Saturday, April 30, 2011

Caprese Omelet

Traditional Caprese salad, a common Italian antipasto, consists of fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, dressed simply with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Ordinarily I have no interest in anything labeled Caprese (in the style of Capri) because that usually means it includes raw tomatoes, the food I dislike above nearly every other (and yes, I realize it is strange that there are sun-dried tomatoes in this recipe, which I like). However, I am borrowing that label for this omelet, which in generous terms also falls under the Caprese category.

When I'm only cooking for myself because my husband isn't around (or awake yet), I often turn to eggs. They're healthy, quick-cooking, and omelets and frittatas are a great opportunity for creativity and to use up orphaned bits of ingredients remaining from other recipes-the sun-dried tomatoes were originally purchased for Avocado-Dressed Shrimp a la Mexicana and the mozzarella to make pizza. Combine that with a recently acquired basil plant, and a Caprese dish seemed only natural. This fresh and flavorful omelet is great any time of the day and becomes a complete meal with toast and a side salad or piece of fruit.

Caprese Omelet
serves 1

2 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil cooking spray
1/4 cup chopped basil, plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup chopped recipe-ready sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
2 tablespoons shredded or finely cubed mozzarella cheese

1. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until frothy and well-combined and season with salt and pepper. Preheat a small nonstick skillet over medium to medium-high heat and spray with cooking spray. Add the eggs and stir with a heatproof rubber spatula, while shaking the skillet, until the eggs are nearly set.

2. Add basil, tomato, and cheese to center of the eggs. Shake the skillet to loosen the omelet, then use the spatula to fold one-third of the eggs over the filling. Fold the opposite third over the filling, place the lid on the skillet, and cook briefly until the cheese is melted. Remove the lid and tilt the skillet to turn the omelet onto a plate. Garnish with additional basil, if desired, and serve warm.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fettuccine with Ramps

I am absolutely in love with ramps lately. I'd never had them until this year, but when I saw a vegetable I'd heard of but never had before at the farmer's market, I absolutely had to buy some. Ramps have all the best qualities of onions and garlic and almost pack more flavor than any vegetable has a right to. Ramps definitely aren't a widely known or used vegetable, so there are sadly very few recipes to look through on my favorite websites. Luckily for me, my first foray into cooking with ramps, Ramp Soup, and this recipe are absolutely amazing! I'm not sure if ramps can just do no wrong, I've really lucked out with the recipes I've found, or some combination of the two, but I just can't get enough of these foraged veggies. Because this recipe is so simple, using good olive oil and cheese is critical to making the most of this dish, so use the good stuff here if you've got it. Seize the opportunity to try ramps if you haven't or savor them again if you have, and enjoy this bowl of bright spring flavor.

Fettuccine with Ramps
adapted from Gourmet, via Epicurious
serves 4

1/2 pound ramps
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
12 oz. whole wheat fettuccine
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

1. Trim roots from ramps and slip off outer skin on bulbs if loose. Blanch ramps in a 6-quart pot of boiling salted water, 2 to 3 seconds, and transfer to a cutting board with tongs. Coarsely chop ramps and put in a blender with zest and oil.

2. Add spaghetti to boiling water and cook a few minutes, then ladle out 1/2 cup pasta water and add to blender. Purée ramps until smooth and season with salt. Continue to cook spaghetti until al dente, then ladle out about 1 cup additional pasta water before draining spaghetti in a colander. Return pasta to pot with ramp purée and toss with parmesan over moderate heat 1 to 2 minutes, thinning sauce with a little pasta water as needed to coat pasta, if desired.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Carrot-Walnut Cookies

I used to eat a granola bar and piece of fruit as my morning snack each morning at work, but although I chose granola bars without high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners or non-whole grains, I was not happy with how high sweeteners fell on the ingredient list. I changed by snack to nuts and dried fruit without added sugar, but I've been missing having something a little more special for my morning snack. I've made granola bars many times in the past, but when I saw this recipe on the Whole Foods website, I knew it was a great new solution to my problem. It's only filled with healthy ingredients-nuts, whole grains, and fruit-but still a sweet little treat that will go splendidly with a piece of fruit and cup of green tea. Food is a very important part of my life and having 10 minutes with a healthy, delicious snack in the morning goes a long way towards buoying my energy and mood for the rest of the workday. This is truly a cookie you can feel good about eating, be it morning, noon, or night.

