Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet Treat of the Week - This One's For The Boss

I apologize for the lack of a Sweet Treat last week. Once again, time and especially money were an issue. I've noticed all weekend that the blogs I read and follow have been quite active and I'm behind in my reading again. I must catch up soon!

We were invited for dinner to the home of Kevin's boss at his fabulous little weekend retreat in Westport CT (rather than gigantic apartment on Central Park West previously mentioned on this blog). He was entertaining some coworkers and clients in celebration of landing a really big website project. I, of course, can't be invited to someone's home without bringing along a dessert. When Kevin asked Head Honcho if I could bring something, the response was "chocolate", so of course I made it an official Sweet Treat and hit the book.

I chose my recipe purely for the convenience factor. I still had coconut left over from last week's blondies, so I chose another coconut bar.

This recipe was toffee, chocolate chip bars. The coconut-based bar cookie had dark chocolate chips and chocolate-covered toffee bars broken up into them.

I just had one problem. Heath bars for some reason are not readily available where I live. You can get them in CVS, but not in supermarkets. I didn't want to make two trips. I ended up with these.

This had lots of little, itty-bitty toffee bits throughout the chocolate. It was tasty, but the toffee didn't shine through as much. I had a similar problem when I wanted to replicate one of my favorite ice creams last summer and couldn't find Heath bars in the supermarket.

The bars were cooked pretty much like a brownie with butter melted and mixed with eggs and vanilla and stirred into the dry ingredients.

They were almost cake-like in texture and a little difficult to cut and remove from the pan. I liked them, but like many recipes from this book, wasn't bowled over by them. Kevin's coworkers felt differently though. They were the first things to go from the dessert table!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pefect Pasta Lunch

In my last post I mentioned a nice trip I made to the farmer's market this weekend. I didn't just pick up tomatoes and a pepper. I also picked up some kale, some onions and some carrots. You know what else I picked up?

Free-range spicy Italian sausage!

Is this one of the most beautiful sausages you have ever seen? **Awaits comment from Donna**

I had a nice dinner with the spicy chicken, but I needed something tasty and reasonably healthful for lunch. I squished my brains around a bit and came up with a new, simple pasta dish.

First I sauteed some onions and LOTS garlic (Did I write a post about restraint? Why?). Then I added the kale.

I cut the sausage into links and cooked it separately. Then I sliced it up and added it to the kale. I threw in a splash of white wine for good measure.

I tossed in a box of whole wheat rotelle and then plenty of ricotta cheese for creaminess and parmesan for saltiness.

Don't you just want to eat this? (Donna may have an interesting answer for this one too.)

Rotelle with Kale and Sausage


1 pound spicy Italian sausage
2 small onions (or one large-to-medium one), finely diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbl olive oil
1 big bunch of kale, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup white wine
1 pound part-skim ricotta
1 pound whole-wheat (or regular if you prefer) rotelle
Copious amounts of grated parmesan

Cut sausage into links and cook separately. Cut into slices.

Heat olive oil in a large pan. Cook onions until soft. Add garlic and cook until fragrant.

Add kale and cook down.

Add in sausage and wine. Allow wine to evaporate off.

Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and mix into the kale mixture. Stir in ricotta and parmesan. Add salt to taste.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Making Use of The Tomato

It all started with the Little Old Italian Man who lives in my building.

You know the type. I think every neighborhood has one (at least every neighborhood in NY does and I'd wager they have them in NJ too). He's a short dude, retired from his day job, has an Italian accent, works tirelessly in his garden - no matter how small - until the day he dies. He hangs with his goombas at a particular spot in the neighborhood chatting in Italian colloquialisms and has a family connection everywhere for everything he needs. He's always very sweet and he can help you with just about anything because he has relatives in every business.

The day I came home from the nursery this spring with my supply of herbs and flowers for my balcony "garden" Little Old Italian Man spotted me hauling it all upstairs in the elevator via shopping cart. He asked me where I bought my plants. I said Tony's Nursery. He scolded me for spending all of that money at the fancy nursery. He could have gotten me cheaper plants (Don't ask me from where). Then he offered me tomatoes. He could get me tomatoes. I questioned whether or not our balconies really had space for tomato plants. He assured me it would not be a problem. After a brief visit where he inspected the space I still had left, he brought me two plants.

I put the plants out and waited.

And waited.

Then I waited some more.

It rained all through June. In July I saw a few flowers. Then I saw some tiny little orbs.

Finally, last week, I got this. *

This was one of three tomatoes that managed to make it to maturity. One of them looks just like this. One of them is still in the process of turning red.

