Monday, August 31, 2009

Spinach and Cheese Ravioli

So, we've been into the homemade pasta lately... but we didn't have nearly the time to deal with that this evening. However, in these Spinach and Cheese Ravioli, wonton wrappers came to the rescue and helped speed things along! While you don't get quite the same result as if you were to use pasta dough, Jeff and I have found them to be easy to work with and have been pretty satisfied with the results when we've used them in the past!

With the help of our food processor, the filling was quite a snap to prepare! The mozzarella, Asiago and cottage cheeses were tossed into the processor bowl with a couple cloves worth of sautéed minced garlic, dried oregano, black pepper, a pinch of fresh grated nutmeg and thawed frozen spinach. With just enough added milk to thin it slightly, a few short pulses was all it took to bring the cheesy stuffing together.

To keep the wonton wrappers pliable, keep them covered with a damp towel or saran wrap while you work with them one at a time. With a small scoop of the filling placed on top, the ravioli are formed by brushing two of the edges with egg white, then folding two opposite corners together to form a triangle. Be sure you give the edges a sturdy pinch so the filling doesn't go and leak out while cooking. It does take some time to get 36 of them together, but if you set it up assembly style, it does seem to fly by - especially when Jeff decided to join in on the fun!

Once you have a tray full of the tidy triangles and are ready to cook them, ease them into the salted boiling water in three batches - this way you won't crowd the pot and drop the temperature dramatically. You'll also have less sticking issues since the ravioli has plenty of room to bounce around. Now that they are tender and warm, we dressed them with heated marinara for a simple sauce - homemade or jarred doesn't matter, just make sure it's a sauce you know you like! I usually make a big batch every few weeks and stash it in 1/2 or 1 cup portions in the freezer for easy access later on. If you would like to take care of these ahead of time, you could either leave the assembled ravioli in the refrigerator for up to a day, well covered, or place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet (in a single layer) and pop them into the freezer. Just note you might need an extra minute or two when cooking them from frozen.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ginger Beef Stir-Fry...

For our weekly recap, I think our favorites this time were that Potato Pizza with Fresh Rosemary, Thyme and Mozzarella, those crazy good Chocolate Ginger Marble Cakes and we have to include the Homemade Pasta with Sizzled Sage because it is hard to beat fresh pasta!

Gus tends to be pretty lazy on the weekends and spends most of his time here...

On these stairs, he gets a few good hours of solid warm sunlight that he loves to soak up. Some days, like this morning, not even a puppy snack can lure him away from his sun spot! I don't think he appreciates us interrupting this time by trying to take his picture though!

With a busy day on the table today, another speedy recipe was on tap for dinner tonight - Ginger Beef Stir-Fry.

To give the thinly sliced top sirloin we used as the beef in this dish a seasoned bath, the strips were rested for several minutes in a blend of beef stock, hoisin, soy sauce, rice vinegar and potato starch (or cornstarch if you like). Just a quarter cup or so of this combo used for the beef, while the rest is reserved to become the sauce.

As long as you have a large enough skillet, don't be shy in adding all of the beef at once and stir-frying it until the pieces are just browned, leaving a bright pink center on the inside. However, if your skillet is on the smaller side, do this in a couple batches so you don't crowd the skillet, lowering the temperature and steaming the meat instead. With the beef being removed, a bit more oil is added to the skillet to take the raw edge off a couple cloves of garlic and a scoop of minced fresh ginger. Thinly sliced carrots are added, along with a bit of water and a cover, creating a steamy environment to slightly soften the carrots and pull up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

The meat is added back, and just as important, any accumulated juices collected as it rested, along with the reserved hoisin mixture. Be sure this comes back to a boil, which will heat the beef back up and activate the potato starch, tightening up the liquids to create a glossy sauce that clings to the beef and carrots. For a mild onion-y bite, thinly sliced (catch a theme here?!) scallions are added once the skillet was taken off heat for a fresh note, while a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds scattered on top brought a little crunch with nutty finish.

I decided to serve this over a bed of brown basmati rice, cooked using our favorite no-fuss method (which I should mention also got special bonus points tonight as I didn't have to keep a close watch on it), but this would be equally as good served over noodles with this being as saucy as it was. Jeff was quite pleased with this, especially since he requested a meaty dish this week. He even commented, as he sat at the island watching me prepare it, that this dish was coming together in such a fluid motion that even he would like to try and pull it off sometime! He did note though, and I agree, that even though the ginger gave us a little spice, a touch of heat would have been welcomed... maybe a pinch or two of crushed red pepper in the sauce?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Potato Pizza with...

With help from the herbs in our backyard and our local farmers' market, we threw together this Potato Pizza with Fresh Rosemary, Thyme and Mozzarella for our Friday Pizza Night!

After I had whirled our much-loved whole-wheat pizza dough in the food processor and set it aside to let it puff up, I used that time to toss a half pound of baby Yukon Gold potatoes from the market into a saucepan and added just enough cool water to cover. A few pinches of salt for good measure, I let the potatoes simmer until they were just tender enough to glide a knife through with little resistance. Since you want these potatoes to hold together well, don't let them stay in the pot for too long - check for doneness earlier rather than later. So they cool down faster, drain the water away and leave the potatoes be in a separate bowl while the rest of the pizza is prepared.

I used our trick of pre-baking the dough once it was stretched out into a rough circle, ensuring we would end up with a crisp crust that would hold up to the toppings. Just remember to turn the partially-baked crust over, giving the uncooked side access to the heated stone, while the lightly browned bottom becomes the top canvas for your pizza portrait. The first layer was a smearing of a homemade pizza sauce that I made and froze a week ago - this was just a basic chunky sauce made from good olive oil, peeled and seeded garden tomatoes (I used what was ripe - a mix of roma and celebrity), a mess of minced garlic and crushed red pepper that I simmered for almost two hours, letting it thicken and concentrate down. Right as I took it off the heat, I stirred in a heaping scoop of fresh oregano for its fragrant punch.

