Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Whole wheat pear muffins

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On the days when I work at home I try to have a snack ready for the kids when they get in from school. Sometimes all I have time to do is wash a bunch of grapes. Other days I take a midday break and make something special.

These whole wheat pear muffins were on the kitchen counter when they came home one day last week. Why is it so gratifying to see your kids sniff the air and smile? Why does it feel so good to watch them cram warm, cinnamon-dusted muffins into their mouths?

And why, why am I always compelled to say "Use a plate, take a napkin, don't get crumbs on the floor"? Why can't I just enjoy the moment and forget about the crumbs?

I can't, though.

Note: I am in love with white whole wheat flour. It adds fiber and nutrients without making baked goods heavy. I prefer King Arthur unbleached white whole wheat flour, which my local grocery store stocks. There are several brands, so use what you can find. And if you absolutely can't find white whole wheat flour and don't want to mail order it from King Arthur, use regular whole wheat flour - but be forewarned that your muffins will be denser and a little more like rocks.

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Whole wheat pear muffins
Made with ripe fresh pears and white whole wheat flour, these muffins are hearty, healthy and delicious.
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
  • 2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large or 3 small ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, 1 cup of the brown sugar, and oil until smooth. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.Dump the dry ingredients into the bowl with the egg mixture. With a wooden spoon or spatula, gently mix together just until combined. Add the vanilla and diced pears and mix again.Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin, dividing it evenly among the cups. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining 2 Tbsp brown sugar and the cinnamon; sprinkle the cinnamon mixture on top of the batter in each muffin cup.Bake the muffins about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few crumbs (but no raw batter) clinging to it. (If you're making mini-muffins instead, start checking them after 12 minutes.) Cool the muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then take them out of the muffin pan and cool them the rest of the way on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12 muffins or 24 mini-muffins

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Black bean dip with dill {vegan}

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A modern-day fairy tale:

Once upon a time, a New York girl moved to Los Angeles. 

She traveled west to figure out whether the guy she thought was going to be her forever guy was, indeed, life partner material. It was far, but she was happy to go - somehow she'd always known she wouldn't spend the rest of her years in The Land of the Great Skyscrapers.

The guy exceeded expectations, but the transition was hard. The New York girl's whole family was in New York. Her dearest friends, too, still lived among the Great Skyscrapers. The only friend she had in Los Angeles was the guy - and, given the stresses any couple faces when first moving in together, that wasn't quite enough. The New York girl was lonely, despite the terrific guy's heroic efforts.

The New York girl had one connection in Los Angeles - a former colleague with whom she'd crossed paths once or twice and who had made the journey west from New York a year earlier. Bravely, the New York girl called the colleague and, following local traditions, they did lunch.

The colleague introduced the New York girl to some of the finer points of Los Angeles living. Take-out vegan food at Erewhon Market. Late afternoon walks around city blocks lined with Spanish-style fourplexes. Meyer lemons. Bougainvillea. Hiking Runyon Canyon. And once - at a party where the New York girl arrived knowing no one and left with the impression that people in Los Angeles were way nicer than the New Yorkers she was used to dealing with - a light, garlic-scented, herb-flecked black bean dip.  

Little by little, the New York girl adjusted to life in Los Angeles. The colleague was a few years ahead in the Game of Life, had her kids earlier than the New York girl. The New York girl and the terrific guy moved closer to the ocean; the colleague went the other way, up into the Hollywood Hills. A few miles make a big difference when it comes to Los Angeles traffic. They saw less of each other as their kids grew older and went to different schools and everyone got on with their Los Angeles lives.

But the New York girl never forgot the colleague's kindness in helping her navigate life in L.A. And every time she makes the light, garlic-scented, herb-flecked black bean dip, she thinks of the colleague's bright eyes and beatific smile, and the comfort it brought her lo those two decades ago, and she says "thank you" under her breath.


Black beans and fresh dill may sound like a strange combination, and this dip sure won't win any beauty contests, but the flavors are completely delicious together. Serve with tortilla or pita chips if you don't mind the carbs, or go another direction with sliced cucumbers, daikon radish rounds or bell pepper strips.

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Vegan black bean dip with fresh dill and garlic
A light, garlicky, herb-flecked bean dip. Serve this vegan dip with crackers, tortilla chips, pita, sliced cucumbers, daikon radish rounds and bell pepper strips.
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed
  • 1 clove fresh garlic
  • generous 1/2 cup fresh dill fronds
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (from 1 small lemon or 1/2 large lemon)
  • 1/8 tsp salt, or to taste
  • freshly ground pepper
Put the beans, garlic, dill, lemon juice, salt and pepper into a blender or food processor and blitz until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Serve at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 2 cups

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Weston and the whipped cream

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What do you do when your sensible, responsible, self-motivated, self-sufficient 10-year-old son asks to do something crazy?

I said yes.

The crazy thing in question involved a hot summer Saturday, two cans of whipped cream (did you know about chocolate-flavored whipped cream?), a plastic bowl, the backyard, and Weston's face. And then, later, the hose.

We had fun.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to bake bread at home

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Nothing makes my husband and two boys happier than a loaf of homemade bread on the kitchen counter.

When it comes to baking bread, I go through phases. I get into a rhythm and turn out a loaf every few days for a month. Baking bread for my family makes me happy.

Then I realize that my whole family is eating too much darn bread and starting to look a little puffy around the middle, and I stop cold turkey.

