Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I'm Learning From Cooking Channel

I had a eureka moment last week while I was plopped in front of the TV for my Cooking Channel marathon.  Although I am reserving judgment of the new programs until I have seen them a few times, "Chuck's Day Off" shows promise.  
Late one evening, I caught myself looking up from my computer to watch Chuck in action.  Set in his restaurant kitchen, Chuck moves fast, as does the pace of the show.  In this episode, he was making dinner for a few firemen who saved his restaurant from incineration.  Unfortunately, I missed that story because I didn't start paying attention until he started cooking a standing rib roast encased in salt and potatoes I actually make - oven fries.
Oven fries are a less fattening alternative to french fries and are good when you are trying to cut calories but you crave a spud.  They also make less of a greasy mess, and since I am the cook and the maid around here, I can appreciate that. 

So why does this photo show both oven-fried and deep-fried potatoes?  I must be a glutton for greasy punishment, that's why.  No, my skinny kid likes them better submerged in fat, and he needs the calories.

I have seen several TV chefs prepare oven fries, but I don't recall as part of the prep the instructions to soak them in cold water and to keep rinsing them until the water runs clear, ridding the potatoes of starch.  Turns out this step is crucial to crisping the fries.  That was my big beef with oven fries - sometimes they were boring slabs of textureless potato. 

I followed Chuck's method and what a difference a soak makes!  Perhaps you already knew this trick, but if not, you might want to give it a try.  These were the best oven fries I have ever made.

Crispy Oven Fries
(Thanks to Chuck Hughes)

4 large russet potatoes, cut into steak fry thickness
3 to 4 T olive oil
Pinch of sea or kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Dash of smoked paprika
Dash of steak spice seasoning

Heat oven to 425 degrees.
  1. Cut potatoes into thick slices.  Place in a large bowl and cover with cold water.
  2. Drain the potatoes and then repeat the process of soaking and draining until the water in the bowl is clear.   Just keep running water over them; it's a fast process.
  3. Drain potatoes and pat dry with paper towel.  Drying them is important.
  4. Arrange potatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Do not overlap potatoes.  Use two sheets if necessary.  If you use two sheets, rotate them on the shelves of your oven halfway through the cooking time.
  5. Drizzle with oil; sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika.  Use your (clean) hands to mix it all up.
  6. Bake 40 minutes or until golden and crispy.
  7. Sprinkle with additional seasonings.  Chuck suggests steak spice.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mints at the Ready, It's Pesto Time

Today, I figured I'd do a total flip from the figure-friendly mango muffin post to this fat-laden, diet-killer pesto recipe.  It's a great way to use that thriving basil in the garden.  When you make pesto, you need a ton of basil and this recipe requires four to five cups. 

To me, pesto feels like an indulgence.  Maybe that's due to its velvety richness.  Perhaps it's knowing the calorie count in a tablespoon.  Whatever the reason, the ingredients - certainly not budget busters - are basic:  basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese and, typically, pine nuts.

I like everything about pesto, except the wicked garlic breath that lingers throughout the next day (or days).  Hubmeister and I both appreciate garlic, which could be the secret for a happy marriage. Anyway, don't plan to eat this the night before your dentist appointment, an up-close-and-personal meeting, plane travel, or close encounters with plants that you don't want to see wilt.  It may, however, chase away vampires.

That said, it's a breeze to prepare, especially if you have a food processor; it freezes easily; a little goes a long way; and it's versatile.  You can liven up sauces, smear it on pizza, add some umph to hors d'oeuvres such as bruschetta, spread it on sandwiches, or simply toss it with hot pasta.

I have modified Ina Garten's recipe, using less olive oil than she requires.  I couldn't bring myself to use all of the 1 1/2 cups of oil she suggests in her Back to Basics cookbook, but I copied her blend of walnuts and pine nuts.  I combined her recommendations with those from Southern Living, and this is the resulting recipe:

Homemade Pesto
1/4 C walnuts, toasted
1/4 C pine nuts, toasted
8 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 to 5 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 C good olive oil
1 C freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Place the walnuts, pine nuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Process for 30 seconds.  Add the basil leaves, salt and pepper.  With processor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube and process until the pesto is finely pureed.  Add the Parmesan and puree for a minute.   Scrape down the sides, give it another whirl and, presto, you've got pesto!

Serve, or spoon mixture into ice-cube trays, and freeze.  Place cubes in freezer bags and store in freezer up to 6 months.   Pop one out in the middle of winter and remember the record heat, the crappy economy, oil ruining the Gulf of Mexico...oh....I mean, remember the lovely scents of summer.  That's better.

Makes about 2 cups.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Do You Know the Mango Muffin Man?

When we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in the late '60s, my Northeastern family was introduced to the mango.  Migrating from Maryland, we had never seen, let alone tasted, a mango.  In South Florida, however, this oblong fruit was weighing down trees all over the neighborhood. 

