Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Almond Butter

What Strangers Are These by Will Ackerman (featuring David Cullen)
I chose this song simply because it was what was playing in the kitchen while I made this delicious Almond Butter - and it just felt so perfect.  The atmosphere in my kitchen was cozy and the mood was that of a simple life - which is nice to feel at a time of the year that can feel anything but simple! Guitar music is the ultimate feeling of peace for me - and I could just close my eyes and imagine that my Dad was sitting there with me.  Please do yourself a favor and click on the link and spend a few minutes in YouTube land with this beautiful guitar duet that oozes comfort and peace.  Oh - while enjoying some delicious Almond Butter on toast - or apples - or celery - or on a spoon even!

I was making a recipe a while back and it 
called for some almond butter.
I didn't have any in the house.
Nor did I have much confidence that
our local grocery store would have it either.
I did, however, have almonds.
Lots of them.

How difficult could it be to make your own?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Easy Alfredo Sauce

Smooth by Santana featuring Rob Thomas
Were you hoping for a Christmas song to go along with this December post?  I normally would but there is absolutely no other song that can go with today's recipe than this one.  And the reason is this - Alfredo Sauce is THE SEXIEST SAUCE ON THE PLANET!!  Italian fare has long been considered the substance of romantic dinners and, within Italian cuisine, this sauce is the most popular.  Rarely do I run into someone who prefers the red over the white.  And I happen to think this song is one of the sexiest songs on the planet!  I mean, there's Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton.  And Suzanne, written by the late great Leonard Cohen and performed beautifully by Neil Diamond.  And If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot.  These are all top contenders in my book.  But Smooth is perfect for the creamy nature of this incredibly easy sauce.  So get your dancing feet ready - because you just won't be able to stop yourself!  And, as the video in the link above shows, it's the kind of song that gets under your skin and makes you want to run out and dance around in your underwear!  My neighbors should take that as a warning.  LOL

One of the more revelatory moments
when I teach my cooking classes
comes on the class we cover pasta sauces - 
specifically this Alfredo Sauce.
The students are always amazed at how 
easy and quick it is to make -
rivaling the pathetic packets they
are used to buying at the grocery store.
Furthermore, I've had students who
claim that their husband won't eat Alfredo
Sauce - only to hear the next week
that the alfredo-hating spouse
had eaten an entire pan of pasta
made with their freshly made Alfredo!

Making your own Alfredo 
deserves a try, folks.
There is no comparison between the
packets and homemade.
And it is super quick as well!
Consider it a gift in this hectic holiday season.
It's basically a cream reduction
with flavorings and very few ingredients!

And before you start gasping at
the word "cream," I beg you to
consider that you don't
need much - and it's being shared between
a group - unless you happen
to have one of those alfredo-hating husbands
who will end up eating the whole pan!

And this need not only be served
over pasta!  Vegetables are elevated
to royal status when covered with it.
And just stop and ponder, for a moment,
the pleasure of dipping a hunk of bread!

So let's get started!

Alfredo Sauce
serves 4
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup white wine, optional
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Start by heating the oil in a medium size saute pan over low heat.  You don't want to burn or even brown the garlic - all we are doing is warming it.
After the oil is warmed, add the garlic and stir to coat with the warm oil.
Gently heat for a minute.  Next, add the white wine.
Adding the wine is optional, but the comment I hear most is that no matter what they do, people just can't seem to replicate that flavor they get in the restaurants.  If they aren't using wine, that's probably why.  It's going to cook down until it is almost completely evaporated.  But if you aren't comfortable cooking with wine, then skip this step.  After you add the wine, you can increase the heat to medium and cook until it almost disappears.  After the wine, you will slowly pour the cream in.
I usually drizzle it down the side of the pan into the remainder of the oil and wine and garlic contents.  I give it a stir or swirl the pan.  You'll see small bubbles begin to form.  At this point, increase the heat to medium high if you want to speed up the process a bit.  You will see the bubbles go through a transformation as these pictures will show:

At this point I like to add a few tablespoons of pasta water if I'm going to use it over pasta.  

That's optional, though.  
Now you will add the cheese and stir to distribute it.  Then you are free to add the cooked pasta to your pan and stir to fill all the crevices of that pasta!  Taste and season, if necessary.  Usually it's not.
I promise that each one of those penne tubes are going to ooze this fabulous sauce with each bite!
This whole process takes 10 minutes or less.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Waldorf Rice Pilaf

Take A Chance On Me by ABBA
Amid all the craziness which has taken me away from home for the past month, I'm fortunate to have some awesome friends that keep me centered.  My friend had me over to her place yesterday so we could do some cooking together.  Before we got started she asked if we could listen to some  music.  Of course!!  Then she kind of timidly says she has been on an ABBA kick lately and what did I think of that.  I LOVE ABBA!  And I share this happy news with her!  And we, once again, get confirmation as to why we're friends!  Shortly after, my sister-in-law shows up and she's singing and humming along, too!  I'm thinking we're a very clever group of women and I'm choosing this song of theirs because we have been talking about taking chances on some things.  Read on -

Recently my friend and I met for lunch at our favorite 
Thai restaurant as I was buzzing up 
through her town on my way
back to my home in Washington.

