Grandma Antha’s Cucumber Salad

 The Midwest is replete with cucumber salads. This one belonged to my grandmother, who used to chop the onions and sprinkle a little grocery-store paprika on top.  Thought I’d pass along the recipe in time for graduations and Father’s Day BBQ’s.  It makes 2-3 servings, but multiplies easily.  Enjoy!

1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
2/3 c. water
¼ c. sugar
¼ c. olive or canola oil
Salt and pepper
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
½ small onion, thinly sliced

Whisk vinegar, water, and sugar together in a medium-sized bowl until sugar dissolves. Whisk in oil. Add cucumbers and onions and stir to combine. Marinate in the fridge for 4-24 hours.  Serve at room temperature.

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Date Nut Skillet Cookies

Still using up the pantry.  I found dates and coconut, and remembered these sweet, old-fashioned cookies that my Nana used to make.  Salted butter works best. Enjoy!

¼ c. lightly salted butter
½ c. light brown sugar
1 egg
8 oz. pitted dates, chopped
½ c. finely chopped pecans, toasted
1 c. crispy rice cereal
¾ c. sweetened coconut flakes

In a medium-sized cast-iron skillet, melt butter over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in brown sugar. Stir in egg and chopped dates. Return the pan to the stove.  Cook mixture over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened. Remove from heat and cool, stirring often, about 5 minutes (or until cool enough to handle). Stir in pecans and cereal.

Spread coconut flakes on a small plate.  Using buttered hands, roll spoonfuls of the mixture into generous 1” balls, rolling each ball in coconut before setting it aside. You’ll end up with about 30 cookies.  Let cool.  Store in an airtight container in the fridge. Serve cold or at room temperature.

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“Flexitarian” Split Pea Soup

We move in a couple weeks, and I’ve been trying to use up my pantry.  Hence another legume-based recipe.  This time soup. For all but the hottest months of the year, I keep a pot of soup in the fridge.  I usually whip something up toward the end of the week, with whatever is left on hand. Family members can dip into the pot for lunch or a quick snack, or I can serve the soup as supper, along with salad and some kind of bread.  This recipe is one of my standby’s.  Unlike many split pea soups, which require a ham hock, this can be made with ingredients I typically have on hand.  The bacon provides enough flavor to satisfy those people who believe soup must start with a bone.  This makes about 10 cups of soup.  Enjoy!

4 slices flavorful bacon (ideally nitrate-free)
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp. plus 1-2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped
2 medium “baking” potatoes
3 cups dried split peas, rinsed and sorted
9 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried tarragon

Finely dice bacon (or cut into bits using kitchen scissors). In a large soup pot, melt butter and 1 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add bacon. Turn heat up slightly and fry until bacon is crisp and has rendered most of its fat. Turn heat down to medium again. Add 1-2 T. olive oil, onion, carrots and celery and sauté 5 minutes, stirring often. While vegetables are cooking, peel and cut potatoes into a ½-inch dice. Add garlic and hot pepper to the pot and sauté another 60 seconds, stirring once or twice.

Add diced potatoes to the pot, along with the split peas. Add broth and stir to combine. Crumble in dried thyme and dried tarragon. Bring soup to a boil, then turn down heat.  Skim mixture several times to remove froth. Partially cover soup and simmer, stirring occasionally, until peas are tender and have started to fall apart, usually 25-40 minutes. (Time will depend on the age of the dried peas.) Remove from heat. Cool soup slightly.

Using care, scoop out 3 cups of soup and purée it in a blender. (To purée hot liquids, remove the center of the blender’s lid to provide a place for the steam to escape. Cover the hole with a folded clean kitchen towel, making sure that the folded towel is several layers thick.  With several layer of towel between the hot liquid and your hand, hold the towel in place over the vent and turn the blender on.)  Pour the puréed soup back into the pot.  Repeat twice.

Serve warm.

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French-Style Lentil Salad

Salad season is fast approaching.  I am already craving crunch.  This salad was inspired by all the French food I’ve been eating in San Francisco.  It is particularly nice because you can make it ahead– It is actually better if you let it sit for an hour or two.  It lasts several days in the fridge (well, not around here…). And it is not dependent on fragile, of-the-moment produce, so you can make it whenever the mood hits.  The recipe calls for red wine vinegar, but go ahead and experiment.  My absolute favorite, so far, is a combination of poppy (!) and sherry vinegar.  The recipe makes about 4 cups.  Enjoy!

