Monday, March 31, 2008

Takin' it easy with a beef satay...

Even though we were in the middle of a snow storm today, we did get Jeff's mom safely to the airport and on the plane. We were even given special permission to "escort" her to the gate - that was nice of them and hopefully made her feel a little better. While he loved romping around in it for a few months, I think Max has finally had enough and would love some warm sun to bathe in!

We're a little tired after the busy weekend, so I kept dinner somewhat low-key and not too fussy tonight and decided to make this snazzy Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce and Citrus Broccoli. This dish was on the table in a little less than 30 minutes - just what I needed!

We tossed thinly sliced flank steak with a glug of canola oil and a bit of ground coriander. One note about that coriander though... I find the pre-ground version a little lacking - if you can, grab some coriander seeds and lightly toast them in a dry skillet. Throw the toasted seeds into a coffee or spice grinder and use that instead for a more intense flavor. The seasoned beef is then threaded onto skewers - I used wooden and if you do the same, be sure to either soak them or cover any exposed areas with some foil to prevent them from scorching. The assembled skewers are briefly placed under the broiler to cook - be sure to not step away while doing this as you don't want to let these go too far; about 3 to 5 minutes should be sufficient.

We used broccoli florets for the veggie part of this dish - if you have a whole head on hand instead, go ahead and use the stalks too. Just peel them down a bit and thinly slice them so they cook evenly. After the broccoli was steamed until bright green and crisp-tender, we sprinkled on some fresh lime juice and seasoned with salt and fresh ground black pepper. To add some oomph to the tender beef and broccoli, a dipping sauce is served that is a combination of chunky natural peanut butter, a bit of water to thin, brown sugar, soy sauce and fresh lime juice. The generous dipping sauce is slightly sweet and combined with the saltiness from the soy and bright note the fresh lime was an excellent compliment and was a useful interface to tie the other flavors together.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lighter Chicken and Biscuits...

While we have been busy cooking away for Jeff's mom, we've only made 6 new recipes this week - out of those, our favorites were that Spring Chicken and Blue Cheese Salad, those Apple-Cherry Crumble Bars and the Baked Easter Doughnuts.

Tonight's dinner, Lighter Chicken and Biscuits, is kind of a play on pot pie, but not as heavy or time consuming. Instead of encasing what you would typically find as a filling, this recipe calls for serving the creamy mixture with a whole-wheat biscuit as a topper instead of a butter-laden pie crust.

The biscuit is not fussy at all - just a simple drop biscuit using canola oil for the fat. While not as fluffy as one would get if you used butter, the biscuit still had a good flavor and was just a bit more hearty. After a quick mix of the ingredients, we had gotten those in the oven and began working on the thick "stew" portion of the dish.

We started softening thinly sliced carrots, celery and pearl onions in our Dutch oven - once they had just began to soften, we sprinkled the vegetable mixture with just a couple tablespoons of flour. To make sure the flour doesn't give the liquids a raw taste, let the mixture cook for just a minute or two while you are stirring. Milk and a bit of water are the next additions, followed by a touch of thyme.

You will notice that the liquids will tighten up fairly quick as soon as it hits a simmer - when it is bubbling, but not boiling, chunks of lean chicken breast is stirred in. The chicken shouldn't take too long to cook through, but if your pieces are very big and it ends up taking more time, you may want to add a couple splashes of broth or milk as the mixture will continue to thicken. With a high proportion of chicken to vegetables, this meaty dish was quite the stomach-warming meal. We all thought it was a nice way to end the day as we are preparing for yet another nasty spring snow storm! It was almost 50 degrees today and they are calling for up to 9" of snow tomorrow.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Baking your own potato chips...

For tonight's dinner, Jeff actually decided he would like me to make those Mini Honey-Mustard Meatloaves with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes for his mom.

So, we didn't make a new recipe today - but, I do have new another recipe to talk about! Remember how I went and sliced up my finger while trying to sharpen the blade from are mandoline? Well, the whole reason I was doing that in the first place was I needed to thinly slice some potatoes for these homemade Potato Chips with Blue Cheese Dip that we had as a snack earlier in the week. Our food processor slicing blade would have made the slices too thick and I didn't want to take the time to try and get perfectly even slices with a knife either... oh well, my finger is recovering well enough (stitches out on Monday!) and I know what not to do next time!

It was funny though, Jeff really didn't want me to make this recipe after I sliced my finger - he aptly renamed our mandoline as "The Slicer of Doom". He couldn't make himself watch either while I was preparing the potatoes since he had enough trouble watching them put the stitches in!

