Saturday, February 28, 2009

Recipe: Cheater's chili

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I would like to be the kind of cook who makes every single thing from scratch. Or, at least, I would like you to think that I'm the kind of cook who makes every single thing from scratch. But I'm a bad liar. So here's my confession: I don't. I take shortcuts with prepared and packaged food items all the time. I admit that I am powerless over whipped cream from a squirt can, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, and the chili seasoning mix that comes in a little envelope and has the chili recipe on the back.

I know there are more flavorful chili recipes out there. I've seen them. But with the mix I can have the chili simmering in 10 minutes and can then go do something else until dinnertime. And, with a little doctoring (what, you think I wouldn't tinker?), it's really pretty good.

Cheater's chili
  • 3 lbs ground beef, turkey or a combination
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 envelopes chili seasoning (I like McCormick's but they're mostly the same - some spices, lots of salt)
  • 1 large can diced tomatoes with liquid
  • 2 cans black beans, drained but not rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp cocoa powder (the secret ingredient for all good red chili)
  • pinch of cayenne or dried red pepper
  • Garnishes: crushed tortilla chips, shredded cheese, hot sauce, sour cream
Saute the ground meat in a large pot over high heat until it's no longer pink. Add the onion and cook, stirring, another 3 or 4 minutes, until the onion is softened. Add the chili mix, tomatoes, beans, cocoa powder, and cayenne or dried red pepper. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer, covered, at least 45 minutes and up to 3 hours, checking the pot occasionally to make sure it's not too dry (if it is, add a little water). Serve hot with crushed tortilla chips, cheese, hot sauce and sour cream on the side.

By the way, this makes a big pot, and it tastes even better on the second, third, fourth and fifth days. After five days, freeze whatever's left for a future dinner.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Recipe: When winter in southern California hands you lemons, make lemon bars

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There is an old, twisted, very funky lemon tree in the backyard of Ocean Pilates in Santa Monica, where I go every week to try to improve my physical being at the hands of my wonderful instructor Erin. (There are also two beautiful old fig trees which I raided over the summer to make jam, but that's for another time.) The lemon tree is so strange-looking, and the lemons so oddly shaped, that Erin at first thought they were limes, and then deemed them completely inedible. But patience, patience! Now that it's the end of winter and the lemons are fully ripe, they're sensational. Still very oddly shaped, though. Makes me wonder whether all lemon trees send out these weirdos, and the commercial growers are just very good at sorting.

With Erin's blessing, I've been raiding the lemon tree lately. Lots of lemonade in our house, which makes my kids and husband very happy. I, on the other hand, love lemon desserts above all others, and I'd been craving lemon bars.

This extremely simple recipe comes together in minutes. I love the way the lemon curd develops a tiny meringue-like crust on top. I love the shortness of the crust. Okay, I admit it, I love the whole package.

And yes, I know these are traditionally finished with a dusting of powdered sugar. But who has the patience to go through an extra step when there are lemon bars in front of you, waiting to be eaten? Not I. Never. (Also, I find that the extra sugar on top takes away from the tart surprise of the lemon curd, which, to my mind, is the whole point of lemon bars in the first place.)


Lemon bars in winter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

First, make the crust:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
  • pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Spray a 9x13 baking pan with cooking spray. Press the dough into the pan evenly. Bake the crust for 15 minutes, until it starts to turn golden.

While the crust is baking, make the filling:
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 5/8 cup lemon juice
Beat the eggs in a large bowl until light and frothy. Stir in the sugar. Sift the baking powder and flour over the egg mixture and combine. Add the lemon juice. Whisk until everything is well combined.

Take the crust out of the oven when it's ready. Pour the lemon filling over it and return the pan to the oven. Bake 30 minutes or until the filling is set and no longer jiggly when you shake the pan. Cool completely - refrigerate, even - before cutting into bars. I was impatient, which is why the bar shown in the photo above is less than perfectly cut.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Recipe: Spaghetti with salmon and peas (dinner with limitations)

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Tonight's dinner came together quickly, by necessity. I had been out all afternoon with my 10-year-old son, while Michael was home with two 7-year-old boys (ours plus a friend). The friend, who is one of the dearest boys I know, and whom I adore completely, decided to stay for dinner. Great! However, said friend comes with two gastronomic issues. One, his family keeps kosher, so he eats only kosher meat, which I didn't happen to have. And two, he is highly allergic to eggs.

