Monday, December 30, 2013

Tomato Soup the Long Way

We've spent several chilly days at work, and some of my coworkers remarked that their favorite meal for a chilly day was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. So when we were planning a major overhaul of our computer systems, I offered to bring in some for lunch for everyone. Originally I'd planned on buying some canned soup, because I've never made tomato soup before, but with my culinary adventures on this blog, I thought I'd try making it. Well, it almost killed me, and is the most complicated dish I've ever made, mostly because I insisted on following the recipe exactly. Next time I'll either make substitutions or get a simpler recipe.
3 large shallots (about 3/4 of a cup)
1 carrot pealed and minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tsp vegetable oil
pinch ground allspice
2 cans (28 oz) whole tomatoes (roma or larger ones) drained and seeded.
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 tbs all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups of BOTH low sodium chicken and low sodium vegetable broth
1/2 cup half and half
cayenne pepper

I thought I had bought everything for this recipe, but then I got back and looked at the recipe and saw it only served 4! I've never seen a soup that required so many ingredients and served so few people. So I needed to double it, but I didn't have enough tomatoes--so out I went in the middle of a snow storm to buy more. Fortunately I bought a lot more than what I'd need to double it, because it turns out I'd made a mistake earlier. The whole tomatoes I'd bought originally were cherry tomatoes--too small and full of seeds to use! The cookbook specifically instructs you to take the whole tomatoes and squeeze out the juice and seeds, discard them, and just use the shells of the tomatoes. It was a blood bath--like a scene from Dexter, with tomato casualties piling up everywhere.

Once that gristly task was complete, I turned to chopping the shallots--7 of them into teeny tiny pieces. The carrots were easier--the recipe says one carrot, but my carrots were pretty small so I did 3 for my double batch. Looking back I wonder why I chopped them so fine--this is a pureed soup-- it all goes in a blender at the end. But this book is kind of like a drill Sargent--you try to do what it says exactly how it says because through out the recipes is this unshakable belief that they have figured out the best/only way to do it and to venture off is to fail!

Once that was done I discovered the next problem--the tomato paste! I thought I had several cans in the pantry, and I did--only they expired almost three years ago. When I opened one it was black and stinky--disgusting, and unusable. This was sadly after I had already ventured out in the snow, and my sister wasn't answering her phone to see if I could borrow some. So I used the internet and found a recipe for making tomato paste from tomato sauce, which I had. It isn't hard: one can of tomato sauce, a small saucepan, and 7 to 14 minutes of cooking. It took a lot longer than I thought it would to reduce to a paste consistency, and my sister called right after I finished it, with paste I could borrow. I used my homemade paste, since I went to so much effort!

So more than an hour into this soup and I finally get to start cooking! In my large pot I put in some oil, heated it over medium heat, and added the shallots, carrots, and the homemade tomato paste. That cooked until the carrot was soft, and shallots translucent. I added the drained and seeded tomatoes to the pot and the sugar--and cooked until they were dry. Well, that is what the recipe said--but I'm not really clear on what that meant. Lots of stirring later, lots and lots, and I decided it was as dry as it was going to get and added the flour. That cooked for a minute and I added the broths a little at a time, bringing it up to a boil and then reducing to simmer for 10 minutes.

I used my new immersion blender to purify it, which was nice because it was hot and putting into a blender would have been another mess I didn't need. Once it was pureed, I added the half and half and let it cook some more. The directions say to season at this point, salt and pepper and cayenne to taste. 
The Verdict: The soup was delicious, though my blender did not get as smooth of a texture as I'm used to--so you could still tell there were carrots in there. It wasn't as strong of a tomato taste as I would have thought--less traditional, and more veggie strong. But the question I ask myself is: Is the amount of effort worth the result? It was popular at work--several staff member said it was their favorite of all the soups I've made. But it took me almost 3 hours to make--my knees hurt so badly after making it that my physical therapist told me I'd need to wear braces if I wanted to make it again (well, really that if I was going to cook all day, I should put my braces on). So if I do make it again, I will be modifying the recipe to be simpler, or I'll try a different tomato soup recipe altogether!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sugar Cookie Cook-Off--the Winner

Merry Christmas! I'm off in the Dominican Republic enjoying the sand, sun, and surf, but I've scheduled posts through the week. I've done so much baking this last month, it will take me through next month to post them all!

