Winter Fruit Salad

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I’m not a particularly exciting person. I like to be in bed around 9:30 most nights, cuddled up with a book. If the clock strikes 11 pm and I’m still up on a work night, it’s not a happy day. Which means I’m not a big fan of weeknight dinner parties. People inevitably want to stay too late, chatting, having a good time, and all I can think is, “It’s past my bedtime people, time to go home.” But I recently discovered the exception to this rule: friends with kids can come over any night of the week. Friends with kids need to get home for bedtime, which means dinner wraps up with enough time for me to clean up and still be in bed before 10 pm. It’s been a nice change to have some mid-week dinner guests, and a good chance to stretch my cooking muscles.

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If I’m inviting friends over for dinner there has to be dessert. It’s just non-negotiable. But I did get thrown for a loop when I invited friends over for dinner and learned that one of them isn’t eating sugar. I can handle gluten-free dessert (pudding) and vegan dessert (crisp with coconut oil instead of butter) without much difficulty, but sugar-free dessert is a challenge. I wasn’t about to offer something chemically sugar-free because a) they usually aren’t delicious and b) if you’re avoiding sugar for health reasons, you probably don’t want that. And while I could have gone the fruit-and-cheese-plate route (and come to think of it, why didn’t I?? It would have been so easy), I came up with fruit salad instead. And while I expected it would be good enough for sugar-free dessert, it was good enough to serve for non-sugar-free guests – a win for both sugar-free, and fruit salad in general.

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Here’s the thing about fruit salad: it’s usually bad. A sad pile of unripe cantelope and grapes, dry and overly crunchy. And it almost never has dressing, which is a shame because salad is all about dressing. I didn’t realize that until I tried this fruit salad and realized the real key was the dressing – in that case a syrup that soaked in overnight. Part of the success of this salad is the dressing – a concentrated citrus juice with a hint of vanilla and cinnamon. It makes what would otherwise be a pile of fruit, feel like more of a treat. And yes, it is just fruit and so technically a healthy dessert, but that’s really beside the point. It’s just good dessert.

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Winter Fruit Salad
Serves 4-6

Fruit options in winter aren’t great, even in California where they sell half-way decent strawberries in February. But citrus piles up during the cold months and brightens up just about everything.

1 pineapple, cut into bite-sized wedges
6-7 citrus fruits (I like to use a 1:2 ratio of grapefruit to oranges/tangerines)
2-3 kiwis, cut into a small dice (or substitute pomegranate seeds here, or go half and half)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

CUT the citrus fruits into supremes (review the technique here) to remove the skin and pith. Squeeze the juice from the leftover fruit into a medium pot. You should end up with at least a quarter cup of juice.

HEAT the juice in the pot over high heat until it starts to boil, the reduce the heat to medium and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Give the pan a gentle swirl every minute or so. When it’s thickened and reduced by about a third (it should be a darker orange too at this point), turn off the heat, and add the vanilla extract and cinnamon.

TOSS the pineapple, orange segments, and kiwi with the syrup and serve immediately or refrigerate for up to three days.

*Optional: slice in some banana just before serving – I haven’t tried this since I live with a banana hater, but I think it would be awesome.

Carrot and Avocado Salad

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A few weeks ago I was in Santa Monica and found myself with an excuse to visit Huckleberry for brunch. Their cookbook came out last year, complete with a showstopping picture of berry swirl bread on the cover, so there was really no decision to make – we were going. When we walked into Huckleberry the first thing we saw was loaves of fresh bread and then a glass case of cakes – big cakes and little tarts, and slices for enjoying with a cup of coffee. Then there’s a counter loaded with baked goods – muffins, and croissants, and coffee cakes (which somehow are considered acceptable breakfast food even though the iced cakes nearby are not). And then there’s a refrigerated case with a variety of salads – lentil, roasted vegetable, and this one. Big slices of avocado and bright orange carrots with lovely burnt bits from roasting. Given the option of all the baked goods, the salad is what I ended up getting for breakfast. It was too good to pass up. Well, that and the blueberry cornmeal cake, which I may attempt at some point.

