Homemade Quince Paste: Making cheese plates happy

Homemade quince pasta

While I often tell my husband that the last thing we need is another cookbook, I’ll admit I didn’t put up too much resistance when he offered to buy me a copy of America’s Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook. I had flipped through it briefly at the Book Larder in Seattle and was immediately smitten.

It’s got recipes for just about everything you can imagine: bacon jam, corn chips, yogurt, beer, fresh chorizo and so much more. Really, it’s almost overwhelming.

But I knew at once what recipe I would try first, seeing as I had five quince staring at me from the kitchen counter. My husband had bought them at the season’s last farmer’s market and we had yet to do anything with them (I could practically sense them judging me). It was time for them to meet their maker become delicious quince paste.

Since I had a weekend plan to cook with my friend DB — we were making candied orange peels and Parisian gnocchi — I figured one more culinary project couldn’t hurt. And the good thing about the recipe, besides the fact that it’s pretty fool proof, is that it’s easy to do while doing other things.

Quince paste is also great for holiday gift giving so if you’re a total procrastinator or have a cheese lover in your life, consider giving them a wedge of this. It’s a great accompaniment to a cheese plate and also will last for up to 3 months in the fridge. Hard to beat that!

Start by cooking the fruit down until tender, puree, strain and cook a second time with sugar. Pour into a pan lined with parchment paper and allow to cool. To get the exact recipe, order a copy of the cookbook! To see a fairly similar one online, click here! The main difference is that ours doesn’t have any vanilla and we passed the puree through a fine chinois to get rid of any lumps before cooking it with the sugar.

Cooked quince -- cored but unpeeled

Cooked quince — cored but unpeeled

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Lentil Salad: Rescuing me from the meat sweats!

I have always loved lentils. I think they are fabulous. One of my favorite soups is a lentil vegetable soup that I had to make in culinary school. It was a pain to make because I had to do a huge batch and all of the veggies (shallots, fennel and carrots) had to be hand cut into brunoise, which means 1/8 inch squares. Which means I absolutely hated prepping for it. But once I tasted the finished product, I was smitten. It was a great recipe that was magical because its simplicity allowed for the lentils to shine.

Last week was a perfect time to turn to my old friend the lentil de puy, or French lentil. I was feeling the need for a diet detox after spending five days in Seattle on business eating copious amounts of Iberico pork, foie gras and bacon. I was starting to get what my co-workers and I affectionately call the “meat sweats” — too much protein, not enough roughage. For reference, if you want to see someone get serious meat sweats, watch Tony Bourdain eat at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. Skip to exactly five minutes in and you will see him die a little inside every time a new foie gras dish comes out of the kitchen. It’s tragic yet hilarious. And I can totally sympathize. We need vegetables with our meat, it’s a fact.

Anyway…since I didn’t feel up to making a soup, I unearthed a recipe for a lentil salad that I had been wanting to try out. It’s from America’s Test Kitchen’s Light & Healthy cookbook (one of my favorites) so I knew it would be good and hopefully it would satisfy my desire for some fiber.

I started with the basics — cooking the lentils. Lentil recipes always seem to start the same way — give your lentils a good rinse and pick through them. Now I always do this and while I understand the rinsing part, I am never too sure what I am supposed to be searching for when I “pick through them.” I always dig around but have yet to find anything exciting, like diamonds or gold pieces. In all seriousness, I’m guessing I’m looking for small rocks or “bad” lentils, but to be honest I’m not too sure. So I just sift through them for a few minutes until I feel I’ve fulfilled that step, then I move along.

Have any of you ever found anything mysterious hiding in your lentils? I’d be very curious to find out.

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The dinner that would have gotten me on The Price is Right!

So last week, while grocery shopping, I had a moment to revel in the fact that if I had been on a game show, I would have won big, like maybe a new car or a trip to France.

