Sunday, December 26, 2010

Profiteroles for the new year

I don't know why I got it in my head that I wanted to make profiteroles for Christmas; they are in reality a dessert I have enjoyed with varying frequency. Sometimes they can be too soft, lending little to no contrast to the ice cream within. On the other hand, I find hard profiteroles to be the absolute worst: hacking away at a tough shell, and watching your perfect scoop of ice cream shoot out the side is beyond frustrating. I always feel like pastry chefs should know better than to send out a crunchy profiterole.

However, when done well, profiteroles can be delicious and very elegant. So I decided to give them a go.

First I was going to use the detailed recipe from Baking Illustrated. But then I found Ina Garten's recipe which seemed even easier, and the lazy side of me (which is rather dominant, you may have noticed), won out.

Well, friends, this is probably not news to you, but profiteroles are ridiculously easy. I'd made pate a choux dough before, for gougeres, so I knew that in theory it shouldn't be difficult. But what a relief to find that profiteroles are even simpler than gougeres--no grating of cheese or chopping of herbs. Just butter, milk, flour, salt, and eggs. The dough takes 10 minutes.

In lieu of a pastry bag I used a ziploc with the corner snipped off, and it worked just fine to pipe the dough onto my baking sheet. I ended up with 20 puffs of medium size; in the future I'm going to make them smaller, because I like miniatures. I suppose you could also make several humongous puffs the size of hamburger buns.

I served the profiteroles with coffee and vanilla ice cream and good chocolate sauce. Of course, you could go the extra mile and make your own ice cream and sauce, but I like to keep things simple around the holidays. Really, this is the ideal dessert for entertaining: simple, quick, tasty, and while they look impressive, they require no skill or special equipment. Plus, you can make them ahead of time. In short, I suggest you ring in the new year with a batch of homemade profiteroles.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pierre Herme's salty chocolate sables

This is most likely my last post before Christmas, and since I know you all are as busy as I am, I'll keep it short. These little beauties are another takeaway from my Tante Marie class, and boy are they a bestseller: buttery chocolate sables.

"Big deal, Hungry Dog,"  you're scoffing. "We can't throw a rock without hitting a buttery chocolate cookie this time of year. Next!"

I know. Me too. And no one thinks they need another cookie recipe. But these are different. They've got tons of bittersweet chocolate plus dark cocoa and brown sugar. And the piece de resistance--fleur de sel.

My rendition of these cookies did not turn out as nicely as the ones my classmate produced a few weeks ago. His were cut into the perfect thickness and held their shape while baking. Mine spread too much and did not look as fine and architectural as his.

The husband said, as he enjoyed a short stack of them, "Who cares what they look like?"

I suppose this is where the eater and baker diverge a bit; I actually do care what they look like.  I suspect my cookies, once sliced, should have gone back in the fridge to re-chill before sliding the cookie sheets into the oven. Oh well, next time I'll know better.

In any event, they are delicious plain, or with coffee, tea, or wine. They'd be dynamite nestled alongside some good ice cream, or used for little sandwich cookies.

So no matter what you say, how much you protest, I am 100% certain you can find room in your repertoire for one more (very) good cookie.

Pierre Herme's Chocolate Sables
Makes about 3 dozen

1 1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. Dutch processed cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/2 t. baking soda
1 stick plus 3 T. butter, room temperature
2/3 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 t. fleur de sel (or 1/4 t. fine sea salt)
1 t. vanilla extract
5 oz. best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small bits

Sift together flour, cocoa, and baking soda and set aside. Put the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until very soft and creamy. Add the sugars, salt, and vanilla and beat for another 1-2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients. Mix only until the ingredients are just incorporated (it will look a bit crumbly). Work the dough as little as possible. Toss in the chocolate and mix to incorporate.

Turn the dough on to a smooth work surface and divide in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into a log that is 1 1/2 inches in diameter (as you're shaping the log, flatten it once or twice and roll it up from one long side to the other, making sure you get all the air out of the center). Wrap the logs tightly in plastic wrap and chill the in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Logs, wrapped airtight, can also be frozen for up to one month.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the rack in the center. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with a thin, sharp knife, slice rounds 1/2-inch thick from the logs. Turn the logs a quarter turn after each slice to keep the cookies round (or make the log square, like I did.) Place cookies on the prepared baking sheet, 1 inch apart. (If possible, refrigerate sliced cookies for another 15- 30 minutes to guard against spreading.) Bake 1 sheet at a time for 12 minutes. The cookies will not look done nor will they be firm but this is okay. Transfer the sheet to a rack and let the cookies rest on the sheet, about 10 minutes. Remove cookies from the sheet and let cool completely on a rack. Repeat with second sheet of cookies.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caramel-dipped pecan shortbread

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Lizzy (of the romesco sauce) and I took a baking class at Tante Marie. I've been obsessed with Tante Marie ever since I toured it five years ago when I was considering going to pastry school. While I decided against school, I've never been able to shake the feeling that spending multiple hours a day at this cozy little school would have been one of the best things in the world.

However, the life of the professional pastry chef is not for me. But that doesn't mean I can't take a class now and then.

We signed up for a Holiday Baking class, which promised that we would learn to make all kinds of delicious things, like layered chocolate peppermint cake and Thomas Keller's nutter butters.

The class was comprised of 14 people and for the actual baking we split off into pairs. Liz and I were in charge of gingerbread cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting, caramel-dipped shortbread, and a fennel and persimmon salad to be eaten as part of our savory lunch. When everything was done, we admired a spread of more than a dozen treats.

It was easy to pick out my favorites--Pierre Herme's chocolate sables with sea salt, which I will be posting about soon, and these gorgeous little shortbreads. In fact, these were the two kinds of cookies I chose to make for our family's annual baking day this past weekend.

The shortbreads are very simple to make, especially because our teacher told us not to bother rolling out the dough but instead to pinch it into pinkie-sized sticks. Easy peasy! This was also my first time making caramel, and why I was ever intimidated by it before I shall never know.

So if you're looking for a new holiday cookie, look no further. This one's a crowd pleaser.

Caramel-dipped pecan shortbread
From Tante Marie

1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. butter, room temperature
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and ground
2/3 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. salt

1/2 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 c. butter
2 T. heavy cream
pinch salt
1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 c. toasted ground pecans

For the cookies: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, butter, pecans, powdered sugar, and salt. Mix until the dough just comes together when squeezed in your hand.

Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 and set the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll to form little sticks about the size of your pinkie. Place the sticks on baking sheets, 1 inch apart from each other. Bake until barely golden, about 15 minutes, swapping the sheets on the oven racks halfway through. Place the baking sheets on racks to cool for 5 minutes, then take the cookies off the sheets and cool them completely on a rack.

For the caramel, combine the brown sugar and butter in a medium saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Let cook for 1 minute, then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the cream, salt, and powdered sugar. Dip one end of each cookie into the caramel then immediately roll the caramel-covered end in the pecans. Transfer the cookies to waxed paper to let the caramel set.

Makes 3-4 dozen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Flank steak with romesco sauce

The husband and I, while we share many interests and affections, have one area in which we diverge drastically: the sauce.

No, not sauce as in booze. We're both on board with that, silly! I mean sauces I make to go with food--tomato, cream, cranberry, fig-port, and now romesco.

He likes sauce. But I love it. I'm often at risk of drowning my food in it, if it's one I'm particularly fond of. I wonder if this is a very American tendency; I imagine the French and Italians use sauce sparingly, as a purposeful accent. Me, I sometimes return to the kitchen for another spoonful.

