Blueberry Morning

I love breakfast. I love that feeling of waking up after a good sleep, stomach rumbling and ready to fill, and preparing the first meal of the day. How the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans entices me, the sizzling of a griddle like an ode to the morning, and ah, the feeling of utter satisfaction as my hunger pains are quelled by, pancakes, omelets, waffles, muffins, crepes…

I have a special kind of hatred for cereal. The last thing I want on a frigid, snowy morning is a bowl of mush drenched in cold milk. Blech.
When I was a kid it was usually catch as catch can in my house, and there were plenty of days that began with cereal or overcooked slop served in the school cafeteria. Rehydrated eggs tinged green, little plastic cups of sugary orange juice and patties of grayish sausages that sat in puddles of water as if they had been boiled, were a part of daily life during the less fortunate portions of my impoverished upbringing. But on weekends, I used to wake up and make french toast with leftover, slightly stale bread for my brothers and sister. Sometimes my sister and I would make scrambled eggs with a side of tomatoes in vinaigrette. I learned through my own experience that the first meal of the day should take a little extra time and care.

A hearty breakfast sets the tone for my day and keeps me alert on my nearly two hour commute on the subway. Usually I have a slice of toast with hummus or jam and a piece of fruit, or a bowl of oatmeal, but on Saturdays, I like to indulge in a grander affair. I make whole wheat pancakes, blueberry jam, frittata served hot, and don’t forget the maple syrup. Oh, if only the entire world were drenched in sweet, sweet maple syrup, what a world that would be.

Last weekend, I got these amazing, giant and juicy organic blueberries that were just calling out to me. When I ran into a recipe for baked oatmeal, I knew it was the perfect vehicle for these blueberries. I took a relatively fat and sugar laden recipe and made it my own.

Baked Blueberry Oatmeal
1 ½ cups quick oats
¼ cup molasses
1 Tbsp evaporated cane sugar
¾ cup milk
¼ olive oil
1 egg (or the equivalent, to cut fat you can use a ¼ cup of applesauce instead)
2 Tbsp flax seed meal
¼ cup sliced almonds (optional)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all the ingredients in a 9×9 baking dish. Bake for 20-25 mins.

That’s it. Flax seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which as we all know, helps protect arteries and the heart from building up cholesterol. Oatmeal and flax go well together as flavor components. They are both nutty and the creaminess of the oats compliments the slight bitter taste of flax.

The original recipe called for ¼ cup butter, and a ½ cup of sugar. I’ve made it healthier with flax, replacing the butter for olive oil and trading the sugar with molasses and evaporated cane sugar. Molasses is much healthier than processed sugar, it retains vitamins and minerals lost in the refining process. It is slightly less sweet than sugar, so I add a titch of unprocessed cane sugar to boost the sweetness a bit. I think in the future a mashed banana would do better for sweetness or a few chopped dates rather than adding more sugar.

This is my kind of hot breakfast. Stick to your ribs goodness.


Potatoes and Arugula

Like most people who work full time, I look forward to my weekends. My long commute during the week usually leaves me with only a couple of hours to myself when I get home in the evenings and because of this I have severely limited cooking hours per week. Sundays are usually the one day I can prep weekly meals, but a lot of the time, I end up relying on packaged foods. Isn’t that so sad?

Lately, both me and my husband have begun to confront our health issues. Lack of exercise, sedentary jobs and lives, and a reliance on processed foods have made us sluggish. So, I’m actively working on quick, healthy options.
This Saturday, I threw this little meal together from what was left in the fridge at the end of the week. And wouldn’t you know? It turned out pretty great.

Fingerling Potato Salad over Arugula
About 1 lb fingerling potatoes, skin on
2 Tblsp nonfat greek yogurt (unflavored)
1 tsp whole seed mustard
1 small stalk celery, minced
1-2 tsp capers
½ tsp parsley flakes
Pinch of salt to taste
Pepper to taste

About 2 cups of baby arugula, washed and drained.
½ lemon

Par-boil potatoes in a 6 quart pot of lightly salted water for about 10mins. Turn off heat and let sit for another 5mins to cook through. This ensures that the potatoes won’t overcook and fall apart. Plunge in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Refrigerate until cooled.

Dress the arugula in lemon juice and a pinch of salt, toss thoroughly.
For the salad, toss potatoes with the ingredients and plate over a bed of arugula.

