Category Archives: Lunch

Smoky Spicy Sweet Potato Soup

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Anyone pinching pennies knows that brown bagging (or cute coolering) one’s lunch saves a bunch of money on a weekly basis. I take myself out for lunch every now and again, but I really try to bring something every day.

I had a soup a week or so ago when I was under the weather that I’ve been dying to knock off. It was a vegan sweet potato soup with chipotle powder that was so silky and wonderful, I was sad that I didn’t buy the larger size. The nice man running the soup and prepared food counter at my favorite little lunch spot in walking distance of my office winked at me when I asked for the recipe, which told me I was on my own.

I bought some sweet potatoes at the store this weekend and roasted them last night, knowing I would make this soup tonight to tuck into my lunches all week long. it’s not vegan, but it’s still healthy, clocking it at under 250 calories a serving. A slice of buttered sourdough toast and a glass of hearty red wine were the perfect end to a cold winter’s day, and I have plenty for lunch for the next couple days.

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Smoky Spicy Sweet Potato Soup
Makes 4 generous servings

2 lbs red skinned sweet potato
1 T. butter
1 c. diced yellow onion
1/4 to 1/2 t. chipotle powder (start slow, this soup gets spicy quick. You can always add more but can’t take it back!)
1/2 t. smoke paprika
1 t. fresh rosemary leaves, roughly chopped
1 quart of chicken stock
1 t. worcestershire sauce
1/2 t. molasses
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350*F. Wash sweet potatoes, pierce with a fork, wrap in foil and bake until easily pierced with a sharp knife, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until cool enough to handle (potatoes can be roasted and stored in the fridge, still wrapped, for 2-3 days prior to use. Let them come to room temperature before using).

Melt butter in a 6 quart pot over medium low heat, add onion and saute until onion is soft, 3-5 minutes. Stir in chipotle powder, paprika, and rosemary. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out of the peels, dropping them into the pot and mashing with the spices and onion (I peeled them and squished them with my hands before dropping into the pot, it was so much fun). Stir all together and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Pour in chicken stock, Worcestershire, and molasses. Add about a teaspoon of salt and simmer all together for 15ish minutes. Puree in a blender in batches or grab a stick blender if you have it and puree the soup until it is smooth, uniform and silky. Season with pepper and a bit more salt if you’d like, and more chipotle powder for the daring. Serve in warmed bowls with buttered sourdough toast for dipping and bowl wiping.

The Best Homemade Hummus

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If you’re like the majority of red-blooded America, you’re either hosting or headed to a houseful of people for at least one football game this weekend. What would January be without playoff games? I think for many (men, at least) it keeps the inevitable doldrums away. You get some time to be social, some healthy team rivalry, beer drinking time with buddies, and good food.

Football food falls into the same indulgent category as camping food in my book. It stuff that’s on the far end of the health spectrum, and oftentimes includes but is not limited to chicken wings, burgers, gooey baked dips, pulled pork sandwiches, and on a lot of buffets the inevitable veggie platter of carrots, celery sticks and broccoli with a bowl of ranch dressing for dipping. (The ranch, by the way, completely negates the health of the veggies for the most part. Just saying, ) A smorgasbord of tasty saturated fat, punctuated by a platter of vegetables. It’s nice to have something different.

And like many of you, we hosted some friends for the later game yesterday (go niners!). I’m on my annual campaign to health it up and in that trying to put out healthier snacks, for the most part. Getting away from the group favorite cheese board and bowl of butter and truffle salt-laced popcorn was a must. There were no wings, no sausages or spinach dip or sliders on the table. I went a different route and made hummus because I had everything I needed here and didn’t have to go back to the store to make something else, and I wanted to give us all a little something tasty and good for us, since we were eating fried abalone and tri tip for dinner.

And so, hummus, the humble dip of champions, with a bag of pita chips and some carrots for dipping. Creative? Nope. But I made my hummus from scratch and have deployed the best method ever for doing so. The secret is, well, um, how do you say?… you have to peel the garbanzo beans.

Yes. Peel. The. Garbanzo. Beans.

So, if you’re done laughing at me, we can move on. Thoughts on absurdity aside, by peeling said garbanzo beans, you eliminate the sandy texture that generally comes with homemade hummus. The peels break down into what can only be described as grittiness, and my previous adventures in homemade hummus netted me precisely that. I’ve seen a hundred times over in as many recipes as I’ve looked at a suggestion or instruction to peel the beans, but I’m WAY too busy to do something so tedious. Except that, well, the product of the peeling is perfect, puffy fluffy hummus that you can’t get enough of, and I am remiss anytime I haven’t peeled my garbanzos and subsequently throw half of my hummus away. Peeling a can of garbanzo beans took me less than 8 minutes, including the time to gather up the ones that shot across the counter.

