Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

They are subtle, but I can already see the signs of fall descending here. Fall is my favorite season of the year, and I’m lucky to live in a place where I can experience it. College football, Thanksgiving, turning leaves, cooler temperatures: these are all some of my favorite things about fall.

Of course, I’m leaving out the food that it brings, but that’s somewhat of a given. I think I could live off roasted fall root vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips (my personal favorite), and butternut squash. When accented with roasted garlic and fresh herbs, I think there is not much else that's better. For those of you who can’t quite do with that much monotony, there is always macaroni and cheese.
Wow. That aptly sums up my feelings about this dish (yet I keep writing…). I surprised myself with how delicious this was. I knew that I wanted to make a butternut squash macaroni and cheese, primarily because I knew it would be healthier than a balls-to-the-walls version that, though undoubtedly delicious, would not leave me feeling too great afterward.

But this? This I can get behind. A rich-tasting cheese sauce is enriched with both pureed and diced roasted butternut squash for some variation in texture, as well as sweet caramelized onions (because I can’t seem to make anything without them). Hearty and nutty whole wheat pasta complements the Parmesan cheese and sweet squash. A toasty crumb topping crowns the whole thing. It is glorious.
And! It was so easy. I’m not sure why but I had it in my mind that macaroni and cheese was difficult to make (the sauce! the pasta! everything at once!), but with some smart prep work it can all be made in under an hour.

That means that in less than sixty minutes you could be digging into a plateful of this.
So what are you waiting for?

Healthier Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Inspired by In Sock Monkey Slippers

In efforts to make the macaroni healthier, I used mostly reduced-fat products: reduced-fat cheddar cheese, reduced-fat cream cheese, and skim milk. However, use whatever you have on hand, knowing that the finished product will taste good no matter what you use (although then I can't necessarily vouch for its wholesomeness). I prefer the flavor of whole-wheat pasta and whole-wheat breadcrumbs, so I used both here. Again, use whatever you prefer. Although the whole squash is roasted, only about 3/4 of it is used. Use all if you like.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup skim milk
1 cup grated reduced-fat cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the real stuff, please!)
2 cups whole wheat macaroni or short-cut pasta
1 slice whole-wheat sandwich bread (or 1/2 cup of whole-wheat bread crumbs)

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place squash on baking sheet and season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly. Loosely cover the squash with another sheet of aluminum foil and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Once the squash is tender, remove the top piece of foil, toss, and return to the oven for 10 minutes more, until the cubes have just started to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. (The squash can be roasted several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use.) When the squash is cool enough to handle, mash 1/2 cup with a fork or potato masher. Set aside along with 1 cup of roasted cubed squash.

Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan or pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they become translucent, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper. When browned bits begin to form on the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a few tablespoons of water and stir to release the browned bits. Allow the water to cook off and the onions to continue browning. Continue this process - allowing the onions to brown and then deglazing the pan - until the onions are soft, sweet, and a deep golden brown, about 15 minutes longer.

While the onions cook, heat a pot of water over high heat. Once the water begins to boil, season very liberally with salt and add the pasta. Stir to make sure the pasta doesn't stick together. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes depending on the brand and type of pasta. When the pasta is cooked, drain and set aside.

Once the onions have caramelized, add the butter to the pot and allow to melt. When the butter has melted, add flour and whisk to form a thick paste. Continue whisking constantly for about 1 more minute. Slowly add the milk and whisk to combine.

Next add the cheeses and the butternut squash puree and roasted cubes. Whisk to combine and melt the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt, though, as the Parmesan is pretty salty on its own. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine.

To make the bread crumbs, process the bread in a food processor until it becomes coarse crumbs. Alternatively, if you don't have a food processor (like me), bread crumbs can be made successfully by grating a slice of frozen bread on the large holes of a box grater.

Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or similarly-sized dish (I used a cake pan) with nonstick cooking spray and transfer the macaroni and cheese to it. Sprinkle evenly with the breadcrumbs and transfer to the oven. Cook in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are evenly browned and toasty.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before digging in. The macaroni and cheese will keep, stored well in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Homemade Do-Si-Dos

You may be surprised to know that, as a college student, I don’t buy peanut butter. I never have and I probably never will.

Here’s the thing: I just can’t trust myself around peanut butter. Peanut butter, after cheesecake, is a true personal weakness.

