Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best Recipes of 2012: Looking back, leaping forward

I'm trying very hard to be aloof about the end of 2012. You know, pretending that it's no big thing that I'm entering into the year when I will turn... 30. Which seems rather fitting for a year that ends in... 13.

Not that I'm superstitious or anything.

Not at all.

In the least.

That said, even with the large, looming 3-0 festering on the horizon like a darkening sky ready to explode rain all over my 20-something parade, there's a part of me that's also relieved to have the ups and downs of this year over. I'm ready to slough off the skin of 2012 and start in on the ups and downs of next year with every confidence that there will be (knock on wood) more ups than downs.

This year did have its moments, of course. The sun-kissed, carefree days spent in Palm Springs, the friendships found and strengthened over too many glasses of wine, and these recipes.

Because it can't very well be the end-of-the-year without at least one obligatory top ten list.

Olive Oil and Maple Granola

I've maintained a steady supply of this granola in my pantry ever since making that first life-changing batch this past March. Because it contains olive oil instead of butter, I like to tell myself that it's "healthy," but you'd be well advised to know that this is absolutely not health food. Even when it is spooned over Greek yogurt mixed with paper thin slices of cold banana in what has quickly become my favorite breakfast dessert. Eating it reminds me that it's okay to not be perfect. One can only eat so much quinoa.

Farro with Kale, Tempeh and Shiitakes

Full disclosure: This offensively dark, hastily-taken picture is not of farro with kale, tempeh and shiitakes, but rather of farro with kale, tempeh and coconut -- the first iteration of this recipe that I've eaten a disturbing number of times this year. While it's still deserving of a place on this list with coconut chips intact, after using slivers of shiitake mushrooms instead I haven't been able to go back to the original. It's like eating a warm, salty kale chip salad for dinner. With, you know, mushrooms and tempeh and whole grains thrown in for good measure.

Quinoa with Carrots, Currants, Chickpeas

Were it not for the strenuous arm workout required to grate all the carrots that I deemed necessary for this salad, I would have made this my brown bag lunch staple every week this year. As it is, I made it countless times, likely drawing raised eyebrows from my coworkers as I shoveled in forkfuls of the vibrantly orange-flecked quinoa whilst pouring over food blogs during the 15 minutes I call a "lunch break." A heartier take on a classic apple cider-dressed carrot salad, it's tart and sweet and utterly addicting. And also the reason I perpetually have little kernels of quinoa stuck in my computer keyboard at work.

Mozza's Butterscotch Budino and Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

Perhaps the most labor-intensive of the recipes I made this year, it's only fitting that this intensely decadent butterscotch budino with rosemary pinenut cookies would make my top ten list. Particularly since the recipe comes from The Mozza Cookbook. Which is really all you need to know.

Curried Sweet Potato Soup, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro

Everyone needs a silver bullet soup recipe that comes together in less than an hour with a minimal number of ingredients and effort.  While this soup didn't come my way until late November, it's quickly become a staple for me. So much so that I even bought red curry paste to store at my parents' house in Orange County. (People need silver bullet soup in the OC too.)

Warm Quinoa Salad with Tofu, Shiitakes and Cabbage

A remix of the tofu & shiitake cabbage cups that preceded it, this warm quinoa salad ended up completely overshadowing its predecessor. The ribbons of cabbage acquire a delicate sweetness when cooked that is a fitting counterbalance to the earthiness of the shiitakes and salinity of the soy-based sauce. Capped off with a heady amount of sesame seeds and crunchy cashews, it's almost reminiscent of a warm Chinese Chicken Salad. Without, you know, the chicken.

Peach Blueberry Pie

Making this pie was a triumph. It came at a time when I was feeling like the world was spinning too fast around me and that I'd never quite catch up. With this recipe, I didn't need to catch up. I could slow down and still accomplish something significant. Because, as we all well know, pie is always significant. This version with its cinnamon-sugar dusted crust and rightfully oozy interior of in-season peaches and blueberries is particularly so, and reason enough to sit down a savor a slice of life a la mode.

Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash

I adore this dish. The sluggish slurry of caramelized red onions, the maple-glazed cubes of squash, the crunch of toasted pepitas, and the unexpected flourishes of dried mulberries -- this warm wheat berry salad is fall. I'm especially partial to it paired with a side of balsamic-glazed pan-fried Brussels sprouts, and I've also taken to throwing in a handful of chickpeas when eating it as an entree. I like to think that served this way even the staunchest carnivore in the group could be converted into temporary vegetarianism.

Cashew Butterscotch Bars

I blame these bars on my current state of post-holiday bloatation that has had me shellacked inside the same pair of black Lululemon stretchy pants for the past five days. I can't even fathom my skinny jeans -- nor how I will possibly be able to zip up the dress my mother gave me for Christmas. That said, I can't fathom not having these bars as a new fixture in my family's ever-growing list of holiday cookies.

Avocado Toast

As someone who thinks nothing of going to two grocery stores, the farmers market and my local wine shop to make dinner, I often forget that sometimes the simplest dishes are the best. With the right ingredients, something as ordinary as toast can be made sublime.

I hope to remember this more in 2013 -- with regards to both food and life. It doesn't always have to be fireworks and tasting menus and bottles of Grand Cru. Beauty exists in everyday moments, and joy can be found in the seemingly mundane. Even a bottle of 14 Hands Merlot shared with friends at a soba noodle place. Or a slice of avocado toast, eaten over the sink on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Cashew Butterscotch Bars: A wonderful bite

I've been fully embracing the "but it's the holidays" justification this year. There have been many second (and third) glasses of wine, more excessive purchases than I care to admit (including a completely unnecessary black and white dress from Anthropologie), and an obscene amount of Michael Buble holiday music.

While I've always been a sucker for the pomp and circumstance of it all -- the movies, the sentimental ornaments we hang on my parent's flocked Christmas tree, the alcohol -- this year I've let myself be particularly bitten by the spirit of the season (no bad pun intended).

Christmas (and the holiday season in general) feels like what life would be like in an ideal world. Where calories don't count. Where people take time for each other. Where miracles happen. Even if those miracles are happening to Hugh Grant and his romantic counterpart in "Love Actually."

It's a rather freeing time of year though. Having the excuse to do things that would seem completely irrational and impractical, in say, July. Buying my nieces obnoxiously pink outfits that cost more than the clothes I purchase for myself, drinking my morning tea out of a hideous snowflake mug, and making and eating six different kinds of cookies and confections.

It's all unnecessary, of course, but I love that it seems completely normal to look at the containers filled with chocolate covered shortbread cookies, fudge nut bars, spice krinkles, marshmallow cookies, walnut sea salt caramels, and decide that there's still something missing. In this instance, cashew butterscotch bars, a recipe I've had tagged in Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook ever since my friend Ali gave it to me two Christmases ago.

I was drawn to the recipe immediately, as I am with all things that contain cashews and sugar, yet had never found an appropriate time to make them. Likely because I knew that once I did, I would be completely helpless to their wiles and not able to rely upon the justification "but it's the holidays" as I tore into my third one in so many hours.

These bars are slightly reminiscent of seven layer bars, sans all the layers. The crust is salty and buttery, and, once ensconced with the butterscotch mixture, takes on an almost caramel-like chewiness. While cashews are a rarity in desserts, here, they are such an organic compliment it seems a tragedy that they aren't utilized more often.

In the interests of full disclosure, I've eaten five of them in the past 48 hours, amidst a sea of other cookies that I similarly had no need for outside of this alternate universe that we call the holidays. It's a rather wonderful thing -- this fleeting period of time where life really is wonderful.