My first fruity memory was my mother warning that mangos could cause an allergic reaction in people sensitive to the peel.  Of course, being the neurotic child I was, when I tasted a mango I immediately imagined I felt sick, started scratching, and swore off mangos for life.  Although still neurotic, I can proudly say that I have conquered my fear of fruit.  Yeesh! 

Mom was right, though.  A quick mango search reveals that the peel contains urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy and poison sumac, which can cause contact dermatitis in some people.   Okay... itchy, but not life threatening.  

I think the first time I considered eating a mango again was when I received one in a bag of produce from a fruit-and-vegetable coop to which I belonged in Georgia.   Among the many benefits of being in the coop was never knowing what the haul would contain.  Every two weeks I would receive two brown grocery bags full of fresh fruits and vegetables from the state farmers' market.  The contents depended on which neighbor was buying that week.  Somebody in the group liked mangos, which led me to the brave new world of mango experimentation.  What a breakthrough.  It only took 32 years.

Mangos are a bit awkward to cut up due to their oblong, fibrous stone, which is located in an off-center spot in the fruit.  Other than that, they are easy to manage.   I take off the peel with a vegetable peeler - and I live to tell about it.

                                This mango muffin has a crispy, sugary top.

Although I don't like them enough to buy them to eat out of hand, I do enjoy them mixed in salsas and baked goods.  Below is a recipe for my favorite muffins, incorporating mango and cardamom.  Cardamom is a warm, aromatic spice native to India and is often used in Indian cooking; since the mango is the national fruit of India, it's not surprising that these two flavors were combined, achieving delectable results.  A refreshing change from the usual banana or blueberry muffin fare, this Cooking Light recipe is also figure friendly - if you pace yourself.

                               The yellow chunks are mango explosions.                     

Mango Cardamom Muffins
(Cooking Light Annual Recipes, 2001)

2 C all-purpose flour
2/3 C sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1  C chopped mango
3/4 C low-fat buttermilk
1/4 C butter or margarine, melted
1 tsp. vanilla
1 large egg, lightly beaten
cooking spray
2 T. sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  1. Combine first six ingredients.
  2. Stir mango into dry ingredients.  Make a well in the center.
  3. Combine buttermilk, butter, vanilla and egg; add to the dry ingredients.  Mix just until moistened.
  4. Grease muffin cups, and spoon in batter.  Sprinkle tops with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
  5. Bake 23 minutes, or until muffins spring back in the center.  Remove from pan and cool on rack.
Makes 9 muffins.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Answers to Your Rotten Questions

Hmmm....that tahini on the top shelf, hiding in the back of the refrigerator, when did I buy that?  When was the last time I made hummus?  Good question.  Also questionable is where in the heck is the expiration date on the can and does tahini ever go bad when refrigerated? 

Welcome to an exciting Saturday afternoon of cleaning out the refrigerator.  Suddenly, it occurred to me to go to a nifty Web site that answers questions about how rotten your food really is -

What an ingenious idea! How many times have you wondered whether you should chuck the eggs, or deli meat, or that open package of bacon? How about how long you should keep unopened or opened sour cream after the expiration date?  Isn't that stuff sour anyway?  What about yogurt or buttermilk? 

You know you are curious, so click on this handy dandy site and ask away.  You might save yourself and your unsuspecting family several unwanted trips to the bathroom.  After all, hugging should be reserved for people and pets, not porcelain bowls.

And the tahini?  Well, evidently I stumped them because it isn't listed.  Somebody let me know,  please.  On second thought, maybe I'll just buy a new can.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

It was like a reunion of old friends.  I flipped it on and there they were - my familiar cooking buddies Sara and Mario - patiently explaining how to use a Ziploc bag to stuff eggs with tuna and capers; artfully presenting skewers of spicy grilled chicken by inserting them into oranges; and providing history and geography lessons on the regions of Italy, interspersed with stories about why the southern part of the "boot" has more African culinary influences than Milan.

Oh, how I have missed them!  Mario Batali and Sara Moulton were my TV mentors when I began my home cooking journey 15 years ago in Jacksonville, Fla.  After tucking the kids into bed, I would treat myself to a cold beer and watch Sara at 10 p.m. on Food Network's "Cooking Live."  Mario and Sara had no stylin' wardrobes, tired "bam" shtick, tight sweaters over big boob jobs, or slick kitchen paraphernalia.  They were just pleasant personalities sharing their impressive intellect and talent with the home viewer.

Now, I can watch them again on the new Cooking Channel.  Cooking Channel launched in June, right when I started this blog, so I haven't had much time to check it out - until this week when I finally found it on my cable.  A sister channel of the Food Network, it is a mixture of old and new shows.  Did you know that Padma Lakshmi, of "Top Chef, " had her own cooking show called "Padma's Passport?"  That was news to me. 

