Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So Many Treats, So Little Time!

I am woefully behind on posting the many yummy treats I've made in the past week or so.  It's just been busy, busy, busy!  So, I am going to post recipes RIGHT NOW, and I'll have to add some pictures in later, just so you can get inspired.
Let's see.  My first super-easy and super-yummy treat:
Hugs Pretzels
Bag of Hershey's Hugs
Bag of Pretzel Snaps (the square/grid ones, salted)
1.  Turn oven to 200 degrees.
2.  Line a baking sheet with wax paper.
3.  Spread a layer of pretzels on the wax paper.
4.  Place a Hug in the middle of each pretzel.
5.  Place in oven for 3 to 4 minutes, until Hugs are just melting.
6.  Remove from oven and gently place another pretzel on top, making a tidy little sandwich.
7.  Allow to cool or even pop in the freezer for a few minutes to harden.
8.  Remove from wax paper and store in airtight container for as long as they last, which isn't long around here!  
You can also make these with Rolos or any other Hershey's Kiss Variation.  A friend of mine is making some with a Rolo, then skip the second pretzel and push a Mint M&M down into the Rolo after it's melted to make a gooey, chocolatey, caramelly pretzel thingy.  I plan to snag one of these from her in the next few days and will report back with my findings!  
My second super-easy and far-too-yummy treat:  
Homemade Marshmallows
Back in October, sweet Maggie had the flu and was home with me for a few days.  I can honestly say it was fun; I kinda miss the old days when it was just the two of us!  We spent a lot of time watching Maggie's favorite channel, Food Network, and there were a LOT of Halloween treats being made.  One of them really got Maggie's attention:  Homemade Orange Marshmallows by Giada DiLaurentiis.  Though I think the orange-flavored ones would be divine, I decided to make these for the holidays in some crowd-pleasing flavors:  Vanilla and Peppermint.  
First of all, here's the recipe for 
Homemade Orange Marshmallows:
Butter, for greasing the pan
Powdered sugar, for dusting
1/2 cup water, plus 1/4 cup
3 tablespoons (3 packets) unflavored gelatin
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 large orange, zested
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Butter the bottom and sides of an 8 by 8-inch straight-sided baking pan. Dust liberally with sifted powdered sugar and set aside.
Pour 1/2 cup water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and allow to soften, about 10 minutes.
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, evaporated milk and 1/4 cup water. Stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees F, about 10 to 12 minutes. Pour the syrup over the gelatin mixture. Beat the mixture at low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat until thick, fluffy and tripled in volume, about 10 to 12 minutes. Beat in the orange zest and vanilla extract until just combined. Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Sprinkle with orange decorating sugar. Allow the mixture to set, uncovered, in a cool place (not refrigerated) for at least 8 hours or overnight. Remove the marshmallows from the pan and place on a powdered sugar-dusted surface. Using scissors, dusted with powdered sugar, cut the marshmallows into about 1-inch squares. Dip the cut sides into powdered sugar to prevent sticking. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
For PEPPERMINT MARSHMALLOWS:  Omit the orange zest and add 1 tsp peppermint extract.
For VANILLA MARSHMALLOWS:  Omit the orange zest and add an extra 1/2 tsp of pure vanilla extract.  (For a total of 1-1/2 tsp of vanilla for the recipe)
Now, the best part:  I cut the peppermint marshmallows into 1" squares, put three of them on a lollipop stick, drizzled them with semi-sweet chocolate and sprinkled them with crushed old-fashioned peppermint stick.  I put them in a little baggie and tied 'em up with a bit of white and red curling ribbon. 
I LOVE the texture of these marshmallows.  They are light, but firm and they flavor is incredible.  They are soo easy to make that when I made the second batch, I pretty much just went by time instead of temperature and they turned out great.  And here's a little confession:  My candy thermometer is about 10 degrees off, so I actually burned the sugar candy base of the marshmallows, but since I'd already invested so much time, I just poured the sugar base into the gelatin and didn't scrape the pan (left the burned parts behind) and the marshmallows were still incredible!  How's that for Katy-proof!?!?!?!
Pictures coming soon, because these were just awesome!

