Three years, and so much water under the bridge!

So I logged into WordPress a few weeks ago, and there was a little icon in the upper right hand side of the screen that looked like an award.  It reminded me that I have been blogging on WordPress for 3 years!  Happy Anniversary to me!  It also means I have been blogging for 5 years!  It seems like a much longer period of time than it feels like!  I have tried hard to make the commitment to write as much as possible, but when it’s a food blog, I do tend to let real life get in the way, which means my work, our family, the Hubby and generic stuff.  I read the blogs of people I feel I am getting to know, connections that are tenuous, and not real, but at least keep me in the mind that I should be writing more and more, not less and less.  My mind runs away sometimes, and writing would be a helpful way to keep it centered.  Do any of my blogging friends feel the same way?

As usual, this break in the blogging has been necessary due to life stepping in.  It’s been an interesting and challenging few months.  On March 7th, the Hubby had a lumbar laminectomy and was out of commission for six weeks.  I was prepared for it, but when the time actually came, I realized that I am pretty alone out here.  He wasn’t able to do much for the first week or so, and so I took the first two weeks off, the Hubby’s brother helped me get him home, and came by to check on us, which I am so grateful for, and my Mom came out which was truly wonderful for us both!  I started thinking though, we’re pretty alone here in Michiagn, in the sense of an emergency.  What would I do if something really catastrophic happened?  Have any of you ever thought, what if civilization as we know it came to an end and something in the vein of “The Road” took it’s place?  How would you survive?  In my mind, I always thought I would some how make it back to New York, but in reality it’s unlikely that would happen.  Too far, how do we eat/sleep/travel along the way?  It’s a daunting, kind of paranoid scenario.  It also crosses my mind that when I am elderly, I’ll be alone too, or the Hubby and I will be alone.  It’s a scary thought!  How many of you have ever pondered that?

It’s the thoughts of the future and the unknown that make me so grateful for our family and my husband.  They’re great people, that love me tons, and there are many people that don’t have that in their life.  SO, I am super lucky!  And I love to cook for them, and so we come to this episode’s recipe.  it’s something very simple, so delicious and family oriented, that I can’t believe it took me so long to make it for the Hubby, in vegetarian fashion of course.

Most of the time Hubby was laid up, I heated up convenience foods, but I also made and bought him ice cream, and cookies and pretzel treats, all to keep him happy.  In anticipation of being laid up for 6 weeks, before he went under the knife, Hubby bought a very large bag of lentils, which he loves.  When I finally had some time to cook, I thought about making them the way I normally do them, the French way, beautiful green grey Puys lentils, a bottle of red wine, diced onion and garlic, long slow cook, but I had gotten tired of that. I also had a cabbage around that never made it into St. Patrick’s Day dinner.  Enter Mark Bittman and his wonderful iPhone app “How to Cook EVERYTHING Vegetarian” and VOILA! I stumbled upon lentil and rice stuffed cabbage rolls.  And we were off!

Bittman suggests just rice, lentils and onion.  I had a great deal of greens and other vegetables left from the Door to Door Organics box delivery we get, so I decided to pump this up pretty hard.  We had some carrots, a ton of onion, garlic, some broccoli rabe and some organic pear tomatoes.  Of course, being the pantry supply maniac that I am, I also had dried herbs, Indian spices, nuts, and all manner of packet flavoring.

Living in Hamtramck, MI, also known as Poletown (thank you Chrysler) anything Polish is pretty standard, and stuffed cabbage rolls are called golubki (which is pronounced golumki).  A few years ago, I helped a friend do her version of them and a semi-hilarious scene (for me, not for her) ensued where her in-sink disposal broke and landed all the greasy, cabbagy, smelly things that should have gone down the drain in the cabinet under her sink.  I recall much swearing and name calling of the person that had fixed said disposal.  With this version, there isn’t any meat, so the grease is cut down to a minimum.  And of course, when I was cooking I forgot to take photos.  I am sure you will forgive me, considering how awful my photo’s usually are!  

This recipe is fairly fool proof, and if you are not dextrous enough to get the rolling right, you can always just layer them like a casserole.  But, softening the cabbage in water first is essential.

 

Vegetarian/Vegan Cabbage Rolls (adapted from Mark Bittmen)

1/2 cup uncooked lentils

1/2 cup uncooked rice (normal long grain white)

2 cups water (or vegetarian no or low sodium stock)

pinch of salt & pepper

Large soup pot, full of boiling salted water (water should taste a little of the salt)

8 – 10 cabbage leaves, stem removed (white cabbage works best but Savoy might be nice)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion chopped finely

3 garlic cloves pressed or chopped finely

8 – 10 mushrooms chopped

2 carrots finely chopped

1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned (if fresh remove the seeds and pulp, leaving only the skin and flesh)

1 medium bunch of broccoli rabe finely sliced (and/or kale, or spinach)

1 14 oz can low sodium tomato juice (or vegetable juice, like V8)

 

In a heavy bottomed pan that has a tight fitted lid, bring the 2 cups of water, salt & pepper to a boil.  Stir in the lentils and rice, stir to evenly distribute, and bring back to the boil.  Lower the heat down to a simmer and cover tightly.  Let cook for 15 – 20 minutes or until all the water has absorbed.  Once it’s done, set it aside, still covered. 

In the meantime bring the large pot of salted water to a boil, and prepare a very large bowl with an ice bath.  Blanch the cabbage leaves 2 – 3 at a time, until they’re softened but not falling apart, about 3 minutes each.  Remove from the boiling water and plunge into the ice bath.  Make sure they’re completely covered in the cold water, and continue the process until all the cabbage leaves are processed.  Set the whole bowl and cabbage aside until you’re ready to stuff.

