Saturday, January 31, 2009

Using a new toy....

Usually on Saturdays we post about a sweet treat that we made to snack on. While I do have something for you today, there really isn't much of a recipe for it, however, it gives me a chance to show off one of the a new toys I got for Christmas!

I had been wanting a food dehydrator for awhile now and thanks to my parents, we got one! I was afraid that I'd use it once and then forget about it, but over the past couple of weeks, we have certainly put it to work!

The first way I had to use it was to make dried apples. We used to buy them occasionally and they never lasted long enough because we kept picking at the bag in the pantry! I asked Jeff what kind of apple he wanted to try first and since we both like Granny Smith's, he thought those would be a good way to start. I used the food processor to make short work of slicing them down, but I think I'll use a mandolin next time as they were a bit thin. To aid them from turning very dark as they sat in the circulating hot air, we gave them a five minute dunk in a mixture of water and Ball's Fruit Fresh, which is basically ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The mixture (sans water) also works well to keep guacamole bright green if it needs to sit out.

I filled up the trays and they were done in just about 4 to 5 hours! I think the next batch will get a dusting of cinnamon and I'll also cut them thicker to give 'em a little more chew. I can't wait until it is apple picking time again and take a trip out to the orchards like we did last year for fresh apples.

Since we finished off the four trays I made (mental note... need to buy more trays!), the next way we used it was to make banana chips!

I found these took longer to dry out - probably closer to 6 or 7 hours, depending on how thick the slices ended up. Now, these will not end up being the same as those crisp banana chips you find in the market - those have actually been fried! While you could probably achieve crispness if you left them in longer, you'd end up loosing a lot of the good things found in bananas. Sweet and chewy, these are good enough by themselves, but we found them outrageously good slathered with a layer of homemade peanut or cashew butter! We are actually on our 4th batch as of this morning - I didn't realize how much we would end up liking these. Now that we've done these a few times, I've found it takes about 9 large bananas to fill up all the trays and they are best sliced about 1/4" thick.

So, what's on tap next? I'm excited to try making our own raisins, fruit leather (especially using strawberries picked from that fantastic farm we found last year), dried tomatoes when they strike late this summer, maybe some dried cranberries and even homemade jerky! Do you have a dehydrator? What else do you like to use yours for?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Two-Cheese Pepperoni Calzones...

We wrapped up another cheesy filling for tonight's Friday Night Pizza with these Two-Cheese Pepperoni Calzones.

This time for the dough needed to encase the filling, I used the pound version of our manageable whole-wheat pizza dough. Thanks to the use of the food processor, it was done in a snap, leaving me a little extra play time with Gus before having to go back into the kitchen!

After giving the yeast some alone time with the flour in the warmth of the cabinet above the refrigerator (good place for dough I've found!), I took my handy dough scraper and plunged it though the wheat-y mass to form four equal pieces. Once each was hand stretched into a rough round, I mixed together a two-cheese filling consisting of shredded mozzarella, ricotta, diced pepperoni, crushed red pepper flakes and a spoonful of cornstarch to control some of the excess moisture. Use your favorite pepperoni, but I do tend to use turkey pepperoni because it doesn't ooze nearly as much grease as it bakes like regular pepperoni does.

To give a jolt of tomato inside, I spooned a little marinara sauce over the filling - but don't go too wild with this, just a tablespoon or two is good. Stuffed pretty full with a fair amount of moisture, you'll want to be sure to cut a slit or two on the top of each assembled calzone to give the steam somewhere to vent, otherwise the pressure might lead to a messy blowout! If you want a shiny coat, drizzle each with a little olive oil right before sliding the calzones into the oven. A few minutes before they were done, I did notice that the sauce and cheese had just started to bubble through from the vent we cut in... so it did its job, but also gave Gus and I something riveting to watch as they baked!

The duo of mozzarella and ricotta made for a filling that brought a wonderful textural contrast between the creaminess inside and the crisp, yet tender golden crust. With its zesty punch, the pepperoni bits were a welcomed addition, without making the filling seem too rich or heavy (especially using the turkey variety). Serve with a little extra marinara on the side for dunking to tie in with the dose inside - but do yourself a favor and warm it up first!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Peanut butter pasta dish...

We've gotten a few notes wondering what happened to the posts on Wednesday. The reason we haven't been posting for the past few weeks on that day is we've either been eating leftovers or just making a quick sandwich. Why? Well, Gus has actually been in Puppy Kindergarten! We didn't do any training when we got Max and have regretted it, so we figured we would at least learn the basics with Gus!

You know... train the people while the pups play around and socialize! Wednesday nights were the only time we could go and it totally ruined dinner plans, but it was worth it. We're officially done now and Gus has graduated with fly colors! Hot Dog! He even got a fancy bone and a diploma... though I think he was a little sad he didn't get a little cap to show off to his friends.

We are thinking about advancing to an agility class, but will probably wait until it gets closer to spring when it is a little warmer outside.

We will most likely go back to Wednesday postings within the next couple of weeks since we'll be making a new recipe then again, though a one-day-a-week break was kind of refreshing!

