Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Packers win the Superbowl! Football food

Being a lifelong Packer fan, I just had to get that said. :)  In preparation of the Packers first trip to the Superbowl since 1997, I prepared a series of appetizers and a signature dessert - French Silk Pie.  Made some simple sausage rolls, homemade salsa, guacamole, chili, cowboy caviar, buffalo chicken dip, artichoke-olive dip, and the aforementioned dessert.  Yes, I break every rule Ina Garten taught when it comes to quantity of food.  But I listened to her rule about not cooking while guests are present - everything was done ahead.

I agree with the principles of easy entertaining.  By that rule, I should have done 3 - 4 items, max.  Why didn't I?  Partially, because this is a send-off of sorts and was my final chance to cook for friends for a while.  Partially, I had the ingredients already handy for so many of the items it seemed silly not to use them.  Lastly, because I wanted to.  As moms all over the world say, "do as I say and not as I do!"

I've covered some of thes recipes before, but the one that is my absolute "signature" item that I think everyone will remember me for is my French Silk Pie.  I based it on a recipe from the cookbook "Recipe Hall of Fame" but I diverge in two key areas - 1. the crust - they use a meringue crust.  I find that's a recipe for soggy, so I create a cookie crust; 2.  the whipped cream topping.  Not that I'm looking to save calories on a dessert made of butter, sugar, and heavy cream, but I like to lighten up my whipped cream by adding beaten egg whites.  Cuts the sweetness a bit since the chocolate mousse is sooo rich. 

While I won't give the WHOLE recipe, here's the recipe for the chocolate mousse.  I hope you enjoy!

Heather's Very Chocolatey French Silk Mousse

1 cup butter, room temperature
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar (superfine is best)
4 eggs

Beat softened butter about 1 minute or until fluffy.  Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in a double boiler or microwave.  Add the chocolate to the butter and beat at medium-high speed 2 - 3 minutes, scraping bowl halfway through.  Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to incorporate.  Add eggs and beat on high for 15 minutes (color will change from light to darker brown). 

Pour into container(s) to chill.  Let chill 2 to 4 hours and serve.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reinventing the classics of our childhood

My post the other day on Facebook about the ground beef and rice dish of my childhood reinvented gave me inspiration to try another old favorite in the middle of Snowpocalypse 2011.  I brought out a skillet version of tuna noodle casserole.

My mom's tuna noodle casserole was egg noodles, tuna, peas, and cream of mushroom soup topped off with potato chips and baked.  I'm not a person into peas, but aside from that, I started making my version in college and it's still something I make from time-to-time and Ice loves it.

Pretty simple variation - one box of Kraft Mac & Cheese (whole grain version), 1 large pouch of tuna, 1 can cream of mushroom soup and some cracked black pepper.

I cook up the pasta al dente (just under the time recommended on the package), then add the cream of mushroom and the cheese package.  Once mixed, I flake in the tuna and add pepper.  Simple and hearty.

I sometimes add shredded cheese and heat to melt, but other than that, I pretty much stick to tradition.  Yum!

Herbes de Provence - medicinial or tasty

Because of the winter weather, I cleaned out the freezer in the garage without concerns for thawing.  If you can leave the freezer door wide open for 25 minutes without it coming on, you know it's cold in the garage!  After getting rid of a ton of old items, I uncovered some frozen chicken that was only a month into storage (and thus fair game for dinner!). 

Cooking Light inspired a dish of sauteed chicken with Herbes de Provence.  The original recipe called for "fines herbes" which are parsley, thyme, tarragon, and chervil.  Not having those items all handy (darn chervil!), I thought I could take the concept of an herb-crusted piece of chicken and make it more French-inspired (rather than Mediterranean). 

What I did have were Herbes de Provence (Provencal herbs).  Traditionally, it has savory, fennel, basil, and thyme, but for some inane reason the American herb blend has lavender as well.  I love the smell of lavender, but it's a tad medicinal as well.

I used about a teaspoon per chicken breast (about 6 oz each) of the Herbes de Provence, just sprinkled it on, along with salt and pepper.  I sauteed it in a pan with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat for about 12 minutes, turning after 7 minutes.  It browned up nicely and the toasting of the spices via the saute mellowed and enriched the flavor.

I served it with a side of orzo pasta mixed with some butter and I added some more herbes to that.  That's where I missed the mark.  Where the sauteeing of the chicken mellowed the herbs, mixing it into the pasta intesified the pungency of the lavender in the herbs.  That was just a bit over-the-top - if smell is 90% of taste, I tasted Vick's vapo-rub and I would not do that again.  It was still edible, but just maybe too intense. 

So, the verdict is - make your own Herbs de Provence and consider leaving out the lavender to start.  Do consider this dried herb blend for a nice chicken saute - it's a great flavor to expand your palette.

