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Friday, March 26, 2010

$5 Spaghetti Dinner

3 Ingredient Sauce:

If you have a stick of butter and an onion in your possession you are only one ingredient shy of the tastiest, easiest marina sauce known far and wide. With the inexpensive addition of crushed tomatoes you've got an easy, delicious, sauce for pasta, pizza, bread-sticks... whatever you care to dredge in this stuff! The recipe is from my new favorite haunt smittenkitchen which I type shyly considering how it is everything I ever dreamed a food blog could be: resplendent photos, witty, digestible prose, excellent recipes. And well... if you are reading this you can see why I might feel a little intimidated. Regardless, the sauce has been getting rave acclaim for some time, apparently, but seeing as how I'm new to this sort of thing it is news to me! My only regret: where was this when I was still an undergrad?

I have two spindly basil plants living on my windowsill so I added a handful of leaves (as many as the poor little plants could spare). I sliced them thinly, sprinkling them over the past just before serving for a bright finish. Not to say the sauce doesn't taste as rosy and fresh as it looks but I love basil, and basil plants, so I couldn't help myself. Shaves of fresh Parmesan would also be nice.

1 (28 ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
5 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion
Fresh basil leaves, torn

Preparation: (it will blow your mind)
1. Peel the onion and cut it in half.
2. Put the onion, crushed tomato and butter in a deep sauce pot. Heat over medium heat until simmering.
3. Lower the heat and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally. Cook for 40-45 minutes or until thickened. Little bubbles of butter should be shiny and visible on the surface.
4. Discard the onion (if you can bring yourself to do it) and toss with up to a pound of pasta. Refrigerate left over sauce. Dress with basil and Parmesan.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Maple Pecan Oatmeal Cookies

Soft, Chewy yum yums:

I love oatmeal cookies. I, me, who is obsessed with healthy foods and who has been known to comment on how bird seed looks appetizing loves a soft, slightly chewy and sweet oatmeal cookie. It goes without saying that I am always trying to find a recipe that does not result in little rock hard cookies peppered with dried raisins reminiscent of animal droppings.

It has taken a while but I think I have found the recipe. I made some changes to the original, adding the banana and reducing the sugar slightly to prevent scorched, sickeningly sweet cookies. Hopefully with continued testing (yum!) I can make the measurements more standardized. The original recipe is from the "Cooking Light" website. But don't worry, no fat-free cream cheese or wheat flour here I promise. This recipe is easy and produces very yummy, chewy cookies with a residual flavor of the banana pancakes my Mother made most Saturday mornings before words like "hang-over" or "8 am Final" meant anything to me.

Note on Ingredients:
If you have never toasted nuts before see the easy to follow guidelines below for the perfect pan of toasted pecans.

Don't skimp on the maple syrup. It is worth it to buy a bottle of something really pure and wholesome.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup oats (rolled or instant are both fine)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup minus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon good maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 of a large banana, mashed
1/4 cup raisins (optional)
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350, a little under if yours (like mine) is a little over zealous as far as temperature goes. Grease a cookie shit and set aside.
2. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt in a separate bowl. Set aside.
3. Beat the sugars and butter in a bowl with an electric mixer (or by hand if you don't have one). Add the vanilla, egg and syrup. Beat well.
4. Toast the pecans*. Remove the nuts from the heat, cool slightly. When the pecans are cool enough to handle chop them roughly.
5. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine, being sure not to over mix. Stir in the pecans and raisins if you are using them.
6. Drop by tablespoon fulls onto the greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Cool completely. Makes 2-3 dozen depending on how generous you are. Store in an airtight container for up to one week.

Toasting Guidelines-
*Nuts are typically toasted in a dry pan over low heat. This means you do not need to add any butter or oil to the pan. The key is to keep an eye on them, tossing them periodically. The smell, like the taste, will be more pronounced as the nuts heat up. They will smell toasted but not burnt. If you burn nuts toss them out and start again. Do NOT try and salvage a pan of burned nuts as they will be bitter.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brunch Watch: Cinnamon Raisin Biscotti

Simple, Semi-sweet treats:

I found this recipe in "La Dolce Vita" and I am happy to say it is the easiest, most satisfying biscotti recipe! The fact that it uses only 1 2/3 cups flour means that the "cookies" are slightly less crumbly than some versions but still very dry and crispy. It also bakes up a big bang for your buck, roughly 2 dozen biscotti per batch. They will keep in air tight containers for up to two weeks.

