February 2009


My very first attempt at egg-free, dairy-free baking was for our son’s first birthday.  The recipe I chose — one held dear by vegans and parents of food-allergic kids everywhere — was an astonishing success (unlike my second and third attempts, which yielded doorstop muffins and cookie puddles).

Legend has it that this recipe — which relies on baking soda and vinegar rather than eggs for rise — was created during World War II by resourceful home bakers trying to make-do when dairy products were scarce.  This “wacky cake” — so-called for its unorthodox method of mixing the ingredients directly in the baking pan — is light, moist, versatile, and easy.  I’ve made it many times, in many different ways, and it’s always terrific.

Today is my birthday, and to celebrate I baked chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow frosting.  An egg-free marshmallow frosting is still a work in progress (this version was more marshmallow than frosting), but the cake, as always, is perfect.

Chocolate Birthday Cake

Yield:  One 9-inch round or 8×8 square, or 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 c. granulated sugar

3 tbsp.  cocoa powder (ideally natural cocoa powder, but dutch-processed will work)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1 c. cold water

5 tbsp. safflower or canola oil, plus a bit more for the pan

1 tbsp. cider vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour pans and set aside.

Sift flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl or liquid measure, combine water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.  Pour wet ingredients into dry and gently whisk until just combined (do not beat).  Pour batter into prepared pan.  Bake until top of cake springs back when gently pressed or a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes for cake or about 20 minutes for cupcakes.

Make it gluten-free: Replace all-purpose flour with 1 c. rice flour, 1/3 c. tapioca starch, and 1/3 c. potato starch.  Add 1 tsp. xanthan gum to the dry ingredients.

Variations:

Yellow cake: omit cocoa powder and add another 1/2 tsp. vanilla.  You can also use fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar, if you like.

Lemon: omit cocoa, replace vinegar with fresh lemon juice, and add finely grated zest of 1 lemon to dry ingredients.

Banana: omit cocoa and add ½ tsp. ground cinnamon to dry ingredients.  Add one mashed, very ripe banana to wet ingredients.

Pumpkin spice:  Omit cocoa and add 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/8 tsp. cloves, and 1/8 tsp. nutmeg) to dry ingredients.  Add 3/4 c. canned pumpkin puree (NOT pie filling) to wet ingredients and reduce water to ¾ c.

Coconut:  Same as yellow cake above, but also add 2 oz. shredded, sweetened coconut to batter (and sprinkle top of frosted cake with more coconut).

Mocha:  Same as chocolate cake, but replace water with cold, brewed coffee and add up to 1 tsp. instant espresso powder to dry ingredients.

Here’s a novel way to eat your oats.  These lightly sweet, crispy pancakes are perfect for breakfast with applesauce and homemade sausage.  Or take them in a savory direction (use unsweetened coconut and add some sliced scallions and grated ginger; omit the coconut and add some sauteed onion and toasted nuts) and serve them with mashed winter squash and sauteed greens.

Instead of the quick oats and boiling water, you could use leftover steel-cut oatmeal.  They’ll be chewier and denser, but just as good.

Coconut Oatcakes

Yield:  Makes 9-12, serving 3-4

1 c. quick oats

1/3 c. shredded, sweetened coconut

Pinch salt

1 1/4 c. boiling water

Safflower or canola oil, for frying

Combine oats, coconut, and salt in a small mixing bowl. Pour in boiling water and stir to combine. Let sit for 5 minutes while oats absorb water.

Warm a griddle or large skillet over medium heat. Add 2-3 tablespoons oil, swirling pan to coat, then drop in spoonfuls of batter. Flatten gently to about ¾” thickness and cook until edges start to brown, 5-7 minutes. Flip, then cook an additional 4 minutes, until browned and crispy on the bottom. Repeat with any remaining batter.

Usually when I think paella, I think rice, saffron, tomatoes, shellfish, and sometimes sausage.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can swap the seafood for chicken or keep it vegetarian, or use white rice instead of brown (just halve the time the pan spends in the oven).  In spring, asparagus, artichokes, fresh peas, and shrimp keep it light and fresh.  Wedges of just-off-the-vine tomato, eggplant, and spicy sausage are perfect for summer.  In the colder months, root vegetables and winter squash pair nicely with chicken thighs and hearty brown rice.

