May 31, 2009

To All You New Cooks Out There....

Today is my little blog's birthday (hence the cupcake)! I can't believe it's already been a year. Well, I can believe it when I think of how far I've come in my cooking skills - from the days where making scrambled eggs seemed challenging, to now making dishes I once thought of as strictly restaurant food. I have a long way to go, but find that each time I step into the kitchen I feel a little bit more confident and comfortable. 

I started this blog as a sort of experiment. I mean, most people I know who actually enjoy and know how to cook learned so from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. Well, what if you were like me, and spent your childhood doing everything but watching your mom prep dinner. I wanted nothing to do with cooking back then. And to be honest, cooking wasn't really a huge deal in my family either. My mom cooked so that there was food on the table, not because she particularly enjoyed doing so (although she is a fantastic baker - it's amazing I'm not the size of a house!). Her creative outlets were simply outside the kitchen. Heck, everyone has to eat, but not everyone has to actually enjoy the act of preparing a meal. 

So I didn't exactly have the traditional resources and experience most cooks have. A year ago, I thought that throwing a Stouffer's lasagna into the oven qualified as cooking. Ha! What I did have though, was a phenomenal kitchen (a gift of the previous owner's renovation) that was just begging to be used. So after staring at our beautiful Viking stove for over a year, I finally threw up my hands and decided using it as extra storage was no longer an option. I quickly came to realize that you didn't need the Sicilian grandmother who slaved over a stove all day to learn how to cook. All you needed was a little passion, patience, and know-how. 

Below is a list of the top 10 lessons that I think every new cook should know. So, after a year of cooking, baking, and blogging I give you:

Top 10 Lessons for the Culinary Wannabe 
(aka, you think deglazing a pan involves licking the batter bowl)

1) Read the ENTIRE recipe, at least twice before you begin cooking. Even 3, 4, or 5 times. You should know the progression of the dish and should only have to look back to the recipe to reference exact measurements. Trust me, many recipes throw in a "meanwhile" step that could totally throw you off if you are just reading as you go.

2) Never test a new recipe on company. Do not try out a new, complicated recipe on unassuming company. If you want to do so, make sure the guests know that they will be used as guinea pigs, and be sure to have delivery menus close by. There is nothing worst than having people over for a lovely dinner, and having put something inedible on their plate.

3) Taste and season as you go. When I first started cooking, I would add exactly the amount of salt that the recipe called for, no more, no less. And I also wouldn't bother tasting the food until it had been plated and I had a napkin on my lap. This is a big no no. How can you possibly know how something tastes without trying it? Not to mention the fact that many recipes just say "add salt and pepper to taste." Taste your food, pay attention, and try to determine what your "taste" actually is. As you become more experienced, you will be able to determine what a dish needs. This also entails paying attention to the ingredients you are using. Smell and taste the basil, and try to remember those sensations. Many people aspire to create their own recipes, and knowing ingredients is one of the key components to doing so successfully. 

4) Watch cooking shows. I know a lot of foodies don't really love the quality of cooking shows out there, but the truth is, that when you are just starting out you need to see someone cooking. There is a world of difference between reading something and actually seeing it done. Cooking shows were an enormous help to me at the beginning. Seeing Giada chop an onion, seeing Ina beating egg whites - these are all important steps, and if you didn't grow up watching someone in the kitchen, cooking show are the next best thing. In addition, try and immerse yourself in the culinary culture. There are a bazillion food blogs, magazines, books, etc, to help you. Use them. It's just like learning a language. You will never become fully fluent until you are really surrounded by it.

5) Develop a kitchen arsenal. Having the right tools is pretty darn essential, but you won't be able to determine which items you will really find useful and which you could totally do without, until you have actually clocked some hours in the kitchen. If you have an unlimited budget and ample storage space, by all means go on a Williams-Sonoma shopping spree and get the top of the line for everything. But since that probably isn't realistic, my suggestion would be to start with just the basics and grow or upgrade as you develop your own cooking style. For instance, say you just graduated college and literally don't have a pot to your name. I think a good course of action would be to go down to Kmart, buy a not so expensive starter set of pots and pans, and see which ones you use the most. If you find that you've used the big soup pot the most, then feel free to buy yourself a nice Le Creuset pot. 

6) Be your own quality control, but also believe the responses people give you. By this I mean, don't start with the "Oh, you didn't like it then" routine if your husband doesn't go back for thirds. If he told you he liked it, be probably did just that. Especially if you start cooking a lot. He could stomach a less than stellar meal every once in a while, but certainly not every night. But you should also learn to decide for yourself if something came out well. Make notes to yourself (on the actual recipe so that you way you will have them for next time) about changes your would make, or even how you felt the recipe turned out. We are our own toughest critiques.

