Archive for February, 2009

Baking Fail

Tonight was one of those illustrations of why I should stay far, far away from jobs where important outcomes hinge on my ability complete a task correctly the first time I try. At the very least, not until I get my sleep difficulties under control. Grad school combined with a significant other living 3 times zones west of me makes it difficult for me to manage my DSPS. So it’s a good thing I’m not in, say, medical school. Fortunately sleep deprivation actually aids my non-linear creative endeavors, so being in a species of “design” program works out well.

I also ramble when I’m sleep-deprived, maybe you’ve noticed? The point is I tried to make this gem from my trusty Better Homes and Gardens called “brownie pudding cake” but I forgot to put in baking powder, the recipe’s only leavening agent. Turns out unleavened brownie pudding cake bears no resemblance to brownies, or pudding, or cake. The watery liquid on top of the doughy bottom layer did bear some resemblance to crappy hot cocoa.

I should probably leave the baking for days when I am a little more well-rested.

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Roasted Butternut Squash with Herbes de Provence

I think somewhere in undergrad I forgot about squash. I just don’t remember ever eating squash in the dining hall. Granted, most of their vegetables dishes were overcooked and underflavored, but you’d think that at least winter squash would have showed up because it’s hard to overcook unless you flat-out burn it, and doesn’t need much more than butter to be wonderfully tasty. And yet, no.

So now here I am learning to cook squashes for myself and rediscovering how much I love them. My mother makes a dish she simply calls “winter squash,” (complemented by her equally delicious “summer squash”) that is just butternut squash, roasted and then mashed with butter. It is so. good. But I am too lazy to stand around mashing squash, and we don’t have a proper mashing utensil anyway. So I hadn’t tried to tackle butternut squash until this weekend.

This dish actually began when I had a craving for baked zucchini. But as I learned at the grocery store, out-of-season zucchini is very, very sad and clearly not worth eating. So I picked up a butternut squash instead. I figured, if herbes de provence are tasty with root vegetables (and they are), surely they will also be good with squash. It turns out I was right, but eating it did remind me that butternut squash is awfully good with nothing but butter and elbow grease.

Ingredients

1 butternut squash, cubed and peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons dried herbes de provence
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 medium onions, each cut into 8 wedges
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place first 6 ingredients in a shallow roasting pan coated with cooking spray; toss well. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the squash bakes, stir together the breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and 3 tablespoons olive oil in a bowl; season with salt and pepper. Spread evenly over the squash and return to oven 10 minutes more or until tender and lightly browned.

Notes

The most important thing here is to cut the butternut squash safely. You really need a good chef’s knife and most likely a rubber mallet. There are good directions here. If you can’t or won’t deal with the chopping, you could probably cut the squash in half, put the olive oil and seasoning in the hollowed-out halves, roast the halves and sprinkle the topping partway through.

I just straight-up transferred the breadcrumb/parmesan/olive oil mixture from the zucchini to the squash. Parmesan may not be the most obvious paring with squash, but I am firmly in favor of more cheese where possible, so I added it. I think it worked pretty well. It also adds a nice bit of texture contrast to the soft squash.

But if I ever get some kind of mashing appliance, mashed with butter the squash will be. I guess I could try whacking at it with a wooden spoon, but like I said, lazy. Or maybe use the (well-scrubbed) rubber mallet? hm…

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Chicken Piccata

I am tired and just spent 90 seconds standing in front of an on but empty microwave before realizing I forgot to put my cup in it to heat, but I really do want to keep up the blog, so here is a link to a recipe that is already basically perfect, on one of my favorite recipe blogs, Simply Recipes.

Chicken piccata is another of those simple and delicious staple recipes. The basic ingredients are all parts of my regular pantry stock, though I’ll admit I keep the capers around almost exclusively for the sake of this and tuna salads.

It’s even what I made to eat this week, along with a butternut squash dish that I might post when I have had a little more sleep.
Go try it.

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What I’m Eating: Honey-Lime Chicken

This recipe is incredibly simple and tasty. It’s really this recipe but I added less chili powder and more lime juice, so the lime is a little more of a dominant flavor. If chili is your thing, you could always change the proportions back.

Ingredients

1 tablespoons chili powder (not pure chile powder)
1 tablespoon mild honey
2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 whole chicken legs (2 lb), thighs and drumsticks separated

Preparation

Put oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat oven to 425°F. Line bottom of a 15- by 10-inch shallow baking pan with foil and set an oiled large metal rack in pan.

Stir together chili powder, honey, lime juice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl, then add chicken and turn to coat completely.

Transfer chicken to rack, arranging in 1 layer, then bake, turning over once, until cooked through, 30 to 35 minutes.

Notes

I made this with just chicken thighs, since I bought a giant package of frozen chicken thighs on sale a few weeks ago. It works just as well. You could make it with chicken breasts, too, or boneless skinless chicken thighs if that’s your thing, just reduce the cooking time by about 10 minutes. I might also marinate the chicken breasts for an hour or so to keep them moist.

I really recommend keeping the skin on the chicken, though, because it turns out nice and crispy.