Now I am quite used to cooking for people with issues and limitations. I can do gluten-free, lactose-free, kosher, vegetarian, vegan even. But for some reason, whenever this kosher-no-egg kid is at our house, I never have any kosher meat, and all I can think to make is grilled cheese or pizza. And they'd had pizza for lunch.

On top of all this, I have not been food shopping for a while because we're trying to whittle down the supplies in our freezers and pantry. So the fresh options were limited.

The canned Alaskan salmon saved me. I buy it in big plastic-bound packages at Costco, eight or 10 cans at a time. Most of the time I use it for lunchbox sandwiches - tuna has too much mercury, and my kids don't mind salmon salad as a substitute. But sandwiches weren't going to cut it tonight. I had to improvise. So here's what I made. Everyone liked it, especially the darling guest boy. One more alternative to grilled cheese!

Spaghetti with salmon and peas

  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 3 shallots, chopped
  • 4 Tbsp flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • zest and juice of 1 large lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 lb frozen peas
  • 3 6-oz cans Alaskan salmon, drained, liquid reserved
Cook spaghetti in salted water according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add shallots and cook 1 minute, until shallots are softened. Add flour and stir for 1 minute. Add milk and whisk until flour is dissolved and there are no lumps. Bring to a simmer; the sauce will start to thicken. Add reserved salmon juices, wine, lemon juice and zest, and salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce a few minutes to blend flavors. Add peas and bring back to a simmer.

Flake the salmon in a large bowl.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and dump into the bowl with the salmon. Pour the cream sauce on top and mix together. Serve immediately.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Recipe: Mirna's squash blossom quesadillas

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Quesadillas - another food I never encountered before moving to California. In fact, I'm pretty sure that no tortilla ever entered my parents' house while I was growing up in New York suburbia. Ever. I don't even remember tortilla chips. We had good old Ruffles, and pretzels, and the occasional pork rind (that might have been just once).

And before you native West Coasters start gloating and feeling all superior, I'd like to know how many of you ever saw an authentic loaf of corn rye, or a kasha knish, in your house as a child. We all bear the scars of our geography, people.

Anyway, it wasn't until I was 32 and a new mother that the quesadilla entered my life. And it did so quietly, gently, without my even noticing, really. Mirna, the incredible woman who helped me learn the day-to-day art of caring for babies, made quesadillas. For her own lunch, mostly, at first. And then I realized how simple it was: a tortilla, some cheese, fold in half. Like grilled cheese, but flatter and easier. And I was hooked.

[An aside: My seven-year-old son has been in a quesadilla phase for the past year or so. I'd say he eats on average 10 a week, at breakfast, snacktime, or dinner (if he doesn't fancy what I've prepared). I hope no one decides that quesadillas cause cancer - that would be too painful to contemplate.]

Mirna would often go out to the backyard and come in with a handful of something to add to her lunch. She made excellent tuna salad with canned tuna, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and mixed chopped herbs. And when the summer garden was starting to take off, she'd bring in a few bright yellow zucchini flowers and put them in a quesadilla. They tasted - well, a lot like zucchini, only a little tangier and more concentrated. Despite my initial hesitation (flowers in food? I was too young to appreciate the whole nasturtium-in-salad thing in the 80s), I loved them. Now I plant summer squash as much for the flowers that come first as for the vegetables that show up later on.

Mirna's squash blossom quesadillas
  • 2 flour tortillas
  • 1/3 cup Monterey Jack cheese
  • 6-8 squash blossoms, washed, stems removed
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Put one tortilla in the skillet; sprinkle the cheese on top, and place the flowers over the cheese. Top with the other tortilla and grill about one minute or until golden brown on the bottom, pressing down with a spatula a few times. Flip and repeat. Cut into wedges and serve. Guacamole makes an excellent partner.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Baking bread soothes the soul

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I go through phases when it comes to baking bread. It's something I feared initially, when I was learning to cook in my early twenties. And then I conquered it, sort of, while I was living on the upper west side of Manhattan, cooking in my tiny galley kitchen in my tiny (well, not by New York standards) apartment. I learned what to do with yeast, anyway, and started making basic loaves with basic techniques. Nothing fancy.

