Friday, May 28, 2010

Pear and Prosciutto Pizza...

With a fair amount of digging around the past few days, we finally found the pizza stone and other goodies that were stashed away in a box located deep in the garage. It was marked kitchen, but for some reason it didn't quite make it that far! Happy to see it, I was tempted to throw together a pizza that night, but after a long day of cleaning, sorting and box opening, we thought a couple fluffernutters sounded just fine.

After all that, I did make a pizza tonight, but it wasn't a new recipe... Jeff requested we do that Avocado and Canadian Bacon Pizza we first made last year.

However, when I was going through my files on the computer, I found a few snaps of this Pear and Prosciutto Pizza we made before we jetted out of Minneapolis - apparently I forgot about it during all the hubbub with the move!

Rather than spreading a red sauce over the piece of pizza dough we had stretched out, this recipe called for cooking down a couple cups of sliced onions, bringing their inherent sweetness to the surface, and allow them to turn a rich golden brown. Strewn over almost every naked inch, we then covered the top in smooth provolone and thin slices cut from a crisp pear. For a pungent hint of salt, strips of prosciutto covered the pears, followed by a light shower of fresh ground black pepper for a pleasant bite.

We don't usually have a problem assembling and moving our pizzas using a light layer of cornmeal on top of our trusty pizza peel, but there is an easy fix if you happen to be working with an extra sticky dough or don't like the extra crunch the cornmeal adds. You can form and top the pizza dough right onto a piece of parchment and then use that as an aid to easily glide the whole shebang onto the stone (parchment included). After just a few minutes (3 or 4 is usually enough), the dough will have cooked enough that you can slide it off the parchment, giving the crust direct contact with the hot stone. Do you have to take the parchment out? Not always, but if the oven is heated especially hot, it will darken quite quickly and besides, I think the direct contact makes for a slightly crisper crust.

Slid onto our heated stone to bake, as soon as the crust had browned and the cheese melted into a bubbly pool under the pears, we moved the pizza onto a cooling rack and sprinkled over nutty toasted walnuts for crunch.

While I'm sure you could serve this as is and be satisfied, for a touch of freshness, we dressed a bowl of peppery arugula with tangy sherry vinegar and scattered it over the top of the warm pizza to serve. With a combination of ingredients and textures that are anything but ordinary, I hope they don't scare you away - I'm sure you'll love this as much as we did if you give it a go!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Whole-Grain Waffles with Cherry Sauce...

I can't remember the last time we had a "breakfast-for-dinner" night, so I made sure to schedule one into the menu this week. After a bit of frantic searching this afternoon to find the darn waffle maker (someone hid it in a closet upstairs and forgot!), we used it to make these Whole-Grain Waffles with Cherry Sauce.

Instead of waiting until the waffles were done to create the sauce, the deeply red syrup replacement controlled the stove for the first few minutes. I didn't want to wait until fresh cherries flood the market to make this, which means I turned to the frozen department to get my fix - if you do the same, there is no need to thaw them first. If you do have fresh cherries available, just pop out their pits and use the same amount called for.

Combined with water, sticky honey, lemon juice and cornstarch, the sauce needs to come to a boil and cook for about a minute, activating the starch's thickening power, and it's good to go. For good measure, just after we took the pot off the heat, a splash of vanilla was added for a special floral note - almond extract might be nice as well, though not in the same amount since it is quite potent - add a few dribbles and taste.

The dry ingredients don't vary too much from your everyday waffle recipe, except using white-whole wheat flour (whole-wheat pastry flour would work here too) for a bump in nutrition instead of all-purpose, along with a scoop of fine cornmeal for a hint of crunch. You won't need too much sugar to sweeten the waffles either as the sauce will add plenty as soon as it's poured on, but a bit of brown sugar goes a long way for texture and lending a mild molasses depth.

Unless you have six waffle irons lined up, you'll most likely be making them in batches. To keep the first waffles warm and crisp, turn your oven to a low two hundred degrees before you start these. As soon as each waffle is ready, either lay (don't stack!) them on a wire rack placed in the oven or set them right on the oven racks so air can circulate around. Once the last of the batter is dropped onto the iron to cook, slide the pan with the cherry sauce back over low heat just to warm through.

