Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"time may change me"

the food: Sweet Potato Muffins
the song: "Changes" David Bowie

I almost didn't take the time to write this recipe out. I made these muffins for us the Sunday following SXSW because I had a single, lonely sweet potato that was starting to get a little wrinkly looking. They were muffins of necessity, really. And aren't those the best kind? As you're eating warm muffins with a dollop of butter and sipping your coffee, you can think to yourself "I just had to do it. For the sweet potatoes."

A quick internet search lead to this recipe, which is what I based mine on. I attempted to halve the original recipe to make a dozen muffins. But as you can see, that didn't work out so well.

Oops. So in the recipe below, I'm not fooling with the amounts. I can't say for certain how many this will make. But (as you'll see below) these muffins don't rise much, so you can fill the cups a little higher and maybe make an even dozen out of it.

So why wasn't I going to write about these? Maybe our taste buds were just numbed from all the cheese and salsa we'd had during SXSW but when we first tasted them, our initial reaction was "Huh. These are...pretty good." But we were both back in the kitchen searching for a snack about an hour later. I packed up the remaining muffins; we both took them to work on Monday and completely forgot about them for two days. That doesn't speak too highly of them, right? The muffins were about to be filed into the "do not repeat" place in my kitchen.

But then something surprising happened. Wednesday morning at work, I grabbed a muffin while the kids were having their morning snack. When I took a bite, I was shocked at how good it tasted. It was moist and flavorful and delicious. That night when the husband got home, I asked about his muffins to see if he'd experienced the phenomena as well. "Yeah, they were awesome," he said. "Were they that good on Sunday?" I'm not sure if we changed, or the muffin changed, but we both were much more impressed with them a couple of days later.

Next time, I want to make a few changes. I think these muffins are asking to be veganized; all you'd have to do is use soy milk and replace the egg with some applesauce or a banana. In that case, the muffins would benefit from the added sweetness and you could even reduce the brown sugar to 1/2 cup. As you can see, they turned out a little flat. I might have under-filled the cups trying to stretch the batter out to make a dozen. Or I might need new baking powder. I will definitely not fiddle with the amounts again. If I end up with 16 muffins, well then that's just perfect. And finally, assuming I'm organized, I might make these the night before I plan on serving them to see if time actually made these better.

Sweet Potato Muffins
adapted from Kate in the Kitchen

1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup flour (I used all purpose but whole wheat would work very well)
1 teaspoon. baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup cooked and mashed sweet potato
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped and toasted nuts (I used almonds, but pecans would be better)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, combine oatmeal, flour, baking powder and soda, spice, and nuts. In another small bowl, whisk together sweet potato, brown sugar, oil, egg, milk and vanilla. Pour over dry ingredients and stir until just moistened.

Scoop into prepared muffin tins and bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. These bake quickly, so keep a close eye on them after the 15 minute mark.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

"yeah it's strange, but what isn't strange "

the food: Marinated Tempeh
the song: "Strange" Built to Spill

Tempeh is an interesting food. A lot of recipes for tempeh end with a disclaimer like "Even if you don't think you like tempeh, try it this way!" I've never understood that. What's so weird about tempeh? It's an ancient food, it's chock full of protein, and these days it's relatively easy to get at any large grocery store. I once heard the description "tofu is to cheese as tempeh is to blue cheese" and that answered any questions I had about the makeup of this special food. But maybe the reason I'm not freaked out by tempeh is more simple than all that. Maybe it's because I've always used the following delicious recipe to make it. 

I don't know why I've never shared this tempeh recipe before. It is a favorite in our house. It is easy and tasty and adds a nice chewy bit of protein to our vegetarian dishes. I could make this tempeh once a week for ever and ever and we'd eat up every last bite.

This tempeh can go anywhere. We usually eat it is on its own, with roasted spaghetti squash,  sauteed greens, and good bread. It is also good crumbled up into grilled cheese, or as part of a TART sandwich (tempeh, avocado, and roasted tomatoes...yum). I've also put it in tortillas with vegetable fajitas. If I'm not careful, we'll eat it all straight out of the pan.

