Monday, November 30, 2009

Pureed Butternut Squash Soup

In keeping with our “nuts” theme for Thanksgiving, I wanted to try a butternut squash soup recipe completely forgetting that A had already made a wonderful one for our “honey” themed Valentine’s Day dinner.

Before I began my search for a recipe, I had no idea how many variations there were for this soup. Since I didn’t recall A’s soup, I didn’t know what butternut squash tasted like and so found it difficult to choose a recipe. Ginger? Garlic? Curry? In the end, I decided to go with a very simple recipe with minimal seasonings, emphasizing the flavor of the squash.

I have to learn things the hard way. Here’s what I learned about Butternut squash specifically and vegetable based soups in general.

Pumpkin is a squash. If a pumpkin is nearly impossible to cut and peel (think jack-o-lantern), then it stands to reason that all squash are nearly impossible to cut and peel. I have arthritis in my hands. By the time I had finished peeling, seeding and cutting three pounds of butternut squash, my hands were so painful that I was literally sobbing. A, you may have the honor of making all future dishes involving squash.

A food processor is NOT the same as a blender. Yes, it has a plastic bowl with evil little blades at the bottom. The difference, and it is a huge difference, is in the cover. A blender has a cover that seals tightly. A food processor, on the other hand, has a cover that merely clamps tightly to the bowl. Any liquid that reaches the top will be forcibly ejected from the machine by the whirling blades resulting in a soup splattered kitchen. Did I mention that I recently wallpapered my kitchen? Recently, as in the week before Thanksgiving?

Those were my misconceptions. Here is Martha’s misconception. Admittedly, I wasn’t able to puree the soup completely and a certain amount did wind up decorating my walls, floor, countertop and cabinets, but I still am not sure why she thought the resulting soup would be so thick that it would need to be thinned with a little water. My soup was too watery.

Thankfully, I had made it first before tackling the mashed potatoes and gravy. My reasoning was that it could always be reheated before being served. Instead, I left it simmering and cooking down on a backburner while I attended to the rest of the dinner. A was kind enough to keep an eye on it for me, stirring and checking the consistency.

Despite the best efforts of both Wooden Spoon cooks, this soup was too thin. It also needed more seasonings or a different oil. The taste of the olive oil almost overpowered the taste of the squash.

Verdict: What was Martha thinking???

Pureed Butternut Squash Soup
(Source: Everyday Food January/February 2008)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 can (14 ½ ounces) reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

In a large Dutch oven or pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion. Season with salt; stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add squash, broth, and enough water (4 to 5 cups) to cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium, and simmer until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.

Using a blender or an immersion blender, puree broth and vegetables until smooth. If using a blender, work in batches and fill only halfway, allowing heat to escape: remove cap from hole in lid, cover lid firmly with a dish towel, and blend. Transfer to a clean pot as you work. Adjust soup’s consistency with a little water if necessary. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Recycle: olive oil bottle, chicken broth can

Compost: onion skin, squash seeds and skin

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Wooden Spoon Cooks Go Nuts!

A and I had so much fun doing a themed Valentine’s Day Dinner that we decided to cook a themed Thanksgiving Dinner. A suggested “nuts” which is appropriate for the season as well as our state of mind. We dove into cookbooks and surfed the net looking for dishes with nuts as ingredients and/or “nuts” in their title. Stay tuned for the recipes and our reviews.

We hope that you enjoy our Nutty Thanks giving as much as we did.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake

It is absolutely true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This old dog went all Pavlov when she saw a recipe for a pear upside-down cake rather than the more usual pineapple upside-down cake. She completely ignored that (1) the recipe was featured in the New York Times and (2) not a single recipe from that illustrious publication has ever worked for her. And do you know why she ignored past experience? Because (everyone say it with me) this time it will be different.

Except that it wasn’t. Making matters worse, the fallout from this disaster may have adverse consequences on Thanksgiving. I am keeping my paws fingers crossed.

I am unsure of the variety of pears that I purchased. They weren’t labeled. They were, however, the biggest darn pears that I have ever seen. I bought four as specified in the recipe, but only needed half that many to affect the overlapping circle on the top of the cake.

Cooking the maple syrup and brown sugar topping was not a problem. While it was cooling, I made the cake batter. Which, when finished, bore a striking resemblance to BisQuick. My problems began when I poured the brown sugar maple syrup mixture into the cake pan. It seemed like a lot. But I forged ahead confident that the chefs behind the recipe in their infinite wisdom, knew what they were doing.

Pear slices were arranged in an attractive circle, batter was spooned into the pan and then carefully spread to cover the pears. The pan was slid into the oven and the timer set for 45 minutes. The trouble began at the twenty minute mark when the first eruption of brown sugar/maple syrup escaped from the pan and landed on the bottom of the oven where it sizzled into a sticky, blackened mess. As the minutes ticked by, the eruptions grew more frequent, the sizzling almost constant. Thirty minutes in, smoke was billowing out of the stove as the boiling mixture intended as a delicate syrup for the pears turned my oven into a bubbling cauldron of burning sugar.