A shallow, American-style waffle maker will work with these, but we went with a thicker Belgian-style, giving us deep pockets for the glistening sauce to wander and settle into. Using buttermilk gave these waffles a bit of fluff to the interior, while at the same time providing a delightful tangy finish. We had a bit leftover, which will work in my favor to make for a speedy breakfast sometime since waffles freeze quite well (keeping the sauce separate) - all we'll need to do to reheat the waffles is stick them in the toaster oven for a few minutes to take the chill off and re-crisp the outside, bringing them very close to a just-cooked feel.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shortbread Rhubarb Sandwich Cookies...

When I went to pick the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day recipe this week, Shortbread Rhubarb Sandwich Cookies, I was a little sad that I wouldn't be able to run out the back door to pull a few stalks off the ever-growing patch we had in the backyard. We planted it almost 3 years ago and it had really taken off - we'll just have to start over with new plants! I was hopeful we would find some at the local farmers' market and thankfully we ran into the only vendor who had them before they sold out.

We chopped those thick stalks down and tossed them into a pot with a scoop of sugar, a pinch of salt (don't forget this!) and a healthy splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Cooked down until the rhubarb had softened, the jam was ready when it had begun to thicken and the tart pieces began to break down. If you don't trust your judgment on if the mixture has cooked enough, you can spoon a bit onto a plate and put it in the refrigerator - if it has thickened to a jam-like consistency when it is cold, you've got it. If it is still quite runny, let it cook for a couple more minutes. To keep the jam from continuing to cook, we plunged the bottom of the pot into a bowl of icy water to quickly cool down before stashing it away in the refrigerator (I did this on Monday to get it out of the way).

The cookies were prepared using a classic shortbread base, made with 5 simple ingredients - creamy butter, confectioners' sugar, vanilla, flour and salt. Because the dough is on the softer side, you'll need to chill it at least a couple hours before rolling it out - feel free to make it a day ahead of time just like the jam, but you'll want to take it out 5 to 10 minutes before trying to work with it.

Using a round, scalloped-edge cookie cutter to stamp out the dough, we set all of them onto parchment-lined baking sheets, then stashed them into the freezer to firm back up. You'll have scraps leftover, which can be re-chilled and rolled again to maximize your yield. Before we started baking the cookies, we took a small cutter and pulled out small heart shapes from half of the cookies, then re-chilled those to ensure they keep their shape. When baking, the cookies will be done when their edges just barely begin to brown.

I went ahead and baked off those hearts we pulled out too, sprinkling them with a bit of sparkly vanilla sugar first - you could just add them back into the scraps to re-roll, but I thought these would be a fun bonus!

These elegant sandwiches are brought together by smearing a bit of the homemade jam on top of a whole cookie, then setting one of the punched out cookies over, making for an attractive tease as to what's between the two. The cookies themselves are crisp, yet quite buttery that they easily melt away in your mouth. While the jam was sweet, the rhubarb shined through with its contrasting tartness, creating an irresistible combination that I had a hard time keeping my spoon out of!

Jeff did comment on how much he loved the whisper of clean brightness the lemon juice added - not so much that it would interfere with the pureness of rhubarb, but enough to do its job. My jam wasn't as candy-apple red as pictured in the original recipe, however, the natural blush color didn't bother me at all. I guess you could add a few drops of red coloring, but neither of us thought it was necessary.

To keep the integrity (crispness!) of the cookies, I just assembled enough for us to test and photograph tonight - I'll be up early putting the rest together!


Friday, May 21, 2010

Toasted Orzo Chicken Soup...

Fridays are usually reserved for pizza nights and as much as I was hoping to make our first in this house this evening, I haven't located the box with the pizza stone yet, along with the box that contained my yeast and whole-wheat flour (and who knows why this wasn't packed with my other baking ingredients to begin with!). We did, however, make a new recipe last night that we'll be enjoying as leftovers tonight.

While we end up eating our fill of soups and stews during the chilly wintertime, we still yearn for a bowl now and then when the weather begins to heat up or we need a bit of comfort in the form of food (like last night!). They don't tend to be as heavy or rich though, just like the Toasted Orzo Chicken Soup we prepared.

