Monday, August 30, 2010

Chocolate-Dipped Animal Crackers

If you need a super-quick, super-easy treat, you can't get much better than these cute guys. I made these last night for our Sunday treat since I hadn't planned anything, and I had exactly the time it took for my husband to bathe our two youngest girls to pull them together. The animal crackers aren't very sweet, and with the chocolate they reminded me of a chocolate-covered shortbread. I put sprinkles on most of them because, well, kids love sprinkles. These are also great to send in lunchboxes; at least for a few minutes you can be the best parent in the world ;)

Note: This is more of a method than a recipe. You can make as much chocolate as you want, and the number of crackers you need depends on how much you chocolate you put on each cracker--you get the idea.

Chocolate-Dipped Animal Crackers

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vegetable shortening
Animal Crackers

1. Cover your work surface (counter) with a large sheet of waxed paper.

2. To melt the chocolate, fill a small saucepan with 2 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Put the chocolate chips and shortening in a metal bowl small enough to fit into the pot, and where the top rim of the pot comes about 1/2 way up the side of the bowl. OR you can use a double boiler. I don't have one so I use the pot/bowl combo. It's important that the water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir the chocolate chips until they are melted (this takes just a minute or two tops) and then turn off the heat. The hot water in the pot will keep the chocolate melted.

3. Dip each cracker in the chocolate and lay them on the waxed paper. To make dipping easier, I tipped the bowl a little to the side so the chocolate created a nice puddle. Gentle shake each cookie to remove excess chocolate (if there ever is such a thing). Before the chocolate has set, sprinkle with the sprinkles.

And you're done! Like I said, super, super easy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fettuccine with Meatballs

After a hard, crazy week I woke up with a cold: head, throat, and I can feel something starting to happen in my chest. I suspect I got it from my 3 year-old who started preschool 2 weeks ago, and who has a cough and a nasty, snotty nose. So, today I'm going to sit and write for my blog, work on my cookbook, and read some of the blogs I love but haven't had any time lately to visit. I guess being sick isn't all bad...

This pasta dinner is a great 2-Fer (meals made with left-overs from another meal). I made this with some of my Steakhouse Meatballs that were left-over from a huge batch of meatballs I made for a dinner party. I put the frozen meatballs, maybe 15-18, in a crockpot with 2 32-oz jars of Classico Tomato Basil pasta sauce (my favorite jarred sauce), and cooked it all on high for about 4 hours. After simmering for so long with the meatballs the sauce took on a very nice rich, meaty flavor. We had the meatballs and sauce over fettuccine noodles with a little fresh Parmesan cheese, but they would have made awesome meatballs subs, too. Yum!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Product Review: Aidells Cajun Style Andouille

This is one of my favorite busy-day go-to dinners: chicken sausage + whatever I have in the freezer, which is usually cooked rice or couscous that I've portioned into zip-bags and frozen, and frozen broccoli (remember my post about rescuing frozen broccoli?). This time I added a simple salad of romaine lettuce and shredded Parmesan cheese with an oil-vinegar dressing. I love the sausages because they are super-fast to prepare. They're fully cooked, so a quick visit to a hot skillet and they're ready to go. I've also put them on the grill--Yum...

My standard chicken sausage is a spinach-and-asiago-cheese variety that comes from Sam's Club (they are so good, and only 3 WW Points each--5 Points for 2), but this time I decided to try a sausage my local grocery store was promoting: Aidells Cajun Style Andouille. I was interested to try it, partially because it was different than my usual sausage, but mostly because it was listed as "not recommended" in a comparison of Andouille sausage in one of my recent Cooks Illustrated magazines. I wanted to know if it was a horrid as their tasters thought.

(Sorry, I can't for the life of me find the issue of the magazine, or remember specifically which sausage they loved, just that it was an expensive mail-order sausage--and I'm not going to mail-order my sausage. If I find it I'll update this post.)

My verdict? I thought it was pretty good and tasty, tasty enough I wondered what the sausage the good folks at Cook's Illustrated loved tasted like. It was also very spicy, and I like spicy. One negative was that it's 4 WW Points each sausage (170 cal/12g fat/1g fiber). Boo! But even given that I'd be willing to buy them again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Curried Split Pea Soup + Foodie Fights results

First, the results from Foodie Fights Battle Tamarind and Brown Sugar: I won! That's right! My Frozen Tamarind-Apricot Custard with Brown-Sugar Pistachio Toffee won! I'm super excited *:)* As a Foodie Fights winner, my next job is to be one of the judges for the next battle, which happens to be Tomatoes and Corn (two of my favorites, by the way). I've been a judge once before, after winning Battle Pomegranate and Semolina Flour last year, and I have to tell you judging the entries is so much harder and more stressful than being a competitor. It's part of the prize, though, so I say, "Bring on the food!"