Awhile ago, we had dinner at our friends' house. Liz and Neal live down the street from us, which makes for easy and last-minute organizing, and even the occasional mid-week dinner party. We had grilled steak with romesco sauce, salad, bread, and cauliflower. I went a little nuts for the sauce, putting it on the steak and everything else. Nobody seemed to think that was weird, but maybe they were just being polite.

Liz might laugh that I still remember the menu, which we enjoyed at least six months ago, but my brain is a steel trap for food. Ask me what I read in the newspaper this morning and I have no idea, but I can tell you what I ate for lunch last Wednesday (leftover leftovers).

Anyhow, after a bit of of badgering on my part, she kindly provided me with the recipe for the romesco sauce. Or rather, she sent me a list of ingredients along with the singular instruction: "Dump it all in a food processor and let her rip."

And so I did. Aside from toasting the nuts and sauteing the garlic, it couldn't have been faster. I even had some bread crumbs I'd made the day before. The sauce turned out nearly as good as when we had it at Liz and Neal's house, but a little runnier than I would prefer. As I was dumping the entire jar of roasted red peppers in the food processor, I mused pointlessly, I wonder if I should have drained these. Well, yes. That would have been better. But the sauce still turned out gorgeously and it's the kind of recipe you can fiddle with and fix with oil, salt, pepper, bread crumbs, and vinegar as you prefer. Just my type of thing.

I'm also fairly sure it will last a little while in the fridge. So far, I've only dipped some crackers in it, but I think it would be great on pork or chicken, or in place of mustard in a sandwich, with green beans, or simply on crostini, garnished with a crumble of goat cheese. The options are endless.

Liz's romesco sauce

(ingredients are approximations; revise to suit your taste)

1 14-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 12-oz jar roasted red peppers, drained
3-4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/3 c. fresh bread crumbs
2-3 T sherry vinegar, or to taste
salt and pepper

Cook garlic in the olive oil until golden brown.

Dump all ingredients into a food processor and let her rip. Season to taste.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Penne with braised short ribs

I thought when I started working for myself, back in May, that I would be spending a lot more time in the kitchen. I had visions of rolling out pie crusts in the middle of the day, braving puff pastry from scratch, and at least once a week filling the house with the smell of good, yeasty bread.

It hasn't panned out like that at all. While I still spend more time in the kitchen than probably many people do during the week, I've always done that. Even when I was working in an office full-time, it was not unusual for me to roast up a pork loin to serve atop creamy polenta and a bitter green on a Tuesday night. I like to be in the kitchen, so it rarely feels like a chore to me. Few things relax me more than cooking leisurely while listening to the radio and drinking a glass of wine, with the husband and the other hungry dog periodically wandering in to check on me. It's the perfect mix of being alone and not being alone.

But now I'm busier during the day, with less time to daydream about what to make for dinner. And since I am working harder, sometimes I actually feel a little tired out by the end of the day.

The one way in which my new schedule has changed my cooking is that now I am able to make things that take a long time during the week--provided they are largely unattended. The kalua pig is a great example of this. It took five minutes to put together, and four hours later, dinner was served.

Yesterday I decided to make Giada's penne with braised short ribs. I'd seen her make it on TV awhile ago and had not forgotten how delicious it looked. The browning of the ribs and chopping the onion and garlic took a total of about 20 minutes; then, into the oven it went for two and a half hours.

The pasta was rich and deep in flavor, a result from long cooking as well as the fattiness of the short ribs. The recipe is a total hit, one which I will definitely repeat, although I must warn you, this is not for the delicate eater. If you aren't that into meat, or are squeamish about fat, skip it. Unfortunately, neither of these things bother me, so I dug right in.

A little goes a long way--as the husband pointed out, it's basically pot roast over noodles--not exactly light fare. But I really enjoyed it, especially on a rainy night, with the heat turned up and a bottle of Cabernet alongside. As you might have predicted, Frances also had the opportunity to sample some of the short ribs and she too deemed the recipe a blazing success.

The only change I made was that it called for fresh Roma tomatoes, which are nowhere to be found in December, at least not good ones. So I used whole canned tomatoes, and threw in an extra one or two, which turned out just to my liking.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turkey tetra-what?

While America may be divided between red and blue, rich and poor, east coast v. west coast, there is one thing that has bound many of us in the last few days: Thanksgiving leftovers.

I'm a friend to the leftover (you know I am thrifty as all get-out), but Thanksgiving always seems to leave one with far too many to remain animated about. For one thing, you eat the best leftovers up first, in our case, the cauliflower gratin Stephanie brought, Claire's chocolate tart, and my mom's famous pumpkin chiffon pie. Then you good-naturedly devote yourself to the other items which were just as delicious but more plentiful so therefore less fought-over: the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, and  the highly addictive cheese pennies and Earl dip. And then there's the turkey.

Every year I am reminded that I don't actually like turkey that much. It's vastly inferior in flavor to the plump little chickens I roast, requires special tools (thermometers, basters, cheesecloth!), and demands serious upper body strength to hoist it in and out of the oven.

But the turkey is the thing you always end up with too much of. And what to do?

Yes, sandwiches. But then what?

You learn exactly what from your parents. Growing up in our house, the end of the turkey, after the cranberries and gravy were gone, was turned either into jook or turkey tetrazzini, a choice that in itself is a good example of my dual heritage: Chinese and mid-western.

I like jook fine but am not wild about it. Truth be told, I have mixed memories of turkey tetrazzini too. I liked the flavor fine, but for some reason my parents always made it with spaghetti or linguine, which didn't sit right with me as a kid and still doesn't as an adult. I like baked pastas with short tubes or shells--much easier to eat.

I decided to make up my own recipe, with the goal that I wouldn't buy any new ingredients for the dish. This led to mixed results.  I made a white sauce, but only had low-fat milk, and so it turned out a little runny, though with good flavor because I also used stock. I set it aside to see if it would set-up, which it did a bit, then tossed it with sauteed turkey, onions, sage, and spinach. Then the noodles,  buttered breadcrumbs, and parmesan, and into the oven it went.

The finished product looked like this, which I dished up like a nice little housewife and served to the huz.

He nodded his approval although with the caveat, "It's good, but it doesn't taste like food we usually eat."

I knew what he meant. I haven't really ventured into the casserole genre, and this dish, as decent as it was, screamed casserole, with its faintly-dried out turkey lumps and pale creamy sauce that could have easily been cream-of-mushroom soup. Still, I sort of liked it. But the leftover turkey tetrazzini? I may have to draw the line at leftover leftovers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pork chops for three

Yesterday I completed what I hope is the last of my Thanksgiving shopping. While we did the bulk of our shopping at a big (though locally-owned) grocery store, I decided to do the end of it at a couple of our old haunts in Noe Valley: Church Street Produce, and of course Drewes, my favorite butcher in town.

While it's a bit easier in some ways to shop at the Whole Foods-type places (after all, who wants to make five stops? well, sometimes I do), the husband and I try to stick to the trendy but also deeply-held belief we share that supporting local businesses is important. But of course it's not enough to just say it's important. If you want a place to survive, you have to buy things there. A lot.

With this in mind, although we no longer live in Noe Valley, we do make semi-frequent trips over there to shop at Church Street and Drewes. And we always order our turkey there.

