Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blueberry Muffins with Sugar Lemon Crust

The other day I volunteered to bring blueberry muffins to a breakfast birthday celebration at work.  And since many of my coworkers know about my food blogging, I didn't think I could phone it in with some bakery muffins or even muffins from a box!  Obviously, I needed to start from scratch.  But there was one problem -- there are approximately seven million recipes for blueberry muffins out there in the internet universe.  How's a girl to sift through all of those ideas?!  At the end of the day, I decided to smash together two muffin recipes, one from Barefoot Contessa and one from Cooks Illustrated.  The result was delicious!  Barefoot Contessa's muffins were heavy and almost cake-like in their consistency (probably why they were titled "Blueberry Coffeecake Muffins") and to be honest, I think I liked the fridge-cooled leftovers even better!  They were kind of dessert-like in texture.  Instead of fresh blueberries, I opted for frozen, and I doubt it made any real difference. 

But the sugary lemon topping courtesy of Cooks Illustrated was key.  The sugar crisped up in the oven, creating a crust on top of the muffins.  And the hint of lemon zest on top added an extra punch of flavor, kicking up these muffins to another level.  Served warm with butter, they are a fantastic breakfast.  Served cold with wine, and you've got a pretty good dessert!  You can do no wrong! 

Blueberry Muffins with Lemon Sugar Crust
Makes 16-18 muffins
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature
3 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
8 oz sour cream
1/4 cup milk
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries

2 tbls sugar
zest of one lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare two muffin tins with either paper cups or by spraying with non-stick spray.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and 1 1/2 cups of sugar using an electric mixer until fluffy.  Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing in between each addition.  Add the vanilla extract, sour cream, and milk, and mix until combined. 

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients slowly, mixing to combine.  Pour in the blueberries and fold into the batter with a spatula. 

Using two spoons, spoon the muffin batter into the pans.  The batter should be at or just above the height of the muffin cups. 

On a cutting board, zest the lemon into the 1/4 cup of sugar.  Mix together.  Lightly sprinkle the sugar/lemon mix on the top of each muffin.

Bake until lightly browned, about 25 minutes.  Let cool (if you can) and then enjoy!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Easy Squash Bowls for Lunch

Work lunches are my least favorite meal.  It's always sadly reheated leftovers that are never as good as dinner the night before, an overpriced meal out that makes me feel entirely too full, or something lame from the cafeteria downstairs.  (The introduction of food trucks really spiced up my workday lunches!)  But last year at the Farmers' Market, I learned something that would brighten up my workday lunches by a factor of ten.  You can microwave personal-sized squash and have it for lunch in five minutes!  Whaaaaat??  I might be the only person in the world that didn't know that already, but enough people at work stare at me in confusion to make me think this is not a well-known squash trait.  It's insanely easy to make squash at work as long as you have a microwave.  And a really large knife (do this step at home if you have to walk through a metal detector at work!)  Any personal-sized squash will work, but the best ones are those with a flat bottom.

this variety of squash is my absolute lunch favorite!
1 personal-sized squash
1 tbls water
1 tbls brown sugar
1 pat of butter
Pinch of cinnamon

Cut the top off of the squash and scrape out the seeds and stringy flesh.  (Do this step at home if knives are in short supply at work.) 

Fill the inside of the squash with the tablespoon of water.  Replace the top of the squash and heat in the microwave in high for five minutes. 

Once the squash is cooked through and the flesh is soft, let the squash cool with the top still on.  Then add the butter, sugar, and cinnamon and scrape down the sides of the inside of the squash.  You'll have a little bowl with delicious squash inside.

Mix it all together and add more toppings if need be.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy your amazing workday lunch.  And this is only just the beginning.  Just think about the other toppings you could add to your personalized squash bowl.  Off the top of my head, I'm thinking that some vegetable broth, salt, and a bit of curry powder would be another stellar combination.  As would any leftover stuffing you have from the holidays.  Be creative!  But definitely head to your local farmers' market to pick up some personal-sized squash for your next workday lunch.

New Blog Design!

Welcome to my new blog format!  I don't know if it's the fall season, but I was getting distracted and slightly irritated by my previous design.  I wanted the food to be the focus, not the crazy colors and background!  I'm thinking that I will update the color scheme with the seasons....we'll see!

