Friday, August 31, 2012

An Ode to My Pepper Grinder

One of the neat things about my history is that I can tell you exactly when I got really into cooking. I've always loved food and enjoyed cooking, but it was the end of summer, 2009 when I figured out that this was something huge to me. It's odd how these formative moments can come from something so apparently simple. That summer was the first time I had freshly ground black pepper on a fried egg.

I'm not very good wish spicy foods. I tend to avoid them like the plague because I've never understood why anyone would choose to eat food that hurts. Because of this, I would never ever cook with pepper. I know it's not spicy, but I confess I was scared of it. I didn't even keep it in the house.

Then, one fateful summer evening I was round the house of a friend who was himself a fairly decent cook, and he made fried eggs. He ground fresh salt and black pepper on to the eggs while he was cooking them in butter. Since I'm polite, I didn't say anything and simply sat down to eat my egg. I tasted the butter crisped white, the golden yolk, the tang of the salt, and the pepper…. oh the pepper! It brought out everything, enhanced it, brightened it. It was one of the best things I've ever tasted.

I was sold. Immediately. I think I went out and bought a pepper grinder the next day. Now, I use pepper in almost everything and I'm incredibly sad that I missed it for so many years. You'll see in many of my recipes that I call for fresh ground pepper. It's so much better than the stuff you buy pre ground. One day, I'd love to have a selection of gourmet pepper that I can pair with different recipes, but for now, I'm content to just never be far from my pepper grinder.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bacon and Cheddar Gougeres

Finally, a day to play in the kitchen. It feels like forever since I've had the opportunity to just mess around and cook.

It's weird how you get into a routine with things, like writing a food blog, and then when something happens to knock you out of the routine your life feels very off balance. In my brain, I shouldn't be putting this post up since it's a Tuesday and I normally post Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But I figure the best way to get back in the swing of things is to just grab the rope, tarzan yell, and jump.

So, today I jumped into a big plate of Gougeres. I love Gougeres. They are essentially just little pastry puffs. They are made with gruyere normally which is a harder cheese, and I still feel that the classic take is best, but I wanted to play with the idea of making them with ingredients you are more likely to have on hand, like cheddar and bacon. I pretty much always have cheddar and bacon in the house. That and eggs. Without eggs, I would be lost.

So I whipped up these little beauties and I certainly like them. I had five in the first sitting, three more while taking a picture, and another three while putting them into tupperware. They are so little you can just pop them into your mouth. It's easy to lose track.

These would be great for a party, or nice to just have on hand as a snack. They don't get as much height as a normal gougere would, but they still work nicely in my opinion.

Bacon and Cheddar Gougeres

2 Slices of Bacon, cooked crispy
1/2 Cup Milk
3 Tablespoons Butter
1/2 Cup Flour
2 Eggs
1/4 Teaspoon Mustard Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
10 Grinds Black Pepper
3oz Cheddar, finely grated

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Cook your two slices of bacon until they are crispy, then mince them up after they have cooled a little.

Put the milk, butter, mustard, salt and pepper in a saucepan and heat up until the butter has melted. Do not boil. Set aside and grate the cheese finely. You'll probably want to use a Microplane Grater if you have one so the cheese will incorporate better.

Once the cheese is grated, you'll want to move fairly quickly. Take your liquid and dump in all the flour at once. Beat firmly with a spoon, it will form a heavy paste. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well, then add in the bacon and three quarters or more of the cheese. You'll want to reserve a little to top the gougeres with.

On a baking lined with either Sil-Pat or parchment, spoon out 30 rounds of the mix, just over a teaspoon each. You can pipe them out with a pastry bag if you like. Try and coax them into little peaks if you can, but don't worry if it doesn't happen. Sprinkle over the extra cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes until they are golden brown.

Eat one or two every time you walk past the plate in the kitchen. Try not to count.

Makes 30.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

So I Made This Tart

Yesterday it rained all day long. Bear in mind the enormity of this statement since I live in Las Vegas, Nevada and it's summer. It never rains here. Yesterday was glorious. I sat on my couch. I drank tea, I worked on a project, I read a book, I watched television, I made a tart.

I opened all the blinds in my apartment so that I could watch the rain and I stayed in my pajamas for the bulk of the day. My last surgery is done so I'm healing up now, which is awesome and scary. I have an ultrasound next week that will tell me if I'm healing properly. I'm hoping it'll be a yes.

So, with the healing and the rain I made a tart. It was a Peach and Mango tart and I put walnuts in the topping. I liked the taste of the filling and I baked it for 40 minutes. It didn't look done. I kept it in for ten more. Still no dice. 5 more minutes. Nothing. I finally pulled it out at an hour and five minutes, terrified that it was burnt on the bottom.

