Monday, November 24, 2008

Everyday Granola

I haven't baked in a long time. The last few months have been an uphill slog in terms of energy and motivation to get anything accomplished... although sometimes it also felt downhill, in a bad way. Like a heavily-loaded cart was behind me, threatening to run me over with its weight.

So I'm now seeking solutions to lighten the load, or increase my strength and ability to hold the cart up behind me, to keep it from running me over. One of the first places that brings me strength is my morning breakfast. After a long warm night of being curled up between a heavy comforter and a soft pillow, I need something truly inviting to coax me out of my downy berth. A french press filled with strong, dark (preferably African) coffee spiked with sweet cinnamon and topped off with a generous splash of Avalon cream usually does the trick. Then, a bowl of hearty, slightly sweet, spicy, crunchy granola is just the strength I need for the day.

I've tried a few granola recipes, but the best granola I've made and tasted is the granola that happens to come into being when I'm particularly in touch with the season. In the late summer my friend E. gave me a bag of granola that included dried Moreno cherries, pistachios, and was sweetened by brown rice syrup. But now that we're headed resolutely for winter (and this week is Thanksgiving in the States), I'm craving granola that is creamy, and definitely spicy.

If you, like me, appreciate being able to make your own flavors and permutations of everything, then it's most helpful to know the ratio of the kinds of ingredients, rather than specific ingredients to which you are bound. For example, muffins are about 50 percent moisture, so to a cup of buttermilk, or yogurt, or applesauce, you add only enough flour and egg to hold it together. This recipe is kind of like that. Oats are always a base ingredient. Then, some fat, some sweetener, spices, and whatever nutmeats or seeds you have on hand. Then everything is toasted in the oven slowly to bring it all to a golden perfection. Topped with some old-fashioned yogurt from a local creamery, or a splash of cream... there's nothing better to bring you into the day.

Everyday Granola

3 cups of whole rolled oats (look for oats which still have their oat-like texture)
1/2 cup to 1 cup of any combination of: whole wheat flour, wheat germ, wheat bran, flaxseed meal, powdered milk, or anything to hold the spices to the oats

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of any of the following: nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom
AND if you're feeling adventurous....
1/8 teaspoon of something spicier: cayenne or finely ground pepper

3 to 3 1/2 cups of chopped nutmeats and/or seeds (almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans... sunflower, flax, sesame, pepitas, pumpkin... use your imagination! I usually combine at least three or four kinds of nuts and seeds)

1/2 cup of melted butter or oil (canola, peanut, olive... just make sure that if it's something with a pronounced flavor, like olive, you cut it with something milder)
1/2 to 3/4 cup of sweetener (honey, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar... DON'T use plain white corn syrup or white sugar. In addition to being overly processed, it will lose some caramelly flavor.)

up to 1 cup of dried fruit of your choice (berries, cherries, apricots, apples, currants... or, if you must, raisins)

Heat your oven to to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, combine the oats and all of the dry ingredients: flours, ground flax, salt, spices, and nutmeats/seeds. And, if you are using dry sugar instead of liquid honey or another sweetener, add the sugar here. Give it all a good stir to make sure the spices don't all fall to the bottom. Get your hands into that bowl. It's good for you, and for your granola.

In a large glass measuring cup, heat the oil and your sweetener of choice in the microwave. Give it a good stir with a fork or small whisk to combine as best you can.

Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients, and stir until it is all coated well. This is where you will get your first breath of the spices coming alive.

Pour out half of your granola onto a large RIMMED cookie sheet (if you use a flat cookie sheet with no edges you risk losing most of your granola in the process), and spread it out in an even layer. Break up any large clumps.

Bake it for 25-30 minutes total. Every ten minutes, pull out your granola and stir it with a spatula so that none of the granola gets burned. The third time you pull it out and stir, gauge if it needs another full ten minutes. It will usually need another 5-6 minutes.

Once it looks nice and toasty brown, put the granola on another COOL baking sheet to cool. It will crisp up remarkably once it cools. Store in an airtight container, and keep it dry and cool (i.e. NOT in your trunk in the sun on a summer's day... I speak from experience here) until you eat it.

If this batch of granola lasts in your home longer than a week, I take it all back.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Every Day Fruit Crisp

In More With Less, Doris Longacre Janzen ponders the purpose of dessert. Is it to add unnecessary calories to our diets? Is it to lengthen the dining experience? Is it actually a practice of gluttony? She writes that, instead, dessert can be an opportunity to add a few more nutrients to the meal. I would agree, and would also add that it can be one of the best times to truly appreciate the culinary bounty of any season: spring, summer, winter, or fall.

