Monday, February 28, 2011

Rigatoni con Gorgonzola

Faithful readers know that I adore blue cheese -- Maytag, Gorgonzola, Stilton, doesn't matter. Salad dressing, dip, crumbled onto salad ... I love it!

After an enormously stressful day at work last week, I was craving some comfort. I'd had the idea of making macaroni and cheese from scratch, which ultimately evolved into pasta with a blue cheese sauce poured over it. And so, when I left work that fateful day I headed straight to the grocery store to get my ingredients. Cooking is my favorite way to decompress, after all.

Rigatoni, with its sturdiness, seemed the perfect shape, though shells or macaroni or penne or rotini would also work well. I debated whether to add spinach or green beans or peas, but the sweetness of the peas seemed to be the perfect complement.

I boiled and drained and stirred and whisked, and came up with a dish that perfectly matched my vision. It was golden and slightly toasted on top, yet the pasta was coated in creaminess. The blue cheese flavor was present, but neither pronounced nor prominent. My dinner was hot, delicious, and a perfect nurturing and nourishing end to my day.

Now, it's a simple dish so I should really just call it "Pasta with Blue Cheese Sauce." But that doesn't have a lot of charm, does it??? Specify the shape of the pasta, and roll the "r" when you say "rigatoni" ... that's better!

Say it in Italian next, to add a little flair to it: [ree-gah-TOH-nee kohn gohr-gun-ZOH-lah]. Wow ... now it sounds like something you'd order at a fancy restaurant!

But now that you know how easy it is, you can make it yourself one day when you just need something warm and wonderful to eat to make all your troubles float away ....

Rigatoni con Gorgonzola

1 pound rigatoni
1/2 cup frozen peas
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
pinch of salt
1 cup skim milk
4 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled
few splashes Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Cook the rigatoni according to package directions, adding the peas for the last minute of cooking.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan; whisk in flour and salt, and cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly

Slowly add half the milk, whisking it into the butter/flour mixture until it is absorbed.

Add the Gorgonzola, Tabasco and mustard; whisk in the rest of the milk.

When the pasta is ready, drain it and stir it into the sauce; place into a greased 9" pie dish.

Broil for 5 minutes or so, just until the top is golden.

Serves 4-6.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

A Few Moments of Escape

It's not been a good couple of weeks ... it's not been a good New Year. Really, it hasn't. I read a post on Twitter last week that said "Locked out of the house. Husband is at work. No umbrella. Happy Friday. Ug." Are you kidding me??? Go to a coffee shop, get a nice hot cup of tea, treat yourself to a pastry while you wait, and get over it!

I won't re-hash the chaos of my past few weeks, or share (yet) the utter misery that *I* experienced last Friday. (Locked out of the house??? Pfffft!) Suffice it to say that I was awakened by a phone call at 3 that morning, still had to slog in to work despite sleep deprivation and stress, one of my faithful cohorts doesn't work on Fridays and the other was home sick, I had to schlep and run an errand that I didn't want to in another town nearby and was rushed to do it by a certain time, and I'm still in shock over what happened and how pointless and unnecessary the situation is. And the situation will be prolonged and stressful and expensive. I am not happy.

But the next day -- on Saturday -- I had a few moments of escape, a blessed reprieve. Tom noticed it, and I felt it. I really was transported out of my reality.

Tom and I were out running errands, picking things up at the library and at the drug store, buying coconut milk for the chicken curry we planned to make that night, and looking for a birthday present for a very, very dear friend. We meandered through a collection of quaint and charming shops downtown looking for the perfect gift, but hadn't quite found what we wanted.

Until we got to the spice shop.

Spice Merchants is a store so lovely, so enticing, so colorful, so aromatic, so utterly sensual that it is hard to fully describe ... this shop must truly be experienced. The photos are woefully inadequate, and there is no way to share the fragrances of the curries, the teas, or anything else with you.

Each time I visit the store, I wish I had the resources to buy a little of everything. It makes me want to cook and, especially, to experiment. It makes me want to not just throw together a quick meal, but to linger over a day-long affair of toasting and grinding and mixing spices to infuse flavor into something cooked slowly and lovingly ... something exotic, usually, and unique.

There are a dozen varieties of salt, in pink and white and grey and yellow and green and brown; some are flavored with citrus, some are smoked, some are naturally colored and have been imported from around the world. Spices can be bought individually or pre-mixed for Indian, Moroccan, Cajun or other cuisines, and come in the most glorious shades of red, orange, and yellow or the deep burnished tones of tan and brown.

