Thursday, December 30, 2010

Peppermint Bark: Easier Made than Purchased

Day 2 of candy making went well. The recipe, which I wrote up by combining elements that made sense from half a dozen internet recipes, makes for an essentially easy afternoon project.  My bittersweet chocolate did seize up a bit but I ressurected it with another tablespoon of cream and rolled it out with a rolling pin. The finished chocolate breaks wonderfully and has a good minty flavor. Peppermint Bark is a must try for those of you who are fans but have yet to make your own. Next holiday season be sure to buy some clear cello candy bags and some gorgeous ribbon - it makes a wonderful gift.

One more note: extracts, like a box of chocolates and unlike men, are not created equal. Make sure your extracts are pure and, in this case, pure peppermint. Generic "Mint Extract" is often a blend of spearmint and peppermint which is not what you want here. I recommend sourcing it at your local spice merchant. The Spice House in Chicago sells a wonderful one.

Make sure, also, to use the best quality white and bittersweet chocolate you can get your hands on.

Peppermint Bark
Print recipe only here

Makes 1 pound

8 ounces white chocolate
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
6 candy canes, smashed (or 4-5 ounces peppermint candies)

Turn over a large baking sheet. Cover securely with foil and tape in place.

Coarsely chop white chocolate and transfer to a medium stainless steel mixing bowl. Reserve.

Combine bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat and stir until just melted and smooth. Cool for 5 minutes. If the chocolate seizes up, just add a bit more cream and heat until soft again. Using a large offset spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate in even layer. It should be about 9x12. You can also just roll it out with a rolling pin if need be - just plop the chocolate onto the foil-covered baking sheet, cover with a large piece of plastic wrap and roll out. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Unwrap candy canes or peppermint candies and place in a heavy duty ziploc bag. Smash with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer until pulverized. Reserve.

Bring an inch or two of water to boil in a wide saucepan or saute pan. Turn off heat and set bowl of white chocolate on the hot water. Stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from water bath and let cool for 3-5 minutes. Pour onto bittersweet chocolate. Using icing spatula, spread to cover the bittersweet chocolate. Sprinkle candy cane dust and bits all over surface. Chill until set, about 30 minutes.

Lift foil with bark onto work surface; trim edges. Break into medium large shards. Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store refrigerated in an airtight container.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Microwave for Pralines? Bah! Humbug!

Tomorrow I'm going to make peppermint bark. I vowed to do it this year and don't have many hours left. And speaking of things sneaking up on you, I thought we'd have to wait until November for a another one of those dates with all the same numbers. But I saw a sign for something happening on 1/1/11 today and realized both November and January will furnish two dates with lots of 1s. Would this be pleasing to the Count or not? One! One! One! One!

The bark should be less tricky than those microwave pralines everyone was talking about from the NY Times.  Our gracious hostess at a fabulous neighborhood dinner party followed that recipe and warned me of the its failings. (It should be mentioned that she was able to refashion them with incredible success using her own creative genius, a bit of salt, and cinnamon.) I decided to give pralines a whirl today but since I do not own a microwave went about it the old-fashioned way with a pot and candy thermometer. Truth to tell, after discovering the numbers on my candy thermometer had, like, washed off (?!?!?), I went about candy making the really old-fashioned way with a cup of cold water.

Anyway, pecan pralines will make a delightful addition to the dessert tray I'm planning to execute for New Year's Eve.

Pecan Pralines
Print recipe only here

Makes 2-3 dozen

3 cups pecans
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
2-3 T Meyer's Rum
1/3 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350.

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and bake for about 5-10 minutes.

Combine remaining ingredients except the pecans and vanilla  in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook until it reaches the soft ball stage, or between 235 and 240 degrees. In lieu of a candy thermometer, drizzle some of the hot candy into a glass of cold water. When ready, the candy ball should flatten between your fingers when you take it out of the water.

Turn off the flame and set the pot on a back burner to cool for about 15 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, foil or a silicone mat.

Add the pecans and vanilla to the candy and stir vigorously (not so vigorously as to munch the pecans) for about a minute, or until the mixture creams a bit and loses its glossiness.

Now work fast! Use two soup spoons and scoop the mixture into 2-inch-diameter mounds onto the lined baking sheet. If the mix becomes too hard to shape, or too sandy, reheat gently until it softens, adding scant spoonful of water if it looks too thick. Cool for 2-3 minutes, then resume spooning.

Let the pralines rest for 30 minutes before serving or storing. Store in an airtight container.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Festive Christmas Eve Dinner

I'm working in reverse order. Having planned our Christmas breakfast (crepes, grapefruit, fresh squeezed OJ, breakfast sausages, scrambled eggs with Gruyère) I'm now plotting dinner.  I don't know who started the rally  call for TWO MEATS! but I love it. Serving two meats is a festive approach to an intimate Christmas Eve dinner. But you can't stop there; the dinner should be a multi-coursed event. There has to be a fish course as well as a colorful salad - mixed greens with Gorgonzola, candied pecans and sliced pear or pomegranate seeds comes to mind - and homemade rolls. Christmas eve dinner is like Thanksgiving but more upscale.

First, plan your protein then decide on the salad and sides. I'm going to roast a beef tenderloin and serve it with two sauces - a Stilton and a fresh horseradish sauce. I picked up some horseradish root this morning in the pre-dawn (well, 9am) quiet at Whole Foods. Full disclosure: I couldn't find a prepared horseradish. For the second meat, I'm still deciding between Roasted Leg of Lamb with Yukon Gold Potatoes, a glazed spiral ham, and that garlic-rosemary Brined Pork Loin I liked so much. It'll probably be the spiral ham, as we had that brined pork a couple of weeks ago and the lamb would be too much red meat for one meal. Two meats is already over-the-top enough without going up and over again.

Next: something fishy. My dad is known to make Coquilles St. Jacques on Christmas Eve, something I've always enjoyed. I will probably serve Crab Cakes with Red Pepper Sauce on mixed greens. Killing two birds with one stone - combining the fish and salad courses - is so in the spirit of Christmas whereas killing one bird with two stones is overkill, literally.

Sides. Simple Rosemary Roasted Yukon Gold potatoes are a favorite of mine. Just clean 5-10 potatoes (quarter the larger ones), toss with a bit of olive oil, some kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, several (as in 7-10) unpeeled garlic cloves and a 3-5 springs of fresh rosemary. Roast in a hot oven - like 425, or whatever temp you've got the meat going at, for about 30-40 minutes or until nice and golden. Want something green? Haricots Vert with Shallots and a wee pit of pancetta is always yum, as are Parsley Cashew Green Beans.

Homemade rolls. This is kind of like your trainer telling you to do unassisted pull ups. She might not expect you to pull it off but she wants to see you try. :) And if you do try you won't be disappointed - these rolls are totally worth it. Just don't ruin Christmas trying to squeeze these in if you're already in over your head. For the inspired or blessed with extra time:  Rosemary Raisin Rolls or Golden Pillow Dinner Rolls.

Salad. For those of you not killing any birds with my crab cakes idea, you might consider the Pinch house salad - simple mixed greens plus candied pecans, some Gorgonzola, candied pecans, and sliced pear or pomegranate seeds for color. You know how to extract seeds from a pomegranate, right? Cut it in half horizontally (the nub at the top is North), hold one half over a bowl and whack it all over with a wood spoon or back of a chef's knife. The seeds will spill into the bowl.

Drinks! Something bubbly is fun. Use more pomegranate seeds and make a festive Champagne cocktail by pouring a pit of Chambord into the bottom of a champagne flute, fill with Champagne and add a few pomegranate seeds. I picked up a magnum sized Christmas Ale from Anchor Brewing Co. They've been brewing it for 36 years. If it's anything like their Anchor Steam, we're sure to love it.