I had arranged to pick ours up yesterday afternoon. The place was humming but not crammed, and there were coffee and warm pastries to distract me while I waited briefly for my number to be called.

Having shopped at Drewes for many years, we know many of the employees. They know us too and they always remember Frances. Everyone from Drewes is indelibly marked in her brain, of course, as each visit culminates in a hot dog or slice of roast beef for her.

This time Jerry waited on me. After a brief catch-up on his recent trip to Spain, he went to find my turkey and some other items on my list for the big day. Meanwhile, I mulled over dinner options for that night. I wanted something quick to make that would produce no leftovers. Refrigerator space is at a premium now.

I decided on pork chops.

"How many?" Jerry asked

"Three," I found myself saying, thinking of a certain someone who is very fond of pork chops.

I guess it's come to that. No longer does Frances "just" get a hamburger, or the scrappy bits of roast chicken. Now I'm literally shopping for dinner for three?

That night I threw together the chops, using a chicken recipe I wrote about here, with apples and sage. I finished the chops in the oven though, since they were double-cut and I figured that might work best for even cooking. While they roasted, I sauteed chard and carrots to form a little bed for the pork chops to sit on.

We ate them, drinking wine and watching something silly on the TV, while the other Hungry Dog  gazed at me in anticipation with loving, shiny pork chop eyes. Moments like these, as mundane as they sound, make my heart sing.

This year, I am thankful for the husband, the dog, my family, my friends, my health, my warm home, my work, and that I have the luxury and freedom to enjoy them all, every single day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thanksgiving test-run: stuffed mushrooms

Like a lot of you, I've got Thanksgiving on the brain, 24-7. It's been that way for about a week or two, ever since we got the wonderful news that our L.A. friends, Claire and John, plus their two kids and one dog, will be joining us for the holiday. We've also got some other fabulous friends coming (and their dog) plus my mom, of course. So in a matter of a few days, our Thanksgiving went from a small, maybe-no-turkey affair to seven adults, two children, and three dogs.

I know some of you host much larger dinners, but for us, this is big. And exciting!

I've mentioned Claire before; she's an old friend. We've been through a lot together but these days are bound primarily by our shared ridiculous sense of humor and our mutual love of food. If there are better things to adhere a friendship, I can't imagine what they would be.

We've been having a grand time planning the menu. Appetizers have been a great topic of discussion. I originally asked Claire, who is from Texas, if she would make her famous cheese pennies, which she agreed to do, in two flavors (plain and smoked paprika). She then suggested another dish which I can't help but think of as uniquely Texan: pink onion Earl dip served with Fritos and gherkins.

"Or midget pickles," she mused thoughtfully as I stared at the phone in disbelief. I was still mentally digesting Fritos as part of a recipe. Midget pickles?

She's also making Cajun pecans, and something she keeps referring to as a Pickle Plate. My understanding is that this is not simply a plate of pickles, midget and otherwise, but various vegetables, pickled. It's actually a good idea to have something tart and briny next to the richness of sweet potatoes and gravy.

Lest you think I am simply pretending to host Thanksgiving while forcing my friend to cook everything, I am indeed going to cook a few things, though not a lot in the way of snacks. My meager contribution to the appetizer table is going to be stuffed mushrooms. I had the idea that this was something fun and festive and simple to make; plus they can be served at room temperature. After a little searching, I decided on this recipe from Ina Garten.

I tested it last night, subbing chicken-garlic-basil sausage for the pork sausage, since Claire and her family aren't huge meat eaters.

The mushooms turned out nearly perfect. I am definitely going to make these for Thanksgiving, only I won't stuff them as full as Ina suggests. It made them a little tough to eat. And, I may opt for smaller mushrooms. Although big ones are easier to work with on the front-end, little ones are better for eating.

I hope you all are having fun planning your Thanksgiving dinner. There's much to think about, even just when it comes to the turkey:  Organic or free range? Stuffing or dressing? To brine or not to brine? However, in the midst of all the chaos, I think even the fussiest cooks are usually able to lighten up and appreciate the real centerpiece of the holiday: being together. And pie.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Hungry Dog meets the Kalua Pig

Ever since I made my Hawaiian plate lunch with macadamia nut chicken, I've been dreaming of other things that would be equally good sitting next to a couple of scoops of mac salad and sticky rice. There's always chicken adobo, similar to the simple soy sauce chicken I like to make, but what I decided on was the husband's favorite plate lunch: kalua pig.

Usually this involves a whole pig roasted in a pit for hours and hours. I have neither pit nor patience, so when I came across a simple, oven-based recipe that called for a mere four hours of roasting time, I knew my search was over.

It's so simple I'm not sure it really counts as cooking. There are three ingredients and only a handful of steps, which take a total of about five minutes. Then you stick the whole thing in the oven for four hours. Don't check it, don't turn it, don't baste it. Just roast it.

What you end up with is super tender, smoky pork that is easily shredded with a couple of forks. You can serve it plain, but me, I like it with cabbage, which is traditional. I happened to have a big head of Napa cabbage, which I cut up into chunks and cooked over low heat with garlic and ginger. I've seen other recipes where the pork ends up with a soy-based sauce, which you then cook the cabbage in. I like this idea, but I kept it old school. And it was downright delicious.

I'm completely in love with this recipe, and you will be too. Next up for the plate lunch: teriyaki ribs.

Kalua Pig
From Firehouse Food

1 boneless pork butt (about 4 lbs.)
2 T. liquid smoke
2 T. kosher salt

Adjust the oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 400.

Cut several slashes in the pork, about 1/2 inch deep and 1 1/2 inches long. Do not trim off the external fat. Brush the surface of the meat with the liquid smoke. Pat the salt evenly over the pork. Wrap the meat tightly in several layers of aluminum foil and put it in a heavy casserole dish or Dutch oven with a lid. Cover and bake for 4 hours.

Remove from the oven and carefully cut open the foil. The meat should be moist and falling apart. Allow it to cool slightly, then shred it with 2 forks.

Serves 6.

For the cabbage: Slice or chop coarsely a head of Napa or green cabbage. In a wok or wide frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat. When hot, add two minced cloves of garlic and a few slices of ginger. Let sizzle briefly. Add the cabbage, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. Cook over medium-low until soft, about 20-30 minutes. Keep the heat low so cabbage gets soft, not crispy. Serve with pork.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dorie Greenspan's Brown Sugar Bundt Cake

Oh my. Where has the last week gone?

It's been a bit of a roller coaster,  with unusual highs and lows, as well as all the normal bits of fun and dullness. There's been work, of course, a lovely evening of wine and pizza with good friends, stupid errands, vet and dentist appointments, Halloween, the election (sob!), and what was that other thing...

Oh yes, the World Series.

Now, as you know, I'm not a sports fan. But it's kind of a big deal when your hometown team makes it to the World Series--and then wins! Go Giants!

So the last week has been a bit of a blur--an orange and black blur, to be precise.

Yesterday I had a little time to catch my breath and in spite of the wacky warm weather we're enjoying (75 degrees in November?) I decided to bake a cake.

The recipe is originally from Dorie Greenspan, who I understand is beloved by all who bake. I have never made a Dorie Greenspan recipe, but her brown sugar cake had a number of things to recommend it: buttermilk, which makes everything wonderfully moist; brown sugar, of course (a whopping two cups!); and pears, of which I had a few languishing in the fruit basket. And the clincher: the recipe called for using my bundt pan, which I'm crazy about.

