Such is the Month of December…

A time to eat lightly during these dark days that bring us lots of delicious sweets and treats during the daylight hours. Once Thanksgiving rolls around, I try to eat more rounded meals during the month of December, because exercise isn’t a regular after work activity, people around you are getting colds and I tend to get run down due to the lack of light and sleep, and sugar is to the maximum. This to not in any way say I am above eating a package of homemade cookies–there are just some holiday treats I can’t–and don’t want–to say no to. I won’t say you will never see any sweet holiday recipe this month, stay tuned, there will be plenty! But for lunches and dinners, I try to load up on healthy vegetables and fruits, and create meals based around these.

So this past weekend, in an effort to start the month off right, I decided to make yet another soup (are you tired of soup recipes yet?) for the week’s lunches. In perusing the fridge, I came across some leeks and potatoes in the vegetable bin and thought about a potato leek soup, warm and yummy. But then I found tucked away some sad-looking carrots and some broccoli stems. I’m always ashamed to throw away these away, it seems like such a waste. So I save them and usually do a quick pickle that is tasty and crispy. I defrosted some leftover chicken stock from the freezer and created a delicious yet filling and warm soup full of veggies. You can of course leave out the carrots and broccoli stems and add extra potatoes for a more traditional meal!

Vegetable and Potato Leek Soup
You can definitely omit the milk or cream out if you prefer a dairy-free soup. I would just up the chicken stock to make it a bit more creamy.

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 large leeks, cleaned and sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 broccoli stems, diced
4 small to medium potatoes
3 cups liquid, either chicken or vegetable broth or water
½ cup milk, cream or additional broth if dairy free
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a soup pot of Dutch oven. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until soft. Add carrots and broccoli stems, sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes, stir and cook for an additional 5 minutes or so or until soft. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover, turn to low, and cook until all the vegetables are extra soft. This is the best part, you can virtually forget about this for at least half an hour, no damage will be done by overcooking! With a potato masher, mash the vegetables together, and in batches, place in a blender and puree until smooth and repeat. (*Note: You may need to add a bit more liquid, mine was too thick to blend. I also found once it sat and I took some out to eat, it had thickened. Warming it will make it thinner, and you can always add a little bit of water.) Add milk, or additional broth, stir and add salt and pepper to taste.

Food For Thought
For more than 20 years, every Sunday evening I watch “60 Minutes.” Rarely is there a segment devoted to anything food-related, but I thought I would share a story that was on this week’s show, about “flavorists,” or scientists who create artificial flavors to mimic the real thing. To me, this takes food creation to a whole new level. Interesting and scary all at the same time; a variety of specific raspberry flavors (jammy, sweet, floral) or chicken (crusty fatty chicken anyone?). Michael Pollan is famous for saying “don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t as food.” I wonder what  my great-grandmother, who was a home cook and lived to be 100, would think about buying flavor in a bottle that you could pick from a bush?

“60 Minutes” November 27, 2012

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A Few Tips for the “Big Day”

I’ve been a cook for two and a crowd, as well as  a guest on Thanksgiving Day. A couple of years ago, after a hiatus from cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I had to step it up to plan, organize, and cook a meal for seven. I developed some advice to make each holiday meal a little bit easier and thought I’d share them in advance of Wednesday this week.

Of course, you feel like a juggler to make sure everything goes smoothly; your guests are enjoying themselves with something to drink and a little something to nibble on so they aren’t dying of hunger in the living room, while the cook is in the kitchen, stirring items on four burners and balancing a turkey! Of course, the goal is to have everything–and everyone–ready to go before the meal gets cold. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you sit and relax with a nice glass of wine and a delicious dinner, everything will taste delicious, so in the end it really doesn’t matter!

Some tips may seem elementary, although to me they made the actual battle of getting everything ready at one time much easier than in years past. I have to admit, some of these aren’t original, just things I’ve collected through the years that work for me.

• On Wednesday, take out your china and all serving bowls and utensils and assign dishes to each one. This saved a lot on the “what bowl is the stuffing going into” questions when you have some ravenous people who are hovering in the kitchen and want to eat soon! I made labels of the side dish and put them inside each bowl or plate, which I found helped me out immensely in the long run. All china and the linens were also cleaned and ready to go, so I didn’t have to do with the table anything Thursday morning except set it.

• A time-table. I took my menu, figured out how long the turkey was going to cook, what I had to do when it came out of the oven. So I had everything down to the time, “9 a.m., turkey in the oven; at 12:45 see if it’s almost done and start the potatoes” etc. For me, this allowed me to easily whisk around the kitchen and wasn’t as frazzled as I could have been, and allowed for everything to be done pretty much at the same time. This method also would be good for any meal you’re cooking while entertaining, as I have a habit of kind of forgetting things once the door opens and the guests arrive!