Finally, dessert.  If you're done cooking at this point, pick up an extra-special ice cream or sorbet from a micro dairy. Get something particularly festive such as peppermint, cinnamon or caramel. Serve with something chocolaty and decadent like hazelnut biscotti, triple chocolate cookies, or truffles.

And to all a Good Night!

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Best Burger Buns

Back in the mid to late 1990s - long before Atkins and damning evidence about carbs - Jack in the Box had a terrific ad campaign featuring a panel of the meat and cheese obsessed to taste-test a new cheeseburger. One panelist questioned the need for the bun with the brilliant observation, "Bun's not meat nor cheese." Jack replied, incredulously, that if there were no bun consumers would have meat and cheese all over their hands. The obsessed panelists saw nothing wrong with that scenario.  Little did they know how prescient they were.

I'm no carbophobe but I do try to make all my calories count. Burger buns are tricky. They are absolutely critical to fully enjoy the physical act of eating a burger but most grocery store options are a total waste of calories.  The Wonder bread varieties are unacceptable. The healthy but dense Rudi's have it all wrong. The in-store bakery at Whole Foods turns out some decent sesame topped burger buns but only produces them seasonally. They taste just fine but are so tall that I end up slicing about an inch out of the inside to make the bun a reasonable size.

So it was a truly pleasant surprise when I discovered a skinny whole wheat burger bun that tasted good and held up under the weight of a lamb burger and all its fixins (tomato, red onion, and crumbled feta).  I picked up a package of International Fabulous Flats (the 100% Whole Wheat Slim Buns) and was beyond impressed by the flavor, texture and size. They are my new go to bun. The company is based in Toronto. I bought the package at my local Whole Foods.

One more thing. Serving sliders or smaller burgers for kids? Use a smooth-edged biscuit cutter to make buns match the size of burgers. I've seen slider buns, but they appear to be too tall, ruining the burger-bun ratio.

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2010 Pinch Holiday Gift Guide

Back by popular demand is the Pinch Holiday Gift Guide. Some items are repeated from last year, some are new. Where to shop? Unless you're an Amazon Prime member, you're probably doing last minute shopping the old fashioned way. TJ Maxx will often have a surprisingly good stash of kitchen tools. Keep an eye out there for All Clad, KitchenAid and Kuhn Rikon. Alternately, Sur la Table and Crate and Barrel are both very well-stocked. Cost Plus and World Market both have good kitchen sections, too.

Gifts under $30
Glass refrigerator pitchers - I have these in three different sizes (pint, quart and half-gallon) and use them regularly for sun tea, fresh squeezed juices, or for kids to serve themselves. The Container Store and Sur la Table sell them.

Muddler - I use mine mostly for making guacamole but in the summertime it's our mojito maker. I have a wooden one with a wide base. The stainless varieties are a good option, too.

Asian soup spoons - I picked up a melamine set at World Market (our ceramic ones kept breaking) that my children love using. Pretty chopsticks are fun gifts, too.

Fun cookie cutters - I just stuck some initial cookie cutters in my daughters' new advent calendar as a little gift. Sur la Table is a great place to pick up creative cutters.

Silicone spatulas and basters- The Rubbermaid spatulas are commercial kitchen compatible, and my personal faves. After shedding too many basting hairs into food, I've switched completely to silicone.

Kuhn rikon paring knife or cleaver with sheath - These come in a variety of colors. I use mine for picnics and camping. The bright color will stand out in your carry on and serve as a reminder to transfer it to your checked baggage. And you'll be able to find it when you drop it in the grass.

Microplane zester - No one should be without one of these. I use mine for Parmesan and citrus zesting.

Lemon squeezer - I have the lime and orange versions. I only recommend the lemon, as it accommodates lemons and limes. You just don't need the orange one.

Zyliss Susi garlic press - Incredibly efficient, this thing will amaze you if you've been stuck with the kind of garlic press that requires you to exert tons of pressure yet yields no pressed garlic.

Wine bottle foil cutter - I got one recently and surprised myself by using it all the time

Good kitchen shears - So many kitchens lack shears. How else are you gonna trim your artichokes, people? You can spend a lot on shears. This is a pretty low-end model.

Gifts over $30
Nutmeg Grinder - This particular one is kinda spendy. I have a $10 model purchased at my spice shop. The upscale version I bought as a gift has a better design.

Food Mill - These are incredibly useful and require elbow grease rather than electric power.

Salter Electronic Scale - Every cook worth their salt should have an electronic scale tucked in their cupboard.

5-inch utlity knife - I usually don't advocate purchasing knives for people because they're so personal. But this is a knife that every tomato-lover should have.

Good cake pans - Every home baker should have two 8- and 9-inch round cake pans, a 10-cup heavy-weight nonstick bundt pan and an 8-inch heavy-weight cheesecake pan.

Nicholas Mosse Pottery - Shown above. NM makes gorgeous Irish pottery pitchers, creamers, sugar bowls and butter dishes.

Cookbooks - Cooks always enjoy new material. Faves that are not oft found in cookbook libraries are Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday and Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible. A new favorite of mine is David Lebovit's The Perfect Scoop. And I totally want Jaffrey's latest tome - At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka

Gifts over $50
Professional Power Juicer - If my next kitchen has more counter space I'm gonna get one of these for making fresh squeezed orange juice.

Pepper Grinder - I have the Atlas but also like the wooden Peugeut models. Salt and pepper sets area also a great idea. Find some good ones with glass (no acrylic!) and metals - copper, stainless or pewter all are lovely.

All Clad butter warmer - Butter should be melted in a heavy bottomed pot - and this one is perfect.

Pizza Stone and Peel - You'll be a pro with this set. My stone resides in my oven almost permanently. It lends some humidity to the dry electric heat.

Laguiole waiter’s corkscrew - The wine lover in your life will love you for this one. Some sites will engrave it for you, too.

Bob Kramer knife - Bob was my knife sharpener when I was a working chef in Seattle. Now he's expanded his operation and is selling knives through Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table. I normally don't advocate knives as gifts since they're so personal, but I'd make an exception for Bob's knives. I have a parer he made me 13 years ago and it's gorgeous.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Planning a Festive Christmas Breakfast

Cinnamon Sugar and Raspberry Crepes
Breakfast on Christmas morning has to be beautiful but given the multitude of distractions its execution is a daunting task. If there ever was a meal that took place amid such chaos, this is it. You're likely dealing a houseful of extended family, expectant children, a present you forgot to wrap, and a scheduled departure for Grandma's house.  Planning, shopping and prepping ahead of time is the best tactic. Here's some ideas to get you started.

Four is the magic number for a well rounded breakfast. You want a balance of sweet and savory and choices for everyone. Choose at least one thing from the four breakfast food groups that are fruit, bread, eggs, and meat.

Fruit - Keep an eye out later this week for fresh pineapple, clementines or Satsumas, Ruby Red Texas Grapefruit or oranges and buy whatever looks good. Grapefruit and fresh squeezed orange juice are both great for smaller crowds. Tangerines make lovely centerpieces in bowls on the table. Fruit salads are lovely, but time consuming, so don't plan on doing too much peeling and slicing. Fresh papaya with lime is another great option - but look for the papaya sooner rather than later as it will probably need some time to ripen on your counter.

