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Stuffed Picnic Sandwich with Olive Tapenade

28 May

The sun was out.  For a solid two weeks, the sun was out.  We ate meals outdoors, we made ice cream, we rode our bikes, and sometimes, if we played our cards right, we did all three of those things in one day.  It was a glorious time.  Spring, as I have mentioned one or two or a million times before, is usually a rather difficult time here in the Pacific Northwest.  The rain is persistent, the temperature rarely creeps above a somewhat insulting 60 degrees, and the fact that one nearly always spends Memorial Day weekend wearing rain boots starts to seem sort of grueling.

But a week and a half ago?  Oh, let’s talk about that.  Temperatures crept near the 90s, the sun was shining each and every day, and we spent as much time outdoors as humanly possible.  Perhaps best of all, we made the season’s inaugural bike ride downtown to have a picnic dinner on the waterfront.  My love of picnics remains unrivalled, so this event was a spectacularly big deal for me.  I spent most of the morning thinking about what I would pack for our picnic, and by the time I picked up my son from school, the answer was clear.  What do you take on a very important picnic?  Why, you take the World’s Best Picnic Sandwich, of course.

Why the World’s Best?  Let’s start with the construction, an ingenious method of hollowing out a good portion of a hearty round loaf of artisan bread in order to create a cozy little nest for the sandwich’s fillings.  The fillings in question can be altered to satisfy the tastes of the people eating the sandwich, but I nearly always go for the solid combination of provolone cheese, peppered turkey, roasted peppers, lots of leafy greens, and, though I forgot them this time around, big, juicy slices of tomato.  However, let me back up just one moment and mention what might be the crowning achievement of this sandwich: the olive tapenade.  Wonderfully flavorful, the tapenade is the secret weapon of this sandwich, harmonizing tastes and textures and adding that little bit of something extra that makes this sandwich a real standout.

All in all, this is a sandwich of note, and its presence at our first waterfront picnic of the season could not have been more appreciated.  All we need now is some more warm weather so we can have more picnics (because right now it is 52 degrees and raining and…let’s not talk about it).

Last Year: Orecchiette with Grated Garlic and Tomato

Stuffed Picnic Sandwich with Olive Tapenade Recipe

This sandwich has a lot in common with a traditional muffalleta sandwich, though the tapenade in this sandwich is decidedly less loud than the standard olive salad found in a muffaletta.  This sandwich also lacks the selection of meats found in a muffaletta, though you can certainly swap out a variety of meats depending on your tastes and desires.  One step that I find is crucial in making this sandwich really sing is the rest time.  Wrapping your sandwich, either in slices or as one whole loaf, and allowing it to rest in the refrigerator for a bit really makes the flavors meld together and create a nearly perfect finished product that is worthy of the Sandwich Hall of Fame (is that not a real thing?  I think that should be a real thing).

1 loaf French boule or another round artisan-style loaf of bread

6 ounces thinly-sliced pepper turkey (or another meat or combination of meats of your choice)

3 ounces provolone cheese (or another good sandwich cheese)

1 roasted pepper, sliced into strips, top and seeds removed (instructions on how to roast a pepper can be found here)

1 large handful of raw spinach eaves

1 large handful of arugula leaves

Olive Tapenade

1/3 cup chopped kalamata olives

1 large clove garlic, smashed and finely minced

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley leaves

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

freshly ground black pepper

optional: a nice glug of balsamic vinegar

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and mix together thoroughly.  Add pepper to taste, and add balsamic vinegar if you think the tapenade needs a bit of an acidic kick (some people think the balsamic fights with the taste of the rest of the sandwich, so adding it is entirely optional).

To construct sandwich, cut the loaf of bread in half lengthwise.  Tear out half an inch to one inch of the soft middle of the bread, leaving the bottom of the loaf shallower an the top (leaving a deeper space in the top of the loaf allows you to pile your sandwich ingredients higher with less threat of the sandwich collapsing).  You can reserve the torn-out bread in a plastic bag and freeze it for another use (bread brumbs, romesco sauce, etc.).