To peel your beans, open and dump the can (or for you hipsters boiling your own, boil them up and cool them then dump them) into a fine strainer, and rinse thoroughly, using your hands and some high-pressure from your faucet. A little garbanzo bean massage. This will take the skins off some of them, and rinses a lot of the sodium out of the canned types.

Then, grab a bowl and one by one, take the beans, with the pointy ends facing toward your palms, and squeeze the bean into the bowl. Try to aim, they’re slippery little beasts and will fly everywhere. Discard the skin. Tom Sawyer some kids into doing this if you happen to have any roaming around, they’ll have a blast. Repeat as necessary, then proceed with the recipe.

I have listed in here high-test olive oil, which can be described best as the stuff you bought at gold prices that you don’t use because the flavor is so delicate and grassy and gets lost in most food. Yeah, that one. Use it here.

On an unrelated note, does anyone have a recommended brand of commercially produced pita chips that they buy? Every single brand I’ve ever bought is nothing but pita chip DUST when I open it and it’s getting really old. I’d like to get a bag that is mostly whole chips, if it isn’t too much to ask. Anybody out there with a suggestion, for when I’m too lazy to make my own? Let’s see if any of you are brave enough to comment.

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Best Hummus Ever
Makes about 1 3/4 – 2 cups

1 15 oz. can of garbanzos/chickpeas (they are one and the same), drained, rinsed and peeled. I buy low sodium beans or make my own.
1/2 c. tahini paste
Juice of 1/2 of a juicy lemon
3 small or 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced or run through a press
1/2 t. salt, or to taste
4-6 T. water
Good, high-test olive oil for drizzling

Toss garbanzos into the bowl of a food processor, and whizz until they are powdery and uniform, close to a full minute. Add in the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt, and blend away for another minute, stopping to scrape down the bowl to ensure everything is incorporated. With the machine running, add in the water a tablespoon at a time, until the hummus is smooth and creamy and fluffy. Stop and taste it for consistency, as less water is more here, but you’ll need at least 4 tablespoons. It should be super fluffy and light. Adjust salt and lemon to taste.

Scrape into your favorite serving bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour. Before serving, drizzle with a few tablespoons of good olive oil, a couple cracks of black pepper, and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary if you have it. Or, use the olive oil and whatever spices/seasonings you’d like (smoked paprika, a dusting of cayenne, some minced fresh cilantro and lime zest, whatever sounds good). Serve with your favorite dippers.

Getting Warmer

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Do you ever get a flavor stuck in your head that you just HAVE to eat? Something that just calls to you, a craving so deep that you simply must make it happen as soon as possible? I know I do, and it’s not just chocolate. I find that I cook in waves sometimes: a week of Mexican inspired dishes here, a few nights of peasant Italian dishes there, a smattering of barbecued goodness. Lately, though, it’s been Thai style: peanut sauce, fish sauce, cilantro, lime. It hit me one night that I had ‘Pinned’ 3 different Thai-leaning foods in one sitting, and two meals on my weekly menu planner were deeply Asian influenced. Time to make this puppy happen!

Last night was the night; it was warm out, the husband had a long day at the office, and I had been cleaning like a banshee after being gone last weekend and a day or two of wine-club shipment packaging. We had everything we needed and it was a quick dinner that didn’t heat the house (though I secretly didn’t care because I would take the opportunity to BLAST our brand new A/C).

I found myself short some soy sauce, and so added in a tablespoon of fish sauce as detailed below. I personally think it made it better with the fish sauce, as it added a little something extra to the dish. Feel free to sub it out with regular soy (or sub all the soy with tamari for my GF pals out there). After it had cooled and the sauce really stuck to the noodles it was even better. And tonight? Well, tonight it’s sublime, with a nice cold glass of sauvignon blanc by my side and the A/C on. It’s definitely feeling more like summer out there!

Almost the weekend! Stop in tomorrow for a killer cocktail recipe.

Peanut Noodles with Shrimp
Makes a monster pile, about 6 large servings

1/2 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
8 ounces spaghetti (half a box, and go on ahead and sub in quinoa or brown rice noodles
1/2 lb. large shrimp, either raw or precooked, peeled, deveined and the tails removed
1/2 large red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 English cucumber, sliced into strips
3 scallions, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
8 oz. sugar snap peas
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Cook the pasta according to the package directions; if using raw shrimp add in 2 minutes prior to pasta being finished; drain and pour into a large mixing bowl.

