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Cure for a Cold Snap: Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

13 May

Howdy readers, I’m back. It’s been an interesting few months to say the very least, but needless to say I wasn’t doing as much cooking as I do normally. And when I was cooking, I was feeling stuck in a little bit of a rut. Not as if there aren’t endless sources of inspiration in books and online, I just wasn’t in that head space. It was hard to be out of the groove, but as I’ve started feeling more like myself, getting back into the kitchen and just experimenting has made me really happy again.

I’ve been on a soup and stew kick this week. That might seem like a little bit of a head-scratcher for this time of year, but if you were in Arlington this week, it’s been in the 50s, overcast, and rainy. So my local friends might understand why I’ve wanted nothing but warming foods.

This soup is spicy-sweet, creamy, and really delicious. It can also be made vegan if you swap out the chicken stock for vegetable stock or even water with a stick of kombu in it. Let’s have at it!

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 lb butternut squash, cubed
  • 1 apple, cored and cubed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 3-4 cups unsalted chicken stock or broth
  • ½ cup whole or light coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. toasted ground coriander
  • Optional: Toasted, salted pistachios

Method

Heat the olive oil in a deep, straight-sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and a bit sweet.

Add the chopped apple, squash, and spices to the pan and cook everything over medium heat for 5-7 minutes or until the squash and apples begin to cook down and release liquid.

Add enough broth to the pan to cover the vegetables and fruit, then turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat back to medium and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, until the squash is tender. The liquid will also start to reduce.

Using a traditional or immersion blender, puree the soup. If using a countertop blender, you may need to do so in batches to keep the hot liquid in check. Once the soup is pureed, add the coconut milk and blend it in. Check the seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed, and then blend again.

Serve hot with the toasted pistachio garnish and enjoy!

Hopefully I’ll be back a little more quickly this time. There’s a lot I know I’ll want to make once the farm markets are back in full swing for the summer, so keep your eyes peeled for new recipes. Until then…

Ciao for now,

Neen

Sweet Simplicity: Chocolate Chip Scones

15 Sep

There are some dishes I make so frequently that I never bother to photograph them. That got me thinking the other day about lost recipes. The sort of everyday things that become second nature, that we think unworthy of photographing or calling attention to. But if we don’t teach or tell others how to do these things, they’re completely lost to time. Imagine that; a dish that might never live again until some unwitting cook elsewhere dreams it up again.

So this is one of the recipes that I make probably every other week or so, and one you can make and customize with whatever you have in the house.

Chocolate-Chip Scones

Yield: 8 scones

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder (aluminum –free is best)
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 oz. butter, chilled and cubed
  • ½ cup of cold buttermilk (or make your own by squeezing half a lemon into ½ cup 2% milk)
  • ½ cup chocolate chips (or berries, dried fruits, nuts…etc.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and kosher salt in a large bowl or food processor.

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Add the chilled butter, and process or cut the butter in to the dry ingredients until the mixture has a pebbly, sandy texture.

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Add the buttermilk and mix just until the dough forms large clumps.

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Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and mix in the chocolate chips (or addition of your choice) by hand. Then pat the dough into a circle about ¾ in. thick.

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Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut the circle into 8 triangles and then arrange them on a baking sheet with a couple of inches in between each.

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Bake for 15 minutes or until the bottoms are golden brown and the tops are just lightly golden.

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Scones, like most quick breads, are best consumed the day they are made. That said, I’ve revived these in the toaster for many breakfasts, so they’re definitely still tasty a day later. My favorite additions aside from chocolate chips are blueberries and of course the classic dried currants. Don’t want to add anything? Then don’t! They’re great plain with a pat of butter, too.

So that’s it really. Go forth and make delicious scones!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.

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Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.

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Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

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Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.

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I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

Quick Re-Heats: Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

23 Apr

One of the most in-my-face changes since becoming a self-employed person with odd “office hours,” has been figuring out when and what to eat. Sometimes there are evenings where I teach from 6 until 9:30. I personally don’t like to eat less than 2 hours before I teach a hot class, and sometimes afterward my brain kicks into “I just want to relax” mode before I have time to consider dinner. The problem is that thinking leads to grabbing something easy or fast on my way home. And while Alexandria has a decent variety of quick, healthy food options, let’s be honest that buying a $10-15 salad/pizza/sandwich that I could make at home for a fraction of the cost is not the best idea.

So I’ve been leaning on foods that are easily re-heated and those that can be made for the sole purpose of using up odds and ends at the end of the week. Soup, lasagna, chili, and pot roast are all pretty good examples. Still, for simplicity, nothing beats quiche. And this version negates the need to make pastry, which is a good bonus. I make these on Sunday and refrigerate them in individual containers. The key here is to not think too hard about specific ingredients. Use what you have. In this instance, I made this right after Easter, so I had leftover ham, potatoes, a lone tomato, a half package of mushrooms, and some half-wilted salad greens. I also only had 5 eggs, and I assure you it was not the end of the world.

Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

  • 1 russet potato, sliced thin on a mandoline
  • 6 eggs, well beaten
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of shredded or diced cheese (I used a cheddar-jack blend)
  • 1 roma tomato, diced
  • A few handfuls of greens (I used kale/spinach/chard salad blend)
  • 5-6 oz. of ham, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 6-8 oz. white or cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Prep the potato crust first. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and lightly grease a baking sheet. Lay the sliced potatoes out—they can overlap a bit.

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Bake for 9-10 minutes or until just lightly golden. This isn’t to cook the potatoes through, but to make them pliable.

Grease a muffin tin. Let the potatoes cool slightly and then lay slices in each cup, pressing them against the bottom and sides. Make sure they overlap slightly. Five slices usually does the trick if you’re working with a large potato.

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Set the pan aside while you prepare the filling.

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Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Place a skillet over medium heat and add some olive oil or butter to the pan. Gently saute the mushrooms until they start to give up some liquid, and then add the ham and garlic. Cook one minute more, and finally add the tomato and greens to the pan. Cook until the greens wilt slightly, and then remove the pan from the heat. Season the filling with salt and pepper to taste.

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Beat the eggs with the milk, nutmeg, and some salt and pepper.

To assemble the quiches, place a generous amount of the vegetable/ham filling into each crust, top each with shredded cheese, and then very slowly add egg custard to each one until ¾ full.

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Carefully move the muffin tin to the oven and bake the quiches for 12-15 minutes. They will puff up and be golden brown on top when ready. Let them sit in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of each, and lift the quiche out with a wide spoon or small spatula.

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I like to have quiche with some greens in spicy vinaigrette to offset the rich custard. Yum.

To reheat from cold, just pop into a toaster oven or conventional oven set to 350 degrees F and cook for 5-8 minutes. Nearly instant breakfast, lunch, or dinner! This recipe usually makes about 8-10 quiches depending on how large the potato is and how many odds and ends you’re throwing into the custard.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Neen’s Notes is BACK (with cookies)!

16 Jan

Almost a year after quietly fading away, here I am. So what happened?

Life.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Okay, you want details. After I finished yoga teacher training at the end of March 2014, there was a void. It was a steady, dull ache that huddled in my heart and reminded me constantly of how much I missed the long weekends learning about yoga with kind souls. I grasped at every opportunity I could to take classes from my friends (now amazing yoga teachers!), but I couldn’t get grounded. Things at work were really challenging. The organization where I worked had gone through huge transitions in procedures and leadership, and the growing pains got more palpable with time. Every time one fire started to die out, another blazed in its place. There was sadness within me that I couldn’t shake, but I did my best to keep grinding forward.

As we do each spring, Joe and I made our grand return to Boston for PAX East in April and that was when everything started to change. While we were away, two local studios emailed me and offered me yoga teaching jobs, and one of them offered to hire me to do some writing work for their website and blog. That night I was sitting at a panel event hosted by the team from Giant Bomb. All of the panelists and their guests were having fun—they’d found a way to take their joy and make a living doing it. I decided that night to leave my office job.

