Thursday, September 25, 2014

Food Is Love

In a departure from my normal weekly recipe posting, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been rambling inside my head for some time. The idea for the story has been generating for a few years and has lately become overwhelmingly obvious to me, due to recent events. But the overall gist is that I have come to conclude that food—good food, well prepared and with intent—is love. I’m not talking about using food as a substitute for love. I am talking about sharing a part of yourself, and just as importantly your time, to create dishes that fill a need, soothe the soul, and create happiness for the recipients.

One of the first inklings I had on this topic came three years ago, when my mother was in the hospital. Spending long hours there every day, I completely neglected my household duties over the course of 8 weeks. All my focus was on my mother and her recovery. But during that time, Mr. B and Brilliant Daughter trekked to the store every Sunday and did the shopping. And then my daughter would spend the day in my kitchen cooking a week’s worth of meals, packaging them up and storing them in the refrigerator. Wonderful soups, chicken potpies, enchiladas, pasta sauce, quiche Lorraine, and the list goes on.  I could come home to a hot meal, bring tasty, healthy food to share with my mother in the hospital, and I did not have to worry about everyone in my house starving or living on fast food. It was 4 hours of her time each week, but to me it was a relief, a blessing, or as I dubbed it in a subsequent post, “Love in the Refrigerator.”

Since that time, I have spent countless hours in the kitchen, not only making our regular daily meals, but canning, baking, and making homemade sausage and bacon. I also take pride in the large outdoor garden we have: four huge raised beds that replaced the useless lawn. I freely share produce and homemade goodies with just about anyone who visits or anyone I go to visit. I regularly tote jams, pickles and bacon down to LA for my brother (not to mention my really tasty bacon caramels). Butcher Son and Mr. B get packages of cookies to take to work and share on a regular basis. And when our family Sunday dinner rolls around, I usually have a meal or two prepared and packaged, as well as a sweet treat, for the kids to take home and enjoy during the week.

More recently I have found myself with a lot of extra time, business being slow. So I have tried to use it wisely.

A friend, who recently had a baby, invited me down to meet the new little guy and I offered to bring lunch. What new mom (who had a C-section to boot) has time to cook? I whipped up a hearty protein-rich quiche, a fresh salad with lots of veggies, and made a loaf of homemade focaccia. Then I made three different kinds of cookies, one of which I fashioned into little butterflies, hearts and flowers for her 2-year old daughter. I even juiced some of our prized Meyer lemons, picked some fresh strawberries and made some strawberry lemonade. I didn’t think twice about it, but you would have thought I brought a five-star meal with Cristal champagne for all the oohing and aahing and thanks I got. I mean really, I had the time, she needed the food, so what’s the big deal? But then it hit me: it is a big deal to so many people that someone would take the time to make everything from scratch. Take the time to do something for them.

And my family is very appreciative of this fact as well. Just last weekend, I smoked a pork shoulder for 6 hours on Mr. B’s grill. Then proceeded to make a batch of homemade BBQ sauce, bake up some fresh hamburger buns, and toss together a delicious salad with shaved zucchini and green beans from our garden. A simple meal really, but one that everyone recognized took me hours in the kitchen to make.

I am lucky to have those hours. And I am even more fortunate to have friends and family to share it with.

Week 23: Coconut Cream Caramels

The other day I was making a lovely curry cauliflower soup and had a half can of coconut milk leftover. Hating to waste anything, I gave it some thought and came up with the idea to make coconut caramels. Everyone loves my bacon caramels, so using that as a base recipe, I made a batch. Supplementing the leftover half cup of coconut milk with a half cup of cream, I found the taste a bit too subtle. Barely noticeable. So I decided to give it a second try this week and kick it up a notch.

Instead of the coconut milk and cream mixture, I used a full cup of Trader Joe’s Coconut Cream. I also toasted up some shredded coconut to enhance the coconut flavor and give it a bit of texture. The result was a nicely sweet caramel with the toasty crunch of the coconut.

Coconut Cream Caramels
1 cup coconut cream
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup toasted flaked or shredded coconut

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. Lightly oil parchment with vegetable oil or cooking spray.

Bring coconut cream, butter, and salt to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.

Boil sugar, golden syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel.

Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 250 degrees on candy thermometer, which takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with toasted coconut and gently press down into caramel. Cool for 3 hours. (Placing them in the refrigerator during the last 30 minutes will make them easier to cut.)

Cut sheets of wax paper into 4-inch squares.