In the same pot, combine 1 cup water with the peanut butter, rice vinegar, tamari/soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, and ginger. Blend until smooth.

Add the peanut mixture, bell pepper, cucumber, cilantro, snap peas, and sesame seeds to the mixing bowl with the pasta and shrimp, and toss to combine.

Taking it Back: The Grilled Cheese

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Grilled cheese is on most people’s Top 10 comfort food list. What is more cozy than grilled cheese, I ask you? It’s just not a cozy night without that toasted cheese sandwich.

I’m here to tell you that, while a grilled cheddar (or Velveeta, if you dare) on sliced white with gently buttered sides is sublime, you can take it up a notch and make it a very special sandwich that is even company-worthy. With a side of oven fries or a green salad (or both) it can be a glamourous little bistro lunch or dinner for as many as you please.

Around here, we make grilled cheese with leftovers on nights that serious cooking can’t be mustered. I know many of  you are leftovers-averse, but pitching the rest of dinner is so wasteful and expensive. Why not take those leftovers and make something new out of it? Odds are you won’t even know it was Sunday’s roast of you make a killer sandwich out of it. Enter the Adult Grilled Cheese. There are a few rules to follow, but the mix and match of fillings is yours to create and play with.

The ‘rules’ are simply the stacking and layering of the sandwich, to ensure that each bite is cheesy and that the whole business sticks together. I generally stick to this basic theory:

Starting with your bottom slice of bread:

  • Butter the outside of the bread
  • Mustard of your choice on  the inside of the bread
  • Top with grated cheese of your choice (we use lots of extra sharp cheddar or jalapeno jack)
  • Top with meat of choice, if using
  • Another smattering of cheese (just a pinch or two)
  • Top with vegetation (usually caramelized onions, leftover baked apples, pepper jam, sauteed red peppers, pickled jalapenos or banana peppers or pepperonicinis)
  • Top with more cheese
  • Top with second slice of bread, buttered on the outside and with either mayo or mustard (or both) smeared on the inside

Yes, this is a loaded sandwich. Each layer, however, is a very thin layer, so it doesn’t get all Dagwood on you. Sometimes when there are many layers, I’ll build them in the pan I’m cooking them in, to avoid explosion when transferring from the board to the pan. Also, during cooking, I smash the sandwich on the flip, either with the back of my spatula or, if I’m making two or more sandwiches, with a foil sheet placed over the top of the flipped sammie and a well-placed heavy pan on top, and then pressed with my hand. Voila, instant panini press.

Some regular combinations of grilled cheeses in our house (again, usually made from left overs) are as follows:

  • Sliced sourdough with horseradish mustard, pork loin, baked apples, and caramelized onions, with cheddar cheese (this one is also good with pork roast or deli ham)
  • Sliced rye with pastrami, well drained sauerkraut and swiss with a slathering of thousand island (instead of the mayo/mustard)
  • Sliced sourdough with tri tip or roast beef, blue cheese, mayo, horseradish mustard, arugula and balsamic onions
  • Sliced cinnamon swirl bread with ham, brie and spicy pepper jam (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)
  • Foccacia with mayo and dijon, shredded chicken, bacon, pepper jack and pepperoncinis
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with peanut butter, jelly and banana
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with nutella, peanut butter, chocolate chips and banana, with a dusting of powdered sugar (oh yes, I have)

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Leftovers are the ultimate grilled sandwich! Is it lunchtime yet?

My own

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Well, ask and you shall receive is what they tell you. I suddenly find myself with a LOT more time on my hands. Time to finish unpacking, time to get the house organized, time to sew and crochet and get my garden started, as I’ve been dreaming about for months now.

It’s going to give me ample time to study for my bookkeeping class and get my resume reworked because heaven knows I’m going to need it coming up here soon. Finding oneself suddenly unemployed can be a terrifying vision, but I’m choosing to find the silver lining in all of this. I can finally RELAX and not be so goddamn stressed out all of the time. Even Nick told me to defrag for a bit before leaping back in to working. I’m going to make my move back in to employment very thoughtfully, because I find that increasingly I’d like to just be happy at work, doing whatever it is that I choose to do, even if it’s for less money than I was previously making. And what I choose to do could be anything right now. I’m not going to limit myself to anything at this point. Life’s too short.

