Friday, June 29, 2012


Roasted strawberries! I had never heard of such a thing before, but of course it makes perfect sense. (More sense than strawberry pizza, anyway.) After a sojourn in the oven with sweetness-boosting syrup and savoriness-boosting oil and salt (I know it feels weird to be putting oil and salt on berries, but just roll with it), they break down into a magical, deeply concentrated, intoxicatingly perfumed, almost jammy concoction that’s then tossed in balsamic vinegar for a final flavorful coup de grace. Is there any food that can’t be improved by roasting? I don’t want to know the answer to that.

This recipe from Joy the Baker isn’t perfect, or at least my execution of it wasn’t, but it won me over nonetheless. The strawberries came out wonderfully, although given the volume of the cake I would be tempted to use even more of them next time; the result was more “cake with occasional strawberry” than “strawberry cake.” The cake itself doesn’t contain a lot of butter or sugar, which is great, but my batter turned out worrisomely thick and floury-tasting (I’m an inveterate batter-sampler and usually think it tastes even better than the cooked version, but this one was not very delicious). I’m fully willing to believe that I mismeasured the flour—I do remember being in a rush and resorting to the scooping method rather than the more accurate spoon-in-and-level—but it still made me nervous. When the cake had cooled I cut myself a slice and was underwhelmed. I loved the roasted strawberries, but overall the cake seemed too dense and blah. I stuck the rest of the cake in the fridge and went to bed, telling myself that I’d just have to roast strawberries and eat them in other ways (on yogurt? over ice cream?) while sticking with my favorite tender, moist, lemon-spiked berry buttermilk cake.

The next day, I tried another slice and…it was pretty good! I know that many foods are tastier the next day, but I don’t usually think of cake as one of them. While it still wasn’t ultra-flavorful, the cake now seemed like a worthy vehicle for the strawberries, and I suddenly liked it enough to revise my initial “not worth making again” judgment. Over the next couple of days, I even found myself savoring a slice for breakfast (with a wholesome side dish of yogurt), and I have never been a cake-for-breakfast eater, not even doughnuts or muffins or cinnamon rolls or other socially accepted cake-like foods. That should give you an idea of how not-very-sweet this cake is. I grew to like its not-sweetness, and even its sturdiness, which kept the berries from sinking to the bottom. Maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, but by the time the cake was gone, I’d decided I would definitely make it again. Maybe even specifically for breakfast.

I made no changes to the recipe beyond using a few more strawberries (I’ll use even more next time, possibly even doubling the whole roasted-strawberry recipe), baking it in a 12-inch skillet instead of an 11-inch, because that’s what I’ve got (the cake still seemed plenty thick, regardless), and using granulated sugar on top because I didn’t have turbinado (it was fine, although I’m sure turbinado would add more crunch). I used vanilla but might try almond next time to see if it adds a more discernible flavor (or maybe I’ll use both). Next time, as I mentioned, I’ll measure my flour more carefully and err on the scant side. I’m also tempted to throw all the strawberries onto the cake before baking, instead of adding half then and half later, because that didn’t seem to make much difference in flavor or texture.

8 ounces (or more) medium strawberries, hulled
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pinch of salt + ½ teaspoon, divided
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1½ cups buttermilk
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or ¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar (or just granulated sugar) for topping

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. (The strawberries get juicy, so a rimmed baking sheet is important.)

2. In a large bowl, whisk together maple syrup, olive oil, and salt until completely incorporated. Cut each strawberry in half and place in the bowl. Toss well until each strawberry is coated. Arrange strawberries in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet.

3. Roast strawberries for 40 minutes. (The juices will thicken, but remove the strawberries from the oven before the juices begin to burn.) Remove the berries and juice from the pan while still warm. Place in a small bowl, stir in balsamic vinegar, and set aside.

4. Increase oven heat to 400 degrees. Butter an 11- or 12-inch cast-iron skillet. (You can also use an 11-inch round tart or quiche pan, or a 9×13-inch pan, although the cake will be thinner and you’ll need to keep a close eye on it in the oven.)

5. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar.

6. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, and butter. Whisk in the vanilla or almond extract.

7. Add the buttermilk mixture all at once to the dry ingredients. Stir until just combined and no lumps remain. Spoon batter into the prepared pan and top with half of the roasted strawberries and juice. Sprinkle generously with turbinado sugar.

8. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. (Keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t overcook and dry out.) Allow cake to cool to room temperature before slicing to serve. Serve with the remaining roasted strawberries on top.