It pained me to pluck my two ripe tomatoes. What would I do with them? They were so small and once I plucked them, there wasn't likely to be more.

I can't take them with me, so I had to eat them eventually before they just rotted away. I decided to make a nice, light summer chicken dish that would incorporate my two precious little tomatoes, along with some other plum tomatoes from the farmer's market.

Here is a photo of both my tomatoes and the market ones for scale. I told you my little 'maters were small.
My dish was nothing particularly fancy. I spiced up some chicken breasts and then created a nice, cooling salad to go on the side of them. I used tomatoes, black beans, cilantro, lime, and a green pepper that I also bought at the farmer's market.

A light refreshing meal for the summer. We needed it because we had been eating like gluttons all weekend.

*My husband took this great photo. I really should make him take all of the photos for this blog. He's much better at it than I am and he has a nicer camera.

Spiced Chicken Breasts with Tomato-Black Bean Compote

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 Tbl chipotle powder
  • 1 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 Plum tomatoes, diced
  • 2-3 Tbl chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • Juice of two limes
  • 1 tsp salt
Combine last five ingredients and set aside while you work on the chicken so that the flavors have a chance to meld.

Combine chipotle, cocoa, cumin and the 1/2 tsp salt. Rub liberally all over the chicken breasts. Heat olive oil and saute chicken breasts until cooked through. You can also grill them if that's what floats your boat.

Slice chicken breasts and serve alongside the compote. Or serve them on top of the compote. Or serve them underneath the compote. Whatever you like.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sweet Treat of the Week - A Slightly Troublesome Cake

What did the book have for me this week?

I chose a chocolate pound cake. I wanted something simple, a sort of "dump and stir" kind of recipe. I didn't want complications or the need for multiple layers or multipe add-ins. I wanted something that would travel well as I was invited to a barbecue.

The trouble started when I neglected to double-check the recipe when I shopped for ingredients. It wasn't until I started to actually bake the cake that I realized I didn't have everything I needed.

First I needed superfine sugar. I had about a cup's worth in the cupboard, but I needed three times that amount. I read many years ago that whizzing your regular sugar in the food processor could substitute for superfine sugar, so I did that.

Then I realized I needed a vanilla bean. The recipe called for vanilla extract and a scraped vanilla bean. Once again, my chocolate treat is missing vanilla. I looked for something flavorful to boost the chocolate. I thought about Ina Garten's love of adding coffee. I had none (which was odd because I usually keep instant coffee granules around for baking). I was hoping I might have some Kahlua stashed away in the liquor cabinet - no dice. I opted for a small amount of rum.

The recipe said to line the pan with paper. I couldn't figure out how to line a Bundt pan with paper. It gets all wrinkly and crinkly. I decided to just grease and flour the pan really well and hope for the best.

As far as Bundt cakes go, this one rose really nicely and filled the pan. It was not the skimpy Bundt cake I so detest and fear. Unfortunately, it did stick a little in some spots. I did what I could to cover it up by making some chocolate royal icing and covering those patches up. Unfortunately, I poured the milk in too quickly and the glaze was too thin. I didn't have enough powdered sugar to thicken it back up. When I attempted to pour the stuff onto the cake, it just dripped right off. It made for some nice leakage during transport as well.

Yokelson is so incredibly precise with cooking directions. In her recipes, you don't just cream butter until it's fluffy. You cream it for 3 minutes. She has very precise times for every ingredient you add to the mixing bowl. It makes a real difference in the texture of the batter.

The cake, despite the holes and drips came out pretty well. It had a cup of cocoa in it and so was very chocolately. The precise mixing times really did make for a nicely-texture cake with a very fine crumb.

Email me for the recipe if it looks good to you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fig and Caramelized Onion Chicken - And a few thoughts

When it comes to cooking, one of the things I believe every beginner cook needs to learn is restraint.

Twenty years ago when I decided it was time to expand my kitchen skills beyond baking desserts and that I should start cooking actual real food, I didn't know the meaning of restraint. I had a taste for spicy food and a desire to show the world I wasn't afraid of the spice rack. Every flavor I could add to a dish was new and exciting and everything I had on hand was poured into the pot. Then there was the garlic. Garlic was the king of flavors and if the recipe said to use two cloves, I used four. No recipe could have enough garlic.

