Shanna vs. the Spaghetti Squash

Posted October 25, 2013 by shannaswendson
Categories: Italian, Vegetables

After falling off the experimentation wagon and letting myself revel in my dietary ruts, I’m back to attempting to push a few culinary boundaries.

My latest adventure: spaghetti squash.

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of spaghetti squash for a long time. A friend’s mother made it when I was a kid, and I thought all those spaghetti-like strands looked cool. I love spaghetti, and the idea that there was a vegetable just like it appealed to me. I just haven’t had a lot of luck cooking it for myself.

My last attempt looked like a scene out of a horror movie, as I chased the squash around the kitchen with a meat cleaver. I think it took me longer to cut the thing open so I could cook it than it did to cook it, and by that time, I hated it. The rind is very tough, and the shape doesn’t help in holding it still long enough to cut it open. I’m amazed that I got through the experience with all my fingers intact because I came dangerously close to cutting myself when my knife bounced off the skin as the squash rolled away. I found myself wishing for a chainsaw.

But this time around, I got clever. I did some research and found that you can boil it without cutting it open first. The boiling softens the skin a lot. So, what I did was boil it for about half an hour, or until my knife slid into it easily. Then I cut it in half, scooped out the seeds, and put it in a baking pan to bake at 375 F until it was really done. I probably could have boiled it until it was totally done, but I like the baked texture when it comes to squash.

I have to say that the real key to enjoying spaghetti squash is to quit thinking of it as anything even remotely resembling pasta. It is not pasta, and it never will be. The taste and texture are all wrong. However, it does go well with things you might serve with pasta, so that it falls into the category of almost, but not quite, entirely unlike pasta (apologies to Douglas Adams). It was okay with an Italian sausage and tomato sauce — but not as good as the sauce is with some ziti and a little mozzarella cheese on top and browned in the oven.

But the dish that I really liked was the carrot and zucchini spaghetti dish, with this squash replacing the spaghetti. I might even have liked it better than the pasta version because the squash had a bit of crunch, and the flavors blend well with the onion, pepper and carrot. I may buy spaghetti squash more regularly, just to make this dish. It will never replace pasta in my life, but it is a way to add more vegetables to my diet.

I may try it next with some pesto. I’m not quite sure how that will go, to be honest, but I have a basil plant, so I may as well give it a shot. I may also try it with a tomato and garlic sauce. It might be interesting mixed with pasta in a carbonara dish. I don’t plan to waste any more of my sausage sauce on it, though. That deserves real pasta.

Exploding Chocolate Meringue Cookies

Posted January 18, 2013 by shannaswendson
Categories: Uncategorized

For a few years now, I’ve become known among my friends for the meringue mushrooms I make. It involves piping meringue into caps and stems, then assembling them with melted chocolate. The result is not only very cute, but when you pop one in your mouth, it tastes like a sweet cloud dissolves into a burst of chocolate. The problem is that they’re very labor-intensive, taking a good three or more hours to make a batch, and a batch is pretty small, just a couple of handfuls. They disappear almost instantly at parties. I think they’re really meant to be used as a garnish or decoration on other desserts.

Then I found a recipe in the church cookbook that looked like it had the same key elements, but without all the labor of piping out the various pieces and then assembling them. It involved mixing cocoa and chocolate chips with meringue and then dropping it by spoonfuls for baking. The chocolate chips and some of the cocoa sink to the middle, leaving an airy, slightly chocolatey outer puff with gooey chocolate in the middle. Yum! There was just one teensy problem with the first batch: They kind of exploded when you ate them. I made them about the same size as the recipe called for, since I came out with almost exactly the same amount the recipe said it made, but if you bit into one and you weren’t really careful, the outer meringue shell shattered explosively. It was very entertaining to watch people eat them, and I kind of wish I’d recorded it so I could edit the footage together with the end of the 1812 Overture (the part where the cannons go off).

So, I did some tinkering. I came to the conclusion that they needed to be small enough to pop the whole thing in the mouth at once, and I probably needed a little less air in the egg whites than the recipe called for. I’m not sure I’ve achieved perfection yet, and there are a few variations I’ve found online that I want to try, but here’s where the Exploding Chocolate Meringue Cookies stand now. Please note that this is not a foolproof recipe where if you just follow the directions you’ll be okay. A lot of it is in the technique, so it may not come out the same for everyone, and the results can even vary depending on the level of humidity in the air.

