November 20, 2012

Pumpkin Caramel Bundt Cake

This cake was a learning experience. I started with a vision of the perfect fall cake. I wanted pumpkin, preferably flavored with ginger and molasses. I wanted caramel, preferably with the deep flavor of browned butter and just a touch salty. And I wanted chocolate. I scoured my cookbooks. Nothing. I scoured the internet. Nothing.

I settled on a recipe for pumpkin cake with oat flour and set about making the necessary alterations. I chopped the sugar volume by a third and altered the spice ratios. Then I got distracted. I aimlessly scrolled down the page, and when I returned to the recipe, I was a few ingredients further along than I should have been. It wasn't until I poured the batter into the bundt pan and thought to myself, gosh, how strange that this cake didn't have either baking soda or baking powder, that I realized my mistake. I scraped the batter out of the pan back into the mix bowl, and whisked in the missing ingredients. Honestly, I'm not sure it made a difference. The cake was fairly flat, but so was the second one. That was mistake one.

I made mistake two with the caramel. Having already rejected the thin liquid caramel glaze the recipe called for in favor of a thicker spread, I got impatient (I was running late for an impromptu early thanksgiving potluck) and neglected to sift the powdered sugar. As you can see from the picture, the result was that my caramel was speckled with sugar pockets. Not bad to eat, but not great to look at either. That was my second mistake.

My third mistake is more subjective. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a huge chocolate fan. Almost every dessert I propose either has a chocolate bake or ends with, and then I'll drizzle on some melted chocolate. Any kind of ice cream or sorbet, add the chocolate. Ginger pudding? Add the chocolate. Gingerbread: douse it with chocolate. I took that approach here. I melted about 6 ounces of dark chocolate (70%) add a few tablespoons of butter and seriously doused the cake with it. Now, this liquid chocolate was delicious. And the cake tasted pretty great with it. There was one serious problem. The chocolate killed the caramel.

I started over the next day (having promised to bring in a cake to my office, as some of my coworkers had recently chipped in to a cake carrier replacement fund when my first cake carrier was stolen from office, thereby preventing me from bringing any more cake to the office). I added the baking soda and powder at the right time (no difference in height); I sifted the powdered sugar (nice smooth glaze, sorry I forgot to take any pictures of it), and, instead of the extra layer of chocolate, I melted a handful of dark chocolate (about an ounce) into the caramel. Perfect!

Because of the oats and the pumpkin, the cake itself is fairly hearty. Almost savory. The caramel is anything but. Next time I make it I might try it as the original recipe recommends, with a thin caramel glaze and candied pumpkin seed topping, which sounds delicious, but just wasn't what I was in the mood for this weekend. Or you could skip the caramel and serve this cake for breakfast. I bet it would be delicious dunked into hot chocolate!

Happy Thanksgiving!

- Franklin

Pumpkin Cake with Caramel Icing
Adapted from Blommi and Food52
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Sweetness factor: 9 (frosting); 4 (cake); indulgence factor: 9 (frosting); 4 (cake); difficulty factor: 4; chance I'll make it again: 10.

For the cake:
1.5 cups rolled oats
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
dash cardamom
two eggs
1 fifteen ounce can pumpkin puree
healthy grating of fresh ginger (a few teaspoons)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the caramel:
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 ounce chopped dark chocolate
3/4 cup SIFTED powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350. Thoroughly butter bundt pan. Grind the oats in a food processor until they're as fine as you think they'll go. Add the flour and other dry ingredients and pulse to mix.

In a large mixing bowl, lightly whisk the eggs. Add the pumpkin, freshly grated ginger, oil, molasses, brown sugar, and vanilla. Note: if you use the same measuring cup for the oil and molasses and measure the oil first, the molasses should glide right out of the cup with none left behind. Whisk to combine. Slowly add the flour mix and whisk until well-combined. You'll now be able to see any of the large bits of oat that didn't grind down. Don't worry about these. Let the batter sit about ten minutes (so those bits of oat get saturated).

Pour into the prepared pan and bake about 35 minutes, until the tester comes out clean and the cake has started to pull away from the sides. Let cool in pan five minutes, then invert onto a rack and let cool completely.

Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Let the butter simmer for 4-5 minutes until it starts to brown and smell a but nutty. Add the brown sugar and salt. Stir to dissolve. Add the cream. Stir frequently. Let mixture come to a bowl, and bowl for one minute. Remove from heat. Add the chocolate. Stir to ensure the chocolate melts completely. Slowly add the powdered sugar until the mixture reaches a thick consistency (thin enough to poor, but not so thin it will all fall of the cake). Pour onto cake. Let set before transporting.

October 13, 2012

Millet Bake with Greens

Fall is the best season. With the best colors, the best smells, the best food. What about summer, you ask? With its glut of fresh produce, its salads, and berries, and cold tomato soups? Sure. Summer is great. But it's got nothing on autumn. On the first chilly days of the year, when you break back into your sweaters for the first time, the crisp smell of winter fills the air, you know it is time to turn the oven back on. Blame it on my New England roots, but I have always preferred bundling up in a cozy wool scarf to sweating it out in August.

It is time for apple crisps and hot chocolate. Shopping for this dish, I felt like I was actually purchasing fall: cranberries, butternut squash, and pumpkin seeds. Actually, at the Harris Teeter, they told me it was too early for cranberries, but I was skeptical. The Yes! Organic Market proved Harris Teeter's folly; it stocks cranberries only for Thanksgiving, as though they didn't have other delicious uses aside from sauce.

I tried this recipe first earlier this week, following it exactly. And it was great. The millet and squash smashed together and the cranberries provided a tart pop in every other bite. But it was missing something. I mulled it over for a few days, and determined it was missing several things: onions (preferably caramelized), garlic (preferably roasted), and greens (to make it a complete meal). Also fennel (because it seemed like just the thing to bridge the gap between cranberries and garlic).

Adding the onions and the garlic in particular turned this meal from a mostly one-pot, one-hour affair, to a many-pot nearly two-hour affair, but trust me, it's worth it. If you're going to take the time, you may want to double the recipe, make it on a Sunday afternoon, and eat it all week. If you want to keep it a simpler weeknight meal, you could forgo the onions and garlic.

Promising lots more fall favorites to come,


Millet Bake with Greens
Adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, via 101 Cookbooks
Total time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Sweetness Factor: 4; Indulgence Factor: 3; Difficulty Factor: 4; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10

1 head of garlic (separated into cloves and peeled)
1 onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup millet
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, lightly crushed
1 bunch of kale, rinsed, destemmed, and broken into smallish pieces
1/2 medium size butternut squashed, in 1 inch cubes
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 tablespoon maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup warm vegetable stock (plus up to another 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 8*8 glass baking dish. Put the garlic on a baking sheet, and put it in the oven (no need to wait for it to finish preheating). Thinly slice the onion. I recommend a mandolin, if you have one. Otherwise, make sure to use a very sharp knife. Saute the onions for about ten minutes on low-medium heat, lid on, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to get limp. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Continue to cook, lid on, stirring occasionally, until they are as caramelized as you want them to be, about a half hour, for me. When they are done, the garlic should be done as well. You know the garlic is done if you get a good waft of roasted garlic when you open the oven door, and the garlic is lightly browned.

In the meantime, prepare the squash and other ingredients. Toss together the squash, cranberries, and syrup. Add salt and pepper. Toss with the greens.
Remove the onions from the saute pan and pour in the millet and fennel seed along with a bit more olive oil. Saute, stirring frequently for about two minutes. Stir in the onions and garlic. I cut each garlic clove in half, to get better dispersion (there were only about 9 cloves altogether), but this is not necessary.

Spread the millet/onion/garlic mix over the bottom of the baking dish. Spread the greens/squash/cranberry mix over it. Slowly add the broth. Don't pour it all into one spot; instead try to pour it evenly over the whole dish.

Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven, take off the tin foil, and stir the two layers together. Check to see how close the millet is to do and how dry the dish is. You may want to add another splash of water (or stock) if the millet is still crunchy and the dish is getting dry. Bake another 10 minutes. Check the millet again. If it isn't done and is dry, add a little bit more water and bake another five minutes. Once the millet is done, remove the tin foil, sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top, and bake another 10 minutes.

September 16, 2012

Sorghum Risotto with Greens

Count on me, when spending a long weekend on the Delaware shore, to stumble on Bethany Beach's lone health food store/tea shop. Like a moth to a flame. After drinking my cup of ginger tea and eating an incredibly delicious blueberry muffin, I browsed the aisles to see if there was anything I had to have. Of course there was. A few things. Waiting in line to check out, I eyed a small sale rack. That is where I found the sorghum.

