Saturday, November 29, 2008

Happy Birthday Muffins!

Today is my roommate Dragonfruit's birthday, a perfect morning mid-way through a long weekend, when we realize we still have two days of relaxation ahead of us. Why not spend a few minutes making warm, filling breakfast muffins for one of my best friends, simply because she deserves it. Oh, and because I still have a giant box of local apples sitting in my living room. 

I'm pretty sure everyone in my life is tired of sugary, apple-y baked goods. I know apples will last forever, but I can't justify buying more fruit until I've used up the box. The solution? Whole-wheat and multigrain spice apple muffins, made with nonfat yogurt and sweetened with a bit of agave. They were perfect, the apples were sweeter for the lack of sugar, and the oat crumble topping was deliciously crisp with a touch of salt. 

I had originally wanted to grate the apples, and I would really recommend it if you have the time or desire - it would distribute the sweetness throughout the muffin. To save time, using my trusty apple-peeler-corer-slicer, I chopped the apples into a small dice - little gems of fruit in the finished muffins. 

I used an organic whole multi-grain hot cereal blend from Trader Joe's - with barley, rye, oats, and wheat - and organic blue agave nectar. Try these when you want something wholesome and hearty - perfect for a cloudy late fall (fine, winter) morning with good friends and tea. 

Organic Multigrain Apple Muffins with Agave

1 1/2 cups 100% whole wheat flour
1 cups organic multi-grain hot cereal blend (or steel cut oats)
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil or non-hydrogenated margarine, melted
1/3 cup organic agave nectar
2 large organic eggs
1/2 cup milk (cow, soy, or almond all would work)
1/2 cup plain yogurt (any kind - I used non-fat)
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups grated or diced apple pieces

1 cup multigrain cereal or oats
2 tbsp agave nectar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp canola oil or melted margarine

Preheat oven to 325.

In a large bowl, whisk together grains, flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Stir in apple pieces. In a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a whisk combine the oil, agave, eggs, yogurt, milk, and vanilla. Fold in the dry ingredients until just combined. Mix together topping. Pour into muffin tins and sprinkle with topping.
Bake for about 25 minutes or until golden brown - these are best after they've had a chance to cool in the pan, as the flavors combine and they are much easier to remove. Enjoy!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving: The Great Pie Challenge

I've been drowning in pie.

In the last week and a half, I've made more than thirty five apple pies. Vegan crumble apple pies, to be exact. How does one person find the need (or time) to make that many apple pies? Well, it all starts with four big boxes of apples, a bit of elbow grease, and a little help from a simple - but mighty - kitchen tool.

Every year, a group of young Portlanders I used to live with throw a Thanksgiving dinner for about 300 people the Sunday before the actual holiday- complete with deep fried turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and, four two years running, 25 of my apple pies. I don't know what had initially driven me to take on a task like this, but I credit that initial impulse for my current penchant for baking. I was never much of a baker before college - usually leaving the holiday cakes and pies to my sister or, more often, Marie Callender's - but there is quite the tradition of Apple Pie in my family, and the instinct was tested in the toughest of baking challenges - vegan holiday goods, and lots of them. 

My tried and true recipe is very loosely based on this one, and it has since evolved into a slap-dash memorized assembly of a few simple ingredients, mixed together without much actual measuring, but it always seems to come out well. I'm proud to say I'm now one of those women who has a pie recipe that I couldn't share with anyone - not that I don't want to, but if pressed, I don't think I could actually recall any actual quantities or cooking times - I just do it the way I've been doing it for years: good ingredients, messy countertops, an eye for when it "just looks right".

My crust is hand-made, part white part whole wheat flour, with vegan margarine that lives in the freezer up until I need it, a pinch of salt, and ice water. The margarine is scooped on top of the flour and salt, straight out of the tub without any actual measurements - just a spoon, until it's "enough". Then it's all rubbed together with my fingers and pulled together with ice water. It's then popped back into the freezer until I'm ready to roll it out - sometimes the next day, sometimes the next week, sometimes in 15 minutes. Yeah, I know a bunch of bakers who would really cringe at my crust method, but it works! Every time! 

My real secret is the filling. 

This little gadget is one of my all-time favorite kitchen tools, and probably the only reason I can cook so many pies this time of year. It peels, slices, and cores the apples, big or small, and it only takes a few passes with a knife to make the preferred small segments of apple for the filling. I pre-cook the apples and use a streusel topping, again, no measurements to be found. Sometimes there's four apples in a pie, sometimes six. My grandma used to piles in raw apples with cinnamon and sugar, and it would cook down in the crust - a mountainous pie would go in, and a much smaller pie would come out, with the individual apple slices standing on their own. Her's was great, but I love a bit more cohesive filling, so I saute the apples in a little more margarine, sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of flour. This gives the fruit it's own syrup, and the pies stay roughly the same shape as they cook - a perfect base for my really simple crumble topping - just margarine, flour, and sugar! All told, that's six ingredients, seven if you count water, and after a while I get into a groove and the pies come out of the oven eight at a time. 

The day of the feast, I showed up with my pies in tow, and began serving to a long line of hungry people. 34 minutes later, 15 hours of pie baking was devoured without a moment to snap a picture. Yep. This is a blog without a photo of the final product. What can I say? Some things are best left to the imagination, and the image of row after row of pie on my kitchen counters and dining room table were quite the sight to see.

