This past weekend, I volunteered to make two cakes for the cake walk at our school’s fundraising event, Pumpkinpalooza. I always love an excuse to bake and don’t usually shy away from an opportunity to make a layer cake from scratch. For those who don’t know what a cake walk is, I recently heard someone describe it as part musical chairs and part bingo. Participants walk in a circle on top of numbers and when the music stops, a number is randomly chosen. The winner gets a cake as his or her prize. It’s quite thrilling, especially for baking/baked goods enthusiasts!
While trying to decide what to make, I remembered back to my first cake walk memory. My elementary school hosted an annual event called Family Fun Night. We looked forward to it all spring. Carnival-inspired games and the ever-popular though accident-inducing Space Walk (large, inflatable jumping cage) were crowd-pleasers.
When I was in third grade, I won the cake walk at Family Fun Night. I was standing on No. 20. As adrenaline pumped through my little veins, I scanned the table of cakes and chose one to take home. Clearly, it was one of the biggest moments in my early childhood since I can still picture that winning number written in chalk peering out from under my feet! Earlier that week, I had enjoyed another cake-centered win by earning a blue ribbon in my class cake baking competition. I’d used animal crackers and straws to create a carousel cake.
As I let the waves of nostalgia roll over me, I realized that I shouldn’t bake the cakes that I wanted to bake for last weekend’s event but to consider my audience and create something that would make the cake walk winners excited. I have always loved the idea of dirt cake and decided to create this spooky, seasonal version. It also lent itself to the practical, give-away container. It’s not easy to pack layer cakes “to go” for outdoor events.
This recipe swings the pendulum as far as it can reach from a “scratch” cake. You basically buy a half dozen highly processed foods and toss them all together. I’ve decided there is a time and place for Oreos and Cool Whip. I can’t be a purest all the time.
I was fortunate to stumble upon chocolate skulls and bones at Target that I sprinkled across the top. I’ve seen Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies used as headstones and they are adorable but I forgot to buy them. The graham crackers got a little soggy and started to droop but my daughter claimed they looked even better and spookier that way. Thanks goodness for Mommy’s little fan club!
We arrived a little late and found that the Graveyard Cake had already been won. A half hour later, I saw some young boys at a picnic table hovered over the pan, dangling the gummy worms above their mouths and laughing. My girls played the cake walk a number of times and on the third attempt, our little 2-1/2-year-old won! She chose a chocolate cake that was loaded with star-shaped sprinkles. She was beaming with pride as we sampled her cake, shared it with friends, and explained that we could bring it home. I wonder if she will remember her first win for decades to come?
Graveyard dirt cake
(Adapted from a few different recipes)
1 package Oreo cookies (16 ounces)
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 packages (3.9 ounces each) instant chocolate pudding
4-1/2 cups milk
1 carton frozen whipped topping, thawed (16 oz)
Gummy worms, chocolates, graham crackers or cookies for decorating
1. Pulse Oreos in a food processor until they resemble dirt. Cream together softened cream cheese and butter.
2. In a separate bowl, combine pudding and milk and milk until thickened. Stir in whipped topping. Combine pudding mixture and cream cheese mixture. If using a 9- by 13-inch pan, sprinkle about a half of the cookie mixture on the bottom of the pan, then spread the pudding and top with the rest of the cookies.
3. Decorate the top. If you are using a flower pot or deeper container, split the cookie mixture in thirds and add a layer in the middle.
4. Chill for at least 4 hours or overnight before serving.
Related post on Whipped, The Blog: Gone Fishing Snack Cup
One of the pleasures of writing Blue Kitchen is the opportunities we get to review cookbooks. We love food and we love the written word. Cookbooks give us both. The latest volume to come across our desk celebrates a place that has helped support the written word for 25 years now.
Hedgebrook is a writing retreat on Whidbey Island in Washington state, 48 acres with a farmhouse and six cabins. Since 1988, those cabins have been home to an impressive list of women writers, including Eve Ensler, Jane Hamilton, Carolyn Forché and Gloria Steinem, all enjoying what Hedgebrook calls “radical hospitality.”