There were also other unique uses for the astounding array of spices, including small gift bags of crumbled cookies with ginger or vanilla mixed in, to use as ice cream toppers. There were soup and chili mixes, tied with pretty ribbons and ready to give to loved ones. But Tom and I settled upon the Lemon-Garlic Orzo -- a lovely bag of the rice-shaped pasta that "has a subtle hint of lemon & the robust taste of garlic." We thought it would be perfect to prepare as a side dish or as the base of a salad, or even as an addition to soup.

Then, as we stood in line, Tom said that I looked genuinely happy surrounded by food stuffs and things to play with ... and I was! I was holding his hand as we waited to pay for an ideal gift for someone who appreciates good but simple food ... it was perfect.

And, for a short while, I had forgotten that significant stressors loom large. I had magically and momentarily travelled to my kitchen, travelled to far-off lands, travelled away from daily life and into a beautiful world of color and fragrance and inspiration ....

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Snow Day Applesauce Bars

I wasn't scheduled to have a holiday on President's Day, but the weather gave me a gift -- a snow day! Work was cancelled because of horrendous road conditions.

Now, remember this if you ever happen to be listening to a weather report in Ann Arbor: if they predict a 15" snowpocalypse, there will actually be 8" of snow. However, if they predict 2-3" of snow there will actually be 10", as we had on Monday after rumblings about a few token inches of the white stuff plus some ice that may (or may not!) be buried under the snow but can't quite be found yet. 4"-6" are predicted for tonight ... really, this could either be an avalanche or a dusting, who knows???

The snow just kept a-falling on Sunday night and into the morning, inundating us. I have a 4-wheel drive Suburban, and even *I* was weaving down my unplowed side street on Monday afternoon ... it was pretty scary with no traction whatsoever, and a cab meandering in the opposite direction as badly as I was nearly hitting me. I had been on my way to pick up Tom, who couldn't get down his own street, figuring that putting all of those wheels and some new tires to work would get me through ... ha!

I turned around, shaken, and made a cup of tea. And I indulged in one of the shortbread-based applesauce bars I'd made that morning, as I took advantage of time by myself to write and to bake.

Life is so hectic sometimes that I don't get multiple posts written all at once to free up my schedule; and I don't get to bake as often as I'd like to, either, despite it being one of my very favorite things to do.

There are the chores of daily life, as well as the perks of visiting with Jeremy and spending time with Tom. I've taken up line dancing. (OMG, if y'all only knew how ludicrous that notion is for a prissy city girl like me! But my BFF Wendy wanted to do it, and it turned out to be so much fun!!!) Several of my most cherished loved ones have life and health stressors that require significant attention and care right now. Oh, yeah, and then there's that "day job" thing!

So, a day with no interruptions and no commitments and no errands to run and no place I had to be??? Quite the luxury! My chosen word for the year was "nurture," and I certainly had the opportunity to nurture myself on Monday ... :)

These slightly sweet and subtly spiced bars provided comfort, a treat, aromatherapy -- they were just perfection on a cold, snowy day.

Applesauce Bars

2/3 cup softened butter
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 cup applesauce
3 tablespoons apple jelly
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 packet instant apple-flavored oatmeal

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease an 8"x8" baking pan.

In a large bowl, combine the butter, oil, sugar and brown sugar; stir in the egg and the salt. Mix in the flour. Press 2 cups of this mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking pan.

Combine the applesauce, jelly and cinnamon; spread over the base.

Stir the oatmeal into the remaining batter; spread over the applesauce layer.

Bake for 30 minutes until topping is golden. Cool before cutting into bars.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Most Decadent Delight

Is that a gorgeous photo, or what???

Let me assure you -- as beautiful as that fruit tart looks, the visuals can't begin to compare to how luscious it was!

Tom had gone to our favorite bakery, Decadent Delight, to pick up some Luv Bugs -- the adorable filled and frosted pastries we'd enjoyed so much last Valentine's Day that we absolutely wanted to have them again for our celebration.

But -- gasp! Decadent Delight was closed that day; they had been swarmed over the weekend, but we hadn't thought to go shopping quite that early ... we'd thought mid-morning on the day itself would be sufficient. Nope -- the word has gotten out, and pastry chef extraordinaire Bryant Stuckey's treats are now in high demand!

The Luv Bugs had made my listing of 5 Fabulous Favorite Foods Found in Ann Arbor as well as my Food Floozie 10 for '10 top ten list for the past year. They're sorta glorified and sophisticated Twinkie-like goodies, cakes with filling and frosting and adorable little faces. Alas, we will have to wait until next year ... :(

Instead, Tom went back over the weekend and bought two of the exceptional cinnamon rolls. (You do know that the proper way to eat these, of course, is to unswirl them, starting with the outer edge and working towards the center ...?)

