Food To Warm Your Bones: Soup, Pizza, Bread, and Brownies

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Soup, pizza, bread, and brownies. With a seemingly never-ending blizzard going on outside, really—what more do you need?

(Please don’t say bourbon or wine or a Dark & Stormy, because I’m on Day 23 of Sober January, and I am determined to make it to Day 31.)

Anyway, back to the food. When I asked my husband if he wanted me to make anything special for blizzard weekend, he replied with an enthusiastic “Bread! Make bread! Please please please!”

The bread he’s referring to is this, a perfectly round boule with a dense, crisp crust and soft, chewy interior. Hot out of the oven, it is exactly what you want when you’re trying to defrost yourself after several hours of shoveling. The dough is actually the easiest thing to put together, and takes about five minutes since there’s no kneading involved. As I was gathering the flour, yeast and salt, I figured I might as well make pizza dough. Bring on the carbs!

The pizza dough requires minimal kneading, and it also takes almost no time to prepare—if you have a food processor.  I highly recommend that you use bread flour if you’re making pizza or bread. You get a much crisper crust and a wonderfully airy, chewy center.

Making pizza from scratch is like creating a blank canvas on which to paint your dinner. You could go traditional and use tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, or your could try something different. My best pizzas have been inspired by the leftovers in my fridge.

That pizza you see in the picture?  I cooked a batch of beans in my slow cooker last Sunday and had about a cup left in the refrigerator. Beans on a pizza? I’ve heard weirder. Herbed, creamy white beans are a natural fit with garlic, so I lopped the tops off two bulbs, roasted them, then mashed the cloves into a paste. As for cheese, I had three to choose from: chevre, Pecorino and mozzarella. Pecorino has the salty-tangy-pow of flavor that really punches up the beans and garlic. I finished with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a smattering of kosher salt. Voi-la: a classy, photogenic and mostly importantly DELICIOUS dinner. This is a pizza you can have on its own, or if you’re feeling more virtuous you can have a slice with a green salad or bowl of soup…

Soup! Of course—what could be more perfect on a cold, blustery, blizzardy day?  This one was entirely improvised, and I built the recipe around two ingredients: beluga lentils and lascinato kale.  What’s funny is that both these foods sound so much fancier than they actually are. Beluga lentils are petite black lentils that, like the French green lentils, maintain their shape and texture well in soups. Bonus: they don’t require nearly as long to cook. Lascinato kale, (or Dinosaur kale, or black kale) is my favorite of the kales. It has this unique pebbly texture, it keeps in the fridge for weeks, and the leaves are so versatile. I find they’re more tender than regular curly kale, so they work equally well in salads, soups and sautes.

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Here’s the recipe for the soup. Keep in mind I used the seasonings and vegetables I had on hand, but you can use whatever you like. Cumin, coriander and garam masala lean on the earthier side of the spice spectrum. You could add more heat, or flavor the soup with herbs instead.

Recipe: Lentil Kale Soup

Time: 90 minutes, prep to table
Serves: 4

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp oregano
scant 1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp aleppo pepper
1/2 large vidalia onion, finely diced
1 shallot, chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
2 small parsnips, peeled, cored and chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup beluga (black) lentils
1 cup beef stock
4 cups water
1 bunch Lascinato kale (AKA black kale or dinosaur kale), washed, trimmed of stems and cut into 1” ribbons
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Add oil, swirl to coat pan. Add all the spices (cumin through the aleppo pepper), and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. The mixture will be dark and fragrant.

Add the next six ingredients (onion through garlic), and stir to coat with the spice mixture. Lower the heat to medium-low, add a dash of salt, and let the vegetables cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes, until they soften.

Add the lentils and stir, raising the heat back to medium high. Add the beef stock and the water. Allow the mixture to come to a boil.

Once it starts boils, reduce to a simmer and let cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the kale, stirring it into the mixture. You may have to reduce the heat, but you want to keep the soup at a steady simmer for about 35-40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.

Turn off the heat, add salt and pepper to your taste, and sprinkle the the thyme leaves over the soup. Stir and serve immediately, or allow to cool completely before portioning. Refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze up to 3 months.

I didn’t forget the brownies, by the way. Here’s a recipe for fudgy brownies that has all the flavor and a little less guilt than standard recipes. And here’s a tip: If you want to amp up the chocolate flavor, add a teaspoon of instant espresso to the dry ingredients, and a tablespoon of chocolate liquor to the wet ingredients. Your inner chocaholic will thank you.

