31 October 2006

All Hallow's Eve Fun

Hello? Trick-or-Treaters? Hello? Where were you? Here we were with the traditional stairs of flaming pumpkins and a yard complete with foam board tombstones, a grave-escaping skeleton with flashing skull, and a half-size hanging skeleton with an ultra chique black and orange feather boa all dangly-dangly by the front door. Seriously, where were you? We are lucky if we got a dozen looters this year. Oh, well, more candy for us. Just what my tuchas needs, right?

I carved seven pumpkins this year. I'd planned on eight, but seven turned out to be slightly more than I could handle. Eight would have killed me. By the eighth pumpkin, I would have been jumping up and down, throwing pumpkin guts at the cats, and screaming. I bought the wrong pumpkins, you see. The locally grown pumpkins all turned out to be complete bastards to gut. Their guts were really moist and gooey. The more I scraped, the more there was to scrape. It was if they didn't want to be clean. It was annoying and took too long.

Weirdly, the two grocery store pumpkins were the easiest to gut. The guts peeled away from the walls and, more or less, plopped right out. I'm guessing this has something to do with the freshness of the pumpkins? Grocery store pumpkins were picked further back and have dried out or something?

Also, those cute ickle sugar pumpkins? They are certainly adorable, aren't they? They are also shit for carving, because their cavities are too small to allow for the gutting spoon and my hand at the same time. It is a good thing I carved all the pumpkins in the morning so they had most of the day to dry out a bit as I couldn't get all the guts out of those small bastards.

Later in the afternoon, in a fit of misplaced domesticity, I toasted pumpkin seeds. First, I rinsed the seeds in a big bowl of water until the majority of the goo washed off. When they looked clean enough, I spread them on a towel lined baking pan and let them dry for a couple hours. I tossed a third of them with cumin, chili powder, pepper, salt, and maple syrup; another third with maple syrup and cinnamon; and the final third with Worcestershire, garlic, salt, and pepper. Then I laid the seeds in single layer on a baking tray, sprayed them with cooking spray if they looked a little dry and baked them at 350° oven for 10 minutes or until they were lightly browned. The toasted seeds all tasted pretty good, but they didn't exactly make me weep for joy. I will stick to the plastic packets from the grocery store, thank you very much.

30 October 2006

Cookbook Talk: 3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes

3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes by Suzanne Bonet (Fair Winds Press, 2005)

3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes was recommended to me by a fellow librarian who said it was one of her favorite slow cooker books. All the recipes, she said, went together very quickly and tasted pretty good. Fast and tasty? What more could I want?

This is a pretty nice looking and usable cookbook. It’s full of nice tips and hints for getting the most from your slow cooker, nutritional values are provided for all recipes, and the index includes all the terms I’m likely to look for as well as plenty of cross-references.

Most recipes came with an “Add It!” entry listing additional ingredients and it’s the extended versions I used for all three dishes I made from this book. The first recipe I tried, the extended version of “Tuna Casserole,” came out really well. It was everything a tuna noodle casserole should be, but in a slow cooker. Excellent. The Husband liked the casserole quite a lot and I plan on adding the recipe to my collection. (I used fat free evaporated milk and whole wheat eggless noodles, but omitted the hard-cooked eggs, because that just seemed like too much stuff).

Unfortunately, the next two recipes I tried were not so good. The extended version of “Savory Turkey and Rice” (I used leftover roasted chicken) was bland and dry. It seems as if it should impossible to burn something in a slow cooker, but I did! We smothered the whole thing in ketchup when we ate it, but it was still pretty bland and terrible. If I made it again (which I strongly doubt), it couldn’t hurt to cut an hour off the cooking time, add more spices, and replace the water with broth.

The extended version of “Ravioli Stew” was also dreadful. This may not be the recipe’s fault so much as the ingredients, but I’m not going to try it again with different stuff. I don’t see how the recipe could have turned out so terribly — I used the same brands and ingredients we usually eat and the dish itself is very basic. There seems no real room for screwing up and yet the sauce tasted bitter, the ravioli was grainy, and the beans were both hard and smooshy.

27 October 2006

Year of Cake: Toasty Nuts

October's Cake of The Month is "Pumpkin Spice Cake" from Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book (Meredith Books, 1998) with maple syrup cream cheese frosting and toasted walnuts. I had never toasted walnuts before and was a little worried they'd burn, so I think I pulled them out of the oven a little too soon. Probably, could have toasted them another 2 or 3 minutes. Better under-toasted than burnt, I guess.


The cake came out pretty well. Everyone who tasted it thought the frosting was nice and maple-y without being overly sweet. Even my mother, the diabetic, enjoyed the frosting (with her heightened sensitivity to sugar, her sweetness threshold is a lot lower than ours). The cake itself was light and airy with just a hint of pumpkin in with all that spiciness. As a welcome bonus, the whole house smelled like pumpkin pie while the cake was baking.

