Monday, August 31, 2009

Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch

Read this, all the way to the end. Then maybe tell me what you think?

Peanut Butter Cheesecake Brownies

Because Bon Appetit wishes to taunt me with its glossy pages and its delicious recipes and its close-ups of towering slices of cake--with glistening frosting and nothing but a lonely fork beside them, just begging begging to be picked up--I immediately fainted when I received the January issue this year. A whole spread on Peanut Butter Desserts, the cover advertised? I still haven't read the rest of the issue. Mostly I've just focused on pages 64-71.

What I love about the desserts in this particular article is that they all use natural peanut butter, not the processed peanut-flavored product endowed with shelf-immortality. Don't get me wrong, Skippy has its place. But if you're a peanut butter nut (yeah, it's a pun, get over it) like me, as close to the peanut is where it's at.

So yester-evening, as the temperatures started to sag in Boston, I fired up the oven and baked a downsized batch of their Peanut Butter and Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake Brownies. I know, you just fainted too, right? Because I wasn't sure how big of a pan to use, I just meted out the ingredients into a cupcake tin and it worked perfectly. Unfortunately, I don't like brownie end pieces (I'm a gooey-from-the-middle kind of gal), which is basically what you get from the tin. If you hate this, use a muffin cup liner or simply do what I did and eat out the middle!

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake Brownies
makes 4; total time about 40 minutes, but I think they taste best cold, so if you can have patience, stash them in the fridge for an hour before eating

For the brownie layer:
2 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 egg, lightly beaten *(beat full egg and save other half for the topping)
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp flour
pinch salt

For the cheesecake layer:
2 oz cream cheese, soft
1 heaping Tbsp natural peanut butter
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 egg
1/2 Tbsp cream or half-and-half
1/2 Tbsp flour
1/2 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
  1. Preheat oven to 325º and spray 4 muffin cups with nonstick spray.
  2. First, the brownie layer: melt the chocolate and butter together in a small saucepan or in a microwave (slowly--only 20 or so seconds at a time!). Set aside. Meanwhile, beat sugar, 1/2 egg and vanilla with electric beaters--or your indefatigable arm strength--until fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Gradually add chocolate mixture then stir in flour and salt. Divide among 4 cupcake cups.
  3. Next, the cheesecake: Beat cream cheese, peanut butter and vanilla together until smooth. Add sugar gradually, beating until fluffy. Add remaining 1/2 of beaten egg and mix well, then cream, then flour.
  4. In a small bowl, place chopped chocolate and microwave at 15 second intervals until melty. Stir smooth. (You want to be extra special careful because chocolate on its own, i.e. no butter, oil, etc., will burn very easily. Go slow and check often.) When nice and melted, stir in 1 Tbsp of cream cheese mixture and mix well. Divide remaining cream cheese mixture between 4 cups and spread over top, then ladle chocolate-cream cheese mixture into the center of each. Using a toothpick, swirl chocolate and plain cream cheese mixtures together.
  5. Bake 15 minutes, then start checking. You want the edges to be slightly puffed and the center is set. I overbaked. Don't make the same mistake.
  6. Let cool slightly, then extract from tin. Chill in the freezer or fridge until ready to eat.

"Asian" Chicken Salad

There's this rumor going around that some people are actually reading this blog and actually noticing when I go, say, three weeks without posting anything. Admittedly, it's partly out of mere exhaustion, but partly because I have heretofore been 90% sure that my mother is the only one reading. I really do take pictures of almost everything I eat in anticipation of posting some day. What I have in optimistic creativity I lack in follow through.

So, let's try this again. Here is last night's dinner. Not life changing, but since this type of dish is popping up on chain-restaurant menus across the country (including a certain Jack-in-the-Box in a certain rural Texas town I recently visited), someone must be eating it. We have elsewhere discussed my preoccupation with salads, and as I love these flavors, I much prefer to toss them together myself. With the exception of snow peas (and the dressing), 100% of the components of this salad can be found at farmers markets right now. So buy there if you can. The "Asian" is in quotes because I'm pretty sure no one in Asia eats anything similar to this....

