How to stay happily married (chocolate helps.) A recipe for chocolate crackle cookies.

After thirty-some years of marriage—to the same man, no less—I have a few opinions about the institution that I would like to share on this, the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day. Let’s start with: thirty years is a long time. You need to pace yourself. Here are five (of many) suggestions to sustain longevity. I am still working on them. (NB, these are mostly addressed to women, but understand that there are inherent role reversals in this list.) Please add your tips in the comment section if you feel so moved.

1. Ladies, before you tie the knot, you must understand the difference between a man’s brain and a woman’s brain. It will only cost you five minutes, but I implore you to

WATCH THIS VIDEO

. Call me old fashioned, but much of managing domestic life is going fall in your lap, so the sooner you accept that, the better. 

2. If you ask your husband to do something around the house, be forewarned that you will have to ask him again. And a couple of more times after that. Why? Because,

he will forget.

It is part of his programming. We women hate that. It is part of

our

programming.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When your husband loads the dishwasher, button your lip. Think. Do I want an efficiently loaded dishwasher or do I want spousal participation in household chores?

4. Thank and praise your husband when he does something around the house. I know, maybe it’s something he

should

do, but don’t take it for granted. Why do I have to pander, you ask? Because it works. Think of it this way: if it is pandering, it is also self-serving. You will get more help and cooperation as a result. Anyway, everyone wants to be appreciated.

5. Commit to enduring the ups and downs, because there will be many: kids, jobs, changes, financial crises, illnesses, good times, bad times. They’ll be there, like the weather. Remember that nothing is static, life changes. Roll with it; get therapy if you need it (for yourself!). Take deep breaths. Recall the love you felt when you married. It’s in there somewhere. It’s up to you to find it in your heart every single day. And while you’re at it, keep some chocolate handy.

These fat, fudgy cookies have been a long time coming. I’ve tweaked this recipe more than a few times in search of bigger, flatter cookies. But sometimes you have to leave well enough alone, and I’m pleased to report these represent a happy ending to the story. (Inasmuch as all recipes are continuously subject to revision.) Even though I’m kind of a crunch fiend when it comes to cookies, I like these for their soft interior and their snowflake dusting of powdered sugar. The sugar melts into a light icing in the oven, so once the cookies have cooled, they need another sprinkling of sugar to look pretty.

Although I normally don’t sift much anymore in baking—I usually whisk dry ingredients in a bowl to thoroughly mix them—there are a few baking ingredients that should be passed through a sieve: cocoa powder, confectioner’s sugar and baking soda or powder. These tend to have small lumps if they languish too long in the cupboard, so take the extra step upfront so you don’t have to deal with unpleasant bits half way through mixing.

Chocolate Crackle Cookies

Makes about 20 (2-inch) cookies

1 square (1 ounce) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into slices

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch process)

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup olive oil

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 to 4 tablespoons water

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

1. In a small, microwave safe bowl, heat the chocolate and butter at 30 second-intervals until melted, about 1 1/2 minutes. (Or, in a heatproof bowl set over hot water, melt chocolate and butter together.)

2. In a mixer bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the olive oil, egg, vanilla and 2 tablespoons of water. Mix with the paddle attachment (or by hand with a wooden spoon,) until well combined. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons more water if mixture seems dry.

3. Using a #40 cookie scoop (about 1 1/2 tablespoons,) scoop dough and form into balls. Roll in confectioner’s sugar and set 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.

4. Bake the cookies for 13 to 15 minutes. They will seem slightly soft to the touch on top when they come out of the oven. Let cool completely on the baking sheets.

5. When cool, sift more confectioner’s sugar over the top of the cookies.

Posted on February 13, 2013 and filed under Cookies, Sweets.

The endangered dinner party makes a comeback: Cornish hens with cranberry beans and kale

Cornish hen with beans and kale

Okay, so I’m not a winter person. I feel paralyzed by the cold. I have acute brain freeze too right now, which is one of many reasons I haven’t been here for a while. I know. I should embrace the snow and the exuberance of the tingly, frigid air. I am trying. But really. Can I just crawl under the covers until spring?