For my second batch of sugar cookies, I returned to Mid-Century Menu's list of 10 vintage cookies, selecting their Frosted Lemon Sugar Cookie recipe. This went a lot better than when I tried the last recipe, mostly because I followed the recipe. Since I had just made some sugar cookies, I did a half batch of these. The other change I made was that I frosted them with royal icing instead of the frosting on the recipe--easier for transit and decorating. One thing I really liked about this recipe is that it didn't require anything I don't normally have on hand--like tons of butter!
  • 2 eggs
  • ⅔ cup oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp grated lemon rind (or a little more if you prefer)
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
 Since this recipe uses oil instead of butter, it mixes together a lot easier. First mix sugar, eggs, oil, lemon rind, and vanilla in one bowl. In a second bowl sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mix a little at a time to the egg mixture.

The recipe says it will be a soft dough, which is natural since it uses oil and not butter. I had originally intended to make this dough ahead and cook it later, so I wrapped it up and put it in the fridge. After checking on the other dough that I had made the day before, which was hard as a rock, I decided to cook them that day and store the cooked cookies instead.

So the original recipe is for a drop cookie, pressed flat with a sugar coated cup, but I rolled it out and cut it with a water glass.
 These bake in 400 degree oven for 8-10 minutes. They puffed up, but didn't spread much--which was nice because all of the cookies ended up the same size.

I would love to try the frosting included in the recipe some day, but royal icing is better for transit and decorating. Next time I might add some lemon zest to the royal icing, and I would absolutely do the pipping with a royal icing in a contrasting color. I managed to smear my aliens a couple of times, once right after taking this picture, and then on the way to work.

The Verdict: This is the sugar cookie for me--soft and flavorful, such a tender texture. I will be making these again for my family cookie decorating party. The dough did not become overworked as easily as the other cookies I made, so they are better for shaping cookies. Next time I will add a little more lemon zest to some of them, and I may try some almond extract for some.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sugar Cookie Cook Off--America's Test Kitchen Light

One of my all time favorite Christmas cookies is the sugar cookie, but I've had mixed luck with making them. I prefer a soft cookie, not a crispy or crunchy one. So when I volunteered to make cookies for a cousins' party I knew I would have to find a recipe that would work and not embarrass myself by bringing. Since the party is in a couple of weeks, I figured I'd test them on my coworkers and hopefully and redeem my cookie making skills after my last disaster!

So I'm making two different recipes to see which will work--if neither do I'll have to keep trying! I picked one from my America's Test Kitchen Light cookbook (one I actually already owned, and didn't get at the library,) and one from Midcentury Menu. I figure after I killed the snowball cookies, I need to do one right. Plus both recipes are for a lemon sugar cookie, one of my favorite flavors!

America's Test Kitchen light sugar cookies
3/4 c all purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/3 c  sugar
1 large egg lightly beaten
1 tsp vanila
2 tsp lemon zest

If you've ever read anything put out by America's Test Kitchen, you'll know that they are very particular about the way their recipes are followed. They do not encourage experimentation, since they've already done all of the testing to figure out what they believe is best. Plus, as we all know, my weakness is when I don't follow the recipe exactly--so this time I was determined to do exactly as it says. I even had four different people at WalMart help me find cake flour--five if you count my sister who I called on the phone to ask about cake flour, and my other sister who tracked me down when they found it and I'd wandered off to look for butter.

 First whisk the dry ingredients together--flours, baking powder, and salt. Next cream a cup of sugar with the butter--I struggled with this step. The opposite of my last cookie making problem, there was a lot of sugar to butter ratio. Also, I broke the beater attachments to my beater a while ago, so I just have a whisk and dough hook. The directions say to beat it for 3-5 minutes until light and fluffy. I'm not sure what that looks like. But I whisked and stirred the butter and sugar and then added an egg, lightly beaten with 2 teaspoons of lemon zest and one teaspoon of vanilla. Turns out the recipe called for a tablespoon of vanilla, but since I added the lemon zest (which was a suggested alternative) I figure it is ok that I didn't get the right amount in. Though the less liquid might explain why the dough was a little crumbly.

 I wrapped the dough up and refrigerated it for a day, let it come to room temperature and then rolled it out. Since these were supposed to be alien cookies, I couldn't use my one cookie cutter, instead using a glass to make circles. The cookies baked at 345 for 8 minutes. They all should have been the same size, but this first batch was very inconsistent. On the first tray the cookies spread out and were thin and large, but as I continued to roll out and shape and cut the scraps the dough became overworked and they didn't spread as much. It was interesting to see how different the first cookies from this batch were from the last ones.
 I frosted the cookies with a very simple royal icing I found in one of my books, a standard recipe that I had all of the ingredients on hand. Basically, 2 egg whites, 3 cups of powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, and a little green and yellow food coloring. They were all frosted and when the royal icing hardened, I drew aliens on them with a bottle of sparkly icing.

