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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hosting Thanksgiving

I am so excited for this Thanksgiving. For the first time ever, I am getting to host a large family dinner. As military folk, we're usually by ourselves far away from family. Sometimes we invite a few airmen or colleagues who are in the same boat over, but often it's just us. One year, when my husband and I were doing split duty for a time, I went to visit him and we had Thanksgiving dinner in a pub. Finally, we are close enough to one side of the family to be able to host the event. It's not a huge crowd; I expect it to round out at close to a dozen, but that's enough for me to have an enjoyable time hosting a dinner I don't normally have a chance to.

So, what am I serving? I am so glad you asked! (You did ask, didn't you?). As I sit here writing this, I am smoking my first turkey on the grill. I'm a huge fan of smoked salmon (which I plan on serving cold as an appetizer), but I've never tried to smoke poultry, let alone a bird big enough to serve twelve. I figured I'd better give it a test run, and that's what I'm doing today. I'll let you know how it works out. It's been out there for an hour and a half, and it already looks great. Fingers crossed!!

In addition to a turkey, I'll serve a small ham (just in case I blow the turkey, right!?!). Not everybody loves turkey and leftover ham is awesome, so why not? I have a counter top roaster oven to bake it in, so I'm not hurting for oven space.

Let's see... so that takes care of the meat. I'll be serving the traditional dressing. I like a bread cube stuffing with mushrooms and sage. And, of course, there will be mashed potatoes and gravy. I may even spike the potatoes with a little cream since it's a special occasion!

I'll be making my green bean casserole from scratch. No cans of mushroom soup here!

I also plan on making my fabulous and gorgeous spiced cranberry sauce, shown - here - with currents, and shown - at the top of this post - without. I love it both ways, but maybe just slightly better with. I know a lot of folks aren't cranberry sauce fans, but this version has certainly converted a person or two.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without some form of home baked bread? These refrigerator dinner rolls fit the bill since they taste phenomenal. Additionally, they fit well with my "do as much in advance as possible" doctrine.

For a nice change of pace, I decided I would serve these mincemeat peaches as a side dish. They're sweet and sassy with all the spice of the holidays. Using canned (whether home canned or store bought) mincemeat makes them the fastest dish in the west.

I'm still thinking about maybe adding one more side dish... a vegetable, I think, but we'll see if it happens. I've been thinking about creamed pearl onions or maybe slices of pecan crusted acorn squash. Since we have plenty of food already planned, I'll play this last dish by ear.

What about dessert, you say? Well, of course, I can't forget about dessert. While I like to get really fancy for Christmas desserts (think buche de noel or cream puff swans), I'm more of a traditionalist for Thanksgiving. Pies it is! I plan on making a classic apple pie and will serve it with homemade vanilla ice cream. I do think, however, that I will make the pie with my newer, super flaky pie crust. I've even held back a few Cortland apples for making the pie extra tasty.

And, what Thanksgiving would be complete without pumpkin pie? Apple pie may be all American, but pumpkin pie is all Thanksgiving! I always make mine with pumpkin puree I've put up myself. I can't abide by canned pumpkin.

Lastly, I think I'll make a pecan tart. This is like a pecan pie, but not so... well, goopy. I love the flavors of pecan pie, but am always overwhelmed but how much filling there is compared to nuts. It's too heavy and sweet for my tastes. I've made it as a tart before. I just used a tart pan instead and only added half the amount of filling (but all of the nuts!!). I found the balance perfect. Nutty, sweet, and delicious. A perfect ending to a meal filled with family and fellowship.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mincemeat Peaches

Behold! The most simple recipe ever! I am starting to get my menu in order for Thanksgiving and I thought I might include this recipe my mom used to make a lot when I was a kid. I haven't had it for years though, so I figured I'd better try a few today and make sure they are as good as I remember. Yup! They are. And they are a great, flavorful, and simple side dish to serve on a table of bounty... or on any day of the year.

Here's how to do it: spray a baking dish with oil and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. The good news is that since you are really just heating these things through, you have some flexibility on the oven temperature. This is a good thing if your Thanksgiving oven is already scheduled to the max. Open a can of peach halves (I prefer them in heavy syrup for this application) and lay them cut side up in the baking dish. Scoop a spoonful of mincemeat into the center. I used a #40 disher to get the filling in perfectly shaped mounds. Then... and this is the hard part... put them in the oven. That's it! Bake them until they are hot and slightly bubbly, about 25 minutes. They cool fairly quickly, but - fortunately - they taste good hot or at room temperature.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


'Tis the season... for applesauce! Actually, it's almost past, but in most places you can still get apples for a pretty good price right now. Depending on where you live, you may still be able to go and pick your own in a nearby orchard. (My favorite site for finding pick your own farms is this one here.)