In a saucepan, sauté the onion, garlic and carrots in the olive oil.  Cover and lower the heat so they cook and the onions start to get brown but don’t burn, about 4 minutes.  Once they’re soft, add the mushrooms, cook string occasionally for another 3 – 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms soften.  Add the greens, and sauté until they start to wilt then, add the tomatoes, stir well and cover.  Cook for 7 – 10 minutes, string occasionally until it is heated through and the tomatoes thicken.  Remove from the heat and stir the mixture into the rice and lentils.  Set aside to cool.  At this point, when it’s still hot, I usually add some dried herbs, really to taste, or you can be traditional and use parsley, marjoram and dried chive.

Preheat your oven to 350°

You’re ready to start rolling and stuffing.  Drain the cabbage well.  If you have a salad spinner, place them gently in it and spin, the key here is to keep them as whole as possible but to dry them really well.  If not a salad spinner, use tea towels or paper towels and gently dry them off, and stack them until you’re ready for them.  On a flat surface lay a leaf cupped side up, with the cut end where the core was facing you.  Take about 1/4 cup of the stuffing and place it 1/3 of the way into the cup from the but end.  Fold the cut end over the filling, and fold in the 2 sides to form a kind of envelope with the open end facing away from you.  Roll the filling end of the package over the leaf until the open end is on the bottom of the packet.  It should look like a very fat stuffed grape leaf.  Place the packet, open end side down, in a square baking dish.  Continue to stuff and roll the others placing them in the baking dish.  One they’re all tucked into the dish, pour over the tomato or vegetable juice, until they’re covered.  You may not use all of it.

Bake the rolls for 20 minutes, until they’re bubbly and beginning to brown.  Let them cool to room temperature and serve.

ENJOY! 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopping on the spring artichoke bandwagon

I  have read several articles in the last few days about artichokes, in particular in the New York Times, but also in some of the blogs I read.  I’ll give the links to them at the end of this post.  My favorite is from my darling Mark Bittman, who did a great video about how to peel and slice and artichoke, and made it look super easy, which of course it is!  You can view the video and the accompanying article here, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/magazine/i-heart-artichokes.html?ref=dining.  But, I am going to share a seriously simple, very tasty, and easily customizable recipe.  I do encourage you to look at the video attached to figure out how to pare an artichoke, or I can give you the real basics here.

Artichokes are actually the flower of the artichoke plant, which is a thistle.  The “choke” at the heart of it is actually the flower, and when it blooms, it looks like this:

220px-Artichaut2

 

Isn’t that beautiful?  I especially love the little snails clinging to the one in this photo.  It reminds me of my Grandfather Lambert’s “snail zoo” which I got to “view” when I was small and visited his house in Ireland.  He had what I have to assume was an old wooden egg crate, since my Grandmother had raised chickens for years, and in each of the egg holders, there was a tiny snail.  He told me it was his snail zoo, and I of course believed him!  I remember my cousin Michael being very excited to show me this little snail farm, but I realize now he was in on the secret, my grandfather was fooling 8 year old me with!  I can only imagine Grandpa gathering all 2 dozen snails and putting them in this egg crate for me to just find.  Such a sweet memory of the both of them, both have passed now, Michael way too soon, sadly.

So, back to the recipe!  Artichokes are a labor intensive bunch.  They’re very tough in their older phase, and you have to do a fair deal of prep to cook them. The very young small ones you find this time of year are so tender, you can wash and quarter them and deep fry, or sauté without much other prep, choke and all.  

My big secret is acidulated water.  Which really just means water with acid in it, usually citrus juice or vinegar. It stops the cut surfaces from getting black.  I usually put the acid in the water, then use the cut, juiced citrus to rub the cut surface of the artichoke before I plop the whole lot in the water.  My other secret is to remember, green is pretty, but undesirable, and white or cream is desirable.  Now, if you decide to cook this baby whole, the prep is much easier.  You use a very sharp knife, and cut straight across the lower third of the globe.  When I say this I mean the third you should have left includes the stem.  Once you make this cut, you can trim the sharp edges of the remaining green outer leaves with a sharp scissor, and that’s about it.  You can steam it for about 30 – 40 minutes until a knife is easily instead into the bottom is easily inserted and removed.  Once they have cooled it enough to easily handle, you can use a spoon to gently maneuver between the innermost leaves and the heart, and leaver the choke out, scraping the flower heart gently away.  You can eat them with vinaigrette, or the California style, mayonnaise, scraping the leaves with your teeth.

This recipe requires slightly more work.  You do the cut into the lower third, but with a paring knife, you then peel the green carefully away, until you have nothing left but the choke and the heart.  I usually cut this in half, and then use the paring knife scrape and cut out the choke and dip the whole thing in the acidulated water until you’ve pared them all.  Once you do that, you can then slice them up and once again dip them into the acidulated water again.  

While the slices are sitting there waiting for you, combine 1 cup cold water, 1 cup acid (white wine vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, lime juice or last resort would be white vinegar) in a non-reactive pot.  I have added fresh lime leaves, fresh basil, sliced garlic, red paper flakes, oregano, a little salt and a great deal of freshly ground pepper.  Add the drained slices of artichoke, and on medium heat, bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 – 35 minutes, the slices will still be tender, but still whitish.  At this point, I usually cool the slices in the liquid and either bottle or freeze it.  I use the slices in salads, pretty much everything.  Tonight I made pizza.  The nice thing about this recipe is it’s virtually calorie free, but high in protein.  Who woulda thunk it?

Enjoy, and as usual, let me know what you think, and what you make with this recipe!

(Edit: Here are a few of the links I mentioned above:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/health/baked-orzo-with-artichokes-and-peas-recipes-for-health.html?src=recg

Warm potato salad with artichokes and herb dressing

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/health/farfalle-with-artichokes-peas-favas-and-onions-recipes-for-health.html?src=recg)

 

These are a few of my favorite things!

Who doesn’t love The Sound of Music?  It’s where I get today’s blog title.  With the advent of vegetarianism entering my meat eaters life, I began to realize two things.  The first is, living without meat and meat by-products isn’t as hard or easy as it sounds, and second meat substitutes are OK, but vegetables and alternative sources of protein are much better for you!

