Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cookie Dough: To Refrigerate or Not To Refrigerate?

Over the years, the cookie recipes I encountered seemed to fall into one of two categories: either they could be knocked out in a single session (like chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies), or the recipe required that the dough be refrigerated for several hours before baking (like my Grandma's icebox cookies, or the Ghiradelli ultimate double chocolate cookies). I considered the single-session cookies to be less time consuming, and made them more often for that reason.

This summer, the New York Times Dining and Wine section published an article asserting that, in order to create a "mature," "sophisticated" chocolate chip cookie, the dough should be allowed to sit 36 hours before baking.

What? Really?

Joy the Baker tested the New York Times' assertion, and, in a hilarious write up of an imaginary phone conversation with the Times, concluded that "a cookie is a cookie at 12 hours, 24 hours and 36 hours." Even still, Joy noted that she lets her cookie dough sit for at least four hours before baking.

I'm not convinced that allowing cookie dough to sit and "mature" results in a better cookie. The main factor that seems to make a difference in my cookies is whether I allow the butter to come to room temperature before assembling the dough. (For some reason, room temperature butter results in a much better cookie texture.)

However, in the past few months, I've found that I rarely have time to both assemble dough and bake cookies in a single session. And so I have been refrigerating my dough for several hours before baking, not to create a "sophisticated" cookie, but because it's the only way that I'm going to get a homemade cookie these days. Ironically, the ice box and double chocolate cookies that I once labeled "time consuming" are now just as convenient to make as the other cookies.

Does refrigeration result in a better cookie? The answer for me is, only in the sense that a cookie made with refrigerated dough is better than no cookie at all.

Old Fashioned Peanut Butter Cookies

This is a classic peanut butter cookie. Sometimes I substitute white whole wheat flour for the white flour (the nuttiness of the whole wheat compliments the peanut butter); however, I'm also fond of the original version.

If you are concerned about the amount of fat in these cookies, you might want to try this recipe instead.

1 cup (2 sticks) room temperature butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup peanut butter (I use natural peanut butter but regular is OK too)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups all purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, thoroughly cream the sugars, eggs and vanilla.
Stir in the peanut butter.
Add the baking soda, salt and flour (I do this by hand, so I find it easier to stir in the flour one half cup at a time).
Drop the dough by rounded teaspoon-full onto an ungreased cookie sheet.
Roll each cookie into a ball.
Press the top of each cookie with a fork to flatten the ball and create a crisscross pattern.
Bake the cookies for 10-11 minutes.

Makes 4-5 dozen cookies.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sticky Orange Tofu Thins with Peppers and Cilantro Rice

While I enjoy tofu, I tend to fall into a rut when preparing it at home. So, I was very excited to see a recipe for sticky orange tofu thins from Sala at Veggie Belly last week. I'd never had tofu with orange sauce, and I liked that the recipe uses thin slices of tofu, rather than thick chunks.

The recipe begins by pressing the tofu to drain as much liquid from it as possible. (The recipe calls for the tofu to be pressed for at least two hours; I think that, during the week, this could easily be set up before leaving for work, so that the tofu drains during the day.) The drained tofu is thinly sliced, lightly fried, then doused in a spicy orange sauce made with marmalade. Sala used a homemade orange, ginger and green tea marmalade in her orange sauce; I used a store-bought marmalade and it worked just fine.

After tossing the tofu in the orange sauce, I threw in chopped green and orange peppers and cooked the entire mixture over low heat until the peppers were soft.

I served the tofu and peppers with cilantro rice, which was a perfect compliment to the orange sauce. The cilantro rice is so easy to make that it's more of a serving suggestion than a recipe: Rinse 1 and 1/2 cups of jasmine rice in repeat baths of cold water until the water is no longer cloudy. In a saucepan, combine the rice with 1 and 3/4 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon peanut oil (optional). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, 20 minutes (or until the rice is done). Toss the cooked rice with 3/4 cup washed, chopped cilantro and serve.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Airport Food

I don't think that anyone looks forward to eating at the airport. Airport vendors are dealing with a captive audience, and so the food is often overpriced, underwhelming in flavor, and of questionable nutritional value.

Airport food presents an additional challenge to vegetarians: is there even anything veg to eat? In some small regional airports, the only available options are pre-packaged meat sandwiches or salads with meat in them. In a small airport, I consider myself lucky if I can find a grill or sandwich shop where I can ask an employee to make a cheese sandwich for me.

In a larger venue like Denver International Airport (DIA), it's less a question of whether a vegetarian option exists, and more a question of whether the vegetarian option is 1) affordable and 2) something that I want to eat. During recent trips, I've found myself ordering the hummus plate (pictured above) at the Pour la France on the B concourse. It's relatively affordable ($5.95 plus tax) and actually tastes like something I would eat even if I wasn't at the airport. Bonus points for including some fresh vegetables.

