Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Carefully Designed Butternut Squash and Corn Chowder

It's a beautiful January thaw type of day, and I'm throwing together a corn chowder as Ian takes the big lunchtime nap. In my search for vegetables in the fridge, I found a package of frozen butternut squash and decided to add that as a twist to the chowder. Both corn and butternut squash have a sweetness, and work well with other vegetables. Any soup with "butternut" or "chowder" in the name usually catch my eye, so why not combine the two, I thought.

As I'm scraping the corn cobs at the bright sunlit kitchen counter, I'm thinking about how cooking and creating recipes is a lot like fashion design. In my pre-baby life as a designer, I used this take-a-classic-and-add-a-twist approach regularly. It's the cornerstone concept for most mass retail brands. I realize now that is also the basis for most of my recipes. I research what others have done, take the parts I like and leave out the ones I don't care for or don't have the resources for. I add in a little something different here and there to make it mine, but stay very close to the safety of a basic recipe. I hate to tell you, but that's really all fashion design is, too. Especially working within the parameters set by buyers and execs - it's all about creating something just new enough, just exciting enough, but safe, familiar and saleable to the masses.

There's also a sort of formula we use in fashion to inspire new ideas. This Thing + That Thing = New Thing. It can be conceptual: Skateboarding + Frank Gehry buildings = indie looks with structured curving details or any other number of ideas it gives you. It can be literal: Stripes + Hibiscus flowers = new prints for boardshorts. I tend to use the same formulas in cooking. For example, an idea may be sparked by combining two larger concepts like French lentil stews + Middle-Eastern ingredients and spices. Or it might be as simple as taking two vegetables and wondering how to combine them successfully in any form, such as Eggplant + Coconut, or in this case Corn + Butternut Squash. Apparently my creative skills, however applied, come down to these basic processes. No wonder I do what I do, eh?

Every now and then, I do step out and try something experimental. Much easier to do in my kitchen than the office, but either way it's bound to happen. In the office, I probably did this about 10-15% of the time, and management probably considered it wasted energy. But it's generally understood by good bosses that creatives have to exert that energy in order to function happily and productively the other 90% of the time. I'm not sure why I only experiment wildly this same 10% while cooking at home. Maybe it's ingrained in me - self-discipline. Maybe it's just the limitation of time. 

I'm still adjusting to the new single-nap schedule, so today is definitely a 90% kind of day. I only get one shot at cooking. To borrow a term from the days of careful line-planning with limited skus on a deadline - today I need this soup to be a "winner". Saleable to the masses, safe, secure, but slightly unique. Something just right for the weather, just exciting enough to want to eat the whole ginormous pot without waste. I think it will be perfect for lunch today, and to reheat for my lunch guest tomorrow. 

And this completes my thoughts for the day, as we near the end of naptime. We're going to be on Ian time, any minute now...

Butternut Squash Corn Chowder
8 servings, 1 hour

4T Butter (or sub with Earth Balance or other vegan margarine)
1 C onions, diced
1 T garlic, minced
1 T flour (omit or use arrowroot powder for gluten-free)
½ tsp dried thyme
2 C potatoes, peeled and diced
2 C butternut squash, (fresh or frozen) cubed
1 ½ C corn (fresh or frozen) (3 small cobs)
1 C celery, chopped
½ C carrots, chopped
4 C no-chicken or vegetable stock
1 C whole milk or cream (omit or use cashew cream for vegan)
1/8 tsp cayenne powder
salt & pepper

¼ C chives, finely chopped for garnish (optional)

1. Melt butter over medium heat in a stockpot. Add onions and cook (without browning), about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 3 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir to dissolve.

2. Add thyme, potatoes, squash, corn, celery, carrots and stock. Bring to a boil , then lower to a simmer and cook 20-30 minutes until potatoes and squash are tender.

*note – the squash may “disappear” into the broth as it breaks down.  If you are using frozen or pre-cooked squash, and want to see chunks in your bowl, you may want to add it near the end of cooking.

3.  For a thicker chowder, partially blend the soup with an immersion blender, or by pulsing 2 cups of it in a blender.  Over low heat, stir and the milk and season with cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Heat through and garnish with chives. Serve with bread, biscuits or oyster crackers.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pumpkin Coconut Bread

I've had these two little pumpkins hanging around since early October. I only bought them because they looked cute at the store, and used them as photo props with Ian. Then, they sat outside as Halloween decoration on the porch. Then, they came inside to sit on the kitchen window sill for the next 2 months. I've never had pumpkins survive so long in my care.

Finally, I've mustered the motivation to put them to use. This extra-cold week was a good time to have the oven on to roast them, giving off additional heat to the room. Ian played in kitchen while I chopped and seeded the small pumpkins. I put them in the oven, and took Ian downstairs to play. Later, after he ate his dinner and played before bedtime, I puréed the pumpkin flesh and snacked on seeds. The good little sport tried some pumpkin, but one bite was enough, it was not for him. Nor is any vegetable, lately.