Defrag I can do, even if it’s just for a bit. I can lay in bed and listen to the rain tippy tapping on the window with a cup of tea, and write to you about my new-found freedom. I can sit in a cafe and people watch while I work on my homework (OK who am I kidding, I won’t work on my homework). I can do yoga for a bit just because the mood strikes me and because, well, whatever else I’m doing can usually wait since I’m on my own time, my own deadline, my own schedule. My. Own. Schedule.

Today the cat and I are making limoncello out of the Meyer lemons from my tree, a pot of soup for dinner, a loaf of focaccia to dip in said soup, a streamlined grocery list, and some cookies for the cookie jar (because I have an empty jar that is just begging for some cookies. And a cookie scoop that was a Christmas gift that needs a maiden voyage). I cut out a pattern for a robe about, oh, six months ago that has been sitting in a pile with the instructions ever since, so I think I’ll work on that. I have some new dress patterns that I bought at a pattern sale to read and outline (and one of my 2012 Bucket List items is to sew a fitted dress and wear it proudly). I might take a short drive to the Salvation Army store  up the road if I need to get out of the house, as it’s my favorite place to poke around and even if I find a treasure that I can’t live without, it will only set me back a couple of bucks. I justify this trip because I have some things to donate anyway, and there’s no harm in stopping in for a while. I’ll only take my driver’s license and $5 so I can’t spend any more than that.

But about that bread. There’s something about warm soft focaccia, dipped in good olive oil or a bowl of soup, that makes my heart sing. Fresh bread, almost any kind, is one of my favorite things, and this week it’s all about me, Summer of George style.

Focaccia
From Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home

1 package of quick rise yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (110*F)
2 tablespoons of olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 teaspoons table salt
3-3 1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour (or regular old flour, which is what I used and it worked out just fine)
Coarse salt for sprinkling

In a large bowl of the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Stir in the oil and the salt. Slowly stir in 3 cups of flour to make a soft dough.

Knead by hand or with a stand mixer, adding flour as necessary. Knead by hand until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, or knead by stand mixer with dough hook on low speed until the dough is no longer sticky and pulls cleanly from the bowl sides, 6-7 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place in a clean, oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides (I cheated and used the same mixer bowl – no one was looking). Cover the bowl with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

Oil and 11×17 inch heavy baking sheet. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead slightly. Place on prepared baking sheet and let rest for 5 minutes. Using your fingers, stretch out the dough so that it evenly covers the pan bottom. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise until puffy, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400*F. Using your fingertips, make a pattern of dimples at 2 inch intervals over the entire surface of the dough. Brush the surface with oil and lightly sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Serve warm.

Over it

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I’m sure a couple of you opened the fridge this morning and said the same thing I did: ‘You’re still here.’ Four days ago you couldn’t imagine being tired of turkey. The prospect of the glorious steaming bird and sides for dinner, compounded by an endless need for bottomless turkey sandwiches piled Dagwood-high with all of those sides played tricks on your mind. We gave thanks, we tucked in, and ate turkey dinner and turkey sandwiches with reckless, waist-expanding abandon.

Today, though, most are over it. And I can’t say I blame them. Most Americans aren’t the type that can eat the same thing over and over and over again. Our society has beaten us into thinking that leftovers are second-class citizens, not first-class lunch fixin’s. Right now though, times are tight for a lot of people, throwing the rest of the leftovers away is a wasteful option, if an option at all. And getting the biggest bird you can lift at fire sale pricing is a huge boon to a lot of families, giving thanks or not.

So today, resist the urge to be done with the bird. Thank him one last time for being such a tasty treat, and use every morsel of what’s left. It sounds daunting but I’ll help us all out.

Turkey Leftover Compendium
Surfed from the Web and complied by Yours Truly (me, folks)

Turkey Pot Pie  – this one will use up leftover vegetables and mashed potatoes too, if you have them. Triple Word Score!
Tuscan Turkey Soupy Noodles – makes short work of the bottoms of the boxes of pasta on your shelf – you don’t have to use the prescribed noodles
Turkey Porcini Tetrazzini – savvy homemakers could whip this up ahead of time to have it ready for dinner later this week
Baked Pasta with Turkey, Tomatoes and Mozzarella – Buon Giorno Bird!
Cobb Salad – this one doesn’t list poultry, but chop up some of that turkey breast and add it to the salad. And the lemon yogurt dressing is such a bright, fresh flavor after a weekend of heavy eating
Moo Shu Turkey – tired of Thanksgiving flavors all together? This is your recipe.
Turkey Hash – Sub in what pleases you here: if you don’t have stuffing or don’t want potatoes, don’t add them. Throw in some extra vegetables or diced sweet potatoes instead. But whatever you do, be sure to top it with a fried or poached egg. You’ll thank me later.

