Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"To Die For" Blueberry Muffins?

I’m always more than just a little suspicious of anything labeled anything superlative: the world’s best, finest, greatest, even Macy’s “lowest prices of the season.” It just gets over-used, that’s all. Loses its oomph. So if you think you’ve had the “best ever” meatballs and one day somebody comes along with an even better meatball, what are you going to call it?

I have an especially hard time warming up to something described as “most unique,” as in “The sauce had the most unique flavor.” Unique means one-of-a-kind, so it’s either unique, or it’s not; there are no varying degrees of uniqueness. You could describe what makes it unique, like a woodsy flavor or a creamy texture. A little picky, I know, but I tend to get that way with words. I should lighten up. After all, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder or the tastebuds of the taster.

So, it was with a bit of skepticism that I approached this “To Die For Blueberry Muffin” recipe. I know, of course, that none of us take these “to die for” descriptions literally. Who’s really going to “die” for a muffin, after all? It’s just an expression that’s meant to convey how good it is. You’d have this for your last meal. Then again, you and I probably have very different ideas about what that last meal would be. Let’s not go there.

We’ve all read many a description of “to die for” this-or-that, or – even worse –“better-than-sex.” And while they may be good, even very good, it’s hard to attach “the very best of the best” label to much. You have to add superlatives to the superlatives.

Back to the muffins. They are good. They are very, very good. They are very, very, very good. I have never met anyone who didn’t like them. I rest my case.

I made these last week for a group of men who came to stay overnight at a little camp we have near our house. After making the beds with fresh sheets and putting clean towels in the bathroom, I left a box of these muffins as a breakfast treat. They returned the box empty.

These are big muffins, topped with a great (was that a superlative?) streusel. You’ll like them. They are the best I’ve tried yet! Really.

To Die For Blueberry Muffins
from, submitted by Colleen

1 ½ C all-purpose flour
¾ cup white sugar
½ t salt
2 t baking powder
1/3 C vegetable oil
1 egg
1/3 C milk
1 C fresh blueberries (I used frozen; I have so many, I gotta use them!)

½ c white sugar
1/3 C all-purpose flour
¼ C butter, cubed
1 ½ t ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease muffin tins or use liners.
Combine 1 ½ cups flour ¾ cups sugar, salt and baking powder. Place vegetable oil in a 1 cup measure; add egg and enough milk to make 1 cup. Mix this into the flour mixture. Gently fold in the blueberries. Fill 8 muffin cups right to the top, and sprinkle with streusel.
Streusel: Mix together ½ cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, 1/3 cup cubed butter and 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon. Mix with fork and sprinkle over muffins before baking.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in preheated oven, until done.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kale As a Snack? You Betcha!

We were in a grocery store together last fall when my sister said to me, “Hey! Let’s split a bunch of kale and make potato chips!”

“Make what?” I asked. I have a bit of a hearing problem but I thought I heard her say potato chips from kale.

“Potato chips,” she said again. I did hear her right. “Well, not exactly potato chips, but just like them. I just read this article in a magazine about them. You break up the kale and bake it and it’s a great snack. No calories!”

Kale. The word conjures up no pleasant memories. I may have eaten kale once or twice in my life, maybe in a soup, certainly not by its lonesome. And I know I never bought it to cook at home. As adventurous an eater as I like to think myself, that’s one good-for-me vegetable I’ve not shined up to.

Worth a shot. We broke a bunch of kale in two at the checkout. A bunch of celery, too. Just like two little old ladies living alone.

We happened to be at a grocery store together only because we were seeking sanctuary from a deluge that marred the ordinarily very pleasant fall festival in Franklin, Pa., called Applefest. My sister and I live about 60 miles from each other and Franklin is a good half-way meeting point for us. It had been raining all morning and we were getting weary of dodging umbrellas and just being more than a little wet. But instead of ducking into a coffee shop for a break, we chose to, first, go to the library ($1 book sale!) then, to finish our day, window shopping in a grocery store, the same as we would have at the craft booths at the festival, just to see if this store had anything new and different from our “home” grocery stores.

So we each went home with our parcel of kale.

The directions were so simple, my sister had already memorized them. When I got home, I made them. Wow! She was right! It was uncanny! They really did taste, if not exactly like a potato chip, very much like the salty, crunchy snack I so often want. And to think they really are healthy!

When I talked to my sister several days later and asked if she liked her “kale chips” as much as I did, she sheepishly said that she’d let her bunch sit too long and she had to toss it. I assured her, though, that she had a great idea and she had to try them.