Carrot-Walnut Cookies
adapted from Whole Foods
makes about 24 cookies

1 cup raw unsalted walnuts
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 carrots, grated
1 apple, grated
1 very ripe banana, peeled and mashed
1/2 cup apple juice

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine walnuts, oats and raisins in a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Transfer to a bowl and stir in flour, baking powder, cinnamon and ginger. Add carrots, apples, banana and apple juice and stir until combined. Drop by rounded tablespoons an inch apart on the prepared baking sheets, making about 24 cookies. Press down on each cookie with the back of a fork to flatten them slightly. Bake until tops and bottoms are lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Avocado-Dressed Shrimp a la Mexicana

When I have a craving for Mexican food and am on the hunt for a good recipe, I look no further than Rick Bayless. I own a number of his cookbooks, am a huge fan of his line of Frontera line of products, love his TV show, Mexico-One Plate at a Time on PBS and am dreaming of the day I get to visit one of his restaurants in Chicago. I've made a number of his recipes and have never once been disappointed in the result, this recipe being no exception. I picked this recipe out to try simply because I had a big bag of jumbo shrimp I wanted to use and a craving for Mexican food. This recipe was originally intended as an appetizer on tostadas, but I used this delicious shrimp mixture as a soft taco filling for a light and fresh dinner, along with a side of black beans cooking with onion, garlic, and spices. The tacos will be even more extraordinary if you make your own fresh corn tortillas, which I prefer to do when I have the time, but won't disappoint with store-bought tortillas. Although a fabulous dinner now, this dish is perfectly suited for a lingering dinner on the patio on a hot summer day, accompanied by a crisp cold beer and good company.

Avocado-Dressed Shrimp a la Mexicana
adapted slightly from Rick Bayless
makes 12 small tacos, serving 4 as a main course

12 ounces jumbo cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined, each cut into 4 or 5 pieces
1 medium white onion, cut into 1/4-inch pieces, rinsed under cold running water and drained
1/4 cup finely chopped recipe ready sun-dried tomatoes, plus extra for garnish (not oil-packed)
1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
Hot green chiles to taste (usually 3 serranos  or 1 to 2 jalapenos), stemmed and roughly chopped
1 medium, ripe avocado, pitted, flesh scooped from the skin
1/3 cup (loosely packed) roughly chopped cilantro (thick bottom stems cut off), plus extra for garnish
12 small corn tortillas

1. In a medium bowl, combine the shrimp, onion, and 1/4 cup sun-dried tomato.

2. Measure the lime juice into a food processor or blender.  Cover and turn on.  Drop the chiles and when chopped, turn off and scoop in the avocado and cilantro.  Process until smooth.  Thin to a "creamy dressing" consistency with water, usually 2 to 3 tablespoons.  Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon.  (You will have about 1 1/2 cups.) 

3. Mix the dressing into the shrimp mixture.  Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the shrimp and refrigerate.  When you're ready to serve, scoop into the tortillas (about 1/4 cup per tortilla) and decorate with cilantro and diced sun-dried tomatoes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ramp Soup

The outdoor farmer's market made its triumphant return to Capitol Square this past weekend, and I couldn't be more pleased to have my favorite grocery store back. It may not be quite back to the bounty of summer, but the scope has definitely expanded from it's winter incarnation at the Madison Senior Center, only a couple of blocks away.

