Some weeks (or strings of weeks) are just so busy and stressful at work that I don’t have the energy to do much for dinner. The past couple of weeks have been like that. I attempted to make a few new things, but lacked the energy to photograph and document them.

On weeks like that, it seems the best thing to do is to pull out some good old standbys, or try some fairly simple recipes from magazines or cookbooks. One of the highlights of this week turned out to be what I feared would be the least exciting. I make a lot of dishes using butternut squash, so I didn’t anticipate this one to be that different or interesting, but it really was. I used the recipe for Black rice salad with butternut squash and pomegranate seeds in the January 2012 issue of Sunset magazine. I give all credit for the flavors to Sunset, but I did make a few changes. First, the butternut squash at the grocery store have been huge lately, so I think I used about 2-3 times more squash than the recipe called for. I tend to use more vegetables than recipes call for anyhow — that way I get to eat more, since it’s lower calorie, nutritious vegetation! I used three times the amount of hot smoked paprika (which probably follows since I used about that much more squash). Instead of cooking the rice in salted water, I used stock, to give it more flavor. Since the recipe called for a pretty small amount of pecans, instead of buying a whole bag (and hating to buy 3 tablespoons in ‘bulk’), I used a small amount of some great honey/sugar roasted almonds that I had on hand. My last change was to use only 1/2 of the olive oil called for in the dressing.

I was really pleased with how this turned out, and it was relatively simple to make. I roasted the squash the night before and refrigerated it, so aide from cooking the rice, there was very little to do the next night – just a small bit of chopping. And it was gorgeous looking. And, even more important, quite tasty. Definitely a keeper.

Butternut Squash with Black Rice, Almonds, and Pomegranate

Butternut Squash with Black Rice, Almonds, and Pomegranate

I’m going to go sit on the couch now.

Last week I decided I really wanted to make something with caramelized onions. So I thought a bit, searched online for some foods to go with it, and found a couple things that interested me — paring caramelized onions with butternut squash, and using caramelized onions in a tart. So I decided – hey, I’ve never used phyllo dough, that sounds fun! (Later I would reconsider my choice of adjective.) I also decided to add sun-dried tomatoes for tartness, and goat cheese for a savory element.

I always get excited and envision myself easily conjuring up wonderful, gorgeous, complicated meals with with ease. Well, this was another kind of humorous-looking result, but it did taste good. Since taste is always one of my top goals, I considered it a success, albeit one that I won’t be making for dinner guests without a few changes.

For all the lowfattedness (well, it’s a word now!) of phyllo dough, if you prepare it as advised by nearly all recipes, you’ll more than make up for that with the butter and oil you’ll be brushing on each layer. So future phyllo forays will likely include skipping the step of coating each layer with a half-teaspoon of fat.

Ingredients for Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onions, Sundried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese in Phyllo Dough

Ingredients for Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onions, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese in Phyllo Dough (yes, yes, its called fillo dough on the package, but I really prefer phyllo)

I roasted the butternut squash (and some garlic – more about that later). Then I threw it in the food processor, along with several cloves of roasted garlic and a bit of salt, and puréed it. (I got the idea for puréeing it from a lasagna recipe I have with butternut squash, which I adore). So the garlic. Yeah. Apparently throwing garlic cloves in a pan isn’t quite the same as wrapping a whole head of garlic with the skin still on in aluminum foil and roasting it. They get done really quickly when peeled and just sitting individually in the pan. So I ended up roasting two batches – the first time resulted in hard nuggets of brown garlic, and the second resulted in some mostly lovely roasted garlic.

Butternut Squash Ready to Roast

Butternut Squash Ready to Roast

Making caramelized onions is fun. That pretty much sums it up for me. You start with overly powerful, brash, white onions, and you cook and cook and cook, and you end up with these lovely, browned, sweet tasting onions. I used a bit of salt and pepper, a bit of sugar, and deglazed with both balsamic vinegar and water.

Caramelizing the Onions

Caramelizing the Onions

The sun-dried tomatoes I just threw in a mug of stock which I heated up, let them soak, then drained and chopped them up fairly finely.