On to tonight's dinner... Jeff had been asking for a shrimp dish the last few weeks, but I kept forgetting about fitting one in during menu planning. This previous Saturday while picking out recipes, he brought it up again, so I made to to dive into the seafood pile to see what we could come up with.

I came upon a recipe for Peanut Fettuccine with Shrimp, Carrots, and Snow Peas. After checking the ingredient list, I found I would only end up needing to buy snow peas... score! Once we dropped the fettuccine and took it out a couple minutes before it was technically ready, I took some of the starchy liquid we cooked it in and whisked it into a bowl of creamy peanut butter. Doing this right away allows the hot water to soften the peanut butter and is incorporates in a few short strokes.

While that was happening, I tossed a mountain of trimmed snow peas and cut carrots into a skillet with a slick of peanut oil covering the bottom. After a couple minutes of being zipped around the skillet, a dose of fresh ginger and sliced cloves of garlic were added to let the heat disperse their flashy flavors. Broth is added to keep the veggies loose, then everything is sloshed into a bowl and set aside. In the same skillet (less dishes!), a little more oil is heated to begin cooking a pound of peeled shrimp. You won't want to step away at this point, so be sure you can stick around for the short 2 minutes they take to pink up.

While those were thrown into the bowl with the veggies, that same skillet is not quite done with its job yet. Remember that thinned peanut butter? We souped it up with broth, a scoop of sugar, soy sauce and chili garlic sauce. Added to the skillet, the sauce is simmered for a couple minutes to reduce it slightly. The almost-cooked pasta is brought back into the picture - while it will be stuck together as it has sat alone, as soon as the pasta is added in, the strands will release their hold and become single again. Once coated in the thick sauce, we stirred the shrimp and veggies back in just to nudge their temperature back up.

With just enough oomph from the chili garlic sauce to give this a bare tingle of heat as it went down, we quite enjoyed the nutty background from the peanut sauce paired with the fresh vegetables and shrimp. A little salty from the soy sauce, balanced well with the sweetness in the sugar, we found this dish to have a very satisfying savory tone, leaving us with full, but content bellies! If you're not in love with shrimp, I wouldn't pass this up for that reason alone - try using shredded, cooked chicken if you have some leftover or even just sautéing up a pound of chunked chicken instead of the shrimp!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cappuccino Squares...

I left Jeff in charge this weekend to scour through recipes and pick out one for me to make for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day that we do for his co-workers. He thumbed through a couple of my cookbooks, peeked into my stash of sweet recipes (and quickly decided that was a bit overwhelming), searched a bit of his own on-line and the finally returned to a different book I set out for him. It took him no less than 2 minutes to zero in on these Cappuccino Squares and deemed it "the one" to make.

The original recipe was supposed to be heavier on the essence of cinnamon than one of espresso, but Jeff wanted me to go with a suggested alternative and heighten the coffee note. To accomplish this, we added a scoop of instant espresso powder to the milk used in the recipe and heated the two together to bloom the espresso - just be sure to do this first so the milk has plenty of time to cool back down. If you want a more subtle espresso taste that mildly lingers in the background, skip this step entirely.

Once the golden batter for the cake was ready, we spooned half of it into the baking pan, deluged the top with finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, dusted that with a mixture of cinnamon, sugar and espresso powder, then poured the remaining batter over the top. Once baked and cooled, we took this cake to another level by smearing on copious amounst of frosting made simply by heating bittersweet chocolate with a few pats of butter.

I thought the frosting was a bit heavy going on at first, but decided to throw caution to the wind and keep it all on. When you do frost the cake, give it some character and pizazz my making swoops, dips and swirls - while a smooth look is fine, this cake deserve some spunk!

With the ribbon of chocolate, cinnamon and espresso running through the center of this extremely moist cake, Jeff was quite pleased with how much espresso really came through. However, don't count out the cinnamon as its fragrant nature was still up front. The cake alone I thought was a little on the sweet side, but using the bittersweet chocolate was a brilliant way to tame the sweetness, along with adding a little flare and temptation. A perfect mid-morning pick-me-up for sure!

While we were anxiously waiting to sample those squares, I kept myself occupied by making these Toasted Barley Breakfast Bowls for tonight's dinner.

To amplify the nuttiness already found in the pearl barley used in this dish, we first toasted the grains in a dry saucepan. While this certainly isn't a requirement for a successful result, those minimal extra minutes used is worth the added layer of depth. To infuse the most amount of flavor, we then poured in chicken broth for the barley to simmer in. If you're using a canned broth that only has a scant two cups in it, you don't have to open another can to meet the liquids needed - just replace the remaining amount called for with water.

When the barley had almost finished drinking those flavors in, we started browning a few links worth of hot Italian turkey sausage with a chopped onion along side. When crumbled and cooked, the barley is stirred into the mix along with a smattering of parsley for a kiss of freshness. While everything is already cooked at this point, we have one more ingredient to add for that breakfast-y feeling... an egg! We spooned the barley mixture into ramekins, cracked an egg onto the top of each one and slide them into the oven to cook that final addition. If you would rather serve this family style, I imagine you could leave everything in the skillet you browned the sausage in, make little divots in four corners and nestle the eggs in each area to finish them off in the oven.

