Saturday, December 31, 2005

Cookie Heaven

I'm going to Toronto tomorrow, which means two things: hanging out with my favorite people in my favorite city and cooking. Because my boyfriend's mother actually uses her kitchen. My mother was never the cooking type (she currently lives off of Praeger's Veggie Burgers, Skinny Cow fudge bars, Kellog's Complete Bran Flakes, and anything else that comes out of a box) and so I never had that whole "working kitchen" atmosphere at my house.

Don't get me wrong - the kitchen in my house growing up was huge. When we moved in it was a workable space, but then my mom - donning the hat of interior designer - created a whole new kitchen that made it necessary for builders to push our house out in the back. The kitchen is monstrous - there's an island in the center with a sink and drawers and we eat almost all of our meals there; the dining room is only used on special occasions. There is a wood-paneled refrigerator and freezer and everything looks so... state of the art. When the kitchen was done my mother took photographs, had them developed into slides, and sent them to Metropolitan Home for a "greatest kitchen" competition. Now, the "window seat" is covered in old newspapers, the ledge by the windows is covered in more newspapers, the drawers by the kitchen hold mostly junk, and the cereal drawer below the microwave has lots of empty boxes. And there's two dishwashers because we keep Kosher, though I doubt that will be a selling point when the time comes. 14 years later, it still looks really modern. Oh - and if you plan to redecorate your kitchen DO NOT use concrete tiles! That's what we had and it was quite painful when your then hormonal little brother bashed your head into them.

Now, in the city, I realize how huge our kitchen was. It was the most used space at home, even if it wasn't for cooking. But in New York, the average kitchen that I've been in is about 30-50 square feet. If that. Which makes it more understandable that most New Yorkers don't cook. My aunt and uncle used to live at 88th & Lex (they've since moved to Scarsdale with a ginormous kitchen) and their kitchen was small although bigger than most I've seen in New York. I went there for some time to watch my cousin when he was a toddler and every meal was takeout. And when I've babysat at various apartments there are more takeout containers than tupperware. I recently served at a Christmas Eve party - also on the Upper East Side - and the kitchen was really big, yet almost all of the food had been picked up.

I have no kitchen this year, so I use my friends' suite kitchen. It's about 25-30 square feet and is used by 5 kids and me, the visitor. All of my kitchen appliances line the nearby table, the floor, and what little counter space there is. I just cleaned out the fridge (which was gross) and found so many take out containers, half-eaten sandwiches, tin-foil wrapped burritos, and the like. It seemed like we hadn't cooked once all year based on what was there. Of course, we had, each on different levels: I made my "from scratch" food for bragging rights, one girl has a likening towards Chicken Dogs and cookies, two guys make tuna - errr, open a can of tuna every day - and one of them also makes pancakes, and my friend cooks pasta a lot or heats up food from home. But here it is so much more expensive to cook than to order takeout or delivery.

There are three supermarkets nearby: Appletree, D'Agostino, and Morton Williams (which I still call UFM). And then Garden of Eden is very gourmet and a few blocks south from D'Ag. When I go home I realize just how stark the difference is in grocery stores - these few hardly have sales, and when they do the food is still more expensive than on Long Island. Which is by no means a reason to go to Long Island. So cooking for one or two can be pricier than just getting takeout. It dependsd on the quality that you want, I suppose. When I cook it is more expensive than if I ordered out, however, what I cook is much better tasting, healthier, and actually a complete meal, not some greasy old Vegetable Lo Mein. But with meal plans, packed schedules, and tiny kitchens, students don't necessarily learn how to cook and then will be the newest takeout consumers upon entering the "real world." And doesn't help either. Now you don't even need to call in your order and hope that the person at the other end understood what you wanted. You can order it online.

So to ring in the new year, and close out the old I am leaving you with my favorite "dorm style" recipes of the year. These are surprisingly easy, taste so much better than their take out counterparts, and will impress your friends.

String Bean & Mushroom Saute
My boyfriend's mother first made this. I never realized how much I loved string beans until I tasted this. If you don't want to deal with trimming the ends of the beans and having to pick good ones at the grocery store, then just buy the frozen ones (whole) thaw them in some hot water and follow every direction after that. The amounts of mushrooms & string beans can be adjusted to your liking.

