Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Blueberry Muffins

Cervantes once said that "all sorrows are less with bread." What he neglected to add was that all sorrows are even less with blueberry muffins. Sure, bread is lovely, but muffins... warm, moist, a little crumbly, soft with sweetness and spilling with the dark mystery of blueberries... If I may be so bold to interpret the great writer, these little cakes transcend the prosaic. In fact, I hesitate to even call them muffins -- next time, they will be reincarnated as wee little bundt cakes and we will all be much, much happier.

I'm not really sure when my love affair with muffins began. I think it was in high school when the most wonderful bakery opened a few blocks away from my house. One of the chief attractions of this place (besides the absolutely mind-boggling array of muffins -- strawberry, rhubarb, blueberry with streusel top, be still my heart) was the management's penchant for hiring hot bakery boys. This was top notch marketing because after school and on weekends, the shop was crammed with giggling and blushing 16-yr old girls hoping for a glance from the dreamy muffin-dispensing staff. My best friend and I, of course, were too cool for anything but dignified hair-flips at these silly creatures (the girls), but in secret, we had crushes on all the boys who worked there and referred to them (with much creativity) as "Bakery Boy 1, 2 and 3" respectively. Sure, it all seems funny now, but imagine Christian Bale or George Clooney or Antonio Sabato Jr. (google him, just trust me on this one) offering you himself *and* a hot, buttery muffin for dessert? I'm sure there is a way for life to get better than that, but I can't think of one right now.

Blueberry Muffins/Cakes
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar, plus 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup whole milk*
(*OR just 1 cup sour cream)
8-11 oz blueberries
1/4 cup slivered almonds for topping

Preheat oven to 350. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and 1 cup of sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Stir in vanilla.

In a separate bowl, whisk together baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add half of the flour mixture to the creamed butter and mix until incorporated. Then, add the sour cream and milk. Mix until incorporated, scraping down the bowl. Add the rest of the flour mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix the blueberries with the 1/4 cup of sugar. Gently fold the blueberries into the batter so that the berries do not break.

Spoon into a muffin pan, either greased or lined with muffin cups, or into a greased mini-bund-cake pan. If making muffins, top with a pinch of slivered almonds.

Bake for about 20-22 minutes or until the tops of the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffin comes out clean. Enjoy with your favorite bakery boy a cup of hot tea.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Honey-Glazed Salmon & Arugula Salad with Lemon-Pepper Dressing

You know how sometimes, you go shopping and you see in the corner an unassuming little black dress... And you walk away because, well, you already have three of those hanging in your closet and it'll probably be too plain and you wanted something a little jazzier for the summer anyway? And then you notice a little something out of the corner of your eye, and you turn around, and there it is again, sort of... winking at you? So, you sigh and decided to FINE, give it a try, totally expecting it to be meh and blah and whatever. Then, you put it on and turn to the mirror... and the dress just sings in the way it hugs all the right curves and brings out your eyes and puts a little blush into your cheeks, and you think, "hot damn, it works!"

Well. This recipe was something akin to that experience for me. I stared at it for about a month, sort of intrigued but not really inspired enough to give it a go, until one day, I just had all the ingredients together, and I had the recipe, and ... it sort of winked at me. And I said, FINE, I'll try it out, but I was really kind of skeptical about how it's all going to work. I made the salmon. I tasted it - too sweet! I made the salad. I tasted it - too tart! And then... I tasted them TOGETHER, cooled by a sip (or two, or three; ok, by a couple of glasses) of a dry white wine, and kids, I had the sort of "hot damn, it works" revelation that did actually put the blush back in my cheeks (although, maybe the wine had something to do with that).

I don't make salmon very often, mostly because I eat it at restaurants and it's almost always prepared the same way. In this dish, however, the balance of flavors is so perfect -- sweetness offset by tartness, crispness in perfect harmony with creaminess, tender pink salmon blushing next to the emerald arugula leaves -- that it gives this little black dress a whole new twist.

Honey-Glazed Salmon and Arugula Salad with Lemon-Pepper Dressing
(Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2008)
6 6-oz salmon fillets (I had 4 slightly larger pieces)
3 tablespoons plus 2 tsp lemon juice, divided
2 tablespoons of honey
1 tablespoon plus 2 tsp olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
1 1/2 cups arugula
1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
2 sprigs of rosemary
6 lemon wedges for garnishing
salt and pepper

Whisk honey, 1 tbsp olive oil, chopped shallots and 2 tbsp lemon juice in a small bowl. Place the salmon fillets in a large dish that will hold all of them in a row, rub rosemary over them, then pour marinade on top and stir to coat. Cover and chill for 15 min - 1 hr, turning salmon fillets occasionally.

