June 27, 2011

Asian Cucumber Salad

This is hardly even a recipe. It’s just a combination of ingredients in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Cucumbers. Soy sauce. Rice vinegar. Honey. Water. Sesame oil. Sesame seeds. Red pepper flakes. That’s it. And yet, the resulting salad is complex. It’s sweet, salty, spicy and refreshing.

This cooling salad will take the edge off any fiery entrée and let you go back for more. In that way it reminds me of Indian raita, a cucumber and yogurt concoction that’s often served to provide relief from peppery Indian dishes.

Serve this alongside anything Asian, from blistering Thai curries to steaming noodles or spicy stir fries.

I plan to serve this cucumber salad all summer long. I’ll eat it alongside smoky chicken or ribs coming off the grill, use it as a burger topping and put it out as a virtuous alternative to potato chips -- all of the salty crunch, none of the guilt. 

Thinly slice up a cucumber. I like seedless English cucumbers which have a thin, wax-free, edible skin that you don’t need to peel. 

Gather the rest of the ingredients.

Combine them in a bowl.

Add the cucumbers and toss to coat.


Asian Cucumber Salad

1 1/2 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
2 Tbsp lower-sodium soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp hot water
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp dark sesame oil
4 cups thinly sliced seeded cucumber

1.      Combine first 7 ingredients in a large bowl.
2.      Stir with a whisk.
3.      Add cucumber; toss to coat.
Note: Don't prepare this salad more than an hour before you plan to serve it. The cucumbers will release too much water and their texture will change. If you'd like to make this salad ahead of time, combine the first seven ingredients and refrigerate the mixture. Then toss in the cucumbers 15 minutes prior to serving.

Serves 4

June 20, 2011

Quinoa and Beet Pilaf

A year ago I'd never even attempted to pronounce quinoa, let alone cook with it. What a difference a year makes!

uncooked quinoa
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), is a highly nutritious grain. Unlike many other plant foods, it is a complete protein. Quinoa has become extremely popular lately and you can find it at any grocey store.

Uncooked quinoa resembles tiny white seeds (there’s also a red variety). Uncooked, it has a slightly musty smell. But don’t let that put you off. Once cooked, quinoa becomes light and fluffy, with a subtle nuttiness that’s ready to absorb whatever flavors you throw at it.

Cooking quinoa is as easy as cooking rice. You just simmer it in boiling water then fluff before serving. Like rice, quinoa makes a nice bed for curries and stir fries. But it's more nutritious than rice, higher in protein, fiber and iron. 

When I first started cooking with quinoa, I mostly used it as a rice substitute. Lately, though, I’ve been looking for more creative uses. I’ve seen recipes for breakfast quinoa porrige, quinoa pudding, quinoa meatloaf and quinoa patties. Do a Google search for “quinoa recipes” and you’ll be amazed at what comes up.

peeled and steamed beets from Trader Joe's  

Or pair your quinoa with beets and spinach (nutritional powerhouses in their own right) to make what I like to call Superhero Salad. I picked up peeled and steamed beets at Trader Joe's, which saved me a lot of time and effort. The beets gave the pilaf an earthy, sweet flavor and the beet juice colored the quinoa a beautiful pink.

Cook the quinoa according to the directions on your package.

Cut your beets into small chunks. Beets will stain anything, so carefully clean off your cutting board and counters.

Cook the spinach in garlic and olive oil until it is wilted.

Add the beets, quinoa, vinegar, salt and pepper to the spinach and stir to combine. Feel free to get creative here with herbs, spices or other flavorings.

Serve your Superhero Salad!

Quinoa and Beet Pilaf

Inspired by a recipe in the New York Times

1 cup uncooked quinoa (makes about 4 cups cooked quinoa)
8 oz peeled and steamed or roasted beets
6 oz baby spinach
Salt to taste
1 to 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp red wine vinegar

1.      Cook quinoa according to package directions. Set aside.
2.      Cut the beets into small chunks. Set aside.
3.      Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the spinach and cook until wilted.
4.      Add the beets and quinoa. Toss together until the ingredients are well combined and the quinoa is heated through and colored with beet juice. Add red wine vinegar and combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
5.      Transfer to a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.