Almond Croissants
Bread - You've got lots of choices here. You could pick up some bagels, smoked salmon and cream cheese. You could get croissants - Costco has fairly nice ones; buy in advance and warm up in a 300 oven for about 15 minutes. Or, pick up some almond paste and make Almond Croissants - you can do all the work a few days in advance and bake them off on Christmas morning. You could toast/broil those decadent Wolferman's English muffins (blueberry are a personal fave) or crumpets. I would pick up some good rasperry preserves and a European butter to serve if you go the muffin/crumpet route. Another fantastic option is Baked French Toast. Pick up a loaf or two of brioche and soak it overnite - then bake in the morning and delight everyone. Pancakes- traditional or cornmeal - and crepes are lovely as well, but only suitable to prepare for 6 or fewer people.

Eggs - For several years we ate Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning. I don't particularly like Hollandaise sauce, or poached eggs for that matter, but a homemade Egg McMuffin can be a delightful thing. To make a traditional Eggs Bene, you might consider picking up some of those adorable silicone eggs poachers. If poaching scares you, just cook the eggs over easy. No one will complain, trust me. To complete the dish, cook up some Canadian bacon (or the ham mentioned below), and toast some English muffins. Whip up the Hollandaise as the eggs cook and plan to sit down to eat immediately after assembling everything.

Breakfast Tortilla
Other egg options are the ever delightful Breakfast Tortilla which you could make a day in advance and warm up before serving. And don't overlook a simple batch of scrambled eggs. Make your scrambles a little more decadent with the addition of some grated Gruyère right at the end of cooking, and top with a bit of chopped parsley for color.

Meat - I just love Amy Lu's Breakfast Club Breakfast Sausages. They're lean, they're delicious. I buy them in Chicago at Whole Foods or Treasure Island. Trader Joe's sells a lean (Niman Ranch) Applewood Ham that crisps up nicely on a hot griddle. Plan for 2 links or slices per person and serve family-style on a small platter.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weight Watchers Cuts Carbs (but not cheeseburgers)

I recently posted this in the Pinched News column: Weight Watchers Upends Its Points System

WW is saying that the changes were necessary to reflect what science has taught is in the past ten years about how the body handles protein, fat and carbs.

The chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International said, “Fifteen years ago we said a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you ate 100 calories of butter or 100 calories of chicken, it was all the same. Now, we know that is not the case, in terms of how hard the body has to work to make that energy available. And even more important is that where that energy comes from affects feelings of hunger and fullness.”

The president and chief executive described a flaw in the old system this way: “You could be holding an apple in one hand, which was two points, and you could be holding a 100-calorie snack pack of Oreos in the other hand, which was also two points."

In the new WW, fruits and veggies are now point free. And processed foods have seen their point values increase. That sounds ok, though unlimited fruit is not a good idea for anyone trying to shed pounds.

What I don't understand is why under the new system members are now awarded more daily points. Those Oreos went from counting an 2 out of 22 daily points to 3 out of 31, only the slightest increase in overall value. Unbelievably the point value for a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger is unchanged at 12 points, making it worth less of a dieter's daily points.

A diet plan that encourages fast food consumption? No wonder WW is a billion dollar empire.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Your Cream Cheese Frosting Was Lumpy

There is one way to avoid lumps in your frosting and hardly any cookbooks mention it. You must cream the butter very well in the first step. Almost every baker knows once you get lumps in your frosting no amount of mixing will smooth it out.

Most cookbooks instruct you to ensure the butter and cream cheese are at room temperature before mixing. If you did this to the best of your ability and still had lumpy frosting what happened is that your butter did not soften up enough first.  Since butter and cream cheese warm at different rates the best method is to cream the heck out of the butter before adding the cream cheese. Then it's foolproof. Creaming the butter for several minutes softens and warms it sufficiently so it combines smoothly with the remaining ingredients.

Cream cheese frosting is good on a variety of cakes and cupcakes, especially banana, carrot and coconut. This is a good time to address all the "cupcake hater" accusations I received over the weekend. I didn't explain myself well in the cupcake post. I only hate bad cupcakes. If someone is going to go through the trouble of opening a store and only sell cupcakes they ought to be well made. For a perfect seasonal cupcake bake up some Pumpkin Cupcakes and frost them with Cream Cheese Frosting. You will not be disappointed.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Print recipe only here

Makes 2 cups - or enough to frost a 9-inch, two-layer cake or 24 cupcakes

4 oz unsalted butter, softened a bit
1 # cream cheese (Philly's is always the best bet)
2 ¼ cups sifted powdered sugar
1-2 t vanilla extract

Cream the butter well, using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer. You want to spin it for about 3-5 minutes, minimum. Plan to stop and scrape the bowl with a spatula a couple of times so that the butter creams throughly. When it's ready for the next step it will have lightened in color and look fluffy. Don't proceed until it matches that description.

Add the cream cheese and mix well for another few minutes.

Add the vanilla extract and mix. Then add the powdered sugar and mix on low speed until just combined.

It's now finished. Just don't frost anything that's still warm or you'll have a mess on your hands.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Cupcakes

Before the advent of the cupcake our diminutive ancestors roamed the planet with no shops to cater to their hunger for a 500-calorie snack. They would peer into the windows of bakeries like little match girls, regular cake being much too big for their tiny hands.

The present thriving cupcake culture is surprising for two reasons. First, we're getting serious about obesity for the first time and second, most cupcakes are yucky. I'm all for an occasional celebratory indulgence, but make it an excellent one. We took a trip to Chicago's Sprinkles shop last week and left underwhelmed. The cake part was bland and the frosting part too sweet. The Red Velvet cupcake was the best but would have improved tremendously had they used better quality cocoa powder in the cake and less sugar in the frosting.

Hate the cupcake not the baker
The biggest problem with the cupcake is its design. The most visually enticing cupcake boasts an generous mound of frosting. This skews the important cake-to-frosting ratio. Take a bite and you're going to end up with too much of one and not enough of the other. The best cupcake-eating technique demands breaking the cupcake in half cross-wise and sandwiching the frosting between the cake layers, destroying the visual beauty of the dessert but making it taste a lot better. This assumes the cupcake is well-made, which is not often the case. I live down the street from a purveyor whose goods are flavorless, dense and greasy. There's no good way to eat one of those.

A better indulgence is the classic layer cake:  liquor or espresso-soaked cake layered with mascarpone mousse or rum-spiked chocolate ganache, a little hazelnut praline for crunch and enrobed in bittersweet chocolate glaze. The delicate balance of flavor and texture will make you never settle for a boorish cupcake again. And you'll be supporting a real craftsman, not some yahoo with a muffin tin and a pastry bag.

Bottom line
Over the years we've supported a long line of sweet fads: Mrs. Fields, TCBY, Krispy Kreme. The cupcake's days are numbered. What's next?

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Calorie is a Calorie?

The was a story recently about a Kansas State nutrition professor who ate only convenience store snacks for two months and lost 27 pounds. His cholesterol levels* went down, too, from 214 to 184. His blood pressure remained about the same.

How? He capped his caloric intake at 1800 calories per day. That's twelve Twinkies a day. And nothing else.

It would make one think that a calorie is just a calorie, that the body is a simple machine.  For those trying to lose or gain weight, calorie math is a useful tool. Both the over- and underweight need an accurate assessment of how many calories they are consuming in a day to know how much they need to add or subtract.

But total health and fitness is not about calorie math. While our bodies need a certain number of calories per day, the balance of calories we consume from fat, protein, and carbs effects every internal sytem. Shedding pounds is usually a good thing, but the volume of refined carbs and absence of fiber involved in the professor's diet is a come-hither call for diabetes and colon disease. Let's face it - with one hand rooting around in a bag of Doritos, disease is the only thing that will end up on your doorstep.

Come on, Professor! There's more to health than prancing around in skinny jeans, chain smoking, and dating rock stars.

