Several weeks back, while browsing the sizable cookbook section at McKay's (seriously the best used bookstore I've ever been inside and the number one reason, in my opinion, for living in Manassas) I happened upon a copy of The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. It's been on my list of books to acquire for a few years, thanks to high praise from Molly Wizenberg and her post on oatmeal popovers, and I couldn't quite believe my luck. The price was $1.33. I didn't hesitate.
I was mostly interested in getting my hands on Marion Cunningham's much-lauded recipe for yeasted waffles (which I haven't made yet), but as I perused the pages of the chapter on Griddling, I came across her recipe for lemon pancakes. Spring weather being in the air, a light and lemony pancake sounded like the perfect Saturday morning breakfast.
Marion's recipe calls for cottage cheese, but I had a pint of ricotta in the fridge, and like I said, ricotta and lemon just go together. Other than the addition of a little vanilla, this was the only modification I made. If you have cottage cheese sitting around, I'm sure it works just as well.
The first bite of these pancakes made me think of lemon meringue pie. They're light and airy, thanks to beaten-until-fluffy egg whites folded into the batter, and the lemon flavor is sweet and almost delicate because it's from zest rather than juice.
E was not as wowed as I was, unfortunately, but he likes his pancakes heftier. These are so light they seem like they might float right off your plate. If ever a pancake could be called feminine, this is probably the one. They'd be perfect for a ladies' brunch.
I served them up with blueberry syrup, but raspberry or blackberry would be just as good. I wouldn't recommend maple syrup or even commercial pancake syrup, because the flavor clashes with the lemon. If you don't have a fruit syrup on hand, you can easily make your own (I've included a simple recipe for that below, which works with any type of berry), or just give them a slathering of butter and a dusting of powdered sugar and call it good.
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
Adapted from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
1/4 cup all-purpose flour (I wouldn't use a whole grain mixture in these; it will cancel out the lightness from the beaten egg whites, which is a major factor in the pancakes' texture)
3/4 cup whole or part-skim ricotta cheese (or cottage cheese, if you prefer)
1/4 cup unsalted sweet cream butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher or fine grain sea salt
Zest from 1 lemon, finely grated
In the bowl of an electric mixer (or by hand if you're daring and have very good arm muscles), beat the egg whites until they're stiff and will form peaks that will hold their shape.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt.
In a separate medium bowl, stir together the egg yolks, ricotta, melted butter, vanilla, and lemon zest until thoroughly combined.
Add the dry mixture to the wet and mix well.
Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, stirring carefully only until there are no streaks left. Do not overmix!
Grease a griddle or large frying pan with butter or spray oil, and place over medium heat. When the griddle is hot, drop the batter onto it by 1/4 cupfuls, using a spoon to spread the batter into a thin circle if needed. Cook slowly, 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, lifting the edge of the pancake to check it with a spatula. When the underside is golden, flip it and cook the other side. Note: the second side will cook faster.
Serve with butter and syrup or powdered sugar.
Makes 8-10 pancakes.
Simple Berry Syrup
2 cups fresh or frozen berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.)
1 cup sugar
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the berries and sugar, and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring regularly, until the sugar is dissolved, juices run from the berries and begin to thicken, and the berries are tender, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool a bit before serving. Note: if you want a pure "syrup" without pieces of berry in it, push it through a mesh strainer, and discard the berries.
Makes about 2 cups.
For the printable recipe, click here.
The closest fast Mex to our current home is Chipotle, which doesn't offer quesadillas on its menu. So I set out to create a homemade substitute, one with spicy chicken and fajita veggies like the ones we love from Qdoba. These have become one of my top ten school night dinners because they're fairly quick and simple. I poach the chicken and prep the veggies while Baby Girl is strapped into her high chair eating her dinner. I then shred the chicken and sauté the veggies as soon as she's in bed, which is usually around 8:30. When E texts me that he's on his way home, around 9:00, I know I have about 20 minutes for assembly and baking, which works out perfectly. He walks in to the aroma of hot quesadillas waiting.
