Saturday, January 31, 2015

Big Game-Worthy Nachos (Savory Comfort)

I didn't really grow up in a football house. The first time I watched a game was when my hometown Eagles were in the championship, and only because my gym teacher painted his sneakers green did I realize it was a really big deal. He'd have to buy new sneakers if they lost, after all! So, while I'm more invested in the results of the Australian Open (go Nole!) this weekend than the Big Game, I love any reason to celebrate with food. My aunt and uncle in Arizona introduced us to delicious nachos made with lots of layers of goodness when we visited them, and I've made my own versions since developing food sensitivities. What better indulgence to make before or during the long game? 

The art of making good nachos is in the layering. If you just put a pile of chips on a plate with a bunch of toppings, you'll have some yummy stuff on top of a bunch of dry chips. Kind of a let-down. 

Instead, put one layer of chips on a baking sheet (or in a 9"x13" baking pan with sides) and top with refried beans and cheese. Top with another layer of chips, more beans and cheese. Melt the cheese in the oven or the broiler, and then top it all with a delicious pico de gallo (fresh salsa) and maybe some sour cream and scallions. You'll get some toppings on every bite.  Of course, you can add seasoned beef or chicken to each layer of beans if you like. You can buy all of these parts, or make your own beans and salsa as below. For a special occasion, it's worth the time IMHO. 

Start by making the Pico de Gallo so it has time to come together. 

Halve and then finely dice 1 pound of tomatoes. I know, it's winter. Find some hothouse tomatoes when they're out of season, or use cherry tomatoes. They're usually colorful and flavorful even at this time of year. 

Sprinkle 1/4 tsp fine salt on the tomatoes.
Cut 1 small onion or 1/3 large white onion into pieces the same size or smaller than the tomatoes. If you can't find white, use red onion, or yellow in a pinch. Mix into the tomatoes. 
I can't add red/green/yellow peppers to my food due to an allergy, but I took this photo for you at the market in case  you're so inclined. And 'cause I'm loving the camera on my phone. If you use peppers, remove the stems, white bits and seeds of 1 or 2 jalapenos and cut them the same size as the tomatoes and onions. Add to the bowl. 
Next up is the most controversial ingredient: 1/4 cup of minced cilantro. When I first moved to California, I couldn't figure out what was wrong with the Mexican food here. I soon figured out that it had cilantro, something that wasn't common in the Arizona Mex I had grown up with. I've come to like it a lot, but it's certainly optional if you're one of the many to whom it tastes like soap. 
Add more salt, 1/4 tsp or more to taste, and the juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon or lime. You might need even more, depending on the fruit. See what tastes right to you. I got super lucky this week and a friend brought me this gorgeous Meyer lemon from her tree, so I just had to share a pic even though you know what a lemon looks like. Hang on to the squeezed lemon half - you'll have a practical use for it later. 

You could make a separate guacamole, and sometimes I do, but I find it simpler to add diced avocado to the fresh salsa. Take each half of one ripe avocado and slice crosswise and lengthwise until you have lots of little squares. Then push up on the back of the peel to pop the pieces out, helping the ones that stay in with a paring knife. 

Note: a ripe avocado is soft, but not too soft. Try to find one with the stem still intact as it will be less likely to be brown inside. If you're totally lost once you're in front of the avocados at the market, ask someone for help!

Add the avocado to the bowl, give it a good stir, and taste again for salt and lemon. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge while you make the beans. 

Next, make the refried beans. I prefer pintos, but black beans would be good, too. You could buy a can of refried beans and heat it up, or you could spend a long time cooking beans from dried, but for this kind of dish I usually split the difference and "re-fry" canned pintos. Leftovers are great for snack dips, or for breakfast with a fried or poached egg. 

Open two cans of pinto beans. Drain and rinse the beans well. 
Chop a medium onion or 2/3 of a large onion. Smash 2-3 cloves of garlic, peel them and mince them finely with a knife or a garlic press. If you want to shave off a few more minutes, you can even grate the onion. I've been known to do this on a weeknight when I've gotten home late. 

Here is where you get to use the squeezed lemon: when you're done with the garlic, rub the spent lemon on your fingers, knife and cutting board to get rid of the smell. It's all about re-use and re-purposing, right?

 Add 2 Tbsp flavorless or mild flavored oil (Canola, Grapeseed or Corn oil will do) to a large skillet. Add the chopped onion and saute over medium heat for a minute or two. Move to the side to make a "hot spot" for the garlic. Saute another minute, just until you can smell the garlic, and then mix the garlic into the onions and keep cooking. Saute a few more minutes until the onions are translucent, being careful not to let them brown. 

