Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Poires Helene

It's kind of unusual that I chose pears to make a dessert out of recently. In terms of fruit, they've never been my favorite. I tend to prefer the apple or some type of berry. Yet, there they were - a crate at the market stuffed full of beautiful Bosc pears, seducing patrons right and left with their long stems and dark, autumnal skins. I bought some, even though I didn't really know what I wanted to do with them.

As you may know, anything tastes better when covered in chocolate. Over Thanksgiving weekend I reminisced with my family over how my sister and I used to take giant spoons out of the kitchen drawer, fill them with Hershey's syrup and lick them clean as kids. Gross? Perhaps... but to us it was an unbelievable treat. So, when I came across a recipe in Julia Child's bible "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", I decided I'd found the perfect use for my pears: Poires Helene. Aka, poached pears covered in chocolate sauce. I changed the recipe quite a bit - so this is definitely a bastardized version of Ms. Child's mastery... I had to alter it to fit what I had on hand.

I'd never poached a pear before, and the only one I'd ever eaten was poached in red wine, so this was a definitely new territory. They turned out great - although, I could have perhaps poached them a tiny bit longer... I was so worried about them being mushy, but Bosc pears seem to hold up better than their Bartlett cousins. My taste tester (aka Josh, the picky dessert eater) ate his entire plate full, which means he liked it... alot. (He doesn't hesistate to make sour faces when he doesn't like something and he certainly doesn't ever finish something that he doesn't like. Some may think that rude, but I actually appreciate it because then I know what truly works and what doesn't!)

If chocolate covered anything sounds good to you, or if you're a Francophile, or if you just think pears look pretty, I think you'll like this dessert... Technically, they should be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream as well, but we decided to just pile on more chocolate.

Poires Helene (serves 2)

2 ripe Bosc pears
1/2 lemon
1/2 quart water
3/4 C. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon-sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 oz. semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 T. butter

In a saucepan, bring water, vanilla, sugar and juice of lemon to a boil. Peel pears and half lengthwise, removing seeds and core. Place in saucepan, return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Poach 30 minutes or until tender.

In a double boiler, melt the chocolate with the butter, stirring constantly.

When the pears are ready, remove and plate them. I sliced mine, but you can certainly leave yours whole. Top with a sprinking of cinnamon-sugar, and then drizzle with chocolate. (Add a scoop of ice cream first if you like.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pumpkin Soup, unplugged

I have a confession to make. I am addicted... to winter squash. Every year, I bemoan the cold weather, my dry skin, the impending months of doom and gloom... but thankfully, this one thing comes around in the fall to brighten my dampened spirits.

The worst thing about my deep affinity for these dark orange veggie-fruits is that my husband does not share my feelings. I could slave all day over some roasted butternut squash lasagna, and he would stick out his tongue and shake his head, refusing to consume it like a spoiled child. Oh, he'll eat it in pie form, of course. But eating the candy-like taste of winter squash as a main course goes against his personal rule to not combine sweet and savory flavors at the dinner table. What a weirdo.

Anyway, I had this pie pumpkin sitting on my kitchen island for a few weeks. I picked it up from an apple orchard in Ohio while we were there visiting J.'s family, with the intention of using it for pumpkin bread. Right after Halloween, I went ahead and baked the pumpkin (removing the seeds first and roasting them - delicious snack), pureed the cooked flesh, seeled in up and put it in the freezer to store it until I have time to properly bake.

Then, one evening after work, it hit. The unmistakable, not easily dismissed craving for something hearty, filling, warm, and... squashy. Husband be damned, I had to have pumpkin soup that minute... he would just have to do with canned soup of his own choosing that night. I only had the basics on hand - chicken broth, onion, spices - but they would have to do. And do they DID. This soup is incredibly simple, but if you adore the creamy, sweet flavor of pumpkin / butternut or acorn squash, you will appreciate this soup. Of course, you don't have to bake and puree your own pumpkin - canned, pure pumpkin will do just fine. A dollop of cream fraiche or a splash of milk on the finished product is the perfect adornment.

Pumpkin Soup (2 servings)

2 C. pumpkin puree (the flesh of about one roasted pie pumpkin or 1 can pure pumpkin puree)
1 T. olive oil
1/2 a yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tsp. cumin powder
1 tsp. sugar
1.5 C. chicken broth (or more if you need to thin it out)
Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute 5 minutes, until onion is translucent. Add the cumin, sugar, salt and pepper and stir to combine, 1 minute.

Add the pumpkin puree to the pan, along with the broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer - simmer 25 minutes.

In two batches, puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Return to pan, taste and adjust seasonings. Drop some creme fraiche on top, stir and EAT!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Weekend Recap

I must say, we did a lot of eating this weekend. I don't know if the colder weather has just gotten into us or what, but between Josh and I were were... starving! (Or, maybe just gluttonous...)

