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Lentil Soup, or I Finally Got It Right

Posted in Day-to-Day by unboundpage on January 17, 2013

All the lentil soup recipes I’ve seen look about the same, and seem simple enough, yet the last time I made it, I somehow managed to get it terribly, terribly wrong.  The only way to salvage it was with copious amounts of Worcestershire sauce, and even then, it was a mushy, salty mess.  So tonight I focused on the savory.  (And following the cooking directions, which, shockingly, also helped a good bit.)

I think it goes without saying that this will not be a vegetarian recipe.  It is, however, gluten free!

The standard recipe calls for a pretty tame list of ingredients:

2 strips bacon
1 whole onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 can diced tomatoes
8 cups chicken broth or water
1 lb dry, rinsed lentils

Seasonings vary, but I most commonly saw 1 tsp Italian herbs, black pepper and salt to taste.  As this clearly didn’t do the trick for me last time, I added some more interesting flavors.

My adjusted recipe:

6 strips bacon
1 whole onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
8 cups chicken broth or beef broth or vegetable broth* (y’know… whatever you have on hand – just not water)
1 lb dry, rinsed lentils
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce*
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground mustard
1 tsp rosemary
1 tbsp Italian herbs (specifically tarragon, marjoram, oregano, basil, sage – heavy on the basil)
black pepper

  • Fry bacon and set aside, crumbled.
  • Heat 2 tbsp (or… uh… more) of bacon fat in soup pot over medium high heat for two minutes.
  • Add onions and garlic, and stir-fry until onions start to turn transparent.
  • Add carrots and celery, and continue to stir-fry until onions are golden brown.
  • Add tomatoes and juice, broth, lentils, Worcestershire sauce, cumin, mustard, rosemary, and the crumbled bacon.
  • Bring the mixture to boil.
  • Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes or until lentils are tender.  (This part is important! Lentils are not split peas – don’t aim for mush!)
  • Stir in Italian herbs, add pepper to taste.
  • Enjoy some damned tasty soup.  Refrigerates and freezes well too.

*Hey, where’d the salt go?  You really shouldn’t need any more salt after the broth, bacon, and Worcestershire sauce.  In fact, I highly recommend low sodium broth and Worcestershire sauce because, seriously, that’s a lot of bacon.  If you’re really serious about reducing salt, use less bacon, use only vegetable broth, and substitute Balsamic vinegar for the Worcestershire sauce.

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Birthday Cupcakes!

Posted in Day-to-Day, Projects by unboundpage on January 31, 2011

Fellow bakers, I have a delicious bit of advise for you.  If you don’t already, find a special person in your life with similar tastes in sweets and a birthday very close to yours.  Then you have the perfect excuse to make the kind of birthday cake you like best, without feeling like a loser for baking your own birthday cake!

No really.

Stop looking at me like that.  It’s perfectly sound logic.

So Boy’s birthday is four days before mine, and he is just as big a chocolate fiend as I am.  Being the loving (and otherwise gift-less) girlfriend that I am, I naturally had to bake not one but two types of chocolate cupcakes for – ahem – his birthday.

I started with the known hit.  Last year I baked a devil’s food recipe I found somewhere on www.foodnetwork.com.  Naturally, I have long since lost track of which one – I just wrote down the critical things and “Food Network” in my recipe notebook and then cried a little when I searched the site for devil’s food again and came up with a few dozen results.

I topped said devil’s food cake with the chocolate frosting recipe off the back of the Hershey’s cocoa powder container.  I did something wrong with the frosting such that it came out super-fudgy, very tasty, and not at all easy to spread.  I wound up stuffing part of the cake with the fudge then thinning the rest until I had nearly double the intended quantity.  This year I knew to start with half the ingredients and then be sparing with the sugar and generous with the milk.

Just to add a little more variety – and to finally satiate my curiosity – I took advantage of the opportunity to test drive another recipe I’d been wanting to try for well over a year.

I’d heard some of the buzz around Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious when it first came out a few years ago.  For those not already familiar, this is a cookbook aimed directly at moms who can’t get their little ones to eat healthy things.  All the recipes are for pretty standard comfort and snack foods, but with secret ingredients like sweet potato, cauliflower, or spinach.

Being a relatively health-conscious non-mother, I was intrigued by the concept, but not quite enough to run out and buy the book.  Then a friend with the world’s pickiest two-year-old showed up with a copy and started raving about the chocolate cupcakes made with avocado puree.  Madness, I thought, but as I continued my search for the perfect chocolate cake recipe, I vowed I would try it one day.

As it happened, the stars aligned and that day was… three days ago.  Roommie’s mother happened to have the cookbook and loaned it to me a few months back, and I decided the birthday baking bash would be the ideal time to try these mysterious cupcakes.

Let me first say that trying to puree straight avocado in a blender is ridiculously difficult, bordering on just plain stupid.  Let me follow that by saying that pureeing avocado with the 1 cup of milk called for in the recipe anyway is kinda fun.  (heheheh whoosh!)  There is something more than a little creepy about dumping bright green sludge into what otherwise looks like perfectly good chocolate cake batter, but sure enough, it blended in without a trace and produced cake batter so tasty it almost didn’t make it into the cupcake tins.  The recipe notes that the avocado taste is still detectable while the cupcakes are warm (and it is – barely), but then it disappears into the chocolate-y goodness of some of the densest and most delicious cupcakes I have ever encountered.

