Curried Pumpkin Soup


I was in NYC last week partially for play, partially for work. Even though my birth certificate says New York, New York, I am not one of those people who loves New York. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it and that there definitely aren’t parts of it that I wish I could transplant to the Chi or that I wouldn’t even consider living there one day, but when people find out that I spent every summer and holiday there and that most of my extended family still lives there, the reaction is always, “don’t you just love New York? How can you not live there???” It’s hard to explain that I’ve gotten used to the pace of Chicago, the simplicity, the ease of it, but it’s even harder to explain that being there is always a little bittersweet, because everything from the airport to the subway to the pretzel stands to just about every corner of Midtown (and a few in the Bronx, Queens, Long Island and Brooklyn) is part of a memory of a family that is close to existing only in my mind. Our times in New York were filled with so much fun and laughter that it seems impossible that any new times in the city would ever truly compare. It sounds absolutely bizarre, but even amid the tourists and the traffic and the noise and the people rushing past me, I can get so caught up in remembering some moment walking down 57th street with my grandfather or waiting on the #4 train platform with my dad that I find myself just standing still in the middle of the sidewalk trying to catch my breath. And if you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like to have what feels like 5,000 people scream at you at once, I highly recommend stopping dead on a sidewalk in Manhattan at rush hour. Good times.

Before I get way too caught up in family history, I’ll tell you what may actually be the real reason I waiver on moving to the East Coast: the weather. Yeah, yeah, I know, I live in Chicago and it’s cold and windy and blah blah blah. But, y’all, the East Coast is extreme. For real. I had never seen as much snow as I did when I went to school in Poughkeepsie, which is just 1.5 hours by train from NYC. I mean, it was up to our hips from January until April (for all of you wondering, it is too cold in Chicago to snow that much. I’m not saying cold is better than snow, it’s just what I’m used to). And summer in New York? Fuggedabouit. The Chi may be hot and humid, but at least we have a bit of lake breeze to cool us off. I spent many an NY summer trying to stay as still as possible. And right now, as we are 6 weeks away from the official start of winter, I’m reading post after facebook post about how my New York friends are digging out from snow! In October! It’s a balmy 54 degrees and sunny in Chicago (although with the windchill it is 48. Just trying to keep it honest).

Anyhoo. One friend posted a picture of her deck covered in snow and said that she wanted soup, and I realized that I had a pumpkin soup recipe that had, like so many others, been waiting for a good story. I recognize that I haven’t necessarily provided that, but at least I’m posting a holiday specific recipe in time for you to make it before Halloween and, if you’re on the East Coast, at least I have something to keep you toasty over this cold weekend. Baby steps, friends, baby steps.

I love the kick that the curry adds, plus it complements the pumpkin in a way that is surprising given every other pumpkin-ish dish is sweet. I think milk would be a fine substitute for the cream and do not feel a shred of guilt over using canned pumpkin. Also, this could be totally vegetarian if you use vegetable stock/broth instead of chicken stock. The croutons are left over no knead bread, also an excellent way to heat up the house on a chilly day.

Stay warm, New Yorkers! My heart may belong to the Second City, but you know I’ll always have a huge crush on you….

Curried Pumpkin Soup, from The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton, Jr.

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, mashed and diced
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree, freshly made (?!) or canned
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch sugar
  • 1/3 teaspoon or more curry powder
  • pinch nutmeg (or pumpkin spice)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, if desired
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 2 cups light cream

Melt butter in medium (3 quart) saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, cover and cook until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the pumpkin puree and stock. Stir well to mix. Add bay leaf, sugar, curry powder and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, lower to simmer and cook for 30 minutes. While soup is cooking, taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Remove from heat and add cream (I’d temper the cream a bit–add a few tablespoons to 1/3 cup of soup slowly to the cream, just to bring the cream up in temperature. When you add the cream to the soup it won’t curdle). Return to heat only to bring temperature of the soup back to hot. Do not allow to simmer–rising steam only. Serve in hot soup bowls.

Buttermilk Biscuits


You know that I always try to have a little backstory to go along with a recipe, because I think that it’s much more fun to find out why someone cooks or bakes something than just read a recipe, which you can do on any cooking site. A lot of times, though, I have no good tale after I try a recipe, but I really want to share it and so I wander around trying to fit the recipe into a story, any story, so I can write about it. I mean, I’m not crazy (or committed) enough to go do something just so I can post about it and give you a recipe, but I do have a backlog of tasty treats that are hanging out just waiting for the right moment.

