Sunday, December 6, 2015

Banana Bread

Banana bread has two extremes.  It can get goody-two shoes with no sugar, no fat, and a good helping of fiber.  Or you can pump all the sugar and grease you can get your hands on to make a sickeningly sweet treat.  When I went searching for a go-to banana bread recipe, I wanted middle ground.  I wanted something soft but not too cakey.  It was a bit of a search to find the right one.  Looking at banana bread recipes is like looking at chocolate chip cookie recipes.  They all have the same ingredients and there's no way to tell a good one from a bad one.  One weekend afternoon last winter I was burrowed in during a snow storm with a supply of ripe bananas and decided to whip up a random recipe that showed up on my Pinterest feed.  The rest is history.

(Recipe from the Food Network)
  • 3 ½ overripe bananas
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 1 ⅔ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
The journey begins with four very ripe bananas. The riper the banana gets, the sweeter it is.  There's a lot of timing involved.  I can't speak for other single people, but it's a pretty rare event for me to end up with four overly ripe bananas on my hands at one time, and in the rare case that this might happen, what are the odds that I'm going to have the time and desire to bake?

The secret is your freezer.  Just stockpile the ripeys until you end up with enough bananas and a craving.  Because I don't buy bananas very often, I have a banana pact with my special someone who has a steady supply. Instead of throwing his overripe bananas in the garbage, he throws them in the freezer, and we both get banana bread.

If you're working with frozen bananas, you may want to pull them out of the freezer and let them thaw for a bit so that they're easier to peel and you don't freeze your hands in the process.  Frozen bananas get very squishy when thawed.  It's a little off-putting, but rest assured that once they're baked, a frozen squishy overripe banana = a fresh overripe banana.

For the mixing, I like to use a blender to make sure that the banana gets fully dispersed, but you can use any tool that you want.  Start with the sugar and eggs.  The original recipe says to do this for 10 minutes, which had me shaking my head and asking why.  A few spins in the blender did the trick.  

Add the bananas, vanilla, sour cream, and mix to combine.  Follow up with the oil and give everything a final blend.

Toss the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and stir together.

Whisk in the banana mixture, just until combined.  Do not overmix.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray and pour the batter in.

Bake until the bread passes the toothpick test.  The original recipe says 45 minutes to an hour.  I've had it take up to an hour and 15 minutes.

Let it cool on a wire rack for a few minutes.

Turn it upside down to release the bread from the pan.

Butter generously and eat.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Beef and Bean Burritos with Cilantro Lime Rice

This recipe is a classy version of one of my favorite teenage food crushes.  As a youngster there would usually be a pack of beef and bean burritos lurking in the freezer.  The filling resembled neither beef nor beans, but when loaded up with plenty of cheese and the hottest salsa I could get my hands on, they were fabulous.  The crush continued into adulthood and the poverty row years before I started cooking, when a 10 pack could be had for $2.  And then I grew up, learned to cook, and stopped eating things that only tasted good when buried under cheese. 

Today these are the burritos that you will find tucked away in my freezer.  All about the beef, with an extra hit of creaminess from the beans.  Sitting on top of a bed of cilantro lime rice.

That rice tho.  The first time I made these, I found myself nibbling at the rice and adding some more as a side.  I never make less than twice the amount called for in the original recipe.

Adapted from Cook's Country
Yield: 6 large or 10 medium burritos

  • The rice
    • 1 1/2 cups rice
    • 3 cups broth
    • 3 cloves garlic
    • 1/4 cup cilantro
    • lime juice to taste
  • The burritos
    • 1 pound ground beef (I used 96% lean)
    • 15oz can pinto beans
    • 1/2 cup broth
    • 1 cup chopped onion
    • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 3 cloves garlic
    • 1 tablespoon cumin
    • 1 teaspoon oregano
    • 1 teaspoon chili powder
    • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • The fixings
    • sour cream
    • cheddar cheese
    • flour tortillas
      • For six large burritos, 10" 
      • For ten smaller burritos, 8"

Start by sauteing the onion in a little olive oil for five minutes while you measure out the seasonings and tomato paste.

Add in the tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, chile powder, and a dash of salt.  

Cook for about a minute and add the beef.  Stir occasionally while you prep the beans.

Drain and rinse the beans.

Put half of the beans in a blender and puree with the broth.

When the beef is no longer pink, add in the pureed beans.  Cook for a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed.

Extract a tablespoon of juice from the lime.

Remove the pan from the heat.  Add in the whole beans, lime juice, and another dash of salt to finish the filling.

For the rice, add the rice, garlic, and broth to the pan and heat to boiling.  Remove the lid and let simmer until the liquid evaporates.

Fluff the rice and stir in the cilantro.  Finish by squeezing the rest of the lime juice over the rice.

Now to finish.  Layer a few spoonfuls of rice and top with the beef filling, in proportion to the size of your tortilla.

Now here at the Birchwood, we're all about leftovers, so the path differs on whether you're eating these now or saving them for later.  If eating now, add a little cheese and salsa to taste.  If you're saving these for later, skip the cheese and salsa and just add them as toppings when you're ready to eat them.

Wrap 'em up.

Toast up on all sides.

To finish, top with more cheese (put under the broiler or microwave to melt), more salsa, sour cream, and add some more rice to the side.

And eat 'er up.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Simple Guacamole

Back in the day, I had a friend who made legendary guacamole.  Her recipe: three avocados and one packet of guacamole mix.  It was fabulous.  The only problem was that I was never motivated enough to figure out how to divide the packet of guac mix to make a batch with anything less than three avocados, so I never made it except for special occasions.

On the other end of the spectrum was time another friend and I scoured the internet for the perfect guac recipe.  Our ultimate selection was "authentic": avocados, onions, tomatoes, garlic, salsa, jalapenos, cilantro, limes...we sliced and diced.  When we were done, I grabbed a tortilla chip and sampled the fruits of our labor.  It was OK.  I figured it would be better after the flavors had a chance to meld...but as the evening wore on, there was no change.  It didn't taste bad, it just tasted like something that didn't have a lot of avocado in it, which is kind of a deal breaker for guac.

So the quest for a go-to guac recipe was stalled until a special someone, who claims that he doesn't like to cook, invited me over for a home cooked meal.  I saw an avocado, onion powder, salt, cilantro, and a sprinkle of lime juice come together in a flash.  The result was pure avocado bliss.

Everything about this recipe is flexible and easy going.  The only required ingredient is the avocado.  Lime juice is nice but not essential.  Cilantro is divine but can be skipped in a pinch.  The quantity can be scaled as needed: for a party, I'll use three avocados.  If I'm solo, anywhere between ½ to one avocado.  You can't go wrong.

  • avocado
  • onion powder
  • salt
  • cilantro
  • lime


Dice up some cilantro, as much as you want.  For a batch of three avocados, about ¼ cup.  If you're making guac for one, it just takes a few leaves. 

Cut the avocados in half.

Gently squeeze the avocado out of its shell.

Take a step back to admire the green goodness.

Add in the cilantro and sprinkle with onion powder and salt.  Mash it all together, with the goal of mixing and softening, but don't liquefy the avocados.  Taste and adjust seasonings. 

Squeeze in some lime juice, quantity to taste.  Give it a final mash or stir.

And enjoy.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stained Glass Jello

Someone told me that jello desserts were a kind of status symbol back in the day.  If you could make jello, it meant that you were far up enough in the world to have a refrigerator instead of an icebox. The legend has always stuck with me, and was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the Brown Eyed Baker's post on stained glass jello. My second thought was that this was a Pinterest fail waiting to happen.  But inspired by the half empty box of Knox Gelatine that I've been hanging on to for years, I decided to try it anyway...and learned that jello is fun.

Recipe from Brown Eyed Baker
Yield: 22 stars
  • 2 boxes (3 oz each) red jello
  • 2 boxes (3 oz each) blue jello
  • 2 envelopes unflavored gelatine
  • 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk

You can, of course use any color combination that you want for your stained glass.  I went with Berry Blue and Strawberry as the theme for July 4th.

Early in the morning on July 3rd, I placed each color of jello in a small bowl.

And boiled up four cups of water.

I stirred two cups of boiling water into each jello (one cup for each 3 oz box if you were making more than two colors).

I poured the jello into ungreased 9"x13" pans and set them in the fridge for a minimum of 3 hours.

The next step was to cut the jello into squares.  You don't need to make any effort to get a uniform size, since the squares are going to get mixed up and cut before we're through here.

I placed the squares in a 9"x13" pan.  The original recipe says to do this carefully.  I didn't use any special care, I just alternated handfuls of red and blue and made sure the colors were well mixed throughout the pan.

Now our old friend Knox Gelatine...

Place the two packets in a bowl and mix in a half cup of cold water.  Let it sit for a few minutes until it blooms.

I didn't remember what "blooms" means when it comes to jello.  It's the thing that happens after gelatine sits in water for a few minutes.

It gets thick like this.

Stir in 1½ cups boiling water until the gelatin is fully dissolved.  Now stir in the sweetened condensed milk.  Let it cool to room temperature.

The first time I made this, I had serious concerns about the off-white tint of the milk and thought I had been pranked by the recipe.  But no cause for alarm, I promise that the final result will be white.

Pour the gelatin mix over the squares.  Try to break up any bubbles that form, but don't be fanatical about it.  Also, some of the color may bleed through from the red and blue blocks, but don't worry about it.  Place the pan back in the fridge for a minimum of three hours.

Once the jello was firm, I covered the pan in saran wrap and left the land of the purple counter tops behind and took my jello on the road.

The next morning I embarked on the final step, cutting the jello into stars.  If you're in a less ambitious mood, feel free to call it a day at this point and just cut the jello into blocks.  

Press the cutter into the jello, twisting as needed to loosen it from the bottom.

Carefully lift the star out of the pan.

Cut out as many stars as you can.  I got 22, someone with better geometry skills could probably get more.