And if worse comes to worst and you just can’t fathom another bite of that poor bird, pick off all of the meat, chop up the big pieces into bite-sized ones, and freeze it in 1 or 2 cup portions in nice heavy freezer bags. Use it in the same way you would use rotisserie chicken in almost any recipe. Toss the bones and wings into a pot and make stock out of them, which you can also freeze in small or large portions. By just doing these two things between football games today, you’re making dinners for upcoming busy nights. Now, get out there and get some exercise! Ours will be in the form of hanging lights on the house ~ I can’t wait a minute longer.

A Little Bravery

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I’ve been making the majority of our bread for about a year and a half now. Not that I don’t enjoy a store bought loaf every now and again (and since I keep killing my sourdough starters and that is my favorite bread ever I do haunt our local bakery on a frequent basis). It just terrifies me that so many breads are able to cheat death; their countertop longevity is like something out of a horror movie. I noticed a few years back when I started my move toward local eating and small-business shopping that bread that comes from a real bakery is stale much more quickly than your typical grocery store sandwich bread. And further, some of the new ‘low carb’ breads from some of your favorite large-scale bread purveyors don’t go bad AT ALL. I found a slice once that had successfully lived in the back of the bread box in its original bag that looked and felt as good as the day my roommate bought it – six months earlier. I was shocked and sick, to say the least.

In buying my loaves from small local bakeries and bread purveyors, I started wondering what they had that I didn’t (other than time on their side and a fruitful sourdough starter). Except for my aversion to dealing with anything requiring yeast. Oh, that. In my younger days when I worked at a bakery up in Washington state, one of my requirements as the new baker (read: low girl on the totem pole) was breads and yeast cinnamon rolls. Let’s just say that my technique is good but the long hours I spent proofing and kneading and rising and punching down and rising and forming and all of this going on at about 3:00 in the morning turned me off from the process. I’m not a morning person and I’m especially not an ‘Oh Dark Thirty’ morning person. We’ll leave it at several batches came out as doorstops and move on.

I have a bread machine that I use as my crutch nowadays. It does the ‘heavy lifting’ portion of bread making for me: it brings everything to temp, mixes, rises, punches down and gives the second rise to the dough, and when this is complete I dump the bread out onto a cornmeal lined baking sheet, form it, let it rise again and bake it. No big deal; the machine goes about its business while I go about mine. It’s a good arrangement and fits well in my weekend morning routine. I even found a website filled with road-tested recipes that follow this very method.

This has been my MO for quite some time until last weekend. While cruising the interwebs I stumbled across a recipe for a yeasted spiced bread with zucchini and red bell pepper, cumin and coriander, that tasted heavenly in my brain as I read the recipe (yes I taste with my brain, don’t you?). I had to make this bread, just HAD to, but the recipe made two loaves, which won’t fit in my bread machine, and I am too chicken to go dividing a yeast bread recipe in half and believe it would be successful. And if you’ve never made a loaf of bread in your bread machine that was too big for the capacity and it bubbled over onto the heating element, well, you haven’t lived. This bountiful recipe meant that I had to break out my stand mixer and go about it the long way. It was daunting, I was up to the challenge, and it was worth it. Just look at this bread:

It looked like I got it at the bakery, and I’m proud to announce it tasted that way too. I brought one of the loaves to work to the amazement and accolades of my coworkers, who made short work of eating it up. This weekend I think I’ll sub other spices (maybe fennel seeds or lavender) for the dried seeds, and I can’t wait to use fresh basil from my garden in place of the parsley. This makes A LOT of dough and it might make your Kitchenaid walk across the counter while it’s kneading with the dough hook (mine sure did and it scared the heck out of me and the cat). Keep a firm hand on top of the machine and you’ll both be just fine. Also, please note that you make the starter for the bread the night before you will be baking, so keep that in mind.

Zucchini Bread with Moroccan Spices

Yields 2 loaves, about 1 3/4 pounds each

3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
Biga (recipe below), at room temperature
1 cup grated zucchini (about 4 oz.)
About 4 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped unsalted roasted pistachios
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
1 1/2 teaspoons hot chili flakes
About 1/4 cup cornmeal

Biga: In a bowl, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast over 1/4 cup warm (100° to 110°) water. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup cold water. With a wood spoon, stir in 1 1/2 cups bread flour until mixture forms a soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap and chill 12 to 24 hours. Let come to room temperature before using, about 1 hour.

Shortcut: Without the biga, our recipes still produce great loaves. In the basic recipe, just increase the yeast by 1 1/4 teaspoons, the bread flour by 1 1/2 cups, and the water by 3/4 cup.