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I know this isn’t berry swirl bread, or any of the many kinds of buttery pastry that the restaurant is known for, but in the few weeks since I discovered it, I’ve made this salad at least twice. It’s a little surprising to me that I never thought of putting these ingredients together, and a friend who was there with me expressed the same thing. Roasted carrot and creamy avocado go exceptionally well together, and the salad is hearty and refreshing and it just works. It makes me wonder how else I can put roasted carrots and avocado together, besides tossing them with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Or what other roasted vegetables I can toss with avocado and call it a salad.

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I don’t often recreate restaurant salads at home because frankly it isn’t worth the work. Those salads usually taste good because they have a little bit of a whole lot of ingredients, each of which needs be prepped, chopped, dressed or cooked, and then tossed together at the last minute with a dressing. That kind of thing is for ordering at a restaurant, where there’s a sous chef to put it all together. Or maybe for making for guests – although then you’re serving salad for dinner, which can be tricky to pull off with a straight face, especially if you live in a place where it’s never really hot enough to justify serving salad because you just couldn’t turn the oven on (see: San Francisco). And sadly, that’s why home salads are often far less exciting than what you order when you go out to eat. And it’s also why this one is so good, because despite the short ingredient list and relatively simple prep, this version tastes pretty damn close to what I got on that sunny morning.

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Carrot and Avocado Salad
inspired by Huckleberry

1 lb carrots, preferably ones that are equally thick all the way down
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp kosher salt
2 avocados
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to season
Optional: 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (I usually leave this out because I forget to have cilantro around)

PREHEAT oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with foil.

PEEL the carrots and chop them into about 2 inch pieces on a heavy bias, so the cuts are steeply diagonal instead of straight across, creating more surface area for browning. One good way to do this is to hold the knife at a 45 degree angle (or more) to the carrot and make a first cut. Then roll the carrot 180 degrees and make a cut without changing the angle of the knife. This creates pieces with steep angled cuts on each side without too much fussing.

TOSS the carrot with the oil, cumin, and salt. Roast them in the oven for about 30 minutes, tossing them halfway through cooking to prevent burning. Take them out of the oven and let them cook slightly.

SLICE the avocados into long thick slices – I like to halve them, then cut long slices down to the skin and scoop the slices out with a spoon. Toss them with the lemon juice to prevent browning.

TOSS the still-warm carrots with the avocado – the heat will make the avocado a little melty so the whole thing will be a bit more cohesive. Season with salt and pepper, if needed (you’ll need some extra, how much is up to you), and the cilantro if you’re using it.

Serve warm or refrigerate for up to a day, although the avocado will start to brown which makes for a less visually appealing salad. Ideally you serve this to guests on the first night and enjoy any leftovers for breakfast the next day.

Lemon Cream Pie – The Year of Pie

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If there’s a lemon dessert on a restaurant menu, I’m probably going to order it. This is probably not surprising, given the plethora of lemon desserts that already exist in this space, but given the upcoming all-things-chocolate holiday, it bears repeating. I like chocolate as much as the next… well, probably not as much as the next person, but I do like it. It’s just that the tangy, fruity side of the menu is much more tempting. So it’s no surprise that my Valentine’s treat to myself is lemon. Lemon cream pie. With chocolate, because it is Valentine’s Day after all. And pie because it’s month two in the Year of Pie.

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Lemon cream is the tarter, more lemony cousin of lemon curd. It’s the same list of ingredients – lemon juice and zest, sugar, egg yolks, butter – but the butter is whipped into the lemon/egg yolk custard and ends up thick and pudding-like. In curd the butter is melted into the custard and the end result is sort of like marmalade, with the butter muting the lemon flavor. I first discovered it about four years ago, when I was looking for a dessert to impress a friend of Jeff’s. He was a good friend and one I hadn’t met before, and I knew he was openly skeptical of whether I measured up. I’m not going to say the lemon cream pie made up his mind, but by the end of the dessert I had no more worries that we would be friends. And when I made the pie in the pictures last week, there was silence during dessert. Everyone had seconds. And thirds. It may not be fall-in-love-with-you level of delicious, but it’s certainly wanna-stick-around-for-more level. And let’s be honest, few desserts can do more than that.