A few tips for adapting the recipe:

  • Use up to 4 cups total of whatever vegetables you like, but keep cooking times in mind when deciding how to cut them.  Tomatoes, asparagus, and other quick-cooking vegetables can be kept in large pieces; root vegetables, winter squashes, mushrooms, eggplant, and other sturdy vegetables should be diced small or sliced thin.
  • For an all-seafood version, use 8-12 good-sized shrimp, or try scallops or mussels.  Use white rice instead of brown so the shellfish won’t overcook.
  • If you omit the chorizo, you may want to add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes for a little heat.

Paella, for February

Adapted from Food Matters by Mark Bittman

Yield:  Serves 4-6

3 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock, or water, plus more as needed

Pinch saffron threads

2 c. sliced mushrooms, any kind you like

2 c. diced butternut squash (1/2 – 3/4″ is good)

3 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tbsp. tomato paste

2 tsp. paprika (ideally the smoky, Spanish variety, but any kind will do)

2 c. brown rice

3 oz. cooked chorizo (or other sausage, if you prefer), diced into 1/2″ pieces

2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 c. frozen peas

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  In a small saucepan, warm the stock and saffron.  In a mixing bowl, toss mushrooms and squash with 1 tbsp. olive oil, salt, and pepper, and set aside.

Warm a 12-inch, oven-proof skillet over medium heat, then drizzle in the remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil.  Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender, about 8 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and pepper, stir in tomato paste and paprika, and cook for another minute or two (let the tomato paste soften and brown a little — you want to cook off its slightly metallic flavor).  Add the rice and cook, stirring, for another minute or two, then stir in the warm stock, chorizo, chicken, and peas.

Spoon the mushrooms and squash over the top of the rice mixture, then put the skillet in the oven and bake, undisturbed, for 40 minutes.  Check to see if the rice is tender and dry — if not, return to the oven for another 5 minutes (add a bit more liquid if rice is dry but not yet tender).  Keep checking every 5 minutes until rice is done (it shouldn’t take more than another 10), then turn off the oven and let the skillet sit for 10 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven and sprinkle with parsley.  To make a nice bottom crust, put the pan on the stove over high heat for a few minutes before serving.

Notes: The easiest — and tidiest — way to cook sausage is on a foil-lined sheet pan, in the oven.   Bake at 375 degrees for about 15-20 minutes (depending on girth of sausages), turning over half-way through.  No splattered grease on the stovetop, no fry pan to wash.

What to do with leftover sausage and squash?  Make soup!  Brown crumbled sausage with a chopped onion (and celery if you have it) in a little olive oil.  Add some minced fresh thyme, diced squash, some canned or cooked dried beans (and their cooking liquid, if you have it), some chopped canned tomatoes and their juice, stock or water, and salt and pepper.  Raise heat, bring soup to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently for 10 minutes to meld flavors.

Have extra chicken thighs?  Try this.

Every winter, toward the end of February, all the soups,  stews, braises, and roasts I so eagerly anticipated in September start to weigh me down a bit, and I find myself hankering for something lighter and fresher.  Trouble is, really good tomatoes and corn on the cob and lettuces and berries and other summery inspirations are still many months away.

But don’t despair:  did you know you can make a tangy, spicy, fresh-tasting salsa using canned tomatoes?  It’s true!  And easy!  And just the thing to lift you from your mid-winter doldrums.

Winter Salsa

Yield:  Makes about 1 quart

1/2 of a small red onion, chopped

2 small cloves garlic, chopped

1 fresh jalepeno, seeded and chopped (or 2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, seeded and chopped), or more to taste

1 28 oz. can best-quality plum tomatoes, drained, juice reserved

Juice of 1 or 2 limes

1/4 c. olive oil

Handful fresh cilantro leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pulse onion, garlic, and jalepeno (or chipotles) in a food processor until finely chopped.  Add tomatoes, lime juice, olive oil, and cilantro, and process until combined.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Add reserved tomato juice as needed for desired consistency.

