Thursday, May 30, 2013

Steak and Avocado Baguette with Red Onion and Spicy Mayo

There's a sandwich out there for almost everyone. Whether it's peanut butter and jelly packed in a lunch box for the first day of kindergarten or a croque monsieur washed down with a mimosa at a luxurious brunch, almost everyone can find something they like. I'm probably a slave to routine a little too often, but I love the tradition and challenge of making myself a fancy sandwich one a week. It's the perfect balance of luxury and ease for dinner than I need on a Friday night if I'm staying in - I get to reward myself for a long week of work, but I don't have to slave in the kitchen for hours to do it. For carnivores, a juicy piece of steak is an eternal treat, and the lean and flavorful flank steak cut used here is the perfect choice to pair with rich and creamy avocado slices. Red onion and hot sauce provide subtle sharp and spicy accents, creating a wonderful cascade of flavor from the crusty outside of the baguette to the tender center and out again. This hearty sandwich is certainly enough for two with something on the side, but if you're feeling ravenous, go ahead and keep it all to yourself. And while you're at it, go ahead and crack open a cold beer.

Steak and Avocado Baguette with Red Onion and Spicy Mayo
serves 1 to 2

1 demi baguette (or about 1/4 regular baguette)
Olive oil cooking spray
1 tablespoon mayo or light mayo
1/4 teaspoon Sriracha  or other hot sauce (or to taste)
1 thick slice red onion, halved (about 1/2 ounce)
1/4 Hass avocado, cut into slices
4 ounces flank steak

1. Preheat broiler. Cut baguette in half lengthwise and spray each flat surface with cooking spray. Toast under the broiler until bread is golden, just a few minutes.

2. Combine mayo and Sriracha in a small bowl. Spread sauce evenly over top half of the baguette and top with sliced red onion and avocado.

3. Preheat a pan over medium heat and spray with cooking spray. Season steak generously with salt and pepper and place in the warm pan. Cook, flipping once halfway through, to desired level of doneness (about 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare). Remove steak from pan and allow to rest for a few minutes. Slice against the grain into thin slices and place on the bottom half the baguette. Combine the two halves, slice in two pieces, and serve.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quick Black Bean Burgers

Maybe the holiday weekend is to blame, but I got it stuck in my head that I needed to make a batch of veggie burgers. This unofficial start to summer, with all its promise of delicious grilled meals, put burgers at the forefront of my mind, even though the weather doesn't seem quite as ready to cooperate.

My Memorial Day weekend grilling actually ended up being brats, but I cooked up a fine batch of veggie burgers in the house as well. I'm one of those people who is almost perpetually in motion, and with an endless list of summer projects, the word quick really caught my eye when I dove into the internet's store of veggie burger recipes. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find how much flavor this burger has for such a short time investment (and a few tweaks of my own). The lime rind adds a nice brightness and acidic touch, the ancho chili powder a nice sweetness and smokiness, with intermittent bursts of roasted garlic delighting the taste buds. These burgers have plenty of flavor to stand on their own, but I piled mine high with sharp cheddar, avocado, spinach, red onion, and salsa for a robust tower of flavor that brought a smile to my face with each bite.

As with so many veggie burgers, keeping these patties together can be a bit of a challenge, but I found as long as I let a proper crust form on one side of the burger before flipping and I used a spatula large enough so that no edges were subject to the forces of gravity, I didn't have any problems. If your patties do break apart, just smash them back together and go along your merry way, piling them high with toppings to disguise any seams. While I do love a beautiful plate of food, as long as the flavor is there, who really cares if there are a few structural problems? Just tell your guests these burgers have character (or say nothing at all).