My favorite cookies... A Fairy Tale

Many years ago, in a land far, far away, there was a little dessert shop called The Dessertery.  The Dessertery worked hard all day making things to make my butt bigger, and Butt and The Dessertery were great friends.  One of their favorite things to do together was eat The Dessertery's very own "Desserty Cookie", which was some divine-inspired butterscotch chip oatmeal cookie with a crazy delicious texture.  Butt and The Dessertery spent many hours and many afternoons enjoying these cookies.  One day, Butt had to leave for college with me, leaving behind her old friend The Dessertery.  They saw each other less and less.  The Dessertery got a little uppity and decided to leave its cute little shop space and move to a bigger buliding down Stratford Road and become a full-fledged restaurant.  It did well for awhile, but then, like so many other formerly humble cafes, it suffered from declining food quality.  The Dessertery now no longer resembles its old self at all and is more of a market and cafe, and, honestly, the desserts just aren't the same.  And the Dessertery Cookie no longer exists.  So, Butt never saw her friend again.   
One day, as Butt and I were reminiscing about good times, we remembered that we missed The Dessertery and especially those incredible cookies.  We searched high and low for the recipe and even asked once if The Dessertery had her old recipes available for loyal customers and friends.   She did not.  After much thought and missing our old friend, Butt and I decided to take matters in our own hands and tried to reproduce the recipe.  I don't know that we'll ever rekindle the magic, but these cookies come pretty darn close:
Butterscotch Choc-Oat-Chip Cookies
1 cup white flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 Tbsp milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Mix together flours, baking soda and salt, set aside.
Cream butter and sugars in mixing bowl. Add vanilla extract, milk, and eggs and mix well. Gradually mix in flour mixture. Stir in oats and chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake for 9 to 10 minutes for chewy cookies or 12 to 13 minutes for crispy cookies (Never occurred to me, but you can always try!  I like my cookies chewy!) Cool on baking sheet for 1 minute, then transfer to wire racks. Devour warm or cool.
Makes about 4 dozen very healthy cookies! :)

Slight variation:  If you're feeling a bit adventurous, include a 1/4 tsp. of orange extract in your cookies, add it in with the vanilla.  It takes these cookies to a whole new level.

On a side note, these cookies really are a favorite of mine and I've enjoyed sharing them with friends and family for many years.  For some reason, though these cookies originated in Winston-Salem, they always remind me of our awesome friends in Seattle. 

Friday, October 30, 2009

CHPA Chili Cook-Off

Today is the day.  A few weeks ago, Tim forwarded an email to me from the practice manager that was simply a call for entries for an office chili cookoff.  I didn't so much ignore it, it was more that the past few weeks have been crazy, crazy, crazy with wedding stuff, brunch stuff and Maggie's first sleepover birthday party.  Honestly, I'd pretty much forgotten about it until yesterday, when I stopped by to drop off some pumpkin muffins and to talk to the practice manager about the office holiday party, that I "remembered":  The two honchos in charge of the chili cookoff were in need of a few more entries, and little ol' cookin' me was standing right there.  And you know that I can't say NO.
So, let's back this up a bit.  Anyone who lived in the Triad of North Carolina in the late eighties and early nineties knows that being a vegetarian in that time and place was not an easy task.  We had the Fresh Market and one natural foods store and both were SMALL.  And let me assure you that there was very little vegetarian fare on any menu other than that of the Rainbow News and Cafe, and even there, it was bound to be smothered in cheese.  The one vegetarian item on most menus?  Vegetarian Chili.  I ate so many darn salads with veggie chili, I am literally nauseated just thinking about it.  Most of it wasn't even GOOD veggie chili.  Very seldom was it stewed long and slow to make a nice, richly-flavored stew.  Nope.  Most of the time, it was thrown together so that you could still taste the metal from the bean cans.  So, after a seven-year slog through what I considered Vegetarian Hell, I can confidently say one thing:  I HATE VEGGIE CHILI.  In fact, for several years, I hated ALL chili, but my love of Mexican food finally won out and I started making chili again.  BEEF CHILI with BEANS.  No vegetables, other than the necessary onions and peppers to season it, and some cilantro and lime to give it tang.  Even those were cooked into submission so that you really couldn't find them among the crumbled beef and the shiny beans.  And I still don't make chili often:  Game day, or when Tim begs for it, or when we are in need of a quick, hot and filling meal and ground beef is on sale.  Occasionally, I will try something new:  Turkey and Black Bean chili, or some other variation, but the one rule stands:  NO VEGETABLES.  
So, yesterday, when asked to make a chili, I thought about what was already in my freezer:  Kroger had a sale on low-fat ground turkey last week and I had a few packages of it stashed.  I had a couple of onions and one can of cannelini beans.  Not much, you see.  So, since I had errands to run and a happy baby in tow, I actually used my phone to google a recipe for Turkey and White Bean Chili and came up with a 5-star rated Turkey and White Bean Chili by Emeril Lagasse.  (Good news, Valerie: I didn't accidentally text you!)  Off to Whole Foods I went, in search of dried navy beans, another yellow onion, a good selection of peppers, and some cilantro.
Now, I know some people think Emeril's recipes are too hard and some say his mix of spices is annoying or overly complicated.  But I like Emeril, and I think that he, like so many other celebrity chefs (NOT Rachel Ray, thankyouverymuch, but ACTUAL chefs) make great food accessible to us mere cooking mortals.  I was surprised to find that not only did so many reviewers love the recipe, but, more importantly, none of them had actually followed the recipe exactly as written.  Everyone fudged something, giving the chili a little personality of its own.  Daring to defy the master, I grabbed a bottle of chipotle (not in the recipe) and a serrano pepper (also not in the recipe) and dashed to the check-out before any Food Network spies checked my cart.  (I also had to grab a block of that super-yummy white cheddar they were sampling, but that's another story.)
It turns out, I didn't quite have what I needed to double the recipe.  I only had three packages of turkey instead of four.  But I am working on the chili now and have tweaked and tasted along the way, and it's pretty darn good.  It's also the first time in probably 15 years I've used dried beans, and I realize that I miss them.  They require patience and planning, but I think they are well worth the effort and time.  Some might think I am crazy for entering a chili cookoff with a untried chili recipe, but I disagree:  Millions of fans can't be wrong.  And even Emeril knows that chili really is fool-proof.  In fact, I am surprised he even wrote down his recipe, because chili seems to be the one dish in everyone's house that is forever changing and always open to suggestions.  My nephew's wife commented on my "Leap..." post that his chili was awesome and never the same twice.  My own chili, the one I make when I am whipping up a batch, has three key ingredients, and always in some variation:  Chipotle, at least two other types of peppers, and at least two types of beans.  The amounts vary, the cooking time varies, but I always include those three things to give it texture and depth.  (Oh, and, of course, a bay leaf or two!!)
Besides, is an office chili cookoff something to win, or just another excuse to share food and tales with friends and colleagues?  Apparently, Tim is a judge for the cookoff, and this was of some concern to the organizers.  What they don't understand is that, after 16 years together, I expect Tim to tell me the truth about my cooking.  And Tim is too much of a team player to vote for his own wife's chili.  He'll vote to make sure that the nurses and staff know how much he appreciates them, and he'll thank me for being a part of it when he gets home, which is good enough for me.  (What can I say?  I like to see him happy.)
So, go cook your own chili, but if you want some inspiration, take a few hints from my friend (and yours), Emeril:
And don't forget to grab your secret ingredients.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Great Northern Bean Soup

