Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pastry Tools

A little known fact of the Holiday Season is that it's also Pastry Season. That includes Cookie Season, by the way. I can't think of a better excuse than the holidays to bake pies, cakes and cookies.

Making good pastries is an art of precision. A few special pasty tools can go a long way in helping you find success.

Marble Pastry Board
Pastry doughs can be easily worked on a floured work surface of almost any kind. A marble board is ideal, though, because it helps keep the dough cool, making it easer to work with.

Pastry Brush
Used for sealing and glazing, the flat, paint brush, kind are much easier to use than the rounded varieties. Specialized ones are nice, but to be honest, I bought soft, 2 inch wide paint brush at my local hardware store, and it works great for me.

Pie Funnel
These can be fun, but aren't necessary. They sit in the middle of a pie, holding up the top crust and letting steam vent. If you want to spend the money on one, great, but you really don't need one. Cutting vent holes in the center of the crust, and perhaps a few others around the top, with a sharp knife will work just fine.

Cookie Cutters
There are so many varieties and shapes of cookie cutters, it would be hard to list them all, here. They range from simple round cutters, to pretty fluted ones, to hearts, alphabet letters, cartoon characters ... you get the idea.

Rolling Pin
A heavy wooden rolling pin, without handles, is the easiest to use, and will give good results if you know how to use it. The best way to roll pastry is to roll the whole pin under your palms, sliding your hands from the center to the edges to distribute the weight evenly. I have a large, marble rolling pin with handles, but it is a little heavy, and the handles aren't really necessary. Some people prefer a French rolling pin because the tapered ends allow you to turn the pin as you roll out the dough.

Pie Weights
Whenever you prebake a pie shell, it's best to weigh down the bottom to keep it from rising too much. Dried beans are a good alternative, but ceramic weights are heavier and will give you more consistent results.

Pastry Scraper
I love my pastry scraper. It really helps manipulate delicate pie doughs. It's an incredible tool that's uses go way beyond just pastry dough. I use mine to scoop up chopped herbs, vegetables, and just about everything else. It's also great to help me scrape up food residues on my counter and cutting boards, helping me keep everything clean.

Photo by Karen Barefoot

Monday, November 23, 2009

Baked Acorn Squash with Cornbread Stuffing

In keeping with our vegetarian Thanksgiving theme, let me suggest this wonderful alternative to the traditional stuffed turkey. Acorn squash is my favorite for this dish, but any good winter squash will do. This dish is simple, and tasty enough, that you may decide to make it more often, instead of saving it for just Thanksgiving.

Prepare the stuffing first, and let it come to room temperature, about 2 hours, before using it to fill the squash.

Equipment Needed
Baking Sheet
Aluminum Foil
Kitchen knife
Large Skillet

2 large acorn squash (about 2 pounds, each)
cooking spray, or 1 tablespoon canola oil

For the stuffing
1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped celery
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
5 cups dried cornbread cubes
1/2 cup vegetable broth, or water

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium low-heat or, if using olive oil, heat the olive oil until it starts to shimmer in the pan. Add onion, celery, seasoning, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in the corn bread and toss to coat. Taste, adjusting the seasonings, as desired.

Remove from the heat and drizzle the vegetable brother over the top. Set it aside to cool while you cook the squash.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and spray with cooking spray, or coat with canola oil.

Cut the squash in half; remove the seeds and stringy bits. Place the cut squash, cut side down, on the prepared pan. Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until tender, and remove the pan from the oven.

Turn the squash over and fill the cavities with the stuffing, dividing the stuffing equally between each squash half. Return to the oven and bake an additional 15 minutes, or until topping starts to brown. Remove from oven and let cool, slightly. Cut each squash half in 2 pieces and serve.

Additional extra-virgin olive oil can drizzled over the top for an extra punch of flavor. A pinch of kosher salt or fresh ground pepper can be added, as well.

If you're not a vegan, you can use 1/4 cup of melted butter, instead of the olive oil, if you prefer.

Makes 8 servings.

Serve with mushroom and leek stroganoff, garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes, and other yummy side dishes for a great holiday meal.

Don't forget the sweet potato pie.