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You could get away with just lemon cream poured into a crust; that’s how the original was anyway. Or you could top it with a meringue for a variation on the classic pie. But this version is chocolate and lemon, one of my favorite flavor combinations.  It was one of the first things I wrote down when I thought up this year-of-pie idea. I wanted something I would love to have for Valentine’s Day. Something for the people who choose the fruit desserts on the menu, but would still totally eat that piece of chocolate. Even if all you do is look at the pictures, I hope it makes your Valentine’s Day – or Galentine’s, or really any day of the year – special.

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The Year of Pie so far:
January

Lemon Cream Pie

To be clear: this pie requires quite a bit of chilling and should be started the day before you want to eat it. Make the crust dough and the cream the night before, put them in the fridge to chill, then the next day bake the crust, spread on the chocolate, and pour in the cream. It is a fair number of steps but broken into two bouts of work it takes about an hour the first day and another hour (including baking time) the next day to put it all together. It’s worth it.

Giving credit where credit is due, the recipe for lemon cream comes from Dorie Greenspan’s always trustworthy Baking book, but the idea for a chocolate and lemon pie comes from Suzanne Goin’s lovely Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Which just goes to show that the inspiration and the recipe don’t always come from the same place.

Also, I hate to say so, but this recipe does really need a blender. If you don’t have one, you can make do with a) a food processor, b) a stand mixer, or c) a hand mixer but it won’t get as light and creamy as it would with a blender. Still delicious, but more lemon curd pie than lemon cream pie.

For the lemon cream (which you can just eat on its own too):
1 cup sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
4 eggs
3/4 cup lemon juice (takes about 4 lemons)
21 tablespoons butter (2 sticks + 5 tbs), cut into small pieces

For the crust:
1 ½ cups flour
½ confectioner’s sugar
½ tsp kosher salt
1 stick plus 1 tbs cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg
½ cup chocolate chips

Optional: chocolate shavings (made with a chocolate bar and a peeler), for serving

COMBINE flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor or a bowl large enough to get your hands in.  Grease a 9-inch tart pan for the crust.

ADD the butter and work it in on medium speed, or alternatively use your hands to knead the butter in until it becomes sort of like meal with lots of little bits of butter. If you use your hands, use just the fingertips. They’re cooler and the butter will melt more slowly.

ADD the egg to the mixture and work it in for a few minutes. If you’re doing this by hand it may help to use a fork to help this along. First it will look like nothing is going to happen and then it will come together into a nice dough. Because the egg has very little water, you can work this for a while without building up too much gluten.

PRESS the dough into the tart pan using your fingers to get it up the sides of the pan. It helps to use a small glass or measuring cup (greased, please) to get a smooth and even surface that is the same thickness all around.

COOL the crust in the fridge, preferably overnight, or if you’re in a rush you can do it in the freezer for 30 minutes or so. The longer it can cool, the less likely it is to shrink on you when you bake it.

Meanwhile…

COMBINE sugar zest, eggs, and lemon juice in a heatproof bowl and stir together. Put a pot with a few inches of water on the stove over medium heat and place the bowl over the pot – make sure the bowl does not touch the water. You’re creating a double boiler so the steam will heat the custard, rather than putting it over direct heat

WHISK the mixture over the steam until it reaches 180F and the mixture has thickened. This takes about 15 minutes and requires pretty constant whisking so the eggs don’t scramble. When it’s done the mixture will be relatively thick and it will pass the spoon test (dip a spoon in, drag your finger through it, and the blank spot you created should stay that way without custard running into it). When the cream reaches that point, remove it from the heat and strain it through a fine mesh strainer into the container of a blender (look, I know I said whisk constantly but if you’re like me you got bored and stopped at some point so you have little scrambley egg curds but if you strain them out now, no one need ever know).

BLEND the custard on a medium speed and slowly drop in the butter a few pieces at a time, letting it fully incorporate after each addition. Once all the butter is in, let the blender run for a few extra minutes to get some extra air in there and to ensure that there are no lurking butter chunks.

