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Monday, September 2, 2013

"Squash Surprise"--for Dessert

Year after year, one of my gardening daughters-in-law harvests lavish, overwhelming, crops of zucchini and yellow summer squash. This summer has been no exception to the pattern, with the yellow crooknecks especially prolific.

After a certain point, however, the family becomes sated with variations of "squash surprise" dishes, but no one wants to just let the rest of the harvest go to waste. Time for some kitchen creativity. A web search for zucchini recipes produces a zillion hits, for everything from appetizers (this year it seems to be zucchini "chips" in the oven) to side and main dishes to breads and desserts.

As I reviewed some of the options available for cakes, I realized that I have a proven winner, so why look further. My recipe is one I discovered over 35 years ago, though I have actually never made it as written. The original called for zucchini and crushed pineapple, but I am not a big pineapple fan and never have that in the house. Instead, over the years, I have included zucchini, carrots, applesauce, and even plums.

Especially plums.

One of my first tries was for a 4th of July pool party in Arizona. The plums were at their peak in the stores, and I had lots of carrots in the refrigerator as usual. The cake baked up nicely, with a golden brown crust. I added the powdered sugar frosting but left it in the pan without cutting it at all before we went to our friends' home. Imagine my horror, then, when it came time to serve the cake. When the first piece was lifted from the pan, the interior color emerged--bright, lime green! My adult eyes saw this as a major appetite suppressor. The kids at the party, however, thought it wonderful, and the entire cake was gobbled down quickly.

A few weeks later, my own family asked me to repeat the recipe, and I dutifully obliged. Imagine our disappointment, then, when the cake came out...golden brown. Not a horrible color for a spice type cake, but definitely not the green we had expected. Over the next few years, I tried repeatedly to get back the specific combination of fruit and vegetable that had caused that original hue, but it never worked. My only explanation is that I did not make note of the variety of plums I used in that first try. Unlike apples and pears and peaches, plums come in such a wide range of types and colors, and I apparently never again found just the right variety to get back to the bright green.

Regardless of the color, however, this is a great cake. This week was the perfect time to try it with yellow summer squash. In combination with carrots, it turned out to be a lovely light golden color.  Sometimes, when I have made it with zucchini, even the finest kind of grating still leaves tail-tell speckles of green throughout; the yellow squash did not reveal itself in this way.  I did cook the carrots for this version; I found myself with several pounds of organic carrots and had cooked and mashed them for other uses. However, you could easily use raw grated carrots as well. (If the batter seems very thick using all raw vegetables, you may wish to add a tablespoon or so of water.)

The original recipe included no spices, but that too has never been tried. For us, a cake like this begs for the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or even cloves and allspice--try out a variety of these flavors for yourself and see. The nuts are optional, as are raisins or dried cranberries but either of these additions will just make the cake more special. And though the illustrations here show only frosting, feel free to sprinkle on chopped walnuts or colored sprinkles for a little more pizzazz.

So here it is, a great basic cake recipe for anyone looking for ways to use up those super large harvests of crookneck squash or zucchini. Enjoy.

Squash Surprise Cake

1/2 c butter
1/2 c canola oil
2 c sugar
3 eggs
2 t vanilla
1 c cooked, mashed carrots (baby food carrot puree could be used)
2 c finely grated yellow crookneck squash, lightly packed
3 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 t soda
1 to 2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 to 1 t ground ginger
1 c chopped walnuts.
1/2 c raisins or dried cranberries (optional)

1. Cream the butter, oil, and sugar until fluffy. Add the carrots, eggs, and vanilla and continue beating for another minute or so.  Stir in the squash.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together and fold into the squash and carrot mixture.
3. Add the nuts and raisins, stirring just enough to distribute them evenly.
4. Pour batter into a well-greased 9 X 13 pan and bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you are "overly generous" with some of the veggies, the cake could take a little longer to bake.)
5. Frost with a basic cream cheese frosting. Sprinkle with more chopped walnuts if desired.


You can use your food processor to puree the carrots; cook them until very soft and then use the plastic mixing blade to process them to a smooth puree. You can then just proceed with step 1, without removing the carrots from the bowl. Be careful not to over-mix when the dry ingredients are added.

For the two cups of grated squash, substitute two cups of either of the following:
  • grated zucchini
  • grated raw carrot
For the one cup of cooked, mashed carrots, substitute one cup of any of the following:
  • applesauce
  • chopped plums, firmly packed
  • chopped apples, firmly packed
  • chopped pears, firmly packed
  • who knows, maybe crushed pineapple might even work!
(And though I have never tried it, I would guess that you could use a cup of pumpkin puree with two cups of zucchini too.)

Increase the spices as desired, or substitute pumpkin pie spice or apple pie spice, using at least two teaspoons of these mixtures.

Substitute chopped pecans, slivered almonds, or even coconut for the walnuts.

If you are a big ginger fan, a small amount of finely chopped candied ginger could also be added with the nuts.

This may also be made into cupcakes, with the recipe yielding about two dozen. The original recipe suggested that a Bundt pan could also be used, but I have never tested the recipe that way. As open as this recipe is to variations, however, I can't see why this wouldn't work.

Since this batter is so similar to many zucchini and fruit breads, you could probably also make this into two full sized loaves for slicing. With added ginger, it could be wonderful spread with cream cheese mixed with some orange juice. 


By the way---if you ever find a combination that results in a bright green cake, please let me know--I would love to be able to recreate that one!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vitamin enhanced refried beans

It's hard to make refried beans very photogenic, no matter how tasty they are, but I'd like you to look closely at this photo. See any little flecks of orange? These aren't pepper flakes but instead are finely shredded carrots.

