Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rosemary White Bean Soup

It seems a bit mundane of me to come over here and tell you about how the weather has been lately. Of course, there are exceptions; the six-plus inches of snow that Atlanta received this year, not to mention the unexpected (yet still predicted) white Christmas, were undoubtedly the craziest bout of weather I've ever seen in all my life. (In a close second was the humongous flooding that Atlanta experienced in 2009 that led to a "flood day" school canceling.) But to recount the various weather conditions of the past few days, no matter how varied and strange they were, seems, quite simply, lame.

I will say that the combination of rain and cold and crazy-long days of classes has made me yearn for something comforting. Often I seek this form of comfort in a phone call to my mom, a quick but all-too-brief sojourn browsing through my Google reader, donning a warm and familiar sweater, or enjoying my favorite meals of soupy oatmeal and warm lemonade and almonds.

I will pause right there for those last few words to really set in. "Soupy oatmeal and warm lemonade and almonds." No, your eyes do not deceive you. I prefer my oatmeal drowning in cinnamon-laced, salted water with a bit of Splenda. My beverage of choice is generic Crystal Light warmed in the microwave for two and half minutes. On the side I enjoy exactly five raw almonds, which I soak briefly in the warm lemonade to soften the skins a little.

Oh my gosh, I am so weird. I won't pretend to be offended if you think I am crazy. I am pretty sure anyone who has ever seen me drink hot lemonade or sloshy oatmeal would agree. But what can I say? My ultimate comfort food is oatmeal.

When I had the conversation with my sister and mom about our comfort foods they gave traditional (ahem, boring) answers: garlic mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Me?


"Your comfort food is oatmeal?!" they asked incredulously.

"Yeah," I responded, only a bit defensively.

Now I don't remember exactly what they said next, but it went along the lines of "How sad is it that your comfort food is one that you eat pretty much every day? Do you really need to be comforted that much?"

Well, when you put it like that.... I think it was about that time that I changed my answer to cheesecake, which is wholly inaccurate, because cheesecake is certainly not a comfort food for me.

Anyway, their response got me thinking about what my favorite comfort food really is. Certainly not pasta, although I enjoy a pasta symphony as much as the next girl. I'm inclined to cop out and declare Thanksgiving dinner as my comfort food, but that's really more of a collection of foods and the entire sentiment that surrounds the holiday really makes the food taste that much better.

Recently though, the second semester stress has started to set in, which has given me an opportunity to examine the foods that I really crave when the Physics homework is due tomorrow, or the Calculus homework is largely undecipherable, or the stupid MATLAB code won't work, or the prospect of writing my first college paper has me nervous since it's been about eight months since I've written any type of literature analysis.

(On a side note, on a scale from one to ten, how lame would it be for me to write about The O.C. and its portrayal of outsiders for my English class, which is about outsider narratives? A part of me knows that the resulting essay would probably be better and more knowledgeable than anything I could ever write about another film or play or novel. The more rational part of me thinks it's the most ridiculous idea.)

When I really thought about it, I realized that the food I crave most when I'm down, or when it's so cold outside that my face goes numb, or when I've come back to the room after eight hours of classes, tired and hungry and looking for any type of sustenance, is soup.

I am in love with soups of almost all kinds. I love chilis, chicken soups, noodle soups, tomato soups, chickpea soups, vegetable soups, chowders, gumbos, lentil soups, and mushroom soups. My favorite soup of all is split pea soup, which I could enjoy for days on end and never tire of. But I think this soup comes in a close second. (Full disclosure - I didn't actually make this soup. My mom did. But isn't comfort food all the more comforting when you're not the one who makes it?)

Infused with earthy rosemary and extra virgin olive oil, the soup has natural body from the white beans, some of which remain whole. In fact, aside from the flavor, one of my favorite things about this soup is the texture. I prefer all my soups to have some sort of texture; I'm not a fan of completely smooth purees or clear broths. If I'm eating soup, I need something to chew on, or at least an element that adds some textural interest. Luckily, this soup hits all the right notes. No matter that today was seventy degrees and sunny, I'd still warm up a comforting bowl and enjoy every spoonful. 

