Sunday, March 25, 2007

Curly Noodles, Hungry Dog, and Chicken Based French Onion Soup

Okay... this is weird. I'm about to share one of my first recipes that involves meat. And the ironic part about it all is that I think it could be made equally well vegetarian. This whole experimenting with meat thing has been a bit strange, especially because I think I am satisfying my craving with very small amounts of chicken, and in that respect I have confirmed my "mostly veg" nature quite well.

I have a thing for caramelized onions, but frankly I use them far too often in far too many dishes where they don't belong, when all the time, all I want is a good French Onion Soup. I can't believe it took me this long to try making one; now that I've made it, I'll make it again and again. If it weren't for the fact that I have to fit into a bikini for my honeymoon, in, uh, 6 weeks, I'd've probably poured this soup into ramekins and baked it traditionally with cheese and bread and a lot more salt.

But, the aforementioned bikini requirement won't go away, so while this is not quite a healthy recipe, it's also not as overboard as one could choose to make it. Feel free to adapt.

It's buttery, sweet, full of deep flavor, and, as Greg put it, downright beefy despite the lack of beef (ref slow caramelized onions). These onions are true melt-in-your-mouth-goodness. I think the next iteration of this recipe will include some dried porcini mushrooms, but I wanted to keep things simple and made this with as few ingredients as I could manage. There is only a very small amount of chicken in here, and as I mentioned before, you could just as easily leave it out.

I made this soup on Saturday, and it was a little too rich and buttery. I refrigerated it overnight and skimmed off quite a bit of excess fat on Sunday - then it was perfect.

I can't tell you how tempted I was to title this post "Freedom Onion Soup" ; )

French Onion Soup
Serves 2-4

Splash of olive oil
2 chicken thighs, on the bone, washed under cool water and patted dry
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
2 sweet onions, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups good vegetable stock (I swear by "Kitchen Basics")
1 large escarole, chopped into ~1/2-1" squares
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat a heavy soup pot with a splash of olive oil and add chicken thighs skin side down over medium heat. Cook approximately four minutes per side and reserve for later use. Drain excess fat if desired.
  2. Add butter and onions to pot, stirring occasionally over medium-low heat for up to 45 minutes. Aim to develop a deep caramel color, but watch pot carefully to avoid burning the onions*
  3. Sprinkle flour over onions, add garlic and stir to fully incorporate. Cook for an additional 3 minutes to form a roux, then deglaze with vegetable stock. Remove excess fat and skin from chicken thighs. Shred and add to pot along with escarole.
  4. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until escarole is cooked through and soft, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Optionally: refrigerate overnight and skim excess fat the next day. Serve over pasta that has been boiled in heavily salted water.
*This is where the heavy bottomed pot is most useful. Your patience will be rewarded by soft, sweet, caramelized onions, I promise!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Un-Cream of Cauliflower

Here we have a simple post for a simple recipe. I can almost guarantee that you will not find a shorter ingredient list (two items) than this, and I can definitely promise you that the flavor is well worth the small amount of effort required to, basically, throw this vegetable into the blender. This soup is exactly the kind of recipe that my mother likes to call "an idiot's delight": it's easy to make and it tastes fantastic.

It's winter out here in Connecticut (ref pudgy cute bird in slush above) and I wanted a cream-of-something soup. I expected to puree cauliflower as a base to my soup and then season it later, adding other ingredients like cream, garlic or potatoes along the way. Instead, I found that all I wanted was the cauliflower itself. The soup tastes simply amazing. It is so rich, creamy and flavorful that I would actually pick this soup over Potato Cheddar - and Greg agrees. Whereas I am the queen of all things sugary, Greg is the king of all things buttery. His judgment on a fat free soup is a pretty good one(!), and I think we both surprised ourselves by liking such a simple, healthy meal.

Uhm, speaking of butter (and the opposite of healthy), we served this with slices of multi grain bread grilled on a buttered skillet. It was sublime. If you're feeling hesitant to try this recipe, think of it this way: make the soup base as it is, and then decide if you want heavy cream in it or not.

Un-Cream of Cauliflower
Serves 2-4
Hint: make sure you like cauliflower before making this soup.

