Friday, February 29, 2008

let's get nuts

Apparently, having an extra day this year made me think that I could make dinner for 13 people. The Butterscotch-Bourbon Macadamia Nut Pie you see above (courtesy of Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey is the only thing I had the presence of mind to snap a photo of.

This was a dinner party for my fellow Reverse Osmosis alumni. It started out at a fairly manageable ten attendees, but as the day got closer, three more became available for dinner. I obviously couldn't turn them away, so I added Williams-Sonoma's Potato-Onion Tart to my menu of Artichoke Lasagne and Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. I had everyone else supply bread, salad, drinks and utensils, and we closed out the evening with the aforementioned pie and ice cream.

This night was monumental on many occasions. I suppose it was kind of a kick-off dinner for our Alumni Association. More importantly, it was a chance to see the people I saw nearly every day of my college career for the first time in months. And most importantly, I wanted to show off my newly-acquired interest in cooking. After all, these were the people who remained my friends even though I was basically eating off the dollar menu at Jack in the Box in college. :P

Everything went very smoothly. I simplified the lasagne-making by using no-boil Barilla noodles instead of making my own, and it still turned out pretty good. The chicken is the most fool-proof dish ever and takes just about no active time to make. The potato-onion tart was also extremely simple. I decided to use purple potatoes to make it more visually interesting, but of course, I didn't take a photo. Visualize "purple pizza," though - what Jason dubbed the dish. I'll probably be making it again next week when I have guests in town, so I'll try to manage a photo then.

And this pie (with a massive scoop of ice cream thanks to the generous hand of Reid), was a great way to end the evening. Kawika, a native Hawaiian and native cornball, said it immediately made him feel like he was home again. Who says stuff like that? :P

I though it was heavy on the nuts, though, and when I make it again, I may cut the amount in half. Macadamia nuts are probably my favorite, but I think using less of them would bring out the yummy bourbon-butterscotch. And for a Maker's Mark fanatic like me, that's a flavor you definitely don't want to overwhelm.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

the sweetness

This Macadamia Nut Crusted Halibut in a Spicy Carrot-Mango Broth over Soba Noodles made me miss Matty. After I put the first bite in my mouth, I got really sad that I couldn't share this delicious meal with him.

I made a couple substitutions to work with what I and the grocery store had, and I cut the proportions a bit to make a meal just for one.

I used catfish instead of halibut because I couldn't find halibut at the Fresh & Easy. Not a terrible loss - I love catfish. I was going to use an old bag of macadamia nuts, but I tasted one, and it tasted really wrong, so I subbed some chopped walnuts. I also used whole wheat spaghetti instead of the soba noodles because the last thing I need in my pantry is another open bag of pasta.

The dreary weather has also made me lazy, and I figured I could get to my nap faster if I only had a couple dishes to do. I ended up dirtying up only one pot, one pan, a plate and a spatula. Pretty good, no?

I started with the broth - just a cup each of the carrot and mango juices, a clove of garlic and a tiny hit of Sriracha. I didn't have fennel seeds, and I don't like coriander, so I left them out. As soon as it boiled, I tossed the spaghetti in, and when it was done, I poured it out onto a shallow plate.

Meanwhile, I pressed the walnuts onto two catfish fillets (yay leftovers!), and seared them in the cast-iron pan before throwing it into the oven. Everything finished at about the same time, which always makes me feel like I'm doing something right.

So very good. I'm a big wuss when it comes to spicy foods, so I only put a little bit of Sriracha in, but I would recommend that if you can take it, put loads more. The sauce/broth is very sweet, and could use the spice to balance it out. I thought about adding a vegetable to the meal, but I couldn't come up with anything that I thought would go well with it. And besides, isn't the carrot juice enough? ;)

Friday, February 22, 2008

when the world is bringing you down, you make the best of what's around

The Pear- and Sage-Stuffed Chicken Breast with a Hazelnut Crust from The Passionate Cook sounded so divine, and I was bummed when I couldn't squeeze in time to make it while Matty was still home. I used chicken thighs instead of breasts so I could do better portion control, and maybe that was my downfall. They were too small to stuff, and things got really messy. I ended up just folding them over the pear slice and sage leaf and after a quick dusting with almond meal (because I couldn't find hazelnuts), I threw them into my cast-iron pan and hoped for the best.

