A Surprisingly Filling Salad.

Part of the reason why things have been so crazy for me over here is that Keith and I decided to  get all home-improvementy and do the following:

  • tear up the carpets in the living room and the study and have the hardwood floors underneath refinished
  • paint the study (Gray Area, by Behr, in case you were interested)
  • change the layout of the apartment by swapping our bedroom and the study

In order to do all that, we had to do the following:

  • move the two sofas, TV and accoutrements, “media cabinet,” coffee table and other furniture out of the living room
  • move the desk, chairs, bookshelves and other furniture out of the study

And, because we live in a five-room space — one room of which is almost entirely bed — that meant we had to temporarily place one sofa, the coffee table and a floor lamp in the kitchen, and the other sofa, television, bookshelves, desk, chairs and other miscellaneous items in the dining room.

Oh, and because the process of refinishing hardwood floors is both stinky and messy, we camped out at my parents’ in New York for about five days, and because we still haven’t assembled our new bedroom furniture, we haven’t yet moved our bedroom or the study… meaning our dining room is still full of furniture.  The sofas have been reinstated, thank god, but there are superfluous refugee chairs and storage furniture camped out.

So, my point — and I do have one — is that my apartment is in a state of flux, and I’ve been making good-for-me quick-and-easy meals as a way to reduce my stress level.  Oh, and that my living room’s and study’s floors are a lovely golden honey color and shiiiiiny, as you can see in the photo to the left.

You can also see the colorful, springy, good-for-me, quick-and-easy salad I’m dying to tell you about.  Honestly, meals don’t come much simpler than this — the most time-consuming part is  the prep: chopping up a red bell pepper and a red onion, mincing tarragon and garlic, and tearing up a chicken (which is very satisfying work indeed).

Anyway, even if this salad was hard to make — which it is not; I can’t stress this enough — the end result is certainly worth the minimal effort.  It’s crazy to think that a few ingredients make such a big impact, but it’s true.  Also true is that this salad is just as flavorful chilled or at room temperature; I’m already eagerly waiting for ideal picnic weather so I can bring it on the road.

One question for you, before we get to the recipe: Is anyone interested in nutritional information? I pretty much try to cook healthy foods at home, so I’ve got the stats for a good chunk of these recipes.  If you want them, I’ll start including them.

Potato, Chicken + Fresh Pea Salad, from Cooking Light
Makes four very generous portions

1  pound  fingerling potatoes, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces (I used a mix of fingerling and baby purple potatoes)
2  cups  fresh sugar snap peas
2  cups  chopped skinless, boneless rotisserie chicken breast (I instead boned and poached a chicken)
½  cup  finely chopped red bell pepper (Next time I will add much more pepper)
½  cup  finely chopped red onion
2  tablespoons  extra-virgin olive oil
2  tablespoons  white wine vinegar
1  tablespoon  fresh lemon juice
1  tablespoon  Dijon mustard
1  teaspoon  minced fresh tarragon
1  teaspoon  salt
½  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper
1  garlic clove, minced (I almost always double the amount of garlic)

  1. Place potatoes in a large saucepan; cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until almost tender. Add peas; cook 2 minutes or until peas are crisp-tender. Drain; place vegetables in a large bowl. Add chicken, bell pepper, and onion.
  2. Combine oil and remaining ingredients, stirring with a whisk. Drizzle over salad; toss gently to combine.

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Birthdays, Car Crashes + Pizza.

Hello all, after what seems like a million years of not writing here.  I wasn’t lying when I wrote that I’d be back soon.  So here I am, feeling refreshed and eager to share some delicious pizza recipes for you. First, though, let me set the scene…

It was Keith’s birthday not too long ago; to celebrate, he and I went to Craigie on Main for the ten-course tasting menu — something I’m truly distressed to say I struggled to eat.  This may have been because I’m still not feeling well, and was certainly not a result of the food, which was as creative and flavorful as always.

Our night out wasn’t all we had planned for Keith’s birthday.  He had invited friends over to watch some fights on Pay-Per-View that Saturday night, so I offered to make whatever dinner and dessert that he wanted.  And what he wanted was pizza.

