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Archive for January, 2010

These might quite possibly be the Best Cookies Ever.

I based this recipe on one in Cook’s Illustrated; the combination of dried cherries and pecans had instant appeal for me.  Really, I couldn’t stop eating them.

  • 1 1/4 c whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 t baking power
  • 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1 1/4 c old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 handful pecans
  • 1 handful dried cherries
  • 3 to 4 oz. dark chocolate
  • 1 egg
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 3/4 c butter, softened
  • 1 1/2  c brown sugar

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl.  Put the oats into a second large bowl.  Crush the pecans with your hands as you add them to the oats; add the cherries to the oats and pecans.  Put the chocolate in a plastic bag (or leave it in the wrapper) and bash it with a rolling pin to break into pieces.  (This step is a lot of fun.)  Add the chocolate to the oat mixture.  In a third bowl, combine the egg and vanilla.

With a mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed, and sampling the mixture copiously, also as needed.  When the butter-sugar mixture is well-combined, light and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla; mix until well-incorporated.  With the mixer on low, carefully add the flour mixture; mix just until combined.  Add the oat mixture, and mix until all of the ingredients are well distributed.

Grab a handful of cookie dough, roll into a ball and smoosh onto the baking sheet.  Make sure to smoosh it well, since you need to flatten the cookie dough out for it to spread properly.  It should look like a thick, juicy hamburger patty if you do it right.  Repeat the process; you should be able to fit about six cookies on the sheet (this recipe will yield about a dozen and a half big cookies).   Bake for about 20 minutes, until the edges are brown but the centers still look a little underdone.  Try to resist eating them before they have cooled down.  Serve with ice cream or vanilla pudding and unbridled enthusiasm.

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If there is a cardinal rule to vegetables, it is this:  When in doubt, toss them with olive oil and roast them at 400 degrees.

The picture above shows the contents of a grab bag I bought at the farmer’s market last weekend.  Instead of asking myself what in the world I should do with five pounds of sunchokes, parsnips, carrots, beets and turnips, I decided to roast all of them first and figure the rest out later.  This makes all the difference in the world when it comes to putting a weeknight meal on the table.  A raw beet must be scrubbed, trimmed, roasted for an hour and then peeled in order to be incorporated into a dish—a daunting prospect on a Tuesday night.  A pre-scrubbed, trimmed and roasted beet, however, is a ready-to-use ingredient, something that keeps well in the fridge and is ready at a moment’s notice for a quick supper.

After roasting all of the root vegetables for an hour, the parsnips were rather soft (perfect for a puree or a mash), the carrots, sunchokes and turnips were just right, and the beets were about fifteen minutes shy of perfection.  The next night, I drew inspiration from a dish made by a friend of mine, the Future Mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania, who likes to serve roasted beets and carrots together.  This salad is further evidence that one should always have some cooked quinoa in the fridge, and of the transformative power of a little bit of cheese.  (If you wanted to make it vegan, I would add some flaky sea salt and a little lemon juice or sherry vinegar to compensate for the feta’s saltiness and tanginess; you could also add a little picada for good measure.)

  • 1 lb. beets, scrubbed, trimmed, roasted and peeled
  • 1 lb. carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and roasted
  • 1 c cooked quinoa
  • handful of parsley (and/or mint, cilantro, rosemary, thyme or almost any other herb)
  • 1/4 c feta

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Cut the beets into bite-size pieces and toss with a little olive oil.  Place in a baking or gratin dish and roast for 15 minutes, until the edges start to caramelize.  Transfer beets to a large mixing bowl.  Chop carrots into bite-size pieces and add to mixing bowl along with quinoa.  Stir the beets, carrots and quinoa together,  add salt and pepper to taste and then transfer mixture back to the baking dish.  Roast for another 15 minutes or so, until vegetables are perfectly tender and some of the quinoa starts to crisp up.  Transfer salad to the mixing bowl.  Chop the parsley and add to the salad.  Crumble feta into the salad.  Stir everything together, check seasoning and serve.