7) Get organized. Planning and preparing meals will be so much easier if you have everything neatly squared away. This means the pantry, fridge, and freezer, as well as recipes. Personally, I like to do pretty much all of my organizing electronically. I have a Word document with a list of staple items (or items I frequently buy at the store), all categorized by department. When I'm going to the store, I will print off this list, go through it while standing in front of the fridge and pantry and mark off any items we are out of or low on. I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from realizing 3 days later that the sugar jar is nearly empty, right when I'm about to make a batch of cookies. It also helps to have everything nicely organized in corresponding categories once you get it home (baking, oils, snacks, vegetables, etc). Another trick is to lay out the ingredients you will need before you begin cooking. Even pre-measure them like your own little cooking show if you like. This saves you from having to scramble around the kitchen looking for chicken stock while your garlic is burning.

When it comes to actual recipe organization, I'm a big fan of binders and tabs. I have one binder for recipes I've made before and would make again, and one binder for recipes I want to try. They both have identical categories (meat, seafood, appetizers, etc.) making it easy to skim through. I also keep a side folder with recipes that I would like to make in the very near future. That way, when I'm planning our meals for the week, I can just look through that folder instead of the huge binders. I update this folder once a month or whenever it's running low. Google docs is another great way to store recipes you find online. Develop all your own systems though, and use what works for you. 

8) Know that you don't have to be Julia Child, but you also don't have to be Sandra Lee. Everyone has their own cooking style, and yours needs to adapt with what you are given. Cooking shouldn't be an all or nothing kinda gig. So you only have 20 minutes to throw together dinner - use a Rachel Ray recipe and get on with your life. There are no prerequisite as to how long a meal has to take to prepare, or how fancy the ingredients have to be for it to be special. That being said, spending an afternoon preparing a feast for an anniversary or birthday can not only be enjoyable, but also leave you with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Give yourself room to find what works for you, and abide by only the standards you set for yourself. Can you imagine where people like Sandra Lee would be if they told her that using canned biscuits was too taboo? 

9) Share the goods. This is an easy one if you have a bunch of family members in your house, or hungry neighbors who will eat just about anything. But even if you don't have readily accessible taste testers, its definitely worth it to find people to share in the fruits of your culinary efforts. By giving people food, you are not only giving them something that is (hopefully) delicious, but you are also giving them the gift of your time and thoughtfulness. It really touches a nerve with people when you give them something homemade. My mom sends crazy care packages to all her children (including ones to my husbands office - she is the hero of their trading floor and received a standing ovation at our wedding!) every chance she gets.  In these, we are constantly reminded of how much she loves and cares about us. Give cookies to the neighborhood kids, bake lasagna for your friend who just had a baby, or cook a stunning 3-course dinner for you husband on your anniversary. By doing these things you show people you care about them in a way store bought gifts never will. Plus, that warm & fuzzy feeling you'll get inside from doing something nice for others will only help to further your passions in the kitchen.

10) Have fun! Play music, wear a cute apron, get your friends involved - make the kitchen a fun and relaxing place. Stop stressing about whether or not it's going to turn out perfectly. If you actually enjoy cooking and don't take yourself too seriously, there is a good chance that you will be happily doing it for many years to come. Because we do have to eat, you don't want it to turn into a chore or a requirement. So keep things interesting. Try new recipes and experiment with ones of your own. Someone had to figure out that chocolate and peanut butter were a match made in heaven. Maybe you will come up with the next unbelievable combo. Worst case scenario, keep a frozen pizza on hand as backup.  If you enjoy what you are doing, it will show in your food. 

So there they are, the top 10 lessons I've learned in the past year. I would love to hear what you guys think and what lessons you would add! Cheers!

May 27, 2009

Cheesy Rosemary Drop Biscuits

Don't you just love culinary karma. You know, when you stumble upon a delicious recipe and just so happen to have practically everything in your kitchen already. You might even be struck with a great idea on how to jazz up said recipe. This is culinary karma. For the record I also believe in shopping karma - where you put the beautiful, but pricey dress back on the rack and return a week later to see if they still have your size. If so, well, that little number was just meant to be yours. 