As far as I know, I've never eaten sorghum before. But, since I was about to embark on a two-week gluten free experiment, I thought I should give it a try. And now that I've tried it, I definitely recommend it. It is hearty and nutty. A bit like quinoa in its flavor, but more substantial. Once cooked, it resembles israeli couscous. But it has much more flavor.

Be forewarned (as I would have been had I read the entire package or read the entire blog post that I got this recipe from) it takes a very long time to cook. Two plus hours. You can soak it overnight, which speeds up the cooking time to about forty minutes.

So it doesn't make a great last minute weeknight meal, but it is a fine substitute for other gluton-y grains, and, in fact, I think I prefer it to couscous (though probably not to barley).

- Franklin

Sorghum Risotto with Greens
Adapted from Eating Appalachia
Total Time: 2.5 hours
Difficulty factor: 4; Sweetness factor: 2; Indulgence Factor: 3; Chance I'll Make it Again: 7.

1 cup sorghum
6-8 cups vegetable broth
1 cup coconut milk
2 tbsp olive oil
6 cloves garlic (minced)
1 large onion (diced)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 large carrots
2 large portobello mushrooms
a bunch of chard (or kale)

Put half the onion in garlic in a medium sauce pan over low heat and sauté until the onions begin to wilt. Add half the olive oil. Saute another five or ten minutes until the onions are soft. Add the sorghum, stir, and cook for a minute or so. Add a cup of the veggie broth, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the broth is absorbed. Add another cup. Continue in this manner until the sorghum is nearly done (to your taste). For the last cut of liquid, use the coconut milk. This will take about forty minutes if you have pre-soaked. Otherwise, it will take about two hours. Possibly a bit more.

When there is about a half hour to go on the sorghum. Put the remaining onion and carrot in another pan. Saute until the onions begin to wilt. Add the oil and the garlic. Saute another five minutes or so. Add all the spices. And the mushrooms. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until the veggies are all soft. Carefully rinse and loosely chop the chard. Add to the veggies (with a splash of water if the mix is fairly dry), put the lid on and cook for about five minutes.

Toss the sorghum and the veggies together. Enjoy!

August 11, 2012

Gazpacho with Sauteed Red Onion

I have been feeling uninspired in the kitchen this summer. Recently, I realized it was because for several months I had strayed away from my dinner mainstay: the caramelized onion. A miracle of modern cooking that, in my personal opinion, makes most savory foods better. They are sweet, but hardy, and stand up well to a variety of flavor combinations and to the addition of spice.

Needing to throw together a weeknight meal for some last-minute dinner guests, I turned to the caramelized onion (well, not quite caramelized, but well-sauteed) to add some depth to gazpacho that I would be making with, gasp, canned tomatoes.

Turns out, actually, that any snobbery I had about the canned tomato was misplaced. They make an excellent gazpacho, particularly when you don't have enough time to really let the soup sit. With the onions, the soup had a surprising depth of flavor. The saute is also a good short cut. Usually the acidity in the tomato sauce helps break down whatever it is about onions and garlic that is hard to eat raw (how's this for some hack kitchen science--I'm making it up as a I go along). Without the raw onions, the soup doesn't need to sit for several hours before serving.

I served it on top of a hefty scoop of quinoa, which made the meal complete, and added an extra nuttiness to the soup. It also obviated the need for bread--the loaf I ran out for at the last minute for languished in the corner of the table almost untouched. Gazpacho is perfect in this I-couldn't-possibly-stand-over-a-hot-stove kind of weather (of course, I did anyway for the onions and the quinoa, but what's a little sweat for a delicious meal!).

This is also one of those dishes that is endlessly customizable. You can use whatever veggies you have in the house. I happened to have radishes and an excess of scallions and cucumbers. But you could also use peppers or zucchini (roasted might be nice). Or all of the above.

- Franklin

Gazpacho with Sauteed Red Onion
Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook
Total time: 20 minutes prep, one hour chilling
Sweetness Factor: 3; Difficulty Factor: 1; Indulgence Factor: 2; Chance I'll make it Again: 10.