* I'm not well-versed in cholesterol math. Here's the stats from Haub's Facebook page:

Total cholesterol: Pre=214; wk10=184
LDL-C: pre=153; wk10=123
HDL-C: pre=37; wk10=46
TC/HDL ratio: pre=5.8; wk10=4.0
TG:HDL ratio: pre=3.3; wk10=1.6
Glucose: pre=94; wk10=75
Blood Pressure: pre=108/71; wk10=104/76

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Must. Have. This. Knife.

Yours doesn't have to be purple. It also comes in red, blue, yellow and green.

My orange Kuhn Rikon paring knife goes on every picnic, tucked away in my pretty neoprene lunchbox. The lovely orange is easy to find in the grass or in a crowded drawer at home. And the sheath is a lifesaver; the blades are wonderfully sharp for inexpensive knifes. You can toss it into a drawer and not compromise the blade or the hand that goes in search of it.

I've been coveting my sister's serrated version since I made its acquaintance last summer. Breaking bread is so much more civilized when cutlery is involved. If your idea of the best summer picnic involves a crusty baguette, a home grown tomato and a ball of fresh mozzarella then the serrated knife is your BFF.  Everyone knows that you need a serrated knife for bread, but it's also the best choice for a tomato and it will delicately slice fresh mozzarella without squishing it.

The mere existence of a serrated KR had eluded me. Now I find out there's a darling little cleaver. As if I needed hindrances to out-of-doors cheese parties. If any of my Chitown peeps find me huddled in the park clutching a sack from Pastoral and a crusty loaf from Bennison's they might consider keeping their distance, as I'll also be in possession of a purple cleaver and not inclined to share.

The knife's capacity for actual cleaving is untested. It may do well with a small wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano but if you want to chop up a 10-pound block of Cocoa Barry bittersweet, I suspect this is not your tool.

That's all.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Culinary delights in the City of Light

Stars in the sky over Luxembourg Gardens
I've been to Paris three times. The first time was when I was ten. On that trip I got sick from fois gras, indulged in glace à la fraise and café au lait and thought nothing could ever top a basketful of croissants. It was also when I began a lifetime fondness for mussels.

The second time was last summer. This time I was the parent of a ten year old. We trotted all over, sampled sorbet from a variety of vendors, swooned over Laduree macarons, and delighted in shady parks for picnics. One night after tucking our children into their beds, my husband and I opened the windows of our Juliet balcony, pushed two desk chairs up close and uncorked a bottle of Bordeaux, toasting our good fortune for that delightful moment.

When we started planning a trip to celebrate our anniversary this fall I think we both wanted to return to Paris but thought the other one would not. In my memory, we sort of floated it to each other simultaneously, without expectation. Whenever I make what I assume someone will think is a lousy suggestion, I sort of open my eyes really wide, raise my eyebrows, and grimace with one side of my mouth. It's not a good look. I suspect it disarms my opponent, who will not hear the suggestion but instead take pity on the wretch before him and just do whatever she said. This is how we end up at lots of parties.

Anyway, we went to Paris last month and picked right up where we left 14 months earlier with cool Beaujolais, fall picnics, and tromping from droit to gauche and back again. The best dinner was a monumentally savory Coq au Vin on the left bank. There's a story there; the Coq au Vin was actually my second choice. I owe a debt of gratitude to our waiter for translating my first choice, Rognons de Veau. I love veal (veau) so I assumed Rognons meant Chop-of-a-lifetime when, in point of fact, it means kidney. I made that same weird face at the waiter's suggestion that it was quite good (weird face can be also employed as a reaction to a lousy suggestion) and requested the Coq. That meal turned out to be the dish-of-a-lifetime. I've been trying to recreate it this side of the Seine but haven't come close to matching the depth of flavor of the Parisian masterpiece.

The other food take-away from Paris 2010: Medjool dates. I knew dates to be the sweet, chewy, flavorless nubs my mom added to oatmeal. I had never eaten a whole date. The Medjool ones I encountered in Paris were unbelievably delicate. The little pit inside surrendered its hold on the fruit without a fight, unlike the insouciant apricot pit whose aloofness toward his host is cause for one gentleman of my acquaintance to mistrust the fruit entirely.

Anyhoo, Medjool dates have joined the ranks of Favorite Fruit. It's a short list - only cherries and blueberries occupy it. The criteria to make the list: it takes discipline (sometimes force) to make me stop eating the candidate. I bought myself a small carton at Whole Foods upon our return home. They were good. The Parisian ones were no doubt the Jumbo variety. Those are the cream of the crop. Santa takes suggestions, right?

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Lean, Green Braised Mexican Pork Tenderloin

Photo courtesy
I've been tinkering with this recipe for awhile and finally have it right where I want it, with tomatillos instead of tomatoes and adding a long, slow braise to the cooking method. The result is a fragrant and flavorful stew with lean pork that falls apart. I've honestly never had pork tenderloin that was this tender.

Rick Bayless wrote the original version. It's in his fantastic Mexican Everyday cookbook. We enjoyed his version, but it didn't deliver on its promise. The meat wasn't tender enough and the bland dish belied the flavorful ingredients that went into it. Sorry, Rick. But you'd agree that this is really good.

To make a bigger feast, I made Chipotle Shrimp as an appetizer (and chips and guacamole) and served the braised tenderloin with Black Beans and warmed corn tortillas. But you could omit all that for an easier weeknight meal.

This would cook up quite well in a slow cooker, too - but you still have to brown and saute. If you are a Dutch oven-user, a 3-quart covered pot is all you'll need.

Braised Mexican Pork Tenderloin
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

Note: Start this around 2:30 and enjoy a wonderful meal a few hours later. You won't be cooking that entire time - but the pork will.

1 to 1 ½ pounds pork tenderloin
2 T canola oil
2 fresh poblano peppers
1 medium onion
3 garlic cloves, pressed
5-6 tomatillos
3/4 cup beef broth OR 2/3 cup water
1 t hickory smoke
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt

Corn tortillas, to eat alongside

Preheat broiler.

Remove husks from tomatillos, rinse, and place on a sheet pan. Broil for about 5-6 minutes, turning midway, until browned.

Roast the peppers over an open flame or under a broiler under they are uniformly blackened and have softened a bit. You can do this right on your stovetop by setting the peppers directly above the flame.

When done, place in a bowl and cover. Allow them to cool.

Turn down oven to 200F

Peel and halve the onion and cut it crosswise into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Reserve.

Rub the blackened skin off the poblanos, remove the stems and seeds inside and rinse under water to remove the excess charred skin and seeds. Slice into long strips, about 1/4-inch wide, and then chop into pieces about two inches in length. Reserve.

Pat the tenderloin dry with paper towels and trim away all visible fat. Cut the tenderloin into 1-inch cubes and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt.

Heat the canola oil in a Dutch oven or large skillet (12 inches). And pork (do this in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding) and brown all over. Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Add the onion and poblano strips to the same pot and saute over a medium flame for 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another 2 minutes. Add the tomatillos, smashing them up with a wooden spoon. Add beef broth (or water), Worcesteshire, and hickory smoke and bring to a boil. Cover and transfer to the oven. Cook for 2-3 hours.

Add cilantro and taste for seasoning, adding more salt as needed. Serve with warmed corn tortillas.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Big Bad Brother: How the USDA is killing you

I'm so glad this got front-page coverage:  While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales

Essentially, the USDA (the nutrition police behind the food pyramid) has been talking out of both sides of its mouth, advising Americans to cut dairy fat while their marketing arm works with restaurants to increase the amount of cheese in menu options. Turns out if Domino's has a pizza with 40% more cheese Americans will eat at Domino's.

