Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wedding Soup Fed My Christmas Soul

It’s not that I didn’t want to go visit my mother-in-law that day.  I love to visit her.  She’s a delightful woman and has always been generous and loving to me.  But when Mr. Rosemary said he wanted to go visit his mother that day, I was grateful he couldn’t see my face because I’m sure it looked pretty sour (and he can always read exactly what I’m thinking.) 

And what I was thinking was this:  “How can he possibly think I have time to do that?  This is the first day in a string of ten or twelve that we didn’t have something important we had to get done, somewhere we had to go, all priorities higher than Christmas.   I needed this day to get ready!   Doesn’t he realize that the kids were coming this weekend for our Christmas together and the house was a wreck and there was so much to get done, so fast – decorating, shopping, cleaning, cooking, baking, wrapping!  Has he gone bonkers?”

“Go by yourself,” I wanted to say.

But from a deep somewhere, instead of blurting anything like that out loud, I found a little voice of calm and reason that reminded me, “It will all get done. You know it will. You’ll figure out a way.”   And even though I know she would love a quiet little tete a tete with him, I knew he wanted me to come along, too.
In the midst of this private conversation, I got a brilliant idea:  I’d make soup for lunch, wedding soup, one of her favorites and mine.  I could be in the kitchen making the soup while he and she had a nice visit in the next room.  I could picture it already.   I quickly did a mental inventory, decided I had enough of what I needed and told Mr. Rosemary my idea.  He agreed. So, I packed up the stuff and off we went.  A half-hour later, I was in her kitchen rolling little meatballs and they were chatting away.

Then, we all sat down to lunch and had a nice visit all together.  I cleaned up and we went back home.  On the way home, Mr. Rosemary said, “That was a nice day.”

And I had to agree.  Yes, it was.

Now that the biggest part of the holiday hustle and bustle is over (and everything I wanted to get done did indeed get done), I can reflect and honestly say that of all the sweet moments I had sharing Christmas hospitality with friends and family that day I didn't want to happen somehow was the sweetest.  Genuine, spontaneous, and warm.

I hope you had a special Christmas moment, too.

  * * * * *

I often make wedding soup. But with a lot of flexibility. I can make it without a recipe, although sometimes I get pretty elaborate.  Sometimes it’s very simple.  The batch I made that day was somewhere in between.   I often will make up a whole bunch of meatballs, stick them on a cookie sheet to freeze, then bag them for later; this time I made them fresh.  I also usually poach the meatballs in the broth but some people prefer to bake them first.  There’s a minor argument in the family about what pasta shape to use.  I’m a traditionalist and prefer acini di pepe, although I did use orzo in the batch pictured.  And I have used rice.  Some people in the family prefer bigger ditalini or even shells.  The only requirement is some kind of pasta.  Some people like chicken pieces, some don’t.  Escarole, chard,spinach, just some green. Maybe carrots, celery and onions.  Ideally you should cook the pasta separately then pour the soup over the warm pasta.  (Otherwise the pasta absorbs all the broth.)  The version I made that day was an marriage of some of all of these.  And it was smaller than usual, enough for a threesome lunch and leftovers for Gigi.

One day I’ll post about my elaborate way; in the meantime, here’s my simpler version:

A Simple Wedding Soup
Makes about 8 servings

For the Meatballs
½ pound ground beef
½ - ¾  cup seasoned dry bread crumbs, moistened with a little milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
½ small onion, grated
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese grated
For the Soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 carrots, cleaned and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, clean and finely chopped
½ onion, finely chopped
1 46 ounce can of chicken broth
½ box frozen chopped spinach
½ cup acini di pepe
Extra Parmesan cheese, for serving

Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs.  (Add more crumbs if the mix is too wet.) Shape into small balls, no more than one inch in diameter.  Set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil.  Cook the carrots, celery and onion just until softened.  Add the broth.  Bring to a boil then add the spinach, acini di pepe and meatballs.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook  until meatballs are done and pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.  Sprinkle each serving with cheese.

Cook's note:  I use a serrated knife and a bit of muscle to cut the box of frozen spinach in half and quickly put one half in a baggie and back in the freezer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

13-Minute Pepper Steak

I didn’t start out to set a record.  It was just that it was late, we had been out all day and we were hungry.  This is the time of year when the luxury of a leisurely cooked meal just isn’t always possible.  You need something and you need it now.  And we were both tired of frittatas.

I know some people can call for take out.  But we live too deep in the boonies for that to happen.  (The closest we’ve heard that a pizza shop will deliver is to rendezvous at a general store six miles away!)  And some people may plan better.  But at least we were well stocked and on our way home, I got my game plan together, slipped my shoes off when we got in the door, threw my coat on a chair and had dinner ready in 13 minutes! 

And it was fresh food!  The ramen noodles were the only real shortcut.  But boy, are they fast to get ready! 

This wasn’t exactly an authentic stir fry wokked by a master but it was good and fast and pretty and cheap and fresh.  The key was cutting everything thin and cooking over pretty high heat fast.  Good enough for a repeat.

The thyme in the picture?  Just for show.  (And I hung up my coat after dinner.)