I actually thought they looked a little skimpy in the amount for each serving at first ,but boy did these filled ramekins end up being quite hearty and filling! The chewy, yet tender, texture of cooked barley gave my mouth a pleasurable workout, while the lean Italian turkey sausage imparted enough seasoning to hold our attention. The smart inclusion of the eggs on top rounded this dish out with a gratifying punch and lent a visual attracting against the ordinary appearance of the barley hash underneath.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Turkey Con Queso Bake...

Pull out your best cheese grater (or be speedy and use a food processor) as you are going to need it if you want to make this Turkey Con Queso Bake dish we had for dinner tonight.

You'll need one of those, so you can grate up a mountain of sharp white cheddar to create the cheesy sauce. To thicken the sauce, after softening a chopped onion and a couple cloves of garlic, a couple tablespoons of flour are tossed in and woven into the vegetables to cook out its raw taste. Since the cheese will provide ample richness, the sauce is lightened up by using a combination of chicken broth and milk for the liquids needed. Once the sauce began to bubble and thicken from the heat below, it is taken off that heat so we could gradually stir in the generous shreds of cheese, adding to its sumptuous texture.

A portion of that sharp sauce is stirred into a filling consisting of diced pieces of cooked turkey, diced tomatoes, briny green olives, a few green onions, fresh cilantro and a chopped jalapeño for a dash of heat. If you wanted a more fiery kick, leave the seeds in, if not, go ahead and remove the seeds and thin membrane so you get a little heat, allowing more of the pepper's flavor to come through. While the majority of this is stuffed into flour tortillas, a scant cup is spread over the bottom of the baking dish, making for a chunky bed to lay the filled tortillas on. You will notice that there is still a lavish amount of the cheese sauce left - don't be shy, just close your eyes and drench the entire pan so each naked tortilla is given a piquant coat to protect it from the heat of the oven.

As these bake, the sauce will continue to thicken, be absorbed by the tortillas and leave you with just enough extra left behind in the bottom of the pan to give each serving a posh spoonful over the top. I thought I may have read the recipe wrong when it had you spoon the same ingredients you used in the filling into the bottom of the pan, rather than just using the sauce alone, but we both commented that it was an extra flavor bonus to have those bits added on top. The tortillas held up quite well - they were soft enough to easily use a fork to cut your bites out, yet retained their integrity, so they pulled out of the pan well and were not mushy in the least.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quiche with Hash-Brown Crust...

With a total of 7 new recipes coming out of our kitchen this week, our tops this round were the Caramel Cashew Cookies, that Farfalle with Cauliflower and Turkey Sausage dish and those Fig-Pecan Macaroons.

While I can certainly appreciate a flaky, buttery crust holding its own against an eggy quiche, there are times where you just want something a bit different... be it a crustless version or one with a rice crust. However, with this quiche we made tonight, we picked out a recipe that incorporated one of our favorite ingredients into the crust... potatoes!

For this Goat Cheese Quiche with Hash-Brown Crust, we took a pound of thawed, frozen shredded potatoes and squeezed as much of the excess liquid out as possible. Giving the potatoes a big squeeze now will help the crust crisp and firm up while baking, without having them turning to mush from steaming instead. The dry shreds are then tossed with a couple pats of softened butter and an egg to bind them all together. Dumped into a springform pan, the potato mixture is then press over the bottom and up the sides of the pan - if you find it wanting to stick to your fingers during this, moisten the bottom of a measuring up and use that to help spread the potatoes evenly.


You'll want to give the potatoes a head start to give them a little crust and create a seal to hold the upcoming egg mixture in. While the crust was busy in the oven, we started that egg filling by whisking together a cluster of eggs that we cut with a few egg whites. If you would rather skip the whites, replace the 6 egg whites is 3 whole eggs. To those, we added a few generous dollops of sour cream and soft goat cheese, along with the obligatory additions of salt and fresh ground black pepper. Poured into the unique potato crust, the filling is given a mild onion boost by scattering the top with shower of thinly sliced scallions.

Now, as you'll see in the recipe, to help unmold the quiche with a clean edge, we lined the sides of the springform pan with parchment paper - you don't have to do this, but it did make for an effortless release of the quiche. While I had faith in my crust that it was good to go, I would recommend placing the springform pan (which isn't water tight!) on a rimmed baking sheet just in case. Because the filling is fairly liquid-y, I know I'd be annoyed to find out that the springform pan started to leak and create a mess in the oven!

While both of us personally loved the tangy song this quiche exuded from the sour cream and most notably, the goat cheese, I do realize that it won't appeal to everyone. If you wanted a more welcoming-to-everyone type of dish, I wouldn't hesitate to delete the goat cheese in favor of an equal amount of a more mellow cream cheese. Soft in texture, but firm enough to hold clean slices, the pairing of the luscious filling and golden potato crust was quite enjoyable. Perfect to serve at warm or room temperature for a brunch, or as an attractive dish for a buffet, Jeff happened to mention while chowing down that he thought sneaking in some chopped ham or crispy bacon (especially if you opt for cream cheese) would be another way to add some personality and pizazz to this already tempting dish.