I brought it in to work today. Tasted it here. It's not my finest work. I think the temperature of the oven needed to be higher, or maybe I needed to blind bake the crust. Regardless, I wanted a much firmed crust and a crunchy topping and that is not what I got.

So, I have no recipe for you today. I just have a picture of a tart that didn't really work. I'll give it another go someday. I will say, though, that Mango and Peach is a winning filling combination. You should try it. Let me know how it goes. Succeed better than me. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Whilst I'm Not Cooking #13

Blueberry Biscuits from Pinch My Salt

We're making progress here in the Valley. I've got one more surgery tomorrow and then I'm hopefully done with it. I'm going to be really happy when this is all over and I can get back on my regular schedule!

In the meantime I am, again, not cooking. But other people have been and here are some of the delicious things that they made. 

Hummiki from Bittersweet
Baked Potatoes with Fava Beans from Vegalicious

Eggs Norwegian from The Pioneer Woman

Blueberry Biscuits from Pinch My Salt (lead photo)

Blackberry Buttermilk Snacking Cake from The Amateur Gourmet

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cinnamon Chocolate Coffee Cake and Being Owey

I'm hanging out in bed today, medicated and resting while my body calms down after the second of my three surgeries on my left leg. This one wasn't as bad as the first. The first one was a bit heavier and they had more trouble finding my veins.

So I have just one more to go on Tuesday, and then hopefully I'm done. I'm confident I'll be back to normal soon.

Speaking of normal, I finally managed to get into the kitchen. It was lovely. I've really missed cooking these last few weeks. I frequently forget how happy it makes me. I finally finished reading Stephanie Izard's book Girl in the Kitchen. I have to say, I really didn't much care for it. I have a huge amount of respect for Stephanie. I think she's brilliant and talented, and I'm fascinated by her food, but I felt like her book wasn't really very accessible. She uses a lot of top shelf ingredients that are easy to find when you have a good restaurant supplier, but are a bit harder to find if you are just a normal person. Her recipes are extremely complex. She also spends a good potion of time talking about all the restaurants she has worked in. I didn't get a sense of her as an individual. I marked a few recipes to try, but all in all I was a bit disappointed.

Since I've finished that, though, the next book in my stack is the Joy the Baker Cookbook by Joy Wilson. I love the tagline of her book "A Celebration of Butter and Sugar". I thumbed through it a little the other day, looking for a recipe for coffee cake. Now I'll read it cover to cover, like I do with so many cookbooks, using post it tabs to mark the most inspiring recipes. I've been looking forward to this one.

I made the coffee cake as I limped around on Wednesday, still testing what my leg can and can't make. Her initial recipe called for a topping as well as a filling, but I decided to skip it, choosing to add in a bunch of chocolate instead. I took the cake to work where it was devoured my many hungry and brilliant technicians and circus performers. I loved it and I'm absolutely making it again. Please excuse the less than stellar picture. My photography is not at its best when I'm on painkillers.

Cinnamon Chocolate Coffee Cake
Adapted from Joy Wilson's Joy the Baker Cookbook

This cake is moist, decadent and delicious. You can use full-fat milk and sour cream, but I tend to only keep non-fat in the house.

For the Cake

3/4 Cup (1 1/2 Sticks) Butter, softened
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Light Brown Sugar, packed
2 Teaspoons Vanilla
3 Eggs
3 1/4 Cups Flour, sifted
2 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 1/4 Teaspoons Salt
3/4 Cup Non-Fat Sour Cream
1 1/4 Cups Non-Fat Whole Milk

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9x13 baking pan.

Cream together the butter and sugar and pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the eggs and mix well. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt, then add in the sour cream and milk. Make the filling.

For the Filling

1 Cup Light Brown Sugar, packed
2 Tablespoons Cinnamon
1 Teaspoon Nutmeg
3 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder
1 Cup Semi-Sweet chocolate chips
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

Mix all the filling ingredients together. You may want to use your hands because brown sugar tends to be a bit clumpy.

Spread half the cake mix into the pan. Scatter over about three quarters of the filling. Spoon over the rest of the cake mix, then sprinkled over the rest of the filling. With a spoon or spatula, marble the cake by dragging the spoon through the whole thing in swirls or figure eights. Don't mix it too much. You just want to kind of swirl it up so that it isn't a uniform layer.

Bake in the oven for about 55 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it sit for thirty minutes before cutting in.

Enjoy with a glass of milk propped up against your kitchen counter, or hand out pieces at 11:30pm to awesome technicians as they are clocking out for the night.

Makes about 20-30 servings depending on how big you cut them.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Faster Times, Healing Times, Busy Times

I got back from my August Dark (a dark is when a theatrical production is closed) under a week ago and since then I've been exceptionally busy at the Circus. One week in four, I have longer days and this last week happened to be my week. Because of this, I've been subsisting on Single Girl's Lunch Salads, leftover Moroccan Chicken, and grapes. I haven't cooked at all. It's been weird and I've felt like a bad blogger.