In the past few weeks, I have seen a couple food bloggers talk about kale chips, so I got the urge to try them again. And I think they were even better the second time around. I was singing their praises all last weekend. I have to admit, people look at me skeptically at first, then attentively as I described the process. One friend – a fierce bread and potato lover -- was particularly interested because he has been a faithful Atkins dieter for months and was growing a gnawing craving for something just like this.

So here’s how to make them. (They don’t store particularly well; all the more reason to eat ‘em up!)

Baked Kale Chips
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash and thoroughly dry one bunch of kale. Remove the stems and thick stalks and tear into bite size pieces (think chips!). Toss torn kale in very large bowl or pot with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Spread out on baking sheets without crowding them. Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes. Make sure they’re crisp and just beginning to brown at the edges. Cooking too long will make the kale bitter.

(I’ve also read people put Parmesan cheese on the chips, too.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Conquistador’s Feast – Salmon, Risotto, Spinach, Oh My!

Last week, I went to The Grotto, a student run restaurant at Mercyhurst College, in Erie, Pennsylvania. My nephew -- my sister’s only son -- is a hospitality management major there and he was General Manager at the restaurant that evening. It was his final exam. For what it's worth, I gave him an “A.”

The course is Food Management III, his last “foods” course. He’s graduating in a few weeks, and after that, he’s planning – at least at this point – to go back to Las Vegas, to Caesar’s Palace, where he interned last summer. He’s really not all that interested in restaurant management or food preparation. (Except the eating part.) He likes the business side and the guest relations aspects better.

But he sure managed his "Food Final" well. His job was to develop the menu, plan for its preparation, and oversee the meal preparation and serving. Managing with him were two other students, a service manager and a kitchen manager. But Chris’s job that evening was to boss it all. In the kitchen, he needed to oversee portion control, plating, weighing items to prepare for cost analysis later. In the dining room, he needed to make sure that the student servers were doing their job, too. And as many a restaurant owner may need to do, he jumped right in to refresh water or provide coffee refills.

The assignment was to theme their meal and Chris named his Spanish-inspired fare The Conquistador’s Feast. Planning a menu isn’t often easy for the home cook. To take a family meal and multiply it exponentially for people you don’t know would be a real challenge for me. I’m thinking I would get surly.

Chris’s menu had all the elements of meal planning balance my mother taught me: a mix of color and texture, protein, starch, vegetable. Something sweet, something salty. And it was pretty! It’s just that the students had to make it pretty a hundred times over!

In case you can’t read his pretty menu card that was a favor for all the diners-- paying guests I should add -- we started with a Cucumber Melon Gazpacho. It tasted good, but I’ve never been a big fan of cold soups. The garnish of shrimp made all the difference to me. The main course was a sweet-sauced grilled salmon -- Orange-Agave Glazed Salmon. It was a light sweet sauce, balanced by the citrus. The sides were Saffron Rice and simple Sautéed Spinach. We had an ice cream dessert – Caramelized Pears with Dulce de Leche Ice Cream. The cookies in the picture weren’t an original part of the menu, but they took it to the top. They were buttery almond-flavored cookies that almost dissolved in your mouth as you bit into them. Very good. Everything on the menu displayed its Spanish influence. Chris even made sure some subtle Spanish style music was in the background.

Cooking risotto is time consuming, a tad tedious. Risotto is supposed to be a creamy rice dish that gets its creaminess from slow cooking the arborio rice, standing at the stove, stirring constantly for twenty minutes, adding small amounts of hot broth at a time, letting each addition absorb before you add more. If you don't do it just right, you might get it sticky, not creamy.

How they do that in a restaurant is a secret I don’t think many would be willing to share. A microwave?

Some time ago, I learned to make risotto in the microwave. The microwave isn’t the ideal way to cook a lot of things. Popcorn, of course. It’s great for cooking fresh vegetables. And surprisingly, it’s really quite effective for risotto. I got the recipe from a cookbook called “The Microwave Gourmet,” by Barbara Kafka. She wrote the book in 1987, and it remains a staple, the best cookbook ever on microwaves, in my estimation. A well-established, well-respected food writer, primarily in The New York Times, and cookbook author, she confesses in the preface to the microwave cookbook, that she was sheepish when she told her esteemed “foodie” friends that she was writing a cookbook devoted to the microwave. She herself was hesitant, but after a couple experiments, curiosity got the better of her it seems, and off she went to create a classic.

I doubt the Mercyhurst students prepared risotto this way, but after trying it once, standing at the stove stirring constantly, no matter how traditional it is, doesn’t sound so attractive in comparison.

The Grotto must be one of the best-kept secrets in Erie. What a great way to have interesting food, a night out, with anxious-to-please students serving you-- all at a very reasonable price! Best wishes to all Mercyhurst's graduating hospitality management students. (Especially, you, of course, Chris.)

About the ingredients:
Arborio rice is the only kind of rice to use to make a creamy risotto. Regular or converted rice just doesn’t have the same starchy quality. The good news is that while Arborio used to be too exotic for grocery stores in the boonies, it’s readily available these days. As are jasmine rice, and basmati rice. I wish my husband liked rice better.

Saffron is probably the most expensive spice one can buy, but you need precious little of it and it does give a distinctive taste and color to dishes. Buy threads not powder, though. (You’ll see what a thread is when you look at them if you’re not familiar with the spice.) Saffron, too, is available right here in my back yard, although I did buy mine through Penzey’s.

Saffron RisottoFrom Barbara Kafka’s "The Microwave Gourmet"
1 T unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
½ C minced onion
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
1 C Arborio rice
4 C chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
16 threads saffron
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat butter and oil in a 10 inch quiche dish, uncovered, at 100% power. Cook onion and garlic for 4 minutes. Add rice and cook for 4 minutes more. Add broth, wine and saffron and cook for 9 minutes. Stir and cook for 9 minutes more. Remove from oven and add salt & pepper.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Angel Food Crunch for My Angel: Happy Birthday, Amy!

Today is my daughter’s birthday. She’s 27. (She says she’s starting to feel old; imagine how I feel!)

I have to step back now and again to realize that she is indeed a grown woman. She owns her own house, has a thriving career as a real estate agent, a nice IRA growing, a happy circle of friends, a love life with its ups and downs, a Miata I’d trade my beloved VW for, and an adorable Yorkshire terrier named Ollie. And parents who love her to pieces. The only trouble is, she lives in Florida, and we’re in Pennsylvania, and there’s just no way that I can see her enough. Thank god for phone and e-mail and cheap flights (now and again.)

I hope she’s having a great birthday, that her Facebook friends are showering her with messages today, that she gets flowers and has the perfect dinner date. Can’t wait to hear all about it.

To celebrate her birthday at home, I made her favorite cake. She’s loved this fun cake ever since she tasted it probably 15 years ago or more. And Aunt Liz was kind enough to share the recipe with me. I’m the first to admit I’m no baker, so I’m always a little hesitant to say, “I’ll make a cake (or cookies or bread.)” But this one is pretty easy; it can still fall or get heavy, but it has so many goodies in it, even if it’s dense, it’s tasty.

The grandkids visited over the weekend, so everyone got a piece, everyone but Amy. We sang a little Happy Birthday to Amy and took a picture. (Just didn’t have any candles.)

Have a great birthday, Amy! I love you, all the way to the ends of the earth and back again. And back again, and back again . . . . .

Angel Food Crunch Cake

1 box angel food cake mix
1 4 ounce jar maraschino cherries
1 jar colored sprinkles (save ¼ cup for topping)
¾ cup chopped pecans
1 12 ounce container Cool Whip

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use the juice from the cherries and enough water to make 1 1/3 cups. Blend with dry cake mix. Beat 1 minute. Add chopped cherries, nuts and sprinkles to batter. Gently fold with spatula to incorporate. Pour into greased tube pan. Gently cut through batter to remove air bubbles. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. Immediately invert pan on rack. Cool completely. Use Cool Whip to ice cake. Sprinkle with reserved sprinkles. Keep refrigerated.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spring Love: Dilled Ham Asparagus Chowder

The first time I ate asparagus I was a teenager. For a reason I can’t remember, I was visiting my oldest sister, who lived a couple hours away in Ohio with her husband. She had just finished a day’s work, and we were at the grocery store hurriedly trying to gather enough stuff for some unexpected company for dinner. (Can’t remember who that was, either; seems all I can remember is the food!)

She’s dashing from one aisle to the other, putting things in the basket I’m carrying, dutifully following her around. She collects a slice of ham, a can of pineapple rings, a can of asparagus, and a rice mix in five minutes and we’re outta there. Dinner! I was impressed at how quickly she pulled it together.

