brussels sprouts braised in cream

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You know what I hate? Those “hide the vegetables in brownies” cookbooks. I admit that I don’t have kids, so maybe I just have no clue and that really is the only way to get them to eat something healthy. But, for now, my theory is that if you prepare vegetables well, there will be no need to hide them.

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By “preparing them well,” I don’t necessarily mean braising them in cream, of course, but if you can afford the caloric expense, these are certainly worth showcasing instead of hiding. Because these are absolutely just so freaking ridiculously good. Is that enough adverbs? Probably not. They’re worth more.

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They’re easy too, and you can clean and trim the sprouts early in the day and put them right in the saucepan with the cream and seasonings. About 15 minutes before dinner, put the pot on a hot burner and give it a quick shake every so often. If you have a few extra minutes to make these even more rich and delicious, remove the cooked sprouts from the pot and continue simmering the cream until it’s luscious and thick, then pour it over the sprouts. It’s just…I don’t even…you just can’t describe something that good.

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Because they’re so easy, so good, and most of the work can be done in advance, these are perfect for guests. And just a piece of advice: your guests will probably enjoy them even more if you don’t mention the whole “braised in cream” part.

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One year ago: Sausage Apple Hash
Two years ago: Risotto with Peas

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Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream (adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 4

1 pound small Brussels sprouts, stem ends trimmed with a knife and discolored leaves removed
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
ground black pepper

1. Bring the sprouts, cream, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer, shaking the pan once of twice to redistribute the sprouts, until a knife tip inserted into the center of a sprout meets no resistance, 10-12 minutes. Season with nutmeg and pepper to taste.

2. (Optional) Heat the oven to 200ºF. With a slotted spoon, remove the sprouts from the saucepan and transfer them in a heatproof serving dish. Place the sprouts in the oven to keep warm. Meanwhile, simmer the remaining cream in the saucepan over medium-high heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Pour the cream sauce over the sprouts and serve immediately.

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Suggested menu: Steak au Poivre, Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream, Twice-Baked Potatoes

steak au poivre

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The importance of the Go-To Thing was hammered into me recently. I was sitting at home doing basically nothing, unshowered and unchanged from my recent workout, when Dave called me from a bar half an hour away. “Everyone wants you to come hang out!” Uh…will they still want to hang out in an hour or so, when I might actually show up?

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I didn’t have time to mull over my clothes, so I just chose the same outfit I’ve worn every time I’ve gone out recently. It’s easy, comfortable, cute, warm, and spans a wide range of situations. (Although my silky teal scarf was a little out of place at the Rob Zombie concert we ended up at.)

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Having a go-to meal for guests has also come in handy.  On December 23rd last year, Dave and I decided to skip the party we’d planned to go to on Christmas Eve so we could hang out with his parents instead. We offered to make them dinner, which meant I needed to come up with something I could make in my mother-in-law’s kitchen that would be quick enough to put together after a 7-hour drive, special enough for a holiday, and accessible enough that my picky father-in-law would enjoy it.

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The answer is steak, of course. Steak that has one side coated in black pepper and is dowsed in brandy cream sauce. Served along with twice-baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts braised in cream. Yes, cream sauce, sour cream, braised in cream – it’s a holiday, okay?

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It’s also delicious. And easy, and most of it can be prepared in advance. The evidence: 1) I finished it at my mother-in-law’s, and her sharpest knife is essentially a butter knife, and 2) my father-in-law not only ate his entire meal, including the Brussels sprouts, but offered something vaguely complimentary. This meal is a success even under the toughest circumstances.

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One year ago: Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

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Steak au Poivre with Brandied Cream Sauce
(from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 4

Sauce:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ cup brandy + 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
table salt

Steaks:
4 strip steaks (8 to 10 ounces each), ¾ to 1 inch thick, trimmed of exterior gristle
table salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed

1. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat; when foaming subsides, add shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add beef and chicken broths, increase heat to high, and boil until reduced to about ½ cup, about 8 minutes. Set reduced broth mixture aside. Rinse and wipe out skillet.

2. Meanwhile, sprinkle both sides of steaks with salt; rub one side of each steak with 1 teaspoon crushed peppercorns, and, using fingers, press peppercorns into steaks to make them adhere.

3. Place now-empty skillet over medium heat until hot, about 4 minutes. Lay steaks unpeppered-side down in hot skillet, increase heat to medium-high, firmly press down on steaks with bottom of cake pan (see illustration below), and cook steaks without moving them until well-browned, about 6 minutes. Using tongs, flip steaks, firmly press down on steaks with bottom of cake pan, and cook on peppered side, about 3 minutes longer for rare, about 4 minutes longer for medium-rare, or about 5 minutes longer for medium. Transfer steaks to large plate and tent loosely with foil to keep warm.

