Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lobster & Asparagus Risotto

IMG_12328 by you.

We did our "fancy" dinner on Christmas Eve (prime rib roast, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus). I had also bought some lobster tails with the intention of making it more of a "surf & turf" dinner, but at the last minute, I realized that we already had a ton of food.  So I decided instead to save the lobster for Christmas day.

Well, as dinner approached, I realized I had no clue what to do with two small-ish lobster tails, other than the boring old steam or broil, followed by dunking in copious amounts of butter, which I'm honestly not a huge fan of anyways.  As I rooted around in the fridge and pantry, I remembered that I'd had a jones for risotto a couple weeks ago and decided to go ahead and make some at the last minute.

Risotto is one of those things that sounds really fancy and hard to make, but it's basically just rice and broth and whatever else you want to add to it.  It's not hard to make, just time-consuming.  Ever since I learned how to make it, I almost never order it in a restaurant anymore.

2 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
3/4 c. finely chopped shallots
2 c. uncooked arborio rice
1/2 c. white wine
2 qts good quality low-sodium chicken stock or broth 
1 lb. asparagus
2 small-medium lobster tails (mine were 3/4 lb total)
1-2 T. butter
2 T. cream (optional)
1/4 c. shredded Parmesan
salt & pepper to taste

1. Trim the woody ends off of the asparagus and reserve.  Cut the rest into 1-2 inch pieces.

2. Remove lobster from shell, reserving shell.  Cut lobster into large chunks.

3. Heat up chicken stock in a separate pot.  Add asparagus trimmings and lobster shells.  This will give your stock a boost of lobster & asparagus flavor.  Hot stock is key to making risotto.  Cold or room temperature stock will lower the overall temperature of your risotto and take much longer to cook.  It'll also affect the texture.

4. Heat large pan over medium-high heat.  Add oil and butter and shallots.  Saute shallots until translucent.  Add rice and saute until grains start to become translucent around edges.

5. Add white wine.  Scrape up any bits that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan and stir until it has reduced by about half.

6. And now, start adding stock and stir, stir stir. 

IMG_12319 by you.

Make sure your heat is not up too high, as you want the rice to absorb the stock slowly.  You want it to be a little above a simmer, otherwise, the outside will cook too quickly and the inside will remain raw.  The reason you have to keep stirring is that you also want the rice to release its starch.  This is what gives risotto its lovely creamy texture.

I generally add about a half cup of stock at a time (I have a 4 oz. ladle which makes this easy to measure). You want to cook until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid before adding more.  I find that this happens more quickly in the beginning, and more slowly towards the end.  It may also help you to taste the rice frequently as it cooks, so you can get a sense of the different levels of doneness.

Just to give you an idea of when it's time to add more stock, if while stirring, you can see the bottom of the pan for more than a couple seconds, it's time.

IMG_12320 by you.

Add just enough stock to make it loose and slightly soupy.  Again, don't drown it.  You don't want to boil the rice.
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Then, like before, keep stirring.  In total, it should take about 20-25 minutes.

7. Once you feel like your rice is getting close to done, add the chopped asparagus and lobster pieces.  Continue to stir and add stock, as necessary, until everything is cooked.  You may or may not use all the stock.  It all depends on your rice.

IMG_12322 by you.

Oh, one other warning: make sure your pan is big enough as the rice will double, if not triple, in volume.  I usually don't make this much, so I foolishly thought I'd be able to get by with a smaller pan but then had to switch to a larger one about halfway through.

8. The rice is done when it's tender, but still has a little bit of bite to it.  Once it's reached that point, but still has a little bit of excess liquid, turn off your heat, and stir in a nice healthy knob of butter.  One-two tablespoons should do it.  You could also add a splash of heavy cream, if you like.

9. Last, but not least grate some fresh Parmesan over the whole thing.  I usually subscribe to the school that Parmesan and seafood do not belong together, but I make an exception for risotto.  To me, it just isn't the same without a little of that sharp tang that Parmesan adds. 

10. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately, garnished with a little more Parmesan.

Serves 4 as main course, 8 as a side dish

You could easily halve or double this recipe.  It's pretty much the same amount of work, regardless of the amount.  You could also substitute shrimp or some other shellfish for the lobster, or leave it out entirely.   The lobster meat did break up a bit as a result of all the stirring, but I actually didn't mind since it meant there were bits of lobster in almost every bite.  I also used leftover champagne from our morning mimosas in lieu of white wine.  It was a very decadent meal. ;)

I'm sure there are way better tutorials out there on how to make risotto, and I largely improvised this recipe on the fly, so I apologize if the directions are less than crystal clear.  Feel free to post any questions in the comments section and I'll do my best to clarify as needed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

IMG_12313 by you.

We decided not to travel for the holidays this year and have our first real family Christmas at home.  It was especially exciting because this is the first year that our daughter really understood the concept of holidays, and it was fun to see how much she enjoyed the lights and decorations and of course, the presents.

Since it was just the three of us, I didn't want to do anything too complicated for breakfast, so I nixed my original plan to make cinnamon rolls and decided to make Monkey Bread instead.  I've heard many people rave about Monkey, but I've actually never eaten any myself.  Most of the recipes I came across called for store-bought biscuit dough, cut into quarters and dipped in a mixture of sugar and butter.  I did, however, find a recipe that used yeasted dough, but it was geared towards a bread machine.  I decided to try and adapt it for my stand mixer and give it a try.

Monkey Bread

One packet or 2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. white sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp butter, softened
1 c. warm water
1 c. butter
1 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. chopped pecans

1. Proof the yeast in the warm water.  (I sometimes also add a pinch of flour or sugar to get it going.)

2. In the bowl of your mixer, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and softened butter.

3. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly add the water & yeast mixture.  I use the paddle attachment to start.  Once the dough comes together, change to dough hook and knead on medium speed for about 5 minutes.  Dough will be fairly soft.

