Sunday, December 30, 2007

Last hurrahs

Not to appear cold hearted, but goodbyes usually don't faze me. Okay, that's beyond cold hearted - at the risk of sounding inhuman, let me clarify: goodbyes usually don't bring me to tears. If it is an indefinite farewell, I'm usually the one standing there wishing just one tear would roll down my cheek to show some outward emotion!

What I am getting at is that seeing 2007 pass away isn't giving me too much pause. It's been one crazy year, and though some of that craziness will seep into 2008 - and it will have its own set of troubles - I am excited for a reason for personal reflection...what would we humans do without occasions for fresh starts?! I know I wouldn't be who I am today.

I was talking to my mom yesterday about how I want to get my running mileage back up, which led into the whole discussion argument (that always ensues) about women's bodies and how extreme exercise can be harsh on our bodies (i.e. infertility issues). My nineteen year old sister immediately volunteered, "Well, I'm going to do everything to save my fertility by not exercising."

So while Elise continues to sit on the couch this coming year (I'm joking, really. She's a talented dancer and fun-loving, beautiful girl.)...I'm kissing some of my mornings in bed goodbye (I prefer to be up and active by 7 or 8 a.m. anyway). And, fortunately, no one is looking back at me with teary eyes, wondering why I'm not crying too!

Another "last hurrah" I've been enjoying the past week is baking. There's no way I'm completely giving up such things as scone-making, but in my desire to expand my cooking repertoire, I'm going to be spending more time with the stovetop than the oven.

So, when we were invited to a small party on Christmas Eve, I jumped at a guilt-free chance to make one of my new favorite cookies.

My friend Katie introduced these to me this fall, and after listening to her rave on and on, I knew I would like them before I even tasted them. I was wrong. I love them! Made from a simple shortbread dough, they are thin, dainty cookies with little chewy bits of fennel inside and delicate pinenuts on top.

Pine Nut Cookies (Perhaps more accurately called "Fennel Cookies")
Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

Makes 3 dozen cookies.

1/2 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c. + 2 T. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. ground fennel seed*
1/4 t. salt
1 large egg
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. pine nuts

*Each time I've made these I have just chopped or partially ground up seeds, which give a subtle texture and chew.

1. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, vanilla, ground fennel, and
salt with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Add
flour and mix just until blended.

2. Transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and shape into
8-inch-long log. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours.

3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two heavy large baking sheets with
parchment paper.

4. Cut dough log crosswise into 1/8-1/4 inch thick slices. Transfer
the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, spacing evenly apart. Press
pine nuts decoratively atop the cookies, and bake until cookies are
golden around the edges, about 15 minutes.

[The cookies can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Memory lane

I fear that my theme is beginning to get redundant: Talk about the weather or season. Talk about food. Post recipe.

If I'm causing myself to slump, chin against palm, eyes drooping closed, what must you, dear reader, be doing?! Well, hopefully we'll both feel perked up by the end of this post because I am about to talk about two things that should make any sane person joyful. Mince pie and mulled wine. Okay, sorry, if you are an American who has been deprived of these essentials during the holiday season. Now is your chance to take note, and plan to bring some British flair into your next Christmas.

My childhood memories of mince pie date back seventeen years, which is nothing compared to the years it has been in the homes of England. According to Wikipedia, (I know, I know, not the most reliable source on earth, but I'm not writing a research paper here) even before Victorian times the word "mincemeat" existed. It referred to a combination of spiced meat and dried fruit (though the meat dominated far more than in today's recipes). Today the only meat element usually found in mince pie is suet, though sometimes minced beef or venison is included.

As an American child experiencing Christmases in New Zealand, I had to puzzle over the word "meat" used in a sweet dessert. I do not remember ever getting a straight answer as to whether or not the mini pie I was eating had meat mixed in with the zingy apples, currants, and orange peel. My mom did not seem crazy about them because they never ended up in our own home along with the Christmas tree and summer sunshine, but I have one distinct memory of picking one off a table at our friends', the Tooleys, holiday party and being intrigued by the unique flavors and flaky crust.

