Monday, March 28, 2011


I was going to a sleepover and wanted to bring a sweet snack, but the hostess had a wheat allergy, which ruled out the usual cookies or cake. So I delved into my Delicious bookmarks and found this recipe from Tasty Kitchen: the familiar Chex Muddy Buddies/Puppy Chow, but using popcorn instead of rice cereal. Genius! Granted, I could have just made Muddy Buddies, since Rice Chex is gluten-free, but (a) I happen to know that the hostess is a big popcorn fan; and (b) I have something of a chocolate-popcorn obsession, stemming from Proustian recollections of my childhood, when my mother would often give me a bowl of popcorn and a mug of cocoa as a wintertime snack, and I would dip pieces of popcorn into the cocoa. (This may have been inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, one of the best food books for children ever, where one of the many treats Almanzo and his siblings enjoy is popcorn in milk.) People I’ve told this to over the years have often been grossed out by this, but really, I think I was ahead of the curve on the whole sweet-salty trend, because I remember loving the way the chocolate tasted with the buttery salted popcorn. Also, the kernels shriveled up in a fascinating way—try it sometime! About five years ago, after hearing this reminiscence, my boss thoughtfully gave me a bag of chocolate-covered popcorn from Sarris Candies for Christmas. It was so mind-blowingly good that I’ve wanted to try making my own ever since, and finally I had the perfect opportunity.

Not surprisingly, the result was spectacularly awesome. It wasn’t pretty to look at, but it couldn’t have been easier to make or more addictive to eat. All of it got devoured that night at the party, so I can’t tell you how long this will keep. The chocolate coating never firms up completely thanks to the other ingredients, so I would imagine that the popcorn will get soggy after a few days, but it will still be popcorn covered with peanut butter and chocolate and thus far from repulsive. I did decrease the powdered sugar slightly, from 1½ cups to just 1 cup, because I don’t care for super-sweet desserts and really wanted more of that bitter chocolate flavor to come through. You can use however much suits your taste. I think next time I’d go even farther and consider adding some salt along with the sugar.

9 cups air-popped popcorn (be sure to remove any unpopped kernels)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup natural peanut butter (I recommend smooth and salted)
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 1½ cups powdered sugar

1. Place chocolate chips, peanut butter, and butter in a large microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until melted and smooth. (If you don’t have a microwave, you can melt the ingredients over a double boiler instead.) Stir in the vanilla.

2. Place the popped popcorn in a large bowl and pour the chocolate mixture over it. Stir until evenly coated. Add the powdered sugar and stir until each piece is covered (I recommend starting with 1 cup, tasting it, and then adding up to ½ cup more sugar if desired). Spread out on cookie sheets lined with waxed paper to set the chocolate. Store in an airtight container.

Serves: 8–12
Time: 15 minutes
Leftover potential: Unknown

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I was a seafood hater for the first 20 years or so of my life and I’ve been trying to make up for it since, but the fact remains that I’m still something of an innocent when it comes to fish. Although I’ve got halibut fish and chips and fish tacos nailed, I can’t quite convince myself to love salmon (except in sushi, where it’s my fave). I’ve tried a number of worthy salmon recipes over the years, but mostly out of a sense of healthful duty, and nowadays I rarely seem to make them because eating salmon feels like such a chore. No matter how delicious the seasonings, after the first few bites I just don’t enjoy the texture; it seems so dry and chewy in comparison to the unctuous, buttery feeling of the raw stuff. So I wish someone had told me earlier that there’s an easy solution to Dry Salmon Sadness: letting it come to room temperature and then cooking it very gently at a low heat. In other words, try a little tenderness.

Now that I look, this cooking method seems to be widely represented on the Internet, but I stumbled across it at my new food blog addiction Anger Burger, where Sunday (who calls it “Improbable Salmon”) writes, “I’m acutely aware that many people reading this are terrified of cooking fish, to which I can only say: start with this recipe first. It is very difficult to screw up. The idea is that you cook the salmon in a very low oven for a twice as long as you’d normally cook it, and the result is fish that is buttery soft and moist. And you have a window of like 10 minutes where you can go ‘Wait, is it done? Did I screw up?’ and it will A) yes, be done, and B), no, you did not screw up.” Armed with this assurance, I forged ahead with the recipe, which provides a generic template for a Dijon vinaigrette to marinate and sauce the fish; I adapted it to my tastes, as written below (lemon, parsley, dill), but there are a lot of other combinations of acids (like orange juice) and herbs (like basil) you might try. (Or—oh!—lime and cilantro?!) I loved my version of the sauce, though—lemon and dill are so classic with fish, so perfect for spring, and so excellent with mustard, which, yes, is fast becoming my new BFF. And the fish was incredibly easy to make and just as freaky-pink and excitingly juicy as promised. It still wasn’t as good as eating salmon sashimi, but it was a damn sight closer than any recipe I’ve ever tried.