COOL the lemon cream in a container with a piece of plastic wrap over it to prevent a skin from forming. It needs at least a few hours, preferably overnight, in the fridge to firm up. (You could also serve this as lemon cream pudding with a few chocolate shavings and no one would mind.)

After everything has cooled…

PREHEAT the oven to 375.

DOCK the chilled crust all over with a fork and then line it with foil and pour in some beans, rice, or other weights. Both these things will keep it from bubbling up in the oven.

BAKE the crust for 25 minutes. Then remove the foil with the weights and let it crisp for another 5-10 minutes, until the crust is golden crown all over, and slightly darker along the edges. Remove it from the oven and let it cool for about 20 minutes.

MELT the chocolate chips, either over a double boiler or by microwaving for 30 seconds, stirring, and then microwaving for 10 seconds-and-stir intervals until it is completely melted.

BRUSH the crust with the melted chocolate. You can just do one layer, or build it up by brushing a full coat, putting the crust in the fridge for 5 minutes, and then brushing on an additional coat (reheat the chocolate if it goes solid in that time). Then freeze the crust for 10 minutes to firm up the chocolate.

POUR the lemon cream into the chocolate-coated tart pan, spread it with a spatula to make it even, and sprinkle on the chocolate shavings, if using. Then keep it refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it. The cream is soft and may look like it’s going to run everywhere you slice it, but as long as the crust is cold when you pour in the cream, it should stay together when you cut into it.

Serve this tart within a few hours of assembling it. The lemon cream will break down the chocolate and soak into the crust within a day or so, which doesn’t change the flavor but does make the whole thing look less fancy.

Kitchen Tips and Tricks

Tip 2: Know your knife cuts

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Most of what I know about knife work comes directly from Food Network circa 2007. That summer I had a fellowship grant from my university, and rather than use the funds to pursue my self-directed research full time, I spent at least half of every week either watching Food Network or testing my newfound skills. What I learned can be summed up in the most common cuts, pictured above, plus some safety tips I picked up along the way.

  1. Thinly sliced: This should be between 1/8 and 1/4 inch, depending on how comfortable you are with the knife. The key is even slices so they’ll cook evenly as well. If you find your vegetable/fruit/whatever is too long for your blade, cut it in half or quarters to make it more manageable.
  2. Rough chop: Again, the goal is to have pieces around the same size for even cooking, but it likely doesn’t matter much how big or small the pieces are. Just cut through in one direction, turn the slices, and cut in the other to make approximate squares for cooking.
  3. Fine dice: There are two ways accomplish this cut, which results in pieces that sort of melt into the final dish: make small knife cuts in one direction and then cut across them into even pieces, or start with a rough chop and then keep chopping, turning the pile of cuttings every once in a while, until you have uniformly small pieces. I usually go with the latter.
  4. Julienne: Also called matchsticks, you start with your thin slices and then cut them lengthwise into sticks that are about the same width on all sides (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch again). It’s good for a fancy garnish or a stir-fry (although let’s face it, for stir fry you can just stop at slices most of the time).
  5. Chiffonade: What matchsticks are to hard vegetables, chiffonade is to leafy greens and herbs. Pile up all the leaves you’re using, roll them into a little cigar, and then slice thinly along the roll to get little strips perfect for sprinkling on the top of a finished dish.

Some other tips:

  • A sharp knife is a safe knife so keep your knives sharpened. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when your knife is sharp you don’t have to press down much to cut through things, and if you’re not pressing down the knife is less likely to move unexpectedly and chop a finger.
  • Keep your fingertips tucked back when slicing. I usually accomplish this by resting most of my nail on what I’m cutting. It means that if get too into the slicing, you’ll end up cutting your knuckle rather than cutting off your fingertip. Neither one is ideal but at least the knuckle can most likely be fixed with a bandage rather than stitches.
  • Go slow. It’s super tempting to speed up as you get more confident but going too fast leads to fingers under the blade and that never ends well.

