Saturday, March 31, 2007

Unexpected carrot cupcake spree...

I did not have any plans to bake today, but while I was trying to organize the monster stacks of to-try recipes, I came across a cupcake that I kept meaning to make. Since this recipe, Carrot Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting, didn't have ingredients that needed to come to room temperature (well besides the cream cheese, but that had plenty of time to soften) I decided to put off the organizing for another day and get the oven warmed up!

This recipe uses a combination of whole wheat pastry flour and all-purpose, which I've been using a lot lately. I like using the duo as it lends nutrition from the whole wheat, but using some all-purpose helps to keep them light with a decent texture. Most carrot cakes or cupcakes are laden with oil, but while in this version we did use some canola oil, some of that has been replaced by natural applesauce which makes them a little more acceptable for us. The applesauce ensures the cupcakes will be very moist, but still adding a bit of oil gives them structure and you won't end up with that rubbery texture. Spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, the cupcakes also have a good amount of crunchy toasted walnuts lurking inside. A sweet creamy frosting adorns the top made from softened cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and fresh grated lemon zest for a light zing.

You could leave these plain, top them off with a few colorful sprinkles or even a scattering of nutty toasted walnuts would be great way finish these off with a layer of crunch against the soft frosting.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A couple of fresh and light dishes...

We made a fresh, tangy and a little unusual slaw to have with dinner tonight. In this Fruit Slaw, there are four kinds of diced fruit that make this a vibrant and colorful dish. Perfect for a festive spring or summer-time party, pineapple, pears, mango and red grapes are tossed together with broccoli slaw for a crunchy texture against the juicy fruit. While you will find your normal suspects in the dressing, there are a few key ingredients to transform this recipe by adding an unusual, but delicious, twist. Whisked into the creamy mayonnaise and sour cream combination is cilantro, lime zest, fresh lime juice, sugar and curry powder! We liked how the lime brought a refreshing tang - but we found the curry powder almost seductive with its sweetness lingering on each piece of fruit. You can prepare the dressing ahead of time, but wait until you are ready to serve to toss it with the fruit.

I had a bunch of bits and pieces of different ingredients in the refrigerator that I needed to use up, so on nights like this I love to make frittatas. They are easy to make and are usually pretty flexible as to what you can throw in them. Tonight's Broccoli, Asiago and Chicken Sausage Frittata starts off by cooking chopped broccoli, green onions, garlic and diced chicken sausage. Once the broccoli has become crisp-tender, whole eggs and egg whites seasoned with Italian herbs, salt, fresh ground pepper and crushed red pepper are added into the pan and the skillet goes into the oven to cook. Just when the eggs are set, grated Asiago cheese is scattered on top and the skillet is left in the oven for just a couple more minutes to melt the cheese. We added some chunky diced fresh tomatoes after cooking for a pop of color with some more thinly sliced green onions.

Stuffed with broccoli and sausage, this was quite the hearty and filling dinner while still being somewhat light. If I had a jar already opened, I thought some diced roasted red peppers would have been another great addition to this frittata.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A new spin on chicken and rice...

One of our favorite staples to have in the freezer is edamame - simply boiled and seasoned with salt, the beans by themselves make for a quick nutritious snack. Since I'm always looking for new ways to match edamame with other ingredients, I thought this recipe for Brown Rice and Edamame would be an excellent choice for a side tonight.

You can use any long grain brown rice that you want, but we opted to use the more pungent brown Jasmine in this dish. Whenever possible, we like to layer in as much flavor as we can - so instead of using water to cook the rice, we tend to use either vegetable or chicken broth. After the rice has cooked for about half an hour, the frozen green soybeans are tossed in to warm up while the rice finishes. Now, you could stop here and just season with salt and pepper, but tossing this with a tangy dressing adds a whole new dimension. This mixture of lime juice, rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, a dash of sugar and thinly sliced green onions was devoured by the grains of rice adding a zesty bright essence that kept it light and fresh.

To go with the rice, I needed to marinate a couple chicken breasts to get this recipe for Maple-Glazed Chicken Breasts started. The marinade consisted of sticky pure maple syrup, soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic and ginger - the chicken breasts are added to this mixture and they both sit in the refrigerator to chill out for a couple hours. As you grill the chicken breasts, the marinade is brought to a simmer in a separate pan and reduced down instead of throwing it out - this is where the glaze/sauce comes in. While infusing the chicken with a sweet and salty combo, the marinade kept them extremely tender and moist throughout. The only thing I would do next time is add a little spice, be it a few dashes of hot sauce or crushed red pepper, to add just a note of heat to contrast the sweetness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Chili and cornbread night...

Just a few days ago, we made a quite sweet version of cornbread in some Sweet Corn Muffins that were more suitable for breakfast or a mid-morning snack. Jeff asked if I would make some cornbread to go along with dinner tonight, so this time we made a more savory version.

