Aunt Lark’s tabbouleh

If a recipe comes from my aunt Lark, you know it’s gonna be good. She is the most fabulous cook. I think she was the first in our family to really get into gourmet cooking. I’ve had a lot of things for the first time at her house. And since she has two vegetarian kids, she always makes something meat-free for holiday meals.

At one of those dinners she served this tabbouleh salad, and it was so superior to anything similar I’d ever made I just swooned, and asked for the recipe. Then she packed me up a to-go package to take home, which I treasured. I think what made it so great, in addition to all those fresh veggies, was a bit of cumin. It’s one of my favorite spices, and it gave it just enough of a kick to stand out.

So here’s the recipe. It’s super healthy, and a great accompaniment to something else Greek or Middle Eastern like falafel. Just remember to allow yourself enough time to soak the bulghur and marinate the salad before you plan to eat it.

Doesn’t a recipe that starts out with this colorful array of veggies have to be good?

Aunt Lark’s Tabbouleh

2 cups bulghur (she likes Bob’s Red Mill brand)
2 cups hot water
3 or 4 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 to 1 1/2 cups freshly chopped parsley
1/3 cup freshly chopped mint
3 green onions, finely sliced
1/2 small yellow or red onion, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cucumber or half an English cucumber, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 package feta cheese (optional)

Start by soaking the bulghur. You can use any method you like best, but 2 cups bulghur soaked in 2 cups hot water for an hour should do the trick. You can also use boiling water for half an hour.

Once it’s done (chewy but not too hard), drain any extra water. You may need to put it in a strainer and press out the excess water with the back of a spatula.

Chop up the rest of the veggies and herbs. The key here is to chop everything really finely so you get a little bit of everything in each bite. And no one wants to bite into a big chunk of raw onion.

Normally I don’t love parsley, but the fresh herbs in this recipe are part of what makes it tabbouleh, so be generous with them. Once all the flavors blend together it just seems right.

In another bowl, whisk the lemon juice (I like to use my vintage juicer, which makes it easy to separate the seeds),

with the olive oil, salt, cumin and pepper.

Just a side note: We buy olive oil in HUGE amounts and just refill a container that sits on the stove because we use so much of it. Next to milk/bread/eggs, we probably use it more than anything.

Mix the dressing with the veggies and then add the strained bulghur. Refrigerate for at least two hours before eating. You might also want to taste it to see if you need to add more seasonings. And, I think it’s extra good with a little feta cheese mixed in at the end.

Yum, yum, YUM.

Guilt-free mac ‘n cheese

I think Mother Nature must have heard my pleas. The sun came out yesterday and started melting the snow in our driveway, and here it is again today. Maybe that’s why I was inspired to make up a new recipe last night. It’s based on this Amy’s noodle bowl I used to buy all the time to take for lunch at work. It sounds iffy — marinated tofu and veggies mixed into mac and cheese, but it’s actually really good. And I realized I’d never made mac and cheese from scratch (yikes!). So here’s what I came up with. You can use wheat or whole grain pasta to make it even healthier. Of all the recipes I’ve made recently, this one might be my favorite.

Guilt-free mac ‘n cheese

12 ounces elbow macaroni (about 3/4 of the box I had)
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 a red pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 an onion, thinly sliced
1 bag frozen broccoli or 2 heads fresh, chopped
1/2 a block of extra firm tofu, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons soy sauce

Start by boiling the water for your pasta and cooking it according to package directions.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a glass baking dish mix the tofu slices with the soy sauce and garlic. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning once during baking.

Meanwhile put the broccoli in the microwave to steam, and saute the peppers and onions in the olive oil. (This is definitely a multitasking recipe).

Set all the veggies aside while you make your cheese sauce. Heat the flour and butter over medium until you have a thick paste. Then add the milk and whisk together. Cook until the sauce starts to bubble and thicken slightly.

It will still be pretty thin, but that’s OK. Remove from heat and stir in 2/3 of the cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the pasta, tofu and veggies to the sauce and stir to combine. Dump the mixture into a 9×13 casserole dish sprayed with cooking spray. Turn the oven up to broil, and when it’s ready, sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top of the casserole and bake for 5-7 minutes or until slightly brown on top.

Million dollar cookie, take 2

I got the urge to bake something last night, and I thought it might be a good time to see if I could improve on the peanut butter ball cookies I was not quite happy with last time I made them.

So, apart from the fact that they are a peanut butter cookie stuffed with a sweetened ball of peanut butter, I pretty much changed everything.

This time I used my own recipe for peanut blossom dough instead of the pre-packaged stuff. I skipped the cinnamon and the peanuts in the recipe, and substituted raw sugar for the regular sugar that you roll the cookies in. And finally, I made them bigger. Because life is too short for tiny cookies.