Friday night, after what proved to be a long and tedious week, Josh picked me up from work and we headed over the store to get some fixings for a dinner at home. After a night out last Friday at Quartino - a popular (i.e., crowded!) Italian small plates restaurant here in Chicago - J. suggested we try to replicate some of the antipasto treats at home. Our menu included: pepper-crusted salumi, Romano cheese, various olives, fresh baked bread dipped in olive oil with fresh herbs, and the two main attractions, a roasted beet and walnut salad and an artichoke-tomato-endive salad in a red wine vineagrette. Dessert was decidedly un-Italian: rice pudding, with cinnamon and raisins. While it didn't really fit the theme, it fit the weather and we were happy with our choice!

Saturday was much more lively. After spending our lunch at a favorite sushi place of ours, Kanok, in Lakeview (we noshed on their one and only Mexican maki, yet to be beat, miso soup, spicy tuna maki and salmon sashimi), we got ready and headed over to our friend Amy's for some pre-dinner snacking before a friend's birthday dinner. Amy, hostess extraordinaire, rose to the occasion as usual. Her goat-cheese slathered crostini were topped with caramalized onions and dried figs - a sweet-savory combo to die for, and her cheese platter (complete with a hard, creamy goats milk cheese, a Roquefort and a semi-soft... something else) was hard to resist.

After almost spoiling our dinner, we crammed in a cab and headed to Bistrot Margot in Old Town (on Wells St.) for our friend Sarah's birthday dinner. Our bellies primed with French cheese, we weren't feeling ravenous... but that didn't stop us from indulging. Josh was anxious for his Soupe a l'onignon, which came out with, yes, even more melty delicious cheese (this time, gruyere) topping the hot soup. I went for the Salade de Poires (needed to get some greens in, even if mine did come with but more cheese! Of the bleu variety...), followed by a shared order of the moules marineres. We stuffed ourselves beyond belief, leaving no room for dessert sadly... creme brulee will have to wait. I thought Bistrot Margot was good enough... but it wasn't my favorite French establishment (Kiki's Bistrot, Cafe Matou and Cafe Bernard still beat it).

Sunday was a day of atonement. After Saturday's cheese-laden extravaganza (topped off with some hefty wine consumption), I was not feeling my best. Sunday night therefore was dedicated to healing our potentially clogged arteries by fixing up some salmon fillets - baked in pouches with herbs and lemon - roasted butternut squash (which J. actually consumed some of for once! Victory!) and some sauteed bok choy in lemon and garlic.

Back to normal now, I can only anticipate what kinds of indulgences we will enjoy THIS weekend at Friday's Wine Spectator Chill event at the Merchandise Mart!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Raisin-Nut Cookie Time!

Sunday night, I returned home from a long and arduous trip to the grocery store. On my own, I had to do battle with a possessed shopping cart, long lines at the deli and a spill on aisle 12. Finally, back in the sanctuary of my abode, I got down to business. Cookie business. Flour out, sugar measured, butter softened... only to realize, with horror, I had forgotten to buy eggs. Eggs! The refridgerator staple had somehow alluded my memory... I really must have been out of it.

Too defeated to head out again in the newly cold weather, I gave up on Sunday's cookies. Yesterday, however, I was back in full-spirits, ready to bake. "I'll just pick up some eggs from CVS on the way home from work", I thought. How was I to know that I would almost - almost! - be thwarted again. In the CVS, which usually is always realiable on eggs, all that was left at the bottom of the fridge shelf was one lonely styrofoam egg container. At first, all seemed well... until I did my mandatory broken-egg check and opened it up. ALAS, it had been pilfered! Only 4 eggs remained out of the dozen.

I bent down and peered into the back of the fridge. I thought I could see a box back there marked "Eggs". How to access it? Not willing to accept defeat, I found a shelf-stocker and asked him whether or not there were any eggs in the back. "I dunno. Don't think so. I'll check", he replied, obviously not thrilled by my request. Five minutes later, victory was mine. Eggs in hand, I scooted home to whip up a batch of raisin-nut spiced cookies. After all, I felt bad enough that I had made J. go to work Monday without any dessert (quel horreur!). Thankfully, the rest of the week will be full of cookie goodness.

Raisin-Nut Cookies (about 30 cookies)

1 C. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
5 T. butter, unsalted, softened
1 egg
1/2 C. sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. salt
1/3 C. chopped pecans
1/3 C. raisins

Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl. Set aside.

Beat butter until creamy. Add egg and sugar and beat well.

Add flour mixture to the butter mix, and beat at a low speed to combine. Stir in raisins and nuts.

