Tarragon, where have you bean all my life?

i’m obsessed with this bean salad.

I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I love cooking with fresh veggies and herbs, there’s tons for me to still learn. It wasn’t too many years back that my entire trivia team was stumped by the question “What herb is the basis of a bearnaise sauce?” There were actually a few “foodies” on the team, so my embarrassment was mitigated some. The star of bearnaise sauce, it turned out, was tarragon, and I chalked that up to it being one of those herbs that’s used to flavor things like chicken, eggs, fish and steak. Stuff truly out of my repertoire

This past summer however, all that changed. I was at my friend Mel’s graduation party — Ph.D. in neuroscience, no less — which was hosted by another friend, Abby. And, boy, what a spread! Platters full of salads, grilled things and cupcakes completely covered an enormous dining room table. And it was there that I came face to face with the bean salad THAT CHANGED MY LIFE.

A new day, a fresh bowl of bean salad

Seriously, I kind of sat and ate and moaned at a table in the yard. “What is this? Tell me everything!” I begged my hostess. Abby just kind of shrugged, saying it was the simplest of salads, just stuff from her pantry. “But what is it I’m tasting?” I asked when not moaning and stuffing my face.

“Just a vinaigrette with some fresh tarragon.” Tarragon, that devilish herb, my trivia team’s downfall, had come back to haunt me. And thus began my love affair — really, lust affair — with this aromatic “King of herbs.” I got hold of a bunch of tarragon and no joke, made this salad no less than nine times in a six week period. This is one of those salads that tastes great on the third day, as the anise undertones of the tarragon really seep into the beans.

Rich used the tarragon in a marinade for the trout and fennel he grilled.

The bean salad I’m obsessed with. (Abby tells me that it’s Fosters Market in Chapel Hill, NC, that really deserves the credit for this one.)

I think the thing that I love most about this salad, I mean, aside from it being so so so delicious, is that it is made of things that I always have on hand in my pantry. Some might find my own version too full of its ingredients, so I actively encourage you to experiment until you find amounts that suit your palate best.

Ingredients

One can of little white beans (Or a cup of dried beans, soaked overnight)

Half a red onion, sliced into rings and roasted*

*Abby also introduced me to another fantastic idea, which is roasting the onions to take the bite out of them. I’ve found my happy medium tossing them into my toaster oven set at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Feel free to play with times for that as well.

Before…

… and after

Half a can of artichoke hearts

Five pepperocini

For the Tarragon Vinaigrette

Four tablespoons olive oil

Two tablespoons red wine vinegar

A clove of garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon jarred mustard (for emulsifying)

Two heaping tablespoons tarragon

Pinch of salt

Directions

Open can of beans, pour into a colander, and give them a good rinse (or cook beans according to package — it should take about 7 minutes in a pressure cooker)

Slice the half onion and roast in oven for 10 or so minutes

Quarter the artichoke hearts

Slice up the pepperocini into rings

Toss all together in a bowl

Place all dressing ingredients in small glass jar, give it a shake, and pour it on the bean salad

I clean out jam jars and use them for dressings

Yes, that’s all.

Do you have a favorite recipe for tarragon?

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Campaign Cookies: Why I started baking.

Cookies for volunteers.

I never considered myself much of a baker. But when I captained a phone bank in last year’s special election (don’t get me started), I thought the least I could do for my volunteers was to reward them with some good cookies. I came across this recipe and took a liking to it.

After mastering this simple recipe, I realized there was nothing stopping me from baking all sorts of things, from lemon bars to macarons to challah to apple cake.  But today, I found myself wanting to bake these cookies again.

This is a pantry recipe. It involves butter, which should just live in your freezer, so you’ll always have it at hand. You should have eggs in the fridge, and everything else you’d have on hand in your pantry. Chocolate chips and dried fruit? In your pantry. Or, you might have to store chips in your freezer if your pantry gets too warm in the summer.

I actually had a bit of trouble with some of my batches of cookies today. The recipe wasn’t off. My oven was. So the cookies in the pics you have here are not my best work. But I promise you it makes a good cookie. If you’re into chewy with lots of good bits of stuff, this recipe is for you. Side note: I actually like the way these cookies taste the next day more than a few hours out of the oven.

The recipe I like to use is from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which has the same ingredients as Toll House, but in different measurements.  They also differ on greasing the pans: Fanny is pro and Toll House is con.

The cookies in these pictures are a mixture of the newly invented Cherry Garcia, chocolate and peanut butter chips, chocolate chip and heath crunch. (I intentionally leave nuts out of my cookies when I don’t know who I’m baking for; it’s just safer that way. But if you know who you’re baking for, have fun with the nuts.)