This is not one of those moments. The true story is that I bought a quart of buttermilk (seriously, who needs a quart of buttermilk?) in order to make sweet potato muffins for a brunch. Since the recipe only calls for 1/3 cup of buttermilk I had a full container when I was done.  I was thrilled when the lemon poppyseed cake called for a cup; I thought I could at least put a dent in the quart. But it’s obvious that buttermilk regenerates, because I swear that the carton was as full as when I started (and I made three of those cakes).  So as the expiration date approached, I started thinking about what else I could do.  Biscuits were the first thing that popped into my mind, but I dismissed them because I’m not a fan.  The ones I’ve had have always been heavy and chewy and too buttermilky–the tang of buttermilk is overpowering to me.  But I couldn’t find any recipes other than cakes and pancakes, so biscuits won by default.

Having never eaten a biscuit that I actually liked, I had every intention of just making them, taking a few pictures and pawning them off on my coworkers.  What really ended up happening is that I was late for work, because I was standing in my kitchen eating biscuits dripping with butter and honey like it was my job.  I moved from the “I’ll pass” camp to the “you’ll pass over all the biscuits now if you know what’s good for you” camp in less time than it took for them to cool.  They were light and layered and had a bit of sweetness (even without the honey) that balanced out the tartness of the buttermilk.  Even the next day they were soft and had none of that chewiness that I think plagues other biscuits.  Of course, I wouldn’t really know how they hold up for too many days, because there weren’t any left after day two.  But, you know what was still hanging around? 1/2 a quart of buttermilk. I kid you not.

Buttermilk Biscuits, courtesy of The Homesick Texan (I think I originally found the recipe on epicurious, but think it’s better to link to her actual site)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading (9 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more to taste (I used just 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold (1 stick)
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half or buttermilk (I added a bit more to the dough, because it was a little dry as I was mixing)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and grease a baking sheet or cast-iron skillet.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.  Cut the stick of butter into pieces and work it into the flour mixture with your hands or pastry blender until it resembles pea-size crumbs. Add the half-and-half or buttermilk, mixing until the dough is a bit loose and sticky.

Pour the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute. Dough should be smooth and no longer wet. You can sprinkle more flour on the surface if you find it’s sticking. Make the dough into a ball and hit it with a rolling pin, turning it and folding it in half every few whacks. Do this for a couple of minutes (I actually just picked up the dough and threw it down over and over (fold over before throwing it down again).  Good tension release and upper arm workout).

Roll out the dough until it’s 1/4 of an inch thick, then fold it in half. Using a round biscuit cutter (you can use a glass or a cup if you don’t have a biscuit cutter–I used a measuring cup), cut out the biscuits from the folded dough. Place on a greased baking sheet or in a cast-iron skillet close together, about 1/8 of an inch apart (so they rise up not out), and bake for 15 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.

NOTE: If you don’t want to roll and cut them out, after kneading and beating the dough you can drop the dough onto the baking sheet with a spoon. They’re not as symmetrical (dropped biscuits are also known as cat-head biscuits), but they’re no less delicious.

Chilaquiles


So the good thing about all of the gallivanting and country hopping and general revelry that’s been going on in my world is that I’ve gotten to spend a fair amount of time laughing and eating and drinking with some of my favorite people.  The not-so-good part is that–even though I’m reluctant to admit it–I can’t recover from all the festivities as quickly as I did at the height of my gallivanting days.  I mean, there was a time when four gin and tonics (FOUR, people!) was the baseline for a happy evening and I could roll into bed a mere 3 hours before I had to be up and at work with nary a thought of a hangover.  Not so much, anymore… As my granny always said, youth is wasted on the young.

These days, there’s talk of “pacing” ourselves or “should we really be doing this on a school night?” or “I have an 8am conference call; I gotta get some sleep.”  I think the worst is “this is going to hurt in the morning.”   Nothing quite kills the second (third?) round excitement like the idea that you’re going to suffer for having fun.  I’ve always believed that coating your stomach (i.e., loading up on greasy foods) after a night of libations is definitely the way to combat feeling like death warmed over the next day.  Hey, some people believe in aspirin and gatorade; I believe in bacon and eggs and maybe some hashbrowns.  The problem is that the only diner within walking distance from me is closed on Sundays, which seems silly at best, heartless and cruel at worst.  This means that after a Saturday night of living it up, I’m faced with a bowl of oatmeal from my own kitchen or a schlep to a fancy place near me when the last thing I want to do is get dolled up and pay upwards of $15 for overcooked bacon and undercooked eggs.  Seriously a first world problem, I know, but I also know you’ve had the same debate, so let’s not judge, ok?

Lucky for me, while I was in Mexico and was [surprisingly] in need of comfort food one morning, I was presented with a plate of chilaquiles, which–roughly translated–is heaven and goodness on a plate.  I think I may have heard angels sing as I tucked into a spicy mix of eggs, cheese, tortilla chips and salsa verde.  The ill-advised shot of Agavero Tequila was a distant memory as my stomach settled and the world righted itself.  The great thing about this dish is that it’s full of ingredients that you usually have on hand (mind you, the original recipe calls for making your own salsa verde and tortilla chips, but who are we kidding here?  After a night of fun you’ll be lucky to make your way to the kitchen, let alone reinvent the salsa wheel…).  I whipped this up in under 10 minutes and within 30 I was feeling as though I may live to see another day.  I think you could easily dress it up with some chorizo or Italian sausage, a bit of avocado or corn salsa, and I’ve even seen a version with chicken. Go wild!  It’ll remind you of your youth. Without the embarrassing walk of shame part…

Chilaquiles Verde (if you want the labor intensive version, go here: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chilaquiles-Verdes-354951)

  • 3/4 cup salsa verde (green salsa)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled mild feta
  • tortilla chips
  • hot sauce, to taste

Pour the salsa verde in a medium frying pan.  Just when it starts to bubble, stir in the beaten eggs. Cook and stir for about 5 seconds, until the egg feathers into the sauce, thickening and binding it. Immediately add the chips (enough to cover the bottom of the pan), tossing gently until they have absorbed enough sauce to become soft. Take care not to break the chips. Sprinkle the Jack cheese on top and let it melt.

Divide the chilaquiles among 4 plates (or just eat it all yourself). Sprinkle with the feta and hot sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.

Note: original recipe calls for chopped onion, cilantro and sour cream, which I’m sure all kick this up a bit, but (1) I forgot the onion and sour cream when I made this and (2) not a cilantro fan. But try it and let me know!

Tiramisu–A Variation


Well then.  Sometime toward the end of last year, I decided that 2011 would be the year of adventure.  I am not a risk taker by nature, but I decided–somewhere between surviving a partial bike ride down the side of volcano and one too many cocktails–that I needed to do a bit more with life, because, well, this is the only chance I get at it.  I’d read a book that was really terrible, but had one really good line in it about finding ways to say yes instead of reasons to say no.  That resonated with me, because–being an essentially risk averse person (read: lawyer)–before the word “maybe” is out of my mouth, my mind has come up with 73 scenarios as to why something may not be a great idea.  It’s pretty hard to jump on the adventure bandwagon when your go-to response is no, right?

All this to say that I decided that I needed to change into more of a yes! that sounds fun!! person and so far this year, I’m doing a stellar job if I do say so myself (one good thing about being Type A is that when you set your mind to something, you’re always aiming for that gold star…).  The upside is that since January, I’ve been to Morocco, NYC, Los Angeles, Monterey, Cozumel and just got back from Ireland last night (hello, jet lag!).  Yeah, I don’t recognize myself either.  The downside is that I was home for only one full week in April, much of which was spent looking for a fabulous fascinator, which dramatically cuts down on the cooking going on chez moi.

I did manage, though, to whip up a wee dessert a couple of weekends ago, which I’m going to suggest you tuck away for those moments when time is not on your side but you need something decadent and impressive.  I’ve wanted to make tiramisu since I took that culinary boot camp last fall and I vaguely remembered from the class that it was one of those things that could be put together quickly and left to its own devices before serving.  That, and I had half a container of mascarpone left from my polenta adventure.  Always helps when you have a main ingredient on hand.  The one thing I did not have was the lady fingers and while my mind was swirling with visions of rum and cokes (I’d just gotten back from Cozumel) and rolling fields of heather (I had just bought my ticket to Ireland), I couldn’t for the life of me think where in all of the city of Chicago I could find them.  I also didn’t have enough time to go here, there and everywhere looking for them, so I decided that I’d substitute another cookie.  Lucky for me, I was standing in Trader Joe’s when I made that decision and decided to snag some ginger crisps and call it a day.

