September 22, 2009

The Pantry Project

We had a well-stocked pantry growing up.  It was one of the many things I always appreciated about my mother's kitchen and one of the many habits I adopted.  Her penchant for stashing nonperishables is probably rooted in the fact that she grew up on a farm, where the nearest grocery store was a half-hour drive from home.  Although we lived 5 minutes from the nearest grocery store, it was always useful to have things on hand, especially with six people in the house.

Now that I live in a household of two, I still like to keep my pantry stocked.  Whether it's baking a batch of cookies on a whim or throwing together a last-minute dinner, a stocked pantry comes in handy.  The problem occurs when I find myself without a specific ingredient at a crucial point and then overbuy it the next time.  Or I purchase food thinking, "Oh, I'll use this to make such-and-such at some point."  And then I never do.  I get distracted by perishable items and never use the nonperishables. Before I know it, the pantry is overstocked.  Items in the front row or at eye level get used, while things in the back sit for months.  For example, I have two cans of pumpkin puree that I intended to use for pumpkin bread last fall and a can of artichoke hearts, intended for a quick artichoke dip, that's been there who knows how long.  Luckily, these things keep for quite a while.

In conjunction with my recent realization that we need to clean out (and by "clean out," I mean make use of) many of our pantry items came the decision to be more mindful of our spending habits (and groceries make up what is probably a disproportionately large part of our monthly expenditures).  So we decided to challenge ourselves to use everything in our pantry before we restock.  Within reason.  Of course, things like fresh veggies, meat, and dairy products are excluded, and we're not going to wait until we've used up our flour and sugar before we buy more tomatoes.

Saturday was the perfect day to get started.  The gorgeous fall weather made it an ideal afternoon for Chicken-Pesto Panini on the roof. (From frozen chicken breast, frozen homemade pesto, cheddar, and whole wheat bread.)




Two cans of corn and half a bag of coarse-ground corn meal  in the pantry inspired me to make cornbread.  What better accompaniment--and more effective pantry-clearer, as it turns out--is there than chili?  Throw in an Arkansas-Georgia football game on ESPN 2 and a six-pack of cheap beer, and you've got yourself a near-perfect autumn evening in. (It would have been perfect, if the Razorbacks had actually won.  What an exciting game, though!)




IMG_7876The cornbread recipe came from Cook's Illustrated.  I used canned corn where they called for frozen and substituted 3/4 cup plain lowfat yogurt and 1/4 cup 2% milk for 1 cup buttermilk.  The cornbread was delicious on its own and even better with butter or molasses!  Below is my recipe for Pantry Chili.  The ingredients and quantities reflect what I had on hand and can be adjusted as desired.

Pantry Chili
printable recipe

1 1/3 pounds ground beef (I used 85/15 that I had bought on sale and frozen.)
1 large red onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp taco seasoning (See recipe below)
3 Tbsp chili powder
1 can dark red kidney beans, undrained
1 can cannelini (white kidney beans), undrained
1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 large can whole, peeled tomatoes packed in puree
1 can corn, drained
4 cups beef broth (Mine came from 4 tsp of "Better Than Bouillon" beef base and 4 c. water)
1/2 jar jalapeño peppers
8 oz frozen spinach, thawed
Cheddar cheese, for serving

In a large pot or dutch oven, brown meat over medium heat, breaking up the meat as it cooks.  After a couple of minutes, add onions and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  When the meat is no longer pink and the onions and garlic start to become translucent, add taco seasoning and chili powder.  Stir to combine.

Then add the beans, tomatoes (whole tomatoes should be chopped or crushed by hand, but be careful not to lose the liquid), corn, broth, and jalapeños.  Stir to combine.  Bring to a boil.  Then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add more water if it cooks down too much.  Taste about halfway through cooking and adjust seasoning as needed.

During the last few minutes of cooking, stir in thawed spinach.  Serve topped with shredded cheddar cheese.