I did skip the prunes: why ruin a perfectly nice cake?

The cake was fragrant, delicious--and surprisingly not sugary. I had diced the pears very small so they practically melted into the batter. The cake would be fabulous with a simple icing or frosting (what wouldn't?) but I left it unadorned. So far, I have eaten it for dessert, breakfast, and an afternoon snack. It suited each of these occasions, and improved overnight. It traveled neatly with the husband to work, and its mild sweetness helped sooth my raw election wounds. What more could you ask for in a humble dessert? The country may be crumbling, but I've got cake.

Brown Sugar Bundt Cake
From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup ground hazelnuts or walnuts (or 1/4 cup more all purpose flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
225 g / 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure almond extract (only if you're using the ground nuts)
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 medium pears, peeled, cored and diced (or substitute apple)
1/2 cup prunes, cut into 1/4 inch pieces (or substitute 1/2 cup raisins)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9- to 10-inch Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, nuts (if using), baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and the almond extract (if using). Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture and the buttermilk alternately - add the flour in 3 additions and the buttermilk in 2, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix only until the ingredients are incorporated and scrape down the bowl as needed. Turn off the mixer, and with a rubber spatula, stir in the pears and prunes. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake in the center of the oven for 60 to 65 minutes (mine was done in 53--check the cake early!), or until a thin knife inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. If at any point the cake is browning too fast, cover the top loosely with a piece of foil. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding, then cool to room temperature on the rack. Finish the top of the cake with icing sugar or a simple brown sugar glaze.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pumpkin apple streusel muffins

Although both apples and pumpkin--canned, at least--are available year-round, I never use them as much the rest of the year as I do in the fall. In October, I start getting a hankering for pumpkin bread and apple crisps. There are other things, too--I've been dreaming of this upside-down pear cake since last November (though I'll have to be sneaky, since the husband doesn't like maple--what's wrong with him?) and this gorgeous applesauce cake. All of these recipes have the sultriness of autumn: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. If summer can be summed up in a perfect juicy tomato, I'd argue that the essence of fall can be found in a rich, dark gingerbread, full of molasses and spice.

Coming in at close second are these pumpkin apple streusel muffins I made last Sunday. Not only was the day hopelessly grey, but a light, steady rain drizzled from start to finish. It was the kind of morning that needs a cozy, homey breakfast, preferably something with a little sweetness to balance out the dreary world outside.

I found the recipe for these pumpkin apple streusel muffins and decided they looked just right--with a few adjustments, of course!  Since I did not have pumpkin pie spice, I substituted cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. I also skipped the raisins, because I think raisins both look and taste hideous, and I shortened the baking time to 27 minutes. Also, I would consider using a different streusel topping. This one was fine, but melted a bit into the muffin. I prefer a distinct crumbly topping. Ina Garten has a great recipe for blueberry streusel muffins from which I'll steal the streusel next time.

The muffins were a hit with the husband and other hungry dog, who has developed a strong preference for baked goods. It's become apparent that coaxing her to eat dog food is pointless; we have accepted that she will live the rest of her days feasting on roast chicken, plain hamburgers, muffins, and snack cake. She eats like a toddler. It's a terrible model for dog-raising, I know. But when your pup is on the verge of turning 15 and has survived two bouts of cancer, you do what keeps a spring in her step and hope that someday, when you, too, are old and and must rely on someone to balance being kind with what is best for you, they will do the same.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Roasted chicken with bacon, figs, almonds, and thyme

Some of my best ideas I've stolen from other people.

Take this chicken I made the other night. I cobbled together two recipes other people made up, added a few of my own twists--and ta da! a Hungry Dog classic enters the repertoire. Cribbed, but a classic.

Like so many dinners, this one emerged out of necessity, and leftovers. I had some chicken to use. I also had a few random figs lying around, some thyme, and a couple slices of bacon. It didn't take long for my pea brain to realize these ingredients could be dynamite together, especially since they reminded me of two other recipes I'd recently made.

Here's the source material: there's this recipe--a classic I've been making for years, which provided me with the method. And then there was a recipe I made a few weeks ago from Melissa Clark's new book, for chicken roasted with figs and bacon, which I mostly liked but didn't love. (I do, however, love the book, and recommend you check it out.) I decided to combine the cooking method of the first recipe with some of the ingredients of the second, throw in some thyme and sliced almonds and see what happened.

What happened was delicious. Bacon, figs, honey, and almonds are a divine combination, almost dessert-like, except for the bacon. Although, who am I kidding? I wouldn't run from a bacon dessert. Anyhow, I'd really like you to try this one--I think you'll like it--but you'll have to do it fast as figs won't be in season much longer. Feel free to add your own twist and say you invented the whole thing--who am I to judge?

Roasted chicken with bacon, figs, almonds, and thyme

2 chicken breasts, boneless but with skin
2 T. olive oil
1 T. honey
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 figs, quartered
2 slices bacon, chopped
2 sprigs thyme
2 T. sliced almonds
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425.

While the oven is heating, turn the chicken breasts skin-side down, drizzle half the honey over them and season with salt and pepper.

When the oven is hot, place the garlic slices in a shallow baking pan that can later accommodate the chicken and toss with 1 T. olive oil. Roast until the garlic just begins to sizzle, about 5 minutes.

Remove pan from oven, push the garlic to the sides, add the chicken, skin side up, and drizzle with remaining honey, salt, and pepper. Scatter bacon, figs, and thyme in pan, and drizzle last tablespoon of olive over the top. Return to oven and roast for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, scatter sliced almonds over the top and return to oven for 10 more minutes. 

Serve with mashed potatoes or polenta.

Serves 2.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Raspberry almond snack cakes

What's the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? Sugar content? Delicacy of crumb? The time of day you enjoy it?

Compelling arguments can be made for each of those points, but I say a cupcake absolutely must have frosting, icing, or, in a pinch, a little glaze dribbled on top. Without any such enhancement,  a small, individually-wrapped, even rather sweet baked good might be able to squeak by calling itself a muffin. It could absolutely call itself a snack cake, and snack cakes can be eaten whenever, wherever.

That was my reasoning behind these raspberry almond snack cakes I made recently, when I was looking for something to make for breakfast using some raspberries I had on hand. I was originally thinking about raspberry muffins, but when I found this recipe for Raspberry-Yogurt Cake, I thought with a few adjustments, it could make charming little snack cakes. That way I could get away with eating them in the morning.

So I halved the recipe and dropped the batter into the tins. The cakes seemed to need some kind of dressing up, and since I had already decided to skip the glaze, instead I sprinkled some sliced almonds  on each one. Into the hot box they went.

Small things are cute, aren't they?

In addition to being cute, they were soft, delicious, and super moist, perfumed with almond extract and dotted with sweet-tart raspberries. The almonds added a perfect crunch.

So what makes a snack cake a snack cake, and not a muffin or a cupcake? According to me, it should be sweeter than a muffin, but you must be able to consume it without lamenting its lack of frosting.  It should be simple to throw together--nothing requiring layers or sifting--but slightly more refined than the plain old muffin. And, perhaps most importantly, you must be able to be eat it any time of day: in the morning with coffee, after dinner as a humble dessert, or in the middle of the afternoon, when no one is around to see you eat one, or two.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And the winner is...

Simran, who said her go-to quick dinner was Curried Chicken Drumsticks with Carrots--which I am totally going to make. I especially like the lime zest and juice to brighten up the rice.