My favorite food show revisit has to be "The French Chef," not necessarily for what Julia Child is cooking but for her bull-in-a-china-shop style and brutal, sometimes politically incorrect, honesty.  The other day she was demonstrating how to butter and flour a cake pan and she hilariously threw all the excess flour onto the floor because she "had a self-cleaning kitchen."  It was the antithesis of a Martha Stewart moment. 

On "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home" on PBS last weekend, she told Jacques Pepin that she hated the blue potatoes he was using.  In the same show, he said a dish might not be appropriate for vegetarians and she said she just wouldn't invite them to the meal.   I think I may need to record Julia for the comedic elements alone.  A couple of her shows air weekends on PBS and the one on Cooking Channel airs at 2 p.m. weekdays. 

Yet another oldie Cooking Channel has dredged up is "The Galloping Gourmet."  I remember my mom watching nutty Graham Kerr and my brothers mercilessly making fun of him.  Unlike Julia's like-it-or-lump-it charm, the giddy galloper's bizarre routine does not stand the test of time.  What was with the goofy flirtation with the ladies in the audience and the cocktail party atmosphere?   The '70s was an odd decade.  If you survived the '70s and your kids think it sounds like a cool time, put them in front of Graham Kerr for a few minutes.

I could go on and on....   Flip on the Cooking Channel and see for yourself.  Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Quest for Home Pizza Perfection

We love pizza.  Doesn't everyone?  Occasionally I make it, but there is no replicating pizza-parlor pizza in a home oven.  Despite the fact that I use a pizza stone, which I preheat in a blistering 500-degree oven for 30 minutes, I still can't create the mouthwatering crust that we get from our favorite pizza joints. 

New York-style pizza is our favorite and the place we like that's closest to our house is 20 minutes away, and that's without traffic.   When we are really in the mood for a good pie but don't want to make that trek up the highway, I pull out the pizza artillery and give my home pizza another shot. 

Last night I made Emeril's crust, which got five stars on Food Network's Web site, and Bobby Flay's quick pizza sauce, which I pulled out of Parade in April. 

The crust gets points for ease because it is food processor friendly.  With only a few kneads required after dumping it out of the work bowl, it was done in five minutes.  An hour later, it had morphed into a fluffy mountain of flour and yeast and it rolled out like a dream.  It still isn't the Holy Grail of crust that is my goal, but it is light and toothsome.  I will make it again, perhaps trying bread flour next time because in his Parade article the King of Throwdowns said using all-purpose flour produces a chewy crust, whereas bread flour yields crispier results.   Wish I had read that last night.  Could this be the answer?

I can tell you that Bobby's pizza sauce was a hit, and I have enough stashed in the freezer for three more pizzas. 

One tip I have picked up that has improved my tomato-based sauces is to buy San Marzano tomatoes. 

They are sweet orbs of lusciousness from Italy.   If you buy them, make sure they are the real deal.  Some impostors claim to be San Marzano tomatoes, but they are not imported from Italy and don't have the seal of authenticity. 

                                          See the stamp?  These are certified.            

The real things are also more expensive but worth it.  More mainstream grocery stores seem to carry them now, and lately I have discovered them at the larger Publix markets.

The best part about making your own pizza is the ability to control the quality of the ingredients.  I didn't have fresh mozzarella for last night's pie, but that cheesy treat ups the flavor profile by a mile.  The same is true for the sauce - using great-quality tomatoes, red pepper flakes that haven't been sitting in your pantry for a year, and freshly chopped herbs and garlic will make the pizza pop. 

The quest continues, but at least the search is fun.

Pizza Dough
(Emeril Lagasse, Food Network)

1 C warm water, about 110 degrees
1 packet dry yeast
1 T. sugar
2 T. olive oil
2 1/4 C flour (may use a little more or less) I used more when I kneaded it a few times
1/2 tsp. salt

To the bowl of an electric mixer (or food processor) fitted with a dough hook, add the warm water, yeast and sugar; stir to dissolve the yeast.  Add the olive oil, flour and salt.  Process until the dough comes together and climbs up the dough hook (attachment).  Remove the dough from the mixer (processor) and, on a floured surface, form into a smooth round.   Place the dough into a greased bowl and cover with a clean towel.  Place in a warm, draft-free place for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the dough doubles in size.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll to desired size.

Easy Pizza Sauce
(Bobby Flay, in Parade)

2 T. olive oil
1 small Spanish onion, finely diced (I used Vidalia)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of red chili flakes
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes with juices, pureed
2 T. fresh basil, chopped
Salt and black pepper

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add onions and cook until soft, 5 minutes.  Add garlic and chili flakes; cook 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, increase heat to high, and cook, stirring occasionally until thickened, 20 minutes.  Stir in basil; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Notes:  I like lots of seasoning in my sauce so I also added 1 T. chopped fresh oregano and a teaspoon of dried Italian seasoning.