Quick Black Bean Burger
adapted from Cooking Light
makes 4 burgers

1 (2-ounce) hamburger bun, torn into pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon grated lime rind
3/4 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
4 whole wheat hamburger buns or pitas, for serving
Sliced cheddar or Jack cheese, avocado, red onion, salsa, spinach or lettuce, for serving (optional)

1. Place bun in a food processor; process 4 times or until crumbs measure about 1 cup. Transfer to a bowl.

2. Combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, and beans in processor; pulse 8 times or until beans make a thick paste. Scrape bean mixture into bowl with breadcrumbs. Stir in rind and remaining ingredients. With moistened hands, divide bean mixture into 4 equal portions (about 1/3 cup mixture per portion), shaping each into a 3-inch patty.

3. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add patties to pan; reduce heat to medium, and cook 4 minutes or until bottom edges are browned. Carefully turn patties over; cook 3 minutes or until bottom edges are done. Place burger on bun, add toppings of choice, and serve

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Spinach and Shiitake Salad with Parmesan

Even though Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, Mother Nature didn't seem to get the message. From this point on, my goal is to grill as much as possible of what I eat, starting with brats for dinner tonight. In order to indulge myself with zero guilt, I eat meals like this flavorful and healthy salad for lunch. For a dish with no meat, this is one of the savoriest meals you can eat. The shiitake mushrooms and Parmesan both bring a healthy helping of umami to the dish, that deep savory quality perfectly contrasted by the sharp red onion and fresh spinach. (If raw red onion is a little to assertive for your taste, I recommend rinsing it before adding to the salad, which will tame the sharpness without rendering the onions flavorless.) Equally as appropriate as a vegetarian main as the companion to a juicy grilled steak, this short list of ingredients will fool everyone into thinking you're a gourmand with precious little effort.

Spinach and Shiitake Salad with Parmesan
serves 1 as a main or 2 as a side

2 ounces baby spinach, washed
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion (about 1 ounce), rinsed if desired
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (about 1/2 ounce) shaved Parmesan
Salad dressing, for serving (I recommend balsamic vinaigrette)

1. Spread spinach on a place and top evenly with sliced red onion. Set aside.

2. Heat a pan over medium heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. When the oil is warm, add the sliced mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are golden and just tender, about 5 minutes. Add warm mushrooms to spinach and top with Parmesan. Drizzle with dressing of choice and serve promptly.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Asparagus Soup

With the weather rapidly vacillating between unseasonably warm and downright frigid, it's been harder than usual to eat according to the weather this spring. You might seek warm and cozy comfort food one day and light and breezy fare the next, so it was anyone's guess what the best choice for dinner might be on any given day. Despite these wild fluctuations, Mother Nature has still decided to reward us with all the trappings of a proper spring dinner, like ramps, rhubarb, spinach, and asparagus. Asparagus soup is a nice bridge between the spring extremes of the upper Midwest, imbued with both the pure flavor of spring and the ability to warm you from the inside out. Like many spring vegetable soups, this would be lovely warm, at room temperature, or perhaps even chilled, new nuances of the flavor emerging as the temperature changes. Pureed vegetable soups may seem boring to some, but when you get the freshest, local produce, each bite is bursting with flavor, a pure expression of time and place. A few simple additions take this beyond the most fundamental recipe - flecks of just-cooked spinach add a fresh element to the cooked veggies and the punch of heat from the red pepper flakes wakes your palate, making every flavor more vibrant. This soup should also freeze well, secreting away a taste of spring as we move into summer if you know you'll find yourself longing for seasons past in the dog days of summer.

Asparagus Soup
adapted from Martha Stewart
serves 4

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced lengthwise or 1 small onion, thinly sliced
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, chopped, 12 to 16 tips reserved
4 cups homemade chicken stock or store-bought low-sodium canned chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 cup loosely packed spinach leaves

1. In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add shallot, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are tender and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

2. Add chopped asparagus, and cook for 1 minute. Stir in broth and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer; continue cooking until asparagus is tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, prepare and ice-water bath. Fill a medium saucepot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt, return to a boil, and add asparagus tips. Cook until just tender. Transfer asparagus tips to ice-water bath; let cool about 1 minute. Drain and set aside.

