Twice Baked Potatoes

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You can’t really go wrong with potatoes and cheese. And if you brown the cheese it’s even better.

Rich and I had a date night a few weeks ago and we were looking for something that was tasty, but not too indulgent. We are still coming off our holiday indulgences and are happy with lighter meals. We decided on spuds and salads, but we wanted to jazz up the potatoes just a bit. Twice baked potatoes to the rescue.

The potatoes are a nice change from regular baked potatoes and are only a little more work. You can cut the work down even further if you use leftover baked potatoes – it is easy to throw a few extra potatoes in the oven for later in the week.

Twice baked potatoes are the epitome of a customizable dish. Make them early in the day, or even the day before, and stash them in the fridge until ready to bake. Or make them right before you want to eat them. Use less cheese, or more. Add bacon, chives, green onions, garlic or bits of whatever you have in the fridge. I kept the recipe pretty basic, but feel free to make it yours.

What’s your favorite way to eat baked potatoes?

Print just the recipe here.

Twice Baked Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Use more cheese if you like your potatoes really cheesy.

You can make bake, mash and fill the potato shells ahead of time. Store them in the fridge until ready to bake them the second time.

4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 egg, slightly beaten
2-4 tablespoons milk
Salt
Pepper
1 cup grated cheese (Cheddar, Swiss or a combination of your favorites)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake potatoes for about an hour, or until they are soft when poked with a fork. Cool potatoes until you can handle them comfortably. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Scoop out the insides of each half, leaving about ¼ inch shell of potato inside the skin. You don’t have to be precise. Set potato shells aside.

Mash the scooped out potato with a fork or potato masher. Try to get most of the lumps out, but don’t get obsessive. Add the egg, about 2 tablespoons of milk and a few sprinkles of salt and pepper and mash again. If the mixture seems too dry, add a bit more milk and mash again. You want a mixture that is a little wetter than mashed potatoes.

Mix in about ½ cup of cheese. Reserve ½ cup of cheese for topping the potatoes later.

Fill the potato shells with the cheese-potato mixture, mounding the tops fairly neatly.

Place the filled potato halves on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet, propping the potatoes against each other if they won’t stand up.

Bake the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, or just until the tops are starting to turn golden brown in spots. Remove the potatoes from the oven and sprinkle the tops with the reserved cheese. Return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown. Broil the tops for a couple of minutes if you want the cheese browner.

Caramelized Acorn Squash

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I alluded to this recipe a couple of weeks ago, when I was talking about the date night meal Rich and I enjoyed on a Friday night. We had Cornish hens, a whole grain medley and this squash. I’m not sure which was our favorite, but together they made a wonderful fall meal.

I had two beautiful acorn squash that my dad grew in his garden and I wanted to do them justice. I also wanted to do something different than my usual method – roasting the squash halves and serving them with butter and brown sugar. I envisioned slices of squash browned in butter, but I wanted to do it with the least amount of work and without flirting with stitches.

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As you may know, winter squash can be nigh on impossible to peel when they are raw. You can do it, but you risk losing a digit or two in the process. If you are particularly unlucky, you will get one with a thick rind that leaves you wondering if your knife will ever make it through the darn thing so you can get the seeds out.

I figured I would need to cook the squash a little before I tried peel it. I was able to cut mine into wedges while they were raw, since they were small and had relatively thin rinds. After a short time in the oven, the wedges were easy to peel and only needed a few minutes in a skillet to get toasty brown. The flesh was tender and sweet, contrasting with the buttery, slightly salty caramelized sides of the slices. Just exactly how I had imagined they would be.

Download or print the recipe here.

Caramelized Acorn Squash
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

You can bake the squash wedges ahead of time. Store in the fridge for a day or two, until you are ready to caramelize and serve them.

2 small to medium acorn squash
¼ cup water
½-1 tablespoon butter
salt, optional
pepper, optional
brown sugar or maple syrup, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut squash in half and remove the seeds and strings. Cut squash into wedges, about 1½ inches wide at the widest portion.*

Arrange squash wedges in a single layer in a casserole dish. Add water and cover with the lid or foil. Bake for 15 minutes, or until they are crisp tender. A fork will go in the flesh, but not easily.