Amy Wheeler, Executive Director of Hedgebrook, explains it like this: “As women, we are used to being the nurturers. We make sure others are fed, clothed and taken care of. We enable their work and visions, sometimes at the expense of our own.” Hedgebrook turns the tables, nurturing women writers, feeding them, caring for them and giving them time to write.
With the 'Hedgebrook Cookbook: Celebrating Radical Hospitality,' the famed retreat’s chefs share recipes prepared for the communal table in the farmhouse. Proceeds from the sale of the cookbook will support Hedgebrook’s mission. Written by Denise Barr and Julie Rosten and released through She Writes Press, it contains more than ninety recipes as well as original writings by a number of Hedgebrook alumnae. It’s also filled with beautiful photography— of the food, of course, but also images of the place that resonate with peace, comfort, and joy.
The recipes are rich in comfort foods— lavender shortbread, savory galettes, clam chowder, cauliflower mac and cheese… and this Italian chicken stew, with chunks of chicken, potatoes, and artichoke hearts, brightened with capers, olives, red pepper flakes, and lemon. Reading the recipe, we knew it would be good, but we were not prepared for just how good— big-flavored, rustic, and soul satisfying.
Italian chicken stew
Adapted from Hedgebrook Cookbook: Celebrating Radical Hospitality
Serves 3 to 4
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 5)
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons capers, drained
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup dry white wine (*optional, may substitute cooking wine)
1-1/2 cups unsalted or reduced-sodium chicken broth (plus more, if needed)
1 pound yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a 3/4-inch dice
8 to 12 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and quartered
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 cup whole green pitted olives, drained
1. Cut chicken into large pieces, 4 or 5 pieces per thigh. Mix flour, salt and pepper in a plastic bag. Add chicken, close bag and shake, making sure each piece is coated. Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium flame. Sauté chicken in batches, cooking until lightly brown, turning once, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
2. Reduce heat, add garlic and fennel seed and cook until fragrant, stirring, about 45 seconds. Add red pepper flakes, capers and lemon zest and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. (The fragrance will be amazing at this point.) Add wine and simmer, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook about 2 minutes.
3. Add broth and chicken, along with any accumulated juices, and return to a simmer. Add potatoes and continue to simmer about 15 minutes. Gently stir in artichokes with a wooden spoon, adding a little more broth, if needed. Everything doesn’t have to be submerged, but you want all the ingredients in contact with liquid. Partially cover pot and cook until potatoes are done, another 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and stir in olives, parsley and lemon juice. Serve immediately.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Sweet Potato Sage Pasta with Chicken
I have always loved interactive food – where everyone gets to participate in the making and serving of a meal. The pizza party is a great example of this – roll out the dough, choose the toppings, assemble the pizza and watch while they bake. It’s fun for kids and grown-ups alike.
Fall and Halloween are great times to gather around a fun kitchen project. When the weather gets that little nip in the air, its nice to come inside to a warming meal. Add some pumpkin to the mix and it is a real fall meal. The pizza dough is simple to mix up and the sauce can be made ahead of time. Clear off the counter and let everyone go to work on their own creation.
Pumpkin pizza dough
1 tablespoon active yeast
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F.)
3-1/2 cups bread flour
1 cup pumpkin puree (from a 15 ounce can, remainder reserved)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1. Sprinkle the yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the honey and pour over the warm water. Give it a little stir and let it sit until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, pumpkin, olive oil, and salt and mix with the dough hook on a low setting until it all comes together. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Work the dough with hook on low speed for 8–10 minutes until the dough is a soft, elastic ball that has cleaned all the flour and bits off the sides of the bowl. Push the dough back down if it starts to push over the top of the dough hook.