So in my quest to help my husband reach his goal of being the worlds fattest vegetarian (Joking of COURSE!) I have found some really tried and true products that allow me to keep him vegetarian and well fed, and don’t make me miss meat at all!  Here are several of my tried and true products, and a few sources of where to find them, along with a few “can’t live without” kitchen items that I would truly be lost without!

Quorn is a product that I have become completely addicted to.  You can find their website here: http://www.quorn.us/  or here: http://www.quorn.com/ .  Their products are not soy based, but made from Mycoproteins, which are a kind of fungus, similar to mushrooms.  And I can tell you, they’re delicious!  They come in chicken and beef styles, and everything from cutlets with goat cheese and cranberries to meatballs.  They’re out of this world, and we eat them at least twice a week!

Our two favorites are the cranberry and goat cheese cutlets and Quorn roast, which is what Tim eats for holidays.

Cberry gcheese cutletsTurky roast

Believe it or not, Meijer in Michigan is very vegetarian friendly, and they have these fantastic soy products called “Gardein”, they have BBQ chicken wings, beef tips, which I use for a fast stew in the cooler weather.  They have a website too (http://www.gardein.com/index.php), and tons of options, that are all super good!

Gardein

There is another product, we get it at Whole Foods, called Match.  It’s a sort of raw ground meat type product, it comes in beef, chicken and sausage flavors, and it seriously tastes and looks like ground meat.  I make faux chicken cutlets with it, and hamburgers.  It’s really delicious, and a soy based product.  They do have a website, to find where their products are sold near you:  http://matchmeats.com/wp1/

Match meat

We do use several other “meat replacement” products.  TIm loves the Tofurky products (http://www.tofurky.com/), I don’t particularly like them, they don’t really agree with me.  His favorite, after the famous Tofurky roast is brats and now they can be grilled, which is pretty sweet when you’re going to a BBQ.

We have a local restaurant that I may have mentioned before, Brooklyn Street Local (http://brooklynstreetlocal.com/), and they make this uniquely Canadian dish called poutine.  It’s french fries, cheese curd and beef gravy, sounds odd, but it’s delicious! They make a vegetarian version that Tim loves with mushroom gravy.  They also make a traditional diner breakfast, with tempeh bacon, which we have now found!  It’s admittedly NOT bacon, but if you like the smokey flavor, this will hit the spot.  Much better than the faux bacon strips that look like pink and white communion wafers….

Tempeh bacon

There are many other things that I adore, although right now, I have an obsession with a juicer we got.  It’s bright yellow and sunny looking, and juices citrus like a breeze:

Fancy juicer

However, my very old friend, the wooden reamer has to do for larger citrus, like large oranges and grapefruit:

Non fancy juicer

I am in the process of getting more blog posts put together, so I won’t be posting so sporadically, upcoming is the promised tomato gazpacho, and a really lovely desert my cousin Petula taught me to make that they called “Wellington Squares”.  I recently found a version of it in a New Zealand blog I have been following.  Maybe this favorites will be a  quarterly thing, not sure yet, but I love giving people options that they may not have known on, or wouldn’t have tried if they hadn’t heard of it.

Happy Fall everyone, the weather here in Detroit seems to have turned, I hope for the cooler side of things!

PS: Look at what Tim brought me back from Hungary!  YUMMY!!

Truffle honey

Pretzel bread…. YAY!

Last weekend, we had a semi-surprise family gathering at our house.  Tim’s second cousin was in town with his dad at the local bar playing a show.  The family, Tim’s uncle and his cousin, as well as another cousin, came by for drinks and some picky food before we all went over to the show.  It was a nice opportunity to see everyone, talk about the upcoming family wedding, and just catch up.

Of course, I was all a-twitter about what to serve, and ended up making Tim’s mom’s “Olive Puffs” … so yum… and buying other things, like some marinated mozzarella balls, and various dips.  We had cocktails and wine too.  When Tim’s cousin Keith arrived, he came bearing a cheese plate and pretzel bread.  The bread was SO good and I was reminded that one of my brothers loves it.  So I started thinking about how to make it.  I had attempted hard pretzels many years ago, but this was a new thing for me.

I looked at several recipes I found online, and there are many ways to make pretzel dough.  I attempted two of them, one involving refined sugar, one using a combination of self raising flour and plain flour, but neither was very successful.  The self raising flour seemed to bubble up all over the place and the baking soda flavor was overpowering.  So I looked at all 5 of the recipe’s I found and came up with this one.  This time, it came out great, moist, dense and very flavorful, with that chemical tang that you find in pretzels but can never pinpoint the exact flavor.  There are two methods of imparting the flavor that I came up against, both involve boiling, one in a water/baking soda solution and one in a water/lye solution.  When I mentioned to Tim about the lye, he was 100 against it, (“Why would you want to boil bread in Drano?!”) so I went for the baking soda solution.  The purpose is to set the crust, and sort of flash cook it, so it really darkens and caramelizes when you bake it, similar to the way that bagels are made.  I also added some salt to the water, because I figured it would add more flavor, and it really did.

A few notes here about the flour you use.  I ended up buying bread flour, which I know I will use again, but if you only have all purpose, don’t sweat it.  They will both work fine, I also think you can combine whole wheat and plain flour to make it a little healthier and more hardy.  I would go 1 cup whole wheat, and the rest plain flour.  And yes, it’s worth opening up another package of yeast for this one.  Believe me, it makes a huge difference, both in the rising of the bread and the flavor.  We made mock chicken burgers and had them on the breads last night for dinner… and it was divine!