This is how it happened…

I had some stuff at home to make dinner out of — chicken breasts, brussels sprouts and a little bit of spinach — but it certainly wasn’t cohesive enough for an actual meal. In fact it was rather underwhelming. I had also forgotten to bring my debit card to work, which meant I was very limited in what I could buy in terms of produce on my way home (since I commute by bike errands need to be very streamlined). I did however manage to scrounge up four dollars in cash.

After a childhood spent watching The Price is Right and Supermarket Sweep, this shopping trip was a challenge I gleefully accepted. I started with a couple of cups of cake flour from the bulk section (it was the same night I made my Banana Caramel Upside Down Cake and quite honestly that was my priority). Then I grabbed a handful or two of tiny red potatoes. I actually picked out the smallest ones because they were just so damn cute. Then I carefully selected three carrots, a head of garlic and a few green beans. Mentally I calculated their prices, weighing everything a second time. Hesitantly I grabbed a red onion. Then on my way to check out, I haphazardly lunged for a bunch of parsley.

Nervously I approached the checkout stand and watched the tally climb as each item slid across the scanner. This was definitely a time where I was grateful that I live in a city with no sales tax! After the last item went into the bag, the cashier gave me the total:

Four dollars on the dot!

And this is when I envisioned Bob Barker giving me a big hug and congratulating me on winning both Showcase Showdowns. I’m embarrassed to admit I would have been one of those women that practically mauled him they were so excited. Man, I loved Bob Barker as a kid.

I proudly packed my goodies away and upon arriving home, immediately got the oven hot and set to work making dinner. I wasn’t too sure what I was going to make, so I started with the easy stuff first — roasting some vegetables.

I rubbed the head of garlic in olive oil, wrapped it in foil and put it in the oven. Then I did the same to the red onion (cut into slices), brussels sprouts (cut in half) and potatoes (left whole). A quick splash of oil, some salt and pepper, and in the oven they went.

I contemplated roasting the carrots as well but thought I’d do something a little different with them just for the hell of it. I wanted to preserve their vibrant colors so I went with a simple glazing technique from America’s Test Kitchen’s Light and Healthy cookbook. It’s simple, quick and, well, healthy.

But before we get that far, let’s take a moment to appreciate my pretty carrots.

So pretty!

Now the carrot recipe is one I use fairly often because it only requires one pan (I use a large skillet) and a handful of ingredients — carrots, sugar, olive oil, water and (if you’re me) butter. Start off with a cup of water, a splash of sugar and a dash of olive oil in the pan and bring to a boil. Add in the carrots (parsnips also work great) and cover. Let simmer until the carrots are just tender, about 7 minutes or so. Then remove the lid, turn the heat to high and let the liquid evaporate, stirring often. The carrots will brown and caramelize quickly so keep your eye on them. This is where I add a nubbin of butter just to help things out. Remember, there is a fine line between caramelized and burnt.

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A dinner so delicious I changed out of pajamas for it…

This post was almost titled “Clearly the world is against me: An ode to turkey lettuce wraps.” Besides being too long, it sounded a little too fatalistic.

Now you may ask, why would the world be against these deliciously beautiful  things?

While I don’t have the answer to that, the least I can do is fill you in on the story.

The first night I was planning to make these, I had gotten off work and was waiting for my husband to pick me up. However, he hadn’t checked his phone to see when I was ready so I waited for a half an hour before he rescued me. By that time I was borderline “hangry” and so he insisted we eat at the taco cart instead. He’s a smart man.

The following day I was determined to make this recipe, come hell or high water. I got home, changed into pajamas (I am a big fan of being as comfortable as humanly possible as often as possible) and started cooking the rice and the turkey. I was pulling out the ingredients for the sauce when I realized something was missing…fish sauce. We had a giant bottle of it somewhere in our fridge, I was sure. There was no way we had used it all — we bought the biggest jug of it we could find at Fubonn.

I searched high, I searched low, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Then visions of my husband danced in my head. I sent out a text and got a quick reply. “Uhhh…sorry, I took it to work.” Just as I suspected. Now strangers at the restaurant were enjoying delicious things made with my fish sauce. Things like General Tso’s sweetbreads.