It's dance night and it's Tuesday, but for some reason the energy level around here feels like Thursday.  Franny's a zombie, Tim was in his pj's at 6:30, and the girls barely said a word during dinner.  My head has that dull ache of a too-busy week.  So, even though it did hit the mid-70's today, I thought we could use a really warm, delicious and healthy soup for dinner.  
Now, this is one of those recipes that didn't come from a friend.  I actually found in in one of those county cooperative extension newsletters from when I lived in Surry County.  Even though this soup had absolutely NO characteristics of a soup I would normally like, I decided to try it.  Stranger still, for the first time ever, I didn't follow the recipe exactly, which is what I normally do when trying a recipe for the first time.  Somehow, I just knew what small changes this soup would need and it really turned out delicious.  I must have been cooking with The Force.

Great Northern Bean Soup
1 lb extra lean ground turkey (or beef)
1 cup chopped onion
1-1/2 cups chopped carrots
1 quart stewed tomatoes with liquid (I use puree or finely diced tomatoes)
2 cans Great Northern Beans, drained and rinsed or 4 cups cooked dried beans
2 cups chopped cabbage (or more, I usually buy a bag of shredded cole slaw mix, about 3 cups) 
1 T brown sugar
1 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce (I use Buffalo Chipotle and TO TASTE... I swear the amount changes every time I make this soup!)
1/2 cup chopped parsely
1 quart stock, optional (Strangely, The Force told me "beef stock" and it does add a depth and richness to this soup.  But, TF isn't always right, so feel free to use vegetable or chicken.)
Combine onions and ground turkey in stock pot.  Brown together and drain.  (Since it's lean, I actually just brown it in the bottom of the soup pot and dump everything in on top.)  Combine in soup pot with the remaining ingredients.  Add 1 quart of water (or vegetable, beef or chicken stock) to get to desired consistency.  Simmer at least thirty minutes or until carrots are tender.
Something about this soup tastes like tomato soup, but all grown up, so I serve it with grilled cheese on whole wheat.   Or make a toasted cheese open-faced using your toaster oven.  Not in a refined-palate mood?  Make it with good old American cheese.  Feeling a little fancy?  A nice Sharp Cheddar.  Either way, use a lot of unsalted butter for grilling!
Enjoy... and may The Force be with you!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Old Friend, New Recipe

A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend, Traci.  No, we didn't laugh as we discovered that we lived just two blocks away from each other.  Nor did we run into each other in a crowded airport, she clued in by my distinctly obnoxious laugh, which, sad to say, has happened more times than I care to admit.  Nope, after years of google searches, I found her on Facebook.  Now, I know what you're going to say:  Facebook is a big time-suck.  Because it is.  I waste far too much of my morning coffee or tea generating my stripper name, ghetto nickname and Star Wars Character name and reading and commenting on the status updates of friends and family members.  But I will say this:  Facebook has been a great way to keep in touch with folks, and even if my bathrooms are never clean again, if Traci was the only person I every found there, I would be a fan for life based on just that.  Traci and I have known each other since kindergarten.  Though our paths and choices were divergent at times, Traci always just rolled with our friendship, never expecting me to be anything other than who I am, and her friendship has always been unconditional, even when I probably didn't deserve it.  I was thrilled to reconnect with her after so many years; it's been nice to catch up and share our joys and sorrows of the last 20 years.  With some friends, there's just a trust that the friendship has endured and that's just the way it is, which brings me to this week's recipe and blog post:  When a few weeks ago we experienced our first Fall weather, I updated my Facebook status to say that I was craving "something pumpkin-y", I was quickly rewarded:  Several of my awesome friends posted suggestion for what I could make.  Traci, however, sent me a message with her Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Muffin recipe.
Now, for those who know me well, you know that I don't take recipes from just anyone:  I like to know you can cook!  So, for me to read over the recipe and decide, with Teacher Appreciation Week upon us, that I'd make these muffins this weekend, this was a big leap of faith.  However, I trusted Traci to share something amazing, and you know I would only make the most delicious yummies for our awesome teachers!
I am going to admit that perhaps trust in Traci's friendship wasn't the only reason for my decision, especially given the status of canned pumpkin in my pantry:

