Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pesto Pasta with Tomatoes

This is, hands-down, the perfect quick summer meal. Spencer's been asking for pesto pasta for several days, and was all smiles last night upon discovering it had made on our dinner menu. I made an impulse purchase at the store and picked up a pint of the most beautiful assortment of adorable organic heirloom tomatoes. Do other people make impulse buys like this??
I do not have a green thumb. This is the second year in a row I purchased a few basic vegetables and herbs for our garden, and have very little to show for it. Last year we watched peppers form and grow, and then get eaten by birds and critters. We're watching a repeat performance this year as tomatoes change from green to orange to red, and then discover a big hole eaten into the backside. Very, very discouraging. But, luckily, there is one exception.
Basil. Ah basil. It seems that each year the basil plant is something that can't help but thrive. And, it (almost) makes up for the lack of productivity of the other plants. Because nothing more delicious, and easy, than freshly-made pesto. I am told that it freezes excellently, but I can't seem to keep from eating it all up during the summertime.
A couple tips about making pesto that I have learned from mistakes. Make sure you have LOTS of basil. Pesto is about basil flavor. I have screwed up in the past by adding too many nuts. It should be mostly basil, a bunch of cheese, a sprinkling of nuts, garlic to taste, and oil to your desired consistency. And, to prevent it from oxidizing and discoloring in the fridge if you're not using it all right away, float a small quantity of olive oil over the top.

Pesto Pasta with Tomatoes

1/2 lb pasta
1 pint small tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 - 3/4 Cup, or more, pesto
  - fresh basil
  - grated parmesan cheese
  - pine nuts
  - fresh garlic
  - olive oil
  - salt & pepper

  1. Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil for pasta, and cook according to directions. Reserve 1/2 Cup pasta water.
  2. Fill food processor with washed & dried basil leaves. Add a generous amount of cheese, some pine nuts, a few fresh garlic cloves, salt & pepper and some olive oil. Pulse a few times, then add additional olive oil as needed for desired consistency. If not using right away, leave it a bit on the thick side. Scoop pesto into a dish, smooth out the surface, and pour some olive oil evenly over the top.
  3. Toss hot pasta with pesto to coat, thinning with reserved pasta water if desired. Gently mix in tomatoes. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Happy Summer Solstice! While the (ridiculously) warm weather has been upon us for a while now, summer is officially here! In the cooler months I like to make sure the kids have a hot breakfast before heading off to school, but that doesn't sound as appealing when the temps are over 80°F before 8:00 am. Like today. Seriously. Fortunately, the kids are in agreement with me that cool yogurt is the perfect way to start these steamy days, and home-made granola is the perfect mix in. And, if you haven't used up all your home-made jam on some pannukakku, definitely add some of that in too.
My hero Alton Brown shared his favorite recipe for granola, which quickly became our favorite recipe around here. Prepackaged granola is pricey, but organic rolled oats from the bulk bin are decidedly inexpensive. And, the part of me which needs to be in control (um, which admittedly is all of me) likes knowing (controlling) exactly what goes into the food which goes into our bodies.
I recently watched an episode of Diners, Drive Ins & Dives that featured granola pancakes, with the granola mixed into the batter! Looked delish. Anyone have a good recipe to convert this tasty home-made granola into a pancake??

Adapated from Alton Brown


3 cups rolled oats
2 cups sliced or slivered almonds
3/4 cup shredded sweet coconut
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat oven to 250° F.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oats, nuts, coconut, and brown sugar.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine maple syrup, oil, and salt. Combine both mixtures and pour onto 2 sheet pans, lined with silpat. Cook for 1 hour and 20 minutes, or longer, rotating pans and stirring every 20 minutes to achieve an even color.
  4. Remove from oven, allow to cool thoroughly and transfer to an airtight container for storage.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

First, an admission that I don't like zucchini. I'm friendly with most vegetables out there, but not the summer squashes. I recall the first time I had zucchini bread as a child. I wasn't told what it was beforehand, and found it to be delicious! I especially enjoyed the long strings of what I thought were pieces of shredded coconut scattered throughout. Upon finishing, I was told what was really in it, but honestly I didn't believe that to be the truth. I did not like zucchini, but I definitely enjoyed that dessert.
Now that our family has joined a CSA, we get local veggies delivered each week. And with the summer season upon us, that means the omnipresent zucchini have arrived. I politely decline my portion of the share for this vegetable week after week. But last time I decided to take a single (albeit giant) zucchini from among the plethora of cucurbits in our haul.
I thought I'd make zucchini bread, and quickly found what is by far & away the most highly rated recipe for zucchini bread on But it has three cups of sugar (ack!) and two cups of zucchini. My single zucchini would yield far more than that, and I did not want any leftover. I mentioned this situation to my sister who wisely suggested "you should totally make the chocolate zucchini cake from The Baker's Cafe Cookbook." Most folks have had zucchini bread at some point, but how about a chocolate zucchini cake? Here's the kicker - it has less sugar (two cups) and more zucchini (three cups.) I'm guessing because of the chocolate it doesn't need to be so sweet? I dunno, I'm just making things up here. But what I do know is that it is awesome. And so are the rest of the recipes in this cookbook. I routinely make The Baker's Cafe's Oatmeal Cake for dessert when bringing a meal for friends who just had a baby. That recipe alone (conveniently located on the opposing page to the Chocolate Zucchini Cake) is totally worth the price of buying this cookbook.
So, when you see your local farmers markets teeming with fresh zucchini this summer, remember this cake. And that it freezes well too.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake
As printed in The Baker's Cafe Cookbook