After slicing the now-cooled potatoes into thin rounds, we gently tossed them with olive oil, fresh rosemary, thyme and of course, the obligatory salt and fresh ground black pepper. Arranged all over the top, we used enough potato that one would get a piece in each bite, but also left plenty of open space. Those spots wouldn't stay open for long though, because we filled any of those areas with thin slices from a ball of fresh mozzarella! If you find that you're having a hard time slicing this squishy cheese, wrap it up and stash it in the freezer for 15 minutes - this is just enough time to firm up the cheese slightly to make slicing easier.

Since the dough had already been given a head start, it didn't take long for the heat of the oven to finish crisping the crust, bringing the potatoes back to temperature and melting those slices of mozzarella into cheesy puddles. Rosemary is always standard pairing with potatoes, but how the tiny, delicate thyme leaves infiltrated this pizza with its aromatic energy hit the spot! Using a homemade sauce is certainly not required, but Jeff and I both agreed it helped send this pizza over the moon - this will definitely be making another appearance, especially if we make it on another day besides Friday to get two pizza nights!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pasta with Spring Herbs

While the name of tonight's dish we made for dinner, Pasta with Spring Herbs, may lead you to believe it is only best made in the springtime, the herbs we used were just as flourishing and fresh in the trenches of summer.

You can use any variety of herbs that you like together, but you'll want to make sure you end up with a rough half cup worth of the chopped leaves. I went with what we hand in our herb box on the deck - basil, parsley and one of our more under-used herbs, tarragon. Chervil or dill would be good additions too... just keep in mind the intensity of each herb - we used more of the basil and parsley than we did of the more pungent tarragon.

For the pasta, I went with one of our favorite shapes - campenelle, which very much resembles a tightly closed flower. Fusilli, strozzapreti, gemelli or even penne would be excellent choices. Cooked in one of our large pots filled with boiling salted water, we tossed the hot pasta with the selection of herbs, our best extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, fresh grated Parmesan cheese and of course, salt and fresh ground black pepper. For good measure, once plated, one more dose of Parmesan cheese was dusted on top just before serving.

The zest and juice used ramped up the lightness of this pasta dish, keeping it refreshing and clean, which left the door open for the lingering herbal notes from the trio we used to stand up and be noticed. Being one of those snazzy recipes that is done in less than half an hour, and with the August heat taking hold outside, it was most appreciated to get a satisfying dinner on the table quickly, without the need to push the temperatures up inside .

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chocolate Ginger Marble Cakes

For the Wednesday Treat Day this week, we went dark and decadent by preparing these Chocolate Ginger Marble Cakes for Jeff to bring in and share with his co-workers.

While there isn't anything terribly difficult about the batter for the cakes, there are a couple technical details that need to be followed so you get the best result. With the butter, you'll be creaming it with granulated sugar until it has lightened in color and air has been beaten in - don't try and rush this as it takes time. Give it at least 4 or 5 minutes, scraping down the sides a couple times to make sure every bit is incorporated. The butter should be softened, but not meltingly so - if you can't easily make an indent when you press your thumb on the butter, it is too cool still. However, if you set a butter knife on top and it glides itself through with just the weight of the knife, it is probably too soft. You are aiming for somewhere in between - if you want to geek out, take it's temperature - it should be around 66 to 68 degrees.

Beating in the eggs is important too - you'll want to add one at a time, not all six at once in this case, and beat each in until completely combined before adding the next. Why bother? This helps the batter stay cohesive and not curdle - if it does start to look like it is going to curdle, you can add a tablespoon or so from the flour called for in the recipe to help it along. Once the eggs are in and your batter is creamy and voluptuous, it's time to mix in the dry ingredients, spiked with ground ginger, alternately with sour cream. You should end up doing three additions of the dry and two of the sour cream - while you want to get the dry ingredients moistened and the sour cream incorporated, mix as little as possible for the best crumb.

To get the swirly effect to the inside of these cakes, into half of the batter, we gently stirred in a few ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate, changing its color from pale to dark brown. The two batters are then alternately spooned between two loaf pans, then swirled together a few times with a thin knife to marbleize. You do want to check in on these cakes at the half hour or forty-five minute mark - depending on how your oven works, the tops may begin to brown too quickly. If this happens, loosely cover the top with foil - ours baked just fine though without the need to do this. These cakes would probably have been just fine left as is, but we did say we were going dark and decadent, right?

Once the cakes had finished baking and cooled completely, we adorned each loaf with an indulgent glaze made from tossing a half pound of quality bittersweet chocolate into a saucepan of warmed cream. This creates a shiny coating that when left to cool slightly, is thick enough to grab onto the cakes, yet will drip seductively down the sides, teasing your taste buds in anticipation. To echo the ginger inside the cake, along with a flashy topping, we topped the cakes with slivers of sweet crystallized ginger.

So, after all that work... what was the result? Spectacular! With an inviting outside and an eye-catching interior, the cake itself was moist and dense, yet not heavy or overly sticky. The ginger was more than a whisper, yet didn't smack you in the face with a punch, along with enough chocolate presence to create a pleasant balance. Using the sour cream had two benefits in these cakes - besides adding a delightful tang, it also helped to keep the tight crumb tender and soft. Needless to say, self-restraint has been very trying for both of us with this cake howling to be devoured as it sits downstairs... must resist!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Not your average Asparagus Salad...