For an easy addition to brunch bake up a batch at the beginning of a weekend and serve them with coffee or, if you are feeling especially traditional, a glass of wine. I must admit, I've never tried biscotti with wine but I'm imagining a really delicious almond and apricot variation paired with a sweet, late-harvest Riesling. Not up for brunch? Bake a batch anyway and have one or two with a glass of milk or a cappuccino on your way to class. With most standard coffee houses charging as much as $3 a biscotti you will save money and time. The recipe below is for a "Cinnamon Raisin" variation that is extremely popular with friends of my family. They are beautiful served in an over-sized coffee cup or bundled up as gifts in little cellophane bags. Disclaimer: this recipe is in no way strictly traditional. The beauty of a biscotti is not just in the way it tastes! Feel free to explore your own palette, using this recipe as a guide.

For more history on this delectable Italian staple check out The Nibble

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2-2/3 cup raisins, according to your preference
1 teaspoon cinnamon, rounded
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon water

1. Preheat the oven to 350.
2. Grease and flour a sheet of waxed paper roughly the length and width of a cookie sheet. Place the sheet on a cookie sheet and set aside.
3. In a bowl beat the 2 eggs and sugar with a whisk until very pale and thick. Add the vanilla. Sift in the flour, salt and cinnamon, mixing to combine.
4. Fold in the raisins and walnuts.
5. With wet hands (this helps handle it without sticking) divide the dough in half and form two loaves (roughly 12 inches long). Place the two loaves side by side on the greased and floured sheet of waxed paper.
6. In a small bowl separate one egg. Whisk the yolk with a teaspoon of water. Using a pastry brush (if you've got one) or your hands, brush the yolk mixture over the loaves. Smooth any bums or ridges with your finger tips.
7. With dry fingers sprinkle the loaves with a little sugar. Alternately, you can use a little milk in place of the egg wash. The sprinkle of sugar is a trick to getting a slightly shiny crust with a little extra crunch. My mother finished her pies this way and I find myself drawn to it's nostalgic value in my own baking. During the holidays I use colored sugars for a festive touch.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes. The loaves should be starting to turn golden.
9. Remove from oven (leaving it turned on) and cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet. Remove the loaves from the pan and slice diagonally (about 1/2 inch slices), making them as large as you like. The greater the angle the longer the biscotti.
10. Remove the waxed paper from the pan and place the biscotti upright in rows, trying not to crowd them too close together. I think of them as little legionaries at this point and, accordingly, give them space to maneuver. Bake for 10 minutes or until sufficiently toasted and dry.
11. Cool on a wire rack before storing. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

El Sandwich Mixto con Huevo

Ham & Cheese with Egg, Spanish Style:

Imagine eating a greasy, delightfully crisp grilled cheese with punctually salty ham and the perfectly cooked egg. Now imagine eating it at 3 am in an eerily bright and smoky little hole in the wall in Spain after a night of sangria, tequila and dancing. That is where el sandwich mixto con huevo really shines, especially paired with a plate of dangerously hot fries and that watery, sweet European "ketchup". But, don't let me dissuade you from enjoying this little gem of a sandwich anytime. One of these days I am going to make up a frilly, expensive version but for now let us pay homage to this everyday (or every night) sandwich of the people- and especially hungry college students looking for nosh. When I'm feeling particularly nostalgic I enjoy a glass of wine, something crisp and white, with my Sandwich Mixto con Huevo and I could be right back in one of the white plastic chairs in Salamanca my sophomore year of college.

Note on ingredients: This is literally the equivalent of a grilled cheese in the States as far as quality of ingredients goes. What is really important is the hot pan and a fair bit of butter so use whatever cheese you've got. Good deli-style American is your best bet (although I made one with Swiss and Virginia smoked ham and it was delicious).

