January 28, 2014

Red and Wild Rice Salad with Roasted Squash and Other Yummy Things

Sometimes choosing a recipe is like buying a new shirt. You search through racks and racks of clothing looking for something interesting, something different. You promise yourself you’re not going to buy another black sweater. But then you see one that has a different neckline. And just as you reach for it, your shopping buddy spots you and yells, “Put that down right now! The last thing you need is another black sweater.” You protest weakly, pointing out the neckline.

Your buddy isn’t buying it. She hands you a blouse. It's yellow. With buttons. You look at it in alarm. You look at her in alarm. “But it’s yellow. I never wear yellow. What would I wear it with? I don't even know what goes with yellow.” “Just try it on,” she says. And you do.

And you love it. This colorful, not-black, not-remotely-your-taste shirt that you never would have considered picking up off the rack.

This wild rice salad is my yellow blouse, courtesy of my sister. I saw it in this month’s Bon Appetit. So did she. I glanced at, then turned the page. She looked at, bought the ingredients, made it, and loved it. She told me about it. And I protested. Salad in winter? Pomegranate seeds? Don’t they get stuck in your teeth? Microgreens? Really? How pretentious.
Thai red rice and wild rice

She walked me through it. The rice had an unusual, earthy flavor. The squash was creamy and substantial. The pistachios added a salty crunch. The microgreens lent the salad a hint of bitterness. And the pomegranate seeds supplied a refreshing pop of juice when you bit into them.

She’d sold me on trying it. But would I like it? I did. I really did. The taste was interesting, complex and unexpected.

The yellow blouse really wasn’t my style. Or so I thought until she took it off the rack and made me try it on.

 Cut butternut squash and place it on a baking sheet. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Roast until squash is tender.

In the meantime, bring salted water to a boil. Add black (or red) and wild rice.

Cook until rice is tender but not mushy. Drain, rinse and set aside. (Isn't that red rice pretty?)

Whisk together vinegar, honey and olive oil.

Place rice in a large bowl.

Add vinaigrette, scallions, pomegranate seeds and pistachios and mix gently.

Add squash and microgreens and incorporate gently into the salad. Add salt and pepper if needed.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Red and Wild Rice Salad with Roasted Squash and Other Yummy Things

Slightly adapted from Bon Appetit

1 1/2 cups black rice (I searched everywhere for black rice but couldn’t find it. I substituted Thai red rice and it turned out fine.)
1/2 cup wild rice
Kosher salt
1/2 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, cut into pieces
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp honey
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup microgreens or sprouts
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, chopped

1.  Preheat oven to 450°F.

2.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt. Add black and wild rice and cook uncovered, over medium heat, tender, 35–40 minutes. Drain and rinse, shaking off as much water as possible. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and let cool.

3.  Meanwhile, toss squash with 1/4 cup (or less) oil on another baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Roast, tossing once, until golden brown and tender, 20–25 minutes. Let cool.

4.  Whisk vinegar, honey, and remaining 1/4 cup oil in a large bowl.

5.  Add black rice and wild rice, squash, scallions, pomegranate seeds, microgreens, and pistachios. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.

6.  Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serves 8 as a side or 4 as a main dish.

Note: Salad (without microgreens) can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and chill.

January 20, 2014

The Best Buttercream Frosting


Have you ever watched a child eat a cupcake? The way they dive right into the frosting, lick off every last bit, then ask for more?

Have you ever stood there wondering if it would be remotely acceptable to do the same? No? Oh. Just me.

Okay then, while I’m at it, I might as well make another confession. I like supermarket cake. Supermarket cakes are surprisingly good. But supermarket frostings are not. They’re way too sweet. They leave a strange aftertaste in your mouth. And don’t even look at the list of ingredients.

The solution, of course, is homemade frosting. But m
aking frosting is not for the faint of heart. It's like watching the sausage being made. You really don't want to know how much sugar and butter (and butter and butter) goes into it.

And frosting recipes — recipes for Swiss buttercream frosting, at least — are kind of intimidating. They involve making a meringue. Have you ever made a meringue? Me either.

But if you dare to overcome these obstacles, there’s a mighty reward waiting for you on the other side. Frosting. Buttercream frosting. Homemade buttercream frosting. Rich. Creamy. Sweet. Tasting purely of butter and sugar and good vanilla extract. So good that like me you’ll be tempted to lick the bowl. 

Don’t worry. No one’s looking.

Put sugar and egg whites into a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water.

Whisk until the sugar dissolves, and the mixture thickens and becomes frothy.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat with the whisk attachment for 5 minutes, until the mixture is thick and glossy.

Switch to the paddle attachment. With the mixer on, beat in one stick of butter at a time, until the butter is incorporated.

Then, beat at medium-high speed for 6 to 10 minutes. 
Now listen closely. This is important. While you are beating the frosting, the mixture might separate and look like it has curdled, like this. DO NOT PANIC. Keep beating and the mixture will come back together again. I promise.

Beat in the vanilla. You will have a beautiful, delicious buttercream frosting.

Spread or pipe onto a cupcake. Decorate with rainbow sprinkles. (Not optional. Optional, o
f course.)


The Best Buttercream Frosting

Recipe slightly adapted from Baking by Dorie Greenspan

1 cup sugar

4 large egg whites
1/8 tsp salt
3 sticks (12 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract

1.   Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or other large heatproof bowl. Fit the bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat.

2.   Put the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer. Working with the whisk attachment, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.

3.   Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one. Add salt and then the butter, one stick at a time, beating until smooth.

4.   Once all the butter is in, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6 to 10 minutes. During this time, the buttercream may curdle or separate. Just keep on beating and it will come together again.