Rosemary White Bean Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten

I smiled to myself when I read the recipe for this soup. In usual Ina fashion, she calls for "good" olive oil. Anyway, if you can't find dried cannellini beans, you can substitute Great Northern or navy beans, which have a similar flavor and are usually more readily available. In Ina's original recipe, she calls for the soup to be pureed. However, my mom and I both thought that it would be just fine to mash the cooked beans with a potato masher. This way, you can avoid hauling out and then cleaning the food processor, and the soup retains a nice chunky but creamy consistency. Depending on how salty the chicken stock is that you use, you may need to add less salt than called for.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

1 pound dried white cannellini beans
2 medium onions, sliced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large sprig fresh rosemary (6 to 7 inches in length)
8 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the beans in a medium bowl and cover with water by at least 1 inch. Allow the beans to chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight. After the beans have soaked, drain them.

In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, saute the onions with the olive oil until the onions are translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the drained white beans, rosemary sprig (whole), chicken stock, and bay leaf. Cover, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until the beans are very soft. If, after 40 minutes, the beans are not very soft, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook the beans until they become very soft and tender. (Our beans took a while longer than 40 minutes to fully soften, so we kept them over low heat for about an hour. After this time, they had softened to just the right texture. Depending on your stove or beans, this process may not take as long or it may take longer. The best way to know if the beans are ready is to just taste one. It should be very tender and smooth.)

Once the beans are soft, remove the rosemary branch (all of the rosemary will have fallen off) and the bay leaf. Use a potato masher to break up the beans. The soup should be a little chunky with some whole beans remaining. (You can see from the photos that the soup is about 75% smooth.) Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

The soup will keep, well covered in the refrigerator, for up to a week.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Creamed Spinach

Here we are, three weeks into the New Year. Isn't it crazy how time flies? Snowpocalypse 2011 really shook things up here for a while, but this week definitely marked a return to normalcy, with busy mornings and nights, homework and quizzes, and slightly higher temperatures.

All of this has made it more difficult to post here, but today I bring you one of my favorite vegetable side dishes. Traditional creamed spinach is a dish that, while undoubtedly delicious, I can't justify eating regularly because of its inherent richness. Sure, spinach contains lots of healthy vitamins and minerals, but when covered in a cream sauce often enhanced with some kind of meat, any nutritional benefits that it offers are virtually erased.

Enter a healthier version of creamed spinach. Like all white sauces, this one begins with roux of fat and flour. However, instead of adding heavy cream or half and half to the roux, this sauce uses a combination of skim milk and chicken broth, which is then reduced down to a creamy consistency. The milk provides the familiar, slightly sweet dairy flavor while the broth adds a savory element to the otherwise meatless dish.

Sauteed shallots provide a sweet onion flavor and nutmeg, customary in many dishes with a white sauce or greens (or both), gives the sauce a wonderful fragrant spice and a certain warmth. (If I was Rachael Ray, I'd tell you that the nutmeg will make people go, "Hmmm... what is that?" Since I am not, I will tell you that the nutmeg really boosts this dish up. You wouldn't immediately recognize it, but you'd notice if it was absent.)

Perhaps my favorite thing about this dish is the ease versus payoff factor. I'm a huge fan of things that go together quickly or with minimal effort but that really impress (ahem, cheesecake). The use of frozen spinach makes this dish one you can make any time, since all of the ingredients are pantry staples. The sauce comes together practically by itself, which allows you to attend to more important kitchen matters (ahem, cheesecake). What I'm trying to say is that you should make this, now, because nothing is stopping you. You will be greatly rewarded for your (not so) hard work with a dish that you can feel good about eating and serving.

Healthier Creamed Spinach
Adapted from Ellie Krieger

When we first discovered this recipe in 2009, we made it often and served it several ways. The creamed spinach is perfectly fine on its own, but we've also added sliced mushrooms to the sauce to bulk it up. If you opt to do this, slice a few cremini mushrooms and saute them along with the shallots. The creamed spinach (with or without mushrooms) also makes a great pasta sauce. We used it with butternut squash ravioli, which was a wonderful foil to the earthier flavor of the mushrooms and spinach. In addition to ravioli or plain pasta (I'd go with a short-cut pasta like penne or rigatoni to trap more of the sauce), the spinach would also go wonderfully with gnocchi. (To make the creamed spinach a bit "saucier," either add less spinach or more milk/broth. If you add more milk/broth, just cook the sauce longer to reduce it down to the correct consistency.) I've made this with both skim and low-fat milk, and both work equally well. If you can, use freshly grated nutmeg, which is much more fragrant and flavorful than pre-grated nutmeg.