Spring has started primarily with a bounty of delicious greens, but I was also able to pick up some shiitake mushrooms, hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes, and a few bunches of ramps. Never heard of ramps? They're also commonly known as spring onions, wild leeks, or wild garlic, with a pungent flavor somewhere between garlic and onions, and are gathered in the wild from South Carolina clear up to Canada. Possessing wonderful characteristics of both leeks/onions and garlic, this wild vegetable is an underutilized flavor bomb and a great way to mix up your spring menu with a new ingredient. The addition of butter and Parmesan cheese adds just enough richness to give this soup some body; the Parmesan flavor comes through clearly in this simple soup, so use a quality cheese. Pair it with a side salad and roll or sandwich for a not-too-heavy lunch or dinner rich in the fresh flavors of spring. The flavor intensifies a bit as the soup sits overnight, making for a delightful lunch the next day if you have any leftovers.

Ramp Soup
from Gourmet, via Epicurious
serves 4

1 pound ramps
1/2 sweet onion such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Trim roots from ramps and slip off outer skin on bupounds if loose. Cut green tops from ramps and coarsely chop enough greens to measure 3 cups (reserve remainder for another use). Thinly slice ramp bulbs, including pink stems.
2. Cook ramp bulbs, onion, white pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add wine, then boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until evaporated completely. Add broth and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until onions and ramps are very soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in ramp greens and boil 1 minute.

3. Working in batches, purée soup in a blender until very smooth, about 1 minute per batch (use caution when blending hot liquids), then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large heatproof bowl, pressing hard on and then discarding solids. Return soup to cleaned pot and bring just to a boil. Whisk in cheese and butter until smooth. Season with salt.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Quick Whole Wheat Fettuccine Alfredo

While I relish long hours in the kitchen slaving over intricate dishes, sometimes I also just need to throw together a quick dinner for my husband and myself on short notice. As much as I'd like to achieve novel culinary greatness with eat meal that I cook, sometimes you just need some satisfying, solid recipes with common ingredients. Although these are ingredients that many people will naturally have on-hand, because it is so simple, the quality of the cheese is of the utmost importance. I've fervently loyal to Wisconsin cheeses and use Hook's Parmesan and the nearly incomparable SarVecchio, which is widely regarded as one of the best Parmesans in the country and is used by incredible chefs at fine dining restaurants across the country (it makes many appearances on the menu at L'Etoile and I've even seen Cat Cora use it on Iron Chef America). I realize not everyone is privileged enough to have access to these wonderful cheeses, but this dish definitely requires an upgrade from pregrated Kraft. The deep richness and flavor from the cheese and half-and-half is warming and soothing but balanced out well by the nutty, whole wheat pasta. The next time you need a quick dinner or just a bowl full of comfort, keep this quick pasta dish in mind.

Quick Fettuccine Alfredo
serves 2

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup half-and-half (or whole milk, cream, or a combination)
1/4 cup grated high quality Parmesan or Romano cheese, plus extra for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. whole wheat fettuccine
1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish

1. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add shallot and cook until shallot is softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisking constantly (a flat whisk is great here), add flour gradually to butter and cook until the mixture no longer tastes like flour, 1 to 3 minutes. Slowly add half-and-half, whisking constantly to achieve a smooth mixture. Continue cooking and stirring until mixture is slightly thickened, then whisk in the cheese. Continue cooking over low heat to desired thickness and season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 9 minutes (or according to package direction). Drain pasta, reserving 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

3. If necessary, add some of the reserved pasta water to thin the sauce to desired consistency. Add the fresh parsley, mix well, and then add the hot pasta to the sauce and toss well to coat. Garnish with additional parsley and cheese, if desired, and serve immediately.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goat Cheese, Pepper, and Spinach Fried Egg Sandwiches

As strange as it may sound, I've been kind of obsessed with eggs lately. I'll happily eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner cooked nearly any way you can imagine. Because cheese, eggs, and vegetables go so perfectly together and I nearly always have bounty of cheese and produce in my refrigerator omelettes and frittatas make frequent appearances on my menus, though rarely the same exact recipe twice. In the spirit of that creativity, I decided to spice up the typical fried egg sandwich with some goat cheese, peppers, and spinach, not only adding a lot more flavor but more healthy ingredients to this often-greasy and unhealthy dish. I really love creamy, tangy goat cheese, but a good melting cheese could be substituted for those who find goat cheese a bit too assertive, although the texture won't be as irresistably smooth as goat cheese. Full of protein, vegetables, and whole grains, this vibrant dish, equally suitable for breakfast, brunch, or lunch, gives you the energy for all the fun or chores you want pack into your weekend.