As we caught up on the latest,
we got talking about health issues and
she informed me that she was trying to
start eating a vegetarian diet.
I, too, had considered doing this
 off and on over the years.
The more we talked the more it 
felt like this was something
 I could and should try.

To a point.

I can't abide the idea that I would never ever have
shrimp again in my life.
That would not do.
But I remember listening to a TED talk 
by Graham Hill about being a 
weekday vegetarian.
I watched it again and I
decided that I would start weaning 
myself off of so much meat.

I think I made it 3 days the first week.
Mostly because meat is such an
ingrained part of my diet.
I would be choosing it because
it was the knee jerk reaction
for me to do so.
And suddenly, with my mouth full of
a ham and cheese sub or a cheeseburger,
I'd remember my decision
and my shoulders would drop
and I'd plant my palm on my forehead.
Well - tomorrow I'll do better!
Choosing to go meatless
takes a very conscious effort
and planning ahead.
I'm up to about 4 days a week 
of being a vegetarian.
Little steps.

When I was back down by my friend's
again, I suggested we get 
together and make a vegetarian recipe.
Something that we could perhaps
use on the Thanksgiving table.
I set about thinking up a recipe
and used the traditional feast
dishes for inspiration.

I love Waldorf Salad.
But I wanted something more
savory than sweet.
So I quite simply
took the ingredients and added
some onions and fresh rosemary
and turned it into a rice pilaf dish.
And we all agreed it was quite good!
This is a dish I could serve with meat
for those who wanted it
and be completely happy with this 
as a main dish for myself.
The quest is on, folks!

Waldorf Rice Pilaf
serves 4 - 6

1 cup rice
2 apples, we preferred the honey crisp
1/4 onion, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 c. golden raisins
1 c. apple cider
1 orange
1 stem rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the rice - you can use my instructions here using 1 1/2 cups of water.  

Heat the apple cider in a saucepan and remove from heat.  Add the raisins and let them soak for 15 minutes to plump them up. 

Chop the apples, leaving the skins on.  I cut them in a large dice so the warmth of the dish doesn't cook them.  I want that crunch of the apple.  To keep them from going brown, I squeeze the juice of an orange over them and toss.  Set aside.

Remove the raisins from the cider and set aside.  Place the saucepan with the remaining cider back over high heat and boil to reduce it to about 1/4 cup.  You can also add the extra orange juice from the apples, if you like.

While the cider is reducing, toast the walnut pieces in a skillet over medium heat.  When done, remove to a plate, wipe out the skillet and add the olive oil and heat.  Add the onion and celery and cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat.  We're just looking to soften them up a bit.  

When the rice is done, toss it in the skillet with the onions and celery and toss to coat.  Add the toasted walnuts.  Add half of the finely chopped fresh rosemary and the plumped raisins.  Add the reduced cider.  Heat until just warm, if necessary.  Before serving, add the chopped apples and toss.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with the remainder of the fresh rosemary.  And I'll tell you, we all felt the fresh rosemary was what made the dish special!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spiced Acorn Squash Rings

Today's post is about a plant that I was convinced was a creepy, crawly, life-threatening monster - until it revealed itself to be something quite beautiful and tasty!  The guys in the white suits that literally pop into the scene behind Ne-Yo in this music video are just how I perceived this plant to grow and inch toward me while my back was turned.  This is very spooky and Halloweenish activity, folks.  Read on - if you dare!

Several years ago
I started a garden space using the
I didn't have access to a tiller to 
"dig up" a garden in the traditional
manner I was used to.
This new method was circulating through
my area with great interest at the time
so I decided to give it a whirl.
And it worked!
And I loved it!

As my various seeds grew and 
prospered in abundance, I noticed
one plant in particular that was
growing at warp speed.
It seemed to grow even while I
stood and watched!
The only problem was,
it wasn't anything I had planted!

It was rogue!!

I could tell it belonged in the cucumber
or squash or pumpkin family.
But it wasn't a variety of any 
of those that I had planted.
And it seemed to be much happier
with the new garden setting than 
anything else.

When I would go out to tend my garden
I would conjure up images of
the scary movies I watched as a kid
where plants, such as this one,
would attack people from behind
and devour them!
Believe me, after this plant had literally
overtaken most of my garden space and 
started it's tendrils towards the neighbor's,
I didn't dare turn my back on it!

For the longest time
this plant annoyed me.
I didn't have the heart to pull 
it out, though, until I knew what it was!

Eventually it got some blossoms
and I waited anxiously to
see what those blooms would yield!
Oh, happy day, when
I saw that a bounty of acorn squash
would be visiting my harvest
basket that year!
Now I didn't mind it's uninvited
intrusion at all!
Now it was beautiful!