Recipes

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fig-Pecan Macaroons...

Those peanut butter banana cookies that we made last weekend did not last very long around here, so I made sure to set some time aside this morning so we could make another new cookie! Filling the kitchen with the scent of toasted pecans was a wonderful way to begin these Fig-Pecan Macaroons.

Since you need to preheat the oven anyway, you could toast them that way, but if you don't want to wait for it to heat up, throw them into a skillet and let them go until they are lightly golden and fragrant. Because they will then be ground in a food processor, be sure to let the nuts cool completely before processing them as you don't want them to turn into a paste. Processed with a healthy scoop of cinnamon, the finely ground nuts are then given a shot of sunshine by adding shreds of bright lemon zest.

Egg whites needed to be whisked up until they had stiff peaks for the next portion of the recipe - to help stabilize them as they work, a pinch of salt and a little cream of tartar are added as they begin to whip. So you get the best volume, let the whites come to room temperature before you begin this process - and don't throw away those un-needed yolks! If you don't want to scramble them for your breakfast the next morning, you can freeze them or toss them into your pup's bowl for a special treat!

Once the egg whites were ready, powdery confectioners' sugar is gradually added in, followed by aromatic nut mixture and sweet bits of finely diced dried Black Mission figs. Because those figs are crazy sticky, toss them with just a little confectioners' sugar - this will help tone down that issue and keep them separated, which makes mixing them in much easier. You can portion these out by using a heaping teaspoon or scoop the mixture into a zip-loc or pastry bag and pipe away. Baked until lightly golden, give these cookies plenty of time to cool as they are somewhat fragile when pipping hot.

I wasn't sure how I should go about describing these bumpy macaroons. To me, these lean more towards a French macaron than an American macaroon. While they are not sandwiched together with a ganache or buttercream like you would find a macaron, these cookies have a meringue-like crisp shell that yields to a chewy inside. An American macaroon substitutes coconut for the nut meal, uses a coarser granulated sugar and are typically pretty dense. So, use whichever term you like for these cookies, but don't wait too long to make them as their intensely nutty flavor, spiked with that fragrant cinnamon note, is well worth the effort!

Recipes

Friday, January 23, 2009

Individual Ham and Egg Pizzas...

For our Friday Night Pizza this week, we strayed pretty far from a traditional pizza (surprise!) to make these intriguing Individual Ham and Egg Pizzas.

While I highly, highly encourage you to make your own dough for pizza, especially using our favorite whole-wheat pizza dough, don't be shy if you would just rather not. Stop by your market to get some or even your local pizza place - if you ask, they will usually sell you a chunk of their dough for pretty cheap.

The original recipe for this pizza has you roll out the entire piece of dough into a square and then cut it into four squares. However, to keep with the round theme of the egg we were going to add, we just quartered the dough and quickly stretched each portion into rounds as the homemade dough easily succumbs to our hands and takes no time to work with.

The pita-shaped pieces of dough (well, I guess you could even use pita bread if you were really short on time!) are then baked until crispy and golden. If you want to add a shiny coat, feel free to rub the rounds with olive oil before baking. You are not just pre-baking as we've done before during this step - leave the crusts in the oven until they are pretty much fully baked. The crusts are topped with a thin slice of ham and a mound of sharp white cheddar. As the cheese was melting, we had a skillet on the burner getting toasty to fry the eggs we were going to slide on top. You can take these as far as you want, but for us, we cooked them just long enough to set the white, yet leave the yolk as soft as possible.

As soon as the eggs were done and placed on top, I grabbed my plate and quickly took my seat to enjoy this. The first thing I had to do was pierce that golden sac to let that river of exotic love flow all over the top, covering the pizza with its playful richness. I didn't even have to ask what Jeff thought of this... his constant sounds of subtle "MMmms...." told me he felt just as I did. If you can, use your sharpest cheddar to lay down a base for the best bang in each bite possible.

Maybe it doesn't read like much in the recipe and it could be that I was just really hungry, but the uncomplicated nature of the ingredients combined into an excitingly simple dish that held my attention from start to finish. Usually we try and get a few snaps of the finished dish before we sit down to eat, but we were too anxious to wait to dig into these pizzas. So, by the time we had gotten back to the one we were going to take a picture of, the cheese had already started to firm back up... boo!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pasta, vegetables and sausage...

Tonight's dinner, Farfalle with Cauliflower and Turkey Sausage, sounds like it might be a little fussy, but the preparation was a breeze and we didn't need to hover around, making for extra free time!