So, while the girls lovingly made Thank-You cards for their teachers,

I made Traci's muffins.  And, boy-oh-boy, are they delicious, even when cutting the recipe in half, which isn't easy with baking.  As reported by my official Katy's Kitchen Tasters, these muffins are "sooooo gooooood, Mom!"

So, how cool to know that a new recipe from a very dear, very old friend will soon become a new family favorite, and, consequently, an OLD family favorite?    Which brings me back to the reason for this entire blog...

Traci’s Chocolate Chip Muffins
2 cups oil
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups sugar
8 beaten eggs
1-1/2 Tbsp baking soda dissolved in 2/3 cup warm water
4 cups pumpkin
7 cups Flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp ginger
2 tsp nutmeg
4 tsp cinnamon
Beat oil, brown sugar and sugar together.
Add eggs and dissolved baking soda and beat together.
Add pumpkin and beat together.
Add four, baking powder, salt, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and mix well.
Add 1 cup warm water and 3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips and blend well.
Bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes.
Makes about  6-1/2 dozen super-double-extra delicious muffins.

To cut the recipe in half use the following measurements:
1 cup oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
4-1/2 tsp baking soda
5 tbsp plus 1 tsp warm water
2 cup pumpkin
3-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup warm water
1-1/2 cups chocolate chips

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Leap and the net will appear.

Years ago, I bought a notecard at a funky bookstore with this quote on it: LEAP AND THE NET WILL APPEAR. I imagined I'd send it to a friend at a time when they needed inspiration or support through a difficult time. Little did I know that *I* was the friend and it was *I* in need of inspiration from time to time, and in more areas of my life than even I could ever know.
I was reflecting on how I share some recipes and not others, and how my friends and family might view this, so I think it's time to share a little secret: For some of my favorite dishes, I simply do not have a recipe. I wanted to make a dish because I'd had it somewhere and wanted it RIGHT THEN, so I bought ingredients that I thought would help me re-create it.
These recipes include, but are not limited to, my Baigan Bartha, Croissant French Toast Casserole, Chicken Soup (which explains why it isn't in my bay leaf post!), Chili, and Chicken Pot Pie recipes. In fact, for the longest time, there was no Shepherd's Pie recipe, until I decided to actually write it down while I cooked one day. Many of these recipes have been under construction for years and, even though they garner raves when served, I am never quite sure when they're perfect and tweak them a bit each time I make them.
So, my wisdom to share: If you try a dish at a friend's house, a pot luck, a family gathering or a restaurant, there's always a google search for a recipe, but there's also taking the chance and unravelling the mystery of that delicious dish for yourself. The process can be frustrating. It can be fattening; ask Ellen about how our thighs fared through the Great Vegetable Egg Roll Quest of '94. It can even feel like total failure at times; I am sure there was more than one meal that even our dogs wouldn't eat. But, I assure you, when that final attempt yields culinary success, the elation you experience will be completely worth the effort. And the resulting recipe will be ALL YOURS, a favored family fare, a delightful dinner for dreary days, and another fine recipe to share among family and friends.
So, when you have a meal that sticks with you, you know, the one you think about the entire drive home, and wake up the next day thinking about how you'd love to have it again, I say to you, simply, LEAP. Try to reproduce it. Laugh at your failures and savor your successes.  Let your friends and family taste it and take their suggestions or praise with grace and gratitude.  They will be your net and, I assure you, a favorite dish will appear.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Breakfast for dinner

It's a cold, rainy Thursday and I am going to admit that the big bin of spinach in my fridge wasn't speaking to me. At all. Of course, the frozen chicken breasts in the freezer didn't have much to say either. So, to the surprise of two very happy little girls, Breakfast-for-Dinner it was.
The menu: Pancakes, bacon, sausage links, fruit and orange juice. I made the pancakes while the bacon and sausage were frying. Everyone was happy. And it sure as heck wasn't spinach.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What to do with beheaded roses...

My niece was married this weekend, and these beautiful roses were hanging on the end of every other pew:

My sister-in-law had asked me to pick up the flowers since the church didn't want them hanging around for Sunday services. At first, I thought I could use the roses to make arrangements for the post-wedding brunch we were hosting for the families of the bride and groom on Sunday, but then I realized that the sweet and lovely roses had been beheaded, Morticia Adams-style. (The following was one of the longer stems!)

