Friday, October 29, 2010

Farmers Market Day and Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

The farmers market is one of my favorite places in the whole world, and we have a particularly good one here in Trenton. I get giddy with excitement every time I go. Even though I go every week. In fact, I often have to restrain myself from going more than once a week. We can only eat so many vegetables in seven days.

This season is particularly exciting because most of my favorite vegetables are out in full force: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, winter squash. Here's a look at this week's haul:
Some truly fine vegetables there. The cauliflower is bigger than my head. Hiding in the middle is the tiniest spaghetti squash I'd ever seen (which was my dinner tonight, since Jeff's not home). There's a lovely assortment of apples and cider from Terhune Orchards, my personal fav. And yes, on the left are some Brussels sprouts on the stalk! This is the first time I've gotten them this way. Most of them are tiny, but I'm expecting them to be deliciously tender. But that's for Sunday dinner . . .

My topic today is the pumpkin seeds I just roasted. These were also of farmers market origin - Jeff and I picked up some large carving pumpkins a week or so ago. This was actually our second go at pumpkin carving this year. Our first attempt was a few weeks ago. (Yeah, we jumped the gun a bit, but we were excited!) After a paltry four days, both pumpkins were filled with mold. I guess carving three weeks before Halloween and displaying your pumpkins in full sunlight in a 68 degree living room is a bad idea. So now I know.
So last night was our second attempt. That means it was also the second go-around for pumpkin seeds! And these pumpkins produced a ton. So many that the recipe I used was a bit inadequate. The seasonings definitely needed to be doubled. They also took forever to roast, since I overloaded one pan instead of spreading them out evenly in two. That meant that after fifteen minutes of unsuccessful roasting, I had to remove half and do them in smaller batches. This worked fine, in about the amount of time the recipe suggested. Despite these setbacks, they're still pretty tasty. So tasty, in fact, that I should put this bowl a bit farther from me . . .

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
Adapted from the savory recipe here.

pumpkin seeds
2 tbsp melted butter
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt (to taste)

When carving your pumpkin, the seeds should be separated from the flesh and put in a colander. Wash them well to get any remaining fleshy bits off. Let air dry for 30 minutes or so (this time I left mine overnight, since we finished carving late). If they're still a bit wet, spread them out onto paper towels to finish drying (the annoying part is getting them off - they will want to stick to the paper towels a bit).

Preheat oven to 275°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Combine the seeds with butter and seasonings and stir thoroughly to combine. Spread them out evenly on the baking sheet.

Roast the seeds 10-20 minutes until golden brown. Watch them carefully, stirring every 5 minutes. (Like I said above, mine took much longer because I overloaded the pan. Make sure they're spread in a single layer for optimal roasting.)

When they're done you can adjust the seasoning if necessary. I would say this recipe suits the seeds from one large pumpkin. Since I used the seeds from two, the seasoning was a bit on the light side.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Apple Crisp

As recently as two years ago, I would not have eaten this. I have only just begun to eat fruit pies. I never liked the idea of cooked fruit. My idea of a pie was something custardy (like pumpkin) or chocolatey (like french silk). No fruit necessary.

I changed my tune, though. It started with making a pear tart. When I was younger, my parents had a pear tree in the backyard. My grandparents had two. Those trees had us swimming in pears from August to October. Many pear pies were baked. And I hated them. I wasn't a fan of pie crust (particularly if it burned) and mushy cooked pears didn't do it for me either. So I was more than happy to leave those to the grownups.

Fast forward to a few years ago. My parents' tree is gone but my grandmother still has hers. My parents unloaded a few bushels of pears on me one weekend. Now, there was no way Jeff and I could eat them before they went bad. You know pears - they ripen in about three seconds, and then they're mush. So I decided to make a pear tart. The recipe I found had a caramel glaze on the crust and an almond creme to go on top. There was enough to distract me from the cooked fruit that I was willing to eat it. Suddenly, I was eating cooked fruit and liking it.

Now I am a believer. I still prefer my old favorite pies, but cooked fruit isn't a turnoff for me. Good thing, too. I've learned that apple crisp is great. It's like a pie without the bother of a crust (although making crusts can be fun, too). It was the perfect solution to the giant bushel of apples I brought home from the farmer's market. Twice.

Apple Crisp
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens some time this fall.

1 1/2 c + 1 tbsp flour
1 c + 1/4 c sugar
1/3 c brown sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp kosher salt
2/3 c butter, cut in pieces
8 c peeled and cored apples, sliced 1/2" thick (this is the most time-consuming step)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375°. Combine 1 1/2 c flour, 1 c sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Work butter into mixture with fingers until it just clings together in large crumbs. (I had wanted a picture of this stage, too, but my hands were all gunky and I forgot to whip out the camera.) In another large bowl, toss the apples and lemon juice. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 c sugar, 1 tbsp flour, 12 tsp salt and nutmeg. Sprinkle onto the apples and toss to combine. (It works better if you toss them with your hands.) Pile apples into a buttered 2 qt baking dish.

