Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Creamy Pumpkin Penne

I've been cooking more than I've been posting, and have a few winners waiting in the wings for future write-ups. But this is one I made tonight, and loved, as did the rest of my family (well, sans Sam, who's still a bit young for penne).

The recipe is pretty basic. It involved a pound of pasta (penne, in this case) and a cream sauce made with roux-thickened milk, cream cheese, and parmesan, plus a can of pumpkin. To this I added a package of frozen cubed butternut squash that we had in the freezer and some cauliflower that I roasted for about twenty minutes. I think there are a number of things you could add to the base: shrimp, bacon, peas, mushrooms, or chicken are just a few off the top of my head. I liked the squash and cauliflower because they seemed particularly fall-y.

The best part of this recipe was that Charlotte loved it. I gave her about ten meager little pennes in the sauce only, not wanting to tempt fate. She devoured them, and asked for more, and even tried (and apparently liked) a couple pieces of cauliflower. Success!

Here's a brief recipe, with some of the amounts estimated because I just played it by ear:

Cook pasta and drain, set aside.

Meanwhile in a large pot, melt 2-3 T butter over medium heat. Add a clove of garlic, chopped, and saute for a minute or two. Make sure your heat isn't too high--burned garlic is nasty. Then, add either 1 T snipped fresh sage (we have some in the garden still) or 1 t dried, and stir for a minute. Add 1 T salt and black pepper to taste, plus 2 t nutmeg and stir. Then add 1/3 cup flour and stir for a minute, letting the flour soak up all that butter. When the roux begins to bubble a bit, but not brown too much, add 1 1/2 cups of milk. (I may have used more, but I just kept splashing milk in if the sauce seemed too thick, so have it on hand). Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until milk is thickened. Add 1 block cream cheese chopped into eight or so chunks (I recommened full fat here for the creaminess, but I guess you can use reduced. Again, I reiterate: fat free cream cheese is the devil) and stir for a minute. Add one can of pumpkin puree (NOT pie filling!) and stir. At this point, I could tell if my sauce was getting a bit too thick, so I added a little more milk until I reached the consistency I wanted. Also at this point I stirred in my butternut squash and cauliflower. Keep stirring until the cream cheese is melted. Add 4-6 ounces parmesan cheese, and stir to combine. Then dump your pasta in and mix it all up.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Creamy Southwest Chicken

I am suspicious of simple recipes. For some reason, I tend to think that the extra time, attention, and ingredients that go into complex recipes make for more nuanced results. But I am also conversely attracted to simple recipes. I have a busy life, yet want to cook homemade meals for my family. A simple recipe seems like the perfect solution.

What do I mean by simple? A recipe that contains less than a half-dozen ingredients, and whose list of steps is usually three or less. A one-pot meal, something that doesn't require my constant hovering attention.

I came across a version of this recipe a while back and thought "That's it? There's no way that can be good." But this weekend when I was meal-planning for the upcoming week, I thought of this recipe and spontaneously bought the ingredients. If it wasn't great, it would at least be decent, I thought.

Well, it was better than decent. And it also passed another recipe test: make enough for leftovers, or even for a second meal. I served this with brown rice, and the leftover sauce and rice is currently stuffed into bell peppers and baking in the oven. I think this one gets the simple recipe gold medal for meeting and exceeding all requirements.

Creamy Southwest Chicken
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
8 oz block cream cheese (reduced fat is okay, fat free is definitely not, eww.)
1 jar salsa (um, the regular sized jar...don't know the measurements on this. Pick a variety you like...anything goes).
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 bag frozen corn (again, the normal sized bag), defrosted

Place chicken breasts in the bottom of the slow cooker stoneware. Cut cream cheese into six pieces and place on top of chicken. Dump salsa overtop everything, then dump on the black beans and then the corn. Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours, low for 5-7 hours. Before serving, stir the sauce together to blend the cream cheese in.