My friends with young kids tell me that quesadillas are a favorite with their littles, so I'm expecting these to stay on the dinner rotation for a long time to come.
Quesadillas with Chicken and Fajita Veggies
Makes 4 quesadillas
2 boneless chicken breasts or 4 boneless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons taco seasoning
1 large green bell pepper, cut into strips
1 large red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups shredded cheese, a Mexican blend, colby-jack, or whatever you like best (pepperjack is great if you like extra zip)
8 large flour tortillas (whole wheat are great if you're going for more fiber)
Preheat the oven to 375°.
In a large saucepan, poach the chicken in boiling water until fully cooked, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from the water and using two forks, shred the meat and place in a bowl. Stir in the taco seasoning.
Sauté the peppers and onion in the rest of the olive oil over medium-high heat until tender and starting to caramelize, about 10-15 minutes.
Assemble the quesadillas: on a large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan, place two tortillas side by side. On each tortilla, layer 1/4 each of the chicken and veggies.
Add a layer of cheese (enough so that when it melts, everything will stick together).
Place another tortilla on top of each, and press down a bit, firmly but gently.
Bake 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the tortillas are lightly browned, with crispy edges. Cut into quarters (a pizza wheel works great for this).
Serve with salsa and sour cream.
For the printable recipe, click here.
I remember the first gyro I ever ate, and the best gyro I ever ate.
The earliest "gyros" I remember (in quotes because they were a not-completely-authentic copy of the real thing) were tasty, but a far cry from the best gyro I ever ate. When I was young and my mom and I went to the mall, we would often have lunch at a pseudo-Greek Michigan-based chain restaurant called Olga's Kitchen. They call their gyros "Olgas" and over the years have developed a whole menu of not-gyro sandwiches wrapped in their signature flat bread. They're known for their simple greek "Olga salad" and curly "Olga fries." Clearly, it's all about Olga. As a child, I had no idea that the sandwich I loved was imitation Greek food. Still, I like Olga's to this day, and am never opposed to grabbing an "Original Olga" with its beef and lamb blend, onion and tomato slices, and cucumber-less "Olga sauce" when I'm in Michigan and the opportunity presents.
The best gyro I ever ate was - where else? - in Greece, in 2001. The second-to-last stop on my 10-country solo European backpacking adventure, which took me from London to Athens in just eight weeks was the Greek island of Corfu. Corfu, which is on the northwest coast of Greece, in the Ionian Sea, is quite different from the popular and recognizable Greek destination islands of Mykonos, Ios, and Santorini (known collectively as part of the 220-island group the Cyclades) on the southeastern coast, in the Aegean Sea. If you're conjuring up visions of white terraced villages against the backdrop of a perfectly blue sky and sea, you're off base. Corfu is mountainous, dotted with aging castle-like structures, peasants' farms and its main port, the town of Corfu. I stayed at a hostel in Corfu, and spent a few days lying on the beach, motor-scootering over the steep and curving hill roads, and shopping in Corfu Town. One afternoon, I and a few other travelers from the hostel ordered gyros from a portside café and ate them at an outdoor table in the late summer sun. It's unlikely that any gyro will ever be able to beat that one.
I've had a few great gyros in between, thanks to the Greektown neighborhoods of Detroit and Chicago. These days, I prefer to make my own at home. Obviously, I can't spit-roast the traditional beef and lamb blend the restaurants use, but it's not difficult to mix ground beef and lamb with onion and herbs at home, roast it in the oven, and get a delicious, more-than-adequate substitute.
My mom was actually the one who asked me for my gyro recipe, which is why I'm posting it here, but I have to tell you, it's pretty standard. There are many good gyro recipes out there floating around on the web, most of them nearly identical to this one. The ingredients for the meat blend are always the same: lamb, beef, onion, garlic, oregano, marjoram, salt and pepper. If you're one of those people who can't bring yourself to eat baby sheep, then just use beef.