There are a few recipes that we've made in the past several weeks that I haven't gotten a chance to talk about, with one of them being this Asparagus Salad with Soft Poached Eggs, Prosciutto and Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette. We made this on a Saturday after we picked up a couple bundles of asparagus at one of our local farmers' markets and wanted a meal that was light and uncomplicated for lunch.

The vinaigrette in this dish almost stole the show - made by creating a base of lemon juice, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fresh chives, a small clove of garlic and just a touch of Dijon mustard. When combined, a steady stream of fruity extra-virgin olive oil was whisked in, which brought the mixture together into a cohesive dressing.

After trimming the asparagus (done easily by just snapping the tougher ends of the spears off), they were steamed for a short couple of minutes to give them a little bend, leaving them tender with a bite. Use whatever steaming method you like - on the stove with a steamer insert or in the microwave for a speedier preparation. For the poached eggs, we broke each into a ramekin and then lowered the ramekins down into simmering water to cook them through. This keeps the eggs in a tidy round and I find I can keep a closer eye on getting them to the texture we like. However, if you are more proficient in dropping the eggs into a swirl of vinegar-laced water instead, have at it! You can even poach the eggs ahead of time if you like - slip them into icy water when they are ready, then drop them back into simmering water for just a few seconds to bring them back up to temperature.

Because we wanted this to be a little more substantial than what the original recipe called for, I did toast up a few slices of whole-wheat bread to serve this over. To assemble, we placed thin slices of salty prosciutto (so dreamy... I think I could live on prosciutto if it wasn't so darn expensive) onto the toasted slices, arranged the spears on top, set the eggs over and wrapped the plates up with a drizzle from that wickedly good vinaigrette. This is my (well, ours) preference, but with this dish, I really do think it benefits from keeping the yolks on the softer side, so when you pierce through its opaque shell, the liquid gold gently flows all over the asparagus. The richness from those yolks merges with the tangy dressing to propel this dish from excellent to impressive. If you're on the iffy side of not fully cooking your eggs through, try and seek out pasteurized whole eggs instead.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Homemade Pasta with Sizzled Sage

As I'm sure you've noticed in the past few weeks, the posting has slowed down a bit... I hinted to why and some of you knew exactly what was happening.

Yup! Again... I know - don't say it! At least I don't think we're moving to another state this time... hee hee! If the house sells, and who knows what will happen in this market, we are planning on jetting closer to downtown to cut down on Jeff's commute time and to have access to more things to do. So, when we have a showing or an open house, it's hard to get a post up and ready... hence the little slowdown.

Okay... let's get back to what you are here for! We've been growing sage for the first time this year and even though I've dried a bunch of it with our dehydrator, the plant just won't slow down! In looking for recipes to incorporate the fresh leaves in, I found this Homemade Pasta with Sizzled Sage which sounded too good to pass over.

Ever since I was gifted that pasta machine, I've definitely been more attuned to finding recipes that would put it to use and this recipe uses the machine twice! The dough for this pasta starts in a stand mixer, but is finished by using the strength in my hands to bring it together with a good kneading. Rich with a whopping seven egg yolks, the dough only has two other ingredients - flour and salt! Don't toss out those leftover whites either - save them in the freezer and make an angel food cake later on! When the trio are added in the mixer, you'll want to beat them until the flour begins to moisten and looks like loose wet sand. Scooped out onto the counter, the dough is kneaded until the sand-y flour turns to a stiff, cohesive dough that isn't sticky. If the dough seems crumbly or dry, you may want to sprinkle in water, a little at a time, until it turns the tide.

To make it easier to work with, let this yellow-stained ball sit at room temperature, well wrapped, for about half an hour - this will relax the gluten and help the dough along through the pasta machine. Unless you have a giant machine, you'll want to split the dough into three pieces before running each through the rollers - you will be going from the widest setting all the way down through the thinnest the machine has for a paper thin sheet of dough. To get full use out of the pasta machine, the sheets are then fed through the spaghetti attachment to create an exquisite mound of golden noodles.

While we waited for a large pot of salted water to come up to a full rolling boil, we melted a few pats of butter and tossed in the fresh sage leaves to crisp up. The leaves are fairly flimsy once they hit the heat, so try and not fuss around once they are in - just turn them over once through the cooking process. Pick the leaves out when they are ready, leaving the infused melted butter in the skillet to keep warm, and set them on a plate to be added to the dish in a bit.

If you've never cooked with fresh pasta before, one thing you may not realize is just how fast it cooks. Instead of the eight to 10 minutes dried pasta cooks in, this batch literally takes just one minute to cook through - any longer with these thin strands and you risk losing that sought after al dente texture. Before you drain away the cooking liquid, set aside a rough third cup - this will be added, along with the melted butter, to simply dress the pasta and keep it moist. Seasoned with salt and plenty of fresh ground black pepper, we served the pasta family style with a scattering of the crispy sage and a shower of fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

While cheese is always welcome and an ounce might not seem like a lot, don't go too crazy with adding extra - a little at the table is good, but you want to let the work you did to prepare the delicate, yet sturdy pasta to be the star. Which is why all this needed was the soft, savory essence of the sage hitting your tongue and that slick coating of butter to keep the strands separate. Creating homemade pasta like this doesn't need to be scary or difficult - in fact, it might be a good activity for little helpers to join in with!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lime Sugar Cookies...

I was looking for a cookie to bake this morning, but I was feeling in a plain kind of mood... nothing too fancy or souped up. We had just opened a box of crispy rice cereal the other day and that was the first thing I saw when I opened up the pantry, which reminded me of these Lime Sugar Cookies I've had in my to-try pile for awhile.

