Monday, February 28, 2011

Everything is Better with Cookies

This past Saturday was my mother's birthday, and she, my brother, and my grandfather came to Ann Arbor to visit and go out to lunch together. I also baked cookies!

A few weeks ago, Meijer was having a sale on Nestle Toll House chocolate chips, and I could not resist. I'd been wanting to bake cookies again for a while. I picked up good ol' milk chocolate chips and a bag of mixed peanut butter chips and milk chocolate chips. (Can you tell I like milk chocolate?) The milk chocolate I made last week, and the peanut butter and chocolate I made for my family.

Since I still lack a microwave in this apartment (though my grandfather gave me one, there is no room here so my mother is storing it for me in her basement), I put the two sticks of butter in the mixing bowl, then put the whole mixing bowl into the preheating oven. Needless to say, the butter outright melted rather than just softened, but at that point, I didn't really care. I was baking these after work at around 11pm on Friday.

I added the sugar to the melted butter and stirred until it made a nice light brown cream, then added the rest fo the ingredients one by one, stirring after each. I think I need to make this my usual technique because it gave the batter a wonderfully smooth texture. The batch of cookies last time seemed almost gritty to me.

Since the glass mixing bowl was still warm from the oven, when I added the chips, they sort of melted - especially the peanut butter ones - and swirled into the batter, but didn't mix entirely. This turned out to be amazing. After the cookies came out of the oven, they had a sort of marbled look to them and the taste was distinct from regular chip cookies, and delightful.

I've also refined my baking technique. Often my chocolate chip cookies were too thin due to runny batter, and came out very crispy. For whatever reason the batter from the two bags of Toll House cookies made the cookies thicker, and if I took them out before they were done cooking, with the edges just barely turned a light brown (about 10 minutes), the cookies were softer and almost gooey. Even when they were fully dry a day later, they were still not as crispy and had a softer center, though no longer chewy.

One day when I am feeling particularly self-indulgent, I may bake these same cookies again and turn them into ice cream sandwiches. The softer texture and thicker cookie seem well-suited to this purpose. And it sounds delicious.

For lunch, my family and I went to Joe's Crab Shack where I had snapper in mushroom sauce with dirty rice and broccoli. It was so good! Snapper (both yellow and red)  is one of my favorite fish for sushi and sashimi, and I think this may have been the first time that I have had it cooked. I think snapper is an often overlooked fish, and my mother was not familiar with it. My grandfather also ordered snapper, and my brother got salmon with some kind of mango salsa that was a delicious pairing! My mother ordered crab cakes that were too spicy for her, so our dishes ended up a little shared. Even if the fishing industry is hopelessly flawed, fish is tasty, and a guilty pleasure now and again. A rum runner and the cookies made an excellent dessert.

I am now out of eggs, sadly, and I have one more batch of cookies to make. My friend at work gave me a bag of special cookies to make. In payment for me baking them, we're going to split the batch. Everyone at work told me they are the best cookies and the mix is very expensive, so I am anxious to put my new skills to the test and try these cookies out!

Winter truly is the season for baking. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mixed Bag

Where is tasty foods?
Due to the increasing piles of snow outside my door, I have been spending a lot of time snowed in lately. I baked some chocolate chip cookies, and I think I've worked out how to get them to come out soft and a little gooey rather than rock hard and crispy (take them out before they're actually done cooking). I've also been using the recipe from my previous blog entry  to make all the vegetables in my freezer creamy. Well, not all of them yet, but I'm sure I'll get there. So far I have made creamed broccoli and creamed corn. The corn was not quite as delicious as the broccoli, which reminded me of cream of broccoli soup, but thicker and more broccoli-tasting.

 I am also once again cleaning out my cupboards, and so far I have managed to polish off the makings for burritos and quesadillas, marinara sauce, pasta, and Parmesan cheese (in that order), and a can of chicken noodle soup that I added peas and corn to for more substance, and that had enough sodium to last me the next two weeks. (Gag.)

The one addition I have made to the larder was on the recommendation of this new chiropractor I am seeing. He suggested that I should eat a lot of protein for breakfast rather than grains. (My typical breakfast is a bowl of cereal and tea, though sometimes I make oatmeal or pancakes when I am willing to spend more time.) He cautioned against breakfast meats, however, since they tend to be greasy and not very healthy, which suits me fine since I've given up buying meat.

