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10 Reasons to Rediscover Cauliflower

Yes, I think the cauliflower would creep quietly in. Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities. ~Nigel Slater, Tender Greens

I’ve never heard anyone shouting from the rooftops about their endless love for cauliflower. Nor does it have the detestable reputation of brussels sprouts, lima beans, and the like. I don’t remember having much of an opinion at all about cauliflower, until I began my quest to increase the ratio of produce on my plate.

Guilt began creeping in whenever I would indulge in making my all-time favorite comfort food, homemade macaroni & cheese. At some point the idea of vegetables and cheesy, bubbly goodness merged (long before I ever considered this dilema.) Cauliflower, I remembered, is commonly coated in cheese sauce. I began substituting part of the pasta with chunks of steamed cauliflower. When I went on my gluten-free streak, I departed from pasta all together.

The funny thing is, I found I actually liked it. Yes, there will always be a special place in my heart for a big bowl of noodles. But whenever I replace a processed food with a vegetable, it makes the dish seem so much more a-live. A little sweet, a little nutty, a nicely cooked piece of cauliflower is a beautiful thing.

Here are my top ten reasons why this underappreciated, white-headed stepchild is worth a second look:

1)    Even though it’s not a dark leafy green, cauliflower is healthier than you might expect.

Whole Foods adopted Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring system to help shoppers make healthier choices. Their website has listings of these scores. Anything below 50 is considered not-so healthy. Kale, mustard and collard greens score 1,000, the highest possible. Cauliflower scores 295, which is higher than tomatoes, butternut squash, and any of the top listed beans, fruit, nuts and seeds, or whole grains.

2) Cauliflower is relatively cheap.

Prices range anywhere from $1-2 a pound, or even less depending on season and availability.

3) It’s available almost year round, and not just because of cold storage.

It is known as more of a cool weather vegetable, but varieties of cauliflower are in season all year long, except July and August.

It’s best to buy it whole. Curds should be tight, and even if you don’t eat the leaves they tell the story of how long it’s been since harvest.

4) It’s easy to grow in most climates.

Cauliflower can be grown in the winter in mild climates, and in spring and autumn in cooler areas. It will withstand light freezing. (For this information I consulted “The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide.” It has brief, but handy little descriptions for growing most herb and vegetables.)

I planted my very first “cheddar” cauliflower this last fall. It wintered nicely, and is now engaged in some interesting sprouting activities.

5) There are some interesting varieties to explore.

Besides plain old white, other colors that occur in nature (not dyed!), include green, purple, and orange. I don’t notice any major difference in flavor, although reportedly these other varieties don’t have as much of the bitterness that can be present in the standard white. (Personally I think that may have more to do with freshness.)

Nutritionally speaking, orange cauliflower has 25 times the level of vitamin A, and the purple in cauliflower is caused by the same anti-oxidants found in purple cabbage and red wine (according to wiki).

Green, turreted Romanesco was clearly cultivated beneath the red clouds of Mars. This is probably my favorite variety, just because of it’s dramatic, unearthly presence. Oh, and it tastes good too. This beauty came in my FFTY CSA box.

6) Cauliflower cooks with little fuss or fanfare.

Cut into 1” pieces and steam for about 7 minutes (in a large, covered bowl with a little water in the microwave, stirring frequently) then season or add a flavorful sauce. Or, sauté bite-sized pieces for 6-7 minutes over medium heat in a little butter or olive oil till the florets begin to brown, then braise- add a small amount of flavorful liquid and cover for a few more minutes till tender.

7) It is quite versatile, culinarily speaking.

Not sure what to do with it? Recipes abound! Puree it (the better to sneak more veggies into your unsuspecting kids’ dinners because of its neutral color and flavor, my dear!) Roasted, pickled, sautéed, gratin-ed, raw, etc. So many possibilities, so little time.

And of course, cauliflower is a good replacement for pasta – this vegetable is made for cheese sauce. (Check out my gluten-free, dairy-free cauliflower gratin here.)

8) We all need to eat more vegetables anyway.