I happen to love making pizza.  I know what some of you may be thinking: But aren’t you scared of yeast?  Well, my answer to that is YesYes, I am.  I am also determined to conquer yeast, and when I do I will find the perfect pizza dough recipe to share with you.  In the meantime, I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that I kind of really love Pillsbury‘s found-in-the-refrigerated-section-and-rolled-up-in-a-pressurized-tube pizza dough.  I’m not kidding about the pressurized tube thing, by the way.  These suckers are constructed to explode in your hand once you open them, allowing you to unfurl your dough onto your baking sheet.  If you prebake it, you’ll end up with a nicely browned and crunchy crust — and for me to say this is a big deal, as I’m one of those pizza eaters who often tosses her crusts to the side… or, more often than not, slips them discreetly onto Keith’s plate.  I always prebake my dough — 425° for about ten minutes, rotating the sheet at the halfway point — while I’m assembling my toppings, and my pizzas are always the better for it.  Give it a shot.

Since there was going to be five of us watching the fights, and because I wasn’t making any sides or appetizers, I decided to make four pizzas.  I wanted to have some variety as well as something more interesting than plain old pepperoni or just cheese.  I’d made a fantastic pizza before with sausage, mushroom, rosemary and Piave, which Keith requested; the other three were all my call.  Even though we weren’t having any vegetarians over, I included two meatless pizzas — a white pizza with rainbow chard, and a potato-asparagus pizza.  My one concession to “normal” pizzas was one topped with pesto, tomatoes and chicken sausage.

I wasn’t able to start my prep as early as I had wanted — which is what happens when you spend five hours at the car dealership signing papers on your new car* — but I wasn’t nearly as stressed out at being behind schedule as I normally would be, since I knew our friends wouldn’t mind.  Just as I was about to slide my pizzas into the oven, something completely unforeseen happened that delayed our meal even further.  And that something was a loud, earth-shattering CRASH! that  came from the street in front of the apartment… because a passing driver had swerved to miss a cat… thus crashing into and totaling one of our friend’s cars.  The impact caused the totaled car to leap onto the sidewalk and tear the bumper off of another friend’s car.  One car’s entire side had been sheared off, exposing the gas tank, and a cigarette-smoking onlooker made me so nervous I had to retreat back into the apartment.

After everyone dealt with the paramedics, police and panic, we finally were able to have dinner — at eleven-thirty.  I like eating late, and tend to do so, but even this was a bit much for me, especially as Keith and I hadn’t the chance to eat a proper meal all day… which is probably why we scarfed down the pizzas with a speed that was, frankly, both startling and disgusting.  The fact that everything came out perfectly may have had something to do with it, but that’s questionable.

Though Keith will tell you that the sausage and Piave pizza I mentioned before was his favorite, I’m sure he’ll also mention how the scallions sprinkled underneath the asparagus-potato pie gave the entire pizza a surprisingly fresh and altogether spring-y feeling.  Since I had used baby purple potatoes, it was also the prettiest of the four — though I happened to love the rustic aesthetic of my pesto pizza, which I had gussied up with baby heirloom tomatoes (I know they’re not in season, but I couldn’t resist their fat little jewel-like bodies).  My white pizza was by far the most subtle, but I think that’s a good thing, particularly after a rich pesto, a spicy sausage and zingy bits of scallion.

Of course, the key to any good pizza — in my mind, anyway — is the cheese, and I used no less than seven on these pies: chèvre, Parmesan, Piave, ricotta, a smoked fontina and a mixed-milk whose name eludes me because I was too flustered to write it down.  The recipes below didn’t call for much beyond mozzarella, chèvre, Piave and Parmesan, but I, cheese-aholic that I am, required more.  Feel free to use less cheese, if you wish.  Unless you have me over for dinner.  Then take what a “normal” person would consider sufficient, and multiply it by nine.

