Monthly Archives: July 2011

Simple Things

Coming out of the office after a long, hard day and turning on the car just in time to catch the beginning of a favorite song on the radio.

An unexpected drink special at a favorite restaurant.

Stepping into a fitting room and discovering it fits, it makes you look smokin’ hot and it’s on sale.

The perfect candid photo.

Celebrating the good news of family and friends, even the little things.

Waking up early on a Saturday morning and realizing there’s no such thing as an alarm clock that day.

Warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk.

A baby’s laugh.

Finding a piece of jewelry you thought was long gone.

Beautiful weather on the day of an outdoor event.

New recipe success.

Pushing a little bit harder during a workout. Then feeling like a rock star afterward.

A book that stays with you long after you turn the last page.

Finding a favorite movie on TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Comfortable heels.

A plate of pasta topped with a homemade tomato sauce and just sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

You may think that last one isn’t simple at all. Homemade tomato sauce? Doesn’t that take…like hours? Isn’t there lots of like…onion chopping and garlic mincing? Isn’t there all these herbs to deal with and stuff? Ugh. Who has time for that? That’s what those jars at the grocery store are for.

This here’s a recipe that is as simple as it gets. Not only is it simple, it’s good. Really good. I’m talking about good in The Best Sauce I’ve Ever Made kind of way. I try not be overly effusive when describing the food in my blog because, let’s face it, not every single thing can be the best thing ever. But this sauce…this really is the best tomato sauce I’ve ever made at home. Seriously. Honestly. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Here’s a needle. I will stand here quietly and let you stick it directly in my eye if you make it and don’t agree. If that’s not a promise I don’t know what is.

Let me walk you through the ingredients. I hope you’re taking notes. There may be a quiz. Here’s what you need: 1 can whole tomatoes. 1 yellow onion. A little bit of butter. Salt if ya need it.

Don’t worry about pureeing the tomatoes. Just pour them into a stock pot. Don’t even think about dicing that onion. Just lop it half and remove the peel and plop it in the tomatoes. Don’t cut the butter into tiny pieces or melt it carefully over low heat until it clarifies. Just drop it right down in there with the others.

Turn on heat. Simmer. Stir occasionally. You can totally go do something else. Just come back every now and then and give it a whirl with your wooden spoon. Crush the tomatoes against the side of the pot while you do it. This is far from a chore because you get to stand there and just inhale the yumminess on the stove top. How can three ingredients smell so good? Tell me. HOW? It shouldn’t be! But it is.

I’ve had my eye on this recipe ever since Deb posted it at Smitten Kitchen. I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to making it but now that I have, I’ll be making it all the time. It’s so easy, there’s no excuse not to!

A couple of notes here. The recipe recommends San Marzano tomatoes. These are tomatoes grown in a specific region of Italy and (supposedly) the best canned tomatoes out there. I can’t speak for those in them-there-big-city-fancy-pants-places πŸ˜‰ but out here in my much smaller Midwest market, I have never seen these at the regular grocery store. I happened to have the San Marzanos around this time around because I picked some up the last time I was at Whole Foods in the Chicago area. That was kind of a fluke, since the closest Whole Foods is two hours from me, so I will probably be trying this sauce with a good old grocery store tomatoes some day soon. I’ll let ya know how it turns out!

And also, check the ingredient list on your can of tomatoes to see if they come pre-salted. Mine were unsalted so I added kosher salt until I like the taste of it. If your tomatoes are salted, I’d taste before adding salt to see what you think.

Now go make this simple recipe and make it dinner tonight!!

TOMATO SAUCE WITH ONION AND BUTTER (Recipe Source: Originally adapted from: Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, as seen at Smitten Kitchen)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 – 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano, if available)
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt to taste (if needed)

DIRECTIONS:

Combine tomatoes, onion and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat. Cook the sauce at a steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float to surface. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, discard the onion, and add salt if needed. Serve with hot pasta and grated Parmesan if desired. Serves 4 as a main course.

ENJOY! πŸ™‚

One Year Ago: Texas Caesar Salad with Grilled Sirloin
Three Years Ago: Candy Kiss Cupcake Bites

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Filed under pasta, vegetarian, veggies

Risk and Reward

If I had a personal assistant, I would tell her to go ahead and file this Creamy Blue Cheese Chile Dip under “Things the Boss Shouldn’t Like but For Some Reason Does.”

I’d also tell her to hold all my calls because my mouth would be too full of the stuff to yell at people over the phone. That is, if there was somebody that needed yelling at over the phone. If I was big and important I bet I could come up with someone that needed berating.

Anyway.

