Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cauliflower soup with crispy bacon and chives

At this point, you know soup is a fallback dinner for me. All you really need is one vegetable you can make the star. If you happen to have some leeks on hand, and homemade chicken stock, both of which I did yesterday, so much the better. And if you have an immersion blender, as Jamie Oliver would say, you're laughing.

The base of this soup was some cauliflower from our CSA box. I'd recently seen this post at Serious Eats for cauliflower cheddar soup and it had gotten stuck in my head; unfortunately, I didn't have the right kind of cheese. Cauliflower leek soup would have to do.

I still wanted to do something special, though. So I crisped up some bacon, removed it from the pan, and sauteed the leeks, potato (another non-necessity but great addition to any pureed soup), and cauliflower in the leftover fat. Plus a little butter. Oh, come on now. You know I don't keep a kosher kitchen.

When the soup was pureed, splashed with cream, and well-seasoned, I ladled it into these fabulous new soup and sammie sets my sister recently sent me as a cheer-up gift. One of the upsides of being mopey is that people make very kind efforts to lift your spirits.

It worked! I love these sets. Thanks, Jen!

"Hey Hungry Dog," you're saying, "that ain't no freakin' sandwich."

True. I did have some bread in the house but it was a few days old--not sandwich material. So I made some crunchy croutons to serve alongside the soup. This is actually one of my favorite ways to eat soup, and now I have the perfect soup-and-crouton vessel. This way you can add the croutons as you like and they don't get soggy. And making croutons is a wonderful way to use up slightly stale bread.

Now let's talk about the soup.

Creamy and smooth, with a double onion hit from the leeks and chives, undernotes of smoky bacon, with bacony bits adding texture and saltiness to each mouthful. Perfection. I'm sorry to sound braggy, but this soup rocked.

It's hard to garner as much enthusiasm from the husband about soups; he likes them fine and will eat every last drop, but ultimately I don't think he values a good soup the way I do. To me, a homemade soup can be delicious, satisfying, healthy (um, maybe not this one), and thrifty all at once. What more could you want?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cupcake friday

I had the day off today and spent part of it at the Ferry Building. The weather was sunny and bright and for awhile I sat on the pier, drinking a latte, watching the boats, and looking at Treasure Island. Isn't that civilized for a Friday?

Here's a mediocre photo I took with my iPhone.

When I'd had enough of that, I browsed the fabulous shops, then met my friend Kami for lunch at Market Bar.

I've known Kami for 19 years. We met in college, and lived together first in Los Angeles, then in San Francisco. We've seen each other through school, graduate school, countless jobs, family problems, deaths, boyfriends, apartments, husbands, dogs, and one baby. Among the things I've learned as I've gotten older is that there's no substitution for old friends. I treasure them, deeply.

We talked about all kinds of things, some serious and many not. When we were done with lunch, we found ourselves in front of Miette.

We like to support local businesses, especially during this turbulent economy, and thought it only right to purchase a few sweets. Kami bought some caramels, and I purchased two chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting. The nice lady packed them in a tiny little box and off I went.

When I got home, I was worried about the cupcakes and thought it a good idea to check on them.

I admired them for a long time.

Aren't they irresistible?And they're so...small. One person could easily eat two.

The husband doesn't know I bought them.

What he doesn't know can't hurt him.

Ssshh! Happy weekend!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Vanilla bean bundt cake

I know looks aren't everything, but I think we can all agree they count for something.

With potential mates, sure. But mostly I'm talking about with food.

On Sunday I decided to make a Vanilla Bean Bundt Cake from Bon Appetit. From the moment I saw the recipe, I knew I had to make it. First of all, the phrase "vanilla bean" makes me drool a little. Second, I'll make anything that requires my bundt pan; it's adorable but highly underused. Perhaps I should start cooking savory things in it. (Meat loaf in a bundt pan? Would that be a meat bundt?)

Anyhow, the cake was simple and ready in no time. But it didn't look exactly as I expected.

Here's the photo from Bon Appetit:

And here's mine:

Ok, different bundt pans (mine's better). But the main question is...why does the Bon Appetit cake look perfectly striped and worthy of a midwestern bake sale while mine looks like a giant, suntanned donut?

I glared at the husband, although goodness knows he was an innocent bystander.

"Does this look like a donut?" I demanded.

