Sunday, February 22, 2009

The BIG Night!

Well, tonight's the night--the night all movie buffs around the world wait for eagerly! OSCAR NIGHT! We are about an hour and a half before the stars begin making their way down the red carpet. And before they do, I want to post my Oscar predictions list. I feel pretty good about my choices, as I did see almost all of the (English language, feature-length, fiction) films. But Oscar can be like a fickle suitor, and his affections may not always be predictable. So my list includes absolute certainties as well as some possible upsets.

[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] Frost/Nixon
[ ] Milk
[ ] The Reader
[ X ] Slumdog Millionaire
A no-brainer. Bet everything you have on it.

[ ] David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
[ ] Gus Van Sant, Milk
[ ] Stephen Daldry, The Reader
[ X ] Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Symmetry with Best Picture.

[ ] Frozen River
[ ] Happy-Go-Lucky
[ ] In Bruges
[ X ] Milk
[ ] WALL-E these are my "predictions," as in what WILL win, not necessarily what SHOULD win or which nominee I'm rooting for. My vote would go to "In Bruges," which was so well done and SO funny (albeit, darkly funny). And even though the first half of "Wall-E" is basically silent, it's such a wonderfully inventive story.

[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] Doubt
[ ] Frost/Nixon
[ ] The Reader
[ X ] Slumdog Millionaire
Part of an almost-certain tidal wave of awards for the "little indie that could."

[ ] Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
[ ] Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
[ ] Sean Penn, Milk
[ ] Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ X ] Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Now, this is going to be a close race! It could very well go to Sean Penn, and perhaps should. He is probably the finest actor of my generation, and he is marvelous in this role (in that “Method” way of his, dissolving himself completely in the characterization of Harvey Milk). But the thing is, he’s won already. And American LOVES a comeback! I’m going to go out on a limb and call this one for Mickey Rourke, just to keep things interesting. This is his one shot at Oscar gold. (When will he ever find another role like this where his messed-up face actually works for him?) And I personally want to see him thank his Chihuahuas again like at the Golden Globes. ;-)

[ ] Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
[ ] Angelina Jolie, Changeling
[ ] Melissa Leo, Frozen River
[ ] Meryl Streep, Doubt
[ X ] Kate Winslet, The Reader
Kate is in her prime, she had a great year with two excellent roles (winning Golden Globes for both “The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road”), and she’s been nominated for the Oscar six times and has never won. It’s time. (Plus, never bet against anything having to do with the Holocaust when an Oscar is on the line--as the prophet, Ricky Gervais, hath foretold.)

[ ] Josh Brolin, Milk
[ ] Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
[ ] Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
[ X ] Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
[ ] Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
The only thing more certain than “Slumdog” winning Best Picture is the very dearly-departed Heath Ledger winning the Oscar. Yes, he’s a shoe-in because he’s deceased, but more importantly, he deserves it and would have won it even if he lived. (And I say this as the most devout RDJ fan who absolutely ADORED him in “Tropic Thunder.”)

[ ] Amy Adams, Doubt
[ X ] Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
[ ] Viola Davis, Doubt
[ ] Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
This is SUCH a tough call because, as usual, all of these nominees are amazing. I am going with Penelope on this one, because she’s been nominated before, and because Woody Allen always seems to help his supporting women win the big prize. And she was wonderfully passionate opposite Javier Bardem in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” But my heart belongs to Viola Davis. She had only one scene in “Doubt,” but was it ever powerful! And anyone who can hold her own in a scene with Meryl deserves the little bald statuette!

[ ] The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)
[ ] The Class (France)
[ ] Departures (Japan)
[ ] Revanche (Austria)
[ X ] Waltz with Bashir (Israel)
Another “duh.”

[ ] Bolt
[ ] Kung Fu Panda
[ X ] WALL-E
This movie is so good, it deserves to be nominated for Best Picture, not just Best Animated Feature. No contest.

[ ] The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
[ ] Encounters at the End of the World
[ ] The Garden
[ X ] Man on Wire
[ ] Trouble the Water
The only one I’ve heard a lot about.

[ ] The Conscience of Nhem En
[ ] The Final Inch
[ ] Smile Pinki
[ X ] The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306
Random guess. Like the title.

[ ] La Maison En Petits Cubes
[ ] Lavatory - Lovestory
[ ] Oktapodi
[ X ] Presto
[ ] This Way Up
The only one I saw, but it was very entertaining! (This was shown with “Wall-E,” remember? The magician and the rabbit? Yeah, that was “Presto.”)

[ ] Auf Der Strecke (On the Line)
[ ] Manon20on the Asphalt
[ ] New Boy
[ ] The Pig
[ X ] Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Again, I have no clue, but again, never vote against a Holocaust film.

[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] Defiance
[ ] Milk
[ X ] Slumdog Millionaire
[ ] WALL-E
Part of the “Slumdog” deluge, I’ll wager.