In these Jalapeño and Corn Cornbread Muffins, buttermilk is the main liquid ingredient, which allows them to stay tender and moist. Unlike the sweet version linked above, this recipe only has 2 tablespoons of sugar - which is just enough to give them their golden exterior and adds a hint of sweetness. Minced garlic, jalapeño and green onions add color and lend a definite savory element to these beautiful crowned muffins. For another layer of corn flavor, corn kernels are added into the batter and bring little juicy nuggets into each bite - a nice change from a plain cornmeal-only recipe.

I made these into 10 muffins so they would be a little bigger, but you could probably stretch this into 12 and still have them be acceptable. If you do only make 10, be sure to add a little bit of water into the empty wells of the muffin tin so they don't scorch.

What better to go with this spicy cornbread than a hearty chili? Even though we tend to gravitate to chili more in the colder months, we still enjoy it and will make new (to us) versions of it all throughout the year. This recipe, Three Bean and Beef Chili, has a smoky and slightly spicy edge to it from fire-roasted crushed tomatoes along with a diced chipotle chili in adobo sauce. If you want that deep flavor, but not so much the heat, you could remove the seeds before adding the chilies or even forgo them and just add the adobo sauce. Lean ground sirloin is added to onions, red bell peppers and carrots that have gently softened in olive oil and then seasoned with cumin. When the sirloin has crumbled and cooked, the crushed tomatoes, vegetable broth, oregano and the chipotles are stirred in and left to simmer, partially covered, until the mixture begins to thicken. To help the beans retain their integrity, the black, kidney and pinto beans are now added and then the chili will continue simmering to allow the flavors to develop. If you want to take this all veggie, we have had pretty good success using soy crumbles - we both thought this chili had plenty of flavor to go around so this substitute would be a fine fit.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hmm... well they may not look right, but the cookies still taste good!

We've had pretty good success with the treats that I've been making for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day. I don't know if today's round of baking would fit into that category though... while these cookies taste good, they don't have near the appearance that we were expecting.

I'm not certain if it was my error (though I did double check everything), an omission in the ingredient list or even a step lost in the directions, but these Pistachio Butter Cookies were not supposed to bake into these flatter disks. Once the dough has been made, it is placed in a pastry bag (be sure to use a heavy duty one as the dough is quite thick) and the recipe calls to pipe them out into rosettes with a star tip. I thought the texture of the dough was similar to a spritz-type recipe, but it was a bit more soft and sticky. Even though I was able to pipe them out fairly well, they completely lost their shape while baking as you can see (yes I was working with cold baking sheets too). Maybe a rest in the refrigerator for a couple hours would have made a difference before baking, but it was not called for.

With a generous amount of ground raw pistachios in the dough, the golden baked cookies have the slightest green tinge and do have a rich nutty flavor. They are delicate, buttery and soft, but not cake-like - these cookies like to slowly melt in your mouth as you nibble on them. So while mine could use some help in the visual department, at least they still had good flavor.

*Tip - When you go to grind the pistachios, add a tablespoon or so of the sugar from the recipe to help absorb any of the oils released so it doesn't begin to turn into a nut butter.

Fresh, glossy and slightly sweet, the sauce for tonight's dinner totally made this recipe for Hoisin Pork and Snow Pea Stir-Fry a hit. Thinly sliced pork tenderloin is tossed with salty soy sauce while you wait for the skillet to heat up. To begin cooking, the pork is quickly sautéed in robust toasted sesame oil - I would split this up and do this in two batches if we made this again. Even though I used a fairly large skillet, I thought the pan was too full to cook the strips evenly. To not over-cook the tender pork, the strips are removed to a plate while a few more drops of oil, crunchy snow peas, sweet red bell peppers, fresh ginger and minced garlic are added to the skillet. The delicious sauce made from broth, hoisin sauce, cornstarch and honey is added to the skillet, along with the pork and its juices, to thicken up and thoroughly coat the pork and vegetables. To serve, we portioned the mixture over floral and nutty brown jasmine rice since there was a generous amount of sauce to soak up. Even if I don't make this exact recipe again, this sauce will be repeated - I'll even admit to licking up the few remaining drops on the plate!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Waking up the tastebuds...

Sometimes nothing can satisfy a craving like a simple dinner of meat and potatoes - Jeff was asking for this pair as I was doing the menu planning for the week and I eagerly accepted. While a plain grilled steak and mashed potatoes would have certainly fit the bill, we opted to heighten the flavors in a few different ways.

While there is no new earth shattering technique in these mashers, Vermont Cheddar Mashed Yukon Golds, I did use a brilliantly sharp Cheddar to pack the most punch. Our favorite everyday brand of cheese over the past few years has been Cabot, so we decided to use their "seriously sharp" version. I thought I made a mistake using such a strong cheese when I took my first bite, but it became quickly addicting with the twang from the buttermilk. I served this with a couple pats of butter on the side, but neither of us felt the need to add them - the Yukon golds had enough richness to them where we didn't even think about it. If you want to make this recipe and felt that you might not have enough time to prepare the taters, you could prepare these ahead of time and gently re-heat them in a double boiler right before serving - but you may want to add a couple tablespoons more of buttermilk to keep them creamy.

For the meaty portion of tonight's dinner, I made a recipe for Sesame-Crusted Beef Tenderloin Steaks with Pineapple, Mango, and Red Pepper Relish. A zesty, sweet and spicy relish is served along side that is composed of diced golden pineapples, mangoes, red bell peppers, cilantro, fresh orange juice, orange zest and a big pinch of crushed red pepper to finish for a bit of heat. The thick steaks are simply seasoned with just salt, pepper and black sesame seeds. I've never worked with this dark version before, so I was anxious to taste them - they have that same great crunch as their lighter counterpart, but their flavor is more earthy and a touch more nutty. We like our steaks somewhat rare, so I grilled them until they were still quite pink in the center (it looks more rare in the picture than they actually were) - it took just about 3 minutes per side.

While we were busy eating the potatoes, my eye was attracted to the other plate as I spied how the the succulent juices slowly leaked from the sliced steak into the chunky savory relish on the side. Even though I was enjoying the potatoes, I had to stop and plunge my fork through the relish and into the tender steak as I just couldn't stand watching that devilish tease anymore. Yes, I'm proud to be a member of the clean plate club tonight!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Easy chicken dish on a beautiful spring day...

10 new recipes made this week - our favorites were the Spinach Ricotta Rotini, Chocolate Waffle Cookies and the Cinnamon-Apple Bars with Peanut Butter Glaze. I've been a little lax in keeping the recipe sections to the left updated, but I finally got them current - I did a tally and we have posted at least 768 recipes now! Dang!

I finally have something nice to say about the weather! It was a beautiful spring day today!

It was sunny and finally started to warm up, so we wanted to spend as much time soaking up the rays and getting some outside work done. The only downside? That means the evil mowing season is right around the corner! Boo!

I didn't want to have to worry about a long prep for dinner tonight, so we chose this recipe, Sesame Noodles with Chicken, as it could be done in a snap without much effort. As we waited for some long linguine pasta to cook, we whipped up a saucy concoction of vegetable broth, natural peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy sauce, fresh ginger and a bit of Sriracha for a spicy kick. So you don't need to dirty another dish, thin strips of carrots are added to the pasta when there is about 3 minutes left to go. The hot pasta and carrots are tossed with the creamy sauce, shredded cooked chicken breast and sliced green onions with a smattering of toasted sesame seeds on top for a second nutty element to the dish. With a half cup of peanut butter in the sauce, we thought it might overwhelm the dish, but it added a little decadence while still coming across as being fairly light. I would suggest breaking the noodles in half before you add them to the water as it was a little hard make sure each portion would get a fairly even amount.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Cinnamon-Apple Bars with Peanut Butter Glaze...

I was on a mission to bake this morning and it had been a couple weeks since we cracked open the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. One of my favorite and frequent snacks is apples with a side of peanut butter for dipping - after browsing through a few recipes, I spotted one that that used the two in a new way.

Filled with fall-ish spices, these Cinnamon-Apple Bars with Peanut Butter Glaze sure made for a sweet way to start off the weekend. We used whole wheat pastry flour, white whole wheat flour and ground rolled oats to make these whole grain bars - but with the spices, butter and rich brown sugar they don't have that mildly bitter "wheat-y" taste to them. Using applesauce in the bars keeps them extremely moist - but since you're not using it to replace the fat in the recipe, they don't have a rubbery texture to them. While they are soft and dense, they are not cake-like - but they also don't have that chewy quality like a bar cookie would; it is somewhere in between those two if that makes any sense! You could use chocolate chips if you prefer, but we quite liked the engaging burst the melted pockets of cinnamon chips added. Spread on top is a generous thick glaze made simply from peanut butter melted in the microwave with sticky honey. The two spread easily when warm, but the mixture does start to firm up after a few minutes... so don't dwadle when your frosting the bars.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Taking a step out of baked pasta...

Typically when we make a baked pasta dish, you need to haul out the big pot, wait for it to boil and then allow for the time it takes to cook so you can continue making the recipe. What attracted me to try tonight's recipe, Spinach Ricotta Rotini, is that you do not pre-cook the pasta - it is added dry to the wet ingredients and they bake together. This makes for a no-fuss recipe with minimal dishes - great for those frazzled weeknights.

The dry rotini pasta swims in a mixture of ricotta cheese, evaporated milk, water, italian herbs, Dijon mustard, a dash of fresh nutmeg, spinach and chopped ham in a large baking dish. This is placed in the oven to bake for about a half hour - the only work you need to do is to stir it twice during that time. As it gets closer to the 30 minute mark, you will notice how thick the liquid turned and how the pasta has gotten tender without turning to mush. For a fantastic finish, fresh bread crumbs and asiago cheese are scattered on top of the hot pasta and it goes back into the oven until it turns crispy and golden. This dish has a creamy, but not soggy or wet consistency to it and after a 10 minute rest, could easily be cut into and held its shape well - much like a lasagna. Using evaporated milk gave a nice rich mouth feel to the dish, but kept it a little lighter than if you used heavy cream. The diced ham gave a nice salty counterpoint, but you could keep this an all-veggie dish by replacing the ham with chickpeas or maybe even some meaty sautéed portobellos.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Biscotti's endless variations...