I love homemade applesauce. However, I am an applesauce snob, for sure. While you can make decent applesauce out of almost any variety of apples, there are a few apples that excel in this department. While everyone has slightly different taste and texture preferences when it comes to applesauce, I am all about Cortland apple applesauce. I first came across this apple in 2006 when we lived outside Dayton, Ohio. Once I tasted Cortland applesauce, there was no going back. It has the perfect balance of tart and sweet. The finished texture is everything I want in an applesauce: it breaks down nicely but doesn't end up mealy. It makes life easy because I don't need to run it through a food mill (although you certainly can, if you prefer that texture). They are a beautiful apple. Red with green streaks and green at the stem end or on the shoulders (watch out, if the green is too extensive, then the apples are not fully ripe). The flesh inside is quite white and is slow to brown. While they are not a super crisp apple, they are still wonderful for eating out of hand. I love them. Unfortunately, until recently, it'd been a few years since I'd come across Cortland apples.

A couple of months ago, we went on a short vacation to Door County, Wisconsin. Low and behold, I came across a bag of Cortlands in one of the farm stands there. They were a little pricey, so I only bought a half-peck bag. Unfortunately, that batch of applesauce was small enough that I polished it off in only a few days. I started looking for more. I was so excited when I found a half bushel at the last farmers' market of the season... and for a decent price too! I polished off half of that batch of applesauce in a few days before I managed to finally put some in the freezer. I was a little despondent because I knew that wouldn't last me long (and my boy, who loves the stuff, has started to put away his fair share). Wouldn't you know that the very next time I went to the grocery store, they had Michigan apples, including Cortlands, on sale for 59 cents a pound? I now have fulfilled my applesauce destiny for the year!

In the last eight years, I have processed a LOT of apples. Bushels and bushels and bushels of apples. The method of preparing apples that I will share here is, in my opinion, by far the most efficient way out there. The other day I processed a peck and a half (about 15 pounds) of apples about 45 minutes. Here's how I do it. You need a paring knife, a vegetable peeler, and a melon baller.

Step One: Cut all of the apples in half. This method is an assembly line method. As the years went by, I found I used up a lot of time picking up and setting down my tools. I discovered it was much more efficient to do each step to every apple before moving on. You do not need to worry about excessive browning if you are doing a bushel or less, especially if you are using Cortlands.

Step 2: Core the apples with a melon baller.

Step 3: Notch out the stem and blossom end with a paring knife. It is important to do the coring before the notching in order to save time. Since the melon baller is only so large, you can easily cut out any core or stem bits you might have missed in step 2.

Step 4: Peel with a vegetable peeler. You can use a paring knife. but I find two problems with that. First, I end up with a lot more of the apple on the peel and I like to maximize my efforts. Second, I find my hand cramps a lot less using the vegetable peeler when I'm doing a large batch.

Step 5: Cut the halves into wedges and put them into a heavy duty pan. Obviously the size of the pan needed will depend on how many apples you are cooking.

Now that the hard part is done, you can while the afternoon away to applesauce nirvana! Add a small amount of water to your pot (I use about 1/4 cup water per peck of apples). Place the lid on the pot and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples have broken down. They should break apart as you stir. When the apples are close to being completely broken down, add your sugar. There is no recipe here because every batch of apples have a different sugar content. For a peck, I usually start with a half cup of sugar. Stir it in and then taste. Add more as necessary until it is right for your tastes. I like to add cinnamon as well. Again, it's all personal preference, so simply add a small amount at a time and keep tasting. Continue cooking until the applesauce is the texture you want. I think I usually cook my applesauce for between one and two hours. Cool and refrigerate or freeze... or can!

If you want to can the applesauce, you can process it in a water bath canner. If you have never canned before, you can check out my Canning 101 post for instructions. Applesauce should have a half-inch head space and be processed 20 minutes for both pints and quarts. Please note that when canning applesauce, I strongly recommend leaving the jars in the canner for 5 minutes with the heat off after the processing time is done, as they can ooze horribly if you yank them right out of the hot water. Lastly, when canning applesauce, I always add extra water to the mixture before putting it in the jars. I find that the applesauce thickens during canning as moisture is lost during the pressurizing process and I find it unappealing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ginger Jellies

As we rapidly approach the holiday season, I am already getting excited about the various goodies I can make to give as gifts to my loved ones. In the last few years, lemon, lime, and orange jelly candies have been staples of my gift giving repertoire. The candies are really tasty, pretty darn quick to make, and folks are always so pleasantly surprised to receive them. Lately, though, I've been trying to think if there was a way to freshen up the idea. My mom, who is an ardent ginger fan, inspired this version. They have such a wonderful flavor, and I've been eating them up very quickly as I've made my test batches. If you like ginger, you'll love these!

