Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Sweetest Wishes for 2011...

Gingerbread house made from template downloaded @ Bon Appétit. Visit  Building The Perfect Gingerbread House for recipes, step-by-step photo guides, and helpful tips on everything you need to know about gingerbread house construction from royal icing to decorating tips.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Cookies

For as long as I can remember, my mom and I have helped Aunt Jo make and wrap Christmas cookies a few days before the holiday. Aunt Jo makes tons of delicious cookies every year, and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without them. When I was little, I would leave a few out for Santa; now, there’s more for me!

Aunt Jo bakes off hundreds of cookies, but waits for us to make the candy cane and butter cookies or “Fa La La La Las.” The candy canes are a classic favorite that everyone enjoys. Taking their position right at the top of the cookie tins, they are the first to be seen and the first to go.


I especially look forward to the tradition of making (and eating) the candy cane cookies each year. Using the recipe from her junior high home ec. class (!), Aunt Jo prepares the dough the night before, and my mom and I roll them into shape.

To form candy canes: take a small amount of each color and use your hands to roll each out into two long, fairly-thin logs. Join the logs together and twist. Lightly roll the twisted dough with hands to smooth out; form cane shape.

Cousin Jake hung out in the kitchen while we baked--with his reindeer antlers on. :-)

For the butter cookies, I make the dough, and using an electric cookie press we squish them into festive shapes like Christmas trees and snowflakes, and then decorate with sprinkles. They are super simple and just melt in your mouth. In a well-timed operation, Christmas music plays over the hum of the cookie press as one tray gets decorated, another goes into the oven, and another comes out.

Once everything is cooled, Tupperwares and Tupperwares of cookies are placed onto the kitchen table. In addition to the candy canes and butter cookies, there’s traditional chocolate chip, chocolate with peanut butter chip, Snicker bar and Hershey Kiss-filled, sesame, amaretto, and more! It’s hard to pick a favorite because every one is so good. All are then put into tins and wrapped up for friends and family.

Other than, of course, the cookies themselves, the best part of our Christmas cookie bake is honestly just being together and getting into the spirit of the season; throughout the years, many memories have been created over the butter cookies and candy canes.

Below is the recipe for the candy cane cookies, so that you can enjoy them too!

Candy Cane Cookies:

Yield: about 2 dozen

- 1 cup butter/ 2 sticks
- 1 cup sifted confectioners sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 ½ tsp almond extract
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 ½ cups flour
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp red food coloring

• Preheat oven to 374 degrees F.
• Mix butter, sugar, extracts and egg in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, combine flour and salt; gradually stir flour into butter mixture.
• Divide the dough and mix half with red food coloring. Wrap dough halves individually, and refrigerate overnight.
• To form candy canes: take a small amount of each color and use your hands to roll each out into two long, fairly-thin logs. Join the logs together and twist. Lightly roll the twisted dough with hands to smooth out; form cane shape.
• Bake at 375 degrees for 9 minutes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eat Like A Star: The Brown Derby Cobb Salad

The legendary Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood was a celebrity hotspot in the twenties. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, movie stars would summon one another to dine at the upscale hat-shaped establishment, saying “Meet me at The Derby!”

Illustrious faces that passed through were captured as caricature drawings which were then adorned along the restaurant’s “Hollywood Wall of Fame.” And while the Brown Derby is particularly well known for these sketches and its star-studded clientele, it is perhaps most coveted for being the birthplace of the Cobb Salad.

In 1937, owner of the Brown Derby, Bob Cobb is said to have first created the Cobb Salad as a late-night snack. As recorded by the Brown Derby, one evening, Mr. Cobb raided his restaurant refrigerator and whipped together the now-famous salad with whatever he pulled out: a head of lettuce, an avocado, some romaine, watercress, tomatoes, cold chicken breast, a hard-boiled egg, chives, cheese, and French dressing. After chopping everything up, he completed his creation with some bacon that he swiped off of a busy chef.

On his website,, culinary connoisseur, Arthur Schwartz informatively describes the story of how the Cobb Salad first came to be. In the article, he writes, “It is most often the dish you slap-dash together out of desperate necessity (and usually leftovers) that is the biggest triumph.” So true!

Quoting the Brown Derby’s records, Scwartz shares its instant rise to fame. Apparently, Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was with Cobb the night he created the salad. It was so good that he ordered it the next day, and it was soon put on the menu. Cobb Salad became an instant hit at the Brown Derby, requested by the likes of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Actor, William Holden orders one in this episode of I Love Lucy:


Since it was first put on the menu, the Brown Derby Restaurant Group has reportedly sold more than 4 million Cobb Salads! The two original Hollywood locations have since closed, but sold their name to Disney, who opened a recreation at their Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando. Disney later signed an agreement to open one in all their locations.

The Hollywood Brown Derby in Disney is where I had my first authentic Cobb Salad. From the celebrity caricatures surrounding the restaurant to the original recipes of signature dishes, Disney—as with anything—brings you as close to the real Brown Derby as you could ever get.

Like Cobb, I made my version of the salad with whatever I had in my refrigerator: grape tomatoes, feta cheese, iceberg lettuce, slab bacon, and eggs. I skipped out on a lot of the original ingredients, but the dressing recipe which I acquired from Schwartz’s website, is really what made it taste authentic.