Cover the piled apples with the crumb mixture.

Cover the crisp with parchment paper, then foil. (The paper is so the crumbs don't end up tasting like foil.) Place on a foil-lined baking sheet (to prevent spills - and there will be spills!) and bake 20 minutes. Remove the foil and paper and return to the oven for 30-40 minutes more, until the top is golden and the apples are tender. You will see the thickened juices bubble up as well. Let cool 15-30 minutes before serving. It's good with whipped cream or ice cream!

Note on apples: This recipe is better with a tart apple. I used Jersey Macs, which taste fairly tart when eaten raw, but may be a bit too sweet for this recipe. When the crisp was still warm from the oven, it had an overpowering sort of sugariness. This is less noticeable once it has cooled off, but still there. I've done this recipe twice, and this time I dialed down the sugar that goes into the filling (the recipe recommended 1/4-1/3 c - the first time I used 1/3 c, this time 1/4 c). I think it could be dialed down even more. (In fact, I wonder if it's even necessary to have sugar in the filling . . .) At any rate, variety of apple will make a difference in the flavor, so definitely adjust that to match the apples you're using.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chicken Parm!!!

Today was a gorgeous fall day - almost spring-like in its temperateness, but also breezy with falling leaves. We spent most of the day doing badly-needed yardwork. My twelve-foot butterfly bush is now a manageable six feet, space was cleared for an extended 2011 vegetable garden, and the front garden was rearranged into ruliness (although Jeff claims we were simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic). Much was accomplished. Even more importantly, many calories were burned.

An active afternoon was a necessity - required by what was going to go down this evening. We made chicken parm. When we make chicken parm, it's a lot of food. A full chicken breast, pounded out and nestled in a bed of pasta. It's major.

Fortunately, today I managed to lighten things up. I've been trying to eat smaller portions of meat. I knew Jeff wouldn't be willing to sacrifice any part of his chicken parm, so instead I included only a tiny portion of pasta (only enough to wipe up the sauce) and a vegetable accompaniment - roasted cauliflower. This morning the farmer's market had some orange cauliflower. I've never tried the other varieties, so I jumped at the chance. The taste is essentially the same, although a bit milder, but the orange kind comes with extra vitamin A, which is always a good thing.

In the end, my efforts at lightening the meal weren't necessary anyway - the whole chicken breast was too much for me. I only ate about half. And I'm glad, for two reasons: now I have extra leftovers for tomorrow, and now I have more room for apple crisp later on!

Chicken Parmesan à la Jeff
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin
1/2 c plain bread crumbs (We prefer to use Italian, but I keep messing up at the store and buying plain, so  today we just added some Italian seasoning.)
2 tsp Italian seasoning
2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1/2 tbsp milk
2 tbsp flour
salt and pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
~4 oz mozzarella cheese
~ half a jar of tomato sauce

Preheat oven to 350°.

Set up the breading area:
Spread flour, salt and pepper on a dinner plate. Combine bread crumbs, Italian seasoning, garlic powder and Parmesan and spread on another dinner plate. Whisk egg and milk together in a bowl. (These amounts should be adjusted to the amount of chicken you have. The flour and egg mixtures were just right for three chicken breasts, but there was probably enough bread crumbs for a fourth. Jeff ended up packing the extra crumbs onto the chicken anyway, but they would have been fine with a little less breading as well.) Coat the chicken in the flour, then in the egg, then in the bread crumbs. Make sure all sides are covered.

Brown the chicken:
Heat the oil in a deep-sided skillet (in case of splatter) over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken for about four minutes per side, then remove to a brown paper bag to drain. (I suppose you could use something else, but my mom always used brown paper grocery bags. Just make sure you're not putting the food on any printing, because the ink might leach into the food.)

Prepare the dish:
In a baking dish, pour a layer of sauce across the bottom (to taste - I like a lot of sauce, because I love how thick and flavorful the baking process makes it). Lay the chicken on top. Sprinkle about half the cheese on the chicken, add some more sauce, then sprinkle on the remainder of the cheese. Bake for about 25 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. Cool slightly and serve.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Flavor of Fall

When fall rolls around, I want to bake with pumpkin. Usually that means pumpkin pies - I have been in charge of baking the pumpkin pies for my family's Thanksgivings since I was in middle school. But lately I've been branching out. This year, as my food blog obsession has grown, I have saved dozens of recipes involving pumpkin. So far this season, I've tried a few new ones:

Pumpkin Brownies - Imagine a brownie where pumpkin replaces chocolate. This is it. It's not a pumpkin pie bar - it has the moist, chewy consistency of a brownie. This was exactly what I wanted for my fall kickoff a few weeks ago. However, these were desserty enough that it was hard to justify having them for breakfast (and I like pumpkiny baked goods for breakfast!), so the next recipe I made was more breakfasty.