I'm worried because tomorrow I have to go in for the first of three small surgical procedures on my left leg. Let me back up a bit and tell you the story.

A year ago when I had been living in the desert just a few months, I gained a fair bit of weight. It didn't look like a lot to other people, but it ended up being just under 20lb in the space of three months. Finally, last Fall I got a kick in the ass and decided for the first time in my life to start exercising. I couldn't run for a minute without having to stop. I was in bad shape. I have overweight people in my family and I've lost several family members to heart disease at very young ages (like, my age... seriously). Time to make a change.

There are three grocery stores near my house. One is 0.5 of a mile away, one is 1.3 miles and the other is 1.8. I started walking to them instead of using my car, the nearest first and then the ones that were farther. Soon, instead of walking there I was jogging.

I started running and walking a few times a week and then I got it to where I was doing it more days out of the week than not. I started exercising portion control as well, and thought about what I was eating instead of just mindlessly munching away on things.

I ran a 5K in March, and today I hit my best ever run time of 3 miles in 26:44. That isn't exactly the most showy of times for runners, but it was absolutely huge for me.

With a lot of hard work, many tears, and a lot of impatience and frustration, the weight came off. I lost 23lb and now I'm a healthy manageable weight.

As the weight came off, though, I noticed some pinching sensations in my left leg, and realized that one of my veins was getting more and more prominent. Buried under my tubby leg was something I didn't know I had... a venous insufficiency. It's not that bad, but it causes me discomfort and it sure doesn't look pretty. I found out I have four veins in my left leg that basically need to be shut down.

So, tomorrow I start getting those done. I know it's probably going to hurt and be uncomfortable. I know I'm probably going to be very annoyed during the recovery process. I don't know how my body is going to react. I could be back to normal a week after the last one, or I could be limping for a month, we'll see.

So anyway, I don't have a recipe for you today, because I've been running every morning in order to create some kind of buffer for Wednesday when I can't. I'm sure I'll be spending lots of time in the kitchen whilst I'm healing up. It is my happy place after all!

So thanks for your patience and sorry that I'm not a good blogger right now. Things will be back to normal soon. Wish me luck!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Parmesan and Lemon Chickpeas and the Vacation Recovery

Whenever you go away for a little while, it's always odd to come back and get into the swing of things again. Your fridge is usually empty, there is a mountain of laundry to do, mail to sort, emails to go through, tan lines and tubbiness to ponder, and then eventually you have to go back to work.

I always give myself very little transition time between traveling and going back to work. I don't know if I'm a masochist, but I tend to head back to work at break neck speed. This time I gave myself a whole 13 hours. Practically a record!

My body is arguing with me, though. I got used to eating and drinking a lot more than I was, and I find my body is wanting more food than my normal routine gives it. I'm ignoring it and trying to get it back on to my regular schedule. I'm also craving foods I didn't eat while I was on vacations... fresh raw vegetables, my favorite salad, simple foods without a stack of ingredients, sauces, and fancy names.

When I come home from being away somewhere, I usually make Parmesan and Lemon Chickpeas. The ingredients don't really go bad so I tend to have them still in the fridge or the pantry. It's a simple, one bowl and spoon meal that makes two servings. I can throw it together and sit on my bed spooning with one hand and going through emails with the other. Simple. Uncomplicated. Filling.

It's my way of kickstarting myself after the vacation stall, getting me back to regular life and remembering that consistency will come too. Eventually all the clothes will be back in the closet, the mail will be handled, the tan lines will fade, and everything will return to it's normal place. I'll just have lots of great new memories.

Parmesan and Lemon Chickpeas

If you are using grated parmesan that comes out of a tub, use the 1/8 cup measure. If you are grating your own with a microplane grater it will be very fluffy, in which case you want a fluffy 1/4 cup.

1 Can Chickpeas, drained
1/8-1/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1 Tablespoon Good Olive Oil
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
Salt and Pepper

This dish is simple. Gather your ingredients. Put them in a bowl. Stir them up with a spoon and eat. Be sparing with the salt and generous with the pepper. Add more lemon juice if you like.

Eat with a spoon out of the bowl while putting your life back together.

Makes 2 servings

Thursday, August 9, 2012

August Dark

Phew. I'm back. That one week off went lightning fast. I'm unpacked and the laundry is done, and my to-do list only has six things on it. We should be back to our regular posting schedule pretty soon. But for now, here are some of my favorite pictures from my trip.

It was a pretty awesome week. How was yours?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dana from Whisks and Words and Gazpacho Soup

I'm still off on vacation, and having a lovely time! Whilst I'm gone, the brilliant Dana from Whisks and Words has offered to keep you entertained. Thanks Dana!