Acorn squash are so simple to fix,
and apparently, very simple to grow!
To me they are the quintessential 
fall squash as we ate them
so often as I was growing up.

Usually I just cut them in half,
scoop out the seeds, and bake.
But today I wanted to show
you how you can slice them
and make them "pretty."
They also cook faster since 
they are cut smaller!
Always a bonus!

Spiced Acorn Squash Rings
Serves 6
1 large acorn squash
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon five-spice
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Spray a sheet tray with cooking spray or use your oil mister.  Set aside.

Lay the acorn squash on it's side on a cutting board.  
Slice an inch off the pointy bottom part and an inch off the stem top part.  Then slice the remaining squash into 6 rings anywhere from 1/2" to 1" thick.  Using a small biscuit cutter or a paring knife, trim the seeds from the center of each slice.

Place each side, cut side down, onto the prepared sheet tray and spray or drizzle the olive oil over the tops.

Mix together the salt, five-spice, and pepper in a small bowl and then sprinkle over the top of the slices.  

If you don't have the five-spice on hand you can substitute 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder, and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg.  This is not five-spice, but it'll give you a sweet and smoky flavor combination.

Bake for 20 minutes and then turn and sprinkle with more of the spice mix.  Then bake for another 15 minutes, until golden and the squash flesh is soft when pierced with a fork.  Serve warm and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sausage and Mushroom Bread Pudding

Autumn Leaves by Eva Cassidy
Absolutely soulful.  If you're not familiar with Eva Cassidy's music, you should be.  I'm actually very surprised to find I haven't put her in a post yet!  This woman sang with her heart and soul and her music has the ability to reach across the sound waves into yours.  This song is my favorite autumn song.  I have several renditions of it in my music library.  But I needed Eva's heartfelt version today.  Savory bread puddings are soul food.  And this time of year I feel the need to feed my soul.  As I reconcile myself to the fact that summer is gone I can comfort myself with earthy mushrooms and spicy sausage  - and watch the autumn leaves drift by.

It took three tries before I came up with
this recipe today!
This is what happens sometimes as
I try to fit my healthier approach into practice.

My first attempt ended up being too dry -
not enough custard mixture.

My second attempt was too mushy
as I went waaaay overboard with the vegetables.
Yes - apparently you CAN add too 
many vegetables!
At least in a bread pudding.
If you want more veggies, serve them on the side!
You need enough bread to soak up the
custard without too many other ingredients getting
in the way of that process.

My third approach I found myself really
struggling with my urge to overindulge!
"Simplify!!" my mind kept telling me!
"Quit thinking you have to add more!"

So I resisted the temptation
to add more sausage.  And I heartily
fought back my mushroom addiction and
limited the numbers of those as well.

I blame my dad.
The very first time he slid a perfectly
sautéed mushroom across the table to me
and that earthy, salty, sweet morsel
met my little girl tongue, I was hooked.  
It's a love affair that's lasted to this day,

But sometimes you need restraint -
even with mushrooms!

Once I cut back on the gorge of vegetables
this dish turned out perfect!
And, of course, throwing the cheese
on at the very end, well -
melty cheese.
Not necessarily healthy but - 
Need I say more?

Sausage & Mushroom Bread Pudding
Serves 6
1/2 lb. bread, cubed or tore into chunks
1/2 bell pepper, diced
4 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/4 red onion, sliced thin or diced
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
1/4 lb turkey sausage
2 slices bacon
3 fresh sage leaves or 1/2 t. dried
1 T. chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 t. dried
1 T. chopped fresh thyme or 1 t. dried
4 eggs
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Place the bread cubes onto a sheet tray and toast for 10 - 15 minutes until lightly toasted.  Place them in a large bowl and set aside.

In a skillet, cook the bacon over medium high heat until crisp.  Remove bacon and break into pieces and add to the bowl of bread cubes.  Put the mushrooms into the hot skillet with the bacon drippings and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook until the mushrooms have caramelized and released their juices.
Remove the mushrooms and add to the bowl with the bacon and bread cubes.  Place the turkey sausage into the hot pan and stir to break into chunks.  Add the rest of the vegetables and the herbs and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Stir occasionally as the sausage loses it's pink color and the vegetables soften.
Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl with the other ingredients and stir to toss them well.

In another bowl whisk the eggs until uniform and then whisk in the milk.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper.  Add the egg "custard" to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients and stir well, pushing a little with the spoon to help the bread absorb the custard.  Spray an 8x8 square pan or a small rectangle pan with cooking spray and scoop the contents of the bowl into the pan.  Again, use the spoon to sort of squish the ingredients down.
Bake in the 350 degree oven for 40 minutes, but start checking at 30 minutes.  A knife inserted into a bread part of the dish should come out clean.  Scatter the cheese over the top and cook about 5 minutes more to get the cheese to melt and get bubbly.  
Remove from the oven and let sit for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving.
The cross-cut view is beautiful!