1 head of organic cauliflower
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Add cauliflower to food processor and pulse until finely chopped*. Scrape into to a heavy bottomed soup pot and fill with water to cover. Boil until cauliflower is completely tender and there are no more floating pieces - approximately 30 minutes, or longer depending on the size of cauliflower chunks (check water level occasionally to make sure it doesn't burn).
  2. Take mixture back to food processor and puree until completely smooth. Be patient to fully puree the cauliflower - it will turn into creamy goodness at a certain point. Season with salt and pepper to taste**, adding more water if necessary, and serve.
*alternately, just boil the cauliflower in large chunks - the result will be the same, but it will just take a little longer to cook. Make sure to boil it long enough so that the cauliflower is completely softened and the starches begin to break down and thicken the soup.
**I think I added about 1-1.5 tbsp salt and about 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper. This will really depend on your own taste

Thursday, March 15, 2007

30 Minute Vegan Lasagna with Walnut/Spinach and Tofu/Honey Filling

Ever since my recent decision to indulge in responsible meat choices occasionally (which has so far only meant, twice), I've been thinking quite a bit about my eating habits, and, particularly, the amount of egg and dairy products that I consume.

WARNING: Really cute pictures to follow for no other reason than I think they're cute.

My adorable soon-to-be niece

I've never been motivated to become a vegan, but I have at times wondered about my general level of other-animal-related-product consumption. I'm careful to only buy organic milk and eggs from farms that claim some level of humane treatment, but even then... with cereal for breakfast, egg sandwiches, cappuccinos/lattes, plenty of dairy based sauces, cheese for quick snacks, and etc, it all adds up. I used to be lactose intolerant when I was younger, and I am beginning to wonder if it is reappearing. Sometimes I feel an urge to cut back. It's often nice, if I can find a way, to leave dairy out or a recipe - healthwise, and thinking in environmental terms too.

(Though anyone who has been reading this blog for a few weeks already knows that's hardly a steadfast rule ; ) )

My adorable soon-to-be nephew

So far I've made a 75% switch to soy milk. I actually like the flavor it brings to my coffee, and I don't notice much of a difference in my cereal. Today, I wanted to make a vegan lasagna: tofu for ricotta and no cheese or bechemel.

My adorable soon-to-be husband

I started by pureeing the tofu. It was a bit harsh tasting when I tested the mixture, so I compensated for that "sour"ish soybean taste with 2 tsp of honey. The honey brought a wonderful flavor to the tofu. I also knew it would work well with the next rather odd flavor to have in a lasagna: I pureed walnuts with spinach and caramelized mushrooms for the second filling.

Walnuts? Walnuts, you say - really? Yes: walnuts. I love the texture and depth of flavor that cooked walnuts bring to vegetable dishes, and I got the idea from a Cashew Nut Chili recipe a friend sent me. I've been itching to try it in a lasagna. I would highly encourage you to try this take on a spinach filling, whether you choose to make an entire lasagna vegan or not. The dense, deep flavor of the walnuts complements the bright flavor of the spinach, and the mushrooms round everything out with a little moisture and bulk. This walnut/spinach filling tastes really, really good, and I loved how the flavor stood up to the tofu/ricotta filling.

I added a little crushed red pepper flakes to everything, and then I topped the whole lasagna with what is quite possibly the simplest sauce I've ever made: a can of tomatoes pureed with a little salt, pepper and tomato paste. By assembling the lasagna with the majority of sauce on top, I obtained a thick, tangy roasted 1" tomato "crust" - my favorite way to enjoy a baked lasagna, as it reminds me of deep dish pizza from Chicago. I broiled the lasagna for a few more minutes to crisp up the edges and roast the red pepper slices.

This recipe was really great and a breeze to prepare: it'll be a staple in my repertoire, I am sure. The entire prep time was less than 30 minutes and the flavor was unbeatable. Plus, it didn't involve any dairy products, and most of the ingredients came out of the pantry or the freezer. The only part that I would like to change is the tofu mixture - once the lasagna baked, the honey I added was overwhelmed by an unmistakable tofu flavor. I don't mind it myself, but then again I'll eat tofu raw. It might turn off someone who's not already a tofu fan (i.e., the very cute, but not terribly fond of tofu, soon-to-be husband). Next time, I'll double the honey and add a little more salt. The strong tofu flavor might also be fixed by drizzling extra sauce over the tofu layers before topping with noodles.

