Favorite things

Other than the above, right now some of my favorite things are:

1. Noosa yogurt.  I’m a huge fan of Greek yogurt.  Changed my life, I tell you.  I cannot stand regular yogurt unless it is plain or vanilla and is mixed into smoothies or with granola.  The texture, the tang, the sacchariney sweetness = blech!  And the sugar-free/”light” crap does not even warrant space here.
Anyway, Greek yogurt has incredible texture, subtle flavors, probiotic benefits not unlike the “regular” stuff, and *bonus* tons of protein.

So, Noosa is not Greek yogurt, but it’s somewhere between Greek and regular.  By way of description, the package says simply “finest yogurt.” Kristin at IGE describes the taste and texture as akin to cheesecake batter, and I think that comparison nails it.  I’ve had the mango, honey, and blueberry varieties and they are all amazing.

Noosa is made in Colorado; the milk is from cows that receive no hormone/growth treatments; and it boasts a simple, straightforward ingredient list.

The only place I’ve found it so far is Hy-Vee.  It’s not cheap, but it is soooo worth it.

2.  Summer Shandy.

{ice cold} Beer + lemonade {on the deck on a summer night} = as close to perfection as it gets

Go ahead, check my math.

3.  Teeny Tiny Potatoes.

Yes, they’re for real!  Aren’t they cute?  Delicious, too.  Roasted with olive oil, salt & pepper, or grilled in foil packets with the same seasoning.  So, so good.  Bonus:  the kids get a kick out of them!

4.  Grilled pizza.  Perhaps my favorite thing about grill season.  There is just nothing like it.  We’ve got a zillion green tomatoes on our plants right now, and I’m itching to pluck one and make the green tomato and caramelized onion pizza from last summer.

5. Salads.

Fresh greens, berries, goat cheese.  OR

Greens, chives, teeny pieces of garden broccoli, cheese, nuts.  OR

Greens, fresh peppers, lime vinaigrette.  OR

Greens, Gorgonzola, candied nuts, fruit.  OR

well…you get the idea.  The salad fun was inspired by my dear friend and just making one takes me back to the last time we dined together.

How have I lived?

So.  The Husband is away this weekend, and the little birds are still at Grandma and Grandpa’s.  As my coworkers and I discussed our respective plans for dinner last night, someone asked if I’d splurge since I was alone and maybe eat ice cream for dinner. 

For a second, I reconsidered my plans.

But then I remembered that having the house to myself means I can make whatever *I* want without having to please anyone else’s palate.  Which also means I can have goat cheese at every meal.  (How have I lived most of my life without the wonder of goat cheese?! I’m making up for lost time this summer.)

And so I did.

Dinner last night was a twist on mac ‘n cheese, inspired by IGE.  I adjusted the recipe a little, subbed green beans for some of the broccoli and steam-sauteed the veggies before making the sauce.  No pictures, but trust me, the goat cheese made the sauce so creamy and fantastic.  Next time, I’ll add some herbs.  Didn’t do it this time since I made dinner after dark and was feeling too chicken to trek out into the backyard at that hour!

Behold:  Breakfast.

Soft scrambled eggs with a bit of whole grain mustard, goat cheese and chives.  I love Deb’s how-to for scrambled eggs.  No one else in my house appreciates eggs this soft and tender.  These were all mine.  So, so good.

Okay, for lunch I skipped the goat cheese, and had black bean tostadas with some avocado salsa instead.  Another something that the usual inhabitants of this house would frown upon.  Again, so, so, good.  The salsa was so fresh — tomatoes from the market and a handful of quartered orange cherry tomatoes from the backyard, a quarter of a red bell pepper, onion from the garden, cilantro, salt, lime, and diced avocado.  Y.U.M.

And, lastly, dinner.  I painted all day and didn’t stop for dinner until almost 10 p.m.  Looking for quick & easy, I opened the freezer and found Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. 

Now, typically I’d frown on ice cream for dinner.  But this?  This was Cherry Garcia Froyo.   That’s right, frozen yogurt.  Totally makes it okay.

But I was still hungry for something savory.  So I cooked up some hashbrowns with S&P, herbs d’provence, and browned goat cheese.  Hit the spot!