4. Pour reduced broth, cream, and ¼ cup brandy into now-empty skillet; increase heat to high and bring to boil, scraping pan bottom with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Simmer until deep golden brown and thick enough to heavily coat back of metal tablespoon or soup spoon, about 5 minutes. Off heat, whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons butter, remaining 1 tablespoon brandy, lemon juice or vinegar, and any accumulated meat juices. Adjust seasonings with salt.

5. Set steaks on individual dinner plates, spoon portion of sauce over steaks, and serve immediately.

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Suggested menu: Steak au Poivre, Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream, Twice-Baked Potatoes

bourbon pound cake

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Sometimes it’s the recipes that seem the simplest that can give us the most trouble. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people lamenting about their chocolate chip cookies. We think that because the recipe is ubiquitous that we should all do it well, but truthfully, many cookies are finicky – if your butter is too warm, or your flour measurements are off slightly, or your oven temperature isn’t stable, your cookies can end up flat or greasy or burned.

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Pound cake, with only a few ingredients, is often even more fussy. Those ingredients need to be combined just right to produce a light, moist, buttery cake. In fact, I think pound cake is the perfect recipe to teach yourself the particulars of baking, because every detail counts – the eggs should be room temperature, the butter needs to be soft but not too soft, the sugar and eggs have to be gradually added to the butter mixture, the flour must be sifted and gently folded into the batter. These steps can make or break a traditional pound cake, and following them carefully will also improve your cookies and layer cakes.

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Fortunately, this recipe makes it easy on you by separating the eggs, beating the whites until they’re fluffy and light, and folding the meringue mixture into the dough at the end. The light egg whites provide insurance against a dense cake without making it dry.

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Also, bourbon. Is good.  I suppose you can leave it out if you’re not into alcohol or you just want a great classic pound cake, but the bourbon is great in this because the flavor really stands out. Primarily because the bourbon’s mild smokiness compliments the other flavors, but also because that’s just a heck of a lot of bourbon to add to a cake.

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I used to think this other recipe was my favorite pound cake, but not anymore. This one is not only more dependable, it’s just better. It rises higher, plus? It tastes like bourbon.

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If you’ve been directed here from the Intelligencer and would like to see the cookies also discussed in the article, click here.

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Bourbon Pound Cake

12-16 slices

It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, but they behave better in baking when they’re at room temperature. I suggest separating them when you take the butter out of the fridge to warm, then leaving them at room temperature for about an hour, until you’re ready to bake.

The easiest way to sift ingredients if you don’t have a sifter is to put them in a fine-mesh strainer and shake and tap the pan over the bowl that you’re sifting into.

You can also double this recipe and bake it in a tube pan for about 90 minutes.

4 eggs, separated
1¼ cup (8¾ ounces) sugar, divided
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cup (6 ounces) cake flour

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour (or spray with baking spray) a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a medium-sized mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer), beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and continue beating until they form soft mounds. With the mixer on medium-high speed, gradually add ½ cup (3.5 ounces) of sugar. Increase the speed to high and beat until the mixture is glossy and holds stiff peaks. If you’re using a stand mixer and only have one bowl, transfer the egg white mixture to another bowl and rinse and dry the mixer bowl.

3. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and add the butter to the mixer bowl (or a large mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer). Beat on medium-low speed until the butter is soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the salt, then, with the mixer running, slowly pour in the remaining ¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar. Continue mixing on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with the bourbon and vanilla extract in a small measuring cup. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the egg yolk mixture. Once the eggs are in, stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then continue beating for another 2-3 minutes.

4. Sift one-third of the flour over the butter/egg mixture. Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour until it’s evenly dispersed but not completely mixed in (as shown in the fourth photo). Add half of the beaten egg whites and continue folding until evenly dispersed. Repeat with another third of the flour, then the rest of the egg whites. Sift the remaining flour into the batter and fold until it’s completely mixed in and there are no pockets of dry flour.

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, 45-60 minutes. If the top of the cake is getting too dark before the center is baked, lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the cake. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then use a thin knife or spatula to loosen the cake from the edges of the pan. Invert the pan onto the wire rack, then turn it right-side up to continue cooling. Serve the cake at room temperature.

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I compared this cake made with cake flour (left) and all-purpose flour (right).  The version made with cake flour rose higher and was lighter and fluffier, but the cake made with all-purpose flour was still very good.

thai-style chicken soup (tom kha gai)

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Cooking and eating, I think I manage to do ambitiously. I just really like food, and I want to enjoy it as much as absolutely possible. That means I need to eat whatever is offered to me with an open mind. My desire to try new foods is driven by curiosity, but my desire to cook new recipes is about challenging myself. How much can I learn? How good can I be?