If that wasn't sneaky enough, they have financed studies aimed at documenting how dairy fat can help a person lose weight (actually, it can't, according to other research). So we pour nonfat milk on our granola in the morning and then say yes to sour cream and cheddar at Chipotle at lunch.

It's a sign of progress that Americans now prefer lowfat and nonfat milk. Whole milk isn't even used at Starbucks anymore; 2% is the norm.  But all that skimming leaves dairy farmers (and the government that subsidizes them) with an excess of cream on their hands. That excess is turned ino butter and cheese. And it's got to go somewhere.

The article reports that the nutrition committee of the USDA this summer released new guidelines on saturated fat intake that affirm the way I've been cooking along for as long as I've had a family to cook for: that saturated fat not exceed 15 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet. If  2,000 calories is about 500 calories too many for you, you really should not be exceeding 10-12 grams of saturated fat in a day. Allow me to put that into perspective for you:  one large Chipotle chicken burrito on a 13-inch flour tortilla with black beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, and salsa has 18 grams of saturated fat (per Livestrong/The Daily Plate). By either caloric guideline you've already maxed out your saturated fat allowance and it's only lunchtime.

Read more about caloric intake and longevity here.

And I don't mean to harsh on Chitpotle. I really like Chipotle. I use them as as example because they seem like a reasonable lunchtime option. Take that burrito, remove the tortilla, sour cream and cheese and you're down to 3 grams of saturated fat. That's more like it. (I used as source.)

Bottom line, Uncle Sam has cream all over his hands. We've got to take nutrition into our own.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fajita Peppers and Tips for Making Leftovers Taste Better

There's no microwave in the Pinch kitchen, so leftovers go straight to the skillet for reheating. I'm a fan of the skillet and have become adept at resurrecting meals. The best trick I figured out was a means of reheating pasta that didn't leave it fried or pasty. It's water. Heat about 1/4 cup of water in a skillet. Bring it to a boil, then add your leftovers and stir until nicely hot. You can add more water if you need, but go slowly. Overcooked pasta is blechk. Anyway, today's lunch featured leftover fajita peppers and flank steak from the other night's fajita party. And a smidgen of the cotija I snagged at Trader Joe's recently.

Cheese sidebar: For my favorite domestic and imported cheeses I usually go straight to Pastoral. Whole Foods revamped their cheese department when they moved into the super sized location south of North Ave - and for the better. I had sworn off their old cheese department because everything I bought was stifled and off-tasting. But they're now a reliable source when the need arises for a supple triple creme.

Where were we? Cotija! If you haven't ever crumbled some on your fajitas, I highly recommend it. Most versions are pretty firm, you basically grate it. It's really a whole heck of a lot like Ricotta Salata, which I also recommend giving a try. The latter you would sort of crumble or peel atop an open panini, or a serving of pasta. Finding cotija at Trader Joe's was a total treat since that's my source for all regular cheese - gorgonzola, cheddar, fontina, gruyere, all cheeses that appear as supporting flavors in healthy meals. Examples? The Pinch House Salad features a bit of gongonzola; Chanterelle Pizzas - a great fall meal with chanterelles in season now - feature a light sprinkle of fontina; Ham & Gruyere panini are a favorite weekend lunch, especially in the colder months. The cheddar  - Tilamook medium - is around for the kids.

But we were really talking about the Fajita Peppers.  I've been making my peppers the same way for several years. They're smokey and sizzle up nicely in a cast iron pan. I serve them along side grilled chicken or flank steak, with a bowl of guacamole and some lightly charred fresh corn tortillas. Or atop a small bowl of black beans for a scrumptious and hearty lunch. Today, I just heated them up in a hot skillet with nothing added - and they were as glorious as they were the other night.

Fajita Peppers
Serves 4-6

1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow onion
1 jalapeno
Optional: 2-3 Roma tomatoes

2 T canola oil
1 t liquid smoke (I like hickory)
>1 T Worcestershire sauce
Few turns fresh ground pepper
Pinch of kosher salt

First, combine the canola oil, liquid smoke, Worcesteshire, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl:

Then, preheat a medium to large cast iron pan over medium high heat. Note - I don't have issues with tomatoes in my cast iron pan. If you do, use a different skillet.

Prep your veggies:

Halve the onion, peel, and slice crosswise.
Trim red and green bell peppers to thin strips (about 1 ½ inches long and about 2-3 mm thick).
Trim jalapeños a bit thinner so that they can be avoided if necessary.
Quarter the tomatoes. Remove the seed gunk and slice quarters in half, lengthwise

Transfer all the veggies to the mixing bowl and toss to coat.

Add the veggies and saute over a good flame for about 4-6 minutes until softened and a wee bit caramelized.

Serve and savor.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Are Your Cookbooks Making You Fat?

As my high school social studies teacher used to say, You bet your sweet bip.

In the Pinch kitchen, food has a triple mandate: healthy, delicious, and family friendly. Everything cooked here has to be a ten in each category, or it doesn't get made. The average cookbook has a taste mandate. Food will taste great, but it may take you awhile to produce, and it's going to contain unhealthy fats, excessive calories, and probably too much sugar or salt.

It goes the other way, too. If health is your priority, your food will meet different criteria, umami not among them. Plus, vegetarian fare can be loaded with saturated fat.

Concerned your cookbooks are adding to the girth of your sweet bip? Here's what you should look out for:

What cut? - You don't have to limit animal protein in your diet to eat a heart healthy diet. You just have to choose your cuts carefully. Leg of lamb is very lean, compared to chops or shoulder. Flank steak trumps skirt steak, and ground beef comes in a variety of leanness. It's no surprise that for poultry, white meat trumps dark. Pork loin and tenderloin beat everything else porcine. One reason I love Trader Joe's is that I can check the nutrition data on meat.

Trim the fat/Drain the fat - This is a hugely important step in lowering the unhealthy and unnecessary fats in your diet. Leg of lamb, which starts lean, should still spend some time under the knife before it's cooked. Unwrap the whole thing, separating it in its natural places and cut out everything white and unsightly. You can then tie it back up with butcher's twine (but not before adding some rosemary, salt and feta, or maybe a smidge of Gorgonzola), or leave it butterflied since it grills up so quickly.

Bacon has tremendous flavor - go ahead and use it sparingly (like use a slice or two) and trim the heck out of it, discarding all the bits that are white or translucent. And drain it after cooking. Same goes for the ground beef used for tacos. Start with a 96/4 (superlean) ground beef. After you brown it, drain it. The purpose is twofold here - you don't want wet meat in a taco shell, and following this step removes even more of the fat. Especially in this case where there is so many flavors (cumin! chili! jalapeño! lime! avocado!) the extra fat is not going to bring anything to the table.

Too much of a good thing - Olive oil is a wonderful thing but don't be mislead: like all oils it is 100% fat. One tablespoon contains over 100 calories. Let 3 T be the maximum addition of oil into anything you make - sauces, dressings, etc.

Oils are shifty when exposed to heat, meaning they become harmful ingredients. Instead of following a recipe that directs you to saute some garlic in a cup of olive oil (that's sixteen tablespoons - you do the calorie math), do this: use a scant bit of oil - like 1-2 tablespoons, or saute in an oil with a higher smoke point, like canola or safflower oil, and add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce at the end of cooking. It will give your sauce a velvety smooth finish, not unlike the beurre monté championed by the French.

Further, all oils are not created equally. Canola and walnut oils win bonus points for being exceptionally low in saturated fat. Any pan frying you can't talk yourself out of should be done in canola.

