Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanksgiving Desserts

Before the sun comes up on Thanksgiving day, my wife and I are hard at work in the kitchen. There's so much to do that we're busy all day long. When our family and friends arrive, there's a flurry of activity to greet everyone. Once everyone is settled at the dinner table, there are glasses raised to celebrate our being together and toasts to those who could not travel to our house that year or who have passed on. Then we eagerly eat.

The feast goes on for hours as we hungrily enjoy Thanksgiving favorites and talk about what's going on in our lives and the world. When we've eaten all we can, we take a break to clean the table. Then most of us go for a walk around the neighborhood.

We walk in the dark, enjoying the cool night air and the exercise of our limbs. Refreshed, we come back to the house, its bright lights and fireplace inviting us to come home. And when we do, we find that the table has been reset, new platters of food laid out. It's time for dessert.

For so many years, this is the moment when the true collaboration of the meal is in evidence. Cousin Ron has made homemade ice cream, topping sauces, and a cheese cake. Cousin Leslie brings a pumpkin pie. Our friend and neighbor, Lesli offers us a huge bowl of mixed berries. Sometimes there is simply more than we can eat, but we don't care.

Seeing all the chocolates, candies, pies, cookies, tarts, fresh fruit, cheeses, bread puddings, and cakes makes us feel good without eating a bite. Then we dig in, having small slices so we can taste what everyone has made. But even those samples add up, so within short order we need another bracing walk in the cold to revive us.

Here are two of our favorite recipes.

Karen's Favorite Pumpkin Bread

Yield: 6-8 servings
Time: 1 1/2 hours


3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups canned pumpkin
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (safflower or canola)
4 eggs
1 cup chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat the eggs together with the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Combine with the eggs and sugar. Add the pumpkin, vanilla, vegetable oil, eggs, and chocolate chips and mix well.

Carefully butter the inside of a bundt pan or 4 loaf pans. Pour in the batter, leaving 1/2" from the top. Bake for 1 hour for the large pan or 30-45 minutes for the loaf pans. Test with a tooth pick and let rest on a wire rack.

Serve at room temperature.

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Yield: 8-10 servings
Time: 90 minutes

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips


Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. (The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.) On a cookie sheet bake the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so; let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan; it will only fill the pan half-way.

Bake the cake in a 350 oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thanksgiving Side Dishes

For my mother, Thanksgiving was the best day of the year. She enjoyed being surrounded by friends, family, and food. One day of the year when everyone was focused on being together and remembering how blessed we all are. She's been gone now for two years but this year, as we did last year, we'll toast her and remember how much she enjoyed Thanksgiving.

We all know that while turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, the side dishes and desserts reign supreme. Cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing with sausages and dried apricots, mushroom and giblets gravy, salads, pickles, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, string beans, squash...and the desserts: pies, custards, cakes, fresh fruit, cheese... Thanksgiving celebrates an iconic moment of generosity from strangers at a moment of crisis. Given the difficulties the world is facing for the coming year, we can use Thanksgiving to share with one another our hopes for the future.

Everyone has their favorite side dishes for the holiday. They need to be flavorful and easy to make. Here are mine: Roasted Whole Tomatoes, Arugula Salad with Hazelnuts, Carrots, and Avocadoes, Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad, Blackened Peppers with Capers, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, and, my new favorite, Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms

I prefer sweet potatoes that have a bright orange flesh. Find ones that are slender, appropriate as a single serving. For a dinner party, pick ones that are about the same size.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours


4 sweet potatoes, washed, skins on
2 teaspoons sweet butter
1 cup shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
1 cup brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves only, washed, finely chopped
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each sweet potato in tin foil, place in the oven, turn every 30 minutes. Depending on your oven and the size of the sweet potatoes, they can take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours. When the sweet potatoes are soft to the touch, they are done.

While the sweet potatoes are in the oven, drizzle olive oil in a frying pan, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and sauté the shallots, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms until lightly browned.