Yup, carrots. Prepared with minimal fat, refried beans are a wonderfully healthy food just as is, but this method of including some carrot along with all the other good ingredients enhances the vitamin A and antioxidant levels and adds just a little hint of natural sweetness. As usual, I encourage cooking your own beans (cheaper, little extra work in the kitchen, no salt or very little, and no questions of potential problems from the chemicals in the can linings of prepared beans). Cook up a huge batch (I get the two pound bags from Aldi, still well less than $2 for the bag) in your slow cooker (or on top of the stove on a cool day) and then freeze them in 2 cup portions, ready for whatever you might want to make with beans.

...and of course, one of the things you'll surely want to make is a big batch of refried beans.

Refried Beans with a "Secret" Ingredient

1 to 2 T canola or olive oil
1/2 c chopped onion, or to taste
1 c finely grated or shredded carrot
1 jalapeno, finely diced, or to taste--carefully remove the ribs and seeds if you don't want too much heat
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced, to taste
2 c cooked unsalted pinto beans, with liquid
1 t cumin, or to taste
1 T cider, wine, or balsamic vinegar, to taste
1/2 to 1 t salt, to taste
water, if needed

1.  Saute the onions, carrots, and peppers in the oil over medium to high heat, until the onions are translucent and the carrots are quite soft.Add the garlic about 5 minutes after the rest of the vegetables.
2.  Stir in the beans, bean liquid, and seasonings. Use a potato masher to break up the beans and get the refried bean consistency of your choice. Taste and adjust for seasoning and continue simmering for 10 to 15 minutes, adding water if needed to keep the consistency you like. Be aware that the beans will thicken as they cool.

If using a 15 ounce can of pinto beans, omit the salt until you have tasted the beans.
Black beans can be substituted for the pinto beans.
1/2 to 3/4 c cooked and pureed butternut squash can be substituted for the carrots. If squash is used, add it at the same time as the beans.
The jalapeno can be omitted or a 4 oz can of green chiles may be substituted instead.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pumpkin Fig Cake

Ah, the power of the "use by" or "pull date." While these codes can be helpful in making sure that the products we purchase have not gone stale, they also can lead the overly cautious to waste food unnecessarily. While a "fresh" package of scallops past its pull date would be a very iffy purchase, rejecting a package of dried fruit just because it has a "best if purchased by" date only a few days away would be unnecessary. Nonetheless, because so many shoppers uniformly reject any products with a close (or expired) pull date, stores routinely mark down the price on these items.

Such was the case a few weeks ago when I found some dried figs at a quarter of their regular price because of a pending pull date. Though I haven't purchased these in the past, I knew my family liked both Fig Newtons and the dried figs themselves, so I stocked up. 

My first use was the easiest:  a tray of dried figs, dried apricots (another expiring pull date find), dates, and almonds arranged on a brass, vaguely Mediterranean looking tray as a dessert option. That was a smashing success, with many choosing this array over some of the other more traditional desserts at this buffet dinner.

Then came the day when I pulled what I thought was a package of cinnamon apple chunks from the freezer (I must start doing a better job of labeling!), only to discover that I had thawed some unpureed pumpkin chunks from one of the last jack-o-lanterns last year. While this is hardly the season for pumpkin desserts, I started to wonder if I could use this mistake to develop a new fig recipe. Taking a pumpkin date pudding recipe (posted earlier at ), I made some modifications and came up with a lushly rich cake that disappeared quickly as soon as it was served. 

One note to keep in mind:  Because this is so very moist, any leftovers should be kept in the refrigerator.

Pumpkin Fig Cake with Caramel Icing

1 1/3 c cooked pumpkin
1/3 c water (see NOTE)
1 c coarsely chopped figs
1 2/3 c flour
1 1/3 c sugar
1/4 t baking powder
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t cloves
1 t ginger
1/2 c butter, softened 
1 egg
3/4 c chopped walnuts (plus more for the topping)

1.If using pumpkin that has not been pureed, combine the pumpkin and figs in a processor fitted with the steel cutting blade. Pulse until the pumpkin is pureed and the figs are finely blended. If you are using canned or already pureed pumpkin, just chop the figs until fine in the processor.
2. Fit the plastic mixing blade into the processor and add all the ingredients except the walnuts to the bowl. Mix, using the pulsing action and stirring the mixture down the sides often, until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. 
NOTE:  If the batter is thick because your pumpkin is quite dry, you may want to add a little more water. Pumpkin prepared at home may be more or less dense than the canned pumpkin you can buy, so you may find adjustments will be needed in the liquid for some recipes.

3.  Add the nuts to the processor and pulse just until the walnuts are incorporated fully into the batter.
4.  Pour the batter into a well-greased 10 inch round or 9 X 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees (325 if using glass or ceramic) for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 
5.  When the cake is well cooled, poke a few holes in the top with a fork. Spread about half the still very warm caramel icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to soak in for a few minutes. Finish spreading the rest of the frosting over the top, allowing it to slowly drizzle down the sides. Sprinkle walnuts liberally over the top of the cake.

Alternate serving:  Serve the cake warm from the oven, with whipped cream or ice cream. Sprinkle walnuts over the top of the cream or ice cream.

Caramel Frosting

  • 1 1/2 T butter
  • 3 T milk
  • 1/2 c packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 c confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, and mix in the milk and brown sugar. Boil vigorously for 1 minute.
  2. Remove from heat, and cool slightly. Beat in the vanilla and then gradually add the powdered sugar, beating after each addition. If necessary, add a few drops of milk or water for best spreading consistency.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Barley Vegetable Salad

Sometimes, silly mistakes turn out well. I have one sweet potato left in the pantry and wanted to combine it with lentils for a great curry. In a hurry to get the lentils cooking, I pulled the "lentils" jar out of the cupboard and emptied the pound bag into a pan. It was only when I started to add water to the pan that I realized what had been in the mislabeled jar was barley. By now, of course, the grains were wet and had to be cooked, so what could I make that would be relatively fast and good to serve to some vegan friends who would be coming for lunch?