 

A Cookie for the Grown-ups: Sweet-Savory Olive Oil Biscuits

Sweet-Savory Biscuits—perfect with wine.

When was the last time you saw extra virgin olive oil in a dessert recipe?

How about extra virgin olive oil, red wine, black pepper and rosemary in a cookie recipe?

Intrigued? Yes?  Okay, I’ll stop with the questions.

I’m making Sweet-Savory Biscuits for a weekend adventure—the boyfriend and I are going to visit his aunt and uncle, two of my favorite people (and not just because they read this blog).  I chose to make these cookies because their unique flavor & texture make a perfect match for wine & after-dinner drinks, of which the four of us are very big fans.

I have a sneaking suspicion this recipe came from a kitchen experiment.  These cookies are one of Mark Bittman’s variations on his master butter cookies recipe.  Instead of butter, you use olive oil, which requires increasing the flour.  Substitute some of the flour with cornmeal, which lends a wonderful flavor and enhanced texture to the finished cookie.  To make the recipe savory, you decrease the sugar, and add some fresh ground pepper and finely minced fresh rosemary. (You can already start smelling the cookies from the oven, can’t you?)

But we’re not done there! There’s wine!  Instead of using milk as you would for butter cookies, the liquid of choice in this recipe is wine, which adds moisture, flavor, and combines with the green olive oil to make a uniquely colored cookie.  I’ll admit, out of the oven they may not be as pretty as their less savory cousins, but a quick dusting of powdered sugar makes them look as sophisticated as they taste.

Make them this weekend, or make them for Valentine’s Day. These are cookies you share with people you love who love food.

RECIPE:

Sweet-Savory Cookies

From Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (2008)

Time: 30 minutes active time / 60-90 minutes inactive time

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cornmeal (medium grind)
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp. finely minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • powdered sugar (optional)

Method:

Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, ground pepper, minced rosemary and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Use an electric mixer to cream together the olive oil and sugar; add the vanilla extract and egg and beat until well blended.

Add about half the dry ingredients to the bowl, beat for a minute, and then add about three-quarters of the wine. Beat for about 10 seconds, then add the remaining dry ingredients, and the remaining wine if needed—the dough should be soft and moist, but not wet.

Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes, or up to 2 hours. Then preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Using an ice cream scoop, spoon off about a tablespoon and a half of dough from the mound. Gently shape it into a fat disc.  Place each shape about 2.5” inches apart in rows and columns on ungreased baking sheets.

Cross-hatch marks are totally optional, but they do add a cute factor.

Bake until the edges are starting to brown, about 10-12 minutes.  Cool cookies on the sheets before transferring them with a spatula onto a wire rack.  Cool completely, and then dust with sifted powder sugar if you like.

Ta-daa.

Storing:

These cookies can be stored in an air-tight container for 3 days or so; I’ve found they last up to a week when stored in a cookie tin. Be sure to place a sheet of wax paper between layers.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Information:

  • The recipe makes 24 evenly sized cookies, each with a points plus value of 2 (waaay better than I was expecting).

Sweet Tooth: The Heavenly Matter of Angel Food Cake

I hadn’t planned on making any sweet treats until Sunday, but earlier this week my dad asked me to make “that really good cake that doesn’t have any butter”.

He was referring to Angel food cake—a dessert I’ve been tinkering with for years, first because I’d like to expand my baking repertoire beyond cookies, and second because it’s an ideal dessert for those of us who seek to keep our weight in check and satisfy the ever-insatiable sweet tooth.  I also love the cake because it tastes great, and with one cake you have the basis for a number of delicious and satisfying desserts.

If you’re not familiar with Angel food cake, it’s a basic sponge cake that’s made with egg whites—lots of ’em—whipped furiously until they become a stiff-peaked mountain of fluff, then folded with a few other ingredients before being baked into a cake.  It’s  light as air, sweet yet balanced, with a unique texture that makes it feel like a decadent treat.  It serves well with fruit, or topped with a simple glaze, berry sauce, chocolate sauce, flavored whipped cream or  with any kind of custard. Best of all, it’s amazing freshly made, straight from the freezer, or gently toasted—providing a unique texture each time.