I ended up with 3-1/2 C of puree from the two little pumpkins. This means more than one experiment would be in order. The first cup went into gnocchi for dinner, the second into a quick-bread, today. I wanted some bread around for easy breakfast for me, I freaking hate breakfast food and have been bored lately. I am also trying anything to get fruits or vegetables into Ian, and he loves bread. The coconut I added with him in mind. It is not only for extra moisture, but very good fat for the growing boy. Coconut is one of the best foods you can feed a kid.

Quick bread is easy to throw together during Ian's nap. Now that we have made the transition to 1 nap a day, I get a long stretch. As soon as he fell asleep at noon, I started pulling ingredients out and stacking them on counter. You never know how long he'll sleep, so I worked in kind of a rush - slopping wet ingredients together, messily tossing the dry, folding them together and tossing random handfuls of pantry items in for texture. I dumped everything in a pan and threw it in the oven. Success!

Here we were at 30 minutes post-go-to-sleep-time - I typed a bunch of rough notes in the blogger. 45 minutes pgtst... I had at least another 45 to prioritize showering, cleaning up the baking mess, walking to dog, vacuuming, eating lunch. As if! I'd just be happy with shower, everything else is frosting.

And here I am at 2:45 and he still sleeps. Holy crap, this is the best day ever! I showered, folded laundry, called to rectify yet more insurance f-ups, enjoyed this f'ing amazing pumpkin bread, took pictures of it, and blogged about it! This is insane! I actually did all this, without interruption AND actually created something original from scratch that came out delicious.

Ok, so Ian woke up by 3... but he's being very good today. He ate an entire piece of the bread as fast as he could - including nuts and cranberries. It really was perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.

Pumpkin Coconut Bread
yields 1 loaf

1 3/4 C all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves

2 eggs
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 C sugar
1/2 C dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 C unsweetened coconut milk 
1 C pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin (not pie mix)

1/3 C finely shredded unsweetened coconut
1/3 C pecans, chopped
1/3 C dried cranberries

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a loaf pan (8"x3" or 9"x4").

2. In a large bowl, combine flour, soda, powder, salt and spices. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with a fork. Add sugars, vanilla, coconut milk and pumpkin and stir together well. 

3. Pour the wet mixture into the dry and stir until combined but still lumpy. Fold in the coconut, nuts and cranberries. 

4. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake at 350F for 60-70 minutes. Bread should be browned and a toothpick should insert easily and come out clean. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What To Cook In A Polar Vortex

Just when you thought you were heading back to work and school after holiday break, followed by snow day cancellations... here comes a polar vortex!

No playing in the snow for this one, with 50mph winds and freezing temperatures! I feel LUCKY that the high here in New York tomorrow is 14F. There's talk of -20's and -30's across the country. Of course, if we were in Northern Canada that might be normal. So who are we complaining for one day of chill?

Looks like we'll be holed up for another day of hibernation. My husband's weekly work trip was cancelled, flights are cancelled too, so he is home 4 extra days. That means another week of meals to plan. But, what if the power goes out? Long Island is notorious for long term power outages. What will we eat?

If I had the energy today, I would bake something in advance that could be eaten at room temperature. That would make breakfast and snacks easy for the whole family... no microwaving frozen pancakes or frying eggs...

I suppose the objectives here are:
-Use up refrigerated items in case the power goes out
-Plan ahead for no-cook snacks and meals, just in case
-Eat hot and hearty dishes to keep you warm and cozy
-Entertain yourself in the kitchen, since you can't leave the house

Zucchini bread is a classic... and some hidden vegetables for the toddler!
Whole Wheat Zucchini Raisin Bread

Zucchini Bread

If you've got some overripe Bananas around, you could substitute them in this recipe for
Plantain Walnut Bread

Plantain Bread
These Peanut Butter "Everything" Cookies are a hearty snack

Peanut Butter Cookies
Tonight, as the temperatures drop and we settle in deep (hopefully with some wine), I plan on making Chick'n Piccata. It's my go-to successful dish, easy and fast. I use Tal Ronnen's recipe for Gardein from his Conscious Cook book. (I did find the full recipe written out at Vegetarian Delights of a Yogini blog).

Chick'n Piccata
Hopefully we don't lose our power, otherwise we'll probably be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tomorrow! Otherwise, I plan to toss a Butternut Squash Pot Pie in the oven. I only have cream of mushroom soup on hand (instead of potato), and frozen squash instead of fresh, but I think those should suffice. We never refrigerate leftover pot pie, so if the power goes out we won't have to worry about it.

Butternut Squash Pot Pie

My husband always requests Harira Stew when the weather gets cold. I'm not sure what about a North African dish says "deep winter comfort"... I think it's the rich spices that make him feel more at home than your run of the mill vegan chili.

