Butternut Squash Soup

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I’ve been making a lot of soup lately due to 1) the colder weather and 2) my desire to use my previously talked about new immersion blender as often as possible. It’s magical.

This is a very easy butternut squash soup that is filling and tasty and very flexible. I kept it very simple in terms of spices and the cream content, but you can add a ton of different things to a basic squash soup–I saw many variants of this online and in the reviews for the recipe.

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Depending on how smooth or chunky you like your soup to be, you can either blend it for a long time or just in short bursts. I didn’t leave any chunks in mine but it wasn’t liquid-smooth either.

Recipe (from here)
1 Butternut squash, about 2 pounds
2 tablespoons oil (I used grapeseed)
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrot
1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeno pepper (I actually didn’t include this)
2 cups chicken stock (if you’re vegetarian you could switch to vegetable stock)
1/4 cup heavy cream

Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Peel the squash and cut into 1 inch pieces. In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the carrot, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook for 1 minute, and then add squash, jalapeno pepper, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15- 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and puree the soup using an immersion blender, or transfer to a blender or food processor. Return to the heat, add the cream and adjust the seasonings.

Seen in the upper left quarter of this photo is an uber fancy cheese plate that my friends gave me for my birthday! To the right is an apple and brussel sprouts dish that turned out badly and that I won't be writing about
Seen in the upper left quarter of this photo is an uber fancy cheese plate that my friends gave me for my birthday! To the right is an apple and brussel sprouts dish that turned out badly and that I won’t be writing about
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Saag Paneer (with modified Paneer)

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I couldn’t be bothered to get out boyfriend’s Fancy Camera, so for this post we have regressed to iPhone photos. My apologies.

I’m luckier than most: the first time I ever had Indian food, it was homemade by the family of one of my dad’s co-workers. My family was invited to their house for dinner, and I remember a veritable feast of dishes that didn’t look like any type of food I’d ever seen before–to be fair, I was like 8 years old at the time and my culinary experience to date included Chinese food (my mother’s cooking) and “American Food” AKA McDonald’s. That first sip of mango lassi is LIFE. CHANGING.

After that, my dad would occasionally take us to Indian lunch buffets, his go-to whenever my mother was gone. Indian food (especially Indian lunch buffets) always occupied this magical space in my little kid mind: I had absolutely no idea what any of the food was made of, but I didn’t really care because it tasted fantastic.

However, I’ve never attempted to actually cook Indian food until this year. There still remained this aura of mystery and magic around it that made me apprehensive because I was convinced it was complicated, hard, time-consuming, and I knew my meager cooking skills wouldn’t be able to handle it. Throughout college I became more and more confident in the kitchen (especially when I moved out of housing/meal plans and into an off-campus apartment), and when we moved to NY earlier this year, my boyfriend and I attempted a butter chicken recipe (link) that turned out pretty good! And no one collapsed or had a nervous breakdown in the making of it.

Saag Paneer was always one of my favorite dishes, and after looking up some recipes online, it seemed really doable. The only thing I was missing was a food processor or hand blender to help everything into a finer, creamier texture. It just so happens my birthday was a week ago, and I was lucky enough to receive an immersion blender as a birthday gift from my boyfriend’s parents! Ahhh! It’s so perfect!

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This is a staged photo because I forgot to take a picture while I was actually blending and only remembered after I washed the blender and I didn’t want to get it dirty again.

Saag Paneer (link)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces paneer, (or see my notes below regarding a substitute), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 (16-ounce package) frozen chopped spinach (I just used a bunch of regular spinach)
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 (1-inch thumb) ginger, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green serrano chile, finely chopped (seeds removed if you don’t like it spicy!)
1/2 teaspoon store-bought or homemade garam masala
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

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Very yummy cubes of cheese

In a large bowl, whisk together the turmeric, cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons oil. Gently, drop in the cubes of paneer and gently toss, taking care not to break the cubes if you’re using the homemade kind. Let the cubes marinate while you get the rest of your ingredients together and prepped.

Chop the spinach up finely with a sharp knife.

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Chop it up finer than this. If you have a food processor or heavy duty blender that will probably work better.

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add the paneer as the pan warms. In a couple of minutes give the pan a toss; each piece of paneer should be browned on one side. Fry another minute or so, and then remove the paneer from the pan onto a plate.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to the pan. Add the onions, ginger, garlic and chile. Now here’s the important part: saute the mixture until it’s evenly toffee-coloured, which should take about 15 minutes. Don’t skip this step – this is the foundation of the dish! If you feel like the mixture is drying out and burning, add a couple of tablespoons of water.

Add the garam masala, coriander and cumin. If you haven’t already, sprinkle a little water to keep the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

Add the spinach and stir well, incorporating the spiced onion mixture into the spinach. Add a little salt and 1/2 cup of water, stir, and cook about 5 minutes with the lid off. At this point, I used my immersion blender to further blend up the spinach

Turn the heat off. Add the yogurt, a little at a time to keep it from curdling. Once the yogurt is well mixed into the spinach, add the paneer. Turn the heat back on, cover and cook until everything is warmed through, about 5 minutes. Serve with rice and/or naan (I only had brown rice).

I made a few changes to this recipe out of necessity:

  • Definitely did NOT have time to make homemade paneer, and no idea where to get it around my area. Did some research online and replaced the paneer with queso fresco, a mild, firm cheese from Latin America that is sold in abundance at the (Hispanic-leaning) grocery store closest to my apartment. I’ve had actual paneer before and I think this was a perfectly suitable substitute. Here’s (link) where I got the idea from.
  • Also didn’t have garam masala. This recipe includes directions for making your own garam masala, but I didn’t have cardamom and the grocery store close to me didn’t have any either. So I just included a bit of cinnamon and ground cloves instead. I think this, more than anything, is something I could definitely improve on the next time I make this recipe–my dish was a little lacking in the spice-aroma arena, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I was missing this.
  • And I had to make do with non-fat yogurt because the store didn’t have full-fat yogurt! How can you carry a non-fat item without its better, yummier, full-fat cousin? I am a big fan of eating the full amount of fat allowed in every kind of food

Banana Bread

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This banana bread recipe should have been the first recipe on this blog. I like to think of it as my “signature” recipe, if it’s at all appropriate for a complete novice cook/baker to have a “signature” recipe. I’ve made it dozens of times and brought it to many potlucks and dinners with good feedback. It’s easy, quick, and the perfect way to take care of those 3-4 bananas that are looking a little bit too brown for plain eating. You can add chocolate chips (I almost always do), a drizzle of Nutella, or nuts. Or keep it plain, and it’ll still be delicious.

I found this recipe online my 2nd year of college; it’s from the famous Flour Bakery in Boston, MA. I’ve never been to the actual bakery before, but I’d love to one day. Their motto is “Make Life Sweeter… Eat Dessert First!” which, as a serious, non-recovering sugar addict, I agree with completely. The owner, Joanne Chang, also wrote a cookbook (which is where this recipe originally came from, I believe–I found the recipe on Food Network’s website).

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I moved to New York about a month ago, and I’ve already made this banana bread 4 times. I think it was the first thing I baked in my new apartment, actually. It’s perfectly moist, super banana-y, perfect with a bit of chocolate (if you like), and it never gets old.

Banana Bread (from Flour Bakery via Food Network)
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup oil
3 1/2 bananas, very ripe, mashed
2 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Optional:
2/3 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Chocolate Chips
Nutella
Or nothing!

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. I know it says 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, but I’ve always interpreted that very, very liberally. I just dump in a ton of cinnamon until it looks good. I love cinnamon.

In a separate (larger) bowl, mix together the sugar, 2 eggs, oil, and the mashed-up bananas. It can be nice to recruit a minion to help you mash the bananas, be that a roommate, a boyfriend, etc. etc. They will be enjoying the fruits of your labor so get them to help a bit. Add in the 2 tbsp of sour cream (I have substituted heavy cream, yogurt, greek yogurt, milk, or soy milk for the sour cream in the past with fine results). Add some vanilla. Mix thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredient bowl and stir until combined. At this point, you can add in any of the extras you might like. I usually go with about 1 cup of chocolate chips. I’ve never tried putting nuts in, but the original recipe does call for nuts. I’ve also drizzled in Nutella which was heartily appreciated by everyone. Leaving it plain is also just as good.

[Edit: I realize I never included the baking temp and time when I first posted this! Whoops.] Bake at 375 for 45-55 minutes, depending on your oven. It’s done when you insert a knife and it comes out clean.