The result was fantastic! So much better than the first time I made them. And I still got 24 cookies out of the recipe so it didn’t take me very long to bake them all, and my kitchen isn’t overrun with cookies this morning.

So here is my adjusted recipe. Give it a try.

Peanut butter ball cookies, my way

1 3/4 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the peanut butter balls:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 cup raw sugar for rolling
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Blend up your dry ingredients in one bowl (I like to use a whisk for this). In a separate bowl cream the peanut butter and butter, then add both sugars, the egg and vanilla. Slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet, until your dough forms a ball. Stick this in the fridge while you roll the peanut butter balls.

Combine the peanut butter and confectioners sugar in a bowl until it forms a ball. Divide this ball in half, then half again. You will need to get 6 balls out of each of these pieces. Roll all 24 balls and set them out on a plate or cookie sheet.

Now divide your cookie dough into 24 parts the same way. Flatten each ball into a disk and place a peanut butter ball on top. Fold the excess dough around the ball and roll the whole thing into a neat ball. Roll this in raw sugar and place on a lined cookie sheet. When you have 6 balls on a sheet, flatten each one out with the bottom of a glass that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 12 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the cookies.

Zucchini bread pudding

I can’t say I was always a fan of bread pudding. I have a thing with eggs. If anything is too eggy tasting, especially if it’s burnt, I don’t like it. But I am picky like that. Sometimes custardy dishes have the same effect, and sometimes the thought of soggy bread just doesn’t sound good. But I have come to appreciate a nicely done bread pudding (either savory or sweet) the last couple of years. I am still daydreaming about the one we had at Figs in Boston…

Anyway, this recipe turned out to be the most wonderful weeknight dinner on a cold winter night. And I got to use up half a loaf of artisan French bread that had started to get old.

The original recipe calls for butternut squash, but I had a feeling I would like zucchini better. I also roasted it quite a bit longer than it said to, because I know that it takes around 30 minutes to really get a good caramelized zucchini, and that’s where all the flavor is.

So here’s my version. It’s one of my favorite new recipes of 2010 (ha).

Zucchini bread pudding
adapted from Simply in Season

2 zucchini, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 eggs
2 egg whites
2 cups milk
1 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated (1/2 for the liquid part, 1/2 to sprinkle on top)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
9 cups day-old French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spread out the zucchini pieces on a nonstick pan, sprinkle them with salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the sides start to get caramelized. Turn the oven down to 375.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium and saute the onions and garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil. Remember that both of these veggies will need to cool a bit before you add them to the eggs (so it doesn’t scramble right away).

Mix up your wet ingredients – the eggs and egg whites, milk, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Stir in the cooled veggies. Then add the cubed bread. Let this sit for 10 minutes. Then pour into a greased 2-quart baking dish.

Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Mmmmm, cheese.

Bake at 375 for 45 minutes, or until the custard is set and the bread crumbs are starting to get browned and crunchy.

Super cheesy manicotti

This was an improvised recipe after I couldn’t find one online that was exactly the picture I had in my head. I’ve actually never made stuffed pasta shells before, so I wanted my first attempt to be simple, cheesy, and comforting enough to make me forget that any temperature outside above zero degrees is warm these days.

I had to give myself a little pat on the back for this one because it came out just exactly as I’d hoped. If you put enough cheese in anything, it’s bound to be good, right?

Here’s the recipe. You should have enough filling to generously stuff 14 manicotti shells. I’m not sure how many shells of other shapes it would take, but I’d like to try it another time with smaller pasta.

Super cheesy manicotti

1 package manicotti shells (about 14)
2 15-ounce tubs of part-skim ricotta cheese
1 jar of your favorite marinara sauce
1 generous teaspoon black pepper
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Boil the water for your shells and cook them for 7 minutes. This should be enough to make them soft enough to handle but a little al dente so they don’t tear.

Drain the shells and let them cool for a few minutes. While you’re doing that you can mix up the filling in a bowl. Combine the ricotta cheese with 1/2 cup of parmesan and the black pepper. The better quality cheese you use, the better the recipe will be. Nothing out of a green jar!

In the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish, spread about a cup of marinara sauce. I used my absolute favorite, from a local pizza place. It is so, so good.

Then start stuffing the shells. I just used a spoon, stuffing one half, then the other. But a pastry bag would probably be a lot less messy.

Once all the shells are done (I think I ended up tossing one because the dish was full and the shell had started to dry out), cover them with the rest of the marinara sauce. Then sprinkle on the mozzarella and the rest of the parmesan cheese.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Try not to eat as many as I did.

