Pea Pesto Deliciousness

There’s magic in the word “pesto”. If something is tossed in pesto, marinated in pesto, suddenly, people’s eyes light up. It’s a staggering culinary alchemy. Part of it is the intense flavor that’s often associated traditional pesto – a basil and pine nut based slurry. The other part is the “magic” of pesto is the fact that people often get intimidated by the ingredients and the process. However, it really couldn’t be simpler.

And, now, as summer wans, I’m scarfing up every part of the glorious season of produce that I possibly can – tomatoes, plums, basil, peaches. Find me some decent mozzarella, and I’m on hog heaven. Recently, though, I stumbled across a recipe for pea pesto from one of my favorite online haunts for pea pesto. Now, Saveur magazine just did a recent issue on pesto, which started me thinking about what you really could do with a food processor, some nuts, garlic and other goodies. You can imagine my joy at the idea of pea pesto.

Admittedly, this pesto will not have have a texture that folks thrill over, but I thought it was fine, especially if you reserve a bit of the pasta water to toss in at the end. I also found that when I made it in my mom’s heavy-duty grown-up food processor, the consistency was much nicer than in my baby processor. That said, this is a pesto that is perfect company dinner. You’ll always have the ingredients on hand, and it’s really low fuss. It makes a perfect spread on crostini, and I’ve even eaten it as breakfast.

The original recipe is nearly flawless, but I found that the addition of some acid was just what the doctor ordered to elevate this and add some pop. The garlic quotient has also been bumped a bit. Oh! I’ve wanted to try this with almonds in place of the pine nuts, but the thought of blanching the almonds in order to take the skins off has been more than I can comprehend, especially with the start of the semester.

One last note: if you follow the link below, it will take you to Deb’s original recipe, which talks about tossing with linguini and some of the reserved peas. This is delicious; however, tossed with the whole wheat gnocchi and some fresh tomatoes made the perfect summer dinner. (I may have eaten both the dinner portion and the leftover container in the same sitting…maybe.)

And who know what I’ll throw in a food processor now? Artichoke hearts? Sun-dried tomatoes? Other ideas?

Pea Pesto

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

10 oz. package frozen peas, thawed

3 cloves of garlic

3 T. pine nuts (toasted are yummy, but I always burn mine, so I use them plain)

1/2 c. shredded parmesan cheese

1 1/2 T. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 – 1/3 c. olive oil

Combine the peas, garlic, pine nuts, cheese in a food processor and whir into a consistent paste, scraping down the sides as needed. Add lemon juice and whir again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. When you’re happy with it, blend in the olive oil a little at a time until the pesto smoothes out. Toss with pasta or gnocchi, spread on a cracker, eat with a spoon or however your heart tells you.


Too Good to Pass Up

Today marks the beginning of one of my favorite times in my city – Restaurant Week. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, allow me to explain the following rules:

  1. Posh, elitist, and just plain delicious restaurants around the city throw open their shutters to let the groundlings in for two weeks.
  2. These restaurants offer a prix fixe menu of three or more courses, from which you select what you want.
  3. And it’s only $35. Even the lowly graduate student can afford that.
Too much fun, right?
As a rule, the Wednesday Night Dinner crew tries to go out during Restaurant Week to give us weary teachers, education workers and part-time foodies a break from our kitchens. Of course, we’ve only been able to make this work once. You see, Restaurant Week has a habit of falling during tough times for teachers or during seasons of difficult weather. We did make it to one restaurant (a sadly forgettable experience – food not people – but I’ll save a real review for another time), and now we’re all anxious to try somewhere new. I’ll fill you in on where we ended up and how it went later. Promise.
In the meantime, I was delighted to find that the lovely coordinators, in collaboration with chefs at the various restaurants, have put together a cookbook in honor of Restaurant Week. I’m currently enjoying the digital format, but look forward to when I can download it and find it a home among the cookbooks’ over-crowded tenement bookcase.
Here’s a smattering of what I’ve found so far:
  • Lolita’s Chile Pumpkin Soup – I am in love with this restaurant. A friend and I had a Thanksgiving dinner there once (one of the few places not serving a traditional meal, which was a welcome change), and have been aching to go back among their North African-Southern Italian cuisine. (Odd, I know, but trust me on this!) While the ingredient list on this recipe is…daunting, the seeming ease of its execution makes me anxious to try it out.
  • Mushroom Tourte from Caribou Cafe – I’ve tried any number of mushroom tortes, and have a few recipes that I love, but this looks particularly yummy, veggie friendly and, again, easy.
  • Apple or Pear Upside Down Gingerbread from Davio’s – This recipe sounds like crazy talk, but I occasionally enjoy crazy talk recipes. One I’ll hang onto for now.
Happy eating, all!