A few notes:

  • Each recipe makes one pizza.
  • I’ve omitted the key ingredient of dough; as you now know, I like Pillsbury, but any dough — store-bought or home-made — is more than fine.
  • I bake my pizzas in a 425° oven for about fifteen to twenty minutes, rotating at the halfway point, or until the crust has taken on a nice golden brown color.
  • If you don’t have any pesto from the summer stored in your freezer like I do and don’t want to make your own, store-bought will do.
  • I roll my dough out on the backs of oiled, parchment-papered 9 ½ x 13 inch rimmed sheet pans.  The oil and parchment paper  are both critical, as your pizzas will otherwise absolutely adhere themselves to their baking surfaces.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • When cool enough to handle without cursing and burning yourself, carefully slide your pizzas onto a cutting board to slice.  Then arrange your pieces onto a serving platter — which, in my case, are two oversized cookie sheets.
  • Pizza wheels are the devil.  They’ll just drag your nicely-arranged toppings across the entire pie and you’ll end up with a ridiculous mess.  Just use a nice, sharp chef’s knife.

Asparagus, Fingerling Potato + Goat Cheese Pizza, adapted from Bon Appétit

5 ounces fingerling potatoes (I used baby purple potatoes)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
4 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
1 1/3 cups grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese (about 6 ounces)
4 ounces soft fresh chèvre, crumbled
8 ounces asparagus, trimmed, each spear cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 2- to 3-inch pieces
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Place potatoes in small saucepan. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Sprinkle with salt. Bring to boil and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Cool. Cut potatoes into thin slices.
  2. Mix 1 tablespoon olive oil and garlic in small bowl. Brush garlic oil over pre-baked pizza dough. Sprinkle ¾ of scallions over the top,  followed by the mozzarella; leave a ½-inch plain border. Top with potato slices and goat cheese. Toss asparagus and 1 tablespoon oil in medium bowl. Arrange asparagus over pizza. Sprinkle with Parmesan, then lightly with salt and generously with pepper.
  3. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown and asparagus is tender, about 18 minutes. Transfer to cutting board. Sprinkle with remaining scallions.

Pizza Bianca with Greens, adapted from Bon Appétit

for the seasoned oil:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

for the topping:
1 bunch rainbow chard, ribs cut away
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced

8 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
4 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
¼ cup smoked fontina, grated
¼ cup Parmesan, grated
½ cup ricotta
fresh minced herbs such as rosemary and thyme (which I used, since that’s what I had)
1 large garlic clove, minced

  1. Prepare seasoned oil.  Mix oil, garlic, and red pepper in small bowl. Let stand 1 hour, ideally on a warm surface like the top of your stove.
  2. Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain. Rinse under cold water; drain. Squeeze dry, then coarsely chop. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add chard and stir 1 minute. Season to taste with salt.
  3. Take your rolled-out-onto-an-oiled-and-parchment-papered-pan dough and brush the surface with most of your infused oil.  Sprinkle mozzarella over dough, leaving ½-inch plain border.  Spread chard over mozzarella; top with goat cheese, fontina and Parmesan.
  4. In a small bowl, combine ricotta, herbs and garlic.  Strategically dollop over chard and cheeses.  Brush crust edge with the seasoned oil, saving 2 tablespoons to drizzle over pizza.
  5. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Serve with crushed red pepper.

Pizza with Pesto, Chicken Sausage, Heirloom Tomatoes + Two Cheeses

1 cup grated fresh mozzarella
½ cup mixed-milk cheese, grated
a good selection of baby heirloom tomatoes, or grape tomatoes, sliced
5 tablespoons basil pesto
2-3 links sweet chicken sausage, casings removed and chopped

  1. Spread pesto over prebaked dough, leaving a ½-inch plain border and sprinkle with mozzarella. Arrange tomato slices over mozzarella, then scatter sausage over mozzarella.  Finish by sprinkling mixed-milk cheese over the top.
  2. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Sausage, Red Onion + Wild Mushroom Pizza, adapted from Bon Appétit

