israeli couscous with grilled summer squash

There has been a bit of a quiet countdown happening over here. On an almost daily basis, I’ve been reminding myself to make the most of these days, the end of summer, the end of my twenties. Stop. Take a few deep breaths. Be grateful. They’re going fast, these days.

Maybe you and I are alike in our efforts to savor these last weeks of summer. If so, I have something for you.

First, get yourself some summer squash, pick a few lemons from the neighbors tree (or the market), start up the grill and pour yourself a glass of wine, grab a beer, make your favorite cocktail – you get the picture. After a quick marinate in lemon, olive oil and minced garlic, grill up that gorgeous summer bounty and then throw it into a salad of Israeli couscous (not to be confused with traditional small grain couscous), feta and dill. Season with more lemon juice and zest, flaky salt and ground black pepper.

This little salad was born on a hot August evening in the mountains. I liked it so much that I had to make it again just a few weeks later. It’s bright. It’s savory. It’s summery. It’s one of my new favorites. It will be the perfect side dish for the end of summer shindig you’ll be attending this Labor Day weekend. It also makes a great mid-afternoon snack. Hold on to summer, grill everything in sight, dine outdoors, leave the windows open, pretend like it’s just beginning.

israeli couscous with grilled summer squash

serves 6-8

2 cups dry Israeli couscous

8-10 small zucchini

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided 

2 lemons, zest and juice 

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup dill, roughly chopped

4 ounces feta, crumbled 

flaky salt

fresh ground pepper

Prepare your grill outdoors. Alternately, you can use a stove-top grill pan or roast zucchini in the oven for about 8 minutes at 425F.

Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise from stem to base. Place in a shallow casserole dish or baking pan.  Sprinkle the zest of one lemon and minced garlic over the zucchini. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the juice of one lemon over the sliced zucchini. Season with salt and pepper. Toss until all zucchini is well coated. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt. Add the Israeli couscous and cook for 8 minutes, or until al dente. Drain the couscous and then spread on a baking sheet in a even layer to cool.

After the zucchini have been marinating for 15-20 minutes, place them on the grill cut-side down. Leave them on the grill until they have nice charred markings and are tender but not limp, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from grill and set aside to cool. When the zucchini is cool enough to handle, slice into 1-inch pieces.

Transfer the cooled couscous to a large mixing bowl. Toss with the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, juice of half a lemon, remaining zest, salt and pepper. Add the feta, dill and sliced zucchini. Toss until all ingredients are well incorporated. Add more lemon juice or salt to taste. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

coconut macaroons

Here’s something you figure out by the time you reach your late twenties: baby mamas = baby showers. When you approach your thirties, people start having babies. All at once. Including your besties.

With the efforts of four talented ladies and some awesome caterers, we threw an amazing shower on a gorgeous August Sunday.

Mrs. Baby Mama isn’t so much into babies or showers, so the focus was most definitely the food. The s+s gastro grub team prepared a menu for us that went something like this:

waffle beef dogs with maple syrup – a fun take on the classic corndog. like a pig-in-a-blanket on a stick.

crispy pork belly with 63 degree egg and kimchee puree – the slow-cooked egg is slightly custardy and super tasty when mixed with the kimchee puree, which becomes a dip for the crispy pork. 

beet, compressed watermelon, and heirloom tomato salad – perfectly dressed, super refreshing, best of  summer on a plate. 

seared tri tip with chimichurri and  grilled corn on the cob – ladies who love meat are we, especially paired with the bright flavors of the chimichurri. 

And then there was dessert.

Sometimes I impress even myself. I managed to crank out two types of vegan cupcakes – red velvet and banana chocolate, raspberry pavlovas, and chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, made special for the Mama-to-be, who has been on a serious macaroon kick.