"A little..." he admitted, assessing my anger level. "Sort of like a big cruller." Then he hoofed it to the living room to escape my wrath.

The fact that I cannot stand donuts made this even more upsetting.

I blame it on the glaze, although it contains only three ingredients --milk, powdered sugar, and vanilla--pretty impossible to mess up. But mine turned out clear instead of white and although it seemed thick enough in the bowl, it must have been too runny. I can only conclude that the magazine used a different glaze or doctored the photo. Or that I was supposed to add more sugar. But the recipe only suggested that you add more milk to thin it, not more sugar to thicken it.

I was a little mad. Why not tell readers how to get the glaze in the picture? That's what we want to make, after all. No one would look at the magazine photo and think, "I'm gonna make that cake, but hopefully it'll turn out with a crummy, thin glaze instead of a nice thick white one."

After I huffed and puffed a little, I got over it. A piece of cake helps with tantrums. Mothers have known about this phenomenon for decades. Crying baby? Stuff something sweet in its mouth. Works for grown adults too. I'm going to try it at work, start carrying around rolls of Girl Scout cookies. Lots of crybabies around the office these days but I bet I can silence them with a steady stream of Thin Mints.

Anyway, the cake was quite delicious, homely glaze and all. Let's look inside.

Nice crumb, right? Fluffy and light...that's the buttermilk talking. And did I mention there's bourbon in this cake? Next time I might add more, to take the cake all the way to boozy.

This cake would also be dynamite with vanilla bean frosting. Or chocolate frosting. Or lemon frosting.

But for now, this will do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lazy girl dinner

On weekends, especially Sundays, I like to put together a nice-ish dinner. Sometimes this means something rather involved, like coq au vin or baked ziti. But just as often, I make dinners that look like they took some work but in reality required very little effort.

Such as roast loin of pork.

Here's my method. Combine a few tablespoons of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and any other spices or herbs you like. Sometimes I chop up garlic and rosemary and throw that in; other times I grind up fennel seed and coriander. Many nights, I'm too lazy to do either and just rely on salt and pepper to do the work. Rub the mixture over the pork roast and place in a pan. Roast at 425 for about 40-45 minutes, turning once. I usually take the pork out when a thermometer registers about 137-140, which is medium on the side of pink, but cook as you prefer. Let rest 10-15 minutes before slicing.

When I'm feeling a little fancy I make this fig and port sauce to serve alongside it; it's a simple, gorgeous, shiny sauce that smells of Christmas. This sauce would be divine on almost anything: duck, quail...I've even dreamed of pouring it over vanilla ice cream.

Of course, you need sides. Last weekend while the pork was in the oven, I rummaged around and found some cauliflower and a couple of carrots. I roasted them with some olive oil, and at the end threw in some slivered almonds and currants left over from Captain Chicken.

I decided to make some polenta, too, because I pretty much always have cornmeal around. I cook polenta in a mix of chicken broth and water and at the very end stir in some milk or half and half to make it extra creamy. You could always put some cheese in but sometimes I can't be bothered to pull out the grater. I also don't think you have to stir it all the time, the way some recipes say. I stir mine for awhile, then turn it down, cover it, and go do some other stuff. It turns out fine. And I'm lazy, see?

The best thing about this kind of dinner is that it requires no recipes. I've made the pork enough times to know it by heart, and all the side dishes fall into place, depending on what I have on hand and what I'm in the mood for. In the end, this looked like a pretty nice dinner, and almost like I put in some effort. But that can just be our little secret.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Hungry Dog's day off

Yesterday I took the day off. Did I have an interview? A doctor's appointment? Was I waiting for the cable guy?

No. Just took it off. So I could be footloose and fancy free in the middle of the week. Decadent, right?

The weather was gorgeous, warm, sunny, and still. In the morning, I lingered over coffee and the paper, such a treat during the week. Then, I went for a leisurely swim. After that, I ate some lunch and pottered around the house for awhile, Frances a sweet little shadow next to me.

In the afternoon, I decided to go up to Tank Hill, which is half a block from our house. Unless you live around here, you probably wouldn't know about Tank Hill. It's a small, unruly patch of earth, too little to be kept up by the parks department but just the right size for tromping around with your dog, or stopping to take in the view. I love Tank Hill and go up there almost every day with Frances. Yesterday I decided to bring my camera along so I could share it with you.