Oatmeal Pumpkin Muffins - I also tried to bump up the health factor. I had just watched a Good Eats episode ("Oat Cuisine"), where Alton Brown expounded upon the manifold health benefits of oatmeal. And pumpkin, as you may know, is a superfood. I thought the combination would be unstoppable, and tasty, too! The end result, however, was far more healthy than tasty. I took my first bite and said, "Wow, these MUST be healthy." I think it was the whole wheat flour. A little dry and just too wholesome-tasting for my book. (I also forgot to put in the chocolate chips (horror of horrors!), so this may have been my own doing.) I don't need a baked good that's a sugar bomb, but I prefer a little more flavor than these had to offer.

Voyages into the unknown are risky. Even when they are successful, they don't always hit the mark. In the end, I was running back to the recipe that has been a fall staple for the past few years: Pumpkin Bread. I have tried a few different pumpkin bread recipes, but this one steals the show. I think the kicker is its use of olive oil instead of butter or some other fat. The result is moist and tender every time, and the spices pack the perfect flavor punch. And it's perfect for breakfast :)

Pumpkin Bread

1 1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 c pumpkin puree
1/2 c olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 c water
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 c chopped nuts or chocolate chips (it is great with nuts, but I prefer it with chocolate)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together flour, salt, sugar, baking soda and spices. In another bowl, mix pumpkin, oil, eggs and water. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients - do not overmix! Stir in nuts or chocolate chips. Pour into a greased loaf pan. (This time I forgot about the greased part. It still came out in one piece, but I think my success was primarily due to my pan.)

Bake for 50-60 minutes, until tester comes out clean. (This also depends on the pan. I keep insisting on using this ceramic pan, and it is not finished baking at 60 minutes. It looks fine, the tester comes out clean, but it is just a little squishy in the top center. When cut, this area is clearly not fully baked. I tried baking it 5-10 minutes longer this time, but the top was browning so much that I took it out. The gooey spot is still there, although smaller than last time. Next time I'll do this in a metal pan and see if the results are any different. And if they're not . . . that gooey spot is pretty tasty!) Cool on rack for at least 15 minutes before eating.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart

I love cauliflower.

This is a recent discovery. I had set myself the task of exploring new vegetables and finding preparations that would be acceptable, and even delicious, to my picky palate. The first time we roasted cauliflower, I fell deeply in love.

Since I am also in love with onions, I felt this tart had the potential to be my soul mate. It is spectacular. Roasted cauliflower, caramelized onions, three kinds of cheese and a flaky crust. A cardiologist's nightmare, perhaps, but worth every bite.

Or is it? As delicious as the tart was (well, is, really - we're taking this one sliver by sliver so it should be around for a while), I didn't long for the finished product the way I longed for the roasted cauliflower itself. When I took the tray of cauliflower out of the oven, I took a little taste. And another and another and another. I find that one is never enough - once I break the seal, I start gobbling it up like a kid digging into some Halloween candy. Except this is good for me. I have always loved picking at food during the cooking process, but in this case it was so bad that I had to have Jeff take over chopping it lest I leave too little for the tart. Then we put the bowl in a high place where I couldn't reach. For once, out of sight was out of mind, and the rest of the cooking went off without a hitch.

So the verdict is . . . absolutely delicious. But the work is not really worth it for an everyday dinner with just the two of us. I will save the tart for special occasions, and leave the roasted cauliflower for everyday.

Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen.

1 small head cauliflower (~1 lb), cut into 1" florets
3 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tbsp Dijon mustard  (I think I used a bit more than this)
2 large eggs
1 8 oz container mascarpone cheese
1/2 c whipping cream
1/4 tsp black pepper
pinch ground nutmeg  (I forgot to put this in)
1 c grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 c Parmesan cheese

1 savory tart shell (recipe below)

Roast the cauliflower:
Preheat oven to 425°F. Toss cauliflower with 2 tbsp olive oil in large bowl. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet (I always cover mine with foil when roasting to reduce the mess), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast 30 minutes, turning florets halfway through. Cool cauliflower, then thinly slice. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

(This is where you would parbake a storebought tart shell. I prefer homemade - the recipe below does not need parbaking.)

Caramelize the onions:
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until the onion is caramelized, stirring occasionally. This will take 30-40 minutes (so, for maximum efficiency, it should be done while the cauliflower is roasting). Cool slightly.

