28 November 2011

Pizza night: It's not delivery!

Wow, it has been a while! So sorry for my absence but it has been a busy Autumn! Not much to report about my favorite foodie holiday, Thanksgiving, since we didn't host this year, except to say we  had an incredible time surrounded by beautiful friends and could not have asked for a better day. Now..... Let's get to it!

Tonight was pizza night at our house. no, that doesn't mean breaking out the menus and calling for delivery. Pizza night means rolling out our favorite dough from Trader Joe's (garlic and herb, or whole wheat!), making the easiest sauce in the universe, and getting ready our usual toppings of crimini mushrooms, spinach, turkey pepperoni and sometimes diced red peppers. We do vary the toppings every now and then but the thing that never changes is how great it tastes when we're done, and we so enjoy making it!

Pizza gets a bad wrap sometimes as a food that is fattening, full of sodium and cholesterol and really, if made with certain ingredients, that is exactly what it is. However, like any dish you can make with and for your family, pizza can be a wonderfully healthful meal full of flavor and fresh ingredients!

By using whole grain dough, reduced fat cheeses and loading it up with fresh veggies and leaner, low sodium meats you can enjoy pizza that tastes amazing, is not greasy, and leaves you feeling satisfied rather than bloated and stuffed.  Some healthy alternatives to sausage and pepperoni are diced grilled or roasted chicken, and of course, the turkey pepperoni we use. It is much lower in fat and has a fantastic flavor! Any veggies that go on our pizza are raw and fresh, and you really can use anything with out needing extra oil or seasonings. By using such fresh ingredients, you maintain the taste and integrity of your ingredients and the nutrients therein! Reduced fat cheeses, yes they melt and taste as good as the full-fat varieties, are readily available in grocery stores these days, as are some choices for pizza dough! WinCo and Trader Joe's both offer doughs, Trader Joe's has a few more varieties than some markets. You might also be able to go to your local pizzeria and buy dough fresh from them! As for the sauce, you can use store bought sauce for pizza, a basic jar marinara, or a cold pizza sauce from the deli (usually located near the aforementioned dough!) but why buy something when you can make a super simple sauce that will taste incredible!?

For your next pizza night, get the family together, gather your toppings, get the kids helping grate the cheese and choose the veggies, give a little drizzle of good olive oil on the finished product before baking, and enjoy a fresh, delicious meal that is easy, really fun to put together, and gets everyone sharing the kitchen!

Simple Pizza Sauce
1 can diced tomatoes (plain, not stewed) 
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp cracked pepper
1-2 cloves peeled garlic (depending on your love of garlic :) 
2 tsp dry italian seasoning
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp worcestershire sauce 

Put everything in a blender, blend on high for 1 minute or so until everything is smoothly blended. 
That's it! You can also use fresh tomato that's been seeded! Use it on pizza, of course, or for a bread dip, veggie dip, on chicken, steak, shrimp or anything where you need a little fresh, light taste full of flavor! 

Pizza Pizza! Family Fun! Enjoy!

NEXT TIME: Holiday treats and ways to enjoy a great day in the kitchen with your whole family!

02 September 2011

Blueberry Recipes!

Recipes for those farm fresh berries! 
Mixed Fruit with Honey Orange sauce

Mix well in large bowl:
3 Granny Smith apples chopped  into small cubes
1 pound strawberries cut into halves or quarters (depending on size of berries)
2 cups blueberries (fresh are best, but frozen would also work!)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup honey (you can add more is you'd like it a bit sweeter)

Great mixing tip: If you have a bowl with a lid, get all ingredients in bowl, seal the lid on tight and shake to mix! 
This is a wonderful compliment to shortcake, waffles or french toast, granola and greek yogurt, or delightful as a stand-alone sweet, but healthful, treat. Feel free to add other favorite fruits like nectarines, peaches, raspberries, or whatever you and your family enjoys!

And now the wonderful, and extremely delicious fruit bread! To pack this bread with even more fruits and veggies, feel free to add a 1/2 cup of apple sauce, and/or maybe the same amount of grated zucchini or carrot! (Doing this will make the bread more dense and moist, almost making it more of a pound cake consistency.)

Blueberry Banana Bread
Preheat oven to 350º
Sift together in a medium bowl:
4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp cinnamon OR pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp salt
In large mixing bowl cream together (with wooden spoon):
2/3 cup vegetable shortening 
1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil
Add to shortening mixture:
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 1/2 c dark brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
and mix well
In a small bowl, smash:
2 large (or 3-4 small) over-ripe bananas
Incorporate dry mix in 3 small batches alternating with smashed banana in two batches (dry-wet-dry-wet-dry) and be sure to fold in each addition until just incorporated to avoid over-mixing.
After all dry mix and banana is mixed in, carefully fold in:
2 1/2 cups blueberries (fresh are best, but frozen would also work!)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Spread evenly into two greased and floured loaf pans
Bake for 50 minutes (until cake tester comes out clean)
Cool in pans for 15 minutes, remove from pans and place on rack until completely cooled. Wrap tightly in cling wrap OR Store in airtight container in the fridge (unless your house is like mine and it's gone before you need to worry about storing it! )

16 August 2011

Farm Fresh Flavor!

Fresh from the Farm...

I know I promised some recipes and notes about simple sauces for this post, but this had to come first since we’re finally enjoying some summer sun around here! 

Living in the Pacific NorthWest has allowed my family access to beautiful forests, beaches, a variety of weather with which I have a serious love-hate relationship, and of course, incredible, beautiful fresh edibles. Recently I, along with a wonderful group of families from my son’s preschool, traveled a short distance to a blueberry farm. Going berry picking is one of those thing my husband and I kept talking about doing, planning, and forgetting. Well, I could not be more thrilled to have finally gone and shared the day with my son and some great new friends.

Here in Snohomish County, WA farms are near and far, big and small. There are hay farms, berry farms, veggie farms, animal farms, plant farms, and more! You name it, we’ve got a farm that grows it! 

Our destination on this particular adventure was Bryant Blueberry Farm where they grow a variety of blueberries, as well as Tayberries (hybrid of a raspberry and blackberry) and rhubarb. We arrived at the farm, passing dozens of others on the way through the country, and saw 30+ rows of berries and other goodies stretching from the  earth with colors galore and berries from top to bottom. We grabbed our plastic buckets, gave the little ones some guidance about picking the purple and blue berries, and leaving the green ones to ripen for the next visit, and got on with the picking! It was a really fun experience to see where the fixings for our next baking day came from, and enjoy the outdoors while doing something to help create healthy nutritious treats for our families. 

Before we knew it our buckets we’re filling up, the kids were covered in berry juices from squishing and eating, and it was time to hit the onsite playground, play a little tether ball and say hello to the Bryant Farm goats and ducks. While the kids enjoyed the huge sandbox moms were busy talking about all the fabulous things we had planned for our our plump little treasures full of antioxidants and tangy, sweet flavor! Blueberry Pancakes were on everyone’s list along with varying other items like cookies, coffee cakes, sauces and syrups. What was my first priority? Blueberry Banana Bread! I knew I had a few bananas sitting at home on the verge of collapse just waiting to be smashes and mashed, mixed with other wonderful ingredients to create a perfect blend of colors, textures and flavors. 