1 medium red onion, diced
2 cloves of elephant garlic or 3 cloves regular garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups tomato juice
1 can whole tomatoes (preferably without added seasoning), diced
3 scallions, minced
juice of 1/2 lemon and one lime
3 large radishes, diced
1 large cucumber, peeled (seeded if you prefer) and diced
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of tarragon
1 teaspoon of basil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt, black pepper, and hot sauce to taste

Put the onion and garlic in a large sauce pan on low heat. Cover and let cook until the onions start to wilt. Add the oil. Cook, on low, stirring occasionally, another twenty minutes or so, until the onions are as soft as you want them.

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Stir. At this point, you could puree some or all of the soup, depending on your preference. Chill until cold. About an hour. The longer it sits the better it will taste, but an hour is definitely sufficient for this soup.

Serve over quinoa, if this is the main course, or with a slice of bread, if this is an appetizer. Garnish, if desired, with chopped parsley.

May 23, 2012

The Quest for the Perfect White Frosting

I have never really liked buttercream. The plain stuff, made by whipping together powdered sugar and butter, has always been too sweet and too rich for my taste--at least in the volumes it usually shows up on top of store-bought cupcakes (think Magnolia Bakery). The fancy stuff--the meringue buttercreams--is better, but until recently it was a mystery to me. Despite several attempts, despite purchasing a candy thermometer, despite following directions from Irma Rombauer, from Deb Perelman, from Martha Stewart, as exactly as I could, it never really came together.

Until last week. I am making a wedding cake for a June 2 wedding for 150 people. I have made several wedding cakes before, including one last year for 180 people, but this one presents a new challenge. The bride wants white frosting. I have always used ganache. Ganache is my favorite kind of frosting. It is perfectly delicious and relatively easy to make a cake look good. But it is not white. For white frosting, there are six main options:

1) Fondant. Fondant makes for the smoothest (and most professional) wedding cake exterior, but I have never worked with it, and didn't think someone else's wedding, only a few weeks away was the best time to start).

2) White chocolate ganache (or buttercream). I just don't like white chocolate. It is not really chocolate at all. It is basically cocoa butter and sugar, which means it has all the sickly richness of milk chocolate with none of the subtle and intoxicating flavor of actual chocolate. Plus, it does not make for a pure white frosting. It is better if you want an ivory cake.

3) Meringue (or 7-minute icing). Just egg whites and sugar, meringue whips up like marshmallow. I love it, but I think it is too sweet for wedding cake.

4) Plain Buttercream. See above.

5) Cream Cheese Frosting. This is a step up from plain buttercream. The cream cheese cuts the sweetness a bit. I could eat it by the spoonful. But cream cheese can't sit out as long as butter can, and I was worried this might be dangerous choice for an outdoor wedding in a place without a refrigerator large enough to hold the entire cake.

6) Meringue buttercreams. There are several types. Swiss meringue buttercream is made by heating the dissolving sugar in egg whites over a water bath, then removing the mixture from the heat, beating it into a meringue, and then beating in the butter. Italian meringue buttercream is made by pouring a hot sugar syrup into egg whites as you beat them, and then adding butter. As I already said, I wrote this off for a long time, because I could never get it to produce a stable icing. Every swiss meringue buttercream I've tried (I've never made the italian kind) has had the same problem. The final product was runny. Here's why: when I transferred the egg whites and sugar to the stand mixer, I started adding the butter too soon. I would add it when it looked like the the meringue was complete (it formed stiff peaks and was glossy), but I wasn't giving the meringue enough time too cool. The butter was melting. It takes a long time, but you have to wait until the outside of the mixing bowl is completely cool to the touch. Thanks to Sweetapolita for solving this mystery for me.
Once I figured out how to make a stable buttercream, my next challenge was to make one I wanted to eat. This required cutting the butter substantially and adding something tart. I tried cream cheese first, but wasn't satisfied. Then I tried greek yogurt. This produced a buttercream that was rich, but light and not overly sweet. I am worried about how well it will hold up if it is a hot day, but I am going to keep the proportion of yogurt very low, and wait and see what the weather report looks like. A June early evening in Massachusetts could be 60 or 80. I may also give the Italian version a try, because I have read it is more stable than the Swiss version.
The final challenge was to make this with pasteurized eggs. There will be some small children at the wedding, and, while I am fairly confident that cooking eggs to a temperature high enough to melt sugar is also sufficient to prevent any food-borne diseases, I don't want to run that risk with other people's children. I bought some egg beaters. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to check the ingredients list, and it turned out that the egg beaters had beta carotene added for color, so they would look like real eggs, which meant they would not make white frosting. I tried anyway, thinking I would select my brand more carefully for the real deal, but the despite whipping and whipping and whipping, nothing happened. No volume. No stiff peaks. Nothing. I moved on to powdered egg whites. Despite some naysaying blogs warning me that these would never form a stable frosting (something to do with broken down protein strands), I found them to be a perfect substitute for real egg whites. See this comparison of the appearance of the egg beaters and the powdered whites.
So here it is, a buttercream I want to eat and am capable of making! Questions still to sort out: what variety of chocolate cake to make. What to fill the cake with. How to decorate the exterior. I brought the version pictured here to a one-year old's birthday. I will probably not go in the rainbow sugar direction for the wedding.