4.  In a medium saucepan on low heat, melt one cup of butter, stir in brown sugar and nuts. Stir until smooth. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

5. Gently shape the dough into a log and cut dough in one-inch chunks. Drop one chunk at a time into the butter sugar mixture. Thoroughly coat dough pieces, then layer them loosely in a greased Bundt or tube pan, staggering layers so you're plopping each dough chunk over a space between two below. Let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until dough is just over the top of the pan, 15 to 20 minutes.

6. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. After removing from oven, place a plate face down in top of the pan, and (using oven mitts) flip the pan over  until bread slides out onto plate. Serve warm.

I made this the night before, covered and refrigerated it.  I'm not so sure that was a good idea.  Even after taking it out of the fridge and letting it warm up at room temp for an hour or so, I don't think I got as much rise out of the dough as I should have and the resulting Monkey Bread seemed a bit dense to me.  I also used a tube/angel food pan, which I also don't recommend.  For one thing, it was way too big.  And then, because it was two pieces, the gooey brown sugar/ butter mixture oozed out the bottom and made a giant burn-y mess all over the bottom of my oven.   I think the loss of goo also made for a lackluster result. And there's nothing like scouring out your oven on Christmas morning to get you in the holiday spirit.

Still, Troy claimed it was good and our daughter managed to eat 4-5 pieces on her own, so I guess it wasn't a total bust.  I think next time, I will definitely make it the morning of, and use a smaller one-piece pan.  I may also try halving the cinnamon in the dough and adding some to the butter mixture.

What would Christmas be for a cookbook junkie without a few new cookbooks?  Under my tree this morning:

I spent the better part of the day reading the Momofuku book. It's unlikely that I'll ever make a single recipe from it (though the pork belly is extremely tempting), but it was still very entertaining.

I'm also looking forward to trying out some of the recipes from Martha's Baking Handbook.  Even though I have a bazillion baking books already, her approach always makes everything seem easier.  I have a feeling that I may never get back to Cooking with Claudine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ricotta Coffee Cake

IMG_12152 by you.

My wonderful mother-in-law made this amazing coffee cake during one of her visits.  It was so rich and moist, I absolutely had to copy down the recipe.  Of course, being awash in thousands of recipes, I never got around to making it until just last month.  I made it for a knitting night with friends, and then again just a couple days ago for a potluck playdate.  It was every bit as good as I remembered.   The ricotta really adds a lovely moist tenderness to the texture of the cake.

The wonderful bonus of this recipe?  It's actually an overnight coffee cake, so you can get it all mixed up and ready the night before, and then just sling it in the oven first thing in the morning.

Here is the recipe, adapted from Better Homes & Gardens magazine:

Overnight Coffee Cake
3 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 c. granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 (15 oz.) carton ricotta cheese
3/4 c. chopped nuts
1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp toasted wheat germ
1 heaping Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg

  1. Grease bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of 13x9x2 pan
  2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, & salt.
  3. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar.
  4. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down inbetween each addition.
  5. Add ricotta cheese and mix.
  6. Add as much of the flour mixture as you can, and stir in the remaining flour with spoon.  The batter will be thick - almost like a cookie dough.
  7. Spread batter into prepared pan
  8. In a small bowl, combine nuts, brown sugar, wheat germ, cinnamon & nutmeg.
  9. Sprinkle cinnamon mixture evenly over batter in pan.
  10. Cover & refrigerate up to 24 hours.
  11. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Uncover coffee cake & bake for 35-40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
  12. Cool slightly in pan on a wire rack.  Serve warm.

Because there were young children with nut allergies at the playdate, I left out the nuts this time.  However, normally, I'm a nut fanatic and double the nuts.  I also mixed the batter the morning of the playdate and baked it immediately, and it seemed to turn out just fine.  Although, I do think that the topping benefits from soaking into the batter overnight, so if you can make it in advance, you should.  It ends up a little less loose and crumbly.

I'll also note that this last cake ended up being a tad underbaked, which I didn't realize until it sank a bit in the middle during the drive to my friend's house.  Still, it wasn't so horribly undercooked that people noticed, so I just let it go.  I'm definitely adding this to my repertoire of brunch items.

IMG_12133 by you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Decorated cookies - part 3

IMG_12111 by you.

(In case you missed them, here are links to part one and part two.)

After you have what is more or less a base coat of icing on your cookies, you can do all your detail work. For me, this includes doing the outlines too. For these cookies, I pretty much just winged it and piped mostly straight lines and dots. The nice thing about snowflakes is that they can be as simple or as intricate as you want, and either way, they look good. Especially if you use sanding sugar. Sprinkles/jimmies will work too, but I prefer Sanding Sugar because of the fineness of the grains. It gives it a sparkly, snowy look.  I also meant to put on some Sugar Pearls, but I because I fell behind, I had to skip it this time.

Here's a pic of the finished cookies. Apologies for the picture quality. I dropped my DSLR the other day and it seems to be acting up now.

IMG_12116 by you.

I think this one was my favorite:

IMG_12121 by you.

I sprinkled the sugar on pretty much immediately after piping so that it would stick. Be generous with the sugar; it looks much prettier that way. I usually decorate the cookies on a small cooling rack with parchment underneath to catch the overflow. This way you can pour off the excess sugar and reuse it, if necessary.

After that, give them some more time to dry. I waited about 6 hours, but overnight would have been better. Then I bagged each cookie in an individual cellophane bag and tied with ribbon. They make great favors and teacher gifts.

Decorated cookies - part 2

(In case you missed it, here's a link to Part 1)

Today I'm going to talk about the most fun part - icing and decorating the cookies! I won't lie, this part requires a fair amount of dedication because the real key to making beautiful, elaborately decorated cookies is time and patience. As I mentioned in part one, you want to allow yourself at least 3-4 days to make decorated cookies. These are definitely NOT something that can be whipped up the night before a big party. Why so long? Because the icing can take up to a full 24 hours to dry, and depending on how you want them decorated, you may have to wait for one color to set before you can start on another.