While the onions cook, grate 8 oz of mild cheddar, Monterey Jack or Colby cheese. Or more if you want to gild the lily. It's a special occasion, after all. You can, of course, use pre-grated cheese, but you can get better quality for your money if you get a small block and grate it yourself.  

Pre-heat your oven or broiler (oven to 350 or broiler to broil). Put a layer (not a pile) of tortilla chips (about half of a 16 oz bag) on a baking sheet or in a 9"x13" baking pan. The ones in the photo are Sesame Blues, my personal favorites. 

When the onions are translucent, add a pinch of salt to them. Then add the rinsed beans, 1 tsp of chili powder, 1/2 tsp of cumin (or 1 tsp of cumin and a pinch of Mexican oregano if you can't do chilies like me), and a touch of water or broth. 

When heated through, add another pinch of salt and a couple of pinches of black pepper. Start mashing with a potato masher or stick blender (my stick came in really handy when I was cooking for a giant house full of students back in college). If they look like this photo on the left, they're about to start scorching. Add water a touch at a time so they always look just a little "simmery" like in the photo below, but not soupy.  They'll dry up when you turn off the heat. 
I kind of like chunky beans, but mash or blend until they're as smooth or chunky as you like, tasting for salt and spices, adding more flavor and/or water if needed. Turn off the heat.

Put a little more than half the beans and half the cheese on the chips. Make another layer with the rest of the chips, beans and cheese.  If you're using the broiler, put the pan under the pre-heated broiler for 1-5 minutes, keeping a close eye on it. Remove when the cheese is melty and bubbly. 

If you're using the oven, put the pan in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is melty and bubbly. 

After removing the pan from the oven, take the pico de gallo from the fridge and spoon as much as you like over the nachos. Chop 2-3 scallions and sprinkle those on top. Add some little spoonfuls of sour cream if you like.  Use any leftover pico de gallo to top quesadillas or eggs the next day. 

If you're using a baking sheet, slide the nachos onto a large plate to serve. Let everyone dig in! If you're using a baking pan with sides, you can cut them into servings with a metal spatula and serve onto individual plates. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Adapted from the stickiest page of one of my oldest and dearest cookbooks, The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses, I've been making these for over twenty years. The recipe is very easy to halve if you want to make a smaller batch, or you can freeze the dough and bake a little at a time over a few weeks. (Directions for freezing, more pics and a printable recipe card below).

It's best to get them together before you start, rather than assuming you have everything and ending up running out to the 24 hour market halfway through mixing,  or guesstimating how much molasses to add to white sugar to make brown. Or so I've heard.

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened. (As I mentioned with the madeleines, it's ok if you forgot. Just cream longer).
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour (you can substitute a second cup of AP or regular whole wheat if you don't have this).
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats (not instant or steel-cut)
12 oz mini chocolate chips (this is usually the amount in one bag, but they've been making smaller bags lately). I like mini chips for even chocolate distribution in every bite. 
Preheat oven to 350.
1. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars on medium high speed for about two minutes. Some say it's not creamed until you can't feel the sugar crystals anymore, but I don't have that kind of patience. It's creamed when the mixture lightens in color a bit, like you can see in the contrast in colors in the third photo.

2. Crack the eggs into a clear container, then add vanilla and put into the butter mixture. Beat on medium high another minute, stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl and stir up the bottom with a rubber or silicone scraper, then beat one minute more. 

 3. In a medium bowl combine the flours, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Whisking them together helps make sure there aren't any little clumps of baking soda in your cookies. 

4. Add the flour mix to the wet ingredients and mix on low just until incorporated, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl halfway through again. Be careful not to overmix - being a tough cookie is good. Eating a tough cookie, not so much. 

5. Add the oats and chocolate chips to the dough, get out a good old fashioned wooden spoon, and stir them in by hand. Make sure to stir up from the bottom for even distribution. 

6. Using a small scoop or a spoon, drop 12 to 16 1 1/2 Tbsp rounds of dough onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 11-14 minutes, turning the pans around halfway through fire even browning. If you like them on the soft side like I do, pull them out when the outer edges are -just- turning golden and the centers don't look very wet. If you like them crispier, wait until they're golden brown about halfway from the outside. Let cool air five minutes on the sheets before using a metal spatula to transfer them to cooling racks. When cool, put in one big airtight container or several small ones to share with friends, neighbors, yoga teachers, whoever will enjoy them! 