Yeah, it takes a little work—but think of it this way: one cake, loads of possibilities. It’s pretty easy to make, and it’s also easy to screw up. But worry not—thanks to my failures and successes over the years, I’ve learned some tips along the way that now make the process painless and worthwhile.

Traditionally, Angel food cake is baked in a tube pan like the one shown below.

See how the pan has straight sides and a high tube in the middle?  That’s necessary because the egg whites need a structure to cling to in order to ensure that the cake rises.  The other factor that ensures good rising is a grease-free pan.  Yes, egg whites are incredibly sticky, but if you grease the pan—if you get even a drop of any fat in the cake batter—the cake is ruined.  (There’s a trick to getting a baked Angel food cake out of the pan completely in tact, but more on that a little later.)

After experimenting with various recipes and methods for making this cake over the years, I’ve come to learn a few crucial yet simple rules for making a beautiful, moist and delicious Angel food cake:

  1. Separate the eggs when they’re cold, but don’t work with the egg whites until they’ve reached room temperature. They should also be yolk-free and shell-free.
  2. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer in a stainless steel bowl. You could also use a copper bowl, but they tend to be expensive and hard to clean.
  3. The proportions of the recipe are exact for a reason—while I recommend improvising with the cake once it’s baked, you can’t really play around with how many egg whites or how much sugar you use here. (You can play around with flavorings, like citrus zest, extracts and so forth, but again, proportions are important.) It’s also important to add ingredients at the appropriate stages in order to evenly distribute all the elements and bake a good-looking cake.
  4. Once the cake is done baking, cool it upside down for an hour before removing it from the pan.  This is hugely helpful for getting the cake out of the pan in tact.

Okay. Now we’re ready to bake an Angel food cake.  Drum roll, please…

Recipe: Angel Food Cake

Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Servings: 12 – 16

Served with berry sauce and fresh strawberries.

Ingredients:

  • 9 large or extra-large eggs (you’ll only be using the whites)
  • 1 cup cake flour, sifted*
  • 1.5 cups white sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract

Tools:

  • tube pan
  • fine mesh strainer
  • electric beaters, or a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment
  • 2 small bowls for separating the eggs, 2 medium bowls for sifting dry ingredients, and a large stainless steel bowl for mixing the cake batter
  • A flat-backed spatula

*I never buy cake flour, so this is what I do: get a 1-cup measuring cup. Put in 2 tablespoons of corn starch, then fill the rest with all-purpose flour, using a knife to even out the top. Pour into a bowl, mix with a fork, then sift with the strainer.

Method:

Remove your eggs from the fridge and separate the whites from the yolks (look here for a quick demo).  Refrigerate the yolks if you want to make something else with them; otherwise discard. Let the bowl of eggs whites rest on the counter until they come to room temperature, about an hour or so.

In the meantime, combine a half cup of the sugar with the cake flour in a medium bowl; stir with a fork or whisk to evenly combine. Using a fine mesh strainer, sift the mixture into another bowl. Repeat, then set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees, making sure the shelves are situated to make plenty of room for the tube pan. Once the egg whites have come to room temperature, pour them into a stainless steel bowl, and beat on high speed for a few minutes. You’ll see they’ve begun to froth.

Beating Egg Whites, Stage I: Froth

Add the cream of tartar and salt, and continue beating on high speed.  You’ll see the whites develop into a foam.

Beating Egg Whites, Stage II: Foam

Keep beating on high for a couple minutes, until the egg whites have soft peaks. How can you tell? They’ll still have an ever so slight translucency, and the when you lift the beaters out of the bowl you’ll notice soft peaks that have a little shape.

Beating egg whites, Stage III: Soft Peaks

Add the remaining half cup of sugar and extracts and continue beating on high until the egg whites hit Stage IV: stiff peaks.  By this point the mixture is a fully opaque bright white, and when you lift the beaters from the bowl, the egg whites have very well defined, stiff peaks, as shown.

Stage IV: Stiff peaks.

Tap the beaters against the bowl to shake any remaining whites back in. Set your beaters in the sink to soak (egg whites are quite sticky), and get your spatula. Gradually and gently, fold the sifted cake flour and sugar mixture into the egg whites. (For a demo, check out this video, at 1:05 in.) Continue folding gently until all elements are combined.