For the icing, I stick with the standard royal icing, which is basically egg whites and powdered sugar. You can use real egg whites, but I prefer meringue powder because it's less hassle to deal with, and it's also been pasteurized, which makes it a little bit safer. You should be able to find meringue powder in the cake decorating aisle at places like Jo-Ann, Michael's or Hobby Lobby. It pretty much lasts forever, so it's worth springing for.

Anyways, I pretty much just mix the powder according to directions, which in my case was 1/4 c. powder beaten with 1/2 c. water until peaks form, then add 4 c. sifted powdered sugar. This makes for a pretty stiff icing, but don't worry about that for now. You'll be able to thin it out later as needed. Next, you'll want to start breaking your large batch of white icing down into smaller colored ones.

Let me add a word here about food coloring: most of what you can buy at the regular grocery store is crap. Don't bother. For one thing, you'll likely have to use half a bottle to get even remotely close to the shade you want. And for another, most of that stuff is water-based, which means it's going to thin out your icing and make it very difficult to pipe.

Gel-based coloring is the way to go. Again, you should be able to find these in the cake-decorating aisle of your local craft store. Wilton is probably the most readily available. In a pinch it'll do, but honestly I don't care much for the Wilton-brand colors. For one thing, they come in these annoying little pots with screw on lids, which makes them super messy to use (not to mention that they tend to leak if they're not upright), but again, the colors just aren't very deep and I find myself having to use a lot to get the bright reds and greens for Christmastime.

If you can, find a cake supply store or go online and buy the professional ones. They're more expensive, but worth it. I use these AmeriColor Soft Gel Paste Food Colors, and one drop goes a loonnngg way.
IMG_12055 by you.

OK, done with the plugs, now back to the tute.
Now here's one thing you need to be aware of: royal icing turns to cement when it dries. It is a total pain in the arse to clean up, and you really don't want to spend the next few days soaking and scraping it off of a million various bowls and spoons. So here's my tip: save a bunch of plastic containers, preferably with lids. I've been hoarding sour cream and yogurt containers for the past 2 months, along with plastic knives and spoons from takeout places, etc. Or if that's not an option, use plastic cups. This way, when you're done, you can just chunk everything into the trash. When you're not using any particular color, lay a damp paper towel on the surface of the icing and then cover with the lid or plastic wrap. This will keep the icing from drying out in-between uses.

Most people start by piping the outline of the cookie with the stiff icing and then thinning it down and "flooding" the outline to fill it in. Because my entire background is going to be one color and also because I don't like waiting for the outline to dry before I can flood, I usually just glaze the entire cookie with the thinned out icing and then go back and do the outline later. If you prefer a crisper look, then you can pipe the outline first. It all comes down to personal preference.

So after scooping some icing into a separate container and coloring it (one little drop of blue gel for about 1 1/2-2 cups of white icing), I thinned it down with a little water to make it more spreadable. There's no real formula to this - just add a couple teaspoons of water at a time and keep stirring until you reach the desired consistency.

Then I just spooned the icing on and spread it around a bit until the entire cookie was covered. Like I said, I don't mind it if the icing goes off the edges.

IMG_12054 by you.

Another word of warning: there is such a thing as thinning your icing out too much. I glazed about 6 cookies (and sprinkled them with edible glitter), then watered down my icing a LOT more to glaze the rest. I foolishly (and lazily) thought it would be faster if I could pour the icing instead of spreading it around with a spoon. Well because of all the moisture in the icing, this decision cost me an extra TWO DAYS in drying time. Gah! They were so tacky after the second day that I honestly thought they were never going to dry, and I almost threw them all in the trash. Have I mentioned that I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to these things?

Anyhow, they did eventually dry, and this is why it's a good idea to start way ahead of time. The extra water also gave the icing a more shiny and translucent look which I wasn't particularly fond of. Here are the two different versions, side by side:
IMG_12105 by you.

The cookie on the left also has some edible glitter that I sprinkled on while it was still wet. I let the clerk at the store convince me that it would be pretty, but I was rather unimpressed by it. I probably won't use it again unless I'm going to use a LOT all over the entire face of the cookie.

I'm running short on time today, so I'm going to go ahead and post, and I'll show detailing and finishing touches in part 3. :)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday baking

Well, I suck. I can't believe it's been over a month since I last posted. Sincere apologies for my lameness, although in my own defense, I spent the better part of November (including Thanksgiving) sick. And since then...well, I guess I've just been lazy.

To make up for it, I thought I'd post a step-by-step of how I do my decorated sugar cookies. I absolutely LOVE baking and decorating. It's easily one of my favorite things about the holidays - a built-in excuse to make tons of goodies and then give them all away so I don't have to eat them.

Because this is a bit of a long process (generally, I try to allot at least 4 days for decorated cookies), I'm going to break it up into parts. For part one, I thought I'd share my sugar cookie recipe. I got it at a cookie decorating demo in Austin a number of years ago from the owner of Penny's Pastries. It is far and away the best recipe ever for decorated cookies. The edges stay very clean during baking, and the best part? You don't have to refrigerate it before using! You can mix it up and immediately start rolling, cutting and baking. Also, according to Penny, once iced/glazed, these cookies are shelf-stable for up to a month! This makes it a lot easier to get a head start when you have a huge batch to make.

Butter Cookie Dough
from Penny's Pastries in Austin, TX

1 c. salted butter
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tbsp whipping cream
2 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
3 c. unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. In a mixer combine butter and sugar. Mix until just incorporated - do not cream until light.

3. Add egg, cream, vanilla, and almond extract all at once and thoroughly blend. It may look curdled, but don't worry, the finished dough will be fine.

