Wednesday, January 19, 2011


cauliflower "mac and cheese"

No this is not the long-awaited-since-yesterday "what I cooked for the holidays pt 2." Today I am talking about cauliflower, which we were getting in alarmingly large quantities this fall. Like, if you think cauliflower looks like brains, these babies came from the head of a total giant. Beyond enormous.

Unlike Nathan, I am a big fan of cauliflower, which I usually steam until tender and serve with olive oil, lemon and parsley. I also love it breaded and fried, which, let's face it, is not a bad preparation for any food, really. Except maybe fruit. Apples would work, but can you imagine breaded fried pineapple, or berries? Yuck. I wonder if anyone's tried that.

Anyway. With such unimaginable amounts of cauliflower, I decided to branch out and try some new ways of making it. I thought about the delicious cauliflower I've had at Indian restaurants and Middle Eastern pita joints, but ultimately I stayed a little closer to home.

First I tried a simple oven roasted recipe from Ina Garten, which employed pine nuts, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice and whole cloves of garlic. It's from her book How Easy Is That, and it really did seem like it would be.

ina garten's garlic roasted cauliflower

Parboiled garlic cloves and chopped up cauliflower florets are tossed with olive oil and baked in a 475° oven for 20 minutes. Toss with lemon juice and toasted pine nuts, (or walnuts if you're put off by the astronomically high price of the former), and sprinkle with parsley and that's all there is to it. Unfortunately, my version fell a bit short. Perhaps there was something off with my oven temperature, because my cauliflower was a little too brown, but not yet cooked through. It was one of those situations where I probably should have just put everything back in the oven, but was too hungry to wait. Impatience does not a good cook make.

My second cauliflower dish was a play on macaroni and cheese. I created a rich bechamel sauce with butter and blue cheese, and then stirred in my cauliflower florets. After I time, I sprinkled the top with breadcrumbs and baked the dish in the oven. With a little parsley and chopped scallion for color, this was cheesy and good, but no match for the pasta laden original. And, like this previous dish, the cauliflower wasn't cooked evenly. While some of it was meltingly tender, cooked through with buttery cheese, other bites were almost crunchy. It was very strange. I think I probably should have boiled the cauliflower and then put it straight in the oven.

improvised cauliflower bake

While the flavors of both these cauliflower dishes were good, they both suffered from being unevenly cooked. I hate hard crunchy cauliflower, (although I admit it's no good mushy either), and I failed to reach that fork tender ideal. It wasn't a huge failure, but both dishes had their shortcomings.

blue cheesy cauliflower

I think I'd prefer to make macaroni and cheese in lieu of trying my cheesy cauliflower again, but I'd definitely try Ina's recipe out again, especially if I can get my hands on some pine nuts without losing an arm and a leg.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

what I cooked for the holidays pt 1

Thanksgiving at Aunt Cathy's

So I know no one wants to talk about holiday feasts in January, but.... I figure that since I've already killed off my limited pool of readers by over a month of silence, I may as well commit Thanksgiving and Christmas to posterity for my own peace of mind. But I promise I'll keep it brief.

I had two Thanksgiving dinners. First Mom and Aunt Cathy and I made the traditional Stetts family dinner the Monday before the big day. This involves mashed potatoes, my gravy, mom's cranberry sauce, green beans, carrots and turkey with Grandma's buttery onion-celery-white-and-wheat-bread stuffing on the side. The one updated dish we make is Mark Bittman's garlicky sweet potatoes, which Aunt Cathy introduced to widespread acclaim in 1999, when Bittman published his three hour Minimalist Thanksgiving. It's a huge improvement on the traditional marshmallow smothered variety, if you ask me!

