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Friday, January 29, 2010

Wordless Friday?

All right already, so it's not Wednesday and it's not quite wordless, but I just couldn't let another day go by without sharing this photo with you. Some time ago, I posted a recipe for cinnamon rolls. Well, I recently made another batch and they came out so dang pretty, I just had to take some more photos. This one stimulates such a Pavlovian response in me, it's all I can do not to run down the stairs this instant to bake up a batch. I'm sorry if you now feel compelled to make these rolls... it was all just a part of my master plan (insert evil cackle).

I hope you have a wonderful, tasty weekend!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

I have been bad; very, very bad. On Tuesday, I started a unit on plate tectonics with my earth science students. To introduce this unit, I always like to model the interior structure of the earth... with peanut M&Ms. Now, remember, I'd been out of the classroom for three years before getting back to it this fall. I couldn't remember how many bags I would need for three classes, so - to be on the safe side - I got extra. There's nothing worse than running out of materials in middle of the day, right? Well, maybe one thing worse: having so many peanut M&Ms left over that in two days, you gain three pounds. I really wish I was kidding.

So, what have I been eating for dinner in a lame attempt to stem the flow of calories? Salad. Lots and lots of salad. This is another new dressing to me. I got the original recipe after being served a wonderful salad at Christmas eve dinner. It was (try and follow this!) my husband's brother's wife's mom's recipe. (Yeah, so I could've said it came from my sister-in-law's mother... but where's the fun in that?).

This is a wonderful dressing; I was enamoured with it from my very first bite. Of course, when I got the recipe, I quickly realized why. There was half a cup of sugar for 1 cup of liquid! Phew! No wonder I liked it so well. Fortunately, when I made it at home the first time, I cut the sugar in half and still thought the dressing was divine. The other thing I like so much about this dressing is the color! I'm not normally a big fan of pink, but it's a great shade on a dressing. Gorgeous! For the best flavor, be sure you use a good quality, fresh bottle of red wine vinegar. A bottle that's been around for a while can have an unappealing sour taste and that's no fun.

Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
Yield: approx. 1 cup of dressing

1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 TBS fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
2 TBS chopped onion
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp poppy seeds

In a blender or mini-prep processor, process the sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and onion together until well blended. Add the oil and process for 5-10 seconds. Stir in the poppy seeds. Keeps refrigerated in an air-tight for one week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cranberry and Sage Roasted Chicken

This is one of my favorite meals. Of course, perhaps by now you've noticed that I have a thing for gravy. Anything with gravy on it constitutes a favorite meal in my book. But this one is extra favorite. I first came up with this recipe in 2001 and have been making it regularly ever since.

I love it for many reasons. It's a cinch to make. Even the gravy is extra easy. It has a wonderful, unique flavor that is both rustic and gourmet at the same time. It's sweet; it's savory. It's the classic Thanksgiving combination of cranberry and sage, but you can have it at any time of the year! Let me show you just how easy this is to make. I kid you not, the hardest part is waiting for it to cook!

The first step is to get out a heavy cast iron Dutch oven. As far as I'm concerned, these vessels are the only way to oven roast almost everything. Prime rib and turkey may just be the only exceptions I can think of. Because they are such wonderful conductors of heat, cast iron Dutch ovens regulate heat very well so that your bird gets a gentle, even trip in the oven. The heavy lid sits firmly enough to keep the juices in, and I am convinced that when it's really going, there might even be a slight pressure increase from the steam that helps things along, too.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the Dutch oven on the stove top on a medium-high burner. Add a splash of oil and let it heat up. When the pan is hot (a drop of water flicked in the pan will dance around immediately), place the chicken in breast side down and let it develop a nice, brown crust. Move chicken around to get all sides evenly golden. Remove from heat and set chicken breast-side up in the pan.