Michael Pollon said it most succinctly: Eat (real) Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. ‘Nuff said.

9) It’s highly photogenic.

Even from the back.

10) Why does there always have to be 10? Ok, fine. Here’s my latest cauliflower recipe for you to sample:

Simple Curried Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 head cauliflower, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp paprika
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
¼ cup water, or so
salt to taste

Directions:

1)    Heat oil in a large skillet to medium high heat. While the pan is heating, trim off stem and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces.

2)    When the oil is hot but not smoking, add garlic. Cook just till garlic begins to brown, then add cauliflower.

3)    Sautee cauliflower for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add water, and cover till cauliflower is tender and water is mostly gone. Add a little more water if necessary to achieve desired toothsome-ness.

4)    Season with garam masala, paprika, and salt to taste. Finish with red wine vinegar and remove from heat. Serve warm.

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Ode to Kale

When I first got kale in my CSA box last winter, I was a little intimidated. Tough, leathery greens, stiff stalks, essence of bitter seaweed, are you sure this is good for me? According to my Whole Foods grocery sack, kale and collards score 1,000, the highest nutritional value you can get from a single food. I don’t normally take health advice from a paper bag, but it is a rather impressive number. My only question was, how could I make it taste good?

I’ve heard of some interesting techniques when it comes to winter greens. Massaging the leaves with salt to make them tender sounds ridiculously intimate and labor intensive. Just the other day I read about brining kale so you can create a wilted salad with a creamy vinagrette, not a bad idea if you are into raw food. (I personally haven’t had a raw kale salad I’ve been able to smile through.) Last winter I made a chard pesto that was divine (recipe here). I’ve also tried roasting kale to make crispy  “kale chips.” Those were actually pretty tasty, but the recipe I used needs finessing to evenly distribute the seasoning, a project for another day.

My favorite method I’ve adapted is quick, it takes about 20 minutes, and is reminiscent of Southern greens. I eat it for breakfast because I’m the kind of weirdo that prefers olives to doughnuts at 7 a.m. Popeye ain’t got nothing on me!

Simple Southern Style Kale

1 bunch kale
½ onion, diced (optional)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup broth or water
2-3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet to medium heat. Cook onion, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until softened and starting to brown.

Remove thick stalks from kale and discard. (You can chop up the stalks and cook these too, but it takes longer to soften them. I’m not usually that patient.) Roughly chop kale and add to the onions.

Sautee for a few minutes stirring frequently until it starts to wilt down.

Add broth or water and cover the pan (I use my pizza pan as a lid since my large skillet didn’t come with one). Cook for about 5-10 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. 

Turn off the heat and add apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Crispy bacon bits or diced ham and a glass of orange juice make this a complete breakfast.

Ode to Kale

lacy, leathery dragon wings
bitter turned sweet
by heat, vinegar, and salt

Popeye’s no match
for my breakfast Knock Out

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A Pumpkin Latte Detour

Have you ever heard of a sweet potato latte? Apparently it has become popular in Japantown, San Francisco (article link here). I was intrigued because I’m always looking for new ways to incorporate more vegetables in my day. It had never occurred to me to put them in my breakfast beverage!

I set out to make my own at home, and of course my mission took a detour. I had two butternut squash waiting to be roasted so I did those at the same time I roasted the sweet potato. (I use butternut squash puree in place of canned pumpkin, and keep it stocked in my freezer.) I made pumpkin bread with the fresh puree, and then had an idea. If sweet potato works in a latte, why not pumpkin (aka butternut squash)?

It instantly became my new favorite breakfast drink, happily taking the place of my chai latte since I’m not doing caffeine right now. I measured out the puree into little ramekins and put them in my fridge so I have a quick warm drink in the making for the next few days. I’m not sure if canned would taste as good as fresh, but I think it would be worth a try.

According to the article, this drink is traditionally caffeine free, but espresso can be added for kicks.

