Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I’m a latecomer to avocados; I didn’t even start liking guacamole until my college years, when I tasted the good stuff in Mexico. But moving to California, where avocados are so very cheap and good and plentiful (so much so that you might actually know some people who have avocado trees in their backyards and bestow big bagfuls upon you), made me feel contractually obligated to use them, and now I am enamored with them. It helps that our farmers’ market has a cheerful, capable vendor A and I refer to as The Avocado Lady, who has the infallible magical power of selecting precisely the right avocado for you based on size, type, intended use, and when you want to eat it, so that all I have to do is stroll up and say “I’d like something that will be ripe tomorrow night” and I’m presented with a perfect avocado every time.

I don’t have that many avocado recipes yet, though, so I was excited to see this one from Gourmet at The Bitten Word, chock full of ingredients I like and bursting with beautiful bright colors. Since goat cheese tastes like dirt to me (I keep trying, I swear!) I almost skipped the cheese entirely, but I subbed in feta at the last minute and was glad I did; it kept the sweet-savory balance intact. I also ended up using a couple of mandarin oranges instead of a navel orange, because when I sliced open my navel orange it was all tragically dry and stringy (I think that’s the first-ever bad orange I’ve encountered in the six years I lived here), so I squeezed out enough juice for the dressing and discarded the flesh. I actually liked the mandarin orange segments a lot; they were a lot less labor-intensive and held together neatly for tossing and eating. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t really like the dressing here, even though it’s just a lime-orange version of my go-to lemon vinaigrette. Maybe the juice from the rogue orange tainted the whole thing, but I kept tasting the dressing over and over again as I whisked it, and it seemed to vacillate between anemic at best and off-tasting at worst. It didn’t ruin the salad for me because I loved all the other ingredients so much, but it certainly lacked the pizzazz needed to elevate this from “big bowl of cut-up foods I enjoy” to more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps having orange in both the dressing and the salad was overkill, and my taste buds were hoping for a more contrasting flavor? I wonder how the balsamic vinaigrette from the rather-similar-now-that-I-think-about-it arugula and strawberry salad would work with this recipe. I know people routinely eat avocado halves with balsamic vinegar poured in the pit cavity, so it wouldn’t be a crazy flavor combo, right? Or possibly, since I thought this salad also needed a crunchy, earthier element like nuts, I should just merge the two recipes and be done with it. I’ll experiment and let you know how that goes. But regardless, I’ll make this again. It’s a tasty way to get your fruits and veggies in one bowl and will make a refreshing light dinner on a hot summer day.

1 navel orange
1 cup strawberries, sliced or quartered
1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice, divided

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups baby arugula (2 ounces)
2ounces mild goat or feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut peel, including all white pith, from oranges. Working over a small bowl, cut segments free from membranes. Squeeze membranes for more juice so that you have 1½ teaspoons of orange juice in the bowl. In a larger bowl, gently toss together the orange segments, strawberries, avocados, and ½ teaspoon lime juice.

2. To the small bowl of orange juice, add oil, remaining 1½ teaspoons lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

3. Toss arugula with dressing, top with avocado-strawberry mixture, and sprinkle with cheese.

Serves: 2–3
Time: 15 minutes
Leftover potential: Poor, unless ingredients are stored separately (but even then, avocado will get brown)

Friday, April 23, 2010


Every year at about this time, I crave coconut cake. That’s because when I was little, my mom would always make me a birthday cake shaped like a bunny, with coconut fur and jellybean eyes. I loved those cakes. But soon, my taste in birthday desserts started skewing toward the chocolatey, and I never looked back. I don’t think I’ve tasted coconut cake in years, and I haven’t even had cake for my birthday in recent memory; since moving to California, I’ve established a tradition of having a beach bonfire party, so hot dogs and s’mores are the new treat of choice. Plus I like cookies and candy and pie and ice cream more than I like cake. Plus I’ve got no one to make a cake for me (mom is far away, and baking is not one of A’s many skills), and it’s a little sad to have to make your own birthday cake, right?

Not if you’ve got a food blog! When I saw these cupcakes at Ezra Pound Cake a few months ago, I knew I needed a good excuse to make them, so I bookmarked them for my birthday. Besides the fact that they were (a) coconut and (b) cupcakes, what tempted me most about them was the inclusion of almond extract, one of my favorite flavors, and buttermilk, which is always stellar in baked goods, and the cream cheese frosting (I don’t love frosting, but I make an exception for cream cheese frosting—which is odd, because I don’t love cream cheese, either). Plus, the recipe was from Ina Garten, as so many delicious things tend to be. My birthday was on a Friday this year, which was not terribly conducive to cake-baking, but I quickly overcame that obstacle by simply declaring Saturday my birthday as well. Friday would be my office party and my bonfire, and Saturday would be cake baking, fun stuff (a trip to Descanso Gardens and a mini-golf outing), dinner at my favorite sushi restaurant, cake eating, and gift opening.

