Monday, March 28, 2011

We Be (Strawberry) Jammin'

When I started my recipe wishlist, homemade jam didn't come to mind. But when I had quickly ripening pints of strawberries sitting in the fridge it sure did! I was under the impression that jam was hard because it involved preserving ... but it turns out there's a bit of a difference between preserves and jam (and even jelly, for that matter). Or at least that's the way I interpreted Ina Garten's Fresh Strawberry Jam recipe.

Most jellies and jams involve pectin, a powder used as a gelling or thickening agent. Ina's recipe is sans-pectin, leaving you with just a few simple ingredients. I initially thought that pectin was also an ingredient that preserved the jam, but my Wikipedia research seems to say that the preservation of jams and jellies has more to do with the method (i.e. canning) than the ingredients.

So while Ina proved me wrong in the degree of difficulty for fresh jam, I'm still convinced that canning - or preserving foods for later use - is tough. The process of sterilizing the jars for this recipe was a good amount of work itself! Tips on sterilizing follow the recipe.

Fresh Strawberry Jam
2 cups sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 1/2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled and halved

Combine the sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over very low heat for 10 minutes, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the strawberries and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes, until the strawberries release some of their juices and the mixture boils slowly. Cook until a small amount of the juice gels on a very cold plate (keep one in the freezer). Pour carefully into 2 pint canning jars. Refrigerate and use immediately.

Sterilizing Jars:
Jars should be made of glass and free of any chips or cracks. To sterilize jars, wash them with hot, soapy water. Rinse well, then boil in a large saucepan, covered with water, for 15 minutes.

Use tongs when handling hot sterilized jars to remove them from the boiling water. As a rule, hot preserves go into hot jars and cold preserves go into cold jars.

After I jarred my jam, I wasn't entirely convinced that I had been successful because it didn't seem to gel or set up. But then I realized two things: 1) I was making jam, not jelly, so it was bound to be runnier (especially without using pectin), and 2) Even my store-bought jams are a little runny ... probably because they're not jelly!

So once I got over that, I determined that I'd had a pretty successful attempt at jam! It's sweet and delicious, and it's just begging me to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Or bake some biscuits. Or even make some jam thumbprint cookies.

Incidentally, pectin is also used in making jellybeans, which gives me an idea ... :)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nanaimo, Oh My!

Until I came across the recipe in my most recent Taste of Home magazine that came in the mail, I had never heard of Nanaimo Bars. But apparently they're Canadian, eh? At least that's what the recipe description said.

According to Wikipedia (which is a quick, if not trustworthy, source whenever I need to know the origin of a food), the Nanaimo Bar comes from the west coast city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, and is popular in North America. Typically, it has a crumb layer, a butter icing layer, and a chocolate layer. Sounds yummy, right? They seem to be especially popular in New York City and also appear on Australian menus! So I'm dedicating this recipe to my Aussie chef boyfriend, Curtis Stone :)

Nanaimo Bars
For Crust:
1 cup butter
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 cups shredded coconut

For Filling:
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups confectioners' sugar

For Topping:
8 oz. semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon butter

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter, chocolate and sugar. Stir until well-blended and sugar is completely dissolved. Add a small amount of chocolate mixture to beaten eggs and whisk. Add entire egg mixture to chocolate mixture, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Combine graham crackers and coconut. Pour chocolate mixture over graham cracker-coconut mixture and stir to combine. Press into an even layer in the bottom of a greased 9x11-inch pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until set.

Beat butter, milk and vanilla pudding mix. Slowly beat in confectioners' sugar until well-combined. Spread over crust in an even layer.

Melt chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl, stirring every 20 or 30 seconds until smooth. Drizzle over icing layer. Refrigerate and serve.

The one problem I had (which I have often) is melting the chocolate for the drizzle in the microwave. I'm not sure what my problem is, but I always end up with a strange consistency. This time I think I just nuked the chocolate a bit too long, so I nixed the drizzle and grated dark chocolate over the bars instead ... which was probably a good move because these bars were oh-so-sweet!