You'll need cooked chicken to toss into the bubbling pot later, which you could do by picking up a rotisserie bird from the market, but we followed along with the recipe and poached a pound of chicken breasts right in the broth we would be using later on in the soup. Not only does this gently cook the chicken, keeping it tender and moist, but it amplifies the liquid (whether it be broth or stock, whichever you have on hand), adding another layer of "chicken-ness", for lack of a better word.

As to not waste time, while the chicken was working away, we took the ozro (rice-shaped pasta, which incidentally we've seen come in whole-wheat now!) and tossed it around in a sizzling puddle of melted butter. When the pasta turned a deep golden brown, intensifying its nuttiness, we scooped the slender pieces out onto a plate, allowing us to use the same pot to start the vegetables in. With a heavy drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to get us started, chopped carrot, vibrant red bell pepper and a couple finely chopped shallots were stirred in to begin softening.

We held back on the next two ingredients, shredded zucchini and minced garlic, because they don't take as long to cook. If you happen to prefer the texture of chopped zucchini, rather than shredded, feel free to make that swap - just remember to throw it in when you add the other vegetables. By this point, the chicken should be cooked through - remove the breasts from the poaching liquid and let it cool while you skim any foam or excess fat away from the enhanced broth. You don't have to be super diligent here, but the more impurities you remove, the cleaner the soup will be. When you can handle the chicken, shred it using your hands or two forks - you can also run your knife through the meat, but shredded makes it feel more homey to us.

The toasted orzo was brought back into the mix as soon as the vegetables were ready, along with the chicken, boosted broth and a couple cups of water. Just before the orzo was cooked through, we added another shot of color by stirring in a handful of peas, which take just a minute to come up to temperature. Before I added the last two pieces to this puzzle, I wanted to give the soup a taste to see what they would add - it tasted fine as is, if a bit flat and "routine".

Fresh parsley and the oil-y zest from a lemon was what I was holding back and once the two were stirred in, they made all the difference. That was all this soup needed to go from "ho-hum ordinary" to "zing! I've got your attention now". Light, refreshing and full of eye-popping color, this soup was just as filling to us as those rich, hearty soups or stews we jump for in the colder months, without leaving us in a sleepy coma afterwards. We got about four well-portioned servings, but I imagine you could stretch this to six or so by bumping up the vegetables a bit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Revival of treat day...

We have been making headway on turning the new house here in Charlotte into our home, unpacking a good amount of those boxes the movers delivered last Saturday. The kitchen is, in no uncertain terms, a disaster area at the moment - I think I found all the boxes and emptied them, but all the goods are strategically strewn (well, maybe not so much, but it sounded good) over the counter tops and kitchen table, waiting for me to figure out where their new home will be. My plan is to attack that mess after I get this post finished!

I've gotten a few e-mails on when we're going to start up the Wednesday Treat Day and I didn't want to push it off any longer, so I carved out an area on the island this morning to whip up this weeks' goodie. Besides, it gave me a chance to test out the oven! Jeff saw me going through recipes to figure out what to make and he suggested we ease in and just re-make a favorite cookie of his that we've done before, but not for this group of co-workers. Sounded good to me and we decided on those whimsical Root Beer Float Cookies!

I did touch up the recipe from the last time we posted about them, changing the wording some, while also adding a splash of vanilla (not sure why we didn't think to add that before, always good in my book!).

My plan is to get back with new recipes, hopefully at least one or two within the next few days, and get back into our normal cooking routine by next week or so... we just need to get out and restock our cooking/baking supplies! Speaking of, I'm all ears if you have any suggestions about favorite markets or food shopping places if you're in the area!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We made it!

After a wild couple of days, closing on the new house and moving out of the hotel, we're finally in!

The trailer with all our goods isn't expected to arrive until Saturday (boo!), but we trucked a u-haul behind the car with the more important items to keep us (barely) sane until then. Even though it has only been a few days since we left, I've definitely been missing out on being able to do anything in the kitchen. We'll get back to some sort of a regular posting schedule shortly, we just need boxes here to unpack!

Friday, May 07, 2010

We're almost outta here!

This should speak volumes...