Now that I’m famous, I might as well eat like it. JUST kidding! Here are the original recipes for the Brown Derby Cobb Salad and dressing, so that we can all eat like stars!

The Brown Derby Original Cobb Salad and Dressing:

- ½ head lettuce, about 4 cups
- 1 bunch watercress
- 1 small bunch chicory, about 2 ½ cups
- ½ head romaine, about 2 ½ cups
- 2 medium tomatoes, peeled
- 6 strips of crisp bacon
- 2 breasts of boiled chicken
- 2 hard cooked eggs
- 1 avocado
- ½ cup crumbled Roquefort cheese
- 2 tablspoons chopped chives
- About 1 cup Cobb Salad dressing
• Cut lettuce, half the watercress, chicory and romaine in fine pieces and arrange in a large salad bowl.
• Cut tomatoes, bacon, chicken, eggs, and avocado in small pieces and arrange, along with the crumbled Roquefort cheese, in strips on the greens.
• Sprinkle finely cut chives over the Cobb salad and garnish with the remaining watercress.
• Just before serving, mix the salad with the Cobb salad dressing.

Dressing: (makes 1 ½ cups)
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ½ teaspoon dry English mustard
- 2 small cloves garlic, finely minced
- ½ cup full flavored olive oil
- ¾ cups salad oil
• Blend all ingredients together, except oils. Add olive and salad oils. Mix well.
** A note from the Brown Derby: "The water is optional, depending upon the degree of oiliness desired in the dressing."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cook's Book on "The Delicious Story"

Last Saturday, December 4, I was a guest on “The Delicious Story,” an all-things-food podcast hosted by husband and wife duo, Sherry and David Borzo. The friendly couple conducts interviews every Saturday on internet radio station, Des Moines Local Live.

With the motto, “Food conversation that feeds the soul,” the show’s dialogue is focused not only on food itself, but on the stories behind dining experiences. Guests include cookbook authors, journalists, home cooks, business owners, professional chefs, and bloggers.

Sherry contacted me a few months ago, with an invite to be on “The Delicious Story”, and I was thrilled. Looking at the archives of past guests, I am even more flattered that they took enough of an interest in Cook’s Book to want to talk with me.

Watch the entire show below, and get to know me a little bit in person:


During our discussion, we spoke about my background, family, life on Long Island, photos and culinary tips. I have never done anything like this before--the thought of stepping out from behind the safety of my written words and speaking on camera was both exciting and a little intimidating. Thankfully, Sherry and Dave are great hosts; with such fun personalities, they were very easy to talk to. They made me feel famous, if only for a half hour!

Check out the accompanying blog post here: TDS 57 Marisa Musto Cook’s Book

For archived and upcoming shows, follow Sherry and Dave at The Delicious Story, and stay updated through Facebook and/or Twitter @delishstory.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Here a Chick, There a Chick

There were chicks all over the kitchen last night: chickpeas, chick-en, and this chick right here, whippin’ it all together.

In a crisis of craving, the can of chickpeas in my cabinet needed to be used ASAP. You see, my grandma makes this amazing pepper salad with sweet peppers, artichokes, and olives; she calls it “Marisa’s Pepper Salad” because I love it so much. About a week ago, Grandma made some for company and gave me the leftovers; but something was different this time. In a surprising new twist, there were chickpeas in there, kicking back in the juices with all the regulars.

I find chickpeas to be addictive in a potato chip kind of way—once you get a taste for them, it’s hard to stop. One meaty little pearl at the tip of my fork prong, and like a fish to a lure, I get hypnotized with stomach grumbling desire. Once discovering them in the pepper salad, I was set off on a foraging spree for more, picking over and pushing around anything in my way, just to feel another bean squish between my teeth.

Chickpea Salad
Even after the very last chickpea had been scoped down and chomped up, I wasn’t finished. Like a hungry giant, I stomped over to raid the tiny town of tin cans inside of the cabinet; kneeling down, I opened the door, shedding light on my shadowed victim who stood tall among the rest. “What are you looking at, can of garbanzo beans? You’re next.”

As I’ve posted in the past with Greek and Mediterranean chicken, I’m always trying to think of ways to make boneless, skinless chicken breasts more interesting. Since I had both "chicks" on hand, I came up with this chicken in lime sauce with chickpea salad. While I don’t think I would call this a Moroccan dish, the chickpeas and cilantro along with the spice blend of cumin, paprika, tumeric, and cinnamon definitely showcase an underlying Moroccan influence.

This dish only takes about a half hour to make from start to finish, but it's sauce, essence, and substance make it seem as if it has been cooking for hours. Served with a side of simple couscous with white raisins, this was so good!