Snap out of it, I say to myself, as I sit here at my computer wearing thick wool socks, wool clogs, long underwear, and two sweaters. (Winter clothing weighs heavily upon my psyche, too.) It is high time to bring back the endangered dinner party. Time to think of the friends who make me laugh and invite them over.

I made these Cornish hens for a Boston Globe Sunday Supper recently. Not only are they special and festive, they are also ideal for feeding a small group of people without too much angst or effort. The little birds, which are actually domestic chickens bred to mature in a shorter time than regular chickens, have a good portion of juicy white breast meat, and a lot of bone. If you want to avoid the expense—they are a bit pricey—you could roast a couple of chickens, or buy large hens and split them in half before roasting them and serve each person a half (make an extra one for leftovers or just in case you have one or two big eaters on your hands.) However, by the time you and your guests eat through some cheese, a couple of noshes, and a glass of wine before dinner, why, there won’t be a need for a big chow-down at the table.

In some contexts beans and kale sound a bit dreary. Your turn to snap out of it my friends! Think Tuscany and oh-so-sopheesticated, simple Italian. The beans are a revelation if you have been relying on canned beans from your pantry shelves lately. They capture a lot of flavor from the onions, carrots, and celery added to the pot as they cook. Dried cranberry beans, also known as borlotti beans, must be soaked overnight in water to cover and cooked at a low simmer. Cooking time ranges from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on how recently the beans were harvested and dried.

Listen, this soaking thing is just not a big deal. Even if you are a non-committal type, you can soak the beans, cook them the next day, and freeze them for a soup if you lose your nerve and order take-out. Leftover beans can be served over pasta, or made into pasta e fagiole by adding some tiny pasta like ditalini and stock to the beans.

As for the kale, you can buy it already prepped in convenient packages. It’s still better to buy it by the bunch, but it’s not a big compromise to buy the package if you want to save time.

Trust me, this is good food. And no one will have to break a New Year’s resolution.

Cornish hens with cranberry beans and kale

Serves 6

BEANS

1 pound (2 1/2 cups) dried cranberry or borlotti beans, soaked in water overnight and drained

1 carrot, halved lengthwise

1 stalk celery, halved

1/2 medium onion with stem intact

Salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

2 plum tomatoes, diced

Leaves from 1 large bunch kale cut into 1-inch pieces, or 6 ounces (6 packed cups) of packaged kale greens

1. In a large pot, place the drained beans and enough fresh water to cover them by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. With a large spoon, skim and discard the foam that rises to the top.

2. Add the carrot, celery, and onion half to the pot, and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for 35 minutes to an hour, or until the beans are tender but still hold their shape. Depending on the age of the beans, this could take longer. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in salt to taste and leave the beans in the pot for 30 minutes.

3. In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the chopped onion, garlic, and thyme. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the beans and their liquid, discarding the carrots, celery, and onion half. Bring to a simmer.

4. Add the diced tomatoes, and continue to simmer for 15 minutes longer. Taste and add more salt, if you like.

5. Stir the kale into the beans in the pot. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the kale is wilted and tender. Sally Pasley Vargas

CORNISH HENS

3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

3 teaspoons coarse salt

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

6 2-inch lengths of fresh rosemary sprigs

3 lemons

6 Cornish hens (about 1 1/4 pounds each)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Have on hand a roasting pan or a rimmed baking sheet.

2. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, salt, and pepper. Rub over the hens, sprinkling some inside the cavities. Quarter 2 of the lemons lengthwise. Stuff 1 lemon quarter and 1 rosemary sprig inside each hen. Set them in a roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the remaining lemon in half and squeeze the juice from the lemon halves and remaining quarters over the hens. Brush them all over with the olive oil. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the hen is pierced with the tip of a knife in the thickest part of the thigh (180 degrees F on an instant read thermometer).

4. Remove the hens from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Spoon about 1 cup of the beans and kale on each plate. Set a Cornish hen on top. 

Pasta e fagiole (couldn't find ditalini, so used mini penne)

Posted on January 22, 2013 and filed under Fall recipes, Main dish, One-dish meals, Winter food.