Let me know your thoughts!  What do you think?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Restaurant Review :: La Grolla

This Friday my sister came into town from Chicago.  We wanted to go out for a family dinner Friday evening, and in order to kill three birds with one stone (blog, dinner with the fam, carbs for Saturday's run), I suggested La Grolla on Selby Avenue in St. Paul.  I've been to La Grolla a handful of times and it's probably my favorite Italian restaurant in St. Paul.  It's a smaller restaurant, with tables tucked into corners, understated decor, and big windows that welcome in a lot of natural light.  Because of its space, La Grolla is both intimate and bustling, and it would be the perfect setting for any lunch or dinner.
But you can't talk Italian without talking about the menu.  La Grolla has a diverse dinner menu, with dishes ranging from the classic cappellini pomodoro (my favorite) to a Norwegian salmon stuffed with crab and lemon/chive sauce.  In addition to the menu staples, the chef whips up a plethora of nightly features.  Our server mentioned at least a half of a dozen specials, including osso bucco (a veal shank stewed for hours).  It's not the most vegetarian-friendly menu, but the pasta is so tasty that I keep coming back for more.  There are a few menu items that I have in my La Grolla rotation, and all of them are perfectly wonderful. 

My mom and I started out with small salads -- I got the "fresca" salad, complete with veggies and a light vinaigrette, and my mom tried out the salad with pears and Roquefort cheese.  Both were fresh and tasty, but I had to give my mom's salad the edge just for the combo of flavors and use of amazing cheese.  Yum.

For my main course, I opted for the penne vodka.  The penne was perfectly cooked to al dente so it still had a bit of a bite to it.  And the sauce was lovely.  Creamy with a hint of tomato sweetness but not at all heavy or overpowering.  Think of a light pink Alfredo sauce without all of the guilt!  With some extra Parmesan cheese and a sprinkling of pepper, this dish was spot on.  The portion size was absolutely giant sized, so I get to enjoy my penne vodka again this weekend.  (I'm trying not to think about it while I type this out.....resist the temptation....)

I also had a bite of my sister's pasta dish, which was the Cappelletti ai Quattro formaggi.  In layman's terms, it was a hat-shaped pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese.  The menu called for a four-cheese based sauce, but my sister (for reasons I cannot begin to understand) opted to substitute the cheese sauce for a chunky tomato sauce.  Since it wasn't that busy, the chef entertained her bizarre request, and the little ricotta-filled pasta still held up well to the tomato sauce. 

For dessert, we all split some cannoli -- fried pasty dough stuffed with sweet, creamy cheese and dipped into a little bit of chocolate.  I thought it was a great end to the meal -- not too heavy and just sweet enough. 

Overall, I once again enjoyed my dinner at La Grolla.  Great food, fun atmosphere, and good times with the family.  Best part?  When my sister was reenacting a scene from Portlandia and she whipped her arm out and almost knocked over the bus boy.  Good work, sis! 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Panzanella Salad

I bought some beautiful heirloom tomatoes at the Farmers' Market last Sunday and during the week I just kept staring at them, wondering what I could make that would highlight the amazing flavor of these little guys.  I was paging through a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated when it hit me: panzanella salad!  Panzanella salad is a "peasant food" that is basically a bread-and-tomato salad, developed as a way to use day-old bread.  The people at Cooks Illustrated in their infinite wisdom tested and retested this recipe, and I have to admit, the result was spot-on amazing.  I could NOT stop eating this salad.  I kept going back for seconds...and then thirds...and then it was gone and I was very sad.  I used heirloom tomatoes, so the flavor of the tomatoes and the dressing was unreal.  You could just as easily use regular tomatoes, but I cannot imagine that the sad tomatoes at the grocery store would produce a salad so rich in flavor and texture.  So try it out using the tomatoes in season right now at your local farmers' market.  Heirlooms, if you can.  You're in for a tasty, salad treat!

This recipe is from Cooks Illustrated, changed minimally to suit my own personal tastes.  This will serve two people some very large salad portions.

3 small/medium heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded, and diced
2 cups of hearty Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 shallot or 1/4 cup red onion, sliced thin
1 1/2 tbls red wine vinegar (or more, depending on your taste)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
handful chopped basil

Heat your oven to 400 degrees.  Toss the bread cubes with about 1 tbls of olive oil.  Spread in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake the bread until lightly browned.  It should take about 10-15 minutes.  Set aside.

Gently toss the tomatoes with 1/2 tsp of salt.  Move tomatoes to a colander, and drain over a bowl for 15 minutes.  Don't toss the collected tomato juice! 

Put the red wine vinegar and reserved tomato juice into a small bowl and slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking rapidly.  Stop adding olive oil when you read the desired consistency.  You should have about a 1/2 cup.  Add the baked bread pieces to the bowl and toss to coat thoroughly.  Set aside for about 10 minutes.  (I put the colander of tomatoes over the bowl so the bread could collect even more tomato juice.)

Toss the tomatoes, cucumbers, shallot/onion, and bread together.  Add a handful of chopped basil and mix together.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with a delightful Oktoberfest beer (another reason I LOVE FALL). 

