I am not a baker.

I say that to my friends all the time, and they shoot back with particular instances: “what about the peanut butter cookies that one time?” or “how about the blood orange polenta cake you made for the dinner party?” And it’s true – there have been isolated occasions when I’ve produced relatively competent desserts for potlucks and for company. But my attempts at baking most often result in a missing cup of flour, an attempt to spread brownie batter between three tiny pans, or banging my head against my kitchenaid when I realize I’m an egg short and the sugar syrup is already burning on the stove. I don’t read recipes all the way through. I am not careful or meticulous. I lose count halfway through stirring the batter 50 times and adding three quarter cups of water. I don’t level off my measuring cups of dry ingredients and I don’t own a sifter.

I am not a baker.

But the produce store had big bags of key limes on Thursday, which I’d never bought before, but had always meant to, and since I wasn’t about to make a key lime pie . . . I kept drifting back to all of the yogurt cake recipes I’d been reading, recipes that claimed that yogurt cake was the kind of cake that you could just waltz into the kitchen and “throw together” with barely any measuring and barely any thought (never mind that this kitchen was supposedly stocked with cake-baking ingredients year-round and inhabited by French people). Even children bake yogurt cake in France, and it turns out just perfectly! (Of course, these are the same children who can speak French by age 6, so I was understandably skeptical.)

key limes

I'm a sucker for all things tiny . . .

So on Friday morning, before I had breakfast, before I had coffee, I, too, made my attempt to become the kind of person who just waltzes into the kitchen and “throws together” a cake.  And you know what?  One mixing bowl later, with no leveling off, no sifter, old baking powder, and a leaky springform pan . . . it worked.  Not only am I the kind of person who can “throw together” a cake, I’m now also the kind of person with a “go-to cake,” the kind that’s endlessly adaptable to what you have on hand, the kind that makes as little mess as baking a cake can make, the kind that couldn’t be dry if you tried, the kind that’s casual enough for brunch but fancy enough for a dinner party, and sweet enough for dessert but fruity enough for breakfast.

I’m a cook with a cake.

Key Lime Yogurt Cake

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
zest of 5-6 key limes
1/4 cup key lime juice (about 8 key limes)
2 eggs
1 2/3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan with oil or butter.  If it’s not springform, or you’re particularly concerned about it sticking, you can add a coating of flour or sugar over the oil or butter, making sure to tap off any extra.

Add the yogurt, sugar, oil, lime zest, and lime juice to a large bowl.  Whisk to mix.  Add the eggs one at a time, whisking between each one.  Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Stir.

Pour into the cake pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is brown and a tester comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes, then gently remove from the pan to prevent sticking.  Serve warm or at room temperature. 

A few notes: 

  • The original recipe calls for whole milk yogurt; I imagine it would be fantastic with that, but since I had fat free in my fridge, that’s what I used.  The cake didn’t seem to suffer.
  • The basic recipe is an awesome platform for whatever ingredients you want to use – any citrus would be exactly the same as above, but you could combine a citrus recipe with a layer of fresh or frozen (not defrosted) fruit in between layers of batter, make it an almond cake with ground nuts and almond extract, or really take the flavors in any direction you’d like.
  • Lots of recipes suggest some kind of sauce or syrup for the cake.  I needed something portable, so I didn’t do anything this time, and I can say that it’s perfectly wonderful plain.  A berry sauce wouldn’t be a bad thing, though, if you wanted to fancy it up.  
yogurt cake

yogurt cake - learn it, live it, love it.

My apartment windows look out over Lake Michigan, which is an amazing thing to wake up to every morning (well, that and the traffic on Lake Shore Drive that I get to watch while I drink coffee and sit in my pyjamas . . .). The view gets even better by December, once the leaves are all off the trees in the park and the view of the lake is completely clear through the branches. But, come February, with months of packed snow and ice turning the ground around the empty playground whitish grey against a sky that seems to be dark more often than not, the ice field that used to be the lake can get to be a bit depressing . . . especially when the only things on the horizon to break up the ice and snow are bare trees, a bowl full of brown food just doesn’t make sitting at the dining room table, listening to the wind howl, any easier.

