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Purple Potatoes

I had to buy them. A coworker and I visited a farmer’s market on our lunch break, and there they sat quietly, piled up in a basket at the far end of the table. Purple potatoes.
They were smaller than the basic red-skinned potatoes I usually buy for roasting and smashing and all other forms of tatery goodness, and they weren’t cheap, but they were purple. My inner seven-year-old squealed “purple!!!!” and I forked over the money.

Well, my friends, it turns out that unlike red potatoes, whose beauty is only skin deep, the vivid purple shade of this variety goes right to the core. I don’t know what species I purchased; there are several varieties of blue and purple potatoes in existence, and the sign said, unhelpfully, “purple potatoes”. If I return to the market, I will ask the farmer about their lineage.
Normally, in the nutrition world, brighter and deeper colors indicate healthier food (Cheez-its and Kool-Aid notwithstanding). So, what’s with the purple? do they taste purple? Are these potatoes healthier than red potatoes or Russets, and should I keep shelling out more money for them?
As far as flavor goes, my experiment with roasted garlic purple potatoes resulted in… roasted garlic potatoes. With my eyes closed, I’m confident I would not have been able to tell the difference between a red or a purple potato prepared in the same way. And these looked so incredibly cool on my plate beside the chicken!
I did a little digging, and it turns out that the purple color is from high levels of anthocyanins, which is the same antioxidant that makes blueberries a “superfood”. Proof once again that sometimes “ingredients you can’t pronounce” and “chemicals” can be damn good things to have in your food.* In all honesty, the jury is still out on whether the antioxidants and other compounds in blueberries and other fruits actually make as big a difference in vivo (in your body) as opposed to just in the lab, but I see no reason not to add as many colorful foods to your diet as you can. My educated guess is that these potatoes are marginally better for me than the average white-fleshed potato, but not by a whole lot and probably not enough to justify the extra cost on a regular basis. 
That said, I bought more. I plan on boiling and mashing them this time, because apparently anthocyanins are water soluble, and I want to see if the purple washes out with boiling. Science!
* I still find myself getting pissed off to an absurd degree when I hear natural-foods people railing against “chemicals”. If you’re against pesticides, or artificial coloring, or preservatives, say so. Oxygen is a chemical, for crying out loud – don’t be dissing chemistry as a whole just because you don’t understand it.

What’s for Dinner – Cheesy potatoes au gratin

I do not use my mandoline slicer enough. That thing is so damn cool, making those perfect little slices. Since I bought a huge bag of russet potatoes on sale last week, I figured it was an ideal situation for scalloped potatoes.
I more or less followed this recipe on allrecipes.com for Creamy Au Gratin Potatoes. I bumped up the serving size to 6, because I wanted to use up more of my potatoes, but that was dangerous because I had enough sliced potatoes to get right up to the edge of my baking dish.

For simplicity’s sake, here’s the ingredient list along with my inevitable tweaks. This will make enough for either an 8×8 dish or a deep pie plate, which is what I used. Technically 6 servings, but it’s so delicious you’re realistically looking at 4.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

6 russet potatoes, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 tsp thyme
Salt and pepper
2 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk plus a little more
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
Bacon salt (just a smidge)

I used less milk and less cheese than the recipe calls for, and I added thyme, garlic, and bacon salt. I would have added actual bacon bits but I didn’t have any bacon in the house (a problem which will be corrected on my next grocery run). The recipe, as written on the allrecipes site, seemed a little bland without any seasoning, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with garlic and thyme. The recipe also had me putting the raw onions between potato layers, but I figured cooking them first would have a better result.

Soften the onions and thyme in a small pat of butter on medium heat and set them aside. Peel two garlic cloves and smash them flat with a knife so all their guts are hanging out but they’re still more or less holding together. Melt the butter over low heat and whisk in the flour to get a nice silky sludge – cook that for a minute or so until it changes to a golden color, then stir in 2 cups of milk and your garlic cloves, and cook, whisking like mad, for a few minutes until it thickens up. Take it off the heat, add salt and pepper, fish out the garlic cloves with a slotted spoon, and then stir in the grated cheese.

Set the oven for 400.

Peel, then slice the potatoes with a mandoline slicer, or with a knife if you’re a masochist. Generously grease the bottom of your baking dish with butter or a cooking spray, and layer some potatoes in. Add some of the onions on top, then a little sauce, then more potatoes. Keep going until you’re at the top of the dish, then pour as much of the remaining sauce over the top as you can without making a mess. Press down on the gooey mess with your hands to force the sauce between the layers. If you’ve been adding sauce as you layer, you may not need to do this part.