A quick look through the refrigerator and freezer resulted in this salad. While the flavors would be even better if it was refrigerated overnight, the dish was a hit after only an hour or so of chilling.

Barley Vegetable Salad

2 to 3 medium carrots, coarsely grated (about 2 c or 5 oz)
10 to 11 oz frozen sweet corn, thawed
2 c pearl barley, cooked without salt and drained (about 8 oz before cooking)
1/2 to 2/3 c chopped sweet or red onion
1/2 c diced bell pepper, any color
1 c diced celery
1/2 c sliced black olives
1 t dried basil
2 to 3 T balsamic vinegar
1/3 c olive oil
1/2 to 1 t garlic powder
1 T sugar, or to taste
1 1/2 t salt, or to taste

black olive juice, as desired

1.  Combine the barley, vegetables, and basil, tossing together until evenly mixed.
2.  Shake or stir together the dressing ingredients. Pour over the barley and vegetable mixture, adding a little of the black olive juices if needed to moisten the salad.
3.  Chill for at least an hour, but it will be even better if left in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.  Will keep well in the refrigerator for several days, though the colors of some of the vegetables may be less bright over time.

Serves 10 to 12 as a side salad, 6 to 8 as a main dish.

Variations and Other Thoughts

The variations on this are really endless, depending on what you have in the refrigerator. Diced cucumber or  broccoli flowerets would be good additions. Leftover vegetables (carrots or peas for example) could also be stirred in. You may want more or less bell pepper or onion or whatever. Adding thinly sliced carrots (raw or steamed for a minute or two in the microwave to soften) could give a different appearance to the salad too.

We are a family that loves olives, so I buy these in large quantities at Costco for a very reasonable price. If they seem too price-y or if you are not such big fans, you can cut back the amount a great deal or just eliminate them entirely. The use of the brine around the olives boosts the flavor and works as part of the salt in the salad overall, but it too could be eliminated if desired. 

This is one recipe where garlic powder may be a better choice than fresh, simply because the flavor may be more evenly blended throughout, but fresh garlic would of course be a great choice instead. If you have fresh herbs, they would be a wonderful substitution, whether basil or rosemary or even a bit of mint.

Barley:  This grain is under-utilized in most of our kitchens, yet it is easy to prepare, inexpensive, and nutritious. I like to cook a pound at a time, following the package directions but without adding any salt. Then I can put the extra into freezer bags or refrigerator containers. By not adding salt, I can use the extra barley for any recipe, adding seasoning as needed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

I need some help! (Oh, and a couple of lemon hints too)

The recipe I just posted calls for the grated zest of a few lemons, and the flavor boost that lemon boost gives is really important. However, I sometimes delay making anything using grated lemon rind (or orange rind for that matter) because of this:

You don't see the problem? Well, look a little more closely. There seems to be a lot more lemon zest on the grater than in the bowl! I have tried graters of many kinds and currently have at least five  different shapes and sizes in my kitchen. And, with every one of them, I still end up with the same problem. Often, I end up just taking my sharpest knife, meticulously peeling a thin layer and then cutting it in itsy bitsy pieces. The problem with this approach is that my itsy bitsy pieces are never as small as the grated bits, so someone is likely to end up biting into more lemon zest than they may have really wanted.

So now I ask for your help. If you have found a solution to this problem, please, please share it with me. Not necessarily a specific product but perhaps a way to get these little shreds off the grater without losing skin from my fingers or cutting off pieces of spatula in the attempt to dislodge at least a little more of the peeling. Leave a note here and I will be deeply grateful. Thanks!

Now, for the hints promised:

Not enough lemon juice for the recipe

So the recipe calls for 1/3 cup lemon juice, "about the juice of two lemons" but you end up with only a quarter of a cup of juice from your little lemons. You have two options:
Fill the measuring cup to the level called for with water
Use some bottled lemon juice (ReaLemon or a similar type)

I like to keep the bottled lemon juice in the refrigerator for the convenience of having it when a recipe calls for just a little lemon juice and I don't have any of the fresh ones on hand. It also works well in a recipe like this.

Getting all the juice from the lemons

This hint is published in a lot of places but, in case you haven't seen it, here it is again:
Put the lemon(s) in the microwave for a few seconds (I put the four for today's recipe in for 22 seconds) on high. Remove and juice; you will be amazed at how much easier it is to get all the juice out.

If you don't trust yourself with the microwave version (what if I put them in too long and they start to cook?), then take each lemon and roll on the countertop, pressing hard as you go. This will soften the lemon substantially, also allowing for easier juicing.

Raspberry Lemon Squares

Here is a dessert with a buttery crust, a raspberry layer where sugar does not overwhelm the tang of the fruit, and a smooth lemony topping--a perfect ending to a light spring or summer dinner.

The addition of raspberries to the long favorite lemon bars makes these more than just a cookie. In fact, if you wanted to make them in a springform pan, the presentation could be especially dramatic.

The key here is to use frozen raspberries. Not jam, not preserves, not even fresh berries--you need the frozen kind, in order to be able to drain the juices from the fruit for a crisp crust and non-soggy lemon layer. I still have a few packages of berries from last year's backyard crop in the freezer, so this is a good way for me to make way for the berries I expect in the next few weeks.  Even if you don't have your own raspberry patch in the back yard, you can duplicate this with a package of frozen raspberries from the store.

