Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chicken Quesadilla Pie

And like that, Christmas seems to have come and gone.  I know that there's really supposed to be the "Twelve Days of Christmas," but when the music has stopped playing in the stores and the neighborhood lights are quickly growing dim, its leaving feels pretty abrupt.

That said, it doesn't feel as though the busyness of the holidays has slowed down for us yet and for these such times, I am thankful for meals like this one.  The quesadilla pie is made even simpler by utilizing that convenience dinner powerhouse, the rotisserie chicken.  It would also be a great use for any leftover cooked turkey.  Serve it up with salsa and sour cream.

Chicken Quesadilla Pie
1 10-inch four tortilla (burrito size)
1 rotisserie chicken, skin discarded, meat shredded into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/3 cup drained jarred pickled jalapeƱos, chopped
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
salt and pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 450 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch pie plate.  Press tortilla into prepared pie plate and spray lightly with vegetable oil spray.  Toss chicken, cilantro, jalapeƱos, 1 cup cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in bowl until combined.  Spread filling over tortilla.

Whisk eggs, milk, flour, baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a bowl until smooth.  Slowly pour over filling, then sprinkle with remaining cheese.  Bake until surface is golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Let cool 5 minutes. Cut into wedges.  Serve.

Source: America's Test Kitchen: The Best Simple Recipes

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Make-Ahead Mini Crustless Quiche

I'm not really sure how highly successful people do it.  I feel like I am not that accomplished and yet I am struggling to keep my head above water in just trying to maintain the daily stuff.  Throw in the chaos of this Christmas season (didn't I say I was going to slow down and be more intentional?), some serious technology setbacks for me, some personal challenges and the fact that I (unlike Martha) just can't make it on four hours of sleep and it's leaving me feeling like one hot mess.

I suppose these are the times when we take solace in the minor victories.  For example, I've actually had some foresight enough to do a lot of preparations for a Christmas brunch we're hosting ahead of time.  I would definitely consider these mini crustless quiches a victory.  They can be made early and then batches can be frozen to pull out at a moment's notice.  Sort of like having your very own box of Nancy's (I believe that's the lady famous for her mini quiches) at the ready, except even better because you can customize your very own little quiches (No, offense, Nancy).

These will be making an appearance at Christmas brunch later this week, but I do believe they will not be reserved for special occasions alone.  I can't wait to try some more combinations.

Mini Crustless Quiches

makes 48 pieces; adapted from Fine Cooking Magazine
Quiche Batter:
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/4 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 cup half and half
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup finely shredded Parmesan (or other hard cheese)

Asparagus and Bell Pepper Filling:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2" pieces
1/2 cup red, yellow or orange bell pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
(feel free to substitute other vegetables or meat--cooked chopped broccoli, diced tomatoes, chopped mushrooms, diced onion, fresh chopped spinach, finely diced ham or crumbled sausage or bacon...)

Heat oven to 450°F.
Prepare Batter: Put the cornstarch in a medium bowl. Whisking steadily, slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the milk, mixing until quite smooth. Whisk in the whole eggs and egg yolks, mixing again until smooth, then gradually whisk in the rest of the milk, the cream, salt, and nutmeg. Use immediately or refrigerate, covered, for up to one day. If using the next day, be sure to re-whisk.
Prepare Filling Mixture: In a nonstick pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add asparagus and bell peppers (or other vegetables of your choosing) and stir until just softened, about 3-4 minutes.  Stir in garlic and stir just until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Oil mini muffin tins well. Put a pinch grated cheese into each muffin cup and 1-2 teaspoons of filling mixture. Pour 1 tablespoon of the batter into each muffin cup.
Bake until the quiches puff and start to turn golden, 15-18 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes and then carefully run a paring knife around the rim of each muffin cup. Carefully lift each quiche out of its cup.
Mini quiches freeze very well. Let cool, then freeze in a single layer in a covered container. Reheat on a cookie sheet in a 400 degree oven for about 5-10 minutes.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pasta with Pan-Roasted Vegetables

In the midst of the overindulgence of the season (I'm thinking of you, eggnog in the fridge and sugar cookies on the counter!), it's great to have some quick, healthy meals up your sleeve.  This one totally fits the bill.   

Hearty vegetables and bright balsamic vinegar are tossed with tender pasta, it went from concept to table in under 30 minutes.  I topped ours with crumbles of goat cheese for some extra tangy richness, but shredded Parmesan would be great too.

It comes together easily so there's more time for cookie decorating.  
Pasta with Pan-Roasted Vegetables
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 large portobello mushroom caps, halved and cut into 1/2" slices
2 red or yellow bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 red onion, chopped
5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound shaped pasta (suggested: penne, campanelle or fusille--can use whole wheat as well)
1 teaspoon dried basil (or 3 cubes frozen pureed basil--Dorot brand suggested) or 1 cup chopped fresh basil
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
3 cups fresh spinach leaves
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled or 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)

1.  Bring 4 quarts water to boil in a large pot.  Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Add mushrooms, peppers, onion, 3 tablespoons vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to skillet, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.  Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and browned around edges, 10-12 minutes.  Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2.  While vegetables are cooking, add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente.  Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, drain pasta, and return to pot.  Add vegetables, remaining oil, and remaining vinegar to pot with pasta and toss to combine, adding reserved pasta water as need.  Stir in tomatoes, basil and spinach and season with salt and pepper.  Serve individual portions and top with crumbled goat cheese or shredded Parmesan.

Recipe adapted from America's Test Kitchen: The Best Simple Recipes

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I came to terms with the idea that I just couldn't make a good chocolate chip cookie.  Spread too thin, too greasy, too thick, too crispy, every single batch turned out just wrong.  

Until now. 

I took a cue from my friend who says when she wants to try a recipe she Googles "Best ..."  I always go for a chewy cookie so I searched for "Best and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie."  Using the term "best" can sometimes get you into trouble.  It sets the expectation pretty high.  But I think this one can live up to it.  This recipe has nearly perfect reviews on and it even turned out for me (bad track record and all), so it must be good.  Even my Brother-in-Law who has spent years perfecting his own chocolate chip cookie recipe said they were "pretty good."  Count that as a winner, folks!      

These are a cookie even Santa would approve of. 

  • Best Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (I used milk chocolate chips)
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended. Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the sifted ingredients until just blended. Stir in the oats and chocolate chips by hand using a wooden spoon. Drop cookie dough by tablespoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheets. 
  4. Bake for 10-12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the edges are lightly toasted. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

Recipe very slightly adapted from

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Easy Spinach Artichoke Stuffed Mushrooms

Whew.  It's been a rough couple of weeks.  Amidst the craziness that always is the weeks leading up to Christmas, I've been feeling especially challenged in most areas of my life lately.  It sort of culminated in my dear little laptop crashing and dying.  Thankfully, I'd seen it start to act a little oddly and we were able to back it up in time.  Also, thankfully, my very generous in-laws have allowed me the use of a spare business computer but it has been a slow process to get back online and in the swing of things.  

