Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Let's Eat Carrots

I am completely in love with Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. It is a big, weighty cookbook, but without being too serious. Each time I open it, I feel as though Dorie has invited me into her kitchen and is cooking alongside me (this is also a fantasy of mine, but that is another story). It is one of those rare finds where I literally want to make every single recipe. Even better, the ones I have made have, without exception, turned out beautifully, and several are officially in my regular rotation.

This recipe, for Spiced Butter-Glazed Carrots, is one of my favorites. It happened by accident; I found myself with too many carrots and after looking at several cookbooks, I decided on this recipe. One of my favorite things about Around My French Table is that the pictures are gorgeous, showcasing the simple beauty of the food. Not highly stylized, but rather accessible and, well, homey. Being somewhat shallow, I nearly did not make this recipe because it is one of the few without a photograph to lure me in. Fortunately, Dorie's description sold me, and Spiced Butter-Glazed Carrots entered my life.

The spices, fresh ginger and cardamom, are infused into some butter with onions and just a little garlic (and I listened to Dorie and took her more modest approach to garlic than I often take). When everything is soft and fragrant, you add the carrots with some chicken stock and let everything get all warm and happy in the pan. After the carrots are soft, which doesn't take long at all, you take off the lid and let everything reduce and all of the flavor concentrate. You are left with delectably soft carrots with a sauce of fragrant and warm spices, and onions that are practically melted in just enough butter to be delicious without being heavy. It is comfort food at its finest.

This recipe is supposed to serve 6 people. As it turns out, my husband and I are carrot gluttons, because this served two of us, with us fighting over who had eaten more, who would get the last bite. If that is not the mark of a good side dish, I don't know what is. If you are a person who thinks you don't like carrots, please allow this to be the recipe that converts you (I'm talking to you, Carolyn!).

Spiced Butter-Glazed Carrots
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table

The cardamom is so special in this recipe that they shouldn't be skipped; if you don't have any, I encourage you to run out and buy some (sold in spice stores or in many bulk spice sections of supermarkets). To get the seeds out, simply smash the pods with the side of a knife, then pull out the dark seeds, and also crush them with the side of the knife.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon minced ginger, fresh or jarred
5 cardamom pods, seeds removed and lightly crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1.5 pounds carrots, sliced diagonally into 2-inch pieces
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the onion, ginger and cardamom seeds, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper, until the onion is translucent and soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, taking care not to let the garlic burn. Add the carrots and stir to coat them with the butter. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cover and let cook until the carrots are tender, but not mushy, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove the lid, and turn the heat up to high and cook until the broth is almost completely evaporated. All that should remain is the butter to glaze the carrots. Reseason with salt and pepper if necessary, and garnish with parsley leaves if desired.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Back Home, With Hummus and Porridge

Phew! February was a LOOONNNGGG and busy month, and the past few weeks have especially been a whirlwind. I spent President's Weekend in Florida with some close college girlfriends to celebrate the upcoming wedding of one friend. It was a spectacular weekend. Truly, I had such a great time with the girls, catching up, walking on the beach, and, of course, eating. There was a lot of Italian food: a delicious fresh squid ink pasta with calamari and a simple but lovely rigatoni al pomodoro.

We also had a lovely late lunch/happy hour at Taverna Opa! of Meze: grilled octopus, zuchhini sticks, grilled vegetables, and the MOST divine hummus that has ever graced my taste buds! I know, I'm swooning over hummus, but I swear, it was swoon-worthy. It was garlicky and lemony and the chickpeas still had some bite left in them. I am almost drooling as I type this!

I was home for two days, during which I recreated (pretty successfully) the hummus recipe twice. Yes, you read that correctly: for each night I was home I made a batch of hummus. It was a good couple of dinners, if I don't say so myself. With a belly full of garbanzos, I left for a work trip to Colorado for the weekend, where again I had the opportunity to spend the weekend with a close friend from Denver.