The Verdict: This is a temperamental cookie and it probably would be really different if I hadn't refrigerated the dough. When the cookies first came out of the oven, they were chewy and almost crispy, with some having a clearly overworked texture. However, after being stored overnight with the other cookies I made (which were softer) they softened, and after being iced they were even softer still. So when they were served, several days after they were cooked, they tasted better than right after they were pulled out of the oven. Also, even though they are a "light" cookie, they are not really that much more healthy than other sugar cookies. This might be a good cookie for those who prefer a crispy or chewy sugar cookie, but I am a soft or cakey cookie girl!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Baba Ghanoush

 For my work holiday party, I made a trio of dips as part of my cooking explosion. I was inspired by a recipe out of my Hungry Girl cookbook, but I wanted to do a more traditional dip. In the cook book it calls it eggplant goo, but I think that is less appetizing than baba ghanoush. For a more traditional flavor combination, and using what I have, I used sesame oil and roasted eggplant, lemon, and salt and pepper, with a healthy amount of cayenne. 
2 medium eggplants
1-2 tsp sesame oil
juice from 1 lemon
salt and pepper and cayenne to taste.

One of the things I like about dips is that they are flexible--a little of this, a dash of that, and if you make a mistake you just adjust until it tastes good! The hardest part of this is getting the eggplant right--I roasted it in the oven, but when I took it out it wasn't quite done--so I sliced it and roasted it some more.

 After the eggplant was finally cooked enough, the skin easily peeled off with my hands. Then I rough chopped it, put it in a blender and added the sesame oil and the lemon. After pulsing a few times, I added salt and pepper and cayenne to taste.  
The Verdict: This is a healthier option than hummus and goes well with veggies, pita, or even on a sandwich. Add different flavors and even try grilling the eggplant for a smokey flavor. It wasn't the most popular dip at the party, but eggplant is sometimes an acquired taste, and we had a high food to people ratio. (there may have been more types of dip than people)
5 oriental eggplants
Sesame oil, with or without cayenne
2 lemons
Good olive oil
Parsley/fresh herbs – garnish
Black olives — garnish
- See more at:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Recipe from the Web--Swedish Meatballs

We were talking about foods to nibble on for our Polaris Party and meatballs came up as a great option, which I offered to bring. I was going to buy them, but figured it was a good opportunity to try making them! I've never made meatballs before in my life--my Dad buys bags of them frozen and put them in a mix of grape jelly and chili sauce. I looked in my cookbooks for a recipe that would work, and couldn't settle on one that I wanted to try. It wasn't until I was looking through the archives of one of my favorite blogs, Skinnytaste, that I found a recipe that sounded good.

Swedish Meatballs
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 celery stalk, minced
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1 lb 93% lean beef
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 2 cups reduced sodium beef stock
  • 2 oz light cream cheese

 I decided to cook a double batch of the meatballs, so I would have enough for the party and for me to try some. Plus they freeze well and can be used in lots of things. I chopped two onions as finely as I could, then used my microplane to grate about 3 cloves of garlic.Chopping things is a skill I'm still developing, and sometimes they are not equally sized. My older sister told me that practice would help me perfect my technique. Onions are not too challenging, but garlic cloves are so small that I prefer if it needs to be fine to use the microplane. The two were sauteed until tender, and then two stalks of celery and a half a cup of parsley chopped fine were added and cooked a few more minutes.

 The sauteed vegetables cooled for a few minutes while I pulled together the other ingredients. Two pounds of 94% lean beef, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons egg substitute and one egg yolk I had after using the whites for another recipe. I also added 2 tsps allspice, and a lot of salt and pepper. The directions said salt and pepper to taste, but I'm not sure how one can test the seasoning of an uncooked meatball. So I added a bunch and hoped for the best!

