Thursday, December 27, 2012

The "French Women Don't Get Fat" Leek Soup Thing

How do I love leeks, let me count the ways.  They are unfortunately expensive compared to the more humble onion, and one always feels wasteful when chopping off the green half to use the tender white lower half as most recipes indicate (although you can always save the green parts for your next batch of stock). But with such a mild flavor, tender texture and pretty coloring, they feel elegant, like I should be cooking my soup while wearing heels and cashmere, ooh la la.

Or maybe it was that French Women Don't Get Fat book that put that silly notion in my head that leeks = trĂ©s elegant. 

This book was all the rage a few years ago and grocery stores even talked about a massive run on leeks because of the book's "magical" leek soup, which claims that when French women want to lose a few pounds, they lock themselves away for a weekend sipping on magical leek broth and eating nothing but the plain boiled leeks when they "feel hungry."

I secretly admire those people who sometimes just forget to eat (*oops*), realizing at 3 pm they haven't had breakfast yet, or who can eat nothing but boiled leeks all weekend. I am not one of these people, and as a regular eater, I do not subscribe to the French Women Don't Get Fat leek soup fast, as I know myself well enough that after 24 hours, I'll get ravenously hungry and then binge on Bugles, washing them down with a pint of vanilla bean Haagen Dazs. However, I still do the leek soup thing as a meal, especially after a feast day. I like the clean taste of the leek broth, served in a mug to warm my wintered hands, and I'll happily nibble on the boiled leeks for a simple-as-a-dimple lunch with a drizzle of olive oil and a little salt and pepper.

It can be surprisingly gratifying to pare down to the absolute basics and taste something so clean and light for once. And if you enjoy it so much that you want to do the magical leek soup thing all weekend, be my guest. Just hide the Bugles.

"Magical" Leek Soup
I think of it as recalibrating the palate after too much holiday sugar, fat and salt. It's just clean, pure goodness. Your tummy will thank you.

1 lb. leeks (or however many leeks you want)
Water to cover

Chop off the green stalks and save for your stock pot at a later date. Using the white and light green part of the leek, cut off the root end, cut in half lengthwise, and rinse well as sometimes bits of soil will hide between the leek layers. Place the leeks in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 20 mins. Pour off liquid to sip as soup; eat leeks warm with a drizzle of olive oil, maybe some lemon, and salt and pepper.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

For the Love of Tea

A cuppa ginger tea to cure what ails you. 

Crab legs. Prime rib. Fudge. Eggnog. Wine. Lasagna. Toffee. Caramels. Truffles. Ginger cookies. Sugar cookies. Peanut butter kiss cookies.

So what did you enjoy over the holidays?

I love to celebrate, and am endlessly grateful for the bounty of food that surrounds us, but when the joy and cheer of December 25th passes by, I feel a deep need to rebalance. I don't diet. I don't detox. I don't cleanse or fast or do anything else that you could categorize as trendy. But I do like to pare down to the simplest, most nourishing foods I can find sometimes. I find it not only brings me back to my usual light-stepping, flexible, lean-mean-machine self, but I feel calmer, more clearheaded, even more energetic.

Over the next few days, I'd like to share some of my favorite simple foods that help me push the reset button: just clean, real food that cleans my palate, my stomach, my mind. And as 2013 approaches, maybe you'll find some things that you'd like to try out, helping to start off 2013 with clear eyes and an open heart.

So my favorite teas. I love a cup of black English Breakfast with a swirl of 2% and chamomile is a favorite evening tisane, but these are my two superhero teas for post-holiday rebalancing and recharging.

Green Tea
Green tea is a morning elixir, a cup of springtime, a flavor I can only describe as grassy, and I mean it in the best way possible. The health benefits are well-known, but most green teas on the supermarket shelves aren't very tasty - and tea should be a pleasure, not a "I'm only drinking this because it's good for me" punishment. If the only way you are going to make green tea is to buy it pre-packaged in a tea bag - and if you like the taste - then by all means do it!  I buy that on occasion, but I heart whole leaf tea: fuller/better flavor, more varieties, and I get to hang out at my favorite local tea store, Steep Me, when I need to stock up. Win win.  Quick tip: if you find green tea tastes bitter, lower your water temp a bit.  Boiling hot water actually makes green tea bitter; try hot water just under a boil and you'll probably get a better taste.

Ginger Tea
For me, ginger tea is a winter cure-all, from sniffles to sneezes to a chill felt deep in my bones. Its spicy flavor clears my head and warms me up. You can find ginger tea in tea bags, but I just buy a knob of fresh ginger and make it one of two ways:

1) Cut a small peeled knob of ginger into thin slices and place in a pan with 2 cups of water. Simmer, covered, for 15 mins.  Strain and serve.

2) Grate a peeled knob of ginger. Squeeze the grated ginger to extract the ginger juice. Mix about 1/2 tsp. ginger juice with each 6-8 oz. of hot water, adding more or less to taste.

Add a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of honey to your ginger tea and that is winter tea heaven, my friend.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

English Toffee

My folks came home for the holidays from Arizona last night. They came over to our place just a couple hours after landing in beautiful snowy Bismarck. Although I like to think they sprinted right over because they were excited to see Yours Truly, their faces really lit up when their only grandchild ran up to them and gave them big hugs.

