Friday, March 30, 2007


(Chicken Breasts With Mushrooms)

I’ve made this a few times before but always forgot to post it. It’s from Bistro Chicken by Mary Ellen Evans, my source for easy Frenchy sophistication. Like her other recipes, this one sounds, looks, and tastes elegant but is no trouble at all to make. You get to do fun chef things like deglaze the pan with wine and reduce the liquid to make a pan sauce, so you can pretend it requires flair and savoir-faire to make it, but at heart it’s quite sensible and unfussy and relatively foolproof. The only changes I made were to use brown mushrooms because I like them better, and to leave out the tarragon because I have yet to be thrilled enough by tarragon in my life to warrant paying $2.50 for it at the grocery store. Everything went smoothly, though I think I could have reduced the sauce a bit more at the end; it was too runny. But tasty, so who cares? This recipe doesn’t send me over the moon—there’s a nice blend of subtle flavors and all, but essentially it’s just chicken in dressed-up cream-of-mushroom sauce. But with a green salad it’s a good, reliable, civilized Tuesday night dinner, which is all I need sometimes.

2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons salted butter
8 ounces white button mushrooms, quartered
¼ cup minced shallots
4 (6-to-8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
* If breasts are large, use 2 and cut each in half horizontally to make 4
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup white wine
½ cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it sizzles, add the mushrooms and shallots. Sauté until just beginning to soften, 2–3 minutes.

2. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Push mushrooms to the edges of the skillet and add the chicken in the middle. Sauté until golden brown on both sides, 3–4 minutes per side.

3. Reduce heat to low; add broth and wine. Cover; cook, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink in the thickest part when cut with a knife, 4–5 minutes per side. Remove chicken to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.

4. Whisk the half-and-half into the skillet; increase heat to high and cook to reduce and thicken slightly, 2–3 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, finely chop the herbs. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with the chopped herbs, and serve.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes


Well, chalk up another big yum to Rachael Ray. When I returned home on Monday after a delightful vacation in Joshua Tree with my parents and A, I had just enough time to do my week’s grocery shopping before dinner. Since we’d missed the Saturday farmers’ market, I hastily tore through my cookbooks looking for recipes that could be made without the benefit of awesome fresh produce. We’re getting so spoiled by the farmers’ market’s bounty—not to mention the warm fuzzy feeling of buying locally grown, often organic, food directly from the growers—that we shy away from inferior supermarket produce (except for things like mushrooms that the farmers’ market doesn’t carry). This didn’t leave me with many options for a pasta dish. Tomato sauce sounded nice, but it turns out I have just two pasta recipes that don’t employ fresh tomatoes, and I’d made both of them recently.

Then I remembered RR’s cringeworthily titled “You-Won’t-Be-Single-For-Long Vodka Cream Pasta” (ah, see, this is the kind of cutesyness that makes people hate her), which had received a glowing review from the Smitten Kitchen and which, conveniently, is included in the RR 30-Minute Meals cookbook I happen to own. I like vodka, I like cream—why not give it a shot?

Interestingly, it turns out that the recipe posted on the Food Network site and used by the Smitten Kitchen is different than the one in my cookbook. It’s less stripped-down, with different proportions, some extra ingredients (butter, shallots, and chicken stock) and some rearrangement of the steps (adding the vodka earlier, for one thing). Most importantly, it actually calls for the traditional penne, whereas the original called for, oddly, linguine (and I’ve seen Penne alla Vodka on restaurant menus a lot more than I’ve seen Linguine alla Vodka). I’m pretty sure that the cookbook I have is RR’s very first book, so I get the feeling that maybe she’d gained some more experience and honed her skills by the time the Food Network recipe was posted—and consequently decided to make it a little more complex and (I was willing to bet) also tastier. Since I happened to have shallots on hand, for the chicken recipe I was planning to make the next night, and just enough homemade chicken stock in the freezer, I forged ahead with the Internet version.