Don't get me wrong, they were outrageously delicious, but I think my teeth hurt a little bit. A layer of ganache on top of the chocolate-y, coconut-y crumb crust and uber-sweet vanilla butter icing might have been taking it a bit too far. Nonetheless, I'm really happy with how they turned out and I'll be having one for breakfast :)

Tequila! Carnitas

There's a taco bar at the Milwaukee Public Market that Bill and I love called Margarita Paradise (and yes, they have amazing margaritas, too!). Between the two of us, we could probably easily put away a dozen tacos in a sitting. They're just that good! Their pork tacos are without a doubt the best I've ever had, and I'll probably spend the rest of my days trying to recreate them. Luckily, my first attempt went pretty well!

While it's nowhere near an exact duplication, my version of pork tacos is of the tequila-marinated variety. (Seriously, can you go wrong with tequila anything?? Because to me, tequila + tacos = paradise!)

Tequila Carnitas Tacos
2-3 lb. pork tenderloin
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup tequila
A variety of hard and soft taco shells
Salsa and sour cream for serving

Place onion, garlic and chipotle chiles in slow cooker. Cut pork tenderloin in half and place in slow cooker. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil. Add chicken broth and tequila. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, turning meat once or twice.

Remove meat from slow cooker and shred with two forks. Return meat to slow cooker and heat through. Serve in hard or soft corn shells, top with salsa and sour cream as desired.

It really is as easy as it sounds. The meat ended up being super flavorful, but it actually could have used a bit more heat. I'd recommend adding one or two more chipotle chiles, which would kick it up a notch. And if you're like Bill and could stand for it to be extra spicy, you might even add a dash of chili powder.

The pork tenderloin I used happened to be living in my freezer, and I imagine that contributed to the slight dryness of the meat. Fresh pork would have been more tender and juicy, but don't let that stop you from using what you have on hand in the freezer.

All in all, a tasty dinner! Definitely worth a repeat performance, and soon!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Swoon for Macaroons!

I have to apologize for my lack of posts lately. I took a little hiatus in Vegas for my birthday, but while I was there I had some delicious food! I wish I could recount the whole weekend for you, but we don't have all night. Instead I'll just tell you about one of my favorites.

I love the Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." And several weeks ago when I saw an episode where Wolfgang Puck described coffee macarons from Payard Patisserie & Bistro in Caesar's Palace, I immediately called Nicole and told her we had to go there to try them. You can watch the segment yourself to see why I was so tempted.

We had brunch at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill on Sunday (my birthday!) which is also in Caesar's, so we found Payard afterward. Clearly the macarons are popular because there were only two packages left behind the counter. So Nicole and I waited in a very slow-moving line behind some non-English speaking tourists, eyeing those two packages. And the tourists bought them. Just our luck. I asked if there were more and was told they wouldn't be ready until 3:00 or 4:00. Unfortunately, Nicole was leaving that afternoon so she was going to miss out. But I went back the next day and struck gold.

Payard has several varieties of macarons, only one or two of which they seem to offer on any given day. The day Nicole and I went they only had regular French macarons, but I was specifically hoping for the coffee variety Wolfgang had talked about. And what did I find when I went back on Monday? Coffee macarons! It's like it was meant to be.

There were a few people in line ahead of me again, so I kept my fingers crossed and hoped for the best. Luckily, no one else noticed them. The good news is that they were just as amazing as Wolfgang made them out to be. The bad news is that I only ate one and saved the rest for later, and ended up squashing them in my purse. So I now have two flattened macarons left over that are just as delicious, but not nearly as pretty.

In case you're wondering, these are nothing like traditional macaroons (which is why they're French macarons, with just one "o"). Don't get me wrong, I love coconut macaroons. But where those are dense and sticky (and best when dipped in chocolate!), French macarons are light and airy with a creamy filling.

When I first saw Wolfgang's segment, I wondered why he was talking about coffee macarons on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Nutty" because there didn't seem to be anything nutty about them. But then I learned that French macarons are made with almond flour, hence the nuttiness. I have no idea where I'm going to find almond flour, but I need to do so stat so I can try my hand at these delicious little pastries!