Then came assembling the whole thing. I followed the advice on the phyllo dough box, thawing it overnight, only taking out the number of sheets I was going to use, covering it with plastic wrap topped with a damp towel. Hearkening back to my earlier cockiness in thinking I could easily whip up a low-fat pie crust, I cringed (and swore) as I picked up the first sheet, then the second sheet, then the third sheet, only to see them break in half and then crumble in front of me. But then I took a deep breath, pretended I was working with Fabergé eggs, and ended up with just an inch and a half crack in the bottom of most of the next eight sheets. I brushed some olive oil on each sheet as I piled them on, then layered the butternut squash, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and tomatoes on top of that.

Assembling the Phyllo Dough Roll

Assembling the Phyllo Dough Roll

Then, going for broke, I rolled the thing up. That actually didn’t go too badly, but I probably should have been closer to the pan for the transfer. I brushed the top with olive oil, then baked it at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or so. Cutting it into four pieces was pretty amusing (pictures at the bottom). But as I said – it tasted quite good!

Huge Phyllo Dough Burrito-Looking Thing

Huge Phyllo Dough Burrito-Looking Thing

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onions, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese in Phyllo Dough

1 butternut squash (about 1.5 lbs – the picture above is a 3 lb butternut squash – I had leftover squash for 3 days)
1 large white onion
4 oz goat cheese, softened
3 oz package sun-dried tomatoes
phyllo dough (about 8 sheets – you’ll want some spares!)
1 head of garlic
1 Tbsp avocado oil
4 tsp olive oil
4 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 tsp water
1 tsp sugar
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable stock or broth (or water)
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash in half crosswise, and then cut each half again lengthwise (see picture above). Remove seeds and pulp. Place cut side down on a pan coated with cooking spray. Cut about 1/2 inch off of the top of the had of garlic, wrap it in foil, and add it to the pan with the squash. Bake 35-50 minutes. Check both the squash and the garlic at 35 minutes. The squash is done when a fork easily pierces the skin and flesh).

While the squash and garlic is roasting, cover the sun-dried tomatoes with some vegetable stock, heat in the microwave for a minute, and then let them soak.

Cut the onion into strips about 1/3 inch wide and about 2-3 inches long. Heat the avocado oil in a skillet on medium-high heat, then add the onions, and cook for 5 or so minutes, stirring constantly. Add a couple shakes of salt and grinds of pepper and a teaspoon of sugar. At this point, I turned the heat down to medium, because things started seeming a bit too brown. Continue to cook for 15-20 minutes more, deglazing with balsamic vinegar and/or water as needed (I added a teaspoon of vinegar and a teaspoon of water four times during cooking). Once the onions are a nice brown color (see picture above), tender and sweet, they’re done. Set aside until the rest of the items are ready.

Drain the tomatoes, and then finely chop them. Set aside.

Once the butternut squash is done, remove the shell, then cut the squash into small pieces. Put them in a food processor with 4-6 of the garlic cloves, and puree. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Layer 8 sheets of phyllo dough, brushing each with olive oil before placing the next one on top (I used 4 teaspoons of oil on the 8 sheets plus the top of the roll). Then add the remaining ingredients in the following order: butternut squash, caramelized onions, goat cheese (just rip this into pieces (globs) and spread them out evenly), and tomatoes. Carefully roll it up starting at one of the short ends. Brush the top with oil and bake at 325 degrees for 30-40 minutes.

Slice into equal sizes, laugh at how sloppy it looks, and serve.

A Couple of Views of My Not So Perfectly Formed Phyllo Dough Roll, Sliced

A Couple Views of My Not-So-Perfectly-Formed Phyllo Dough Roll, Sliced

I’m still trying to come up with a tempeh dish I like as well as Tempeh Napoletano. I really like tempeh, but kind of struggle with the right flavors to use whenever I try to make it without that particular recipe. (Maybe I’ll just cave in and try a barbecue sauce next time). At any rate, my husband, who isn’t the hugest tempeh fan, did like my creation this time, so that seems like a good sign.

As much as I like tempeh, it really is not an attractive food. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to call it downright disgusting looking when uncooked and viewed through the clear side of the packaging. (In fact, I’m almost kind of embarrassed when I buy it, fearful that I’ll inadvertently land in the checkout lane of a vegetarian food hating carnivore, giving them no reason to question their food leanings, but plenty of reason to comment on my tempeh). But, tempeh is nice and high in protein for a non-meat, and has a nice, nutty taste, and a more interesting texture than tofu, so if you can get past how it looks uncooked, it’s definitely worth it. (For your viewing pleasure, I photographed it in the wrapper, which is much more lovely and colorful than the tempeh brick was).