Start by heating the oven to 275 F and lining a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper.

Beat three egg whites until they’re really foamy and form peaks that mostly hold their shape when you lift the beaters — about 2 1/2 minutes, depending on your mixer. You don’t yet want stiff peaks at this point. Gradually beat in 1 cup of sugar — about a tablespoon at a time and beating until it’s all dissolved before adding the next bit. As you get toward the end, you can add more at a time. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 1/2 teaspoons of white vinegar. Beat about three more minutes until the meringue is fluffy and glossy and holds its shape if you drop some from a spoon. Fold/stir in gently 3 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 6 ounces (about half a standard package) of mini chocolate chips. Mix it just enough to incorporate the cocoa into the meringue until there are no streaks and it’s all a light brown color, but don’t beat it vigorously or you’ll deflate the meringue.

Drop by small spoonfuls onto the parchment lined sheets. They puff up a bit during baking, so make them just a little smaller than bite-sized. They don’t spread much, so you can put them pretty close together, maybe half an inch apart. Bake about 20 minutes. I use two sheets and put one on each oven rack, then rotate them between the racks after ten minutes. They’re done when you can easily lift them off the paper. Remove from the sheets to cool (you can just lift the paper, but be careful because they’re pretty fragile at this point and can smash or tear). Eat at least one while it’s hot and the inside is really melty and gooey. As soon as they’re cool (and they cool quickly), put into an airtight container and seal.

I suppose you could use a pastry bag with a wide star tip to pipe out fancy kiss-type shapes, but that rather defeats the purpose of the labor-saving exercise. Still, I may try it someday.

Eat carefully and warn people about the potential explosions.

Cauliflower “Rice”

Posted May 14, 2012 by shannaswendson
Categories: Vegetables

I guess I’m still on a vegetables kick, which is probably good for me. Early in the year, there was a newspaper feature on some superfoods to add to your diet, and ways to do it. One thing they mentioned was the idea of using cauliflower as rice. When it’s cooked like this, supposedly it loses the cauliflower taste and texture, and if you substitute it for rice, you’ve lowered the calorie count and added nutrients, since you’re replacing a starch with a vegetable.

Now, I like cauliflower. Roasted cauliflower is divine. But rice? Seriously? Since I had a head of cauliflower in the refrigerator and it’s getting too warm to roast stuff, I figured now was as good a time as any to try it.

So, you bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it, like you would to make pasta. While the water is coming to a boil, cut a head of cauliflower into pieces that will fit in the feeding tube of a food processor and then grate it using the grating disc. Or if you don’t like your knuckles I suppose you could grate it manually using a cheese grater. Throw the grated cauliflower into the boiling water, cook for about 10 minutes or until it’s soft, and then drain. Again, like pasta.

cauliflower rice

Plain cauliflower “rice” in the strainer.

And, you know, it actually does have a similar flavor and texture as rice. I wouldn’t use it to replace rice to serve with fried chicken and pan gravy, but I ate it with a little butter and some salt and pepper and forgot I was eating cauliflower. I imagine it would work well with a stir fry. The newspaper article suggested using it to make Spanish rice, so that was what I tried next.

spanish rice

Spanish-style cauliflower “rice”

I cooked some cauliflower “rice” and set it to drain, then sauteed some onion in a little olive oil, added some cumin and red pepper, then stirred in some Southwestern flavor canned diced tomatoes. I folded the cooked “rice” into that. It worked pretty well, but I think it needs more experimentation. I was making it as part of a pretty complicated meal, so I made it ahead and set it at the back of the stove to keep warm while I did the rest. As a result, by the time I ate it, the texture reminded me more of couscous than of rice. I think next time I’ll cook the “rice” a little less if I’m going to cook it with something else, and I’ll eat it immediately instead of letting it sit there. I might also adjust some of the ingredients for seasoning (I did this off the top of my head instead of looking at a recipe). I do like the concept. Mexican food can be difficult to match with vegetables, and turning the rice into a vegetable makes the meal a lot more nutritious.

