Caprese Salad Sticks — 3 Stars

The holiday season is just around the corner, and you may be looking for a simple appetizer to have on the table while you finish cooking (or drinking or watching TV or sleeping).  I recently had a Girls’ (Wine & Sweets) Night, and I wanted one non-sweet appetizer to temper the sugar high.  While searching the interwebs, the several variations on the caprese salad I came across triggered memories of caprese salad ingredients on a stick I was once served at a friend’s party.  I decided to add salami and and put a balsamic dipping sauce in a bowl, and 20 minutes later, I gave the impression that I had put significant effort into creating a snack.

Ingredients
Small Mozzarella Balls (also known as bocconcini. Or you could just cut fresh mozzarella into bite sized pieces)
Cherry tomatoes
Fresh basil
Salami
1 cup balsamic vinegar

Directions
1. Slice the salami into 1/4 inch slices. Cut each slice into quarters.
2. Assemble the caprese sticks: mozzarella ball, piece of basil folded in two, cherry tomato, salami piece
3. In a small pot, bring the balsamic vinegar to a boil. Lower heat to just above a simmer, and reduce to a sauce, about half the original volume. (Have a window open when you do this, or your apartment will smell like vinegar.) (Don’t have the temperature too high or the sauce will be a thick goo and not an actual sauce.)

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Steak with a Merlot Sauce — 5 Stars

I’ve been cooking a lot over the past several months.  I’ve also been entertaining a lot, traveling a lot, and volunteering a lot.  Clearly, I have not been writing (about my cooking, or even in response to emails) a lot.  Here’s one of the delicious recipes I’ve made.

It all started with my goal of making Paula Deen’s NY Striptease (steak with a bordeaux sauce) with Truffle Potatoes and Carrot Puree.  When I went to make the sauce, but found I didn’t have on hand 3 of the 4 ingredients (I only had honey), so I decided I should try a different recipe.  I stumbled across this Steak with Shallot Merlot sauce recipe on epicurious.

Oh. My. Goodness.  This recipe was soooooo good.  I have tears in my eyes simply recalling the pleasure of eating this steak.  Additional positives: 1) I got to use my cast iron pan, 2) the simple recipe took may 30-35 minutes total, 3) a month later my dinner guest is still singing my praises.

I found the sauce was plenty (you could have doubled the steak and still have been fine).  I used 3 Buck Chuck for the wine, and it was tasty, so a lower end wine is fine for this dish.  I slightly increased the amount of shallots from 1 1/2 Tbsp to 2 Tbsp.  Without further ado, here’s the recipe.

Ingredients
1 12- to 14-ounce sirloin steak
A little bit of olive oil
2 tablespoons (about 1 clove) finely chopped shallots
3/8 cup (or 6 Tbsp) Merlot
3/4 cup beef stock or canned broth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper

Directions
1. Cut steak into two pieces. Sprinkle both sides of steak with sea salt and black pepper.
2. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Add steak and cook until brown, about 1.5 minutes per side. Reduce heat to medium and cook steak to desired doneness, about 5 minutes per side for medium-well. Transfer steak to plate; tent with foil.
3. Add shallots to same skillet and sauté over medium-high heat 1 minute.
4. Add Merlot; boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
5. Add stock; boil until syrupy, about 8 minutes.
6. Remove skillet from heat. Add butter and whisk until melted.

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Grilled Peach Salad

I typically avoid salads.  I’m not opposed, necessarily, to the idea of eating a bunch of uncooked vegetables mixed together, it’s just that I don’t care for lettuce.  Yes, some varieties of lettuce are more flavorful than the basic iceberg lettuce, but at the end of the day I feel like I’m chewing water.  Such a waste of my time.

I actually remembered to take a picture of my food!

I do, however, love both spinach and arugula, and I happily eat almost any salad with a spinach or arugula foundation.  I found variations of this Balsamic Grilled Peach Salad on a couple different sites, and here’s my version. A wonderful summer salad for your table.

Ingredients
3 cups arugula, washed and dried
2 peaches, sliced into half and then into wedges
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
3 slices prosciutto (I used about half a package of Trader Joe’s Prosciutto)
1.5-2 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed

Directions
1. Place the arugula in a large salad bowl.
2. Combine the balsamic vinegar and olive oil in a medium sized bowl. Coat the peaches in the balsamic vinegar mixture.
2. Heat a grill pan or George Foreman-type device to medium high heat.
3. While the grill pan is heating, tear the prosciutto into bite size pieces. Scatter these on top of the arugula.
4. Strategically add the mozzarella pieces to the salad bowl. (Really, it’s all about presentation for the prosciutto and mozzarella. Make it look pretty.)
3. Place the peaches on the heated grill (save the balsamic vinegar mixture). Cook until grill marks appear, flip the peaches, and wait for grill marks to appear on the other side. This takes about 2 minutes per side.
4. Add the peaches to the salad bowl.
5. Pour the reserved balsamic vinegar and olive oil into a nice container; serve it on the side if anyone wants dressing for the salad.
6. In 10 or 15 minutes since you pulled out the ingredients, you’re all done!

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Grilled Pork and Vermicelli Noodles — 5 Stars

I’ve done a lot of cooking this summer, and not so much writing about my cooking.  Actually, I haven’t done much writing at all.  Or reading.  [sigh]  It’s been worse than being on summer break during elementary school.  At least then I had parents to force me to do work.  Now, I only answer to myself, and that wonderful television that shows Wimbledon and the Olympics and political commentary and more.  Wait…what was I writing about?

Oh, right.  My summer cooking.  It was difficult for me to select which recipe to share first, so I random drew one from a bowl.  And this delicious recipe is it.

I had a friend visiting who remarked before arriving that it would be nice if we could have Thai food.  I immediately thought of a nice curry dish, but changed my mind when I went to Thai restaurant three days before my friend’s visit.  Culling through my “Asian” recipes, I found a recipe for Vietnamese Grilled Pork with Vermicelli Noodles, and decided knew that’s what I wanted to make.  (Yes, I do know my geography — and cuisine — and recognize that Thailand is not at all Vietnam, but I do love vermicelli bowls.) The pork was extremely flavorful and the nuoc cham was quite nice.

This recipe was easy to put together (just remember to allow time for the meat to marinate, and have about half a bottle of fish sauce on hand).  With the exception of subbing plain old iceberg lettuce for the butter lettuce, omitting the mint, and adding a few shakes of red pepper to the marinade, I followed this recipe exactly.  I used boneless pork ribs for the meat; this turned out to be a wonderful choice.  I also cooked the pork on a regular skillet instead of using a grill.  The next time I make this, I’ll add more chili paste to the sauce — an additional 1-2 tsp — and serve the meal with a simple salad.  If you’re making this for someone who has a gluten intolerance, make sure to read the label on the fish sauce — not all fish sauces are GF.

This recipe serves 4-5. Enjoy!

Ingredients
For the pork
2 lbs. of pork shoulder, thinly sliced
8 cloves of garlic, minced
4 tbsn. sugar
5 tbsn. fish sauce
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

For the sauce (also known as Nuoc Cham)
1/4 cup sugar
the juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup water
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, julienned
2+ tsp. chili paste

For the garnish
One small head of lettuce
One bag of rice vermicelli noodles

Directions
1. Mix the thinly sliced pork with the rest of the ingredients.
2. Let it marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes, but preferrably overnight.
3. While the meat is marinating, make the sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients. You can keep this in the fridge (apparently, this sauce will keep for several days).
4. Before cooking the meat, allow it to come to room temperature. When ready, cook the pork over medium-high heat until it’s charred, about 5 – 10 minutes.
5. While the meat is cooking, bring water to a boil. When the pork is done, set aside and add the rice noodles to the water. It only takes 2-5 minutes to cook the noodles.
6. Plate by putting ample noodles in a bowl, topping with pork, and tearing a few pieces of lettuce over the bowl. Allow your guests to pour as much or as little of the sauce as they desire.

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Coconut Rice, Black Beans, Plantains, and Mango Salsa — 4 stars

If someone were to tell me they were having me over for a gluten-free, nut-free, meat-free, soy-free meal, I’d politely decline. Which is exactly why I did not tell my dinner guests this when I invited them over. There are a lot of components to this dish, but they come together quite nicely.  This is the entree that preceded the Flourless Chocolate Cake for my gluten free dinner party.  All the steps in the recipe make it seem like it would take a lot of time to put this dish together, but if you work things in parallel, you can go from start to on the table in less than an hour.