Removing skin from poultry before cooking. Chicken breasts are most lean when the skin is removed. That means cooking them without the skin. Don't worry about losing moisture. Sure, if you overcook it a turkey or chicken breast will dry out, but that will happen with the skin on too. A marinades will help with moisture, and allow you to control the fat content. I never cook a chicken breast that didn't get at least 20 minutes in a basic olive oil/tamari marinade). I take the skin off turkey too, whole and split breasts. If  you're especially anxious about not overdoing a turkey breast simply cover the breast with an broth- or olive oil-soaked cheesecloth. For weeknight turkey meals,  just rub the surface with a little olive oil and few shakes of salt and pepper or a blended seasoning like the Spice House's Milwaukee Iron.

Cheese - if you're using more than one ounce of cheese per person in a given dish, then that recipe gets low points on the health scale. One ounce is not a lot. Cheese should absolutely be enjoyed - just enjoy it sparingly. I prefer to forgo dairy where it's not needed (like on those tacos) and instead enjoy a selection of the world's finest as a cheese course now and then.

Butter - At best, you can make substitutions, or at least compromise with a blend of butter and olive oil.

Cream - Please. Only the truly disciplined have read this far, and the truly discipled aren't cooking with cream.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

I Brined a Pork Loin and I Liked It

Oh, this was good. I adapted it from a site I recently stumbled across, Leite's Culinaria. The LC staff included  cumin and other spices I wasn't in the mood for. Plus, even though I've marinated plenty, this was my first foray into brining. I wanted to really get a sense of how the brine would change a regular pork loin and determine if it was worth the extra step without being thrown off by all that cumin. I wasn't disappointed. Pork loin is lean, and easy to ruin. This recipe, which results in a beautiful, moist and flavorful roast, will definitely be repeated.

Brined, glazed and grilled boneless pork loin sounds like more trouble than it is. The biggest effort is making the brine and soaking the pork loin the day before you plan to eat it. In this case, I brined on Saturday and we dined on Sunday. It made for a classic Sunday dinner and didn't require much of my Sunday to put it on the table.

And how about that board dressing (see the end of the recipe)! Another first...

Brined, Glazed and Grilled Pork Loin
Print recipe only here


for the brine:
1 cups water
2 T kosher salt
2 T brown sugar
salt and pepper
1-2 T rosemary ( I used dried since i had it)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, smashed

For the glaze:
1/3 cup apricot or peach preserves
2 t country style dijon mustard
2 t soy or tamari
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t cider vinegar
salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bag or bowl. Score pork loin in a criss-cross pattern (about 1/4-inch deep and about 3/4-inch wide cuts). Cover and marinate 6-24 hours. 24 is better.

When ready to cook, preheat grill on low setting.

Remove pork loin from the brine and dry with paper towels. Coat with 1 T canola oil.

Grill 45 min, turning once.

Combine the glaze in a medium sized bowl or dish:

Remove pork from grill and toss to coat in the glaze. Return to grill for another 45 min or until it registers 160 on a thermometer. Remove from the grill and let it rest ten minutes.

Meanwhile prepare a board dressing on a serving plate:
2 T olive oil
2 T chopped parlsey
salt and pepper

Slice pork loin and coat with board dressing. Serve.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yelp, Schmelp or Eater, Beware That Recommendation

Yelp is no longer a resource for me. If I'm in Uptown and I need a pizza, stat, I just spam qualified friends in Uptown until someone weighs in with a recommendation. "Qualified friends?" you ask? In this case, friends who only eat good pizza.

Yelp's lack of appeal is not about the obvious payola risks. On a side note, apparently the company has applied a new "strategy" to prevent the practice. The strategy seems to involve not selling merchants the ability bury negative feedback. This is remarkably similar to preventing the exclusion of certain people from serving in the military by not excluding certain people from serving in the military, and then calling it a strategy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My mistrust of Yelp has to do with taste: how can you be certain your reviewer is capable of steering you to the best frozen yogurt joint in Lincoln Park? Oh, that's not a good example; they're all the same. But mid-level Italian restaurants? Listen to the wrong person and you'll find yourself faced with a 10-page menu co-written by the Saturated Fat Farmers of America with nary a cream-free option. Side note: Volare, in downtown Chicago, is where I send anyone seeking basic Italian, as opposed to a never-ending pasta bowl or a "Celebration of Cheese."

Anyway, as with movie reviews, the person to take restaurant advice from does not have to be a professional reviewer, and should not be someone who loved something you wouldn't consider finishing, or starting for that matter. Like I recently told a friend who asked if I had a recipe for Creamed Chicken Chili, just because we're friends doesn't mean we share a love of Creamed Chicken Chili. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fit to be Tossed: Five what-could-have-beens for wasted salad greens

I threw away a bag of baby romaine today. That never happens. We eat a ton of salad, so I buy a lot each week. This particular bag got lost in the southwest corner of the fridge and the leaves had unified, Terminator-style, into a solid mass. Only they didn't come out fighting. They just slunk into the trash, muttering gloomily like Eeyore. Poor dears. They would have made a fine vehicle for any one of the following five dressings.

No one should have to rely on bottled dressings.  Fresher is way better, and way healthier (less sugar, salt and better quality of ingredients). Making a good dressing is a good way to develop your palate.  Get used to tasting your dressing as you go. You might find you like more or less acid, or more or less sugar. Play with any of these and experiment to find your own House recipe.

Riffs on Dressing for a Family of Four

Combine all ingredients in a large salad bowl. Just prior to service, add washed, spun greens and toss.

1. The House Standard
3 T olive oil
2 T red wine or white wine vinegar
Pinch salt, pepper and sugar
1/2 garlic clove, pressed or finely chopped
1 t crumbled blue cheese, mashed into everything else
optional: thinly sliced ripe pear (omit the sugar if you use pear)

2. Good with Mexican fare
3 T olive oil or canola oil or a mixture
2 T lime juice
Pinch salt, pepper and sugar
1/2 garlic clove, pressed or finely chopped
1 T cilantro, finely chopped
1 T finely chopped onion or shallot

3. Good on a chopped salad
3 T olive oil
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 t dijon mustard
1 t honey
1 T finely grated Parmesan (or, omit parm and add one green onion, finely chopped)
Pinch salt and pepper

4. A light summertime dressing
3 T olive oil
2 T white wine or champagne vinegar
1/2 garlic clove, pressed or finely chopped
Pinch salt, pepper and sugar

5. Good with Asian fare
1/4 cup canola oil or a mixture or peanut and canola oils
2 T rice wine vinegar
1 t sesame oil
1 T soy sauce

2 t sugar
Juice of half a lime
1 T fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 T shallot, finely chopped
1/2 garlic clove, pressed or finely chopped

optional: 1 t chili sauce
Pinch salt and pepper

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Foods we Rinse

What do you rinse? Turns out I rinse all the wrong foods. Essentially, if you're going to cook it, you don't need to rinse it - any bacteria will be killed by the heat. If you're eating it raw, like veggies and lettuces, you should rinse. Other things, like rinsing starch off potatoes or rice, is a matter of personal preference, not health or hygiene.

Here's what I have been rinsing - and not rinsing - in the Pinch kitchen:

Rice: hardly ever, but like potatoes, below, the final, cooked product (for white basmati) is a little nicer when I've rinsed it first.
Lentils: never, and I have yet to find a rock in my masoor dal.
Lettuce:  sometimes, depends on the variety.
Potatoes: hardly ever, but I prefer how my oven fries taste when rinsed after cutting. But then they need to be dried well, and this is a a time sink, so I rarely do it.
Poultry: always. I buy organic, skinless, boneless chicken breasts and they feel slimy or slightly sticky out of the bag.
Fish: always, for approximately the same reason as chicken, above.
Beef: don't cook it often, but never rinse it. It doesn't feel like it needs rinsing the way chicken and fish do.