I couldn’t have asked for a better coconut macaroon, especially considering that my first attempt was disastrous and had to be thrown away. Of all the desserts, they were definitely the highlight for me. We’re talking crispy toasted coconut on the outside, tender and chewy coconut in the middle, dipped and drizzled with rich bittersweet chocolate – perfection. For a simple cookie, it hit all of the marks. I wonder if one day the little boo, who is due two days after my birthday, will enjoy these macaroons as much as her mama and I.

coconut macaroons

adapted from Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America

makes 20 medium sized macaroons

1 cup granulated sugar, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3-1/2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut

6 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon orange zest

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Combine 1/3 cup of sugar with the flour and set aside.

Combine the remaining 2/3 cup sugar, coconut, and egg whites in a heat-proof bowl. Place over a pan of simmering water, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and holds together, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Fold in the flour mixture, orange zest, and vanilla extract.

Using a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism, drop spoonfuls of batter onto the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart.

In batches, bake until the macaroons are light golden brown on the outside but still soft enough to give slightly when pressed lightly with your fingertip, 20-25 minutes. Transfer the macaroons still on the parchment paper to a wire rack to cool completely.

Line the cookie sheets with clean parchment paper and set aside.

Once the macaroons are cool, place 2/3 of the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Place over a pan of simmering water and stir often, making sure not to let any steam or moisture come in contact with the chocolate. Continue until chocolate is completely melted and has reached a temperature of 110-120°F. Remove from heat and add the reserved chocolate and stir until it cools to 90°F.

Carefully lift the macaroons from the parchment paper one at a time and carefully dip the bottom of each macaroon in the melted chocolate, letting excess chocolate drip back into the bowl. Place on the prepared cookie sheet. When all macaroons have been dipped, dip a fork in the melted chocolate and drizzle chocolate over the macaroons in a thin stream, using a back and forth motion. Let chocolate harden completely before transferring macaroons to an airtight container.

chocolate whoopie pies

It feels like it’s been forever since I was last here. I swear I’ve been meaning to write. But I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off and playing event coordinator and baking like it’s nobody’s business. Does anyone else feel like August is moving at a rapid pace? I can’t believe how fast these days have come and gone. I also can’t believe that in thirty days I’ll be thirty. OMG. WTF? I’m not ready. Let’s talk about whoopie pies.

When I started seeing whoopie pie pans at Sur la Table a while back, I was skeptical. Maybe unenthusiastic is a better word. I thought of it as just another fad in the baking world. I had never had a whoopie pie, and though I like the original concept behind them (a use for excess cake batter), I never had much interest in making them.

But a few weeks ago I passed by a sweet looking little bakery after having dinner with Adrian and Ash and decided to pop in to pick up cupcakes for my sister’s birthday party. What actually caught my attention was a mountain of whoopie pies in the display case. So I ordered one to go.

We each took a bite of the ginormous cookie sandwich as we walked to the car. Rather than the cakey-cookie delight I had imagined, it was, though tasty, just two cookies filled with sugary buttercream. It went into my purse and stayed there until later that night, when I was at the bar and craving something sweet. I was with Edwin at that point and when he took his first bite, he said something along the lines of it tasting the way a baby or a cute little animal would taste if you bit into it (something only Edwin would say).  He was into it. Since his birthday was in just a few days to follow, I decided he would have whoopie pies. And I knew exactly where to turn for a recipe.

I know I’ve already declared my love for the gentlemen at Baked and their first book. Their second book, Baked Explorations, focuses on classic American desserts. Luckily for me, there were a few whoopie pie recipes to choose from. I went with the classic chocolate pie with Swiss vanilla filling.

Whoopie! I finally understand what all the hoopla is about. These whoopie pies are exactly what I imagined a whoopie pie should be. They’re cakey but have a slight cookie resemblance. And the Swiss buttercream is unbelievably light, kind of creamy and marshmallowy all at once. The combination of the rich chocolate cakey-cookie and airy vanilla filling is perfection. They’re like little hand-held cakes, which make them an ideal on-the-go treat. I think I know where Little Debbie got her inspiration.

chocolate whoopie pies

from Baked Explorations by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

makes 12-20 pies (depending on size)

for the cookies:

3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1-1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Valrhona)

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1/2 cup hot coffee

2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

3/4 cup canola oil

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk, shaken

for the swiss vanilla filling:

5 large egg whites

1-1/2 cups sugar

2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, cool but not cold

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

make the chocolate cookies:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In another large bowl, whisk together the cocoa and espresso powders. Add the hot coffee and 1/2 cup hot water and whisk until completely dissolved.

In a medium bowl, stir the brown sugar and oil together. Add this to the cocoa mixture and whisk until combined. Add the egg, vanilla, and buttermilk and whisk until smooth.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Make sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as you fold.

Use a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism to drop heaping tablespoons of the batter onto the prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let the cookies cool completely on the pans while you make the vanilla filling.

make the Swiss vanilla filling: 

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites and sugar together. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water but do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved and the color is a milky white, about 2 to 3 minutes.

With the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat on low then increase to  medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle attachment. Add the cubed butter and beat on medium-high  speed until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. If the butter looks like it’s breaking, keep beating until it comes together.

Add the salt and vanilla and beat for 5 seconds to combine.

assemble the whoopie pies:

Turn half of the cooled cookies upside down (flat side facing up).

Use and ice cream scoop or a tablespoon to drop a large dollop of filling onto the flat side of the cookie. Place another cookie on top of the filling. Press down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edges of the cookie. Repeat until all the cookies are used. Put the whoopie pies in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm up before serving.

The whoopie pies will keep for up to 3 days, on a parchment lined baking sheet covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. Bring the whoopie pies chilled or at room temperature.

crispy stuffed squash blossoms

Don’t you love those weekends when you come home and feel totally recharged? The past two weekends have been that way. One weekend was filled with music and late nights and brunches and dancing followed by a weekend in the mountains involving long drives and junk food, bourbon and rowdiness and spoons. It was a perfect ending to a somewhat uneventful July.

The beginning of July is a blur. I can barely remember what I did or where I was. With the exception of the end, July was, for the most part, unmemorable. What I do remember about July is my squash blossom fixation.

I’d been thinking about fried squash blossoms since last summer, when Adrian and I had dinner at Bar Bambino one night after work. We started with the most incredible ricotta stuffed, battered and fried squash blossoms. They were awesome – hot, crispy, light. They were so awesome that I can barely remember what else we ate or drank that evening. They left quite an impression, so much so that they stayed on my mind for an entire year.

Last summer, I had a really hard time finding squash blossoms at the market. This year is a different story. They’re everywhere. The Ferry Building Farmer’s Market has a vendor that sells them by the carton. And I’ve also spotted them at Berkeley Bowl. They’re even in my own little container garden this year. I’m ecstatic. And I’ve been indulging.

When filled with mozzarella and battered and fried, the squash blossoms are like a smaller, lighter Italian version of the chile relleno. The combination of the warm melted cheese and the crispy outer coating is extremely satisfying. I especially like the addition of anchovy, which makes the filling really nice and  flavorful. If you eat them immediately after frying with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon, I promise you’ll be a happy camper.

crispy stuffed squash blossoms

adapted from Saveur

serves 6-8

24 zucchini blossoms

3/4 pound mozzarella

12 anchovy fillets

4 eggs

1 cup flour

freshly ground black pepper

vegetable oil

salt

lemon wedges (for serving)

Carefully remove the stems and stamens from zucchini blossoms. Swirl the blossoms in cold water to wash. Shake off excess water and pat dry.

Coarsely chop mozzarella and anchovies, and combine in a mixing bowl. Carefully stuff each blossom with mixture and twist petals to retain stuffing.

Beat eggs in a small bowl. Pour 1 cup flour into a second shallow pan and season with salt and pepper. Heat 2-1/2 inches vegetable oil in a skillet over high heat until very hot, about 375°F  if you have a candy thermometer.

Working in small batches, dredge each stuffed blossom in flour; dip into eggs, turning to coat well, then dredge in seasoned flour. Fry blossoms, turning frequently, until crisp, 3–5 minutes. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately with lemon wedges.