Now to the soup. I've always been deathly afraid of split pea soup. It's green, looks goopy, and is oftentimes made with ham--and I do not like ham (no, Sam). So I've avoided split pea soup at all costs.

Things change--people change--and I recently found myself wondering about split pea soup. I couldn't do the ham, that I knew, so was there another way to make it? I found my answer on the Food Network website in the form of Alton Brown's Curried Split Pea Soup. I love curry and there was no ham. Winner! My first pot was good, better than I'd expected, to be honest. Even my husband, who likes just about everything, was a little worried. It is green, after all--though I made sure it was not goopy. He was as pleasantly surprised as I was.

This recipe is loosely based on Alton's recipe. I changed it some because his recipe called for 12 oz of dried split peas and the bags I buy at the store are 16 oz. Who wants to have 4 oz of dried peas hanging around? I also replaced the butter in the original recipe with olive oil, and increased the curry by a lot. I wanted lots of curry flavor, and my first pot was a little weak. If you're not so much into strong curry, use the lower of the two amounts specified in the recipe.

Curried Split Pea Soup
Printable Recipe

1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 16-oz bag green split peas, rinsed and picked over
7 cups chicken broth
sour cream or plain yogurt for serving, if desired

1. Heat a medium pot over medium heat until hot. Add the olive oil and heat for 10 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes.

2. Add the rinsed split peas and chicken broth to the pot. Turn up the heat to bring it to a boil, cover and reduce the heat low or medium low to maintain a simmer. Cook for 45-50 minutes, or until the peas are very soft and falling apart. Remove from the heat.

3. Being very careful of splatters (please!), use a stick blender to puree the soup. This only takes about 30 seconds.

4. To serve, garnish with sour cream or plain yogurt. (I thinned my yogurt with a little milk to make it thin enough so it didn't sink and I could do the swirly thing on the top).

Makes about 2 quarts soup.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Foodie Fights: Frozen Tamarind-Apricot Custard with Brown Sugar-Pistachio Toffee

"I hope this is what you had in mind," my husband said as he walked in the door. He had a plastic shopping bag in his hand.

"I don't know what I had in mind. I've never seen it before," I said, taking the bag and looking at the two bricks of tamarind pulp inside. I smiled at him, "This is going to be awesome."

Before signing up for this Foodie Fights battle I'd never heard of tamarind. Apparently I've been living in a cave because this is not some obscure ingredient. From Mexican to Tai to Indian food, tamarind is a common, staple ingredient. Like I said, a cave.

This, of course, is one of the reason's why I love Foodie Fights. Yes, I love the challenge of coming up with recipes, but I've been introduced to foods I don't think would have tried cooking with on my own: Pomegranate, Semolina Flour, Starfruit, Tamarind....Thanks guys :)

To make a usable paste from the pulp I softened 1/4 cup pulp in 1/4 cup hot water for 15 minutes. Then I used a fork to mash it around and really loosen the pulp from the solids, and pressed it all through a fine-mesh strainer. After scraping the stuff (goop) off the bottom of the strainer I was left with about 1/4 cup of thick tamarind paste.

After tasting the tamarind paste straight I felt like I had one of those big cartoon question marks above my head. I had no idea how this frozen custard was going to turn out. I thought apricots and cinnamon would work, but it might flop, too. I was very happy to find that it was very, very good; happy-dance good. The tamarind has a distinct flavor--you can't really compare it's sweet-tart flavor to anything else--and combining it with the apricots and cinnamon produced a delicious, round-in-your-mouth taste. Add the egg yolks, half and half, and cream, and you have a super-creamy, delightfully-flavored dessert.

Frozen Tamarind-Apricot Custard
Printable Recipe

12 dried apricots
4 egg yolks
1 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup tamarind paste (see above)
1 cup half and half
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. Put the dried apricots in a small sauce pan, cover them with water by about 1 inch, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the apricots to a small container (reserve cooking water) and puree with a stick blender until smooth, adding 2-3 tablespoons of the cooking water as needed. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar until thick and creamy. Add the tamarind paste, half and half, and cinnamon, and whisk until smooth.

3. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until it starts to simmer. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar is dissolved, 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the heavy cream and vanilla.

4. Cool the mixture until luke-warm and then transfer it to a bowl, put plastic wrap directly on the surface, cover with a lid, and refrigerator until very cold (I ended up leaving mine over-night).

5. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's manufacturer's instructions, transfer to a bowl, cover, and harden in your freezer for at least 4 hours.

Note: I found that after 4 hours it was still pretty soft, but I don't know if it's because I didn't leave it in the freezer long enough, my freezer isn't cold enough, frozen custards don't get as hard as ice cream, or because this combination of ingredients just doesn't freeze very hard. It's a mystery.

I love pistachios. They're so, so tasty, and just look at those colors! Gorgeous!

I wanted to make some kind of toffee to go with my frozen custard, and thought it would be pretty with some chopped pistachios on it. I was right. Do pistachios go with tamarind? Maybe. I should publicly thank my daughter for shelling them for me. She got paid in pistachios. Win-win, I say.

Brown Sugar-Pistachio Toffee

1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (see above)
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
pinch kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3-1/2 cup chopped, shelled pistachios (I sifted out the tiny pieces)

1. Melt the butter in a small sauce pan. Add the brown sugar, water, tamarind paste, corn syrup, salt, and mix well. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring often, until the brown sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.

2. Clip on a candy thermometer and cook the mixture, without stirring, until it reaches 290 deg (just above the soft crack stage on my thermometer). Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

3. Immediately pour the toffee out onto a silpat mat and gently spread it with a metal spatula if needed. Immediately again--because it hardens quickly--sprinkle on the chopped pistachios. Allow the toffee to harden completely.

4. Break the toffee into pieces small enough to use to garnish your frozen custard.

You can go here to see what the other four contestants entered in this battle. Take a look and cast your vote! *:)*

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tutorial: How to make roasted bell peppers

I love roasted red bell peppers. They add such a unique flavor to food, and while you can buy them in the jar, you can very easily make them at home. The peppers for this tutorial were prepared on a grill, but I usually roast them under my broiler (it seems to go a bit faster under the broiler). I have a gas stove, but I've never blackened them over the flame; I should try that next.

Much of this technique I learned from my older sister, who says it's a combination of what she learned in a cooking class she took and something she learned from Martha Stewart. Wherever she learned it, I think it's the easiest way to prepare them. What I love most is the sweating/peeling part of this technique. The use of paper towels makes it so fast and easy! Every time I see instructions that say to peel them with your bare hands I think, "Why?" The peppers are hot and so messy--paper towels are definitely the way to go.

How To Make Roasted Bell Peppers

On the grill: Heat your grill to super hot (450-500 deg). Lay the peppers cross-wise to the bars on your grill grate and grill them on each side, turning the peppers with long-handled tongs, until the skin is blistered and blackened, 6-10 minutes on each side.

Under the broiler: Pre-heat your broiler on high. Set the peppers on a baking sheet that you've lined with foil. Broil on each side, turning the peppers with long-handled tongs, until the skin is blistered and blackened, 5-8 minutes on each side.

Immediately wrap each pepper in a couple paper towels and tie it up in it's own plastic grocery bag (See? Recycling.). Let the peppers sweat for 10-15 minutes, or until you're ready to peel them. My sister says she's let them sit for an hour or more and they've still peeled just fine.

One at a time, remove each pepper from it's sauna and use the paper towels to gently wipe the skin off. Notice I'm wearing latex gloves? I always have a box of latex gloves in my kitchen, they are one of my favorite gadgets ;) I wear gloves to peel the peppers because they are still pretty hot and I don't like getting the goop under my nails. OK, it's mostly because I don't like the goop.

Once the pepper is naked, gently pull out the stem...

...and pull the pepper open. At this point you can give them a quick rinse under water to get rid of the seeds, or not. My sister actually did a little "gasp" when I rinsed these. Apparently she doesn't rinse her peppers ;) You choose--I don't like the seeds.

Now you're free to do whatever you want with your delicious, freshly prepared roasted bell peppers. You can leave them in large pieces for sandwiches or burgers, or slice them like I did here (a baking sheet under your cutting board will keep the pepper juice from going all over your counter--blech!). Sliced peppers work great in wraps or salads or my sister's awesome Pasta with Roasted Peppers and Balsamic Chicken. I know, don't you want that recipe? No tears. It's coming.

Use the peppers right away or store them in a tightly lidded, plastic container in the fridge. I can't tell you how long they last because if I don't use them within a couple days, I usually freeze them. And there's no need to add any liquid to their storage container. As they sit they release juice that keep them moist and scrumptious.

Thanks, Crystal, for everything you've taught me! And thanks to my daughter, who wore the photographer-hat for this post. Love ya!
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