I made the decision to remove the cake early rather than risk burning down my house. Repeat after me: The motto of the New York Times is “All The News That’s Fit to Print” NOT “All The Recipes Fit to Print”. If there is any doubt in your mind, I invite you to take a look into my blackened and still smoking oven.

Normally, my oven is pretty clean. Clean enough that I feel confident in baking my Thanksgiving pies and breads and then roasting the turkey. The following day, while everyone else is out bargain-hunting, I am on my knees in the kitchen cleaning my oven sure in the knowledge that I won’t need to clean it again until after the Christmas roast beef.

This year, thanks to the New York Times (note to self: “All The NEWS That’s Fit to Print”), I will be cleaning my oven twice in one week. No matter how carefully I rinse, it always smells of oven cleaner afterwards which leads me to wonder how that acrid aroma will affect the turkey.

In case you’re still wondering, the much maligned Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake was delicious. I will be making it again, but with a lot less brown sugar and maple syrup and definitely not a few days before Thanksgiving.

Verdict: Needs a Do-Over

Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake
(source: The New York Times, November 11, 2009)

11 tablespoons butter
¾ cup maple syrup
¼ cup packed brown sugar
3 to 4 pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1 ½ cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small pan over medium heat; add maple syrup and brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for another 2 minutes; remove from heat and set aside. When mixture has cooled a bit, pour it into a 9-inch baking pan and arrange pear slices n an overlapping circle on top.

With a handheld or standing mixer, beat remaining 8 tablespoons butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, one egg at a time, continuing to mix until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in three batches, alternating with milk; do not overmix. Carefully spread batter over pears, using a spatula to make sure it is evenly distributed. Bake until top of cake is golden brown and edges begin to pull away from sides of pan, about 45 to 50 minutes; a toothpick inserted into center should come out clean. Let cake cool for 5 minutes.

Run a knife around edge of pan; put a plate on top of cake and carefully flip it so plate is on bottom and pan is on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Recycle: maple syrup bottle, vanilla bottle

Compost: pear peels and cores, eggshells

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Linguine Fra Diavolo

Have you ever lost a recipe? I have. More than once. My biggest loss was my favorite strawberry cake recipe. Yellow layers with sliced strawberries as filling, covered with a whipped cream frosting. My mouth waters just thinking about it. It disappeared during the move to my current house.

Once I had a computer, I was determined to never lose another recipe and carefully typed all of them into folders. But I hadn’t counted on a home computer, a work computer and flash drives. Despite my best efforts to centralize my file keeping, I still managed to lose track of recipes.
The latest recipe to “disappear” on me was this one. When I went to make it a year ago, I discovered that I couldn’t locate it. I hastily did some Googling and came up with an acceptable substitute which turned out to be rather good.

Last week, I came across it on my office computer. I transferred it to my flash drive AND printed it out. No way that I was going to lose it again.

Shrimp was on sale this week so it was a good time to try this version. I was also eager to use surimi, something I had never tried. The package left me a little confused. It said “imitation crab meat” and underneath that “wild caught”. How do you catch a fake crab?

My only criticism of this recipe is that either I should chop my onions into smaller pieces or they should be sautéed longer than 8 minutes. They weren’t cooked enough. I used the entire 2 pound package of shrimp which was too much. But I love shrimp and I’ve never come across any recipes that call for ¾ pound of shrimp. The surimi was difficult to shred. I have to work on that.

Other than that, it was absolutely delicious.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Linguine Fra Diavolo

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes
1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1 pound dried linguine
1 ¼ pounds cleaned medium-size shrimp
½ pound surimi (imitation crab), shredded
¼ cup fresh basil, in strips

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 8 minutes or until softened, without letting garlic brown.

Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt and pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer, breaking up tomato with wooden spoon; cook over medium heat 10 minutes.

While sauce is simmering, cook linguine following package directions. Drain.

Stir shrimp into sauce; cook 3 to 4 minutes or until shrimp is cooked through.

Stir in surimi; heat through, about 1 minute.

Toss linguine with shrimp sauce. Garnish with basil.

Recycle: tomato cans

Compost: onion skins, garlic skins

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Fettuccine Alfredo

As I previously mentioned, I was raised on meat and potatoes. Steaks, chops, boiled chicken legs and the ubiquitous mashed potatoes smothered in butter and gravy. For most of my childhood, the only pasta I knew was macaroni and cheese.

By the late 60's, prepared foods were more prevalent and cheaper and spaghetti was added to our diet. It came in a box with a foil pouch of seasonings to which was added a can of tomato paste and water. It was a welcome respite from the endless cycle of meat and potatoes.