Verdict: This pasta is dee-licious and a cinch to make. We grated a little Parmesan on top of each serving, because we love dairy overload. A gives it his stamp of approval, too. I could tell he was a little weirded out by the idea of putting vodka in tomato sauce, but as soon as he took a bite and realized it didn’t taste like vodka per se, but rather like something ineffably above and beyond just plain tomato sauce, he was pleased. Since RR’s intro to the recipe promised that when you feed this pasta to the one you love, “he or she will be yours,” I watched A carefully to try to gauge any increase (As if it were possible for me to love you even more! he now interjects) in his level of devotion to me. I hoped the magical You-Won’t-Be-Single-for-Long Sauce might at least inspire him to do the dishes immediately after dinner, instead of waiting until the next day. But he just looked happy to be fed, as always. And then he fetched me some Jo-Jos (the superior Trader Joe’s version of Oreos, with which I am currently obsessed) out of the cupboard and we spent a sated evening with cats on our laps watching 24. And that is about all the happiness I require from a pasta sauce, thank you very much.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1 cup vodka
1 cup chicken stock
1 can crushed or diced tomatoes (28–32 ounces)
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound ounces penne pasta
½ cup heavy cream
20 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn

1. Heat oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and shallots, and gently sauté for 3–5 minutes. Add vodka to the pan and reduce by half. Add chicken stock and tomatoes. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

2. While sauce simmers, cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente.

3. When enough liquid has cooked away from the sauce and pasta is almost done, stir cream into sauce. When sauce returns to a boil, remove it from heat. Drain pasta and toss with sauce and basil leaves.

Serves: 6
Time: 30–40 minutes

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Hell yeah.

I’ve always thought of myself as a macaroni and cheese lover. Between the ages of, say, 14 and 20, I was a box-a-week Kraftoholic. It took many years for me to notice that it doesn’t really taste like cheese, but as soon as I did, there was no going back. I was slow to find a replacement, though. In the decade since, I’ve mainly made do with restaurant fare—if there is mac and cheese on a menu, I will order it. (Favorites include Hugo’s cheddar-Gorgonzola-Parmesan mac and cheese, Noodles & Company’s Wisconsin Mac & Cheese with spinach and tomatoes—Noodles, if you’re listening, please open a restaurant in Pasadena, OK?—and, in a pinch, the more synthetic creamy mac and cheese at Souplantation.) Attempts to create mac and cheese at home, however, have been sporadic and disappointing. When I started cooking more seriously post-college, I checked out an entire book of mac and cheese recipes from the library, but the few recipes I tried were unsatisfying. In the past year or so, I’ve taken solace in the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which is pretty decent, but always failed to inspire in me the same ecstasy I remembered feeling for the more memorable mac and cheeses of my life. I tried to rationalize (check out the warning signs of disillusionment in the above posting--"it may not be what my inner child is crying out for," "I would not say I have perfected this recipe yet"). Maybe this was just what you got with homemade mac and cheese. Or maybe I just didn’t like mac and cheese quite as much as I thought I did.

The “Eureka!” moment came last December, as I was reading The Best Food Writing 2006, which contains an essay by Julia Moskin from the New York Times entitled “Macaroni and Lots of Cheese”. In it, Moskin boldly posits that the solution to mac-and-cheese malaise is just…more cheese. What struck me were the following quotations from author John Thorne:

“A good dish of macaroni and cheese is hard to find these days. The recipes in most cookbooks are not to be trusted...usually it is their vexatious infatuation with white sauce, a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk, for this dish flavored with a tiny grating of cheese. Contrary to popular belief, this is not macaroni and cheese but macaroni with cheese sauce. It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window.”

“Starting at about the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge fashion for white sauce in America—chafing-dish stuff like chicken à la king, or creamed onions. They were cheap and seemed elegant, and their legacy is that people choose ‘creamy’ over everything else. But I maintain that macaroni and cheese should be primarily cheesy.”

While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call white sauce “noxious,” I was aware of its inglorious history from reading Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, and I’d long suspected that perhaps it was white sauce that seemed to make my homemade mac and cheeses so bland and gummy. Macaroni with cheese sauce was exactly it—sometimes I could almost taste the flour, particularly in the leftovers. The notion of a better way intrigued me, and I hastily copied down the two recipes included in Moskin’s article. Then I promptly forgot about them.

