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Things have been a little bit crazy around here.  Posting has been light due to my son having his Bar Mitzvah last weekend.  He came through and did a fantastic job.

As a part of the celebration we had an open house on Saturday night.  About 100 people came and feasted on a selection of bars, cookies, dips and spreads.  My wife thought an open house would be fun and I thought it would be a lot of work.  Since I did all the baking and prep work it was hard and fun at the same time.  I have about 11 cookies/bars/cakes to post as well as 7 dips.  I am also backlogged on my cookbook reviews with 8 books in various stages of recipe testing.  I was planning on getting all these recipes and photos posted within the next few weeks but then...

I have been playing online poker for about 9 years.  I have been playing poker since I was little and online poker means that I can always find a game to play.  For the past 5 years I have been playing at PokerStars.  This is the largest poker site that is open to Americans (at this point I promise that I won't go into my libertarian rant).  Next week PokerStars is having a series of tournaments exclusively for bloggers and I plan to play as many events as I can find the time for.  I will be posting regular updates on my performance in each tournament, so check back often.  I play under the screen name of "rorkesdrift" so come to PokerStars and cheer me on.

Two Bite Carrot Cakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

I was really in the mood for carrot cake, but I am trying to stick with my diet.  With all the seasonal parties, open houses and work related dinners it is just too easy to gain weight during the holidays.  My solution, to being able to indulge in having the cake I crave yet keep the portion sizes small, is to bake the carrot cake in a mini-muffin pan.  This way I can have the cake that I want but I don’t eat a huge slice.

I pulled my copy of Joy of Cooking and adapted their (yes the cover may list the Rombauer family as the authors but we all know that the latest edition was put together by a huge team of accomplished cook book authors, just read the introduction for a complete list of names) recipe.

Printable recipe

Two Bite Carrot Cakes with Cream Cheese Icing

 Ingredients

 Cake

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground allspice

2 large eggs

¾ cup sugar

1 ½ cups finely shredded carrots

¼ cup orange juice

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ cup chopped pecans

½ cups golden raisins

 Frosting

8 ounces room temperature cream cheese

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 teaspoons vanilla

2 ½ cups sifted powdered sugar

 Method

 Cake

1        Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and all spices.  Set aside.

2        In mixer, on medium, combine eggs and sugar till smooth, about 2 minutes.

3        Stir in carrots

4        Mix in, till combined, orange juice and vegetable oil.

5        Fold in pecans and raisins.

6        On low, slowly add the flour mixture until just combined.  Do not overmix!

7        Using an ice cream scoop drop batter into spray coated mini-muffin pan.

8        Bake at 400 degrees about 15 to 18 minutes, until the muffins pass the toothpick test.

9        Remove to rack and let cool completely.

10    When fully cooled top with frosting.

 Frosting

In the bowl of a food processor combine, by using a few short pulses, the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and powdered sugar, till smooth.

Spanish Garbanzo Bean Salad

At the last minute we were invited to a friends house for dinner.  Since my wife is a vegetarian they asked if I could bring a vegetarian side dish that everyone would like to eat.  It seems that many people still have a 1960’s view of vegetarian food as being nothing but a mixture of brown rice, tofu and bean sprouts.

This is one of those times where a well stocked pantry comes in handy.  This recipe is very quick to put together and only used about 5 minutes of prep time and less than 15 minutes of actual cooking time.  Everyone enjoyed the dish and maybe now they don’t believe that vegetarian means boring.

Printable recipe

Spanish Garbanzo Bean Salad

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

7 cloves garlic, minced

2 16 ounce cans Garbanzo Beans (aka chick peas), drained and rinsed

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon dried ancho chilies

4 Roma (plum) tomatoes, de-seeded and diced

1 10 ounce bag fresh spinach

 Method

  1. In a large sauté pan heat the olive oil on medium heat.
  2. Sauté garlic until soft, about 2 minutes
  3. Stir in Garbanzo Beans, paprika, chilies.  Cook till warmed through, about 5 minutes.
  4. Stir in tomatoes.  Cook till warm, about 3 minutes.
  5. Add spinach and cook until fully wilted.  Depending on your pan size you may need to do this step by adding one handful at a time.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste.

Peanut Butter Banana Chocolate Cake

Printable recipe

Peanut Butter Banana Chocolate Cake

 

Ingredients

½ cup (1 sick) unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups (about 3 medium) mashed bananas

1/3 cup creamy peanut butter

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup cocoa

1 cup Nestle’s Peanut Butter & Milk Chocolate chips

 

Method

In a mixing bowl, on medium, cream together the butte and sugar till smooth, about 3 minutes.