Remove squash wedges from oven and let cool until you can handle them. Peel squash. At this point you can refrigerate the squash wedges for up to a couple of days.

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add squash wedges, laying them on their sides in a single layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, if desired. Let cook, undisturbed, for 5-10 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottoms. Carefully turn over and brown the other side for 5-7 minutes more.

Serve hot. Sprinkle with brown sugar or drizzle with maple syrup, if desired.

*If your squash has a particularly hard-to-cut rind, you can cut it into wedges after it bakes.  You will probably need to bake the halves longer than the wedges to get them crisp tender.

Back to Basics – White Rice

DSC_0024Plain boiled rice might seem too basic for a recipe. However, I can’t tell you how many people have asked me how to cook rice. It isn’t hard to make rice, but there are several things that can trip you up.

First, since you are working with only two ingredients – rice and water – you need to have good rice. I don’t like to use the run-of-the-mill rice from the grocery store that is labeled “long-grain rice” or just “rice.” The quality can be inconsistent, which means your cooked rice can be inconsistent.

I prefer to use jasmine or basmati rice. They have more flavor than un-named, generic varieties and cook up more consistently. The jasmine has a subtle flowery, spicy flavor that perfumes the whole house when you are cooking it. Basmati smells and tastes slightly nutty, sometimes slightly reminiscent of popcorn. Both are long grain rices, sometimes extremely long. The grains are fluffy and separate easily – no gumminess.

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Be sure to buy your rice from a store that has reasonable turnover. Even white rice can get old and rancid. Give it a sniff and you will know if your rice is over the hill or not. Old rice smells sour, musty and not good. And those aromas will only intensify when you cook it. Rice is cheap. If in doubt, toss it and buy a fresh supply. If you don’t cook rice that often, toss the raw rice in a ziplock bag and store it in the freezer. You can cook it directly from the freezer.

There really isn’t a lot to cooking rice, as long as you start with a good product. You cook it in twice as much water, by volume, as rice. So one cup of rice cooks in two cups of water. Cover it while it cooks and don’t stir. That is it. Yes, it is that easy. And yes, I am including a recipe. Follow the directions and you should end up with perfect rice, every time.

Download or print the recipe here.

White Rice
From the Cook’s Life
Serves 4, easy to double

2 cups water
1 cup rice

Bring water to boil in a 2- or 3-quart pot over high heat, covered. When water boils, immediately turn the heat as low as your stove will go. Add rice, stir once and put the lid on the pot. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Watch the pot for a minute or two to make sure the starch in the rice won’t make bubbles that creep to the top and run down the outside. If this happens, lift the lid, stir once, and re-cover the pot.

Now, leave the rice alone. Don’t stir it. Don’t uncover it.

After 15 minutes, check on the rice. Lift the lid and use a spoon to pull back a small section of the rice from the edge of the pan. If there is unabsorbed water in the bottom, replace the lid and cook for another 5-7 minutes.

When rice is done, all the water will be absorbed and the grains of rice will be tender and slightly sticky, but not gummy. If rice still seems too wet, give it a few more minutes to cook.

Fluff the rice and serve hot. Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave, though the rice will never be as fluffy and moist as it is the first day.

Fresh Corn, Tomato and Bean Salad

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I came up with this salad last summer, but then forgot to post the recipe before the corn and tomato season was over. I almost did it again this year, but we still have a few weeks left before the summer’s bounty gives way to fall harvests.

When I developed the recipe, I was looking for a different salad to take to a barbecue. I wanted to use in-season vegetables and I wanted to make a dish that would hold up at room temperature for several hours. I started with the corn I had in the fridge, thinking while I cut the kernels off the cobs. Tomatoes were a given – we had a bowlful begging to be used. Lemon zest and juice provided a bit of a tang without taking over like vinegar might have. I added shallots, but caramelized them to soften and deepen their flavors.

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I mixed and tasted and thought. The colors were there, with the red of the tomatoes and the yellow corn. The flavors were there, with the sweet corn and shallots, the bright lemon and the fruity tomatoes. The textures were there with the crunch of the corn and the soft tomatoes. But there was still something missing. I had a can of black beans. Dark, slightly salty, creamy beans. Color – check. Flavor – check. Texture – check. The beans were the key to bringing it all together.

Be sure to make the salad with in-season tomatoes. If you use insipid grocery store tomatoes they will look pretty, but they won’t add much to the dish. You want the tomatoes that smell like summer when you cut into them. The ones that make you realize that you were kidding yourself with tomatoes over the winter. The ones that make you say, “Yes, that is why I fight the deer and the squirrels to grow tomatoes.” The ones that make a trek to the farmer’s market worth it.

Download or print the recipe here.

Fresh Corn, Tomato and Bean Salad
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 8-10

This salad is fabulous with fresh corn cut off the cob. If you can’t get good corn, or don’t want to mess with cutting it off the cob, use the same amount of frozen corn – no need to thaw.

1-2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium shallot, diced
1½-2 cups fresh corn kernels, about 3 ears (see head note)
1 tablespoon water
1 large or 2 small tomatoes
1 15 oz. can black beans, low sodium preferred, drained and rinsed
1 lemon
cayenne (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
salt

Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, add shallot and reduce heat to medium low. You want to slowly caramelize the shallot, so lower the heat if necessary. Add another teaspoon of oil if shallot starts to stick. Prepare the rest of the salad while the shallot cooks.

Mix the corn with the tablespoon of water in a large microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Cut the tomatoes in half and use a spoon to scoop out the pulp and seeds. This will keep the salad from being too watery.

Dice tomatoes into pieces about the size of the kernels of corn. Add the diced tomato to the corn. Add the beans and the caramelized shallot. Zest the lemon and add it to the mixture. Toss gently to mix.

Juice the lemon into a small bowl or glass measuring cup. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and whisk to combine. Add cayenne and black pepper to taste. Pour dressing over the bean mixture and stir. Taste and add a touch of salt if necessary. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

This keeps for several days in the refrigerator.

Salt Potatoes

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I saw this recipe a couple of weeks ago on the blog Sinfully Tempting. I had never heard of salt potatoes – evidently they are a regional specialty of Syracuse, New York. From the description, I knew we had to try them. I read the recipe to Rich and Calvin and we decided to make them that night for dinner.

The concept is simple: you cook potatoes in heavily salted water to mimic cooking them in water from salt marshes. In the “olden days,” salt workers in New York took raw potatoes to work for lunch. They would cook the potatoes right in the vats of salt water they were boiling down to make salt.

The original post mentioned that the large amount of salt raises the boiling point of the water. I had to check this out, and it is true, at least according the sites I found. If I did the math and the metric conversions properly, and if the formula I was using is accurate, the boiling point of the water with that salt concentration is 216° F instead of 212°. No idea if this really affects how the potatoes cook, but they were extremely creamy and soft inside their salty skins.

At first I was taken aback at the amount of salt, but I followed the directions for once. And we weren’t disappointed. The potatoes were velvety and smooth inside their sparkly, salty crusts. A drizzle of butter and they were spectacular.

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The hardest part of this recipe was finding small potatoes. Sinfully Tempting recommended only white or yellow potatoes. She said the skins on red potatoes are too thin for the crust to form properly. I might have to test that theory next time, as new red potatoes are easier to find here than any other kind. Our potatoes were small, but they weren’t quite bite-sized, as specified in the original recipe. We were fine with cutting them into smaller pieces on our plates.

One word of warning – this is a lot of salt. It makes the water pop and spit salt residue all over the stove. It was nothing that a quick wipe down didn’t take care of, but it was a little surprising.

I think these would be spectacular to serve as appetizers at a party, if you can find tiny potatoes – hors d’oeuvre and conversation starter in one. Or just enjoy them as a new alternative to mashed or baked potatoes.

EDIT: I tried using new red potatoes and they worked just fine. The salt crust might have been a little thinner than on the yellow potatoes, but they were still wonderful.

Download or print the recipe here.

Salt Potatoes
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
from Sinfully Tempting
Serves 4-6

1½ pounds small potatoes
6 cups water
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons table salt
3-4 tablespoons butter, melted

Scrub potatoes well – you will be eating the skins. Combine the water and the salt in a pot that has at least a 3-quart capacity. The salt may not all dissolve, that is okay. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

Once the water boils, add the potatoes. Lower the heat to medium and cover partially. Gently boil the potatoes for 15-20 minutes, or until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Salt and water may pop and spit. It cleans up easily and the mess is worth it.

Once potatoes are tender, use tongs to remove them to a wire cooking rack to dry and cool just a bit. The skins will look white and crusty with salt, which is what you want.

Serve potatoes hot, with melted butter for dipping or drizzling. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave. The salt crust will not be as evident on the leftovers, but you will still taste it.

Fried Okra

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Crispy, brown and salty – fried okra was the only way I would eat okra when I was a kid. My parents enjoyed whole, boiled okra sometimes, but I never could get past the gelatinous juices the okra exuded when it was boiled. When you toss raw, sliced okra with a little flour and cornmeal, those same gelatinous juices make a batter that browns up in the smallest bit of oil to make the crispy deliciousness that is fried okra.

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I have never really worked from a recipe to make fried okra. I usually just toss the slices with flour and cornmeal and then add water until the mix looks right. I had to pull out the measuring cups and spoons to figure out how much of everything to use this time.

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This is one recipe where more isn’t better. It doesn’t take much oil for the okra to crisp – if you add too much you end up with greasy okra. And be patient with the heat. Almost every summer I burn a batch of okra because I impatiently turn up the heat to hurry things along and then smell the mistake. Do as I say, not as I do, young grasshoppers.

Download or print the recipe here.

Fried Okra
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

¾-1 pound okra
¼ teaspoon salt, plus additional for serving
¼ cup cornmeal, approximately
¼ cup all-purpose flour, approximately
1-2 tablespoons water, approximately
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil, approximately

Cut tops off okra, and tips if they are brown or limp. Cut okra into ¼-½ rounds. Drop pieces into a large bowl as you cut them. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ cup cornmeal and ¼ cup flour. Mix well.

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Sometimes the natural moisture from the okra will be enough to turn the cornmeal and flour into a batter-like coating. If the mixture looks dry, add water, a few teaspoons at a time. The batter should stick to the okra pieces, mostly covering them. If you get too much water and the okra is sitting in runny batter, add about a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal to thicken it.

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Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until oil is shimmering, but not smoking. Pour okra into hot pan, spreading it out into one even layer.

Cook, undisturbed, for 5-7 minutes, or until bottom is starting to brown. Carefully turn sections of the okra over, trying not to leave any of the coating on the pan. Add a teaspoon of oil, if the pan seems dry. Don’t add too much, or the okra will be greasy.

After another 5 minutes, the second side of the okra should be mostly browned. Gently stir the okra to break up some of the clumps. Some of the coating will fall off, which is fine. This makes little crispy bits that everyone will be fighting over when you serve it. Cook until most sides of the okra pieces are browned and crispy. Some of the larger pieces will never get crispy, but they will still be good.

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Serve hot, with additional salt to taste.

Fried okra is best right after it is cooked. Leftovers can be reheated in a dry skillet and they will be almost as good as they were the first time. I wouldn’t recommend heating leftovers in the microwave.

Zucchini Abundance

It is that time of year again, when the zucchinis are big and the harvest is bountiful. If you have a garden of your own, or you know someone who grows zucchini, you are probably trying to think up ways to use it all. And if you aren’t so lucky, find a farmers’ market and buy some. Zucchini season is here!

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Try making Oven Crisped Zucchini.

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Or pick up a few summer tomatoes and make Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons.

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Or, for something sweet, make Lemon Zucchini Muffins.

What’s your favorite zucchini recipe?