10 things to do with salsa:

  • Dress up simple rice and beans.
  • Serve it over baked fish or sauteed chicken breasts, with a salad of fennel and oranges and a side of Israeli couscous.
  • Make tacos with shredded, leftover chicken or pork, avocado, corn, and grated Monterey Jack.
  • Stuff it in a burrito with leftover chili and brown rice.
  • Use as a dip for shrimp, crudite, and toasted, garlic-rubbed baguette slices.
  • Mix salsa with some cooked beans, spoon into a portobello mushroom cap, top with toasted breadcrumbs, and bake until bubbly.
  • Serve with quesadillas stuffed with mashed sweet potatoes and blue cheese.
  • Stir it into a simple chicken, bean, or vegetable soup for a little kick.
  • Huevos rancheros:  top a toasted corn tortilla with a fried egg and salsa.
  • Dip your chips.  Want to make your own corn tortilla chips?  See here.

From time to time, my mother-in-law (or grandmother-in-law) will call me up and ask if I want a leftover ham bone.  Of course I do!  The bone is the very best part.  I like to eat ham on occasion, say for a holiday at someone else’s house, but I never cook it at home.  I do, however, love to make soup, and a soup made with a ham bone is a glorious thing.

This week, my mother-in-law bought two ham bones — just the bones — one for her soup and one for mine.  She slow-cooked hers in the style preferred by the U.S. Senate, with navy beans, onions, and garlic.  I made a dark, rich ham stock, then added some lentils and greens.

Both soups are hearty, meaty, and wonderfully wintery.  Here’s mine:

Lentil and Ham Bone Soup

I like tiny French green lentils — they hold their shape and have a clean, almost peppery flavor that complements the smoky sweetness of the ham — but any variety will do.

Yield:  Makes about 10 cups

For the ham stock:

1 ham bone, trimmed of as much meat as possible (reserve about2 c. diced ham for the soup, if you like)

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion, peeled and quartered

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

2 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch chunks

A handful of mushrooms, any kind, quartered if large

9-10 c. water

A handful of parsley stems

8 peppercorns

1 bay leaf

For the soup:

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced

8 c. ham stock

2 c. lentils, picked over and rinsed

2-3 tsp. sherry vinegar

2 c. diced ham (optional)

Fresh baby spinach, washed and steamed, or whatever greens you like, cooked according to your taste (kale or collards are good, too)

Make the ham stock:

Warm a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Drizzle in olive oil, then add onion, carrot, celery, and mushrooms.  Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are nicely browned, about 8 minutes (turn down heat if they brown too quickly).

Add hambone to pot, then pour in enough water to cover all but the top inch or so of the bone.  Add herbs and peppercorns, raise heat to high, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  Strain stock, discarding solids.  Skim fat from surface and set aside.  You should have about 8 c. of stock.

Make the soup:

Wash and dry pot, then return to stove.  Warm over medium heat, then drizzle in oil.  Add onion, carrot, and celery to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and starting to brown, about 10 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and pepper, then stir in garlic and cook 1 minute.  Pour in stock, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon, then stir in lentils.  Raise heat, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until lentils are tender, 30-40 minutes.

Stir in vinegar.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Add a little water if you like a thinner soup.  Serve garnished with diced ham and steamed spinach.

Lentil soup freezes well (with the ham, but not the greens).  I like to steam a handful or two of fresh spinach right before serving.  It’s quick and easy:  put a pile of spinach and a tablespoon or two of water in a glass bowl, cover with a damp paper towel, and microwave on high for 40-60 seconds.

Note:  If you have food allergies or a gluten-intolerance, check the ingredients in your ham — they vary from brand to brand.

To any purists out there who might be mortally offended by my calling this recipe “soda bread,” rest assured, I mean you no harm.  For the record, authentic Irish soda bread is made with flour, baking soda, salt, soured milk, and nothing else.  But the addition of baking powder, a little butter and sugar, and some dried fruit makes a loaf so tender and delicious, it’s worth flouting tradition for.

The original recipe calls for adding one whole egg plus one yolk to the dough along with the buttermilk.  Eggs aren’t necessary, but if you’d like to use them, decrease the buttermilk to 1 cup to compensate for the added liquid.  If you don’t have buttermilk, you can fake it with a mixture of regular milk and vinegar or lemon juice.  See my notes following the recipe for the method.

Day-old soda bread makes outstanding toast.

Soda Bread with Dried Cherries and Golden Raisins

Adapted from Midwest Home, featured this week in the kitchn

Yield: 2 loaves

3 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. fine sea salt

1/4 c. brown sugar

6 tbsp. cold butter, cut into chunks

1 1/4 c. cold buttermilk

3/4 c. dried cherries

3/4 c. golden raisins

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Stir in brown sugar.  Using a pastry blender, your fingers, or whatever method you like best, cut butter into flour until mixture resembles wet sand.  Don’t overmix — you should still see a few pea-sized lumps of butter in the bowl.

