Friday, January 25, 2013

Discovering the Versatile Fennel | Roasted Fennel with Parmesan

I go through food phases once in a while. Or maybe they're kicks. I don't know. I just know that every once in a while, I latch onto one particular food and cook the death out of it. There was the bean phase -- cannelini, black, pintos, garbanzos. And  then peppers: jalapenos, poblanos, serranos, up and down the Scoville scale. And we can't forget the squash phase.

Now it's fennel's turn in the hopper. I've cooked with fennel a lot, the seeds at least. They are a standard when I cook with sausage (which is often, since Mr. Rosemary thinks it's a food group unto its own.) And I add it to stews and soups. But the whole thing? Nope. Never.

The reason is that it's usually not readily available around here. Until lately. Now, I seem to find it every time I shop. It's partly the season; partly due to the speed of commercial transit in this country.

It all started at Christmas time. I was planning on serving simple roasted vegetables -- broccoli and cauliflower -- to go along with the fussier pork Wellington. (A post for another day.)  I happened upon a couple bulbs of fennel and spontaneously decided that roasted fennel would go on the menu, too, as I was expecting other enthusiastic taste tasters for dinner.

"What's that?," asked granddaughter Emma.

"You've had that before," answered Uncle Dan. "It's fennel."

"Hmm, . . . . looks different," she said.

It was probably because I'd sliced it vertically instead of chopped. But if I was serving a different vegetable, I was looking for some "Ta-da" drama!

It was a surprising success at dinner. I delighted in it, everyone at least sampled it along with all our other goodies, and Emma had seconds.

Since then, I've purchased fennel a number of times and have added it to stews, soups and casseroles  chopped it into salads, and roasted it some more.

Fennel has a unique taste. Some say it tastes like licorice, but I think it's more of a cross between celery and onion, with a slightly sweet cast. I read an article on Culinate that described fennel as "a wispy, aristocratic" vegetable. Pretty poetic. The fronds of the fennel bulb resemble dill and can be used chopped finely like dill in just about anything you use dill in.

It is remarkably versatile and I found another article in which the cook/author outlines "Twelve Ways to Cook Fennel, " a very helpful resource. And just today I found a blog post on Stacey Snacks with a recipe for a fennel gratin, the next thing on my fennel crusade.

If you haven't tried it yet, you'll be surprised, especially roasted.

Roasted Fennel with Parmesan
only slightly adapted from  Giada Di Laurentis
(I sliced it vertically; her recipe said to slice it horizontally!)

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 fennel bulbs, cut horizontally into 1/3-inch thick slices, fronds reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup freshly shredded Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Lightly oil the bottom of a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. (I lightly sprayed foil with olive oil.) Arrange the fennel in the dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then with the Parmesan. Drizzle with the oil. Bake until the fennel is fork-tender and the top is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Chop enough fennel fronds to equal 2 teaspoons, then sprinkle over the roasted fennel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adult Treats: Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Cheesecake Pops

I'd say these pops were kid pleasers, but -- frankly -- I don't know many kids who are cheesecake lovers. In fact, I've learned that there really are -- I shudder to think! -- people in the world who don't like cheesecake! And I've met quite a few people who don't like peanut butter.

I have, however,  met very few people who don't like love chocolate. Milk, dark, Dutch, semi-sweet, double, white -- doesn't matter. It's one of the reasons we can pack on the pounds around the holidays, why we love to be treated at Valentine's Day (did someone say aphrodisiac?), why we cram Easter baskets with chocolate everything.

But I've never, ever, ever met anyone who didn't think eating something on a stick was just plain fun. Instant party!

So when I was wandering around looking for something new to do with peanut butter and chocolate  these pops immediately caught my attention. When I read through the recipe and saw that they were square pops, not round, I thought my clumsy self just might be able to dip those babies in chocolate without flubbing them up too badly.

(Why I was looking for something new to do with peanut butter and chocolate in the first place, I don't know. Not when I already have this recipe, and this. And probably tons more in my cookbook collections. Must be a disease.)

