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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.