This time, it found its way into a simple pasta dish. Spaghetti, marinated tempeh, and my first homegrown brussels sprouts of the season. We tossed it all with a little olive oil and a generous amount of parmesan. The result was rich and creamy tasting. The nutty tempeh and olive oil was outstanding, mixed with the stronger taste of the tiny brussles sprouts.

So...even if you think you don't like tempeh, give this recipe a try!

Marinated Tempeh
serves 2

8 ounces tempeh
for the marinade:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons basalmic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon Italian herbs (thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary...whatever you have access to)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Cut tempeh into 1/2 inch cubes. Combine marinade ingredients in container with a lid. Add tempeh, cover and shake well until all pieces are coated. Marinate for at least an hour, shaking the container every now and then if you think about it. 

When ready to cook, add tempeh and liquid to a skillet over medium high heat. Cook for 10-15 minutes, turning pieces frequently until they begin to caramelize. Serve immediately or toss  into your favorite dish.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"doesn't it feel strange to wait on this change?"

the food: watching it grow
the song: "Near a Garden" Shearwater

I'm excited for this evening. I'm volunteering with Sustainable Food Center to provide childcare for a Basic Organic Gardening class that starts tonight. The class runs 3 weeks, and I'll be helping out for all the sessions. My goal is to do some simple garden related activities with the group of six kids, who range in age from 1 to 10 (wow). I'm hoping the kids are receptive to the idea and the training can be an inspiring experience for them, as well as their parents.  I'm taking some books to share this evening, including my current favorite On Meadowview Street about a girl that turns her front yard in the suburbs into a wildlife refuge. This book is doubly cool because it was given to me by my hip librarian mom.

I'm so proud to be involved with SFC. When I first became interested in where my food comes from, SFC was the first organization that made me realize Wow, people out there actually think about this.

Before volunteering tonight, I spent some time in my garden today so it could all be fresh on my mind. I haven't been out there much lately, even though it has been beautiful weather. Everything just seems so easy right now. Sure, there's more I could do. But the sunny days, frequent rain, and chilly nights are doing a great job for me.  It's as if the garden is telling me "Look, I'm doing fine out here. Why don't you just go enjoy the sunshine on the porch at Flying Saucer instead?" 

Not everything is perfect. It's gotten hot and my broccoli is flowering. I know some gardeners would look at this and think it was wasteful. There aren't many flowers in my yard, though, and these little yellow blossoms bring so many bees and add a nice bust of color. It seems more wasteful to pull them up when I don't have anything else to put in their place just yet.

My winter garden was extremely successful, so I didn't really plant a lot specifically for spring. I mentioned before that I am trying potatoes for the first time this year. Just when I'd about given up on them, I went out to the backyard trough where they are planted to discover that they had sprouted. I'm interested to see if they make it. I'm also planted a few spinach plants and strawberries, which are both doing very well. 

Tomatoes, squash, and peppers will go in soon. Up until this weekend's cold front, I was feeling behind that I didn't have them in already. But it's important for me to take time to appreciate this stage of the garden, too. It's not the best time from a cook's standpoint. Everything is either at its beginning or end. Unless you want swiss chard. I can feed you swiss chard for days.

It is an interesting time to watch and wait. All the plants look happy, and that makes me feel like the world is doing what it should. The time change, an ever-evolving garden, new volunteer opportunities, and only nine weeks of school left. Ah, how I love the spring.


Monday, March 22, 2010

"there's no hurry"

the food: home cooked
song: "Slow Down Old World" Willie Nelson

Well, SXSW 2010 is officially over. I had intentions of writing up what we saw/ate/drank/heard in detail. We truly had an amazing and memorable week. After Thursday (shorts!) my face was sunburned and smiling. Saturday night, my face was wind chapped from the cold front (aaghhh!), but still smiling. We caught up with friends and saw great music. All in all, it was a really wonderful week.

The last few days, though, I've just been enjoying my house. Being back in the noises, light, smells, and pace of my own kitchen. Chopping onions and listening to This American Life in the changing afternoon light (a method that works for me since almost every episode...happy or sad...makes me cry.)

Tonight, I gathered herbs from our window box for dinner. We had vegetable soup for our stuffed noses and sore throats (I'm telling you, this SXSW stuff is hard work). I'll spare you yet another soup recipe, but I think tonight has helped me realize why I write so much about soup. Soup might be my favorite food to cook. Each step is slow and reflective. You can almost taste it all coming together as you smell the herbs, onion, and zucchini first as you chop, then later as you add it to the pot. 