- Franklin
Yogurt Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Sweetness factor: 9; Indulgence Factor: 9; Difficulty Factor: 8; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.
Total Time: 1 hour
Enough to frost a 9-inch layer cake, or two dozen cupcakes.

1 cup granulated sugar
4 egg whites or 8 teaspoons powdered egg whites dissolved in 1/2 cup water
20 tablespoons butter (room temperature, soft but not too smooshy)
2 tablespoons Greek Yogurt

Put the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of your electric mixer (or, if you are going to use a hand mixer, in a metal bowl). Set over a pot of simmering water. You only need an inch or two of water, and make sure the bowl isn't touching the water. Heat, whisking fairly frequently to prevent the egg from cooking solid, until the sugar dissolves completely. Go ahead and stick your hand in and rub two fingers together. If you don't feel any granules, it should be ready. If you have a candy thermometer, confirm that the mixture has reached at least 140 degrees (fahrenheit).

Remove from heat, set in the stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Whisk at medium speed until you have a stiff glossy meringue and the side of the bowl is completely cool. This may take a while, perhaps 15 minutes. Possibly longer if you have increased the volume of the recipe.

Replace the whisk attachment with the paddle attachment. Add the butter a few tablespoons at a time. Add the Greek yogurt. Beat until it comes together. See this website for some advice if it is not coming together. Decorate straight away or store in the refrigerator covered.

May 13, 2012

Sesame Tahini Granola Bars

For those of you readers with who live in Washington D.C., and frequently come over to my house, you know I am a subscriber to the Martha Stewart Cookie of the Day, and, while I delete this morning email most days without much thought, every now and then a recipe resonates, and I'll forward it with some short message along the lines of "let's eat these tonight!" When a recipe for Dried-Fruit and Nut Health Bars (promising to be a less sweet and less fatty granola bar) arrived in my inbox, I forwarded it to my roommate immediately. That was on March 22.

Why didn't we eat them immediately? Well, take a look at the list of ingredients. They certainly looked delicious. They also promised to be some seriously expensive granola bars. The papaya alone would cost more than a box of Quaker Chewy Granola Bars. The recipe languished.

A few weeks later, I stumbled across an amazing coop grocery store in Mt. Rainier Maryland, where I found at an extremely reasonable price the pitted dates, quinoa flakes, dried papaya, and dried cherries. I got these ingredients home, and I pulled up the recipe. My heart sank. I still didn't have the macadamia nuts, the pecans, the dried blueberries, the oat bran, the flax seed, the wheat germ, or the brown rice syrup. The quinoa flakes and papaya sat on my shelf for several more weeks. This afternoon, determined to pay some attention to my neglected blog, I pulled the recipe out again.

This time, I decided that rather than invest a small fortune, I would liberally substitute. Toasted sesame seeds for the oat bran, wheat germ, and flax seed. Rolled oats for the pecans and macadamias. Ginger for the cinnamon. Agave for the brown rice syrup. And to make up for the additional dryness from the added granola: a heaping tablespoon of tahini paste.

Granola bars, it turns out, fit into my favorite category of bake goods (along with fruit crumbles): the endlessly customizable. Having made all of these substitutions, I don't know if I can advertise these, as Martha did, as "Health Bars," but I will advertise them as delicious!

- Franklin

Sesame Tahini Granola Bars
Adapted very loosely from Martha Stewart
Total time: 1 hour
Sweetness Factor: 4; Richness factor: 5; Difficulty Factor: 2; Chance I'll Make them Again: 7.

1 cup pitted dates
1 cup quinoa flakes
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup dried papaya, chopped
1/3 cup dried cherries
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons agave syrup
1 heaping tablespoon tahini paste

Preheat the oven to 350. Generously butter an 8 or 9 inch square pan. Put the dates in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a simmer. Drain, and puree.