Yield: 4-6 servings

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small shallots, minced
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups skim milk
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Once the spinach is thawed (I usually do this in the microwave), squeeze all of the water from the spinach. A clean kitchen towel or multiple layers of paper towels are ideal for this job.

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 2 minutes. (If you opt to add mushrooms, now would be the time to add them.) Add the flour to the pan and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Cooking the flour now gets rid of that pasty, raw flour taste.

Add the milk and chicken broth and cook, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring ocassionally, until the sauce is reduced and thickened, about 15 minutes. When the sauce is ready, it will coat the back of the spoon.

Add the spinach to the sauce and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the nutmeg, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot, either alone or alongside pasta or gnocchi.

The creamed spinach can be stored in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week, if it lasts that long.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rainbow Blondies

I'm going to throw a few numbers out right now....

6: inches of snow that fell the other night.
3: number of days that Georgia Tech has canceled school.
4: bowls of oatmeal I've had in the past three days.
2: number of hours it took two of my friends and me to walk the mile to Publix and back.
0: number of cars you'd see out on the street because of this "snowpocalypse."

I've never before experienced this much snow in Atlanta. I don't think Tech has ever been closed for this many days at a time. It's certainly a strange experience to be stuck on this campus with virtually nothing to do. Sure, it was fun yesterday with nothing to do. The eerie silence on campus, save for the sound of shovels scraping against the sidewalks, was kind of cool. There was even one brave soul kayaking down the snow on Freshman Hill. We ate sub sandwiches, watched movies, and sat around on the floor playing the Girls' Night Out edition of Table Topics.

But today was a completely different story. Breakfast at the dining hall was wholly underwhelming. (To give you the idea of how sparse the selection was, know that I ate Wonder Bread for the first time in my entire life.) I attempted to tackle my Computer Science homework (pretty much a total failure), played solitaire with myself (with actual playing cards), and wished that I was at home, where it's familiar and cozy. At home, there are blankets and a fireplace, which make the vision looking out the window worth it. Here, I'm just stuck in my dorm room with little to do.

Hopefully you all are in a more promising situation than I am. (Maybe there's not even snow where you are!) In my mind, there's no better way to pass time than baking up a storm in the kitchen. And there's no better treat to make when the sky is bleak and gray than blondies.
Essentially chocolate chip cookies in bar form, blondies are wonderful because they take to so many variations and add-ins. In this particular version, I chose to add white chocolate chips and M&M's, which studded them with occasional bursts of blues, greens, and reds. The blondie itself has a warm butterscotch flavor from the brown sugar and butter and hints of sweet vanilla from the white chocolate.

In weather this crazy, eating a blondie warm from the oven suddenly makes the cabin fever melt away, although I wish the snow would, too.

Rainbow Blondies
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Chewy, Chunky Blondies

The butterscotch flavor of these blondies serves as the perfect backdrop to a myriad of flavors. Be creative! See the end of the recipe for more add-ins. When I made these, I used a hand mixer to mix the batter. While our hand mixer is certainly not state-of-the-art, it had trouble with this relatively thick batter. If you opt to use a hand mixer, know that you will have to stop periodically to get the batter out from the inside of the beaters. If I made these again, I'd probably use a stand mixer. (Note that you can also mix these by hand, but prepare to use a lot of elbow grease!)

Yield: 32 bars, each about 2 1/4 by 1 1/2 inches

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup M&M's

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl working with a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixing speed to low and add the dry ingredients slowly, mixing just until they disappear into the batter. If a few streaks of flour remain, use a rubber spatula to incorporate them into the batter.

