Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mexican Tomato-Bean Soup with Mini Cornmeal Dumplings

As I've rambled on in previous posts, I have loads of soup recipes. Many that I've clipped over the years have become favorites, yet there are scores upon scores that still remain untried. Every so often, I'll take a peek at this growing file and add or eliminate a recipe but the process has been a slow one.

Recently, a friend dropped by with what amounted to a small arsenal of Pacific Foods broths. I stacked them, by type, along one shelf in our garage and now refer to this section as our "soup aisle." Given this generous offering, I thought it would be great to expand beyond Pacific Foods' tried-and-true organic, low sodium, chicken broth, which I regularly use, and opted to make a veggie-based soup. This particular recipe is very much a "tomato soup" with a south-of-the-border kick. Apart from its great flavor, it's just so easy and quick to prepare. I'm not sure why I haven't made it prior to this but it's definitely going into my "keeper" file.

The base of this soup is made with vegetable stock, tomatoes, onion, garlic, chili powder, and a few seasonings. It comes together quickly and needs only to simmer for about 20 minutes to meld these flavors and thicken a bit. To this, you add garbanzo beans...and then these mini cornmeal dumplings. Similar to a tortilla soup, perhaps, you get a touch of that corn-based flavoring from these dumplings. At first I thought the recipe must be incorrect in that you make such a small amount of dough and the "balls" are just so tiny. However, it works. While you may also have to add additional water to get the consistency of the dough correct, you end up with these great, mini-sized balls of cornmeal that pair beautifully with the tomato-veggie broth. And there's just enough kick in the broth to keep it interesting. If you wanted more, you could certainly add some diced jalapeño to the mix. At the end, you incorporate a bit of freshly squeezed lime, and then plate up the soup topped with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and feta cheese. It's light and fresh, yet satisfying. It's a great option for a Mexican-style soup that's veggie-based.

While we made a meal of this little soup, I think is would also make a great starter soup. I would follow it up with a fresh orange and beet salad, topped with feta and cilantro (mimicking some of the same flavors of the soup), and then, perhaps, a squash-cheese enchilada entrée...keeping the entire meal veggie-based and fresh.

Mexican Tomato-Bean Soup with Mini Cornmeal Dumplings
adapted from a Cooking Light recipe (date unknown)
serves 4

3 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
2 cups vegetable broth (I used Pacific Foods Organic Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 15.5 ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1 14.5 ounce can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained

1/3 cup masa harina or yellow cornmeal (I used Arrowhead Mills Whole Grain Organic Yellow Cornmeal, which is also gluten and wheat free)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons hot water (I used a bit more to get the consistency right to form the dumplings)
1 teaspoon olive oil

remaining ingredients:
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (or queso fresco)

1. Heat 3 teaspoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, sauté 3 minutes or until tender. Add chili powder and garlic, sauté 30 seconds. Add broth and next 6 ingredients (through tomatoes). Bring soup to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for approximately 20 minutes.

2. While the soup simmers, combine cornmeal and salt in a small bowl. Add 3 tablespoons hot water and olive oil. Mix until dough holds together. (note: the dough will be dry but it should retain enough moisture to allow you to form it into tiny balls about 2 to 3 times the size of a garbanzo bean).

Once you've achieved the right consistency (careful not to add too much water), divide the dough into 16 to 24 small balls (dumplings). Add dumplings to soup and completely submerge them into broth. Cook soup uncovered for approximately 5 to 7 additional minutes to allow dumplings to cook through. Add lime juice and 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro. Ladle 1 cup of soup into each bowl, sprinkle with feta cheese and additional cilantro (if desired).

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Chocolatey Valentine...Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Coffee Cupcakes with Chocolate-Mocha Mascarpone Frosting

Valentine's Day is virtually synonymous with all things chocolate. That's one BIG plus it has going for it...in my book. While I'm definitely not one to buy into the commercialization of this annual Ode to Love, a touch of chocolate never hurts. And these little refined cakes make the perfect offering.

A good cake flour and unsweetened cocoa powder get jazzed up with a bit of instant espresso in these gems, giving them just a hint of coffee flavoring. This not only enhances their chocolatey goodness but also provides an essence of sophisticated taste. The batter whips up easily and has a light, moist structure when baked... making it quite easy to ignore any thoughts of added calories.

And the frosting? Well, it's like whipped velvet. It's ultra light, extra smooth, and subtly sweet, so you can confidently pile it on high without any risk of going overboard. It, too, has a touch of espresso mixed in. And, most importantly, mascarpone cheese! This soft Italian cream cheese is very mild and light...perfect for ensuring a subtly sweet, airy pillow of frosting.

