Monday, September 27, 2010

Cocoa Zucchini Cupcakes

I had a little party this weekend, a housewarming of sorts, although I am living in a sublet, so I can't take credit for the beauty of the home, and I will be moving out again in just a few months. But does one ever really need a reason to gather friends together, old and new alike, and prepare a storm of snacks and drinks to offer them?

There was a spread of roasted red pepper hummus, white bean garlic herb dip, cheeses, crackers, and other sundries, and cupcakes per usual. I originally thought I would turn my recipe for cocoa applesauce muffins into cupcakes, but apples equal fall, and I'm not quite ready to accept the turn of seasons yet. I'm a big advocate of continuing to take advantage of summery produce until it disappears from the markets. With my schedule busier lately than I'm used to, I also didn't feel like taking the time to slowly cook apples down into sauce, so a simple grated zucchini from the greenmarket made sense.

I ended up adapting Heidi's recipe for chocolate zucchini cupcakes on 101 Cookbooks, but left out the chocolate chips because they actually aren't necessary. I've never before been able to achieve a rich chocolatey taste through cocoa powder alone. The key, I've now learned, is to use a full cup of cocoa, as a quarter or third of a cup won't cut it. My cupcakes tasted sharply of dark chocolate, with moist shredded zucchini hidden secretly and healthily inside. I paired them with bourbon cream cheese icing, but lemon or peanut butter icing might also be fun.

Cocoa Zucchini Cupcakes
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup milk
1 zucchini, about 2 cups grated
2 cups flour
1 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
bourbon cream cheese icing

Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugar. Whisk in honey, eggs, vanilla, milk, and grated zucchini. Add flour, cocoa, baking soda and beat until batter is combined and smooth. Bake 20-25 minutes. Remove, let cool, and top with icing. Makes two dozen cupcakes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Eat at Summer's End

Somewhere along the way, I forgot to keep taking photos of my farmers market hauls, but I've still been bringing home bags of produce and finding time to cook despite my newly busy schedule. This time of year, I like to focus on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, which in past summers, I would have grilled and turned into caponata. Lacking a grill has required me to get a little more creative this year. Below are some dishes I've enjoyed in the past couple weeks, showing how seasonal vegetable driven meals can be as lazy or as complex as you have the time and inclination for.

For a still hot summer night when you don't feel like cooking:
Deconstructed cheese and tomato sandwiches

Top one cube of Bread Alone organic baguette with one slice of Bobolink grass fed cheddar and one cherry tomato (preferably from a mother's garden) and pop in mouth. Chase with a sip of Troegs Sunshine Pils.

For a cooler late summer Sunday when you have time for a cooking project, so that you can eat quick meals with little prep later in the week:
Roasted red pepper hummus

Cook a large batch of dried chickpeas, let cool, drain, and apportion into jars in freezer for future meals. Also roast two or three red peppers until blackened on each side, remove skins, slice into strips, and marinate in olive oil and garlic in refrigerator. Either that day or sometime in the next week, prepare the hummus - thaw one jar of cooked chickpeas, and blend in food processor with 1/2 cup roasted red peppers, a generous stream of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of tahini, juice of 1/2 lemon, and a sprinkling of crushed hot pepper. Serve this special sweet and spicy hummus with warmed pita as an appetizer or as a dinner for one.

For a cool evening when you have time to make a more complicated dinner, company to help, and/or a desire for leftovers:
Eggplant parmesan sandwiches

Slice one large eggplant into thin rounds. Salt heavily and let drain in colander for 30-60 minutes, rinse, and dry with paper or cloth towels. Dredge eggplant in a bowl of beaten egg and then in a plate of homeground breadcrumbs. Fry in a shallow layer of hot oil until browned on each side. As you dredge and fry, have a helper remove the cooked eggplant from the pan and layer it in a baking dish with homemade tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. Warm in oven for 5-10 minutes until cheese is melted, alongside slices of Amy's rustic Italian bread drizzled with olive oil. Plate sandwiches, enjoy with a red wine, and remember to thank your helper for doing the dishes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Scenes from a Bike Tour of NYC

I crossed off one of my 25 things last weekend when I rode the New York Century Bike Tour, organized by Transportation Alternatives, New York City's advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. I'd been wanting to do this bike ride for years, but was deterred by having to haul my bike an hour to Central Park at 7am on a weekend morning. This year they launched an alternate starting location in Prospect Park, a doable mile or so from my apartment, which meant I no longer had an excuse. I will admit it was hard to say no to all my friends party harding on Saturday night in order to get to bed early-ish, but I am still glad I did it.

TA offers varying distances from 15 miles to 100 (that's the "century") to accommodate beginners and families through experienced bikers. I chose to ride the 35 mile route, which was longer than I've ever biked in one day before. I actually rode about 31 miles, factoring in my trip to the starting line and my more direct route to finish at my apartment in Brooklyn rather than at the park. I wasn't sure how I would feel when I hit the halfway point at Central Park, but I was totally fine with continuing to pedal back to Brooklyn.

I was on my own, but the fellow riders and marshals were all friendly, and I was able to join another single rider along the way at my same pace so we could have company. My fear of getting lost alone in the backstreets of Queens was unrealized. It was a gray day, but the cool air was actually perfect for biking. Serendipitously, the only rain was a half hour drizzle that didn't bother me once I had my rain jacket on.

The route is designed for on-street cycling, to demonstrate that bikes have a real place on roads alongside cars, so no roads were blocked off, and that meant we took both protected bike lanes and scary busy streets (ie. what were they thinking with having us on West End/11th Avenue and all its fast traffic heading for the tunnels?)

My favorite part was getting to see so many different parts of New York City in one day, including some locations I'd never been before. From hipster Brooklyn, to the view at the top of the Triboro bridge, to swamps on Randalls Island, through Manhattan's quickly changing neighborhoods, and over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

The 35 mile start time in Prospect Park was 8am, during offleash hours for dogs.

We headed north through Bed Stuy, quiet on a Sunday morning, and up the North Brooklyn waterfront. Loving the two-way bike lane on Kent Ave in Williamsburg, and capturing the strange juxtaposition of the neighborhood's artsy charm and its new towering condos.

Crossing Pulaski Bridge over the excessively polluted Newtown Creek from Brooklyn to Queens, with Manhattan in the distance.

We followed the Queens waterfront from Long Island City to a rest stop at Astoria Park, under the shadow of the Triboro and Hells Gate Bridge (awesome name). I was excited to cross the Triboro Bridge, a giant highway of a bridge I have traversed many times by car, for the unique opportunity to see views that you can only take in at this slower pace.

Looking west over the Triboro Bridge to Manhattan

Looking at Randalls Island and the industrial beyond from the Triboro

We meandered through Randalls Island's bizarre sports fields and swampy landscaped waterfront paths, which I'm now realizing were next to a psychiatric institution, before crossing this pedestrian bridge to Harlem.

Rest stop at the top of Central Park, at 110th street and Lenox Avenue. I don't think I'd been north of 85th street in the park before.

We rode down the west side, not on the Greenway, but on Riverside Drive then scary West End Avenue, and then to this protected bike lane on 9th avenue from 30th street to Bleecker street in Manhattan, complete with light signals for bikes!

After passing through the West Village, Soho, Chinatown, and City Hall, I headed over the Brooklyn Bridge, in the homestretch.

The Manhattan Bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

I took a little shorcut through Downtown Brooklyn and Carroll Gardens to finally get home! 31 miles. 4 1/2 hours. 4 bridges. 3 boroughs. 2 wheels.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Season's End

Summer's season is ending, and so too are peaches, I hear, although they could still be found heaped aplenty at last weekend's farmers market. But while Labor Day appropriately felt like summer's last hurrah, this week has already transitioned to crisp breezes asking for jackets to be worn and leaves to fall. The golden September light is a reminder to hurry up and enjoy summer's produce before it passes by.

Summer is my favorite season, so I'm sad to see it go, but at least I can look back fondly on it this year. I filled my last long weekend with warm weather activities: Free kayaking in the Hudson River aka sunbathing and paddling on a personal boat in a protected pier...

A dance party in a museum courtyard... Walking in the sunshine... Biking around Prospect Park...

And a boatload of cooking projects, including peach coconut ice cream. I like peach smoothies, so why not peach ice cream, with coconut leftover from a cupcake endeavor. Follow the almond chip ice cream recipe, but add two pureed peaches and 1 1/2 cups toasted coconut when making the custard, and obviously leave out the almond and chocolate.

Then enjoy ice cream instead of dinner on the remaining warm nights of the year. Do not fear that this will be the last of the ice cream, though, now that my sister is a milkmaid market lady for the Milk Thistle Organic Dairy Farm.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Growing Plants Indoors

I have always been lucky enough in New York City to have outdoor space for growing herbs and other plants...until now. I am also no longer at the mercy of plant-devouring dogs, so my move has been a useful reminder that we can in fact raise and enjoy plants indoors. In addition to being pretty and often useful in the kitchen, indoor plants improve air quality, which is something we can all benefit from, given the prevalance of toxic chemicals hiding out in our homes. The Green Phone Booth explains this in greater detail, along with an an extensive list of the best plants for air purificiation.

I was unable to bring my tomato plants, but the herbs did find a home in my new sunny living room. Unfortunately, this picture was taken a few weeks ago, and many of those small pots have since dried out, which is a common problem I have with growing indoors, even if I keep the plants watered regularly. I think they must need even more light than they can get through these windows. The oregano, basil, and rosemary are still doing okay, however.

The tall plant on the left with the skinny stem and broad leaves is an avocado tree, which are fun to grow yourself from the pit of an tasty avocado you have just eaten. In looking up this how-to for you, I discovered that you should pinch off the newest top shoots to help it grow bushy rather than tall, so clearly this rapidly rising plant could use a little bit of that before it reaches the ceiling!

Tropical plants tend to fare well indoors, and unlike herbs, do not generally need to be watered every day. Remember this canna which sprouted during a neglected winter in my basement? It's now happy next to my bedroom window.

My friend Jamie has done an excellent job of filling her home with plants. Every time you turn around, you will discover another pot of greenery in each corner. She uses cuttings to propagate plants around her home cheaply, by cutting a healthy stem from an existing plant and placing it in a water-filled glass jar, sometimes with store-bought rooting hormone, until roots emerge. I gave her parsley and rosemary to add to this windowsill to thank her for leting me stay on her couch for a week, and they are going strong, unlike my herbs. I suppose her windows get enough light to make it possible for the parsley to happily grow out of control. She also has a cute and smart cat, who knows not to eat the plants.

What has your experience been with indoor growing? Have you learned any tips along the way?