I know, I know... yes I made yet another biscotti recipe today! Soon we will have to open up a recipe section just for them - I can't help it though, we both quite like the crunchy cookies! In this version of Cappuccino Biscotti, we added a little of this and a little of that to try to mimic the flavor found in the drink. Toasted chopped walnuts, mini chocolate chips and cinnamon chips were the add-ins of choice with the coffee flavor coming from instant espresso powder dissolved in an equal amount of hot water. Natural cocoa powder darkens the dough and adds a mild chocolate background to the crisp cookie strips. Unlike some past recipes, this dough was not nearly as wet and even took a few kneads on the counter-top for it to completely come together. While I'm used to working with more sticky doughs, I have to comment that this one was a complete breeze to roll and shape without having to wet my fingers at all.

When I went to slice the baked loaves, I used the same trick from one of the last recipes for biscotti that we made. Once they have cooled for a few minutes, the tops of the biscotti are lightly spritzed with water - this gently softens the outer crust and makes for extra clean slices without worrying about them crumbling. The mini chocolate chips make for good distribution through the biscotti, but I would probably chop up some good dark chocolate next time for a bigger bite of flavor.

We went breakfast-style for dinner tonight with a recipe for Oatmeal-Chai Buttermilk Pancakes. When I typically go to make pancakes, it is not something I need to think too much about or do much work as they are usually so quick to throw together. This recipe is the opposite as it takes some pre-planning to allow for the extra time needed. First, the chai flavors need to be infused into the milk for the recipe - this process of using a spicy combination of whole cloves, cardamom, a cinnamon stick, chunks of fresh ginger and black tea leaves takes around 20-25 minutes. When you begin to heat the milk, be sure to keep an eye on it - when it neared the 10 minute mark, I found I had to keep sliding the pot off the heat so it would not boil over. When the dry mixture is combined with the wet ingredients, it needs to sit for at least 15 minutes as the bulk of the dry is composed of rolled oats. This allows the oats to begin absorbing the delicately imbued liquid and soften. These golden circles are tender from the addition of buttermilk and have a hearty presence from the oats - however, they don't have that "light as air" quality to them. We actually enjoyed that as it made them considerably filling.

With a wallop of flavor in them, we just showered the stacks of pancakes with sweet confectioners' sugar as we felt no need to saturate them in heavy maple syrup.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Roasted cauliflower and creamy bowties...

When I was at the market Sunday picking out the produce we needed for the recipes this week, I noticed that the orange "variety" of cauliflower was priced the same as the regular, so we decided to snatch it up for the novelty factor. We needed it for tonight's side dish of Roasted Cauliflower with Brown Butter.

Seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, the cauliflower roasts in a moderately hot oven until tender and it begins to have a golden hue as the edges begin to caramelize. Meanwhile, a single tablespoon of butter is left to melt in a small skillet until a nutty aroma fills the kitchen and the liquid gold begins to darken. It may not seem like a lot, but there is enough butter to add a glistening coat to the cauliflower to make it even more tempting. If you've never roasted a vegetable like this before, you will be excited by the deep flavor it has - but I thought that the sharpness from a few fresh grates of Parmesan cheese would have brought this recipe to a new height as in previous recipes. While this colored cauliflower really had no difference in taste, it certainly creates conversation at the dinner table!

To go with the cauliflower tonight, we made a filling pasta dish that has a uniquely flavored sauce. In this recipe, Farfalle with Creamy Leek Sauce, the sauce is reminiscent of pesto, except it has no nuts and the cheese is added later on. A slew of thinly sliced leeks are sautéed in a good amount of olive oil until they begin to get a tinge of brown on them to start off the sauce. Chicken broth along with lemon juice, lemon zest and parsley are added to the leeks to freshen and zap the sauce with a bright flavor - the mixture is then pureed until smooth. If you know your time will be limited, you could even do this part the day before and just keep it stored, covered, in the refrigerator overnight. When you boil the pasta, be sure to under-cook it by about 3 minutes or so - once you drain the water away, the pasta and the creamy sauce are added back into the pot to finish cooking.

To thin out the sauce, you will need about a half a cup of the pasta water. I've started taking this out before I drain the pasta - I've one too many times drained the pasta to instantly realize I needed a portion of that starchy water as it dwindled down the drain! The reason you don't want to fully cook the pasta in the beginning is so the pasta and sauce can thoroughly marry and become one with each other - the pasta will more readily absorb the sauce and still have a bite to it. At the end, a couple ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano is added before serving to lend a creamy edge to the sauce - be sure to pass around a generous mound of the sharp cheese so your guests can add more if desired.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dust off those waffle irons!

Tuesday brings us yet another round of baking for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day that we've started at Jeff's office! I've been wanting to make this fun recipe for quite some time and it caught my eye again when I was sifting through my stacks of untried sweet recipes.

