Thursday, October 30, 2008

From the Nancy Drew Cookbook: A Keene Soup

I first ran across The Nancy Drew Cookbook ("Clues to Good Cooking") at a friend's house. The title caught my eye, and, inside, I was delighted to discover a campy introduction ("How can you become a really good cook? 'It's no mystery,' Nancy Drew reveals. . .") and kitchy recipe after kitchy recipe.

Who could resist "Mysterious Mannequin Casserole," or an "Old Attic Stuffed Tomato"? How daring to use a three step recipe to create "99 Steps French Toast"! And what nutritionist wouldn't endorse "George's 'Keep In Shape' Grapefruit" (topped, of course, with butter)?

I visited the cookbook every time I was at my friend's house, and was thrilled when she gave me a copy of my own. I enjoyed leafing through the book from time to time ("Wooden Lady Walnut Tidbits!" "Bungalow Mystery Salad"! "Hidden Window Dessert"!), but never actually tried any of the recipes. However, in honor of Halloween, I decided to create one of the dishes from the book.

The first challenge was finding a recipe which did not involve meat or meat-by-product. ("Black Key Mystery Patties," anyone?) After some sleuthing, I found several recipes that seemed edible, including broiled "Red Gate Farm Tomatoes" and "Ned's Potato Pancakes." I ultimately decided to go with "A Keene Soup," because a warm bowl of peanut butter soup sounded good after the chilly fall weather we've been having here in Denver.

I combined milk, peanut butter and cinnamon in a sauce pan, and whisked them together while heating them over medium heat (the recipe called for low, but I cheated a little - sorry Nancy!). Just as the mixture started to bubble, I removed it from heat and poured it into a serving bowl. The recipe called for the soup to be topped with whipped cream and paprika. I omitted this and, in hommage to George's healthy habits, ate the soup with sliced apples.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Polenta With Kale and Egg

I love leftovers.

Sometime this summer, I made more polenta with kale than I had time to eat. So, three slabs of the polenta went into my freezer. I defrosted them this week, and have been eating them along with a fried egg, salt and pepper. It makes for a tasty and filling breakfast. And I'm really pleased at how well the polenta held up in the freezer!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another Take on Baked Tofu

I like tofu as much as the next vegetarian, but I've had some trouble preparing it at home. While restaurants serve up golden, crisp and uniformly cut pieces of tofu, my home-cooked tofu invariably fell apart during the cooking process, leaving me with little broken bits of fried soy.

I learned a couple of great tricks for preparing tofu this year: from Chef Erik's technique of coating the chopped tofu in flour and arrowroot before frying it (which helps the tofu stay together) to Sala's method of cutting the tofu into broad, thin slabs, which are easier to fry up. And now I have a third trick in my tofu-cooking arsenal: baking the tofu rather than frying it.

I've known about baked tofu for a while, but I had a different understanding of why and how the tofu would be baked. My old understanding was that cubes of tofu were marinated in a sauce (like a spicy tahini or peanut-based sauce) and then baked before being served as a main dish, along with some sort of grain. My new take involves substituting crispy, golden baked tofu in recipes that call for pan-fried tofu.

To begin, take tofu that has been rinsed, patted dry and cut into blocks, and place it on a cookie sheet that has been lightly brushed with canola oil. Brush each piece of tofu lightly with canola oil.

Bake the tofu at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes (or until crispy and golden).

Then, add the baked tofu to a recipe in place of pan-fried tofu! Today, I added the baked tofu to a red curry sauce (yes, I am still working my way through the jar of commercial Thai curry paste...), which I ate over rice noodles.

I like this technique because it doesn't use much oil, and it gives me the uniform, golden bits of crispy tofu that I've been hoping for.

I expect to rotate through all three methods for preparing tofu when using recipes that call for fried tofu. And, yes, I'll probably still marinate and bake tofu as well (it's a great winter dish...).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Quite Possibly the Whitest Chili Ever

I didn't set out to create the whitest chili ever. Instead, I wanted to make a white chili (simply, chili without tomatoes) using Hatch chilies. But, I seemed to have missed out on Hatch chili season, as I couldn't find Hatch chilies anywhere. And so I found myself standing in the produce department at my neighborhood Safeway, looking at the four or five types of chilies that they did have in stock.

My eyes fell upon these beauties, which were simply labeled "white chili peppers." I'd never used white chilies before, and wasn't sure if the white color meant that they were less spicy than other types of chilies. However, when I roasted them, I could tell from the smell that they would indeed have a good kick.

After seeding and removing the skins from the roasted chilies, I put them in a food processor along with an onion and several cloves of garlic, and processed until they were finely chopped. And then I got started on the chili itself: heating cumin seed and coriander in oil, stirring in the chili/onion/garlic mixture, and sautéeing it all for a few minutes. After that, white beans that I'd previously picked over, rinsed and left to cook in my crockpot while I was out hiking were added to the pot, along with some peeled and diced potatoes. I let the chili simmer a while, then added dried oregano and salt, and adjusted the other seasonings - and voilà, the whitest chili ever!