The basic process for making them is just like I posted previously when making lemon jellies. You just have one brief extra step because instead of juicing a fruit, you need to steep some flavor. In this case, stronger is better, so don't skimp on the amount of ginger you use. These candies have enough sugar in them to counteract the one-two punch the ginger can sometimes give when it's too strong.

It takes almost half a pound of ginger to get this juice potent enough, so buy plenty! Either cut or scrape the skin off the outside of the ginger and then cut it into thin slices and then cut those slices into small sticks. I cut up one and a half cups of small ginger sticks.

Then you add one and a half cups of water. Pour into a small sauce pan and heat over medium heat just until it comes to a simmer. Turn the heat off and let sit for an hour, stirring periodically. Strain the juice from the ginger first through a fine mesh strainer and then through coffee filters (or similar). You need one cup of ginger juice for this recipe. Surprisingly, the color of these jellies is beautiful without any added coloring. They end up a soft golden color - understated but beautiful.

Ginger Jellies
Yield: 3-4 dozen candies

1 cup ginger juice
   (made from 1 1/2 cups finely cut ginger and 1 1/2 cups water)
3 TBS unflavored gelatin
pinch citric acid powder (~1/16 tsp) optional
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1-2 cups sanding sugar

Prepare the ginger by cutting or scraping off the skin. Slice thinly and then cut into small sticks. Place the ginger in a small saucepan with 1 1/2 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for one hour, stirring occasionally. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and then through a coffee filter. Measure out one cup of the now cooled juice.

Mix together the ginger juice and the unflavored gelatin. Stir and let sit while the sugar heats on the stove. If desired, add the citric acid and stir to mix. Prepare a 4x13 pan or similar dimensions by spraying with oil and then line with parchment. Spray the parchment with oil as well. Set aside.

Pour the sugar into a sauce pan, add the water, and gently stir. Stir over medium-high heat until the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring and place a candy thermometer in the pan. Continue heating without stirring until the mixture reaches 255 degrees. Pour the gelatin mixture into the hot sugar mixture, stirring completely. Pour into the prepared pan. Let sit at room temperature for at least four hours.

Pour one cup of sanding (or regular granulated sugar) on a sheet pan. Turn out the candy onto the sugar. Spray and pizza cutter with oil and cut the candy into strips and then square pieces. Toss in the sugar to coat all sides. Let the candy sit out at room temperature for two days, turning frequently.

For more details on making this candy, view the post on making lemon jellies.

NOTE: The citric acid is completely optional in this candy, but can help to keep the candy from becoming cloyingly sweet if you do not make a strong enough ginger juice.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

My New Favorite Oatmeal

Sometimes the most amazing things are the result of serendipity. Well, or in this case, a mean case of baby constipation. My boy's body was apparently having a hard time getting used to this solid food stuff and was getting stopped up. So, I started making this oatmeal as a way to get some "looseners" in him.

Come to find out, this stuff is really, really good! I have to make a double batch of it for my baby every morning because I end up eating so much of the stuff. I just can't help it! And he must really like it too, because, ever since I started making this, he suddenly doesn't want anything else for breakfast. Pancakes? Nope. Malt-O-Meal? Nope. French toast? Nope. Just this oatmeal. Day after day after day. I don't really blame him though. Did I mention already the really, really good part? Yeah, I guess I did.

I make it for him with apple juice for extra "loosening power", but it's really just as good made with water. Mix instant oats and water and microwave for about 30 seconds. I usually use a ratio of about 1/4 cup oats and 3 TBS or so of liquid, just enough to moisten them. After it's been heated, add about a two inch section of nicely ripe, mashed banana. Then add about two tablespoons of applesauce (or pear sauce, it's tasty too) and a dash of ground cinnamon. Stir to mix. Enjoy while it's still warm.

Oh, and in case you're curious, yes, it does keep my boy regular. :-)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Steak Pizza

I apologize up front that these are not the best pictures I've ever taken. I'm not sure if I was just not working the camera right or if this dish just isn't very photogenic, but either way, I'm disappointed in the photos. Fortunately, this issue does not in any way accurately affect how it looks in person or how it tastes. This dish came about as I was sick of making the same old same old pizza. My husband could never get sick of the same old same old pizza, but I could - and did.

One night I had some steak sitting in the fridge that needed attention. I also had a bag of fresh spinach that was starting to look a bit weary. I'm not really sure how the marriage of steak and spinach pesto came together into a pizza, but I am so glad that it did! This is a super yummy supper! I've made it twice now, and - as I just finished off the last of the leftovers - I can attest to its superiority in the following days as well.