So, taking my inspiration from the Scandinavians and their open-faced sandwiches, I went to the grocery store and picked up a bag of everything bagels because they are both tasty and have a surprising 8 grams of protein per bagel. But I didn't stop there. For my first high in protein breakfast, I fried two eggs over hard (in cooking spray which has next to no nutritional value), then topped them with 1/8 cup shredded low fat cheddar cheese each. When the cheese was melted, I slid an egg on top of each half of the bagel. Total, this was about 21 grams of protein, and I wasn't hungry again until dinner time!

The following day I made just half a bagel and one egg and still stayed full for quite a few hours. This morning I decided I needed more options (tasty as this sandwich was, I'm running out of eggs and I have more cookies to bake), so I looked at my high fiber cereal, which also happens to be high in protein. Then I pulled down all the ingredients for the oatmeal I've been assembling, and between the quick-cook oats and walnut baking pieces, there is another high protein concoction. Of course, both the cereal and the oatmeal are high grains, but I hate wasting food, so until I can get to the store to discern more options, they should fulfill the high protein requirement quite well if I prepare them right.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How to Make Plain Vegetables More Interesting

I have admitted before that I am struggling to eat as many vegetables as I know that I should. So I went back to Christian's Danish Recipes and clicked on “vegetables,” hoping for something I had already in my kitchen as my freezer is half full of frozen veggie bags. Surprisingly, it was the contents of my cupboard that came to the rescue: a can of peas and carrots. Now, this recipe does call for fresh peas and carrots, but the object here is to empty my larder, not add to it, so canned it was!

Honestly, like the rum soup before it, the idea of creamed peas and carrots was not that appealing to me, but I had the ingredients on hand, and the whole point of this blog is to be adventurous, so I went ahead and fixed it anyway.

After emptying the contents of the can into a pot and setting it to boil, I melted the butter in the saucepan, added flour, a few pinches of sugar and a sprinkle of salt, stirred, then added about half of the water from the thoroughly heated peas and carrots (the rest of the water got drained into the sink). After stirring that until formed into a nice cream, I poured it over the pot of peas and carrots and let it cook a bit longer on low. Then I spooned some into a bowl, sprinkled on some dried parsley, and took my first tentative bite.

It was delicious! And reminded me a little of the chicken and dumplings I learned to make from my mother. If I have learned anything from the Scandinavians, it is a devout respect for milk products mixed with flour and sugar. (Rommegrøt anyone?) Seriously, I had intended to have enough peas and carrots leftover to bring with me as part of my dinner at work, but I can't stop eating the stuff! Why is this so good? I foresee myself creaming a lot of vegetables in this manner in the future.

Curious about other recipes, I did a Google search for “creamed peas and carrots” and received a number of hits. One recipe on suggests sprinkling on paprika rather than parsley before serving. Another on Group Recipes lists nutmeg. Most use milk or cream rather than the water from the boiled vegetables, but I prefer Christian's method which should be healthier without all that milk fat, and I feel tastes just as good.

I had wanted to serve this with a nice open-faced sandwich, but I currently lack bread. I could have grilled a quesadilla, but that somehow didn't sound right, so I cooked up a pot of standby starch, organic whole wheat pasta. The creamed peas and carrots went pretty well with the pasta, but I do mourn the sandwich that might have been, especially since reading about paninis in the waiting room at the dentist office this morning.

I actually can't wait to see what other vegetable recipes I can find out there! Mama's got a lot of frozen corn (which is technically a grain, not a vegetable) and other mixed veggie bags that need to get eaten up. Bring it, Scandinavia!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Trip to the Library

Because I can sometimes be an old fashioned girl, I dropped by the library on my way home from the mall to see if they had any Scandinavian cookbooks. It's a tiny branch library with nary a Jane Austen novel, but I did find two cookbooks to aid me in my adventure: The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann and Cooking the Norwegian Way by Sylvia Munsen.

