Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I just can’t care about rice. I mean, whatever, I respect its right to exist, I recognize that it’s a vital and versatile component of many cuisines, it’s fine when it appears on my plate, it adds substance to a meal, food sits on top of it, it makes a nice vehicle for sauce, it doesn’t taste like much, blah blah yawn. I don’t seek it out, is what I’m saying. I don’t specifically order it in restaurants and I don’t cook it at home. I used to think I felt the same way about rice pudding. I mean, rice pudding is definitely preferable to plain rice, but if you gave me a choice between rice pudding and regular old nonrice pudding, I’d pick normal pudding every time.

But then my friends came to visit and cooked me an unbelievably delicious fish curry. There was leftover rice. I thought I’d be thrifty and make it into pudding. I added coconut milk, vanilla, and cardamom. I fell head over heels in love. And now I’m screwed because I don’t have a regular supply of leftover rice. Either I’m going to have to start making rice, or I’m going to have to find myself a similar rice pudding recipe that starts with uncooked rice. Oh, the injustice!

The recipe I found via Food Blog Search, from Vanilla Garlic, called for 1½ cups of cooked rice, but I had 2 cups, so I used it all and increased the liquid contents slightly, probably not in very scientific proportions. The recipe said to use 2% or whole milk, but I used 1% mixed with the dregs of a carton of heavy cream I’d been wanting to use up. In the future, if I don’t have cream already on hand, I’ll probably just try making it with 1%, because I hate buying multiple kinds of milk. I don’t think it would cause any major texture issues; you might just have to cook the pudding a bit longer to get it to thicken. I also used light coconut milk. I didn’t have any vanilla beans, so I used extract, and I added the cardamom because I adore it, and because I wanted to emulate Indian-restaurant kheer, which is the most enjoyable form of rice pudding I’ve experienced. I wasn’t quite sure about the cooking time, because the original recipe said to just “simmer over medium-low heat for 40 minutes.” I suspected this might mean to bring it to a boil at a higher heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes, but I decided to take it literally, start the burner at medium-low, set the pot on it, and set the timer for 40 minutes. It took nearly half an hour just to start simmering, and at least another half-hour to reduce to a pudding-like consistency. No problem if you’ve got the time to babysit it, but if you want to speed things along I suspect it would be better to get the simmer started at a higher temperature, then turn it down.

I was so concerned about my pudding being overly soupy that I cooked it down more than I’d planned, forgetting that it would thicken a bit more once I took it off the heat. I ended up loving the texture, though—velvety, but with a satisfying chew. Because the leftover rice I’d used was broken rice, the pieces ended up quite small, reminiscent of tapioca. Even though I’m not sure whether anything bad could happen when you mix coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and cardamom, I was still blown away by how delicious it was, especially since I’d improvised/fudged so much of the recipe along the way. Since the rice is already cooked, I don’t really think you can really mess this up too much short of burning it—just add the amount of sugar that tastes good to you and a reasonable amount of liquid, and cook it until it resembles pudding. The result is cold, creamy, not too sweet, and very refreshing as a summer dessert. And apparently, it’s made me a rice pudding convert.

2 cups cold cooked rice
1 14-ounce can coconut milk (I used light)
3 cups milk
½ cup sugar
1 pinch salt
1 vanilla bean, insides scraped out, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼–½ teaspoon ground cardamom

1. In a medium saucepan, combine the rice, coconut milk, milk, sugar, and salt. If you’re using a vanilla bean, add the seeds and the scraped-out pod.

2. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, at least 40 minutes, then remove from heat. If using vanilla bean, remove the pod; if using extract, stir it in. Stir in the cardamom.

3. Divide into individual servings (ramekins, small bowls, teacups, whatever), cover, and chill.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 to 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Great; will keep in sealed containers in the fridge for days.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


In my misguided youth (specifically, the college and immediate postcollege years), I had a brief but intense love affair with Noodles & Company. It was a new chain at the time, and “upscale” fast food was still a new concept. My tastes, cash flow, and cooking skills were still at beginner’s levels, so a cheap, convenient place that served plentiful pasta in a variety of styles was ideal for my lifestyle. The quality was decent, and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there now, I wouldn’t turn up my nose if it were the best available option in a pinch. Not that I’ve tested this assertion; there are no locations in L.A., so I haven’t eaten at Noodles in at least 8 years. But I’ve still got a soft spot in my heart for it. Recently we visited A’s hometowm of Bloomington, Indiana, where a few years ago the awesome old movie theatre on the main drag closed and was made over into a Noodles & Company location. This is pretty much the height of corporate soullessness, yet as we walked by it and A shook his fist in rage, I’ll admit that a small part of me was thinking, “Mmm…pesto cavatappi.”