Simple Brioche

There are few things to do when trapped indoors due to a natural disaster. Board games, movie marathons, old episodes of SeaQuest. Usually these moments of incapacitation are best with friends, but in the latest bout of inclement weather, I found myself alone. Now, my preferred method of passing time is to tackle an insanely complicated recipe or seriously time-intensive baking (NOTE: This is not my cheesecake recipe; you’ll know when you see that one…). I did some digging through the Best Recipes of some friends of mine, and toyed with the idea of bagels.

Imagine it! Having a homemade bagel while the world ended around you? Doesn’t it sound lovely?

The problem: when dealing with the experts, you end up sometimes needing some special equipment. My rule has become that if a recipe requires more than two weird or supercilious ingredients, I pass. My kitchen is only 70 square feet; I have to make some editing decisions.

So you can imagine my disappointment when the bagel recipe not only has a random ingredient percentage that would put it on honor roll in most schools, but it’s complication factor is also enormous.

I tried digging for other bagel recipes, but could find nothing that seemed reasonable, which is how I stumbled on the recipe for brioche. I was visiting James Beard, seeing if he had an easier recipe for bagels (none, actually), and came across the seemingly stupidly easy recipe for brioche.

No sponge. No kneading to speak of.

He made a mistake. Surely.

No, no he didn’t. Granted, I did modify some of the mixing method (my changes are noted below), but this turned out some great bread – particularly in the dinner roll segment of the day’s work.

When I originally divided the dough for the loaf pan, it seemed rather small:

You would think I had learned my lesson about reading recipes, but I hadn’t. After augmenting the loaf pan, I was left with an admittedly paltry amount for the dinner rolls, turning them truly into an experiment.

What I liked about them as dinner rolls is that they had a marvelous croissant-like consistency that the loaf lacked. I’m not sure if it was the way the dough was shaped, or if it was simply the use of the muffin pan, but I think in the future, I’ll just use this recipe for dinner rolls and leave the loaf alone. (Though it does make marvelously delicious leftovers.)

Simple Brioche

adapted from James Beard, American Cookery

1 ½ packages active, dry yeast

½ c. warm water or milk, heated to 110 degrees)

2 T. sugar

1 c. butter, melted

1 ½ t. salt

4 to 5 c. all-purpose flour

4 eggs

1 egg yolk mixed with 2 T. milk or cream

Proof the yeast in the warm liquid and sugar, between 5 and 10 minutes depending on the age of the yeast. Melt the butter and add the salt, letting it cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer, combine the yeast mixture, eggs, melted butter and salt. Using a wooden spoon (if mixing by hand) or the dough hook (if using a stand mixer), add the flour in two batches, two cups at a time. Beat the dough until it is smooth, glossy and without stickiness (this will not take as long as you think!) Add more flour as needed. Transfer to a buttered bowl and cover, letting it rise until doubled in size, about 1 – 1 ½ hours. Punch down the dough and knead very slightly.

For Loaf Pans: Divide the dough in half and separate into two 8 ½ x 4 ½ in. loaf pans. let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Brush with the egg yolk and cream wash. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

For Dinner Rolls: Divide the dough into 24 pieces. Knead briefly with your fingertips and fold the dough around to make a seam on the back with a smooth, rounded top. Place the dough seam-side down in a well-buttered muffin pan. Let rise until doubled in size. Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Oatmeal Butterscotch Bars

Admittedly, there aren’t tons of photos with this recipe. Oatmeal Scotchies (as my mom called them – turns out it wasn’t a name she made up!) were a family favorite growing up. I loved how the butterscotch chips almost turned into caramel around the edges of this wonderfully nubbly cookies. My plan had been to simply duplicate her recipe in a bar form. I find drop cookies to be laborious, and I would already be doing enough cooking for this week’s Wednesday Night Dinner.

I will say this this experience was a lesson in reading the recipe first! I am usually quite good at doing that, but I had failed to check the pantry before I got started.

Flour in the bowl, check!

Hiccough One: I, in my infinite wisdom, had thrown out my baking soda when I moved recently. It was at least two years old, and while it still worked, I thought it was just time to spend another dollar and buy a new box. Have I purchased this box yet? No. So, a-substituting-we-will-go! Turns out that you can use three times as much baking powder as a stand-in for baking soda. Originally, I was just going to do a 1-1 substitution, and I’m quite glad I checked before I did so.

Moving on with the rest of the dry ingredients, we’re fine. Butter is softened and tossed in the bowl with the sugars, beat until it’s fluffy. Eggs are next, one at a time. Thank God I had them because, do you think I had applesauce or other odd baking substitute on hand? Please.

Hiccough Two: No vanilla to be found. I swore up and down that I had vanilla, and for the life of me I can’t remember what I used it on. The recipe called for 1 teaspoon of orange zest if you didn’t have the vanilla, but do you think I had that on hand? Please. Sadly, there isn’t much to be done about no vanilla.