I served this over rice, with a sprinkling of shredded monterey jack cheese. Cilantro would also be a nice addition.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sweet Potato Curry Soup

I can't believe I'm posting another recipe so soon, but I had a couple requests for this one after I mentioned on facebook how fantastic it is. I have to say, I'm embarrassed by how easy it is. It's hardly a recipe, really.

Originally I wanted to make pumpkin curry soup but my hippie grocery store was out of organic canned pumpkin, so I went with sweet potato instead. I was a little disconcerted by how similar the canned sweet potato was to Sam's sweet potato baby food, but I soldiered on. You could also use freshly cooked and mashed squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato in this. If you do, leave the veggies a little chunkier, as I think it'll add some interesting texture. Or, contrarily, throw the whole shebang in the blender when it's done cooking for a bisque.

Sweet Potato Curry Soup
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 celery stalks, chopped
3-4 carrots, chopped
1 T olive oil
1 T salt
1/2 t black pepper
1 t ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1-2 T curry powder (use hot if you lik-a the spice, use more if you lik-a the flavor)
32 ounces chicken stock (veggie would be fine, too)
2 15-ounce cans sweet potato mash, or pumpkin, or whatevs
1 15-ounce can coconut milk (don't use light, please!)

Saute the onion, celery, and carrot in the olive oil over medium heat until onion is translucent. Add salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add cumin, coriander and curry and stir well, cooking for another minute. The add about half of the stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about five minutes.

In the stoneware of a slow cooker OR in a large pot mix the remaining stock and the sweet potato. Add the mixture of onions, carrots and celery and stir together well. I cooked this in my slow cooker for 2 hours on high and it was pretty well cooked (carrots not too firm, etc.) I would guess that about 45 minutes worth of simmering on the stove would be about the same. Before serving, remove from heat/turn off slow cooker and stir in the coconut milk.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies are a very personal thing. Everyone has his or her favorite kind, and I've found people's feelings about the "right" or "best" kind of chocolate chip cookie to be very vehement and expressive. My college roomie, Shana, really talked up her grandma's famous chocolate chip cookies. When I had a chance to try the famous cookies, shipped to Shana in a cleaned coffee canister, I was disappointed. They were my least favorite kind of cookie: thin and crispy.

I think there are three main kinds of chocolate chip cookies. The first is the type loved by Shana, the thin, crisp, crunchy cookie. The second is its direct opposite, the chubby, cakey cookie. More akin to muffin than cracker, the cakey cookie typically has a uniform texture throughout.

The third type is my personal favorite. It's the perfect cookie: baked just long enough to have a slightly crisp edge, but not too long or you'll lose the chewy, buttery middle. The perfect ratio of chips to dough. Not too puffy, not too crisp. And I finally found the recipe that produces just such a cookie, on the fabulous Smitten Kitchen website. Here it is.

I only did two things differently from the recipe. The first was to double the recipe, because I needed to bring cookies to our church potluck last night. That was no problem at all. The second was to bake the cookies a bit less than the 18 minutes recommended in the recipe (if that sounds like a long time, remember you're baking at 300 degrees, not the usual 350). I hit upon 16 minutes as about the perfect length of time to bake to preserve that chewy cookie center.

Also note that this recipe includes nuts. I happen to like nuts in my cookies, but many people don't, and I really think this recipes would work well without. Definitely use semi-sweet chocolate chips, though. Milk chocolate is of the devil.

What's your opinion on chocolate chip cookies? Have a favorite type I didn't mention here?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

I like to make pizza on a weekly basis. When I have time to make my own mozzarella, I use it on pizza, and it is divine. I've been trying to make a weekly pizza that showcases whatever is best in season. So lately we've been having lots of pizza featuring roasted tomatoes and peppers, homemade pesto, and other fresh herbs. I'm looking forward to a winter squash, apple and sausage pizza when the weather gets a bit cooler.

