Thursday, September 29, 2011

Buttermilk Biscuits

This weekend, I read a piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times, detailing the costs of eating nutritious, home-cooked meals versus eating out. According to Bittman, many Americans explain the high rates of obesity in this country by relaying the "fact" that it's cheaper to eat at fast food restaurants than to buy decent, healthy food elsewhere. Using an especially great infographic, Bittman shows us that this "fact" is really more of a myth. After all, feeding a family of four a meal of potatoes, simple salad and roast chicken costs less than half the price of feeding that same family at McDonald's. 

So why the nationwide obsession with the golden arches? One reason, among many, is that Americans aren't cooking. Time in the kitchen is seen as grueling or impossible, rather than healthy, simple or relaxing. 

I promise you, these buttermilk biscuits are relevant to the discussion.  This recipe is one of those super easy and incredibly rewarding recipes that makes you wonder why you don't spend more time in the kitchen. I grew up waiting with baited breath for these to come out of the oven, and I have such lovely memories of pairing them with a bowl of soup on cold evenings. It is one of of those recipes, in fact, that made me love cooking (and clearly, I've loved it ever since). Also, the recipe I've posted (and that I frequently use) is from Mark Bittman himself. Because he really is a fabulous guy (and a good tipper, which I learned from serving him when I was a waitress here) with simple recipes and a great writing voice. 

Make the biscuits. Then, if you're feeling the urge for an egg McMuffin, fry up an egg and some bacon, stick a slice of cheddar on top and shove the whole combo into one of these biscuits. Problem solved.
Buttermilk Biscuits
By Mark Bittman

3 cups flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 sticks of butter, cold 
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Mix together thoroughly. 

Then, cut cold butter into Tablespoon size chunks. Add the butter to the flour mixture and use your fingers to rub the mixture together until it resembles small peas--essentially you use your fingers to combine the flour and butter into a crumb like mixture. 

Stir the buttermilk in with a wooden spoon, stirring until  just combined.

Drop the dough in large spoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until golden.

*If you're interested in this cause, there are quite a few groups across the country that are working to stimulate a renewed interest in the kitchen. From groups that teach children to cook and grow gardens in urban spaces, to groups that put former gang members to work baking bread, there are a lot of ways to get involved.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cremini Mushroom Strudel with Pesto

Last week, there was a frost in Wisconsin. The next morning, I actually turned the heat on in my car. Maybe I'm a little bit of a wimp (it still got to 57 degrees that day), but all I wanted to do all day was curl up in a down comforter and eat something mushroom-based. Because, for some reason, mushrooms solve my cold weather blues. 
So, after perusing the Internet for inspiration, I saw a recipe for a wild mushroom strudel accompanied by arugula pesto. I did not have a wide assortment of mushrooms on hand, nor did I have any arugula, so I improvised and ended up with my own original recipe. 
First, I chopped fresh herbs (using fresh herbs in this is a must, which makes it an excellent dish to make in early fall/late summer, when fresh herbs are still available at markets and in gardens). I also chopped a whole bunch of cremini (or baby portabella) mushrooms. This is not a quick recipe, but you can make it a whole lot quicker by buying pre-chopped mushrooms. I usually frown on that, but this recipe is very good and ever so slightly too time consuming. So, you know, buy the pre-chopped mushrooms. I recognize that you have things on your to do list that trump making dinner, from time to time. Or, if you're really busy and still need mushroom-y goodness, make this very quick wild rice pilaf. I digress.
This strudel recipe is also an excellent opportunity to conquer a fairly straightforward ingredient that many home cooks fear: phyllo dough. You know what I'm talking about--you eat it whenever you go to your favorite Greek restaurant and dream about being able to recreate the spanakopita at home. Maybe even baklava (okay, even I'm afraid of that recipe). But that crispy, flaky dough seems like it would take hours to work with and would be quite finicky. As it turns out, phyllo dough is super easy to work with.   Shh...let's keep it our little secret. For a video instruction of how to do it, view this handy video. My only note on phyllo dough is that if you buy it frozen (and I encourage you to do so), it has to thaw in the refrigerator overnight and on the counter for two hours after that. This is not a recipe to make on a whim. But, it is delicious and warming and somehow brings my two favorite seasons together; pesto tastes like summer, and mushrooms wrapped in delightful pastry taste like fall. This is the perfect September meal. Enjoy!