My sister is one of the most intelligent and interesting people I know. She’s now 73 and is a retired pharmacist, but she hasn’t slowed down one iota. She’s in Europe as we speak, although I’m not sure for what this time. Last fall she was in Rome and witnessed a saint beatification ceremony at the Vatican. Before that it was to England for a contra dancing festival, and she spent Christmas in Ireland one year, too. Did I mention Australia? She even met her husband on one of her several cruises, the Mississippi one, I think, maybe Hawaii. (She’s tough to keep up with.) She takes art classes at the university and teaches tai chi. She’s a great seamstress and she weaves. She has so many other and such varied interests, it’s no wonder cooking doesn’t rank right up there. She introduced me to her favorite cookbook, Peg Bracken’s "I Hate to Cook Book." If you’ve never looked at the book, you must. It’s a hoot. Not only is it fun to read, it has some pretty useful recipes, too; not exactly health-food, mind you, but useful.

Back to asparagus. Although it tasted pretty good, I didn’t like the texture. Kinda soft. And the green wasn’t a bright green, more the avocado green of 1970s appliances. Since then, I’ve learned that canned asparagus – like most canned vegetables – is pretty low on the taste/texture scale. Frozen is better than canned and fresh is best of all. And even though you can get asparagus pretty much any time of year, spring is still the best for tenderness and taste. Since I’ve learned it has so many healthy attributes, I like it all the more.

We’ve had asparagus at home at least once a week for a couple months. In fact, we had some last night, and there’s just enough left over to make this soup today. Maybe I should think about putting it in my vegetable garden this year. (And since I first learned to roast it at Christmas time, it’s my favorite way to cook it. I took a side of a roasted asparagus salad to the Easter feast my sister-in-law hosted.)

It is a pretty versatile vegetable – even good in this soup. I only adapted it a little from the Peter Christian’s cookbook. And I still thank my sister Anne for introducing me to asparagus in the first place.

Dilled Asparagus Ham Chowder

3 T. butter
1 medium onion
1 celery stalk
1 peeled potato
8 asparagus spears
1 cup diced ham
2 cups water
¼ cup water
3 T flour
2 c milk
1 cup light cream
1 T onion salt
½ t white pepper
1 t. dried basil
1 T. dried dill

Melt the butter in a soup pot. Dice the onion, celery, potato and asparagus and cook in the butter for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add the 2 cups water and ham.

In a small bowl, mix the ¼ cup water and the flour and add to soup, stirring until thickened. Add the milk and cream.

Continue cooking over low heat seasoning with the remaining ingredients. Simmer for 15 minutes until flavors have blended.

(I had fresh dill so I added ¼ cup; since my asparagus was already cooked, I added with the ham.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Leftover Eggs? Try This Broccoli Ring

I’ve always loved coloring eggs for Easter. I was one of the little kids in the grocery store begging my mom for the latest and greatest version of dye kits. As I grew to a bigger kid, I wanted to experiment with crayons and strings and oil and all kinds of things to make my eggs unique. And even though I knew there’d be no kids around this year, no grandkids to fuss over, I still wanted to mess around with the eggs. Nothing like the aroma of vinegar in the air! Smells like Easter!

This year, I took the adult, even green, route and decided I’d try my hand at coloring with natural dyes. I’d read a couple different articles (one from Fine Cooking, one from Prevention) and decided I had enough of the suggested items to make my experiment worthwhile. At least for making egg salad sandwiches afterward.

The directions sounded simple enough: Take 4 cups of chopped or mashed fruit or veggie matter, or 4 tablespoons of spices, and cover with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, add 2 tablespoons vinegar (I’m guessing any kind will do) and simmer for 30 minutes. Then add your eggs and let them steep in the refrigerator several hours or overnight, turning occasionally, and you’ll end up with a veritable rainbow of egg colors.

Because I’ve been trying to maintain a compost pile, I save my kitchen scraps and I’d had some onion skins, so I set them aside for my experiment. I was intrigued by the possibilities of colors. Some of them were pretty obvious: spinach got you green eggs, grape juice, purple, coffee or tea, beige. With chili powder you got orange; with turmeric or cumin, bright yellow. There was one big surprise, though: red cabbage made blue eggs! I wish I would have had some.

What I did have were onion skins, a mix of red and yellow. I only had about two cups, so I halved the recipe, enough for half a dozen eggs, more than enough for me and my husband. The picture shows you the result: a kind of marbled yellow brown. I wrapped rubber bands around the eggs before dipping. They would have looked really cool if I’d dipped them into another color afterwards.

I declared the experiment a success and will start earlier next Easter. Then I really will have too many eggs. We often have eggs on tossed salads or will just eat a couple hard-cooked eggs for a quick lunch. Growing up, my mother always garnished cooked spinach with hard-cooked eggs and vinegar. And I really do like egg salad. My husband could eat deviled eggs every day, I think.