Position rack in top third of the oven and preheat to 400F. Line a large baking sheet with foil and brush with olive oil. Transfer salmon fillets with some marinade still clinging, to baking sheet and roast until salmon is opaque in center, about 14-16 min.

Meanwhile, toss the arugula leaves in 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, whisk creme freiche or sour cream with 1 tbsp lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

Place 1 salmon fillet on each plate. Place some of the arugula salad next to the salmon and drizzle the salad with the creme fraiche dressing. Garnish with lemon wedges, and pass some additional sauce alongside. Personally, I liked the sauce so much that I just tossed it with the salad, but the presentation isn't as impressive as the drizzling and garnishing bit, so I guess it depends on your audience. My particular audience (pictured digging in above) was just coming from work and very hungry. He grabbed the plate so fast that I was afraid he would take off my arm along with the plate. As you can imagine, the dainty drizzling really wasn't an option here!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Butternut Squash Soup With Crisp Shallots

"Irene," you will say upon careful reading of the title of this post, "honey, baby, sweetums. Look outside - the sun is shining, the birds and the bees are frolicking and the thermometer has finally crawled up above 60 degrees. What's with the winter vegetable?!" You would be right, of course, but the heart wants what it wants, and my heart wanted squash. And I try not to argue with myself too often - it gets very confusing, if you know what I mean.

Besides, when I was a wee little girl and I hadn't yet figured out that eating vegetables was uncool, my mom roasted squash and then mixed its earthy, rich, slightly smoky innards with a little butter and salt, and I still associate the sweet aroma of roasted squash with childhood and the comfort of my mother's apron-clad embrace.

I think food is funny that way, in terms of how our formative years shape our tastes and preferences for the rest of our lives. I still can't pass by the squash section at the market without stopping for a moment to give their smooth bottoms a surreptitious pat, and in the autumn, I try to roast everything in sight. A., on the other hand, whose mom clearly didn't think much of the pumpkin family, is completely indifferent to any of those vegetables unless they are smothered in sugar and made into a pie. Go figure.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you like squash and its other cousins, this soup will tip you over to the other side of heaven. But if the only pumpkin you've ever had was in pumpkin cheesecake, you might just want to halve the recipe. Even if you are at this moment shaking your head doubtfully and saying, "Squash soup? I really don't know about that...", you will want to make this if only for the awesome cuteness that are the sour cream hearts. Even the most food-cynical and jaded among us will want to take a swipe at these babies with our spoons.

Butternut Squash Soup With Crisp Shallots and Sour Cream Hearts
(Adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Bride and Groom cookbook)
1 butternut squash
1 med. yellow onion, chopped
2 shallots, and butter for frying
2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup of milk
2 tbsp of sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the squash in half (lengthwise) and brush the cut sides with a little olive oil. Arrange in an oven-proof dish and roast for 1 - 1.5 hrs. Check every 10 min after the hour mark because depending on your oven, it could take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. The flesh of the squash should be soft and pliable. After it's done roasting, let it cool for 20 minutes. Scoop out the seeds and discard. Then, scoop the flesh out into a bowl.

While the squash is cooling off, chop a medium yellow onion and then sauté in 1 tbsp of butter until soft but not colored (about 5 min). Set onions aside. Thinly slice the shallots and sauté in another 1 tbsp of butter until shallots become soft and are light brown (about 10 min). Spread the shallots thinly over a paper towel; they will crisp up once dried.

In a blender or a food processor, combine 1 cup stock, 1/4 cup milk, 1/2 of the onions and 1/2 of the roasted squash and process until very smooth. Pour the mixture into a medium, heavy bottomed sauce pan. Do the same thing with the other half of the ingredients and also pour into the sauce pan. At this time, you can add more broth or milk to get the desired consistency. Over medium-low heat, bring the soup to a simmer and season it with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for a couple of minutes until hot and the seasoning is incorporated, then distribute among soup bowls.

Mix the sour cream in a small bowl until very smooth. If you are using thick sour cream (like I did), you can thin it out with a teaspoon or two of warm water. Drop five pea-sized dollops of sour cream in a circle, about an inch apart, on top of the soup. Take a knife and swirl it so that it goes through each dollop of sour cream (that'll give it the heart shape). I had to... erm... get rid of the evidence of several failed attempts, so don't worry if it doesn't work out the first time. Put a pinch of crisp shallots in the middle (not obscuring the hearts, clearly, duh). Voila! This makes about 4 bowls of soup.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Creamy Penne with Mushrooms and Goat Cheese