Homemade Taco Seasoning
printable recipe

2 Tbsp chili powder
2 Tbsp paprika
4 1/2 tsp cumin
2 1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

Stir all ingredients until well combined.
Makes about 6 tablespoons and will keep in a sealed container in the pantry for several months.
September 17, 2009

Cookie Wars

The chocolate chip cookie holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first thing I ever baked by myself, the first recipe I memorized, and for years my claim to fame in the kitchen.
The summer before my 11th birthday, my siblings and I spent three days a week at home by ourselves while my mother worked. We were old enough that we didn’t need a babysitter, but hadn’t really gotten the hang of entertaining ourselves all day. We often got bored around the house—with no neighborhood pool and no one to drive us around. We rode our bikes and played outside, but even 10-year-olds grow tired of the humidity and soaring temperatures of the Arkansas summer.

So I baked.

Happily, my mother always kept our pantry and fridge well-stocked, so the ingredients were on hand whenever I had a whim. I remember how excited I would be to surprise my mother with a fresh batch of cookies when she walked in the door from a long day at the hospital. (I unfortunately had not yet perfected the art of cleaning up after myself, so it was often a bittersweet homecoming for Mom.)

I would continue to resort to cookie-baking whenever I got bored, even after I was perfectly capable of driving myself anywhere I wanted to go. I loved to bake cookies because I saw how happy they made the people around me. A close friend of the family was never satisfied with a visit to our house without a few homemade chocolate chip cookies. Often my sisters and I would whip up a batch while the adults sat around the table playing cards after dinner. And we were happy to do so. How could we not be, with all the praise we got in return? (And of course, the cookies themselves).

Fifteen years later, my recipe has gone through a few changes. Some of my earliest attempts produced cookies that were too dark. I remember a particular instance in which I brought cookies to share with my sixth grade class, and I came home that afternoon feeling like I had served burnt cookies. My mother suggested that they were not overcooked, but were darker because I had used dark brown sugar. I switched to light brown sugar, and the problem was solved.

As a teenager, I came across a recipe that called for equal amounts brown and white sugar, which was a change from the 2:1 ratio in the recipe I had been using. I adopted this recipe and have used it ever since, with a tweak here and there. I discovered that adding a little extra vanilla and a heaping, rather than level, teaspoon of salt gave the cookies a little extra kick. In college, I picked up from a friend the habit of throwing a cup or two of oatmeal into the batter. No one seemed to mind it, and I thought they were delicious (and maybe even a little healthier).

Before I knew the dangers of trans fat, I achieved a nearly perfect cookie texture by substituting half of the butter in the recipe with butter-flavored Crisco (a trick I learned from my mother). It has been several years now that I have stopped using partially hydrogenated shortening, and I have struggled to turn out a consistent product. Sometimes the texture would come out perfectly and sometimes the cookies would be too cakey or too flat or too crunchy or have any number of textural flaws. (An added bonus of using oatmeal was that it masked these flaws.)

When my father-in-law showed me last summer’s New York Times piece “Perfection? Hint: It’s Warm and Has a Secret” (or “quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie”), I was fascinated by the article and really excited to try the recipe. Between one thing and another (read: grad school and I couldn’t find cake flour anywhere), I never got around to trying it. I did, however, make my old stand-by recipe, cooking half the batter immediately and allowing the remainder to rest in the fridge over night, as suggested in the article. When I baked off the second round of cookies the next day, I was floored by the difference in texture between the rested cookies and those baked immediately. The second batch was perfectly soft in the center, had just the right amount of “lift,” and boasted that crispy-dense-chewy crumb structure that I thought I could only attain consistently with Crisco.

Shortly thereafter, in the May/June ‘09 issue, the folks at Cook’s Illustrated tried their hand at perfecting the chocolate chip cookie. Timely, I thought. In the print version of the article (the online one is pared down quite a bit), the author references the New York Times article/recipe but soon into his testing abandons the idea of the 24-hour rest, claiming that the benefits don’t outweigh the inconvenience of the wait. Over 40 batches later, he had developed a “perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipe, which involves browned butter, dissolving the sugars in the melted butter, leaving out an egg white, and much to my surprise a 3:2 ratio of dark brown sugar to white.

Of course, I was not content to leave all the experimenting to others, so I did a little test of my own, pitting the Cook’s Illustrated recipe against the New York Times recipe. (Yes, I finally found cake flour.)

I started last Friday night with the NYT recipe, which went straight into the fridge:

Sunday afternoon, I prepared the CI recipe, and baked a sheet of each batch one after the other, so they could be tasted side by side.