A tip: don't use pocket pita bread for these. It's too dry and doesn't wrap well. Look for real pita bread, the kind that's soft, moist, supple and doesn't split into a pocket. Trader Joe's sells a great Mediterranean flatbread that's just about perfect. The Middle Eastern flatbread called lavash also works well. In a pinch, whole wheat tortillas will do.
This makes quite a bit of gyro meat - two pounds - so feel free to cut it in half if you're not serving more than four people, or if you don't want leftovers.
1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground sirloin (use lean beef because the lamb will be quite fatty)
1 medium onion, chopped until it's almost a purée (a food processor works well for this)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
4 cloves garlic, pressed or smashed to a pulp
2 teaspoons kosher or fine grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pita bread or flatbread
Tzatziki sauce (recipe in this post) or plain Greek-style yogurt
Thinly sliced onion
Preheat the oven to 350° and line a sheet pan with foil.
In a large bowl, mix together the lamb, beef, onion, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Separate into eight equal parts and shape each into a small log, about the size of a bratwurst.
Place the meat logs on the foil-lined sheet pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until cooked through. Allow to cool just slightly and cut into thin slices. Serve wrapped in pita or flatbread with garnishes.
Serves 6-8 people.
For the printable recipe, click here.
The one cookbook that has continually been my saving grace during this season of moving and new motherhood is Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story. If you buy only one cookbook in 2013, this should be it. As in all other things, like pizza and turkey burgers and chicken parmesan, Jenny doesn't disappoint when it comes to chicken soup. I made her chicken soup with orzo after church on Sunday, for lunch with my sister-in-law and niece.
It's not the chicken that makes this soup special, because you can use rotisserie chicken, or any cut of chicken you prefer. Jenny uses chicken breasts, but I used boneless chicken thighs because I think they have more flavor, and the meat is just so much more tender and moist. Also, rather than cooking the chicken and shredding it in the soup as Jenny directs, I just cut mine into very small pieces, because to be honest, I wanted it to cook faster and I didn't want to be bothered shredding it (Laziness? Perhaps).
I think the secret here is the wine. It's just half a cup, but oh my. It adds a depth of flavor, a nuance of sophistication, that chicken soup doesn't usually possess. It's got that thing, what the French call je ne sais quoi. Aside from the wine, the other ingredients are what you'd expect: good stock, onion, carrot, celery, noodles.
I really love the orzo, with its rice-like shape, as the noodle of choice in this. It adds a nice texture and just seems a bit more refined than the traditional egg noodles. In addition to salt and pepper, I used some thyme instead of the parsley the recipe called for because, well, I don't do chicken soup without thyme.
Jenny suggests stewing a parmesan cheese rind in the soup as well. I didn't bother trying to find one, but I did take heed of her other suggestion: shredded parmesan sprinkled on top for serving. It was delicious. Along with it, we had a green salad and some of this bread.
E, who doesn't generally get excited about chicken soup, said he could eat this any time, which pretty much summed up what the rest of us were feeling. If a bowl of chicken soup could ever be deemed gourmet, this is it.
Chicken Soup with Thyme, White Wine and Orzo
adapted from Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled and chopped
3-4 celery ribs, chopped
two sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon sea salt (more as needed to taste)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (more as needed to taste)
1/2 cup chardonnay or other semi-dry white wine
6-8 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade or organic
1-1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1-1/2 cups orzo pasta
Shredded parmesan cheese for serving
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven (5 quarts or more), sauté the onion, carrots and celery in the olive oil over medium-low heat until tender (about 10 minutes), taking care not to scorch them. Add the salt, pepper, and thyme.
Pour in the wine and turn the heat up to medium-high until the liquid is bubbling away. Cook, stirring often, until the wine has almost disappeared.
Add the chicken stock and bring the soup to a boil, then add the cut-up chicken. If you are using rotisserie chicken, which is already cooked, just give it a couple of minutes to return to a boil, so that it has heated through, and then proceed to the next step. If you are using uncooked chicken, allow the soup to simmer over low heat for 20-30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
When the chicken is fully cooked, add the orzo and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the pasta is al dente (if you're using a larger noodle, the cook time will be longer, of course). If it's become thicker than you like, add a little more stock until you reach the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed.