Herbs de Provence seasoning blend:
1 1/2 teaspoons Savory
1/4 teaspoon Fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon Basil
1 1/2 teaspoons Thyme

Mix spices and store in a cool, dry place.  Try it in a chicken dish!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Creativity with leftovers and buying the specials

Did you ever see something in the "reduced" section at the meat counter?  Have you ever found yourself after eating a meal with bits and pieces that barely would make a helping of anything or such random pieces of items that you have no idea how to make a cohesive meal from them?  I found myself in that position TWICE this week.  Like usual, I planned my meals for the week and went grocery shopping on Saturday.  But the Market Street by my house had some unplanned specials, so I ditched a few of the original ideas and went with the money-saving strategy of buying the clearanced items and building meals from that (thank you Melissa D'Arabian for that tip).  In Rachel Ray (5 meals in a day) style, I ended up getting part of three meals out of one package of sirloin steaks wrapped in bacon.  I also was able to turn over some leftover bits into a tasty meal as well.

Meal one was bacon-wrapped sirloin steaks, baked potatoes, and sauteed onions and mushrooms.  Sirloin is a very lean meat, so the bacon helps to keep it moist and add flavor.  Because it was frickin' freezin' outside, I opted for pan sauteeing in some olive oil.  The steaks were aggressively seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper and sauteed over medium-high heat to get a nice crust on the meat.  My favorite trick I did with the bacon was to UNWRAP it from the meat when the sirloin was done.  My pet peeve on bacon-wrapped meats is that the bacon never really crisps up well and it's just kind of gross texture.  So, while the meat rested, I went ahead and cooked up the bacon to a crisp texture (about 5 extra minutes). 

The onions and mushrooms are a take on a recipe from my mother.  We always ate onions and mushrooms with our steaks growing up.  Her version involved in heating up sliced onions and canned mushrooms witn lots of margarine or butter.  Tasty and rich.  Mine is slightly different.  I saute chopped onions in some butter and then add sliced mushrooms (fresh preferred) and brown them slightly.  I add some additional flavor with worcestershire sauce, which I think gives it a different dimension of flavor.

For the second use of the sirloins and bacon, I actually took the bacon off of the other two sirloins and cooked it until crisp.  I reserved the bacon fat and the crisp bacon.  For dinner the other night, I used the bacon fat to saute' some shallots and created a vinaigrette with mustard and balsamic vinegar and tossed that with cooked broccoli and the crisped bacon.  It was a zesty mix of sweet (balsamic), sour (mustard and vinegar), and rich (bacon) that I paired with a rigatoni pasta and vodka-tomato sauce.

The final use of the sirloins was tonight.  A meal that I made growing up involved Minute Rice, cream of mushroom soup, and ground round or sirloin.  Basically, the meat was browned, cream of mushroom and some water added, brought to a boil, and the rice added and simmered until cooked.  It was a STAPLE in college because it was quick and cheap.  To this day, it's a meal Ice requests and enjoys.  Well, with the ice and snow we have here, I wasn't willing to head out to the grocery store, and realized that I had something to work with in my own pantry - sirloin, arborio rice, onion, garlic, beef broth, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese.  Those ingredients put together a dish that reminded me of the classic one-pot staple of my youth and college, but with a sophisticated edge that I would serve to any friend of mine.  And now, you can serve it to yours:

Sirloin Beef Tips with Mushroom Risotto
2 - (4 oz) sirloin steaks
8 oz cremini (white) mushrooms, sliced or 1 can mushrooms, drained
2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
2 cups beef broth, warmed
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

Slice the sirloin steaks against the grain into strips.  Salt and pepper the meat and set aside to come to room temperature.  Heat 1 Tbsp oil in saute pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and saute until translucent, about 2 - 3 minutes.  Set to the side in the pan and add half of the beef strips to the pan.  Saute over medium-high heat until browned on one side, about 2 minutes.  Flip the strips over and saute on the other side another two minutes.  Remove from pan and repeat with remainder of beef adding more olive oil as needed (remaining Tbsp of oil).  Set aside. 

To same pan, add 1 Tbsp. butter and arborio rice; saute until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes.  Add vermouth or wine and garlic.  Stir until liquid is almost absorbed.  Add mushrooms, 2/3 cup of the beef broth and stir, reducing heat to medium.  Continue stirring periodically until liquid is almost absorbed.  Continue adding liquid in 1/3 cup increments until liquid is almost absorbed after each addition.  After adding 1 1/3 cups of beef broth, taste the rice to see if it is cooked or needs additional liquid.  It will take about 1 2/3 cups (approx). for that amount of rice.  When rice is cooked, turn off the heat and add Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Add beef back to rice and stir to incorporate the beef and re-warm it. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 3 - 4.