4 eggs
2 Cups sugar
1 1/4 Cups (canola) oil
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 1/2 Cups flour
1/3 Cup unsweetened cocoa (good quality, such as Droste)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 Cups grated fresh zucchini (let drain for an hour, I have increased this quantity up to four cups, or whatever one shredded zucchini yields.)
1 Cup of chopped walnuts (or more if you like nuts)

Use mixer to combine eggs, sugar and oil. Blend in vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and blend. Fold in zucchini. Do not over mix. Stir in nuts.

Pour batter into a greased and floured bundt pan. Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes, or until cake tester comes out clean (this was 60 minutes for me.)

Cool in pan for 20 minutes, then invert on a plate.

Frost cooled cake with Cream Cheese Frosting: (This makes a lot, I reduce the amounts by 1/4)

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 Cup + 2 Tablespoons confectioner's sugar, sifted

Use mixer to blend cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add vanilla and sugar and beat until very smooth. Drizzle over cooled cake. Optional: garnish with additional chopped walnuts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Key Lime Pie

Did everyone else out there know that key lime pie contains shockingly few ingredients? And, that a 6 year-old can do practically all of the work for you? And, you can teach him a cool chemistry lesson along the way? What dessert could be more perfect?

I attempted this dessert for the first time when a neighbor dropped off half a bag of key limes as they were headed out of town for an extended trip. (Are key limes used for anything besides making pie?) She kindly lent us her lime squeezer as well, so we were all set. I turned to the web to research the 'best key lime pie recipe' and discovered something shocking - they are all almost identical. Which, when you consider the chemistry involved, isn't that shocking. Though, I confess the first all-nighter I ever pulled in college was trying to make sense of results from a chemistry lab experiment, so admittedly it's not my strong suit.
Back to how simple this is. First, give your 6 year-old a bag of key limes and have him zest the skins (with repeated instructions to 'stop when you see white.') He'll skin a knuckle and ask for a band aid. After he skins a second knuckle you'll probably have enough zest and can let him stop.

Then, after halving the limes, let him use the squeezer to get a measured amount of juice. Yes, there will be a lot on the table and down his arms. Luckily, one bag of key limes contains more than twice as many are needed.
Let him slowly stir as the filling ingredients are combined, and explain how the acid from the limes is reacting with the sugars in the condensed milk, and he'll be able to feel it thickening up. Tell him about your chemistry all-nighter in college. At age 6, the thought of staying up all night sounds unbelievably cool, and not the least bit painful.

While it sets up, give him a bag of graham crackers and a meat tenderizer. So far, I've still always had to transfer it back to the food processor to get fine enough crumbs for the crust, but the kid definitely gives it a good head start.
I don't bother with a topping, though either meringue (you'll have egg whites left over) or fresh whipped cream are encouraged.  And, if you want to get fancy, you can sugar some thin slices of key lime for garnish.

Key Lime Pie
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen, and numerous other sources

Several teaspoons of key lime zest
1/2 Cup freshly squeezed juice from key limes
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 or 4 egg yolks (we get farm eggs, so sizes are inconsistent, and so were the recipes found on the web anyhow)

1 Cup graham cracker crumbs
4 Tablespoons melted butter, cooled a bit
3 Tablespoons sugar

  1. Zest the key limes, then halve and squeeze enough to yield 1/2 Cup of juice.
  2. Whisk the zest with egg yolks for a couple of minutes until light. Add the sweetened condensed milk, and then the key lime juice. Mix until combined, you'll feel it thickening immediately, then set aside for 30 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, pound graham crackers, or skip this and put them in the food processor. Any box of graham crackers will have a recipe on the back to tell you how many of their whole crackers should be used to make a graham cracker crust. Feel free to follow their guidelines instead of these proportions. Some recipes call for maple syrup, but I like the crunch of sugar for this. Add the sugar, drizzle in the melted butter and pulse to combine.
  4. Press the crumbs onto the bottoms and up the sides of a 9" pie plate, and put the empty crust in a 325 oven for ~15 minutes, which should be exactly how much time you have left to wait on the filling.
  5. Remove crust from the oven (let cool a bit if you have time remaining) then pour in filling and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Let cool on a wire rack and then refrigerate for several hours, or overnight. It's fine to keep it covered or uncovered.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Couscous Salad