It tastes like the spicy chili that it is, but I'm having a eye/tongue disconnect, because my eyes see white bean soup, and prompt my brain to expect rosemary and garlic, instead of chilies and oregano...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chickpea Curry

My unsuccessful attempt at making my own Thai red curry paste a few months back left me wanting to improve my Thai cooking skills, yet unsure of my ability to successfully put together a Thai-style veg dish at home. However, after seeing a recipe for Chickpea Vegetable Curry at Appetite for China, I decided to try again - this time with a commercial Thai red curry paste. (The recipe called for yellow curry paste, but I could not find a vegetarian yellow curry paste at the store, so I substituted red.)

I simmered some dried, soaked chickpeas in a crockpot while I was at work, then came home to assemble the curry. I began by sautéeing red onion, garlic and carrots, then stirring in coconut milk, curry paste and brown sugar. I then added the cooked chickpeas, and let the mixture cook for about ten minutes, before adding chopped spinach and Thai basil.

I really liked eating chickpeas in a Thai curry sauce, and would make the dish again. However, I'm not sure that the commercial curry paste is the answer for me. Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment by making the curry just a few days after my trip to Chada Thai, but the evening I made it, the sauce didn't taste much more authentic than the one I made myself. I thought that the flavor improved after the leftover curry sat overnight, but I still would not mistake it for a curry served in a Thai restaurant, as many on-line reviews of the Thai Kitchen red curry paste claimed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lemon Ginger Scones

I'm generally a morning person, but I have a really hard time waking up on weekdays this time of year. My room is darker and colder than I'm used to, and it just seems much more pleasant to sleep until its brighter and warmer. I needed something to help get me out of bed in the mornings, and it seemed like lemon ginger scones might do the trick.

I was thinking about lemon, ginger and scones after reading recipes for lemon poppy, ginger spice, almond, and cranberry orange white chocolate chip scones from Sandy at Eat Real. Unlike scone recipes I'd previously seen, her recipe called for heavy cream instead of butter or yogurt. And, I just happened to have some heavy cream on hand, after making Bengali Spinach this weekend.

I strayed from Sandy's recipe in two ways. First, I improvised my own lemon-ginger flavoring, using the zest of two lemons (about 1 tablespoon) and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger. Second, although I was interested to learn how scones made with heavy cream would turn out, I wimped out when it came time to add 1 1/4 cups of cream to the mixing bowl. It just seemed like so much! Instead, I went with 1 cup of plain lowfat yogurt (also leftover from the Indian dinner) and 1/4 cup heavy cream. I brushed the top of each scone with a little more cream, and sprinkled on a bit of sugar.

The scones baked up beautifully. They also smelled amazing: lemony, of course, but also cream-y. As for the flavor: good, with the right amount of lemon, but not as gingery as I'd hoped. I think that next time I might grate in fresh ginger, in addition to the lemon zest.

I'd never used parchment paper in making scones before; it seems a bit wasteful as it is thrown away afterward, but it also made clean-up much easier.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chada Thai

I stopped by Chada Thai for a quick lunch on a recent fall afternoon. It was still (barely) warm enough to sit at a table out front and watch people meandering in and out of St. Mark's Coffeehouse down the street (Chada Thai also shares the block with Il Posto Italian eatery and the Thin Man).

The restaurant's lunch menu included several vegetarian offerings, including a salad featuring tofu with peanut sauce atop a bed of vegetables and lettuce, and pad thai. I opted for the veg curry, pictured above ($7.25). The dish consisted of tofu, broccoli, carrots, green beans, zucchini, eggplant, bamboo shoots and thai basil leaves in a spicy red curry sauce, a top a bed of white rice. (Brown rice is available for a little bit more - I believe it was $1.) I initially thought that I would need a carry-out box, but soon found myself polishing off everything but the eggplant (it's is one of the few vegetables that I have issues with...).

According to an article in the Rocky Mountain News, Chada Thai's owner is the daughter-in-law of the woman who opened the first Thai restaurant in Denver (and, actually, the entire United States) in about 1960. I can't say that it was the most outstanding Thai food that I've ever had, but it certainly was very good. I personally liked it better than Thai Basil.

Service was prompt and efficient.

Chada Thai
2005 E. 17th Ave
Denver, CO 80203

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I've dabbled a bit in some basic Indian cooking, but had never attempted naan. Then I saw this recipe from Stef at the Cupcake Project (no, it is not a recipe for naan cupcakes). The basic message was, "if you can make pancakes, you can make naan." I'm actually terrible at pancakes, but I make a decent waffle, and so I decided that naan, too, might be within my reach.

The recipe starts by dissolving yeast and a small amount of sugar in warm milk. After the yeast has had a chance to work its magic, the milk mixture is combined with flour and salt, kneaded, and covered for two hours so it can rise.

And rise it did. I think it actually more than doubled...

Next, the dough is divided into ten balls, which are then rolled out to form the naan. I found it helpful to layer parchment paper between the rolled-out naan to keep them from sticking together before they cooked. (Wax paper would work, too.)