2. When the dough is kneaded, transfer the dough ball to a bowl greased with olive oil. Brush the top of the dough with olive oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
4. Punch down the risen dough and leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle your counter lightly with corn meal. Divide the dough into 2 balls and shape each into a smooth disc. Working one ball at a time, use your hands to push the dough outward from the center, turning the dough 1/4 turn as you go, until you have a nice round pizza, about 10 – 12 inches around. Push and stretch the dough outward from the middle until it won't stretch any more. Leave the pizza base to rest for 5 minutes. Repeat with the next disc.
6. Carefully transfer the pizza base to a baking sheet lightly brushed with olive oil. If it loses its shape, press it back into the round. Use your fingertips to press indentions in the dough to prevent it from bubbling up.
7. Spread on the tomato–pumpkin sauce and the toppings of your choice. Bake for 10–12 minutes until the crust is golden and the cheese toppings are melted.
- You can make this a perfectly round pizza, or go more free form, just make sure the finished dough fits on your baking sheet. If you are more artistic than me, shape the dough like a pumpkin.
- You can make four individual pizzas if you prefer.
- If you only want one pizza, freeze the second disc in a ziptop bag for up to a month.
Pumpkin–tomato pizza sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onions (from about 1 small onion)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoon vermouth or white wine (*optional, may substitute cooking wine)
Remaining pumpkin puree from making the dough (about 2/3 cups)
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1. Place the olive oil and chopped onions in a high sided saucepan and sauté over medium high heat until translucent and soft and beginning to turn golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute, then add the vermouth, scraping the bottom of the pan. Cook until the liquid is evaporated and the onions are a pale golden color. If the onions need to cook a bit longer to reach golden, add a few tablespoons of water and cook until its evaporated.
2. Add the tomato sauce and pumpkin puree and stir to combine. Stir in 1/2 cup of water, the sage, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat until the sauce has thickened, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, about 10 minutes.
3. The sauce can be made up to a day ahead, covered and refrigerated. Leftover sauce is excellent on pasta, particularly a cheese tortellini.
- Taleggio cheese, prosciutto or cooked pancetta and fried sage leaves
- Fontina cheese, cooked Italian sausage, thinly sliced red onion
- Shaved parmesan cheese Roasted red and yellow pepper strips and mushrooms
- Mozzarella cheese and bacon
Related post on The Runaway Spoon: Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce
Will green bean casserole be on your Thanksgiving table next month? If so, you’re not alone! It’s one of those all-time American favorites, especially at the holidays. But why?
Learn about some of the holiday food traditions celebrated around the world in a free online course offered by Principia College and taught by Stir It Up! editor and food writer Kendra Nordin. This two-week course includes live sessions for discussion in real time with the instructor and your classmates.
Both experienced and novice online learners are welcome. In fact, if you’ve never taken an online course before, this is the perfect opportunity to try one for free! But don’t delay – Holiday Food Traditions begins October 29.
To sign up for the course, click here.
Watch the video below to meet Kendra and learn more.
If you are the kind of person who likes to know where your food comes from, you might see if one of the 4,500 events celebrating National Food Day on Oct. 24 being held across the United States is happening near you.
National Food Day first began in 1975 as an attempt to raise an awareness about the increasing industrialization of the food system and its impact. It lasted only two years, but was revived in 2011 by the Center of Science in the Public Interest.
Today, National Food Day focuses on such issues nutrition education, sustainable agriculture, hunger, farm animal welfare, and farm and food service worker rights.
The focus of this year's National Food Day is on children and cooking, with a Let's Get Cooking with Kids campaign that includes activities, tool kits, and recipes for children and adults alike to enjoy together.
I live in a pretty mild climate so it's a stretch to wax poetic about "chilly" autumn days being upon us, making it perfect soup (or chowder) weather. So I won't pretend, and instead say I made this because I wanted to.
One of my favorite soups is baked potato, preferably served in a crusty bread bowl just to make sure I get all of those carbs safely into my waistband. I made up this recipe because I wanted something with the thick, creamy consistency of baked potato soup but I wanted to use sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. I had purchased three sweet potatoes and wanted to try out three different recipes for them. This is the first one.