Spread the insides of both the top and bottom bread halves with the olive tapenade.  On the bottom half, add a handful of greens, then layer on the turkey, the cheese, and the roasted pepper slices.  Add another handful of greens, then place the top half of the loaf (the lid) over everything.  Slice the loaf into 6 or 8 individual sandwiches, depending on how large you want your servings to be.  Wrap each sandwich tightly in plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour (though letting everything rest longer, even overnight, produces a smoother-tasting, more flavorful sandwich).

Makes 6 or 8 individual sandwiches.  Or 4 individual sandwiches.  Or, heck, even 2 (in which case, I salute you).

Mexican Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

14 May

Today, for the second day in a row, my son went to school wearing shorts.  This has not happened since September.  That’s the way the weather works here, the warm days bookending the beginning and ending of the school year, never to be seen in between.  The school year is drawing to a close, and that means that summer is approaching.  Though it tends to happen rather slowly around here, it does eventually happen.

Summer, to me, means taking trips.  They don’t have to be long trips, but if I can find a way to pack traveling food to take along with us, the trip is, in my mind, complete.  Last summer we took day-long bike rides, me pulling my son in a bike trailer that was nearly too small for him (his helmeted head forming a dome under the trailer’s netting while he slouched in his seat and read books about whales); we took our annual 12-hour road trip to San Francisco to watch some baseball games and visit my family; and we made a few expeditions to the beach, where we sat in the sand and constructed cities with my son’s dump trucks and sand castle toys.  For every excursion, we packed what I like to think of as a prolonged picnic mea: a bit of bread, a bit of cheese, plenty of crunchy vegetables, some sweets, some nuts, and a ration of fruit.  This summer, when our garden is bursting with summer squash, I will definitely find a way to fit these fantastic muffins into the picnic/road trip mix.

We come again to that shadowy place where a cake meets a bread, a bread meets a muffin.  The lines long blurred between the three, it is oftentimes difficult to tell where one might be inclined to be identified as something else.  Not so much a cake, but also not entirely a bread, these are a lovely little snack to take in on an afternoon trip.  They make great traveling companions, and they can survive for several days in an airtight container (presuming that one can resist eating them for that long—we did not, in all honesty, so I suppose I should admit here that my statement on the longevity of these muffins is pure, unadulterated speculation).  Though they boast a great deal of dark chocolate flavor and comforting cinnamon and almond tones, the sweetness factor is at a minimum, and a nice combination of shredded zucchini, applesauce, and vegetable oil in the batter keeps the muffins wonderfully moist without ever devolving into heaviness.  A stop in a grassy place to stretch one’s legs in the midst of a prolonged car ride would be made several worlds nicer with a bit of this satisfying, not-to-sweet treat to go along with it.  All we need now is a destination, and we’re all set.

Mexican Chocolate Zucchini Muffins Recipe

1 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon almond extract

1 heaping cup shredded zucchini (from about 1 large zucchini), squeezed of its liquid

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a 12-count muffin tin with paper liners, or grease the tin with vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and instant espresso, and whisk to combine.

In a medium bowl, combine the vegetable oil, eggs, sugar, applesauce, vanilla, almond extract, and shredded zucchini, and whisk to combine.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until just combined.  The batter will not be completely smooth, but there should be no streaks of flour remaining.  Be careful to not overstir, as that will make your muffins quite tough.

Evenly portion out the batter in the muffin tin.  Bake the muffins in the center of the oven for 20 to 22 minutes, until the tops of the muffins appear firm and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin emerges with just a few moist crumbs attached.  Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for just a couple of minutes, then turn muffins out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Makes 12 muffins.

Crisp and Hearty Homemade Granola Bars

13 Feb

There are some things people just do not expect you to make at home.  No one gives you funny looks when you bake a cake from scratch or make pizza at home, or even when you admit one day that you’ve taken to smoking your own salmon.  Tell people that you’ve developed a keen interest in making your own granola bars, however, and all of a sudden you’re regarded as some sort of competitive cooking snob, someone who has crossed the line of cooking for pleasure and entered into the territory of cooking in order to prove something.

It’s tough to explain to people who do not regard cooking as a pastime, a hobby, or even a treat, that when I want to make something new—no matter how silly it might seem to make it at home—it is because I like the time it allows me to spend in the kitchen.

My husband and I are both really, really into skateboarding (one of the many reasons we are married—because there were no other rational, responsible adults around to tolerate our interests), and we often talk about the time, sweat, and agony it sometimes used to take to learn a new skate trick (I speak in the past tense here because, though we are still into skating, neither of us is in any sort of position in life to be spending hours a day on a skateboard trying to will our bodies to complete a new trick that some kid less than half our age just thought up).  The focus you develop when you’ve just spent two solid days trying to land a fakie 360 flip (a trick that babies can now somehow learn straight from the womb, but back in the early ‘90s THAT TRICK WAS HARD) becomes almost maniacal, and two days start to seem like nothing if it begins to appear as though it might take another two days to finally land the trick without injuring yourself.

And this relates to making homemade granola bars how?  Because it’s the same dedication, the same enjoyment, that makes me want to get something right in the kitchen.  It may seem delusional to spend three days perfecting a granola bar recipe, but I swear to you, take one taste of these granola bars and you’ll immediately reverse that opinion.  Big bursts of dried fruit play against the hearty crunch of crisp nuts and lightly sweetened oats, while the subtle spices tie everything together with a pleasant mellowness.

These are no store bought granola bars, overly sweetened and packed with mystery additives.  These are a healthy, nutritious treat that belie the virtuousness of their ingredients by being utterly, fantastically delicious.  Because of their belly-filling goodness, these granola bars would make a great fortifying snack to take along on a hike, or perhaps a long ride on your bike (because apparently I am now channeling Dr. Seuss—you can eat them as a snack, just pop one into your backpack).  Right now, as I type this, I am eating one of these granola bars for lunch.  When I am done with lunch and typing, I will probably take a tiny little break to watch this, because now that the granola bars have been conquered, I have a bit of time left to devote to my other interests.

Crisp and Hearty Homemade Granola Bars

1 3/4 cups rolled oats

¼ cup dark brown sugar

¼ cup graham flour (graham flour has a great nutty taste, but you could also use whole wheat pastry flour or another mild whole grain flour, e.g. not rye flour)

½ cup wheat germ

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup dried fruit, chopped into a uniform size if pieces are large (apricots, apples, etc.)—I used dried cherries, dried cranberries, and raisins, so no chopping was required

1 cup coarsely chopped nuts (I used almonds, walnuts, and pecans)

¼ cup vegetable oil

3 tablespoons unfiltered apple cider

2 tablespoons honey, agave, or maple syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/3 cup unsweetened almond butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line an 8”x8” baking pan with a parchment paper sling (this can be accomplished by trimming your parchment paper into a long rectangle that will line neatly against the bottom of the pan and drape over the sides.  In the pictures above, my parchment paper sling is not nearly wide enough, on account of the fact that I inconveniently ran out of parchment paper and was using the last 4 inches of the roll), then lightly grease both the pan and the parchment paper with vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, flour, wheat germ, sea salt, cinnamon, dried fruit, and nuts.  Toss to combine.  In a small bowl, combine the oil, apple cider, honey, vanilla, and almond butter.  Whisk to combine.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients.  Using your hands or a fork (but hands work best), thoroughly stir the ingredients together until it is uniformly wet and it wants to clump together.

Pour the granola mixture into the prepared pan.  Using your hands, firmly press the mixture into the pan, flattening the top, the edges, and the corners (it helps to have slightly wet hands when doing this, as the mixture is quite sticky).

Bake on the center rack of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the edges are brown and the middle is golden.

Cool for at least 1 hour before attempting to cut.  Remove granola bars from the pan by lifting them up using the parchment paper sling.  A serrated knife works best to cut these, and I have found that popping the granola into the freezer for 15 minutes to slightly harden them before cutting makes the process even easier.

Makes 16 2-inch granola bars.

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