What have your airport food* experiences been? Do you have any suggestions or tips for travelers looking for a veg meal at DIA?

*some commenters might ask why I don't just bring food from home. If it is a short trip, I do, but if I'm going to be gone for a week or more, I clean out the refrigerator before I leave, making this option less viable.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fattoush (Bread Salad) & "The Language of Baklava"

Good books can transport you to different times, different places, and different cultures. The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber's engaging memoir about growing up in the United States and Jordan, takes readers on a culinary journey through her childhood. Food is woven throughout Ms. Abu-Jaber's stories. Her descriptions of the dishes prepared by her family are so vivid that you can almost smell the rose-scented syrup in the knaffea pastry, and taste the crunchy spiced falafels. Well, almost. In anticipation that readers will want to experience the food described in the memoir themselves, each chapter includes at least one recipe (some veg, some not).

I read The Language of Baklava while I was traveling last week. During that time, I had an incredible craving for Middle Eastern food. When I got home, I rushed to the store to buy fresh vegetables, dug some pita bread out from a corner of my freezer, and made fattoush using a recipe from The Language of Baklava. Preparation was relatively simple: chopped cucumber, tomato, red bell pepper, scallions, mint and parsley are combined with toasted pita bread, romaine lettuce and an olive oil dressing. (In my haste, I forgot to get the scallions called for in the recipe, which is why you see red onion in the photos. I also added some toasted pine nuts, for protein.) The result was a tasty and pleasantly crunchy salad which I expect to make again. In fact, it would have been a great salad to make this summer...

Other recipes to try in the future include a vegetarian lentil soup, a "tea" infusion made from chopped pistachios and spices, and muhammara (a dip with walnuts, red bell peppers and pomegranate juice among its ingredients).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tasting: Rachel's "Calm" Plum Honey Lavender Yogurt

Invariably, when I'm at a natural foods grocery store, something I've never tried before catches my eye. Usually, it's a very expensive something, and so I pass it by and continue to work my way down my shopping list. During a recent visit to Whole Foods, Rachel's "Calm" Plum Honey Lavender yogurt caught my eye. And, because it was all of 99 cents, I decided to try one.

While I was intrigued by the idea of a lavender flavored yogurt, I was also a little worried that it was going to have an overwhelming floral taste. I kept thinking back to the C. Howard violet mints that a friend and I bought at a newsstand in Chicago. Floral mints were fun, but would floral yogurt be gross?

Upon trying the yogurt, it didn't taste floral at all. In fact, it seemed to be raspberry flavored. But, there are no raspberries to be found on the ingredient list (unless they are hidden among the "natural flavors"). After eating a bit more, I could taste the honey and perhaps a hint of lavender, although it wasn't very strong. I would not have guessed that the yogurt contained plums, but they are listed right there among the other ingredients. If asked to describe the yogurt's overall flavor, I would go with "like raspberry, except not."

Did I feel calmer, or more serene, after eating the yogurt?

Erm, no.

In addition to lavender, honey and plum, the yogurt contains the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which may benefit both the heart and the mind. Fish oil is a common source of DHA; however, the Rachel's website states that the company uses a vegetarian DHA, derived from algae. The DHA did not affect the yogurt's flavor.

In spite of the eye catching name, I would say that the "Calm" Plum Honey Lavender yogurt tastes more or less like any other yogurt. If I was to pick it over another yogurt in the future, it would probably be for the DHA. (Of course there are other sources of DHA available for vegans and vegetarians, including DHA supplements derived from algae.)

Rachel's is a U.K. company; apparently their U.S. operations are based in Broomfield, Colorado, and are associated with White Wave Foods.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Mexican hot chocolate tastes great, and makes the kitchen smell wonderful.

For some odd reason, hot chocolate made with cocoa makes me dizzy, but hot chocolate made with melted chocolate does not.

Ingredients (per serving)
3/4 cup nonfat milk
1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
dash ground cloves
dash salt

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan.
Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth (5-10 minutes). Do not let the milk boil.
Adjust seasonings and serve.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Veg Dumpling Soup

Fall is definitely here in Colorado. The days have been noticeably cooler and it's snowed again in the high country. Time to dig out some cool-weather recipes!

This is my grandma's dumpling recipe, served with vegetables simmered briefly in veg broth. I use canned broth, so the dish comes together quickly, but feels homemade because of the dumplings.

Small pieces of cubed tofu could be added to the broth for protein.

I store any leftover dumplings separately from the broth until reheating.

