On writing

It’s been a good solid four months since my last blog post. My reason? I’ve been “too busy” (aka not making time for it). I haven’t taken many photos while cooking (or just not enough to make it worthy of a blog post). But really the main reason is that after it’s been a certain amount of time since a post, I suddenly feel the pressure to come back with some wham, bam, fireworks of a blog post. Like heyyyy I’m back! I’ve been gone because all this time I’ve been working on this – ta da! Unfortunately, I don’t have any such grand reveal. Since December I have been doing pretty much the same thing – cooking food, eating it, doing the dishes, and doing it all again the next day. I just haven’t documented anything here in a while. Forgive me.

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Chocolate Macarons I made for a co-worker’s birthday

Since first grade, I’ve had dreams off and on of being a great Writer (capital w). I used to write stories in my elementary school journals and I participated in the writing competition, Power of the Pen (and won!), when I reached Middle School. I’ve wanted to publish a cookbook (still do) or write the next great novel. I actually did NaNoWriMo last November and though I didn’t reach the 50,000 word goal, I made it to 30,000, which felt like a pretty big deal. Like most projects I do, I started off strong, motivated, and excited. Then my motivation and creativity quickly fizzled out and I left my project unfinished, just like the quilt I started in eighth grade. That unfinished quilt now sits on top of a filing cabinet in an unused room, untouched since last November when I simply unfolded it and dusted it off enough to feel like I was doing something with it. (Sigh.) I guess I’m bad at finishing what I started.

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Don’t knock it ’til you try it – savory oatmeal. Oatmeal topped with sauteed mushrooms, spinach, scallions and a runny fried egg.

Yesterday, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts/radio shows – Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me! – I was reminded that being a Writer (capital w) isn’t something that just magically happens overnight and it isn’t a title someone just hands to you with a new writing job. Like anything else it takes work, but it’s totally do-able work. On the show they featured romance novelist Nora Roberts* as their guest. The host, Peter Sagal, asked her about writer’s block. Her response:

“I don’t let myself believe in it. […] Writing is a habit as much as an art or a craft. If you write crap, you’re still writing. You can fix that, but if you walk away, you’ve broken the habit.”

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Lilikoi (passion fruit) pancakes as eaten on our recent Hawaiian vacation

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Lilikoi cheesecake (no bake) – my favorite dessert while in Hawaii! Currently working on my own recipe version!

Her response was a good reminder of what it takes to be a good writer. Writing! It’s one of those so totally obvious things that I still have to be reminded of. So thanks to Nora Roberts, here I am after a long break, returning to write and say hello. I also owe a shout-out to my fabulous sister, Chelsea, who has a wonderful and funny blog on gardening and permaculture. Reading her writing reminded me that it’s something I like to do too.

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Macadamia and dark chocolate chunk cookies

So here’s hoping I’ll do some more writing coming up, no matter how good or bad it might be. Thanks for tuning in!

If you want to see more regular posts mostly on food, follow me on Instagram @erinthecooker

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Fish tacos with avocado, crema, and coleslaw

*This episode is from February so not a super recent episode, but I haven’t listened in a while.

 

Winter slow-roasted tomatoes

Merry almost Christmas! Why am I posting about tomatoes? It is the first day of winter and tomatoes are at their peak in the thick heat of the summer, not in this cold, cold winter. The reason is a few weeks back my mother-in-law gave me a quart of cherry tomatoes. My father-in-law had bought them at the supermarket because she likes to munch on them year-round, but apparently he had bought the wrong kind so she passed them along to us in case we would eat them.

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Ready for the oven

I consider it a gift (or a curse) of mine to not waste food. I either try to repurpose it or eat it as is. Sometimes I forgive myself if I realize I’m taking it a little too far and I will throw something away, but most of the time I try to think of creative ways to use it. Though I like tomatoes, I don’t get excited about eating them by the handful, particularly in the off season when they tend to be lackluster. When I worked at a country club in Ohio we would roast the little beauties in a low oven with dried herbs and oil until they puckered into sweet, intensified tomato gems. To be honest, I can’t remember how we served them after that: on salads perhaps, or as part of an appetizer. However you decide to use them, they will make a most excellent winter condiment to spice up your lunch sandwich, mix into your pasta, or to toss into your green salad. There is really no recipe, just guidelines, so take them with a grain of salt.