The big truck was loaded today and has taken off - we're staying here one more night and will start our trek to Charlotte early Saturday morning with a small u-haul in tow. This will be the first moving experience for Gus (Jeff calls it his "initiation") and he didn't look too thrilled - this is how he spent most of his day!

I bet he'll perk right up when he see his new, expansive flat(!) backyard. We are going to be off-line for a few day until we put ourselves back together in our new home - will update as soon as we can.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Roasted Red Pepper Pizzas with Arugula...

You know we usually reserve our pizza nights for Friday evenings, but I shifted it to tonight as tomorrow is bound to be a wacky day with the moving truck being loaded and us getting ready to leave for Charlotte Saturday morning. I figured the simpler the better with this pie and when Jeff brought home a bunch of gorgeous arugula he saw at the farmers' market, I knew exactly what I was going to make - Roasted Red Pepper Pizzas with Arugula.

With our favorite, no nonsense whole-wheat pizza dough making up the crusty base (I went the 12 ounce route this time, but for extra thickness you could bump it up to the pound recipe), we split the bubbly risen dough in half, then stretched each out as thin as we could. Rather than using a tomato-based sauce, these pizzas are smeared with an unpretentious purée of roasted red peppers, modestly seasoned with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Roast your own bell peppers if you like, but I went the convenience route and used a jarred pepper that we drained well and seeded.

On top of each blushing red slick, we piled on thin slices of fresh mozzarella and since these were going to be quite clean, we then drizzled over a touch of fruity extra-virgin olive oil. I do recommend leaving a solid border around the edge, free from any sauce or cheese while assembling - as the pepper purée heats and the cheese melts, they will both expand and if you have that edge, you won't need to worry about messy spillovers.

I baked these pizzas one at a time, taking full advantage of the fiery hot baking stone we keep in the oven, but you could certainly transfer both to a large baking sheet and bake them at the same time. As the first came off the stone, we topped the gooey cheese with torn fresh basil leaves and the peppery arugula we found at the market. We didn't add the arugula on its own though as we dressed it with oil, salt and pepper first, then served the pizza wedges with a slice of lemon to squirt over the top for an acidic bite.

I did add the basil to the hot second pizza, but left the arugula for this one undressed and in a separate container. We plan to tear into the second tomorrow for lunch, adding the arugula when serving to keep its freshness.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Smothered Chicken and Barley...

If you hear a few clucks the next time you visit us, don't be shocked.... with all of the chicken we've been downing lately, we may just start growing feathers! Thankfully, there isn't too much left and at least we have been able to come up with a variety of ways to work through it all. I had to snatch out a pound and a half worth of thighs (almost out! woo!) for tonight's dish, Smothered Chicken and Barley.

An intriguing combination of spices were blended together, consisting of smoky cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, dried mint, salt, garlic powder and for a hint of heat, a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper to be used in two spots. You'll need to get your hands dirty for the first use as half of it is rubbed all over the thigh meat - I used boneless, skinless because that's what we had, but you can amp up the flavor by using bone-in thighs. I'd still remove the skin though!

With the chicken seasoned, we took the meat and seared it off in a hot skillet until both sides gain a golden color. This takes just a minute or two as you're not trying to cook the thighs through at all - just caramelizing the outside, intensifying their natural essence. Scooting the meat out, the same skillet, riddled with tasty browned bits on the bottom, can then be used to soften a chopped onion and red bell pepper. To push in a bit of salt along with those two vegetables, a quick splash of soy sauce went in, which also adds the liquid needed to help release those browned bits.

A clove of fresh garlic is added, which when heated through is followed by pearl barley, fire-roasted tomatoes, the remaining spice mixture and a few cups of chicken broth. The browned chicken is then cozily nestled into the skillet, making for a bubbly warm bed to cook the ingredients through. With this type of barely, the time needed will be at least a good forty-five minutes, but luckily, this is all downtime as you won't need to mess with it at all. This should leave you with time to clean up, sit down and relax, with drink in hand if you like.

As the mixture simmered while I was taking a break, I soon noticed an aromatic fist lifting from the skillet, aiming to shoot my nostrils with the smell of pure comfort. Unfortunately though, as I sat there un-patiently salivating at the thought of eating, the dish still needed to sit and rest for fifteen minutes off heat. Give in to this time as the flavors will blend and meld.