Congratulations, Simran--don't forget to send me your email address, so I can get you the prize info. And thanks to everyone else for playing!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cowboy cookies

Next time I'm in New York, I would really like to go to this bakery.

My obsession started a few weeks ago when I received a copy of the new cookbook from the guys behind Baked, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Once the book arrived, I disappeared. I poured over every page. I pictured myself making every recipe. Salt 'n' Pepper Sandwich Cookies. Orange Creamsicle Tart. And the piece de resistance: Burnt Sugar Bundt Cake with Caramel Rum Frosting. I'd like to bake myself right into that cake and eat my way out.

The husband would wave his hand in front of my eyes, looking for signs of life.  Then he gave up when he realized he could watch baseball without me trying to change the channel. I was focused, but oblivious.

I decided to start small, with the humble Cowboy Cookie. They sound a little junky but I figured everything would work in harmony. They have chocolate. And pretzels. And brown sugar, coffee, oats, and vanilla. The only thing they don't have that I think could make them even more crazy-good would be toffee. But then, I'm a toffee fiend.

The day I planned to make the cookies, I got all the ingredients ready. I whisked the dry ingredients; creamed the butter with the sugars; blended in the egg and vanilla, the chocolate and pretzels.

"Cowboy cookies coming up shortly!" I shouted to the husband, who was blissfully watching a game, having decided I was a lost cause, and to the other hungry dog, who sniffed the air approvingly.

Then I noticed this sly line: Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate the dough for at least four hours.

Come on, now! Don't sneak game changers into recipes like that. When I make a drop cookie, I expect to eat it within 20 minutes. I like burning my mouth on chocolate chips.

I figured that chilling the dough was an important step, though, and I decided to play by the rules.

Unfortunately, because of the way the day worked out, it was a full 24 hours before I got around to baking these little buggers.

The wait was worth it, though. The cookies are sweet, salty, soft and chewy, with a little crunch. I think chilling the dough for that long softened the pretzels too much--it would have been better to bake them earlier. In any case, the cookies were awesome. I suggest you wrangle some up for yourselves. May as well buy the book while you're at it.

Cowboy cookies 
From Baked Explorations

1 3/4 c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 c. rolled oats
14 T. unsalted butter, cool but not cold, cut into 1-inch cubes**
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1 c. firmly-packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. espresso powder
2 c. semisweet chocolate chunks (about 12 oz)
3/4 c. thin salty pretzels (about 1 1/2 oz), broken into tiny pieces but not crushed into dust

**About the "cool but not cold butter," the authors recommend removing the butter from the refrigerator, cutting it up in cubes, and using it within 15-20 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the oats and stir to combine.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars together until smooth and creamy. Add the egg and egg yolk, beating until the mixture looks light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, add the vanilla, and beat for 5 seconds. Dissolve the espresso powder in 1/4 c. hot water and add it to the bowl, mixing until combined.

Add half of the dry ingredients and mix for 15 seconds. Add the remaining dry ingredients and beat until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and fold in the chocolate chunks and 1/2 c. of the pretzel pieces.

Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate the dough for at least 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Use a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism to scoop out dough in 2-tablespoon-size balls (or use a tablespoon measure, which is what I did) and place the dough balls onto the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle the remaining pretzel pieces over the dough balls. Use the palm of your hand to press the dough down lightly; don't smash the cookie--you just want to slightly flatten the ball and push the pretzel pieces into the dough.

Bake for 11-13 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until the edges of the cookies are golden brown or just start to darken.

Set the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes to cool. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely. They can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days. 

Makes about 36 cookies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Roasted salmon on a heap of veggies and, oh yes, another giveaway

The funny thing about these giveaways is that you often have an odd phrase to work with. The point is to drive traffic to the sponsoring website, of course, and I'm sure they have a calculated way of determining what the magic words are. But it takes a little effort to gracefully work in something about floor lamps or organic cotton comforters or upholstered dining chairs.

Hm, like how I did that? I'm not sure what CSN will say about that one. This just might be my last giveaway. But I hope not, because I think they're fun to do, plus I think you guys like them. I mean, free stuff? And CSN owns a bunch of websites, including Tell me you couldn't find something there to spend some of your not hard-earned dollars on!

Since I like to make you work a little bit for it, to enter to win a $65 gift certificate to any of CSN's websites, tell me what your go-to, speedy dinner is. And don't say something like a bowl of cereal and a martini. I mean real food, that you cook, that takes little time but satisfies in a big way.

Mine is roasted salmon on a heap of vegetables.

Here's my method:

Heat oven to 425. In a small oven-proof frying pan, heat a little canola oil. Salt and pepper a fillet of salmon. Place skin-side down and let cook for 2-3 minutes. Transfer to the oven and cook until your liking--for me, about 4-5 minutes, for the husband, about 7-8.

While the salmon is roasting, heat some olive oil in another pan over medium-high heat. Add a smashed clove of garlic and let sizzle. Quickly rinse and tear up some leafy greens, preferably some that wilt rapidly, like swiss chard or spinach. But you can use any vegetables you like, as long as they cook fast. Snap peas work nicely, as does does zucchini. If you have a carrot, skip the peeling, chop it up, and toss it in, just for variety. Everything will be done by the time your salmon is ready. Place the fish artfully over the heap of veggies, pour yourself a large wine, and enjoy.

Deadline is Friday, October 8, with the winner announced Monday the 11th.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Hungry Dog's Hawaiian plate lunch

 Anyone who's been to Hawaii probably knows about the plate lunch, which, in my mind, is as iconic and ubiquitous there as the beautiful plumeria flower. When you spend the day in and out of the ocean, breathing good, salty air, you work up an appetite quickly. The plate lunch is the perfect solution to your growling stomach.

The plate lunch generally consists of some kind of meat (chicken adobo, kalua pork, teriyaki ribs), along with two scoops of starch: one of fat-grained, sticky rice and one of creamy, cool, mayonnaise-laden macaroni salad.

If you are wondering where the vegetables are, they're not, save for the soft, wilty cabbage that sometimes comes with the kalua pork.

While eating this kind of stick-to-your-ribs food makes no sense at all when you are running around in a bathing suit, you can't help but eat it anyway, because it's so damn good, and as we all know, vacation is a time for decadence, not diets.

For many years, our favorite place to get a plate lunch was Hanalei Mixed Plate, a takeout joint  on the North Shore of Kauai, my favorite place on earth. While sadly this place crumbled along with so many other local businesses during the economic downturn, the husband and I are fortunate to have spent many a day perched on the beat-up stools in front of the Mixed Plate takeout window, sandy and damp from the beach, eating the Hawaiian version of comfort food on paper plates with plastic forks. Heaven, I tell you.

With our recent heatwave, I got the idea of making some Hawaiian food. I decided to make macadamia nut chicken, a recipe I had long admired in Sam Choy's Island Flavors cookbook.

It's very simple. Marinate the chicken in a sweet-salty, soy-based blend for an hour, then bread it in crushed macadamia nuts and bread crumbs and pan-fry. The chicken is supposed to go with a tropical marmalade, which sounds dynamite, but I didn't have the ingredients on hand.

I made the mistake of using chicken breasts that were too fat, so they took much longer than the eight minutes the recipe indicated. If you make this, and I hope you do, either get thinner breasts or pound them a little. I might go for boneless, skinless chicken thighs next time.