The first thing I noticed about the CI recipe was that the dough tasted like toffee! (I just can’t help myself when it comes to cookie dough. I was even able to convince my husband, who never indulges in raw dough, to give it a try.) This seemed slightly incongruous with the conclusions drawn in the article, which assert that the toffee flavors in the final product are a result of dissolving the sugar in melted butter and the subsequent caramelization of the the sugars in the oven. I found that the uncooked dough had more toffee flavor than the final product. Although the cookie still had a good bit of toffee, it seemed that the baking tempered the toffee flavors, which leads me to think that the flavor was less a result of the caramelization in the oven and more a result of other factors—I think the browned butter had a lot to do with it, but I won’t know that for sure until I do a little more experimenting.
When the cookies came out of the oven, two things were immediately apparent:


1. the NYT cookies had quite a bit more height than the CI cookies

2. the CI cookies were darker than the NYT cookies

The first difference can be attributed to the fact that the NYT cookies call for baking powder and baking soda, whereas the CI cookies had only a relatively small amount of baking soda.


NYT Cookie


NYT Cookie


CI cookie

CI cookie

Additionally, the NYT cookies were baked straight from the fridge, so they had less time to flatten out. (A second round of baking the following day supported my hypotheses: straight from the fridge, the CI cookies had more height than when baked from a warm batter, but they still did not have the appealing height of the NYT batch.)

The CI cookies were darker because of the 3:2 ratio of dark brown to white sugar, as compared to the NYT’s 5:4 ratio (almost equal amounts) of light brown sugar to white.
Visually, I much preferred the NYT cookie to the CI cookie. The NYT cookie was blonder and fluffier, had lots of delicious-looking cracks and crags, and was topped with coarse sea salt. Pretty picture perfect, if you ask me.

NYT was the clear winner when it came to appearance, but when it came to tasting, the front-runner was the CI cookie. As promised, it boasted deep toffee and butterscotch notes and a crisp edge with a soft, chewy center. We initially tasted the NYT cookie too soon out of the oven. Although the texture was perfectly gooey in the center and firm on the edges, the taste was just sweet. My husband tasted the individual ingredients, rather than a cohesive whole, and I encountered some unexpected notes of banana. (It was so strange that I even wondered if the dough had picked up off flavors sitting in the fridge wrapped in plastic overnight, but there was nothing remotely resembling a banana in our fridge). After the cookies cooled completely, the banana was gone, the flavors melded, and the coarse salt added a nice crunch and burst of flavor, but there was still not as much depth as the CI cookies had.
I think both recipes would benefit from less chocolate. I love the stuff, but I don’t like it when there’ so much chocolate that you can’t taste the cookie itself.

Round two, the next day:

(I baked both a minute longer than I did before.)

The CI cookie is almost as tall as the NYT cookie this time.IMG_7768


I love the caramelized “sheen” on the CI cookie.

Using “disks” instead of “chips” makes a big difference. Look at all those wonderful layers of chocolate! (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips – they have great flavor and are wider and flatter than traditional chocolate chips.)

There’s still not an overall winner. Both are delicious and, in Brian’s opinion, appropriate for different types of cookie-eating: the CI cookie’s complexity makes it a more meditative cookie that’s meant to be savored, while the NYT cookie is more the classic “cookies-and-milk” variety.  In my opinion, neither is the perfect chocolate chip cookie. If I could combine the flavor of the Cook’s Illustrated cookie with the appearance and texture of the New York Times cookie….now that would be perfect.

Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion…In the mean time, give either recipe a try. They’re both fabulous!

September 14, 2009

first signs of fall at the farmers’ market


Honeycrisp apples are my favorite;
Concord grapes remind me of home;
And soon I’ll get to make soup and ravioli from acorn and butternut squash!

September 12, 2009

Not Your Average Leftovers

Last month, there was an article in the NY Times about how “no one cooks here anymore” (“here” being one’s kitchen). In the article, entitled “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” Michael Pollan bemoans the fact that Americans would rather watch other people cook on TV than get into the kitchen and do it themselves. I find Food Network programming occasionally informative, often entertaining, and always inspiring. Whether or not I actually try the recipes I see on TV, I’m motivated by an ingredient, a theme, a combination of flavors. It gives me ideas and, more often than not, gets me off the the couch (or treadmill, as the case may be) and into the kitchen! And I have faith that I am not alone.

