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Recipe Hack: Lower-Sugar Christmas Treats!

One of the things I love about Christmas is the excuse to start baking and keep it up beyond what would otherwise be considered the bounds of reason. Although I love to cook family favorites for the holidays, I also love the excuse to be experimental and somewhat “fussy,” making the types of putzy things I never have time for during the rest of the year.

This past week, I experimented with a few new items while looking for some lower-sugar options for diabetic friends and family. I call this a “recipe hack”; cracking the chemistry of cooking to understand what gives a recipe its yum and consistency while also making it work for what you need. In this case, the need was less sugar! Sadly, all this hacking leaves me pressed for time to take and process pictures, but, since I modified existing recipes, please feel free to go admire the pictures on the recipes linked below! This is going to be a quick and dirty explanation, just to give you an idea of how you can play with recipes on your own to work with your guests’ needs and preferences.

First up: Savanna cheesecake bars by Paula Deen.

Yes, Paula is usually more known for decadent yumminess more than healthier options, and no, this isn’t a health food, but it does have several redeeming qualities over many other holiday baked goods. My version packed the cookie crust with pecans and whole grain flour, I used lower-fat Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese in the cheesecake part, and I slathered the completed bars with a homemade fresh cranberry glaze spiced with ginger and cinnamon. We love cheesecake, and I have a thing for fresh cranberries; this one was a big hit in the taste testings in our house.

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Let the Christmas Nom-a-Thon Begin!

Like a good chunk of the Midwest, snow dumped on us pretty badly yesterday. We are officially all dug out, however, and now I get to enjoy a day at home straightening up, slurping delicious cocoa, and starting on holiday sweets. I love giving gifts of treats at Christmas, and I’m feeling adventurous this year. Adventurous enough, in fact, that I am going to blog today’s kitchen sweatshop extravaganza here. Keep checking back for updates on this post!

For anyone who has missed the writing on the wall, I am an experimental cook. So, in all honesty, my Christmas goodie-fest actually started two days ago when I made mint chocolate “fudge.”

I knew full well that messing with fudge was to tempt fate since fudge, like caramels and other types of candy, is a chemistry project first and foremost. For that reason, I attempted to respect the protein, sugar, and fat ratios as much as possible while also trying to replace half the sugar with agave nectar and cutting the overall sweetness of it. I knew full well I wasn’t guaranteed fudge, but I figured I’d wind up with something interesting. And I did: a delicious, soft, creamy concoction that could be scooped and keep its shape. I had, I quickly realized, the perfect center for a minty truffle. So today, that’s where I started. I scooped the filling into balls and popped them into the freezer for about 15 minutes while I melted dark chocolate over a very low heat on the stove. I then smoothed out the minty bits, rolled them around in the dark chocolate until covered, and popped them onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper to harden.

Quoth the Unicyclist: “A smooth and tasty little minty treat.” A flop if you had your heart set on fudge, but a total score as an all-natural, reduced-sugar chocolate truffle.

Since I still have chocolate on the stove, I think I’m going to go right into the predictable-but-delicious world of chocolate-covered pretzels. Then, however, I’m going to get really nutty. Cranberry caramel tarts, rosemary pine nut cookies…who can say? Stay tuned for updates and pictures!

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The Episode in Which I Go Granola…Again

A few weeks ago, the Unicyclist was tapped to bring in food for an evening seminar he’s taking. He said the group has been on something of a hummus kick, so he decided to stick with the theme and whip up a batch of homemade hummus. I chose to balance it with a sweet treat and made a couple pans of granola bars for him to take along.

Apparently, the granola bars were a huge hit, as my husband came home with nary a granola bar and a heaping pile of requests for the recipe. Of course, when he delivered this news to me, the Unicyclist shook his head ruefully. He knows me and recipes…particularly where a staple like granola is concerned. All this meant, however, was that our household wound up with another batch of granola bars this week, as I had to make and measure in order to pass on instructions! So, without further ado, this one goes out to the hungry grad students. May you have long life and abundant supplies of granola. Wo0t!

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The Kitchen Manifesto

It recently occurred to me that some of you are new to Simple Spoonful—or, at least, so claims Google Analytics.That being the case, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a bit of background on the way I write recipes, particularly after that much-annotated recipe for agave-sweetened spiced pumpkin cake I just posted.