In spite of having to cook the chicken for nearly 25 minutes (you have to keep the heat at medium so as not to burn the coating)--every piece turned out perfectly, thanks to the marinade. Hey, chicken, let's lean in for your close-up so I can show off how moist and juice you were.

I threw together a mango-ginger salsa to go with the chicken and blew the husband's mind with his favorite Hawaiian dish, a traditional mac salad.

There was also the requisite scoop o' rice and some stir-fried boy choy, which got largely forgotten in our hot, happy, eating frenzy.

The next day, I opted for a cold plate lunch, just chicken with salsa and a mound of mac salad. Although it was no substitute for being in Kauai, it certainly was delicious.

Macadamia Nut Chicken with Tropical Marmalade
From Sam Choy's Island Flavors

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Chicken Barbecue Marinade (below)
1 cup macadamia nuts, finely chopped
3/4 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 T. oil
1 T. butter

Marinate the chicken in Chicken Barbecue Marinade for 1 hour, turning occasionally. Remove the chicken, and allow to drain.

Combine the macadamia nuts and bread crumbs. Dredge the chicken in flour, dip in beaten eggs, and coat with the macadamia nut mixture.

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Saute the chicken for about 6-8 minutes, turning once. Add a little oil if necessary, since the nuts may absorb oil. Serve with tropical mamalade (or mango salsa).

Chicken Barbecue Marinade
(makes about 3/4 cup)

1/2 c. soy sauce
1 1/2 T. brown sugar
1 T. mirin
1 T. olive oil
1 t. minced fresh garlic
1 t. peeled and minced fresh ginger

Combine all ingredients.

Tropical Marmalade*
(makes about 1 cup)

2 c. diced fresh pineapple
1 c. diced fresh papaya
1/2 c. gooseberries (ground cherries) (optional)
6 T. sugar, or to taste
Fresh mint or spearmint, chopped
1/8 t. prepared horseradish or to taste (optional)

In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except the mint. Bring to a boil, then simmer--stirring every 5 minutes to avoid scorching-- for 1 hour or until the mixture reaches jam consistency. Cool. Last, fold in the fresh mint to taste. Horseradish may be added if desired.

* As noted above, I did not make this, but I plan to!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Nectarine golden cake

The first thing I wrote about on this blog was how I am the progeny of packrats.  My dad isn't around to dispute this, although I doubt he would -- he was the man who saved nearly everything either out of frugality (busted appliances he swore he would fix); superstition (a jar of dried wishbones); or the idea that he would someday use whatever it was in his art (leftover wood to fashion a little creature; plastic toys to turn into jewelry. This is no joke; my sister and I each own a necklace with a tiny Barbie hanger cast into silver. Hers has a silver Barbie shoe dangling from it, of which I was, and still am, fiercely jealous.)

My mom's a packrat, too. She can comment on that if she wants--she's still alive and kicking (and saving stuff), but I doubt she'll dispute it beyond saying she has a "system." Whatever. To each her own.

Me, I do not like to save things.

Weird, right? Based on this blog, you'd think I am a very nostalgic person, constantly looking back to my childhood, holding on to bits and scraps for posterity. There's a little truth in that. But, I don't care so much about things, unless someone made them for me. So chances are, if you've given me a birthday card, unless you drew it by hand, it stuck around for a few days, max. I give away books I'm done with, clothing I don't wear. And--this one is probably going to be a little controversial -- I don't save photos. I mean, I save some. But not many.

The husband is like me in this regard and we help each other in moments of weakness. When one of us pauses over a particular thing-- a holiday card featuring a friend's baby wearing reindeer ears--and murmurs uncertainly, "Should I save this?" the other immediately replies with a stony glare, "Forever?"

That's the thing. Are you going to keep everything you ever acquire forever? If not, why not get rid of it now, if you're done with it?

Frequently, the husband and I go through our place and purge. Lest you think we are total jerks, we make every effort to recycle or donate stuff and minimize our (immediate) impact on the landfill. Last weekend, I got around to a giant stack of Gourmets. My goal was save a few and recycle the rest.

In addition to streamlining (although, has anyone reading this who has been to our house wondered why it's not tidier, if we so resent clutter?), I also came across numerous recipes I wanted to make.

Here is the first one: nectarine golden cake.

This recipe was good but not a knockout. Just a basic cake really, and I think sprinkling the nutmeg over the top was a weird touch. So, what are you gonna do with a mediocre recipe?

In my house, recycle it. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Caldo de Res

I think I've got my cooking and blogging mojo back, thanks to you all, who left such wonderful comments after my last post. I suppose I'm not alone in wanting to be missed, and in garnering momentum from the enthusiasm of others. After all, who writes a blog and doesn't hope it will be read  by someone else, maybe even someone on the other side of the world?

This week I've been combing through my cookbooks and old issues of Gourmet (more on that in my next post), looking for new ideas. One of my favorite cookbooks is Firehouse Food. I've posted about numerous recipes I've made from this simple paperback, including chile verde, beef barley soup, and tortilla soup, all excellent additions to anyone's repertoire. And a few days ago, I made caldo de res.

Although I've flipped through this book dozens of times, I never noticed this recipe before. Perhaps because I don't speak Spanish, and had no idea what res meant. It turns out it means beast or animal.

A quick skim of the ingredients and method confirmed that this hearty peasant soup was right up my alley. When I chatted with the husband over gmail later, eventually the conversation turned to dinner (naturally).

WFD? he wrote, our shorthand for What's for dinner?

I considered my phrasing. Animal soup sounded strange, and unnecessarily vague. Beast soup sounded downright scary.

Mexican soup, I wrote.

Surprisingly, that elicited no further questions from the husband, who seemed disinterested in what the primary ingredients of said Mexican soup might be, if it was going to be spicy, or if we would eat bread or tortillas with it, all things I might have asked.

Sounds good, he wrote. And that was that.

The soup was exactly the kind of thing I like to make when I have a few hours to cook but am not in the mood to make multiple dishes or spend a lot of time over the stove. You begin by browning the beast (in this case, beef chuck) in a big pot. Then you chop up some aromatics and throw those in, along with some broth and tomatoes. Put the lid ajar and simmer for an hour and a half. Then add some vegetables and simmer some more. Finally, serve with warmed tortillas and garnish with limes, chopped onion, or cilantro. Next time I'll add a little avocado on top.

I made a few changes to the recipe, although I've copied the recipe below pretty much as printed in the book so you can decide for yourself what to do. For one thing, I used four cups of beef broth and two cups of water. I'm not a fan of store-bought beef broth--I feel it can be a bit strong-- but I do think it deepens the flavor of whatever you're making.  Second, I cut the corn kernels off the cob and added them with the cabbage toward the end. The idea of big hunks of corn cob floating around in my soup bowl put me off and it was guaranteed the husband wasn't going to dig it. And third, I had to add a little more water as it was cooking as it was getting too thick.

The soup turned out absolutely delicious--somewhere between a soup and a stew, full of bright color and flavor. We ate it in white bowls with big wedges of lime.

If you don't eat red meat, or are simply looking for a variation, the authors suggest substituting chicken broth and boneless, skinless chicken thighs. In this case, call it Caldo de Pollo.

Caldo de Res
From Firehouse Food

Serves 6.