[ ] "Down to Earth" - WALL-E
[ X] "Jai Ho" - Slumdog Millionaire
[ ] "O Saya" - Slumdog Millionaire
Ok, soapbox time. This may be sacrilege to say, but I am no fan of Springsteen. Yet it nothing short of CRIMINAL that his song “One Trick Pony” from “The Wrestler” was not nominated! The song was heart-breakingly PERFECT for that film, and its omission is a travesty. Having said that, I must go with “Jai Ho.” It’s catchy as hell!

[ ] Changeling
[ X ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] The Dark Knight
[ ] The Duchess
[ ] Revolutionary Road
“Benjamin Button” disproves the old adage about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. But it is a technical marvel and amazing to look at!

[ ] Changeling
[ X ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] The Dark Knight
[ ] The Reader
[ ] Slumdog Millionaire
Ultimately, the Academy usually goes with the “prettiest” picture here. “Dark Knight” fans will protest, but I think that picture is too….dark….to win this award.

[ ] Australia
[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ X ] The Duchess
[ ] Milk
[ ] Revolutionary Road
My vote would be for the period-perfect fashions of the 50’s in “Revolutionary Road,” but Oscar LOVES overly-ornate period garb for this award.

[ X ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] The Dark Knight
[ ] Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I know, I know. The Joker’s makeup was instantly iconographic, but it’s all about “Benjamin Button” here. Amazing work!

[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ X ] The Dark Knight
[ ] Slumdog Millionaire
[ ] WALL-E
[ ] Wanted
I’m throwing TDK a bone here!

[ X] The Dark Knight
[ ] Iron Man
[ ] Slumdog Millionaire
[ ] WALL-E
[ ] Wanted

[ X ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] The Dark Knight
[ ] Iron Man
It can go no other way. When Brad Pitt walked out of the shadows at the end of the movie and looked exactly like he did nearly 20 years ago in “Thelma and Louise,” that’s when I called it.

[ ] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
[ ] The Dark Knight
[ ] Frost/Nixon
[ ] Milk
[ X ] Slumdog Millionaire
I guess I’ll choose “Slumdog” here for the masterful interweaving of its narrative. (But “Benjamin Button” seems a fine choice, too.)

Alright, so those are my picks for tonight's big event. I am neither hosting nor attending an Oscar party this year (boo hiss), but I still had to create a small, movie-themed menu for myself, as is my way. Since it is only me, I wasn't going to make five dishes to honor each one of the Best Picture nominees, because that would just be too much food, even though I enjoy leftovers. But I did hit three out of the five. The two that were not represented in my meal were Frost/Nixon and The Reader. If I had party guests and a need for multiple appetizers, I would have made mini-cheeseburgers (from their telephone conversation in Frost/Nixon) and for The Reader, I think a crockpot full of mini-weiners cooked in sauerkraut with a pinch of caraway (a nod to German cuisine).

As for what I did prepare, for my appetizer, I made a mess of Slumdog Tandoori Chicken Wings with a Carrot-Garlic-Cilantro Yogurt Dipping Sauce. And for my entree, I am currently grilling up some Benjamin Button Pork Chops that I had coated in creole mustard and a zesty cajun spice rub in a nod to the film's New Orleans setting (where, by the bye, I'm going for spring break---yeah!).

Along with the pork chops, I'm serving a delectably decadent...wait for it....Sean Penne with MILK and Cheese Sauce. (That would be infinitely funnier if I had a box of penne on hand, but I had to use regular elbows this time.) I loosely followed a recipe that I had seen on a Food Network show called The Cooking Loft, and it just may have brought me to an epiphany. I already knew that I didn't like eggs in my macaroni and cheese, but now I've come to think that I don't need a roux at all--no flour to make it too thick or grainy. Maybe it just needs cheese and cream.

Ok, enough with the chit-chat. I need to finish grilling my pork chops, download some pics for you, and add a couple of recipes, all before the awards are presented starting at 8:30 (red carpet at 8)! Enjoy the Oscars, movie fans!

Slumdog Tandoori Chicken Wings with Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Chicken Marinade:
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2-3 tablespoons prepared Tandoori paste
1 tablespoon garam masala (or curry spice blend of your choice)
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
a couple of pinches of salt and enough pepper to suit you

Yogurt Sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 carrot, grated finely
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon hot sauce (or to taste)
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large bowl, toss 20 chicken wings (that's with the drumettes and flappers divided--or 10 whole wings if you'd rather) with all of the marinade ingredients and refrigerate for at least four hours (or overnight).

Grill on all sides until cooked through (it took about 40 minutes on my little indoor grill). Mix all of the ingredients for the yogurt sauce and serve on the side with the wings.