Lately I’ve been reading more food blogs, and it turns out Moskin’s article was pretty heavily debated in the blogosphere. Most responses I read remained faithful to the traditional white-sauce version of mac and cheese; a few had tried Moskin’s more hard-core cheesy recipe (basically just macaroni, butter, a little milk, and a whopping 1½ pounds of cheese) and pronounced it “gross.” Those who had tried her second recipe, however, including The Smitten Kitchen, were enthusiastic.

You can now include me in those ranks. The recipe sounds a little weird (pureed cottage cheese? a pound of cheddar? uncooked noodles?), but it works beautifully. The cottage cheese-milk mixture provides a creamy binding agent without resorting to flour. The pound of cheddar is enough to envelop the noodles without being too overwhelming. The noodles cook perfectly, absorbing the milk and the cheese flavor while saving you time and dishwashing. This recipe couldn’t be easier: dump ingredients in a dish and bake. And any doubtful visions I had of crunchy raw noodles or oily clumps of cheese were dispelled when I drew the bubbling, rich-smelling, perfectly browned dish from the oven. It was macaroni with baked cheese, and it was perfect—chewy but not dry, creamy but not saucy, toastily crusty on top and bottom. I’ll admit it gets slightly greasier when the leftovers are reheated, but it retains its cheesy flavor and pleasant texture; I enjoyed it nearly as much today at lunch as I did when I made it on Monday night. This is my ideal mac and cheese—if only it weren’t so decadent so I could feel justified in eating it more often.

A looked slightly alarmed when I took one bite and then declared that now that I’ve found this macaroni and cheese, my life is complete. But when the bowls were empty (and we had dutifully eaten big green salads to keep our arteries clear) and I said, “I’m throwing my old macaroni and cheese recipe away right now. I don’t need it anymore,” he didn’t argue. He was happy; his mouth was full of cheese.

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
½ pound elbow macaroni

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Use 1 tablespoon butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking dish.

2. In a blender, puree cottage cheese, mustard, and salt and pepper until smooth. Add milk and puree until well blended.

3. Reserve ¼ cup grated cheese for topping. In the prepared baking dish, toss together the uncooked pasta and the remainder of the grated cheese. Pour the milk mixture over it and stir well. Cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

4. Remove foil, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese, and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.

Serves: 4–6
Time: 1½ hours, mostly baking time

Thursday, March 15, 2007


While there are certain cookbook authors whose recipes I have come to trust and love (Jack Bishop for vegetables, Carole Walters for cookies), and boy do I love to watch cooking shows on PBS on Saturday afternoons while I’m dusting the living room, I’ve never been drawn into the celebrity chef phenomenon. Maybe if I had cable and could become addicted to the Food Network, I’d be singing a different tune, but for now I don’t know my Alton from my Emeril, and what’s more, I don’t really care. Thus, I’m not sure I’ve been fully exposed to the perky, all-pervasive annoyance of Rachael Ray. Sure, I know about the whole sexy-photos-in-FHM kerfuffle, I’ve heard the “EVOO” catchphrase, and I’ve noticed her showing up on my Wheat Thins boxes for some time now. But I’ve never seen her talking and cooking on TV, and if her mannerisms are really as grating as some people seem to find them, I apologize for the following defense of Rachael Ray.

Foodies (I use the word derisively, like “hipsters”) love to bash Rachael Ray. I suppose it was from them that I absorbed the general impression that her cooking is lowbrow. I can’t believe I bought into this, considering I’m a pretty lowbrow cooker myself; I’m scared of all the really gourmet foods, like offal and truffles and fava beans, and I’m too poor or too frugal to buy the fanciest ingredients and kitchen tools, and everything I really like is just one form or another of comfort food. But I can be snobby about certain things (making as much from scratch as possible, using fresh ingredients, and avoiding prepacked convenience foods), and I guess I assumed Rachael Ray was one of those people who write lame “quick and easy” recipes that make me a little sad, calling for bottled garlic and touting their ability to make food with six ingredients or fewer. Then I got Ray’s original 30-Minute Meals book for Christmas. I didn’t have high hopes for it, but that changed once I started paging through it. Sure, it wasn’t the style of cookbook I would buy for myself. But you know? A lot of the stuff sounded appealing, and soon I was folding over some page corners.

