Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lemon Bars

No one makes lemon bars anymore, and I am on a campaign to bring them back in style.  they are perfect for this time of year, when taste buds long for something light and springlike.   And lemons are still in season now.   Lemon bars make a great Easter dessert!  It's a simple recipe you can make from pantry items, if you are the type of person that always has a bag of lemons hanging around. I'm that kind of gal - fresh squeezed lemon juice tastes so much better than the bottled stuff. Plus, I learned from Cooks Illustrated that storing lemons in the fridge in a sealed plastic bag makes them last much longer than in the fruit bowl, so that's where I keep them.  They can last a month in there.  Plus, buying them in bulk is much cheaper than individually.  I weigh the 2 lb bags and pick the heaviest one I can find - usually I get at least 2 1/2 lbs for the same price as a handful of lemons.  

Making lemon bars allows me to use 2 of my favorite kitchen gadgets - a Microplane rasp and a citrus reamer....
Microplane rasp

citrus reamer
Hopefully, you already have these 2 beauties in your kitchen gadget drawer, but if you don't, I highly recommend both of them.   Need a little bit of Parmesan on your pasta?   How about some fresh ginger for your stir fry?   No need to haul out a heavy appliance - the rasp will make quick work of it and can be easily rinsed off and put away.   Come summer, make some simple syrup and keep it in a jar in the fridge - with the reamer, fresh lemonade is just a quick juicing away.  My teens make their own fresh lemonade all the time - we never use the powdered stuff.

Lemon Bars

For the crust:
1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the filling:
6 eggs
3 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest (4 to 6 lemons)
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup flour
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until just mixed.
Press the dough into a 9 by 13 pan.

Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over the crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the filling is set. Let cool to room temperature.

Cut into triangles and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Good Fish: Not so good for me...

I hate to be a complete killjoy, but for the second month in a row, I haven't liked the cookbook selected for the Cook The Books challenge.   I'm so bummed because I really, really, really wanted to like this month's cook book, which was
Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast by Becky Selengut.  First, it is beautifully photographed.   Second, I loved her storytelling, especially when she wrote about working in a galley of a boat headed to Alaska.  How cool is that?  I also really like her how to videos on her website that show you how to do just about anything with seafood, from devein a shrimp to fillet a fish  I adored everything she wrote about eating fish from the Pacific Northwest seasonally and sustainably.   Living in the Great Lakes region, I can see that there really needs to be a book written just like this one, but featuring our local catch.  

I come from a long line of fishermen and women.   I grew up fishing my whole life because I lived within 10 miles of Lake St. Clair, the lake that borders Lake Huron and the Detroit River. My first fishing rod was a bamboo number without a reel and a big red and white bobber on the line. My uncle had a fishing boat and we went fishing many weekends in the summer when I was a kid; I can still remember going out to the golf course late at night with a red filter on my flashlight to pick night crawlers to use for bait.   I went to college on the shores of Lake Superior, where I took bait and fly casting for P.E. credit.   I have very fond memories of buying lake trout right on the Superior shore from a fisherman and stuffing it with herbs and grilling it.  We went smelt dipping in the spring when the tiny fish venture upstream to spawn. Currently, we live on a small lake where we can catch pan fish anytime we want.  We live within walking distance of the Huron River, and my son is an avid fly fisherman who can't wait to get out there and "match the hatch" this season.   So I was thrilled to try my hand with some of these recipes - especially this month, since I am Catholic and so we don't eat meat of Fridays during Lent. 

I didn't get very far, because my very first attempt was such a dismal failure, I lost my enthusiasm.  To be fair, my family isn't very adventurous when eating seafood.   Their favorite way to eat it is pan fried with Drake's Fry Mix (another local Michigan taste treat).  So maybe I shouldn't have picked roasted black cod with bok choy and soy caramel sauce, it might have been too ambitious for their taste.   But it looked so delicious in the picture - and I have had soy caramel sauce at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant before, so I thought it would be an excellent choice.   However, it wasn't very good at all.  I think the problem might be that it called for 2 large bulbs of bok choy, which is an awful lot of the stuff   The recipe would be better served if it used baby bok choy instead, because the large bulbs didn't really roast at all; instead they steamed themselves into a slimy pile.  As a result, the vegetable mixture of the bok choy, cabbage, tomatoes and green onions seasoned with a little sesame oil and rice wine vinegar came out watery and bland - the serrano chile got lost in it.   And there really wasn't enough soy caramel sauce to add any significant flavor to the dish.   My teenage son, who eats everything that isn't nailed down, left more than half of his plate uneaten and he didn't touch the vegetables.  My husband, who good naturedly tries everything I cook and tries to say something nice about it (even if it isn't his favorite) summed it up in one word, "Yuck". Sad to say it, but I had to agree with him.  Even I didn't finish mine - and I love bok choy and cabbage!  I knew better than to make fish for my seafood hating daughter; hers was made with chicken instead, which we all were eyeing enviously.   Perhaps the dish would have been more flavorful if the fish was marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil.  I'm not sure...

So the cookbook sat forlornly on my table for a few weeks - I poked around looking for something else I could try but nothing jumped out at me.   Maybe I should have tried some of the shrimp recipes - after all, they are farming shrimp in tanks now up near Lansing.    Or I could have tried some of the halibut recipes with Lake Superior whitefish instead.   Or I could have sent my son down to the lake with his tip ups and his auger and had him pull some bass out of the ice on our lake and tried my hand the fish taco recipe.  But I just lost my gumption, and the book is going back to the library tomorrow.   I finished up my Lent instead with my favorite fish taco recipe and some tuna casserole instead.   But the idea of a Great Lakes seafood cookbook intrigues me; maybe the best think I got from this book is an inspiration.  

