Archive for January, 2011

Peanut Butter Cookies (Gluten Free)

Gluten free baking can be a pain. Oh, it’s not that I mind. I know enough gluten-free folks that it isn’t even difficult to cook meals for them on the fly (after all, neither Asian nor Mexican foods use wheat as a primary grain), but when it comes to dessert. . . well, I’m not one to make an inferior recipe using more expensive types of flour. Yes, there’s always flourless chocolate cake. But–bear with me here–how about we make some chewy peanut butter cookies instead? Will you believe me if I tell you they are just as good as the floured version, and have a greater depth of flavor? And that they’re just as easy to make as normal cookies? ‘Cause I’m about to say it. And Mr. Salt Owl will be most perturbed if you doubt me. You don’t want that.

The Salt Owl knows what's good for you. Trust the Salt Owl.


2 C peanut butter (I use Jif creamy)

2 C packed dark brown sugar (you can substitute 1 cup of granulated sugar if you want.)

1 1/2 t salt

1 T baking soda

2 eggs

1 T vanilla


Just throw everything in your favorite mixing bowl like so:

Then mix it all together with a trusty hand mixer.

Make balls of about 2 tablespoons each (I got 30) and plop them onto  a parchment lined cookie sheet. Flatten them a bit. I do the fork cross-hatch because that’s what one does with peanut butter cookies, but it won’t be visible on the final cookie, so you can just smoosh them if you want. I know the dough looks scarily dark and un-peanut buttery, but it’s supposed to. Don’t worry; they’ll look more normal when they’re cooked.

Now bake at 350° for 8 minutes, turning it the over halfway through. My cookie sheets each comfortably hold twelve, so I saved the dough balls for the last six for later.

It’s very hard to not start devouring them just out of the oven. They’re so chewy, almost like a peanut butter candy! Now, this batch was for another birthday at work (a great excuse for me to bake and not have two dozen servings of sugary delectables tempting me at home), so I wanted to present them as one would a birthday cake. How?

Why, arranged in circles with a giraffe on top, how else? Plus this arrangement only takes 21 cookies, leaving one free for Mr. Blackbird, one for me, and one for the friend who stopped by the night I made these. Delicious!

Oh, I had some sugar in the raw out to sprinkle on top for a bit of extra crunch, but I forgot. If you’re going to do this (and it isn’t necessary), do it when they’re just out of the oven and still piping hot.


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Honey Braised Lamb Shanks

I only discovered this recently, but lamb is fantastic. Then I found this beautiful little pair of lamb shanks just waiting to be braised and served devoured by a beastly pair of blackbirds. And Ludo Lefebvre had such a delightful looking recipe for veal shank, I just had to. . . change it. I know, I’m terrible. Incidentally, he is one gorgeous chef. And I hate him a little for it. Um, anyway. Lamb!

Honey braised lamb with artichoke hearts and kale. I cooked it too long. Lefebvre’s recipe was for a single four-pound veal shank; I used two just-under-a-pound lamb shanks and cut the cooking time by. . . not enough.

Braised Lamb Shanks (serves two)

Two lamb shanks

1 T mustard powder

1 T kosher salt

2 T olive oil

1/2 to 3/4 cup honey

3 cups lamb stock, plus 1/2 cup for later

You really need a good cast iron pan for this. Something that goes from stovetop to oven, at any rate.

First, heat the olive oil in your cast iron pan, and preheat the oven to 425°F Rub the mustard powder and salt into the shanks, then brown them gently on all sides. This took me about 6 minutes, and because my pan was too big for these lovely little shanks, filled the apartment with smoke. Then, pour honey all over the lamb.

Drip Drip Drop

Give it a moment to simmer, and add the 3 cups of stock. If your cast iron isn’t as ridiculously huge as mine, use less stock. Remember, you’re gonna be lifting this into the oven in a minute and you do not want it sloshing all over the stove.

Bring the stock-and-honey gorgeousness to a simmer, stirring the honey in. Add a handful of rosemary or mint or thyme here if you like. I completely forgot, and left the rosemary sitting on the counter. Move the pan–carefully!– to the oven and braise uncovered for an hour to an hour and a half (we did two hours, which was way too long but still very nummy.) If you have a meat thermometer, you’re looking for an internal temperature of about 160°F, or 150°F if you like it rare. My thermometer is out of battery. So, it’s braising. Go play a board game or something.

Oh, you should be popping in to turn the shanks over so they’re evenly honey-glazed on all sides every 20 minutes or half an hour.

About 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve, get out your kale. Look at how pretty and crisp and better than swiss chard it is.  With all those precious frills and proud, crunchy, stems, I beg you, don’t overcook this. Chop the stems out and set aside. Cut the rest into bite-sized pieces.

Boil some  water in a little saucepan. Add the stems and cook 3-4 minutes. Add the leaves and cook 3 minutes more. Drain.

Now you should be ready to pull the lamb out of the oven. If you’re like me, the smell has been calling to you since about when you added the honey. So, let’s see how it looks.

Um. I was going for deep amber brown, not black. We all make mistakes, let’s move on. Move the shanks to your serving plates, and add the 1/2 cup of broth you were holding back to the pan, scraping to get the good bits. Pour this sauce in a boul or gravy boat or whatever you have lying around. You’ll be pouring this over your kale, dipping bread in it, licking it off your fingers. . . Wait, no. You’re probably civilized, so scratch that last. Sorry about that.

Overcooked or not, it was amazing. The cats were still trying to chew on the bones at three in the morning, after breaking into the trash bin. Make this. Make it soon. You will impress people, possibly even yourself.

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Flour, water, yeast and salt

I know, bread with pasta is a bit overkill, but it’s just so good! And baguettes are surprisingly easy to make. Don’t get me wrong, they take forever, but you can just ignore them most of the time so that’s all right.

Baguettes (makes 3, adapted from Mark Bittman)

3 1/2 cups flour, plus handsful for dusting things.

3 t salt

1 1/2 t rapid-rise yeast

1 1/2 cups water


Pour the flour, salt, and yeast into the bowl of your food processor and pulse briefly to combine.

Then pour the water in slowly while running the food processor. If the dough forms a ball before you’re out of water, stop pouring.

Scoop the dough into a nice big bowl, cover it with plastic wrap or a towel, and leave it alone for a few hours. Go see a movie or something. Or you can leave it in the fridge overnight, just let it warm up before moving on.

Next, cut the dough into three pieces of similar size, and roll them into balls.

. . . And let them rise again for half an hour or so. Then you get to do the fun part. Roll them out like little dough snakes.

Put the loaves in a baguette pan (or on a baking sheet) and cover with a towel. let rise another hour or two.

Preheat the oven to 450ºF and spritz inside with some water.  Do violence to the baguettes while you wait for the oven to heat up. They deserve it for making you wait so long. Any sharp knife will do. I keep a box cutter in the kitchen drawer for this, and for opening awkward packages.

Put the pan in the oven. Spritz with more water after a few minutes. Bake for 25-30 minutes, and serve piping hot.

Crispy crunchy good with everything!


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Italian Hot Chocolate: Breakfast of the Decadent

You may wonder (especially if you’re my mother) why on earth someone who hates coffee as much as I do would own two perfect, albeit sad, little white espresso cups. There are a few reasons, actually. They make fantastic little individual cream containers for tea, I can use them as serving dishes for fancy salts or sugar in the raw, and of course, they are the perfect size for one serving of hot chocolate.

No, I’m not crazy. Because real hot chocolate has nothing to do with that powdered crap that comes with dried out marshmallows and tastes just exactly like sugar mixed with grit, and is meant to be drunk from a coffee mug. Throw that stuff away. I’ll wait.

Now you just need some cream, and some chocolate.

4 tablespoons of cream

2 ounces of chocolate

That’s it.

Bring your cream to a simmer while you chop your chocolate. I let Mr. B. pretend to be the Incredible Hulk and smash it with the rolling pin. As for the chocolate, use your favorite! I used 1 oz. 60% and 1 oz. 100% for a very dark, rich chocolate. next time I might use all white chocolate and throw in some malt powder. Use whatever you like! Toss your chopped (or Hulk-smashed) chocolate into the simmering cream, and turn off the heat.

Give it about 30 seconds to soften, then whisk vigorously. It will be thick.

Now just pour into your waiting espresso cups. make them happy little cups that feel useful and loved.

But with chocolate this dark, I might need a bit of sweetener. Not honey, not with dark chocolate. A pinch of sugar in the raw would do nicely, but I have something better.

Little merigue hats (store bought) for little chocolate cups. This is the breakfast of happy people. And it took only 5 minutes to make. How cool is that?


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Pecan Pie: Better, sweeter, and without corn syrup

Mr. Blackbird loves pecan pie. So does the co-worker I promised to bring this to. So I’m actually a little nervous about reception, because I know this is not going to be the pie either of them grew up with. First of all, I went through four cookbooks to find the recipe I wanted. My first inclination was to cook out of Baked, which I love. I saw the words “3/4 cup corn syrup” in the ingredients, and I balked. Surely this was a mistake. When you were a kid helping your parents bake, did you ever sneak a taste of corn syrup to eat plain? No way! Maple syrup, honey, brown sugar by the handful, sure, but no one actually wants corn syrup. So I looked at Jim Peterson’s Baking, which I trust implicitly to get me through a difficult spot. Corn syrup, and lots of it. Well, surely The New Best Recipe wouldn’t disappoint, or at least the good people at Cook’s Illustrated would tell me why corn syrup was the sweetener of choice here. But alas, nothing. So I finally turned to Mark Bittman, who generally doesn’t mess around nor will he bear the use of inferior ingredients. And finally, I found what I was looking for. Well, close to it. I can’t help changing every recipe I see.

What, I’m supposed to decorate the top with those extra pecans? My, but you have high expectations!

First, the crust. Rather than break out two different cookbooks, I stuck with Bittman’s. As a perk, he let me put a little sugar in the crust. Hooray!

Flaky and Flavorful Pie Crust

This recipe makes one 9-inch crust. I made two pies, so I doubled it. Bonus: I didn’t have to measure 1/8 of a cup, because seriously, who does that? So if you’re making one pie like a normal person, I’d double the recipe anyway and just freeze the half you don’t need for next time. Frozen dough keeps forever.

1 1/8 cups flour

1/2 t salt

1 T brown sugar

8 T butter (Cut it into chunks and freeze it. Yes, I’m serious.)

3-4 T ice cold water (you might need more. I just put a bowl of water in the freezer until it got an ice film, then cracked it while pretending to be a monster destroying a frozen lake and the surrounding town. There were sound effects. Never let me catch you saying that cooking is boring; you just need to try harder.)

1 t vanilla

Give Me the Directions Already!

Plop the flour, sugar, and salt into your food processor. Pulse once or twice so your final crust won’t end up with one very salty and slightly disturbing bite in it.  Stick the butter in the food processor too, and pulse in 5-second bursts until the mix resembles damp sand.

Pour the sandy stuff into a bowl and add 3 T of flour and the vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough can just barely hold itself together in a ball. Add more water a bit at a time if it seems too dry.

Once you get the dough into a ball, wrap it in saran wrap or foil and toss it in the freezer for 10 or 15 minutes. If you doubled the recipe, make two equal sized balls now; it’s more annoying when they’re frozen.


Now flour everything. The counter, the dough ball, the rolling pin, the cat if she gets in the way, everything. You’re going to want to roll your dough out to at least a 10 inch circle (Recipes always say “circle”. It’s misleading, because dough never rolls into a neat circle, it rolls into a horrible ragged trapezoid that has no excuse for existing in this Euclidean world. But I digress.) It will be very thin, so flip the dough and sprinkle on a bit more flour after every few passes with the beat stick rolling pin. Otherwise the dough will stick to the counter and it will tear and you will want to throw it at the fridge door (or husband, or cat. . .)

Butter your pie tin and drape the dough over it. Make sure to press it gently into the corner area of the tin; you need that room for filling! Trim the dough less close to the edge of the tin than I did (maybe 1/2 to 3/4 inches of overhang would be good) Freeze for another 10-15 minutes. Yes, I still mean it. You’re not ready for that butter to melt. You can preheat your oven to 425°F while you wait.





Done waiting? Good. Now it’s time to line the thing with tin foil and toss in your pie weights (or in my case, stone chess pieces. It works.) Bake with lining and weights for about 12 minutes, then pull the crust out of the oven and gently remove the foil and weights and set aside. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake the crust for 10-15 more minutes, until it looks a bit browned and the smell of flaky, buttery crust is making you crazy.



It should look like this:

Uh-oh! They shrank!

Mine did shrink a bit. Still tasty, but less room for filling. Speaking of filling, while all that crust baking was going on, I hope you were making yours!

Pecan Pie Filling

5 eggs

2 cups pecan halves (or chopped if you like. I don’t mind.)

1/2 cup boring old granulated sugar

1 cup rich dark brown delicious sugar

Not one drop of corn syrup (I feel better now)

Just a bit of salt

6 T butter

1 T vanilla extract

2 oz. semisweet (say, 60%) chocolate, if you want chocolate (who doesn’t?)


Remember, I doubled everything, so I used a pretty big saucepan. You might want a littler one.

Crack your eggs into a saucepan and use a hand mixer to whip them up. Take your time and make sure it’s completely uniform in color and a bit frothy. Toss in your sugar, salt, butter, and vanilla and mix again. Put the saucepan on the stove over medium heat and stand there, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is nice and hot. Don’t let it boil! Your eggs won’t like it. The best way to tell if it’s hot enough? Keep tasting it! When the graininess from the sugar is gone and you taste a hint of caramel, you can add your pecans.

While you’re waiting for the custardy-caramely-abomination-of-deliciousness to heat up, chop some chocolate. I use a bread knife and saw at it, so I get some nice sized chunks and some itty little flakes. You could use chocolate chips, I guess. I just really like sawing up chocolate.




Stir briefly, then pour those bad boys into your nice, hot, freshly baked pie crust. If you want to, add some pecan halves in a pattern on top to make your pie prettier. I didn’t. Sorry. Bake at 375°F for 30-40 minutes, until brown and delicious smelling. And now you have pie! Sweet, nutty pie. I’ll let you know how folks like it.


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Everyone Hates the Grocery Store

I’m the first person to admit that grocery shopping is no fun. It can take a good bit of time, there are lines, and the whole time you’re there you think “I still have to cook when I get home.”

But the complaints I don’t understand are those concerning cost, having to run out for one last thing (ok, so every now and then this happens, but it’s my own fault), and having food go bad before it’s used.

So here’s the quick and easy guide to once-a-week grocery shopping for people who hate it.

1: Make a meal plan.

Figure out what you’re going to have for dinner every night for a week. I work weird hours, so for instance on Tuesday and Wednesday, my home-cooked meal will be lunch. As I’m figuring out meals, I grab any cookbooks I’ll be using. This week, I looked at Crave by Ludovic Lefebvre, How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, and Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. This should only take about ten minutes. Then. . .

2. Make a list.

This is the obvious way to avoid forgetting ingredients, making multiple trips, and the dreaded impulse buy. I try to separate my list into produce, meat, dairy, baking, frozen, and general items, and the stars remind me of what I’m going to write about on here. I don’t expect everyone to be so compulsive, but having a written list both of the meals you plan to eat and the ingredients you need to make it happen keeps you from having to drive across town just after par-baking a pie crust when you realize that you do not in fact have eggs for the pie filling. Having the recipe I’m going to use in front of me when I make the list means I won’t forget to write down the things I don’t have.

Mistake #1 (and I absolutely still do this) is to buy something you already have plenty of. Wednesday I’m having pasta with carrot sauce and peas. But neither carrots not pasta made the list, because I have about six kinds of pasta in the pantry and almost a pound of carrots in the fridge. I’m low on peas, though, so I wrote that down. I wrote down flour, too, even though I already have quite a bit, because I’m doing a good bit of baking this week and it’s not particularly perishable.

Mistake #2 is to freak out if the store doesn’t have something or what they have doesn’t look very good. Substitutions are fine. For instance all of the bananas in the store today were way underripe, so I skipped them and got some yogurts for breakfast instead.  I also saw some colorful fingerling potatoes and decided I could smoke those instead of making mash next Sunday with my Cornish hen.

Mistake #3 is to buy perishables in bulk because of a sale. Mr. Blackbird’s mother does this constantly, and I do not understand it. Five pounds of broccoli, while delicious, is way too much broccoli for two or even four people to get through in the five to seven days before it gets ooky.

So in short:  grocery shopping is no fun, and neither is list-making, but doing both once a week means that this household of two is having a delicious home-cooked meal for seven of the next eight days, plus ingredients for simple breakfasts and my lunchbox (yes, I have a lunch box) for $90. which is actually more than usual, as it includes $10 of pecans for the two pecan pies I’ll be finishing up tomorrow.

You know you wish your lunchbox were this cool.

Oh, one last thing. Just because you want to keep it simple and cheap doesn’t mean you can never go to a specialty market or store. There’s a cheese shop in downtown Dallas where I can get crazy cheeses and the occasional smoked salt. I love the asian market where I can find miso paste, mirin, a wide selection of rice and plum wines, and whole frozen duck for 1/3 the cost of the regular grocery store (which only carries duck around the holidays anyway). It never hurts to stop in at the local farmer’s market and see what’s fresh and good, either. Just make sure you have a culinary plan for all the delicious things you find, and don’t overdo it. Now stop admiring my mighty fine lunch box and collection of Cthulhu games and get cooking!


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Garlic Miso Dip

Ah, appetizers. They’re guaranteed to be invited to a dinner party, but sadly can end up being rather lackluster compared with the main event and dessert. So when I say I provided veggies and dip, along with salmon and goat cheese and crackers, please don’t roll your eyes. because this dip is unbelievable.

Garlic Miso Dip adapted from Yoshoku by Jane Lawson*

6 T miso paste

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

4 t powdered sugar

1 1/2 t sesame oil

3T  mirin or sake**

1/3 cup water, with dashi dissolved in if you can find it. I couldn’t.

Orange zest to garnish, if you feel like it. Yuzu or Ugli fruit are even better, but let’s don’t be silly. That’s a special trip to the grocery store and it’s cold out.

** There’s citrus in my mirin. If yours doesn’t have any, because that isn’t normal, add about a teaspoon of orange (or yuzu or ugli) juice. It provides a nice finish.

Mix everything together in a bowl until smooth. It’s a great dip for cucumbers, carrots, daikon or radishes, and apples. Yes, apples. Eat to cleanse the palate between bites of cheesed-up salmony crackers.

I know it’s ugly. But it is so wonderful in the way only miso paste can make things. The recipe makes a lot. Pour a bit over stir fry with a wedge of citrus and you’ll be glad you had extra. It keeps pretty well in the fridge for at least a week. I’ve never had any left longer than that.

*Apparently this cookbook is out of print. Hey, not anymore! And it’s really really good, so if you like Japanese food with a twist, go forth and drool over it. Quite seriously, I have a lot of cookbooks. Most of them, I end up using maybe half a dozen recipes from. This one I use all the time, and I had to stop marking pages with post-its because I had marked almost every page. Okay, sorry for the near-advertisement there. I’m done now.

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