Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Buckwheat Butter Cookies

I went for a short walk just when the snow started coming down this morning, all bundled up with a raincoat over my jacket and mittens over my gloves. One careful step after another to start and little heel-toe wiggles here and there to make sure that the sidewalk is not slippery. It wasn’t yet, so I walked on and smiled as the soft snowflakes fluttered about and tickled my face. For a brief moment, I was reminded of the very first time I got to examine snowflakes. There I was, on a sidewalk, staring at the snowflakes that stuck to my coat with intent and admiring their intricate formations before they dissolved into thin air. Snowflakes are quite mesmerizing… their presence is seemingly fleeting until they decide to gang up on you and cover everything with layers of white. The walk only lasted for a short while because my face was getting wet and the sidewalk was starting to feel slick under my boots.  

Now I’m safely back in the house, dry and cozy, watching the snow fall relentlessly, while nibbling on my third cookie and sipping lukewarm tea. I have also just decided that snowflakes are one of the most beautiful things in nature. However, I don’t like the inconvenience of mounting piles of snow and hate driving in snowy or icy road conditions. It is super scary, especially if you drive a little car with bad traction.

I must admit though, that I love snow days. On such days, DFJ gets to work from home and I can bug him anytime. Snow days also give us a good reason to slow down and take it easy. There is nowhere to go and no one is expecting you. Being forced to stay indoors is the perfect excuse to make a big pot of coffee or drink copious amounts of tea, snuggle up in a blanket and read a book, muse about silly things and then write about them, bake bread (which is currently not rising as happily as I would want it to), or make some homemade chicken broth (which is filling our house with a wonderful smell). You could also bake some cookies, but if you already have some sitting around, then just make a hot beverage of your choice to have it with.

So last Sunday, I baked some buckwheat cookies because my favorite blogger, Molly Wizenberg, convinced me to. In her 92nd Spilled Milk podcast, she talked about these amazing buckwheat cookies that have successfully piqued my interest… enough to make me invest a few dollars on buckwheat flour and cocoa nibs (I gave my stash away before our big move last July) just for this recipe. After creaming the butter and sugar, I realized that the cocoa nibs were nowhere to be found. A freak-out moment ensued and needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Apparently, we accidentally left the cocoa nibs at the store, along with two truffles. Boo! I am down to my last bar of good, dark chocolate and didn’t want to cut it in small shards for the cookie batter. So I decided to grind up some fresh coffee beans, espresso style, and add it into the batter along with some mini morsels of semi-sweet chocolate. The original recipe does not aim for sweetness but a contrast of the bitter cocoa nibs in the sweet cookie dough. However, my improvised version with coffee grounds works just fine too. I still intend to make these cookies with cocoa nibs as soon as I get my hands on them and as soon as this big pile of cookies we have will disappear.    

Having never baked with buckwheat flour before, I honestly did not know what to expect. I tried a few cookies fresh from the oven and tasted the buckwheat. It definitely has its own distinct flavor that almost puts it in the category of slightly unpleasant. DO NOT let this turn you off. Please no! Instead, be patient and wait… because half a day later, only a faint trace of the “buckwheatish” taste is left. And if you wait for an entire day, it completely disappears. What remains is a crispy, melt-in-your mouth buttery cookie that is unlike any regular butter cookie. The buckwheat in the dough has some delightful complexity to it that an unsuspecting friend would never be able to identify what it is that makes it extra special. This cookie has an irresistible charm that will make you keep coming back for more. The touch of espresso grounds is a good contrast to the sweet dough and a few chocolate chips never hurt.

Since I did not plan on writing a post about this recipe, I did not record the process of making these cookies. I urge you to visit Molly’s page for the recipe. In lieu of cocoa nibs, I used 1/3 cup of mini semi-sweet chocolate cookies and 1 and ½ teaspoons of fresh, espresso ground, coffee beans.

Yesterday, I ate about eight cookies before our hike at the state park nearby, plus two more after dinner. It fueled me for a solid two and a half hours of trudging through mud in the beautiful, naked woods.    

Today, I just inhaled the crumbs of my fifth cookie. I’m telling you, these are highly addicting!

Stay warm my friends! And to everyone out there who has to work during snow days, please be safe, there's already four inches to contend with and more coming. To the mailman who just delivered a Christmas present for me from my brother-in-law (The Zuni Café Cookbook), thank you. I wish I knew you were coming today because I would have been so happy to share some of these delicious cookies with you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Lima Bean and Swiss Chard Soup

One of the things I appreciate most is nourishing and delicious food. Nothing fancy, unheard of, or too complicated. Sometimes, I crave just plain goodness. When I came upon Skye Gyngell’s Chickpea and Chard Soup, it spoke to me. I followed some of her methods but added and substituted some ingredients to make my own version.    

