Archive for May, 2011

BEST brownies ever

I’ve been meaning to pass along this recipe for awhile now but it seemed like the right timing with Memorial Day this weekend (knockout picnic treat anyone?) and school coming to an end. Not only are these the BEST brownies, but my youngest daughter has a chocoholic teacher so I’m planning on making a batch of these just for her. And if you’re looking for more ideas to thank your child’s teacher check out these ideas courtesy of Motherboard.

So what makes these so good? Chocolate. I know, that’s obvious, but we’re not talking just cocoa powder here or gobs of flour, the main ingredient in these brownies is the good stuff. And there are layers of chocolate–with the butter, mixed with the flour, the eggs. As with the best desserts–in my sweet tooth opinion–they’re better on day two when they’ve had a chance to densify (that’s a word we’ve invented just for these brownies; they’re airy on day #1, dense with dark chocolate day #2).

I bake these in a parchment-lined pan so I can easily lift them out and make perfect cuts and shapes with the brownies.

Recipe

Ingredients

1 ½ cups semi-sweet chocolate

1 ¼ cups sugar

12 Tablespoons butter

1 cup flour

1/3 cup cocoa

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons cocoa powder, Espresso powder, or black onyx powder

½ cup chocolate chips (optional, cuz there’s not enough chocolate already)

1 cup walnuts (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Melt the chocolate, sugar and butter together in a large glass bowl in the microwave, heating it at half power in 1-minute intervals. Cook just until you can stir to combine. Step aside to cool to room temperature.
  3. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs together until frothy and all the Espresso powder.
  4. In another mixing bowl, mix all of the remaining dry ingredients (baking powder, salt, flour, cocoa) together.
  5. Add the cooled chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and beat to combine.
  6. Stir the flour mixture into the chocolate just until combined. Pour into prepared pan.
  7. Bake for 20-25 minutes in a 9×13” baking pan sprayed with cooking oil. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick; when it comes out clean the brownies are done baking.

Optional directions for the perfectly cut brownie:

  1. Spray the 9×13” baking pan with spray and then add a sheet of either parchment or wax paper to the bottom of the pan, spray again. Pour the brownie batter onto the paper.
  2. Bake as directed above.
  3. Let the brownies cool and then place then in the refrigerator for at least an hour, preferably overnight.
  4. Lift the brownies out of the pan and then remove the pan underneath before placing on a cutting board.
  5. Use a sharp knife to remove the outside edges, then cut the brownies into 11/2 to 2” squares.
  6. Keep in the fridge for best, most intensely chocolatey results.
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3 secrets to better shish kabobs

Food + stick = bliss. Yeah, I’m talking shish kabobs one of my favorite reasons to fire up the grill. But kabobs are deceptively tricky–the meat/veggie combo means you have to balance getting your meat cooked just right while not burning the veggies past recognition.

Here’s a few ideas for better kabobs:

Keep ‘em separate. I don’t grill the meat and the veggies together anymore. Nope. I make skewers with all one item to make sure I can grill it just right (confession: hubby mans the bbq). Chicken. Sausage. Peppers. Onions. They all get their own skewer.

Skewer savvy. Hey, but what about that lovely photo that has them combined?, you ask. I put them together post-grill. Yes, this takes more work but everything is cooked perfectly that way. Since I’m doing just one ingredient per skewer, I use larger skewers for the grill, then when I re-skewer I put the pieces on smaller ones. You can use the hole that’s already there or make a new one. If it’s just my family, I don’t even bother to re-skewer, I just put the cooked pieces in the middle of the table on a large platter. When I make these to take to a picnic, I’ll re-skewer then leave them in a just-warm oven until it’s time to go.

Photo credit: Goya

Mojo. Why go through all the trouble of creating your own marinade when you can use Mojo sauce? Goya has several varieties. I like criollo (basic) or chipotle. If your meat is frozen, let it sit overnight in the fridge to thaw in the marinade.

Your turn–kabob fan? Any tricks you want to share?

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Tart cherries 101

You might call Jamie Roster a sour cherry aficionado. In 2005, along with her husband, Nick, she became the owner of The Cherry Stop, “the world’s largest selection of cherry food and gifts” in the heart of Traverse City, Michigan, which happens to supply 80% of the country’s sour cherry supplies.