So the search for something, anything, really brightly colored to eat is really the only reason that I can come up with to explain why I’ve spent the last 2 weeks eating nearly four pounds of carrots.   If you ask anyone who’s had a few dozen meals with me what foods I don’t like, carrots would be right up there on the list (somewhere in between lamb chops and any dish that mixes fruit and meat . . . ).  I’ll tolerate them raw (if there’s something to dip them in) and avoid them when cooked (I’ll always take the serving with just potatoes, please), but they were just calling to me this month . . .    

it's not "canning" per se . . . just "putting things in mason jars"

I guess the one big exception is that I’ve always loved the little carrot coins that come in the cans of pickled jalapenos – I used to wish I could buy the cans just to eat the carrot pieces out of them . . . and possibly cook with one or two of the pepper slices if I had a good idea for it.  So I was extremely excited when I started seeing recipes to make my own pickled carrots: they don’t turn out soft like the ones in the cans, but crunchy like the ones you get with the tortilla chips at a real Mexican restaurant.  I’ve used these as a snack during the Superbowl, instead of chips with a sandwich, as part of a salad course when I have guests – they seem to be a hit with people who don’t like carrots, people who don’t like pickles (I know – weird.), and everyone in between.

The rest of my carrots went into a carrot salad.  Now, the only carrot salad I’d ever seen was at summer camp and came with raisins and, I think, mayo, breaking so many of my cardinal rules of food that I don’t even know where to start.  But I was looking for a quick and easy cold salad I could bring to a potluck, and David Lebovitz’s lemon-dressed raw carrot salad sounded pretty awesome.  All in all, it was great on its own, but turned out to be even better as part of a sandwich. 

best sandwich ever? hard to say, as it doesn't have any cheese.

As part of some strange plan I have to eat more, better protein, I found myself with some baked tofu for sandwiches last week, and ended up with some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had: baked tofu, carrot salad, arugula, and a bit of mayo on sourdough (yes, it needs the mayo - otherwise it would be a vegan sandwich and that is completely unacceptable.)  The tofu was savory and felt substantial, the dressing on the carrots was tangy and helped to make sure the sandwich wasn’t dry, and the carrots and arugula added a crunch . . . after stocking my fridge with pickled carrots, having this salad to put on my sandwiches may have changed my mind about carrots after all . . .

 

Easy Pickled Carrots

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into sticks 
1 1/4 cups water
1 cup vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but mixing with white vinegar will make it less sweet)
1/4 cup sugar
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 1/2 tablespoons spices (see note)
1 1/2 tablespoons salt

Put the carrots in a heat-proof (non-reactive metal!) bowl.  Bring all the remaining ingredients to a boil in a medium pot, then reduce heat and simmer.  After about 2 minutes, pour over the carrots and cool, uncovered.  Chill, covered, at least a day before eating. 

carrots taking a vinegar bath

 While they’ll be ready to eat after that day, they’ll only get better with time; I think mine are best after about a week.  When stored in their brine an airtight container, they should last at least a month.  If they taste too sharp for your taste, rinse briefly before eating (I actually think they’re much better this way, but it’s a matter of how much you like vinegar).

Note:  Most of the recipes I’ve seen call for fennel seeds or dill seeds here, both of which I’m sure would be great, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who regularly stocks them in their kitchens.  A few springs of fresh dill would work well, but I used herbes de provence, since that was what I had – and it turned out just fine.

Carrot Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
adapted from David Lebovitz
Serves . . . a lot.

1 pound carrots
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
juice of 2 lemons
4 tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper

Peel the carrots.  Either grate with a hand grater or food processor, or peel into long strips with a vegetable peeler (but not too long or it will be . . difficult to eat!).  Coarsely chop the parsley and add it to the carrots. 

Mix the remaining ingredients to make a dressing.  Pour over carrots and parsley. 

Technically, the carrots and dressing should be mixed right before you want to serve the salad.  However, the leftovers I had from my potluck stayed crunchy for a week or so in the dressing.

acceptable carrot salad - no raisins, no mayo, just lemon and parsley. seriously - raisins and mayo?

 

palak paneer

Even though pretty much the only Indian dish I would eat throughout college was palak paneer (spinach and cheese), I had never seen paneer on its own until the morning that I set out to make extra room in the tiny communal freezer in my dorm at Cambridge. The entire freezer was jammed with bricks of what looked like tofu with Arabic writing on it.  My quickly deteriorating Arabic skills led me to believe that the packages contained “pan-er,” which I naturally assumed was the Arabic word for tofu (nowhere in this line of thought did I stop to consider the frequency with which tofu appears in the food of Arabic-speaking countries . . . but to be fair, it was early, and I was cleaning out a freezer). 