I decided to use mushrooms and leeks for the dish during my meal planning, and then when I got started on it, decided to throw in some salad tomatoes and shallots I had left over. I ended up adding red wine, oregano, marjoram, and thyme, and then finishing it with a bit of truffle oil and sherry vinegar.

Ingredients for Tempeh with Mushrooms, Leeks, Shallots and Tomatoes

Ingredients for Tempeh with Mushrooms, Leeks, Shallots and Tomatoes (some of the tomatoes ended up on our salads)

I recently read that many people recommend steaming tempeh prior to cooking it, which causes it to expand, allowing it to absorb flavors better. I was more than happy to try this, since we just got an awesome silicone cooking colander which you can set right on top of a pot of boiling water for steaming (or submerge it in a pot of water for boiling and easy draining afterward). I just put the lid on with a bit of a crack for to air to escape, and it worked great.

Tempeh Steaming in our Sweet New Silicone Cooking Colander

Tempeh Steaming in our Sweet New Silicone Steamer Basket

Tempeh with Mushrooms, Leeks, Shallots and Tomatoes
serves 2-4

1 package of tempeh (original flavor)
3 cups Shiitake Mushrooms (or Portobello), stemmed and sliced
3 Leeks, finely chopped
2-3 Shallots, minced
2/3 to 3/4 cup seeded and diced tomatoes
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup red wine
4-6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp truffle oil
1/4 to 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp marjoram
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp salt
10 grinds of pepper

Steam the tempeh for 15 minutes, turning it halfway through. After the tempeh is done steaming, remove it and either crumble or cut into tiny pieces (the latter is what I did), and set aside. You can start with the rest of the steps after the tempeh has been steaming for 5-10 minutes, or you can wait until it’s done first.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Once the oil is warm, sauté the leeks and shallots for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for an additional minute. Next, add the tomatoes and mushrooms, and sauté for another 5 minutes. Now add the tempeh, red wine, vegetable stock, oregano, marjoram, thyme, salt and pepper, and combine well. Cook for 5-10 minutes, until the liquid has mostly evaporated. Add the truffle oil and 1/4 tsp of sherry vinegar and combine well. Adjust the spices and sherry vinegar as desired, and serve.

Tempeh with Mushrooms, Leeks, Shallots, and Tomatoes

Tempeh with Mushrooms, Leeks, Shallots, and Tomatoes

Last week I felt like making more cookies, but was tired of gingerbread after my batch of 50 ultra-dry gingerbread cookies a few weeks ago. So I decided I’d just do some kind of sugar cookies. I found a recipe for Low Fat Holiday Sugar Cookies on About.com to use as a starting point, and then made a bunch of changes. As per my plan after the gingerbread cookies, I used real butter instead of light butter, but I just couldn’t make myself use a full 5 tablespoons. So I used 3, and then added apple sauce to make up the deficit. Other alterations I made were using two egg whites instead of a whole egg, and using erythritol for 2/3 of the sweetener (sugar for the rest). I always use King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour when I bake because it has more fiber (and is more nutritious), than white flour. It’s a bit heavier than normal white flour, but not as heavy as regular whole wheat.

I wanted to have more of a distinct flavor than just plain sugar cookies, but had no almond extract (I love almond cookies), so I made spice cookies with cinnamon and allspice. I was actually really pleased with how these turned out. They took quite a bit longer than the recipe called for to bake (of course I changed a bunch of things, so not surprising). They didn’t seem to be that done even after 14 minutes, but after I let them cool, they crisped up (a lot). They were kind of like sweet, crunchy biscuits, and in fact made me think of digestive biscuits from Britain — which I have always loved. They were also quite low-calorie, and fairly low-fat, too.

After those were gone, I waited about two days, then decided I’d make some more, this time almond flavored, since I’d purchased some pure almond extract. Unfortunately, after doing some reading about how it’s easy to overdo it with almond extract, I held back a bit too much, and they kind of ended up being essence of almond flavor. But they were still good. This time I used an extra tablespoon of butter, and swapped out a bit of sugar for honey in an attempt to make them moister. They weren’t quite as crunchy as the last batch, but were still a bit more like a crunchy biscuit than a traditional cookie. I’m not sure that the extra butter was really justified, because there wasn’t a huge difference between the two batches, aside from the extra fat — which meant I couldn’t have as many at one time according to my Weight Watchers point count! (Priorities, right?) Below is both recipe variations I used. I think I’ll keep experimenting on the low-fat cookie front. It’s quite tasty work.