Elizabeth’s Pretzel Bread

Dough:
3 ½ cups of bread flour (or all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
3 teaspoons (1 ½ packets) instant yeast
1 cup lukewarm water (110 – 120 °F)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter melted
2 tablespoons whole milk or half and half
½ cup flour reserved for kneading
1 tablespoon oil

For the soak:
4 quarts water
½ cup baking soda

For the coating:
Kosher salt to taste (or pretzel salt if you can find it)
2 tablespoons melted butter

In a large bowl combine the flour and salt, make sure they are very well combined and set aside.  In another small bowl, combine the water, honey, dark brown sugar and yeast.  I suggest mixing it all together and dissolving the sugars, then adding the yeast and then mix so the yeast is completely dissolved.  Let this mixture set for 10 – 12 minutes until the yeast starts to proof (bubble up.)  Once the yeast mixture is creamy and bubbly, add in the milk and the cooled melted butter.  Add to the dry ingredients.  Mix well, you can use a stand mixer and paddle to start this, and you will have a slightly sticky solid dough or you can use a wooden spoon and your hands.  Once you have a cohesive dough, turn it out on a floured surface, or you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook, in any case, the reserved flour will help you to get a smooth supple dough (the old saying, smooth as a baby’s bottom comes to mind.)  The dough will feel heavier and more solid than you may think it should be, but that’s OK.  Oil a large bowl with some flavor neutral oil, although I used olive oil in this case.  Make sure the bowl is big enough to hold the dough after it has doubled.  Toss in the dough, turning it so it’s covered lightly all over with the oil, this prevents sticking.

Cover the bowl with a slightly damp tea towel, and allow to rise for 30 minutes, punch it down, make sure it’s not sticking, it won’t seem to have risen a whole lot, but once you punch it down this time, it will rise like crazy.  This time let it rise for another hour in a warm dry place, until it’s doubled.  I suggest on your stove top, with the oven on low.

At this point, preheat your oven to 400 ° C.  You may use a pizza stone if you like, but a good old cookie sheet with parchment over it will work just as well, set it aside, ready for action. The point here is, you need a very hot oven.  About the time you’re done with the second rise, put the 4 quarts of water on to boil.  You will add the baking soda to this when it has come to the boil, but in the mean time, you will punch down the dough again and shape it into the shape you want it to be in when baked.  I would divide it into 8 round balls, also known as boules.  My first time I tried to do pretzel shapes, but they failed miserably, came all undone.  So until you’re more confident, I would try the simple boules below, then experiment with other shapes.  Remember you can also make these into much smaller shapes, bite size servings.  It makes no difference, so do what you want.

Shaped and resting boules, before boiling

When the dough is shaped, let them rest while you add the baking soda to the rapidly boiling water.  Stir well so it’s totally combined.  Work with one dough at a a time and drop your formed breads into the water, top down, and boil for 30 seconds, turning them mid-way.

Boiling in barely bubbling water, 15 seconds a side.

Set the boiled dough onto the final baking sheet and cover with the Kosher salt.  Continue the process with the remaining dough balls.  Once they’re all on the pan and salted, cut some X’s or patterns around the tops, about 1/8 inch deep with a very sharp knife so the dough has somewhere to split and rise when baking.  You can be really creative here, it makes for a dramatic presentation and finished product.

I used a flat slotted spoon to drain them before I put them on the baking sheet.
Course Kosher salt is good, don't over salt, they'll be hard to eat.

Slide them onto your hot oven, and bake for 25 minutes, but start checking them at 20 minutes, they should be highly risen and very dark brown all over.  They may be done between 21 – 23 minutes, depending upon your oven.  They may stick if you used tin foil (as I did for these photos) but they will become easier to remove once they cool down.

They're done! Now for the melted butter.

When the breads are out of the oven, brush them lightly with melted butter, it will make them shiny and soft, as well as adding some nice flavor to them.  Let them cool well before you eat them.  An alternative to the butter after baking, is to brush an egg wash over them before you put them in the oven, that will make them shiny.  All you have to do is lightly beat one egg with a teaspoon of milk or water, and brush it over the loaves, then salt them and proceed as above.

YUM! Salty and sweet at the same time!

St. Patrick’s Day 2012!

I am sure anyone that knows me, knows that my mother was born in Ireland and moved to the States when she and my father were about to be married.  When I think about it now, it was quite the intrepid adventure she set out on.  At the time, 1965 she was very young in only 19, and people didn’t travel back and forth overseas as easily as we do these days, it was prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of overseas phone calls!  So this very young woman moved to America, married my Dad and started a family!  No family around to watch the baby, and a husband who worked all day.  It was a different time all together!  My Mom did instill a very strong sense of our Irish heritage in us kids, and we are all still very close to our Irish family.  And so, St. Patrick’s day is a big deal for us, and not in the drink green beer until you can’t possibly drink any more sense.  For our family it’s a day that we really are proud to be Irish!  This year, one of my nieces is even doing her first public Irish dancing recital… big news in the Hennessey family!!

In creating my own little family in Detroit, I do try really hard to honor both of our heritages.  As I have mentioned here before, Tim is half Hungarian, so all the food I can possibly make from there, I do.  And my paternal grandmother’s Belgian roots are honored all the time!  And on St. Patrick’s Day, I go all out… even thought Tim won’t eat the corned beef, I cook it for me, and some years, for friends and family here.  This year, one of my cousins posted a photo on her Facebook page of the “green and gold jellies” that they were having for dessert today (lime and orange “jello” with lots of cream to go over) and I thought, jeez, I should make that for us too!  Alas, Jello, and gelatin products are decidedly NOT vegetarian.  I have experimented a few times with making vegan versions of things like marshmallow, and the pudding I have posted here.  I have had success with all of them, except the marshmallows, and I was dying to figure out what was wrong.  And then, low and behold, I read many, many recipes with something called agar agar, also called agar flakes, or powder.  But, agar is a fickle mistress… and so the great vegetarian dessert caper of St. Patrick’s 2012 was afoot!

