Friday, September 26, 2008


This may be the easiest recipe in my entire repertoire, and is one of the few minimal-ingredient, pantry-food-based recipes I’ve tried that actually taste good. Could anything be simpler? Black beans are blended with broth to make soup, with salsa ingeniously serving as a stealthy, handy one-stop seasoning agent, assisted by cumin and green onions. It was a staple of my menus when I lived alone—not only because it was so quick and easy and relatively healthy, but also, admittedly, because it gave me an excuse to eat corn chips, or in more indulgent moments, nachos, on the side. I was initially surprised that I hadn’t already posted it here, until I remembered that A doesn’t really like beans and since moving in with him I only make it for myself when he’s out of town. But I really wanted it last week—I had a vision of how good it would be with quesadillas dipped into it—and so I introduced A to it, and he ate it willingly. His verdict was “pretty good,” which spoken by A about a bean soup really means something.

Of course I’m going to tell you that this recipe will be better if you use homemade broth. But back in the days before I became a broth snob, I recall using canned low-sodium broth and it was fine. Naturally, choose a high-quality salsa you really like the flavor/spiciness level of—I, as if you had to ask, use Trader Joe’s Salsa Especial (which isn’t very chunky, so I usually use slightly less broth to keep the soup from getting too thin—maybe 1⅓ cup?). I haven’t experimented with any add-ons, but there are all sorts of things you could mix into this soup or sprinkle on top if you feel like fancying things up—cilantro, jalapeno, shredded cheese, sour cream, red onion, even chicken I suppose. You might also want to add a sprinkling of salt if you’re using low- or no-sodium broth (my homemade stuff is salt-free, and I found that a dash of salt really perked up the finished soup). Corn chips or quesadillas—or, heck, nachos—make a nice accompaniment.

2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1½ cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup chunky salsa
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion

1. In a food processor or blender, combine beans, broth, salsa, and cumin. Blend until fairly smooth.

2. Heat the bean mixture in a medium saucepan over medium heat until thoroughly warm. Ladle soup into bowls and top each serving with ½ teaspoon green onion and 1 tablespoon sour cream (if desired).

Serves: 4
Time: 20 minutes
Leftover potential: As with all soups, high. The flavor seems to improve with a few days in the fridge, and you can easily freeze if you’d like to—though given how quick it is to make and how few fresh ingredients are involved, that doesn’t seem necessary.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I’m usually disappointed by egg-based dishes such as frittatas; they seem to turn out either too dry or too watery, and usually bland, the kind of sad, mysterious blandness that seems to persist no matter what other ingredients are involved. Yet I bullheadly keep trying them because they always sound so seductively wholesome and cozy and nourishing, despite all the evidence suggesting that maybe I just don’t really like eggs as much as I think I do. And finally my stubborn deludedness has been rewarded! I grudgingly tried this recipe because it called for six eggs and, due to a little miscommunication with myself (“We need more eggs! I’ll just buy a dozen at the farmers’ market…Oh, wait, it was last week that we needed more eggs, and I already went to Whole Foods and bought a dozen, so now I have…many, many eggs”), I needed to clear some eggs out of my refrigerator, stat. What a fortunate mistake that turned out to be, because this recipe, from Andrea Chesman’s Serving Up the Harvest (which I just put on hold on the library based on the strength of this dish), found via The Kitchn, conjured up the exact frittata I had always dreamed of.

The flavors here are ideal—zucchini and potatoes are a match made in heaven, onions and ham always liven things up, and Cheddar is hands-down my favorite cheese but seems underused in cooking outside of mac-and-cheese-contexts—but I’m convinced the technique is the real magic ingredient here. While the recipe steps might sound fussy, they happen surprisingly quickly and easily and are vital to the success of the finished dish. (In particular, don’t skip salting the zucchini—allowing it to drain much of its liquid before cooking prevents the frittata from getting watery.) How else to explain the exquisite texture of this frittata? Everything was perfectly cooked. The potatoes give it a firm structural integrity (I was astonished at how beautifully it sliced into clean wedges that maintained their shape even after being bounced around in my lunchbag on the way to work), and the underside was pleasingly browned, yet the eggs remained fluffy and creamy—gone the dry crumbliness that has plagued so many of my past frittata attempts!

