Monday, March 29, 2010

Week Nine: White Chicken Chili

Midwestern springs are never a linear affair. They trot out days or weeks of weak but warm sun, then plunge us into cold grey drippiness, just to show us who's boss. (I think of those icky stretches as Mother Nature's version of a swirlie.) During those winterish bursts, I wear my favorite sweaters one more time and scramble to make soups and stews before the weather gets too nice again.

Last week, with the weather in a wintry phase and company in town, I turned to an old standby: White Chicken Chili, made in a crock-pot. It's the only way I've ever made it, and my recipe was developed from one I found online, most likely on the excellent Year of Slow Cooking.

As usual, I had all the major ingredients on hand: frozen chicken breasts, white beans, green chiles, chicken stock, onions, garlic. I'd always wondered, though, what would happen if I sauteed the onions and garlic with the spices instead of throwing them in the pot in all their raw, harsh glory. Usually, I combined the spices with half a cup of flour and tossed the cut-up chicken in it, but I'd never had much faith in the thickening power of that approach. Thus, I decided the time was ripe to double up the messing.

My general approach to any scenario involving onions, spices, garlic and heat is a few glugs of olive oil, medium-low heat, onions first, then spices, then garlic because I've heard it's easy to burn and turns bitter when it does.Once again, I was up early, so I had plenty of time to do all that, handle the rest of the prep, and monitor my and my guest's caffeine levels.

The rest of the recipe was your standard crock-pot affair, so elemental and non-cookish it seems like cheating: thaw the chicken enough to cut into chunks, open a bunch of cans, dump, dump, stir, set the timer, go to work, eat. (A note on the timer: I've found that chicken gets a weird grainy-mushy texture when it's overcooked in a crock-pot, so I put mine on a light timer if I'm using it during the week.)

Aside from the appearance of this recipe, which is so unappealing that I can't bring myself to inflict it on you, it always turns out well. This time was no different, and the sauteed onions and garlic gave it a nice depth. It wasn't as thick as usual, but that didn't bother me or my guest.

Deliciousness: We ate it for dinner three nights in a row, and not just because we were too tired to order takeout.

Difficulty: I suppose not burning the onions, garlic and spices requires some skill, but you should know by now I don't make really difficult stuff.

Do-Over: Duh.


3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thawed and cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can each chicken broth and green chiles
2 cans Great Northern beans, drained
2 t. cumin
1/2 t. each oregano and coriander
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
2 bay leaves
salt, chili powder and/or cayenne to taste

Ultra-quick way: Stick everything in a crock-pot, stir, cook for 4 hours on low. Serve with sour cream and corn chips.

Slightly longer way:
Over medium-low heat, saute onions in 2 or 3 T. olive oil until soft and a tiny bit brown, about 10 minutes. Add all spices except chili powder, cayenne and bay leaves; saute 5 minutes more. Add garlic and let it go 5 or10 minutes longer, making sure nothing's burning and adding more oil as necessary to prevent sticking.

Meanwhile, put everything else in the crock-pot; add the onion-spice mixture, stir again, and cook 4 hours on low. Serve with sour cream and corn chips.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Week Eight: Poundish Cake

A few weeks back, after making Black-and-White Brownies a couple of times, I began to ponder rejiggering them into cake. The ingredients seemed right, the vanilla portion of the brownies was very cakey, and the other human member of the household had been asking for cake for days on end. Sadly for him, his cake craving hit on the Monday of the week I was leaving town on Wednesday for a funeral.

My Monday and Tuesday evenings were occupied with confirming flights, figuring out what to wear, and performing the heinous algebra and geometry of the quart-size Ziploc bag. When the hubs occasionally brought up the topic of cake, I would make a vague and desperate gesture toward the second floor, whence my wardrobe and toiletry woes taunted me, and/or roll my eyes.