Before I started on the potatoes, we slipped one of our large and heavy baking sheets into the oven to get a head start on heating up. Once the starchy potatoes were sliced up, we patted them dry in an effort to remove as much moisture as possible. Since one pound worth of potatoes made for quite a few thin slices, they need to be baked in batches - we did it twice, but you made need a third time if your sheet isn't large enough. As soon as the potato slices were arranged on the hot baking sheet (love hearing that sizzle!), they were sprinkled with coarse salt (use as much or as little as you like - potatoes soak up salt like crazy) and the pan was placed back in the oven. For even color, the slices will need to be turned over after about 10 minutes or so - when you do this, you can season the other side again with salt if you like your chips particularly salty.

Once baked, the finished chips were golden and had a nice even crunch throughout. While we did snack on a few by themselves, the chunky blue cheese dip really made these shine. Tangy sour cream, crumbled blue cheese, silky mayonnaise and a couple tablespoons of milk band together forming the luscious dip. You could get around 6 servings if you really portioned it out well, but it was more like 3 for us. If you do have any leftover, store the chips at room temperature and toss them in the oven at 450 for just a couple minutes to bring that crunch back.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beefy sandwich for a special guest...

Jeff's mom flew out from Pennsylvania today for a visit through the weekend, so it was a pretty busy day getting stuff finished up and making sure we were on time at the airport to pick her up. I figured we should keep dinner fairly easy, so we decided to make this Picante Roast Beef Sandwich with Garlic, Lime and Green Chile tonight.

There really isn't a ton to talk about for this recipe - however, this simple sandwich had a lot going for it. Building up the base flavors is diced onions and a few cloves of garlic that were softened in a touch of olive oil. Into that mixture, strips of sliced roast beef are tossed in and cooked just long enough to give the pieces some color. To ramp up the flavor and add some moisture, fire-roasted diced tomatoes, green chiles and a bit of cumin are stirred in for a smoky depth. While tasty as is, a couple tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice is added to brighten up the flavors.

Once the skillet, brimming with beef, is taken off heat, the saucy mixture is hit with fresh cilantro for a little zing. We served these on sesame seed hoagie rolls that was slightly toasted. It was just spicy enough for us, but for some reason our chiles were a bit hotter than average so it was almost too hot for Jeff's mom. She still gave it two thumbs up though!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Greek yogurt... more than just a snack!

Salads don't always have to be in the background as a side dish - tonight's dinner, Spring Chicken and Blue Cheese Salad, was quite filling served as a main.

This recipe utilizes that sumptuous, thick Greek-style yogurt (we like the Fage brand) that is becoming quite popular and more available than it used to be. Because most of the liquid-y whey has been removed, you are able to cook with this yogurt without having any issues of separation. Four pieces of lean chicken breast are coated in a mixture of the yogurt, fresh tarragon, garlic and a couple tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. The chicken is then placed in a baking pan, drenched in any remaining yogurt mixture that didn't stick and baked.

While the chicken cools, a combination of tender torn butterhead lettuce, thin slices of bitter radicchio and baby spinach are tossed together to form the fresh base that sets off the juicy chicken. To complete the salad, we topped it off with an enticing blue cheese dressing that I made earlier and had kept chilled and covered in the refrigerator. Chunky crumbles of pungent blue cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, a couple splashes of red-wine vinegar, sweet sticky honey and another dose of bright fresh tarragon are mashed together to form the dressing. As is, the dressing was fairly thick, so we thinned it down and made it a little more creamy by mixing in a couple tablespoons of the Greek yogurt. Besides adding a pleasant tang, baking the chicken breasts, which can tend to dry out quickly, in the yogurt allowed them to stay very moist and tender.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hand held fruit crisp...

I always thought it would be fun for Jeff to bring something like a crisp or cobbler-like dessert into work for the weekly Wednesday Treat Day goodie. Thinking that it might not hold up, I've been trying to figure out a way to do something with similar flavors and then I came across these Apple-Cherry Crumble Bars.

Imagine a couple buttery, crumbly oatmeal cookies being packed with a moist fruit filling and sandwiched together - except formed into bars. Instead of using fresh fruit, which might end up being too wet, these bars start out by plumping up dried apples and cherries in sweet apple cider. After a few minutes of simmering, the fruit is separated from the extra liquid, save a couple tablespoons worth of the leftover cider that will be added back later. Since the apples and cherries were quite large at this point, they were coarsely chopped to make cutting the finished bars much easier.

Since I had to wait for the fruit to cool down before I chopped it, I started mixing the crumbly cookie base - this is a combination of oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and of course, a generous amount of butter. While it may look a little dry, if you were to squeeze the mixture in your hand you will notice that it should hold together and form clumps. Just over half of this is scattered into the pan and then pressed to form the bottom layer. The chopped fruit, tossed with a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, cinnamon and a little of the reserved cooked cider, is then spread over the top. The rest of the buttery crumbles that were not pressed as the base are scattered on top ala a fruit crisp.