Chicken in Lime Sauce with Chickpea Salad:

Yield: 3-4 servings

- 1, 15 oz canned garbanzo beans, drained
- 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
- 1 heaping tsp tahini
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tsp fresh ginger, minced or grated
- 1 teaspoon shallot, minced
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon each, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, paprika
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts
- About 1 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper for dredging
- Olive oil to sauté chicken
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 ½ cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons flour

• In a medium bowl, mix together tahini, garlic, ginger, shallot, red wine vinegar, and spices. Slowly whisk in olive oil to form an emulsion. Add cilantro to dressing, season with salt and pepper. Toss garbanzo beans and tomatoes with dressing; set aside.
• Dredge chicken cutlets in seasoned flour. Heat oil in a medium-large skillet and cook chicken through; reserve. In the same skillet, melt butter and whisk in flour to make a roux; add chicken stock and lime juice, continuing to whisk and scraping up all browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add chicken back to the pan until it is thoroughly cooked through and the sauce has thickened. Plate chicken with sauce, and top with chickpea salad. Serve with couscous if you would like.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving Sides

By now, what was left of Thanksgiving has been gobbled up. The turkey was sliced, the gravy passed, scoops of seconds and thirds cleaned off of every plate. All that remains now are depleting Tupperwares of leftovers, maybe a few slices of pumpkin pie in the fridge, and the memories of a feast to be thankful for. Of course, our tried and true recipes also stick around—perhaps even literally.

Left stiff, crinkled, and bleeding with greasy ink spots, our recipes often take the brunt of the holiday. You can say that it’s the aftermath of having been recklessly thrown around in the bout of turkey-making madness, but it’s probably because those same pieces of paper have been referenced for like, a million years. At Thanksgiving, we’ve all come to expect the traditional staples and so every year the same index cards and magazine clippings come out.

Vary too much from the Thanksgiving recipe norm and you are venturing into dangerous, unwelcome territory. Bring out a tofurkey or a turducken, and your likely to experience some protesting. The reactions you get might go a little something like those in this scene from Everybody Loves Raymond:


I agree with the Barones. You want to get fancy? Pick another holiday. In fact, don't ever bring me a tofurky. Who doesn’t look forward to the once a year spread of Thanksgiving table veterans? Classic roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes in some shape or form—they never get old.

The bird is the word on Thanksgiving, but the sides are what I look forward to the most. Like a lot of people, I'll eat a little bit of turkey, and then go to town getting full on all the other good stuff. To save on time, oven space, turkey guts, and mainly Mom skeeving out, whenever Thanksgiving is at our house we order our bird from a caterer who slices it up and even provides the gravy. They do a great job and it allows me to focus on everything else.

Since culinary school, I’ve built up my own pile of Thanksgiving recipes, tweaking them a little bit each year. Along with Mom’s famous broccoli puff and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, here is what I made: Click on the name of each dish for recipe.  

Vegetable, Fennel, and Herb soup in Paremesan Broth
 This soup is perfect before a big meal like Thanksgiving dinner because it is so light. It gets a nice sweetness from the fennel, but the real secret to its great flavor is the parmesan rind.

Buttermilk Biscuits
I found this recipe for James Beard's buttermilk biscuits on Kathy Gori's blog, The Colors of Indian Cooking.
Here's her post with great step-by-step photos.

Apple Sauce
I made this recipe especially for this Thanksgiving. My favorite part is the addition of amaretto and maple syrup. I'll definitely be making this again.

Boulangerie Potatoes
The underlying slab bacon, leek, and thyme mixture in Tom Colicchio's oven-roasted,"baker's" potatoes make them taste even more amazing.

String Bean Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Apple Cider Dressing
I love string bean salad. It's a great way to have your veggies on a holiday without having to worry about something else in the oven. I think the apple cider dressing gives it a nice autumnal touch.

Cranberry Relish
Made with apple cider, orange juice, and granny smith apples.

Corn Bread
Light, fluffy, and sweet.
Sourdough Chestnut Stuffing
This comes out awesome and serves a ton. My suggestion would be to buy the chestnuts that come premade and save yourself a lot of trouble. Roasting chesnuts on an open fire is fun if that's all you're doing--not when you're preparing a Thanksgiving feast.
I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I know I’m a little late, but I didn’t want to give you the recipes before testing them out and making sure that everything was Ok. I’ve also been getting a little busier lately—Thanksgiving eve I worked on my first freelance assignment writing local news for By the way, most of these dishes don’t have to be just for Thanksgiving; while you can always save the recipes for next year, they work well for any dinner!

Click here for print out recipes of the entire Thanksgiving Sides menu.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Getting Older Never Tasted So Good!

I can’t think of a better way to spend an occasion than to enjoy delicious food, with good company, in one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s a formula that always equals a memorable time. I turned 23 on Wednesday and celebrated another year of living with a short trip over to Manhattan for a night fit for a foodie.

A birthday is like your own personal holiday to be commemorated in any way you choose. They are special once-a-year occasions, reserved for special, once-a-year type things. For me, that thing is usually a reservation at a restaurant in the city that I’d like to try. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be treated to some pretty fancy places. While not as exclusive as the restaurants I’ve picked in the past, this year I chose to go a more “exotic” route and went Greek with a table at Kellari Taverna.

Our reservation was a little late, and while I do live near Manhattan it is still a bit of a trek to get to. If you’re going to travel over bridges and through tunnels to eat, you might as well do something else while you’re there. Luckily, there is always something new to discover in New York. I’ve been dying to check out Chelsea Market and finally got the chance to go. A haven of all things delicious, the rugged-looking indoor arcade is lined with restaurants and specialty food shops. It is also the home of Food Network.

