October 17, 2017

Thai Squash Soup

I'm so excited y'all. Yesterday I got to finally break out my boots and scarves and cute winter jackets because it finally felt a little chilly in the morning. Today I woke up and it was back to mid-60s and sunny so that little blip of fall was gone, but that's not stopping me from cooking all the squash and pumpkin and cranberries and cinnamon. While squash is such a versatile ingredient,  butternut squash makes some pretty awesome soups. My mom likes her classic version with just squash, some aromatics, and some chicken broth, but there's so many directions you can move forward with. I'm pretty sure butternut squash isn't a staple in Thai food, but it pairs surprisingly well with a lot of the flavors. Thai food is known for combining unexpected ingredients that ultimately balance each other perfectly, and this recipe is no exception.

I'll admit butternut squash is a pain to prepare. It's basically impossible to cut without stabbing yourself in the end, so it's often easier to just buy the plastic tubs of prepared cubed squash. I've found that if I can manage to slice the squash in half and remove the seeds, roasting it makes it tender and easy to peel and dice. It also brings out a natural sweetness and some lovely caramelized flavors.

Any good soup starts with some sauteed aromatics. Here, I use onion and garlic, which might not be the most authentic Thai base, but it tastes pretty good. I also add some ginger for that hint of spice and to start layering flavors. I deglaze the pan with some vegetable stock (or chicken stock if you prefer) and soy sauce for saltiness and complexity. Although the squash is pretty much cooked at this point, I throw it into the pot so it can absorb more liquid and become more easily blendable. I happen to have an immersion blender that makes this much easier, but a regular blender or even a food processor will work too. You can leave some chunks in there for texture but I prefer mine perfectly smooth.

It would be a pretty satisfying soup at this point, but there's so many more ways to add extra flavor. I add a can of coconut milk for creaminess, lime juice to cut the richness, peanut butter for a salty nuttiness, and chili sauce for heat. None of those ingredients should go with each other, let alone roasted squash, but thanks to the magic of Thai cooking it tastes pretty fantastic.

2 Butternut Squashes (4-5 lbs)
2 T Olive Oil
1 Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 1/2 tsp Grated Ginger
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
2 T Soy Sauce
1 14oz Can Coconut Milk
1 Lime
1/4 Cup Peanut Butter
Sriracha or Chili Sauce to Taste

Heat oven to 375F.

Halve the squash, remove the seeds, and rub the surface with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet, cover with foil, and roast for about an hour or until fork-tender. Peel and dice.

Heat some oil in a large pot. Add the onion and cook for 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the stock and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Add the squash, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth.

Stir in the coconut milk, juice from the lime, peanut butter, chili sauce, and salt and pepper. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes.

Serves 8

October 10, 2017

Maple Walnut Blondies

One of the most underrated Wisconsin products is the maple syrup. Yes, we have beer and cheese (and cheese curds) and bratwurst and buckets of ice cream, but are any of those acceptable breakfast foods? Ok, I'm in college so some of those are considered breakfast BUT nothing is better than some good maple syrup on your morning pancakes or French toast or waffles or what have you. My problem is that I think of all of those tasty breakfast foods, buy a big jug of local maple syrup at the farmers' market, and end up with tons left over. 

Since the end of the farmers' market is approaching and I have a tendency to impulse-buy things this may or may not be a particularly relevant problem right now. That's why I look for recipes that use maple syrup as a main ingredient and star flavor; I get my fill of maple and get to have more than just pancakes. These blondies are packed with maple flavor plus some addictive maple-candied walnuts, making them the perfect fall twist on one of my favorite desserts.

The first step is to make the candied walnuts. Typically, you heat sugar in a big skillet until it reaches a certain temperature and add your toasted nuts and cool it quickly. However, as I've learned in my candy science class over the past few weeks, this is much harder than it looks. I much prefer this cheat method, which entails tossing the nuts in the maple syrup and roasting until fragrant. Once cool, this yields reasonably crunchy bits of candied walnuts with a hint of maple flavor. It doesn't matter if they're not perfectly crisp since they'll be baked into the bars anyway. Of course, if you want to skip the candying stage and just toss in some toasted nuts it will still taste delicious.

The blondie batter is pretty simple as well; you don't even need a mixer. I start with brown sugar instead of regular granulated for that subtle molasses flavor and extra color. That gets whisked together with some melted butter since there's no need to incorporate air by beating softened butter and sugar together. These bars are dense and proud. From there, I add the eggs, more maple syrup, and vanilla then stir in the dry ingredients. Lastly, the walnuts are crumbled and folded in. Sometimes I reserve a handful for garnish, too. Ok, I lied. They're for snacking, so make extra.

The main tip I have for these bars is using good maple syrup. In case you weren't aware, the cheap bottles are called pancake syrup (or something similar) instead of maple syrup for a reason. If it contains corn syrup and flavorings instead of the real stuff, it legally can't be called maple syrup. These are the useful facts we learn in food science classes. It's worth the splurge on actual maple syrup, especially from the great state of Wisconsin. Midwest is best, y'all.

1 Cup Chopped Walnuts
3/4 Cup Maple Syrup
1 Stick Butter, Melted
1 Cup Brown Sugar
2 Eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
2 1/4 Cups Flour
1/2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt

Heat oven to 375F and line a baking tray with parchment. Line a 9x13" pan with parchment.

Toss the walnuts with ¼ cup maple syrup and a pinch of salt. Spread into an even layer on the cookie tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes or until golden and fragrant. Set aside to cool and break into small pieces.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350F.

Whisk the butter and brown sugar together. Add the eggs, remaining maple syrup, and vanilla. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and remaining salt together, then stir into the batter. Fold in the walnuts.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until cooked through.

Makes 16
Recipe Adapted from Something Swanky

September 30, 2017

Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts

Even though I'm not always the biggest fan of vegetables, I do love farmers' markets, especially since the one here in Madison is full of bread and cheese (and samples). I always make a point of visiting a local farmers' market when I travel, and one of my favorites was in Kansas City. That was the first time I saw brussels sprouts on the stem, or whatever you want to call the giant leafy trunk with little buds of brussels sprouts. I highly recommend looking up pictures of brussels sprouts growing if you've only seen them already harvested. Here in Madison, they're definitely at the farmers' market this time of year but you can usually only find them already plucked and in containers, though that doesn't impact how delicious they can be if you cook them right.

My sister refuses to be in a 5 mile radius of our house when my mom bakes these in the oven since the smell is so strong, so I've had to resort to other methods. I decided to roast them so they are fork-tender and cooked through but also get a nice caramelized brown crust. Cutting the brussels sprouts in half gives you more surface area for the tasty brown bits, so don't skip that step even if it's tedious.

The sauce starts with tons of fresh ginger and garlic. They go from brown to burnt very quickly, so keep an eye on your stove. From there, you stir in all sorts of basic Asian condiments: Sriracha for spice, soy sauce for bulk and saltiness, hoisin for earthiness, sugar for sweetness, and rice vinegar for tang. I also throw in some peppercorns or chiles for some extra heat since Kung Pao should be spicy. I think the ratio I listed balances all of these flavors well, but if you disagree just adjust it to your liking. But also reevaluate your priorities because my whole family thinks this is delicious.

The flavorful sauce ingredients alone don't make much of a glaze for the brussels sprouts, so I make a cornstarch slurry (just cornstarch and water) as a thickening agent. It's incredibly easy but must be stirred constantly once added to avoid lumpiness. Once it reaches a boil, it should form a nice, thick glaze. It's then time to add the brussels sprouts; you don't need to cook them much more since they're already tender so just leave them in long enough to soak up some of the sauce. I like to serve them with peanuts for crunch and scallions for a bit more green, but my dad tends to steal as many brussels sprouts as possible before they even hit the table. Apparently he's "just tasting" to make sure they're good enough to serve, but keep an eye on your family since this recipe tends to bring out the veggie-snatchers.

1 lb Brussels Sprouts, Halved
4 T Oil
2 tsp Grated Fresh Ginger
4 Cloves Garlic
2 T Sriracha
Dried Chiles or Sichuan Peppercorns
1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
2 T Hoisin
2 T Sugar
2 T Rice Wine Vinegar
1 T Cornstarch
1/2 Cup Chopped Peanuts
Scallions for Garnish

Heat oven to 400F and grease a baking sheet.

Toss the brussels sprouts with 2T oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread into a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until fork-tender and nicely browned.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large skillet. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute or until aromatic. Stir in the Sriracha, chiles/peppercorns, soy sauce, hoisin, sugar, vinegar, and 1/2 cup water. Whisk the cornstarch and 2T water together, then add to the sauce. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then stir in the brussels sprouts. Toss with the peanuts and serve.

Serves 2-4