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But I have a weakness when it comes to food, and that is in the shopping. I go to the store with a plan and a list. Occasionally the store will have some seasonal item – long beans, meyer lemons, kaffir lime leaves – but I never buy it. Because what would I make with it? What other ingredients would I need to use it? I never know, and I’m not willing to make more grocery store trips than necessary, so I miss a lot of opportunities to try new ingredients.

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Finally I decided there was at least one produce item that there was no excuse not to try, and that is galangal. It’s often compared to ginger. Ginger has a long shelf life, so I assumed that galangal did too. I could buy it one of those rare times when it was available and ignore it for a week or two until I found a recipe to use it in.

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In the end, I used it in a recipe that doesn’t even require galangal. Cooks Illustrated’s Thai-style chicken soup (their version of tom kha gai) bypasses the need for ingredients that are difficult to find – like galangal – by designing the recipe around readily available prepared red curry paste.

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The curry paste already has galangal in it, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to sweat fresh galangal with the lemongrass, cilantro, shallots and fish sauce. Coconut milk and chicken broth are steeped in the vegetables, and then they’re strained out, leaving you with a sweet, deeply flavored coconut broth, in which thinly sliced mushrooms and chicken are briefly cooked.

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I’ve made this soup for years, and it is good. Really, exceptionally good. The kind of good where I spend the whole meal saying “oh my gosh this is so good!” (which I’m sure is just as annoying as you’d expect). I don’t think adding fresh galangal made a significant difference in the end product, but that’s okay – I got to play around with a new ingredient, and that makes me almost as happy as this soup does.

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Thai-Style Chicken Soup (from Cooks Illustrated)

6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course

I like to skip the serrano chile garnish (and a rarely bother with the scallion and lime garnishes) and add just one chile to the vegetables in step 1. It makes the soup a bit spicy.

This is great as a first course with pad Thai served afterward, or as a simple main dish served over rice.

Cooks Illustrated recommends Chaokoh coconut milk, which is what I’ve always used. For a lighter option, they like A Taste of Thai’s Lite Coconut Milk, but I’ve never been able to find it.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 stalks lemon grass, tough outer leaves removed, bottom 5 inches halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
3 large shallots, chopped
8 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves, chopped coarse
3 tablespoons fish sauce
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 (14-ounce) cans coconut milk, well-shaken
1 tablespoon sugar
½ pound white mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved lengthwise and sliced on bias into ⅛-inch-thick pieces
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice from 2 to 3 limes
2 teaspoons red curry paste (Thai)

Garnish:
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 serrano chiles, sliced thin
2 scallions, sliced thin on bias
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until just shimmering. Add the lemon grass, shallots, cilantro, and 1 tablespoon fish sauce; cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are just softened, 2 to 5 minutes (vegetables should not brown). Stir in the chicken broth and 1 can of the coconut milk; bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have blended, 10 minutes. Pour the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids in the strainer. Rinse the saucepan and return the broth mixture to the pan.

2. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Stir the remaining can of coconut milk and sugar into the broth mixture and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, add mushrooms, and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add chicken and cook, stirring constantly, until no longer pink, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove soup from heat.

3. Combine lime juice, curry paste, and remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce in small bowl; stir into soup. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with cilantro, chiles, and scallions. Serve immediately with lime wedges.

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traditional pizza

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When it comes to cooking, I definitely have weaknesses. I’ve never cooked a perfect roast chicken. I can’t cook a steak with any sort of precision in doneness; if it’s somewhere between ‘moo’ and black, I consider it a success. And grilling? I’ve really never done it. Clearly there are holes in my culinary knowledge.

But pizza? Pizza, I know.

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I make pizza almost every week. I’ve tried all sorts of crusts, sauces, cheeses, and toppings. I’ve taken notes. And now, finally, I can make my perfect pizza. I’m not saying that my favorite will be your favorite; but it might give you somewhere to start and something new to try.

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Toppings – I’m going to attack this from top to bottom, which has the advantage of progressing from the simplest decisions to the more complicated. I’m going to focus on traditional pizza – tomato sauce, Italian cheeses, toppings. Most any topping will work here. Use whatever toppings you want in whatever quantities you prefer. I vary it quite a bit, with my favorite combinations being ham and mushroom, as well as ham and pineapple.

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Cheeses – I like a ratio of 5 parts mozzarella to 1 part parmesan. If you have other cheeses around, cheddar or gouda or fontina, it can be fun to replace a portion of the mozzarella with those. I actually prefer part-skim mozzarella on pizza; it seems to melt more smoothly and it tastes just as good as whole milk cheese.

