Saturday, February 28, 2009

On the Importance of Toasting Your Tortillas

Mariana taught me this. In addition to being the person who tipped me off to Pete's Market in Pilsen, she showed me the proper way to prep a corn tortilla. It does not involve a pan - just the open flame of your gas range. Sorry to ye of the electric stove.

For starters, it absolutely helps if you have great tortillas on hand. I don't get to Pilsen that often but found a great tortilla at Whole Foods:

Anyway, your basic corn tortilla out of the package looks like this:

I you get them fresh, they're delicious as it. But trust me, they're even better if you toast them - even the Pilsen ones. To toast, just set your burner to a medium flame a pop a tortilla directly on top:

Flip after a minute or two, or once the tortilla puckers a bit. Just stay close by and keep checking. You want them to char a bit, just so. The end result looks like this:

We pretty much always have corn tortillas in the fridge, using them alternately for breakfast (with eggs), lunch (with tuna) or at dinner carnitas, or for soft tacos). I'm not certain that they're completely gluten free, but they provide a nice respite from wheat. Also: yum.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Lousiana Hot Sauce

I didn't know about Louisiana Hot Sauce.

I knew about Trappey's Louisiana Hot Sauce, which Mary hooked me on back at Cafe Nola. On a few occasions, between the breakfast and lunch rush, she would make me an over-easy egg sprinkled with some chopped fresh parsley and doused with Trappey's. The colors were enough to make it a beautiful thing, but the Trappey's! Oh the Trappey's!

For some reason I cannot find Trappey's in Chicago. It's one of the condiments I stock up on when we're in Seattle (go figure). We just finished our last bottle and don't have a trip to Seattle in the offing, so I took a chance on this sauce above. It rocks. Has everything Trappey's had, plus it's in my hand and on my eggs. Also, this stuff is a bit thicker and the color is deeper. I really like it.

If you don't know about Louisiana Hot Sauce, don't sweat it. It's definetly hotter than Trappey's, but it shouldn't make you sweat. about this hot sauce should make you sweat. It's a happy addition to the hot sauce section of my pantry.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

On the Side: Parsley Cashew Green Beans

Not long ago green beans won a spot on the short but growing list of veggies enjoyed by resident youngsters. We've been eating them a lot so I've been dishing them out all sorts of ways: with pesto, with shallots and a smidgen of pancetta, Szechuan style (sauteed in sesame/canola oil with lots of garlic and chili flakes) and, shown above, with parsley and cashews.

It's not hard to make fresh green beans taste great; many a cook would add a pat of butter and call it a great day. But in the Pinch kitchen, where butter is only used for baking, more thought goes into cooked veggies. Plus, the extra flavors make a new vegetable more familiar for my kids who are accustomed to fresh herbs and garlic.

As for the green bean vs. haricot vert choice, I'm partial to the elegant haricot vert (I like my asparagus on the slender side as well) but will buy any beautiful green bean. It amazes me how frequently markets put out sorry looking green beans. Haricots verts are quite versatile - fine on their own, but also good as an addition. They're especially great mixed in with thin spaghetti; they're such great team players they practically wind around your fork.

Parsley Cashew Green Beans
Print recipe only here

Serves 4 as a side dish

8 oz haricots verts or green beans
1 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
pinch crushed chili flakes
2 T fresh parsley, chopped
2 T cashews, finely chopped

Trim bottoms off green beans, rinse and set aside.

Heat oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add chili flakes and garlic and saute briefly. Add grean beans and saute 1-2 minutes. Add parsley and cashews and continue to saute until cooked to your liking. Add kosher salt to taste and serve.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cookies for Kids who Like to Make Cookies

The best advertisement ever comes from a cowboy in Telluride who offers this:

Gentle horses for gentle people,
Fast horses for fast people,
And for people who don't like to ride,
Horses that don't like to be rode

I have several recipes that don't like to be made; you'll never see them here. On the other end of the spectrum are recipes that make everything easy for the cook. This is one of those - a recipe my daughters can nearly handle on their own. The cookie dough recipe was written for one of those spritz or press cookie thingies. I have come to detest the cookie press (I seem to lack the requisite flick-of-the-wrist gene) but was happy to take my sister's recommendation of simply rolling out the dough and forming cookies with traditional cutters.