Take comfort in tradition: pot au feu

Traditional dishes like this pot au feu draw me into the kitchen on a regular basis. Have I become stodgy in my cooking, I ask myself? Or is my gravitation towards these dishes simply a knee jerk response to the darkness and difficulty that has piled up this year. So much sorrow and grief and trouble in 2012, both personally and globally, leave me and so many others with a deep need for grounding. A need to create some small happiness amid the crushing blows of the world. Of life.

Tradition helps us put one foot in front of the other when we don’t want to get off the couch or out of bed in the morning.

I take solace in the words of Pema Chodron: “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.”

I’m working on that. In the meantime, it helps me to get into the kitchen, despite my resistance to doing so. One foot in front of the other. I want to cook something to create a little joy, to create a connection with my fellow humans, to express some love to lighten the load. I hope January will bring more friends around the table. We need each other.

Pot au feu, “pot on the fire,” is a cherished French cold weather dish. Sexy? No. But like many favorite, classic dishes it is deceptively brilliant in its simplicity and depth.

One sip of the richly flavored broth quickly dispels any notion that a dinner of gently boiled meat and vegetables might be bland or boring. It’s the kind of dish that comes from the heart—no egos, no showing off here—and it comforts you down to your toes.

This recipe is for six, suitable for a small dinner with friends. You could add more meat, more vegetables, more stock for more people. The recipe does not call for precision.

Beef shanks look like this

You will need a large, deep pot to submerge the meat in the broth. Blanch it for a few minutes in simmering water and rinse it before cooking it in the stock to remove impurities so you end up with a clear broth. Once the meat has cooked for a few hours, remove it and replace it with the vegetables. Arrange the sliced meat and vegetables on a deep platter or in bowls and ladle the broth over them. Splurge on that six-dollar loaf of artisanal bread to serve with it, along with some cornichons and horseradish mustard.

If you want to make this a day ahead, cook the meat and strain the broth. Store meat and broth separately in the refrigerator overnight. Scrape off the fat that rises to the top of the broth. Slice the beef and warm it in the oven with some of the broth. Cook the vegetables just before you want to serve the meal.

Pot au feu

Serves 6

3 medium leeks, tops trimmed

6 (1 to 1 1/2 inches thick) cross-cut beef shanks, about 6 pounds, trimmed of excess fat

Salt

3 quarts chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs thyme

8 carrots, cut into 4-inch lengths and halved lengthwise

1 celery root (1 pound), peeled and cut into 6 wedges

1 rutabaga (1 pound), peeled and cut into 6 wedges

8 small, yellow-flesh potatoes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Sliced bread, to serve alongside

Cornichons or small sour pickles, to serve alongside

Horseradish mustard, to serve alongside

Coarse salt, to serve alongside

1. Cut the leeks to separate the white part from the green ends. With a piece of kitchen twine, tie the green ends into a bundle. Quarter the white parts lengthwise.

2. In a large, deep pot, warm 3 inches of water over high heat until the water is lukewarm. Add the beef shanks and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a low boil and cook for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander. Rinse the meat under cold water.

3. Rinse out the pot and return the meat to it. Add the stock and, if necessary, enough water to cover it by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Add the leek bundle, pepper, bay leaves, and thyme. Taste and add more salt, if you like. Set a lid on the pot, leaving a 1-inch gap for steam to escape. Simmer gently for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the beef is very tender.

4. Heat the oven to 250 degrees F.

5. With tongs, remove and discard the leek bundle. Remove the meat and set it on a plate to cool slightly. Slice it and transfer it to a baking dish. Cover the slices with a few ladles of cooking broth, and cover the dish with foil. Set it in the oven to keep warm.

6. Strain the broth into a large pot and skim off the fat. Add the carrots, celery root, rutabaga, and potatoes to the broth, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the leeks, and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

7. Remove the meat from the oven, and transfer it to a warm platter with a deep rim. With a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to the platter and arrange them around the meat.

8. Ladle the stock over the meat and vegetables. Or, if you prefer, pile both meat and vegetables into shallow soup bowls and ladle broth on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with sliced country bread, horseradish mustard, cornichons or small, sour pickles, coarse salt, and extra broth.

