26 February 2008

If It Ain't Broke ...

Last week, I made "Rice and Onion Chicken Casserole" from Betty Crocker's Good and Easy Cookbook (Macmillan, 1996). It's basically uncooked white rice mixed with condensed cream of mushroom soup, tinned sliced mushrooms, milk, onion soup mix, and boneless skinless chicken breasts. I used low fat/sodium ingredients and it came out pretty tasty (even if still not amazingly nutritious).

In making this dish I learned something new. Namely, that long grain white rice I use contains no fiber. None. This was obvious when I stopped and thought about it -- with white rice the hull and bran has been removed -- but had never occurred to me before. Obviously, using brown rice instead of white would add fiber to this dish and make it moderately more healthful. Of course, I don't usually use brown rice (though I will be now) and am not sure if it would cook the same way in the casserole.

Because we liked this casserole, I had to go and try my own version of it this week. I used uncooked white rice mixed with condensed cream of asparagus soup, 1" pieces of uncooked leftover asparagus, milk, McCormick Salt Free Garlic & Herb Seasoning, and boneless skinless chicken breasts. It was ... okay. Not nearly as good as the original. I think I should have used leek soup mix instead of the salt free seasoning and cut the asparagus stems into half inch pieces. My version wasn't terrible, but we didn't eat the leftovers and that's always a sure sign of failure.

On a happier note, I also made up a creamy penne and vegetable casserole which came out well enough I will share the recipe with you:
Creamy Penne & Vegetable Casserole

8 oz dried penne

1 red bell pepper, diced small
2 celery ribs, diced small
½ onion, diced small
½ tsp dried thyme
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T butter
1 can condensed low fat/sodium cream of mushroom (tomato might work, too)
½ c fat free Greek yoghurt
½ c 1% milk

Cook penne as directed on package. Cook pepper, celery, onion, thyme, and garlic in butter over medium until tender. Remove from heat. Stir in soup, sour cream, and milk. Stir in cooked penne. Pour into a 1 ½ quart casserole and bake, covered, about 30 minutes.

22 February 2008

When is a Pudding a Popover?

At six this morning there was already an inch of snow on the driveway and the weathermen were all in a lather about how very bad it was going to be further north and I decided that this is what I have vacation days for. Why drive an hour north into the dark heart of the storm? I would probably be able to get to work, but how hard would it be to get back home? We had a pisser of a storm back in December that was bad enough I left work two hours early. Good thing, because it took two and a half hours to get home and I ran out of audiobook.

The horror! The horror!

Anyway, as I had anticipated neither the storm nor my being home all day, there were insufficient groceries in the house to feed us. So, I ate The Husband. No. (He is delicious, yes, but probably not that nutritious). Really, I heated up some frozen chicken soup, tossed a salad, and whipped up a batch of popovers (soup requires a bread product and we were out of bread).

The popover mix came in, I think, January's King Arthur Flour Mix 'n' Magic Baking Club. These popovers went together easily, baked up nicely, and were overall quite yummy in the tummy. However, we are not sure they truly qualify as popovers. The Husband says they are Yorkshire puddings and that popovers should be a bit crunchier and more roll like. I'd never had a popover before tonight, but I've eaten a lot of Yorkshire pudding and it certainly seemed reminiscent.

The James Beard Cookbook has recipes for both Yorkshire pudding and popovers. With the Yorkshire puddings, Beard provides both the traditional method of baking it up in one big pan as well as the alternative method of baking individual puddings in muffin pans. The muffin tin puddings and the popovers are pretty much the same thing, but the Yorkshire pudds use drippings ...

So I want to say quite definitively that a popover is just a pudding without drippings. But. We always bake up our drippings-less pudding in muffin tins and, yet, they are definitely puddings and not popovers.

Toe-MAY-toe, Toe-MAH-toe. Who cares? They tasted good.