The ultimate potato soup for me (perhaps oddly enough) is the potato cheese soup at Marie Callendar's Restaurant and Bakery. Love it. Love the creamy consistency and the cheesy flavor. But I don't really eat at Marie Callendar's anymore (they keep closing down) so I've been without potato cheese soup for awhile. Hence my attempt to make my own.
I didn't quite know what I was doing but I did a search of potato soups and potato cheese soups online and came up with the ingredients most of them had in common: potatoes (check), cheese (yup), milk, and sour cream. There were other variations so I just winged it and invented this one. For the most part, I thought it turned out rather well, even despite my having a low bar of "just don't poison yourself" when it comes to my cooking. (I'm a baker.) The chowder had the thick, creamy consistency I was going for, thanks to the sour cream and the melted cheese. I added the kernels from a fresh ear of white corn for some crunch and for protein, I threw in chunks of chicken sausage to the chowder itself and topped it with turkey bacon.
I know many bacon snobs don't consider turkey bacon "real bacon" but, not being a bacon aficionado, it worked for me since it has less fat than the real thing. The sweet potatoes were also good in the chowder but I think it would've been better if I had used a more spicy sausage. The one I used was a sweet sausage from Trader Joe's but since the sweet potatoes were already, well, sweet, as was the sweet corn, a spicy sausage would have provided for a better contrast.
This chowder is best consumed the day it's made for the optimal creamy consistency. I refrigerated the leftovers and ate them for the next few days after and it wasn't as good. The chowder was more lumpy to eat rather than creamy and the oil from the cheddar cheese separated a bit and had to be emulsified back in. Otherwise, I would consider this a success.
Cheesy sweet potato, sausage and corn chowder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium to large sweet potato, peeled and diced into even-sized chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 2-ounce sausage, cut into chunks and cooked
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese, mild or sharp
Cooked kernels from 1 ear of corn
2 strips bacon, crisp, crumbled
2 mini boules, centers cut out (reserve tops)
1 green onion, green top chopped for garnish (optional)
1. Heat olive oil in a medium or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato chunks and stir fry until tender but not mushy, stirring with a wooden spoon to cook evenly. Salt and pepper to taste.
2. Add sausage and cook until heated through. Set aside.
3. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour to make a roux. Gradually whisk in the milk and the chicken broth, whisking the mixture smooth. Add sour cream and whisk smooth. Add shredded cheddar cheese and whisk until melted smooth.
4. Add sweet potatoes, sausage and fresh corn kernels. Let simmer, stirring occasionally until thickened to desired consistency.
5. Heat mini boules at 350 degrees F until insides are very lightly browned. You can butter the tops and brown them in the oven if desired. Remove boules from oven and fill with chowder. Garnish with crumbled crisp bacon and green onion if desired.
Related post on The Pastry Chef's Baking: Spiced & Baked Sweet Potato Fries
I love pigs. If you’re going to eat meat – and I am – you should honor the animal by preparing it well and making sure nothing goes to waste. That’s the core philosophy of nose to tail eating. Can you think of a creature more completely, creatively, and deliciously suited this approach? Chops, ribs, roasts, ham, bacon, a whole world of sausages and charcuterie come from pigs.
Oven braising is a great way to turn tough but flavorful, inexpensive cuts of meat into soul-satisfying meals. Think of chunky stews and stick-to-your-ribs pot roasts and other hearty fall and winter favorites that warm our kitchens and fill our houses with earthy aromas as they slowly cook, making us mind cold weather less.
The inexpensive cut I chose was a Boston butt roast. Despite its name, the Boston butt actually comes from the upper shoulder of the hog. So why the seeming misnomer? According to the National Pork Board (thanks, Ochef), in pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some lesser pork cuts were packed into casks or barrels, also known as “butts,” for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as “Boston Butt.” The name is still used throughout the US today – except in Boston, apparently.