You might notice that the ingredient list is spaced out. They are listed according to use. I encourage you to read through the entire recipe first, before making the soup to ensure that you have everything you need. I also used homemade vegetable broth, which really is not too complicated to make.

Over the course of a few weeks, collect scrap pieces of vegetables and save them in zip bags in the freezer. For instance, the big broccoli or cauliflower stalks, cabbage core, carrot tops, parsley or any herb stems, the ends of kale/collard greens/Swiss chard stalks, onion peel and the thick first layer of the bulb, and so on. When you have about two big bags full of veggie scraps, pull them out of the freezer, dump them in a big pot, and cover with water. Then add more fresh herbs if you have any that are just lying around (preferably thyme, oregano, parsley, dill, rosemary, or sage), a few mashed cloves of garlic, one or two bay leaves, a generous amount of salt, black peppercorns, and maybe some olive oil (I forgot to add this in the latest broth that I made, it turned out fine). Cover the pot, turn the heat on to medium, and bring the water to a boil. Once it boils, lower the heat to a simmer, leave the pot partially uncovered, and let it cook for 2-4 hours or until it takes on a murky green color (sometimes it’s brownish). Let it sit for another hour or two until it cools down and strain the liquid into a large container. Measure the broth into cups and store in smaller containers in the freezer. Measuring it beforehand will let you know how much is in each container so you just pull one or two out as needed. Easy peasy!    

This soup is immensely satisfying. It has a bright lemony punch that is tampered by the sharp richness of Parmesan cheese and the creamy bread pieces. After being cooked for a long time, the lima beans take on a lovely, velveteen feel. The softened Swiss chard leaves not only give the soup a boost of healthiness but also add a pleasant touch of mild green flavors. And the stalks are there to provide that perfect crunch. The mushrooms present a hint of earthy flavors and texture variety. All these ingredients playing together in one pot make this simple soup unforgettable. A big bowl or two is what you need to give yourself some love.

Lima Bean and Swiss Chard Soup
Inspiration from My Favorite Ingredients by Skye Gyngell

1+1/8 cups (8 oz) dry lima beans
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf

juice of half a large lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil

Rinse the lima beans. Place the beans in a medium size saucepan and cover with water. Sprinkle with salt and toss in the bay leaf. Turn the heat on to medium high, cover, and bring the beans to a boil. This will take about 7 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium low and allow the beans to cook for about an hour. Partially uncover the saucepan to keep it from boiling over, a thin sliver of opening for the steam to come out is enough, otherwise the beans will dry out. Stir the beans every now and then for even cooking. You will know that the beans are done when they are tender all the way through as you bite into them. I suggest tasting 3 beans as some of them might be more done than the others. If your beans are not done in an hour, add a few more minutes of cooking time. 

When the beans are cooked, drain the leftover water and move the cooked beans into a large mixing bowl. Pour in the lemon juice and olive oil to dress the beans and mix well. Set aside, until the soup mixture is ready.

While the beans cook, begin to prepare the other ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups (4 oz) mixed mushrooms, shiitake and baby bella, sliced thinly
½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, stems removed
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, stems removed
½ teaspoon salt

1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon salt

4 cups vegetable stock (I made my own)

1 bunch (10 oz) Swiss chard, leaves and stalks (*See note on how to prepare.)

2 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 slices day old peasant-style bread (Italian bread), cut into 1-inch squares

1 tablespoon olive oil
freshly cracked black pepper, any amount you desire

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven (which is what I used) or a large pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, toss in the garlic, mushrooms, parsley, and tarragon. Stir and make sure everything gets coated with the oil then sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir every so often and cook for about 5 minutes until the mushroom slices shrink and brown.

Add the diced tomatoes in the mix and stir in ¼ teaspoon of salt. Cover the Dutch oven and allow the tomatoes to cook for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture every now and then. 
Pour in the vegetable stock, stir, and cover. Cook the stock with the tomatoes for 10 minutes, which is just enough for the flavors to start coming together.

Add the beans and simmer, covered, on medium-low heat for 30 minutes. If it starts to boil, partially uncover the lid. After 30 minutes, remove the lid entirely and let cook for 10 more minutes.

Toss in the Swiss chard stalks and leaves into the Dutch oven. Stir and let cook for 5-6 minutes, until the leaves begin to wilt and submerge into the soup.

Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese. It will immediately form into globs so make sure to stir it evenly amidst the leaves and beans. Then, toss in the bread pieces and stir. Continue to cook on medium low heat, uncovered, for another 10 minutes. The soup will magically thicken up as the bread disintegrates and the flavors will almost immediately transform into something richer and fuller.