I have struggled for some time to find a whole wheat pizza dough recipe that I like. I have tried many, some rather fancy and complex, others more simple. Inevitably I would end up with something heavy as a sack of bricks, tough and overly chewy. It was too dense, and lacked that elasticity yet lightness of pizzaria crusts.

I think I've finally hit upon a recipe and a method that works for me. Now, when I posted about my success on facebook, a number of my friends chimed in with additional suggestions, such as pre-baking the crust (something I had never even considered), using a pizza stone (I'd love to, but mine was rent in two by the forces of my oven years ago), etc. So this is by no means a definitive recipe. I think I will be experimenting for years.

The two keys to this recipe are: add the flour slowly, in increments; and be certain to knead the dough for enough time. I think part of my problem in the past was adding too much flour too soon. You want the dough to be supple, but not sticky. And I know for a fact I never, ever kneaded the dough long enough. I would knead it for what seemed like an eternity, but then I'd look at the clock and 90 seconds had passed. When you knead the dough well, magical things happen.

Also, I call this a whole wheat crust, but I use a mixture of white and whole wheat flour. I think the ration I've hit upon is pretty good, but it's easy for the wheat flour to tip the balance and make an overly heavy crust, so feel free to err on the side of more white flour if you're concerned about that.

Whole Wheat Pizza Crust

Mix in a bowl:
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1 pinch sugar
3/4 cup white flour

Let this mixture sit, undisturbed, for 20-30 minutes. After that time has passed, the mixture should be bubbly--I believe this might be what is called a "sponge" in the bread-making world. If it's not bubbly, your yeast is probably old, and your dough won't rise.

Coat a second bowl with olive oil and set aside.

Add to the sponge:
1 T olive oil
1 T kosher salt

Mix well, then add 1 cup of wheat flour in quarter-cup increments. Once the wheat flour is mixed in, you can begin adding up to an additional cup of white flour as needed. What I do at this point is usually mix in a quarter-cup of the white flour, then flour my countertop and begin kneading. As sticky, wet patches of the dough appear, I sprinkle on a little more flour, and as the flour on the counter gets absorbed, I reflour there, too.

Knead the dough for ten minutes, or until the dough is stretchy and smooth. I use the flatten, fold and turn method of kneading, and really take out my aggressions. Again, watch your flour levels, and add more (to the dough or to the surface) as needed.

Once you've kneaded your dough, place the dough in the oiled bowl, turning once to coat. Cover the bowl tightly with saran-wrap, and place in a warm location.

Let the dough rise for at least an hour. When the dough has doubled in size, it's ready.

I usually flatten it out with a rolling pin. This makes enough dough for one very large round pizza, or enough to fill a rectangular baking sheet (I think it's 9x13). Now, I usually just put the dough down, then a little olive oil, and then my toppings. I haven't tried pre-baking it. But since you need to bake this for about 14-16 minutes (at 425 degrees), the cheese gets pretty done. So prebaking the crust for about five minutes, then topping and baking ten minutes more, might avoid that issue.

This results in a thinnish, crisp-ish kind of pizza crust. It's no pizzaria crust, but I think it's my best whole wheat attempt.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Two great recipe links

I'm back! And I'll try to make the posting a bit more regular, but no guarantees. I've been cooking a bit, but nothing I've really come up with myself, so I feel bad writing about it and "taking credit" for it.

But the least I can do is provide you with links to some of the fantastic things I've found online.

The first is this amazing steak and sauce recipe from The Pioneer Woman. This is unbelievably rich and delicious. I made this Friday night to celebrate wrapping up a particularly stressful/busy/exciting week. I made two small modifications: instead of using ribeyes, I used KC strips, as they were on sale at my grocery store. And I added about 8 oz. of a baby arugula/spinach bag to the sauce right before I added the blue cheese (I wanted to feel like this recipe was offering something healthy...so, greens!) It was delicious!