• A small, old-fashioned relish plate as an appetizer. So many times I’ve made a couple of appetizers, which fill up your guests before the big meal and usually aren’t particularly healthy. How about some carrots and celery sticks, a bowl of black olives, and cornchicons? No dip, that would add extra calories and fill you up. This was just a little light something to tide everyone over before dinner. Sliced fennel with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper is another tasty treat.

• This goes without saying, but prepare some items the day before or even two or three days before. Squash can be made Monday or Tuesday, as can rolls, which can be frozen until Thursday morning. Make and bake your pies late Wednesday evening, that way you’re not trying to find space in the oven with your turkey.

• Instead of putting all the dishes on the table, finding room among the arms and elbows, I set up the kitchen table as the buffet table, people could fill their plates and return to an uncluttered table. I found this to be a much nicer to eat, as you weren’t surrounded by people plus dishes!

With all the great tips I’ve cultivated through the years, there is one thing I’m going to continue to work on–being in the kitchen less and enjoying my guests more. I always find when entertaining, as I am always the cook, that I am tucked away in the kitchen, but don’t get to enjoy our guests until dinner time.

If you have any great tips, I’d love to hear them, and add them to my repertoire!

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! I hope everyone has a glorious meal and something to be thankful for this year!

Roasted Roots

The farmer’s market has been relegated to indoors and their crops of lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and basil have been made way for the roots: carrots, turnips, rutabaga, potatoes (white and sweet), Brussels sprouts, parsnips, beets, and leeks. From October to March, you can find me roasting some combination of root vegetables at least once a week, the variety based on whatever is on sale or what looks good in the bins. Even cauliflower and eggplant take on a different flavor when roasted. With a little bit of olive oil, a dash of Kosher salt, a grind of pepper, and perhaps a small sprinkle of thyme or another herb, the veggies turn out to be crunchy, sweet, and melt in your mouth.

I once heard a tip to roast your vegetables before making a soup instead of sauteing in the pot. Last weekend, I thawed out some homemade chicken broth and chicken I had stored in the freezer, put some cut up carrots, leeks, and celery on a cookie sheet with a little bit of oil and roasted them until they were dark and flavorful. Maybe it was the homemade broth, or maybe I was just lucky that afternoon, but it turned out to be one of the best pots of soup I had made in a long time. I will definitely roast veggies for soup from now on!

The following aren’t so much recipes, but an outline on how I roast my veggies, but you can select from what you like or desire. These are baseline basic, how I like them, but there is a cookbook by Vermont author, Andrea Chesman, called Recipes from the Root Cellar. This is a great book to use when I’m looking for something a bit beyond the basic!

This was Sunday's roasted roots!

Roasted Roots
This is a rough sketch of what I roast each weekend. Adding the onion or shallots and garlic definitely adds additional zip and flavor.

• Carrots
• Parsnips
• Fresh garlic, cloves cut in half
• Shallots or a small onion, cut into pieces
• Olive oil
• Salt (I prefer Kosher)
• Freshly ground pepper
• Dried thyme or another herb, if desired

Cut vegetables into large pieces and add to a baking dish. Add a little bit of olive oil, some salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 375 degree oven. Cook until veggies are soft, yet brown, and serve.

Brussels Sprout “Hash”
This is so easy and delicious and can made for a dinner for one or ten. Crispy leeks with crispy Brussels sprouts, it’s the best! You can do the proportions to your taste.

Brussels sprouts
• Leeks
• Olive oil
• Salt (I prefer Kosher)
• Pepper

Gently slice the Brussels sprouts thinly and add them to a non-stick baking pan. Add leeks, a little bit of olive oil, mix, and top with salt and pepper. Cook at 375 degrees, stirring occasionally, until everything is brown and crispy.

Sweet Potato Fries
These are the best! Crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, these go with everything, from meatloaf to fish and everything in between.

Take two washed sweet potatoes (leave the skins on), cut in half lengthwise, and cut into wedges. Place on a cookie sheet and add a little bit of olive oil and toss. Bake at 375 degrees and stir on occasion. Cook until they are dark. Add a little bit of salt before serving.

Roasted Pickled Beets
If my hands are pink, you know I’ve been cooking beets! I make this in the summer and winter. Again, not so much as a recipe as an outline.