The first step is to make a super easy spinach pesto. I whirled together spinach, garlic, Parmesan, and olive oil in the food processor. I added just enough oil for the mixture to become an easily spreadable paste. The color is fabulous... and it doesn't oxidize like basil pesto does. Super excited about that!

You have a couple of different options for steak in this dish. I've used both skirt steak and sirloin. Sirloin was easier to eat (it's less chewy) but the skirt steak had better flavor. A marinade wouldn't go awry here. If you want an idea, you could use this marinade. Grill, broil, or pan fry the steak over high heat to get nice flavor on it, but do not cook it past rare. Remember, the steak will get blasted with more heat again later, so we don't want to overcook it now. Let the meat rest briefly after cooking and then slice thinly across the grain. Set the meat aside.

Prepare a crust. I used my homemade version (get the recipe here), but you could use whatever pizza dough is your favorite. Spread it out on a sheet pan and prick with a fork. Place in a preheated 450 degree F oven for about ten minutes to let it get a good head start on baking.

Pull the crust out and spread a generous layer of the spinach pesto on it. Then lightly sprinkle with shredded mozzarella cheese. I'm usually in the "more cheese is better" camp, but less is really more here. Then evenly lay out the steak pieces. Crumble some feta cheese on next. Then sprinkle with very thinly sliced red onions. Lastly, sprinkle with a bit of grated Parmesan cheese. Bake at 450 degrees F until nicely golden, about 20 minutes. Let rest briefly before cutting into slices and serving.

Steak Pizza
Yield: one 11 x 17 inch pizza

1 pound pizza dough
12 ounces steak

12 ounces fresh spinach
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/4 cup)

12 ounces mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Grill, broil, or pan fry the steak over high heat to get color on the outside, but leave rare inside. Let sit briefly before slicing thinly across the grain. Set aside.

In a food processor, puree the spinach, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Slowly add oil just until an easily spreadable paste forms.

Roll/spread out the dough on a greased 11 x 17 baking sheet. Prick with a fork and bake for about ten minutes. Spread a generous layer of the spinach pesto on the dough. Then sprinkle with the mozzarella cheese. Place the steak evenly out on the pizza. Sprinkle with the feta and then the onion. Lastly, sprinkle with the Parmesan. Bake at 450 degrees until nicely golden, about twenty minutes. Let rest a few minutes before serving.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Puff Pastry Pumpkins

If you're looking for a super cute little treat for the impending "harvest" holidays, look no further. These are easy to make since they use frozen puff pastry from your local grocery store. I love puff pastry. There's something about that puffed up, crispy, buttery pastry that just knocks my socks off. In this case, they have a hint of fall wrapped up in them with pumpkin pie spice and a little pumpkin or sweet potato.

Thaw out the puff pastry overnight in the refrigerator and then lay it out on a lightly floured counter. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Using a pumpkin cookie cutter, cut out as many pumpkins as you can. A medium sized cutter is best. Too small and they won't puff right. Too big and they'll have ungainly seams in the middle from where the dough is folded. Place the cut outs on a sheet pan lined with parchment.

Cutting lines into the face of the pumpkin is what gives them that ribbed pumpkin look. Be careful, though. Here, I used a paring knife. See how the knife dragged through the dough? Not good. Additionally, I didn't cut the dough deeply enough. Also not good.

Here's what this poor cutting job turned out like... and this was the good one of the batch. So how do you get good cuts?

Use a razor! Here you can see how the dough is sharply cut. What you can't see is that I cut much more deeply that I did in the example above, about two thirds of the way through the dough. Be careful not to cut completely through, but go deep. If you're still having problems getting the dough to cut nicely, your dough has probably warmed up too much. Put the pan in the refrigerator for thirty minutes and then try cutting again.

Mix together the coating ingredients and use a pastry brush to apply. You can use either pumpkin or sweet potato puree. It only takes one tablespoon of puree per batch of eighteen cut outs. You can steal this amount from your pie or other holiday recipe without making much of an issue in most cases. Here, I used some homemade sweet potato puree that I had made for my baby.

Brush the top of each cut out with some of the coating. I think it looks best not to coat the stem of the cut out... it gives a little contrast to the finished product that I like.

Sprinkle each one with a bit of granulated sugar. You can forgo this part and make savory puffs, but - to be honest - the finished product doesn't have an overwhelming flavor (coating them too thickly keeps them from puffing and crisping properly) and that sweet touch on the tongue helps to bring out the flavor of the puree and spices.