Within only a couple of minutes of walking into the architecturally charming market, we were reduced to an almost uncontrollable state of voracious indulging. Surrounded by Italian specialty stores, bread bakeries, artisanal meats and cheese shops, we excitedly stormed through the halls like Hungry Hungry Hippos, purchasing almost everything in our paths and gobbling some up along the way. Here are a few highlights:

Oil, vinegar, sugar, and salt shop, The Filling Station. Dispensed from large metal drums, a large selection of balsamic vinegars and dozens of extra virgin olive oils from around the world are sold, along with a variety of exotic sea salts and sugars. All products can be tasted before purchasing. As an environmentally-friendly excuse to return, the owners offer a 10% discount to customers who bring back their bottles for refills.

 Pink Himalayan sea salt from The Filling Station.
Rosy in color, the salt is so pure; it is like getting hit by a wave with your mouth open.

Lucy’s Whey, an artisanal cheese shop that specializes in all American cheeses. As described by the sales person, they are all distinctly flavored hand-crafted cheeses that are special in their own way and rare to come by. After grabbing a few tastes, we bought three delicious cheeses: Dante sheep’s milk cheese similar to a Spanish Manchego, Wisconsin; Prairie Breeze cheddar, Iowa; and Sofia goat milk cheese laced with ash, Indiana.

Mr. Chocolate himself, Jacques Torres, has a small shop right inside Chelsea Market. And what kind of birthday would it be without chocolate?A few years back, I visited one of his main locations in Hudson Square where you can see (and smell) the chocolate being made right from within the store. I remember every chocolate I tasted like it was yesterday. That day, we also tried Jacques’s famous wicked hot chocolate. Why wicked? It’s flavored with allspice, cinnamon, sweet ancho chili peppers, and smoked ground chipotle! A must try if you get the chance, and you can get it all at Chelsea Market. We left with a box of chocolates, along with chocolate-covered marshmallows and graham crackers—yes, it was all good!

So what about Food Network? Their offices and studios are upstairs from the market and private. We might have had a possible Bob Tuschman sighting, you know, Food Network General Manager and one of the judges from the Next Food Network Star? I can’t confirm that since by the time I turned around, I only saw the back of a gray-haired head. Anyway…Fun fact about Chelsea Market, it used to be the building for the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco. It’s really a cool place. I only wish that it was closer so that I could visit more frequently and do my food shopping there!

Dinner at Kellari Taverna was very enjoyable. I had been there once before for a cocktail party and liked it so much that I wanted to try it out for dinner. As a Greek seafood restaurant, it is not the normal fare for us, but picking at our plates, discovering new flavors together, and humming with “yums,” made it all the more fun. We started out with an appetizer of toasted pita chips and several dips including, tzatziki, roasted pepper and feta, eggplant, and fish roe. Off to the side inside of the restaurant, the fresh fish sit on ice as it would in a market, the lobsters still squirming in place. One of those fish was my dinner. And for dessert--loukomades, fried honey balls similar to an Italian zeppoli. Sorry, no photos of the food. I was too busy eating it!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Houston’s Thai Steak and Noodle Salad Look-Alike

Whenever my dad says, “we’re going out to eat” it loosely translates to, “we’re going to Houston’s.” You can say that I’ve been there a lot.

It’s certainly not a bad deal, and I’m not complaining. Houston’s has great steaks, fall-off-the-bone ribs, an awesome hamburger, a melt-in-your-mouth French dip sandwich, good fish, and efficient service to boot. And who can argue with their famous spinach artichoke dip? Every one of the million tortilla chips that I’ve ravenously dipped into that steaming crock of creamy spinach, melted cheese, and artichoke hunks, has been awesome.

At Houston’s, consistency is the name of the game. The luxury of knowing what you want before you even get to the restaurant, then receiving that item just as you last remembered, exactly as you craved, is what brings customers back every time. What do you think made McDonald’s, or any major restaurant chain for that matter, so successful? Instead of two all beef patties and special sauce, Houston’s has quality steaks and spinach dip.

My go-to item on the Houston’s menu is most frequently the Thai Steak and Noodle Salad. Large, juicy pieces of filet mignon sit over a bed of Asian noodles, dressed in a spicy, tangy dressing, garnished with tomatoes, mangoes, peanuts, and toasted coconut. (It also comes with avocado, but it’s “no avocado, please!” for me). My latest attempt in the kitchen was trying to recreate this dish.

The udon noodles I used in the salad.
 In order to mimic the original, I used my memory of the salad, while also keeping in mind traditional Thai flavors like garlic, ginger, lime, peanut, spicy chilies, palm sugar, basil, cilantro, and fish sauce. When composing the dressing and marinade (which are very similar), I tried to incorporate all of the flavors of these elements. I just continued to taste until it was where I had imagined it to be. Some of the stranger ingredients like the noodles, fish sauce, and sambal oelek chili sauce are always available at Asian markets, but they have become so common that you can probably find them in the Asian aisle of most major grocery stores.

The outcome was a Thai Steak and Noodle salad look-alike; the dish in its entirety was similar but different. It needed some more spice, more dressing, perhaps a different noodle, and a little more of just something else. I totally forgot the shredded cabbage and carrots that it usually comes with, but have added them to the recipe. I didn’t nail it, but was definitely in the ball bark. The dressing and steak marinade were especially close. Although I couldn’t stop comparing it to the original, it’s not like I was having a Bobby Flay-style Thai Steak and Noodle salad “Throwdown” or anything. If you could have seen my empty plate you would know that I was satisfied with the end result--but I will try it again, and it will be even better!