Case in point: these cookies.
I call them a homemade version of Do-Si-Dos (also known as Savannahs or the entirely unoriginal Peanut Butter Sandwiches), which are my favorite Girl Scout cookie. Usually when I think of a Do-Si-Do I imagine a homier version of a Nutter Butter cookie, and while these are similar, the cookies aren’t as crunchy as Nutter Butters or Do-Si-Dos. What they lack in the crunch department they more than make up for in the peanut butter filling, though.

The cookies themselves are an oatmeal and peanut butter cookie hybrid with a satisfying chew. The filling (oh, the filling) is studded with chopped peanuts and is a sweet, sticky, altogether addicting bit of peanut butter goodness.

These cookies pack a wallop of peanut butter flavor – salty, sweet, gooey, and so filled with that glorious peanut butter scent that it’s hard to resist them.

While I imagine these would be right at home alongside a glass of milk (for those so inclined), my favorite way to enjoy them is straight out the freezer, where their texture firms up a bit and the filling almost takes on a fudge-like quality.

These cookies are the sixth thing I’ve made on my 20 Before 20 list. In case you’re wondering, I have about six weeks left to tackle the remaining fourteen items. This means a lot of delicious cooking lies ahead of me. It’s a daunting task for sure but when the rewards are this sweet (both literally and figuratively), it doesn’t seem so bad.

Homemade Do-Si-Dos (Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies) 
Adapted from Mini Baker 

I have always liked crunchy peanut butter more than creamy peanut butter and luckily that's the kind we have on hand in the apartment. If you only have creamy peanut butter, add a 1/4 cup of chopped peanuts to the cookie dough and to the filling; the peanuts add a great crunch and texture to these chewy sandwich cookies. I was feeling especially lazy when I made these cookies and opted to make the cookie dough entirely by hand. It worked perfectly, but feel free to use an electric mixer if you are so inclined. (You'll actually need one to make the filling.)

Yield: about 12 sandwich cookies

For the cookies:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup quick-cooking oats (or 1 cup rolled oats ground slightly in a food processor)

For the filling:
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
2-4 tablespoons milk (as needed)

To make the cookies, begin by adjusting an oven rack to the center position and preheating the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Whisk to combine. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter, peanut butter, and sugars together until well-combined. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and stir just until combined. Fold in the oats and stir to combine.

Drop the dough by the tablespoonful onto the prepared cookie sheets, spacing each cookie about 2 inches apart. If the cookies don't all fit on two baking sheets, bake them in batches. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges of the cookie are golden brown. Allow to cool completely.

To make the filling, beat powdered sugar and peanut butter with an electric or hand mixer until smooth. Add milk as necessary until the filling is spreadable but still thick. When the cookies have cooled, spread the filling onto one cookie and top with another cookie.

The cookies will keep, stored well in an airtight container at room temperature, for up to a week. Alternatively, store in the freezer for a cold and scrumptious treat.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Brownie Tarts

So. These brownies.

I made them on a whim, deciding halfway through the day, I’d like to bake something! I think I’ll bake something!
They’re a little fancy. I decided to make them in little tart pans because I’m a sucker for individual desserts. You get a whole tart to yourself! If you’re a serious brownie person, then you know that means exponentially more crispy edges (which happen to be the best part about brownies).

But then things veered a little. I ended up committing the cardinal sin of baking (or at least, my own cardinal sin of baking): don’t mess with the proportions or ingredients.

Turns out there weren’t as many chocolate chips in the cupboard as I thought. Also turns out we didn’t have baking powder. So I made it work. Tim Gunn would be proud.

And can I tell you something? It was pretty fun, mixing things up. I even used one less tablespoon of butter, since I was feeling so rebellious and all.

But despite by bit of culinary deviation, the finished tarts… er… brownies were perfect. Intensely chewy and fudgy with a crackly sugar crust, they were eagerly devoured.

I like to think that I’m usually restrained around desserts like these. A few savored bites and I’m good. But these are dangerous. It’s all too easy to tell yourself you’re just going to eat a few crumbs (which don’t count, since they’re crumbs and all) and then find that half of a brownie is gone. Don’t ask me how I know that, though.

You’ve been warned.