On Wednesday morning I woke up at 4 a.m., not completely awake, but alert enough that I knew there was no sleep in my immediate future. I was fully packed, except for the remaining bits of makeup and creams I would use that morning. Feeding and walking the dogs, as much as I whine about it, does not take very long. And we wouldn’t be leaving the house for four hours.

Determined to thumb my nose at the ridiculous situation, I decided to take a stab at making a cake from the brownie recipe. Once I started measuring and mixing, I realized this was what I had wanted to do all along, every minute I’d been doing laundry and fretting over how my dresses fit (or don’t). Beyond the usual comfort of cooking, I savored the knowledge that this cake would make my husband happy during my absence.

I made a few major modifications to the original recipe: I left out the chocolate, increased the flour to 3/4 cup, added a bit of milk, reduced the sugar to 3/4 cup, and creamed the butter with the sugar instead of melting it – which underscored that fact that I will need a stand mixer at some point in my life if I am to be at all serious about this cooking thing.

When it was cool enough to taste, the straightforward vanilla flavor and dense crumb reminded me a bit of the Sara Lee pound cakes we would get sometimes when I was growing up. We’d put sugared strawberries and freshly whipped cream over slices of it and call it strawberry shortcake. This cake would be perfect for that, or whatever else you felt like putting on top.

Deliciousness: This cake elemental in its simple, comforting tastiness.

Difficulty: None to speak of, unless like me you do not own a stand mixer.

Do-Over: Yep.


5 T. butter, room temperature

3/4 c. sugar

3/4 c. flour (I think I used cake flour)

1/2 c. milk (I used skim)

1 t. vanilla

2 eggs

Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350 and grease an 8” x 8” pan (I use Pam). Cream butter and sugar until very smooth. Add eggs, milk and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add salt and mix flour in slowly. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden on top and/or a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Week Seven: Burmese Tofu

We are lucky to have a local food monthly that's crammed with high-quality writing and photography as well as approachable recipes. This month, the theme is vegetarian food, and one of the recipes caught my attention: Burmese tofu.

When I looked through it, two thoughts came to mind: 1) I have all the ingredients in the house, yay! and 2) They should have called this Burmese polenta -- it's really just polenta made with chickpea flour. If you've never made polenta, you shouldn't be intimidated or impressed; it's also called cormeal mush, and if you can stir for 15 minutes, you can make it.

Granted, chickpea flour is not something everyone has on hand; I bought it so I could play around with making pakora (Indian vegetable fritters). You can sometimes find it in the natural foods aisle, or in an Indian grocery, where it will be called besan gram flour.

Just before I decided it was done.

I assumed I'd need to start with boiling water, so I put the pot on to heat while I minced two cloves of garlic, which was the only prep to speak of. But no, the reciped stated that the chickpea flour should be stirred into cold water, so I ditched my boiling water, cooled the pot and started over.

Whisking the flour into the water slowly to avoid lumps is really the only trick to making smooth polenta, so I employed that technique here, then added the spices and garlic, and stirred for 15 minutes. That's really all there is to it; after that, all you need to do is pour the stuff into a pan and let it cool.

Tower of chickpea power.

Deliciousness: A little on the salty and garlicky side, but overall, quite nice, firm and tasty. I had a few cubes straight from the pan, and a few in a salad. The recipe mentioned deep-frying as an option, too.

Difficulty: If you can stir, you can make this.

Do-over: Yes. It's tasty, easy, cheap and high in protein.

Details: Put 2 cups cold water in a medium saucepan and whisk in 1/2 cup chickpea flour. Add 1/2 t. turmeric, 1 t. salt, 1/4 t. ground ginger and 2 minced garlic cloves. Heat for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently at first and constantly at the end, until the mixture pulls away from the sides. Pour into a lightly oiled loaf pan and allow to cool.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Week Six: Carrot-Ginger Soup

Don't be fooled by that fancy bottle; I buy the cheapest
vat I can find at the international store and refill it.