Once they had baked until the top was nice and golden, the bars were set aside to cool completely so we would be able to get cleanly cut pieces out of the pan. Firm enough to pick up and take a bite, this was such a delicious combination of crisp textures against the soft and sweet, yet a little tart, chunks of fruit on the inside.

Often times when we have some leftover spaghetti in the fridge, one of us will just reheat it for lunch. However, after tonight's dinner, we'll hold off and turn it into this Spaghetti Frittata we made instead.

To make this a little lighter, this recipe uses a combination of egg whites and whole eggs - you can use completely whole eggs if you like, just substitute 1 whole egg for every 2 egg whites. You could probably reduce one or two more whole eggs and use the whites instead, but I find if you don't have enough yolks, the texture can get a little spongy. After an onion has softened in a large oven-safe skillet, a few cups of fresh spinach and a couple garlic cloves are stirred in.

While the whole-wheat spaghetti added next to the skillet had already been tossed with marinara sauce, that tomato-y flavor is backed up by sun-dried tomatoes that we reconstituted in boiling water. When the pasta had warmed through, the eggs and egg whites are poured in and the frittata continues to cook on the stove until the edges are set, but the center is still jiggly. Sharp Parmesan cheese is scattered on top and the skillet is slipped under the broiler for just a few minutes to firm up the center and brown the cheese. We both liked how the eggs kept the texture light, but the added pasta brought some heft to make this dish, making it a bit more filling. If you don't have a fairly large skillet, you may want to switch to cooking this in the oven, rather than partially on the stove, so the bottom doesn't cook too fast before the center has a chance to catch up.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Veggie-packed tofu stir-fry...

Thanks for the notes about my finger! It looks like things are healing well, although the occasional bump quickly reminds me of what happened. I've been using those single "finger cots" so I can continue to cook and bake without irritating the wound.

It certainly helped when I was chopping up the red bell pepper for tonight's Spicy Stir-Fried Tofu with Snow Peas, Peanut Butter and Broccoli as I'm sure it would have been quite painful if any of the juice found its way to the cut. The original recipe called for mushrooms, but we decided to swap those for broccoli to make Jeff happy. I have more luck using those fungi when he can't see them!

You'll need a package of extrafirm tofu for this -we drained away the water and cut the chunk of tofu into cubes. We wanted to get as much excess liquid out from them as we could, so the cubes were scattered onto a few paper towels, followed up by a couple more on top. We then placed a heavy plate on top - 5 minutes or so of this should be sufficient, but we left it for about 15 minutes as I was prepping the rest of the ingredients.

With the extra moisture pressed out, the cubes browned in a bit of oil fairly quick. We scooped the golden tofu onto a plate and tossed in a healthy amount of trimmed snow peas, a chopped red bell pepper, mild green onions and a couple cloves worth of minced garlic. A bit of water is also added to help the cooking process along. When the snow peas were almost cooked through, the broccoli florets were added and left to cook just until they were bright green and crisp-tender. This mixture is fairly dry at this point, so to sauce things up, a combination of tamari (a thicker, dark soy sauce), creamy peanut butter, cornstarch and a couple dashes of Sriracha are whisked together to kick up the heat. Fairly light as is, we served this veggie-loaded, peanutty stir-fry over a bed of brown basmati rice.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter goodies...

Happy Easter 2008!

Just 8 new recipes for us this week - our favorites were those sweet Molasses Sandwich Cookies, that fun Upside-Down Shepherd's Pie and that big ol' pan of Unstuffed Shells.

Being our third year in a row to make this Easter Biscotti recipe, I think we can label it safely as one of our Easter traditions! Jeff has been anxiously awaiting, dropping hints left and right, trying to figure out if we were going to make them again this year. So, with a couple bags of jelly beans in hand (you know the drill... one for the recipe, one for us to munch on while waiting!), I set out early this morning to get these going.

I'm glad I got up a little early to start as it seemed to take me forever - I was trying to be very careful to not anger those new stitches in my finger! Last year we gave most of them away, but I don't think Jeff is going to allow that this time!

I also wanted to try out something a little different this time, so once we got the biscotti taken care of, I got going on these Baked Easter Doughnuts. To make these, you'll need one of these snazzy mini-doughnut pans that look like this.

To add a sweet scent to the doughnuts, I used aromatic vanilla sugar in the batter - if you don't have a jar of this handy, just use regular granulated. The golden dough, flecked with the dark vanilla seeds, is thick, yet just thin enough to easily run off a spoon, making the process of filling the wells of the pan go by quick. Once they had baked and cooled, we decided to dress them up with an Easter theme. First, we prepared a bright lemon glaze out of confectioners' sugar and fresh lemon juice. We then dipped the top half of the doughnuts in, followed by a dunk into some colored shredded coconut. We added some pastel Reese's candy eggs and voilà, we had little bird nests!

