Velvety Asparagus Soup with Mushroom-Tofu Panini

I remember eating cream of asparagus soup in french class as a kid and thinking it was the most amazing soup ever - decadently creamy with the grassiness of the pureed asparagus and perfect when dipped with crusty french bread. My version is much lower in fat but equally satisfying. The small amount of potato helps round out the flavors and lends a creaminess when pureed that allows you to cut down on the addition of cream or milk. It can also be made to be vegan by either omitting the milk and yogurt topping or using unsweetened soy milk and yogurt.

My recipe for mushroom-tofu panini was inspired by a a similar panini at the East Village vegetarian restaurant Counter that I developed strong cravings for when I lived in new york and needed to replicate after I'd moved away. The earthy mushroom filling is balanced by the tangy-sweet tomatoes and spicy arugula. It's also quite good on other kinds of bread even whole grain, in case you don't have time to make the focaccia rounds. Though these do provide the right amount of crunch on the outside and softness on the inside to make a really great panini. Serve with a nut brown ale to really bring out the best in the mushrooms.

Focaccia Sandwich Rounds
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Makes 6 6" rounds

1 1/4 cup warm water
1 packet yeast
1 tsp sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for kneading
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for dough
Seeds and additional sea salt for top, optional

Stir together water, sugar, and yeast, let rise in a warm place until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour, oil, and sea salt, mix to combine. Turn out onto a well floured board, knead continue to add flour until barely sticky. Oil a bowl, swirl dough in oil to coat thoroughly, turn over. Let rise in a warm place covered with a dish towel until doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes.

Divide into 6 pieces, roll into balls and with your fingers pat out to 6" rounds on a parchment covered baking sheet. Coat with oil, seeds (such as fennel, caraway, or mustard seeds) and sea salt if desired. Cover and let rise in a warm place for another 40 minutes until plump. Brush or spray with water, bake in a 425 oven for 30 min until golden brown. Brush with water after 10 min and 20 min.

Velvety Asparagus Soup

Makes 3 servings

3 Stalks Celery, chopped
1 Small Leek, chopped, tops reserved
1 Bunch Asparagus, chopped, tops and bottoms reserved
2 Small White or Yellow Potatoes, 1/4 inch dice
2 Cloves Garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 Medium White Onion
1/4 tsp Fennel Seed
1/2 tsp Whole Black Pepper
6 Cups Water
2 tbsp Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Whole Milk
Salt and Pepper to taste

top with meyer lemon yogurt if desired

Combine 6 cups water with celery ends, leek tops, asparagus bottoms, fennel seed, peppercorns, salt and onion half in large stock pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for about 30 min. Strain and reserve stock.

Heat olive oil in large stockpot. Saute middle portions of asparagus stalks, chopped celery, leeks, potatoes, and garlic until well coated with oil and just beginning to stick to the pot. Add reserved stock. Simmer for 20 minutes covered until vegetables can be mashed with the back of a spoon. Puree soup until smooth. Return to a very low heat. Add in milk and reserved asparagus tops. Once asparagus tops are cooked through, serve with a dollop of meyer lemon yogurt.

Meyer Lemon Yogurt

1/4 cup plain yogurt (non fat, low fat, whole, or greek will all work)
1 tsp meyer lemon zest

Combine ingredients, let chill atleast 20 min.

Mushroom-Tofu Panini

Makes 3 panini

1 tbsp olive oil
2 portabello mushrooms, washed and slices
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1/5 block of firm tofu, squeezed of excess water
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup walnut pieces
1 tbsp mayonnaise

3 focaccia rounds
mushroom-tofu filling
1 cup grape slow roasted tomatoes (halve tomatoes, coat in olive oil salt and pepper, spread on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast for about 45 min at 300)
1 cup packed young arugula leaves, washed and dried

Heat olive oil in medium skillet, saute mushrooms with salt and pepper until they begin to crisp at the edges, add in garlic and briefly cook until fragrant. In a food processor, combine half of mushroom mixture with remaining ingredients. Puree until smooth. Finely chop remaining mushroom mixture and stir into mushroom-tofu puree. Season to taste.