I am a fruit-a-holic. All winter long I feast on bursting juicy oranges. I pine for the summer berry fields - strawberries in early summer, raspberries and blueberries in high-summer, the late summer stone fruits - cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, and the final stretch into fall filled with harvest pears and apples and Saturday morning forays into wild blackberry patches.

You must understand, then, that my go-to dessert, my favorite of all, is one that preserves, even enhances the fresh beautiful textures and flavors of perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet summer fruits. The recipe is for a fruit crisp topping that can be piled on top of any fresh fruit. I've done this with apples, pears, a raspberry-blackberry mixture, and a few weeks ago with peaches. Having filled my freezer with berries, I hope to make a few apple-blueberry crisps as the fall winds its way into winter.

So when my friend Farnaz tasted the peach version of this fruit crisp, she immediately said, "I need this recipe!" However, she immediately followed that with a comment on her inexperience with baking. This recipe is much easier than pie. It's easy enough to make on a whim for a home-cooked meal, and elegant enough to take to a dinner at a friend's house to be topped with floppy whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

So for you, Farnaz, for special days and for every day, my favorite fruit crisp.

Fruit Crisp

1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup flour (whole wheat or white)
3/4 cup large flake oats
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg
(or, any other spices to complement the fruit you are using... like ginger with pears, etc.)
a dash of salt

In a bowl, stir together everything except the butter. Then, cut the butter into small chunks and add that to the dry mix. Using a pastry cutter (or better yet, your hands!), cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are no big lumps of butter, but the whole mix is about the consistency of peas.

Pour this topping onto 4 cups of chopped fruit, or berries, or any mix of fruit you like. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Berries may cook more quickly than other fruits such as apples or pears. The ripeness of your fruit will also determine cooking time. The final test, though, is that the top of the crumble is golden and toasty, and the fruit offers little resistance to a fork.

Serve warm, with whipped cream or ice cream.

Leek-y-Dill Italian Sausage Soup

My friend Lindsey has wonderful food ideas. She gave me the inspiration for this recipe, which was handed to her from a friend of hers, very informally: "Oh, take some sausage, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, and dill and throw it all together. Easy!"

I've now made this soup a number of times and have gotten rave reviews from all. It's hearty enough for my carnivorous husband and herby enough for my own taste. If I were to rate this soup on a scale of spring-summer-winter-fall, this would be a "winter". The interplay between the caramelized leeks and fresh dill is intriguing and unexpected. Served with a buttered crusty roll, there's nothing better to warm you on a winter's day.

I have no idea what to call this soup. Ideas, anyone?

Leeky Dill Italian Sausage Soup

1 package (about 5 large sausages) of hot italian sausage, de-skinned
2-3 medium leeks, cleaned and diced
2 large russet potatoes
1 large can diced tomatoes
water or vegetable broth
1 bunch of fresh dill (it MUST be fresh, there is no substitute!)
salt and pepper

In a large cast-iron skillet, sauté the sausage meat until browned and cooked through. Drain the fat off, reserving it in a bowl to use for caramelizing the leeks. Move the sausage to a large stock pot. In the skillet again, use about a tablespoon of the sausage fat to caramelize the leeks. They should be just browned on the edges and still a vibrant green. Put that into the stock pot with the sausage. Add the potatoes, roughly chopped, to the stockpot, along with the can of diced tomatoes. Add enough water or vegetable broth to cover all the ingredients, and bring it to a boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender.

10 minutes before serving, remove any stalks from the fresh dill and roughly chop it, so there are no large "bunches" of dill, just small sprigs. Stir that into the soup and let the dill flavor become vibrant.

Trudy's Yummy Yammy Soup

A few weeks ago my book club got together. This month we met at Trudy's house. She started off the dinner with an amazingly delicious, spicy-sweet soup that seemed to warm even my lungs as I breathed in. All of us pleaded for the recipe, and she sent it along a few days later.

So, when I was preparing to host an informal fall lunch after church, I knew exactly what I was going to make. However, it didn't turn out like Trudy's. Mine turned out more like a bisque - thick and creamy with not nearly as much zing as her soup. Still, it was a fantastic success! I had to scrape the pot at the end of the day to get a bite.

Here's my incarnation of Trudy's soup.

1 onion, roughly chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
grated ginger - about a thumb's worth
3-4 medium yams, peeled
2-3 carrots
1 apple, peeled and cored
water or vegetable broth
1 can coconut milk
salt and pepper
(optional) cayenne, cinnamon, other spices...

Sauté the onion and garlic together until soft. Toss in the grated ginger. Add the chopped yams, carrots, apple, and enough water or broth to cover the veggies. Simmer until the yams and carrots are fork-tender. Stir in your can of coconut milk. Then, using a hand blender, puree the soup until it's smooth. At this point you can add more water to thin the soup to your desired consistency. It should coat the back of a spoon. Salt and pepper to taste!

This soup does well made the day before. If you refridgerate it overnight, it will thicken too. Just add some more water as you reheat and adjust your seasoning to taste.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cottage Cheese Muffins

There's a Jewish bagel shop named Solly's down the street. J. and I happened across Solly's one day when we were out shopping, most likely getting derailed by kitchen supply stores and funky clothing and home deco shops along the route of our well-intentioned trip. We were in desperate need of a pick-us-up, because we were getting grumpy. J., an insatiable sweet-tooth, always opts for a sweet treat, and I, a borderline hypoglycemic, grabbed the nearest thing to a protein fix I could see: a cottage cheese muffin, the last slouching muffin in the basket.

Solly's saved our shopping lives that day.

The muffin was airy, buttery, creamy, softly textured and the perfect antidote to the shopping blues. I had never had anything like it before. I haven't had anything like it since.

I've spent many hours scrounging online for recipes that might help me to reproduce these tasty morsels, but they're always off-the-mark. Too sweet, too herby, too much flour, not enough buttery goodness... so I decided to try my hand at recreating them from the simple muffin formula of about 50% fat and 90% moisture (thank you, Rose Levy Berenbaum, for your meticulosity that enables us all to be spontaneous).

I took equal parts cottage cheese and buttermilk and added just enough flour and egg to hold it together. A little parmesan for good measure, olive oil to make them pliable, plenty of baking powder and soda to give them a little loft, and some salt. They smelled amazing while they baked and tasted even better. I put in too much salt, though, for the parmesan and the salted cottage cheese I was using, but other than that... after popping one into his mouth straight from the muffin pan, J. mumbled around his mouthful of muffin, "I think you've got it just about right, hun."

So here it is. Cottage cheese muffins a la Solly's Bagelry. Reincarnated in my kitchen.

Cottage Cheese Muffins
(makes 12 regular-sized muffins)

1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 eggs
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
a dash of salt

In a small bowl, whisk together the cottage cheese, buttermilk, egg, and olive oil together until incorporated. (If you wanted to make a perfectly smooth muffin, you could do this in your blender, with a few quick whirls of the pulse button. I prefer a more textured muffin, so I did this by hand.)

In another, slightly larger bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, parmesan, baking powder and soda, and salt. Pour in the wet mixture, working in quick strokes and stirring just enough to make the batter come together. Do not overmix! That would make these beautifully fluffy and airy muffins too chewy.

Spoon into greased (very important) muffin tins. (For additional flavor, you can sprinkle your parmesan on the tops of the muffins just before baking instead of putting the parmesan into your batter. If you put the parmesan on top, you will want a little extra salt in the muffin batter to compensate.) Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the tops are golden. Serve warm.... without butter. (J., who is a butter-aholic when it comes to any kind of baked good, even pronounced these butter-free! Seriously, he would put butter on cookies if I let him.)

These muffins do well for a few days stored in an airtight container. They're lovely when they're warmed in the toaster oven. Perfect alongside a bowl of hearty soup or as a mid-morning protein-filled snack.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Best Steak Ever

A friend, P., invited J. and I out to Surrey for a BBQ a few weeks ago. Now, Surrey is a long way from the west end of Vancouver. I don't like driving. J. hasn't been able to drive my car for insurance reasons, and I've been getting sick of it. But, for this trip south and out of the city, the views and getting some fresh farm air makes every minute worth it. Thankfully, P. drove us out in his minivan, and A. was in charge of bringing the meat. We're all on a student's budget, so spending $70 on a good cut of steak is a luxury, and A. made the most of it. 4 minutes on each side on a hot grill, and we were feasting on tender, juicy steak snuggled up to crispy rosemary potatoes and just-wilted mushrooms spiced with caramelized onions. We mumbled our appreciation of a fine meal around cheeks full of steak and potatoes.

We all wanted to know the recipe. A. graciously obliged.

After a game of bocci ball and a big slice of warm apple pie made by a grandmother's loving and experienced hands, I was stuffed so full that it reminded me why gluttony is a deadly sin. It took the hour-plus long drive home for me to even consider looking at food. And my thoughts turned immediately to that steak.

Over the next few weeks I made that marinade for pork loins and for beef steaks, and let me tell you: it is by far the best marinade I've tasted. I am no connoisseur of beef, and I get overwhelmed just by looking at the meat section of the grocery store. But, this marinade worked for A.'s premium-cut tenderloins, and it worked for my value-pack steaks. It seems to work better for beef, and definitely improves when marinaded for over 12 hours.

The Best Steak Ever
according to our friend A.