Sean Penne with MILK and Cheese Sauce (aka Macaroni and Cheese)
(Source: Adapted from Food Network's
The Cooking Loft and Alex Guarnaschelli)

10 cups water
kosher salt
3 cups penne (or elbow macaroni)
1 quart heavy cream (can use 50% half-n-half)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed with the back of a knife
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 1/2 cups grated Gruyere (I used half Gruyere and half sharp cheddar), divided
freshly ground white pepper (or black if you don't care if it shows)
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar (I upped this to 1 1/2 cups and cut the Gruyere back to 2 1/2 cups)
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
hot sauce, to taste
1 cup toasted bread crumbs (I mixed untoasted panko with a little parmesan, 1/2 cup Gruyere, and a good sprinkling of granulated garlic)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large pot, bring the water to a rolling boil. Add the salt. Taste the water. It should be salty like sea water. Add the pasta and stir, with a wooden spoon or large slotted spoon, to ensure the macaroni does not stick to the bottom of the pot as it cooks. Cook until the pasta is still quite firm, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In the same pot, bring the cream and garlic cloves to a simmer. Add the mustard and the Gruyere (reserving half a cup). Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted and has integrated with the cream. Add the parmesan and cheddar. Stir with a wooden spoon and simmer again until smooth. Add a splash of Worcestershire and a splash of hot sauce. Stir to blend. Taste for seasoning.

Remove the pot from the heat, add the pasta to the cream, and stir gently to blend. Allow the macaroni to rest on the stove, 5 to 10 minutes so the pasta absorbs the flavors. Remove and discard the garlic cloves.

Fill a baking dish with the pasta mixture, top with the bread crumbs, the remaining half cup Gruyere cheese (and maybe a little extra parmesan) and bake about 35 minutes, or until the bread crumbs brown and crsip up on top. Let cool for ten minutes or so before serving.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Foodie Facebook Friends

Lately I have been on a real Facebook kick. I had a MySpace page long ago (my little cousin encouraged me to make one so that we could more readily correspond), but I barely ever check it. Then my (college) students hipped me to the fact that it was ALL about Facebook. So I signed up last summer, was immediately deluged by everyone I've ever known in my life back to elementary school, got overwhelmed, and abandoned it when school started back in the fall. True to form, over winter break when I had the luxury of time, I returned to Facebook and made a valiant effort to catch up with everyone who had sent correspondence, and now I just love it! It so cool to reconnect with long-lost friends, to have real-time chats even, or at least to get a composite picture of their daily lives now via their Twitter-like "status updates." And I must say, since I've been living by myself this year, Facebook has helped stave away the lonely-heart blues on more than one occasion. (Sure, the dogs are good company, but they aren't very articulate when it comes to, say, deconstructing the latest episode of "Lost!")

Yes, yes, Gina, but what does all this have to do with food and the recipes of the day? of the people that Facebook brought me back in touch with was my sweet friend, Natalie, from high school. Natalie was actually a year behind us, but she ended up graduating with us (the little smarty-pants)! Not only was Natalie among the brightest friends I had, she was extra-special because she also shared my deep, passionate love for John Taylor and the rest of the crew from Duran Duran. Oh, how we loved our MTV back in those days! Tee hee. In any case, last weekend, my totally awesome friend, Natalie, sent me a FABULOUS Valentine's Day care package from my homeland in Oregon, including two cookbooks (one was desserts of the Northwest and the other was all about soup), a local (Portland) foodie magazine called Mix, plus a box of Moonstruck Chocolates! Did I not say she was AWESOME?!

I haven't tried anything from the desserts cookbook yet, but I did crack into the soup book last night. I made something called "Spicy Parsnip Soup," though it certainly was not spicy...until I took it upon myself to add some cayenne, that is! The "spice" that the recipe refers to is curry powder. So I might be inclined to change the name of the soup to Curried Cream of Parsnip and Leek Soup, but that's just me. Whatever you call it, the recipe was easy and yielded some delicious eats. The parsnip is an underutilized root vegetable, in my humble opinion, though like it's smaller cousin, the carrot, it makes a most excellent soup! I will be bringing the leftovers to share with my lucky co-workers tomorrow, but if you'd like to make this for yourself, the recipe follows. I'm sorry that I didn't take a picture, but it's not much to look at...sort of beige-y with a greenish tint from the vegetable stock, green onions (subbed in for leeks), and cilantro. Despite its humble appearance, it tastes wonderful--so comforting with a bit of a kick to warm you up on these still frigid days.

Curried Cream of Parsnip and Leek Soup (aka "Spicy Parsnip Soup")
(Source: Soups by Jane Price)
Serves 6

5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons butter (I used 1 T butter + 1 T olive oil)
1 onion, quartered, then finely sliced
1 leek, white part only, finely sliced (I swapped out 8 green onions)
1 lb. 2 oz. parsnips, peeled and finely sliced (if I were you, I'd buy the one pound package of parsnips and then throw in a couple of carrots rather than having to buy two whole packages of parsnips!)
1 tablespoon curry powder (preferably, Madras brand)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper, optional
1 1/4 cups whipping cream (I used evaporated milk because I had some open)
salt and pepper, to taste
1/3 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

Bring the broth to a boil in a sauce pan then reduce to a simmer.

Melt the butter in a small stock pot over medium heat. Add the onion, leek, and parsnips and cook, covered, for five minutes. Add the curry powder, cumin, and cayenne, and cook for another minute. Stir in the hot broth and cook, covered, over medium heat for 10-15 minutes (until parsnips are completely tender).

Transfer to a blender or food processor and blend in batches until smooth (better yet, use an immersion/stick blender right in the pot!). Return soup to the stock pot (if not using an immersion blender), stir in the cream, and warm through over low heat. Season to taste, and stir in the cilantro right before serving.