RECOMMENDED: Take our fruit and veggie quiz!
The Boston butt is a moderately tough cut of meat with a good deal of connective tissue that gets broken down by the slow cooking process. It is also marbled with fat and in fact usually has a thin layer of fat on one side. This fat essentially bastes the roast during cooking, making it juicy, flavorful and tender. You can also use a pork shoulder for this recipe, preferably the arm picnic cut.
Apple/Onion Compote. According to Cookthink.com, “compote comes from the French verb compoter, which means to cook something gently until it breaks down and reduces into a babyfood-like purée.” Compotes are often mostly fruits, sugar and water, made to be spooned over ice cream or other dessert dishes. There are savory compotes too, though – caramelized onion-fennel jam to smear on toasted bread is a popular one. This compote, made of apples, onions, and apple cider, has a natural sweetness that complements pork beautifully.
And it did just that with this braised pork dish. The five-spice rub gave the meat a subtle, mysterious depth without any obvious Asian overtones. Forgive me an immodest moment, but this roast was good. Company good. In fact, as we were eating our first bites, Marion said that if she’d been served this dish in a restaurant, she’d be quite happy with it. To us, restaurant good is about as good as it gets.
It’s also brainlessly simple. Minimal prep time and then you just wait for it to marinate and then to roast. And yeah, it’s worth the wait.
Braised pork roast with five-spice rub and apple/onion compote
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Adapted from a Gourmet magazine recipe
1 4-pound bone-in Boston butt pork roast
1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 garlic cloves, cut into slivers (about 6 per clove)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
3 medium apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (see Kitchen Notes)
3/4 cup unfiltered apple cider (see Kitchen Notes)
1. Score fat and any skin on pork in a crosshatch pattern. Sprinkle five-spice powder liberally over all sides of the roast (I used a small strainer, tapping it with a knife to evenly coat the roast). Rub five-spice powder into the meat. Make slits all over meat with a small sharp knife and insert a garlic sliver in each slit. Place roast in a covered dish or wrap in plastic and marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Season pork with salt and pepper.
3. Heat a large, heavy nonstick skillet over moderately high heat. Add oil and brown meat on all sides, turning occasionally with the aid of tongs and a carving fork, about 10 minutes (see Kitchen Notes). Transfer pork to a plate.
5. Add onions to pan and sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and starting to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add apples and 1/2 teaspoon salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes more.
6. Stir in cider, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer apple/onion mixture to a dutch oven or heavy lidded pot large enough to hold the roast. Add roast and any accumulated juices to the pot.
7. Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid and braise pork in middle of oven until very tender, 2-1/2 to 3 hours. The roast can be prepared 1 day ahead up to this point – see Kitchen Notes for details.
8. Transfer pork to a cutting board with the aid of tongs and carving fork and let rest for about 5 minutes. Transfer apple/onion mixture to a serving dish, using a slotted spoon to strain off excess liquid and rendered fat. By now, the onions and apples will have pretty much fallen apart, taking on the consistency of chunky applesauce. Adjust seasoning, slice pork and serve.
Apples, apple cider. Ideally, you want nice, tart cooking apples. I still had some Russet apples left over from my grilled cheese adventures, so I used those. Granny Smiths would also be good. For the cider, unfiltered is best. It’s the “cloudy” cider, the equivalent of orange juice with lots of pulp. Clear apple cider will work too. In a pinch, you can even use apple juice, but make sure there are no added sugars. The apples and onions will add plenty of sweetness to the compote.
Browning the meat. Usually when you’re braising or roasting something in a dutch oven – or in our case, our beautiful, blue, oval Staub Cocotte – you brown the meat in the pot it will braise in. But not when you’re wrestling with four pounds of meat with a carving fork and tongs. I can’t think of a better recipe for burned wrists than attempting this in the confined space of a hot, high-sided pot. Use a skillet to brown the meat. Trust me.
