It ain’t fall until someone bakes up some pumpkin

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Well, two posts in a week…  That’s a little scary, and let’s not set this up as an unmeetable precedent.  However, I took a couple of minutes and baked an absolutely delightful fall treat and I needed to share.

Fall is my favorite time of year.  It brings the promise of football, snuggling in blankets, wooly sweaters, and the comforting heartier foods of the season. The thick stews, long braised fatty meat, and slow roasted Brussels Sprouts make my mouth water. But let’s be honest, if you were playing Password and could only name one food to conjure up the idea of fall, it would be pumpkin.

To say I merely “like” to use pumpkin in my cooking would probably be an understatement. I love the stuff to the extent that I’ve even tried baking fresh pumpkin for pies. That works okay, but let’s be honest, Libby’s has the pumpkin game locked down.

What isn’t always easy is making a pumpkin baked item that is light. Pumpkin baked goods can end up can end up seeming a little heavy.  Last year after a few pumpkin bread and muffin fails I have been looking around for a new recipe. So when I saw the Tartine bakery’s Pumpkin Tea Cake virtues extolled several times, I thought I had to hunt up a recipe and make it myself.  What I like about Chic Eats’ post is the flexibility to use a scale or cups to measure out ingredients (I used my scale).

This recipe is very easy, and it bakes up an incredibly moist quick bread masquerading as a snack cake. It has a very pumpkiny taste, tender crumb, and did I mention it was moist? The extra sugar creates a crackly crust on top that sets off the moist cake beneath. You can bake it in smaller loafs, just adjust the cooking time down. The only change I made was I use much less spice than the recipe called for and I added in one of my own. I used 1t cinnamon, 1/4t ground cloves, pinch of ginger (my addition), and several generous gratings of whole nutmeg.  I don’t love baked goods that are drowning in the pumpkin pie spices, and that amount of cinnamon would have put my teeth on edge, but if you like to (pie) spice it up, go for it.  But do get on baking this cake; it won’t be fall until you do.

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Tartine Bakery’s Pumpkin Tea Cake from Chic Eats

OMG – What’s happening?

I realize it’s been a while and probably none of you are still around, and that’s fine.  I would’ve quit me too.  It was a rough year last year and heck blogging is like journaling and I always sucked at that, so there.

I’m back though and am doing a little TV blogging to over at my other blog What I Watch Now or https://wiwnow.wordpress.com    It’s my little reward for getting my work done for the day and I do like blogging and it’s fun. So if I’m not here I’ll be there and so forth.  Unless I’m not either place, then I’m hopefully working which is good.  Mamma gots to finish.

What has brought me back is I’m doing a little experiment on my patio.  I had a big beautiful mint plant in a pot this summer. It was glorious. I use pots because mint is a weed and will take over your yard in like 5 minutes if given half a change. But I have to have my mint (mojitos!), so there you have it.

I noticed a few weeks ago it was on its last legs. I pretty much give up watering come August and unless we get rain stuff that needs water starts to die. It got rangy and I was having guests over, so I tried to rip out the plant, but all I got were the stems and the let’s call it “main plant” that was left above ground. The roots were too deep.

Being busy (read-lazy) I just left it there and noticed there was some activity. Well that voracious grower hasn’t disappointed me, this is the mint today

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HOLY MOLEY! It’s totally back. Two weeks ago this was just dirt and now it’s going to town.  I know this won’t last, but I’ve decided to just let it go and see what it does.  I’m going to leave it all winter too and see if it comes back.  This is basically a mint throw down.

Basil Oil, thy time is now

Tomatoes with Basil Oil

Delicious evidence

I have several things on my plate for the next couple of weeks, but I couldn’t keep this from you. It was one of those things I made for myself and thought, dang it how selfish would I be not to share this? I’ll make this quick…

Last weekend I hit our local farmer’s market and was delighted to find tomatoes. I know, tomatoes are in the grocery store every week of the year and there’s even been hothouse tomatoes at the market for a while. That’s not what I’m taking about. I’m talking about “grown in the ground”, luscious, sweet, red (and other colors too!!) tomatoes. The kind when you smell they they have that vine-y tomatoes smell. You know it, and to me it’s summer. I have memories of canning bushels of tomatoes with my mom and my dad and making his special spaghetti sauce.