The cookie dough is a breeze to prepare with everyday staples - butter, sugar, flour, baking powder and an egg. You wouldn't even need to have a mixer to bring this dough together as it doesn't end up being too stiff, but out of convenience and habit, I did use it today. Because cookies just taste better with at least a little vanilla, that of course went in too, along with the bright zest of a fresh lime. Don't have limes? Make them a lemon cookie with lemon zest, or go with orange zest for an orange-flavored cookie!

The cookie dough ends up being firm enough that you could touch it without pulling your finger back with dough attached, yet remains on the softer side soft so that you can easily portion it out to roll into balls. For a fun, crunchy coating, the dough balls are then rolled through a valley of the rice cereal. After being coated and set on the baking sheet, use your palm or fingers to press the dough balls down slightly - they need a little extra push to evenly spread out while baking, unless you want them more of a tall mound.

I wondered if the cereal was going to turn soggy or soft at all, but they definitely kept their crunch and crackle (though I think the snap faded?... hee hee!). While they are called sugar cookies, they didn't come across as being too sugary at all - I found them more to be a cross between a traditional sugar cookie and a shortbread - more moist than shortbread, but not as crisp as a thin sugar cookie. They had a decent thickness to them, without being cake-like, along with a chewy quality that we both liked. The lime certainly made them pop, with a sweet vanilla finish that kept them from being too boring or bland. I think you could even get away with having a couple of these for breakfast... just a new way to get that cereal in, right?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Eggplant Focaccia...

With another "random request of the week", Jeff surprised me by asking if we could try using eggplant on our Friday Night Pizza. Eggplant? He's never asked for that and where the idea came from I'll never know (especially considering I've only used it twice, ever), but ironically enough, I found this Eggplant Focaccia in a magazine that just came in the mail the other day.

This, of course, happened after we went to the market, so I did need to run back this morning to pick up the vegetable and a hunk of cheese we don't normally have in the refrigerator. To prepare the eggplant for the dough, after slicing it into thin rounds, a generous dose of salt was sprinkled all over. This is done to draw out some of the excess moisture and bitterness - be sure you place them into a colander of some sort, either in the sink or in the bowl, because a pool of liquid will come out. This won't make them extra salty, so don't hold back here - once a half hour had past, we then pressed them between a double layer of paper towels to dry them off.

While that is happening, you'll want to get your oven going to heat up. While we usually use a pizza stone, ours happens to be round and this focaccia is to be shaped into a large rectangle... so it wouldn't fit. To mimic (though not perfectly) the stone, we placed one of our heavy-duty baking sheets into the oven, flat bottom side up, at the same time we turned the oven on. It needs to be a sturdy sheet, otherwise the heat will make a flimsy sheet buckle. And in the same line of thinking, instead of using a round pizza peel, we used another inverted baking sheet to stretch out the pound version of our favorite whole-wheat pizza dough into the requested shape. Just remember to sprinkle it with cornmeal so the dough doesn't end up sticking - you could also use parchment paper if you like.

The recipe originally called for what I thought was an excessive amount of oil, 6 tablespoons - I bumped it down to 4 without cause for concern. The rectangle of dough was then rubbed with a healthy portion of the oil, then sprinkled with Emmentaler cheese to start the layering process. Emmentaler is a type of Swiss cheese (so, keep that in mind if you can't find it specifically) that is creamy, melts well, is slightly salty and has a nutty quality to it that is quite enjoyable. The eggplant is then arranged over the cheese in a single layer and to lift up its flavor, the rest of that olive oil is drizzled over the top. Eggplant is quite absorbent, especially when a lot of the moisture was drawn out, so drizzle as evenly as you can so each gets a piece of the action. Fresh oregano and more of that mellow cheese was sprinkled over to complete the toppings.

Instead of slipping this into the oven right away, we covered it and set it aside for an extra half hour to give the dough a chance to rise and puff up slightly. When you do go to put it in the oven, remember that the sheet you have in there is very hot, so be careful when you remove it to slide the risen dough on. Giving the dough that time to rise allowed this focaccia to have a nice thickness with a hearty chew to the golden crust. Between the fragrant oregano, delicious melted cheese and the warm bread plank underneath, I wondered if the eggplant would get lost in the mix, but being seasoned well with olive oil, I was happy to find it held its own with a pleasant texture. I was eager to find out if this satisfied Jeff's eggplant craving (which I still can't believe I'm saying) and I think he even surprised himself with just how much he liked it! I hope this trend continues and he keeps expanding both of our horizons!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Creamy Avocado and Chickpea Wraps

If you happen to be looking for a healthy, veggie-friendly dish to serve for lunch or dinner, I hope you give these Creamy Avocado and Chickpea Wraps we made tonight a try! I actually had a different recipe planned for this evening, but we ended up having to be away from the house around dinnertime and since neither of us felt like eating out, I whipped up these wraps instead. I did them a couple hours ahead of time and held them in the refrigerator until we left.

While the original version of this has you use a creamier white bean, we both like a bit of textural contrast (Jeff especially), so I brought out some chickpeas I had in the pantry to swap in. Using our handy potato masher as our tool of choice, we mashed those chickpeas with a rich avocado (go as smooth or chunky as you like - just remember it needs to be spread over the tortillas!), then stirred in just a touch of red onion for bite and sharp white cheddar.

For some crunch inside the wrap, a colorful light slaw was created by tossing together firm shreds of red cabbage, strips of bright carrot and fresh cilantro. To bring the slaw together, it was drizzled with a tangy dressing of cider vinegar, canola oil and minced chipotle chile for a smoky edge with a slight spice. I used a ten-inch tortilla, which gave us a little more heft as a main dish, but I think it would fit just fine in an eight-inch if that's what you have.