If I knew how to take panoramic pictures you'd get a better sense of the view. But since I don't, you'll have to see it in two parts. Although the day was ever so slightly hazy, I hope you can make out the star of Part 1: the peaks of the Golden Gate Bridge.

To the left of the bridge is Part 2: the Pacific ocean and the Marin headlands:

In the spring, wildflowers cover Tank Hill. I spied some bright yellow ones...

and tons of California poppies.

Poppies happen to be my favorite color: orange!

Later in the year, wild blackberries grow on the side of the hill, ideal for urban foraging. I noticed them too late last year but this year I'll be ready to pluck a few for breakfast one day.

While I admired the view, Frances stayed close to the ground, sniffing for other dogs, as well as raccoons, possums, skunks, and coyotes, all of which have been spotted at Tank Hill.

Anyone who says dogs don't smile has never met Frances.

When we got home from our outing, I set about making some Irish soda bread. I didn't forget what day it was! The recipe was a cinch and in no time at all Frances and I were both salivating over this lovely loaf.

I had to cut myself a piece. You don't bake things just to look at them.

The bread was delicious. I've only had a few soda breads in my life and have never made one, so I don't have a lot to compare it to. But I thought it was a winner. My only change was that I used currants instead of raisins, because that's what I prefer.

Such a pleasant afternoon snack!

And what about you? What do you do on your day off?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chocolate peanut butter sandwich cookies

On Saturday, the husband and I decided to do our taxes. Last year was rather traumatic, as  my employer didn't withhold enough throughout the year, and we ended up shelling out a big chunk of cash. To preempt a repeat, this year we each had additional taxes withheld. We expected to break even, if not get a return.

Sadly, Uncle Sam gave us a big old punch in the gut. Once again, we owe a ton of money.

I know we are not alone. But we both make modest salaries, and the fact that we have to pay more in addition to what we've been paying all year, especially in light of my impending  joblessness, landed us both in tears. Well, just me.

Now, I'm a pretty typical liberal. I'm pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-gay marriage. I think pot should be legalized and that everyone should have health care. And I believe that pitching in to help those who have less is the right thing to do. You know, spread around the wealth. Some of you would probably think I'm a socialist, which is fine. I stand by my beliefs. But I'm starting to wonder if I'm getting the short end of the stick with this tax business. And why am I punished because I can't afford to buy a house and don't want kids? Shouldn't there be some of us keeping the rental market afloat and not overpopulating the planet?

The husband looked at the percentage of our annual income we're paying in taxes.

"If I'm going to pay this much," he said, "where's my &*%$ universal health care?"

The rest of the weekend was spent trying not to think about the taxes, my crumbling job situation, and Frances not being well. To get your mind off things, I find it's best to spend time with friends, get out of your house, and busy yourself with small projects. Such as chocolate peanut butter sandwich cookies.

I know, it took me long enough. I'm wound up. But here we are.

I'd been eyeing this recipe for awhile, which is from Baking Illustrated. The base is chocolate icebox cookies, which sounded pretty good on their own, but then I noticed that the book recommended them for sandwich cookies, with any number of possible fillings: chocolate ganache, vanilla, mint,  peanut butter. Peanut butter!

The dough is basic. Mix it up and form it into logs and let them chill for a few hours. Slice and bake them while you make your filling of choice. Then make cute little sandwiches out of them.

I think everyone likes sandwich cookies, and I'm almost inclined to say it doesn't matter what the filling is. They just seem special. Let's break it down: for something that passes as a single cookie, you actually get two, glued together with some delicious creamy filling. What's not to like?


Nothing, I tell you.  And I found the process of assembling the dough, baking the cookies, filling them, and sharing them with the husband, neighbors, and friends very therapeutic. While it can't solve many problems, a good cookie can temporarily smooth life's rough edges, something I'm sure we all could use now and then.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies
From Baking Illustrated

Makes about 30 sandwiches

2 c flour
1/4 c. sifted Dutch-processed cocoa
1/2 t. salt
16 T. (2 sticks) unsalted softened butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. confectioners' sugar
2 large egg yolks
2 t. vanilla extract
2 oz. melted and cooled semisweet chocolate

Whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

With an electric mixer, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the yolks, vanilla, and melted chocolate and beat until incorporated, 15-20 seconds. Add dry ingredients and mix at low speed until a dough forms and is thoroughly mixed, 25-30 seconds.

