Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween 2008!

I heard yesterday that a couple (or a few!) of Jeff's co-workers were wondering if we were going to make those tempting Butterfinger Eyeballs that we made for a treat day last year. I hadn't planned on it, but after sifting through the pantry, I found I had enough of everything to make a half batch. After we got done with dinner last night, I set out to get them done. I managed to get them all dipped last night, but waited until this morning to add those funky bloodshot markings - hopefully they were a nice surprise for them today!

Now, because of the special nature of this evening, I figured it would be appropriate to have a little fun with our Friday Night Pizza!

There really is no wrong or right way to prepare this Pumpkin-Shaped Pepperoni Pizza, but here is how we decided to assemble it. Once we had tossed together that snazzy whole-wheat pizza dough that we always use and had given the yeast a chance to do its thing, we pressed the squishy dough out into a large oval shape. I then pressed some of the dough that felt a bit thick in places up the top center location - I pushed it up to create a base for the stem.

We slathered the top with our favorite homemade spicy pizza sauce we've been using lately, but your favorite kind will do fine. We then scattered rounds and trimmings (we'll get to that in a minute) of pepperoni on top. To give the pumpkin color a bit of depth, we used a combination of sharp yellow and mozzarella cheese - if you only like mozzarella, then just make a white pumpkin! If you do want that, I'd suggest you pre-bake the naked crust a bit so the cheese doesn't take on too much color while waiting on the crust to crisp up.

So Jeff could stay busy and keep his fingers out of the candy bowl while we waited for the doorbell, he created the eyes, nose and mouth by trimming the round pepperoni into triangles. While we snacked on a few of the trimmings, most of them went underneath the cheese (I think he intentionally sliced some pepperoni wrong, just so he had an excuse for extra pieces!). To give the pumpkin some dimension on top, we arranged thinly slice strips of green bell pepper in rows - I also trimmed a few extra and closely added them on top for the stem.

If you fancy other types of flavor and textures for your pizza, other than pepperoni, feel free to add them - just make sure they will all fit underneath the cheesy layer.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Crispy Turkey Tostadas...

Tonight's dinner, Crispy Turkey Tostadas, would be an excellent recipe to have handy when you are deluged by tons (literally it feels some years) of leftover Thanksgiving turkey!

To sauce up a few cups of shredded turkey meat (you could always use chicken here too), fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chilies are cooked in a saucepan, along with a sliced onion, until the juices have a chance to concentrate down and the onion softens. If you don't groove on spicy foods, opt for tomatoes that don't have chilies included.

While the above was simmering away, we lightly coated rounds of white corn tortillas with olive oil spray, sprinkled each with a few grains of salt and tossed them into the oven until golden and crisp. We then smashed an avocado together with salsa, sour cream and fresh cilantro to create a sauce to spread on top of those now-crisp tortillas. You can control the heat level here too - since we were using somewhat spicy tomatoes, we went with a medium salsa - however, go mild if you want just an inkling of spice or go crazy and use those diablo XXX salas's and clear your sinus's!

When that combination of chunky tomatoes and onion was done simmering, the shredded turkey was added in to heat through - the mixture is then piled on top of a light bed of shredded romaine that covered the creamy avocado spread. With a sprinkling of mild Monterey Jack cheese on top of each assembled tostada, Jeff had almost finished off one mound before I even sat down - I knew that was a good sign! Besides adding a burst of bright flavor, that slick layer of mashed avocado and salsa worked well as an anchor to keep the rest of the ingredients from sliding off. Our tomatoes had softened enough that they broke down while stirring, with the help of a sturdy wooden spoon, but if your mixture is still fairly chunky, you may want to either blitz it a couple times with an immersion blender or use petite diced tomatoes if you can find them - this will allow the turkey to blend in better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Roasting grapes for a savory dinner...

While we love potatoes in most every form, I think our favorite has to be the always comforting mashed potatoes. For the side to tonight's meal, these Smashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Chives ramped up ordinary potatoes with a creamy tang.

As usual, chunky pieces of potatoes, Yukon gold in this case, are boiled in salted water until the pieces can easily be pierced by a knife. Once drained, the potatoes are added back into the pot and left to sit over low heat, with a few stirs, for a minute or so - this step evaporates any of the liquid that clung to the potatoes or didn't drain away. Softened butter, along with a generous dose of salt and fresh ground black pepper are blended into the fluffy potatoes by smashing them with a potato masher.

