A Sweet and Salty Affair

Brown-Butter Butterscotch Pretzel Cookies

The first thing I should do is warn you that the batter for these cookies needs to sit for at least 8 hours. So don’t think that you can whip these up after work and still be able to go to sleep on time (though these are certainly worth missing your bedtime for!).

I was trying to make these cookies to celebrate my very good friend Ariel’s return to work (I managed to suffer through her three months of maternity leave). But alas, I was a day late. I think she forgave me though, as these cookies are liable to make even your worst enemies smile as though they like you.

They are a crowd pleaser really, working overtime to give you everything you might want from a cookie — chocolate chips for the sweet, pretzels for the salt, brown butter for a hint of nut and butterscotch for the unexpected. And while even making the batter will take a while (after browning, the butter needs to cool for about 20 minutes), it certainly isn’t difficult.

And, trust me, all the anticipation pays off. They were so good I don’t think they lasted more than 15 minutes in my office!

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Meet my new favorite thing ever — green chickpeas!

So, up until last month, I honestly had no idea that “green chickpeas” existed. I mean, I’d heard my husband talk about buying fresh garbanzo beans before, but things never really clicked in my mind. And so I was unaware of not only their existence, but also how awesome they are. This obliviousness continued until my trip to Seattle a few weeks ago. The first meal I had there was part of an Iberico pork luncheon at Lark restaurant where Chef Johnathan Sundstrom prepared an amazing dish using green chickpeas.

Iberico pork lomo (loin) with green chickpeas and olive oil

My co-worker Ariel, who has never been a fan of canned chickpeas, was very intrigued. And honestly, so was I. I have always liked “regular” chickpeas — but these were somehow entirely different while being very similar. The taste was a bit milder and the texture a bit softer. Their shape was the same, though the green ones had a bit more variance to their size, much like fresh peas.

After that meal, it seemed as though green chickpeas followed us everywhere. We ran across them at Madison Park Conservatory (in a fabulous chicken dish) and again at Altura, served with their rabbit entrée. Every time we saw them, Ariel and I exchanged glances and vowed to find out if they could be sourced anywhere in Portland.

And, happily, they are. Upon being enthusiastically quizzed about green chickpeas, my husband said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I’ve been using them for years. That’s what they look like when they’re fresh.” Apparently I had even been with him numerous times when he had bought them.

Oh.

Well, that clears some things up, I guess! My next project was now to buy some and experiment with cooking them. And, as luck would have it, the following weekend I found some at Winco, the last place I would have expected.

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Adventures in Dim Sum: Project Bean Curd Rolls

I love dim sum. I know I’ve mentioned that before in my posts about making Chinese dumplings and scallion pancakes. I love dim sum to the point where I bring my own Tupperware for my leftovers because I am serious about leaving no dumpling behind. I also tend to order as if I am eating with a very hungry army instead of with just one or two friends. I have also been known to hide the leftovers so my husband can’t find them. Please don’t judge me for that.

One of my all-time favorite must-eat items at dim sum are the bean curd or tofu skin rolls (also known as fu tse juan). The first time I tried them, I had no idea what they were made of, which is always a little nerve-wracking. There are so many things that can either be amazing or unfortunate at dim sum, and you really have to choose wisely. My experience eating congee with fermented eggs is not one I’d like to repeat.

But my friend Ariel, who is experienced at dim sum dining, gave me her word that I would like them. And I did…a lot. So much so that we immediately ordered another serving lest things come to blows over who got the third roll. (Why does food always have to come in threes when you’re part of a pair?)

First off, I should tell you a bit about these things in case you’re as confused as I admittedly was by the layman’s term “bean curd roll.” I originally thought these had bean curd in them and was so perplexed at why they tasted like mushrooms and pork instead of tofu. Luckily Ariel was there to explain that the wrapper is actually made of pressed tofu. It’s much easier to enjoy something when you know what it’s made of!

Now that I am also a dim sum regular, it’s hard to imagine that these glorious things could have caused me even one moment of anxiety.