Rather than steaming the cauliflower and pan-frying the sausage needed for this pasta dish, we killed two birds with one stone by roasting both in the oven! And, even better, they were done in the same roasting pan to keep dish-count down. About 5 minutes before the lean hot Italian turkey sausages were fully cooked, we added a mess of sliced garlic cloves into the mix and let them roast a bit as well. To help the sausages keep their uniform shape, making for neat coin-like slices when cutting, prick the casings all over with a knife before they go into the oven so the juices have somewhere to go while baking.

While those ingredients were cooling, we had dropped a few cups worth of farfalle (you know, fancy bow tie pasta!) and let them cook just until al dente. Before draining them, scoop out two tablespoons of the starchy cooking liquid and set it side. Since there really isn't a sauce for this, we kept the pasta slick and moist by drizzling on extra-virgin olive oil - however, so we didn't have to pour it on, we cut it with that reserved pasta water. This will still give you the zest of the oil, but it also helps keep the fat down to a reasonable amount. The juiced-up pasta is then tossed with crushed red pepper for kick, the sausage coins, roasted cauliflower and garlic mixture along with a shower of pecorino Romano cheese.

With a sprinkle of fresh parsley for a pop of color, I think we woofed down our plates in record time! It is not like there was anything outrageously different here, but I think the ease of this dish by roasting the vegetables and sausages made it taste just that much better. Even with the slight 5 minute roasting time for the garlic, it allowed the slices to cook just enough to take away that harsh rawness and leave you with a mellow, sweet essence. If you want to tone the heat level down, use a sweeter turkey sausage and add just a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (try not to leave them out entirely as the background they add is pleasant, even if they doesn't scream "Yeah! I'm hot and spicy!"). If you or your family are not in agreement about the loveliness of cauliflower, swap half out for broccoli florets so you can pick and choose what you want.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cashew cookies and risotto...

For this week's Weekly Wednesday Treat Day, we hauled out the food processor to create a homemade nut butter that we needed to prepare for these Caramel Cashew Cookies.

Jeff's favorite nut just happens to be cashews, so I'm sure you can imagine how anxious he was to get home and see what I ended up doing with the roasted ones we picked up this weekend! The nut butter is created by grinding down a good amount of cashews in the food processor until the nuts are finely chopped. While I don't usually add much, if any, extra oil for our other nut butters, cashews tend to be a little drier and need a helping hand to get them groovin' in the processor. The food processor will have done its job when the cashews have transformed into a very smooth, creamy mixture.

This cookie dough is made much like any other, just the nut butter is added to the creaming butter and sugar mixture you typically use. Once combined, we ramped up the nuttiness by tossing in a handful of additional coarsely chopped cashews into the prepared dough. Firm enough to be worked with right away, the dough is shaped into balls and flattened on the baking sheets with the flat bottom of a glass laced with granulated sugar. Baked until the bottoms are lightly golden and the edges are firm to the touch, we're not done with these cookies yet!

To nudge these a little more towards being over the top, we added a pool of caramel on top of each of the round cookies! If you wanted to go all out, you could create a homemade runny caramel (much like you would use to dip apples in), but we kept it simple by melting together caramel candies with a touch of heavy cream. On top of that sticky sweet dot, we placed a cashew half so there was no mistaking what type of cookies these were.

I had a fleeting vision of deja vu when I was making these, but I didn't think much about it at the time. When I came over to the computer, it happened again, so I checked to see if anything popped up on the blog... guess what? Apparently there are a couple versions of this cookie - one of which we already made! With subtle differences in the amount of flour, cashews and sugar, the preparation was fairly exact - however, there was one main difference that stood out. In the other version, the recipe instructed you to flatten the cookies halfway through baking... which if I remember, was not particularly fun having to deal with hot pans and melting cookie dough!

Extravagant in nutty cashew flavor, now I remember why I loved these cookies once I had a chance to sink my teeth into one. In between crisp and soft, their refreshing firm texture was a nice change of pace from your ordinary cookie. The quarter-sized puddle of caramel does not set up completely hard, which means they are not conducive to stacking, but it remained luscious, sweet and smooth - a cordial match to the saltiness in the cookies.

Shifting over to dinner, tonight we cracked open our jar of Arborio rice from the pantry to make this Parmesan-Carrot Risotto.

The original recipe touted that you could use regular long-grain white rice and get the same creamy consistency you achieve when you use Arborio, but since I already had the latter on hand, I went ahead and used it. However, sometime I'm sure I'll give it a try just to see if they are correct as inquiring minds want to know!

Finely chopped bits of red onion, tossed with a hefty amount of shredded carrots, were dropped into a skillet lined with a film of sizzling butter. After giving the vegetables a few minutes to work, the short rice was stirred in, followed by a couple shots of dry white wine. Stirring as often as I could, a warmed broth mixture was added, ladle-fulls at a time, until the rice had absorbed just enough that it was plump and tender, yet still retained a bite in the center. Depending on how it goes, you may or may not need all the broth - go by taste; if it feels done but you still have excess liquid to add, don't pour it in just because the broth is there. The risotto may end up being a bit gummy if you do. After removing the now very full pan from the heat, we stirred in a small knob of butter and a smattering of Parmesan cheese for a snappy finish.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Quinoa With Spinach and Cheese...