I was right . . . . a success on all fronts. Great combination of peanut butter and chocolate, cream cheese, portion control.

Couple cautions: As I read the recipe, I also read some reviews. Because of them, I used a larger pan than the 8 x 8 originally called for. That made smaller pieces; this is very rich. I will make them again, and next time I will roll the pops in nuts. A minor decadent touch.

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Cheesecake Pops
from Food Network Kitchens

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups creamy peanut butter
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
Special Equipment:
Wooden pop sticks

For the cheesecake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Line a 13 x 9 pan with parchment paper letting long flaps overlap on each side. Spritz with nonstick spray.
Break up the brown sugar to remove all lumps. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until very smooth. Add the cream and beat slowly; then add the yolks and vanilla mixing until just combined. Gently stir in peanut butter. 
Pour and evenly spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Open the oven to release some heat, then lower the temperature to 200 degrees F. Continue to bake the cheesecake until the outside is set but the center is still loose, for about 45 minutes. Turn off the oven, and cool cheesecake in the oven for 45 more minutes. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.
Lift cheesecake from the pan by lifting up thepaper. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut into squares, about 1-1/2 inches. Stick a wooden pop stick halfway into each bar and freeze for one hour.
Meanwhile, put the shortening and chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Bring a saucepan filled with an inch or so of warm water to a very slow simmer; set the bowl over, but not toughing, the water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until melted and smooth
Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. (Or put the chocolate and shortening in a microwave safe bowl and melt at 50 percent power in the microwave until soft, about one minute. Stir, and continue to heat until completely melted, about 1 minute more.
Dip the pops in the chocolate mixture and stand on waxed paper to set, about 5 minutes. Chill before serving.

If you really want to be decadent, you could, as The Food Network Kitchens suggest, coat the pops in nuts or candies, too. Peanuts would be great, I think, but I was already feeling way decadent.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Too Many Bananas? Banana Nut Pound Cake

Over Christmas, my sister, who never seems to visit without bearing gifts, whatever the time of year,  brought me some great little -- literally little -- bananas. Two bunches. One regular yellow colored;  the other bunch, red. They were about half the size of a normal banana and just the right size for me. It's all about portion control.

Still, after a week of eating them daily*, I  wasn't fast enough and they were starting to get pretty ripe. While the baby bananas really taste no different than their regular sized cousins, they, sensitive souls that they are, do tend to bruise more easily and their skin is a bit thinner, so they were getting soft faster too. I simply couldn't gorge myself on all that potassium that fast. And Mr. Rosemary wasn't a big help in the banana eating, not when there was peanut butter fudge around.


Everyone knows what to do with ripe bananas, right? Make banana bread, of course. But I wanted to do something different and recalled this cake from the December 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. It was the grand prize winner of reader recipe winners for the year.
Ever wonder why a pound cake is called a pound cake? Because, traditionally, anyhow, the cake used a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. But, as Wikipedia taught me, as long as the 1:1:1:1 ratio is followed, it's a pound cake. I also read there that in Mexico, the cake is called a panque con nueces, a pound cake with walnuts. Maybe that's what I should have called my adaptation, because I swapped walnuts for pecans, only because I'm cheap frugal.

This isn't an authentic pound cake. It doesn't use a whole pound of anything. But it does have that nice rich, dense texture of a pound cake.  The banana flavor is subtle, not overpowering at all. Maybe it's the bourbon that does it!

Banana Nut Pound Cake
slightly adapted from Better Homes and Gardens, December 2012
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 medium bananas, mashed (about 1 cup) -- or about 5 baby bananas!
1/4 cup bourbon, or low-fat milk -- I used bourbon!
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted -- I used toasted walnuts
Powdered sugar for topping the cake after baking -- I drizzled with a simple glaze of confectioner's sugar thinned with milk and maple syrup

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit
Grease and flour a 10 inch fluted baking pan and set aside.  Combine the first three dry ingredients and set aside.
In a stand mixer, mix the cream cheese and butter until combined. slowly add the sugar  beating about 7 minutes or until light.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating 1 minute after each egg.  In a bowl, combine the bananas, bourbon and vanilla. Alternatively, add a little flour mixture to the cream cheese and butter, then a little banana mixture until; beat on low to medium speed, after each addition until combined. Stir in nuts by hand. Spread batter evenly in pan and bake for about 80 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (or glaze). Serves 12, at least!