Well, that was $7.00 well spent - two meals and a side dish out of one package of 4 steaks - that is an amazing achievement, especially since it also saved me from having to open a whole package of bacon for the two slices I needed to make the broccoli.  More money in our pockets!  Since I ended up splurging on a wedge of Manchego cheese for a tapas-style Spanish meal on Sunday, I guess it basically evened out.

I recently bought a cookbook, "Fine Cooking Volume II" from Half Price Books.  I picked it up because over the summer Ice found a magazine devoted to grilling by the fine folks at "Fine Cooking" and we LOVED 95% of what we saw there.  For Ice to get excited about a cooking magazine meant it was a winner.  With that in mind, I had to buy the cookbook figuring if even 25 - 50% of it was that tasty, I was in for a treat.  The cookbook was well organized and had a section on appetizers.  In there was a series of Spanish-style appetizers (tapas).  Inspired and remembering our trip to Spain in 2009, I decided to make a series of tapas - sauteed mushrooms, roasted potatoes with tomato sauce (papas bravas), marinated manchego, and sauteed Spanish chorizo in red wine.  I won't detail those recipes here, but I had bits and pieces of all of these items left over.  When we were snowed in yesterday, I turned those into a tasty fritatta.

Fritattas are a great (and cheap) meal that you can literally add anything to.  If you would eat it in an omlette or for dinner, you can probably make it into a fritatta.  I like fritattas because they are so low maintenance.  Unlike an omlette, you don't have to flip them or do anything fancy.  Saute up the fillings, add the eggs (mixed like you would for scrambled eggs), cook on the stove and finish in the oven.  Voila!!  Here is my favorite fritatta recipe made with leftovers:

Leftovers Fritatta (serves 2 - 4)

1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

2 - 3 oz meat (I used sliced Spanish chorizo)
3/4 - 1 cup chopped cooked potatoes (I used leftover roasted potatoes and 1/2 of a leftover baked potato chopped into 1/2-inch pieces)
6 oz sauteed mushrooms (cremini mushrooms quartered and sauteed in olive oil)
4 eggs, slightly beaten with 1 Tbsp ice water
2 oz shredded cheese (I used leftover manchego)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat an oven-safe skillet over medium heat and add olive oil.  When olive oil is shimmering, add onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add chorizo and saute to render slightly, about 2 minutes.  Add potatoes and mushrooms to heat through and brown slightly, about 4 minutes. 

Distribute filling throughout saute pan and add eggs.  Turn the pan to distribute the eggs and cook about 3 minutes or until bottom is set (top will still be soupy).  Add shredded cheese to top and place in oven.  Bake 5 minutes or until eggs are set and top begins to brown.

Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes.  Cut into wedges and serve with a crisp green salad dressed with vinaigrette for a well-rounded meal.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Big changes coming, and more cookbooks gone

Over the past month, my immediate family has experienced a number of dramatic changes.  With all the changes, I was motivated to take on a top-to-bottom clean out of the house.  Over the course of 4 days, I managed to tidy up drawers in two rooms, clean up cabinets, clean a closet, and organize last year's papers.  One of the other projects was to downsize a few more cookbooks.  I still consider this a work in progress (and frankly may NEVER get to a point of only having 10 cookbooks or less), but there is definitely an opportunity to continue editing down the collection.  I had already decided to part with Food Network Kitchens: Making it Easy, but I took a hard look at others and came up with the following cookbooks:

Emeril's Creole Christmas.  Love the idea and the perspective on a New Orleans-style holiday, but when will I ever cook a New Orleans-style Chrismas?  Probably not.  Beautiful book though.

Cooking with Master Chefs.  I know - this was already on the chopping block.  I took a hard look at it and just did not find recipes that I really wanted to make.  Just not going to use the book.

Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2001.  This may surprise people since I am working to cook healthier.  The problem is that the way we cooked in 2001 and how we do in 2011 has changed.  The style is different and CL recycles their best recipes anyway.  Since I get the magazine, I generally pull current recipes to cook anyway. 

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  I have to say, I bought this because it's considered a legendary cookbook.  Unfortunately, it just didn't have anything remarkable that grabbed me when I took a good look.  Maybe it's because I've advanced beyond where I was 10 years ago.  Back then, I probably would have used it as a reference more frequently.  It's probably a great book, but I love my Joy of Cooking and I turn to that as a reference instead.

It's funny - I'm really not a packrat in my personal life - I don't keep many things for sentimental value, but when it comes to cookbooks, I have a harder time letting go.  I can't figure out why - it's not some obvious reason - daddy issues, mommy issues, Freudian psychoanalysis, etc.  I just enjoy reading and re-reading cookbooks and I get ideas.  That said, one good recipe does not equal a good one.  So, in the name of change, I have to press on and keep culling my cookbooks.  Onward and downward with the total number of cookbooks!