Note: not a single picture in this post came from my camera or belongs to me in any regard. All pictures are from the Attribution License Flickr stream, and are simply for representative/example purposes. Credit has been given where credit is due and all pictures are linked back to their respective owners.

I just joined the Daring Bakers and the Daring Cooks, as a means to stretch out my usual repertoire with new and interesting dishes and desserts. The Daring Kitchen is sort of an online phenomenon - hundreds or maybe thousands of food bloggers and non-bloggers alike participate in a monthly challenge to recreate the designated recipe exactly as-is, and post their successes or failures, along with photos and thoughts on the recipe - good or bad.

A little fear has set in, I must say. There are strict deadlines and guidelines, for starters, but some of the past dishes are a little intimidating. For a few examples, The Bakers have tackled:


Chocolate eclairs


And macarons, the thought of which make me shake in my stilettos.

The Cooks have taken on:

Greek Mezze

Vietnamese Phở

And Gnocchi (The Cooks are a relatively new inception; I couldn't find nearly as many examples).

Just slightly intimidating, no?

Thank you to my longtime friend and perpetual supporter Angela for the inspiration that led me to joining the group! I can't wait to share some new dishes and desserts with my friends. Wish me luck as I muddle through this new adventure, and please stay tuned for Daring Bakers and Daring Cooks posts - I'll post one of each every month among my usual posts. Maybe you'll be inspired to play along also!

Turnips Au Gratin

On a low-carb diet, even with the vast number of delicious "legal" dishes one can create, there are certainly things one misses, with only the memory of purposely-removed comfort foods remaining. For me, those often-craved bites include cheeseburgers with a bun (preferably a buttery brioche bun), chicken fried steak with cream gravy, Wavy Lay's with onion dip, and French Toast.

The fact that not one of those foods would be welcome on any realistic diet notwithstanding, with a little creativity, the low-carb foodie can find suitable replacements for some of the dearly departed foods. For example: boiled and pureed cauliflower to replace mashed potatoes, Splenda to replace sugar, baked parmesan chips (more on that another time) to replace crackers...but sliced turnips in place of sliced potatoes remains my favorite.

This is a variation of a Pioneer Woman recipe I stumbled upon when I first started reading her site. I never would have come up with it myself, nor would I have considered turnips in any way, shape, or form - simply because I had never tried one (even though they are a bit purple, and in my opinion, adorable).

After a few attempts at this dish, my biggest tip to a turnip first-timer would be to find the smallest turnips possible when selecting. I was all set to turn my family's notions on turnips upside down with this dish during a recent trip to New York, so I ventured across town to the one place I knew I'd find them: the giant Union Square Whole Foods, where I picked up 3 softball-size turnips and didn't give them a second thought as I hauled them back on the 7 train. When all was said and done and covered in thank-you-very-much-New-York-City-$17 Gruyere cheese, they tasted sharp and bit back like a raw radish would. The smaller ones here in Tennessee have proven to be much more tender and sweet, and much closer in taste to a potato. Plus, one cup of cooked turnips has 4.77 net carbs, while one cup of cooked potatoes has 15.7 carbs!

You will need:

5-6 small turnips, rinsed
2 cups Gruyere cheese (or whatever you want - Gruyere is just fantastic)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream or half and half
2 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
Salt and pepper

Start by bringing a pot of salted water to a boil. I will also add sugar or simple syrup to the water - I'm not really sure if it does anything, but I like to think that it sweetens the turnips just a tad to take the edge off.

Thinly slice the turnips. I leave the skins on, but you can take them off.

Add turnips to the boiling water and cook while you obsess over getting the perfect photo of yourself chopping scallions, which you won't even wind up including in your silly blog. By that point, the water will be boiling over and the turnips should be fork-tender. Drain immediately but do not rinse.

Allow the turnips to cool for easy handling, then remove one by one to a glass baking dish. Layer the turnip slices, slightly overlapping each other across the bottom of the baking dish.

Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, a little garlic, a little scallion, and a few blobs of butter. Then...go for the cream.

Just do it.

Then, layer on some cheese.

Repeat until you've run out of turnips and/or room in your baking dish. Cook the turnips at 250 degrees for at least an hour - sometimes I go for two hours. Remove when the cream and cheese have reduced and the top is brown and bubbly.

Find yourself so transfixed by the gooey, cheesy plate that Dr. Atkins would bless as diet food in front of you that you forget to take a picture of the final product.

White Polenta

Polenta is a smoother variation on the southern corn-based favorite, grits. In researching the dish, I learned that it was and still is considered a peasant dish, which explains nothing of why the polenta tube my grocery store sells is close to $5. Don't buy the polenta tube when it's so easy to make at home, and not at all difficult!

My version of my Northern Italian grandmother's favorite is made with white cornmeal instead of the traditional yellow. Don't think I'm super creative and knowledgeable about various types and colors of cornmeal - I just had white cornmeal on hand from an experimental dish a while back, and figured it needed to be used up.

I did, however, put a twist on this polenta from the traditional recipe, using both Parmigiano Reggiano and a healthy dollop of Chevre (goat cheese), which makes for a velvety smooth dish to sit alongside chicken, veal, beef or fish. I also happen to like green onions in just about anything, polenta included, but I think Grandma may have turned up her nose at their appearance in her beloved polenta.

You will need:
4½ cups whole milk
1 cup (scant) white cornmeal
2 ounces goat cheese (chevre)
2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
1 stalk green onion, white and green parts chopped
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and black pepper to taste

Over medium heat, bring the milk to a soft boil, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Reduce temperature to medium-low and slowly add cornmeal. Whisk constantly until thickened. Add salt and pepper and continue to whisk.

When mixture has thickened to the consistency of mashed potatoes, add butter, cheeses and green onion and whisk until combined/melted. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Reduce temperature to low/warm until ready to serve.

Leftovers can be refrigerated and when set, cut into chunks, grilled or sauteed in olive oil until crisp on the outside.

Bread and Butter Pickles

As I whined last week, a co-worker arrived at the office prepared to rid himself of a reusable WalMart bag brimming with garden cucumbers plucked from his partner's parents' backyard. It seems said parents have vacationed to New Zealand, so he's been trusted to tend to their garden in the meantime, with free reign to do what he sees fit with the harvest. Basically, these cucumbers needed a dumping ground, and my beat of wishy-washy hesitation in answering his offer was just enough time for him to hastily pass the whole bag off to a semi-willing dope before darting outside for a smoke.

The weight of the bag falling into my hand surprised me - as did finding 22 of the damn things when I peered inside (7 pounds, if you were wondering). What was a cucumber hater going to do with 22 cucumbers?

Easy. Make the only wholly comprised of cucumbers item I find acceptable: pickles.

We'd been planning on taking the time this summer to learn how to preserve foods, and my cucumber surplus was certainly a cause for a baptism by fire. Even at that, they were so good I was picking at the molten-hot pickles while they were still in the brine, and the three co-workers (including the cucumber dumper) I brought jars to this morning finished them within a half hour of receiving them.

You will need:

5 pounds cucumbers
1 cup kosher salt (can also use pickling salt – do not use iodized salt)
5 cups cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
1-1/2 pounds onion
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled, smashed and chopped in half
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon celery seed
½ tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon black pepper

Dissolve the salt in a large pot with 6 quarts of water. Once the salt is dissolved, add the cucumber pieces and stir. Cover the pot and leave it somewhere cool overnight (or 8-12 hours). The refrigerator is preferable, but a dark basement or pantry would be fine also. 

The next day, combine the vinegar and sugar in a pot over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

Slice the onion into very thin rings, and cut the rings in half (small enough to fit into your canning jars). Add to the vinegar mixture and stir. 

Add the mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric and black pepper to the pot.

Drain your cucumber pieces thoroughly (do not rinse!) and add them to the pot. 

Stir and allow the mixture to just barely boil, then turn off heat and allow the cucumbers to soak in the vinegar while you prepare your canning jars. 

Sterilize your canning jars, lids and bands in hot (not boiling) water for at least 10 minutes. 

When your pickles are ready to can, remove the bands for easier handling at room temperature, then remove the jars and lids one by one. Drop a few cloves of garlic into the bottom of the jar, and then using a wide-mouth canning funnel, pour the pickles and brine into the jars, leaving one half inch of headspace at the top of the jar. Wipe the rims of the jars to dry and wipe off the lids before placing on top of the jar, then seal the band finger-tight.

Drop the cans into a hot water bath (full rolling boil) for 10 minutes to kill any existing organisms. After 10 minutes, turn off the heat and let the jars sit in the cooling water for 5 minutes. Remove the jars to a towel and leave undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours. 

Check the seals on your lids after an hour or so – they should pop audibly when sealing shut, and shouldn’t flex when you apply pressure to the lid. If they do, immediately reprocess in the hot water bath. 

Yield: 4 pints (we packaged ours in half pints - easier to give away).

New Life and a Black Thumb

I am so smitten with these tee-tiny baby eggplants. This one can't be bigger than my thumb, but it's already vibrantly purple. I check up on it every day, thrilled with its progress as it progressively increases in size.

Same goes for these - they're called Jellybean Tomatoes. They grow on a chain, like grapes. I'm willing to bet that the majority of these adorable little babies won't even make it into the house.

Why did I accept a bag of 21 cucumbers from a co-worker? I don't even LIKE cucumbers - I feel like they make everything else on my plate taste like cucumbers. But I do like pickles...guess this is as good a time as any to learn how to pickle and can.

I accepted 21 cucumbers from a coworker. Even though I don't like them. Even though we have our own growing in the backyard.

I should let you know that this garden is Josh's handiwork, by my request. "I don't want to have anything to do with it," I told him. "I'm a jinx and I'll kill everything." He laughed of course, but I don't think it's far from the truth to call myself a jinx.

My dad has always remarked on my "black thumb," reminding me every summer I tell him that I'm giving gardening yet another shot, of when I was little and so excited about the prospect of food growing in the back yard. One year he offered to put aside a little patch of soil just for me, and I planted strawberries, flowers and string beans. Needless to say, none of the plants yielded, due to my inattention (forgetting to water) or excessive attention (drowning them when I remembered I forgot to water), and as probably anticipated, they all very quickly shriveled up and died in the hot Texas sun. My plant slaughter wasn't exclusive to that one summer, otherwise I might think differently.

Alas, it holds true to this day. Last Saturday while it rained and rained and rained, I found myself desperate for cilantro. Despite having a new rational fear of rain, I ran outside to pluck a few sprigs from the already-fledgling plant. In my haste, I managed to pull the whole damn thing out of the ground, roots and all. I briefly considered re-planting it as I stood there soaked and bewildered, but dejected with the realization that my father was right, I instead returned to the house wet with a fistfull of dirty cilantro, knowing that I'd have stay far away for the rest of the summer, lest I harm any more innocent vegetation.

Is it possible that people really are predestined to have either a green or black thumb? Or am I just clumsy, forgetful and impulsive?

I miss my cilantro.