Fennel and Leeks

Fennel and Leeks

Monday, December 19, 2011

S'mores Bars In A Jar and Candy Cane Cookies

Photos Courtesy of Dave McCoy

We all know one annoying person that already has all of his or her Christmas shopping completed, packages wrapped and shipped, and Christmas cards mailed out. I am usually envious of that person but this year (don't hate me when I say this), that person is me. Yep, I am done with everything. When I say everything, I really mean it. I even have stocking stuffers wrapped and organized. Now, I know this is a good thing but it also comes with drawbacks. I am usually right in the thick of preparation during the week before Christmas and I am finding that I feel a bit less festive with everything completed. When Natalie called on Friday to ask if Olivia and I would like to come over to make holiday cookies with her and Nessa, we jumped on it. This was just what we needed to keep us in the pre-Christmas mood.

Natalie had two types of cookies planned for the day. The first was a recipe for S'mores Bars In A Jar that came from Nessa's school with most of the ingredients already assembled. The second recipe was for Candy Cane Cookies. Our main goal was for the girls, who are three and six, to have a fabulous time making the cookies. This goal was absolutely accomplished. Both recipes follow:

S'mores Bars In A Jar-
1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers
1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1 tsp vanilla

Place graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate chips and brown sugar in a jar or plastic bag. Teddy grahams or a mixture of teddy grahams and graham crackers can be used if preferred. Combine jar contents with 1/2 cup melted butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Photo Courtesy of Natalie McCoy

Press mixture into 9 inch square baking pan. Place marshmallows on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Let cool completely. Cut into bars. Makes 12 bars.

Candy Cane Cookies-
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
5 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp peppermint or almond extract
red food coloring

Photo Courtesy of Natalie McCoy

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth with an electric mixer on high speed. Beat in egg yolks. In another bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. In small bowl, combine milk, vanilla and peppermint or almond extract (Natalie prefers almond). Stir flour mixture into butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, blending thoroughly after each addition.

Divide dough in half. Leave one half in mixing bowl and stir in a few drops of red food coloring. Divide each half of dough in half again (four portions total); wrap dough portions in waxed paper or cooking parchment and chill until firm but still pliable, about one hour. (Natalie completed all of the preparation up to this point).

Unwrap dough and roll each of the four pieces into smooth ropes, about 15 inches long. Twist each white rope with a red rope into a 13-inch-long combined rope, for a total of two ropes. Wrap twisted rolls in waxed paper, chill until firm, at least 4 hours or up to one week.

Unwrap dough. Using sharp knife, cut rolls into 1/8-inch-thick slices; place slices about 1 inch apart on buttered 12" by 15" baking sheets and bend into candy cane shape. Bake cookies in oven at 350 degrees about 10 minutes, or until light golden. (Natalie crushes peppermint candy and lightly presses the crushed pieces into the top of the cookies right as they come out of oven. This makes the cookies even prettier). Transfer to racks to cool.

Photo Courtesy of Dave McCoy

The Smore's In A Jar recipe was tasty but it was so chocolaty that we had to eat it directly out of the pan with a spoon. This was hardly torturous but Natalie and I came to the conclusion that there may have been more than 1 1/2 cups of chocolate chips in the jar. Either way, this was the perfect cookie bar for the girls to make because it only required combining and stirring; two of their favorite things about baking. The Candy Cane Cookies were more for fun than flavor. Although the cookies tasted good enough to eat, they were quite mild and in my opinion, slightly inconsequential. They would be a nice addition to a cookie platter but I like my cookies to have a stronger flavor. I did however, appreciate Natalie's addition of crushed peppermint candy. This was the most flavorful part of the cookie.

All in all, we had a wonderful time making cookies. The girls also decorated a gingerbread house, created artwork with crayons and stickers, and dressed up in princess costumes. We couldn't have asked for a more festive day.

Recipe Sources:

S'mores Bars In A Jar

Candy Cane Cookies
Sunset Magazine, November 2003 via myrecipes.com

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shrimp and White Bean Salad with Harissa Dressing

Photo Courtesy of Dave McCoy

I am going to keep this short and sweet tonight. I was on the search for a light meal that required little preparation time when I came across this recipe for Shrimp and White Bean Salad with Harissa Dressing. At first glance, the recipe appears to be best suited for a summer meal but upon further thought, I realized that it is perfect for winter. The beans provide bulk to help the salad stick to your ribs and the Harissa provides heat. These are both elements that I look for in a winter meal. For those of you that are not familiar with Harissa, it is a North African chile and spice paste. I frequently witness the use of Harissa on cooking shows and I have always wanted to try it. This made my decision to move forward with the following recipe quite easy.