Case in point:

Sometimes, okay often, I go a little overboard at the grocery store. This usually leads to produce and other perishable items piling up in the fridge, which stresses me out a little bit. Until I use them, I’ll have this nagging in the back of my brain, like there is something important I need to do.

After last week’s frenzy of Italian cooking, I had a pile of ingredients that I had to make use of, including several small hunks of various cheeses, and a couple eggplant I had bought because they were on sale but hadn’t had the opportunity to use yet.

While working out earlier this week, I saw a “Neapolitan” episode of Everyday Italian in which Giada made two different recipes that happened to employ just the ingredients I had on hand:

Leftover smoked mozzarella and ricotta (from the stuffed chicken) and leftover panko bread crumbs (from the crabcakes) combined with an egg and flour to form frittelle di ricotta e mozzarella affumicata or “Smoked Mozzarella and Ricotta Fritters”.

IMG_7523 IMG_7526 IMG_7534 IMG_7542

The following evening, the eggplant, leftover ragú alla Bolognese, parsley, smoked mozzarella and pecorino cheeses became Timballo di Melanzana ai Quattro Formaggi or my version of Giada’s Eggplant Timbale.

It’s a twist on the classic timballo (named for it’s shape, meaning “drum” in Italian) that uses thinly sliced, grilled eggplant instead of pastry dough.


It can be filled with pasta or rice, cheese and any number of different ingredients. I used whole wheat penne, frozen green peas, parsley, ragú, a can of diced tomatoes, flat-leaf parsley, smoked mozzarella, pecorino romano, parmesan, and asiago fresco.




I highly recommend both of the above dishes, but the Eggplant Timbale in particular gets 5 stars. It is a perfect “one dish” meal and a great alternative to lasagna or casserole: hearty and rustic with complex flavors and plenty of vegetables. It’s just plain delicious.


See, people do still cook here.
September 10, 2009

Southern Comforts

Each year I return home from the annual family beach trip carrying a few extra pounds and a handful of new recipes from my aunts. This year was no exception. Now, a month later, I am finally getting around to trying my aunt’s brisket recipe. Brian and I picked up a beef brisket at the farmer’s market. It took a couple of trips to two different grocery stores to round up the ingredients we needed (including Allegro Marinade and Liquid Smoke), but I finally got the meat into it’s overnight marinade. The next afternoon, I seared the brisket on both sides (about 6-7 minutes per side) on a grill pan and rubbed it with “Canadian Steak Seasoning,” which I ended up having to make myself because I couldn’t find it in the store. There were several different versions posted on various recipe sites, and I don’t know if any are exactly the seasoning this recipe called for, but the rub I made went a little something like this (adapted from a recipe on

Canadian Steak Seasoning
printable recipe

2 tsp paprika
2 tsp crushed black pepper
2 tsp coarse sea salt
1 1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 1/4 tsp onion powder
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp dill
scant 1 tsp red pepper flakes

I set the brisket on a rack over a roasting pan filled with an inch of water and 1/3 cup liquid smoke. I then attempted to cover the whole thing – not and easy task, since I only had about 3 feet of aluminum foil left – enough to cover about 3/4 of the pan. I didn’t have time to go to the store for more, so I pulled a couple of onions wrapped in foil out of the fridge and patched together enough to just barely cover the meat, rack, and roasting pan.

The recipe I used called for roasting a 3 lb. brisket at 400°F for 4 hours. I only had a 1.5 lb brisket, so I looked around online for advice on adjusting the cooking time. Each site I came across repeated the same refrain, “low and slow.” Most recommended a temperature of 225°F for 1.5 to 2 hours per pound. I had never cooked brisket before, but I remembered how delicious it was when my aunt made it at the beach, so I just went with the recipe I had: 400 degrees for 4 hours for a 3 lb brisket, which translated to about 2 hours for my 1.5 pounds of meat.

When Brian got home a little later, I expressed to him my concern about the cooking temperature, and he immediately suggested we call his mother for advice. We turned the temperature down and finished it off at 225 for the last 45 minutes of cooking. I was nervous that I had ruined the brisket by cooking it at too high a temperature.