While any tomato are pretty good, but they’re even better when you try eating them seasonally. Back in the day I used to take cooking classes from a restaurant in Madison, L’Etoile (I miss those classes, dang it, Chef Tory, bring them back!). I learned so much from their chefs, but their founder, Odessa Piper was like the Midwest equivalent of Alice Waters. Very much an early adapter of the local food movement, she is a rare gem and visionary. One of my favorite classes was following her around the Madison Farmer’s Market and meeting each of her favorite purveyors. I still shop from them when I’m in the area. She always extolled the virtues of eating seasonally. How much more delicious it is to eat a tomato, or even a BLT if you haven’t for many months. Then she said you eat them when they are in season until you’re almost sick of them because you crave them so much, but it is these “culinary vacations” we have to take from certain fruits and vegetables when we eat seasonally that makes them all the more special.

Now I can’t do this, at least not completely. I’m lucky in that I live by a really great farmer’s market in central IL. I can even get peaches locally for a few months over the summer. However, if I couldn’t get local peaches I’d have to get them somehow. There’s other things like avocados that I just couldn’t live without. And I do eat the occasional tomato off season, but they don’t taste very good, and I usually regret it in the morning.

By now you’re saying, “Um, so what does this have to do with Basil Oil? Can we circle back to the point, hmm?”. Sorry for the long windup, but I’m getting there. When tomatoes are in season, basil is right there too. Basil and tomatoes, like Bert and Ernie, two very different things that go quite well together. At the market last week as I squirreled together my tomato stash, I grabbed a bunch of basil (yes, I have “basil” in my “garden” but my garden is a sad sad place where plants go to die and I’m trying to give them their space. That’s for another time. Or not).

I had been plotting to make a Margarita Pizza with my spoils when I turned on an episode of Barefoot Contessa where she was drizzling some gorgeous vivid green oil over some tomatoes. Basil Oil! I thought, well, why not? I googled up a recipe and found a good one on Epicurious. A couple of words of advice about the recipe. You need to blanch the basil or it will get muddy brown. A big part of this recipe is how beautiful it looks, so take 5 seconds and blanch it. I shocked it in ice water too, but cold water is probably fine. Also, I used a mixture of olive and canola oil because the olive oil I had was kind of spicy. I’d use all olive the next time I make it. It doesn’t have to be fancy oil, but I think all olive would have been a bit jazzier.

Oh so delicious

Mmmm, my bright green precious…

That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious. Seriously. I made a caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil and it was amazing. You can see the evidence, or lack there of above and I’m not saying this lightly; it was incredible. Over the next few days I was looking for ways to use it. I made some sandwiches and used it as a spread/oil for the bread. I also drizzled it over some fish I steamed in the oven.  There are so many ways you could use this oil. Also, It lasted for several days and stayed bright green and tasty.

So um, not quick I guess, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Tis the season for basil oil and fresh tomatoes.

Protip: Freezing Cookie Dough

Cookie PlateI love chocolate chip cookies. Not a huge leap, but it needs to be stated nonetheless. These cookies are ones I made for the social work policy class I’m teaching. I bake for my classes, it’s what I do. See what I did there? For just a nanosecond it ran through your mind that you might consider taking a social policy class in order to secure some of my baked goods, and that my faithful reader is the power of a good chocolate chip cookie.* And yes, I use my baking superpowers for good, as you will see.

But come on who can blame you, who doesn’t love warm, melty, homemade chocolate chip cookies? You could say I inherited my love of chocolate chips and cooking from my grandma. My grandma was a good cook. She was a traditional 60′s style cook, nothing fancy or haute, but just good tasty food. She liked to cook, and I guess I inherited that from her.

scan0246Wasn’t she pretty? She also made a mean chocolate chip cookie. When we’d come to visit the cookies would always be there, and when we left we’d often have a tin of cookies to take home. They were a variation on the old Toll House Cookie recipe, but they were much more cakey. Once she taught me how to make them. Her secret was basically “more flour”. She was older then and cookie dough was so stiff that her arthritis made her mix the dough by hand. I remember thinking she must love me very much to go to that much effort for me.