4. Remove from heat; add spinach. Using an immersion blender, puree soup to desired consistency. Return to heat and cook until heated through; season with salt and pepper. Divide soup evenly between 4 bowls, garnish with asparagus tips, and serve immediately.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rhubarb Crisp

Though ramps certainly lead the charge when it comes to spring produce, rhubarb is also one of the most anticipated offerings that appear early in the farmers' market season. Though it is technically a vegetable, for most intents and purposes it is treated as a fruit, typically appearing in desserts, preserves, and cocktails. Children in the British Isles and Scandinavia eat tender stalks of rhubarb dipped in sugar for a sweet snack, but because of its strong tart taste it often is mixed with strawberries, raspberries, or other fruit to mute the assertive tartness. Because I could not devour the two pounds of rhubarb my husband harvested from my father-in-law's house by that method alone, I wanted to make a dessert that also celebrated rhubarb all on its own. This crisp recipe is just about as easy as it gets, but in that simplicity resides a perfect balance of sweetness, tartness, richness, and spice. I like the depth of flavor dark brown sugar contributes, adding just a little extra to classic butter-flour-oats-sugar crumble topping. Pastry flour will make the crumble lighter and more tender, with the whole wheat option adding an extra dimension of flavor. There's no mystery to this recipe, but the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.

Rhubarb Crisp
adapted from Martha Stewart
serves 8

2 pounds rhubarb, sliced crosswise 3/4 inch thick
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose or pastry flour, or whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, combine rhubarb, sugar, and 1/4 cup flour; set aside.

2. In the bowl of a food processor, combine remaining 1/2 cup flour and the butter. Pulse until the butter pieces are pea-size. Add brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, and salt. Pulse to combine. Sprinkle over rhubarb.

3. Bake until rhubarb is tender and topping is golden, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream, if desired.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Saag Tofu

Every cuisine has both healthy and indulgent extremes, but it seems especially do well with in terms of both nutrition and flavor with Indian food. This weekend I went all out on the extreme end of the spectrum - butter chicken with cheese naan (yes, I realize cheese naan is not an authentic dish) but on Monday I wanted to atone for the sins of the weekend with an unassailably healthy meal. Brown rice, spinach, and tofu could easy be a bland bowl of punishment, but the plethora of vibrant spices create a vibrant bowl of flavor. Being a Wisconsin girl, I'll be the first to admit that tofu by no means is a substitute for cheese, but if you think of this a wonderful way to prepare tofu instead of a way to replace paneer, you won't be disappointed. The only real area of caution with this recipe is the yogurt addition - if it is added too quickly or over too high heat, the yogurt will curdle and look a lot less appetizing, although it will still taste just as delicious. If you're in need of a little restorative eating after a weekend of excess, this is recipe for you. Each bite takes away a bit of Bacchanalia, leaving your belly full, body revitalized, and mind eased.

Saag Tofu
adapted from Eating Well
serves 4

1 14-ounce package water-packed extra-firm tofu, drained
4 teaspoons canola oil, divided
Kosher salt
1 onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 pound baby spinach
1 cup low-fat plain yogurt
1 tablespoon curry powder, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional)
Brown rice or whole wheat naan, for serving (optional)

1. Cut tofu into thirds lengthwise and eighths crosswise. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring gently every 2 to 3 minutes, until browned on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

2. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons oil to the pan and reduce heat to medium. Add onion, garlic, ginger and mustard seeds and cook until the onion is translucent, 4 to 6 minutes. Add spinach in batches small enough to fit in the pan and cook, stirring frequently and adding a pinch of salt with each addition, until all the spinach has been added and has wilted, 4 to 6 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, combine yogurt, , curry powder, cumin, cayenne and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the yogurt mixture to the pan, 1 spoonful at a time, stirring thoroughly with each addition. After the yogurt addition is complete, add tofu and cook until warmed through, just a couple of minutes. Serve promptly with rice or naan.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Peanut Butter Victory Bars