Bahn Mi Nachos

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The Superbowl is one of the best food holidays. In the same way that on Halloween girls can wear basically nothing and call it a “costume”, on Superbowl Sunday you can make something obscenely unhealthy and call it a “snack.” And then you can spend the rest of the afternoon eating a dinner-sized portion of said snack. It’s kind of like magic and it’s a magic I love taking advantage of despite my total lack of football interest or knowledge. In past years I’ve made reuben dip (sadly undocumented, but so cheesy and creamy plus slightly tangy from sauerkraut), buffalo wings (in baked form and turned into a dip), and a full scale snackadium (inspired by these awesome renditions). And this year’s goal was to up the ante on nachos by making them bahn mi style. Back in July someone posted a comment on Facebook, bemoaning the lack of bahn mi nachos in the world. The gauntlet was thrown, and it only took me about six months to figure it out.

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Here’s the thing: I’ve eaten a lot of bahn mi. A LOT. When I was in law school I probably had about one per week, from a little hole in the wall near campus with perhaps the best bahn mi in the city. I started with the tofu variation but by the end of law school I’d eaten almost every bahn mi on the menu and tried a handful of other varieties at different locations. And while it’s been a few years since I ate those sandwiches with borderline obsession, it wasn’t a stretch to figure out how the flavors could translate to nachos.

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The components of a bahn mi aren’t too complicated: some kind of cured meat, cilantro, a mix of pickled carrot and daikon, mayo, and crusty bread. Jalapeno slices often show up (which I left in), as does pate (which I left out; it just seemed too weird). The cheese was more difficult, to add or not to add? Vietnamese food doesn’t really use much dairy but nachos need cheese, and in the end it worked out remarkably well. Savory and sweet and creamy, with spicy bites when you get a jalapeno – the issue of which bite will burn your mouth is a key part of a bahn mi where only some bites have jalapeno, and those bites are a doozy. Jeff and I devoured the first batch, standing up at the kitchen counter listening to the first episode of Invisibilia (have you heard it yet? I love it!). We just stood over the plate, shoveling chips into our mouths, silently except for some sniffling when the jalapenos got the best of us. The plate was empty before the episode was over. The second batch actually made it to a football game and it was gone almost as quickly. It’s messy and a bit over the top and just the kind of “snack” for the Superbowl*, because any other time, these are just ridiculous. In the good way, of course.

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* I suppose you could eat these at other sports watching events or any seated occasion where you don’t really need your hands. I realize that excludes most parties, game nights, picnics, etc. What can I say, these are not easy to eat (neatly, at least), just easy to love.

Bahn Mi Nachos

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long
1 medium daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long
½ cup vinegar
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups shredded cooked pork (or chicken, a rotisserie chicken would be perfect here)
2 tbs hoisin sauce
1 12-oz bag tortilla chips (you’ll probably only need about 2/3 of the bag, but this is just to be safe)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
½ a jalapeno, sliced as thinly as you can manage (I used a mandolin)
Handful of cilantro, finely chopped
2-3 scallions, finely chopped
1 cup mayo (you might not need all of it, but then again, you might)
Sriracha sauce, for topping

COMBINE the sliced carrot and daikon with the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Let set it for about 20 minutes. (Ideally this would sit for a few hours but the first batch soaked for almost no time before eating.)

TOSS the shredded pork of chicken with the hoisin sauce and set aside.

PREHEAT the oven to 400F. Line a large baking sheet with foil

ARRANGE a few handfuls of chips into a single even layer on the sheet – use as many as you need to get a single full layer. Sprinkle over the top ¾ cup cheese, ¾ cup of the pork or chicken mixture, and about a third of the jalapeno slices. Spread out a second layer of chips and repeat the process. Then spread out a third layer of chips, using only about three-quarters the amount you used before, so there’s plenty of space between the new chips. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese, pork/chicken, and jalapeno.

BAKE the nachos for about 10-15 minutes, checking them after 5 minutes and every 2 minutes thereafter to make sure the cheese is melting but the chips aren’t burning. When the cheese is all melted and the chips are slightly browned, remove them from the oven.

DRAIN the carrot/daikon mixture and set it aside.