2/3 cup finely grated Piave or Parmesan cheese
2 ¼  teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, divided
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
Coarse kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 ½ hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
7 ounces fresh wild mushrooms, thickly sliced (I use a mix of shiitake, cremini, portobello and oyster.)
1 ¾ cups coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese, divided
Chopped fresh parsley

  1. Sprinkle prepared dough with 1/3 cup Piave cheese, ¾ teaspoon rosemary, and ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper; sprinkle with coarse salt.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage. Sauté until brown, breaking into ½-inch pieces with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer sausage to bowl. Add onion to skillet. Sauté until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes; transfer to plate. Add remaining ½ tablespoon oil to skillet. Add mushrooms and remaining ¾ teaspoon rosemary; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Leaving ½-inch plain border, top dough with ¾ cup mozzarella, remaining Piave, then onion, sausage, and mushrooms.
  3. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes total. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
* Yes, I’m now behind the wheel.  Hold on to your hats.

Not-So-Sweet Cupcakes.

As I’m writing this it’s sunny and warm and pretty much dazzling outside, and I think the only proper way to celebrate is with cupcakes, ideally these.

Some people think the whole cupcake craze is over and that its heyday is a thing of the past, but I honestly don’t care.  Do I prefer a full-blown cake?  Certainly.  Does  that mean I won’t ever make cupcakes?  Of course not.  I mean, what’s there to hate?  They’re perfect single-serving desserts that you can eat with your hands.  In my mind, that’s pretty ideal.  Give me the chance to forgo silverware and I’m all over it — in spite of the fact that I highly value table manners and etiquette in general.  There’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s fun (and appropriate) to get a little barbaric.  For example, you’d never see me cut up a piece of pizza with my fork and knife; it’s hands-on food, and I say the same for the perhaps-overexposed cupcake.

What’s tricky about the cupcake, apart from putting aside propriety and cutlery, is avoiding both dryness and superfluous sweetness…  which is why this recipe is so great.  Yes, it calls for one and a half cups of sugar, but that’s spread out over twenty-four cupcakes.  And sure, you have to be on alert during the baking process so you don’t overbake the cakes, but you’d want to do that anyway, right?

For me, the hardest part is the topping — I have yet to perfect my frosting-smoothing technique, not to mention that so many frosting recipes out there are too damn sweet and oftentimes also too damn rich.  You might not think that a glutton like me would be into moderation, but when it comes to desserts I most definitely am.  I have no problem with foie, with Hollandaise, with cheese on everything in sight; desserts are another matter.  I want them to be full of flavor, but light.  I want them to end the meal on a sweet note, but one that’s not too sweet.  And, ideally, I want there to be chocolate.

This cupcake fits the bill, especially if you drizzle a white chocolate glaze over the top.  Keep in mind that this is extremely messy to do.  The white chocolate gets everywhere, so if you have a raised rack to place atop a baking sheet, I highly recommend setting your cooled cupcakes on that during the glazing process.  Otherwise you will end up like me and have white chocolate fingers and cupcake liners* bathed in white chocolate.  Which might not be a bad thing.  Just like these cupcakes.

Chocolate Cupcakes, adapted by Suzanne Lenzer for Bitten from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts

Makes twenty-four cupcakes

for the cupcakes
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
5 1/3 ounces sweet butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 cup milk

  1. Heat the oven to 350° and line 2 6-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners. Sift together the flour, soda, salt, and cocoa powder and set aside. Use a standing mixer or hand-mixer to cream the butter. Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until smooth.
    On the lowest speed, alternately add the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two. Beat only until smooth and fully combined, you don’t want to overwork the batter.
  2. Scoop the batter into the prepared pans filling each about two-thirds full (don’t bother to smooth the tops — the batter will level itself as it cooks). Bake the cupcakes for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are puffed and spring back when lightly pressed. Be careful not to overbake the cakes, but know that if you take them out too early they may sink a bit. Cool the cakes in the muffin tins for about 5 minutes and then remove them to a rack and let cool completely.  The cakes can be made a day in advance and refrigerated (they actually get better) or frozen in an airtight container.