Today, It was time. We were heading off to camp and I promised the family a share of our haul in the form of baked goods to be enjoyed al fresco! So I woke up, got some laundry started, fed my silly kiddo and then got on with testing this new recipe! An hour and a half later, after whisking, mixing, sifting, careful incorporation of ingredients and baking, I had 2 lovely golden loaves of bread bursting with berries from end to end and just the right amount of sweetness and tart.  

What’s in store for the rest of the near three pounds of blueberries we came home with?  Well, pancakes or waffles of course, freezing some for smoothies (very popular treat in our house), sauce for ice-cream, waffles, a spoon....there are loads of possibilities to make the best of these little blue gems!

If you live in an area where you’re fortunate enough to have u-pick farms for berries, veggies, apples, etc. there’s no reason not to check it out! Aside from seeing exactly where your food comes from and how it’s grown, it’s a great way to great great prices on produce as u-pic is often a good deal less than buying pre-picked produce, it allows you to share a day outside with family and friends, and continue the sharing at home once you are back in your keen kitchen creating goodies for all seasons and all tastes.

Recipes to follow soon! I promise!

16 July 2011

Keen Kitchen Q & A

I've recently asked my friends and family, and of course my followers/readers, to submit questions regarding cooking, baking, ingredients, etc. so here they are!

Q. When baking proteins (chicken, fish, etc.) in the oven how do you prevent them from becoming mushy by cooking in their own juices?

A. One of my favorite tricks, something I'm doing more and more these days, is to start cooking chicken, chops, steak, etc. on the stove top and finish in the oven, as they often do in the restaurant world.  What this does is give you a ton of flavor from grilling or searing, and allow you to finish cooking to perfect desired temp and texture, plus it keeps you food incredibly juicy and flavorful. The trick is, once your meat is seared, grilled or pan fried and you want to finish cooking it through, you will often times have already done enough to prevent juices being lost in the oven by that first stove-top step, but to be extra sure your best ever chicken isn't sitting in liquid getting too soft and ruining your beautiful sear, or losing the lovely sauce you just brushed on, break out the cookie cooling rack! Yes, the cooling racks you use for your cakes, cookies, pies, etc. (that are almost always oven safe, but research to be sure) can be placed on top of a rimmed sheet pan and used just like a rack you'd place a roast or a turkey on, to keep the meat away from the liquid! No cooling racks safe for oven use? Another great way to prevent mushy meats is to bake on top of a bed of veggies that will not only keep your meal from a hot bath, but will also add additional flavor and aroma to your finished product! Rough-chop carrots, onions, celery and potatoes (or just some taters and celery for a little less flavor infusion) and place your protein on top! NOTE: If you plan to skip the stove-top step altogether, i;d go with the veggie bed method here, and if you plan to add a sauce to you meat, bake without the sauce (just season with a little S&P) until you've only got about 15 minutes to go, then baste your sauce on every 5 minutes or so for maximum adhesion to your meat.
EXAMPLE: (What I did for dinner last night!) Preheat your oven to 375º 
Heat up a grill pan on your stove top, brush with olive oil, and once it's nice and hot (getting a touch of smoke is okay, just ventilate your kitchen well!) put on some beautiful bone-in pork chops that are seasoned with sea-salt and pepper. Sear on each side for 3-4 minutes. Brush on desired sauce (teriyaki, barbecue, honey-balsamic glaze, whatever you like) and sear with sauce on 2-3 minutes on each side. You will have the juices nice and sealed in now, and lovely grill marks that are always appealing to the eye. get your sheet pan ready with your oven safe cooling rack placed on top, lay the chops in one layer not too close together, and pop in the oven after brushing one more coat of sauce on all sides. To finish cooking to juicy perfection takes just about 20 minutes, but you can just feel to be sure the chops are firm, but not hard, and you'll know they are ready. As with any meat proteins, you'll want to give them a few minutes to ret to make sure all the juice, that you worked so hard to seal in there, doesn't escape! 

Q. What is the proper method for cedar (or other wood) plank grilling?

A. When you want to infuse your grilled meats and seafoods with some incredibly woodsy, smoky flavor, plank-grilling a great, simple way to go. The most commonly used planks are cedar, and often used for salmon, especially here in the Pacific NorthWest. There are a few steps you must take, however, to ensure you are getting the best result from your planks. First step anytime you are using wood on your grill, be it in the form of chips, bamboo skewers or planks, soaking to avoid scorching the wood before its time. You'll often see instructions for soaking a minimum of 2 hours to overnight. I recommend soaking as long as possible to better ensure the wood working for you and with you, not against you and your delicious food. Secondly, you want to be sure your grill is at a nice low and slow cooking temp. No matter how long you soak, if your grill is flaming, even just a little, or at too high a temp, the wood will burn usually rendering your food a little too smokey to be enjoyable. I don't use a propane grill at home, but have in the past and while you might start your grill on a nice high heat to get the racks nice and hot, in order to make proper use of planks, and avoid burning anything you might be grilling, your flames should be turned down to a low temp before planks are added. If you are a charcoal griller as I am, you can get your coals to smoldering, nice and white then spread them out to a nice even low layer in the center of the grill. Place the planks (with meat/seafood on top) on the outer edges so a lot of the heat they are getting is residual versus direct. By doing this, you're creating a wood-smoker effect to infuse your meats, seafoods, or even veggies with super, wonderful flavors. Lastly, remember that planks are good for just one use! SUMMARY: Soak planks overnight, or as long as possible (minimum of 2 hours). Use very low heat. Only use planks once.

Q. Can any recipe be doubled (or multiplied more) and provide the same result as a single batch?

A. No. And unfortunately I can't explain why for any case, but I can say for some.  For the most part, when you're cooking a recipe can easily be doubled or even tripled, but baking is, as always, a different story. Because baking is really kitchen chemistry it's not always possible to multiply a recipe and get the same result you would have with a single recipe. Very often when baking anything with a bread/starch texture (muffins, cookies, quick breads, pastry dough, etc.) there's a very fine line between incorporating ingredients and over-mixing. As a result of the fine line, anytime you double a batch of a flour-based recipe, you run the risk of over-mixing and creating a product too dense, too firm and devoid of all pleasing texture and mouth feel. Really, the only way to know if something can be doubled is to try it, keeping in mind incorporation of dry ingredients into wet should take very little stirring/folding, and is complete as soon as you can no long see big streaks of the dry ingredients. While just doubling is usually safe and won't mess with your end result, especially for things like cookies and cakes, I would never attempt to triple a recipe for baking if it wasn't something I'd experimented with at least a couple of times. There are a lot of factors to consider because the ingredients change composition once they are mixed with other ingredients and that will affect everything from baking times to consistency to flavor. Sugars go from dry to wet once they're whipped with egg and dissolved, when you mix liquids with flours the glutens develop and create chewy-ness and tough textures when overdeveloped, etc.
I'm not an expert in this department, but can recommend just really doing your homework, and with every recipe you want to multiply you should test at least once or twice to make adjustments. You may end up throwing away a good amount of ingredients, if you don't do your research first. Look into what leaveners you'll need and how they will affect the recipe when doubled, remember not to over-mix, and most importantly if you are baking for an event or a certain specific occasion,  even if you have tested your multiple-batch recipes, have a back up plan!