Luckily, there were plenty of arrangements from the reception. So, I thought about it, and decided to bring them all the way back to NC and float those babies in my cool new bowl I bought at the Vietri warehouse sale last week. By the way, this bowl is about 18 inches wide, so you can imagine how many roses are floating in it.

Now, my dining room smells of these lovely roses... and soon so will almost every room of my house because I brought home 19 of these hanging arrangements. Come over to stop and smell the roses!
Too bad I am not having a brunch this week. Hmmm... anyone free next Sunday?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Soup for the Soul

Sometime a year or two ago, I found myself with some chicken breast and bacon and not much else in my fridge for dinner and certainly no time for a big trip to the market. So, in hopes of coming up with something to feed the family, I used the google and found this wonderful Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup. I am going to admit it: I cheated immediately and didn't follow the recipe. Even the most amazing SAHM who waits until 4 pm to figure out dinner can't start with dried beans. So I cheated, but it was for a good cause!
This taught me an important lesson, or, actually a FEW important lessons:
First, I can always sneak in an afternoon nap and still look like I had a productive day with a little planning ahead and a good stock of beans, soup stocks and chicken breasts.
Second, unless you just LOVE looking at cookbooks (which I do), you need never buy another cookbook again. The internets is all you need to find healthy, easy recipes which have been rated by (hopefully) people with taste buds. Avoid ANY recipe with more than one negative review, because I figure most people eat crap and if the average person thinks it tastes bad, I probably will too. Also, check out the comments for suggested changes. Sometimes, people find recipes too spicy or too salty. This is a good thing to know before you dive right in. You often won't find these comments in cookbooks, though you do hope the author figured that out beforehand and changed the recipes.
And, finally and most importantly, I learned that shallots were sent down from on high to give soups soul. Seriously, I'd never used a shallot before I tried this soup and now I am hooked; I sometimes add them to soups that just seem to have SOMETHING missing. Notice the depth the shallots add to this soup; shallots give soups a sense of aged wisdom and, especially in the cold and wet of mid-winter, a warmth that will reach all the way to your toes.

Here's the cup I had for lunch today! Mmmmm.

(And, yes, that is a little bay leaf poking it's head up and saying "Hello!")

First, the ACTUAL recipe:
Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup
1 lb dried white beans
1/2 lb bacon (cut into 1/2-inch pieces)
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 T minced shallots (Glorious, I tell you!)
1 T minced garlic
2 bay leaves (The recipe called for 2, not me. But you know this was the deal-breaker!)
1 t salt
1/4 t cayenne
8 cups chicken stock or broth
12 oz cooked, diced chicken
1 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
1. Put the beans in a large pot or bowl. Remove any stones or broken beans. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches and soak for 8 hours. (This is when I realized that cheating was necessary.) Drain and set aside.
2. Fry the bacon in a medium, heavy stock pot until crisp, drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 2 T grease (another place I had to cheat). Add the onions and celery and cook over medium-high heat until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, shallots, bay leaves, salt and cayenne, and cook, stirring, for one minute.
3. Add the beans and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, about 1-1/2 hours.
4. Add the chicken and bacon and stir well. Remove and discard bay leaves (EGADS. You know I cheated here.) To serve, ladel the soup into bowls and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

OMG... this soup is sure to be divine, if I ever actually make it this way! I also think that the flavor of the shallots and bay leaves would make this a nice vegetarian bean soup if you just substitute vegetable broth, cook the beans and then change step 4 altogether: Omit bacon and chicken and add some chopped greens, cook until tender. Sprinkle with a GOOD Pecorino Romano and feed your soul.

That said, here is my
Super-Quick School-Night Version of Chicken, Bacon and White Bean Soup
2 cans Cannelini Beans, drained
1/2 lb center-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped celery
4 T minced shallot
2 T minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 t salt
4 cups (1 carton) of Roasted Chicken Stock
4 cups of chicken bouillon
2 chicken breasts or leftover breast meat from Rotisserie Chicken
Grated Pecorino Romano to taste
Lightly spray a fry pan with cooking spray or oil over medium heat. Lightly season chicken breasts and brown on both sides in frypan. Reduce heat and cover. Allow to cook through while you are preparing the rest of the soup. [If you are using leftover breast meat, skip this step, but go ahead and take your rotisserie chicken out of the fridge... no one wants cold chicken in their soup!]
Fry the bacon in a heavy stockpot over medium high heat until super-crisp. Remove and drain on paper towls. Drain all of the bacon grease, except for what you have to actually WIPE out of the pot. Leave the cracklin's too!
Add the onions and celery, cook over medium heat for 4 minutes and add your shallots. Cook for another few minutes, add garlic, salt, bay leaves and cayenne. Saute for a few minutes more.
Add chicken stock, bouillon and beans and cook, uncovered for 15 minutes to allow flavors to mix and cook vegetables through.
Remove cooked chicken from frypan and allow to cool. Dice breast meat and add to soup, along with bacon. Stir in to distribute yummy meaty bits throughout the soup.
Ladle soup into bowls and top with a healthy sprinkling of freshly-grated Pecorino Romano.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Popcorn Picnic

Okay, so I am a little annoyed: Pretty much every children's movie coming out these days is in 3D, which makes it tres spendy to take the family to the movies. Today, we went to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs at 1 pm. For two children and two adult tickets, the MATINEE cost was $39, because the 3D adds $$ to each ticket. Even with our 50-cent bucket of popcorn and a few drinks (which totalled $15), it still made for a pretty expensive afternoon. (Good thing I packed M&M's from home!) Not that we can't afford it, but I think that the movie experience should be available to everyone and I can't imagine that the average family of four will be able to afford this ever-increasing cost.
We try to buy some snacks to support our local theaters, but I think it is time for us to revert back to our former contraband-carrying ways. Yep, you guessed it: The money-saving, BYOB way to make movies fit into a tight budget.