African groundnut stew

After reading Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” (a sweet Christmas gift), I was feeling a little guilty for providing you with a handful of recipes for refined sugar and processed pastries and not much else. One of my resolutions for 2010 is definitely to add more healthy recipes to my repertoire.

I dug out some of my biggest, most beautifully illustrated cookbooks to try to find some recipes to try (I’d also just finished “Julie and Julia”, so was even more inspired). But after flipping through page after page, not much was jumping out at me. So I went back to my old standby, the Simply in Season cookbook. Which you are probably tired of hearing about, but I’m telling you, it’s a godsend.

Though it’s winter, I flipped back to the autumn section and found about a dozen recipes I’d like to try. How about Red Lentil Coconut Curry, Savory Squash Bread Pudding, Butternut Bisque or Broccoli Gratin? They all sounded good to me, but I landed on this vegetarian groundnut stew for dinner because it called for 3 cups of tomato juice and 2 cups of green beans, both of which I had in the fridge, and I was anxious to use them up.

I also know, from the many recipes I’ve made out of this book, that in addition to helping you cook seasonally and locally, the recipes always tend toward the healthy and unprocessed side. They’ll sneak beets into a dessert or use ingredients like bulgur, persimmons and orzo that I sometimes forget even exist.

In the case of this stew, there’s not even veggie broth in the recipe. Instead, the tomato juice, combined with apple juice make up the liquid. The only thing I changed when I made this was to omit the fresh ginger, because I didn’t have any. It tasted fine without it. I was skeptical at first, given the orangish color and strong smell of cabbage wafting from the pot, but when it finished cooking it was really delicious. With a little brown rice, it was super filling for a vegetarian dish.

I ended up using an organic butternut squash for this, and much like the organic yams we always buy, the color was much richer than a typical squash.

In fact, the squash was so orange that it stained my fingertips when I cut into it. I was worried it wouldn’t cook through in just 30 minutes or so, but it was perfectly done, and a little bit sweet, mixed with the apple juice. It reminded me of the dishes we used to eat when we had an African restaurant in town (alongside fried plaintains, yum).

I have one more tip, too. If you’re trying to eat more grains, like brown rice, and we definitely are, think about getting one of these microwave rice cookers. Ours seems to cook brown rice perfectly every time, and shaves at least 10 minutes off the cooking time.

Vegetarian Groundnut Stew

adapted from Simply in Season

2 cups onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups winter squash, chopped (I used butternut)
2 cups cabbage, chopped
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups tomato juice
1 cup apple juice
1 teaspoon ginger root, peeled and minced
2 cups green beans
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Saute the onion and garlic in the oil in a large soup pot. Toss in the squash and cabbage, and sprinkle in the cayenne pepper. Season with salt.

Stir that up, then add the tomato and apple juices, and ginger, if you like. Cover the pot and simmer over medium for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, start cooking your brown rice. You’ll probably need about two cups dry to get enough for the whole pot.

Add the green beans and cook 10 more minutes.

Then stir in the peanut butter, and turn it down to low before you serve it.

Spinach tartlets

This recipe comes from my mom, and it’s so incredible easy and yummy, you must make it the next time you need to bring something to a party.

Or, if you’d rather have it as a dip, you can omit the tartlet shells and just serve it in a bowl with chips, a la spinach and artichoke dip.

Spinach tartlets

2 packages mini phyllo cups
1 Stouffers frozen spinach souffle
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup mixed cheeses (I like Swiss and parmesan)
Sprinkle of ground pepper

This recipe feels a little like cheating, and it is, but that’s okay. The spinach souffle is just what you need to make these puff up like mini quiches (but so much better than the ones you buy in packages at Costco).

And the crispy, flaky shells are just the right size, and more work than you would want to do from scratch.

So, all you do is microwave the souffle for a few minutes until it’s defrosted enough to stir. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 and arrange your tartlet shells on a cookie sheet (or I used this pan with sides so they wouldn’t slip off).

Heat the butter in a small skillet and saute the shallots until they are translucent.

In a bowl, combine the souffle, shallots, cheese and pepper, and spoon into tartlet shells. Mmmmm, cheese.

Bake for about 8 minutes, or until the tartlets puff up and the shells start to get browned.

These are so cheesy and wonderful, I bet you can’t eat just six. I never can.

AND, if you want something equally fantastically cheesy, try Kristin’s recipe for Puff Pastry Wrapped Brie. We did, and oh my, was it every bit as good as it sounds.

All you do is wrap a brie chunk in puff pastry smeared with jam, baste it with egg wash and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes. This is what it looks like when it goes in the oven.

Hope you’re having a happy new year so far!