June 14, 2011

Herbed New Potato Salad

Jami Sorrento was our June Daring Cooks hostess and she chose to challenge us to celebrate the humble spud by making a delicious and healthy potato salad. The Daring Cooks Potato Salad Challenge was sponsored by the nice people at the United States Potato Board, who awarded prizes to the top 3 most creative and healthy potato salads. A medium-size (5.3 ounce) potato has 110 calories, no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium and includes nearly half your daily value of vitamin C and has more potassium than a banana!

I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned that the June Daring Cooks Challenge was healthy potato salads. I love classic American potato salad. You know the kind I mean. Tender potatoes bathed in mayo and mustard with pieces of hard boiled egg, pickles, and (in my version), capers and tarragon.

I know I just lost half of you, those folks who are turned off at the idea of eating anything coated in mayonnaise. I hope the rest of you – those who might have licked their lips just a little at that description – will keep reading. Because it turns out that potato salad doesn’t have to be a creamy, calorie-laden concoction to be good.

As I started looking through recipes, I had several criteria in mind. First, I wanted to hold on to those bright flavors of tarragon and capers. Second, I wanted to keep this recipe relatively traditional. That meant I wouldn’t be using sweet potatoes instead of baby yukons or trying to incorporate international flavors. Third, I wanted to keep the salad vegetarian. And finally, if I was going to include other vegetables, they had to enhance, not compete with, the potatoes.

In other words, I wanted a healthier version of my usual potato salad. I wanted it to taste enough like the original that it would still be perfectly at home next to plates of burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken.

I found a recipe that nicely fit the bill. It was simple boiled potatoes tossed with oil, vinegar, onion, capers and lots of herbs. The potato salad was tangy and bright and refreshing. It nicely complemented the grilled sausages, shrimp and chicken that we served it alongside. Plus, because it was egg- and mayo-free, I didn’t have to worry about it spoiling in the heat.

Now I won’t lie. I will most certainly go back to my classic potato salad this summer. But for those days when it’s 90 degrees in the shade, this refreshing, herb-dressed, mayo-less potato salad will be my new go-to side.

Start with some new potatoes. I used baby Yukon gold, but you can use any small potato. Cut them into bite-sized chunks and boil until tender. There’s nothing worse than an undercooked potato, so make sure your potatoes are cooked through before you drain them.

While your potatoes are cooking, prepare your herbs (I used a combination of tarragon, chives, thyme and basil).

Combine your herbs with the onion and capers.

Then mix everything together in a large bowl with the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.

When the potatoes are cooked, drain them thoroughly and add them to the bowl. Toss with the dressing. Be sure to recheck for salt and pepper. Potatoes take a lot of salt.

Let your potato salad rest for at least an hour or even overnight before you serve it to give the flavors enough time to incorporate. Serve at room temperature.

Herbed New Potato Salad

Adapted from Secret Larder

2 pounds new potatoes (I used baby Yukon gold)
1 small red onion or 2 shallots, finely chopped
4 Tbsp capers, chopped
2 large handful of finely chopped fresh herbs (I used basil, thyme, tarragon and chives)
½ cup good olive oil
¼ cup white wine vinegar (sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar would also be fine)

1.      Cut potatoes into bite-sized chunks. Place them in a saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

2.      In the meantime, combine the onion, herbs, capers, salt, pepper and vinegar in a large bowl. Whisk in the olive oil.

3.      Add the warm potatoes to the dressing and toss. Season with more salt and pepper if needed.

4.      Let stand for at least an hour before serving.

Serves 8 as a side dish.