I'm still feeling a bit behind, and guessing that others may feel a bit harried these days, I thought I would share a quick appetizer that's perfect for Holiday entertaining

1 8 oz. package Baby Portabella Mushrooms (or white button mushrooms are fine too)
1 10 oz. packaged Spinach Artichoke dip (look in the refrigerated deli section of the grocery store or Costco carries a good--larger size--one)
a couple tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs (or crushed cracker crumbs)
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Remove stems from mushrooms.  Wash and pat dry.  Brush mushrooms with olive oil and place in a single layer, stem side up, on a baking sheet.  Bake for 5 minutes or until mushrooms are softened.  Remove from oven.  Place 1-2 teaspoons of dip into each mushroom cap.  Repeat with remaining caps.  Stir together breadcrumbs, butter and parsley.  Sprinkle crumb mixture onto each mushroom and return to oven.  Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until filling is bubbly and crumb topping is browned.  

You can also put together your own Spinach Artichoke dip for very little extra effort.  
4 oz. cream cheese, softened (reduced fat is fine)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (reduced fat is fine)
1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 can (14 oz.) artichoke hearts in water, rinsed drained and chopped 
1 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Stir together cream cheese and mayonnaise until smooth.  Mix in Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, artichoke hearts, spinach, salt and garlic.    

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holday Kale Salad

I'm a little sorry I didn't think to share this earlier.  You see, I think I have come up with a new Thanksgiving tradition that includes this salad.  I had planned to include it in my family's Thanksgiving dinner menu, but as I started simplifying the list of dishes I was going to prepare (there's only so much that can fit on a plate and salad takes up valuable stuffing real estate), I decided to prepare this salad (along with Butternut Squash Soup) to have available for people to help themselves to for an early lunch.  The combination was healthy, yet substantial enough to tide over until the main event. 

This salad is actually a version of one of my favorites, Crunchy Kale Salad, but for a more festive and upscale touch, gorgeous, red (and seasonal) pomegranate is substituted for the dried cranberries and golden raisins.  Set against the deep green of the kale, the pomegranate seeds (or "arils," as they officially known) look like little crimson jewels and the combination really does look like "Christmas in a bowl" (and because of the cheese-factor, it pains me to use that "season in a bowl" comment, but I must).   Which, leads me to believe that it's definitely not too late to share this recipe.  I know I'll be making it plenty of more times this holiday season. 

Holiday Kale Salad
1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed and torn into bite sized pieces *see note
kosher salt, about 1/2-1 teaspoon
1 cup pomegranate seeds **see note
1/2 cup walnut pieces or pine nuts, toasted
juice of 1 lemon, about 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

In the bottom of a large serving bowl, whisk together lemon juice and olive oil.  Throw kale pieces in bowl on top of dressing.  Sprinkle kale with salt and use hands to massage kale a bit to get it to start softening up.  Toss kale so that it's coated in the dressing.  Sprinkle pomegranate seeds and walnut pieces over top, season with freshly ground black pepper and additional salt, to taste.

*Note: ***Pictured above, the salad is made with baby kale leaves (what a treat to find a bag at Costco!) which were a great convenience (pre-washed! no woody stems!).  I have also seen bagged, chopped kale in the bagged salad section which could certainly substituted.  Usually, I go for the economical bunch of kale and just do the dirty work.  

**An easy way to remove the seeds from the pomegranate is to score the outside of the fruit and then break it open submerged in a big bowl of water (also helps keep your kitchen from looking like a crime scene, since that red juice can get EVERYWHERE!).  Continue to break apart the pomegranate and loosening the seeds under water.  The red juicy seeds will sink to the bottom and the white membrane will float to the top at which point, you can pour off and leave the seeds at the bottom. 

*** Finally, a couple more advantages to this kale salad is that it can both be prepared up to a couple hours ahead of time (unlike most salads which wilt into in-edibility upon contact with dressing) and the leftovers are still good to eat the next day.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Polenta Pie

Red and green and white, this is a dish in holiday colors.  And, since we've now entered the month of December and with the timely arrival of a snowstorm today, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around these parts.  Thus, my mind is turning toward what a flurry of activity this month becomes. 

Must. Slow. Down. And. Be. More. Intentional.   

I'm not going to say that this Italian style comfort food is going to solve all your challenges this month, but it is certainly a great one to keep in your back pocket--rounds of precooked, packaged polenta layered with garlicky sauteed spinach and creamy goat cheese then topped with zesty tomato sauce and final crunch of pine nuts.  All the ingredients can be kept on hand to pull out as an elegant dish for some impromptu entertaining or for a quick and easy meal on a night in between the Open Houses, Caroling, Sledding, Shopping, Decorating etc. 

And, can I just share that today I was struck anew at the awe and wonder of Christmas?  Emmanuel, God with us.  Wow. Wow. Wow.  I pray I can pause and be more reflective on that this holiday season... 

Polenta Pie
olive oil, several tablespoons
2 tubes packaged precooked polenta
1 6 ounce bag fresh spinach leaves
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 4-ounce log goat cheese
1 large jar favorite spaghetti sauce 
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
fresh basil leaves for garnish (totally optional since fresh basil is a bit more scarce in the winter)

Preheat oven to 350.  In a large skillet, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat.  Slice polenta into rounds and brown in the olive oil, a couple minutes on each side, doing it in batches if necessary.  Remove from pan and set aside.  Scrape out pan and heat an additional tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat.  Saute onion and garlic, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, a few minutes. 
Add spinach and saute until wilted and liquid is evaporated, 2-3 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.  Grease a 2 quart baking dish, and layer half the polenta rounds in bottom of dish.  Spread sauteed spinach in an even layer on top of polenta.  Crumble 2/3 of goat cheese and sprinkle evenly over spinach layer.  Top with remaining polenta rounds and pour spaghetti sauce over top layer of polenta.  Sprinkle remaining goat cheese crumbles and pine nuts evenly over the top and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbling.  Garnish with fresh basil leaves to "up" the red, green and white factor, if desired.   

The original recipe author suggests serving with a tossed green salad and bottle of Chianti. : )

Slightly adapted from Mary at Lakewinds Grocery Store

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

No Knead Artisan Bread

one pound loaves
Hope everyone had a very Happy Thanksgiving!  Sorry for the delayed absence, we've been spending some time with my family (who unfortunately have had extremely spotty internet access) in Minnesota.
I think I have a problem. I have developed a compulsive baking addiction. I managed to bake my way through a 25 pound Costco bag of flour in a month. That's a whole lotta carbs. 