Pumpkin Latte

1 cup milk
4 Tablespoons pumpkin or butternut squash puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons honey or sugar
a tiny pinch (less than 1/8 teaspoon) each of ground cinnamon, ginger, and either allspice, or cardomom

Mix all ingredients in a microwave safe cup. Heat till warm, 1-1 ½ minutes. Froth in a blender or with a handheld frother.

I still intend to try the sweet potato latte, once my butternut fixation eases. I’ll try to keep you posted.

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Cat Eye Cookies Just in Time for Halloween

Believe it or not, I’ve had this “cat in the bag” since July.

The idea for “cat eye cookies”came from one of my writerly friends, Dawn Lairamore. (Dawn writes middle grade adventure stories. Her second book, a fun fractured fairytale called Ivy and the Meanstalk, just came out this month. Congratulations Dawn!)

I also have to thank my husband for the cookie concept. I told him I wanted create a cat eye cookie recipe, and he suggested doing a thumbprint cookie. Brilliant! I had recently made jam thumprints from The Everything Kids’ Cookbook. I decided to adapt that recipe by making the dough chocolate with a custard filling instead of jam. The custard filling was inspired by my favorite Black Bottom Cupcakes in the Joy of Cooking. Not only are these cookies fun to make, they are not overly sweet and addictively delicious!

Cat Eye Cookies  

Makes 24-36 cookies (depending on the size of your cookies)

Ingredients:

1 cup butter (2 sticks) softened
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 & 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
white sugar to coat
About half a bag regular-sized semisweet chocolate chips

Filling:

4 oz cream cheese, softened
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 egg yolk

Directions:

1)   Preheat oven to 350º. Set oven rack in the center slots.

2)   Cream butter and brown sugar. Add egg and vanilla.

3)   In a separate bowl sift flour, cocoa, and salt. Add to wet ingredients. Mix well. Dough will be thick and heavy like play dough.

4)   Refrigerate dough while you make the filling. For filling: Cream the cream cheese and sugar till smooth. Add egg yolk and blend well.

5)   Shape dough into 1” balls. Roll in white sugar, then place 2” apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

6)   Make a longish thumbprint in each cookie. Pinch the long ends back together and shape into a slanty cat eye.

7)   Put ½ teaspoon filling in each eye socket. For pupils put two chocolate chips, bottoms together, in the center of each filled cookie. (This is one of those rare cases where you may have extra pupils, and it’s perfectly okay to eat them.)

8)   Bake at 350º for 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

9)   Stare back.

10)   Take them into a dark room and see if they glow like real cats’ eyes.

11)   Dig out the gooey pupil and whites with your finger and eat them first.

12)   Place them gently over your spouse’s eye sockets and take creepy pictures.

13)   Or, you can just eat them like a normal person.

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Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad

I love olives, all of them. Kalamata, black, green with piminto hearts. I love pickles, pepperoncini, marinated artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, fresh pickled beets…you get the picture. Anything with a nice, vinegary tang makes me happy. My husband still tells the story, in a slightly horrified voice, of the first time he saw me eat Kalamata olives at 7 a.m. I have nothing to say for myself. This is perfectly normal behavior. Isn’t it?

My Aunt Joann used to make this wonderful thing called Cumin Carrots. It’s simply steamed-till-tender carrots marinated in a fresh, zippy vinaigrette with a healthy overdose of garlic. I often make it in the middle of winter when I’m missing summer veggies. Lemon juice and vinegar go a long way towards brightening my rainy days and my carrots.

All summer long I’ve had this rather explicable urge to pickle fresh green beans. When a lovely bag of beans arrived on my doorstep in my CSA box, I was ready to set off on my latest pickling adventure. For some reason, my Aunt Joann’s Cumin Carrots came to mind. I decided to adapt her recipe by using green beans, cilantro instead of parsley… 

and some fresh jalapenos for a little kick (hi-ya!) It worked beautifully!

Do you see the lion's tear?

Now that I know green beans and carrots are interchangeable in this recipe, I’m tempted to try cauliflower. A little red bell pepper would be good too. Ooh, asparagus! The possibilities are endless!

Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad  

Ingredients:

1 lb fresh green beans trimmed, halved, and steamed
½ lb carrots sliced ¼” diagonally and steamed
9 small cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
¼ cup white vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons salt
2 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1-2 jalapenos, sliced (optional)
½ bunch fresh chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley, or 1 Tablespoon dried

Directions:

1)   Steam trimmed green beans in the microwave. Put a little water in the bottom of a bowl and cover with a paper towel. Microwave for 2-3 minutes until tender-crisp, stirring after every minute to ensure even cooking. (Remember, they keep cooking after you take them out of the microwave. Let them sit for a few minutes and then check doneness before cooking them longer.)

2)   Do the same with the sliced carrots, but cook only 1-2 minutes.

3)   Whisk together dressing. Stir in cooled veggies and spoon mixture into a jar or other non-reactive lidded container (glass is best). Refrigerate 3-4 hours before serving, better overnight.

This lasts at least a week in the fridge (unless I’m around). It’s perfect for Greek toga parties, potlucks, or as a midmorning snack straight from the jar.

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Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

A sun-ripened tomato is summer in a sphere. My garden dream of having so many tomatoes I would need to make huge batches of pasta sauce to freeze just so they wouldn’t go to waste have puttered out.

My three beautiful heirlooms pulled a few tricks,

but when all was said and done, didn’t put on as big of a show as I had hoped. I blame our uncharacteristically mild weather, and my new attempt at growing them in pots. Next year, my tomatoes will be free range.

Still dreaming of fresh pasta sauce, I bought 6 lbs of tomatoes for $3 at the farmer’s market. I’ve experimented a few times now with broiling as an homage to the Mexican method of charring. It has become my new favorite way of making a fresh Italian tomato sauce. It’s a super quick and simple method that brings out the sweetness, but doesn’t fully cook them so the sauce retains a nice freshness.

Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

6 lbs tomatoes (obviously you can make a smaller batch, but I like to cook big and freeze the rest for a lazy day)
3-4 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cloves garlic
fistful of fresh basil leaves
a little salt and pepper

1)   Preheat broiler.

2)   Wash and dry tomatoes and remove stems. Single layer them in a rimmed cookie sheet or broiler pan without the grate. Drizzle with a little olive oil.

3)   Broil for 10-15 minutes, two rows down from the top rack, till the peels blister and start to blacken.

4)   While the ‘maters cook and cool, mince garlic and basil and put in blender with 3-4 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt & pepper. (Cue the whining-Why do I have to cut stuff up before it goes in the blender? Because dear Henry, then you can blend less and have a thicker sauce.)

5)   Once tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and toss into blender (minus peelings).

6)   Blend it up in two batches, then season to taste in a large bowl.

7)   Freeze in plastic storage bags or containers. (I measure them into 1, 2, or 3 cup servings.) 6 lbs makes about 5 cups of sauce, and will last several months in the freezer.

8)   To reheat, cut off the plastic bag. Defrost in a bowl in the microwave for about 4-5 minutes at regular heat, stirring every 1-2 minutes.

There is nothing like a little summer sun to help recharge the spirits, but in the midst of a wet, gray winter, hopefully this will carry you through. Mangia!

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Carpe Diem! Chocolate Peanut Butter Potato Chip Cupcakes

I know I promised a non-dairy series in my last post. I still intend to deliver on that, but time always marches on revealing new paths. Feel free to protest. This is the United States after all.

Tangential trajectory for today: Cupcakes and Labor Day.

Today we celebrate the economic and social contributions of our workers with a day of rest and parties. It’s also the symbolic end of summer, picnics, and BBQ season. (Of course we Californians barbeque and surf year round.) Ladies stop wearing white, and the new school year begins if it hasn’t already. Fall begins to sneak in cooler mornings, and the skies fire up and darken earlier each evening.

Cupcakes are the perfect dessert for picnics and barbeques. No need to fuss with utensils or plates. You can grab one on your way to the three-legged race. There are many reasons one shouldn’t eat cupcakes, but I can think of one very good reason we should: Carpe diem!