Kale Chips

Posted April 25, 2012 by shannaswendson
Categories: Snacks, Vegetables

I’d heard people talking about kale chips and thought it sounded kind of odd. How are you going to get something crunchy out of something leafy? But then my mom gave me a bunch of kale, so I thought I’d give it a shot. And, yes, you do get actual “chip” texture. I would say, though, that if you’re craving potato chips as a snack, these don’t quite do the trick. You can snack on them and still feel hungry. However, I find they work perfectly as a side dish to a sandwich as a substitute for potato chips. They provide that crisp, salty touch. I do wonder how much of the nutritional value survives the cooking process, but it’s still got to be more than you get from potato chips even if you lose some nutrients. Kale is also incredibly cheap. When I bought some more (after the success of the first experiment), it was only 99 cents a bunch.

So, here’s what you do:
Tear up a bunch of kale leaves into larger than bite-size pieces (it shrinks a lot in cooking) and wash and dry. I use my salad spinner to dry it. Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Put the kale in a bowl and drizzle olive oil over it — about a tablespoon per bunch, but it’s probably best to start with less and add more if needed. Toss it with your hands, using your fingers to make sure all the leaves are lightly coated with oil. Sprinkle on some salt (you can use flavored salt) and toss again. Spread the leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake about 15 minutes or until the leaves are crispy. The original directions I found said 20 minutes, but I seldom even make it to 15. I start checking at 10 minutes.

Store them in an airtight container, and they stay crispy a few days. Because it shrinks so much during cooking, it makes a lot less than you think it will. These chips are also really delicate, so if you’re making them for travel snacks or a lunch box, you’ll want to put them in a sturdy container, like a refrigerator dish, rather than a ziplock baggie.

I’ve also tried cooking kale. You can saute it with garlic in some olive oil. It’s got a stronger flavor than some greens, so you may need to play around with the seasonings, but it’s a nutritional powerhouse and cheap. I think it may become a more regular addition to my menu.

Irish Soda Bread

Posted March 17, 2012 by shannaswendson
Categories: Baking, Elsewhere in Europe

One more St. Patrick’s Day special (though I generally like this bread in fall and winter). I mentioned my Irish soda bread and got a request for the recipe, so here it is. This recipe is based on one in the book Having Tea by Tricia Foley, but as tends to happen when I cook, it’s mutated a little over the years.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and flour an 8-inch cake pan.

Sift together 3 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Even after sifting, you’ll need to stir this mixture pretty well because with that much flour, the sifter won’t thoroughly mix all the ingredients. Add 2 cups of sour cream and two beaten eggs, then fold all this together. You’ll want to make sure all the dry ingredients are moistened and it’s all mixed up, but this is a quick bread, so you don’t want to overmix. Then stir in a cup of raisins.

Pour this batter into the pan. The recipe says to smooth the top, but I’ve never managed that very well. It’s a very sticky batter and I always get a very textured top. Cut a cross in the top of the dough (not for religious purposes, but so the top of the bread doesn’t crack as the bread rises while baking). The recipe says to use a knife, but I usually just use the spatula I used to scrape out the batter). If you like, sprinkle coarse sugar on top.

Bake for about 45 minutes. The recipe says an hour, but I’ve made this using at least four different ovens, and I’ve never made it to an hour. I start checking around 40 minutes. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap it. It gets pretty tall, so you’ll need to make sure you’re using a lower oven rack or else the top will get really brown while the insides are still gooey. Remove the bread from the pan and cool on a wire rack. Although it’s divine hot from the oven, let it rest at least 15 minutes before slicing because there is some carry-over cooking even after it comes out of the oven that will get the inside truly done (though I suppose you could cut around the edges).

This makes excellent toast. It’s also highly addictive, and it makes the house smell yummy while it bakes. I’m working on a way to halve the recipe and make a smaller loaf so I don’t make myself sick wolfing it all down at once, but I need to figure out what kind of pan to use. I guess maybe a cake pan designed to be an upper wedding cake tier. Or maybe my small cast-iron skillet.

Braise a Cabbage

Posted March 16, 2012 by shannaswendson
Categories: Vegetables

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a fun and slightly different way to cook green cabbage: braise it. This technique seems to totally change the flavor of the cabbage, making it almost sweet, and it produces interesting textures. There are crunchy brown bits on the edges because of the roasting phase, the outer parts are really juicy and tender, and the inside is tender-crisp. This dish goes great with pork chops or roast pork or would go well with corned beef if you’re roasting it brisket-style instead of doing boiled corn beef, where you boil the cabbage with it.

This is also a dish that scales downward well, so you can make just enough for one or two servings by adjusting ingredient amounts. I’ll go ahead and give the full-sized version. I cut this recipe out of the newspaper years ago and finally got around to trying it (I’m making an effort to get around to all those recipes I clip, save and ignore).