The words creamy and blue cheese are not ones you’ll come across very often in the Encyclopedia of Stuff I Like To Eat. In fact, based on history of eating that goes back nearly 30 years, these two words should never appear together in my world in any way, shape or form.

Until now. I’ll get my personal assistant on the task of alerting the media. I can see the headlines now: Erin Makes and Eats a White and Creamy Dip. Family Stunned.

Creamy foods and dips have almost always turned me off. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare. And blue cheese? Never been one of my favorites. But, I gotta say, trying things you’re not sure you’re going to like it is kind of fun. It’s like being back in the grade school cafeteria and having a friend dare you to mash up everything on your lunch tray and eat it in exchange for a dollar. It’s a risk/reward situation. The risk is relatively small. What’s the worst that could happen? It tastes horrible, you spit it out and you eat something else. The possible reward is great! A whole dollar! Oh, and for us grown ups, the expansion of our foodie horizons. Which beats the crap out of a dollar. So…take that, kids! πŸ˜‰

I recently came across this recipe for filets topped with a sauce made from cream cheese, blue cheese and jalapeno. For some reason, even though it goes against every fiber of my foodie belief system, I decided I just had to try it.

It was so good. Like seriously good. Something about the tangy kick of blue cheese and subtle hint of heat from the chile pepper made for an amazing topping for steak. I didn’t photograph it because lumpy white cheese sauce on top of hunk of meat is kind of….ew-looking. But when I found myself scooping up what was left of the sauce (I made all of the sauce even though we only cooked two steaks) with crunchy veggie dippers, I thought I just might be on to something.

So I just turned right around and changed that steak topping into a veggie dip. I sure did. It couldn’t be easier, it’s a fantastic out-of-the-ordinary replacement for your standard ranch dip (which I totally loathe anyway), and it makes vegetables taste like candy! Well…not candy. But still, good. It makes vegetables taste good.

It makes sense for the steak topping to be a cream cheese base as you need something sturdy that’s going to hold up after being plopped on top of a hot off the grill piece of meat. When it comes to dipping veggies, not only is cream cheese a little stiff and hard to dip, it’s also pretty high in fat. A substitution was in order…

Greek yogurt! Cool, creamy, tangy AND fat free. Whoop! I just took all the ingredients in the steak topping, mixed them into Greek yogurt, chilled it in the fridge so flavors could marry and called it delicious. The rich tang of the blue cheese plus the heat of the jalapeno is reminiscent ofΒ  the flavor of the ever popular buffalo wing – just without the greasy, fried chicken pieces. I wish I had some celery on hand this week for the dip because then it would have totally been a wing-like experience. Either way, after making this dip, I didn’t miss the wings OR the hunk of red meat underneath it. πŸ™‚

CREAMY BLUE CHEESE CHILE DIP (Recipe adapted from: Bon Appetit, April 2005 via Epicurious)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup finely crumbled blue cheese (about 1 ounce)
  • 1 small red or green jalapeno chile, seeded and finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon very finely minced shallot or red onion
  • 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Additional minced parsley or chopped chives, for garnish (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

Mix first six ingredients together in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill at least two hours before serving. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with garnish, if desired. Serve with the crunchy raw veggies of your choice or toasted pita chips. Makes about 1 cup.

ENJOY! πŸ™‚

One Year Ago: Cherry Berry Crumble Pie
Three Years Ago: Dijon Garlic Glazed Shrimp

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Filed under appetizers, veggies

Girlfriends

In the beginning, it’s all silly secrets and popsicle stained lips. There’s messy french braids and colorful, knotted friendship bracelets threaded up both wrists. Muffled late night sleepover giggles, jungles of monkey bars, and mile after mile peddled on shiny pink bikes. There’s an arm to link after getting off the school bus. There’s adventure in your own backyard. There’s nothing quite like a best friend.

Then you’re too old for the monkey bars, french braids are so elementary school and your shiny pink bike gets traded for a rusty hand-me-down car. There’s that first taste of freedom – sweet like strawberry lip gloss and chocolate milkshakes and 3:00 Friday afternoon sunshine. There’s notebook paper scribbled with purple pen confessions and shoved through the slats of a locker, a smile and a wave across a crowded hallway, a familiar face in gym class. Mix tapes and CD swaps and shared movie theater popcorn. There’s boys. The ones you’re crushing and the ones you’re cursing. Guy friends and more-than-friends-guy friends and I-wish-he-were-more-than-a-friend guy friends. There’s the last dance on prom night, memories scrawled in the margins of yearbooks, and tassels brushing against teary cheeks on graduation day. Promises are made. With some, they break quickly and quietly, fading as fast as tail lights out of the school parking lot. And yet with others, they stand strong and firm, weathering the storm of the next four years and beyond.

