Tuesday, September 29, 2009

All things Pumpkin

First off big sigh - I passed my last written Ph.D. exam, oral exams are scheduled for October 27th!

In celebration of that, and of autumn, and because I love all things pumpkin I've been cooking pumpkin inspired treats over the past week and I've found dozens of great ideas I still want to try out.

By the way I've mentioned it before, but if you have never been to http://www.tastingspotting.com/ - you must go. This site has tons of fabulous recipes from bloggers that are way better and more devoted than I could ever dream to be - http://www.foodgawker.com/ is also awesome! I get much of my inspiration from these two sites.

As part of my ongoing crusade to make things from scratch as much as possible, I bought two small pumpkins (pie pumpkins) at the farmers market so that I could make my own pumpkin puree. The lady at the farmer's market assured me that these were pumpkins for cooking/baking, but after taking the time to cut and seed (and de-slime), and roast the pumpkins I was left with a stringy, tasteless yellow mush. So disappointing, but we did get some really tasty toasted pumpkin seeds in the end (just rinse the seeds well, toss with a little salt, let dry, and then toast in a 400 degree oven)!

Luckily, I had also purchased two butternut squash which taste a lot like pumpkin. I already had experience baking with them and it is quite simple to make butternut squash puree you just peel the squash, remove the seeds (much like a pumpkin), cut it into chunks, steam it until it is very tender (fork test!), and then puree it in a food processor or mash it really well.

So far I have made two recipes. The first is a harvest cake, which is basically pumpkin/squash bread, with some chopped apples and raisins in the batter. I also topped it with a cinnamon walnut streusel. This cake was good, but I found it to be a little too dense, maybe the addition of apple along with the squash puree made it too moist. But, I've had great results with this recipe when I've omitted the apples and raisins and baked it in a loaf pan. So, I would suggest that if you add the apples, you might cut back a little on the squash puree and make sure not to over stir it.
Here's the recipe:

Dry Goods:
11/2 c. Flour ( I use half whole wheat, half all purpose)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. cloves

Wet Works:
2 eggs
1/4 c. oil (can sub applesauce)
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. pumpkin/squash puree
1t. vanilla
Optional Add-ins:
1 small apple peeled and chopped
1/2 c. raisins or dried cranberries

Optional Streusel:
1/4 c. brown sugar
2 T. flour
1 t. cinnamon
1 T. oil
1/4 c. finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the streusel ingredients. In a separate bowl combine the dry ingredients. In another separate bowl combine the wet ingredients. Stir the wet and dry ingredient together just until combined. Stir in optional add-ins. Pour into a prepared round spring form pan or a loaf pan. Sprinkle with the streusel, bake for 45-55 minutes - use the toothpick test.

Second, I made pumpkin/squash pancakes. I've come across several recipes for these and just had to make them! Here is a link to the recipe I worked from http://closetcooking.blogspot.com/2008/11/pumpkin-pie-pancakes.html
I followed it pretty closely, but I left out the butter (they didn't need it believe me) and I substituted the all-purpose flour with buckwheat flour for healthier whole-grain pancakes. These are great with maple syrup (of course!), but are also good with apple butter or even peanut butter. He also has a lot of other great pancake recipes on this site (along with other great non-pancake recipes), so take a look around!

Tip for keeping leftover pancakes: Alfred doesn't like pancakes (he doesn't like chocolate either, what's wrong with him?), and it's pretty much impossible to make enough batter for just 1 person. So, I always make a big batch. I let the leftover pancakes cool then I wrap them in foil (two at a time), and freeze them. Whenever I want pancakes I just pull them out of the freezer and pop them in the toaster!

Other neat pumpkin ideas:
1) I've seen many a blog post on this one, but I haven't tried it. You can mix a regular (15oz.) can of pumpkin with a box of cake or brownie mix - nothing else just the pumpkin and the mix - spread in a square pan (or muffin tins), bake at 350 for 20ish minutes and you'll have great tasting and very healthy brownies/bar cookies.
2) As a tasty topping for bagels, muffins, or anything really: mix together pumpkin puree, cream cheese, honey or maple syrup to taste, and whatever spices you like - cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, etc.

Noosh-e-jan (Bon appetite in Farsi!) - Ashlie

Monday, September 21, 2009

Grad-school & Granola Bars

So the grad school part first. It has been a busy semester - but really is there a semester that's not busy??? I don't think so! Right now I'm working on a paper (and a poster I'm presenting this Friday - which includes prize money if I win!) with my advisor, beginning work on my prospectus (the plan for what I'm going to do for my dissertation), and awaiting word on my final Ph.D. written exam.