3 cups arugula
2 cans (15 oz each) cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 celery stalk, sliced thinly diagonally
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 lb large peeled cooked shrimp (26 to 30 per lb)
3 to 4 Tbsp Harissa
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Place arugula, beans, celery, parsley and shrimp in large bowl. Mix remaining ingredients in small bowl and serve on side to add to salad. Serves 4 to 6.

As you can see, my goal to find a recipe with little prep time was achieved. The salad took about 15 minutes to prepare and every step was enjoyable. I loved the flavor of Harissa and the heat it brought to the salad. The McCoys were over for dinner tonight and they both really liked it as well. We all used the Harissa mixture not only as a dressing for the salad, but as a dip for our Ciabatta bread. I have never tasted a similar chile paste but I can give you an idea of the flavor by providing the ingredients. The Harissa that I purchased is handmade in Tunisia by a company called Les Moulins Mahjoub and is made of sundried piments, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, sundried tomatoes, salt, coriander and caraway seeds. It is organic and a bit pricey but worth every penny. I highly recommend running out to buy a jar for your pantry because I can envision using the paste for pastas, sandwiches and rice dishes.

As a side note, parsley and arugula go beautifully together. It is a combination that I never would have dreamed up but I will definitely use these two ingredient together in the future.

Recipe Source:
Sunset Magazine, December 2011
Page 104

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

German-Style Plum Kuchen and Apple Kuchen

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

Brad, Olivia and I just arrived home from an early Christmas celebration in Eugene. We were able to spend four days with my family, including a lovely evening at my Grammie's house. I have mentioned my grandmother's cooking aptitude several times in past entries and let me just say that this dinner was no exception. She started with a spread of appetizers including an array of gourmet olives, Spanish chorizo and pork skewers. We then moved on to Belgian pork meatballs with cherry sauce, smashed lemon and green onion potatoes, and asparagus. My Grammie was born in Belgium and the meatball recipe is a family recipe that has been passed down for generations. Both the meatballs and potatoes went over like gangbusters with everyone in attendance. Brad and I liked the potatoes so much that I may even prepare the recipe to include on my blog in the near future.

The piece de resistance however, was a wonderful German desert called Kuchen. Basically, Kuchen is a thin, buttery cake that is decorated by baked fruit topping. The cake base is very much like tender pound cake that supports the fruit high on its surface. There are many variations of this desert based on the type of fruit being used. Grammie chose to prepare one plum and one apple for our meal but you can also prepare the dish with nectarines, pears and peaches. I believe other fruits would work as well but I know that apples and stone fruits work for sure. Although I did not prepare the following recipe myself, it was so delicious that I chose to share it anyway.

1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
14 to 16 Italian plums or 2 large apples, peeled and sliced

In electric mixer bowl, cream butter with sugar until smoothly blended. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in vanilla and flour until batter is well mixed. Butter and flour an 11-inch round shallow pan (a tart pan with removable bottom is the most desirable although you can use a fixed-bottom pan). Spread batter evenly in pan and arrange fruit over the surface according to specific directions.

Bake cake in moderately hot oven (375 degrees) for 40 minutes or until cake feels firm when touched in center. Let cake cool at least 30 minutes on wire rack. Remove pan rim, if possible, and serve cake warm, or cool completely and serve cold. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

For Plum Kuchen, cut 14 to 16 Italian plums (fresh prunes or purple plums) in halves and remove pits. Arrange halves, cut side up over surface of unbaked Butter Kuchen, placing them close together. Sprinkle fruit evenly with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, then bake and cool as directed for Butter Kuchen. About 30 minutes before serving the cake, dust surface liberally with powdered sugar. This allows time for sugar to dissolve on the fruit, making a distinct pattern on the cake.

For Apple Kuchen, peel and slice two large apples and arrange slices on surface of unbaked Butter Kuchen, placing them close together. Follow same directions as Plum Kuchen to finish.

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

What is so great about Kuchen, you may ask? Where do I start? First of all, the description of this desert being similar to tender pound cake is completely accurate. I happen to love pound cake so the similarity is welcome. I really appreciate that the end result was rich, light, and flavorful. As a matter of fact, I would choose to eat Kuchen over pie any day of the week because I am not a big fan of pie crust. I do however, enjoy pie filling and this desert provides the feeling of pie but in cake form. Finally, Kuchen is aesthetically beautiful. I would be proud to serve it to dinner guests or to take it to an event when I am in charge of providing desert.