The Cherry Stop is definitely a hands-on business. Along with picking local cherry processors that select cherries from nearby farms, Jamie comes up with new products to highlight the smooth, tart flavor of the berries. Keep reading to learn more about sour cherries and how you can use them to pump of the flavor of your recipes. After talking to Jamie, I used dried cherries to add a zing to my pico de gallo recipe–my kids loved it. And my husband kept asking, “What did you put in this, I like it.”


For more on cherries, here’s Jamie…

Can you explain the types of tart cherries available?

There are two types: Montmorency, which are the premiere cherries for making cherry pies, and Balaton cherries. Montmorency cherries have a red exterior and yellow flesh. They bruise easily once they’re picked. Balaton cherries have a darker skin and a burgundy color from skin to pit.  The Balaton cherries are larger and hardier than Montmorency but they’re not quite as tart. Balatons were originally from Hungary and through a collaboration with Michigan State, they were introduced here about 20 years ago.

How are tart cherries processed?

We’re not involved in the growing or the processing, but I can explain how it’s done. Typically tart cherries are shaken off the trees. There’s this machine that holds the tree and shakes the trunk so that the cherries fall into a canvas underneath. Then the cherries are placed into water containers on trucks. They’re very fragile, so farmers have to be careful transporting them. But the cherries go right from the tree into the processor or they’re frozen. Tart cherries have to be processed very quickly. They don’t last very long off the tree.

What about the cherry products offered at your store?

Our cherry jams are a staple. And our cherry salsa is incredibly popular: it’s tomato based with a little tart and a little spice. Our old-fashioned cherry butter… But we’re constantly coming up with new product ideas.

How do you create new cherry products?

My husband and I are pretty much hands-on in every aspect of production. It’s either my ideas, or my husband’s. At home, we come up with crazy things and try them out in small batches until we perfect the recipe. That’s how I came up with cherry ginger jam. You have to try it—it’s a phenomenal jam. We also have a new product we’ve called ‘cherry catsup,’ but that’s misleading because it’s very versatile—you can use it for everything from pork chops to ice cream.

What should cooks know about using cherries?

The big thing is not to be afraid of trying out something new—cherries are so versatile, whether it’s for something sweet or savory. Cherries compliment other flavors instead of overwhelming them.

To find just about anything “cherry” from jams to t-shirts, you can visit The Cherry Stop in Traverse City or order their products online. And for those of you looking for a unique Father’s Day present, Jamie mentioned she gets more than one call around June asking if they ship fresh, frozen, tart cherries. The answer? You bet.

Next week I’ll have Jamie’s recipe for Cherry Chocolate Chip Oatmeal cookies available for you to try!

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A world of tastes in your spice cabinet

Okay who else early in their cooking exploits bought one of those fully stocked, rotating, 20-spice racks? Yup, me too. And you know I felt like I had to hang on to those spices. Sure I know they lose their flavor after awhile, but I just kept pushing them farther and farther back in the cabinet thinking, “One day I’m going to need this for a recipe” (yeah, the spice rack deal didn’t last long when I realized how much room it takes up:). Well I’ve finally trimmed my spice cabinet to just a few essentials. The ones that I just can’t substitute in certain dishes. Usually these are the spices that give that authentic zing to dishes I make from other parts of the world. Here are some of my favorites–

Hungarian chicken and spaetzle

Paprika–

This is one of the few spices I’ll pay a little bit more for an authentic variety. I like Penzey’s Hungary Half-Sharp Paprika, which packs more of a kick than what you’ll find at the grocery store (the full sharp has a little too much of a kick for me). I’m pretty generous with the paprika on my Hungarian chicken that I serve over spaetzle (German dumpling/noodle pasta that used to be my middle daughter’s favorite food before she discovered fried rice).

.

Rosemary–
Roasted potatoes and rosemary are made for each other. But when I make Italian focaccia bread, a sprinkling of rosemary on top is a must too.

Cumin–

Forget chili powder. Please. Cumin is the spice of choice in Mexican dishes. Toss it in chili, tacos, salsas, guacamole, enchiladas

I can’t help but throw in a couple more obscure spices that I can’t live without.

Photo credit: Savory Spice


Ancho powder–

Yes, you could buy roasted, dried ancho chiles and add those to dishes too (and I often do use) but for the flavor of ancho chiles without all the work I sprinkle in the ground variety. I haven’t found this spice outside of Mexican grocers except at Savory Spice. I buy it in bulk. Like cumin, toss this spice into your favorite Mexican dishes.