Make ahead. You can make this dish one day ahead. If you plan to do so, cook it for just 2-1/2 hours the first day. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered. I did this and was able to skim off some off the solidified fat before reheating it. Reheat roast in its apple/onion mixture, covered, at 325 degrees F. for about 45 minutes.
RECOMMENDED: Take our fruit and veggie quiz!
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Braised Lamb Shoulder Chops with Tomatoes and Sage
What could be more exciting than yummy pear and hazelnut tarts? Not much. They pretty much rock my world.
But I do have some news that comes pretty close. First, I’ll be leaving for Vietnam in less than a weeks time! Actually, by this time next week, I’ll be on a plane! I am ridiculously excited not only to see my friends that have been living there for five years but also for a new adventure, since I’ve never been.
RECOMMENDED: 17 heavenly pies
For this tart I’ve used The Joy of Baking recipe for the Pate Brisee substituting the all purpose flour for whole wheat pastry flour and the white sugar for sucanat. Her recipe makes 2 pie crusts. I cut the recipe in half or you can make the full recipe and freeze one of the discs for later. Need a Gluten Free Tart crust? You can try this one from My Darling Lemon Thyme.
Pear tart and lemon goat cheese cream
1 recipe for Pate Brisee
2 pears, peeled, cored and each half sliced into 6 wedges
1 tablespoon sugar (coconut/palm, sucanat, rapadura, or brown)
1 tablespoon flour (I used spelt, but a gluten-free blend will work, too)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
4 teaspoons sliced hazelnuts
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Peel, core and slice the pears. Toss the pears with sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
3. Roll out the pastry dough to 20-23 cm (8-9 inches). Cut out 5-by-5-inch circles from the dough. Place the circles on a floured baking sheet. Place a quarter of the pear mixture into the center of each circle (using 6 pieces you can reassemble a shape of a half pear if you feel like getting fancy).
4. Sprinkle the top of each pear tart with 1 teaspoon of sliced hazelnuts. Pinch the sides of the pastry around the outer 1 edge of the pears. Brush with the crust with the beaten egg and water mixture. Bake for 30 minutes.
Lemon goat cheese cream
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon goat cheese
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Blend yogurt, goat cheese, and maple syrup together until smooth. I used an emulsion blender, but a room temperature goat cheese may blend well enough without it. Fold in the lemon zest. Place in the fridge for a minimum of an hour before serving to give it time to firm up.
RECOMMENDED: 17 heavenly pies
Related post on Beyond The Peel: Poached Pears with Hazelnut Shortbread
At dinner with friends the other night, one of the diners at our table exclaimed over a vegetarian entrée on the menu. I realized at that moment that I will never willingly become a vegetarian. If there are meat or seafood options on a menu, I can’t get excited about vegetarian choices. Or as I put it to our companions, “It would take a death threat from my doctor to make me turn vegetarian.”
That said, we are trying to eat less meat these days. So when I was offered a review copy of "The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Table," I said yes, please. Traditional Southern cuisine relies heavily on meat – bacon, ham hocks, ribs … even pie crusts are made better and flakier with lard. I was curious to see how classic recipes would work without meat. Based on this one, the answer is deliciously.
"The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook" is the work of husband-and-wife team Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence, creators of The Chubby Vegetarian food blog. They turn the meat-centric view of Southern cooking on its head, recasting garden bounty as the star of the plate.
RECOMMENDED: Five breakfast meals to go
And that garden bounty makes up much of the ingredient list in the recipes in this book, supported by an impressive mix of flavor-boosting herbs and spices. Refreshingly, beans, cheeses, and eggs deliver much of the protein, not vegetarian food products. Seitan and tempeh each appear in a single recipe, tofu in only a few.
The cookbook covers everything from breakfast and brunch to appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, main courses, desserts, and even drinks. It also has basic recipes for sauces, stocks and other building blocks, as well as helpful tips on stocking a vegetarian pantry. Justin’s beautiful photographs not only show you how each finished dish should look (a big plus to me with any cookbook), they whet the appetites of even staunch carnivores like me.
