Monday, January 23, 2012

Asparagus with Mushrooms, Grape Tomatoes, and Parsley

If there's one vegetable you can count on throughout the year, it's asparagus.  While, admittedly, the asparagus you can find locally in season is, by far, the best, most of the time you can get by and be pretty happy with the offerings at the grocery store.  I'm not sure how far-flung the produce section necessarily has to search for asparagus in January - maybe California, maybe Mexico, maybe farther south.

Regardless, chances are good you'll find decent asparagus on any given grocery day.  A couple tips, though. Asparagus stalks should be firm, the ends compact and lacking the sort of mushy, shiny appearance they can take on when they're getting a little old.  You'll want to store asparagus in the refrigerator, either cutting the ends like flower stems and placing in a cup of water or leaving them loosely wrapped in the produce bag, popping a hole in the bag to ensure good air circulation, and you'll need to use asparagus within a couple days.  I've gone five days with a really fresh bunch, but three days really is the rule of thumb.

Asparagus can be cooked many different ways. It can be poached, steamed, roasted, grilled, sauteed, or just munched on raw.  Whatever floats your boat.  If you do decide to cook your asparagus, as with most veggies, the shorter your cook time, the less chance you have of an overdone, limp vegetable that never even heard of being green.  Now, I'm a fan from way back of poaching asparagus with a couple cloves of garlic, some salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, until it takes on a sort of olive-green tone after about 45 minutes. I'm not sure how much nutritional value remains at the end of the cooking process, but I have a soft spot in my heart for this particular style of cooking.

My mom used to poach an egg in the pan for good measure.  I never quite understood that part.  But then, eggs and I generally don't get along when they're present outside of cakes, cookies, and brownies.

However, I needed a quicker fix for some asparagus.  I've done the roasting process, but I wanted to shake it up a bit.  I also had some mushrooms and grape tomatoes that needed to be used.  So I got a little experimental.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chicken Soup - Ultimate Comfort Food

In my neck of the woods, it's chilly, blustery, and we could get some snow tonight.  Plus I have a slight cold, and despite the fact that I'm sitting here in a sweater and my husband's fleece-lined hoodie, I'm freezing.  So it seems fitting to blog about the ultimate comfort food, homemade chicken soup.

There are many variations on chicken soup in the world.  I even have a "quick" chicken soup I do during the work week that starts with a box of Swanson broth (I've found it's the closest thing to homemade that's not actually homemade).  But nothing - and I mean nothing - beats my family's recipe for chicken soup.

There may be some wailing and gnashing of teeth when they've realized I've shared this recipe.  But it's really too good to keep to oneself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Spiced Cupcakes with Citrus Glaze (Cupcake of the Month Series #1)

Everybody loves cupcakes, right?  Especially little tiny cupcakes that are just enough to calm your sweet tooth, the kind you can share with lots of friends.

Like these:

This is January's featured cupcake in my Martha Stewart 2012 Cupcake calendar.  The recipe is for Spiced Cupcakes with Citrus Glaze. They are delightful.  I did have to adapt the recipe a little bit, mostly because of availability of ingredients.

For one thing, I used skim milk rather than whole milk, as is called for in the recipe. This is mainly because that's what we use, and even if I only bought a pint of whole milk, 3/4 of the bottle would spoil before I could use the rest of it.  Because, really, we don't need to encourage me to make a full-calorie chocolate cream pie, do we? And I've tested whole milk versus skim milk in lots of recipes before, and it really didn't seem to make a huge difference in taste or texture.  So if you have whole milk, go for it.  But clearly you can use whatever milk you have on hand.

Secondly, I used cake flour instead of all-purpose flour.  Why?  Because I had over half a bag of it sitting in one of my canisters and I really needed to use it.  Cake flour can be substituted for all-purpose in a variety of baked goods, cakes (and cupcakes, obviously) being at the top of the list.  And again, I don't think it made that big a difference.

Lastly, I had to do a spice substitution.  The recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom.