They will look very dry and stiff now - the first step to smooth them out is a handful of tangy goat cheese. Still over low heat, half-and-half is stirred in, and the potatoes transform into luscious, creamy potatoes that still have some texture to them. We enjoy potato skins, so I didn't peel our potatoes first, but don't let me stop you if that isn't your thing. Right before serving, we added a fresh note by stirring in the last bits from our chive plants that I clipped Monday night... thankfully I did that then because the last two nights have been wicked cold (19 degrees early Tuesday morning!). You could certainly even make these ahead of time - just stir in some warmed chicken broth, or milk, before serving to loosen them up.

Have a need to use up a mess of grapes? Then you'll have to try out this Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Grape Sauce that I served as the main dish tonight.

Making efficient use of the oven, a few cups worth of grapes are roasted on the bottom rack until the juices begin to flow and their skins shrivel. I had red grapes on hand, but a mix of red and green would make a lovely presentation. While those were working, we browned one side of the lean tenderloin in a skillet, gave it a flip, and then slide it on a rack over the grapes to finish cooking through. Once the pork had tested done, we moved it onto a cutting board and started the next step of the sauce by adding a couple finely chopped shallots into the fiery hot skillet (don't forget the handle will not be quite h-o-t! - put a towel or potholder over the handle to remind you). To inject a mellow sweetness, a half cup of Madeira is poured into the shallots and allowed to reduce. If you don't happen to have that fortified wine on hand, white wine would be acceptable - if you absolutely don't want to cook with alcohol, extra broth would also be ok, but you'll loose some sharpness.

For volume, a bit of broth, along with pungent Dijon and thyme is stirred in - to add body and thicken the sauce, a slurry of cornstarch and water are the next ingredients. The caramelized grapes are swirled in to finish the sauce. The tender pork, with a juicy pink hue in the center, is sliced and served over the unique sauce. We both thought the intensified sweetness in the grapes was a brilliant pair with the more savory pork. While the grapes did loose their fullness in the roasting process, they still had enough zest to pop while eating, giving some extra satisfaction. Jeff thought it may end up being a bit too sweet with the wine and grapes, but the zing from the Dijon seemed to keep it in check.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dirty bones and a pile of whole wheat pasta and cabbage...

Because this is Halloween week, I figured we better do something special for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day! Dachshunds are known for being diggers... and look what Gus found for us - Dirty Bones!

Just kidding... these bones are light and crispy meringue cookies that we pipped into homely shaped bones. Two ingredients make up these meringues - sugar and egg whites! How easy is that? You can flavor them if you like - I used a dash of vanilla, but if you really wanted to spike up these bones, toss in a few drops of peppermint! While some recipes have you beat the two ingredients together, usually with a stabilizer like cream of tartar, I prefer the method we used in this recipe. I like this way, which we have used before, because it evenly dissolves the sugar into the whites and also warms the mixture up so you get the best volume possible. Cold egg whites won't give as great of a volume as warm ones will.

You can control the size of your bones by how hard you squeeze the pastry bag, the tip you use and how fast you move it - I used a 1/4" tip and made short, big, long and skinny bones. Once they were all pipped out, baked and cooled, I dirtied them up by dusting each one with Dutch-process cocoa powder using a soft pastry brush. You can use any kind of dark powder you like though - sweetened (hot) cocoa powder, chocolate malted powder or even a product like Nesquik. I opted for Dutch-process cocoa because these cookies are already plenty sweet and its smooth nature added just a whisper of chocolate. If you really wanted to go all out to serve these, fill up a shallow pan with dirt (ground up Oreos or chocolate wafer cookies) and stick the bones in like a graveyard! Do remember, you'll have to be gentle with these as they are somewhat fragile - however, don't fret if they break... just called them broken bones!

Jeff has never really been a big fan of cooked cabbaged... we've had it a couple of times in different recipes and while he didn't hate it, he didn't love it either. Well, I think we are making some headway as he commented that it actually worked well in this Spaghetti with Sweet Sausage and Cabbage I made for dinner tonight!

Once we had water boiling and seasoned, we dropped stiff strands of whole-wheat spaghetti into the pot and left it bubbling away to soften. As we did that, I started cooking the sausage in just a touch of oil to get the party started. Once crumbled and browned, we transferred the meaty bits to a plate, leaving the intense drippings behind, and tossed in thin slices of red onion, a touch of water and shreds from a large head of Savoy cabbage. Savoy cabbage has leaves that are more crinkled, are not as tightly packed together and are a bit thinner than an average head of regular green cabbage. However, they are not always easy to find - so if all you have is green cabbage, use it!