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This is one of those non-recipes:  Once you’ve used a vanilla bean for pudding or another use, take the bean pod and bury it in a jar of sugar, which will thus become suffused with vanilla flavor.  Stir the sugar in your coffee, sprinkle it on fruit, use it in baking… the possibilities are limitless.

I decided to categorize this as “vegetarian” instead of “vegan” because you should only do this with spent pods (otherwise, you’re wasting valuable vanilla seeds) and I’m guessing that, four times out of five, you will be immersing the vanilla bean in milk or cream before you use it in the sugar.  I also chose to keep the vanilla sugar in the refrigerator, just to keep any residual milk on the vanilla bean from spoiling.

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This is my adapation of a dish that a former roommate of mine found in a cookbook by Marcella Hazan.  When I first tried it, I wasn’t too thrilled by the prospect of penne with carrots and zucchini:  Doesn’t this sound like pasta with rabbit food?  However, the key to this recipe, as with many other vegetable dishes, is slow and careful caramelization.  A very short list of ingredients magically becomes a rich and distinctive accompaniment to the pasta, with no trace of pasta primavera-syndrome.  (Pasta primavera, that wedding-reception and airplane-meal vegetarian-option staple, is an unruly melange of poorly cooked vegetables tossed willy-nilly with noodles and the barest vestige of some kind of sauce.  It is almost a cross between a salad and pasta, a dish with no cohesion, depth of flavor, character or taste.  Pasta primavera gives a bad name not only to vegetarian food, but to all of pasta in general, and perhaps to the season of spring as well.)

  • 2 large carrots, peeled
  • 2 small or 1 large zucchini
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 pinch of red pepper flakes
  • olive oil (as needed)
  • 1/2 lb. penne or other pasta, regular or whole wheat
  • handful of parsley
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating (optional)

Cut the carrots and zucchini into 1/2 inch-wide matchsticks; if you are using penne, try to cut the vegetables to the same length as the pasta.  Meanwhile, peel the garlic clove and put it, the bay leaf and the red pepper flakes into a wide skillet with a few tablespoons of olive oil.  Saute over medium-high heat.  When the oil is nice and hot and shimmery, carefully add all of the carrots and zucchini along with a good pinch of salt and some black pepper.  Saute over medium-high heat for five minutes until the vegetables start to brown.  Stir, and turn the heat down to medium-low.  Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and nicely browned all over, about 30 minutes.  (If desired, discard the bay leaf.)

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil.  When the vegetables are almost done, add the pasta and a few pinches of salt to the water.  When the pasta is still a little shy of al dente (after about a minute or so less than the cooking time given on the package), drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 c of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the vegetable mixture.  Stir in a little of the cooking water to make the mixture “saucy” and cook over medium-high heat.  When the pasta is ready, chop the parsley and add it.

It’s amazing what a little parsley does to a beige dish such as this.

Check for seasoning; if you have some particularly nice extra-virgin olive oil, feel free to drizzle a little on the pasta.  Serve in warmed bowls with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, if desired.

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Pozole

This is a food mill, one of the top ten handiest tools that I have in the kitchen.  I recently used it to make pozole, maybe my favorite thing about Mexican food after tacos.  (Well, I also love menudo, but we don’t cook tripe too often around here.)  Pozole (or posole, I’m not sure if there’s a difference) is a hearty Mexican stew featuring hominy, which are corn kernels that have been nixtamalized (treated with lye to remove the bran and outer hull).  You can buy it canned or dried; using canned hominy makes this recipe very convenient.  Pozole usually has pork in it (which is delicious, of course), but the hominy by itself serves to make this a distinctive and delicious soup.

  • 1 large can of tomatoes (14.5 oz or so)
  • 3-4 dried chile peppers, such as guajillos
  • olive oil (as needed)
  • 1 t cumin seeds
  • 1 t dried oregano
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 bottle of pilsner or lager
  • 2 c vegetable stock
  • hot sauce, cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes to taste
  • 1 large can of hominy (14.5 oz.)
  • 1 handful of cilantro
  • 2 small limes or 1 large lime

In a medium saucepan, heat up the tomatoes with their juice over medium heat.  Remove the stems from the chiles; cut them open lengthwise and scrape out the seeds (you can include some of the seeds for extra heat, if you like).  Add the chiles to the tomatoes.  Simmer the tomato-chile mixture for about 30 minutes; the tomatoes will reduce and thicken somewhat, and the chiles will become soft.