How can you forget those Nike "Just Do It" commercials? Swoosh! Check, done, yes! Wham, bam, just do it, it's done! It remains, in my opinion, of the greatest advertising slogans of all time, and it works so well precisely because it taps into our hidden frustrations. You know what I'm talking about. It's that lady in front of you at the deli who can't make up her mind whether she wants pastrami or egg salad. The guy on the freeway who just can't take that decisive step of pressing his gas pedal. The person at work who asks a million follow up questions about the simplest assignment without doing a minute of work. Even your favorite sports team, when they toss the ball to each other and never seem to get around to scoring. At home, at work, to your husband and your kids, we've all yelled "JUST DO IT." But because we live in a PC, polite society (or try to), we can't just go around yelling "just do it" to anyone and everyone, so we just grrrrrr it out in our minds, using our "inside voice," as one of my friends says. Besides, you know that no one would listen to you anyway, and that lady would take three times as long to pick out her sandwich (smoked turkey breast, tomatoes and avocado, for the curious). That's why when it comes to doing things myself, it's almost a relief to say "Just Do It" to someone (me) who will actually listen (to myself). Makes sense? No? Oh, I'm a Gemini, didn't I tell you? I talk to myself all the time, it's totally normal.

Anyway, here's the thing. Last week, while y'all were snug and cozy, like little maraschino cherries in a smooth, glass jar, anxiously anticipating my return, I made a pasta so stupendously delicious, that I will throw my polite society "inside voice" rules to the wind and tell you to JUST DO IT. Put away the tart pans for a moment (yes, I really just said that) and let a little penne, mushrooms and goat cheese take you to rich, creamy, dreamy pasta heaven. Now, I'll be the first to admit that this isn't one of those delicate-nibble-champagne-and-caviar sort of dishes. It's bold, it's rich, it's a shamelessly-reach-for-seconds-if-you're-still-standing kind of pasta. It can happily hang out in the oven for an additional 15 minutes if you need it to, and if you have any leftovers -- and you won't -- they are even better the next day. I imagine serving it to a bunch of good friends with a glass of red wine (sacrebleu, she said red wine with pasta!) and an arugula salad, and watching them all fall back into their chairs with a happy pasta and cheese hangover. Oh yeah, this is the life.

The recipe originally comes from Lisa's Kitchen, but I futzed around with it a little, so here's my own version of it.

Creamy, Dreamy Penne with Mushrooms
1 lb penne pasta (or rigatoni, but I like penne for this)
1 lb chopped mushrooms (I used white button mushrooms, but you can make it fancy with shiitake, portobello or porcini mushrooms, whatever's under hand)
1/4 cup of unsalted butter
1/4 cup of all purpose flour
2 cups milk
4 oz goat cheese or feta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package until al dente. Drain, douse with cold water to stop the cooking and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute, then pour in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking continuously. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 min or so to thicken, whisking once in a while to prevent lumps. Season with salt and pepper.

With a little olive oil, sauté the onions and garlic in a large pan over medium-high heat until softened, for about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, thyme and oregano and cook for a couple of minutes until the mushrooms give off liquid. Add the parsley and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350F and oil an 8x8 baking dish. Stir the sauce and the mushroom/onion/parsley mixture into the pasta until well incorporated. Crumble the goat cheese and stir gently into the pasta (don't overmix if you want to retain little creamy nuggets of warm goat cheese in the finished pasta). Layer 1/2 of the pasta in the baking dish, then sprinkle with 1/2 of the parmesan. Pile on the rest and sprinkle with the rest of the parmesan. Bake for 25 minutes or until lightly browned on top. If you're going to bake it longer, just cover with foil so that it doesn't get too brown.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008


I know, I know. It's been over a week, and I've been MIA. Believe me, it wasn't by choice - things like real life, and job and non-food related events have conspired to keep me away and I haven't felt much like being adventurous lately.

Have you ever had one of those defining moments when you see your parents as if from a third person's perspective? When you look, and for a brief second, you are as unconnected to them as if they were complete strangers? It took me almost twenty nine years to have such a moment, but when it finally happened, it shocked me. I saw my mother as others must see her, and she was so breathtakingly beautiful, that I couldn't imagine actually being related to her. She seemed to light up the room with her energy, her passion, her kindness, her strength and the force of her character. At that moment, she was the center of the universe, and paradoxically, I felt less like her daughter than I'd ever felt before. I wondered if she was happy with the role of being my mom. I wondered if she ever wished I was more like her, or less like her, or whether I even knew who she really was, blinded as I had been by the self-centeredness inherent in being someone's child. It was a disconcerting revelation, to say the least. I waited for my world to settle back into its familiar pattern, but I'm beginning to think it isn't going to. Maybe it's just a part of growing up. I can't tell yet whether I like it or not, and maybe that's an integral part of it as well. I almost wish I could go back to the time when I was five and my mother was my sole property, but then again, I don't really because then, I would never have discovered what I had today. Shrek says that ogres are like onions because they have layers. I guess mothers are like onions too, and not only because they make you cry sometimes.

I promise, back to food tomorrow. Thanks for being patient with me.

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