Soup is simultaneously simple and thoughtful. As I chop, I separate my vegetables into bowls based on when I'll add them to the pot. Hearty carrots and peppers in one. Delicate mushrooms and squash in the other. I contemplate when to add the garlic and if there's such a thing as "too many cloves." Even though it's just throwing a bunch of stuff into a pot, I love the process of soup. While it cooks, the house smells good and you have time to clean up your dishes. Or write. Or sip. Or all of the above. Making soup is almost as soothing as eating it.

Wow. I just wrote soup a love letter. Ira Glass is going to my head.


Monday, March 15, 2010

"where did our respectable convictions go?"

the food: Green Lasagna
the song: "Holiday" The Get Up Kids

I have a love-hate relationship with our fair city this time of year. SXSW may well be the time when my two sides clash the most. My preferred activities, in order, are time spent in my home (cooking, gardening, cleaning, cat petting) closely followed by soaking up sun with good friends on beautiful Austin days (usually with music, most definitely with beer).

Homebody Emily, I'd like to introduce you to Social Emily. I think you guys have some things to work out.

Our week is even crazier this year, because the husband leaves tomorrow at 6 a.m. for a business trip. He gets back Thursday, and he will be heading directly from the airport to his dayshow. From then on, the rest of the week will be devoted entirely to music. I'm excited about it. South By is like taking a little mini vacation in our own town. We go to good restaurants, hang out downtown, stay out all day then go back out at night. It's a fun time. 

But I don't want to neglect homebody Emily. She keeps things going during the 51 non-SXSW weeks of the year. So I planned one big meal for the week that would take some time, love, and attention to prepare. Sunday I harvested all my collard greens, swiss chard, and cabbage from the garden (it is getting too hot these days. My collards were starting to bolt). About a third of these went into this amazing green lasagna. 

The secret is in the two sauces...one, a creamy roasted garlic bechamel, the other a bright green pesto. The pesto brightens the lasagna a bit, while the bechamel provides the creaminess that I really like in self-indulgent pasta dishes like this one.  It is a big meal, not something I'd cook on a typical weeknight. The recipe makes a ton, but there are leftovers in the freezer waiting for either a late night meal this week or lunch when we go back to work. The important thing is that this meal tasted delicious. It is the one homecooked meal we're guaranteed to eat this week, so who cares if it's a little decadent? It's our vacation, afterall.

Green Lasagna
makes 8 servings

For the sauce:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk (most recipes call for whole milk, but I used 2% and it was fine)
1 head garlic
crushed red pepper (optional)
about 1/2 cup pesto (store-bought or homemade)

For the lasagna:
9-12 lasagna noodles (depending on how many layers you want and the size of your pan)
large bunch greens, cleaned, stems removed, roughly chopped (use whatever you like. I used a combination of collards, swiss chard, and cabbage)
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
1 onion, diced
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese 
olive oil

To start, roast your garlic. Slice the top off your garlic and drizzle with a little olive oil. Wrap in foil, and roast in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, until garlic is golden brown and very soft. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Once cool, squeeze garlic cloves out of their skins and mash lightly with a fork. Set aside.

Prepare lasagna noodles according to package directions. Set aside.*

When you are ready to make the sauce, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in your mashed garlic. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Add a sprinkle of cracked red pepper, if you like. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook until both start getting soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in greens and cook until they are just beginning to wilt. Remove from heat.

Spread 1/2 cup bechamel over the bottom of a 9x11 inch glass baking dish. Arrange a layer of lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the greens mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Top with another layer of noodles, then bechamel sauce, a few big tablespoons of pesto, greens, and cheese. Repeat layering until you are out of ingredients, ending with noodles, sauce and cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until top of lasagna is beginning to brown. Let rest 10 minutes before serving. 

*If you are using no-boil lasagna noodles, obviously this step isn't necessary. I never have used them because it doesn't bother me to cook the traditional noodles before hand. Plus, the no-boil are more expensive, and I am pretty cheap.

See you all next week when I'm back in the kitchen!