One good thing about baking bread at home is that homemade bread tastes great dipped into soup. Soup is made from vegetables. Therefore, when I bake bread my family eats more vegetables. (This is my attempt at rationalizing and justifying my desire to bake bread. Do you buy it?)

I have tried all the fashionable methods of baking bread and haven't been satisfied with any of them in their entirety. Jim Lahey's no-knead method makes a great loaf but creates way too many floury kitchen towels. The Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day method is convenient but I find the texture of the loaves too cottony for my taste. I kept a sourdough starter for almost 20 years, moved it cross-country three times, and made more than 100 loaves from it before it got contaminated with an unpleasant mold and I had to toss it.

So I've come up with my own method that takes elements from here and there and turns out what I think is the perfect loaf of bread: thick, crisp crust; chewy interior speckled with bubbles; a sour-ish flavor without fussing with sourdough.

The key to the best texture is a very wet dough. Wet. Almost as wet as muffin batter. Forget that thing about kneading bread dough until it's as smooth as a baby's bottom. That works for other kinds of bread but not for an artisan-style multigrain bread. And like Jim Lahey's bread, it should be baked in a cast iron or enamel covered Dutch oven - the cover traps moisture and keeps the loaf tender on the inside.

This recipe is very flexible and very forgiving. Look at the proportions and the method, not the exact measurements. If you don't have a stand mixer, you can do this by hand, but I warn you, you will be tired. And don't hesitate to ask questions - leave a comment below and I'll talk you through it.

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Homemade artisan multigrain bread
Use this method to make beautiful loaves of artisan-style bread, with a thick crust, chewy interior and sourdough-like flavor.
  • 1/2 tsp instant yeast
  • 1/4 tsp honey
  • 2 1/2 cups warm water (approximate)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast, honey and 1/2 cup warm water. Stir with a spoon and let stand 5 minutes. The yeast will "bloom" and start to foam. As soon as you see the yeast activating, move on to the next step.Add the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, cornmeal (if using) and salt to the bowl. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and turn it to low. With the mixer running, start adding the warm water in a slow stream. Stop now and then to let the mixer distribute the water among the dry ingredients. Keep adding water until the dough comes together. It should be wet and should NOT pull away from the sides of the bowl completely - you're looking for the texture of thick muffin batter. The dough will require different amounts of water on different days - the weather affects this - so don't be afraid to use more if you need to. When all the ingredients are incorporated and the dough is clearly one single entity but still very wet, let the mixer run for 5 minutes. (This will start to develop the gluten.) After 5 minutes, stop the mixer, remove the dough hook, remove the bowl from the mixer, cover it with plastic wrap, and stick it in a warm place for 12 hours or overnight. The dough will rise a bit and get bubbly.After 12 hours or the next morning, scatter some all-purpose flour on your counter and spray a sheet of parchment paper with cooking spray. Using a spatula or dough scraper, carefully turn the dough out of the bowl onto the counter, trying to disturb its bubbly structure as little as possible. Sprinkle a little more flour on top and, using your hands, gather the ends of the dough toward the center of the pile, making a rough "ball" (in quotation marks because the dough will be very loose and will be more of a blob than a ball). With the "seam" side down, set the blob of dough onto the prepared parchment paper. Spray a piece of plastic wrap with cooking spray and loosely tent that over the dough. Leave the blob of dough on the counter for about 2 hours. It won't really rise, but it will expand a bit - that's fine.While the blob is resting, put a cast iron or heavy enameled covered Dutch oven into your oven and turn the heat to 450. Yes, you want to heat the pot with the oven.When the blob has finished resting and the oven is hot, carefully remove the pot from the oven and take off the lid. Carefully lift the parchment and plop the whole thing into the pot, paper and all. Cover the pot immediately and return it to the oven. Bake covered for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake the loaf uncovered another 20-25 minutes. Remove the loaf from the pot and cool on a rack or board at least 30 minutes before cutting.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 large round loaf

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why I shop at 99 Cents Only Stores

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Note: This post is not sponsored, paid or, or in any way supported by anyone or anything other than my own opinions and my own pocketbook. I am a very happy and frequent customer of the 99 Cents Only Stores.

There's a chain of dollar stores in California and other southwestern states called 99 Cents Only Stores. There's one very close to my house. And I buy a lot of my groceries there, including excellent fresh produce.

Buy produce at a dollar store? Yes. The 99 Cents Only Stores stock produce that is high-quality, fresh, and sometimes even organic. They have brand-name groceries, too. And each item costs...99 cents.

You never know what you'll find and you can't count on buying the same thing two days in a row. But if you're an opportunistic food shopper, you can do very well at the 99 Cents Only Stores. I've found that the best time to go is around 10am - they've put out the day's stock but it isn't heavily picked over yet.

Here's what I bought on one trip this week - I think you'll be impressed. Next time you see a 99 Cents Only Store, stop in and see what's they've got.

Persian cucumbers (2 packages)
Sliced Baby Bella mushrooms (4 packages)
Sicilian sea salt - coarse and fine
Organic spinach - 1 pound for 99 cents! (2 packages)
Precooked brown rice (4 packages)
Brown sugar (3 packages)
White and orange cauliflower

Coconut milk (4 cans)
2-pound bags of all-purpose flour - this mill usually sells wholesale (I looked them up) (3 packages)
Cactus tortillas - I love these for quesadillas (2 packages)

Beautiful heads of crunchy romaine (2 packages)
Limes (1 bag)
Three kinds of melon
Whole wheat pasta (4 bags)