I wondered if the wrap would end up a little soggy with the moist fillings, but even after sitting a few hours, that didn't seem to happen. However, as this made enough for four servings, I did keep the leftover filling separate from the tortillas and will assemble them for lunch tomorrow. They may have held up fine overnight, but I didn't want to take the chance. With no oven needed and not too much effort, this dish is a practical, simple meal that comes together in a hurry and won't heat up the house on those warm summer days!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bacon and Chocolate...

When Jeff brought the empty tray from last week's Wednesday Treat Day, it came with a request... one I didn't expect to receive. Some of his co-workers asked for a treat with chocolate and one ingredient that seems quite trendy as of late... bacon! I wonder if it has something to do with the state fair coming up and the crazy chocolate covered slab of bacon they were pushing last year?

At any rate, I'm here to please, so after doing some looking around to see what we could come up with, I ended up making these Crispy Chocolate Chip Bacon Cookies. This idea came to mind after seeing David's post on Candied Bacon Ice Cream. I thought if it's good enough to put in ice cream, I had to imagine it would (hopefully) be good in one of our favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes! It seems I'm not the only one though... as there have been others who thought bacon and cookies should go together!

Candied bacon is a snap to make, especially since it is done in the oven and isn't as messy as making it on the stove top. Starting out with strips of thickly sliced bacon, they were neatly arranged on a baking sheet, with each piece then being lightly covered with sweet brown sugar. To make sure the bacon gets uniformly coated, halfway through baking them, you'll want to flip the bacon over and drag each piece through the sticky juices on the baking sheet so each side gets a piece of the action. If your bacon is excessively fatty, you may want to bake it on a rack so the strips don't stew in the juices. Leave the bacon in until it is quite dark - not burned, but you want the pieces richly burnished and crisp. While the slices cooled, I moved onto the cookie dough!

The dough is one we've done before and is a favorite of Jeff's as he likes crisp cookies that still have a slight chew to them. It does use a combo of butter and shortening (I like using Spectrum Organic) - this gives us the texture we like best, but you still get that buttery flavor one expects with chocolate chip cookies. Once prepared, I hacked up the cooled bacon into uneven bits, some small, some large, and tossed them in when I folded in a couple generous handfuls of bittersweet chocolate. I like to refrigerate the dough first, which firms the fat back up and helps keep the cookies in tidy circles that spread just enough, yet not too much that they become too thin. A couple hours is sufficient, but the longer you can let it go the better - I prepared the dough early Monday morning, then baked this evening.

When I went to test the cookie, I thought I would be overwhelmed with a weird smokiness, but actually the bacon wasn't as in-your-face as feared. What it did bring was that delicate fusion of salty and sweet that works so well in baked goods, but with a little bacon-y goodness that brings up the rear. Jeff thought I was crazy for even trying it, but he reluctantly gave in and had to know how they came out. He said "Okay... we need to somehow put these on a stick and sell them at the fair - they are weirdly addicting!". Would it work with plain crisped bacon, instead of going the extra length to coat it with the sugary dressing? Maybe, but applying that extra layer of sweetness worked in our favor by knocking back any "meatiness" that might have become a hindrance.

Now, I'm sure the combo of chocolate and bacon might disgust some... but really, don't knock it until you have tried it! It may not be for all, and I'm sure some might have not expected I actually followed through with the request, but just remember, they asked for it! Hee hee! I don't think this is something I would make on a regular basis or for just any reason, but it was fun for it's novel factor if nothing else.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Spicy Chicken Stir-Fry with Peanuts

While we've been using up those fresh peas from the garden as we could, I have been blanching a lot of them to store in the freezer for later use. While I didn't have to dip into them yet, I'm glad they are there as they'll be tapped soon to make this Spicy Chicken Stir-Fry with Peanuts again that I made for dinner tonight.

Hearty chicken breasts, sliced thinly, was our starting point this evening by tossing the strips into a peanut oil-lined skillet and letting them gain a bit of color. Fresh garlic, serrano chiles (to taste!) and a heaping scoop of trimmed snow peas join the chicken, along with a splash or two of broth (or water if you don't have any broth handy) to give the ingredients a little room to groove. No serrano chiles? Swap in a jalapeño instead, and with either, feel free to remove the ribs and seeds - however, then you won't get the heat as the title suggests! As this point, the skillet only needs to stay over the heat to finish cooking the chicken through and take off the raw edge of the peas, leaving them crisp-tender.

Not bad, but it could come across a touch flat as is, so to bring the stir-fry to life, fresh lime juice, salty peanuts and a few torn leaves from our basil plants in the garden (use 'em if you got them!) were thrown in at the last second. Done in what felt like the blink of an eye, this dish was in and out of the skillet in just about 10 minutes! We often serve stir-frys over rice or noodles, but since I knew there wasn't going to be a ton of sauce happening here, I opted to forgo that this time. After eating, we both agreed this was a good thing for us as this was quite light, yet still filling enough with the chicken and peas, that we both felt satisfied and content without being weighed down.

Serving two as is, what's nice about this recipe is the ease of scale - halve the ingredients if you'd like to make a single portion, or double it for more! Life is getting crazier around here (more on this soon... and if you've been reading our site from the beginning, you can probably guess what is happening), so snappy dishes like this, that don't require much time to prepare and leave me little to clean, are a definite plus nowadays!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Basil Parmesan Dip with Pita Chips

With six new recipes this week, I narrowed down our favorites to those Chocolate-Fig Oatmeal Bars, Avocado and Canadian Bacon Pizza and the rosemary-scented Rhubarb Shortcakes.

I picked a mess of basil from the garden because I finally got around to making pesto to freeze and well, the plants were getting a little crazy. I ended up taking more leaves than I needed, but not enough for another batch of pesto... after scouring through my piles of "to-try" recipes, I came across this Basil Parmesan Dip with Pita Chips, which sounded like a dashing mid-afternoon snack today!