Epic dinner! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Potato & Green Onion Pizza

Last year I tried a pizza that changed my life.  It was a seasonal offering at Pizza Nea in Northeast Minneapolis, and it had potatoes, asparagus, and green onions on top of a olive-oil based sauce.  I was a woman in love.  In love with a pizza.  And I was not afraid to say it.  Tonight, a year later, I thought I'd see if I could replicate this pizza and add my own tasty twist.

I started with a pizza dough recipe from a blog that is no longer (which is sad because it was awesome!).  I made it the night before, and I let it rise a second time while I prepped the veggies.  The dough turned into a chewy, tasty crust.  I made mine a little thicker just because that's my preference, but you can shape it however you like!  For toppings, I opted for a swipe of olive oil, halved cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced fingerling potatoes, green onions, and goat cheese.  Topped all that yumminess with salt, pepper, and freshly cut basil.  The tomatoes were the perfect replacement for pizza sauce and the green onions were amazing -- crispy with a light onion flavor.  It was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures.  Happiness!!! 

Pizza Dough
makes enough for two medium-sized pizzas

1 yeast package
1 cup warm water
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbls olive oil
pinch sugar

Mix the yeast package in the cup of warm water.  Let it sit for 2-3 minutes until the yeast proofs.  It should be a little bubbly.  If not, your yeast package might be expired and you should try again!

To the yeast mixture, add the salt, olive oil, and sugar and mix together.  Add in the flour, starting with 2 1/2 cups, kneading it with your hands.  If it's still tacky, add in more flour.  Knead for about five minutes until it's a smooth dough.  Put the dough in a well-oiled bowl and put it in a warm place to rise.  Let the dough double in size, which should take about 30 minutes.

Separate the dough into two pieces and pat into two balls.  Cover with a damp towel and let rise again.  Or if you are making this ahead of time, put the two dough balls in the fridge.  The next day, take one out and put it in a bowl covered with a damp towel to rise. 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Stretch or roll into a circle to your desired thickness.  Add toppings, bake for 15-16 minutes.  I baked mine on a stone, but you could use any regular pan. 

Potato & Green Onion Pizza

4 green onions, chopped into one-inch pieces at an angle
1 cup (or two handfuls) of cherry tomatoes, halved
4-5 fingerling potatoes, sliced lengthwise very thin
1/2 cup goat cheese, crumbled
Salt & pepper
1 tbls freshly torn basil

On the uncooked dough, sprinkle the goat cheese in an even layer.  Then add the potatoes in an even layer.  Sprinkle the tomatoes and green onions on top, and add a pinch of salt and pepper.  Brush the top with olive oil. 

Bake at 450 degrees for about 16 minutes.  Cut into slices and enjoy! 

Be creative with your pizza toppings!  I've made a pizza topped with goat cheese and roasted veggies (summer squash, tomatoes, red onion, and mushrooms), and my friend Leigh had the inspired idea of a pizza topped with goat cheese, figs, and sausage.  You could also go totally classic with pizza sauce and a bunch of cheese.  But it will be delicious because you made it yourself!

Friends on Drinks -- Helping the Kids

Food and beverages can be very closely related.  I've always enjoyed wine with dinner, but it wasn't until I went to a wine pairings event a few years ago that I really understood how intertwined food and drink can really be.  It's amazing how the right glass of wine can illuminate certain flavors or highlight certain ingredients in a dish.  I'm far from an expert on this subject, but if you have the opportunity to attend a pairings event, you should jump on it!  It is an eye-opening experience.  And now I ask the people at my local liquor store which drinks would go well with whatever it is that I am serving.  More often than not, they'll have an answer for you, and your food will taste just that much better. 

That whole introduction was just my excuse to be able to post my absolute FAVORITE Friends quote of all time.  Since food and drinks can be very related, I figured I could turn to a quote that revolved mostly around drinks, and it would relate to my blog.  (My process of reasoning may be flawed, but what can you do?) 

The One with the Proposal: Season Six
Rachel: Phoebe, don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink?
Phoebe: I’m just helping the kids!
Rachel: How is you drinking helping the kids?
Phoebe: Because the more I drink, the less there is for the kids to drink.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Quick & Easy Tomato Sauce

Toward the end of my marathon training I start to run out of pasta ideas.  For the last couple of weeks, I've been boring with my pre-run pasta dinners or I've been trying out some pasta restaurants around town.  This Friday I was scouring my brain, trying to figure out what to eat before my last 20-mile run of this training season.  I started checking out some runner websites and was immediately bombarded with conflicting information what what to eat pre-run.  Eat carbs!  Only certain carbs!  Eat carbs for the entire week before!  Pasta is best!  No - potatoes!  No - SWEET potatoes!  Don't eat veggies!  I felt like those commercials for internet information overload.  Then my coworker gave me great advice: just stick to what you know works.  I've been doing this for nearly four years and I've never had a problem with a standard pasta dinner.  Something simple, something tasty, and I'm ready to run.  I did take away a few key points from the websites, which warned that certain foods may irritate your stomach.  So avoid dishes high in cream or dairy, excessively spicy foods, and anything with a ton of fiber because that can cause cramping.  Noted!

