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[Winter Squash, Part 2]

Squash!

After finishing off the last of the spaghetti squash, I decided to tackle the butternut squash that you can see lurking there in the background.  Weighing in at over 5lbs, it was an impressive specimen!  I’ve always liked butternut squash (despite the lack of recipes featuring it on this blog!), and I frequently use it in any recipe that calls for pumpkin, since it’s often more readily available than pie pumpkins.  This time, though, I wanted to do something a bit different.

5lbs+!

Inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s various squash salad applications (for example this or this), I decided to make up my own.  I contemplated various beans and grains before deciding on using red lentils because a) we had some in the pantry and b) you don’t have to soak them overnight.  Along with the squash and lentils, I decided to roast a few shallots that had been rolling around in the bottom of the fridge, and to top the whole thing off, I went with some feta, parsley, and toasted hazelnuts.  Of course the feta turned out to be the wrong kind for crumbling, but since the salad was warm, I rather liked how it melted and mingled with the squash and lentils.

Cubing a squash that big takes a while...

Parchment keeps your towel clean

So much for the main ingredients, but what about spices?  Normally I probably would have gone with a bolder spice palette, and no doubt would have added a healthy dose of cayenne pepper (or even added some fresh cayenne peppers for that matter–we had quite the haul this year from our balcony garden!) but alas, since pregnancy has given me the gift of heartburn, I had to get a bit more creative with my flavors.  In the end, I decided to roast the squash and shallots together with some whole cumin seeds and a bit of salt, and to cook the lentils with a cinnamon stick, bay leaf, and some black peppercorns, as well as a couple of tablespoons of tamari soy sauce (which is my favorite trick for imparting flavor to any sort of bean/grain/rice).  I also created a simple vinaigrette with olive oil, rice vinegar, and tamari–the acid from the vinegar definitely brightened up the dish, although in retrospect a bit of lemon juice would have been very nice too.

In the end, this dish turned out to be one of the best applications of butternut squash that I’ve ever made–it managed to be filling without being heavy, spiced without being spicy, and it was pretty easy to pull together with a fairly minimal amount of pre-planning.  It also made enough to feed a small army, and the leftovers tasted just as good cold as warm.  I think this dish is definitely going to be a permanent addition to the fall meal rotation.

squashlentils

Warm Salad with Cumin Roasted Butternut Squash and Spiced Lentils
(Serves 6-8)

For the squash:

  • 1 large butternut squash (approx. 5lbs)
  • 1-2 large shallots
  • 3 tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 2-3 tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

For the lentils:

  • 1.75 c red lentils
  • 3.25 c water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 9 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 tbsp tamari soy sauce

Dressing:

  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp tamari soy sauce
  • a few grinds of black pepper

Toppings:

  • 1/4 c crumbled feta cheese (or finely diced if your feta doesn’t crumble)
  • 1/4 c hazelnuts, toasted and peeled
  • small handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spread out the hazelnuts on a parchment-lined sheet pan (the kind with edges so they don’t roll off!).  Put them on the middle rack and toast for 8-12 minutes, giving them a good stir halfway through.  You’ll be able to smell when they’re done–don’t burn them!  Remove the hazelnuts from the oven, and turn up the heat to 400 degrees in preparation for the squash.  Allow the hazelnuts to cool for a bit.  Then take the corners of the parchment and bring them together, creating a little package.  Wrap the whole thing in a towel, and rub it around until the nuts are mostly peeled (they don’t need to be perfect).

While the hazelnuts are toasting, peel your butternut squash, halve it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds, and then cut it up into 1-inch cubes.  Peel the shallot(s) and cut into large chunks.  Line the sheet pan you used for the hazelnuts with aluminum foil, and spread out the squash and shallots in a single layer.  Drizzle the grapeseed oil over everything and then sprinkle on the cumin seeds and salt.  Mix it all together with your hands, making sure that all the pieces of squash are coated in oil, spread them back out, and then put it in the oven (which should now be at 400) for 20-30 minutes or until the squash is fork tender but not disintegrating.

Once the squash is going, rinse and pick over your lentils and then add them to a pan with the water, tamari, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, and peppercorns.  Give it a good stir and bring it to a boil.  Then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are fully cooked–probably about 20 minutes.

While the lentils and squash are cooking, whisk together all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.  Taste, and adjust the ratio of vinegar/lemon juice to oil as needed.  You may end up wanting to sprinkle a bit more lemon juice or vinegar over the finished salad if the acidic flavor gets lost in the squash and lentils.

Once the lentils are done, drain off any excess water, and pull out the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, and (if you can find them) the peppercorns.  (If you can’t find them, just chew carefully!)  Put the lentils in a large serving bowl along with the squash and shallots.  Mix them together, and then pour on the dressing and add the toppings.  Give everything a good toss, add extra vinegar, lemon juice, or salt to taste, and serve immediately.