When I embarked on my baking and was setting out all the butter on the counter to bring it to room temperature, I realized this recipe is definitely a once-a-year treat. We’re talking three sticks of butter for a dozen cupcakes, plus the buttermilk and cream cheese. Aside from my Butter Guilt, however, the baking and frosting proceeded smoothly (it’s pretty much just standard cake procedure). I made no recipe changes, except that I used the ol’ milk + lemon juice buttermilk substitute because I didn’t want to make a special trip to the store to buy a whole carton when I just needed ½ cup. Real buttermilk is always better, though, so in the future I’ll try to make the effort. The cupcakes were still plenty good, but when I use buttermilk I can always taste that nice tang and notice the extra-tender texture it imparts, while when I use a substitute it just seems more…neutral.

These cupcakes were so, so good—exactly what I’d been craving. The cake part was good but unobtrusive, buttery and not too sweet, a perfect canvas to showcase the coconut flavor and the frosting (I did think the cake seemed just a little stiffer than I like it, but that may have been my fault, not the recipe’s). The frosting was excellent: perfectly pillowy texture, again not too sweet. The weird thing was that the cupcakes seemed to actually get better with time. I liked them when we ate them on Saturday, but the frosting seemed too tangy and cream-cheesy, and the coconut flavor wasn’t as strong as I’d been expecting. We stuck the rest of the cupcakes in the fridge, and the next day when I had one (after letting it sit out on the counter for half an hour or so to bring it back up to room temperature), I was amazed. Either my palate was out of whack on Saturday, or the coconut had really permeated the cupcakes by Sunday. I’d thought I was going to try to pawn off the rest of the cupcakes on my coworkers on Monday, but it turned out there was no way I was going to part with them, and we enjoyed cupcakes for dessert every night this week. Now they’re gone and I have something to look forward to next April, because these are definitely becoming a birthday tradition for me.

I’m so glad I went ahead and made my own cake. For one thing, I’d forgotten how happy it makes me to blow out the candles. But more importantly, it feels really good to indulge in exactly what you want. I’d considered just going out and buying two cupcakes from the cupcake shop in our neighborhood, and that would have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been as satisfying. Baking is fun, and when you put labor into something you’re going to eat and it turns out just as good as you’d hoped (or better), it’s like a gift to yourself. Happy birthday, me.

For the cake:
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon pure almond extract
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup buttermilk
3½ ounces sweetened, shredded coconut

For the frosting:
½ pound (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
12 ounces confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3½ ounces sweetened, shredded coconut

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and almond extracts; mix well.

3. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

4. Add one-third of the dry ingredients to the batter, then add half the buttermilk. Repeat with another one-third of the dry ingredients and the rest of the buttermilk, then add the remaining dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in coconut.

5. Fill each paper liner to the top with batter. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until the tops are brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove to a baking rack and cool completely.

6. Meanwhile, make the frosting. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla and almond extracts. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until smooth.

7. Frost the cupcakes. Sprinkle with the remaining 3½ ounces coconut.

Yields: 12
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Good. We kept them in the fridge, bringing them up to room temperature before we ate them, and they were still just as good six days later.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Quinoa! It looks kinda freaky (something about all those tiny dots just makes me uncomfortable, the way fish roe does), but it tastes delicious (mild, a bit nutty), has an addictive texture (fluffy, slightly chewy), and is crazy good for you (chock full of protein, fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron). Not to mention that it’s a really fun word to type and say.

Like just about everyone, I’m trying to incorporate more grains into my diet. (Zzzz, I know.) Also, for my own entertainment, I some need new meal platforms; my favorite things to cook are one-dish dinners that combine a starch with a bunch of vegetables and herbs, but one can (or should, at least) only eat so much pasta and I don’t really like rice. Exploring the exciting frontier of grains, especially with summer salad season fast approaching, gives me a whole new category of recipes to try, and I’ve been eagerly a-bookmarkin’ in anticipation.

A few weeks ago, I ate dinner with my friend P, who’s recently been diagnosed with a host of food allergies, including an allergy to wheat. So one of the things she cooked for me was quinoa, and it was so tasty I was inspired to cook it myself for the first time. Sifting through quinoa recipes on Food Blog Search, I encountered this one from Eggs on Sunday, which seemed like the perfect gateway drug, dovetailing perfectly with my annual obsession with asparagus and lemon.