More mess. I couldn't flip them without sacrificing a couple slices of pear. They also browned pretty quickly without having cooked the thighs through. If I had my brain on, I would've tossed the entire pan into the oven to finish cooking, but I was frazzled from my long week, so I just turned the heat down low and threw a lid on top of it and hoped for the best.

The Parmesan-Crusted Polenta was kind of disappointing, but I suppose they were a good pairing with the chicken. They came out rather chewy on the outside with the nice salty Parmesan crust, and hot and creamy on the inside. They were fine, but nothing that need to be made again. I think I'll use the rest of the tube of polenta to make polenta fries.

Thank goodness I can always count on my Brussels sprouts stand-by to make the meal. :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

please don't take my sunshine away

Matty leaves today to wrap up the last two weeks of this tour. As is usually the case, for some odd reason, the weather suddenly turns to crap whenever he leaves.

To cheer myself up (and to send a little love on the road with the guys), I made Key Lime Cookies from Good Eats 'N Sweet Treats.

They were perfect. Not super sweet, and the key lime curd made each bite a little bite of sunshine. I fit about 12-15 cookies on my half baking sheet - they don't spread much. They do yield a lot, though - I think I did about 4 batches. About halfway through, I thought I might try something different and substitute some sort of berry jam for the lime curd filling, but oops - out of jam. I did have some pistachio cream left over from making Pistachio Cupcakes, so I thought I'd use some.

The lime curd ones were definitely better. The pistachio cream was just a little too dense, and frankly, didn't look too pretty. Cody thought I had put wasabi on the cookies. :P I'll definitely have to try again with jam, though. Raspberry and lime. Yum.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

everywhere she goes she overflows

Guess what? The Creamy Baked Noodles with Eggplant and Cheese from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian does NOT fit into an 8x8x2 dish. Other than that, everything about this dish went together smoothly.

The boys had to go do some tour-related shopping, so I took advantage of the afternoon by myself to do all the prep work before - making the eggplant-tomato sauce and the bechamel sauce. About an hour before dinner, I just cooked the pasta, and then layered it in a too-small pan: pasta, eggplant, pasta, eggplant, bechamel. Popped it into the oven, and roasted some asparagus to go with it while the noodles rested.

Maybe it was a function of the pan size, but I think next time, I'll toss the pasta in the bechamel first to get every bite super creamy. As it was, it just formed a cheese layer on top. I also expected more layers, but the eggplant-tomato sauce didn't form the wall between pasta layers as I had thought. I think I'll try one of the variations next time - just broiling thin slices of eggplant and tomato to put between the pasta layers instead of cooking them down to sauciness.

back and forth

No matter how much I love brunch, I always feel like I'm scrambling (no pun intended) to find something to put on the table when we have guests over.

Today's guest is Cody, Matty's tour manager on an unexpected day off from tour. Before going to bed last night, I did a quick run through my favorite blogs, and came across this Savory Asparagus Bread Pudding at 101 Cookbooks. I've had bread pudding on the brain ever since I had a to-die-for mushroom bread pudding with my Valentine's meal. It's inspired me to recreate it, so I figured this would be a great way to start experimenting with bases to see how I might alter them to make the dish I had.

While we were waiting for the bread pudding to bake, I made some smoked salmon tartare and topped some crackers off with a slice of cheese and a hunk of smoked salmon for an appetizer. After it hung out in the oven for 45 minutes, I took it out and let it rest while I cooked up some chicken maple sausage.

The bread pudding came out cooked well, but still a little wet. I don't know if that's a function of not leaving it in the oven long enough, or not letting it rest long enough, but I suppose we'll see tomorrow morning. Since there were only 3 of us, we only managed to finish half of it.