Although the macaroni and cheese (with spinach and tomatoes added) was also a favorite, my most-ordered dish at Noodles was always the pesto cavatappi, a delightfully curly pasta shape tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and a pesto-white-wine-cream sauce. It suddenly struck me that this is the kind of thing I could easily make for myself now—and make it better, to boot—and that copycat recipes were probably widely available on the Internet. Sure enough, they were, but they all varied widely, and I couldn’t manage to find one authoritative version I was really happy with. Still, it’s hardly rocket science to toss together pasta, homemade pesto, mushrooms, and tomatoes, so I figured I could wing it. This recipe at Cooking With Cristina seemed the likeliest candidate, since it was based on one posted at Yahoo Answers by a supposed former Noodles cook, but I also threw in a few elements (red pepper flakes, garlic) from this version, just for added zip. (I rarely worry that new things I cook will fail spectacularly, but I always fear that they might turn out bland and boring.) I wanted to use a full box of pasta (I love having pasta leftovers in the fridge and hate half-empty boxes in the cupboard), so I tried to increase the other quantities accordingly (and I increased the vegetables even more, because I love vegetable-heavy pasta dishes). I used my own recipe for pesto, which is just the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook one minus the pine nuts (too expensive, they always seem to go bad before I can use them up, and ever since I started reading about pine nut mouth on the Internet I’ve been mildly afraid of them).

The result was delicious and really did taste like my memories of pesto cavatappi, but it wasn’t pesto-y enough, so I made it again with double the amount. A also thought there could have been more mushrooms, so I doubled those too. These were both excellent decisions. I increased the wine and cream quantities a bit to compensate, although the sauce ended up on the soupy side, so I’m not sure I’d go quite that far next time, which is why I’ve just given a range of measurements below. Overall, this is a wonderfully colorful and flavorful pasta dish that’s easy to make. The wine, cream (such a small quantity it’s indetectible if you don’t know it’s there, yet it adds a luxurious texture), and vegetables elevate it far above basic pasta with pesto, which (maybe because it was one of the first things I learned to cook on my own) always seems a bit dull to me now. A is less passionate about pasta on the whole than I am, but he devoured this one eagerly. I was glad to be able to serve myself a nice dose of nostalgia, but in a way that fits my cooking style today.

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup firmly packed fresh parsley sprigs, stems removed
1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, plus extra to taste
4 large cloves garlic, divided
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
½ cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
¼–½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pint (2 cups) cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
⅓–½ cup white wine
¼–⅓ cup heavy cream
1 pound cavatappi
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place basil, parsley, 1 cup cheese, 2 peeled and quartered garlic cloves, and ½ teaspoon salt in a food processor or blender and puree into a paste. Add ½ cup olive oil and continue to process until the pesto has the consistency of softened butter. There should be about 1 cup of pesto.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain.

3. While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. When it’s warm, add the sliced mushrooms and sauté for about 5 minutes. Mince the remaining 2 cloves garlic and add them to the skillet along with the red pepper flakes. Cook 1 minute, then add the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mushrooms have released their juices. Add the wine and reduce for about 2 minutes, then add the cream and cook for another couple of minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated (you still want some moisture, but the sauce shouldn’t be too soupy). Add the pesto, stir well, and remove from heat.

4. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with additional grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Great.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


When I spotted tomatillos at the farmer’s market, I immediately craved salsa verde. The trouble is, I only have one recipe that uses it. Sure, that recipe is awesome, but I was supposed to be having a sedate week while recovering from a bout of busyness, and I’d taken a sworn oath to myself not to undertake any complicated cooking projects. In my book, enchiladas count as complicated. Make sauce, make filling, make a mess of the kitchen trying to fill and roll up all those tortillas. Salsa verde is easy, though—just roast and puree!—and of course there are many other uses for it. What I wanted was an efficient salsa verde delivery vehicle, without resorting to just eating chips and salsa for dinner. This idea from Simply Recipes fit the bill perfectly. Drown chicken breasts in salsa verde, bake, top with cheese, serve over rice. I substituted quinoa instead, and let me tell you, quinoa mixed with salsa verde is an excellent thing. Chicken baked in salsa verde is an excellent thing. Leftover salsa verde eaten with a spoon is also an excellent thing, but let’s keep our focus on this recipe.