I could tell that A was a little suspicious of the quinoa, but he sampled it gamely (I served proscuitto-wrapped chicken on the side to soften the blow). In pitching the dish to him, I had lamely described it as “sort of like rice or couscous, but better”; after tasting it, he amended, “It’s like how I always wish couscous could be.” In other words: thumbs up. I followed the recipe exactly and found it easy and thoroughly delicious—however, the lemon flavor is strong, so if you’re not a crazy lemon fan like me, you might consider dialing down the lemon juice or zest to start out with (you can always add more later). I've classified this as a side dish, but there's no reason you couldn't eat a big bowl of it as a light meal on its own. As a bonus, it's especially pretty, with the pink shallots adding a nice pastel accent to the green asparagus and pale-yellow grain. This will be a certain addition to my spring menu rotation, and I’m now officially emboldened to experiment further with quinoa. Quin-yeah!

1 cup quinoa, well rinsed
2 cups water
1 pound asparagus, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 shallot, minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Rinse 1 cup quinoa well under cold water, then place it in a saucepan with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

2. While the quinoa is cooking, mix the lemon juice in a small bowl with the minced shallot, a good pinch (about ½ tsp) of coarse salt, and a few good grindings of fresh black pepper. Whisk to combine, then drizzle in the 3 tablespoons olive oil, whisking all the time. Add the lemon zest and the chopped herbs, and whisk to combine.

3. When the quinoa is done cooking, transfer it to a large mixing bowl and pour the vinaigrette over it, then stir with a fork or large spoon to coat the quinoa.

4. Fill your saucepan back up with water and bring it to a rolling boil with enough coarse salt to season the water. Add the pieces of asparagus to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Drain the asparagus and run some cold water over it to stop the cooking process.

5. Add the asparagus to the quinoa and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good. I even ate some five days later and it was still decent. I reheated it in the microwave, but you could also try eating it cold, for more of a salad-like effect.

Friday, April 16, 2010


It will surprise exactly no one that the combination of green beans and bacon turns out to be excellent. I tore this recipe out of the November issue of Cooking Light and by now it’s racked up a perfect five-star rating on the Web site. It was intended as a Thanksgiving recipe, but I see no need to wait for a special occasion; this is a great way to jazz up an ordinary weeknight meal (we had it with zucchini fritters). The flavors go together beautifully: Like my favorite salad, it has green beans and walnuts and a walnut oil/white-wine-vinegar dressing; like these two also-tasty recent discoveries, it uses bacon grease to excellent effect; and like so many of my most reliable side dishes, it involves shallots. What’s not to love? A and I both devoured it happily, and it’s definitely going into our regular rotation.

Other than halving the quantities (it originally served 8), using plain ol' farmers' market green beans instead of haricots verts, and swapping in white wine vinegar for the champagne vinegar, which I never have on hand, I followed the recipe as written. I do recommend walnut oil (I’ve become a convert), but olive oil will do just fine if you don’t want to make the investment.

1 pound green beans, trimmed
2 slices bacon, chopped
⅓ cup thinly sliced shallots (about 1 medium)
2 teaspoons walnut oil
1 teaspoon champagne or white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, toasted
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Cook beans in boiling salted water for 7 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking.

2. Cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp; remove with a slotted spoon. Add shallots to drippings in pan; cook 5 minutes or until tender. Combine shallots and bacon in a large bowl. Add beans to pan; cook 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Add beans, oil, vinegar, and salt to bacon mixture; toss to combine. Sprinkle with walnuts and parsley.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Meh; they were perfectly edible the next day, but not nearly as good.

Friday, April 09, 2010


BBQ chicken pizza is apparently the most popular offering at California Pizza Kitchen (at least, according to the website), but I’ve never been tempted to order it. (I will admit to liking CPK just fine and, although we don’t go there very often, I have definite favorites: the wild mushroom pizza and the garlic chicken pizza—although neither is as good as my former favorite, which was sadly retired a few years ago). I like barbecue fine at venues that specialize in it, but not enough to order something with “BBQ” in the title at an ordinary chain restaurant when there are other, more vegetable-y things available. And when I saw a copycat recipe of the CPK superstar on The Pioneer Woman Cooks, I wouldn’t ordinarily have been that excited by the idea of making my own BBQ chicken pizza at home—were it not for the three-quarters-full bottle of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue sauce sitting in my refrigerator for the past eight months, looking lost and lonely. I brought it back for A from my trip to KCMO, and I thought it a fine condolence prize for him not being able to experience that luscious pile of pork for himself, except that it turns out there’s not a whole lot for us to do with a bottle of barbecue sauce considering that we don’t ever barbecue. A loves condiments of all sorts and usually keeps a bottle of BBQ sauce in the fridge for dipping oven fries or whatnot into, so I guess I thought he’d use it for that, but occasional snacking barely made a dent in the supply. So: BBQ chicken pizza, the perfect solution.