1 onion, sliced relatively thick
1 pound of string beans, ends trimmed
3-4 portobello mushroom caps, or about 6 ounces of baby Portobellos, sliced into pretty big chunks
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil (that's EVOO)
Kosher salt

If you are using fresh string beans, fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil. When it is boiling add the string beans and blanch them - keep them in the water for about 3 minutes and then transfer them to a pot of ice water. You can do this earlier in the day if you'd like. Heat a saute pan on medium low heat and then add 1 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp oil. Add the onions and let them caramelize in the pan - there is a fine line between caramelizing and burning so keep fiddling with them - it will take about 15 minutes, maybe less or more depending on how thickly you sliced them. Throw in the mushrooms, and add the extra olive oil OR butter if you want - the mushrooms are like sponges and will absorb it all so add either one or the other. Sautee the onions and mushrooms until the mushrooms are tender and cooked down; you will notice that they've shrunk down. At the last minute add the remaining oil or butter and the string beans, toss it all around until the string beans are heated through and add some kosher salt to taste. This is fabulous with salmon, eggs - just about anything!

Sugar Cookies
I made these after I got my KitchenAid. They are so great, and cut out very easily. If you mix some confectioners sugar, a bit of water and some food coloring together you will get a nice royal icing mix and you can decorate the cookies afterwards. I also halved this recipe and it worked out fine. The trick is to roll out half of the dough between 2 pieces of parchment paper and then put it in the fridge, then do the same with the other half. By the time you're done with the second half, the first dough sheet is ready to come out.

6 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
2 cups butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract or desired flavoring (I like almond myself)
1 tsp. salt
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well. Mix dry ingredients and add a little at a time to butter mixture. Mix until flour is completely incorporated and the dough comes together.

Chill for 1 to 2 hours.

Roll to desired thickness and cut into desired shapes. Bake on ungreased baking sheet at 350
degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until just beginning to turn brown around the edges. This recipe
can make up to 5-dozen 3” cookies.

My Amazing Mac & Cheese
I made a ton of this for our building-wide Thanksgiving Dinner. Like five trays worth. It's a more complex recipe that I whittled down by eliminating all but the bare necessities to make it taste good. And let me say, it's been a hit.

1/2 pound macaroni
3 Tbsp. flour
3 Tbsp. butter
3 cups of milk (I use 1% and it's fine; I'd assume some prefer to use whole milk though)
1 egg
12 ounces of cheddar cheese, grated (I use a mix of mild and sharp cheddar)
salt and pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp. butter
1 c. bread crumbs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a pot of water to boil and add the macaroni; cook according to the box's instructions and strain. Make a roux (sp?) in a saucepan: over medium-high heat melt 3 Tbsp. butter and add the flour... then whisk it so that the flour doesn't burn. It will take about 5 minutes. The flour is a thickening agent for the cheese sauce but you have to "cook" it so that the dish doesn't taste flour-y. Once you have the roux, add the milk and continue to whisk the mixture for about 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and whisk a little while - you will notice that it is thick and if you used whole milk it may be thicker than 1% however even skim would be fine here. Temper the egg - beat it and then add a couple of teaspoons of the hot milk mixture and whisk briskly so that the egg doesn't cook. Then slowly add the egg mixture into the rest of the milk mixture and keep whisking so that you won't have bits of scrambled egg in your macaroni. Now stir in the cheese. You can do it in bits so that you know that it's all being incorporated. The hot milk will melt the cheese and as you whisk you'll notice that you have a light orange and very creamy sauce. Add salt & pepper to taste and stir in the macaroni. Put the entire thing into a pan, about 13x9" worked fine for me and if you have a 2 quart casserole pan that's even better (but what college students do?). Now melt the remaining 3 Tbsp of butter, remove from heat, and add the breadcrumbs tossing them to coat. Sprinkle this over the top of the macaroni and - as my boyfriend always reminds me - make sure it's just a sprinkle and not a heavy coat, otherwise it will be to crumby. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.


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