TOP the baked chips with the carrot/daikon mix, the chopped cilantro, and the chopped scallion. Using a spoon or a squeeze bottle, top the chips with mayo and sriracha to taste (I like to leave some areas without, for people who like it less spicy).

Eat immediately! Nachos are best right out of the oven and only go downhill from there. Not that you’re likely to have leftovers, in my experience.

 

Potato Crust Quiche – The Year of Pie

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I don’t go in for concrete, goal-oriented, measurable New Year’s resolutions. Each January I designed a new theme for the year – there was the year of getting into better shape, the year of exploring more about Northern California, the year of being better about finances. It spreads the pressure over 12 months instead of concentrating it all in in just one. The results have been good, or at least good enough to keep up the tradition. This year is the year of decluttering – exciting I know. And this yearly theme idea, it works just as well for a blog as it does for the rest of my life. Not the decluttering bit, although I might get around to that, but having a year-long focus, something to recommit to every month.
2015: The Year of Pie

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Ok, pie is not exactly a new thing to commit to on this blog. There are a fair number of recipes already that profess my love of pie. There are some sweet, and some savory; there’s even a wedding pie in the archives. But it’s not like most New Year’s resolutions are creative or unique. And once I came up with the idea, I couldn’t say no to a year of pie. But then, well, January is sort of an awkward time to talk about pie. It’s not exactly an indulgent time of year what with the perennial “lose weight”, “get in shape” resolution machine (see above about uncreative resolutions). I’m going to start this off slowly, with a savory pie. Quiche, to be exact.

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Quiche is something I’ve talked about here before, almost exactly a year ago. But this one, the first in the Year of Pie, is different. It’s not the filling – although I did take out the cream in favor of yogurt, mostly because I usually have yogurt and rarely have cream. It’s the crust – I swapped the traditional crust for a potato crust; a layer of grated potato, squeezed dry, and mixed with some flour, egg, and salt. It’s part quiche, part potato latke. I might even like it better than a regular quiche, and it comes together way faster since there’s no need to have a pre-made dough in the fridge, chilled and waiting for you. Because as much as I’d love to be the person who always has a spare pie crust in the freezer, I’m just not. I am however, the person who probably has a few spare potatoes rolling around in a drawer. This year is off to a good start.

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Potato Crust Quiche

2 small or 1 large russet potato, peeled
1 egg
1-2 tbs flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
7 eggs
1-2 cups of filling – chopped vegetables, meat, cheese, etc. – I used sautéed shallots, roasted peppers, and feta; ham and cheddar is a good combination too, or tomatoes and pesto.
1-2 tsp salt
½ cup yogurt (optional)

PREHEAT the oven to 400F.
GRATE the potato into a dish cloth and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
MIX the dried potato, egg, flour, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl until well combined.
PAT the mixture into a pie pan in an even layer – it helps to use a cup or a glass to pack it in evenly on the bottom and sides.
BAKE the crust for 20 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned.

BEAT the eggs with your filling and season it with salt – use more if the fillings aren’t salted. Add the yogurt too, for a creamier filling, or leave it out if you don’t have any around.
POUR the filling into the prebaked pie shell and return it to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. Start checking it after the 10 minute mark and bake it until the filling is set all the way to the middle. You may need to poke the center to make sure it’s not uncooked.

Like any quiche or frittata, this version keeps well for up to a week and it’s good warm, cold, or room temperature. I like to experiment with the fillings, and by experiment I mean use up whatever is left in the fridge.

Lentil and Carrot Salad

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I do a lot of thinking while I’m running. I wouldn’t call it my best thinking. Most of my thoughts are taken up by “my legs are tired” and “what mile was the turnaround point” and “am I going fast enough.” But I do have a lot of time for thinking. I went for a run on New Year’s Day – a particularly painful one after the previous night’s festivities. In between all the internal complaints I had, I thought about what was in the fridge. Specifically, the bag of baby carrots in the crisper drawer.