Mustard seeds–

These are getting easier to find, but I always toss mustard seeds into fresh vinaigrettes or when a recipe calls for mustard I’ll throw some of these in too (I like them in rice when I serve pork dishes). The tiny seeds pop in your mouth when you eat them and have sweeter, brighter flavor than pourable mustard. They aren’t a mustard substitute, but just a fun addition.

These ideas came to mind as I was checking out Patriotic Things to Do in the Summer with your kids on Motherboard. One of the tips was to explore cultures throughout the world by making dishes from those countries. Love it.


Your turn–What are some of your ‘can’t-do-without’ spices?

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Easy fruit leather

Fruit leathers are so easy to make I wish I would have tried ‘em sooner! I looked through recipe after recipe to figure out my own version.

Here’s what I wanted:

1)No cooking

2)No sugar (I like ‘em tart)

3)Fast

Here’s what I learned:

1)Part of the reason you have to cook the fruit beforehand is to make it smooth and to dissolve the sugar. Cutting out the sugar helped eliminate one reason to cook. The next? A smooth consistency. A hint from purchased fruit leathers helped solve that: apple sauce (that’s my interpretation for the first ingredient–no matter the flavor it’s always ‘apple puree concentrate’). Using apple sauce makes the leathers smoother and cuts the cost. You’re going to need 5-7 cups of pureed something, mixing apple sauce with strawberries cut the amount of fresh fruit I needed.

2)Instead of sugar some recipes use honey. I wanted another option so I tried agave. It worked perfectly. (I also added in a squeeze or two of lemon juice for a sour punch.)

3)Well, there’s no real way to make fruit leathers fast. Prep fast, yes. Actual drying, nope. I did decide to up the temperature from 140 degrees (that’s what I saw listed again and again) to 170, which seemed to maybe trim the time a bit, but count on this recipe taking the better part of the day (or two). Unattended, mind you.

Basic Steps

Step #1 Cut fruit

Step #2

You need 4-5 cups for roll-ups (pictured) or 6-7 cups for thicker leathers (which will take longer to cook). I used half apple sauce, half cut up strawberries, and I recommend a 1:1 ratio.

Step #2 Blend fruit

Easy, peasy. I squeezed in a bit of agave, fresh lemon juice, tasted, tweaked, done.

Step #3 Pour fruit

Line a cookie pan with parchment (over the edges). Pour.

Step #4 Bake fruit

10-12 hours at 170. Yup, it takes time, the edges will cook faster then the center, so you can cut them off as they finish, feel with your fingers if the fruit is at the right leathery consistency for your taste. I let mine cook over a couple days so that I never left the oven on unattended.

That’s it. I kept the parchment on the leathers so they were easier to pack in lunches. These leathers were a hit with my kids–my middle daughter who doesn’t like strawberries or apple sauce (but strangely enough loves cut apple slices) downed half the pan and was the first to ask me to make more. My oven has been on non-stop since.

Along with fruit leathers, I’ve been thinking about healthy habits for my family with summer around the corner–I found these over on Motherboard.

Your turn–what are your favorite healthy snacks? Habits?

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Fried rice basics

Years ago I tried making fried rice and it turned out terribly—the oil wasn’t hot enough and I didn’t have all of the vegetables chopped before I started cooking it. I ended up with soggy, oily rice topped with too crisp of vegetables. Oh yeah, I thought throwing in extra soy sauce would somehow make it all better. Not so.

I crossed fried rice off my list of dishes to make at home and decided instead it was one of those tricky recipes that should be reserved for ordering out (and take out!). Then my 10 year-old decided that fried rice was her favorite meal.

Every time we ordered Chinese food she’d ask, beg really, for fried rice. That’s all she’d eat. I figured if she likes it that much it’s worth trying again at home.

I asked around for tips, checked out a few cookbooks and discovered there are a few tricks for making decent fried rice. First, about the rice: It should be dry. This is a great way to use up leftover rice and I would suggest that you use rice you’ve made at least a day before instead of making it fresh—it just doesn’t react to the oil as well if it’s not a bit dry. Next, have all your ingredients ready before you start cooking. Fried rice, like a stir-fry, comes together quickly.

Now about those vegetables…most of the cookbooks mentioned peas, sure. But I like to load up my fried rice with even more veggies. Choose quick-cooking veggies, like green onions, bok choy, or even carrots—all sliced thin. (Again, feel free to toss in leftover veggies you may have in the fridge.)