I wouldn’t change a thing, except to add a pinch more salt, either to the beaten eggs or to the potatoes or to both. Otherwise, the only salt in the recipe is what’s added to the zucchini to drain them, plus of course the salty flavor of the ham. While the reviewer at The Kitchn thought her version was perfectly salted (maybe because she used regular bacon, which tastes saltier than the all-natural ham I used?), I thought mine could have been kicked up a tiny bit more (potatoes just cry out for salt). I sprinkled salt and pepper (and a little fresh basil) over the wedges before serving, but the salt really would have been better integrated inside the frittata. Still, this was just a small flaw, and it became less important as the flavors seemed to deepen and develop in the leftover servings. Oh, the leftovers! The frittata was so large, I cut it into eight slices, and then it turned out to be so filling that I couldn’t eat more than a slice at a time, so suddenly we were faced with six containers full of leftover frittata, which worried me. But the leftovers were fabulous. We had frittata for dinner on Thursday night, lunch on Friday, dinner on Saturday, and lunch again on Sunday, and we never tired of it—in fact, after we polished off the final sliced, A asked, “When are you making this again?” The leftovers were so happy that they inspired me to add some new info at the end of the recipes I post here: A “leftover potential” rating. I used to hate leftovers so much when I was younger, and now I adore them—if I’m going to go through the trouble of cooking, I want it to last me for more than one meal, and if it’s something delicious, I want to eat it more than once. I rely so much on leftovers for cheap, easy, healthy lunches every day at work and no-fuss meals on the weekends, I want to encourage everyone to take advantage of them! Eventually, hopefully, I’ll go back and add that information to all the previously posted recipes. Eventually.

A final note: I didn’t have any serving plate large enough to hold the finished frittata, so I had to use a big plastic cutting board, and my Calphalon oven-proof skillet is so heavy I can barely hold it in one hand, especially while wearing clumsy oven mitts, and A wasn’t home to help me out, so I didn’t feel equipped to try the nifty inversion of the frittata onto the plate described in step 7. Instead, I took a deep breath, gripped the handle of the skillet in both oven-mitted hands, and flipped it over as fast as I could, dumping the frittata out onto the cutting board on the counter. Usually I’m not too coordinated with such things, but it worked just fine! There’s more potential for the frittata to get bent or broken with this technique, but I think if you’ve cooked it sufficiently and are using a nonstick pan that will release it easily, the frittata will be solid enough that you can pull it off nine times out of ten.

1 medium-large zucchini or yellow summer squash, cut in half lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus additional salt to taste
4–5 tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds red potatoes, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced into half-moons
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
¼ pound smoked Canadian bacon or ham, diced
6 eggs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese

1. Combine the zucchini and 1 teaspoon salt in a colander and toss well. Set aside to drain for 30 minutes.

2. While zucchini is draining, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a large, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or ovenproof nonstick skillet. Add the potatoes and onion, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, flipping and stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue cooking, tossing occasionally, until the potatoes are brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the potatoes from the pan with a slotted spoon, but keep the skillet on the burner.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

4. Transfer the zucchini to a clean kitchen towel and pat dry. Add the zucchini and ham/bacon to the skillet and sauté over medium-high heat until zucchini is just tender, about 4 minutes. Remove zucchini and ham/bacon with a slotted spoon, but keep the skillet over the heat.

5. Beat the eggs and pepper to taste in a medium bowl until well blended. Fold in the potatoes, zucchini, ham/bacon, and cheese.

6. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet as needed to lightly coat the bottom. Pour in the egg mixture, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook without stirring until the bottom is set, about 10 minutes.

7. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the top is set, 5 to 15 minutes, checking every 5 minutes.

8. Place the serving plate on top of the skillet and carefully invert. The frittata should fall out of the pan. Cut into wedges and serve.

Serves: 6–8
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High. Reheats well, the wedges maintain their shape, and the flavor continues to develop. Great for breakfast as well as lunch or dinner. We made the frittata on Thursday night and continued eating it happily all weekend long.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