In terms of it comparing to that spectacular mushroom bread pudding, I think it's a very good start. There was definitely more cheese in the other one, so I think I'll layer some in the middle instead of only sprinkling it on top. It was also a lot denser - maybe less or no broth? I'm looking forward to continuing this yummy experiment.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

i love myself

As I mentioned, Matty's out of town, so I have Valentine's Day all to myself. I was planning on taking some me-time and going to a yoga class, but it took me ages to get home from work (apparently, lovebirds can't drive), so I just settled in for the evening.

I have more risotto and stew than I know what to do with - apparently, neither really caught on with Matty. I've been filling my belly with as many variations as possible (couscous cooked with stew juice and topped with re-warmed beef/squash, adding risotto to Spinach Coconut Soup for a very filling lunch, etc.), but there was still a good bowlful of risotto sitting on top of my tub of stew. Fine. Arancini it is.

First of all, can I just say how brilliant arancini is? I mean, basically, it's just fried leftovers, but the most delicious fried leftovers in creation. You tuck a gob of cheese in the middle of a ball of rice, and then you fry the whole thing. Brilliant.

I didn't have mozzarella, so I used some crumbled Gorgonzola. Dipped the rice balls in first flour, then milk, then panko bread crumbs and fried them for about 2 minutes in a pot of 360-degree oil. The balls are a little messy to form, but after that, nothing could be easier about making these.

To make me feel better about eating fried leftovers, I hashed up some Brussels sprouts and sauteed them with some garlic and a splash of white grape juice. They tasted fine, but they weren't, well, superfantastic. Plus, it takes longer to hash them than to just cut them in half. I didn't think they were worth the effort.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

when the lights go down in the city

Nothing says "love" quite like Journey, at least not in this household. I don't even remember where it started, but get some "Lights," "Faithfully" or "Lovin, Touchin, Squeezin" on the ol' record player, and it's magic. :)

"Lights" is what ushered in this amazing dinner (if I do say so myself). Matty is going to be out of town for Valentine's Day, so we had already had our Valentine's dinner Monday night at the divine Cafe Stella, but I wanted to do a little something special for his going-away, too.

I didn't think anything could steal the thunder from the best carbonara ever, but these Fried Oysters with Lemon and Balsamic Vinegar did. Delicacy or not, I've never been one for slurping up raw oysters, but I thought I'd give the fried version a shot.

I bought my oysters in cans from Whole Foods. I forget the brands, but one can was from Delaware and came in a pop top can, and the other was more a bottle with a twist-off lid filled with oysters from Washington State. They were both very good, but the West Coast ones were twice as large, and so had a much finer crunchy-to-creamy ratio. I also believe they were $5.99/can, so an affordable luxury.

For dessert, we had Chai Chocolate Pots de Creme from new-to-me blog, Je Mange la Ville. I am just about the world's biggest fan of chai, and for some inexplicable reason, pots de creme had not yet entered my repertoire, so I had to go for it.

They were absolutely delightful, and tonight's gilding of the lily comes to us in the form of a strawberry filled with a mascarpone-yogurt-chocolate chip cream. Just cut off the top of the strawberry, use a melon baller to scoop out the white bits, and fill with cream. I had intended to fill it with a coconut cream, but didn't realize until I was digging through the cupboards that I had already used up my usually omnipresent bag of shredded coconut. No matter. Plenty of tiny chocolate chips, though, so we're good to go.

Man - all those flavors together are just delightful. The sweet-tart strawberries, the slight tang of the yogurt cream, the tiny crunch of the chocolate chips, and the silkiness of the chai-kissed chocolate. Absolutely perfect. I'm not even hungry, and it makes me want to go back into the fridge to attack the leftover ramekins.

Monday, February 11, 2008

forever young

My co-worker Dana hates being made a big deal of for his birthday. He's even gone so far as to delete his birthday from our shared office calendar. Unfortunately for him, our office policy is to make a big deal - usually cupcakes from Toast or a cake from Sweet Lady Jane - and I also keep a separate calendar for myself.