Just for the sake of variation, we also did a Mickey one (guess who requested that...) and a few with just random little candy balls.

Now, since these are baked, they don't have that delicate melt-in-your mouth texture that fried doughnuts have, but neither of us minded that. They are definitely more cake-like with a soft interior. The vanilla flavor was present, yet mild enough that I thought afterwards a bit of lavender thrown into the batter might be a fun way to add another layer. I think these would also hold up well to a richer topping - say a dip in some good quality melted chocolate with a few sprinkles?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

At least these cookie "fingers" are still in one piece!

Umm... we had a little "incident" last night. Apparently, it is not a good idea to sharpen the blade from a mandoline when you have other things going on! *heavy sigh* Yes, we ended up having to run to urgent care so I could get 2 stitches in my left index finger! The blade slipped through the sharpener a little quicker than I was expecting and went from my right hand to just below my knuckle - thankfully, it missed anything important and is just a minor annoyance now. So, the only thing I ruined was probably my chance to be a hand model... darn! My dream is ruined! :-) Just kidding... rather than displaying my stitches right next to the treat we are posting today, I'll just link to the picture instead.

Needless to say, nothing new from the kitchen today - I do have something to talk about though! A few days ago, Jeff was telling me about a friend of his who was celebrating her 50th birthday. He wanted to do something for her, but she lives on the west coast. While we couldn't take her out for lunch, what else would we do but bake up a batch of cookies and send them off?

I picked these Butterscotch Fingers to make because I needed to prepare the dough a couple days ahead of time. I knew I wasn't going to have time the day we needed to bake and send them and this recipe required a good rest in the refrigerator because it is just a slice-n-bake dough.

Think of these as just your basic shortbread cookie - except these buttery rectangles received an upgrade with moist dark brown sugar and a good handful of toasted pecans. Once combined, the dough should be just tacky to the touch, allowing you to shape it into a brick without much effort. You can either firm up the dough in the refrigerator if you have the extra time or simply stick it in the freezer for about 1 or 2 hours - it should be very firm so the brick of dough will slice cleanly. You can stick these fairly close together, about 1" or so apart, as they don't spread all that much. You're looking for the cookies to have a golden glow around the edges with not too much color on top.

Crisp, a little crumbly with a subtle butterscotch undertone, these thin, pecan-studded cookies are sturdy and rich. My mind was wondering when I was making these - I wonder how they would turn out if you browned the butter first, let it firm back up in the refrigerator and then used it for a more intense flavor?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sausage Soup with Spinach and Wild Rice to warm us up...

Wee! Well, we were able to see the grass yesterday, but today everything is very bright and white again!

We ended up with just over 8" of heavy, wet snow - at least Max had a good time romping around.

After I was done shoveling (while Jeff was "working" from home), I was really in the mood for a stomach warming soup to take the chill off. I was actually planning something else tonight, but I scrounged around the recipe pile and decided to toss together this Sausage Soup with Spinach and Wild Rice instead as it called for ingredients we always have in the pantry or freezer.

The only bummer was waiting around for the hard wild rice to cook through enough! When the rice had partially cooked through, I began working on the base of the soup. We cooked a few links worth of hot Italian turkey sausage until it was crumbly and done. We removed the sausage, added a little olive oil and sautéed a bit of onion - when it began to soften, we threw three crushed cloves of garlic in. For a richer background, a couple dollops of tomato paste is the next ingredient - you want to make sure you stir this around in the pan before adding any liquid. Taking this extra step gives the paste a chance to begin caramelizing, bringing some dimension to the soup.

Once seasoned with dried basil and oregano (don't forget to rub them between your fingers to refresh their flavor), broth and a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes are added as the liquid ingredients. The sausage is then placed back in and the soup simmers away, allowing the flavors to mingle and marry. Right before serving, the tender wild rice and some torn baby spinach are added into the bubbling soup, heating the rice back up and slightly wilting the spinach. Fresh grated Parmesan cheeses rounds this out with a sharp, salty note. The original recipe stated it made 9 servings - however, it also included an extra 3 cups of water that we simply felt was unneeded and probably used to make this soup stretch a bit more. We like how it had a bit more intense flavor and would make this change again - we portioned it out into 4 filling servings. If you feel the need, you would add those extra 3 cups of water when you add the broth.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shrimp and Cabbage Lo Mein on a snowy "Spring" evening...

Even though we are under a winter storm warning through sometime tomorrow(!), I was dreaming tonight of the warm winds that are sure to blow into our area over the next few months. Tonight's dinner, Shrimp and Cabbage Lo Mein, is a dish I imagine we will certainly be enjoying on those upcoming hot summer nights.