Back to the point though, I had a bout of culinary karma the other day when I came across some yummy little biscuits on Everybody Like Sandwiches. I was debating what to have for dinner and had a hankering for some eggs. Since we were also leaving for Toronto for a week (which is where we still are), we had barely anything left in the fridge. When I saw these it was like all the moving pieces came together. Poached eggs over cheesy biscuits - perfect easy dinner. I changed the recipe up a bit to fit what I had on hand, and loved the end result. I think you could really play around with these to find the flavor combination that works for you. 

I will for sure be making these again. They have that perfect squishy, biscuity (I can make up words when it's my blog, right?) texture, and are loaded with flavor. Plus they are as easy to make as cookies. Just mix and scoop. And be sure to grab the parchment paper instead of wax paper though...oops! ;)

Cheesy Rosemary Drop Biscuits
Adapted from Everybody Like Sandwiches, which she got from Bread & Honey
Makes appx. 9

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated jack cheese
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
  • Preheat oven to 450℉.
  • Combine flour, baking powder, salt, rosemary, pepper, and cheeses in a large bowl.
  • Stir in milk and oil and stir just until all ingredients are incorporated.
  • Use an ice cream scoop to make equal sized dollops onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet.
  • Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly golden.

May 21, 2009

Because Cupcakes Are So Last Year

For years, every birthday in our house has included the infamous Magnolia Bakery cupcakes. People line up around the block waiting to get into the itty bitty store in the west village to buy of box of these treasured cupcakes. Truth be told, I'm not the biggest fan of the traditional vanilla or chocolate. They are a little grainy and dry and the frosting makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it. Some of the other flavors like spice or red velvet are okay, but they aren't the real star of the show. The real star is the banana pudding. It is absolutely ta-die-for, and has long been dubbed by Brad and I as the best dessert in nyc. 

For his birthday this year I decided to make the pudding myself instead of going out and buying a tub. I was completely shocked how easy it is to make. I was even more shocked that it tastes identical, if not better, than the one from the bakery. Score!! Seriously, if you are a banana pudding fan this absolutely must go on your "to make now" list. And if you are in ny you can also swing by and grab you some of the goodness (Buttercup carries all the same items as well, but wasn't mentioned on Sex and the City, so it's usually way less crowded).

Magnolia's Famous Banana Pudding
Recipe Courtesy of More from Magnolia

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups ice cold water
1 3.4-ounce package instant vanilla pudding mix (Jell-O brand recommended)
3 cups heavy cream
1 12-ounce box Nabisco Nilla Wafers (substituting not recommended)
4 cups sliced ripe bananas
  • Beat water and condensed milk together with an electric mixer until well combined (about 1 minute, and be careful, this one can fly every where!)
  • Beat in pudding mix for 2 more minutes.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 4 hours or overnight.
  • Whip the cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.
  • Gently fold the whipped cream into the pudding.
  • To assemble, do alternating layers of wafers, banana, and pudding. Make as many layers as you like and divey up the ingredients accordingly (you could also make individual portions in stemless wine glasses like I did).

May 19, 2009

Lunch at Momofuku Noodle Bar

This week is Brad's birthday week. I say birthday week because we literally do a week long celebration (sometimes month long, but that gets a little overplayed). We did a number of dinners this weekend with friends and also with Brad's parents, who were making a quick stop in nyc. One of Brad's favorite places to go in the city is Momofuku Noodle Bar, a small hipster hangout in the lower east side that is the brainchild of the much acclaimed David Chang. They are known for serving up huge bowls of kicked-up Ramen, and have been made famous by the likes of a celebrity flocking - most notably Martha Stewart, who is constantly mentioning her visits there on her talk show.

The noodle bar does not take reservations, so if you don't want to be waiting, you usually have to show up early or at some obscure time. We got there right at noon on a Sunday afternoon and had no problem getting a table, although 15 minutes into our meal the entire place was packed. We kicked things off with the pork buns, which were absolutely off the charts. Succulent pork is encased in the most deliciously tender dough pocket. These little darlings are reason enough to pay this place a visit.

For our main course, we all ordered the Momofuku Ramen, which is the traditional noodles in broth, big pieces of pork belly and shoulder, and a poached egg. I liked it just fine, but my husband, who grew up eating this sort of food, was over the stars for it.

We finished the meal with a serving of their ice cream of the day (which is the only dessert on the menu), a twist of rhubarb and shortcake flavors. Delicious flavor and texture, especially thanks to the little cinnamon crunchy bits that decorated the top. Of course, you could always walk the 2 blocks up to the Momofuku Bakery, which serves up some of the most unique cookie, cake, and pie creations you've ever seen.