13 Minute Pepper Steak
1 pound thinly cut round steak
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 yellow pepper, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Two packages ramen noodle, sans seasoning packet

Start a pot of water to get boiling for the noodles while you make the beef.  Lightly salt and pepper the beef.  Cut the beef into thin strips, about ¼ inch wide and 2 inches long.  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet.  With heat on medium high, add beef and cook quickly stirring the beef constantly until beef is lightly browned.  Remove from pan.  Add the second tablespoon of oil.  Add the sliced peppers and onions and cook until softened.  Turn down heat and return beef to the pan.  In a cup, put the hoisin sauce and add enough water (about 1 tablespoon) to thin to the consistency you want and add to the beef, peppers and onions.  Put a lid on the pan and keep warm while you make the noodles. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Breakfast for Non-Morning People: Granola Bars

There are morning people.  And there are not.  I am firmly convinced of this.  And I am not a morning person.

When people say they are morning people, do they mean that they wake up with a spring in their step, a song in their heart, and a smile on their face?  Nope, not me.
I can function, mind you. I might even start a load of laundry before 6 a.m., sort through mail, make the bed, do the dishes that didn’t get done the night before. In fact, I really love to do all these non-thinking type of tasks early in the morning. Gives me a great sense of accomplishment.  Anyhow, I can bark, “Whaddya mean, I’m not a morning person!?!  I did all this, didn’t I?”

But I am not sharp.  Or friendly.  Don’t ask me anything but the most basic of questions. You won’t like the response.
It took all I had to control my morning-ness when people had to get to school and work, dressed and on time.

But now that I don’t have children at home, or a regular job, it’s a lot easier to manage the morning.  It’s now become my best computer time.  With a cup of coffee (definitely coffee – tea won’t do) and maybe a little breakfast.

That’s the trouble with us non-morning people. We really don’t do breakfast.  And we should.  Might make us more pleasant.  So I’ve been giving granola bars a try.  Homemade ones.  And, you know?  They’re very good.    They’re not exactly cheap to make, but they’re very good.  And they put a smile on my face, if not a spring in my step.

I didn’t have wheat germ the first time I made these.  Instead I ground some Grape Nuts in the food processor. Good substitution.   And I didn’t have dried apricots.  That’s okay.  These have plenty of good stuff in them.

(By the way, I didn’t make these in the morning.) 

Homemade Granola Bars
from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded coconut, loosely packed
½ cup wheat germ
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup honey
¼ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup chopped pitted dates
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter an 8 by 12-inch baking dish and line in with parchment paper.
Toss the oatmeal, almonds, and coconut together on a sheet pan and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.  Transfer this mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the wheat germ.
Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F.
Place the butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Cook and stir for a minute, then pour over the toasted oatmeal mixture.  Add the dates, apricots and cranberries and stir well.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.  Wet your fingers and lightly press the mixture evenly into the pan.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until light golden brown.  Cool for at least 2 to 3 hours before cutting into squares.  Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 12 to 16 bars.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Make Limoncello for Christmas Gifting

If you got right on it this weekend, you could easily be giving away beautiful bottles of your own homemade limoncello for Christmas.  It’s really very simple and only takes about a half-hour or so hands-on time. It's just the steeping that takes time.   The only hard part is planning far enough ahead to allow that steeping.  And, like I said, if you start this weekend . . . .

I made some a few years ago in preparing for a big summer blast we hosted.  (It was so big, we haven’t had one since!) That same year, I also made mojitos.  Must have been when they first came into vogue.  Trouble was that both those drinks are really best when it’s hot and you need a really refreshing, cool beverage.  Wouldn’t you know it was blowing rain and 45 degrees the day of our soiree?  That’s probably the real reason we haven’t had a bash in a while!  So . . . although the mojitos still went, I had lots of limoncello left.  But I didn’t complain; I like it a lot.  It’s great on its own or mixed with club soda, or spiking up some lemonade.  I haven’t tried it on ice cream, but I hear that’s good, too.

My sister made up this batch.  It’s on its last leg of mellowing and will be ready to decant into pretty bottles for holiday gifting.

After helping her finish the concocting, I figured out why mine didn’t sell so swell – and I can’t blame it on the weather.  This batch was nice and clear and I recall my first batch was a bit cloudy.  Her recipe clearly cautioned to make sure you let the simple syrup cool to room temperature before adding in the second step.  If you add the syrup while it’s still warm, you’ll get a cloudy mixture.  (Now they tell me!)

The person who submitted this recipe to food.com -- (McMysteryShopper) -- in 2006 said the secret to this particular version was the addition of the zest of one lime.  The contributor also stressed removing the zest only; if you use a peeler and any white pith remains, get rid of it.

So order yourself some pretty bottles online this weekend and you’ll be ready to share some very festive and warming homemade gifts.  Italian or not, they'll love it.

from food.com
The zest of 12 lemons
The zest of 1 lime
2 (750 ml) bottles 100% proof vodka, divided
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar.

Place the lemon and lime zest in a large jar with a screw-top lid and cover with one bottle of vodka.  Leave mixture to mellow for 2 weeks in a dark place.

After mixture sets, combine sugar and water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved.  Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.  (This is very important.  If the sugar syrup is still warm the limoncello will become cloudy instead of clear.)

Using a coffee filter or a fine sieve, strain the vodka from the zest and mix it with the remaining bottle of vodka and the syrup.  Pour the liqueur in bottle, seal tightly and let mellow in a dark place for at least 10 days before using – or gift giving.