When I was little these cookies were magic, and so of course when I got older I wanted to make them myself. Toll House was my jumping off point too. In my opinion, regular Toll Houses are a bit thin and meh. Over the years I’ve honed my own recipe. I too add a little more flour, but less than my grandma. I toast my pecans to add some depth to their flavor. I also put in a bit more vanilla, and use good vanilla, you really can tell. With my few small, yet important tweaks I think I’ve hit on a great slightly chewy chocolate chipper with just a bit of puff.

Now we all know that the best chocolate chip cookie is warm and right out of the oven, and sadly too often we are deprived of them having to settle for a regular room temperature cookie.  Oh it is a rough world we live in, but lucky for you, I solved all that. A few years ago at the grocery store I noticed a little tub of cookie dough in the refrigerated section. I got thinking why couldn’t I do something like that myself? What I needed was a way to preserve my own cookie dough without the additives that little tub was chocked full of. Then it hit me, freezing. All I had to do was freeze balls of dough and I could have warm cookies whenever I wanted. Choco chip freezerYou’ll notice they don’t look especially ball-like. My cookies usually need a bit of a smoosh so they flatten out as they cook.  I take a small ice cream scoop**, pop a bunch of balls of dough on my Silpat lined cookie sheet and then squish them. Okay, I also top them with a sprinkle of salt because I apparently feel the need to salt everything sweet I make, but that’s pretty much it. Once they’re frozen solid they can be sealed in a baggie, just push all the air out so they stay fresher. For cooking, just toss them on a cookie sheet and bake ‘em up. You can bake up a bunch or you can bake just one or two for yourself. I usually just keep an eye on them, they’ll need a few more minutes than the right out of the mixer ones.

Choc chip cookiesAnd voila, cookies! Now you can have a warm cookie whenever the mood strikes you. So whether it’s been a long day or that special someone drops by and you want to woo him or her with the irresistible allure of warm cookies.  All you need to do is heat up the oven.

*If you didn’t think that, you are obviously a cyborg because only they are immune to the powers of a good cookie. Stop reading my blog, cyborg!

**Ice cream scoops make baking so much easier. I use a regular sized scoop for portioning out muffin batter and a small scoop for making a lot of cookies really fast. If you bake a lot try it I swear they’ll make your life so much easier, call this protip part deux.

This is the Black Bean Soup you’re looking for

Bean Soup

So I really like black beans. There was a time in my life when I would cook up a pot of black beans regularly. I’d use them in tacos or burritos, mix in white rice, and even make up a little soup. I like to use them in place of other beans. I mean, come on who really likes the kidney beans in chili? *

I can’t remember where I first ate black bean soup, but I vividly recall the experience. It was a small hot bowl, almost bittersweet chocolate in color. The taste was savory and spicy with just a bit of lime. It wasn’t totally smooth, but had whole beans swimming in the thick beany broth.

The deal sealer with black bean soup are the garnishes.  In the same way as a good chili, you need to top black bean soup with something. Preferably many somethings. This restaurant topped the soup with a scoop of steamed white rice. It was amazing. It is the flavor of that soup that I chase when I make my own recipes today.

This recipe below also busts a myth or two. You really don’t need to soak beans before you cook them. I still will soak beans if I think about it, but often I just cook up black beans for soup and it’s just fine.  Also, I added salt relatively early in the cooking process and again it was just fine. I know some claim that salt inhibits the cooking process with beans, but I haven’t had that experience, and by adding salt your beans aren’t blah.

Black Bean Ingr

For the Beans

1# black beans

1 ham hock

2 bay leaves

6 cups of water

1/8 t baking soda

1 t salt

For the Soup

3 T olive oil

1 large onion

1 large carrot

1 red pepper

2 large cloves garlic

½ t red pepper flakes, I may have used a bit more, so to taste

1 ½ T ground cumin

½ c chopped tomatoes (I used some larger pieces from a jar I canned last fall)

4 cups chicken broth

Some Garnishes

Lime juice

Minced cilantro

Red onion

Greek Yogurt

 Alternate garnish

Cooked white rice

Chopped BBS

 How to do it

Start by combining all the bean ingredients except the salt in a nice sized Dutch oven. Turn it up and get a good boil going over medium heat. Stir in salt and lower the heat to a peppy simmer.  Simmer covered until the beans are tender.  Mine took about 90 minutes, but check them. Also, keep track of the water. If it starts to get low add another cup. When the beans are tender, I put everything in a large bowl,  remove the hock and the bay. When the hock is cooled, remove the meat and chop it up to add back in.