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After a party baby carrots almost invariably end up in the fridge, next to the too-hoppy beer that I probably won’t drink. I thought about that bag a carrots a lot during my run, wondering what I could possibly do with them. Throwing them out was not an option – I’m just too stubborn to admit defeat like that. I’m not really a fan of baby carrots at the best of times – they might be +1 for convenience but compared to a real carrot they’re about -5 for taste. Sometimes I consider spending the extra few minutes peeling and slicing carrots into sticks for dipping, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen. Which means every once in a while I find myself staring down a bag of baby carrots and wondering what to do with them.

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A quick survey of the fridge after my run turned up a container of cooked lentils that I’d made a few days earlier, a nice complement to carrots and, bonus, something that also needed using up. I grated the carrots, tossed them with the lentils, some feta, and salad dressing, and I honestly expected the end result to be somewhat forgettable. But piled on a sandwich that day it seemed like it might be worth sharing. Then when it was tossed with some greens a few days later, it definitely seemed worth sharing, because there aren’t a lot of salads that you can dress and stick in the fridge for several days and still enjoy eating. As much as I’d rather avoid the January carrot love fest that’s going on right now, well, maybe you have some baby carrots languishing in the crisper. And if you don’t now, you probably will and this recipe will be waiting for you.

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Lentil and Carrot Salad
Makes a scant quart

1 cup uncooked French green lentils
1 quart water
1 tsp kosher salt plus more for seasoning
2 cups shredded carrots
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbs mustard
1 tbs honey
1 tsp dried dill (optional)
¼ – ½ cup of crumbled feta cheese (use however much you want)

BOIL the water in a medium sauce pan and when it’s boiling add the lentils. Cook them for about 25 minutes, until tender and no longer crunchy inside. Alternatively, you can cook lentils in a rice cooker, using 2 parts water and 1 part lentils, cooking them on the white rice setting. When they’re done drain them and season them with 1 teaspoon of salt.

COMBINE cooked lentils, shredded carrots, lemon juice, mustard, honey, dill, and feta in a large bowl and stir well. Taste and add salt if needed (I need about 1 teaspoon to season the salad).

The salad keeps, dressed, for about a week in the fridge and is just as good on it’s own, on greens, or on a sandwich.

Happy New Year – Here’s to 2015

It’s been a good year over here, complete with two weddings, lots of noodles and fried chicken, and more adventures than I can count both at home and overseas. There were new friends, and some old friends who moved closer, and lots of new babies. We drank a lot of toasts and shared a lot of wonderful meals. And this little blog got a mention in Oprah Magazine (the April issue). 2015 has a lot to live up to. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Happy New Years!

PS. If you’re curious what the top 5 most read posts of 2014 are from this blog (because it feels like every other blog does this kind of round up), well, here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Buckwheat Butter Cookies

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Is it too late to call these Christmas cookies? Now that the holiday is upon us, and the stores are probably closed, and anyway, these aren’t terribly Christmassy cookies to begin with. They aren’t chocolatey or pepperminty or cut into thematic shapes and decorated with royal icing. But despite their relatively unassumingness, these are my Christmas cookies. By which I mean I’m going to be eating these on Christmas.

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I first fell for these cookies months ago, when they were introduced to me as nibby buckwheats (on this podcast where they had a song with the lyrics of “Nibby Buckwheats! Nibby buckwheats!” How could I resist?). Buckwheat flour is having a big moment – it seems that people all over the Internet can’t get enough of it – and for good reason. Its nutty flavor gives a little oomph to what would otherwise just be a butter cookie. But the nibs – I didn’t like the nibs. They threw off the otherwise perfectly tender and chewy texture of the cookies. And of course without nibs, these are no longer nibby buckwheats. They’re just buckwheats, which is not as much fun to sing to yourself.

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But they are still just as fun to eat. They’re a grown-up cookie, with only a little sweetness and a toasty flavor from the buckwheat flour, and a chew not unlike a good gingerbread cookie. Somewhere between a snap and a crumble – they give when you bite into them but they aren’t cakey. A cookie that perhaps defies exact description but is still delicious with a glass of eggnog. Or maybe next year they’ll be packaged up and handed out as gifts. Or maybe, like me, you’ll treat yourself to your very own batch of these. Hopefully before next Christmas.

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Buckwheat Butter Cookies (because Un-nibby Buckwheats is a terrible title)
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert (sadly no longer in print)

Makes about 2 dozen 2-inch cookies

Baker’s note: You could make these cookies vegan by substituting the butter with 6 tbs of coconut oil and 2 tbs of water. Mmm, coconut buckwheat.

1/2 cup plus 2 tbs all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs buckwheat flour
1 stick butter (1/2 cup or 8 tbs)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp vanilla extract

COMBINE all purpose and buckwheat flours in a bowl and set them aside
BEAT the butter, sugar, and salt together in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl with electric beaters, or with a really strong arm and a spoon, until they are light and fluffy (3ish minutes on medium speed)
ADD the vanilla extract to the beaten butter/sugar
SLOWLY ADD the flours, on low or medium low speed, and beat until it forms a dough. This takes a while compared to other cookies, it will be crumbly looking and then come together in a dough and will pull away from the sides of the bowl.
ROLL the dough in a log shape (for slice and bake cookies) or into a flat disk (for roll and stamp cookies), wrap it in plastic, and let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour, and preferably overnight. You have to mix for a while to bring the dough together so it needs time to relax or the cookies will be tough.

PREHEAT the oven to 350F when you’re ready to bake the cookies, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

CUT cookies, either by rolling out the dough and using a cookie cutter or by simply slicing rounds off the log you made before resting the dough, and arrange them on the baking sheet. These cookies don’t expand much so you can get them pretty close together.
BAKE the cookies for 11-14 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking if you remember, until the cookies are just barely brown on the edges. Remove them from the oven and let them cool on a rack. Repeat the cutting and baking until you run out of dough.

These cookies are good for a few days after baking. If you can’t eat them all before then, put them in the freezer for up to a month and take them out one or two at a time, warm them in the toaster, and enjoy whenever.

The Failure Files: Peppermint Cheesecakes

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I ran out of “cute” cupcake liners about nine mini-cheesecakes into this recipe. For about a minute when this happened, I considered going out to buy new liners, holiday-appropriate pieces of paper, instead of using the Halloween themed ones I still had in the cabinet from (last?) October. I didn’t because some sane part of my brain realized that having treats wrapped in pinterest-perfect cuteness would not, in fact, make them taste better. It was that same part of my brain that saved me when I overfilled the first batch and the cheesecakes ballooned up and out of the mini-muffin tin. And when I proclaimed them a failure and threw myself dramatically on the couch, that part also told me to shut up and quit being such a drama queen. It’s just dessert.

Baking between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not always the fun process it is during the rest of the year. I get stressed out about whether what I make is good enough, cute enough, worth bringing to a party or giving away. And at my best I can get out of my own head enough to just enjoy the it anyway or to laugh at the abject failures before going out to buy something instead. It doesn’t happen like that every time – sometimes I just stay flopped on the couch, muttering to myself about how terrible things are – but more often than not these days I embrace the failure. Or at least I deal with it cheerfully. Because failures happen in every kitchen – even if blogs and magazines don’t advertise that fact very often. Cakes sink, rice burns, flavor combinations just don’t work out – it happens. It doesn’t mean anything negative about you, or your cooking, or your ability to think up new recipes. You live, you learn, you eat something else for dinner.

At least there were some valuable lessons in this whole experience. No, this cheesecake recipe can’t just be baked in mini-muffin tins – it doesn’t work right in such small quantities. And no, candy cane Joe-Joe’s can’t just be substituted directly for the biscuits I usually use for the crust. And no, the sky does not in fact fall when I make sub-par baked goods with the intent of serving them to others. Shocking, I know. I still took the cheesecakes pictured above to the office cookie swap. They weren’t a total failure – although I did manage to turn off the oven while baking the last batch (just in case I hadn’t made enough mistakes). They weren’t worth making again and the recipe isn’t worth sharing. But they were sweet, and minty from the chocolate peppermint, and festive in a weird way. And if anyone says they like them, I’ll just say “Thank you.”