For drinking straight, store the limoncello in the freezer.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

To Brine or Not to Brine Thine Turkey: The Verdict

If you're still undecided about what to make for Thanksgiving dinner, then shame on you! Whether you're just looking for the very best way to make your family's tried-and-true or you want a brand new dish to spice up tradition a little, there is absolutely no shortage of ideas and possibilities out there, be it from magazines, television, cookbooks or the thousands of food blogs and food sites that are tempting us! I don't think I've ever seen so many good things to choose from.as I have these past few weeks. It's overwhelming!

Pumpkin, squash, Brussels sprouts, beans, cranberries, sweet potatoes, veggies and desserts galore!

And then there are the turkey debates!  Who knew there could be so many -- and varied -- opinions about the best way to cook a turkey!  (Let's not even talk about turkey alternatives. (Are folks really still intrigued by tofurky?)

Roast at a  high temp.  No, go slow, Stuff, don't stuff. Breast up, breast down. Baste a lot, don't baste at all. Try deep frying.  Put it on the grill.  Yikes!  Have to admit, I have tried a few experiments that veered from the good ol' fashioned way my mom taught me:  "Stuff the bird, put it in a 325 F. oven for four to five hours, baste every half-hour or so, tent it with foil when it gets too brown.  It's done when the leg moves easily from the body.  Let it rest while you make the gravy.  Don't forget the giblets."

And none of them really made a whole lot of difference until I tried brining.  Soaking the bird in a salt/sugar solution for a day really does guarantee moist meat throughout.  It just means planning further ahead, making sure you have either the fridge space to keep it cool, or a big enough cooler, and plenty of muscles to hoist that baby around.  But it is a bit of extra effort.  But Thanksgiving is just once a year after all.

I'm not hosting the big feast this year and, because I'm a bit selfish, I wanted to be sure Mr. Rosemary and I had turkey sandwiches next weekend.  And, of course, I'm a cook who enjoys experimenting.  So I set myself to brining.  I had brined a chicken once before -- with great results.  Now it was the turkey's turn.

After all the reading I did, I turned to two trusted blogs:  Dara from Cookin' Canuck and Linda from Ciao Chow Linda.  Both provided excellent blow-by-blow instructions.  I used Linda's brine and Dara's roasting how-to.

And we had one great turkey.  Moist and tender meat throughout, even all the white meat.  Nice mahogany glaze.  A success.  It was a 22 pounder (all for Mr. Rosemary and me!) so I made several freezer packs of meat and a few containers of stock.  It's comforting to know the freezer's well-stocked.

The verdict?  Brine! I have to admit brining assures a moist bird.  I'm not sure Mom would agree it was worth the extra work, but I bet she would have liked it.  

So . . . .  how are you cooking a turkey this year?  


Turkey Brine
from Ciao Chow Linda
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 gallon water
2 T. black peppercorns
1 T. allspice berries
1 onion, sliced
1 large bunch sage
6 bay leaves
ice cubes

The day before (or night before) you want to cook the turkey:  Using a 5-gallon bucket, line it with a plastic bag. Put the salt, sugar, onion, herbs and spices in a pot on the range with only two cups of water taken from the one gallon of water called for in the recipe. Bring to a boil and stir everything to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat and add some ice cubes to cool it off, plus about half of the remaining water. Put the thawed turkey in the plastic bag in the bucket and add the water and herb mixture. If the bucket needs more water to cover the turkey, add it now.

Here's how Linda keeps the turkey (I kept mine in a covered cooler, well-iced in the garage):  Since I can't fit the bucket into my refrigerator, I always place it outdoors on the deck, adding ice cubes to the water to make sure it stays cool. It's never been a problem here in New Jersey in late November, and sometimes it's gotten so cold that the top layer of water has frozen.  I don't want to take any risks though, so I always add the ice cubes. Twist the top of the bag and secure it closed. To keep squirrels or birds from pecking into the bag during the night or before it goes into the oven, place a flat baking pan on the top and weigh it down with something heavy. Let it sit overnight and soak.

The next day, drain the turkey from the liquid before roasting.  Pat dry, then place your hand between the skin and the breast meat and spread some butter inside with some sage leaves. Alternately, make an herb butter, mixing some softened butter with minced sage, rosemary or other herbs.

Roasted Turkey with Herb Butter
From the kitchen of Cookin Canuck. Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 15-to-16 pound turkey
Salt and pepper to season cavity
1 1/4 lb. shallots, peeled and cut in half through the root
1 carrot, unpeeled
1 large celery stalk, cut in half crosswise
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
3 cups (approximately) chicken broth
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.In a medium-sized bowl, mix together softened butter, sage, thyme and parsley until well combined.
Remove the neck and other innards from the turkey cavity. Season the cavity with salt and pepper. Place the carrot, celery and onion quarters into the cavity of the turkey.Tie the turkey legs together and tuck the wings underneath the turkey, using small skewers to secure, if necessary.
Starting at the neck end, slide your hands under the breast skin to loosen. Smear 3 tablespoons of the herb butter underneath the breast skin. Smear another 4 tablespoons of the herb butter over the entire topside of the turkey.
Place the turkey in the roasting pan, breast side up. Scatter the shallots around the turkey, on the bottom of the roasting pan.Cover the breasts with foil and place the turkey in the oven. Roast the turkey for 2 hours, basting it with 1/2 cup chicken broth every 30 minutes.
Remove the foil from the breast. If you find that the legs are browning too much, cover each drumstick with foil. Roast the turkey until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh (be sure not to hit the bone) registers 170 degrees F, basting every 30 minutes with the pan drippings, about 1 hour total.
Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a platter, tent with foil and let rest for 20 minutes before carving. Remove the carrot, celery and onion from the cavity and discard. Remove the shallots from the pan and serve with the gravy. Use the remaining brown bits on the bottom of the pan and the remaining herb butter to make the gravy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Little Old Ladies" and Pigs-in-a-Blanket