If your sauce has thickened up too much while you were peeling and slicing your potatoes, just whisk in a little extra milk.

Sprinkle a little bit of bacon salt over the top layer and then add a small handful of grated cheese, then put the baking dish on a cookie sheet to catch bubble-overs. Put that into your oven for about an hour – pull it out after that long and check it with a sharp knife. If you have to force the knife through, put them back in for a while. If the knife goes through the potatoes with only a tiny bit of resistance, they’re done.

Let everything sit and cool off a little once the potatoes are cooked, because that will let the sauce thicken up a so the potatoes hold together better when you scoop them on to a plate.

I just now realized this is very similar to the “Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes” I posted about last year, but I already took all this time to write it out, so it stays. For some reason, the Blogger search doesn’t always pull everything up, so when I searched for “potatoes” to see if this was a repeat, it didn’t turn up. I only caught it because I decided to edit my old posts to add a “potatoes” tag. Oh well. At least my spices were different this time, and the cooking time and temperature were different because I used a smaller dish, making a taller stack of potatoes. Does that make it different enough to count as a new post?

What’s for Dinner – Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers are one of my very favorite winter meals. Hearty and relatively healthy: vegetables are so much easier to eat when they’re stuffed with meat and rice and garlic.

Stuffed Peppers

6 large green (or red) bell peppers
1 lb lean ground beef
2 cups cooked rice
5 cloves garlic, diced or smooshed through a press
1 small onion, diced
1/2 cup lowfat mozzarella or italian cheese blend, plus a handful for the tops
1 large 28oz can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
1 package frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 tbsp Oregano
Salt & pepper

Brown the ground beef, drain off excess fat, and put it in a big mixing bowl. Slice the tops off of the peppers and then chop up the usable parts of the tops, tossing them in with the meat. Remove as much of the  ribs as possible (using a knife or just picking at them with your fingers) and stand the peppers up in a big casserole dish – pick one with high sides if you can, to make sure the peppers don’t fall over. If they won’t stand up well, cut a little off the bottoms to make them flat, but don’t cut the bottoms off or you’ll end up with a leaky mess later! I personally cram them so tightly in my casserole dish that they couldn’t fall over if they tried, although it does make it harder for me to get them out when they’re done! Add everything else to the mixing bowl, except for about 1/4 cup tomato sauce and the reserved handful of cheese, and then stir it up. Here’s your filling:

Stuffing for Stuffed Peppers

This is good enough to eat without a pepper around it, honestly. Just a bowl and a spoon, and you’re good! But if you want stuffed peppers, I suppose you’ll need to be filling those peppers over there in your casserole dish. Fill them to almost-overflowing, and then spoon some tomato sauce over the top of each pepper, with a little sprinkling of cheese over that. Cook the well-stuffed peppers for about 30 min at 350 – the peppers themselves will still be crunchy, and the filling will be warm.

Stuffed Red PeppersI made red stuffed peppers for the first time tonight because I got them on sale at Costco on the weekend. Usually I use the green ones because they’re so much cheaper. I think I actually prefer the flavor of the green ones for this recipe, but my man disagrees, so I think we’ll alternate. I could also only fit 5 peppers into my casserole dish, so I’ve got leftover filling, which I stuck in the freezer for another day. Frankly, this recipe makes too much filling – it’s probably enough for 8 decent-sized peppers. But I like leftovers so I always make a huge amount!

If you make the filling ahead, reheat it in the microwave before stuffing the peppers or you’ll have to wait forever for your dinner to warm up in the oven. I speak from experience – once when I made this and waited till the next day to cook it, after 45 minutes I gave up and nuked the peppers.

This works well with turkey instead of beef, and you can use brown rice and reduce the amount of meat, adding more spinach for volume. You can also pre-cook the peppers if you like them to be mushy.

Pre-cooking the peppers

Peppers are harder to stuff when they’re soft, so when I do this I cut the peppers in half lengthwise instead of lopping off their tops and coring them. You’ll still need to remove the ribs, and the presentation will be a little less fancy, but if you want your peppers well-done this is probably your best bet. Put the halved peppers into a microwave safe dish with a lid, or one you can easily cover with cling wrap. Add about a half inch of water to the dish, and microwave the peppers until they’re soft – about 5 minutes should do for 2 peppers.

Once they’re done, take them out with tongs, let them dry a little on a paper towel, and then scoop the warm filling into them and proceed as above.

What’s for Dinner – Mini Italian Meatloaves

I first found this Itailan mini-meatloaf recipe in a Rachael Ray magazine and I tweaked it a little bit to suit me.

1 1/3 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup diced green pepper
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 cup grated parmesan or italian cheese blend
2/3 cup “italian-seasoned” breadcrumbs (or season them yourself, see below)
1 large egg, beaten
5 cloves of garlic, squished through a press or chopped fine
3 tbsp tomato paste, plus 1 tbsp set aside
2 tbsp olive oil

To make the normal breadcrumbs into “italian” breadcrumbs, mix in 1 tbsp oregano, 1 tsp basil, and a bit of black pepper.

Mix everything but the olive oil and 1tbsp of tomato paste in a big bowl. Use your hands and get real squishy in there, kneading until the breadcrumbs are well incorporated into the meat, and the diced vegetables are mixed in evenly. Take out small portions of the mixture and make little football shaped lumps out of them with your hands, and put them onto a baking sheet. You don’t need to grease the sheet because the fat from the meat will come out as it cooks. For that reason, and for your health, I recommend getting the leanest meat possible! I also strongly suggest you use a rimmed baking sheet for this or you’ll be cleaning your oven forever. I usually get 5 “footballs” out of the recipe.

Whisk together the reserved tomato paste and olive oil, and brush it over the tops of the meatloaves. Bake them at 400F for about 20 minutes. Cooking time will depend on how fat you make the loaves. Use a meat thermometer to make sure they’re done (160F is recommended), because the tomato paste makes them stay pinkish and you can’t trust color as a sign of doneness.

I forgot the olive oil step, so mine got much crispier than usual and didn’t have a nice sweet tomatoey coating. Still tasty, but if you’re trying these, definitely don’t skip the oil and tomato paste step!

What’s for Dinner – Tomato alphabet soup

I was so incredibly exhausted last night because of a long week at work, so my dinner will have to count as my “Thing 9”. It’s only soup, but it’s tomato alphabet soup made from scratch without following a real recipe, so it’s sort of creative. I also made grilled ham & cheese sandwiches to go with it. I hadn’t made those in years! There’s something to be said for eating like a kid again. Comfort food. Comfort food that you dip into other comfort food! Wins all around, I’d say.

Tomato alphabet soup
Here’s more or less how I threw it together, in case you feel like winging it over a soup pot tonight:

I diced three skinny carrots and half an onion and then cooked them in a generous dollop of olive oil until the onions were soft. Then I dumped in a box of chicken stock and a big can of tomato sauce, and some black pepper, oregano, basil, and a bay leaf. I let that boil for a few minutes to let the carrots soften up, then used my immersion blender to puree everything (I took out the bay leaf first). I added a tablespoon or so of butter to make the soup taste creamier, and then I put in half a box of teeny alphabet noodles and kept the pot simmering until they were cooked just right.

It’s just so delicious. And flexible – you can tweak the spices to make it more tomato-basil, or crank up the pepper or even add a handful of red pepper flakes if you like a spicy soup.

You can skip the carrots (and the onions) if you want, but I like the texture they give to the soup, plus it’s a good way to add stealth veggies to your life.

What’s for Dinner: Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

So sue me, I’m tired of mashed potatoes. I even tried jazzing them up by stirring in onion dip last time, and while it was tasty, it was still mashed potatoes. The magic is gone, and I think I need to see other potatoes for a while.

New mandolin slicer + bag of potatoes I refuse to mash = scalloped potatoes!
I guess it could also = chips, but I wasn’t in a deep-frying sort of mood.

Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

One onion, diced
3 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed but left whole
3 cups milk
2 cups grated cheddar cheese plus a little extra
7 potatoes (because that’s how many it took to fill my big bowl)

I peeled the potatoes and ran them through the mandolin slicer without hurting myself, which is an accomplishment. I want to buy a chain mail glove to protect my clumsy hands, but for now I went slow and used the special food holder that comes with it, and the only downside was the 7 small chunks of wasted potato from the bit that stays stuck in the holder.

I sautéed the onion in butter until it was soft, and then whisked in the flour with some salt and pepper, and let it get brown. Whisked in the milk and then let it come to a bubble, then added the garlic cloves and then eased up on the heat and let it simmer a while to thicken. I had to keep whisking occasionally to keep stuff from sticking to the bottom. Once that looked ready, I fished out the garlic cloves, and then stirred in the cheese.

I sprayed a baking dish with cooking spray and then poured some of the sauce into the bottom to coat it. Then I layered in the potatoes, taking much more care than I should have, because it really doesn’t matter. But I did it right this first time, overlapping the slices slightly till I had a whole layer, then pouring sauce on it, then another layer, etc. I had three layers by the end, and then I topped it all with the rest of the sauce and some extra grated cheese. Popped that in the oven at 350 for 40 minutes and it was perfect.

Next time I’ll probably just throw all the potato slices into the sauce and pour the whole mess into the baking dish, because the layering doesn’t matter and you can’t even see it except for the top layer, and that was covered in enough cheese to camouflage it anyway.

What’s for Dinner: Baked Potato Soup

When I first came across this recipe, it called for actually baking the potatoes and scooping them out to use in the soup. While I’m sure it gives the soup an extra kick of authentic “baked potato” flavor, who has time to bake a bunch of potatoes, only to gut them and turn them into soup?

Baked Potato Soup

3lbs potatoes
1 medium onion, diced
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
4 cups chicken broth (one of those recloseable boxes)
1 cup cream or half-and-half or whole milk
1/2 tsp thyme
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, plus some for garnish
Note: the sharper the better, as is always the case with cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream, plus extra for dolloping on top later
Bacon bits or bacon salt (optional)

First you boil up the potatoes so you can mash them. They cook faster if you cut them into smaller chunks. When you can stick a fork through the pieces, drain them and dump them in a big bowl and mash them roughly. You want to leave them chunky, for texture. I normally don’t even use my potato masher, I just go at them with a fork. Don’t add butter or cream or anything.

Next, fry up the onion with the butter in a big soup pot until the onions are soft, then whisk in the flour and let it brown a bit while you keep frantically whisking it. Then, still whisking, start adding chicken broth slowly. Start by only adding about 2 cups, then add the cream and the thyme and let it heat up until it gets frothy from the cream boiling, then turn down the heat. Stir in the mashed potatoes and blend them gently into the soup. Don’t whisk them in or you’ll break up all the chunks and it won’t be as good. At this point, if the soup is too thick, add more broth to thin it out. I dumped the whole box in this time figuring I’d be fine, and ended up with a really thin soup, so I stopped and cooked up 3 more big potatoes to mash and add to it. Since this takes a lot longer, I recommend starting with less broth at the beginning and adding more as needed.

When it’s time to serve, stir in the cheese so it melts – if you use normal cheddar you’ll have an orange tint to the soup. Then you can stir in the sour cream.

When you serve this it’s fun to add a blob of sour cream and a bit of cheese to the bowl, making it look all restaurant-fancy. I also cooked up bacon for bacon bits the first few times I made this, but I since discovered Bacon Salt in all its glory, and now I sprinkle that over the soup instead. I suppose you could use chives instead, if that’s your thing.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Craisin Cookies

These are currently my favorite cookies. Make them. You will not be disappointed. If you are disappointed, mail them to me and I will eat them.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Craisin Cookies

1/2 cup room temp butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup regular sugar
1tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1tsp baking soda
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups oats, either quick-cook or old-fashioned (uncooked, of course)
About a cup of chocolate chips
About a cup of Craisins (dried sweetened cranberries)
Also: A gallon of milk – because you’ll want a glass with your cookies later. You shouldn’t make these if you’re out of milk, because you’ll regret it. I speak from experience.

Crank the oven to 350F. Cream the butter and sugars, then mix in eggs and vanilla. Sift all dry ingredients together (or be lazy and stir them in a bowl with a fork, like I did) and then add them to the sugar mixture, half at a time. It will be pretty thick at this point. Add the oats and stir them in. This is the point at which I wished I’d remembered I have a lovely cobalt blue KitchenAid mixer hidden away in a cupboard, because my arm was hurting. This is a very hard batter to mix well by hand! If you have a mixer, use it! Stir in Craisins and chocolate chips. Use as many as you think you need to have a few in each cookie. I ended up using about 3/4 cup of each for this batch because it seemed like enough, but I’ve used the full cup in the past with no problems.

Drop the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet in tablespoon-sized blobs. Leave a little room for them to expand, but you don’t need much.

Bake them for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Because I’m paranoid that my oven is crazy, I started peeking at 8 minutes. 10 minutes was definitely the “done” point for my batch.

Let them sit on the cookie sheet for at least one minute before taking them off to cool or they will crumble apart. Unless you want them to crumble apart on purpose because the broken ones have no calories, in which case you should remove them immediately.

This recipe makes 4 dozen. But you should double it. Because they disappear fast.