I'm fairly anxious to find out my exam results; I should find out by the end of this week, or beginning of next week - my advisor disclosed to me that the committee of professors is meeting to vote on whether I pass or fail this Thursday, but he's not supposed to tell me the results until Sept. 30th (some stupid grad-school bureacratic rule). Hopefully he'll get to tell me early - if not I'll be reduced to trying to discern something from his body language and other non-verbal cues. Oh, and if I pass the written exam, I'll have oral exams in 2-3 weeks, yikes!

Anyhow, with all that thinking and hoping and working and praying a girl gets pretty hungry! Since a lot of my time is at school I have to bring plenty of food (brain fuel) with me. Granola bars are one on my favorite snacks. While there are plenty of ready made choices it seems like most of the ones that taste good aren't that great for you (especially with all the sweetners they use), and the one's that are good for you don't taste very good. So, I have experimented a bit, drawn from lots of other ideas on blogs and websites, and came up with a pretty tasty, healthy, and easy homemade granola bar. You can also easily adapt it to your own taste preferences:

Granola Bars:

2 Cups Old Fashioned Oats (could sub other rolled grains too)
2/3 Cup Creamy Natural Peanut Butter (could sub other nut butters)
1/2 Cup Honey (could sub Agave)
2 T. Ground Flaxseed (could sub wheat germ - or omit all together)
1/2 t. cinnamon (optional)
1 1/2 Cups any combination of "Add-Ins" such as chopped nuts, seeds, dried fruits, or even choco chips if your not so concerned about the "healthy" part (I used raisins and almonds b/c that's what I had on hand.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the oats (and chopped nuts if you are using them) on a cookie sheet and let toast for about 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat mix together the peanut butter, honey, flaxseed, and cinnamon. After the oats have toasted, stir the oats and your Add-Ins into the peanut butter mixture.

Line a square (8x8 or 9x9) baking dish with foil or parchment paper - leave a little bit of overhang so you can pull the bars out of the dish later. Press the mixture firmy into the pan (I put a piece of waxed paper on top so I can press it firmly and it won't stick to my hands). For soft granola bars, just let the mixture cool in the pan (don't bake at all), and cut into bars after it is cool. For crunchier bars bake the mixture for 15-20 minutes until the edges are slightly browned.

Let bars cool in the pan 10 minutes. Using foil/parchment overhang remove the entire block - put on a rack to cool completely. When they are almost cool cut into bars or squares! Don't worry if you may have some pieces break off during the cutting, while it keeps them from looking like perfect bars - it means you get to eat those parts right then!

PS. I bought a pumpkin (the kind you cook - not the big Jack-o-latern type) and I'm planning on making some thing(s) with it soon!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cheap, Tasty, and Nutritious - Rice and Beans

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I receive a recipe of the day email from Martha Stewart - rarely do I make those recipes, but I made this one! The original recipe was called "Cuban black bean stew" - I jazzed it up with a few additions and modifications.

It really couldn't be easier (or much cheaper) - you start with a can of beans, toss in a few vegetables and spices and voila. Since we are all busy little bees, the simple preparation and short cooking time are also a huge plus.
Along with a salad (or a big bowl of watermelon in my case) this makes a really great vegetarian meal. Beans are really good for you (despite their infamous side-effects), and together rice and beans make up a complete protein, so you really don't need any meat. But, for the relentless carnivores, it also makes a tasty side dish for grilled chicken, fish, or beef.

Here's the Recipe:
1 Can Black Beans
1 Small Onion, diced
1 Red Bell Pepper, diced
1 Jalapeno, seeded and diced (or leave in seeds for something spicier)
2 Cloves Garlic, minced
1/4-1/2 C. Water or broth
1 1/2 t. Cumin
1 t. Oregano
Pinch of Cinnamon
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Crushed Red Pepper to taste (optional for extra heat)
Cooked White or Brown Rice
Garnishes: Chopped Cilantro, lime wedges, sour cream, grated cheese (all optional - I go with the first 2)
Drain beans and rinse well. In a saucepan coated with a little olive oil, saute the onion, peppers, and garlic over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until onions become transluscent. Reduce heat to low add in drained beans, 1/4 C. water (or broth) and spices. Using the back of a wooden spoon mash the beans a little to thicken the mixture. Let simmer uncovered 15 minutes - if it gets too dry add in a little more water or broth. Serve over rice, top with garnishes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Operation Baklava

The last few weeks have been busy busy. I've been getting back into the swing of things at school. No classes this semester (or ever again - thank goodness), but a lot of pre-dissertation hurdles to finish, and a lot of research and teaching assistant stuff.