30 Minute Vegan Lasagna with Walnut/Spinach and Tofu/Honey Filling
Serves 6

14 oz firm organic tofu
2 tsp honey
1/2 tsp sea salt
dash nutmeg

Walnut/Spinach Filling
16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
8 large cremini mushrooms
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp sea salt
freshly grated black pepper

Sauce - you could easily substitute pre-made sauce, though I liked the intense tomato tange I got from this simple version. Test the spices as you go - depending on what tomato brand you use, it'll need different amounts of salt and pepper. "Italian Style" simply means canned with basil.
28 oz Italian style canned whole plum tomatoes
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste

1 large red bell pepper, sliced thinly
8 oz lasagna noodles (I used half a box, or enough for 3 pasta layers in an 8x8 pan - I prefer lasagna to be noodle-light and filling-heavy).

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a large pot of salted water over high heat. Work on other steps. When water boils, add lasagna noodles and cook for 5 minutes. Drain once cooked and set aside.
  2. Drain tofu and add in chunks to food processor. Add honey, sea salt and nutmeg. Pulse until tofu reaches a course crumble - look for the texture of ricotta, not a smooth puree. Re-season if necessary and set aside
  3. Add olive oil to a small saute pan with mushrooms. Saute over high heat until nicely caramelized (5-10 minutes). Add a pinch or two of salt and continue cooking for several minutes, until any remaining juices steam off.
  4. While the mushrooms cook, add thawed chopped spinach to a bowl lined with cheesecloth. Pick up the cheesecloth corners, forming a bag between your hands, and squeeze out as much water as possible. Add spinach, walnuts, mushrooms and spices to food processor. Process until smooth. Re-season if necessary and set aside.
  5. Add entire can of tomatoes to food processor with spices and tomato paste. Process until smooth.
  6. Assemble lasagna:
    • Splash of sauce, noodles,
    • 1/2 tofu mixture, noodles,
    • 1/2 spinach, remaining tofu, noodles,
    • Remaining spinach, noodles
    • Rest of sauce.
    • Layer bell pepper slices on top.

  7. Bake for 1 hour. Broil for an additional 5-10 minutes to roast the red pepper slices, then let rest for 15 minutes before serving.
By my estimate (thank you, this entire lasagna has about 2200 calories. For 6 large portions, that's 360 calories each, with 100% of your daily value of vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium. This serving also offers about 50% DV of folate, B-6 and vitamin E, 15g of healthy fat (only 2 of which are saturated) and 20g of soy protein. All from "whole" foods. I'm not even going to do the comparison to a normal cheese lasagna - I think you can imagine!

Pretty darn delicious...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tastefully Challenged

My friend Erin says there's no such thing as a recipe gone bad. It merely tastes like something you didn't quite intend, and in order to fix the recipe one must simply name the concoction correctly. Then, the dish will taste exactly as you intended it to, and the result will have been a tremendous success. For example, one day when I substituted All Spice for Nutmeg in some homemade pudding (the result was nearly inedible), we called it both "Holiday Pudding" and a day. There have been many a "Rock Cake" created in my kitchen and even a little "Crumble Pie". One time, the "Tongue Tingling Omlet" (third picture down) made an appearance, though before that it was "Heartbreak Even Tomato" (it tasted too good to bother revealing the heartburn that resulted - it was worth it). Maybe my favorite was "This Almost Gave Us Food Poisoning Swordfish", though we'll never really know what "That Thing That Tori Ate Instead of Us" would have been like had we actually eaten it. Perhaps the ones that I never posted about were the ones that required, well, that most drastic re-naming, shall we say?

Today's recipe is an interesting one. What is it, exactly? A soup? A ravioli filling? A sauce? A garnishment? A base to simmer tofu in? A sandwich spread? Something to dip crackers in?

I still have no idea.

Despite this recipe's status of non-identity due to its unique tastefully challenged finale, and this is the funny part, I really like it. Or, at least I think I ought to like it. Or, maybe if I give it the right name, I'll like it. Since getting this level of powerful, pure, knock your socks off mushroom flavor into a dish was my goal, I succeeded entirely (err, a bit overenthusiastically), and I am damn well determined to find a use for it. I refuse to allow this interestingly intense dish to go wayside with the Better Left Forgotten Cookies. That's why I am posting here. I set the challenge to you, few readers: what would you use this for?