You can learn a lot from little old ladies; not so much from pigs in blankets. But they have a lot in common. They’re both comfortable and comforting. They’re old school with lots of staying power.  No-frills but classic. And they’re retro fashionable.

"Pigs-in-a-blanket" is the name we always gave stuffed cabbage, or cabbage rolls, while I was growing up. We never had these at home, mind you. It was only at the homes of more ethnic-inspired cooks that I had what I now know are properly called halupki, if you’re Slovakian, or golubki, if you’re Polish. All I remember is the wonderfully homey aroma they dispersed and my mental picture of the mama at one end of the table, papa at the other. And us polite kids, hands washed, grace offered, who said, “Yes, please,” as the mashed potatoes were passed. And “May I please be excused?” before running off to play again, but not before taking our plates to the kitchen. (I sound like I grew up in a “Father Knows Best” TV show or a Norman Rockwell painting!)

Dishes like this -- meatloaf, lasagna, pot roast – have hundreds of variations, don’t they? But, I have to admit, while I’ve made many of my own various versions of those classics, I never made stuffed cabbage. And it’s a western Pennsylvania tradition! I was inspired to make this thanks to a review copy of Little Old Lady Recipes I received courtesy of Quirk Books. The book’s subtitle is: “Comfort Food and Kitchen Wisdom.” And it delivers on that promise.

 Every single recipe is something familiar and comforting. Some are hardly recipes at all, like, “Oatmeal.” Or “Cinnamon Toast.” And then there are slightly more complex things like pierogies, goulash, chicken and dumplings, oatmeal raisin dropper, pound cake and gingerbread.

But nothing is fancy. And that’s what author and comedian Meg Favreau wants to share: “What the heck happened to food?” she queries at the start. The book is a tribute to all the simple, good and sassy women who have influenced our cooking over the years. Ms. Favreau says: “It’s time to get back to the comforting foods that made family dinners good. We should be following the advice of women who made those meals and alternated between doting mothers, and tough-as-nails disciplinarians, ladies who worked, raised families, hosted great parties and made the best out of the worst.”

It’s simply a delightful little book. Small in scale but big on kitchen wisdom. There are very few photographs of food in the book. The focus is on “the little old ladies” that Ms. Favreau found and photographer Michael Reali framed. These are real women, with real pearls to share. Take a listen:

Never taste from the mixing bowl. Or at least, don’t let anybody catch you.” 
Amelia, horse trainer, 88 

“Everyone’s afraid of lard now. 
 But it’s not what you eat; it’s how you work after you eat it.” 
Eleanor, farmer, 92 

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Thelma, homemaker, 88 

“Condiments are used to hide bad food.” Loretta, nurse, 89 

There are lots more like that. And lots of good food and common sense, simple cooking. Although I didn’t follow the recipe in the book, I’m sure it would be “little old lady” approved. The recipe actually comes from Rachel Rapport’s first cookbook, Everything Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook. You may recognize Rachel as author of the blog Coconut and Lime

Stuffed Cabbage 
from Everything Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook
by Rachel Rappaport 

Water, as needed
1 large head cabbage
1 teaspoon butter
½ cup sliced onions
28 ounce canned whole tomatoes in puree
½ cup minced onions
1 egg
1 ½ cups cooked long grain rice
½ tablespoon garlic powder
½ tablespoon paprika 
1  pound 94% lean ground beef 

Bring a large pot of water to boil, enough water to sit below a steamer basket. Prepare the cabbage: Using a long knife, make 4 or 5 cuts around the core of the cabbage and remove the core. Discard the core and 2 layers of the outer leaves.

Peel off 6-8 large whole leaves. Place the leaves in the steamer basket and allow to steam over the boiling water for about 7 minutes. Remove the leaves with tongs and allow them to cool long enough to handle. Dice the remaining cabbage.
In a non-stick skillet, melt the butter. Add sliced onions and diced cabbage and sauté until the onions are soft. Add tomatoes and break them up with the back of a spoon, Simmer about 10 to 15 minutes. 

Ladle one-third of the sauce over the bottom of a 4-quart oval slow cooker. Mix the minced onions, egg, rice, spices and beef in a medium sized bowl. Stir to distribute the ingredients evenly. On a clean work area, place a cabbage leaf with the open-side up and the stem facing you. Place about ¼ cup filling on the leaf toward the stem. Fold the side together and then pull the top down to form a packet. It should look like a burrito. Do the same with the rest of the leaves. 