We've made quite a few recipes with quinoa now... but have you given this nutritionally-charged ingredient a try yet? Maybe we can push you to pick up a box or add a couple scoops into a bag from the bulk bins at your local market to give this Baked Quinoa With Spinach and Cheese that we made for dinner tonight a try!

Rich with protein, fiber, magnesium and iron, most quinoa you will find in the market will likely be labeled as being pre-rinsed to remove its bitter saponin coating. However, I still recommend giving it a good rinse and rub with your fingertips before using just for good measure. After wilting a hearty amount of tender baby spinach, the leaves are combined with softened onions and garlic to get us going.

To bind this casserole-type dish together, a couple eggs are beaten together before adding in the remaining parts. Cooked quinoa, the spinach mixture, shreds of Gruyère cheese and just a little fresh sage are tossed in and stirred around to evenly coat all the ingredients with the eggs. Once scooped into the baking dish, the top is veiled with fresh grated Parmesan cheese for its sharp edge. Baked until the top is golden and the center is firm, let this cool down for about 5 minutes or so before sliding your knife if to cut out a piece.

Cooking the quinoa for this dish is a snap - use about 3 cups broth to 1 cup rinsed quinoa to get the amount needed. You can use broth or water, but I'd highly recommend using vegetable or chicken broth just to infuse a little more oomph into the more earthy grain (although, quinoa is technically a seed, it is more commonly referred to as a grain). This will be more liquid than you need to cook the quinoa, but the results are great and you won't need to keep an eagle eye on the pot while it cooks. After 15 minutes, drain the excess liquid away, place the quinoa back into the dry pot (off heat), cover with a towel and place the lid on top - set aside for 10 minutes and you are good to go!

We divided this out into four servings for a well-portioned veggie main dish, but you could easily stretch it to 6 or even 8 for a smaller side. With just enough power to hold it together, the pieces cut cleanly without feeling like you're eating an egg-y dish. The grounded depth of the quinoa worked quite nice with the sweet, nutty punch the Gruyère cheese added. I think this would be an excellent way to try out quinoa for the first time (and of course even if you've had it several times) as we both thought it had plenty of liveliness happening that this dish should win over any skeptics!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pistachio-Crusted Cod...

7 new recipes for us this past week... looking through the recipes, I think we would pick out our favorites as being those English Lemon Shortbread Strips, that Prosciutto-and-Fresh-Mozzarella Frittata and of course those cheesy Red Pepper, Fontina and Prosciutto Calzones.

While we do eat a pretty good variety when it comes to food, one area we are lacking in is the seafood (no, not see-food!) department. Jeff is finicky to much of it, save for his favorite shrimp, and I can't say I'm the biggest fan either. Sometimes it's texture, other times it is just the flavor that we have issue with, but we both typically are ok with firm white fish. The issue usually comes into play when it is served fairly plain (either poached or just a quick sauté)... so I try to make sure we pick out recipes that either have stronger flavors or a fun breading. Which is mainly the reason this Pistachio-Crusted Cod ended up on our table as dinner!

Ready in under 30 minutes, this dish really came together in a flash and is perfect for a busy weeknight meal. Placing the fish on a foil-lined baking sheet and seasoning with salt and fresh ground black pepper was first in line. For their nutty coating, shelled pistachios, a mess of fresh parsley and a raw clove of garlic are added to a food processor and blitzed until they are coarsely chopped. To help it all stick together, and to the fish, olive oil is slowly drizzled in until combined and finely chopped.

This thick, pesto-like mixture is then slathered over the tops of each fillet of cod. Instead of frying these on the stove-top, the fish are roasted in the oven just until opaque throughout. One of the best parts? Using that little bit of foil to line the baking sheet makes clean up a breeze! Fairly mild as is, we did find the cod was able to hold its place against that pistachio topping and not disappear into tasting only like nuts and parsley. Saying that, the topping was still flavorful enough to keep us interested and not turn up our noses at the fish - woo! We did serve this with a round of lemon on top to squirt a little zesty acid over for a little more enticement.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mixing bananas, peanut butter and oats...

It's time for baking another batch of cookies for us to snack on! I thought we still had some cookies hiding deep in the freezer, but much to Jeff's dismay, when he went to pull some out last night for dessert, there were none to be found! Since I had an abundance of bananas in the freezer (overflowing is more like it), I figured it was time to make a dent in that supply... which resulted in these Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Cookies!

To give these cookies a nice chew, a higher proportion of old-fashioned rolled oats to flour is used as part of the dry ingredients for these lower-fat cookies. Speaking of being lighter on the fat side, the cookies only use four tablespoons of butter for the entire batch of 24 cookies thanks to the cup of squishy ripe bananas we used!

When you use moist bananas in cookies like this, you're pretty unlikely to get a crispy cookie anyway, so the fat needed can be lowered a bit without affecting the end result of the cookie. Once the sticky batter for these cookies had been combined, we folded in peanut butter chips because that peanut butter banana combo lures us in every time. Not a fan? Swap those chips out for bittersweet chocolate chunks or even plump raisins if you like them in your oatmeal cookie. If you do use raisins instead, try tossing a quarter to half teaspoon of cinnamon in since though two rock when paired together.