When I discovered a few weeks later that the Indian shops on the other side of Cambridge sold paneer by the pound, I finally sorted out that there was not, in fact, a freezer full of soy back at Wolfson (though I could never understand why someone on my corridor felt the need to hoard huge blocks of it) . . . in fact, I realized that, because of the popularity of Indian takeaway in England, the ingredients were widely available in conventional grocery stores, and I started buying paneer in little boxes at Tesco. Since I knew next to nothing about Indian cooking, I followed the recipes on the back of the box, which didn’t exactly produce authentic Indian food, but definitely tasted like authentic takeaway from the curry house down the road. 

paneer, cut up and pan fried

I cut the palak paneer recipe off the back of the box towards the end of my last month in England, but when I got back to the U.S., I found out that the exact same box of paneer that I could get for a few dollars at the British grocery store sold for $9 at Whole Foods. While it’s possible (and, some say, easy) to make your own paneer, I’m not the kind of cook who sets aside an afternoon for making cheese/butter/yogurt/tofu/seitan/any ingredient I can buy at the store which is just as good.  So when I go to the Indian grocery store, I always get excited to be able to pick up some paneer and pull out the old recipe from the Tesco box. 

[I know what you're thinking. Clearly, this is a self-imposed paneer shortage, since I informed you earlier in the post that paneer freezes well. Touche. Though once you try this recipe, you'll see that it's more of a "once-in-a-while" food, even though it doesn't have the same amounts of butter and cream that a restaurant version would have.]

Now, the produce store near me just started carrying fresh beans this past year, and it’s been a bit of a revelation.  They sell peas and black beans and black eyed peas and chickpeas that look just like what you get in a can but are uncooked; I didn’t think it could make much of a difference, but after 15 minutes in boiling water, they’re some of the most amazing beans I’ve ever tasted.  So when I saw even fresher chickpeas at the Indian market, I was really excited - they were still in their little green pods!

green chickpeas

Even though I had no idea what exactly to do with them, I had to get them . . . and they made an amazing addition to the palak paneer – they were sweet, and tasted a little bit like peas on top of the chickpea flavor I was expecting.  What surprised me was that the normal wisdom of vegetable selection was completely off in this instance: should you ever find yourself selecting fresh chickpea pods, instead of picking the ones that look freshest and greenest, go with the ones that look a little older and yellow to get the largest, most mature chickpeas.  The best looking pods only contained tiny little seeds!

Traditionally, palak paneer doesn’t have any chickpeas in it, but I like the extra protein and body they provide.  Feel free to leave them out – it won’t hurt the recipe – or toss in half a can if you can’t find any fresh ones.  Also, since paneer is a very firm, mild cheese that takes on the flavors of the ingredients around it, tofu is an acceptable substitute if you can’t find or don’t want to use the cheese.  Cubes of potato would also work.

if only I could mass produce french fries, I could open up my own British takeaway shop . . .

Palak Paneer
loosely adapted from Clawson Paneer
serves 3-4

8 oz. paneer, cut into small cubes
butter for frying
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. black mustard seed (omit if unavailable)
1 clove garlic
1 inch cube of fresh ginger, chopped
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 fresh tomato, chopped
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/2 c. chickpeas (drained, if canned)
about 6 cups (packed) baby spinach

Heat the butter in a large frying pan. Fry the paneer until golden brown – about 2 minutes on one side, and then 2 minutes flipped. Put the paneer aside.

Add the onions to the same pan. Cook until soft and beginning to brown, about five minutes. Add the mustard seeds and listen until they begin to pop, adding more heat if necessary. Add garlic, ginger, and cayenne. Cook for one minute. Add tomato, turmeric, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir and cook another minute or until combined.

Add the spinach and chickpeas. Cover and cook on low until the spinach is completely wilted and the mixture is beginning to get dry – about ten minutes. Add the paneer. Stir, and cook five minutes more over low heat.

Garnish with red onion if desired. Serve with rice or naan.

hominy

looks a little like popcorn, but tastes like a corn tortilla

I’ve been a big fan of hominy ever since I came across a recipe for southwest stew in one of the Moosewood cookbooks.  Essentially puffed up corn kernels, they taste a lot like corn tortillas – which makes sense, since they’re ground down into grits and then ground down again to make masa.  It’s one of the rare “raw ingredients” that I find myself wanting to eat out of the can while I’m cooking (ok, maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I did get dangerously close to not leaving over enough kidney beans to make the chili tonight . . .) – soft and chewy, with just enough flavor that you can taste that you’ve put it in, but also the kind of thing that absorbs whatever you’re cooking it in.  But for years I would only buy it when I was going to make that one recipe which, to be fair, was never really that often since it involved roasting and peeling what seemed like several pounds of peppers . . . and now, with an electric stove, I don’t see myself attempting to roast peppers over an open flame any time soon.