Dana is a fabulous blogger and food writer and I can't wait to read her first book!

In the genre of soups, I have always been sort of a thick and chunky sort of girl. Give me your beef stews, your chicken soup, or your clam chowder. Give me big, soft, tender vegetables that I can cut with a spoon. Give me whole pieces of fresh herb floating on the top.

 It took me awhile to come around to smooth soups – in fact, it was my roommate’s butternut squash soup, so sweet and peppery and smooth, and such a pleasing golden color, that brought me over to the side of smooth soups. Initially, they reminded me of yogurt, which, incidentally, also took me a long time to warm to.

During the summer, I always hear two sides of the soup argument:  it’s too hot outside to eat soup, or one should eat soup in hot weather because it cools the body. I fall in line with the first group, and I find the wisdom of hot foods cooling the body to be suspect. We eat hot soup in winter to warm the body. It goes against that time-honored tradition that Campbell’s Soup set forth of melting the snowman that has formed around us out in the cold, cold world.

I used to work as a “tea wench” at the Georgia Renaissance Festival, and it never failed that every weekend, at least one customer would stumble up the ramp to our tea room in the throes of heat exhaustion. We made them sit, draped them with wet paper towels, and made them drink water and eat watermelon, if we had it. To not one of them did I serve hot tea, though I heard many a customer tell me or their dining companion that hot tea on a hot day makes you cooler. I stuffed their money in my cleavage and walked away, shaking my head. They probably liked hot soup on a Georgia summer day, too.
No matter where you fall on the hot weather/soup debate, it’s safe to say that in the summer, we can usually agree on cold soups. Some people love them, some people hate them, and some people flatly refuse to give them a chance (which I get). And I have to say that I’m not 100% there with the cold soups either. But this week, in my CSA box, I got celery, tomatoes, garlic, red onion, and sweet peppers, and a recommendation to use those ingredients to make gazpacho.

As you can imagine, there are many gazpacho recipes to use. I went with the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, but I jazzed it up a bit. She didn’t like hers too acidic, but I rather like a little bite. Hers was also spiced very sparingly, whereas I wanted a bit more punch to the gazpacho. I adapted her recipe, added and subtracted a few things, and came up with the following hot-weather soup that everyone can agree on.


2 cloves garlic, minced

1 zucchini, diced

1 cucumber, diced

2 ribs celery, diced (include the leaves if you like)

3 mini sweet peppers (or one normal sized one), seeds and stem removed, diced

½ red onion, peeled and diced

5 tomatoes, seeded and diced

4 cups tomato juice, divided

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1/8 cup vinegar (I used Balsamic, but red wine would work too)

1 ½ tablespoons sugar

Dash of red pepper flakes

1-2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)

1-2 tsp ground cumin (optional, to taste)

Big pinch of salt, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

In a blender or food processor, add all of the garlic, and then half of your zucchini, cucumber, celery, peppers, onion, and tomatoes. (It’s helpful if you arrange your veggies in rows or bowls so you can halve the whole mess somewhat evenly.)

Add 2 cups tomato juice, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, and spices. Pulse until blended. We’re going for a textured blend here, not a smooth puree. Don’t think butternut squash soup; think blended salsa. We want to see our veggies.

Pour blended mixture into a large bowl and add the rest of the tomato juice, stirring to combine. Then add half of your remaining vegetables (so you’ll still be left with ¼ of your original heap of diced veggies) and stir to combine. This gives a nice texture and gives us something to chew.
Refrigerate for several hours (or overnight) so the flavors can marry together and the soup can chill.

To serve the dish, spoon desired amount of gazpacho into bowls. Top your gazpacho with anything you want, but I took my cues from the Pioneer Woman. I trailed a heap of that remaining bit of diced veggies over top, and then added a couple slices of avocado and a small dollop of sour cream. I grilled some shrimp that I first seasoned with ground paprika and cumin and sea salt, and then I added those to the top. I seasoned with salt and pepper, and on the side, I included a slice of grilled grainy homemade bread I had on hand (honey wheat) that I had drizzled with olive oil and grilled up on the griddle.

This soup is hearty and very filling, with a bold flavor that’s not too terribly spicy. I’m a spice wimp, and this was perfect for me. The bread is nice for helping soak up the belly full of veggies, and the shrimp and diced veggies on top gives you a nice texture, something to chew so you don’t feel like you’re drinking a vegetable smoothie for dinner. It was my first foray into cold soups, and all in all, I’d say it was a success. I only wanted to heat it up and pour it over pasta a little bit, just at first, but then I got over it and enjoyed it for its soup identity, for its richness, its freshness, its downright summery goodness.