As a general rule, the purpose of a recipe is to provide a clear-cut set of instructions that anyone can follow to achieve a specific end product.

My recipes don’t really work that way.

My recipes treat cooking as a process and a finished dish as a snapshot in time of the way I did things at a certain point. That’s why you’ll get notes about what happened when I swapped out some applesauce for oil or some barley malt for agave. My cooking is also largely dependent on what’s in the garden, what the CSA provides any particular week, or what produce is on sale at the grocery store. Not surprisingly, while technique may be sacred to me in a particular recipe, ingredients rarely are. I measure when I bake, but I almost never measure when I cook…unless I am tracking it as I prepare it a given day in order to be able to post it here, so you can enjoy in your own kitchen! It’s true: I do all this for you. *MWAH!* In any case, that’s why one of my recipes will often instruct you to add a particular ingredient to taste or mention that you can substitute X, Y, or Z as desired. The only other time I keep careful track of what I’m doing is when I am experimenting with adapting an existing recipe, particularly anything for baked goods. There’s chemistry involved in baking, folks, and you just can’t pull a fast one on science. Science has rules, and we gotta obey its authoritTAY.

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Agave-Sweetened Spiced Pumpkin Cake

The trees are heavy with apples, the raspberry canes are fading, and the fragrant bushes of basil we enjoyed all summer were sacrificed to the first frosts this past week.

Despite the summery temperatures of the last couple days here in Wisconsin, autumn has arrived. Even though it’s sunny out, the light has a different quality to it. Filtered through leaves of gold and rust, it’s thinner, paler.

It’s the time of year when steaming bowls of soup seem perfect, and the smell of fresh bread and cinnamon warms you far beyond the ability that another sweater possesses. It’s the time of year when the folks in our household start craving baked squashes and the rich texture of pumpkin in casseroles, risotto, muffins, and cakes. As the sunlight grows loses its muscle and the days shorter, the golden and orange colors grow more and more appealing. Our household is no exception. Specifically, I have been given orders from mum to get going on the pumpkin goods and to keep ‘em coming until I hear otherwise. Based on last year, I might hear otherwise sometime in April.

And I might not.

My mom has diabetes, so finding a way to create pumpkin baked goods that actually taste amazing without causing a crazy blood sugar spike has involved some trial and error. At this point, we have a couple keepers: spiced pumpkin cake and mom’s own agave-sweetened pumpkin pie. Both of them use raw agave nectar instead of sugar. I’ll get to the recipe for this pumpkin cake in a moment, but I figure some of you might like some background on agave nectar first.

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About Artichokes

Well, it’s been a busy couple weeks.

I have a new job.  I still have the old job.  (I.e., I work a lot.)  I finished the paper and presentation for the class I was taking on banned books and censorship.  And I have decided to love artichokes.

If you have ever prepared artichokes from their spiny, stiff, pigheaded original state, perhaps you can empathize when I say that they are not necessarily the easiest vegetable to love.  Fortunately, I believe in second chances.  And third ones.  And, in the case of artichokes, fourth ones.

This is something I enjoy about our (my and the Unicyclist’s) attitude toward food: we believe that pretty much anything can be delicious if prepared correctly.  He may not pine for okra, but he sure likes it when I make it sauteed with onion, tomato, cumin, and dried red pepper.  Likewise, up until a couple weeks ago, I wasn’t a rabid fan of fresh artichokes stuffed or boiled or drenched in butter (the first ways I tried cooking them).  However, I was certain they had to be good somehow.  Living so close to Cali, some of that Golden State artichoke passion has wafted over here.  Basically, it felt nearly criminal to fail to thrill to artichokes after I had seen The Giant Artichoke restaurant in Castroville, CA.  So I kept trying.

Last week, I found the sweet spot.

Hello, grilled ‘chokes.

So how can you join the artichoke fan club?  Read on for full instructions!

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The Attack of the Root Vegetables: Garlic-Dill Roasted Carrots

Lurking in our fridge, buried deep in the crisper, huddled between bags of salad greens, you will find them.  Or at least you would have up until yesterday.