4. In a separate bowl stir together flour and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and blend.

5. Roll out to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and cut with a cookie cutter.

6. Bake on a greased cookie sheet 8 to 12 minutes (depending on size) and cool on a rack. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

My changes:
I only ever use unsalted butter when I bake (in fact, I don't even keep the salted kind in my house), so I added about a 1/2 tsp of salt to compensate. I also despise almond extract, so I replaced it with orange extract/oil. Also, if you don't have whipping cream, half-and-half or whole milk will work just as well. But don't use skim. You want that extra fat. ;)

I also skipped the greased cookie sheet in favor of parchment paper. If you have the option, try and find light-colored cookie sheets. Dark ones will make the bottoms brown too quickly. My favorites are these
AirBake sheets- I've had the same two sheets since college and they still yield perfect cookies every time.

This year, I'm making giant snowflake cookies (using this Snowflake Cookie Cutter Set that I absolutely LOVE) to give as favors at a holiday playdate. Because my cookies were gigantic, and I needed to make a lot of them, I doubled this recipe. It pretty much filled my stand mixer bowl to capacity.

I generally only like to re-roll the scraps once. I feel like after that, the dough gets difficult to work with and the cookies end up tough. So that being said, I ended up with 16 snowflakes, plus a couple dozen or so smaller random cookies cut from the edges and in-between spaces.

Coming in part two - icing!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I love sushi. I mean, I really love sushi. Like, I could eat it all day, every day. And I almost don't care where it comes from. Sushi buffet? Hell yeah! Grocery store sushi? Sure, why not! When Troy and I talk about what kind of competitive food event we could each excel at, my food is sushi.

That being said, it's really a bit of a sin that I've never tried to make sushi myself at home. You'd think that as much as I love it, I'd have given it a whirl by now, but alas, I have only laziness to blame.

A couple weeks ago, I realized that they carried sushi-grade fish at Hmart (awesome Korean grocery store chain) and I bought a little bit to try out. I bought a package of chunks listed as "sushi with vegetable" that oddly included no vegetables whatsoever. It mainly consisted of chunks of fish that I assume were scraps from trimming the nicer, larger pieces for sale. I ate it as sashimi, and it was surprisingly good, not to mention dirt cheap. So last weekend, I dragged the family out to the Hmart again and we bought about $35 worth of ingredients. As it turned out, this was enough to make quite the sushi feast...twice!

As a rule, I generally prefer sashimi, but I do also like some of the more fancy rolls that you can get nowadays. Just to make it interesting though, I decided to stick mostly with rolls the first time around. Oh, and I also used this funny little maki sushi roll maker that my grandma got me like, 10 years ago. It was a bit involved, but fun to use, and it made nice, even, square-shaped rolls. I also made a couple with the more traditional rolling mat (makisu).

The first few rolls were, well, let's just say wonky. I didn't take a lot of pictures of those. In fact, I didn't take nearly as many pictures as I would have liked overall, partly because Troy and I were starving and we were eating these as fast as I could make them, but also, it just got to be too labor-intensive, so I gave up on the pictures. All told, I probably made 4 large rolls, 4-5 small rolls, and a couple of nigiri pieces on the first night, and I still ended up with a TON of fish left over.

IMG_11742 by you.

Here's one that I made toward the end though with the makisu. In fact, I decided to get really fancy and attempt an inside out roll: eel, cucumber and asparagus, with sesame seeds on the outside.
IMG_11745 by you.

The second night, I had a better system worked out. I also decided to force Troy to wait until I had finished making everything so we could sit down and eat together like civilized people.
IMG_11750 by you.

Clockwise, from the top left: salmon, cucumber & asparagus roll, tilapia roll, tilapia and cucumber roll, spicy salmon & avocado roll, tuna nigiri (maguro), salmon nigiri (sake), and spicy tuna roll

Overall, everything was very very good. The only disappointment was the package of eel that I bought. It was rubbery (especially the skin, which I ended up having to take off) and kind of flavorless. Unagi is normally one of my favorites, so I was pretty bummed that none of the rolls I made with it were very good. I'll likely skip that the next time.

The biggest surprise was how well the package of chunks that I bought worked out. It was $6 for 3/4 lb. of tuna, salmon and tilapia. I ended up chopping the individual varieties up into smaller bits and mixing them with sauce (mayo and sriracha) to make spicy rolls and they worked out beautifully. Major bargain score.

We will definitely be doing this again. I've already told Troy that we may need to invest in one of the big flat wooden bowls (hangiri) so that I can mix the rice properly. I don't think he realizes that I'm not really kidding.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dump Cake

IMG_11610 by you.

I don't always cook from scratch, but I am normally pretty adamant about baking from scratch. However, lately I seem to be going through a phase of throwing together convenience stuff from mixes. Last night was no exception. The weather here has cooled off quite a bit in the last week, so Troy decided to make chili, which is one of his specialties. I contributed by making cornbread (from a Marie Callendar mix), and dump cake. And I have to say, it was all super delicious.

Dump cake is basically like cobbler with cake mix for the crust. It's about as easy as it gets. I literally dumped things into a 9-inch square pan, in this order:
1 can of pie filling (I used peach, but any kind will work)
1 can of crushed pineapple (juice and all)
1 package of yellow cake mix

I spread things out a little bit so that the layers were even, but that was about it for mixing. Then I put pinches of softened butter (about 1 stick) all over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until the top is browned and the filling is bubbly. Best served warm, with ice cream.

IMG_11614 by you.

This was insanely sweet, so it really needed the ice cream. I've seen other versions that use canned fruit instead of pie filling. I may give that a whirl next time around.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Random pictures

Sorry I've been MIA again. Not going to make excuses this time, but I'm working on getting back into the blogging groove. In the meantime, here are some photos of things I've cooked but been too lazy to actually write entire posts about. They're actually all things that I make on a semi-regular basis so I promise, I'll come back to them and post recipes eventually.

Curried chicken thighs with veggies, over brown rice

IMG_11260 by you.