My grandmother, who lived in Queens, used to come in to visit me for the afternoon once in a while. She'd pull up a chair at the entrance of my tiny kitchen and sit while I cooked. She'd backseat-cook entire dinner parties. But she didn't have a lot of experience with bread, so in this one area (and, believe me, in this one area alone) she learned from me.

My favorite bread to bake in those days was a deep pumpernickel loaf. There was a spice and bulk grains shop on the east side, around 10th street I think, called Pete's, or something like that. They sold a mix for pumpernickel bread - you had to add the yeast and water, but the flours and salt and molasses were already in it. I loved the way the light-gray flour mixture turned dark brown when it baked up, and the smell was incredible.

Lately I've been in the mood for something lighter, like the parmesan-dusted rolls pictured above. I don't have an exact recipe for these rolls, but the dough has eggs, a little sugar and buttermilk, an idea I got from Clemence Gossett at Gourmandise Desserts. The buttermilk keeps the dough soft and tender; this batch had the consistency of a nice challah. I should have put in more salt, though.

I make all my breads in a stand mixer, by the way - I'm way too lazy to knead by hand.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Recipe: Simple radish salad

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Time for a little survey.

Everyone who doesn't like radishes, raise your hand.

I see a few.

Now, everyone who thinks radishes are boring, spicy, only fit to be served next to the carrot and celery sticks at East coast diners, not interesting enough to stand on their own, a vegetable only your grandmother could love...raise your hand.

Ah, a few more.

Well, let me tell you something. This recipe will change all of your minds. It's incredibly simple, incredibly beautiful, and incredibly delicate and flavorful. Wipe any radish preconceptions from your mind. Start fresh.

Radish salad
  • 3 bunches of radishes, greens removed, scrubbed and ends trimmed
  • 1 juicy lemon
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil, or more to taste
  • a generous pinch of coarse or flaked salt (I use fleur de sel)
Using a mandoline or a food processor with the slicing blade, slice the radishes extremely thinly into a bowl. Only use your food processor if you own the very, very thin slicing blade - I don't, which is why I use a mandoline.

A side note: For those of you who might not know of this very useful kitchen tool, this OXO is the one I wish I owned (I'm still waiting for my old one to wear out). Do be careful not to slice off the tips of your fingers; radishes are small. When I slice radishes on the mandoline, I leave a bit of the stem attached and use that to grip the radishes as I'm pushing them through the slicer.

Back to the recipe: Squeeze the lemon over the radishes, then add the olive oil and a pinch of the salt. Toss, taste, and adjust. I find I usually need a little more oil and wish I had put in a little less salt. With luck, you'll learn from my mistakes.

Let the salad sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes. The radishes will wilt slightly and give off some liquid, which will combine with the lemon juice and oil to make the dressing. As a bonus, the dressing, and then the radishes themselves, will turn a lovely shade of pink. This is truly one of the most beautiful little salads I know.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bacon: There's nothing better

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This is my single favorite Costco food item. I like it so much, and my children like it so much, that for a while I considered writing a parenting column called "With Bacon on Top," about how to get your kids to do things they would prefer not to do. The point being (am I stating the obvious?) that if you put bacon on top of anything, they will eat it. Maybe even ice cream. Note to self: Bacon-flavored ice cream. Try that sometime.

Here are some of the things I do with this pre-cooked, already crumbled bacon. Which, by the way, does not taste artificial at all. It's really good.

  1. Add it to scrambled eggs, then put the eggs on toast with cheese for a quick breakfast sandwich.
  2. Make a quiche using this bacon, shredded Gruyere cheese and blanched asparagus.
  3. Sprinkle it into chicken salad.
  4. Add it to a bolognese sauce (saute it with the onions and garlic, before the ground meat goes in) - you won't believe the depth of flavor.
  5. Sprinkle it on pizza, either homemade (before baking) or takeout (after, naturally).
  6. Add it to a Caesar salad.
  7. Use it in any kind of bean soup.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Your turn!