I can't really blame them, can I?  Cutie patootie.

We sat around the dining table drinking beer and nibbling on roasted chickpeas (one of my favorite beer snacks) and walleye "salad" on Triscuits (one of hubby's favs, made with canned walleye, mayo, a little pickle and onion). They told us tales of life in AZ's Maricopa County, which we now know entails lots of driveway chats with the neighbors, daily bike rides, Tuesday senior discounts, and Canadian neighbors "who really party hardy".  And then I put the tray of English toffee on the table, and there was that quiet moment as everyone leaned in to grab a piece, break off the first bite, and then declare it "addictive."

I'd never made toffee before - a stroke of Christmas cheer made me do it - and was surprised how easy it was to make.  Granted, it was probably made easier by the fact that I spread the hot candy on a Silpat mat, so zero stickiness issues.  And although the toffee itself is crisp, buttery, sweet goodness, the fact that I added a generous layer of chocolate and covered the whole mess with roasted almonds didn't hurt it one bit. Nope, not one iota. 

Here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

English Toffee
Adapted from the Miette cookbook. You'll need a Silpat mat and a candy thermometer (or do what I do and use your meat thermometer). Makes about 3 and 1/2 pounds. 

1 and 1/2 cups whole almonds
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 Tbls. vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 c. water
1 and 1/2 pounds chocolate (the better the chocolate, the better the final product. I prefer dark chocolate, but milk chocolate is fine too)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast until lightly browned, about 8 minutes (you'll start to smell the divine roasted almond fragrance, telling you - no, urging you - to take them out of the oven). Let cool and chop finely. 

Line a baking sheet with sides (a jelly roll pan) with a silicone baking mat and set aside. In a medium saucepan, combine butter, sugar, vanilla, salt and water over medium low heat. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook, whisking, until butter has melted. Increase the heat to medium high and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches 300 degrees, about 15 to 20 mins. 

Pour the hot toffee onto the prepared baking sheet. Spread into a thin, even layer (you may not fill the entire pan, depending on the size of your pan), and let cool for at least 45 minutes before adding the chocolate. 

Place the chocolate in a glass bowl and microwave to melt, stirring every 30 seconds until it has melted completely, looks smooth, and is no more than 110 degrees. Wipe off any excess oil on top of the toffee with a paper towel. Spread the top of the cooled toffee with the warm chocolate and sprinkle with the nuts. Let set at room temperature until hard, about an hour. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Beth's Best Banana Bread

When I get a new cookbook with lots of photos in it, I make my husband sit down and flip through it with me. I do this under the guise of getting his opinion on what looks good, subtly implying that I'll prepare whichever ones he finds the most appetizing. But really, I do this just because I love a new cookbook and want to share that joy with someone - even someone who is less enthusiastic than myself. Plus, it's good payback for all the decoys, bullets, and variations of fishing line I've had to stare at in the Cabela's catalog as he outlines the pros and cons of each one for me. He means well.

I remember during one of these forced cookbook photo review sessions seeing a pic of half-eaten pasta, the sauce remnants smeared against the empty section of the plate. "Ew, why would they do that?" he asks.  "Totally unappetizing." Yet, here I am, showing you an empty plate as a representation - a metaphor, if you will - of the delicious banana bread that was. However, I have an excuse:  a cute little bugaboo snagged the last piece.

This is more like banana cake than banana bread, really. It bakes up well (no flat squat loaves here), has tons of banana with the right level of sweetness, and the streusel on top is a great addition (although you can see it's pretty messy). And since my hubby loves chocolate chips in his, I made a special loaf just for him, swirling a hefty handful of chips into the batter.

I pulled the banana bread out of the oven late at night. We cut into each still-warm loaf (mine pecans only, his with chocolate chips) and stood by the sink in our pjs with a shared glass of milk.  As we munched, staring at the darkness outside the window, he turns and tells me, "You know, I think this is the best banana bread you've ever made."

That man knows how to warm my heart.

(Josie, this recipe is for you.)

Beth's Best Banana Bread
Adapted from Miette, a cookbook of sweets from a San Francisco bakery. It's loveliness. Makes two standard 8" loaves. (Quick tip: if you don't have kosher salt and use regular table salt instead, remember to reduce the salt measurement by half)

1/2 c. pecan pieces
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/3 c. all-purpose flour
2 Tbls. cold butter
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt

Banana bread
2 and 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 and 1/2 c. sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. vegetable oil
4 medium, soft bananas, peeled and roughly mashed
1/2 c. pecan pieces

Butter two 8" x 4" loaf pans and dust with flour. Tap out the excess flour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the streusel, put all the streusel ingredients in a food processor and pulse until coarsely combined. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

To make the banana bread, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk sugar, eggs and vanilla on medium speed until well combined and lightened in color, about 4 min. Reduce the speed to low and drizzle in oil, whisking just until combined. Add the banana mash and whisk just until combined. Slowly add the dry ingredients and pecans, whisking just until combined; do not overmix.

Pour batter into prepared pans and sprinkle tops with streusel. Bake until the breads have risen nicely and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 mins. Cool in the pans for 15 mins, then remove from pans and cool on a wire rack.