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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guilt-Free Potato Chips

Tara’s mom here. Just thought I’d offer a blog post to a very overworked daughter. Besides, I received a new kitchen toy for Christmas and I’ve been having a great time with it and would love to share my biggest success so far. Have you ever used a mandoline? I never realized I needed one, and actually probably don’t, but if you want to make potato chips, it’s a necessity. I will eventually try other sliced veggie variations, but for now, potato chips have captured my attention.

I love potato chips, but they are way too calorific and salty for someone my age. (Don’t ask.) When you make your own – ‘from scratch’ as the blog title says – you can have them your way. The potato-y taste and crunchiness that comes from having absolutely no oil on these things is fantastic, and you can use only as much salt as you think you can tolerate…or not.

This mandoline is stainless steel, with an adjustable blade that will take your fingertip off, so you want to make sure to use the pusher and keep those fingers safe. It also has four other cutter inserts that make various-sized veggie strips from julienne to french fry. But you don’t need this fancy a mandoline; you just need one that can cut veggies into very thin, even slices so that they dry fairly evenly into crispy slices.

Now I’m not saying these are quick – they definitely are labor-intensive, and you can’t make a lot each go. But I’ve found that the more I make, the quicker I get at it, and I only have to watch closely during the last minute or so in the crisping process. For me, they’re worth it because I usually try to avoid store-bought potato chips; they’re just not that good for my health.

Guilt-free potato chips require two ingredients (russet potatoes and salt) and four basic steps.

1. Slice the potato with a mandoline. I start with one monster russet potato, the fatter and rounder the shape, the better. I’ve tried new potatoes, but the russets are bigger and they have better flavor. You might experiment with Yukon Gold or others too. I cut 1/16” slices on my mandoline, which produces very thin chips that crisp easily.

2. Soak the slices in cold water to remove excess starch. You could skip this step if you’re in a hurry, but I think the chips taste better and are crunchier if you soak them. Maybe that’s my imagination, but when you see the murky water that results when you soak the slices, somehow it just seems better to get that out! I‘ve tried both ways, and prefer soaking.

3. Sandwich the slices between two towels, paper or cloth, to dry; the drier they are, the faster they’ll crisp. After pressing them a bit, I uncover them and add whatever salt I want (for me, not a lot). This will pull out a bit more water, which you can daub off after a few minutes. Then you can let them dry a couple more minutes. But I often get impatient at this stage and put them right into the microwave.

4. Nuke the slices in a microwave oven. I cut a piece of parchment paper the diameter of my glass rotating tray and lay the slices in a circular pattern on that. Depending on the size of the slices, I can do maybe 20 to 30 slices at a time. Since they shrink as they dry, I sometimes overlap them a bit to cram more in, but they can stick together if you don’t separate them after the first five minutes. Microwave on high for five minutes. You will have to do some experimentation here because every microwave oven is different. Your times may be more or less than mine. The first five minutes releases a fair amount of water from the slices.

After the five minutes, I gently pull out the parchment with the slices on it onto the counter in front of the oven. I find if I mop up the water that collects on the glass tray beneath it, things go a bit faster. You will discover your own shortcuts as you keep at it, depending on your oven and patience.

You can either slide the paper with the slices back into the oven, pushing them around a bit to make sure they’re not sticking, or arrange them directly onto the glass tray. It goes somewhat faster without the wet paper. Also, my oven tends to cook the center ones faster, so since I’m rearranging slices anyway, I eliminate the parchment.

Now I turn the oven on for three minutes. If the slices are big and they haven’t started to crisp much in the first five minutes, I ignore them again for this time period. As you continue for one minute bursts, you’ll notice some are starting to get tan, then brown. I happen to like my chips a bit on the brown side, but some of you will consider that too done, so watch them and take them out when they suit your taste. You do need to get them crisp though. Put them on a paper towel, and they will crisp further as they cool. If I am going to store a bunch of these, I want to make sure they are all very dry, so as each batch comes out of the microwave, I put them onto a cookie sheet and hold them in my regular oven at only 150 degrees. That way, by the time I’m done with all the slices, I know every one of them is crisp and they won’t become soft in the storage bag.

These are great as appetizers with dips, and just for snacking. What more could you ask for? Fantastic guilt-free potato chips!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ham Hash

Prepare yourselves!! This is one of those dishes that requires leftovers and the best time to get the right kinds of leftovers is a holiday. When else do you end up with tubs of leftover ham? And if you don't normally prepare a ham, maybe you should think about it. It is Easter next week, after all. So, get a ham... get a big ham... and revel in the leftover possibilities.