18 February 2008

Cooking the Books: Anne Shirley's Liniment Cake

"Anne Shirley!" she exclaimed, "what on earth did you put into that cake?"
"Nothing but what the recipe said, Marilla," cried Anne with a look of anguish. "Oh, isn't it all right?"
"All right! It's simply horrible. Mr. Allan, don't try to eat it. Anne, taste it yourself. What flavoring did you use?"
"Vanilla," said Anne, her face scarlet with mortification after tasting the cake. "Only vanilla. Oh, Marilla, it must have been the baking powder. I had my suspicions of that bak--"
"Baking powder fiddlesticks! Go and bring me the bottle of vanilla you used."
Anne fled to the pantry and returned with a small bottle partially filled with a brown liquid and labeled yellowly, "Best Vanilla."
Marilla took it, uncorked it, smelled it.
"Mercy on us, Anne, you've flavored that cake with anodyne liniment. I broke the liniment bottle last week and poured what was left into an old empty vanilla bottle. I suppose it's partly my fault -- I should have warned you -- but for pity's sake why couldn't you have smelled it?"
Anne dissolved into tears under this double disgrace.
"I couldn't -- I had such a cold!" and with this she fairly fled to the gable chamber, where she cast herself on the bed and wept as one who refuses to be comforted.
                                                                                            -- Anne of Green Gables, Chapter XXI
Today, I baked a liniment cake. The recipe comes from The Book Lover's Cookbook (Ballantine, 2003). I stumbled upon this book while searching the library catalog for "food in literature" and couldn't pass it up. This cookbook "features nearly two hundred recipes that were cooked up, served, or mentioned in your favorite novels and works of nonfiction." Who was I to resist such riches?

Anne's Liniment Cake

Of course, the first recipe I checked for was liniment cake and, yes, there it was -- "Anne's Anodyne Liniment Cake (Without the Anodyne Liniment)." This recipe is derived from Kate MacDonald's The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook which I had looked at last week. I didn't have both recipes on hand when I made the cake so I can't tell you what differences there might be between the two.

I am mostly pleased with this cake. It is very light and fluffy with a nice crumb and a good vanilla scent, but not a strong vanilla flavor. Indeed, if you've been spoilt by the commercial boxed mixes, you might be disappointed by how mildly vanilla this cake tastes. I liked it for its mildness, because it goes so well with cups of milk and tea. It seems like a companionable sort-of cake which is happy to work with other foodstuffs rather than shine out all on its own.

The frosting does not please me so much, but my success rate with frosting has always been rather hit or miss. When I was making the frosting, it never stiffened up as I was expecting, but stayed a bit on the runny side. I was afraid to throw more powdered sugar in as the frosting already seemed plenty sweet so I just frosted the cake as best I could and then popped it in the refrigerator to "set."

While this cake is not quite what I've spent all these years imaging liniment cake to be (not quite as "light and feathery as golden foam" as I'd hoped), it's still a very good cake and I would make it again. However, next time, I will also clap it together with "layers of ruby jelly" and see if that doesn't make it more Anne-ish.

15 February 2008

Back on the Wagon: Cookery Catch-Up

So, yes, I was ill earlier this week and fell behind in the whole three-suppers-shtick. Yes, managed to bake cookies and a cake, but couldn’t make supper because I was too sick. Trust me; it made sense at the time.

This week, I'm back on the wagon. I've made three suppers, but we've only eaten two as the last one was made ahead for Saturday. The first two have been tolerably good, so I don't expect anyone will die from Saturday's.

Cheeseburger Casserole

I've made a number of recipes from this site and they're generally pretty good. This casserole was no exception. While it was more like a turkey loaf than a casserole and did need a little something to boost the flavor, it still tasted pretty good and I'm always pleased to find non-tabbouleh bulgur recipes

Anyway, I readily admit that I tweaked the recipe a bit and any lack of flavor is probably my own fault. When I made this casserole, I omitted the powdered beef bouillon and used low sodium tomato sauce in order to reduce the amount of sodium in the finished dish. To compensate, I cooked the bulgur in (low sodium) vegetable broth to add more "taste" back in, but should probably have added some McCormick Salt Free Garlic & Herb Seasoning or Tabasco in, as well.

The serving sizes are pretty generous (4 servings from an 8-inch square baking dish) or realistic, depending on how you want to call it.

Tonight, I made "Parmesan Topped Salmon" and "One-pot Vegetable and Grain Medley" from The American Heart Association's No-Fad Diet (Clarkson Potter, 2005). I figured, if I'm going to go all low sodium and reduced fat with recipes then they might as well be that way to start with. I was surprisingly pleased with how both recipes turned out. Prior experience has shown AHA recipes to be hit-or-miss in the seasoning department, yet these two dishes came out quite tastily.

The salmon recipe reminded me of the "Magically Moist Salmon" recipe sometimes found on the back of the Hellmann's mayonnaise bottle. A recipe I had never tried, because slathering mayonnaise allover perfectly nice salmon seemed like an act of barbarism. And yet, here I was today, brushing my salmon with a mixture of light mayo, Parmesan, garlic, and white pepper. All because the AHA said I could. And I was only using 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon mayonnaise (vs ¼ cup called for in the Hellmann's recipe). Anyway, it tasted quite nice -- the top of the mayonnaise/Parmesan firmed up and browned quite nicely in the oven while leaving its under layer all moist and gooey atop the tender pink salmon. While I still prefer my usual method of salmon cookery, this made a nice change.

I made the barley to go with the salmon as it also had a little Parmesan in it which I thought would link the two dishes together flavor-wise while the acidity of the tomatoes would complement the creaminess of the fish. Also, I wanted to cook some barley. Overall, I was pleased with this dish. I did end up cooking it twenty minutes longer than directed, but that was my own choice. When I selected the recipe, I neglected to note that it was supposed to be served by in bowls as a stew or some such thing. By cooking it covered for forty minutes and then leaving it uncovered on the stove for another twenty (while the salmon baked), most of the liquid cooked away. When I stirred the grated Parmesan in, the barley took on a risotto like consistency which was very pleasing. The red bell pepper, onion, Parmesan, and Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes all blended together with the barley and gave it a creamy tangy-ness that went really well with the salmon. The Husband quite liked it and took seconds, which alone makes this recipe worth repeating.

Baked Ziti w/ Beef & Green Beans

For Saturday, I made "Baked Ziti with Beef & Green Beans" which is also from the American Heart Association's No-Fad Diet (Clarkson Potter, 2005). I substituted Hodgson Mill Organic Whole Wheat Penne with Milled Flax Seed for the ziti, because that's what I had on hand. Otherwise, I made this recipe exactly as directed. It looks pretty okay and was very easy to throw together, but it also seems a bit ... weirdly fussy. I don't know why as the casserole is just repeated layers of cooked pasta, sauce, green beans, and cheese in an 8x8 inch casserole and there's nothing to it that really sounds fussy. It's just ... why layer it? Why not mix the pasta, sauce, and beans together and then top them with cheese? Why be fussy? Especially with the pasta and sauce -- isn't the sauce just going to ooze down and mix with the pasta, anyway?

We shall see.

What do I think of the American Heart Association's No-Fad Diet (Clarkson Potter, 2005) now that I've made three recipes from it? Well, everything I've eaten has certainly tasted good, but the directions leave a little bit to be desired. The weird fussiness of the green bean casserole irks me a little, but not as much as the constant call for "½ medium x, chopped." How much is half a medium onion or two shallots when chopped? Why can I not have measurements in cups or ounces? And the barley recipe didn't even tell me how to prep the bell pepper! It just said "2 medium bell peppers (orange and green preferred)." I decided to chop one and a half red bell peppers (they were on the "large" side, but none of the peppers at the grocery store looked "medium," anyway) into small pieces, because I reckoned the chopped pepper should be the same shape and approximate size as the other ingredients.