Even better, this dough doesn't require any resting time in the fridge, like a sugar or butter cookie dough does. You just mix, roll, bake and decorate. My kids appreciate the quick turnaround time between deciding to make cookies and eating the finished product. With either almond extract or a zested lemon or orange, they are tasty, too.

Simple Cutout Cookies for Kids
Print recipe only here

Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

* 1 ½ cups unsalted butter, softened
* 1 cup sugar
* 1 egg
* 2 T milk
* 1 t vanilla
* 1 t almond extract (or grated lemon or orange zest)
* 3 ½ cups flour
* 1 t baking powder

Preheat oven to 375°

Cream butter and sugar.

Add egg and beat until combined. Add milk and extracts or zest and mix well.

Sift together flour and baking powder. Add slowly to butter mixture and mix to combine.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin, gently roll dough to desired thickness (I like them on the thicker side, about 3-4mm high) and form using cookie cutters. Dough can be re-rolled once or twice, but after that it gets too tough and should be tossed.

Bake on parchment lined baking sheets for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Or, top with a fine dusting of sanding sugar before baking.

Cool to room temperature, then frost and decorate.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Drinks: Lemon Basil Gimlet

For years I thought a gimlet was something you had to be over age 70 to order. It sounds so old-fashioned! Then, I had the world's best at Matchbox. They do vodka infusions at Matchbox (pineapple and ginger) and mix it with fresh squeezed lime juice and a splash of sugar syrup. It's the best summer drink, ever.

Chicago is having a mid-winter heat spell (high of 63 predicted for today!) The thaw is greatly appreciated. There will be more cold and snow, to be sure, but for now, we celebrate!

My husband, the resident expert saucier and drink maker, made this gem for me the other night. It was perfect: refreshing, clean, and gorgeous.

Lemon Basil Vodka Gimlet
Print recipe only here

Serves 2

fresh basil
powdered sugar
sugar syrup or superfine sugar
muddler or wooden spoon

Moisten the rim of two highball glasses.

Sprinkle 1-2 T powdered sugar on a small plate and dredge the rim of the glass in the sugar. Set aside.

In a shaker, combine:
Zest of one lemon (peel a lemon using a vegetable peeler, being careful to just peel the top yellow layer, without the white pith)
4 fresh basil leaves
1 T sugar (preferably superfine)

Muddle together. If you don't have a muddler, use the handle of a wooden spoon to smash the basil and lemon zest into the sugar so that the essential oils are released.

Add to the shaker:
3-4 shots vodka
3-4 shots fresh squeezed lemon juice
6 icecubes

Shake vigorously. Taste and adjust if necessary (I don't like anything to be too sweet - you may prefer yours with a bit more sugar than indicated here).

Add 4 ice cubes to each sugar-coated glass and strain gimlet into each. Top with one fresh basil leaf and serve.

For an alternate preparation see Well Fed Blog's Lemon Basil Vodka Gimlet

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Baby Spinach Salad with a Side of Deception

There are several times where I've pushed the envelope on truthiness in reporting the food on my children's plates. Unless I'm serving up homemade pizza or pasta or another favorite meal of theirs they come to the table with polite apprehension, at best, or, more commonly, like arrant skeptics. Their policy on food is Disgusting until Proven Edible.

I haven't been able to stomach lying to them about what they're eating like one pediatrician advised. My oldest is a virtual vegetarian which the good doctor considered unacceptable. More acceptable was that I find ways to sneak meat into her diet, which was not something I was willing, ethically or physically, to do. For all the hoopla over the Jessica Seinfeld book, the one thing I couldn't escape was that to keep foods from being detected by picky eaters there would have to be so little of that food present in the meal that the child couldn't possibly get the food's essential nutrients. For the amount of time spent steaming and pureeing, there's little nutritional benefit.

I'd prefer my kids get to know their veggies, and to develop an understanding of what they're putting in their mouths, whether it's a chopped salad, low fat brownies or baked cheese curls. Similarly, adults are well-advised to read labels and be more aware of the contents of our food choices.