To start 2010, Mother Nature decided to impress us with her ability to freeze our patooties off for weeks on end. The one advantage of this was that groceries in need of refrigeration could be safely stored in the trunk of one’s car, which the cold would turn into a giant cooler on wheels. Go ahead, call me Pollyanna – you wouldn’t be the first.

So one day I stopped by the store on my way to work, purchased produce, and left it in the trunk. Among the items was a one-pound bag of carrots. They carrots froze, solid, in the space of nine hours. They must have a low freezing point, because A) I don’t recall anything else turning into vegetable- or fruit-shaped ice cubes and B) there is nothing else approaching the oddity of a bag of carrots in my freezer.

I’d been unable to admit defeat and stupidity by throwing the suckers away, and instead put them in my freezer, reasoning that they’d need to be cooked as soon as they were thawed. Last week, I thawed them and made soup out of them. Carrot-ginger soup, to be precise.

I’d had it in restaurants, and loved it every time. When I perused a number of online recipes, they seemed elegant, simple and easy. The pared-down aspect of it didn’t even seem to require a recipe, so I didn’t use one.

I sautéed a large, diced onion in about 4 T. of olive oil for about 15 minutes, then added about ¼ cup diced fresh ginger, 1 t. ground cumin, ¼ t. turmeric, ½ t. coriander and half a cup of water to keep the spices from sticking. Once the spices had a chance to warm up, I added 4 cups of water and the carrots, which I’d washed and cut into big chunks (I did not peel them because, now thawed, they were carrot-shaped sponges), about ½ t. salt, and about eight turns of the pepper grinder.

How I measure salt. It usually works out.

Half an hour later, with the carrots tasting cooked, I turned off the burner and let the soup cool until I wasn’t afraid that I’d burn myself while puréeing it. When I tasted it, I the ginger levels were on the order of wasabi, i.e., eye-watering. It was edible, but only just, and only if you went slowly.

But I still couldn’t bring myself to throw the stuff away. It had great color, the carrot flavor was strong and bright, and I am a stubborn Polack. So I put it in the fridge and thought about it, and in the morning, I turned to one of the three saviors of all Polish cooks: potatoes. (I ruled out the other two, butter and cream, on the grounds that I have recently begun counting calories, and it’s going well.)

Two of them, peeled, diced and boiled, then pureed with the soup, mellowed the ginger just enough to make eating the (now rather thick) soup as soup, but as I was tasting it, I thought it would be really good as a topping or a filling. For, say, ravioli.

But not this week.

Pretty, cheerful, delicious.

Deliciousness: Very nice, once I got the ginger in hand.

Difficulty: Not even remotely difficult.

Do-Over: Yes, but I might follow a recipe next time.

Details: See above for what few there are...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Week Five: Black-and-White Brownies

I used to be in charge of the editing department at an advertising agency (which still seems to weird to me). My officemates, who were not early risers, found it amusing that I would get up and do things before work. You know, make lunch, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, steam-clean my bedroom carpet, that sort of thing.

These days when I’m up early I’m usually either writing or cooking, and last week, I discovered that cooking before breakfast might not be the best idea.

Ordinarily, I make the sort of brownies that come in a box, but it occurred to me that I had all the ingredients I needed to make them from scratch, and probably wouldn’t be terribly difficult or time-consuming. In fact, I reasoned, it should be so easy that I could knock out a pan of brownies before work. And there were two brownie-worthy occasions on the roster: Book club (which we really should re-name “food-and-wine club”), and my boss’ birthday pig-out festival.

One of the reasons I chose the recipe I did, aside from the use of buter and the lack of fussy instructions, was the option for “black and white” brownies. The directions looked friendly and simple: Make the batter, pour half in the pan, add the melted butter and chocolate to the remaining half, pour it on top of the white batter and spread evenly.