Broth Ingredients
4 cups vegetable broth*
1 zucchini, washed and grated
1 carrot, washed and grated
1 medium tomato (or 2 roma tomatoes), washed and diced
2-3 mushrooms, washed and chopped
black pepper to taste

Place vegetables in a medium saucepan.
Pour the broth over the vegetables, and add black pepper to taste.
Heat the vegetables and broth over medium-high heat, until the broth begins to boil.
Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are tender.

*because I use canned broth, there's no additional salt in this part of the recipe

Dumpling Ingredients
2 cups flour
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt, plus salt for the cooking water
water as needed (I usually use about a half cup)

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
In a medium bowl, combine flour and 1 teaspoon salt.
Make a well in the center of the flour/salt mixture.
Crack the three eggs into the well. Break the yolks and stir, adding water as necessary, to create a dough.
Once the water is boiling, dip a teaspoon into the boiling water. (This helps the dough slip free from the spoon into the water in the following steps.)
Scoop a bit of dough in a corner of the teaspoon, as shown in the photo at right.
Dip the spoon back into the boiling water, and gently shake until the dough floats free.
Repeat until all the dough has been used.
Cook 8-10 minutes.
Drain and rinse.

To serve:
Divide the dumplings between 4 bowls. Scoop the broth, with vegetables, over the dumplings.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sticky Rice with Mango and Coconut

Sticky rice with mangoes and coconut milk seems so simple - rice topped with sweetened coconut milk and chunks of fresh fruit. And yet, each time I tried to make the dish at home, the result was nothing like the dessert I'd eaten in Thai restaurants.

This weekend, I tried again, using a recipe created by Rachael Rappaport of Coconut and Lime. And, this time, I finally got the flavor and texture I'd been hoping for.

The secret to the dish is the rice. As I learned in my prior failed attempts, jasmine or basmati rice won't do. Instead, the recipe uses "sticky rice" (also known as "glutenous rice" or "sweet rice"), which can be found in Asian markets. (I bought mine at the H Mart in Aurora.)

Once I located right recipe, and found the sticky rice, the dish came together easily. The recipe does require a little time, because the rice needs to be soaked for one hour before it is cooked, but I worked on other projects while the rice was soaking. The only difficult part of the process was restraining myself from drinking the sweetened coconut milk before it was combined with the rice.

If you can't find good mangoes, I think the sweetened rice would also be good with fresh peaches or nectarines.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Carrots with Garlic and Cumin

At one point this summer, it seemed like every restaurant I visited offered some combination of carrots and garlic. I would not have thought to put these two foods together, but the result was tasty, and I found myself craving carrots with garlic afterwards.

My version of the carrots is flavored with cumin, in addition to garlic. While it takes a little time to peel and cut the carrots, the rest of the recipe comes together relatively quickly. I served the carrots with hummus (made with the Cook's Illustrated recipe for creamy, restaurant-style hummus) and toasted pita bread.

1 pound carrots, washed, peeled and chopped into thin strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh parsley, washed and chopped.

Heat the olive oil and cumin seeds in a large pan over medium heat.
Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, 1 minute.
Stir in the carrots. Cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
Stir in the salt and toss to coat.
Add the water, cover the pan and let cook an additional 5 minutes, or until the carrots are tender.
Remove from heat, stir in parsley and serve.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Zucchini/Yellow Squash "Pasta"

Summer is the season of good intentions. In June and early July, the list of possible places to visit, mountains to climb, and foods to try seems endless. And then, at the end of August, there's a much shorter list of places actually visited, mountains actually climbed and foods actually tasted.

Early this summer, I visited a restaurant in Estes Park that offered zucchini "pasta" as a gluten-free substitute in many of its dishes. I told myself that I should try zucchini "pasta" at home, but probably would not have ever actually gotten around to making it if it hadn't been for a recipe for zucchini "pasta" published in the New York Times Health section recently, as part of the Time's "Recipes for Health" series.

The "pasta" is made by peeling the squash into ribbons, using either a vegetable peeler or mandolin. I found that it was easiest to do this with smaller, more slender squash. The squash ribbons are then briefly sautéed in olive oil and tossed with salt and pepper. The recipe recommended serving the "pasta" with parmesan cheese and tomato sauce.

I wanted to try the "pasta" topped with pesto sauce, because that was one of the substitutions available at the restaurant I visited earlier this summer. However, because I wasn't sure how the "pasta" would turn out, I made sure that I had some wheat noodles on hand, as well.

The zucchini and squash ribbons cooked up nicely, and tasted great. However, they didn't seem quite right for the pesto sauce, or substantial enough for a main dish, so I decided to make them a side dish. (I think the "pasta" would go well with a tomato sauce, as recommended in the Times article.) It was fun to twirl colorful strands of zucchini and yellow squash along with the pesto-covered noodles.

The Times' serving suggestion states that the "pasta" can be served hot or cold; I thought that it tasted much better hot.