It will take a few minutes to stuff all that cabbage into your skillet, unless you have one humongous pan, so just keep stirring, covering and adding it until all of the sliced green leaves fit in. Once the cabbage is tender, the mixture is tossed with the pasta, along with enough reserved cooking water from the cooked pasta - this loosens everything up and creates a light sauce to keep the dish moist. To add a bright note right before serving, the dish is given a splash of white-wine vinegar while still warm. We typically always have hot Italian sausage on hand, but I went out and specifically got a few links of the sweet sausage to make this dish. I'm happy I made that choice - the spices inside that raw sausage married well with the milder cabbage and I think the hot version might have tried to take over and not allow the more delicate nature of the cabbage to come through.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trying to warm up with a bowl of Broccoli-Potato Soup with Greens....

Woah.... we are still in October right? I know we are in Minnesota and all... but snow (the larger photo shows the flakes better)? Already?

It is crazy windy outside (gusts up to 50 mph) and the temperatures are plummeting quickly - Gus has already decided he is not a snow puppy and wants to stay inside where it is cozy and warm! I can just hear it "Hurry up, open the door and let me in - my furry toes are freezing already!".

One more week in 2008 has come to an end with 7 new recipes - our favorites this time were that Cheese Steak Pizza, those Pumpkin-Oat Pancakes with Crystallized Ginger and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Shortbread from the Wednesday Treat Day.

With the weather as crazy as it was today, soup sounded way too good for lunch today - I wavered between this Broccoli-Potato Soup with Greens and a corn and bacon chowder, but the first won out since I really needed to get an older head of broccoli used up.

The base to this speedy soup is basically chopped red potatoes that we dunked in vegetable broth and simmered until they soften enough so that our handy potato masher could do its job. Broccoli florets, along with a bit of milk, are then tossed in. Once the mixture began to bubble again, we turned up the volume by tossing in shreds of smoked Gouda cheese, adding a luxurious component to the soup. You'll notice that the cheese is dusted with flour before being added - this gives the shreds some wiggle room to melt and incorporate fully into the soup without any separating or clumping issues.

Seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper, the smoky soup is topped off with hand-torn curly endive for a slightly bitter edge and because I couldn't help myself, a bit more of that tempting Gouda cheese. If you don't groove on that added bitterness, you could also use shredded romaine or even toss in some spinach leaves for the greens. While I made this on a weekend, this soup would be perfect to prepare on a hectic weeknight for an intriguing, nutritious dinner that warms you from the inside out.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bavarian Apple Torte...

I'm a bit behind on what we've been doing with all those apples we picked a few weeks ago at the orchards in Wisconsin. While Jeff would have been happy with a traditional crisp or crumble, he was hinting that we should slide in a different direction to change things up... so that's why this Bavarian Apple Torte became one of our first desserts!

This turned into an interesting treat for sure - kind of like a crusted thin cheesecake with a mess of sliced apples on top that were doused with cinnamon, sugar and almonds. The crust was a simple combination of butter, sugar, flour and a dash of salt - while it was a little soft, it was easily pressed into and slightly up the sides of a springform pan.

Softened and slightly sweetened cream cheese was mixed with an egg and a splash of floral vanilla to create the cheesecake-esque layer we spread over the top of the unbaked crust. A heaping spiral of the spiced and sugared apples were arranged on top, followed by a sprinkling of raw sliced almonds. This is baked at fairly high heat for the first few minutes to give the crust a jump start, then the temperature is reduced so the apples have a chance to soften without burning as there is no crust to protect their naked slices. Checking for doneness is a little tricky, but you are looking for the center of the cream cheese layer to be just set. Since it will need to be refrigerated anyway, I think you'll be fine if the center is still a bit soft. Depending on your oven, you may need to cover the top, though, if it looks like the almonds are getting too dark.

I used a combination of juicy Honeycrisp apples and crisp Granny Smiths for a tart contrast - you'll need about 4 cups worth, which is roughly the same as 4 medium. This duo retained their texture while baking, but still softened enough for a knife to glide through them. The crust to this torte is sturdy, yet buttery and tender - it is not flaky like a pie crust... more of a cross between pie crust and shortbread. Placing the first forkful into my mouth revealed an array of textures - the soft, spiced apples, the creamy cheesecake layer and the firm base were very a pleasing combination. We enjoyed this torte over a couple of days and froze the remaining slices to see how they turned out once thawed - the texture was just slightly different, but neither of us thought it was detrimental at all!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pizza night with plenty of cheese and meat to share...

While we didn't post about pizza last Friday, I did actually make one - we repeated that Peking Chicken Pizza for the guests staying with us. I did, however, prepare a new one tonight! This evening I made this Cheese Steak Pizza for dinner!