Cooking the Norwegian Way is a children's book from the “easy menu ethnic cookbooks” series. Recipes designed for children are a fantastic way to get started with an unfamiliar cuisine. I have a number of such in my personal collection. This particular book has taught me a valuable lesson right on page 13:

When you use cornstarch in a recipe, put the required amount of dry cornstarch in a cup and add just enough cold water to form a smooth, thin paste. Then add to the other ingredients. This method keeps the cornstarch from forming lumps when cooked in liquid.”

Wish I'd known this trick when I was making the gravy for the Swedish meatless-balls! But now I know, and knowing is half the battle. This book also suggests adding nutmeg to meatballs, which I have plenty of from January's Indian dishes, and suggests two different ways of cooking them, one Norwegian and one Swedish. As far as I can tell, the difference is that Norwegians brown them in a skillet before popping them in the oven, and Swedes just cook them in the skillet. (So I guess technically I made Norwegian meatless-balls?)

I was also delighted to find three recipes for rice pudding, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish (in order of difficulty). Norwegian style is more or less how I am used to making rice pudding, Swedish adds eggs and grated lemon rind (to taste), and Danish requires unflavored gelatin and a ring mold. One day, I would like to try all three of these recipes. I love rice pudding!

The Scandinavian Cookbook is filled with not only mouthwatering pictures of food, but gorgeous Scandinavian landscapes as well! It is also organized by season since these countries are so affected by the seasons and their food reflects it (something I can relate to here in Michigan, part of a region I like to call the Frozen North). I flipped immediately to page 26 to see what February has in store. (Incidentally, February 26th is my mother's birthday. I just found that to be a neat coincidence.) Lots of soups and sandwiches. Sounds good to me!

I absolutely love books like this where each recipe has a story. Combined with the landscape photos, I am really given a feel for the place these recipes come from. I also enjoy finding nifty little recipes to make ingredients from scratch (like when I made my own paneer), and included in this book is a simple recipe for making my own mayonnaise, something I've wondered about since playing Harvest Moon: Magical Melody for the GameCube years ago. There is also a recipe for homemade hot chocolate starting with semisweet chocolate chunks, not cocoa powder like my mother used to do.

Reading through these books sure does make me hungry! And also stirs deep within a longing to travel. Someday, I would like to venture to the homeland of the ancient Vikings. In the meantime, I will just have to explore from the comfort of my kitchen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What Does A Danish Pirate Say?

I've been working a lot of hours lately, and a dear friend visited me on Saturday and Sunday, so I haven't had as much time as previously to explore new and different recipes. So on Sunday evening, I searched the internet for something quick and easy that didn't require me to go to the store. I had already been once that day and didn't really want to venture out again.

Here is what I came up with: Rum Soup. Because who doesn't have rum lying around the kitchen? (Crazy people.)

Okay, I fully admit this sounded pretty terrible to even a solid rum drinker like myself, and I strongly hesitated to attempt it. However, it allowed me to accomplish two things: first, finish off the whole milk that was starting to go bad in my fridge, and second, put the bottle of spiced rum to use that I've had since Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19th). And really, how could I truly resist something called “Rum Soup”? (Though I've already turned away bread and beer porridge; you can see where my loyalties lie.)

This is possibly the quickest and easiest recipe I have ever made. Even more than burritos! Since I didn't have any zweiback to accompany the rum soup, I made toast (without butter or anything on it), and I must admit... THIS WAS REALLY TASTY! If you don't like rum (or milk), then you probably won't enjoy rum soup. But if you are a fellow admirer of fermented molasses, do yourself a favor and give this a try. You may not end up agreeing with me, but at least you'll have tried something unique.

I don't know if I was supposed to, but I dipped the toast in the soup, which is what decided for me that this dish is delicious. It's also surprisingly filling! But I did have over a cup of mostly whole milk with two pieces of toast, so perhaps this is not really all that surprising. (Since I ran out of whole milk, I had to do half whole milk and half sweetened rice milk. I also cut the recipe in half because 2 quarts of milk is a lot of milk!!)