When you have your trays filled with the balls of cookie dough, bake them until the edges of the cookies are golden and they are just set in the center. When you take them out, leave them on the baking sheet for at least two to three minutes to cool before you try and move them off. Even though we used parchment paper, we did find that they wanted to stick a little on the bottom... however a quick slide with a wide spatula did the job and the cookies came off without a problem. The texture of the cookies is soft and moist, but they are not cake-y in any sense - while I thought they might lean a little too much on the sweet side from the ripe bananas and the duo of sugars, it actually was just about right to stand up to those sturdy flakes of plain rolled oats.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cheesy stuffed calzones...

Today brings us to yet another Friday Night Pizza! Jeff and I tossed some ideas back and forth on what sounded good for this week and we both agreed that a calzone would fit the bill. Now we just needed to figure out what to stuff inside... we settled on these Red Pepper, Fontina and Prosciutto Calzones because we knew we would already have all the ingredients on hand and didn't need anything from the market... score!

That is one of the reasons I've really fallen for this homemade whole-wheat pizza dough we usually prepare for these pizza nights. Flour, salt, yeast, a tiny sprinkling of sugar, water and a few dribbles of olive oil (all pantry staples in this house and easy to remember!) are all you need to toss this swank dough together - you don't even need a food processor to make it as your hands would do just fine, but it does make it come together in a snap.

We used the pound version for this dough as the fillings will be quite generous - we first quartered the soft mass of dough, stretched each into a rough round and began piling on the goodies. Shredded fontina cheese was our first layer, follow by roasted red peppers, fresh basil, strips of salty prosciutto and to add a fun tang, crumbles of soft goat cheese. This mound is pretty high, so you'll need to gently stretch the dough over the top and match it to the other side - don't be tricked into thinking it won't all fit as the dough is pretty forgiving and will work with you, rather than against.

Be sure to crimp the edges tightly to ensure the fillings don't leak out - you could just use a fork and mash the two edges together, but since this is so full, pull the bottom edge of dough up and over the top and then just use your fingers to press the two together. To give some added color, we drizzled each calzone with a bit of olive oil and then massaged it in before sliding them onto the pizza stone to cook. By the time the crust is a rich golden brown, the insides will be all gooey, pipping hot and melted together.

Do I even need to say anymore? We thought these were excellent... especially with the use of the buttery fontina paired against the creamy goat cheese that went smashingly well together. The zing from the basil and the sweetness in the red pepper, dancing around the savory prosciutto, was simplistic in nature, yet complex enough in taste that made for a captivating minefield as we dug deeper into these individual pizza bundles.

Recipes

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tortilla Soup with Black Beans...

Hmm... I'm thinking we should start a "Treat of the Month Club". We just sent off another package to Jeff's niece as we've done for the last 4 months. If you've been reading for awhile, you know that we promised to send her a box each month for her first year of college!

The very first box we sent contained those crazy good Outrageous Oreo Brownies... the next were those famous Chocolate Malted M&M Cookies... the third was that sweet Smaller Batch Penuche Fudge... the fourth was that crunchy Gingerbread Popcorn and that finally brings us to what we sent this month, Butterfinger Crunch Blondies!

We first made these back in '07 when we had leftover Butterfingers from Halloween and have done them a few more times since for thank you gifts (well, and because we wanted some too!).

Tonight's dinner, Tortilla Soup with Black Beans, just goes to show you that a veggie meal can certainly be hearty, filling and comforting, without the need to add any meat. Another benefit to not needing any meat? It certainly makes the cost very reasonable to prepare it!

To get the soup running, we tossed minced garlic cloves, chili powder and smoky cumin into a heated pot with a lean layer of olive oil coating the bottom. Once those start to groove and their mesmerizing aromas drifted into my nose, we stirred in fire-roasted chunky diced tomatoes, black beans, vegetable broth, water and kernels of corn that we froze from the sweet supply gathered late last summer. Sadly, that supply of kernels is getting low... summer can't come quick enough!

Left to bubble for just a few minutes to give the ingredients a chance to meld, crushed tortilla chips are stirred into the soup - they absorb the well-seasoned liquids and begin to thicken the soup. To add a clean burst of freshness right before serving, a couple squirts of fresh lime juice are added, along with a handful of additional crushed chips for a little texture. With lots of protein and fiber from the beans, a touch of heart-healthy olive oil and generous amounts of vegetables, this combination leaves you with a satisfying soup that uses easily accessible ingredients. Feel free to use your favorite tortilla chips, but we used a baked variety just to continue with the light theme. If you'd like to mirror that smoky depth with some heat, I bet a spoonful of minced chipotle might be a sneaky way to add in a little kick!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snazzy Lemon Shortbread...