I didn’t change a thing; with only four ingredients, there wasn’t much to change. I suppose you could use storebought salsa verde if there’s one that you really like, but since the salsa is the main event here, I strongly suggest making your own. As I already mentioned, it’s super easy, and you can make it up to a few days ahead of time if necessary. (You only need to make a half-recipe, but I went ahead and made the full 5 cups; we just ate the extra with chips later in the week.) You could substitute boneless, skinless chicken thighs if you like, but you may need to cook them a few minutes longer. I usually prefer thighs, but the breasts were good here—cooking them in the salsa keeps them tender. I was also thinking that you could probably shred the chicken after cooking and dump the whole mess on a taco or tostada or something, for a delicious change of pace.

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1¼ to 1⅓ pounds)
2 cups tomatillo salsa verde
4 ounces grated pepper Jack cheese
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed well

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the chicken breasts in half to yield four total portions. (I did this horizontally, but I just realized that the original recipe does it the other way. I think I’ll stick with my method, because cutting them more thinly means that they stay well submerged in the salsa.) Place the chicken pieces in a single layer to cover the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish.

2. Cover the chicken pieces completely with the salsa verde (if there is exposed chicken, it will dry out). Place the baking dish in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. (If you have a meat thermometer, cook until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees.)

3. Meanwhile, place the quinoa in a saucepan with 2 cups water and ½ teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. Remove dish from oven, sprinkle the cheese over the chicken, increase the oven heat to 400 degrees, and return the dish to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

5. Remove from oven. Serve chicken and sauce over quinoa and sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro.

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

Monday, July 16, 2012


Yep, this is totally my Summer of Putting Fruit Everywhere. Strawberries on pizza! Blueberries in corn salad! And now, peaches in kale salad. I’ve gone mad, MAD, I tell you!

I always think of kale as a winter vegetable, but it’s still sporadically available at the farmers’ market, and now that I’ve discovered how much I love it in salad form, I’d been thinking I should look for a summery treatment for it. Then I discovered this recipe from Mostly Foodstuffs. What’s more summery than cilantro, lime, corn, and peaches? And is there anything I love on a salad more than feta? This salad and I were destined for each other.

I followed the recipe exactly, except that I used red wine vinegar instead of sherry vinegar, both because I didn’t have sherry vinegar and because red wine vinegar appeared in the original recipe from Last Night’s Dinner. (The original also used lemon instead of lime juice, which I considered, but lime and cilantro are just so right together. However, I’m sure lemon is dandy too, and I’d definitely try it in a pinch.) I also left out the honey, because I don’t typically require sweetness in my dressings and because the original didn’t call for it. And although the recipe doesn’t ask you to, I did cook my corn, because I made the salad midweek but corn is always best the day that you buy it, so if I’m not using it right away I blanch it, cut it off the cob, and store it in a sealed container in the fridge. It’s easier to get off the cob that way, anyway—the kernels only fly about half as far across the counter once cooked. But if I were making this salad right after I’d bought the corn, I’d just use it raw.

My bunch of kale must have been on the small side because I ended up with too much dressing, which wasn’t a huge problem—kale can stand up to levels of flavor and moisture that would wilt more delicate greens—but did overpower the taste somewhat. I ended up having to serve the salad using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess dressing, so I’m going to suggest that you make the dressing in a smaller bowl and then pour it gradually over the kale, rather than adding the kale to the dressing. I’m looking out for you! Because really, I’d hate for anything to get in the way of you enjoying this fantastic salad. The tart dressing, bitter greens, salty cheese, and sweet corn and fruit made for an incredibly complex interplay of flavors, and the texture contrasts were no less thrilling—soft and juicy peaches, crisp corn, chewy kale, creamy cheese. Not to mention that it’s totally beautiful. I love discovering new combinations like this, but I know I’ll still love this one long after the novelty wears off.

¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime (can use a lemon instead)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
A dollop of honey (optional)
½ small red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 bunch kale (I like Tuscan), ribs removed, leaves torn into small pieces
About ½ bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
2 ears of corn, kernels cut off the cob (you can cook the corn or not, whatever you like)
3 peaches, cut into slim wedges
About ¼ cup feta, crumbled

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add a bit of honey if the dressing seems too tart. Add the onion, and let it sit for a few minutes to mellow.

2. In a large bowl, combine the kale and cilantro. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the onion slices out of the dressing and add them to the salad. Gradually add the dressing to the salad and toss to coat the kale well (kale usually takes more dressing than I expect, so taste as you go, but you may not use all the dressing). Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes to an hour so the kale can soften. Scatter the corn, peaches, and feta over the top.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 to 60 minutes
Leftover potential: Good; the kale will keep for days in the dressing without wilting, although you may want to leave the peaches out of the salad until you’re ready to eat it, just so they don’t get brown and mushy.

Monday, July 09, 2012


(I made the mistake of trying to use my new purple Fiestaware bowl for this photo, to match the berries. Huge mistake! It just looks sad and murky. Back to the white dishes after this.)

 I accidentally picked 9 pounds of blueberries singlehandedly this year, an all-time record—in previous outings, the most we’d ever brought home was 8 pounds between the two of us. Then, just to top it off, I picked 2 pounds of raspberries, a new addition to the farm’s offerings. I guess I panicked because A had to stay home sick, leaving me as the sole provider for all our berry-eating needs, plus the friend who accompanied me was such a champion picker (she gathered about twice as much as I did, in less time) that I lost all perspective regarding my own haul and dramatically overcompensated. Whatever, no problemo, we love berries… Except it turned out that A was too sick to eat anything but applesauce and saltines and chicken soup for the next week (he recovered eventually, thank goodness), and then he departed on a weeklong trip to Indiana, so I had to figure out how to cope with the massive quantities of fruit going gradually overripe in the fridge. I ate berries by the handful, and over yogurt and granola. I made berry buttermilk cake twice, once with raspberries and once with blueberries. I made frozen yogurt. I made jam. I made muffins (and put them in the freezer so that A wouldn’t miss out on the berries entirely). I made fruit salad. But the best thing that I made was a new discovery, this salad.

I didn’t even have to go looking for this recipe; it popped up in my feed reader via Two Peas & Their Pod a week or so before my great berry-picking expedition. It looked so pretty that I instantly bookmarked it, even though it sounded a little weird. Blueberries and corn isn’t that strange a combination if you think about it—blueberry corn muffins, right?—but blueberries and cucumber seems odder. Blueberries and cucumber and jalapeno and onion and cilantro seems odder still. But I’m sure I don’t even have to tell you that they are in fact incredibly delicious together. I was so grateful to have something to do with my blueberries that represented an actual savory meal, not breakfast or dessert. The sweetness of the berries was matched by the corn and the honey in the dressing, but the other ingredients balanced that out perfectly. The mild heat from the pepper and the cool crunch of the cucumber were especially welcome. I had no trouble polishing off all this salad singlehandedly, eating it as a main dish (occasionally with a quesadilla on the side) for four days in a row—especially easy compared to all the work it too me to pick all those berries in the first place.

The original Better Homes and Gardens recipe called for 6 ears of corn, which seemed like a lot to me; since I knew I wouldn’t be sharing it with a crowd (or, actually, anyone), I only used 4 ears, keeping all the other quantities the same. The proportions seemed perfect to me that way, so I’ll keep doing it in the future, unless maybe I’m making it to bring to a potluck or something. It would be the perfect thing to brighten a summer BBQ table, fresh and colorful and unique and surprising; plus, it keeps extremely well (and actually gets better after marinating), so you can make it a day in advance. Whatever the situation, I know this will become one of my summer standbys. All the blueberries I picked may be gone, but supermarket berries will work just fine—as long as the corn is in season, that is!

4 large ears fresh sweet corn, husked
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cucumber, sliced (I used two medium Persian cucumbers)
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
¼–½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

1. In a large pot, bring water to boiling. Add corn. Cook for 5 minutes, or until tender. When cool enough to handle, cut kernels from the cobs. Discard cobs.

2. In a large serving bowl, combine corn, blueberries, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeno. To make the dressing, whisk together lime juice, oil, honey, cumin, salt, and pepper. Pour dressing over salad and stir until combined. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves: 4–6
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good; keeps well in the fridge for at least five days.