I sighed. I put on real clothes and headed to the store. I was back in less than 15 minutes. I got on with my life…

Back to the wraps. They are easy, healthy (taken from America’s Test Kitchen’s 2010 Light & Healthy cookbook) and require very few ingredients, all of which create a perfect meal in my book… Let’s get started.

Chop one bunch of green onions and tear up about a half of a cup of cilantro leaves. The recipe calls for basil which I never seem to have handy, but cilantro I always seem to have floating around. I minced up a jalapeño and got out a couple of limes for zesting and juicing.

Then take a pound of ground turkey and squish it with the back of a spoon. The cookbook says this helps the meat get a nice consistency for wrapping in the lettuce. I don’t know about that, but it’s fun to squish meat, so I do it. I’m easily entertained.

Then, before you get too far along and realize you don’t have an important ingredient (ahem), make your sauce. Combine 1 tsp of cornstarch with 1.5 TBS brown sugar in a small bowl. Add 3 TBS of lime juice and 3 TBS of fish sauce, mix well.

Then in a hot skillet with a little oil, start browning the turkey, breaking it into small pieces as it cooks. I usually hit it up with some red chili flakes as well along with the jalapeño. If you want to use some Thai red chilies, feel free. You can adjust the heat according to how brave you are. I’m a bit of a sissy so I tread with caution.

Then throw in the lime zest (about 2 limes worth). I also throw in half of the green onions and basil/cilantro at this time. Because I’m a rebel.

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Chicken for procrastinators

I got off work early last Friday and it was a surprisingly warm day here in Portland. As soon as I got home, all I wanted was to sit outside in my backyard and enjoy the sun for as long as possible. After two hours of relaxing in my lounge chair, thumbing through magazines and drinking some wine, it hit me how hungry I was. I hadn’t even contemplated what I was going to make for dinner and by this time, my motivation level had dropped significantly.

A quick glance through my produce drawer brought to mind an old standby in our house — Pan-Seared Chicken Breasts with Cherry Tomatoes and Garlic. This is adapted from a recipe in The America’s Test Kitchen’s cookbook, and it’s even considered “light and healthy.” It’s also easy, versatile and — if I put my ass in gear — I could be eating it in less than thirty minutes.

Now the chicken and sauce alone would take much less than that, but I needed something more substantial. Luckily I keep a jar of farro on hand for times like these. I got a pot of water on the stove and quickly chopped up some veggies to roast (a mixture of brussels spouts, carrots, onion and cauliflower). While the farro cooked, I took a little time-out to have another glass of wine and spy on my neighbors. They are very strange and can put on a good show, so spying is a great time killer.

When everything was about ten minutes away from being done, I got to work on the chicken. The breasts are seasoned with salt and pepper and lightly dredged in flour. I minced two cloves of garlic, thinly sliced four green onions and halved a cup of cherry tomatoes. I kept another handful of tomatoes whole to add a little variation. A lemon and a hunk of parm rounded out my ingredient list.

Get your pan hot (I prefer non-stick) and drizzle in some olive oil. Throw the chicken breasts in. Now the recipe says to pound them but since the oven was already nice and hot from roasting the vegetables, I just figured I’d pop them in there to finish cooking. Once the breasts are just cooked through, take them out of the pan and put them on a plate.

In the same pan, throw in the minced garlic. Be careful because it will cook quickly and you don’t want to burn it. Just give it about thirty seconds or so, until it starts to sweat and smell delicious. Then in go the cherry tomatoes along with a small splash of water or chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper and let that cook for a couple of minutes, until the tomatoes just begin to break down. Then toss in scallions, a squeeze of lemon juice and you’re all set!

The recipe calls for blue cheese but I didn’t have any, so once everything was plated up, I hit the whole shebang with some grated Parmesan. Seriously, this dinner is unbelievably simple, but the flavors are so fresh that it never gets old to me. And paired with farro to help soak up some of the sauce, it’s really my idea of heaven.