Raspberry Lemon Dessert

1/2 c butter
1/4 c ground pecans or almonds (if these are not available, use a total of 3/4 c butter)
1 c sugar
1 1/2 c flour

16 oz frozen raspberries (with NO sugar added), thawed and drained 

6 eggs
Juice of 3 to 4 lemons, enough for 2/3 c juice
Zest of 2 to 3 lemons
1 1/4 c sugar
1/2 c flour

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Prepare the raspberries. Place the thawed berries in a colander over a bowl and press lightly with a wood spoon or spatula to extract most of the juices. (See below for an alternate method of extracting the juice.)

3.  Prepare the crust: Melt the butter in a 9 X 13 pan. Cut in the ground nuts, sugar and flour with a fork and then use your fingers to press the well-mixed dough evenly over the pan.

4. Spread the well-drained raspberries evenly over the crust and bake at 350 for about 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Beat the eggs and sugar until thick and light colored. Fold in the lemon juice and zest and flour, stirring just until blended. Pour over the raspberries and crust and bake at 325 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (If the top begins to brown too soon, cover lightly with a piece of aluminum foil.)

6. When cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut in small squares after cooling. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

Makes 36 to 42 squares, depending on the size serving you prefer.

NOTE: I have raspberries in my garden and freeze them in 8 to 12 oz bags. As an alternative method of extracting the juice, I thaw the berries and then, while still in the bag, allow the juice to flow into a bowl, squeezing the berries to be sure they are well-drained.  Just don't press so hard that you  squeeze out all the pulp and are left only with the seeds!

What to do with the Raspberry Juice?

I usually have as much as a cup of raspberry juice left from the squeezing. That is just too wonderful to throw away so here are a couple of uses for the juice:

Prepare a 12 oz can of frozen lemonade concentrate according to directions but stir in a half cup of raspberry juice and an extra cup of water.

Add some raspberry juice to your next slushy drink; this is especially good with an orange or apple juice and frozen banana combination and provides a brisk counterpoint to some of the other very sweet fruits.

Make a raspberry sauce for serving over a basic cake, ice cream, vanilla yoghurt,pancakes, or even rice pudding.

Raspberry Sauce

1/2 c raspberry juice
1/4 c water
1/4 to 1/3 c sugar--to taste
1 T cornstarch

Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a microwave-safe bowl. Because the sauce will bubble up when cooked, be sure the bowl is large enough. Stir in the water to make a thick paste and then gradually stir in the raspberry juice. When well blended, put in microwave on medium power for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring once or twice, until it has bubbled up and become clear. Store in the refrigerator.

Variations: Add a half teaspoon of lemon juice or a quarter teaspoon of almond extract after removing from the microwave; stir in well.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Confession:  I have never been an asparagus lover.

When I was growing up in Wisconsin, there were three foods that signaled spring: chives (or wild onions, depending on what your yard held), rhubarb and asparagus.

The chives meant Mom's wonderful potato salad would soon grace the table, and that was good. The other two, however, horrified me. I don't think I was a very fussy eater (well, all right, I was the kid who didn't like Jello and never cared for ice cream or anything carbonated, but the rest of the foods I was served I ate readily), but spring menus brought a lot of anguish. Never mind that we had the luxury of country roads filled with wild clumps of asparagus free for the taking and that every homestead yard had swaths of rhubarub plants decades old and still producing enough ruby red stems for dozens of pies and crisps. I still was not convinced that either was really an edible substance.

As I have posted earlier, I  have come to tolerate rhubarb--and find it a very inexpensive "filler" to add to other fruits like strawberries and apples--but I don't eat too many desserts and so can easily avoid eating it myself even as I serve it to others more appreciative of its charms.

Asparagus, however, is something that I recognize as healthy and more than tolerable, even to the point of enjoying it at times. I will admit I still find it at its best raw, nibbling at the freshly picked tender stems as I carry them in from the back yard. And yes, I do have a small planting of asparagus in the garden, nestled in among the ever encroaching raspberries. Perhaps as a sign of my growing appreciation of these fat spears, I am even contemplating planting a few more next year, even though it will take several more seasons to get any substantial harvest.

For you real asparagus lovers out there, just brushing a little olive oil over the spears before grilling (or roasting) lightly is all the "recipe" you need.  For those of us who are more "moderate" asparagus fans however, this could be a new favorite.

Quick Asparagus Saute

1 /2 c chopped onion
1T olive oil
2 c.  Asparagus, cut in 1 inch pieces
1/4 t dried thyme (if fresh thyme is available, use 1 to 2 teaspoons, to taste)
Salt to taste
1-2 T water

1.  Sauté onion in oil until translucent.
2.  Stir in asparagus, sprinkle with thyme, cover, and cook over med high heat, stirring once or twice, until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add a little water if asparagus browns too quickly.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mushrooms, Peppers and Onions...and Beans?

Has chili and soup fatigue set in on your efforts to incorporate more dried beans and lentils into your diet? Are you completely out of the seasonings needed to make those really wonderful east Asian dishes your local Indian restaurant serves?

If you are a fan of sausage, peppers and onions, this might be a vegetarian dish you can savor. It is quick and quite a change from many of the bean dishes you may have been trying lately. Economical too, especially when mushrooms are on special.

Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers with Beans

1 c coarsely chopped onion
4 to 6 ounces mushrooms, sliced (white or baby Bella are both good--no need to go to the specialty aisle for this one)
1/2 c coarsely chopped sweet red pepper
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T olive oil
1 to 1 1/2 c cooked pinto beans, unseasoned (other beans may be substituted)
1 t dried basil
1 T balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Saute the onion, mushrooms, and pepper in the oil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and just starting to turn golden.
2.  Stir in the garlic and basil and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
3.  Add the pinto beans with a small amount of the liquid from the beans. Stir and add the vinegar and salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes, until the mixture is heated through and the flavors have blended a bit.

Top with grated cheese if desired. If you enjoy sausage and onions, peppers, and mushrooms on a hard roll, this would be a good substitute. If not in a sandwich, this is great paired with any artisan style bread.