Continuing along this adventure, slightly demoralized, but not to be defeated, I added the flour mixture a bit at a time, scraping the bowl like a champ. Pour in the butterscotch chips. Next the quick cooking oats.

Hiccough Three: Yes, I had oatmeal. However, the recipe called for 3 cups. I had just over 1 1/2 cups. I was not about to back out now. Who knows what this thing will turn into, but I’m not backing out now for missing half my oats.

Into a 9×13. Into the oven. Time to wait.

And I’ll be darned if they aren’t pretty good. Good enough to serve for dessert tonight at Wednesday Night Dinner (though that crowd is pretty easy to please). Admittedly, you miss the vanilla, more than I thought I would. I pretty convinced that the missing oats are what made these bars a success. Normally, Oatmeal Scotchies are crisp, crumbly cookies; however, with half the oats gone, they are able to hold up pretty well as bars. I will say they are dense little suckers and they won’t win any beauty pageants, but tasty!

A quick note, because I always forget this: if you’re using a dark or glass pan, turn your oven down! The bottoms of these bars are a bit…carmelized. However, if you drop the oven temperature, it should turn out ok.

Editorial Privilege

Expensive chefs and restaurants often try to dress up their menus, a pet peeve of mine, as someone who prides herself on being a wordsmith. The best places I’ve eaten often have little dressing in their verbiage because their food stands on its own. My favorite spots like Vetri, Garces Trading Co., Noble and Amis often use such spare language that I’m often left wondering what they left off, particularly when the food arrives. A simple “Gnocchi with Ox Tail Ragu” is written in clear type on impressive paper with little else to recommend it. However, when it arrives, there is so much more to this marvelous-melt-in-your-mouth-can-I-eat-this-every-day-until-I-die ragu than just ox tail.

Oh, the joy of spare language.

Which is where I always question lengthy menu descriptions or otherwise unnecessary inclusions in a menu. And this comes with its own fads. First, there were chutneys. Then any number of pureed root vegetables under heavy meats. And, now, the latest victim to fall to the Poor Editor is the coulis.

I actually wanted to look this up, and this is what I discovered.

In the first place, it’s a pretty cool thing. At its heart, a coulis is simply a thickened, sweet sauce, generally composed of fruit. Granted, this is the 21st century appropriation of that term. (The full definition would require a different rant altogether.) I can think of any number of desserts I have made that would benefit from a bit of window dressing with a coulis.

However, you do not put window dressing on the menu. Where is the heart of the food? That is what goes on the menu. Allow your guest to be surprised when their meal is just that – surprising. One of the best parts of a truly marvelous meal is the guessing game, chasing flavors down as you eat, trying to piece together the puzzle of the chef’s work.

The menu is a story – you can either include spoilers or allow the guest to be surprised. Admittedly, this is a story the restaurant can choose to tell however it chooses. But, when all the secrets are revealed in the opening act, the expectations change, and often are then not met. By tipping the kitchen’s hand in the menu type, there is little to sustain a restaurant go-er. Where is the mystery? Where is the suspense and surprise?

(I am choosing not to state the obvious – that the restaurants believe that we are dumb-dumbs. “The plebian guest will not notice the subtlies of the dish! We must enlighten them!” says the manager in a thick French accent.* I choose not to rise to this bait. Otherwise, I would simply cook at home forever.)

I beg you, oh restaurant menu writers, please, leave some joy to us. Even a small one. I don’t need curtains on my menu.

*I have nothing against the French and quite enjoy their cuisine. However, it is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that a snooty restaurant manager is nearly always French.


Welcome all!

So, yes. We all know that I like food. Well, really, I would like alot of food, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

As I begin this educational journey to improve, well, education, I also wanted a place where I didn’t have to worry about the state of our youth all the time. Welcome to my new hobby.

So, there will be three types of posts:

Type One: Helen Cooks! Full disclosure: this will be a full disclosure blog. If a recipe fails spectacularly, I’ll let you know and record all the gory details. Understand, then, that when I say something is a home run, I’m not exaggerating. I’ll try to post recipes, so long as I don’t run into problems with these guys. For inspiration, I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I’ll be relying heavily on Julia, James, DebIrma and the place I hope to work someday when I’m done fixing education in America.

Type Two: Helen Eats Out! So, I’ve been reading one of my secret heroes lately, and it’s made me want to do undercover restaurant reviews. So, really, that’s what this type will be. Granted, most places I won’t have the chance to dine at more than once or twice, so we’ll all have to keep an open mind. This may also be less consistent, considering the very grad student nature of my budget.

Type Three: Helen Writes About Food! Ok, so this last one still needs some work, but this is what I’m thinking. Periodically I’ll run across an ingredient, a cooking tool, or other piece of culinary mystery, and I take it upon myself to figure out what it is, and then (more importantly) how to eat it or use it to eat something.

That’s the run-down! Happy reading!