Recipe Source:
Mary Moore from her recipe archives

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pasta alle Zucchine con Salsa di Peperoni

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

Have you ever taken a bite that was pure perfection? Tonight's recipe afforded me this exact luxury. I once again, turned to my favorite pasta cookbook by Marlena Spieler for inspiration and came across this beautiful recipe for Pasta alle Zucchine con Salsa di Peperoni (Pasta with Courgettes and Red-pepper Sauce). I am always wowed by the brilliant simplicity of Marlena's recipes. She has an ability to turn the most basic ingredients into a meal that I am proud to serve. The best part is that preparing her dishes makes me feel like a culinary virtuoso instead of a novice. The following recipe was no exception.

large jar of roasted red peppers (9 ounces)
1 ounce chives
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5-8 leaves basil, thinly sliced
2-3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
dash of balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti
4 courgettes (small zucchini), cut into bite-sized pieces

Finely chop peppers and place in bowl with chives, garlic, basil and half of olive oil. Season to taste with vinegar, salt and pepper and set aside.

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

Bring large pan of salted water to boil, add spaghetti and cook for about 4 minutes; add courgettes and continue to cook until spaghetti is just tender or al dente.

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

Drain, then toss pasta and courgettes with remaining olive oil and serve immediately, topping each portion with a dollop of red-pepper sauce.

The red-pepper sauce was amazing! The combination of flavors could not have been more balanced. The slight bitterness from the basil and garlic was balanced perfectly by the kosher salt and sweetness of the balsamic vinegar and peppers. The chives added freshness and texture to the sauce that paired perfectly with the spaghetti. I usually saute zucchini prior to adding it to my pasta dishes so I was curious to see how it would turn out when boiled right along with the pasta. This method worked so well that I will save myself a step and prepare it this way moving forward.

Brad and I liked this recipe so much that we kept making comments like "mmmmm" and "yum" between bites. I personally liked the dish enough to add it to my cooking repertoire. I can envision myself keeping a jar of red peppers on hand so I can prepare it at any time; especially in summer when I can run down to the garden to pick fresh garlic, chives, basil and zucchini. As a side note, I used organic ingredients with the exception of the pasta which was a high quality Italian spaghetti (but not organic). And, one final recommendation...... use more than a dollop of red-pepper sauce. It is so good that a dollop is just not enough.

Recipe Source:
"Pasta" by Marlena Spieler
Page 138

Friday, December 2, 2011

Best Ever Black Bean and Rice Soup

Photo Courtesy of Brad Lovejoy

Well, it is official. As promised, I am on a major soup kick. Every year by late November, I seem to fall into a pattern of preparing soup from scratch two or three times per week. Soup is a crowd pleaser at our house so this works well for everyone. I often choose the type of soup to prepare by looking in the refrigerator and cupboards to see what I have on hand. I then throw it all in a pot with broth and simmer until ready to serve. Tonight's recipe however, was inspired by one of Brad's favorite foods; black beans with rice. He mentioned that I hadn't made any variation of black beans with rice in quite a while so I decided to see if I could find a soup that combines the two ingredients. Voila! The following recipe for Best Ever Black Bean and Rice Soup appeared before my eyes.

2 cans seasoned black beans (drained, not rinsed)
1 can chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic minced
2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp cumin
white rice (follow box or bag instructions for 4 servings)

In large pot, saute onions and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add chili powder and cumin. Stir. Add remaining ingredients and let simmer for 15 minutes. Put immersion blender directly in pot so that some beans are blended and some remain intact. Place cup of rice in bowl, pour soup over rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.

This soup was tasty. I initially found it to be a bit bland but after I took a few bites with cilantro, I began to enjoy the combined flavors of cilantro, cumin and chili. Brad liked it from the first bite so perhaps my taste buds were a bit off. This was my first time using an immersion blender, which by the way is a fabulous kitchen tool, and I blended the soup for a few seconds too long. My soup was creamier than intended so the only change I would make is to leave more of the beans intact. This would give the soup more contrast in texture. All in all, this was a successful recipe. I would whip it up again for dinner anytime. Preparation was speedy and the end result was both hearty and nutritious.

Recipe Source: