Today, Boston's summer made it's first appearance. It was an absolutely beautiful day, 78F, with hardly a cloud in the sky. It is on days like these that I feel lucky to work slightly outside the city where we are surrounded by state park forest. Labmates and I spent our lunch hour on the picnic bench outside, rolling up sleeves and pants legs - turning our faces (eyes closed) upwards to catch each and every ray of the warm sun, sorely missed in our area for the last several months. It seemed to put a smile on everyone's face - the volleyball net went up and the grill was taken out of storage, filled with propane and made ready for summer service.
Yet, for some reason, I was not quite able to get in the mood. Most likely it's nerves. I present at lab meeting tomorrow morning and am a bit anxious about discussing my new project. As I drove home with the setting sun blinding me through the rearview mirror, I couldn't wait to get home and put that nervous energy to work making dinner... I find cooking to be a task that, once the menu is decided upon, takes enough energy and focus to prepare as to distract me from worrying or thinking about much else. It is a welcome calm away from my tendency to overthink most things in my life. About a week ago, while catching up on archives at The Accidental Scientist, I was reminded by one of the posts of a vegetable medley side dish my mother used to make to go along with any type of grilled steak or chicken. This sounded fresh and easy for dinner, and it would work further towards eating my way through the leftovers from last week's Boston Organics box. I mixed and matched from my rememberace of my mom's recipe and what Michelle had suggested to come up with a light summer-y meal:
Vegetable Medley (serves one)
1 large zucchini
1/2 large red onion
4 oz. grape tomatoes
2-3 cloves garlic
2T olive oil
red pepper flakes
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
To prepare vegetables, use a vegetable peeler to shave the zucchini into long, thin ribbons/strips. Include the peel. Discard the core and seeds of the squash. Slice the onion into very thin rounds, separate the pieces. Slice each tomato in half. Mince the garlic (or put through garlic press). Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is heated add the onions and zucchini. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to soften. Add tomatoes and cook through until onions are translucent. Toss with spices (to taste) and top with cheese immediately prior to eating. Accompany with a thick slice of crusty bread (if you have some, I just made a piece of wheat toast to go along).
* I added my tomatoes along with the zucchini and onions initially because I love cooked tomatoes, especially when they get slightly saucy - but if you'd like to maintain the separation of the tomatoes from the rest of the vegetables add close to the end and just warm through.
* My mom also adds a can of sweet corn, drained and, rather than parmesan cheese, tops the medley with a layer of grated pepperjack. It's gooey and tasty, but definately not as light.
* Michelle used yellow squash and suggested vidalia onions as a red onion substitute
I sat down and consumed my vegetables while watching the Red Sox take on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Though I am a huge baseball fan, watching baseball on television is best done (in my opinion) while doing something else - you can keep up with the game and be productive around the house at the same time. Cooking dinner had definately bettered my mood, so I thought I should stick it out in the kitchen for the remainder of the evening.
I took into account two distinct criteria in deciding what to make next: 1) following the Great Pantry Purge of 2006 I wanted to make something that would use up more of the food I have horded and 2) baking seemed a good option - I could then feed the hordes at lab meeting tomorrow, putting them into a better mood (or food-induced stupor) while they are critiquing my new project. After weighing my options - and receiving distinct opinions from Ines - I chose Carrot Cake. I had everything on hand and it was the only cake I could think that could reasonably be eaten for breakfast.
I went immediately to the cookbook that has yet to fail me (or even instruct on anything short of amazing), The New Best Recipe, put together by the same team as Cook's Illustrated magazine. The short explanation is that the test cooks in the Cook's Illustrated kitchen decide what they want to achieve with a recipe (in this case, moist - not soggy - carrot cake without an oily, dense crumb), try every permutation of a recipe possible (oil versus butter, cake flour vs. all-purpose, differing cooking times and temperatures) to come up with the perfect combination of ingredients and steps to create exactly the dish they were looking for. Each recipe has an introduction that goes through what the expectations were and how they went about finding the "best recipe" for each entry. I have never cooked anything short of amazing from this book - I trust that gang implicitly. This cake was no exception (my changes are italicized).
Simple Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from The New Best Recipe without any permission)
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (I used 1c. whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour)
1 1/4 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 1/4 t. ground cinnamon (I like spices - I used twice the spice called for)
1/2 t. freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 t. ground clove
1/2 t. table salt
1 lb. carrots, peeled
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar (I used dark because it was on hand; tasted good)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 c. vegetable or canola oil
Preheat oven to 350F, adjust the shelf to the middle of the oven. Grease a 13x9 baking pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment (or wax) paper. Grease the paper layer as well.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices (including salt) in a medium bowl and set aside.
Grate the carrots. (I did this by hand because, despite the excess of kitchen gadgets I do have, the pile does not include a food processor, which is what the book recommends) Mix sugars and eggs together (either in a food processor or with an electric mixer - I do have one of these) until light and frothy, about 20 seconds. Add the oil in a steady stream, mixing until light in color and well emusified. Stir in carrots and dry ingredients until completely incorporated. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, approximately 35 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time, rotate the pan in the oven to get even baking. Remove once cooked through and let cook for at least 2 hours.
This is where the GPP (great pantry purge) came into play. I had a container of Duncan Hines cream cheese frosting that needed to be used - that was the end of my cake - topped it with a few slivered almonds and was on my way. However, I would strongly recommend their cream cheese frosting - it is divine:
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 T. unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 T. sour cream (the secret ingredient to amazing c.c. frosting)
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar (4 1/2 ounces)
When the cake is cool, mix together the cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla until smooth. Add powdered sugar and mix together until well combined.
To frost the cake: Lift the cake out of the pan using the parchment/wax paper (using a knife to separate the edges of the cake from the pan if necessary) and invert onto a serving platter. Spread the frosting evenly over the cake surface, cut into squares and serve.
Note: After I completed my lab meeting this morning, the head of the lab commented, "She needs to present her stuff more often; that cake was good! Next time bring a different kind!"
Have a great holiday weekend! ~Lissa