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Roasted Tomato Soup with Parmesan Dumplings

In Warren, Michigan, where I grew up in the 1970s, you were either Polish or Italian.   It was so cool to be Italian - all the popular kids were Italian.  The Italians had famous Hollywood characters like Rocky Balboa and Vinnie Barbarino.  There was the whole "Godfather"  thing, too.  Sadly, I was born on the Polish side of the tracks.  Instead of wearing Italian horn gold chain necklaces, and wearing 1st Holy Communion dresses that rivaled wedding dresses, we were the butt of all the Polish jokes.   We got called "Polacks" on the playground (it wasn't a compliment).   I secretly hoped my brown hair looked almost black like the girls in "in" crowd. In the summer, my singular goal was to work on my tan to transform my pale Eastern bloc complexion into something that looked a little more Mediterranean by laying out in the sun drenched in a homemade mixture of baby oil and mecuricome that allegedly guaranteed a deep dark tan.   I wanted to pass as an Italian.  

We Polish kids ate weird food, too.   Stuff like golapki (stuffed cabbage) and czernina (duck blood soup).  Besides sentencing me to a lifetime of uncoolness; being Polish also meant that I didn't get to eat the Italian foods that everyone else loved....fettucine alfredo, pasta carbonara, lasagna, etc.   After all, there was no commercial about kids running home to eat Polish food that we ate (like a big plate of kapusta with kielbasa); instead there was this one about a young Italian boy named Anthony:

While I have come to appreciate my own clan's food, the only true downside of being Polish is that I had never really tasted real Parmigiano Reggiano until I was an adult.    Sure, we had spaghetti, but we didn't have it every Wednesday like Anthony.  My mom made spaghetti with hamburger in it and sauce from a jar.  Of course, it was topped with the stuff in the green can...

Fast forward to my adult life. I was running late coming home from the office and I was supposed to bring an appetizer to a book club meeting.   No time to cook, so, I stopped by Morgan and York, a fine Ann Arbor purveyor of wine and cheese...or should I say cheese...cheese....CHEESE....

...and the young fellow behind the counter suggested I bring some Parmigiano Reggiano with a baguette and some of their wonderful aged balsamic vinegar they sell in bulk.  I blanched at the price of the cheese - after all, the real deal costs a lot more than the stuff in the green can. However, I was assured that I didn't need all that much cheese.  All that was needed was a little sliver of cheese and a thin slice of baguette dipped in some of that sweet and tart vinegar.   I tasted it and it was out of this world!  The book club ladies skipped everyone else's appetizers and went straight for my snack. I felt a little guilty because my contribution didn't even require cooking!  "This is so good!" they exclaimed.   My one friend, quite the food snob, sniffed, "This is real Parmigiano Reggiano, isn't it?  I can tell."  And she is right, you can tell.  It has an unrivaled texture and nutty taste.   Genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano is made only in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, following stringent guidelines. The milk used to make the cheese comes from cows that spend most of their days grazing in grassy meadows.  It must be made from April 15 to November 11 so that the cows from which the milk comes can graze only on fresh grass. It must be aged for a minimum of 14 months (though most are aged for 2 years) in wheels that weigh at least 66 pounds.

My friend Ann makes the most wonderful cheese dumplings.   When she gave me her recipe, she warned me not to use real parmesan cheese, saying that it wouldn't work, the dumplings fall apart.  "Use the stuff in the green can!" she admonished.   So use it I did, but I got to wondering if I could make them work with the real deal?  A quick scan of the ingredients of the green can showed that it contained cheese and something called "cellulose powder".  Wondering if that could be the secret, I Googled "cellulose powder" and found out it is "minuscule pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers that coat the cheese and keep it from clumping" .  Yikes!  I didn't want to have to add sawdust to my dumplings....but I got to thinking that maybe the cellulose powder was acting as a thickening agent.  I tried adding a little cornstarch instead, and that did the trick.   They're perfect for this robust flavored tomato soup.   This recipe is wonderful and easy - to save even more time, buy finely grated Parmigiano Regiano.   I got some at Whole Foods, who are celebrating Parmageddon by simulaneously cracking into 400 wheels of cheese on March 9.

Roasted Tomato Soup with Parmesan Dumplings

For the soup
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T olive oil
1 can (28 oz) roasted tomatoes (I used Whole Foods 365 Diced Fire Roasted Tomatoes)
1 yellow squash, diced
1 zucchini, diced

For the dumplings
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (grated like powder, not shards)
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t corn starch
1 egg

In a 2 qt saucepan or Dutch oven, saute garlic in oil until fragrant.   Puree tomatoes (including the juice) in a blender until smooth.   Add to pan and heat until boiling, and then turn down to medium low heat.  Add salt and pepper to taste. 

Make the dumplings by mixing the egg, cheese, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl until combined.  Form 1/2 inch dumplings and drop them a few at a time into the hot tomato sauce.   Wait for them to puff up a bit and float before adding more.  

When all the dumplings are adding, cover and cook over a medium low fire for 5 minutes.  Resist the urge to stir - the dumplings will break up - however if a few break, it's okay. 


Add the squash and stir gently to combine.  Cover and cook for 5 more minutes, or until squash is soft.


That's it!  Couldn't be's great as it is or even better topped with some additional cheese.   Delizioso or Smaczne as we say in Polish!