I haven't yet tried the undoubtedly marvelous chocolates that Natalie sent. I'm saving them until I finish the half-batch of brownies from King Arthur that I baked over the weekend. And I must tell you, even though I screwed them up (I didn't melt the butter and sugar long enough to get the much-desired shiny top and accidentally over-baked them by SIX minutes!), they were still the BEST brownies I've ever made! They are rich and decadent (due to a very small amount of flour in the recipe), and the flavor is deep, complex and bittersweet. This, friends, may be the only brownie recipe you'll ever need. Once again, I didn't photograph them because I was annoyed at not achieving the shiny top that I was hoping for, but here's what they look like when done properly. My next batch will look like this, I swear it, and there WILL be a next batch...oh yes, there surely will!

King Arthur's Fudge Brownies
King Arthur Flour)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan.*
2) In a medium-sized microwave-safe bowl, or in a saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter, then add the sugar and stir to combine. Return the mixture to the heat (or microwave) briefly, just until it's hot (about 110°F to 120°F), but not bubbling; it'll become shiny looking as you stir it. Heating this mixture a second time will dissolve more of the sugar, which will yield a shiny top crust on your brownies.
3) While the sugar heats a second time, crack the 4 eggs into a bowl, and beat them with the cocoa, salt, baking powder, espresso powder, and vanilla till smooth.
4) Add the hot butter/sugar mixture, stirring until smooth.
5) Add the flour and chips (and nuts, if using), again stirring until smooth. Note: If you want the chips to remain intact in the baked brownies, rather than melting in, let the batter cool in the bowl for about 20 minutes before stirring in the chips.
6) Spoon the batter into a lightly greased 9" x 13" pan.
7) Bake the brownies for about 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, or with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. The brownies should feel set on the edges, and the center should look very moist, but not uncooked. Remove them from the oven and cool on a rack before cutting and serving.

*This recipe can easily be divided in half and baked in an 8x8 pan.

Since I have no food pictures to include with this post, I will close with a picture of my friend, Natalie. Isn't she purty? And don't you wish she was YOUR friend that sent YOU fun foodie care packages? You have every right to be jealous. THANKS, Nat! :-)

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Funny Valentines: Some Sweets for You and Yours

So tomorrow is the big day when we celebrate luuuuuv...or all the florists, candymakers and greeting card companies, as the case may well be. Not that I would scoff if someone were to send me fresh flowers or fine chocolates (doesn't even have to be Godiva...I live for See's Butterscotch Squares!), but I think you show your love best when you make something homemade for your honey.

If you are planning to prepare a fancy dinner tomorrow night to romance your sweetheart, may I suggest the following dessert: Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Torte! It is every bit as decadent as it sounds, and not terribly difficult to make, despite its elegant appearance. I have made this cake twice for Cyd's birthday and also for my friend Carey's at work--and the people raved! Carey took the leftovers home to share with her parents, and she reported that even her dad loved it, and he doesn't care for peanut butter! That's because the mousse filling is both milk chocolate AND peanut butter, plus, the cake is darkly intoxicating, and the whole affair is covered in bittersweet ganache. What's not to love? If this doesn't sweep your Valentine off his or her feet...well...then the person clearly has no taste and should be kicked curbside at once, as you could do so much better. ;-)

Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Torte
Windham Hill Inn, West Townshend, Vermont)

3 cups sugar
2 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon espresso powder dissolved in 1 1/4 cups of warm water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 large eggs
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Peanut Butter Mousse Filling:
10 oz. milk chocolate (you can also use semi-sweet)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
3/4 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream

Chocolate Glaze:
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped finely
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon corn syrup

Preheat oven to 375º. Lightly grease and flour a nine inch spring form pan*. Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, add the dry ingredients and mix slowly until well blended. In a separate bowl, whisk together espresso, oil, eggs, buttermilk and vanilla. Slowly add all of the espresso mixture to the dry ingredients. Increase speed to medium and beat until mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape with a rubber spatula into prepared pan. Bake approximately 35-40 minutes or until cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in pan 20 minutes, then invert on wire rack to cool completely.

Peanut Butter Mousse:
Melt chocolate over double boiler. When completely melted, add peanut butter. Whisk until smooth. In a separate pan bring milk to a gentle boil, remove from heat. Add half the milk to chocolate/peanut butter mixture. Mix well and repeat with remaining milk, again mixing well. In a separate bowl, beat heavy cream until soft peaks form. With a rubber spatula, slowly fold the whipped heavy cream into the chocolate peanut butter mixture, mixing only until combined.

Chocolate Glaze:
Combine heavy cream and corn syrup. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the finely chopped chocolate, stirring until smooth. Chill slightly to firm.

With a serrated knife, slice cake into three even layers. Smoothly spread half of the peanut butter mousse mixture on the bottom layer. Top with middle cake layer. Repeat using remaining mousse mixture, capping with top cake layer. Ice top and sides with chocolate glaze.

