Savoring Fall’s Bounty

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This photo is why I love shopping at the farmer’s market, specifically Chicago’s Green City Farmer’s Market. It’s not about getting bargains on fruits and vegetables – in fact I often pay more than grocery store prices – it’s about connecting with the food, where it comes from and often person who grew it.

Take the candy striped beet pictured above. I met the farmer and asked him about his variety of¬† beets. And with the passion of someone who loves what he does, he gladly offered to cut a beet open for me so I could see the exquisite pink and white striped interior. And isn’t it a beauty?

The farmer’s market is also where you can find squash in countless colors, sizes and varieties, unlike anything available at a store. Anyone know what this huge one is called? What about these long, thin, curly ones that look like snakes?

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Oh, and then there are these wild mushrooms that are larger than my head. They’re sold in freshly cut slices by the ounce.

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And look at these Brussels sprouts still on the stalk. While interesting to look at I couldn’t fathom getting the large stalks home so purchased a pint of spouts instead.

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I could go on about the produce all day, it’s nature at its best. Look at the size of these carrots, the varieties of chard, the brilliant colors of the tomatoes and peppers, and the centerpiece-worthy beauty of the Isaiah corn? Not to mention the bees feeding on fresh jam.

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Oh how I love visiting the farmer’s market. And while I love Autumnal flavors, I’m also quietly mourning the end of the Midwest’s short growing season. I am fortunate that the market will stick around throughout the winter at a nearby indoor location, it’s just not quite the same without these raw offerings.

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Carrot Cake

Carrot Cake

Carrot Cake

I’m not a baker. At all. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it from time to time if it’s for fun. This is probably because as a kid baking was the only thing I could help with in the kitchen. I remember helping my mom make cookies when I was young and baking brownies and cupcakes with friends in junior high. It was enjoyable then, easy.

But as I began cooking professionally I realized just how scientific and precise baking can be. While precision isn’t a problem, the scientific part can be challenging for me and my slight ADD tendencies. But I do still like to bake for fun and for my family who will eat anything sweet. It’s just sometimes I lack the patience to bake the same thing again and again, tweaking a little each time until I get it just right. But there are a few exceptions when the results are really, really worth the effort, like with this carrot cake.

Carrot Cake

As long as I’m confessing, I should add that until recently I had very little experience with carrot cake. In fact, the only carrot cake I’d ever eaten was when I was working the pantry/dessert station at a restaurant and one of the menu items was deep fried carrot cake. The cake itself was made off-site and while tasty, it was also very dry. My job was to make a beer batter to coat the cake squares, deep fry them and inject the centers with a thin cream cheese filling. I’d then arrange three deep fried carrot cake squares on a plate, dust with powdered sugar and send it to a table with a side of thick cream cheese dipping sauce. It was tasty although a bit strange.

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So you can see how I was at a bit of a loss when I had a sudden craving for carrot cake about two months ago. In fact, I’d actually dreamed about it (and subsequently tweeted that dream), so I was really excited when I had the opportunity to make a carrot cake for Rosh Hashana dinner at my sister’s house.

To toot my own horn a bit, the cake was fantastic! It was flavorful but not overwhelming and had a scrumptious moist crumb that made each and every bite heavenly. The frosting, well, that was another story.

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Something went horribly wrong when I made the cream cheese frosting (I suspect it was because I used low-fat cheese the first time) and it became very thin and watery. Although the frosting tasted great with the cake, the presentation was off, so much so that the layers kept sliding apart because the frosting couldn’t hold them.

Happily for my family, I had to make the carrot cake again so I could perfect the frosting. The second time was the charm. The cream cheese frosting was thick yet spreadable and both a little sweet and tangy, and absolutely perfect for the carrot cake.

Carrot Cake

Here’s the recipe:

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Swiss Chard & Roasted Red Pepper Turkey Meatloaf

Swiss Chard & Roasted Red Pepper Turkey Meatloaf

Swiss Chard & Roasted Red Pepper Turkey Meatloaf

Comfort food usually comes in the form of sweets or carbs for me, but one night last week I found myself craving a homey meatloaf instead. So off to the store I went to buy ground turkey (for the record I just LOVE having a grocery store right across the street) then raided my refrigerator for forgotten vegetables accumulated over the last two weeks.

That’s what’s beautiful about meatloaf, the ground meat (in this case turkey) serves as a fairly clean canvas to add, or paint, other flavors and ingredients. You can go sweet with ketchup and brown sugar, like the meatloaf I grew up eating, or make it savory as I did last week.

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Here’s what I found during the raid: leek, garlic, red bell pepper, Swiss chard and a small butternut squash. The first step was to roast the red pepper because it would take the longest (about 20 minutes plus cooling time). I use the broiler method at home because I don’t have gas burners (electric, boo) and the broiler works just as well.