Sadly, I haven't been doing much cooking or baking. But, last night Alfred and I (okay mostly Alfred) made a Persian themed dinner for a group of our wonderful friends (he made Shirazi salad and Tas Kabob - which I wrote about on here a few months ago). Dessert, as usual, was my domain, and it provided me with a much needed excuse to get back in the kitchen.

I wanted to make something that fit in with the Persian theme - the problem is I am not a huge fan of most Persian desserts, which include a lot of rice puddings and fried dough soaked in syrup. I love Persian raisin cookies, but that didn't seem like a nice enough dinner party dessert. So, I settled on baklava, which I have never made before - mostly because I was really intimidated by the recipe.

Persian baklava is a little different (and in my opinion better) than that from other countries. It is not just sweet, it is very flavorful - the nut mixture includes lots of spices, and the syrup includes rosewater. For those of you who have never had baklava it is essentially thin layers of dough (phyllo dough) filled with a mixture of finely chopped nuts. Once baked the dough is doused in a rich honey flavored syrup.

Because I was a little nervous about this one (and b/c I was kind of busy with other school stuff) I prepared as much as I could in advance. We were having dinner on Thursday. On Tuesday I prepared the syrup and I chopped the nuts and combined them with the spices. Then, the plan was to assemble the baklava and bake it on Wednesday so the syrup could soak in well overnight.
Everything was going great until I got to that last part - the part involving the dough. I bought frozen phyllo dough, and thawed it for two days in the fridge. I opened the box, cut open the dough - expecting to find thin sheets of perfect dough - instead I found a mass of shattered "stuff." My heart sank! The recipe says to lay a sheet of dough in the pan, brush it with melted butter, then repeat this over and over again - it was simply impossible with the mess of "what was once dough" on the counter in front of me. I decided to try to make the best of it, and it turned out ok - but I was too upset to try and take step by step photos. Here is the recipe - below it are links to two sites that go through the steps with pictures very well.

Persian Baklava:
11/2 C. Water
11/4 C. Sugar
1/4 C. Honey
Zest from 1 Lemon
2 T. Rose Water

Pastry and Filling:
1 Box thawed Phyllo Dough (find this in the frozen food section near the pie crust)
5 T. Melted Butter
11/2 C. Finely Chopped Nuts (Walnuts, Almonds and/or Pistachios)
2 t. Cinnamon
1t. Cardamom
1/2 t. Nutmeg
1/2 t. Cloves

Prepare syrup first - it must be cold when you pour it over the baked pastry.

To prepare the syrup combine all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, let simmer for 10-15 minutes until slightly thickened and golden. Strain syrup into a heat proof container to remove lemon zest (you can keep the zest and let it cool on some wax paper - you will have candied zest). Cool on counter until room temperature, then refrigerate.

To prepare the filling combine the nuts and spices.

When you are ready to assemble and bake the baklava, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. The pastry (supposedly) fits best in a 10x13 inch pan (folded in half the dough should fit perfectly - see the blog links I posted below for a visual of this).
First, use a pastry brush (or a soft paint brush) to lightly coat the bottom of the pan with melted better.
Second, fold a sheet of phyllo dough in half and put it in the bottom of the pan (again, it should fit just right). Light brush the dough with butter. Repeat with 3 more phyllo sheets.
Third, Sprinkle 1/3 of the nut mixture over the dough. Cover nuts with another folded sheet of dough, brush with butter. Repeat this twice more until all the nuts are used.
Finish the baklava with 3 more folded, buttered sheets on the top.

Prior to baking the pastry, use a sharp knife to cut it into small squares, triangles or diamonds.

Bake the pastry for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 300 degrees and bake an additional 30 minutes. Remove the pastry from the oven and immediately pour the cold syrup evenly over the hot pastry.
Cool completely (preferably overnight) then enjoy. Best served with a cup of hot tea or coffee.

The following sites have great step by step instructions and photos:
P.S. The same night I made the baklava a baked a really yummy chicken pot pie for dinner - I didn't get any pics of it, but I plan on making and blogging about again soon, so stay tuned for that!

I am also very pleased to be including this recipe as part of this month's A Worldly Epicurean’s Delight (A.W.E.D.), which is focusing on Persian cuisine. This month's event is being hosted by Vanessa of Sweet Artichoke, so be sure to head over to her blog!