Slice focaccia rounds in half. Spread each half with a thin layer of the mushroom-tofu filling. Distribute tomato halves and arugula. Form sandwiches. Lightly oil grill pan or panini press. Grill sandwiches until crisp on the outside and heated through, flipping half way through, about 4 minutes.


Chipotle Fry Sauce

This is quite possibly the best condiment ever. Perfect for dipping crispy potato wedges or spread liberally on grilled portabello sandwiches or burgers, or just about anything, and it takes only minutes to prepare.

Chipotle Fry Sauce

Makes 2 Servings

1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp chipotle in adobo (you may need to cut the chipotle in half), finely minced
2 heaping tbsp low fat mayonnaise
2 heaping tbsp high quality ketchup
1/2 tsp lemon juice

Combine all ingredients, stir until evenly mixed. Chill until ready to serve.

Tip: Chipotles in Adobo usually come in a small can that is really more chipotle than you'd want in most recipes. Luckily, they freeze well. Simply place remainder of contents into a small resealable baggy trying to separate chunks so that they are easier to break apart when needed. These should last several months.


Office Birthdays

My office in NY had the best birthday policy. The rule was you were responsible for bringing in a birthday treat for the person whose birthday followed yours. Which for some people meant that you'd make an elaborate cake, and for others a quick trip to the minimart for some hostess cakes. We didn't mess around with silly cards with personal notes from each and every one of your coworkers, or resort to the once a month communal-birthday sheet cake. It was a very personal and very delicious way to celebrate a birthday and something that everyone could enjoy.

My current office used to get atleast 2 large cakes or tarts or whatever else your heart desired from one of the amazingly delicious bakeries around town - usually Macrina or Dahlia. But as good as one Dahlia cupcake is, when you're given a large equally portioned slice of cake every few weeks, it gets kinda old, and ummm, disgustingly buttery. And so just before my own birthday, when we learned that layoffs and other cuts would be made, we also gave up the overindulgent birthday tradition. And replaced it with something infinitely better, homemade cakes.

For my birthday our office manager Heather made me a lovely carrot cake with not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting punctuated with pecan halves. And so when I was asked to perhaps make a bunch of cupcakes for the next birthday I was happy to oblige. Well, ok I wasn't exactly happy. Something about taking a major paycut leaves you with an overwhelming resentment toward everything having to do with work. But I figured I should draw the line at coworkers birthdays and make some nice cupcakes for everyone to enjoy.

I searched through various books and websites and decided on the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook's One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes and the More from Magnolia's Vanilla Buttercream and some classic decorations. Mostly because both recipes were remarkable straightforward. And while I appreciate complexity in more adult desserts, I prefer a cupcake to be simple.

These were very easy to pull together. The batter yielded about 34 cupcakes, rather than the 24 it were supposed to. But more cupcakes is never really a problem. I found some hungry mouths to feed at Jon's office as well.

Dolloping Frosting ontop, Smoothing out the Sides, and Top, and Sprinkling.

They were really quite yummy. In fact I couldn't stop eating the frosting, and I'm usually one of those people who scrapes frosting off of cake slices.

Impromptu Dinner

I usually like to plan out my grocery shopping by sitting down with a few cookbooks and this months food magazines and think about what I'd like to make that week. It's actually one of my very favorite things to do. Last week, while flipping through Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone I thought of a review I'd read for it on Amazon complaining about her recipe for falafel which instructs one to use a boxed falafel mix. While it's a bit odd, it didn't sway me in buying the book. Though it did make me want to try my hand at homemade falafel. And so, I spent some time online researching different approaches and decided on an epicurious recipe that seems both simple and relatively authentic. And it turned out to be wonderfully delicious, so much so that I referred it to anyone who would listen.

And yesterday, I had spent the morning baking and running errands and found myself driving toward Whole Foods in the afternoon with no idea what I wanted for dinner. And so I decided just to stop in and see what looked good. Perusing the produce section I was quite excited to see baby artichokes had come into season. Well, in Mexico anyway. That is the thing that makes me wonder about so called locavores - it makes sense in the middle of summer to eat fresh sweet corn, and juicy homegrown heirloom tomatoes, but what can you eat in the middle of winter in a cold climate? Do you really pass by meyer lemons and fresh thin asparagus, and ripe sweet tomatoes, just because they are grown someplace where it's sunny and warm while you're stuck in the cold dreary rain? Well, I certainly won't. So I grabbed up some Mexican baby artichokes, and grape tomatoes, and asparagus and went on planning my dinner. I would make a kind of antipasta arrangement - some braised artichokes with meyer lemon, baby broccoli with shallots, garlic, tomatoes, and almonds, chickpea fries (to continue my current fascination with chickpeas) and a lightly dressed arugula salad.
I'd assumed making chickpea fries was a lot like making polenta. And I looked online for confirmation, but instead I got conflicting instructions - one site said to add water in a ratio of 2 to 1, while another was 1 to 1, one site said to let it rest about an hour, while others said atleast 6, or even overnight. So I decided to plow ahead and see what came of it.

I started with some minced garlic, chopped parsely, and a bit of grated Parmesan. Added that to a cup of chickpea flour and then added a half a cup of water. It came together rather quickly and I wondered if perhaps I should add a bit more water, so in went another half a cup. And as I tried to whisk the now thickened paste into the chalky water my whisk stuck and then slung a splattering of chickpea paste first at my stove, and then back at me. So I would not recommend wearing a nice blouse while making chickpea fries. At any rate, I decided this would have to do for my first attempt and quickly transferred the paste into a baking pan to let it cool and firm up.

After letting it sit for a couple hours, I removed it from the fridge, and attempted to flip it out onto the counter. It actually took a bit of poking and prodding but eventually released and plopped down onto the counter where I carefully sliced it into finger sized sticks. I heated a bit of olive oil and proceeded to fry up my first attempts at chickpea fries. They did soak up quite a bit of oil, as compared to the falafel or the corn fritters I made the week before last. So the oil did need to be refilled by the third batch.

Meanwhile I started trimming the baby artichokes - cutting off the bulk of the stem and the top third of the leaves, then shucking off the outer leaves, slicing then in half lengthwise and submerging them in lemon water.

When dinner was starting to come together, I tossed the artichokes with the lemon wedges, 'no-chicken' broth (I'm vegetarian), some white wine, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large skillet using a Martha Stewart Living recipe for reference. And let it come to a simmer, covered for 15 minutes. Now, I've done this before and it's very important to take the lid off and turn the heat off as soon as those 15 minutes are over. Because well, at this point, you've put a lot of energy into these little artichokes and they don't get any better sitting in the hot pan continuing to cook!

While these were cooking, I blanched a bunch of baby broccoli and began sweating some shallots and garlic in a medium saucepan.

When the garlic became quite fragrant, I added the almonds, along with a generous spoonful of red pepper flakes and let this cook until it too became fragrant. Then I added in the halved grape tomatoes letting these soften slightly, and more of the 'no-chicken' stock, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan and form a sauce. When this has all come together, I added back the broccoli pieces and stirred to combine letting this sit off the heat until dinner was ready.

And with the last of the chickpea fries crisping up and the braised artichokes soft and flavorful, I was ready to serve dinner. I threw together the arugula salad and a chipotle fry sauce to round things out. And served it with a glass of AtoZ Chardonnay. Which I really love and was really delicious with the chickpea fries in particular.

Reflections on Top Chef, Season 5

So I've been watching Top Chef since the beginning except for Season 3 when I was briefly without cable because I thought it was too pricey only to realize I hate living without cable and it's not that expensive. I have to say, I really love the fact that, unlike most reality shows, the person who deserves to win usually does. Or perhaps I'm just buying into the editing. And I don't even mind all the product placement that much, it's kind of amusing. Although I wonder how effective it is. I'm not running out to buy Quaker oatmeal or Swanson Broth. Actually, one Thanksgiving, about 5 years ago I baked two big pans of homemade stuffing - one with my usual expensive organic boxed broth and the other with some canned Swanson broth, and after tasting both, well lets just say I haven't bought Swanson since.

But this season, for the first time, I found Top Chef very humbling. I've always been the kind of person who could make a very elegant dessert, or show up to a potluck with a dish that outshines all the others. And I really do love to cook for people - in college I would bake cookies to cheer everyone up before stressful deadlines, and in my last year co hosted a weekly cocktail party complete with freshly squeezed juices, homemade infused syrups, and delectable hor'douvres. And when I graduated and started working full time, I'd bring baked goods into the office every few weeks - zucchini cranberry muffins, pumpkin bread with cream cheese, chocolaty brownies, chocolate oatmeal cookies, carrot cake. This of course makes one very popular and solicits lots of praise (which I love). And since meeting Jon, who I think is one of the very few people who actually critiques and challenges my cooking, I've grown even more. All in all, I think I'm a pretty great cook. But while watching Top Chef this season, something occurred to me. These people, well most of them, blow me out of the water. Sure, my knife skills are better than any of my friends, I can mince garlic faster than most food network celebrities, I actually know how to make buttercream roses (though I seldom do), and I can whip up original home cooked meals every night of the week. But these people know how whip up an authentic gumbo when the time calls for it, or cook 5 different preparations of scallops, or skin eels, (or act really excited to be winning a $25 book from a celebrity chef). And now that I've had this epiphany that there are actually a lot of chefs out there who are in fact better at cooking than I am, I'll have to settle for being a pretty great home cook.


Cinnamon Raisin Bread

So the good thing about the economic slowdown, my now part-time job and an extra burst of free time is that I now have the luxury of making recipes that take, well, a little more time. I was searching my baking books for something I could make as a hostess gift for some friends who'd invited Jon and I over for dinner and was leaning toward something breakfast-y. Mostly because whenever we've gotten together in the past we'd ended up with atleast 2 desserts, and while I do enjoy desserts that can be a bit much. I was actually thinking of making muffins but for some reason couldn't find the right section in Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. I ended up looking longingly at photos of home baked bread and had the wonderful idea that I could actually make bread and perhaps even had the ingredients.

I decided on cinnamon raisin bread, the kind with the swirl. And well, I didn't exactly have everything I needed. I dumped out the last of my bag of flour coming up 3 cups short. But decided whole wheat pastry flour could fill in and add a boost of extra nutrition (extra because cinnamon raisin bread is filled with wonderfully nutritious things like 2 cups of sugar, and a stick of butter). And in any case it's barely noticeable when used as less than half of the total flour in a recipe.

Risen Dough with sticky layers of cinnamon, Rolled slab ready for it's sugary filling, Sugary filling being Spread, and then Rolled, and then Baked, and Cooled

I've been eating it for breakfast thinly sliced, toasted to a golden brown, and spread with butter. Apparently our friends made their loaf into french toast which sounds absolutely delicious. But no matter how you like it, it's quite good and though time consuming, it's relatively easy. Jon was really happy with it too, declaring it better than Pepperidge Farms, but requesting more swirls next time.

Cinnamon-Raisin Bread
Adapted From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

Makes Two 9-by-5 Inch Loaves

1 envelope active dry yeast
2 cups warm skim milk
4 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 stick butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, plus 1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 cup raisins
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Vegetable oil for bowl and plastic wrap

1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp water

In the bowl of an electric mixer sprinkle the yeast over warm milk, whisk to combine. Add the flour, butter, sugar, 2 eggs, and salt. Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are well combined, about 3 minutes. Raise the speed to medium-low and continue to mix until the dough is uniformly smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. (Note: If you don't have a dough hook, mix with a mixer until the dough starts to form a ball, knead by hand until smooth.)

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat out dough into a 9-inch round, about 1 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle with raisin s and cinnamon, and knead until they are just incorporated. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap, let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Return the dough to a lightly floured work surface, pat into a round. Fold the bottom third up, the top third down, and both sides in. Tapping the flour off the dough after each fold. Press down to seal and return to bowl. Let double in bulk, about 40 min.

Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and water in a bowl. Divide the dough in half and return one half to a lightly floured surface. Roll out to a 12 by 10 inch rectangle, brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle on half the sugar mixture spreading evenly. Repeat with the second half of dough and filling.

Generously butter two 9 by 5 loaf pans. With the short end of the rectangle facing you fold in about 1 inch of the sides to form a lip, then tightly roll the short end up to form a log. Place the log in a loaf pan, seam side down. Cover pans loosely with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until down reaches just about the rim, about 30 min. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Brush the tops of the loaves with beaten egg, and transfer to a lined baking sheet. Bake rotating half way through until loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. Turn out bread onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing. Wrapped in plastic and kept in the refrigerator it should last about a week.

Trashy Food: Maeve's Veggie Nachos

I've loved veggie nachos for a long time, but my own recipe has changed quite a bit over the years. As a kid, I liked the challenge of making my own cheese sauce starting with a rue, mixing in some cheddar and a touch of salsa for a deliciously silky dip. Later, I simplified things by using grated cheese melted under the broiler. As a high school student, they became my snack food of choice when at the movies. And finally one of my college roommates introduced me to the idea of using a microwave (though I was a child of the 80's and 90's, somehow my family managed to live microwave-free for most of my youth, so it was quite a foreign and revolutionary idea for me). For several years I enjoyed quick and easy nachos with grated cheese and a variety of toppings - of course the traditional beans, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream, but also to make it more meal like and less guilt enducing, some chopped zucchini, peppers, or defrosted corn. And then, I dated my first socks-and-sandals wearing, mountain climbing, beer drinking Washingtonian and had my latest breakthrough. We weren't a great culinary match. And we'd often ended up at happy hour drinking beer and sharing nachos. Most of them were terrible - gooey and greesey, and soggy, lacking flavor. But one stood out - there was a nice mix of textures and flavors, and instead of just beans and cheese, they'd added meatless riblets (available from Gardenburger) for a satisfying sweet and 'meaty' component and a nice protein boost. The relationship didn't work out, but I've stuck with the riblets!

Drawing on my many variations, this one is my favorite - simple to make, complex in flavor, and relatively healthy (for nachos).

Makes 2-3 Servings


Black Bean Dip
1 Can Black Beans, rinsed and drained
1 tsp Chipotle in Adobo
1 tsp Lime Juice
1 tbsp Cilantro, roughly chopped
3 tbsp Water
2 Scallions, thinly sliced
Salt to taste

50 Corn Chips
4 oz Sharp Cheddar, grated (high quality sharp low fat cheese also works)
1 Recipe Black Bean Dip
1 Meatless Riblet, microwave according to package instructions, roughly dice
1/2 Cup Frozen Sweet Corn, defrosted and lightly salted
4 tbsp Prepared Salsa
1 Avocado, Finely Diced and Tossed in Lime Juice and Salt
2 Scallions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp Lowfat Sour Cream

Blend half the black beans, chipotle, lime juice, water and cilantro in food processor. When well blended, mix in remaining beans and scallions, pulse just to combine - some beans should be in tact. Season with salt to taste. Lay about one third of the chips out in a single layer on a microwave proof plate. Evenly spread 1/3 of the cheese and dollop black bean dip onto each chip. Toss some of the corn and meatless riblets on top. Repeat for another 2 layers. Microwave for about 1 minute, until cheese has melted. Evely distribute dollops of salsa, avocado and scallions. Top with dollop on sour cream in center. Enjoy with a cold beer or red wine.


Instead of corn, add finely diced bell peppers, zucchini, and red onion.

If you don't have the time or equipment to make the black bean dip, simple sprinkle rinsed and drained black beans along with the chopped veggied/corn and lightly sprinkle with salt.

In case your avocado is less than perfect, salvadge whatever green flesh you can, and smash with the sour cream, lime juice, salt, and some chopped cilantro. Pile in center in place of the cour cream.

I prefer black beans and cheddar, but pinto beans, jack cheese, or queso fresco also work well. Or use a combination.