Cremini Mushroom Strudel with Pesto
By Alexandra Rogers

5 Tablespoons butter
1-2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup shallots, diced
1 Tablespoon fresh basil, minced
3 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
24 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
6 sheets of phyllo pastry (fresh phyllo pastry or frozen thawed)

If using frozen thawed phyllo pastry, you must place the frozen pastry in the fridge overnight, and remove the pastry from the fridge 2 hours before use on the day of. So, by the time you start the rest of this recipe, the phyllo dough needs to be sitting on the counter! 

In a large skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once the pan is hot and the butter is melted, add shallots, garlic, basil, rosemary and 2 teaspoons thyme. Let cook for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Add mushrooms (the pan will seem far too crowded, but just go with it). Saute for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very tender. 

Remove the mushrooms from heat, and set aside to cool. Salt to taste (I used less than half a teaspoon). 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a small baking sheet.

Melt 3 Tablespoons butter in the microwave (this should take a little less than 30 seconds).

Place kitchen towel on work surface and top with 1 phyllo sheet. Brush that sheet with melted butter and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon thyme. Top that phyllo sheet with another phyllo sheet, brush with butter and sprinkle with another 1/2 teaspoon thyme. Repeat until the phyllo dough is 6 sheets high. You can find a bit more guidance on how to work with phyllo dough here

Spoon mushroom mixture into the middle of the phyllo dough street. Fold the longer sides over the mushroom mixture (almost like you're wrapping a present), and then roll up the dough, jelly roll style. Roll as evenly as you can, and when complete, place the roll seam down on the greased baking sheet.

Brush the top and sides of the roll with butter and sprinkle with any remaining thyme. Put the roll in your preheated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown all around (including the middle of the strudel). 

Let cool for 3-4 minutes, then slice with a serrated knife to serve. Garnish with fresh pesto (I used 1-2 Tablespoons/slice) and serve. Serves 4.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Garden Fresh Spaghetti

During a recent visit to the bookstore, I picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. The book features a collection of short essays (which end with recipes) about cooking and eating alone.
One of the first essays I read in the book was by Amanda Hesser. She talked through the meal she made herself one night when her significant other was out of the house. She made a beautiful point about the fact that we often don't cook well for ourselves when we cook only for ourselves. I've definitely gotten home to an empty house and thrown a microwave dinner in more times than I can count. And that's a little funny, if you think about it, since I am obsessed with food and cooking. 
Hesser made a point that cooking a great meal for just you is a way of respecting yourself. I like this logic a lot, and so today I'm offering up a recipe that is meant only for one person (though obviously you can double it if you like) and that capitalizes on the best your garden or green market currently has to offer.
My mother taught me this combination after plucking fresh tomatoes and basil from her garden one day this summer, and mincing some garlic she'd picked up from the green market earlier that day. It is the epitome of fresh comfort food. (Note, do remove the skins from the tomatoes--it's a neat trick to learn, especially because skinless tomatoes produce a sweeter sauce, with no bitter taste coming in from the skins.)
Garden Fresh Spaghetti
By Alexandra Rogers

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 plum or roma tomatoes, skins removed
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/3 cup roughly minced basil
1 serving of your favorite type of spaghetti noodle (usually 1/8 the box)
salt to taste
grated parmesan cheese (optional)


Bring water to boil in a medium pot. Once water is boiling, add in spaghetti and cook for several minutes, until it has reached your desired consistency. Pour pasta into a colander to drain the water and set aside.

Roughly dice the skinless tomatoes. 

Heat extra virgin olive oil in a medium chef's pan, over medium/medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add minced garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Then, add the diced tomatoes and stir to combine. Cook tomatoes and garlic together for about 3 minutes. Add the cooked spaghetti noodles (I used capellini) and stir to coat pasta in tomato sauce. Add minced basil and salt to taste. If using parmesan, add before serving.

Serves 1.

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