I look back on those days and realize I was making a mistake, however well-intentioned and enthusiastic, and that many beginner cooks make the same one. Unfortunately, there is a school that encourages this type of cooking. Check out any cooking show aimed at beginners and you'll see what I mean. Sandra Lee adds herbs and "seasoning packets" to bottled Italian dressing and then throws herbed cheese into the dish. Rachael Ray's recipes often have upwards of 15 ingredients in them and she never goes without garlic. How many years did I cook before I learned that "Italian" was not synonymous with "reeking of garlic"? It's very easy when you're a beginner cook to want to explore your spice rack. Every jar seems intriguiging so you just want to use them all.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to hold back. I've discovered that in many dishes a few, simple, complimentary flavors can pack as much power as a shelf full of spices. "Simple" is not the same thing as "bland". In fact, sometimes taking the less-is-more approach can make a dish seem more flavorful because the distinct tastes of each ingredient are left to shine. Yes, chicken goes with anything, but let the chicken be a chicken instead of making it nothing more than a vehicle for a sauce. (Now I'm hearing Tom Colicchio telling me to "Honor the Protein".)

I think one of my favorite examples of this is the cacciatore I made a few months ago. I kept my ingredients to a minimum in that dish: chicken, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, wine. I thought my cacciatore was very fresh tasting. I know that if I had made that same dish twenty -or even ten - years ago, I would have added several cloves of garlic, a spoonful of oregano, basil leaves, and who knows what else (rosemary perhaps). I don't think adding all of that extra flavor would have really done that much more for the dish. The simple taste of the vegetables was perfect on its own. Readers may notice my marinara sauces tend to stick to just red pepper, garlic, tomatoes, and basil with the occasional onion or cup of wine. Why bury the star ingredient - tomatoes - under too many herbs?

So now that I've given my lecture for the day, you may be asking what this has to do wtih my recipe.

My recipe today sticks to the principle that one should show a little restraint and simply add a few lovingly-treated ingredients to create a stellar dish. I came up with this recipe because figs are readily available right now and since I discovered the joy of fresh figs last summer, I'm eager to use them in as many recipes as I can. I combined ingredients I knew would work well together: figs with salty pork products, chicken with wine, caramelized onions with - well - everything!

There isn't much original about this dish. I have seen a dozen similar recipes on the internet and I'm sure there are hundreds more floating around. This isn't so much about creating an original recipe as it is about simply using the rules from my own head. What few ingredients can I combine for maximum deliciousness and how can I make the most of their individual properties? This is about crispy pancetta, sweet sweet caramelized onions, well-browned chicken, and wine carefully reduced to it's strongest essence.

The recipe takes a little time, but the results are well worth it.

I started by browning pancetta and then caramelizing onions. Yes, use that pancetta grease if you have it.
Next I browned pounded and dregded chicken breasts on both sides.

I made a sauce by reducing wine, figs, and a little chicken broth.

The breasts were simmered in the sauce till cooked through. I served them with squares of polenta and green beans in a balsamic reduction (Yes, there is garlic in my balsamic reduction).

I thought this dish was delicious and worth the effort. Unfortunately, the effort was wasted on Sir Pickypants, who left a pile of those expensive figs and carefully caramelized onions on the plate when he was finished. No matter how hard I try to make them sweet and delicious, he won't let go of the idea that onions=bad.

Chicken in Figs, Wine and Caramelized Onions

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded slightly
Four for dredging
1-2 Tbl olive oil
3 Tbl butter
3 oz. pancetta, cut in small pieces
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 lb fresh figs, sliced
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth

Dredge chicken breasts in flour, salt and pepper.

In a large pan, cook pancetta pieces until crisp. Add onions to the pan. If there is not enough grease, add 1 Tbl of olive oil. Cook at least 20 minutes at a low temperature or until they are nice and brown and sweet. Remove from pan.

Add 1 Tbl of butter and 1 Tbl oil to the pan. Brown chicken breasts well on both sides. Should be about 5 minutes per side. Remove from pan and keep warm.

Add wine, broth, and figs to the pan. Cook until reduced by about half. Adjust seasoning as necessary. You will likely want more salt here.

Put chicken and onions back into the pan and simmer until cooked through. Remove chicken breasts from pan and swirl the remaining 2 Tbl of butter into the sauce. Serve chicken breasts covered in sauce and sprinkled with the reserved pancetta bits (unless you're serving it to my husband in which case don't add the pancetta - and while you're at it, leave off the sauce).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sweet Treat of the Week - Just Under the Wire

Okay. I made my Sweet Treat this week for a Saturday night party. It's barely this week, but it still counts.

So what did the book have in store for me this time?

I made coconut blondies. I love blondies and I made a couple of different kinds last summer. I chose these because I have been obsessed with coconut lately. These are a little different from standard blondies because they have a chocolate cookie crust under them.