Tomato and Cheese Pizza
(My version, with Bobby Flay's help)

Heat oven to 500 degrees, with a 16-inch-diameter pizza stone on the lowest shelf position, for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough to desired size and transfer it to a pizza peel that has been sprinkled with cornmeal.  This allows the pizza to slide off the peel and onto the stone without incident (I have had a couple ugly incidents).  If you don't have a peel, you can place the dough on parchment paper.  Ladle on some sauce, not too much or the crust will be soggy; eyeball it, about 3/4 cup.  Sprinkle on the cheese and other toppings, slide the pizza off the peel and onto the stone (or slide the parchment paper and pizza onto the stone) and bake until crust is golden and cheese is bubbly, 10 minutes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Peachy Keen Cobbler

In my vast (gulp) food TV-watching experience, I have found that two things spell certain doom for cheftestants:  lousy desserts and giving up on a dish that they know is screwed up.  As celebrity chef Tom Colicchio lectured one chef on a recent episode of "Top Chef" -  if something isn't working out, a good chef finds a way to make it work.  That was probably right before he told the guy to high-tail it out of the Bravo studios.

This rebuke occurred to me Saturday when, while chatting with the hubmeister and drinking cheap wine, I mistakenly dumped all the sugar into the filling of the bourbon peach cobbler instead of dividing it between the dry and wet ingredients as instructed in the recipe.  Thanks to that TV flashback, I didn't throw out the whole mess as I might have in the past.  After all, I had just spent several minutes standing at the sink peeling eight peaches with a paring knife and there was no way I was wasting that time and effort or the Maker's Mark I poured into that sugary peach mixture.

My remedy:  I didn't add the 1/2 cup of sugar that was to be mixed with the flour for the topping.  I figured the whole recipe would still have 3/4 cup of sugar, only in different places.  The top would be more biscuit-like and the filling would be super sweet but  balanced hopefully by the savory topping. 

That's what happened and the result was a mixture of gooey, peachy goodness topped with a golden "biscuity" crust.  The only taste that may have been affected was the bourbon.  The flavor didn't come through; maybe the sugar overwhelmed it.  Guess I'll have to make it again....mmmmm.

I hope you learn from my sugary mistake when you make this yummy Tyler Florence recipe, and next time you mess up a dish - whether it's because the kids are pestering you for homework help, the baby is crying, or you simply are enjoying the company of folks around you - resist the temptation to trash it.  Stop for a minute and consider how to fix it.  I bet you will. 

Bourbon Peach Cobbler
(Food Network Magazine, July/August 2010)

8 peaches
1/4 C bourbon
3/4 C sugar (divided!), plus more for sprinkling
2 T. cornstarch
1 tsp. ground cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter
3/4 C heavy cream, plus more for brushing
1 quart vanilla bean ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine peaches, bourbon, 1/4 cup sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat.

Sift the flour, remaining 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder and salt into a bowl.  Cut 1 1/2 sticks of butter into small pieces; add to the flour mixture and cut it in with a pastry blender or your hands until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.  Pour in the cream and mix just until the dough comes together.  Don't overwork; the dough should be slightly sticky but manageable.

Melt the remaining 1/2 stick butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the peach mixture and cook gently until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Transfer the mixture to a 2-quart baking dish (or leave in the skillet).  Drop the dough by tablespoonfuls over the warm peaches.  (There can be gaps because the dough will puff up and spread as it bakes.)  Brush the top with some heavy cream and sprinkle with sugar and a little extra cinnamon. 

Bake in the oven on a baking sheet (to catch any drips) until the cobbler is browned and the fruit is bubbling, 40 to 45 minutes.  Serve warm with ice cream.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Went to a Garden Pity Party

It's been a disappointing year for tomatoes at our house.  This is the lonely fellow that's managed to make it in the past few weeks. 

The Lone Survivor

The tomatoes we have produced were full of splits, which is too bad because the flavor was good.   Unlike last year, when we had a bumper crop in the drought, this year we've had the usual Florida afternoon gullywashers and the 'maters are a-sufferin'.  You'd think the opposite would be the case, but controlling the water seems to work best for us.   Yeah, we garden well in droughts.  Go figure.

Hubmeister first planted a vegetable garden when we lived in the Atlanta area.  We couldn't believe the stuff we could grow in that mixture of red clay and potting soil.  To cheer me up after moving here, he immediately planted some herbs.  There's nothing like the scent of fresh basil to put you in a good mood. 


Then he discovered the Earth Box.  The Earth Box is a convenient little gardening system that has a self-watering feature.  You fill up a reservoir with water and it seeps into the soil all day.  No more standing in the yard, cursing the hose as it coils around your leg while your head gets buzzed by man-eating mosquitoes.  Last year we put our tomato plants in them, and they did so well that we did it again this year. 

                                          Tomato plants in the Earth Box

We also planted all the herbs in an Earth Box, except for rosemary, which is still cranking in the ground. 