Biscuits and gravy are perhaps the iconic Southern breakfast food. I grew up in St. Louis, either the southernmost Northern city or the northernmost Southern city, depending on who’s doing the telling. So I grew up eating biscuits and gravy. A lot. Even now, when I find them on the breakfast menu in some diner or cafe, I usually give in to temptation. Sadly, I’m usually disappointed. Typically, the biscuits aren’t the problem – for biscuits and gravy, even passable biscuits will do. It’s the gravy that has to be right.
Most often, that gravy is some kind of sausage gravy – pork sausage browned in a skillet, flour browned in the rendered fat as a thickening agent, milk, salt and pepper. If no meat is available, the flour is often browned in lard. True red eye gravy is simply the rendered fat from fried ham and coffee cooked together. None of these sounds appetizing as words on a page. As actual gravy on biscuits, they are sublime – elemental cooking at its best (and unhealthiest). In corner-cutting commercial kitchens, unfortunately, the gravy can become a bland, pasty affair, tasting mostly of undercooked flour.
Justin and Amy’s robust vegetarian recipe owes more to sausage gravy than it does red eye. At its “meaty” heart is that meatiest of mushrooms, the portobello. Diced, it cooks down into satisfying, chewy little bites of umami goodness. A shot of espresso or coffee creates a hint of red eye and deepens the gravy’s flavor.
For their version, Justin and Amy used a little liquid smoke to add to the meatiness. I opted instead for herbs and spices used in sausage making. Specifically, fennel seed, thyme, salt, and lots of black pepper. We both used crushed red pepper flakes to add the touch of heat the best biscuits and gravy always seem to have.
How was it? Marion and I have a term for when dishes turn out exceptionally well. If something is good enough that we’d be happy if it had been served to us in a restaurant and we were paying for it, we call it restaurant good. This dish was in a subset of that – diner good.
It was also startlingly meaty. I had cooked this dish. I knew what was (and more important, wasn’t) in it. But I still was convinced that I was biting into bits of sausage as I ate it.
Drop biscuits and vegetarian red eye gravy
Breakfast for 4 when served with fried, scrambled or poached eggs
You can make the gravy first and let it sit on the stove while you make the biscuits, gently reheating it while they bake. Regarding the biscuits, my recipe is simple and delicious, but make whatever biscuits you like, including canned.
For the gravy
3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1-1/2 cups diced portobello mushrooms (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (see Kitchen Notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup strong black coffee
1-1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
For the biscuits
Makes 8 to 9 biscuits (this recipe owes a great deal to America’s Test Kitchen)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1. Make the gravy. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add diced mushrooms and toss to coat with butter. Add fennel seeds, thyme and red pepper flakes. Season with salt and black pepper, being generous with the pepper. Toss to combine and cook mushrooms, stirring frequently, until browned, tender and slightly cooked down in volume, about 5 minutes. Add coffee and cook until almost evaporated, stirring frequently, 1 to 2 minutes.
2. Transfer mushroom mixture to bowl and set aside. Do NOT wipe skillet. Melt remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter in skillet and sprinkle in flour. Cook, whisking continuously, until flour and butter combine and flour browns slightly, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Stir in milk and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook until gravy thickens, stirring occasionally, 5 to 10 minutes. A skin will occasionally form on the top of the gravy as it thickens; just stir it back into the gravy. Taste and adjust seasonings. You want the gravy on the salty side and with plenty of pepper, so don’t skimp here. When biscuits are ready, split one (or more) open on each plate and spoon gravy over.
4. Make the biscuits. Preheat oven to 475 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or else lightly grease a baking sheet). Melt butter in a small saucepan, then transfer to a small bowl to cool slightly. Mix dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
5. Pour chilled buttermilk into a 2-cup measuring cup. Add melted butter and stir until clumps form. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture with a rubber spatula just until the ingredients are incorporated. At first, it may seem as if you need more liquid. You don’t. Just keep scraping the bottom of the bowl until you’ve worked all the flour into the dough.