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I was shocked at the infinite variety of food and flavors. I had difficulty ordering food in restaurants because I didn’t know what most of dishes were and was too ashamed to admit it. So I would order whatever sounded the most exotic to me on the menu.

One evening, it was Fettuccine Alfredo. I had no idea what I was ordering beyond the fact that it was pasta and it was Italian. My ignorance was such that I didn’t know that “Alfredo” was a sauce. So you can imagine my surprise when my pasta arrived covered with a white sauce instead of the expected tomato sauce. Even worse, the sauce was made with a lot of eggs that didn’t taste like they were cooked properly. They were raw and slimy. My dining companion, assured me that my dish had been made and cooked properly.

It was one of the worst meals I had ever eaten. The memory of that dish was so horrific, that I buried it in the remotest recesses of my memory.

Now fast forward about fifteen years. I had had years of cooking for a fussy eater. So fussy in fact, that our diet was restricted to half a dozen or fewer dishes. Standing in the pasta aisle at the supermarket, I realized that I had reached the point where I just couldn’t face another dinner of spaghetti and Ragu sauce. A box of fettuccine with a recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo on the side caught my eye. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. More importantly, would my daughter eat flat pasta covered in a white sauce? And how did I know that Alfredo was a white sauce?

Back home in my kitchen, with the pasta merrily boiling and my white sauce prepared, the unwelcome answer hit me as I poured the beaten eggs into the pan. I panicked. If I wasn’t willing to eat slimy, half-cooked eggs, there was no way that my daughter would either. There had to be something I could do salvage dinner. I stirred and stirred and thought and thought and stirred some more. Just as I was about to dump dinner and order Chinese, a miracle happened: the eggs cooked. I found myself stirring something akin to scrambled eggs.

I drained the pasta, added it to the “sauce” and found myself with an edible dish. Not at all authentic, but my picky offspring was willing to eat it and so was I. It has become one of those recipes that I make when I am in a hurry or too tired to fuss. It is so flexible that it can be a main dish or a side dish.

Just for the record, I’ve never ordered Fettuccine Alfredo in a restaurant again since that disastrous meal decades ago.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Fettuccine Alfredo
(source: Ronzoni Fettuccine box)

16 oz. (1 package) Fettuccine
½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup whipping cream
4 eggs

Cook pasta in boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter; blend in cheese. Stir in whipping cream; heat almost to boiling, stirring constantly with a whisk. Place eggs in a small bowl; beat slightly. Stir a small amount of hot cream mixture into egg mixture; pour egg mixture into saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with whisk until thoroughly heated, about 5 minutes. Tossed cooked, drained pasta and sauce. Serve immediately.

6 servings

Compost: eggshells

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Soft & Chewy Chocolate Drops

In all fairness, I really should make these cookies again before reviewing the recipe. I did everything possible wrong so it is no surprise that they are only “average”. I have no excuse except that I was very busy and trying to take shortcuts.

The cookie dough is supposed to be refrigerated for an hour. I left it in the fridge overnight. At that point, the dough was so hard, that it was impossible to roll into balls. I didn’t have time for it reach room temperature, so I just mooshed it into ball-like shapes, larger than the recommended one inch and baked them.

Then I froze them. There was no time to make frosting and frost the cookies, so into the freezer they went for a few days. When I finally found the time to make the glaze, I ended up with way more than I needed, even if I had made five dozen cookies.

I also made the mistake of reading the ingredients on the Cool Whip label. I had nightmares for a few nights after. It’s been years since I ate anything that I couldn’t pronounce.

Here’s a handy hint. It doesn’t say so in the directions, but placed the frosted cookies on wax paper while the frosting was setting on them. They don’t stick to the wax paper and clean up is a breeze, especially if any of the frosting has dripped.

When all was said and done, I wasn’t enthusiastic about the taste. That may have had something to do with the cheap baking chocolate I used. I should have invested in better chocolate for a better taste.

Verdict: Needs a Do-Over

Soft & Chewy Chocolate Drops
(source: BAKER’S unsweetened Baking Chocolate box)

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 ½ cups flour

1 tub (8 oz.) Frozen Cool Whip Whipped Topping
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate

Preheat oven to 350°. Microwave unsweetened chocolate and butter in large microwavable bowl on high 2 min. or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Add sugar; mix well. Blend in eggs and vanilla. Add flour; mix well. Cover and refrigerate 1 or until dough is easy to handle.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls; place 2 inches apart, on greased baking sheets.

Bake 8 min. or just until set. (Do not overbake.) Let stand on baking sheet 1 min; transfer to wire racks. Cool completely.

Glaze: Place frozen whipped topping and semi-sweet chocolate in microwavable bowl. Microwave on high 1 ½ min. or until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is shiny and smooth, stirring after 1 min. Let stand 15 min. to thicken. Spread over cookies. Let stand until glaze is set.

Makes 5 doz. or 30 servings, two cookies each.

Recycle: vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshells