: Your browning and baking times will vary depending on how thick and large your chicken pieces are.
When you are the cook in the family, the special task of creating family celebration meals falls to you. It is an honor and a privilege and one I take very seriously.
I always pay attention to what my family members like (and don’t) and my favorite kitchen task is devising and creating meals or treats that will surprise and delight them. When the whole family is gathered around the table, sharing favorite dishes, my heart is full to bursting.
I created this cake for my mother, who loves, loves lemon. I have piled on every level of lemon flavor I can think of. Luscious lemon curd is her favorite, so I’ve filled the cake with it. The cake itself is packed with lemon flavor and the sweet glaze is like sugary lemonade. A sparkling shower of crushed lemon drops adds crunch (which Mom also loves), lip-puckering sweetness and a pretty shimmer.
Lavish lemon cake
Serves 10 – 12
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
1 cup buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup lemon curd, homemade or purchased
1-1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
lemon drop candies for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan, or spray with Bakers’ Joy.
2. Grate the zest from one of the lemons and set aside. Juice all the lemons.
3. Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light. Add 2 cups of sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the lemon zest and 1/4 cup of the lemon juice and beat until combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda alternately with the buttermilk until everything is completely combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
4. Scoop half of the batter into the prepared pan and spread it out to an even surface. Drag the back of a spoon through the center of the batter in a circle to make a small trough. Carefully spoon the lemon curd into the trough, doing your best to keep it from the sides of the pan. Carefully cover with the remaining batter, gently spreading it to cover the lemon curd. Do not worry if some of the curd reaches the sides of the pan; just do your best.
5. While the cake is cooking, whisk together a further 2 tablespoons of juice and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Stir it a couple of times while the cake is baking, but the sugar will not completely dissolve.
6. Bake the cake for 45-50 minutes until a tester inserted in the center come out clean. Leave to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a platter. Cut thin strips of waxed paper and place around the edged of the cake. This will pick up any drips from glazing; just remove them when done and your platter is clean and ready to go. Poke holes all over the top of the cake with a skewer or a toothpick. Brush the lemon sugar glaze over the cake with a pastry brush. Go slowly and let it absorb. Leave the cake to cool.
7. When the cake is completely cool, mix the confectioners’ sugar with 2 tablespoons lemon juice until you have a thick glaze. Spoon the glaze over the cake, letting it drizzle down the sides.
8. Place a handful of lemon drops in a heavy plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin. Sprinkle over the top of the cake.
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We love border-crossing cooking. When ingredients and techniques travel across boundaries and cultures, food gets interesting. Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect example. Not only does it share herbs and spices with its Asian neighbors, but it borrows from its culinary past as a French colony.
A family favorite here at Blue Kitchen is Marion’s Vietnamese Beef Stew. The slow cooked, meaty, multi-spiced dish is served with a French baguette instead of rice and eaten with forks and spoons, not chopsticks. Similarly, bánh mì — in the West, delicious, usually meaty Vietnamese sandwiches — are served on baguettes. In Vietnam, the term bánh mì actually means bread or, more specifically, French bread.
Bánh mì — the sandwich — comes in many forms. The most popular is made with roast pork, but beef, chicken, tofu, and other varieties are generally available in the sandwich shops that have sprung up in cities across the United States. It is virtually always served with pickled carrots and daikon, a mild white radish popular in the cuisines of Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. It’s often served with sliced peppers too, jalapeño being a readily available choice, and topped with cilantro sprigs.
We first sampled bánh mì meatloaf served as the classic sandwich at The Butcher & Larder, our favorite Chicago butcher shop. Made with their own ground pork (and perhaps beef—I don’t remember), it was delicious. About halfway through, though, we stopped eating it as a sandwich, opening it up and concentrating on the meat and toppings with the occasional bite of bread. And that gave me the idea to dispense with the sandwich altogether and create a mash-up of the Vietnamese favorite and the ultimate American comfort food: bánh meatloaf.
Serves 4 to 6
For the pickled carrots and daikon—makes about 2 cups:
Make this at least three hours ahead of making the meatloaf to let the vegetables marinate. Will keep for up to three weeks in the fridge. See Kitchen Notes for a couple of thoughts on ways to use the jalapeño pepper.
1/2 cup warm water
4 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup rice vinegar (or distilled vinegar)
1 cup carrot matchsticks (or julienned or coarsely grated—see Kitchen Notes)
1 cup daikon matchsticks (see Kitchen Notes)
scant 1/2 cup thin slices of jalapeño pepper (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
Add sugar and salt to warm water and stir to dissolve. Stir in vinegar. Set aside and let cool while you prepare carrots, daikon and jalapeño pepper. Combine in bowl with vinegar mix. Set aside to let vegetables marinate at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 3 hours. For longer than 3 hours, refrigerate.
For the meatloaf:
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce (see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon hot sauce (such as Sriracha)
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
6 tablespoons bread crumbs (I used panko)
A quick note: don’t overwork the meatloaf mix—it will become mealy. To help achieve this, only roughly mix the pork and beef together before adding the rest of the ingredients. Mix the basil, scallions and garlic in a small bowl beforehand; do the same with the pepper, salt, sugar and five-spice powder; this will minimize mixing once they’re added to the meat.
Also, I skipped the loaf pan and baked the meatloaf mixture in a hand formed loaf shape on a flat surface. This allowed it to brown on the sides as well as the top and gave it a pleasing loaf shape. Marion has used this technique in the past; I learned my version of it from Ben Bettinger, executive chef at Portland Penny Diner.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Wrap the top of a wire rack with aluminum foil and set it over a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. With a paring knife, poke slits into the foil on the rack.
Using wet hands, quickly work pork and beef together in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and, using your hands, work everything together until just combined.
Form meatloaf into an oblong loaf and transfer to foil-wrapped rack. Bake in the oven until an instant read thermometer inserted in the center registers 150 – 160 degrees F, about 1 to 1-1/4 hours, rotating once halfway through. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let it rest for five minutes.
Slice crosswise and plate, topping with pickled carrots and daikon and sprigs of cilantro. Serve with slices of a crusty baguette (see Kitchen Notes).
Preparing carrots and daikon. It’s easy (if time consuming) to hand slice them into matchsticks — a good knife skills exercise too. You can also use a mandolin or coarsely grate them.
About that daikon. You can find it in Asian markets. They’re often huge, far more than you’ll need. But if you’re lucky you can find smaller sizes. If you can’t find daikon, you can substitute jicama (if you can find that) or white radishes. Or you can skip the daikon altogether and double the carrots. But do try to find it — its spicy crunch is delicious.
Jalapeño options. If you’re totally heat averse, one option is to skip it, or completely remove the heat-bearing seeds and ribs. Adding the jalapeño slices to the vinegar mix will share their heat with the carrots and daikon, but I like what the vinegar does to the pepper slices, making them seem a little less raw. Another option is to put them in a separate small bowl and drizzle some of the vinegar on them. Then, when you’re ready to serve, pass the pepper slices at the table, letting those who like spicy foods add them to their plates.
Beefy choices. The ground pork I got for this recipe was nicely marbled with fat, so I went with less fatty sirloin for the beef. If the pork looks lean, choose chuck for the beef.
Fish sauce, such as nam pla or nuoc nam, is a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines. It imparts a wonderful umami flavor to dishes. You can find in in Asian markets and many supermarkets. If you can’t find it — or if any of your diners have seafood allergies — try using soy sauce and a squeeze of lime juice.
Have a sandwich. If you opt for actual bánh mì sandwiches, try to track down Vietnamese baguettes. The crust is thinner. And tear out some of the bread inside the crust to accommodate the filling. If you go the sandwich route, be sure to add a little mayo—you could use the sriracha mayonnaise from this recipe for a little extra kick.
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I've been known to make disparaging remarks about vegan baked goods so for me to say that these cookies are delicious means they are truly delicious.
Our friend, Karen who is the innkeeper at the lovely Woodstock Inn on the Millstream in Woodstock, N.Y., had made a batch of these the last time we stopped by to let my son Will move sand in his dumper and throw rocks into the stream.
Karen was very generous with her cookies and we sat around in the inn's kitchen/office enjoying them. When I asked for the recipe, she told me that it was from Whole Foods. So I Googled "Whole Foods mandarin coconut cookies" when we got home and, sure enough, there it was.
I've adapted their recipe slightly below as there were a couple silly / inefficient things in their version. For example, instead of removing the skin of the tangerines with a vegetable peeler and then chopping it to obtain enough zest, I've changed it to just zesting the tangerines. Time is precious, after all.
We happened to have a small pile of tangerines that were not getting any younger sitting on the counter so the timing was perfect. And I had the rest of the ingredients: coconut oil (which is great to cook with!), flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, salt, and coconut flakes, too.
Will "helped" me make them. His favorite part was drinking the freshly squeezed tangerine juice and eating the sweetened coconut – and eating the cookies, of course. He told me recently in a very solemn and proud little voice, "Mama, I can eat SO much sweet things." Which is true.
Since we usually use eggs in our cookie dough (this vegan recipe is a real anomaly for me), he assumed that this dough was also off-limits for eating. And I saw no reason to tell him otherwise.
The dough is kind of fun to handle – the texture is soft and marzipan-like with a delicious sweet smell from the coconut oil and the tangerine juice.
I also enjoyed smushing the cookies with the bottom of a glass dipped first in water and then in the coconut flakes to flatten them out for baking.
I think the cookies end up looking a little bit like flowers. Seems fitting now that it's spring and the warmer weather is on its way. Enjoy!
Mandarin Coconut Cookies
Adapted from Whole Foods' recipe
Makes roughly 3 dozen
2 mandarin oranges, such as satsumas or clementines
1-1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup organic, virgin coconut oil, melted and cooled slightly
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup finely grated dried, sweetened coconut, divided
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Use a microplane zester to obtain 1 tablespoon zest. Juice the mandarins to obtain 1/4 cup juice. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat 1-1/4 cups sugar and oil on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the tangerine juice, zest, and vanilla and beat again. Add flour, 1/2 cup coconut oil, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt and beat again until combined.
3. Form the dough into 1-1/2-inch balls. Arrange the balls two inches apart on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet (I used my Silpat but it's worth noting that both parchment paper and Silpat contain silicon so, if you're concerned about that, my guess is you could also just grease a cookie sheet with equally good results.)
4. Dip a flat-bottomed glass in water and then in the sweetened coconut flakes. Press down firmly on each cookie, re-dipping the glass as needed. Bake until golden brown and just firm, about 15 minutes.
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