Cashew Butterscotch Bars
Adapted from Amanda Hesser's Essential NY Times Cookbook

Notes: I had serious urges to add coconut flakes to the cashew butterscotch layer of these outrageously addictive bars, but restrained myself for this first outing (there may be experimentation down the line). The only change I made was to halve the recipe and bake it in an 8x8 square pan rather than a 13x18 cookie sheet, something that I would continue to do for subsequent bakings of these bars. Nobody should have three dozen+ of these available at any given time. Even when it is the holidays.

1 stick plus 2 3/4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher  or sea salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
5 ounces butterscotch chips, preferably Hershey's
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 3/4 teaspoons water
1 1/4 cups salted cashew pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8 square baking dish with butter, taking care to cover both the bottom and the sides. (These bars do have a tendency to adhere to things... dishes, teeth, thighs, so it's important to make sure the baking vessel is thoroughly greased.)

Place 1 stick + 1 tablespoon of butter and the brown sugar in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until thoroughly combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt to lighten the texture of the flour and make it easier to incorporate. With the mixer on the lowest speed, gradually add the flour + salt to the sugar mixture. Mix until well-incorporated, but not until the dough forms a a ball. The dough should still be crumbly with pea-sized pieces.

Gently press the dough into the prepared pan. Don't pack it in or fret if the dough is not perfectly smooth -- it will still look a bit crumbly and that's okay!  Just make sure there is an even layer. Bake for 5 minutes and then remove from the oven and use a fork to poke holes throughout the crust. (Essential for the butterscotch layer to seep through and create that utterly delicious caramelization.)  Return the pan to the oven and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes (mine took at least 15... perhaps nearly 18) or until the dough is lightly browned and no longer soft to the touch. (Note: Mine never got completely hard to the touch, but did brown nicely so I judged more by appearance than by feel.) Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack. 

In a small saucepan, combine butterscotch chips, water, corn syrup, and remaining 1 3/4 tablespoons of butter. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until the butterscotch chips are completely melted, approximately 5 minutes.  Pour the topping over the crust, taking care to ensure it's spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the cashew pieces over the top, gently pressing into the butterscotch layer.

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 12 to 16 minutes or until the top is bubbly and cashews are lightly browned.  Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before cutting into bars.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Curried Sweet Potato, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro: Real life

"See Your 2012 Year in Review. Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year."

I noticed the notification on my Facebook page this past Thursday -- it stared me straight in the eye, taunting me as I tried to process the assumption behind the phrases.

It struck me as odd that a social media platform could discern the biggest moments of my year based on my status updates, the photos I'd shared, and the number of "likes" I'd accrued with each one. It felt robotic. Impersonal. Like when iTunes tries to tell me what music I'd like because I recently downloaded songs from Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

No, iTunes, just because I've listened to "I Knew You Were Trouble" 25 times in a row, it does not mean I want to purchase Justin Bieber's "Baby."

But I was curious. Could Facebook zero in on my most memorable moments of the year? Could it detect emotional resonance based on how many people liked an image of wheat berries with butternut squash?

I clicked through and was immediately confronted with a collage of photos: Sarah and I holding beers at the Gold Standard food event in March, Krista and I mugging for the camera during an impromptu visit to the bar at Picca, a table set with food during a dinner party with Daniela and Katie. I smiled at the images, inadvertently warmed by the memories behind each one, and continued to smile as I scrolled down the page. A picture of me on my 29th birthday. The announcement that I was going to Palm Springs in 14.5 hours. A check-in post at The Golden State that I was tagged in by a coworker. A status update about a swinging couple that propositioned me on OkCupid.

At first glance, it seemed fairly representative of my year. I did a lot eating and drinking, I spent two amazing weekends in Palm Springs, I found new friends in my new coworkers, and I did a lot of bitching about the crazy people I encountered on OkCupid. (The most recent wore a leather cuff bracelet outfitted with a Texas Ranger star on our first and only date.)

But as with most things that appear on Facebook, it was a somewhat superficial assessment of my 2012 -- the memories that I wanted people to see, the moments that I felt comfortable "oversharing," the status updates I'd generated solely because I knew people would "like" them.  