Photo by Greencolander. Used by permission.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Homemade Poultry Seasoning Mix

Many stuffing and poultry recipes traditionally made around Thanksgiving call for poultry seasoning. Vegetarians may shy away from it, but they don't need to. It's just an herbal blend commonly used with stews, casseroles, stuffings, and other poultry related dishes. Poultry seasoning is perfectly wonderful in vegetarian versions of such things, as well.

Sometimes, commercial herbal blends leave a little to be desired, though. Here's a way to make your own poultry seasoning. I use a spice grinder for this, but you don't have to. You could just as easily use a mortar and pestle or just a bowl and a fork.

Equipment needed
Spice Grinder (optional)
Mortar and Pestle (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/4 teaspoon ground clove (optional)


Put all the ingredients in a spice grinder and grind until uniform and thoroughly mixed. (Like I mentioned, before, you can also use a mortar and pestle or mixed them up some other way.)

Store in an airtight container. Use to season dressings, stuffings, and other dishes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Garlic and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes

I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as creamy mashed potato. The classic boiled potato, mashed with milk, butter, and salt, is hard to beat. Still, I've always loved thinking of mashes potatoes as a blank canvas that I could paint flavors on ... er ... in.

Now that I've murdered enough metaphors, it's time to get down to Thanksgiving business. I really like this variation, not only for the garlic and rosemary, but for the extra edge given to it by adding goat milk cheese (chèvre). Chèvre can be kind of expensive, so this isn't something you'll want to make all the time. For a celebration, though, the extra flavor is worth it.

If you can't find chèvre, or it's price is beyond your pocket book, you can substitute it with cream cheese or American neufchatel cheese. Not only is this lighter on your budget, it has a lighter flavor, as well.

This recipe can easily be scaled down for an intimate evening for two, or up for a large army, otherwise known as extended family. If you're making these garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes for a large Thanksgiving get-together, the cream cheese option may be needed. You don't want to break your bank account just to feed mashed potatoes to your grumpy Aunt Matilda, even if they are delicious. She's never appreciate your cooking anyway.

Equipment Needed
Large pot or Dutch Oven
Kitchen Knife
Cutting Board
Measuring Spoons
Garlic Press

8 medium potatoes (about 3 pounds of russet, Yukon gold, or a combination of both)
15 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Milk, as needed
3 1/2 oz. chèvre (goat milk cheese)
2 teaspoons of chopped, fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut into roughly 2 or 3 inch pieces. Put the cut potatoes, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of the salt into a large Dutch oven or pot. Add enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring the pot to the boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes.

Drain the liquid, returning the potatoes to the pot if needed. Add the goat milk cheese, rosemary, pepper, and the remaining salt. Mash, adding milk a little at a time as needed, until creamy. Adjust seasonings as desired.

Serve as a side dish or smothered in Mushroom and Leek Strogonoff.

Makes 8 servings

Shepherd Dairy in Erda, Utah, makes an excellent chèvre cheese. It can now be found in many local supermarkets. It's my favorite goat milk cheese. Use a rolling pin to crush dried rosemary, and it won't poke you in the gums when you eat it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

8 Grains a Week

I love most grains, especially rice. I really do. The more I cook them, the more I learn about them. They are a staple food in my pantry, and for long term food storage.

There are dozens of varieties of rice, of course. I can't tell most of them apart by looking. I've got to check the package. There are other grains I love, too, and I like to alternate them in recipes. Most are easy to cook and make a pleasant change in some dishes. I certainly don't recommend eating them raw unless you can get them fresh.

Here are eight common varieties of grains. After all, variety is the spice of life ... right along with nutmeg and turmeric.

White Rice
A refined grain, white rice has been hulled to remove chaff (the outer husk of the grain), and then further milled to remove the bran and germ. It can be stored for a very long time, but lacks certain nutrients.

White rice acts as an accompaniment to, or ingredient in, more dishes that I can count. Long-grain, medium grain, and short grain varieties are available, though I prefer short and medium grain rice. There are more varieties of white rice than you can shake a stick at. Basmati is a famous type of long-grain rice, while Calrose rice is the most common form of short grain rice, accounting for 90% of rice consumed.