Next, use your spatula to transfer the batter into the tube pan, spreading it out evenly as you go along. Wipe off any excess on the sides with a damp paper towel.

Ready for the oven!

Put the tube pan in the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes (50 minutes did it for mine), until the cake is evenly golden brown, firm and resilient.  How can you tell?  When you remove the cake from the oven, it will not wobble at all, and you can press a finger ever so slightly on the top to test the cake’s resiliency. What you don’t want to do is test its done-ness with a toothpick or knife—if you stab the cake, it will sink.

Perfect!

Have a cooling rack or clean kitchen towel standing by, and very carefully turn the cake pan upside down on top of it.  It should stand up on its own thanks to the tube in the middle.  Then leave it alone for at least an hour.

After the hour or so has passed, carefully run a dull knife along the sides of the pan. You’ll probably have to do this along the underside of the cake as well to fully loosen it.  Remove from the pan and set on a plate, alone or lined with wax paper.

Ta-daa!

Slice the cake gently with a serrated knife to make sure your slices don’t get crushed.  You can serve the cake immediately, on its own or with any of the suggestions I’ve provided below.  If you don’t intend to serve the cake within a day, not to worry—it keeps very well in the freezer.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Information:

  • With 12 even slices of cake, you’re looking at 4 points per serving.
  • With 16 even slices of cake, it’s 3 points per serving.

Serving suggestions:

  • Serve with cut fresh fruit or berries for a really light treat.
  • Spoon some berry sauce or chocolate sauce on top of slices.
  • Make a simple glaze and drizzle it over the cake. A lemon glaze works especially well.
  • If you reserved the egg yolks, make custard and serve it with the cake. Berries make a wonderful addition here.
  • Top with a dollop of gently spiced whipped cream.
  • Top with a generous scoop of really good chocolate or coffee ice cream.

Storing and Serving Angel Food Cake Later On:

Cut the cake into slices or chunks and wrap securely with plastic wrap. Then put them in a gallon-size zip-top bag and freeze, being careful not to crush the cake in your freezer.  You can slice the frozen cake easily and eat it ice cold (I love it this way), or you can toast it until it has browned around the edges. Toasted angel food cake makes the whole house smell wonderful, and the flavors of the vanilla and almond extracts really shine through.

Resources:

I learned how to perfect this cake thanks to one of my favorite television shows (Good Eats) and the book that has become my go-to cooking encyclopedia, How to Cook Everything (2008 edition, page 912).  If you have Good Eats on DVD or catch a re-run, the episode to watch is “The Egg Files III: Let Them Eat Foam”, from Season 4.

Simple, Fast, Delicious: 15-minute Fish Stew

Yum.

I’ve been wanting to make cioppino for awhile. It’s a hearty fish stew that is typically thought to be of Italian origin, but it actually comes from the great American city of San Francisco.  Traditionally, cioppino is made with several kinds of fresh seafood cooked in a tomato-white wine broth, and always accompanied by hot, crusty bread—usually sourdough or a baguette.

This recipe is a simplified version of cioppino, courtesy of Mark Bittman.  It requires about a pound and a half of fish (any combination you like), fish stock and a pinch of saffron—an expensive ingredient, yes, but a little really does go along way. Once you’ve prepped your ingredients, the dish takes about 15 minutes to cook (which is probably why he calls his recipe Lightning-Quick Fish Soup).  I made it using two fish I had on hand: shrimp and cod, which not only work fabulously but are also reasonably priced.

Be sure to work with fresh or fully defrosted fish (you don’t want to work with anything pre-cooked or frozen).  If you don’t have saffron, you can always add some more smoked paprika for a flavor boost—though it is worth pointing out that nothing flavors like saffron except saffron. It is that special.

Recipe: 15-minute Fish Stew

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “Lightning-Quick Fish Soup”

from How to Cook Everything, 2008

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fire-roasted tomatoes, with their juices (I’m a big fan of the Trader Joe’s Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • 1 quart seafood stock (Kitchen Basics is terrific if you haven’t made your own)
  • Pinch saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 3/4 pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 3/4 pound cod filet, deboned and cut into 2″ chunks
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
  • Parsley, for garnish
  • Toasted bread (baguette, sourdough or ciabatta) for serving

Method:

Set a large, deep pot over medium high heat; add olive oil & swirl to coat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes.  Turn the heat down if you notice the garlic browning. Add the chopped tomato, a dash of salt and pepper and cook another minute.

