28 April 2010

Nuggets of bliss

Over the years, my family has spent much time in Germany, either in Heidelberg for my father's research work or in northern Bavaria visiting relatives.  Some of my favorite childhood memories are of the times I spent in Bavaria (Bayern), frolicking in the forest collecting berries and flowers and moss, basking in the love of my extended family, and helping out in my grandfather's bakery.  Rising early thanks to jetlag, I'd stumble down to the Backstube and watch my Opa pull huge loaves of bread out of the oven with his bare hands, hear the rumble of the mixers, and be fed with fresh-baked rolls and pretzels.  As I got older, I even got to participate in some of the work, and I believe my love for baking and cooking was born out of those experiences.

Having been steeped in the traditional German perspective on baking, gluten-free baking has always been something of a mystery for me.  What flours don't contain gluten?  Do those flours taste any good?  How do you control the texture of the baked product?  With these questions giving me unease, and no pressing reason to try making anything gluten-free, I've pretty much been a wheat- and oat-based baker.  (Okay, buckwheat did find its way into one of my breads, though that recipe depended on a whole lot of wheat!)

But the delightful chocolate walnut cookies I'm sharing with you today are a pressing reason to make a foray into gluten-free baking.  They're so tasty, with a slightly more delicate consistency than regular cookies, and they've sent me into many a moment of bliss.

These little chocolatey guys, full of nuggets of walnuts and more chocolate, first found me when I was wiped out and windblown from climbing at Little Egypt, just outside of Bishop, California.  It had been a fun day of climbing with friends on freezing cold rock (there were icicles just a yard or so off of one of our routes, but man, think of what great friction that gave us!), and as the sun set and the clouds rolled in, it was time to trek back to the car.  The thing was, though, that after hiking out from the Frontier to Mussypotamia through deep sandy soil, scrambling along chossy ridges between yawning mountain drainages, and crawling on hands and knees through snow, I was a little more exhausted than I had expected to be that day.  On the hike back to the car, the one thing that sustained me was the prospect of getting out of the cold wind and into that warm car.  As I eased my weary body onto the soft seat, Mariah handed around a bag of these cookies.  I took one and bit into it.  Wow.  I don't think anyone else in the car knew it, but that cookie catapulted me into sheer bliss.  Warmth.  Sitting down.  And one of these cookies?!  How much better could life be at that moment?

I had to get the recipe.  Mariah, one of the most beautiful people I know--inside and out--kindly shared it with me.  This recipe comes originally from Sanaa Abourezk's book Gluten Free Mediterranean, but has been adapted as a friend passed it on to Mariah, who then in turn gave it to me.  I'm not sure what the original name is, but I'll call them Gluten-free Chocolate Walnut Cookies, and now I pass this recipe on to you!  They come to you with much love, and as they're a delicious and easy entry into the world of gluten-free baking, I hope you have a chance to make them soon and enjoy them along with us.  Since getting back from that climbing trip, I finally tracked down tapioca flour and sorghum flower and I've been loving nibbling on these cookies...they're just as good as I remember them being on that blustery day in Bishop.

Gluten-free Chocolate Walnut Cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks or chips, divided
1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
4 Tbs. butter, divided
1 egg
1 Tbs. vanilla extract
1/2 cup sorghum flour*
1/4 cup tapioca flour*
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup walnuts, chopped.

Microwave half of the chocolate chips plus 1 tablespoon butter in a bowl for 1 minute.  Stir and heat for another minute or until chocolate is completely melted.

Place brown sugar, remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, and melted chocolate in the bowl of a large stand mixer and beat together until smooth.  Add the egg and vanilla extract and continue to beat until creamy.

In another bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder, salt, walnuts, and remaining chocolate chips.  Add to the creamed mixture and mix until well combined.

Scoop out single tablespoons of the dough and place 2 inches apart onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 12 minutes at 350 F in a pre-heated oven.  Remove from the oven and cool completely on pan.  Carefully peel cookies from parchment paper once they have cooled.

* Santa Barbara locals, you can find the tapioca and sorghum flours at Lassen's Health Foods in Goleta.  Look for the Bob's Red Mill brand!

25 April 2010

Picnic Salads

For me, picnics are all about sunshine, friends, rest, and good food.  And there's not much else so beautifully relaxing as stretching out on a warm, soft blanket after a satisfying repast of varied and interesting dishes.  Picnics "my way" are usually an eclectic collection of salads and entrees; I remember the surprise of one friend years ago who assumed a picnic we were organizing would consist of just pre-made sandwiches eaten in a park.  Oh no.  Picnics call for real good food!

One of the challenges to picnicking is keeping food safe.  As food sits in the temperature danger zone (41 - 135 F), potentially harmful bacteria have a chance to grow.  Your picnic can be a safe one, though, by controlling the temperature of your food.  Chances are, however, that you won't be able to keep your food at or below 41 F while traveling out to your picnic destination!  As an alternative, you can control the amount of time your food spends in the temperature danger zone.  If your food starts cold (at or below 41 F), the current ServSafe recommendation is that the food must be consumed within 6 hours.  Since bacterial growth is favored in moist and protein-rich foods, you may also want to consider excluding these types of foods from your picnic menu if time and temperature control is impractical.