  

But then, out of nowhere, hominy seems to have caught on like wild fire: in November, The Kitchn did a how-to post, December was vegetarian posole on 101 Cookbooks, and then, in January, chicken posole on Serious Eats.  So when February’s Food and Wine showed up with a cover recipe for vegetarian chili that included a cup of hominy, it seemed like the cans were practically calling out to me when I passed them in the store (and I back to them – “canned hominy is -not- an appropriate snack food!”  although, eh – you’d be surprised.) . . .

  

I was a little skeptical of pulling out a blender to make chili – it seemed a little too fussy for a quick dinner – but after licking my finger when measuring out the adobo sauce from the can of chipotles, it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t entirely about texture; the chipotle really needs to be broken up to flavor the entire dish instead of coming up in one bite and making for a very unpleasant mouthful.  I’m still not convinced that the tomatoes need to be pureed, though it’s no big deal once the blender’s out (I just used a hand blender), and it’s nice to have some sauce with all the veggies.  The chili comes out sweet, spicy, and smokey – the perfect combination of a bowl of hominy, beans, and sour cream balanced by enough vegetables and brown rice to convince yourself that you’re eating something healthy . . .
Chili with Hominy and Winter Vegetables

Chili with Hominy and Winter Vegetables
adapted from Food and Wine
Makes 4-6 servings. 
3 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large pepper (red, yellow, or orange), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 lb. carrots, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 lb. parsnips, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tbsp. chile powder
1 tbsp. ground cumin
One 14 oz. can tomatoes (whole or diced are both fine)
1 chipotle from a can of chipotle in adobo, plus 1 tbsp. adobo sauce from can
1 1/2 c. water
1 c. canned hominy, drained
1 c. kidney beans, drained  


In a medium pot or dutch oven, heat the oil.  Add the onion and garlic and cook over high heat until softened, about 3 minutes.  Add the vegetables and cook, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until browned.  Stir in chile powder, cumin, and a pinch of salt.  Cook for 1 minute more.  

veggies and spices

 In a blender (or in a bowl with an immersion blender) puree the tomatoes, water, chipotle, and adobo.  When smooth, add the mixture to the vegetables in the pot.  Add in the beans and the hominy and bring the chili to a boil.  Cover and simmer over medium heat until the vegetables are soft, about 20-30 minutes, depending on how true you stayed to the 1/2 inch slices.  Add more salt to taste.

  

Serve over brown rice (white is fine, but the nuttiness of the brown goes really well with the sweetness of the parsnips and the smokey spice of the chipotle).

  

Top with any or none of: sour cream or greek yogurt, shredded cheese, chopped red onion, cilantro. 

  

The chili will last in the refrigerator for about a week and warms up well.  One word of caution, though, from the bio center cafe employees’ least favorite patron of the week – hominy explodes in the microwave.  Who knew?  

 

 

I’m not sure how to start a blog.  Sure, I figured out how to set up the technical details, design a header, even create an RSS feed sign-up button, but after teaching a class on writing introductions today, I realized that I just don’t have a good one.  I looked at some of my favorite blogs for inspiration, but I think they got off easy; starting a food blog in 1999, in 2005, even in 2007, was a different enterprise.  There weren’t really expectations of the “go big or go home” sort: bloggers didn’t get deals for cookbooks, or movies, or autobiographies.  Not that I think that’s what this is about, but still . . . If cooking blogs are “done,” then how done is “hello?  anyone there?  this is my first post on my cooking blog!”

Which I guess leaves just me and my sparkling wit.  Oh boy.

I still think back to five or six years ago, when I thought that I was probably one of only a few dozen people reading David Lebovitz’s blog or when I single-handedly “discovered” 101 Cookbooks (perhaps adding to my delusion was the fact that I’d first seen a link to the blog in a Gmail news feed – clearly it was unknown) . . . I used to think the Food Network was the height of culinary sophistication, and that I could learn all the secrets I’d ever want to know about picking out the best avocados from furtive viewings of Rachael Ray (actually, she’s probably got your back for all your avocado-sorting needs), but it’s really been a wide variety of food blogs that have taught me about so many new ingredients and ideas, and convinced me that I want to keep cooking new things every week, even if it’s frequently just me eating.  I’m not sure how much cooking expertise I possibly have to add to the world, but at the very least, I hope to be able to jump in and share my experiences – and maybe pass along some of what I’ve discovered.

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