And the fun part about these Chocolate Waffle Cookies? There is no need for an oven as they are made on a waffle iron! For this batter, chocolate is added in the form of unsweetened and Dutch-process cocoa powder to give these cookies a rich depth. To give a spicy contrast to the sweetness, cinnamon is added with the dry ingredients to perk up the flavor. The batter is quite thick, so I found a tablespoon cookie scoop was the best way to get the batter onto the waffle iron - alternatively, you could fill up a piping bag and use that to quickly portion it out. I used the "light color" setting on my iron and it took just 1 1/2 minutes for the cookies to be set - just try out one or two cookies until you get the hang of how long it takes. They will be soft and a little flimsy when they are fully cooked, but they will firm up well as they cool.

Because there isn't enough chocolate already, a simple combination of melted butter, confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder and milk are combined to form a shiny glaze on top of the dense brownie-like treasures. This light glaze is meant to be on just the raised lines and not fill into the pockets of the cookies. Once set, a shower of confectioners' sugar is sifted over the cookies to show off their beautiful dark facade.

So, tonight's dinner brings us a little out of our comfort zone with a recipe for Saag Tofu. This is based off an Indian classic that would typically be made with spinach and paneer, which is a firm yet bland cow's milk cheese. In this recipe, which tries to make the original dish a little lighter, firm tofu replaces the cheese and the spinach mixture is not pureed - instead, the spinach is coated in a creamy mixture of yogurt, curry powder and smoky cumin. Also flavoring the spinach is grated ginger, fresh garlic, thin sliced onions and mustard seeds which bring a pungent heat. The tofu is cut into thick chunky pieces and pan-fried until the sides are golden to bring out a chewy texture. To serve, we decided to plate this over a nutty brown basmati rice as it was a pretty saucy dish. While we cannot compare it to an authentic recipe, as we have never prepared or had this type of recipe before, we both enjoyed the results and decided that the enthralling spinach and sauce mixture was the key component to keep this from being too bland with the tofu.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Filling up with a Hearty Peasant Soup

The first (and last) time we tried broccoli rabe, we found it a bit flavorless and too bitter for our tastes - however, we decided to give it another go after learning that blanching it before you use it in a recipe helps to mellow the bitterness and pull out its earthy flavor. So in an effort to give broccoli rabe another chance, we decided to give this recipe, Hearty Peasant Soup, a go for dinner tonight!

When you go to prepare the broccoli rabe, cut about 1/4" off the bottom thick stems as they can be pretty tough. Once chopped and well washed, dunk the vegetable in boiling salted water for just a minute or two - quickly drain them in a colander and then plunk them in ice cold water to finish the blanching process. The base for the soup begins by sautéing onions and garlic until they become tender; then thick tomato paste with a couple splashes of balsamic vinegar is added and allowed to cook down for a couple minutes. Vegetable broth, water, chunky fire-roasted tomatoes, chickpeas and the blanched broccoli rabe are stirred in and this mixture simmers until the the greens are tender. Be sure to check for seasonings before you serve it - stir in salt and fresh ground pepper if needed and you could even add a dash or two more of balsamic to give it more bite if you like.

The tomato paste gives this soup gusto with a good mouth feel - the paste freezes well, so I throw blobs (about 1 tablespoons worth) on a baking sheet and freeze them. When firm, I pluck them off and store them in a zip-loc bag until needed - this way you don't have to worry about the opened can in the refrigerator going moldy. You could also splurge and buy the paste in a tube for easy storage! If you don't care for garbanzo beans, you could use the same amount of cannellini beans instead. For a hearty finish, we served thick toasted slices of a rustic bread inside the bowl to truly make this an extremely filling and delicious meal.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Crunchy barbeque biscuits for the pups...

Since we were gone last week, we were really just playing catch-up on recipes we made the week before - but, over the last weeks worth of posting, a couple of favorites did stand out for us.. They were the Anise-Scented Fig and Date Swirls and Pork Pot Stickers! Now that we're home for a few weeks (hmm... where to next you might ask? Stay tuned...!) I have lots of ideas and plans going through my head for the upcoming week.

After we picked up the pups on Friday from the boarding place, Jeff went to the freezer in the garage to get them some treats... except he came back with an empty bowl! Apparently we forgot that we were out of homemade treats and didn't think to buy them any! Oops! So after a day of getting constant sad puppy dog eyes, I went to work today when we got back from the market to come up with some treats.

When I looked over some past recipes we've done, I noticed that we have not made any flavored in a barbeque style... So I grabbed my notebook and started pulling out some ingredients to create some! I added whole wheat flour, rye flour and wheat germ to create the healthy base for the dry ingredients, with rolled oats and yellow cornmeal in addition to give the treats a hearty crunchy texture. The wet ingredients came next with chicken broth and canola oil whisk together with natural barbeque sauce from Trader Joe's to give them their barbeque flavor. It only took a couple minutes of kneading until the dough came together and was quite smooth. The dough easily rolled out without much resistance and the bones, hearts and circles we cut out went into the oven. Jeff was downstairs while I was putting this together and within a few minutes of them going into the oven, I heard him sniffing as he wandered upstairs - he immediately started asking what time the barbeque would be ready for dinner!! I think he was sorely disappointed to find out it was only treats for the dogs and not for him... ha!