But he also came back with two other treats, consolation prizes to relish instead of the Luv Bugs -- the gorgeous fruit tart above and one featuring caramelized pears.

The berries on the tart were so plump and so juicy that one could almost feel transported to summer when eating them. The colors were deep and intense, as were the flavors. And the pastry cream supporting them was truly a perfect complement -- thick, creamy and not so sweet that it competed with the stars of the show.

And then there was the crust, which was flaky and crumbly without shattering when broken either by a fork (if one is civilized) or by teeth (when one is so zealous that she picks up the tart to simply eliminate any barriers between her and her beloved!). It held its shape and supported the filling just as it should without making a mess. This excellent crust also made an appearance in the pear tart, which -- believe it or not -- even surpassed the fruit one ... who could have thought it possible?

The pears were perfectly cooked, just barely resistant to the bite, not mushy and not crisp. Pears, of course, have perhaps a 10-minute window in which they are neither hard as rocks nor slimy goo. To work within that brief time span and also poach them to an ideal consistency without overcooking them requires skill.

There was not a heavy, thick caramel layer in this tart, but rather a hint of sweetness to enhance the subtly flavored pears. And the buttery crust which wonderfully supported the fruit and pastry cream in our other lovely dessert also served the pears ideally.

So, whether you're looking for breakfast, for a treat to go with coffee, or simply an indulgence, I assure you that Decadent Delight will satisfy any whim.

416 West Huron Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cheesy Red 'n' Black Bean Enchiladas

Technically, these are not actually "enchiladas" although they bear a resemblance to the traditional dish. According to Wikipedia: "The Real Academia Española defines the word enchilada, as used in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua, as a rolled maize tortilla stuffed with meat and covered with a tomato and chile sauce."

Well, let's see -- how many ways did I violate this definition???

- Whole wheat tortillas instead of corn
- two kinds of beans, but no meat
- no tomatoes in the sauce, only cheese

But there are chiles in the sauce, so I'm going to call these enchiladas anyway, based upon the following statement: "Enchilada is the past participle of Spanish enchilar, 'to add chile pepper to,' literally to 'season (or decorate) with chile."

I feel better now! Enchiladas these will be!!!

I had left a package of tortillas in the freezer at Tom's house, and they had no kosher certification so I couldn't take them back to the apartment I'm staying at. Tom had some leftover Cuban beans from Trader Joe's (black beans in a seasoned sauce), and there was also a can of red kidney beans in his pantry, each seeking a purpose in life.

On top of that, Wholly Guacamole had written to me recently asking me to look over a new website they'd launched, and even offering to send me samples of their products to try ... clearly, the presumption was that I would share all of this with my faithful followers and rave about it with an abundance of praise.

Well, I don't do product reviews because I don't want there to be any hint that I might offer a favorable opinion based upon having received a gift. So I told them this while thanking them for the offer, and they told me they'd still like me to try the items ... wow, that was unexpected!

So, I received a large box that had been very generously filled with guacamole and salsa, which are kosher, and two containers of queso sauce, which is not. I brought the queso to Tom's, and then we tried to figure out what to do with it.

Et, voilà -- an epiphany!

(Wait a second -- how do you say that in Spanish, which I've never studied ... okay, Y aquí -- an epiphany! God I love Yahoo's Babel Fish translation site! It lets me translate or -- more importantly -- confirm that I'm not misspeaking and embarrassing myself with my severely limited Italian and unbelievably rusty French!)

So I combined the beans, tossed in some of the salsa, rolled the mixture up into tortillas, placed the filled tortillas into a casserole dish, and poured some of the queso sauce over everything. Oh, man, did the house smell good as this baked!

Tom dipped into them and stated very simply and succinctly: "Very tasty, my dear." It was a perfect transformation of leftovers into an entirely different meal, and one that was sublime.

So, to provide a bit of a groan but also -- I hope! -- a smile: What's black and white and red all over? These Red 'n' Black Bean Enchiladas with a white queso sauce ... :)

(Okay, so that was bad! You know you still love me anyway, and you'll be back tomorrow to see what my latest kitchen adventure will be. And, of course, I'll welcome you as always, looking forward to seeing you again!)

Cheesy Red 'n' Black Bean Enchiladas

1 cup Trader Joe's Cuban beans
1 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup fresh salsa
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
6 8" whole wheat tortillas
8 ounces queso sauce
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese

Prehat oven to 350F. Grease a casserole dish.