The coconut flavor is remarkably underwhelming in the rice: the rice has an essence of coconut, as opposed to tasting like a sweet, coconut-y dish.  For the black beans, I simmered one can of black beans with a little red onion, garlic cloves, salt, and red pepper.  I sprinkled the plantain with a little (maybe 1/2 tsp) of salt before frying.  Finally, I pureed the mango salsa to make a sauce, and served that in a dish, rather than garnishing with mango.  (The plan had to be to garnish with mango, but fresh mango is just so tasty…the mango mysteriously disappeared before my guests arrived.)

Ingredients

For the rice
2 1/4 cups basmati rice (Or your generic, long-grain rice)
1 thirteen-ounce can coconut milk

For the sauce
1 ripe mango, cubed
1 to 2 jalapeno or serrano pepper (I used 1/2 of a habanero pepper, cuz I like it hot), seeded and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/3 cup finely diced red onion
1 handful cilantro
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

For the dish
2 tablespoons coconut oil or vegetable oil
2 ripe plantains, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick coins
Kosher salt (about 1/2 tsp)
2 cups cooked black beans, heated, seasoned with salt (or if you like, with garlic, onions, epazote, etc. as you please — I simmered one can with a 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp red pepper, 2 garlic cloves, 1/4 cup chopped red onion)
1 handful cilantro, 1 lime cut into quarters, 1 avocado, 1 mango (all optional)

Directions
For the rice
Cook the rice in your usual way, on the stovetop or in a rice cooker, but replace one can’s worth of water with the coconut milk, then add in an extra quarter-cup of water.  (If making on the stove, put the rice in the pot, add 4.75 cups water, note the level, stir the rice a bit with your hands, and pour out the water.  Add in the coconut milk, then add water to the level previously noted.)

For the sauce
Puree all ingredients in a mini food processor to a consistency of your liking. Taste and adjust seasoning.

For the plantain:
Sprinkle the plantain with about 1/2 tsp salt. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat (the depth should be roughly as deep as 1/2 the thickness of the plantain coins). When the oil is hot (it will be shimmering), add the plantain in a single layer. Fry, until brown on one side, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side until browned and tender, about two more minutes. (Try to flip only once. Also, don’t pierce the plantain with a fork to turn; this would cause oil to go into the plantain, which you don’t want.  You want the plantain golden to dark brown when you cook them.)  When done, drain the plantains on paper towels.

When you plate and serve, you can garnish the dish with cilantro, lime wedges, and fresh mango and avocado slices if you want.

To get this all done in less than an hour: Begin by chopping everything you need for the puree.  As you go, put them in your blender, and let them be.  Chop what you will need to season your black beans.  Put everything in the pot with your black beans, but don’t turn it on yet.  Start the rice.  Slice the plantain and sprinkle with salt.  Put the oil in the pan.  As the oil heats, make the puree then put in a serving dish.  Add the plantain to the oil.  Turn the beans on low heat.  As the plantain fries, slice the fresh mango and avocado, and chop the cilantro.  Drain the plantain.  Get out the plates.

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Flourless Chocolate Cake — 5 Stars

I’m meeting more and more people who eat a gluten-free diet.  I, personally, could never permanently give up breads and pastas, but in order to bond with my GF friends, I temporarily abstain from wheat.

For a recent dinner party where mosts of the guests were GF, I scoured the internet for a good flourless chocolate cake recipe.  I didn’t want something calling for bittersweet chocolate (most did) or something calling for a lot of eggs (most did).  I finally found something on allrecipes that met my requirements.

This recipe came together fairly easily.  I melted the butter and chocolate squares together in the microwave, instead of in a double broiler.  I buttered the pan and dusted with cocoa powder to keep it GF.  I baked the cake for about 40 minutes, instead of the 30 minutes suggested (the darn center would not cook).  My apartment smelled great.  The cake looked great.  Then, after leaving the cake in the pan for 10 minutes, it crumbled into about 4 big pieces when I turned over the pan. 😦  After crying for a bit, I realized that I could cut the cake in bite size pieces, put about a tablespoon of caramel sauce in the bottom of ramekins, fill the ramekins with the cake pieces, drop on a dollop of fresh whipped cream, and drizzle with a rich caramel sauce.  Success!

The final product is somewhere between a dense chocolate cake and a chewy brownie.  I only like chocolate cake if it’s extremely rich, and this hit the spot.

Ingredients for Cake

4 (1 ounce) squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions for Cake
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Grease an 8 inch round cake pan, and dust with cocoa powder.
2. Melt chocolate and butter in a large bowl. Remove from heat, and stir in sugar, cocoa powder, eggs, and vanilla. Pour into prepared pan.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 30-45 minutes. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely. Slices can also be reheated for 20 to 30 seconds in the microwave before serving.

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Seared Sea Scallops with Pineapple Puree — 5 stars

I’ve finally started cooking a couple times a week again, so I’m a bit more inspired to write these entries. I think. We’ll see.

For Easter Sunday dinner, I wanted something a bit nontraditional, and I picked a Paula Deen recipe for the entree.  I know what you’re thinking: a dish saturated with butter and sitting in a bowl of cream.  But this recipe wasn’t like that at all!  Not only is there no butter or cream in the recipe, but the recipe also has fruit!  Real, fresh fruit!  I know.  I, too, was disappointed and felt a little cheated by Paula…

Anyway, scallops had scared me in the past — they are difficult to overcook and easy to undercook.  And they are expensive.  Three strikes, but for a fancy Easter meal with my sister, I took on the challenge.  Turns out, as long as you pay attention while you’re cooking them, scallops are easy to make.  Paula Deen suggests 1/2 lb of scallops per person, but my sister and I were fine with about 1/3 lb, or five large scallops, each.  If you find scallops on sale, I definitely recommend this recipe.

This recipe serves 4-5 people, and takes about 30 minutes including prep time.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cup diced pineapple
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon chopped red onion
1 large lime, juiced
2 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest (the grated rind of one lime)
1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapeno pepper (about 1/2 a jalapeno)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (or 1/4 tsp ground red pepper)
2 pounds sea scallops
1/2 tsp ground black pepper + 1 tsp salt
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

  1. In a blender, combine the pineapple, cilantro, red onion, lime juice, lime zest, jalapeno, salt, and hot sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Puree until just barely smooth.
  2. Rinse the scallops and pat them dry. Combine the 1/2 tsp ground black pepper with the 1 tsp salt, and season both sides of the scallops with the salt and pepper.
  3. Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sear the scallops, without moving them in the pan until golden (the bottom 2/3 of the scallops should be an opaque white before you flip them over), about 2 to 4 minutes per side.
  4. Plate the dish by spooning a generous amount of puree on the serving plates, placing the scallops on top of the puree, spooning a little more puree on top of the scallops, and garnishing with chopped cilantro.
My Easter dinner: seared scallops with pineapple cilantro puree; argula, fennel, parmigiano cheese salad; chai creme brulee.  Not pictured: homemade bread.  Yummy!

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Incredible Stuffed Pumpkin — 5 stars

During a week-long orientation for my new job, I discussed recipes with a fellow new employee.  This woman described something she called “the incredible stuffed pumpkin” — an entire sugar pumpkin, stuffed with cheese and bread and bacon.  At some point, I stopped paying attention to what she was saying and began dreaming about the day I would make an incredible stuffed pumpkin for a dinner party.  That day finally came last week.  I plated the pumpkin to many ooos and ahhhs from the girls in my new Dinner Club.

I found the recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good on NPR’s site.  It calls for a three pound pumpkin, and you should use a sugar pumpkin or some other pumpkin that can be used for pumpkin pie.  I’m told (by many internet sites, so that makes it true) that your traditional pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns are no good for eating.  I had to omit the bacon since a vegetarian was coming to dinner, so I added sauteed spinach and mushrooms instead.  The pumpkin takes only about 15-30 minutes to prepare, but nearly two hours to bake, so make sure you allow adequate time for everything.

Also on the menu for this dinner party was Cooking Light’s spinach & artichoke dip; pear, red onion, feta cheese, and spinach salad with a delicious balsamic vinaigrette sauce; apple crisp with Edy’s light ice cream that doesn’t taste light at all.  Everyone at dinner agreed that the pumpkin really was incredible.

