27 February 2010

Playing with food: Potato pancakes

When I was growing up, one of my favorite meals was potato pancakes. My mom made giant potato pancakes and would serve them with sweetened sour cream. I still love to eat them this way.

When I visited Poland a few years ago, I had potato pancakes served with a thick mushroom sauce. I discovered that I love them savory just as much as I love them sweet. Since then, I've wanted to recreate the mushroom sauce, but I haven't quite got it yet. Still, my recipe is pretty good.

For the potato pancakes, peel 4-5 large potatoes. Cut these into large chunks, but small enough to fit into a food processor. Add half a chopped yellow (or red) onion, 1 tsp or so of salt, about 2 tbs of flour (or enough to thicken the mixture), and one egg. Mix it it up and it's ready to pour onto a skillet heated with oil (use a flavorless oil like canola).

For the mushroom sauce: start with olive oil and saute half a large chopped onion. Add 2 garlic cloves and 2 handfuls of chopped mushrooms (I use cremini). I also add a little water and flour to thicken the sauce.

Once the sauce is brown and thick, quickly fry up some potato pancakes (until brown and crispy on both sides) and spoon the sauce on top. YUM!

22 February 2010

Playing with food: spinach pie, or a giant round spanakopita

I love making spanakopita because it's yummy and a perfect recipe for an impatient cook like me. You have to work pretty quickly when using phyllo dough, so my innate desire to hurry is actually beneficial.

When I made it last week, I realized I did not have enough spinach on hand, so rather than making a dozen or so spanakopitas, I made a spinach pie. In addition to spinach (fresh and chopped), I included onions, garlic, and feta. Because I also had a few kalamata olives on hand, I chopped them up and added them to the recipe, but I don't think they did any favors to the finished pie. It was still delicious, don't get me wrong, but it was just a bit too much. The olives overpowered the rest of the ingredients.

Spanakopita is actually really easy to make; it's one of the few recipes that I didn't completely mess up the first time I tried it. My hope is that I can eventually transfer my spanakopita skills to making baklava. Unfortunately, the last time I attempted a baklava recipe, I ended up with really dry phyllo and nuts and a very watery syrup. Maybe next time.....

20 February 2010

Playing with food: Crème caramel

I'm not a big dessert person, but I do occasionally crave it. One of my favorite desserts is crème caramel (aka flan). When I visited Paris a few years ago, I had the most amazing crème caramel and crème brûlée that I've ever tasted. It's hard to get the same quality in the States, but I made some last week that came close - if not matched - the Parisian stuff. The trick is to use really good quality products, preferably from a farmers' market. Because I didn't have either cream or milk on hand, I used half-and-half, which I combined with beaten eggs, vanilla extract, and sugar. I find American food to be excessively sweet, so I usually halve the sugar in a recipe, which I also did with my crème caramel. The result was near perfection. I could have eaten the entire thing in one sitting, but this is not a calorie-light meal, so I resisted that temptation. The trick is to slowly savor each bite, and not skimp on the ingredients. Buying grocery-store, ultra-pasteurized milk and $1.99 eggs will give you a sub-par dessert. Trust me; spend the extra money. Your taste buds (and the animals raised in humane conditions!) will thank you for it.

15 February 2010

RIP Pudge

My sister lost her beloved dog Pudge today. He was the sweetest and funniest little guy. He was a little too fat to jump on the bed but demanded to be up there anyway. Years ago, he lost his eye but used his remaining eye with good humor and grace. He loved everyone and stole everyone's heart - even those people who thought they didn't like pugs. He was the constant little trouper, to the end.

Pudgie, you will be terribly missed. But if there is an afterlife, I have no doubt that you've already won over everyone there.

14 February 2010

Chickpea soup with spinach

I have this terrible habit of buying produce for a recipe and letting the remainder go to waste. Parsley is my biggest waste, since recipes often call for just a little, but you have to buy it in a large bunch. This week, I purchased spinach (another vegetable that you have to buy as a bunch) for a sandwich and only used a little bit. I didn't want to end up throwing away the remaining spinach, which was sure to rot in my refrigerator, so I decided to do what so many home cooks do: make a meal around an ingredient you happen to have on hand. I checked the index of my trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and found a recipe for a chickpea soup to which you can add fresh spinach. The recipe is fairly simple: saute some onions and garlic, add the spinach, chickpeas, and stock. I also added some toasted pine nuts and curry powder, which seemed like it would go great with chickpeas. The soup came out pretty good, but it's not the most filling of meals. Thank goodness that I had just baked some bread, which really made them meal! I'm not sure I produced the greatest result but at least it was miles better than the mushroom monstrosity I attempted not so long ago.

07 February 2010

Spaghetti sauce

Ever since I learned how to make spaghetti sauce from semi-scratch, I can't imagine going back to jarred tomato sauce, which tastes like ketchup mixed with some dried herbs. I say "semi-scratch" because I buy canned crushed tomatoes rather than crushing them myself. At some point, I plan to buy a food mill, so I can easily de-seed/peel tomatoes. And I also want to learn how to can my own food, both to avoid the BPA that lines canned foods and to have a steady supply of home-crushed tomatoes in my pantry. But for now, I use store-bought (though organic and locally-sourced, if possible) canned crushed tomatoes.

The recipe for a delicious tomato sauce is so easy that it's a sin to buy the jarred crap (often processed and filled with preservatives) you find in grocery stores. I start with a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Once the oil is heated I add a medium-to-large chopped onion. To the softened onions, I add chopped cremini mushrooms, salt, and tons of garlic. (Mincing garlic has become a lot easier since I purchased a garlic press.) Once the onions and mushrooms are soft, I add a splash of red wine, letting it reduce before adding a big jar of crushed tomatoes. I then cover the whole concoction to prevent splattering, and occasionally mix it, letting it cook for about 15 more minutes. Add more salt and freshly ground pepper and throw in some herbs (I like basil). I'll also add a bit of crushed red pepper for some heat.

The great thing about making your own sauce is that you can add any ingredients you want. According to Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food), you should add the crushed tomatoes last, when the other ingredients have cooked. Since he's yet to steer me wrong, I follow his advice.

Eventually, in addition to learning how to make and can my own crushed tomatoes, I hope to learn how to make my own pasta. For now, I try to use high-quality boxed pasta. The bread, however, is all my own. I've continued to utilize Jim Lahey's bread recipe, and I've had delicious, crusty bread every time. (My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method)

Here's yesterday evening's result - yummy sauce and remarkable bread. And so insanely easy.

05 February 2010



It's kind of hard finding cool boots that are not made of leather. But I think I may have. I'm getting these delivered next week.