Monday, March 30, 2009

Chocolate Zucchini Sheet Cake

Clearly I'm on a chocolate cake kick. Perhaps that's why I have problems seeing my feet.

Oh, wait, I remember, that's from the whole 8.99 months pregnant thing. How easily I forget about those extra 30 pregnancy pounds around my belly. And hips. And boobs.

This has been the longest winter ever. Even though we're in the last week of March, Mama Nature decided to dump a blizzard on us. For the first time this year, I didn't make it to work today due to weather. Even after our dear neighbor got his snowblower out in the early morning hours and cleared our driveway, the streets were still packed full of snow and I just wasn't going to chance it.

Let's play Spot The Snowblowing Neighbor. See him?

Yes, we are very lucky to live in a neighborhood with such kind-hearted people.

So when it snows, I bake. And when I have spring fever, I start digging in the freezer for a bite of last season's garden produce. A-ha! The last bag of shredded zucchini. My precious...

Chocolate zucchini cake is about as Dakotan a dessert as you can get. Why do we adore this cake? Let us count the ways:

1. No mixer needed, just grab your favorite bowl and a wooden spoon.

2. It includes zucchini and lots of it, a locally abundant vegetable that happens to be nutritious.

3. It includes chocolate and lots of it, which also happens to be nutritious according to WebMD. And we all know that WebMD wouldn't lead us astray, right?

BTW - I can't end this post without mentioning the lovely French food blog Chocolate and Zucchini. I've never been to the Eiffel Tower, but after clicking through a few photos in the C&Z picture gallery, I can close my eyes and imagine myself at a Parisienne sidewalk cafe, hearing coffee cups clink against saucers while the scent of fresh baguette wafts through the air.

I'm all about cheap thrills.

Chocolate Zucchini Sheet Cake

1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup applesauce
6 oz. melted dark chocolate
3 cups grated zucchini
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Grease and flour a 9x13 inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, stir together the flours, sugars, cocoa, coffee granules, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the eggs, oil, applesauce and melted chocolate; mix well. Place zucchini in a colander and squeeze out some of the moisture with a paper towel. Fold zucchini into batter along with nuts until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cake completely. Chocolate frosting optional.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spaghetti with Spicy Shrimp

Rachel Ray’s got nothing on me.

Last night, my husband and I were deciding what to have for dinner. He wanted pepperoni pizza. I did not. Marriage is all about compromise, so I fired up the oven for his pizza while putting a pot of water on the stove to boil for a clean-out-the-fridge meal that would somehow involve egg noodles.

In the time it took to preheat the oven and bake that pizza, I had made a lovely dish of mushroom and turkey stroganoff out of leftovers and pantry items. We sat down together, me with my stroganoff, he with his pizza, and I was struck by the difference. Same amount of time, maybe a touch more effort for my meal as I had to chop half an onion and some ‘shrooms, but a huge meal quality difference.

I admit we enjoy the occasional frozen pizza (thank you Target for Archer Farms!), and yes, my adoration for potatoes extends even to tater tots. However, to get back in the kitchen cooking real food for a majority of our dinners, throw 30-minute meals out the window and instead remember that good food generally doesn’t need a lot of fuss. Put the emphasis on quality and the time component takes care of itself.

This is a favorite in our house, inspired by my hubby. A reliable dish with a spicy kick. Just like him.

Spaghetti with Spicy Shrimp
12 oz. spaghetti (buy local and get Dakota Growers brand)
1/2 lb. frozen shrimp (already cooked, peeled, and deveined)
Good olive oil
2-3 cloves chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon Italian herb seasoning
Freshly cracked pepper
Handful chopped fresh parsley
Freshly grated parmesean (optional)

Boil a pot of salted water and cook spaghetti according to package directions.

Meanwhile, heat a glug of olive oil in a medium saucepan, add garlic, and briefly saute. Add shrimp and saute until shrimp is heated through. Add crushed red pepper, Italian seasoning, and pepper to shrimp; mix.

Drain the spaghetti, toss with shrimp and parsley, add an extra drizzle of olive oil, and serve with parmesean.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Snow Day

When it comes to weather, my mom swears by the Farmers’ Almanac. However, I don’t think even her trusty almanac could’ve predicted this.

The Missouri River is flooding. The Red River is flooding. Every creek, stream, and tributary tied to these rivers is flooding. This means that basically the whole state is underwater. But just to make the day extra-memorable, let’s throw in a blizzard for added effect. So today, the fourth day of spring, my fellow Bismarckians are getting out the hip waders and the snow shovels, evacuating their flooding river-front homes in the middle of a blizzard.

This is truly a Kodak moment. You can see plenty of those photos here.

Part of me is sympathetic, as no one likes to see their neighbors in trouble. However, another part of me says, “Hey, you live next to a river, what did you expect?” You take a lot of snow melting quickly, add an ice jamb downstream, and suddenly we’re in a panic, bemoaning the loss of basement carpets and foosball tables.