Ok, sure maybe they don’t look as appealing as perfectly crimped dumplings or as pert as little steamed shu mei, but trust me. These things are made of magic. My first line of evidence in this fact is that they are stuffed primarily with mushrooms — an ingredient I usually despise. And yet, I can down an almost embarrassing number of them.

Anyways, the concept of these rolls intrigued me and I think I spent oh, about a year, gawking at recipes online, dreaming about making my own. In all my searching, this recipe is the best one I found (and I love the blog in general), so it was the one I used when I finally got around to making them.

Bean curd skins

Which was last weekend — hooray!

I invited my partner-in-crime DB to come over for a little dim sum extravaganza. First we went shopping for the tofu skins and after scouring H-Mart, we finally found them in the freezer aisle. Be warned — these suckers are huge. I mean, really, look at these things!

That mission accomplished, we moved on to the rest of the ingredients. One of the best things about this dish is that it’s pretty simplistic. Pork, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, bean curd. The writer of the recipe didn’t clarify what type of pork to use, so I figured one pound of pork tenderloin would be a good choice. Next we grabbed an 8 oz can of bamboo shoots and some mushrooms. We decided to go light on the mushroom flavor so we just used shiitakes and none of the dried Chinese mushrooms. In hindsight, I think I’d maybe lessen the bamboo shoots a smidgen and add more mushrooms. I can’t even believe I wrote that — as a life-long dedicated mushroom hater, my parents would die if they heard me say that out loud!

Pork tenderloin, sliced bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms

Anyways, slice the mushrooms, bamboo and the pork into strips. Mix some cornstarch, soy and wine in a small bowl with the meat and give it a good toss. Then sauté everything up together until the mushrooms are tender and the pork is just cooked through.

We also added generous squirts of my favorite chili oil, salt and pepper. Next time I might go against tradition and add in some garlic, ginger and maybe some chopped green onions just because. The flavors were good, but it was just a touch bland, though the chili oil helped perk things up tremendously.

Then it’s bean curd time. Cut the skins into strips — they will be a little brittle, so be gentle. Since mine were circular, we trimmed them into rectangles, as instructed in the recipe (though I really don’t know if that’s necessary in the long run). At any rate, each circle made four rolls. You want them fairly long because it’s as much about the wrapper as it is about the filling. Soak them for a second or two in hot water until they are pliable.

Now it’s on to wrapping! (More pictures of this process in the gallery below)

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Learning to love frittatas…

Frittatas are one of those foods I’ve always felt I should like. I love eggs, I love breakfast foods at any time of the day and I love dishes that allow you to utilize whatever produce you have on hand. And frittatas are all of those things. They are made with eggs. They can be eaten for breakfast, brunch or even, as magazine writers love to recommend, as “a light supper.” And they can be made with just about anything you happen to have hiding in your fridge.

So what’s my problem? It seems like frittatas and I should love each other and yet, I keep my distance. My main issue is that they always seem dry. I like my eggs runny — there is nothing sadder to me than overcooked eggs. My friend Ariel has actually made me the one and only frittata that I’ve enjoyed — it was moist and delicious. All of the others I’ve eaten tasted like disappointment. So I learned my lesson. Whenever I see a frittata recipe, my eyes skip right over it. I avoid them on breakfast menus. And I certainly have never bothered to try to make one.

Until last weekend when I made this beauty…

I was actually hoping to make something entirely different, but I didn’t have all of the ingredients. Then a recipe from Bon Appetit poked out of my binder and caught my eye. I had ripped out the page for a different reason (these ricotta tortelloni) but when I started reading the Onion Frittata recipe, I decided just to go for it. I had all of the ingredients (for the most part) and it seemed easy as well as healthy. And, as an extra bonus, I only needed one pan to make it.

First up, I cooked a cup of sliced onions until they were golden brown and tender. (Next time I might dice them to lessen their stringiness.) Once they were finished, I added in some fresh spinach for some extra oomph. Then I dumped in the whisked eggs which were mixed with grated Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and herbs.

I was short on some of the herbs, but I did — for once! — have basil so I threw that in along with some red chili flakes to give it some pep. Eggs love pep.