1. In the bowl of a standing mixer or another large bowl, sprinkle yeast over 1 cup warm (100° to 110°) water; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

2. Add 3/4 cup cold water, biga, zucchini, 3 cups bread flour, whole-wheat flour, and salt to yeast mixture. Beat with paddle attachment on low speed, or stir with a heavy spoon, until well blended. Gradually beat or stir in 1 1/2 more cups bread flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until mixture forms a soft dough.

3. Switch to a dough hook and beat on medium speed until dough is smooth and elastic and pulls cleanly from sides of bowl but is still slightly sticky, 6 to 8 minutes; or scrape dough onto a lightly floured board and knead by hand until smooth and elastic but still slightly sticky, 7 to 10 minutes.

4. Add parsley, bell pepper, pistachios, cumin, and chili flakes and beat in with dough hook or knead in by hand just until incorporated (after mixing in by hand, place dough in a bowl)

5. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; let dough rise at room temperature until doubled, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Punch down with your hand to expel air.

6. Re-cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise again until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Or for a slow rise, chill at least 8 and up to 12 hours; let come to room temperature, about 3 hours.

7. Scrape dough onto a well-floured board and knead briefly to expel air. Divide in half. With lightly floured hands, gather each half into a ball, then stretch and tuck edges under to shape into a smooth oval with slightly tapered ends (about 8 in. long and 4 in. wide in the center). Place loaves on a well-floured surface, dust lightly with flour, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until they’re slightly puffy and hold the imprint of a finger when lightly pressed, about 1 1/2 hours.

8. Sprinkle a 13- by 17-inch baking sheet generously with cornmeal. Transfer loaves, one at a time, to sheet, spacing 2 to 3 inches apart. With a sharp knife, make three diagonal slashes 1 inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart across loaf tops. Place sheet on rack in lower third of a 450° regular or convection oven. Or, if using a baking stone, gently slide edge of cornmeal-covered baking sheet under one loaf and lift it onto end of sheet. Slash as directed above, then gently slide loaf onto one side of stone in oven, leaving room for second loaf. Repeat to slash and transfer second loaf.

Spray 3 to 4 squirts of water on floor or sides of oven, taking care not to spray near heating element or lightbulb, then quickly close door.

9. Bake bread, spraying twice more at 5-minute intervals during the first 10 minutes of baking, until crust is well browned, 35 to 45 minutes total.

10. Transfer loaves to a rack to cool for at least 1 hour. Store in paper bags at room temperature up to 2 days. To recrisp the crust, place loaves directly on a rack in a 400° oven and bake for about 5 minutes.

Sharing the Love

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Coworker Jessica and I have been having a marvelous time bringing one another lunch each week. Have a food-obsessed but obediently healthy friend is a good thing to have, especially at work. We are both pleasantly surprised at the other’s lunchtime offering each week, but we have other coworkers sniffing around, wondering what we’re eating all the time.

This week we decided to share our love of lunch with them, joining forces to make soup and salad for everybody. We all tend to ‘eat in’ around the office, either bringing in a week’s worth of supplies, running out and grabbing something quick, or warming leftovers brought in from home, and eating mostly at our desks. It’s the perfect scenario for a surprise lunch. Jessica made our soup, a yummy black bean with lots of veggies and chipotle powder, and I volunteered to be salad.

We had a salad at our company retreat a few months back that I’ve been recreating. It was the most gorgeous salad I had ever seen, and chock-full of good things, great textures and wonderful flavors. I’m definitely of the sort that believes that ‘salad’ goes far beyond the lettuce, and the more stuff packed in one the better.

I’ve named this one Jewel Box Salad, because it looks like just that: mixed baby greens and radicchio, blue cheese crumbles, roasted cubes of orange Delicata squash, dried cranberries, and sweet-spicy pecans. I added some Clementine orange segments to add sweetness and another shape, caramelized shallots for salty sweetness, and made a spicy balsamic based vinaigrette spiked with Chili Raspberry jam to drizzle over the top. Like all salads, this can be adjusted up or down for as many or few people as you will be entertaining. I’ve listed ingredients and methods below, but no real quantities, except for the dressing. You should adjust and add in whatever you feel is the right amount of anything. Not a blue cheese lover? Try adding in some feta, or goat cheese crumbles, or shave in some Parmesan curls. Nut allergy? Make or buy some croutons to add for crunch. Pomegranate arils are a beautiful touch, and one that I usually add to this too, but my grocery didn’t have any pomegranates (I was quite sad). The only things I really stick to for this one are the two shining stars: the roasted squash and the caramelized shallots.