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

The next few months were an insane experiment. At the beginning, I only had one or two classes a week that were permanent, so I took substitute teaching positions as often as possible. I spent the rest of my time writing about yoga for a studio blog, and studying therapeutic yoga as a way to expand and continue my training. I wrote class plans, built a website, found a graphic designer to create a logo, started developing a social media presence on Instagram and YouTube, and began to teach myself the ways of Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing (oh we have a ways to go together). And I read. I devoured yoga books, always looking for things to share with my students.

It was not and is not a linear experience. In July, the studio that hired me to write for their blog decided to take their student outreach in a different direction, and at the same time another studio cancelled two of my classes because of low attendance. I was crushed. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for this. I was having some health issues too, and felt frustrated and overwhelmed by everything.

I started to really question myself and did some serious svadhyaya (self-reflection in yoga practice). They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it is also the creator of doubt. I saw my friends in crazy arm balances and strength poses that I didn’t have in my practice and thought, “I can’t offer that to my students. How can I possibly be a good yoga teacher?”

The answer came quietly: You do you.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t there, I remembered my friends during teacher training telling me that they wished they could just lay in savasana and listen to my voice. It is round, rich, and warm. It is probably my favorite quality about my physical self. So I started using that—sharing a soft chant while students were in a restorative pose or reading a poem during our break between standing and seated poses. People smiled. They thanked me for an experience.

I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mindset. I was intimidated when I came to yoga by all of the strength and flexibility around me. The teachers I returned to were those who took that away, the ones who offered variations so everyone could try something, and who encouraged students to own their practice. Those are the people I thought, and still think of, when I stand at the front of the room. I decided (rather radically for me) to love myself unconditionally. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said.

When I let go of trying to be what I thought I needed to be, my confidence grew. I was me when I stood up, and not anyone else. Sure, teachers beg, borrow, and steal cues from one another all the time. That’s the amazing thing about yoga—there is always, always, always something more to learn. Part of the reason I love social media is because the Instagram community is chock full of talented, smart yogis who share their journeys. It makes me feel so connected and whole knowing that we are all in this together, all working together.

And here it is, 2015. I finished my graduate certificate in nutrition in the fall, I’m teaching yoga seven days a week, and have learned to just ride this wave. Classes will ebb and flow, but there is always more to learn and there is always an outlet to share it with others. I’m making my own way and living life on my own terms. It is not always easy and I do still feel twinges of doubt or the urge to control, but more and more I am learning to breathe through it. Life happens one moment at a time.

The universe has put me exactly where I need to be, and I trust that. I have faith. I am welcoming it in, and I hope you’ll join me.

And because this is, after all, Neen’s Notes, I also have cookies!

Over 6 years of Notes, and I never shared my favorite cookie recipe with you: Shortbread. Shame on me.

How lame is that? The truth is that it’s such a simple recipe that I never thought to share it. And then I was making a batch last week and thought that of all the things I make, it is pretty much the embodiment of those words: You do you. (Well, me doing me, but that sounds strange.)

Why? A few reasons. First of all, it’s pretty much pie dough with a slightly different method. And if you know anything about this blog, you know my love for pastry dough runs deep. Secondly, it’s four ingredients that I always have in the house. That’s it. And third of all, in encapsulates my loves of recipe manipulation and kitchen science, because I tried a whooooooole lot of shortbread recipes (tough job), and then made up my own based on knowing exactly what I was trying to achieve in terms of texture and flavor. For me, the perfect shortbread is crisp, but flaky on the inside.

Let’s do it.

Crisp Shortbread Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 4.5 oz. (9 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Heavy ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • *Optional: 2 tbsp. corn starch. Adding cornstarch to your flour will make these ultra-snappy and crispy. Especially ideal if you want to use these as sandwich cookies or plan to ice them. It gives them sturdiness without making them tough.
  • *Optional: Sprinkles!
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Team Shortbread

Method:

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the flour and salt (and cornstarch if using it) in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth.

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Nice and fluffy, buy you can taste to be “sure”.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing slowly and just until pieces of dough start to adhere together. Pour this on to a clean surface.