Turn off the burner and move the Dutch oven away from the heat. Season with olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper. The extra olive oil at the end works really well to mellow out the lemony punch. However, if you like the soup the way it is, feel free to omit the extra olive oil.

 *Note on preparing Swiss chard:
Hold a Swiss chard leaf stalk-side up. Use a sharp knife and slide it along the inner sides of the stalk to separate the leaves. Cut the stalks into ½ inch chunks and tear the Swiss chard leaves into big pieces.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Almond Biscotti

Yesterday was a beautiful day. When it is nice and sunny outside, there is a golden glow that brightens the inside of our house, masking the dust on the windowsill and the unswept floors. It gives our living space an illusion of cheeriness despite the constant clutter of mail (mostly unopened), books, notes, to-do lists, a sweatshirt or two, and the well-loved blanket crumpled on the couch... I simply love it! This is our life and we somehow manage to navigate it well-enough despite our seemingly immature ways. 

That light illuminating our house inspired me to get busy in the kitchen and formulate a yoga class sequence as I went out for a walk. When I got home, I pulled out the vegetable scraps that I save in the freezer and proceeded to make vegetable stock that was later used for Ottolenghi’s Mushroom and Herb Polenta from Plenty. It was divine!   

While the vegetable stock was cooking, I perused my cookbooks for something to bake that will be perfect for dessert, breakfast, or snacks. This almond biscotti recipe leapt out of the page from my recently acquired cookbook, Salt to Taste, a gift from my mother-in-law for my birthday. The ingredient list consisted of things that are already in our pantry and the baking process is simple.

I like biscotti because it is easy to enjoy at any time of the day without feeling too indulgent. We had it with ice cream last night, DFJ had it with his espresso this morning, and I am currently enjoying two with my latte while writing this post at 3:00 in the afternoon. I did a little research and found out that biscotti are particularly great dipped in sweet late-harvest wine with a shot of espresso. Unfortunately, we don’t normally have sweet wine on hand.    

This almond biscotti recipe is simply delicious! It is like a lighter version of a butter cookie, dry enough to definitely be a biscotti, but teeters to the side of chewy. These biscotti have an uncharacteristic tenderness and the way it yields to your teeth when you bite into it is delightful. I am a big fan of orange zest and thus added more than the original recipe required. The orange zest infused into the sugar definitely gives it lively notes of orange flavor. Initially, I was skeptical about the half pieces of almonds in the dough and thought them to be too big. However, after eating a few, I realized how lovely it is to truly taste the almonds when they are cut more generously into halves versus slivers. The amount of sugar in the dough is just enough for a trace of sweetness to linger on your tongue after your last bite.

Almond Biscotti
Slightly Adapted from Salt to Taste: The Keys to Confident, Delicious Cooking by Marco Canora

½ cup (75 g) whole, raw almonds with skin
scant ¾ cup (150 g) sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest (zest of one orange)
5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (75 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups (170 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (125 g) white, whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
a tad of butter, for greasing

Cut the almonds in half, crosswise, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, use your fingertips to massage the orange zest into the sugar until the granules take on an orange tint and the zest is evenly dispersed. Mix the butter into the sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture resembles small clumps of wet sand. Add the eggs and the vanilla extract and mix on high speed until the batter is smooth and creamy.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg.

Pour the flour mixture into the wet mixture and mix on low-speed until everything is well-combined and the dough comes together. Add the almonds into three portions. At this point, the dough will be harder to handle so use a plastic or wooden spatula to cut into the dough and fold the almonds in.

Move an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Thoroughly grease a baking sheet with a tad of butter.  

Divide the dough in half. Lightly flour a clean work surface and scoop out half the dough with your hands. Gently form it into a ball, then roll it into a 12 inch or so long log on the floured surface. Transfer the log onto the greased baking sheet. The log will deform upon transfer, so ease the dough back into a nice log using your fingers, flatten the top with your fingertips, and smooth out the sides to even the length. Repeat this procedure for the other half of the dough.

Bake for 24-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through the time. When you pull the logs out of the oven, the bottom should be golden brown and the top just a shade of golden. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let cool for 10 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 250 degrees F.

Use a serrated knife to slice the logs into ¾ inch thick biscotti. Place the slices back into the baking sheet, cut-side down and toast in the oven for 7 minutes. Turn the biscotti the other cut-side down and toast for another 7 minutes, until they dry out.

Remove from the oven. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and allow the biscotti to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thank You 2013

The flurry of Christmas and other holiday related activities are now over. My coat is zipped up to my chin and our little space heater is keeping my toes warm. I’m sipping a lukewarm homemade latte that DFJ made before leaving for work. He left for work hours ago but I sometimes like to save my coffee for thinking time. I like to think that it helps me write better or come up with quality ideas. But really all I can think of right now is how much more delicious my latte is with whole milk, I'm sticking with this.