It started out with an idea for mushroom leek soup. I wanted something very, very mushroomy (watch out what you wish for). I nixed the garlic, added only the barest minimum of broth, and simmered away a variety of mushrooms with leeks, celery, mushrooms, and almost nothing else - not even any cream. I pureed the whole thing and tried to serve it as soup, which is where Greg and I ran into a little trouble. It was simply too rich to eat as soup. One spoonful and a person felt so overwhelmed with mushroom flavor that there simply wasn't any need to... have another spoonful. It wasn't a bad flavor, exactly, it just wasn't the right form. It would be like dipping a spoon into a bowl full of vodka cream sauce. The sauce might be fantastic, but straight up without the appropriate pasta base? No sir, thank you very much.

Speaking of pasta, and having anticipated this problem somewhat (due to a few pre-serving taste tests), I had already made a very light pasta dish to go with this Soup-Hopeful: gemelli tossed with steamed broccoli, spinach, a dash of olive oil, garlic and a little grated pecorino cheese. Greg and I cautiously spooned tiny amounts of the Dish-Without-A-Purpose over the Very-Purposeful-Pasta and took a weary bite.

Better. The burst of mushroom flavor was well complemented by the green, fresh bite of the spinach and broccoli. But still, it was not right. The mushroom flavor was just too much.

A few ideas:
- Nix most of the broth (say 1 cup total) and braise the mushrooms and leeks together for a pate of sort (cracker topping? sandwich spread? ravioli stuffing? lasagna?)
- Thin out with extra broth and serve as soup. Maybe not. Ugh. It's really, really rich. There needs to be another flavor, not just a dilution.
- Use as-is over a baked potato? Baked on top of chicken?
- Greg's idea: use in a risotto?

I really don't know, but I'd love to hear what you'd do to this recipe to fix it. I still have something of this Mushroom Unknown left to use up - so if you think of something good I'll try it and let you know how it goes!!

Flavorful Mushroom Something
Serves? If I knew what it was I could wager a guess

1/4 cup olive oil
3 large leeks
3 large celery ribs
3 cups vegetable broth
5 oz hen of the wood fresh mushrooms
5g dried black trumpet mushrooms
10g dried porcini mushrooms
1 tbsp salt (or to taste)
freshly grated black pepper
parsley to garnish

  1. Split leeks down the center and slice into 1/2" wide semicircles. Float leeks in large bowl of cold water. Immerse and then drain water. Repeat for three full rinses of the leeks
  2. Slice celery into 1/2" semicircles
  3. Add celery, leeks and olive oil to a heavy bottomed soup pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until very soft and caramelized. Once vegetables begin to stick, deglaze with vegetable brother, cover and continue cooking for 45 minutes to an hour
  4. Meanwhile, rehydrate dried mushrooms in 1 cup boiling water. Take out rehydrated mushrooms and chop finely with fresh mushrooms, reserving fluid for later use.
  5. Add chopped mushrooms to soup pot. Strain reserved fluid into pot through several layers of cheesecloth.
  6. Cover and continue cooking as before, until the 45 minutes to an hour time is up. Cool slightly and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth.
  7. Season to taste

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pancakes, oh pancakes

In case you haven't guessed, Greg and I are foodies. Real foodies. We don't tour restaurants or order $400 bills. We don't critique whether the creme fraiche was really fresh (Okay, I couldn't help but make the pun). We do, however, eat a lot, and we always eat well. What you might not know about us, however, is that both Greg and I have a particular everyday thing that we never sacrifice.

Breakfast. Oh Breakfast.

Typical breakfast fare for a weekday morning would be a vegetable omelet with toast or an egg sandwich with whatever cheese I have around. Maybe we'd have granola with yogurt and fresh fruit, or an on-the-go wrap. On the weekend I occasionally spice things up with a little hash browns. Weekend or weekday, I often make pancakes.

Another thing you might not know about me is that I'm actually a little obsessed with pancakes. My interest in pancakes almost competes with my cookie obsession. It's not that I even like pancakes themselves all that much (especially when compared to other breakfast possibilities, or, my goodness, cookies themselves): it's that I like tweaking the recipe. The basic pancake recipe is so simple, so easy, and so flexible that I could probably make pancakes every day for a year and still be interested in it. Here it is:
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
(Often this recipe calls for 1/4 cup sugar, but I prefer to omit the sugar).

The thing about this recipe is that you can substitute just about anything for the milk and anything for flour.