I thought about giving them either an egg glaze or basting them in some of the sauce midway through baking, but I figured we would keep them clean to see how if the pups would like them. They stood by the island wagging their tails the entire time these golden biscuits were on the racks cooling - I think they liked them too... Max even started dancing so he could guilt us out of another one!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sweet corn muffins...

I woke up this morning and realized we didn't have any homemade snacks on hand since we had been out of town all last week. I pondered back and forth on what sounded good, but I couldn't decide - I handed Jeff 3 or 4 recipes and told him to just pick one without looking. So, that took the pressure off and settled what I was going to bake this morning!

Jeff pulled a recipe for these Sweet Corn Muffins. These are definitely more sweet than and not as heavy as a regular cornbread. Yellow cornmeal gives these muffins a hearty texture with a slight crunch without being too grainy. Since you know that we prefer a little crust to the outside of our muffins, I opted to forgo any muffin liners. If you like the outside of muffins to be softer, be sure to place some liners in the pan before you add the batter.

Tangy plain yogurt lends moisture and keeps these satisfying muffins light and tender on the inside. For a sweet crunchy finish, a generous scattering of raw turbinado sugar is added on top of the raw batter. After being baked, some muffins need to sit and cool for a few hours to lure their flavor out, but we found these were quite pleasing warm right out of the muffin tin. Enjoy them plain or walk on the wild side and split them in half to add a dollop of chunky preserves.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Back home and cookin' away...

Yesterday was a very long day - we spent the entire day either in the car or dealing with airports! We left Des Moines and drove the 4 1/2 hour trip back to the Minneapolis airport so we could catch our flight back to DC. I was ready for a nice relaxing drive home, but it was a pretty stressful 80 minute drive as it was dark, raining fairly hard and it was the first time I've driven back from the Reagan National Airport. So we're back home, got the pups picked up this morning and now we're in the middle of a snowstorm! It was quite nice and in the upper 70's while we in Des Moines - coming home to this weather was certainly not expected!

When we went to pick up the pups, we made a side trip to the market so I could pick up some supplies for dinner tonight. We have become big broccoli fans over the past couple of years and this recipe, Broccoli with Red Pepper Flakes and Toasted Garlic, sounded like it was right up our alley. There is not much work or many ingredients happening here - just broccoli sautéed in a touch of oil with salt, spicy red pepper and thinly sliced garlic cloves. Just a quarter cup of water is added and the broccoli is allowed to steam until it is bright green and crisp-tender. Clean, fresh and a bite from the red pepper, this quick side was a refreshing change to the foods we ate while traveling. We thought the garlic might be a little overwhelming, but the paper thin slices were quite mild and their flavor just melted into the dish.

Tonight's main dish, Pork Pot Stickers, was definitely more involved than the above side dish. While the original recipe calls for the round gyoza skins, I ended up having to use wonton wrappers. The market we stopped at to get supplies this morning did not have the thicker gyoza - I think the wontons worked just as well though, we just ended up with a different shape! Inside the tender bundles is a cooked mixture of ground pork, green onions, soy sauce and sesame oil with a bit of cabbage and carrot coleslaw tossed in at the last minute to slightly cook down. While the recipe is fairly basic, it can get quite tedious filling and folding 30 individual wontons! Since it does take awhile and they have a tendency to stick to where ever you set the filled wrappers, I find a light dusting of cornstarch on a baking sheet works fairly well - just be sure to keep them lightly covered so they don't dry out. When you go to cook these, you may have to use a couple skillets or even do them in batches - I have an extra large skillet so I could easily fit all 30 in one pan, but you may want to test it out before you start to cook them and see if there is enough room. Once golden brown, a cup of water is poured in and they quickly steam to finish warming through. I used a delicious simple Asian dipping sauce that Jeff loved from an earlier recipe, but feel free to use whatever you wish to dunk them in.

These pot stickers are also an excellent option to make ahead - you would prepare them right up to the point where they are filled. Instead of cooking them right away, you could leave them on a baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Place the sheet in the freezer and when firm, scoop them up and seal them in a zip bag. Just set them in the refrigerator to thaw the night before you need a speedy meal and continue on with the directions from the recipe to cook them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mental note... chicken burgers can be very tasty!

Jeff worked from home last Friday, so I thought I would make something a little special for lunch that day instead of having leftovers. Since I'm always looking for an excuse to use up our favorite hamburger buns that I've been making, I made a batch of these Chicken-Apple-Bacon Burgers.

We have not bought pre-ground chicken breast in quite some time since we've been making it ourselves in the food processor, so I was happy to see that this recipe had the same idea. Doing it this way allows you to know exactly what is in it and you can control how fine the chicken gets. Once a few strips of salty bacon has cooked until crisp in a skillet, chopped red onions are added to sauté in the smoky drippings we left behind. The bacon, onions and ground chicken are simply seasoned with fresh sage, salt and pepper - the mixture is then formed into patties and grilled.

