Molasses bran muffins

Is it weird to say that bran muffins are my favorite muffins? Because it’s true. I have no problem with a lemon-poppyseed muffin, or a blueberry muffin, or a banana-nut muffin, or even a chocolate chip muffin. But to me, a muffin is meant for breakfast or snack, and those are basically dessert. They’re halfway down the road to cake. A bran muffin, on the other hand, has plausible deniability. It’s damn near health food. And there’s nothing else in the baked good kingdom quite like it.

Of course, most bran muffins aren’t actually health food. They’re stealth sugar bombs, and for a while I had to go cold turkey on them. But recently I found a recipe that’s let bran muffins back into my life. It’s built entirely on whole wheat flour, and sweetened with molasses and a touch of honey. I still wouldn’t call them health food, but they’re substantial and slow-burning enough that I can have one in the morning and stay satisfied for hours. The molasses makes these wonderfully dark and damp and bittersweet. The whole wheat makes them extra-earthy and amps up the spongy-grainy texture. They’re my perfect bran muffin.

I like to pack these muffins full of fruit, nuts, and seeds, so that they can stand on their own as a light breakfast or afternoon snack. The muffin pictured below has raisins, sunflower seeds, and blanched slivered almonds. Really, just about anything is fair game. I know lots of people hate raisins, but I love them, and for me a bran muffin isn’t a bran muffin without them. That said, any dried fruit will do just fine, or even no fruit at all. And although I’m normally not a big fan of nuts in baked goods, they’re really lovely here, adding crunch and a wonderfully unpredictable texture.

There’s another reason I love this recipe: it produces those wonderful overhanging dome-tops that are my favorite part of a bran muffin. The key is to fill the muffin cups all the way to the top; if you do, there should be exactly enough batter for 12 perfectly domed muffins. As the muffins bake, the tops rise up out of the cups, nudging right up against each other. My favorite way to eat these is to carefully separate the spongy bottom from the chewy top, then eat the bottom first and save the top for last.

molasses bran muffin

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Scrambled egg banh mi

This sandwich was SO HARD to photograph. It just did not want to behave. I’ve been making a version of this sandwich once or twice a week for the past month, and they’ve all been docile and well-constructed and probably totally photogenic. Then I finally got around to charging my camera battery and made myself a sandwich specifically to photograph. This one decided to fall apart every time I put it down.

Once again, I beg you to ignore the photo. Because this right here? Is one phenomenal sandwich. I first had it at a sandwich shop near where I used to work, and fell in love. After almost a year of craving it since leaving that job, I finally managed to recreate it at home. It’s got the sunny chewiness of scrambled egg, which I like so much better than the pork you usually find in a banh mi. On top of the egg, add lots of utterly compelling things: pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber sticks, jalapeno slices, cilantro leaves, and lots of spicy mayo. It’s hot and cold, sweet and sour, crunchy and chewy, spicy and rich–everything there is to love about banh mi.

I call this a “scrambled egg” sandwich, but what really fills its belly is a simple flat omelet. At the sandwich stand, they’d steam the eggs in a special container in the microwave, creating a eggy half-moon. To replicate that effect, I beat the eggs and add them to a lightly oiled skillet over medium-low heat. Then I let them cook, completely undisturbed, until they’ve set into a springy, slightly puffed disc. (This usually takes about 15 minutes on my stove, which leaves plenty of time to leisurely prep the other sandwich ingredients.) Slide the disc out of the skillet, cut it in half, et voila–two eggy half-moons, ready to slide between halves of bread.

So much for the egg. There’s one other bit of advance prep needed for this sandwich: pickling some carrots and daikon. I made up a quart of refrigerator pickles, following a recipe from the New York Times, and have it handy in the fridge for whenever the banh mi craving strikes. You could also make a batch of fifteen-minute quick pickles, which will be ready in about the time it takes the eggs to cook. Either way, you’ve got the makings of one satisfying lunch.

egg banh mi 1

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Catalan seafood stew

I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.

The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.

Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.

But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.

catalan lobster stew

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Salted peanut butter cookies

It’s almost a month after New Year’s. Is it safe to blog about cookies?

This is one of the easiest, most decadent recipes I’ve ever encountered. I’m not kidding. These cookies are made up of exactly three ingredients: brown sugar, eggs, and peanut butter. Not only does that make them gluten- and dairy-free, but it means there’s nothing to bulk them out or tone them down. The peanut butter is front and center, propped up by the sturdy molasses sweetness of brown sugar. I normally love giant cookies, but these are an exception–I tried making them big, but they’re so rich and sugary that I struggled to finish one. These are much more enjoyable when they’re a bit on the small side.

Unlike your traditional crumbly peanut butter cookie, these are chewy and moist, almost like a cross between a cookie and a blondie. When you bite into one freshly baked, it offers up a firm, slightly crisp outside and a translucent gooey middle. Let the cookies sit in an airtight container for a day or two, and the texture settles and evens out so they’re cakey all the way through (which I actually prefer).

The short ingredient list also makes these dangerously easy to whip up. Not that most drop cookie recipes are hard, but this one involves no measuring of dry ingredients, no creaming of butter and sugar, no adding eggs one at a time. All you need is one bowl, one whisk, and a measuring cup or two. The most time-consuming part is chilling the dough in the fridge until it’s firm enough to scoop cleanly–you could bake these right after mixing, but the dough is very squishy and tends to make a mess. (Though it did mean I got to lick my fingers a lot. So.)