Homemade pizza - before baking

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And after baking (and a minor catastrophe transferring it onto the pizza stone)

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And just for you, Sun, here's a "cheeseburger muffin" that I made for my daughter's school lunches. It's an idea from my friend Shannon's bento blog: basically cornbread mix, with browned ground beef and shredded cheese tossed in. Scoop and bake. My kid goes gaga for them. I also added some freeze-dried green onions, but you could make these with pretty much anything in them.

IMG_11536 by you.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fried Rice

Fried rice is my number one comfort food. I could probably eat it every day, and I don't care whether it's homemade, take-out or whatever, although I suppose I draw the line at frozen. It's also my favorite way to use up whatever is in my refrigerator. Over the years, I've had a number of people ask me for a fried rice recipe, and I've always had a hard time giving one because it's such a malleable dish. You can add or subtract just about anything. In fact, just the other day, I started typing up a recipe only to realize that I had added so many little footnotes that it was going to be impossible to follow. I think it'll be easier for me to just post different iterations as I happen to make them.

That being said, here's the version I made the other day. Fried rice was not an uncommon breakfast in our household when I was growing up, and that's why I almost always include ham and eggs in mine. Don't be tempted to use fresh rice - it'll get all sticky and gooey on you and turn into mush. Day-old rice is the key to good fried rice; in fact leftover take-out rice is perfect. Also, notice that there really is not a lot of soy sauce in this recipe. Fried rice does not have to be brown.


4 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp + 1 tsp vegetable, canola or olive oil

1/2 c. onion

1/2 c. sliced mushrooms

1 c. cubed turkey ham

1 tbsp soy sauce

4 c. rice (preferably, day old)

1/2 tsp garlic powder (optional)

1 tbsp sesame oil

1/2 c. frozen peas

Salt & pepper to taste


1. Heat a large pan or wok. Add 1 tsp. oil (or you can use cooking spray) and the beaten eggs, and cook as you would scrambled eggs. Try to leave the pieces big, as they will be broken up later when you add them back to the rice. Remove the cooked eggs from the pan and set aside. I usually just dump them back into the bowl I used to beat them.
I don't worry about contamination from the raw egg because it will get all cooked again.

2. Heat the oil in the same pan over high heat, and add the onions and mushrooms. Saute until onions turn translucent.

3. Add the cubed ham and heat through. Add the soy sauce and salt & pepper to taste.

4. Add the rice. I generally try and break up the rice as much as possible before adding it to the pan. You want the grains to be separated as much as possible.

5. Turn the heat down to medium. You want to heat the rice through, but you don't want it to burn. At this point, I usually add garlic powder and maybe more salt & pepper too.

6. Once the rice is hot, add the peas and stir them in. I throw them in still-frozen since they thaw & cook very quickly.

7. Add the sesame oil and toss thoroughly to coat everything. Sesame adds some nice aroma and helps the grains stay separated.

8. Last, but not least, add the eggs back in. Gently stir until they are hot through. Serve immediately.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Best Lasagna Ever.

Not to brag, but I make a pretty darn good lasagna. I've been meaning to share the recipe for a while, even though it's not super fancy or unique. It's just really a good classic meaty, cheesy, tomato-y lasagna.

Lasagna was always my favorite Italian dish as a kid. It used to be the dish that I always ordered without fail. Of course, as I got older and my tastes got more sophisticated, I scoffed at lasagna and passed it over in favor of dishes like gnocchi or saltimbocca.

I started cooking it myself at the request of Troy, for whom it was a comfort food from his childhood. After a few years of experimenting and adding and subtracting from various recipes, I finally hit upon a winner. Troy has actually declared my lasagna better than his mom's (shhh, don't tell)! I'll warn you right now though, he likes his pasta super saucey, so this recipe uses a LOT of sauce. I think it must weigh about 6 lbs. (not counting the pan) by the time it goes into the oven. I also apologize in advance for my lack of precise measurements in the directions. I'm not much for measuring.

1 lb. ground beef
2 jars tomato sauce*
1 box flat lasagna sheets (I use Barilla)
(1) 15 oz. container part skim ricotta cheese
(1) 10 oz. box frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp each dried oregano & parsley (optional)

*I'm aware that homemade sauce is better, but I usually use jarred for convenience. My preferred brand is Barilla, but lately I've been using the Simply Natural Organic brand from Costco, with very good results. I also usually sneak at least a jar or two of baby food (either carrots, winter squash or sweet potatoes) into the sauce for extra veggies.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Brown ground beef. I usually add salt, pepper and dried herbs as I cook the beef, just to give it some more flavor. Drain off grease and add about 1 cup of tomato sauce. This is also a good point to add some baby food, if you want. Trust me when I tell you that no one will ever be able to taste that it's there. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

3. Squeeze all of the moisture out of the thawed spinach. Combine the spinach in a small bowl with the ricotta, parmesan and egg. Mix thoroughly.

4. In a 9x13 pan, add about a cup of sauce to the bottom. You want to use enough sauce to have a thin layer across the entire bottom.

5. Layer 4 uncooked pasta sheets on top of the sauce. I usually put mine lengthwise 2x2, but you can also do them 4 across. They will overlap slightly in the middle. Don't worry that they don't reach across the entire pan. They will expand as they cook and absorb moisture from the sauce.

6. Spread half the ricotta mixture on top of the pasta sheets.

7. Spread half the meat mixture on top of the ricotta.

8. Sprinkle about 1 1/2 cups of shredded mozzarella on top of the meat.

9. Spread more sauce (about 1-2 cups) on top of the cheese. Be generous with the sauce. You want to make sure you have enough moisture for the pasta sheets.

10. Repeat steps 5-9.

11. Add one more layer of pasta sheets. Cover with sauce and more mozzarella.

12. Cover the top with a double layer of aluminum foil. I usually spray the inside of the foil with cooking spray to keep it from sticking to the cheese.