Next came the fun part--the veggies were added and I mixed it all together with my hands. I have to admit, as gross as it was, it was also kind of fun--like playing with play doh! I used a 1/4 cup and divided it into two meatballs. I wasn't sure how compressed they should be--so I didn't try too hard, just rolled them in my hands. I placed them on a cookie sheet and froze all but 4 of them.
I cooked those 4 on my George Foreman grill and ate them on toast, yummy! The rest were defrosted and cooked in beef broth--which was drained and mixed with cream cheese and some roasted garlic and loads of salt and pepper to make a sauce. I topped it with some chopped parsley and served them to an appreciative work crowd! Sadly, I didn't snap any pictures, but they looked a lot like Ikea meatballs.

The Verdict: Great flavor and texture, they are a definite make again. If I had to change one thing, I would make the meatballs smaller, particularly for an appetizer type setting. They froze well and were just as great defrosted. We actually ate all of them at the party, so I will have to make them again. I think they'd be good with spinach cooked in the sauce, or with spaghetti squash.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yogurt Cheese Dip

 For our Polaris Express Party at work, I promised to bring in all kinds of goodies. We're going for party food that can be nibbled at all day, since we will be working 11-8 in a closed library. It will be a physical day, with everyone shelving and checking in, so folks may want to snack as the day goes by. I promised to bring a fruit and veggie tray with some dips, and maybe some meatballs. I was browsing through my The Best Light Recipe book from Cook's Illustrated when I saw this very simple recipe for making yogurt cheese--only one ingredient that can be mixed with various flavors to make a yummy and slightly healthier dip!

 The recipe calls for 2 cups of plain yogurt, a wire mesh strainer, coffee filters, and a large bowl. Oh, and patience.

The strainer is lined with at least 3 filters and placed over a bowl large enough to hold at least a cup of liquid without the bottom of the strainer touching the liquid. I tried the red bowl, but it was too big and the strainer kept falling down into the bowl. So I ended up using a different container.

This contraption is covered with plastic wrap and placed in the fridge for at least 11 hours, or until a cup of liquid collects. Supposedly, according to the internet you can make Greek yogurt this way if you leave it in the strainer for less time.
To this creamy, thick yogurt, I added some garlic I roasted, salt and pepper, cayenne pepper and blended it smooth. I made the dip in advance so the flavors would have time to really infuse the cheese. Paired with the baba ganoush and hummus I made, it makes a lovely mezze trio with veggies, olives, and pita chips.

The Verdict: A very flexible base for a dip, when paired with roasted garlic it is extremely delicious--creamy, tart and sweet. I also made it with strawberry yogurt for a fruit dip! Be careful to get yogurt with no gelatin or modified food starches so that it will drain. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Salmon Florentine in One Pot

A surprisingly old picture of my dad and I--I think this was 7 years ago?
Growing up, I was never good at eating my fruits and veggies--in fact until this past year there were a whole bunch of veggies I was completely convinced were inedible. This might be because the typical vegetable side dish we had as a kid was a can of corn or a bag of frozen peas (I even have a vegetarian sister) or green beans in tater-tot casserole (pretty good actually). The strange thing is that my Dad LOVES all kinds of vegetables, and sometimes would cook some for himself, even though no one else would eat any. I guess this next dish is in his honor, since it features two foods I mostly associate with him: cooked spinach and salmon, and the fact that I'm making it in a Dutch Oven means it pretty much should be named after him.

So here is my second recipe from Glorious One Pot Meals, Salmon Florentine ala Bill. Though my Dad has made me salmon in probably 100 different ways, I'm not sure he's made this way. Maybe he will try it if it turns out well!

Olive Oil spry
Spinach--enough to fill the Dutch Oven
4 salmon fillets (around 4 oz each)
1 lemon, thinly sliced
6 cloves of garlic
4-5 tomatoes, thickly sliced
Salt and Pepper 
Italian Seasonings 
Red Pepper Flakes

This is a really easy dish to make, and uses relatively few ingredients. I tossed it together in five minutes or so--I think unwrapping the salmon was the most time consuming part. So you spray your glorious pot with cooking spray, and add a thick layer of spinach (I used a spinach/baby kale mix from walmart). I increased the seasonings from the book, because I thought the ingredients sounded a little bland. So I put the salmon on top of the spinach mix, and sprayed it with cooking spray and liberally seasoned with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, and red pepper.

Next I sliced the lemon super thin and pealed the garlic. That went in a layer over the salmon and spinach. I have a bigger pot than is called for in the directions so it didn't cover the whole layer, and I placed the garlic on the fillets under the lemons.