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Last of all, I know this post was a long time coming. I haven’t stopped cooking or baking (maybe I bake a bit less) since starting medical school in New York, but I definitely have much less time to take photos and write about the results. I’ve also just been making a lot of plainer, quicker stuff–rice with kale, simple pasta, lots of salads, quinoa with veggies, etc. Not very exciting stuff to blog about.

What IS exciting: my boyfriend made a video of the banana-bread-making process! See below on YouTube:

Chickpea and Vegetable Tagine

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I am not an expert on middle eastern food, so I can’t tell you whether this recipe is an “authentic” tagine, but I CAN tell you that it’s tasty, relatively healthy (if you’re concerned with things like that; sometimes I try to be) and pretty easy to put together.

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what tagine itself was, so I did some research on trusty Wikipedia: “Moroccan tajine dishes are slow-cooked savory stews, typically made with sliced meat, poultry, or fish together with vegetables or fruit. Spices, nuts, and dried fruits are also used. Common spices include ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron.”

Tagines are also traditionally cooked in a volcano or cone-shaped earthenware pot like this one that I found on Google Images:

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It looks pretty cool, but I didn’t have one, so I just used a regular saucepan and lid. My version of tagine was vegetarian, but I imagine it’d be pretty easy to add in some chicken or beef to this dish. I’ve made this recipe twice now; the first time I paired it with quinoa, and the second (this most recent time) I just used regular white rice. Both tasted great.

This was also my first time purchasing and using tumeric as a spice, and I loved it. The original recipe also called for 1 tsp coriander, which I left out because my budget is limited and I could only buy one new spice this time around. One day…

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Chickpea & Vegetable Tagine (adapted from here)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander (I did not include this)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 cups Sun Gold or cherry tomatoes, halved (I used cherry)
1 (15-ounce) can unsalted chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

First, prepare your rice or quinoa according to their package instructions. These can cook without any attention from you while you work on the tagine itself.

Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Add onion to pan; sauté 4 minutes. Add cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add tomatoes; cook 2 minutes or until tomatoes begin to release their liquid. Add chickpeas and zucchini. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook 6-10 minutes. You want the mixture to get a little stew-like and you get that by trapping the steam and returning it back into the pan. Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Serve zucchini mixture with your choice of grain.

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We put the leftovers in a tupperware in the fridge and ate it for lunch 2 days later. If anything, it got better! I think it had more time to stew in the spices and juices in the fridge, and after popping it in the microwave for a minute, it tasted awesome. This is a really fast dinner option that could easily be a great lunch the next day, or even a few days later.

Honey Beer Bread

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This is a simple but very good recipe that anyone (over 21!) will be able to put together in less than 30 minutes. And if you’re not 21, I’m sure you can figure out a way to get it done. This bread involves no kneading, no yeast, no rise time, and bakes in less than an hour. Super good when you’re just craving those carbs. The melted butter gives a nice crunch to the edges, and the honey adds a bit of sweetness. It looks awesome, it smells amazing, and it will wow everyone at the next potluck you go to with very little effort on your part.

The best part about this recipe is that you can use any kind of beer in it, and it could be a lot of fun experimenting with different kinds. I’ve made this recipe with 2 different types of beer, and it definitely makes a big difference in terms of how the bread tastes.

My favorite so far has been bread with the Troublesome beer from Off Color Brewing here in Chicago. Malts include “Pils, Wheat Malt, Flaked Wheat, Flaked Oats” and secret ingredients include “Coriander and Lactobacillus.” Don’t ask me any hard questions about beer or “mouthfeel” because I can’t answer those. In fact, I’ll be completely honest and say that this was a beer I found in my boyfriend’s fridge, leftover from his ex-roommate. That is the extent of my knowledge about beer. I also tried making this bread with a different kind of beer found in his fridge, and it was still good, but not as great. Why? I don’t know.

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Honey Beer Bread Recipe (adapted from here)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp honey or agave nectar
1 bottle (12 ounces) beer
4 tbsp (half stick) butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a regular loaf pan.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir the beer and honey into the dry ingredients until just mixed. The combination will be super fluffy and bubbly.

Pour half the melted butter into the loaf pan. Then spoon the batter into the pan, and pour the rest of the butter on top of the batter.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until top is golden brown and a toothpick/knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

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This bread is uber-delicious straight out of the oven, but it’s also fine as lunch the day after. Make sure to store it in an air-tight contained so it doesn’t get stale and dry!