I made this after our Christmas feast with my husband's family. We had oodles of spiral ham left over. Hash doesn't always look like much, but it really is the cat's meow. Trust me.

You can use whatever mix of goodies strikes your fancy, but I typically turn to potatoes, onions (both regular and scallions), and eggs, along with my ham. Oh yeah, and cheese. You can't forget the cheese! Since the potatoes have to be cooked first and take a little bit, you can get them going and then prepare your other ingredients while they cook.

Heat a 3-4 TBS of oil in the bottom of a large skillet. I like to use a non-stick skillet for this recipe, but you can use whatever you've got. Heat over medium-high heat and - once it is preheated - add your 1/2 inch diced potatoes and regular onion. I like to leave the peel on, but you can peel them if you like, of course. Save the green onion until the very end to keep it tasting nice and fresh.

Continue cooking the potatoes, turning occasionally. When they have a nice, golden crust and are tender through (anywhere from 10-20 minutes depending on your stove), add the ham and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then, push the mixture to the sides so that you can pour the eggs into the middle to cook.

As the eggs cook, start to stir and turn them. When they are almost completely done, you can start stirring the whole mixture together. I like what this does to the overall texture... you end up with nice clumps of flavor "glued" together by the eggs.

The dish is now just about finished. The last step is to add the scallion and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste and then serve. Remember, this is one of those dishes where the actual proportions and ingredients are completely up to you. That's the joy of hash. It's a blank slate waiting for your loving, tasty touch.

Now, go buy the biggest ham you can find! Hash on!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Caramelized Pears and Cream

I just love fruit. I really get excited about summer fruit... watermelon. Oh yeah. Peaches! (Tree ripened, of course.) Heck yeah. There are so many really good summer fruits out there. But, winter ain't no slouch, you know. Who can forget that winter is orange season? From December through April, I eat between four and eight pounds of juicy oranges a week. I also adore pears. I split my time between d'Anjou and Bosc. I love them both for different reasons. I love d'Anjou for their sweet juiciness. With a properly ripened bosc, I delight in their satisfying crisp, clean pear flavor.

Unfortunately, I sometimes get a bit carried away at the grocery store and purchase more pears at a time than I could ever hope to consume. When they start going "that way," I start thinking about cooked preparations. I really enjoy Cooking Light's Red Wine Pear Crisp with Spiced Struesel. But sometimes, I just want a quick and simple dessert.

Enter the caramelized pear. Three ingredients are all you'll find in the caramel part. Two ingredients are all you'll find in the cream part. Then a light sprinkling of cinnamon tops it off. It couldn't be easier! What I really love about this dessert is how the unsweetened cream provides a wonderful contrast for the too-sweet-by-themselves pears. The cream is only partially whipped and provides the pears with more of a sauce than a fluffy topping... an ethereal, creamy sauce.

I typically use one pear per person, but it's satisfying enough that a pear per two after a heavy meal would probably be sufficient. Be sure to use Bosc pears since they can hold up to being cooked.

Caramelized Pears and Cream
Yield: 1-2 servings, multiply as needed

1 ripe but firm Bosc pear
2 TBS table sugar
1 TBS heavy cream

2 TBS heavy cream
1/8 tsp vanilla

dash cinnamon

Peel and slice the pear into approximately 6-8 wedges. Sprinkle the sugar in the bottom of a skillet over medium heat. Place the pears in and then walk away. If you mess with the pears and try to move them around, you may disturb the sugar's crystallization process, leading to horrible rock hard pieces of sugar in your caramel. Trust me, it isn't pretty. So, resist the urge to fiddle and stir.

Keep an eye on the pears to prevent over caramelization (leading to a bitter taste). While the pears and sugar cook, mix the cream and vanilla and beat with a whisk until it is thickened and foamy, but does not hold its shape.

Allow the pears to cook in the sugar until the sugar has all melted and started to turn a golden hue. Again, be careful not to let the sugar get too dark. When the sugar is golden, add the tablespoon of cream and start to stir to incorporate. There may be a good deal of hissing and the caramel may seem to seize a bit, but keep it over the heat until it loosens back up, if necessary.

Remove from the heat and spoon pears into a bowl. Pour the cream over top and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Doggy Nibbles

Because your doggy deserves scratch cooking, too, sometimes!