Place dough by rounded teaspoons onto lightly greased cookie sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake 10 minutes.

*I like to glaze these lightly with a simple powdered sugar and water glaze, but they're perfect as is too!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I have a pasta machine. I was so thrilled when I received it a few years ago, visions of homemade pasta dancing in my head. The kitchen strewn with flour-dusted noodles, hanging from wooden racks, ready for a quick plung into some boiling water before becoming lightly sauced and then, of course, consumed.

However, I'm ashamed to admit I have only used my pasta machine once in the last two years. A failed attempt at ravioli. Everything was going along smoothly - I whipped up the dough, fed it through the machine multiple times until it formed a long, think strip, dolloped appropriately spaced portions of gorgonzola filling onto one strip, then covering with another, seeling them and cutting them into ravioli. Then, my fatal error... I put the ravioli on a baking sheet, slightly overlapping. Yes, this was were it all went wrong, because a few minutes later, when I was ready to boil my pasta, devilishly hungry, I realized my little dumplings had become one very large dumpling, one that ripped apart in every which way as I tried to salvage the remains.

Since then, I haven't had the heart to try again. I know I shouldn't feel defeated... maybe I should just try some linguine first? However, this Saturday we were craving ravioli. Yet, still gun-shy, I decided to go for another rather tried-and-true method of semi-homemade ravioli construction: the won-ton wrapper. Won-ton wrappers are sold fresh, lightly floured little pasta squares in the refridgerated portion of the grocery store. All you have to do is take them out, lightly wet two of the edges of the square with egg-wash, place a spoonful of filling in the center, and fold the square over into a triangle, sealing the edges by pressing together. Voila - you have ravioli, with much less trauma.

We actually ended up making ravioli twice (again on Sunday night). Saturday, we concocted a spinach-cheese filling in a chunky tomato and onion sauce. Sunday, we were much more simple (as our ravioli was now a side dish for some eggplant parmisan), sticking to a straightforward cheese ravioli in a light tomato sauce. I'll post the plain cheese version below, since you can alter that to your hearts content, adding whatever other fillings or sauces you desire.

Cheese Ravioli in Tomato Sauce (serves 4 main dishes)

30 wonton wrappers
1/2 C. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 C. part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 C. shredded asiago cheese or parmesan cheese
2 T. milk or cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tsp. dried oregano
salt and pepper

2 C. tomato sauce of your choosing

In a food processor (or by hand), combine the cheeses, milk, oregano, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. The consistency should be smooth, but not runny - if it needs thickening up, add more mozzarella or parm.

Take one won-ton wrapper, and use your finger to wet two adjoining edges of the square with the egg wash. Place about a tablespoon full, or slightly less, in the center of the square. Then, fold over into a triangle, sealing the edges together. Repeat with the remaining wrappers. Place complete ravioli on a slightly damp towel, to keep them from drying out.

Boil 12 ravioli at a time in a pot of salted water. This should only take about 2 minutes. When the ravioli are done, they float to the top of the pot. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Here's the finished product (this is the spinach version):

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Peas

Despite the 80 degree weather we experienced here in Chicago yesterday, it IS fall here in the midwest, and thus time to move on to heartier fare. Josh and I were felt like laying low Friday night and decided to cook an old standby and favorite for dinner - Giada DeLaurentiis' Wild Mushroom Risotto with Peas from her "Everyday Italian" cookbook. Like I said, we've made this a couple of times before - but each time with incremental improvement. Friday was no exception - I think we may be reaching perfection with this dish!

Risotto is such a perfect base for a good meal because it's so versatile. The varieties of risotto you could concoct are endless. A good mushroom risotto like this one isn't the most original of recipes (the most unique I've had is a strawberry risotto, that was simultaneously sweet and savory - who knew strawberries could taste so great with some hearty, salty parmesan?), it's definitely one of the most comforting. I love how risotto becomes all creamy on it's own - no dairy necessary - as it releases it's starches and absorbs the broth. This version has a particularly flavorful broth, a result of steeping the dried porcini mushrooms in it first, and the brown-ness of the the mushrooms is offset by the vibrant peas added in the last few minutes.

People tend to think risotto is really difficult, but it's actually not. It does require attention, however, as you add the broth, you need to be constantly stirring. Other than that though, you can't mess this up. Pair it with a mixed green salad and some crusty bread, and you've got a meal.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Peas (serves two main course servings)

3 C. low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
3/4 C. arborio rice
1 T. olive oil
1 T. unsalted butter
1 C. onion, finely chopped
5 oz. white mushrooms (or any kind, really), chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 C. white wine
1/4 C. frozen peas, thawed
1/3 C. grated parmesan cheese
S&P, to taste

Bring broth to a simmer and add porcini mushrooms. Cover and let steep 5 minutes over a low heat.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add olive oil. Saute the onions about 8 minutes, then add the mushrooms and garlic. Remove the porcini mushrooms from the broth and chop. Add porcini mushrooms to the saucepan and let cook about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice and let toast 1 minute, then add the wine and cook for 2 minutes until evaporated. Add 1/2 C. of broth, and stir until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Do this until the broth is gone, about 20 minutes total.

Stir in the peas. Mix in the parmesan cheese and add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Food Love Survey

Well, I realize I've been neglecting this little blog. The weeks up to my mid-term exams were a little hectic, so I really haven't had much time for cooking / photographing / eating out, and thus nothing to blog about! So, I thought I kick off my new found enthusiasm for Eat...and Be Merry with a little food survey, just to give you a little insight into my particular foodie feelings:

1. How do you like your eggs?
I don't eat eggs a lot for breakfast, but I do love using them to whip up quick dinners. I prefer an egg-white omelet with lots of veggies and salsa, or a spinach/tomato quiche, or a mushroom frittata. If I did order them for breakfast, they would be Over-Easy with wheat toast to soak up the yolks.

2. How do you take your coffee/tea? Coffee: Black. Or, sometimes with a little skim milk.
Tea: Black, but I prefer herbal teas like chamomile or peppermint to black tea.

3. Favorite breakfast food: Cereal or oatmeal. I like old-fashioned stone-cut oats, with a touch of milk and cinnamon.

4. Peanut butter: Smooth or crunchy. I'm an equal opportunity peanut butter eater.

5. What kind of dressing on your salad? I prefer to make my own dressings, which are very simple. Usually just a dijon vineagrette, which consists of extra-virgin olive oil, white wine or champagne vinegar, garlic, dijon mustard, lemon juice and salt/pepper. Or, I just choose a balsamic vinagrette.

6. Coke or Pepsi? Coke. Regular, not diet. Although, I rarely drink it anymore. Just as a treat.

7. You’re feeling lazy, what do you make? Pasta, with a very simple tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes, a little butter, and some garlic. Shredded basil on top.

8. You’re feeling really lazy. What kind of pizza do you order? Deep-dish spinach from Chicago Pizza or Rizzata's. Extra sauce.

9. You feel like cooking. What do you make? The options are endless! Right now, I'd like to make a wild mushroom risotto with peas, or maybe moules marineres.

10. Do any foods bring back good memories? Yes - my mom's artichoke dip reminds me of weekend nights at home with my parents, watching movies or playing board games. Also, cake made from box-mix. My sister and I always request this on our birthdays - it's so much better than store-bought cake.

11. Do any foods bring back bad memories? No, because I eat everything. I once got sick on bad mussles, but I've since recovered and love them again.

12. Do any foods remind you of someone? Chocolate Cream Pie reminds me of Dad, Sushi makes me think of my sister, Chicken Wings remind me of my husband, because we ate them so much in college, Oreos will forever be associated with my Mom.

13. Is there a food you refuse to eat? Bananas. I will eat anything but nasty bananas. Sister, Mom and Dad hate them to, so I think it's genetic.

14. What was your favorite food as a child? Tombstone frozen pizza or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

15. Is there a food that you hated as a child but now like? Salad, in general. Mushrooms.

16. Is there a food that you liked as a child but now hate? I ate a lot more meat as a child. Especially processed deli meat, like ham and roast beef, that I don't eat anymore.

17. Favorite fruit and vegetable: Fruit - Raspberry. Vegetable - Tomato.

18. Favorite junk food: Frozen Yogurt and Pepperidge Farm goldfish (parmesan flavor)

19. Favorite between meal snack: This changes frequently, but right now I'm onto pudding cups. I also go for granola bars or cheese.

20. Do you have any weird food habits? Yes - I don't like large meals that don't fall at meal time. Brunch included. Especially not afternoon BBQs that are supposed to be lunch and dinner... I don't know why, I just like to eat a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner - not combined!

21. You’re on a diet. What food(s) do you fill up on? Fat-free yogurt, lots of veggies (esp. broccoli), soup, oatmeal, etc.

22. You’re off your diet. Now what would you like? Binge at Tiffin on Devon St. (Little India). Order appetizer sampler platter (with samosas, pakora, etc.), then Chicken Curry, Lamb Vindaloo, LOTS of naan bread...

23. How spicy do you order Indian/Thai? V.V. SPICY!

24. Can I get you a drink? Glass of Sauvignon Blanc

25. Red or White Wine? Either. White as a cocktail, red with dinner.

26. Favorite dessert? Chocolate Mousse. Or Key Lime Pie.

27. The perfect nightcap? Small glass of Australian "sticky" - dessert wine.