*The first two times I made this, I only had a ten-inch springform pan, so I used that, and it was fine. This time, I tried it with my new nine-inch springform pan (as the recipe calls for), and the cake rose WAY over the top and erupted on one side like a chocolate Mount Vesuvius! It was a big old mess (my oven still hasn't recovered), but luckily the filling and frosting hideth a multitude of sins when you assemble the torte. However, in the future, I will either go back to my ten-inch pan, or perhaps do away with springform pans altogether (which are fraught with danger where very runny batters are concerned), and just split the batter into thirds and bake in regular cake pans so that I don't even have to bother with splitting the cake with a knife.

Now if you want to make something much less involved and/or individual treats for Valentine's Day, here's another idea and what I brought for my co-workers today: Cranberry-Pecan Shortbread Hearts. This is an uncharacteristically simple recipe from Martha, but of course, I jazzed it up a bit with the addition of pecans and a fancy drizzle of white chocolate ganache on top. Then I let the glaze dry for a few hours before packaging them in two's (like cozy lovebirds!) and covering them with red Saran Wrap. Easy-peasy, and my division seemed delighted by their Valentine treats!

Cranberry-Pecan Shortbread Hearts
(Source: Adapted from
Martha Stewart Living)
Makes about 1 1/2 dozen 1 3/4-inch hearts

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped dried cranberries or cherries (I left mine whole)
1/2 cup pecans, roughly chopped, optional

Heat oven to 325 degrees.with a rack in center. Combine butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, flour, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat with a wooden spoon until combined but not too creamy (I did this in my stand mixer). Stir in dried cranberries and pecans.

Pat dough evenly into an 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan. Bake until just beginning to turn golden, about 20 minutes. Place pan on cooling rack until cool enough to touch, about 20 minutes. Run knife around edges, remove shortbread, and transfer, right side up, to work surface. Use 1 1/2- to 2-inch heart cookie cutter to cut out cookies. Use a paring knife to trim stray bits of cranberry from edges*.

Cookies will keep for 5 days at room temperature in an airtight container.

*I did not do the cutting-after method as described above. I patted my dough out into a ten-inch circle and cut the heart shapes before baking for about 15-18 minutes, until the edges turned golden. Then I cooled the cookies in the pan for about ten minutes before removing them to a rack to cool completely. Then I drizzled them with a white chocolate ganache that I made by melting over a gently-simmering double boiler the following:

12 oz. (real!) white chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Aerogarden Update: Week Six

Did I say a week "OR TWO" until my next salad? I had my second harvest of lettuce last night, exactly one week after the last, and I anticipate yet another next week! So fun and so yummy! :-)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Café Cuisine

I confess...when the semester is back in full swing and things are crazy, I sometimes subsist on cold cuts and/or sandwiches or strange combinations of leftovers from weekend cooking binges. And once in awhile, I even let someone do the cooking for me, although our restaurant pickin's are, sadly, quite slim in the greater Plattsburgh area. So when a new place pops up, it's always exciting, especially one that's only one teeny town over from me.

In early December, I was over at the feed store in Chazy, and I noticed a sign for a new cafe up at the train station, fittingly called The Station. I pulled up to the building only to be shoo'ed away by the owner who said that they weren't opening for a few days and to come back then! However, I didn't get back there until sometime the following month (when I was out of chicken and rabbit food once again!). So I decided to try again, and I am so happy that I did! The Station is a cute little place that's half cafe and half gift shop (not tacky, touristy things--nice things for Christmas, or baby showers, or weddings). And they have a coffee bar set up with several varieties of Green Mountain Coffee, so I suspect that The Station serves as an ersatz Starbucks for the good people of little Chazy. The tables are covered with old newspaper stories about the history of the train station and the town, and two of the booth tables were fashioned with doors from the original station. Their menu is all train-themed, too, like the All On Board Breakfast Sandwich, the Club Car Caesar or the Orient Express Salad, and sandwiches such as the Trackside Panini, the Whistletop, the Boxcar, and even some "Little Hobos" for the kids, including the Little Engineer or the Caboose. Oh, and my favorite thematic touch is when a train passes by (and the whole joint rumbles!), they give everyone a piece of candy! (It was a Hershey's Kiss when I was there.) Cute, eh?

I am also happy to report that my lunch at The Station was quite good. It's just soups, salads, and sandwiches, and as it was so cold the day I went, I opted for a steaming bowl of soup. I chose their house specialty which is always on the menu, Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda. Though a little on the salty side, man, was it good! It really hit the spot! As I was eating my delicious soup, they brought out a little tray of samples of couscous salad for people to try. Of course, the man at the table next to me was quite terrified of it until his luncheon companion explained that it was just itty-bitty pasta. (I think the foreign or even slightly vulgar-sounding name is off-putting to the townsfolk!) But I happily scarfed mine down, then promptly went up to the counter to order a full portion! However, this threw the employees into a bit of a tizzy, as it wasn't on the menu yet, so they didn't know how much to charge, and the owner had to be consulted, and it was a whole big to-do! But I finally got my cup of Moroccan-spiced couscous salad and enjoyed it immensely! So much so, I went home and did as I so often do and tried to replicate and improve on the dishes that I've had in restaurants.