Right now the oregano and basil are doing okay, but poor thyme, which started out gangbusters, is down to a sun-fried nest of weed; the parsley never grew after I used it all; and the tomato plants are just plain sad. 

Guess which one's the thyme

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Chef Full of Contrasts

If you read yesterday's post about the beet salad, you'll know why I am sending out the link to this article. 

It explains in a nutshell why I am drawn to that dish, and in general, why we find certain dishes so appealing.  The marinara that I liked at Bernini because of the hint of sweetness?  Explained! 

Understanding the fundamentals of opposing flavors can't help but make us better cooks.  My compliments to the chef on a great article.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Beet It

Remember beets?  The only person in my family who liked them when I was growing up was my mother.   She ate them out of a jar and probably does to this day.  Pickled purple disks in a jar were a major food gross-out to us kids and to my dad, who eats almost anything. 

I never saw a beet in its natural state until recent years, when the ever-so-saccharin Neelys from the Food Network made a salad that prompted me to buy them.  If you aren't familiar with the much-maligned beet, it's a root vegetable that resembles a turnip or rutabaga but has a long, leafy top.  The greens are full of nutrients and can be eaten, but I usually cut them off at the bulb and throw them out.  I thought I might actually do something with them this time, so I saved them and put them in the fridge.   Let me know if you have a use for beet greens (other than tossing them on the compost pile).

It's a shame I missed out on all those good beet-eating years because now I have discovered how wonderful this low-calorie, folate-filled vegetable can be.  If the thought of eating beets makes you squirm, you might want to give them another shot by buying them fresh and roasting them in the oven.  It brings out their sweetness.  I really like them this way, as does my previously beet-hating sister.

My neighbor's mom, a delightful Brazilian grandma and fellow beet lover, shared with me another preparation that's delicious.  She boils them in sugar, vinegar and water, slices them and stores them in the fridge in their cooking liquid.  They keep for quite a while that way.  Watch for that recipe in a future beety post. 

I simply wrap them in foil and put them in a 425-degree oven for an hour until they are soft enough to slip a knife into.  I let them cool,  peel off the skin with a paring knife and watch my hands turn - yessirree - beet red.  The counter, the cutting board and anything else within staining distance will turn that color, too.   You've been warned.  Put on the Hazmat suit to protect your clothes.

The aforementioned Neely concoction is one of my all-time favorite salads.  It paid to watch those two fawning all over each other the day they made this dish.  So simple that I never had to look up the recipe, it's addictive due to its balance of bitter and sweet flavors and crunchy and tender textures.   I am not listing measurements because you can add as much or as little of each ingredient as you prefer. 

Beet and Arugula Salad
(Inspired by the give-me-some-sugar schmaltz of "Down Home with the Neelys" on Food Network)

Bunch of arugula
Red onion, sliced
Roasted beet, sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
Pecans, toasted and chopped
Goat cheese, crumbled
Balsamic vinegar
Olive oil

Toss together the first five ingredients, then splash with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper.

Note:  A colorful medley of ingredients, this salad is pretty served in a glass bowl.  Take the time to toast the pecans (or walnuts).  It adds more nutty flavor and only takes 5 minutes in a dry, medium-hot skillet.  I know this step must be important because the judges on one of the food competition shows looked incredulous and then glared at one of the chefs in utter disdain when he said he didn't toast the nuts in his recipe.  Uh-oh.  I don't know whether he got chopped or had to pack his knives and go, but it was one of the two and his nuts were then toasted.  (Sorry.  I can't help myself.  I'll stop now.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Big Blog, Little Blog

Just when I entered the food blog world, CNN decided to jump in, too. 

Scrolling through my blog reads today, I was informed by smart and witty food writer John Kessler at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that CNN has joined the gazillions of food informants crowding the Web.   As I snap point-and-shoot photos of granola and try to figure out how to get my little blog indexed by the search engines, CNN has launched a powerhouse blog with amazing photographers and reporters covering food the world over. 

Check it out.  Dubbed Eatocracy, it's a juicy morsel developed by two creative women with a sense of humor.   I am adding it to my list of fun reads.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Lotta Ricotta

While trying to clean out the backlog of periodicals piling up in my house, I came across a bunch of Martha Stewart Living magazines that I received last year.  Little did I know when I ordered a Martha flower arrangement online that I would be inundated with complimentary copies of her magazine. 

A beautifully photographed publication, it's a hoot to leaf through just to see Martha's flagrant cross-promotion of her endless products and business ventures.  Omnimedia is an understatement.  The funniest part of the magazine, however, is her calendar for the month; by calendar, I mean Martha's "personal" calendar listing her planned activities each day.  It's at the front of every issue.