White Chocolate Glaze
Makes more than enough for twenty-four cupcakes

8 ounces white chocolate, cut into small pieces
¼ cup light cream

Place white chocolate pieces in medium heat-proof bowl. Heat cream in a small saucepan over medium heat to a gentle boil. Pour cream over white chocolate and whisk slowly until incorporated and smooth.  Use immediately.

* You can’t tell by this picture, but I used skull-patterned cupcake liners, a Christmas present from my friend Darlington, who knows of and appreciates my love of skulls.

A Rainy Day Dinner.

It’s been raining a lot lately here in Massachusetts, and I hate it.  You would think that instead of bemoaning the torrential and nonstop downpour, I’d at least be celebrating the fact that most of this winter’s precipitation has come in the form of rain rather than snow — sorry, DC — but we know the truth: I’d be grumpy with snow, too.

I am just not a cold weather person.  Then again, I’m not a warm weather person either.  I hate humidity and perspiring and feeling sticky with sweat.  Ugh, I’m getting irritable just thinking about it.  If it were possible, I’d live somewhere with only spring and fall so I could have both new leaves budding above my head in the trees and old leaves crumpling under my feet in the street.

Since that’s not possible anywhere but in my dreams, I’ll begrudgingly accept winter.  We’ll never be friends or anything; I’ll firmly shut the door in her face whenever she comes around, and if she somehow still manages to get into the apartment, I’ll chase her right back out again with a dinner such as this — and maybe a degree or two increase on the thermostat.

The key to this dish is the idea of the do-ahead.  If you’re one of those well-organized, put-together people who apparently really do exist in this world, then you’ll make the soup one day and the dumplings the next (or vice versa).  Don’t get me wrong — this is an easy meal to make.  It’s just a bit messy and uses a lot of pots and pans and skillets, and I personally try to avoid dealing with a whole boatload of things to clean after preparing a meal.  I like to clean as much as I can as I go; this recipe, unfortunately, won’t really let you do that, particularly if you do what I did and make the dumplings while the mushrooms browned and the leeks gave up their opacity.

No matter what route you take, the do-ahead or the do-while, the results will be the same: delicious.  And they might just make you forget about the weather.  Maybe.

Mushroom + Leek Soup with Parsley Dumplings, from Bon Appétit
Makes six to eight portions

for the soup
2 cups water
¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Fine sea salt
3 tablespoons dry Sherry
1 ½ cups chopped onion
3 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and pale green parts only, from about 2 large leeks
8 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken stock)
Pinch of cayenne pepper

for the dumplings
¾ scant cup low-fat cottage cheese
6 tablespoons butter, room temperature, divided
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of ground nutmeg
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

for the soup

  1. Bring 2 cups water and porcini mushrooms to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat, cover, and soak 20 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to work surface; slice thinly. Reserve cooking liquid.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add crimini mushrooms and thyme; sprinkle with sea salt and sauté until mushrooms are browned, stirring often, about 12 minutes. Add Sherry; stir until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Set mushroom mixture aside.
  3. Heat 1 ½ tablespoons oil in another heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook until translucent and beginning to brown, stirring often, about 6 minutes. Add leeks; reduce heat to medium, sprinkle with sea salt, and sauté until vegetables are soft and golden, stirring often, about 15 minutes.
  4. Bring broth to simmer in large pot over medium-high heat. Pour in reserved mushroom cooking liquid, leaving sediment behind. Add all mushrooms, onion mixture, and cayenne. Simmer 1 minute to heat through. Season to taste with salt. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and chill.)

for the dumplings

  1. Purée cottage cheese in mini processor until smooth. Using electric mixer, beat 3 tablespoons butter and eggs in medium bowl. Add cottage cheese, ½ cup flour, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and nutmeg; beat on low speed just to blend. Stir in ½ cup flour, cheese, and parsley.
  2. Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Using teaspoon, scoop piece of dough about size of cherry. Holding spoon just above boiling water, use second spoon to push dough into water. Working quickly, repeat about 10 more times. When dumplings rise to surface, simmer until cooked through, 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer dumplings to large plate. Repeat with remaining dough. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
  3. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium heat. Working in 2 batches, add dumplings to skillet. Cook until brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
  4. Bring soup to simmer. Divide dumplings among wide shallow bowls. Divide soup among bowls and serve.