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Bring the dough together with your hands and knead just until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

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Smooth and ready to wrap/roll.

Lightly flour a counter and roll the dough out until it’s about a 1/4 in. thick, and cut out shapes as desired. I used a fluted 1 ½ in. biscuit cutter and got 2 dozen cookies.

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Any shape will work, but if there are a lot of fine edges, roll the dough a bit thicker.

Put the cookies on a baking sheet with about ½ in. of space between them. They won’t spread very much. Here you can add sprinkles if you like.

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Ready to bake.

Bake the cookies on a rack in the middle of the oven for about 17 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden.

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Ta-da!

Enjoy!

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Sparkling shortbread, yum.

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Mmm, so flaky inside.

 And that is the delicious, and dare I say very happy, return of Neen’s Notes. It’s good to be back.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Satisfy My Soul: Sweet Potato, Chickpea, and Collard Greens Stew

14 Jan

Long-time readers of this blog will no doubt remember the “Mystery Food” series. For a couple of summers, I participated in Community Supported Agriculture programs in the NoVA area. Basically, it’s like buying stock…only more delicious. You pay a lump sum to a local farm at the beginning of the growing season, and once a week receive a box full of whatever has been harvested that week.

What I miss the most about it is that it forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to plan meals around whatever appeared in that box—and during some times of the year that meant figuring out what to do with massive quantities of squash, apples, or greens. Kale must grow really well around here, because boy-howdy did I eat a lot of kale those summers.

So when my friend Heather tipped me off to a special deal on Relay Foods, a grocery delivery service that sources from local stores, restaurants, and farms, I was excited to find they had their own version of this CSA-type share called a Bounty Box. Cha-ching! Time for vegetable roulette. I ordered one and anxiously anticipated what might appear on the porch.

There were some glorious pink lady apples, a jug of fresh apple cider, a nice fat little tomato, some white potatoes, watercress, curly kale, an enormous pile of collard greens, and several very hefty sweet potatoes. I was definitely pleased with the haul, but a little thrown for a loop. Confession time: I never buy sweet potatoes or collards. I have nothing against them, but I just never buy them or cook with them.

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Nothing like a mystery box to let your mouth know what it’s been missing! Seasonal food is awesome, because it’s exactly what the earth has to offer at that moment—and wherever you are, it’s probably exactly what your body is asking for too. Think about it: Collards packed with vitamin c, k, and soluble fiber (not to mention factors that regulate immune function) and sweet potatoes full of fiber, beta carotene, vitamin c, vitamin b-6, and potassium. Yep, mother earth definitely knows you need some protection against flu season. And nothing says yummy winter food like a stew…

Sweet Potato, Chickpea, and Collard Greens Stew

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp. coriander seeds
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • 3-4 cups collard greens, large ribs removed, roughly chopped
  • 1 15.4 oz. can of no salted added chickpeas, drained, or 2 cups of dried chickpeas soaked overnight
  • 2 large sweet potatoes (approximately 1 lb.), peeled and diced
  • 2-3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by heating the olive oil, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and coriander seeds  in a large pot over medium heat. Heat for about one minute, and then add the chickpeas and stir to combine. Cook the chickpeas until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes. Remove, and set aside.
20140109_171922Add the onions to the pot and cook until soft and somewhat translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute more, stirring frequently so that the spices don’t burn.

Add the diced sweet potatoes to the pot and cook for 10 minutes.
20140109_173252Once the sweet potatoes have softened slightly, add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the pot to just cover them. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce and simmer for 15 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are very tender.
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Remove the pot from the heat and blend or mash the soup until you like the consistency. I like to leave some chunks of sweet potato, rather than making this smooth like bisque.
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Return the pot to the stove over medium heat and add the collard greens and chickpeas. Simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes or until the greens are tender.
20140109_191507Serve hot, garnished with some roasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds for some crunch.
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Nothing like a bowl of something hearty to warm your body and soul on a cold January evening. And a reminder that sometimes being thrown out of your regular routine leads to a whole new experience of comfort, ease, and culinary satisfaction.

Ciao for now,

Neen