Because here’s the thing I respect: Rachael Ray wants you to cook good, fresh, reasonably healthy food, on weeknights after a long day of work even, and she doesn’t want you to be scared and uptight about it. She wants you to know that when you get ready to sauté something, you don’t have to carefully measure out your olive oil with white knuckles; you can just open the bottle and turn it over and twirl it “once around the pan” or “twice around the pan” like the pros do. You can measure spices with pinches and palmfuls and nothing bad will happen to you. For a lot of cooks, this is common sense, but I’ve met a lot of people who seem petrified of cooking and are convinced they’re not good at it, and they need someone fun and friendly to convince them that making home-cooked food is no big deal. Rachael Ray wants to make cooking part of your life, but it doesn’t need to become your life, or even a hobby. What’s more, the recipes don’t sacrifice flavor in favor of simplicity; they’re easy and straightforward without being bland or lazy or prefab the way so many things geared at non-cooks seem to be. It’s bourgeois cuisine and there’s nothing wrong with that. It tastes good and it doesn’t come from a can.

Case in point: this recipe from Ray’s second 30-Minute Meals book, which is packed with zesty, complex flavor and still a cinch to pull together. It comes to me courtesy of Editor A, who generously cooked it for me and Editor M and brought it to one of our habitual Friday lunches in which we all sit around and pretend we’re still coworkers (A and M left my company for greener pastures late last year). I was impressed by the chicken, wolfed down several pitas full, and resolved to make it myself as soon as possible. When I did so, on Monday night, it turned out just as well, with not too much effort on my part: mix up the spice rub and slather it on chicken, mix up the tomato relish, grill the chicken in the George Foreman, tear it up, throw everything into pitas. I even made a side dish of sautéed zucchini with garlic and mint, which Ray included in her original recipe, but I’m not bothering to include it here because although perfectly tasty and acceptable, it definitely was not the main event, nor was it really needed to make a satisfying meal. You can hunt it down on Epicurious if you must. We ate, I was pleased, A was enthusiastic, Rachael Ray was vindicated.

I’m not saying I’m going to become a huge Rachael Ray fan or anything, or go out of my way to seek out more of her recipes, or champion her to everyone I meet, or even ever mention her again on my blog. But I don’t think she’s so bad*, and I’m definitely a fan of this chicken, and I think you should make it.

*I could sure live without her cutesy use of the word "glug" as a unit of liquid measurement, though.

Israeli spice rub:
1½ tablespoons sweet paprika
1½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt

Tomato relish:
3 small ripe red tomatoes
2 orange or yellow tomatoes
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1½ to 2 pounds)
olive oil
pocket pita bread

1. Combine the spice rub ingredients in a bowl.

2. Cut each chicken breast in half horizontally to form a total of 8 thin filets. Place chicken in a shallow dish and drizzle with olive oil to barely coat the meat. Rub chicken liberally on all sides with 4 tablespoons of the spice blend. Let stand 10 minutes.

3. While chicken is marinating, seed and chop the tomatoes and combine them with the onion and parsley in a medium bowl. Combine oil, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes in a small jar with a lid. Shake dressing to mix, and pour over salad. Season with salt to taste and toss well. Let stand 10 minutes.

4. Grill chicken 6–7 minutes on each side or until juices run clear. (I believe Editor A said she sautés hers in a pan with a little oil, so give that a shot if you don’t have a grill.) When cool enough to handle, shred chicken into small pieces.

5. To serve, pile chicken and tomato relish in warmed pita pockets.

Serves: 4
Time: Well, maybe not 30 minutes unless you move very quickly, but under an hour anyway

Friday, March 09, 2007


Kofte! Another fun-to-say food word to add to my repertoire (along with such favorites as “kebab,” “cassoulet,” “pistou,” and “fritter”). I had never heard of these Turkish meatballs before Cooking Light thoughtfully introduced me to them, and I’m not saying these are necessarily the most authentic version, but who cares? This recipe is incredibly quick and easy (“superfast,” in Cooking Light-speak), wholesome, and quite flavorful but still straightforward—think interestingly spiced meatloaf in a pita. I’m a little wary of fresh mint—it’s just so strong—and held back a bit from the full ¼ cup when I made these on Wednesday night, but the mint turned out to be the big bright note that makes the flavor so interesting (though the undertones of cinnamon and allspice did good work, too). Next time, I’ll add all the mint without fear.