The second link is also something we had Friday night, and every night since! It's a fabulous pound cake from Smitten Kitchen. Now, I used her basic recipe, but I took a couple of her suggestions and added lemon and white chocolate, and people, this cake IS AMAZING. All I did was add the zest of two lemons (I mixed this in with the sugar so it'd impart its flavor into the sugar and be a bit offset by the sweetness), the juice of one lemon, and the chopped segments of the other. The segments sort of evaporate while the cake bakes, leaving you with tangy little lemony pockets of deliciousness. The white chocolate was just chopped baking chocolate, about 1/3 cup, stirred in at the end. I chopped it pretty finely, but I think you could use white chocolate chips and get the same effect.

I have been working this summer on perfecting my whole wheat pizza crust recipe, and I plan to post that sometime this week.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I'm getting a lot of good stuff out of my garden lately, as well as from the farmers' market and my mom's garden (they came down last weekend and left us with some produce). This has expanded my repertoire of veggie recipes, and I thought I'd record that here, even though I don't have any pics to prove I've actually made these things.

I made a modification of the Pioneer Woman's green beans (originally blogged about here) that includes roasted red peppers and a couple of tablespoons of my red pepper pesto stirred in at the end. I made this with yellow beans from my mom, onions from my garden, and my own homemade pesto (see below for "recipe").

I just made these Potato Bundles, another one from Pioneer Woman. I made some slight modifications, including the addition of garlic. This used potatoes from the farmers' market, my own onions again, and parsley from my herb garden. I also have to say that I disagree with PW when she says there isn't a difference between curly and flat-leaf parsley. I think the flavor of flat-leaf is more subtle.

We've been getting a ton of cucumbers out of our garden, so I've been making my mom's cucumber & onions. I asked her for the recipe this weekend and she said she didn't really use a recipe with measurements per se. I now know where I got this tendency from! But the components are sliced cucumbers and sliced white onions tossed in a dressing made from mayo, sugar, and apple cider vinegar. I think it'd be pretty easy to do this recipe "to taste," but I will say that the cukes have a tendency to release their own moisture after you've sliced and mixed, so you might need less dressing than you'd think. This salad keeps for a while in the fridge.

Pesto! I have to admit that a huge motivation for my having an herb garden was to have bountiful supplies of basil on hand. I planted three basil plants: two in the ground and one in a pot (with the hopes that I could bring this one inside in the fall). The potted basil is a sad shadow of its heartier garden cousins, all pale and spindly. But the basil in the ground is a total overachiever: huge, green, bushy and prolific. I have aggressively cut the basil and it just keeps growing. I love it.

My favorite thing to do with basil is make a basic pesto. I make mine in the blender because my food processor is crappy. This weekend I walked my mom through my basic pesto method. Essentially, you need these ingredients: fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts. Now, you can make the pesto with a nut other than pine nuts, such as walnuts or almonds, but I recommend using pine nuts for the real pesto flavor. You don't have to use a ton--a tablespoon or so will be enough to impart the flavor of the nuts to the pesto. And if you toast them slightly to bring out the flavor, you can use even less. And I usually only use about a quarter cup of parmesan, again just to give the pesto its flavor.

With my blender pesto, I also add a tomato cut into chunks, for two reasons. One is to give the mixture enough moisture to blend. The other is to cut back on the amount of olive oil needed, to make the pesto a bit lower fat. As far as quantities of ingredients go, you just need to eyeball it as you blend to see if you need more oil (to help the pesto emulsify) or more basil (if it's just not green enough) or more parmesan (to help it thicken up).

I also make a variation that uses roasted red peppers instead of tomato. Don't skimp on the peppers--I use about a half-jar for a one-cup batch of pesto. The peppers and basil complement each other nicely.

This pesto is amazing on so many things: stirred into almost any veggie, mixed in with scrambled eggs, spread on a sandwich, mixed with sour cream for a dip. Tomorrow I plan on using it on pizza (recipe to follow).