The cooking part of the recipe goes very quickly, and doesn't allow time for much else (like taking photos). One side of the naan is brushed with water before being placed face-down in the pan. While the bottom cooks, and the naan bubbles and puffs, the top side is brushed with water. The naan is then flipped and cooked a little more before being removed from the heat. Basically, the cooking process is a blur of brushing and flipping.

I found that the naan cooked best over medium-high heat. I used a non-stick pan, and although I started off with a little canola oil in my pan, I soon noticed that the naan didn't require a lot of oil to cook. Instead, something seems to be happening with the water and the yeast.

If you've ordered naan in restaurants, you know that it usually comes coated with ghee (clarified butter). The recipe stated that the cooked naan should be brushed with butter, but I skipped that step and served mine plain.

While the dough takes some time to put together, I had much more success with the naan than I have ever had with pancakes.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Vegan Chocolate Cupcake with Pumpkin-Spice Frosting

Sounds like an odd combination, but it's really really yummy.

From Watercourse.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Missing: Cooking Light's Inspired Vegetarian

Alright, so I'm a little behind in my reading. But, when I glanced a recent issue of Cooking Light, I noticed that there seemed to be fewer vegetarian recipes than usual. And, I couldn't seemed to find the "Inspired Vegetarian" section of the magazine, highlighting vegetarian recipes from a particular chef, cookbook author or region of the world. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the October issue included only three vegetarian main dish recipes. And, it appears that the magazine has stopped running the Inspired Vegetarian section entirely.

What the heck?!?

I started subscribing to Cooking Light about seven years ago, after picking up a roommate's copy and noticing that, in addition to offering a vegetarian section, veg recipes were integrated throughout the magazine. I liked that the magazine made vegetarian food accessible to everyone, and sent a message that vegetarian cooking was part of a healthy lifestyle. Even better, the recipes worked. And so, for the past seven years, I've been happily reading each issue, and compiling a binder full of favorite vegetarian recipes from the magazine

Going back through my stack of old Cooking Lights, it looks like the change began a couple of months ago, with the omission of the Inspired Vegetarian section in the August issue. I didn't notice at first, in part because I was busy, and in part because the magazine still featured a number of vegetarian options. But, in October, the number of vegetarian meals (by which I mean "main dishes," soups, sandwiches and pastas) dropped significantly. While the October 2007 issue of Cooking Light offered at least eight vegetarian meals, the October 2008 issue offered only three.

I would be less annoyed that Cooking Light dropped its Inspired Vegetarian section if number of vegetarian meals throughout the magazine remained the same. But I can't understand why the magazine would both get rid of its vegetarian section and reduce the number of overall vegetarian recipes. A number of meat eaters that I know eat at least one vegetarian meal each week. It seems especially odd to limit vegetarian recipes at a time when the cost of food is rising, and meatless meals are often less expensive.

Odder still, the March 2008 edition of Inspired Vegetarian (highlighting veg recipes with a Malaysian theme) promised that "future stops on our 2008 global vegetarian cuisine tour will include Spain's Catalonia region, India, Venezuela, Guadalupe, Germany, and Northern California." Clearly, future editions were in the works. Why cut the "tour" short before it was completed? (One unlikely conspiracy theory: retribution for highlighting the food of politically-unpopular Venezuela in the June 2008 issue...)

For now, I'm hoping that October was an anomaly, and that the number of vegetarian meal ideas in future issues will increase. If the trend continues, though, my subscription to Cooking Light will probably end.

Update: Inspired Vegetarian is back in the December 2008 issue of Cooking Light, with a look at Ethiopian recipes.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Muhammara (Red Pepper/Walnut Dip)

This week, I tried a second recipe from The Language of Baklava: muhammara.

Muhammara is a dip that originated in Syria, but is now eaten across the Middle East. While there seem to be a number of different versions of the dish, the central ingredients are the same: red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate.

Diana Abu-Jabar's recipe for muhamarra involves roasted red pepper, walnuts, puréed tomato, bread crumbs, red pepper flakes and spices, as well as pomegranate juice and olive oil. The instructions are incredibly simple: assemble the ingredients, and purée.

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about the dip the night that I assembled it. Something about the lighting in my kitchen made the puréed mixture look bright pink, and suspiciously similar to ham salad.

However, when I pulled the dip out of the refrigerator the next day, I could see that, rather than being pink, the mixture has more of a burnt orange color. And, of course, it tasted nothing like ham salad. The flavor is hard to describe, but it has elements of sweet, spicy and hot, and is pleasant to eat atop crispy bits of toasted pita. Since there's no dairy, and the dip doesn't really need to be refrigerated, it would be a nice lunch to pack for a hike.

The recipe from Language of Baklava called for the dip to be topped with chopped flat leaf parsley. I didn't have any parsley on hand, so I used chopped cilantro, and threw on a few walnut bits as well. The cilantro blended nicely with the spicy/sweetness of the dip, making this a goof that I might intentionally repeat.

While I was putting together this post, I took a look at other recipes for muhammara on the internet. Many of them use pomegranate molasses, rather than pomegranate juice. I plan to try that variation in the future, just to see what sort of difference the molasses might make. (While I love pomegranates, I didn't really enjoy the leftover pomegranate juice -- I'm thinking that I might have more uses for pomegranate molasses.)