I don't know if I'd buy this cookbook for myself and I recommend it with reservations, but that won't stop me copying down the recipes I've made and trying them again next month.

11 February 2008

Lazy Breakfast is the Best Breakfast

I’ve made oatmeal in the slow cooker a couple times now and it's turning out to be a really nice way to get some hot breakfast in me with minimal effort or thought. Before going to bed, I put 2 cups of steel cut oats in the slow cooker with 8 cups of water and several generous handfuls of dried fruit. Then I give everything a good stir, put the lid on, and set the cooker for low. Seven-ish hours later, breakfast is ready to be et.

The steel cuts oats, judging from what I picked up from a “Good Eats” episode and a couple other slow cooker oats recipes, cook in a 1:4 ratio. If I had a smaller slow cooker, I’d use 1 cup steel cut oats and 4 cups water. I can’t imagine cooking more than 2 of cups oats at a time as it makes about five days worth of breakfast for one, but it could be done if you were feeding a Scout troop or something.

Because there’s just me eating all this oatmeal, I divvy it up into 1 ½ cup servings (1 ½ oats = 3 grams of soluble fiber) and store it in the fridge. When I want breakfast, I pop the top of a bowl, splash a little milk on the oatmeal, and microwave it until warm.

The oatmeal I make is not very sweet and I usually stir in a little maple syrup after I’ve warmed it up. You could sweeten it at the get go, if you like. (I find that I really like how the golden raisins and dried cranberries come out – like juicy little flavor bombs – and I keep upping the amount of fruit I use which reduces the amount of maple syrup I add afterwards).

You could also stir in some chopped nuts with the dried fruit. I used chopped pecans once and it came out really well – like the hot muesli my Dad used to make (add equal amounts Muesli to milk and bring to a boil; simmer 3 to 5 minutes).

If I can get my hands on some nice dried apples (natural food store, here I come), I’d like to try oatmeal with apples, walnuts, golden raisins, and cinnamon for next week. Or coconut, golden raisins, and slivered almonds. Hmm. I wonder how dried pineapple would cook up?

05 February 2008

Cooking as a Coping Mechanism

I'm not sure if baking three dozen cookies, one cake, and a casserole count as "taking it easy" when one is out sick from work, but that's what I've been doing the past two days.

Either I cook and keep my mind off whatever is wrong with me or "rest" and totally freak out. I mean, chest pains? Heart palpitations? Pain in jaw and neck? What do you think that sounds like to you? Well, it isn't. And that makes it worse. Because I don't know. And the doctors don't know. Yet. So ... I cook.

Morningstar Farms Humble Crumble PueBaked up a deliciously sweet and fiery gingerbread cake using the King Arthur Gingerbread Cookie & Cake Mix which came in one of my "Mix ’n' Magic Baking Club" boxes (December, I think, but it could as easily have been November). I added in a whole cup of crystallized ginger flakes to the batter, because gingerbread cannot be too gingery, and it turned out marvelously -- moist and fluffy and gingery as all get out. Smells wonderful, too.

The mix made one eight inch square cake which, I guesstimate, divides into sixteen quite nicely.

I also made three dozen cookies using the King Arthur Raspberry-Lemon Sparklers Premium Cookie Kit which also came in one of my "Mix ’n' Magic Baking Club" boxes. There's not bad -- buttery and raspberry with a nice lemon zing -- but not exceptional, either. I might buy a box of these readymade if the Girl Scouts were schilling them, but I don't think I'd bother baking them again. Mind you, I don't think I could. I can't find it on the King Arthur Flour site, anymore. Key Lime Sparklers, yes. Raspberry-lemon, no.

Because we ought to have something savoury with all these sweets, I also made a vegetarian shepherd's pie using the "Humble Crumble Pie" on the Morningstar Farms site (I freely admit to using Boca brand soy crumbles, rather than the Morningstar brand). I made the mashed potatoes for the topping from scratch, sadly overestimated the amount of potato I needed, and now have a bucket of extra mashed potatoes in my fridge. Amusing, as shepherd's pie is supposed to use up leftovers not make more.