Here are two great picnic salads I made this weekend.  Largely vegetable-based, they can stand up well to extended time in a cooler.  The first one is a take on Çoban Salatası, Turkish Shepherd's Salad, which I first enjoyed on a visit to Antalya, Turkey.  On that scorching hot summer day years ago, I found it exquisitely refreshing, and I loved the fresh colors, flavors, and textures.  Traditional Shepherd's Salad consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onion, and parsley, but in my version I take out the onion and add in tangy feta cheese and Kalamata olives.

The second is a delicious French salad, a salade de carottes râpées.  Quintessentially French, this salad is made of grated carrot and minced parsley dressed simply with lemon juice, olive oil, a pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper.  It's a wonderfully cooling complement to a sunny-day picnic!

The preparation of these salads is extremely easy.  Just toss all ingredients together!  They can be made a day ahead of time and stored chilled.

Mediterranean Shepherd's Salad
Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 cups diced cucumber
2 cups diced Roma tomato
1 cup diced sweet Italian pepper
3/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
4 oz. low-fat feta cheese, diced
1/3 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 Tbs. lemon juice
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Salade de carottes râpées
(French Carrot Salad)

2 cups grated carrot
1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely cut
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. olive oil
1/8 tsp. superfine sugar
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

23 April 2010


I am so excited to share this yogurt salad recipe with you!  Think of a cross between an Indian raita and a Greek tzatziki...maybe a raitziki?  This one is just so creamy, so flavorful, and best of all, so good for you!  Instead of the Greek yogurt normally used for these kinds of salads, I use non-fat plain yogurt, which I drain in a fine mesh sieve (one of my favorite utensils).  The yogurt then gets mixed with julienned cucumber, spices, and fresh mint.  It has a super thick and creamy consistency minus any fat, and since it packs a lot of protein and calcium, this is one salad you can feel okay getting addicted to!  (A couple spoonfuls, and I think you'll be hooked like I am.)  I love it spooned over a lamb gyro, but works great too as just a dip for crackers or veggies.

A trick I use for julienning cucumbers is to first slice the cucumber into thin rounds, then take a stack of sliced rounds and slide them into a layered row.  Finally, cut the rounds into matchstick-sized pieces by cutting perpendicularly along the row.  It makes chopping the cucumbers pretty quick work, and it's a lot safer than cutting the cucumber rounds while they're all stacked on top of each other (as I once used to do).
The recipe is really straightforward (drain yogurt, slice cucumbers, mix, and chill), but you will want to budget some time in for draining the yogurt and letting the mixed salad chill so the flavors can develop.  It's a great make-ahead dish.  In fact, I made a batch today and am planning on serving it at a picnic tomorrow along with some other fun salads.  Check back over the next few days for more delicious Mediterranean salad recipes!

Mediterranean Yogurt Salad
Makes ~2 cups

2 cups plain non-fat yogurt
1/2 cup julienned cucumber
3/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. superfine sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander seed
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 Tbs. mint, finely chopped

Place yogurt in a fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth.  Let drain for one hour, refrigerated.  Mix all ingredients together and chill for one hour to overnight to allow the flavors to meld.

17 April 2010

Baked donuts!

Somehow or another, I stumbled across this recipe for baked donuts at 101 Cookbooks, and I have been wanting to make them all week.  They're so delicious--a tender, sweet milk and yeast dough, with a crunchy crust of cinnamon sugar on top--and you can munch on these guilt-free.  They're so much tastier and better for you than any fried donut could ever be!

I didn't change the recipe at all except for a few modifications to the method.  What I love about this recipe is that it works perfectly to shape the donuts the night before and then pop them into the oven (after a brief rest at room temperature) for fresh-baked breakfast donuts in the morning!  I mean, who wants to be up at the crack of dawn to get the yeast started?

So here is the recipe...hopefully you'll have a chance to bake up a tray of these wonderful donuts for yourself soon!

Baked Cinnamon Sugar Donuts
Makes ~ 10 donuts and 10 donut holes

The donuts will be a pale golden color when done; to ensure a moist and tender interior, don't be tempted to overbake these!  The cinnamon sugar topping gives them a beautiful finish and a nice crunch.

2/3 cup warm milk, 95 to 105 degrees (divided)
1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 Tbs. butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1/8 tsp. freshly-grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. fine grain sea salt

1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 Tbs. cinnamon

Place 1/3 cup of the warm milk in the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in the yeast and let sit for five minutes.  If yeast does not bubble up, discard and start again with fresh yeast.  Meanwhile, stir the butter into the remaining warm milk to melt it.  Add the remaining milk, butter, sugar, egg, flour, nutmeg, and salt to the yeast and mix together with the paddle attachment, then switch to the dough hook and continue mixing until dough is smooth and pulling away from the sides of the bowl, adding more flour if dough is sticky or more milk if too dry.

Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead a few times (dough should be barely sticky), shape into a ball and place in an oiled boil, turning to coat the dough with oil.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1-2 hours.

Punch dough down and roll it out onto a lightly-floured surface to 1/2-inch thickness.  Cut out 4-inch circles and transfer them to parchment-lined cookie sheets.  Then cut out 2 1/4-inch circles from the centers.  Loosely cover the donuts with plastic wrap.

At this point, you may either let the donuts rise for 45 minutes and proceed to bake them, or refrigerate them overnight.  After refrigeration, let donuts rise 1 hour in a warm place.  Bake at 375 F just until donuts take on a golden tinge, about 8-10 minutes.

While donuts are baking, pour the 1/2 cup milk into one bowl and mix the sugar and cinnamon in another.  It helps if the bowls are 6-inches in diameter (just wider than the donuts) and flat-bottomed.

As soon as the donuts are done, dip the tops of the donuts in the milk and then press into the cinnamon sugar.  Work quickly to finish this while the donuts are still hot (the heat will melt the sugar slightly, helping it to stick and form a divine crunchy layer).  Serve donuts warm from the oven.

15 April 2010

Sometimes you just want to eat

Life has gotten pretty busy these days.  Working late, sometimes squeezing in a stop by the gym, and then crashing at home.  And when I get home, I usually am hungry and not ready to whip up an involved meal.  That's when I love leftovers.  But today, as I was getting all pumped out in the gym, I started craving some sushi rolls, or makizushi, and the idea came back to me after I got home tonight.  Well, I wasn't ready to start making rice and cooking eggs and arranging tons of filling options and condiments...I mean, after a long day, sometimes you just want to eat.

So I rummaged around and found some leftovers, which serendipitously all worked together for some tasty sushi tonight.  Nori wrappers, roasted sesame seeds, and one of my absolute favorite seasonings, furikake, were in the pantry.  Leftover rice, sauteed Swiss chard, and cooked ground beef were in the fridge.  And I had some fresh cucumber too!  Of course, some avocado and crab would've been stellar, but with my limited resources and time, my leftovers-maki wasn't too bad!

As you can see, I opted to make inside-out rolls (rice on the outside), coated with sesames.  First I spread my leftover rice (tossed with some rice vinegar, a pinch of superfine sugar, and a sprinkle of salt) over a half sheet of nori.  Then I sprinkled it with sesame seeds and turned the nori over (rice side down) on a piece of plastic wrap.  On the "inside" surface I spread together some mayonnaise and sriracha, and then I added a generous shake of furikake, strips of cucumber, a little ground beef, and sauteed Swiss chard.  I was so tickled to revamp what I already had on hand to get a new flavor profile.  Think outside the box: what do you have in your kitchen right now that might make some fun sushi?

Now, the secret to making inside-out rolls without having it all fall apart is to build the roll on plastic wrap and then use the wrap to tighten and tuck up the sushi as you roll it up, ending up with the whole roll wrapped tightly in the plastic wrap.  (For extra reinforcement as you roll and shape the sushi, place a sushi mat or aluminum foil under the plastic wrap.)  Slice the roll while it's still wrapped up, then carefully unroll each piece from the plastic.  And voila, you'll be making gorgeous sushi just like that.

09 April 2010

Campfire Gourmet

What do you think of when you think of camp cooking?  If you ever have gone camping with my friend Andy, you'd think of some of the tastiest, soul-satisfying food ever.  I think I'll call it Campfire Gourmet Cuisine.  Andy has an amazing knack for bringing basic ingredients together in--may I say primitive--campsite conditions to create delicious stews, curries, and vegetable medleys.

I spent this past week camping just outside of Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with a group of rock-climbing friends led by Andy and his wife Mary.  Days were spent climbing and bouldering (hitting up Little Egypt, Owens River Gorge, and the Buttermilks, for those climbers wondering where we went), and evenings were spent cooking and enjoying great food and friends around the campfire.  Okay, one night drove into Bishop to watch Clash of the Titans (not as good as the original I have to say), and another night we did actually eat at a restaurant, but the real fun, and some of the better food of the trip, was had around our own campfire.

From the camp stove we had a great mix of sauteed vegetables (broccoli, orange and red bell pepper, and zucchini) over quinoa and topped with a velvety pumpkin curry.  The curry was essentially a base of sauteed onions, spices, canned roasted pumpkin puree, and finished with some creamy goat's milk yoghurt.

Another night Andy made a fantastic stew, combining onions, garlic, herbs, Chianti, kidney beans, zucchini, potatoes, and chicken in a Dutch oven.

After over an hour of slow-cooking in the campfire coals, the stew was bubbling hot and served with deliciously salty bagel toasts.  Pure genius.

Practically the perfect way to finish a day that had started out with a small snow storm!