Saturday, May 28, 2011

Easy Granola Made Your Way - Simple Saturday

What do you take on a plane to eat? I'm taking this Easy Granola.
Easy Granola Made Your Way

Those early morning flights are the hardest to prepare for, I think. I can easily end up eating an oily muffin (for three times it's worth) from a glass case with a faux French name in the airport, if I'm not careful.
Also, I'm a "muncher", it soothes my nerves and gives me something to do for the hours I have to remain in one seat with my knees touching the back of another seat. If I don't prepare for that, it turns into me buying a turbo size bag of peanut M&Ms just because they're close to the water I have to buy after I'm past the security check point. So, this time I'm ready to go. I have a bag of this Granola and I can't wait to munch. I've made this (or these granola bars) each time using whatever I have in the cupboard or feel like mixing in. It's always so good, crunchy and filling. I don't use processed sugar for this, but if you don't like or have maple syrup, brown rice syrup or honey - you can try brown sugar instead. RECIPE: Easy Granola Made Your Way

2 1/2 cups oats

1 1/2 cup sweetener
(I used 1/2 cup maple syrup and 1 cup brown rice syrup)
Few pinches of seasoning (I used pinch cinnamon, pinch fresh grated nutmeg, pinch of salt, and 1 teaspoon vanilla)
1 1/2 - 2 cups crunch (I used 1/2 cup toasted almonds, 1/2 cup toasted pecans, 3/4 cup toasted coconut and a handful of toasted pepitas)

1 cup dried fruit (I used cherries, apricots and raisins)

1) Heat your sweetener in a saucepan with any liquid flavoring (such as vanilla, almond, coconut, etc.) til it boils, stir and remove from heat.

2) In a large bowl stir all dry ingredients together (except dry fruits), then stir in warm syrup.
3) Spread granola out on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet and bake at 350F for about 20-30 minutes, stirring in the pan once or twice through.

4) Remove from oven, stir on pan and allow to cool, then stir in dried fruits before packaging.

This makes great gifts presented in little paper bags, or a healthy bag of munch for traveling. If you keep it sealed well, it will last for weeks.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Remembering the Soprano's - A Ziti Pasta Casserole

Were you a Soprano's fan? I was the longer version of "fan", called "fanatic." My whole family was crazy for the craziness, hating ourselves for liking the bad guys, sucked into the television for every episode. We even went as far as having "Soprano Nights".
Ziti Casserole with Peppers and Mushrooms

Each person (above 12-years-old) would have a night to be in charge of the meal we ate before the show came on. One night, my middle son (about 17 at the time) was not comfortable enough to cook something up so ordered 4 giant Pizza and set up his boom-box with Italian music playing throughout the meal. It was so fun and we sang along while eating.

Every time someone on screen stopped into Vesuvios or Satriale's I got hungry.

(photo HBO promo)

The hardest thing to watch without drooling was when Tony Soprano would just reach into the refrigerator and pull out a great Ziti Casserole that Carmela had whipped up earlier. It was always there. That's when I started having Ziti Casserole in our refrigerator for the taking - anytime - lunch, dinner or in-between.In the last season of the Sopranos, my husband was in New York writing on "30 Rock" over at the Silver Cup Studios and got to sit in Dr. Melfi's chair, and walk through the sets of the show and even saw Tony (Gandolfini) with blood all over his face during a shoot (shooting?). Even though my husband is not easily thrilled by celebrities, seeing a Soprano gave him a rush, too. We were definitely fans. For his birthday, I bought him a brick from Satriale's in New Jersey. Can you say, "obsession"?It has been years, but for some reason my husband and I were talking about that casserole the other day and it seemed like a great one to share on my blog. It's an adaptation of a Sara Moulton recipe from way-back, and it's worth the bit of prep to have a few days of this golden pepper and mushroom cheesiness at my beck and call.