One recipe that makes good use of too many hard-cooked eggs and one that I’ve often made is a broccoli ring, a savory gelatin salad. I used to think that all gelatin salads were sweet and fruity so this one caught my attention a long time ago and has remained a staple, a back-of-the-shelf staple, but a favorite of mine nevertheless.

Broccoli Ring

1 pound fresh broccoli, cooked and chopped
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1 14 ½ ounce can beef broth
¾ cup mayonnaise
4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
hot sauce, if desired
4 hard-cooked eggs, chopped

In medium saucepan, soften the gelatin in the broth. Stir over low heat till the gelatin is dissolved. Remove from heat. Stir in the mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, salt and hot sauce, to taste. Fold in drained broccoli and chopped eggs. Pour into a 5 ½ cup ring mold. Cover and chill several hours or overnight until firm. To serve, unmold onto lettuce lined plate, and garnish center with cherry tomatoes, additional lettuce and broccoli buds. Makes 10 servings.

Broccoli on FoodistaBroccoli

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Celebrating Spring with a VW and Crepes -- Part II

Although my chicken and broccoli crepes tasted very good, rich and creamy, with just a nice bit of crunch from broccoli and celery and a hint of citrus from the chicken, they looked pretty bland. I guess just that’s the trouble with “white” food. They need a lot of color alongside to make them look more appetizing

(I have trouble with some colors of food, though; I especially have trouble with black food or blue food, even blueberries, which I love and have an overabundance of every summer. I’ve been trying to come up with different ways to use the blueberries, although there’s nothing wrong with pies and muffins and fruit salads. I’m working up the courage to make a blueberry (!) chicken. I’ve been collecting recipes for savory blueberry dishes. One of these days . . .)

The recipe for my crepe filling was inspired by a cookbook I got while on a vacation in New England some time ago. I visited a restaurant called “Peter Christian’s” in a college town in New Hampshire. It was in the early 80’s and there were still hippies around. I found the menu in the restaurant eclectic and intriguing. So I bought the cookbook. Lots of unique sandwiches, like Baked Cheese and Olive, and Pete’s Zaa, a pizza-like sandwich. They had soups like Mushroom Wild Rice and Dilled Asparagus Ham Chowder and a host of Mexican and Italian-inspired dishes and desserts out the wazoo. I believe it was there that I first had crepes as a meal. I had Ham Florentine Crepes, which became the inspiration for my chicken & broccoli crepes of the other day.

Any crepe dish is a labor of love, I think, because you have to have all your “inside” ingredients cooked, or at least thawed, beforehand. So it takes a little time. Since I had fresh broccoli and chicken to cook, that’s where I had to start. My favorite way to cook chicken that I know I’m going to use in another dish, or to make chicken salad, is Lemon Chicken. All you need to do is rub chicken pieces – any kind – with a mixture of dried oregano and freshly ground pepper and salt. Then lay the chicken pieces on a bed of thinly sliced lemons. Then bake. If you’re using pieces with bones and skin, place skin side down for 10 minutes in a 400 degree oven; then turn them, reduce heat to 375 and continue baking until done, about 35 minutes. If you’re using skinless, boneless breasts, as I did this time, reduce the cooking time to abut half-hour total, turning once, and cover.

I cooked the broccoli in the microwave so that was easy. While the broccoli cooked, I shredded the cheese for the sauce. So here’s the whole shooting match (minus the crepes in the March 31 post):

Chicken & Broccoli Crepes

2 T butter
½ cup chopped celery
¼ cup chopped onion
3 cup cooked chicken, cut in small pieces
3 cup cooked broccoli
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
2 cup milk
½ cup chicken broth
1 t dried tarragon
8 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
1 T lemon juice
2 T sherry (optional)
Salt & pepper to taste
12 cooked crepes

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in skillet over medium heat. Add the celery and onion and cook until tender but a little crisp. Combine the cooked celery and onion in a big bowl with chicken and broccoli.

In a saucepan, melt the ½ cup butter. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Then stir in the milk, broth and tarragon, stirring until smooth over low heat until thick. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice and sherry and salt and pepper to taste. Add half the sauce to the chicken and broccoli mixture.

To assemble, lay a crepe on the work surface and spoon about ¼ cup of the chicken mixture down the middle. Roll each side into the center and lay seam side down in a 13 X 9 casserole that has been buttered or sprayed with non-stick spray. Repeat with the remainder of crepes. Pour remaining half of sauce evenly over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes to heat through. Serve 2-3 crepes per person.