Fortunately, I am not stingy and am an excellent pusher of my habit. Case in point, this bread recipe. It has been my go to recipe the last couple of weeks for gatherings. "I'll bring the bread!" I kindly volunteer. Homemade bread is such a treat but has the reputation of being such a chore. This recipe however, is as simple as it gets. It has made it virtually impossible for me to buy bread from the store when I know how cheap the raw ingredients actually are.

Since this is the perfect time of year to be making soup and other comfort foods, here is the perfect recipe for an accompaniment!  It also feels especially appropriate to mention while I am in Minnesota that this recipe comes from an awesome book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by authors with Minnesota ties, Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois.  I highly recommend you check it out--this recipe is only the starting point of some really amazing recipes!
5 Minute No Knead Artisan Bread
Makes 4 one pound loaves (I usually make 2 two pound loaves) but can easily be halved
1 1/2 tablespoons dry active yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups warm water
6 1/2 cups all- purpose flour (can substitute up to half whole wheat flour)

In a large container with a fitted lid (I like to use a 1 gallon size plastic ice cream bucket--just make sure not to use a glass container for risk of it bursting), stir together yeast, salt and sugar. Stir in water and mix until well combined. Dump flour in all in one batch and stir with a wooded spoon just until there is no longer dry flour and the dough is together in one big sticky mess. Cover container loosely with lid and allow dough to rise on the counter until doubled in size (2-3 hours). At this point, you can attach lid firmly and refrigerate dough until ready to use.

To bake: sprinkle flour over top of dough. Use a serrated knife to cut off desired amount of dough. Use hands to stretch top of dough over and around sides to form a smooth ball, using a small amount of flour if needed. Don't worry if the bottom is rough, it will smooth out. Sprinkle corn meal or oat bran onto a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet. Place dough ball on prepared sheet and allow to rise for 40 minutes. 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450 degrees F. When you turn on the oven, place a pizza stone on the middle rack and a broiler pan on the bottom rack.

After dough has risen for 40 minutes, sprinkle additional flour over top of dough and use serrated knife to make a couple slashes in the top of the dough (I like to make an "x" or cross shape in top). Slide dough onto pizza stone and as quickly as possible, pour 1 cup of water into broiler pan. Shut oven door and bake at 450 for 25-35 minutes or until crust is deep golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped. Remove from oven and allow to cool complete,y before cutting into it (to avoid having a squished loaf of bread--but I dare you to try and sit that long!).

Recipe slightly adapted from: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chewy Brown Sugar Cookies

Oh. My. Word.
These are by far the best cookies I have ever made.  And just because I generally don't make very good cookies--it's that whole having to measure properly thing----does not mean that you shouldn't take my recommendation seriously. I have been making them and immediately needing to give them away so I don't eat them all and have had several requests for the recipe since.

And why would you not want to try them?  I realize that I, as a girl who still likes to sneak lumps of brown sugar when my kids aren't looking might be a bit biased toward such a brown sugary cookie, but these really take the cake.  Er, cookie.  Browned butter combined with brown sugar makes for an incredible combination. The cookies are chewy and practically melt in your mouth with toast-butter toffee-caramel flavors.
You will have the most popular cookie at the exchange. Trust me.

Chewy Brown Sugar Cookies
Makes about 2 Dozen Cookies
from Cook's Illustrated

14 tablespoons butter (1 3/4 sticks)
1/4 cup granulated sugar (about 1 3/4 ounces)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar (14 ounces)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons (about 10 1/2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Heat 10 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat until melted. Continue to cook the butter until it is browned a dark golden color and smells nutty, about 1 to 3 minutes (don't use a dark, non stick skillet because you won't be able to tell when the butter is browned). Transfer the browned butter to a bowl and stir the rest of the butter into the hot butter until it melts- let this rest for 15 min.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a baking dish, mix granulated sugar and a ¼ cup of the brown sugar until combined well; set this mixture aside to roll dough balls in. Mix flour, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl. Add 1 ¾ cup brown sugar and salt to cooled butter and mix until there are no lumps. Add egg, yolk, and vanilla to butter mixture and mix well, then add flour and mix until just combined. Roll dough into balls about 1 ½ inches in diameter, and roll balls in brown sugar and white sugar mixture. Place balls about 2 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets.

Bake sheets one at a time until cookies are puffy and lightly browned, about 12- 14 minutes. (It says the cookies will look slightly raw between some of the cracks and seem underdone, but be careful not to overbake.  Also, my cookies turned out flat, flat, flat and not puffy at all--perhaps the Colorado altitude?) Cool on sheet for about 5 minutes and then transfer to a rack to cool.

Source: Cooks Illustrated by way of South in Your Mouth

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Grandma Pauline's Apple Pie

Today, I have the very fine privilege of having a guest post on Frosting for the Cause, a project of 365 food bloggers who share a story and recipe honoring women in their lives affected by cancer.  I used the opportunity to honor my husband's late Grandma, Pauline.  She taught me how to make her famous apple pie and I am attempting to carry on the legend.  Please head over to Frosting for the Cause and check it out! 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Classic Macaroni and Cheese

Last night I polled the girls I was babysitting (it was really fun to have girl time with my friends' daughters while they were able to have a date night) on their favorite things to eat for dinner.  This was after I had fed them a decidedly grown up Autumn menu of the Pioneer Woman's Pork Roast with Apples and Onions over Wild Rice with Roasted Brussels Sprouts which they very politely ate and were very good sports about but I don't think will be asking for anytime soon--I thought it was pretty good, though!).  All three of them said quite confidently: Macaroni and Cheese. 

I don't think they're alone.  Mac and Cheese is a favorite among many of us and even though most kids are partial to the stuff that comes in a blue box, as an adult I would pick the homemade kind anytime.  It's good as a main dish, it's good as a side dish, it's even lovelier to bring to a pot luck so that you can spread around the cheesy wealth!  Check out the make ahead option if you're a planner!

Classic Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. pasta shapes (I like to use elbows)
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
a few dashes of hot sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
3 1/2 cups milk
8 oz. Colby Jack cheese, shredded
8 oz. Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
ground black pepper
3/4 cup crushed buttery cracker crumbs (like Ritz)

Directions: Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Add in a few teaspoons of salt and pasta shapes to water and cook just until pasta begins to soften, about 5 minutes.  Drain the pasta and set aside in the colander. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In the same pot, melt butter over medium high heat.  Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly just until golden (about 1 minute).  Stir in dry mustard, garlic powder, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce.  Whisk in chicken broth and milk, a little at a time, until smooth.  Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until mixture comes to a boil and is thickened, about 10 minutes.  Gradually stir in cheeses, whisking until completely smooth.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  Stir drained pasta into cheese sauce. 