Q. Can I substitute baking powder for baking soda and vice versa?

A. No. While they are both leaveners designed to help baked good rise and puff up, they are not interchangeable. Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) is to be used in recipes where it will be combined with an acid such as yogurt, molasses, or buttermilk which will cause it to bubble and create the rise. Baking powder is actually a mix of baking soda, cream of tarter (or a similar acid) and cornstarch (or a similar moisture absorber, not 100% necessary). If you were to use baking powder in a recipe with a high acid content it could cause the recipe to dry out too much or become crumbly and too light. You can actually make your own baking powder if you are mid-recipe and find you are out! The recipe is very simple!
Homemade Baking Powder:
Mix :
2 parts Cream of Tarter
1 part baking soda
1 part cornstarch (optional, can take moisture away, doesn't affect taste)
Sift ingredients together 3 times and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place and be sure to date your mix from the date on the baking soda you use!
NOTES: Always check the expiration dates on your leaveners because they can lose their punch and effectiveness if they are old, out of date or have gotten moisture inside. For best results and longest life, keep in a cool, dry, dark place. Also, when baking with either soda or powder, get your batter/recipe in the oven right away as the leaveners start acting immediately and you want to let them work properly and not lose their oomph!

I hope you've enjoyed this little Q and A session! Please feel free to leave other questions in the comments section here for the next round!

A few other general notes and tips to leave you with...

Don't be afraid to taste your food before serving! Smell, taste and make sure your seasoning are all there and just how you want them. Here's a good tip, which some people swear by, and others say it has no merit...I say try it! If you taste something (a soup or stew, particularly) and you find there is a very heavy salt taste, cut a regular potato into halves or quarters (no need to peel, just wash first) and drop it in to absorb some of the unwanted salt! After about half hour, taste and see if enough salt has been removed. If not, just leave it for another half hour or so and then taste again. I'd say you shouldn't leave any longer than that because it'll break down too much. You may need to replenish your liquids a bit and, if things are still a little too much on the salty side, add a dash of sugar and cinnamon to help get rid of a bit more of the over-salted flavor.  A great way to ensure you are controlling the salt flavor in your soups, stews and sauces is to get low-sodium stocks and broths, and is using things like canned beans, get the low-sodium versions of those as well. Remember it's a lot easier to add more than to take it away later, so go easy to start and add as needed, after tasting!

Want to know more about spices and seasonings but aren't sure where to start? Take advantage of your local grocery store spice aisle, and your library! There are tons of great resources about spice specifics out there that will give you great ideas about how to use spices, what foods they are commonly compatible with, and where they come from, and of course, the online offerings are endless. Also, if you are lucky enough to live near a local farmers market or specialty spice/food store, go in and ask questions! They are (usually) very knowledgable about what is what, tastes, heat level of peppers, extracts, etc. If there's something you want to try, give it a shot! Most spices are inexpensive, especially for a small amount, and will keep if stored in a proper container (airtight glass is best) and in a cool, dark, dry place. I recently spent the day in Seattle with my husband and son and we love going to Pike Place Market to hit Frank's Produce(pictured down left) and Market Spice (above right and below). This trip I picked up a few new things to try, but I could spend hours tasting, smelling and admiring their selection of oils, and extracts and the wall of spices....

The main thing is not being afraid to experiment. If you end up with something you don't like, see if you can pass it on to a friend, and take solace in knowing you tried something new. I picked up a few new things and look forward to posting about my results!

Get to know your local grocery stores!
The better you know what you have at your local shops, the better you can plan meals and parties, find new things to try, and you know where to go if you've forgotten something or need an ingredient in a hurry. If you leave near a WinCo, I highly recommend visiting if you have not been. While they don't usually have much to offer in terms of locally produced product (to wherever you are), and their beverage aisle could use a revamp with the addition of more all-natural bottled and canned pops, juices, etc., their delis, produce and BULK departments are glorious! Another reason to give your store the once over if you haven't before is because you never know what they might have that you don't normally shop for. We tend to purchase the same groceries week after week leaving all the little gems and specialty items behind. You might need brie for a party, or maybe you want to try a new bread to go with your pasta dinner. Take a look at the deli, the cheese section you would normally pass by. Visit the bakery department and get a good look at the offerings. What you find might surprise you! You might still have a limited selection, depending on where you live, and have to go to another store for specialty items but at least you've gotten to know your neighborhood/most frequented store a bit better.

Enjoy the Farmers Market! Nearly every community out there has a local farmers market these days and you should consider visiting yours at least once while it's up and running! Some are seasonal, most in fact, but some are year round and just have less to offer in the winter months. The wonderful thing is that the foods and products are usually local, and you see who has grown/made  them, packed them because it's the person selling them to you! You can try new things, find great sauces, local honey, nuts, and even meat and seafood in addition to crafts and music you might find! It's a great way to sped time outside with your family and encourage children to taste new things and talk to the people who grow their food. They may even want to get a garden going at home when they see all the beautiful produce and taste the freshness.

Well, that is a lot to process! I hope you've enjoyed this post and all the information that might encourage you try some new things, and save you from a few common cooking frustrations!

NEXT TIME: Simple Sauces!

25 June 2011

Breakfast: It's not just for mornings anymore!

When I was growing up breakfast at home usually consisted of some sort of cereal, cream of wheat, or rice with milk, sugar, cinnamon and butter, my favorite. Rarely did we have a "sugary" cereal, but mom would let us get something on the sweeter side now and then. We also had a favorite breakfast place, when we went out, called the Cutten Inn. Anytime we went out I ordered the same thing every time. Diced ham and eggs (scrambled, the childhood standard) with sourdough toast. And the cinnamon rolls. Oh, those huge, warm, buttery, gooey beautiful cinnamon rolls, with a whipped-cream topped cup of hot cocoa on the side, were the most perfect breakfast a girl could ask for. None could rival those rolls, except, of course, for my mama's.

Some of my most cherished memories of breakfast time are Christmas morning with a tradition of the aforementioned cinnamon rolls, with a mildly-orange glaze and hot chocolate around the glowing warmth of the tree and my grandmother coming to visit and spending all day in the kitchen making fresh maple bars with the scent of fresh donuts and rich maple wafting through the house, and the best, most fun of all, breakfast-for-dinner day! We'd have waffles or french toast with homemade maple syrup all warm and sticky, with a nice tall glass of juice or ice-cold whole milk.