 

Mix in egg, vanilla, bananas and peanut butter.  It may look curdled but don’t panic.

 

In separate bowl mix together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

 

With the mixer on low, add the dry mixture to the wet in three batches.

 

Divide the batter in half.

 

Stir the cocoa into one half of the batter until well combined.

 

Spread the cocoa batter on the bottom of a greased 9×13 inch baking pan.

 

Spread the remaining plain batter over the top of the cocoa batter.

 

Sprinkle the cup of peanut butter chips over the top of the batter.

 

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until the cake passes the toothpick test.

 

Let cool at least 15 minutes before removing from the pan to a cooling rack to finish the cooling process

Book Review – A Taste of Persia

A Taste of Persia by Najmieh K. Batmanglij

Mage Publishers

 The book shelves at my local Barnes & Noble are not overflowing with Persian cookbooks.  After reading A Taste of Persia I still don’t understand what makes Persian cooking unique in the category of Middle-Eastern cooking or why the world needed this particular book.

 The 176 page book contains over 75 recipes, many with nice color photos.  The book opens with a brief introduction to Persian history and includes a dictionary of Persian cooking.  The dictionary provides detailed explanations of the ingredients and is helpful to a reader that may be unfamiliar with some of the techniques, spices and methods used in Middle-Eastern coking.  The index is practically useless and is just an alphabetical listing of the recipes rather then a place where a reader can turn to locate dishes that use specific ingredients.

 In many of the recipe’s ingredients lists there are asterisks next to both unusual and some common ingredients but there is no explanation of what the asterisk means, what they refer to or anything at all, they are just hanging there.  The ingredient lists are very long and many cooks will be turned off by the length of the lists and overly complicated instructions.

 The recipe for Stuffed Grape Leaves calls for 19 different ingredients to all be combined and rolled into a grape leaf that produces an end result that is the size of your thumb.  That sure is a lot of thing to stuff into such a small volume.  The Stuffed Peppers, Eggplant and Tomatoes also calls for over 19 ingredients and there are so many competing flavors that the whole dish becomes muddled and a waste of one hour of prep time and over one hour of cooking time. 

 Some of the suggested ingredient substitutions seem odd and there is no explanation of what these changes will do to the flavor of the dish.  In the recipe for Noodle Soup Ms. Batmanglij suggests the following substitution: either 1 ½ cups of whey, sour cream or wine vinegar.  I can’t imagine sour cream and wine vinegar being used in the same sentence let alone being interchangeable in a recipe.

 Some of the recipes call for measurements of ingredients that are just plain wrong.  The Yogurt Soup, besides using lentils, split peas, ground beef, rice, turnips, spinach and yogurt calls for a full garden’s worth of fresh herbs.  For a recipe that makes six servings of soup the ingredient list calls for two cups of cilantro, one cup of parsley, one half cup of chives, one cup of fenugreek and one cup of dill.  This soup contains almost an entire cup of fresh herbs in each serving!

 Sometimes the review blurbs on the back cover of a book provides you with a good preview of what you will find inside.  When the reviews are all from actors who frequent a bakery or restaurant then I fear what I will find inside.  This book has just one quote and that is from a review in the Times Literary Supplement.  The quote the publisher chose, as an example to promote the book, discusses the “naturalistic and mouth watering pictures”, “stresses the pre-Islamic continuity of Iranian cuisine” and that the book is “infused with food-laden nostalgia”.  Notice there is no comment concerning the recipes, ease of use or flavor of the dishes, just a literary commentary.  A cook book should provide the buyer with well written recipes that can be prepared in their home kitchen.  This book contains overly long ingredient lists, ingredient volumes that will have a cook shaking their head and directions that leave a cook confused.  I cannot recommend A Taste of Persia and suggest you look elsewhere for Middle Eastern recipes.