If you have a food mill, place it over a bowl.  Pass the tomato-chile mixture through the food mill and reserve.  (If you don’t have a food mill, put the tomato-chile mixture in a food processor or blender.  Puree, and then pass through a sieve to weed out the chile skins.)

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan (it can be the same one that was used for the tomato-chile mixture; you don’t even need to wash it), heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat; add the garlic clove and bay leaf.  Grind up the cumin seeds in a mortar-and-pestle or a spice grinder (i.e., a coffee grinder set aside for grinding spices).

Add the ground cumin and the oregano to the oil.  Dice the onion; add it with several pinches of salt to the oil.  Saute until the onion becomes golden, about 5 minutes.  Add the beer; raise the heat to high and stir to deglaze the pan.  Cook for about two minutes, then add the tomato-chile mixture and vegetable stock.

At this juncture, you can add some sort of pepper substance for extra heat.  In the same way that some rock and roll producers in their pursuit of wretched excess try to create a “wall of sound”, I like to create a “wall of heat” in my dishes.  To create a multi-pronged attack on my taste buds, I like to incorporate a little pimentón, a little cayenne pepper and a little Sriracha, just so that my mouth never knows what’s going to hit it next.  You do what you like.

Rinse the hominy and add to the soup.  Reduce the heat to a simmer; cook until hominy is heated through.  Add the lime juice and cilantro.

This soup would be great with some pieces of avocado, and, while it is a vegan soup by itself, it is great with some queso fresco or sour cream.

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Vanilla Bean Pudding

You don’t need to have friends who travel to foreign locales and bring you back exotic ingredients in order to make excellent vegetarian food, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Our friends, the Bearded Quaker and his wife, Nurse Lanois, recently made a ten-day tour of India.  In gratitude for our excellent dog-walking, chicken-feeding and all-around zoo-keeping services, they returned with several bags of spice mixtures and a bag of vanilla beans for us.

I had never cooked with a vanilla bean before.   I had heard that they were culinary gold, magical ingredients to which vanilla extract simply could not compare.  How best to use this wonderful gift, I pondered.  What would be the best expression of the vanilla bean, the purest, most intense, ur-vanilla experience?

Pudding, of course.

Now, do not despair.  You can make this recipe.  You can buy vanilla beans at your supermarket or, for a better value, online.  You could also make this recipe with vanilla extract, and it will taste great.  But perhaps you are thinking, as I did for a long time, that pudding is one of those things that comes in a little plastic cup next to the Lunchables in the supermarket.  It’s not the sort of thing that anyone actually makes, is it?

It is, and it’s much easier than you might think.  Pudding is, essentially, milk thickened with cornstarch.  (Tempting, I know.)  It requires a little bit of stirring and a little bit of patience, but the result is worlds better than anything that comes out of a “Pak”.  And vanilla is only the beginning:  the sky is the limit for flavors.  For vegan possibilities, you could use coconut milk (for coconut pudding, obviously) or soy milk, but I’m not sure I condone the latter.

  • 2 1/2 c whole milk, separated
  • 1/2 c sugar*
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 T cornstarch

*The recipe on which I based this, from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, called for 2 2/3 c sugar for 2 1/2 c milk.  Fortunately, I did a double-take  before I started scooping out the sugar.  That can’t be right, I said.  Equal parts sugar and milk?  I consulted with a recipe in the Joy of Cooking which called for 1/3 c sugar for 2 c milk:  a one-to-six ratio!  Clearly, there is some sort of typo in Mr. Bittman’s book, or he has an unparalleled sweet tooth.

Put 2 cups of the milk in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat; stir in the sugar.  Cut open the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape all of the seeds into the milk mixture; toss the empty pod into the milk mixture as well.  Cook the milk mixture until it just starts to steam.

Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of milk with the cornstarch thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps.  (I actually used 3 T of cornstarch when I made this the other day, but it came out a little too thick, almost pasty in texture, so I’m recommending 2 T [1/8 c].)   Remove the vanilla bean from the saucepan and reserve for another use, such as Vanilla Sugar.  Turn the heat up under the saucepan to medium-high.  Stir in the milk-cornstarch mixture.  Stir constantly.  Nothing will happen for a few minutes.  Suddenly, the mixture will begin to thicken, almost as if by magic.  Turn the heat down to low and continue to stir for 2 minutes.  Pour the pudding into a bowl or into individual serving dishes.  Cover the pudding with plastic wrap, pressing right onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.   Chill for at least two hours.  Serve with cookies or toffee crumbs left over from Christmas as in the picture above (thanks, Mom!).  Savor the vanilla.

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Whole grains are intimidating.  I’ll be the first to admit it.  We all know that we should eat more of them, but which ones?  How should we prepare them?  Do they actually taste good?

The problem is made worse by all of the seemingly conflicting advice about how to prepare them.  One cookbook might say to prepare rice one way, cracked wheat another way, quinoa another way; another book will have a whole different concept of how to cook whole grains; a third cookbook could say that the first two cookbooks are completely wrong and present its own bewildering method for preparing grains.  What’s a Militant Carnivore to do?

My take is that most whole grains come out well if you prepare them like pasta:  Bring a lot of water to a boil, salt it, drop in the grains, strain them out of the liquid when they’re done.  The only difference from cooking pasta is that I usually keep the water at a simmer instead of a rolling boil.  This works well with quinoa and wheat berries, and works fairly well (with minor variations) with rice, cracked wheat and cornmeal.  Once you become comfortable with this method and start cooking grains more frequently, you can adjust your methods for different types of grains.

It also helps that I’m not a picky eater.  If the texture is a little off, it usually doesn’t bother me too much, especially since I rarely eat grains plain.  When incorporating them into soups or stews or toasting them for a garnish, it doesn’t matter if they’re perfectly al dente or not.

Wheat berries come out great when prepared by the pasta method.  The only things to be aware of are that they take about an hour to become tender, and they benefit from standing for a little while in the cooking liquid once you turn the heat off.  By the way, reserve the cooking liquid:  When combined with vegetable stock, it forms a great base for a hearty vegetarian soup.

With a firm, chewy texture and a hearty flavor, wheat berries deserve to be more popular than they are.  After all, who doesn’t like wheat?  (OK, there are lots of people who don’t like wheat, and for very good reasons, but if you like bread, pasta or breakfast cereal, there’s nothing too off-putting about the flavor of wheat berries.)  This is my favorite preparation for them:  With the dried fruit and rosemary, it seems very autumnal to me (in fact, you could use dried cranberries and have a wonderful Thanksgiving side dish), but there’s nothing stopping you from serving it year round with a variety of herbs.

  • 3 c wheat berries
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 rosemary sprigs
  • 1/2 c dried cherries or cranberries
  • 1/2 c pecans
  • 1/2 T apple cider vinegar

Bring at least 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot.  Add the wheat berries, garlic, bay leaf, 1 rosemary sprig and several generous pinches of salt; turn the heat down to low and cover.  Simmer the wheat berries until they are tender, about 1 hour.  Turn heat off and let stand, covered, for 15 minutes.  Strain wheat berries (reserving cooking liquid for another use)

Roughly chop leaves (needles?) from remaining rosemary sprig.  Add to a large mixing bowl along with dried cherries and pecans, crushing pecans lightly as you add them.  Add the wheat berries, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste (if you have flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, use it!); stir all ingredients together.

When I made this dish the other day, my Lovely Vegetarian Wife said it needed a little more “punch”.  So I added:

  • a few dashes of cayenne pepper
  • picada consisting of 1/2 clove of garlic and 1/4 c of pecans

This certainly added punch, maybe a little too much.  If you love garlic as much as we do, though, it’s just right.

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