It was another great weekend, again filled with catching up and eating, only I traded out the beaches for the mountains. We skied, and both were impressed at the improvements in lunch options on the mountain: sushi, a great salad bar, fresh soups. It was a far cry from the burgers, pizza and chili we remembered from when we were kids. But the food memory that has stuck with me is again a rather strange one: Oatmeal and Polenta porridge from Avondale restaurant in Beaver Creek. It was creamy, hearty, and just the right amount sweet. I ate it every day I was there, and couldn't wait to recreate it as soon as I got home.

And now it is good to be home, with my husband, whom I missed dearly. It is good to wake up in the morning and go for a run with my dog, Lucy. It is nice to sleep in my own bed, and go to bed at my normal bedtime...which is apparently earlier than everyone I know as I stayed up WAY later than normal both weekends!

(My running partner, Lucy)

Vacations are a wonderful way to relax and recenter yourself. Spending quality with friends who I don't see often enough was an extra treat. And an added bonus is having two new recipes that will bring back the happy memories each time I make them.

Smashed Hummus

Because this recipe is so simple (it has just 5 ingredients), it is important to use high-quality ingredients. Make sure you use a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You really want that fruity flavor in the dish. I tried a few brands of garbanzo beans for this recipe, and Cento was my favorite. Not only did it taste better and mash better, but it had a nice yellow color, rather than a grayish hue that other brands had. The recipe below is based off of their 19-oz can, but if you use another brand in a 15-oz can, just reduce the garlic to 5 cloves and adjust the oil and salt as needed.

1 19-0z can Garbanzo beans, such as Cento, drained and thoroughly rinsed
6 garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped
Juice of 1 small or half of 1 large lemon
1/8 cup Extra Virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Pita bread, for serving

Using a mortar and pestle, grind and smash the garlic and salt so it is a pasty but still chunky. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can do this in a shallow bowl with the back of a spoon. Add the lemon juice, and smash it all up a bit more, so that all the flavors come together.

If your mortar is large enough, add the garbanzo beans to the garlic mixture; otherwise, do as I did and put them in a small bowl and add the garlic mixture to them. Continue to use the pestle to smash it all together. You want the beans to be broken up a bit. Add the olive oil and keep on smashing. If the pestle is unweildly in a bowl, switch to a spoon. You want most of the beans to be broken up, but still in chunks and not completely creamy.

At this point, you want to taste the hummus and see how it's doing. Once, I needed more garlic (you want a pretty strong garlic flavor), and another time it needed a touch more salt and olive oil. This is a very forgiving recipe, so be sure to taste it as you go and make sure you like it.

Allow it to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour before serving for the flavors to develop. Serve with toasted pita wedges, and garnish with parsley if desired.

Steel Cut Oat and Polenta Porridge

This is another recipe that delivers a lot of flavor - and health - with a few ingredients and very little work. The polenta adds a great sweetness and creamy texture to the oats, and flax seeds add not only heart-healthy omega 3's, but a little but of bit of bite.

1 cup steel cut oats
1/2 cup coarsely ground corn meal, such as Bob's Red Mill
4-5 cups of water
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 tablespoons Flax Seeds
Honey, to taste
Milk, for serving
Fruit, for serving (optional)
Toasted almond slices or walnuts for serving (optional)
Dried raisins or cranberries for serving (optional)

In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Slowly add the oats, stirring to combine. Slowly add the cornmeal, stirring until smooth. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure the corn meal stays smooth. Add more water as needed to thin it out if it is sticking to the pan and bubbling and shooting molten porridge at you.

Cook for about 15 minutes total, until the oats are pleasantly chewy and the texture is creamy but not runny. Stir in the flax seeds and honey. I used about 2 tablespoons, but add a little, taste, and add more as needed. (Remember: you can always add more, but you can't take away, so start small. That is one of my chef-husband's most useful mantras!)

Serve with milk and top with nuts, berries and/or dried fruit if desired.

