Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chocolate + Tofu = Yummy

“Chocolate” and “tofu” may not be two ingredients you’re used to seeing in the same dish, but I am here to tell you to keep an open mind. When I saw Mark Bittman’s Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding recipe in the New York Times last Wednesday I was immediately intrigued. For starts, I love the flavors of Mexican chocolate, with its warm cinnamon and subtle chile undertones. And the pudding recipe was so darn easy – melt chocolate, boil water, put everything in the blender – that I couldn’t resist. Even keeping in mind that one of the ingredients was a package of silken tofu.

I like tofu. I enjoy the texture of the extra-firm variety, especially sauteed or roasted, and I don’t mind the flavor. Frankly, tofu is pretty flavorless, which is why I’m always a bit confused when someone claims to not like the stuff. My father for example. I can understand why he would choose a steak over tofu, but to actively dislike the humble soybean curd? I think it’s mostly in his head, just too many steps removed from the meat and potatoes he grew up with on his family's farm.

So last night I made the pudding in about 10 minutes (no stirring on the stove!) and divided it into eight small cups and chilled them in the fridge. After dinner Dave, Rosa and I taste-tested the pudding, and it was fabulous: smooth, creamy, rich, and not tofu-y at all. Tonight it was even better, almost like chocolate mousse or pot de crème.

Obviously this pudding is excellent for folks trying to cut back on dairy, and I suppose it is a bit healthier than regular pudding thanks to the tofu. But the real reasons to prepare and eat it are that a) it's easy and b) it's delicious. Add a little whipped cream on top and this could be a dessert for company. In fact, I’m planning on making it the next time I see my dad – don’t tell. I think he'll like it.

To read Bittman’s column about the pudding click here. There’s even a three-minute video of him demo-ing the prep. The recipe:

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding
Time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes’ chilling

3/4 cup sugar
1 pound silken tofu
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or more to taste
Chocolate shavings (optional).

1. In a small pot, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water; bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.
2. Put all ingredients except for chocolate shavings in a blender and purée until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down its sides if necessary. Divide among 4 to 6 ramekins and chill for at least 30 minutes. If you like, garnish with chocolate shavings before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Muffin Quandary

A year or two ago I attended and enjoyed a taping of the The Martha Stewart Show. Before the taping I got a short tour of the kitchen and the set. One of the guests was chef Tom Colicchio and Annie Lennox was there to sing a song off of her new album. After the show taped Martha took a few questions from the audience. One woman asked for a picture with Martha, a request that was politely nixed. Another asked how Martha kept in such good shape. The last one was from a lovely and slightly fragile looking woman from New Jersey. She wore a skirt and pearls and looked to be in her mid-30s. Her question was earnest and her voice was hopeful; finally she’d be getting the answer to her pressing domestic question: “How do I keep muffins fresh and delicious for a day or two after I bake them?”

Martha stammered about following the recipe, saying you really should just eat them right away and rambled on a bit more, about what I don’t remember. Overall, it was a lame answer, muddled and slightly impatient.

I’ve often thought about that woman from New Jersey and how disappointed she must have been in Martha’s answer. In my musings, the woman was a devoted Martha follower who is now confusingly disillusioned with her idol. If Martha couldn’t speak clearly about how to keep muffins fresh then what did that say about Martha?!

But, the thing is, Martha was right. She just should have been clearer about it. Muffins really should be eaten the day they’re baked, preferably within a half-hour after they come out of the oven. And that’s just the way it is. Wait much longer and they'll lose their enticing warmth, crisp top and tender interior texture.

But the good news is that while the muffins should be baked just before serving, the batter can easily be mixed the night before and stored in a container in the fridge. I do this all the time for blueberry muffins, stirring in the fruit just before I bake.

I also have a favorite muffin recipe from my mother (via Susan Berkey, a neighbor in Logan, Utah circa 1980) that claims the batter, enough for two-dozen muffins, can be kept in the refrigerator for five weeks. That seems like a long time to me. But, I do feel comfortable keeping the batter for several days, and I did just that last week. I prepped the batter Friday afternoon, baked a dozen muffins on Saturday morning and then baked the other dozen before work on Wednesday. If I’d wanted I could have baked four muffins a day for three days or any other combination I desired.

I still eat one or two-day old muffins, of course. But it’s nice to know how easy it is to have fresh, warm, healthful muffins any day of the week.

Here is Susan’s recipe with a few tweaks:

Raisin Bran Muffins (originally called Refrigerator Bran Muffins for obvious reasons)

3 cups whole bran cereal (like All-Bran)
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup raisins
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour

1. In a large bowl pour the boiling water over the cereal. Stir to moisten evenly, and allow to cool for a few minutes.
2. Add the eggs, molasses, buttermilk, canola oil, and raisins to the cereal. Stir to combine.
3. In a medium bowl stir together the baking soda, salt, sugar, all-purpose flour, and whole wheat flour.
4. Add flour mixture to cereal mixture and stir until just combined.
5. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.
6. When ready to bake, spoon the batter into greased or papered muffin cups and bake in a 425º oven for 20 minutes.