When the patties are done, crisp slices of granny Smith apples are added to the grill to pick up flavor and soften a bit. Assembled on toasted buns, these lean burgers are still moist and flavorful with a cool, tart bite from the sliced apples. We chose to have these unadorned, but feel free to dress them up with your favorite fixins' or slather on some sweet honey mustard to add another layer of flavor. Jeff has already asked that we make these again soon - I might even think about dicing up the apples and then sautéing them with the onions in the bacon drippings just to change them around a bit. We had these with a side of baked tostito scoops and salsa, but you could round out the meal with some waffle fries or maybe even plan a picnic at home with homemade coleslaw or potato salad!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Not your average slice-n-bake cookies!

Before we left for this Des Moines trip, I wanted to bring along a snack that would hold up well through the plane ride and still be good for a few days after they were made. Cookies are pretty sturdy and I wanted something a little different, so I made these fun Anise-Scented Fig and Date Swirls.

These beautiful spiraled cookies take a few extra steps to make and need a few extra hours to chill out in the refrigerator, but the dough will hold for a couple days before you need to bake them. Instead of an all-butter cookie, this dough is cut with a bit of cream cheese - so the cookies bake into very tender, but still firm morsels. The dough sings with a light licorice aroma from the use of freshly ground anise seeds that are mixed into the dry ingredients. The shadowy swirls inside the blonde cookie are a sweet puree of dried figs, dates, water and a bit of granulated sugar. This mixture is fairly thick, so try and be gentle when you spread it over the rolled out dough so it does not tear. If you find it takes you awhile to get the dough rolled out and filled, it may have had a chance to soften quite a bit - you may want to slide it back into the refrigerator for a few minutes. This will give it a chance to firm back up and it will be easier to roll into a log.

Once rolled up, the dough is then coated in a generous amount of chunky turbinado sugar for an extra crunch to the outside. The dough now needs to chill for around 4 hours so it has a chance to get fairly firm - you don't want it to squish when you go to cut it into rounds. After the logs are formed and wrapped in plastic wrap, I like to put them in a long paper towel tube that has been split down the middle - I've been doing this for a few years now and it helps the dough keep its circular shape. One more tip - if you give the dough a quarter turn each time you cut off a cookie, this will also help keep the dough round. I baked these cookies last Friday and they are still just as good as the day they were baked; however, they have softened just a little. We both thought these were kind of like a fig newton spiked a mild licorice flavor - so these may not be for everyone. I will definitely be putting these delicious gems on the list for this year's Christmas baking spree - they have a stunning appearance and can be easily put together in stages during that busy time of the year.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Playing catch up...

So we spent most of the day yesterday driving from Minneapolis to Des Moines... we flew into the cities so it would give us a chance to stop at the farm and visit for awhile! We're over here so Jeff can attend some meetings - at least the weather is nice... it is suppose to be close to 70 the next few days too! Woo!

As I mentioned earlier, I did get a chance to try out some other recipes before we left... this recipe, Peanut-Tamarind Sweet Potato Curry, is one we had for dinner a few days ago. Chunky sweet potatoes are simmered in vegetable broth with fresh ginger, jalapeño and curry powder until they are tender. Tangy orange juice, crunchy peanut butter, brown sugar and tamarind paste are stirred into the soft potatoes and left to cook for just a few minutes more to thicken up. To serve, I made some floral-scented brown jasmine rice as a base to the chunky curry. We were expecting this dish to have more of a kick to it, but I think we got a dud jalapeño - that seems to be happening a lot lately! If you don't have tamarind paste, you could substitute an equal amount of fresh lime juice, but do try and find the paste as I think it is worth the effort. This had a pleasant balance between savory and sweet - the crunchy peanuts brought a salty bite and a nice crunch to the curry. I don't find meals like this photograph all that well, at least for us, but here's one we shot anyway!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Creamy tropical flavored bars...

Even though we are out in the Midwest now, I still have quite a few recipes that we've made this past week and need to get posted. So we won't be back home until Friday, but I do still have plenty to talk about!

A couple days ago, I mentioned we had some leftover pineapple that we used in a side dish that night. I actually bought the pineapple in the first place to use it in these these fun Piña Colada Cheesecake Bars that I made earlier in the week.

Honey graham cracker crumbs mixed with coconut flour, crunchy turbinado sugar and ground ginger are tossed with melted butter and canola oil to form the crisp base to these bars. Coconut flour is a bit sweet, gluten-free and has a high fiber count... however, this flour can be quite expensive ($5-8 a pound!) . If you don't feel like splurging, you can just use all-purpose flour instead. The cheesecake section of these bars is lighter than your ordinary mixture as the cream cheese is cut with cottage cheese. Since it is pureed smooth, you won't notice any lumps from the cottage cheese and the texture is still good, but it will be different - it wont have that firm consistency that one may expect. The flavor didn't seem to suffer much though. A tropical flare flavors the cheesecake batter from the additions of fresh lemon zest, lemon juice, pineapple juice and a splash of vanilla for good measure.