Pull parchment and caramel out of the pan and cut into small squares or rectangles and wrap each in square of wax paper, twisting both ends to close. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Yield: approximately 40 caramels

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Week 22: Tomato Sauce Visual Tutorial

This summer has brought a bounty of tomatoes from my garden. In addition to the 3 plants I purchased in April, Butcher Son was given an additional 6 plants from customers and friends. This has yielded an unprecedented (for me) amount of Roma, San Marzano, and several varieties of heirloom tomatoes. We have had our share of bruschetta and caprese salad, I’ve made two batches of sundried tomatoes, and now find myself making tomato sauce every weekend. So I thought I would document the process in pictures, making it easy for you to follow along. Because it really is a simple process. And you don’t even have to drag out the canner. You can just pour the final product into jars or Tupperware and throw them in the freezer for use in the fall or winter when you want a taste of summer!

Step 1: Cut up your tomatoes: I cut my pear-shaped tomatoes in half and large tomatoes into quarters, removing the stem end. I usually fill one large bowl.

Step 2: Cut up your vegetables. Dice one onion and mince 6 cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a large stewpot over medium high heat and sauté for a few minutes until translucent, stirring occasionally.

Step 3: Mince some fresh herbs. I use basil, rosemary and oregano from the garden. Add these and the tomatoes to your stewpot.

Step 4: Add red wine. I add about a cup of red wine to my tomatoes, but feel free to add more or less, depending on your taste and the amount of wine on hand.

Step 5: Add salt. Start with one tablespoon; you can always add more later.

Step 6: Cook your sauce. Put a lid on your stewpot and cook on medium low, stirring occasionally. I usually cook my tomatoes for about an hour.

Step 7. Pick out the skins. Every time I stir the pot, I use tongs to pull out the tomato skins that have separated from the tomato. I find this easier than skinning the tomatoes beforehand. You don’t have to get them all, just the majority.

Step 8: Puree. When the tomatoes have cooked down sufficiently, I use a stick blender to puree the sauce. If you don’t have a stick blender, I highly recommend you buy one, but in lieu of that, you can put batches in a blender and puree. Just don’t fill the blender more than half way or it will blow the lid off and burn you. (Trust me on this.)

Step 9. Cook down your sauce. Oftentimes my sauce is a bit soupy after pureeing. This is due to the type of tomatoes I use at any given time. If your sauce is too runny, just cook on medium with the lid off until the desired consistency is reached.

Voila! You are done. Let the sauce cool and pour into jars or plastic containers and throw in the freezer.

I use this sauce for pasta, adding browned ground meat or Italian sausage, or serve it with meatballs. It’s also great for lasagne, stuffed shells, or just as it is served with a bowl of plain pasta and grated Parmesan.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Week 21: Not Your Mother’s Chicken and Rice

I remember my mother making chicken and rice dishes, mostly casseroles that were heavy on some sort of canned creamed soup. Edible but not terribly flavorful, they were a staple in most households in the 1960s and 1970s. Given my subsequent aversion to casseroles and anything containing a creamed soup, I have avoided such dishes for 30+ years…until now.

In the most recent Sunset magazine, I found a recipe for Chicken Steamed Over Ginger-Garlic Rice. Full of flavor, utilizing only one pot and taking only 30 minutes, the family has determined the recipe a keeper and I can now proudly cook chicken and rice casserole.

Rather boring in color, due to the dual colors of white (rice, chicken) and green (sauce), it is anything but bland. The recipe contains bold flavors—ginger, garlic, cilantro, sesame oil and jalapeno—that give the moist steamed chicken a great kick, although not so spicy that children won’t eat it.

The recipe is low in salt, easy to prepare and a quick and hearty weeknight meal. While the recipe says it yields four servings that would be a huge amount of rice per person. I used 2 pounds of chicken (rather than the 1 1/2 it called for) and it served 5 adults, with enough leftover for one lunch. I have adjusted a few things in the recipe to satisfy our palate, but if you want the original recipe, you can find it here.

Butcher Son and Mr. B added some sriracha to up the heat quotient, our guest tried it with a bit of soy, but Brilliant Daughter and I found it perfect just as it is. Now it’s your turn to debunk the myth that chicken and rice casseroles have to include creamed soups!

Recipe on the next page...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Week 20: 40-Minute Hamburger Buns

I’m sure you are wondering why I have two posts in a row dealing with yeast breads, albeit very easy to make and tasty recipes. Our family loves fresh bread of any kind and there are few things better than warm steamy loaves coming out of the oven and eaten hot with melted butter dripping down your chin, at least in our estimation.

It is also something I am trying to become more comfortable with. Yeast breads can be tricky. I’ve been making cinnamon rolls for years but have rarely ventured out of that niche. Maybe I am trying to channel my husband’s grandmother, who baked a dozen or more loaves a week. All of five-foot-nothing, she had the strongest hands of any woman (and most men) that I had ever met. When she took you into her embrace, there was no squirming out of it until she was good and ready, and when she pinched your cheek, you felt it for hours. She would bake huge batches once or twice a week and deliver them to friends, relatives and would use them to barter with local farmers for produce.

I started making a 5-minute artisan bread back in April of 2012. It is one of those recipes that should delight every suburban cook. It takes very little time (ummm…5 minutes), only 4 basic ingredients and yields a hearty round loaf reminiscent of something you would buy at the bakery, similar in texture to a sourdough boule. I make it once or twice a month, much to the delight of the family. The focaccia recipe from last week has also received rave reviews from friends and family, and I have even talked several into making it themselves. Now they are hooked as well.

As for why I would even attempt hamburger buns, the rationale was twofold. I had initially planned hamburgers for dinner (topped with freshly smoked bacon and some creamy avocado) but had forgotten to buy buns. Yes, I could have driven to one of any number of stores to pick them up, or asked Butcher Son to bring me some home from Robert’s Market, but I got to wondering if I could make them. Secondly, I really am trying to learn to make a lot of what we eat from scratch. I have mastered the jam/jelly thing, pickles, salsa, tomato sauce and marinara, and even BBQ sauce. I have a number of mustards and rib rubs in my repertoire, as well as fruit syrups. I make sausage, bacon, pancetta. And of course, I am proficient with sweet baked goods. So this was just another thing to try.

I found a recipe on Taste of Home for 40-minute hamburger buns. Sure enough, within about 40 minutes I had hamburger buns. The original recipe made 12 buns, but they were only slightly larger than slider buns and not really big enough for my hamburgers, so on a second try I made 8 buns. Better, but I’m thinking that for a big juicy cowboy burger, you should just make 6. Or if the kids want sliders, you could probably get 16 perfect slider buns. The ingredients are basic pantry and fridge items, so no need to get anything fancy. The texture overall is denser than your average hamburger bun, but it doesn’t squish down like Wonder Bread and soaks up any juices that might be leaking from your burger. Overall I was very happy with the result and the recipe got the thumbs up from the family. So now it’s your turn to try.

40-Minute Hamburger Buns
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2+ cups, all purpose flour

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add oil and sugar; let stand for 5 minutes. Add the egg, salt and 3 cups flour to form a soft dough. Pour remaining 1/2 cup flour out onto counter or breadboard. Add dough and knead until smooth and elastic, about 3-5 minutes. You may need to add more flour if the dough become sticky.

Do not let rise. Divide into 8 pieces; shape each into a ball. Place 3 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Bake at 425° for 8-12 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pans to wire racks to cool.

Yield: 8

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week 19: 5-Minute Herbed Focaccia

Back in 2012 I did a post on 5-Minute Artisan Bread. I had my disbelievers, but once they made the bread, they were hooked. It really was that simple. This recipe, for Italian focaccia, is even easier and also lends itself to a variety of flavors, depending upon what you have on hand in your garden or pantry.

You don’t need anything special to make this tasty treat, just the basics will do. But I like to dress mine up, usually with fresh herbs from the garden, but I think some kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes would work nicely as well.

The base of the bread is flour, sugar, salt, yeast, egg and butter. It all mixes up easily in a bowl and then you just let it sit for an hour to let the yeast do its magic. Then you knead it a few times, throw it in a greased pan, sprinkle it with some salt and herbs (dry or fresh) and shove it in the oven. I like to chop fresh herbs and use half inside the dough (which I add while kneading) and the rest sprinkled on top with the salt.

This focaccia can be served on its own, piping hot from the oven, with a meal, or let it cool and use it as a base for a sandwich.

It literally takes 5 minutes of your time, with an hour to rise and about 20 minutes to cook. I suggest you double the recipe, because it won’t last long once it comes out of the oven. I even served it with some of the leftover chimichurri sauce from last week’s tri-tip recipe and it was beyond good. A little schmear went a long way.

So what are you waiting for? 

Recipe after the jump

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Week 18: Tri-Tip with Chimichurri

This week for Sunday dinner I rummaged through all the recipes I had torn out of magazines to find something a bit different. The family doesn’t mind being guinea pigs and this week they were more than happy after trying this unusually cooked but flavorful offering.

The recipe, originally published in the June 2013 issue of Sunset magazine, called for either bison or beef tri-tip cooked on a barbeque with a cast-iron pan. While bison is a nice lean meat, it isn’t widely available (although Butcher Son could obtain some if I had so desired), so I tested it with the more standard beef.

The method used to cook the meat is Argentine in origin and is called a la plancha—requiring a cast iron grill pan, skillet or griddle and cooked in a barbeque.  According to the recipe, this method creates an even quick sear that leaves a crusty exterior while staying moist and juicy on the inside.

I found this to be an easy to prepare dish, suitable for weeknight dinners but fancy enough to serve to guests. What puts the dish over the top is the huge amount of flavor garnered from the rosemary-parsley chimichurri sauce. In fact I wanted to ladle to sauce onto the roasted fingerling potatoes as well. Or maybe just drink it with a straw, it was that good, and the family wholeheartedly agreed. A winner recipe that is sure to make its way into our rotation this summer. And there is no reason that I shouldn’t keep a jar of the chimichurri sauce in my refrigerator, as it will be great on most any kind of meat, as well as roasted potatoes and maybe even some select vegetables.

While the recipe called for an overnight marinade, it isn’t strictly necessary. If you remember to do it the night before great; if you have time in the morning before work, that works, too. I only had 4 hours of marinating, but in actuality an hour or two will do the trick, primarily because the sauce is so excellent that any flavor is overwhelmed by it. And if you have no time to marinate….no problem. 

Recipe on next page

Monday, May 19, 2014

Week 17: Summer Cauliflower Salad

I love roasted cauliflower. In actuality, I love pretty much any roasted vegetable. Such an easy dish to make: just cut up the veg, sprinkle with olive oil, and bit of salt and pepper, and roast at 400-450 degrees until done (turning once or twice). Some times I even get creative and add in some sliced onion, maybe chopped fresh herbs from the garden, or small slivers of lemon. Ups the taste quotient and they are all things I have on hand. But with summer coming, serving hot vegetables just doesn’t work. We do a lot of grilling to avoid heating up the house and while you can certainly grill cauliflower in a basket, I was feeling like something a bit different, hence my search for a salad version of roasted cauliflower.

I found a basic recipe on Tori Avey’s site, which I modified slightly. I roasted the cauliflower early in the morning, to avoid heating the kitchen during our mini heatwave. While it roasted I prepped the remaining items, so the process took about 30 minutes and then once the cauliflower was cool, it was a simple toss, put the fridge and it was ready for dinner later that day.

It was a bit disappointing that he family didn’t rave about this recipe. Even after marinating in the dressing all day, the salad was a little flat. Although it was better on the second day, it definitely needs a bit of adjustment.

First, after roasting the cauliflower pieces, I would cut them in half. (Yes, you could just cut them up smaller to begin with, but then they would be cooked before getting properly caramelized, which lends a marvelous flavor.) By cutting the in half, more surface area would be covered by the dressing. Secondly, I think that making slightly more dressing would help in marinating the vegetables, so I have increased the ingredients accordingly. You could also allow it to sit overnight and serve the next day, to allow for more flavor to permeate the cauliflower.

Overall, with adjustments, I think this is a good dish and a way to enjoy cauliflower during the summer months.

Summer Cauliflower Salad

1 large head cauliflower
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1/2 lemon

6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
16 pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
3 tablespoons capers

Preheat to 425 degrees and set out a rimmed baking or cookie sheet.

Pull the leaves off of the cauliflower base. Cut off the lower part of the stem. Quarter the cauliflower and then slice each quarter into 8-10 pieces. (Flat surfaces are best as they will caramelize better.0 Place the cauliflower in a large bowl and drizzle them with 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the minced garlic florets to the bowl. Cut your lemon half into 3 long pieces and then slice them thinly and add to the bowl. Toss the mixture until thoroughly coated with the olive oil.

Spread the mixture out in an even layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Place baking sheet into preheated oven and let the cauliflower roast for 10 minutes. Turn the slices and return to the oven for 10-20 minutes, until tender and browned. Remove from oven and let cool.

Meanwhile, prep your salad dressing and ingredients. In small jar, mix 4 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Shake well.

Once cauliflower is cool, add to bowl with the flat leaf parsley, olives and capers and toss gently with dressing. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Chill.

Yield: 6 servings

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Week 16: Almond/Coconut/Cacao Nib Clusters

Back in Week 6, Brilliant Daughter did a guest post recreating her favorite Sahale snack: Glazed Almond-Cranberry Snack Clusters. I’ve made them twice since but looking at the three boxes of Scharffen Berger cacao nibs that just arrived gave me the bright idea to change up the recipe a bit. While I started with the almond base, I added both cacao nibs and coconut to the mix. It’s a perfect combination and I found it highly additive. Crunchy, healthy and mildly sweet, these snack clusters are perfect for a mid-morning snack or afternoon pick-me-up.

Note #1: The original recipe calls for blanched slivered almonds, but I keep Trader Joe’s Dry Toasted Slivered Almonds in the house, so that is what I used. I find that it makes for a crunchier snack, as the almonds are double-roasted.

Note #2: While I had Trader Joe’s sweetened shredded coconut on hand, you could use shaved coconut, toasted coconut, or unsweetened coconut as well.

Almond/Coconut/Cacao Nib Clusters
1/2 cup brown sugar
8 ounces blanched slivered almonds
1/2 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1/3 cup cacao nibs
1 egg white
1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon honey

Heat the oven to 250 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with Silpat or parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, toss the almonds, coconut and cacao nibs. In another small bowl, whip the egg, water, and honey with a whisk until very frothy and amalgamated.

Pour the liquid mixture over the nut mixture and stir with a spatula to coat. Add in the brown sugar and stir until there are no more dry pockets.

Spread mixture evenly onto prepared pan (it’s OK if it’s not quite a single layer—that’ll create heartier pieces) and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Allow to cool and then break into bite-sized pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Week 15: Molten Dulce de Leche Cakes

Sunday dinner with the family always involves some good wine, food, and conversation. We always end the night with dessert, which is a perfect time to test out new recipes. My family doesn’t mind being guinea pigs and I get more feedback than during the week when Mr. B is the only one around. Bless his heart, he rarely complains about anything I cook, probably as much out of fear that I will stop feeding him as the fact that he really likes everything. I mean, the guy ate brains and eggs, raw lamb kibbe, baby goat, and a myriad of other things as a kid that I wasn’t introduced to until adulthood.

This week for dessert I tested out a recipe from Bon Appetit. It was originally from Florencia Courreges, the pastry chef at La Huella restaurant in Uruguay. It is her south-of-the-border take on the traditional chocolate lava cake. The simplicity of it boggles the mind, as it only takes 3 ingredients, 3 simple steps, and 20 minutes from start to finish. And you don’t even start it until after dinner is over! (That’s one way to get everyone else to do the dishes…)

The basis for the cake is dulce de leche, a sweet thick caramel that is nothing more than sweetened
condensed milk cooked slowly. There are ways to make your own in a crock pot or even from scratch if you are so inclined. I use the Nestle brand, which makes a 13.4 ounce can (which turns out to be the right amount for this recipe). These can be found in the Hispanic food aisle or with sweetened condensed milk in your baking aisle

The result is a sweet, light cake with a warm molten center, served right out of the oven. The directions recommend that you unmold the cake before serving. This will, of course, give you a more dramatic first bite, with the caramel-colored goodness oozing out onto the plate, but I think it would be perfectly fine served within its ramekin. I should warn you that due to the one-dimensional note of the dessert, I found it wise to serve with a small scoop of ice cream. I recommend vanilla, Florencia recommends banana as well. (I tried whipped cream, but it melted too soon and didn’t cut the sweetness properly like the vanilla bean ice cream did.)

I should also note that the original recipe said it made 6 servings, but the cakes were a bit small, and cook so quickly that unless you check them every 30 seconds once you hit about 9 minutes, they overcook. Making a second batch (and doubling it for the whole family) made 8 good-sized cakes and took about 12 minutes. The center should be jiggly – and when I say center, it should measure the size of a quarter or more, because while you get them out, move them off the pan and unmold them, they have continued to cook a bit and the centers start to firm up. You definitely should serve them right away, although Mr. B did have a second one the next day, chilled, and said it was delicious. (Good man!)

Recipe after the jump....

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Week 14: Baked Gnocchi with Squash and Kale

What drew me to this recipe in the San Francisco Chronicle was the list of ingredients in the title. I love gnocchi, butternut squash and kale and imagined they would be a killer combo. Tasty and healthy at the same time. It was a fairly easy recipe that took little preparation, as I was able to use pre-made gnocchi, pre-cut squash and pre-cut kale.

Unfortunately I was wrong on several counts and actually chock this up as a bit of a failure. It is healthy and it was easy, but it wasn’t terribly tasty. The gnocchi gets quite gummy and sticks together, the squash doesn’t get that nice brown crisp that adds to its flavor when roasted, and the pre-cut kale had some thick ribs that made for a more than few nasty mouthfuls. And even with the addition of salt and parmesan cheese, it lacked any oomph or real flavor. It was a bit soggy and the liquid was not thickened at all. Overall, I cannot recommend this dish, but in fairness to my goal at the beginning of the year, I wanted to post my failures as well as my successes, so if you are brave, you can try and recreate this and judge for yourself, or modify it in a way that would make it tastier (more cheese? herbs? pancetta or bacon? Sausage?)

Recipe after the jump

Monday, March 31, 2014

Week 13: Going Old School with Grasshopper Pie

Okay, this is not strictly adhering to my goal of trying a new recipe every week. In fact, this recipe is one that I have been making since I was a teen. Grasshopper Pie was one of only three desserts my mother made (the other two being a Sherry Pound Cake and a Harvey Wallbanger Cake). March 25th would have been her 75th birthday, so to celebrate that we had a Grandma Diane dinner. That meant a London Broil, baked potato with sour cream, salad and…Grasshopper Pie.

Grasshopper Pie is one of those things that I secretly love. (Deep-fried Twinkies are also one of those culinary delights I generally keep hidden.)  It not only evokes memories of my mother and childhood, but it is a perfect after-dinner dessert. Minty, with a soft, cloud-like texture and a crunchy hit of chocolate from the crust. It’s like having a postprandial Andes mint. Only cold. And fluffy.

This is also one of those typical 1970s recipes. It’s what I call a shortcut dessert. Shortcuts were a working woman’s saving grace back then. Working full-time but still expected to put dinner on the table every night like their own mothers, many women got very creative. Crockpots became a big hit. Fill it, set it, forget it, serve it. Packaged mixes like Lawry’s Spaghetti Sauce Mix or Hamburger Helper could take a pound of ground meat and turn it into a meal in 30 minutes. Casseroles became popular, combining a type of meat, pasta or rice, and Campbell’s soup that you mixed up to throw into the oven. And who had time for baking layer cakes, even with a box mix? Nope, you did slice and bake cookies (or just bought packaged cookies like my mother did) or made shortcut desserts like Grasshopper Pie or the aforementioned alcohol-laced pound cakes (which required a box mix, one pan and no icing).

This recipe is pretty easy to put together and you can even buy a premade chocolate cookie crust to further cut down on the preparation time. Not everyone keeps crème de menthe and crème de cacao in the house, but you can try and search out airplane-sized bottles at your local BevMo, borrow some from a friend, or just bite the bullet and buy them. (Crème de menthe is delicious served over vanilla ice cream or you can whip up an adult hot chocolate with a bit of both of these liqueurs…topped with whipped cream, of course.)

Grasshopper Pie
1 1/4 cups crushed chocolate wafers
1/3 cup melted butter

2/3 cup scalded milk
24 large marshmallows
2 ounces green crème de menthe
1 ounce white crème de cacao
1/2 pint whip cream, whipped

For crust, mix wafers with butter and pat into 9-inch pie pan. Chill.

Add marshmallows to scalded milk in double boiler, stirring often until blended into smooth mixture. Cool to room temperature and add liqueurs. Fold in whipped cream and stir gently until completely mixed. Pour into chilled crust. Freeze for at least 2 hours. If frozen overnight, thaw before serving. Shave chocolate onto the top for decoration.

Serves 8

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Week 12: Mini Lamb Meatballs with Pilaf

I know how hard it is to come up with a quick meal that can be fixed in 30 minutes or less. Having had 3 children with various school, work, and activity schedules on top of my own work schedule made it difficult for us all to sit down together every night, but I made it work utilizing two methods. One, I shopped every Sunday morning then settled into the kitchen for 2-3 hours cooking meals for the week. Soups, stews, roasted chicken, meatloaf, whatever I could make that could be cooked or reheated quickly once we were all at home. Two, finding recipes that were easy to make and quick to cook for weekday meals.

One of those quick recipes is a lamb pilaf. I wrote a post about it back in 2006, which caused me to be somewhat nostalgic when I read it. The gist of the post was that I felt it necessary that my children be able to cook once they lived on their own. Brilliant Daughter is an excellent cook, trying new recipes, modifying old ones, devising new ones, while Electrician Son relies primarily on a few standards and lots of grilling. At the time of the post, Butcher Son, my youngest, was just embarking on his career as a butcher and was only adept at breakfast foods. The post was an attempt to teach him how to cook something new and easy, so he wouldn’t have to rely on eggs and toast.

Eight years later, he has far surpassed my expectations. In fact, he has gotten together with friends every Monday night for the past two or three years to prepare feasts to share. One person decides the menu and they all pitch in on the cooking end of things. And we are not talking burgers and fries here; they make meals centered around Steak Diane, horseradish-crusted beef tenderloin, and stuffed chicken breasts, among other things. Ahhh, but I digress.

That original lamb pilaf recipe, which takes about 30 minutes start to finish, pays homage to my husband’s family, half of which are Lebanese. Lamb and rice were a part of his childhood and became part of our repertoire. But cooking lamb takes hours, and even shish kebab requires marinating to impart flavors into the meat. So the lamb pilaf recipe was a way to get the flavor we loved without the long preparation or cooking time. And while we still cook the pilaf at least once a month, I thought it needed an update, a new twist. So I took the basic ingredients and changed them up a bit. What I came up with is mini lamb meatballs served on top of the pilaf with a lemon-mint yogurt sauce. The preparation time is still around the half-hour mark, easy enough for anyone to do (in fact, you can get the kids involved in rolling the meatballs), and it’s just as tasty as the original version.

Oh, and for the record, I am very proud of my children, not just for their culinary prowess but also for the very special people they have become. I am one lucky mama!

Recipe after the jump....

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Week 11: Easy Grilled Thai Chicken

My family loves Thai food and while you might not think that it is appropriate for children, let me tell you that my own offspring have been enjoying Thai food for the last 19 years. That’s when I finished work on my first Travelers’ Tales book, an anthology on Thailand. Working amongst well-traveled writers at that time was intimidating, as I had not seen much of the world, but because I have always had a curiosity about cooking, I began a ritual whereby I learned to cook the cuisine of the country we were working on. As soon as a book was sent off to the printer, we would celebrate with a meal appropriate to that destination.

This was back in 1993 when the internet was still in its infancy for most people, and I actually did research for articles on an old-fashioned microfiche at the library! But those same libraries provided me with cookbooks on international cuisine that allowed me to produce some truly memorable meals. Ten years later, in 2003, when we prepared Travelers’ Tales Thailand for an update, I actually jetted off to Southeast Asia and went to two cooking schools: a three-day affair at the famed Hotel Oriental Cooking School in Bangkok and a weekend course at Mom Tri’s Boathouse in Phuket. It is my most memorable travel experience by far, and Thai food has become one of my favorites, with bold flavors, fresh ingredients and a simplicity that normally requires nothing more than a fork to enjoy.

This recipe was clipped back in 2009 from Issue 86 of Fine Cooking. It is quite simple to prepare, quick to cook, and has an amazing amount of flavor. I should note that the recipe calls for you to marinate the chicken for 2-24 hours, but I only had an hour to throw this together and it was absolutely delicious. I can only image how much more flavorful the chicken would have been given longer to marinade in these wonderful Thai flavors. So if you can remember, just throw it together the night before in a Ziploc bag and you’ll only need 15-20 minutes to cook them up when you are ready for dinner.

While the recipe serves 12 people (great for a party!), it can easily be cut in half for a family dinner. I did make one addition to the recipe—fish sauce— a quintessential Thai ingredient that I felt belonged in the marinade. Don’t be put off by the exotic ingredients, I had no trouble finding the fish sauce and lemongrass at my local Safeway and the I keep dried Thai bird chilis in my pantry (although jalapenos or serranos will also add the requisite heat).  And while it might not quite be time to break out the grill in many parts of the country, feel free to cook this on the stove with a grill pan. The smokiness won’t be present, but the multilayered flavors of the marinade will still shine through.

And apologies for the lack of pictures, we just couldn’t wait to chow down!

Grilled Thai Chicken
1-1/4 cups chopped fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup finely chopped lemongrass (from about 2 stalks)*
12 fresh basil leaves
3 Thai bird chiles, 2 jalapeños, or 2 medium serranos, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
12 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed
Fresh chopped cilantro for serving
2 limes, cut into wedges for serving

Combine the cilantro with the coconut milk, lemongrass, basil, chiles, garlic, salt, brown sugar, fish sauce, pepper, and coriander in a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Arrange the chicken breasts in a nonreactive baking dish or other vessel large enough to accommodate them in a snug single layer or place them in a large Ziploc bag. Pour the marinade over the breasts and turn to coat them well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Heat a gas grill to medium high or prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire. Grill the chicken (covered on a gas grill) until it has good grill marks on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken (cover a gas grill) and continue to cook until firm to the touch and completely cooked through (check by making a slice into one of the thicker breasts), 5 to 6 more minutes. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the fresh cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

*Before chopping the lemongrass, be sure to cut off the spiky green top and enough of the bottom to eliminate the woody core. Peel off a few of the outer layers until you’re left with just the tender heart of the stalk.

Yield: 12 servings

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Week 10: Lemondoodles

Snickerdoodles were one of my children’s favorite cookies growing up. The soft eggy cookie dusted in cinnamon sugar was a real treat for the mouth and a nice departure from the standard chocolate chip that often filled our cookie jar. Eight years ago Brilliant Daughter and I came up with our own riff on the classic snickerdoodle, developing a chaidoodle that incorporated typical chai spices. Looking back I realized that chaidoodles were one of the early posts in the first year I began this blog (2006).  Eight years later, combing through my mountains of saved recipes, I came across this recipe for lemondoodles, which I believe came from Melissa and No. 2 Pencil blog.  And because we are notorious lemon lovers and I still have Meyer lemons on the tree, it made perfect sense to test it out.

Start to finish, these cookies took about an hour, with ingredients that are found in a typical pantry and refrigerator. The only tricky part is browning the butter, but as long as you stand over the stove and watch and stir carefully, it only takes a few minutes. That means you can’t answer the phone, change a diaper, or run outside to turn off the sprinklers. It is wise to be patient and appreciate that solid butter turning into a golden nutty liquid. Other than that, it is a simple recipe that mixes up easily in either a stand mixer or your everyday handheld mixer.

I’ve made a few adjustments to the recipe. First, in the topping, I chose to use a microplane instead of a zester. A microplane allows for small, delicate curls of lemon peel, which I felt would integrate better with the sugar, infuse more flavor into the topping, and would react better when baking. A zester would create long strands  that would either require straining before using or would not attach well to the cookie and possibly burn or turn bitter in the baking process. And because I was using Meyer lemons, which have considerably more flavor in the peel than your standard Eureka lemon, I only needed to use the zest from 2 lemons, rather than 3.

I also tried to different baking times and temperatures. The original recipe called for 7 minutes at 425 degrees, but my other “doodle” recipes call for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. I found that there is not a huge difference, but the 7 minute/425 degrees version was a bit lighter in color and softer on the outside. The insides of both were similar. So make your life easier and go with the 7 minute version.

I should point out that these are large cookies and spread out, so do not crowd on your baking pan. I cooked only 8 to a pan, which was perfect. It takes a bit longer, but with 2 pans in the oven at a time, you only need to do the process twice.

Pair these with a nice cup of oolong, English Breakfast, or Earl Gray and enjoy yourself!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Week 9: Candied Bacon Lollipops

Recently, my brother shared with me this recipe for candied bacon lollipops, a gem he found in a recent issue of Wine Spectator, of all places. It was probably his passive-aggressive way of telling me that next time I visit, I need to bring a slab of our homemade bacon so that we can test this recipe. But I am not planning a visit any time soon, and I just cannot wait. I mean, really, who can resist a recipe like this? It cannot languish in my recipe pile, hidden away and forgotten. No, it must be tried….now.

Admittedly, I am making this in the morning, when in fact it is designed as a cocktail bite. But bacon of any kind is good in the morning, and I can tell you that not one person in my house is complaining about the hour these are being served. If I am lucky, we might have a few left to have tonight with a cold beer or maybe a glass of wine. (Given that this appeared in a wine magazine, I wonder what I should pair with these lollipops. Any suggestions?)

I was hesitant to use 2 1/2 pounds of bacon for only 20-25 lollipops. Not only did that seem like a lot of bacon, I thought that a 1” x 1” square might be on the large side. So I chose to make the pieces a bit smaller, which yielded a larger quantity. Some shrinkage does occur, so use your judgment on the size. (You can also halve this recipe if you are not serving a crowd – rule of thumb is half as much sugar as bacon. So if you are using 1 pound bacon, use 1/2 cup sugar.)

In addition to adjusting the size, I made a few other small adjustments to the recipe: (1) When tossing bacon pieces with the sugar, you will notice that not a lot sticks. I found that by putting a bit of the excess sugar in my palm and squeezing it around the bacon piece a few times, I could get more to adhere, meaning less was scattered willy nilly around the pan. (2) Placing bacon pieces closer together and toward center of pan helps reduce the amount of burning sugar, some of which is inevitable around the edge of the pan.  (3) After the pan has been out of the oven for one minute, remove bacon pieces from silicone mat with tongs and turn bottom side up on wax paper. If you leave the bacon pieces on the mat for the full 5 minutes to cool, the sugar starts to set up and adhere to the bacon in strange shapes, making for an unpleasant-looking appetizer.  

Note: I think you could cut the bacon pieces, coat it and stick the pan in the fridge until you are ready to cook them, making it a very easy party food.

Now to the taste test. As expected, these were a big hit with everyone who tried them. I also found them extremely addictive. I literally had to box up half the pieces and put them in the refrigerator for fear I might eat them all. The lollipops are sweet and salty, soft and crunchy all at the same time. Using a good quality, smoky bacon will yield the best result. You want some good fat in there so the softness contrasts with the chewy bacon and crispy sugar coat.

Considering how little time these took, the ease of cooking, and the resulting taste, this recipe is a winner. (Thank you Michael. I promise to make some for you next time we are together.) 

UPDATE 2/27/14: Said brother has recommended a "crisp Sauvignon Blanc" to pair with this awesome appetizer.