June 10, 2011

Strawberry Cupcakes with Two Frostings

Strawberry cupcakes with mascarpone frosting

Strawberry cupcakes with strawberry mascarpone frosting

Last month was my sister’s birthday. We hardly ever see each other on our birthdays since we live in different states. But this year we happened to both be visiting my parents on her birthday weekend.

My sister has quite a sweet tooth so I wanted to make her a special treat for her birthday. My first thought was chocolate because she is a total chocoholic. But we were at the very beginning of strawberry season so those yummy red berries were all I could think about.

I decided on the strawberry cupcakes from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes book. Martha did not lead me astray. The cupcakes were really good, not too sweet and bursting with small chunks of ripe strawberry. But the real winner was the frosting. Or, I should say, the frostings...plural.

Martha pairs her strawberry cupcakes with a strawberry buttercream. The buttercream recipe involves heating egg whites and sugar over a double boiler before beating the mixture and incorporating the strawberry puree. I was pressed for time so I flipped through her book for an easier recipe.

I found one for mascarpone frosting that was right up my alley. Mascarpone is an Italian triple crème cheese. It’s incredibly mild and almost sweet (though you can also use it in savory dishes). If you’ve had tiramisu, you’ve had mascarpone. All I had to do was combine mascarpone with sugar and vanilla and then fold in whipped heavy cream. I figured I’d just add in the strawberry puree as well.

The first night I served the cupcakes my sister requested that I leave out the strawberry puree. I did, and the cupcakes were delicious. Plus the frosting piped beautifully so the cupcakes looked as good as they tasted.

The next night, my brother-in-law asked me to mix the strawberry puree into the frosting. I thought it might be strawberry overkill, but I was wrong. Everyone loved it. The strawberry mascarpone frosting tasted just like Haagen Daaz strawberry ice cream (read: delicious!) The frosting was a lot droopier with the puree mixed in, but what it didn’t have in looks it more than made up for in flavor! 

For the cupcakes, first finely chop your strawberries. The flavor of the strawberries really shines in this recipe so use ripe, sweet berries.

Combine your dry ingredients. In another bowl, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla, then add the eggs one at a time.

Now alternate adding the milk and dry ingredients while the mixer is running.

Fold in the chopped strawberries.

Fill your cupcake liners with the batter (don’t fill them more than 2/3 full or they will overflow like mine did).

Bake until golden brown (see all those yummy bits of strawberry in there?)

Now on to the frosting. Combine the mascarpone, vanilla extract and confectioner’s sugar until smooth.

In another bowl, whip your heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. 

Then gently fold the whipped cream into the mascarpone, a little at a time.

I broke out my new Wilton cupcake froster for the job…

…and ended up with these beautifully frosted cupcakes.

On the second night we went for the strawberry mascarpone frosting. To make strawberry mascarpone frosting, puree your strawberries in the blender. Strain through a fine sieve to get rid of the little seeds.

Fold the puree into the mascarpone frosting. The frosting loses it’s structure when you add the puree but trust me, the flavor is worth it!

Whichever frosting you choose, these cupcakes will be gone before you know it!

Strawberry Cupcakes with Two Frostings

Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2¼ cups sugar
1½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg white
1 cup milk
2½ cups finely chopped fresh strawberries*

1.      Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line cupcake pans with paper liners.

2.      In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder and salt; whisk to blend.

3.      In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar and vanilla.  Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  
4.      Beat in the eggs and egg white one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  
5.      With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two additions alternating with the milk, mixing each addition just until incorporated.  Gently fold in the chopped strawberries with a spatula.
6.      Divide the batter between the paper liners, filling each about ¾-full.  Bake until light golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25-28 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking.  
7.      Allow to cool in the pans a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes 34 cupcakes.