The cookie crust was a bit of a pain. It didn't always want to adhere to the blondie when I removed them from the pan. It did add another flavor dimension to the whole thing. This was one of the better recipes from the book.

Email me for the recipe if they look good to you.

I made a second dessert for the party as well. I decided hot August nights need ice cream. I made an ice cream that is a copy of one of my favorite ice creams at the Bellvale Creamery: Great White Way. It's white chocolate ice cream with raspberry swirl and dark chocolate chunks. I had some raspberry sauce in my freezer left over from the time my mother brought over Ina Garten's lemon cake and raspberry sauce.

There are chocolate chunks in this ice cream, I swear! They just kind of fell to the bottom.

White Chocolate Ice Cream with Raspberry Swirl and Chocolate Chunks

1 cup milk
2 cups heavy cream
7 egg yolks
2 tbsp sugar
8 oz. white chocolate, chopped
1 cup Ina Garten's Raspberry Sauce
4 oz dark chocolate bar, chopped

Bring milk and 1 cup of the cream to a boil. In a bowl beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and creamy (about 2 minutes). Slowly and carefully pour the hot milk into the yolks and stir in quickly. Return the mixture to the pan. Cook until it thickens slightly (coats a spoon). DO NOT BOIL.

Remove from pan and stir in the white chocolate and the remaining cup of cream. Strain into a bowl and refrigerate until completely cold (this will take a few hours).

Freez in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions. When it's close to ready, blend in the chocolate chips. Remove from ice cream maker and transfer to a container. Carefully blend in the raspberry sauce, using a knife to make swirls.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another Meal Where I Shamelessly Rip Off Other Bloggers

Honestly, where did I get my recipes from before I discovered food blogs? How did I go for so long without completely ruining adapating other people's creations?

My most current shameless copping flattering imitation comes from a blog I'm prone to stealing ideas from, We Are Never Full. Their Cornish Hen Agrodolce looked really super good. They helpfully pointed out that the recipe would work for many types of meats, so I opted to make mine with good-old-fashioned chicken breasts rather than hens.

First I dredged and sauteed some chicken breasts in a little butter and olive oil. I gave them a good browning and put them aside.

(I would have taken some more photos of this process, but I was charging the camera battery.)

Then I sauteed the onions, garlic, and shallots, and added the liquid ingredients, as per Amy and Jonny's recipe. I reduced the whole thing down, strained out the onions, and then in went the jam and the rest of the solid ingredients. I added the breasts back in to cook through while the sauce reduced again.

I made another change to the recipe. I did not add olives, because I hate olives. Instead I used some choped sweet-spicy peppadew peppers, which I felt echoed the theme of the entire dish. I guess I wanted more spice after the arrabbiata that wasn't spicy enough. Once the chicken was cooked, I took it out and added the butter.

Time to serve. Oh, look what I served them over! It appears to be the cauliflower puree made with brown butter. This one was brazenly taken straight from Stephane of Zen Can Cook. I even sprinkled the asaparagus around the plate. Once again, I came a little shy of outright copying because I didn't use the peas. I hate peas.

This one was so special I trotted out the good plates and tried to arrange things nicely. I don't do food porn well, but I try.

Delicious recipes all around, so I thank you all for your inspiration!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Faking It on a Friday

It was another Friday and I wanted to stick to something easy.

I took a look at what I had in the house. Bingo! I had leftover tomato sauce in the freezer from the last time I made spaghetti and meatballs. Let's have pasta.

Wait a minute! Pasta and tomato sauce? Nice, but boring. Anyone can do that. I wanted something a little more interesting.

That's when I realized that I seem to be seeing a lot of recipes lately for arrabbiata sauce on the blogs. Arrabbiata sauce seems to come in a few different forms. I have seen some with meat (and some very interesting variations on meat) and some without. Some don't even have tomatoes. The main component in arrabbiata is hot pepper.

With so many options and variations, it seemed that I could fake a decent arribiata using what I had in my kitchen and a few small purchases.

I started mine with some thinly sliced onion and a dried red pepper in the pan. Then I cooked it until the onion was soft.
Next came some links of Italian chicken sausage removed from the casings. Of course because of Sir Pickypants, it must be chicken sausage.
Here's where the recipe went south a little. I had asked for hot sausage at the meat counter. When I got the sausage home, I found out they had given me mild sausage. This kind of destroyed the point.

