Monday, January 31, 2011

Pronto Soup du Jour!

It's official. I'm on a soup kick. (So you may see a few more soups du jour this week!) Really, soup was just the best option tonight because I spent half the weekend sick and bedridden. Now that I'm back on my feet, Bill didn't waste any time asking, "So ... are you cooking tonight?" To feed his appetite and get some decent food in my stomach, cream of chicken and rice soup sounded like a good idea.

This recipe is the perfect example of how something so, so simple can be so, so satisfying (and surprisingly fast)!

Cream of Chicken and Rice Soup
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup rice (original recipe calls for wild, but I used long grain white)
1/4 cup butter
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups cooked, cubed chicken

Heat rice and 2 cups chicken broth in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.

Melt butter in a large pot. Add carrot and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add onion and mushrooms and cook until soft, about 3 or 4 minutes more. Remove from heat and whisk in flour, salt and pepper.

Slowly stir in remaining 3 cups broth and bring to a boil. Stir until thickened, about 1 minute. Add chicken and rice and heat a few minutes more until heated through.

Whoever said making soup was an all day thing was so wrong. This was just about the easiest pot ever. I didn't even start with cooked chicken (I poached and then diced two breasts that were in the freezer) and this was done in half an hour. I'd say it's a fast, easy and delicious way to warm up your belly before the blizzard that's headed our way :)

Saturday, January 29, 2011


I'm trying to console myself by saying that no one succeeds with doughnuts on her first try. Even Bakerella, my baking icon, failed an attempt. But somehow I thought baked doughnuts would be easier ... and I was wrong.

When my niece Erin posted a link to this recipe I was super excited. I thought for sure this was the answer to my prayers - a non-intimidating doughnut recipe that didn't even require frying! I was anxious to give it a try, but I have to admit that I knew it was a failure before I had even finished kneading the dough.

You'll find my thoughts on what went wrong after the recipe.

Baked Doughnuts
1 1/3 cups warm milk (95-105 degrees)
1 packet active dry yeast
2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup sugar
5 cups flour
Pinch nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Place 1/3 cup of the warm milk and yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set aside for 5 to 8 minutes. Meanwhile, stir butter and sugar into remaining warm milk. Add to yeast mixture.With a fork, stir in flour, nutmeg and salt until flour is just incorporated.

With the dough hook attachment, stir on medium speed for a few minutes. The dough should pull away from the side of the bowl and begin to form a ball. If it appears to be too sticky, add more flour, a few tablespoons at a time. If it appears to be too dry, add more milk, a tablespoon or so at a time.

Turn onto floured surface and knead for a few minutes. Form into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place (like the top of the oven turned to a very low temperature) for one hour, until dough is doubled in size.

Punch dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Use a doughnut cutter or two round biscuit cutters (one large, one small) to cut doughnuts out. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, cover, and let rise in a warm place for another 45 minutes.

Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. While doughnuts are baking, melt butter in a microwe-safe bowl. Place cinnamon and sugar in a separate bowl and stir to combine. Doughnuts are done when golden on the bottom. When doughnuts come out of oven, toss in melted butter, then in cinnamon-sugar mixture.

This is the part where you're supposed to be enjoying your warm, delicious, guilt-free baked doughnuts. Instead, I was looking at a bunch of barely golden, flat disks on my baking sheet. I'm almost certain I know what went wrong (it could have been one of two things ... or both):

1. My milk was too warm. It's important to make sure the milk doesn't exceed 105 degrees or you risk killing the yeast. I checked mine, but removed the thermometer as soon as I saw it hit 95 - I should have made sure it didn't pass 105 (and I have a feeling it would have).

2. My yeast stayed at the bottom of the mixing bowl and didn't get fully incorporated into the dough. I often have this problem with my mixing bowl because there's a dip in the bottom of the bowl that's tough to reach. I suspect I didn't get down there while I was mixing with the fork, and it's impossible for the hook to reach down there.

My dough didn't appear to be doubled after the first rising, but I forged ahead because I'd already gone that far and I figured it was worth seeing what happened. It didn't get any better from there. I could tell when I was cutting the doughnuts that it wasn't quite right, too. But after all that work, I had to at least put them in the oven. What a waste!

As usual, I'm not giving up. I'll give it another shot, and now that I know what probably went wrong I expect to be successful! Erin was luckier than I was with this recipe, so many she has some suggestions for me :)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For the Cheeseheads

I think the Packers Super Bowl mania subconciously impacted my dinner menu tonight. Living in the frozen tundra that is Milwaukee, I often get cravings for soup. It's been way too long since I've made my own pot of soup, but tonight seemed like as good a time as any.

My soup-making typically starts with something I happen to have on hand or an ingredient I have an abundance of. Today that was potatoes. I bought a bag with a few recipes in mind, but ended up changing course. Now I have to use them before they grow eyes!

I don't know about you, but in my mind potatoes and cheese are a natural pair. It's like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, pancakes and syrup (unless you happen to be in Odessa, TX, right, Michelle?) So tonight I couldn't think of anything better than cheesy potato soup!

Cheese Potato Chowder
3 medium red potatoes, diced (and peeled, if preferred)
2 medium carrots, diced
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup butter
3 green onions, diced
1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper
3 cups milk
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Add potatoes, carrots and water to a medium saucepan. Heat to boiling, reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onions and cook until soft (but not brown). Whisk in flour, salt and pepper. Stir in milk. Add potatoes and carrots (with their cooking liquid). Cook until bubbling and stir 1 minute more.

Add cheese and stir constantly until melted. Allow to cook over medium heat a few minutes longer. Ladle into soup bowls and serve (maybe with extra cheese on top!).

Super simple recipe and so good. The only problem I had (and have had in the past) is that my cheese had a not-so-smooth, almost grainy texture. I theorized that this could be for a few reasons: 

a) I used reduced fat cheese, which has a different, less creamy texture than full fat cheese and probably melts differently
b) My heat could have been too high, which seems to result in a less even melt

I did a little research and it turns out both of those things could be right. First, fat is a stabilizer which supposedly keeps the cheese from curdling. However, this was noted in reference to milk, not cheese. Many recipes for creamy soups or chowders recommend using whole milk or heavy cream. I used skim milk in my soup, so perhaps that coupled with the reduced fat cheese produced less desirable results.

Second, many posts I read suggested that you add your cheese off the heat or over very low heat. This keeps the soup from bubbling or coming to a boil, which can apparently have some funky effects on melted cheese.

I'll try these tips on my next venture into cheesy soup. Oh, and next time I'll also be adding a dollop of sour cream and a handful of crumbled bacon. Just to take it up a notch :)

Monday, January 24, 2011

3 Reasons to Follow My Culinary Adventures

I realize I shouldn't be beating myself up over not having a post every day. There are just some days when I'm not going to cook, and some days (though few and far between) when I'll revert back to the jarred pasta sauce and frozen garlic bread meals. I'm only human. And a human with a very demanding day job.

But to make myself feel better, I need to serve up a few reasons why you (and all your friends!) should follow my culinary adventures:

3. I won't lead you astray. I'm not going to post a recipe that wasn't good. Occasionally I'll give you one I failed miserably at (read: ravioli), but I'm not going to subject you to something that was just plain bad. There are some recipes that aren't worth saving, and even a few that aren't able to be saved. When a dish sucks, I'll say so. And then we'll move on to better things.