1 cup worcestershire sauce
1 cup red wine (or balsamic vinegar)
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup stoneground mustard
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thinly
a few garlic cloves, peeled and smashed lightly
10-12 steaks
salt and pepper to taste

The night before you plan to cook these steaks, whisk together in a medium bowl (preferably glass or ceramic) the worcestershire sauce, red wine, soy sauce, olive oil, and mustard. Add in the steaks, sliced onion and crushed garlic cloves, and make sure each steak is coated in marinade and the onions and garlic are distributed throughout. Cover and refrigerate overnight, up to 24 (or more!) hours.

Just before you're ready to eat, slice up a big pile of mushrooms (any will do, but we prefer white button mushrooms) and have them ready in a large sauté pan.

When you're ready to eat, fire up the grill to medium-high heat. Grill steaks for 4 minutes on each side. Let them rest for a few minutes.

While the steaks are on the grill, take the marinade with the onions and garlic and pour it over the mushrooms in your sauté pan. Cook until the onions are caramelized, the sauce has reduced, and the mushrooms have absorbed most of the sauce. Serve the steaks with a hearty spoonful of the mushroom-onion mix, and snuggle it all up to some rosemary roasted potatoes.

***This marinade recipe can be easily made in smaller batches. The important thing is the equal-parts ratio between the wet ingredients.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pakistani Kima

Gone are the days of plain old spaghetti and red sauce. No more spaghetti that is white and limp and pasty, plastered with red sauce with no texture, flavour, or spice, resembling the tomato less than it reminds you of caulk or grout. Replace that with beautiful Pakistani Kima: fragrant, colourful, slightly spicy, set atop steaming brown or red rice.

I made this dish for myself and my roommate and we ate off of it for four meals, a few of those meals consisting of two hearty helpings each. This will freeze well and reheats beautifully for those long days at the office or in the library. The flavours of the curry, cinnamon, and ginger mingle and develop as it chills out in your fridge.

As this was my first time with Kima I followed the recipe directly from the More with Less cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre. Having just celebrated its 25th birthday, I received the anniversary edition of this cookbook from my future sister-in-law for Christmas. The first 20 pages are packed full of helpful tips to cut down on your grocery bill by taking simple steps to learn the basics of a frugal kitchen: buying in bulk, making your own sauces, balancing meat consumption with environment-friendly and socially-conscious use of alternative proteins such as soybeans, and lentils. More with Less has impressed me deeply on my first read-through; it was originally published in 1976, making the author's eye to social responsibility through setting our own kitchens "in order" quite progressive. And, with an emphasis on the joyful and grateful attitude with which we should approach food-making and food-sharing, this cookbook reminds us that even the kitchen cannot escape our theology; if we truly believe that we are to feed the hungry, we have to start by feeding our friends and family real food. I'm eager to experiment with other ways of revolutionizing my kitchen: making your own bisquick, substituting natural sweeteners in high-sugar recipes, and buying supplies such as flour, grains, and spices in bulk a few times a year.

May your kitchen truly be the heart of your home!

- ODG.

Pakistani Kima (serves 6)

Sauté in a skillet:
3 Tbsp butter
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, minced
When the mixture turns fragrant, add:
1 pound of lean ground beef
Brown it well. Then add your spices directly to the hot oil in the bottom of the pan to "open" them up:
1 Tbsp yellow curry powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
dash pepper
dash each cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric (all ground)
Once that's all stirred in, add:
2 cups cooked tomatoes (2 small or 1 large can diced tomatoes, with their juice!)
2 diced potatoes (I used two large russets and it was a little potato heavy, but very hearty)
2 cups frozen peas or green beans
Cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Serve over brown or red rice.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Eating Gourmet on One Day a Week

It happens to all of us. We get home after a long day and are starving for something tasty, nutritious, hearty, and... let's admit it: fast. Our grocery stores filled with pre-packaged food and our streets lined with take out and fast food make it easy to eat quickly, but often what we put in our bodies at these hasty junctures is the last thing our bodies need. As a recently engaged grad student also working two jobs, finding the time to make a proper meal every day is like trying to breathe underwater. I am convinced that with a little thought and care taken on one day out of every week, we can eat tastier, healthier food that has had a shorter journey from our green earth into our bellies.

Another culinary challenge for most of us is... well, just that. Cooking up a meal for friends, or just for yourself, seems like a time-consuming process. My own Achilles' heel is throwing a fabulous party, wining and dining my friends, but never sitting down to enjoy the party until they've all left. I usually spend the whole evening in the kitchen over the stove, or running back and forth from the table getting that last little thing to make the table experience perfect. Call it a New Year's resolution: I am determined to master the way to throw a stunning party while still enjoying it, and my dearest friends, myself.

For these two reasons, the focus of this blog will be on foods that can be made ahead - a day, a week, or months in advance - so that when it comes time for you to eat, whether alone or with your closest friends and family, you can enjoy most fully your time with them around the table. One day a week, and we all might save a little time and money in the process of learning to live fuller, richer, tastier lives.