13. Bake in a 375 degree oven for one hour or until heated through. In my uneven oven, this sometimes takes more like 75 minutes.

14. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving. This gives everything a chance to set up so that it doesn't all fall to mush the second you cut a piece.

Like I said, it's nothing fancy, but it's quick to put together (especially with those no-cook pasta sheets), hearty and delicious. I'll also add that it's a great dish to let your kids help make - our 2-year-old daughter was delighted to sprinkle on the mozzarella all by herself - which also makes them more likely to eat it, spinach and all!

Sorry, no picture this time since I was just too tired to do anything but cut and eat by the time it was done. I may try and snap one tomorrow if I can.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chicken Katsu

IMG_11245 by you.

I'm starting to think I should just change the name of my blog seeing as how lately I've been cooking more from other blogs than anything else. But hey, better to post something than nothing, right?

Today's entry is chicken katsu, inspired by my love of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, and also from this blog that I bookmarked a while back. Chicken katsu is basically the Asian equivalent of chicken fingers, but served with rice and sauce. Yum.

In retrospect, I don't know why I even needed a recipe to follow since it's really just a thinly cut or pounded chicken breast, breaded with panko and fried. Although I will concede that I would not have known which brand of tonkatsu sauce to buy without guidance.

In any case, this turned out very very yummy - pretty close to my ideal comfort food. Troy declared it to be an almost dead-on imitation of the L&L version and even Miss Pickypants (aka our 2 1/2 year-old) ate a healthy portion dipped in sauce. Extra bonus points for being an extraordinarily quick meal to throw together. Now if only we'd had some macaroni salad...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Meatball pic

IMG_11047 by you.

Sorry, never got around to uploading the other night. As you can see, we were out of spaghetti, so we had whole wheat shells instead. Oh and Troy said that the meatballs and sauce were actually better the next day.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Last week, Troy requested I make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Well, with the frenzy of baby shower preparations, it sort of fell by the wayside. I decided to make it for Sunday dinner instead.

Confession: I don't make spaghetti sauce very often because I'm lazy and it's just so easy to open a jar (the Barilla brand sauces are particular faves in our house). But my sister-in-law recently told me about a super easy recipe that mostly involves dumping everything in the pot and letting it cook. I wasn't sure if her exact recipe would work with meatballs too, but I figured using that methodology, I could throw something together on my own. So here's my recipe for spaghetti & meatballs. Note that there was lots of improvisation with the ingredients, based on what I happened to have on hand.

1 c. bread crumbs
1/2 c. milk
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1/4 hot Italian sausage
3 eggs
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (1 1/2-2 c.)
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
dried oregano
dried parsley
dried basil
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper to taste

1. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until all the liquid has been absorbed and bread crumbs have softened.

2. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly - it's easier if you use your hands.

3. Form the meat mixture into balls. The size is up to you. I prefer larger meatballs because I think they tend to be more moist & tender, but if you're in a hurry or prefer small ones, that's fine too.

4. Heat a large, heavy pot over high heat until almost smoking, then add the olive oil. Brown the meatballs on all sides, working in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove the meatballs and set aside. (I use my Le Creuset dutch oven. A thick-bottomed stainless steel stockpot would work too. I don't recommend nonstick because you won't get a nice sear on the meatballs.)

5. In the same pan, you should have at least a couple tablespoons of oil from browning the meat. If not, add some more olive oil and add the onions. Saute until they become translucent. Add the garlic and herbs. The combination and amount of herbs you add is up to your personal preference. I added about 1 tsp each of oregano & parsley, and about 1 tbsp of the basil.

6. Add the 2 cans of tomatoes and the bay leaf. Make sure you scrape up all the good bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring up to a boil and then add the meatballs back in, including any juices that may have come out of them.

7. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need to simmer longer if your meatballs are very large.

8. Season with salt & pepper to taste and serve over spaghetti.

My notes:
As mentioned before, I normally prefer to use fresh herbs, but to be honest, I don't often have them on hand unless I make a special trip to buy them for a particular recipe. I tried to grow my own, but I guess I have a black thumb because I cannot seem to keep them alive.

In my opinion though, dried herbs are perfectly acceptable in a dish that's going to be simmered for a long time, as long as they haven't been hanging around in your cupboard for the last year or two. I buy mine in small quantities from the bulk section at either Central Market or Whole Foods. That way they stay fresher, and you'd be shocked at how much cheaper it is too! I've refilled what was originally a $5 dollar container of brand-name thyme with 75 cents worth of bulk thyme. But I digress.

I don't normally put sausage in meatballs, but I happened to have that little bit of fresh bulk hot Italian sausage left and I wanted to use it up. Actually, I prefer a mix of beef, pork and veal in my meatballs, but I didn't see any ground veal at the store last week and didn't have time to go on a hunt for it.

My meatballs were fairly big - about kiwi-sized, but rounder. I ended up with about 18 of them, and they were cooked in about 45-50 minutes. It might have been less, but that was more or less the minimum time I wanted to simmer the sauce.

The verdict:
For an improvised last-minute meal, this turned out great! The only minor complaint I had was that both the sauce and the meatballs needed more salt, but then again, I'm a bit of a salt fiend.

I thought the sausage added a teeny tiny bit of heat to the meatballs, as well as some nice flavor, especially from the fennel. As I mentioned before, the sausage was thrown in on a whim, but I'm really glad it was in there since it also added some much needed fat. Both the pork and beef I used were relatively lean, and I think that on their own, the meatballs would have been dry.

Troy enjoyed this meal quite a bit, although he did say he wished the sauce was thicker and/or chunkier. He also thought it needed more seasoning, and maybe even more onions. His quote: "I've come to the conclusion in life that I don't think there can be too many onions in spaghetti sauce." But he otherwise declared it perfect. Go figure.