I made about ten more throughout the week for my housemates and my "real" Thanksgiving with my friends, which was a fantastic event full of music, monkey-bread, and two HUGE turkeys. Something about the day caught me up in the moment, and I felt no desire to be separated from the action by a camera lens. Yes, the biggest food holiday of the year passed by with not so much as a full-table food shot. And I don't feel guilty about that in the slightest. 

So, one holiday down, a few more good ones to go before my favorite - the new year. This season means pie season, and the smell of spiced apples isn't going to fade from my kitchen any time soon. Assembly-line baking does have it's zen element, but let's just say I'm done with pie for a while. At least until December. 

Happy Holidays, and Eat Well!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Diamond Birthday

Oh, there has been so much to celebrate in the past few weeks! The beginning of the holiday season (marked in Portland by the onslaught of rain and the Thanksgiving & Christmas issues of my favorite foodie magazines, among other signs), the outcome of the election (I'm still floating in a state of red-white-and-bluephoria), and, this past weekend, my Grandmother's 80th birthday!

My grandmother is an amazing woman.  She is one of the strongest women I know, a breast cancer survivor, with a PhD in her pocket, and countless students inspired by her passion. A teacher, a poet, an entrepreneur, a mom, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, with eternally classic style and the best hugs around. The party was really a testament to the amazing community she had a part in creating, with four generations of the clan in attendance (with a gaggle of great-grandkids in tow), artists, musicians, craftspeople and academics of all varieties, and of course, TONS of food.

I flew down to Southern California to join my family in the celebration, which for us means preparing food for 24-hours straight for 80 party guests. No catering here, my friends, and nothing frozen, pre-packaged, micro-waved - though some doubting individuals tried to sneak in some bite-sized frozen shrimp snacks into the mix. Not while I'm on appetizers! I spent the week ahead plotting my attack, looking forward to the never-ending bounty of Southern California produce - strawberries and asparagus in November? I'm still flabbergasted - and crafting a few tasty dishes to feed the army of party-goers.

My older sister was on dessert - and cranked out 8 gorgeous classic Pineapple Upside-Down Cakes, the kind with the maraschino cherries in the center of pineapple rings, and a Four-Layer Carrot Cake with Pine Nuts and Cream Cheese Frosting - SO good, and I'm sure the house still smells like yellow cake (the tasty baked good, not the enriched uranium ore). My dad was manning the grill - enough lamb and chicken kabobs to feed about three times as many people as we were expecting.

The lamb had a red-wine, garlic, and rosemary marinade, and the chicken got a soy, ginger, and garlic treatment. My mom made a HUGE pasta salad - we were all amazing at how much pasta three bags made - and my little sister was the all-around champion of veggie-plates, odd-jobs, and official taster. Aunts and cousins brought cheese plates, crackers, beautiful fruit, famous rice salads, a keg of local brew for the big kids, and a box of "bunny noodles" for the little ones. Some families gather around sports teams, some around religious traditions, but for us, it's all about the food. 

My dishes might not have been the main attraction, but I was pretty pleased with them, and the way they disappeared, I'm guessing a few other people were as well.

First up - Deviled New Potatoes! These little guys started off as 40 small, adorable new potatoes, boiled until just tender, and chilled overnight. The next day, I used a melon baller to hollow out the centers. I reserved the scooped-out potato to add to the filling, which was really delicious. I sautéed three sliced leeks and four big shallots in olive oil, seasoned only with black pepper and kosher salt. After this mix started to brown - and smell amazing - I deglazed with a few tablespoons of good red wine at a time, allowing the liquid to evaporate before adding more, until I'd used about a cup. This mix went into the food processor with capers, basil, fresh meyer lemon juice, the reserved potato centers, and cream cheese. After the mix was thoroughly blended, I packed it into a big ziplock bag and piped the filling into the potato cups, sprinkled with chives, and moved on to the next dish...

Endive Boats with Roasted Garlic, Eggplant, and Orange Bell Pepper Puree. These were so fun to eat - the individual endive leaves were the perfect size for a little scoop of the savory filling. I roasted two whole eggplants, about 8 garlic cloves (peeled, and wrapped in a packet of tin foil with olive oil) and three orange bell peppers at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes. Everything went into the food processor with cumin, more olive oil, capers, lemon juice, and a but of curry powder. Yum!

My last dish was a simple bruschetta, with olive tapenade, tomato, and basil. I made the tapenade using three kinds of olives - kalamata, brined green, and black, a can of each - all pitted. I threw these in the food processor with fresh garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, capers, basil, and a good amount of olive oil. This stuff was strong, in a good way, so I put about a teaspoon on a fresh basil leaf on each toasted baguette slice - topped with a slice of cherry tomato. Classic, simple, and delicious - brought to you by California sunshine. So jealous.

It was a great party - 80th is the Diamond Anniversary. Sorry you didn't get any diamonds, grandma, but I hope you loved the good friends, good beer and wine, and great food as much as I enjoyed helping out. Even now, as I sit looking out at the Portland rain, roasting a pumpkin in the oven, and I can still feel the warmth of the grill and the California fall, hear the babies playing, and see my grandma's smile as she popped the champagne. 

May we all live to be as successful and beautiful. Eat well!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008