Enjoy!

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[Winter Squash, Part 1]

And just like that, it’s fall.

winter squash

I’m loving the cooler weather, changing leaves, and most of all the availability of winter squash!  Last night’s successful spaghetti squash experiment marked the first new dish I’ve created since June, when I made a mayonnaise-free, vinegar-free potato salad that I will definitely share with you at some point.  Why the lack of cooking, you ask?  Well, a certain new addition to the family is due to arrive in late December, and as it turns out, he seems to hate most vegetables (particularly the green, nutritious ones!), and he has somehow scrambled my brain such that I have become terrible at figuring out which flavors go together.  (I maintain that peanut butter, jelly, and cottage cheese is a perfectly normal and delicious sandwich combination!)  But since squash is sweet (and isn’t green!), it seemed like a perfect way to start eating vegetables again in a way the baby would let me tolerate, and sage was the obvious herb to combine with it.

sage

There are different schools of thought about the optimal way to cook spaghetti squash–whole or halved, seeds in or out, microwave or oven, covered or uncovered, steamed or roasted with oil and herbs–in the end, since I wanted the “noodles” to be all the same consistency, and since the half hour baking time would give me just enough time to make the sauce, I went with halved, seeded, face down in a baking dish with a bit of water, covered tightly with aluminum foil so it would steam.

The sauce was really easy to throw together–essentially it’s a basic white sauce (roux + milk) combined with shallots, sage, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese.  For a richer sauce, you could definitely use half and half or cream, but if you don’t have them, milk works just fine.  Definitely be prepared to add more salt after you toss it with the squash “noodles” — they will dilute the flavor of your sauce more than you expect.

If you want to get a bit more elaborate than just squash + sauce, this dish would definitely be enhanced by the addition of some toasted hazelnuts or perhaps a bit of crispy pancetta–I was too hungry by the time I was done with the squash and sauce to bother, but if you have the time, you should definitely try it out.

spaghetti

So without further ado:

Spaghetti Squash with Sage and Nutmeg Cream Sauce
(Serves 2-3)

  • a small spaghetti squash (approx. 2.5lbs)
  • 3 tbsp butter, divided
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • a handful of fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • salt
  • pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.  While it’s heating, cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and put the halves face down in a baking dish.  Add enough water to go up the sides of the squash about 1/4 inch.  (It took me about a cup and a half of water for my 9×13 pan).  Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a sharp knife slides easily into the squash.

Meanwhile, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat, and saute the shallots until they soften and just start to get a bit of color.  Remove them from the pan and set aside.  Add the remaining two tablespoons of butter to the pan, and when it’s melted, add the flour, whisking constantly until you have a nice, even roux and it darkens a bit.  Then add the milk, and continue to whisk until the sauce starts to thicken.  Reduce the heat to low and add the shallots back to the pan, along with the sage, freshly grated nutmeg, and pepper.  Taste, and adjust the amounts of nutmeg and pepper accordingly.

Remove the sauce from the heat, stir in the Parmesan cheese, and then add salt to taste.  Cover, and keep warm, stirring occasionally to keep it from thickening too much; the longer it sits, the thicker it will become.  When the squash is ready, carefully remove it from the baking dish and use a fork to separate the flesh into “noodles”.  Put your squash noodles into a serving bowl and toss with the sauce until well-coated.  Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.

Enjoy!

P.S. If you can, wash the sauce pan right away–we let it sit a bit too long, and so even after an overnight soak it was hard to get clean!

Sweet potatoes!

I spoke too soon in my last post–it seems spring is still not here.  I woke up to see snow on the ground and to hear little ice pellets clattering against the window.  Since it’s a good day to stay indoors and sit by the fire, I have a hearty, wintertime recipe to share with you.

Until I made these beauties the other day, I had never made twice-baked sweet potatoes before.  In fact, I had never made any kind of twice-baked potato before.  Where had they been all my life??

Twice-baked sweet potatoes are, in fact, surprisingly easy to make, requiring very little effort and only a minimal amount of pre-planning (you’ll need about an hour and a half to make them, but only about 10-15 minutes of that time will be spent actually doing anything.  The oven takes care of the rest!)

The recipe below is really more of a template–there are an infinite number of ways in which you could season your potatoes; I just pulled out a bunch of different spices that I thought would play well together and added them in, a bit at a time, til I had a flavor I was satisfied with.  I ended up using a combination of Chinese five-spice, cayenne pepper, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and curry powder.  The curry powder was a last minute addition, because it still wasn’t tasting quite right–had I thought of it sooner I probably could have eliminated the extra cumin, coriander, and cinnamon.  Other spices that would work as well include ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice.  Or you could try adding a splash of maple syrup with some cayenne…there are a ton of different possibilities.  The key is to add a little at a time, mix well, and taste.  I ended up tasting the mix five or six times before I was satisfied.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes
(serves 2)

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes
  • 3 oz soft goat cheese
  • a pinch of raw cane sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • spices to taste (e.g. curry powder, five-spice, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, ginger, etc)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Thoroughly scrub the sweet potatoes, and poke them all over with a fork.  Put them in the oven, directly onto the middle rack, and put a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips.  Bake for about an hour.