Now that I’ve done this, I’m sort of shocked that so many of the other salmon recipes I’ve encountered have been the exact opposite, baking the fish into submission at temps as high as 500 degrees. Obviously, the high heat is necessary to get a crispy pesto or caramelized sugar, but in retrospect I mostly liked those recipes because they covered up the salmonyness of the salmon, whereas this recipe lets it shine. I still won’t be eating salmon every week (unless I win the lottery and then someone builds a sushi restaurant next door to my apartment), but when I do want to make it, this recipe’s the one for me.

By the way, I served this with arugula, potato, and green bean salad and it was a perfect pairing.

2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 small clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
8–12 ounces salmon fillet

1. In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except the salmon and whisk until emulsified (or you can use a small jar and shake it well). Taste for seasonings; make sure it’s a little saltier than you think is right, because it will be diluted when on the fish.

2. Remove salmon from the fridge, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the salmon into two pieces of equal size. Coat each piece well with the sauce and place 1 inch apart on a baking sheet or dish coated with aluminum foil. Pour remaining sauce over fish.

3. Allow salmon to marinate at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes while you heat the oven to 250 and make any side dishes you plan to serve.

4. To bake, put the fish in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, test for doneness by breaking open the largest piece of salmon and checking that it flakes. (The fish will still be dark pink and very soft—not the firm and opaque salmon you’re used to—but it is actually cooked and safe to eat; however, you can cook it for 5 more minutes if you’re unsure.)

Serves: 2
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Unknown

Friday, March 18, 2011


Grains like quinoa are such a great way to down a big bowl of vegetably goodness without feeling like you’re making a meal entirely out of leaves. (Yes, I still have a slight aversion to main-dish green salads. I REQUIRE CARBS, PEOPLE.) This recipe, which I spied at Tasty Kitchen, is essentially a quinoa-based version of the Southwestern salad I first enjoyed (despite its leafiness) late last summer: cilantro-lime dressing, black beans, corn, peppers, green onions…yum. To make it even more like that salad, I had to add avocado, because I am a spoiled Californian who can get them at the farmers’ market. I also added some feta, because I had some sitting in the fridge that needed to be used, and also because feta has been a delicious addition to every other quinoa salad I’ve made so far (I imagine cotija would also work well, perhaps better). I also think cherry tomatoes might not be a bad extra, either. Oh, and although the recipe called for fresh corn, I used frozen, because even spoiled Californians can’t get good corn in March, which is as it should be. The frozen tasted just fine.

The original recipe calls for red quinoa, which makes the dish extra-pretty, but Trader Joe’s was inexplicably out of it this week, so the beige quinoa had to do (as far as I can discern, they taste exactly the same anyway). I ditched the recipe’s annoyingly convoluted directions for preparing the quinoa, which involved cheesecloth and boiling plus steaming, and just used the back-of-box directions as I usually do. I’m sure the more complicated method results in some barely perceptible improvement in texture, but I tried that once for this corn-mint quinoa recipe and didn’t find it worth the hassle. In addition, I reduced the quinoa amount from 1½ cups to 1 cup, just because every other recipe I’ve made uses 1 cup and it always seems to result in plenty of quinoa. In retrospect, this was the right call; there seemed to be just the correct balance between the quinoa and the other ingredients as it was, and any more quinoa would risk being too much. We still got five servings of salad out of it; the first night, we had small-medium portions with chicken quesadillas on the side (mostly because I feared that A wouldn’t like the salad, being a bean hater; rather surprisingly, however, he praised it), but the three more generous leftover servings made satisfying vegetarian main dishes in their own right. Zippy, colorful, and packed with vitamins and protein, this is definitely a keeper.

5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon ground cumin
⅓ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup red quinoa (normal quinoa works just fine, too)
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup corn kernels, fresh (cut from about 2 large cooked ears) or frozen (defrosted)
1 cup finely chopped bell pepper
1 whole jalapeƱo pepper, seeded and minced
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup finely chopped green onion
1 ripe avocado, diced (optional)
4 ounces feta or cotija cheese, diced or crumbled (optional)

1. Rinse the quinoa well under cold water, then add to a medium saucepan with 2 cups of water and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed and quinoa is fluffy and chewy, about 15–20 minutes.