With the thighs almost absurdly tender, Jeff and I tore through plates of this in nearly (shamefully) record time! Complex, yet completely relatable at the same time, I was a little surprised with how much we enjoyed the cinnamon and mint in this - subtle, yet they were notable and well received. The barley, suspended in the juices the chicken and tomatoes exuded, were plump and tender, yet still retained their classic chewy texture to bulk up each serving. While I'd give this bonus points for the gratification it gave alone, the fact that this was completely made all in one skillet, making for easy clean up, certainly deserves recognition on its own!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Lime Angel Food Cake...

Packing has intensified around here with the moving truck set to arrive on Friday, but there are a few items I haven't surrounded with beige paper and sealed in a box, namely our stand mixer! The mixer is being left out as long as possible since I would like to make a repeat cookie or three next week as thank you gifts, but I also had a more selfish reason - I wanted cake! More specifically, this Lime Angel Food Cake with Lime Glaze and Pistachios!

Angel food cake can seem fairly ambitious, but it doesn't have to be as long as you have a bit of confidence and vigor! A few tips also don't hurt... one of the best I can give has to do with the whites - they should be at room temperature before you start whipping them as they will beat up quicker with a bit more volume if the whites are not chilled, but they separate from the yolks easier when they are cold. If you are using eggs right from the refrigerator, separate the yolks and then leave the whites in your mixing bowl, covered, for at least a half hour to warm up.

An aside... Whenever I separate eggs to use their yolks, I don't like to just toss out the whites - I usually add them to a container that I keep in the deep freeze. They often times end up in frosting (like the seven-minute or Swiss meringue type), homemade marshmallows or some type of meringue cookie - however, when I get enough, I love to make angel food cake (or cupcakes!).

Lime zest and juice will be used with the cake, but only the zest is used inside the cake - the tiny shreds are beaten in while the whites are whirling around the bowl. As soon as you've gotten the whites to a stiff peak stage (making sure to use a bowl and beaters that are free from any oil or grease), you'll be folding in the dry ingredients in three stages. This is where a light hand works best - when you sprinkle the flour mixture into the bowl, gently fold the whites from the bottom up and stop when you see the dry ingredients have disappeared.

A tube pan with a removable bottom works best for angel food cake for one simple reason - it takes away the pain and fear of unmolding the cake as the pan won't be greased first! That's right, keep the butter, spray or shortening away as the fluffy batter needs traction to climb and rise up the pan as it bakes. The next nifty quirk about these types of cakes? You'll be cooling the cake upside down once they have finished baking! Some tube pans have three or four "feet" along the top edge so can just turn the pan over and air can still circulate through - if your pan doesn't have that, just align the tube onto a skinny-necked heat-safe bottle. Because of how delicate the cake is, the weight of it can be enough to partially collapse the crumb. Turning it upside down relieves any pressure, ensuring the cake says tall and light.

While you could eat this just as it is out of the pan, there are a couple more steps to add a definite wow factor to the cake. We took the juice from the limes we zested and heated it with a scoop of sugar to make a thick, tangy syrup. Lavishly brushed all over the cake, we then immediately took finely chopped pistachios and went to town, scattering them all over the top and sides of the cake. Since the syrup is sticky while warm, the nuts will grab a hold no problem. After the syrup cools on the cake, it creates a wicked sugar-y lime crust that I frankly couldn't get enough of.

I used a food processor to get a fairly fine chop on the nuts, but when I did that, I also added a pinch of sea salt as the nuts I used were unsalted. Besides adding a lovely green pop of color (helping with the lime theme), the textural contrast between the nuts and soft cake was divine, while the salt was welcome counter to the sweetness of the syrup. For one final touch, we stirred the rest of the fresh juice we had into a bowl of confectioners' sugar, making a bright glaze to gingerly drizzle over the top. Screaming springtime with its airy texture and vibrant use of limes, I eagerly licked every nugget and crumb found on my plate - Jeff and I both agree that this cake ranks right up near the top of our all-time favorite desserts we've made yet!