Several weeks’ worth of root vegetables had very nearly taken over our fridge.  Between the farm visit and our regular CSA pickup, our stash had grown significantly without us really noticing.  When we did finally realize we were outnumbered six to one by turnips, it was touch and go for a while there. Fortunately, we are stout and hardy folk, and we managed to quell the veggie uprising with some seriously dedicated roasting this weekend.  I scrubbed, sliced, cubed, and roasted three pans worth of turnips, sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots.  It was all delicious, but I confess that I really fell hopelessly in love with the carrots. These are the carrots I had wanted to make a couple weeks ago but had to forego due to my undersized dill plants. However, it’s been in the 80s and 90s here, and I have been a faithful hydrator. This weekend, my patience was rewarded.

Not only were these carrots gorgeous, but did you catch the part where I mentioned there was dill involved?  And lemon.  And garlic. Holy yum.

It was a beautiful thing.  It was so beautiful, in fact, that I’m sharing it with you.  Without further ado, here is a recipe for some Dang Fine Carrots.  You can eat them hot, cold, or tossed on top of a salad.  Whichever way you eat them, I hope they make your eyes roll back in your head with delight and your toes curl with bliss. Best of all, it’s one of those simple, non-recipes that don’t require you to blow any gaskets about measuring.  The basics are here—you just work with those!

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From the Experimental Kitchen: Creamy Carrot Soup with a Side of Baby Chard

Vegetables are amazing. I mean, there’s kohlrabi, which looks like nothing quite so much as a purple and green UFO camouflaged with a few leaves in order to lurk in your home gardens and probe the tomatoes and eggplant undetected. There are lumpy and bumpy and spiny cucumbers, amazing zebra-striped tomatoes, tenacious snap peas, and, of course, the artichoke. The artichoke is a testament to human ingenuity, as I am still baffled as to how anyone ever figured out that the artichoke bud was edible. In addition to all the oddball shirttail relations of Veggieland, however, there are the gorgeous cousins, like these sunset-hued, violet-red carrots.

We took home a bunch each of the last two weeks from our CSA, which meant that it was definitely time for carrots for dinner at our house. My first inclination was to roast them with some of my wonderful WildTree lemon-infused grapeseed oil, salt, and maybe a bit of dill, but it turns out that the little dill babies the neighbor gave us last week are still a ways away from being bulked up enough to provide dinner. I decided to roast the carrots anyway, though with an alternate ultimate goal: a delicious, creamy carrot soup. I had been wanting to experiment more with vegan versions of creamy soups, and the carrots seemed to be just the ticket. I had made some cashew milk (just like my almond milk, but with cashews) the day before, and I still had all the thick, creamy cashew pulp in the fridge. Perfect, I thought. (Actually, it was more like, “Eh, what the hey,” but that’s sort of how I roll in ye olde kitchen.)  Carrots and cashews seemed like a wonderful combination.

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Dinner for Busy Nights: Pita Pizza

While I do enjoy cooking, some nights demand dinner that comes together quickly.  This week was full of such nights, and on several of them, I enjoyed this pita pizza.  It comes together in five minutes and cooks in fifteen.  You can make vegan versions and tweak the flavors however you choose: Greek, Italian, Asian…dream it and do it!

To make your own fine specimen, simply slather a whole-grain pita very generously with hummus (I used homemade roasted red pepper hummus), then stack with vegetables of your choice.  I sprinkled on thinly sliced onions, zucchini, tomato, wilted spinach (briefly cooked in a skillet), grated carrots, and a smidge of jalapeño havarti.  Then I popped it into the toaster oven and cooked it for fifteen minutes at 400 degrees, which was just long enough not just to melt the cheese, but also to make the bottom delightfully crispy.

If you’re skipping a flavorful cheese like the one I used, you may want to add a little something to the pizza to boost the flavor such as salsa, olives, or a spice blend of your choice to give it enough spark.

Guten Apetit!

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The End of the Darkest Days: Breakfast Tacos

Belatedly, due to the constant rush around here these days, I present our featured Dark Days dish: breakfast tacos.

Oh, wait.  Those are kumquats.  We had some of those for breakfast, too.  Seeing as how this was the last day of the Dark Days 08-09 Challenge, we decided to hit the nearby Sunday farmers’ market and see what goodies were for grabs.  I couldn’t pass up these beautiful, sweet, tangy little citrus fruits.  Nor could I stop eating them.  A day later, they were all gone.  As was the bag of blood oranges, which we turned into a delicious and dramatically-hued juice.  But anyway—breakfast tacos.  I know I have that picture here somewhere…  Ah-ha!

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