The foods I do rinse (fish, chicken breasts, even my Thanksgiving turkey) are foods that for which rinsing is not recommended on account of cross-contamination and the thing about killing them with heat. Why is it I have an easier time eating a dead salmon than the dead bacteria coating her lovely body?
See Safe Food Handling, from the USDA

The thing I'm most lazy about is lettuce. My feeling generally is, if it's got dirt on it, I'll wash it. I forget about bacteria on veggies because it doesn't gross me out the way bacteria on fish and poultry do. But it's bacteria all the same. It's hard to believe, in the age of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers, that a little water could rinse dangerous bacteria off our salad greens.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Favorite Fall Breakfasts

Breakfast quinoa? That might not be a bad idea, though I'd try Heidi's or Martha's recipe first. I've only ever made quinoa as a savory side dish. Following Kristine's recommendation, I often add sliced almonds just before serving. But If I cooked it in nonfat milk, and added toasted almonds, and a handful of those plump sour cherries I like so much I bet it'd be a great breakfast.

I am a big fan of hot cereal though I don't eat a wide variety of them. I love Cream of Wheat, but oatmeal is my go-to on a cold morning. Or when I'm at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. They make really good oatmeal there. I bought some of their stoneground oats last fall when I was sure I wouldn't make it through another Chicago winter without them. It's an imported Irish product, Macroom. I'd kind of like to do a taste test against a quicker-cooking version I sampled from Trader Joe's this summer. The Macroom version, in addition to arriving in a nearly impenetrable can (I had to look online for instructions on how to open it) takes forever to cook. This is the thing about breakfast: I'm lazy about it because I don't really care enough. I'm rarely that hungry in the morning, and by the time I am hungry I no longer have time to spend cooking.

My kids favorite school-morning breakfasts remain French Toast (I make it on a sprouted wheat bread, like Alvarado Street), corn bread, and pancakes. My favorite cold breakfast is light granola, which I eat most mornings. It's got the right balance of honey, nuts and seeds and is so nourishing. I make a batch of it every few weeks. But I'm needing a change. I sense an Egg Mess in the offing! Or an Egg Soft Taco with Frank's Red Hot and Parsley.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Substituting Meat for Carbs? Death First!

Quinoa with Celery, Leek, Red Pepper and Almonds
This came across my desk the other day: Nutrition: Risky Additions to a Low-Carb Diet. I've been hopeful that a study would come out that discouraged people from indulging in sausage and bacon while curbing carbs. And now it has.

The study's conclusion:
A low-carbohydrate diet based on animal sources was associated with higher all-cause mortality in both men and women, whereas a vegetable-based low-carbohydrate diet was associated with lower all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality rates.
How then shall we eat? Curb carbs, but replace those calories with protein from beans and nuts or lean animal sources. Here's five great menus for the week that will get you eating along those lines:

• Indian Feast with Tandoori Chicken, Curried Lentils, Cauliflower Curry and Naan
• Grilled Salmon with Artichokes and Quinoa
Penne alla Greca and a Big Greek Salad
Tortilla Soup with Grilled Lime-Cilantro Chicken
Flank Steak Sandwich with Slow Roasted Tomatoes and Arugula

Further reading: Lean Proteins - 10 Delicious Sources

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Like a Bunch of Monkeys

Monkey bread isn't that difficult an undertaking. It just requires a lot of rising time. The best way to do it is to make the dough and form the bread the night before you plan to serve it (assuming, since it's a breakfasty sort of a thing, that you'll be serving it before noon the next day). Then, you can cover it loosely with plastic wrap and set it in the fridge for its final rise.

When you wake up, remove it from the fridge while you preheat your oven. Then bake as directed. And do note baking times. Monkey bread gets baked in a tube - and only a tube. If you use an light gray aluminum pan it will bake for about an hour. If you use a darker, heavier tube pan, it will only need to bake for about 40 minutes.

This recipe is adapted from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. If you only have room on your shelves for one baking cookbook, this should be it. Anyway, the Pinch version has lots less sugar.

Pinched Monkey Bread
Print recipe only here

For the dough:
4 1/2 t yeast (2 pkg)
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 t salt
4 oz unsalted butter, melted
3 eggs
about 5 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 t cinnamon
4 oz unsalted butter, melted
1 cup toasted chopped pecans (optional)

Combine yeast, milk, water and sugar in a mixing bowl and let dissolve for about five minutes. Add salt, butter and eggs and whisk well. Add 2 1/2 cups flour and mix well. Add another 2 1/2 cups flour and beat on mixer with hook attachment for about 2-3 minutes.

Turn out onto a floured counted and knead for a couple of minutes. Then return to the mixing bowl and let rest for 10 minutes.

Using dough hook again, mix dough for about 5 minutes (alternately, turn back onto the counter and knead for a long, long time - like 8-10 minutes), adding more flour as necessary. Then place in a clean, greased bowl, cover and allow to rise until double in size.

Punch down and let rest another 10 minutes.

Combine the sugars and cinnamon in a medium bowl and pour the warm, melted butter to a sheet pan. Grease a 10-inch tube pan quite well.

Tear off golf-ball sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls. You should form about 30 balls. As you form them, transfer them to the sheet pan and roll them around in the melted butter. Once all the dough is formed, roll the balls one at a time in the sugar and transfer to the greased tube pan. Once you have the bottom of the pan covered, sprinkle about a third of pecans on top. Keep layering the pan with sugared dough and pecans until you've used everything up. Sprinkle the top with some or all the remaining sugar and cover loosely with foil or plastic wrap. At this point you can refrigerate the dough overnite. Or, set it aside to rise to the top of the pan.

Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for 40-60 minutes, depending on the pan you've used (see above). Let cool for about ten minutes before inverting it onto a serving plate. I like to invert it again, so that the top is the side that was on top as it baked. Allow it to cool for at least 15 minutes before allowing any monkeys to tear into it.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Signs You are Not a Foodie

Seriously, I am so sick of the term. When I entered the profession fifteen years ago, not many people used it and the ones who did were credentialed, either as professionals or passionate cooks. Now everyone who eats thrice daily is a foodie.

I don't call myself a foodie for a few reasons. One is heirloom tomatoes, which I'm embarrassed to admit I just don't care for. Another is condiments including, but not limited to, Heinz ketchup and Hellman's/Best Food's mayonnaise. The last is Philadelphia cream cheese. In each case, the product equals the brand. Oh, I'll add Heinz malt vinegar here, too, since I can't possibly shake anything else onto my oven fries.

Perhaps someone with a very sophisticated palate would not insist upon zero variation in the taste and texture of their tomatoes, condiments or cream cheese. Maybe only a real foodie can appreciate Zingerman's fresh cream cheese or Aunt Fern's homemade ketchup. Maybe only real foodies are delighted by non-conforming tomatoes.  But I don't. So I cannot be a foodie.

Related articles by Zemanta
The Ketchup Conundrum (
Heinz vs. Homemade Ketchup Taste Tests (

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Best Fortune Cookie, Ever

Fortune CookieImage by C.P.Storm via Flickr
Fortune cookies are usually a disappointment - humorless, meaningless fortunes encased in a yucky cookie. We still play along, even though I'm not one to put any stock in fortune-telling. When our family is dining at the kind of establishment that issues cookies along with the bill (fine-dining, according to the younger set) we crack them open, take turns reading the fortunes aloud and congratulate the recipient of the best fortune. Then, the children jockey for our cookies and eat every last crumb.

