Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Harvest Bars

Everything right now in Massachusetts is apples, apples, apples. With a few pears and pumpkins thrown in. Don't get me wrong ⎯ I love autumn in New England. I've picked pears, baked pumpkin cinnamon rolls, and made applesauce and apple crisp. I'm all in. But my family's first love is chocolate. And this week, we got a break from fall produce. 

About a hundred years ago (or perhaps closer to 25), I took a semester off from college to work on the staff at Gould Farm in Western Massachusetts. It is a working farm that also serves as a residence for guests with mental illnesses. Staff and guests live and work together, with the goal of helping guests learn to live independently. I learned how to milk cows, make yogurt, and tap maple trees, all while supervising guests. An amazing experience. 

Gould Farm also gave me one of my first exposures to the concept of eating locally, long before it was talked about the way it is now. One of my regular work rotations was cooking at the farm's cafe, which served breakfast and lunch to the public (and which still exists, I discovered). Among the many specialties of the cafe were massive, plate-sized blueberry pancakes made with the farm's eggs, milk, and syrup. I needed two spatulas to flip them. 

When I left, I copied one recipe from the cafe onto a 3 x 5 index card for a dessert called Harvest Bars. I don't know where the recipe came from, or why they are called Harvest Bars. In essence, the bars are a chocolate chip cookie with oats. But baking them in a pan means each bar is delectably chewy. I have returned to this dessert year after year, and the wear and tear on my index card is beginning to show. It's my go-to recipe when I need a quick dessert that is a crowd pleaser. I've made a few adjustments to the original ingredients and I've added cooking instructions, but this is pretty much as they were. I hope they are still being made at Gould Farm as well. 

Harvest Bars
adapted from Gould Farm Roadside Cafe
makes 12-15 bars

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 c. brown sugar, packed
1 c. white sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. kosher salt
2 c. rolled oats
1 c. semi or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 
Spray an 9 x 13 baking pan with cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugars together for 3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until just blended. Mix flour, baking soda and salt together in a small bowl. Add flour mixture to the stand mixer and mix until just blended. By hand, stir in oats and chocolate chips. 

Spread the batter (it will be very thick) into the baking pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool and cut into 12-15 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weeknight Chicken with Flatbreads

I'm going to turn again to the topic of the quick weeknight dinner, but honestly, I find myself thinking about that subject a lot. Like pretty much every weeknight. The newest addition to our repertoire came about because of happy convergence of recipes and ingredients. 

Convergence #1: I discovered pomegranate molasses. Earlier this fall, I enjoyed two different dishes that included this magical ingredient. So I promptly bought some, without exactly knowing how I'd use it. It has a delightful sweet-tartness and is used to flavor to meats, dips and veggies.  My son would drink it straight up if I let him. 

Convergence #2: A friend visited recently, and as we flipped through Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks, she pointed to a flatbread recipe and asked for a copy. After she left I thought: why aren't I making that? The recipe couldn't be easier, and the result is a fresh and delicious  ⎯  a true "quick" bread.  

Convergence #3: I bought myself a cast iron grill pan. I'm not going to digress and wax about cast iron again, but I'll find any excuse to use my new toy.  

A few weeks ago, I found myself staring at a few chicken breasts lingering in the fridge and wondering, once again, what's for dinner. And suddenly, all of these things came together into one really delicious meal without advance planning. Here's what I did: I made the flatbread dough. In the time it rested, I chopped cilantro, made the yogurt sauce, and sautéed the chicken (seriously). I took the chicken off the stove and poured some pomegranate molasses over it, and declared it done. Then, with kid help, we rolled and grilled the flatbreads. I put out a salad of torn greens, and, in about 40 minutes, dinner was served. It did help that I always have yogurt and cilantro around, since they both get heavy play in this meal.  Since then, we've made this exact meal two times. My family can't get enough of it. 

adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
makes 8 breads

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading and rolling
1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1 c. Greek yogurt
1/4-1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. chopped cilantro (optional)
Vegetable oil for brushing the breads

In a bowl, mix together the flours, salt and baking powder until blended. Add the yogurt and mix, then add 1/4 c. of milk. Mix together, and add more milk if needed to make a thick dough. Turn the dough onto a floured surface, and knead briefly until it forms a coherent ball. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes, or up to an hour.