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The profound ups and downs of pork chops and pineapple

Making this meal put my emotions on a roller coaster ride. Thankfully it was the type of ride that as soon as you’re finished, you run to get right back in line.

It started with the build up of anticipation. The second I saw this recipe for Pork Chops with Pineapple Fried Rice on The Pioneer Woman’s blog, I immediately posted it to my friend Oliver’s Facebook page with the question, “Should we make this?!” I got back an almost instant reply of “Yes. Like now.” Even though it would be pure torture to wait a whole week, we planned to make it for our next Gossip Girl extravaganza.

I was so excited by the pictures Ree posted, that the next day I couldn’t help but show all the girls in my office so they could drool with me. My friend Ariel, whose desk is right by mine, was immediately hooked. I promised I would tell her the following week if it lived up to the hype, but she told me, in no uncertain terms, that it looked so good, she was going to beat me to making it.

And she did. Two days later she was nonchalantly eating her leftovers for lunch while I hovered enviously near her desk waiting for her recipe feedback. In between bites of rice and pork, Ariel confirmed that the recipe was equally easy and delicious.

Oliver and I spent the next few days eagerly discussing how magical “pork chop night” was going to be. Then — finally!! —  the big day arrived.

If I'm cooking, you can bet that there will be beer involved. That is a promise.

We convened at my house, where I had the rice already cooked and cooled. Oliver arrived with pork chops (we decided to go for boneless chops just because) and a jar of pimentos. We got down to business.

I pounded the chops just a bit and Oliver started cutting the pineapple into chunks. We weren’t ambitious enough to grill it, so we just cranked up a heavy skillet and sautéed the fruit until it was tender with a nice golden color. While that was working, we seared up the pork chops in a separate pan, added the onions and let it cook down into awesome-ness. The smell was overwhelmingly good.

Then came the wet ingredients (honey, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar). The pork chops actually cooked pretty quickly so we removed them and let the sauce cook down with just the onions. Once it had thicken, we poured it on top of the pork chops in a bowl while we got rolling on the fried rice.

Look at how pretty this fried rice is!

Here’s where things took a sudden dive. We cooked the rice exactly as instructed and it certainly looked divine, but when we tasted it, the flavor was a bit flat. It just wasn’t quite snappy enough. We were panicking…well, I was panicking — Oliver wasn’t overly concerned. But after all the anticipation, I was not going to settle for sub-par fried rice. I threw in a bunch of chopped green onions, a squirt or two of sesame oil and reread the instructions. Sure, there was the sauce with the onions, but when we poured it in the bowl with the pork, it didn’t seem saucy enough to punch up the flavor in a full skillet of rice.

After a bit more soy sauce and some lime juice, I finally decided to stop tinkering. It would just have to do, I thought sadly. At least it looked pretty and colorful, and even if it wasn’t amazing, it would be good enough.

Then things took a final upward swing. When I pulled out the chops to slice them, the sauce seemed to have tripled. I felt a ray of hope as I threw half of the saucy onions into the rice and gave it a good stir. Then we plated up our rice, pork and finished it with caramelized pineapple, generously drizzling extra sauce over the top.

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Soirées & Snacks: My favorite thing about parties is the food…

There is nothing I love more than party food. Something about food on toothpicks or passed nibbles on tiny plates just calls out to me. Everything is more fun when it’s on pretty platters and available for grazing. I love having a glass of wine in one hand and a plate brimming with appetizers in the other.

Posting all the food pictures from my birthday party a few weeks ago inspired me to go back through last year’s birthday photos. My first thought upon seeing them was hmm, I need to plan another party very soon.

This is a very dangerous thought — one, that if given a chance, would devour all of my productive energy for months. So I decided to write a bit about party food in an effort to keep the demons at bay.

First up are some delicious hors d’oeuvres. Last year, I did a variation of pub trivia for my birthday party, which was held at my favorite local bar, The Lion’s Eye Tavern. After the quiz portion was done, we walked back to my place to soak up the beer with a whole lot of food.