Low-Fat Sugar Cookie Ingredients

Low-Fat Spiced Sugar Cookie Ingredients

Low-Fat Spiced Sugar Cookies
adapted from  Low Fat Holiday Sugar Cookies on About.com

3 Tbsp high-quality butter
1 oz applesauce
1/4 c sugar
1/2 c erythritol
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp allspice
1 + 2/3 c flour (I used white whole wheat)
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

With a mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and erythritol. Add the applesauce, egg whites, vanilla, cinnamon and allspice, and mix well.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and mix well. Add the flour mixture into the butter and sugar mixture gradually (I did it in four batches). Stir well with a large spoon until everything is combined into a stiff dough. Form the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/16″ as desired, and use cookie cutters to cut cookies out of the dough (well, that seems rather obvious, but I couldn’t figure out how else to finish that sentence). Put the cut cookies on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, and bake at 350-375 degrees (hotter at altitude) for 8-14 minutes. (The recipe I referenced called for 8 minutes, mine took 14). Remove from oven and let cool about one minute before transferring to a cooling rack.

You’ll probably want to sanitize your counter after you’re done cutting the cookies, since the dough has raw egg in it.

Low-Fat Essence of Almond Cookies

4 Tbsp high quality butter
1 Tbsp applesauce
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp agave (or honey)
1/2 c erythritol
2 egg whites
3/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 + 2/3 c flour (I used white whole wheat)
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Same directions as for Rev 2. This batch of dough seemed drier than the previous one, so it was a bit more difficult to roll out, as it kept crumbling on the edges, but it did get a bit easier after it warmed up as I worked with it. The cookies only took 12 minutes this time instead of 14 like the last batch.

Low-fat Sugar Cookies

Low-fat Essence of Almond Sugar Cookies

Food Plans for 2012

January 4, 2012

We’re a few days into 2012, so I’m a bit late late for a New Year’s Post, but I kind of just got around to thinking about where I want to go this year (culinarily speaking). I have several plans and goals for 2012 in the food realm:

  1. One of the first things that comes to mind is the Spice classes I’m going to take at Escoffier in Boulder. This is a series of four demonstration and tasting classes, each focused on spices from different regions along the Silk Road, and co-presented by Dan Hayward of the Savory Spice Shop in Boulder and Chef Suzanne Rudolph. The format is perfect for me (note taking opportunities galore!), and I plan to make good use of what I learn in exploring new flavor combinations in my own cooking.
  2. Another plan in terms of learning more about ingredients and cooking is spending more time reading my newly acquired copy of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee. I had heard of this book previously, referenced as THE authority on ingredients, their characteristics, and what happens to them when they’re cooked, but I had no idea just how thorough and fascinating it would be. I’ve already learned more than I ever knew about the composition and characteristics of dairy products from a variety of animals, found out that tomatoes originated in the New World, and were slow to catch on elsewhere because they were viewed suspiciously (due to their nightshade family affiliation), and I can’t wait to delve into reading about other fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs, different cooking techniques – well, everything in the book, actually. This isn’t a recipe book or a how-to book, but if you love food, and are into incredibly information-packed non-fiction, I’m guessing it would be hard to outdo it.
  3. One dietary improvement I want to make this year is to explore some options for more nutritionally positive snacks. (I follow the smaller meals with snacks in-between method of eating). Nearly all of what I snack on is low-calorie and/or high-fiber, but perhaps a bit more devoid of vitamins and minerals than it could be. Sure, I’m already saving calories and fat, but wouldn’t it be better if I also got some things that were good for me in the process?
  4. This year I finally want to get comfortable with cooking fish. I’ve been hesitant to really get into preparing it at home after some past experiences with overcooked, rubbery fish, and pre-frozen fish that just smells and tastes fishy (that always strikes me as a weird turn of phrase, but you know what I mean). But this year I plan to tackle gaining some confidence (and competence) in preparing it.
  5. Five items seems like a good, doable list, so here’s number five. This dual-task item is the easiest one: try some new restaurants in Denver/Boulder (there are fewer we haven’t tried in Boulder, of course), and explore more of the menu at Jai Ho in Boulder (my newest obsession).
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