Brown Rice
Similar to white rice, but not as refined, brown rice still contains the bran and germ of the grain. It has a nutty flavor and is rich in vitamins, minerals and protein. As with white rice, there are long and short varieties available. It does take a little longer to cook than white rice, in order to soften the bran layer.

Instant Rice
An alternative to white or brown rice, the grains are milled, polished, fully cooked, and then allowed to dry. Unfortunately, this results in significant loss in flavor and texture. The grains never stick together, however, and are quick and easy to cook. Mostly, it's available in long and medium grain varieties.

Wild Rice
Not actually related to the rice plant, wild rice is the seed of any on of four species of grasses that grow well in shallow water or slow-moving streams. Three of these varieties are native to North America, while the other is native to China.

Wild rice is highly nutritious and has become quite popular. In spite of some difficulties in it's domestication, it is now widely cultivated throughout American and Canada. In China, however, it has lost its importance and is now hard to find. Because of the increasing population, and difficulties in domestication, most of its habitat has been converted to regular rice cultivation.

Cracked Wheat
This wheat product is made by crushing raw wheat kernels, or cutting them into smaller pieces. As a whole grain, it is rich in fiber in nutrients. Many people use it in breads, as a base for vegetables or meats, like couscous, or tossed with green salads.

Similar to cracked wheat, bulgur is made by toasting and steaming wheat kernels until the husk is cracked, and then dried. It is very popular in the Mediterranean and Middle East. It is often used in pilafs and tabbouleh.

This small-seeded cereal grain group shares agricultural and food function, but is actually any of several unrelated grasses. Interestingly enough, millet has similar nutritional content as wheat, making it totally appropriate for people with coeliac disease, and other forms wheat or gluten allergies and intolerances. It should not be eaten in large quantities, though, especially by anyone with thyroid difficulties.

I most enjoy cooking it with rice, at a one to one ratio, in the same pot. It has a mildly sweet-nutty flavor and creates a nice texture variation when combined with the rice.

Corn (Maize)
Most often, corn is eaten fresh, canned or frozen. When dried it can be ground into flour, or made into a favorite, low calorie snack – popcorn. Maize is also one of the most common genetically modified (GM) and transgenic crops. Most of what you buy in todays supermarkets, marked or not, is GM corn.

While maize is seen as a staple food, what's not alwats understood is that cultures that use it that way either soak it first in lye (that's where hominy grits come from) or eat such a balanced diet around it, including lots of beans, that it didn't matter. Without lye, the niacin in corn is not liberated, resulting in niacin and certain protein deficiencies. Once that process was understood, high lysine varieties were developed.

Photo by Poohsayhi

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mushroom and Leek Stroganoff

When most of us think of Thanksgiving, we think of roast turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie. I love all of those things, but when I mention turkey to my vegetarian friends, they wince and nod. They are quite polite about keeping there mouths shut around this deluded omnivore.

Even I'll admit I wouldn't have thought of this as Thanksgiving day recipe, when I first saw it in a holiday cookbook. The more I do think about it, though, the more I think, “why not?” Thanksgiving is more than eating specific kinds of food. It's about sharing good food with family and friends, celebrating the harvest, and generally being grateful for our blessings.

I'm certainly grateful for you, my blog friends and visitors. With that in mind, let me share this vegetarian recipe that may just turn up on my own Thanksgiving table this year. To simplify things for your Thanksgiving day feast, I recommend preparing it the day before and reheating before serving.

I modified the original recipe, of course, replacing the traditional red wine and Madeira port with vegetable stock and a pinch of sugar. I'm not above using wine in cooking, I just try and limit it more than a traditional stroganoff allows for. To be honest, I think I like it better this way.