2. Empty cooked quinoa into a large bowl and allow it to cool almost to room temperature, stirring occasionally. (This will help the vinaigrette coat everything without the quinoa absorbing too much of it.)

3. While quinoa is cooling, make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, 1 teaspoon salt, minced garlic, ¼ cup chopped cilantro, and cumin and add oil in a stream, whisking. Add black pepper, stir, and set aside.

4. When the quinoa has cooled, add the beans, corn, peppers, cilantro, green onions, and avocado and/or cheese if desired, and toss gently with the dressing.

Serves: 4–6
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Good. (If using avocado, prevent it from browning by tossing it in a little lime juice before adding it to the salad.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I have found The One—or perhaps I should say the Four or Five, because that is how many of these spectacular pancakes I can put away in one sitting, and let me tell you, there have been several sittings. But what I mean is the One True Pancake Recipe, which, not being a very big pancake fan, I had not even really suspected existed for me. Although I’d dutifully dabbled in a couple of earlier candidates, it was more because I like the cozy, homespun idea of making pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning than because I like the pancakes themselves. And not being a very big banana fan either, I’m surprised to find myself raving about a second banana-based recipe in the space of a month, but here we are.

I stumbled across this recipe at In Praise of Leftovers while searching for ways to use up the enormous bag of oat bran left over from making multigrain rolls. Normally I balk slightly at buying buttermilk, but I’m slowly being won over by the fact that everything I make with it turns out extra-delicious, and besides, I already had some in the fridge left over from the aforementioned banana cake. All the other ingredients were pantry staples, and the process was simplicity itself (no egg separating, mixer, or blender required). The resulting pancakes are ultra-moist and fluffy, only delicately banana-flavored, and not too sweet. The oat bran imparts a savory, nutty quality and a barely-detectable crunch. I like that the texture is much more like a “normal” (tender, pillowy) pancake than some of the whole-grain varieties I’ve tried, but you’re still getting some fiber from the bran plus some fruity goodness from the banana. You can go ahead and put syrup on them if that’s your thing, but I must protest that these are even more fan-effing-tastic with strawberry or blueberry jam instead (jamcakes!). I also happened to have some blueberries on hand, so I dropped them into a few of the pancakes I was making for A and that addition was quite well received. I imagine that chocolate chips (inside) or Nutella (outside) would not be amiss either, if you’re the type who can stomach dessert-like treats for breakfast. But me, I could just eat them plain. I’ve made them twice in two weeks already and, with ripe bananas in the freezer and buttermilk and plenty of jam in the fridge, I know it won’t be long before I do it again. Consider all other pancake recipes officially retired.

POSTSCRIPT, JANUARY 2012: I just realized I've completely forgotten to document one important improvement I habitually make to this recipe: adding vanilla extract to the batter. Because everything is better with vanilla! I've edited the recipe below to reflect this change.

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup oat bran
1 pinch salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1½ cups buttermilk
½ to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 very ripe banana, mashed

1. Heat up a griddle over medium heat.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. Whisk eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla together in a medium bowl. Add buttermilk mixture and mashed banana to dry ingredients, stirring just until blended.

4. Drop ¼ cupfuls of batter onto hot griddle (I like to add a little bit of butter to the cooking surface and let it melt first). Flip the pancakes after bubbles have formed, and cook until browned.

Serves: 3–4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Pancakes can be frozen between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container and reheated on a warm griddle (I microwave them just enough to defrost the interior, then cook on a griddle until the outside is warm and crisps up slightly).

Thursday, March 03, 2011


It appears I’m on a soup kick this year; this is my fourth new soup recipe in two months. Not only did this recipe at The Pioneer Woman Cooks look colorful and delicious and generally souptastic, but it also gave me an excuse to buy fresh, handmade corn tortillas. Yes, folks, nearly seven years after moving to Los Angeles, I’ve finally found a source for good tortillas. Really, I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to discover the awesome Mexican grocery just a few miles up the road, where you can buy a stack of several dozen perfectly tender, addictively flavorful, ridiculously simple (“ingredients: corn, water”) tortillas for just 99 cents. I’m even more embarrassed that it took me nearly as long to like corn tortillas, because I’d mostly only had the dry, mealy storebought ones. Falling in love with the good ones has been a total revelation.