And yes, again, I used our go-to whole-wheat pizza dough recipe that we just cant get enough of. I'm sure there are better recipes out there that sit in the refrigerator for hours, allowing development of its flavor, but the simplicity and ease of this dough can't be beat - especially on those busy weeknights!

The first layer on top of our rustic circle of dough was pizza sauce - use your favorite, but I still had some of that spicy pizza sauce left in the freezer and just slathered that on. Next came a sprinkling of shredded provolone, followed by a layer of softened vegetables. We used chopped red bell pepper (you can use green, but neither of us enjoy its harder flavor) and sliced onions for the vegetables - we seasoned them with minced garlic along with oregano, salt and fresh ground black pepper while they cooked. If you happen to be a big fan of mushrooms (as you know, Jeff is not!), a couple cups worth of sliced shrooms would be a complimentary earthy note to include when you cook the veggies.

Once we scattered the vegetables on, the top is covered with strips of thinly sliced roast beef. Before we slid the dough onto the fiery baking stone, another shower of cheese is added as a final touch. We both thought this was a killer mix on top of the crisp, golden crust - it was meaty, cheesy and definitely filled our empty stomachs to the brim. Jeff told me he used to always order cheese steaks plain aka no peppers or onions, when he used to get them years ago. I don't think he was ready to find out how much he actually liked the combination - surprise! See what happens when you do a side-step out of your comfort zone?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Baking Apple Pie Dog Biscuits for the pups...

While our apple supply is dwindling down (I'll be posting soon on what all we've been making), I thought it would be fun to incorporate them somehow into a treat for the pups! Their supply of homemade treats was running dangerously low anyway, so I came up with these Apple Pie Dog Biscuits.

I suppose I was a bit liberal with the title, but work with me! For flavor and texture, I used a combination of whole-wheat flour, robust rye flour and gritty cornmeal. Into those ingredients, I whisked in cinnamon, a dash of cardamom and a little ginger for their warm scents. I used apples in two forms - wet applesauce and shreds of the fresh fruit - while they both add moisture, I also poured in a bit of water to create the dough along with a little oil to keep it pliable.

The dough should be a little on the wet side when everything is stirred together - knead it on a floured surface, dusting with enough extra whole-wheat flour to keep it from sticking to you or your surface. When it is ready, it should be smooth and just barely tacky to the touch. Use your favorite cookie cutters to cut out the treats after rolling the dough - I used festive miniature fall-themed ones that included an apple, different leaves and an acorn! This recipe makes a fair amount of treats, but don't be shy when placing them on the baking sheet - they can be fairly close together as they don't spread much. Bake them until they are golden and firm to the touch - the centers can still have some give to them though as they will continue to crisp up as they cool.

Max and Gus actually started howling (it only takes one of them to start and then they both feel the need to sing) as they were on the counter cooling - they sat there with their tails wagging as eager testers. I gave Max an acorn first, since he is the big brother, and the white fluff ball gobbled his down in record time! But, don't tell him that I gave Gus an apple-shaped one since it was a bigger piece... he was actually a little timid at first, but after a couple licks, the little guy chomped down on his crisp treat with a silly little grin on his face. I think they are both pleased!

We have plans for lunch tomorrow, so I wanted to make sure that dinner tonight only gave us two servings. While recipes can typically be scaled down, I also keep a separate pile of recipes that are specifically made to serve two for nights like this.

I searched for a pasta recipes as we both thought that sounded very good for dinner and after picking apart a few choices, I ended up with this snazzy Fettuccine Carbonara dish.

After I dropped the sticks of pasta into the boiling salted water, I started crisping up a bit of chopped pancetta. Pancetta is basically cured and spiced Italian bacon that is not smoked - however, if you wanted a smoky note in this dish, feel free to swap it out with regular bacon. Chopped onion and a clove of minced garlic are then added to the crisped meat, along with its drippings, until the onion gained a touch of color. The cooked pasta is tossed into the mix, along with milk that we seasoned with fresh grated Parmesan and parsley.

Now, before we drained the pasta so we could add it in, I reserved a bit of the hot pasta water - this is used to temper an egg before being thrown into the skillet. Is this completely necessary? Probably not, but this method gives you a layer of insurance so the egg doesn't curdle in the luscious sauce as it is warmed through. Serve with a bit more fresh grated Parmesan cheese on top, just because!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pumpkin-Oat Pancakes...

Jeff's niece graduated high school this year and has jumped right into college - we thought that one of the items we could give her to celebrate all the new happenings in her life is a new baked good every month while she is at school! I don't think I mentioned it last month, but we made those reliable Outrageous Oreo Crunch Brownies and this month we sent off a hefty package of Jeff's favorite Chocolate Malted M&M Cookies. Although, this time we used those spooky Halloween M&Ms! I haven't nailed down next month's treat, but I have a few ideas in mind!