Working on something interesting for breakfast tomorrow.  “Breakfast cookie” anyone??

Chocolate chip cookies

*hi* she says meekly.

It’s been a while, no?  Though it would seem perfectly plausible given my month-long (*gasp*) absence from this blog:
A. My kitchen has not been under lockdown.
B. I have not been feeding my family fast food (very often) or “dinners” from the freezer section.
C. I have not accidentally nipped my own fingers while wolfing down cookies.
It’s just, you know, April is such a busy month.

I know.  That’s not an excuse for a real blogger. 

But it works for me.  Because I’m not a real blogger, I just play one on this here Internet.

And about those cookies??

Well, there have been a good many cookies around my kitchen lately.  While I haven’t exactly been prolific in writing about them, my Kitchen Aid has been prolific in the production of these delicious bits of wonder over the past six weeks.

Why chocolate chip cookies?

(Really, why not?!)

Because, after a lifetime of searching, I have finally landed on the. perfect. recipe.  To me, the perfect chocolate chip cookie has a specific structure; it’s a full-bodied cookie with lumps of chips and valleys of buttery, brown sugary cookie .  It is most decidedly not a flat, textureless disc.  Oh no.

About the texture, it must be ever-so-slightly crispy on the outside edges, chewy in the middle but not so much so that it can’t hold its shape when you lift it off the pan. And they must be full of chips.

And taste.  Sweet—it’s a cookie, after all—but not too sweet.  These  chips are my favorite; they make for the best, most balanced cookie.  But semisweet chips do just fine, too, and are what I use most often because they’re so readily available in my regular stores.

So, about the rest of the ingredients:  I’m a huge proponent of butter in baking.  The taste is far superior to anything made with margarine or shortening.  Though, I’ll admit, I have experimented with margarine in baking in attempts to create that perfectly structured cookie.  While margarine produces a good-looking cookie, the taste comes nowhere close to cookies made with butter.

Many of the recipes that call for butter direct you to cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, add the rest of the wet ingredients, then stir in the dry.  You know, the back-of-the-bag standard.  So that’s what I’d do, and then I’d bake them at 375° and they’d spread all over and resemble more of a spill than a cookie. 

I suspected that the spreading was due to the butter melting during its spell in the oven, but I was at a loss for how to incorporate the butter in a way that would result in a better-structured cookie.  I tried sturdier flours; I tried hand-mixing (thinking it would incorporate less air so there wouldn’t be that rise-and-fall result); I tried a combo of butter and margarine; I tried applesauce (yeah…).

And, after all those attempts, I landed on this gem in which you melt the butter first.  Until now, I assumed it counterintuitive to melt the butter because surely melted butter will give you a softer batter that will spread even more readily in the oven, right?  Wrong.  Melted butter = fat + water, so when you melt the butter at the outset, the water in the melted butter combines with proteins in the flour, which then, if I understand correctly, become gluten.  The gluten provides the chewy factor and gives the cookie that just-right structure.  Aha!  (After reading Alton Brown’s explanation and figuring that out, I feel all food scientist-y!)

Two other important differences in this recipe vs. the standard: 

The brown-to-white sugar ratio.  Brown sugar contains more moisture than white and lends to a moister, chewier cookie.  This recipe has a 2:1 brown-to-white sugar ratio.

As Alton Brown notes, egg whites draw moisture from baked goods.  So in his “chewy” recipe and in this one, the standard two eggs is replaced with one whole egg and one egg yolk.

So, enough preaching and explaining already?  Ah, yes, the recipe:

Chocolate Chip Cookies
from smitten kitchen, with my eternal gratitude

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or a silpat.

Whisk (I’m usually too lazy, er…hungry for cookies, to sift) together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended.

Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the dry ingredients until just blended.

Stir in the chocolate chips. Scoop dough into balls (about 2 T. each) and place onto the prepared cookie sheets. Cookies should be about 3 inches apart.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges are lightly toasted. The cookies are best when removed at the first sign of toasting.  They’ll set up nicely after a few minutes on the still-hot baking sheet.  Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

 

Risotto, my love

I might need to add one more point to my last post:  I cook because, well, it’s the most likely way to achieve nirvana.  Or mushroom risotto.  Because, believe you me, they are one and the same.

Once upon a time, I was intimidated by risotto.  What, with the once-hard-to-find grain, the constant stirring, the how-exactly-does-rice-become-creamy? and just WHY do I have to keep the liquid warm before it even hits the pan? I was all afluster (sure, it’s a word!), and I was prepared to close the book on homemade risotto and be content to consider it restaurant-only fare.

And then one day, a prince rode his white horse into my kitchen and saved the day my dear brother came to our house for the weekend and we set to work planning dinner.  At our house, if it’s a Saturday and there’s less than a foot of snow on the ground, “dinner” means The Husband is grilling steak.  The rest of the menu planning might have gone something like this:

Me: “I’m tired of roasted or grilled potatoes — what else goes well with steak?”

Brother: “Grilled veggies? Risotto? Mushrooms?”

At the time, it was late Fall, not a lot fresh veggies were busting out of the crisper drawer, and it was looking to me like potatoes were the likeliest of candidates and the mushrooms, well, they’d be the highlight.  With a dismissive wave of my hand, I puffed: “Risotto? yeahright!”  Ahem. “Grilled potatoes, then?”

Brother: “Wha?!  Risotto’s not hard, Sis.”

Me: “But…the stirring? The creamy?…What kind of rice again? Aw, shucks, we couldn’t…”

Brother: “Shut up. We’re making risotto.”

Or something like that. 

And that very evening, we enjoyed the single most delicious dish I have ever tasted.  And it was that much better because it was homemade.

I am forever grateful to my dear brother for totally demystifying the risotto-making process for me, and I’m happy to report that I’ve made it several times since then–different and delicious each time.  This weekend, I made risotto with button and shiitake mushrooms and felt compelled to extend that little bit of nirvana by commemorating it here.

So here goes!

Grab a couple pots, a skillet, a ladle, a wooden spoon.  (Normally I’m averse to using upward of 3 pans, plus equipment and gadgets, to make one dish, but risotto is a very worthy exception.)

In the medium saucepan, set about 4 cups of chicken stock on low.

In a heavy-bottomed large saucepan (I use something similar to this chef’s pan), melt a few tablespoons of butter over medium to medium low heat.  Soften a diced onion in the butter, maybe 8 minutes or so.  Add a generous cup (I eyeball it) of Arborio rice to the buttery, soft onion, and toast the rice for several minutes, stirring often.  You don’t want to brown anything here, just coat everything with butter and toast lightly. 

With your wooden spoon at the ready, pour in about a half cup (again, I eyeball it) of white wine, stir to keep from sticking, and savor. That 60 seconds after the wine hits the hot pan, blends with the onion and butter, and the alcohol evaporates is one of my very favorite combinations of kitchen sounds and smells.  It is almost as if time stops just then; even my kids will stop their sprint through the kitchen, their ears perked to the sound, their eyes trained on the steam rising from the pan, their little noses searching for the source of that beautiful, fleeting smell.

Anyway!  Once the wine is mostly absorbed, and with your flame at medium low, add a ladle’s worth of the warm stock and stir. 

From here on out, your plan is to stir in a ladleful of stock, be patient while the liquid absorbs and works its magic on those grains of rice, and stir just often enough to keep it from sticking.  Stir, be patient, stir; repeat.

Now, during that “be patient” step, I like to sip wine prep the rest of dinner, and by that I mean season the steak, sauté mushrooms, and make a green veggie.

For this dinner, I sautéed button mushrooms along with rehydrated shiitakes and sprinkled them with salt, pepper and some fresh thyme, and then I pureed half of them with a little stock.   [I know!  The first time I heard of pureeing mushrooms, I think my stomach turned a little–just as much at the thought of fewer of those delicious little bites of perfection for me to actually eat as at the thought of what the final product would look like.  Which, incidentally, is something akin to wet concrete.  Fortunately, it tastes infinitely better than that.]

After about 30 minutes of the stir, be patient, stir routine, you’ll notice that the rice has plumped considerably and has become dreamy creamy. 