When the sweet potatoes are done baking, take them out of the oven, and cut a slit along the top of each potato, lengthwise.  Gently push on the ends of each potato to open it up, and scoop the insides into a bowl with the goat cheese.  Be careful not to tear the skins.  Mix up the sweet potato flesh and goat cheese until fully incorporated.  Then add the sugar, and the spices of your choice, a bit at a time.  Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and mix thoroughly, tasting periodically as you adjust the spicing.

When you like the flavor, gently spoon the filling back into the sweet potato skins, put them on the baking sheet, and return them to the oven to bake for another 10 minutes or so until warmed through and slightly browned on top.  Enjoy!

Spring has sprung!

Spring is late this year–there’s even still some snow on the ground in the shady areas. (That’s the last time I ever trust a groundhog to predict the weather!)  But a few glimmers of hope are finally starting to shine through.  Tulips are trying to come up, birds are building a nest out on our balcony, and asparagus that was not grown in Mexico has reappeared in the grocery store.

I bought some, not quite sure what I intended to do with it, but I knew that I wanted to leave it raw or nearly so.  Further inspiration struck in the form of a lovely brick of cheese at Trader Joe’s – it was a mix of cheddar and gruyere: a perfect combination of flavor and melt-ability!

I decided to make a pasta dish with a basic white sauce as its base that would really show off the freshness of the asparagus.  At the last minute, I also decided to throw in a handful of fresh green beans, but you could totally use frozen as long as you thawed them out first. Peas would be another excellent and springlike addition.  Just go with whatever looks good!

The key for the asparagus, though, is tossing it in to the sauce at the end, just before you add the pasta–you want it to heat through, but you don’t want it to lose any of its delightful, crisp freshness.  So don’t overcook it!

Ready to eat!

Springtime Asparagus Pasta
(Serves 2-3)

  • 1 bunch asparagus, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 handful green beans, chopped into 1 inch pieces.  Feel free to use frozen, but thaw them before adding to the dish.
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1 c milk
  • 1/2 c grated cheese (I used a cheddar-gruyere blend)
  • 112g pasta (I used papardelle)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • pancetta (optional)

Put a pot of salted water on to boil.  Cook the pasta to al dente and drain.  While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.  Once it’s melted, whisk in the flour.  When the roux is smooth, pour in the milk, whisking steadily to combine.  Add the garlic, and keep whisking until the sauce begins to thicken.  If it starts to bubble, reduce the heat.  Add in the cheese, and once it’s melted, add in the asparagus and green beans.  Toss in the pasta, and mix to combine.  Season with salt and pepper, and, if you like, top it with some crispy pancetta bits.  Enjoy!

Egg Kulambu

Looking for something to do with those leftover hardboiled eggs you have laying around after Easter?  Try this awesome South Indian recipe I stumbled across–it only requires an onion, a tomato, a can of tomato sauce, some garlic, and a variety of pretty standard Indian spices.  It’s called Egg Kulambu, and it filled my kitchen with the most delightful smells as it simmered away on the stove.  I used roughly twice as much tomato sauce as the recipe called for (and reduced the amount of water accordingly) because I didn’t want half a can of tomato sauce sitting around.  I actually like the way it made the sauce a bit thicker.  This dish would be excellent served over rice or with some naan, although I actually ended up eating it like soup with some toast on the side.

Be forewarned – this dish does pack a powerful punch, so if you’re sensitive to spicy foods, you may want to cut back on the cayenne a bit. But if you, like me, have been searching for a South Indian recipe that doesn’t hold back on the spices, go for it!

But you may want to have a glass of milk handy, just in case.

That's cilantro on top.  Fresh would be better if you have it...

Egg Kulambu by Alamelu Vairavan

P.S. A note about hard boiling eggs: I usually use this method from Simply Recipes, and I’ve never overcooked my eggs with it.  But I still spend the whole time standing over the pot, worrying if they’re going to come out right.  If anyone has any foolproof tips, leave them in the comments!

Saying that this dish did not turn out right the first time would be an understatement.  I’ve made plenty of dishes over the years that haven’t turned out quite like I had envisioned or that could use some tweaking here or there.  My first attempt at this one though?  Was nearly inedible.  My husband bravely finished his bowl and told me it wasn’t that bad, but really?  It was that bad.

So why am I sharing a recipe with you that I fully admit started off as inedible?  Because I ended up making it again the other night, with some MAJOR modifications and it turned out to be a pretty tasty dish!