After a little effort in the prep department, the rest of this dish actually came together pretty quickly. While we waited for the water to come to a boil, we whisked together a zesty dressing composed of soy sauce, rice vinegar, fresh ginger, sugar and crushed red pepper. As soon as long, thin "little tongues" of pasta (linguine) were added to the well-salted boiling water, shrimp and a clove of garlic are added to a hot skillet laced with canola oil. Just a couple minutes later, the shrimp have transformed from their dull grey color to an opaque and vibrant pink glow. To save on dishes, the shrimp are transferred to a plate, while a hearty dose of thinly sliced Napa cabbage and another clove of garlic are placed in the same skillet. With just a little water added to help cook the cabbage, the cabbage is tossed around until it softens just enough, yet remains bright and crisp.

The al dente pasta is drenched in the tangy soy-ginger dressing and tossed with the cabbage and cooked shrimp. Slicing the cabbage into thin strips not only helps it cook evenly, it also makes it easier to eat by mimicking the shape of the pasta. While it was quite light and refreshing warm, I have a feeling it will be just as tasty tomorrow without the need for reheating during lunch tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wehani - am I the last to find this rice?

Have you ever heard of Wehani rice?

I know I hadn't until I read about it in the latest issue of Eating Well. This whole-grain rice is related to Basmati rice - it has a very different appearance though!

It has a reddish-brown tinge, the grains are thicker than regular long-grain brown rice and it produces a very aromatic note of popcorn while it cooks. One thing I noticed when it had completed cooking was that the grains split open a little somewhat akin to what happens when you cook wild rice. I went out to a few of our local markets to see if I could even find it and was surprised I was able to easily locate it in each store! I wonder how I missed it before?

Once we had finished cooking the Wehani rice, we began the rest of tonight's dinner - Dirty Rice! Confession; just like the last time we made a different version, this is not "true" dirty rice, but I just can't bring myself to buy chicken livers and gizzards. We've come a long way in our culinary journey, but neither of us are ready for that (and can't say we ever will be either!).

So, instead of using those chicken parts, the dish ends up a little lighter as the meaty portion comes from using chicken andouille sausage. While the sausage is already cooked, we first browned them in the skillet to enhance their flavor with a bit of caramelization. When browned, chopped onions, celery and a red bell pepper are added. Once they had softened enough, a couple cloves of garlic are tossed in, followed by a bit of fresh thyme and a couple shakes of cayenne pepper for a background of heat. While you could use regular long-grain brown rice in this recipe, the Wehani rice brought a chewier, more toothsome texture that was a welcome change. I'm looking forward to experimenting more and seeing what other dishes would benefit from this extrinsic rice!

Dirty Rice

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bold sandwich cookies...

Tuesday brings us another edition of baking for the weekly Wednesday Treat Day. One of these days, I should go back and see just how many of these we have done now! This week we thought we would do a cookie, but this is not your every day type - robust, assertive and sweet aptly describe these Molasses Sandwich Cookies.

The mocha-colored dough is thick and sticky, but is easy to divide out if you use one of those snazzy cookie scoops. If you choose to use a regular teaspoon, you will have a better experience if you occasionally dip the spoon into water to quell any sticking issues. I used a regular half sheet pan (13" x 18") and was able to comfortably fit 20 cookies per sheet - any more and I think the dough balls would have run into each other as they baked.

While the cookies were cooling, I prepared the creamy filling that would hold these cookies together. Simply made from 3 ingredients, softened butter, molasses and confectioners' sugar, this filling was quite rich. However, since the cookies themselves are fairly sweet, the richness helped keep the sandwiches from being tooth-achingly sweet. The cookies are fairly thin with crispy edges and softer, chewy centers. Both of us found the racy, unique flavor from the molasses was surprisingly additive! We used a regular unsulfured "light" molasses - I wouldn't suggest using another variety as it may be too strong and overwhelm the delicate balance of flavors.

Stuffed shells are always a favorite around here, however there are those nights where I just don't have the extra time or energy to make them. Tonight's dinner, Unstuffed Shells, was a spin-off from the more laborious version with most of the work being done in the food processor.

Instead of using the extra-large pasta, we swapped those out for some medium-sized shells. While those were busy in the boiling salted water, we pureed a mixture of chickpeas, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, a bit of chopped onion, an egg to help bind and seasoned the mixture up with salt, crushed red pepper and a touch of fresh grated nutmeg. When that was smooth, we stirred in a healthy dose of thawed frozen spinach that had been squeezed dry (potato ricers work well for this!).

