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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Stuffed bell peppers with smoked mozzarella

Real talk: I live in food-delivery central. Thanks to all the tech folks around here, we’ve got a thriving on-demand economy, including multiple services that will bring a restaurant order straight to your door. I don’t even have to step outside my apartment to get my favorite Thai fried rice, delivered warm and spicy and exactly how I like it. And unfortunately, that makes it really easy to fall off the cooking wagon.

Lately, with work ramping up its stress levels and the summer drought-heat sapping my energy, I’ve been spending way too much money on greasy takeout. It’s not like there’s no food in the house; the freezer is stocked with my favorite meal building-blocks, like sweet potato filling and tomato sauce and egg rolls. But it’s the instant gratification that gets me, the siren song of something filling and unhealthy that requires no effort on my part. No chopping, no stirring, no dishes–just a delivery fee and some wasted plastic containers. It’s a terrible habit to fall into, and a terribly easy one too.

This week, I’ve committed to breaking the habit. I’ve been allowing myself to cook stuff on a whim, to run to the grocery store every day if I want to. I’ve also been leaving myself with leftover ingredients, so that I’m forced to find ways to put them to use.

This is my latest leftover use-up, and a really delicious one. It started with some smoked mozzarella, which I bought because it was the cheapest mozzarella option at Trader Joe’s. I snacked on some of it, crumbled some of it onto pizza, and then was left with a nubbin of cheese and no plan for it. I had an unused bell pepper, along with some leftover steamed rice (from, uh, Thai takeout). Mixed up with a few pantry staples and some scallions, the rice and cheese became a rich, smoky, slightly spicy stuffing for the bell peppers. It was indulgent without being greasy, which was exactly what I was craving. Suddenly I had a Sunday night dinner that was fresh, nourishing, and totally impossible to call up through an app.

stuffed pepper smoked mozzarella

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Olive oil zucchini bread

I used to not “get” zucchini bread. Out of all the baked goods in this world, why would you choose zucchini bread? It’s a vegetable dessert. It’s a sugary-sweet cake with something green snuck in. It’s what you resort to when you’ve got bushels of zucchini to use up and you’re sick of zucchini. I wasn’t into it.

Of course, then I found myself with zucchini to use up, and I was sick of zucchini. So I decided to cry uncle and do some baking. And it occurred to me that, after all, zucchini bread is just a hop, skip and a jump from carrot cake, which I adore. Carrot cake isn’t really about the carrots; they’re there for texture and moisture, maybe a bit of color, but not so much for their intrinsic carrot-ness. But the best carrot cakes, in my opinion, are unmistakable for what they are; they’re not spice cakes, or raisin-and-nut loaves. You wouldn’t think of removing the carrots, or replacing them with something else. They’re essential to the cake itself. So why not think of zucchini bread the same way?

I tinkered with a pretty standard recipe I found online, and came up with something that–to my surprise–I liked quite a lot. It’s a zucchini bread that almost walks the line between sweet and savory. It’s definitely a cake, but with half the sugar, a bit of whole wheat flour, and a perk of olive oil. The zucchini flavor is clear–not pronounced, just a hint of grassiness in the background. A few of us ate half the loaf for dessert after a light Sunday lunch, and it was perfect; the rest got bundled along for breakfast on the go the next morning, and it was great for that too.

One note: even though I’m calling this an “olive oil” bread, I actually use 1 part extra virgin olive oil to 2 parts canola oil. I’m not crazy about using all extra virgin olive oil in baked goods like this, since I think the flavor overwhelms. But I do like a bit more oomph than you’d get with just regular olive oil, and this ratio does it for me. Feel free to adjust the proportion of olive to canola oil as you like–you’ll need 3/4 cup oil in total.

zucchini bread 1

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Red curry crab cakes

A few weeks ago, I impulse-bought a couple tubs of Thai curry paste. Since then, it’s been curry central in this household. I love how these pastes provide deep flavor and powerful heat, without any work involved: no chopping, no mashing, no nothing. If you have Thai curry paste in the fridge, coconut milk and rice in the pantry, maybe some fish sauce and limes, you can follow the recipe on the label and turn pretty much any combination of protein and veggies into a quick and powerful meal. But even beyond that, I’ve found these pastes are terrific for everything from dumplings to lentil soup to a simple coconut sauce for fish or chicken (which I’ll get around to posting sometime soon).

I bought two kinds of curry paste: red and green. The red curry is a bit sharper and tangier, while the green curry is rich and deep and slightly sweet. I actually like the green better for straight-up curry, but the red has proven to be a bit more versatile overall. When I learned that red curry paste is a key ingredient in Thai fish cakes, it was only a matter of time before I tried it in one of my favorite seafood dishes of all time: crab cakes.

This is a total mash-up recipe, in the best way. These little nibbles have all the flavors of Thai fish cakes–red curry, green beans, scallions, fish sauce, lime–with the texture of an all-American crab cake. Unlike the Thai version, which requires a food processor and deep-frying, these can be made in a matter of minutes in just one bowl, with minimal mess and less fuss. The crab mixture benefits from a little time in the fridge before cooking, but it’s really not necessary. I can–and have–made these on a whim for Sunday lunch, in 20 minutes or less. They’re terrific that way.

How big or small you make these is totally up to you. I go for a sort of middle ground and make 8 smallish cakes, which I think are ideal for an at-home appetizer or light lunch. You could make 4 giant cakes, or 16 itty-bitty cakes to serve as a party snack. If you go bigger, I’d suggest covering the skillet while the cakes cook, so that they heat through by the time they’ve browned.

red curry crab cakes

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