Then you’re starting over. There’s nerves and homesickness and worries stacked up sky high. An 8×10 cement block of a room and shower shoes and roommate squabbles. But there’s a couple girls from your floor in your Tuesday morning lecture and there’s a common thread sewn over dorm dining hall chicken fingers. All of sudden, there’s study partners and piling onto a bunk to watch Dawson’s Creek in fuzzy slippers and greasy pizza way past midnight. There’s someone’s purse strap to grab when threading through a crowd, someone to rescue you from the guy that’s all hands, to tell you you’ve had enough, to hold your hair back. There’s kissing and telling – some of the time. And then there’s a pint of ice cream and shoulder when he stops calling. There’s a bond over bombed exams, a connection over pre-bar cocktails, and a promise to be there, forever, no matter what, without saying a word. For some reason, it’s easier to keep.

The miles between you grow and the time between phone calls and visits widens. But there’s a quick text to brighten a birthday and a lunch date when you’re both home over the holidays. Cheeks flush with rose and bliss as “he’s the one” is confessed over coffee. There’s the glint of brand new diamond in the the sun. White satin and ivory lace and pretty pastel chiffon. There’s trying desperately to hold it together as she floats down the aisle because your heart is so full of happiness. From new jobs to first places to milestones big and small, you’re together, even when you’re miles apart.

The wild parties are over. The days of crashing on the couch without washing off your makeup are long gone. Conversations revolve around swapping recipes, which pre-natal vitamins you’re taking and how husbands just don’t see dirt the same way we do. And then there’s afternoon showers of pink and blue, pictures of the nursery, and a chuckle over swollen ankles. There’s ten little fingers and ten peanuty toes and perfectly puckered rosebud lips. There’s a dear friend holding her beautiful baby girl and motherhood looks stunning on her.

And with tiny pink hats and precious coos, the circle of girlfriends starts over again.

*****

My very dear friend from college welcomed a beautiful baby girl a couple weeks back. Welcome to the world, Baby W! So glad you could join us! She is newborn bundled perfection. I’m not just saying that because her mom is one of my besties, this is a gorgeous child. πŸ™‚ I knew I had to bring the new mom and dad sustenance to get help get them through those long days and even longer nights of caring for a baby.Β  Cheesy pastas for the freezer weren’t doing it for me. Creamy casseroles aren’t really her style. There was cookie dough, but that’s not a meal and if I could provide something that offered a bit of nutritional value that would be ideal…

My brain immediately went to my latest obsession…steel cut oats.

Perfect. A basket full of goodies to make an easy, nutritious, and delicious bowl of overnight steel cut oats. It’s super filling, a great vehicle for all kinds of healthy fruits, seeds and nuts and tastes great first thing in the morning all the way to the middle of the night. It’s the perfect new mom energy food. Plus, if the oatmeal just isn’t in the cards one day, the basket contains two-thirds of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bit of trail mix to munch on. πŸ™‚ That works too!

In the basket I put a bag of Bob’s Red Mill steel cut oats, a jar of all-natural, unsweetened applesauce, a bag of dried cherries, a bag of fruit and nut mix, a jar of no sugar added strawberry fruit spread, creamy peanut butter and a cute little honey bear. I also made up a couple cards with some ideas for what to mix in to the oatmeal. Some used the items in the basket, some used other items like canned pumpkin, chocolate chips and fresh fruit. The recipe for the overnight oat mixture was attached with a ribbon to the outside – Up All Night Oats. πŸ™‚

Since discovering this super easy oatmeal technique from Jessica over at The Novice Chef, I just can’t get enough of the stuff. Normally, steel cut oats would take a good half hour to cook on the stovetop. Who has time for that in morning? Definitely not a new mom! And definitely not me either. All you have to do is mix the oatmeal with a bit of unsweetened applesauce, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and milk the night before, cover it and pop in the fridge. In the morning, pour the mixture into a saucepan, simmer on the stove for five minutes and EAT! Anything you like can be mixed in – my favorite is a bit of crunchy peanut butter, sliced banana and a drizzle of honey for sweetness.