Goat Cheese, Pepper, and Spinach Fried Egg Sandwiches
serves 2

4 slices whole grain bread
2 ounces goat cheese, slightly softened
6 mini bell peppers, halved, ribs and seeds removed if necessary (or 1 small to medium bell pepper)
1 oz. spinach
4 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast the bread and spread evenly with the softened goat cheese. Place half the peppers on each of two slices and half the spinach on each of the two other slices (the goat cheese will help the veggies stick to the bread and not fall out when eating the sandwich).

2. Meanwhile, heat a pan over medium heat. Crack four eggs into the pan and season with salt and pepper. Cook eggs to desired level of doneness (fried soft, fried hard or even over-easy), flipping approximately halfway through cooking. Place 2 eggs each on top of two slices of bread, top with the second slice, and serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onion, and Bacon Burgers

The road to this recipe started with a craving for roasted potatoes with malt vinegar, of all things. Once I'd decided that hearty potatoes were on the menu for dinner, I took a glance in the fridge and freezer for some hearty meat to accompany it and was lucky enough to find all the ingredients for these indulgent burgers. My husband is very tolerant of all the healthy food I make, but he's really a meat and potatoes guy at heart, so I try to make meals like this on a regular basis as well to satisfy both of our carnivore cravings. And what carnivore wouldn't love this burger? A juicy burger (I never cook mine beyond medium-rare), topped with creamy and tangy goat cheese, rich and crispy bacon, and savory, tender onions is sure to put a smile on almost everyone's face, made even better paired with some roasted potatoes and an ice cold beer.

Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onion, and Bacon Burgers
serves 2

4 slices thick-cut bacon
1 medium onion, sliced
8 ounces ground sirloin
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces goat cheese, slightly softened
2 whole wheat hamburger buns
Melted butter

1. Preheat a pan over medium heat. Cook bacon until desired level of crispness, drain on paper towels and set aside. Add sliced onions to pan with rendered bacon fat and cook, stirring occasionally until onions are tender and caramelized, about 30 minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.

2. Form ground sirloin into two patties and add to the pan. Cook the burgers, flipping once until they reach desired level of doneness (125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare). Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Spread the goat cheese evenly on the top halves of the buns, top with the caramelized onions and bacon, and brush the bottom halves bun with a bit of melted butter. Place buns under the broiler until goat cheese is slightly melted, onions and bacon are warm, and the bottom half is slightly toasted, 2 to 4 minutes. Add cooked burger to bottom half, put the two halves together, and dig in!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Asparagus Soup

I'm pretty confident that we really have left winter behind in southern Wisconsin, but there's still a place for warm, hearty fare like soup, although of a lighter spring variety. Asparagus and peas are some of the ingredients that most embody spring to me, and this soup is a wonderful sweet, silky marriage of these two ingredients. Teetering on the edge of winter and spring, this soup strikes a wonderful balance between the comforting and warming qualities and the fresh and bright flavors of spring. As with any good soup, it clings happily to a piece of crusty bread and rewarms beautifully for lunch the following day. In fact, the aroma proved so enticing that every single coworker who walked past my desk while I was eating lunch commented on the tantalizing smell. Keep this recipe in mind as your local outdoor farmer's market opens for the season and you want to unite the brilliant flavors of spring in a simple, satisfying meal.