A few restaurants, notably Honga's in Telluride, CO, have yummy fortune cookies. My husband is generous and will still give his to the kids, but I eat mine. One evening this summer, I opened my cookie to this message:

You are the master of every situation.

How awesome is that?!? I tucked it into my wallet and now have it in a visible spot on my desk. It makes me laugh. And it makes me recall another fortune, one that practically got me cooking in the first place. I had been working at a public relations firm that represented several chefs and restaurants and was acutely aware that my clients were having way more fun at work than I was. I had spoken with the pastry chef who made my wedding cake about an apprenticeship but felt hesitant about leaving my PR job. And then one day, following lunch with my husband, I received this:

"Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all"
- Harriet van Horne

Sometimes a little whisper is all it takes. I tucked that quote away and soon thereafter quit my job and began that pastry apprenticeship, thus setting into motion the chain of events that would lead me to becoming the master of every situation.

What's your best fortune, ever?

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Libertarian at the Salad Bar

Remember in middle school when every paper you wrote somewhere contained the phrase, "Webster's dictionary defines..."?

And remember in college when every earnest letter to the editor began:  As a... [fill in occupation/major, ethnicity, gender, eye color, in any order]?

My high school reunion and birthday are nigh, so I'm feeling my age. I was thinking that if I started this piece with the Webster's bit or, "As a brown-eyed woman who usually eats three meals daily..." it might make me sound younger. Or daft.

Anyway, Webster's Dictionary defines salad as, "A preparation of vegetables, as lettuce, celery, water cress, onions, etc., usually dressed with salt, vinegar, oil, and spice." In my house, a salad should only be made from one of three things: red leaf, green leaf or Romaine. Additions (red onion, grape tomatoes, English cucumber) are viewed with skepticism, at best, but more commonly as a Libertarian views federal spending: "disappointing and troubling," in case you don't have time for the link.

Avocado salad is such an offense (it contains black beans!) that I really only make it for myself or like-palated friends. If you're not averse to the combining and tossing of vegetables you will just love it.

Avocado Salad
Print recipe only here

Serves 6-8 as a side dish

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained (dump them into a mesh strainer or colander and run water over them)
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
zest of one lime
juice of 2 limes
1-2 T good olive oil
1 t kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, pressed
2 ripe avocados cut into 1/2-inch dice (at point of service - do not prep any earlier)

Place the tomatoes, yellow pepper, black beans, red onion, jalapeño peppers, and lime zest in a large bowl. Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, and cayenne pepper and pour over the vegetables. Toss well.

Just before you're ready to serve the salad, cut the avocados and gently stir nto the salad. Check the seasoning and serve at room temperature.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heatwave, shmeatwave: On insulated shopping bags

Two things. One, there is nothing grosser than shmeat. And two, a large, soft insulated shopping bag has been the hero of my summer.

I got my bag this spring at Trader Joes, thinking it would be a great road trip cooler. When I was a kid we had a massive steel Coca-Cola cooler that my parents placed strategically between my sister and me on long road trips. It provided a nice barrier but it was bulky. Actually, I bet the old cooler isn't really all that big. A piece in Vanity Fair about Mad Men mentions the difficulty prop masters have had procuring 1960-sized fruit and pastries. Everything - even apples! -  is supersized these days. Sigh. Anyway, I like that my new bag is collapsible. I can probably load up my new cooler as much as the bulletproof container of my youth, but when it's empty we can tuck it out of the way. We embarked on a 22-hour trip last month with enough scrumptious fresh food and cold drinks so that our stops were spent stretching our legs and chasing our dogs around patches of grass.

The insulated bag has gotten way more use than just that trip. I started keeping it in the car immediately after purchasing it, and realized it made a wonderful shopping bag. Now when I stock up on smoothie fruit or ice cream I don't worry about thawing issues. And since it zips closed I don't have to worry about a certain curious pup snouting around and licking everything. Also, when empty it holds all my other reusable grocery bags quite nicely.

In interesting retailer vs. consumer news, the town council in Telluride, Colorado, has been working dilligently to figure out a way to reduce usage of plastic grocery bags. Local merchants, who have opposed bans of or customer fees for paper or plastic bags, may find they're the ones left holding the bag. Council members are drafting an ordinance that would ban grocers from supplying most plastic bags and impose restrictions on the content of paper bags they are permitted to supply, requiring that they be completely recyclable, contain 100% recycled content, and contain no old-growth fiber, according to The Watch.

The seed for the ban came from a summer 2008 Telluride vs. Aspen bag challenge where the towns competed to see who could use more reusable bags. Telluride won, and combined, the two towns kept an estimated 140,000 bags out of stainless steel grocery bag storage containers.

Do your part, shoppers, and bring reusable bags to the market. Especially in Telluride, where no one needs groceries to cost more than they already do.

Read more:
The Watch Newspapers - Telluride to Impose Ban on Most Plastic Bags
abc news - Austin Weighs Plastic Bag Ban, Sparks Debate

The Aspen Times - Telluride beats Aspen in plastic bag challenge

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Fruit of the Southwest Desert

Summary Mount Garfield (right) near Grand Junc...Image via Wikipedia Food deserts, disconcerting to city dwellers who care about equal shopping opportunity for all, mean an entirely different thing in the high desert of southwest Colorado. The combination of hot summer days and cool nights makes for monkey-good peaches and corn. I don't recommend combining the two, unless you're in the mood to freak out your children.

The towns that produce my favorite summer fruits and veggies are in southwest Colorado. Palisade, just outside of Grand Junction, is famous for peaches. A bit further south towards Montrose you'll find Olathe (pronounced o-LAY-tha), which produces wonderful sweet corn. Both towns are located in the valley of the Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world. Temperatures reach into the triple digits under the hot midday sun, and drop into the 60s after dark, locking in all the sweetness you find in a good peach or ear of sweet corn.

I've spent a glorious month revisiting this beautiful part of the country, enjoying plain peaches and steamed corn on the cob, but also peach cobbler and beautiful corn salads. When I retreat to the great metropolis of Chicago I'll find solace in the fabulous (and fabulously expensive) corn salad at Trotter's to Go. Until I slingshot myself back to the city I'll be enjoying lots more produce from the high desert.

I made a peach cobbler using my basic cobbler recipe.

Peach Cobbler
Serves 6

Combine in a mixing bowl:
6-8 ripe peaches, sliced
1 T flour
2 t cinnamon sugar (or 1/4 t cinnamon and 1 1/2 t sugar
juice of half a lemon

Cobbler topping:
1 cup flour
2 T sugar
½ t baking soda
1 t baking powder
½ t salt
2 T butter, melted
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350. Transfer the fruit mixture to an 8-inch square baking dish. Those Pyrex ones are great for cobbler.

Next prepare the cobbler topping. Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Add melted butter to buttermilk and stir to combine. Add to dry, mixing with a fork very gently until just combined. The dough will be sticky – don’t worry.

Drop the dough by spoonfuls onto the fruit – try to space it out somewhat evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the crust is golden and the fruit is bubbling up all around. Serve hot or warm.

Summer Corn Salad
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

3-4 ears of sweet corn, shucked and steamed 4-5 minutes
handful grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
3-4 leaves fresh basil, stacked, rolled together and thinly sliced
2 t cider vinegar
1 1/2 t good olive oil
pinch kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

Boil water in a suitable pot to steam the corn. Shuck the ears while you wait. Combine remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Steam corn, then allow to cool to room temperature. I like to stop the cooking by submerging in icy water. Prepare yourself to make a bit of a mess as you trim off the kernels. Position an ear of corn upright on a cutting board and trim as close to the cob as you can. Add the kernels to the mixing bowl and toss well. Let sit about 10 minutes before serving, or reserve, covered, in the fridge.

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