Repeat step 6 until all the cookies are baked, or roll the remaining dough into logs, wrap the logs in plastic wrap and foil, and place in the freezer for up to three weeks. Slice off a couple of cookies at a time to bake when you want some, or slice and bake the rest all at once to share. Bake directly from frozen - don't defrost the dough, just add a couple of minutes to the baking time. 

Note the cracked outlet plate where I tilt up the stand mixer and it hits the wall...oops!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Post-Indulgence Comfort: Green Smoothie from leftovers

Wow - I've been having a great weekend. Nothing but rest, grocery shopping and exercise Saturday, then Sunday brunch with the fabulous book club ladies before having 10 or so people over for fondue. So how do I find comfort the morning after? First, I had some protein at breakfast, two eggs with some leftover Acme walnut levain bread a dear friend brought last night.

Next up is a late-morning green smoothie, mostly from leftovers.
Here's my Nutri-Bullet small cup: the bananas and apples that accompanied the chocolate fondue are a little brownish now, but they're all the sweeter. Underneath them is a big handful of whatever salad greens I had in the fridge and a cut up piece of celery from the hummus tray. On top are a Tbsp of almond butter, a little parsley and a slice of turmeric root. Filtered water to the max line, and it's good to go on the machine.

And here's the final product! Yes, it's green. You'll get used to it, or you can try the cool new red spinach at the market. The apple makes it sweet, and the banana makes it creamy enough that you don't mind all the greens. I like to add a touch of avocado for that, too, but I'm out.

Now I'm off to meet friends for an Oscar-nominated movie - gotta see at least a few before the annual Oscars party! Have a great day and thanks for reading.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Flaky Whole Wheat Biscuits

Who loves Biscuits?

I just loooove biscuits. My dad used to make them as part of a whole Fried Chicken Dinner kind of thing, with cream gravy and the whole nine. Yummmm. I like to have them for breakfast with eggs, or just as a snack with butter and honey. Here I have them with my momma's homemade Pear-Vanilla Jam. 

I've tried making a few different kinds, like fluffy sweet drop biscuits, but I really wanted to find a recipe that would be simple and make nice flaky ones. A few years ago, looking for recipes using whole wheat, I found this recipe from Danny Boome on the Food Network site, and it's been my go-to ever since. I'll flesh out the directions a bit more for you, though. 

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Get out some kind of baking pan, preferably one with sides. A cookie sheet is fine if that's all you have. No need to grease it. 

2. In a medium to large bowl, mix 1 cup whole wheat flour, 

1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 Tbsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp fine salt, and 2 tsp granulated sugar with a fork, a spoon, or a whisk.

Notes: I prefer half AP flour and half regular whole wheat, but today I was out of regular whole wheat and used white whole wheat. It's different but also delicious. 

Also, if your baking powder or baking soda has expired, or it hasn't but you know you've had it for a while, it's time to get a new one. 

3. Take, straight from the fridge, one stick of butter (1/4 lb). You don't want soft butter for biscuits, you want it nice and cold. Cut it into very small pieces like the ones in the front here. 
4. When you're new to baking, the next step of working the butter into the flour mix "until it resembles coarse meal" can be confusing. It took me several tries with pie crust recipes to get the hang of it. 

You can use a pastry cutter, a pair of knives, or your fingers for this. I like to use my (clean) fingers. Basically, you work the butter into the flour until the color changes slightly and it looks more like sand than flour. There should still be some slightly bigger pieces of butter--these will create the flakiness you want. If this takes you more than a couple of minutes, put it back in the fridge for a little bit to chill it again. 
5. With a fork or a wooden spoon, blend in 1 cup of COLD buttermilk until the dough just comes together. Don't overmix. It looks like I overpoured the buttermilk by a hair this time. It was fine. If you only have a dry measuring cup and not a liquid measuring cup, it'll also be OK. If you forgot to buy buttermilk and only have regular milk, use just a little less than a cup, maybe 3/4 plus a splash. I haven't tried any milk substitutes.
6.  When it just comes together, turn out the dough onto a lightly floured piece of waxed or parchment paper, whichever is on sale at the market. Turning it out onto a cutting board is also good. 

7. Lightly knead the dough by folding it over onto itself a few times and pushing down. The paper helps with this process. Sprinkle a little more flour on it if it sticks. 

8. Pat the dough out into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. You can use a rolling pin or your fingers, just try to make sure it's an even thickness. 
9. Cut the biscuits. My dad used to use an old frozen juice concentrate can or a glass with straight edges for this. I have a set of metal rings that are essentially biscuit cutters without the little handle thingies. I used a 3" one, but you can use whatever 2" to 4" circle you have. 