The main change I made was to grill the meat on my George Foreman rather than broiling it. The practical reason for this was that our broiler doesn’t work anymore. But also, the introductory notes to the recipe mentioned that kofte are “often grilled,” so grilling sounded almost called-for to me. I also added some diced cucumber to the plain yogurt sauce, because cucumbers and yogurt go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong, in the immortal words of Grease.

On the side, I made smash-fried potatoes, in a blind attempt to replicate the toothsome-looking ones I’d seen in a Martha Stewart magazine a few months back, the recipe for which Martha has somehow neglected to post to her site, as far as I can tell. Trying to reconstruct the process from memory, I boiled small yellow potatoes whole, drained them, gently smashed each one into a disk, and then pan-fried the disks (like fritters!) in a little olive oil with minced garlic and dried oregano. I think they would have turned out perfectly, except I didn’t let the potatoes boil quite long enough, so they splintered apart when I smashed them instead of staying in neat little cakes. What resulted was more like hash browns than I would have liked, but they were still delicious hash browns. I fully intend to persevere in my quest for the ideal smash-fried potato, but not with the kofte. Until I got midway through the recipe, I hadn’t realized that one serving involved two kofte, which, though not a heavy meal (it’s Cooking Light, remember), is substantial enough. In the future, I think a green salad on the side will be fine.

½ cup chopped white onion
⅓ cup dry breadcrumbs (I used panko)
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
1 pound lean ground beef
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
2 plum tomatoes, sliced into 8 (¼-inch-thick) slices
4 (6-inch) pita pocket breads, cut in half
¼–½ cup plain yogurt
Optional: 1 small cucumber, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat broiler or prepare a grill.

2. Combine first 12 ingredients (through egg white) in a large bowl; mix with fingers until combined. Divide mixture into 8 equal portions; shape each portion into a 2-inch patty.

3. Place patties on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray and broil 4 minutes on each side, or grill patties to desired degree of doneness.

4. If desired, mix diced cucumber into yogurt in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Place 1 tomato slice and 1 patty in each pita half; top with yogurt sauce.

Serves: 4 (2 filled pita halves per person)
Time: 30 minutes

Thursday, March 08, 2007


So, did I mention how much I love fritters? Oh yes. If this mania keeps up, I’m going to have to make “fritters” its own recipe category in the sidebar.

This recipe is from my new fave site The Smitten Kitchen. The original description, accompanied by mouthwatering photos, is here. My own, sadly less gorgeously illustrated, commentary has little to add. Everything went smoothly when I made these last Thursday night. When I tried to grate the onion on my sturdy but cheap grater (which I believe I bought using leftover food-service points at the little convenience store in my college cafeteria 10 years ago), the onion dissolved into goo, so I minced it finely with a knife—and added a note to the recipe reminding myself to do this next time. My only other changes were to divide the quantities in half (the original recipe promised to make 24 fritters, which seemed overwhelming—my halved version made 8 slightly larger ones, just the right amount for supper for A and me) and to eliminate the step of keeping the finished fritters warm in the oven while the others are frying. It’s a nice thought and all, but since the halved recipe makes just two frying batches, it didn’t seem that necessary. A wasn’t enthused at the thought of washing a baking sheet, and besides, lukewarm fritters are easier to eat at ravenous speed.

These are definitely the most loosely constructed fritters in my recipe repertoire—on the opposite end of the spectrum from the pancake-like zucchini, ham, and ricotta fritters of a few weeks ago. Getting the vegetable pieces to hang together in cakes was in fact a bit of a challenge, especially when I started getting impatient with the second batch(my number-one flaw as a cook—I’m just too hungry!) and flipping them over in the pan too early, creating an interesting fritter-hash in some cases. This is not really a problem for me, though. No matter what shape they ended up in, the fritterbits tasted as great as the whole ones. I liked that the vegetables (a cheerful, colorful, healthy mix of them) were the focus, instead of being just flecks in a batter. The Indian spices are a nice, savory twist, as was the curry-lime yogurt, though I could probably have devoured the fritters quite happily without it (as we all know, I’m just not a condiment person).

A thoroughly enjoyed these also, so much that he forgot to complain about the presence of the hated peas. Though Indian-spiced vegetable fritters may won’t depose zucchini fritters from their cherished place in our hearts, I expect them to be welcomed into regular menu rotation.