Houston’s Thai Steak and Noodle Salad Look-Alike:

Yield: 4 servings

- 1 ½ pound round udon noodles or any other thin, round noodle, cooked
- 4 filet mignon steaks, cut into large chunks
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil for cooking steak
- 1 ripe mango, diced
- 1 avocado, diced
- 1 cup shredded savoy cabbage
- ½ cup shredded carrots
- 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup unsalted peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
- 1 cup sweetened coconut flakes, toasted
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- ½ tsp sambal oelek chili sauce (add a little more if you want more spice)
- 1 lime, juiced
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon cilantro, lightly chopped or torn
- 1 teaspoon basil, lightly chopped or torn
- ¼ cup peanut oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 lime, juiced
- ½ teaspoon sambal oelek chili sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- Salt and pepper to taste
• Combine all marinade ingredients with steak in a zip-lock bag and store in the refrigerator for 30 minutes-2 hours.
• Cook noodles for about 7 minutes or until tender. Strain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. If not plating immediately, put noodles in a bowl and toss with a little bit of peanut oil to keep it from sticking.
• To make the dressing, combine all ingredients except for peanut oil, cilantro, mint, salt and pepper in a bowl. Slowly incorporate peanut oil, whisking until an emulsion is formed. Add fresh herbs last and season to taste with salt and pepper.
• Heat 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in a pan and sear steak pieces for about 3-4 minutes on each side. You want the meat to have a nice sear on the outside and a pink center.
• Toss noodles, mango, cabbage, carrots, and tomato together with the dressing. To serve, pile noodles and other toppings on plate along with and 5-6 pieces of steak. Finish with toasted peanuts and coconut.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lentil Salad: Simple, Healthy, Goodness

When you hear, “lentils” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the mush in your soup bowl at the diner? Perhaps it’s the blah, healthy alternative to juicy ground meat and fat in a burger (sorry, vegetarians), or maybe even Dal, a staple Indian stew made from the legumes. For me, French lentil salad is the first thought and drool-evoking memory upon hearing the word.

Everyone knows that the French love to fancy up their food. With a little bit of “oui oui” and “huh huh,” even the meager little lentil, becomes magnifique! Lightly coated with a simple, tangy dressing, fresh herbs, and other add-ins, the not-too-exciting lentils of your past, are converted into a delicate and rustic side dish or meal. A high source of protein, fiber, and iron, tiny lentils are a big source of nutrition—especially if you are a vegetarian, and unlike other legumes, they cook fairly quickly.

Although green and brown are the most common, there is a rainbow of colored lentils ranging from bright yellow to stark black; the difference in color delegates the flavor, cooking time, cuisine, and preparation of each type. The delicate French green lentils which are used in salads hold their shape well and maintain a slight bite, but take a little longer to cook through. Although there are varieties of French lentils such as Lentills du Puy, considered superior for salad making, easy-to-find dry green lentils from the grocery store can be made up to be lavish—just be aware that they very easily become mushy if overcooked.

I made this lentil salad as a side dish for dinner the other night and finished the leftovers yesterday for lunch. I literally did not want it to end. I don’t know what it is about lentil salad that I find so addicting. Maybe it’s the texture of the small round discs, the often described light “peppery” flavor of the lentils themselves, or the way that the dressing soaks into each pulse or grain in just the right amount. Garlic, scallions, basil, diced plum tomatoes, and feta cheese are what make this salad special, but the pancetta is by far, my favorite part. I look forward to getting a little nugget of porky goodness on every forkful. Lentils prepared this way work nicely beside just about anything.

Pancetta, essentially an Italian bacon, is a flavorful addition to this lentil salad.
I’ve been doing a lot of job searching lately, and have to say that it feels much better writing to sell lentils rather than myself. I don’t discuss it much because I don’t want to jinx anything, and frankly, I think you’ll agree that it’s not a fun topic to talk about. But if you’re interested in what I’ve been up to lately, it can’t hurt to tell you that I’ve been writing cover letters and sending out resumes left and right. That’s enough of that—I’m snoring already, over here.

Do you know that I am currently trying to read Moby Dick? Without school in my weekly routine, I feel the need to self educate, so I’m reading this brick for fun. Between the letters, the blog, and the classic literature, I have so many words spinning around in my head--including some pirate talk. Friggin’Captain Ahab. I need a job. Cook’s Book and working at the culinary school are keeping me fairly sane. Thanks to everyone who stops by and reads. I love all of the positive reinforcement in the comments—they always bring a smile to my face. I’m excited about what I have in store for you in the next post, so visit soon! :-)

Lentil Salad:

Yield: 4-6 side servings

- 1 cup dry green lentils
- 4 cups water or chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons pancetta, small dice
- 1 large garlic clove, chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup/ 3 plum tomatoes, diced
- 3 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 5 large basil leaves, chopped or torn
- 2 large scallions, thinly sliced
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese

• Add pancetta to a medium heavy saucepan, and cook until fat is rendered and the pieces are slightly crispy. Cook garlic in the pancetta fat until fragrant. Add lentils, water/stock, and 1 teaspoon salt to the pot; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook uncovered until lentils are just tender about 25-30 minutes.
• In the meantime, make the dressing: in a small bowl, combine, red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard. Slowly whisk in extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
• When lentils are done cooking, drain in a large sieve and transfer to a bowl. While still warm, toss with the dressing. Mix in tomato, basil, sliced scallions, and top with feta cheese.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Homemade Soft Pretzels

During the ballgame, at the fair, in the mall, or off of a street cart in Manhattan, soft pretzels are always there as a satisfying go-to snack wherever hunger may strike. Smeared with mustard or dipped into melted cheese, the crisp and salty deep brown exterior and soft chewy center make the twisted snack an irresistible portable comfort food. Pretzels are one of the many great ways to enjoy bread (as if there were a bad way?). Homemade, they are a lot of fun and surprisingly simple with a taste that is deliciously close to the real deal.