The problem with the original version and thus the key to making the new version tasty?  Garlic.

When I pureed the pesto in the blender the first time around, I added in raw garlic (not a lot, I swear!) thinking that it would be a good punch of garlicky flavor (and be mellowed out by the cheese, broccoli, etc).  Well, this might have worked if it had been green garlic, or even early summer garlic.  But late winter garlic?  Not so much.  One of my friends coined the term “death garlic” and that pretty much sums it up.  It completely overpowered everything else in the dish and filled your tongue with a noxious, garlicky burning sensation.

The solution?  Roasting.

mmm...garlicky!

For the new version of this dish, I set half a head of garlic on a piece of aluminum foil, drizzled it with olive oil, sealed it up, and roasted it at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.  Problem solved!  The smell of roasted garlic is absolutely amazing, and it mellows out the flavor to the point where you almost want to just sit there eating it with a fork.  Plus roasting makes the cloves pop right out of the papery skins!

I made a few other changes to the original recipe as well.  This time I made the pesto in the food processor instead of the blender (it made drizzling in the olive oil much easier), I added Parmesan cheese to the pesto instead of the goat cheese I used in the original version (kept the pesto thinner), and because I had them, I sauteed some mushrooms and shallots and tossed them in with the broccoli.  The mushrooms turned out to make a big difference–they added a texture and savory depth that was missing from the first version of the dish.

Pesto at the end of the tunnel

 

mushrooms!

 

So much pesto...

One note on the type of pasta: I used whole wheat fusilli noodles (corkscrew shaped), which worked out really well because this is a rather thick pesto.  There are plenty of other shapes that would work too–I’d just recommend staying away from long and/or flat pastas like papardelle or fettuccini.  They won’t work nearly as well.

In the end, the new version of this dish was MUCH tastier than the original, still not very difficult to make, and something that’s definitely worth adding to your pasta and pesto repertoire.

Ready for eating!

Broccoli Pesto Pasta
(serves 2-3)

  • 1/2 head of garlic, outer layers of skin removed
  • 3 medium crowns of broccoli, long stems are a bonus
  • 1 cup of mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • 112g whole wheat pasta
  • salt
  • pepper
  • lemon juice (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Remove the outer layers of papery skin from the head of garlic.  You only need half the cloves for this recipe, but feel free to roast the whole head of garlic if you have another use for it.  Set the garlic on a piece of aluminum foil and drizzle it thoroughly with olive oil.  Seal it up, put it on a cookie sheet, and roast for 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of well salted water to a boil.  When it’s boiling, dip the crowns of broccoli in, one at a time, for 30 seconds each.  (This is why the long stems are helpful–they give you something to hold on to.  If your broccoli doesn’t have a long stem, just drop it in and fish it out with a slotted spoon after 30 seconds).  As soon as you take the broccoli out of the boiling water, run it under cold water for a bit to stop the cooking.

Roughly chop two of the three crowns of broccoli and put them in the food processor.  Grate in about 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese (more or less as you desire), and add a few grinds of black pepper.  Take your garlic out of the oven, carefully open up the foil pack, and remove the cloves of garlic from their skins and add them to the food processor.  Pulse several times, scrape down the sides, and then let it run as you drizzle in olive oil.  You want enough olive oil to thin it out into a sauce-like consistency rather than a paste, but not so much that it tastes oily.  Stop and taste it periodically until you get the consistency you prefer.  Salt to taste.

Once the pesto is done, add the pasta to the pot of (still boiling!) water that you cooked the broccoli in.  While that’s cooking, heat a bit of olive oil in a medium sized skillet and add the shallots and mushrooms.  Cook for a few minutes until the mushrooms are nice and brown.  Chop the remaining broccoli into bite sized florets and add it to the skillet.  Drain the pasta, and then add both it and the pesto to the skillet and toss everything together.  Once everything is well coated in pesto, take it off the heat and serve garnished with a bit more freshly grated Parmesan and/or a squeeze of lemon juice.  Enjoy!

Finally getting around to writing about the Christmas cookies I baked this year!  I know, I know, it’s March.  But cookies are good any time of year.

I made seven different kinds this year, and only one was a variety I had made before:

Not so "easy" when it comes time to take them out of the pan...

“Easy” Layer Bars from a 1970s utility company cookbook. I REALLY should have lined the pan with parchment.

They don't turn pink when you use organic cherries

Cherry Blossoms from Flour On My Face

These were one of my favorites!

Butterscotch Oatmeal Cookies, adapted from Go Bold With Butter (no coconut or nuts in mine)

The recipe made about a billion of these!  My freezer is still full of them.

Orange Cardamom Crinkles, also from Go Bold with Butter. Next time I’d probably double the cardamom.