Because Facebook is inevitably more of a brag book or complaint department than it is a memoir of real moments both good and bad -- the ooey gooey stuff that we're often too afraid to admit outloud let alone outright.

Facebook was not the place where I talked about getting let go from my job -- even though that was perhaps the most defining moment of my year in terms of how I dealt with it, grew from it, and ultimately became better because of it. Facebook was not the place where I talked about getting my heart broken by the only guy I ever took to meet... Mozza.

And Facebook was not the place where I talked about all the mundane moments -- a casual dinner at my brother and sister-in-law's place in Orange County, going to see Magic Mike with my best friend on opening night, or closing down a soba noodle place with two of my other dearest friends in the city while we sipped a cheap bottle of Merlot.

I saved all that for Twitter.

All joking aside, Facebook does not have insight into the most meaningful or obscure yet poignent moments of my year just because 16 people thought it was funny that a guy on OkCupid told me "I have needs as a man and need to know if you can satisfy them."

That's the surface stuff. The hokey costume you wear on Halloween, the pristinely frosted layer cakes sitting in the window at the bakery, beckoning people passing by to pause, look and pay attention. Real life happens when nobody is watching. When we're too busy living the moment rather than thinking about which social media platform we want to use to broadcast it.

Real life isn't a layer cake. It's not a haphazard photograph taken at an event or party to prove to the people who ignored you in high school that you're cool and popular enough to be there. It's not a status update sharing your opinion on an article that you think makes you sound smart.

Real life is when you drink two bottles of sparkling Lambrusco with a friend going through a break up. Real life is when your brother asks you to be the godmother to your niece. And real life is soup, slurped at home on a rainy Sunday afternoon while the plumber fixes your broken pipes.

Curried Sweet Potato, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro
Adapted from Cookie and Kate
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe has quickly become my go-to soup recipe for lazy nights or gray weekend days when I can't fathom leaving the apartment -- or changing out of my sweatpants. It's hearty and comforting, yet not in a completely familial or tired way like some broth-based vegetable soups. The secret is in the sweet potato-thai curry combination -- the savory sweet ace in the hole, so to speak. I made only a few changes to the original recipe (mostly to the ingredient proportions), but also using coconut oil instead of olive oil, omitting the red peppers, and reducing the overall cooking time. I'm sure letting it simmer longer would create an even greater depth of flavor, but even as written below it packs enough of a wallop that I am sitting here considering making it again for dinner.

1 tablespoon coconut oil (olive oil is also perfectly acceptable)
1 yellow onion, diced
2 small or 1 extra-large sweet potato, peeled and diced (approximately 2 cups)
Sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons red Thai curry paste
6-7 cups vegetable broth (I use water mixed with Better than Bouillon vegetable base - the best!)
1/2 cup farro, rinsed well
1 16-ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 cups finely chopped kale
Sriracha for serving

Heat coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sweet potatoes, season with a pinch of salt, and saute over medium heat for 7-10 minutes until they start to soften and brown. Lower the heat, add the red curry paste and stir to coat the onions and potatoes

Add the farro and vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the farro and sweet potatoes are tender.

Remove the lid and add the chickpeas and kale. Simmer another 5-10 minutes until kale is completely wilted. Serve immediately. If desired, add a couple drops of sriracha to each bowl for a kick of heat.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Broccoli with Ricotta Salata: Fall crush

My first celebrity crush (aside from Zach Morris on "Saved by the Bell") was Keanu Reeves.

I was in the 5th grade at the time, sporting bangs, an ill-advised perm and a wardrobe composed explicitly of hoodies and colored jeans from the Limited Too. While I was barely removed from my "girls rule, boys drool" stage, as soon as I saw Keanu come on screen with his buzzcut and tight white t-shirt in the movie Speed, I was mesmerized.

There was something about his swagger and the confident way he took charge of the situation (and bus) that rendered me completely silent as I watched the screen, riveted by his commanding presence. And, well, body armor.