Cut one whole onion into slices and place in and around the chicken. Do the same with the garlic. Now mix the wine and cranberry sauce together in a jar or bowl. Pour over the top of the chicken. I usually use whole cranberry sauce, but this time, I used homemade cranberry sauce that had been put through a food mill. I like both versions for different reasons. Use either one you like. Sprinkle the top of the chicken with the ground sage, parsley, salt, and pepper. Cover and place in the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until the juices run clear. Doesn't look like much here, does it? I promise happy changings in the oven!

At the end, remove the lid and broil for 10 minutes, or until the bird is nicely browned and beautiful. Didn't I promise happy changings!?!

Pull the bird out of the pan and set aside to rest while you prepare the gravy. Set the Dutch oven back on the stove top over medium heat. Stir to loosen up the bits and pieces in the pan. While you can strain the gravy to make it smooth, I like it with the large pieces of onion and - when I use the whole cranberry sauce - there are beautiful berries floating in there too. Grab a whisk and a mini mesh strainer with a couple of spoonfuls of cornstarch inside. Once the pan juices are bubbling gently (adjust heat as needed), gently tap the cornstarch into the gravy and whisk it in with the other hand. Be sure not to tap too much cornstarch in at once or you'll end up with lumps. Go slowly so that you don't over thicken your gravy. Remember that cornstarch has to cook to reach its full thickening power. The general rule of thumb for cornstarch is one tablespoon for each cup of liquid (it has about twice the thickening power of flour).

Remove from the heat. It's time to slice the chicken! I like to cut the breast meat all off of the bone in one piece and then cut vertical slices so that everyone gets a nice combination of the meat and flavorful skin. No need for fighting at the table!

Cranberry and Sage Roasted Chicken
Yield: 2-4 servings, depending on the size of your bird

1 TBS vegetable oil
1 whole chicken
1 cup cranberry sauce, whole berry or smooth
3/4 cup white wine
1 medium onion, preferably sweet, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ground sage
salt, pepper, parsley

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Heat a cast iron Dutch oven on the stove top over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken in the oil until it is a nice golden color all over. Remove from heat and arrange the chicken so that it is breast side up in the pan.

Place the onions and garlic in and around the chicken. Mix the cranberry sauce and wine together and pour over the bird. Sprinkle with the sage, parsley, salt, and pepper. Cover and bake at 325 degrees F for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the juice runs clear (actual cooking times will depend of the size of your bird). The nice thing about cast iron and low heat, is that if you overcook it, it will still taste fabulous!

At the end, remove the lid and roast under the broiler (be careful not to have the bird too close to the broiler) for about 10 minutes or until nice and golden.

Remove the bird to a separate plate to rest while making the gravy. Place the Dutch oven over medium heat on the stove top. If there is too much fat in the pan, you can spoon some off before making the gravy. When the mixture is gently bubbling, add cornstarch slowly by sprinkling it from a mesh strainer. Stirring while sprinkling in the cornstarch is the key to lump-free gravy. You will need about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for every cup of pan juices. I usually end up with at least of cup of juices, but if there is not quite enough, you could add a little chicken broth to extend it. Serve with your favorite side dish!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pecan Crusted Acorn Squash

I have never been a huge fan of winter squash. Pumpkin pie or bread, sure... roasting an acorn squash for dinner? Not so much. But, it had been a while and so I figured it was time to revisit a flavor I had neglected for a while. Tastes change, after all.

I bought this little acorn squash weeks and weeks ago. That's one of the joys of winter squash. They're such good keepers! I finally decided the other night to give this one a go. It was the same night I made my candied pecans and I had some broken pecan pieces lying around. A natural progression of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon ensued. A little lemon zest perked it up.

You know what? I've decided I'm still not a big fan of winter squash, but I ate this one anyway; it was that good with those little crunchy pecan bits and sweet/tart/spice. If you actually like winter squash, then I think you'll really love this preparation!

Pecan Crusted Acorn Squash
Yield: 2-4 servings

1 acorn squash, halved and cleaned
1 TBS room temperature butter
3 TBS brown sugar
2 TBS pecan pieces, chopped
1/4 tsp lemon zest
dash cinnamon
fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare a rimmed baking pan with foil. Cut the squash in half along its equator and scoop out the seeds and goop. Place cut side up on the foil.