This porridge keeps for a week or longer in the fridge. To reheat, add a little milk and heat in a saucepan for about 5 minutes or microwave for about 2 minutes, depending on serving size.

A New Tradition

Traditions are fascinating things. There are some that are born in a very, well, traditional, way. I have recipes that my mother makes and that her mother made before her: Thanksgiving stuffing, Marinara sauce and Caesar salad are some of my sacred family recipes. I know we all have a treasure trove of these. But then there are others that are born more organically, the ones that become our new traditions and our future grandchildren’s traditions. New Traditions sounds wrong, but how would any tradition become one if it were not at some point new? I’m reminded of the Velveteen Rabbit and his quest to become real: he was not inherently real, but with time and love he became real. Many recipes enter our lives, but only a select few make it through the years and are made your own, your traditions.

Molasses spice cookies are one of my new traditions. I stumbled upon the recipe in a cookie cookbook about ten years ago. I love gingerbread and gingersnaps, so these immediately appealed to me. I started making them one winter, then stopped until it was cold again the next year. (I love gingerbread and spices, but they definitely have their seasonal place.) I suppose it was the second or third season that I answered their siren song that they were officially part of my collection, and not just some passing recipe that I was temporarily enamored of. I began tweaking, adding fresh ginger, then crystallized ginger, and then deciding against the crystallized ginger after all. I was making it my own.

Somewhere along the way I acquired a molasses spice cookie bowl. It is a simple yellow melamine bowl with a pour spout, medium sized, likely the lone remainder of someone’s wedding set. It came to me from my roommate Brooke, whom I lived with after college, and didn’t make it to her new home with her when she got married. So I inherited the yellow bowl, at least its third owner, and this is the bowl I always use to make these cookies. They need to chill in the fridge, and I like that this bowl is not as heavy as a ceramic one, and since my fridge is always packed to the gills, I can stack this on something else without squishing anything.

One of my favorite things about these cookies is that you pretty much make them in a pot. I would not be very convincing if I told you other cookies are difficult, but these are really, really easy. They are good after school or work cookies and have less clean up than other kinds, and they make the house smell wonderfully of spices and warmth while they bake. Trust me: on a cold, dark winter evening, you want a batch of these warming up your home.

My husband and I love to eat them in the evening with a cup of rooibos tea with milk and sugar. It is a comforting way to spend an evening, the kind where weight disappears off of your shoulders. They are that kind of cookie, the forgetting-troubles kind, which is really the best kind of all. I suppose this is why Molasses Spice Cookies have been elevated from a good cookie to a tradition. I look forward to making them for my children and grandchildren, and hope that one day they, too, will end a long day with a cup of tea and a cookie.

Molasses Spice Cookies

These cookies need to chill for an hour in the fridge, but the good news is that once they’re in the fridge, you can leave them there and bake them a batch at a time if you really like warm-from-the-oven cookies. However, these last well and I think they taste better after a few days. I have used both dark unsulphured molasses as well as light, and both turned out well.

1.5 sticks butter, melted
2 teaspoons fresh ginger
¼ cup molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup sugar

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Once there is enough butter to coat the bottom of the pan, add the fresh ginger, and continue to stir and melt the butter. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses and vanilla. Allow to cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with 1 cup of sugar, the baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt.

Add the beaten egg to the cooled butter mixture. Whisk to combine. Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, stirring until all of the flour is combined. Press plastic wrap over the dough and up the sides of the bowl and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to work into balls, at least an hour or overnight (they will hold for up to a week in the fridge if you are making them ahead).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Put the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar in a small bowl. Scoop out tablespoon sized pieces and roll into balls. Roll the balls in the sugar to coat and place on the baking sheets about 1.5 inches apart.

Bake for about 14 minutes (a little less if you like them very soft or up to a minute or two longer if you like them crisp). Let cool for 5 minutes, then remove to racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for a few days, or freeze for a few weeks.

Yield about 48 cookies.