Now, raise your hand if you've ever used, or heard of, cardamom.

I'd come across it in a couple recipes, but let me tell you something.

Cardamom must be ground from the seeds of a gold plant with platinum leaves. Because you can't find it among the "regular" spices.  Oh no.  It's in one of those special glass bottles on the top shelf of the spice section.  And you can't get a small bottle. No.  You have to buy a big bottle.  And that bottle is going to cost you upwards of $11.

Yes I know.

And the kicker is that ground cardamom has a shelf life of, like, negative three seconds, so unless you're going to make massive amounts of cupcakes and cookies that call for it, you're going to use that one 1/2 teaspoon and then end up with a bottle of flavorless brown dust.  Or so the internet tells me.

Well, I might like to go a little crazy with butter now and again, but I try to be frugal with my food and ingredient purchases when I can.  $11 for a bottle of a highly temperamental spice that I'm going to use once in the next six months just doesn't add up.

Fortunately, according to The Cook's Thesaurus, you can substitute equal parts cinnamon and nutmeg for the cardamom.

Spice and savings problem solved.

So now that I've vented my incredulity over the price of cardamom, I bet you want to find out how to make these tiny treats, right?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pizza Dough Tutorial

I love making pizza.  It's relatively quick and tastes so much better than anything you can have delivered.

Don't get me wrong.  I like pizza that's delivered to my door.  Especially when I don't feel like cooking. (That happens?)  But homemade pizza is so ridiculously easy and in the end probably more cost effective than ordering out.

There are two methods I've discovered.  The first, the one I've used for a couple years now, calls for the use of traditional yeast and you'll need about an hour start to finish.  But a couple weeks ago I discovered that Fleischman's Yeast has created "pizza dough" yeast.  It doesn't require you to proof the yeast or let the dough rise. You'll be eating pizza in a half hour, tops.  It's not as "puffy" as pizza dough made with traditional yeast, but it's a whole lot faster and just as tasty.

I'm going to give you a quick run through of the basic pizza dough recipe I use with traditional yeast, because when I have time (like on a snow day or a lazy Sunday afternoon) it's still very easy.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sea Scallops in White Wine Sauce

My husband's birthday was Wednesday, and to celebrate, I experimented a bit in the kitchen with one of his favorite food items - sea scallops.  He loves scallops of all shapes and sizes.  Usually I use bay scallops, which are the little ones, because the sea scallops are on the pricier end of things.  But I splurged a bit because he's such a wonderful husband.

The result was beautiful and tasty.

You could serve this over your pasta of choice or over brown or white rice.  It's really quite easy and rather fancy, so if you have a special occasion to celebrate it's worth the price of the scallops.  It may take a couple attempts to get the scallops right - there's a very fine line between undercooked, tender, and overcooked, and you're more likely to err on the overcooked side due to food safety fears.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cupcake of the Month

In my family, we have a little Christmas gift tradition.  In some families, everyone gets a new pair of pajamas. Some families fill stockings with fruits and nuts.

In my family, we all get a new wall calendar.

When my mom first started giving us wall calendars for our bedrooms, we had to give her ideas for what we'd like.  In the past I've had several "Gone With The Wind" calendars, a calendar for each of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, calendars with flowers, beautiful locations in Italy, and so on.

This year, I got the 2012 Martha Stewart Cupcakes calendar.

I'm beyond excited.  Aside from the beautiful food photography and monthly baking tips, the calendar came with recipe cards for all twelve cupcakes featured.

I'm inspired!

So I'm announcing my next baking series.  I will bake my way through my wall calendar, making each of the featured cupcakes in turn.  I'm hoping to make the cupcakes mid-month, sometime between the 15th and 17th.  It will be a fun challenge.  Some of the cupcakes are pretty simple, but there are a few that are rather labor intensive.  Fortunately one of the more difficult recipes doesn't fall until October or November, so I have a while to work on my techniques.

Let the baking begin!