There are two ways I roast beets depending on my mood:

1. Take a few beets (don’t peel), scrub clean, and place in a shallow pie pan with a little bit of water and cover with foil. Cook at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or so, or a knife test in the middle shows they are done. When cool, peel and dice the beets.

2. Wash and peel a few beets and place on a pan with a little bit of oil. Cook at 375 degrees until soft.

In a bowl, add the diced beets, a few dashes of vinegar (I like sherry), and a little bit of thinly sliced red onion, if desired.

Dark and Moist Gingerbread

While cake traditionally isn’t my dessert of choice, I’m more of a pie gal, I have always been a sucker for a good gingerbread. And through the years, I’ve tried my share of recipes, but nothing quite fit the bill. Until now.

I discovered this recipe last fall when I hosted dinner for my book club. Cooking for this group of friends is always fun, and though they may not be aware, they are my guinea pigs for a variety of recipes I want to try, but don’t have the mouths to feed. And thank goodness, most have been successes!

This Dark and Moist Gingerbread is another hit from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper. This cake is like its name, dark, moist, and super easy. You can make it the evening before you want to eat it, or even after work, with some minor prepping of the flour and spices in the morning; measuring out the flour and spices was quicker than heating up my tea water! Homemade whipped cream is optional, although I always serve it.

When I was asked to make dessert for a gathering this week, this was the first thing that popped into my head. But you don’t need a gathering to make this. If it’s a cold and damp November evening, mix a bowl of this gingerbread up and let the molasses, ginger, and cinnamon warm the house and fill your kitchen with its wonderful fragrance. You won’t regret it!

Dark and Moist Gingerbread
From The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper
Serves 6-8
15 minutes prep time, 40 minutes oven time
Keeps 5 to 7 days, tightly wrapped on the counter, and freezes beautifully

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, organic preferred (I use King Arthur)
1 generous teaspoon baking soda
Generous ½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (I usually use salted butter and either cut down or omit the additional salt)
¾ cup mild or dark molasses
¾ cup very hot water
⅓ tight-packed cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
Whipped cream, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour an 8-inch square light-colored metal baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter, molasses, hot water, and brown sugar. When the mixture is almost frothy, beat in the egg, and gradually add the flour blend. Stir until thoroughly blended, but no more.

3. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

4. For a moist gingerbread, cool it in the pan on a wire rack. (Cook’s note: This is what I do!) For a drier consistency, cool the gingerbread in the pan for 10 minutes; then turn it out of the pan and set it on the rack to cool.

Serve warm if possible, with whipped cream. Don’t forget to eat this for breakfast; it’s even better the day after it’s baked.

Green Soup with Yams and Sage

I wanted to pass along this nutritious soup I made last week. Unfortunately, it’s not an original, it’s from the September/October 2011 issue of Eating Well magazine. I used sweet potatoes instead of yams, which add just a tiny bit of sweetness to it. With garlic, kale, and spinach, you just know it’s good for you!  I served it with a green salad and good bread with garlic and olive oil. Yum! 

Green Soup with Yams and Sage
As printed in the September/October 2011 issue of Eating Well magazine

(Photo courtesy Eating Well)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for garnish
2 large onions, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 tablespoons plus 4 cups water, divided
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 large bunch Tuscan, lacinato or Russian kale
2 medium or 1 very large Japanese yam or regular sweet potato (about 1 1/4 pounds)
14 cups gently packed spinach (about 12 ounces), any tough stems trimmed
8 fresh sage leaves or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried
4 cups vegetable broth, store-bought or homemade
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1 tablespoon agave nectar, or more to taste (optional) [Cook’s note: I didn’t use.]
16 fried sage leaves for garnish (see above) [Cook’s note: I bypassed this step.]

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, stir in 2 tablespoons water, garlic and thyme and cover. Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, 25 to 35 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, remove tough stems and ribs from kale and coarsely chop the greens. Peel yam (or sweet potato) and dice into 1-inch pieces. Coarsely chop spinach; set aside.

3. Combine the remaining 4 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a soup pot or Dutch oven; add the kale, yam (or sweet potato) and sage. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

4. Stir in the spinach, return to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring once halfway through, for 10 minutes more. When the onions are caramelized, stir a little of the simmering liquid into them; add them to the soup. Add broth; return to a simmer, cover and cook for 5 minutes more.

5. Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches (return it to the pot). Stir in cayenne, a few grinds of pepper and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. If the soup is sweet to your taste, add more lemon juice; if it’s too tart, add agave nectar, if desired. Just before serving, whisk the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the hot soup. Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of oil and 2 fried sage leaves.