Heat the oven to 325 F and grease/oil/spray with cooking spray a 13×9 inch baking dish. Whack a head of green cabbage vertically into eight wedges (after removing any nasty outer leaves). Arrange the wedges in the dish. If they don’t all fit, leave one out rather than overlapping too much (I usually have one wedge left over). Thickly slice an onion (or half a Giant Mutant Vegetable onion) and cut a carrot into rounds and arrange these around the cabbage. Drizzle the vegetables with about a quarter cup olive oil and a quarter cup chicken stock (you can probably use vegetable stock to make this vegetarian style, but I haven’t tried it that way, so I don’t know how it would affect the flavor). Sprinkle with coarse salt (sea salt or kosher salt), fresh-cracked black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes to taste. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake for about an hour.

After an hour, turn over the cabbage wedges using tongs. This is likely to get a little messy because the cabbage will be getting tender, but don’t worry if it starts to fall apart. If the pan has dried out, add a little water or more stock. Re-cover and bake another hour. Then turn the oven up to 400 F and uncover, then roast for about 15 minutes or until the cabbage is starting to brown around the edges.

Warning: the whole house will smell yummy during the long baking time, and it’s not the typical cabbage cooking smell.

Honey-Whole Wheat Bread

Posted February 25, 2012 by shannaswendson
Categories: Baking

This recipe isn’t so much an exploration thing as it is a sharing thing. I mentioned my honey-whole wheat bread recipe, and friends asked me to share, so here it is. I’m also doing this to have multiple copies out there, as I’d thought I’d lost it. My current copy is a stained and spattered printout from when I must have typed it up to share with someone. That was many computers ago, and while I copied it onto a diskette, I don’t think my current computer can read those diskettes, even with the external floppy drive. When I couldn’t find the printout where I thought it should be, I tried searching online and couldn’t find a recipe that looked right. Thus my relief to find it and now my paranoia in making sure I don’t lose it again.

I normally would credit my source, but I’m not sure of the source. I think it was on a package of something. Initially, I thought it was from Gold Medal whole wheat flour, but the recipe they have on their site is different. When I found the recipe, it calls for Rapid Rise yeast, so I tried their site and their recipe is different. I’ve Googled various things from the recipe and still haven’t found it anywhere. I’ve been making this bread for at least twenty years.

This is a 100 percent whole wheat recipe, with no white flour, so it makes a pretty dense, hearty bread. I mostly just love it toasted. It makes good sandwiches because it’s sturdy enough to hold up to heavy fillings. And, of course, it’s wonderful right out of the oven with butter and honey. All the bread recipes say to let the loaves cool completely before slicing, but why wouldn’t you let yourself eat hot bread right out of the oven? That’s the best part of baking.

Although the recipe calls for Rapid Rise yeast and the method seems optimized for that, I have made it with regular yeast and I can’t tell a difference in the results. Just double the standing and rising times.

Start by mixing 3 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour with two packets of Rapid Rise yeast and a tablespoon of salt in a large bowl. Then stir in 1/4 cup of shortening, margarine or butter (someday I plan to experiment with cooking oil), 1/3 cup of honey and 2 1/4 cups of very warm water (125-130 degrees F). I usually measure the honey first, then measure the warm water in the same cup to rinse out all the honey. Beat this mixture until it’s smooth and all the shortening has melted. Then stir in 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups more whole wheat flour until the dough isn’t too sticky to handle. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it’s smooth, about ten minutes. This is a vigorous upper-body workout because it’s a pretty stiff dough. Cover the dough and let rest 10 minutes. (If you’ve used regular yeast, let rise 20-30 minutes).

Grease two loaf pans. Punch down the dough — but it won’t be as puffy as most bread doughs. It doesn’t rise a lot at this stage. Divide it in half and shape into loaves, then put them in the pans. Cover and let rise until double, about 45-60 minutes with Rapid Rise yeast, 1 1/2 to 2 hours with regular.

Heat the oven to 375 F, then bake with the pans so that the tops of the pans are in the center of the oven for about 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown on top and hollow-sounding when you tap the loaves. Remove from pans and brush tops with melted butter or margarine (unless you want a really crisp top crust).

Sometimes I add in some pecan pieces while kneading to make a pecan bread that makes excellent toast.