We let the meat rest on the counter for 10 minutes, and it was time for the moment of truth:

Sliced paper thin, at an angle across the grain, it was perfect! We ate the brisket with a sauce of Allegro marinade, Worcestershire, liquid smoke and brown sugar and a side of Bourbon Sweet Potato Mash, adapted from the Neely’s recipe, which I came across while watching the Food Network. (I am a little infatuated with the Neely’s the past couple weeks. They are just so adorable in the kitchen together.)


Bourbon Sweet Potato Mash
printable recipe

1 large sweet potato (at least 1 lb)
3/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp whole milk
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
scant 1 Tbsp molasses
2-3 Tbsp butter
scant 1 Tbsp bourbon

Peel the potato and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Place in a pot with cold water (enough to cover the potato by 1 to 2 inches) and about 1/2 tsp salt. Boil for 5-7 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain. Return to pot and cook out any remaining moisture over medium heat for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Mash potatoes.

Combine remaining ingredients (including remaining 1/4 tsp salt) in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat until butter is melted and ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add mixture to potatoes and stir to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste.


It was such a satisfying meal. Like a trip back home without having to check a bag!

September 9, 2009

La Cucina Italiana

I received a subscription to the magazine La Cucina Italiana for my birthday. It originated as an Italian publication (it's billed as "Italy's premier food and cook magazine since 1929") and still is, but now has a version adapted for the American market. It seems pretty authentic, probably because it has such close ties to Italy… In any case, I really enjoy reading it.
I decided last week to make a point of actually trying the recipes in each issue -- not all of them or even a certain number of them, but several. It gives me something to look forward to and helps me decide what to make for dinner. Including the focaccia mentioned in my previous post, I’ve made 9 recipes from the current issue:
Penne e Ceci:
IMG_7244Penne and Chickpeas” with seared fish ( I used Mahi Mahi because I had it on hand) with a sauce of pureed chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. Simple and hearty and very…comforting.

Then, linguine con pomodoro arrosto: pasta with roasted tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, oregano, and olive oil and topped with parmesan. Accompanied by insalata al crudo saltato e grana:  an escarole and radicchio salad with marinated mushrooms, crispy prosciutto, grana padano (I used parmesan), and olive oil.

Followed by frutta cotta speziata: apples, pears, and pineapples poached in prosecco with a vanilla bean, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns, anise, and a bay leaf. It tasted like Christmas…but in a summery kind of way…

In the final rush to get dinner on the table (you know, when everything is almost done and you’re trying to time it out perfectly so that it’s all hot and ready at the same time), I grabbed a block of cheddar instead of parmesan and grated it onto the salad. When I realized my mistake, I had a small fight with myself and picked it all off while Brian dug around and finally found the parmesan in the back of the cheese drawer. I made homemade spaghetti to go with the roasted tomatoes, but the pasta water spilled over and put out the flame on the stove.

I didn’t immediatly notice it was out, so the pasta soaked in hot water for 5 minutes while the gas ran… It pretty much ruined the pasta, but it was already after 9, and I was over being in the kitchen that evening, so we ate it anyway. The flavor was fabulous, even if the pasta was depressingly mushy. I made the dish again the next evening because I needed to redeem myself and I still had all the ingredients I needed. This time I did it with store-bought linguine and yellow tomatoes. I just love these colors!

IMG_7318We also had the salad again, only this time we added a splash of balsamic vinegar. It worked really well. I enjoyed being able to really taste the olive oil (even with the addition of the vinegar). I usually make a balsamic/Dijon vinaigrette that is very tasty, but masks a lot 0f the subtleties of the olive oil…so a simple oil and vinegar dressing was a nice change.

The next recipe on the list was a ragú alla Bolognese with fresh tagliatelle. This traditional meat sauce from Bologna includes ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, pork sausage, pancetta, red wine, and tomatoes! (among other things) It’s not the kind of thing you can eat every day, but it’s fabulous and totally worth the splurge.IMG_7338
IMG_7362 Up next, petti di pollo ripieni cotti alla brace: grilled chicken breast stuffed with ricotta, smoked mozzarella, fresh basil and roasted red peppers. It was accompanied by spinaci all’agro: sautéed spinach with lemon.


Well… they stuck to the grill pan, so they weren’t very pretty….

But who cares?