Note the photos include a serving of oranges and strawberries on the side. Pinto and other beans are good vegetable sources of iron, but this nutrient is more accessible to our bodies if eaten with a good source of vitamin C. What better way to complement the bean dish than with a mix of seasonal fruits.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Applesauce Zucchini Muffins

There was a time when muffins were the plain Jane cousins of cupcakes, back before they were laden with chocolate chips and dried cranberries, covered with thick layers of streusel topping and loaded up with butter or oil and lots and lots of sugar. They had few ingredients and were usually served with butter and some kind of jam or preserves.

I'd like to suggest that simple muffins of the plainer variety can still be something your family will love even as they are getting more nutrition and fewer empty calories. Today's recipe is one of those basic breads, perfect for having ready when the kids get home from school and can't wait for dinner. Because of the applesauce in the mix, you won't even need to serve with jam--though that is certainly a possibility that most kids will not turn down.

Following the recipe are a few variation suggestions, along with thoughts on how to cut down on prep time when you really, really want to get something in the oven quickly.

Applesauce Zucchini Muffins

2 c unbleached flour (can use up to 1 c of whole wheat flour to substitute for part of the flour)
1/3 c sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1 c grated zucchini OR yellow summer squash, lightly packed
approximately 3/4 c applesauce
milk--see Step 2
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 T butter, melted (may substitute canola oil)

1.  Stir the dry ingredients in a bowl until well mixed.  Form a well in the middle; this is where you will be pouring the rest of the ingredients
2.  Place the zucchini and applesauce in a 2 cup measure and fill to the top with milk.
3.  Pour the zucchini applesauce mixture into the well, along with the egg and butter.  Stir gently, only until the mixture is completely blended, with no dry spots. The batter may be a bit lumpy--that is fine!
4.  Spoon the mixture into well-oiled muffin pans. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for about 14 minutes. Remove from pans while still hot and place on a cooling rack. Best served warm from the oven, while the fragrance fills the house.

This makes 12 to 14 muffins. (If you only have one muffin pan that holds 12 muffins, you can put the remaining batter into a small loaf pan and bake for perhaps a minute or two longer than the muffins.)


This is a pretty basic muffin recipe, with little fat because of the applesauce. You can add in raisins or nuts or sunflower seeds, substitute grated carrots or butternut squash for the zucchini, and even mix in half a cup or so of blueberries or chopped strawberries or raspberries.  The sugar could be increased by a tablespoon or two if you use tart berries. Add nutmeg or ginger along with the cinnamon or leave all the spices out and add some grated orange or lemon rind. A half teaspoon of vanilla could also be used instead of the spices.

Make Ahead Hints

I used a package of grated summer squash from my freezer for this week's muffins, so these were especially quick to make. In season, I grate what always seems like an overabundance of zucchini and squash and package in 1 cup portions, in the cheap sandwich bags that fold over rather than zip closed. I then put several of these into a larger (1 gallon size is good) freezer bag. When packaged in this way and used within the next several months, there is no need to blanch these vegetables.

Even if you don't have garden produce to use in this recipe, why not grate several cups while you have the grater (or processor or blender) out and freeze the extras in the same way? Carrots could be frozen for up to a couple of months for use in later muffin, cake, or other recipes.

If you like the idea of making basic muffins like these, measure out the flour, sugar, and baking powder and put them into a small zippered plastic bag. Make up three or four of these at a time. Label each with what is inside and keep in a sealed canister or quart jar. Then, when you are ready for muffins, you have a head start; just take out a bag as though it was a purchased mix and add the remaining ingredients.

With pre-mixed dry ingredients and pre-grated veggies, these muffins take less time to stir together than it will take to get the oven pre-heated. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lentils and Sweet Potato Curry with Kale

Consider the lentil for a moment:  cheap, easily stored, quick cooking, high nutrition, and eminently flexible. And did I say cheap, er, inexpensive? Yet here in the US, the lentil is an ingredient probably the majority of home cooks have never tried to prepare on their own.

Time to change that, perhaps with a resolution to make a lentil dish at least once a month, if not weekly. And, at barely a dollar a pound, what do you have to lose?

Probably the best way to start using these magic beans (okay, so they aren't beans, but they are related) is in some east Asian, especially Indian, recipes. The one I'm introducing today is an incredible powerhouse nutritionally--sweet potatoes, kale, olive oil, lots of fragrant and wonderful spices and, of course, lentils. On top of all this, the dish can be prepared in just under an hour, and it is easily scaled up so you can have leftovers for lunches or a second dinner later in the week.

Some thoughts on the other ingredients
While I don't think of sweet potatoes as a "spring vegetable," my local Costco still had a ten pound bag of these for only 69 cents a pound. While ten pounds sounds like a lot, that low price gave me lots of excuses to include yams in my diet every day. (Easiest way to cook? Scrub well, cut out spots, and microwave until very soft, about 4 to 6 minutes for a medium to large yam. Allow to cool slightly and eat, as is or with just the slightest touch of butter and/or salt and pepper. And yes, the skins of sweet potatoes are very edible, and really quite tasty, especially if you also like the skins of baked "regular" potatoes.)