I must admit though, the breakfast hour was not my favorite time of day for waffles, bacon, french toast, etc. When mom would come in the door saying "Breakfast for dinner tonight!" my heart would beat a little faster, my taste buds would perk up and I was the first one in the kitchen to get things cooking! There's nothing like watching a little "Must-See TV" on a random weeknight with a belly full of fluffy butter-slathered waffles and salty, smoky bacon. Of course now, with brunch making a comeback and the enormous variety of breakfast foods, egg dishes and delicate pastries galore available at the everyday grocery, the possibilities for breakfast anytime are endless!

You may have gathered my favorite breakfast-for-dinner meal is waffles, but not just any waffles. Yes, I use a mix, but I enhance it and it's oh, so easy! Just start by making up your favorite batter, mix or homemade, and add flavorings like hazelnut or almond extract, cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice for a great Autumnal flavor, or even some good cocoa powder and espresso powder (the kind made for baking) to make yourself a mocha waffle batter!  You may not be a waffle-lover as I am so here are some other heartier, lower carb/higher protein options!

Try doing up the classic scrambled eggs or omelettes with fresh herbs and some nice rich cheese like a Dubliner, or even a good Bleu for some tang, maybe something little mellower for the kids who aren't ready for a strong cheese yet, like a good medium cheddar or havarti. Then there's a nice quiche or frittata, a very popular anytime dish these days! You can put just about anything you like in a frittata and it's basically a one-pan meal!  And for the less carb/calorie conscious, there's my favorite breakfast I nearly always order when we head out of the house ...Biscuits and Country gravy with 2 scrambled eggs and hash browns, but I only order this at certain restaurants because the biscuits, and the gravy must be homemade and a lot of the chain restaurants use mixes for the gravies. No thanks! Again, my mama's biscuits and gravy will always be the best, but I have found a few close seconds. Anecdote: When we lived in San Francisco it was shocking to find this meal so hard to come by, but finally after a long search we found it. In the Haight/Ashbury district there is a fabulous little hole-in-the-wall called The Pork Store (www.porkstorecafe.com, not sure if it's under the same ownership, but in any case, check out "the 49er" on the menu) where they had my perfect meal. It was a glorious day and completely lived up to my expectations.

Now, do I recommend eating something so heavy as b&g for a dinner-time meal? Well, no. I just needed to share my struggle with you all, and I thank you for listening.  I think as far as working in a nice, simple meal that can be enjoyed at any time of day, egg dishes are going to be the best bet because of the savory quality you palette is most likely used to in the evening hours. You might not want to consume a lot of syrup/nutella/powdered sugar bathed waffles or pancakes just before hitting the sheets, and it certainly wouldn't help the kids settle down to have all the sweet just before tucking-in time.

Another wonderful reason to give this whole idea of opposite meal time a try is because almost everyone can make at least one thing for breakfast which means the kids, mom, dad, anyone can lend a hand and make it their very own meal to share with the family! My husband is very open to learning how I prepare a lot of our meals, but is pretty good with breakfast on his own, and one dish in particular. Here's the super-simple recipe for....

Christian's Eggs and Toast Chips!
(This is the recipe for 1 serving, so duplicate as much as you need) 

In a buttered fry pan, fry 2 eggs gently (more of a sunny-sie-up, technically) to keep the yolks runny and in tact, seasoning with salt, pepper and basil, parsley or any of your favorite dried or fresh herbs. 
Meanwhile, toast lightly 2 pieces of whole-grain bread (could also be rye, sourdough or any other good, dense bread) and butter, then tear the buttered toast into "chips"(pieces about the size of a small potato chip) and put in a cereal bowl. 

Once eggs are done cooking, place them on top of the toast chips and mix them in with two table knives to make sure the yummy, runny yolks make their way to all those buttery chips. Add about a tablespoon of your favorite ketchup, mix in and enjoy! 

You can also add some cooked sausage or crispy bacon to this mix for some added flavor and texture. FYI-I omit the ketchup if adding a breakfast meat to the dish as sometimes the flavors don't mix well.

So now it's time to experiment and see what works for your family! Make it a special night where the kids can help crack and mix eggs, toast and butter the bread and of course, make sure to get those veggies in there by mixing some fresh spinach and mushrooms into you eggs, having a nice appetizer of fresh fruit while the meal is being prepared or making smoothie shots to go along with your breakfast-for-dinner adventure! Just think, everyone can "dress" for dinner by getting in their jammies, and then after your wonderful dinner you can finish off with some family game time or pop a family-favorite in the DVD player and get everyone on the couch to watch together!

Whatever you decide to have for your breakfast, whether you eat it at 9am or 6pm, enjoy the making of it, homemade or from a mix, and share it with your family! After all, sharing any meals is a greta way to enjoy one another and keep up on all your family's happenings! Happy Cooking! 

02 June 2011

Chocolate II: Lovin' from the oven!

Has everyone recovered from the chocolate extravaganza of my last rich a dreamy chocolate-related post? Excellent! Now it's time to talk baking!

Let's go over a few notes first though, to get you familiar with the types of cocoa and chocolate you'll most often see in recipes, as well as ways to enhance the chocolate flavor in your baked goods.

1. Cocoa powders: First, let me say, and I'm sure you all know this anyway but...it's never recommended to substitute hot-cocoa drink mix for pure cocoa powder because of all the additives. That being said, let's move on to the good stuff! When you're perusing that awesome baking aisle in your local market you'll find Cocoa Powder and Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder, both of which are derived from the extraction of cocoa butter (chocolate liquor) from the beans being dried and ground. The difference between the two is that Dutch Processed product has been treated with alkali, called "Dutch Process", to neutralize the natural acidity in cocoa. It can produce a smoother, richer, more pure chocolate taste. I've used both types and while the difference is minimal but noticeable, I always say, when it comes to baking use the best possible ingredients you can get your hands on. 

2. Chocolate: We went over most everything you'll need to know about the chocolate itself in the last post, but remember a lot of baking with chocolate will call for bar chocolate mixed for baking as opposed to chocolate chips because of stabilizers which can affect the consistency and texture of your pies, cakes, cookies, etc. When reading, or testing out one of your own, recipes, make sure you know what strength and type of chocolate you need, and if you aren't sure, do some test batches, taste various strengths and see what strikes you palette's fancy! 