This salad is the only item I've tricked them into eating by not telling them it was spinach. I just called it Baby Greens, as in "I made that baby greens salad you both like," while smirking to myself. They'd been eating it happily for several years before two things happened. First, I slipped and said, "Pass the spina- ...err, baby greens." Then, they started reading the produce packages in the fridge. It was only a matter of time. Luckily, they really do love the salad, so there was no backlash.

What foods do you trick your children in enjoying?

Baby Spinach Salad
Print recipe only here

Serves 4-6

This dressing takes its inspiration from the Garlic-Parmesan dressing in
Pizza, Pasta, Panini. It's a spicy one, due to the garlic.

In a salad bowl mix together:

* 2 cloves garlic, pressed
* 1 t kosher salt


* ¼ cup grated Parmesan
* 1/3 cup olive oil
* 3-4 T red wine vinegar
* Fresh ground pepper

Balance flavors with more oil or vinegar to taste. Toss with 4-6 ounces baby spinach and serve.

Oh, and read this from The New York Times for more:

Spinach: Nutrition in a Bag
Those ubiquitous bags of baby spinach make for convenience food that’s hard to beat.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama's Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

I was still digesting the NYT report that Hillary Rodham Clinton has been watching envoys poach her turf ("And Now Let the Jockeying Begin" published January 31, 2009) when today's news about President Obama serving Oatmeal Raisin Cookies hit the wire ("Obama Woos G.O.P. With Attention, and Cookies"). I tried in vain to locate the early 1990s image of Hillary serving cookies in the Clinton White House. It was a calculated photo-op meant to soften remarks she made about her career (along the lines of, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,") which caused people who stayed home and baked cookies to take umbrage - or caused people whose life's work centers on getting other people fired up, to stir up some umbrage.

I stay home and bake cookies, partly because of my career in the sweet kitchen and partly because I'm at home with kids and kids, in addition to liking stickers, like cookies. I was in college during Cookiegate. I didn't take - or couldn't be persuaded to take - any offense. Isn't the beauty of our freedom, opportunity, equality and, let's face it, wealth, that we can find our own balance of cookies and careers?

It remains to be seen if HRC will be well-regarded in her new position. It was always going to be tricky for Hillary in the Obama White House, especially with all the other sharp elbows in the room. I don't dispute the glass ceiling but I don't see gender as a limiting factor in the career arc of the Secretary of State. It's more personal than that (I would have said, "It's her character, stupid," if Carville merited quoting). Obama is green and finding his footing, and his cookies might be just as calculated as Hillary's. *HAH! Who am I kidding?!? The Roadrunner supercomputer is less calculating than the Clintons!* The critical difference: Obama makes handing out cookies look good.

Presidential Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Print recipe only here


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
1 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
½ t salt
3 cups oats
1 cup raisins or chocolate chips

In a mixer, beat butter on medium-high speed for 2-3 minutes. Add sugars and cream together for 3-5 minutes, or until light and fluffy.

Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions, scraping sides and bottom of bowl as necessary. Add vanilla and mix in.

Sift or whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon). Add to mixer and combine on a low speed, scraping bottom of the bowl at least once. Add oats and combine on low speed. Add raisins or chocolate chips and mix until just combined.

Drop by measured spoonfuls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 6-8 minutes in a preheated 350 oven. Or, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and bake individual cookies as desire. Unless you're serving a roomful of politicos, you don't need to bake all the cookies at once - just bake off as many as you will serve and refrigerate the rest for another day.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Butter Cake + Cinnamon Sugar = Scrumptious Coffee Cake

Adding a layer of cinnamon sugar to a plain butter cake is an easy way to make eating cake in the morning slightly more acceptable (let's not even consider that doing this adds MORE sugar to the cake). I would caution you not to start many mornings this way. Instead, tuck it away in your cookbook for mornings when you find yourself entertaining. Guests tend to appreciate being greeted with a slice of freshly baked coffeecake more than, say, an egg white omelet.

Even though this cake requires an hour to bake, once baked it's ready to go. Also, it sits nicely overnight so you can always make it after dinner one evening to serve the following morning.