Pardon the washed out picture, it came from my phone (I prepped the salad right before lunch).

For the squash, I use a Delicata, an oblong, smallish squash that can eaten peel and all. I cut it in half down center, scoop out the guts, and cube it in 1/2 inch pieces. I then toss them with a little drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper, and roast them in a 425 oven for about 25 minutes, stirring once.

The shallots are caramelized in a small cast-iron pan over low heat in equal parts butter and olive oil. The butter is used to keep them from singeing. If you’ve ever tried to mess with shallots in a pan that’s too hot you know how quickly they scorch.

Our surprise lunch was a hit today at the office: its a cold, rainy afternoon and a nice bowl of soup and salad was welcomed with open arms by our coworkers.

Happy Valentine’s Everyone!

Slim Pickings

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So for those keeping score, the wedding is a little over two months away. How did we get here so fast? It feels like just yesterday that we were decorating the Christmas tree, drinking champagne with a roaring fire to ward of the winter chill, and then I was suddenly, happily betrothed.

Fast forward to August and summer days. The garden is finally started to take off (still waiting on my tomatoes, though…) after a not-so-hot season here in the Wine Country. The fig tree in the alley is almost ripe, and my wedding dress arrived at the bridal shop with much fanfare. I spent a day with my mom and grandmother, trying on the dress, shedding tears of disbelief and excitement, having a wonderful lunch at Zin Restaurant here in town, and some light shopping at the back end of the day. It was everything the blushing bride could want for the day she picks up her wedding dress; a day that holds much gravity because suddenly you are the proud owner of this auspicious dress, and if you change your mind, well, you can’t exactly wear it to brunch, now can you? It’s a milestone in the wedding process, one that I think is almost as important as picking the dress itself.

And in trying on said beautiful wedding dress, it was, well, snug. Breathtakingly snug to call a spade. Thank heavens for built-in corsets, but breathing is going to be so key on that day, the dress could fit a little, well, you can see where I’m headed here.

And so we begin the process of slimming down. For those of you who don’t know me, I firmly disbelieve in diets of any sort, cleanses, detoxes, starving in any form or format. I also believe in the power of awareness for what we put in to our gullets, taking a firm stand in local, organic produce, eating seasonally, and dairy and meats that come from animals raised somewhere other than a feedlot, but that’s a different post. To begin my slimming down process, I need to identify my food friends that are going on light duty for a while (breads, soft cheeses, gluten in many capacities, beer) and take stock of my pantry, adding in some rice pastas, nut-based crackers, and upping my ante on vegetables, salad fixings, good lean proteins and wine (a girl has to have one vice, yes?). All this and getting myself to the gym is going to do some good things for my body, and I’m ready for it.

To kick off my first week of the slim-down exercise, I’m making it easy on myself. I got a monster head of lettuce for modified Cobb salads, hit my garden and picked all of the squashes and peppers my basket could carry, and backfilled with some fresh local peaches and nectarines and fruit items from my favorite market. I’m also turning the bones and bits from last weeks’ chicken into stock for a pot of minestrone, one of the healthiest soups I know of because it’s chock full of veggies and so, so filling. If you don’t have stock on hand you can make this with water, but for me the stock makes it richer and because I make my own it’s very low fat and low sodium. I’ve made it with water too, though, and you wouldn’t know the difference. The soup will be dinner for at least one night and my lunch for several days.

I’ll warn from here that my minestrone is not ‘traditional’ in the sense that a lot of people look for; it’s not the one that you find at the Italian joint on the corner. It’s one that someone’s Nonna would make with the overflowing goods of her garden in the summer, refreshing, herbal and earthy. I stick to a basic format of beans, greens, squash and tomatoes, but which beans and greens and squash you get are solely based on the season. Add in some herbs, chicken stock and  my secret ingredient and you’re set.

In most cases I’d serve this soup with a side of crusty sourdough (mmmm, bread…), but this week I’ll have it with a green salad and N can have the bread.