In authentic pretzel-making, the dough is typically submerged in a lye or sodium hydroxide water solution before baking to give it its distinctive brown color and crispy outer texture. Lye is a highly corrosive alkaline substance commonly used to make soap, drain cleaner, and biodiesel.

Save the cringing for your binging; your favorite stadium snack does not get dipped into a vat of Drano before you eat it. Food grade lye, the variety utilized in making pretzels, bagels, and hominy, is less harsh and must meet certain requirements mapped out by the United States FDA. In any grade, lye is still very dangerous and can burn skin and surfaces if spilled. It is not something to be messed with unless you are prepared to take the proper precautions (gloves, goggles).

To spare you the science project duds and the worry, this homemade soft pretzel recipe calls for a substitute that everyone has on hand at home: baking soda. A lighter kind of alkaline without the intense power to say, eat through your insides if accidently ingested, baking soda delivers a similar effect as lye in pretzel-making without the hazard. I used lye in culinary school with an experienced chef, in an experienced kitchen where many a pretzel had been crafted before. At home, baking soda is much friendlier, especially if kids are involved.

Enticed by the recipe and photo in my cookbook, The Best of Cooking Light Everyday Favorites, I’ve wanted to try making soft pretzels for a while. They came out surprisingly great, and all it takes is a few simple steps:

First, make the dough; knead and let rise for about 40 minutes until the dough doubles in size:

Divide the dough into 10-12 equal portions. Roll and twist into a pretzel knot:


1. Roll out dough into a thin rope with tapered ends.
2. Cross one end of the rope over the other to form a circle, leaving about 4 inches at the end f each rope. Twist rope at the base of the circle.
3. Fold ends over circle into a traditional pretzel shape. Pinch end to seal.

Simmer pretzels in baking soda water on each side for about 15 seconds. Use a slotted spatula to flip and remove the pretzel from the water. Drain on a wire rack.

Brush pretzels with egg wash and sprinkle with your choice of topping. I used kosher salt and cinnamon sugar. The salt pretzels were my favorite. I wanted to make cinnamon sugar pretzels like they have in the mall but found that without mass amounts of butter they don’t taste nearly as good.

Bake for about 12 minutes and voilà! Delicious soft pretzels, straight from the oven!

Soft Pretzels:
The Best of Cooking Light Everyday Favorites

Yield: 10-12 servings
- 1 package dry yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
- 1 cup warm water ( 100-110 degrees F)
- 3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (about 14 ½ ounces), divide 3 cups from ¼ cup
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Cooking spray
- 6 cups water
- 2 tablespoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon corn meal
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt

• Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water in a large bowl, and let stand 5 minutes.
• Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 3 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt to yeast mixture; stir until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic (about 8 minutes). Add enough of the remaining flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will feel slightly sticky).
• Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees F), free from drafts, 40 minutes or until doubled in size. (Gently press two fingers into dough, if indentation remains, dough has risen enough.) Punch dough down; cover and let rest 5 minutes.
• Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
• Divide dough into 10-12 equal portions. Working with one portion at a time, roll each into an 18-inch-long rope with tapered ends. Cross one end of rope over other to form a circle, leaving about 4 inches at end of each rope. Twist rope at base of circle. Fold ends over circle into traditional pretzel shape, pinching gently to seal. Place pretzels on a baking sheet lightly coated with cooking spray. Cover and let rise 10 minutes (pretzels will only rise slightly). Combine 6 cups water and baking soda in non-aluminum Dutch oven. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer. Gently lower 1 pretzel into simmering water mixture, cook 15 seconds. Turn pretzel over with a slotted spatula, cook an additional 15 seconds. Transfer pretzels to a wire rack coated with cooking spray. Repeat procedure with remaining pretzels.
• Place pretzels on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Combine 1 teaspoon water and egg in a small bowl, stirring with a fork until smooth. Brush a thin layer of egg mixture over pretzels; sprinkle evenly with kosher salt. Bake at 425 degrees F for 12 minutes or until pretzels are deep golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You Can Do It, Put Your Hands into It

Although this next dish is not one that requires much fondling, preparing it led to an enlightenment on two of my best assets: my hands.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Curry and White Raisins
Setting out the diced butternut squash on a sheet tray, I proceeded to sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil before putting it in the oven to roast. On impulse, I picked up the spoon resting beside me to mix everything together and just as quickly, placed it back down; this was a job suited for none other than my very own two hands.

Your hands and the five digits that extend from each one are as vital a tool as any in the kitchen. Just a few quick tosses and that sheet of squash had a sheen slicker than a well-greased Jheri curl, and every square inch of those orange cubes was thoroughly covered in seasoning. My hands, oily and flecked with grainy condiments had done their duty and they had done it well.