December's cake will be fruitcake. Yes, my dad asked for fruitcake. He likes the scary commercially prepared ones, you see, and wonders what a homemade fruitcake will be like. I worry it's not the fruitcake he likes, but the novelty of it as it is one of those things he gets, maybe, a slice of once a year. Certainly, it isn't something my mother allows in her house.

I'm trying two recipes -- both from the King Arthur Flour people. I need to get them started in the next week or two as they'll need to set for five weeks or so before they'll be properly edible. I want my father to get his cakes well enough in advance of Christmas that he will still have an appetite for them. Also, if they turn out badly, I will still have time to order him one from the Baker's Catalogue.

24 October 2006

Culinary Failures

The driveway guys are here. Huzzah! New driveway! Unfortunately, they arrived at 8:15 and killed my plan to sleep in a little bit. Instead, I have been all busy-busy peering out the windows ala Gladys Kravitz, wrassling with butternut squash, and making chicken soup.

The butternut squash was for "Butternut Squash, Apple, Onion Au Gratin." A steaming hot bowl of cheesy apple-squash-bacon-onion yumminess seemed like an excellent brunch for this damp gray day. The recipe worked out pretty well, but the apples came out a bit too soft as I ended up baking the casserole thirty minutes longer than directed, because the squash was still too hard. Also, despite instructions to slice the squash, I think next time I'll chunk the fruit and veg into 1" pieces for better texture and, maybe, improved flavor as the whole cheese to bacon to squash to onion to apple ratio should be more even per forkful.

The farm stand I buy my apples and squash from is holding a squash tasting next Saturday. It sounds pretty delicious -- people will be able to sample different preparations of acorn, butternut, red kuri, blue hubbard, buttercup, spaghetti, etc. I will miss the squash tasting, but the stand people are usually pretty helpful when it comes to questions like "how do I cook red warty thing?" so I'll cadge some advice off them later and have my own squash tasting festival one of these days.

Not having the best of cooking luck, lately. Made a pumpkin date bread from Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book (Meredith Books, 1998) and it came out pretty flat. Perhaps, my leavening agents need replacing? Despite its flatness, the tea bread was still much better than the bread I made last year. It was quite moist and pumpkin-y and the dates gave it a nice chewy sweetness. I'll try this recipe again with new leaveners and, hopefully, it will rise properly.

My other culinary flops have come from Suzanne Bonet's 3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes (Fair Winds Press, 2005). I borrowed this from work based on the recommendation of a co-worker who said all the recipes went together very quickly and tasted pretty good. Fast and tasty? What more could I want?

Most recipes came with an "Add It!" entry listing additional ingredients and it's the extended versions I used for all three dishes. The first recipe I tried, the extended version of "Tuna Casserole," came out really well. It was everything a tuna noodle casserole should be, but in a slow cooker. Excellent. The Husband liked the casserole quite a lot and I plan on adding the recipe to my collection. (I used fat free evaporated milk and whole wheat eggless noodles, but omitted the hard-cooked eggs, because that just seemed like too much stuff).

However, the other two recipes I tried were not so good. The extended version of "Savory Turkey and Rice" (I used leftover roasted chicken) was bland and dry. It seems impossible to burn something in my slow cooker, but I did! We smothered the whole thing in ketchup when we ate it, but it was still pretty bland and terrible. If I made it again (which I strongly doubt), it couldn't hurt to cut an hour off the cooking time, add more spices, and replace the water with broth.

The extended version of "Ravioli Stew" was also dreadful. This may not be the recipe's fault so much as the ingredient's, but I'm not going to try it again with different stuff. I don't see how the recipe could have turned out so terribly. I used the same brands and ingredients we usually eat and the dish itself is very basic. There seems no real room for screwing up and yet the sauce tasted bitter, the ravioli was grainy, and the beans were both hard and smooshy.

Let's just hope the chicken soup (my recipe) comes out okay ...

17 October 2006

Pre-Birthday Birthday Loot

The Best Friend sent me an early birthday box and it is all full of deliciousness. It looks like a lot of it came from The Cool Mouse in Concord. She sent me a bag of caramel corn, fudge, and a lolly. She also sent me packets of sea vegetable salad and aka (red) miso soup -- I presume these are not from the Moose people. Either that or the Moose people have scarily eclectic stock.

The fudge is half pumpkin and half creamsicle. Haven't had any creamsicle, but the pumpkin is brilliant. Happily, The Husband does not eat pumpkin anything (except the pumpkin joes! ooh! need to make those!!) so I do not need to hide it from nibble-y types.

The Husband gave me an early birthday present a couple Sundays back. I had hoped it would be the start of a trend -- one present every Sunday until the Sunday of my birthday when the world would explode with presents -- but it was not to be. Just the one present. A good present, surely. It's a attentive husband who perceives his wife's need for a good sturdy pair of Fiskars Pro Kneelers before she starts transplanting the day lilies.