Serve with some chopped fresh parsley, freshly ground pepper and shredded parmesan for garnish. A bright green salad and some hearty bread make perfect accompaniments.
For the printable recipe, click here.
This has become one of my go-to meals on nights Eli is in class. The dough uses a quick-rise process (cheater's pizza dough, if you will), so it only takes about 45 minutes. The whole deal takes a little over an hour from start to finish and requires very little handling, so it's perfect for nights I have Lili all to myself. She will play contentedly on her blanket or in her high chair for the few minutes it takes to get the dough going and prep the sauce. As soon as she's in bed for the night, I pop the pizza into the oven. Fifteen minutes later, I'm on the couch with my feet propped up, savoring a slice with a glass of chardonnay or pinot grigio.
I don't generally drink wine with my pizza, but Margherita feels elegant enough to be accompanied by a glass of something white and chilled. I think it's the simple ingredients - diced tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic, real parmesan (not the powdery stuff) that make it special. You can certainly tinker with the recipe, as I did, finding your own preferred ratio of tomatoes, herbs and seasonings, basil and cheese. I like a splash of balsamic vinegar in my sauce, for example. There's a lot of room for improvisation. But there are definitely a few ground rules, too.
First, don't over-knead the dough. After it has risen, just give it a couple of folds, massage it back into a ball, and then gently and patiently stretch it into the shape you want. Don't be rough with it, or you'll end up with a tough crust.
Second, don't overdo the mozzarella. Some people load their pizza with so much cheese it obscures everything else. Because this margherita involves two cheeses, one applied before baking and one afterward, a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to see the sauce between the bits of cheese. Trust me on this. I'm a cheese lover, but in this case, less is more.
Finally, don't pulverize the sauce too much. You want it to be chunky. Macerate the tomatoes a bit, but you're looking to get a sauce comprised of smallish chunks and juice, not a purée. Again, be gentle.
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
For the crust:
1/2 cup warm (not lukewarm but not hot) water
1-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
Cornmeal for the pan
For the sauce:
15-16 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 clove garlic, pressed, pulverized or very finely minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or pizza seasoning
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar, any kind
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated or shredded parmesan
small handful fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade or torn into small pieces by hand
In the bowl of a stand mixer, sprinkle the yeast onto the surface of the hot water and let stand for five minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200° for five minutes, then shut it off, but do not open the oven door.
With the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the flour and salt and mix on medium for just a minute or so, until the dough becomes a shaggy-looking mass. Switch from the paddle to the dough hook, and mix on medium until the dough has formed into a smooth ball, about five minutes:
Place the dough into a medium-sized oven-safe bowl that has been greased lightly with olive oil (this will prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl), and cover it tightly with plastic wrap. Quickly place it in the warm oven. Leave the dough to rise in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until it has doubled in size:
While the dough is rising, mix the sauce ingredients together in a smaller bowl and use a potato masher or a pastry blender to macerate the tomatoes a bit. Set aside to let the flavors marry while the dough finishes rising:
Prep a round pizza pan or an oblong cookie sheet or jellyroll pan by sprinkling it with coarse-ground cornmeal. This will both give the crust a nice texture and keep it from sticking to the pan.
When the dough has doubled in size, remove it from the oven, and turn it up to the highest available temperature (450°-500°).
Fold the dough a couple of times, massage it into a ball, then stretch it out roughly into the shape you want. Don't worry about making it perfect - it won't be. Drizzle the crust with a bit of olive oil, then spread on the sauce.
Sprinkle on the mozzarella. Like I said, be conservative.
Bake 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is brown and bubbly and the crust is golden. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle on the basil and parmesan cheese.
Give it a few minutes before cutting; the basil will wilt and the parmesan will melt a little. This is what you're after.
For a printable copy of this recipe, click here.