Wishing you joy, peace and love in the new year, my friends.

Posted on December 30, 2012 and filed under Winter food, Fall recipes, Main dish, Dinner party, Meat.

Take a break from butter: Greek olive oil and honey cookies

When I was growing up, Christmas Eve in our house meant baking sugar cookies. We cut them into baby bunnies, lions, maple leaves, stars, and hearts. We sprinkled them with homemade colored sugar, much of which landed on the floor. My parents usually removed themselves to the living room, leaving us to destroy the kitchen. Once the first batch was out of the oven, we proudly marched into the room and presented them with a plate of warm cookies. And then we sang Christmas carols around the tree. (Uh, no, that didn’t actually happen.) But we did make the cookies, and afterwards we were sent back into the kitchen to clean up, where we each tried to stake a claim on the largest cookies—the Christmas trees and the chickens. (Chickens? Who knew? Those chickens were integral to our holiday baking.) Years later I duplicated the tradition with my son, so that by the time he could stand on a chair and reach the counter we made gingerbread boys and girls, Christmas trees, and yes, chickens from the very same cookie cutter.

This year we will probably make them again in a few days, but in the meantime, I am making these Greek honey cookies. They are a welcome detour from the usual butter cookies I make every holiday. If my hand is going to be in the cookie jar at breakfast—it was this morning—I’d like to munch on something that won’t send me into sugar and butter shock before the day has even started.  

Honey, olive oil, some whole wheat flour, and orange, along with the heady scent of orange flower water, give these a sandy texture and the irresistible allure of Mediterranean flavors.  The large crystals of fleur de sel pop out as a pleasant contrast to the honey syrup. The thickness of the dough is important, so try to gauge it using 3 stacked quarters as a guide. These just get better and better as they mellow in a cookie tin.

Greek Honey Cookies
Makes about 3 1/2 dozen small cookies

SYRUP

2/3 cup natural cane sugar

2/3 cup honey

2/3 cup water

1 teaspoon orange flower water, or 1 Tbs. orange liqueur such as Triple Sec

Combine the sugar with the water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, and stir in the honey and orange flower water.

COOKIES

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup whole wheat flour

3/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/2 coarse sea salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

2/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup natural cane sugar

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon almond extract

1/3 cup finely chopped pistachios

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

2. Whisk the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and baking soda together in large bowl until blended.

3. Vigorously whisk the olive oil, orange juice, sugar, vanilla extract, and almond extract in a separate bowl until emulsified. Stir it into the dry ingredients until incorporated. If the dough feels crumbly, add more orange juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a pliable dough.

4. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half to a thickness of 3/16-inch thick on a lightly floured countertop (hint: 3 quarters stacked on top of each other are slightly thicker than 3/16-inch.) Cut with a 2-inch round, fluted cookie cutter, and transfer 1-inch apart onto the baking sheets. Gather the scraps, roll, and cut again, until all the dough is used. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until deep golden brown.

5. Transfer the cookies while warm to large baking dish, in batches as necessary, setting them close together in one layer. Reheat syrup if necessary. Pour the warm syrup over the cookies to cover. Soak in the syrup for 20 minutes, turning once or twice. Transfer to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle each cookie while still wet with a pinch of pistachios. Leave until dry (they will still be slightly sticky.) Store between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight tin. Best if left to mellow in the tin for a week or two.

Posted on December 21, 2012 and filed under Cookies, Sweets.

Five strategies for making edible gifts (and more)

As soon as the first flakes of snow fall (and they did last week) I start thinking about holiday giving. And by that I mean, edible holiday gifts. An Organic Conversation invited me on their radio show to talk about just that. The podcast on their site should be up sometime this week. (If you are in the car you can listen to it on Stitcher.) The whole exercise made me revisit some of my ideas, and ways I have streamlined the process over the years to make it more enjoyable.

Let’s face it, for some people an evening at home puttering around the kitchen is much more satisfying and far less stressful than traipsing through a mall with a gift list. Even if cooking or baking is a challenge, you can reacquaint yourself with your kitchen and avoid the crowds, parking stress, and gift anxiety. There are still many simple gifts you can make that don’t require an oven. So turn up the music and give yourself the gift of a night at home away from the shopping madness.