Unlike my other experiments, this one actually worked! Shocking, I know.  It couldn’t have been easier to put together (the recipe called for instant espresso, but I just used really strong coffee) and the crisps worked well after I decided to add several layers.  I loved the spice that the ginger added to the recipe, and truth be told, I liked my version better than the traditional because I find that lady fingers can get a bit soggy and heavy, whereas the ginger crisps soaked up the mascarpone filling without becoming mushy.

I’ve promised myself that I’m home for a good stretch now, and I’m looking forward to being back in the kitchen whipping up fun items, taking pictures and posting.  What can I make for you?

Tiramisu–A Variation

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons brewed espresso (I used very strong coffee)
  • 4 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
  • 12 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • gingerbread crisps

Combine water and 3 tablespoons of sugar in small saucepan and bring to a boil to melt sugar (I did this in a measuring cup in the microwave).  Remove from heat and add espresso.

Put mascarpone, sugar and vanilla in large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth (I misread this and added the syrup (above). Really didn’t make a difference, but I suppose one should follow the directions?).  Add heavy whipping cream and beat until mixture is thick and fluffy.

Break ginger crisps in half and add about 3 layers in the bottom of each ramekin.  Add a couple of tablespoons of espresso syrup.  Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over top.  Continue with second layer of ginger crisps, syrup and mascarpone mixture.  Chill for 1 hour (you can also do a day ahead).

Chocolate Chip Crisps


I always think that the worst part about the holidays being over, other than my credit card statement, is that the treats just end.  And there’s no weaning period, either.  You leave work in December slightly overwhelmed by the chocolate and candy on every desk and come back in January and there is nary a goody to be found.  Not even a Lifesaver or a broken candy cane.  After being on a sugar high since Halloween, it’s kind of harsh to give up the sweets so suddenly.  And it adds to the winter blahs, too, no?

I’d planned to whip up another Hawaiian treat for you so you’d forget that the forecast is cold, followed by frigid and rounded out with a little dear-lord-I-think-the-inside-of-my-nose-has-frozen for the next 7 weeks, but I was craving something comforting and chocolate laden and not too terribly bad for me (as hard as it is to imagine, that combination does exist!) to ease me into the new year.  Luckily, one of Santa’s elves delivered these crisps in my stocking and it took every ounce of self-control I had not to eat the whole bag in one sitting.  Twenty minutes later I said to myself, “Self, it is Christmas and you have suffered in overheated stores and ruined new boots in the snow in order to spread holiday cheer to others, so if eating an entire large Ziploc bag of crisps would warm your soul, go for it.” And so I did.  With a glass of milk that may or may not have had a shot of Kahlua in it.  Why do I admit these things to you?! 

Anyhoo, they are as easy as they are delicious and the hint of curry is a nice addition to the standard cookie happiness.  I think I would up the curry a bit more next time, but I like a little spice.  The original recipe called for pistachios, which I obviously avoided, but I think just about any nut would work here.  Get creative! What’s the worst thing that could happen? You have to eat a tray of test crisps all by yourself?  If that’s the low point of winter, I’d say we’re off to a good start…

Chocolate Chip Crisps (adapted from Paul Grimes’ Pistachio Dark-Chocolate Crisps in Gourmet, December 2007)

  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 large egg white
  • 2 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Nestle semi-sweet chips)
  • [1/2 cup of chopped nuts of your choice]

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Line a large baking sheet with parchment.

Blend butter, brown sugar, flour, vanilla, salt, curry powder, and egg white in a food processor until smooth.

Glue parchment down with a dab of batter in each corner, then spread remaining batter evenly into a 14- by 10-inch rectangle (1/8-inch-thick) on parchment with spatula. Scatter chocolate and nuts evenly over batter, then bake until firm and golden-brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer, still on parchment, to a rack to cool completely. Remove from paper, breaking into pieces.

Kalua Pork


Aloha! Even though it’s hard to believe–especially considering I have to wear 12 layers of clothing in order to leave the house–last week this time I was in Hawai’i, learning to surf, sipping mai tais, flirting with pilots and generally enjoying being warm and toasty (not necessarily at the same time or in that order).  It was a glorious vacation full of snorkeling, paddle surfing, good friends, lots of sun, even more laughs and delicious fresh food.  I will spare you all of the typical vacation stories, except for the one that involves me attempting to ride down the side of a volcano in Maui.  As we’ve discussed before, I am not an adventurous person by any stretch of the imagination.  Most of my beach vacations have involved a lounge chair, magazines, naps and sidling up to the bar the minute it opens.  This time around, I travelled with people who like to do things on vacation, which is a completely novel and foreign concept to me.  I gamely went along with all of their plans, mainly because I’m a people pleaser, but there was a part of me that thought it all sounded like fun.  And! I like to believe that I’m one of those people who will try anything [within reason] once.