The cheesy-spinach mixture is then tossed with the hot pasta, along with a bit of the starchy cooking liquid from the pasta, to add a little more moisture. To assemble the dish, we spread a layer of marinara sauce in the bottom of a large dish, spooned the pasta mixture on top and then added another layer of marinara sauce on top. A few minutes before it is taken out of the oven, a scattering of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses are sprinkled on top. I loved how well the chickpeas blended in and just added a nuttiness without seeming out of place. There was just enough moisture from the sauce and ricotta cheese mixture to keep the pasta from being dry, yet not too much that it wouldn't hold its shape when we pulled out pieces from the pan.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Shepherd's Pie with a twist...

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

While I'm sure it's not too traditional, we thought we would have a little fun with dinner tonight and try out this Upside-Down Shepherd's Pie.

What we did was make a thick mashed potato boat to encase a juicy meat filling. Buttery Yukon Golds were the potato of choice - you don't have to, but we love the added flavor the nutrient-rich skins have, so they stayed on. Go ahead and peel if you are not keen on that texture in your mashers. Once the potatoes had boiled until they were fork-tender, we drained off the cooking water and placed them back into the warm pot. Using this method, the heat retained by the pan will evaporate some of the excess liquid in the potatoes. When you add the milk and butter, I like to warm them slightly in the microwave so I'm not adding cold ingredients to hot potatoes. After I smashed them with a potato masher, the mixture was scooped into a casserole dish and spread to an even thickness. I then used damp fingertips to make a lip around the edges to hold in the filling.

The filling is prepared while the potatoes are bubbling away. Lean ground sirloin and a chopped onion are the base ingredients - when they have cooked, a couple cloves worth of minced garlic are then added. At this point, a bit of flour is sprinkled over the meat and allowed to simmer a couple minutes to remove any of that raw flour flavor. Corn kernels, beef broth, tangy ketchup and of course, Worcestershire sauce, are stirred in - the flour you just added will help tighten up the liquids, leaving you with a hearty meat filling. Spooned into the mashed potato shell, the dish gains a cheesy note by a scattering of white Cheddar on top. Just a couple minutes under the broiler to melt the cheese and this dish was ready to go!

What a total comfort food dish - the creamy potatoes with a generous moist, beefy filling and just enough cheese for a sharp bite. Since I wanted it to hold its shape while taking pictures, I did let it sit after it came out of the oven for a few minutes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Basmati Rice and Curry Casserole...

10 new recipes came out of the kitchen this speedy week in March - our favorites were the Ginger Angel Food Cake with Coconut Frosting, Cherry Burgers and those insanely good Bittersweet Brownie Peanut Butter Bonbons.

Well, one word can describe tonight's dinner.... whew! I had thought about making this Basmati Rice and Curry Casserole during the week, but I'm glad I went with my better judgment and waited until the weekend. This is one of those recipes that consumes a lot of time and at least for me, left the kitchen quite messy!

While nothing is very complicated in this Biryani (a rice-based casserole, basically), the whole process may seem a little daunting. However, once you break down the steps, you'll see that it just needs some time and attention. Up first, the sauce is prepared - chopped tomatoes, onion and whole (yes, whole - minus the stem of course!) serrano chiles are whizzed together in a food processor (or blender, your choice) until the mixture smooths out.

Next, a handful of sweet golden raisins and raw cashews are added to a layer of shimmering oil to plump up the raisins and toast the nuts. This happens fairly quick, so don't stray from the skillet - when you remove them, use a slotted spoon and try to leave as much oil as possible in the skillet. Once those two are removed, whole cumin seeds, cardamom pods, a couple bay leaves and cinnamon sticks are spread into the skillet until their intense aromas release into the air. Thin, half-moon slices of a red onion are then tossed in and cook until they begin to turn a light golden.

The smooth tomato puree from above is added, along with pungent garam masala (a blend of warm spices), salt and turmeric. These ingredients simmer and concentrate down until most of the liquid has evaporated, leaving you with a thick, well-seasoned mixture. This takes about 15 minutes or so - while you wait, long-grain fragrant white basmati rice is given several gentle baths to remove excess starch so the grains remain fluffy when cooked. When thoroughly rinsed, the rice sits in cold water to rest while waiting on the dish to be assembled.

Into that reduced tomato sauce, bitter leaves from mustard greens are stirred in, followed by chunky cauliflower florets, protein-rich chickpeas and a bit of water. While you wait for the greens to wilt, the rice, with a pinch of earthy saffron, is briefly toasted and then partially cooked. Once you see that most of the water was been absorbed on the surface and you notice craters starting to appear, the casserole is ready to be layered. Half of the hearty sauce goes on first, then comes the layer of rice. The rest of the sauce is spooned over the top and the final topping is those toasted cashews and plumped golden raisins.