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Sauce – My sauce is very (very very) simple, but you have to trust me that it’s just right. All I do is puree a drained can of diced tomatoes, strain them until they’re thick, then stir in salt and pepper. It’s easier than cooking a sauce, and I love the fresh flavor. It does complicate the addition of garlic and spices, but I get around that by adding the garlic as a topping and the herbs to the crust. (I don’t like raw garlic, so I toast the whole unpeeled cloves on the hot pizza stone for a few minutes.)

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Crust – I want a crust that is light and tender and flavorful, but, even more importantly, easy to work with. No one wants to fight with their pizza dough. This crust started with Cooks Illustrated’s popular pizza dough recipe, and then I started substituting white wine for a portion of the water, and after I made Peter Reinhart’s pizza dough, I became more committed to a cold overnight rise.

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Another important aspect of pizza crust is how you work with it. Be gentle with your dough. I need to stress that you really don’t want to use a rolling pin. Pull and stretch the dough. Pick it up, hanging the edges on your knuckles, and let gravity do the work. If it’s tearing or thinning unevenly, put it back down and just pull at the thicker parts. If it’s fighting you, walk away for five minutes to let it relax. (I use this technique when I fight with Dave too – ha!)

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I’m sorry to be so braggy, but this pizza really is just great. Most of it comes down to the crust, which is thin, crisp, and light. I love the sauce too, because it tastes exactly like what it is – tomatoes. The combination of cheeses provides just the right amount of richness and flavor. I start out nearly every weekend by making this pizza, and I can’t think of a better way.

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Update 3/16/10: I’ve successfully used this method to make this pizza crust whole wheat.  I made the pre-dough out of 11 ounces whole wheat flour, ¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 cup water .  After letting that sit overnight, I mixed it with the rest of the ingredients – 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon dried oregano, 11 ounces white bread flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons instant yeast, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, ¼ cup white wine, and ½ cup water.

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Traditional Pizza

You can substitute up to 7 ounces (about 1½ cups) of whole wheat flour for the white bread flour, but expect longer rising times and a more stubborn dough. But if you’re patient during shaping, your crust will be just as light and crisp as dough made completely with white flour.

Dough:
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
22 ounces (4 cups) bread flour
1¾ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup white wine
1½ cups water
cornmeal for dusting

Sauce:
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
salt and pepper

Assembly:
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
10 ounces (2½ cups) part-skim mozzarella, shredded
2 ounces (1 cup) parmesan, grated
toppings of your choice

1. For the dough: Heat the oil and oregano in a small saucepan until fragrant. Mix in the water and wine.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the liquid mixture. Continue mixing on medium-low speed until the dough comes together, and then knead on medium-low speed for 8 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add more flour or water as necessary to form a dough that is sticky but does not cling to the sides of the bowl. When the mixer is running on medium-low speed, the dough should not stick to the bottom of the bowl.

3. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. Rub your hands on the sprayed bowl to coat them with oil, then quickly form the dough into a ball. Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.

4. Either set the dough aside to rise at room temperature, which will take 1½ to 2 hours, or refrigerate it until the next day. If it’s chilled overnight, it will take about 5 hours at room temperature to warm and finish rising. You can also reduce the yeast to ½ teaspoon and let the dough rise on the counter for about 8 hours after it has been chilled overnight.

5. For the sauce: Pulse the tomatoes in a food processor 10-12 times, until they’re pureed. Transfer them to a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl and let them drain, stirring occasionally for at least 10 minutes. (You can get away with less time if you actively stir and press the tomatoes through the strainer; if you wait longer, you can stir less.) Then discard the liquid in the bowl, transfer the tomatoes from the strainer to the now-empty bowl, and stir in a pinch of pepper and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

6. Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 500ºF. Place the garlic on the hot pizza stone for 3-4 minutes or until fragrant.

7. Divide the dough and shape each portion into a ball. You have a few options of how to divide it. It makes enough dough for three 12-inch pizzas. However, I always cut it in half and freeze half. Then I divide the remaining dough into two more parts, one twice the size of the other. I make the larger one into pizza and the smaller into cheese bread (no sauce or toppings). Let the balls of dough relax for 10-30 minutes.

8. Using tongs, remove the garlic from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes. Mince.

9. Work with one ball of dough at a time on a lightly floured surface. Flatten the dough, then pick it up and gently stretch it out, trying to keep it as circular as possible. Curl your fingers and let the dough hang on your knuckles, moving and rotating the dough so it stretches evenly. If it tears, just piece it together. If the dough stretches too much, put it down and gently tug on the thick spots.