You should note those brackets in the sentence above, because in no world is riding a bike down the side of a volcano within reason. It’s crazy, stupid and mind-numbingly frightening.  In theory it sounded like fun and a story that I could tell well into my golden years, but in practice it was terrifying.  It started with a 1:30 AM wake up call so we could drive to the van that would take us to the top of the volcano to watch the sunrise (which was great, except it was about 30 degrees outside.  I will say feeling as though I could touch the Big Dipper was worth having to put on a fleece and jeans in Hawai’i).  After the sunrise, we were taken by van down to a “reasonable” spot on the volcano where the bike ride would start.  They lined us up shortest to tallest, which meant I was third in line.  Then they handed us motorcycle helmets.  It’s at this point that I should have thought, “Heather, what the $#(^&$* are you doing?” Instead, I thought that my helmet matched my nail polish nicely.  I only started to get nervous when they pulled the bikes out of the trailer.  They looked like fold up bikes, the chains were rusted and the seats were a little loose.  My hands started to shake when the guide told us to just ride the brakes down the winding, twisting curves of the volcano.  I’m sorry, what now?  But, because I am generally a follower, I got on the bike and started pedaling (or really, just keeping my feet on the pedals and hanging on for dear life).  I don’t think I had gone 50 yards before I started screaming in my head.  Another 100 yards and I was screaming out loud.  On my right was a sheer drop off.  On my left was traffic.  I couldn’t look behind me and I was riding the brakes so hard that the people in front of me were 2 curves ahead, so I couldn’t see them.  Finally, we pulled over and I jumped off the bike, handed my helmet to the guide and went to the van following us where it took me a good 10 minutes to start breathing normally.  I’d like to tell you that I wish I’d finished the bike ride, but there’s no part of me that feels that way. NONE.  Good on the people who did (including my friends)–you’ll have much more interesting stories at the nursing home.

After the ride [in the van], we stopped in the lovely Oceanside town of Pai’a where we were able to relax on the beach and thank the powers that be that we were still alive.  We found a cute storefront restaurant that served homemade kalua pork (so homemade that the woman behind the counter pulled a tupperware container of pork out of the refrigerator and mentioned that it had come out of her oven that morning). 

Over the course of the week, kalua pork had become a fave of mine (along with spam musubi–next recipe!).  Kalua means to cook in an underground oven, but lucky for those of us who live in highrises, you can do it in a crockpot.  It’s basically a slow roasted pork shoulder, which is then shredded and served over rice.  I’m all for keeping the integrity of local dishes, but I see a lot of possibilities with this one–the addition of ginger, hot peppers, other vegetables… It couldn’t be easier, especially with a crockpot, but can be done in the oven as well. The use of liquid smoke–a first for me–gives it the taste of an outdoor barbecue, which is great since it’ll be a long while before there are any outdoor activities in the Chi.  Riding down a volcano doesn’t seem so bad if it gets me outside… Right?

Kalua Pork

  • 3 lb pork shoulder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons Hawaiian salt, or sea salt, or kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees F. Pierce pork all over with carving fork or score with a knife. Rub salt and liquid smoke into meat. Place pork fat side up in a roasting pan or deep casserole dish. Cover and roast in oven for 2 1/2-3 hours. Remove the pork from pan and shred with two forks. Makes six servings. (I used my crockpot on low for 5 hours.  In the last 1/2 hour, I added about a cup of shredded cabbage, which I’d had at one restaurant.  Drain off excess liquid before serving over rice).

Sweet Potato Muffins


 

I am, generally, an organized person.  It may not seem like it if you were to look at my desk, but I always know exactly where things are (likely because I’m an only child and there was no one around to move something once I put it somewhere), I rarely lose things and I can pretty much remember details of where I need to be without writing them down. I say all of this to tell you that I rarely do more than glance at information, because I rely (overly so) on my ability to absorb it quickly and remember it.  Fortunately for me, I show up where I’m supposed to be 9 times out of 10, so I’ve had little need to reconsider my methods.  But that 10th time? That 10th time will always be when it truly truly counts.  The biggest “slip up” I’ve made was when I was supposed to get sworn in to the Illinois bar.  Weeks prior to the swearing in, the bar people sent a letter listing where you needed to go based on where in Illinois you lived.  For Chicago, it was McCormick Place on XYZ day at 2:30pm. Done.  I alerted relatives and friends and threw the paper into a pile.  