The kale in this recipe is frozen, just because I keep some of this convenience food in the freezer all the time. Fresh kale would also be good, but the markets here in the upper Midwest don't seem to feature this wonderful green nearly as often as I'd like. If you have fresh kale, by all means use it. Just chop it and add a little earlier in the recipe so it has time to cook

We have a food co-op in town (open to non-members like me too) that has a great bulk foods section, including an entire aisle of bulk spices and herbs. It is here that I became "daring" enough to try some Indian dishes. Before I discovered Good Foods (now Peoples Co-op), I was hesitant to lay down $2 or $3 for a tiny container of some spice I wasn't sure I'd like or would use more than once. Once I could bring home tiny bags of seasonings for mere pennies, I discovered that many Indian dishes I had loved at restaurants could be reasonably duplicated here at home. That said, it is important to note that "curry powder" is a mix that can vary somewhat from brand to brand, store to store. If you are not sure how much to use from your particular supplier, start with a smaller amount, taste, and add more as needed to reach your preferred result.  This probably can apply to other seasonings such as the turmeric. If it is an unfamiliar seasoning, start low and add as needed to get the flavor you are seeking.

As with the spices, I had been hesitant to try using fresh ginger root. Usually around $4 a pound, that sounded expensive and something I wasn't sure how to handle. Silly me. Try weighing one of those little things and you'll find a size large enough for several recipes is so lightweight, you'll be paying less than a quarter. For the amount of punch fresh ginger can give to so many dishes, I am really sorry I didn't try it before.

So now, to begin.

Curried Lentils with Sweet Potatoes and Kale

1 large onion, chopped--about 1 to 1 1/2 cups
2 medium to large yams (16 to 18 oz total), peeled and cubed
olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 t minced ginger
8 oz brown lentils, rinsed and drained
4 T low sodium vegetable soup base (see NOTE for other choices)
4 to 5 c water
1 t cumin
2 t curry powder, or to taste
1 t turmeric, or to taste 
2 c frozen chopped kale
salt to taste 

1. Saute the onion and cubed yams over medium high heat, in just enough olive oil to keep the vegetables from sticking. Stir occasionally.
2. When the onions are just starting to turn translucent, stir in the lentils, garlic, ginger, soup base, seasonings, and about 2 cups of water. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium low, just enough to keep the mixture simmering.
3.  After about 10 minutes or so,  add another 2 cups of water. Stir, taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary, and continue to cook, covered, another 15 to 25 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Add water as necessary and stir occasionally. 

4.  About 10 minutes before serving, stir in the frozen kale, turn heat up to medium, and cook just long enough for the mixture to return to a good boil. 

Serve topped with yogurt or raita and cilantro if desired. This is especially good with naan, but rice could be a good accompaniment as well. Oh, and the kids in the family discovered they liked taking whole romaine leaves (smaller ones) and using those as "scoops" to pick up and eat the curry. Kind of like an Indian lettuce wrap?  

Makes about 4 to 6 servings. 

NOTE:     There are several choices for the liquid in this mixture. Replace the water and low sodium vegetable soup base with:
4 to 5 c stock, vegetable or chicken
4 to 5 c water and 2 to 3 vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes  
4 to 5 c water and 3 to 4 low sodium bouillon cubes


Naan, Homemade and Wonderful

Part of my extended family loves rice, with just about anything and everything; part of my family does not. Some of the latter are great lovers of bread. Pita bread, whole wheat bread, bread. So when I was thinking of making a lentil and sweet potato curry, I began to think about naan along with the usual rice accompaniment.

As usual, an online search uncovered hundreds (thousands?) of links for "naan recipe" but I soon discovered these boiled down to two basic mixtures, one leavened with yeast and the other with baking powder and/or soda. Though a few of the spongier versions I have had in Indian restaurants may have been made without yeast, the kind I was thinking of definitely needed yeast as the leavening.

The yeast-raised recipes themselves were not very different, generally pretty basic dough and almost always completely or mostly bread flour. It quickly became clear that what makes naan naan is the baking method. Many of the recipes mentioned that authentic naan really needs the very high heat of a tandoori oven, but there were lots of ways suggested to work around the fact that few of us have that specialty appliance in our home kitchens.

After sifting through the many suggestions, I was ready to give this bread a go, and I am really glad I did. The recipe is really quite easy and doesn't take a lot of actual work time. It would be a good Saturday or Sunday project, because you can start the dough sometime after lunch, set it aside to raise while you do other weekend chores and then come back to it just in time for dinner.


1 pkg yeast (or 2 1/2 t, if using bulk yeast)
1 c warm water
2 t salt
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c yogurt
4 1/2 c bread flour

1.  Combine the yeast, water, yogurt, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in 2 cups of the flour. Allow to stand 10 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to get frothy and bubbly. Beat in the remaining flour, about a half cup at a time, until the dough forms a firm ball. Cover lightly with a towel and allow to raise until double, about half an hour to an hour, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

2.  Punch the dough down and then pull off balls of dough about the size of a golf ball. Place on a waxed paper-lined breadboard or cookie sheet (without raised edges on at least two sides). Cover again with a towel and allow to raise until double, another 30 minutes or so.

3.  Place a tiny amount of oil in a cast iron skillet or griddle and spread evenly over the bottom. Begin heating the pan on medium high to high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on your stove.

4.  Meanwhile, begin to shape the naans. Take a ball of dough and roll it with a rolling pin into an oblong shape, right on the waxed paper-covered board. Then lift it and use your hands and fingers to pull it until it is quite thin. Try to keep the naan as even in thickness as possible. Flour your fingers as needed to keep the dough from sticking, but avoid getting more flour than necessary on the dough itself.

5.  Place the naan in the pre-heated skillet--it should immediately sizzle to let you know the pan is hot enough. A standard 10 to 12 inch skillet will probably accommodate only two naans at a time. Cover the pan, allow the naan to cook for perhaps a minute or so, and then turn. You should see the characteristic bubbled sections that are a very dark brown, almost charred. The remaining parts of the surface will be only slightly browned.

6.  Return the cover to the pan and cook another minute or two. Remove from the pan and place on a plate.

7.  While the first naans are frying, shape the next two. Repeat step 5 as often as needed to finish cooking all the dough balls. If the pan seems to get too dry, add a tiny amount of oil, spread over the pan, and allow to heat for 30 seconds or so before proceeding.

8.  May be served immediately (nothing is so wonderful as warm from the pan bread!). If storing for later, allow to cool and then keep in a plastic bag for up to several days--although I can't vouch for just how long, since these rarely remain uneaten for more than the first day or two.

Makes about 16 to 18 naans, depending on your definition of golf ball sized dough balls.

Variations:  Many of the sites I looked at suggested adding cumin, minced garlic, or other seasonings to the liquid mixture in step 1.  Any of these could be good additions, but I haven't tried them yet.

After turning the naans in step 5, many of the recipes suggest brushing each with melted butter (or ghee). Most of these recipes then suggest brushing the other side with butter after you remove the naans to the plate to cool. However, the naans that I have had most often are clearly not oiled in any way, so I did not include that step. If you like the idea of having a buttered surface, by all means go ahead and butter away.

A few hints from experience:

This is a place where I think bread flour is almost a necessity. Without it, you may not be able to get the same "springiness" in the final product that you may be accustomed to. As an alternative, you could add up to a quarter of a cup of gluten as a substitute for the same amount of all purpose flour. I have never seen naan in a whole wheat version and am not sure if the same results could be obtained with whole wheat flour. That may be part of my next experiment with these.

Note the instructions for kneading, as this can help with all kinds of yeast breads. Start with the largest bowl you have for mixing the dough. Then you can actually knead the dough right in the bowl, without having to dirty up a countertop or table. This can cut down the perceived "labor" of making homemade bread by an incredible amount. (It's even worth going to a thrift store or scouring garage sales to look for a big plastic or stainless steel bowl just for this purpose!)

I also saved clean up by putting the balls of dough on my largest flat breadboard (a large baking pan without raised edges would also do). I lined the board with waxed paper to keep the naans from sticking, but you could probably just flour the board or baking pan instead. Then, when the dough balls had raised, I could just proceed with the rolling process on the board, set alongside the griddle.

Use a cast iron skillet or uncoated aluminum or steel griddle. Do NOT use any pan with a nonstick coating, as it should be heated to high heat before putting the naans in, and this is exactly how not to use pans with nonstick finishes. (For more on the problem of using nonstick coatings in this kind of recipe, see )

I am blessed to have a gas stove, and the greater responsiveness with this kind of heat probably makes it easier to get these right than on an electric range. The key is to get the pan really hot but then keep the temperature "just right" as you continue to cook the individual naans, something much more easily adjusted with gas.

As noted in the recipe, use only a tiny amount of oil in the pan. I started out with enough to coat the skillet well, but the first ones ended up giving me the impression of yeast-raised pancakes:

While they were good, they weren't naan in the traditional sense. As I continued to make more, and the oil almost completely disappeared, the naan took on the traditional exterior. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Wonderful Orange Butter...and a Quick Apricot Bread on Which to Spread It

Sometimes the best place to start with a cooking or baking project is with the sides or accompaniments. Think about your basic boneless, skinless chicken breasts. On their own, they are really pretty tasteless and, well, dull. However, prepare some great sauce or cook up a vegetable side and add some marinaded and braised chicken cubes and you have something spectacular--or at least a dish your family and guests will ask for again and again.

The Orange Butter in today's post has the characteristic of dressing up all manner of breads, from plain dinner rolls (maybe left over for a day or two and needing to be warmed and perked up with something like this) to old-style muffins (you know, the kind that never had so much sugar and fat in the basic recipe) to quick breads like the apricot nut version included today.

Whatever you serve it on, there will be an added burst of enthusiasm for your efforts--even though this is super easy to make. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week and has the great advantage of being spreadable while still fully chilled. So go ahead and try a batch, even if all you have to spread it on is some basic store-bought bread.

Orange Butter Spread

1/4 c butter
1/4 c low fat cream cheese
2 T fresh-squeezed orange juice--don't worry if there is pulp included
1 t or so grated orange rind (may be omitted if you just don't have the patience for grating)
1 to 2 t powdered sugar, to taste

1.  Cut the butter and cream cheese into small chunks and put in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat on Low power in the microwave for about 45 seconds, or until both are soft enough to spread.
2.  Add in the orange juice and rind and stir all together until well blended.
3.  Stir in the powdered sugar to taste.

This can be served immediately or refrigerated for later use. Recipe is easily doubled.

Substitution: If you don't have fresh oranges available, a tablespoon of frozen orange juice concentrate (don't dilute) can be substituted for the fresh juice. However, this is really best with fresh oranges.

Now, for something to put the spread on. I found a wonderful buy on dried apricots recently, so I have lots to use for eating (a wonderful snack for anyone with a sweet tooth) and baking. This quick bread recipe is adapted from a cookbook I used regularly way back in the 70s.  (No longer in print, A World of Breads by Dolores Casella is still a great reference and idea starter, and I recommend it highly if you ever find it in a used book store.)

If you haven't noticed before, I rely on my food processor a lot, and this was an ideal place to use it. However, I have added a suggested method following the main recipe if you don't have this wonderful appliance. Either way, the bread is hearty, tasty, and the perfect foil for Orange Butter, and much easier to make than the rather complicated directions might indicate.

Just one more thing--this bread is best made the day before serving. While tasty the first day, it has a tendency to crumble and is far harder to slice nicely early on.

Apricot Nut Bread

1/2 c sugar
1/4 c canola oil
1 egg
1 c yogurt
1/2 c GrapeNuts cereal (store brands of this "nutty nugget" cereal are fine)
1 c rehydrated, dried apricots (see step 1 below)
2 t grated orange rind
2 c flour
4 t baking powder
1/2 t soda
1 c walnut pieces

1.  Measure one cup dried apricot halves, packing them a bit. Place in a microwave-safe dish, add about 1/2 cup water, just barely enough to cover. Cover the container and microwave for about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

2.  Meanwhile, combine the yogurt and the cereal in a two cup measure and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes.