Bake the puffs in a 400 degree F oven for 10-15 minutes or until puffed and golden. Be careful not to take them out of the oven too early or the texture of the finished product once they are cool will be disappointing. As soon as they come out of the oven, transfer them to a cooling rack so that they can fully crisp. Hey! Don't waste those scraps! I threw them on a separate sheet and sprinkled sugar on them. They were tasty! Don't forget to take the cooks commission!

Puff Pastry Pumpkins
Yield: 18 puffs

1 box of frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 TBS melted butter
1 TBS pumpkin or sweet potato puree
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
granulated sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut out pumpkin shapes from the puff pastry using a 2 1/2 inch (approximately) cookie cutter. Place cut outs on a parchment lined baking sheet. Score each cut out with a razor to make the ribs of the pumpkin. Cut about two thirds of the way through the dough. If the dough is not cutting well despite using a very sharp implement, chill the dough for thirty minutes.

Mix together the butter, puree, and pumpkin pie spice.  You can make your own pumpkin pie spice if necessary by mixing 3 TBS ground cinnamon, 3 tsp ground nutmeg, 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger, and 1 1/2 tsp ground cloves. Brush each cut out with the coating. Lastly, sprinkle each cut out with sugar. Bake in a 400 degree F oven for 10-15 minutes, until the pastry s puffed and nicely golden. Be sure not to under bake to insure your cooled pumpkins will be flaky and crispy. Transfer pumpkins to a cooking rack as soon as they come out of the oven. They can be stored in an air tight container for a few days, but they taste best fresh.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Spinach Pie

Now here's a recipe that's been getting a workout in my kitchen lately. It's a little reminiscent of a spinach quiche, but it's not so eggy. If you like spinach one iota, you'll love this! Not only does this pie taste great, but it's also pretty easy to make. The only caveat I'll put in there is to be careful what spinach you use... I tried once to make this a super easy to make dish by using thawed frozen spinach. What a let down! The spinach was so fibrous that it made it very hard to cut and eat the pie. That said, even making the pie from a bag of fresh baby spinach is not too time consumptive. You simply chop the spinach up, put it in simmering water for a few minutes, and drain. That's the hardest part of this pie.

And I'm not lying there. The crust on this bad boy is soooooo easy. You can use any old crust you want, including store bought, but I purposefully made an easy crust to go with this spinach pie so that I can make it in a second. Simply mix together the flour, melted butter, and salt until it resembles crumbs.

Then add the water and mix using your hands until it is evenly moist. Lastly, dump the crumbs into your pie tin (or glass) and press it into place. No rolling, no chilling. Yay!

Mix together the filling and pour it into the shell. Bake for about forty minutes and you've got dinner! For a vegetarian meal, it's pretty satisfying, and it makes darn good leftovers!

Spinach Pie
Yield: 8 servings

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
5 TBS melted butter
dash salt
3-6 TBS cold water

Mix the first three ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Then add the water, starting with the smallest amount and adding as needed, until the crumbs are evenly moist and will hold together when pressed. Dump the mixture into a greased pie dish (I prefer a glass dish here). Press evenly into place.

24 ounces fresh baby spinach
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
2 eggs
dash salt
1 tsp minced garlic

Bring a pot of water to a boil on the stove. Meanwhile, chop the spinach into small pieces. When the water is simmering, cook the spinach for 2-3 minutes. Drain in a colander. Let drip dry, but do not press dry. In a bowl mix together the cooked spinach and the remaining ingredients. Pour into the pie shell and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for about 40 minutes or until a knife comes out clean. Let cool five minutes before serving.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Baby Food

If you haven't noticed, I've been having a little trouble getting around to posting lately. Interestingly, it isn't because I don't have anything to post about; I do. I actually have quite a few things I could post about. I've been cooking... some. My little boy has finally decided that naps are good things and I now get a few hours most days to do stuff. Of course, after months of not having any time to do stuff, I spent the first month or two of his new napping prowess to simply vegetate and enjoy having some time to myself. I read! I ate uninterruptedly (what a concept!). But, now he's been a pretty good napper for a while and I find myself starting to catch up on housework, cooking, and projects that have been on the back burner for a really long time.

While I do have a little time now to play and experiment in the kitchen, I am mostly utilitarian in there these days. Take the baby, for instance. From his first day on solids at six months, he's been a very enthusiastic eater. I try to provide him with a lot of appropriate finger foods that he can eat all by himself (sticks of soft fruit or vegetable, toast, etc.), but the mainstay of his solid food diet is chunky purees. I do feed him some store bought baby food, but not very much. There are two main reasons for this: 1) I was surprised at how little selection there really is when it came to the store bought stuff, and 2) it's all canned (meaning it's been cooked to death). I'm not a fan of overcooked vegetables (think peas, carrots, etc.) because it changes their flavor so much. I want my boy to grow up enjoying the lovely freshness of produce, so I have taken to preparing most of what he eats.