Arrange the cabbage rolls, seam side down in a single layer in the slow cooker. Ladle about half the remaining sauce over the rolls, lay another layer and cover with the remainder of the sauce. Cover and cook on low for up to 10 hours.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Good for You Pistachio Baked Salmon

I don’t think I tasted any fish until I was in my twenties.  I don’t think Friday nights eating deep fried no-name fish count.  (As my friend Peg so logically asks, “Can’t you eat fish other nights, too!?!”)   The frozen Mrs. Paul’s fillets don’t count either.  And as much as I love shellfish, and have since I was a kid, shrimp is an ineligible competitor.

But when I first tasted salmon, I was sold from the get-go.  It was meaty, had texture, this wonderful pink color and it didn’t smell – or taste  -- fishy.  And now I know that not only is it good, it’s really good for you.  Full of those wonderful Omega-3 rich fatty acids that form a shield against heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and a host of cancers.  “Modest amounts” the experts say, 2 to 3 times a week.  

And then there are pistachios.  More sturdy soldiers to protect me.  Although all nuts aren’t exactly stingy on the calorie end, they’re great disease armor, too.  “A handful of pistachio nuts a day can help destroy bad cholesterol, ward off heart disease and prevent cancer,” according to a Penn State study.

That’s a double whammy!  The fact that they’re two of my favorite foods made this recipe easy to swallow and easy for me to tell Mr. Rosemary, “But honey, it’s healthy!!” (Well, except for the little bit of sugar.)

And it’s easy to prepare, except for the fact that I had to shell all the nuts, and broke a nail in the process.  The only thing to be careful about is to not overcook the salmon.  It’s easy to do, especially when you’re dealing with the thin pieces I’m able to get.  Unless I make a special trip to the “big city” I need to rely on frozen fish here and salmon, since it’s a firm fish, holds up to freezing really well.  For me it’s a workhorse and I’m glad it’s working hard for me in return, keeping me healthy. 

Pistachio Baked Salmon
slightly adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

1 cup salted dry roasted pistachio nuts, chopped
½ cup brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried dillweed
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
6 6-ounce (each) skinless salmon fillets

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  In a small bowl combine pistachio nuts, brown sugar, lemon juice, dillweed, black pepper and red pepper flakes.  Set aside for a minute.

Line a baking pan with foil, spray it with vegetable and place the salmon on it.  Spoon mixture onto salmon pieces and press lightly to form a crust.

Bake for 4 to 6 minutes, depending on how thick your pieces are. 

Makes 6 servings.   About 390 calories each.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

At Long Last -- Chicken Tortilla Soup

I may be the last person on earth to make chicken tortilla soup, let alone eat it.  But it was worth the wait.  (Even though I wish someone would have told me before now just how good it is.  I’ve wasted a lot of time here.)
When I announced that we were going to have chicken tortilla soup, our son-in-law said something like, “Oh, we just had that at such-and-such."  And "Didn’t we just make that at home last week, hon?” 
And silly me thought this would be novel. For me it was a tad novel because I often just build a soup with what I have on hand.This time I followed a recipe, The Pioneer Woman's.  Almost to the letter! That definitely makes it novel.  

The reason I made this soup – like the reason I make a lot of things – was not so much based on a grand plan or my weekly menu.  Nope.  It was just because I had a couple fresh jalapenos on hand.  From little jalapenos, great soups grow.

I veered off the printed recipe path only twice:  by using the two measly jalapenos I had in the fridge and by using flour instead of corn tortillas.  No, wait.  I veered three times.  I also didn't cook a chicken; I used rotisserie chicken from the supermarket. Next time I will use the corn tortillas. More authentic. And . . . I'd be following the recipe!

I didn’t realize – although I certainly should have – that the tortillas, when cut into skinny strips, would behave just like fettuccine noodles. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to amuse me.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
slightly adapted from The Pioneer Woman
3 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup diced onion
¼ cup diced red pepper
¼ cup diced green pepper
2 jalapenos, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 can (10 ounce) Rotel tomatoes and green chilies
32 ounces low sodium chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups hot water
2 cans (15 ounce) black beans, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons cornmeal
5 whole tortillas (flour or corn) cut into uniform strips, about 2 inches long 
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add onions, red and green peppers, jalapenos and minced garlic.  Stir and begin cooking, then add cumin and chili powder. Stir to combine and add the shredded chicken.  Stir again.

Add Rotel, chicken broth, tomato paste, water and beans.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer.  Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered. 

Mix cornmeal with a small amount of water to make a paste and add to the soup.  Simmer for another 30 minutes. Check seasoning, adding more chili powder if needed.  Turn off heat and allow to sit for 15 to 20 minutes.  Five minutes before serving gently stir in the tortilla strips.

Garnish with any or all of the following:  sour cream, shredded cheese, diced red onion, chopped scallions, cilantro, avocado.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meet Kelly Hunt of "Eat Yourself Skinny"

If you haven't heard of Kelly Hunt yet, you soon will.  Although she just started her blog, Eat Yourself Skinny, in March 2011, she has already garnered herself well over a thousand Google followers, hundreds of Foodbuzz friends, nearly 5000 Facebook "likes" and about 1500 Twitter followers.  That's a lot of networking!  