10. Dust a pizza peel lightly with cornmeal and transfer the round of dough to the peel. Rearrange the dough to something reasonably circular; stab it several times with a fork. Add 1/3 of each of the garlic, sauce, and cheese, followed by toppings of your preference, then transfer the pizza to a hot pizza stone. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the crust is spotty brown. Let the pizza cool on the peel for about 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

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slice and bake brown sugar cookies

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It’s Thanksgiving! And that means it’s officially Christmastime!

Right?

Oh, it means something about giving thanks? Hmm. That’s cool too.

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Still, once the feast is over, it’s all about Christmas. I used to try to hold off thinking about, hearing, and seeing anything Christmas-related until Thanksgiving, but you can imagine how successful that strategy was. These days, I’m more in the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ mindset. I didn’t play carols or put up my tree, but I did smile over cute decorations.

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What better way to kick off the Christmas season than cookies? One of my favorite Christmas cookies, in fact, and I think I finally figured out exactly why I like them so much.

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The dough is pretty typical for cookies, with butter, sugar, salt, eggs, vanilla, flour, and leavening. But, it uses twice as much brown sugar as white sugar, which…you guys! It’s chocolate chip cookie dough, without the chocolate! Nothing against chocolate, but that’s pretty much my perfect cookie.

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Plus, they’re so pretty. It takes a bit of effort to get them into the different shapes, but once they’re formed, you just throw the logs of dough in the freezer, then bake however many you want whenever you want.

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These cookies are delicious, they’re not hard to make, they look impressive, and their timing is completely flexible. In other words, they’re perfect. There can be no better way to shift into the Christmas season.

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One year ago: Multigrain Pancakes

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Slice and Bake Brown Sugar Cookies

Makes about 8 dozen

The only slightly difficult part of this recipe is rolling out the dough to an exact size. The best method I found was to initially roll it out to about twice the desired size, then trim the edges to a shape 1 inch smaller in each direction than you eventually want. Place the trimmings on the cut rectangle, cover with wax paper, and roll out to your final desired size (see photos above).

Update 12/22/2011: I like these cookies even better with a ½ cup less flour (3½ cups total).  The dough is stickier, and there’s no way you’d be able to roll it out to the right size, but I’ve decided that simply pressing it to the right size is easier anyway.

4 cups (19.2 ounces) unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, preferably room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
20 tablespoons (2½ sticks) butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
½ ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

1. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Break the eggs into a small measuring cup, whisk them lightly, and mix in the vanilla.

2. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer). Beat the butter on medium-low speed until it’s smooth, then add the salt and both sugars. Continue beating on medium-low until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer running, gradually add the egg mixture. Once the eggs have been added, scrape the sides of the bowl once, then continue mixing on medium speed for about 1 minute. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until evenly combined. Divide the dough into three equal portions.

3. For the striped cookies: Divide the first portion of dough into three more equally sized parts. Color one third red, another green, and leave the last one white. Between sheets of wax paper, roll each portion out to a 3-by-9-inch rectangle. Freeze the rectangles for about 10 minutes, until they’re firm enough to cut and stack. Cut each rectangle in half lengthwise to form two 1½-by-9-inch rectangles. Stack the rectangles of dough, alternating colors, to form a block of dough with stripes. Trim the edges if desired. Wrap in wax paper and freeze for at least four hours, or up to 4 weeks.

4. For the checkerboard cookies: Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on half power for about 30 seconds. Stir, then repeat the heating and stirring until fully melted, being careful not to burn the chocolate. Divide one portion of dough into two equally sized parts. Mix the chocolate into one half and leave the other plain. Roll each portion into a 9-by-3-inch rectangle. Freeze the rectangles for about 10 minutes, until they’re firm enough to cut and stack. Cut each rectangle into eight 9-by-3/8-inch strips. On a sheet of wax paper, lay four strips next to each other, alternating colors. Press the strips together gently to remove any gaps. Lay another four strips on top of the first layer, alternating colors between layers. Repeat twice more, until there are four layers of four strips each. Trim the edges if desired. Wrap in wax paper and freeze for at least four hours, or up to 4 weeks.

5. For the spiral cookies: Divide the last portion of dough into two equally sized parts. Color one half red and the other green. Between sheets of waxed paper, roll each portion of dough into an 8-by-8-inch square. Without chilling the dough, stack the squares, then tightly roll them together to form a spiral. Wrap the dough in wax paper and freeze for at least fours hours, or up to 4 weeks.

6. When ready to bake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350ºF. Line a baking pan with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Slice the frozen logs into cookies about 1/8-inch thick. Lay the cookies on the prepared pan, about ½-inch apart. Bake for 7-10 minutes, just until the tops no longer look wet. Let the cookies cool on the pan for about 2 minutes, then transfer them to wire racks. Serve at room temperature. Stored in an airtight container, the cookies will be good for at least a week.