Using the food processor that thought it was going to get a break after making the pesto (and no, I didn't bother to clean it first... lazy I guess!), the basil leaves I had leftover went in, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, a clove of garlic and fresh ground black pepper. Blend it through, making sure to scrape down the sides a couple times, and then taste for salt and pepper - we added a hefty pinch of fresh ground black pepper for bite, but went very easy on the salt as the cheese brought plenty.

You could serve this with your favorite crunchy chips or crackers, but pita chips are a favorite around here and making them yourself is a snap to do! Split and cut into wedges (this makes for a crisper chip - if you wanted to keep them on the chewier side, I probably skip splitting them first), the pieces were scattered into a single layer, given a healthy spritz with olive oil spray and seasoned them well with simply salt and pepper. Switch this up with what you like though... try a variety of herbs, granulated garlic, cumin, paprika or chili powder would be fun, or even dust them with cinnamon sugar instead if you wanted to take them in a sweet route. One note - you won't want to stray too far from the oven once they go in as they pitas are fairly thin when split and will not take long to brown.

With a pesto-like flavor, though much lighter with that tang from the sour cream, we both had a hard time trying to stop ourselves from eating the entire bowl of this addicting dip! This thick and creamy green-tinted concoction was spot on with the homemade chips, but when we make this again (which will be as soon as I can snatch enough basil off the plants), my plan is to try it out slathered on a thick slice from a crusty baguette - sounds like a perfect light lunch to me!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chocolate-Pistachio Biscotti...

We try to send out treats to Jeff's Mom every now and then for a sweet surprise... and over the years, we've found her favorite type are biscotti. A few weeks ago, I was planning the menu out for the following week with Jeff and he mentioned it would be nice if we could find some time to bake a batch of something for her. We tossed around ideas of brownies, a banana bread or a spice cookie, but then these Chocolate-Pistachio Biscotti came up and we opted for them. And besides, since biscotti are quite sturdy to begin with, they do make for an excellent item to ship!

These biscotti have two types of chocolate worked in - uneven rocks of chopped bittersweet chocolate (made using our handy Chocolate Chipper Jen got us!) and Dutch-process cocoa powder. The bittersweet chocolate pieces are worked in the dry ingredients, along with the whole, unsalted pistachio nuts. You'll notice in the ingredient list that I used a combo of all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flours, but you can use completely all-purpose if desired. I like throwing the pastry flour in all sorts of different recipes for extra nutrition as it is lighter than regular whole-wheat flour, leaving you with baked goods that retain the familiar texture one is used to. White whole-wheat flour is great for this too, but it is often more expensive and not as easy to find.

To bind that mixture together, eggs, a couple pats worth of melted butter, vanilla and the smooth cocoa powder are whisked together and poured in. Start out by using a sturdy wooden spoon to bring the dough together, but do note that this will be fairly stiff and on the drier side - I ended up just using my hands to lightly finish incorporating the last few bits. After halving the dough to get two even pieces, instead of using flour to ease rolling the dough into logs, they are formed on a bed riddled with crunchy granulated sugar. Just before going into the oven, the logs are sprinkled with a touch more sugar on top for sparkle.

The first trip through the oven, the logs are baked until they have risen and are firm in the center if you lightly press on the tops - a good point to check is when you smell an overwhelming burst of chocolate aroma streaming out from the oven. As we've been doing for some time now, after the biscotti loaves have had a chance to cool down, we spritzed the top with just a little water - this ever-so-slightly softens the outer crust, allowing you the slice through them with little crumbling. You may think that using the whole nuts would make them difficult to slice, but the nuts are pretty tender while the loaves are still warm and don't resist much - just use a serrated knife and it should glide through.

Baked for a second time to dry them out, giving the crunchy texture one wants with biscotti, you can shorten the second trip through the oven if you don't like them quite as hard - try shaving 5 to 7 minutes off and see how you like it. While the cocoa powder adds a more delicate chocolate flavor, bringing that bittersweet chocolate ensures you get a satisfying chocolate fix without making the biscotti too sweet. If you want to intensify the chocolate essence, try dispersing a couple teaspoons or so of instant espresso powder into the melted butter - it won't come across as a coffee flavor, but pairing it with chocolate heightens the subtle notes that tend to get masked. If you don't groove on pistachios, don't be shy in swapping them out - think about peanuts, almonds or even hazelnuts for a nutella-like tone.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Avocado and Canadian Bacon Pizza

Jeff labeled tonight's Friday Night Pizza as strange and unusual... but, he thought it was so good he couldn't stop eating it. Jeff used to be strictly a pepperoni or sausage pizza kind of guy, but since we've been doing this weekly pizza night, we've broaden his horizons quite a bit! Still, I was a little undecided if I made the right choice when I picked out this Avocado and Canadian Bacon Pizza.

After I made the dough, which I did by using our favorite whole-wheat pizza dough recipe, and stretched it out after it rested sufficiently, I wanted to make sure the crust was going to hold up to the juicy toppings. Slipped onto our heated baking stone, we gave it a rough five minute naked head start to start crisping up the crust. Not enough time that the top took on any color, but enough that when you flip the crust over, you'll notice it has started turning golden in spots.

Since there was no "sauce" on this pizza, I gave the top a good brushing with olive oil, then seasoned it with dried basil and a bit of salt. We lined up dark red slices of fresh Roma tomatoes (again from our garden... they are finally ripening thanks to the 90 degree heat!) as the first layer on the crust, followed by a dusting of salt, fresh ground black pepper and diced pieces of Canadian bacon. Chunky cubes of avocado were then evenly distributed over the bacon, with a couple handfuls of mild Monterey Jack tossed on next for a cheesy finish.