Mascarpone Frosting

1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted

1.      With an electric mixer on medium speed, whisk heavy cream until stiff peaks form (be careful not to overbeat, or cream will be grainy).
2.      In another bowl, whisk together mascarpone and confectioners' sugar until smooth.
3.      Gently fold whipped cream into mascarpone mixture until completely incorporated. Use immediately.
Makes 2 cups

Strawberry Mascarpone Frosting

1 recipe mascarpone frosting (see above)
1 cup fresh strawberries, chopped

1.      Puree strawberries in a blender.

2.      Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

3.      Gently combine with mascarpone frosting.

June 6, 2011

Crab Cakes

Crab cakes are one of my favorite foods. I love the delicate, crispy coating and the sweet tender crab meat. Add some spicy rémoulade and it’s definitely a win-win for me.

Crab cakes are surprisingly easy to make at home. You can make small cakes and serve them as appetizers (I promise you, they will be devoured!). Or you can make larger cakes and serve them as an entrée along with a salad. They’re also fun to eat on buns with a little tartar sauce if you want a change from your standard burger.

Crab cakes are made of crab (obviously) as well as other ingredients to bind and flavor them. Most recipes include mayonnaise, egg, onion, cayenne, mustard and breadcrumbs. The trick is to add the right amounts of these ingredients: too little and you’ve got bland crab cakes that fall apart; too much and you end up with a bready crab cake that no longer tastes of crab. Some people put vegetables like bell pepper and celery into crab cakes, but I think the veggies overpower the delicate flavor of the crab. The best crab cakes are mostly crab, with very little filler.

You can buy several types of crab meat and it ranges in price from relatively inexpensive to the boss is coming for dinner. The names of the categories vary by brand, but these are some of the more common terms you’re likely to encounter (thanks to the Phillips website for helping me sort this out):

Jumbo lump — This meat is taken from the large muscles connected to the crab’s swimming fins. The large lumps of crab meat are white and tender with a mild flavor. If you’re going to spend the money on jumbo lump crab, use it in a recipe where you’re going to leave the lumps intact. You could carefully sauté them with a bit of butter and garlic, for example, or showcase the meat in a lightly dressed crab salad.

Lump — Lump crab meat is a combination of smaller pieces of jumbo lump crab mixed with special crab meat. This is sometimes called backfin.

Special — Special crab meat consists of the smallest pieces of lump crab meat combined with finely shredded body meat.

Claw — This meat is taken from the swimming fins of the crab. It is light brown in color and has the strongest crab flavor. Claw meat is usually the least expensive variety and it’s great for things like hot crab dip.

Lump crab meat is probably ideal for making crab cakes. I used special, which is a little cheaper, and they turned out great.

The recipe I used has been my standby for about 20 years. It’s from an old version of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and I discovered it way back when I was in high school. It’s a really standard recipe, with just enough binder to hold the crab cake together and just enough seasonings to enhance the crab flavor without overpowering its delicate sweetness.

Start with some beautiful crab meat.

Add the rest of the ingredients – egg, breadcrumbs, mayo, onion (I used yellow onion in place of scallions because that’s what I had on hand), parsley, mustard, thyme, Worcestershire, and celery salt.

Mix gently, trying not to break up the lumps of crab.

Shape the mixture into patties.

Coat with a mixture of breadcrumbs and cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper.

Then pan fry about 3 minutes on each side until the crab cakes are a beautiful golden brown and are heated all the way through.

Crab cakes are great with a simple spritz of lemon or paired with any number of sauces from rémoulade to mustard to tartar, horseradish or lemon-dill.

Crab Cakes

Recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook

6 oz crabmeat
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup fine, dry breadcrumbs
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp mayo
1 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp fresh thyme
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp celery salt

2 Tbsp cornmeal
2 Tbsp dry breadcrumbs
cooking oil

1.      Combine egg, breadcrumbs, scallion, mayo, parsley, mustard, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, and celery salt. Mix. Gently stir in crabmeat. (I added the ingredients to the crab meat and then combined everything, but the BH&G method would probably be gentler on the crab meat.)

2.      Shape mixture into 4 ½-inch thick patties.

3.      Combine cornmeal and breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Coat patties in mixture.

4.      Cook crab cakes in cooking oil, about 3 minutes per side.

Makes 4 crab cakes.