This recipe, known variously as the Mrs. Fields Cookie Recipe (note: I have never eaten an actual, official, storebought Mrs. Fields cookie), the Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe, and the $250 Cookie Recipe, is the subject of much urban legend, which is not really exciting enough to go into here. The point is that these are some damn good cookies, good enough to merit a grandiose backstory. In fact, although I am certainly a fan of the good ol’ plain Nestle Toll House recipe (and will eventually have to try the NewYork Times recipe everyone’s been blogging feverishly about--it's this year's no-knead bread!), these are hands down my go-to chocolate-chip cookies because of two important features: (1) They have oatmeal in them, which I love, but it is ground to a powder and so takes on more of a background role than in your usual oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie; and (2) They have both semisweet chocolate chips and milk chocolate chips. Not being a fan of dark chocolate as a child, I loved it when my mother made Mrs. Fields Cookies. Now I enjoy dark chocolate, but milk chocolate still holds a special place in my heart, and I think the combination of chocolates in these cookies is interesting. Overall, the cookies are not as soft and chewy as I usually prefer (owing to the oatmeal, the dough is so thick you have to mix it by hand), but sturdy, robust, and most importantly, not too sweet—I think it’s thanks to the oatmeal again, which adds a savoriness. I had one of these followed by a normal homemade chocolate-chip cookie given to me by a friend, and the normal cookie (while quite good) seemed so sickly sweet in comparison, my mouth puckered.

Whereas I could eat Mrs. Fields Cookies all day, which is good because when I made these a couple of weekends ago, I clean forgot that the original recipe (as passed down to me by my mother and found all over the Internet as well) makes an insane amount of cookies—about double your average cookie recipe, at least 8 dozen, which meant that the dough barely fit into my largest mixing bowl. Thanks to this little oversight, our cookie supply (stored in the freezer) will last for weeks or even months, but after being unexpectedly chained to the oven for hours baking tray after tray of them, I prudently halved the recipe in my book so I wouldn’t be taken unawares again. Not that too many cookies can ever really be a bad thing...

1 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2½ cups oatmeal
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
6 ounces dark chocolate chips
4 ounces milk chocolate chips
½ cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cream together butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla.

3. Process oatmeal in a blender until powdered. In a separate bowl, mix powdered oatmeal with flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.

4. Mix dry ingredients with creamed ones. Dough will be quite thick; you will have to mix with your hands unless you have a very powerful mixer.

5. Stir in chocolate chips and pecans.

6. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of dough onto greased cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes.

Yields: about 4 dozen
Time: 1 hour

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Cucumbers in their brine, ready to go into the refrigerator and begin the pickling process

A snack-sized portion of the finished pickles, nom nom nom

OMG pickles! I love pickles! Well, I hate the sweet ones. And anything pickled that is not a cucumber. Let me start again…

I love dill pickles! And I am just kicking myself for not figuring out earlier how easy it is to make them in the refrigerator. (Canning them, while not that difficult either, is another story.) Make a brine with vinegar, water, and seasonings, and pour over salted cucumbers? I could have been doing this in kindergarten and eating awesome homemade pickles for an after-school snack every single day. Why did I have to put it off until Labor Day 2008? Ah, so many years wasted eating the store-bought ones….

In short, I have made pickles, and I am pleased with myself. They taste just like actual pickles! (I know, I know, they are actual pickles. But they were so easy to make, it seems like magic.) This very basic recipe, courtesy of Martha Stewart, makes a nice, mild dill pickle slice with a hint of garlic. I am sure it would be awesome on a hamburger or other sandwich of some kind, but so far I’ve just been eating them straight from the bowl whenever I crave a little salty, crunchy snack. Undoubtedly they are better for me than Doritos.

I was a little worried because when I was preparing to make these, I discovered that my big old bottle of white vinegar had expired. In…er, 2005. Turns out I don’t use a lot of white vinegar (balsamic, red wine, white wine, and cider, yes; white, no). The sad thing is that I went ahead and used the vinegar anyway. I know, I’m terrible! You’re never going to want to come over to my house for dinner, are you? Bad enough that at least one cat hair gets into everything I cook, but now I’m using ingredients that expired almost one presidential administration ago. To be fair, I gave the vinegar the sniff test and it smelled like…vinegar. What happens to vinegar when it gets old, anyway? Does it turn into wine? The pickles taste just like they’re supposed to and no one has died, so I suspect vinegar can’t really expire.

Oh, wait! This is what the Internet is for! Let’s check….

(Five minutes later) All right, the Vinegar Institute is on my side:

“The Vinegar Institute conducted studies to find out and confirmed that vinegar’s shelf life is almost indefinite. Because of its acid nature, vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. And, while some changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color changes or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change. The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.”

I will certainly be using and enjoying the rest of my vinegar with confidence—to make more pickles! If you are a pickle fan, I strongly recommend that you do the same.

2 pounds Kirby cucumbers (small, unwaxed pickling cucumbers)
3 tablespoons coarse salt
3 cups water
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon dill seed
4 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh dill, coarsely chopped

1. Cut the cucumbers into ½-inch rounds and place in a colander set over a bowl. Toss cucumbers well with salt and let drain in refrigerator for 1 hour.