Pour in the buttermilk and stir with a rubber spatula until mixture starts to come together.  Add cherries and raisins and continue to mix until most of the flour is incorporated.  Turn dough out onto a floured counter and gently knead a few times, flouring dough and hands as necessary, until it comes together.  Divide dough into two equal portions, shape into rounds, and place on a parchment-lined sheet pan.

Using a sharp — but not serrated — knife (a paring knife works well), score a large x in the top of each round, about 1/2″ deep.  If you have a second sheet pan of the same size, place it underneath the first — this helps keep the bottom of the bread from burning.  Bake in center of oven, 35-40 minutes, until sides are nicely browned and loaves sound hollow when tapped on top.  Remove to wire racks to cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Make it dairy-free: Substitute a non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening (Earth Balance’s Buttery Sticks are the best) and make mock buttermilk using soy milk.  Here’s the method:  To make one cup, put 1 tbsp. cider vinegar (or lemon juice, or white vinegar) in a 1 c. measuring cup and then fill it up with soy milk.  Let sit for about 10 minutes to thicken.  Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work well with rice milk — it’s too thin and lacks the protein necessary for proper curdling.

Fresh, local ingredients are few and far between in New England in February.  Our town’s farmers’ market is closed from November until April, though some of the farms run CSAs year round (offering primarily meat and poultry).  The local farm store sells their own eggs and chickens, as well as milk from a dairy just north of Boston.  Storage vegetables and fruits (onions, garlic, root vegetables, winter squashes, and apples) may still be regional, though I haven’t seen any in weeks.

But we do have fish.  Once a week*, two women set up shop at a nearby farm stand, selling the freshest, most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.  Their haddock, bass, bluefish, and scallops — right off the boat that morning — are gleaming, sweet-smelling, and gone in a matter of hours.

Such lovely seafood needs no dressing up, and these fish cakes — equal parts fish and potato, seasoned only with salt and pepper — couldn’t be simpler.

Fish and Potato Cakes

Yield:  12 cakes, serving 4-6

1 lb. potatoes (I like yukon golds), peeled and cut into chunks

1 lb. firm, white-fleshed fish (haddock and cod are nice, or whatever looks good)

About 3/4 c. milk (optional)

1 bay leaf (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

About 1/3 c. all-purpose flour, for dredging

About 1/3 c. safflower or canola oil, for frying

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Put potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water.  Add a generous sprinkling of salt and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat and simmer potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes.  Drain potatoes, then return them to the hot saucepan and let steam for a few minutes to remove excess moisture (this makes for lighter, fluffier potatoes).  Mash with a potato masher or press through a ricer into a mixing bowl.

While potatoes are cooking, place fish in a baking dish and pour in enough milk to almost cover.  Tuck in bay leaf and bake until fish is opaque, about 10-15 minutes, depending on thickness.  Remove fish from milk, peel off and discard skin, and flake fish with a fork into large chunks.  (You can omit the milk and bay leaf and just bake the fish on a lightly oiled sheet pan, if you prefer.  The milk absorbs some of the “fishiness” of the fish, giving the finished cakes a softer, more delicate flavor.)

Add flaked fish to mashed potatoes, add salt and pepper, and gently fold together with a rubber spatula, being careful not to overmix.  Form into 12 patties, about 3-inches in diameter and 1-inch thick.

Heat 3 tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Dredge fish cakes lightly in flour, dusting off excess, then drop gently into hot pan.  Cook until lightly and evenly browned, then gently flip.  A 12-inch skillet should fit 6 cakes, so fry them in two batches, wiping out the skillet with a paper towel and adding the remaining 3 tbsp. oil before the second batch.  Serve immediately.

I like these with wilted spinach and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Make it dairy-free: Rice milk is the best substitute for cow’s milk here.  Or omit the milk entirely.

Make it gluten-free: Sub a gluten-free flour for the all-purpose flour.  A finely-ground corn flour (not cornmeal) would yield a crispy crust.

*If you’re local and interested, the fish ladies are at Busa Farm in Lexington on Fridays from 1-5.  Get there early for the best selection.

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