¼ cup frozen peas, defrosted
1 small onion, peeled
1 small russet potato, peeled
1 small yam or sweet potato, peeled
1 medium carrot, peeled
1 small zucchini
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

Curry-lime yogurt:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon sugar
Several squeezes of fresh lime juice, to taste
salt and pepper to taste

1. Using a box grater, coarsely grate onion (you may have to mince onion using a knife unless your grater is very sharp), potatoes, carrot, and zucchini and place in a colander in the sink to drain.

2. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs. Whisk in flour, coriander, turmeric, and cumin. Mix in ginger, cilantro, and peas.

3. Gently press vegetables in colander to extract excess liquid, then add to bowl. Season mixture with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Using a wooden spoon or your hands, mix well but do not overwork.

4. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1–2 tablespoons olive oil until hot but not smoking. Drop 4 scant ¼-cup portions of vegetable mixture into pan and flatten with spatula to form 3-inch pancakes. Fry until bottoms are golden brown and pancake holds together, about 4–5 minutes, then flip over and fry until golden-brown and crisp, an additional 4–5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain; season immediately with salt and pepper.

5. Repeat Step 4 until all batter is used (you should have 8–12 fritters total).

6. Mix curry-lime yogurt ingredients together in a small bowl. Serve fritters with dollops of yogurt.

Serves: 2–4
Time: 30-40 minutes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


I made these muffins two weeks ago (gack, I’m so tardy with these postings!), while watching the Oscars, as mentioned in the beef-and-curry pie saga below. I’m not a huge muffin fan; I mean, I never find myself thinking, “Gosh, I could really go for a muffin right now.” In general, sweet breads, especially at breakfasttime, are not my kettle o’ fish. (Neither are kettles of fish, for that matter.) I do really love miniature versions of larger foods, like cupcakes instead of cake and personal pan pizzas instead of, er, impersonal pan pizzas? So when I think about baking, muffins appeal more than loaves of bread. Mostly, though, I just love almond-flavored foods. My mom made these muffins while I was growing up and I adored them, though I never had any interest whatsoever in the no-doubt delicious blueberry, bran, or whatever-else muffins she baked. Now I make these from time to time and pretty much inhale them. Besides being delicious, they are so easy. And the perfect thing to bring when it’s your turn to supply the treats for a departmental meeting, take it from me. Just remember to buy almond extract, or you might have to run out to the store (no, two stores, when you realize Trader Joe’s has peppermint extract but no almond) and thus miss Jack Black and Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly singing a very funny Academy Awards song that everyone will be talking about the next day and you’ll feel left out and keep reminding yourself to find it on YouTube, but you’ll never actually get around to it. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

¾ cup sugar
½ cup margarine or butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt
2 cups flour
3 teaspoons poppy seeds
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
Sliced almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cream together sugar, butter, eggs, and almond extract.

3. Add yogurt, flour, poppy seeds, salt, and baking soda and stir until just moistened.

4. Grease muffin tins and fill each cup about two-thirds full of batter. Sprinkle muffins with sliced almonds. Bake 15–20 minutes.

Variation: For poppy-seed lemon muffins, replace plain yogurt with lemon yogurt and almond extract with lemon extract.

Makes: 1 dozen
Time: 30 minutes

Friday, March 02, 2007


I refuse to blame this recipe for the fact that both times I’ve made it, I’ve suffered a nervous semi-breakdown. The first time was understandable; after having spotted these savory-looking little pocket pies in an issue of Gourmet lent to me by P, I had been hankering for them. I carefully shopped for all the ingredients (even going to an additional grocery store to secure the frozen puff pastry), set aside some time on a Sunday evening to tackle what looked to be a lengthy baking process, got all ready to begin, and…realized I had no curry powder. Yes, I’d forgotten to buy one of the ingredients specifically named in the title of the recipe. All was repaired by A volunteering to make a quick trip to Vons, and the pies turned out very tastily, reminiscent of samosas. (Similar ingredients, with the potatoes and meat and peas, and like samosas, they weren’t that moist or saucy inside.) A, though suspicious of peas, loved them, even the rather greasy leftover ones (puff pastry just doesn’t reheat well).