Yield: 24 standard-sized muffins

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Perfect Pantry

Now that everyone has seen my dirty little panty secrets (e.g., malted milk powder, microwave popcorn, and a honeycomb from 2003) I thought it would be wise to create an ideal pantry list. If I were starting from scratch, what would I stock my larder with? I would want foods that I could use to create a whole meal in a pinch and foods that would complement the fresh ingredients I was using. Foods that I used frequently, and others that are always good to have on hand… just in case. Here’s what I’ve come up with, and I’ve offered two tiers: just the Basics and Step-ups for those of us who like more options:

Basic: Long pasta (like spaghetti) and short pasta (like penne or fusilli)
Step-up: Basic plus another interesting shape like orechiette, whole wheat pasta, small pasta like pastina or cous cous, rice noodles, and soba (buckwheat) noodles

Basic: White rice and brown rice
Step-up: Basic plus jasmine or basmati rice, quinoa, farro, Arborio rice (for risotto)

Basic: White sugar, light or dark brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate chips (thanks Megan!)
Step-up: Basic plus bread flour, cake flour, superfine sugar, molasses, cornmeal, gelatin, yeast, light and dark corn syrup

Basic: Canned diced tomatoes, canned or tubed tomato paste, a couple cans of beans (e.g., chickpeas, pinto beans, black beans, or cannellini)
Step-up: Basic plus a variety of dried beans and lentils

Basic: Walnuts and/or pecans, almonds, raisins
Step-up: Sesame seeds, pignoli (pine nuts), dried cranberries, any other dried fruits and nuts you enjoy!

AND… panko, dried bread crumbs, oats, tuna canned in oil, and dried porcini mushrooms if you’re feeling ambitious.

Obviously this doesn’t include oils, vinegars, spices or anything to keep on hand in the fridge or freezer. We can play that game later.

Tell me what you like to keep on hand in your pantry and what I should stock up on!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pantry Inventory

A fully-stocked pantry can be a home cook’s best weapon in the never-ending war of, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” From cans of beans and tomatoes to pasta and rice, having a well-edited selection of non-perishables is very wise.

“Well-edited” is not necessarily an adjective I would use to describe my pantry selection. First off, my “pantry” consists of two 16 X 30 inch shelves -- not a whole lot of space. The other shelves in the closet hold cooking equipment and extra dishes. Once it became clear that I couldn’t add another item to my pantry and still be able to close the door, I decided it was time for a pantry inventory. Here’s what I discovered (keep in mind that all of my dried herbs/spices, oils and vinegars are in other spots):

All-bran cereal (to make refrigerator raisin bran muffins next weekend)
Cranberry Almond Crunch cereal
One bag microwave popcorn from Dad’s visit in October
Two packages black tea
Irish Breakfast tea
Herbal tea sampler
Peach tea blossoms
Tazo tea sampler (this is a lot of tea for someone who hardly drinks tea)
Instant coffee (for baking)
French hot chocolate mix
Malted milk powder
Three cans chickpeas
Can beef broth
Tube of tomato paste
Chicken bouillon cubes
Can diced tomatoes
Two cans tuna in olive oil
Fregola (semolina pasta)
Two packages rice noodles
Farro (whole grain)
No-boil lasagna noodles
Organic whole wheat rigatoni
Organic penne
Soba noodles
1/2 pkg thick spaghetti
Cous cous
Arborio rice
White rice
Dried breadcrumbs
One full bag and one partial bag of panko
Dark brown sugar
Superfine sugar
Palm sugar
German rock cane sugar
Gelatin packets
White flour
Whole wheat flour
Cake flour
Semolina flour
Multi colored sprinkles
Christmas sprinkles
Food coloring
Cocoa powder
Dutch-process cocoa powder
White chocolate chips
2 large cans French chestnut spread, one small can
Candied violet petals
lady fingers (for tiramisu)
A handful of dried porcini mushrooms
Crispy Wheats crackers
One bag microwave popcorn
Homemade taralli (Italian crackers made by a friend of my mother-in-law’s)
Dried pineapple rings
A honeycomb
Dried thyme
Sea salt
Dried Chinese ginger
Moroccan seasoning
Crushed red pepper
Gray salt
Herbes de napa
Smoked paprika
Kosher salt
Garlic rosemary oil
Ground allspice
Toasted spice rub
Balsamic vinegar
Can coconut milk
Grape jelly
Homemade apricot sauce
Peanut butter
Mango chutney
Two small, mostly empty bags of pine nuts
Pie weights (dried beans)
Sesame seeds
A tablespoon walnuts
A tablespoon pecans
Two tablespoons quinoa
Half bag red lentils
Four packets yeast
Quarter bag dried pinto beans

During my inventory I threw away a few pistachios, since I didn’t pay any attention to which pistachio nuts were recalled a few months ago, some toasted sesame seeds that didn’t smell toasty anymore, a bag of past-expiration pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and a can of coconut water that I bought once hoping Rosa would think it was juice. But it was too sugary anyway.

So, yes, this is a lot of stuff. But for the most part I’m glad to have it all. I could whip up a dozen meals based on the ingredients there (not to mention a few desserts and a couple hundred cups of tea).

After I cleaned the shelves I put everything back nicely and thought about what I learned. Obviously, being selective with pantry choices is smart. As is reorganizing frequently to remind me what I have on-hand in the hopes that I will use it (I totally forgot I had cornmeal and I really should use some of that chestnut spread). But the real lesson I learned today is clear: I need a bigger pantry.