24 August 2009

Divine Zucchini Spice Cake with Dogs!

I baked this delicious cake to take to a friend who had a baby recently. I didn't manage to get photographs taken - so instead you get pictures of dogs!

I really should have cooked a meal for this friend sooner - she had her baby in May! Eeek! I am a bad friend!! I have known her my whole life, so maybe she used to my procrastination. I tried to make up for it by bringing her a lasagna for the freezer, awesome pasta salad for dinner and this tasty zucchini spice cake for dessert.

I was introduced to zucchini spice cake a couple years ago when I tried a recipe I found on the internet for my co-workers. Of course, I have no idea where that recipe is or where I found it. That is so frustrating! I had a bad habit of keeping my recipes on my work computer. Of course when I was laid off, I didn't get an extra 15 minutes to print out various non-work-related-recipes :) C'est la vie! It merely forced me to scour the internet and come up with a new zucchini spice cake recipe to try. I turned to the Cooking Light Bulletin Board for inspiration, and it didn't let me down.

This is an action shot of them playing- I swear!
They just play kinda hard...

The recipe actually comes from DianasDesserts.com, a website I have never visited but I should based on this cake! The zucchini keeps the cake moist, and the spices are warm and delicious. I especially love the strong tingle you get from the cloves. I increased the spices slightly since I love heavily spiced cakes, but you can leave them alone for a more subtle flavor. The frosting is simple and totally necessary. This was the perfect cake to bring to my friend's house - she had two servings so I know she loved it! (She is a new mom - she deserves it!)

Zowie Zucchini Bars

2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I used 1 t)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves (I used more like 3/4 t)
1 cup shredded zucchini, drained
1/2 cup chopped nuts, any type (I omitted)

Spice Frosting (see recipe below)

1. Heat oven to 350ºF. Grease bottom and sides of a 8x8x2-inch square pan*.

2. Mix brown sugar, butter, vanilla and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking soda, cinnamon and cloves. Stir in zucchini and nuts. Spread in pan.

3. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely, about 1 hour. Frost with spice frosting. Cut into 24 bars.

Makes 9 regular or 18 "mini" size bars.

Spice Frosting
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon butter or margarine, softened
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 to 4 teaspoons milk

Mix all ingredients until smooth and spreadable.

*Note: If using a nonstick or dark colored baking pan, reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F, and bake for 20-25 minutes.
Source: DianasDesserts.com
Date: August 21, 2002

13 August 2009

A New Family Tradition: Vietnamese Food!

By now, you all know my sister has a successful food blog. We started blogging around the same time, but she dove into it headfirst and has never looked back. I, on the other hand, have taken various detours and breaks, but somehow continue to plod along. I think it is safe to say that my sister's blogging is part of the reason I push on with mine. Food is one of the strongest bonds we share, and she certainly lets me know when I haven't updated my blog recently. I take it as a compliment. The most fun thing about food blogging with my sister is being able to check out what she's cooking - duh. We always talk about food, but it is different to actually have the recipes and instructions presented to me in a format that I can revisit. This is especially true for Southeast Asian food, which I have loved for a long time, but I have been intimidated to cook at home.

Why would I be intimidated to cook Southeast Asian food at home? I make Mexican, Spanish, Italian, Brasilian, whatever... but Southeast Asian freaks me out a little bit. Because Laura is THAT GOOD of a Southeast Asian cook. She could blow me out of the water - and probably a lot of other people. She makes her own curry paste for heavens sake! With a giant mortar and pestle - the way she learned in Thailand. Who could live up to that?! So my motto has been either eat Southeast Asian food out or have my sister make it for me. I am slowly, but surely trying to change that motto. I still eat it out, and I definitely won't turn down a meal from Laura, but I should really be brave enough to make some of my favorites at home.

Which brings this post full circle... Laura's blog has a lot of delicious, clear, easy-to-follow instructions for many Southeast Asian dishes. Most recently I have decided to master the art of making a Vietnamese Bun Salad at home. Of course, I turned to Laura's blog for the easy ideas and instructions. The pictures for this post are of my second attempt. I actually think my first attempt turned out better because I had more ingredients on hand (like fresh cilantro and steak). This version incorporated the traditional base of lettuce, rice vermicelli, carrots, cucumbers and onions, but I was missing bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, basil and mint. Instead of steak (or pork or chicken or whatever), I pan seared tofu that I tossed in frozen minced basil and cilantro from Trader Joe's. It didn't quite have the flavor punch that fresh herbs would have given it, but it was quite tasty once I added the delicious Nuac Cham dressing.

I am submitting this entry to the monthly Family Recipes: Memories of Food, Family and Fun blog event hosted by HoneyB and my sister. This probably isn't a typical entry for the event, but my sister is making Southeast Asian food a family tradition for her family. I get the benefit of coming along for the ride - and I am thoroughly enjoying learning to incorporate my sister's traditions into my own life. If I haven't already tempted you enough to visit my sister's blog, you should head over there to check out this month's round up.
I am pasting the instructions from Laura's blog for Nuac Cham, but she is right when she says it is an intensely personal concoction. I use a LOT more lime juice and sugar than she does, and I add in a bunch of heat with a ton of garlic chile paste (the easy way out). The fish sauce I currently have is very fishy and salty, so that is why I ended up adjusting the ratios so much. So really you should taste as you go and adjust to personal preference. Visit Laura's blog for all of her instructions on making your own delicious Bun salad.