I concluded the evening with a rather lemony apple pie. I rather overworked the dough, but it wasn't too too tough and I did make some beautiful cut out shapes to decorate the top of the pie with. It was good, but I've since reopened my search for the perfect apple pie.

as american as apple pie

What I would like to talk a little bit more at length about is this pumpkin bread pudding. I made this to bring to Nathan's stepmom's house later in the week, where it was quickly devoured the night before the big day by his step sister's friends.

raisin-studded kabocha squash bread pudding

Upon reflection, I realize that bread pudding is really the same thing as baked French toast, but since baked French toast is awesome, that doesn't seem like a problem to me. Bread pudding is pretty easy, and I used this recipe as a guide.

For my Thanksgiving specific bread pudding, I took the lead from this recipe, only I used roasted kabocha squash puree instead of that of a traditional orange pumpkin. Because kabocha squash is also called pumpkin, I called it a pumpkin bread pudding, otherwise Nathan would have been unfairly prejudiced against it. When he told me how good it was, I crowed triumphantly, having successfully overcome his silly vendetta against squash.

french toast by day, bread pudding by night

But really, if anything could make one a squash lover, it's a squashy bread pudding rich with milk, eggs, vanilla bean infused rum and cinnamon, studded with raisins, sprinkled with crunchy sugar, baked until crisp on top and fluffy on the inside, and drizzled with maple syrup. Mmmm mmmm. I'm looking forward to next Thanksgiving already!

Monday, January 17, 2011

marathon brunch

Well it's been over a month since my last entry! And in that time we've celebrated the start to a new year, and this blog's first anniversary! Boy does time fly. I have some hopes for the blog in the New Year, mostly regarding improved photography and a real design and logo, but for now I have a lot of cooking to catch up on.

The first order of business is an epic brunch meal. My friends don't generally congregate before noon, but back in November Laura and I hosted our first brunch. It started at 10 am, and surprisingly enough people were pretty much on time. This wasn't just any old brunch– this brunch was kind of a big deal. You see, even though 5th Avenue is basically a dead end street when you live as far north as I do, there is one day a year where my quiet block becomes part of something big. The first Sunday of November, my block happens to be on the route of the New York City Marathon. The last 5 miles of the race run down 5th Avenue and through Central Park. I live just across the Madison Avenue Bridge at 138th St, which marks the runners' triumphant re-entrance to Manhattan after a brief Bronx interlude.

I had never really given the marathon a second thought until last year, when I went and cheered along 1st ave with my good friend Mary, who was making a rare visit to the city from Long Island. We had tons of fun watching the race, so when I realized that I now lived on the route, Laura and I decided to celebrate the athleticism and dedications of all those runners by inviting my friends over for a super gluttonous and boozy brunch. Awesome!

Laura and I woke up bright and early to shop and cook. Even Nathan rolled out of bed in time to help out– without any poking or prodding on my part, which was pretty amazing. As a result, I was actually mostly done with the preparations by the time everyone else arrived, which was quite a relief. We put together quite a spread with a minimal amount of work!

The Menu:
Baked Eggs with Butternut Squash, Bacon and Collard Greens
Baked French Toast, (discussed in my second blog post ever!)
Deviled Eggs (by Nathan)
Apple Tart Tatin (by Laura)
Sweet Potato Pumpkin Ice Cream
Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls (by the Pillsbury Dough Boy)
Spinach Quiche (by Grace)
Cream Cheese Cinnamon Pumpkin Dip with Gingersnaps (by Jess)
Irish Soda Bread (by Hannah)
Bagels and Cream Cheese (from Paul and his roommate)
Mimosas (from Marc)

If I've forgotten anything, I apologize. I really should blog these things sooner. But anyway, it was a lot of fun. The marathon is awesome. You really wouldn't think that it'd be particularly cool, watching people run, but the runners really seem to appreciate the cheers, and as the race goes on there are people of all shapes and sizes. It's really an exciting atmosphere!

Of course, we had to eat all that food, so we ended up watching most of the race on tv, and running down to the street briefly to watch the leaders come by. After gorging ourselves for several hours, we went back downstairs to cheer on a steady stream of runners. At this point, there were all sorts of national flags and costumes, so it was easy to call out to specific runners, hopefully giving them a little extra boost of confidence.