Grind the rolled oats in a food processor. I tried to grind the cherries along with them, but that was unsuccessful. Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. You may need to get in there with your hands to make sure that the tahini, agave, and date puree are evenly worked through all the dry ingredients.

Press the mixture into the prepared pan, making sure it is well-packed. Bake for about twenty-five minutes, until the edges are firm and golden brown. Allow to cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into bars.

April 24, 2012

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction

I guess you can't really call yourself a food blogger if you don't gush, at least once, about how excited you are about the farmers' market in spring and the delights of that versatile early spring vegetable whose subtle flavor just isn't quite so good at any other time of year. Of course, I'm talking about asparagus. To be sure, it is basically available year round, but it is best now, recently picked, from a farm within a state or two of here. Is that just some local food brouhaha? Not with asparagus (disclaimer: I haven't actually done a side-by-side taste test, but I'm pretty sure this is true). When you are at the farmers' market this weekend and you are appalled to find that enough asparagus for a meal for four costs six dollars, take a deep breath, hand over the money, and cover the cost by having one fewer drinks at happy hour or by packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch instead of heading out to chop't (or cosi or whatever other establishment was going to make you 10 dollar lunch tomorrow). It is worth it!

There are a lot of delicious ways to prepare asparagus and I like them all. Except for the ones that involve excessive boiling. Over boiled asparagus is disgusting. It smells foul. It looks sad and limp, and you will definitely have wasted your six dollars. Also, I don't like it in any kind of creamy sauce. Cream drags it down! I came across this recipe while looking for a quick weeknight meal. It lets the asparagus shine by pairing it with a pair of other contrasting flavors: the sweet balsamic and the salty parmesan.

And the recipe was true to its promise of quick. Everything can be done within the time it takes to get a pot of water boiling and cook the penne. Speaking of which, I suppose you could use a different shape of pasta, but I really like the parallelism between the penne and the asparagus. I almost bought rigatoni instead, but I thought better of it when it occurred to me that the short slices of asparagus might get lost inside the rigatoni and would miss out on a proper coating of balsamic.

The parmesan is a fairly critical ingredient. You've already made the investment in the asparagus, so don't cheap out on some crappy parmesan! Either a parmegiano reggiano or a pecorino romano (preferably one you grate yourself) will do. You might have to skip two drinks or pack lunch twice to cover this. But it is so worth it! And one large block will last you a while (it keeps for a very long time). Speaking of parmesan, I went for the first time to the Brazilian steak house, Fogo de Chao (which is incredible, if you are up for an onslaught of meat--this restaurant is a bit how I imagined meals unfolding in the capital city of Panem), and at the salad bar they had an entire wheel of parmesan (look for it in this slide show of salad bar images). If you like parmesan and have never had the experience of digging a fork into a whole parmesan wheel and scraping out as much cheese as you'd like, then I highly recommend making yourself a reservation right now.

Back to my light weeknight dinner. I served the penne with a small caprese salad, with small spheres of mozarella quartered, a chopped tomato, and chopped basil. I tossed them in the bowl I used to prepare the asparagus, which had plenty of oil left coating the sides that no more was required. I did add more salt and pepper. A plain green salad would have been good as well.

- Franklin

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction
Adapted from Food and Wine
Total Time: 30 minutes.
Sweetness Factor: 4; Indulgence Factor: 4; Difficulty Factor: 2; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.

1 pound penne
2 bunches of asparagus
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
ample salt, pepper, and olive oil
ample freshly grated parmesan cheese

Put up water to boil for the pasta. Preheat the oven to 350. Prepare the asparagus by careful rinsing it and snapping off the tough part of the ends (usually about 1-2 inches). Chop it into 1-2 inch sections. Toss in a bowl with salt and pepper and a table spoon or two of olive oil (enough to for a thin coat). Spread the asparagus out on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, until the asparagus is cooked through and has started to whither a bit.

Once the water boils and the pasta is cooking, start the balsamic. Put it in a small saucepan on medium heat and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes (depending on how hot your stove is, mine is electric, so everything takes longer). Once it has reduced in volume by about two thirds add the sugar, whisk to combine, and cook it down a bit more. Add a dash of salt and few grindings of pepper.