Asparagus Soup
from Carla Hall via Food and Wine
serves 6

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup tarragon leaves, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley leaves
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Finely grated lemon zest, for garnish

1. In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the onion, cover and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the asparagus and cook for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the 1/4 cup of tarragon and the parsley. Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender. Return the soup to the pot, add the cream and peas; rewarm. Season with salt and white pepper and garnish with tarragon and zest.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lentil Soup

For the past few months, nearly every time I opened my cabinet a lonely bag of lentils with no culinary destiny was staring back at me. I love lentils and they cook much more quickly than many dried beans, but I'd just never gotten around to finding a recipe to use them until I stumbled upon this one on Mark Bittman's website, one of the food blogs/websites I check on a regular basis. By no means is this a pretty soup, but it is packed full of both nutrition and flavor, easy to prepare, and can feed everyone from vegans to carnivores (by cooking up some chopped bacon or sausage at the start and cooking your vegetables in the rendered fat). The lentils are hearty and filling, and make for a satisfying and healthy lunch or dinner with a side salad and crusty piece of bread.

Lentil Soup
from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/2 -inch dice
1 cup lentils, washed and picked over
1 bay leaf
6 cups chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or water
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Put the oil in a large, deep pot over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, just a minute or two. Add the carrot and celery and keep cooking and stirring until brightly colored and hot, about 2 minutes.

2. Add the lentils, bay leaf, and stock; sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. (At this point, you may cool and refrigerate the soup, covered, for up to 2 days; reheat gently.) Add more stock if the soup is too thick. Just before serving, taste, sprinkle with salt and more pepper if needed, and serve.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Shiitake, Spinach, and Sun-Dried Tomato Quesadillas

You can tell spring is truly here when the variety of produce available at the farmer's market starts to expand from root vegetables and winter spinach and I giddily anticipate being able to prepare most of my meals from farmer's market and CSA produce. This past week I bought some fantastic shiitake mushrooms and Snug Haven spinach from the farmer's market in anticipation of combining them, but with no specific plan. A quick survey of my fridge revealed some tortillas and sun-dried tomatoes that I wanted to use up and an ever-present large selection of Wisconsin cheeses and my thoughts immediately turned to quesadillas (and I use that term loosely). Quesadillas, like pizza and paninis, are a great way to get creative and use up the odds and ends of ingredients leftover from other recipes and range from very healthy to completely indulgent. Earthy mushrooms, fresh spinach, and intensely flavored sun-dried tomatoes all come together under a not-too-heavy blanket of cheese for a delicious appetizer or entree alongside a cup of soup or side salad. Although not quite as delicious as fresh off the grill, these quesadillas hold up pretty well for lunch the following day and are a satisfying change from peanut butter and jelly or cold cuts and cheese.

Shiitake, Spinach, and Sun-Dried Tomato Quesadillas
serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil from olive oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, or regular (extra-virgin) olive oil
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
8 ounces spinach, rinsed and chopped
1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes, packed in olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 six- to eight-inch whole-grain tortillas
1 cup shredded provolone cheese

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil from olive oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes over medium-high heat. (If you do not have enough oil supplement some or all with extra-virgin olive oil). Add the sliced mushrooms and saute, stirring frequently, until browned and tender, but not mushy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add spinach, stir to combine and cook until spinach is wilted and tender, but not slimy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in sun-dried tomatoes, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, heat a panini or sandwich press according to manufacturer's instructions until hot. (Alternatively, heat a well-seasoned ridged grill pan over moderate heat.)

3. Divide the mushroom mixture between the four tortillas, spreading the mushroom mixture evenly on one half of each tortilla. Top each with 1/4 cup shredded provolone and fold each tortilla in half.

4. Once preheated, spray panini press with olive or canola oil cooking spray. Put quesadillas on press, then pull down top and cook until quesadillas are browned and crisp, cheese is melted, and filling is hot, 3 to 6 minutes. (If using grill pan, put a heavy pan on top of quesadillas and cook, flipping once.) Remove from heat, slice into 2 or 4 wedges and serve warm.