When ready to cook the breads, cut the dough into eight pieces. Roll each piece out on a floured surface until about 1/8-inch thick. If using cilantro, scatter approximately 1 T. of cilantro around each piece, fold in half, and roll out again.

Heat a grill or sauté pan on medium high heat. Brush the pan with oil, then brush one side of the dough with oil. Place dough in the pan, oil side down, and brush the top side with oil. Cook until bubbles form on top and the bottom is golden, about 4 minutes. Flip and cook other side until golden. Repeat with remaining dough. 

Fast Yogurt Sauce

1 c. Greek yogurt
1/4-1/2 c. chopped cilantro
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, sliced in half, or diced cucumber (optional)
Kosher salt to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. 

Pomegranate Molasses Chicken
serves 4

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
1 T. olive oil
2 T. pomegranate molasses
1/4 c. toasted walnuts (optional)
Chopped cilantro (optional)

Cut chicken into 2-inch chunks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan on high heat. Add chicken and cook, moving frequently, until slightly browned on the outside and cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Remove from the pan and place in a bowl. Add pomegranate molasses and stir.

If using walnuts, add walnuts to the same pan and cook on medium heat until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. To serve, place a flatbread on a plate with a few pieces of chicken. Add yogurt sauce, chopped cilantro, and toasted walnuts on top. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Many Delights of a Cast Iron Skillet, and a Recipe for Cornbread

How do I love thee, my cast iron skillets? Let me count the ways.

Cost: Good luck trying to pay more than $30 for one of any size. Plus, you can buy them at the hardware store. For the money, a cast iron pan simply cannot be beat.

Durability: People own their cast iron pieces for decades. And I have heard plenty of stories about the abuse that is heaped upon them, and yet they still are in use.

Non-stickiness: Forget teflon or whatever surface is the latest non-stick thing. After a few uses, the cast iron is non-stick. Really.

Flavor: Cast irons are excellent at conducting heat, which means the pans get hot and stay hot. And in general, heat brings flavor. These pans sear meat, brown crusts, and caramelize veggies better than any other pan I own.

Truth in advertising: here are the negatives. A cast iron skillet is heavier than most other pans. My 12-inch skillet definitely needs two hands, but I consider "cast iron lifting" part of my workout routine. And some cooks don't like how the handles get hot, but I'm acclimated to that as well. Besides, there are little silicone handle covers to help with that.

What do I cook in my cast iron? I sauté any ol' veggie I can, like green beans or carrots, using a small bit of oil and high heat. I roast chickens. This week I did a breaded pork chop. I cook fritters and pancakes and frittatas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Basically, my pans never get put away. They just sit on the stove since I use them almost daily.

Cornbread is a popular side dish in my house, and baking it in the cast iron delivers a crusty outside and a moist inside. You can use an 8x8 baking dish for this recipe, but honestly, it's better in the cast iron. Trust me.

Corn gets a bad rap, but not all corn is turned into high fructose corn syrup. A whole grain cornmeal has a number of good things inside. This recipe is heavy on the cornmeal and light on the wheat flour for that very reason. 

Skillet Cornbread
adapted from Mark Bittman

1 1/2 c. yellow cornmeal (I use Geechie Boy Mill cornmeal when I can!)
1/2 c. flour (white or whole wheat pastry flour)
1 t. salt
1 1/2 t. baking powder
4 T. vegetable oil
1 1/4 c. buttermilk
1 egg
2 T. brown sugar
1 T. butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In a small bowl, whisk together the vegetable oil, buttermilk, egg and brown sugar.  Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, and mix until just combined.

Place butter in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and place on high heat. When butter is bubbling, swirl around the edges of the pan. Remove from heat and scrape batter into the skillet. Bake until bread is cracked and slightly browned, 25-30 minutes.