This year, he requested cupcakes that would make him feel like he was young again. After snarking that I was a baker, not a miracle worker, I started perusing my (your) trusty blogs to find something that fit the bill. I found Root Beer Float Cupcakes from Culinary Concoctions by Peabody.

It's pretty much the simplest cupcake you could ever put together. Dump everything into a bowl, whizz with an electric mixer. I came up with exactly 12 regular-sized cupcakes. They weren't very root beer-tasting at all, but they were really nice, light, fluffy cupcakes. I'm sure adding root beer schnapps would intensify the flavor, but then you'd be stuck with a bottle full of root beer schnapps and no further use for them.

To make them even more float-y, I stuffed them with some Ben & Jerry's Karamel Sutra. Yep. I didn't trust myself to do the cone method, so I just cut off the puffed-up cupcake top, and made a little well with a melon baller.

They went into the freezer until about 15 minutes before we were ready to "surprise" Dana with them. I decorated them with a squirt of Reddi-Whip (yes, I could have whipped some cream up myself, but what says youth more than whipped cream in a can - and squirting it directly into your mouth) and a little root beer barrel hard candy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

picture me rollin'

Unbelievable. I had a huge kitchen day, and I just couldn't get it together enough to take even one photo.

We started the day with brunch at noon with our friends Brad and Tammy. The only condition was that Brad doesn't really eat vegetables. Now, it's harder to make brunch without vegetables than I thought. Spinach Cheese Strata? Out. Crespeou? Out. I thought about making a ham and cheese quiche, but I had to have bacon on the side, and I couldn't justify serving that many pork products in one meal.

I fell back on Elise's Caramelized Onion Quiche - the brunch I always make when I don't know what else to make. To mix it up a little, I used the mushroom crust from this quiche recipe. And I hardly even think of onions and mushrooms as vegetables - I hoped Brad wouldn't either.

The crust was delicious, but I thought the proportions were all wrong. 1/4 c. chopped mushrooms is really not much at all (3 crimini mushrooms), so I doubled that amount. I didn't have saltines, but I had awesome Everything Crackers from TJ's, so I whizzed those through the food processor to come up with 3/4 c. of crumbs. That plus the mushrooms barely covered the pie plate. Upon review of other crumb-based crusts, namely the Cranberry Chocolate Tart, I saw that the proportion is more like 1 1/2 c. of crumbs.

The recipe didn't call for it, but I pre-baked the crust for 5 minutes. Everything came out really tasty. The crust was almost non-existent. It browned nicely, but it didn't have much textural difference from the egg part. The mushroom was a nice addition, though. Since I know I'll be making this quiche very many more times in the future, I think I'll try adding more crackers to the crumb crust as well as adding the mushrooms to the regular pastry shell.

We have about two slices leftover, but I don't see how they can possibly photograph well. I'll attempt to edit and add later, though.

Moving on.

After a short run to the office (yes, on a Sunday), I headed back into the kitchen to make a Green Tea Angel Food Cake to take home for our Lunar New Year celebration with my parents. My mom is a huge fan of green tea, and no one in my family is a huge fan of really sweet, decadent desserts, so I thought this would be perfect.

I could only find Matcha Latte Powder at TJ's, and while I knew I could probably find regular matcha powder at Whole Foods or Nature Mart, I didn't have time to make another grocery stop, so I made do with the latte powder. To compensate for the added sugar, I reduced the amount of powdered sugar in the batter by 1/2 c. I also added a tablespoon of latte powder to get a stronger tea flavor.

As is usually the case when I bring something to my parents', I forgot to take a picture of it. It came out really pretty, too. It was hardly green at all, but it was this perfect pale seafoam color. The top of the cake didn't release too well from the pan, so I slathered the rest of the Tangerine Curd over it.