3. Enhancements: When you are creating anything in your kitchen you should do anything possible to enhance every layer of flavor in your dishes. With baking there are a few ways to go about that. Small additions can make enormous difference in the depth of flavor found naturally in chocolate and a few of those additions are: 
Salt: A really simple way to boost flavors in almost and dish weather it's a fudge cake or poached fish! A dash of salt in a brownie or fudge recipe goes a long way, and a sprinkle of smoked salt or champagne salt on top of a truffle or caramel brings about an incredible surprise to your palette! 
Coffee & Espresso: Whether you use instant coffee crystals, the morning's brewed coffee or finely ground espresso powders specially made for baking, a little goes a long way and it really doesn't take much to amplify the taste! If you add just a teaspoon or two to nearly any recipe I think you'll taste a noticeable difference from what used to be!
Spices: These days you will often see chocolate recipes calling for cayenne, anise, paprika, chipotle, etc. and when used in moderation these non-trdtional spices can add a fantastic, modern kick to truffles, brownies and more!
Oils: I adore adding extracts and natural nut, spice and fruit oils to chocolate to enhance its natural tones and bring out new notes of flavor that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Now it's time in the kitchen and make friends with the mixer. One of my favorite chocolate treats for in-home baking is easily the classic brownie. My go-to brownie recipe, which doesn't actually require a mixer, and is all put together on the stove top, is perfect for a late night craving satisfier, and quick pot-luck hit or last-minute dessert for unannounced guests! It's quick to make, fast to bake and can easily be modified with any combination of nuts, fruits, a variety of chips and flavorings or even nut butters, and it's sure to make you the talk to dessert time. One last trick before we get into the recipe is to make sure you don't over-bake! I always go for the minimum recommended baking time, check doneness and then give just another minute or two at a time until you achieve desired texture. I prefer a chewier, most moist brownie where you might like a cakier result meaning you would bake a bit longer and go for a bit of a drier recipe.

Yes, I'm aware there are baked goods far beyond brownies, and I encourage you to seek out a great, simple chocolate cake recipe, as well as a fudge and a cookie that you really enjoy sharing and that is  a good, simple, delicious recipe you can keep at hand as your favorite go-to. Brownies are my favorite for their simplicity and mass appeal, but stick with what you end up liking, and creating, best and you're good for the long haul! And of course, once you find a recipe you adore as much as I do with my brownies, begin experimenting with additions to add new, unusual but pleasantly surprising flavors and textures!

Courtney's Favorite Brownies 
for all occasions!

Preheat oven to 350
1 1/4 cup (plus 1 1/4 cups reserved) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tbsp butter
3 eggs
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup superfine sugar (regular sugar or even brown sugar works, also!)
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp espresso powder (extra-fine, for baking or can also use instant coffee/espresso crystals)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda

Mix-in ideas: 1/2 cup to 1 cup in any combination of the following: favorite chopped nuts, mini-marshmallows, dried fruit, butterscotch/white/milk chocolate chips, broken pretzels, peppermint candy or toffee pieces...

In a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat, melt 1 cup chocolate chips with canola oil and butter, being sure to keep and eye on this and stir often to avoid scalding.
Once melted, remove from heat and add 3 eggs, and mix well. 
Add all remaining ingredients (except remaining chocolate chips and other chosen mix-ins) and mix very well by hand until completely incorporated.
Add remaining 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips and any desired mix-ins, get into pan (see below) and pop them in the oven! You can also sprinkle the top with a little of your chosen mix-ins to show what awaits inside the tasty morsel!

You can bake these in one of two ways:
9x13 greased/floured pan for 18-20 minutes
In greased/floured (or lined) mini-muffin tins (to create brownie bites) for 14-18 minutes

Bake in desired capacity then cool to room temp and enjoy! 

Time to get to the store, get in the kitchen and begin to discover your own favorite chocolate baked treats and treasures! Still not sure where to start? Let me know what more you want to know about best ways to bake with chocolate in your own keen kitchen, and I'm happy to provide more detail, more ideas and delve into the world of cakes, cookies, pies and more. I promise also, in the near future, to dedicate and entire post, or three...to baking goodies of many varieties so don't be discouraged if this one post doesn't cover all your inquiries regarding baked delights!

NEXT TIME: Breakfast: It's not just for mornings anymore!

21 April 2011

Do what you can...

Theodore Roosevelt once said "Do what you can with what you have, where you are." This could not hold truer for any place other than the kitchen. How often have you stood in front of the opened refrigerator at 6pm thinking about what you could possibly come up with to satisfy your family's dinner time hunger? What about your significant other, spouse, child(ren), etc. calling to let you know there's company coming and begging you to come up with something edible, at the very least, and preferably hearty and delicious to boot? I have been there more times than I care to reveal, as that bonding time with the chilly white box in my kitchen usually ends with sandwiches, veggies and string cheese for dinner. Shamefully, when I think back on those times, even knowing how much my husband and son adore sandwiches and would happily eat them for every meal, I know I could have provided a much more pleasing, and heart offering with a little more effort and ingenuity for using the variety, big or small, at my fingertips.

My mother, who loves cooking and baking as much as I do, the reason cooking is what gets my blood pumping, was staying with my family on a recent visit and one night we were at a loss for what to get cooking for dinner that everyone would enjoy...or so we thought! Little did I realize I had all the ingredients for a version of a recipe I'd just seen in one of my cooking magazines. A few eggs, some pasta and roasted veggies later we had a spectacular meal with that even my 4 year old enjoyed. (Luckily he has a wonderfully refined palette for a young one, and enjoys things like balsamic vinegar, poached eggs, and asparagus!)

That particular night I was very fortunate to have just read that wonderful cooking magazine causing the recipe, of which I'd made a mental note, to pop up quickly after seeing what I did indeed have around my keen kitchen.

So what's the lesson here? Well, aside from remembering to keep your pantry and fridge well stocked, it's about having and using simple resources to save your family and friends from eating ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches every night! By keeping your pantry stocked with the list to the left, and replenishing your produce and refrigerator shelves with the basics listed on the right you can create some wonderful, quick dishes that will be incredibly satisfying and delightfully delicious. As for the resources, be on the look out for cookbooks at yard sales and used book stores, find a cooking magazine that suits your culinary style and subscribe and of course, get online and see what's out there!

After you are stocked up, give this simple menu a try and feel free to make these dishes your own with the flavors and ingredients you know your diners will enjoy.

Dijon Roasted Jewel Yams (can also be made with russets, reds or any potato you have on hand!)
Preheat your oven to 400
3-4 medium yams, peeled and cubed
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil (Canola or Grape-seed oil would also work!)
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
Salt and Pepper

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl making sure all the potato is coated
Spread potatoes out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet in a single layer
Bake for 15 minutes, stir up potatoes and return for baking another 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender but not mushy.
Extra tip: If you've got leftover potatoes, put them in a sauce pan with some chicken stock, simmer then puree for a wonderful simple soup!)

Honey Balsamic Chicken (can be made with breasts or thighs)
Season boneless chicken pieces (Thawed is best, mostly thawed is okay!) with salt and pepper on both sides
while a large skillet is heating on med-high. After pan is heated for 2-3 minutes add 2-3 tablespoons oil.

Sear chicken pieces until browned on both sides

While searing, mix sauce (also great for pork chops or tenderloin!)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 honey
1 clove minced garlic
A pinch of smoked paprika
A pinch ground ginger
salt and pepper to taste

Once chicken is seared, turn pan heat down to low and carefully add sauce. Cover and cook until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. The sauce acts as a sort of poaching liquid which keeps the meat very tender and juicy!

To complete your meal simply add the steamed green vegetable of your choice. Remember the more naturally colorful your meal, the more healthful! Need something a little sweet to top things off? Try some sliced apples with Nutella™!