"Asian" Chicken Salad
serves 2; total time 20 minutes, less if you have precooked chicken

4-5 leaves napa cabbage
4-5 leaves romaine lettuce
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
4 radishes, halved and thinly sliced
1 inch thinly sliced cucumber
8-10 snow peas, julienned
2-3 scallions (green onions), chopped
2ish Tbsp chopped cilantro
2ish Tbsp chopped mint
small handful of peanuts, chopped
1 breast grilled chicken

for the dressing:
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 good blop of honey from the honey bear
1 tsp fresh grated ginger (or sprinkle of dried will do)
1-2 Tbsp toasted sesame oil**
(optional, 1 Tbsp creamy peanut butter and a squirt of hot sauce or sprinkle of red pepper flakes, for some kick)

  1. If your chicken breast is not already cooked (ala the Whole Foods prepared foods counter or rotisserie chicken aisle) grill it on your George Foreman, broil it in the oven, poach it in some water--whatever you like. Just get it cooked and slice it up.
  2. Divide salad ingredients into two bowls: do this as you chop them to save time and space. Whisk dressing ingredients together vigorously and pour over salads. Top with chopped herbs and nuts.
  3. Tada!
**Special note: sesame oil and toasted sesame oil are two very different things. Be sure you get toasted sesame oil for the best flavor.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Marinated Eggplant and Goat Cheese Toasts

Found some Asian eggplant at the farmer's market yesterday and remembered, somewhere deep in my mental files, a recipe from Gourmets-long-past that we had liked last summer. First, you disk up the long, thin specimens, broil them briefly, and marinate them for at least 30 minutes or up to a couple of days. Room temperature is their ideal state, so even if that room's temperature is in the 80s--as mine relentlessly is these days--at least you don't have to fire up the oven any longer than 10 minutes on this one.

I think it's designed as an appetizer, but add a thick piece of toast schmeared with goat cheese, and call it lunch (or dinner, like we did last night).

Marinated Eggplant and Goat Cheese Toasts
(serves 1-2; active time, about 15 minutes + 30 min marinating, but can be done well in advance)

1 lb. asian eggplants, sliced into thin rounds
olive oil
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp capers
1/4 cup chopped mint
goat cheese
  1. Place eggplant slices in a single layer on sheet pan and brush with olive oil (or spray with cooking spray), then sprinkle with salt. Broil 5 minutes, then flip, repeat, and broil 5 minutes more.
  2. In a bowl, combine vinegar, 2 Tbsp olive oil, capers, and mint. Toss cooked eggplant in mixture and allow to marinate at least half an hour.
  3. Spread cheese on your toast and use as a scoop or a plate.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ice Cream Cupcakes

Ok, this recipe is so cute it almost makes me want to ralph. Except for the fact that it is so friggin perfect for a summer evening, I would have completely denied that I ever made it. Lucky for you, it is perfectly one-, two-, or twenty-person sized, so it made the blog cut! Bonus: super easy.

Ice Cream Cupcakes
(serves as many or as few as you want, depending on how much of the ingredients you buy; takes at least 2 hours)

1 slice pound cake, about 1 inch thick
2 scoops ice cream
freshly whipped cream
  • Take two cupcake liners (foil works best, but doubled-up paper will probably work too) and cut two circles of pound cake to fit in the bottom. Top with a scoop of ice cream and set in freezer to harden, at least 1 hour.

  • Whip your cream or break out the cool whip and "ice" the "cupcakes" with whipped cream. Return to the freezer to fully freeze, another hour.
Notes: I used lemon pound cake and blueberry ice cream, but work with any combination of flavors you like. Truly, this little concoction would make an adorable dinner party denouement: perfect single-size, able to be prepared well ahead of time. If you just want one or two, try buying a single slice of pound cake from your local bakery.

Jammy Jam

This post is not a recipe or an instructional, mostly just a tip that I've learned through a little practice. Ever noticed how tooth-bracingly sweet many jams are? Ever heard of agave nectar?

It's a sweetener extracted from the agave plant, mostly found in the southwest U.S. and Mexico. It resembles honey, though it's sweeter and with a much lower glycemic index--meaning it doesn't spike your blood sugar and trigger and insulin response the way sugar does.