We celebrated Christmas with DFJ’s family… good food, gorgeous mini-cookies, wine, presents, a big house party with friends and family from all over the world, downtime, workouts, yoga, cold walks with the dog, dishes, and football. It was fun, as always. New Year’s was pretty low key. It involved homemade crab pizza (which was more fancy crackerish than doughy), delicious DFJ margaritas, and beer for DFJ and his brother. I remember apples, hard cheese, and pistachios for hors d’oeuvres; pizza and football then Futurama; frantic running through a muddy path in the dark to catch the fireworks display; candy spilling out of my coat pocket; and falling asleep on the couch. We didn’t do a countdown nor kiss each other when the clock struck midnight. How did we miss that? Somehow I do not remember much except for an image of DFJ and his brother staring up at the fireworks looking like star-struck little boys as 2013 slipped by. The next day we lounged around watching football and then we bundled up and went on a New Year's Day hike at a historic park in the twilight... the only girl amongst DFJ and his brothers. They are now my brothers too. Funny how life connects you to people like that. Seeing them together makes me smile but I also can't help feeling a twinge of jealousy about the fact that his family is close by and mine is thousands of miles away.  

Today, I am writing to bid 2013 a proper goodbye. Oh what a crazy year!  

January: DFJ and I went cross country skiing in Winthrop, WA and I found my winter sport!

February: A whirlwind of emotions went back and forth but we still ended up getting engaged on Valentine’s Day under a smiling sliver of moonlight on a cold, windy night on our special bridge.

March: Juggled work with wedding preparations, Greencard paperwork, and so on...

April: WE GOT MARRIED! We also went on our first outdoor trip of the year with special friends (Eagle Creek, OR).

April 6th, 2013

May: DFJ got a job offer in Maryland, which meant we had to move and I had to quit my job. It was equal parts exciting and heartbreaking (maybe a bit more heartbreaking).

June: Barely got through my last days of work without crying. My heart broke a thousand times over when I waved goodbye to the last school bus. DFJ and I flew East for a wedding, house hunting, and beaching.

Baltimore, MD

Long Beach Island, NJ

July: Packing and cleaning the apartment. Preparing for our wedding reception. Cramming trips and outdoor activities here and there. Our beautiful wedding reception with all our Washington friends. A trip to Bend, OR (someday, DFJ and I will live there).


Wallula Gap, WA

Coeur de A'lene, ID

7-27-13 Wedding Reception in Selah, WA

Mt. Bachelor, OR

August: We drove across the country: WA to MD... 2,700 miles. WHEW! A few stops to see friends and family along the way (Idaho and Colorado) and some play time on the bright orange rocks and arches in Moab, UT. 


Arches National Park, Moab, UT

Canyonlands, Moab, UT

St. Louis, MO

September: Settling in… While DFJ was busy working, I was busy reading all my books prior to yoga teacher training, and buffing up for it too.

October: YogaWorks Teacher Training in New York City with Jenny Aurthur. A most unforgettable experience! During the course of the training, I lived with my aunt in New Jersey and commuted to the city every day. It was a treat to live with her family... it's been so long since I have been pampered like a child. 

November: A big birthday for me! This chocolate angel food cake with mocha frosting that DFJ made as a surprise melted my heart. Can you tell how old I am?  NYC: I fell in love with The High Line and Bleecker Street. Sunset in DC. Thanksgiving with my in-laws in Pennsylvania and a homecoming/post-wedding party for DFJ and I hosted by his parents. I married the most wonderful man and gained a wonderful family. 

December: Holiday festivities. Getting ready for new opportunities: substitute teaching and yoga teaching. Holy schmolly! I am really going to start teaching yoga and cannot tell you how so very anxious and excited I am about this. Most of my December days (pre-holiday) were spent reflecting and musing. I wondered about what I really wanted to do with my life and still haven’t found a good answer. One thing for sure is that I am ready to have a brighter perspective and live fully each day. 

On a completely unrelated note, DFJ bought these flowers at the grocery store on December 8th and half of them are still pretty and sitting in fresh water on our dining table. The cinnamon rolls are long gone though...  

In a nutshell, 2013 was a very big year for us… a year full of new beginnings, fun adventures, and promises of a wonderful life together. We still have a lot of growing up to do, many friends to see, places to travel, families to visit, and endless responsibilities. All of these things await in 2014, but for today, we are thankful for all that 2013 has given to us. Here’s to 2013!

To the man I love… you are the best and I am lucky to have your hand to hold forever.

To my family… I love you all and cannot wait to come home!

To my friends… let’s start planning our meet-ups!  

To online friends… I wish you all the best this year!

Happy new year everyone!