I tried researching this recipe online, but all I found was the page that I linked to above, which claims it is from Denmark. I have to say, the Scandinavian people sure do like their milk and booze! And there is a plethora of soup varieties from vegetable to fruit to none of the above. I'd like to try a fruit soup next, since I don't believe I have ever had such a thing, though it might be better to wait until the warmer months when I can obtain fresh fruit, like cherries, straight from the farms. I do have a bag of yummy apples on my counter, however, so don't be surprised if apple makes an appearance before February is out.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meatless Balls

While I was cutting up the potatoes for this recipe of Swedish meatlessballs I realized that I do not own a potato masher. I had already opted for almond meal over fresh almonds because I don't have a way to grind them, and accidentally bought ground flax seeds rather than whole, but in this case, I saw the lack of a potato masher as a serious hurdle. But when has that stopped me before?

I boiled the potatoes in straight up vegetable broth rather than a vegetable cube and water (the combination of which makes vegetable broth), and I allowed the spuds to soak up all of the broth before beating them with a spoon. Huzzah! “I now pronounce thee mashed.” Or “smashed” since I left the skins on and that seems to be the popular term for such a distinction. We've been over this before when I made potato and egg curry, but I'll reiterate: potato skins are good for you! Just be sure to cut out any eyes or green bits first.

I also neglected to buy an onion, so I skipped the onion browning and just added dashes of dried onion to the potato, nut, and seed mixture. Of course I had to taste this concoction before rolling it into balls and dropping them into hot oil, and the first test was positive. It's actually tasty! 

Once the balls were browned and popped in the oven, I turned my attention to the gravy, which was possibly the most difficult – or at least annoying – part. In my opinion, vegetable broth is just not that tasty. This isn't to say it isn't flavorful, I am just not sure I agree with the merit of those flavors. And the only thing I added to the broth was corn starch to thicken it, as directed. Blech!

So then I added some celery salt pilfered from my mother's cupboard and garlic powder. And after a bit I added some dried chopped onions because I didn't feel there was enough in the potato balls. The onion also added some distracting texture. As anyone who has thickened broth with corn starch knows, corn starch does not like liquid, and all too often forms those funky gelatinous chewy bits that are near impossible to get rid off. But what can you do? (If anyone has an answer to this, then this question is no longer rhetorical.) 

First thought upon poking at them in the oven: I don't think they held together... I probably should have let them brown for longer in the pan, but I was on a time crunch. I also probably should have made more gravy, but I really wasn't sure because the recipe didn't say how much to make, and I ran out of vegetable broth. 

As for the most important (at least in my opinion), the flavor is excellent! I could totally chow down on these little buggers as the main course of a meal. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

God mórgon! (Good morning in Swedish)

We're all familiar with the cliché “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Though I do enjoy a great many breakfast foods, I am not a huge breakfast eater. I am just not normally that hungry in the A.M. So when I read that a traditional Scandinavian breakfast is usually very simple – bread with jam, meat, or cheese, for example – I realized these are a people after my own heart. (Especially when I found a site saying that coffee and cookies are a typical breakfast, though I'd substitute tea for coffee, and they probably don't mean the kind of cookies I'm thinking of, but who knows. The sugar jolt would certainly get me going!)

There really isn't a very comprehensive source for what a “traditional Scandinavian breakfast” is, so I'll discuss my findings here. The one thing everyone could agree on is that people all across Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are the main countries) have bread for breakfast. And when I say bread, I don't mean our crappy 75% air sliced bread. I mean the kind you get from the bakery section of the grocery store; the thicker, tougher bread, like baguettes, rolls, ciabatta, that kind of bread. The kind endorsed by Alton Brown.

On this yummy, heartier bread we put simple things, like cheese – slices of cheese, not shredded – or thin slabs of cold meat (essentially an open-faced sandwich), or just the simple and familiar butter or strawberry jam. Possibly the most interesting traditional breakfast is the Danish øllebrød, a porridge made from bread scraps and beer. (Don't expect to see øllebrød make a future appearance on my blog, though I admit it intrigues me.)

And coffee, I am repeatedly told, is a MUST.

I do happen to have some French rolls in my fridge, and though I am quite fond of strawberry jam, grape jelly is... more economical, so this is what I have on hand rather than jam. I prefer a nice cuppa tea in the mornings, but I do sometimes make coffee, and overall, I think this fare sounds delightful! One of my favorite things to make as a first meal of the day that I prepare only rarely is fried eggs on toast, or better, the sliced Italian round bread from Trader Joe's (it's the cheapest bread in the Ann Arbor store at $1.99) with cheese melted over top. I made this the other day with ¼ cup of chopped broccoli cooked in with the eggs because my current diet miraculously lacks vegetables. (Funny how easily even a vegetarian diet can do that!)