    Roll the strips of dough from between the circles into another rectangle and cut out the rest. I got exactly 12 this time, but you might get more or less depending on how thick you patted out the dough and which size ring you use. Then put the biscuits next to each other, directly onto the pan or onto a silicone thingy like I have here, again for ease of cleaning. 
Putting them next to each other helps them to rise, due to some chemical reaction that eludes me. 

10. Into the oven they go, for 12-16 minutes. Start checking at about 10 minutes if your oven runs hot or if you don't know if your oven runs hot. 

11. Pull them out of the oven when they look like a little browner than this. I was tired, so I decided this was fine :-) Let cool for a few minutes and serve warm. 

If you have leftovers, you can put them in the fridge and microwave them for about 10 seconds to heat up (for the next day or two).

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Vanilla Madeleines, or How to impress people with minimal effort

I love to bake, and one of my favorite things to make is a batch of Madeleines. They're simple, delicious, and elegant, and they never fail to impress. As with many recipes I re-use, I've played around a bit to incorporate some whole wheat flour.

The only special equipment you need are a pair of Madeleine tins, available at kitchen stores or online for about $9-15 each. They're well worth the investment, as you'll use them over and over again. 

This recipe makes 24, another thing I had to play with a bit. 

Vanilla Whole-Wheat Madeleines

About an hour before you start, take the butter (1 and 1/2 sticks plus extra for the tins) and 3 eggs out of the fridge so they come to room temperature. If you forget to do this, it's not the end of the world. 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put one of the oven racks at the middle height. 

2. Prepare the tins with butter and all-purpose flour. Note: you can use a baking spray that's a mix of oil and flour, but I find that the spray mechanism tends to get clogged by the flour. Instead, take a piece of butter in your fingers and work it into the grooves of the shell shapes. Repeat with more small pieces of butter until each shell is well-coated. 

Put a little flour in each shell and shake the tins around in kind of a circle until the flour is evenly distributed. You can try skipping this step, but you might end up with 24 very stuck little cakes. Better safe than sorry!

Set the pans aside, preferably not on the stove because it should be getting warm by now. 

3. Cream the butter and sugar: Put 1 and 1/2 sticks of softened butter and 3/4 cup granulated sugar into a medium bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium about two minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy, which means until it looks a bit like vanilla frosting. It might take a little longer than two minutes if you didn't soften the butter or if you use raw sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with  rubber or silicone scraper. Add 3/4 tsp baking powder and 1 and 1/4 tsp vanilla and beat one more time. 

4. Add, one at a time, 3 eggs, preferably pastured or from the farmer's market: First, crack one or all three into a glass container of some sort. This will allow you to make sure there are no little bits of shell remaining. Then add one egg at a time, beating for one minute and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. 

The batter is supposed to look smooth at this point, but mine always looks a little lumpy because my apartment is usually much cooler than the 73 degrees that "room temp" implies. If you put in the butter and eggs straight from the fridge, it'll look even lumpier. Not to worry, it'll turn out fine once you add the flour. 

5. By hand, whisk in 3/4 cup each of all-purpose flour and white whole wheat flour* (total of 1 and 1/2 C flour). You can use all of one kind of flour or the other, but I like the flavor and texture of the blend. Also, if you get in small amounts of whole grains and other healthy things throughout the day, the nutrition adds up. 

6. Put an egg-shaped spoonful of batter in each shell in the tins. The batter should fill up more than half of the space, and will spread out as it bakes so don't worry about patting it down. It should work out to exactly 24, so if it doesn't, you can re-distribute as needed. Not that I've ever had to do that myself with cookie dough or anything...

7. Bake at 350 for a total of 15 minutes. For evenly colored Madeleines, set the timer for 7 minutes and 30 seconds, then turn the pans front to back and bake for another 7 min 30. 

8. Remove from the oven, let rest one minute, then turn Madeleines out of the tins and onto a wire rack to cool. Once they are cool to the touch, enjoy with coffee, tea or a lovely dessert wine. Don't worry if they have uneven edges. That's how people will know you really made them yourself instead of buying them. The Madeleines should keep in an airtight container for a few days, but if you take them to share with your co-workers, they won't last that long!

*White Whole Wheat flour is whole wheat flour made from soft white wheat, rather than the hard red wheat used to make most whole wheat flour. I find it more palatable for some recipes, and it's becoming pretty easy to find.