Very roughly speaking, this is the principle that diets like Sugar Busters, Nutrisystem, and in some ways Weight Watchers operate on: good sugars (certain fruits, breads, lactose, etc.) versus less advantageous ones (refined sugars, processed foods, corn syrup, etc.). The "better" sugars don't invoke the insulin response, which, when it runs out of calories to process, simply stores fat. A lower glycemic index = lower sugar response = less fat storage.

PHEW, all that to say, I've been making jam with agave syrup instead of sugar lately. All you need is a low sugar pectin like Pomona's, and a really big pot. Check Pomona out. You'll thank me, and be proud of yourself for making your own jam!

Cold Cantaloupe Soup

Oh baby, nothing like cold soup in the summer. No stove. No oven. No heat.

Fruit soup is usually considered more of an appetizer or dessert course than the main event itself. It's up to you, really. You like fruit? Me too! Sounds like a meal!

Cold Cantaloupe Soup
(serves 4 as a side/app; 2 as the whole deal; total time about 10 minutes)

1 small cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup yogurt
1 Tbsp lime juice (lemon will do in a pinch)
1 Tbsp chopped mint
  • Place everybody in food processor or blender and whiz, whiz, whiz until nice and creamy, about 1 minute (can be done in batches if you're working with a small machine). Store in refrigerator. Will keep about a week.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why you should join a CSA

Because you don't get to choose your vegetables; they choose you.

This is a carrot. Apparently, carrots don't all come in the comforting, non-trifurcated shape you are used to. And you know why you've never seen this carrot? Because the grocery store won't take it. The grocery store only wants pretty produce, the kind that shows very little signs of ever having touched the earth. The grocery store wants huge, cascading mountains of fire-engine tomatoes and glossy apples. Its intentions may once have been good--scary looking produce has a better chance of being diseased produce--but have become instead a marketing strategy designed to give you warm, fuzzy feelings about your purchasing options and make you want to use them.

Do I sound cynical? I will now admit that I marched down to Whole Foods today and bought several items from their displays (though, I must say, I was hunting for their reassuring signs, "I'm a Local!", indicating food that has come from nearby farms). Wandering the produce aisles in big, fancy grocery stores is, for me, like gliding dreamily through shoe stores for some women or scholars losing themselves amid towers of titles in bookstores. It's comforting. It's attractive. It makes me hungry.

But it's also a bit of an illusion. A disappointingly mediocre amount of those piles will actually be purchased, taken home, and eaten. It seems the only way to convince us that we want something is to show us more than we will ever need, and then throw half of it away.

Creamy "green" barley

As the weather maintains its sweltering severity and my days are already full of working and errand running and trying to see my husband and sleeping somewhere in there, I find myself gravitating more and more to one-dish meals. I don't mean Food TV creations designed to cause you the least amount of hassle (and, correspondingly, the least possible interaction with your food). I mean decently-rounded meals that can be stirred together in one bowl and happily, if somewhat lazily, consumed. Spoon to mouth, that's all I'm asking for.

Since ice cream does not a meal make (at least not every night), I'm falling back on my old steadies, whole grains. Tonight I wanted a creamy bowl of pearled barley flecked with nutrient-rich green vegetables. Instead of making a cream sauce, then stirring my grains in at the end, I had a thought: why not just take the elements of the cream sauce and just cook the barley straight in it? Remove a step (and a dirty dish)? Wouldn't you know, it worked!

As always, use the vegetables of your choice, just make sure they're cooked--or sufficiently edible--first. This would certainly be a decent meal on its own, but we added some broiled fish and it was perfect. It's best eaten warm, but can be stored in the fridge and reheated later.