In a small bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together and stir together to make a crumbly mixture. Sprinkle over and in the squash halves. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking another 10-20 minutes, until the squash is tender and the topping is caramelized and the nuts are browned and crunchy. Cool slightly before serving.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Raspberrry Balsamic Vinaigrette

I really like salad, but I hate always having the same dressing on it all the time. I guess I just like a little variety in my life. Hey, who doesn't? I used to go back and forth between store-bought Italian and a homemade balsamic and oil mix. But then I started getting bored with that and came up with my creamy garlic dressing. I like that pretty well and have moved it into the rotation. I also really like Caesar dressing, but finding a decent bottled version is like trying to find jars of gold for sale at the grocery store. So, I finally had to figure out how to make my own.

I like the creamy dressings, but I recently decided that it was time to broaden my vinaigrette making skills. I was inspire by a great dressing I had over the holiday (which I'll post here soon as well). The basis for today's dressing was in a magazine somewhere, but I didn't like the proportion of ingredients at all, so I made some changes.

Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette
Yield: about 1/2 cup of dressing

3 TBS seedless (or nearly) raspberry jam*
2 TBS balsamic vinegar
3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
dash pepper

Whisk all ingredients together and store, covered, in the refrigerator up to one week. Dressing needs to come to room temperature before using. If in a hurry, place the dressing in the microwave in 5 second intervals until it loosens up.

*NOTE: I used my homemade raspberry freezer jam for this recipe. I think it is much better than making it with cooked jam, which has a very different flavor and color, but cooked jam is probably better than no jam! Another option is to get a bag of frozen raspberries, let them thaw, crush them, run them through a sieve to remove most of the seeds, and mix with a bunch of sugar (maybe a one to one ratio of raspberry puree to sugar). You can then store this syrup in the refrigerator or freezer to use in making this dressing whenever the urge hits you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Salmon Chowder in a Flash

I can't tell you how long I've had this little can of salmon sitting in my pantry. Every time I opened the door, it would stare out at me forlornly. "Choose me. Cook me," it always seemed to say. But, alas, I would grab something else and tell that poor little can that maybe next time would be its chance.

It's not as if I've never used a can of salmon before; I have. But not often and not with great success. To be honest, I think it was a result of the age old quandary: I have it but what do I do with it? I had never received that canned salmon epiphany... until five days ago. Can't tell you where it came from, how, or why. After all these times opening and closing that pantry door, this time... this time, it came. Chowder. I would prepare a super fast and easy salmon chowder. It was fast (less than 30 minutes) and it was absolutely delicious. I might have to go buy another can now!

It starts with a 7 1/2 ounce can of salmon. To round out the flavor, I used celery and shallots, but you could substitute onions for the shallots if you wish. I cut the vegetables into pretty small pieces. I wanted them to cook quickly and I didn't want big pieces to overwhelm the salmon flavor.

I turned a pan on medium-high heat and melted a tablespoon of butter. Once things were warmed up, I added the vegetables and let them sweat it out for a few minutes. I'm guessing it was about five minutes, about the time it took me to prepare the salmon and the remaining ingredients. Oh, yeah, and I added a bit of fresh ground black pepper. Normally I would add some salt at this stage, but between the butter, the salmon, and the broth it can get pretty salty. It's best to wait until the end and add salt to taste, if necessary.

Most canned salmon consists of a salmon steak (cross-wise cuts through the fish). This means that there is part of the spine running through the can. They also can it with the skin on. I pull the meat out of the can and remove the backbone and skin. You can ignore the bones, though. Through the canning process they have become softened enough to eat... in fact, this is why canned salmon is a pretty decent source of calcium. Once the vegetables are softened, add the salmon and any juice in the can into the pot. Stir around for a minute and then add the water and half of a bouillon cube. Bring to a simmer and cook with a bay leaf for 5-10 minutes.