Last Sunday night, when I was again possessed with the desire to make beef and curry pies, was, of course, the date of the Academy Awards. I was greatly looking forward to watching the Oscars and had seen all five of the nominated Best Picture films in preparation; what I’d forgotten was that the show airs so early in California, beginning at 5:30 p.m., whereas I spent the first 27 years of my life in Minnesota cozily watching the awards late into the night in my PJs. So as the show began, I was still hustling around, trying to make muffins for my coworkers, clean the kitchen, and of course, make dinner. The situation was completely my own doing, but nonetheless resulted in a tantrum of frustration when, two hours later, I was still embroiled in chores and missing all the good montages. I cut a few corners and was in a sulky mood when the beef and curry pies finally emerged from the oven and we sat down to eat, but you know what? They were still tasty.

So don’t think this recipe is cursed or anything. Just don’t forget to buy curry powder, don’t make these when you’d rather be watching TV, and heed these few additional notes:

1. The original recipe made 8 servings. I’ve cut it in half, because unless you’re throwing a dinner party, you don’t need 8 beef and curry pies. They don’t make good leftovers, they’re not that healthy for you, and two boxes of frozen puff pastry could cost you easily $10. Who are you, the queen? Oh, that’s right, this is Gourmet, after all. We’re lucky we weren’t asked to make our own puff pastry from scratch.

2. I might not have cooled my filling for precisely 30 minutes. “Screw this cooling completely,” I might have been heard to mutter after 20 minutes. “Lukewarm is good enough.” It didn’t make any discernible difference.

3. Your peas don’t really have to be thawed before you add them to the skillet. They’re teeny; they’ll thaw when surrounded by hot beef. Maybe they’ll help cool down that pesky filling, like tiny ice cubes!

4. I don’t own a 5-inch cookie cutter. I don’t actually own any cookie cutters. I used the 5½-inch mouth of a bowl to cut out the pastry rounds. They turned out just fine.

POSTSCRIPT, April 2011: The last time I made these, I realized it would be much easier (no cookie cutter) and more cost-effective (why throw away all the trimmings from that expensive puff pastry dough?) to use the pie-shaping method from my chicken-leek pie recipe, which simply has you roll the sheet of dough a bit thinner, slice it into four equal rectangles, and simply fold each one over the filling into a triangular pie. I still used both sheets of dough, for a total of 8 pies (I've gotten over my "these don't make good leftovers stance" and find reheated puff pastry just fine now), so I doubled the filling quantities just in case. I had some leftover filling, but oh well. Anyway, do yourself a favor and follow my streamlined advice rather than adhering to Step 5 below.

¼ pound ground beef (not lean)
½ tablespoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vegetable oil
½ medium onion, chopped (½ cup)
1½ teaspoons curry powder
1 medium russet potato, peeled and cut into ¼-inch pieces (½ cup)
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons frozen peas, thawed
1 (17½-ounce) package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1. Mix beef, soy sauce, sugar, and salt with your hands in a large bowl until combined well.

2. Heat oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat, then add beef and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up into small pieces, until just browned, about 4 minutes. Remove beef from pan with a slotted spoon and place on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

3. Keep the skillet containing the beef drippings over moderately high heat; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3–5 minutes. Add curry powder and potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are translucent, 3–5 minutes more. Add water and cook, stirring and scraping up any brown bits from bottom of skillet, until liquid is absorbed and potatoes are tender, about 1 minute. (Don't worry if your potatoes aren't totally tender by the time all the liquid is gone; they'll get cooked in the oven.) Return beef to skillet and stir in peas, then cool filling, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees.

5. Roll out one sheet of thawed puff pastry into a 12-inch square on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin and cut out four 5-inch rounds with a cookie cutter. Mound ⅓ cup filling atop each of two rounds, leaving a ¾-inch border around edges, then brush edges lightly with egg and cover with another round, gently stretching to cover filling completely. Gently press edges with tines of a fork to seal, then transfer pies to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining sheets of dough and filling to make a total of 4 pies (you may have some filling left over). Brush tops of pastry lightly with egg and bake until pies are deep golden brown and puffed, 25–30 minutes. Cool pies about 10 minutes.

Serves: 4
Time: 1–1½ hours