Individual Brownie Tarts
Adapted from Ina Garten

These brownies are very similar to Ina Garten’s Outrageous Brownies, but I feel better about making and eating them since they have about 1/8 of the butter called for in that gargantuan recipe. I made a few changes to the recipe and was actually very happy with how the brownies turned out, so I’ve reflected those changes below. I think the most important thing about making these brownies is how you prepare your tart pans. Whether you use a larger tart pan or several smaller ones, be sure to grease them extremely well. I didn’t grease them as thoroughly as I could have and the brownies were sort of a pain to remove. The recipe calls for 3 cups total of chocolate chips. I had only 2 cups but used 1 cup of finely grated chocolate to supplement the rest. This will work in a pinch, but I like the semi-melted texture of the whole chocolate chips stirred into the batter at the end better. If you’re a nut-in-your-brownies type of person, add a cup of chopped nuts to the batter along with the dry ingredients.

Yield: 6 small (4-inch) tarts, or 1 9-inch tart

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brewed coffee
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon table salt

Adjust the oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Thoroughly grease and flour your tart pans (or tart pan) and place on a baking sheet lined with foil.

In a medium bowl set over a pot of simmering water, melt the butter. Add 2 cups of the chocolate chips and remove from the heat. Stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula until the chocolate melts completely. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl with a hand mixer or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, coffee, and vanilla on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the cooled chocolate and mix to combine.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, and remaining 1 cup of chocolate chips. Fold the flour mixture into the batter just until combined.

Divide the batter evenly among the individual tart pans and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the center is puffed and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the brownies emerges with crumbs still attached (this ensures a fudgy texture).

Cool to room temperature before removing the sides of the tart pans and devouring.

The brownies keep, stored well in the refrigerator, for up to a week.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Farro Risotto with Shrimp and Asparagus

If given the choice, I prefer to cook alone. That sounds really bad, I know, but it’s the truth. Cooking alone is just easier for me.  I’ve never cooked in large kitchens (and I actually prefer smaller kitchens) so the precarious balancing act to share counter space and equipment, clean as I go, and generally avoid stepping on fellow cooks’ toes make what I usually love a stressful experience.

The kitchen is my personal haven, where I can take my time, work slowly but surely, and then produce something delicious. It’s time for just me, time that allows me to reflect, to be creative, to just think. Call me selfish, but cooking alone is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

For this reason, I particularly enjoy involved cooking projects or making meals that require a bit of time, and risotto is one of my favorites. The stirring is a bit like a labor of love, but the result is a perfect reward for the (admittedly minimal) effort. I’ve wanted to try risotto with something other than rice for a few years, and this farro risotto with shrimp and asparagus was the perfect introduction to this new realm of risotto possibilities.
It was the first time I’d ever cooked with farro and I was afraid that the risotto wouldn’t be creamy like traditional risotto made with Arborio rice. Was I ever wrong. Not only does the farro make a creamy risotto but its flavor is addictively nutty and its texture is toothsome and hearty. It goes wonderfully with the slightly sweet shrimp and tender asparagus, but I can’t wait to try it with fall-friendly additions like wild mushrooms and roasted butternut squash.

Tell me: do you prefer to cook alone or with others?

Farro Risotto with Shrimp and Asparagus
Adapted from and inspired by The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook

Depending on the saltiness of the broth you use, you may need to add more or less salt when seasoning the risotto. You also may need to add additional broth to the risotto to reach the right texture. When the farro is done, it should be al dente—toothsome but tender.  I think four shrimp per person is the perfect amount so use more or less depending on the number of servings you wish to make (cook about eight shrimp per batch, though; any more and you risk overcrowding the pan and not getting a good sear on the shrimp).

Yield: 4 servings

2 teaspoons olive oil 
1 medium onion, medium-diced
1 celery rib, medium-diced
3 cloves minced garlic
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 ½ cups farro
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
16 medium shrimp (about ½ pound), peeled and deveined

 In a large saucepan or soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly browned, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Add the farro to the pot and toast for about 1 minute. Begin adding the chicken broth ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently. The risotto should be kept at a simmer as more broth is added and as the farro absorbs the broth. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain a simmer.

Meanwhile, blanch the asparagus. This can be done in the microwave (my preferred method, since it’s more convenient) or on the stove. To blanch in the microwave, add the asparagus to a shallow dish along with a 1/3 to a 1/2 cup of water. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until the asparagus is tender and bright green. Drain the asparagus and set aside. To blanch on the stove, bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the asparagus and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the asparagus is tender and bright green. Drain the asparagus and set aside. When the risotto is nearly done, add the asparagus and stir to incorporate.

