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Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Mark Bittman's Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese, a perfect pre-race carb-loading lunch

I am official a sub-1:50 half-marathoner. Yesterday I raced my heart out to a 1:49:25 finish at the 2011 San Francisco Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon—for which I had prepped and carb-loaded by making and eating Mark Bittman‘s Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese to my heart’s content.

To enjoy this dish—which is truly amazing with its subtle yet distinct flavors and lively textures—you need to put aside all preexisting notions of what mac and cheese should taste like. This is mac and cheese completely reinvented. There is only 3/4 cups cheese in the entire recipe (which serves four good-size portions) but the head of cauliflower that you cook and then puree (with stock, mustard, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and 1/2 cup cheese) gives this recipe its creaminess. (The recipe is posted at the bottom of this entry.)

Step one: Boil one crown of cauliflower, cored and chopped into large pieces

Step Two: Blend cauliflower, stock, cheese, mustard, salt, pepper, and nutmeg

Steps Three Through Five: Top with cheese and bread crumbs, bake, enjoy

On the sweet side of things, I had such a blast racing this weekend and if you’ll so indulge me, here’s the recap. It was my second half-marathon (I ran my first in October in around 1:56:40) and I was much better prepared and much calmer this time around (in part because I had that first one under my belt but also because this was part of my training for my first full marathon so while it was a race, wasn’t the race).

Sunday was an insanely warm day—even for Northern California in February—and when Rob dropped me off at the start are, it was already in the mid-60s and the sun was pouring down from a cloudless sky. This meant I wasn’t freezing at the start and could sport my one of my new singlets from my dad and sister. 😉
The race started just after 8:00 am and the first six miles felt amazing. My goal was to set a new PR, which meant averaging 8:50 miles. My first was around 9:04, which was a nice, easy start, but then I quickly dropped into the high 7s and settled around 8:20. A bit quick for what I was planning but it felt good so I went with it. The entire time we were running through Golden Gate Park, I was loving it and taking in all the stunning scenery but was also very eager to hit the Great Highway along Ocean Beach. As soon as I reached that point, however, right around mile 7 (where I was cheered on with a high-five from Rob!), I was wishing I was back in the park. The temperature had reached high-60s, low-70s and it was nothing but clear skies and hot pavement. It was pretty brutal (though nothing like what I’m sure last year’s Chicago marathoners faced) but it was beautiful.

I caught the 1:50 pacers somewhere around mile 8 or 9 and was pretty thrilled. I was also committed to sticking with them through the end. It was great to have them there because it meant I didn’t have to think and could just focus on keeping pace with them and staying strong to the finish. My legs burned and it was one of the toughest races I’ve ran but man, the more it burns, the better it feels at the end. I sprinted into the finish for a 1:49:25 chip time, shaving more than 7 minutes off my previous time and feeling like a champion.

Rob was there with more high-fives and after I collected my t-shirt, thanked the pacers, and ate a banana, it was back to the beach. I hopped in to waist-deep, freezing-cold water for about five minutes (I’m a water baby to the end). It felt so good with the sun shining down (much better than when on the course) and it did my legs good: I can actually walk today without too much pain thanks to that natural ice bath.

Me at the end of the half-marathon, right before I jumped into the ocean

We went to a friend’s house for a Superbowl party afterward and were treated to our Minnesotan friend’s homemade Juicy Lucys (hamburgers made with cubes of cheddar cheese in the middle). Man, they were delicious. If the Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese was the perfect pre-race meal, I guarantee you this was the perfect post-race feast.

Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

(slightly adapted from Runner’s World‘s March 2011 The Athlete’s Palate)

Ingredients

1 cauliflower, cored and cut into large pieces

2-1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

2 bay leaves

8 ounces whole-wheat macaroni or fusilli

1/2 cup grate cheese (such as sharp cheddar, Gruyere, or Emmental—I used fontina cause I had leftover in the fridge and considered using pepper Jack to add some spice)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (I used Pecorino Romano since I had it it in the fridge)

1/4 cup bread crumbs or panko crumbs (I used panko but would omit altogether next time)

Method:

Heat oven to 400F. Boil a pot of salted water. In a saucepan, warm stock and bay leaves on medium-low heat for 5 minutes then turn off heat. Cook cauliflower in boiling water for 25 minutes then remove and set aside or in food processor. Using the water from boiling the cauliflower (brought back to a boil), cook the pasta for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse to cool then place in a greased, nine-inch square baking dish or two-quart casserole dish. In the food process or in a pot with an immersion blender, blend cauliflower, stock (with bay leaves removed), cheese, il, mustard, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Pour sauce over pasta, mix, and spread evenly. Top with Parmesan (or other hard) cheese, bread crumbs or panko (or omit), and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes. Enjoy! (Serves four at 420 calories, 57 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, and 15 grams fat per serving as per article.)

Carb-loading at lunch the Friday before the race

 

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No-Bake Granola Bars

Homemade Granola Bar made with Miyoko's Homemade Holiday Granola

So what do you do if you followed my advice and made 10, even 20, cups of my homemade holiday granola? Make homemade granola bars.

With an 8-cup Ball jar filled with my latest batch of granola and sitting on my counter—with my barely making a dent in it eating 1/4 cup at a time with milk—I began worrying that the granola might not keep as long as I had been planning on having it around . I also had been brainstorming different ways to eat it, as I like having a spoonful before I head out on my morning runs. Then it came to me: granola bars!

I looked up a number of recipes, finally settling on no-bake instructions since I’d already cooked the granola once. I settle, oddly enough, on a recipe from NPR (which I had never considered a cooking resource).

The recipe (posted in full below) called for a mix of granola and puffed wheat plus 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, 3 tablespoons peanut butter and 8 tablespoons (or half a cup of) honey . For the puffed wheat, I hit the jackpot spotting a box of Kashi 7 Whole Grain Puffs cereal. I mixed 1-1/2 cups granola with 1-1/2 cups puffs and set aside. Then, I warmed the extract (accidentally grabbing the almond instead of vanilla but to delish results), 3 tablespoons peanut butter, and 4 tablespoons honey, as I thought eight was a bit outrageous.

Ingredients

Pouring the extract, PB, and honey over the granola and puffs

The granola bar mix in the pan, ready for cooling

I learned the honey is key. After mixing the dry and wet ingredients and putting them in a pan in the fridge for an hour as directed, I had what I dubbed sticky granola, not granola bars. Nevertheless, this sticky mix made a great snack when Rob and I went skiing (him) and snowboarding (me) at Squaw Valley on Saturday. Granola bars would have been better—as I definitely dropped some loose bits on the floor while riding the funitel—but it was a delicious, reenergizing snack.

Trying to make my sticky granola look like a granola bar (I could not pick it up and have it stay together like that though)

Enjoying sticky granola on the Squaw Valley funitel

The next day, however, I decided to turn the sticky granola into actual granola bars by adding the extra honey. I warmed another 3 tablespoons (we’d eaten enough while skiing to reduce the four missing tablespoons to three), stirred the sticky granola in a bowl, and then stirred in the honey. I pressed the mix back into the pan (which was covered with plastic wrap to keep the bars from sticking to the bowl and to keep the bowl from being a mess to clean, a genius recipe suggestion) and stuck it in the fridge again.

Ta da! Granola bars! They hold together quite nicely—and now do make an excellent pre-morning-run pick-me-up. The only thing I’m hoping to amend with the next batch is the sweetness. The 8 tablespoons honey certainly made the granola and puffs stick together but it makes them a bit too sweet for me. So, if you have any suggestions or any other recipes to recommend for holding granola and puffs together, please do leave a comment!

Granola bars, take two. Much better results.

Homemade Granola Bars

Ingredients

(adapted from No-Bake Granola Bars, posted on NPR)

1-1/2 cups Miyoko’s Homemade Holiday Granola

1-1/2 cups puffed wheat (Kashi’s 7 Whole Grain Puffs cereal is a great option)

1/4 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

3 tablespoons peanut butter

8 tablespoons honey

Method

Mix granola and puffs in a bowl; set aside. In a small saucepan, warm extract, peanut butter, and honey until smooth. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Line an 8-inch-by-8-inch pan with plastic wrap. Pour granola bar mix into pan and press down. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Cut into bars. Enjoy!