Ziti Casserole with Peppers and Mushrooms

(adapted from Sara Moulton)

1/2 onion (chopped)

2 yellow peppers (seeded and chopped)

2-4 garlic cloves (chopped)

1/4 cup olive oil (used as needed)

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

2 red peppers (seeded and cut into thin strips)

2 orange peppers (seeded and cut into thin strips)

1 cup mushrooms (sliced)

1 pkg. Ziti pasta (cooked and reserve 1 cup pasta water to use if needed)
3-5 spring onions/scallions (sliced, including the green parts)

2 cups grated or shredded Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese

1) In a large stock pot, cook the yellow peppers, onion and garlic in a drizzle of olive oil on low/med. heat, covered until soft. This should take about 20-30 minutes
2) Add the cream to the stock pot, stir together, add salt and pepper. Then puree with an immersion blender (or you can use a blender). Reserve this Yellow pepper sauce for later. 3) In a deep skillet with a drizzle of olive oil, cook the red and orange pepper slices with the mushrooms, salt and pepper on low/med until just cooked through (about 10 minutes). 4) Add the red pepper mixture to the yellow pepper puree, and include the cooked Ziti, the scallions and 1 cup of the cheese. Stir all together (use the reserved pasta water as needed.) 5) Pour this Ziti pasta and peppers, etc.. into a large casserole dish (or I made a pyrex 9x12 plus another 8x8.) Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake on 350F for about 20 minutes til heated all through and the cheese on top is golden. Serve or cool and hold in refrigerator.

This is SO good cold for a quick lunch or if you're a die-hard Soprano fan - an anytime snack.(photo HBO promo)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Watermelon Balsamic Appetizer - Simple Saturday

Sometimes the best things happen when you're not trying so hard. These Watermelon Cubes with Balsamic Glaze came about from playing with my food and left-over watermelon slices.
Watermelon Balsamic Cubes

They are just the right beginning to a meal (amuse bouche), a palate cleanser between courses or a unique addition to a dessert/cheese tray.

A while back, I was serving a 6 course meal to a "dinner client" for a fund raiser. They had chosen several hardy courses that included a creamy corn soup, scallops with chips, and braised short ribs with potatoes. I knew they really needed something fresh, light and bright in the middle of all that to re-set the taste buds and moisturize the bite.
These Watermelon Balsamic Cubes were just the right size, continued the somewhat elegance of the night and yet gave it a casual, down-home tasty treat.Since that night, I've served these to kids on picnics and lined up on trays for July 4th picnic shooters. Their simplicity gives them style, yet they are definitely perfect for a Simple Saturday.
Recipe: Watermelon Balsamic Cubes

Seedless Watermelon cut into 1x1 inch cubes
1/4 cup (more or less) Balsamic Creme or home-made Balsamic Reduction Syrup
Mint or Basil leaves for garnish.

1) After trimming and cutting watermelon into 1x1 inch cubes, use a small melon baller to carve out the center of each cube. Make sure to leave the sides and bottoms in tact to hold the syrup inside.2) Turn the cubes over on a paper towel to drain for at least 20 minutes. At this point you can also wrap lightly with plastic wrap and hold in the refrigerator til needed for several hours.3) When ready to serve, add just a few drops of Balsamic Reduction Syrup or Balsamic Creme to the center and place each cube on top of a mint or basil leaf.
These little bites are full of natural sweet juices mixed with a sour tang from the Balsamic intensity. Make plenty - they go fast and some of them don't make it out of the kitchen (if you're like me :D )

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Best Best Chocolate Chip Cherry Oatmeal Cookies

Is there any treat more classic than a chocolate chip cookie? There are thousands of variations and I've made and eaten about half of those, but I'm swearing by these being my favorites.

Chocolate Chip Cherry Oatmeal Cookies

I think I was in college when I discovered how easy it was to freeze home-made cookie dough. One hour making a batch of cookies, then freezing them meant I could have home-made chocolate chip cookies at my beck and call (my freshman 10 was 20.) I've been zip-locking those goodies ever since. When I visit my mom, I make a few bags for her and my brother and his wife to tide them over til my next visit. When my kids have friends over they grab and gobble amazed that I "whipped up home-made cookies" so fast.

And when the mood strikes me (which is more often than needed), I can take out just one or two and bake them in my toaster oven for a single treat. For the money and time spent, I don't think you'll find a "roll" of bake-off cookie dough any easier.
This recipe came about like many others; I was hungry. It happens a lot that way. I was sitting on the pier watching the Pacific Ocean and the wind was turning chilly and I still had a 2 mile walk ahead of me to get home. I was thinking how a nice hot bowl of oatmeal feels on chilly spring mornings. Then my mind turned that bowl of oatmeal (way too quickly) into a cookie.

If I'm going to have a cookie it would have to have chocolate too, and if I really went crazy I'd add pecans and dried fruit...nah, not just dried fruit - big dark cherries. In fact, I'd leave out the nuts so they wouldn't upstage the cherries and chips.
I love cherries and cherries with chocolate. When I was little, my mom would bring home boxes of Chocolate-Covered Cherries. I'd bite each candy with excitement, as if the cherry was a surprise to me every time.