Take, for instance (and this is one I pulled randomly this minute), January 13, 2010 -  "Freeze cubes of white vinegar, and grind them in garbage disposal to freshen (citrus peel and hot water work well, too.) " Thanks for the tip, Martha.  Yes, I can see her jamming those frozen vinegarsicles down the sink and grinding them to an acidic pulp, and it better happen on January 13 or heads will roll!  Who believes this stuff?   Here's another good one:  January 31 - "Pulse bread (or uncooked white rice) in coffee grinder to remove residue."  FYI, she spent the day doing that and making chicken soup.  Wow, if a media mogul like Martha can find the time to do this, then the rest of us must be serious losers.  Send me another magazine to rub it in.

But I digress.  Here's the point.  I have a hard time throwing out recipes, and this is one I yanked from Martha's magazine before it hit the recycling bin.  It sounded easy and interesting and lighter than a regular cheesecake.   It was!   A nice summer dessert, it is deliciously light and fluffy, thanks to those whipped egg whites.  I prepared a fresh strawberry syrup to top it, but Hubmeister said it was good enough on its own and didn't need it.  Our teenage son said this cake is so eggy, it tastes like sweet quiche.  He piled on the strawberries.  Oh, well.  You can't please everyone.  At least Hubmeister, I and the all-knowing Martha like it.  You be the judge.

Ricotta Cheesecake
(Martha Stewart Living)

Unsalted butter, room temperature, for pan
3/4 C sugar, plus more for pan
1 1/2 lbs. fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese, pureed in a food processor until smooth
6 large eggs, separated
1/4 C all-purpose flour
Finely grated zest of 1 orange or 2 lemons ( I used lemons)
1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Generously butter and sugar a 9-inch springform pan (3 inches deep).  Whisk together ricotta, egg yolks, flour, 6 tablespoons sugar, the zest, and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk egg whites with the mixer on low speed until foamy.  Raise speed to high and gradually add remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, whisking until stiff, glossy peaks form, 3 to 4 minutes.  Gently fold a third of the whites into the ricotta mixture using a rubber spatula until just combined.   Gently fold in remaining whites until just combined.

Pour batter into pan and bake until center is firm and top is deep golden brown, about 1 hour.  Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Run a knife around edge of cake; release sides to remove from pan, and let cool completely. 

Make ahead:  This cheesecake is best eaten the day it is baked, but it can be refrigerated, covered loosely with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.  Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving. 

Notes:  Temperature shmemperature!  This cake is good cold.  Don't worry about bringing it to room temperature. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Granola Momma

Early-Morning Granola
(Cooking Light, November 2006)

3 C uncooked regular oats
1 C wheat germ
1/2 C chopped pecans
1/2 C sliced almonds
1/3 C sunflower seeds
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon ( I use more)
1/4 C honey
1/4 C maple syrup
2 T. brown sugar
2 T. vegetable oil
1 C raisins
1 C dried fruit of your choice (apples, apricots, cherries, whatever)

Don't let the list of ingredients overwhelm you.  It's worth the effort to make your own granola. 

I guess I started making this in 2006 because I noted on the page ripped from Cooking Light that this was my Christmas gift giveaway that year.  Probably not as much fun to receive as cookies or cake, but it's less of a gut bomb. 

Once you have the stuff on hand, you will be more inclined to make this, so buy everything in bulk.  It only takes an hour from start to finish, and that includes cleanup.  It is great with yogurt, mixed with cereal, or on ice cream, but Cooking Light probably would frown upon your using it as a nightly sundae topper.   

Let's get started.

First, get out all your ingredients.  You see mine above.  They are just a mixture of generic, mostly store-brand items, which are perfectly fine.  For a while I used  pure maple syrup until I realized that the taste was the same if I used  Aunt Maple's from Aldi.  Honey is honey, coconut is coconut, sugar is see where I am going with this.  Buy the cheap store brands when making granola.

Oops!  My top photo doesn't include wheat germ.  Can't forget that.  It is full of folic acid and Vitamin E, which helps maintain vitality and cardiovascular health (at least that's what the jar says).  We all can use a little vitality, can't we?  You'll get a full cup of it in this recipe.

Once you've emptied the pantry, get out a huge bowl and throw in the oats, cinnamon, nuts of your choosing, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and if you like, toss some coconut in there, too.  I do.  This is a forgiving recipe.  You can play with it. 

Next, in a small saucepan, slowly dissolve the brown sugar, oil, maple syrup and honey.  It takes about five minutes and looks like this when ready:

Pour that on top of the oat mixture and mix well.  You want everything covered with sticky goodness.  Dump the contents of the bowl onto an aluminum foil-lined jelly-roll pan/cookie sheet.  I spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray.  Put the pan in a preheated 350-degree oven and toss the granola with a metal spatula every five minutes until it's all nicely toasted.  This takes about 30 minutes.   Remember to babysit it because burnt nuts will ruin everything.  Nobody wants their nuts scorched. :)

When the oat mixture is golden brown, remove it from the oven and let it cool.  Then add your favorite dried fruits.  In this batch I used dried cherries, craisins, and an assortment of raisins.  Mix gently and place in an air-tight container.  It stays fresh for weeks - well, maybe not fresh, but it stays good for a long time.