Baked Fish with Paprika-Lemon Butter and Sesame Asparagus

Baked Fish with Paprika-Lemon Butter

Fish is one of my favorite foods but I’ve been doing a poor job eating any as of late (aka I haven’t cooked fish in ages). This week I decided to make fish two ways. One way (poached in white wine) was awful (I think the wine had gone bad) but the other (baked with paprika-lemon butter) was delish. Fortunately I had purchased two catfish fillets weighing a total 1.3 pounds so Rob and I had plenty for dinner after we tossed the poached fish.

For the baked catfish, I first found a tasty-sounding recipe on Epicurious.com and was rather intrigued because the comments were quite mixed: some said it was an easy, guaranteed-to-please dish, other argued it was either flavorless or too full of flavor, the paprika in particular. We (spoiler) really enjoyed it. Rob loved that it was so quick to make so we ate at 8:30 instead of 9:30 (which happens more often than we’d like when I decide to cook a big meal).

The recipe was, as commenters wrote, very easy. First, I mixed the room-temperature butter, paprika, parsley, lemon juice, and lemon peel in a bowl to make the marinade rub. Then it was as simple as rubbing the butter mixture onto the fish, sprinkling it with salt and pepper and topped it with a few slices of lemon. Next, it was into the oven at 400F for 15 minutes (the recipe called for 10 but it wasn’t enough for my oven) and voila dinner was served.

Ingredients for the paprika-lemon butter, premixing

Paprika-lemon butter ready for spreading on the fish

Paprika-lemon butter, lemon slices, and a fillet of catfish

I’m a big fan of one-dish meals but whipped up some asparagus to go along with the fish. I used a recipe from The Joy of Cooking but altered it a bit, as usual (recipe posted at the bottom of the post). All in all, it was a great meal and the leftovers—which I mixed into a bowl of fish, asparagus, and bulgar—made for a wonderful lunch the next day.

Stir-frying the asparagus and poaching the fish (which unfortunately did not turn out well due to the bad wine used as part of the poaching liquid)

Tada! Fish two ways (though only one edible) with asparagus

Baked Fish with Paprika-Lemon Butter recipe from Epicurious.com (originally published in Bon Appetit).

Sesame Asparagus

Ingredients

2 pounds asparagus, rinsed and patted dry

1 tablespoon olive oil

Dash of sesame oil

2 cloves of garlic, slivered

1/4 cup chicken broth

Sesame seeds

Method

Heat olive oil and sesame oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add asparagus (if the asparagus is not patted dry, the water still on the vegetables will cause the oil to splatter and make a mess). Stir fry for 3 minutes then add the chicken broth, reduce heat to medium, and cover. Cook for 5 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Enjoy!

Fennel Gratin

Fennel Gratin

January has become one of my favorite seasons for cooking: fennel and leeks are ripe and ready for using. A good friend of mine, who keeps a great Tumblr called A Cook’s Look, recently posted to a recipe for Fennel Gratin with Pecorino and Lemon that looked delicious (and was apparently so tasty she baked it ate it before she could snap a picture of her own to post!).

The only gratin I had previously been familiar with was potatoes au gratin (it’s Rob’s French cousin’s signature dish and it always disappears at family get-togethers). Curious what “au gratin” meant, I looked it up. The answer:  something covered with bread crumbs or grated cheese and browned, often under a broiler. (Gratin, it turns out, is the bread crumbs and/or grated cheese topping that is then browned.)

Fennel bulbs on sale at San Francisco's Ferry Building farmers' market

Last week, I picked up five fennel bulbs at the farmer’s market and went to work. Unfortunately, my stirring was far less than frequent and I burned quite a bit of the garlic-onion-fennel mix I was sautéing and didn’t realize I until it was too late that I should have transferred the vegetables to a new pan before I added the chicken broth. What resulted was the burned bit lifting off the bottom and working their way into the mix. I finished the dish and it was okay, though very brown and too salty so I was determined to cook it again—and with a few of my own twists—before I posted. The new dish is simply Fennel Gratin (and the full recipe is at the bottom of this post).