Those sweet day dreams carried me the whole 2 miles back home and into the kitchen to make up a batch of these:

RECIPE: The Best Chocolate Chip Cherry Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup oatmeal

1 cup flour

1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1 stick (8 Tbls. butter)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

1 egg

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

1/4 cup dark dried cherries, chopped

1) In a large bowl, combine the flour, oatmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Stir together, then add the chocolate chips and cherries and toss to combine.

2) In another bowl, beat the butter, sugars and vanilla together. Then add the egg and beat again until creamy.

3) Add the creamy ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well with a wooden spoon.

4) Scoop out cookie dough in about Tbls. size balls and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.

**You can freeze the dough at this point (bag, label and return to the freezer for cooking later), or Bake for 10-12 minutes at 350F. The secret is- DON'T OVER-BAKE. Take them out even if they don't look done and give them a chance to cool= chewy, chocolate and soft.

Remove, allow to cool and try to discipline yourself to not eat the whole pan in one sitting.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Real Good Gumbo - Daring Cooks

Laissez les bons temps rouler (Cajun French for "Let the good times roll".) I like the attitude. Lately, maybe it's the changing of seasons or just watching a few people in my life go through some real life struggles, I really need that inspiration.

Our May hostess, Denise of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need from creole spices, homemade stock and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.
(Read as a loud and long Cajun yell) Wwoooo-Hooooo! Doesn't that feel good? Sometimes if I let myself exhale really loudly, like a Hollywood Yoga class, it really releases stress.

If you're a cook, you'll completely understand this: Working in the kitchen on a multi-layered stew with chopping and mixing and several steps to it can be relaxing. It's therapeutic to me. If you don't enjoy cooking, you've probably stopped reading just thinking about that insane remark.

Gumbo is one of those stews (if done somewhere near authentically) that has several layers of prep and cooking. It was this month's Daring Cook's challenge and the biggest challenge about it was finding the time to enjoy the process.
Looking back at it, I feel like I exhaled really loudly. The best part was I also got to have an amazing dinner that my whole family absolutely loved. Go for it, laissez les bons temps rouler!

Words to know for Real Good Gumbo:

(roo) - This forms the foundation for good flavor. It's made by heating fat (rendered chicken/duck fat or canola oil), then adding an equal amount of flour to the heated oil. Whisk on med. heat (about 15 minutes) to turn the roux into a dark caramel color full of flavor and natural thickening power. After it's a nice dark color, you add the onions (and change to a wooden spoon for stirring) and let them caramelize and darken the roux further.

Holy Trinity (not that one) - This is a mixture of chopped onions, celery, and green peppers. In Cajun cooking and a lot of mid-southern cooking, this combo forms a base of flavor for many stews, braises and soups. The preparation of classic Cajun/Creole dishes such étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from the base of this holy trinity. In other cooking a similar mixture is used of chopped onions, celery and carrots and is called Mirepoix (meer pwah) from french cooking and Soffrito (so-Free-toe) in Italian.
Okra - These delicately ridged and tapered green pods, sometimes called Ladies’ fingers, are a member of the mallow family and are bursting with tiny seeds as well as the glutinous compounds that make okra such a natural thickener for soups and gumbos. The smaller okra is more tender and sweet. I grew up with boiled okra (an acquired taste, I think) and fried okra (how can that not be great, right?) Filé powder (fee-lay) - In the 1800s, Choctaw Indians traveled in from communities on Lake Pontchartrain to sell this powder at the New Orleans French Market, along with bay leaves and handmade baskets. The Choctaws make filé by drying, then finely pounding, the leaves of the sassafras tree into a powder, then passing it through a hair sieve. The leaves, in the form of filéfilé was used to thicken the stew when okra was not available, but John Besh likes to use both. He cooks the okra in the gumbo and adds a couple dashes of filé, too, at the end. He also likes to pass filé at the table as a seasoning. The word comes from the French word filer, meaning, “to spin thread,” which is a warning not to add filé while the gumbo is still boiling, as it has a tendency to turn stringy.
**The recipe is as given by Daring Cooks, but I cut the recipe in half for a smaller yield and it works wonderfully with plenty for 5 people)

Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo

Minimally adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh Serves 10-12


1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm)
(5 oz) flour
2 large onions, diced
1 chicken (3 1⁄2 to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces

2 tablespoons (30 ml) (15 gm) (1⁄2 oz) Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend

2 pounds (2 kilograms) spicy smoked sausage, sliced 1⁄2 inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced

1 tomato, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme

3 quarts (3 liters) Basic Chicken Stock, or canned chicken stock
2 bay leaves

6 ounces (175 gm) andouille sausage, chopped

2 cups (480 ml) (320 gm) (11 oz) sliced fresh okra, 1⁄2 -inch (15mm) thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)

1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce

Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Filé powder, to taste
Tabasco, to taste

4-6 cups (1 – 11⁄2 liters) (650 gm – 950 gm) cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (recipe follows)

1. Prepare homemade chicken stock, if using.

2. Prepare homemade Basic Creole Spices, if using (recipe below).

3. Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables.

4. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.
5. In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes.

6. Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
7. Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

8. Add the sliced smoked sausage and stir for about a minute.
9. Add the celery, bell peppers, tomato, and garlic, and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.
10. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.
11. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
12. Add the chopped andouille, okra, and Worcestershire. Season with salt and
pepper, several dashes of filé powder, and Tabasco, all to taste.
13. Simmer for another 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface
of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice. Pass more filé powder at the table if desired.

Basic Creole Spices
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Makes 1⁄2 cup


2 tablespoons (30 ml) (33 gm) celery salt

1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) sweet paprika

1 tablespoon (15 ml) (18 gm) coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon (15 ml) (6 gm) freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) garlic powder

1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) onion powder

2 teaspoons (10 ml) (4 gm) cayenne pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon (21⁄2 ml) (11⁄2 gm) ground allspice

Mix together all spices in a bowl. Transfer the spices to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid. Store up to six months.

Basic Louisiana White Rice

Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh Servings: About 4 cups


1 tablespoon (30 ml) (30 gm) (1 oz) chicken fat, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter

1 small onion, minced

11⁄2 cups (360 m) ((280 gm) (10 oz) Louisiana (or another long-grain white rice)

3 cups (750 ml) Basic Chicken Stock

1 bay leaf

1-2 pinches salt


1. Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes.

2. Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes.

3. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

4. Add the bay leaf and salt.
5. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes.
6. Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Carrot & Cucumber Ribbon Salad with White Wine Tarragon Vinaigrette

Carrot & Cucumber Ribbon Salad
with White Wine Tarragon Vinaigrette

My family includes vegetarians, meat eaters, vegans, picky and peculiar, and no sugar/no flour. When we all get together for a dinner - the prep can be....challenging. If you read this blog, you know I like challenging. I get a kick out of recipe developing around certain ingredients, diet restrictions or cultures. During one of our recent gatherings I really needed to expand the menu a little with something fresh, raw, crunchy, without sugar or flour, but still full of flavor.
I grabbed a couple veggies and started playing. I peeled the carrots, but left the vitamin filled peelings on the cucumbers. I warmed up the raw crispiness with just a slight toast to a handful of pine nuts. I added a little heat with some cracked pepper. I added a little tang with a White Wine Tarragon Vinaigrette. The natural sweet would be in the Farmer's Market straight out of the soil Carrots and Cucumbers.

For the meat eaters, this was a great palate cleanser. The vegetarian, vegans, and no sugar/no flour folks were thrilled with a healthy plate of "yeah, I get you" food. And, I think the colors even drew in the "picky peculiars" because I saw a few ribbons being slurped up by them, too.This is a quick way to splash up your beige foods and add a little crunch to your crowd.

Recipe: Carrot & Cucumber Ribbon Salad

2 carrots (cleaned and peeled)
2 cucumbers (cleaned)
1/4 cup pine nuts toasted
dash of kosher salt
pinch of fresh cracked pepper

1) Using a Peeler, slice ribbons from the carrots and cucumbers into a colander.
2) Sprinkle a dash of salt over the ribbons, toss and let drain for a few minutes.
3) When ready to serve: toss the ribbons with a drizzle of the vinaigrette and lift them out into a platter. Top with toasted pine nuts and cracked pepper. Can be served room temp or chilled first.

Recipe: White Wine Tarragon Vinaigrette

2 glugs of white wine vinegar (about 1/8 cup)
1 tsp minced shallots or white onion
1 tsp (or more if you desire) fresh chopped (or dried) Tarragon leaves
6 glugs of Olive Oil (about 3/4 cup)

1) In a bowl, add the white wine vinegar, minced shallot, tarragon, salt and pepper. Whisk together.
2) Slowly drizzle the Olive Oil into the bowl, whisking continuously until a nice thick vinaigrette is achieved. Chill.