Lentil Vegetable Soup

 

Printable recipe

Lentil Vegetable Soup

Ingredients

1 cup lentils

2 15 ounce cans pinto beans, rinsed

3 Tablespoons Olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped in ¼ inch pieces

1 pound (about 2 medium) zucchini, chopped into ½ inch pieces

1 pound green beans, stems removed and broken into 1 inch pieces

Juice of 1 lemon

½ cup cilantro, chopped

Method

1.  In a pot heat the oil on medium.  Add onion and garlic, stir till golden, about 8 minutes.

2   Stir in tomatoes, cumin, turmeric, carrots, zucchini and green beans.  Saute about 5 minutes.

3.  Add 4 cups of water, lentils and pinto beans.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes.

4.  Stir in lemon juice and cilantro.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Italian Vegetable Stew – Ciambotta

It seems that winter is really on it’s way – they are calling for snow flurries tonight.  It is that time of the year when I pull out all those hot soup recipes.  Everyone just feels better knowing that a bowl of hearty, hot soup is just a few minutes away. 

I read this recipe in the October issue of Gourmet (RIP) and had to try it.  The results were delicious.  The mixture of different vegetables, when cooked al dente, is delicious, rustic and satisfying to cook.

Printable recipe

Italian Vegetable Stew – Ciambotta

 Ingredients

1/3 cup olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 celery ribs, cut into ¼ inch slices

3 carrots, diced into ¼ inch pieces

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 ¼ pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces

½ cup water

28 ounce can diced tomatoes

2 red bell peppers, cut into ½ inch pieces

¾ pound of green beans, cut into 2 inch pieces

1 ¼ pounds zucchini, cut into ¼ inch pieces

¾ pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces

 Method

  1. In large heavy pot heat olive oil. Saute, about 10 minutes, onion, celery, carrots, garlic.
  2. Add eggplant and water. Cook covered until eggplant is soft.  About 10 minutes.
  3. Stir in tomatoes and peppers. Cook on low for 15 minutes.
  4. In boiling water blanch green beans about 5 minutes.  Remove
  5. In boiling water blanch zucchini about 5 minutes. Remove.
  6. Cook potatoes in boiling water till tender, about 10 minutes. Remove.
  7. Add beans, zucchini and potatoes to stew and cook about 15 minutes.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.  Serve.

Book Review – Mexican Modern

Mexican Modern: New Food From Mexico by Fiona Dunlop

Photographs by Jean-Blaise Hall

Interlink Books 2009

 I am always a little leery of cookbooks that are merely collections of recipes from various restaurant chefs all tied together by some common theme.  These types of books usually are just a hodgepodge of recipes with so many different styles of cooking that there is no clear concept of what the finished dishes are supposed to be representative of.  I was pleased with the recipes contained in Modern Mexican, though I do have some issues with the arrangement of the book.

 Fiona Dunlop traveled through the various regions of Mexico interviewing many of the young, creative chefs that ply their trade at award winning restaurants.  The goal, which was beautifully achieved, was to showcase modern cooking and trends in Mexican restaurants and not just print the typical Tex-Mex chain restaurant style of tacos and burritos.  Each chef has their own dedicated page, with a biography and an in depth interview.  With over 15 chefs contributing many of their signature dishes, the book contains many excellent, cutting edge recipes that a casual observer would be surprised to see served at a Mexican restaurant.  The photographs appear like an episode on the Travel Channel rather than a cookbook and provide the reader with a beautiful image of Mexico.  The pictures of the street scenes are amazing shots showing brilliant colors and provide a real view of the daily rhythm of the market place.

 All the recipes are written using both ounces and grams systems.  This is an excellent format to use to present recipes, as many cooks have been switching to the more accurate and exact method of weighing ingredients.  My wish is that more cookbook authors would use both systems of measurement when presenting recipes.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were very few unusual ingredients called for, could not be readily purchased at a typical American grocery, that needed long descriptions of their origin or a list of specialty shops were they could be located.

 The arrangement of the chapters makes it difficult, if not nearly impossible, for a reader to locate a specific recipe or course where that dish could be served.  The chapters are arranged by City or Region which makes it hard to find a recipe that you want to cook.  If I wanted to make the recipe for Cream of Cilantro Soup, since there is no Soup or Appetizer chapter, I would be forced to thumb through every page in the book until I came across the recipe I was looking for.  In the index the soup is not listed by name or even under cream.  This structure makes a book very frustrating for a cook to use.

 Within each chapter the recipes are not arranged by course or main ingredient i.e. Appetizer or Fish.  Each chapter has an interview with a specific chef then presents the chef’s recipes, which could be from anywhere on the menu, then moves on to the next chef.  This form of presentation is confusing and the book and chapters seem to skip around from dish to dish. If the book was presented in a more traditional format, print all the recipes of a similar type or course together, then the chef interviews could have been sprinkled throughout the book with a reference to their recipes and the page number where they could be located.