Serves: About 8
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: OK; cake will last in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Once I get interested in a food I can get a little obsessive about it (see: poached eggs, quinoa, feta, fritters), especially when it’s a seasonal fruit or vegetable (see: corn, asparagus, fennel, radishes) that won’t be available at its peak quality for long. This can lead to long stretches where we eat the same types of things at least once a week, sometimes for months on end. No matter how delicious those things are, I know the repetition can be a little wearying for anyone who doesn’t share my passion, so I like to keep a few simple comfort foods in my back pocket, things that can be made year-round and that A is always happy to see on the menu, thus softening the blow that we’re also having, say, kale salad for the third week in a row. Ideally, though, these comfort foods will still be fresh, wholesome, and not too indulgent. That’s a tall order, but luckily, this is the sort of thing Cooking Light excels at, which is why I keep renewing my subscription. Two summers ago, it brought us a now-favorite, BBQ pulled chicken sandwiches, and now it’s served up another slam dunk.

I’ve never been particularly interested in meatball sandwiches or sliders or making burger-type foods at home, so I’m not sure exactly what attracted me to this recipe beyond the fact that the photo was very colorful and appealing, and I suspected A that would enjoy it. I suppose my enjoyment of meatballs has been steadily increasing over the years, from lemony pork meatballs with noodles to Italian wedding soup, as I’ve realized that, never a big fan of slabs of uninterrupted meat, I’ll take these little spiced, seasoned bites over a steak any day. I knew that A, who can have a bird-like appetite at times, would appreciate the petite, nonoverhelming quality of the mini sandwiches, and I liked the fact that they looked easy to put together but didn’t resemble anything else in my recipe collection.

Folks, these are incredibly delicious! I was a bit weirded out when I stirred the ricotta into the ground meat—there was enough that the whole mixture turned white and creamy and gooey, which made it trickier to form the meatballs—but the cheese is the secret ingredient that keeps these relatively lean meatballs so tender and moist. For the sauce, I just used a can of Trader Joe’s tomato sauce, then spiced it up with 1 teaspoon each of dried oregano, dried basil, and balsamic vinegar, plus a pinch each of fennel seed and black pepper, after I added it to the skillet—basically a streamlined version of my pizza sauce. I didn’t see slider buns at any of my usual shopping sites, so I just bought some small buttermilk dinner rolls from a bakery at the farmers’ market and they worked perfectly. (In the future, I’d like to try making little versions of yogurt sandwich rolls for this purpose.) The resulting sandwiches are messy, but so crowd-pleasingly enjoyable. Just don’t leave off the fresh basil leaves, as I accidentally did the second time I made this. They’re not just a garnish; they add a welcome bright, grassy note.

Pondering what to serve alongside this, I figured I might as well go with the simple spinach salad that the magazine suggested as an accompaniment. It sounded a little dull to me, but I knew I wanted some color and vegetables on the plate, and I rarely say no to cheese. It turned out to be an excellent choice; it was easy to make and surprisingly complex-tasting, more than the sum of its parts. The spinach, mozzarella, red pepper, onion, and balsamic dressing completed the Italianate flavor profile so perfectly that I’d never bother serving the sliders without the salad, and for your convenience I’m just combining them into a single recipe below.

Confession: I did not toast my panko (too lazy; seemed unnecessary) or my buns (just noticed that instruction in the original recipe now) and nothing seemed amiss, so I’m marking those steps optional. I suppose toasting the bun might keep the sauce from making it soggy, but as long as you eat these promptly after assembling, I don't think sogginess should be a major problem.

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 shallots, finely diced
1 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
⅜ teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon black pepper, divided
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mozzarella
⅓ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup panko, toasted if desired
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 ounces lean ground pork
2 4-ounce links turkey or chicken Italian sausage, casings removed
1 large egg
1½ cups lower-sodium marinara sauce
6 cups baby spinach
12 slider buns (or small dinner rolls, split in half horizontally), toasted if desired
12 large basil leaves

1. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat; swirl to coat. Add garlic and shallots to pan; sauté 3 minutes or until shallots are softened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

2. While the shallots are cooling, combine red bell pepper, red onion, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and mozzarella in a large bowl; let stand while preparing the rest of the meal.

3. Combine the ricotta, parsley, panko, ½ teaspoon black pepper, red pepper flakes, ⅛ teaspoon salt, ground pork, Italian sausage, and egg with the shallot mixture in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands, then shape mixture into 12 (approximately 1-inch) meatballs; flatten each meatball slightly.

4. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add remaining 2 teaspoons oil to pan. Add meatballs to pan; cook 6 minutes, turning once. Add marinara sauce; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or until meatballs are done.

5. Add baby spinach to the red pepper mixture and toss well.

6. Top the bottom half of each bun with 1½ tablespoons marinara sauce, 1 meatball, 1 basil leaf, and top half of bun. Serve with spinach salad on the side.

Serves: 6 (2 sliders and about 1 cup of salad each)
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Good, if you store the salad and sliders unassembled. For the salad, store the red pepper mixture separately from the spinach, store both elements in the refrigerator, and combine just before eating. For the sliders, store the meatballs with their sauce separately from the buns, store the meatballs in the refrigerator and the buns at room temperature (or in the freezer), then reheat the meatballs in the microwave (you can also microwave the buns to thaw them, or just briefly to soften them if they are a bit dry), and put them on the buns just before eating. You can either put the basil on top of the meatballs before you store them (it will discolor a bit but will taste just fine), or add it freshly when it’s time to eat.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Clearly, even though I keep telling myself I’m not in the market for any more pasta recipes, I am still powerless to resist certain ingredients, and feta and lemon are definitely on the list. This is basically a spring/summer version of one of my favorites, orzo with chicken, lemon, and dill—similar core elements, but cool and refreshing instead of hot and melty, brightened up with lots of green vegetables.

My mouse hand crept relentlessly toward the “Save on Delicious” button as soon as I spotted this Dinner With Julie post in my feed reader. I paused only to think, “Could I add even more green things to this concoction?” After a quick Food Blog Search session, the answer was clear (thanks to this Two Peas and Their Pod recipe): asparagus. That was the only change I made to the original, except that I increased the orzo quantity to use the whole package, and skipped the rice vinegar (which I don’t have) in favor of more lemon juice.

All quantities are pretty much up to you here. I’m not exactly sure how much spinach I used, but I remember thinking there could be more of it; I loved the way its crisp, springy texture contrasted with the softer ones of the pasta and cheese—even after the salad spent several days in the fridge, it magically didn’t seem to get wilted or slimy—and I ended up adding even more of it to the leftovers, until it felt like half pasta and half greens. So I’m guessing at 6 ounces; use whatever seems right to you. Same with the onion; a little raw onion can go a long way, of course, but its crunch and bite are welcome here. And let’s face it, I probably had a heavier hand with the feta. I liked the asparagus, but you could leave it out (and, if you’re making the pasta more than a few hours ahead of serving, you may want to, because asparagus is quicker to discolor when subjected to acid and age). Whatever you do, this is a fresh, incredibly quick and easy, light but satisfying salad that would make a perfect entrée on a hot day or an excellent addition to a picnic, BBQ, or potluck menu.

This is one of those basic discoveries that gets me really excited. Sometimes I glance at a recipe and wonder if it’s really worth my trying, even though it looks tasty, because it seems so simple and overlaps so many other recipes I’ve made before. Because I tend to gravitate toward certain ingredients, I’ve tried a lot of different combinations of them over the years. I try to resist letting my recipe collection balloon out of control; my ideal has always been to have a streamlined, well-curated list of favorites, but of course thanks to the number of food blogs I read and my own need for variety in writing this one, my virtual recipe box is always bulging. I tend to forget the fact (or maybe I just fear it, and the boundless options it represents) that ingredients can be combined in many different ways, and just a small variation can yield brand-new flavors, colors, and textures. In other words, even though this salad didn’t seem surprising or revolutionary to me at first glance (it’s no strawberry pizza, for example), I enjoyed it so enormously that it instantly won a spot in my regular rotation.

1 pound orzo
½ pound asparagus (optional), tough ends trimmed off, sliced into 1-inch pieces
6 ounces fresh spinach, thinly sliced
1 small red onion, finely chopped
4 ounces crumbled feta
Grated zest and juice of 1–2 lemons
2–3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cook the orzo according to the package directions; drain well, running under cool water to cool it down, then dump into a bowl.

2. If using asparagus, steam until crisp-tender. Run under cold water to stop cooking, then add to the bowl with the orzo.

3. Add the spinach, onion, feta, and lemon zest to the orzo.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over the orzo mixture and toss well to coat.

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Great. Will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Strawberry pizza, what what what? And not some wimpy dessert pizza, either. I’ll put just about anything on a pizza, including apples and pears, so technically strawberries aren’t so much of a stretch. But strawberries with onions, bacon, chicken, and cheese? Not to mention a sauce of strawberry jam, balsamic vinegar, and Sriracha? I like all those things, and even some of them in pairs (strawberries + balsamic, bacon + anything), but let’s face it, as an assemblage it sounds bizarre. I was half-intrigued, half-weirded out when this recipe popped up in my feed reader. It was from Annie’s Eats, however, a site that’s never steered me wrong, and if Annie acknowledged that the combination seemed strange yet tasted wonderful, I figured I should trust her. Plus, whether it turns out well or poorly, unusual food always makes good blog fodder.

Luckily, this is one of those ingredient lists that makes complete sense when you taste it. I did still find the sauce a bit unnervingly sweet for an entrée, but it’s well balanced by the tartness of the vinegar, the spiciness of the Sriracha, the smokiness of the bacon, and the savoriness of the chicken, onion, and cheeses. Unfortunately, I’d thrown away my cilantro earlier in the week in a fit of carelessness (after using half the bunch for a different dish, I carefully thought through the remainder of my upcoming meals and concluded there was nothing else I needed it for, completely forgetting it was yet another element of this unpredictable pizza mélange), so I was forced to make do with a mixture of basil and mint. Both of those herbs seem to be more frequently paired with strawberries, so perhaps it’s understandable that the cilantro slipped my mind, but I think the cilantro might have worked better here—my replacements were OK, but the mint, in particular, struck me as too reminiscent of dessert. Other than that, everything was perfect, and the finished dish reminded me surprisingly strongly of BBQ chicken pizza. Despite his initial skepticism, A particularly liked it (I believe the word he used was “awesome”), so soon strawberry pizza will seem totally normal at our house. And, as a bonus, it’s a great way to use up my omnipresent stash of homemade jam!

¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup good-quality strawberry jam
1 teaspoon Sriracha
1 pound pizza dough
1 cup shredded or diced cooked chicken
4 slices bacon, diced and cooked until crisp
½ cup thinly sliced yellow onion
4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2–3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
½ cup hulled strawberries, diced

1. Place the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook 4 to 5 minutes or until reduced by about half with a thick, syrupy texture. Remove from heat and pour into a small bowl. Add the strawberry jam and Sriracha, stir well, and set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

3. Roll out the pizza dough and place on a baking sheet or pizza stone. Spread the balsamic-strawberry mixture in a thin layer over the crust. Layer with the chicken, bacon, onion, cheeses, cilantro, and strawberries.

4. Bake pizza until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the crust is lightly browned, about 11 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before slicing and serving.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Good.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I used to hate corn tortillas. I can only attribute this to having grown up in the Midwest, because ever since I moved to Southern California, I’ve gradually grown to love them, which I assume is I because I’ve finally been exposed to fresh, handmade, tender tortillas instead of the dry, mealy ones of my memories. (I don’t mean to malign the Midwest; Minnesota actually has a large Mexican population and you can get excellent tortillas there now, but if they existed in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t encounter them or was too picky to try them.) I still don’t really bother with average mass-produced corn tortillas, but every now and then I make a pilgrimage to my favorite Mexican grocery for a warm stack of their housemade ones. The only problem is that the smallest package of these still contains dozens of tortillas (I’ve never counted, but I’d say at least 48), and with no preservatives in them, they only stay moist, soft, and taco-worthy for a few days. Granted, this heap of tortillas sets me back less than $2, but I hate to see them go to waste. The less-fresh ones are great for making quesadillas or tostadas or baking into chips to dip in salsa, and of course they’re delicious in soup, but even after all that I can still find myself with leftovers, so I’ve been on the lookout for other ideas.

When I spotted a recipe for enfrijoladas—basically, enchiladas made with a bean sauce instead of tomato sauce—at Tasty Kitchen, it seemed like the perfect solution. But at second glance, I was a bit put off by the fact that the sauce was made out of canned refried beans, thinned with broth. (Nothing especially wrong with canned refried beans, mind you, but I’m a recent convert to bean-loving, and in my bean-hating days, refried beans grossed me out the most.) Wouldn’t it make more sense to puree freshly cooked dry beans, or even canned beans, in their liquid? I hit the Internet to find out, and after a lot of searching I found what I was looking for at Pati’s Mexican Table: a series of recipes for frijolas de olla (cooked beans), pureed beans, frijoles colados (refried pureed beans), and finally enfrijoladas. Pati’s enfrijoladas were simpler and more authentic, with no cheese filling, no baking, and no toppings beyond queso fresco, avocado, and crema—lovely, I’m sure, but I liked the idea of filling and baking them and making some sort of salsa-like toppings, so I combined Pati’s many recipes for the bean mixture with the Tasty Kitchen method, then improvised my own topping out of various fresh southwesternish vegetables.

I feel a bit sheepish posting this here because I don’t think I’ve perfected it yet, but if I don’t get it written down I’m afraid I’ll forget it entirely. And my enfrijoladas were very good, even though I think my bean mixture was still a bit too thick overall and I probably used a bit too much of it (after the first few tortillas tore I thinned it further, but the end result was still on the clumpy, casserole-ish side, with the enfrijoladas completely breaking down when I tried to get them out of the pan). Luckily, they were so delicious that I didn’t really care what they looked like, and the colorful topping helped to mask my aesthetic sins. This may seem like a lot of work to go through for what is basically an inside-out bean and cheese enchilada, but none of the steps were especially hard and I think the end result was worth it.

You could basically put whatever you want inside these; plain cheese was sufficient for me, but to ease A’s suspicions about such a bean-heavy dish, I threw in a little cooked chicken from my stash in the freezer, and it did add some texture. You could also put whatever you want on top, but I must say I was very pleased with my version.

P.S. I really recommend refrying your beans in bacon fat. It adds a wonderful smoky flavor that makes all the difference, in my opinion.

1 pound dry pinto or black beans
1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and halved
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste
2–3 tablespoons canola oil or bacon fat
12–16 corn tortillas (you may want to have extras on hand in case some of them tear)
2 to 3 cups grated pepper Jack cheese
1 to 2 cups cooked cubed or shredded chicken (optional)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
Cooked kernels from 1 ear of corn
2–4 green onions, sliced
Chopped cilantro to taste
Several radishes, sliced (optional)
1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
Juice of 1 large lime

1. Rinse the beans in cold water and drain. Place them in a large, heavy pot and cover with about 10 cups of water, or enough water to come up to at least 3 inches above the top of the beans. Add half of the onion (just the entire piece, no need to cut it up). Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer, partially covered, for about 1½ hours, or cover pot entirely and transfer to a preheated 250-degree oven for 75 to 90 minutes. When the beans are tender, add 1 tablespoon salt. Let them continue simmering for about another 15 minutes, or until the beans are so soft that they come apart if you hold one between your fingers. If the beans are not yet soft and the pot is drying out, add more water. When the beans are cooked, remove the onion with a slotted spoon and discard.

2. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Place the beans and 2 cups of the cooking liquid in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

3. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil or bacon fat and heat until hot but not smoking, about 1 to 2 minutes. Dice the other half of the onion, add it to the pan, and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, until it is softened and translucent, and has started to slightly brown along the edges. Add the pureed beans a cupful at a time over the sautéed onion, and let the mixture season for 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Reduce heat to low. Gradually add more bean cooking liquid (you can also use chicken or vegetable broth) to thin the bean mixture to a soupy/saucelike consistency. For me, this was at least 2 cups, and I probably could have used more, but your mileage may vary—just experiment until you find the right consistency. If the sauce is too thick, the tortillas will tear when you dunk them in and try to lift them out again; if that happens, just add more liquid and try again with a new tortilla. (The torn bean-soaked tortillas make a good snack for the cook.) Season sauce with salt to taste. I also stirred in a little bit of salsa for additional flavor; I might do more of that next time.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

6. Heat your tortillas in the microwave until soft and pliable (or heat them briefly on a hot skillet on the stove). One by one, dip them into the bean mixture so that the tortilla is coated on both sides. Lay the tortilla in a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of grated cheese on one half of the tortilla and top with a little chicken, if desired. Fold the tortilla in half to cover the filling. Repeat with remaining tortillas until dish is full. Pour some of the remaining bean sauce over the tortillas in the baking dish (just do this to your taste; you don’t want to drown them, so you might not use it all—I probably could have used a little less). Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese, to taste.

7. Bake for about 10 or 15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

8. Meanwhile, mix together tomatoes, corn, green onions, cilantro, radishes (if desired), and avocado in a medium bowl. Add the lime juice and salt to taste, and toss well.

9. Serve the enfrijoladas topped with the tomato mixture.

Serves: 4–8
Time: 3 hours
Leftover potential: Good, but store topping separately.