And it's paid off . . .  her blog has been nominated for not just one, but two, awards at the upcoming 2011 Foodbuzz Festival.  (Winners will be announced the weekend of November 5-6.)   Kelly's up for "Best New Blog" and "Best Healthy Blog."  She's also been mentioned In Cooking Light, Glamour, NYC Resident Magazine, Honest Cooking, Taste and Tell and ROS:  Your Culinary Network.  Her photographs have appeared on just about every photo site you can name!

Kelly is a fun-loving and vivacious food blogger who has a passion for cooking and eating well and right.   She's determined to show us all that cooking healthy can not only be easy but fun.  She throws herself heart and soul into all she does, from loving her Yorkie (named Ollie,just like my daughter's!) to cheering the Caps. And her enthusiasm is contagious.  It's also totally ingenuous and sincere. Take a listen . . . .
You've come a long way in a very short time, Kelly.  What do you think you've done "right?" Well, one of the most important things I think any blogger should do is first connect with other bloggers. I love to spend any free time I have during the day to comments on other blogs, find new blogs and "friend" them , as well as really getting to know people personally.  Twitter is the perfect outlet, and if you don't have a Twitter account already, you should definitely get one!  I've made such amazing bloggy friends and it makes networking so much more fun!  Also, practicing your photography and having your blog designed professionally helps a lot, too :)
Tell us a little about your day job.
Oh, if only it was cooking and photography, right??  Nope, I'm currently a full-time paralegal at a law form outside DC and I absolutely love my job!  It keeps me really busy, but it also gives me access to a computer all day, so in my spare time I'm able to find recipes, check out fantastic blogs and maybe even do a post of my own.
What do you do for lunch?
I typically bring my own lunch to work since we have a nice kitchen with a fridge and microwave so it makes trying to eat healthy pretty easy :) I always have fruit and/or carrot sticks in the fridge for a ready snack when I'm hungry as well as plenty of diet coke to give me my daily sugar fix.  {Terrible, I know.}  I usually make a salad with cranberries and walnuts with a vinaigrette or else I bring in some leftovers from the night before.  My favorite leftovers would have to be my Skinny Chicken Enchiladas. Just sayin' . . . .
How do you fit in exercise?
This is where I've had to tweak and have had trouble with since I started food blogging -- not gonna lie!  I don't know about you, but since I have a full-time job and I live in a little one-bedroom apartment with few windows, finding time to cook and photograph my food is hard!  I used to exercise about 5:30 every day after work until about 6:30 or 7. Now, I've had to switch it to finding time in the morning before work in order to get a good workout in so that I can run home and cook before the sun goes down so I can get a good picture!  {Sigh.}  It's quite the change but my body has grown accustomed to waking up at early every day and heading to the gym. Makes me feel better, too.
How do you calculate the nutrition content and the Weight Watchers points for the recipes you share?
If any of y'all know of a quicker way PLEASE let me know!  Actually, I just to it the old fashioned way by writing down the nutrition facts for each item I'm using, calculating the entire dish including all the ingredients and then dividing that by the number of servings.  And, yep,  . . . I just use my nifty, thrifty calculator to do all this.  I don;t have a special program or anything.  To calculate the Weight Watchers Points for each recipe I do use this little site that calculates both the old and new points, which is really helpful to me.
Most of us food bloggers love to watch cooking shows. Do you have a favorite show?
YES!  I sure do.  I'm completely addicted to the Food Network and my absolute favorite show is Giada at Home.  Her cooking style and the way she carries herself is so fun to watch and I love learning from her!  Also (believe it or not) I LOVE Paula Deen!  I know she's in no way considered a "healthy" cook, but her recipes are always fabulous and I love taking them and trying to find ways to make them healthier:)  It gives me a challenge and, well, she's just super fun to watch!
One of my favorite recipes from your blog is your Strawberry Bruschetta.  Name a favorite -- or two -- of yours.
Aw, thank you so much!  My favorite recipe to make {and EAT!} is my Lemon and Rosemary Chicken.  Your entire meal in ONE skillet, takes little to no effort to whip up and is so healthy and delicious!  I found this recipe through the Food Network and everyone who has tried it loves it:)  I also love my Minty Mango Salsa which tastes great on its own or even with pork chops.

Have you ever attended a food blogging conference?
Unfortunately, no, I haven't :(  I had wanted to attend this year's Foodbuzz Festival in San Francisco, but being on the East Coast in Virginia made it difficult to try and make plans ahead of time for.  I'm hoping to go to one next year, though!
How did you first learn of blogging?
Well, I've always LOVED cooking and anytime I wanted a recipes I'd just type something into Google and would come across a few food blogs here and there.  It wasn't until I found For the Love of Cooking that I became fascinated with the idea.  I couldn't stop reading all her recipes and ultimately she inspired me to do my own, just for my friends and family.  Then I stumbled upon Foodbuzz and decided to go all out and see what happens!
What's one piece of advice you'd give someone considering starting a food blog?
Network, network, NETWORK!  Making friends through food blogging is not only fun, but I feel is really essential to bringing traffic to your blog.  The more you comment on other blogs, the more people want to come and check out yours.  I also try and respond back to each and every comment I receive; that way, I get to know the people who are commenting and find new blogs to be inspired by.  I also like to practice my photography as much as possible :)  The more attractive your photos, the more acceptance you get on sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting, which allows even more exposure to your blog. See?  Easy peasy!