And speaking of Wolfgang, on Friday afternoon we ate at one of his (many!) restaurants, Postrio, at the Venetian. Lunch was delicious, but just as notable was dessert. We shared a Grand Marnier Creme Brulee, which had a layer of pastry crust, a layer of jam, and layer of creme brulee with caramelized Grand Marnier. OMG. I need to figure out how to make this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Goodness, My Guinness Beef Stew!

Naturally, I found a flood of Irish-themed recipes in my inbox this weekend as we gear up for St. Patrick's Day. The most tempting of all was corned beef, but that's a 5 to 7 day process and since we're headed to Vegas later this week I just don't have that kind of time. So instead I went for the Guinness Beef Stew served with Irish Soda Bread!

These were both America's Test Kitchen recipes, so I was almost certain they would be a winners. The fact that I could prep it for the crock pot the night before and turn it on to cook before I left for work in the morning was also mighty convenient. I don't do much crock pot cooking anymore (since it sort of takes the fun out of it for me), but I have to admit that I really enjoyed coming home to dinner already prepared tonight.

I also made the Irish Soda Bread last night (remember, that was on my wishlist and I can now cross it off!).

Guinness Beef Stew
2 lbs. Beef stew meat
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup Guinness Draught
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 oz. Bittersweet chocolate
1 Bay leaf
3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
4-6 red potatoes, quartered
3-4 tablespoons flour

Pat beef dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches (if necessary), cook beef in skillet until browned on all sides. Transfer to slow cooker.

Heat other tablespoon oil in skillet. Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt to skillet and cook until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add broth, half of beer, sugar, thyme, chocolate and bay leaf. Bring to  boil, then transfer to slow cooker.

Add carrots, parnsnips and potatoes to slow cooker. Cook on low for 9 to 10 hours or on high for 6 to 7 hours. Set slow cooker to high. In a small bowl, whisk together flour and remaining beer. Stir into stew and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until sauce thickens.

Note: If you're preparing the stew a day in advance like I did, place the beef, onion-beer mixture and veggies in separate bowls and add everything to the slow cooker in the morning.

Irish Soda Bread
3 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons butter (2 tablespoons softened and 1 tablespoon melted)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Whish together flours, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt in a large bowl. Work softened butter into mixture with fork or fingertips until texture resembles coarse crumbs.

Add buttermilk and stir until mixture just begins to come together. Turn out onto flour-covered work surface. Knead until dough becomes just cohesive and lumpy, 12 to 14 turns Do not over-knead or the bread will be tough.

Pat dough into round about 6 inches in diameter and 2 inches high. Place onto greased or parchment-lined baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Cut a cross in the top of the loaf.

Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and brush with melted butter. Cool to room temperature.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Pupcake!

Most of you know that I have two little ones at home ... two little bulldogs that is! We're a family full of March babies (Lola on the 3rd, Vito on the 14th, me on the 20th and Bill on the 29th), so this is a very special month for us. Vito turns three tomorrow and Lola turned one a week and a half ago. You know what that means? It's pupcake time!

Bill and I love our dogs more than life itself, so of course we have to celebrate their birthdays. There are TONS of dog cake recipes on the web, but the fact that most of them are very similar made it easy to choose (that, and the fact that Vito and Lola love peanut butter).

So if you know a special pup with a big day coming up, these pupcakes would be an awesome treat! Watch this video to see how much Vito and Lola loved them :)

Peanut Butter Delight Pupcakes
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup shredded carrots
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup honey
1 egg
4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with paper liners.

Combine all ingredients except cream cheese in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat well. Fill pupcake liners half full. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a pupcake comes out clean.

Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove pupcakes to wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Stir or beat cream cheese until smooth and spreadable. "Frost" each pupcake and watch your canine friends enjoy!