The appointed day arrived and I put on my new lawyer suit and went into work.  I told the partners that I’d have to leave around 2pm and wouldn’t be coming back for the day since a celebration at a Cuban restaurant was to follow.  I vaguely wondered why none of my classmates were around that morning, but I realized that they were probably smart and took the whole day off for this big event.  2pm rolls around and I pull out the letter so I could get the name of the room where the swearing in was supposed to be held. And what do I see?  The Chicago ceremony had started at 11:30.  My heart skipped a beat as I realized that I had just missed getting sworn in and I had no idea what that meant (these bar people are no joke.  To even take the exam you have to jump through so many hoops that I figured that they’d punish me in some way for missing it).  Tears, frantic phone calls and a speeding taxi ride followed.  I arrived at McCormick Place to see the janitors sweeping up left over flower petals and locking the doors to the auditorium.  My well-wishers arrived to find me sitting on the floor crying with nothing to show for the day but that crumpled letter.  You’ll be happy to know that I was able to be sworn in by a judge a few weeks later, but, while I still believe in my abilities, few people trust me to tell them where they need to be and when any longer.

This story has nothing to do with food other than to lead into another example of how I get something in my head and completely think it’s right and there’s no need for me to double check or think about it again.  Basically, I ended up making sweet potato muffins when, up to the minute I was about to put the sweet potato in the microwave, I thought I was making pumpkin muffins.  A coworker had given me a recipe for–the way I remembered it–pumpkin muffins a few years ago and given the autumn weather, I thought they’d be a happy treat.  I could even see the picture of the muffins in my head from the printout she gave me, but couldn’t find the recipe online and she didn’t remember it (likely because we were searching for a completely different recipe).  I finally found it this weekend when I cleaned out a folder full of dashed cooking dreams, with magazine recipes dating back to 1996.  I glanced at the recipe to make sure I had the ingredients, made out my grocery list and crafted the story behind the muffins based on the pumpkin picking I did a few weekends ago.  It was not until I was washing off the potato last night that it occurred to me that I was actually making sweet potato muffins instead of pumpkin ones.  How’s that for the power of suggestion (or my ability to kid (delude?) myself)? Even though I bought sweet potatoes, I still had it in my mind that these were all about the pumpkin… At least my efforts weren’t totally lost and I actually had the sweet potato.  And! I was right about the picture, so my long term memory seems to be fully functioning.  I take comfort wherever I can get it.

Anyhoo. They’re super yummy and moist and the cinnamon sugar coating is a nice addition, although I suppose if you want to be super healthy about it, you could leave it off.  And, I also suppose you could substitute pumpkin if your mind’s set on it…

Warm Sweet Potato Muffins with Cinnamon Sugar Coating (courtesy of Cuisine at Home)

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Chicken Noodle Soup


I spent a very fun weekend in Texas and if I thought I could replicate the yummy bbq from Salt Lick, I’d do it post-haste.  Unfortunately I was too busy debating whether it would be appropriate to move to Austin just for ribs (people have moved for sillier reasons, right?) and didn’t pay enough attention to how the deliciousness was made, so you’ll have to trust me on this one or make a trip down there.

I was lucky enough to bring back some very style-y cowboy boots, but also seemed to have brought back a bit of a cold that wasn’t enough to knock me out completely, but just enough to annoy me and curse the coughing lady next to me on the plane.  Normally when I have a cold I crave tuna (don’t ask, because I really can’t explain it), but the stuffy nose and scratchy throat were crying out for chicken noodle soup.  Now, I’m a Campbell’s girl all the way when it comes to these things. 

When you’re sick, fancy soups can’t beat the comfort found in that red and white can.  Whenever I was home from school with a cold (or more likely strep throat which I got ALL THE TIME), my mom would tuck me under the covers on the sofa so I could watch tv, surround me with my favorite stuffed animals and heat up that condensed chicken noodle goodness.  Other soups she’d make from scratch, but for some reason every mom knows that few things can beat Campbell’s in a pinch.