* * * * * * *
She sure makes it sound easy!  And she just got herself a spanky new camera, so she's planning to dial up her picture-taking a notch or two.  So, watch out, world!  Kelly's coming!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Too Many Green Tomatoes? Make Chutney

There’s something about the very word “chutney” that I’ve always thought exotic.  I suppose that’s because it was something foreign to me as a child.  We had Welch’s grape jelly (in Flintstone glasses or maybe Tom and Jerry) or we had pickle relish.  Chutney kind of mixes those together.

I do vaguely recall Christmas gift packages my parents would receive, filled with cheese, meat, crackers and a jar of something with “MajorGrey” emblazoned on it.  Since then I’ve seen jars of all kinds of chutney, including the Major, in gourmet food shops. But still I kept my distance.  It was unfamiliar.

So why make chutney?  Why now?

  1. I’ll eat anything.  (Just ask Mr. Rosemary.)
  2. I love to experiment. (Ditto.)
  3. I had a whole bunch of green tomatoes still sitting on the vine.  With a heavy frost sure to hit any day now, I needed to do something.
Enter Martha.  I often turn to one of my big bible-type cookbooks when I have a need to make an indefinable something with a particular something.  I found this Green Tomato Chutney recipe in the huge The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, The Original Classics.  That’s the orange one. I have the blue one, too; that’s the New Classics version.  And I do consult them often.

So I had all the ingredients, I knew the chutney would keep a long time and I had visions of, not sugarplums, but pretty jars of my homemade chutney as charming Christmas gifts.

This particular recipe was pretty time-consuming, though.  And I found that paring green tomatoes is a whole lot harder than with ripe tomatoes.    

My verdict?  It’s pretty good.  And I didn't waste the tomatoes.  I’ve been eating it on my morning toast, on top of a smear of mascarpone cheese.  My neighbor Dick stopped by soon after I finished making the chutney and I made him taste it.  He’s a great guinea pig.  He just took the cracker I offered  without even asking what it was and immediately declared, “Tastes like mincemeat.”  A spot on description.
Chutneys are just a condiment, and as varied as any salsa or relish.  Usually, it’s a sweet-sour mix of fruit and vegetable combinations with vinegar and sugar, cooked well down. Next time, I’d use apple instead of raisins.  (Mr. Rosemary's comment:  "I relish relish; I don't 'chutney' chutney.")

But my visions of Christmas presents of chutney?  Sorry, but not gonna happen.

Green Tomato Chutney
from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, The Original Classics

1 large bunch fresh mint, roughly chopped
4 pounds green tomatoes
2 yellow onion (1 pound), finely diced
1 ½ cup white vinegar
1 ½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup golden raisins

1. Cover and bring a large stock pot of water to a boil. Tie mint in a piece of cheesecloth.  Set aside.  Prepare an ice water bath. Set aside
2. Using a paring knife, remove the core and score the end of each tomato with a shallow “x”.  Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 seconds.  With a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the ice bath.  Using a paring knife, peel off the skin and discard. Cut the tomatoes into ¾ inch chunks and set aside.
3.  Combine the onions, vinegar, mint bundle, sugar, salt, raisins and 1 cup water in a low-sided 6-quart saucepan.  Cover and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
4.  Add the tomatoes and reduce to a simmer.  Cook, stirring frequently until the tomatoes are tender, about 1 hour.
5.  Increase the heat to high and continue cooking stirring frequently until almost all the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat and discard the mint bundle.
6.  Transfer the chutney immediately to a large bowl over the ice bath to chill. Chutney can be stored, refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 weeks.
Makes 6 half-pint jars.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tomato Soup Comfort and the Fairy Hobmother

When you’re under the weather, there’s nothing like a friendly visit from neighbors to cheer you up.  When they’re bearing gifts, even better.

When they’re bearing food gifts, well, that’s off-the-charts better.
Last week, the day after I returned home after an overnight stay in the hospital – it was a scheduled trip and everything’s okay --  I answered the door and there were my neighbors bearing a whole box of homemade goodies.  Chicken noodle soup,  vegetable soup, tomato soup, pickles and a freshly baked loaf of  wheat bread, wrapped in a linen tea towel, still warm from the oven.  (That has to be one of the world’s best aromas! No wonder real estate agents recommend baking bread before a buying prospects visit.)

The week before, my sisters had armed me with a week’s worth of freezer meals, too – a sausage barley stew, a chicken and bean stew, chili, and spaghetti sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes.  All delectable.
I was all set for a no-cooking recuperation! At least no cooking out of necessity . . . there was that pumpkin cheesecake!

Great comfort food from wonderful cooks and wonderfully generous people can’t be beat.  I’m lucky to have such wonderful people in my life.   And Mr. Rosemary has attentively nursed me back to good spirits.  (And he didn’t have to cook!)

A visit from the Fairy Hobmother was another recent surprise.  After I made a comment on Sam’s blog at My CarolinaKitchen, I received a visit from The Fairy Hobmother.  The Fairy Hobmother, who represents Appliances Online, granted me a wish with a nice gift card to Amazon.com.  Thanks, Fairy Hobmother.  The good news is that the same thing can happen to you.  All you have to do is leave a comment here and the Fairy Hobmother could visit you, too. 