You can imagine my delight, then, when Christmas items began to appear on the shelves of the Oxford grocery stores I frequented two Decembers ago, and along with the Cadbury gift boxes came heat-and-serve mince pies (when you use a kitchen that looks like a closet and whose utensils are limited to one semester's worth, the idea of making your own pastries does not enter a reasonable mind).

When my sister joined me in Europe for two weeks, we spent several days in Oxford and there she was convinced of the goodness of mince pie...with the help of a local connoisseur. At least this lady came across as a connoisseur. We had stopped on a street in the neighborhood called Jericho, and as a stranger passed us, she paused to express the "divine" experience she was having eating a warm mince pie she had just picked up from a bakery. She was practically salivating, but in it all continued to gush about how this was the best mince pie she had ever tasted and offered us her second pie if we would promise to go straight to the bakery and buy more. A bit flustered, but completely amused, we agreed! (Once at the bakery, we inquired into whether she received extra pies for doing free advertising, but we only received a quizzical look.)

The second place my sister and I shared in mince pies was at a church's Christmas service, where they were paired with hot and spicey mulled wine. Ever since that day we have been talking about recreating the pair, and it took until yesterday to do just that.

We used good ol' Cook's Illustrated as our resource for the mince pies, since we were looking for a no-fail vegetarian version. I had company in the kitchen for only half the project, though, so I ended up tiring of making little pies after number nine and turned to a 7-inch pyrex dish to hold the remainder of the mincemeat.

The mulled wine was a simple recipe from my mom's 1977 edition of Joy of Cooking, and this is my very favorite holiday drink.

Mulled Wine
From Joy of Cooking (1977 ed.)

Make a syrup by boiling for 5 minutes:
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups water
4 dozen whole cloves
6 sticks cinnamon
3 crushed nutmegs
Peel of 3 lemons, 2 oranges

Strain syrup. Add to it:
4 cups hot lemon or lime juice

Heat well, but do not boil, and add:
4 bottles of red wine or Madeira, port or sherry

Serve very hot with slices of:
Lemon and pineapple
*Obviously I omitted this last step. Pineapple-shmineapple. I hate working around things in my cup (e.g. ice, fruit, etc.).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Coming "home" to the kitchen

I can't believe December is already threatening to disappear on us. It's been a whirlwind couple weeks. Granted, this entire semester has been a sort of tornado. It blew me South to a land I didn't realize I had missed.

There I got to relive my Oxford experience through my job (which I found to be a dangerous thing, considering I almost threw away 15 useful credits to go back this coming semester). I actually complained about not getting to share a classroom with nudists (in figure drawing). I rediscovered daily uses for my camera (hence this blog). My Japanese vocabulary expanded beyond three random words that formed the useless phrase "goodnight butt flower." And I recovered from a half-marathon with a cold beer (I would make my Uncle John proud).

Then I came back home and few things looked the same. Instead of our family home in the country, my mom has moved into an apartment on the outskirts of town. My dad is living closer to downtown.

My friend dropped me off on Tuesday, and in the kitchen of this unfamiliar new place I am to live for the next two weeks I found a bit of the familiar, of home, of peace - a little recipe clipping - on top of the Bosch my mom has had whirring and kneading since I was young.

So, after unpacking and putting on a hot pot of tea to ward off the cold, I fired up the oven (unromantically, but thankfully, that only required a turn of a knob).

These muffins did not disappoint. Though reluctant to waste my time on any recipe besides my mom's rummy raisin variation, I believe bananas to be highly redeemable components to any recipe (for example, the curried banana salad that was last night's dinner...never mind, that could be a very long tangent). In this bread/muffin batter the lovely banana-rum combination still existed along with plenty of chewy coconut, and the lime glaze was a nice way to fancy-up the flavor and make it an attractive looking treat. Cooking Light calls this is their best quick bread, and I think I now have the authority to say they're onto something.

Coconut Banana Muffins/Bread with Lime Glaze
Adapted from Cooking Light, September 2003

Makes about 16 muffins or 1 loaf of bread.

2 cups all-purpose flour (about 9 ounces)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed over-ripe banana (about 3 bananas)
1/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt (I had whole milk yogurt on hand, which kind of boots this out of the "light" category)
3 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup flaked sweetened coconut, plus additional for tops of muffins
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (lemon works too)

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt, stirring with a whisk.