Equipment Needed
Large pot or Dutch oven
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Kitchen scale *
Mushroom brush or damp cloth

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound leeks
8 oz. white button mushrooms *
6 oz. portabello mushrooms *
3 oz. shitake mushrooms *
3 oz. crimini mushrooms *
1 1/4 cup cup vegetable stock, or water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch freshly ground black pepper
pinch of sugar (optional)

Clean the mushrooms with a mushroom brush or damp cloth. Trim off any damaged spots or split stems. Cut the white and crimini mushrooms into quarters, vertically so each piece has a portion of the stem. Cut the portabello mushrooms into 3 /4 inch pieces. Remove the stems from the shitake's and and quarter them, as well. Set the mushrooms aside.

Cut the roots and most of the course green tops off of the leeks. Slice into 3 /4 inch rings. Rinse well in a colander or large sieve to remove any dirt (leeks are notorious for hiding dirt inside them), drain, and set aside.

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Heat the oil until it starts to shimmer just a bit. Add the leeks, and a pinch of salt. Saute about 6 minutes, or until tender. Add the mushrooms. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir in the vegetable stock and deglaze the bottom of the pan, scraping up all the yummy dark bits. Stir in the tomato paste, sale, pepper and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover with a lid. Simmer an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the lid and simmer uncovered and additional 15 minutes, allowing the mixture to reduce slightly. Stir occasionally.

Serve over wide pasta noodles or, in keeping with the Thanksgiving theme, garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes.

What? You don't know how to make garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes? Stay tuned my friends. Stay tuned.

Makes 8 servings.

*If you don't have a kitchen scale, that's a total of 8 cups of mushrooms, sliced. Any combination of domestic or wild mushrooms will do. These are just some that are available at my local supermarket.

Photo by Lize Rixt

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Sieves, Colanders and Mixing Bowls

There are a few tools essential to kitchen cookery that are going to take up up a bit more space, I'm afraid. The more I cook, the more uses I find for them, though. Once I learn a new trick, I wonder why I never used them that way before.

It's pretty handy to have two of these things, one large, one small. A good sieve can be used for more than sifting dry ingredients, or straining wet ones. They can stand in for a food mill, pureeing cooked fruit and vegetables by pushing the food through with a spoon. This gives pureed soups a super silky texture.

I like free standing colanders with lots of small holes and large handles. They make it easy to safely drain the liquid from hot pasta, boiled vegetables, and beans. I just put the colander in the sink right over the disposal, and dump in the cooked food. With beans, I pull out my trust kitchen sprayer and rinse them off, right in the colander, after cooking.

Mixing Bowls
Can you ever have enough mixing bowls? I've got five that I use for this sort of thing and sometimes I still wonder if I have enough. Get plenty of different sizes that can be fit, one into another, so that they can be more easily stored, only taking up as much space as the largest one. Glass is probably the most versatile, and certainly makes it easier to see all around if you've mixed every thing up well. Glass can more easily break, if dropped, though. Stainless steel or sturdy heat resistant plastic will do nicely. If can, get some that have lids that will fit tightly over the top. That way they can also be used to store leftovers in the refrigerator.

Recently I've started using my large sieve in combination with a large mixing bowl to rinse rice or lentils. I put the rice in a large sieve and then put the sieve in a large bowl. I run water over the rice, swirling the rice around. As the bowl fills with water, it's like giving the rice a bath. Change the water out two or three times and you've got amazingly washed rice. I've never been able to get as much of the starch and rice powder off the rice before. My rice is so much fluffier now!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Easy Zucchini with Tomatoes Recipe

Trying to figure out what to do with the late summer tomatoes and zucchini, but don't have enough that you want to go to the trouble of canning them? This variation on a classic ratatouille-like side dish might just be the trick. It's an easy recipe, and a snap to make if you're in a hurry.

I really wish my camera was working. Then I could show you how it's supposed to look, or at least how it turns out when I cook it.

Equipment Needed
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Frying pan

1 medium-large zucchini, diced (about 3 cups)
2 medium tomatoes, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried dill
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Cut the zucchini and tomatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Finely dice the onion.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and and a pinch of salt. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften. Add the zucchini, tomato and garlic and stir. Cook for about 2 minutes or until the tomato starts to soften and give up some of it's juices. Stir in the coriander, dill, and black pepper. Cook, covered, about 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Makes 4 -6 servings. I like serving this over rice, but it's just as good by itself.

Photo by Aleksandr Greckas