You’ll notice plenty of “optional” ingredients in this recipe. I don’t have it below, but you can also add thin strips of meat (I added pork), when you heat your garlic. Just cook the meat through before adding the eggs. One ingredient that isn’t optional, however, is the fish sauce. I know, I know, you might not have it on hand, and you could just use the soy sauce, but for a better flavor, the fish sauce really adds the zing you can’t get with anything else.

Ready to get frying? It’s rice time.

Recipe

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups cooked rice

4 Tablespoons vegetable oil

1 clove garlic minced

2 eggs (whisked)

1 Tablespoon fish sauce

2 Tablespoons soy sauce

2 Tablespoons fresh or frozen peas

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger (optional)

½ teaspoon sesame oil (optional)

1 bunch green onions, sliced (optional)

2 Tablespoons cilantro or Thai basil, minced (optional)

½ cup chopped bok choy (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a wok to medium-high.
  2. Add the garlic and ginger (if using) and stir-fry just until fragrant (a few seconds will do anymore and it can burn).
  3. Turn the heat to medium and add the eggs. Don’t stir–cook just until heated through.
  4. Break the eggs apart and push to the side of the pan.
  5. Add the rice and let it cook for about 2 minutes before stirring (I like getting a few crispy pieces).
  6. Add the sauces to the pan and stir the ingredients together as you might flip an omelet (in a shoveling motion versus stirring a batter).
  7. Add the peas and other vegetables you are using. Stir-fry for 2 more minutes and adjust seasoning, adding more soy or fish sauce to taste.
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Quick chipotle pico de gallo

I know Cinco de Mayo was last week and I’m still talking (and eating) Mexcian food. But I wanted to pass along my favorite pico de gallo, or fresh salsa, recipe. Pico de gallo (we just call it ‘pico’ at my house) is so quick and easy to make it’s fun to play up the flavor by going beyond the traditional tomato-onion-cilantro combo.

My addition? Spicy chipotle. (Chipotle peppers are smoked, dried jalapenos.) But before I get the chipotle, let’s talk pico. What distinguishes pico from other Mexican salsas it that it’s made with fresh ingredients, meant to be eaten right away. Pico doesn’t keep more than a day in the fridge and frankly it’s really not nearly as good on day #2. Other salsas are often made with dried or roasted chiles that are cooked and then cooled, meaning they can last for several days or even weeks in the fridge.

Back to the pico: I follow the 3 to 1 rule–three parts tomato to one part each onion and cilantro. Once I have that base, it’s time to add the spice. I usually throw in one, chopped serrano pepper (fresh or pickled jalapenos are fine too) and then my favorite flavor these days, chipotle. You can find 7-ounce cans of chipotle in adobo sauce in the Mexican food section of most grocery stores (popular brands are La Costena, San Marcos or Embasa). Now you can simply mix a teaspoon or more to taste of the adobo sauce into your pico. But I wanted to have bits of chipotle flavor as a kick instead of an all-over zing so I added one chipotle pepper into my mini food processor along with a handful of dried cherries (you could also use dried cranberries or even raisins, trust me, no one will be able to taste the dried fruit it’s just a carrier for the chipotle).

And if you’re wondering what to do with the extra chipotle, save it to mix into scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, meatballs, or anywhere you want a bit of smokiness in your dish.

So for those of you starting to plant your garden, make sure to save some room for extra tomato plants that way you’ll have plenty for fresh pico de gallo later. I read through several no-pain gardening tips on Motherboard. Frankly I like the idea of using raised beds–looking at the picture I could have a big pot for my tomatoes without planting my entire garden plot (I have no green thumb so I like the idea that I could start small).

Chipotle Pico de Gallo Recipe

Prep time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups (easily doubled or tripled)

Ingredients

1 cup fresh tomato chopped into small pieces

1/2 medium onion

1/2 bunch cilantro leaves

1/2 of one lime

1 small fresh pepper (jalapeno or serrano)

salt and pepper to taste

1 chipotle pepper (or 1 teaspoon adobo sauce)

1 Tablespoon dried fruit

Directions

  1. Chop the fresh tomatoes and onions into equal pieces (about the size of your pinky nail). Place in a kitchen bowl.
  2. Add chopped cilantro. Once the leaves are washed, I use my kitchen shears to trim the leaf pieces right in.
  3. Squeeze the juice of half a lime into the pico.
  4. Chop the pepper, being careful to remove and discard the seeds from the jalapeno (if you’re using). You may want to add just half of the pepper first and check the heat before adding more (it’s always easier to add more heat but pretty impossible to take it out).
  5. In a food processor, pulse the dried fruit and one chipotle pepper. Alternatively, you can use 1 teaspoon of the sauce and omit the dried fruit.
  6. Mix the chipotle into the tomato mixture and serve with chips or with tacos.