Minestrone

Serves lots

1 Large Onion, coarsely chopped

1 Large Carrot, peeled and diced

2 Stalks of Celery, Diced

3-4 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 can of Diced Tomatoes, undrained (or use 3-4 from your garden, if you have them, mine just aren’t ripe yet)

2 Medium Zucchini, ends trimmed, halved and halved again down the length, and cut into 1/4″ pieces

1 Can Kidney Beans, drained but not rinsed

1 bunch Swiss Chard, tough stems discarded and roughly chopped

1 Small Potato, cut into 1/2″ cubes

8 Cups of Chicken Stock or water

Salt and Pepper to taste

A sprig of fresh rosemary and some oregano, or dried if you don’t have fresh, added to taste

A Bay Leaf

Parmesan Cheese rind – this is the secret ingredient

Soup Making Standards: Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat until glistening, and add in your onions, celery and carrots. Saute until fragrant and a bit softer, 5-7 minutes. Add in your sliced zucchini, swiss chard and garlic and saute until the chard is about half wilted. Add in the can of tomatoes or diced fresh tomatoes, the drained beans and your herbs, give it a stir and let it bubble for a minute or two. Top everything with the chicken stock or water and drop in your parmesan cheese rind, bring it all back to a slow boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for at least a half hour, then salt and pepper to taste. Minestrone, like all soups, is better the second and third day, so make it ahead if you can.

The parmesan cheese rind is, I think, integral to minestrone. It imparts a salty richness that is hard to add in to vegetable based soups, even if you use chicken stock. I buy my parmesan in wedges or blocks rather than pre-grated, tossing the rinds into a zip-top bag when they’re spent and into the freezer for later soups. Just be sure to fish it out prior to serving, or tell people that, like the bay leaf, it’s good luck to get it in your bowl but not to eat it.

Here’s to taking it down a notch, I’ll let you know my progress (and welcome a cheering section!) and provide more yummy things on my journey.

Happy Monday!

If you can’t take the heat…

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I had the best time with my dear cousin during her stay. One of our adventures was to the north, to have lunch with great-grandma and grandma (Meg’s grandma and aunt, respectively, as Meg and I are actually second cousins. Love Italian families!). We went to the greatest organic brewery and lunched on macaroni and cheese, salmon cakes with organic local greens and fresh hot fries, and a glorious looking chicken sandwich with avocado. Heaven!

As a group of girls will do, no matter what the generation span (we had three generations with us, awesome!), we gossiped and chatted about our lives, loves and recent family news. My gainful unemployment was a hot topic, as was our wedding and Meg’s road trip to Oregon and back. I brought my great-grandma a jar of last week’s jam, which she loved, as I get my jam-making skills directly from her. Grandma brought me freshly picked zucchini from my Grandpa’s garden with a recipe that she makes every summer. I’d never heard of this recipe and asked a few questions about it. Apparently I don’t remember it from childhood summers because, well, I didn’t like zucchini as a kid. Who knew?

The temperature after lunch was pretty warm and continued to climb, the next day was a scorcher here in Northern Sonoma county. When you wake up in the morning to sunshine and no fog you know to prep yourself for a hot one. We haven’t had many of these hot days this summer, so when the temperature does spike no one is as ready for it as they think they are. My new found recipe for marinated zucchini was deployed for dinner that warm night and received with lots of yummy noises.

I’ve made the marinated zucchini recipe twice already in the last few days and can’t wait to share it with you. If you have a garden this is a great way to get rid of an overzealous squash plant’s work; it can be made in quantity and keeps for several days. If you make it in the morning (or the evening before for you working types), it won’t heat your kitchen on hot days and gives the zucchini time to sit and languish in the oil and vinegar. This couldn’t be simpler, and served with a cold piece of chicken or even just a green salad it’s the perfect hot day supper. It even makes a great sandwich for lunch the next day if you somehow end up with leftovers.

Marinated Zucchini, courtesy of my Grandma

– 1 lb fresh zucchini, sliced into 1/4″ thick rounds

– 1/4 c. olive oil

– 3-4 T. red wine vinegar

– 2-3 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

– Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat a skillet over medium-high heat for several minutes and add your oil. Working in batches, lightly brown your zucchini on both sides, taking care to lightly salt and pepper before flipping over. This only takes a minute or two for each side of the zucchini, try not to cook until it’s mushy. If need be turn your pan up a tick. If your oil starts to smoke at all adjust the temperature down a bit. Once brown on both sides, remove to a glass dish or non-reactive container for storage.

Turn the stove down to moderate heat and add your garlic and red wine vinegar. Stand back when you do this. If you’ve ever had a whiff of hot vinegar you remember picking yourself up off the ground afterward. It burns eyes and sinuses with aplomb! Swirl the oil-vinegar-garlic mixture around in the pan and let it bubble for a minute or two to reduce the vinegar a bit, and then pour the entire contents of the pan over the top of the zucchini and toss to coat. Let them sit on the counter until room temp, and then serve immediately or chill until needed. These are equally good cold (and I think better that way).

Enjoy, and mangia!