The dough should be soft but not sticky. If the dough is sticky, chill it for 10-15 minutes. Divive the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll the dough on a clean work surface in a log measuring about 6 inches long and 2 inches thick. Wrap each log in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. (Dough can be frozen up to one month).

Adjust the oven racks to the upper and lower middle positions. Heat the oven to 325. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Unwrap dough logs one at a time and with a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices (or thinner if you prefer). Place them on baking sheets about 1/2-1 inch apart.

Bake until the edges begin to brown, about 14 minutes (or a little less, depending on how thin you slice them), rotating the baking sheets front to back and top to bottom halfway through. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack with a spatula.

When cool, fill with peanut butter cream.

Peanut Butter Cream

Combine 1 cup smooth peanut butter, 4 T. softened unsalted butter, and 1 c. sifted confectioners sugar. Beat until smooth and fluffy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Carroty carrot muffins

I know I may be testing your patience with my carrot mania, much the way I did with cabbage a few months ago. And frankly, if I had something else to post about, I would. But this week hasn't lent itself to much interesting cooking besides good old Captain Chicken. We've been eating leftovers, salads, and odd little dinners that don't really make good posts.

I did make some muffins last weekend, though. I used a recipe for zucchini muffins, which I made once before with great results. It's a versatile recipe, which makes it all the more appealing. I'm sure you could throw in banana or sweet potato or applesauce or any number of goodies in place of the zucchini.

Like carrots.

Even if you're not a carrot lover, you have to admit they're a pretty addition to a baked good!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Country Captain, or Captain Chicken?

A little over a year ago, I came across this interesting article about a classic southern dish called Country Captain. I've long been intrigued by both southern food and its charming naming conventions for recipes, and Country Captain was no exception. The name alone reminded me of pirates, romance novels, and Junior League housewives all at once.

Although I had yet to make it, I quickly became obsessed with Country Captain and would talk about it to anyone who would listen. I happen to have a friend from Charleston, South Carolina, one of the several rumored origins of this dish, and I bugged her about it for awhile, but dropped the subject when I sensed the friendship might be hinging on whether or not I mentioned it one more damn time.

The husband bore the brunt of my yammering, although whether he was a willing listener is debatable.

"I don't understand what it is," he kept saying.

"It's a 19th century, sort of Americanized, southernized chicken curry. With currants. And almonds. You eat it with rice," I added, as if that detail might help.

The more I tried to explain what this dish that I'd never eaten tasted like, the more muddled the conversation became. The odd name only added to the confusion. Finally, it simply morphed from Country Captain to Captain Chicken, which was both easier to remember and good for a laugh.

Eventually Captain Chicken got lost in the endless shuffle that is my ever-growing list of "to-make" recipes. But a few weeks ago, I spied this recipe in Bon Appetit, and within a few days I came across another recipe for it in the book I'm reading, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialites, by Julia Reed.

The time had come to take Captain Chicken from myth to reality. So on Sunday, I did what I should have done 13 months ago and gave the dish a try, using the first recipe I had spotted, from The New York Times. All three recipes were quite similar but this one seemed the most modern and likely to suit me best.

It was exactly the kind of dish I like to make. There was some chopping and sauteeing, chicken browning in a pan, and then everything went into the oven to simmer slowly. When it was ready, I served it over steamed rice and garnished it with currants, toasted slivered almonds, crumbled bacon, and some mango chutney.

To my surprise, Captain Chicken exceeded my wildest hopes. It was complex and savory, with sweetness from the currants, a hint of heat from the curry, and a welcome crunch from the almonds. It reminded me of the chicken cacciatore my dad used to make, with an Indian flair.

The husband also gave it a thumbs up.

"Good Captain Chicken," he said, pushing aside his cleaned plate, as though he'd eaten hundreds of versions of it over a lifetime and this one ranked among the best.

But, I'll take compliments where I can get them. And if you like compliments, too, you should give this one a go. It's quite delicious. Do make sure you season the sauce well before it goes into the oven, and don't skip the condiments--they are critical to the dish. But most of all, see if you can help me change the name from Country Captain to Captain Chicken. It's catchy, and seems primed for a ridiculous logo. I mean, do I even have to describe it to you? A jaunty chicken in a captain's hat, sailing a sea of curry. Tell me you don't love it!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Carrot and carrot soup

Hello, friends! Miss me?