I got two pots out and used 2 cups of liquid, in this case, orange juice and limeade, with some white wine thrown in for the grown up in me.  I didn’t add any sugar, but I did add a drop of green food coloring to the lime version, to up the color.  The recipe I found online called for one teaspoon of agar and very little cooking time.  From experience I know now, that it usually takes double that amount to really work, so I used 2 teaspoons in each pot.  I brought them both to the boil, took them off the heat, added in the agar, stirred well, then put them back on the heat and let them simmer for a good 30 min, stirring occasionally.  Then, everything was allowed to cool and the mixture was poured into a lightly greased aluminum loaf pan.  It looked promising when I started:

I put both pans carefully into a Ziplock bag when they were completely cool and set them in the middle shelf of the fridge.  I was told it could take up to 4 hours, so I just walked away and made the soda bread, put the corned beef on to boil and forgot about them.  About 3 hours in, I checked them… I couldn’t resist.  The orange one was completely jelled and looked pretty good.  The lime one on the other hand, seemed fine until I wobbled the pan a bit, and it exploded into a liquid, although slightly thickened, mess.  Uh oh!  I uncovered both and put them back into a cooler part of the fridge and vowed to just leave them!

About 3 hours later, the orange was still gorgeous, the lime still a bit too liquid for me, so I popped it in the freezer, and served dinner.  When we were able to think about dessert, I grabbed both pans and whipped the cream and this is what we had!

The orange, although jell like, was a soft jell, so I am adjusting the agar amounts to account for that.  Here’s the recipe and a few more photos of the day!

Vegetarian Jellies

1 ½ c fruit juice (apple, orange, cherry, slightly sweetened)

½ c white wine or just use fruit juice

2 ½ teaspoons agar flakes or powder

½  teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cold water

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and water and mix well until smooth and set aside. Bring the fruit juice and wine to boil in a small heavy bottomed pot.   Take the pot off the heat and sprinkle the agar flakes over the hot juice and stir to  combine well.  Place the pot back on a low flame and simmer to allow the agar to soften and melt totally, about 15 minutes.  Under no circumstances should you boil the agar, it will lose it’s effectiveness.  Take the hot juice off the heat again and lightly whisk in the cornstarch and water, making sure no lumps form, and continue to stir until the mixture become clear.  At this point, it should be slightly thick, not very just enough that it isn’t the same consistency as juice or water.  Set the pot off the heat to cool.  When it has cooled about 10 – 15 minutes, pour it into the container you will chill it in.  You may want to put a very thin layer of light corn oil on the pan, so the jelly will come away from the pan when it’s done.  Allow the mixture to cool completely, and then cover in plastic wrap and put in the coolest part of your refrigerator.  The time to jell will vary but after 3 hours you should be able to nudge the pan and see that it is fairly solid.

When you gently press with your finger on the top of the jelly and it is firm and solid, you can either serve with a spoon, or cut into slices.  I used lightly whipped cream with a spoonful of sugar, but you can serve it to taste.

And here is my soda bread, along with the flowers my mom and dad sent us.  But, I can’t give you that recipe, it’s a family recipe and I would have to kill you…!!

Lentils are good for you, but they actually taste good too!

Happy March everyone!  You’ll notice that I have moved the blog to WordPress.  I heard it was an easier site to work with, and so I am trying it!  Let me know what your thoughts are on the new format and ease of use.

Although this has been the mildest winter I can ever remember, the sun hasn’t been out much here in Michigan, so the dismal look and feel of the winter is still around.  It makes me cook comforting, cold weather food and lentils really fit the bill here. I can honestly say, other than heavy, gloopy canned soup; I haven’t really eaten much in the way of lentils for most of my life.  When I started cooking for a vegetarian, I discovered the ease and variability of cooking with beans and legumes.  Then one day we were exploring around a natural gourmet food store, and I came upon a bin of these beautiful slate green lentils that were so eye-catching to me! I had to have them, so bought 2 pounds and took them home immediately!

If you follow Nigella, as you know I do, you have probably heard of Puy lentils but I had never really researched or experimented with them.  My memories were always the little cylindrical plastic sleeves you see in the supermarkets for “soup mix”.  They always have a solid chunk of lentils in them, right next to the spice that mix that you can never really put your finger on. The Puy lentils are different from them and are actually famed for being “the best”.  Typically, you see them called French green lentils.  They hold up very well to cooking and they don’t go all to mush unless you crush them when you’re cooking them.  Puy’s have a distinctive flavor, very earthy and hardy, with a bit of crunch to them, and I have grown to love them.

There are many other types of lentils, red, yellow and orange which you typically see in Indian foods and are called dal.  All of those types tend to be more tender when you cook them.  In general, lentils are very high in fiber and protein, are very easy to cook and flavor, and even these special “Puy’s” are definitely very inexpensive to buy.  So you get great bang for your buck with them.

Now, this recipe has a great deal of red wine in it, so if you’re cooking for kids, you may want to substitute the wine for some good quality, low salt vegetable broth.  And remember, if you won’t drink it don’t cook with it!  Also, when you start cooking, the liquid seems to be way too much.  It’s exactly the right amount so trust me here.  I typically start checking them at about 35 minutes, because each batch of dried lentils you get is different, so if the liquid is still covering the lentils, continue cooking for another 10 – 15 minutes.  But, once you hit the 40-minute mark, start listening for a dry pan and check every few minutes although you should resist the urge to stir them much. There will be little to no liquid in the pot, and the lentils will easily mash when you press them with a fork.  If you find there is still a lot of liquid, take the lid off, and raise the heat up to medium, and let the extra liquid boil away.  When there is virtually no liquid left, take the pot off the heat and stir in the vinegar, then taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Puy Lentils in Red Wine

1 cup green French green Puy lentils (or any lentil, except red or yellow)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 shallots, finely chopped*

2 garlic cloves, sliced finely

2 bay leaves (optional)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (1 teaspoon fresh)

2 cups good red wine (Spanish wine is great here, maybe a nice Tempranillo)