I think I came up with something that is pretty close to being on par with their soup, but I daresay that my own version of the couscous salad was even better! In fact, the following weekend, my dear friend Vicky invited me to the co-op downtown for an event called a "Recipe Slam," which was basically a community potluck followed by an open mic scene with local aspiring poets and musicians. It was SUCH a great event--perfect for helping people to get out of the house in the dead of winter, shake off the cabin fever, and warm up to some good food and good people in their local community. Normally, I would bring a dessert to such an event, or perhaps one of my favorite potluck items, which is a crockpot full of Hawaiian/teriyaki meatballs (recipe from my friend Carey's mom). Usually those meatballs guarantee that I'll bring an empty crockpot home, but I am still psychologically scarred by the last time I took them to a potluck. I was in the play The Vagina Monologues a couple of years ago, and we had an initial cast meet-and-greet where everyone was supposed to bring a dish to share. Well, I brought the beloved meatballs...which turned out not to be so beloved to the cast of women who were largely an artsy, alternative, vegetarian crowd, as someone with more sense than I might have guessed. So I ended up eating meatballs for dinner for a week after that! I suspected that the same crunchy, veggie crowd would dominate the co-op event, and I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice! Thus, I decided to take my version of the Moroccan-spiced couscous salad, and I don't mean to brag too much, but it was a BIG hit! The coordinators of the event made a big fuss about how good it was (in front of everyone, to my delight and embarrassment), and the owner of one of our better local eateries downtown, the Adirondack Soup Kitchen, even came over to introduce himself and compliment me on my salad. Best of all, I took home an empty dish--the nicest potluck compliment of all!

Now I didn't try the green salads or any of the yummy-sounding sandwiches at The Station, but I certainly will in the future. I have only one criticism of the new cafe, but it's a big one. For a sweet finish to my fine lunch, I chose a piece of cheesecake from their pastry case. One bite told me all I needed to know--it was a pre-fab, frozen, industrial dessert. So when I had finished my lunch and was preparing to leave, I paused at the counter to compliment them on the soup and couscous salad, and I asked them which of their desserts were homemade so that I could try them another time. Well, the owner admitted that NONE of them were, and became very furtive about their origin, going so far as to tell me that it was a "secret" where they got their desserts. Meanwhile I'm thinking, um, you can KEEP your secret, lady! If I want a dessert of that caliber, I'll go buy myself a Sara Lee cheesecake or some other gem from the frozen foods section of any grocery store. So that's what The Station desperately needs, in my none-too-humble opinion--some HOMEMADE desserts! It doesn't have to be elaborate French pastries made from scratch or towering tortes with four fillings. But how hard is it to make some awesome cookies or a homey but delicious bundt cake of some sort? SHEESH!

Therefore, I am saddened to report that my homeland is still devoid of excellent baked goods. For those, one must travel north to the magnificent European-style bakeries of Montreal, or perhaps to the Green Mountain State across Lake Champlain where Vicky and I went on a shopping excursion and to see The Reader a couple of weeks ago (great flick, by the bye!). After our movie, we made a detour to the Fresh Market, on the advice of my friends, the Padulas. I still had fond memories of the pistachio cookie that I sampled at their house on Christmas Eve that came from the Fresh Market's bakery. Working my way around the fine little market, I loaded my basket up with several interesting condiments (my weakness), a lovely maple cheddar and zesty pepperoni that were both smoked in Vermont, and some house-made cornichons, among other tasty things. And of course, from the bakery side of the house, I bought some of the pistachio meringues, but I was also lured by the sirens' song of something they called "Bees' Knees," which was a bar cookie with a shortbread base and a honey-walnut topping. It reminded me a lot of the wonderful walnut torte that my pal Domenica makes, and I felt sure that I could replicate it at home (I definitely can't afford to pay $2.25 a cookie, though I understand that walnuts have become astronomically pricey these days!). I found the perfect recipe on a site called Local Cravings, and actually, I liked these better than Fresh Market's--the shortbread had a better texture, and the topping has more nuts. Truly, these may be my new favorite thing in the whole world!

So if you want to sample some of this "cafe cuisine" at home, give the following recipes a try:

Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda Soup
(Source: Adapted from
Bryan Woolley)

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds roasted red bell peppers (jarred), cut into chunks
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes (preferably, fire-roasted)
4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
big pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cups smoked Gouda cheese, grated
1/2 cup half-and-half
salt to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute.
2. Add peppers, tomatoes (and liquid), basil, thyme, oregano, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Sauté for about five minutes or until fragrant.
3. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least ten minutes.
4. Puree soup, add smoked Gouda cheese, half-and-half, and season with salt. Continue cooking until Gouda cheese is completely dissolved.
5. Serve and enjoy!