The amount you want to pay attention to is 1 cup of chips to half a cup something else, say dried fruit or nuts. Make sure to chop up whatever that is, be it dried fruit, or nuts, or both. The Cherry Garcia cookies, for instance, were 1 cup of chips to half a cup chopped dried cherries — which Ocean State Job Lot always has on hand. The Heath Bar Chip? A cup of chips to a half cup Heath Bar bits; the Heath English Toffee Bits, “Bits O’ Brickle Toffee Bits” were actually a pantry addition by Rich and Mike.

Whatever “side” your on, if you want to help out on a campaign but feel weird about talking to strangers, you can pitch in by baking a batch of cookies for the volunteers.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

As you can see, the recipe doubles easily

1/4 pound butter

1/2 dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup and two tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup chopped nuts or chopped dried fruit, or both

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (1 cup)

Preheat oven to 375 and grease some cookie sheets. Cream the butter, then gradually add the two sugars, beating until light and smooth. Beat in the egg and the vanilla. Mix the flour, salt and  baking soda and add it to the first mixture blending well. Stir in the nuts/dried fruit and the chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls* onto the cookie sheets about 1 inch apart and bake for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned.

*Please read below for more on this cookie scoop.

Both recipes say you can make an average of 55 cookies with this recipe. It’s more like 2 dozen.

*I don’t usually complain about products, but feel I must in this case. Two weeks ago I had attempted to make cookies for the campaign, but my cookie scoop lost one of its rivets that held the sweeper in place. I couldn’t bring those to the campaign; what if someone bit on that rivet? I brought it back to Crate and Barrel, and they replaced it immediately. This is what happened during today’s baking.

This product is garbage.


Butternut Basics

Butternut squash risotto: seven minutes in a pressure cooker.

As I mentioned in a previous post, work and school have been really crazy lately, and with Rich doing campaign things, sharing a meal together has become a precious commodity. I know I must sound like a broken record by now, but with my trusty pressure cooker and my well-stocked pantry, we have continued to enjoy tasty, inexpensive and quick meals.

One of my go-to dishes when I’m in a time crunch is butternut squash risotto. What?!? Impossible! you’re thinking. But I swear to you, if you buy a pressure cooker, you too can make risotto in seven minutes. Yup, that’s all it takes. Just buy a pressure cooker; most likely it will come with a recipe for risotto. (Results, and recipes, may vary by make and model, so I am not posting a full recipe here.)

In terms of ingredients, all you need is some Arborio rice (which Ocean State Job Lot will sell you for $2.99 a box), a chopped-up onion (pantry staple), a hunk of parmesan (which should just kind of hang out in your fridge’s cheese drawer) and a few cups of stock.

Now, I must admit I am spoiled by Rich who enjoys taking a few hours on his weekends to make homemade stock with leftover chicken carcasses (we keep them frozen until he has the time) and some odds and ends from my veggie drawer. Once it’s cooled off, we pour the stock into ice cube trays, freeze them, and then store the stock cubes in Ziploc bags in the freezer. But, in all seriousness, just keep a box in the pantry. As Julia Child (or Rachael Ray) would say, who’s to know if you take short cuts?

Now that that’s squared away, the only thing standing between you and a nice autumnal dish is that pesky butternut squash. Sure, you can buy it pre-cut from Trader Joe’s, or even find it in your grocer’s freezer, but the cheapest way to enjoy butternut squash is to buy it whole and clean it yourself.

I know that might sound daunting. But I promise you can do it. Here’s how:

First, take your butternut squash and cut it in half, so that you have a distinct round bottom.

Then, peel it. Yup, it’s just that simple. I have very good Kyocera ceramic peeler that my awesome brother-in-law got me for a birthday present last year which does a great job. Now, I’m not trying to sell Kyocera products (or even a specific brand of pressure cookers, for that matter) but, if you don’t think your peeler can handle peeling squash, then I would suggest purchasing a new, sturdier peeler. It should cost less than $15.

After you’ve peeled both pieces of your squash, cut the round bottom one in half, and scrape out the seeds. Then cut your squash into thirds, and then start dicing.

Yup, it’s really that simple.

Once you’ve cleaned your squash, prepare your risotto according to the instructions that came with your pressure cooker, and right before you put the lid on, dump the squash into the pot.

The squash will soften into the rice mixture and, by the time you unlatch the lid, become one with your risotto. I happened to have a rind of parmesan in my fridge which I tossed in pre-pressure, too.  In general, if you find yourself with just the rind of a piece of cheese, keep it in the fridge, and the next time you are making soup, toss it right in. It will add layers of rich flavor to your soup — or in this case, your risotto.