My Aunt Rose has a framed saying on her kitchen wall. At the top in big letters it declares, “Calories don’t count if…” followed by a long list: if it’s a holiday, a birthday, it’s homemade, etc. This definitely influenced my eating philosophy. I try to eat healthy on a day-to-day basis, but I do believe calories shouldn’t count if it’s a special day, and someone cared enough to make something special to share.

Oh look, today is Labor Day, a holiday! And what could be more all American than chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter-potato chip frosting? Not much, really. Cacao beans, peanuts, and potatoes are all native to the Americas.

Back up a sec, did she just say potato chips on cupcakes? Yes, yes I did. You know deep down a salted crunch goes perfectly with peanutty frosting and chocolaty baked goodness. Maybe not so deep down if you’ve ever been intrigued by bacon cupcakes, or salted caramel.

These cupcakes came to life a few months ago when I set out to make a dessert using potato chips. I began by choosing a classic flavor combination known to play nice in both savory and sweet applications: chocolate and peanut butter. My first concept was a chocolate tart topped with peanut butter frosting and crushed kettle-cooked potato chips.

I tweaked my favorite chocolate sheet cake recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s New Best Recipes by using more chocolate, and Greek yogurt instead of buttermilk. I wanted a denser cake, and it worked pretty well if a bit dry. I baked it in two round cake pans instead of a 9×13 to get a thinner cake. I debated on layering, but didn’t want to be ridiculously excessive so I opted to use only one layer.

Besides experimenting with the cake texture, there were two minor problems. First up, leftovers. Unless you have the perfect-sized group, it is difficult to (physically) eat the whole tart at once. Surprisingly, sogginess was not the issue. However, the chippies staled in less than a day. Cupcakes were the obvious solution; they’re single serving and can be topped with chips just before eating.

The second minor problem, kettle chips aren’t salty enough for a good contrast. I compensated by sprinkling the cake with a little sea salt. This worked well, but I decided to try saltier chips next time.

The second time I tried this dessert was for my in-laws annual 4th of July block party. The cupcakes were nicely portable, and Lay’s potato chips were perfectly salty, but I still wasn’t thrilled with the cake. I tweaked the chocolate sheet cake again using plain yogurt instead of Greek yogurt because it has more moisture, but the chocolaty-ness was deeper in the Greek version. Back to the drawing board!

Today, I tried a different chocolate cake recipe, this time Cook’s Country’s homemade version of a Hostess Chocolate Cream Cupcake. I wanted a dense, not too sweet cake with dark chocolate flavor. In other words, the polar opposite of a cake mix. I was intrigued by this recipe’s technique of “blooming the cocoa” with boiling water. It calls for much less chocolate than my favorite sheet cake, (only 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate & 1/3 cup cocoa powder versus 8 oz semisweet & ¾ cup cocoa powder) but I hoped this blooming method might make up the difference. Also, I liked the sugar ratio of the chocolate cream cupcakes better – ¾ cup sugar to 1 cup flour v. 1 ½ cups sugar to 1 ¼ cups flour.

They were fun and simple to make. Before even tasting, my three year old said, “It smells like chocolate cupcakes! This is the yummiest thing I ever ate.”

“Mommy, it’s kind of gooey.”

As soon as they were out of the oven, she showed me which one was hers.

To top them off, I did a new take on my peanut butter frosting. It was a bit too rich, so I cut the cream cheese, butter, and some of the sugar. I was happy with my new version, much more peanut flavor. Chopped salted peanuts would be a great way to boost the peanut flavor even further.

Peanut Butter Frosting, Take II

Ingredients:
½ cup creamy natural peanut butter (I used Earth Balance)
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 Tablespoons milk

Directions:
Blend all ingredients in a food processor, just until smooth. This makes enough for about 16-18 cupcakes.

Don’t forget the potato chips! Put a handful of chips in a small bowl and crush them up with your fingers. Press the frosted cupcake into the chips, and fill in the gaps with more chip crumbs. Eat immediately, napkins optional.

Despite what they say, just one is more than satisfactory.

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