Add the stock, paprikas, and saffron and turn the heat up to high. Cover and bring to a boil.

Remove cover, reduce the heat to a steady simmer and let cook for 5 minutes.

Add the fish, stirring, until it cooks through—about 5 minutes.

Garnish with the parsley and drizzle just a touch of oil over each bowl of stew. Serve with freshly toasted bread.

Should you have leftovers…

  • This soup will keep up to 2 days in the fridge. Reheat on the stove over low heat and let it simmer for 3-5 minutes before serving.

Food Reading: It’s Dining & Wine Day!

After Sunday, Wednesday is my favorite day of the week.  Sunday is generally my big cooking day, and Wednesday is my big reading day—since that’s when The New York Times publishes its Dining & Wine section.

I read it (digitally) from start to finish, usually in the morning over coffee, but depending upon how busy I am I may read the section over the course of my day, enjoying the restaurant review over breakfast, combing through the recipes at lunch, later reading and forwarding my boyfriend the wine reviews.

I get a lot of ideas from the NYT Dining section.  It’s an endless source of inspiration for my savory cooking, and I get all drooly every time I look at slideshows of holiday cookies and cakes.  The photos are amazing, but the writing is the thing; each of the writers brings their own taste and brand of humor to the table, with just the slightest hint of snobbery (this is The Times, after all).

David Tanis and Melissa Clark write a lot about the experience of cooking in a New York kitchen, and as a resident you can sympathize with their lack of space and need for simplicity.  Pete Wells has taken over as chief food critic, but he won’t be starting till the new year.  Eric Asimov, the wine critic, has been covering for Sam Sifton, who gave up the job over a month ago (going out with a bang – he reviewed Per Se.  Nice work, Sam!).  Sifton replaced Frank Bruni, who wrote one of the best restaurant reviews I’ve read, as well as a fantastic memoir that I read this year, called Born Round (a must read for anyone who grew up with an insatiable appetite for all things delicious).  Julia Moskin and Kim Severson are regular contributors, as is Amanda Hesser, who wrote The Essential New York Times Cookbook, published last year (I think I had that on my Amazon wishlist. If not, Santa – take note).  Martha Rose Shulman and Tara Parker Pope also contribute recipes, though the Recipes for Health column they both write is generally featured in the Health section.

Perhaps the one food writer that’s influenced me most in the last few years is Mark Bittman, who quit writing the Minimalist column but still continues to write for The Times.  I am prone to complicating recipes, acting on my big ideas without thinking them through, but Bittman consistently reminds me to keep it simple, focusing on getting maximum flavor from a few ingredients, generally ones that are very fresh and in season.  Bittman is all about making the act of cooking as easy and un-intimidating as possible, which makes his writing a refreshing change from the likes of Martha Stewart and a host of other well-known chefs and recipe writers who like to say, “Oh, it’s so easy!” but never quite succeed in making a recipe or process simple and straightforward.  He possesses the practicality of Alton Brown without all the machinery and overt snobbery, and can whip hundreds of impressive meals together faster (and likely better) than Rachael Ray. Mark Bittman taught me not to be afraid of making pie crust and preparing bulgur as part of a savory breakfast, and most recently, to boldly and fearlessly prepare a prime rib roast and yorkshire pudding for a major American holiday.

Bittman hasn’t written anything new for this week, but his latest piece on cookies is a good read for the novice baker.  Once you’ve got the master cookie recipe down, there are endless variations.  Also, there’s a picture of Pecan Pie bars. I want!

David Tanis had a delicious looking recipe for a dish I’ve been working up the courage (and budget) to prepare for ages: Fish Stew.

But the best feature of the Dining section today focuses on the memories of holiday meals past, appropriately titled “The Gifts? I Forget. But the meal!”.  It’s an interactive piece, featuring Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and Julia Moskin, among others.  It’s impossible to read without thinking of your own holiday favorites and those truly memorable dishes.

And that got me thinking about the foods that make a holiday a holiday.  The traditions behind those dishes, the flavors and aromas we look forward to each year, the labor that goes into making these specialties, and the presentation that demands “oohs” and “aahs” from everyone at the table.  These are the foods that defines our holidays, and sometimes they define the people who make them.

What are the must-have dishes at your holiday gathering?