June 1, 2011

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

I love lemon. Take me to Dunkin Donuts and I'll order the powdered donut with lemon filling. I always bypass the raspberry Danish for the lemon one. And bring on the lemon bars, lemon meringue pies and lemon cakes.

Not surprisingly, my favorite snack bread is lemon poppy seed. So you’d think that by now I’d have a great recipe for it. Sadly, no. I figured now was as good a time as any to find one so I consulted some cookbooks and food blogs.

I kept coming across variations of a lemon poppy seed pound cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s popular cookbook, The Cake Bible. The recipe got rave reviews from several bloggers so I decided to give it a try.

This is a pound cake flavored with lots of lemon zest. Once it’s out of the oven, you poke holes all over the cake and brush it with a lemon syrup that’s made by dissolving sugar into lemon juice. I paused when I read about the lemon syrup and it turns out I should have listened to my gut. I’m not a huge fan of sweet/tart. I found the syrupy edges of the bread too jarring next to the mellow lemon flavor of the bread. But that’s just me. This is a very popular recipe so clearly I’m in the minority here.  

The bread itself was lovely. It was moist and dense, buttery and lemony. The poppy seeds provided a bit of crunch and little earthiness. I’d added a teaspoon of pure lemon extract to the batter to ramp up the lemonyness of the cake. It helped, but next time I’d add even more lemon extract, along with some extra lemon zest. And I’d leave out the lemon glaze.

To make this cake you begin by combining the milk, eggs and vanilla extract (I also added some pure lemon extract).

Then combine your dry ingredients. This includes the lemon zest and poppy seeds, the stars of this show.

Add the butter and half the egg mixture and beat for about one minute. Then add the rest of the egg mixture and continue to beat until the mixture is thick and fluffy.

Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan and put it in the oven.

Bake until the cake is a beautiful golden brown.

When the cake is almost done baking, make the lemon syrup by heating the sugar and lemon juice until the sugar dissolves.

Poke holes throughout the warm cake.

Then brush the lemon syrup on the top, bottom, and sides of the cake.

Let the cake sit overnight to let the syrup distribute evenly throughout the cake. Slice and serve!

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

Recipe adapted from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

All ingredients should be at room temperature.

3 Tbsp milk
3 large eggs
2 tsp pure lemon extract (my suggestion to make the lemon flavor really pop)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp loosely packed grated lemon zest (I recommend adding 2 Tbsp lemon zest)
3 Tbsp poppy seeds
13 Tbsp unsalted butter, must be softened

Lemon Syrup:

¼ cup + 2 Tbsp sugar

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1.      Preheat oven to 350˚F and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Butter and flour (or spray with a non stick vegetable/flour spray) the bottom and sides of a loaf pan (8 x 4 x 2 1/2 inch). Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and butter and flour the paper. Set aside.

2.      In a medium bowl lightly combine the milk, eggs, lemon extract and vanilla.

3.      In a large mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients, including the lemon zest and poppy seeds, and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and half the egg mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed (high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 minute to aerate and develop the cake’s structure.

4.      Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining egg mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. Scrape down the sides.

5.      Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cover loosely with buttered foil after 30 minutes to prevent overbrowning. 

6.      Shortly before the cake is done, prepare the Lemon Syrup: In a small pan over medium heat, stir the sugar and lemon juice until dissolved. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, place the pan on a rack, poke the cake all over with a wire tester, and brush it with 1/2 the syrup. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a spatula and invert it onto a greased wire rack. Poke the bottom of the cake with the wire tester, brush it with some syrup, and reinvert onto a greased wire rack. Brush the sides with the remaining syrup and allow to cool before wrapping airtight. Store 24 hours before eating to give the syrup a chance to distribute evenly. The syrup will keep the cake fresh a few days longer than a cake without syrup.

Store: Airtight: 3 days room temperature, 1 week refrigerated, 2 months frozen.

Serve at room temperature.