1 ½ cups water

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or apple cider, red wine, balsamic vinegar, anything with nice flavor)

Before you start cooking, rinse the lentils well, pick through them and remove any stones, leaves or stems, then place them in a bowl and cover them by about an inch with hot water and let them soak for about 20 minutes.  Once they’re soaked and slightly soft, drain them, rinse with cold water and set them aside to drain in a colander.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy pot with a tight fitting cover.  Once it’s melted add the shallots, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Cook, stirring frequently until the shallots turn golden brown.  Be careful not to burn them, or you will have to start over.  Lower the heat to medium and add in the wine.  Bring the mixture to a boil and allow to cook for 1 minute. Add the drained lentils and then the water, stir well. Allow the pot to come to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 40 – 45 minutes. There will be little to no liquid in the pot, and the lentils will easily mash when you press them with a fork.  If you find there is still a lot of liquid, take the lid off, and raise the heat up to medium, and the the extra liquid boil away.  When there is virtually not liquid left, take the pot off the heat and stir in the vinegar, then taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

As always, comments are welcome and variations are encouraged!

*Note: If you don’t have shallots, you can use more garlic (2 more cloves) or add a small finely chopped yellow union.

Who doesn’t love pudding?

As hard as it is to believe, it’s winter, and although we have had the mildest winter on record, I still want to hibernate and cook dark, gravy-laden food, food that you have to cook for hours, and can just sit and smell, rather than having to fiddle over.  It’s an inherent drive, I guess!
Last night, Tim and I went out to a nice Italian place we love, and the waitress highly recommended the “wonderful homemade rice pudding”.  Turns out, she made it, so she was all about seeing what everyone thought.  It was wonderful, and reminded me of the rice pudding I use to help my mom make when I was a kid.  As Tim and I sat there and enjoyed it, I realized that I could probably attribute my ability to know when a sauce, custard, pudding or gravy is ready, to being the stirrer of the rice pudding when I was a kid!  I must remember to thank my Mom for that one!  I used to stand there and stir and stir and stir, then suddenly the bottom of the pot got slick and slippery, I knew the alchemy of a thickened food was happening!  To this day, I know that’s the moment when I probably should switch to a whisk, to prevent lumps, and that it’s just about to be ready.
So, in honor of winter and all things yummy and warm, I am going to give you a foolproof chocolate pudding recipe.  You’ll have to stand there and stir, but you will never look at pudding again once you have made your own, I promise you!  As always, you can do this many ways, you can substitute skim milk, you can use half and half, coconut milk, almond or hazelnut milk, rice milk, anything you have in the house. You can use white, milk or bittersweet chocolate, but if you do use white, exclude the cocoa powder. You can spike it with a hazelnut liqueur, rum you name it.
Enjoy it and let me know what you can come up with!
Chocolate Pudding
4 tablespoons corn starch
6 tablespoons sugar (brown sugar is nice here too)
1 ½ tablespoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
Pinch of salt
2 ¼ c. heavy cream
1 ¼ c. milk
6 oz. semisweet chocolate
1 ½ tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch, sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt.  Make sure they’re well combined and there are no lumps.  In another bowl, mix together the milk and 1 ¼ c of the cream.  Slowly whisk the cream/milk mixture into the dry ingredients, again, making sure there are no lumps. Then put the pot on a medium-high flame and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a boil and is thickened.  Add the chocolate and stir until it’s melted.
Take the mixture off the heat and beat in the butter until it’s melted and combined.  Transfer the whole mixture to a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Make sure the plastic is touching the entire surface of the pudding, (unless you’re a fan of the pudding skin, then leave it off) and let it cool, for 45 min, it will be ready to eat at that point, and you can serve it with the remaining 1 c. of cream whipped.  Otherwise, cool it completely in the refrigerator, and spoon into serving bowls, then use the remaining cream on top.

Happy new year everyone!

Yes, I am wishing you a Happy New Year on January 14th… a bit late, and such a long time since my last post, but the wishes are just as sincere now as they were on the day!  Many things have gone on since my last post, chiefly, work, work work… and some pretty awesome cooking too.  It’s flurrying outside today, and I have been so guilty about not posting… I hope you enjoy what I came up with!
We had a truly lovely Thanksgiving at our house this year, as has become the tradition for the Curtis/Suliman/Neal/McLenon/Hennessey house!  We have basically kept all the traditions going that Tim’s mom and aunts started many years ago, including pretty much all of the menu.  I have cut back considerably on all the sugar that they used to use, and I have added a few twists from my life and Tim’s favorites. (A quick side note here, have you ever spatch cooked your turkey??  I have now for 2 years running and I will never go back!  More on that in the next post!)  For Christmas we were off to New York for the Hennessey celebration.  I have to say, I didn’t cook much at all for Christmas, but I did make a genuine Irish fruit cake two months before hand, dutifully doused it with brandy every week or so, and brought it with us.  That also was part of the New Years Day chocolate fondue I made.  My brother Mark, sister in law Carie and their children John and Elsa came for a quick visit to my parents to see us, which was, as always, an utter delight!  Family is so great to have around, and nothing beats it!  The gift I was the most excited about was a Le Creuset oval dutch oven!  I will admit, I asked Santa for it, but it was such a delight to actually unwrap it and take it home!  I have already made a version of vegetarian chili topped with cornbread in it, and was so happy with it, I can’t even describe it!
As for most people, January is usually a busy month for us, not just because it’s the new year and we want to start everything fresh, but also because my father, sister and oldest niece all have birthday’s a few days apart from each other.  Today is my Dad’s turn, and as I was talking to him this morning, he mentioned that, although it’s not really possible, it would be so great to have us living nearer the kids.  I have to admit, I agree with him.  I would love to be able to have the kids drop by, and cook with them, or just sit and talk.  As they (and we) get older, it’s harder to have real ties and relationships to them, they’re discovering who they are, and Aunt Bep (or Libet, or Elizabeth, depending upon the kids) may not be the hip happening person they want to be around all the time.  So, my NYR (new years resolution) is to make the extra effort to be more there for the kiddies, all 8 of them!
How does that work it’s way into this blog?  Here’s how!  I was thinking today about what I would make if I had all the kids to myself and had to occupy them for a while?  The kids range from almost 13 to almost 4 months… quite a spread!  Most of the answers I came up with were either too simplistic for them (or at least for the older ones) or too complicated to do with masses of kids all at the same time.  But, I did prevail.  What do you think most kids would never pass up?  I think brownies fits that bill to a tee!  Now, I know some kids have dietary issues so please understand I am not allowing for that completely in this post.  I will say that the recipe below will do fabulously well with the non-gluten flours on the market, and you can always use soy yogurt or apple sauce or pureed banana’s to substitute for the sour cream or yogurt that I suggest… you get the picture though, it’s fairly easy and as always, you can tweak this a million ways to suit your kids and their needs.  My one and only insistence is that  you NOT use carob.  It’s awful tasting and doesn’t melt the way a decent chocolate does…. if that’s the only option you have, leave the chocolate out or substitute a dried fruit or a nut that the kids like.  Come to think of it, dried pineapple would be SO good in this!  Hmmm… off to the kitchen!

Easy and Delicious Brownies

  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 14 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (Hershey’s will do fine, or go for the good stuff)
  • 1 & 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt, or plain soy or coconut milk yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped nuts of your choice or dried fruit or chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a 9-inch square pan with foil or parchment paper so that 2 inches hang over two opposite sides.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a nonreactive pan or in the microwave. Stir occasionally until melted and smooth. Transfer to a medium bowl and allow to cool slightly. Beat in cocoa powder and sugar until well blended. Add in sour cream and vanilla extract, then add each egg and beat to incorporate fully, then add the next egg. Combine flour and salt well, then slowly add to the chocolate mixture.  Once fully combined, add in the nuts, fruit or chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 40-45 minutes or until done. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out with a few moist crumbs attached. Cool in pan on wire rack.

Makes 16 brownies.

I have found Nirvana…!!

I have always prided myself on being able to tell a great story.  I hear it all the time, “Oh, you’re so funny, you should write a book!” And so, I have thought about writing a book of my humorous stories and becoming the next David Sedaris (a complete joke on my part!).  Alas, usually after relaying the story a time or two, it is gone from my increasingly sieve-like mind.  And so, writing a book based on my crazy life, pales as time passes.  When the world of blogging came into being, I thought in a smug, self-satisfied way that it was only for people that liked to hear themselves talk, and who were caught up in the whole “me, me, me” culture that I see popping up all around me.  It took years for me to actually stop and read people’s blogs, on topics that interested me.  Like cooking.

And so this blog was created, and I have tried to keep it up, even though I sometimes forget about it totally.  I thought about cooking myself through all kinds of books, similar to the woman that cooked her way through Julia Child’s cook book (and had a movie made about her book, about her blog…)  I don’t have enough discipline to do that, my attention span just won’t stretch that far.  My next idea was to write what I was cooking on a weekly basis, but, true to form, I can’t remember to write it all up in the blog.  So, the next idea was to create my own ingredients, and show people how easy it is to make your own stuff, and take the mystery out of all the packaged foods we buy and eat on a daily basis.

One reason why this idea was a winner is where I grew up, versus where I live now.  I grew up in New York, in Flushing, Queens in fact.  Or as my niece and nephews call it “the big city.”  You can find ANY ingredient there, at any time of the day or night.  Not so in Michigan, just outside of Detroit, where I live now.  Although there are many upsides to living here, not the least among them being, it’s fairly handy to be able to walk down the street to what is called  “party store” and pick up wine, beer or spirits and mixers on any day of the week, well into the wee hours of the morning.  That counts for quite a bit when you’re a foodie and a cocktail-er, as I am.  I am actually passionate about telling people that they can make things so much better if they make it themselves, rather that going out and buying something that may be of questionable quality, and certainly of indeterminate freshness and pureness.

And that is now my goal.  I will attempt to give people the skinny on things that I myself make, or have made, that are simple and easy and infinitely cheaper than most of the stuff you try to buy in the stores.  Today’s lesson is homemade ricotta.  Full fat, home made and delicious cheese.

Living in New York for the first 30+ years of my life, the cheery, bright yellow Polly-O Ricotta was a wonderful staple of my cooking repertoire.  With my husband being a lacto-ovo vegetarian, good Italian casseroles are a great way to keep us fed and quickly ready for dinner.   Alas, after moving to Michigan, I have come to find that there isn’t a readily available source of ricotta that I can find at any store.  And thus the use in most Michigan recipes of cottage cheese in those foods that I have grown to love and make all the time.  That to me is sacrilege and 100% unacceptable.  But, I found a shop nearby that sells what I expect is normal, out of the tub ricotta for a ridiculous price.  I use it sparingly and don’t buy it much because it’s expensive.  Imagine my surprise when I was watching The Cooking Channel and saw one of the chefs making cannolli with homemade ricotta that he had sweetened before the cheese making process.  It was a revelation!  I COULD do that and on a regular basis, and a fraction of the cost!  And so, I made it today, and made the best ricotta gnocchi (thank you, Mark Bittman) that I have ever had!  On this day, I pass along to you, the simplest recipe I have ever made (although that’s not saying much) which packs an amazing flavor punch for as few ingredients as you have to have on hand!  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think, or what your experiences are doing it… I can always use a critique!