Nuoc Cham
Every Vietnamese family (and non-Vietnamese but Vietnamese-food-loving family, such as ours) has their own recipe for nuoc cham. Many recipes call for some water to dilute the nuoc cham—I use very little because I love the really strong flavors inherent in the dish. The version I prefer is more commonly prepared in the south, where sugar, garlic and lime juice are added, as opposed to a more simple Northern preparation of fresh chiles in fish sauce. Lately I have left out the chiles because I want my daughters to love the dish and be familiar with these flavors, but if you want the heat, I recommend very thin slices (forming rings) of Thai bird chiles. The measurements I have given are extremely rough—everything is to taste, and it should be to your taste, not mine. I never measure anything for this dish but rather just sit with the ingredients in front of me, adding and tasting until I get it right. Raw garlic bothers my stomach, so for the garlic I add 1-3 smashed cloves of garlic and let it infuse the dressing.

1-3 cloves garlic, smashed
juice of 2 limes
7 T good quality fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 T sugar
2 T water

Mix ingredients and make sure that the sugar dissolves. If too salty, try more lime juice. If too sour, try more fish sauce. If too overwhelming and/or not sweet enough try water and/or sugar. If too sweet, try some fish sauce and lime juice (or just fish sauce, depending on how sour you like things). The dressing should not really be sweet, but rather just hint at it. IF the condiment is totally new to you and so you are having trouble deciding what it should taste like, I recommend setting it aside until you have the rice vermicelli made, and then drizzling a little on the noodles and judging from that. Much like a salsa that might be too strong on its own but pairs beautifully with a corn tortilla chip, the nuoc cham’s accurate flavor might not be exposed by tasting it on its own.

I usually make nuoc cham the afternoon that I am serving it, to allow it a little time for the flavors to mesh. I will use that day's nuoc cham for the following night as well if we are having leftovers, but I do not bother keeping it beyond that. Maybe I would if we had it frequently, but as much as I love Vietnamese food, there are way too many other cuisines I love as much to commit like that!

03 August 2009

Cumin Scented Trout with Lentil Tomato Stew

We had a very strange July in central Ohio. We had several days of cool, rainy weather and none of the dry heat we typically associate with July around these parts. We have had lots of beautiful days in the low 80's, so I am trying hard not to complain... but it just hasn't felt like a normal summer this year. I suppose the only benefit to this bizarre weather pattern is that I am cooking a little more than I usually do. Meals like the Kielbasa and Sauerkraut I just posted would not normally grace my plate in July. However, when the sun doesn't come out and the mercury barely reaches 70, I look forward to those warming, comforting meals. The dish I have for you today is similarly warm and comforting, but it is much lighter. The bonus for me? I made it entirely with pantry ingredients! (Although I need to restock my pantry with some ingredients I used up now.)

I had a package of cooked Beluga Lentils from Trader Joe's in my cupboard that I wanted to use. I am an inexperienced lentil eater and cooker. I have a new-found love of vegetarian Indian food, which is opening my eyes to the possibility of lentils. I think the only experience this Midwestern girl had with lentils as a child was something that more resembled split pea soup with ham hocks. It is not my cup of tea. I just assumed I didn't like split peas or lentils or any other funky legume that resembled split peas. Now that I have discovered there are a zillion varieties of these funky legumes and a zillion methods to cook and use them, I am much more open-minded about them. However, before I went on a lentil-buying-spree, I needed to use the pre-cooked variety I bought on a whim that I previously mentioned. I decided to look for a lentil soup recipe after watching an episode of the Barefoot Contessa that included lentils.

The computer: one of my most important kitchen tools
(oh yeah! and the mortar and pestle!)

I came up with a couple soup options that intrigued me. First, I happened upon this post at Orangette about lentil soup. Her recipe, adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, really appealed to me because of its heavy handed seasoning with cumin and black pepper. I also found an appealing recipe over at 101 Cookbooks. Her post really made my mouth water when she added the canned tomatoes. I have a weakness for adding tomatoes to soup - I feel like just about any soup in the world can be improved upon with a can of tomatoes. I often eat around the tomato bits in my soup, so I "save the best for last" and have mostly tomatoes waiting for me at the end of the bowl.

In the end, I basically winged it for my version of the lentil soup. I followed the Orangette recipe until I got to celery, which I didn't have. Or the fresh herbs. Whoops. So basically my soup base was olive oil, onions, garlic, carrots, red bell pepper and the delicious sounding spice combination. Then I turned to the 101 Cookbooks recipe and decided to add a large can of fire roasted tomatoes and chopped kale. But then I totally forgot to add the kale - I even had it in the refrigerator!! Oh well, the inspiration was there. I stirred in the pre-cooked beluga lentils and about a cup of homemade chicken stock to loosen the mixture up. I seasoned with salt and pepper and was quite happy with the combination of recipes/ideas.

Next up? The trout. I had some locally raised trout in my freezer that really needed to be cooked. I decided to think outside the box and pan fry the trout with similar spice flavors and eat it with the soup. I was so impressed at how well the trout complemented the lentil soup. The delicate, light flavor of the trout was a lovely counterpoint to the rich, tangy lentil soup. Also, I wasn't sure how cumin would pair with the fish, but it was simply delicious. I wish I had used a little bit more, but I was afraid it would be over-powering. I paper towel dried the trout filets before sprinkling them with salt, pepper and ground cumin. I cooked them in a non-stick skillet over medium heat with a drizzle of olive oil until cooked through, about 3-4 minutes per side. To serve I ladled some lentil soup onto my serving dish, added the cooked trout and a drizzle of high quality extra virgin olive oil (from Barcelona, of course!).