Popcorn Picnic for the Movies
What you will need:
A BIG bag (a great way to re-use that old diaper bag or your backpack from college)
Some cold drinks, like pouch juices, sodas in bottles, water bottles, etc. (We often use refillable sippy cups or water bottles with lemonade in them for the kids, water for me and a can or two of Coca Cola for Tim)
A reusable cold pack from your freezer
1-3 bags of microwave popcorn, divided into paper lunch sacs (number of bags = number or people in your party; amount per bag = amount you can eat in 2 hours)
Your favorite treats. Can include M&Ms, chocolate-covered raisins, snack size Snickers or 3Musketeers, cookies, those damn apples from Rocky Mountain Chocolate, whatever you choose will certainly be cheaper than anything you can buy at the concession stand. Heck, for that matter, lobster tails and filet mignon would be cheaper than ANYTHING at the concession stand.
An interesting treat, like Gummy Octopi, to make the kids feel special and like their parents aren't so cheap.
1. Chill all drinks for a few hours before movie.
2. Pop popcorn according to package instructions. Allow to cool completely in a big, wide bowl. Divide into bags. Fold over top of bag to keep mutant kernels from escaping. Set aside.
3. Place cold pack in the bottom of giant purse or bag.
4. Layer remaining ingredients in this order:
Candy and treats
Bags of popcorn
4. Add some napkins on top.
5. Cover with a scarf to avoid the prying eyes of theater workers.
Et, voila: You have a perfect Popcorn Picnic!
Head to movie theater and, while in line, mention loudly that you wish you hadn't eaten so much for lunch or dinner "just before we came to the theater". Once in the theater, wait for lights to dim, then distribute drinks and bags of popcorn and treats to each member in your party. Chow down!
Other tips for saving $$ at the theater:
If you MUST have theater-popped popcorn, take a few small bowls with you. This makes it easier to share the popcorn among family members and there's less of a chance everyone will catch the stomach bug you have but won't realize it until AFTER everyone's been sharing out of the same giant bucket.
Bring some kids' cups with lids; we save them from trips to restaurants like Mimi's and Macaroni Grill where they give 'em pretty nice heavy plastic ones with lids. This will make it easy to divide a small or medium drink between kids (or adults) instead of having to buy separate drinks for everyone.
NEVER EVER buy candy at the theater. In fact, I don't know anyone who actually purchases candy at the theater. Why would you want to pay $5.50 for a snack-size bag of M&Ms??? I think most of the candy's been there since the early 80's anyway.
To warm your kids to the idea of not purchasing anything at the concession stand (which, to them, looks like Wonka's own paradise), let them choose their candy from home to bring. They can even carry it in their own pockets. Do remind them NOT to mention that they have their own candy in front of theater staff!
And don't forget: ENJOY THE SHOW!!!!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cold Rainy Morning Muffins

It's cold and yucky outside and I am in bed with my iBook and a hot cup of tea, nursing my cranky tummy and head. Don't know what the weekend holds, but I am thinking light comfort food, and I think that these muffins might be just the thing for Tim and the girls to make in the morning while I sleep in!
Love this recipe because they're so easy and you should always have the ingredients on hand. (I often run out of milk, but I am never without buttermilk.) And besides, EVERYONE who tries them loves them, 'nuff said.
I recommend buttermilk and you don't have to use whole wheat flour, but I assure you: These two substitutions are well worth any extra effort.
And don't forget the Golden Rule [of Baking]: ONLY UNSALTED BUTTER IN BAKING.

Mini Cake Doughnut Muffins
1 egg
1/2 cup milk (OR buttermilk)
1/3 cup butter, melted (can use margarine, but why, oh, why would you do such a thing?)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I use 3/4 cup white and 3/4 cup whole wheat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 T butter, melted
Cinnamon Sugar (1/3 granulated sugar + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon)

Preheat oven to 350F. In large bowl, beat egg, buttermilk, 1/3 cup melted butter, sugar and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg; mix until just blended. Spoon into greased mini muffin cups. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden. While warm, brush tops with melted butter and roll in cinnamon sugar. Devour. (But they're good cold too.)
Makes 24 mini muffins.

Pictures will come if/when I get out of bed, though I have a feeling if I ask Maggie, she'll take some pics for me!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Save the Bay

Meet my Bay Tree:

Yes, he's tall, dark and handsome. He's sweet and spicy and his scent drives me wild. He adds depth to every dish he meets. He warms up my winter soups and stews. And, yes, for those of you who are still wondering, I am simply mad about my bay tree. ;)
Bay leaves might well be the most under-appreciated herb in cooking. No one celebrates bay leaves; when mentioned in recipes, it's mostly "Drop in bay leaf", or "Remove bay leaf", never "Celebrate the joy that this bay leaf brought to your stew!", which, in my humble opinion, is at it should be.
Last year, when Joe was born, one of our friends brought us a large container of homemade chicken noodle soup. It was lovely: The clear broth, the huge pieces of chicken breast meat, the chunks of fresh celery and carrots. The noodles were served on the side, so as to not overly thicken the stew before its time. It held so many promises, and was a beauty to behold. I heated it up and took a sip, and my heart sank. Here, our friend had gone to immense trouble to make us a lovely dinner, and no one had told him about the joy a bay leaf could bring to his otherwise perfect soup. NO ONE. The soup was good, but it would have been sent into the upper echelon of divine if only our sweet friend had known about bay leaves, my dearest herb.
As many of you know, there are times when subtlety is not my gift. I immediately went out and purchased a nice, plump bay tree for our friend and handed it over along with the thank you note. I told him, simply, "Your soup was wonderful, but you need to learn the joy that bay leaves will bring to your soups and stews." I wanted to add, "Go forth and plant this is thy yard, and ye shall be rewarded, " but thought that might be overkill. I have not heard back from him, but, I assure you: I will corner him and make sure he is using his bay leaves.
And, I must add that not only do bay leaves breathe a life into your dishes that borders on spiritual, but there are other uses for this deep glossy green leaf. Having now gone through my second round of pantry moths, I can also say that bay leaves will defend your home from assault by these grain-eating goblins. After a good cleaning, scatter a few fresh bay leaves on each shelf and you will deter any pantry moth that has designs on converting your whole wheat flour into a summer cottage. Change the leaves every month and you will also have the added benefit of opening your cupboards to the gentle sweet scent of bay... ahhhhh. I also store bay leaves in with my cookie cutters. The pantry moths discovered that I don't always get all the flour off of the cutters, so they set up shop in my plastic containers where I stored them.
Though I am a fan of bay leaf in everything from light and luscious chicken soups to rich and hearty chilis, the recipe that really turned me on to the bay leaf was a simple beef stew. I will admit that the first time I made it, I still didn't eat beef but was making it for Tim to have some sustenance during his first year of medical school. (I was practicing my Italian Mamma skillz!) I nipped a taste of the broth toward the end of cooking to make sure my seasonings were right and was stricken by the rich flavor the combination of thyme and bay leaf brought to this soup. The balance of the earthy thyme and the spicy-sweet bay made me swoon and I've been smitten ever since.
It's promising to be a cool, rainy Fall weekend. Bring on the bay leaves!

The stew with all but the peas...

Beef Stew
2 T whole wheat flour
1/2 t paprika
1/4 t black pepper
1-1/4 lbs stew beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cups beef stock
1/2 t dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups frozen peas
2 T chopped fresh parsley
Combine flour, paprika and pepper in bowl. Add beef cubes and toss until coat meat evenly. Heat oil in Dutch oven or soup pot. Add meat and brown on all sides over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden brown. Add stock, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 1-1/4 hours, or until meat is tender. Remove bay leaf and add potatoes, carrots, peas and parsley. Simmer stew 10 minutes longer. Makes 4 servings.
Serve with crusy bread and a pot of whipped unsalted butter.

And don't forget: Whoever gets the bay leaf gets to kiss the cook!

A steaming bowl of beef stew on this cold rainy night!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

All you need is a handful of red potatoes and two onions

I know we've been busy: A lot of traveling this Summer and then plunging straight into the new school year, but it's no excuse: We've been eating out way too much in the past months. And, worse, I have a fridge FULL of food. So, yesterday, as I was reflecting on waste and whatnot, I went through my fridge and freezer and realized that, with a few additions, I had a week's worth of meals just waiting to emerge from my appliances and pantry. All I had to do was run to the market and pick up a handful of red potatoes and two onions.
With that, I give you THIS WEEK'S MENU:
Monday: Pork and Chicken Stirfry with Assorted Vegetables and Brown Rice
Tuesday: Quesadilla Club and Cheese Quesadillas with Mexican Rice, Refried Beans and Mango Salsa
Wednesday: *My All-time Favorite* Shepherd's Pie, Salad, Brownies
Thursday: Ziti and/or Spinach Ravioli (we are a split household on the subject of pasta), Meatballs, Marinara and Salad.
Friday: Homemade Pizzas with Italian Turkey Sausage and/or Pepperoni and Salad
Saturday: Spanakopita and Grilled Lemon Chicken Skewers
Sunday: Grilled Steaks, Wild Rice Medley, and Sauteed Onions, Zucchini and Yellow Squash
And, yes, friends, ALL of this from what already lives in my fridge and freezer RIGHT NOW, with the addition of less than $8 in groceries. I am embarrassed that I have this much just sitting around, waiting to rot or living in purgatory in my freezer. It reminds me that, as a culture, we do not know what it means to go without food, while even among us, there are so many who do. I will admit, it also makes me suspicious that a squirrel is in my lineage, as if I need to store stuff for Winter to be nutty(er).
Which brings me to this week's recipe: Shepherd's Pie. This is, without a doubt, the best catch-all, clean-out-the-fridge dish. It is warm and satisfying; humble is the word that comes to mind. It freezes well and has been taken to almost every home with a new baby, illness or lost loved one in the past ten years, and a dish I will proudly serve when we have guests on Wednesday evening. Something about this dish says "Welcome"; it's breaking bread without the bread.
All that, and it's the best use of flaccid carrots, wrinkled bell peppers, too-long-frozen peas and corn and leftover mashed potatoes you will ever find.

All of the turkey and vegetables sauteed. *sigh* Beautiful.

Shepherd's Pie

4 – 5 fist-sized red potatoes, peeled and cut into 2- inch chunks

¾ cup milk, or more to desired consistency

½ tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

salt and pepper, to taste

1 medium onion, diced (about 2 cups)

1 pound package ground turkey*

1 tablespoon dried basil

½ tablespoon dried oregano

½ tablespoon dried thyme

1 cup chopped carrots, about 3- 4 medium carrots

1 cup chopped green bell pepper, about one medium pepper

1 cup frozen corn

1 cup frozen green peas

2½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or to taste)

¼ cup wheat germ

1½ cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided


2 -3 steamed baby carrots, for garnish (optional)

sprigs of parsley, for garnish (optional)

Directions: Preheat oven to 350oF. Spray a 2-quart deep casserole lightly with cooking spray and set aside.

Make your Mashed Potatoes: Peel and quarter potatoes, place in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook potatoes until tender, about 12 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and place in bowl of stand mixer or other mixing bowl for mashing. Cut butter into cubes and drop into potatoes. Start mixer on medium speed and add parmesan cheese. Drizzle in milk until potatoes are uniformly mashed, stiff and fluffy. Reduce speed and add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Make your hash while the potatoes are cooking: Dice onion and add to pan over medium-high heat. Cover and cook for 2 -3 minutes or until onion is sweating. Add ground turkey*, cover and cook until thoroughly browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a spatula to break up turkey. When onions and turkey are browned, reduce heat to medium and stir in basil, oregano and thyme. Stir in carrots, cover and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in chopped green peppers, cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until carrots and green peppers are tender-crisp. Add peas and corn, cover and cook about 3 minutes until warmed through. Remove pan from heat and stir in cider vinegar and wheat germ. Stir in 1 cup of finely-shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust vinegar to taste. Pour turkey mixture into casserole dish and spread evenly. Spread mashed potatoes to completely cover turkey mixture. Sprinkle remaining ½ cup of finely-shredded sharp cheddar cheese over top of potatoes. Sprinkle paprika lightly over top of cheese. Bake uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes, or until turkey mixture is bubbling and potatoes are lightly browned and cheese is melted. Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes before devouring madly. If serving a crowd, garnish with steamed whole baby carrots and a little parsley, arranged to look like a little bunch of carrots. However, the lightly-browned potatoes, melted cheese and paprika on top of a lovely casserole dish also makes for a simple yet elegant presentation and no further garnish is necessary.

*Since this dish started out vegetarian, I thought I should add that peeling and cubing (1/2" to 3/4") a good-sized eggplant and substituting it for the turkey will work just fine. In fact, the eggplant takes up all of the flavors so beautifully, I sometimes wonder why I started using turkey at all!

Servings: Makes 8 hearty servings.

Finished, but not baked. Isn't it lovely???

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The last of Summer and the first of Fall

It's the first cool rainy day of the Fall season and I've not been motivated to do much today. I did, however, find a bit of inspiration in looking out my window: The last of my fresh basil, and I know just the recipe to use some of it up. A nice, hot bowl of Pasta e Fagioli with some crusty bread is just perfect for days like today.

Paste e Fagioli

1 cup ditalini pasta

2 T. olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 celery stalk, minced

1 carrot, minced

1/2 lb smoked ham, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (28-oz) can crushed tomatoes, including liquid

2 (15-oz) cans cannelini beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups beef stock

1 tsp dried thyme

1 bay leaf

dash ground black pepper

rind from a piece of Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil (optional)

Parmesan cheese (optional)

In a large stockpot, heat the oil. Add the onion, celery, and carrot and saute for 5 minutes. Add ham and garlic and cook, stirring, for one minute. Add tomatoes, beans, beef stock, thyme, bay leafand parmesan rind. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add ditalini pasta and simmer until pasta is tender, about 9 minutes. Serve with a garnish of fresh basil* and parmesan cheese.

*Recommended technique: Chiffonade the basil leaves just before garnishing the soup. Lay several basil leaves one on top of the other. Roll into a cylinder. With a sharp knife, make thin slices of basil. Unroll slices and use them for garnish. If making this soup for a crowd, or if basil is out of season, sprinkle the top of the soup with a bit of dried basil just before serving.