I also highly recommend actually following the direction to line the pan with foil. I didn’t, and I also didn’t put the chicken on a wire rack in the pan. It worked out fine for me because I used a glass baking dish, but if it hadn’t been glass I would never have gotten the charred sugar residue off. I don’t know if you have ever seen seriously burned sugar, but it is some nasty stuff. Delicious as a light crisp coating on the chicken, disgusting when it is coating your pan.

Speaking of burnt sugar, I read an article once about historical ideas about nutrition and health, about how the way European people ate changed in the middle of the 17th century–well, the way wealthy people ate, which spread with the rise of the middle class etc etc. Before about 1650, medieval people’s ideas about health were taken from Aristotle’s four humors, corresponding to his four elements. Food also had various properties tied to the Aristotelian elements, and imbalances of the humors could be corrected or prevented by eating the right kinds of foods. People ate a lot of grain-based dishes that tried to combine all the ideal foods for a particular condition or lifestyle into one — for example, blancmange, which was a stewish sort of dish made of rice and shredded chicken, and flavored with both savory spices and sugar, was supposed to be very good for a particular kind of imbalance.

But then a few chemists (or whatever they were calling themselves in 1650, I think some were physicians too) got the idea to burn foods to try and find out what they were made of. They found that most food separated into three parts: a light, vaporous liquid, a thick oily substance, and a solid part, the three “essences” of food. Physicians developed a new theory about the roles of these three essences in health.

They also found that when you burn sugar, it turns into a gross sticky black mess. They believed that this black mess was a major source of disease, and many recommended that no one should ever eat sugar. So as the ways people prepared food shifted in response to the new ideas about healthy eating, sugar was eliminated from main dishes, and concentrated into optional post-meal dishes: dessert.

Also, all this was part of the Enlightenment and started in France, which is when France began its reputation as a major culinary center of Europe. Shops began to sell the new health food to middle class people who could not afford to have their own private chefs, and that’s the origin of “restaurants,” from the French for “restorative.”

And that is sort of a long digression but I find this kind of thing fascinating. People have had highly developed ideas about the connection between food and health for a long time, and a lot of it seems very silly now. I expect that 400 years from now people will look back at things like the Atkins diet, or the idea that in order to be healthy people should eat mainly salad, or avoid all salt or one particular sort of fat with this or that chemical structure, and make fun of how superstitious and dumb we were. Plus, you know, there are all sorts of historical trends tied up in that shift, and it’s really interesting to me to see how much of what we are familiar with today is related.

Also, because I believe in citing my sources, I totally found the article online (pdf link). There’s an excerpt from another article about the same topic here, (another pdf) and finally, a book about it. The nerds in the audience may appreciate my effort on their behalf.

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What I’m Eating: Quinoa with Lime and Vegetables

I’ve neglected you again, recipe blog! At first I was just going to take a break during my winter school break, and then, well, I didn’t post again.

BUT, I just finished cooking this awesome quinoa dish, and now I’m going to blog about it. If you’re not familiar with quinoa, it’s a South American grain (technically a pseudocereal because the plant isn’t a grass, but who’s counting) that is full of fiber and vitamins and has a complete protein and is also super tasty. I am not usually much into the “superfoods” idea, but quinoa is basically a superfood. It won’t satisfy my not-infrequent cravings for dairyfat (sometimes I really, really, need a milkshake. Or else there will be stabbings), but otherwise I probably could live on quinoa and very little else. Literally, it would provide most of your nutritional needs, not in that hyperbole way when people claim they’d never get tired of a food.

Also did I mention that it tastes delicious? Yet somehow I never seem to find successful ways to cook it. My college dining hall actually used to make this great dish that was basically just quinoa flavored with herbs, and it had a great fluffy texture, but I guess I usually add too much water or cook it too long, because mine always seems just a bit soggier and not as flavorful. It might also make a difference that the dining hall used red quinoa, and I can usually only find the white kind, if any. But enough about my troubles with quinoa, on to the recipe!

I used the dressing from this recipe but cooked the quinoa the normal way and substituted vegetables that I like better. The lime juice is a great complement to the mild, nutty quinoa.

Ingredients

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
2 teaspoons grated lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup chopped carrot
1/2 green pepper, chopped
4 scallions, chopped

Preparation

Soak the quinoa for about 20 minutes, then strain and rinse until water is very clear. The rinsing is very important, as the outer coating of quinoa is made of bitter saponin.

Bring the water to a boil, then add quinoa, cover tightly and reduce heat. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Whisk together lime zest, juice, butter, vegetable oil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl.

Saute onions in 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat, when they’ve just begun to brown, add carrots and green pepper and saute until tender but still firm.

When quinoa is done, add to dressing and stir until it’s absorbed. Add sauteed vegetables and scallions.

Notes

I actually used a little bit of olive oil and a little bit of vinegar instead of generic vegetable oil, because I love olive oil but I didn’t want it to compete with the lime, and I was also worried about not having enough lime juice–I just squeezed half a lime and hoped, so I thought the vinegar would help keep the flavor bright. I think it turned out great.

This could easily be a vegetarian main dish, particularly if you added some more vegetables or the black beans of the original recipe to give it a little more substance. As I made it, it definitely has the feeling of a side dish, and I’ll be eating it with the honey lime chicken recipe.

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