Taste the risotto.  (I promise, it will taste better than this picture suggests! Please forgive my ineptitude with the camera…)  It should still have a bite to it, under lovely layers of smooth creaminess.

Now, you could lower the heat add some parmesan, salt and pepper (some folks add a splash of cream here) and consider yourself done.  Or!  You could up the wow factor by, like, a thousand and add those pureed mushrooms and the remaining pile of sautéed ‘shrooms and knock the socks off everyone at your dinner table. 

Because I am absent-minded make embarrassingly dull-looking final plates was starving, I didn’t get a picture of the final dish.  My sincere apologies.  To say it was amazingly delicious is nearly the understatement of the century.  And because I am my own biggest critic, you can be sure that, when I say it was outstanding, I so, so mean it.

Thank you, thank you, dear brother, for setting me straight on the whole risotto thing.  Unlike the brother and sister that currently live in my house, I will not go running to mommy and daddy and tattle because you said “shut up.” 

That is, if you promise to help me figure out that other thing that baffles and intimidates me:  polenta.

Tonight’s lessons

1.  Easy with the mustard, Lassie

2.  Turns out you can roast frozen green beans!  Who knew?!

Re: #2:  I saw this recipe for roasted green beans and wanted them, like, right then.  But then the day happened, what, with its weather and all and it got all freezy and blizzardy and there was no way in h. e. double-hockey-sticks that I was going to the grocery store on a night like this.  Even if I were wearing more than sheers on my legs (yeah, who decides to wear a dress in 30 mph winds?! that would be yours truly.).  A person wants to be nowhere other than home when the wind and snow are blowing and howling like a pissed off bear.  Anyway, the point?  I wasn’t going to seek out fresh green beans, but I did have a bag of frozen beans.  The recipe says “or frozen,” so I decided to give it a go. 

Eh, they’re not exactly pretty but the flavor’s good.  And they’re a far cry better than the water-logged taste of most frozen veggies.

Now, about the mustard.  I love Dijon mustard.  Love, love it. 

But I put too much in my cheese sauce.   Damn!

I usually put ground mustard into my sauce for homemade mac ‘n cheese, so I figured I could sub some Dijon along with a few other tweaks (bit of herbs de provence, nutmeg).  Tasted the sauce and it was crazy overboard on the mus.  So I added a little sugar, plus it needed some salt.  We’ll see if it’s salvageable.  Stay tuned….

_________

Yay!  File this under “Happy Accidents,” folks, ‘cuz this was fantastic!!  The flavors mellowed and melded just right in the oven and this was the best mac ‘n cheese I’d made in a looooong time.  My Hubs thought it was the cheese that was different and perfect and inquired after just what I’d done differently.  The kids even ate it (but only after expressing severe disappointment upon seeing baked mac instead of their favorite box of Annie’s on the counter)!  The Pink One even declared, “Mommy, you make the BEST mac ‘n cheese!” 

The green beans met some initial skepticism but the flavor won us all over.  We’d always prefer fresh, but these were great in a pinch.  I’d definitely make them again…you know, if we were homebound with nary a fresh green bean in sight.  In this winter, that’s an all-too-common prospect.

The cheesy pasta was just rich enough to warrant a glass of wine, so the sommelier selected a Malbec.  Good ’nuff.

And, after a dinner like that, who needs dessert?!

I could eat this every day

Josh was in town.  Translation:  We had risotto with dinner.  I might have demanded it. 

This time it was Butternut Squash Risotto, inspired by the cool mom-chef over at words to eat by.  I quartered and roasted a small butternut squash while Josh cooked the risotto, then pureed about 2/3 of it with a little brown sugar, thyme, stock and butter, and cubed the rest.  Added the squash to the risotto near the end of cooking (after removing a bit of the plain, but still delish, risotto from the pan to feed the skeptical children), finished with parmesan, S&P, and voila! heaven the most fabulous side dish ever.

Served it with grilled steak (because this was only the third day this month on which the sun was out, we had to celebrate! even though B grilled in the dark ;-)) and sliced carrots boiled and tossed with ginger and butter.