A surprise visitor  bearing gifts!  Pretty comforting.

No recipe today . . . just comfort.  (And just one more fall picture, I promise.)

P.S.  I have to add that my neighbor's tomato soup was simple and delicious!  Nothing at all like the stuff we got at the school cafeteria!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pumpkin Cheesecake and Compromise

“It should either be a pumpkin pie or a cheesecake.  Just not together!

That was Mr. Rosemary’s response when I told him what I was making for his sister’s birthday.
“You made this before, didn’t you?” he asked.

I nodded demurely.

“And I didn’t like it then, did I?”

“Well,” said I.  “You didn’t rave about it.  But you ate it,” I quietly reasoned.  And, after all, it wasn’t his birthday.  (I didn’t say that last part out loud.)

“Hmmph.” he said. I took that as a concession and proceeded on my merry way in the kitchen.
The next day as he saw me unmolding the cheesecake from its springform confines, he wanted to know if I was happy with the way it turned out.
I wasn’t sure how to answer because I didn’t know yet. I daringly mixed up two different recipes, because I liked pieces of each.    The cheesecake looked good, but you (or at least, I, unconfident baker that I am) never know until you cut into a cake, even a cheesecake.  I feared it was going to be a bit dry.  Over baking (or is it under baking?) is my biggest baking sin.

So, just for insurance, I was ready with my secret weapon – a jar of caramel ice cream topping in the pantry.  I’d drizzle that on top of the cake in a spider web fashion and it would look moist and pretty and  the eye would fool the discerning tasters.

I needn’t have worried.  It wasn’t dry. It was very good.  Very, very good.  So, next time, I’ll make my own caramel sauce.

As for Mr. Rosemary’s verdict?  Since there were two cakes for the crowd that celebrated Liz’s birthday, he opted for the chocolate-mint cake.  When he heard other people comment on my cheesecake, though, he said, “Okay, I’ll try a piece.”

“Hmmm,” he said, as his face crinkled in that way I know means he likes it.  “This is really good.” --  like he didn’t believe everyone else until he tasted it himself. 

I’d call that a win, wouldn’t you?

Blending two recipes – plus winging it a little – works sometimes.  And sometimes it doesn’t,  I got lucky and have me a keeper.

My marriage of the recipes was a compromise, just like any marriage.  One called for an 8-inch pan; I only have a 10-inch springform pan.  One said bake longer at 350.  The other said to bake at 325 lower but keep in the turned off oven.  One asked for 3 eggs, one for 4. I wrote down what I did as I was doing it so, here it is . . . . . 

 Pumpkin Cheesecake
An adaptation based on combining recipes from Joy of Baking and Peter Christian’s Recipes

Serves 10-16 people, depending on how fat you cut your slices!

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
½ cup crushed ginger snap cookies (about 10)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons melted butter

For Filling:
! ½ pounds cream cheese (3 8-ounce bricks), softened
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup maple syrup
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup canned pumpkin
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
1/ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ginger
4 eggs, room temperature
¼ cup melted and cooled butter

For Topping:
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup white sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Prepare graham cracker crust and pat into a 10 inch springform pan.  Bake in oven 8 to 10 minutes.  Cool while getting the filling ready.

In mixing bowl cream well and mix on high speed the cream cheese brown sugar maple syrup and vanilla on high speed.  Then add and mix well the pumpkin, flour and spices, scraping often and incorporating all lumps. 

Then add eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition.

Finally add the butter.  Spread filling in pan.  Place an empty cake pan half filled with water on the bottom rack of oven.  (This helps add moisture to the baking process.)

Bake for 40 minutes.  Meanwhile make topping by blending the sour cream, vanilla and sugar.   Remove cake from oven and spread with the sour cream mixture.  Return to oven and turn the oven off.  Leave cake there with door closed for another 40 minutes.  Remove from oven to rack and cool.  When cooled completely, refrigerate overnight or at least 4 to 6 hours.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Indian Summer Roasted Corn and Pepper Salad

What an absolutely gorgeous Indian summer weekend we just had here in western Pennsylvania!  Sunny skies.  A kaleidoscope of color. I wish I could have just freeze framed it.

We almost felt we were cheated out of this all too short season by some premature chilly weather last week.  (We cleared slush off the car one morning.)   “Isn’t this still September?” I asked.  But then we were blessed with four straight days of this glorious weather.  Can’t complain.

And it called for the perfect Indian summer treat, one that still celebrated the bounty of fresh harvest. The colors just mimic all the bright colors of the weekend.
I'd frozen leftover roasted corn from a Labor Day picnic and had just roasted some peppers.  All the makings of a great pairing. This was a pretty mild salad and I’d spice it up more next time --  jalapeno, maybe, or cumin, or just a dash of sriracha or Tabasco.

Roasted Corn and Pepper Salad

3 cups roasted corn, cut from cob
2 cups roasted red pepper, diced
½ cup scallion, sliced
½ red onion, diced
¼ cup parsley
For dressing:
½ cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon pepper

Combine vegetables and parsley in bowl.  Whisk remaining ingredients, pour over vegetables and toss lightly to combine.  Serve chilled.

And here was the big finish.  I took this picture Sunday evening from our hilltop.  It was breathtaking in real life.