Greek-salad skewers -- tomatoes, feta, cucmbers and olivesIn planning my menu, I was heavily influenced by these Greek salad skewers I had seen in an issue of Food & Wine and wanted to do a ton of them in a variety of flavors. I bought a salami (whole, not sliced), pitted olives, cucumbers, sharp white cheddar, goat cheese and baby mozzarella balls, pickled pipparras and piquillo peppers, cherry tomatoes and pickled asparagus. Most of the stuff I was able to get at an upscale grocery store’s olive bar. They had so many great things that I just got a little of everything. Then I got to work putting them in assorted patterns on little bamboo skewers.

* Helpful hint: I used some feta too but the brand I bought was apparently too soft and so I had a hard time keeping it on the sticks. Instead I sliced the olives open and stuffed them with the cheese and then slid the whole thing on the skewer. *

The nice thing is there are so many choices, nobody has to pick off the things they don’t like — good for picky eaters as well as the lone vegetarian. Plus they are so colorful, they basically double as party decorations!

Next I needed some fun snack mixes, a nod to the pub theme I had developed. My mind went first to an Asian-style brittle recipe I had seen on Martha’s website. I had been dying to make it since it’s full of tasty morsels  — wasabi peas, various nuts and sesame sticks. It’s a little spicy and a little salty, altogether ideal for a post-pub party. I also wanted some pretzels but not just out of the bag, something a little more festive was required. Luckily, Martha had a recipe for Sweet and Spicy Pretzel Mix using pretzel sticks, almonds, cayenne and sugar. These were a cinch to make and very addictive. I had to remind myself to stay away from them until the party started!

Then I went searching for something more exciting than regular Chex Mix and found this awesome Maple & Soy Chex Mix recipe. It sounded perfect (the recipe even has some curry in it which really intrigued me) and I could tailor the components so I didn’t overlap too many ingredients — I used mainly Chex cereal (rice and corn), sesame sticks and toasted corn since I had already used so many nuts in the other two mixes.

I made a ton of each one of these mixes, thinking I’d have plenty of leftovers to enjoy afterwards, but they were quickly demolished by hungry guests. Which is a good indicator that these recipes are worth making again!

Other party food favorites of mine are, of course, anything on puff pastry as well as a simple old-fashioned charcuterie board, like the one below. I think my husband put this together one lazy Sunday for us to snack on when we didn’t feel like cooking.

I like offer up a few patés (you can usually buy some nice ones at an upscale butcher shop), some salami or prosciutto, some cheese, coarse-grain mustard and cornichons. This plate also has an all-time favorite of mine — a beet terrine made with goat cheese. Some day I will show you how to make this. It is so very good and so pretty.

Finally, here are a few more party nibbles my friend Ariel and I put together when we catered a housewarming party for my parents. We needed it to be relatively simple since we only had one day to prep, but I think we did a nice spread. Ariel had a recipe for a frittata that could be sliced up and I had been dreaming about this recipe for adorable mini mac-and-cheese bites. I used some larger macaroni noodles that I had on hand — in hindsight I should have bought some smaller ones since they might have worked better in the mini-muffin pan, but these still got rave reviews.

Spinach Frittata and Mini Mac’n’Cheeses

A veggie crudite garden

Mammoth cheese ball

The veggies were inspired by this Martha Stewart spread, where the crudite are arranged to look like they are in a garden. We just did ours in a big bowl, but Ariel worked some magic with those veggies and made them beautiful. We had an herb-filled buttermilk dressing for dipping, though you can use any salad dressing you have handy.

We also spent a good portion of the evening before the party making a laughably enormous cheese ball. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but it was larger than a softball. We started with some goat cheese (like maybe a pound, which might explain why it was so huge) mixed with cream cheese and then threw in store-bought pesto plus extra pine nuts and basil. I think we had half of this sucker left over, but it was a great post-party snack. I even used some with cooked pasta as an easy creamy and very cheesy sauce.

So basic rules for party food: cheese should always be present, food that can be eaten with one hand is ideal and anything on a stick will make people happy.

Now go forth and party on!