The only ingredient I didn’t have was unsweetened baking chocolate, but Joy of Cooking’s “equivalents, weights and measures” chapter assured me that 3 T. of cocoa plus 1 T. of “fat” would stand in perfectly well for one of those waxy, bitter blocks.

On Monday night, indulging in visions of cleanly striated brownies, I pre-measured what I could (flour, sugar, cocoa, salt) and pre-cut the butter to speed Tuesday morning’s process. Around 6:15 Tuesday morning, I whisked the eggs with sugar, added flour, salt and vanilla, melted the butter, and combined it with the cocoa. I poured what I judged to be half the batter into the pan and added the chocobutter stuff to the remaining half.

I was pouring the chocolatized batter into the pan and watching it disappear under the delightfully light and fluffy vanilla batter when I realized I’d put all the butter into the chocolate mixture, and none into the vanilla part. After pausing to slap my forehead, I recommitted to black-and-white brownies, poured the rest of the chocolate stuff in, and hoped for the best as I closed the oven door.

35 minutes later, the chocolate part occupied the middle of the pan, ringed by a delicate, hollow vanilla crust that rose a good inch or so above the level of the chocolate. It was an arresting sight, but I decided I’d taste it before I declared it a failure.

Cutting the crust was the biggest issue; it tended to separate from the chocolate part and broke easily, This bummed me out, because it seemed like an interesting texture combination. Once I tasted the crust, I worked even harder to keep it attached to the outer pieces; it reminded me of the amaretti cookies you can do that cool paper-burning trick with.

The interior had a density on the order of a flourless chocolate torte, and tasted like the outside of an Oreo (I’d used dark chocolate cocoa). Both parts were delicious, so I carefully moved most of the pieces to a plate and wrapped it. On a smaller plate, I arranged a few pieces for the hubs, who ate a few and promptly demanded I leave him with more. The ladies were similarly enthusiastic, and I came home with very little in the way of leftovers.

On Wednesday morning, I took my second stab at the recipe, portioned the butter properly between the vanilla and chocolate batters, and got a much more brownie-like result. The chocolate part was still a little denser than I wanted it, probably because I left myself with less than half batter when I added the chocolate, but that didn’t prevent my co-workers from going apey over them.

The Four Ds:

Deliciousness: Oh heck yeah, especially if you use Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa. The texture is denser than box brownies, but the richness of the butter and chocolate are the big payoff. If you’re worried about fat and calories, you’ll be happy to know that according to’s recipe calculator, one brownie has about 100 calories. (That’s assuming you cut your pan into 16 brownies. )

Difficulty: Easy-peasy. Despite the fact that I don’t own a stand mixer, I hereby pledge that I will make these instead of box brownies unless I’m in an absolute rush, or craving the plasticky goodness that can only be achieved via Duncan Hines.

Do-Over: Most definitely, though I’ll try an all-brown version, and maybe a vanilla version, and may play with a margarine/butter mix and noodle with the flour/egg ratio to lighten the texture a bit.


Black-and-White Brownies
Adapted from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, revised edition, ©1990, page 715.

Preheat oven to 350 and melt 5 T. butter. Whisk or beat ¾ c. sugar and 2 eggs in a large bowl until foamy. Add 1 t. vanilla, ½ c. flour, a pinch of salt, the butter, and mix well. Melt 2 T. butter, add 6 T. cocoa, and stir until smooth (it will be thick). Pour half the batter into a greased 9” x 9” pan, add the chocolate to the remaining half, and pour in, swirling and spreading as desired. Bake 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out nearly clean.

For all-brown brownies: Increase butter to 9 T., use 12 T. of cocoa, and add to entire batch of batter.

To substitute unsweetened baking chocolate in the black-and-white recipe: Melt 2 squares; add 5 T. melted butter to batter before dividing, then add melted chocolate to remaining half.

To substitute unsweetened baking chocolate in the all-brown recipe: Melt 4 squares with 5 T. butter; add to batter just before pouring into pan.