I think the true seal of approval came from our 2 1/2 year-old daughter, who ate THREE giant meatballs and two bowls of pasta! That's a definite rave in my book.

Changes for next time:
I will definitely use the Italian sausage again. The stuff I used today was from a local grocery store that makes their own fresh sausage, and it is far superior to any of the pre-packaged stuff.

I may use whole canned plum tomatoes next time and crush them up myself for a chunkier texture, and maybe leave the lid off at the end too to let it cook down some. I will also likely add another onion. I actually almost threw another in today, but I worried about making it too onion-y. I may try and throw in some ground or minced carrot too, both for an added veg factor and for a little more sweetness.

Adding a pic shortly...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Baby shower success!

It's rare for me to feel completely happy with anything I make, whether it's food or knitting or whatever, but I must say, I'm overall very pleased with how everything turned out for my friend's baby shower.

I actually relied quite heavily on the two Ina Garten cookbooks I have: Barefoot Contessa and Barefoot Contessa Parties! These were two of the first cookbooks I ever bought and I use them often. In fact, I think I've made almost every item in the first one, and at least half of the ones in the second. I've never been a fan of her Food Network series (I actually bought these before she had a show), but I'd say that more often than not, when I need something to make for guests, they are my "go-to" books. Her recipes do sometimes call for odd or random ingredients that I don't normally keep on hand (like say, extra-large eggs), but they are otherwise very well written and I've had consistently good results.

Today I made her Sour Cream Coffee Cake again, this time with cake flour and the full amount of sour cream (full-fat, of course). I thought that it turned out great last time with the all-purpose flour, so I was eager to see if the cake flour would make a big difference. I think it did, but then again, I'm picky like that. The one I made today had a much more delicate crumb, and was also lighter & airier (if that's a word). In retrospect, I think that the all-purpose flour version I made last time was a tad on the dense side. Today's cake earned raves all around, and there's actually only a small hunk left. Yay! I do think that I went overboard with mixing in the streusel topping though. It was prettier with more streusel on top last time.
IMG_10997 by you.

As I mentioned in the post from a couple days ago, I also made some cranberry scones. These also turned out very good, after a few adjustments. Instead of the 14-16 large scones, I made minis, cutting 2x2" squares in half diagonally. By the way, this is the type of recipe that is great to make ahead and then freeze. I rolled and cut the raw dough, then lay the pieces on a sheet pan in my freezer. Once frozen, I threw them all (unbaked) into a ziploc bag. If you cut them small like that, it makes a LOT; I baked off about 40 today and I probably have almost that many still left in my freezer. When it's time to bake, you don't even need to thaw them. Just plop them on a pan, give them a brush of milk or cream or an egg wash, and then sprinkle sugar on top. Bake at 400 for about 15 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. These are more biscuit-y scones, which I actually prefer. I think that next time I may up the sugar just a tad more.
IMG_10991 by you.

Last, but not least, I made Ina's Coconut Cupcakes, also from her first book. Warning: these are insanely decadent! I'm not sure I want to say exactly how much butter went into the cupcakes and frosting, but if you're curious, go ahead and click on the link above to the recipe on Food Network's website. I'm not really a huge fan of coconut, but these were fantastic! I did use a lot more coconut then she called for for the topping (probably double), and I also toasted the coconut until it was pretty brown because it was a bird-themed baby shower and I was going for a "nest" look. I attempted to put Jordan almonds on top to mimic the look of eggs, but they wouldn't stay on and frankly, I didn't think it looked that great.
IMG_11003 by you.

IMG_11002 by you.

Normally, when I plan a party, I go way overboard and get super ambitious about how much food I can make. Then as the date gets closer, I freak out and start dropping things and rejiggering my menu. For this shower, I knew that I was going to be on a time crunch and I tried really really hard to keep it realistic. I also tried to be extremely organized and do as much as possible in advance, even writing lists of things I wanted to accomplish each day this week. I think I achieved that goal. I rounded out my baking with a few simpler items: veggies, dips, a sandwich tray, green salad, fruit; I also asked some friends to pitch in with a few items. Here's some more pics of the food from today's brunch.

Summer fruit salad, one of my favorites. I only make this in the summer with super ripe fruit, although I've been known to occasionally sweeten it up with a couple of tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk.

IMG_10995 by you.

Tracee's delicious focaccia.
IMG_11008 by you.

Cara's very yummy mini cinnamon rolls
IMG_11006 by you.

And a shot of (almost) the full spread
IMG_11009 by you.

For more on the birds and crafty stuff, check out my other blog.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Recipe from another (book) planet

I'm starting to consider rethinking my approach to this blog. I've been cooking quite a bit lately...just not from the Pepin book. Oops.

In any case, I mixed up some mini cranberry orange scones for a baby shower I'm throwing this weekend. I won't be baking them till this weekend (no picture just yet since Troy and I ate the testers before I remembered to snap one). Like the coffee cake from a couple weeks ago, it's a recipe from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbook, which is one of my favorites. The recipe is also available on the Food Network website. I substitued orange-flavored cranberries for the dried strawberries. I meant to add orange zest too, but I forgot to buy an orange, so I used a little bit of Boyajian orange oil instead. By the way, if you've never used Boyajian citrus oils before, I highly recommend them! They are way better than any extract since they are the oil that's in the zest. I use orange & lemon oils all the time. In fact, the lemon oil is sort of the secret ingredient in my lemon cake. Shhh, don't tell!

I actually ended up having to make the dough twice. After baking and tasting my initial batch, I realized that not only were they not sweet enough, they verged on being really salty! Not that scones need to be sweet, per se, but these didn't even have a hint of sweetness. They weren't inedible or anything, but they did need a healthy amount of jam. Texture-wise, I thought they were great.

The second time around, I used 1/4 cup of sugar instead of 2 tbsp, and I also halved the salt (1 tsp). The results were WAY better. Unfortunately, I did forget to add the orange oil the second time, so they turned out to be cranberry scones instead of cranberry orange. Oh well, I guess you can't win every time.