½ c. finely diced onion
Ice water
1 ½ cups black “beluga” lentils
3 ¾ cups of water
Large clove garlic
1 tsp. finely ground sea salt
½ c. plus 2 T. olive oil
4 T. red wine vinegar (or 2 T. sherry and 2 T. poppy vinegar)
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. ground celery seeds
¼ tsp. (or more) red pepper flakes
Black pepper
1 c. finely diced celery

Place diced onion in a bowl of ice water to cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes.

Rinse and sort lentils. Combine lentils and 3 ¾ cups water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer gently until lentils are cooked, but still have a slight bite, about 25 minutes. Most of the water will have been absorbed.  Drain briefly, if needed.

While lentils cook, make the dressing: Mince the garlic clove and mash it into a paste with the salt. Place this paste in the bottom of a medium-size mixing bowl. Add olive oil, vinegar(s), Dijon mustard, sugar, celery seed, red pepper flakes and several grinds of fresh black pepper. Whisk well to combine.

Toss still-warm lentils with dressing. Drain onions. Stir onions and celery into the lentils. Serve cold or at room temperature.

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Strawberry English Cake

I make this cake each year, as soon as the strawberries come in.  It has a light, unusual texture that calls you back.  Thought I’d post it in time for Mother’s Day.  Enjoy!

2/3 c. sifted cornstarch
1 c. powdered sugar, divided
1/8 tsp. salt
3 eggs, separated
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar (opt.)
2 T. water
1 tsp. vanilla
Few drops almond extract (opt.)

1 c. finely diced strawberries
1 c. whipping cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two 8” round cake pans with wax paper. Set aside.

Sift cornstarch, salt, and ½ c. powdered sugar together three times. Beat the egg whites with cream of tartar and water until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining sugar and beat until stiff (but not dry).

Beat yolks slightly. Add vanilla and almond extract (if using). Gently fold egg white mixture into yolks, folding just enough to combine.

Divide batter between pans. Bake for 30 minutes, until set and lightly browned. Cool.

To remove cakes from pan, run a sharp, thin knife along sides of pan twice. The first time, just cut/separate cake from tin. The second time, use knife to gently push cake inward, toward center, releasing an inch or so from the bottom of the pan all the way around. Locate an edge of wax paper and life cake from the pan. Remove wax paper.

Whip cream. Fold in finely diced strawberries.

Place one cake layer on a serving plate. Spread a very thin layer of whipped cream and strawberries on top. Top with second layer. Ice cake with remaining whipped cream. (Note: Whipped cream and strawberries will cover, but barely. Be prepared to see patches of cake where cream doesn’t quite cover. This is how cake should look– It will taste delicious. Don’t worry.)

Serve. Cake tastes best the day it is made.

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Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto

Living in Los Angeles this past year, I did not get my fill of butternut squash.  Winter squash makes a surprisingly brief appearance out here– You see it in November.  November.  Not nearly the season my Midwestern soul expects. I’ve been craving it.  So when I saw some (five!) beautiful butternut squash at Whole Foods this past week, I grabbed one.  (Well, two.  The first I roasted & ate, alone and slightly delirious.)  The second went into risotto.  

This recipe is different from many butternut squash risottos, because it does not use sage.   Instead, it uses a little prosciutto and dried thyme.  The stock is important, though.  When I don’t have homemade on hand, I use Better Than Bouillon base.  Usually I use their vegetable-based products, often the “No Chicken” base (which is vegan), or their mushroom broth base (also vegan).  You could use either in this recipe, or else a low-sodium canned or boxed stock that has been simmered down slightly to intensify its flavors.  This makes 4 generous main course servings.  Enjoy!

4 T. olive oil, divided
1 medium butternut squash
Sea salt
2/3 c. walnut halves or pieces
5-6 c. chicken or vegetable broth
½ tsp. dried thyme
3 T. + 1 tsp. butter, divided
1 oz. prosciutto, finely chopped
1/3 c. finely diced onion
½ c. white wine
1 large granny smith apple
2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375°F. Peel and seed butternut squash and cut into a ½”-dice. You should have a scant 3 cups. Toss squash with 3 T. olive oil in a 9×13” glass roasting pan. Spread squash out to a single layer and season generously with sea salt. Roast in the oven for 25 minutes. Carefully stir the squash and roast for another 15 minutes (40 minutes total). Squash should be roasted but only very slightly browned. Remove from the oven and set aside. (Squash may be made up to 6 hours ahead. Rewarm in oven before continuing.) Turn oven temperature down to 350°F.