Add the white chocolate chips and M&M's by hand until they are evenly distributed throughout the batter. Scrape the batter (it will be quite thick) into the prepared pan and use a spatula to spread it out as evenly as possible.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center of the blondies comes out with a few crumbs attached. The blondies will have pulled away from the sides of the pan. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for about 15 minutes. From there, you can turn the blondies out onto another cooling rack and cut them into bars or you can cut them into bars right in the pan. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Store the blondies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two weeks. If the blondies are a little hard, heat them in the microwave for about 15 seconds to soften them up.

More add-ins for blondies:
Chocolate chips or chunks (semisweet or milk)
Butterscotch or peanut butter chips
Sweetened, shredded coconut
Chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, peanuts, etc.)
Dried fruits (cranberries, cherries, figs, raisins)
Crystallized ginger
Chopped candy bars (Heath bars, Reese's, Snickers, Butterfingers, etc.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Biscotti for Winter

Once upon a time I didn't like yogurt, stinky cheese, and pizza (gasp!). Thankfully, I've come to my senses and now enjoy all of these things, although the jury's still out on arugula, grapefruit, and cheese straws.

But today is all about biscotti, a cookie that I once disliked but has rapidly become not only my favorite type of cookie to bake but also my favorite to eat. On the baking side of things, I love the ease with which biscotti come together. There's no complicated mixing technique and a single batch makes a few dozen cookies in about an hour.

Of course, I enjoy eating them most of all. I love the crunchy texture of biscotti. I recently started using recipes that require little to no butter or oil, which is traditional in Italian cuisine (usually eggs are the sole source of fat). The lack of fat in the dough prevents the cookies from becoming too soft as they sit out, and I think it also helps them stay fresh-tasting for a long time. (Such is another great thing about biscotti: they are wonderful candidates for make-ahead baking, which is always a plus during the busy holiday season.) If you are normally deterred from biscotti because of their crunchier texture, know that these are definitely not tooth-shattering hard; they will soften up just enough after a brief dip into a hot cup of coffee (or tea, if you're into that sort of thing).
Finally, I absolutely love the infinite number of ways that you can change up the flavor of the biscotti. Because Christmas was two weeks ago, I'm opting to call this specific rendition "winter" biscotti because the combination of flavors - tart/sweet cranberries, slightly salty pistachios, and vanilla-y white chocolate - seem the perfect antidote to all this cold weather (a white Christmas? Seriously?). Never mind that the shades of red, green, and white seem especially suited to this time of year.

The real stars of this biscotti though, aside from the wonderful variation of textures from the different mix-ins, are the almond extract and white chocolate chips. The former is subtle yet just strong enough to attract your attention. I'm not sure how else to describe its contribution to the cookie's flavor besides saying "nutty," but if you love the flavor of almonds then you'll love what the almond extract brings to the party.
As for the white chocolate, I'm reminded of a blog post David Lebovitz did a year of so ago about caramelized white chocolate. I know some people don't like the sweet flavor of white chocolate, but it works tremendously in this cookie to balance out the tart cranberries and naturally salty pistachios. Instead of just a one-note sweetness, the heat from the oven browns the white chocolate just enough to give it a warm, almost caramel flavor. It's sort of like a cross between a toasted marshmallow and the burnt sugar topping on creme brulee. All accented with vanilla. Trust me, it's delicious.

Really, the only mistake I made with these cookies was not making enough. Truly, they were all gone a week ago. (We did give some away, but still....) That is practically unheard of in our house. I recall because a time in the not-so-distant past when I discovered a tin of Christmas cookies, stowed away and forgotten, well past the new year. Whatever time of year it is, though, I'm positive you too will fall in love with these cookies.
Cranberry, Pistachio, and White Chocolate Biscotti
Adapted from Bon Appetit

The original recipe called for dried raspberries of dried strawberries. I've never actually seen either of those (outside of freeze-dried strawberries in Special K) and dried cranberries seem more wintry to me anyway. If you like, you can dip the cooled biscotti in melted white or dark chocolate. This is a great base recipe for any dried fruit and nut biscotti. For any other time of year, you could substitute dried figs, raisins, or dried cherries for the cranberries. In place of pistachios, walnuts or pecans would also be delicious.