Last week, Jeff came home and said he had a request for this week's Weekly Wednesday treat day. One of his co-workers asked if we could make a treat that would go well with punch - Jeff didn't know what was happening, but we went through our recipes and found a few options. Shortbread was the first idea that came into our minds, so after narrowing our choices down, we opted to go with these English Lemon Shortbread Strips.

Before you go crazy beating the butter and sugar together to start these cookies, be sure to take a few minutes before hand to work the sugar and lemon zest together. The coarser crystals in the sugar will tear at the zest, helping to release its unmistakable fragrant oils, creating an intense lemon-infused sugar. Once the butter has been added and combined with the sparkling sugar, we ramped up the puckery notion by adding in a quarter cup of fresh lemon juice just before adding in the flour.

You're not looking to beat the heck out of the mixture at this point - mix the flour in just until the ingredients in the bowl look like chunky crumbles. If you find the dough is sticky once you are working it into the baking pan, lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the top and finish pressing it to an even level with either your hand or the flat bottom of a measuring cup - it will peel right off and your hand will be clean! Baked until golden and left to cool completely, the base will need one more final addition before being sliced into strips.

Confectioners' sugar, softened butter and more of that fresh juice is combined to form a runny glaze to gild the lily - to show that these shortbread are decidedly lemon, we sprinkled on tiny golden flecks of the zest on top. If you can then leave the slab be for another half an hour or so, the butter will firm up and help set the icing before cutting.

Classically tender, buttery and rich, these shortbread scream "Oh baby, I hope you're ready for one sweet tart cookie!". Dainty cut as strips, this zesty shortbread won't soon be forgotten and will certainly be made again... in fact, these would be perfect to bring along to share at a picnic or group gathering this summer!

Because I knew I was going to be busy getting a few errands done, I made sure that tonight's dinner was going to be quick and easy when I was menu planning this past weekend. Pasta is usually a good choice for those kind of nights and to give it a little change up from a typical red sauce, we prepared this Creamy Fettuccine with Two Cheeses.

In this dish, the pasta is cooked in its salted water bath using the same pot we will end up using to make the sauce to coat the strands with... love those one-pot meals! Before you dump the pasta out to drain, be sure to save a cupful of the starch-laden water to possibly use later on. Into that same pot, a couple pats of butter are melted, followed by half-and-half and our two cheeses - Pecorino Romano and Parmesan! You are looking to heat this mixture enough to melt the cheese and bring it just to a bare simmer... try not to let it come to a boil.

Once it comes up to temperature, the pasta is added back in and tossed around to coat - if it looks too thick at this point, this is when you want to add some of that reserved water. Even if it looks "just right", you may want to add a few splashes in because it will tighten up and thicken as the pasta stands. Just before serving, add a smattering of chopped parsley to break through the richness of the sauce with a fresh note and to finish off this effortless dish.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Stuffin' chicken...

Just as we explained the whole breading process with those stuffed potato cakes from last week, we used that technique again tonight to prepare these Prosciutto and Gruyère-Stuffed Chicken Breasts.

Before we get to the coating on the chicken, let's talk about how we went about stuffing these. You are looking to form a deep pocket in each chicken breast - this is best done by using a long, thin and sharp knife. What we did was start at the thickest section of the breast meat, slice about a 2 to 3" slit and then slowly guided the knife inside and down to create the pocket needed. You could also just slice the chicken breast almost in half and open it up like a book, but since there isn't a ton of the cheesy filling, I found the pocket method a little better with the filling less likely to ooze out.

To jam into that pocket we created, we tossed together a filling composed of browned prosciutto, brilliant bits of chopped fragrant rosemary, garlic and buttery Gruyère cheese. When you spoon the filling in, be sure to use your fingers on top of the chicken breast to mash that filling around so it evens out and you don't have a giant un-level lump to deal with. Rather than those panko breadcrumbs we used with those potato cakes, this time we processed a mess of saltine crackers in the food processor until they were finely ground. The recipe originally called for using a full sleeve of crackers (about 42), but we ended up with so much waste that I suggest you reduce it to the amount we wrote in our version - I thought I was quite generous with the coating and ended up with at least one-third of it left. Same with the amount of flour - it called for 1/2 cup and you certainly don't need that much for 4 single chicken breasts... so, why contaminate it and have to waste it if you don't have to?

Once coated, we cooked them in a couple tablespoons of canola oil until that cracker coating was deeply golden, crisp and the chicken was fully cooked. This took about 8 to 10 minutes per side, which is quite a long time to do in a skillet... don't be afraid to play with the heat level so the outside doesn't end up burning. If you are uncomfortable dealing with that, you could brown both sides and then slide them into the oven to finish them off. Tender and still quite juicy, I loved how the touch of rosemary concealed in the filling permeated through the meat, giving such a soft, gentle note in each bite. Between the cheese, prosciutto and saltine cracker crumbs, I was a little nervous that the salt might be a little aggressive, but in the end the amount of meat used leveled the playing field and all was well. For a simple side, we quartered a few red potatoes, tossed them with olive oil, chopped herbs (rosemary included!) and roasted them until the wedges were tender and golden. What a way to satisfy our grumbling stomachs tonight!