Now, steel cut oats do have a heartier and chewier texture than regular oatmeal, so head’s up there. Personally, I prefer it that way as I tend to be turned off by the pale, mushy texture of instant oatmeal. If you’re looking for a hearty, nutritious, keeps-you-full-until-lunch breakfast, give this a try! Be sure to share it with your girlfriends too, they’ll want to know about this. πŸ˜‰

OVERNIGHT STEEL CUT OATS (Recipe adapted from: The Novice Chef, originally adapted from Good Life Eats)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup steel cut oats
  • 1 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 ounces all-natural applesauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cups fat free milk

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Combine oats, brown sugar, applesauce, cinnamon and salt in a non-metal bowl. Stir in milk and cover and chill for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
  2. Transfer oatmeal mixture to a medium saucepan. Heat just to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until oatmeal is done, adding additional milk if desired and stirring occasionally.
  3. Remove oatmeal from heat and add your desired mix-ins. Spoon into bowls. Serve with additional milk, if desired. Makes 2 servings.
ENJOY! πŸ™‚

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A Test of Wills

A common question I get asked as a food blogger is “what do you do with all those cookies and cupcakes and treats you make?”

Well. I’m going to answer that right now. And I’m going to be honest. For the most part, we eat them.

Gasp! Pearl clutch! Faint!

So there you have it. I make my cake and eat it too.

You’ll hear a lot of bakers say they make a treat and usher right out the door to neighbors, to husband’s offices, to parties and events. I certainly do that too (all of these firework cookies went on platters and off to our new neighbors) but during a normal week, I’m usually baking for us. Halving recipes and scaling down are a normal occurrence. I don’t need 24 cupcakes, but 12 for the two of us to share over the course of 7 days or so. Okay, sure.

Of course, there are rules. Strict guidelines as to what can be eaten when and how much. For the most part, my willpower remains strong around the treats in the house until it’s time for a little indulgence.

However. Sometimes. Yes, sometimes something comes along that really tests me. Sometimes there’s something in the house I can’t resist. That’s when the nibbling starts. It’s not the usual suspects that get me, the brownies, the chocolate chip cookies. It’s the things that shouldn’t be THAT good, but somehow just are.

Things like this Sunflower Cookie Brittle.

These shards of buttery shortbread cookie are stuffed to the brim with sweet mini chocolate chips and salty sunflower seeds. A very simple cookie dough is pressed into a jellyroll pan and baked. Once cooled, it’s broken into jagged, rustic pieces that are perfect for popping in your mouth every single time you’re in the kitchen. Something about the the soft, sandy texture and the sweet/salty flavor made these absolutely irresistible to me. Simple, but wonderful.

I had mixed emotions when the brittle was gone. On the one hand, I could return to my regularly scheduled carrot sticks, but on the other, I sure was sad to see it go.

SUNFLOWER COOKIE BRITTLE (Recipe Source: Heartland: The Cookbook by Judith Fertig pg. 230)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons almond or vanilla extract
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purposed flour
  • 1 cup salted, roasted shelled sunflower kernels
  • 1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, and extract and beat until creamy. Add flour gradually, beating until blended after each addition. Fold in sunflower seeds and chocolate chips. Press the dough into a 16-1/2 by 11-1/2 by 1-inch jelly-roll pan.
  2. Bake the cookie for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Break the cookie apart like peanut brittle. Store in airtight container for up to two weeks. Makes about 3 dozen pieces.

ENJOY!

One Year Ago: Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies
Two Years Ago: Strawberry Blueberry Buckle
Three Years Ago: Crispy Oven “Fried” Chicken

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Firework

Does anyone else think a certain pop song whose name rhymes with, uh…Tire-Jerk….playing during fireworks displays is in fact becoming quite lame?

It’s so predictable. Yawn. I mean, surprise me during the fireworks, Whoever’s In Charge. Play Stars and Stripes Forever or something crazy like that.

For the record, no, I’ve never felt like a plastic bag. But I do kinda feel like putting one over my head every time that song comes on. Just saying.

Anyway, the 4th of July weekend is upon us! And it’s actually a long weekend this year. Score! Is there anything worse than when the 4th falls on a Wednesday and there’s this one random day off in the middle of the week? There’s no time for parties and the possibility of losing ones eyebrows in a freak firecracker incident if there’s only one day to celebrate! Not enough hours in the day, I tell ya.

This year…three whole days of pure summer perfection. Sleeping late. Sunsets after 9. Cold beer and hot grills. Now that’s more like it.

The best thing about the 4th falling on a Monday this year is you have plenty of time to whip up a batch of these to take to your pool parties and BBQs and gatherings and what not…you’ll be a true American hero…

Firework Cookies!

Colorful! Festive! You’ll be the envy of the neighborhood, I promise. Soak up the glory as people are as dazzled by your mad cookie skills as they will be by the actual fireworks. The best part? They’re actually really easy to do and super forgiving. Even for those of us with exactly zero artistic talent.

