September 30, 2009

Grilled Cheese + Tomato Soup Revisited

Two of my least favorite foods are canned tomato soup and American cheese. Matt tells me I'm a snob, but I really just don't like the flavor. I've never liked canned tomato soup; it's unnaturally sweet, and it doesn't taste all that much like a tomato. As much as I wanted to, I've never really liked American cheese, either. It's an insult to America to name that cheese after it, and it's an insult to cheese to classify it as such.

I should note that I haven't always had such a bad attitude about American cheese. When I was little I would beg my mom to buy Kraft Singles because I thought individually wrapped cheese was as exciting as slumber parties and the Christmas Barbie. When she would finally give in a buy a package I would slowly unwrap a slice like I was opening a birthday present, peel off the sticky little square of cheese, take a bite, and want to spit it out immediately. I would always force myself to eat a few slices over the next couple weeks so my mom wouldn't get mad at me for making her buy it, and I really wanted to learn to like the taste of American cheese, but it just never happened. When the mostly full package got thrown away several months later (not because it went bad; I'm pretty sure it could survive a nuclear holocaust), my mom would swear that she was done buying sliced American cheese. I can still hear her saying, "Kirsten, never again" as the package fell to the bottom of the trash can with a thud. Inevitably a few months later I would see Kraft Singles at a friend's house, and I would desperately want my own mom to be one of those moms who buys individually wrapped slices of cheese. I would run home and beg my mom to buy Kraft Singles, and the cycle continued...

It took until about five years ago and a broadening of my cheese horizons for me to come to terms with the fact that I do not like American cheese and probably never will. Growing up I absolutely hated Swiss cheese or anything slightly resembling it. Then one day when I was 21 I was eating lunch between a couple of lakes in Switzerland, and I took my first bite of Emmentaler. Before that bite I had no idea what I was diving into. Had I stopped to think about the fact that I was in Switzerland, the home of Swiss cheese, and this mysterious cheese sitting on my plate was probably Swiss cheese, I never would have taken a bite. Sometimes it pays not to think before eating, though. While that first shocking bite did anything but win me over, for some reason I gave it a second and third and fourth chance, and in a matter of five minutes I learned to love Swiss cheese. Emmentaler, as it turns out, was my gateway drug into the wonderful world of cheese. Once I got over that hump I realized that there are so many varieties of cheeses worth eating, and there are very few kinds that I don't like. Smoked cheeses and American cheese are in the latter category.

I think the lesson to be learned is that if I can learn to love cheeses that I absolutely hated when I was a kid, but I still can't enjoy a cheese that I desperately wanted to love, then American cheese has no hope. And in case you were worried about me being, um, un-American for not loving grilled cheese and tomato soup, you can relax. Dinner last night (and lunch today) was an awesome batch of homemade tomato soup and a grilled fig and cheese sandwich.

For an awesome and very easy recipe for tomato soup: 101 Cookbooks
For a tasty sandwich and pictures of soup in the making: keep reading

I basically doubled the recipe from 101 Cookbooks, making some minor changes as I went. All of these tomatoes are from Matt's mom's garden - thanks, Ann! Some of them were dented, bruised, and just plain struggling, but once they were roasted and pureed you would never know.

Cut out the stems and slice the tomatoes into quarters (or eighths for the larger tomatoes). Lay them skin side down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with salt.

Cut a few yellow onions into large pieces, toss with olive oil and salt, and spread them out on another lined, rimmed baking sheet. Add some unpeeled garlic cloves to the onions. The original recipe called for 5 tomatoes, 3 medium onions, and 5 garlic cloves; I used about 10 tomatoes, 3 medium-large onions, and 10 cloves of garlic.

Cook the tomatoes and onions at 375 until the onions start to caramelize and the tomatoes start to sink a little. I cooked the onions for about an hour.

The tomatoes took about an hour and fifteen minutes.

Peel the garlic and add it to a large pot with the tomatoes and onions.

Using a hand blender (or doing small batches in a real blender) puree the vegetables.

Stir in low sodium chicken broth one cup at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. I ended up using four cups of broth. The original recipe stops here, but I moved the pot to the stove and let it cook on low for another 30 minutes or so. I also added a little more salt and a dash of cayenne. Matt and I both really liked this soup. It's pretty smooth, but the tomato seeds and pureed skins provide a little texture, which I enjoy. It's only as sweet as a fresh tomato is, and it actually tastes the way a tomato tastes.

This is actually the sandwich I made for lunch, which was better than the one I made last night. Last night in my excitement over being reunited with my long lost friend, havarti with dill, I went a little overboard with experimentation. Just so you know, a grilled muenster and fig sandwich is a lot better than a grilled havarti with dill and fig sandwich.

A layer of cheese, a layer of fruit, two slices of good bread, and a little butter is all you need.

Hopefully seeing me make sandwiches like this will help my mom forgive me for those Kraft Singles purchases. Sorry, Mom.

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September 28, 2009

Pumpkin Bread

The number one sign for me that fall is here is that I traded in my flip flops for socks and shoes this morning. Maybe I'm becoming more sensible as I get older and choosing comfort over fashion or maybe I'm slowly morphing into my perpetually frozen dad, but there are only so many days when I can walk to school with white toes that have lost all sensation before I realize I should stop being so lazy and put on some stupid shoes. Breaking out the socks and shoes is a pretty big step for me. I don't really have anything against shoes and I love boots, but there is nothing I hate more than socks. Well, maybe bad grammar, people who smoke cigarettes on the running path, and Penn State fans, but socks are next in line. Actually I don't even hate Penn State fans. I just feel bad for them.

Anyway, fall has finally arrived. It's in the 50s, it's insanely windy, and I have to wear socks. To make myself feel better about the whole socks thing, I baked some pumpkin bread this afternoon. I might at well enjoy one of the best things about fall while dealing with one of the worst, right?

Pumpkin Bread

1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup fresh or canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large eggs
1/4 cup water
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup diced apples, raisins, chopped pecans or chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional, but strongly recommended)

Recipe makes 1 loaf.

If you're using fresh pumpkin, preheat the oven to 375. If you're using canned pumpkin or you've already cooked the pumpkin, preheat the oven to 350.

To cook the pumpkin slice it it half lengthwise and scrape out the stringy stuff and the seeds. Save the seeds for these, and discard the stringy stuff. Lay the pumpkin halves skin side down on a rimmed baking sheet, pour about 1/4" water into the pan, and loosely cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender. Reduce the oven temp to 350.

Let the pumpkin cool and then scoop the flesh into a food processor.

Process until it's pureed and no longer stringy.

Over a large bowl sift together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.

In a separate bowl combine the pumpkin, oil, eggs and water. Next time I'll remember to not use a yellow bowl when taking photos of orange and yellow food. And no, you're not hallucinating. There are four eggs. I had a lot of pumpkin, so I doubled the recipe.

Whisk to combine.

Pour the egg/pumpkin mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients.

Stir until mostly combined.

I decided to add some chopped apples since I have several pounds of them taking up a ton of space in my fridge.

And I really don't see the point in baking anything if chocolate chips aren't involved.

Mix until the apples and chocolate chips are evenly distributed.

Butter and flour the loaf pan(s).

Then pour in the batter.

Top them off with a few more chocolate chips for good measure.

Bake for about an hour or until a tester comes out clean. One of my loaves took 60 minutes and the other one took closer to 70.

Leave the bread in the pan to cool for at least 10 minutes (and preferably longer) before trying to remove it. Trace around the edge of the pan with a knife and turn in over onto a plate or cooling rack.

This is great on it's own, but it would make a lovely dessert with a little dollop of freshly whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream.

If you give a mouse a corner of a of loaf of pumpkin bread...

He's going to ask you for a whole slice.

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September 26, 2009

Spicy + Sweet Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

On our way home from the apple orchard last weekend Matt and I stopped by a little pumpkin patch off the highway to see if the "Fresh Raspberries" sign was true and to check out their pumpkin selection. We were greeted by the incredibly nice grower who explained everything to us and showed off their harvest of what he called their "Martha Stewart pumpkin collection." Along with the regular carving pumpkins they had a huge wagon with the most amazing pumpkin varieties I've ever seen. I really wanted to buy one of every kind, but because neither Matt nor I has a place to put big pumpkins we ended up just picking up a couple pie pumpkins, a pint of the best raspberries I've had all summer, and a few mini versions of the Martha Stewart pumpkins.

This is everything we came home with. I was very, very happy.

Here's my favorite. It looks black, but it's actually a really dark green.

I've been debating what I want to do with my pie pumpkins for almost a week now. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin ravioli, mashed pumpkin... I'm a little indecisive. After drinking my first pumpkin latte of the year yesterday I was inspired to take action, and today I actually got around to cutting into one and making toasted pumpkin seeds.

Spicy + Sweet Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Adapted from Simply Recipes and 101 Cookbooks

Fresh pumpkin seeds
Olive oil
Cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 400.

Here's the lucky pumpkin.

Slice off the stem, and then slice the pumpkin in half lengthwise.

Scoop out all of the seeds with a metal spoon, and separate them from the stringy flesh. I was surprised by how easy this process was.

Scrape out all of the stringy stuff and save the shells for roasting.

Rinse the seeds and pick out any flesh that might remain.

Add the seeds to a saucepan with 2 cups water and 1 tablespoon of salt for each 1/2 cup of seeds. I had about a cup of seeds, so I added 4 cups water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Bring the water to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes.

While the seeds are simmering drizzle a rimmed baking sheet with a little olive oil.

After simmering for 10 minutes drain the seeds.

Then spread them on the baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with salt and sugar, and then add a few dashes of cayenne. Stir to coat. Place on the top rack of the oven, and bake for 10-15 minutes or until browned to your liking. I took the seeds out to stir them about 10 minutes in and they were a little soft, but after 15 minutes they were perfect.

I think toasted pumpkin seeds taste a lot like popcorn, and with the sugar they're kind of like kettle corn. They're pretty irresistible. I have a feeling that by tomorrow when Matt gets home from his weekend of shooting pheasants they're going to be gone.

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September 23, 2009

Apple, Brie + Turkey Panini

After Matt and I took a trip to the apple orchard last weekend I have apples out the wazoo, and I couldn't be happier. I've been snacking on them plain, dipping them in almond butter, making an improvised version of Waldorf salad, and making heavenly scones. One of the first things I made, though, was a panini. I'd considered making some kind of wrap with apple slices, but I knew I wanted brie and the only thing better than brie is molten brie.

Apple, Brie + Turkey Panini

Dijon Mustard
Spinach (optional)

For the bread I used one of the bake at home baguettes from the grocery store. Instead of baking it completely I baked it for about half the time, figuring it would be grilling long enough that it would finish cooking then (and it worked, in case you were wondering). Once it came out of the oven I spread a little dijon mustard on one half because there is nothing worse than a dry panini. A little apple butter would also be really good, but I didn't want to shell out $7 for a teensy jar of it at the grocery store. I can make my own for far less, thank you very much. And I'll let you know if I do.

First came the turkey. I used two or three pretty big slices.

Then spinach. You could definitely leave this part out if you prefer. I just wanted something green in my sandwich. There were a few bites where it was a little overpowering, but overall I enjoyed it because it made me feel like I was being a tiny bit healthier.

I piled some slices of brie on top of the spinach. And then I cut myself an extra slice to eat right away because I haven't had brie for a while and I could not live another second without it.

One of the keys to making a great sandwich is layering the ingredients in a way that holds everything in place. While slices of turkey don't have a tendency to slide right out of a sandwich, things like apple slices and small leaves of spinach do. Putting the cheese in between those things will act as a binder once it melts, and it will help keep everything in.

Next were the apple slices. Try to slice them thin enough that you can pile them on a sandwich and get your jaw around the sandwich, but not so thin that they're overshadowed by everything else. Plan on using about half an apple per sandwich, and you'll probably have a few extra slices for snacking on.

Top everything off with the other piece of bread and give it a little smoosh to help everything stick together.

If you don't own a panini press or pan, a George Foreman works just fine. Preheat the grill and throw your sandwich right on. I've found that it helps to shift the top piece of bread towards the back of the grill about half an inch because when you lower the lid it pushes that top piece forward. Make sense? Let me know if it doesn't.

It took a good 10 minutes until the brie started to melt. Cooking times will vary depending on the device you're using, though, so keep an eye on it.

Molten brie - exactly what I was going for. Success!

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