Remove and discard the tin foil. Take a sharp paring knife and slice each sweet potato open the long way. Using your fingers, push the sweet potato in from the ends so the cut section opens like a flower. Add 1/2 teaspoon of butter and a light dusting of cayenne (optional). Top with the shallot-mushroom sauté and serve.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Oklahoma Road Trip: Chicken Soup and Apple Pie

On a trip through Oklahoma, I was reminded again how deliciously satisfying homemade food can be in restaurants off the beaten path.

We had traveled north from Tulsa, stopping in Pawhuska to visit Ryan Red Corn whose t-shirt company Demockratees is an internet sensation.

Ryan's politically savvy t-shirt designs speak to his reaction to the Bush administration's policies. With Barack Obama's election, Ryan has the opportunity to use his considerable talent to create more inspirational designs.

For breakfast Ryan and his dad, Raymond, took us to a local institution, Sally's Cafe. With a long counter out front and an over-sized table behind the kitchen, Sally's is an authentic diner from the 1930's.

Sitting at a table in the back where Sally was making pies, we had a country breakfast that was as good as it gets; farm fresh eggs, potatoes browned in butter, and home cured ham that was a perfect balance of sweet and salty. For dessert we had a piece of Sally's fresh apple pie, the crust perfectly flaky, the apples soft and tart with just a hint of cinnamon.

Heading south-west, we drove to Pawnee on our way back to Tulsa, passing through countryside that varied from open pasture land to starkly beautiful, wooded hill country. After the long drive we were definitely ready for a big lunch.

Just off Highway 64 in Pawnee, we stopped at Click's Steakhouse. Soup and salad were included in the lunch specials. Everything we ordered (steak, baked potatoes, fried okra, and a hamburger steak) was good, but the homemade soup revived us after so many hours on the road. I couldn't get Click's recipe so I'm offering up my own that adheres to Click's reliance on fresh ingredients.

Chicken Soup With Mushrooms & Rice

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes


6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1/2 cup cooked rice (wild, Japanese, or Chinese)
1/2 cup brown mushrooms (washed, thinly sliced)
1/2 cup cooked chicken breast (shredded into bite sized pieces)
1/4 cup celery (washed, finely diced)
1/4 cup yellow onion (washed, peeled, finely diced)
1 tablespoon Italian parsley (washed, leaves only, finely chopped)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Heat the olive oil and lightly brown the mushrooms, celery, onions, and parsley. Add the chicken breast and stock. Simmer for 15 minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Before serving, add the rice and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve with bread, rolls, or croutons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lo-Cal Breaded Fish Fillets

Growing up, "breaded" meant deep fried and slathered with batter. I didn't really like the thick coating but I loved the crunch. Years later I stumbled on a technique that sautes instead of deep fries and avoids batter, adding crispness without the heft (the technique works for fish and chicken breasts as well).

Breaded Fish Fillets

At the Palisades Farmers' Market we have fresh fish every Sunday. The sole works well for this technique but any white fish fillet would be delicious. By cutting the fillets into 2"-3" pieces, the fish is easier to handle.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes


1 pound fresh fillet (preferably a white fish)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Wash, pat dry, and cut into pieces 2"-3" in length. On a large plate drizzle the olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. On a second large plate sprinkle the bread crumbs. To coat each piece of fish on all sides, dredge the fillets first through the seasoned oil, then through the bread crumbs and set aside until you've breaded all the pieces.

Spatula the remaining seasoned olive oil into a large frying pan and heat over a medium flame. Add all the pieces and cook until each side is lightly browned, about 5 minutes on each side.

Serve with a salad or a side dish of sauteed vegetables (garlic spinach, broccoli and carrots, or tomatoes, parsley and onions) and a topping of capers in a butter sauce.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When Fun Was 90 Proof

A dear friend, Valerie Peterson, has published her second book and just in time for the holidays. Her first book extolled the virtues of cookies and gave detailed directions on the care and baking of the most imaginative cookies I've ever seen.

Now she has turned her sights on holiday drinks. She has written a funny, nostalgic handbook of holiday drinks called Peterson's Holiday Helper. Each drink has specific instructions with photographs that recall a more settled time.

