Monday, November 15, 2010

CLU: Lentil Soup

The current theme over at Cookbook Lovers Unite is "Warm and Cozy." Daylight savings time has ended. It's dark outside, and, here in New England, it's getting cold. Even on days that reach the 60s during daylight hours, it is dropping into the 20s and 30s at night. I'm not quite sure where summer went. As a matter of fact, I feel like it was just yesterday that I was out picking strawberries. But, somehow, it became November.

This is particularly astonishing to me because I so clearly remember this time last year. I was a bundle (a very large bundle) of anticipation. With each passing week, I was getting more and more anxious to meet my baby. At every store, I'd feel a twinge of nervousness when I saw the holiday displays. That means this baby is really going to arrive!! And now, here I am, with an 11-month-old baby. Where did the time go?

Oh yeah. This post was supposed to be about lentil soup. So, based on the Cookbook Lovers Unite theme, I browsed through my Nigella Lawson cookbooks. Because, to me, when you mention needing a "warm and cozy" recipe, I think of Nigella. There's something so homey and comforting about her books, her personality, her recipes.

I am on a never-ending search for the perfect lentil soup recipe I ate it once, at a restaurant in Florida. I was visiting my Grandma, and it came with my meal. I can't remember the name of the restaurant. I only remember the perfect lentil soup, and the regret I now feel about not asking for the recipe. What was the worst thing? They said no? Now I'll never know.

So, I search and I search. I make lentil soup recipe after lentil soup recipe, and, sadly, it's never the one. This one looked very promising. Pancetta? Scallions? Carrot and celery and garlic, all pureed? Sounded perfect. It wasn't. It was a decent lentil soup. But it wasn't perfect. It wasn't that golden bowl I ate in Florida. And so the search continues.

Lentil Soup
adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson

4 carrots, roughly chopped
3 oz pancetta or bacon, chopped
6 scallions
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups lentils
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 3/4 cups canned chopped tomatoes
8 cups water

Put the carrots into a food processor with pancetta, scallions, parsley, thyme and garlic. Process to a mush, and then heat the oil in a Dutch oven and cook over medium heat, until they are soft.

Stir in the lentils, then add the mustard, tomatoes, and water. Bring to a boil and
simmer gently for 1 hour or thereabouts.

Yield: 10 servings

Sunday, November 14, 2010

IHCC: Italian Baked Chicken and Pastina Casserole

This week's theme at I Heart Cooking Clubs is "Kid at Heart." I immediately knew which Giada recipe I was going to make. Why? Because the word "pastina" was in the title.

Pastina, to me, is quintessential kid food. It's tiny and cute. And it was one of my favorites when I was a child. My favorite Campbell's soup was, by far, chicken and stars. I just loved the itty bitty stars floating in there, and how they practically melted on my tongue. My mom used to make me pastina boiled in her chicken soup when I was sick. The restorative powers of the soup and the fun bits of pasta always made me feel at least a little better.

There's something about the texture that tiny pasta creates that I just love. I remember, when I was an early teen, discovering couscous. I had it for the first time in the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot Center. It was a revelation to me--a dish made solely of tiny pasta? And used in place of the (in my eyes, disgusting) mashed potatoes you see so often in America? Sign me up! I've been a couscous aficionado ever since.

This recipe was so promising. I mean, how can you go wrong with tiny pasta, cubes of chicken, mozzarella cheese, and breadcrumbs? You can't, really. But this recipe tried hard. It really turned out to be no more than the sum of its parts. Pastina? Check. Tomatoes? Check. Mozzarella? Yup, that's what's sticking to the roof of my mouth. Chicken? Uh-huh. But, there was just so unifying element that brought it all together. Instead, you just felt like you were eating a bowl of little pasta, tomatoes, chicken, cheese, and breadcrumbs. Nothing special. Kind of bland. Oh well.

Here's the recipe. I will say this--the bland flavors probably make this great kid food. I can see a picky four-year-old loving it. It's the adults who will be kind of disappointed.

Italian Baked Chicken and Pastina Casserole
from Everyday Pasta by Giada DeLaurentiis

1 cup pastina pasta (or any small pasta)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed chicken breast (1-inch cubes)
1/2 cup diced onion (about 1/2 a small onion)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon butter, plus more for buttering the baking dish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta into a large mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook for 3 minutes. Add the onions and garlic, stirring to combine, and cook until the onions are soft and the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Put the chicken mixture into the bowl with the cooked pasta. Add the canned tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, parsley, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine.