 There are many excellent recipes that are easily prepared in a home kitchen.  The Eggplant and Goat’s Cheese Mosaic layers fried eggplant with goat’s cheese and red pepper into a dish that is both tasty and makes a beautiful presentation at the table.  The Fried Squid Rings with Capers and Potatoes is not a Mexican version of fried squid but here the lightly fried rings are served in a broth of potatoes, crushed chilies, capers and white wine.  Sweet Potato and Pineapple Puree was easy to make and was very popular with the kids at Thanksgiving.  The Morelian Cheesecake with Guava uses packaged cookies to make a crust that is then covered in purchased guava paste.  The base is then topped with a condensed milk and cream cheese filling mixture.  If you have never tasted guava before then this dessert would be an eye opening introduction.

 The Morelian Gaspacho is not the typical tomato base gazpacho with fresh vegetables that most people are familiar with.  Here fresh mangoes, pineapple and jicama are flavored with lime juice, orange juice, chili powder and topped with white cheddar cheese.  I am not sure that I would have called this dish gazpacho but no matter what you decide to call it, the words refreshing and delicious belong in the title.  A traditional dish with a modern twist is the Tacos with Shredded Duck and Orange.  In this dish shredded duck meat is cooked in a sauce of garlic, chilies and tomatoes that is finished with white wine vinegar and fresh orange juice.  I was a little skeptical of the mixture of ingredients but the sweetness of the fresh juice offered a nice contract to the bite from the garlic and chilies.

 This book helps to demolish the common belief that all Mexican food is rolled in a tortilla and topped with chili sauce.  The dishes were bright and original while being composed of easy to find ingredients.  Mexican Modern will serve to expand a home cook’s international food experience without being too unusual or difficult.  The main reason that I would rate this book as three spatulas is the method that was used to arrange the recipes within the chapters.  But if you don’t mind an occasional treasure hunt then this book would be a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

Book Review – Real Cajun

Real Cajun – Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe.  Photographs by Chris Granger.  Clarkson Potter Publishers 2009

 I can’t help but be intrigued by a book that opens with instructions on how to make bacon in a home kitchen.  Upon reading the instructions for Homemade Bacon you start to think to yourself “hey I could do that”.  Without giving away too much information: ten days, sitting undisturbed, curing in the back of the refrigerator and then one hour in a smoker.  Sounds a lot easier then you probably thought.  Don’t worry that this recipe will make too much bacon, every bite of it will get used.  Before reading this book I thought that 60% of the dishes served in Louisiana contain bacon, 30% use shrimp, sausage or crawfish and the remaining 10% use bacon, sausage and shrimp, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variations and different fresh, locally sourced ingredients that are used in traditional Cajun cooking.

 Cajun cooking is not just a piece of meat or chicken coated in some hot spices and cooked in a cast-iron pan until it looks burnt.  The idea of spicy, blackened food as “authentic Cajun” may have been served up for TV viewers and by chain restaurants in the 1980’s, but this is not the type of food an honest Cajun would serve to family and friends.  Link provides us with true, down home, style dishes that his family cooked back home in Acadia Parish.  This means rice, crawfish, gumbo, corn bread and greens in pork fat.  This is the real Cajun food not the generic, citified and over seasoned dishes served to the tourists on Bourbon Street.

 Link is the owner of two very popular New Orleans restaurants, Herbisaint and Cochon.  The James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in the South in 2007 and Cochon is listed on many of the “Best in America” surveys.  Link has a solid grounding in the classics, having graduated from the California Culinary Academy before returning home to New Orleans, so his wife could attend Tulane University.

 The 80 photographs give a real feel for what life is like on the bayou.  Link, writing in an easy, conversational style, talks about growing up in the Acadian region of Louisiana and the joy of family gatherings.  There are even suggestions for activities when planning a trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest or what not to do the next time you go turtle hunting.  The way Link talks about his family and friends comes across the page as real love and not as if he was just using them to set the mood for his book.

 The traditional Cajun recipes all start with a brief personal introduction about the dish, contain a list of easily purchased ingredients and excellent, well written instructions to help even the inexperienced cook recreate the dishes.  No Cajun cookbook would be complete without recipes for such dishes as: Smothered Pork Roast over Rice, Crawfish Etouffee, Seafood Gumbo, Fried Chicken, Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya or everything you need for a do-it-yourself Crawfish Boil.