Toast walnuts in the oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly and chop medium fine. (Nuts may be made up to a day ahead.)

Place broth in a medium saucepan and stir in thyme. Bring liquid to a boil and turn off the heat. Cover and let broth steep for at least 10 minutes. Grate apple. You should have about 3/4 cup.

In another medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium-high heat, sauté prosciutto in 1 tsp. butter until darkened and slightly crispy. Scoop proscuitto out and set aside.  Bring broth back to a low simmer.

In the same saucepan used to crisp the prosciutto, melt 1 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter. Add onion and sauté gently over medium heat until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in Arborio rice. Stir well, making sure that every grain of rice is coated with butter & oil. Set timer for 18 minutes. Add white wine. Cook, stirring, until wine evaporates.

Add ½ cup of broth. Stir rice constantly until broth has been absorbed.  Add another ½ cup of broth, and stir constantly again. (It is this stirring that makes risotto creamy.) Continue adding broth by the ½-cupfuls, stirring constantly between each addition. At the 12 minute mark, stir in the grated apple.

When 18 minutes are up, taste the rice. It should be soft, creamy, but still have a little bite. If it is not quite done (tastes chalky), continue adding broth, ¼ cup at a time, and stir. Keep checking rice. It should be done within 4 minutes. Turn down heat to low. Stir in crisped prosciutto, 2 T. butter and Parmesan cheese. Gently fold in roasted butternut squash. Taste for seasoning. Serve warm.

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Loving my Newly-Seasoned Cast Iron Pans!!!

I know this is an odd thing to be excited about, but I am thrilled with my cast iron skillets.  I tried a new method of (re)-seasoning them a couple months ago, and the new slick, stick-resistant veneer has had me cooking with them almost non-stop since.   I’ve always loved cast iron.  It browns food beautifully and there is something gut-level satisfying about cooking food in iron.  One feels in kindred spirits with simpler times….

Romance aside, cast iron pans conduct and retain heat like no other material.  They are versatile, inexpensive and durable.   Most importantly, unlike other non-stick pans, seasoned cast iron is unarguably safe.  The only thing that leeches into the food is iron, which is good for you.   The pans are heavy, and there are times when I struggle to lift them.  Still, knowing that the food I make is safe, that I am following age-old tradition, that my pans might someday be used by my kids, is enough to “give me strength.”  😉   

Note that all my praise for cast iron pans, though, is prefaced on their being “well-seasoned.”  This is easier said than done, at least until I tried this new method.   The secret is flaxseed oil.  Flaxseed oil is the food grade equivalent of linseed oil, which is used by artists to give their paintings a hard, polished finish.   I read about the method in the January, 2011 edition of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  They attribute it to blogger Sheryl Canter.  She goes into a lot more detail about the science and technique of seasoning cast iron on her blog, but I’ve listed the key steps below: 

1.  Warm an unseasoned pan (either new or stripped of seasoning) for 15 minutes in a 200 degree oven to open its pores.  Turn off the oven.

2.  Remove the pan from the oven.  Pour in 1-2 T. flaxseed oil (depending on the size of your pan) and rub it into every nook and cranny with your hands.

3.  Use paper towels to then wipe off as much of the oil as possible.

4. Place the pan upside down in the oven and turn the oven on to its highest baking temperature, usually 450-500 degrees.  Once the oven reaches that temperature, bake the pan for 1 hour.  Turn off the oven and let the pan cool for at least 2 hours.

5.  Repeat the process 5 more times (6 total) or until the pan develops a dark, semi-matte surface.

NOTE:  To strip a cast iron pan of seasoning, spray it with oven cleaner, wait for 30 minutes, and wash with soapy water.  Repeat, if needed.  To remove rust, the pan must be soaked in a solution 50/50 solution of vinegar and water.   Sheryl Canter explains this in detail, too, in an earlier post.

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Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

Remember when sun-dried tomatoes were all the rage?  Seems like they were everywhere.  (I don’t remember sun-dried tomato ice cream, though, so apparently the savory ice cream phase hadn’t hit yet)…. This recipe appeared in bon appetit back around then.  Despite the odds, it has  become one of our household favorites.  I even keep a jar of oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes on hand just so I can whip it up.  The recipe makes enough pesto to dress one pound of pasta, though I often cook 12 ounces and throw the extra 1/4-recipe into a batch of meatballs to serve alongside.  Save some of the pasta cooking water to thin the pesto.  Enjoy!

½ c. (packed) fresh basil leaves
¼ c. slivered almonds, toasted
¼ c. drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes*
1 garlic clove
1/8 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
¼ c. extra virgin olive oil
½ c. hot water
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese, (plus more for serving, opt.)

Place the basil, toasted almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and crushed red pepper in a food processor and process until nuts are finely chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. With blade running, dribble in half of the olive oil, then half of the hot water. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and repeat, blending until almost smooth. (Pesto may be made to this point and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen, well wrapped, for up to 3 months.) Transfer to a bowl. Stir in Parmesan cheese.

(* (Mediterranean Organic is my favorite brand.  I usually find it at Whole Foods.)

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Black Bean Cakes with Cilantro Crème

These black bean cakes are dredged in rice flour, which give them a thin, crisp crust.  I use leftover Game Night Black Beans, but you could use any well-spiced beans.  The recipe is a lot easier than it looks– make them once and you’ll do it by memory.  I often serve black bean cakes over watercress or arugula dressed in olive oil.  With a piece of cornbread or a side of rice, you have a full meal.  Don’t skip the Cilantro Crème.  It makes the dish.  This recipe makes 4 servings.  Enjoy!

Black Bean Cakes
2 medium sweet potatoes, about 10 oz. total
3 cups well-drained, well-seasoned, cooked black beans
1 T. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped
2 T. finely diced onion
Scant 1 tsp. sea salt
2 T. chili powder
1 T. ground cumin
¼ c. brown rice flour
3-5 T. olive or canola oil, for frying

Cilantro Crème
1 c. chopped cilantro
2/3 c. nonfat Greek yogurt
2 Serrano chiles, de-stemmed
Zest and juice of 1 medium lime

Prick sweet potatoes several times with a fork and cook in the microwave until soft. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Place black beans in a large, shallow bowl. Melt the butter in a small skillet set over medium heat. Add garlic, hot pepper and onion and cook one minute. Add salt, chili powder and ground cumin and cook another 30-60 seconds, until fragrant. Scrape spice mixture into the beans. Cut warm sweet potatoes in half and add the flesh to the bowl. Use a potato masher to smash and combine the ingredients together. Stop mashing when mixture is creamy and just holds together, but still has visible bits of beans. Do not mash to a uniform consistency.

Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Place rice flour on a small plate. Scoop up a scant quarter-cup of bean mixture and gently form it into a ½-inch-thick bean cake. Dredge it in the rice flour and set it on the cookie sheet. Repeat until all the mixture is used. You should have about 12 bean cakes. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. (Bean cakes may be made up to 8 hours ahead.)

Move cakes from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Pour an eighth-of-an-inch of oil into the bottom of a large, flat-bottomed skillet (cast iron is ideal). Heat oil over medium high heat. Add 6 bean cakes in a single layer and fry until golden brown on the bottom, about 4 minutes.  Carefully flip. Continue cooking until the second side is golden brown and cakes are heated through. Remove from the skillet and keep warm. Repeat with remaining oil and bean cakes.  Place 3 warm bean cakes on each plate and drizzle with Cilantro Crème.  Serve, passing additional crème on the side.

Cilantro Crème
Place cilantro, yogurt, peppers, lime zest and juice into a blender and process until smooth. May be made 4 hours ahead.

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Honey- Spiced Pecans

There’s no denying…. I’ve become obsessed with the taste of honey and hot pepper.  It all started with the Red Pepper & Acacia Honey (from Tuscany!) that I found at beekind in San Francisco.  For this recipe, I use local wildflower honey and cayenne pepper.  The spicy-sweet combination on the crunchy pecans is reeee-aaallly good.  You might try adding a little less salt if you’re using salted butter.  Enjoy!

2 T. butter, melted
4 T. unfiltered honey
1 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
½ tsp. salt
2 c. pecans
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Set aside.

Combine melted butter, honey, cayenne and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in pecans and gently toss to combine. Spread nuts out in a single layer on the prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 8-12 minutes, stirring once, until toasted. Let cool. Store in an airtight container.

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