I like florist-y flowers and posh chocolates and fancy dinners out nearly as much as the next girl, I guess, but what I really love are the practical or tasty little gifts that show someone has been paying attention to me when I thought I wasn't saying much of anything at all. That's romantic.

06 October 2006

Cookbook Talk: Quick Vegetarian Pleasures

Quick Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin (HarperPerennial, 1992)

On a bit of a barley kick this month. The "Barley Mushroom Casserole" from Quick Vegetarian Pleasures turned out very well and made six generous side dish servings (4 main dish). Again, it was great to set the timer and walk away. I used beef stock, because I had leftovers from the AHA shiitake dish, and red onion just because I am partial to red onion. The casserole had a wonderfully meaty flavor with a nutty/chewy texture that was very filling and worked well with little red wine marinated steaks and a crisp salad. Definitely worth repeating.

05 October 2006

Bountiful Barley

In keeping with my master plan for better health and world domination, I've been including more whole grains in our weekly menu. I started the easy way, by replacing my old breakfasts and snacks with Kashi products and have now begun dabbling with barley. Why barley? Because it is a recognizable grain -- we've eaten it before in soups and we can even pronounce the name. Bar Lee. Quinoa? I can barely spell it and can only pronounce it if not looking at the word. Also, once upon a time, I made up a box of quinoa pilaf and that was a culinary experience I'm in no rush to repeat.

So. Barley. Cooked properly, it's surprisingly tasty. At first, I wasn't sure what to do with it other than put it in soup, but a quick browse through the 641s turned up some promising recipes. Probably, the best recipe was "Ground Beef, Shiitake Mushroom, and Barley Skillet Dinner" from The American Heart Association Low-Calorie Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2003). I did cheat and use (low sodium organic) beef broth instead of water as the AHA recipes sometimes run a little bland and I was trying to stack the deck in favor of tastiness. And I was not disappointed. The rehydrated shiitake gave the dish a deep, smoky quality while the whole stewed tomatoes melted in and added a hint of sweetness. Also, I love any recipe that says "no stirring needed." Just set the timer and walk away. Brilliant.

The "Barley Mushroom Casserole" from Jeanne Lemlin's Quick Vegetarian Pleasures (HarperPerennial, 1992) was also very good and made six generous side dish servings (4 main dish). Again, it was great to set the timer and walk away. I used beef stock, because I had left overs from the AHA shiitake dish, and red onion just because I am partial to red onion. The casserole had a wonderfully meaty flavor with a nutty/chewy texture that was very filling and worked well with little red wine marinated steaks and crisp salad. Definitely worth repeating.

I've had a jar of marinated artichokes in the pantry for much too long as well as a pound of sliced "exotic" mushrooms in the fridge which needed using up, so I cast around on the Internet for something which would let me combine the two with barley and I ended up with "Chicken Artichoke Toss" from CDKitchen. I know, it doesn't call for barley at all, but I substituted cooked barley for the cooked radiatore pasta and it worked fine. The whole dish came out well, but needed just a little more oomph. Next time, I will add a couple cloves of garlic and serve the dish with some shredded Parmesan.

Emboldened by my success with other chef's recipes, I decided to create one of my own. I had a package of butternut squash chunks and wanted to do some kind of barley bake which would include the squash, carrots, and onions. I ended up putting ½ cup barley in a 2-quart casserole with the chunks of squash, carrots, and onions over top. Poured 1 ¼ cups hot (low sodium organic) vegetable broth over. Sprinkled with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and ginger to taste. Dotted with a little butter and baked (covered) for about an hour. Barley was a little chewier than I like so I would add more broth and tweak the cooking time when I make it again. The vegetables and spices all worked well together and I am generally pleased with my little endeavor.

Now I just have to figure out what to do with the (impulse buy) pound of bulgur I picked up last week. Recipes on the box are for breakfast-y things and I'd prefer something more savory and supper-ish. Oh well, back to the 641s.

Cookbook Talk: The American Heart Association Low-Calorie Cookbook

The American Heart Association Low-Calorie Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2003)

So. Barley. Found half a bag of pearled barley in the back of the pantry the other day and wasn't in the mood for beef barley soup, but wanted to do something with the stuff. A quick browse through the 641s during my lunch break turned up some promising recipes. Probably, the best recipe was "Ground Beef, Shiitake Mushroom, and Barley Skillet Dinner" from The American Heart Association Low-Calorie Cookbook.

I did cheat and use (low sodium organic) beef broth instead of water as the AHA recipes sometimes run a little bland and I was trying to stack the deck in favor of tasty results. And I was not disappointed. The rehydrated shiitake gave the dish a deep, smoky quality while the whole stewed tomatoes melted in and added a hint of sweetness. Also, I love any recipe that says "no stirring needed." Just set the timer and walk away. Brilliant.