I recommend her book to anyone who wants to discover a new favorite drink or as a stocking-stuffer gift for the holidays. Peterson's Holiday Helper is a keeper.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Frugal Cook Uses Sauteed Beet Greens to Advantage

Buying beets at a farmers' market has the added advantage that not only are the beets fresh but so are the greens. I'm always amazed when I hear people ask to have the tops taken off and discarded. Beets are delicious and so are the greens. Sauteed with garlic and onions, they can be eaten as a side dish, added to pasta, put into soup, or used on sandwiches.

Sauteed Beet Greens

Yield: 1 cup
Time: 60 minutes

When you buy beets, look for a bunch with the freshest looking leaves. At home, cut off the damaged or discolored ones and discard.


1 bunch beet greens
1 medium yellow onion (washed, peeled, and thinly sliced)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Carefully wash the greens in water to remove all the grit. Cut off the stems and finely chop. In a large frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned. Add the stems and toss together with the onions. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook over a medium-low flame, stirring frequently to avoid burning for about 10 minutes.

Roughly chop the beet greens and add to the frying pan. Drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil over the greens and toss well with the cooked stems and onions. Because the greens need to cook slowly to bring out their sweetness, this is a preparation best done when you have other reasons to be in the kitchen. Cook for another 30-45 minutes until the greens have wilted and caramelized. Stir frequently. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.


Brown 1 piece of finely chopped bacon with the onions and garlic or 1 Italian sausage finely chopped.

With the onions and garlic sauté 1/2 cup thinly sliced brown mushrooms.


Toss together with pasta and other sauteed vegetables seasoned with olive oil and grated cheese, or with sauteed Italian sausage rounds.

Add to chicken soup.

As a topping on an open faced sandwich with avocado or fresh tomatoes or cheese or crisp bacon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Very Versatile Roasted Tomato

Always on the hunt for an easy to make ingredient, I discovered roasted tomatoes a few years ago. With several left over after a dinner party, I decided a little experimentation was in order. I discovered that roasted tomatoes served up countless uses and, because they freeze well, they can be pulled out at the last minute and added to soups, stews, and sauces.

Incredibly versatile, roasted tomatoes work as a side dish as well as the basis for sauces. Cold, they can be tossed with cucumbers and onions for a salad. Peeled and chopped, they add body and flavor to stews, soups, and pastas.

Ripe and over ripe tomatoes work best. If you shop at farmers' markets, keep an eye out for discounted tomatoes. This week at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, tomatoes were selling for $2.50 - $3.50/pound, but the over ripe ones were priced at 60 cents/pound.

When they're roasting, tomatoes give off a clear liquid. The flavor is pure essence of tomato. The liquid can be used separately to flavor a simple pasta or as a final basting on a grilled meat. The wonderful chef, cookbook writer, and founder of Fra'Mani, Paul Bertolli was famous for hanging tomatoes in cheese cloth and capturing the clear tomato water that he called "the blood of the fruit."

Roasted Tomatoes

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 90 minutes


3 pounds ripe tomatoes (washed, stems removed)

Olive oil

Sea salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the whole tomatoes on a Silpat sheet or a piece of aluminum foil on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Roast for 90 minutes. When the tomatoes are removed from the pan, be certain to spatula off all the seasoned olive oil and tomato water. That liquid is full of flavor. Spoon it over the tomatoes.

The tomatoes can be served as a side dish with other vegetables, pasta, and grilled meats.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Yield: 1 quart

Time: 5 minutes


3 pounds roasted tomatoes


Put the roasted tomatoes through a food mill. Discard the skins and seeds.

Roasted Tomato Pasta Sauce

Yield: 2 cups sauce

Time: 30 minutes


1 quart roasted tomato sauce

1/4 pound brown mushrooms (washed, dried, sliced thin)

1 medium yellow onion (washed, peeled, finely chopped)

5 cloves garlic (peeled, finely chopped)

1 cup Italian parsley leaves (washed, finely chopped)

1 tablespoon oregano (optional)

1 tablespoon tamari (optional)

Sea salt and pepper


Sauté the onions and garlic until lightly browned, add the parsley and mushrooms and continuing cooking until lightly browned. Add the tomato sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer until the volume is reduced by half. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt, pepper, oregano, or tamari.

The sauce can be kept in the refrigerator up to a week or frozen for a month or more.