Friday, January 29, 2010

out of the winter doldrums

i have found this week, that aside from baking 79 red velvet cupcakes, what has snapped me out of the winter doldrums has been changing to a new weekly organic box. normally, i'm quite religious about getting the "dogme kasse," which contains exclusively danish-produced veggies. and although årstiderne, who provides our weekly box (they bring it right to our door on fridays), has gotten much better about the selection that box contains than they were when i first started it a couple of years ago, i will admit to being a bit overloaded on root veg and cabbage. so when they recently introduced a box that contains all you need for three full meals - meat, condiments, veg, even eggs (as you can see above) - i had to make the switch, at least for a few weeks, to get me over this winter slump.

the picture above (in the early morning pre-sunrise yellow light of my yellow kitchen) gives you an idea of what the box contains, tho' it's different every week. this week, the three kinds of meat (not pictured above) are an organic chicken breast (it's the whole thing, bone in and skin on, not like those watery chicken breasts you can buy bulk in the grocery store), tender beef cubes (perfect for a stir-fry or goulash) and some interesting fresh beef sausages. to go with them, we got three large sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, carrots, 7 onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, broccoli, two yellow peppers, brown mushrooms, a little container of dried figs, a lemon, a loaf of dense rye bread, organic quinoa, and half a dozen pretty brown eggs.

three recipes, which use the provided ingredients, come with the box as well. the recipes are designed to be made within about a half an hour-45 minutes, so they're quick without being fast food. that has been most helpful to me, as it has returned me to long-forgotten stir-frys and lifted me from my dinnertime rut. i haven't tried this week's recipes yet, as the box just arrived this morning, but i thought i'd share them with you.

panfried chicken breast and quinoa salad

1 organic chicken breast (on the bone)
black quinoa (1dl per person)
1 handful of dried figs
1-2 onions
1 yellow pepper
1 cucumber
1 small cabbage (mine is a spidskål - which is lighter than normal cabbage and pointed at the end, i don't know what it's called in english)
1/2 lemon
olive oil
salt & freshly ground pepper

measure 1 dl quinoa per person, but it's ok to cook a bit extra, as the salad tastes great the next day. rinse the quinoa in warm water. boil twice as much water as you have quinoa (4dl quinoa = 8dl water) and add the quinoa and a pinch of salt. put a lid on the pot and boil for 15 minutes. turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes.

take a paper towel and dry any excess moisture from the chicken breast, salt. heat a bit of olive oil in the pan and lay the breast in, skin side down, browning for about 10 minutes. turn it and fry for another 25-30 minutes (you'll need less time than this if you use ordinary chicken breasts, these times are if the bone is in). add a bit of water as it fries and put a lid on it to keep it moist. the chicken is done when the juices run clear when poked with a fork.

while the chicken is frying, cube the figs and onion, cucumber and yellow pepper. slice the cabbage into thin strips. 

mix together a dressing of lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil. if you have some fresh herbs around, you can add those. give it a bit of zing with the mustard and honey or chili.

mix the warm quinoa with your dressing and allow it to cool before adding the veggies and figs. 

serve the salad together with the simple chicken breast.

* * *

beef sauté with mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and peppers and sweet potato puré

1 package of beef in cubes
750 grams potatoes
1 large sweet potato
1-2 onions
1 package of mushrooms
3-4 carrots
1 yellow pepper
1 broccoli
1/2 lemon
olive oil
salt & freshly ground pepper

peel the two kinds of potatoes, cut them into similar-sized pieces and cook them in water until they are tender. 

dice the onions, cut the mushrooms in quarters and peel and slice the carrots into diagonal pieces. divide the broccoli and slice the stem into bite-sized pieces. slice the pepper into strips.

drain the potatoes, leaving just a bit of water and mash them. add salt, pepper and butter and a bit of milk to taste and to get the consistency you want. 

heat some oil in a pan and brown the meat. add the onions and mushrooms. when they are golden, add the carrots. turn down the heat and add the broccoli and pepper and sauté for 3-4 minutes before adding 1-2dl water. put a lid on and steam for 4-5 minutes, then add salt, pepper and a bit of lemon juice.

serve the beef with the potato mash. 

you could marinade the beef in a bit of soy or leftover red wine and olive oil and whatever herbs you have around. the recipe doesn't include that because they are trying to stick to what's provided in the box, but you can always use what's already in your larder.

* * *
beef sausages and potato tortilla

this is tortilla in the spanish sense, not the american one - so it's an omelette.