A terrific little open-faced sandwich that I think falls in line with the Swedes is something I learned from a former coworker in San Francisco. Start with a plain bagel, untoasted. Spread on some crème fraîche (yes, it is French for “fresh cream,” but this is distinctly different from what we in English call “fresh cream”), then layer on thinly sliced smoked salmon. Consume. This would also be perfect on a bread like ciabatta, or any hearty bread that doesn't have “Wonder” in its name.

Sliced cucumbers would be a great way to add vegetables to your meal, especially if you prefer not to have meat and/or cheese. (This would be a good vegan alternative, for example.) Tomatoes, as well, that superfood I keep reading about.

And speaking of superfoods, a word on coffee (and tea). I know a lot of people who have been forced to stop drinking coffee to preserve their stomachs, and there is persistent chatter about whether or not coffee is a carcinogen. There is one good thing that both our popular morning brews contain: antioxidants. According to a study released in 2005, coffee contains more antioxidants than any other food. Tea is another fantastic source for these helpful little disease fighters. (Real tea made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tree, not tisanes, better known as herbal teas.) I recently took a brain health quiz that actually criticized me for not drinking more coffee! So don't feel bad about sipping on that cup of Joe. (Feel bad about all the sugar and creamer.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Vær så god!

While making a shopping list for Scandinavian recipes, I came across a dish that I had all the ingredients for on hand: rommegrøt. I am willing to bet there are as many ways to prepare rommegrøt as there are people of Scandinavian descent in the world, but the extremely basic ingredients are butter, flour, whole milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Rommegrøt is a traditional Norwegian dessert meaning, as far as I can tell, “sour cream porridge.” There are many, many pages devoted to making this dish, but I found this one to be the most helpful.

I did not have sour cream on hand, but I did have whole milk leftover from when I made my own paneer. Sorry, purists, but this was literally a spur of the moment dish, and I think it still turned out friggin' delicious. Maybe one day I can make it more properly (or better yet, have someone who knows what they're doing prepare it for me).

Because the recipes I found are somewhat slapdash, I will tell you step-by-step what I did. Remember, this is all what I had on hand; no prep work or trips to the grocery.

  1. Melted a ½ cup stick of butter in a medium-size pot over medium-low heat.
  2. Added ¼ cup 100% white whole wheat flour to the pot.
  3. Whisked the flour in with the melted butter.
  4. Added another ¼ cup of flour.
  5. Whisked that in as well.
  6. Debated on whether or not to add more flour.
  7. Ended up adding half of a ¼ cup of flour, saving the other half in case I needed it.
  8. Didn't think I needed it, so added one cup of whole milk to the butter-flour mixture.
  9. Whisked that thoroughly before adding another cup of whole milk.
  10. Decided I perhaps needed that half a ¼ cup of flour after all and whisked all together very thoroughly.
  11. Continued to whisk mixture over medium-low heat until it thickened to the consistency of pudding.
  12. Added half a cup of sugar.
  13. Whisked in sugar thoroughly before adding dashes of cinnamon.
  14. Turned off heat,and allowed mixture to cool before pouring into a small cup.
  15. Sprinkled cinnamon on top, then dropped on a few raisins.

Et voilà! Dessert. Quite simple and extraordinarily tasty. If I had to compare it to something more familiar, I'd say it resembles rice pudding, but mostly due to the cinnamon and raisin ornamentation. Rommegrøt is extremely creamy and rich, so serve in small dishes and be careful not to overdo it. This dish is often served after Christmas dinner, making it a wonderful winter treat. Rommegrøt is usually served with butter drizzled on top, but I have to admit that is not really my thing, so I left it off. Brown sugar is another topping choice that does sound delicious, as well as cream.

Well, now that dessert is out of the way, perhaps I should get started on dinner! I came across an interesting recipe for Swedish Meatless Balls that I am anxious to try out. Be sure to look for that in a future blog.