I have some plain items, like acorn squash (one of his favorites). I simply bake it until it's soft and then mush it with a fork (I do the same thing with sweet potatoes). Other items, I take a little more effort with. Here are some of my boy's favorite foods and how I prepare them:
  • Spinach -  I cook the spinach in boiling water for a few minutes, drain, and then puree in the food processor. I then add a little bit of Parmesan cheese (I don't add too much since you really want to watch an infant's salt intake) and a bit of plain bread crumbs. He loves this stuff!
  • Dahl - That's right, dahl, the Indian lentil dish. I try hard to get a lot of iron in my boy and lentils are a good source. How could I know how much he'd enjoy the Indian spice flavors? He's always up for dahl. I just found a recipe I liked in an Indian cookbook and left out any salt or "hot" spices.
  • Black Beans - I buy unsalted, canned black beans and "refry" them in a saute pan with a little olive oil. I then gently puree them with a little sour cream and a little cheddar cheese. I add in a good dash of garlic powder for good measure. He always enjoyed this dish, but now he seems to like it even better when I mix it in with a little infant corn cereal. 
  • Couscous and Pesto - I freeze the pesto (without pine nuts or extra salt) in little bitty containers for him. Then I make the couscous fresh (it only takes a few minutes) and mix in the pesto. The first time I offered him this dish, his eyes were bright and he was practically smiling the whole time he ate it.
  • Broccoli - I steam the tops (I find the stems more than an inch down from the florets are a bit to fibrous for him at this point) and then puree them with unsalted chicken stock and a little bit of cheddar cheese. 

Other, simpler standbys you see in this drawer of my freezer include: pureed mango (I stocked up while they were 4/$5), pureed carrots, mashed potatoes, applesauce, and pureed beef (the leftovers from a pot roast).

The good news is that it really hasn't been very time consuming to prepare his food this way. Each "batch" of food I make him takes only a few minutes of active time (it may take a while to cook on the stove or roast in the oven), and then I put them in these little plastic take out ramekins. I got mine at GFS and reuse them over and over again. I've been using the 2 oz cups, but may have to move up to the larger 3 1/4 oz cups as his appetite grows with him!

Well, I guess I'd better get a few things done before he wakes up from his nap!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Middle Eastern Spiced Kabobs

As food lovers, my husband and I were in hog heaven while living in the DC area. There were so many restaurants to choose from! We could eat at a different place every time we wanted to eat out and never double up unless we really wanted to. And the types of food available? Endless. So many different ethnic foods to choose from: Afghan, Indian, Greek, Peruvian, Thai, African... you name it! And that's not including the standard Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. Middle Eastern fare became one of our favorites. We ate a lot of kabobs last year!

Imagine our dismay, then, when moving to the suburbs of Chicago, we found that the vast majority of the restaurants around here fit into three categories: pizza, hot dogs, and Italian. Harrumph. I think I may have seen an Indian place the other day, but I was quite a bit out of our local area. Needless to say, we're craving some kabobs! What can you do but make your own? Fortunately, they're pretty easy. Once I got a seasoning that I liked, it was all cake.

You can use just about any kind of meat you'd like for these kabobs. I've mostly used beef, but lamb would be fabulous, as would chicken. Whatever type of meat you use, make sure you use a good cut. Nobody wants to gnaw on a tough piece of kabob!

The first step is to prepare the fresh ingredients. Mince a bunch of onion, garlic, and fresh parsley. Stir together and put in a medium sized bowl.

Next, you need to put together your spice mixture. This is a decent sized list of all dried spices that you can then store and use as needed. You'll only need four teaspoons of the mixture for this recipe. Save the rest for next time. I just love the smell of this mixture. Makes me salivate thinking about it!

Lastly, cube your meat and mix it all together. I like my meat in roughly one inch cubes. That way they're big enough to get some nice color on the outside without overcooking the inside. Here I've used sirloin beef. It was nice and tender and was cooked to about medium by the time it was all said and done.

The most important part of this recipe is how they are cooked. It's imperative that these are cooked outside on a grill. That's the only way to get that great, smoky flavor that makes these so delicious. Skewer them up and cook over a hot fire to get a good sear on them. Delicious!

Middle Eastern Spiced Kabobs
Yield: seasons up to 2 lbs of meat

1 1/2 - 2 pounds tender beef, lamb, or chicken cut in 1" cubes

1 TBS finely minced garlic
1 TBS minced fresh parsley
1 TBS very finely minced onion

4 tsp of spice mix (see below)
1 TBS olive oil
salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Let meat sit, covered and refrigerated, for 2 to 12 hours. Skewer and grill over high heat. Use a tender cut of meat and cook medium-rare to medium.