Drain the penne. Combine it in a large bowl with the asparagus and balsamic. Toss to thoroughly combine. I prefer to bring the cheese and a grater to the table and let everyone serve themselves, but you could also grate the cheese directly into the serving bowl and stir it in. Note: If you have leftovers, this is pretty cold on day two.

April 6, 2012

Fried Egg Kale Chip Sandwiches

I heart sandwiches. In my house growing up, my dad was in charge of sandwiches. At lunch time on a weekend, my sister and I would wait for my dad to come home from his studio and announce it was lunch time. Then we would gather around in the kitchen and eagerly await the sandwiches he would set in front of us.

They were variations on a theme: sliced turkey and cheese, often gruyere or goat gouda, on a toasted bagel with some combination of dijon mustard, spicy peppers, hummus, watercress, and tomato from the garden. Often, the sandwiches would contain evidence of last night's dinner: a slice of steak or a sliver of grilled chicken. On a weekends home from college, despite having slept in and had breakfast only just before my dad's lunch hour, I would always raise my hand when my dad asked who else wanted a sandwich.

Now on visits home, nothing has changed. My dad's sandwiches are legendary. But I live pretty far from home. I am working on my own sandwich making skills. There are two types of sandwiches. Throw together sandwiches: which incorporate things requiring no preparation (sliced meat, tomatoes, condiments, leftovers etc.). And project sandwiches: for which you cook things. This past weekend, I stumbled on a project sandwich that was worth writing home about. I had a large bag of kale that needed rescuing and a moment of inspiration.

I set to work on caramelizing an onion (an important first step to any project sandwich). The original plan was: balsamic vinaigrette, caramelized onions, crispy kale chips, and sliced hard boiled eggs, but before the water came to a boil I realized that a fried egg would be a much better way to go.

I made the sandwiches with cheddar, but as my audience pointed out, mozzarella would be amazing. I served them with a side of spicy sweet potato oven fries. But they would also make a full dinner with a bit of salad or any other veggie. I have had these twice already, and will probably have them again this weekend. I will also be doing some grilled cheese sandwich experimentation in the next few weeks in order to enter this competition. (That's right, it is a grilled cheese academy!!).

- Franklin

Fried Egg and Crispy Kale Sandwiches
Total Time: 1 hour 25 Minutes
Makes four sandwiches
Sweetness Factor: 2; Indulgence Factor: 6; Difficulty Factor: 5; Chance I'll Make Them Again: 10.

For the sandwiches:
1 large vidalia onion (I used 1 vidalia and 1 red, so I would have leftovers)
1 bunch of kale (I prefer curly kale for kale chips, but any type will work)
a few tablespoon of olive oil
salt and pepper
4 eggs
8 slices of bread (I used a sourdough batard)
cheese to taste (cheddar or mozzarella or whatever you like)

For the balsamic vinaigrette:
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
two cloves of garlic
ample salt and pepper

For the potatoes:
3 large sweet potatoes
1.5 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Thinly slice the onion. Put over low to medium heat with lid on until onions begin to wilt. Add a tablespoon olive oil, turn the heat down to low, put the lid back on. Stir occasionally. Cook for about 1 hour until soft and mushy.

Preheat the oven to 400. Scrub the potatoes. Slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch spears. Grind up the spices. Toss the spears with the olive oil and spices. Spread out on a baking sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes, stirring once about half way through, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork and are starting to brown a bit.

For the kale, when the potatoes are done turn the oven temperature down to 350. Carefully rinse the kale. Remove the leaves from the stems. The stems are no good in this meal, but save them because they are excellent in a stir fry or in a lentil stew. Rip the kale up into smallish pieces. Toss the kale with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread it out on a baking sheet and put in the oven. Make sure the kale is spread thinly enough (there shouldn't be too many pieces stacked on top of each other) or the kale won't cook evenly. Bake until the kale is crispy and beginning to brown.

For the dressing, combine the liquid ingredients and the mustard in a jar and give it a good shake. Peel the garlic and press against the cutting board with the side of your knife. Add the cloves whole. Salt and pepper to taste. Taste the dressing and alter the vinegar/ oil ratio to suit your taste.

Fry the eggs. Toast the bread (I have a toaster oven, so I put the cheese on before putting the bread in the toaster). Drizzle one side of the bread with the vinaigrette. Smear on onions, sprinkle on kale, add the cooked egg. Eat!