3. Place granulated sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add banana, yogurt, rum, and vanilla; beat until blended. Add flour mixture; beat at low speed just until moist. Stir in 1/2 cup coconut.

4. Spoon batter into greased muffin tins; sprinkle with coconut. Bake at 350° for 12-15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in muffin tin 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove.

5. Combine powdered sugar and juice, stirring with a whisk; group muffins closely together in order to most easily drizzle glaze on top. Cool completely on wire rack.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Menu for Hope

Rain. Cold. Run. Sleep. Study. Draw. Paint.

These activities/adjectives/what-have-you have dominated my life the past few days, and each played into rewarding activities (another final art project completed and my first half marathon behind me) that have left me feeling both accomplished and exhausted.

This blog entry is not about me, though, nor about my kitchen activity. It is about Chez Pim's event Menu for Hope that I am asking everyone to consider supporting. If I had had the foresight and resources, I'd be offering my own prizes. Instead, this year I'm going to point you toward my favorites.

Get your questions about Menu for Hope answered here.

See beautiful pictures of the people of Lesotho, Africa, who are receiving this year's funds via a school lunch programme and the UN World Food Programme's support of local, subsistent farmers here.

And lastly, there are the prizes for those of us who are able to live in daily abundance with little thought of an empty fridge.

...Okay, so I thought I would be able to pick out some extra-special prizes to entice you, but as I scroll down the list I'm completely torn! There are some amazing opportunities and publications available, not to mention food and drink.

You're just going to have to check it out! (Overwhelmed with choices? I have a hunch you can't go wrong with Chocolate & Zucchini's upcoming book Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris or Smitten Kitchen's box of cookies.)

Friday, December 7, 2007

The parnsip: not to be underestimated

How is it that I sit here at the end of a busy final week of classes and have more recipes to blog about than I ever have before?

Perhaps it's because my bag of spinach only lasted so long this week, and I had to get more creative with my meals than salad. Maybe it's because unexpected vegetables seemed to call to me from among the produce on my last shopping trip. But I think it is mostly because when I found a rare free hour here or there in the day, I was not quite tired enough to catch up on sleep. Instead, I found my creative juices beginning to drain away as writing assignments and rules of color and composition got to me, and to confirm to myself that I wasn't loosing it, I wanted to touch things with my hands, to create, to capture in time, and to click, click, click away with my little camera.

So, friends, the pictures have piled up and I'm in a bit of a predicament. I think I have made a decision about what to share with you tonight, but I will not describe my other options until after this delicious recipe because they are strong competition.

To sum up my thoughts on this late night, I shall simply say: life is richer and more delicious with parsnips. It is a confirmed fact. Just ask my eyes, nose, taste buds, and tummy. They were quite satisfied Tuesday night when I roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes together and even more delighted when I incorporated these sweet vegetables into a dainty frittata the next day.

I surprised myself with the purchase of parsnips over the weekend, but they had one of those eye-catching yellow tags beneath them and just looked so unpretentious, even though I suspected this to all be a charade. Beyond their appearance, there is nothing modest or plain about parsnips. Their bite is sweet and yet sharp and made for the cold season.

The idea of bringing forth the parsnip's sweetness led me to purchase a few sweet potatoes at the same time, and two nights later I was chopping up these beautiful colors and beginning to melt butter in a pan. I simply added a little brown sugar and balsamic vinegar to the barely bubbly butter until the taste was right, and then coated all the vegetables, sprinkled salt and pepper, and put them in the oven at 425°F until they could be easily pierced with a fork.

The result was plentiful enough to eat half immediately with the remainder of yesterday's polenta (divine!) and store away the rest for the frittata that had been brewing in my head the past twenty-four hours.

Honestly, the reason this frittata earned the adjective "dainty" is because I had fewer eggs than I expected when it came time to chop the sweet potatoes and parsnips smaller the next day. Nevertheless, I dove ahead, beating the five eggs I did have, adding a splash of Half & Half, about 1/3 cup of asiago cheese, dashs of allspice, salt, and pepper and then pouring all of this over the roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes as well as some scallions in the bottom of the pan at medium-high heat.