Keep in mind this is a low-fat recipe, thanks to the reduced amount of oil.  If you look at other granola recipes you will see that they use about 1/4 cup of oil.  I believe this is what produces those clumps we all love.   This lightened version does not produce lots of clumps, but it also won't give you lots of clumps where you don't want them, as in clumpy rumpy.

Notes:  Sometimes I add a touch of vanilla or almond extract to the honey/syrup/sugar mixture.  It adds a little variety.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Crusty Trials and Tribulations

Ranking right up there with my biscuit-making failures are pie crust debacles.  Making pie crust has caused me to wring my hands, throw my hands up in disgust, and use my hands to fling the dough across the room. 

I have the utmost respect for pastry chefs.  Pastry dough is so temperamental - can't be too warm, can't be too cold, can't be this and can't be that.  Good heavens, can there be clouds in the sky?  This is why, when I made this recipe and it actually rolled out nicely and tasted good, I have stuck with it.

Whenever I have veered off this buttery course, I have encountered the dreaded loathsome result.  And, as you can see from yesterday's post, I still don't have a picturesque crust.  Yes, I am no Martha, who, by the way, began her foray into food by selling apple pies, but this crust tastes good and has a nice consistency.  If you have had similar hair-pulling experiences with pie dough, give this one a try and let me know how it turns out.

Butter Pie Crust Dough
(Bon Appetit, November 2003)

For a double-crust pie, double the ingredients, divide the dough in half, and form two disks.

1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1/2 T sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 C (1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 T (or more) ice water

Blend flour, sugar, and salt in processor.  Add butter and cut in, using on/off turns, until coarse meal forms.  Add 3 tablespoons water.  Using on/off turns, blend just until moist clumps form, adding more water by 1/2 tablespoonfuls if dough is dry.  Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk.  Wrap in plastic; refrigerate 1 hour.  (Can be made 2 days ahead.  Keep chilled.  Soften slightly at room temperature before rolling.)

My list of pie crust don'ts:
  • Don't over mix it.  You want to see flecks of butter in the dough when you roll it out.
  • Don't over handle it.  Warm hands are lethal to pastry. 
  • Don't use anything but really cold butter and ice water. 
  • Don't stretch it when putting it in the pie plate or over the filling.  This causes it to shrink.
  • Don't give up!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Black-and-Blue Pie

Once while she was home on a college break, my daughter asked me whether I was a cake or pie person.  Evidently, this reveals something about your personality similar to one's preference for cats or dogs.  I can't recall what I answered because it is such a tough choice.  It depends on my mood...and the season.  Right now, it's pie all the way.  It's that comforting mixture of sweet, fresh fruit sandwiched between savory, buttery crusts and topped with fluffy whipped cream that reels me in like an angler hooking a hungry fish.

And what better excuse is there to make a pie than the Fourth of July?  In honor of this festive holiday, I made a tri-berry pie minus one.  My raspberries were resembling a biology experiment, which prompted the use of whatever was still fungus free in the fridge. Blackberries and blueberries won out; thus, the name of my new creation.  Voila!  The black-and-blue pie:

Black-and-Blue Pie
Based on Choose-a-Berry Pie
(from Better Homes and Gardens Old-Fashioned Home Baking)

3/4 to 1 C sugar (How much?  Taste the berries to see how tart they are.)
1/4 C all-purpose flour (Add a bit more if you increase the fruit; I added approx. 2 T more.)
1/2 tsp. finely shredded lemon peel
4 C fresh blackberries, blueberries or a combo (I added more, about 1/2 C more of each.)
1 recipe pastry for double-crust pie (You can buy one but it is so much better homemade.)

In a large mixing bowl stir together sugar, flour, and lemon peel.  Add fresh berries, then gently toss till berries are coated. 

Prepare and roll out pastry as directed.  Line a 9-inch pie plate with half of the pastry.  Stir berry mixture, then transfer berry mixture to the pastry-lined pie plate.  Trim the bottom pastry to the edge of the pie plate.  Cut slits in the top crust and place on top of filling.  Seal and crimp the edge.  Bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes, or until top is golden and berries are bubbling.  Check it after 20 minutes to see if you need to use a pie shield or aluminum foil to keep edges from overbrowning.

Notes:   I set my oven to the cakes setting and the top was refusing to brown, so I blasted it at 425 degrees for an extra 10 minutes to get the color I like.  Use a pie shield to keep the edge from overcooking or shield with aluminum foil.

The verdict:   "This pie is frickin' good."   (Hubmeister)

Tune in tomorrow for my favorite artery-clogging crust recipe.

Hey, wait!  What does this cake vs. pie preference say about me?  Am I dumb, lovable and loyal - or smart, sneaky and independent?  Could I be a little of each?  I'll have to ask my daughter what it all means.  How about you?  Are you a cake or pie person?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Acropolis: Our Big, Fat Greek Dinner

You know you're in for a memorable evening when you walk into a restaurant and plates and paper napkins are flying.  Add a belly dancer, a couple of talented Greek musicians and a wait staff dancing Zorba-the-Greek-style around the tables and you've got Acropolis Greek Taverna in Ybor City.