Saute bbs

Wipe the dutch oven clean with a paper towel. Toss the oil in the pan and heat over medium high. Add the onion, carrot, pepper to the pan and stir occasionally. You’ll cook them until they are very soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and cumin to the pan, stirring frequently until fragrant maybe a minute or two. Add the beans, cooking liquid, tomatoes, hock meat, and chicken broth to the pan and adjust the heat so you get a nice boil, then lower to a simmer for about a half hour so the flavors can combine.

Soup bbs

When it seems ready, take 3-4 cups of the soup and put it in the container that held my homemade stock. You want something tall, so you can whip out your immersion blender and frappe the soup into a smooth thickener.  Once it’s smooth, add it back to the pot and you should have a slightly thickened bean soup that still had whole beans and bits of veggies.

Whirr bbs

Then you’re done. This soup is very close to what I remember from that soup that got me hooked. It is just a little thick, but still silky with a depth of flavor that has just a bit of heat. Don’t forget when you serve it to have a little assembly of garnishes. Your guests will love  customizing their own bowls with various add ons. Let’s be honest, people usually hop up their chili until it’s more garnishes than actual chili, and that’s how it should be.

Bean Soup

Suggested beverage: Malbec or a Pale Ale.

* Answer is no one.  Kidney beans are gross.

Why you should be watching Treme

NOLA 085When I fall in love with a new restaurant, there’s nothing more fun than introducing others to it, or cooking a new recipe and watch as a friend or love’s face lights up with pleasure eating it. It’s also the same when I clue someone into a really good show. You not only get to give your friend some honest tv watching enjoyment, but you get to relive the experience with them as they discover the joy/thrill/suspense you found in the show. Now I want to do that for you, and the show I think most of you probably haven’t seen and really need to is HBO’s Treme.

I absolutely love this show. I’ve been trying to think about what exactly why. It’s a little show, not glitzy. Even though it’s on HBO it has never gotten the buzz of a Sex and the City or the Girls. It’s not about self absorbed 30 somethings in too expensive clothes or self absorbed thick brained 20 somethings in no clothes. No, it’s a small show that is tenderly and beautifully rendered about a city, people, and music that I love. Whoever writes this show clearly knows the city and loves it too.

Treme is a neighborhood in New Orleans, a real neighborhood with real people. The show starts 3 months after Hurricane Katrina and it lives in a world of musicians, chefs, and other NOLA characters who took weathered the storm and their attempts to take back their city. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t told in an easy way. People die, people you love die. There is injustice and it will piss you off and it will make you cry.

Treme shows New Orleans isn’t an easy city. It is dirty and messy and corrupt. It was before Katrina and the water from the storm didn’t wash that away. One thing that makes Treme so great is that it is honest, sometimes brutally so.

NOLA 053I’d say Treme is also about 50% music, incredible local music. It will make you want to go and hang out in every divey joint in the city because we all know that’s where the best music lives. The stories are told in short bursts, like jazz riffs. This isn’t conventional storytelling. Thoughts are sometimes started and then you move into another scene, no resolution or nicely wrapped up scene. Just bits that start and stop and circle back later. While there are a variety of characters and story lines, it isn’t really telling separate stories it is telling one large multilayered intertwined story. Strong characters fight, cry, lose, and fight the hell back. Or quit. It shows people fighting for their city and with their city. Solutions aren’t easy if they come at all, but in the end it shows the heart and soul of this wonderful city.

NOLA 75I love New Orleans. I was enchanted with the city before I even ever stepped foot in the place. It was one of those places I knew I knew would feel like home. When I was there for the first time and heard my first NOLA jazz and ate fried chicken from Willie Mae’s* I knew I was in love.