Tilting the pan to help move the raw egg in the middle out and back under the bottom layer as well as sticking the whole thing in a 350°F oven helped cook it without drying out.

The result was simply delicious!

So, after you have gone out and found some parsnips of your own and tried them in my frittata or told me how you found a different use for them, come back and check out what will be featured during and/or after finals week.

I may do the amazingly dark, cocoa-y cookies that promise either world peace or savage warfare. There is also the batch of cookies still warming the apartment tonight with its fennel-y scent. Or another irresistible pumpkin recipe involving pancake batter sprinkled with walnuts and dried fruit and drizzled with a spark of sweet orange.

Even my mouth is watering!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Greeting the morning, a pumpkin muffin in hand

Light is dancing upon my bedroom wall in beautiful ways this morning.

I hate drawn curtains (except when commonsense privacy calls for them), and I abhor blinds (there is never an appropriate time for these to be closed -- they should be banned!). My favorite thing to wake up to in the morning is light streaming into my room. It's as if the day has brought me its greeting before I have opened my eyelids. The world is waiting, so wake up!

This morning the world is in a bit of a frenzy, judging by the sunlight projected into my room. It is streaming through the millions of leaves on the oak tree outside my window, and the wind is simultaneously blowing them every which way. The resulting mobile art upon my wall is fragmented light with circular patches and varying gusts of emotion. Frenzy.

Strangely, the frenzy isn't contagious. I suppose the effect is like a thunderstorm -- it is outside my peaceful cocoon, so I am able to sit back and take in its wonder while remaining warm and dry and safe.

I am enjoying a quiet Sunday morning and pondering what do to with the remaining half-can of pumpkin in my fridge. I made half a batch of pumpkin muffins Friday morning in defiance of my better judgement (I had two hours to cram for a quiz, and I used part of that time to prepare these muffins). The quiz turned out fine, though, and the muffins even better. The thing is, I had not been looking for a new pumpkin muffin recipe. My mom has supplied me with plenty that are not only nostalgic but spicy, sweet, chunky, and (always) dreamy...her pumpkin chocolate chip muffins...oh my!

But thanks to my recipe-swapping friend and cooking companion, Katie, I happened upon these muffins. I think the first batch she shared with me had been baked a little longer than the second because it was not love at first sight. But when Katie and I had them together again, and we were agreeing upon their simplicity, sparks started to fly between me and that muffin. In fact, the rest of that morning I kept reliving its taste in my mouth. The straightforward pumpkin flavor, the nutty pumpkin seeds, and the near-gooey center that was almost like a spoonful of pumpkin squash.

I don't usually like to describe my muffins as gooey and that's not really the word I'm going for, but this muffin handles the concept beautifully. It may seem like I went a little overboard with the idea playing on my tastebuds because I put half of the can of pumpkin into my already halved batch (the original recipe calls for 1 cup total), but the result really was perfect! The outside was able to bake up well and hold form, but the texture within still satisfyingly melted in my mouth.

Double Pumpkin Muffins
Adapted from Women's Health Magazine
(also available online)

Makes 12 muffins.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 can canned solid-pack plain pumpkin
3/4 cup skim milk
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
3 tablespoons olive oil*
1/2 cup hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. In medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Set aside.

3. In large bowl, whisk together pumpkin, milk, brown sugar, egg, and oil until smooth.

4. Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mixture in 2 batches, stirring until just incorporated (a few lumps are fine). Stir in seeds.

5. Lightly coat cups of nonstick 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray. Divide batter evenly among cups (each should be about 2/3 full).

6. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean and tops are just turning golden brown, about 25 minutes.** (If using silicone, reduce baking time slightly.) Let cool for 10 minutes before removing from tin.

*I got a little nervous during the mixing process because I kept smelling the olive oil, but once baked it disappeared completely.

**To make sure these muffins were still soft in the middle, I pulled them out four minutes early.

Note: These muffins are not particularly sweet, but I like them that way. Nevertheless, I sprinkled some raw sugar on top for looks.