Now you're thinking..."Well, that's all fine and good but I have no chicken! My potatoes have eyes! I'm not going to get to the store for days!" Not to worry. We all end up going super-easy with soup and sandwiches or mac and cheese with veggies now and then and sometimes those comfort foods of kid-hood are just what we crave.

All you really need to do is look at what you do have around you, assess the possibilities of what you can create with what you have and don't be afraid to experiment. Also, depending on your individual household dynamic, go the menu-planning route, especially if you are an on-the-go family shuttling kids, pets, working multiple jobs, volunteering, etc. By planning your menus ahead of time, even if only by a few days, you'll be prepared to grocery shop, make portions of your meal ahead of time if appropriate, and save yourself headaches and hunger trying to come up with a nutritious and appetizing meal at the last minute.

When it comes to any mealtime, as long as we are with loved ones sharing stories, good conversation and creating memories or eating in the car on the way to a play rehearsal or a soccer game, or just having a quiet night alone with a good book, it matters not what the food on our tables might be, but how we enjoy putting love and time, even just a little, into every meal possible. Remember those  wonderful words from Teddy Roosevelt.

NEXT WEEK: Catching up on Chocolate, Part II!

26 February 2011

Chocolate, Part I: Not your mother's candy

It has healthful qualities! It quiets children from the first whiff of the crinkly dark brown wrapper which protects it. It calms us and give us reprieve, however temporary, from the heartache of break-ups, lay-offs and  PMS. Chocolate.

My feelings about chocolate are those of love, adoration, admiration and, sometimes, hatred. How can we love something so much, something that adds inches to our waste-lines and cavities to our pearly white smiles? Simple. Chocolate is one of the world's most perfect foods. Calling it a "food" seems a little funny as we often consider food to be of a savory variety, while sweets are usually found under the "treats" category. If you think about all the applications of chocolate throughout the world, however, it is most certainly a general food for use in dishes of both sweet and savory varieties. Consider the wonderful Molé sauce found among traditional mexican cuisine.

Let's start with what I'm guessing was one of the first chocolate experiences shared many of us who were in the kitchen with our parents, baking, cooking, rifling through cupboards for a secret sweet treasure. It went something like this...

           We climbed up on the kitchen stool, started poking around the packages, boxes and canisters of baking ingredients, and not finding much at first. Then, AH-HAH! Chocolate in a beautiful box, wrapped in thin foil and divided into perfect squares has found its way to our delicate fingers. Carefully, we open the box, snap off a square and quickly, before mom notices, pop the entire square in the watering mouth in one speedy motion. We bit down longing for the sweet creaminess we'd heard so much about from friends, older siblings, adults enjoying truffles and caramels. What we taste instead is the most dreadful, and more-so, disappointing taste ever to belay our young palettes. We've discovered unsweetened baking chocolate, and it is rotten.  Soon begins the spitting, the frantic search for a beverage to rid our mouths of the bitter, dirt-like taste trying desperately to find its way to our stomachs.  Little did we know Mom, all knowing and all seeing, has been watching the entire time and lying in wait for the end game, the taste of forbidden, and rightfully so,  special baking chocolate.  "Why? Is this rotten? Is it bad? Why does it taste so yucky?" The laughter from everyone over the age of 6 ensues while the crying, from everyone under (me), simultaneously beings. I thought, for days, it was a cruel joke, my sister tried to pull a trick on me, get me in trouble. Even after it was explained what that specific chocolate was for, I was as bitter as the nearly black square that tried to make a fool of me.

And now? Now, chocolate and I are on much better terms. It's love. I started to forgive chocolate and enjoy the traditional candy bars of youth made of, or covered in creamy American milk chocolate. As I got older, and my palette matured, I became curious about the dark side. Dark chocolate was mysterious, brought about an air of fanciful indulgence, of entitlement which seemed too rich for this lower-middle class girl. While I experimented now and then with a creamy truffle here and a Special Dark bar there, I didn't really feel I was worthy, or ready for all the dark side had to offer, and I still had a lot to learn.

That was 15 years ago. Today, when you go into a grocery candy aisle, you see all the standards staring back at you mixed in with fruit candies, tart candies, gum and mints.  If you amble just beyond the  brightly colored 12-count paperboard boxes of caramel bars and peanut nougat, you arrive in a magical land of specialty chocolate bars and chocolate covered fruits and nuts. This, dear readers, is a land which, until recent years, was unheard of within the average neighborhood market.  There has long been unsweetened baking chocolate, my bitter enemy, resting comfortably in the baking aisle, along side the ever growing variety of chocolate and flavored chips we use in our cookies, brownies and as decoration atop those Halloween cupcakes or mixed in to add a unique touch to our rice cereal treats. Now, now we are living in a beautiful time where  whatever we desire to taste in the world of glorious chocolate whether it be, salty, sweet, bitter, low-cocoa, milk, dark, semi-sweet or any combination of those can be found a stone's throw away. What a charming place it is.

There are a great many things to know about chocolate for cooking and baking versus "eating" chocolate. When buying chocolate for baking, aside from chocolate chip cookies, you usually want to look for a bar chocolate without stabilizers as the recipe you're using will very likely call for melting the lovely dark brown velvet for folding, whipping, blending or enveloping. This is when you want the goods from the baking aisle. You must then look at cocoa percentages, and depending on the recipe, this can really be up to you for the most part. I tend to go for a dark or semi-sweet bar with as much as 70% cocoa. What does that mean? Well, the higher percentage of cocoa the lower the percentage of additives like sugar and fat, thus giving a more bitter, but much more rich and elegant flavor, to your molten cakes and hand rolled ganache truffles.

Chocolate for eating is completely up to your taste buds. While you might enjoy a nice Swiss dark chocolate covered hazelnut truffle now and then, you might just as soon get a late night craving for a good old milk chocolate bar or some peanut butter cups. We all do, and thank heaven for that incredible candy aisle to accommodate all our needs and desires in the land of chocolate. It is a place of such diversity that we can now find  lovely designer boxes cradling bars of chocolate mixed with everything from sea salt to bacon, from blueberries to chili and herbs! In recent years, chocolate of the darker varieties has also been given the green light for a wonderful source of healthful antioxidants, as well as promoting heart health and lowering cholesterol, as if we need another reason to adore it.

It is also worth noting if you are fortunate enough to live near a local candy shop, the one where you can see a small old woman, who might closely resemble your great granny, hand-dipping peppermint patties in the window, (shout out to the delightful, and always delicious Trudy's Sweets of Ferndale, CA and an old hometown favorite Sjaak's/Venlo Chocolates of Eureka, CA!) or you are near a large metropolis like Seattle or San Francisco, you are very likely to find a plethora of chocolate dreams created right in your own backyard. In the Fremont area of Seattle we are very fortunate to have Theo Chocolates. They are owned and fully operated there and offer tours of their facility, as well as an amazing sample room where you can taste (and purchase, of course) bars of chocolate with bread, toasted coconut and on and on. Even better, all Theo Chocolate products are created with free-trade, organic beans from roasting to the final product we have the pleasure of tasting. (www.theochocolate.com) Look around your hometown, large or small for your local candy store, chocolatier, or sweet shop and be sure to stop in. I can bet you'll find something you've never tried before, and when you do, stop by often, and let the hard working candy makers know how you feel about the fruits of their labor. San Francisco has Joseph Schmidt and Ghirardelli, Seattle has Fran's (great chocolate candies!) and Theo, and your city is likely to have a chocolate haven just as good, if not better. Seek it out, know it, share it with friends, give a box tied with sparkly ribbon for a noteworthy gift, send some home to family.