After you’ve added the asparagus to the risotto, cook the shrimp. Heat the remaining teaspoon of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Season both sides of the shrimp liberally with salt and pepper. Add half the shrimp to the hot pan and cook for 1 minute. Flip and cook for 1 minute more, or until the shrimp are pink and cooked through. Repeat with the rest of the shrimp. Add the cooked shrimp to the risotto and stir to combine. Serve immediately.

Leftover risotto will keep, stored well in the refrigerator, for up to a week.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Perfect Split Pea Soup

I try very hard to resist tagging the word “perfect” onto things I make or talk about. After all, my version of perfect is almost certainly not your version of perfect, and there’s nothing worse than having your exceedingly high expectations dashed.

For example, to me the bowl of oatmeal that I make very nearly every day is, to me, perfect. It is just sweet enough, just salty enough, just cinnamon-y enough. But most people? Apart from the Christmas-like smell of the cinnamon, most people find it equal parts unappetizing and strange. But to me, it is perfect and in the end that is all that matters. But I’ve resisted sharing my “recipe.”

Today, though, I want to share with you what to me is the perfect split pea soup. Split pea soup is my absolute favorite soup and for weeks I had been craving it, which is crazy enough considering the temperatures have been flirting with triple digits here for the past few weeks. I couldn’t make it at home because my mom simply refused, but now, in our apartment, we can make whatever we want for dinner. (Case in point: my recent dinner of oatmeal + baked potato.)
I suppose normal people would opt to eat pizza or hamburgers or brownies and cake for dinner when allowed to cook for themselves. I, of course, chose to make split pea soup. (It’s merely coincidental that the day after I made this soup I developed a nasty virus that left me voiceless and sickly. So in case you're wondering, this soup also has healing powers.)

This recipe comes from Ina Garten, as so many of my favorites do. Unlike most split pea soup recipes, which are thick and porridge-like and flavored with ham, this one is sufficiently lighter and has a cleaner taste. Half of the split peas are added at the beginning of cooking. Halfway through cooking, the rest are added; what results is a soup with dual textures: half of the split peas break down, thickening the soup and making it creamy. The other half softens but remains intact, adding a pleasing and hearty texture to the soup.

Onions and carrots also add texture and, surprisingly, sweetness. I’d never noticed this sweetness before, but my roommate mentioned it, and I was surprised to find that I had never noticed it before. It’s not cloying or readily apparent, but it sort of hovers there in the background, complementing the savory chicken stock base and peas.

In all accounts, this is a bare bones soup: nothing complicated about it. But it has character; it is a bit unusual; it is perfect for welcoming the cooler temperatures of fall (it's September! Finally!); as is, there is nothing I’d change about it. To me, it is perfect.

Perfect Split Pea Soup 
Adapted from Ina Garten

If you like, you can also add a cup or so (about 3 small) red boiling potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces. Add the potatoes along with the split peas and chicken stock. They'll make the soup a bit heartier, but are by no means necessary. Instead of chicken stock, you can use vegetable stock to make the soup vegetarian. Leftover soup thickens considerably. Add a half cup or so of stock to leftovers when reheating until it reaches your desired thickness.

Yield: 6-8 servings

1 teaspoon olive oil 
1 large onion, medium-diced 
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups medium-diced carrots (3 to 4 carrots)
1 pound dried split peas
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they become translucent and begin to brown slightly, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook until it becomes fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Season well with salt and pepper; add the dried oregano and stir to incorporate. Add the carrots, half of the split peas, and the chicken stock. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release any browned bits.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 40 minutes, skimming off any foam that accumulates on the surface. Stir frequently to prevent the solids at the bottom of the pot from burning. After 40 minutes, add the remaining split peas and cook for 40 minutes more, or until all the peas are tender and soft, continuing to stir every so often to cook the soup evenly. Taste the soup and season accordingly with additional salt or pepper. Serve hot.

Leftovers will keep, stored in the refrigerator, for up to 1 week. The soup will thicken considerably as it sits. When reheating, add additional stock (about 1/2 cup) until the soup reaches your desired consistency.