The cakes, of course, are dressed for "the occasion" in pretty papers, and are topped with little shavings of semi-sweet, dark chocolate...an apt finish for a perfectly sweet nod to this February day.

Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Coffee Cupcakes with Chocolate-Mocha Mascarpone Frosting

adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe (April 2009)
Makes one 9-inch, 2-layer cake to serve 10 to 12*; or 48 mini cupcakes and 8 regular cupcakes (with enough frosting for either)

2 cups cake flour (I used King Arthur unbleached cake flour blend, found at Whole Foods)
3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Ghirardelli's)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
3 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 3/4 cup hot water
1/2 to 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chip morsels**

1/2 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 1/2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 8-ounce containers chilled mascarpone cheese
chocolate shavings (I used Scharffen Berger semi-sweet dark chocolate)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place paper liners in muffin tins.

2. Sift cake flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.

3. Using an electric mixer, beat butter until smooth. Add brown sugar and beat until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs one at a time. Mix in vanilla. Then add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with buttermilk in between. Beat mixture until all additions are well incorporated. Gradually add in hot espresso-water mixture. Beat until smooth. Fold in chocolate chip morsels.

4. Ladle batter into cupcake liners in muffin tins (3/4- to 4/5- full). Bake until tester inserted in center of cupcake comes out clean...approximately 20 minutes for mini cupcakes; 25 minutes for regular cupcakes. Remove from oven and place paper-lined cupcakes on wire rack to cool.

1. Sift cocoa powder into a large bowl. Add espresso powder. Bring 1 cup cream to boil in a small saucepan. Slowly pour hot cream into cocoa mixture and whisk until cocoa is dissolved, about 1 minute. Add in remaining 1/2 cup cold cream, along with sugar, and stir until sugar is well dissolved. Chill mixture in fridge for at least 2 hours. (Can be made one day ahead; keep covered and chilled until ready to proceed with step #2.)

2. Add mascarpone cheese to chilled cocoa mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat on low speed until well blended and smooth. Increase speed to medium-high and continue beating until medium peaks form when beaters are lifted, about 2 minutes. (Do not overbeat mixture or it will curdle.)

3. Spread frosting over cupcakes (be generous!). Using a vegetable peeler, drop shavings of dark chocolate over top of each cake. Keep cupcakes chilled. Remove from fridge and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving.

* To make a 9-inch, 2-layer cake, use pans with a 2-inch side. Generously butter and dust each pan with flour, tapping out any excess. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper. Divide batter between pans and bake until tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool completely, invert and remove parchment before frosting. Apply frosting between layers and a thin coat over entire cake, chill for 10 minutes. Once chilled, continue with final coat of frosting (again...be generous!) Top cake with chocolate shavings.

** Add amount of chips you prefer. If making standard-sized cupcakes or layer cake, use regular chocolate chip morsels. For mini cupcakes, use mini chocolate chip morsels. Also...it helps to coat chips with a bit of flour prior to adding them to your batter to avoid having them sink to the bottom of cakes during baking.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Orzo with Roasted Vegetables

Side dishes are often relegated to the back burner, so to speak, as we focus our attentions on the "star" of most meals...the entrée. We give great thought to what meat, fish, or poultry will be grilled, baked, sautéed, or roasted. And then, of course, there are the marinades, the seasonings, and the stuffings to consider...all important decisions, no doubt.

After much entrée contemplation, the sides are finally considered. While I suppose this is a natural progression in thought, I wonder just how many great sides go unnoticed simply because they are seen as the supporting cast, and not the star. Similar to a casting effort more associated with the Big Screen, we peruse and assess potential sides to determine how they might pair with the "star," careful to make a delicious choice without any risk of upstaging our entrée, or threat of a misstep on flavor compatibility. We only consider those that seem like a good match; ones that will enhance our entrée; ones that will successfully "round out" our meal. As a result, we casually pass on potentially great talent, unsure whether one or more characteristics in these side dishes might pose a less-than-perfect fit.

Without any knowledge of "who" the "star" might be at a recent potluck, I selected this little rice-shaped pasta dish as my offering. At first, I wondered if it would work (old habits die hard) and was pleasantly surprised at just how well ALL the side offerings shined...along with the succulent grilled pork and chicken that headlined. All sides (four total) were a big hit and had distinct, unique flavor. AND...none were pre-cast! I took this as proof that we can be a bit more adventurous with sides and even (sometimes) cast them as headliners.