You might be curious (as Bill was) to know how these pupcakes taste. Well, I told you Vito and Lola went nuts for them but I didn't try one. The absence of butter and sugar make these pupcakes dog friendly, but I don't know how human friendly that makes them :)

I'm sure they can't be too bad because there aren't any strange ingredients involved, but I'm not so confident in the peanut butter-carrot combination. Perhaps I'll let Bill fulfill his curiosity and see what he thinks!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pot o' Gold ... I Mean Chicken

So it's not exactly an Irish recipe, but in honor of St. Patty's Day (early) I decided to make a big pot of something warm and delicious. This is another recipe Bill picked out of the How to Cook Everything recipe cards.

Chicken in a Pot
1 whole chicken, cut up, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
8 cups chicken stock
2 onions, quartered
3 or 4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 leeks, split, trimmed, cleaned and cut into chunks
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon thyme
Salt and pepper

Place the chicken in a large pot with the stock, onions, carrots and leeks. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low.

Add the bay leaf, allspice, thyme, and salt and pepper to the pot. Simmer for 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. With 15 minutes of cooking time remaining, preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

When the chicken is done, use a slotted spoon to remove it and the vegetables to an ovensafe platter. Place the platter in the oven.

Raise the heat to high and boil the stock until it reduces by about 25 percent, 10 to 15 minutes.

Strain the stock into a large bowl and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve the soup as a first course, followed by the chicken and vegetables, or serve the chicken and vegetables in shallow bowls with the stock spooned over.

The recipe suggested that you could serve the stock as soup with dumplings, which sounded super appetizing to me. But they didn't include a dumpling recipe and after watching my pot o' chicken simmer for 45 minutes I wasn't in the mood to dig one up. But I'm still convinced that would be yummy!

The chicken was so tender, juicy and flavorful, but I felt like the veggies were a bit droopy after so long minutes in the stock. If I make this recipe again, I'll add the vegetables to the pot closer to the 30-minute mark. I prefer them crisp-tender instead of limp!

It's Good to Have Goals

A while back, I think I mentioned that I was building a list of foods I want to cook at least once in my lifetime. I was inspired by a post like this that I saw on another blog and immediately started jotting on all of the delicious things that came to mind. My goal is to reach 100 and eventually cross them all off the list. Unfor

I'll cross them off the list as I make them and post links to my posts about them (I already have one down with the polenta!). I'll also continue adding to the list as my wheels churn, but I could definitely use your help! Let me know what's missing from the list and I'll consider adding it. I only have two simple criteria:

1. It has to be delicious (or at least have the potential to be delicious!)
2. It has to be a challenge (and I'm not talking crazy-hard, but definitely on the other side of easy)

Here's the growing list:

My Top 100 Desired Dishes
1. Arancini Made it!
2. Steamed Dumplings
3. Egg Rolls
4. Cheese Fondue
5. Au Gratin Potatoes
6. Homemade Potato Chips
7. Corn Chowder Made it!
8. Fritata
9. Polenta Made it!
10. Homemade Manicotti
11. Homemade Fettucini with Vodka Sauce
12. Stromboli/Calzones
13. Chicken and Dumplings Made it!
14. Bacon-Wrapped Filets
15. Popovers
16. Croissants
17. Bagels
18. English Muffins Made it! (Though I'm still on the quest for nooks and crannies!)
19. Sourdough Bread (Not yet, but I did get my hands on some starter for sourdough pancakes!)
20. Irish Soda Bread Made it!
21. Frozen Yogurt
22. Gelato
23. Cannoli Made it! (Although in shortcut form ... will make the real thing someday!)
24. Chocolate Fondue Made it! (And without actually intending to!)
25. Chocolate Mousse
26. Hot Chocolate Souffle
27. Salted Caramel Brownies
28. French Silk Pie
29. Black Bottom Banana Cream Pie (I made Banana Caramel Cream Pie, which is close!)
30. Coconut Cream Pie
31. Dutch Apple Pie
32. Lemon Meringue Pie
33. Fruit Tart
34. Lemon Cheesecake
35. Mini Cheesecakes Made it! (But still need to perfect it ...)
36. Angel Food Cake
37. Rum Cake
38. Bread Pudding
39. Paczki (jelly doughnuts)
40. Kringle
41. Kolache
42. Fortune Cookies
43. Doughnuts (I made one attempt that failed. And then succeeded with mini doughnuts!)
44. Homemade Vanilla Extract
45. Sio Bao
46. Corned Beef
47. Homemade Gnocchi
48. Rye Bread
49. Soft Pretzels Made it!
50. Apple Strudel
51. Homemade Jam Made it!
52. Thin Crust Pizza Made it! (On the grill, no less!)
53. Tiramisu
54. French Macaroons Made it!
55. Chilaquiles
56. Homemade Pita Bread
57. Stollen
58. Baklava
59. Spanakopita
60. Banana Pudding
61. Bittersweet Chocolate and Stout Beer Ice Cream (thanks to Tanya T. for the recommendation!)
62. Frozen Custard Made it!
63. Graham Crackers
64. Spaetzle