Sometimes my do-it-yourself attitude can get a little exhausting. Most of the time I love my devotion to doing things myself, especially when it comes to cooking from scratch, but sometimes I'm so busy and exhausted I just want to throw up my hands and buy what I need. And I almost did with these granola bars. After spending the entire weekend working outside and running errands, I was very close to abandoning my Sunday afternoon snack-making plan. Now that I've tasted this delicious granola bars, I can't believe I almost missed out on these super-easy and almost no-bake bars. For just the time to it takes to mix a couple of bowls of ingredients together and then combine them, I was rewarded with two weeks of scrumptious work snacks. 

In my opinion, there's practically no way to go wrong with peanut butter and honey, and this perfect pair blends all my other nutritious ingredients together in a perfect balance of richness and sweetness. They perhaps have a bit more sugar that I'd typically go for in an AM snack, but at least I'm treating myself with plenty of whole grains, nuts, and omega-3s in the mix as well. For an extra-special touch, spread a thin layer of melted dark chocolate over the bars before putting them in the fridge. 

Peanut Butter Victory Bars
adapted from CHOW
makes 10 bars

Oil, for coating the pan
1 1/2 cups crispy brown rice cereal
1 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1/2 cup raw sliced almonds
1/4 cup raw wheat germ
2 tablespoons unsweetened, untoasted, dried coconut flakes
2 tablespoons flax seed meal
1/2 cup honey or brown rice syrup
3 tablespoons natural smooth unsalted peanut or almond butter
1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon fine salt

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with butter; set aside.

2. Place rice cereal, oats, almonds, wheat germ, coconut, and flax seed meal on a rimmed baking sheet, toss with your hands to combine, and spread in an even layer. Bake, stirring halfway through, until almonds are light golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack.

3. Place rice syrup or honey, peanut or almond butter, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir until mixture is combined and brown sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, immediately add cereal mixture, and stir until combined. Transfer mixture to the prepared baking pan and, using a spoon, spread it evenly, pushing it into the corners.
4. When the mixture is cool enough to handle but is still warm, evenly and firmly press it into the pan with your hands. Place it in the refrigerator until the chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.
5. Remove the nutty oat slab from the pan (you may need to run a knife around the perimeter to loosen it). Cut it in half to form two rectangles, then cut each rectangle width-wise into 5 bars to form 10 bars total. Wrap each bar in plastic wrap. Store at room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 weeks; let frozen bars come to room temperature before eating.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ramp and Potato Soup

Ramps are one of my favorite vegetables. These wild leeks have an all-too-fleeting season, their special hybrid garlic-onion flavor one of the most unique tastes of spring. While asparagus is a well-known and lauded harbinger of spring, these delightful veggies really lead the way for the season. Their first appearance at the farmers' market fills me with great joy and I can't resist buying them every week they are there. Ramps are inherently so flavorful that they never need more than a simple preparation to create an intensely delicious dish. I've used ramps to make soups, pastas, pizza, risotto, and frittatas in the past, but this time my first thought was a riff on the classic leek and potato soup. Leek and potato soup is already a stunningly flavorful dish for such humble ingredients and swapping in ramps brings the taste to an even more exceptional heights. A perfect blend of the heartiness and freshness, this simple combination of ingredients is the purest taste of early spring and an exceptional way to embrace the season.