Prepare the tart:
Spread Dijon mustard over the bottom and sides of the pie crust (I used the back of a spoon, as if spreading pizza sauce). (Since I used a 10" tart pan, rather than the 9" recommended in the original recipe, I used a fair bit more than 1 tbsp. And since I couldn't taste the Dijon in every bite, I might put even more next time. I would keep it to a relatively thin layer, though, to avoid getting the crust too soggy.) Spread the onion over the mustard and the cauliflower over the onion. Set the tart on a rimmed baking sheet to protect against leaks (I missed this step and the tart did leak a little, but only between the layers of the pan. Lucky for me.) Whisk eggs, mascarpone, cream and pepper in a medium bowl (if the mascarpone is cold, like mine, a whisk might get messy. A wooden spoon worked better). Stir in Gruyère. Pour the mixture over the filling in the tart pan, and sprinkle Parmesan over the top. Bake until tart is golden and center is set - about 40 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool 15 minutes before serving.

I found that more than one slice of this per day could be deadly, but it does stay well. I just reheated the slices in the toaster oven at 300°F for 10-15 minutes.

Savory Tart Shell
Also from Smitten Kitchen.

1 1/4 c flour
1 tbsp + 2 tsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, diced
1 egg

In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch and salt. Cut the butter in with a pastry blender until the butter is well-blended(generally, no larger than pea-sized chunks). Add egg and mix with a fork until dough comes together. If this does not happen easily(it didn't for me), knead it a bit in the bowl or on the counter, depending on how well it has blended(I still had about a cup's worth of powder in the bowl, so I kneaded it there until it all came together, then did some more kneading on the counter).

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 12" circle. (Yeah, right. Mine was a horrible, torn, free-form shape. I found this dough difficult to roll out nicely. However, it was easy to take ripped pieces and use them to patch holes later. This worked fine for me.) Place the dough in a 9" pie or tart pan and press to remove any air bubbles. (Ha! Easier said than done. I started to lift the dough and it immediately ripped. I ended up sliding the tart pan bottom under the dough, lifting it on that and carefully putting it back in the pan. This worked pretty well, and it did fit my 10" pan well enough. I then fixed any extra rips or thin places with the excess dough. It looked like a wreck, but once the filling was in, you'd never notice.) Refrigerate crust for 30 minutes, then proceed with filling of your choice. It does not need to be parbaked.

Monday, October 18, 2010

First Post: Background

This blog is about my journey with food.

I have been a baker since I was first able to follow the instructions on the back of a box of Raga Muffins (which, at that time, was my breakfast muffin of choice). I was very good at making boxed mixes. I also was good at pumpkin pie.

Fast forward a decade or so to college. I gradually reduced my meal plan semester by semester until my junior year, when I began cooking for myself. "Cooking" consisted of stir frying, burgers on the George Foreman grill, and ordering from a place called Wingo's on days when I had to ice my knees down after swim practice. Although I was buying a few cookbooks and tentatively trying recipes, I was still a very picky eater and not willing go far outside my comfort zone. Burgers and fries were a dietary staple.

Fast forward a few more years. After getting married, I suddenly found that I had to cook on a regular basis (I had previously been living at home, where the kitchen seemed to be my mom's responsibility). My husband likes to cook (and knows how - he lived in a fraternity house where preparing dinner was a shared responsibility), but since he was working full-time and I was in school, I felt that it was my job. "Cooking" at this point consisted of my Rachel Ray cookbooks, Trader Joe's frozen meals, and whatever we could come up with on the spur of the moment. Meals were rarely planned very far in advance, and if they were, I frequently forgot to defrost the meat in time, so we needed to improvise anyway.

I started reading food blogs we were looking for our first house, but real cooking did not begin until we moved in. I had decided that we needed more vegetables in our lives and began combing the internet for good recipes. I began to keep a large file of new recipes to try. In order to accommodate them, we began planning our menu for the week in advance of food shopping. When spring hit, I became addicted to our local farmer's market. My passion for vegetables grew, but also my desire that they be fresh, locally-sourced and sometimes even organic. This has grown into a desire for food made from scratch, as often as possible, with locally-sourced ingredients.

While we try to hold to this philosophy, we do not eat this way exclusively (only last week, weakened by illness, I sought comfort in a McDonald's value meal while my husband brought home a box of Yodels). But we are trying, step by step, to improve our nutrition and our culinary prowess as well as our sustainability. Hopefully, we'll reach our goal yet. After all, my journey with food started twenty years ago with a box of muffin mix, an egg and a wooden spoon. Given another twenty years, who knows? We might be vegetarian farmers yet!