The recipe I ended up making is an amalgam of Pioneer Woman’s and multiple variants of the “official” recipe available on the Internet. PW didn’t include smoked Gouda in hers, and a number of the comments pointed out that it’s a key ingredient of the CPK one, so I went ahead and added some; it does lend a really nice flavor (well, actually, Trader Joe’s didn’t have smoked Gouda, so I used a “smoked Dutch cheese” that I suspect was pretty much the same thing). Since I had some leftover precooked chicken in the freezer waiting to be used, I went ahead with the “official” method of just tossing it with a little barbecue sauce; however, if I were starting with raw chicken I’d definitely use PW’s clever method of cooking it in the sauce for a more baked-in flavor. Also, both the “official” recipe and PW’s make two smallish pizzas, but I wanted to make one standard one, so I ended up eyeballing the ingredient quantities. I’ve done my best to replicate this below, but go with whatever looks good to you. The nice thing about pizza is that you don’t need to be very precise. Just don’t leave out the cilantro—it adds an unexpected flavor twist that kicks everything up.

I still have at least ½ cup of Arthur Bryant’s sauce left in the bottle, so I’ll definitely be making this at least one more time. After that, though, I’d probably still make this again. It might not become my very favorite pizza, but it was easy, zippy-tasting, a good way to use up orphaned cooked chicken, and a nice change from my other recipes. (Needless to say, A really loved it.) If I do keep making it, though, I’ll either have to find a good barbecue sauce available locally or try making my own—which I've been looking for an excuse to do anyway...

UPDATE, September 2012: If you want to make your own barbecue sauce for this pizza, here's a tasty and easy recipe adapted from A Good Appetite:

⅔ cup ketchup (preferably organic, no high-fructose corn syrup)
⅓ cup water
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1–2 tablespoons brown sugar

Mix all ingredients together in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring from time to time, until reduced slightly and darkened in color, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

1 pound pizza dough
1–2 whole boneless, skinless, chicken breasts or an equivalent amount of precooked (e.g., rotisserie) chicken (about 5–10 ounces)
½–¾ cup barbecue sauce
1–1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons shredded smoked Gouda cheese
1 small red onion, sliced very thin
Chopped cilantro to taste

1. If you are using raw chicken breasts, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place chicken breasts in an ovenproof dish and pour about ½ cup barbecue sauce over them, turning them over to coat both sides. Bake for 20–25 minutes or until chicken is done. Remove from oven and cut into a fine dice. If you are using precooked chicken, shred it or cut it into fine dice, then toss in a small bowl with about 2 tablespoons barbecue sauce.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

3. Roll/stretch out pizza dough on a baking sheet coated in a little olive oil or cornmeal. Spread a thin layer of barbecue sauce over the crust (about ¼ cup, or to taste). Top sauce with half the mozzarella and all the Gouda. Sprinkle on the diced chicken and thinly sliced red onion, then top with the remaining mozzarella.

4. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and toppings are bubbly. Remove from the oven and sprinkle on plenty of chopped cilantro.

Serves: 4
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes if cooking chicken; 45 minutes if using precooked
Leftover potential: Good; if possible, heat up leftovers in the oven.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


We lucked into a big bag of Meyer lemons from A's friend's family's tree (inheriting large sacks of citrus fruit being one of those SoCal customs I'm happy to embrace), and I thought immediately of lemon frozen yogurt. I made lemon ice cream soon after acquiring my ice cream maker, but then came that run of delicious frozen yogurts over the summer, and now I'm enchanted with the tang and relative lightness of homemade fro-yo. I'd have to fly without a net, however, since my ice cream guru David Lebovitz didn't include lemon in the frozen yogurt variants in The Perfect Scoop. Luckily, I was able to cobble together this three-step, three-ingredient treat based on Lebovitz's other recipes and some intrepid Googling. The result is puckeringly tart-sweet (less passionate lemon lovers may want to dial down the lemon juice, particularly if you're not using the sweeter Meyers; I just wanted to use up all my juice in one go). A little goes a long way; a single scoop makes a refreshingly bright, cool treat after dinner or on a warm afternoon, particularly when topped with strawberries.

3 cups plain Greek yogurt (I used 2 cups whole-milk yogurt and 1 cup 2%)
1 to 1½ cups sugar (to taste)
1 cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice

1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until sugar is dissolved.

2. Refrigerate several hours until fully chilled.

3. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.

Yields: About 1½ quarts
Time: 10 minutes, plus chilling and freezing time
Leftover potential: High; keeps well in the freezer for at least a week