2. I'll keep it real. Yeah, I like to cook a little above and beyond your typical home chef. I like to challenge myself, push my boundaries and try new things. But very rarely will you find me using far-fetched techniques or difficult-to-find ingredients. Anything I can do, you can do. Because I'm not an expert. I just like food.

1. I'm just like you. As I said, I'm not an expert. I don't profess to be a master chef. I could never cut it on "The Next Food Network Star" (although I did enter a submission the first season). I'm just a girl who really loves her hobby. And don't we all have something we really love and could talk endlessly about?

I've got a few tricks up my sleeve this week and into the weekend: pot roast with red wine, tomatoes and mushrooms, baked doughnuts, vodka sauce, and maybe even a preview of my Super Bowl menu. I may not be a Packers fan, but I am looking for green and gold-inspired dishes. Got any ideas?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Bread is B-A-N-A-N-A-S Part II

I've experimented with tons of different banana bread recipes (like the Bananas Foster Bread I baked a couple weeks ago), but no matter what I always come back to the same one: Banana Bread from Betty Crockers big red cookbook. It's a classic and it just doesn't get any better. This just goes to show you that you shouldn't mess with a good thing!

Betty Crocker's Best Banana Bread
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 eggs
1 1/2 cup very ripe mashed bananas (3 or 4 bananas)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped nuts (Which I never get to use because Bill doesn't like nuts. Sigh.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, mashed bananas, buttermilk and vanilla. Beat until well mixed. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt.

Grease a loaf pan (or two, depending on the size) and pour in batter. Bake on center rack for about one hour (I start checking after 50 minutes and continue testing the center with a toothpick until it comes out clean. I'm very careful not to overcook my bread because nothing tastes worse than burnt bananas!). When top is golden and toothpick comes out clean, remove to wire rack and cool.

I used to substitute skim milk in place of the buttermilk in this recipe because I always had it on hand. But when I started making Irene's Famous Buttermilk Biscuits I used some leftover buttermilk in my bread. Turns out it makes the bread even more delicious! I'll still use skim milk (or whatever else we have in the fridge) in a pinch, but I strongly recommend buying buttermilk for this recipe.

Also, before Bill bought me my amazing Williams-Sonoma loaf pan I used to make this bread in a bundt pan. I prefer the loaf pan because you get more of the yummy golden top crust, which is totally the best part.

Hot Tamale!

Just to prove that I can cook something other than Italian food, I set out to make tamales last night. You might be thinking that's a little ambitious, because with the corn husks and whatnot tamales aren't exactly easy. But thanks to a Food & Wine Annual Cookbook I don't think I had ever opened before, I found a quick tamale recipe that makes them easy (and sans corn husks).

Quick Chicken and Cheese Tamales
2 cups masa harina (find it with the flour in the baking aisle)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/4 cups cool water
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 1/2 cups shredded chicken (from a rotisserie chicken)
1 cup shredded cheddar
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 scallions
Hot sauce, for serving

In a food processor, pulse the masa harina with the baking powder and salt. Add the water and pulse to moisten. Add the shortening in clumps and drizzle with chicken stock. Process until smooth and evenly blended. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and stir in chicken and cheese (and cilantro and scallions, if using ... I skipped them).

Tear off 12 squares of plastic wrap. Spoon about 1/2 cup tamale mixture in the center of each, and press each into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Fold the plastic up to make packets.

Arrange the tamale packets seam side down in a steamer basket. Steam over 2 inches of boiling water for 25 minutes. Remove from packets carefully. Serve with hot sauce.

I was a little worried about this recipe for a couple reasons:

1. I halved it because there was no way Bill and I could eat 12 tamales.
2. I don't have a traditional steamer basket so I decided to use my rice cooker, which also functions as a steamer.

Turns out there was no need to worry about either of those things! Halving the recipe worked out really well, and yieled 6 perfectly portioned tamales. I always get nervous about scaling recipes down, especially when you're dealing with something like a dough. But the masa harina was really easy to work with. My rice cooker also made a perfect steamer (good to know!).

And now, with my remaining masa harina, I'll be trying homemade tortillas :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Vacation Food

I was browsing through some vacation photos tonight and they made me hungry. Being big food-lovers (and I say food-lovers instead of foodies because I feel like foodies are much more particular), eating plays a pretty big part in all of our vacations. In fact, we probably do more research on awesome restaurants and signature dishes in any given city we visit than we do actual activities or points of interest.

During my trip down vacation memory lane, I started thinking about some of my all-time favorite foods I've had on our trips. So I thought I'd count them down for you, and give you a few photos where possible.

10. Crepes from La Creperie at Paris Las Vegas
I'm sure that the crepe I had from a street vendor in Paris, France, was actually better, but the crepes at La Creperie inside Paris Las Vegas are pretty amazing. I'm not really a fan of savory crepes, but give me nutella and whipped cream and I'm in heaven. I try to go here once during every Vegas trip. There's just something about a crepe that makes you happy, oui?

9. Shave Ice from any beach-side stand in Honolulu
I have to admit that it took me a while to get over the fact that they call it "Shave Ice" when it should be "Shaved Ice." You know I'm a stickler for grammar, but obviously Pidgin English isn't. I got over it enough to enjoy shave ice just about every day on our honeymoon. Maybe it was the Honolulu heat, but there was something so super refreshing about chipping away at a shave ice while you strolled around on the island.

8. Pancakes from Snooze in Denver
I believe there are two types of people in this world: waffle people and pancake people. Snooze is for pancake people. You know they're good when you can get a Pancake Flight, which includes three of their incredible varieties. I skipped the flight, but had "The Graceland" which, as you'd expect, involves bananas, peanut butter and bacon. But Bill had "Pineapple Upside Down Cake" which was a-ma-zing!

7. Blueberry Ale from Salem Beer Works in Boston
So it's not technically a food, but I'm pretty sure that here in Milwaukee beer is considered a food group. Much to the chagrin of native Milwaukeeans, I'm not a beer drinker. But when I can find a fruity beer, I'll usually give it a try. Salem Beer Works in Boston had a blueberry ale, and what made it tasty was the fresh blueberries floating in it!

6. Arancini from Galleria Umberto in Boston
I'm going to confess, I didn't know what arancini was before I visited Boston. But when I learned they were Sicilian fried rice balls, I had to have one. Usually made with risotto filled with meat sauce, mozzarella and peas, then coated in bread crumbs and deep fried, arancini are unique but oh-so-good. They're quite possibly the best part of the very limited menu at Galleria Umberto in the North End.

5. Pizza from Galleria Umberto in Boston
Galleria Umberto is truly a whole in the wall, but known for making the best pizza in Boston. And it truly is the best. They open at 11:00 a.m. every day and close when the pizza sells out, which is quickly. Bill and I went twice during our trip to Boston in May and the line was out the door on both visits. All they have on the menu is Sicilian-style pizza (cheese only - don't you dare ask for another topping), calzones and arancini, but the few things they do they do well.

4. Dole Whip from the Dole Pineapple Plantation (and other ice cream stands) in Honolulu
You haven't lived if you haven't had Dole Whip! I'm not kidding when I say that a trip to Hawaii is worth it for the Dole Whip alone. Think pineapple flavored soft serve. Mmmmm! It's so light and super duper refreshing. I'm sure I could find a recipe and attempt to make it, but I'm afraid it would ruin the memory.

3. Teriyaki Chicken from the Dole Pineapple Plantation in Honolulu
You wouldn't guess that the best meal we had in Hawaii came from the cafeteria at the Dole Pineapple Plantation. But hands down, those teriyaki grilled chicken cutlets, two scoops of rice, salad and fresh pineapple spears were to die for. I'd give just about anything to relive this meal.

2. Cannoli from Modern Pastry in Boston
You have no idea how much I wish I could teleport myself to Boston for cannoli from Modern Bakery every night. I have a special place in my heart for cannoli because my grandmother made them on special occasions, so I always get excited to have one. But too many have soggy shells and way-too-sweet filling. Modern makes their cannoli just like Nana did. And they're perfect.

1. Sourdough Bread from Boudin Bakery in San Francisco
So San Francisco isn't technically a vacation destination because I still consider it home. But given how infrequently I go (a couple times a year if I'm lucky), it sometimes feels more like a vacation. No matter what, I always fill up on Boudin sourdough. As far as I'm concerned, Boudin is the ONLY sourdough. It's the perfect balance of crusty and chewy and is good any way you want it - as a sandwich, as a bread bowl, with a salad, alongside pasta. After the Golden Gate Bridge and the Giants, Boudin is my favorite part of the city.

There are probably dozens of amazing foods I'm leaving off the list, but if these were the first to come to me I figured they must rank at the top. Now that I've made myself so hungry, I can't wait to hear about the best foods you've had on vacation :)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Do You Use Your Leftovers?

After munching on way too many Badger Bits at work today, I couldn't bring myself to make a big dinner. And when that happens, there's only one answer: leftovers.

Now as you might suspect (or know from experience), cooking for two yields A LOT of leftovers. When I can, I freeze them. But more often than not they just end up in the fridge ... for several days. And sometimes weeks. Who am I kidding? Usually they'll sit there until I'm forced to remove them to make room for something else. And yes, sometimes that "something else" is more leftovers.

This irritates me because I hate to waste anything, but most of all food. And that's probably the reason I save so many leftovers ... I convince myself that we're going to eat them. But since Bill is averse to leftovers (almost as strongly as he despises condiments), we rarely do.

So I'm looking for more opportunities to use our leftovers and I was proud of myself tonight for finding one. We had some amazing leftover ravioli filling from Sunday night's adventures, plus a loaf of French bread on the verge of stale. So I thought ... French bread pizzas! Thanks to my stellar pantry and fridge-stocking skills, I had a jar of pizza sauce and a bag of shredded mozzarella. Our pizzas ended up being delicious, and best of all, they won Bill's approval.

On another note, I may be attempting fresh pasta again sooner than I thought. After my semi-failure the other night, I happened to catch an episode of Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive Ins and Dives" where he visited an Italian restaurant in Nashville. I don't associate amazing Italian food with Nashville, but this hole-in-the-wall looked awesome! Guy featured their recipe for fettucini with vodka sauce and get this ... they roll their pasta out by hand! So it is possible! I found the recipe:

It's not very descriptive, so it's a good thing I actually saw the segment. I may give it a shot this weekend, so look forward to that.

In the meantime, I want to know whether your leftovers live in the fridge until they're able to walk out on their own or if you're good about using them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Buc-ee's Beaver Nuggets ... or Bucky's Badger Bits?

I realize that a post on Beaver Nuggets probably requires a fair amount of background information. So here's the story: In October, I made a trip to Houston for my good friend Taryn's wedding. The wedding was actually in Wharton, Texas, a very small town ... at least by my standards. The biggest attraction in Wharton, however, is a pretty big deal. It's Buc-ee's! I suppose Buc-ee's is what you'd call a convenience store, but it's unlike any convenience store you've ever been in. They've got everything at Buc-ee's: dozens of varieties of jerky, any snack food you could ever imagine, a huge deli, an amazing bakery, country home decor (on display in the restrooms, no less), clothes, pet supplies ... and Beaver Nuggets.

If you've never experienced a Beaver Nugget, you don't know what you're missing. The best way I can describe them is as caramel-coated corn pops. And it turns out that's pretty accurate!

I came back from Houston raving about Buc-ee's and Beaver Nuggets. My co-workers couldn't believe I hadn't brought a bag back for them, but we ended up solving that problem fairly quickly. Turns out one of my co-workers has a brother who lives in Texas. And after a series of texts with his wife, she produced a recipe! Behold ... the beloved Beaver Nuggets:

Beaver Nuggets
1 stick butter
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 bag Chesters (Yeah, I didn't know what Chester's were either. Turns out they're corn puffs found in the chip aisle ... and they're available from brands other than Chesters. I ended up using Jay's. I saw them in both butter and cheese varieties and ended up using butter, but if you can find plain that would be even better.)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two baking sheets. Place corn puffs in a large bowl.

In a saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar and corn syrup. Stir until sugar as dissolved. Bring to a boil, and boil for 4 minutes without stirring.

Remove from heat and add baking soda. Mixture will foam. Pour half of mixture over corn puffs and gently stir. Add remaining mixture and stir to coat. Spread corn puffs on baking sheets. (The corn puffs are somewhat fragile, so I had a tough time coating them with the sugar-syrup mixture. But it turns out that the mixture will continue to foam as it cooks in the oven, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to get them completely coated.)

Bake for 45 minutes total, stirring every 15 minutes and rotating sheets halfway through cooking time. Remove from oven, use a spatula to loosen nuggets from sheets, and allow to cool completely.

I think you need to have a Beaver Nugget to truly appreciate them. They're airy, but crunchy. Sweet, but a little bit salty. Yum!

My genius co-worker Jen (and with a name like that you should understand why she's a genius) suggested an alternate name for Beaver Nuggets, which I think we have a huge opportunity to capitalize on. Seeing as how we're in Wisconsin, where our mascot is Bucky the Badger, she's calling them Badger Bits. Brilliant! Different Bucky, same delicious snacks. I can see them being big ... and when they are, just remember that Badger Bits were born here!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Adventures in Ravioli Making

Let me start by saying that not every meal can be perfect. I've tried making homemade pasta on multiple occasions and I can never seem to get it quite right. First I tried the pasta maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer. That was a gooey, sticky mess. Both times. Then I tried gnocchi. They ended up overcooked and falling apart. So tonight I thought I'd attempt to hand-make ravioli. It wasn't a complete failure, but let's just say I learned some (more) lessons.

I went back to our trusty Mario Batali cookbook, which did me so well yesterday with the meatloaf. Tonight I was excited to use my new ravioli cutter, so I found an amazing-sounding recipe in the book (and made some minor adjustments because let's be real ... Mario calls for some pretty sophisticated ingredients sometimes). All of my lessons learned are incorporated below.

Ravioli with Chicken, Sausage and Goat Cheese
Pasta Ingredients:
3 1/2 cups flour
5 eggs

Filling Ingredients:
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 white onion, chopped
1/2 lb. ground chicken
1/2 lb. mild Italian sausage
3 tablespoons goat cheese
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Sauce Ingredients:
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby portabella mushrooms

To make the pasta, Mario says to mound the flour on a large cutting board and make a well in the center. Then, you're supposed to add all 5 eggs to the well and whisk them with a fork. Well, I thought a nice short cut would be to whisk the eggs a bit prior to adding them to the flour (because just tossing them in seemed like it would create a giant mess).

I proceeded to make a giant mess. Either my well wasn't deep enough or whisking the eggs was a bad idea, because it overflowed and I ended up with a puddle here, a puddle there. So I just got to work mixing in the flour. According to Mario, you should work in the flour and continuously shape the well until the dough starts to come together. I just kept mixing the mess until it began to come together.

Mario says it's very important to knead the pasta dough for 10 minutes to result in a silken texture. So, like I did with my bread dough, I set the kitchen timer and got to work. My arms were sore at the end, but the dough came together pretty well. I wrapped the dough in plastic and set it aside for 30 minutes.

To make the filling, melt the butter in a skillet and add the onion. Cook until very soft, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the chicken and sausage and cook until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

Put chicken-sausage mixture in food processor and pulse until mixture is fine, almost paste-like (I'd compare the texture to a coarse pate). Combine goat cheese, romano, marhoram, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add chicken-sausage mixture and stir until well-combined.

Now here comes the tricky part. To roll out the dough, you're supposed to feed it through a pasta machine. My Kicthen Aid pasta attachment doesn't have a sheet attachment, so I thought I could break out the old rolling pin. Now, you're supposed to roll the dough to about a 1/4-inch thickness BEFORE passing it through the machine. I got Bill's muscles in on the action and between the two of us, we probably came away with two sheets of dough that were about a 1/4-inch thick. And for the sake of our arms, we had to stop there.

This ravioli cutter I bought from Crate and Barrel wasn't as easy as I thought it would be either. It took a bit of strength to cut through the dough, but I'm not sure if the trouble was the tickness of the dough or the lack of sharpness of the cutter.

Technically, the recipe asks you to place teaspoonfuls of filling about a 1/2-inch apart on one sheet, top it with the other sheet and use a ravioli cutter to cut around the filling. Given the thickness of my dough, I wasn't so sure that was going to happen, so instead I cut through the single sheets, placed teaspoonfuls of dough on one dough slice, dampened the edges, topped it with another dough slice, and used a fork to seal the edges.

I dropped them in a pot of boiling water. Mario's ravioli take about 3 to 4 minutes to cook. I decided to judge their doneness by when they floated to the top of the pot. I'm not exactly sure how long that took, but it was certainly more than 3 to 4 minutes.

While the ravioli were boiling, I made the sauce. This part is super simple. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat, add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until soft. When the ravioli floated, I drained them and added them to the pan with the mushroom-butter sauce.

So the ravioli were a bit tough. No doubt this was because my dough wasn't rolled as it should have been. I've decided that I absolutely need to go out and get myself an old-fashioned pasta maker ... the kind with a crank handle. That will still be a workout, but I think the end result will be worth it.

Luckily, the ravioli filling was delish, as was the mushroom sauce. And actually, the pasta wasn't so bad if you split the ravioli and ate a single layer at a time. Still, I was disappointed that I didn't get homemade pasta right ... again.

Thank goodness we were able to end the meal on a high note because I had made espresso creme brulee again. And this time, I had butane for my torch! I used it to create a very tasty sugar crust, which definitely took the brulee up a notch. Plus, playing with fire was tons of fun :)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Meatloaf: No Ketchup Required

By now you know I have a thing for meatloaf because it's one of my favorite meals my mom used to make. Unfortunately, Bill has always claimed not to like it and so I've never made it myself. But I came to find out that Bill assumed all meatloaf was made with ketchup (and for those of you who know Bill, he has a major aversion to condiments of any kind). Well that wasn't the case with my mom's meatloaf and I knew I could make a version he would like.

In that infamous Mario Batali cookbook we use so often, I came across a recipe for stuffed meatloaf that sounded amazing. I tweaked the recipe a bit, so here's my take:

Stuffed Meatloaf
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground beef
2/3 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
1 2/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
3 eggs
Salt and pepper
5 ounces spinach
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into 4 pieces
3 thin slices prosciutto
Flour, for dusting
1 cup water
2 fresh thyme sprigs

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine pork, beef, cheese, breadcrumbs, eggs and salt and pepper to taste. Get your hands dirty and combine everything well. Set aside.

Boil a large pot of water. Dunk spinach into water, just long enough to wilt it. Remove to a small bowl. Add carrots to same pot, and boil for 10 minutes. When done, add to bowl with spinach and set aside.

Dust a clean surface with flour and press the meatloaf mixture into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Lay spinach on meat in an even layer, within about a 1/2-inch of edge. Lay prosciutto slices on top of spinach. Lay carrots on top of prosciutto. Starting from a short edge, tightly roll meatloaf, jellyroll-style. Press edges together to seal.

Place a rack in a roasting pan and pour water into pan. Place thyme sprigs under rack. Place meatloaf on rack. Bake 45 to 60 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

I have to say, for a first attempt and a pretty unique take on a classic, this was delish! It got a bit too brown on the outside and formed a drier, thicker crust than I would have liked, which leads me to believe I baked it a few minutes too long. (Although I also think I should have used a fattier beef - I picked sirloin, but something like ground round might have been a better choice.) On the inside, it was moist and tender and yummy! I really liked the addition of the spinach and carrots, but Bill wasn't a fan so I'll have to attempt an unstuffed version next time.

I matched my meatloaf up with mashed potatoes (of course!) and buttermilk biscuits. And here's a mashed potato trick I learned from Betty Crocker today: For garlic mashed potatoes, add 3 cloves of garlic to the pot while your potatoes are boiling, then just mash them along with the spuds when they're done!

While it's fresh in my mind, I'll add my buttermilk biscuits recipe, too. I actually got this recipe from my friend Irene, who sent it to me after seeing all of my cooking posts on facebook. I used to rarely take the time to make homemade biscuits, but this recipe has converted me! I make them ALL THE TIME because they're so good. They originally came from Taste of Home, but I like to call them ...

Irene's Famous Buttermilk Biscuits
2 cups flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup shortening
3/4 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (I used to do this with a fork, but on one of my recent Bed, Bath and Beyond shopping sprees I bought a pastry cutter. It's a good investment, trust me.)

Add buttermilk and stir until moistened and dough comes together. Turn out onto a floured surface and roll about 1/2-inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter, re-rolling scraps as necessary.

Baked on an ungreased baking sheet 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.

Once you try this recipe, you'll never make biscuits from a mix again. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Food Memories

Growing up, dinnertime was always the best time of day. In our house, a day didn't pass without all three of us sitting down to dinner together. And it wasn't a box of Hamburger Helper either. I'm not claiming that my mom was a master chef, but she's a damn good cook. I could rattle off dozens - maybe even hundreds - of meals my mom made that give me warm fuzzies now. But instead of doing that I'm going to try to pick my top 5 foods that bring back amazing memories.

5. Lasagna
My mom's lasagna isn't anything fancy - she doesn't even use ricotta cheese. It's nothing more than layers of her homemade meat sauce, noodles, mozzarella and parmesan. Kraft parmesan, at that. But there's something about this super simple recipe that is oh-so-good. I'm sure the magic is in the sauce. Or perhaps it's the way my dad always served it. If one of my friends was over for dinner, the 9x13-inch pan yieled an exact 4 servings. Very large servings.

4. Meatloaf
I've had a really intense craving for meatloaf lately, as you can probably tell from my multiple mentions of it. Part of this probably stems from my raging desire to prove to Bill that not all meatloaves (or is it meatloafs??) are created equal. He has this crazy notion that everyone bakes their meatloaf with ketchup on top, which is absolutely absurd to me. In fact, I didn't even know people did that until after I moved out of my parents' house. It's simply not a part of my mom's recipe. Her meatloaf is like a giant, plain meatball. Delicious.

3. Raisin Muffins
Admittedly, my mom's raisin muffins start with a base of Bisquick. As a rule, I limit my use of Bisquick because my baking skills are beyond that. But there is something so incredibly delicious about hot, flaky, raisin packed muffins (topped with melted margarine!) for breakfast. My mom made these on the weekends and I could have downed a whole pan. These are going on my to-do list on Saturday morning.

2. Italian Sausage and Fried Potatoes
You can probably see a trend developing - my mom's recipes are simple. So, no, she did not make her own Italian sausages. But this meal was one of my very favorites. She'd fry Italian sausages and serve them alongside VERY thinly sliced, pan-fried potatoes. They were just soft enough not to be chips, and just crispy enough to be chip-like. Hard to describe, but worth being recreated. Another memory that stands out about this meal: Italian sausage night equaled filet of sole night for my dad. I'm not sure what he had against sausage, but my mom and I definitely had something against fish.

1. Meatballs
I already waxed poetic about my mom's meatballs in Monday's post. But that's exactly what makes them my number one food memory. I can taste them just thinking about them. It's a recipe that came from my grandmother that everyone in my family has tried desperately to recreate. But my mom has been the only one successful. And I'm getting pretty close!

I'd include all of the recipes for the things listed above, but they don't actually exist in writing (well, maybe the raisin muffins do, but we'd have to check the back of a box of Bisquick!). That's the beauty of most of these dishes - they're the meals my mom made so often there was no recipe required!

As many of my friends can attest to, my mom always put on quite a spread ... and that wasn't just for company, it was an everyday occurrence! If you've ever wondered why I cook for an army when I host a dinner party for four, there's your answer.

One of the reasons making delicious, home-cooked meals is so important to me now is because Bill doesn't have these same kind of family food memories. I tease him that he had Cheez Whiz and Ritz Crackers for dinner as a kid, but he claims it was more like Hungry Man and Stouffer's :) I'm trying to make up for all of those frozen lasagnas now, so that dinner is more than just another meal.

I have so many more food memories to share. In fact, I should probably dedicate a post to my grandmother's recipes, as well! But in the meantime, I want to hear your food stories!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gimme Mo' Risotto

I was so excited by my success with risotto last week that I decided to give it another go tonight. Have you ever made an awesome meal, attempted it again and completely failed in replicating it's awesomeness? Yeah, that didn't happen to me tonight. If anything, this risotto was even better!

I concocted my own version of last week's recipe tonight. Let's call it "3 P Risotto." (Disclosure: most of the ingredient measurements are estimated. I eyeballed the majority of this recipe.)

Risotto with Prosciutto, Portabellas and Peas (3 P Risotto)
2 cups chicken broth
2/3 cup Arborio rice
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Dash salt
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup white wine
3 thing slices prosciutto, cut into strips
1 cup baby portabella mushroom, sliced
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Bring chicken broth to a simmer in a small saucepan. Reduce heat to low, cover and keep warm.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add onion and salt and sautee until soft, about 5 minutes. Add risotto and cook, stirring often, until edges of rice become translucent. Add wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has been completely absorbed.

Add 1 cup chicken broth to risotto and cook, stirring occassionally, until liquid has been almost completely absorbed. Add additional chicken broth, one ladle at a time, stirring and simmering after each addition. Simmer until risotto is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in another skillet. Add prosciutto and cook until slightly crispy. Add mushrooms and cook until soft.

Remove risotto from heat and quickly stir in remaining tablespoon butter and parmesan cheese. Gently fold in prosciutto, mushrooms and peas. Return to heat, cover and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes.

I seriously don't understand why I haven't been making risotto forever. Honestly, once you get the basic preparation down, the possibilities are endless. You can add just about any veggie or protein and have a practically gourmet meal in just half an hour.

Speaking of gourmet meals, you have to watch this video. Now, you all know that I LOVE my dogs, but filet mignon? Come on.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To Whet Your Appetite

I'm feeling guilty about the lack of substance (and a recipe) in tonight's earlier post, so I thought I'd give you a preview of the good stuff to come in the next week or so. Hopefully this will entice you, and I'll be able to keep the few followers I have :)

Here are a few of the posts you can look forward to:
- A recipe for Badger Bits (you're just going to have to read it)
- A new take on one of my favorite "mom" recipes: Meatloaf
- Adventures in ravioli making
- A rundown of my newest cooking gadgets, including the cupcake plunger!
- Lessons in the food torch (this could be both frightening and exciting)
- A reflection on food memories (which I hope will draw lots of comments about your own!)
- My thoughts on recipes from the backs of boxes
- And maybe, if I'm really inspired, an actual deconstructed dish (instead of just my musings about what a cool concept it is)

Does any of that make you hungry??

Food as Therapy

I didn't cook tonight because Bill already had dinner started when I got home from work. That gesture was much appreciated, seeing as how I'm not fighting this cold very successfully. But he asked me if I was jealous that I didn't get to cook tonight and I had to think about it ... I said I wasn't but truth be told, I kind of am.

That's because cooking dinner is something I look forward to every night. It's the perfect way for me to unwind and end my day. It's almost therapuetic. Some people want to collapse in front of the TV, I want to hang out in the kitchen. Call me crazy, but there's something about it that relaxes me.

I understand that getting dinner on the table is a source of stress for a lot of people. I just feel fortunate not to be one of those people. I think it's because my approach to cooking is different. It's not about checking a meal off the list for the day. It's about having fun creating something delicious and then being lucky enough to consume it! Plus, there's the fact that nothing makes me happier than seeing Bill clear his plate :) He's a notoriously picky eater, so there's something super gratifying about seeing him enjoy a meal I cooked.

Oh, and if you're curious, Bill made another pot of Mario's basic tomato sauce tonight ... and served it with bucatini. If you haven't had bucatini, you should. It's quite possibly our new favorite type of pasta. It's essentially like spaghetti tubes (think straws through which you can slurp the sauce!). It's a mess to eat, but so yummy!

Monday, January 10, 2011

You're the sauce on my spaghetti...and meatballs

Bill has a little bit of a man crush on Mario Batali right now, so I bought him a set of Mario's cookbooks for Christmas. In addition to that, he downloaded a Mario Batali cooking app for his iPad. This has been one of the best things that ever happened to me because it means that Bill cooks dinner sometimes (as much as I love to cook, I do occasionally need a break).

One of Bill's favorite things to make is Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce (probably because it's the easiest dish ever, and still really delicious). Another of Mario's recipes we've wanted to try, which happens to involve his basic tomato sauce, is meatballs. Mario's meatball recipe intrigued me because it sounds so much like my mom's - light and soft instead of dense and hard.

There are two things about Mario's (and mom's) recipe that help achieve this:

1. The use of fresh, homemade bread crumbs
2. Cooking them in the sauce without frying them first (essentially, poaching them)

Now these meatballs aren't for everyone. If you're used to restaurant-style meatballs, there's a good chance you won't like them at all. Your typical restaurant meatball uses a very different proportion of meat to breadcrumbs, which gives them a completely different texture and taste. To me, most restaurant meatballs taste like balls of sausage - not at all what I grew up with.

These meatballs are soft, almost doughy, if that makes sense. You're using stale bread soaked in milk instead of your usual dry breadcrumbs, which contributes to that doughy-ness. Also, by skipping the pan-frying, you're not forming a crust on the meatballs.

Personally, I love this style of meatball because it's exactly what my mom and my grandmother made (give or take an ingredient or two). Bill still prefers a more dense meatball, but I think he's coming around. I'll let you decide for yourself!

Basic Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh thyme (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand (Mario insists on San Marzano - which is both a brand and a type of tomato - but I honestly can't tell the difference between these and other tomatoes)
1 carrot, finely grated (Which is technically optional. The carrot's not needed if your tomatoes are sweet enough.)

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more. Add tomatoes and juice. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Seriously. It's that easy.

3 cups basic tomato sauce
3 cups homemade bread crumbs
2 cups milk
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
Black pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

In a large skillet, bring tomato sauce to a fast simmer.

Put breadcrumbs in a medium bowl and pour the milk over them. (I used the leftover bread from the Italian loaves I baked last weekend. In my experience, the more stale the bread, the better. Too-soft breadcrumbs will lead to very crumbly meatballs.) Set aside.

In the bowl of a countertop mixer fitted with a paddle or dough hook, combine the beef and eggs. Grate garlic over the bowl with a microplane. Add cheese, pepper and salt. Mix briefly to just combine.

Add milk-soaked breadcrumbs to the meat mixture and mix for about 1 minute until it comes together, but still has some texture and moisture. Form the mixture into balls. Gently add the meatballs to the sauce and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook 25 to 30 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.

One thing to note before you attempt these meatballs: I was very worried about the consistency of my raw meatballs because they were extremely fragile. But apparently that's the way it should be. When they're cooked through, they will firm up slightly. In fact, they turned out to be exactly the right texture. Mario described the mixture he started with as "mousse-like," so keep that in mind. I think they key is not messing with the meatballs once you get them in the sauce. Let them simmer and poach until cooked through, turning once at the most. They're not meant to be tossed around because they're sure to fall apart!

I'll be interested to hear if you like your meatballs like my mom's!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Layers of Flavor

I'm not feeling so hot today. So while I had huge aspirations of making Mario Batali's meatballs and giving that espresso creme brulee another shot (I finally got the butane!), it's not going to happen. Instead, I'm going to share an amazing recipe my good friend Sue brought over on Friday night: ice cream layer cake.

It's originally a Rachael Ray recipe, which Sue doctored up to use some of our favorite flavors. And I can think of many more combinations that would be just as heavenly! This cake is super simple because because most of its components are ready-made and store-bought. Although I'd love to use homemade ice cream, which would give it an even richer, creamier texture. I'll add that to my ever-growing list of things to make.

Ice Cream Layer Cake
1 cup heavy cream
1 (12 oz.) package semisweet chocolate chips
1 marble pound cake, cut into half-inch thick slices (Sue used chocolate pound cake)
1 pint vanilla ice cream, softened (Sue used peanut butter ice cream)
20 chocolate wafers, plus 4 crushed wafers (Sue used vanilla wafers)
1 pint chocolate ice cream, softened (Sue used peanut butter again)

In a small saucepan, bring heavy cream to a boil over medium-high heat. Put the chocolate chips in a heat-proof medium bowl and pour the boiling cream over them. Let sit until the chocolate is melted, about 2 minutes. Stir the mixture with a fork about 2 minutes, until ganache is smooth.

Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing a 4-inch overhang on all sides.

Pour half of ganache into lined pan and spread to evenly cover the base. Cover ganache with a layer of tightly packed cake slices. Spread vanilla ice cream over pound cake. Cover ice cream with half of wafers. Spread remaining ganache over wafers. Top ganache with remaining wafers. (At this point the recipe says you should freeze the cake for 30 minutes to let it firm up, but if you can work quickly enough you can forge ahead. Just don't be a slow poke - you don't want that first layer of ice cream to completely melt.)

Spread chocolate ice cream over wafers. Top with another single, tightly-packed layer of cake slices. Trim a few slices to fill in all the gaps. Cover cake completely with overhanging plastic wrap and freeze at least 5 hours or overnight.

To loosen the cake from the pan, open the plastic wrap and invert onto a flat serving platter. Remove the plastic wrap. Top cake with crushed wafers before serving.

In Rachael's sort of irritating words, it was "Yum-o!" Sue's choice of peanut butter over vanilla and chocolate ice creams was right on because there's really nothing better than the combination of chocolate and peanut butter. But next time I want to use mint ice cream! I also think strawberry (for a sort of chocolate-covered strawberry effect) would be delicious. Imagine sliced fresh strawberries served on top! Perhaps when I have a slice after dinner tonight I'll post a picture for you to drool over :)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Dishes: Deconstructed

You know what's a fascinating concept? Deconstructed dishes. It seems to be an outrageously hot food trend right now, though I haven't experienced it personally. I was recently watching an episode of "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network and they featured classic dishes with a new twist. Ted Allen chose a deconstructed eggs benedict as the best "classic" dish he'd ever eaten, and it got me thinking that this is something I should try.

A deconstructed dish is simply a traditional recipe that has been deconstructed into its component parts. So in Ted's eggs benedict example, it was a (very) unique twist on eggs, bacon, an English muffin and hollandaise. They weren't layed as the traditional recipe calls for, but instead were individual elements on the plate. Usually deconstructed dishes get kind of artsy fartsy. In this case, the chef had made the hollandaise into some sort of gelatinous, tofu-looking blocks, dipped them in English muffin crumbs and deep fried them. It was actually genius.

Now I'm not too artsy fartsy, but this kind of sounds like fun. However, I haven't been inspired yet by a dish I'd like to deconstruct. Any ideas for me?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Loca for Saltimbocca!

The chicken Saltimbocca and pan-roasted lemon potatoes I made for dinner last night were downright yum-inspiring. Typically, Saltimbocca involves chicken cutlets topped with sage and prosciutto. Simple and delicious, but sage is one of those herbs that can be a bit overwhelming. I'm not a huge sage fanatic unless it's in Thanksgiving stuffing, so I didn't go quite so deep off the sage end in this recipe. I'll give it to you in its entirety, and add my omissions (ha!) in parentheses.

Chicken Saltimbocca
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken cutlets
2 teaspoons minced fresh sage
4 whole sage leaves
4 thin slices of prosciutto
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1/3 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons parsley
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Spread 1/4 cup flour in a shallow dish. Pat the cutlets dry with a paper towel and season with pepper. Dredge cutlets in flour and lay flat on a cutting board. Sprinkle minced sage (I didn't use fresh, I used dried) over the cutlets, top each with a piece of prosciutto, and press to adhere the ham to the chicken.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the whole sage leaves (this step is actually optional in the recipe and I skipped it ... even America's Test Kitchen acknowledges that sage can be overpowering!) and cook until the leaves begin to change color and are fragrant, 15 to 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sage leaves to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

Carefully lay the cutlets in the skillet, prosciutto-side down, and cook until lightly browned on first side, about 2 minutes. Flip the cutlets and continue to cook until no longer pink, about 1 minute longer.

Add shallot to skillet and cook until softened, about 2 to 3 minutes. stir in remaining flour.Whisk in broth and vermouth, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened and reduced to about 1/3 cup, 3 to 5 minutes.

Return the cutlets to the skillet, prosciutto-side up, and simmer until heated through, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate.

Off the heat, whisk butter, parsley and lemon juice into the skillet. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon over cutlets and garnish with fried sage leaves.

When it comes to the chicken cutlets this recipe calls for (yes, Jersey Shore-style!), you might have varying luck finding them. At my grocery store, it's kind of hit or miss. I didn't get lucky the other day, so I bought breasts and made my own cutlets. Just slice them in half horizontally (this is even easier if you put them in the freezer for a few minutes first), then use a meat mallet to pound them to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness.

As for the potatoes, I discovered a new way of making crispy red potatoes that I'm a huge fan of (but the recipe needs a couple minor adjustments to make them perfect). Read the directions and let me know if you've ever thought of cooking potatoes this way!

Pan-Roasted Lemon Potatoes
4 to 6 small red potatoes, halved
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon parsley

Bring the potatoes, broth, lemon juice, smashed garlic clove and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a simmer in a non-stick skillet over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook until potatoes are just tender, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Uncover, increase the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic clove and add the oil to the pan. Arrange all the potatoes cut-side down and continue to cook until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes longer.

Transfer the potatoes to a bowl and gently toss with the lemon zest, minced garlic and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention to the heat, but my potatoes were just a tiny bit overdone and I think that made it more difficult for them to brown in the final stages of cooking. I simmered them for 12 minutes, but 10 may have been better. They were amazingly delicious, so I'll be playing with the cooking time to make them perfect!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Bread is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

So I made a pretty amazing meal tonight (one Bill liked even better than last night's risotto), but I'm not going to write about it until tomorrow. Because it sounded like more fun to go bananas.

You might already know that I make banana bread. A lot. I have a go-to recipe (from Betty Crocker's Big Red Cookbook), but I've branched out recently. A few weeks ago I made Jamaican banana bread, which involved rum and coconut and was to-die-for. So I thought for sure that the Bananas Foster bread recipe I came across would be similarly amazing. Both came from Cooking Light and both involved alcohol which, given most people's New Year's  resolution of slimming down and my resolution of drinking more, seemed like a perfect combination.

In theory. Bananas Foster bread should be rich and delicious. But where I'm usually impressed by Cooking Light's ability to make "light" recipes taste rich and delicious, this one fell a little short. (Although my substitutions could have been partly to blame.) Observations are in the recipe:

Bananas Foster Bread
1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas
1 cup packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted and divided
1/4 cup cognac or dark rum (I used Grand Marnier)
1/3 cup plain fat free yogurt (see my note in the directions)
1 large eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup ground flaxseed (another note in the directions)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/3 cup confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine banana, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 5 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons cognac in a nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat until mixture begins to bubble. Remove from heat and cool. (BTW, it's almost worth it to stop right here. Just break out some vanilla ice cream and go to town!)

When cool, place banana mixture in a large bowl. Add the yogurt (note: I used buttermilk as a substitute, which may have contributed to the slightly drier-than-desirable or less rich consistency when the bread was done), remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar and eggs. Beat at medium speed until well-combined.

Combine flour and next 5 ingredients (through allspice) in another bowl. (Note: I generally don't have flaxseed on hand, but Cooking Light often calls for it and I substitute whole wheat flour. Because it's grainy, it has a somewhat similar consistency.) Add flour mixture to banana mixture and beat until just blended. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour (that's just under 50 minutes in my oven), until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes in pan. Remove from pan and place on wire rack.

Combine remaining tablespoon melted butter, remaining tablespoon cognac and confectioner's sugar. Stir until well-blended. Drizzle over warm bread.

The bread was perfectly good, just not as good as my stand-by and not as outrageous as the Jamaican banana bread. Perhaps my hopes were too high because I L-O-V-E Bananas Foster. I can tell you one thing that would make this more delicious, though: turning that drizzle into frosting!

I say up the butter and confectioner's sugar (and, yeah, maybe the cognac, too) to make a traditional buttercream, and spread that atop the bread. Yum! I realize I'm turning this "light" bread into a "not-so-light" cake by doing that, but who cares? There's no diet in my resolution!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Oh no, Risotto!

I was going to start this post my saying risotto is hard to make. But it turns out it's not! Just like working with yeast, it simply requires a ton of patience.

I like risotto, but I'd never say I love it. That's mostly because every time I've ordered it, it's turned out to be ... gooey. In my head, risotto should be light and fluffy and delicious. But more often than not, the risotto I've experienced has been sticky and heavy and just kind of "eh." I came across a recipe in my "America's Test Kitchen: Cooking for Two" cookbook yesterday, and decided to give it a go because the picture looked so yummy.

Here's the recipe, with commentary included, followed by a couple notes ... and dessert!

Risotto with Chicken and Artichokes
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 (9 oz.) package frozen artichoke hearts
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 white onion, chopped fine
2/3 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 ounce parmesan cheese

Thaw artichoke hearts by microwaving them, covered, for about 3 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels.

Heat 2 tablespoons oilve oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add artichoke hearts and cook until lightly browned, about 4 or 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Pat the chicken breasts dry with a paper towel and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet and carefully add the chicken. Cook until well-browned on one side, about 6 to 8 minutes. Flip the chicken over, and add the broth and water. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover. Cook about 6 to 8 minutes, until the chicken is done. (This is a partial poaching method I'd never tried before, but I liked it. The chicken ends up still having crispy bits because it was browned prior to finishing it off with a poach ... yum!)

Remove the chicken to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, shred into bite-sized pieces (the easiest way to do this is to pull it apart with two forks). Transfer the cooking broth to a saucepan, bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and cover. This will be your cooking liquid for the risotto.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in the skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a little salt. Cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring often, until the kernels are transparent around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook until it has been completely absorbed, about 2 minutes.

Stir in one cup of the reserved broth and continue to simmer, stirring often, until the liquid is absorbed and the bottom of the pan is almost dry, about 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in a half cup more broth at a time, every few minutes, to keep the pan from drying out. Cook until rice is al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes. (If you don't set timers - and I didn't - you'll lose track of time. Just taste it and when it's a consistency you like, it's ready.)

Off the heat, quickly stir in the remaining butter and parmesan. Gently fold in the arichokes and chicken. Heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Now, there are a couple things about this recipe that gave me pause: first, 2/3 cup rice didn't seem like much, and second, the recipe said you should add additional broth to the liquid used to poach the chicken breasts, but then noted that you might not need to use all of the liquid. It turns out that risotto expands so much that 2/3 cup was perfect for two servings. However, that extra broth wasn't necessary. My risotto turned out to be the perfect consistency, and I had plenty of cooking liquid leftover that wasn't used.

I'm sure where most people go wrong with risotto is in making it too quickly, or not getting the proportions quite right. It was well worth it to take my time, add just a little liquid at a time, and just watch it very carefully.

So, I promised you dessert! Espresso creme brulee sounded like a nice way to cap off this meal. I chose it because I discovered a creme brulee torch in the back of one of my kitchen cabinets the other day. I'm not a huge creme brulee fan because I can think of so many other more delicious things to eat for dessert, but I figured I should try out that torch.

Espresso Creme Brulee
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch salt
3 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso granules
1 tablespoon sugar (supposedly turbinado sugar, but granulated can be substituted)

Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Bring a full kettle of water to a boil. Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of a metal baking pan. (It has to be metal because you'll pour the boiling water into it - a glass pan may crack.) Set two 6-ounce ramekins on the towel. (BTW, I never discovered the reason for the towel ... but America's Test Kitchen knows what they're talking about, so do it anyway.)

Combine half a cup of the cream, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the remaining half cup cream.

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl with vanilla and espresso granules. Slowly whisk in half of the cream mixture. (You have to add the cream to the eggs and not the other way around because adding the eggs to the hot pan will most likely end up in scrambled eggs - not so good in creme brulee. And this slowly adding the cream to the eggs is something the pros call tempering, but I'm sure you've seen it on the Food Network, so I won't waste my time.) Add the remaining cream and whisk until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer (this is more necessary if you used a real vanilla bean with seeds rather than vanilla extract, but I did catch a couple loose espresso granules and I swear it made a difference in the consistency of the custards when thye set). Pour the custard into the ramekins.

Transfer the baking pan to the oven and carefully pour enough boiling water into the pan to reach half way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake about 30 minutes, until the centers of the custards are just barely set. Remove from oven, remove ramekins from pan, and allow to cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, remove ramekins from refrigerator, remove plastic and carefully blot the tops of the custards with a paper towel. Sprinkle evenly with a thin layer of sugar.

Now here's the part that's supposed to be fun because you're going to light them up with a torch ... but it turns out my torch didn't come with any butane gas, rendering it useless. Stupidly, we tried to use a lighter, but that just resulted in a blackened corner on one of the custards. So we just ate them as is and oh ... my ... god. They were samazing, even without the brulee! Rich and creamy and espresso-y. Yum! Yum! Yum!

Seriously, hands down, the best creme brulee I've ever had. I'll tell you what I told Vito and Lola .. "I'm not bragging, I'm just telling the truth." They believed me, so you should, too.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Say Yes to Yeast!

Growing up in an Italian family, there was one thing I could always count on: bread would be present at every meal. And because of that, I love it. Which is why I've always been so frustrated by how hard it is to make.

It's not that my family put homemade bread on the table, it's just that I've had some of the best (read: Boudin) and I want to be able to recreate it! So I set out this weekend to conquer my fear of yeast. I've attempted bread-making many times before, but never with the vigor I exhibited this weekend. I was determined to finally get it right.

In homage to my Italian roots, I took on Sicilian pizza crust yesterday and Italian loaves today. I learned a few lessons that are probably worth sharing before I get to the recipes:

1. Read the directions. Very carefully.
2. Have patience. And a lot of it.

As far as I can tell, my biggest obstacle to bread success in the past has been that I rushed through the recipes, anxious to get to the end result. But now I know that taking your time is so worth it.

Working with yeast is tricky, mostly because it's super temperature-sensitive. But recipes don't lie (usually), so following them very closely should yield good results.

In both recipes, I was careful to dissolve my yeast in water between 110 and 115 degrees for at least 5 minutes. I was also careful about my kneading. This seems to be important to creating the right texture or elasticity, so I actually set a timer while I was kneading. No doubt without the timer I would have given up way too soon - kneading bread dough is hard work!

Allowing the bread to rise is also super important, but this is probably where I went wrong most often in the past. Bread dough needs to rise in a warm place, but how do you create an 80-degree environment for your bread to bask in for a few hours? This is especially difficult when it's winter and the thermostat in the house is set at 66. I discovered that heating the oven to a low temperature - about 250 or 300 degrees - will warm the stovetop to just about the perfect temp. I set the bowl on top of the oven and like magic, my dough rose to the occasion! (Just make sure someone doesn't come along and turn the oven off when they discover nothing's inside. Bill almost did that and I almost throttled him.)

Sicilian Pizza Crust
1 packet (1/4 oz.) Active Dry Yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
2 3/4 cups flour, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Stir yeast and water together in a small bowl. Let stands 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together 2.5 cups flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the center and add yeast mixture and olive oil. Stir until dough comes together and forms a ball. Turn out onto a well-floured surface (that's where the extra 1/4 cup flour comes in) and knead for 5 minutes (that's where the kitchen timer comes in). Shape into a disk and place in a large bowl coated lightly with oil (I used cooking spray). Turn disk once and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Allow to rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Remove dough from bowl and punch down. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Spray a 15x10-inch baking pan (a standard cookie sheet works) with cooking spray. Roll dough into a rectabgle, transfer to pan and press into corners.

Top with desired toppings. (I used homemade marinara, very thinly sliced onions and bell peppers, mushrooms and cheddar and mozzarella.) Bake on the center rack for 18 to 20 minutes. Or, if you have a tempermental oven like mine, check on it after about 12 or 13 minutes. I had at least 5 minutes left on the timer when I pulled my pizza out, and I probably left it in a minute or so too long. The crust should be just golden.

Italian Loaves
2 packages (1/2 oz.) Active Dry Yeast
1/2 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons shortening
1 egg
8 or 9 cups flour, plus extra for kneading

Stir yeast and water together in a small bowl. Let stand 5 minutes.

Combine sugar, salt, shortening, egg and 4 cups flour in a large bowl. Add yeast mixture and beat until smooth. Add remaining 4 or 5 cups flour, one cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. The dough should begin to form a ball. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 6 to 8 minutes (again, set the kitchen timer).

Place dough in a large oiled bowl, turning once to coat. Cover (this time I used a towel instead of plastic wrap because the dough was much bigger and I knew it would be rising over the top of the bowl) and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Punch dough down, remove from bowl and divide in half. Shape into loaves and place each loaf on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Allow loaves to rise for another hour.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 37 to 42 minutes (or 35 minutes in my oven), or until crust is golden. Remove from oven and place on wire racks. Brush tops of loaves with melted butter.

You'll notice that the directions in both of these recipes are essentially the same. They both allow the yeast to activate before it's added to any other ingredients, they both require a good amount of kneading, they both need ample time to rise. It seems to me that yeast is pretty predictable, so the more you work with it, the easier it probably gets.

One last quick note ... I mixed the pizza crust by hand and I used my KitchenAid stand mixer for the Italian loaves. As much as I love my mixer, I think I'll stick to mixing by hand. It's easier to tell when the dough has reached the right consistency.

I was super impressed with the results of both of my recipes, as was my live-in taste-tester, Bill. In fact, after 3 slices of the pizza, he declared we could "sell it out of a truck." And my Italian loaves earned a "beautiful," which is the first time I've ever heard Bill describe food like that.

This is just the beginning of my bread-making. Wait until I try sourdough :) Enjoy!


Welcome to LoV Bites! Chances are, if you're following me now you're one of my very loyal friends who has so often "liked" my posts on facebook about what I made for dinner. And for that, I want to give you a great big THANKS because it's encouraged me to cook on. This blog is going to take my status updates to the max, with more of my recipes, the stories behind them and (finally!) pictures of what I place on the table.

For the record, beginning a cooking blog wasn't my idea. I owe all of the credit to my super good friend, Michelle, who was the first to make the suggestion. I have to admit that the idea intimidated me at first. In a lot of ways, starting a blog is like opening a restaurant: a lot of people think they can pull it off, hundreds of thousands sprout up every year, and only a few are successful. I'm not claiming that LoV Bites is going to be successful, but at the very least I figure it will give me a new place to post my meals, another way to make notes on my recipes, and a fun way to catalog the very delicious year ahead of us!

My first food post will come very soon. Enjoy!