The cake was really great. Perfectly fluffy as angel food cake tends to be. The tea flavor was very muted, but the curd was a perfect complement since it's so bright. It smelled grand baking up, too - very flowery. And with all those egg whites and the power of the green tea, it's practically health food. :P

Saturday, February 9, 2008

i was hoping

My favorite part of winter is seeing mini-crates of Cuties stacked tall at just about every grocery store I go to. Even though citrus are in season in the winter, they always make me think of summer, and even with the extremely mild winters we have here in SoCal, that's always a good thing.

And while I love the clementines, it's still rough for me to finish the entire crate in a timely fashion. Matty shies away from fruit, so it's always my responsibility to make sure the fruit I buy doesn't end up being wasted.

I managed to get rid of 11 clementines between Cafe Fernando's Clementine and Olive Oil Cake, and the Tangerine Curd from Anita's Dessert First, 7 for the cake and 4 for the curd.

I'm afraid the cake isn't my favorite. I've never made an olive oil cake before, but the combination of olive oil and citrus piqued my interest. I think I just taste too much olive oil in it. I'm not sure what I was expecting, or if my TJ's EVOO wasn't the highest quality, but the obvious taste was kind of off-putting.

What helps is the absolutely delicious curd I added to it, after having been inspired by this beautiful Apricot Pound Cake at Leite's Culinaria. I had originally looked for a marmalade or something to fill the cake, but when I stumbled across the curd, I just had to make it. It doesn't really show up as nicely as the apricot filling does, but I think it's still kind of cute. I'm just proud of myself for not destroying the cake with my awful knife skills. :P

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

glaciers melting in the dead of night

I had originally bought two big ol' butternut squashes (and more spinach than I've ever bought at once) for this Butternut Squash and Creamed Spinach Gratin, but as the days passed, it just stopped sounding good. I mean, I'm sure it would have been awesome at the one sitting, but the thought of having so much leftover was worrying. Matty's also mainly going to be on the road through the end of April, so the idea of leftovers is even more terrifying than usual.

He's gone for the next two days for some pre-tour shows, so that leaves me the evening to myself. Just me and the kitchen. What better way to get rid of two squashes than by making two entrees?

Yes, I know I just talked about how much I hate leftovers. But that may just apply to sides. I think it has to do with the painstaking way in which I craft menus. I just don't like to be forced into making a certain entree to go around a leftover side. Entrees, I can eat forever. This is especially helpful since one of my New Year's Resolutions is to brown bag my lunch more often.

So, now that we have my idiosyncracies out of the way, on to delicious food. I started with the Beef and Butternut Squash Stew from Erin Cooks. I'm not a regular reader of her blog, so I must have stumbled across it from another blog, but I'm glad I did. I was especially charmed by her story of her veggie-hating cousin enjoying the squash she thought was potato. Matty is pretty good about veggies, but doesn't really care for squash, so I thought it'd be a good one to try on him.

There's really no beating it for ease of prep, although I will never stop being terrified of losing all my fingers when I'm chopping squash. *shudder*

While the stew was simmering, I started on Patricia's Bacon, Butternut Squash, Basil Baked Risotto. I can't believe I've never made anything from her blog, but this risotto was a good way to start.

Again, super easy prep/fear of losing digits, and then into the oven everything went. I thought I'd save some time by roasting the squash and baking the risotto at the same time, so I kicked the oven up to 375 degrees. Out the squash came after about 30 minutes, and when I tasted one to test for its doneness, I just about swooned. You know, I must never have had roasted butternut squash before, because I was not prepared for the sweet yumminess that just about melted in my mouth.

Twenty minutes later, the risotto was done, looking perfect and creamy. Seriously, why have I never ventured into the world of baked risotto before? It would have saved me many an arm-ache. In jumped the Parmesan and the squash, and in jumped the risotto into my belly. So fast I forgot to take a photo. Oh well. Another serving it is. :)

The risotto was definitely my favorite of the night. The stew was good, but when I have beef, I prefer it as a rare steak as opposed to simmered stew meat, but it is what it is, and for what it was, it was excellent.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

when it's cold outside

This Spinach Coconut Soup from 500 Soups was a-mazing. Funny enough, it was the first soup I flipped to when Christina gave it to me, and the first one I bookmarked.