Don't be afraid, though, when that craving strikes in the late night hours and all the local chocolatiers are home snuggled in bed like the perfect truffles they wrap in tiny metallic papers. I'm guessing if you bundle up, cruise to the market, find that special candy aisle and walk a little further than you used to, something sweet, or not so, depending on your tongue, will find its way into your basket, and maybe it'll bring a new salty, fruity, or nutty friend along for the ride. And when you're done with the candies, it's time to hit the freezer and see what all the local chocolate ice cream makers  have been up to...

NEXT WEEK: Chocolate, Part II: Lovin' from the oven!

07 February 2011

Comfort foods, comforters and comforting.

There has been an enormous need for comfort in my life of late. A dreadful run of family illnesses, close, old friends dealing more than one death in the family and even joyous  occasions have given me cause to indulge in, and more importantly to provide, comfort to those around me.

In my world comfort foods are those that bring me back to my childhood, sitting around the family table or around the TV watching "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" with my mom and sister. To say I have a few favorite comfort foods is an understatement.  A few dozen might be closer to the accurate. Things like thick, chunky soups with crusty bread for dipping, french toast covered in butter and powdered sugar, and mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy on the side of juicy fried chicken with a perfect crisp crust are all foods that make me long for the days of climbing into mommy's bed getting lost in her beautiful white fluffy comforter. I remember staying home sick from school and being in mommy's bed enrobed in the comforter with an orange soda, in a glass bottle, in one hand and a book in the other.

I think memories like this are why comfort foods are just that; comforting. They tend to remind us of care free times, of moments in our lives when all we had to do was eat simple foods, enjoy one another with an evening of game shows or board games, and play outside in the street until dark came and parents called us home.  They are usually warm, starchy not-so-healthy foods, foods that might need a little extra time to bake or simmer, and they always fill us with, or help to remove us from, whatever we need as we partake, whether it be love, remembrance, sorrow, or simply time we've lost and yearn to  grasp again even if only for a moment.

While each of us finds comfort in varying things including, but not limited to food favorites, my wish for all of you is that your need for comfort is limited, but when you need to be comforted, you find just the right memory and accompanying meal to wrap you in warmth and take you home, wherever that is for you.

NEXT WEEK: For the love of chocolate!

17 January 2011

Top Tools of the Trade

There are very few tools I use in my kitchen on my daily basis. I'm not one for having excess gadgets or running to find the latest must-have culinary technology if what I already own is working just fine! There are a few methods and ideas, a few tools I've tried in my years at Williams-Sonoma that are impressive and fascinating, such as Sous Vide cooking or small countertop food-smoking guns and chips, but they aren't things I would ever have in my home kitchen.

My favorite tools are some of the same tools I grew up using in the kitchens of my mother and grandmother. They are tried, true and the classic best.

Here are my Top-10 Kitchen tools!

1. Wooden/Bamboo Spoons in varying sizes: They can be used in any type of cookware, and used for serving, folding, stirring, mixing and more. They are inexpensive, readily available and now with choices like bamboo, are environmentally friendly and extremely sturdy. My oldest wooden spoon is going on 15 years! NOTE: wood utensils cannot go in the dishwasher!

2. Whisks: I have three. Some people might think that odd, but I use every single one. Though if you are going to own one whisk, I recommend a medium sized french balloon whisk with a nice sturdy handle. They can be found at a variety of kitchen and department stores, and when you find a good one it will last you years. Whisks can be used for everything from whipping to mixing dry baking ingredients, stirring perfect sauces, creamy gravies, soups and stews.

3. Good knives + honing steel: There are 3 knives I use on a regular basis, and they are good quality German knives. I feel if you have a good chopping knife like an 8" Chef's knife (or Santoku, a popular Japanese style with a thicker blade and more cutting room), a 3-4" paring knife and a serrated knife for breads, cheeses and tomatoes, you're set in the knife department. I also know, though, that you can often buy a great set which will include a steel and shears for nearly the same price as buying open-stck cutlery. When you're shopping for knives there are a few things you must keep in mind. You should never put knives in the dishwasher, ever. It can dull the blades very easily and they can cause damage to the dishwasher, as well ruining the finish and warping the handles. You also need to feel and try out knives before you buy. Weight plays a big part in how you chop and cut, how much pressure you apply. Lastly, a honing steel is needed for daily maintenance of your knives except the serrated, which should be professionally sharpened, along  with all your knives about once a year. For tips on how to properly use a honing steel or for great knife advice please visit your local Williams-Sonoma and ask about having a quick demonstration! A lot of WS stores also have occasional knife skills classes, which are a huge benefit if you aren't comfortable with your technique or want a few tips.

4. Shears: A good pair of kitchen shears (to be used ONLY in the kitchen) is extremely handy for the kitchen to use for opening packaging, trimming herbs, cutting poultry bones and if you find a pair with a bottle-opener built in,  even better! You can find a good pair, that pull apart for easy thorough cleaning, for $20-30 but if you want a full stainless-steel pair, designed especially for poultry (if you butcher your own chickens, turkeys, etc.) they can run a lot higher in price.

5. Glass mixing bowls: A good set of 3-4 glass mixing bowls will serve you well, last years and can tolerate a lot of use every day.  They can be used for "mise en place"/prep, mixing, serving, as a  double-boiler bowl, can go in the microwave and dishwasher. Try to find a nice sturdy set that are heavy, level, and come in a nice variety of sizes. My set is made up of 11 bowls that range in size from huge, probably about 6 quart to the tiniest bowl which holds about 2 ounces. Glass will serve you a little better than melamine or plastic because they're a little more long lasting, won't warp or bend, and can go in the microwave. Metal is another good option, but I love being able to see all around my bowl to really ensure all my ingredients are well-blended.

6. Wood cutting boards: They are safe, they are durable, they are very easy to maintain and the are easy on your good cutlery! Wood boards, if cleaned and kept properly, will serve you long and well. Depending on the type of wood you choose, prices will vary as will proper handling. The main thing you must keep in mind, as with any cutting board, is to avoid cross-contamination. Never cut raw meat, then cut fruit/veggies, etc. without washing the board in between or changing boards all together (and never use the same knife without washing in between, either!). Wood boards are never to go in the dishwasher! Typically you want to wash the board with warm soapy water, dry it, and then do a weekly food-safe mineral oil treatment by rubbing oil in with a cotton or paper towel. This prevents the wood drying out and cracking, and provides a bit of a seal on the wood.  I have no major issue with plastic boards, though they usually wear out faster than wood, and do not recommend cutting on glass boards. They are mainly for serving and decoration, and not really meant to be cut upon and the same goes for marble, granite, any hard stone. They will damage knives beyond recognition! NOTE: While there has been hesitation to use wood boards with meats in the past, there have been studies conducted showing, if properly cared for and maintained, wood boards harbor less bacteria than plastic/melamine boards.