Monday, March 7, 2011

Oh, Stuff It (a pepper, that is!)

Much to my surprise, Bill announced several months ago that he likes stuffed bell peppers. And even more shocking ... he started making them. And perhaps most confounding of all, they were really good!

What wasn't surprising was that when we were sorting my "How to Cook Everything" recipe cards this weekend and I asked Bill to priortize the ones we liked, Corn-Stuffed Peppers with Spicy Tomato Sauce landed at the top of his list. So I figured this was my cue to try cooking my own.

I'd rate this recipe very high, but perhaps not as high as Bill's (and believe me, that's very hard to say). I'll see if I can get him to make his soon, and I'll post that recipe as well. Then you can compare for yourself!

As usual, I put a little bit of a twist on this recipe (funny how I always seem to come up with something that I think will take the dish up a notch!). I added mild Italian sausage because I thought the peppers needed some protein! It was certainly a good move, but I'd actually suggest adding more than 2 sausages, unless your sausages are large. The reason I'd put Bill's stuffed peppers above mine is because they're meatier. Although these are chock full of other good stuff!

Corn (and Sausage!)-Stuffed Peppers with Spicy Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 (or more) mild Italian sausages, casings removed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup cooked white or brown rice, barley and quinoa
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 cup fresh mushrooms, diced
2 cups canned diced tomatoes, drained
1 1/2 cups canned corn, drained
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper
4 red or yellow peppers (or a combination!), caps removed and centers hallowed out

For sauce:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon soy or Worchestershire sauce
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until no longer pink. Add wine to deglaze skillet, scraping up the browned bits.

In a large bowl, combine sausage, rice, onion, mushrooms, half of the tomatoes, corn, egg and salt and pepper to taste. Stuff peppers with this mixture and stand them up in an ovensafe skillet with 1/2 inch of water. Bake for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a pot or another deep skillet. Add garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until garlic browns. Using a slotted spoon, removed garlic and peppers from oil; discard. Add cumin and stir. Add remaining tomatoes, crushing them with the back of a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil, turn heat to medium-low, and add the soy sauce (or Worchestershire). Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and add sugar as necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste. Puree in a blender or food processor and keep warm.

Serve the peppers with sauce spooned over.

As a side note, I tried to speed this recipe up a bit because I was hungry, so I bumped the oven temp to 400 and cooked the peppers for 30 minutes. No bueno. They were not as tender as I would have liked. I suggest being patient and cooking them for the full 45 minutes, saving these for a weekend dinner, or covering them with foil while they cook (which should help steam them, speeding up the cooking time).

I would absolutely make these peppers again, but perhaps even more importantly, I'll make this tomato sauce often! I wish I had made twice as much sauce (it was so good that there were no leftovers ... we mopped it all up with bread!). It could have actually used a bit more heat (maybe it's not such a good move to remove the garlic and red pepper flakes before finishing it), but I imagine it would be delicious with something like chicken parmesan. I think I'll have to try that ... and soon :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Muffins are Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

You probably think I have some sort of banana obsession, and to tell you the truth, that might not be too far off the mark. I do love baking with bananas and while I've shared my old stand-by banana bread recipe with you, I am always looking for new variations.

I came across a muffin recipe on another blog yesterday and decided to try it, mostly because the oatmeal crumb topping looked pretty delicious. It also had an unusual ingredient that caught my eye: vinegar. Yes, you read that right. Vinegar. I did a double-take, too.

The blogger claimed that vinegar adds a "brightness" to the recipe, which is something I hear often (not in reference to banana bread, but when vinegar is added in general). Before I read the recipe in detail, I thought for sure the real reason must be to create the same flavor profile you'd achieve with buttermilk (sometimes a bit of vinegar or lemon juice will be added to regular milk to create a buttermilk substitute). Then I realized there was no milk in this recipe.

Whether I ever uncover the purpose of the vinegar or not, these muffins were delicious. I've had a hard time topping my favorite banana bread recipe, but these muffins might rank right up there. Oh, and I added an extra ingredient to give them my own twist ... coconut in the topping!

Banana Oatmeal-Coconut Crumb Muffins
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 large very ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar

For Topping:
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup toasted coconut, optional (see note)

Prehat oven to 375 degrees (or, in my case with my super hot oven, 350). Prepare a 12 cup muffin tin.

Place topping ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, stir together the mashed banana, sugar, egg, butter, vanilla, and vinegar. Add the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until combined. (Do not over mix.)

Fill muffin cups 3/4 full. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the muffins. Bake for 20 minutes (mine came out of the oven perfectly done after 16 minutes). Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Note: The coconut is, of course, optional. The original recipe didn't call for it, but I'm on a bit of a coconut kick lately and thought it would be a delicious addition (and I was right ... as usual.) I had some leftover coconut that I had already toasted on hand, but it's very simple to toast your coconut either in the oven or on the stovetop. If you choose to use the oven method, heat the oven to 350 degrees, spread your coconut flakes in an even layer on a baking sheet, and bake about 5 minutes, stirring coconut a couple times. Keep an eye on it because it can burn easily. If you choose to use the stovetop method, heat a heavy skillet over medium heat, spread the coconut flakes in an even layer in the skillet and stir gently for about 5 minutes.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My First Venture into Polenta

For almost 30 years (yikes), I've avoided polenta. I'm not sure what it was that turned me against it ... most likely my mom's insistence that she didn't like it. It also doesn't exactly look appetizing. But somehow Bill got it in his head that he would like it, and he demanded that I make it. (Well, "demanded" might be a strong word, but he did request it with conviction.)

I figured as I become more and more adventurous with my cooking, it wouldn't be a bad idea to try it. I encountered a bit of an obstacle, though, as polenta seems to be hard to find. My America's Test Kitchen book had a lengthy note on buying polenta, saying that it can often be referred to as coarse-ground cornmeal, yellow grits, or as we eventually found it, corn grits. It can also be located in a variety of aisles in the grocery store - the pasta aisle, the baking aisle, or the cereal aisle. You also have to content with the ready-to-eat and quick-cooking varieties (which are not what you want ... at least not for this recipe.)

After a frustrating search at the Metro Market, I only found ready-to-eat polenta in the pasta aisle. So I told Bill that if he wanted it so bad, he was going to have to track down the right variety himself. And he did. (At Sendik's, for those of you who are wondering. The brand was Bob's Red Mill.) So, at last, I was able to fulfill his dinner request!

Polenta with Sausage and Broccoli

For the Topping:
1/2 cup water
8 oz. broccoli florets, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons olive oil
8 oz. mild Italian sausage, casings removed
1 small onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup drained canned diced tomatoes, with 1/4 cup juice reserved
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

For the Polenta:
1 2/3 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, minced
2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring the water to a simmer in a 10-inch ovensafe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the broccoli, cover, and steam about 2 minutes (broccoli should be bright green). Uncover and cook until the water has evaporated, about 1 minute. Transfer broccoli to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the oil in the skillet. Add sausage and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes with reserved juice and bring to a simmer, scraping up browned bits at the bottom of the skillet.