6. Using a greased 1/3-cup measure, scoop mounds of dough and drop them onto baking sheet, spacing about 1-1/2 inches apart. Press on them with your fingers to slightly flatten and form into a biscuit shape. Bake biscuits until the tops are golden brown, 10 to 14 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes.
Meaty mushrooms. Portobellos really are a great choice here. You’ll need two decent-sized ones to get the 1-1/2 cups diced mushrooms needed for this recipe. If the stems are fresh and tender, by all means use them as well. If they’re on the tough side, freeze them for use in making a stock later, vegetarian or otherwise. If you can’t get portobellos, button mushrooms will also work.
Heat it up. I almost listed the crushed red pepper flakes as optional for this recipe, but they really aren’t. A good sausage gravy needs a little heat. The 1/4 teaspoon of pepper flakes I used gave the gravy a nice kick. You can back it off to 1/8 teaspoon if you’re truly heat averse. And if you absolutely must, you can leave the pepper flakes out altogether. But it won’t be as good and I don’t want to hear about it if you do.
RECOMMENDED: Five breakfast meals to go
Related Post on Blue Kitchen: Berry delicious: French toast with fruit and mint
I’ve been on a meatball kick lately, which is a little strange since I’m not a huge meat-eater. Maybe it’s the cooler weather. Maybe it’s all the spaghetti and meatball recipes I keep seeing. Who knows?
That being said, I didn’t want to make stodgy meatballs so I decided to lighten my meatballs up. I found suggestions for using extra fillers (breadcrumbs, oats, rice, beans, veggies, etc.) Then it came to me: why not add tofu just like the Japanese hamburger recipe in my cookbook?
After experimenting with ingredients and proportions, I first tossed the resulting meatballs into my favorite tomato sauce with spaghetti. My husband and son gobbled dinner up, none the wiser!
About a year ago, my friend Jill O’Oconnor interviewed me for an article she wrote for the San Diego Union Tribune about Asian ingredients. We had talked about various ways to use Asian ingredients in very American recipes she developed a recipe for Asian Turkey Meatballs with Honey-Tamarind-Chili BBQ Sauce.
Inspired by Jill, I decided to tweak her sauce and came up with my own sweet and spicy version.
Asian meatballs with sweet and spicy tamarind sauce
Makes 30 1-inch meatballs
Time: 45 minutes
These half-tofu-half-pork meatballs are awesome as party appetizers. I’d make several batches because they will go fast. They’re that good. And your guests will never know they’re made with – gasp – tofu!
7 ounces firm or medium-firm tofu
1 pound 4 ounces ground pork, turkey, or beef (not super-lean please!)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons chopped green onions (1 stalk)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Place the tofu in a non-terry dish towel or sturdy paper towel. Over the sink, wring out as much excess liquid as possible. Do this a few times until the tofu is dry and crumbly.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the tofu, ground pork, soy sauce, green onions, cilantro, sea salt, black pepper, and mix until smooth. Hint: Use your hands! I like to microwave a little of the mixture and taste it to see if it needs any more seasoning.
4. Roll into 1-inch balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart.
5. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the meatballs are golden and cooked through. Toss cooked meatballs with warm sauce and serve.
Sweet and spicy tamarind sauce
Makes about 3/4 cup of sauce
1/3 cup wet tamarind (about 3 ounces)
3/4 cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (About 1-inch chunk ginger, peeled and grated)
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons sambal oelek (chili paste)
In a medium saucepan, combine the tamarind paste with water. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and stir until the paste softens into a thick puree. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste. Keep stirring to prevent the sauce from burning or sticking, until the sauce becomes thick and sticky, about 10 minutes. Press this mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl or deep dish to remove any solids. Gently stir the cooked meatballs into the warm sauce.
This sauce can also be made a few days ahead of serving, and reheated when needed.
Related post on The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Munchi Mania: Sausage Rolls