2. About 20 minutes before cucumbers are done draining, bring water, vinegar, dill seed, and peeled garlic cloves to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Let mixture cool slightly, about 10 minutes.

3. Remove cucumbers from refrigerator; rinse well and drain (discard any juice in the bowl). Pat dry between paper towels or in a dishtowel. Transfer cucumber slices to a large bowl (to save washing, I just dried out the one I’d drained them over and used it again). Add chopped dill to the bowl and toss to combine. Pour in the brine. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

4. Transfer mixture to airtight containers (I was able to skip this by making the pickles in a Pyrex bowl with a tight-fitting lid) and refrigerate at least 1 week. Pickles will keep in refrigerator for 3 more weeks.

Yields: 2 quarts
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (but most of that is draining/cooling time during which you can go away and do something else), plus 1 week for the actual pickling process

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I believe my love for BLTs is well known. My weakness for ranch dressing is a darker secret I try to keep in check. So when I saw this recipe in (of all places) Parade magazine, I knew I’d have to give it a try. I’m generally not in favor of entrée salads, but on a hot summer night they sometimes seem like just the thing, especially when they involve (a) arugula, (b) tomatoes, (c) bacon, and (d) bread cubes toasted in bacon fat.

As is noted in the comments on the Parade page, despite the lead-in “Hot August evenings call for light dinners,” this salad is not exactly a dieter’s dream (you can now click over to look at the fat content if you like, but I don’t really recommend it, especially since the fat stats aren't broken down into saturated/unsaturated and thus aren't that helpful). You could probably decrease the bacon quantity, and cook the bread cubes in less bacon fat or switch to olive oil instead (though I wouldn’t encourage that—those bacony croutons were amazing). You could use less ranch, and I think I did—two tablespoons per serving seems like a lot to me, although, granted, I’m not someone who likes my salads drenched in dressing. But how did I choose to make this salad more healthy? Via the dubiously effective yet undoubtedly exciting strategy of eschewing chemical-laden prepared ranch dressing and making my own instead! And I know maybe, speaking strictly statistically, my dressing wasn’t any less fatty than a bottled version—sure, I did use vitamin-rich fresh herbs and substitute nonfat Greek yogurt for the sour cream, but the majority of the dressing is good old mayonnaise—but shh! Leave me my illusions. Because that dressing was awesome. And it made this salad super awesome. And I plan on enjoying them together (with a side of fresh corn on the cob) at least one more time before summer (which, thankfully, in Southern California, lasts through September) is over.

You don’t really need an exact recipe to throw a salad together, so I just used the Parade instructions as a general guide. I split the recipe in half, to make two servings instead of four. I could have decreased everything a little further, since the quantities turned out to be generous, I guess because this is intended as a main dish—2 cups of lettuce, 1 cup of bread cubes, and 1 tomato per person. I could definitely eat that much, but I could not fit it into a bowl. (I prepped the salad in the two individual bowls we were going to eat out of, instead of in one large salad bowl. I suspect that if A were to serve himself out of a larger bowl, he would end up with 80% croutons and bacon.) I had neglected to buy frisee, but the bag of arugula from the farmers’ market was plenty for the two of us. So, just eyeball it. The point is the combination of fresh greens, good tomatoes (I used some gorgeous heirlooms—Cherokee reds, I think), and salty bacon, with the extra flourishes of bacony seasoned croutons (I am always suspicious of dried thyme, but it was great here) and creamy, herby dressing. (Not to neglect the chives—they add a subtle oniony touch.) And, I would like to argue, this salad is likely nutritionally superior to an actual BLT, since you get more lettuce, more tomato, and less bacon than a traditional sandwich contains.

So I recommend this recipe, and if you are going to bother with doing that, I strongly recommend making your own ranch dressing. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and it will totally rock this salad.

¼ pound bacon (I used 4 slices), diced (1x¼-inch pieces)
1–2 cups cubed French bread (1-inch pieces)
½ teaspoon dried thyme
3–4 cups baby arugula (you can substitute frisee for half of this if you want)
2 ripe tomatoes, cubed (1-inch pieces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
2–4 tablespoons ranch dressing

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. While oven is heating, cook the bacon in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until it reaches desired crispness. Remove with a slotted spoon and set to drain on a paper towel. Reserve 1 tablespoon bacon fat from the pan.