For me, moments like this simply put things in better perspective. Houses, cars, basement home theater systems = not so important. Family, friends, love = much more important. I’m struck by the idea of 10,000 people filling sandbags in Fargo right now – that’s love for your community.

This really doesn’t have anything to do with cooking…or does it? I see food as essentially tied to everything we do, everything we are. It provides comfort in hard times, celebration in good times, and sustenance in all the times in-between.

So today of all days, allow me to make a suggestion:

1. Think of your neighbor. Any neighbor. The first neighbor that popped into your mind.
2. Cook up something warm.
3. Go next door with your freshly-made kitchen creation.
4. Knock.
5. Smile.
6. Share.

We need more of that.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Slow Cooker Venison Steak

"This tastes like home."

When my husband says that, I know I need to write down the recipe.

Get the Crock-Pot out for this one.

Slow Cooker Venison Steak

1-2 lbs venison steaks
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
Baby carrots, as many as you like
1 glug Worcestershire sauce from the bottle
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt, pepper, and paprika

Place onion, mushrooms, and carrots in bottom of slow cooker. Place steaks on top of veggies. Cover steaks with Worcestershire sauce and oil, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, and paprika. Cook in slow cooker on High for 4-5 hours or Low for 8-10 hours. Serve with mashed potatoes and Heinz 57 sauce.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chocolate Cake

Oh happy day! Spring has sprung! I'm giddy happy today for so many reasons:

1. I'm sitting in my living room with the window open right now, enjoying the fresh air and sun on my back. Ahhhh.

2. I took this afternoon off from work and took a nap with my honey, one of my most favorite things in the world.

3. I had a doctor appointment this morning and found out I'm in early labor and didn't even know it! Don't get too excited, just 1 cm dialated and 70% effaced, but still, it's exciting to know D-Day is getting closer...

4. My friend Tiffany is getting married this weekend! I love me a good 'ol-fashioned hitchin' ceremony.

5. We had dinner with some friends last night and were just reminded how great it is to have such wonderful people in our lives.

6. Did you hear the news? The Obamas are planting a vegetable garden!

Localvores and foodies from all over the US have been hoping for this announcement (you may remember this post about it from January). I admit that even I'm surprised that they're actually getting the shovels out on Pennsylvania Avenue. Now we know Michelle's secret to those fantastic arms: pulling weeds!

So many reasons to be happy today, with new beginnings, new plans, new excitement - I want to celebrate. And for me, celebration = chocolate cake. Why wait for a birthday to enjoy cake? Ms. Antoinette had it right.

This is chocolate cake for grown-ups: rich, moist, sleek, no sticky-sweet frosting. Add a cafe au lait to it and I'm in heaven.

So what are you celebrating today?

Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Recipes by Susan Spungen

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, at room temperature
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 and 1/4 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup flour
Powdered sugar (optional)

Grease a 10" Springform pan with butter and line bottom with parchment paper, greasing the paper surface as well. Melt chocolate gently, either in the microwave stirring after 30 second intervals, or on the stovetop in a metal bowl set over boiling water. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, cream butter and 1 cup sugar. Add egg yolks one at a time, stirring after each addition. Stir in vanilla and ground almonds. Stir in melted chocolate and mix well.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites and remaining 1/4 cup sugar until soft peaks form. Mix about 1/4 of the egg white mixture into the chocolate batter to lighten it. Then FOLD in the remaining egg white mixture and the flour (don't stir; folding in the egg whites will give better consistency to the cake). Continue to fold batter until no white streaks remain.

Pour batter into pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Cool the cake, remove from pan, invert onto serving platter, and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Garden Seed Catalogs

This week was another doozy for hardy North Dakotans as we were blasted yet again with arctic below zero temps and snow. You know it's a tough winter day when school closes in parts of ND. Fargo, have you dug out yet?

However, today we have relief. It's warming up, with the snow turning to slush and ice melting off the eaves. Is spring finally coming? A few sure signs that spring is in the air:

1. Despite the lingering chill, people are walking outside without coats.

2. Kids are wearing shorts. Seriously.

3. The over-the-fence chats with the neighbors begin, as it's finally comfortable enough to stand outside and hold a normal conversation.

4. The mailbox is stuffed with garden seed catalogs!

USA Today ran a story recently saying that judging from seed sales so far, Americans are digging gardening again. This is very good news. If anything can get our food culture back on track, it's getting more people to grow their own food. Frankly, most of us need more dirt under our fingernails.

I get dozens of seed catalogs. I browse through most of them, but every gardener has favorites. To help you cut through the fluff, here's a few that stand out from the crowd for me:

Seeds of Change - if I could only have one seed catalog, this would be it. All organic, a little hippie, and absolutely beautiful to page through. Bonus points: I've never seen bat guano sold in any other seed catalog.