The last step is to add the milk slurry. You do not have to thicken this soup at all, or you could thicken it a lot more. As presented here, it will not be super thick, but it will have some body. Adjust as you see fit. Mix the corn starch and milk together before the milk is heated. Pour into the pan and heat until it comes to a simmer. Cook for about a minute and remove from the heat. If desired, you can add a splash of heavy (or light) cream to give a little bit of that rich mouth feel. Lastly, add a small pinch (I used about a teaspoon) of fresh minced parsley. If you only have dried, it's not a big deal.

Salmon Chowder in a Flash
Yield: 2-3 servings, about 1 quart

1 TBS butter
1/4 cup celery, diced small
1/4 cup shallot, diced small (onion's OK, too)
dash fresh ground pepper
7 1/2 oz can salmon with juice
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1/2 cube Knorr vegetable bouillon (or similar)
1 cup milk (preferably whole)
2 TBS corn starch
splash heavy or light cream (optional)
1 tsp fresh or dried parsley

Melt butter in a 2 quart sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the celery and shallot and cook, stirring occasionally until softened and lightly browned. Somewhere along the way, add a dash of fresh pepper. Meanwhile, open the salmon, save the juice, and pull it into small pieces, removing the skin and backbone. You can leave all the other, smaller bones alone.

When the vegetables are ready, add the salmon and juice to the pan along with the water, bouillon, and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Mix the milk and cornstarch together to form a slurry. Add to the soup, stirring constantly. Bring back up to a simmer and cook about 1 minute, until the mixture has thickened slightly. Test for salt and adjust as necessary. Add a splash of cream, if desired. Lastly, stir in the parsley and serve.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Candied Nuts

This is one of those recipes that's been on my back burner for a number of years now. Ever since I had a salad with candied walnuts in it that made my heart swoon. Somehow, I never got around to giving it a try. I did know that all of the recipes I came across for candied nuts just didn't seem like it would turn out a product like I was looking for. I knew I would have to just trial and error it. Yesterday was my second try, and I got what I was looking for!

Two weeks ago, while out doing some last minute Christmas shopping, I came across a guy selling farm fresh pecans. This might be my favorite thing about the south! So, despite the fact that the salad I still dream about had walnuts on it, I figured it might be a sin to use the grocery store walnuts in my freezer when I had beautiful, farm fresh pecans ready to be eaten... 'course, they were still in the shell.

If you ever find the need to shell pecans, please remember this simple axiom: pecans shell much more easily when they are frozen. Trust me on this one.

Once you have chosen your nut, be sure they are roasted. Candied nuts need to be crunchy and raw nuts simply won't do. You can dry roast them over medium heat in the pan before you get started or you can roast them in the oven at about 250 degrees for a few minutes until they just start to show some color. Set the nuts aside and start working on the candy part.

The proportions of this recipe will vary depending on how many nuts you want to candy. I did about twenty pecan halves in this trial run. I used 3 tablespoons of sugar. You can make as much of the candy coating as you want! This is the most simple coating ever; just be careful, because sugar can get very, very hot and can cause serious burns.

Simply place the sugar in the bottom of a skillet over medium heat. Let it melt and then let it start to caramelize and turn a glorious burnt sienna color. There is not need to stir. Just let it do its thing. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together 2 TBS granulated sugar with 1/8 tsp table salt and a dash of cinnamon. Stir to mix. Here is a picture of my sugar about halfway there.

When the sugar on the stove is dark but not too dark (dark caramel can have a bitter flavor), turn the heat down and grab a pair of tongs that you have liberally sprayed with oil. Set up a little assembly line like shown below. I covered a cutting board with parchment as a cooling station.

Using the tongs, coat all sides of each nut with the molten sugar mixture. The nuts will really stick together if you let them; I find it's best to keep them apart as much as possible. Working one nut at a time, coat it with the hot sugar and then transfer it to the small bowl of coating sugar. Toss it around to coat all sides and then place it on the cooling board. While they are tasty almost immediately (please wait long enough to not burn the heck out of your tongue!!), they are best after they have time to completely cool and harden. Then they are crunchy and sweet with just a hint of salty. Great as a snack or as a garnish to salads or desserts!

Candied Nuts
Yield: 20 candied nut halves, can easily be adjusted for any yield

20 whole nut halves, such as pecans or walnuts
3 TBS sugar

2 TBS sugar
1/8 tsp table salt
dash cinnamon

Toast the nut halves in a dry skillet over medium heat or in a 250 degree oven until they just start to show some color. Set aside to let cool.

Place 3 TBS of sugar in a small skillet over medium heat. You do not need to stir the sugar, an occasional shake of the pan if it appears to be melting unevenly is all that is necessary. Let the sugar melt and darken to a light brown color. Do not let it go too far or it will have a bitter flavor.

While the sugar on the stove melts, mix the remaining sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Spray a pair of tongs with oil and set up a cooling rack by placing parchment paper over a bowl or cutting board.

When the melted sugar is ready, reduce the heat to low and, one by one, coat the nuts on all sides with the hot sugar and then dip them in the granulated sugar to coat all sides. Shake off the excess and place on the cooling rack. They should be completely cool, crunchy, and ready to use in about half an hour. Keeps for two weeks in an air-tight container.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Beautiful Potatoes

I recently received a mandolin as a gift. It may be the only thing kitchen related that I did not already own. I had thought that because I have a food processor now, I was not in need of a mandolin. Boy, was I wrong! I love my food processor, but I have since realized that a mandolin can do things a food processor only dreams of doing.

So, anyhow, the other day I was slicing potatoes while running the gizmo through its paces. How many times in my life have I sliced potatoes? Hundreds? Thousands? How can it be that I have never noticed how beautiful they are on this inside?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Caramelized Onions and Brussel Sprouts

So, I've been on a brussel sprouts kick lately. I don't know if you have this problem, but I find that I get on kicks with certain foods where I will eat the heck out of them for a short period of time and then move on. I guess I should be grateful that this time, I'm stuck on a food that is at least healthy. I tell you, it's rough when I get on my cake kicks... or cookie kicks... or pasta kicks. Well, you get the idea.

This time, though, I've gotten stuck on a food I never really ate much before. I did try growing them once, but that was an unmitigated disaster. I guess if you want to let your brussel sprouts "sweeten" through a couple of frosts, you shouldn't plant them so early. They were ready in mid-August. Yuck! Boy were they bitter.

Fortunately, the ones you get at the store are typically pretty good. I've tried them a variety of ways recently, but tonight's variation is hands down my favorite. Of course, you can't really go wrong when caramelized onions are involved, now, can you?

I was only cooking for myself tonight, so I used one medium onion and sliced it fairly thin. I like to start my onions with a bit of heat to get them going and then turn them way down to finish. I put a pan over medium-high heat and melted a tablespoon of butter in it. I added the onions and cooked, stirring frequently until they were soft and starting to brown a bit.

At this point, I added a pinch of salt and turned the heat down to medium-low. After a few minutes, I added cleaned and quartered brussel sprouts. To clean the sprouts, I washed them, trimmed the stem, and then peeled back any leaves that were not clean and fresh looking. I threw the cut sprouts into the pan and let them hang out with the onions over medium-low heat until they started to brown, too. At some point along the way, I added some fresh ground pepper.

Then, to help the sprouts get tender through, I put a lid over the pan, but left it cocked just slightly to let some of the steam escape.

When the sprouts were tender through and nicely browned, I turned off the heat and added a teaspoon of butter. I served myself a nice little pile and shredded some Parmigiano Reggiano on top. The flavor profile was spectacular. The cheese added a wonderful nuttiness to the sweet onions and earthy goodness of these cute little vegetables. Be sure you get a bit of everything in every bite!

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