And as for the food, it was all pretty fabulous. We started off with some quick cinnamon rolls courtesy of Pillsbury, and Nathan's deviled eggs. He blended the yolks with mayo, mustard, a little vinegar and paprika. I think he would have eaten all of them himself, but he managed to exercise some manly restraint. I had a couple and they were just delicious.

deviled eggs

Meanwhile, I woke up really early to start on a baked eggs dish. It's not really brunch if there's no eggs, but I didn't feel like I could handle omelets or fried eggs for a large group. Baked eggs are great because you don't have to flip them individually or stir them around or anything. You can just bake a whole mess of them until the whites set, which takes about 15 minutes. I'd wanted to use my little ramekins, but I more guests than dishes, so I decided to use my pyrex baking dish. Not as cute, but more practical.

I've seen a ton of different recipes for baked eggs, incorporating all sorts of different ingredients, all of which sounded delicious, but I didn't make any of them. My food co-op had saddled me with butternut squash and collard greens, so I came up with my own variation that combined those ingredients with bacon, onions and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Nathan doesn't like butternut squash, so I made a separate portion for him which substituted chopped tomatoes. Both versions were delicious.

baked eggs with butternut squash, bacon, collard greens and two types of cheese

The night before I cut my squash in half and roasted it in the oven until it was cooked through. The next morning, I peeled and cubed the squash. Then I chopped up some bacon and crisped it up on the griddle. Once that was nice and brown, I set it aside and threw some diced onion onto the pan. I let that soften for a couple of minutes, and then added a huge bunch of finely chopped collard greens. Spinach, chard or kale would work well also. Once that was all wilted, I mixed the bacon, collards, onions and squash together in my large Pyrex dish. I also added some small cubes of mozzarella and cheddar cheese and went to town with the pepper mill.

At this point, you are ready to add your eggs. Everything should be spread evenly in your pan, so you can use a spoon to create small divots to crack the eggs into. I think I may have poured a little milk or cream into the pan to make sure the greens wouldn't dry out in the oven, but that's optional. Bake at 350˚ for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the whites have set. I erred on the side of caution, and wound up with yolks that were beginning to solidify, so if you like yours runny, 15 minutes is probably better.

The great thing about this dish is that it can be prepared ahead of time. Your guests get all the eggy goodness they associate with brunch, but you're not slaving over the stove, flipping omelets. The oven does all the work for you!

The meal's real showstopper was an awesome tart tatin, made mostly by Laura. I oversaw the end of the process, which involves caramelizing the apples with deeply browned butter and sugar in a cast iron skillet, and then baking it with a pie crust on top. It takes a while to peel the apples and to make it all caramelly enough, but other than that it's pretty easy. It's gooey and sweet, and a great dessert that was gobbled up even after we'd consumed piles of eggs and bread and quiche. Yum.

apple tart tatin

I served the tart with some sweet potato pumpkin gingersnap ice cream. I adapted the recipe from The Perfect Scoop, and it was quite good. I've talked quite enough in this entry, so I'll just leave you with the recipe. Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Pumpkin Ice Cream with Gingersnaps
adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

1 large sweet potato
1¼ cup pureed pumpkin
1 cup plus 2 tbsp whole milk
⅔ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp vanilla bean rum
pinch of salt
1 cup of crumbled gingersnaps

Use a fork to poke holes around the sweet potato, then wrap in aluminum foil and baked in the oven at 400˚ for 45 minutes or until soft. Let cool to room temperature.

Pour the milk into a blender and add the brown sugar, sweet potato, cinnamon, rum and salt. Puree until very smooth, at least 30 seconds. If desired, press the mixture through a mesh strainer, using a flexible rubber spatula.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. During the last few minutes of churning, add the crushed gingersnaps.