3. Toss the bread cubes with the reserved bacon fat, plus the dried thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Spread bread cubes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until crisp and golden, 10–15 minutes, tossing once.

4. Place arugula (and frisee, if using) in a bowl and toss with the bacon, tomatoes, bread cubes, chives, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with ranch dressing.

Serves: 2
Time: 30 minutes


God bless the Pioneer Woman. First oatmeal-jam bars, and now this.

I have never been a huge fan of salad dressing. For many years, I would eat my salads entirely “naked” (I still do, on occasion, if the dressing isn’t worthwhile), and now I only use a tiny splash of dressing—not so much for health reasons, but because I can’t stand the slimy texture of lettuce drenched in liquid. When I go out, I always order dressing (usually vinaigrette) on the side, so I can control the quantity, and when I’m home, I use only the simplest of dressings—lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper shaken up in a jar. But the first dressing I learned to tolerate, then crave, was ranch. It perked up, or at least masked, the sad lettuce-and-shredded-carrot-and-red-cabbage salad bar mix that sustained me at the college cafeteria, and as far as I’m concerned it makes a better dip for French fries than ketchup (ah, I mourn for those halcyon faster-metabolism days of my youth, devouring fries with ranch every Monday night at the Groveland Tap in St. Paul, washing them down with a pint of Leinenkugel's!). The advent of Cool Ranch Doritos is a fond food memory for me, right up there with the introduction of the Dairy Queen Blizzard (1985, I remember it well).

Now, ranch and I have grown apart. Happily, I’ve mostly lost my taste for Doritos and am no longer subjected to sad salads on a regular basis (though sadly, I’ve moved away from both the Tap and the land of Dairy Queens). I’ll still dip a few baby carrots into ranch dip at a party, but it would never have occurred to me to try making my own ranch if it hadn’t been for a recipe I recently spotted and instantly craved: BLT Salad With Ranch. Then I remembered seeing a recipe for homemade ranch on The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and the rest was history. Delicious, delicious history.

If you have a bottle of Kraft ranch dressing in your refrigerator or those Hidden Valley ranch-mix packets in your cupboard, throw them out and make this instead. If you think prefab dressing tastes like chemicals, make this and rediscover the joy of ranch. This recipe is dead easy to make and actually tastes just like other ranch-flavored things you’ve eaten, but better. I’m as shocked as you are to learn that the mysterious “ranch flavor” is actually something than can be created using real ingredients, but there it is.

I made a few modifications to the original recipe: (1) I halved the quantities, because a household of two people does not need, and probably should not have access to, a big bowl of ranch dressing. (2) I substituted nonfat Greek yogurt for the sour cream. Certain boyfriends I could mention were skeptical of this decision, but I guarantee it, they were not able to taste a difference and neither will you. Not only is yogurt healthier, but it's also available in small single-serving containers, so you won’t be stuck with a big tub of sour cream. (3) I never have buttermilk around and hate buying a big carton for just a couple of tablespoons, so I always use the ol' milk-n-lemon juice trick. Verdicts vary on the quantities, but for this dressing I just put ¼ cup milk in a Pyrex 1-cup measuring cup, then added about a teaspoon of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and let it sit for a few minutes before adding it gradually to the bowl of ranch until the dressing was thinned to the right consistency).

Oh, and I added some black pepper, because I love it, and some fresh dill, which I happened to have a ton of, because I was also making…homemade pickles! Stay tuned to hear about that exciting adventure later this week!

In the meantime, if ranch dressing holds any dear place in your heart, for pete’s sake go out and make this recipe at once. You owe it to yourself. And if you’re really hardcore, you’ll make your own mayonnaise to go in it! (OK, I haven’t tried to leap that culinary hurdle yet, but it’s on my to-do list.)

1 small garlic clove
½ cup real mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip)
¼ cup nonfat Greek yogurt (such as Fage)
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Fresh dill, if desired
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Buttermilk (or milk + lemon juice) to taste

1. Mince the garlic. Sprinkle a pinch of coarse salt over it and mash it into a paste with a fork or the flat side of the knife.

2. Add the garlic to a small bowl along with the mayonnaise, yogurt, and seasonings. Mix well and add buttermilk or milk as needed to thin to desired consistency (about ¼ cup seemed to work for me). Chill for a while, preferably a couple of hours, before serving. Keeps in the refrigerator, covered, for about a week.

Yields: About ¾ cup
Time: 10 minutes