"anything you can do i can do better"

the food: Soup of the Week! Couscous Soup

I ran across a thread on Serious Eats "You might be a foodie if..." and got pretty tickled by it. Don't get me wrong, I find the term "foodie" as annoying as the next guy. But the suggestions from SE readers ring true. I even have my own to offer to the bunch:

"You might be a foodie if...upon finding out your houseguest is sick with the flu your first thought is about the soup you are going to heal him with."

 Try this...

This is the soup I ended up making. Not chicken noodle but still warm and nourishing. I'm not sure that it healed him but it was the first thing he'd eaten all day, and I like to think it helped a little bit. I added a swirl of pesto to the leftovers and served it to us non-sickies, too. It's a good tasting soup and could easily be bulked up with some greens and tomatoes, but I really appreciated the simplicity of just couscous and broth. It was just what sick food is supposed to be- comforting, easy on the stomach, not too complex, with natural ingredients to get you feeling better.

Before that. 

I'm in no way suggesting meds are a bad thing. Personally, I don't take medicine very often. If I have a fever (or a stomach bug, or a sore throat), I try my best to let it run its course rather than forcing it away with drugs. Having said that, I get a little panicky if I run out of Imitrex. When I need medication, I'm glad it is there. All I'm suggesting is that (sometimes) food can heal too if you give it a chance. And even if you don't believe that, this soup tastes a lot better than NyQuil.

Besides, it's always good to have a stand-by sick food in your repertoire. This soup is so easy to make a sick person could probably even manage to make their own. But love is the secret ingredient (it's true, people), so if that's the case make sure you put plenty of that in there too. Taste and season until it's prefect. Take the time to get it right, even if it is just for you.

Healing Couscous Soup
adapted from 101cookbooks

4 cups vegetable broth + 3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (pepper eases sick tums and relives pain)
2-6 garlic cloves, minced (garlic helps boost the immune system)
1 cup couscous*
1 teaspoon Italian herbs (throw in some parsley for antioxidants
salt & pepper

In a large pot, heat the broth, water, oil, garlic, and pepper. When it comes to a boil, stir in the couscous, cover and remove from the heat. Let stand 5 minutes, then uncover and stir. Taste soup and add salt and pepper as you see fit.

*Quinoa would be a great substitute here and add much needed protein in the mix. I went with couscous because it is a little easier to digest. If you use quinoa, adjust your cooking time to about 15 minutes.

By the way, I realize I said no more Soup of the Week posts. I stand by that, but this one was too good to forget, especially as those early spring colds roll around. But starting next week...no soup for you!


ps- The title of this post is referencing garlic, not me. Let me just state for the record, I think you're all better than me. (Yes! Two Seinfeld quotes in one post! This is the reason I write.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"make me something somebody can use"

the food: Soup of the Week! Homemade Vegetable Broth
the song: "Utilities" The Weakerthans

Ok, so I realize this technically isn't a soup. But it is the base of soup, and if you've got a good base, you're more than halfway to having a good soup. I've spent plenty of good money on boxed vegetable stock since this soup a week thing started. Well, those days just might be over.

God bless the Kitchn. I can go there and get just about anything I want (recipes, techniques, ideas) that will be at my appropriate skill level. I decided I wanted to make my own stock a few weeks ago and found this handy suggestion to save your vegetable scraps for stock making. So I got my biggest container and started saving everything that looked saveable- stems from herbs, root ends of onion, pepper tops, wilted mushrooms, tiny cloves of garlic I didn't feel like peeling. I threw everything into the tupperware and stuck it in my fridge. When it came time to make stock, I took it all out and gave it the once over. I took out some onion skins, but most of it stayed in. I added a diced carrot and a few stalks of celery.  When the husband saw what I was doing, he said "Oh, it's like composting." I took offense at first, but I realize now that he's totally right. All those scraps have a lot of nutrients to offer, whether it is for the compost or for us.

I didn't measure the exact amount of vegetable scraps, but I think I had about 5 cups. I simmered the vegetables in 10 cups of water for about an hour. Then I poured the stock through a colander into a large bowl, squeezing the vegetables to get out all the broth. After the stock cooled down, half went into a container to be used within the week, and the other half into a baggie for the freezer. And there you have it.