Latch things up, pressurize, cook according to your machine’s instructions, then blow off the steam. Here’s where you add the good stuff: butter and grated cheese. This time, I also threw in some sage from the bush out front. You could also go with goat cheese and rosemary, a la Grendel’s, if you prefer. And there you have it: a fast, simple dish made with pantry staples and one fresh veggie.

Dinner for Two Becomes Dinner for Five

Shabbos dinner somehow grew from just me and Rich to three guests at our table Friday night. In my fridge I had three beets, a head of cabbage, five mushrooms, and a block of feta. We feasted.

I was very silly and didn’t take photos of our food before we supped, so what I have here are leftovers — hooray for leftovers! I have no shots of the cabbage and mushrooms, which turned out to be the hit of the night. I didn’t do anything special to them — just sauteed up an onion for  a good long time until it began to caramelize, tossed in some garlic, then the mushrooms, then the cabbage.  Right before I took it off the flame I added two sage leaves. All I did was cook the cabbage down until it was too exhausted to put up a fight anymore. Limp, molted green and muddy brown, it probably wouldn’t have made very pretty picture, but it tasted great.

The beets took 25 minutes in the pressure cooker.A very simple dish: I cubed the beets, and half a block of feta, then drizzled balsamic vinegar and sprinkled fresh mint (from my container plants outside) on top.

I used the other half of feta for the quinoa, chickpea, and farmers’ market tomato salad. I cooked the chickpeas in the pressure cooker for 11 minutes with some bay leaves, a teaspoon or so of whole black peppercorns and two cloves of garlic, unpeeled. While that was going on, I cooked the quinoa in my rice cooker — no muss, no fuss. Quinoa is a great pantry staple: protein, carbs, fat, calcium, you can get a pound of it for less than $4 in bulk at Harvest Co-op.

As for feta, here’s a tip: If you go the Market Basket in Somerville — which, by the way, has FANTASTIC produce at the some of the best prices in town — head over to the deli counter. On the right hand side up against the wall is a counter fridge. Inside you’ll likely find huge blocks of really decent feta for about $4.

To dress the quinoa salad, I combined:

6 TBS olive oil

3 TBS red wine vinegar (I like my lips to pucker, so I always go 2 to1 with my dressings, while I think most recipes will say 3 to 1)

1 clove of garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon mustard (I’m actually pretty anti-mustard, but it can’t be beat for emulsifying salad dressings)

a pinch of salt

a few grinds of fresh black pepper

2 teaspoons agave nectar (you can do honey, too, but I like the sweetness of agave, and it’s good to have on hand for vegan salad dressings)

2 TBS chopped fresh mint

I put all these together in a glass jar, and shook. That’s all. This is basically the blue print for all my dressings.

Make sure to let the quinoa cool down before you dress it. Otherwise it will soak up everything and you’ll be wondering where all your flavor went. I speak from experience!

Quinoa salad on one of my new plates... thanks Freecycle!

Tomato, tomahto

Normally, I’m skeptical of farmers’ markets. True, they are local and sustainable and organic, but they can also be extremely expensive. Last summer I spent $40 on a bag of gorgeous produce only to use it all in one meal. But this is Massachusetts Farmers’ Market Week, so I decided to take a lunchtime bike ride to BU’s on-campus farmers’ market, in hopes of procuring peaches for some ice cream action this weekend.

I had the most lovely visit with the folks from Wards Berry Farm in Sharon. And I scored. Big time. For $6, I biked away with gorgeous tomatoes, peaches and garlic:

All this for $6!

The kind gentleman running the stand noticed my means of transport and noted that the farm is only three miles from the commuter train. A weekend visit to the farm may be in the future…

I’ll get at least two meals out of these tomatoes:

I wanted to gobble these at my computer this afternoon. Hooray willpower!

Like I’ve said, stock a good pantry, and you’re good to go. Tonight I made an easy pasta with the fresh tomatoes and garlic, then tossed in some artichoke hearts and olives.

This reminds me of that Skittles commercial. A rainbow of flavor!

(The husband, who normally hates tomatoes of the grape or cherry varieties, snarfed up dinner so fast that I didn’t get a chance to photograph it.)

I also set some chickpeas up to soak overnight for a quinoa, chickpea and tomato salad for Shabbos dinner tomorrow night.

Chickpeas in a pressure cooker: 11 minutes to perfection.

Friday is my neighborhood farmers’ market. I’m definitely biking by on my way home to see if I can get some fresh basil for my basil-peach ice cream. My plant’s on its last leaves at this point in the summer.

Make me into ice cream, stat!

Come back this weekend for the recap on deliciousness.