Suffice it to say that Boy has a new favorite cake.

Sadly, I was unable to procure cauliflower in appropriate quantities for the accompanying cream cheese frosting recipe, but my old standard unhealthy recipe served just fine…

…at least up to the point where Boy suggested that the obvious improvement was simply to cover that chocolate cake with more chocolate.

This is what trial and error is all about – next year we will have the perfect chocolate-covered-chocolate-avocado birthday cakes!

Behold!  The very tasty chocolate fruits of my labor!  The normal-looking cupcakes are the devil’s food recipe.  The lumpy ones are the avocado recipe.  Yeah, they look funny.  Yes, you can see the occasional green fleck of a not-quite pureed chunk of avocado.  Yes, they weigh at least three times as much as the other cupcakes, but that just means they’re extra dense and tasty!

Lasagna makes everything better!

Posted in Day-to-Day by unboundpage on January 26, 2011

It’s not too often I have a less-than-successful project to post about, but I feel like tonight’s venture is worth mention.  The final results may not have been optimal, but like any good scientific experiment, I learned more from my failure than I would have from a success.  In the spirit of scientific discovery, I’ll give this a (moderately) proper scientific method treatment.

QUESTION:  Can I make a lasagna that is both healthy and delicious?

HYPOTHESIS:  A lasagna made with healthier-than-average materials will taste as good as or better than a standard lasagna.

EXPERIMENT:
Materials:

  • oven-ready lasagna noodles

Sauce ingredients:

  • 56 oz petite diced tomatoes
  • 12 oz tomato paste
  • 1 zucchini, finely grated (yes, grated, as in get out your cheese grater and use the side with the smallest holes – the mushier the better)
  • generous dash (each) of dried onion, paprika, roasted garlic and red pepper blend, marjoram, oregano, basil, whatever the hell other Italian herbs strike your fancy, pepper (red, white and black if you got ’em!)
  • splash (each) of Marsala cooking wine and Worcestershire sauce
  • as much garlic as you can stand

Stuffing ingredients:

  • 1-2 oz fresh baby spinach, diced
  • 15 oz part skim ricotta cheese
  • ~5 oz grated mozzarella cheese
  • ~2 oz grated parmesan cheese
  • ~1 oz grated ricotta
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • splash of beef broth (to make the turkey taste like beef… riiiiight)
  • another splash (each) of Marsala cookign wine and Worcestershire sauce
  • dash of caraway seed
  • more peppers (again, red, white, and black)
  • garlic
  • more garlic

Topping:

  • ~1 oz grated mozzarella cheese
  • ~1 oz grated parmesan cheese

Hardware:

  • 1 giant sauce pot
  • 1 giant skillet
  • 1 medium-sized mixing bowl
  • 1 oven-safe baking dish (whatever you have that’s roughly rectangular and at least 2 inches deep)
  • lots of heat-resistant spatulas/turners/things with which you can shove meat and/or stir sauce
  • 1 basting brush

Procedure:

  1. In giant sauce pot, mix all sauce ingredients except dry herbs and simmer over low heat for no less than 1 hour.  Add dry herbs at the last possible minute.
  2. In skillet, brown ground turkey then simmer in garlic, peppers, caraway seed, beef broth, Worcestershire, and Marsala until all the liquid has boiled off.
  3. In mixing bowl, combine Ricotta with the other cheeses and garlic.
  4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
  5. Using basting brush, spread just enough sauce in the baking dish to cover the bottom.  Lay out noodles so they cover the bottom but don’t overlap.
  6. Again using basting brush, spread just enough sauce to cover the noodles.
  7. Dot a layer of cheese mixture to cover the saucy noodles.
  8. Sprinkle spinach over cheese.
  9. Sprinkle meat over spinach.
  10. Brush sauce over meat.
  11. Lay out noodles perpendicular to the previous layer of noodles, again covering everything, but not overlapping.
  12. Repeat the sauce-cheese-spinach-meat-noodle layering business until the dish is full.
  13. Spread more sauce over the top layer of noodles.
  14. Sprinkle topping mozzarella and parmesan cheeses to cover everything.
  15. Put baking dish in some other oven-safe container (cookie sheet with edges, another baking dish) to catch the inevitable overflow (you just filled a baking dish to maximum capacity, dum-dum!).
  16. Bake until the topping cheeses are thoroughly browned but not burned.
  17. Let cool for 10-20 minutes.
  18. Cut into reasonably-sized cubes.
  19. Eat.

DATA:

Noodles:  Bottom and middle layers of noodles were adequately done.  Top layer was chewy but edible.

Tomato-zucchini sauce:  Sauce was delicious.

Cheese:  Cheese was good but overpowered by turkey.

Spinach:  Spinach neither enhanced nor diminished flavor or texture of the lasagna.

Meat:  Turkey did not taste like beef.  Turkey was also not greasy like beef.