Fennel Gratin take one, not so terrible but not so great

So here it is, fennel take two. For the first go I cut the oil needed for sautéing to three tablespoons rather than five but that—combined with my infrequent stirring—caused the burning so I upped it to four generous tablespoons. I also changed the instructions from “stir frequently” to “stir very frequently” (I stirred near constantly to much better results than the first attempt).

Two of the four fennel bulbs, ready for chopping

Fennel, onion, and garlic ready for sauteing

Herbs to be added to the fennel and onion

The fennel and onions with herbs after attentive sauteing

The other major changes were alterations in the panko topping. The original recipe calls for three tablespoons of butter that the panko is then stirring into to brown the panko. This seemed pretty unnecessary to me so on trial two, I sprayed the pan with an oil non-stick cooking spray, added the panko, then sprayed the panko with the oil spray. This worked perfectly and is a healthier alternative. Finally, instead of one cup of Pecorino Romano cheese, I reduced the requirement to ½ cup Pecorino and added a ½ cup of Fontina, which I had leftover.

Ingredients for the gratin (aka bread crumb and cheese topping)

Browning the panko

Second time was clearly a charm because this time it was so delicious I also wanted to devour it before taking a picture. It was fresh and crunchy and completely different than the first attempt.  And I was able to snap a few photos.

Baked Fennel Gratin, hot out of the oven

Mmmm... much more tasty

Fennel Gratin

(adapted from Bon Appetite‘s Fennel Gratin with Pecorino and Lemon)

Ingredients

Fennel and Onion

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 onion, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

4-5 large fennel bulbs, cored and cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

½ cup low-salt chicken broth2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt (1 teaspoon if using a regular chicken broth and not low-salt)

½ teaspoon black pepper

Topping

Oil spray (non-stick cooking spray)

½ cup panko

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

½ cup Fontina cheese, grates

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

Method

Lightly oil a shallow 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish. Heath 4 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add garlic and onion; sauté until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add fennel; increase heat to medium and sauté until fennel is slightly softened, stirring very frequently, about 18 minutes. Add broth, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the broth is absorbed, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer to the baking dish. (This can be made a day in advance. Let stand at room temperature one hour before baking.)

Spray large skillet with oil spray (non-stick cooking spray) and heat over medium heat. Add panko and spray panko with oil spray (non-stick cooking spray). Stir, paying close attention as the panko will brown all of a sudden. Continue stirring until all a golden brown. Transfer to a plate and let cool then stir in both cheeses, parsley, and lemon peel. (This can be made a day in advance.)

Preheat oven to 425F. Sprinkle panko mixture over the fennel-and-onion mix. Bake until the gratin is heated through and the topping is deep golden, about 20 minutes. Serve warm and enjoy.

Homemade Butter, Chocolate, and Almond Croissants

If you’ve ever wondered what makes a croissant so delicious, the answer is this: a croissant is entirely comprised of butter rolled into flour.

After baking apricot danishes for my birthday—photos of which I plan to post in the near future—I realized croissants were mine for the making since both are created in the same way (I used recipes from The Joy of Cooking for both). First you need to make a rectangle of butter with a bit of flour patted into it. Next, create a dough of flour mixed with a bit of milk, yeast, and butter. Then it’s a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

Rolling the butter into the dough

Making butter pastries require rolling the butter square into the rolled out dough in sequential single turns (a term used to describe rolling the dough into a rectangle then folding the bottom third up and the top third down like a letter then rotating so the folded side is to the left). For the croissants, it was two single turns the into the fridge for 30 minutes. Then two more and into the fridge for another 15 minutes—you never want the butter to warm up, hence all the cooling. Finally, I rolled the dough into two strips of 24-inch-by-12-inch panels and yes, refrigerated one after they rose for five minutes and I set to cutting the dough into triangles.