1 package of sausages
6 eggs
500 grams potatoes
1-2 onions
1 yellow pepper
handful of cherry tomatoes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

peel and dice the potatoes. heat up 2T olive oil in a pan and add the potaotes. fry them until they are golden and nearly done. in the meantime, dice the onions and pepper and add it to the potatoes when they're nearly done. fry until the onions and pepper and soft.

whisk the eggs with salt, pepper and a bit of water or milk. pour them over the potatoes, put a lid on and turn the pan down to low. cook them for 15-20 minutes. you can add some grated cheese on top if you like and have some at hand.

sauté the sausages until golden brown in another pan.

half the cherry tomatoes and scatter them over the top of the tortilla before serving. serve with a slice of rye bread.

* * *

the omelette is actually one of those standards i make at least once a week because everyone around here loves it and it's an easy dinner. when i make it, i generally throw in some chorizo and i would put the sausages in this one as well, rather than serving them on the side, but either way, an omelette is a solid winter dinner. i usually top ours with undressed mixed leaves or baby spinach to have a bit of green.

even if you don't have a service in your area that will bring your dinner ingredients to your door, i hope you find a bit of inspiration in these. i'll add some photos to this post as i make the dinners this week.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

red velvet goodness

it's birthday weekend around our house for a certain almost 9-year-old (the actual b-day is tomorrow), so i'm working on my second  batch of red velvet cupcakes. i made the first batch, thinking the child would want to take some to her saturday and sunday riding lessons, but when it came down to it, she was so afraid they would sing to her or that someone would think she was bringing treats because she fell off the last time (which you must do), she refused to let us take the cupcakes along. in the end, we didn't really mind, because that meant there were more for us.

we had an extensive discussion around here as to the completely wrongheaded labeling of these cupcakes as muffins. that discussion extended to twitter, where it was agreed by those in the know, that these are indeed cupcakes. muffins, in some sense, purport to be healthy, whereas these red velvety little fellas are pure sin and have no redeeming nutritional value. if the frosting has nearly 500grams of butter in it, it's not a muffin. in fact, if it has frosting, in my book, it's not a muffin (a lemony glaze doesn't count as frosting).

now we're making a second batch of them since there are no longer enough left for the child to take to school tomorrow to share with her class. the recipe below makes 40 cupcakes. there are about a dozen left, but there are 20 in her class, so that's not enough. it seems that with teenagers around the house, you can go through a lotta cupcakes.

red velvet cupcakes

3-1/2 cups of flour
3/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
6 T red food coloring
3 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1-1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 C buttermilk
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 recipe creamy vanilla frosting (below)

preheat your oven to 175°C/350°F. prepare your muffin tins by lining with cupcake papers.

in a small bowl, sift the flour  and baking powder and set aside. in the large bowl of your electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. in  a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, vanilla and cocoa. add to the batter and beat well.

in a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. add to the batter in three parts alternating with the flour. with each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat. using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are blended and smooth.

divide the batter among the prepared pans. bake for 15-20 minutes. remove them from the tins and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

creamy vanilla frosting

as i have written on this one, "this frosting is da bizness." i used to use a martha stewart buttercream, but this one just behaves so beautifully and tastes so divine that i use it now for all my cakes. i think i found it originally on, but i'm not actually sure anymore, as it's one of those i've hand-written into a little notebook.

6 T flour
2 C milk
2 C butter, softened
2 C sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

in a medium-sized saucepan, whisk the flour into the milk until smooth. place over medium heat and, while stirring constantly, cook until the mixture becomes thick and begins to bubble (10-15 minutes). cover with waxed paper, placed directly on the surface, and cool to room temperature. this takes about 30 minutes.

using your electric mixer, beat the butter for 3 minutes until it's creamy and smooth. gradually add the sugar, beating continuously until it's fluffy. add the vanilla and beat well.

add the cooled, cooked milk mixture and continue to beat on high speed for 5 minutes, until it's very smooth and noticeably whiter in color. i used organic sugar, which isn't very white and if you whip long enough, it becomes quite white anyway. cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

put it in a piping bag and pipe it onto the well-cooled cupcakes (or use a knife and spread it - i just think it looks prettier if you pipe it on). sprinkle with the sprinkles of your choice.

a note on measurements: we discussed extensively at blog camp the conversion of american cups into grams and vice versa. we have discovered that there are vast differences in the weights of flour especially, so we're going to provide the recipes in their original measurements, rather than doing any conversion. i recommend googling a converter and using your best cooking judgement. that, and get your hands on some US measuring cups. lots of recipes out there use the american measurements, so you won't go wrong owning your own set, no matter where you live. we'll be putting some links to some of the converters we've used along the sidebar, but trust your own good cooking instincts. you surely know your own ingredients best.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In a rut

The pot is empty; the cupboard is bare.
Frankly, I'm in a rut here.

The other night, it was just me and my older daughter for dinner -- so I decreed that we would eat left-overs.
(Mostly I was being thrifty, although I do admit that there was some small measure of laziness involved.)

There is nothing to eat, she wailed.
Not so, I countered.  We have chicken tortellini soup, lentil/bacon soup and bolognese sauce
But I've already eaten those millions of times, she said (with typical teenage exaggeration).  I'm sick of soup!  It doesn't even count as food anymore.