5.   On medium speed, gradually beat in the vanilla.

6.   You should have a shiny, smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream.

Makes enough to frost one 2-layer cake, or 24 cupcakes.

January 13, 2014

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e fagioli. Pasta and beans. We all know the rhyme about beans and what they're good for. But while we tend to remember the second part of the rhyme, we often forget the part about them being “good for your heart.” Beans are naturally low in fat and high in fiber, iron and protein. And they're filling, delicious and easy on the wallet.

This time of year, I can't imagine anything much more comforting that a bowl of beans and pasta. This pasta e fagioli recipe is a little unusual. I think. Not being an Italian grandma, I can’t say this with absolute certainty. But in my (limited) experience, pasta e fagioli is a brothy soup with beans and pasta.

This recipe calls for pureeing half of the beans, which results in a thick, almost stew-like texture with whole beans and pasta mixed throughout. I prefer this texture, particularly in the midst of a Polar Vortex. In the spring or fall, I'd probably leave all of the beans whole, and make this more of a soup. You can also go for a texture that's somewhere in between by adding more broth or pureeing a smaller portion of the beans.

Soak the beans overnight.

The next day, transfer them to a large pot with onion, bay leaf and garlic cloves.

Simmer until tender.

In the meantime, cook bacon in a large saucepan, then remove.

In the same saucepan, lightly brown onion, carrot and celery.

Add thyme and saute for another minute.

Add half of the cooked beans.

Then the chicken broth.

And the diced tomato.

Puree (or mash) the remaining beans with their cooking liquid.

Add the pureed beans to the tomato/bean mixture in the saucepan, along with the pasta.

Give everything a good stir and cook until the pasta is tender.

Stir in the bacon and serve with a drizzle of olive oil.

Pasta e Fagioli 

Recipe slightly adapted from De Lallo

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb dried cranberry beans
4 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
2 onions, 1 halved and 1 chopped
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
8 oz ditalini or other short pasta
Salt and pepper

1.    Rinse and soak dried beans in a large bowl of water overnight.

2.    The next day, drain and rinse the beans again, then transfer to a big pot and add enough cold, unsalted water to cover the beans by 3 to 4 inches. Add one onion, cut in half, one or two bay leaves, and a couple of cloves of garlic, and bring to a boil. Cook briskly for 10 minutes, removing the foam that comes to the top. Reduce the heat and cook the beans gently, uncovered until they are tender. This will take about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

3.    In a large saucepan, heat bacon until it is cooked and renders its fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4.    Wipe the pan with a paper towel and heat olive oil over a medium flame. Sauté onion, carrot and celery, until vegetables begin to brown. Add thyme spring and saute for a minute.

5.    Add half of the drained, cooked beans to the saucepan, maintaining a low heat on the remaining beans. Add a generous amount of salt and pepper to the saucepan, and cook on a high flame. Add the chicken broth. Next, add the canned peeled tomatoes and stir continuously.

6.    Purée or mash the remaining half of the beans and cooking liquid in the big pot. Add the mashed beans to the soup.

7.    Add the ditalini pasta to the boiling soup. Turn down the heat and simmer until the pasta is cooked. (If needed, add more chicken broth. You may have to cook the pasta longer than the cooking time on the box.)

8.      Once pasta is cooked, stir in the bacon. Cook for another few minutes. The soup will be thick.

9.      When you are ready to serve the soup, top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Note: You can easily make this soup vegetarian. Just omit the bacon and substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth.

Serves 8

January 2, 2014

Homemade Christmas Gifts

Every year, we gather. My family. My sister’s family. My parents. My brothers-in-law. Their families. My sister’s in-laws. There are a lot of us. Mostly adults, though the kid count is starting to creep up.

Every year we gather for Christmas. Baking cookies. Planning meals. And buying presents. Because we all love to give. And who doesn’t like to receive?

Over the past few years, it’s started to get out of hand. Really indulgent gifts. And more of them. There’s been talk of no presents for the adults. But what fun is that? The idea of Secret Santa gets thrown around. But I want to get something for everyone, not just one person.

So this year my sister and I issued the following guidelines: all gifts must be either homemade or purchased for no more than $25. (Kids gifts had no restrictions but probably should have because who are we kidding, it’s not like they need more toys.)

To our surprise, everyone accepted the homemade or under $25 idea. It was a chance to get creative and be thoughtful. And to rein in what had become excessive.

Ziggy's first Christmas with us
I’ve never thought of myself as a crafty person. But suddenly I was inspired. I knew my gifts would be food based. But which direction to go? I didn’t want to make cookies or cakes. There would already be plenty of those around. I thought about layering jars with ingredients for soup or hot chocolate or brownies. But everyone in my family is a good cook. They didn’t need a jar of ingredients to make a good brownie.

So I started thinking in terms of ingredients. Things that each person could take and use however they wanted. Flavored salts. Or butters. Infused vodkas. And hot fudge sauce. Even then there were so many tempting possibilities. So we decided on a mini theme: spicy for the guys and sweet for the ladies.

Spicy                                       Sweet
Vodka diablo                            Stoli doli (pineapple-infused vodka)
Mexican hot fudge                    Mocha hot fudge
Sriracha salt                             Lemon sugar
Cajun butter                             Cinnamon honey butter

Armed with the outline of a plan, my husband and I hit the Container Store. A couple of hours later, with a bit of dent in my wallet (let's just say by the time the cashier had finished ringing up our order she knew what was going into each container, where we were celebrating the holiday, where the members of my family were travelling from and what we were having for Christmas dinner), we left the store with bags of jars, bottles, ribbon, twine, stickers, labels, gift tags and some double-sided tape. 

It took time to plan and prepare and package. But I can honestly say that I haven’t had this much fun with Christmas in years.