CONCLUSIONS:

The oven-ready noodles that were adequately buried in sauce cooked through before the cheese burned.  In future testing, top layer of noodles should be more thoroughly covered.

Tomato sauce tasted great, especially with the shredded zucchini, which acts as an extra seasoning in addition to being the kind of healthy green vegetable my mother toiled all those many years to convince me to eat.  In other words, I still pwn tomato sauces.  Thanks and Gig ‘Em.

The spinach served its purpose perfectly.  I did not have to suffer the slimy texture of cooked spinach, and the flavor was not strong enough to overpower anything else.  Because it was fresh to start with, it stayed relatively crisp through the baking process and should even have retained most of its nutritional value.

The cheese-to-meat ratio was not optimal.  Especially given the distinctive turkey flavor, I probably needed double the cheese and maybe even half the meat to achieve the overwhelming cheesiness that I have come to expect from ricotta-based pasta dishes.

Though the turkey-for-beef substitution did not result in a perfect taste match, I considered the trade off worthwhile to avoid the thick layer of grease that inevitably appears when cooking with beef.  Any meat-and-pasta dish is significantly more enjoyable when the fat is not visibly pooling on top.

Overall, the lack of cheesy flavor put a damper on the eating experience (and also probably put a damper on the fat content, but really… priorities!).  However, I am satisfied, feeling full but not fat, and knowing that I managed to sneak not one but two green vegetables into the dish.

The Super-Secret Spicy Salsa Society

Posted in Don't Quit Your Day Job by unboundpage on January 15, 2011

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On the first day of Christmas…

Posted in Day-to-Day, Projects by unboundpage on December 25, 2010

I woke up this morning to this view:

By the time Dad and I finished our first pass at shoveling the driveway, there were just over two inches of snow on the (non-driveway) ground.  By the time Mom and I finished the second pass after dinner, it was just shy of six and slowly coming to a stop.

There is nothing particularly crafty about this lovely Christmas treat – this is just my loving “Neener-neener-neeeeener” to all my fellow Texans before I get into my Christmas projects.

That said – part 1 of the Christmas blitz:

Let’s face it – Christmas is a good excuse for making good things.  I’ve done more crafting and creating in the last four weeks than the previous four months.  Last week I made the open of the Christmas Season official…

I made Scramble.

I think I have referenced an old cook book in the past.  Usually, that old cook book is the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, specifically, the 1969 edition.  For my first post-graduation Christmas, my sister went to the trouble of finding two of the very same cook books that our mother has been working out of since well before we were born (I can only assume they were wedding gifts), and even marked some of the staple recipes for me.  As much as I would love to credit her with the idea, she actually stole it from a family friend who did the same thing for her three daughters (thank you, Ebay).

Anyway, one of the noted recipes has long been a holiday staple at our house.  It may be just another Chex mix, but it’s our Chex mix.  The recipe calls for a few varieties of cereal that we generally don’t include (the Shredded Wheat soaks up all the goodies and leaves everything else bare, and that’s just no good), but the critical ingredients are Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, and seasoned salt, mixed with vegetable oil and baked into the whole mess.

I was thrilled when I successfully made my first batch last year and it actually tasted just like Mom makes.  It seems like just a dump-and-bake thing, but the two-hour process requires careful skill, acquired over many years of practice under Mother’s watchful eye.

It’s all in the stirring, you see.  All the oil and seasonings sink to the bottom of the pan, and if you don’t stir thoroughly enough, the pieces on top don’t get enough flavor.  But then if you stir too much, you have cereal all over your kitchen.  (Then in my case, you have a dog consuming things covered in garlic, which is apparently bad for him.)

Needless to say, I’ve been working really hard at staying hydrated this last week, as I don’t generally consume that much sodium, nor can I resist eating unhealthy quantities of this stuff.

(Next year I’ll be working out a less salty version.)

funny story!

Posted in Day-to-Day by unboundpage on November 24, 2010

So someone at work found a recipe for microwave peanut brittle, and because I love peanut brittle almost as much as chocolate, I very cheerfully look the copy she offered me.

Looking at the recipe today, I realized I had everything in house already, so I made a batch!

This is not the funny part.

As per usual, I managed to mess up and not hold the baking soda until the end like I was supposed to.

Still not the funny part.

Even though it looked ok, I had enough ingredients left to try again, so I did.

Still not really funny.

After the first four minutes in the microwave, I had a bowl of boiling sugar and peanuts, and assorted sticky cooking utensils.

Here comes the funny part.

I was talking to Dear Roommie while handling said bowl of boiling sugar and peanuts, and somehow wound up mishandling one of the sticky cooking utensils as it came out of the bowl, and…

Funny story!  Melted sugar is REALLY FREAKISHLY HOT!

Also, it is very hard to get off your skin because it solidifies very quickly – while still being freakishly hot.

Just to add insult to (all too literal) injury –

The batch that burned me was, in turn, burned.  Or at least overcooked.

Yeah, that really wasn’t funny at all, was it?

Ouch.

Update:
(WARNING! THAR BE MODERATELY ICKY THINGS AHEAD!)

On Bovine Excretions

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Baking on the Edge

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