In my search for a new pasta dish, I kept coming across amazing-sounding dinners that were filled with heavy cream and had "five cheeses" in the title.  Instead of getting discouraged, I switched my focus.  In my adult years I've grown to like pasta with a hearty amount of tomato sauce.  So I found a super simple recipe for tomato sauce on the Cooks Illustrated website.  I clicked "print" and was ready to rock. 

This tomato sauce is very quick and very easy to make.  It uses a lot of staple pantry items and canned tomatoes, which cuts down on a lot of the time.  I switched around the recipe a bit, using crushed tomatoes instead of diced, doubling the amount of garlic and basil, and adding in a quick splash of red wine.  Overall though, it was a tasty sauce filled with sweet, tomato flavor.  Is it the most amazing sauce I've ever had?  Probably not.  But given a choice between this super simple sauce and buying a jar of sauce from the grocery store, I'll take this any day!

1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
3 tbls olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp water
Splash of red wine (optional)
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 tsp pepper (to taste)
1/4 tsp sugar
Big handful of fresh basil, chopped

Push the garlic through a garlic press into a small bowl and add in the 1 tsp of water.  Heat a 10-inch pan over medium heat.  Add in the olive oil and garlic.  Saute until the garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. 

Add the can of tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the mixture has reduced.  Midway through, add a splash of red wine. 

Once the tomato mixture has reduced, add the salt, pepper, sugar, and basil.  Stir consistently for one minute.  Serve over pasta and top with a light sprinkle of cheese.

This recipe will make enough sauce for 3-4 servings of pasta., what the heck am I going to eat the night before the marathon?!?!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Southwestern Scramble with Cilantro Pesto

Pesto has always been a question mark for me and I really have no idea why.  In theory, I should have always loved pesto.  I love all of the ingredients separately, so what's not to love about smashing them all together?  But for some reason, I only recently started enjoying pesto.  Weird, but I'm glad I finally jumped on that bandwagon!  Pesto is amazing and surprisingly versatile.  In the Clean Start cookbook (my current fave) there's a recipe for cilantro pesto.  What?!  I've seen people make parsley pesto, which totally grosses me out, but cilantro pesto is another story.  I LOVE CILANTRO.  I wish I could wear it as a perfume and that all future suitors would show up at my door with a bouquet of cilantro.  I know that it's a controversial herb, but as soon as you tell me that you don't like cilantro, I will become immediately suspicious of you and your motives. 

So obviously I had to make this pesto immediately.  But what would I use it for?  You could use it as a dip or a spread on a wrap or sandwich.  Or you could eat it plain with a spoon (no judgment here).  Tonight I thought I'd add it to a southwestern-style scramble that I'll make for dinner for a post-run protein boost.  This scramble is delicious by itself, but the cilantro pesto really perked up the flavors and added another dimension that was a-maz-ing.  This collaboration of recipes would be a great breakfast or dinner, and the pesto would be good for everything!

Cilantro Pesto (recipe from Clean Start Cookbook)

1 1/2 cups packed cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup roasted dry peanuts
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
Juice of one lime
Extra virgin olive oil

Chop the cloves of garlic in a food processor.  Scrap down the sides of the bowl and add cilantro, peanuts, ginger, lime, and pinch of salt.  Turn on the processor and drizzle olive oil into the mixture slowly until it comes together to a loose consistency.  Taste and season accordingly. 

Southwestern Scramble

3 eggs
1/3 tomato, chopped
1/4 cup black beans
slice of avocado, chopped
salt & pepper
Cilantro pesto

Spray a nonstick pan with cooking spray and heat over medium-low heat.  Crack three eggs into the pan and scramble with a fork.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper. 

Once the eggs have started to set, add in the black beans and tomatoes.  Stir the eggs carefully until they are almost at the consistency you like, then add in the avocado.  Heat briefly, then remove from the pan.  Plate up your eggs and then add a spoonful of the cilantro pesto.  (If your pesto has been in the fridge, add it in to the pan with your black beans and tomatoes.)  Mix it together, eat and enjoy.  Delish.