Ramp and Potato Soup
adapted from Food Network
serves 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound fresh ramps, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf 
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock 
1 pound new or red potatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half, (optional)

1. Melt the butter in a stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the ramps and season with salt and black pepper. Saute until the ramps are wilted and soft, about 6 minutes. Add the bay leaf and garlic, stirring for 2 minutes. Add the stock and potatoes and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the potatoes are very soft and the mixture is thick and creamy, about 1 hour.
2. Remove the soup from the heat. Discard the bay leaf. Coarsely mash potatoes with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender. Slowly add the cream, if using, and stir to blend. Reseason the soup.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Coconut-Quinoa Olive Oil Granola with Dried Mangoes

Yogurt and granola is my breakfast of champions. Although it's a pretty healthy combination of whole grains, nuts, and dried fruit, it somehow feels like I'm eating something vaguely dessert-like for breakfast. I'm definitely not saying that yogurt and granola is going to replace an ice cream sundae, but it's certainly nice to start the day with a treat. That being said, I'm still always trying to sneak in a little extra nutrition. With my last batch of granola I added quinoa for extra protein and this time I used extra-virgin olive oil for even more healthy fats. The olive oil flavor isn't prominent in the granola, taking a back seat to the sweeter elements of maple syrup, dark brown sugar and cinnamon. Coconut, cashews, and dried mangoes gives this granola a somewhat tropical feel, making it a particularly wonderful choice for a spring or summer breakfast. If you're not a breakfast person (something I personally can't understand), this granola also makes a superb topping for ice cream, a mere scoop turning a plain bowl of ice cream into a complex and nuanced dessert.

Coconut-Quinoa Olive Oil Granola with Dried Mangoes
makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup quinoa
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped raw cashews
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped dried mangoes
Coarse salt

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Place oats, quinoa, coconut, cashews, maple syrup and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl and mix until well combined and set aside. 

3. In a small saucepan combine maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, and cinnamon and heat over low heat just until sugar is melted and ingredients are well combined. Pour hot mixture over oats mixture and stir to coat thoroughly.

4. Spread granola mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to oven and bake, stirring every 10-15 minutes at the beginning and more frequently towards the end, until granola is toasted, about 45 minutes.

5. Remove granola from oven and season with more salt to taste. Let cool completely and stir in dried mangoes. Serve at room temperature or store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pasta with Green Beans and Tuna

While I'd always prefer a fresh tuna steak, sometimes I've only got the time for the canned variety. Luckily for me, there are some really stellar canned tunas available so just because it came from a can doesn't mean that it is of inferior quality. When I was kid, there was a very short list of seafood items I'd eat - shrimp (in any form), my dad's homemade cornmeal-crusted fish sticks, and tuna salad sandwiches. I wish I could go back in time and less picky with my proteins for my parents' sake (I was pretty good with the fruits and veggies), but some of the kid-pleasing choices they made to keep me fed still hold a soft spot in my heart. All that to say, I'm not giving up canned tuna anytime soon. My tuna salad recipes have certainly evolved and tuna now makes it into my potato salad and tasty pasta recipes like this one. Looking back, I may have actually eaten this as a kid, as I would happily devour greens beans and preferred whole wheat options to white ones. As an adult, I focus on the flavor tapestry that the rich and toasty almonds, refreshing parsley, sour lemon and piquant capers form, that complex and complementary set of ingredients beautifully blending the hearty pasta, fresh and crunchy green beans and rich tuna. For a simply prepared, yet sophisticated meal from a humble can of tuna, look no further than this recipe. Even if you're eating solo with little time to spare, tuna can be so much more than a sandwich.

Pasta with Green Beans and Tuna
adapted from Martha Stewart
serves 1

Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 ounces whole wheat fusilli or other short pasta
2 ounces green beans, trimmed and halved
1 can (3 ounces) chunk light tuna, packed in water, drained
1 tablespoon natural almonds, chopped and toasted
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon drained capers
1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions, adding green beans 2 minutes before end of cooking. Drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup pasta cooking water. 

2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine tuna, almonds, parsley, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and capers; season with salt and pepper. 

3. Heat olive oil over medium heat in pasta cooking pot. Add tuna mixture to oil and cook, stirring frequently, until warm, just a minute or two. Add the pasta and green beans and cook until mixture is warm. Add pasta water, a little bit at a time and stirring with each addition, until tuna mixture evenly coats the pasta. Transfer to a bowl and serve promptly.