Favorite cookies: Pepparkakor

These Swedish cookies are kind of like gingerbread, but thinner, crispier and with less of the heavy molasses flavor. I first made them in junior high, after I came home from an international food fair at school with a half sheet recipe for these hard-to-pronounce cookies. My mom wasn’t able to find the original recipe, so I poked around online and came up with this one. The spice flavor is definitely a little stronger, but it was as close as I could come to my recipe, which made cookies that were very light in color and very thin and crispy.

Unlike sugar cookies, the dough for these is much more finnicky. It tends to crumble and crack, so you have to be a little more careful. But when you smell the aroma of cardamom and cloves wafting from your oven, you’ll be glad you tried them.

You can frost them if you want, but we always ate them plain.

Pepparkakor

from allrecipes.com

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup

Combine the flour, baking soda, and spices in a mixing bowl.

Beat the butter with the white and brown sugars in a separate bowl until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg and corn syrup.

Gradually stir in the flour mixture. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using 1 portion at a time, work on a floured surface and roll out dough to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters, and place 1 inch apart on lined baking sheets.

Bake until light golden brown, about 5-6 minutes.

——-

That is the end of my holiday cookie collection (at least for this year). There are others in my file, but I must get on the road to spend some time with my family, and finish frosting all the sugar cookies. I hope you get a chance to make any or all of these recipes. I will never forget all the Christmases I spent up to my elbows in flour, and I hope to have many more.

Here are the rest of the recipes, in case you missed them:

Sugar cookies
Chocolate Suzies
Peanut blossoms
The million dollar cookie
Candy stripe cookie sticks

Favorite cookies: Sugar cookies

Is there any more quintessentially Christmasy cookie than this? We always decorated ours with frosting out of a can, and I have to tell you after fussing with royal icing last night, I’m not sure that the fancy stuff is really better. Better looking, if you get it right. But who cares?

Anyway, here is the cookie recipe. It’s from my grandmother, the master baker (Mary Marie). It’s so buttery and wonderful. The cookies taste even better on the second or third day.

Sugar cookies

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup butter (that’s one stick)
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl. I always whisk mine together instead of sifting, and you know, I think it works really well.

Cream the butter and shortening. Then mix in the sugar, eggs and vanilla.

Slowly combine the dry ingredients into the rest. At this point you will need to chill the dough for three hours, or overnight, if you can.

Once the dough is chilled, roll it out on a floured surface to about 1/4-inch thick (maybe even a little thinner), cut out your cookies and bake for 8-10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Just until the edges start to get browned.

Once the cookies have cooled, get to frosting!

Though this recipe is fantastic, I would add a few tips just to make sure you get the best result:

•I would divide the dough into fourths before you roll it. This makes a sheet that’s easy to work with.

•Flour absolutely everything. The surface, the rolling pin, even the spatula you use to scoop up cookies.

•Before you scoop the cutouts onto the cookie sheet, peel all of the in-between dough out and put it into a scrap pile.

•Put the scraps back into the fridge and start your next batch with chilled dough. When you have four re-chilled scrap piles, divide them in half and do two more rounds.

•Whatever I have left after that I usually just roll into balls, flatten into discs and have round cookies. If you overwork the dough too much it won’t have the same wonderful cookie texture.

•Just try to think of this like you would rolling pie crust. The colder the dough, the better. And if you get a tear from rolling too thin, just patch it up. No biggie.

As for frosting, I used the recipe that came in a can of meringue powder. You can also use Martha’s recipe for royal icing, here. I made mine way too thin, so I would hold back on some of the water next time.

This one came out beautifully, though.

Happy baking! One more recipe coming.

Favorite cookies: Chocolate Suzies

Isn’t it funny the ways you stumble on recipes that become your favorites? This one actually came from my fourth grade teacher, who’s first name was Sue. I guess she must have made them for the students one time, and then we recreated them at home.

This is really more of a technique than a recipe. You need a mini muffin pan and some adorable muffin liners like these.

One classic Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe. Only for this one you’ll want to use mini chocolate chips.

And one bag of Reese’s mini peanut butter cups.

Unwrap all the peanut butter cups first. This way they’ll be ready when you need them (and you have to act fast before the cookies start to harden).

Preheat the oven while you make the cookie dough. Put a heaping teaspoon of cookie dough into each muffin liner. Resist the urge to make them too full. They’ll overflow when you squish the candy in. I might have overdone it just a bit this time…

Bake the cookies for 8-9 minutes and check them to see if they’re puffed up and just starting to get golden brown. At this point, remove them from the oven, press a peanut butter cup into the center of each one, and return to the oven for another minute or two of baking. When the cookies come out they should just be starting to get crispy on top and the candy should be nice and melty.

These cookies are so rich and indulgent. If you don’t love them you are not human.