Would mixing the squash with a spoon really have made a huge difference to the final product? Not exactly. But by using my hands I added a little bit of love to the dish. That love, my friends, has got to be the number one secret ingredient in making everything taste better.

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Get in there and bond with your food; squish it in between your palms and let it fall between your fingers. Utensils can be so impersonal at times. Besides, when something looks so sexy it can be hard to keep your hands off. By literally becoming closer to your food and getting acquainted on a more intimate level, you’ll feel all the more proud when the final product comes out awesome. It might be greasy or sticky, but so what? Wash your hands.

The main component of a dish, usually a protein, might be the star of an entrée course but the sides are what help it shine; they complete a meal and make it more exciting. This roasted butternut squash with curry and white raisins is incredibly simple and tasty. The curry gives it a deep flavor that is perfectly suited to accompany cold weather dishes. This would go great with pork or even on its own as a crostini topping for an appetizer.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Curry and White Raisins:
- 1 large butternut squash, diced
- Olive oil, salt and pepper to season for roasting
- ½ cup white raisins
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- ½ tsp curry powder
- 2 Tablespoons diced pancetta
- 1 shallot, diced
- A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to finish
• Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. On a sheet tray, spread out butternut squash and season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of regular olive oil; mix all together. Put in the oven until the squash is tender and starts to brown, about 30 minutes.
• While the squash is roasting, sauté pancetta. Once some of the fat has rendered from the pancetta, add the diced shallot and cook until pancetta is slightly crispy and shallot is translucent.
• In a bowl, mix roasted squash, sautéed pancetta and shallots, and all other ingredients together; finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve as a side dish with pork or as a crostini topping.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Halloween Horror

I had planned to share with you the happy adventures of dipping apples into gooey homemade caramel and luscious bright red sugar. When finished, the candy apples would glisten like rubies on the table while the rest would sit draped in an irresistible layer of soft, chewy caramel. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. I wanted a treat, but got a trick instead.

This is what should NOT happen when dipping caramel apples.
While I could just hide under a blanket and call myself a ghost, I’m going to be honest and share all the sticky details of my apple dipping horror show. Although often concealed in the spotlight, conveniently cut and edited until only the perfect parts are showing, kitchen mishaps happen to all of us—sometimes even despite the most valiant of efforts. This is how we learn.

Lined up on their wooden sticks, I had ten apples prepared for the plunge: five were destined to be candy coated, while the other five would go for a swim in the caramel. (P.S. Finding sticks was a project in itself; after searching through several grocery stores, I ended up buying an instant caramel apple kit just for the sticks inside.)

The recipes for each of the sugary shellacs made enough for twelve apples so I cut both of them in half. As they bubbled away on the stove, it seemed as though things were going smoothly. Not for long: ending with a sink full of sticky pots, a melted spatula and enough frustration fuming out of me to liquefy another, my fun fall project had suddenly morphed into an all-out Halloween nightmare. Insert: blood curling scream.

Homemade caramel-dipped apples had been on my mind since coming across Alice’s recipe on her blog, Someone Who Bakes. I could already taste the creamy caramel that was engulfing each of the apples in her photos and immediately bookmarked the recipe. Check out the post here to see how these should come out. While cooking the caramel it looked just as it ought to; stirring away, I imagined light strings of caramel floating behind my apple lollipop as I pulled away from each bite. If only…

After pouring the caramel out to cool, I realized that something was wrong. It was getting too hard too fast. Only a few apples had the chance to be dipped before the caramel refused to stick, just sliding off at every attempt. It tasted good though! Once set, it was like a rock—CRACK—the caramel shattered under the immense pressure that it took to even cut through it. I blame all of this on not having a candy thermometer. I thought I could get away with it, but when it comes to melting sugar to the proper temperature you can’t just wing it; a few degrees can make a big difference.

At least the candy apples came out decent. I ended up only having enough red sugar syrup to dip two of the intended five apples, but those lonely two looked pretty damn fine. Hard and sticky enough to potentially break teeth and crack skulls, they passed the test in comparison to any candy apple I’ve ever tasted. But were these measly couple of triumphs worth all of the red gunk that was caked at the bottom of my pot, dripped into the burners, and spotted along on the counters? Not really! The disaster with these was more in the mess than the end result.

I don't know about you, but I thought that was a pretty scary story. Until I get a candy thermometer and can give these another try the right way, I’m good just buying my candy and caramel apples!

The survivors. Warning: looks can be deceiving, caramel is inedible.
*Tip: If you find yourself caught in a sticky situation and have something sugary glued to the bottom of a pot, fill the pot half way with water and bring to a boil--everything with melt away and you can just pour the mess down the drain.

Happy Halloween!