This is a fairly basic tomatoey chicken and bean soup made remarkable by three things:
  1. Stirring in cornmeal, which I’d never done before, gives a faint nutty, savory flavor and subtly creamy texture.
  2. Those tortillas are the superstars here, added the soup without baking or frying—a rarity among tortilla soup recipes I found online, and dubiously received by some of the commenters, but to me, it makes a lot of sense. It seems more authentic somehow—I can see this recipe originally being created, like chilaquiles, as a thrifty way to use up slightly stale tortillas. It’s such a win-win for common sense: The cheap tortillas bulk up the soup and make the expensive meat stretch further, and the soup rehydrates potentially dried-out old tortillas and makes them toothsome again. But even if you’re using fresh tortillas as I was, it’s still a great idea: The tortillas lend their corny flavor to the soup, the soup’s flavor soaks into the tortillas, and, particularly after a day or more has elapsed, they have the irresistible soft-chewy texture of noodles. Even if you’re skittish about the idea of soggy tortillas, promise me you’ll give it a try. You can always garnish with corn chips if you want the crunchy topping too.
  3. The garnishes really amp things up. As with chili, the sky’s the limit and the combinations are nearly endless. I think avocado, cilantro, and lime are a must, and onions (I used green instead of PW’s red) and cheese are strongly recommended, but you could add salsa/pico de gallo and sour cream as well. I only added avocado to about half the leftover servings, because I had a lot of them and I wasn’t sure how avocado would hold up over the long term (especially if I ended up freezing it). Then later in the week, after making fish tacos (I had a lot of tortillas to use up, after all), made the miraculous discovery that the leftover avocado cream sauce (that’s pureed avocado, lime, cilantro, and yogurt) was excellent when drizzled atop the avocado-less soup portions. When stirred in thoroughly, it froze just fine. In fact, it was so good that next time I’d consider making avocado cream specifically for the purpose of adding it to my tortilla soup.
In short, we really liked this soup. However, I’d do a few things differently next time. Overall, the soup base was blander than I’d expected. Granted, I wasn’t able to cook it quite as long as the recipe directed, and the flavor did improve the next day. But I think there are a few other factors. Using half broth and half water definitely made it taste watered-down; next time, I’ll make a half-recipe (this made a ton) and use all broth. And even gussied up with the spice rub, I don’t think the boneless, skinless chicken breasts did the soup any favors. I don’t really like white meat that much, but even chicken breast off the bone has exponentially more flavor. Usually, I use leftover roasted chicken or chicken I’ve boiled for stock to stir into soups, and I should have followed that impulse here, but I wanted to obey the recipe the first time through. Next time, I’ll do off-the-bone chicken instead (if you don’t usually have a stash of it in your freezer as I do, a storebought rotisserie chicken would do the trick) and just stir all the spice rub into the soup in Step 3. I also think one could squeeze in more veggies: a bit more bell pepper, maybe some fresh or frozen corn kernels, and possibly a diced jalapeno to add a bit more spice? I’ll try all these changes out next time and report back to you. But even if you make the recipe as written in the meantime, I think you’ll be pleased.

2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1½ teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt, plus additional salt to taste
1 cup diced onion
½ cup (or more) diced bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with green chilies (such as Rotel, or Trader Joe’s fire-roasted tomatoes with green chilies; just use a can of diced tomatoes plus a can of green chilies if you can’t find this)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained
3 tablespoons cornmeal
5 corn tortillas, cut into uniform strips
1–2 ripe avocados, diced
Juice of 1 lime
Sliced green onions to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro to taste
Grated pepper Jack, Monterey Jack, or cheddar cheese to taste

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix cumin, chili pepper, garlic powder, and salt in a small bowl. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on chicken breasts, then sprinkle a small amount of spice mix on both sides. Set aside the rest of the spice mix.

2. Place chicken breasts on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until chicken is just done. Use two forks to shred chicken. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pot over medium high heat. Add diced onion, bell pepper, and minced garlic. Stir and begin cooking, then add the rest of the spice mix. Stir to combine, then add shredded chicken and stir.

4. Pour in diced tomatoes and chilies, chicken stock, tomato paste, water, and black beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered.

5. Mix cornmeal with a small amount of water (I used a couple of tablespoons). Pour into the soup, then simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Check seasonings, adding more if needed—add more chili powder if it needs more spice (I added some chipotle chili powder at this point, which was an excellent decision), and be sure not to undersalt. Turn off heat and allow to sit for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Five minutes before serving, gently stir in tortilla strips.

6. Ladle soup into bowls, then top with desired garnishes such as diced avocado, lime juice (to keep the avocado fresher, I recommend tossing it with the lime juice and then adding the mixture to the soup), green onions, cilantro, and grated cheese.

Serves: 8
Time: 2½ hours
Leftover potential: Great; leftovers will keep for at least a week in the fridge, improving with time, and can be frozen indefinitely.