Haven't posted in a few days, due to a few different reasons: had a cold, was taking care of Frances who was recovering from another bout of vertigo, and was generally feeling crabby, all of which contributed to not cooking much and therefore having nothing to post about. But by yesterday, my cold was mostly gone, Frances was on the mend, and while I was still a little crabby, I was starting to get my cooking mojo back.

I was in the mood to cook but not in the mood to go to the store. A quick inventory of our refrigerator revealed slim pickings, but I had the few ingredients I needed to make carrot soup, which was exactly what I was craving: something bright, pretty, healthy, and quick.

Have you noticed that lots of carrot soups are called carrot and something soup? Carrot and orange. Carrot and curry. Carrot and ginger. Carrot and parsnip.

While there are a few other ingredients in this soup, such as leeks and potato, carrots are the main event. Have we discussed my love of carrots yet? No? Let's do it now. I love carrots raw, roasted, sauteed, stir-fried, pureed into soup, baked into cake, shredded in salad, fried into tempura. I even came across a mention today of a carrot loaf, which, if you can believe it, made my mouth water a little bit. My carrot love is no joke.

So last night I decided to let the carrots shine. I used the same old method I always use, but this time I left out the cream and sprinkled the top with chives. While I was finishing up the soup, the husband made a turkey sandwich on toasted herb bread, cut it in half, and put one half on each of our plates.

My carrot and carrot soup was mild and creamy, with a savory background from the leeks, and depth from homemade chicken stock. A soup and sandwich dinner is a bit unusual for us, but I must say it hit the spot. While I'm not quite back to my usual cooking self, this lovely orange soup was a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Baking ambivalence: chocolate spice bread

When I came across this recipe in David Lebovitz's book, The Sweet Life in Paris, I was immediately intrigued. The ingredient list was unusual, calling for cocoa, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seed; both honey and sugar; and four eggs (two whole plus two yolks).

I wanted to make the bread but something didn't seem right. Why was it called a bread and not a cake? Chocolate bread sounded...weird, but not entirely off-putting. I decided to make it.

It's a simple recipe, although it does have a few more steps than some of the other quick breads and cakes I like to make. There's lining the pan with parchment paper, which requires tracing and cutting, whipping the eggs with the honey, melting the chocolate with the butter, lots of gentle folding, and sifting the dry ingredients. For some reason, I have an aversion to sifting. Don't ask me why. I just bare my teeth a tiny bit, like a little wolf, when I see the words, sift together.

This is what it looked like before I turned it out. You'll notice I got a little messy when pouring the batter in. I call it homespun. I've noticed that if you call things homespun or rustic, you can get away with being sloppy.

What did it taste like? you're wondering.

It's not super sweet, which is maybe why it's called a bread. But it looks and acts like a cake and would be good with whipped cream or ice cream. Then, to confuse matters, it's more dense than cakey, calling to mind a brownie that got kidnapped and sold to the spice trade.

Friends, this is a strange recipe. I like it, but I don't. It has a deep chocolate flavor, which I enjoy, and the spices provide a complex background. They are not subtle, and I like that; there's no doubt they play nearly as prominent a role as the chocolate itself, which comes in two forms, melted semisweet and unsweetened cocoa powder. This cake would be good for those who like their desserts to be thought-provoking.

Simpletons like me, though, we like chocolate cake to taste like chocolate cake--or sometimes like rootbeer cake. Also, I like frosting on cakes. Cakes without frosting are sad. It's not the Great Depression, people. We can afford to make frosting now. No wars are being won by serving naked, homely cakes.

Another weird thing is that after the cake is cooled you're supposed to wrap it up and let it sit for 24 hours. What? Who lives in a household where things like this happen? In my house, things are baked, cooled for maybe five minutes, then eaten with abandon, fingers and mouths be damned (and burned).

I wish I had liked it better. I had high hopes, sort of. But those are the breaks. I'm not typing out the recipe, either. Guess I'm feeling a bit peckish this week. But if you email me, I'll scan it and send it to you.

And that's all I have to say about the chocolate spice bread.