7. Microplane: This is such a fun, useful tool to have and can turn you into a gourmet cook in no time! Microplanes come in different shapes, sizes, and cut-types, but when you get down to it, the fine-grater style is the most useful for this blogger! This can be used for grating hard cheeses, shaving chocolate, zesting fruit, grating ginger and even cinnamon! By using a microplane, you can add beautiful subtle flavors to your dishes, and  to your presentation. After all, we eat first with our eyes!

8. Instant-read Thermometer: Available at a variety of kitchen and department stores, this is an essential tool for ensuring your roast meats are cooked to the proper (safe) temperature. Many of us depend on the dainty red pop-up timers implanted in our Thanksgiving birds, but frankly, they aren't accurate. You may not use this tool on a daily, or weekly basis, but come holiday time or the fall and winter comfort-food months when a nice roast hits the spot, you'll be glad you have this handy, simple thermometer in your drawer! NOTE: There are many types of thermometers, some with remotes or voice-activation, but a classic, simple instant-read does the same job without the need for batteries and a higher price-tag.

9. Vegetable peeler: This is another item you can find without spending a fortune, that you'll use all the time, and not just for peeling! Veggie peelers are great for, of course, potatoes, apples, carrots, yams, etc. but they are also great for shaving chocolate, making carrot and zucchini ribbons for salad or sautéing, and making your very own citrus twist ribbons for the bartender in you! Peelers range in price from $3-40 depending on the material and type of blade, among other things. My favorite peeler (small plastic handle with a nice sharp, but very thin blade) was around $4 and at that price, why not get a few to have on hand! Nowadays you can also find special peelers for julienne and ribbon garnish cuts!

10. Clean hands: The best tools of all, some would say! With clean, steady hands you can make perfect knife cute, you can mix beautiful biscuits and knead love into delicious breads and rolls, you can mix meatloaf and roll cookie dough, create perfectly coated truffles and much, remove the skin from poultry to create healthier meals for you family, and so much more! In my home, the cost of clean hands is no more than a few dollars for a bottle of good, unscented and all natural,  biodegradable hand-soap and a few lovely pure cotton kitchen towels.

Well, my friendly followers, there you have it, my Top-10 tools! The tools I use most in my kitchen may vary greatly from yours, or not at all, but I hope the information along with this list has provided some insight and a few new ideas for what you may want to invest in to make your kitchen and your cooking experiences fun, efficient and memorable.

NEXT WEEK: Comfort Foods then and now!

06 January 2011

Give Bark a Chance!

Alas, the time for extreme indulgence and over-eating has come and passed, and I'm guessing most of us enjoyed every moment of it filling up on peppermint bark, rich cocoa with whipped cream topping, egg-nog heavy on the spike, and dozens of glorious other sweets, treats and once-a-year snacks to beat the band. I know I did! The green bean casserole I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post made an appearance at Christmas eve dinner, along side a glazed am, candies (very candied) yams and a beautiful fresh salad of mixed baby greens, nuts and dried cranberries tossed with roasted sweet potatoes! My contribution to the evening was a beautiful pumpkin spice Bundt cake made with whole-wheat pastry flour and agave nectar. It was lovely, light and incredibly moist. 

The holiday time of year is usually a big time for baking and sharing food in my family, but sadly this year seemed to get away from us leaving little to no time for goodies and giving. I did, however, get the chance to share a couple of special new treats with my acting class classmates and a few friends at various impromptu gatherings. The most fun day for treats and sweets was having over a few of my favorite moms to decorate sugar cookies with all sorts of candies, crunchies, sprinkles and sugars. The children all had a blast and decorated a ton of cookies using the blue, green and red royal icings and, even covered in more candy and icing than there was cookie to support the sugary weight, they tasted amazing! There was also one ridiculously easy treat I whipped up on a few occasions for sharing at meetings, classes, and family events:Bark!

Barks are the easiest possible treat to make as long as you have the time to let them set/chill properly and firm up enough to break easily. All you need is the chocolate of your choice and a few things to mix in! The three varieties I made this year were Peppermint Marshmallow, Cherry Marshmallow Crunch and Salty Snack Crunch. 

To give you an idea of how easy it is, I've posted a recipe for you below. Really you can use anything you enjoy along side chocolate, and whatever strength and variety of chocolate you prefer will be great! I'm not a huge white "chocolate" fan because it has little flavor, aside from sweetness, thought it's good for a drizzle on top. It adds a little flourish and elegance to the presentation! Instead, I normally prefer a chocolate containing about 60-70% cocoa. Some bark recipes will call for melting chocolate or chocolate bars, but chips work best for me and they are the least expensive option while you still have plentiful options for high quality. (Tip: If you're a WinCo shopper, they have the best deal on Guittard chips and usually have 4-5 different varieties!)

You may say you can't make candy, you've never made anything like this, there's no way, but I promise you, it's so easy and anything goes! It's a budget-friendly, delicious, always-a-hit treat with endless possibilities for flavors and mix-ins. For example, my Salty Snack Crunch was made with extra-dark chocolate chips, potato chip and pretzel bits! 

My message to you in this start of the fresh, new year:
Give Bark  a Chance! 

Minty Marshmallow Peppermint Bark!

First, line a half-sheet pan with buttered wax paper 
(butter-side up) and set aside
In a double boiler, melt:
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate
12 oz extra dark chocolate
1/2 tsp pure mint extract
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
After the mixture is completely melted and smooth, add:
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy
and spread out on the lined pan in an even, fairly thin, layer
Sprinkle chocolate layer with:
1 cup crushed peppermint candy
1 1/2 cups mini marshmallow
and set aside
In a double boiler melt:
1 cup vanilla chips
1/2 cup mint chips (found green ones by Guittard at Bartell Drugs, WinCo has them sometimes, but chocolate mint would work also, just wouldn’t be green)
After the vanilla and mint chips are completely melted, quickly drizzle with a spoon or fork, on top of the chocolate layer and sprinkle the top with one last layer of:
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy 
Cool in the fridge until very hard, break apart and enjoy! Store in airtight container in the fridge for best results. 
(Courtney Rose Calkins December 11, 2010)

A few other perfect mix-ins are:
Chow-mien noodles
Nuts (Toasted, whole, halved, and/or chopped)
Chocolate and other types of chips (Cinnamon, peanut butter, etc.)
Dried fruits
Cookie bits
Bacon crumbles
Whatever you enjoy along side chocolate! 

I hope you all had a beautiful holiday season with family and friends, and had fun trying new things in the kitchen! 
Enjoy this recipe, share with the ones you love, and I wish you and yours a very happy new year full of love, food, time shared in the kitchen and around the family table. 

NEXT WEEK: My Favorite kitchen tools!