Candy Apples:
Woman’s Day, October, 2010

Yield: 12

- 12 small red delicious apples
- 12 clean twigs, thin wooden dowels or candy sticks
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup each light corn syrup and hot water
- ¼ tsp liquid red food color

• Line a large baking sheet with nonstick foil or parchment paper. Wash and thoroughly dry apples; remove stems. Insert twigs firmly into stem ends.
• Combine sugar, corn syrup and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; stir until sugar dissolves. Attach a candy thermometer to side of pan, continue to cook, without stirring, until mixture reach 250 degrees F (wipe down sides of pan with a wet pastry brush occasionally to prevent crystallization). Continue to cook until 300 degrees F, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove syrup from heat and swirl in food color, tilting saucepan, until blended. Let mixture settle for a minute until bubbles slow down.
• Holding an apple by the twig and tilting pan, dip and swirl apple until coated. Lift apple and gently twirl over saucepan, letting excess drip back into pan. Place on prepared baking sheet, twig up. Repeat with remaining apples.
• Allow apples to stand at room temperature until candy coating hardens, about 1 hour. Candy apples can be made up to 1 day ahead and stored at room temperature.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Smashing Pumpkins

Stepping over and around a labyrinth of twisted vines, I begin my search to find a face among a crowded patch of pumpkins; which of these large orange squashes will provide the canvas for the funny, geometric expression of my jack o’ lantern?

Some tall and skinny, others short and round, character waits to be carved into every stature. Randomly stopping at the most promising jack o’ lantern hopefuls, I disturb their sunning for a thorough inspection of poking, prodding and utter violation in search of hidden bruises, holes and signs of rotting. I continued to probe the field until finally, I spotted the pumpkin that I would fashion a personality and place into my window sill; it was if it had been waiting there all season, especially for me. Like the headless horseman, I tucked the bright orange “head” under my arm and started home, leaving all of the rejects in my dust.

Carving pumpkins for Halloween is one of my favorite traditions at this time of year. I look forward to the pumpkin picking process, designing a face, and even pulling slimy orange guts out with my hands; it’s all part of an annual project that helps encourage the Halloween and autumn spirit. For the past five years, my boyfriend and I have been carving jack o’ lanterns together. We’ve done happy faces, scary faces, and even two different faces that interact. This year, I wanted to challenge myself with something I’ve never tried before: an illuminated pumpkin. You know those pumpkins that aren’t perforated but have crazy intricate designs shaved into their skin so that the light inside just glows through?

I am so impressed by what some people can do with a pumpkin. Real artistry, craftsmanship, and creativity are required to sculpt detailed portraits and spooky scenes into lowly winter squash. I had a vision to chisel a Day of the Dead-style skull or “sugar skull” into my pumpkin, but otherwise had no idea what I was doing. My goal was to successfully execute this project and prove that it can be simple enough for anyone to do. I did a little internet research, picked up some tips along the way, and even bought a special tool at Michaels:

Pumpkin carving tool found at Michaels. On one end, there is a small knife for intricate carving;
on the other end, there is a specially designed skin peeler and scraper.

The rounded edge of the tool is pushed down along the lines of your design to peel the skin off of the pumpkin. The flat edge that looks like a rake is used to scrape the already-peeled lines to make them deeper and/or thicker.
Other than knives, actual workman’s tools like a router are used in serious pumpkin carving. Of course, having the right tools for any job is imperative for ease and success. With this being my first try at making an illuminated pumpkin, I wanted to stay away from the power tools and keep everything as simplistic as possible; my little pumpkin carver thingy actually proved to be very helpful!

Once you are equipped with the right tools, the next step is to find a good pumpkin and get your design on paper. We were lucky to find a perfectly head-shaped pumpkin and my boyfriend is a great artist so he was able to draw up the sugar skull in only a few minutes. If you are not artistically inclined, you can print a simple black and white, thick-lined design from the computer.

1) After you’ve drawn up or printed out an image, cut it out and tape it onto your pumpkin.

2) Using the tip of a small knife, poke holes along the lines of the image through the paper and into the pumpkin. Make sure that the holes are close together and are moving in the same direction as the lines. When you remove the paper, you may need to retrace over the lines with a marker to help you to see the design more clearly.

3) Cut off the top of the pumpkin and remove all guts and seeds. Scrape the inside of the pumpkin right behind where the image is placed so that it’s thin enough for the light to come through.

4) Using the proper tool, peel and scrape the pumpkin skin along the lines of the image.

5) Clean pumpkin and apply Vaseline to carved areas to seal in the moisture and keep it from quickly rotting. Place a candle or bright flashlight inside, turn off the lights, and watch your pumpkin glow!

So proud of how this turned out!
I have always thrown my pumpkin seeds out after carving, but this year, I saved and roasted them. I attempted to make three different varieties: salt and butter, cumin and chili, and sugary maple cinnamon. Sadly, the sugary maple cinnamon got lost during battle, burnt to a blackened crisp in the belly of my oven. The others came out fine; I just wasn’t sure how to eat them.

When confronted with whole roasted pumpkin seeds, I didn’t know if should eat the entire thing, shell and all, or crack it like a sunflower seed and only eat the pepita inside? So, I Googled it! Turns out you can eat them whole if you want, but it’s preferable to remove the tough outer shell first.
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds: cumin and chili; butter and salt.  
The gravestone is Godiva chocolate!
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds:

Yield: ½ cup of each variety

Salt and Butter
- 2 Tablespoon butter
- 2 teaspoon salt
Cumin and Chili
- 2 Tablespoon butter
- 1/4 tsp cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
• Preheat oven to 400 degrees
• Melt butter; in a small bowl, pour melted butter over pumpkin seeds and mix with salt/spices. Spread seeds out on a parchment lined sheet tray and cook for 15 minutes. Check occasionally and mix at half way.

Our traditonal jack o' lantern. Looks like he thought that he was going to be left out this year!