Spice Mixture:
1 TBS ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground all spice
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground ginger

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Oatmeal Cookies

It's great being within a couple hour drive right now of my husband's family. It's especially nice to be near family during our boy's first year of life. My husband's mother is ecstatic to be able to see her new grandson so often.

A month ago or so, I was down visiting for the day and my husband's grandmother mentioned, in passing, that she loves oatmeal cookies. Since I always enjoy surprising folks with their favorite baked goods, I filed that little nugget of knowledge away. Last week, I decided to make and send her some cookies. Operation Oatmeal Cookie was a great success. It also reminded me of just how good an oatmeal cookie can be.

I made Grandma's cookies with raisins, and they were really good, but when I decided to make another batch for our family, I decided that I would make them with chocolate chips. I think I might like them better than traditional chocolate chip cookies. They're chock full of tasty, chewy oats and have a nice crisp texture. I love the hint of spice from the cinnamon and nutmeg. These are really good cookies!

Oatmeal Cookies
Yield: 3 dozen #40 disher cookies (1 2/3 TBS each)

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup water
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg

3 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup raisins or 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cream together the sugars and the shortening. Beat in the water, egg, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, soda, salt, and spices. Add the flour mixture to the sugar and egg mixture. Then stir in the oats and raisins or chocolate chips. Spoon onto parchment lined baking sheets (or greased sheets). Bake until lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for five minutes on the sheet pan before transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Creamed Spinach

I just love really quick, simple, delicious, and healthy side dishes. I've been on a spinach kick in the last couple of years. Lately, I just can't seem to get enough of the stuff. Maybe that's because I've finally figured out some delicious ways to cook it (I've always liked it raw in salads). I posted a recipe for sauteed spinach with shallot and garlic, and I've posted a great combination of spinach and great northern beans. I've posted recipes using spinach in soups (here and here for instance), in a special tart/pie, stuffed in mushrooms, even put in stuffing! But what about that classic standby, creamed spinach?

Well, I was a little hesitant to dive in. Most of the recipes for creamed spinach that I've seen require copious amounts of heavy cream and are more white sauce than anything else - not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but I try not to go overboard with the heavy cream these days and I really want the spinach to be the star of the show. So, I set out to make a simple, light creamed spinach. What you see here is the result and it is darn quick and darn good. There's enough cream to add a nice rich edge to the spinach without overwhelming it. I love making this dish!

Creamed Spinach
Yield: 2 large servings or 4 small servings

1 TBS butter
1 tsp minced garlic
16 ounces fresh spinach
1/4 cup heavy cream
dash nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

In a saute pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the spinach and saute, turning frequently until it is mostly wilted. Add the heavy cream. Cook, stirring, until the cream has reduced and thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and add the nutmeg and salt and pepper. Let sit for five minutes before serving to allow the cream to thicken a bit more. Stir before serving to redistribute the cream.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Smoking Pressed Cheese

It's been a while since I've posted about cheese. To be honest, I haven't had a chance to do much cheese making in the last year or so... between moving multiple times and having a baby, it's kind of fallen to the back burner. However, before all this chaos in my life happened, I did have a chance to experiment with smoking cheese and I wanted to finally share with you how I did it and how it worked out.

I smoked a wheel of Gouda with apple wood chips, but you could just as easily smoke cheddar. After the cheese dried out for a few days, I smoked it using the outrageous, but relatively cheap, contraption you see above. After smoking, I waxed the cheese and aged it as usual. Wow! It worked great. Once I broke that cheese open, the smokiness was subtle but pleasing. It permeated all the way through.

The thing to be careful of here is to be sure it is not too hot outside the day you want to smoke your cheese. The cheese's internal temperature will rise regardless due to the smoke, adding a hot day to the equation can lead to cheese that gets too warm. You don't want it to get so warm that the fat starts to separate!

I used my Weber charcoal grill with a flexible dryer hose attached to the smoke outlet. I epoxied a couple of half inch bolts to the side of a dryer vent clamp. I then used magnets to attach the hose to the grill. It wasn't a perfect seal, but plenty good enough! On the other end, I had a cardboard box that fit a metal cooling rack I already had in my kitchen. I punched bamboo skewers across the corners to hold the cooling rack up. I cut a hole the size of the hose in the side near the bottom and pushed the hose through so that it brought the smoke from the grill into the box. To keep my cheese from getting grooves from the cooling rack, I placed a sushi rolling mat on top of it. Lastly, I cut a few vent holes in the top of the box. Therefore, the smoke comes in the bottom of the box and surrounds the cheese with its goodness on its way out the top. I just held the top of the box closed with a heavy ceramic bowl.