Your turn–are you a pico de gallo fan? What about chipotle, do you like the smoky flavor?

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My mother’s day meal

Note to self: remember to take the camera off landscape

Can I just say, I heart Mother’s Day–from the little handmade cards to the extra hugs (not to mention breakfast in bed!)–I enjoyed every minute of it. So today I wanted to thank my hubby and his little helpers for making it so memorable.

As requested, my hubby fixed Mexican food for dinner. He went all out–shredded beef taquitos (he marinated the meat overnight, bless him!), mushroom and chorizo quesadillos, rice and refried beans. And that’s a dollop of guacamole, fresh-made salsa and chipotle creme sauce on top. It was delicious.

For dessert, I talked him in to making crepes (well, it didn’t take much convincing). He filled the them with Ghirardelli chocolate, almonds, dried cherries, honey and walnuts and then thinned Nutella to slather on top along with a handful of raspberries. Mmmmm (and yes, I’m trying to get him to do a “guest” post on crepes). Happy Mother’s Day everyone! Now what to do with the one leftover crepe…

Crepes for a crowd

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Dinner ideas for Cinco de Mayo

My middle child happily eating tacos al pastor

Cinco de Mayo is tomorrow–are you ready? If you’re still making your dinner plans, here are a few recipes from MKES and some I’ve dug up to get you cooking something spicy.

Salsas & such

Traditional tomato salsa from Rick Bayless
If you can’t find (or make) fire-roasted tomatoes, regular varieties will work fine too. I substitute serrano peppers for the jalapenos here.

Guacamole from Cafe Johnsonia

Bring on the avacados!

Entrees

Authentic Red Chile Enchiladas

This sauce takes time, but it’s worth the effort. Plus you can freeze some for later.

Homemade Sopes and Tortillas

Making sopes

Hand-crafted tortillas are deceptively difficult to make, but the thicker, easier to flip sopes–so much easier!

Amish Nachos

Nothing authentic about ‘em, just an excuse to fuse really good bacon with some Mexican flavors.

Turkey picadillo tacos

So easy and a great way to use ground turkey.

Chili Relleno Tart from Urban Baker

Get the flavors of Chile Relleno without all the frying and mess (not that I mind frying…)

Chipolte Chilaquiles from Rick Bayless

Usually chilaquiles is made with a green salsa (and as a breakfast food) but I like the idea of adding smoky chipotles.

Tacos Al Pastor from Serious Eats

Sweet and spicy pork tacos are my all-time favorite. This recipe comes from Mark Miller’s excellent Tacos book.
Sweet Stuff

Rice pudding

So soothing after a hearty meal packed with chiles.

Mexican wedding cookies from the Joy of Baking

Melt-in-your mouth, buttery cookies that are covered in powdered sugar.

Dulce de Leche flan from Saveur

Deep caramel-flavored custard-like goodness.

Churros from The Food Network

Fried dough smothered in cinnamon & sugar. Yum!

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Are you eating your tacos wrong?

My youngest eating her taco--notice the head tilt?

Did you know there’s a right way to eat a taco? Yup. Here it is: hold the taco together in one place with your hands and then to tilt your head to take bites. No taco tilting!

I know, this isn’t rock science. But there are those foods that you can pick out the real eaters from the dabblers. Take thin, chewy New York City pizza slices. I remember getting an education in how to eat a NYC slice when we lived there–always fold it at the sides. (Hey even the Emily Post Institute recommends folding your pizza slice, maybe she’s a New Yorker?) I had moved there from the West where you’d never dream of folding the thick slices.

So maybe it’s no surprise that tacos have their own eating etiquette: the head tilt. This keeps all the yummy fillings intact and from falling out the other side if you try to taco tilt. When our family visited Mexico City a few years ago we bought tacos from a stand in Chapultepec Park and joined others eating our tacos at nearby picnic tables. At the end of the meal, my plate was covered in carne asada pieces (yummy bits of barbecued, seasoned steak). I looked around to see clean plates. Non-taco tilters. My messy plate was a giveaway that I was still a taco novice–well, that and my baseball cap, sneakers and backpack.

So if you want to eat your tacos like a pro, tilt your head, not your taco!


Real Mexican tacos--no cheese, no crisped shells, lots of flavor!

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