This particular orzo dish has both roasted and freshly chopped ingredients, lending it a nice balance and depth of flavor. Eggplant, red onion, garlic, and red and yellow bell peppers make up the roasted veggie component, coming out of the oven perfectly softened, lightly golden, and subtly caramelized. Apart from the 40-minute roasting time these veggies require (a step not to be skipped!!), the dish comes together rather quickly with the addition of freshly chopped basil and green onion, diced feta cheese, lightly toasted pine nuts, and a drizzle of a simple lemon-olive oil dressing. It's a recipe that I adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, easing up on the oil content a bit, and increasing the portion of orzo, to better balance the components to our liking.

This is a dish that pairs exceptionally well with most anything grilled or roasted...AND one that can be thoroughly enjoyed on its very own!

Orzo with Roasted Vegetables
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa
serves 6 to 8 (as a side dish); 4 to 6 (as a "headliner")

1 small eggplant, peeled and 1/2-inch diced
1 red bell pepper, 3/4-inch diced
1 yellow bell pepper, 3/4-inch diced
1 red onion, peeled and 3/4-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound orzo

for dressing:
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

to add separately:
3 green onions, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
6 ounces feta cheese, 1/2-inch cubed (do not use crumbled feta)
10 to 12 basil leaves, julienned

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Toss eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan. (I placed foil on my sheet pan for an easier clean up...but this isn't necessary and can inhibit the amount of goodies you can later dislodge and scrape into your pasta.) Roast for 40 minutes, turning once half-way through roasting, until lightly browned.

2. Cook orzo in boiling, salted water for 7 to 9 minutes, until just tender (slightly al dente). Drain orzo and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add roasted vegetables, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from sheet pan into the pasta.

3. In a small bowl, combine dressing ingredients, lemon juice through pepper, and whisk lightly. Pour dressing over pasta and mix throughly to coat. Set aside and let mixture cool to room temperature.

4. Once pasta has cooled, add green onions, pine nuts, feta, and basil. Turn carefully to mix. Add additional salt and/or pepper, to taste, if needed. Serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Homemade Maple Granola

We seem to be eating our way through a small fortune in granola lately. Sometimes it makes its way into the breakfast hour, but most often it's simply sprinkled over some Greek yogurt as a super tasty afternoon or late-night snack. And while I'm certainly no expert on this mixture of oats, nuts...and stuff...I do know what I like and what I don't like and, as a result, I've (we've) become quite picky. With granola...go figure!

It needs to be subtly sweet (not candy sweet); it needs to be toasty and crunchy (not over baked, or so rock hard it makes you think about your dental coverage); it needs to have enough oil and sweetener to bind it together and make it tasty (not so much that it's overly saturated and/or turns to brittle); and, it needs to have a nice mix of nuts and dried fruits that are cooked to perfection (not to an unbearable chewiness).

Given the abundance of granola that we seem to be going through, and the loads of nuts we recently received from my folks, homemade granola seemed like the obvious next step. This particular batch is my second in recent weeks, and an adaptation from a Nekisia Davis (Early Bird Foods) recipe. While that first batch was tasty, the recommended baking time resulted in a slightly over-baked granola, and the suggested amount of oil resulted in a very wet mixture that seemed just a bit oilier than necessary. So, with a few adjustments, the second batch is much closer to meeting our very picky specifications. The fun part about making homemade granola is you can be picky...adjusting ingredients and adding flavorings to suit your own tastes...as picky or particular as they may be.

Homemade Maple Granola
adapted from a Nekisia Davis (Early Bird Foods) recipe
makes about 7 cups

3 cups old-fashioned oats (not instant)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (add only 3/4 of this amount to syrup mixture, initially. Add balance only if mixture appears to need additional coating*)
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup light or golden brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dried papaya, chopped
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine oats, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, mix three-quarters of olive oil*, maple syrup, brown sugar, and vanilla, until well combined. Add mixture to oats and stir to coat, folding over and over, until oats are well coated with syrup mixture.

Next, stir nuts into oats and mix thoroughly. (*If it doesn't appear like nuts and oats are well coated, drizzle in a bit more maple syrup and/or oil...careful not to over saturate mixture).

4. Pour mixture out onto parchment-lined baking sheets and place in oven to bake for approximately 30 to 40 minutes. WHILE BAKING, TURN EVERY 10 MINUTES TO ENSURE EVEN BAKING. AT 20 MINUTES, ADD IN DRIED FRUITS...AND WATCH CAREFULLY FOR LAST 10 MINUTES+ OF BAKING TO AVOID BURNING. (I found the granola to be perfectly golden at 30 to 35 minutes.) When done, remove pans from oven and let cool completely. Once completely cooled, break up granola and store in an airtight container, at room temperature. It will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks.