Sunday, October 31, 2010

A minimalist approach to butternut squash

Butternut squash soup and salad by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Mark Bittman is a food writer with a fresh approach. I happen to love his easygoing attitude towards recipes in his New York Times Minimalist column. Bittman's minimalist approach can refer to using few techniques and few ingredients, but it mostly (to me, anyway), means he assumes his readers know their way around a kitchen, probably own a cookbook or two and can translate his shorthand instructions into decent or even delicious food.

Butternut squash by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

In considering butternut squash this week, I decided to take a minimalist approach to one of my favorite autumn vegetables. Butternut squash is pretty much the package - good taste, good nutrition, and good looks (once you get crack open the beast and reveal the amber-gold flesh within). I selected a large squash at the supermarket and made two recipes - soup and salad.

Peeling a butternut squash can be daunting, but with patience, a solid cutting board, a vegetable peeler, and sharp, sturdy chef's knife, it can be easily handled. Begin by cutting the vegetable in half across the width, just above the bulbous end. With the long narrow end, cut it in half lengthwise, then using a vegetable peeler (I find a "Y" peeler to be most useful here), peel off the tough outer layer. With the bottom, rounded end of the squash, do the same - cutting in half through the length, then peeling each piece. The top half of the vegetable will be cubed and cooked with onions and chicken broth for a savory soup and the remainder of the squash will be roasted with olive oil, butter and salt and tossed with salad ingredients.

Butternut squash soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My Minimalist Butternut Squash Soup: half of an onion, chopped, sauteed in butter, add cubed squash, chicken broth, a bay leaf, some sprigs of thyme, salt and pepper. Cook until squash is softened, then puree in processor or blender. Some might add chopped apple to the saute, in fact, I've heard tell that's the secret to the very best butternut squash soup. Some might garnish with bacon, but I like a sprig of thyme, and maybe buttery croutons if I have them on hand.

Butternut sqash salad with greens and brown rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My Minimalist take on Butternut Squash Salad: Cooked brown rice tossed with torn baby spinach, roasted cubes of butternut squash, generous squeeze of lemon juice, glug of extra virgin olive oil, Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. (To roast squash: cubed butternut squash, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes.)

One squash, two tasty dishes, lunches for three days or more, with a minimum of fuss.
Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scarecrows and the Garden

Join me on a walk through the Atlanta Botanical Garden,
featuring scarecrows, glass from the Cohn-Stone Studios, and some beautiful flowers.

 All images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When life gives you vegetables...make soup!

Last week, I whined about an overabundance of vegetables in my refrigerator, hoping for a Salon Kitchen Challenge on the subject of arugula, or turnips or cauliflower. That was not to be, we were given the subject of Halloween candy, which turned out pretty well for me, as I turned out Poached Pears with Chocolate Sauce (using leftover Hershey's miniatures). Still, I needed to use up the vegetables, and turned to the thrifty cook's go-to recipe, soup.

I made ribollita, a Tuscan soup literally meaning "reboiled." It's a mixture of vegetables, broth and leftover bread. Hey, I had that, too. The result is a hearty soup in a tremendous quantity.

Ribollita by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 I had a lot of greens on hand, and added a chiffonade of arugula at the end. This is optional, but a colorful and tasty addition.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 Asian eggplants, peeled and sliced on the bias
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
2 (14.5 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 cup fresh or frozen butter beans
4 cups vegetable or low-salt chicken broth, homemade if available
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of basil, chiffonade, optional
Greens such as arugula, chiffonade, optional
Stale, good-quality rustic bread

1. In a soup pot or a Dutch oven over medium heat, stir in olive oil and place eggplant slices in pan. Cook them as you would meat, letting them brown on both sides. Stir in onions, letting them soften, followed by carrots and celery. Continue to cook until all the vegetables are brownish and soft, adding a bit of water if needed.

2. Stir in tomatoes, butter beans and broth. Add cabbage. Season to taste and let simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. If adding basil or greens, stir them into pot just before serving. Place slice of stale bread in bottom of soup bowl, ladle soup over all. Serve.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of food, or just about anything, is Calvin Trillin. In a piece in Gourmet magazine a few years ago, Trillin wrote that ribollita is Italian for "sticks to your ribs." I must agree, but there's always room for dessert, especially this dense apple cake, kind of a blondie with sweet apples baked inside. It's from Lisa Kuebler's blog and is fantastic.

Lisa's apple cake
Apple Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Announcing a New Giveaway!

There was such wonderful response from readers to the summer giveaway, CSN stores has offered to sponsor another one! With holiday entertaining coming up, you may be in the market for dining room chairs or a set of cookware - whatever it is you need to entertain, CSN stores has many choices.

To enter, just check out CSN and then leave a comment to this post with your email. I will choose a winner at random on Thursday, Nov. 4. The winner will receive a $45 gift code valid at any of CSN's online stores.

The fine print: There may be international shipping charges in the case of Canadian addresses (CSN only ships to the US and Canada). Please be sure to leave your email address or a way for me to get in touch with you - I want everyone to have a chance at this fabulous prize!

This giveaway is now closed. Many thanks for the comments & look for more giveaways in the future!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Special Dark Halloween: Chocolate Drizzled Poached Pears

Elegant and eerie poached pears with chocolate drizzle. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Americans eat 12 pounds of chocolate each year and as Halloween approaches, I think I'm already into my 13th pound of the stuff. I love chocolate in all its candy forms - Reese's peanut butter cups, M&M's, Hershey's miniatures - these go into the "approved for mommy" stack as I sort through my daughter's Halloween candy haul.

While I'm familiar with the sight and smell of chocolate in its processed form, the botanical form was a mystery until a recent visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden's exhibit "Chocolate: From Seed to Sweet." Through a series of interactive outdoor exhibits, my girls and I learned the process from the bloom on the cacao tree to the chocolate bars in the girls' plastic orange pumpkins.

The Cacao Pod by the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Walking through the outdoor exhibition, we learned about the taxi-cab yellow seed pods of the cacao trees. The farmers harvest the seed pods, then grind them into chocolate liquor, which is then separated into cacao butter and powder. The exhibit stations are designed for children to roast, winnow, grind, mix and mold the cacao beans. And I learned this interesting fact - cacao ( (ca-COW) refers to the tree and beans inside the seed pods; cocoa refers to the byproducts of the coca bean - cocoa butter and cocoa powder. And here's another factoid - each cacao pod is about the size of a pineapple and holds enough seeds to make about seven milk chocolate or two dark chocolate bars.

That concentrated dark chocolate appears at my house each Halloween in the form of Hershey's Miniatures. When I was young, I gave away the Special Darks and gobbled up all the milk chocolate. These days, while I still have a taste for the milder milk chocolate, I have a hankering for dark chocolate, and Special Dark is the way to go.

Hershey's Miniatures  chocolate by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I weary of eating the chocolate straight, I make a luscious sauce that can be used in many ways - on ice cream, on spoons, on fingers, but is delightful on a perfectly poached pear. This is the very essence of a simple, elegant, seasonal dessert. A ripe pear, poached in a flavored syrup, caressed with chocolate. It's divine.

Pears by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Poached Pears

Take extra care when peeling the pears and be sure to trim the bottoms 1/4 of an inch so that they sit level on the plate.

2 quarts water

2 cups sugar

1 cup apple juice

1 cinnamon stick

3 slices lemon

6 pears such as Bartlett or Bosc, peeled, bottoms trimmed 1/4 inch

1. Place all ingredients, except for pears, in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Gently place pears in liquid and reduce heat to a simmer. Let cook for 20 minutes. Remove pears from liquid and serve with chocolate sauce.

Poached Pear by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Chocolate Sauce

24 Special Dark miniatures, unwrapped

4 ounces heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

1. In a microwave safe bowl, place chocolate and cream. Zap for 1 minute at 50% power. Remove from oven, whisk and then return to oven. Zap for 1 minute more at 50% power. Remove from oven, stir with whisk. Repeat in microwave if necessary, but it should be fine at this point. Add vanilla and pinch of salt. Whisk until smooth and garnish poached pears.

Poached Pear with Chocolate Sauce by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My daughters decided to help, so the plates took a turn from elegant to eerie. (Reminds me of what would happen would happen if Norman Bates and Vampira had a child who grew up to be a pastry chef.)

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer, with the exception of the first picture, provided by the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Thanks to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for information on the chocolate exhibit.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Burgers, Milkshakes & Blais

Me and Chef Richard Blais by Susan Loper/A Cook and Her Books

Celebrated chef and Top Chef season 4 finalist Richard Blais christened the second Atlanta location of FLIP Burger Boutique in Buckhead Monday night. While making sure that the tasty burgers and milkshakes were being distributed to the crowd, the personable chef took time to talk with the guests and pose for pictures. (And his hair looked great all night.)

My favorites from the eclectic "fine dining between two buns" selections - the Southern burger with gooey pimento cheese dripping off the sides, and the Butcher's Cut with blue cheese, caramelized onion and red wine jam. Of course, you need a side with that, something like Vodka Battered Onion Rings with Beer Honey Mustard does the trick - crispy, crunchy, salty.

Dessert is in a glass - liquid nitrogen milkshakes. My favorite is the Nutella + Burnt Marshmallow. I think I may try to make this at home - minus the fancy kitchen tools.

A FLIP Buckhead employee burns the marshmallows for Nutella milkshakes. Note the mondo industrial nitrogen tank in the background.

There's a cool slideshow of FLIP's menu on

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Classic apple dumplings, with an appearance by my evil twin

Apples. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Apple dumplings just sound good. Ever since coming across a picture of apple dumplings in a 1970s Southern Living cookbook, I've wanted to bake them - warm fruit, filled with spices and nuts or candy (like Red Hots), encased in a sweet pastry, baked to golden goodness and topped with cream.

Making apple dumplings with delicious apples from the North Georgia mountains gives me a chance to use some special tools in my kitchen. I'm not a gadget junkie - I believe that a good set of knives and pots will get you through most recipes, but there are some specialized tools that don't take up much room in the gadget drawer and make fast, efficient work of some tasks - coring and sectioning apples, for example. I favor the corer pictured here on the left because it has a slide that pops out the core - I've broken several traditional corers just trying to remove the core from the tool. The corer/slicer on the right is handy when I need to section apples quickly and evenly - not a necessary item, to be sure, but it performs its job well.

Apple Gadgets by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Making the pastry gives me an excuse to use one of the rolling pins my husband made for me a few years ago. He surprised me on my birthday with three rolling pins, each out of walnut turned on a lathe. They’re displayed in a frame in my kitchen - a creative solution to an exposed pipe that didn’t fit into the soffit. Needing to cover the drain pipe, my clever husband crafted this open cabinet. The molding covers the drain pipe and my rolling pins are always at the ready.

Rolling pins in cabinet by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The pin at the top is the pretties and is employed during Christmas sugar cookie baking. The second is heaviest and is ideal for working with very cold, buttery doughs that need a solid thwack to get warmed up and workable. My favorite is the angled French pin, perfect for turning corners and shaping pastry into a round for a pie. I used the heavy pin with the flaky cream cheese pastry dough for the dumplings, sectioning the dough then rolling each piece into a 6-inch square.

Rolling out pastry by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

And then filling the apple with a mixture of brown sugar and pecans:

Apple on pastry by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

These are the apple dumplings, fresh from the oven:

Apple dumplings on baking sheet by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Cream Cheese Pastry for Apple Dumplings

Adapted from the "Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into 12 pieces

2 cups bleached all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

4 1/2 ounces cold cream cheese (I used Neufchatel), cut into 4 pieces

2 tablespoons ice water

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

At least an hour before you plan to make the apple dumplings, make the pastry crust, so it will have time to chill out and relax.

1. In a food processor, combine the dry ingredients and stir together for a couple seconds.

2. Add the cream cheese and process for about 15 seconds or until mixture resembles crumbs. Add butter and process until all pieces are uniform and crumbly.

3. Using tube, pour in ice water and cider vinegar, slowly and process until incorporated. Dough will still be in pieces.

4. Remove the blade and dump the crumbly dough mixture into a large plastic bag. Using your fingers, press the mixture together. When it is a solid dough, press the air out, seal it and refrigerate for an hour or even overnight.

Apple Dumplings by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Apple Dumplings

1 recipe Cream Cheese Pastry

Flour for dusting

6 baking apples such as Golden Delicious

Juice of one half lemon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup pecans, chopped

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 egg white, lightly beaten

Demerara or granulated sugar for glazing

For garnish: lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream or  plain yogurt sweetened with honey and cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 425. Core apples, peel and brush with lemon juice.

2. In a small bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, pecans and spices.

3. Divide dough into 6 equal pieces and using your favorite rolling pin, one at a time, roll each piece of dough approximately 6 inches square. Place apple on pastry, fill cavity with sugar and pecan mixture. Brush edges of pastry with egg white. Bring opposite corners to the top of the apple and press seams together, being careful so that juices won't escape in the baking.

4. Place each dumpling on a parchment or Silpat-lined baking sheet. Brush with more egg white and sprinkle with demerara or granulated sugar. Bake at 425 for 30 minutes. When pastry is golden, remove from oven. Serve dumplings warm, garnished with sweetened whipped cream or yogurt, perhaps with cinnamon stirred in.

My evil twin will try anything once. She visited the Salon Kitchen Challenge last week with her Bostock creation - doughnuts soaked in coffee syrup and finished off with whipped cream and bacon. This week, my evil twin liberates a recipe from my friend Julie, who served up this unbelievably delicious panful of apple dumplings and said that the secret was a can of Mountain Dew in the sauce. That, plus it gives me an excuse to pop open a tube of crescent dough.

My evil twin likes to break recipes down in useful ways, here's the breakdown for Mountain Dew Apple Dumplings:

1. Apples, the All-American fruit filled with fiber and nutrition.

2. Wrapped in pastry from a tube.

3. Covered with melted butter and refined sugar.

4. Finished off with a can of flavored high fructose corn syrup.

Mountain Dew Apple Dumplings by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Mountain Dew Apple Dumplings

Adapted from the Pioneer Woman Cooks!
1 good-size baking apple, such as Golden Delicious or Granny Smith

1 package ( 8 oz.) crescent rolls

1 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 can (12 oz.) Mountain Dew (you'll need one half of the can)

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a small saucepan, melt butter, then stir in sugar and vanilla. Set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, peel and core apple. Cut the apple into 8 equal slices and wrap each in a crescent triangle. (I'm assuming that I do not need to go into the play-play on popping open the tube, removing the dough and separating the pieces. Follow instructions on the can or here, if you need help.). Place each bundle of love into a pan coated with baking spray.

3. Pour butter and sugar mixture over the apples. Pop open the Dew and pour gently around the edges of the pan. You will only need half the can - the rest is the cook's treat. Bottoms up. Sprinkle the dumplings with a bit of cinnamon then put in the 350 oven for 40 minutes. Serve warm.

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A twist on doughnuts and coffee: Bonuts with bacon

bonuts & coffee
Krispy Kreme with coffee syrup, whipped cream & bacon bits. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 The French toast with the funny name, Bostock, seems to my mind to be easily adapted to Southern ingredients. I’m a Southern girl, without a doubt, and my daddy grew up hunting squirrels in the woods of Alabama with his trusty mutt Bo by side. Other famous Sons of the South include Bo Diddley, Bo Jackson (remember “Bo Knows”?), and American Idol runner-up Bo Bice. My husband reminds me of Bo Derek (native of southern California) and Bo Svensen (native of southern Sweden), to boost the argument. (well, he doesn't really remind me of Bo Derek.)

kk in box
Krispy Kremes. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

In considering this week’s challenge, I decided to go seasonal, with pumpkin and ginger Bostock and local, with Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts. You know what I’m talking about - the ones in the box that screams “eat me!” I took a day-old doughnut, split, it toasted it, soaked it in coffee, heated it and topped it with sweetened whipped cream and christened the top with crunchy bacon bits.

If you’re counting calories and carbs, allow me outline the recipe in a useful way:

1. Deep fried fat and sugar dipped in
2. Sugared caffeine, covered with
3. Dairy fat and sugar, topped with
4. Fried, nitrate- and nitrite-enhanced pork fat. Mmmmm. Kinda makes me wonder what Junior Samples ate for breakfast.

I know it’s not vegan, vegetarian, raw or organic, and it may be more appropriate for Francis’ Sacrificial Lam stories over at Salon. All I know is that it tasted really, really good.

bo nuts
Bonuts with bacon. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Bonuts (Doughnut Bostock)

6 Krispy Kreme doughnuts

Coffee syrup (see recipe below)

Sweetened softly whipped cream

6 slices crisp-cooked bacon, chopped fine

1. Using a bread knife, carve off a thin slice from the bottom of each doughnut  (check for air holes - the thin slice is the cook’s treat). Soak each doughnut lightly in the coffee syrup, then place on plate. Put plate in microwave oven and zap for 15 to 30 seconds - just enough to warm up the doughnut. Garnish with whipped cream and bacon bits.

Coffee syrup

2 cups coffee

¼ cup sugar

1. Place in saucepan and let boil until reduced by half. Let cool to room temperature.

Sweetened Whipped Cream
1/2 cup heavy cream, very cold

1 1/2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a chilled mixing bowl, whip cream until it begins to thicken. Stir in sugar and vanilla and continue beating until soft peaks form. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

French toast with a funny name: Bostock

Pumpkin bostock. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 I’m a half-hearted gardener at best - each spring, I clear out the weeds from the flower bed by the driveway and hand the girls seed packets and let them go to town. This year, we planted zinnias and daisies for the bright flowers, pumpkins and watermelons for the kid-pleasing factor (note: Burpee's Cut and Come Again Zinnia is always a winner). They all combined to yield a crazy quilt of blooms and vines in the garden. We faithfully watered through the summer, and in August, the vines got serious and shot out like Audrey II, taking over the garden bed and sending forth  blooms. I wondered if pumpkin blossoms could be stuffed like squash blossoms, with goat cheese, then battered and fried. (and indeed they can, here's a visit to the future: Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms)

In September, a fruit formed, and here she is, our own little pumpkin buddy:


 Pumpkin is the flavor of fall and I use it to flavor Bostock, the French toast with the funny name. Using Francis Lam’s formula, I infused Challah slices with maple syrup, slathered them with seasoned pumpkin butter, broiled them and topped them with snappy crystallized ginger.

I didn't harvest our homegrown fruit for this treat, instead using canned pumpkin.

pumpkin and maple

Pumpkin Butter
This makes quite a large amount. You may halve this quantity, or make the whole and freeze it until Christmas - a jar of pumpkin butter is a coveted gift.
1 cup apple cider or apple juice

1 ½ teaspoons ginger

1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

¼ teaspoon cloves

1 tablespoon orange zest

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 ¼ cup sugar

Pinch salt

2 (15 oz.) cans pumpkin puree

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine apple cider, flavorings and sugar. Stir and let come to a boil. Lower heat and stir in pumpkin puree. Let cool. Place in plastic container and keep in refrigerator.

Maple Glaze
½ cup maple syrup

½ cup water

½ teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool.

pumpkin bostock
Pumpkin bostock with maple and ginger. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Pumpkin Bostock with Maple and Ginger
Makes 6 sevings

1 recipe Maple Glaze

½ cup Pumpkin Butter

6 slices Challah bread, 1 ½ inches thick, stale or left at room temperature for a couple hours

1 tablespoon crystallized ginger, finely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare a sheet pan with foil and a nonstick grid, if you have one. Dip bread slices in maple glaze and squeeze out extra liquid. Place on grid-covered baking sheet.

2. Spread each toast with pumpkin butter. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Your kitchen will be unbelievably fragrant at this point.

3. Remove toasts from ovens and sprinkle with chopped crystallized ginger. Serve with hot, black coffee.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sticks and stones: A photo essay

The girls and I decided to climb a mountain on an early Fall Sunday afternoon. We grabbed our walking stick by the front door. Mine came from Cabela's. Charlotte the spider would say it's versatile - it has a compass, a wrist strap, a shoulder strap, and can expand to accommodate different hikers and terrain. The girls use the hiking sticks my husband made for them, using fallen limbs from the trees in our woods.

Climbing Kennesaw Mountain takes us about an hour, with frequent stops for water, breath and dog-petting.

And posing for pictures on rocks.
We take a break at the top of the mountain, admire the view, and each others' walking sticks...

We're already gathering the stones for their Christmas stockings.