Combine the Cuban beans, kidney beans, salsa, salt and chili garlic sauce in a medium bowl; using a potato masher, mash the mixture a bit to break up some of the beans.

Lay the tortillas out on the counter, and divide the bean mixture among them by placing the beans in the middle of each tortilla.

Spread the beans out into a line not quite reaching the edge of the tortilla, then roll each one up and place it into the prepared casserole dish.

Pour the queso sauce over the tortillas, then sprinkle the cheese over that.

Bake for 30 minutes until the enchiladas are golden and the sauce is bubbling.

Makes 6 enchiladas.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

National Biscuits 'n' Gravy Day

Who needs Presidents' Day, especially since I don't even get the day off??? (Don't get it officially anyway; but the 10" of snow we got, after a prediction of 2-3", is at least now giving me the morning to myself.)

But even better, today is also National Biscuits 'n' Gravy Day ... now, that's a holiday that just makes a girl want to smile ... :)

Except that this girl is now living (quite peacefully and contentedly, too, I might add) in a kosher home with a vegetarian kitchen. Hmmm .... This poses a bit of a dilemma, doesn't it???

I could invite myself to a friend's house -- an offer to make sausage gravy and homemade biscuits should naturally endear me to anyone! But there's not a lot of adventure in that, is there? Nah!

So, let's do it ... let's try a new project: make biscuits 'n' gravy with no pork, no mixing of meat and dairy, no lard, none of the usual ingredients. Today's challenge, then, was to make a vegetarian version of this traditional Southern favorite.

Are ya with me??? C'mon!

Now, the first order of business was to find a bulk vegetarian sausage. Did that, opened it up with a bit of trepidation, found that it smelled kinda sorta like sausage ... okay, off to a good start.

Then I tried to brown the "sausage." Pork sausage breaks up readily when pushed with a spoon; soy protein wasn't quite so cooperative. A little pushing, a little shoving, a bit of force, a few threats, and finally the stuff broke down into crumbles instead of huge chunks ... oy. A little flour, some skim milk, a sprinkle of seasonings, and I actually had something that looked remarkably like the original! I let it sit in the refrigerator overnight for the flavors to blend.

The next day, I placed the gravy back into a saucepan and had to thin it out after it had thickened considerably. As I reheated that part of dinner, I set about making some good ol'-fashioned wholesome biscuits.

Half whole wheat flour, half white flour ... a bit of baking powder and some salt. I cut in the butter and found that it wasn't turning into the mealy mixture it's supposed to. (Remember, I didn't have my usual recipe to work with since most of my possessions are still in boxes at Jeremy's place.) The mixture was much too dry. So, rather than adding more butter, I added a bit of yogurt and then finished it off by adding milk. I kneaded it just a couple of times to bring the dough together, then cut it and baked it.

And boy, were those some gorgeous biscuits! Huge, thick, rustic-looking, warm, fragrant ... just perfection ... :) This recipe will definitely have encores with lots of applause.

So then everything was ready to serve. I split open a biscuit, poured some gravy over it, and ... it was okay. Can't say it was good, can't say it was bad. Tom said, when he first tried the gravy as it was warming up: "It's passable!" Hmmmm ... not much of an endorsement, especially from a former vegetarian and vegan.

But lo and behold, as I picked at the biscuit and simply didn't finish dinner, Tom ate two helpings. And he took the leftover gravy home, happy to get another couple of meals out of it. So there!

If I had been served this version of biscuits 'n' gravy at someone else's home, I'm sure I would have eaten it readily. I just couldn't really bring myself to eat it here, where I knew what was in it and the difference between this and the classic original was fairly apparent.

If you're a vegetarian you'll probably love this dish. If you're being put on a low-fat or low-cholesterol diet, you could eat this and not miss the beloved traditional version too much. But I can't give it a 100% wholehearted endorsement, although it certainly was a fun and entertaining experiment.

Whichever version of this classic dish you choose to make, just be sure you celebrate today, okay???

Sausage Gravy 'n' Biscuits


1 pound soy protein "sausage" or pork sausage
1 small onion, chopped fine
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/3 cup water
3 generous tablespoons flour
3-1/3 cups skim milk, divided
dash of Worcestershire sauce
dash of Tabasco sauce
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

In a large frying pan, brown the sausage, breaking it up into crumbles. Add the onion and red pepper flakes; cook for 2 minutes. Add the water, continuing to break up the sausage. Stir in the flour, then slowly add 2 cups milk; stir until it turns into gravy. Add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and mustard; refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the gravy over medium heat, slowly stirring in the rest of the milk, until bubbly.