I took some time yesterday for the annual roasting of a bunch of sugar pumpkins - I do this to harvest the fantastic orange flesh to freeze for pumpkin goodies throughout the year! Before stashing it away, I saved a bit of the fresh mash to make these Pumpkin-Oat Pancakes with Crystallized Ginger for a breakfast-for-dinner night this evening.

I used a combination of dry ingredients to create pancakes that were still fairly light, yet sneaked in a few good nutrients. I mixed things up with all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour and a bit of finely ground old-fashioned rolled oats to add a hearty factor. If you prefer not to use those ingredients, just use completely all-purpose flour instead. To infuse the fragrant aroma of fall into these pancakes, I spiced up those dry ingredients with our favorite Vietnamese cinnamon, allspice, ginger and a pinch of cardamom for its racy attitude.

Since we love the sweet heat of crystallized ginger, and besides the fact that it goes tremendously well with pumpkin, I also tossed a small handful into the mix. This batter is more viscous than typical pancakes, a bit akin towards waffle batter, but don't try to thin it out - just spread the batter out with a spoon or spatula, if desired, once it hits the griddle. The pancakes cook up pretty thick with a healthy weight to them, but they are not dense and gummy either. With just a few tablespoons of brown sugar to enhance the pure pumpkin essence, these pancakes are not too sweet, making them a perfect candidate for a generous helping of warmed pure maple syrup at serving.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chocolate Peanut Butter Shortbread...

We're getting back into the swing of things around here... our guests departed yesterday and we are jumping head first into new recipes! It is Tuesday, so that means another edition of baking for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day. We went with another recipe from those ever-present holiday magazines that are flooding the market - we decided on this Chocolate Peanut Butter Shortbread as the combination of chocolate and peanut butter ranks right up there as one of our favorites!

These slim cookie planks are crisp, oh so buttery and each one has an alluring peanut butter scent. Generously studded with miniature chocolate chips, the dough was pleasant to work with - it was not dry, but not wet either. The texture was just right so you could press it into the pan without it getting stuck to your fingertips. The small chips are semi-sweet, but if you crave a darker bite, I'm sure you could chop up your favorite bittersweet chocolate into small chunks.

You'll know this glorious pan of speckled shortbread is done when the center is set and the finish on top transforms from a pale color to a rich light golden brown. It is best to cut these cookies when they are pipping hot from the oven, so do this carefully with a sharp knife - they will not cut as clean and may crumble a bit if you wait for them to cool completely. To gild the lily, half of each cookie is dunked into dark pool of melted chocolate - I used bittersweet because I couldn't help myself, but choose your chocolate of choice. I didn't have the time (or energy today!) to bother with tempering the chocolate, but if you have to have that luxurious snap to the chocolate coating, don't let me stop you! With their melt-in-your-mouth texture, I think we both overdid it a bit in the sampling department... hopefully we'll still have enough to send in with Jeff tomorrow morning!

I'm kind of winging it in the dinner department this week - we didn't have time to run to the market or plan recipes for this upcoming week while trying our best to entertain our guests. So, I'm trying to find recipes in our stash that will lean on pantry staples or need a simple ingredient or two that Jeff could pick up on the way home. I didn't need him to stop tonight though as we already had everything on hand for this Herbed Chicken and Dumplings dish.

Browning a combination of chopped breast and thigh meat was the first order of business for this recipe - you could use all thighs if you wanted a richer base, but we used a mix. Once golden, the chicken was removed and we sautéed a mixture of sliced celery, carrots and chopped onions with a pinch of thyme, a few sprigs of fresh parsley and a handy bay leaf. Once softened, the cubed chicken was added, along with enough chicken broth to cover.

While the soup was simmering away, we tossed together the dumplings in a matter of minutes. The light dumplings are a combination of a little flour, fresh parsley, a little baking powder to give them lift and enough milk to make a dough. Small scoops of the dough are then dropping into the lightly bubbling broth and left to cook, covered, until they have puffed up and absorbed some of the well-seasoned liquid in the pan. With enough for just two servings, you can certainly double up the ingredients (hold back a little on the parsley though in the dumplings if you do this) if you need a larger batch. Quite comforting, this was a perfect way to warm up after raking a bunch of leaves in a bone-chilling breeze... it also has the benefit of not weighing you down and making you feel a nap is in order! Having said that, I wouldn't turn a nap away afterwards if it meant sliding into a bed with flannel sheets and a warm comforter!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not much new.... but still keepin' busy!

You may have noticed it has been a little quiet here over the past few days. That doesn't mean the kitchen has been closed - we just had a couple of guests (Jeff's mom and long-time friend) who came out to stay with us and visit for a few days. In between car trips to view the beautiful scenery, the obligatory day at Mall of America and coercing them to paint a couple pumpkins for us, I was quite busy serving up several dishes!

Here's the (short) list of what we've made over the past few days... most of the recipes we have made before, but I did make one or two new ones that are not listed. However, we decided to just enjoy the food with our guests instead of taking photographs of those new recipes! They were good enough to make again and post about though... so I'll try and do that soon.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Biscotti bonanza...

Jeff's Mom had a birthday not too long ago - one of her favorite treats is biscotti, so we thought we would bake up a couple batches and send them her way! I know... we've been a little biscotti-making crazy over the last month or so!

I went with these two recipes because they have one big difference - one recipe calls for butter, while one recipe does not. Let's begin with the latter with these Almond Ginger Biscotti.

Because there is no butter in these biscotti, they are crisp and crunchy, resulting in a biscotti that is perfect for dunking. The dough for this version is a little crumbly when all the ingredients hit the bowl, but after a couple pushes and kneads on the counter, it comes right together. Giving these biscotti a fresh tone are fine shreds of zest from a brilliant lemon, along with chopped pieces of crystallized ginger. Rather than using slivered or sliced almonds, we used whole almonds, so when you slice through the dough you get those fat, chunky pieces that are striking when cut. You may think the baked loaves would be a pain to cut with those whole almonds, but the heat from the oven softens them just enough that a serrated knife will glade right through without tearing the nuts out.

If you want to add a little sparkle on top, dust each log with a bit of granulated sugar before putting them in the oven. While those nuggets of almonds definitely stood out with their nutty crunch, the ginger was not going to be forgotten - the alluring quality from its sweet heat grabbed our attention and left a lingering note that made me reach for piece after piece. I had to get these wrapped up as soon as possible or they would have never made it into the box!

The next biscotti we made, Cranberry-Pistachio Biscotti, calls for butter in the dough, which lends a slightly more tender texture than the above cookies.

Instead of being a little crumbly, I found this dough to be a touch more moist and tacky. Don't be afraid to use additional flour to keep it from sticking, but try to keep it at a minimum - dust lightly and sweep off any excess. If you want, you could also just moisten your hands with water, rather than dealing with the extra flour.

While you could just toss the dried cranberries into the soft dough, we plumped them up in a dish of very hot water (though I won't tell anyone if you used some of type liquor!) - this allows the fruit to keep their pleasant chewy quality and resist drying out through the two bakings. To add a complimentary color and a little crunch, chopped pistachios are also added to the dough. As we do for most biscotti recipes, once the loaves had been baked and slightly cooked, we spritzed the top of each with a little water. This gently softens the crust, adding extra insurance against any crumbling while slicing the loaves into the individual pieces. This process won't make them soggy or anything as the heat from the oven will re-crisp that fantastic crust.

When sliced, the smattering of red and green can easily be seen in each biscotti, making them a festive cookie to make for the upcoming holiday season. This recipe also yields quite a few tasty pieces - you'll have a good amount to give away for gifts, while still having a few extra to enjoy for yourself!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spinach and Prosciutto Lasagna...

While lasagna is one of those dishes that can be extremely worthy of its typical lengthy process, especially if you make the noodles by hand, you may not always have the energy, or time, to prepare everything yourself. With a few no-boil noodles and some homemade sauce from the freezer, this Spinach and Prosciutto Lasagna was a breeze to assemble!

A mess of spinach, ricotta cheese, garlic and crushed red pepper are the thick layers in between the noodles for this lasagna. If you use thawed frozen spinach as we did, be sure to muscle out as much of the excess liquid as you can so it doesn't turn this watery as it bakes. Wring it in a towel if you must, but the easiest way I've found and have used for a few years now is to take a potato ricer, slip the greens inside and squeeze down to extract the liquid.

Use your favorite sauce, homemade or jarred, as you are going to bring it to life with one of my favorite and savory indulgent purchases - prosciutto! To be sure that ever-tempting flavor is well spread out, the thinly sliced salty prosciutto is chopped into bits before adding to the sauce. Layered as usual with plenty of sauce, noodles and the healthy filling, the lasagna is topped off with a liberal scattering of mozzarella cheese.

Baked until the noodles swell from drinking in the bright, prosciutto-spiked marinara sauce, you'll want to give this at least 5 minutes resting time before cutting into. With lasagna, I've been known to wait, very impatiently I might add, for about a half hour before diving in so the insides don't slosh all over. However, we only waited about 10 minutes with this and we still managed to pull out fairly clean pieces. A piece of garlic bread and a light salad on the side, we were both happily stuffed to the brim, but that still didn't stop me from stealing a couple extra forkfuls of the leftovers (Jeff did it too!).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fun with sesame...

Tonight's dinner had to be pretty speedy... while I was not going to have much time tonight, I got a head start this morning by cooking and shredding the chicken for this dish of Sesame Noodles with Shredded Chicken. This allowed me just enough time to prepare the rest of the ingredients.

We blitzed a healthy dose of toasted sesame seeds, creamy peanut butter, a couple cloves worth of minced garlic, brilliant fresh ginger, salty soy sauce, rice vinegar and just a touch of cayenne pepper sauce in a food processor until the ingredients were all groovin' with each other. If you don't have a food processor, a blender would be fine. Fairly thick as is, the nutty sauce is thinned out with hot water - you don't want it to become watery though, just add enough so it resembles the viscosity of heavy cream.

When that was done, we dropped a fistful of whole-wheat spaghetti into a pot of bubbling salted water - be generous with the salt when you add it to the water so the pasta is seasoned well. We like our pasta to still retain a little bite to the center and if you do as well, be sure to check it for doneness a minute or two before the directions state. The noodles are then rinsed to bring them down to about room temperature - don't worry about them sticking though... they will loosen up as soon as they are generously coated with pungent toasted sesame oil.

We added the shredded chicken I broiled earlier, along with mild scallions, shreds of bright orange carrots and the wicked peanut-sesame sauce. To add a little crunch, I scattered the top of each portion with chopped peanuts - for a visual punch, I then sprinkled with black sesame seeds. They are not always easy to find, so the same amount of toasted sesame seeds would be fine. If you've never tried the charcoal-colored seeds, they have a slightly more earthy note to them and have the benefit of adding a striking contrast.

We've actually made a somewhat similar dish back quite a few months ago, but we both loved the depth of sesame from two types of seeds and the slick toasted sesame oil this recipe provided. The peanut butter was not too assertive, but it definitely made itself known - the crunch from the nutty peanuts at the end was also a welcome contrast to the wheat-y pasta. Even if you prepared the chicken along side the rest, this dish was still a snap to prepare without too much effort - especially for a weeknight meal! One down side... I still ended up with quite a bit of clean up to do afterwards!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Coconut Crescents and a hearty Cheddar-Topped Shepherd's Pie...

We reached into the holiday magazines again to find a cookie to make for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day this week. While I know not every one is in love with coconut, these Coconut Marmalade Crescents may just change their mind!

These cookies are incredibly tender and light thanks to the lovely combination of butter and cream cheese in the dough. For the best mixing ability, give the cream cheese plenty of time to take the chill off from hanging out in the refrigerator - the butter should be softened as well, but try not to let it get so soft that it becomes greasy. While the dough was not very sticky after mixing, you will want to refrigerate it to firm the butter back up. This allows you to easily work with the dough and insure the cookies keep their shape while baking. While you could turn the cookies into whatever shape your heart desires, rolling them into a log and bending the edges into a half-moon is dead easy... especially when you have to do it 60 times!

You have a couple options for the coconut you add into the dough - use it plain if you want just a subtle note, but if you want to push that coconut flavor, toast the flakes, like we did, first. We also perked up the crescents with a bit of rum extract in the dough as the combination of coconut and rum creates sparks, but vanilla would fit in well if you didn't have the former. Once the crescents were baked and cooled, we coated the tops in a light frosting (almost more glaze-like) of confectioners' sugar, apricot marmalade and just enough fresh orange juice to thin the mixture out. You could also certainly use orange marmalade if that excites you more than apricot - once glazed, we topped them off with a shower of crunchy toasted coconut. These cookies were sturdy, but still soft on the inside - not necessary cake-like, but tender and moist nonetheless.

Tonight's dinner was all about relaxing and comfort... it is going to be crazy busy around here for the next few days, so this Cheddar-Topped Shepherd's Pie was exactly what we needed.

Underneath a generous mound of cheesy homemade mashed potatoes is a hearty filling of ground sirloin and vegetables. Once the chopped pieces of carrots, celery and onions had a chance to soften, the are coated with flour and thick, concentrated tomato paste. Adding this now allows the two direct contact with the heat, so the flour-y taste can cook out and intensify the tomato flavor. The beef is then added and crumbled until cooked through - while it is technically done at this point, the dish still needs a stint in the oven. To keep the filling moist, a cup of broth, or water, is stirred in - this activates the flour, turning that additional liquid into a thick gravy.

Once that beefy mixture is added to the baking dish, dollops of the mashed taters are added on top and connected with an off-set spatula - to create grooves on top to brown, a fork is dragged all over the top. Since we are a part of the "more cheese please" club, a smattering of additional sharp white cheddar is scattered on top. The dish is then baked just long enough to bring the potatoes and filling back up to temperature, melting the cheese and turning the top a lovely golden shade. Don't think the potatoes will dry out or stiffen up though - they were warm, creamy and had a pleasant sharpness from all that cheese. Pure comfort, delivered in a nice package, just waiting to be devoured. Bonus points for making plenty of leftovers to enjoy throughout the week! If you're feeling especially elegant, scoop the potatoes into a pastry bag, with a big star tip attached, and pipe them on top! Want to make this dish ahead? Prepare both the potatoes and filling a day ahead, keep them separate in the refrigerator and just assemble when ready - add about 15 minutes to the baking time to compensate for the chilly ingredients.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Not deep fried... but still tasty!

Tonight's recipe for dinner, Lighter General Tso's Chicken, took a leaner approach to a dish that is classically pretty caloric and deep fried.

Instead of deep frying the chicken, the cubed breast pieces are coated in a mixture of egg whites, cornstarch and the obligatory salt and fresh ground black pepper. Because there is a good amount of the chicken, you'll want to cook them in two batches in just enough oil to keep them from sticking - this way you won't drop the temperature in the skillet, trying to cram all of the pieces in, and they will be more likely to stay separate from each other. This light coating creates an almost ethereal golden crust as the chicken cooks - also note that you definitely want the excess cornstarch mixture to drip away, before you place the chicken inside the skillet, so it doesn't pool in the pan.

Once the batches were complete, we added halved snow peas that we tossed with a mixture of cornstarch, water, garlic, ginger, granulated sugar, soy sauce and flakes of crushed red pepper into the skillet. Once the sauce had a chance to thicken, the snow peas were bright and crisp-tender - the cooked chicken is then added back into the skillet to get lubed up with all that thick spicy sauce. That syrupy coating is slightly sweet, yet balanced well by the red pepper and salty soy - the aromatic bite from the fresh ginger is also worthy of being noted. We piled the chicken and snow peas on a bed of brown basmati rice to serve - feel free to cook your rice in whichever method works best for you, but the directions I gave were for the simple no-fuss method where there is no guess work involved.

While I'm sure we have never had a true and authentic version, for us, we were satisfied with the results we attained, especially for a lighter dish! Was is as good as a deep-fried version? Probably not, but did it cure a craving? It sure did its job!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Steel cut oats... savory, not sweet!

The end of this week brings us one more week closer to Christmas (this is what I hear every week as Jeff is such a fan of the holidays!)... we prepared 8 new recipes - our favorite this time was that Brat, Beer and Cheese Soup, the Old-Fashioned Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Frosting and the Peking Chicken Pizza from last night.

Gus sure is getting big! When we got him, he was a paltry 4 pounds... today? He weighs a beefy 10 pounds! We expect him to get around 13 pounds or so, but who knows at this point. He wanted to show off just how long his little doggy body is getting this morning - look at him stretch!

We have a bowl of steel cut oats often for breakfast - I love their chewier texture and hearty nature over the flakes of old-fashioned rolled oatmeal. However, for breakfast we usually sweeten them in one form or another. Have you ever thought about taking them in a savory direction though?

That is exactly where they went in this Oat Risotto with Peas and Asiago dish we made for dinner! While we waited on the pot of vegetable broth to come to a simmer, I began softening a leek that we cleaned and thinly sliced. Leeks are quite notorious for being sandy and dirty, so be sure to rinse or soak it as the grit can hide in the several layers the vegetable has.

To those tender leeks, a cup of the firm steel-cut oats are poured in and quickly toasted. As with most risotto preparations, this recipe takes the same path - broth of some sort (we used vegetable) is slowly added and the mixture is stirred until whatever grain or rice you used is just tender, but still retains a bit of a toothiness to the center. This process will suspend the now-chewy oats in a thick sauce - for a pop of color, we then stirred in scallions and tiny balls of baby peas to warm through.

To give the sauce a sharp edge and add a velvety note, fresh grated Asiago cheese is stirred in, along with a few shreds added on top, once we eased the risotto into the serving bowls. While I'm all for using arborio rice in risotto, using the oats in this dish anchored it with an earthiness that was a little unusual, but rightfully delicious. If you want a more distinctly flavored cheese, you could swap out the Asiago with a salty Pecorino.