Transfer mixture to a greased 9"x11" baking dish.  Sprinkle with crushed cracker crumbs* and bake uncovered, 30-35 minutes, or until mixture is bubbling and crumb topping is golden brown.  Also, as Annie suggests, you might want to put a baking sheet under the dish to catch any sauce that may bubble over. 

*At this point, the dish can be wrapped tightly with foil and refrigerated for up to 2 days.  To serve, bake covered at 400˚ F until the filling is hot throughout, about 40-45 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake until the breadcrumbs are crisp, 15-20 minutes more.

Slightly adapted from: Annie's Eats

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Apple and Pear Crisp

I can't think of too many desserts that embody Fall more than an Apple and Pear Crisp.  Both fruits are in season right now and when sweetly spiced and baked with a buttery crumble topping, it really is a magical combination.  

It also doesn't hurt that it's simple to throw together yet completely lovely for guests.  It reheats beautifully so it's a good one to take to someone as well (include with a pint of vanilla ice cream for a thoughtful gift). 

These cute dishes are the perfect size for sharing. 

Apple and Pear Crisp
4 medium firm pears (I used Anjou)
4 medium firm apples (I used combination of Granny Smith, Jonagold and Fuji)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root (about 1" chunk, peeled) (optional or sub 1/2 teaspoon dried ground ginger)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

Ice cream or whipped cream for serving, optional
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

    Peel, core, and cut the pears and apples into large chunks. Place the fruit in a large bowl and add lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Pour into a 9 by 12 by 2-inch oval baking dish (or split between a few smaller dishes as I did).

    For the topping:
    Combine the flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal, and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for 1 minute, until the mixture is in large crumbles. Sprinkle evenly over the fruit, covering the fruit completely.

    Place the baking dish on a sheet pan and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbly. Serve warm, topped with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.

    Note: A friend of mine gave the tip that she doubles the topping recipe and then keeps the crumble in the freezer for an impromptu dessert when needed.  So smart!

    Recipe slightly adapted from Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa's recipe

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Rolo Cupcakes with Caramel Buttercream Frosting

    In mourning/celebration (however you may want to look at it) of the end of Daylight Savings Time and the fact that it's only Monday and I kind of want to put my kids in a sled (I guess we're supposed to get snow tonight?) and just give them a hearty shove and see how far down the street they make it (oh, my goodness, that's terrible!), I think this is going to be a sweet-filled week.

    Starting us off: Rolo Cupcakes

    The famed chocolate covered caramel candy, Rolos, hidden inside chocolate cupcakes topped with a salty-sweet and lighter than air Caramel Buttercream Frosting then haloed by a rich chocolate ganache and finally, crowned with an additional Rolo candy.  These made some pretty fun Birthday cupcakes for a sweet friend last week and since making them, I am thinking of a reason to make them again (or, try them with a different kind of candy...).

    The Buttercream is especially a triumph for me because I think it is one of the only frosting recipes I've ever liked.  Growing up, my mom was a professional cake decorator and so us kids grew up on cake scraps and licking out the leftover frosting out of the bowl.  Suffice it to say, I both OD'd and became pretty discerning when it came to cake and frosting.  My mom introduced me to this buttercream frosting recipe (traditionally my least favorite of frosting offerings) and it's amazing.  It's almost more of a whipped cream consistency and even better, is almost completely hands off in the technique.  Sweet!

    Rolo Cupcakes
    makes about 18 cupcakes
    1 box Devil's food chocolate cake mix
    1/2 cup warm water
    4 eggs
    1/2 cup vegetable oil
    1 cup sour cream
    1 small package instant chocolate pudding
    unwrapped Rolos candies, 2 per cupcake (one for inside, one for garnish on top)

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners and set aside.  In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except Rolos. With an electric mixer on low speed, mix to combine. Raise speed to medium and blend for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl.  Scoop batter into prepared cupcake pans, filling almost to the top of the liner.  Press one Rolo into each cup of batter.  Bake at 350 degrees for 18-23 minutes or until cupcakes spring back when lightly touched.  Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes.  Remove from pans and allow to fully cool on wire racks.   

    Caramel Butter Cream Frosting:
    (Makes about 2 cups of frosting.  I doubled the batch so that I wouldn't have to worry about running out of frosting and ended up having about a cup of frosting leftover)

    3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons chilled Heavy Whipping Cream
    1 stick butter, softened
    1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
    pinch of Kosher salt
    3 tablespoons caramel flavored syrup (Hershey's makes a bottled one--or use caramel ice cream topping)

    In a combine all the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a blade attachment.  Run the food processor continuously for 5 minutes.  The mixture will be smooth but thick and kind of funky looking  

    Transfer mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer.  With whisk or paddle attachment (I prefer the whisk), allow the mixer to run continuously for 15 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides, until frosting is light and fluffy and the consistency of whipped cream.  Transfer frosting to a pastry bag with desired tip (or in my case, the only--quite wonky-shaped--one you can find after rifling through all your drawers). 

    Chocolate Ganache:
    1/4 cup Heavy Cream
    1 cup chocolate chips
    1 tablespoon honey
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla

    In a microwave safe dish, heat cream just until simmering (likely 30 seconds or less on high power, watch it closely!).  Stir in chocolate chips.  Allow to sit a couple minutes to allow chocolate to fully melt.  Stir mixture until smooth.  Stir in honey and vanilla.  Allow to cool until almost room temperature.

    To assemble:
    Pipe frosting in a mound on top of each cupcake.  I find it helps to start on the outside edge of the cupcake and work inward and upward (although I am certainly no cupcake frosting expert!).  Frost all the cupcakes and allow to chill so frosting hardens enough so that it won't melt under the ganache topping.  Once frosting has chilled, spoon a couple teaspoons of ganache over top of frosting being careful not to use too much so that it doesn't drip over the sides of the paper.  Press an unwrapped Rolo into the top of the cupcake.  Return to the fridge and chill.  Remove from fridge one hour before serving.

    Some overall concepts adapted from
    Cupcake recipe adapted from Ann Byrn's "The Cake Mix Doctor"
    Frosting adapted from Rosie's Bakery Buttercream recipe

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Using up the Halloween Candy...

