Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Wonders of Glutinous Rice Balls

Dear Kathryn,

It is a little strange that it has taken me so long to write about my favorite food category of all time, which, drumroll please, happens to be the humble legume. Oh, beans! They are Bon marché (French for dirt cheap), Earthy, Adaptable to many recipes, Nutricious, and Sinfully silky. True to their adaptability, beans can even be for dessert. A couple days ago, Alison had me over for a tea party, and we prepared some Glutinous Rice Balls with Red Bean Filling that she had purchased at one of our three chinese grocery stores in town (god bless Iowa City for being one of the more diverse cities in Iowa.) The package indicated that within 6-8 minutes, we would have a "delicious and convenient" dessert ready for us to eat.

I was a little skeptical. I had tried moon cakes once at a friend's sleepover in seventh grade, and while I appreciated her mother having made these especially for us to eat, I did not like the bean paste filling. I was too embarassed to admit that I didn't like it, so I stashed it in my pocket, waited until everyone had fallen asleep, and then discarded it underneath the couch. Christine, if you are reading this, I must send you my very long overdue apologies for any inconveniences (ant, mold, rat infestations?) that I might have inadvertently caused.

Well, I decided to give bean desserts another try, and this time, I did not have to craft an elaborate scheme to discard them. In fact, they were quite tasty despite their exploding-larvae like appearance. The shell was soft and gummy, and yielding to the rich and lightly sweetened rice bean filling. They were even better dipped in sesame seeds.

These glutinous rice balls definitely packed a punch - after eating a couple of them, Alison and I felt a little more than full. However, it is impossible to feel guilty by overindulging in these healthful desserts. If there ever was such a thing as a superfood, I think these would have to be it.

It is way too late for me to continue waxing poetic about glutinous rice balls - good night.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Smoothies: The Secret to a Healthy and Glamorous New Year

Kathryn, I must confess that I've had a hard time keeping my new resolutions.  It's pathetic that I've reigned in the New Year for only 11 days, and I have yet to transform myself into a healthy and glamorous Allison.  However, I found this clip from Brenda Dickinson, a daytime television sensation from the 80s, and in it she reveals her time honored secrets to how she looks fabulous.  So, slap on your spandex, tease your hair, slurp your protein shake, and check it.  

Wow,  if only I had her clothes.  While I dig Brenda's style and admire her commitment to a rabbit diet and militant exercise regime, I find her smoothie preparation quite objectionable.   A banana, juice, and some protein powder do not a satisfying smoothie make.  I have included this updated version, complete with all natural ingredients, fruit, and above all, protein - yum.

Rock Your Way Into a Leotard Smoothie,
  • 1 pear, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp yogurt
  • 2 tbsp pear butter
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
Blend. Enjoy.  

Did you notice the pear butter from the Borough Market, our foodie Oasis in London?  I only wish I had smuggled more back to Iowa.  

Best of all with this recipe, I got to use the trusty immersion blender.  It makes me feel powerful, and even dare I say, quite chic.  Heck, I think I am finally about to embark on a glamorous new year.  

Grinnell in 10 days. Wow...  I'm excited to see you, but I must admit that I am a little nervous that school is about to start.  Enjoy the rest of your break!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy 2008! Celebrate With Kale!

Happy New Year! I would share my resolutions with you, except that this year I didn't so much make resolutions as draft a 32-point strategic plan directing all facets of my life in the coming year. Perfectionist? Me? Never!

My New Year's Eve plans have been the same my entire life: hang out with my parents, watch the ball drop in Time's Square, and at midnight go in the front yard and make a lot of noise and shout "Happy New Year!" Everything in my life is very ritualized.

Tradition can be good, though--especially culinary tradition. It's a Southern superstition to eats black-eyed peas and greens at New Year's, to ensure prosperity in the year to come. Actually, I'm not sure how widespread this tradition is--it could very well happen everywhere. Anyway, on New Year's Day I went to my aunt's house and had a feast of ham (well I didn't eat the ham), black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, corn, and a delicious made-from scratch key lime pie (that was my contribution). On New Year's Eve, however, I stayed in and prepared a miniature feast of kale and black-eyed peas, and a butternut squash gratin recipe from Deborah Madison's legendary book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

I think you're really going to like this meal, Allison, since it stars your favorite vegetable (well, aside from fennel) -- Kale!

Deborah says greens can harbor grit, so after you cut them away from the stem, you should immerse them in water, agitate them, and allow the grit to sink to the bottom of the bow.

Butternut Squash Gratin (I actually used Acorn squash)

1/4 c. olive oil
4 c. thinly sliced onion
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons chopped sage or 2 teaspoons dried
NOTE: I didn't have sage on hand, so I replaced it with a random assortment of other autumnal-sounding spices from the spice cabinet.
Salt and freshly milled pepper
6 c. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 c. flour
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 c. grated Gruyere or Fontina
1/2 c. plus 2 tablespoons heated whole milk
(I used half and half, since I'm always looking out for ways to make my cooking less healthy).
1 c. fresh breadcrumbs
(I made these by pulsing some stale whole-grain bread in the food processor)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly oil or butter a 2-quart gratin dish (this means a sort of deep-ish, bowl-shaped casserole dish, I'm pretty sure!)

Heat half the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, thyme, and sage and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are lightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Spread in the gratin dish, return the skillet to medium heat, and add the remaining oil.