Moroccan Couscous Salad

2 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
1/2 pound Israeli (large-grained) couscous (about 1 1/4 cups)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
juice of half a lemon (1 or 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pinch of cayenne (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
good of pinch salt (to taste)
1 15.5-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
4 scallions/green onions, sliced (or 1/2 of a small onion)
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 bunch Italian parsley, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
sliced, toasted almonds—to garnish

In a medium saucepan, bring vegetable stock to a boil. Add the couscous, bring back to a boil, cover and simmer for ten minutes. In the meantime, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, honey, and spices in a large bowl. Add the cooked couscous, garbanzo beans, onion, carrot, garlic, and raisins, and stir everything together gently. Mix in the chopped parsley, then taste to correct the seasonings.

Can be served room temperature or chilled. Garnish with sliced, toasted almonds.

Honey-Walnut Bars, aka "Bees' Knees"
(Source: Adapted from
Local Cravings)

Heat oven to 350º and line a 9x13" baking pan with foil. Spray the foil with nonstick spray or oil it well. (I just sprayed my dish, and the bars came out easily once they'd cooled.)

2 cups flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter

Cut butter into the dry ingredients until well mixed. Press into a buttered 9x13" baking dish. Freeze for 15 minutes. Bake the crust 15-20 minutes, until the edges are golden (mine took 20-25 minutes). While the crust bakes, make the topping.

2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablepoons cream or milk

1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups whole walnuts, roughly chopped

Mix all topping ingredients except the walnuts together in a large bowl. When well combined, add walnuts and stir again. Pour over the top of the hot crust, spreading as well as possible with a spatula. When it bakes, the melting honey and sugar will disburse evenly, so just make sure the nuts are spread nicely. Bake an additional 20 (mine took 25) minutes, until the top is bubbly and caramelized. Cool 15 minutes, then cut into squares and let cool completely.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Growing Your Own: Hydroponics for Dummies

I have BIG Aerogarden news to impart! Ladies and gentlemen (drumroll, please), I have harvested my first crops from my wee little hydroponic garden! YEAH!!

First, behold it at five weeks' worth of growth (in a freezing-cold house, right by a drafty window, I might add!):

Here's what I harvested. Is it not lovely stuff...especially the red leaf?!

And here's what I left behind, for another salad in another week or two (and now the herbs have more room to groove):

I'd say my little gardening experiment, though far from cost-efficient, has been lots of fun, so easy to do, and quite successful! I'm particularly impressed because I made my own way with the system and broke some of the cardinal rules. First off, I am using two different kinds of seed pods--four herbs that came with the machine (the classic model with a full-on water pump and seven slots) and three lettuce pods that were made for the newer versions of the machine with a water bubbler and only six slots. You can use the latter in the former, but not the other way around. And if you use all of the new-style pods, you have to either modify the machine or cut them down so they'll fit (and you have to cover the seventh hole with tin foil or a milk jug cap to inhibit mold growth in the water reservoir below).

Bollocks to that, I said to myself! I put three lettuces in the middle, where the long plastic pods could hang down without hitting any obstacles. Then on the sides, I put the squatty pods of herbs (above the partitions in the basin of the machine). This leads me to broken rule #2--you're not supposed to mix and match crops! But my thinking was, the light and nutrition needs of these plants couldn't be all that different. So I chose to put the lights on "salad greens" mode for more light for the lettuces which grow so fast, then I could cut the leaves back and give the herbs enough light to grow once they were more mature. Though my plan was unconventional and flew in the face of standard Aerogarden wisdom, it's worked like a charm thus far!

So, I had my first winter harvest of tender, hydroponic greens! What was a girl to do to honor them? Homemade dressing seemed like a requirement, and I decided to make a lovely and seasonal grapefruit vinaigrette. Sometime over winter break, I was perusing the fine blog, Homesick Texan, and she had done a post about how she never liked grapefruit because it was too sour for her, until she learned to broil it with a sugary topping. Then some of her readers wrote in to tell her about a variety of grapefruit from Texas called Rio Star that is heralded as being super-sweet on its own. I looked into mail-ordering some of this famed citrus, but with shipping, it was prohibitively expensive. So color me happy when I rounded the bend at Sam's Club a week ago and found a big bag of the Rio Stars right there and for only about five bucks! (Plattsburghers, take note.)

To make the dressing, I started by supreming one of the beautiful, ruby red grapefruits. Oh, the aroma was heavenly! My thought was to squeeze another one for the juice, but I had plenty just from squeezing the membranes (that sounds positively pornographic!) and the cut-away rinds that still had some flesh clinging to them, not to mention the juice that collected in the bowl that held the grapefruit segments, which I promptly poured off into the vinaigrette. Once I had dealt with the fruit, I prepared the following yummy dressing:

Grapefruit Vinaigrette

1 large ruby red (preferably, Rio Star!) grapefruit
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey, optional
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon fresh herbs of your choice, chopped (I went ahead and harvested a little parsley, thyme, and dill from my Aerogarden!)
two good pinches of salt
generous grinding of black pepper

Peel the rind off of the grapefruit with a sharp knife, removing all white pith. Supreme the grapefruit (cut into segments, slicing inside the membrane on each side) and reserve the segments. Squeeze the remaining membranes and the peels which should yield close to a 1/2 cup of juice.

Whisk in the olive oil, then the mustard and honey until dressing comes together and thickens. Stir in the shallots, herbs, and seasoning. Chill until ready to serve.