Admittedly, making it for myself is not as comforting, but it did make me feel better.  As I sat on the sofa watching terrible television (where’s a good Lifetime movie when you need it??), I started thinking whether I could make my own version.  Why I feel the need to try to recreate foods that are perfectly fine already is a question I ask myself repeatedly, but what else would I write about if I didn’t? 

Also, I’m sure there are many grandmothers out there who have a tried and true chicken noodle soup recipe that would put my efforts to shame–one that involves boiling chickens and making stock and chopping vegetables–but when you’re sick and in need of food, that’s the kind of energy you just don’t have (if any of you would like to let me borrow your grandmother next time I have the sniffles, holla!). 

I basically roasted some chicken breasts, cooked up some pasta and threw it all into my Le Creuset to simmer with onions, carrots and broth.  As someone who really believes in the stirring and watching and checking, this couldn’t have been easier and–surprisingly–tastier.  No, I really didn’t think it would all come together (I rarely, if ever, cook anything without a recipe), but it did and in about 45 minutes (roasting the chicken took about 40 minutes, in which time you could put everything else together).

So while I can’t say I’ll forsake Campbell’s next time I’m sick, this is a hearty substitute when condensed versions just aren’t cutting it.  Let’s hope I make it through winter without any need for either (knock on wood)…

Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 2 large chicken breasts, roasted (or baked) and chopped into bite size pieces
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced
  • 2 cups frozen crinkle cut carrots
  • 3 14.5 ounce cans of chicken broth
  • 1 box bowtie pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

While chicken is roasting (about 15 minutes before it’s done), heat olive oil in stock pan and add onion, sautéing until tender.  Add chicken broth and carrots, bring to a boil and then reduce heat so it’s simmering. 

In separate pot, cook pasta according to package directions, but undercook by about 2 minutes (I originally thought of cooking the pasta in the chicken broth, but didn’t have enough broth to cover all of the pasta.  I think it might work. Try it and let me know!). 

Add chopped chicken to broth, then drain and add pasta (it will finish cooking in the broth).  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot (and preferably with a good movie).

Lamb Burgers


How many women–with a combined 5 degrees, 4 languages and  having lived on 3 different continents–does it take to turn on a grill?  As I learned last week, it takes 4 women and 2 incredibly amused men.  I’m pretty sure that we could have figured it out on our own, but as soon as we looked the least bit confused these lovely men rushed over to impress us with their cooking over open fire prowess.  So, technically, we never really had a chance to even try to do it ourselves.  We could have! Maybe… Possibly… Moving on.

Anyhoo.  Three friends and I have decided that we need time away from the masses every once in awhile to hang out with each other and catch up on life’s big and small events over copious amounts of food and wine.  It started with a delicious Greek dinner in March, followed by a traditional Spanish dinner in April and then we sort of fell off the bandwagon due to schedules and well, all of those big and small life events.  But last week, the sun was shining, we were all in the same place for once and it was the perfect chance to sit outside, drink Cava and talk while watching the sun go down. 

L (of New Orleans fame) pretends she can’t actually cook, but in the half hour she had between work and our arrival, she made it to Whole Foods where she sweet talked the butcher into grinding up some fresh lamb, put together the tastiest–and most creative–lamb patties, sliced up some challah and created a beautiful summer salad. Any woman who can do that in 30 minutes, plus have sparkling beverages chilling, should call herself a chef extraordinaire.

The surprise of the burgers was that she mixed curry and cumin in, so there was a bit of a kick to the otherwise subtle flavor of the meat.  We topped them with a bit of whole grain mustard and feta crumbles (which kind of cooled things down nicely) and truly–grill ignorance aside–they were perfect: moist, juicy and full of flavor.  Add them to your list of bbq must haves immediately.

So I am up next in the rotation of dinner.  Given our busy lives, it may be October before I get to host. Am taking suggestions… And! if you’re in the Chi, come out for this good food for a good cause event tomorrow (Thursday) night! I’ll be the one double fisting luscious drinks and delectable treats… Taste of the Nation: No Kid Hungry

Lamb Burgers

  • 1 lb ground lamb
  • 2 tablespoons (approx. to taste) curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • whole grain mustard
  • crumbled feta
  • challah buns

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  Form into mini burger patties.  Place on hot grill and cook for 3-5 minutes each side.  Top with cheese and mustard and place on buns.  Thank the cute guys for lighting your fire.  Ahem.