Before serving, you will want to try and fish out the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks - the recipe also calls to remove the cardamom pods, but they really blend in well and can be hard to spot! So, after all of that, was it worth it? Very much so! Jeff and I haven't ever eaten such an interesting, complex and diverse dish that we've prepared ourselves. You can play with the amount of serrano peppers - even though we used four whole peppers, we found the heat level to be about medium. Feel free to reduce one or even add a couple if you would like it more mild, or more spicy! I'm so anticipating lunch tomorrow!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Whopper of a cookie...

A few days ago, Jeff asked if we could send out another package of goodies - I asked if he already had anything in mind and all he knew was he wanted cookies, chocolate cookies. One chocolate cookie came right into thought as I've been waiting for an excuse to make them.

You know from just a few posts ago that we both love goodies with malted milk and these Chocolate Malted Whopper Drops pack that malt flavor in two ways. It doesn't hurt that they are loaded with three types of chocolate either!

The dough for these drops contain a full cup of chocolate malted milk powder - I use the Carnation brand, but I've heard it can be hard to locate. You might have better luck finding Ovaltine, which will work just fine, however I find Carnation just has a better taste. Feel free to use whatever unsweetened cocoa powder you prefer - we used a Dutch-process cocoa for a smoother chocolate background. Natural would work just fine here, it just has a bit more bitter tone to it.

The next blast of malt in the cookies comes from a few ounces worth of chocolate malted milk balls - you know, those crunchy Whopper candies! You can work with them a few ways - coarsley chop them, crush them with a rolling pin to break them up or do as we did and just slice them in half for a more chunky texture. I actually made two batches of these cookies - both made the same, except one of them I used those new peanut butter coated Whoppers. Because they don't already have enough chocolate (!), a generous amount of chopped bittersweet pieces are also stirred into the dough.

Baked right after mixing, the cookies came out soft, sweet and chewy with a decidedly malty flavor. The Whopper pieces melt slightly and spread their goodness into large crispy pockets in the cookies so you get a little with each nibble you take. Eaten side by side, I could tell a difference between the two versions of the cookies, but the peanut butter itself was very mild and was masked by the more dominant malt. If malt is your thing, don't let this recipe pass you by - run out, grab a box of Whoppers and whip these up! Just don't eat all the candy before they hit the cookie dough!

Friday, March 14, 2008

More roasted cauliflower with parmesan chicken paillards...

You've heard us sing the praises of roasted cauliflower a few times now... so I'm sure you won't be surprised with how much we enjoyed tonight's side dish of Sesame Roasted Cauliflower.

We've been using a few of the tips we have learned along the way to make this basic roasted vegetable just a bit better. When you slice up the large head of cauliflower, rather than trying to keep the florets intact, slice them so they have a larger flat surface area. This allows the florets to have better contact with the pan, allowing it to caramelize and deepen its flavor. We've also quite taken to preheating the baking pan first - I wouldn't say this is absolutely required, but there is some audible gratification when you hear the sizzle as the snow-white veggie slides onto the hot surface. I'm content with dressing the pieces with oil and a shower of salt and fresh ground black pepper - however, this time they are gussied up with piquant toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds for a richer flavor. Golden, tender, yet crisp, this versatile roasted veggie is welcome on our plates anytime!

Dinner tonight, Parmesan Chicken Paillards with Cherry Tomato Sauce, took a bit of time to complete, but the effort was rewarded. Chicken breasts (ours were about 6 ounces each) are first pounded flat to help them cook a little more evenly. This can get kind of messy, so to ease clean up, slide the breasts between a couple sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap. I've used both with good results. Once the chicken has been seasoned, only one side is dredged in a mixture of flour and fresh grated Parmesan cheese to keep this dish on the lighter side. Having only one side crusted might sound a little skimpy, but the strong, sharp nature of the Parmesan allows this to work well.

Place the breasts cheese side down when you add them to the skillet - since there isn't a ton of oil used, this gives the crust a chance to mingle with enough hot oil to get golden and crisp. Rather than dirtying another pan, the chunky sauce is prepared in the same skillet after the chicken has cooked. As soon as chopped onions soften for the sauce, they are hit with chicken broth and a shot of syrupy balsamic vinegar. When most of the liquid had concentrated down, quartered juicy cherry tomatoes are tossed in with a pinch of dried oregano. The sauce is finished when the tomatoes start to break down, yet still have some texture to them. I love the combination of tangy balsamic vinegar and tomatoes - however, if for some reason you don't groove on balsamic, sherry vinegar would also work well here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Burgers with a sweet cherry twist...

There are some days that I wish I had a camera trained on Jeff's face just so I could show you some of his reactions when I describe what I'm doing in the kitchen. Jeff is a fanatic of cherries - dried, fresh or frozen - when I tossed a bag of frozen cherries in the cart at the market, he was very excited as he thought I was making a sweet treat with them. He was very wrong though, as he found out tonight!