Harira Stew
Worse comes to worst, we can always chuck a couple potatoes wrapped in foil in the fire (yeah - Girl Scout camp style!), and skewer some fake beef to hold over the flames. That is, if we were skilled enough to actually use one of our "working" fireplaces. So far, we've had no luck at keeping a fire going - there really is more to it than throwing on a log and lighting it up. Too bad there are no ex-Boy Scouts here...

In any case, I think I'm ready for the freakin "polar vortex". How will you prepare and what will you eat?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What To Cook When It Snows

Snow storms make me feel extra domestic. I want to stay inside, all cozied up, and not see the outside world for days. As the snow accumulates outside the window, it looks as if the world has slowed down. It's silent. There's nothing better to do than cook and eat delicious food and enjoy hibernating for a little while.

It's natural to feel this way, and I know I'm not alone. So not alone, that upon visiting the specialty grocery store (North Shore Farms) as the snow began to fall, there was not a spot to park. Which is unusual around here. One reason I like my North Shore town (set out a bit from the bustling center stretch of Long Island) is that there is always a parking spot. A CLOSE parking spot, because it's just not that crowded up here. Last Thursday was the exception, as the threat of snow drives us all to hastily reserve our provisions and fire up our cookers. As humans, we are simply hard-wired for it.

Before the storm I collected lots of goodies to get us through. A big loaf of fresh-baked sourdough has multiple uses. Goat cheese and fresh mozzarella have potential, although my 14-month old will blast through the mozz all by himself, simply cubed. Aside from what I keep on hand always, green apples, avocados, citrus and cilantro are useful too.

As the snow started to fall, I set to work on the soup. It would easily be ready for an early dinner, and provide leftovers for lunches and snacks the next few days - especially after hard work shoveling snow and walking the dog.

Our blizzard-day meal:
Crazy Red Lentil Soup (click for recipe)
Golden Beet and Goat Cheese Salad (recipe below)
Sourdough Garlic Toast

Ian tried everything, but mostly ate goat cheese and our garlic bread. 

After shoveling and such, I needed a low-intensity comfort meal on Friday. I dug into my recipe archives for something easy to cook.

Our Snow-day menu:
Vegetarian BBQ Chicken Pockets (click for recipe)
Cajun Potato Wedges (recipe below)
Fennel and Apple Salad (click for recipe)

*The salad was made hours ahead, as the fennel is much more tender after it marinates in the lemon. I started roasting the potatoes first while preparing the pockets. After 15 minutes, I lowered the oven heat from 425 to 375 to bake the pockets, and let the potatoes finish at the lower temp.

Our favorite snow-day beer: Blue Moon's seasonal Mountain Abbey Ale. Beer + sugar = yum! 

I gave Ian this same meal for lunch the next day and he loved every bit of it.  

Golden Beet and Goat Cheese Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
*I prefer to work with yellow beets, as they are a bit milder, and a lot less messy for a toddler to handle than the red variety. 

golden beets (1 medium beet per serving)
plain chevre or crumbled goat cheese
baby spinach or mixed greens
hazelnuts, lightly toasted

1/4 C fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 C (up to 1/2 C) extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
*1/4 tsp honey, optional
salt & pepper

Heat oven to 425F. Prepare the beets by trimming the stems to 1/2" and rinsing scrubbing the skin well. Pierce each beet a few times with a sharp knife. Place in a glass baking dish covered with aluminum foil and roast 45-60 minutes. When a knife inserts to the centers easily, remove form the oven and let cool. Trim, peel and slice the beets and set aside.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together equal parts lemon juice and olive oil. Taste, and adjust the ratio to your liking, if needed. I prefer a strong citrus flavor to contrast the goat cheese, but you may like more oil, up to 1/2 Cup total. Whisk in the mustard and season with salt and pepper. To make a slightly sweeter dressing, mix in a tiny bit of honey.

Toss the greens with a little vinaigrette. Layer the greens, crumbled goat cheese, and sliced beets on plates. Drizzle lightly with the vinaigrette and top with toasted hazelnuts and black pepper.

Leftover dressing may be stored at room temperature overnight, or refrigerated for about 2 days.

Cajun Potato Wedges

Yukon gold or other creamer potatoes (2 medium potatoes per person)
Olive oil
Cajun Seasoning mix (Dinosaur BBQ Cajun Foreplay is my favorite - super flavorful, not too spicy)
Black Pepper

Heat oven to 425F. Rinse and scrub potatoes and cut into wedges no more than 1/2" thick. Drizzle olive oil on a baking sheet and arrange wedges in 1 layer, drizzling more oil over them. Sprinkle generously with cajun seasoning. Place in oven and check after 10 minutes. Flip each potato and bake another 10-15 minutes until golden on all sides. 

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