*One of my favorite things to do with bananas is to spread a slightly warmed tortilla, a white one, with peanut butter, then lay a banana over it and roll it up for a great breakfast. Protein, fruit, carb --  all wrapped in a healthy, handy container.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lobster Mac 'n Cheese: A Great Marriage

If you had any notion of losing weight as one of your New Year resolutions, maybe you should stop reading.  On the other hand, you probably have great will power and can read on, bookmark the recipe and save it for a later day. (Valentine’s Day dinner, perhaps?)

Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese has to be one of the most decadent comfort foods any chef ever dreamed about.
I have to admit, when I first heard about it, I thought it a ridiculous idea.

After all, what could be more comforting than a creamy, cheesy sauce wrapping itself around pasta, topped with crunchy, buttery bread crumbs?

And lobster has always been viewed as luxury seafood. Dunking hunks of the sweet meat into melted butter is just delectable. Why would anyone want to marry these two? They were meant to live separate lives!

Or so I thought, until I had to satisfy my curiosity and tasted it while on vacation in Maine last September. I was hooked.

I liked it so much I end up “tasting” it three different times on that trip. Then I ate it at a restaurant back home. And then, finally, I had to make it at home.

Despite the fact that lobster prices have been at an all-time low this past year, it’s still pretty pricey, especially for inlanders like me. It is a good way to stretch a luxury meat, though, and make humble macaroni and cheese a company-worthy dish.

I was surprised to learn that lobster wasn’t always viewed as something special. Although lobster was in abundance to early American colonists, they didn’t care for it, preferring venison and game fowl instead, foods they were used to.

As far as macaroni and cheese goes, Thomas Jefferson is generally credited with bringing the idea of cheesy pasta back to America after spending time in France

Chefs and food lovers are always looking for ways to twist classics and put their own imprints on traditional dishes.  Lobster macaroni and cheese became popular in trendy restaurants within the past five years or so.

And now it’s become a new standard on many a restaurant menu. I have to admit that this marriage of seafood and cheese is one that just may have staying power.

Using a fun shaped-pasta makes this dish even more special. (I used a ribbed elbow, called pipe rigate, but any small shell or elbow noodle will be just fine.) 

I also didn’t want the cheese sauce to overpower the lobster, so I used mild cheeses and used clam juice in the sauce to heighten the seafood flavor. 

It’s a marriage made in . . .  well, New England!

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8-10
16 ounces pasta
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 cup dry seasoned bread crumbs
1⁄4 cup flour
2 cups milk
2 cups clam juice
8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
4 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded
8 ounces cream cheese
3 tablespoons Madeira or marsala wine, optional
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Meat from 2 lobster tails, cooked, or about 2 cups lobster meat

Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pan of water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, cutting a couple minutes from the recommended time on the package. Drain pasta and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in microwave or in a pan over low heat and mix in the dry bread crumbs. Set aside.
In a large saucepan or stock pot, melt remaining butter over medium heat.
Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour mixture is smooth and just starting to darken.
Slowly stir in the milk and the clam juice and simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce has thickened, about ten minutes.
Remove pan from heat, and stir in 2-1/2 cups of the shredded cheese, the cream cheese, and the Madeira, if using.
Add cayenne and nutmeg. Stir until cheese is melted and incorporated, and adjust salt and pepper, as needed.
Add the lobster meat.
Add cooked pasta to cheese sauce.
Transfer mixture to a 9 x 13 baking dish.
Sprinkle with buttered breadcrumbs. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.