Chocolate Whiskey Truffles

FIVE TIPS AND STRATEGIES FOR MAKING EDIBLE GIFTS

1. Plan now: The gift. Before you decide what you will prepare, make a list of your recipients and look for a common thread. What would all of them like to receive? If you have a friend struggling with her weight or someone with food allergies, certain gifts may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Narrow your recipe choices to one that everyone on your list could enjoy. If you really, really want to make chocolate truffles and they wouldn’t suit everyone on your list, decide to make a second, simple gift like chai mix or preserved lemons for those with food allergies or health concerns.

2. Plan now: The wrapping. The packaging has to be as delicious and inviting as the food itself. Once you have decided on a gift, how are you going to package it? Will you need jars? Cellophane bags? Ribbon?  Gift tags or labels?  When you are out and about, notice how gifts are packaged in places like Williams Sonoma or department stores. Adapt those ideas to your style (Rustic? Glitzy? Minimalist?) Order supplies online now, or identify where you need to go locally to buy what you need.

3. Plan now: The shopping. Create a shopping list and pick up ingredients on your usual trip to the grocery store. On the same trip, swing by a craft store, paper store or hardware store to get wrapping supplies.

4. Schedule. Pick a day or evening when you want to make your gifts. Then pick another day to package them. The idea is to have fun, not to exhaust yourself, so spread it out. If you are making cookies, for instance, make the dough one night, bake them on another night, and wrap them on still another night

5. Give yourself the gift of friendship. If you want to blast through a cookie project in a day, consider inviting a friend or two over and do a cookie bake-off together (each person can bring some dough). While the cookies cool, pour a glass of wine and sit down to a simple spaghetti dinner. Then back to wrapping. Girls’ night in, anyone? It’s a wonderful way to share some coveted time with close friends.

PACKAGING IDEAS

Cake and cookie boxes  

Williams Sonoma

Meri meri

,The Paper Source

(also cool ribbon and trim)

The Container Store

Jars, cookie boxes and bags, ribbon, cellophane bags,

Sur La Table

Clear cellophane bags, candy foil, pastry boxes, and more

Martha Stewart

Of course Martha has a great selection of STUFF

West Elm Market

Paper (disposable bundt pans, Weck canning jars

Other places to look:

Hardware stores: canning jars, brown paper, key tags, labels, natural and cotton string

Staples or office supply stores: labels, markers, key tags (round white paper with aluminum rims)

Five and ten stores, Target: cookie tins, gift tags

Ikea: if you want to brave this mega store, you will find some unusual Scandinavian decorations and wraps, like pretty paper cones, that you can use for your presentation

Second hand, “antique” stores: Sometimes you will find pretty mugs, plates, jars or glasses to hold cookies or cakes or….

TEN NO-BAKE RECIPE IDEAS

1. Chai Mix

(give with a box of tea)

2. Preserved lemons

3. Pancake mix: Fill a jar with the dry ingredients of your favorite “from scratch” pancake mix. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

4. Muffin mix: Fill a jar with the dry ingredients of your favorite “from scratch” pancake mix. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon. For example:

5. Spiced cocoa: In a pretty jar, Layer your favorite unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar, bury a vanilla bean and/or some cinnamon sticks in the mix, or add some chili powder or more ground cinnamon if you like. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

6. Cookie mix: Another welcome time saver! Layer ingredients in a jar. For example, oatmeal chocolate cookies: Layer the chocolate chips, oats, sugar, and thoroughly mixed dry ingredients in a jar. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

7. Chocolate fruit and nut bars

8.Herb salt

9. Flavored sugars: Vanilla sugar: Bury a split vanilla bean in a 2-cup jar of sugar. Leave to infuse for 1-2 weeks. Give to the baker on your list with a few spare vanilla beans.  Lavender sugar. In a food processor, pulse 2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers until mixed. Store in a jar for 1 to 2 weeks. Sift through a fine-meshed strainer.

10. Homemade nutella

Coming soon: Greek honey cookies!

Posted on December 5, 2012 and filed under Food gifts, Sweets.