I had thought about tossing the avocado with lime juice to help prevent any unattractive darkening, but completely forgot about it until after I put the cheese on... oops! However, even after being baked and sitting around while we ate our first slices, the leftover pieces didn't oxidize much at all - I wonder if that has something to do with cooking it? Roma tomatoes were our choice just because we had them from the garden, but use what you like - just try to aim for enough thin slices to cover the top of the crust.

With the seasoned crispy crust underneath, the smooth tomatoes and salty bacon contrasting with the rich creaminess in the avocado, I was completely taken with just how well these ingredients played together! As Jeff went back up to get himself an extra slice, he said "I'm sorry... this just seems so weird to me, but whatever... I have to have another just to prove to myself that this is as good as my taste buds tell me it is!".


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Barbecued Pork Fried Rice...

Yesterday, I got a bit of prep work out of the way by cooking up a mess of brown rice, using that convenient no-fuss method, to prepare this Barbecued Pork Fried Rice for dinner tonight.

"Aged" rice tends to works better for fried rice as it seems to be a little drier and can absorb the seasonings without becoming too mushy. If you can't find time to make a batch or don't have leftover rice to use, you could prepare the rice the same day - just spread it into a thin layer on a baking sheet to quickly cool, then set it in the freezer for just about half an hour to speed the process.

The quick sauce used to coat the center-cut piece of pork loin we used was a combination of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, fresh garlic, a squirt of ketchup and just a healthy pinch of Chinese five-spice for a special warmth. Roasted until it was cooked through, leaving a nice pink tinge to the center, once the pork had a chance to cool down, the loin was divvied out into cubes for easier eating. If you know you'll be short on time the night you want this, the pork can be done a day or two ahead of time and kept chilled in the refrigerator - since I made the rice ahead of time, I went and prepared the pork too.

Since we had those ingredients prepared and ready to go, getting this fried rice dish on the table took less than twenty minutes! A couple handfuls of thinly sliced leeks and a spoonful of grated ginger from the knob I keep in the freezer were softened in a slick of hot oil, followed by a splash of Chinese rice wine and the grassy snow peas and to be cooked crisp-tender. The grains of rice and pork were then added and tossed around the skillet to warm through. As the rice hits the heat, it opens itself up to the seasoning liquids we were about to add - soy sauce, chicken broth, salt and fresh ground black pepper.

If we had a rotation schedule of recipes, I wouldn't hesitate to throw this into the mix, especially with how quick it comes together with a bit of prep work that can be done ahead of time. While there wasn't anything that was earth shattering about it, this dish felt very cozy and nourishing, without feeling boring or bland. I do think it could handle a bit more vegetables if you wanted to bulk it up or to swap out the peas - broccoli, carrots or even bok choy sound good to me. Mushrooms would be nice for an earthy note, but I didn't feel like pushing my luck this time - maybe when "someone" begins to ask for them I won't hesitate as much (um, yeah - wishful thinking I know!).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chocolate-Fig Oatmeal Bars

We're back with another Weekly Wednesday Treat Day goodie and this one is a doozy! If you think dried figs and dates are dull and boring, these Chocolate-Fig Oatmeal Bars will break any of those negative thoughts with the power of a sledge hammer.

Before we worry about the oat-y crust we used for these bars, the filling needs tending to as there is a bit of work that has to be done first. To breathe some life back into the shriveled figs and dates, they are covered with water, brought to a boil and left to simmer until they have plumped back up and softened. While this is needed, they can absorb a bit too much liquid, which would leave you with a filling that is too loose. To solve this, the figs and dates are drained, then left to sit on several layers of paper towels to absorb the excess moisture. Since this takes several minutes, you can jump ahead and start preparing the crust mixture as we did.

Oats, of the quick-cooking variety, are mixed with flour and baking powder for the dry ingredients, which are added to a creamed combo of butter, plenty of brown sugar, a couple eggs, vanilla and a somewhat more unique ingredient, orange extract! While it calls for a couple teaspoons worth, I can understand if you'd rather not run out and pick this up - try using fresh orange zest instead... it may not be the same, but it is a swap I would do. Also, with the oats, if you just have old-fashioned on hand, feel free to use that instead if you like - just give them a quick pulse or two in a food processor (or blender) to break them up a bit. Sweet and nutty already, to give this crust mixture a real thunder, toasted chopped walnuts were stirred in.

The re-hydrated fruit had plenty of time to drain now - into the food processor they went, along with a touch more brown sugar and cognac, which acts as magnetic ingredients to grab your attention. To thrust in aromatic notes, orange zest, cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg and ground cloves were also added just before pureeing the mixture into a smooth paste. Friction from the food processor may warm this filling back up (along with already being warm from them simmering), so scoop it into another bowl and leave it to cool down. Why bother? Because you want the bittersweet chocolate pieces you are about to stir in to keep their shape and not melt down.

Assembled by smashing down a portion of the crust mixture into a baking pan and spreading the slick filling over the top, the bars were then topped off with dollops of the remaining oat crust and more of that bittersweet chocolate. I found the crust mixture pretty sticky, so to help ease it over the bottom of the pan, try laying a piece of plastic wrap over the top and then use your fingers to smush (technical term, I know... hee hee!) it evenly over the bottom. When you drop the rest of the crust on top, don't try to spread it smooth, covering every single spot - leave it in haphazard dollops for a more appealing, rustic approach with peaks and valleys. The bars need to bake long enough to cook the crust and topping to a rich golden brown that is dry to the touch.