Stir in the broccoli and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside. (Do not wash the skillet.)

Wipe out the skillet with a wad of paper towels and return to medium-high heat. Add the water, milk and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Slowly add the polenta while whisking constantly in a circular motion to prevent clumping.

Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring often and vigorously, until the poletna is soft and smooth, about 10 to 15 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the butter and garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Smooth the polenta into an even layer in the skillet. Spoon the sausage and broccoli mixture over the polenta, then sprinkle with cheese. Bake until cheese is melted and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Let the casserole cool for 10 minutes before serving.

I was super nervous about this recipe, mostly because polenta was brand new to me. I had never cooked it before, and I had never even tasted it. Therefore, I wasn't entirely sure how we were going to judge my success with the dish! Turns out is was another of those recipes that requires supreme patience. I kept a very close eye on the polenta, abided by the recipe and the notes in the cookbook, and used my best instincts.

And it turned out wonderfully! The topping had really rich, deep flavor, and the polenta was smooth as silk and buttery. I think I was worried that I wouldn't like polenta because of the texture, but that wasn't the case at all.

Oh, and yes, Bill fulfilled his own prophecy. He does like polenta!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Neat-o Pastitsio!

After a handful of not-so-impressive dishes in the past couple weeks, I started reconsidering my recipe sources. Sadly, the recipes I've unearthed from other random cooking blogs seem to have the highest likelihood of failure, which means I'll be considering them more carefully from now on. So to ensure success with dinner tonight, I turned to my favorite America's Test Kitchen book: Cooking for Two.

I'm usually drawn to out-of-the-ordinary recipes, so when I flipped to Skillet Pastitsio it obviously grabbed my attention. I have to be totally honest ... I had absolutely no clue what pastitsio was. But thank goodness for the pictures in the book, because it looked good enough to eat. So I added it to this week's menu.

I didn't bother to dig into the origin of pastitsio before I made it (all I learned from the cookbook was that it's a Greek dish), but I figured before I wrote about it I should know a little more. Turns out the dish takes it's name from the Italian pasticcio, which is a family of pies typically involving pasta and ragu. No wonder it sounded so good to me!

Plus, the traditional Greek version of pastitsio (apparently versions are also popular in Egypt) is a layered dish, not unlike lasagna. And the pasta layer is most often made with bucatini (another of my Italian favorites!).

The recipe I used tonight was scaled back and made in a skillet to make it an easier weeknight dish.

Skillet Pastitsio
So it's not a pretty dish, but it sure is tasty!
8 oz. lean ground beef
1 onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 lb. (about 1 1/2 cups) elbow macaroni
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/2 oz. grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 475 degrees. Cook the beef in an oven-safe skillet over medium heat until no longer pink. Transfer to a bowl, reserving some of the fat in the skillet. Set aside.

Add the onion, cinnamon and nutmeg to the skillet and cook until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, tomato paste and oregano and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in broth, water, 1/4 cup of the cream and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add cooked ground beef and pasta. Increase the heat to high and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring often, until pasta is tender, about 10 minutes.

Whisk the remaining 1/4 cup cream and cornstarch together in a small bowl, then stir into the skillet. Continue to simmer until thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Off the heat, stir in 1/4 cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top; bake until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes.

The best way I can describe this dish is aromatic. Holy cow, did it smell delicious cooking (and the aroma is still lingering in the kitchen now!). I attribute that to the cinnamon and nutmeg, which when combined with beef and onion is oddly tasty. I know it's a typical combination in Mediterranean cooking, but it was new to me and I love it!

One last note, pastitsio is usually made with lamb, and this recipe actually did call for it. Unfortunately, the Metro Market didn't have ground lamb on Sunday. And if the Metro Market doesn't have it, I don't know where to find it (they have ground bison, for crying out loud!). Should I come across lamb, I will absolutely make this dish with it. America's Test Kitchen claims it will intensify the flavors, which could only make a good thing better :)