Ingredients: (2 Sandwiches)
4 slices sandwich bread
1-2 tablespoon butter
4 slices good, salty ham
2 slices cheese
2 eggs
Salt and pepper

1. Heat a griddle or frying pan on medium heat. Toss in your butter and swirl to coat the pan or griddle.
2. Crack the two eggs in, being careful not to break the yolks (cracking the egg close to the surface of the pan helps).
3. Salt and pepper the eggs but don't disturb for 1-2 minutes. When the eggs are almost totally solidified flip them over and cook for another minute. You want the yolk almost totally cooked through but still just barely soft when you bit into it.
4. Remove the eggs from the pan and put in two slices of bread. If you want, add a second slice of butter and move the bread around a little to get them good and greasy. Top the bread with the ham followed by the eggs. Add a layer of cheese and the remaining slices of bread.
5. Check the bread by lifting it up with the edge of your spatula. It should be golden, slightly darker around the edges. When the sandwiches are ready, flip.
6. Once the sandwich has been flipped, and this is essential to a good, hole in the wall sort of sandwich, press down firmly with your spatula. Turn off the burner and let the sandwich finish heating through.
7. Remove from the pan and get ready to enjoy. Make sure you eat it crispy and piping hot! Buen Aprovecho

For some interesting commentary on this simple sandwich (and the etymology of the term "bikini" as it is also known) see "Notes from Spain" sandwich

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tips & Tools Tuesdays: Rubber Spatulas

Not your Grandmother's Spatula.

For the everyday cook there are very few "specialty" items that are truly necessary. Of course, that doesn't mean we all don't have a small army of gadgets clogging up our kitchen drawers. It is easy to get bowled over by television shows and magazine ads for beautifully crafted kitchen "essentials" that promise perfect results. After enjoying a truly ethereal berry souffle a couple weeks ago I was seconds away from ordering my own set of souffle cups, the lingering notes of that puffy, eggy sensation still on my lips. Red flag, my practical side said. Have you ever even attempted a souffle?!

So, in the name of simplicity, let us turn our attention to the most humble of kitchen gadgets: the spatula. For a beginner cook, or at least a cook in the skeleton kitchen of a dorm or apartment, a rubber or silicon spatula is essential for a number of reasons.

Hold the phone... silicon? You heard right, silicon has been making its way into the domestic kitchen for a few years. An upgrade from just simple rubber spatulas silicon is more heat resistant and does a better job protecting itself from odors and unsavory looking stains. This makes silicon a perfect multi-use tool for mixing hot pan sauces without fear of ruining the utensil. Most are also dishwasher safe (I suggest removing the spatula from the handle if possible and allowing both pieces to dry separately). Furthermore, they are a safe alternative to metal or wooden utensils that can damage the non-stick surfaces of pans (leading to broken eggs and torn pancakes). Silicon takes other shapes easily and is delicate enough to fold egg whites or whipped cream safely. With an increasing variety of silicon baking tools (such as cupcake liners) there is sure to be at least one or two spatulas within any student budget. But, whether you choose a hum-drum rubber or the hip, new age silicon spatula be sure to carefully read the manufacturer's instructions on cleaning, use and storage. Taking care of your utensils is the first step in maintaining an efficient (economical) kitchen.

For something fun and little funky I like Fiesta Products Head Chef's collection available at fiestaproducts.com

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Brunch Watch: Whipped Cream

Easy Sweet Topping:
There is nothing more impressive than a cloudy dollop of homemade whipped cream. It is the perfect way to finish a stack of steaming, sticky French toast or smoothed over a simple cake (like the Basic Sweet Cake) dimpled with fresh berries. With only 3 ingredients it is one of the simplest ways to take a recipe from delicious to heavenly.