Although my daugther lost the battle, and eventually had to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of chicken soup, I did (secretly) acknowledge that her complaint had some validity.  It's true; I do seem to be making too much soup these days.  I'm definitely in a cooking rut.

It's a January thing, I think.  First of all, I am sick of cooking after the Christmas excesses.  Second, I am sick of eating; nothing really sounds good.  Third, there is not much seasonal food around to inspire me.  We have all eaten our weight in clementines this winter, and I feel sort of jaded about most of the other produce.

I've signed up for a Thai cookery course this February, but meanwhile, I'm racking my brain as to what I can make for dinner tonight.

What's tasting good to you these days?

Monday, January 11, 2010

cooking mojo, where have you gone?

the holidays were hard on my desire to cook. all that frenzy of preparation leading to just a few meals, it can really take the inspiration right out of you. and it doesn't help that it all happens in this dark, dismal time of year, does it? so how to get back the mojo in the kitchen after the holidays? i've been asking myself that for more than a week. i asked myself last monday, when we went out to dinner at our favorite local restaurant. i asked myself that last tuesday, when i wasn't feeling well and let my family fend for themselves. i asked myself that last wednesday when i made a simple risotto because it felt like the only thing my stomach would accept...anyway, you get the idea.

it wasn't until friday evening, when husband's teenage daughters were each bringing a friend and i suddenly had to cook for more than three people again that i began to feel interested in being in the kitchen again. i started with a faithful standby, nigel slater's coq au riesling. the smell of browning chicken rising from the pan began to awaken my sleeping cooking mojo and it came back in earnest when i tossed in the garlic and a leek and that smell began to fill the air. when i opened the fridge and gazed upon all that winter veg - read: cabbage, and thought, "i can make a delicious salad of this, some chopped macadamias and one of those grapefruit," that i knew it was coming back.

summer cooking is easy, but winter is harder. all those root vegetables staring at you from the bottom drawer. what to do with them? how to keep it interesting night after night, especially if your husband isn't that fond of soup. and how on earth do you top the goodness of the holiday meals and go back to boring, everyday fare again?

one way, for me, has been to adapt an idea i used at christmas to my more everyday cooking. for christmas, i had ordered a duck and a pork roast from the årstiderne, the folks who bring my weekly organic box. they come in really nice styrofoam boxes, together with ice and so rather than opening them up and disturbing this, i just set them in the outdoor refrigerator, without looking at them. when it came time to open them up and prepare them for the christmas dinner, i discovered that the pork roast was a whole lot smaller than i had imagined it to be and i was suddenly worried that we didn't have enough food. after an initial moment of panic, i turned to nigella's christmas, my go-to book for festive meals. there, i found a rolled stuffed loin of pork.

although i didn't have a loin, it was a thick roast and we were able to open it up and put a modified version of nigella's delicious stuffing inside.

125 grams bacon (i had a large hunk that i cubed up myself, rind and all, rather than using sliced bacon)
3 shallots, peeled and halved
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 T fresh thyme leaves
handful of dried cranberries
generous handful of salted almonds
3 T olive oil

throw all of these ingredients into the food processor and whiz it up into a thick paste. spread it on your meat, fold it up and wrap the meat in sliced bacon. this really helped against the pork roast becoming dry and boring as they sometimes do.

and ever since, i've been addicted to variations of this stuffing. we used it in a beef roast - minus the wrapping in bacon part and with rosemary instead of thyme - for new year's (i will use less cranberries next time i use it with beef, they were slightly too sweet) and i just used it to stuff a couple of pork tenderloins on saturday, using parsley instead of thyme, since my thyme is under the snow at the moment. it's versatile and flavorful and keeps the meat juicy and delicious. on new year's, we took a bit of our cake over to the neighbor's house and were asked to stay for a drink, so our beef roast ended up in the oven for longer than i would have liked. if it hadn't been stuffed with this, it would have been dry, boring and overdone, but because it was stuffed, it was meltingly tender, infused with rosemary and the smokiness of the bacon and just delicious.

so the next time you're standing before a potentially boring roast, whiz up a batch of this and watch your cooking (and eating) mojo return. but do be sure to roast some of those root vegetables beside it, you wouldn't want to let them go to waste - just pour in a bit of apple cider with them and a drizzle of honey and a few sprigs of your thyme or rosemary and pop them into the oven. they'll be the perfect accompaniment to your roast.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday morning pancakes

Last night we had a drip in the ceiling over the sink, and I lay awake fretting about it.  I kept getting up to check how quickly it was filling up the silver bowl that I had left under it . . . and I had terrible visions of waking to find that the kitchen ceiling had collapsed under the weight of water.*  My husband is out of town, the roof is rimmed with icicles, and our driveway is one big drift of snow -- despite my shovelling efforts.  Suddenly winter doesn't seem so cozy.