On Stew.

In my mind, there are two different kinds of people: cold-weather people, and everyone else.  In this case, I definitely am an everyone else kinda gal — though with my parka, a thick scarf and woolen gloves, I really don’t have cause to complain.  Besides, if I lived in a part of the world that didn’t have such an aggressive winter I’d never have the chance to warm up with a bowl of this stew.

I know that in the photo, this doesn’t look like much.  It’s okay to agree with me on this.  I won’t be offended, and neither will my stew.

The clichéd-yet-truthful thing about this is that looks are so deceiving here.  It’s impossible for this photo to capture the beautifully floury texture these potatoes take on after bubbling their way through two separate cooking stages.  Neither can this photo show you how the heat from the minced ginger subtly infuses the broth with a truly delicate flavor, or how incredibly tender beef chuck turns in a short period of time.  It also doesn’t show how quickly Keith and I plowed through our bowls, but that’s a horse of a different color.

Something to note: traditionally, this stew is made with yak meat.  I have no idea where to get yak, so I’m glad there’s a delicious substitute in beef.

Tibetan Beef + Potato Stew, from Saveur
Makes four portions

3 pounds Yukon gold potatoes
1 pound peeled carrots
Kosher salt, to taste
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon coarsely ground celery seed
3 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound beef chuck, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger
½ tablespoon ground coriander
½ tablespoon ground cumin

  1. Place potatoes and carrots in a large pot with 5 cups cold water; season with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, covered, until potatoes are cooked, 35 – 40 minutes. Strain, reserving cooking liquid; let ingredients cool. Once cool, remove skins from potatoes; cut into 1 ½-inch chunks. Cut carrots into 1-inch lengths. Set aside.
  2. Return the pot to medium-high heat; add oil. When hot, add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in celery seeds and scallions. Carefully pour in ½ cup water and cook until scallions are crisp-tender, about 1 minute. Add beef, season with salt and pepper; reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the reserved cooking liquid, potatoes, and carrots along with the butter, ginger, coriander, and cumin. Bring to a boil, reduce to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until beef is tender and sauce has thickened, 30 – 35 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve, if you like, with steamed white rice.

On Vanilla Extract + Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I’ve said before that I don’t bake that often, but that’s no longer the case.  Now I’ve consistently got a batch of muffins in the freezer, which I defrost on an as-needed basis, and there’s almost always cookies on the counter.  So  basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been going through vanilla extract like it’s my job.

Until recently I’d been using Nielsen-Massey vanillas, which are quite nice, but after using up two bottles in a ridiculously short period of time I decided that I should instead make my own extract.  It’s surprisingly easy, so much so that I’ve been kind of kicking myself for not doing it sooner.  Seriously, it seems utterly ridiculous to write a “recipe” for it, but here goes:

Homemade Vanilla Extract
The quantity you end up with depends upon what size container you use, and how much liquor you can pour into it.

3 to 4 vanilla beans
rum or vodka (again, the amount you’ll need depends on your container, but I think about 3 beans to about 1 cup is a good ratio.)

  1. Before you begin, you’ll need a glass container with a tight cap.  I recycled one of my Nielsen-Massey bottles, but anything with a good seal on it will do as long as it’s clean and sterilized.  To sterilize, submerge your container in a pot of boiling hot water and it let sit in its bath for about ten minutes.  (This is why you want a glass bottle.)
  2. While your bottle is sterilizing, get your beans ready.  With a sharp thin knife, slit the beans open lengthwise so that the fine-grained little black specks within peek out.  This is all you have to do to prepare the vanilla for extract, so you can use the remaining sterilization time having a dance party in the kitchen.  I recommend pretty much any track off The Cardigans‘ album Life, or T.Rex’s Essential Collection, if you prefer something less poppy and more glam.
  3. When your bottle is nice and sterilized, slide your beans inside and top off with alcohol.* Seal the bottle tightly and give it a good couple of shakes — you can dance with it for a track or two if you like, but it’s not necessary — then store it in a cool, dark place like a kitchen cabinet, perhaps where you keep your drinking glasses, so that your vanilla has some company.
  4. For the next two months, visit your bottle about twice a week and give it a some more shakes, and maybe a twirl or two around the kitchen.  You can get going on your baking after the two months have passed.  Since you can keep your brand-new vanilla extract indefinitely in its cool, dark cabinet, you can top off the rum or vodka whenever you think it’s running low, as well as slip another slit bean into the mix if you’ve ever got one handy.  Just make sure to give the bottle a shake after you add anything to it, whether it’s alcohol or a bean.