Then in goes the tomato sauce. We cook that through for a while and toss it with penne. In this case I used wholewheat penne rigate. I used wholewheat penne because I'm still trying to clean up my diet after my week of gluttony in Chincoteague. I'm sure Sir Pickypants agrees with me on the topic in spirt, although I'm not sure he was happy about actually having to eat it.

A little wine would be great added to this sauce too, although I had none in the house to try it myself. It would also be nice to wash this down with a nice glass of chianti. Again, my attempts to be clean for a while suggest I stay away from alcohol.
It was pretty good. We both liked it, but it tasted like tomato sauce with a little heat and some sausage thrown in. I would have liked more heat, which would have happened if I had been given the spicy sausage.

Penne Arrabbiata Al Breve Cuoco Di Disordine

1 Tbl olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 dried red pepper, crushed (seeds removed if you wish)
3 large links spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing and crumbled
1 quart marinara sauce (You didn't use sauce from a jar, right? RIGHT? How about I just look the other way while you pour the sauce into the pot and get the container out of my site. I'll trust you this time.)
1 pound penne rigate (or whatever pasta you wish)

Heat oil gently in a saucepan. Add onions and red pepper and cook until onions are nice and soft.

Add chicken sausage breaking up and stir to cook through.

Add the sauce and allow to simmer for a good 30 minutes or so.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and serve with sauce.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sweet Treat of the Week - Good Old Fashioned Brownies

I'm back to THE BOOK.

As I've pointed out before, this book contains seemingly endless variations on one theme, whether that theme is cookies, bars, sheet cakes, tea cakes, or layer cakes. Of course that means there are quite a few brownies recipes. There are brownies with chocolate chunks, with nuts, with cream cheese. They rest of beds of cookie crusts or are topped with fudge and frosting. Almost every section of this book has multiple brownie or similar bar cookie recipe.

I decided to just check out the simplest brownie recipe in the book. It's called Supremely Fudgy Brownies. Part of my decision was simple economy. I already had all of the chocolate I would need right there in the house. It happened to be Scharffenberger chocolate, so I knew I couldn't go wrong. The other reason for my choice was pan size. Many of the brownies and bars in the book require 10" pans, which I don't have. This recipe was for a 9" one. Would these brownies be any better than any other brownie recipe I have made in the past?

The name doesn't lie. These were very fudgy. I could taste the two sticks of butter in the recipe. I didn't find them extraordinary though. They were brownies and quite good and quite rich. I've had ones that are just as good.

I did one stupid thing though. I forgot to put vanilla in them. I had the bottle right there on the counter while I was mixing everything up, but never actually opened it and poured out a spoonful. I wonder if that would have pushed the brownies into extraordinary territory. As Ina Garten always points out, chocolate on its own can be a little flat. A backup flavor can help give it more dimension.

If you're interested in seeing if you think these brownies will be the best in the world if you just remember the vanilla, please email me for the recipe.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I Have Returned - And Cooking Again

I'm back from my fabulous vacation in Chincoteague. You can read all about it here or you can just look at the photos (I also have a smaller set of my photos, complete with captions, on my Facebook). I had a great time with mostly good weather (there were almost always thunderstorms in the evenings, but the beach days were sunny). I saw lots of ponies. I also ate plenty of good food.

The food? Oh yes, the food. I ate ice cream and funnel cakes. I ate giant steaks and pork chops. I ate racks of ribs and pulled pork. I ate and ate and ate.

Of course I have now seen the photos and therefore how I looked in a swimsuit, so I need to tone it down a bit in the food department, wouldn't you say?

I cooked my first meal back home so simply that it almost doesn't deserve a post, but I thought I had a few tricks up my sleeve with the meal, so I decided to post about it anyway. These recipes were so easy, I don't really need to give you recipes.

Here is my First Meal Home.

The Burger

This was a pound of ground turkey mixed with one package of thawed frozen chopped spinach, a half a grated onion, a few grates of parmesan, and a few grates of nutmeg. I sauteed some portobello mushoom strips and used them to make a pretty bed for the burgers.

If you make these, add more salt than I did. I thought they were a bit bland.

The Cole Slaw

This was the fun one. This was my new invention, Raspberry Lime Cole Slaw. I mixed a bag of cole slaw mix with 1/4 cup of olive oil, two tablespoons raspberry balsamic vinaigrette, the juice of one lime, a tablespoon of honey, and some salt and pepper. I tossed some whole rasperries in there along with some almonds. It wasn't hugely creative, but it was a little bit of a fun change from the norm.

I hope to have a Sweet Treat going this week. Yes, I'll try to do a chocolate one, but I have a new ingredient to work with this week as well. More on that to come.