2 T. vegetable oil
2 1/2 lbs. beef chuck steak, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
6 c. beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 T. dried Mexican oregano
1 lb. red potatoes, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
2 ears corn, shucked and cut into 1-inch-thick rounds
1 zucchini, cut into thick matchsticks, 1 inch long
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 c. chopped cilantro
salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: finely diced white onion, cilantro sprigs, wedges of lime, warm tortillas

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat; add the meat and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes (I did this in several batches so as not to overcrowd the pan). Add the onion and garlic and cook for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, broth, bay leaf, and oregano. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 1 1/2 hours, partially covered.

Stir in the potatoes, carrot, and corn; continue to cook for 30 minutes. Add the zucchini, cabbage, and cilantro; cook for 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into warm bowls and pass the accompaniments at the table.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I want to move to Los Angeles

Oh, hey there.

In case you hadn't noticed, it's been a little quiet around here recently. Part of the reason is that we were gone all last week, living in the 'burbs at my mom's place while the windows in our flat were replaced. Although both the husband and I worked the whole time, I took a bit of a cooking and blogging vacation.

Then, last Friday I went to Los Angeles. I think you know of my affinity for L.A. It has not subsided. In fact, I think I'd like to move there. So, if you know of anyone down there looking to hire someone with very few talents but a winning personality, send them my way. While I may lack actual marketable "skills," I have a strong affinity for animals (and they for me), I am surprisingly good at crossword puzzles, and I do possess a college degree, if that means anything these days.

While in L.A., I spent my time in beautiful, beachy Venice with my lovely friends Claire and John. You know how there are friends that you enjoy seeing, but you don't mind if you only see them once in a long while. And then there are friends--and it always works like this--that you are pretty sure you could see all the time, but they live far away. These are that kind of friends. I wish we lived next door to each other. Although, Claire and I would get nothing done but talk about and eat food all day long. She's from Texas and a very good cook. I credit her for introducing me to creamy grits and cheese pennies.

Anyway, I'm back in San Francisco where it's cold and people are peevish about it, including me. In addition to being fussy, I've had a whole pile of work to get to. So, I haven't cooked or baked anything of note since I returned. When I'm busy, I rely on old faithful recipes--roast chicken and pasta with broccoli rabe--to get me through the week.

I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to post again, or if by the time I did, anyone would even be checking this old thing. So, in a last ditch effort to retain my readership, I've got a cute salad to post about that I made a couple of weeks ago.

I know, salad is boring--sometimes to eat, nearly always to read about. I can't guarantee that this is any different in regard to the latter. But what is indisputable is that this was a very delicious salad.

One thing I've decided is that often I prefer lettuceless salads, and this is one such salad. It was thrown together right around when we were leaving for our week away, and I wanted to use up a few things. This included cherry tomatoes, some roasted asparagus, raw fennel, and an avocado. Would you believe me if I told you this was a heavenly combination when tossed with a light vinaigrette? Well, it's true.

Anyway, please come back again soon. I promise to post something much more bloggy--a good cake or something with porchetta--next.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A delicious pasta, by way of a good friend

My friend Stacie and her husband used to live in the flat upstairs. In many ways, it was an ideal arrangement: for one thing, they own the building, and so not only were they able to rent to friends, we had our landlords nearby in case of the inevitable homestead crisis.

Second, and more importantly, we got to enjoy that kind of perfect friendship that is easiest when you live in a city, in close quarters. We could, on a whim, walk down to Cole Street and grab sushi; share the overflow from baking projects; or have an impromptu glass of wine on a weeknight. Plus, Stacie and I have known each other since we were born. Our dads were friends since they themselves were young, so we grew up together. It was like having family around.

Sometimes I would encounter her in the evenings, around 9 or 10, on the back stairs as I made my way out to the recycling bin or to get the last of the laundry. Usually I would have just put away a sizeable dinner, a glass or two of wine, and was headed for bed after hoisting myself weakly off the couch.

"What are you up to?" I'd say, knowing the answer would make me feel more like a lump than ever.

"Oh, just working on a few projects," she'd reply casually. Painting something for her little dollhouse, or sewing a purse out of cool fabric scraps that I would eventually covet.

It's doesn't seem fair that some people get piles of talent on top of mountains of motivation, does it?

A couple of years ago, Stacie and her husband moved to a bigger house, on account of having a kid and needing more space. I like to think that this decision was difficult for them, that they knew they would miss our perfect, symbiotic living arrangement, two couples connected by a rickety staircase and almost four decades of friendship.

I'm pretty certain this isn't true, though, and I can't blame them. They found a great place not too far from here, and a few weeks ago, they threw a wonderful party. In addition to a magazine-worthy array of roast chicken sandwiches, risotto, and tomato salad, there was a heaping bowl of gorgeous creamy pasta, full of butternut squash and flecked with basil, of which I proceeded to eat many, many helpings.

As I threw down on my second or third bowl, it occurred to me that this recipe seemed familiar, although I was sure I'd never eaten it before. I then realized I'd come across it a few months earlier on Stacie's blog that she writes with her friend Simran.  (And in case you're wondering, yes, Stacie is responsible for  the groovy drawings on the site.)

She'd written this post about a delightful penne with roasted butternut squash and creamy goat cheese, courtesy of Giada de Laurentiis. The recipe floated around in my brain for awhile, but like so many, got lost in the shuffle.

I finally got around to making it this week. And I am happy to say, it did not disappoint.

I'm a little bothered that I didn't think of this combination myself, because it's really fantastic. The squash and onions get roasty and sweet; the goat cheese tangy; the walnuts crunchy; the basil bright and licoricey.

So, thanks, Stace, for doing not only doing a test-run of this recipe, but letting me sample it first. I suppose I should thank Giada, too. In any case, I highly recommend the pasta. It takes a little time for the squash to roast, but otherwise is extremely simple. I suggest you give it a go, and invite a good friend over to enjoy it together.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Apricot walnut bars, and a houseguest

Did you forget about me, friends?

There's been lots of work to do this week, plus we've had a houseguest. Our little buddy Django came to stay with us, and Frances quickly schooled him in the way things go around here.

First, if you hear the clang of a pot or pan lid, vegetables being chopped, or the refrigerator door swing shut, run as fast as you can to the kitchen and assess the situation.

Once you determine the source of the sound, get underfoot and don't move until something drops.

As soon as something hits the floor, it's every dog for him/herself.

When you've scrounged whatever you can, repeat from the beginning.

It's been a joy to see them together. Makes us think of getting Frances a full-time sidekick.

Anyway, today I had the itch to do something with some dried apricots I picked up recently. Apricot bars seemed a natural fit, but I have found mixed luck with bar cookies. Remember when I made the crazy mango bars? They weren't bad but they weren't...good.

These apricot bars I whipped up, though, they were swell. I even included the walnuts, which is unusual for me. Usually I abhor nuts in baked things.

In a way, they almost seemed like less of a bar and more like a little cake sitting on shortbread. The top is cakey and delicate, and as I bit into it, I imagined eating one for breakfast the next day. But then you get down to the crumbly cookie base, and it's hard to persuade yourself that these really belong in breakfast territory.

Although, if people can eat steak and eggs for breakfast, why can't I eat a layered cake-on-cookie?

Give me one good reason.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Farro salad with roasted tomatoes and shaved parmesan

I've been obsessed with farro ever since it started turning up in restaurants. First I had it at too-cool-for-school Beretta in the Mission. Then I had it at the only semi-hip (but extremely delicious) Gialina in Glen Park. It even trickled down to plain old Pasta Pomodoro in Noe Valley, where we sometimes end up for weekend brunch.