Next I minced the garlic, chard (separating the stems and greens first) and leeks, then sauteed them until very soft because I’m not a fan of crunchy meatloaf. Except for the top of course. A crunchy top is good but the center should be soft. After that, all that was left was to cool the vegetables then mix them with the ground turkey and other seasonings, and bake in the oven.

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I did not include the butternut squash in the meatloaf, it just seemed like it would be too much. So instead I peeled, seeded and cubed the squash and roasted in in the oven with a few garlic cloves alongside the meatloaf. Instant side dish!

The best part is how healthy this turkey meatloaf is. First, I used lean ground turkey (not extra lean, I like a little fat for moisture). And second, the vegetables mixed in were extremely nutritious, especially the Swiss chard which is loaded with vitamins A and C.

And in case you haven’t heard yet, I should mention that I had a minor crisis when baking the meatloaf. Rest assured I’ll be okay in time.

Here’s the recipe:

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Mourning the Loss of My Favorite Measuring Spoon

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I’m at an age where I attend a lot of wedding showers. It’s an unspoken fact that as the brides open gifts, the guests mentally evaluate them: that’s ugly, that’s useless, that’s great, oh so pretty, I want one, I’d never register for that, etc.

Of course, I’ve seen countless items I’ve wanted over the years but only one I actually rushed out and bought: these measuring spoons from Crate & Barrel that my friend Anna (AKA Culinary School Dropout) got at her shower. Mine are/were red.

These measuring spoons are the best. They’re magnetic, allowing the spoons to stay together without one of those annoying rings that you have to pry the spoons off of. And each one has a double spoon, both oval and round for liquid and dry ingredients.

I love(d) them all, especially the 1/4 teaspoon, the smallest in the set. Its oval side fit perfectly in any spice jar, which is why I had it out this evening – to measure the dried thyme in small increments, tasting as I went.

Sadly, it was my favorite feature of these spoons that led to the littlest one’s demise: the magnet. While great for keep the set together, it also had the nasty habit of attaching itself to other metal objects. Such was the case tonight when, unbeknown to me, the 1/4 teaspoon stuck to the side of a metal loaf pan (I was making turkey meatloaf). I found it 30 minutes later when I opened the oven to rotate the pan.

Such a sad sight. The poor little spoon was lying on the metal oven rack, still somewhat attached to the loaf pan. Its poor body was warped, all twisted and partially melted, unrecognizable in some parts.

Tis a sad, sad day as I mourn the loss of my favorite measuring spoon.

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Pumpkin Surprise Cookies

Pumpkin Surprise Cookies

Pumpkin Surprise Cookies

Autumn is in full swing here in the Midwest, which for me means transitioning to heartier foods along with close-toed shoes and long sleeves. While I’ve been cooking with heartier ingredients I haven’t gotten around to doing much baking and recently found myself craving something pumpkin. What, I didn’t know. I just knew I had to use pumpkin.

So I went to the grocery store to buy a can of pureed pumpkin (plain, not pumpkin pie filling). I didn’t get anything to use with it because I had no clue what I wanted to make.

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A few hours later I came across someone on Twitter (and I’m sorry, I have no idea who it was) who tweeted about pumpkin oatmeal. Hmmm… That sounds interesting, I thought. But I wanted to make dessert, not breakfast, which quickly lead to the idea of pumpkin-oatmeal cookies.

On the heels of the sad announcement that Gourmet was shutting down, I turned to the magazine’s website in a moment of nostalgia and searched for a recipe for pumpkin oatmeal cookies. Not surprisingly, nothing turned up, so I searched again, this time for a regular oatmeal cookie recipe that I could modify and found this one for oatmeal peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. I chose it mainly because I was intrigued by the instruction to grind a portion of the oatmeal into a powder, although I later adapted it to grind all the oats. The result is great: a slightly crisp cookie with a bit of chewy oatmeal texture.

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In the end I subbed the pumpkin puree for the peanut butter, and changed the seasonings and add-ins to the fall flavors I was craving. There’s still a hint of dark chocolate in the recipe¬† because I like the flavor contrast with the earthy pumpkin and tangy dried cranberries, but in no way is the chocolate the dominant ingredient. I recommend using shaved chocolate from a bar rather than chocolate chips because they’ll incorporate into the batter better.*

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I’m calling these pumpkin surprise cookies because there are a lot of surprising flavors in every small cookie and including each in the title would be overwhelming: pumpkin-chocolate-oatmeal-cranberry-spiced cookies is a bit of a mouthful.

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Here’s the recipe:

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