I adore arugula’s bitter notes and its slightly nutty aftertaste. It’s also high in vitamin C and potassium. The greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise was a stroke of genius on my part. Greek strained yogurt is not only high in protein and low in fat (in some cases 0% fat) it also contains probiotics, helpful bacteria that aid your body in digesting food properly. And besides, it’s scrumptious. Arugula goes so well with starches like pasta and potatoes. It adds a deep savory flavor component, but it doesn’t overwhelm.

Such a lovely meal for a lovely Saturday.


Bagels for the Baking Inept

A little over a month ago I made a quiet resolution to myself to push my limits in the kitchen and branch out into new terrain. So for the past week I have been thinking about making bagels. Why bagels? Well, mostly because I really like bagels and Chris really likes bagels and we usually buy them from the grocery store. The grocery store bagels are pretty awful; they are dry, airy and have a slight metallic taste. I decided to make bagels partly because I wanted a decent bagel and partly because they are smaller than a loaf of bread and seem more manageable.

You don’t understand.
I am a complete and utter klutz when it comes to handling breadstuffs. As mentioned here previously, I have always believed that I don’t have the patience or determination to succeed as a baker. I give up easily. If I fail at something, I typically do not try it again. Yeast terrifies me. Success in baking depends on such a wide range of factors from making sure the dough is kneaded just enough, to ensuring it has proofed properly and diligently timing every step of the process. There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong and this very fact acts as a deterrent for me. I don’t want to spend hours working on something that might turn out like poop.

Now I can say I have done it. I have made bagels! I proved to myself that most of my fears were unprecedented. The great thing with bagels as opposed to bread is that they do not require a very long rising time, which means less time for error. Here’s how it’s done:

Bagels for the Baking Inept1 ½ cups warm water (110-115*F)
1 Tbsp rapid rise yeast (1 packet)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
3 ½ cups bread flour (unbleached)

Toppings:
1 egg white
Sesame
Poppy seed
Caraway seed
Minced onion
Minced garlic

In a large mixing bowl, stir together water, yeast, sugar and one cup of flour. Let sit for 5mins to activate the yeast. Stir in oil, salt and the rest of the flour, conserving the ½ cup, to make a stiff dough. Add more flour if the dough is too soft and sticky.

Use the ½ cup of flour to lightly flour your hands and a flat surface. Knead the dough for about ten minutes until the dough is smooth. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and set it aside in a warm place for about 15 minutes. This allows the dough to rest and begin rising.

Divide the dough into eight pieces and roll with your fingers to form 9-10 inch strips. Pinch ends together to form a ring. Place on a flat surface or baking sheet and cover with a towel for another 15mins.

While the dough is rising, bring a 6quart pot of salted water to a boil. Preheat oven to 450*F. Set a plate, lined with a tea towel to absorb the water, next to the stove. Tea towels are made from tightly woven cloth, so they are less likely to leave lint and fibers on your bagels. You can also use paper towels.
When bagels are ready, boil each (two or three at a time, depending on the size of the pot) for about 1 minute on each side, turning with tongs. This is an important step as it gives the bagels their characteristic chewiness.

Remove and place on baking sheet(s). Brush bagels with egg white and sprinkle with toppings.

Bake for 20-25 mins.

These bagels filled my tiny apartment with delicious baking smells and they did not disappoint. They are everything a bagel should be, chewy, dense, and perfect for toasting.

There is no metallic taste from shelf stabilizers and dough conditioners, just the pure flavors of the wheat, the yeast and the toppings. I made three plain, three sesame and two garlic for my first go. The sesame bagels were outstanding. I had no idea they would taste so completely different from store bought bagels.
The great thing is that this recipe is easily doubled and the extra bagels can be frozen to maintain freshness. A couple of hours on a Saturday can result in amazing bagels for two weeks.

I am now a convert to bagel baking. Lookout!


Sweets for the Sweet

I did it.
I survived the Great Chicago Blizzard of ’11.
In case you’re wondering, this was the view out my back window about two days after the blizzard:

To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad. I got two days off from work and I had all of that time cooped up in the apartment to get some actual work done. I played some guitar, I caught up on my leisure reading and I baked magnificent cookies.

It is that time of year again, when hearts grow all a-flutter. Oh, Valentine’s Day, you are both a joy and a scourge. I enjoy the idea of publicly celebrating love and all its pleasures, but I do not enjoy all of the packaged, trite, crap that lines the grocery shelves every February. Yes, we all need a little distraction from the snow and why not treat yourself to a nice dinner with the one you love? But it really is a bit much to press everyone to load up on unpalatable, corn syrup-laden garbage. With all of this free time, I decided to treat my darlin’ to some goodies baked with love. I found a recipe online from recipegirl.com, tweeked it a bit and made some delicious, decadent sugar cookies. I added the coffee, you can use water instead, but coffee brings out the flavor of the cocoa.