Ingredients

1 3lb sugar pumpkin
3 oz stale bread, cut into 1/2″ cubes
5 oz Emmenthal cheese (cheddar or Gruyere is good too)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup spinach, uncooked
1/2 cup sliced baby bella mushrooms
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp pepper

Directions
1. Sautee the spinach a couple minutes until it is well cooked. Then sautee the mushrooms until browned (about 5 minutes). Set both aside to let cool.
2. Using a sharp knife, cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween jack-o-lantern). You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin — about 3 or so inches in diameter. Save the cap.
3. Scoop out the guts of the pumpkin — save the pumpkin seeds to roast later.
4. Season the inside of the pumpkin with 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper.
5. In a large bowl, mix the bread, cheese, garlic, chives, remaining pepper, spinach and mushrooms together in a large bowl. Pour a little more than 1/3 cup cream over the mixture and combine until the bread is moistened.
6. Transfer the bread mixture into the pumpkin. Pour extra cream over the mixture in the pumpkin. Place the cap back on the pumpkin, loosely covering the stuffing.
7. Bake at 350 F for 1.5 to 2 hours. To test doneness, a knife poked in to the side of the pumpkin should easily go through to the center of the pumpkin.
8. Carefully transfer the pumpkin to a plate (I had to use two spatulas). To serve, remove the cap and slice the pumpkin into wedges.

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GIANT Chocolate Chip Cookie — 5 stars

Sometimes, making a regular dessert a new way instantly increases the dessert’s appeal. That’s definitely the case for giant chocolate chip cookies. Everyone (okay, most people) loves chocolate chip cookies, and turning the cookie into a cake/pie is just fun. I found a recipe here for a giant chocolate chip cookie.  Quick and easy — my kind of entertaining treat.

I’ve now made this recipe four times, each with tremendous success.  One trick is to let the dough sit in the fridge overnight.  You’ll be able to taste the buttery richness of the dough if you do this.  And really, when you’re using a stick and a half of butter in a recipe, shouldn’t you be able to taste the benefits of the butter?  Aside from that, there’s no trick to this recipe.

I always plan to make buttercream or royal icing and pipe some decorations on the cookie.  I never actually do this, but I think it’s a good idea (you may be more ambitious or able to execute more than me). I make this recipe in a disposable 12″ pizza pan. You can just press the dough into a circle on a baking sheet if you don’t want to use a pizza pan, or you can press the dough into a 9×13 pan if that suits your fancy.  Without further ado, though, the recipe is below.

Ingredients
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
2 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1 cup chocolate chips (I prefer dark chocolate chips)

Directions
1. In a medium bowl, cream together the sugars and butter. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in the chocolate chips.
2. Cover the dough, and let sit in the fridge for around 24 hours. (In a pinch, skip this step.) Remove the dough from the fridge and let it sit until pliable, about 10-15 minutes.
3. Grease the pizza pan (or whatever you’re using) with butter, or Crisco with Flour spray, or just use a sheet of aluminum foil.
4. Press the dough into the pizza pan, spreading the dough to about 1/4 or 1/2 inch inside the very edge of the pan. (Or, if you don’t care about the cookie being slightly larger than the pan, do what I do and press the dough to the edges.)
5. Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes, or until it is just barely golden brown.

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Pretty Pumpkin Pancakes — 3.5 Stars

Happy (Day After) Thanksgiving to You!

I’ll soon post the recipe for the Pumpkin Praline Cheesecake I made for my Thanksgiving potluck, but my mind has already focused on what to make in the days after Thanksgiving.  The big meals (lunch and dinner) can be served with leftovers, but what about my favorite meal — breakfast?  These pumpkin pancakes are new to me this year, and I suspect I’ll be keeping them for future years.

I was inspired by a couple pumpkin pancake recipes I found on other sites (such as this one), but in the end, I’ve changed the recipe enough to call it my own (I think).  The recipe makes approximately 9, 1/4-cup pancakes. Enjoy hot, with butter and syrup, and Christmas music playing in the background.

Ingredients
1 1/4 cup flour
2 1/2 Tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
(I’m sure there’s a way to substitute pumpkin spice for all of the spices mentioned, but I don’t know it)
1 cup (fat free) milk
1/2 cup (canned) pumpkin puree
2 Tbsp oil
1 egg

Directions
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, pumpkin puree, oil and egg.
2. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients.
3. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the large bowl, and stir until all ingredients are well combined.
4. Over low-medium heat, pour 1/4 batter into an oiled skillet for each pancake. Cook for around 3 minutes per side.

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