This is Stella. Stella joined our little family about 6 months ago after we finally decided three years without a dog was enough. When my husband and I finally made the decision, I started going online looking at dogs at various local shelters. I knew from the moment that I saw her, Stella was coming home with me... err... I mean us.

So, my husband and I went to that particular shelter to check things out. He, of course, wanted to meet every dog there. But the moment I met Stella, I was absolutely, positively sure. Stella and her brother were brought to the shelter together as year and a half old dogs. Well, whoever owned them hadn't taken care of them, let alone gotten either "fixed." As you might imagine, the staff soon came to realize that Stella was in the family way. Being a no-kill shelter, Stella stayed at the shelter to have her five puppies and then wait for someone to come and take her home.

She is such a kind dog and her desire to please is huge. Unfortunately, she was two years old by the time we took her home and the fact that she had never been taught much of anything has led to some problems. I have been working with her and, in addition to praise, have been using Milkbone puppy treats broken in half as training treats.

This weekend, possibly as a stall tactic to not grade student papers, I decided to try making my own training treats. I have previously had good success making dog treats in cute little bone shapes. They were very popular at the farmers' market I sold at in Ohio. But, they are too large to use as training treats and I wanted to try a mix that was simpler to make than the yeast dough I used before.

I decided to put together a recipe that was similar to drop biscuits or muffins, but were small and baked until almost crispy. They turned out fabulously! And Stella will do whatever I ask to get one and I am assured they are safe and healthy for my girl!

Making the batter is really easy; simply mix together the ingredients and then place into a piping bag fitted with a large, round tip. Pipe small balls onto a parchment lined sheet pan and use a pair of scissors to snip each one cleanly as you pipe them out. Dip your finger in a bit of water and dab any stray tips that might be left behind from the piping process. Bake, cool, and be prepared for your dog to follow you around... well, like a puppy dog!

Doggy Nibbles
Yield: about 200 small treats, about 1 1/2 quarts

2 eggs
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups beef broth, reduced to 2/3 cup
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder

In a small sauce pan, boil the broth until it has reduced by about half. Let cool until almost room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a bowl, mix the eggs and shortening until well incorporated. Beat in the broth and yogurt. Add the flour and baking soda. Stir until well mixed, but try not to over do it. Too much mixing will develop the gluten in the flour and make them harder to pipe out.

Spoon the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. I used a Wilton #12. Pipe small blobs (about 1 cm across) onto a parchment lined sheet pan. Use a pair of scissors to snip each clean from the bag. You can put them fairly close together. I fit approximately 50 treats on each 11x17 inch pan.

Dip your finger in some water and then dab any unshapely treats into proper form. Bake at 375 for about 10 minutes. I baked two trays at a time and switch positions half way through (I do not have a convection oven). Remove treats when they are lightly golden and let cool completely before storing in an air tight container.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Everyday Scalloped Potatoes

I'm not sure why I haven't made this dish more... it's super easy. Spend 5-10 minutes making a gravy, a few minutes more slicing up some potatoes, put it in the oven and go do something else! And who can turn down tender slices of potato immersed in a flavorful, creamy sauce? Not this girl, that's for sure!

Perhaps, because nice even slices of potatoes are pretty important for best results, I waited to make it regularly until I had a food processor or a mandolin. Either works great. I like the slices to be about an eighth of an inch thick... mainly because I'm impatient. It seems that making the gravy/sauce causes a ticking time bomb of salivary anticipation and the longer I have to wait, the worse it gets. Therefore: thinner is better in my book.

While you can make scalloped potatoes into sin city, this everyday version is pretty tame and you can eat a decent sized serving without feeling too guilty. If you're making it for company, you can always use cream, more cheese, or more bacon... or all of the above!!

As I mentioned, you first make the sauce. This simply involves cooking the bacon, sauteing the onions, adding a slurry of milk and flour, and then - off the heat - adding the cheese. All you have to do then is mix the sauce and potato slices together and place in a greased baking dish! The last step is the trickiest... occupy yourself long enough that it can bake completely and form a nice golden top!

Everyday Scalloped Potatoes
Yield: four side servings

2 strips bacon, diced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (about 1/8 inch)
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 cups milk
1 rounded TBS flour
1/2 cup Gruyere cheese
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste - depends on how salty your bacon and cheese is)
dash fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Start the bacon cooking in a skillet over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel and slice the potatoes. If for some reason, your potatoes will be sitting more than 10 minutes between slicing and mixing with the sauce, let them hang out in some water to keep from browning.

When the bacon is nicely rendered but not too browned, add the onion. Do not remove the bacon grease unless your bacon was overly fatty. A tablespoon or two of grease is necessary to flavor the dish. Saute over medium heat until the onion is soft but - again - not browned. Mix the flour with a small amount of the milk while it is still cold. Add the remaining milk slowly to form a lump-free mixture. If you are concerned there are still lumps, simply run it through a sieve as you add it to the pan. Cook the sauce over medium to medium-low heat until it thickens and just starts to simmer. Remove from the heat and add the cheese, holding back a couple of tablespoons. Stir to mix. Add the salt, but be sure to taste as you go. The bacon and cheese may add more salt than you think. Add the pepper and stir one last time.

Add the potatoes to the sauce mixture and stir to completely coat the potatoes. Pour into a greased 10x6 inch pan (or similar). Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on the top. Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes, or until the potatoes are nice and tender and the top is golden brown. Let cool slightly before serving.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Banana Nut Muffins

I eat a lot of muffins. Because I get up so early during the week, I need a portable breakfast. Muffins are my go-to breakfast. There are plenty of other quick and simple starts I enjoy, but these are really the only ones that I turn to Monday through Friday. My favorites are my mini-chocolate chip muffins. Good as they are, I occasionally need a little variety.

Banana nut muffins are one of my regular alternates. First of all, I always have too-ripe bananas on hand. I'm one of those people that loves bananas provided they're within that 12 hour window of perfect ripeness. After that, I won't touch them. This is a great way to use those past their prime bananas. I also like how substantial these are. The whole grains and nuts really pack a great morning nutritional punch, and - most importantly - they taste really good!

They're super easy to make, too! Mix together the wet ingredients in a medium bowl. Notice that the batter may look somewhat curdled. That's fine. In fact, if you let it sit, the honey may separate out a bit. Just give it a stir before adding the dry ingredients.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a separate, small bowl. Chop up some walnuts and toss into the dry ingredients. Stir to mix and then add, alternating in batches with the smashed bananas, to the wet mixture.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line standard sized muffin tins with papers. This recipe makes an uneven number of muffins. Someday, when I have time, I may try to standardize it, but currently, it makes about 17 muffins. Be sure not to fill the cups too full.

To help them look great and to add a nice sweet crunch, I sprinkle two things on top: some old fashioned oats and some turbinado sugar. I especially like the turbinado sugar because it holds its shape and crunch not only through baking but through freezing, if you go that route.

If you're not familiar with turbinado sugar, it is a coarse grained, minimally processed sugar that has a tan color and more complex flavor than table sugar. You can find it on the baking aisle of nearly any grocery store and it keeps forever in an air tight container.

Bake the muffins for about 25 minutes or until they are puffed and golden. Remove from the oven, remove from the pans, and let cool on a rack. If you are going to bag them up to put in the freezer, make sure they are completely cooled before doing so. Frozen muffins can be thawed in the microwave. In mine, it takes about 40 seconds to thaw out two of them.

Banana Nut Muffins
Yield: 17 standard sized muffins

2 eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup shortening

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp table salt
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ

1 cup mashed, ripe bananas
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 TBS old fashioned oats (optional)
2 TBS turbinado sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Mix together the first four ingredients in a medium bowl. Do not worry if it looks a bit curdled; it does not need to be perfectly smooth. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the flours, baking power, salt, and wheat germ. Stir to mix, adding the walnuts. In another small bowl, mash the ripe bananas until they are well pureed.

Alternate adding the dry ingredients and bananas to the wet mixture. Do not over mix. Divide batter evenly between 17 standard, paper lined muffin cups. Sprinkle each with a small amount of turbinado sugar and old fashioned oats. Bake at 375 for about 25 minutes, until the muffins are puffed and lightly golden. A toothpick or cake tester should come out clean. Be careful not to over bake. Cool completely on wire racks.

Ingredient Notes: I get my wheat germ at the bulk food store for much, much less than it costs at the grocery store. However, I then need to toast the wheat germ myself, which I do in a dry saute pan over medium heat. Simply stir occasionally until the germ has a nice toasty smell and has obtained a nice golden color. As for the bananas, you can use bananas way past when you might think you should. I've even used bananas after the flesh is completely brown and has a slightly fermented smell.
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