(NOTE: I use full fat milk here, but once you get used to making it, you can use skim or anything in between)

Homemade Ricotta cheese:

2 quarts of full fat milk (8 cups)
1 pint heavy cream (optional)
1/3 cup of lemon juice, no pips (1/4 cup if you use the heavy cream)
1 tsp salt

Implements you will need:
2 sheets of cheese cloth, folded so you have 6 layers
Colander with many holes (mesh ones are usually best, but a metal kitchen colander is fine)

In a heavy bottomed, large pot, combine the milk and cream and on a medium heat, bring the milk to a steady boil.  While heating it stir it occasionally to prevent a skin from forming over the top.  Keep and eye on it, and when you start to see a foam form around the sides of the pan, and it starts a slow rolling boil, pull the pan off the heat and allow to cool for a minute or two and stir in the salt.  After cooling briefly, and making sure all the salt is dissolved, add in the lemon juice.  Stir it gently until well combined.  You will see the mixture will thicken slightly, and you will see a little curdling.  Once you have stirred the juice in, stop.  Let it all sit for an hour to an hour and a half.  It will seem to be turning a darker yellow, but resist the temptation to stir it.  The idea here is that you want to allow the cheese to form as large of a curd as you can manage.

While the cheese is cooling, line the colander with the cheesecloth and set the whole thing into the sink.  After the cheese has set for a while, take it gently to the sink and use a ladle to spoon the mixture into the cheesecloth lined colander.  When you have about half of it in the cheesecloth, you can pour the remaining cheese into the colander and let it drain.

DO NOT press on the cheese curds to extract liquid.  Resist this as strongly as you can, so you don’t lose valuable cheese as opposed to liquid, or whey that drains out.  You will see the cheese will start to become creamier and more solid.  I usually wait anywhere from 15 to 30 min to check where the progress is.  The goal for this is to have a creamy and very small curd cheese.  After about 30 min, I usually gather up the cheese cloth and either hang it from the faucet in the sink, or transfer the whole thing to a mesh colander, which will allow the whey to drain much faster.

It is completely up to you, how long to drain this.  If you want ricotta, then maximum of 45 minutes draining.  If you want to make something like Indian paneer, at least 2 hours until the cheese is very firm (similar to firm tofu)

Fresh ricotta will not keep long, so my suggestion would be to make it as you need it and use it soon.  It really does not freeze well at all, so keep that in mind.  It will keep for several days well covered and completely cooled in the refrigerator. 

A few notes here on flavoring.  You can very easily make this a sweet cheese for desserts by omitting half the salt and adding in 2 tablespoons of sugar in the step where you add the salt.  Remember to stir well so all the crystals melt and are fully combined, then proceed with the lemon as above.  Also, on the savory side, I made a batch of this with 3 finely chopped cloves of garlic (you may even want to grate them finely), 1 teaspoon of dried fresh basil, and a good solid grinding of freshly cracked black pepper.  Also, for the curdling agent, the lemon is a good non-flavoring agent, but I have also seen about half the amount of white vinegar used.  I have not used it myself, so I don’t know how the vinegar effects the flavoring.

OK, go forth and create cheese!

E.

The most awesomest tofu burgers!

As I have mentioned many times before, DH is a vegetarian.  Not being a vegetarian myself, it’s hard to make meals we both can enjoy together.  Eating together isn’t the issue, it’s the enjoy part.  Plus, since I am pretty much the only one cooking, I need to make sure we are both getting the nutrition we need.  So, I have made huge strides in making everything tasty as well as healthy.  I subscribe to countless blogs, read web sites all the time, and have more cook books than I can decently list here.  One of my old standby websites is Heidi Swanson’s “101 Cookbooks”.  She has a great approach to food, that just happens to be vegetarian.  Go local and go fresh, and although she lives in the San Francisco area, it applies all over the country.  (Please note, not vegan, just vegetarian).  She had a tofu burger recipe that I tried a few times and we loved each time we did it.  I do give Heidi credit here, but honestly I have made changes to her basics and made it mine.  I also find that the ingredients here can easily change, making this awfully versatile.  Similar to the Portobello burgers I posted recently, the condiments here can be just about anything you like, you can swing to the more Asian style, French mustard, barbecue, anything and they will still be completely wonderful.  A word to those of you that just want a burger to LOOK like a burger… give up.  These are definitely not going to look meaty, but they taste heavenly!

Tofu Burger’s

1 pound / 16 oz / 450 g extra-firm tofu
2 large eggs
1 cup  bread crumbs
1/2 cup nuts (walnuts, pecans, cashews, whatever you like)
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (preferably unsalted)
1/2 cup mushrooms (slice finely and whir first in your processor)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon garlic powder (or dehydrated garlic or onion)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (do not use table salt here, kosher or sea is best)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Place the mushrooms and nuts into a food processor and pulse until they start to look finely chopped.  Add in the remaining ingredients except 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs and the olive oil and process until a smooth paste forms.  Scrape down the sides of the food processor once or twice if needed. If it seems a bit thin to you, add the remaining bread crumbs a small handful at a time until everything comes together.  This should resemble a thick and pasty mixture, so the burgers retain their shape when formed. 

Divide the mixture into eight equal portions and use your hands to press and form into round but flat-ish patties. (It helps to lightly oil your hands.)  I usually freeze half of them for future use.

Pour the olive oil into your largest skillet over medium-high heat, and arrange as many patties as you can without crowding. Cover, and cook turning once, until deeply browned on both sides. Roughly ten minutes. You want to make sure the middle of the patties cook through. If your pan is too hot you’ll burn the outsides before the middle cooks up, so be mindful of that.  The cooked texture should be firm when you press in the middle of the patty, similar to the fleshy pad near the thumb of your hand.  Don’t worry if they crack a bit, that’s fairly normal.

Dress these as you would any burger.  I always love cheese and really sour pickles with them.  Remember that if you use a more flavorful nut, like walnut or pecan, they will taste strongly of that.  You can mix types, I find cashew and walnut or almond work well together.  Also – the cayenne can be replaced by anything if you don’t like a little mild heat.  You will truly barely notice the heat if you do use it.  I have tried dried basil, half the amount of thyme, and a mixture of whatever I had on hand and it always works.

Enjoy!  And let me know how you flavor your burgers!!