In Houston, it's already been in excess of 90°F on a daily basis for a while now. Summer is here. Which means time for lots of visits with friends and relaxing by the pool. And eating. As someone who has trouble planning a weekly meals, or even a daily menu, I recognize that this approach of 'winging it' definitely doesn't cut it for entertaining larger numbers of people. Sure, the kids and I do just fine for a weeknight dinner pulled together from random assortment of staples from the fridge and pantry. So, summertime means I am forced to do some meal planning.
This couscous salad is one of my favorites. It's great as a light lunch for a small group, either by itself or on top of some salad greens. It a great salad to add to a buffet of summer salads. And, if bbq meats are on the menu, as is often the case during summertime, feel free to omit the chicken from this one. It's served cold, but still tastes fine at room temp. We're ready for the heat!

Summer Couscous Salad
Adapted from Sandra Lee, via Stephanie Kreml

1 1/4 Cup whole wheat couscous (bulk section of grocery store)
2 1/2 Cups chicken broth and/or water
1 12 oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drain and reserve 1/4 Cup of liquid
1 1/2 Cup red cherry tomatoes
1 orange bell pepper
3 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 large English cucumber, diced
2 cooked chicken breasts, diced (leftover rotisserie works great)
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 Cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put broth and/or water on stove to boil. While waiting, begin to cut up vegetables and chicken and place in a large bowl. Add couscous to boiling liquid, remove from heat and cover for five minutes. Finish preparing remaining veggies. After 5 minutes, uncover couscous and fluff with a fork. Transfer the couscous to the large bowl with the veggies and chicken and toss gently.

Create dressing by whicking together reserved liquid from marinated artichoke, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour over the couscous mixture and toss gently to distribute dressing.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pannukakku (Finnish oven-baked pancake)

Though not even halfway through, 2010 can already be defined by a few significant events in my life. Most impactful is the fact that Jim accepted a job out of state, but that will happily soon transition to a job back here and we are anxiously awaiting his move home. Towards the end of last year our family began enjoying a tradition of eating foods from different countries Jim visited for work, but 2010 is the year we discovered pannukakku from our Finnish friends right here in Houston.
The inspiration for making this the first time (yes, we've had it twice now, and I have no good excuse for not blogging about it earlier) was strawberry season. After spending the morning together with my friend Rebecca picking strawberries with our kids, we returned here to make jam. Luckily, Charlotte (mostly) waited until after we paid to dive in to what we picked.
Part way through the jamming processes, Rebecca thought out loud "Do you know what is a great way to eat fresh jam? Spoon some on to pannukakku!" Since my kids love all breakfast carbs, and pannukakku was described as an 'oven-baked pancake' there was no way this wouldn't be a hit. She called her husband for a reminder of the recipe, then a little math ensued (did we have enough deciliters of milk, or did we need to buy more?) and finally we were rewarded with the golden goodness.
A couple pics of the finished product from strawberry and blackberry jam sessions - yum!!
Yes, the kids help picking and mashing. Ironically, I had to go out to ebay to buy a vintage Foley food mill, exactly the same one my mom had growing up that I remember her using to make applesauce. I'm sure the one I purchased is older than I am - if you're curious about that number, just ask Charlotte how old she is, and she'll be sure to add how old her mommy is too.
OK, so fast-forwarding to this past weekend. Rebecca returned with her daughter, and again we took the kids outside of the Houston city limits to pick blackberries. And we made more jam. Lots more jam. About twice as much as we had made a couple months earlier. Mmmm - blackberry jam! We had been originally planning to eat the fresh blackberries with sweet cream, but instead decided to make more pannukakku that could be covered with blackberry jam AND sweet cream. A-ma-zing!

Last time we also ate the pannukakku with savory topping of lox and dill, but warm pannukakku with warm, not-quite-fully-set jam is one of Spencer's all time favorites.

Adapted by Rebecca Rautio, from the classic Finnish cookbook Kotiruoka (Home Cooking) via her Finnish mother-in-law.

3 eggs
3 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
toppings of choice (jam, cheese, smoked fish)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a jelly-roll pan (or similar pan with a thick rim) with overhanging parchment paper, if you have, and grease the parchment paper. Otherwise grease the pan liberally.

Beat the eggs for several minutes, until thick and light. Mix together the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl, and then mix into the pannukakku. Let the batter rest 10 minutes, then pour into the prepared sheet pan. Bake 30 minutes, until fluffy and lightly golden in some spots. Cut into squares while still warm, and serve.