Rolling the dough for a single turn

Cutting the dough into triangles

But then it was time for the fun. I rolled 12 croissants plain and filled another five with chocolate chips. For the final six, I covered them with the almond paste I’d made for another birthday pastry and had kept in the freezer until today came. (At this point, I made another addition to the freezer, wrapping half the croissants to freeze for another day.) After letting the remaining croissants rise on the counter for an hour and a bit, it was into the oven at 375F for 20ish minutes.

Filling a chocolate croissant

Filling an almond croissant

Croissants for later (first to the freezer)

Into the oven for the rest of them

At this point the post office was threatening to close and I needed to run out and mail some packages. Fortunately, croissant-loving Rob was there to hone in on the perfect golden brownness and pull the pastries from the oven when they were done. When I returned, the air in the apartment smelled sweet and the croissants were cooling on a rack.

Out of the oven and onto the cooling rack at a perfect golden brown

We had friends stop by and saved the sampling for their visit. The results were overwhelmingly yays—though I’ll likely think twice about the caloric content in a croissant next time I go to order a breakfast sandwich. They were a most excellent, decadent treat though.

Going in for a close up

Mmmm... the flaky insides of a chocolate croissant

Potato Pancakes

Runner’s World‘s 5-Minute Potato Pancakes do not take five minutes to make. They are, however, still very worth making (recipe below!).

Last weekend Rob and I cooked up a batch for Sunday brunch after my I got back from my 10-mile long run. I had no idea how these hash brown-cum-hotcakes would turn out but they were a glorious combination of the two: crispy yet still fluffy like a pancake. I would say they were bizarre if not so delicious.

Ingredients for Potato Pancakes

Rob mashing the potatoes

Cooking the potato pancakes on the skillet

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Potato Pancakes

(Adapted with slight variations from Runner’s World‘s Healthy Potato Pancakes)

Ingredients:

Potatoes to make 2 cups mashed potatoes

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup chopped green onions

Salt + pepper to taste

Plain yogurt

Hot sauce

Method:

Cut potatoes into large cubes and boil until soft. Mash, adding milk to hold potatoes together. Set aside. In a medium-size bowl, beat eggs with milk then add 2 cups mashed potatoes, green onions, salt, and pepper. Drop batter onto a heated and lightly sprayed nonstick skillet. Cook three to four minutes per side or until golden grown. Enjoy topped with plain yogurt and/or hot sauce.

Green Pea Salad

I have not been able to stop saying, “This salad is so colorful!” On Sunday, I made Green Pea Salad (an adaptation of Seattle Jim’s Pea Salad from former Google chef Charlie Ayer’s cookbook Food 2.0). I was looking for a vegetable salad recipe as a side for the big meal Rob and I were cooking up for dinner and leftovers (a delicious baked pasta, mushroom, spinach, and sausage casserole) and when I stumbled across the image of this “grab-and-go” side, as Ayers describes it, I was sold.

I cut the onion, added broccoli, generally boosted the quantity of vegetables in all, and then substituted the sour cream and cider vinegar of the original recipe with plain, non-fat yogurt and red wine vinegar (which were, unlike the former, in my fridge and pantry). The result is a wonderfully tasty, not-too-creamy, fresh and crunchy treat. Sure, it’s all green, but the different shades of the peas, broccoli, and snow peas make this a treat for the eyes and the mouth. Here’s the recipe… (another picture is at the bottom of the post)

Green Pea Salad

(adapted from Seattle Jim’s Pea Salad, Food 2.0 by Charlie Ayers)

Ingredients:

4 slices bacon

3 cups frozen peas, thawed

2 cups broccoli florets, cut into bite-size pieces

4 ounces snow peas, cut into bite-size pieces on the diagonal

8 ounces (1 can) water chestnuts, drained and sliced

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons plain, non-fat yogurt

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

3 tablespoons dried dill

Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Fry bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels, break into small pieces, and set aside. Dry the peas with paper towels (as well as all other vegetables after you wash them; if you don’t do this, the salad will be too wet). Combine peas, broccoli, snow peas, chestnuts, and bacon in a large bowl, and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, vinegar, garlic, dill, and salt and pepper to taste. Add to the salad and mix gently. Serve and enjoy.