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vegetarian lasagna

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This is, for me, perfect lasagna. You can’t go wrong with most combinations of pasta + sauce + cheese, but this one has just the right balance of light and rich, cheese and tomatoes, pasta and sauce, vegetables and…well, not meat, because there is none.

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But don’t worry, it isn’t vegetable lasagna. It’s vegetarian lasagna. It’s a fine line.

It isn’t that I don’t like meat in my lasagna; I just don’t know that it’s really necessary for me. On the other hand, I definitely do not like large chunks of vegetables in my lasagna – no layers of eggplant or zucchini or peppers.

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What I’ve done here is use minced mushrooms to mimic the texture and somewhat even the flavor of ground meat in the tomato sauce. The sauce has so much flavor that you’ll never miss the meat. Other than that, it’s a pretty traditional lasagna. I’ve replaced the ricotta with béchamel sauce, just because I like it that way.

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It’s also, as far as lasagna goes, not terribly indulgent. I use 2% milk in the béchamel and skim mozzarella, although you can certainly use something richer if you prefer. I like to make my own spinach pasta, because if you can add a bag of spinach to the lasagna without it affecting the final flavor or texture, why not? And with mushrooms replacing meat, plus plenty of homemade tomato sauce, there is certainly no shortage of vegetables.

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It’s just…perfect. Perfectly flavored, a perfect balance of richness. It’s full of vegetables, but they’re not overbearing. It’s a lot of work, yes, but I usually have fun making lasagna. And for a big pan of what is, for me, perfect lasagna? It’s absolutely worth it.

One year ago: Stuffed Sandwich Rolls

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Vegetarian Lasagna

Serves 8

The recipe looks more complicated than it needs to because of the homemade pasta. You can save yourself a lot of time (skip steps 1 through 4) by buying fresh pasta sheets instead of making and rolling out the spinach pasta. Or you can use a box of no-boil lasagna noodles, soaking them in hot water for 5 minutes before layering the lasagna.

Utilize your food processor! For the parmesan, mozzarella, fresh mushrooms, onion, and tomatoes (in that order).

You can make the whole lasagna ahead of time and refrigerate it overnight. Or you can freeze the whole lasagna. Let it defrost in the refrigerator overnight. To bake the lasagna straight from the refrigerator, just place it in the cold oven, then turn the oven onto 375ºF to bake the lasagna. The lasagna will warm up as the oven heats.

You can also make the pasta dough and both sauces a day in advance and then assemble the layers right before baking.

If you keep fresh basil around, definitely mince up a few leaves and add them to the cooked tomato sauce. You may also want to sprinkle some on top of the lasagna when it comes out of the oven.

Spinach pasta:
5 ounces baby spinach, washed
1 egg
¾ cup all-purpose flour, plus (a lot) more for dusting

Tomato sauce:
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped fine (reserve ½ cup of the onions for the béchamel)
4 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces mushrooms, minced
¼ cup wine (optional; red or white is fine)
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and pureed
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and pureed
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup finely diced onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2½ cups milk
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon pepper
½ cup grated parmesan cheese (1 ounce)

Assembly:
nonstick spray
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese

1. For the pasta: Place the spinach in a 12-inch skillet and add a few tablespoons of water (or if the spinach is wet from being washed, just add the wet spinach to the skillet). Turn the heat to high until the water boils, then reduce the heat and stir the spinach until it just wilts, about 1 minute. Remove the spinach from the pan (don’t wash the skillet) and place it on a clean dishtowel. Pat and squeeze the spinach until it’s very dry, then finely mince it.

2. Add the flour to a wide bowl or pie plate, then make a well in the center of the flour. Lightly beat the egg, then add it to the well with the chopped spinach. Stir the flour, egg, and spinach together until thoroughly mixed, then started kneading. Knead, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from being sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Don’t be concerned if you need to add quite a bit of extra flour; the dough should be malleable but not at all sticky.

3. Divide the dough into 3 balls. Work with one ball of dough at a time and leave the others covered with a damp dishtowel (you can use the same one you used for drying the spinach). Flatten the dough slightly, then roll it through the widest setting on a pasta roller. Fold it in thirds like a piece of paper going into an envelope, then roll it through the pasta roller again, feeding it with one of the open sides first. If at any point the dough is sticky, brush it with flour. Repeat the folding into thirds and rolling a few times. Without folding, run the pasta through the widest setting once more. Adjust the pasta roller to the next-thinner setting and roll the dough through the machine. Continue to gradually thin the dough until the third-to-last setting. Brush it with flour if the dough starts to stick at all. If the strip of dough becomes too long to handle, cut it into two shorter strips and work with each strip separately. Repeat the rolling, folding, and thinning with the remaining balls of dough, laying the sheets of pasta on dishtowels.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add 1 tablespoon salt and reduce the heat until the water is at a lively simmer instead of a vigorous boil. Cut the strips of dough into 8-inch lengths. One by one, dip each rectangle of dough in the water, leave it for about 10 seconds, then remove it and rinse it under running water. Lay the strips of dough on dishtowels.

5. For the tomato sauce: Place the dried porcini in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then turn the burner off.

6. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same large skillet the spinach was cooked in. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions just brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and continue cooking and occasionally stirring until the mushrooms start to brown. First they’ll release a bunch of liquid, but then that will evaporate and they’ll brown. Once they do, pour in the wine and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine almost completely evaporates, then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Carefully lift the porcini from their soaking liquid with a fork; mince them and add them to the sauce. Simmer the sauce over medium heat until thick, about 15 minutes.

7. For the béchamel: Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened. Add the flour and stir continuously for 1 minute. Stirring constantly, gradually pour in the milk and reserved porcini liquid (pouring carefully so as to leave any grit behind in the small saucepan). Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a light boil, stirring very frequently. Once the sauce starts to bubble, lower the heat to medium-low and let it simmer for 10 minutes, stirring in occasionally. Stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and parmesan.

8. Assembly: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375ºF. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan, then add a layer of noodles. Spread ¼ of the béchamel on the noodles, followed by ¼ of the cheese, and ¼ of the tomato sauce. Repeat the layering (noodles, béchamel, cheese, tomato sauce) twice more, then finish by adding a layer of noodles, then the last of the béchamel, the last of the tomato sauce, and the last of the mozzarella.

9. Spray a large sheet of aluminum foil with nonstick spray, then use it to cover the lasagna. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes, until the lasagna is bubbling around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and let the lasagna set for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

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wheat berries with caramelized onions, feta, and lentils

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I’m really looking forward to moving to New Mexico. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Philadelphia; any unhappiness I had here was my own deal and not a result of the location. But I am excited about having a fresh start somewhere.

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I am a little concerned about the grocery store situation. I have been majorly spoiled the last few years by always living near a Wegman’s. If you’re not familiar, suffice to say that it’s a great store, with a huge selection and high quality. When a recipe says that an ingredient can be found in “any well-stocked grocery store”, I’ve never had to worry about how I’d get a hold of it.

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The town we’re moving to, though, is small and isolated. It has just one grocery store. My initial explorations during our visit there over the summer indicated that it isn’t terrible but it isn’t great. I should be able to find, say, goat cheese, but only one type.

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So I’ve been trying to take advantage of the wide selection of my current store while I can, by buying random unusual ingredients that I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to find after the move. My plan was actually to buy farro, but I guess even Wegman’s has its limits because they didn’t have it. I almost went with quinoa, since it’s familiar and safe, but I managed to talk myself into trying wheat berries instead.

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Well, I don’t know about farro, but wheat berries are certainly delicious. They’re nutty, and the texture was chewy, not unpleasantly crunchy or mushy. The sweet caramelized onions were a great compliment, and then the salty feta was perfect on top of all of that. The whole thing was just so good, and I couldn’t believe how healthy it was to boot. I sure hope I can find wheat berries and feta after we move because I want to be making this meal a lot!

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One year ago: Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin Medallions

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Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions, Lentils, and Feta (adapted a bit from Orangette; wheat berry cooking method from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

2-3 servings

You might not need a recipe here, because you’re just combining grains and lentils with caramelized onions and feta. If you already have favorite ways to cook grains, lentils, and onions, you should absolutely feel free to use those. In case you don’t, I’ll provide my preferred methods here.

You can probably skip the lentils if you don’t want to deal with an extra ingredient. Also, I haven’t tried it myself, but I don’t see why you couldn’t just add them to the wheat berries at the point when the wheat has 25 minutes of cooking left. Just make sure there’s enough water in the pot.  (Update 6/14/11: You can definitely cook the lentils in the same pot as the wheat berries. I’ve also used farro in this recipe now, which is convenient because it cooks in the same amount of time as lentils.)

I think you could use almost any grain here, as long as you adjust the cooking time. Quinoa would definitely be good (and would make this meal gluten-free).

¾ cup wheat berries
salt
2 onions, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup lentils, preferably lentils de puy, picked over and rinsed
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
hot sauce (optional)
lemon wedges (optional)

1. Soak the wheat berries in water for at least an hour and up to overnight. Put them in a pot with enough water to cover by a few inches. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until they’re tender, 1 to 2 hours. Add ½ teaspoon salt once they’ve started to soften.

2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and ¼ teaspoon salt, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring somewhat frequently, until they just start to brown, about 8 minutes. Reduce to heat to medium-low and continue to cook and stir until the onions are evenly golden brown, about 20 minutes longer.

3. Put the lentils into a small saucepan. Add 3 cups of cold water and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not falling apart, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain.

4. Combine the wheat berries, caramelized onions, lentils, and feta. Adjust the seasonings if necessary and serve with either hot sauce or lemon wedges, if desired.

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sun-dried tomato jam

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Crusty bread, cheese, cured sausage, fruit. It’s a seriously underestimated meal. Yes, a meal. Not a particularly healthy one, I admit, but it does cover all of the nutritional bases, as long as you make an extra effort to eat a lot of the fruit. It doesn’t hurt to use 100% whole wheat bread either.

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And if you add a bit of tomato jam, you’ve just given yourself one more healthy-ish vegetably option. (“Healthy-ish” and “vegetably” really is how I think about nutrition. It seems to sorta kinda work.) The jam is just sautéed and then stewed vegetables.

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The result is a perfect counterpart for creamy or sharp or tangy cheese (or one of each!), salty salami, and fresh berries or grapes. The jam is both sweet and savory, fantastic spread on a slice of baguette by itself or combined with cheese. Definitely a great addition to one of my favorite somewhat indulgent meals.  Or maybe you’re a normal person and would serve this as an appetizer?  I guess that would work too.

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Sun-dried Tomato Jam
(adapted from Everyday Italian via Confections of a Foodie Bride)

The original recipe is for crostini with goat cheese, but I thought the jam was a great addition to a cheese plate on its own.

If you can find pre-sliced dried tomatoes, your life will be much easier.  Chopping greasy, slippery tomatoes is the hardest part of this recipe.

Makes about 1½ cups

8oz jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped, oil reserved
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup water
½ cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Place a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped sun-dried tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of the reserved sun-dried tomato oil, olive oil, onion, and garlic. Stir and cook until the onions are soft and beginning to brown at the edges, about 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Add the sugar, vinegar, water, chicken broth, thyme, salt, and pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and continue simmering until most of the liquid is reduced and the mixture is the consistency of jam, about 5 to 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, and serve.

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brown rice with black beans

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Of all the whole grains, brown rice has been the hardest for me to accept. I realize now that I’d been cooking it wrong for years. I just couldn’t seem to cook it through all the way, and I tried a bunch of different recipes, but it was always crunchy.

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Then sometime last year, Cooks Illustrated sent me a recipe to test for them for brown rice with andouille, and not only does it have andouille, which, come on, andouille, delicious, but at the time I was religiously making every recipe they sent for me to test. (It got to the point where I’d get the magazines and I’d already have made half the recipes. I’ve since slacked off.) So I only made the recipe because I felt like I had to, plus of course the andouille. But it was fantastic, just so, so good. It was a revelation for me, because it was the first brown rice I’d made that was not just edible, but delicious.

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But that isn’t the recipe I’m telling you about today. Ha! When the magazine issue came out, it had a few other variations, and one is just perfect for me. Brown rice, black beans and a bunch of aromatics, how healthy and tasty does that sound?

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The first time I made it, I followed the directions fairly closely, just adding the scraped-off kernels of one cob of corn at the end of cooking. That was a great addition, especially visually. Corn isn’t in season anymore, so I skipped it this next time. I doubled the black beans the second time, because you can never go wrong with more black beans. I also added an avocado and wow! I mean, it goes without saying that avocado improves almost anything, but it was particularly complimentary with this.

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If you’ve ever had doubts about brown rice, this recipe will make a believer out of you. And if you’re already a convert, this dish will be a great addition to your repertoire.

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One year ago: Sushi Bowls

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Brown Rice with Black Beans and Cilantro
(from Cooks Illustrated)

I like to double the black beans. Corn, either cut off of the cob or 1 cup frozen and defrosted, is a good addition stirred in with the black beans. One diced avocado is delicious added with the cilantro. I used red pepper, because I like them better than green.

Serves 4 to 6

4 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 green bell pepper, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2¼ cups water
1½ cups brown rice, long-grain
1 teaspoon salt
1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, 12 to 14 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.

2. Add broth and water; cover and bring to boil. Remove pot from heat; stir in rice and salt. Cover and bake rice until tender, 65 to 70 minutes.

3. Remove pot from oven, uncover, fluff rice with fork, stir in beans, and replace lid; let stand 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro and black pepper. Serve, passing lime wedges separately.