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract*

*clear is preferable to keep the cream as white and celestial as possible

1. Chill a deep bowl, a metal one if you have it. A chilly, high-sided metal vessel is the preferred environment for the cream.
2. Remove the chilled bowl from the freezer and pour in the cream.
3. Using a hand-held mixer beat the cream on medium-high until it begins to get frothy. It should thicken a little.
4. Add the sugar a tablespoon at a time, mixing well between spoonfuls. Add the vanilla extract and beat again. Be careful not to whip the cream too vigorously. Once it has reached that beautiful, semi-soft stage that is so idolized stop! Over beating the cream can cause it to be too stiff and, in extreme cases, whip it to sweet cream butter.
5. The cream will save for a day or two covered in the refrigerator but after that it will begin to break down and get watery. Stirring will deflate the cream as well so try to handle it as little as possible. It is best used immediately. Try it on a wedge of pie, a bowl of your favorite ice cream or spooned on top of a steaming cup of cafe au lait.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ensalada Mixta

A Simple Salad:
I first had this salad, one of many impeccable first courses, in Spain. Simple to prepare it uses basic pantry ingredients like tuna and olives. It is usually served in a big bowl right at table dressed simply with olive oil and vinegar. It is perfect as a traditional first plate but may also be used as a side dish or a light lunch. Typically, the olives are not pitted and are very briny green olives that go splendidly with the tuna. And, of course, there is egg because no dish is complete without it on the Peninsula. This recipe makes enough to share. If you plan on keeping it for another meal wait to dress the salad right before serving and refrigerate the leftovers.

2 hearts romaine lettuce, washed and dried
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
2 cans tuna packed in water
2 tomatoes
2 eggs, boiled
Olive oil and vinegar
Black pepper, freshly ground

1. Wash and dry the lettuce, removing any leaves that are browned or bruised. Then, chop coarsely (this is a rustic, everyday salad).
2. Pile the lettuce on a platter or in a large bowl.
3. Slice the onion and layer over the lettuce. Drain the tuna and flake on top of the onions and lettuce.
4. Wash and dry the tomatoes then cut each one in half. Cut each into wedges and scatter over the lettuce and onions. Peel the boiled eggs and cut into quarters.
5. Top the salad with the olives, a little cracked black pepper and the egg.
6. In a bowl or a jar measure a little olive oil and vinegar. You don't have to be precise (I for one like my dressing a little more acidic) but be sure to taste the dressing before pouring it over the salad. Shake the oil and vinegar until it mixes and then pour over salad evenly. Toss and enjoy. Buen aprovecho

Friday, March 12, 2010

Basic Sweet Cake

Basic All Occasion Cake:
This recipe was adapted from a household copy of "Virginia Hospitality" and features a sweet, moist interior and beautiful golden crust. The whole thing is ready to be eaten in an hour. The basic cake recipe is absolutely perfect by itself sprinkled with a little powdered sugar but below are some equally beautiful variations. For a beginner baker it provides a little challenge with very simple, at-hand ingredients and easy preparation.

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup milk (whole or 2% are best)
2 eggs
1 cup white, granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon each vanilla extract and almond extract
1 cup flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt (scant)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325
2. Grease and flour an 8" or 9" square baking dish.
3. Warm butter and milk in a saucepan over low heat until butter is melted and milk looks frothy around the edges. Be careful to NOT let it come to a boil. Steam should be curling off the surface but it should not boil.
4. Turn the milk and butter mixture off and remove from heat.
5. Place flour and salt in a sifter and set aside.
5. In a bowl beat the eggs with a whisk, adding sugar slowly.
6. Add your flavorings and whisk to combine. Add the sifted flour and salt and whisk again. The mixture should be creamy and pale.
7. Gradually add the milk and butter. Be careful that it is not too hot or else it will scramble your eggs.
8. Add the baking powder and whisk again.
9. Pour the batter into your greased and floured pan. Sprinkle with almonds and bake for 30 minutes or until the edges are looking golden brown and crispy. If the almonds start to look dark cover the top loosely with tin foil.

Maple Cake: Omit the almond extract and double the vanilla extract to 1 teaspoon. Serve the cake warm a drizzle of good quality syrup.

Fresh Fruit and Cream: Prepare cake as directed. Place 1 cup of berries (such as sliced strawberries) in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Stir and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes or until sugars dissolve. Spoon over cake and top with whipped cream.

Cinnamon Sugar: Prepare cake as directed omitting the almond extract and doubling the vanilla to 1 teaspoon. Omit the slivered almonds. Mix 1/4 cup sugar with 1-2 teaspoons cinnamon (according to your preference) and mix well. Sprinkle over the top of the cake before baking or serve the cake warm with a little pad of butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.