We thought the pie was pretty good, but agreed that adding a can of crushed tomatoes might have made it even better. I will certainly make this again as there are lots of soy crumbles in the basement freezer and it is both the right time of year and the right kind of weather for a shepherd's pie.

03 February 2008

More Casserole Happiness

Just before Christmas, I tapped my old 13x9 baker against the kitchen counter and it snapped in half. Stoneware should not snap. Happily, it was empty when it snapped. (I broke a full one once -- put it cold into a hot oven and it cracked in half. Was that ever fun!)

After New Year's, I replaced it with a nice handled CorningWare "Creations" 3 quart oblong baking dish and have been very pleased with how well this new dish is working out. It's much squarer at the corners than my old one was and also much deeper at the (tapered) sides. Suddenly, I have no problem dishing out corner servings and there's never any oven overflow.


So, yes, I've been making a lot of casseroles. I like casseroles -- I get quite a lot of satisfaction of pulling a well-baked casserole from the oven and knowing it is everything that is tasty, pretty, and nutritious all in one pan.

"Vegetables & Noodles with Good Creamy Sauce"

This week started with "Vegetables & Noodles with Good Creamy Sauce" from the lower fat chapter of Maryana Vollstedt's The Big Book of Casseroles. It's a very basic recipe -- mushrooms, zucchini, and bell peppers combined with cooked egg noodles in a white sauce -- which depends pretty heavily on the strength of the sauce. Alas, the sauce was not all that. The sauce (pureed low fat cottage cheese, reduced fat cream cheese, fresh parsley, seasonings, and a splash of milk) was very thick (think Spackle) and tasted very strongly of cream cheese. I will try adding more than a splash of milk next time, but I don't know how to reduce the strong cream cheese flavor. More parsley? More seasoning? More cottage cheese and less cream cheese?

Mind you, The Husband liked this casserole because of the strong cream cheese flavor. Replace the zucchini with chicken and he thinks this could be "really good."

Next, I made "Tex-Mex Pork Chops" with "Chile Cheddar Penne" from Taste of Home Annual Recipes, 2008. This made a nice supper on a cold, rainy, winter evening. The penne (jazzed up mac & cheese with chilis and corn) had a nice kick and paired well with the chops. I went mild this time as I wasn't sure how zippy the penne would be, but might use hotter peppers in the future. Also, where the recipe called for shredded cheddar and taco powder I used a reduced fat cheese blend and McCormick 30% Less Sodium Taco Seasoning Mix.

The chops came out pretty well, too. Basically, you cook boneless pork loins chops with sauted onions then pour salsa, cumin, and black pepper over them and heat through. The chops come out moist and spicy and pair well with the penne.

"Turkey-Zucchini Casserole"

Lastly, I made "Turkey-Zucchini Casserole" from the lower fat chapter of Maryana Vollstedt's The Big Book of Casseroles (I really like this book). This dish came out much more like a soft meatloaf than what I think I of a casserole. It's made of browned turkey crumbles (I imagine soy crumbles would work fine), Muir Glen Organic diced tomatoes, zucchini and other veggies, fresh basil and parsley, a little vegetable broth, and lots of dried bread crumbs. It's a weird little dish to look at, but it tastes really good. It's easily the most delicious dish I have prepared this week.

(The Husband, when asked his opinion, said it was "interesting" and promised he would happily eat it again, despite the copious amounts of zucchini).

And what did The Husband make on Thursday? He made hot dogs and ... cake. Yes. It was quite obvious the hot dogs were merely there to legitimize the cake.

Let it be understood that I have married the perfect man.

For next week: "Humble Crumble Shepherd's Pie," oven roasted salmon (from the Shoprite flier), and "Spanish Rice Casserole."