I was, of course, totally mortified by my reaction and told no one, not even my best friends at the time, Katie and Shana, who I was convinced would think I was even more of an awkward weirdo for liking him. It didn't occur to me that other people might actually find him attractive too -- that I wasn't the only girl in the universe who had a thing for tall, dark and handsome men. It seemed to me like another one of my bizarre predilections. Like my affinity for white bread Nacho Cheese Doritos sandwiches, which were, incidentally just as lacking in substance as Mr. Reeves.

But still... delicious.

A few months after my initial encounter with Speed (I say this because there were multiple encounters), I was sprawled out on Katie's living room floor playing "Truth or Dare" with her and Shana like most pre-teens across America who've grown out of the Barbie stage. We were alternating through the usual dares ("I dare you to prank call your brother") and truth questions ("What's the worst thing you've ever done?"), when I was charged with the ubiquitous, "Who do you like?"

I immediately blushed a fierce shade of red (likely the same color of my Limited Too jeans), and stammered, "No one!"

My two friends looked at each other in disbelief, their eyes gleaming with what I had come to recognize as the physical manifestation of a shared joke that was likely at my expense. Or hair's expense. (A perm and bangs is not a good look for me.)

"Have you never heard of Keanu Reeves?" Shrieked Shana, while Katie giggled, observing me like the awkward weirdo that I was at age 10.

I was stunned.

"How did they know?" I wondered. "Did they like him too? Did other people like him? Was this a common thing? Was I not a total freakazoid?"

I did my best to convince them that, yes, I had heard of Keanu Reeves, and yes, I too thought he was the best thing to happen to a white t-shirt since the Gap, but it was too late. At this juncture in our game, it looked like I was only saying I liked him because they liked him, which, in the world of the 5th grade is even worse than admitting you don't like anyone at all.

It was a lesson that I learned quickly -- always take ownership of that which you like. Even if that something is Keanu Reeves in a movie about an exploding bus.

Or Adam Levine's tats.

Or tuna salad sandwiches with pickles and chips stuffed in them.

Or the roasted broccoli with ricotta salata at the local mini-chain that you haven't been able to stop thinking about since you ate there four weeks ago and then immediately had to recreate at home because it was the best broccoli you'd ever had, and you didn't know why you hadn't always been eating broccoli with ricotta salata.

You know, since like the 5th grade.

When you had bangs, an ill-advised perm, and wore colored jeans from the Limited Too.

Broccoli with Ricotta Salata and Quinoa
Inspired by the salad at Lemonade
Serves 4

Notes: It probably won't come as a shock to you that the original dish this is inspired by doesn't contain quinoa. I added quinoa, red quinoa specifically, because one can't necessarily make an entire meal out of just broccoli and ricotta salata. Without, you know, becoming hungry ten minutes later. So this is the bulked up version of the salad at Lemonade. With quinoa, and a champagne vinaigrette made with apple cider. You can toss some dried mulberries, cranberries or slivered almonds in there if you'd like. Whatever you do -- own it. And be sure to tell your friends about it first.

3/4 cup red quinoa, rinsed well
2 heads of broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 1/2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt, pepper
1/3 cup ricotta salata crumbles

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bring 1 1/2 cups water to boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, until the water has been completely absorbed (approximately 20-25 minutes as red quinoa takes longer to cook than white). Fluff with the fork and set aside to dry out and come to room temperature.

Toss broccoli with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, then lay out in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for 20-25 minutes or until tender and slightly browned.  Remove from oven and set aside.

While broccoli is roasting, bring 1/2 cup apple cider and the champagne vinegar to a slow boil in a small sauce pan. Add the minced shallots and cook for 6-8 minutes until reduced. Turn off the heat, whisk in the mustard, remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper.

Toss quinoa with the broccoli and the dressing to taste. Chill or serve warm topped with crumbled ricotta salata.