Meanwhile, make the biscuits.


1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached flour
2 generous teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, in small pieces
1/2 cup yogurt
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 400F. Grease a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking powder and salt. Using your fingers, blend the butter into the flour.

Stir in the yogurt, then mix in the milk to form a dough.

Turn out onto a floured countertop and press into a rectangle about 8" square. Cut into 9 biscuits -- don't twist the biscuit cutter or knife, but rather just make a forceful cut down and then quickly up; this helps the biscuits to rise better.

Place the dough onto the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes until nicely browned.

Split a biscuit, pour some gravy over it, and serve hot.


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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Oxymoron of "Healthy Cookie"

Those two words -- healthy and cookie -- do not belong in the same sentence, usually. Cookies are wonderful sweet treats, and the more butter and sugar and stuff in 'em, the better! Healthy foods can, of course, taste good; but cookies that have been redeemed nutrition-wise generally don't earn the exalted adjective "delicious."

Until today.

I've gotta pat myself on the back -- Tom challenged me to make a healthy cookie, and I think I've done a pretty good job! I admittedly haven't run the recipe through any calorie/fat/sugar algorithm to test it. But since I cut the butter by 2/3, cut the brown sugar by 1/3, used dark chocolate instead something like M&Ms, and there are lots of oats as well as whole wheat flour, I like to think I've performed a mitzvah ([MITZ-vuh] = good deed).

They're not as addictive as, say, that heroin-like substance the Girl Scouts call Caramel De-Lites (a.k.a.: Samoas), with all the gooey caramel and luscious chocolate and coconut. But they're still pretty good ... and I've eaten enough of 'em to be able to state that truthfully!

These cookies are soft and sweet, with just a hint of crunch from granola. You can eat a couple and still feel as though you're indulging in a treat, but without also indulging in guilt. I'm a girl who spent 13 years in Catholic schools and who now considers herself kinda/sorta Jewish -- I know a little somethin' 'bout guilt! Trust me -- you won't have any of that if you bake and enjoy these ... :)

Oatmeal Granola Cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup
Brown Cow Cream Top Maple Yogurt (substitute vanilla, if need be)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
2-1/2 cups quick-cook oats
1 cup maple granola
1 2-ounce dark chocolate bar, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, cream together butter, yogurt and brown sugar. Stir in egg, salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Add flour, oats and granola; stir in chocolate.

Form golfball-sized balls with the dough, and place them 2" apart on the cookie sheet. Flatten slightly, then bake the cookies for 10 minutes until lightly golden. Remove to a rack and cool completely.

Makes about 30 cookies.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pita Pita

On a very snowy Saturday, Tom and I ran some errands and then determined that it was time for lunch. Choices, choices ... burgers? eat at home? Nah -- let's go out, split something simple and tasty, something we were having cravings for.

So we headed to Pita Pita, already knowing what we were going to order -- how often does THAT happen??? (In retrospect, I suppose I should've warned you that was coming. At least you were probably sitting down already, so you wouldn't collapse from the shock!)

I love salads of all sorts, but if I had to pick only one favorite it would have to be fattoush: a Middle Eastern specialty with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and small pieces of toasted pita bread. Those are all fairly standard ingredients, I admit. So why does fattoush have such a special place in my heart? The dressing.

The dressing is slightly sour; it can be made with vinegar, lemon juice or a combination thereof. And it includes ground sumac, which comes from a non-poisonous decorative plant. Its flavor, too, is slightly tart; and the salad just isn't the same without it -- I've tried, and then surrendered and bought some of the spice at an Arab market here in town so that my homemade versions would be authentic and taste the way they should. We ordered a medium-sized salad, which could have served a family of 4 for dinner -- it was tremendously generous!

Tom is a huge fan of sandwiches, all varieties; but one of his most beloved favorites is Chicken Shawarma. We've tried them at three different places now; the one at Pita Pita has been Tom's long-time #1 choice, the one the others have to beat. It's huge, and absolutely stuffed with chicken and other goodies in the pita wrap. There are pickles, tomatoes, and a garlic sauce that is fragrant and flavorful, but not so drippy that it makes a mess when you bite into your lunch. Half of a sandwich was the perfect portion, especially with the fattoush to accompany it.

We couldn't even finish the salad, so we boxed it up and took it home with some extra pita bread on the side. Our waitress asked if we wanted dessert -- and I am sorely tempted when someone offers me baklava! -- but we just couldn't do it.

Maybe on another trip to Pita Pita ... but then, the same foods will be calling and we likely still won't have room for sweets afterwards ....

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