If you've never smoked anything on a grill before, the trick is the soak the wood chips before using. If you don't soak them, they burn instead of smoking. You don't need a lot of charcoal for this project because you don't want the fire too hot (again, you want to keep your cheese as cool as possible). Heat your coals and then sprinkle some of the soaked wood chips on the coals to start the smoking process. Add additional coals and wood chips as necessary to maintain a steady stream of smoke.

Flip your cheese periodically to obtain even smoking and to also keep the fat evenly distributed in the cheese. The cheese does not need to get a lot of color on it to be thoroughly smoked. How long to smoke it? Well, this is a bit of a judgement call. I think I did about two hours and it ended up with a nice smokey flavor. What a great way to add a little extra flavor to your homemade cheese!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Poultry Gravy and Waffles

I despaired of ever being able to photograph this delicious dish without it looking like... well, something unappetizing on a waffle. I think I took somewhere near sixty photos over two days in four different sessions. I tried different thicknesses of gravy, different lighting, different plates, different orientation of waffles. And you know what? I think this photo turned out okay! Sometimes, it's darn hard to show off a dish the way it deserves, and this dish deserves some hoopla.

Both sides of my family come from Pennsylvania Dutch country, so it's no surprise that I'm all about waffles and gravy. It amazes me how many folks turn up their nose at the mere thought, but they just don't know what they're missing!! It's reminiscent of biscuits and gravy, but so much better. Of course, I would take a waffle over a biscuit any day. (By the way, make sure you are using a waffle recipe that does not have added sugar... this is a savory application and sugar would be weird). While you can make this with chicken or turkey, since I grew up with it usually being turkey (I think my mom only thought about making it in the midst of Thanksgiving excess), that's what I prefer.

And wouldn't you know that the other day I found a pack of turkey thighs at the grocery! Who knew they sold such a thing!?! Turkey's not just for Thanksgiving anymore! And it was darn reasonably priced, too. I paid less than $2.00 a pound. Can't complain about that!

Before you get started with the actual cooking, it's good to have the veggies ready. I used a standard combination of onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, just like I would use to make chicken broth.

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, add a small drizzle of oil to get things going. Heat the pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the meat, skin side down and let sizzle until most of the fat is rendered and the meat in nicely golden. Flip the meat as necessary to brown all sides. Drain off the fat and set aside for later.

Add the water, vegetables, and herbs and cook uncovered for about an hour or until the turkey is well cooked and falling off the bones.

Remove the broth from the heat and remove the meat and let cool until it can be handled without burning the bejeepers out of yourself. Discard the skin and bones and pull the meat into bite sized pieces.

Strain and reserve the broth. Skim any excess fat, if necessary. Hopefully, you'll have somewhere around four cups of liquid. If you have too much, let it simmer and reduce until it's about right. If you don't have enough, add water to make four cups. In the now empty pan, add 3-4 TBS of the reserved fat and the flour. Mix thoroughly and then slowly add the broth, whisking constantly over medium heat. Continue whisking until the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and add the shredded meat. Add salt to taste. Oh, and don't forget to make the waffles!!

Poultry Gravy and Waffles
Yield: 6 entree servings

For the broth:

1-2 tsp vegetable oil
2 turkey thighs or 2 lbs chicken thighs
6 cups water
1 medium onion, quartered
2 celery stalks, chopped
5-6 small/baby cut carrots
2 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

For the gravy:

4 cups of broth
3-4 TBS reserved fat
4 TBS flour
reserved meat
salt to taste

Heat a large Dutch oven or stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the oil. When the oil is heated and shimmering, add the meat, skin side down. Brown the meat and render out the fat, turning as necessary. Drain the fat and reserve.

Add the water and remaining broth ingredients. Simmer uncovered for one hour, or until the meat is well cooked and falling off the bones. Remove the meat to let cool and strain and reserve the liquid (skim any fat, if necessary). You want close to 4 cups of liquid. If there is too much, you can simmer it down; if there is not enough, add water to make 4 cups. When the meat is cool enough to handle, discard the skin and bones and shred the meat into bite sized pieces. Set aside.

In the now empty pan, over medium heat, add 3-4 TBS of the reserved fat. Stir in the flour and mix thoroughly. Slowly add the broth, whisking constantly. Continue to cook and whisk until the mixture comes just to a boil and thickens. Remove from the heat. Add the reserved meat and stir. Add salt to taste. Gravy can be made in advance and reheated or used immediately. Serve over waffles (savory waffles - be sure to use a waffle recipe that does not include added sugar). Serve immediately after pouring over waffles.

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