3.  Pulse the walnuts in the food processor with the metal chopping blade. Remove the nuts. Pour the apricots and the liquid in which they were cooked into the processor, still with the metal chopping blade, and process until quite finely chopped.

4.  It may be a little messy, but remove the metal blade and replace with the plastic dough blade, even as you leave the apricots in the bowl of the processor. Now add the sugar, oil, egg, orange rind, and yogurt-Grapenuts mixture. Process until this mixture is completely blended.

5.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, and soda and add to the processor bowl. Mix, using the pulse setting, only long enough to blend the mixture. It will be thick, so you may need to scrape down the sides once or twice. The key is to not overbeat at this stage. 

6.  Add the nuts and again, pulse just a couple of times, only enough to blend them into the batter.

7.  Pour the batter into two well oiled loaf pans (about 4 1/2 X 8 inch). Bake at 350 for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Alternate Mixing Method

Use a blender to chop the apricots after cooking OR chop them manually (kitchen scissors work best) before or after cooking.

Chop or grind the nuts with your usual nut grinder OR purchase chopped walnuts.

1.  Prepare the yogurt and GrapeNuts as in step 2 above.
2.  Beat together the oil, sugar, egg, orange rind and softened yogurt/GrapeNuts mixture.
3.  Sift together the dry ingredients and stir into the liquid ingredients. Stir only enough to be sure all the dry material is moistened.
3.  Fold in the nuts and proceed as in step 7 above.

Alternate Ingredients

Though I have not tried this, the original recipe called for "bran" instead of GrapeNuts, with no soaking step. My guess is that Ms. Casella may have been speaking of AllBran cereal rather than plain wheat bran. I'd be interested if anyone tries one or the other variation, to see what your results are.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Using Up those Hard-Cooked Eggs

First there were just boiled eggs dipped in salt and pepper. Then perhaps came the egg salad sandwiches, then the deviled eggs. Now, every time you open the refrigerator, you are still faced with three, four, or even more colored creations staring you in the face. Will the family really accept another night of eggy eating?

Probably the best way to use up the last of the Easter eggs (and to add the cheap protein of eggs into meals the rest of the year) is to think salad.

Not just egg salad though. Instead, start to consider some of your usual tossed salads and add in some  hard-cooked eggs for garnishing, for texture, and for flavor. Check the refrigerator for the ingredients you have to make a basic salad. Today I have Romaine, tomatoes, a red onion (always onions!), cabbage, green pepper, and an avocado. Not hard to see how tossing these other ingredients together with some egg slices on top could be a great side dish for the rest of the meal.

There are also some classic "composed" salads. As one website says, composed salads aren't tossed, they are "placed. You could try a Salad Nicoise that starts with an array of tuna, tiny green beans, potatoes, and egg slices, with lots of other additions possible for the creative or adventurous cook.  

However, if those egg slices looking up at everyone are just too much a reminder of how often these Easter eggs have been showing up, try chopping them into your favorite potato salad recipe. Serve it as a side with some slices of that leftover ham and apple and cranberry sauce and you'll have a bright meal with the eggs relatively hidden from view.

If you have a creamy dressing--bottled Ranch or Caesar for example--you could also put crumbled egg yolks (and finely chopped whites) into the dressing for either a lettuce or coleslaw salad too.

Two tools that I have in my kitchen have proven invaluable in cutting nice slices or chopping hard cooked eggs: an egg slicer and a pastry blender. Neither is essential, but I acquired them long ago and they are especially useful at times like this. If you don't have one or the other of these tools, a standard fork works just fine for chopping too.

In doing some research for this post, I found a couple of recipes that included finely chopped eggs in meatballs, but I haven't tried this. If you have, please let me know how it worked out.

A Heritage Recipe for Today

Finally, hard cooked eggs bring back to mind a "Depression recipe"  Mom often served when finances were a little tight. She had carried this salad forward from the 30s, when selling eggs and chickens helped them keep the family farm, usually served with just some homemade bread and perhaps some applesauce or (for my father's ever-present sweet tooth) some homemade cookies for dessert.

I have lightened the recipe by substituting a yogurt dressing for the Miracle Whip that she used for all manner of creamy salads, but the rest of the ingredient amounts remain as close to hers as I can recall. It is actually a very healthy vegetarian main dish and there are a lot of textures in play here. Still good with homemade bread or crisp crackers, and a fruit tray would make a great completion to the meal...pretty inexpensive as well, so you might want to try this one out with those few remaining eggs. Just leave the sliced egg garnish off if you think the family has seen altogether too much of these lately!

Kidney Bean and Egg Salad
2 hard-cooked eggs, coarsely chopped
1/2 to 3/4 c diced celery, to taste
1/4 to 1/3 c minced sweet onion, to taste
3/4 c (1/2 15 oz can) dark red kidney beans, drained (see NOTE)
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 
1 more hard-cooked egg, sliced, for garnish (optional)

1/3 c plain, nonfat yogurt
1 t mustard--yellow prepared or your favorite flavor
1-2 t sugar, to taste

1.  Combine dressing ingredients.
2.  Toss the salad ingredients together and add just enough dressing to coat the mixture.
3.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  

Suggested serving:  garnished with sliced hard-cooked eggs and parsley, on lettuce leaves if desired. Black olives are also a very good addition to this salad, adding even more color.

NOTE:  For whatever reason, canned kidney beans invariably have sugar added--unlike just about any other kind of bean other than "pork and bean" styles. If you want to use home-cooked kidney beans, you may find a bit of sugar stirred in with the salad ingredients will give you a more "traditional" flavor.