I need more cooling racks.

So many cookies!

mmm...Nutella!

The only kind I’d made before: Nutella Lava Cookies from Kirbie’s Cravings. These are pretty much the Best. Cookies. Ever.

Plus I made Almond Cloud Cookies (unfortunately I seem to be lacking a picture of those), and that’s not even counting the Tangerine-Ginger-Vanilla Sugar Cookies and Nutella Chip Cookies that I made with some friends of mine earlier in December.  There were so very many cookies this year!

But I couldn’t go without making up my own cookie recipe, so my friends and I brainstormed flavors that would go well together and eventually decided that it would be really awesome to find a way to combine the flavors of habanero, lime, and dark chocolate all together in one cookie.

But how to do it?  I thought the flavors might get lost if they were just directly added to a chocolate dough.  So I needed some sort of filling.  Cheese is my go-to answer for almost every cooking question, so I figured, why not mix the habanero and lime with some goat cheese?

it looks Christmasy!

The filling, just waiting to be mixed…

Upon further reflection, it made sense to add cream cheese to the mix, because goat cheese can be a bit crumbly in texture, so it turned into a cheesecake filling, with cream cheese, goat cheese, lime zest, lime juice, very finely minced habanero, and powdered sugar.  I don’t actually know how much powdered sugar I ended up adding.  I started off with every intention of measuring and added a quarter cup, but upon tasting, it really wasn’t sweet enough and didn’t seem like a dessert, so I added more, a little at a time, until it tasted right.  So when you make these, just be sure you add the powdered sugar slowly until you’re satisfied with the flavor.  You need just enough to take it over the line from savory to sweet, but be careful not to go too sweet, since you’re already surrounding it with chocolatey cookie goodness.

They're big cookies.

 

Cheesecake Cookies!

Dark Chocolate Habanero Lime Cheesecake Cookies
(makes approx. 34 cookies)

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
  • 1.25 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2.25 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1.25c bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 8oz (1 package) cream cheese
  • 4oz goat cheese
  • zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 2 habaneros, seeded and finely minced
  • 1/4 cup + extra (to taste) powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter and sugar until they’re light and fluffy (this may take a couple minutes).  Add the eggs, one at a time, and then add the cocoa powder and mix it in gently.  Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder, and then slowly add them to the wet ingredients, about a third at a time, and mix until just combined.  With a wooden spoon, stir in the chocolate chips.

In a separate bowl, blend together the cream cheese, goat cheese, lime zest, minced habaneros, 1/4 cup of powdered sugar, and half of the lime juice.  Taste it, and add more powdered sugar and/or lime juice until you’re satisfied with the taste of the filling.  Be careful not to over-sweeten: the chocolate cookie dough is fairly sweet, so just add the powdered sugar a little at a time.

Scoop up about 2tbsp of cookie dough, roll it into a ball, and then flatten it to a disk in your hand with a slight indentation in the middle.  Scoop a bit of the filling into the middle, and then wrap the cookie dough around it, sealing in the filling.  Roll it back into a ball, and put it on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  Space cookies about 2 inches apart, and bake for 14-17 minutes.  Cool on the sheet for a few minutes, and then move to a cooling rack to cool completely.  Enjoy!

PS. You may have extra filling left–it makes an excellent mini cheesecake!  Just take a ramekin, mix a little melted butter with some graham cracker crumbs (or cookie crumbs…whatever you have) in the bottom and then load in the filling and bake at 350 degrees til it’s set.

mmm...leftovers!

Leftover filling mini-cheesecake!

Soup!

A new soup recipe to start your February off right!  It’s a good day for soup today–as I write this it is a whopping -5 degrees outside with a windchill of -24 F.  Yeah, that’s right: -24.  But this hearty and spicy soup will warm you right up, and as an added bonus, it’s healthy too!

I actually didn’t originally intend for this soup to be a blog recipe–I came across Smitten Kitchen’s soup with lentils, sausage, chard and garlic while making my grocery list for the week, and had every intention of making it exactly according to the recipe.  Since our household’s resident vegetarian was going to be out for the night, I was excited at the prospect of trying my hand at a recipe using meat.  I figured I’d just make two pots, one with Italian sausage and one without so that my husband could share in the leftovers.

When I got to the grocery store, I discovered that sweet potatoes were on sale.  I like sweet potatoes, and I figured they’d go well with the Italian sausage, so I picked some up.  Then I went looking for the sausage itself.  The recipe called for sweet Italian sausage, which I found, but in my opinion Italian sausage should always be spicy.  Alas, spicy Italian sausage was nowhere to be seen.  Of course, I could just add my own spices after the fact, but I decided that if I was going to spice it myself anyways, I should buy something healthier.  That was when I saw the package of ground chuck.  It was three quarters of a pound–just the right amount given that I’d be the only one eating it.  Perfect.

At this point I was still intending to follow the recipe (just with the meat substitution and the addition of sweet potatoes), but I kept thinking about how big of a nuisance it would be to make two separate pots of soup (and how I didn’t really have two appropriately sized/shaped pots to do this), when finally the idea of doing meatballs popped into my brain.  I could make spicy meatballs to put in the bottom of my bowl with the soup, leaving the leftover soup untainted by meat so that my husband could share in it later!

So then I had to figure out how to make meatballs.  Because I’d never done it before.  (Yeah, yeah, I know–I write a cooking blog and I’ve never even made meatballs.  I’ve never made a steak either.)  But how hard could it be?  I figured I needed meat, breadcrumbs, and egg plus some spices, but I decided to consult Google just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything.

As it turns out, most meatball recipes call for fresh breadcrumbs.  From white bread.  With the crusts cut off.  Well, I didn’t actually have any white bread, crusts or no.  I had a jar of panko breadcrumbs.  And since it was freezing cold out, my car was covered in snow, and its door likely frozen shut, I decided to just go with it.

Panko!

In the end, panko worked just fine and the meatballs turned out to be juicy and flavorful.

Balls

Simmering meatballs

Since I decided to make meatballs, the soup was no longer going to have any contact with the meat, and thus was not going to get any of the flavors of it.  So I needed to up the spice content.  I decided to use the same spices I used in the meatballs (fennel seeds, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, salt, and pepper) along with a star anise.  I also put this same combination of spices into the sauce for the meatballs.

cooking the veg

In the end, this turned out to be a ridiculous amount of soup.  Unless I freeze some, I’m not going to have to grocery shop or cook for a week.  Which may be a good thing as I look at the weather forecast…

Sweet Potato Lentil Soup (with meatballs)
(serves 6)

Soup:

  • 3 tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 1/2 tbsp fennel seed
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 2 ribs of celery, sliced or diced
  • 2 large carrots, sliced or diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 medium or 3 small sweet potatoes, chopped into 3/4″ cubes
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • scant 1/2 tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • a few grinds of pepper
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 cup dry black lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 1 can (14oz) crushed tomatoes (fire roasted if you can find them)
  • 3.5 cups water
  • 1 large bunch of kale, roughly chopped

Meatballs:

  • 1lb ground chuck (I used a bit less, but I thought the meatballs could have been a bit meatier)
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • a small pinch of salt
  • grapeseed oil for frying

Sauce:

  • 1 can (14oz) crushed tomatoes (again, fire roasted if possible)
  • a small pinch of salt
  • a small pinch of smoked paprika
  • a few grinds of black pepper
  • a small pinch of red pepper flakes
  • a small pinch of garlic powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 whole star anise
  • a splash of water–just enough to thin it out

Heat the 3 tbsp of grapeseed oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the fennel seeds and star anise for the soup, and stir them around for a minute or two until they start to get fragrant.  Add the celery, onion, carrots, sweet potato, and all of the spices except for the bay leaf.  Cook the vegetables for a few minutes until the onions start to get translucent.  Then add the water, tomatoes, lentils, and bay leaf.  Stir, and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes have passed, check on your soup, give it a stir, and then cover it and set a timer for another 20 minutes.  Combine the sauce ingredients in a pyrex measuring cup or other dish that pours easily.  Set aside.  Meanwhile in a large metal bowl, mix together your breadcrumbs, spices, and the Parmesan cheese for the meatballs.  Then add the ground chuck and beaten egg, and mix it with your hands until it’s just uniformly combined.  Yes, you should really use your hands, and be careful not to overmix (you don’t want the meatballs to be tough!)  Form the mixture into balls, about an inch and a quarter in diameter.  I ended up with 18 of them.

Add just enough grapeseed oil to just coat the bottom of a saute pan over medium high heat.  When the pan is hot (you can test this by gently setting one of your meatballs in it–if it sizzles, it’s hot enough), add all of your meatballs in a single layer, and use a pair of tongs to turn them occasionally until they’re browned on all sides.  How do you know when it’s time to turn them?  When they stop sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Seriously, don’t worry if they stick at first–they’ll come unstuck.  Once they’re browned on all sides, you can take the pan off the heat and skim out a bit of the excess oil if it seems like there’s a lot (do this quickly–you don’t want the pan to cool!), and then deglaze the pan with your tomato sauce mixture.  Be careful–it splashes.  Reduce the heat to low, and cover the pan.  Simmer for 10 minutes to cook the meatballs through.

Meanwhile, your soup timer has probably gone off.  Give the soup a taste, and check if the lentils are done.  If they’re not, keep the soup simmering.  Adjust seasonings as necessary, and then when the lentils are done, turn the soup down to low to keep it warm until the meatballs are ready.

Check the internal temperature of the meatballs–you want to see at least 165 degrees.  Make sure you check meatballs both in the middle of the pan and on the edges–mine cooked much faster on the edges of the pan than in the middle, so I ended up moving them around partway through.

Once the meatballs are done, put three of them in the bottom of a bowl, cover it with soup, and enjoy!

Cranberry Upside Down Cake!

Because I was teaching this semester, I wasn’t able to host Thanksgiving this year.  But I still wanted to make something to bring and share…but what?  I wanted something new, but something that would still fit with the Thanksgiving spirit.  Inspiration struck in the form of an email with the new seasonal menu for one of my favorite restaurants.  There, under the desserts, they were featuring a cranberry upside down cake.

I had never really thought of making an upside down cake before, much less one with cranberries.  I had always pictured upside down cakes with rings of pineapple, and they had never seemed particularly appealing to me.  But cranberries…cranberries had possibilities!

The first order of business was figuring out how to make the cranberries stick to the top of the cake.  Flat pineapple slices would sit on a cake fairly well, even with an imperfect “glue” but cranberries seemed problematic to me.  So I asked Google for some help and read through a bunch of different upside down cake recipes and learned that in almost all of them the “glue” is basically just a caramelized sugar and butter mixture that you pour in the bottom of your cake pan, and then press the fruit into before it hardens.  Seemed fairly easy to me!

Then there was the cake to figure out.  Most upside down cake recipes called for some variety of plain cake (white, pound, vanilla, etc) to support the fruit.  On the one hand this makes sense–you want the fruit to be the star of the dish.  But I wanted something different.  I wanted something more than just a blank slate with fruit on top–I wanted something that would work together with the cranberries and enhance them.

Answer?  Spice cake.  When I make cranberry sauce, I add a whole host of spices to the pot, so I figured the same idea would work for the cake.  But I needed somewhere to start.  Luckily, I came across Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for Spiced Applesauce Cake.  I wasn’t entirely sure it would work, because, never having made an upside down cake before, I wasn’t sure how stiff of a cake you would need to hold up the fruit.  (And never having made the applesauce cake before, I was also unsure how strong it would turn out to be.)  I also wanted more spices in the cake than that recipe calls for (because again, I put a LOT of spices in the pot when I make cranberry sauce) so I decided to wing it a bit, and just use the recipe as a guide.

In the end, the final product came together beautifully.  The cake was moist and well-spiced without being overpowering.  The cranberries stayed neatly in place in their single layer, their tartness marrying beautifully with the sweet, aromatic cake.  The one flaw was that in the attempt to not waste any cake batter, I overfilled the cake pan a bit and it overflowed.  Luckily I caught it before *too* much dripped down, and stuck a sheet pan on the rack below to keep it from getting on the heating element and burning.

Oops. Drippy.

Just out of the oven!

Success!

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

Cake Batter:

  • 2 c all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1.5 c unsweetened applesauce

Topping:

  • ~2c fresh cranberries (I used a little more than a package…basically you want enough to completely line the bottom of your pan in a single layer)
  • 3/4 stick unsalted butter
  • 3/4 c packed light brown sugar

Note: You can either make this cake in a 9′ cake pan or a 10′ cast iron skillet.  I made it in a cake pan, and had slightly too much cake batter.  It would most likely all fit in the skillet.  The advantage of using a cast iron skillet is that you can caramelize the butter and sugar right there, as opposed to needing to pour it from a saucepan into the cake pan.  On the other hand, using the cake pan, I was able to line the bottom with a disc of parchment paper, which made for easy extraction.  It’s up to you.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan (or your cast iron skillet) melt the butter for the topping over medium heat, and then stir in the brown sugar.  Keep stirring constantly as it simmers for 4-5 minutes.  The color should darken some, but don’t let it burn!  Pour it into your parchment-lined cake pan if you’re using one, and then spread the cranberries over the top in a single layer, packing them in tightly.  (You could even arrange them in a pattern if you wanted to be fancy.)  Do not touch the sugar/butter mixture.  It will burn you.  Set the pan aside.

Whisk or sift together all of the dry ingredients in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Then, in a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, vanilla extract, and softened butter–keep going until it’s light and fluffy.  (You’re going to want to use an electric mixer/stand mixer to do this unless you want a really good workout.  Because it takes a good 2-3 minutes on high to achieve proper fluffiness.)  Then beat in the eggs one at a time, and finally beat in the applesauce.  Then mix in the dry ingredients until just combined.  I did this by hand because my mixer doesn’t have a setting that’s low enough to avoid a flour explosion.

Pour the batter over the cranberries in the cake pan/skillet.  Even if you have a little batter left over, do not overfill your cake pan.  Bake the rest into a little spice muffin if you like.  Put the cake in the oven on the center rack, and put a sheet pan on the rack below (just in case you did overfill), and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick in the center comes out clean *and* the center of the cake feels springy when you press on it gently (i.e. doesn’t feel like it’s a crust sitting on top of liquid).  Make sure you do both tests–toothpicks were coming out clean significantly before the center of the cake was fully set.

Cool the cake in the pan on top of a cooling rack for 15-30 minutes or until you can easily handle it with your bare hands.  (Even longer won’t hurt it.)  Gently run a knife around the edge of your cake to loosen it in the pan.  Then take your cake plate, put it upside down on the top of your cake, and flip.  The cake should slide easily out of the pan.  If you made it in a cake pan with parchment paper, gently peel off the circle of parchment.  Cool completely and enjoy.  Store leftovers in the refrigerator–it makes an excellent breakfast the next day!

Hi, everyone!  I am FINALLY back on my blog after several months of radio silence.  I’ve been away on campus teaching for the semester, and while I had originally intended to continue posting, there’s not much to say when your primary instrument of cooking is a microwave.  (If you were wondering, it is possible to successfully make pasta, beets, potatoes, and a variety of other things in the microwave.  But after a while you get lazy and just buy a lot of boxes of soup.)  I am super excited to get back to blogging, and I have some awesome recipes coming up including a butternut squash dish, a cake, a salad, at least one type of cookie, and, the subject of today’s post: mushroom barley soup!

I’m a big fan of barley.  It is both absurdly healthy and absurdly versatile–you can make it into a breakfast cereal, put it in soups, make it into a risotto, use it as the base of a dish like you would rice or couscous…

Except.

It takes forever to cook.

Oh, the pearled kind cooks up in a perfectly reasonable amount of time, it’s true.  But pearled barley doesn’t have nearly the nutritional punch that hulled has, plus it doesn’t have quite the same pleasing, chewy texture.

Solution:  slow cooker. With a minimal amount of planning ahead, I pre-cooked the barley overnight in the slow cooker, so that when it came time to make the soup, all I had to do was throw it in.  And it’s so easy to make barley in the slow cooker, you can do it while you’re sleeping.  Literally.  If you cook it on low, it’s ready in 6-8 hours max, which means that this is also an excellent way to replace your breakfast oatmeal with breakfast barley.  And in fact, I ended up with more cooked barley than I needed for the soup, so I had ready-made breakfast for the rest of the week!

The soup itself was something I came up with while falling asleep one night–it just popped into my head like a dream and practically wrote itself–when I made the soup a few days later, I felt like I was following a recipe, even though I was making it up.  It’s a good soup for a cold winter day–the hearty barley and beans along with the rich mushroom flavor and just a touch of sour cream warms you through without being heavy, and the topping of freshly grated Parmesan adds the perfect amount of umami.  (It would be a good thing to enjoy with a nice thick slab of oat soda bread from 101 Cookbooks.)

So here it is, just in time for Christmas:

Mushroom Barley Soup
(Serves 9)

For the barley

  • 1 cup dry hulled barley
  • 4.5 cups water

For the soup

  • 1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup hot (not quite boiling) water
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 head of garlic, peeled, smashed, and roughly chopped
  • 3-4 cups sliced raw mushrooms (I used a mixture of crimini and white button)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups mushroom broth
  • 1 can of navy beans, drained
  • half to all of the cooked barley
  • 1 large bunch of kale, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • salt
  • pepper
  • Parmesan cheese (for topping)

The night before you plan on making the soup, get out your slow cooker and put in one cup of dried, hulled barley and 4.5 cups of water.  Give it a stir (and pick out any bits of chaff that may have been in with your barley), cover it, and set it to low for 8 hours.  In the morning, scoop it out, put it in a container, and pop it in the fridge until you’re ready to make the soup.

When you’re ready to make your soup, take your dried porcini mushrooms, put them in a small bowl, and cover them with hot water.  Let them steep while you get everything else going.  The water should turn a rich shade of reddish-brown, and the mushrooms will re-hydrate.

Meanwhile, in a large stock pot or dutch oven, melt two tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.  When the butter is melted and the pan is hot, add in the diced onion and garlic, and saute until the onion starts to get transparent.  Then add the sliced mushrooms, and continue to stir occasionally until the mushrooms start to darken.  Deglaze the pan with the white wine, and let it simmer until most of the wine has cooked off.

Chop up the re-hydrated porcini mushrooms and add them to the pan, and strain in the liquid they were soaking in.  Add the mushroom broth, beans, and as much of the barley as you would like in your soup (more if you want your soup thicker like a stew, less if you want it more soup-like), and the kale.  Cover, and simmer until the kale has completely wilted.

Stir in the sour cream, and then add salt and pepper to taste.  It will probably take more salt than you think you need; just add it a little at a time.

Ladle it into bowls, top with Parmesan cheese, and enjoy!

Mushroom Barley Soup!