Yield: 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on how thickly you slice the biscotti

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons canola (or other vegetable) oil
2 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
3/4 cup shelled, raw, and unsalted pistachios
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup white chocolate chips

Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicon liner (such as Silpat) or with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt to combine. Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat sugar, eggs, oil, and almond extract until well combined. Slowly add the flour mixture and beat until smooth. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the pistachios, dried cranberries, and white chocolate chips. Make sure to incorporate the add-ins so that they are distributed evenly throughout the dough (especially the dough at the bottom of the bowl).

Divide the dough in half and shape the dough into two logs, each about 12 inches long, 3 inches wide, and 1 inch tall. Space the logs about 3 inches apart. If the dough is sticking to your fingers, wet your fingertips to prevent it from sticking.

Bake the logs for 30 minutes, until slightly browned and just firm to the touch. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Cool the logs on the baking sheet for 10 to 20 minutes. Then, using a serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into about 1-inch wide slices. (You can also cut the logs into thinner slices; you'll just end up with more cookies.) Turn the biscotti onto their sides (cut-sides down) and bake again for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, carefully flip the biscotti over onto their other sides and continue baking for another 10 minutes, until the biscotti are crisp, firm, and golden. Cool completely on the baking sheet before enjoying.

The cooled biscotti can be stored, at room temperature, in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks (if they last that long).

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cheddar and Scallion Muffins

By now we're probably all pretty tired of sweets and candies. (If you aren't, stay tuned because I've got more where that comes from.) Honestly, I don't think I could ever tire of sweet baked goods, but today I thought I'd change it up a bit.
One of my favorite things to bake is quick bread, from muffins to scones to loaves. They give you the sense of accomplishment associated with bread-baking without all the finicky techniques involved in yeast-risen bread. (In all honesty, I am simultaneously fascinated with and terrified by old-fashioned bread baking.)
In search of a savory muffin recipe to serve along white bean soup (more on that later), I arrived at these simple little things. This is the kind of bare basics recipe that I love. The method is foolproof and the variations are endless. I decided to go with a classic cheddar and scallion version, but there are dozens of potential cheese and herb combinations, and I've listed some below.
The muffins boast a tender, slightly irregular crumb and pack a bunch of flavor in such a small package ("good" cheese and fresh herbs certainly help). Perfect as an accompaniment to a soup or salad or just by themselves, these muffins are ones I will return to again and again.
Chedder and Scallion Muffins
Adapted from Sugarcrafter

My favorite thing about these muffins is how much the flavor can change just by swapping in different combinations of cheese, herbs, and other add-ins. Instead of cheddar cheese, you could use Gruyere, Swiss, parmesan, Manchego (my absolute favorite cheese), Chevre, Comte, Fontina, Taleggio, or blue cheese. You could even combine cheeses for a more complex flavor (Fontina in the muffin and parmesan sprinkled on top, for example). Really, any good melting cheese would be fabulous. Instead of scallions, you could use chives, parsley, cilantro (if you're into that sort of thing), thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, or basil. Again, any fresh herb would be a fantastic complement if it's paired with a cheese harmoniously. I'd use 2 to 4 tablespoons depending on how strong of an herb flavor you want. For more inspiration, look to the end of the recipe for more detailed variations. Depending on how much batter you put in the muffin tins, you will get anywhere from 9 to 12 muffins. (I ended up with 9 but the muffins were a little larger.)

Yield: 9 to 12 muffins (see above)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 scant tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese (yellow or white), plus 1/2 cup (optional), grated
1 large scallion, chopped
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk (I used 1%)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners or spray with vegetable oil spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together to combine. Add 1 cup of cheese and whisk again to combine.

In a measuring cup, stir the scallions, egg, milk, and butter together. Add to the dry ingredients and whisk quickly to combine. Don't overmix or the muffins will be tough instead of tender.

Divide the batter among the muffin tins. If you like, sprinkle the additional 1/2 cup of cheese evenly over the muffins. The additional cheese will melt into a nice crust of sorts on the top of the muffins, but you can certainly omit it or use a different cheese if you are so inclined.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Flavor variations:
Gruyere cheese, thyme, and caramelized onions. Parmesan and Fontina, rosemary, and sundried tomatoes. Goat cheese, roasted red peppers, and parsley. Swiss, finely diced ham, and basil.