This deliciousness is covered by another layer of spinach, which is then covered with thickly sliced tomatoes. I bought WAY too many tomatoes, because the recipe said 5-6 so that is what I got. But I purchased huge beefsteak tomatoes, which were delicious, but enormous. I only used 4, and ate some with salt and pepper without cooking. I seasoned the tomatoes as well, and stuffed some extra spinach in so it was as full as I could get. Then sprayed the lid with oil, covered it, and stuck it in a 450 degree oven for 40 minutes. The fillets were frozen, but this seemed like a long time even so. However, it was perfect when I took it out!

 The spinach had shrunk to half the size as it cooked, but it was deliciously fragrant and fresh! The bigger tomatoes were a good choice because they really held up to the cooking process.

 The Verdict: This is the best thing I've made in a long time. I didn't want to stop eating it, even after I was full. The tomatoes were fall apart delicious, the spinach was lemony, and the salmon tender. There was something delightfully fresh and simple about this dish, though I really wanted more spinach to salmon (which I'm noticing is my complaint about every dish I make!) Next time I might try with a white fish--I have some hake in the freezer that would be good--lower calorie as well!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Snowball Surprise: a recipe from the web

Baby its cold outside! And also inside--at least at my work lately. Temperatures outside have dipped to single digits overnight, with a balmy high of 20 degrees. So, naturally, our heater turned off. Apparently it shuts off when it is too cold so the freezer coils don't freeze. It still doesn't make sense to me, and I'll believe it isn't going to happen again when I walk in a heated building and don't have to spend the morning on the phone freezing demanding to know where the HVAC crew is. People are starting to assume every time I call it is about the heat--are you warm is going to replace hello soon! Anyway, it has been a cold and stressful week, where the short staffing and freezing temperatures just are no fun for anyone. So since I seem powerless over the heat, I thought I'd make cookies. And while I know I have a shelf full of cookbooks, with many, many recipes to try, hundreds of them for cookies, I saw this recipe on a blog and just had to make them!

Midcentury Menu, home of all things vintage and one of my favorite cooking blogs, posted a list of their top ten holiday cookies, and the Chocolate Filled Snowballs seemed perfect for how cold and snowy we all are at work. Interestingly, these are perhaps the most unhealthy cookies I could have made. I made a brave attempt to make them somewhat healthier, but even light butter is mostly fat. And funny story, I just realized in typing this up that I used much more butter than I was supposed to, which when you use light butter kind of defeats the purpose. Well, it probably didn't kill anyone.

  • ½ lb soft butter (I put in a pound, I don't know how I misread that, or how it even came together with so much butter in it.)
  • ½ cup sugar (1/4 cup stevia baking blend)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 1 5 ounce pkg chocolate kisses (I used some caramel filled and some dark chocolate)
  • Confectioner’s sugar
So I'm looking at these pictures and feeling like an idiot for not realizing that I had too much butter. Well, I never claimed to be a good cook--learning to cook is sort of my plan, and clearly following directions is a major problem I have! They were pretty good with all the butter, so I'd definitely make them again with the right amount of butter. So loads of butter, sugar, vanilla mixed together, then I got the walnuts out to chop. I bought them pre chopped, but they came in big chunks, and the recipe said finely chopped. Since I don't have a food processor and my knife skills are lacking I used the grinding blade on my blender.

I should have put them in the cup in small amounts, because it chopped some into more of a paste and others were still in chunks. But not bad, and faster than me cutting off my finger trying to chop them all by hand.
I added the nuts and the sifted flour to the very buttery mix of wet ingredients, and chilled it all for 45 minutes or so while I made dinner. The funny thing was that I wasn't sure I added the right amount of flour, but because the dough looked like cookie dough I figured I had--so maybe I added too much flour too!

After baking
Before cooking

After the dough chilled, I wrapped it around various types of Hershey's kisses and baked them at 375 for about 13 minutes. They still looked uncooked, but getting browned on the bottoms so I took them out. After cooling a little I tossed them in powdered sugar.

The Verdict: Even though I'm an idiot and made these wrong, they still tasted buttery and delicious. Just even more like an artery was closing off because of the richness. The caramel kisses didn't work the way I wanted, because the caramel leaked out and kind of made a mess. But I think other types of kisses would work, this time of year there are tons of different flavors. I am going to have to make these again so I can get it right next time. My apologies to the fine folks at Midcentury Menu for slaughtering their recipe, and to my coworkers for hardening their arteries. I wanted to post this still so I can look back and see how I've grown. My blog is about learning after all!