He thought I was working on dessert and all was going well as I added the frozen cherries, dried cherries, sugar, ginger, allspice, cardamom and cinnamon to a saucepan, but the look on his face when I tossed in the vinegar, a couple cloves of garlic and cayenne pepper was priceless! See, this was actually the beginnings of a swanky "ketchup" for the savory Cherry Burgers (yes, you read that right!) that I was about to start making for dinner. No tomatoes in this ketchup though - the fruity mixture simmers away until the cherries soften and the flavors combine. It is then pureed into a thick, smooth topping.

The patty for the burgers is actually a combination of lean ground sirloin, finely chopped dried cherries and panko breadcrumbs to help bind and lighten the mixture. To enhance the savory aspect, the burgers are seasoned with a clove of minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard and pungent Worcestershire sauce. The beefy mixture held together quite well - when you go to form the patty, be sure to make an indent in the center of each so they cook evenly without shrinking.

Rather than having these on a thick, bread-y bun, they are served on thin, toasted English muffins so you still get that familiar carb crunch, allowing the burger's full flavor to shine through. Simply assembled with a crisp romaine lettuce leaf, ringlets from a sweet onion and the bright, tangy cherry ketchup. To remove some of the "bite" from the raw onions, they are allowed to sit and mellow out in icy water - this way they can retain their crisp texture without having to cook them. Sweet, yet decidedly savory and meaty, these juicy fruit-filled burgers were fun, interesting and they are sure to strike up a good conversation!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For chocolate and peanut butter fans...

As I mentioned yesterday, the item I was preparing for the weekly Wednesday Treat Day was not quite ready to be posted. Once I finally got them finished up after dinner, Jeff and I eagerly took a bite and quickly fell in love with these decadent Bittersweet Brownie Peanut Butter Bonbons.

With classic ingredients such as butter, bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour, the batter is simple to prepare and is made in a single saucepan! Be sure to keep the heat on low or medium-low when you begin melting some of the ingredients together - this will help ensure the mixture is not too warm when the eggs are added.

The main reason it took be awhile to complete these yesterday is the fact that they are baked in miniature muffin tins and the recipe makes enough to fill 48 individual cups. Luckily I have a large tin that holds 24 at a time, so I only had to bake two batches - however, since there is no leavening in the brownie batter, you can hold it in the refrigerator as you bake, cool and clean the pan in between batches. If you only have one 12 cup tin, plan on a couples hours to complete this process.

When the little brownie bites have baked and slightly cooled, we plunged the round end of a wooden spoon into the center of each one. Make sure you do this while they are still warm and in the pan - this way the brownies will hold their integrity and won't fall apart. After they have completely cooled, the centers are then filled with a nutty combination crunchy peanut butter, confectioners' sugar, soft cream cheese, a splash of milk and a dash of vanilla. For a little flare, the tops are drizzled with additional melted bittersweet chocolate.

These are everything we love in a brownie - dense and fudgy while still having a chewy quality to them. The peanut butter centers sent these into a whole new level and was such a fantastic addition - chocolate and peanut butter lovers will be pleased! When I removed the cover this morning to pack them up for the trip into work, I was taken aback by the intoxicating chocolate aroma that smacked me in the face - let's just say I didn't have a healthy breakfast this morning!

While I'm sure I could of just had a plate of those brownies for dinner and be quite content, I knew that was probably not the best idea and I already had the ingredients on hand to make these Sweet Potato Ravioli with Lemon-Sage Brown Butter tonight.

So the filling for these ravioli wouldn't be too wet, the sweet potatoes are roasted until tender, rather than boiling them. We wanted the filling to be creamy and smooth, so we peeled the potatoes and mashed the sweet orange flesh. The potato is then mixed with sharp Parmesan cheese and lightly seasoned with fragrant cinnamon and fresh grated nutmeg. It always seems like it takes me forever to fill wontons by myself, so I pulled Jeff away from his new toy (that Wii is quite addicting!) and got his hands dirty. When they were finally assembled, the stuffed triangles quickly cook in a large pot of boiling salted water - if you have issues with them sticking together after you take them out, try giving them a light spritz with olive oil and that should help.

Browned butter seems to be a natural match for ravioil and these are no different. To add couple bright notes to the buttery sauce, chopped fresh sage is added to infuse into the butter as it browns. Once the color hits a golden browned appearance, the sauce is removed from the heat and is refreshed with fresh lemon juice. While we both cleaned our plates, the filling almost seemed a bit heavy for the light wonton wrappers and might be more appropriate with pasta dough instead - it was still quite delicious though!