So watch Treme. There’s 3 short seasons already out and a final one airing this year to finish the story. In one episode you may cry and cheer,  yell FINALLY, only to then have the rug pulled out from under you. You will love these people, you will fall in love with this city and then trust me, you will go and the love affair will be there for life.

You’re welcome. Maybe I’ll see you there.

*if you haven’t eaten fried chicken at Willie Mae’s my darlings, you haven’t lived.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Seared Shrimp Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette

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It’s not every day that a recipe knocks me off my feet. I cook a few times a week and you’d be surprised at how many of the online recipes are just meh – nothing I’d make again. I’m a busy gal and nothing ticks me off more than taking the time to make a recipe only to be rewarded with something boring. So when I try something new my expectations are so low, yet the bar is really high. This recipe really surprised me, it’s simple yet oh so tasty. I think it’s the low number of ingredients used in just the right way that allows this recipe to sing. I stumbled across this recipe on the lovely Tartlette blog. I changed it just a bit to meet my own tastes and the limits of my location. Her recipe called for scallops and since I’m terribly landlocked here in the middle of Illinois, I thought a safer bet was to use shrimp.

As an unexpected bonus, it didn’t take me longer than 10-15 minutes to make this whole recipe. Yes you heard me right, a totally homemade recipe in under 15 minutes. In fact, this is so easy you really don’t need a recipe for it, but I’ll walk you through what I did.

IMG_3973The vinaigrette calls for blood orange juice, red wine vinegar, minced garlic, salt/pepper and olive oil, you can see exact amounts on the Tartlette blog. Also, don’t be worry about finding blood oranges, heck my local Schnucks had ‘em. If you can’t find them it’s fine to use a regular orange, but you won’t have the beautiful ruby red vinaigrette to drizzle and the flavor may be different and more breakfasty. IMG_3979I added everything but the oil and then added it slowly giving it a brisk whisk.  I didn’t use as much oil as her recipe, but I tend to like a more tart dressing.  If I were you I would add a bit and taste it. If it tastes good, stop, if not add more oil. You should always taste your food as you’re cooking. How else will you know if it’s delicious? And this dressing is seriously good. I didn’t use nearly all of it for the salad and am saving it for a something next week.

IMG_3991Once the vinaigrette was finished, all that was left was to saute up the shrimp. Like the recipe, I wanted to keep it simple. I dried the shrimp really well with paper towels and salt and peppered them.  I put a very light film of olive oil in my trusty cast iron skillet and set it to almost high.  It didn’t take long for the pan to have small wisps of smoke and I threw the shrimp in making sure they had plenty of room. Don’t crowd your pan or you’ll steam them and you won’t get any caramelly bits. I’m all about the caramelly bits.  12 shrimp were  enough for me, but if you’re making this for more than yourself you might want to do it in two batches, but even with doubling the cooking time on the shrimp this recipe is still wicked fast.

Now stay close to the pan, but don’t stir them or turn them or mess with them at first. Leave them alone and watch, you’ll see the shrimp change and become pink, slightly opaque, and beginning to curl. When you see this happening, check the undersides. They should release easily and be just a little caramelized. Flip ‘em and do the same to the other side. I like my shrimp firm, but cook yours until they are done to your taste. When they even pinker and totally opaque, give them a little poke with your finger. For me, the shrimp should be nice and firm, but not rubbery.  If you’re still unsure if they’re done you can also pop a sacrificial shrimp in your mouth and taste it to see if it’s right, no one’s looking.

IMG_3997When your shrimp are done mound some greens onto your dinner plate. I opted for a spring mix from our local co-op, but you can use whatever greeny lettuce you enjoy. Top with a nice serving of the shrimp and then drizzle the vinaigrette over the whole shebang. If it separated it’s fine just give it another whisk, and then drizzle away.

I think a sparkling rosé would pair really nicely with this. I had a Sauvignon Blanc already open and it was a bit tart. If you didn’t want a sparkler, I’d maybe try a dry Riesling. You don’t want something that competes too much, the dressing is a tiny bit tart, but it’s the sweet blood oranges combined with the briny slightly caramelized shrimp that dominate the flavors.

And there you have it, a delicious dinner that can be easily assembled in minutes after work. Make it for your honey or make it for yourself, but trust me you’ll want to make it.