    Whopper Brownies

    I don't know about anyone else, but we have been in a serious Halloween Candy Coma.  I purposely bought candy that I wouldn't be tempted by to give away and we were able to pass all of that out.  Then, however, the boys brought home a huge stash from a Halloween party at their Great Grandma's and when I was at the grocery store yesterday, they had all the leftover candy for 50% off.  How can I turn down a bag of 100 Grands for only $1.57???

    Looking at the disgusting amount of candy precariously perched up on top of our fridge (out of the hands of a candy-thieving toddler), it's clear that some drastic measures need to be taken to clear this stuff out of here.  Thus, I put on of my favorite ways to use up leftover candy to good use today:

    Candy Brownies
    Let's be frank, here.  All I did was use a boxed brownie mix and added the called for water, flour and eggs.  Once I spread the batter into a prepared pan (line your pan with foil for easy removal!), sprinkle chopped up pieces of your favorite chocolate bars (or a combination of several kinds) and bake as directed.  This evening, I foisted brownies with chopped up Whoppers in them on our friends.  

    You can also do the same thing by stirring chopped up candy pieces into cookie dough (chocolate chip cookie dough minus the chocolate chips, sub the leftover Halloween candy).

    and then there's my husband's favorite use:

    Homemade Blizzards
    Stir chopped up candy pieces into softened vanilla ice cream.  Adding milk can help create a smoother texture.  This one is great because everyone can customize their own.

    You can keep candy in the freezer for up to a year and a lot of candies tend to break into pieces more easily when they're frozen, so this might be a good method of portion control...

    Some other ideas...
    Drop caramels or other non-chunky chocolate bars (Milky Way, Rolos and Three Musketeers, I'm looking at you) into hot coffee and stir to melt into a specialty coffee drink.

    Save colorful candies to decorate gingerbread houses.

    Check out Operation Shoe Box to send the candy to troops overseas

    Some Dental Offices participate in a Candy Buyback program where you trade your candy for prizes
    and such.

    For more really fun ideas, check here !

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Pumpkin Ravioli in Sage Brown Butter

    So apparently, October seems to have flown by.  I was rather taken aback when someone informed me today that Thanksgiving is 23 short days away, yikes!  Although I am feeling a little sad I missed the opportunity for posting some fun Halloween recipes, November holds plenty of promise.

    I'll save the posts on sides and desserts (gonna need to get a jump on my Turkey-Day menu planning!) for another day.  In the meantime, these simple pumpkin ravioli (helped by the shortcut of using Asian wonton wrappers--look for them in the refrigerated produce section) are creamy, comforting and enhanced by a nutty sage brown butter that is so yummy I wish I could bottle it and wear it as perfume.
    Pumpkin Ravioli in Sage Brown Butter
    1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree (please oh please do not use the pie filling)
    1 4oz log of goat cheese (or 1 cup of ricotta cheese if you prefer a milder flavor)
    1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
    1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 package wonton wrappers (pictured are round Chinese dumpling wrappers which are just a bit thicker than wonton wrappers

    Sage Butter:
    1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) salted butter
    8-10 fresh sage leaves

    Shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese for serving

    Directions: In a medium bowl, stir together all of ravioli ingredients except for wonton wrappers.  Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

    To assemble: Take a wonton wrapper, place a small spoonful of filling (1 heaping teaspoon) in the center of the wrapper.  Using your finger, brush water along the edges of wrapper.  Fold wrapper in half diagonally and press along edges to seal. Or, for a more decorative look, bring all four corners of the wrapper up to the center, pinching the opposite corners together and along edges to seal (making it look like a tiny pyramid--yeah, I meant to take a picture of that shape and seemed to have missed it. Sorry).  Repeat with remaining wonton wrappers and filling until complete.

    At this point, ravioli can be placed in a single layer on a cookie sheet, frozen individually and then transferred to a ziploc bag for later use.

    To cook: Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Add salt to boiling water to season, if desired.  Reduce heat so that water simmers gently.  Drop ravioli in small batches into water and cook until ravioli rise to the surface, 5-7 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Repeat with remaining ravioli. 

    While ravioli are cooking, make the sage butter.  In a large skillet over medium high heat, melt butter.  Once butter is completely melted and starts to foam (and it will get really foamy!), add in sage leaves.  They will sizzle.  Stirring constantly, allow to cook the sage leaves briefly until they become crispy and the butter starts to turn a light nutty brown (make sure to watch closely as the butter will go from brown to burned quickly). 
    Add in ravioli and toss to coat.  Saute for a couple minutes until ravioli are warmed through start to brown on the edges (or you can also line ravioli in a single layer on a cookie sheet, drizzle with the brown butter and bake at 350 until ravioli are heated through and starting to brown on the edges).

    Serve immediately, garnished with crispy sage leaves and additional Parmesan.

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    Indoor Banana Boats

    I can't think of a time when my house has been as quiet as when my boys were hunkered over their individual banana boats, gobbling them up.  That, my friends, is reason enough to make these. 

    Another reason is that it's really fun (especially for kids) for each person to assemble his/her own boat.   

    And another, they're quick and easy--hand out a sliced banana to each member of your party, let them have at a whole array of sweet toppings (ones that are probably in the pantry), pop them in the microwave for a few seconds and you have my sons' favorite dessert of the moment.  They've been begging for them daily. 

    Indoor Banana Boats:
    1 banana per person
    mini marshmallows (a few tablespoons per person)
    chocolate chips (a couple tablespoons per person)
    Other ideas: butterscotch or peanut butter chips, shredded coconut, soft caramel candies, sprinkle of cinnamon, etc. 

    Slice banana lengthwise through the peel without cutting completely through the banana.  Stuff the banana with any combination of toppings you desire.  Wrap banana up with waxed paper and microwave on high for 30-60 seconds or until marshmallows are melted and banana is warm and soft.  Unwrap and eat with a spoon directly out of its little peel boat.

    P.S. If you're camping, wrap them in foil and heat over the campfire OR throw them on top of the grill!
    Credit: Free photos from

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Homemade Play Dough

    I think this might be the first non-edible recipe I've posted (although maybe some might argue that other dishes to emerge from my kitchen can be inedible too...har, har, har...).

    Anyone with small children in their life ought to have a good play dough recipe up their sleeve.  I don't know about you, but every time we break out the containers of Play-Doh, it's a big disappointment.  All the colors have been melded into an unappealing gray-green and someone forgot to seal the lid so it's hard as a rock.  With this simple homemade dough, you can overcome disappointment over petrified Play-Doh in a snap.

    And, to jazz it up, you can even use Sugar Free Jello or packets of unsweetened KoolAid powder for fun scented dough that even the adults might be tempted to taste a little (it will still be horrible).  The only down side to making your own dough is the potential to color your hands in the process, but believe me, if I can rock blue fingers, anyone can! 