Toss the squash in the flour, letting the excess fall away. Add it to the pan and cook until it begins to brown in places on both sides, about 7 minutes. Add the parsley, season with salt and plenty of pepper, and cook for 1 minute more. Layer the squash over the onions, cover with the cheese, then add the milk. Cover and bake for 25 minutes, then uncover, add the bread crumbs, and bake until the top is browned and the liquid absorbed, about 25 minutes more.

Oooooh. Aaaaah. Yum!

Now for the beans 'n greens! This is loosely adapted from another of Deborah Madison's recipes. Excep0t that the recipe was for Tuscan beans and greens and this is, well, not.

Oklahoma Beans 'n' Greens


Olive oil
A whole bunch of Kale (i.e. whatever you get from buying a bunch of it at the store), cleaned and chopped.
An onion, chopped
3 or 4 bulbs garlic, minced
1/2 a cup of red wine (although really, white would work better. We just happened to have some red on hand)
A can of black-eyed peas (about 15 oz, I'm too lazy to check!), drained and rinsed
Salt & Pepper

First, blanch the greens. Heat a large saucepan full of water over high heat, and when it starts to simmer, put in the kale and cover. Let cook for 6-7 minutes, until kale is bright green and tender, then drain.

In a largeish skillet, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until transparent. Add the wine, stir to mix, and let the alcohol cook off of the wine, until the mixture is syrupy and dark (or, just syrupy, if you use white wine). Add the beans and kale, mix it all together, and let it cook until it's nice and hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bon Apetit!

The meal was warm and filling, and a nice way to ring in 2008. This would be good to eat on any cold winter night, since it tastes so homey and comforting.

I hope the first few days of 2008 have been nice for you, Allison (I'm sure they were the excitement of the Iowa caucuses!). Happy cooking, and I'll see you back in Grinnell in two weeks!

G.G. Cookies, for Christmas (or any time!)

Okay, so maybe I'm heinously late with this post about Christmas. The holiday (which, in our house, is a two-day affair that includes a seven-hour drive to St. Louis right in the middle of it), was a whirlwind. Also it was strangely anticlimactic, probably because my grandmother was in the hospital and all our preparations were kind of halfway completed at the last minute.

BUT, it all turned out well! We might not have put our decorations out until the last minute, and, yes, our tree might have been brittle with brown needles here and there because we bought it so late (and we may have only put up the few ornaments in our collection that the cat couldn't break) -- but in the end, none of that mattered.

We were still cozy and jolly:

And, a couple of days before Christmas, I still got to make G.G. Cookies -- the most important part of any holiday celebration. These are unbelievably delicious Christmas cookies that my great-grandmother (who we called G.G.) used to make for Christmas, Easter, birthdays, the Fourth of July... really any holiday with a color scheme that can be replicated in colored sugar. These are tiny, thin, crispy sugar cookies that are best eaten compulsively. The correct technique is to pop a cookie in your mouth whole, and kind of let it dissolve against the top of your mouth. Since G.G. died a few years ago (at the ripe old age of 97), I've made these in her stead. And now, since I'm divulging this super-secret (kind of) family recipe, you can too!

Of course, before I got down to the nitty-gritty of mixing up the cookies, I had to start my favorite Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life, playing. It just wouldn't be Christmas without Jimmy Stewart having a personal crisis while Donna Reed sings "Buffalo Gals" in a bathrobe!


1 stick butter
1/4 c. oil (I used Wesson vegetable oil)
1/2 c. granulated sugar (I used extrafine baking sugar)
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

My great-grandmother was obsessively organized (sound familiar?) and she kept a typed index-card index of every book she'd ever read. She also gave me this recipe on one of her signature manual-typewriter typed unlined index cards:

First, cream the sugars, oil, and margarine. (I did this in an electric mixer with a paddle attachment). Add the egg.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and cinnamon together and add the dry ingredients a little at a time to the creamed mixture. Add vanilla.

The final dough is very pale and smooth:

Refrigerate dough in a covered container. (G.G.'s recipe says to do this overnight. Yeah, right. I refrigerated it for about 30 minutes because I'm horribly impatient)

Next, make small balls -- about 1/2 tsp - 1 tsp of dough. They should be about the size of a large marble, or slightly less than an inch in diameter.

Next, if you're mildly obsessive-compulsive like me, you line the dough balls up in neatly staggared lines on a large cookie sheet (buttered, sprayed with Pam, or otherwise made non-stick), so as to fit as many cookies as possible.

Get out a glass with a smooth bottom and fill a bowl with sugar.

You're going to use the sugar-coated glass bottom to smash the dough balls into cookies! Now, you're not just slightly flattening them. You are smashing them utterly flat and thin, and then you're going to sprinkle them with festive colored sugar. I used red and green, but these can be adapted to any occasion by changing the colors.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. The long cooking time is essential, because it makes the cookies uniformly crispy and golden.

Aren't they beautiful! Make sure you let them cool for quite awhile, or they'll break when you try to remove them from the cookie sheet. Be careful, since they're quite delicate. And DELICIOUS.

Note: G.G. Cookies, though wonderful and amazing in every way, aren't safe for cats to consume!

Cheers Allison, and here's hoping that over winter break your cold cold heart has softened towards out feline friends.