Then I read about Thomas Keller's buttered farro over at Connie's blog, and I pretty much haven't stopped thinking about it since.

If you haven't had farro, it's a bit like barley, only slightly chewier. Farro can take nearly any flavor, be served hot, cool, or at room temperature, and either grace the side of a roast or stand up on its own. In short, it's exceedingly versatile.

When I finally got around to buying some (which turns out isn't cheap-possibly its only downside),  I decided to make something that felt like summer, which to me means tomatoes and basil.  Grilled vegetables or peppery arugula would work well in it too, as would curls of salty prosciutto or velvety black olives. What would have really blown me to bits was if I'd had some burrata on hand. But I suppose you can't have everything.

Farro salad with roasted tomatoes and shaved parmesan
Another Hungry Dog original

1 c. farro
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. olive oil
3 c. water
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
handful of basil, julienned
parmesan for shaving
vinaigrette made to taste (I used olive oil, balsamic vinegar, one clove of minced garlic, a little honey, salt and pepper)

Preheat the oven to 425.

Heat the oil and butter over medium high heat in a medium saucepan. Once the butter has melted, foamed, and subsided, add the farro and toast, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes. Add water, stir well, bring to a boil then reduce heat so that the water is simmering but not boiling. Let cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Farro should still be chewy when it's done cooking, not overly soft.

While the farro is cooking, toss the tomatoes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread out on a baking sheet. Roast for 8-10 minutes, until the tomatoes split. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.

Make vinaigrette. I made about, oh, 1/3-1/2 c. and kept it separate from the salad mixing bowl so I could add it gradually. I'm not including directions here, because I never measure when it comes to vinaigrettes, which may explain why sometimes they are good and sometimes they are not.

When the farro is done, either pour it into a large mixing bowl, or if there is still some water that hasn't been absorbed, drain the farro and place it in mixing bowl. (I just estimated how much water to use and 3 cups turned out right--the farro is boiled, not steamed, so err on adding more water rather than less). Toss with vinaigrette, and taste for seasoning. The farro will keep absorbing the vinaigrette, so add as much or as little as you like. Then add the tomatoes, with any juices that have accumulated. Mix gently, then add basil, and mix again. Season to taste and serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with shaved parmesan.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I guess I don't like catfish after all

Isn't this pretty?

Catfish panfried until golden, then topped with a tomato, basil, and olive sauce.

Too bad I didn't like it very much.

Well, I liked the sauce part. After I cooked the fish, I melted some butter and oil in the same pan, threw in cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, and garlic and cooked it until the tomatoes broke, about two minutes. Stirred in some basil for an herby finish.

The sauce would be good on pasta. Or bruschetta. Or over chicken. Or with a different kind of fish. Just not catfish. I decided, with this recipe, that I don't like catfish after all. I've eaten it many times in my life and each time, I think to myself, "Do I like this?"

Sometimes I've overcooked it. Surely that hasn't helped. Catfish already learns toward the tough side--overcook it and it's a rubbery mess. But I've also undercooked it. That's no good either. Unlike tuna or salmon, catfish needs to be done all the way through or it gives me the heeby jeebies.

There's a secret to cooking catfish, but I don't know what it is. And I think I'll devote myself to unlocking other mysteries of the kitchen. Because even if it were cooked perfectly, I'm not sure I would love it. The sauce, however--that's a keeper.

Quick tomato and olive sauce
A Hungry Dog original

1 pint cherry tomatoes
1-2 garlic cloves minced
1 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1/4 c. pitted olives, chopped
2-3 T. chopped basil

Melt butter and oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. After the butter has foamed and subsided, toss in tomatoes, olives, and garlic. Let cook for a couple of minutes over lively heat, until the skin on the tomatoes splits. Turn off the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, and basil.

Serve over anything but catfish.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brown is beautiful: easy chicken marsala

Some of my favorite things to eat and cook are not photogenic at all. For example, anything that is brown--a stew, a roast--is likely to appear a little less than appetizing in a photo.

A better photographer could make these things look delicious. But pictures have always been secondary to this blog. And my method for taking pictures is admittedly poor. Often I'm working with hot food which means there's a steam issue. Sometimes I'm contending with glare. I'm always racing against a grumbling stomach and an impatient husband if it's dinner time.  By far, my best photos are of baked things that have long since cooled and I can take my time with.

This is all to say, this photo isn't great--it's too brown and shiny--but I still think it's beautiful because it tasted so delicious. It's Giada's chicken marsala with mustard and mascarpone.

Chicken and mushrooms in a brown sauce isn't exactly a knockout, but it's a winner in the taste department, which is all that really matters. Anything with marsala is luxurious. Add mascarpone and you've got a recipe that's cozy for two, but elegant enough for company.

I've made this a couple of times before, and while I recommend it, I do have a few edits. For one, I only add one tablespoon of mustard. Two, I brown the chicken pieces whole, since that's the way the recipe is printed in the cookbook. They usually take about 16-18 minutes. Three, I do not slice the chicken before returning it to the sauce.  And four, while I have made it with the full amount of mascarpone, I think it would be equally good  and perfectly creamy with less. I bet half would be just fine.

We enjoyed this lovely dish this the other night and looked forward to eating the leftovers for lunch the next day. But something distressing happened: somehow, we forgot to put the chicken in the fridge and it sat out overnight! The husband woke up and discovered it while he was putting on the coffee the next morning.

This may have been the one time I've been glad to live in a cold place. Our flat is usually around 60 degrees overnight, and while this isn't exactly the recommended food storage temperature, I decided the chicken had probably survived. I decided this mostly because I wanted to eat it again. Plus, I'm fortunate to have a nearly iron stomach. The husband was understandably dubious of my feeble assurances of, "It's probably fine," but he too had had dreams of chicken marsala lunch.

In the end, we ate the chicken, and lived to tell you about it. Literally.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Happy blueberry crumb cake

Remember this?

It's so quintessentially Peanut-y: sweet, but melancholy. Watching the Peanuts always filled me with a bit of dread; I worried about Charlie Brown getting tricked by Lucy or left behind when everyone else went to do something fun, two things which seemed to happen to him all too often.

Anyway, in spite of its happy/sad melody and trembling chorus, I love this little tune, especially the line about the two kinds of ice cream (I mean, right?).

When my sister and I were kids, we had a Peanuts book, a companion to "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," that was called, Happiness is a Warm Puppy. Although it took me until I was 22 and found Frances, I can now verify that this is unequivocally true, happiness actually is a warm puppy. It's also:  the smell of coffee brewing, waking up in Kauai, and your husband coming home after a long trip.

One more, too: happiness is blueberry crumb cake.

At this point, if you're sick of reading about my various blueberry escapades...I suggest you beat it, because I'm not done with them yet. It's August and freezing in San Francisco: the only sign that we have that it's summer is that blueberries abound. They're cheap and they're everywhere.

If you decided to stick around, let me tell you about this delightful blueberry crumb cake. While the core of the recipe is not new to me or this blog (I wrote about its original incarnation, jammy apricot crumb cake, last December), one day recently I was in the mood for breakfast cake and had some blueberries needing attention.

Instead of dolloping apricot jam over the simple batter, I substituted the blueberries (about a pint), then covered them with crumb topping. Since blueberries are apparently the way to a long and healthy life, I figure they're still beneficial even if sprinkled atop a soft and sweet cake and tucked underneath a layer of brown sugar and butter.

They are certainly the way to happiness.