While I couldn't sleep, I kept thinking about pancakes.
Pancakes with melting butter and warm maple syrup.  Hot coffee on the side.

Sitting in my kitchen in the darkish dawn, as I drank endless cups of tea and monitored the drip of water (wondering how early I could call my builder-friend), I flipped through The Little House Cookbook -- which has not just one, but two recipes for pancakes.  One of the recipes is for the buckwheat pancakes that Alamanzo and Royal Wilder ate, plate after towering plate, during The Long Winter.  The other recipe is for the "pancake men" that Laura ate as a small child in The House of the Big Woods.  This one is a buttermilk batter, and you are advised to take a chunk of salt pork and grease up your (presumably cast iron) griddle.  Although both recipes made for interesting reading, I decided to stick with my tried-and-true recipe for pancakes.  It's an old family friend, and I felt more like comfort than experimentation after a largely sleepless night.

Pancake (or Waffle) Batter

2 cups of flour (approximately 320 grams)
1/3 cup sugar (68 grams)
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

16 ounces milk (450 ml)
2 large eggs
2 ounces butter (34 ml)
a dash of vanilla (not necessary, but I usually add it)

Sift together the dry ingredients.  Then pour the milk, beaten eggs and melted butter over the top.
Lightly whisk until everything is well-incorporated, but don't worry about a few lumps.  You don't want to overbeat this.

My mother uses an electric griddle to make pancakes, but I use a nonstick pan on the stove-top. You can make pancakes of any size, obviously, but a 1/4 cup scoop makes a medium-large pancake.

When the pancake begins forming bubbles that are just starting to pop, it is time to turn it.  You can lift it up with a spatula and take a peek . . . it should be a golden brown color.  If it sticks, it's not quite ready.

Making pancakes is not exactly an art, but there are a few tricks to the process.  I always use nonstick pans, but I butter them lightly at first -- more for the flavor than anything else.  One of my pans cooks faster than the other one, and one browns more evenly.  I have a gas stovetop, and I keep it at medium-low flame for pancakes . . . but sometimes I will need to turn the heat down slightly after the pan thoroughly heats up.  Your pans and burners will have their own idiosyncrasies, so just use your own good judgment!

I added some chopped pecans to the batter just after I poured it.  Fresh blueberries or raspberries also make a good add-in.

*It turned out that the overflow from our water tank was freezing up, which caused it to back up.  We had to get a new ball valve.  Thank goodness for builder friends!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Meatball Stew

Yesterday I stopped by the grocery store and it looked like pre-Christmas shopping all over again.  Everyone must have run out of food at the same time, I joked to the cashier, and she said, I think that people must be stocking up for the snow.  Snow, really?  It was bitterly cold, but the sky was blue.  But just to be on the safe side, I decided to get the ingredients for one of my favorite warming meals:  meatball stew.

We are now in the middle of a month-long cold snap, and so are many other places.  As much as we might long for healthier food after the holiday excesses, the weather calls for something rib-sticking.  I think this recipe is a nice compromise, as it is full of vegetables and fairly low in fat, but still so savoury and filling.

This recipe has been in my family for ages, and I've already shared it in From the Desk of Bee Drunken back in October 2008, but as I make it every winter, I think it's time to dust it off again.

Meatball Stew
Make small (3/4 inch) meatballs out of the following:

1 1/2 lb/675 grams ground chuck (or good mince)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 ounces seasoned bread crumbs
Or, if you live in England, just buy two or three packages of Organic meatballs from Waitrose -- they are ideal.

Saute one clove of garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Remove garlic and brown the meatballs in the flavored oil.
Place the meatballs in a casserole dish with a lid (I use my Le Creuset) that is burner/oven proof.

Add the following:

16 oz/500 ml tomato sauce/passata
32 oz/1 liter water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
1-2 beef boullion cubes, or a couple of teaspoons of Marmite

Cover and cook on top of low heat for 30 minutes. Then place in an oven at 325F/165C for 30 minutes. After this two-part process, you can add the following vegetables:

4 medium potatoes, cubed
3 or 4 carrots, sliced
3 or 4 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
1 large onion, roughly chopped

(As this is a stew, the vegetable amounts should be thought of as a rough guide.  I tend to add more, rather than less.)

Cook in oven until vegetables are tender. Approximately 45 minutes should do it, but sometimes the potatoes will need a bit longer.
Serve with french bread or corn bread.

This stew can be made ahead, and like most stews, it is actually better the next day.
Even if, like me, your refrigerator is way too small to hold a Le Creuset and so you use "outside air conditioning" to keep it chilled overnight.

As you can see, the snow did indeed arrive.
And after my children play in it all morning, a bowl of warm-up meatball stew is going to taste so good!


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