With smells of an adult homemade fig-newton bar lingering all day, I hastily eased my knife through the crusty topping, into the sweet fruit filling and finally cleared the way to my square with a little extra pressure to release the bottom. Think a thick, moist and chewy oatmeal cookie stuffed with a spiced figalicious (ugh, really... did I just say that?) filling and spiked with chunky chocolate nibbles. Almost taken aback by the richness at first, I found the crust, with its firm, buttery texture, was just the right paring to stand up to the decadent filling and create a hand held cookie that is substantial, isn't too messy to eat and may just rock your world! I thought the chocolate might take these a little to over the top, but I'm glad I didn't reduce the amount - those dark nuggets seemed to fit right in, adding to the homey, comforting quality these bars had.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Basil-Parmesan Biscuits...

I thought about getting a batch of pesto prepared and in the freezer since the basil plants were starting to get a little big for their britches, but I was out of the nuts I wanted to use. I had intended to make a different side for dinner tonight, but once I had that licorice-y aroma over my fingers after checking out the plants, I had to find a use for the basil... and these Basil-Parmesan Biscuits were just the ticket I needed.

The recipe actually called for purple basil, which at one time had a home in our herb box, but sadly it did not want to grow for us this year. I don't find purple basil to be as reliable in flavor as sweet basil though, sometimes it can be milder or more intense... it is suppose to be killer in lemonade I hear! It is a beautiful herb if you can grow or find it, so give it a try sometime if you haven't - just be sure to taste it first and adjust the amount in your recipe, if needed.

Swapping out half of the all-purpose flour for whole-wheat flour was another change we did, adding a little more nutrition, but that was probably canceled out by the extra two tablespoons of butter lumped in for good measure. Cut in four chilled tablespoons if you like per the original recipe, but biscuits are worth the extra few calories for a more light and tender texture. For a bit of cheesy sharpness, a couple ounces of fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was added into the mix, before the biscuit dough was brought together by the addition of milk and an egg.

Now, if you want dainty little biscuits that are perfectly round, feel free to turn the dough out onto a floured surface, pat it into an inch thick round and cut out rounds. I didn't fuss around with that tonight as I just wanted to get them in the oven! Using a big 'ol ice scream scoop worked for me to portion out the dough, turning them into drop biscuits instead.

If you like the golden exterior to be on the crustier side, which we do, bake them off and they are good to go as they come out of the oven. However, if you like a shiny finish with a softer crust, right as they come out of the oven, brushing the tops once or twice with melted butter is the way to go. Flecked with the bits of fresh basil throughout, we found the herbal charge these biscuits had to be invigorating and hypnotic, meaning I knew there was no doubt we wouldn't be able to stop at just a single biscuit... portion control went out the window with our meal this evening!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Rhubarb Shortcakes...

I'm quite pleased with our little rhubarb patch this year! It sure seems to be holding its own and I can't seem to use it fast enough - while I'm giving plenty away and freezing some as I go, we are starting to run out of room after storing all those strawberries too. With three freezers (one chest freezer and two "regular" ones you'd find with a refrigerator), I really think it would be a bit much to get another one... I mean how much do two people really need to store?! But, I digress...

From my last rampage through the patch, I saved out a pound of the stalks so we could prepare these Rhubarb Shortcakes. Before the biscuits come into play though, I jumped into the compote we were going to fill them with. Chunky pieces of rhubarb, brown sugar, fresh ginger, a stick of cinnamon and a surprise ingredient, raisins, were heated through until the rhubarb exhausted it juices and began to break down. I used a combination of golden and dark raisins just because I had them both, but you can use one or the other - just measure out a half cup. Besides being able to keep the added sugar down since the raisins bring their own unique sweetness, the raisins plump up and add a pleasant chewy contrast to the more tender rhubarb.

While the biscuits were just a basic version, I had to impart my own spin on them by tossing a savory herb into the mix. Using the common ingredients flour, butter, just enough sugar to make them sweet, baking powder, salt and milk, the dough was a snap to prepare since all the work was done in a food processor. But, what about my addition? Since I've seen rosemary used in shortbread or other sweet cookies before, I went ahead and chopped up a few leaves from our plants on the deck and tossed them in too!

You don't have to bother rolling the dough for these shortcakes - just press it out into a rough rectangle, using as little additional flour as you can, then use a knife to slice it into squares. Rustic is beautiful! For a little crunch and sparkle, sugar dusts the top of each before being slid into the oven to bake. Jeff knew I was baking, but didn't know what until the bewitching aroma of the rosemary wandered upstairs. He came down and was expecting to see a loaf of bread or maybe dinner rolls, but his eyes opened wide when he saw the biscuits and he said "where's that rosemary smell coming from?". I said "You're looking at it!". Confused, he then had to offer "Oh, I see, drop biscuits to go with dinner... I was kind of hoping for a sweet treat today". Trying to explain my reasoning, he shrugged his shoulders and tromped back upstairs mumbling something about how he thought I was crazy. Then I had to go and start doubting myself until I took a bite from one of the cooling biscuits... crazy? I think not! You'll see!

Split and filled with with the cinnamon-ginger infused compote, I added a dollop of creamy vanilla yogurt on top and brought him up a plate. I forgot a fork and went back downstairs to get it, but by the time I got back I saw half of the tender biscuit gone with Jeff's fingers coated in compote! I smiled, left the fork (and a napkin...) and went to start cleaning up in the kitchen. Funny enough, minutes later, the same tromping was heard and he grumbled as his very clean plate was set into the sink "Okay, okay... I give, maybe that was a good idea!".

Being timid with the amount of rosemary, there was just a delightful hint of it throughout the biscuit - not in-your-face or objectionable, but unexpected and genuinely intriguing! If you'd like to go a little more decadent, replace the yogurt with a billowy dollop of freshly whipped cream, bound with a spoonful or two of confectioners' sugar for a special touch.