    Homemade (Salt Dough) Play Dough
    2 cups all purpose flour
    1 cup salt
    1 teaspoon cream of tartar
    2 cups water
    1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    4 boxes sugar free gelatin or packets of unsweetened KoolAid different colors, or drops of food coloring

    In a medium to large pot, mix together flour, salt, cream of tarter, water and oil.  The mixture will look like thin pancake batter.  With a sturdy spoon (I used wooden) over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil.  It will transform like magic from thin and watery to thick dough.  Continue stirring until any wet patches are just about gone.  Allow to cool enough to handle.  Divide dough into four equal portions and form a little "well" into each portion.  Sprinkle one color of gelatin or KoolAid powder over each chunk of dough and knead to incorporate.  Continue to knead until color is uniform and dough is smooth. 

    If using liquid food colors, dribble a few drops of color into well of dough.  Knead until color is worked through and dough is smooth.  Or, if you don't mind having just one color of dough, you can add the food color along with the water before cooking. 
    Store in a sealed container in the fridge until it has all been mixed into one single, unattractive color...

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna

    Has butternut squash worn out its welcome around these parts yet?  Hopefully not, because this use of it is a serious winner (a couple of years ago I made it for my book club and everyone was fighting over the leftovers, it's that good! : ).  It is serious comfort food and the leftovers taste almost better than the original dish.  Originally adapted from a Cooking Light recipe, it's even pretty healthy as well!

    If squash is not your thing (Please don't knock it til you try it!  And, by the way, butternut squash is the creamy tan, bell-shaped vegetable in the winter squash section), you could certainly play around with the fillings to have other white sauced lasagna options: for example, spinach, mushrooms and Italian sausage; other mixed vegetables like zucchini, spinach, red bell pepper and carrots (first sauteed and seasoned how you like); sliced cooked chicken, you get the picture...

    Finally, although there are several components, all the steps can be done ahead of time.  Prepare the white sauce, roast the squash and saute the spinach and then refrigerate until you're ready to assemble your lasagna.
    Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna
    8 cups (3/4") cubed peeled butternut squash (about 2 1/4 pounds)
    2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
    Cooking spray3 cups 2% reduced-fat milk
    1/4 cup all-purpose flour (about 1 ounce)
    4 tablespoons butter
    8 garlic cloves, minced and divided
    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
    1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
    1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
    3 (6-ounce) bags fresh baby spinach
    9 cooked lasagna noodles, al dente (8 ounces uncooked noodles)
    1 1/4 cups shredded Asiago, Romano or Parmesan cheese
    1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

    Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place squash in a large bowl.  Add vinegar and toss to coat.  Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss to coat.  Spread evenly in one layer on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray.  Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and thyme.  Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

    Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add half of minced garlic and cook about 30 seconds to a minute or until fragrant.  Add flour to pan and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, or until smooth and golden.  Remove from heat, add about 2 tablespoons warm milk to flour mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk.  Gradually add remaining milk about 1/2 cup at a time and whisking constantly until all the milk is added and mixture is smooth.  Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and nutmeg.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook until smooth and thickened.  Remove from heat.  Cover surface of sauce with plastic wrap, set aside.

    Combine remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, red pepper and remaining garlic in a large pot over medium heat.  Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add spinach, 1 bag at a time; cook until wilted, stirring frequently.  Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook until liquid evaporates, stirring frequently.  Remove from heat and set aside. 

    Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. 

    Spoon 1/3 cup white sauce mixture in bottom of a 9x13 inch baking pan coated with cooking spray.  Arrange 3 noodles over sauce, top with spinach mixture, 2/3 cup milk mixture, 1/2 cup Parmesan and 1/4 cup mozzarella.  Arrange 3 noodles over cheese; top with butternut squash mixture, 2/3 cup white sauce, 1/2 cup Parmesan and 1/4 cup mozzarella.  Top with remaining 3 noodles, remaining white sauce mixture and remaining Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.

    Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly.  Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
    Makes 8 servings

    Recipe adapted from Cooking Light Magazine December 2007

    Monday, October 17, 2011

    Chocolate Turtle Cake

    Wow.  October has been flying by.  We've had a steady stream of company and a whole host of other things come our way in the last few weeks.  Consequently, there has not been as much cooking around these parts as eating out (or so it seems) and when I have been making food, there hasn't been a whole lot of attention paid to making sure to snap a pretty picture.

    Sometimes, a recipe doesn't need a lovely shot to be enticing, though.  At least, that's what I would think when mentioning such a thing as Chocolate Turtle Cake.  While my parents were visiting, I really wanted to try out this recipe on them knowing that they have a weakness for the chocolate, caramel pecans combination.  I'm so glad I did (and especially glad there were extra people to help spread out the calories!).

    Inspired by the beloved candy, this version consists of chocolate cake (use a box, if you please! I sure did.) is layered with gooey caramel and crunchy pecans, covered in rich chocolate frosting and then topped with a final dressing of caramel. 

    Chocolate Turtle Cake
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    2 cups pecans, toasted
    1 pound soft caramels (I used a 14 oz. bag of Kraft brand and it worked well despite not being quite 1 pound)
    1/8 teaspoon salt
    1 recipe Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting (recipe below) or 1 recipe Chocolate Icing (also below)
    2 (8-inch) baked chocolate cake rounds

    For the caramel: Finely chop 1 1/2 cups pecans.  Heat caramels, remaining cream and salt in a microwave safe bowl by cooking on 50% power in microwave, removing bowl and stirring every 30 seconds until caramel is smooth and melted.  Reserve 3/4 cup caramel mixture for topping.  Stir chopped pecans into remaining caramel mixture. 

    To assemble: Place 1 cake layer on cake serving platter.  Spread the pecan-caramel mixture in an even layer over the top, leaving 1/2 inch border around the edges.  Pour a very small amount of chocolate frosting around the caramel filling to keep it from spilling over the edges (see photo).  Top with second cake layer.  Pour or spread chocolate frosting over top and sides of cake, allowing to set slightly.  Spread reserved caramel mixture over top of cake, allowing caramel to drip over sides (reheat caramel in microwave for just a few seconds if it has gotten too stiff to pour).  Garnish with remaining pecans.  Slice and serve
    Making a "dam" of chocolate frosting to keep the caramel from spilling out.  Kindly disregard the very torn cake edges.  I was meant to relearn a lesson in properly greasing the cake pans.  Oops.

    Note: the original recipe called for a chocolate ganache icing instead of the "Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting."  I changed it up mostly for the sake of time (the ganache has to cool for much longer).  If you would like to use it instead, I've included it below.

    Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting
    1 cup sugar
    1/3 cup evaporated milk (you can also substitute half and half)
    1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, cut into small pieces
    1 cup mini marshmallows
    a pinch of salt
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 cup milk chocolate chips (or a combination of milk and semi-sweet)

    In a medium saucepan over very lowest heat, combine sugar and evaporated milk. Stir thoroughly until sugar starts to dissolve. Add butter and marshmallows. Stir constantly until butter and marshmallows are completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in salt, vanilla and chocolate chips, stirring until chips are melted and frosting is smooth. Use immediately as it will stiffen up quickly.

    notes: after a lot of experimenting, I have found that it is very important to make sure to combine the milk and sugar first, otherwise the sugar crystals will never fully dissolve and your frosting will remain grainy. It is also important to keep the heat as low as possible. Finally, you can certainly play around with the chocolate used. We just prefer milk chocolate. 

    Chocolate Icing:
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
    2 tablespoons light corn syrup
    In a medium saucepan, cook cream, chocolate and corn syrup over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until smooth.  Transfer mixture to medium bowl and refrigerate until thickened but still spreadable, about 2 hours, stirring occasionally (alternatively, refrigerate mixture overnight until set.  Let sit at room temperature until softened and spreadable, about 1 hour).

    Recipe Adapted from: Cook's Country Magazine

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Butternut Squash Soup

    If you haven't noticed, I am a big fan of butternut squash.  It might be my favorite thing about Fall, although then I remember pumpkin and apples and caramel and roasted green chiles and I realize it has pretty stiff competition, Even considering all those Autumn favorites, butternut squash is still pretty fantastic.  This is one of the more classic applications, with good reason.  It's simple, comforting, sweet and savory all at once.  As the weather cools, this soup makes a welcome return to our kitchen lineup. 

    Butternut Squash Soup
    serves 4-6 
    2 tablespoons butter 
    1 medium onion, roughly chopped
    1/2 medium butternut squash (about 3-4 pound squash), peeled, seeds scooped out and diced into 1" pieces
    2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
    1 medium apple, peeled, cored and diced
    4 cups chicken broth
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or to taste
    1/4-1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
    salt and pepper to taste

    In a large pot, melt butter over medium high heat.  Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes or until onions start to become translucent.  Add garlic and apple and cook for another 1-2 minutes or until garlic becomes fragrant.  Stir in butternut squash, chicken broth and thyme.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, cover and simmer until squash and onions are soft (15-25 minutes, depending on how big your pieces are).  Use an immersion blender to puree until smooth (or you can puree in batches in a blender or food processor).  Stir in half and half and season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper. 

    Note: This is a very basic version, you can feel free to enhance it and make your own---some ideas: carrot and celery thrown in with the cubed squash, a bit of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar or curry powder to add flavor, a topping of crispy bacon, croutons or a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt...

    Also, you can feel very fancy by calling it a "bisque" if you like as it's gone to company-worthy! 

    Monday, October 10, 2011

    Crock Pot Marinara Sauce

    I like it when I have the sense to plan ahead.  Today was not one of those days. 

    Today was a day of trying to get dinner thrown together while a toddler tried to scale the pantry shelves and then while I was moving the breakable pantry items out of his reach, proceeded to jump down, run over and burn his hand on the side of the oven door.  Sweet. 
    Today is a day I'd wished I planned ahead and made this meal.  Never mind that I already made it last week and we plowed through the leftovers.  As I was holding a teary kid's hand under cold running water, I was wishing for more Crock Pot Marinara, cozily waiting in the slow cooker instead of mashing together a semblance of a meal while trying to referee a one and five year old. 

    The original recipe is for meatballs along with marinara.  Personally, I am appreciative that God created bags of Costco meatballs because it's one less step (my boys have discovered a deep love for those little orbs).  For those days that we are feeling slightly more ambitious, I've included the original meatball version.   

    I'll be making this again tomorrow and freezing it in batches so I'll be more prepared next time. 

    Crock Pot Marinara Sauce (and Meatballs)
     sauce makes enough to coat 1 1/2 pounds of pasta
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    2 medium onions, chopped fine (about 2 cups)
    2/3 cup tomato paste (1 6-ounce can)
    8 garlic cloves, minced (use a garlic press or food chopper to crank 'em out)
    1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning (or dried Oregano)
    1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
    1/2 cup red wine
    2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
    1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

    1. Cook Aromatics
    Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add onions, and saute until onions begin to be translucent, 2-3 minutes.  Stir in tomato paste, garlic cloves, Italian seasoning pepper flakes and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes more.

    2. Make Sauce
    Transfer onion mixture to slow cooker.  Add wine to pot with remaining onion mixture and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in tomatoes, then transfer to slow cooker.  Cook on low heat until sauce is thickened, 4-5 hours.  Stir in basil and remaining Parmesan.  Season with salt.  Serve over pasta.

    Meatball Variation:
    2 garlic cloves, minced

    1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
    1/4 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
    2 large eggs
    1 1/4 pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
    3 tablespoons heavy cream

    Cook aromatics according to step 1 above.  Transfer half of onion mixture to a bowl.  Add 1/2 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, sausage, eggs, 3/4 teaspoon salt and remaining 2 cloves of garlic to bowl with onion mixture.  Mash with potato masher until smooth.  Add beef and cream to bowl and knead with hands until well combined.  Form mixture into twelve 2-inch meatballs.

    Cook meatballs: Microwave meatballs on large plate until fat renders and meatballs are firm, 4 to 7 minutes.  Nestle meatballs in slow cooker, discarding rendered fat.  Cover and cook on low until meatballs are tender and sauce is slightly thickened, 4 to 5 hours.  Skim fat.  Stir in basil and remaining Parmesan.  Season with salt.  Serve over pasta.

    Make ahead: Raw meatballs and sauce can be refrigerated separately up to 24 hours in advance.  When ready to cook, add sauce to slow cooker and microwave meatballs before adding them to the slow cooker.  Continue with recipe as directed.   

    Recipe Source: Cook's Country Magazine

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    What is hospitality?

    I have come to realize, that although a byline of my blog's title is "Recovering the Lost Art of Hospitality," I rarely address the subject of hospitality head on. 

    My definition, simply put:
    Hospitality is using what you have (time, talents, gifts, possessions, etc.) to bless someone else.

    To me, hospitality is not about entertaining but rather creating an atmosphere of welcome.  Hospitality is about being present and willing to offer up something you have in the goal of taking care of someone else's needs.

    It has nothing to do with having a perfect meal, decorated house or even a lot of space,
    it's about making the most of your resources in order to help build a deeper relationship with another person.