Place the mixture in a buttered 8 by 8 by 2-inch baking dish. In a small bowl mix together the bread crumbs and the Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle over the top of the pasta mixture. Dot the top with small bits of butter. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Serves 4
Cost: $1.65 per serving

Sunday, November 7, 2010

IHCC: Halloween Spice Cake

This week's theme over at I Heart Cooking Clubs was "Out of Italy." This means that we were to find a Giada recipe that did not come from Italy. Not an easy feat, given that Ms. De Lauretiss has been dubbed "The Italian Princess" (Wolfgang Puck called her this on The Next Food Network Star this past season). Everything that was overtly from "somewhere else" just didn't appeal to me this week.

So, for my weekly recipe, we left Italy and, well, stayed here. "Here" meaning the US. I made the Halloween Spice Cake, on the assumption that Halloween as we know it is a very American holiday. Of course, upon making the bread, er, I mean, cake, I thought it wasn't nearly as appropriate for Halloween as for the winter holiday season. Oh well. The interpretation of the theme is loose, okay?

Now, on to the details about the cake. It is easy to prepare. Your typical mix the dry, mix the wet in another bowl, add the dry to the wet, and bake. The problems arose in getting the cake to set. I had read about other folks having the same problem in the reviews of the recipe and scoffed to myself, "Food Network website users--they're probably novice bakers, who don't use oven thermometers, and therefore have no idea that their ovens are running cold." Nope. Not the Food Network website users who have the problem. I think Giada needs to check the temp in HER oven. 40 to 45 minutes? No way. More like 50 to 60.

That said, I baked my cake for 55 minutes, and the middle was still a little squidgy when it was cooled and set up. Blame it on the fact that I was drinking a rather strong Dark & Stormy while it baked. Or just impatience. Or both. But, in the end, it worked out. The squidgy parts are the best now that it has cooled.

The taste of this cake is definitely very spicy. At first bite, I thought, "Wow. This is very strong, and I'm not sure it's all that good." But then I took another bite, and another. And realized that this cake is highly addictive. I think it's the influence of all that ginger. There's an afterburn on your tongue that lingers, and makes you want more. So, I went from the first bite, thinking that this recipe would get a 3 on my 1 to 5 scale (which, in my household means "it was fine, but with so many recipes in the house, why make it again?"), to last bite, thinking that this recipe would get a 4 ("very, very good, and will be made again."). But, a funny thing happens with this cake. I ate a piece for breakfast about two hours ago, and I'm craving another piece now. Really craving it. Talking myself out of it only by reminding myself that I lost two pounds over the last week, and I don't want one spice cake to undo that in one day. Which means that this recipe will probably join my pantheon of quick breads that I take everywhere (the other two, so far, are my Zucchini Bran Bread and a Pumpkin Bread from Wilson Farm--both of which I should probably post about some day). Talk about a sleeper recipe! I never would have expected that at first bite.

So, that's three recipes from Giada that I have made and really enjoyed. Who would have thought? I suppose I'll continue with this group. Maybe she's growing on me after all.

Halloween Spice Cake
Butter, for the pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce (I bought little individual cups so I wouldn't have to open a whole jar)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice.

In a large bowl, beat the sugars, oil, applesauce, eggs, and vanilla extract to blend. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool the cake for 10 minutes. Unmold the cake and place on a wire rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Udon-Shiitake Stir-Fry with Sake and Ginger

As you can probably tell from my post about Homemade Lo Mein, I love Asian noodle dishes. I love lo mein. I love pad thai. I love rice noodles. I love udon noodles, in all their incarnations, from a soupy bowl full of veggies and broth, to a savory saute with a sauce. So, when I found the recipe for Udon-Shiitake Stir-Fry with Sake and Ginger in Vegan Planet, I knew I had to make it.

I hit noodle gold with this recipe. The sauce is sweet from the shiitake and agave, yet earthy from the mushrooms and sesame oil. The shiitakes are silky and a little meaty while the udon noodles are wonderfully chewy. At the end of each mouthful, the ginger lends a bracing bite.

These noodles were as good as any I can get at an Asian restaurant in my area. And the recipe is so fast to make that it is on the table before take-out could possibly be. I know these noodles will become a regular in my household.

Udon-Shiitake Stir-Fry with Sake and Ginger
adapted from Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson

12 oz udon noodles
2 tsp. sesame oil
3 Tbs. sake
3 Tbs. tamari or other soy sauce
2 Tbs. agave syrup
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and caps thinly sliced
1 Tbs peeled and minced fresh ginger

1. Cook the udon noodles according to package directions. Drain and toss with sesame oil. Set aside.

2. In a small bowl, combine the sake, tamari, and agave until well blended. Set aside.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add teh shallots, mushrooms, and ginger, and stir-fry until the mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes.

4. Stir in the sake mixture and udon noodles, and cook, stirring, until heated through, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve hot.

This says it serves 4. In my house, it only served 2. We didn't have any sides or salad, so perhaps that is why.