The recipe called for equal parts of coconut milk and veggie broth, but that would have meant leaving a half-empty can of coconut milk in the fridge, so I dumped the whole thing in and adjusted the amount of veggie broth accordingly. I think it was for the best - any less creamy and delicious than the way it came out would have been disappointing.

It came together in no time at all. It's fairly good for you, too - nothing more than the fat/calories of coconut milk, but at least it's plant-based, right? You're getting a LOT of spinach in this, too - about three-quarters of it is whizzed through a blender, and the remaining leaves are mostly decorative. Oh, and I guess this soup is vegan. Hooray! The only thing I didn't care for is the coriander, but obviously, that's personal preference. Served it with a delicious baguette Matty picked up from Albertson's, and it was the perfect way to ease into yet another chilly night.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

super duper love

Aren't these just about the cutest things you have ever seen? Okay, maybe not, but these sure are. However, since I don't have $50 burning a hole in my wallet, I thought I'd make my own.

For the chocolate covering, I melted down some Maker's Mark fudge I still had left in the fridge. The first few were particularly unattractive because I tried to just toss the strawberries in and swirl them around. I got to experimenting with the last half of them, though, and ended up finding that melting the fudge with a little bit of heavy cream gave it a better consistency for just pouring over the strawberries (set over a cooling rack on a foil-lined cookie sheet, of course).

I melted some white chocolate chips down with a touch of vegetable oil to make the laces, and used my pathetic piping skills to pipe them on with a Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off. I was hoping to be able too use some of the cake decorating gel things, but all of the ones I saw at Albertson's didn't dry completely, so I had to go to the white chocolate route.

Obviously, they're not as beautiful as Shari's perfectly smooth ones (and maybe they look like skeletons for a Halloween party), but I think they're enough of a novelty that people won't be over-analyzing. And these little babies are an "About Me" in dessert form - chocolate, whiskey and football define my life. :P

Saturday, February 2, 2008

one of these things is not like the other

I don't feel like I've done very much baking lately, and that's a tragedy. What's worse is that I meant for this blog to have a baking/desserts slant, but I see all these other wonderful recipes on other blogs, and I have to make those, too. I guess it's not THAT big of a tragedy. :P

In any case, I've been jonesing to bake, and so I made two different things within the last 24 hours.

Last night, I made this Apple Cake with Toffee Crust that ended up being quite a disappointment. It wasn't exactly dry, but it had a weird extra-chewy texture. It was pretty bland, too, even with the toffee crust over it. I didn't make the butterscotch sauce or the caramelized apples to go with it, but my guess is that they would vastly improve the cake. As it is, I suppose it'll be a good breakfast cake with some coffee.

A much more successful attempt was Peabody's Banoffee Mascarpone Muffins. First of all, mini muffins are just damn cuter than big tube cakes. Secondly, they actually tasted good (not that I'm surprised - I'm never disappointed with recipes from her blog). Third, I couldn't bear to let 2 bananas languish on my counter any longer, so I'm glad I could find them a good final resting place.

At first, I had intended on using plain toffee pieces rather than chocolate-covered ones, but then as I wandered through the aisles of TJ's, I found a container of pistachio toffee. Yep. Chocolate-covered toffee bits sprinkled with chopped pistachios. The grocery checker was right - they are heroin. I ate a good 3 (maybe 4) pieces before they even made it into the kitchen.

These are perfect breakfast treats - not too sweet, but still very flavorful. I ended up with 44 mini-muffins, so I'll be bringing some as a hostess gift to a Mardi Gras party tonight, and I'll see how many I can get rid of at tomorrow's Super Bowl party. Not that I necessarily WANT to get rid of them, but 44 delicious mini-muffins are not good for a girl's New Year's Resolutions.