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Blistered and beautiful

Roasted Tomatoes

inspired by Smitten Kitchen

1 quart of cherry or grape tomatoes

1 head of fresh garlic

salt, pepper, and other herbs

olive oil or canola oil

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees F. Rinse tomatoes and slice in half from stem to bottom. Toss to coat in oil, a tablespoon or two maybe. Sprinkle with coarse salt, pepper, and other herbs desired such as thyme, rosemary, or basil. Break up the garlic into cloves (unpeeled) and toss with tomatoes. Spread on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and roast until puckered and sweet. This should take 1-2 hours. Let cool or use right away. You can keep the garlic cloves whole and peel them before use or peel and chop finely or mash into tomatoes. If you don’t use right away, feel free to store in the fridge with a little bit of oil. Note that if you use olive oil it will solidify around the tomatoes in large yellowy chunks, but it will liquefy again when heated.

Possible uses: Mix into pasta, soups, salads, or sandwiches.

Family Recipe Rum Balls

Every year it’s the same. November begins and I think that maybe it’s time to start my Christmas shopping, but I don’t. Suddenly I am celebrating Thanksgiving, then December arrives with its daylight quickly dimming and the days ticking away like seconds on a stopwatch. Now here we are: one week until Christmas and I’ve barely started my Christmas shopping. Hello, my name is Erin and I am a procrastinator.

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Let’s forget the Christmas presents and stressful shopping that goes along with it. You know what I want for Christmas? I want to cozy up on a couch with my sisters and cousins and watch the old movies we used to make when we were too young to be embarrassed by ourselves. I want to bake gingerbread men and women with my mom and make funny scenes using them as the characters. I want to bite into homemade checkerboard cookies, eating each square separately, letting the buttery shards melt on my tongue. I want to sing Christmas songs around the piano, with my Dad playing the keys as we all belt out the songs. I want to wear fleece pants and slippers and curl up with a good book and a good cat (preferably one that doesn’t vomit regularly or wake me up in the middle of the night by pulling threads out of the nice curtains with her claws.) I want to watch White Christmas and have my sisters do a reprise performance of the “Sister, Sister” song from my wedding.

I am very lucky and grateful for the many wonderful people and comforts in my life. I would much rather have the simple gifts of time with people I love and time for the things that I love doing than any tangible presents that could be bought. If you haven’t bought me anything yet, don’t. Next year (maybe starting in October) I’m going to plan to do Christmas a little differently.

While I won’t be spending Christmas with my sisters and parents, I will still do many things on the aforementioned list. I will bake cookies, I will read books (good cat or not!), and I will leap around my living room while listening to Christmas songs. And since all of this list involves doing good for myself, I am also going to do good for others, including some volunteering and finding a way to help in Syria by donating to a reputable charity, as I am horrified by the news I see coming out of there.

I am also planning on taking some of my freshly baked cookies to the neighbors (checkerboards on the list!) I have our family’s favorite rum balls ready to add to the cookie platter. My mom always made these rum balls by the dozens for our family when I was growing up. I remember we ate them happily as kids, despite their strong rum-y taste (or perhaps because of it!). I am surely giving this recipe too late as the balls are best made ahead of time so that they can cure and really absorb the flavor of the rum, but perhaps you can make them now and save them for a New Year’s party. Mine have been ripening for about two weeks now, but I just haven’t gotten the chance to write about them yet!

Admittedly I have altered the recipe a little bit. I wavered between making the vanilla wafers from scratch and just buying them, but in the end, I decided that it was highly unnecessary to make them, and it would ruin the authenticity of the family recipe. I did, however, substitute honey for the corn syrup as I simply don’t use the stuff enough to really want to buy it. I figure that good family recipes are like a game of telephone, anyway. With each person you pass it along to the message changes just a little bit.

May your Christmas be full of comfort, joy, love, and all the things intangible and tangible that your heart desires. And may it also contain some rum balls!

 

Rum Balls

adapted from our family recipe collection

1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs

1 cup powdered sugar + more for rolling

1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

1 1/2 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon light corn syrup or honey

2 Tablespoons cocoa powder

1/4 cup rum (pick one you would like to drink)*

Start by crushing vanilla wafers in a plastic bag using a rolling pin or pulse in the food processor until they are crumbly but not too fine of crumbs. Measure out a cup of the crumbs. Combine all remaining ingredients with the wafer crumbs in a medium sized bowl and mix together. Add more honey or powdered sugar depending on the consistency. You want it to be a dough that will hold together when rolled into a ball, but not too dry as the wafer crumbs will soak up some of the rum as they sit. Scoop into even golf-ball sized (or smaller) balls and roll in more powdered sugar to coat. Let sit in a well sealed container for at least a few days and up to several weeks before serving.

 

*They wouldn’t be rum balls of course, but if you really don’t like rum, I imagine these would be splendid with any other alcohol you like. I would think a Grand Marnier, Bailey’s, or Kahlua would be especially good, or even a whiskey of your choice.

 

 

Catching up on life and cooking…

Seattle summer happened a few months ago and it was beautiful – green, sunny, not too hot. Little humidity! I guess I got so caught up in it that I forgot to post on my blog! We also spent the summer house-hunting and now we are home owners! I guess I can blame that search for taking up a lot of our time. As usual though, I have done plenty of cooking and eating since the last time. Here’s a quick taste of just some of the things I’ve been cooking. (If you follow me on Instagram, however, you can keep up with my cooking and life a little more regularly – @erinthecooker)

Summer Berry Buckle (NYT), Blueberry and Peach Crisp, Black Bean Salad, and homemade Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Jam filling for a former co-worker.

Here’s a photo of our beautiful living room in our new house! (Don’t mind the Zappos box that I forgot to remove when taking the photo.) Don’t you love the orange front door?!

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I also made a Snickers pie (no Snickers actually in it, but rather a pie trying to imitate a giant Snickers!) It was rich, but it was a hit! I improvised the recipe off a Pinterest one I had saved months ago. The cake below is a chocolate stout cake.

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Having a house also means we now have a backyard and our very our own grill! We got to work right away grilling zucchini, chicken, and sausage. The photo on the right was a delicious Vietnamese-style noodle salad with grilled chicken. In the end, the recipe tasted very similar to one of our favorite Boston food trucks, Bon Me! Thanks again NYT Cooking!

Now that fall is upon us I’m looking forward to making some apple pie, pumpkin bread, and other cozy treats. Hopefully the next time you hear from me will be sooner rather than later!

Happy cooking!

Strawberry Queen of Heart Tarts

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Hello summer! I am so happy to see you! Spring and summer in Seattle have been beautiful with emerald-green lawns, colorful flowers of every variety, and warm temperatures. This past weekend got a little too hot though for a typical Seattle summer day. Temperatures reached 81 on Saturday and 92 yesterday, making our 4th floor, no A/C apartment pretty dang hot.

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In spite of the heat, I decided to turn on the oven and to make homemade pie crust (well not in that order).

Here’s a little summer advice for you: Do not make homemade pie crust on what is predicted to be the hottest day ever! Also don’t turn your oven on if you don’t have to!

Why shouldn’t you make pie crust on a hot day? The key to a good, flaky pie crust is cold fat (butter or shortening) and keeping it cold until it goes into the oven where it melts and creates pockets of air and thus flaky goodness. A hot kitchen (and hot hands) make keeping ingredients cold pretty difficult. I found myself popping my tarts in and out of the freezer at different stages to keep the butter from melting too early.

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But why was I making homemade pie crust in the first place? One of my friends was having an Alice and Wonderland themed engagement party over the weekend and I had to make something edible to fit the theme. Seeing the weather forecast, I told her I’d probably just make a salad to avoid using the oven. Yet the gorgeous, red strawberries grown right here in Washington were begging to be made into tarts and it seemed only fitting (and fun!) to make heart-shaped Queen of Heart Tarts.

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And because making one kind of tart is never enough (oh no, I always have to make it more complicated!) I made a savory asparagus tart too because, hello asparagus this time of year! For this tart I used puff pastry, because I had seen other recipes using puff pastry and it sounded oh so much simpler. In the end I was appreciative of the simplicity of the puff pastry compared to the pie crust, but in my opinion the pie crust tasted infinitely better!

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We had a wonderful celebration and kept cool in a lovely shady spot of the park. My friend was thrilled with the treats I brought and we ended up with a lovely Alice and Wonderland themed spread including: down the rabbit hole wraps (smoked salmon, herbed cream cheese, and cucumber), magic mushrooms (marinated mushrooms), mint tea (of course!) and a few other fun treats. They even had deck of card necklaces with different sayings on them from the book including “We’re all mad here!” I guess being crazy enough to bake on a hot day makes me fit right in!

Queen of Heart Tarts

2 pie crusts (homemade or store-bought)

2 cups diced strawberries

2-4 T. sugar (depending on how sweet your strawberries are)

2 T. cornstarch

lemon zest

1 egg, beaten

Roll out your pie crust into an even thickness of about 1/8 inch. Using a cookie cutter (or a stencil and a sharp knife) cut out heart shapes in your dough, as close together as possible. Re-rolling the scraps will overwork the dough and also make it start to soften and melt. (You can always bake the scraps with cinnamon and sugar and eat them as a treat!) Lay your cut-out hearts on a parchment lined sheet pan and put in the fridge while you cut up your strawberries.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Mix your diced strawberries, sugar, lemon zest, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Have your beaten egg ready as an egg wash for your tarts.

Remove the hearts from the fridge and top half of them with a small bit of strawberry mixture right in the center (do not overfill!). With the remaining hearts, gently place them on top of the strawberry filling and press around the edges to seal. Use floured fingers to keep your hands from sticking. Cut small slashes in the top of each heart and brush lightly with the egg wash.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Let cool and enjoy!

Note: I made my strawberry filling before I had my hearts cut out and the filling got progressively juicy and soupy as it sat. I think if you wait til you’re ready to use it, you won’t end up with an overly juicy filling, which will just bleed out of your pies when you try and fill them and when you bake them if they aren’t sealed well.

Lilacs, Spring Salads, and Grilling!

This past Saturday we celebrated spring’s sunny and warm weather with a 15-mile bike ride to explore some neighborhoods around Seattle (our first bike ride since moving here nearly 8 months ago!) I gripped my handlebars until my hands ached as we tore down sloping hills and I lost my breath crawling up the steep climbs that made for breath-taking views when you turned around. The Seattle winter may be pretty depressing with all of the rain and darkness, but the spring certainly makes up for it.

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After dragging our aching bodies through the rest of the afternoon, we had our friends, Zack and Kelly, over for a casual Saturday night dinner. They brought us lilacs picked fresh from their backyard and a jug of fermented apple juice cider that they’d been brewing in their house.The smell of the lilacs reminded me of the lilac bush we had in our backyard growing up and the posed pictures my sisters and I would take, each of us leaning in to smell the lilacs while smiling blissfully.

With the coming of summer and the spring hues beckoning us to spend more time outdoors, I find the need for easy, delicious, and no cook (or minimal cooking) meals: salads that can wait for us in the fridge when we’re ready to come inside from a long day in the sun and food that doesn’t weigh us down more than the heat already may. I’m trying to amass a salad recipe collection that I can turn to in times of spring and summer need, but I still have a long way to go. Some of my favorites:

Summer Pasta Salad with Roasted Veggies (what we had with Zack and Kelly) – this recipe works great with summer vegetables, though ideally you would grill the veggies to save turning on the oven.

Chickpea and Couscous Salad (I make it with regular couscous or make it with quinoa!) – extra cumin, extra chickpeas!

Marrakesh Carrot Salad (my new favorite) – texture and flavor heaven; the perfect combination of sweet (from the dates), salty (feta), crunchy (pistachios), and soft.

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With warmer weather also comes the season for grilling! I have never been a grill master, but that is partly due to my lack of practice, having rarely used a grill. Since living in apartments we have not had our own outdoor space, which makes it tough to own a grill. Thanks to the shared rooftop deck at our current place (and shared grills), I have taken advantage of the warm weather and have grilled twice with great success!

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I started out by pounding my chicken breasts, both to tenderize and to ensure they were all an even thickness. If you have a thick center and thinner outsides, you’re going to burn or dry the outer parts before the inside is cooked. Afterward I marinated them for about an hour in a simple lemon, rosemary, and olive oil marinade. Marinading adds both flavor and tenderness to chicken breasts.

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After a short time in the marinade, I gathered my tools and fired up the grill. The results – juicy, flavorful, and something to be proud of.

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Lemon-Rosemary Grilled Chicken

juice and zest of one lemon

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/2 cup olive oil

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

2.5 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Mix the ingredients for your marinade and set aside. Meanwhile using a meat mallet and a non-slip cutting board, pound each chicken breast under a sheet of plastic wrap until an even thickness. Be careful not to pound it so much that it rips apart.

Place chicken in a 9×13 glass dish and pour the marinade over tipping the pan or using a spoon to make sure it spreads over every piece. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.

Remove the chicken from the fridge and begin heating your grill to medium (about 350 degrees). Once the grill is beginning to heat up, oil your grill with a brush or a paper towel dipped in oil (use tongs to apply the paper towel). Carefully lay each piece of chicken on the grill and close the lid. Cook for five minutes. Flip the chicken and cook another 3-5 minutes, until at least 165 degrees in the middle. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes before slicing to allow the juices to redistribute in the meat.

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Slice and serve hot or cold atop your favorite bed of greens or another side salad. Happy grilling!

Stove Top Personal Pizza

Surprisingly I didn’t miss the snow this winter. Maybe a little bit, a tiny little itty bit, but mostly not. Winter in Seattle is mild, dark, cold, and rainy for sure, but no half melted slush, cold feet traipsing through half-shoveled sidewalks, sleeting ice in your face, and below freezing temperatures that require wearing leggings under your jeans and trying to decide if you should change out of them when you get too hot at work. Thank you, Seattle. Thank you for your mild winter that is slowly morphing into a beautiful spring!

Spring is gorgeous out in the Pacific Northwest! There are colorful flowers of every kind everywhere and though there aren’t many plants and parks in the city, there are plenty of places within reach to see nature’s beauty at it’s best: Golden Gardens, Magnuson Park, and Discovery Park to name a few. Even just running around Green Lake in my own backyard is a beautiful sight that I am grateful for every day. (It’s usually not that blue, but I’ll take it!)

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It still isn’t hot here yet, which I’m happy about, but the hot weather will be here before we know it, and with that the need to find meals that don’t require the oven (or at least not for very long). Last weekend, after returning from a run and feeling rather warm, I wanted to make a pizza without heating up the apartment. I had pizza dough and toppings ready to go and wanted to make something quick. Enter stove-top personal pizza! It goes in the broiler just a few short minutes at the end to brown the cheese (which I suppose you could totally skip) and then you quickly turn off the oven before the heat takes over. Perfect for a quick weeknight meal or a quick weekend lunch!

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Bon appetit!

Stove Top Personal Pizza

tennis ball size blob of easy homemade pizza dough* (see recipe below)

pizza sauce

cheese

toppings of your choice

Heat a large cast iron skillet or broiler proof pan over medium heat. Swirl a glug of olive oil in and let your pan heat up. Meanwhile roll out your dough on a floured surface until it is about a 1/4 inch thick. Make sure it is not too big for your pan! When the pan is hot, make sure the oil has coated the pan and carefully lay your rolled out dough circle in.

Now is the time to turn your preheat broiler to high. Allow your dough to cook in the pan for a minute or so, watching for bubbles to start forming on the surface. Using a wide spatula or tongs carefully flip your pizza and gently press down to brown the other side. You can also lift it up to check for doneness before flipping and give it a little longer if needed.

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Check out those bubbles!

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Top with sauce, cheese and other toppings and allow to cook on the heat another minute. Turn off your burner and carefully transfer the topped pizza to the oven to broil, keeping an eye out so the cheese doesn’t burn. Broil for 5-8 minutes, depending on your broiler and how well done you want your pizza. Remove, let cool, and serve it up! Be careful as it will be hot and fresh from the oven!

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If you totally want to skip the broiler you probably could, but don’t expect browning. You would want to just leave it on the heat long enough to melt the cheese and heat your toppings. You could also cover it with a lid to encourage melting, but you might end up with a steamed, soggy crust. Broiler is best and when I did it, it had hardly heated up so it didn’t make the apartment hot.

Happy spring! Happy eating 🙂

And if you want to make your own dough, here’s a recipe. Make ahead of time and store in the fridge for when you’re ready!

 

* Easy Homemade Pizza Dough – no kneading!

(makes enough for probably 6 personal pizzas) from Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day

1.5 cups lukewarm water

2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (1 packet)

2 1/4 tsp Kosher salt

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

2 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix the yeast and salt with water in a large bowl that has a lid. Add whole wheat flour and all-purpose and mix with a wooden spoon, using your hands to incorporate the last bit of flour if necessary (alternatively you can do the whole thing with a food processor or stand mixer). Cover the bowl with the lid, leaving it not completely sealed and let rise at room temperature for 2 hours or until doubled in size. Refrigerate until ready to use (dough is easiest to use when cold). Dough can be used for up to a week after making it if kept refrigerated.