Once the sun-kissed batter is poured over the crust and has had a chance to bake, the entire batch needs to sit in the refrigerator until well chilled so the flavors have a chance to develop and they have a chance to set up so you get clean slices when you cut them into bars. Diced pineapple is scattered on top after the bars have baked and cooled so you get that fresh tangy burst of sweetness they add. Since pineapple and coconut go so well together, a sprinkling of golden toasted coconut on top is a perfect way to round out these creamy treats with a crunch and contrast in color. I do have one suggestion - I would wait until right before you serve them to add the coconut - we found that it softened quite a bit as the bars sat in the refrigerator and we missed that bite the freshly toasted coconut added.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Stir-fried steak in a snap...

As we head for the airport early in the morning tomorrow, you can imagine today was just as busy as yesterday since we had to get the pups over to the "doggy resort" and get things finished up around the house. I went for another quick-to-prepare dinner with a recipe for Stir-Fried Szechuan Steak on Rice.

Thin sliced flank steak, cut across the grain to keep the meat tender, is tossed with minced garlic and spicy crushed red pepper. Rather than using a mild canola oil, toasted sesame oil is heated to cook this dish, which will lend a darker nutty flavor. Fresh crunchy sugar snap peas are the first addition to the hot oil, quickly followed by the steak mixture. A mixture of salty soy sauce, cornstarch and a dash of sugar is added into the pan and quickly thickens up to form a light glossy sauce to coat the peas and steak. If you prefer dishes like this fairly saucy, especially being served over rice, you may want to make 1 1/2 times the soy sauce mixture. As is, there is just enough to completely coat the ingredients and have just a little extra. For a bit of texture, crunchy chopped peanuts are scattered over the top of the plated dish to finish. Now, even though I decided to serve this over fragrant brown jasmine rice (feel free to use whatever rice calls to you if you make this), I'll stand by the quick-to-prepare part as I was able to let the rice cook away without having to tend to it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Those hectic days... what to have for dinner?

We've been pretty busy getting things wrapped up around here as we are flying out to the mid-west this weekend, so I wanted to keep dinner light and easy tonight. We'll begin with the side we had tonight for this recipe of a Carrot-Pineapple Slaw.

I had to buy some pineapple earlier in the week for a dessert I was making (more on this later...) and ended up with some leftover chunky pieces - I looked through one of my to-try piles and came across this recipe that used up the extra amount. This is a refreshing and simple combination of crunchy carrots, juicy golden raisins and diced pineapple. The slaw is coated in a sweet and tart dressing made from canola oil, lemon juice, pure maple syrup and pineapple juice. The maple syrup make look a little out of place to some, but the texture adds a thick sticky body to the sauce and we thought it helped the dressing cling on to the thin carrots. A scattering of fresh parsley is tossed in to pop the colors and the mixture goes into the refrigerator to chill until you are ready to serve - a great dish to make ahead and have ready to go when you need it. I'd love to have this again as a side to some basic grilled pork chops.

One ingredient that we tend to move towards when we are looking to get dinner done in a hurry is shrimp - which just happen to be one of Jeff's favorite savory foods. This made-for-two dish, Salt and Pepper Shrimp, took just a few minutes to throw together and we were ready to sit and enjoy dinner after our hectic day. The crusted shrimp are spread over a crisp broccoli slaw that has been tossed in a mixture of fresh lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil and a dash of sugar to help balance the dressing. What gives the shrimp their crunchy coating is not all-purpose flour, but instead we tossed them with rice flour which we found to work extraordinarily well. The rice flour, which happens to be gluten free and is basically just finely ground white rice, is seasoned with salt, fresh ground pepper and five-spice powder. The five-spice mixture brings in the basic flavors of bitter, pungent, salty, sour and sweet to give the shrimp an extra kick - try and find a blend that includes Szechwan peppercorns for the best flavor. Once they have almost completely cooked, a chopped jalapeño is tossed in which lends just a touch of heat without being a distraction to the tender shrimp.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Chard makes another appearance....

Since we have tried Swiss chard a couple times now, we've found that we both quite enjoy the flavor it adds to recipes. It can be prepared similar to spinach, but has a heartier texture and brings a bit stronger presence to the dish it is used in. We were able to use it again in yet another new fashion with tonight's speedy dinner of Guadalajaran Swiss Chard Quesadillas.

Between the golden crispy white corn tortillas is a chard mixture that consists of sautéed onions, garlic, a serrano chile for heat, whole cumin seeds and Mexican oregano which adds a slightly more pungent flavor. For a unique flare, tequila is poured in and allowed to simmer down, before the chard is added, to impart a strong kick to the dish. Once the chard has been brought into the skillet, it steams until the leaves wilt and is then given a few minutes to bubble away until any remaining liquid has a chance to evaporate. Besides adding a sharp flavor, a scattering of Monterey Jack cheese on the bottom of the first tortilla will be the glue that hold the two pieces together. If you want to make the process of crisping up the tortillas go a bit faster, you may want to think about having a couple skillets going so it doesn't take too long to get them finished.