Overall, the service was friendly, the food was top notch (seasonal and local to boot), and the atmosphere was comfortably energetic. Considering that Brad is already begging to go back, I certainly think Momofuku will make it on our regular restaurant rotation. Now if I could only figure out a way to snag a coveted reservation at Ko...

So as most of you who have been following my blog know, I don't usually do restaurant reviews. I was under the impression that since most people don't live in the nyc area, the information wouldn't necessarily be useful. What do you guys think - would you like to hear about places we find and love, or would you like me to just stick to the usual?

Momfuku Noodle Bar is located on 171 First Avenue, between 10th and 11th.

May 14, 2009

Burrito in Disguise

I do a little happy dance every time I open the mailbox to find the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine. My doormen and neighbors get a kick out of it, but they've become quite accustomed to it ever since I found this and this, and have since had many a wonderful presents waiting for me at home. After my little display, I hop on the elevator, balance the dog on one arm, water bottle and oversized purse on the other, and attempt to flip to the Gourmet Everyday section. 

This is my most favorite part of the whole magazine. It's generally packed with flavorful and unique meals that can be pulled together in a snap. All without getting all Rachel Ray "add a can of cream of Lord-knows-what." Quick, beautiful, and something that doesn't feel utterly flopped together - these are my kind of weeknight recipes. 

They are also my kind of lunches. Ever since I stopped working I've found lunch to be one of the most challenging meals of the day (did ya'll know I don't work? Well, I don't at the moment. I'm essentially the "real" version of a NYC housewife.) I mean, you want something tasty, but I sure as heck don't want to be up to my ears in dishes and then have to do the same thing all over again a few hours later. So I tend to either go out to lunch with the girls or settle at home with a bowl of cereal. One can get expensive (and fattening!) and the other is just downright boring. That's why I love these quick little meals. A nice meal at home, that won't leave me too run down to actually cook dinner.

This meatless black bean burger is essentially a burrito disguised as a hamburger. It has all the flavors of the typical Mexican fare, it's just served on a bun. A nice, albeit healthy (are you seeing the healthy trend as bikini season is upon us?), spin on a classic. This would also be a great option for any vegetarians out there who don't want to be eating a tofu hot dog at the barbecues this summer. 

I also have a few thank-yous to give out:

- Thanks to Foodbuzz for the wonderful event they put on at David Burke Townhouse this past Tuesday. The food and company were both phenomenal. It's so fun and inspiring to meet people who have a passion for food.

- Thanks to Stonyfield Farm's Oikos Greek Yogurt for introducing me to your product. The yogurt was fantastic in my Milo's Tsatsiki!

- And Thanks to Scate for the Premio MEME Blog Award. You are such a sweetheart! 

Burrito Burgers
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 2

1 (14-oz.) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
pinch of cayenne (omit if you like)
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
vegetable oil
2 hamburger buns
sour cream, salsa and lettuce (optional toppings)
  • In a food processor, combine half the beans, mayo, bread crumbs, cumin, oregano, cayenne, and salt, and pulse until it forms a puree.
  • Spoon bean mixture into a small bowl and stir in the cilantro and remaining beans.
  • Divide mixture in half and form 2 patties.
  • Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.
  • Cook patties until the edges are crisped, turning once (about 5 minutes total). 
  • Serve on buns with lettuce, sour cream and salsa. 

May 11, 2009

Strawberry Yogurt Muffins

I've been a bad little blogger lately. We've been so busy enjoying the lovely change in weather, that there has been very little cooking going on. Instead we've been having dinner with friends, golfing, and just quickly grabbing things as we go. This on-the-go mentality is actually what lead me to these muffins. I'm not normally a muffin gal. If I'm going to go to the trouble to bake something for breakfast, it's probably going to be pancakes or bacon and eggs. Muffins have always seemed like a bit of a light weight. They are nice for about an hour, but then you are starving again. And don't even getting me started on most healthy varieties out there - if I wanted a nutritious breakfast, I wouldn't be eating a muffin, especially one that tasted like cardboard.

So I was naturally a little apprehensive when I saw this recipe on my yogurt container. Whole wheat is not exactly at the top of my list when it comes to baked goods, but I also knew that it would keep me satisfied longer (see Michelle, I'm learning!). And the muffin form would be very convenient for the busy days ahead. Plus the strawberries at the store seemed to be screaming "buy me!" 