 

Guest Post: Making the Most of Farmers Markets–A Weeklong Menu


I’m excited to announce a new phase in Pestle Mortar’s life–the Guest Post.  I’ve asked a few foodie friends to send me their take on what’s going on in their culinary lives, whether it be where they’ve dined lately, what’s cooking in their kitchen or what tasty trends they’re seeing in their city.  If you’re interested in doing your own guest post, drop me a line at pestlemortar@sbcglobal.net or leave a note in the comment section. 

The first guest post comes from my best gal, Rachel, who is a high powered executive in NYC by day and loving wife and amazing mama by night.  Rachel tells us how she keeps her family well fed for a week by some creative shopping at the local farmers market followed by some stellar prep and planning (and even includes some variation for picky eaters–kids or otherwise).  Even I, Ms. Procrastination 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 (I had a really productive 2009!), could do this.  On the menu this week: Seared Spicy Scallops, Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad, Pork Chops with Fennel, Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon and Fish and Greens.  Don’t you wish you were at her house tonight?

The Family That Eats Together…

Growing up, all the important decisions in my family were made in the kitchen. That’s because we spent a lot of time there, seated at a table for two. After ballet class, swim practice, rehearsal, work, my mom and I sat down together for dinner every day. Those week-night dinners we assembled were never fancy – pastas, fried chicken, stir fries, fish cakes, tuna casserole. They were the working class meals of a single Mom in the 70’s and early 80s. But they were a time for us to slow down together. To talk about our days. To connect.

I think those dinners saved me from a life of bad choices. (I had to sit down, look my mother in the eye, and recount each day). They enriched me with a feeling of community and gave me routine. As an adult, they sustain me with memory. Now that I am a mom, delighting in my five-year old son’s food revelations and my 6-month old daughter’s brand new love of avocado, I insist upon a home cooked meal. Every night. Together. My commitment to putting homemade food on the table each night for my family of four, however, extends beyond my insistence upon dinner as family time. It is also driven by my obsession with cooking organic food that is grown locally. 

When I was pregnant with my son, I began buying food that was organic and local. It cost a bit more. It took more time — one trip to the farmers market and one to my local market. But five years and another child later, I have never looked back. Living on a single income here in New York City means that my husband and I are a family on a budget, but our weekly food bill is a constant, set amount that I carve out as a known quantity. It is simply too important—for my kids and for our world. 

The other challenge is that I work full time, commuting on the F Train home each night. I get home late, and set in sail a tight ship of family dinner, bath time, stories, and bed. It can be hectic around here, but every night I sit down, hear about my five-year old’s day, feed my daughter, and catch up with my husband over something we’ve put together quickly after gathering it up from local farmers the weekend before. 

So here is how we do it: 

1. Hunt and gather: Every Sunday, my son, daughter, and I walk to the farmers market to pick up meat, eggs, fish, and vegetables. What I find there sets our menu for the week. I am extremely lucky to live in Brooklyn, where the farmers markets are yearlong. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching my son talk to the upstate farmers who grow our greens, catch our fish, and raise our cows. 

2. Make a menu based on what you find there: This week, the meat guys had nice flank steak and the fishermen sold us lovely scallops and a healthy piece of white fish. I figure that’s three of our five meals. Stunning chard, a gorgeous bunch of red onions, ripe cherry tomatoes, and a perfect fennel bulb also caught my eye. The chard will do nicely with the fish, the tomatoes will be part of a salad for the steak, and that fennel will work with some pork chops I’ll pick up at the market. Throw in pasta and I’ve got the week covered. 

3. Forage for the rest of your week: After the farmers market, we jump in the car and go to Fairway, which is a New York market that is like dying and going to food heaven. Here we gather up pork to cook with the fennel, some pasta (with a good-looking bunch of asparagus), and other staples for the week. Fairway is right on the ocean, so we always grab a bagel at Fairway’s ocean-side bakery and take a stroll along the water, too. 

The recipes I’ve created for this week can each be put together in less than 15 minutes. They include seasonal ingredients you can find at your local farmers market right now (as well as a few from your supermarket). They don’t cost a fortune. They are healthy, local, and lend themselves to variations for your toddler or big kid. 

Like everything else in my shining, new life as a parent of two, food is novel and very fun. I aim to sustain that belief through every eating age. One farmers market and one week-night dinner at a time.

Monday:  Seared Spicy Scallops

Tuesday: Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad

Wednesday: Pork Chops with Fennel

Thursday: Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon

Friday: Fish and Greens

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