 Cathy’s Shrimp, Corn and Tomato Stew is a hearty mixture served over rice.  The Broccoli, Rice and Cheddar Casserole is a church basement, style classic that is given a new life when Link uses his homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup instead of canned concentrate.  The Cast-Iron Hush Puppies contain a puree of jalapenos, scallions and parsley, which adds a bright fresh taste, as well as green color, to a traditional southern side dish.  Link includes recipes for dessert, and before you ask, no they don’t call for either bacon or crawfish.  The picture of Chocolate Yummy might look like a typical pot-luck type of desert that was quickly thrown together using a box of instant pudding and a container of frozen whipped topping, but the quality of the fresh ingredients, homemade custard and whipped cream elevate this home-style dish to something that you would proudly serve at any family gathering.

 With heartfelt stories of real life in Cajun country and wonderful recipes that are well written and easy to follow Real Cajun easily earns a rating of three spatulas.

Book Review – Yolele!

Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal by Pierre Thiam 

Photography by Adam Bartos 

Lake Isle Press 2008

 I had never seen a cookbook concerning cooking in Senegal, so when I picked up Yolele! I didn’t know what to expect.  Having the occasion to read Yolele! provided a unique opportunity to learn about a cuisine from the part of the world that is usually ignored by the culinary main stream.  The dishes presented in the book seem as if the local people took ingredients and methods from Portugal, France and the Middle East, then combined local produce and spices and mixed it all together to create unique, but still familiar, dishes.  Senegal, being located on the west coast of Africa, has historically been a melting pot of European, African and Middle Eastern cultures.  The author, Pierre Thiam, who owns two critically acclaimed restaurants in Brooklyn, compares the cuisine of Senegal to that of Louisiana Creole cooking, where many different cultures have come together to create something new and delicious.

 The lovely photographs capture the ambiance of the marketplace in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.  The colors of the fresh produce, the pictures of the fresh seafood and the candid shots of street vendor’s food have inspired me to travel to Africa so I can explore the markets and meet the people.  After seeing the vibrant colors of the fresh ingredients I wish there were more photographs of the finished dishes.  When reading the book it is easy to understand why the IACP, last year, nominated Yolele! as one of the year’s best books in the category of Best First Book/Julia Child Award.

 The recipes use readily available ingredients that can easily be found at a local grocery store.  When the recipe does call for a more unusual ingredient the book provides a good description of the new ingredient and suggests some substitutes that can readily be purchased in an American megamart.  I was surprised that so many of the ingredients are common to American kitchens.  The Glossary and Notes found at the end of the book are helpful and can get any home cook quickly up to speed on Senegalese cooking.

Tempra is reminiscent of cerviche, where prawns are marinated with an acid and spices, but here the prawns are grilled first then marinated.  I am generally the most adventurous eater among my friends, but the Grilled Sea Urchin, which sounds fascinating, is going to have to wait for my palate to become a little more mature.  The Fish and Corn Fritters is reminiscent of a Cajun style dish that would be at home in any New Orleans restaurant.  Tilapia and Millet Porridge is a delicious main dish where couscous is cooked to the consistency of a creamy polenta and served with Tilapia that has been simmered in a broth with tomatoes, onions and habaneros.

The Black-Eyed Pea Salad reminds me of a Moroccan style garbanzo bean salad with its blending of beans, peppers, onion, tomato and cucumber.  Thiebou Jen, “rice with fish”, is the national dish of Senegal and is indicative of the Senegalese style of combining various cultures into something unique.  Here fish is served with rice, carrots, cabbage and okra cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.  In the recipe for Plassas, Thiam substitutes Swiss chard, in place of the traditional yucca leaves, as the wrapper for a thick mixture of beef, shrimp and onions.  You can’t cook a traditional Senegalese dinner and not serve dessert.  In the recipe for Banana Fritters mashed bananas are mixed with flour, sugar and eggs then deep fried.  The recipe calls for topping the warm fritters with powdered sugar but I couldn’t stop myself from drizzling some melted chocolate over the top and serving with a scoop of homemade ice cream. 

 Yolele! is a welcome addition to the list of international style cookbooks that I can recommend.  The dishes are not typically found on an American menu but are similar enough that even meat and potato types of cooks will feel comfortable expanding their repertoires to include an African style menu.  The ingredients are user friendly, easy to find and the recipes make a good introduction to a “foreign” cuisine that is not “too” foreign.