Acropolis has a few restaurants around Tampa, and we have found the food and atmosphere consistent at both the Ybor City and New Tampa locations.  Other Greek food tycoons also must find them noteworthy because tables usually are full at both spots.  Since great friends were in town and they were unfamiliar with Ybor, I thought this would be a convivial place to meet for dinner and to introduce them to the exuberance of Ybor City.

We began our Grecian odyssey with an appetizer sampler platter for all to share.  Recommended by our pleasant server, it featured hummus, feta, eggplant and taramosalata (fish roe) spreads, as well as Greek olives and several dolmades.  A dish of warm pita bread accompanied the platter, providing the ideal vehicle for generous schmears of creamy, salty, garlicky dips. Yum!  Nobody was game for the dolmades but me, and I am not a big fan of stuffed grape leaves, but they were good if you like leaves stuffed with rice and herbs.   Obviously, you can't trust my judgment of them, but believe me when I say the Greek beer, Mythos, was an ice-cold complement to this assortment of Mediterranean flavors.

My entree was shrimp Cyprus, which was a plate of well-seasoned and beautifully charred shrimp threaded onto skewers that also contained grilled tomatoes, onion and mushrooms.  The side dish that seems to accompany every entree I have ever ordered at Acropolis is orzo and roasted vegetables, and tonight was no exception.  The veggies were zucchini and yellow squash.  I enjoyed it but suspect it sat on my plate while my shrimp were cooking because the shrimp were hot and the side was lukewarm.   These things happen. 

It's hard to get Hubmeister to break from the Acropolis salad, and no wonder.  It's an enormous plate of highly seasoned shaved lamb piled high atop tangy Greek potato salad, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, olives, a hefty square of feta cheese, pita and tzatziki.  Unbelievably priced at $10, it could feed a family of four. 

I can't tell you what our friends ordered because my attention was so focused on the goings-on around me.  The shapely belly dancer, whom Hubmeister and our friend, Wish-I-Had-a-Pepcid, seemed to appreciate, was dancing with anyone who hopped out of their chair, and several people did including Ms. "I Got the Music in Me" at the table beside us.

Wish-I-Had-a-Pepcid and the Hubmeister were searching for ones to throw at her (the belly dancer, that is) so dollar bills could join the crashing plates and reams of napkins raining down on our heads.  Actually, the plates they just throw on the floor.  As my old chum - we'll call her Witty L -  wryly observed, "This place isn't exactly green."

All I can say is, "Opa!"

Restaurant Info:
Acropolis Greek Taverna
1833 East 7th Avenue

Acropolis Greek Taverna on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cooking on the Can

If you are looking for a fun, easy and mess-free grilling recipe this holiday weekend, give beer can chicken a try.  Just the sight of it is entertaining.  And as you are readying it for its throne of ale, be sure to sing, "I feel like chicken tonight, like chicken tonight," while the bird does a little dance.  My kids always appreciated this version of the chicken dance.   Of course, by that point you may have had a few beers yourself and the entertainment value will increase substantially.  

The recipe below is one I swiped off the Food Network site, last July in fact.  It takes 10 minutes to prepare for the grill and cooks for an hour and a quarter.  Add some potato salad you've made ahead, and throw some fresh corn on the grill during that last 15 minutes of cooking, and you've got yourself a stress-free, mess-free party. (Tell your friends to bring dessert!)

Beer Can Chicken
1 (4 lb.) whole chicken
2 T. vegetable oil
2 T. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3 T. of your favorite dry spice rub
1 can beer

Remove neck and giblets from chicken and discard.  Rinse chicken inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels.  Rub chicken lightly with oil, then rub inside and out with salt, pepper and dry rub.  Set aside.

Open beer can and take several gulps (make them big gulps so that the can is half full).  Place beer can on a solid surface.  Grabbing a chicken leg in each hand, plunk the bird cavity over the beer can.  Transfer the bird-on-a-can to your grill and place in the center of the grate, balancing the bird on its two legs and the can like a tripod. 

It will look like this:

Cook the chicken over medium-high, indirect heat (i.e., no coals or burners on directly under the bird), with the grill cover on, for approximately 1 1/4 hours or until the internal temperature registers 165 degrees in the breast area and 180 degrees in the thigh, or until the juice runs clear when stabbed with a sharp knife.  Remove from the grill and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Ta da!  The finished bird:

Notes:  One chicken serves four, so increase everything to accommodate the size of your gathering.  Regarding the internal temperature of 180 degrees in the thigh, that sounds high to me.   I pulled mine off at the cooking time stated and it was moist and juicy.  I never even probed it.  I'll leave that up to you.