My homemade stock turned out great...the perfect color with a lot of flavor, nothing too overwhelming. It was healthier than the store bought variety (since I have control of the amount of salt in my stock) and it was so satisfying to make. The house smelled amazing while the stock was cooking, and once I finished I had gotten yet another use out of my vegetables before taking them to the compost. My only warning is that after you make it once, you'll start over-thinking every scrap you throw out. It can cause a space issue to store a big container full of scraps in your fridge all the time. But I'm managing just fine. 

Check out the Kitchn for some good tips on stock making and see if you find it as rewarding as I do.


P.S. This is my last weekly "Soup of the Week!" post. I'm still carrying on my project and will post the results when they are awesome, but I want to start focusing on some non-soup dishes to share here. It's starting to look like all I make is soups and sweets. Plus, I'm ready to start doing some repeats! (That roasted garlic potato soup is calling my name this week...)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"you're the icing on the cake"

the food: Vegan Avocado Cupcakes
the song: "You're the Good Things" Modest Mouse

Happy voting day! Get your tails out there and do it. It'll make you feel proud, and you'll be doing your American duty. Really. And once you're finished, why not come home and make some hippie vegan cupcakes?

You might be asking yourself "What do vegan cupcakes and voting have in common?" As you can see, I voted democrat this morning (just like always). When I walked in and announced to my (very professional) polling reps that I was voting in the democratic primary, one of them said "Of course you are! You're smiling!" Random as this comment may be, it got me thinking...only a liberal would jump at the idea of a vegan avocado cupcake. I mean, come on, have you ever met a conservative vegan*?

Joy the Baker has been making me very hungry lately with her gorgeous food blog. I ran across this recipe for avocado chocolate cake a few weeks ago and it looked intriguing. This morning, I ran across it again, and I considered it a sign. I love sweets with unexpected ingredients. My favorite cookies have carrots in them.  I've adapted my mom's brownies to include stout beer. And lest we forget the roasted garlic cupcakes from the husband's birthday party. So I was psyched about using avocado as the fat in a baked good. 

As I started mixing the ingredients, though, I became a bit skeptical. So let me warn you now- the wet mixture is less than appetizing looking. The oil and water do what oil and water does, and the avocado bits floating around make for an odd texture. But carry on with the directions, and I assure you these cupcakes will turn out the perfect consistency...soft and dense and chocolately, with just a vague taste of something you can't quite identify. Well, you'll be able to identify it, because you made them. 

I wish you could see the subtle green specs in the batter. It's so pretty. The best thing about vegan baking is being able to eat the raw batter with no worries. So don't be shy about licking the whisk. The worst thing about vegan baking is that it is easy to tell yourself that vegan equals healthy. Let me remind you...these are still cupcakes, made with white flour and plenty of sugar. While they may be better for you than your average sweet, they are not health food, and you are not entitled to eat the whole pan. This is the speech I had to give myself the moment these puppies came out of the oven.

Oooh, lordy. Vegan or not, these are the most perfect chocolate cupcakes I've ever made. I followed the recipe exactly, except I made cupcakes and I left off the avocado buttercream frosting. It just didn't sound that appetizing to me, although it makes for a lovely presentation. For me, a light dusting of powdered sugar was all they needed to help that rich chocolate avocado taste shine.

Enjoy the cupcakes, hippies.

Vegan Avocado Cupcakes 
adapted from Joy the Baker 

3 cups all-purpose flour
6 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup soft avocado, well mashed, about 1 medium avocado
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line muffin tins with paper, set aside.

Sift together all of the dry ingredients except the sugar.  In a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients together, including the well-mashed avocado. Add sugar into the wet mix and stir. Mix the wet with the dry and beat with a whisk until smooth.

Pour batter by the spoonful into prepared muffin tins, about 3/4 full. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. 

Once cupcakes are completely cool, you can frost them or sprinkle with powdered sugar if you like. Recipe makes 2 dozen cupcakes.


*Dear Conservative Vegans,
I mean no disrespect by openly questioning your existence. I understand that there are probably a few of you out there. Please note that I am being deliberately reductive about both food politics and...uh...political politics in this post to loosely tie into election day. Rock on your small government, big animal-rights selves!