Oh, royal icing. What is there to say about it? That’s it’s a royal pain in the… Um. Never mind. But with this easy decorating method, you can look like a Royal Icing Rock Star. If you’ve never taken the plunge and given decorated sugar cookies a try, this is a great place to start.

I don’t know about you, but my decorated sugar cookies go from neat and tidy to toddler art project right about when it’s time to start piping additional details. Like dots. And lines. Dots and lines. Easy, right? WRONG. With this wet-on-wet technique, the need for piping additional details is completely eliminated – saving you a ton of time and much of your sanity.

This fun design is brought to you by that Perfectly Perfect Perfectionist and Expert Entertainer Ms. Martha Stewart. I happened to catch these over at The Dainty Chef and Krissy’s came out SO amazingly great, I just had to jump in and give them a try myself. Please be sure to click on over and take a little looky-lou a her’s as well. πŸ™‚

So, you ready to do this? Come on, it’s easy! Just think bullseye. Yup. That’s all you need to know. Here’s the 411:

Gather up:

  • 1 batch of your favorite sugar cookie recipe, cut into desired shapes (circles for the firework cookies, then I threw in some stars for good measure, but you don’t have to.)
  • 1 batch royal icing (one batch makes about three cups, so plan accordingly if you plan to do a lot of cookies. You may need to double this. For the cookie recipe linked here, 3 cups is just the right amount.)
  • Gel food colorings in red and blue (Honestly, if you want really true, deep, jewel-toned color go for the AmeriColor in the little squeeze bottle. So much better than…that other brand.)
  • Pastry bags fitted with couplers and small round tips (Like Wilton #2 or #3.)
  • Plastic squeeze bottles (These really are a lifesaver. And they’re cheap. Pick some up at a craft store.)
  • Toothpicks

Then let the fun begin:

First you’ll need to get your royal icing all prepped (tinted and thinned to two different consistencies.) You’ll need to outline the cookies in a stiffer icing first and let that set. This is where you’ll use your pastry bag/tips. Then you’ll be ready to fill in to create your fireworks.

**Note: There are some wonderful tutorials out there for making, tinting, thinning, piping and flooding royal icing – check out this one at Annie’s Eats for step-by-step photos, or these great how-to videos from Bridget at Bake at 350 for some great tips. These ladies are experts and so much better at explaining the technical stuff than me, so head on over for an awesome lesson! πŸ™‚

After you’ve outlined your cookies, fill your squeeze bottles with your thinned red, white and blue icing. Fill in your outline with the thinned white icing, and use a toothpick to push it all the way to the edge. Then quickly, don’t wait, grab your colors and start piping concentric circles of red and blue icing on top of the white. This is where the bullseye comes in.

Start with a dot in the center and then just pipe circles around it. You can go all the way to the edge…or not. Mix it up for different looks. Then take a clean toothpick and, starting at the center, go around the cookie and pull the icing out toward the edge of the circle.

Look! A gorgeous marble effect in no time flat! Because all of the icing needs to be wet to produce the desired outcome, do the cookies one at a time. That is, flood in white, make your colored circles, and marble on each before moving to the next cookie.

Now don’t freak out if you’re circles aren’t perfect (hello, that’s impossible anyway) that helps make each cookie it’s own unique creation. Just like snowflakes. πŸ™‚ Considering you are using the same technique over and over, you’ll be amazed at how many unique looks you can create. Try varying the distance between your circles (closer vs. further apart.) Or vary the colors of your circles – alternate red and blue, or do two red then two blue, or all red until the last one and then BAM! blue. Things like that. Pull your toothpick straight out to the edge, or throw a little curve in there at the end. Pull just a little or pull a whole lot. The possibilities are endless and every cookie will come out perfect.

Lather, rinse, repeat with each cookie! Ta-da!

So there you have it! I hope you’ll consider giving these a try this holiday weekend. And to you and yours, I wish you the happiest of Happy 4th of July’s. Whatever you have planned from absolutely nothing to time with family and friends to driving across state lines to procure illegal goods, have fun and stay safe. I want to see you all back here next week with all your appendages still attached. Unlike this unfortunate little fella…

See, this is what happens when you’re careless with fireworks food blogging. πŸ˜‰

(Sources: Decorating technique from Martha Stewart, as seen at The Dainty Chef. Royal icing from Wilton.)

One Year Ago: I got nothin’. I must have been busy. πŸ˜‰
Two Years Ago: Rosemary Lemon Sandwich Cookies
Three Years Ago: Asian-inspired Macaroni Salad with Chopped Cashews

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