The Cook's Garden - the gourmet's seed catalog, for the garderner who does it for the hedonistic pleasure of eating garden tomatoes fresh off the stem..and frankly, that is reason enough for me. Pictures and recipes for blueberry muffins and gazpacho sit right along side plant descriptions. And there are 20 pages of salad greens. I counted.

Meadowlark Seeds - from Casselton, ND - the high school DECA group puts together this seed catalog each year. Everything is reasonably priced, and hey, it's for the kids! Check out the seed potatoes selection, all grown right in the Red River Valley. It doesn't get much more local than this.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pickled Eggs

My hubby is like a self-fulfilling genie - he has to say something three times before he'll actually get around to making it happen.

Monday morning: "Geez, I should really clean out the dog kennel."

Tuesday evening: "I need to clean the dog kennel soon..."

Thursday morning: "Wasn't I going to clean the dog kennel today?"

Thursday afternoon: Ta-da, clean dog kennel!

It doesn't bother me, just one of his adorable quirks. So last week, when I heard this come out of his mouth, I knew what was coming:

"You know, I've been really hungry for pickled eggs lately."

For the record, the thought of pickled eggs is a nose-cruncher for me. I'll make that funny face and say, 'Ummm, no thanks, I'll pass.' But hey, not everyone is impressed with my love of sauerkraut, so I get it.

I have to give him credit, the man can hold his own in the kitchen. He can do wonders with a box of spaghetti and a bag of shrimp. I kindly reminded him that he can make pickled eggs whenever he pleases. I even picked up an extra carton of eggs for his upcoming science project.

True to form, it took a few more days of mentioning pickled eggs before he finally got a pot of water boiling to start cooking them up. But he did it. And judging from his giddy reaction after eating the first couple, it's a winner.

So if you happen to have a pickled egg eater in your household, here's the recipe. Don't have pickling spice? Use the substitute spices listed at the end instead. Thanks to for providing the base recipe.

Pickled Eggs
12 eggs
1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1 small onion, sliced
5 black peppercorns

Place eggs in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring water to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Cover and let eggs stand in hot water for 15 minutes. Remove from hot water, cool and peel. Place the eggs into a 1/2 gallon wide mouth jar.

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, salt, spices, most of the onion (reserve a couple of slices), and black peppercorns. Bring to a rolling boil; pour over the eggs in the jar. Place a couple of slices of onion on top and seal the jar. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for 3 days before serving.

Pickling Spice Substitute
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 whole clove
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 small bay leaf, crumbled
1" of cinnamon stick

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tater Tot Hot Dish

NY Times put this map out today titled "The Geography of a Recession." Dark areas are bad recession spots and light areas are, well, not so bad spots. Stated in paragraph 2 of the article:

Every state in the country, with the exception of a band stretching from the Dakotas down to Texas, is now shedding jobs at a rapid pace.

Hmm. Now I don't claim to say that North Dakota is recession proof, we're taking a few bumps along with the rest of them, but it's interesting to see the contrast so clearly here and have it stated so bluntly: why isn't North Dakota and the rest of the Midwest feeling the economic effects as hard as the coasts?

Two words: Hot Dish.

Oh sure, economists will give you other reasons, like subprime mortgages and manufacturing-based economies, but they obviously don't know the sensibility of hot dish. The very fact that the humble hot dish traditionallly graces the dinner tables of many a Midwestern home and potluck table is testament to the sensible nature of our region that I attribute to our lack of subprime mortgages, leased BMWs, and sky-high credit card debt. Consider the following:

- Hot dish is comfortable and casual. No need for Louis Vuitton or Manolo Blahnik here. Just take off your Carhartt jacket, wash your hands, and sit up to the table.

- Hot dish is frugal. Using what you have on hand to create dinner is the entree essence of living within your means.

- Hot dish is hearty. Eat something that will stick to your ribs, then get back to the work.

- Hot dish is meant to be shared with others. Remember your Care Bears lesson: sharing is caring.

Regardless of where you live, regardless of your income level, it's high time to cook up some hot dish yourself. Just in case you don't have a Midwestern church community cookbook on hand, here is a recipe to try. It ain't gourmet, and it's heavier on pre-packaged ingredients than I normally like, but it's good for the occasional comfort food fix.

Don't forget the ketchup.

Tater Tot Hot Dish

Mmmm. Tots.

2 pounds hamburger or ground venison
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of celery soup
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 small can sliced mushrooms
1 (32 ounce) package frozen tater tots

Brown ground beef in a large skillet with onion; drain if necessary. Season with garlic powder and spread into a 9x13" baking dish. Mix soups, cheese, and mushrooms together and pour over meat mixture. Top with tots, patting them down into the mixture, and bake in a 350 degree oven for 45-50 minutes.