Now, what to put this fine homemade dressing on? Looking around the kitchen, I spied a perfectly ripe Haas avocado (oh, how I LURVE them!) that I peeled and sliced, and because I love any combination of seafood and avocado, I grabbed some medium shrimp out of the freezer and defrosted them under running water for a few minutes. Finally, I very thinly sliced some red onion and commenced to construct a most elegant and tasty salad full of winter's bounty. I tossed my lovely lettuce leaves (again, such fine alliteration!) in a generous amount of the vinaigrette, then threw in half of the avocado, a handful of shrimp, about a quarter of the red onion, gave it another quick toss, and then plated it. I rushed off to take a picture, and then grabbed a fork and dove right in so that my salad didn't get all soggy. About halfway through, I realized that I had forgotten the most important part of the salad--the beautiful grapefruit segments that I had reserved! ARRRGGGHH! And now I didn't have enough salad left to photograph properly. DANG IT! So even though the picture below is nice enough, and the salad tasted good without the grapefruit pieces, you must trust me when I tell you that it's sooooo much better if you remember the fruit that you've carefully cut and set aside! SHEESH!

Nevertheless, behold the splendor of the....Shrimp, Avocado and Grapefruit Salad, or if you prefer, Winter's Treasure Salad!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I swear!

I really do have some proper posts coming down the pike (woo...nice alliteration!), but I am suffering from a raging ear infection, plus, the new semester is already wearing me out! But the weekend is coming, praise be, and I hope to get caught up then--on sleep, on household chores, and yes, on blogging.

In the meantime, I have been meaning to show you all something very fun. As you may remember, over Christmas, I discovered the fabulous jalapeno Bubba Burgers. So, as is my way, I dropped the company an email, telling them how much I enjoyed their fine product, and describing my "recipe" for how best to enjoy those spicy, Texas-shaped patties. I got a very nice reply from a real person at the company, thanking me for my email and asking if they could use it (and my recipe) on their website. Of course, I told them they could, and in return, they surprised me by FedEx'ing all of THIS swag:

That's two short-sleeved and one long-sleeved tee shirt, four pens, four key chains, three dollar-off coupons, and one coupon for a free box of Bubbas! SCORE! See how it pays to be nice? :-)

Speaking of Bubba food, I hope you all had an exciting Superbowl Sunday? Despite the fact that I partied alone, I still made some good eats, including lemon-garlic wings, Buffalo chicken dip, and the best seven-layer dip that I've ever made. I started with one can of refried beans with some sweet ancho taco sauce and chopped, pickled jalapenos mixed in. Next went a double avocado layer (two avocados mashed with lemon juice, garlic powder, and salt), and then a sour cream layer. The fourth layer (and I think this was what made it so fantastic!) was leftover Texas Caviar/black-eyed pea dip (well-drained), topped with shredded Mexi-cheese, sliced black olives, and chopped green onions. SO GOOD! I only made an 8x8 dish, but I've been happily eating it all week!

I would also like to recommend the following cookie recipes, though I don't have any pictures. (Use your imagination, and trust me, they're both super-easy and very YUMMY!)

Soft Ginger-Molasses Cookies
King Arthur Flour)

1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 large eggs
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup crystalized ginger, finely chopped (optional, but gives the cookies a great kick!)
sugar, for coating; pearl sugar; sparkling white (coarse) sugar; or granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment or Silpats) two baking sheets.
1) In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until they're light and fluffy.
2) Beat in the molasses, baking soda, salt, and spices.
3) Add the eggs, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything is incorporated. 4) Stir in the flour.
5) Scoop the soft dough into 1 ½" balls; a tablespoon cookie scoop works well here.
6) Roll them in granulated sugar, coarse sugar, or pearl sugar.
7) Space the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 2 1/2" between them.
8) Bake them for ten minutes. The centers will look soft and puffy; that's OK.
9) Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool them on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.
10) To make easy, pretty shaped cookies, use a cutter smaller than the cookie to cut a shape from the center of each cookie, while the cookies are still mildly warm. Serve both the original cookies, and the shapes you've cut from them.

Oatmeal Scotchies
(Source: adapted from Annette Rock and Amanda Cannon via
Food Network)

1 cup soft butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 medium eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup butterscotch chips (I swapped out Heath chocolate toffee bits here, as I loathe butterscotch chips!)
3/4 cup chopped pecans (I micro-toasted mine for a couple of minutes first)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease cake-shaped pan*.

Using an electric mixer, cream butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs and vanilla together. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Scoop into pan. Bake for approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on baking sheet or cooling rack.

*This recipe is designed for one big celebration cookie. I made traditional cookies using a scoop, and baked them for a shorter time, of course. They spread a lot--almost like Florentine cookies--but I loved them for their crispy, chewy goodness! I think the chocolate toffee bits really MADE these cookies!

And lastly, even though tomorrow marks week five for my Aerogarden, here is the (tardy) picture of my herbs and lettuces at one month. Can you even believe it? What a fun toy to help a poor gardener endure one of the coldest winters on record!