I'm also making the sour cream coffee cake again, this time with cake flour and the proper amount of sour cream. I also used a spoon to swirl the streusel into the batter so that it'd be a little more evenly distributed. I had thought about trying to bake these as mini-muffins, but then I thought, why mess with near-perfection? The cake is so appealing to look at - and much less labor intensive.

More shower-food pictures and posts to come...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More non-cookbook cooking

Per the request of a friend, I made the lemon-raspberry swirl ice cream sandwiches from this blog yesterday. And let me just say, they are freaking super delicious. Totally worth the effort.

My very minor variations:
I did not have two 8-inch square pans, so I used one 9x12 baking sheet to make the cookie crust. Doing that meant my crust turned out smaller but thicker, which I don't really think is a bad thing, but it did make for fewer and/or smaller sandwiches. However, I do think that having the 8-inch pans would have made for more uniform-looking sandwiches, if you care about that sort of thing.

I also used a half-gallon of one of my favorite store-bought vanilla ice creams, instead of homemade and I think it worked out just fine. I'm not really sure I'd go to all the trouble to make homemade ice cream for something like this. I also left out the Limoncello, since A) I didn't have any; B) I hate having to purchase a $30 bottle of liqueur so that I can use 2 tablespoons in some recipe; and C) the friend I made these for is pregnant and can't consume alcohol. I'm sure it would have added some nice lemon flavor, but again, I thought they were pretty dang good anyways. I especially liked the touch of ginger in the cookie.

Oh, last minor thing was that I just used my microplane to zest the lemon for the raspberry compote instead of using big strips.

I will more than likely make these again. I think they'd make an excellent dessert for company. Another friend suggested I use cake pans to make what would look like one GIANT ice cream sandwich, which I thought would be funny. I may try the original blueberry version from Gourmet Magazine that this one is based on, just for kicks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I'm back! Well, mostly...

Sorry if it seems that I have fallen off the face of the earth in regards to updating this blog. Between all the traveling we've been doing this summer, and just the busyness of life in general, I have not been very good about keeping up. After spending almost 2 weeks in Iowa, I could not get my act together to do any sort of serious cooking, especially since we took another long trip to California just a few weeks later!

But I'm back now and slowing getting back into the swing of things. I have not had a chance to do any recipes from the Pepin book, but I have made a few other yummy things I thought I'd share.

First up are these amazing chicken enchiladas with a sour cream sauce, inspired by this recipe on my friend Jacki's blog. I made a few small changes: I cooked the chicken with a drained can of Ro-tel tomatoes and about 1/3 can of green enchilada sauce; then later when it came to making the sauce, instead of combining butter and cornstarch, I sauteed some chopped onions in butter and then added flour to make more of a traditional roux. I also added the rest of the enchilada sauce to the broth/sour cream mixture before adding it all to the roux to make the sauce. Troy declared these my best enchiladas ever! Sorry for the crappy picture - I grabbed my snappy cam since it was nearby and took one quick shot before we tore into them.

I'm also getting ready to throw a baby shower brunch for a friend in a couple weeks, so I've been playing around with some different ideas for the menu. Late last night, I decided to try out Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! recipe for Sour Cream Coffee Cake. I realized at the last minute that she uses cake flour, not all-purpose, and of course I did not have any, but I decided to just go for it. I'll add that while I do love her recipes, they almost invariably call for ingredients that I don't normally have on hand. Grr.

In any case, even with the all-purpose flour (I also came up a teeny bit short on sour cream), the cake still turned out fabulous. I was nervous at first because it did not look like very much batter, but boy did that puppy rise! It looked very very pretty coming out of the oven.

IMG_10927 by you.

IMG_10930 by you.

And after I added the maple glaze.

IMG_10933 by you.

IMG_10937 by you.

It was soooooo good! Very moist, very tender, very tasty. I do wish that I'd mixed more of the crumble topping in with the batter though, as the inside seemed a bit barren, but other than that I have no complaints.

IMG_10945 by you.

I also do feel compelled to mention that normally, when I make any kind of cake, I pretty much always alternate the wet & dry ingredients - in this case, the flour mixture and the sour cream - even when the recipe calls for you to dump it all in at once. But this time I decided to stick to Ina's instructions and added all the sour cream first and then the flour mixture (in 2 parts) and mixed till it was barely combined. I also resisted the urge to thin the batter out with some milk, as it was pretty thick. I'm glad that I followed directions (for a change, ha) because I think that's what helped keep the cake so tender. I think this is a definite keeper for the shower, and I will likely pick up some cake flour for the next run.

I also threw together a quickie little test appetizer: caramelized onions & goat cheese in a pre-baked phyllo shell. No real recipe, just sliced onions, caramelized in a pan with olive oil and a little bit of dried thyme and a splash of raspberry balsamic vinegar. Then I piled them into store-bought phyllo shells (found in the frozen section) and put a few crumbles of goat cheese on top. Baked them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes, just to warm everything up.

IMG_10943 by you.

They were good, but not great. I sort of added the balsamic vinegar on a whim, and I'm not sure it was the best idea. I think it took away too much from the sweetness of the onions. I think if I were to make these again, I'd probably omit the balsamic - or at least use regular, not raspberry, which was all I had. I'd also probably try to find vidalias or some other kind of sweet onion, and I'd use a lot more thyme as well, preferably fresh.

I had also never used the phyllo shells before and I didn't realize until I opened the box that they were already baked, and (according to the directions) ready to fill and serve. However, after tasting a couple filled tartlets, I realized they definitely needed to be baked again. The unbaked ones felt soggy in my mouth, even though I'd filled them just a minute or two before. Once baked, they stayed much crispier. I'm a bit on the fence as to whether these will make the brunch menu.

I'm thinking that it might be awhile before I get back to the cookbook, but stay tuned for other food-related adventures!