The original recipe calls for a single flourish: a sprinkle of fancy flaky salt on the cookies before they’re baked. It’s a fabulous touch. But I can never resist gilding the lily, so I add just a hint of cinnamon–in my mind, peanut butter should never be without it–and a healthy dose of chocolate. The result is ridiculous, and fabulous, and pretty much everything I want in a cookie.

salted peanut butter cookies

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Pantry tuna and bean salad

This recipe is brought to you by cabin fever. For the past few weeks, I’ve been without a car during the workday, and my beloved bicycle has developed persistent brake problems. That leaves me relying on (slow, infrequent) public transit to get around, which turns grocery shopping from a quick errand into a multi-hour production. True to form, I’ve reacted by holing up hermit-style instead, working long hours and making a lot of pantry meals.

This tasty little salad is one I keep coming back to. It’s based on a mix of fresh and shelf-stable ingredients I always have around: olive oil, canned tuna, canned beans, a lemon or some vinegar, an onion or a couple scallions, dried herbs, dijon mustard, and capers. You soak the alliums in seasoned lemon juice, whisk in the oil to make a dressing, and then toss in the tuna, beans, and capers. The combination of flaky fish, firm beans and spiky, pungent dressing is so much tastier than something this easy and quick has any right to be. And it’s pretty darn cheap, too.

I make this slightly differently every time, based on what’s around and what needs using. I like chickpeas, but Sam prefers white beans, so we usually have both on hand–the salad is great with either. We try to keep fresh lemons in the fridge, but I’ve also used white wine vinegar and even tarragon vinegar to great effect. The recipe below is just a template; I can imagine so many ways to vary this and fancy it up. Use shallot or chives instead of onion or scallions. Add finely diced celery or chard stems for crunch. Use oil-packed tuna and include its oil in the dressing. Use a fancier vinegar, like champagne or white balsamic. Use fresh herbs instead of dried, adding them in at the end to keep their flavor perky.

The only real requirement here is refrigerating the salad for a little while before serving it, so the flavors can meld and the beans and tuna can soak up the salty-sour-oniony dressing. Just an hour in the fridge makes a huge difference; a few hours is ideal; overnight is fine. As far as serving, you could plop the salad on top of greens or pile it inside lettuce leaves. You could eat it open-faced on toast or a bagel, or make a sandwich with it. Honestly, I usually just grab a fork and eat straight from the bowl.

tuna bean salad

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Three-bean pumpkin chili

This chili started with a not-so-spectacular sugar pumpkin. It arrived in our CSA, cute as a button, and I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it wasn’t a winner. It felt light for its size, and a good pumpkin should feel heavy. When I roasted and pureed it, my instincts were confirmed: the flesh was starchy rather than sweet, and the pumpkin flavor was muted. I’d been planning to make pie, but I knew at first taste it’d be a dud.

Still, the puree had some of the lovely earthiness I expect from freshly roasted pumpkin. What about a savory use? I’d been to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival a couple weeks before and tried pumpkin chili for the first time. For something sold out of a concession tent in a styrofoam bowl, it was pretty good–the pumpkin made a nice match for the beany warmth of the chili. But I wished with every spoonful that it was spicier, gutsier, more like my favorite bean chili. So when I found myself with a batch of boring pumpkin puree, I decided to try marrying the two chilis.

If it’s possible, I think I like this version even better than the original I based it on. The pumpkin gives the whole thing some backbone, adding sweetness and depth to balance the intense smoky heat. It also helps thicken the chili, creating a rich gravy-like sauce. The chili is ready after as little as an hour of simmering, but if you have the time, let it go for closer to three hours–the long simmer really takes the flavor from good to glorious. The whole thing is wonderfully rib-sticking, perfect for chilly nights like the ones we’ve been having in the Bay Area recently.

This is fabulous with any kind of pumpkin, homemade or canned. I know I’m not the only one to end up with a bland roasted pumpkin, and this is the perfect use for less-than-stellar puree. I ended up adding a bit of sugar at the end to compensate for the lack of sweetness in my pumpkin; this is totally a taste-and-adjust situation. Or you could just use canned puree, which provides plenty of sweetness and makes this a meal you could whip up from the pantry.

pumpkin chili

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Thai curry butternut squash soup

I’ve had a couple tubs of Thai curry paste kicking around in my fridge since the summer. But when butternut squash came into season this year, I started putting them into heavy rotation. I love butternut squash soup as it is, but lately I’ve been liking my winter squash on the spicy side. So I make a very simple soup–just leeks, garlic, ginger, and squash, plus enough broth to make it soupy–and add a little dollop of curry paste. Squash loves curry in all forms, and its sweetness really welcomes the spiciness of Thai curry. It makes for a really terrific soup.

I’ve used red and green curry here, and they were both great. The red curry is a cleaner, sourer heat, and I find I need a little less paste to do the job. Green curry is richer, darker, maybe slightly less spicy, and I use a little more of it to really zing. In either case, the effect is both surprising and subtle: lots of fire up front and a quiet thrum of curry in the background.

The soup is nice enough on its own, but adding a little pile of fried shallots to each bowl really makes it special. Pureed squash can be a bit sugary and boring on its own, and the fried shallots add a lovely crackly-crisp texture and bittersweet contrast that I just love. If you’re serving the whole batch of soup at once, I’d suggest frying all the shallots right in the soup pot, then using the shallot-infused oil to make the soup. But if, like me, you like making soup ahead of time and freezing it for later, just fry up a little batch of shallots whenever you’re ready to eat.

I’m not normally one for adding cream to pureed soups, but this soup really benefits from something rich stirred in at the end. The curry paste I use is very spicy, and it needs a bit of fat to tame it so that the other flavors come through. Coconut milk is the obvious choice, but I don’t always want to open a whole can just to use a drizzle. I’ve finished this soup with different dairy and non-dairy milks, depending on what was in my fridge at the time, and it comes out great every time. The recipe includes a bunch of options; use what you like, or what you’ve got on hand. It’s that kind of soup.

thai curry squash soup

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