I turn a year older and use every dish we own…

Bear with me, folks–this could be a long one.  It was my birthday this past week, and my brother’s birthday the day before, so naturally I cooked about a thousand different things and left piles and piles of dishes in my wake.

I got the birthday off to a bang-up start with some pumpkin-flavored oatmeal and a little Criminal Procedure reading (because the rights of the accused are no less important on the day you turn 25, people).  Here are most of the ingredients–including my trusty rooster canister full of slow-cooking oats–lined up and ready to go.

I put the following into a small saucepan and cooked and stirred for 5-6 minutes:

  • 1/2 c. oats
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1/2 c. almond milk
  • 1/4 c. canned pumpkin
  • about 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • a small pinch of nutmeg

After I took the oats off the heat, I drizzled them with honey and topped the whole concoction with some pumpkin seeds and a spoonful of peanut butter.  (Breakfast without peanut butter is kind of like a year without a birthday, in my opinion.)

With a start like that, I don’t see how this year can go wrong.  The rest of the birthday was lovely as well, and included apple-picking, apple turnover-eating, and dinner and drinks with a bunch of wonderful friends.

When I finished class for the week, I drove to Des Moines for some family-style celebrating.  One of my older brothers has his birthday the day before mine, so I usually feel the need to show up and bake a communal birthday cake.  I love going to my parents’ house for a lazy Friday evening and Saturday.  Everything there is so pretty and un-cluttered (i.e. no textbooks and dirty laundry piled everywhere).  For example, my mom is some kind of plant whisperer, and has all kinds of gorgeous blooms going on at any given time.

Birthday cake recipe selection was pretty easy this year, because I had just picked those apples at the orchard.  I used a Smitten Kitchen recipe yet again, and made just a few modifications to change it from pineapple upside-down cake to caramel-apple upside-down cake.  I swapped the pineapple juice in the batter for apple juice, added a half teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter, and omitted the rum.  I used a 10-inch skillet, as the recipe suggests, but it wasn’t cast-iron and still seemed to work just fine.  First, I peeled, cored, and sliced three apples.

I had four, just in case, but 3 was more than enough.  I’m not sure what kind these were, either, because we just kind of wandered around the orchard picking them indiscriminately…but my guess would be Jonagold.  Next, I made the caramel layer in the 10-inch skillet.

Then, I arranged the apples on top of the caramel in a spiral-y sort of way, overlapping the slices a little.

After that, I made the batter.  (Yes, this took awhile.  That’s why I made sure to create a special birthday-cake playlist before getting started.)

Now, if you make this cake (and you should, because it was gooooood), make sure you put the batter on in several dollops and spread it out CAREFULLY over the apples.  There’s no sense in ruining your artful arrangement of apple slices before the party even hits the oven.  Throw that skillet in the oven and bake as directed by Ms. Smitten Kitchen.  Check in about 5 minutes early–mine was done in a little less time than the recipe suggests.  When you’re done baking and have let the cake sit for 5 minutes, steel yourself for the inversion.  This is not for the faint of heart, or those without heavy duty oven mitts.

Say a little prayer if you’re so inclined, flip, and if a few bits stick to the pan there’s no need to swear like I did.  Just scrape ‘em up and put them where they belong.  And look at this beauty!

Before I could cut into it, though, the whole fam insisted on eating a proper dinner.  We had lettuce wraps–most folks ate a them with a ground chicken, veggie, and soy-saucey- filling, but I made a vegetarian filling that was pretty good.  I sauteed the veggies for a few minutes, threw in the sauce ingredients for a few more, and then we ate the filling in romaine, radicchio, and endive leaves, with a little rice on the side.  Here’s what I used:

  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • about 5 scallions
  • 1 small can water chestnuts
  • handful of chopped mushrooms
  • one diced yellow summer squash
  • about 1/2 c. frozen shelled edamame
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger root
  • 1/4 c. peanut butter
  • 1/2 c. coconut milk
  • juice of half a lime

This was really good and definitely worth experimenting with some more.  I wouldn’t recommend the radicchio, though–the purple color is pretty but it’s kind of bitter when served like this.

So there you have it–one marvelous birthday in the books!  Now I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with a cold, so perhaps the next post will feature dishes brimming with vitamin C.  Farewell for now!

Squashes and pumpkin, brown butter and chickpeas

(FYI: That title should be sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things.”  My thoughts often come in the form of show tunes…)

It’s FALL, people, and I love it!  I’m a big fan of fallish food, new notebooks, breaking out the cardigans, crunchy leaves, all that stuff.  I went a little crazy in the apartment kitchen this week…but don’t worry, I still did my homework and everything.  First, let’s talk squash.  Butternut squash is my number one favorite food (OK, except for chocolate), but in an effort to branch out, I made my first official squash of Autumn 2K10 a spaghetti squash.  I brought that baby home, sliced it in half, scooped out the seeds, and put it skin-side-down in a 9×13 pan.  Drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, a tiny bit of water in the pan (because that’s how my ma does it), covered with foil, and into the oven until it flakes easily when scraped with a fork and looks like…guess what…spaghetti.  I can’t give you reliable time and temperature information, because I have an oven that is, as far as I can tell, always conspiring against me and my recipe success.

Sure, it looks like a normal oven.  But, as I learned during my first baking adventure in this apartment (ill-fated sugar cookies), it burns everything unless you set it for at least 25 degrees less than recommended and watch things like a hawk.  I also preemptively open the windows and get out a hand-towel in case I need to fan the smoke detector to make it stop going off.  So, I guess I’ll suggest 350 for around 30-40 minutes for your squash, but take that with a grain of salt.

While cooking the squash, I made some spaghetti-type sauce to go on top.  I didn’t measure anything, so I have no proper recipe to give you, but here’s a blurry picture of the pan for your viewing pleasure, followed by a run-down of what I used.

I chopped half an onion and sauteed it with some grated carrot I needed to use up.  After that had cooked for about ten minutes, I added a couple splashes of balsamic vinegar, a can of chickpeas, and a jar of spaghetti sauce, homemade by my dear mother and stuck in my laundry basket the last time I visited home.  I let that all heat through and bubble for awhile, and when the squash was ready I threw a couple handfuls of spinach into the sauce.  Then I scraped the cooked squash with a fork to get some “noodles” and topped them with a scoop of the sauce, like so:

I had a great discovery at the grocery store on my way home from class yesterday.  About a week ago I tried to find canned pumpkin in Des Moines and was told the store was out because of a “national shortage.”  I was NOT pleased, my friends!  But yesterday I found some, bought six cans just in case, and returned to the apartment to apron up and get baking.  Triumphant canned pumpkin face below:

Baking implements ready for action:

I used a pumpkin bar recipe from everyone’s favorite saucy Southerner, Ms. Paula Deen.  Here’s the link.  I tried to healthify things a little bit, though.  Instead of Paula’s recommended 1 and 2/3 cups of sugar, I used 1 scant cup and one mashed, overripe banana.  I also replaced 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my Paula Deen recipe experiences, it’s that this woman’s ideas about how much frosting you need border on insane.  I made a half batch, and it was plenty.  And here’s a hot tip: butter in frosting is good, but BROWNED BUTTER IS BETTER.  Here’s what you should do if you want cream cheese frosting that tastes like….everything right and good in the world.  Put 4 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet and cook over medium heat for approximately 5 or 6 minutes.  Stir often.  You’ll know it’s done when it smells like toasted nuts, caramel, and heaven itself, and when it looks like this:

Mix 4 ounces of cream cheese (room temperature!) with one cup of confectioner’s sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.

Let the butter cool for about ten minutes, incorporate it into the cream cheese mixture with an electric mixer, frost, and then do some quality control (by that I of course mean eat some).

And I still have five cans of pumpkin left!


Yesterday I felt the need for a little roadtrip, so I threw my laundry in my car and headed west for a little time at my vacation home (aka my parents’ house).  This morning, then, presented a golden opportunity for a run at my favorite Des Moines park.  Six miles, a lake, trees, and cool temps made for one fantastic start to the day.

I love Gray’s Lake because 1) it’s a well-defined 2-mile loop, which is good when you were born without a sense of direction like me, 2) for part of the loop you run along the river, and 3) the people-watching is usually pretty great.

I am now officially registered for the Des Moines half-marathon in mid-October…which is sort of terrifying.  Can I get myself in good enough shape to put in a respectable performance in just over a month?  Well, I’ll try, but it’s somewhat doubtful.  However, I like to think that what I lack in endurance, speed, and general athleticism I make up for in stubborness.  I’ll just crawl the last few miles if I have to, so there!

Moving on to food, let’s talk about my love for quinoa and a nifty new recipe.  Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is wonderful grain-like stuff that I’ve been using in salads like it’s going out of style.  It’s ancient, it’s South American, and it’s freakishly nutritious.  It’s a great protein source for veggie-eaters like myself, because it’s very balanced in terms of amino acids.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself in possession of some top-notch IA sweetcorn and made up this salad.  It’s quickly going out of season, so try it ASAP or file it away for next year because it was pretty delish!

(Yes, I took that picture in the grass outside my apartment because my kitchen lighting is bad.  I never claimed to be normal.)

Sweetcorn Quinoa Salad

  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 3/4 c. quinoa
  • 2 tbsp. lime juice
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp. agave nectar (or you could use honey)
  • cayenne pepper to taste (I used about 1/8 tsp.)
  • 1 c. cooked corn kernels
  • 1 tomato, seeded and diced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 3-4 thinly sliced scallions
  • half of a 14.5 oz. can of black beans
  • chopped cilantro, to taste

Bring the water to a boil.  Add the quinoa and cook according to the package directions, or until the water is absorbed.  Put the lime juice, oil, agave nectar, and cayenne in a small bowl and whisk to combine (I actually used a blender for this).  When the quinoa is finished, add the veggies, beans, cilantro, and dressing and stir to combine.  A scoop of this stuff on top of some greens = lunch of champions.

Happy weekend, friends!