Creamy "Green" Barley
(serves 2-3; start to finish about 45 minutes)

1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
2/3 cup pearled barley
1/2 cup broccoli florets
2 cloves garlic
4 stems of greens of your choice (I used collards)
1/4 cup peas, freshly shelled or frozen, defrosted
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 Tbsp lemon juice
Salt, pepper, and olive oil
  1. To reduce dishes, start by filling a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Stem and slice green leaves into thin strips and blanche in boiling water 5-7 minutes, until tender. Drain.
  2. Now, take that same saucepan and over medium high heat, saute onions with a little oil and a sprinkle of salt about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add broth (or water, alternately), milk, barley, and 1 tsp salt. Bring to a simmer then reduce heat and cook until almost all liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Take it off heat before the barley has sucked up all liquid--that's where your creaminess will come from.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400º. Toss broccoli and garlic cloves in olive oil and salt. Roast 20 minutes. (Alternately, steam or saute broccoli until firm-tender.)
  4. When barley is ready, stir in vegetables and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

**Very important note!! What I forgot: bacon. I had every intention of frying a few slices of bacon and stirring in their tiny crumbles. Try it, and tell me how it went.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cantaloupe Sorbet

If you ask me--and I'm sure you would, given the opportunity--the best thing about summer is not freedom from school or warm lazy evenings or even (gasp!) the Red Sox.

It's fruit.

Everywhere blooming, growing, weighing down bushes, sagging on vines, bursting with sweetness, ripening too quickly, then disappearing before you have the chance to get sick of it. Because David and I have been working hard at eating as locally as possible, and because we live just south of the North Pole, our fruit season is short. But don't pity us. We are extravagant (hence the bounty of cantaloupe recipes you've been/will be seeing). It is my personal goal to overindulge on every fruit in its season, so I can live without until it comes again.

I recently invested in a copy of Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts, a brilliant but simple approach to enjoying the sweeter part of your meal in line with the seasons. Shere has a lovely way of bringing out the essence of whatever she's highlighting, not drowning it in cream cheese icing or pounds of cocoa powder. It is in this book that she includes a "sherbet" recipe for almost every fruit--and almost every recipe is identical.

Fruit + sugar = sorbet.
Cantaloupe Sorbet
(serves 3-4 but freezes nicely; start to finish 3 hours; requires food processor or blender)

1 medium cantaloupe
3/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp vodka or other liquor of your choice (optional)
  1. Peel, seed, and cut cantaloupe into large chunks. Place in food processor or blender with sugar and liquor and process until smooth and sugar has dissolved. Place in ice cream maker and churn or pour into container and place in freezer, stirring every 30 minutes until frozen through.
Note: after a day or two in the freezer, this sorbet will firm up. A few days later, if it's still lingering, be sure to let it sit out for 10-ish minutes (or give it 20 seconds in the microwave) and stir well before consuming.


Total failure as a downsized cobbler, total GENIUS as an ice cream accessory.

Cobbler can be a very personal thing: some devoted to Grammy's biscuit topping, some preferring the kind of batter that rises up around the fruit, some only eat it from a skillet ... cakey, cornmeal, gooey, crunchy. Show me ten ladies, each with a basket of fruit, and I'll show you ten different ways to throw together a cobbler.

I happen to be of the camp that greatly dislikes the "biscuit method," that is, the piling of the fruit on the bottom and the plunking of biscuit-like dough in rounds on top. I don't like my fruit and my topping segregated into different layers, usually dry and crumbly ones that I must fork through like a picky child hunting for the good stuff.

Enter this delightful peach cobbler recipe from the William and Mary Cookbook of all places. It works fantastically as a 13x9-inch crowd pleaser, but how about just for two? Well, the answer is (according to my math), not so good. I believe my problem was pan size. I went too big, leaving the batter too much room to spread out and not enough resistance to rise. The result was about an inch of bubbly caramel interspersed with peach slices and cake. Unsuccessful as a stand-alone entity, but unbelievable spooned over ice cream. You're welcome.

Peach Cobbler Ice Cream Topping
(serves 2; start to finish about 40 minutes. If you use a 3x3 or smaller pan, you might just get something resembling cobbler)

1 medium peach
2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
pinch cinnamon
2 1/2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
3 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp butter, melted
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. Slice peach (no need to peel) into wedges and layer in a small pan. I used a 4x4 which gave me more of a topping than a cake. If you go smaller, you may have better luck achieving cobblerness. Pour lemon juice over slices and sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon over top.
  2. In a small bowl, combine flour, sugar, powder, salt, and milk. Whisk smooth; batter will be thin. Pour over peaches and drizzle melted butter over all. Bake 35-ish minutes, until edges are nice and bubbly. Serve with ice cream.