Mixed citrus salad with feta and mint (~4 servings)

I know I've said this before, but every damn smittenkitchen recipe I make is fabulous. Deb is some sort of culinary sorceress; each recipe comes out perfectly seasoned and intensely flavorful. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've never been let down by any of her creations. Now if only I could replicate her photography skills...

Here in Durham, the last two days' weather has been the meteorological equivalent of a cold, soggy sponge abandoned in the kitchen sink by an inconsiderate roommate. Days like this beg for happy, invigorating recipes like this one. Its vivid colors and succulent flavors are like optimism on a fork. They'll have you longing for sunnier days, warmer temperatures, and carefree afternoons with friends.

Then, perhaps, you'll remember pollen allergies. And mosquitoes. And sunburns. And stifling Carolina humidity. And sweaty thighs singed by car vinyl. And sinus headaches just ahead of summer thunderstorms.

You decide that maybe, for now, you're content with summery recipes and can wait on the other junk.

You will need:

  • 2 scallions
  • 4 pieces of citrus (I used a ruby red grapefruit, one blood orange, a navel orange, and a tangelo)
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp smooth Dijon mustard (Read the label carefully if you're going for gluten-free)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • ~3 Tbsp crumbled feta cheese
  • a handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped or slivered

Steps:

  1. Thinly slice the green parts of the scallions into the bottom of a tall bowl. (I used my herb scissors for this step and for slivering the mint later on. Thanks, Mom!) Place a strainer or colander over the bowl.
  2. Next, you want to cut the peel off each piece of fruit and then slice it horizontally into 1/4"-thick wheels. The goal is to cut the white pith off (Oh, you pith off!) to avoid any bitterness. (Honestly, the best way to explain the cutting method is to provide this video, which illustrates the process beautifully. Pluck out any seeds as you go.)
  3. Place the slices of fruit in the strainer, which is now resting over the scallion bowl. The acidity from the juice will mellow the scallions. Allow them to drain a few minutes while you clean up your cutting board and find a shallow serving dish.
  4. Spread the citrus wheels out on the dish, overlapping the pieces as necessary. Use a fork or slotted spoon to fish the scallion slices out of the bowl; scatter them on top of the fruit, leaving the citrus juice behind in the bowl.
  5. Add the lemon juice, Dijon, and olive oil to the citrus juice in the bowl. Add a bit of salt and pepper. Whisk well.
  6. Drizzle the dressing over the fruit, then sprinkle with crumbled feta and chopped mint. Serve chilled.

This is a true appetizer: one that whets the palate without weighing it down with anything fried, bloomed, or stuffed. (Not that there's anything wrong with fried, bloomed, or stuffed, but there's a time and place for everything, you know.)

Salted peanut butter cookies

If you test out enough recipes from the same blog, cookbook, or chef, you'll start to pick up on patterns from that particular source. For example -- according to my taste anyway -- Rachael Ray's pasta-to-sauce-and-veggies ratio is way off. Jack Bishop's salads always call for the ideal amount of dressing. And Deb Perelman's recipes are guaranteed to be delicious with precisely-measured ingredients and perfect seasoning. I'm not sure there's another food blogger whose recipes I trust so automatically.

So when I saw these caramel-hued, salt-flecked beauties reposted on Smitten Kitchen's Facebook page a few days ago, I knew I had to have them. I made no changes to the original recipe, and, as always, they turned out better than I could have imagined. I don't think I'll ever need another peanut butter cookie recipe after trying out this one.

You will need:

  • 1 3/4 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups smooth peanut butter (A standard 16-ish ounce jar contains almost exactly 1 3/4 cups, so just use the whole jar)
  • coarse sea salt

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350• F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar and eggs until the batter is smooth. Add in the vanilla extract and the peanut butter and whisk until the batter is smooth and consistently-colored. (I eventually had to switch to a wooden spoon because the whisk was getting overloaded with peanut butter.)
  3. Use a cookie scoop to measure out the batter into even domes, placing them on the cookie sheet about two inches apart. Sprinkle each ball lightly with coarse sea salt.
  4. Bake cookies 14-15 minutes for smaller cookies and 18-20 for larger ones. (My cookie scoop holds about a tablespoon and a half, and my cookies needed 18 minutes in the oven.) They're done when your kitchen is redolent with the heavenly smell of peanut butter and the edges of the cookies turn golden brown.
  5. Remove the sheet from the oven and allow to cool for 3-4 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Try to convince your husband to wait until they're cool enough to eat safely.

I loved how these held their shape in the oven. Deb says you can briefly chill the dough to produce a more visually-appealing texture, but I was too impatient to wait, and I was thrilled with how they turned out anyway. The outside of the cookie is crisp, but then inside is soft without being gooey or crumbly. This recipe is plenty sweet but not at all cloying. They're perfect!

Chickpea salad with roasted red peppers (4-6 servings)

I've been sitting here for 20 minutes, clicking back and forth between this editing page and various favorite distractions (ahem, Dogshaming) as I try to think of what to say about this recipe.  What can I say about chickpeas, roasted peppers, tomatoes, and vinaigrette that hasn't already been said elsewhere? 

This is a simple recipe, and sometimes simple is best. It hails from the ever-popular Smitten Kitchen, and even usually-illustrative Deb (Did I ever mention that I met her a few months ago?) couldn't find much to say about it. It's not that it's boring -- it's definitely not -- but it's reliable, and it tastes exactly the way you'd expect it to taste. The chickpeas are plump and slightly salty, the peppers are smoky and sweet, the tomatoes add a little more sweetness, the herbs lend some earthy flavor, the lemon brightens everything a bit, and the oil brings everything together with a touch of richness.

There: I did find something to say after all.

You will need: 

  • 2 large roasted red peppers, either jarred or homemade
  • 2 15-oz cans of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 medium tomato, cored and roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp chopped mint leaves
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Steps: 

  1. Cut the peppers into small-ish strips (no need to be exact) and place them in a bowl. Add the tomatoes, parsley, and mint, tossing briefly.  
  2. Whisk the lemon juice, salt, garlic, and oil together in a separate bowl, or shake them up in a jar with a lid. 
  3. Pour the dressing over the chickpeas mixture and toss to combine. You're ready to go! 

This can be served as is, or it can be stuffed into a pita or a wrap. I'd imagine it would also be good over salad greens, but I haven't tried it that way myself. I like to make a batch, stick it in the fridge, and come back to it as the week goes on. The flavors intensify as time passes!

A note about the peppers: If you've never roasted your own, you really should try it. I used to think it was a complicated process that involved paper bags and fancy knives, but it really isn't difficult at all. Newbies should check out this detailed explanation of a truly simple process. All you need is peppers, an oven, some sort of baking vessel, tongs, and your hands. The jarred kind taste good, but they usually contain excess oil and salt and sometimes preservatives. If you make your own, your peppers contain peppers and only peppers. I definitely prefer making my own when I have time.

 

Moroccan chickpeas & spinach (4-6 servings)

mcp.jpg

On New Year's Eve, Bryan and I decided to make a new recipe (together!) and then watch a new (to us) movie. We started off with a glass of wine, some SNL reruns, and a batch of French onion soup-stuffed mushrooms. They were delicious even though they were time-consuming to make, although mine didn't turn out as beautiful as the Pioneer Woman's.

We finished the evening by making the Smitten Kitchen's version of Moroccan spinach and chickpeas and watching Devil while we ate. Cooking a new, exotic recipe and watching a mysterious, critically-disdained movie turned out to be fairly similar experiences. During both activities, we found ourselves thinking,

How will this turn out? Will there be any unpleasant surprises? Will the various elements come together for a satisfying ending? Will M. Night Shyamalan make a cameo?

(In the end, the answer to the final question was "no" for both.)

You will need:

  • 2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 5 Tbsp olive oil (I just happened to have a bottle of Moroccan olive oil from one of Bryan's friends!)
  • 1 lb spinach, washed and torn into smaller pieces
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (I used the spicy kind and thus skipped the red pepper flakes)
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce (canned is fine)
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar (all I had was white)
  • juice from half a lemon (or more, if desired)

Steps:

  1. Heat 3 Tbsp of the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the spinach and a pinch of salt and stir well. (The volume of the spinach will drastically decrease, so don't worry if it doesn't seem to fit in the pan at first!) When the spinach leaves are just barely tender, drain them in a colander and set aside.
  2. Heat the remaining oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add in the garlic, cumin, pepper flakes, and paprika; stir for 30 seconds.
  3. Add in the drained chickpeas and tomato sauce and mix in the vinegar. Cook and stir for a few minutes, just until the chickpeas are heated through. Add the spinach back in and season the mixture with salt and pepper and lemon juice.

You can serve this as is or mash it up a bit and serve it over toasted crusty bread. I did the latter and Bryan did the former. Deb's version of the recipe involves grinding up bread in a food processor and adding it to the dish to make it thicker, but that was more work than I was willing to do that night. I'm sure it's good though! Maybe I'll try that next time.

Next time, I might also use a little less oil, since the spinach got a little slick in the end. I will also be lazy and buy bagged, washed spinach instead of washing my own. There are many kitchen tasks I'm willing to do on my own, but after realizing how long it takes to thoroughly wash and dry a pound of spinach, I probably won't do it again for a long time!

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Crazy easy mac & cheese

Oh, dear. I may have made a terrible mistake.

I discovered a laughably easy and decadently delicious macaroni and cheese recipe. It's so simple that I could make it once a week, but it's so rich that I would be on my deathbed if I repeated the routine for more than three weeks in a row, most likely.

Homemade macaroni and cheese IS the definition of comfort food, if you ask me. It's creamy, oozy, and crispy all at the same time. Its aroma is intoxicating, and its golden brown crust immediately makes me feel like a kid again. However, making it can be a pain. Usually, making it in the oven requires pre-boiling the pasta and waiting for it to cool. The sole slow cooker recipe I tried left me with a caked-on mess and gummy pasta. After that last experiment, I wrote off the idea of making it myself.

But then the weather turned cold and I my "comfort food" light started blinking. While browsing through the Smitten Kitchen's archives, I stumbled upon this recipe and thought, "Hmm, that might be worth a shot." And Lordy, it was. Bryan finished his meal with a happy sigh and a proclamation of, "This is a new family favorite!"

You will need:

  • 1 cup ricotta cheese (I used low-fat even though Deb said not to)

  • 2 cups milk (Deb said not skim milk, but I used 1/4 cup half and half the rest was skim)

  • 1 tsp dry mustard (skipped)

  • Pinch of nutmeg

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper (didn't measure)

  • 1 pound (yes, you read that correctly) sharp cheddar cheese, grated

  • 1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked (I used pipette)

Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F and position the rack in the upper third of the oven. Spray a 2 or 2.5-quart baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

  2. Puree ricotta cheese, milk, mustard, nutmeg, and salt and pepper in a blender.

  3. Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for the topping but put the rest into a large bowl. Then add the dry pasta and the milk mixture and combine with a big spoon or spoonula.

  4. Pour into prepared baking dish, cover with a lid, and bake 30 minutes. Convince yourself that you're going to be okay and that you CAN wait that long.

  5. Remove the lid, stir mixture gently, and sprinkle with remaining cheese. (I added a little garlic powder here too.) Bake, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, until brown. You WILL be okay.

  6. Remove from the oven and let sit for at least 15 minutes so it can cool and solidify a bit. Now might be a good time to go for a jog to take your mind off the deliciousness that's waiting for you and to create some room for the insane richness you will soon experience.

Deb ends her recipe with, "Serve it with a g'normous green salad, in a feeble attempt at caloric balance, and wine, to remind yourself that you're a grown-up." I made it only halfway through my salad, and I skipped the wine, as it probably would have caused me to fall asleep before I finished my meal. I know some homemade macaroni and cheese recipes use a breadcrumb crust, but you really don't need it here. This recipe is all about the two stars of the show: pasta, and a hell of a lot of cheese.

Speaking of cheese, I sometimes make this with a small quantity of smoked cheese (smoked Gouda is fabulous) and then fill in the rest of the quantity with shredded cheddar. Smoked cheese is pungent enough that you only need a bit of it, but it does add a sultry depth to the dish!