    It does not even have to be on your "own turf"--you can practice hospitality at the store by offering to let the person behind you with three items in their basket to go ahead of you or allowing another car to take the close parking space (bonus, you'll get to burn some calories if you park further out).  I have to confess that usually when I'm at the store with my screaming, squirming children who are helping themselves to bites out of candy bars off the checkout display, I have been on the receiving end of this hospitality rather than the giving end but I know how much I have appreciated others' kindness in this area!)

    Some simple acts of hospitality:
    • Putting a simple wrapped chocolate on the pillow of an overnight guest.
    • Keep a brownie mix (or the ingredients to whip up a quick dessert) in the pantry and invite someone over for a simple impromptu visit with someone.
    • When baking a cake (or said brownies, muffins, bread, etc.), cut off half and run it over to a neighbor 
    • Holding the door open for the person behind you
    • Recognizing an opportunity to lend someone assistance
    • Surprise someone with coffee
    • Write a thank you note, just because
    • Double a recipe and keep the extra in a disposable container in the freezer to give to a friend or neighbor in need.
    • Offer to watch someone's children for an hour or two.
    Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.  I am so excited to hear of others' ideas of ways to "recover the lost art of hospitality." 

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    Non-Recipe Recipes

    It's been a loonnngggg week.  Between some serious busyness and lack of motivation on my part, there hasn't been much real cooking round these parts lately.  Here are a few of our "go to's" when there hasn't been much time or inclination for anything elaborate.  What are your favorite Non Recipe Recipes?

    Non-Recipe Recipes: Dinner and Lunch Ideas for the Time-Pressed and Creativity-Challenged

    Frozen Cheese Ravioli or Tortellini: Top with jarred sauce or browned butter (just melt over medium heat until foamy and golden).  Or...layer cheese ravioli in place of lasagna noodles with meat sauce and shredded mozzarella for a quick lasagna!

    Pita Pizzas: Toast 6" size whole pitas (or English muffins), top with sauce, cheese and desired toppings and bake at 400 until golden brown and bubbly.  This is one that's fun for the kids to do themselves. 

    Rotisserie Chicken: A desperation dinner powerhouse because it can be used in so many ways.  Can be eaten plain with a salad and a loaf or bread, can also be shredded to use for chicken salad, bbq sandwiches, quesadillas, added to canned chicken broth, noodles and vegetables for a quick soup or thrown into pasta dishes.

    Quesadillas: My kids are thrilled with some cheese melted in a tortilla.  My husband and I like to jazz ours up with additions of whatever is on hand--cooked chicken or steak, pico de gallo, crumbled bacon, fajita veggies, green chiles or chopped tomatoes. 

    Pasta and Jarred Sauce: fancy it up by throwing in some ground beef or turkey or some chopped spinach or other cooked veggies.

    Bean Burritos: As simple as canned refried beans and cheese or slightly more gourmet with a can of black beans mixed together with salsa and cheese wrapped in a tortilla.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Autumn Penne

    Ok, the recipe title "Autumn Penne" doesn't begin to give you an idea of how exciting this recipe really is.  That said, I thought that calling it something that would give you a better window into this dish might be a little overwhelming.  You tell me, does "Chicken and Roasted Butternut Squash Penne in a Sage Brown Butter Cream Sauce with Balsamic Reduction Drizzle" sound like a bit much?

    One bite, though, and you will agree it's well worth it. 

    My sister, who is in the throws of medical school midterms, gave me a hard time the other night after making one of my recipes, a Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie, because it was a bit more involved than my usual posts.  It's true, usually a deciding factor for me in whether I'll try a recipe is how many dirty dishes it will create.  So, in fair warning to my sister, Elise, and other pinched for time friends, this is not going to be the simplest meal you've ever made. 

    That said, it will be worth it and in reassurance, I made it on a weeknight and if a few of your components are done ahead of time, you really could throw it together really pretty quickly.  This really is a restaurant-worthy dish and you will feel so fancy and accomplished after making something like a "sage brown butter cream sauce" (trust me, it really is easy!).  This pasta encapsulates all the warm flavors of Fall in a dish and is one I am really excited to make again.  

    Autumn Penne (or Chicken and Roasted Butternut Squash Penne in a Sage Brown Butter Cream Sauce with Balsamic Reduction Drizzle)
    serves approximately 6
    2 cups shredded cooked chicken (this was about one breast and using a rotisserie chicken is a really nice short cut)

    1/2 butternut squash (about 1 pound), diced into 1/2" cubes
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    ground pepper
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

    12 oz dried shaped pasta (I used Ronzoni brand penne)

    2-4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced into slivers (about 2 tablespoons)
    1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter
    8-10 fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish
    1/2 cup cream
    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 cup chicken broth

    salt and pepper to taste
    1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
    1/2 cup shredded Romano or Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Toss squash cubes with olive oil and spread in an even layer on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and thyme.  Roast for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until squash is tender and starting to turn golden brown.  Remove from oven and set aside until ready to assemble pasta (*This is a step you could do up to a day in advance, storing the cooked squash pieces in the fridge until assembly time).

    While squash is roasting, bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare pasta "al dente" (or still firm to the bite) according to package directions, drain, return to the cooking pot and cover to keep warm.

    Meanwhile, also heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat until it foams.  Increase heat to medium. Add the sage and cook until the leaves turn crisp, about 1 ½ minutes.  Butter should be a nice nutty brown color and very fragrant (watch this very closely as the butter can go from browned to burnt pretty quickly).  Remove from heat and pour butter and sage leaves into a small bowl or measuring cup and set aside (I just kept the sage leaves whole in the sauce, but you can either remove them from the butter and cut into smaller pieces or remove them altogether, if you prefer).

    Return pan to heat and add garlic pieces.  Cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, just until garlic is fragrant.  Stir in cream, nutmeg, cinnamon and chicken broth.  Bring to a simmer and whisk in sage butter.  Turn heat to low and keep sauce warm, stirring occasionally.

    In a small skillet over medium high heat, bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, stirring frequently.  Allow vinegar to boil until the liquid is thickened to maple syrup consistency and is reduced by about half.  Remove from heat and set aside.

    To assemble:  In the pasta pot, pour sage brown butter cream sauce over pasta.  Stir in chicken, roasted butternut squash and a handful of freshly shredded Romano or Parmesan cheese.  Warm gently over medium-low heat, if necessary.  Adjust seasonings by adding salt or pepper if needed.  Transfer to a large serving dish (or individual ones) and drizzle balsamic syrup over top.  Garnish with additional fresh sage leaves as desired.  Serve with additional shredded cheese for sprinkling.

    p.s. I think this would be good with a sprinkle of chopped toasted walnuts for another added texture and fall flavor as well.  I'll have to try that sometime and let you know how it goes! : )