Easy Morning Coffeecake
Print recipe only here

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake

Preheat oven to 350°

Grease and flour a 10-cup bundt pan.

Soften for 3-4 minutes in a mixer with paddle attachment:

* 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

Add slowly (about 2-4 T at a time, over about 8 minutes, scraping sides and bottom of bowl at least once between additions):

* 2 cups sugar

Add one at a time, mixing thoroughly between additions and scraping the bowl midway between additions:

* 4 eggs


* 2 t vanilla extract

Sift together and reserve:

* 3 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 t baking powder
* 1/2 t baking soda
* 1/2 t salt

Measure out and reserve:

* 1 cup buttermilk

Add the dry ingredients to the butter/eggs alternately with the liquid. (Scoop in about half the dry and mix on low speed until nearly incorporated, then pour in half the liquid, mixing in the same.) Repeat. Finish mixing by hand with a large spatula, carefully scraping up from the bottom of the mixing bowl and not over mixing.

Pour 1/4 of the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle about 2T cinnamon sugar on top (see recipe below). It should look like this:

Pour half the remaining batter on top and top with another 2 T cinnamon sugar. Pour the remaining batter on top, smooth to cover all the cinnamon sugar and bake about 50 minutes or until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and passes the toothpick test.

OPTIONAL: Toward the end of baking, prepare glaze (see recipe below). When cake is done baking, let it sit for about 10 minutes in the pan. Invert it onto a plate and pierce it all over with a long skewer. Pour the hot glaze slowly over the top, allowing it to saturate the cake.

Keeps well, loosely covered at room temperature, for 3-4 days.

Cinnamon Sugar
Makes 1/4 cup

Mix well:

* 1/4 cup sugar
* 2 T cinnamon

If you really want to go over-the-top

* 2 T butter
* 2 T heavy cream
* 2 T brown sugar
* 1/3 cup sugar
* 1/2 t vanilla extract or rum

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over low-medium heat. Swirl until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Pour over warm cake and serve.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Most Elegant Sugar Cube

Once, when I was a kid, my mom returned home from dinner out with my dad with an awesome treat: a wrapped white sugar cube. I don't think I'd ever seen a sugar cube before, much less one wrapped like a tiny present. I was smitten. Ever since I've been fond of the sugar cube.

While I use white granulated sugar for baking, the sugar that goes in my coffee is the raw variety. I keep two kinds - Sugar in the Raw, a granulated raw sugar for everyday use and La Perruche sugar cubes for entertaining or for mornings when having a sugar cube in my coffee is what I need to start my day off with a smile. (Shopping tip: Sugar in the Raw is priced well at Target. La Perruche is a specialty item I pick up at Treasure Island and Whole Foods.)

La Perruche cubes are rustic, elegant and great-tasting. They dissolve pretty quickly in hot coffee. Mainly, I love them for their playful sophistication. In case you're curious about the tongs pictured here, they are vintage sterling silver sugar tongs I acquired off eBay a few years ago. They're about 3-inches long and adorable.

Raw sugar is closer to the cane than white sugar, the latter having been bleached, filtered and exposed to various chemical agents to make it recognizable as we know it. Raw sugar is not the same as brown sugar which has been through all that same bleaching and refining, only to have molasses added back it at the end. I keep brown sugar in good supply but it is an abomination similar to the enriched white flour. "Enriched" is a just a nice way of saying that vitamins were added back to the flour after the refining process destroyed the grain's natural nutrients. I shouldn't shake my fist too hard at the sugar industry; until I develop cookie and toffee recipes that use unrefined product I'm going to be a part of the problem.

Anyway, back to raw sugar. Its brownish color comes from not having been bleached or stripped of every trace of molasses. On the tongue, raw sugar is more syrupy than white sugar, but it usually (depending on the degree to which its refined) doesn't have an overwhelming flavor. Both Sugar in the Raw and La Perruche are very mild flavored.

Having these sugar cubes on hand adds a very nice touch to coffee service.And when you use them you're one lump closer to the cane. It's not a man-on-the-moon step forward, but every lump counts, right??

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