CHOCOLATE SNAPS
1½ cups (6¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup (2¼ ounces) Dutch- process cocoa powder (or Special Dark)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup (8 ounces) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 Tbs extra strong, brewed coffee
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder, whisking until no lumps remain. In a separate, larger bowl, beat the butter until light. Add the sugar and continue beating until it’s well incorporated. Then add the egg, water, and vanilla and beat for at least 2 minutes, until the mixture has lightened both in color and texture. Gently mix in the dry ingredients.
2. Shape the dough into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-40 mins, or overnight. This dough is very soft, so it’s imperative that it’s been chilled before you roll it out.
3. Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two or three baking sheets.
4. On a clean, heavily floured work surface, roll the dough to a 1/8-inch thickness, and cut to desired shapes. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets. They won’t expand a great deal, so you don’t need a lot of space between them.
5. Bake the cookies for 17 to 18 minutes. (Watch carefully; it’s difficult to tell when they’re done, as they’re so dark you can’t see if they’re brown, but when you start to smell them they’re probably done. If you smell even a whiff of scorching, remove them from the oven immediately.) Transfer the cookies to a rack and cool them completely.
Yield: 8 to 9 dozen cookies
Recipe Source: King Arthur Flour: Cookie Companion

I can’t think of a better gift for your sweetheart than these cookies. They are crisp and have a deep, fudgy flavor. They would go well with a nice cup of coffee, or a glass of wine.

I prefer to eat them while watching this movie


Marmite: A Rebel Amongst Foods

I might not look it, but I consider myself an outsider. I am largely uninterested in the hip, the fashionable, the trendy. I really do not care to have the latest techno gadget, the newest luxury designer fashion item, or the most expensive pair of shoes. I still don’t understand Twitter. In general, I try not to let the consensus of the masses persuade me from eating and enjoying unpopular foodstuffs. I am not really into the current bacon trend or the cakepop phenomenon. Bacon is delicious because it is essentially salted, smoked fat and there’s a part of me that thinks it is cheating to pour salted fat into and onto everything and call oneself a gastronomical genius. Cakepops are frosted donut holes that have been skewered on lollipop sticks for absolutely no good reason.

No, my tastes are for the more misunderstood of ingredients.
While the majority of Americans shudder at the very idea of a mysterious, viscous, slimy extract slicked all over their crackers, I heartily lick my lips in evil glee. I may not be the type of person to take part in trending, but I hope, in some small way, to start the trend of Marmite consumption in the U.S.

Marmite is yeast extract. A byproduct of beer brewing that has been literally scraped from the bottom of barrels, and mixed with a secret combination of spices. The thick, black syrup has an intensely salty, somewhat beef-like taste. The Brits have been combining Marmite with butter and spreading it on toast since 1902. During WWII, Marmite was extolled for its vitamins and minerals, particularly B vitamins such as B12 and folic acid. For vegetarians who miss the umami of meats, Marmite adds a deep, savory flavor to soups, gravies and sauces.

It ain’t pretty, but it has charm.

In the UK, Marmite is much adored and much loathed, but in the US it’s mostly unheard of. I encountered Marmite through my love of BBC television shows and British literature. It was by lucky chance that I found a tiny, rounded jar at a local health food store. From my first tentative taste, I have been a big, big Marmite fan. I’m not really sure why it never caught on in the States. Marmite seems to have all the things going for it that Americans love: it’s salty, it’s highly concentrated and, despite being 100% vegetarian, it tastes like it might have come from an animal.

I have seen Youtube videos with puzzled Americans eating heaping tablespoons of Marmite and grimacing in disgust. They give entirely the wrong impression. The trick to enjoying Marmite is to pay attention to serving size. At 1/4 tsp a serving, it’s easy to get carried away and regret the salt overload. Americans don’t seem to realize that Marmite is a concentrate. You can’t just spread a glob on a piece of bread and munch away. A dab will do ya. You can mix Marmite with cream cheese, peanut butter, butter or mayonnaise. It makes for an excellent sandwich spread. Marmite and cheddar sandwiches are a beloved combination.

I like it the traditional British way, just a smidge on the end of a knife mixed with a dab of butter and thinly spread on wheat toast, served with a nice cup of tea.

I challenge anyone to pick up a bottle and behold the majesty, because Marmite is a flavor explosion waiting to happen. It is definitely not for the timid, but I predict, with a little prodding, America can learn to love Marmite.