I was more than pleasantly surprised with the outcome. The muffins are super moist with big air pockets and chunks of gooey strawberry. They definitely aren't of the sweet/sugary topping variety (yeah Starbucks, I'm talking to you), but can be made so with a dollop of Ina's wonderful cinnamon honey butter. Healthy muffin and a big smear of butter - guess I'm taking baby steps in the nutritious eating department. I froze half the batch and have been zapping/sticking them in the oven when I'm in need of an quick and easy breakfast. 

And also a big happy (belated) mother's day to all you special ladies out there. Mom, you're the best and I love you! How you put up with 3 crazy kids, I will never know. ;)

Strawberry Yogurt Muffins
Recipe adapted from Stoneyfield Farm Organic (on container)

1 cup AP flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup chopped strawberries
2 eggs
1 cup yogurt (I used Stonyfield lowfat plain)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Preheat oven to 375℉.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the flours, sugar, and baking soda.
  • Stir in strawberries, then set aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, butter and vanilla.
  • Gradually stir dry ingredients into wet.
  • Divide batter evenly amongst a 12-cup muffin tin that has been greased or lined with papers.
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown.

May 5, 2009

Roasted Pepper Guacamole

In my somewhat humble opinion, this is the BEST guacamole ever. I've tried just about every version under the sun, from the minimalist type they make in Cabo, to the elaborate types made table side at fancy NYC restaurants, and this one is by far my favorite. It's the roasted garlic and red peppers that add just a bit of a unique flavor and really separate this one from the pack.

I've been making this version for years now (seriously, it was published in CL in 2006), and it's a hit every single time. Pair this guacamole with some tortilla chips and a big michelada and you will have yourself one heck of a Cinco de Mayo celebration!

Roasted Pepper Guacamole
slightly adapted from Cooking Light

5 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium red bell pepper
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped (more or less depending on preference)
2 tablespoons green onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (additional to taste)
1 ripe avocado, peeled, seeded, and coarsely mashed
  • Preheat oven to 450℉.
  • Wrap garlic cloves in aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, or until soft.
  • Set aside to cool, then remove skins and, in a medium sized bowl, coarsely mash with a fork.
  • Preheat broiler.
  • Slice pepper in half and remove seeds.
  • Place skin side up on a foil lined baking sheet, and press down with hand to flatten.
  • Broil for 15 minutes, turning frequently, until skin is blackened.
  • Wrap pepper in the aluminum foil and let stand for 10 minutes.
  • Peel skin off pepper and finely chop.
  • Combine all ingredients to the garlic and stir well.

May 1, 2009

Remember that thing about eating healthy....

Well that is out the door! Ladies, would you all back me up when I say that at certain times of the month (guys, don't squirm too much, this is as in depth as I'm going to go), we are simply slaves to our cravings. I mean all the good intentions in the world aren't going to fight off the chocolate, then salty, then sweet, then sour, and back to chocolate cravings. We might as well just throw up our hands, eat what we are craving, and get over the guilt cause it's all mother nature's fault. It has absolutely nothing to do with complete lack of self control. Or at least, this is what I like to tell myself. Note - this is only a good excuse for a limited amount of time, and if you start using it every day you will certainly be the size of a house. :)

So what's a gal to do when she has dutifully passed up on the Oreos in the grocery store so that there aren't any sweets around the house to "cheat" with, but is ready to bang on her neighbors door begging for a snickers? Make these chocolate and peanut butter cookies. You already have the ingredients on hand, and will be able to indulge your gluttony without anyone else being the wiser. And I can just about guarantee they will tame even your wildest of cravings. It's like getting a zpack from the doctor, it will cure just about anything. So give in and make a few cookies (cause you know that sugar-free pudding isn't going to fool you). And when you are feeling nice and satisfied, give the rest away. Maybe karma will even throw you a bone for spreading around the goods and you'll magically start craving celery. 

We are off to Vegas for the weekend, so hopefully some of that karma will be working our way. Heck, I'm just hoping I don't get swine flu on the flight there!

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

1 1/4 cups AP flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup peanut butter, at room temp
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temp
1 tablespoon milk
1 cup chocolate chips (I like the mini chips the best)
  • Preheat oven to 350℉.
  • Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, or mixer, beat together the butter and PB until light and fluffy.
  • Add in both sugars and continue beating until smooth.
  • Stir in the egg and milk.
  • Stir the dry ingredients into the wet.
  • Fold in the chocolate chips.
  • Place teaspoon size balls of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet, then press gently with the back of a fork.
  • Bake for about 10 mintues (the cookies are best slightly undercooked, as they will harden quickly when taken out of the oven).
  • Place cookies on racks to cool.