  1. Here are my favorite substitutions for the milk ingredient: yogurt, ricotta, mashed bananas, applesauce, fruit juice, soy milk, or any of the above plus a few tbsp coconut milk (this is astoundingly good, by the way, what with all the saturated fat in coconut milk). How much should you substitute? For any of these ingredients, you can substitute to whatever degree you like - just make sure the total fluid volume comes to about 3/4 cup. When I substitute yogurt or ricotta, I usually go just shy of 3/4 cup and add a few splashes of milk to keep the consistency right. For the mashed bananas, around 1 banana + 1/4 cup milk or 1/2 cup yogurt works well.
  2. Here are my favorite substitutions for the dry ingredients: whole wheat flour, oat bran, and oatmeal
  3. Here are my favorite fruit additions: blueberries, apples, raspberries, strawberries, and banana slices. For the berries and banana slices, add them in after all of the other ingredients have been mixed. For apples, slice them thin, place in a pan with a sprinkle of brown sugar and pour the pancake batter over. Fry for several minutes until the apples caramelize, then flip. Alternately, just stir in chopped apples.
  4. And then of course there are the seasonings: vanilla, brown sugar, maple syrup, walnuts, nutmeg or Cinnamon.
Yogurt or ricotta give an incredible texture to pancakes. I really enjoy it: dense, slightly chewy, but still soft, tender, and definitively pancake. I didn't have any yogurt today or I would have used it. Often I even forgo butter and syrup on my pancakes in favor of plain yogurt stirred with jam on top. It's really quite delicious, and it takes a typically butter/sugar filled breakfast indulgence into something quite a bit more flavorful and healthy. My favorite healthy version of this recipe is 1/2 cup skim ricotta or plain yogurt + 1/4 cup milk, 1tbsp sugar, splash vanilla, 1 egg, 3/4 cup whole wheat flour and 3/4 tsp baking powder. My favorite so-delicious-but-bad-for-you version of this recipe is 1/2 cup plain yogurt, 1/4 cup milk, 1/4 cup coconut milk, 1 egg, 3/4 cup all purpose flour and 3/4 tsp baking powder.

On Saturday, Greg and I got up at 5am to join a friend in a three hour car ride to ski in Vermont. It. Was. Awesome. I've only been skiing (now) twice in my life, and I have to say this: I like to ski. I really, really like to ski. If it wasn't so unaffordable and life wasn't so busy, I'd have gone skiing every free weekend day I could find. Saturday was the first day we were able to go skiing this whole winter: I managed to do all right, staying on the easy trails, only tripping once, and getting scared but still enjoying myself. Greg and his friend Alex tackled some black diamonds (glad I wasn't there to see - probably would have been terrified to watch them), and they joined me for a few runs, giving tips and training to help me learn. 7 hours of hard exercise later, we collapsed into the car and drove back to New Haven. This morning I woke up with aching hips (snowplowing), tense quads (skis themselves), and bruised shins (damn boots!). Poor Greg managed to take a pretty good fall early in the morning and crushed his shoulder in an awkward position - he woke up in decently more pain than I had to deal with.

Both of us needed a filling healthy breakfast, and along with soy milk cappuccinos, here's what we had:

Soy Blueberry Pancakes
Serves 2

3/4 cup soy milk
Splash of cream*
1 organic, free range egg
100g organic, whole wheat flour**
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup frozen organic blueberries ***

  1. Whisk together soy milk, cream and egg. Sift flour and baking powder on top. Stir just until moistened. Add blueberries and stir just until combined
  2. Heat skillet over medium-low heat with a tiny bit of vegetable oil and a swipe of butter
  3. For each pancake, add 1/4 cup batter and spread out with spatula until pancake is about 1/2" thick. Fry until edges begin to brown and bubbles appear in the batter (about 4 minutes). Flip and continue frying until done throughout (about 5 minutes) ****
  4. Serve with a little bit of butter and good syrup. Walnuts or granola are good on the side*****
Make sure to play with the ingredients in this recipe!

*Can omit the cream. I had some on hand, so I added it to enrich the soy milk
**Yes, I weigh the flour because this ensures that the dry ingredients will match the wet ingredients. This works out to 3/4 cup all purpose flour or just shy of that for whole wheat flour
***The blueberries will turn the batter green over time. It doesn't bother me. If it bothers you, toss them with several tbsp of flour before adding to the batter and use quickly.
****To tell whether pancakes are done, tap the center with your index finger. If the pancake springs back, it's done. An indent means it needs longer to cook
*****Fortunately for us, our upstairs tenants have parents that sugar off their own maple syrup every year, so we've got a good supply of really good syrup. It is truly worth it to get good syrup - I promise