Once you’ve got your vanilla extract ready to go, you can make this dead simple chocolate chip cookie recipe from Baking by James Peterson.

I know there are just about as many chocolate chip cookie recipes out there as there are chocolate chip cookie eaters, but I really think that it’s in your best interest to follow Mr. Peterson’s instructions at least once.  The results are crunchy and buttery and full of sweet flavor.  He calls for walnuts in his ingredients, but I prefer finely sliced almonds.  It’s up to you as to what nut you use.  I only care that you give these a shot — after you’ve made some vanilla extract, of course.

(Almond) Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Baking by James Peterson, though not verbatim
Makes about sixteen cookies **

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup butter, cut in slices
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup sliced or slivered almonds

  • Unless you are using silicone baking liners or nonstick sheet pans, brush two pans with room-temperature butter.  In a bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt.
  • If you plan on mixing the ingredients by hand or with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugars until fluffy.  Then mix in the egg yolk and vanilla, then add the flour mixture all at once.  Stir or mix on low to medium speed until there’s no loose flour visible.  Stir in the nuts and chocolate.
  • If you plan on using a food processor, process all the ingredients except the nuts and chocolate for about 20 seconds, or until they clump together and you see no loose flour.  If there’s stubborn loose flour clinging to the bottom of the bowl, scrape it up with a silicone spatula and process for 5 seconds more.  Transfer the dough to a bowl and nix in the nuts and chocolate with a wooden spoon.
  • Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 375°.
  • For the first cookie, measure out 2 tablespoons of dough — you can use a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop — and roll it into a ball.  Set the ball on the sheet pan and press it into a 2 ¾-inch disk with the bottom of a glass.  If the glass sticks to the dough, dip it in cold water in between pressing the cookies down.  Continue shaping the rest of the cookies.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the edges brown slightly.  Let cool until set and then transfer to cooling racks, or let cool in the pans set on racks.  Store tightly sealed in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
* I use rum, personally, but vodka is perfectly fine.
** If you follow Mr. Peterson’s 2-tablespoon suggestion.  My cookies are made of one ounce of dough each (I use my digital scale for precise amounts) and just over 1 ½ inches across.  I end up with almost thirty cookies.

Five Things About Me: 86 87 88 89 90.

86. I love love love getting into a bed made with freshly-laundered sheets.  It just might be the best feeling in the world.

87. Part of the reason why I haven’t hopped on the whole Twitter bandwagon is because I know my tweets would mostly be links to cute animals or say things like “Practicing sitting” and “I want a sandwich.”

88. I don’t drive that often, but I do drive often enough to have a list of driving peeves, such as drivers who neglect to use their turn indicators, tailgaters and driver who park so close to me that I can’t even get into my car, let alone move it.  The turn indicator things irritates me the most though.

89. My dream date would include walking a dog, getting my back scratched and a bottle of Saracco Moscato d’Asti.

90. I have four binders in my cookbook cabinet, one for each season of the year.  Inside, I store the recipes I’ve torn out of magazines, newspapers and similar under tabs labeled by month.  It might be the most organized aspect of my life, along with our bookshelves (which are alphabetical) and my section of the closet (which is sorted by category, i.e. “layering pieces,” “camisoles,” “lightweight cottons,” and “sweaters”).  Everything else that I own is in shambles.