Monday, December 27, 2010

The Holidays- You can make your sweets and eat them too!

Yes, it's true. If you eat only whole grains and very little sugar like me, you can still enjoy some treats during the holidays. My cookie tray this year consisted of both my family's favorites and variations that are healthier yet still delicious.

My first challenge was to come up with a cookie that was similar to the date filled cookies that my father's family has made for years. The dough has an anise flavoring and the filling is dates, raisins, orange juice and some kind of alcohol, usually whiskey. They are rolled into logs, sliced and baked and then drizzled with a sugar icing. They are my husband's absolute favorite. However, this would be Tim's first year without these little morsels, as he has been eating the way I do since last March and has lost well over 70 lbs. The man deserved his favorite cookies during the holidays! But he is committed to this way of eating now, and insisted he would live through it.

So my challenge, as I said, was to come up with something with similar flavors but using whole grain flour and natural sugars. As usual, I found a recipe that I could start with and then modify to make it work for me. The original recipe came from cd kitchen online and was called Anise-Scented Fig And Date Swirls. A few changes, and it became a delicious cookie that will now be on my cookie tray every year. In fact, they were gone way too quickly, so next year I will need to make a double batch. On Christmas Eve, my mother was getting together a plate of cookies to take to her neighbors and when my father saw her doing this, he removed each of the fig and date swirtls one at a time and put them back on his own tray. "You aren't giving THESE to the neighbors," he said, which is quite a compliment since it is my dad who makes the traditional date filled cookies that inspired these every year.

Another addition to my cookie tray is dark chocolate bark. This is about the easiest and most versatile sweet you can make for the holidays. Just melt a package of 60% chocolate chips in the microwave, pour the melted chocolate onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and top with anything your heart desires! I topped half of mine with pecans, cinnamon, and dried cranberries and the other half with macadamia nuts, natural coconut, and sea salt. Just press the toppings down a bit and let it dry for about an hour and a half or so. If it doesn't harden up nicely for you, stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for a short time. When hardened, break it all up into random pieces. How easy (and delicious) is that?

The last healthy treat on my tray was honey bunches. I've made and shared these little nuggets many times and I am constantly asked for the recipe. I can't take credit for these- they come from Just get yourself on that site and have a ball. There are some great recipes there. The honey bunches are little mini muffins of pecan-coconut-honey goodness! Other than substituting agave nectar for the honey and raw sugar for the brown sugar, I make these exactly as written. These are certain crowd pleasers!

And one more recipe I must share with you- a blueberry coconut macadamia nut muffin that is totally healthy and you would never know it! We had these on Christmas morning and they are very special. The original recipe came from Eating Well Magazine but of course I've made my own modifications.

So as you can see, it is true what they say- you CAN have your cake and eat it too (and cookies, and candy, and muffins, etc.) during the holidays and beyond!

Maria's Fig & Date Pinwheels
Dough: Wisk together 1 ¾ cup plus 1 T whole wheat pastry flour, 1 T ground anise seed, ¼ tsp. each baking soda, salt, baking powder. In mixer, beat 2 sticks unsalted butter, 4 oz. cream cheese, ¼ cup agave nectar. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 large egg yolk. Beat until creamy. Add flour mixture gradually. Shape into a disk and refrigerate at least an hour.
Filling: In food processor combine 1 pkg Mission figs, 1 cup dates, juice and grated rind of 1 orange, ¼ cup wine or whiskey, 2 T water, ¼ cup agave nectar. Process until smooth. If not getting a smooth consistency, can be cooked on the stove until it is spreadable. Add ½ chopped pecans.
Roll dough out to a 13 by 10 inch rectangle about 1/3 inch thick. Spread filling evenly over dough. Roll up, jelly roll fashion. Roll entire roll in raw (turbinado) sugar. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to bake, Cut roll into 1/3 inch thick slices. Bake at 350 degrees on lightly buttered cookie sheets.
Cream cheese icing: Beat together 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 1/4 cup agave nectar and 1 tsp. vanilla. Add water or milk if necessary. Drizzle over cooled cookies.

Blueberry Coconut Macadamia Nut Muffins
1/4 cup natural coconut
2 tablespoons plus 13/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour, divided
2 tablespoons natural brown sugar
5 tablespoons chopped macadamia nuts, divided
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup agave nectar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk (or 3/4 cup whole milk plus 2 tsp lemon juice)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon coconut or vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries


Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray or line with paper liners.
Combine coconut, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 2 tablespoons macadamia nuts in a small bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil; stir to combine. Set aside.
Whisk the remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Whisk the agave nectar, the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, egg, egg white, buttermilk, butter and coconut (or vanilla) extract in a medium bowl until well combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients; stir until just combined. Add blueberries and the remaining 3 tablespoons nuts; stir just to combine (I toss the blueberries in some whole wheat pastry flour first so they don't burst in the oven). Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle with the reserved coconut topping and gently press into the batter.
Bake the muffins until golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and let cool on a wire rack at least 5 minutes more before serving.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Gift of Food

It is my niece and goddaughter Jamie's first Christmas as a mom. And to say that she has embraced motherhood is an understatement. Her little nugget Claire is obviously thriving from the love and attention she receives. I love to watch them together, their bond so perfect and sweet. I must confess that I watched her pull into my driveway the other night and stood there in the window as she gently unhooked Claire's car seat, talking and smiling at her the whole time. She was late arriving to our house, yet Claire never would have sensed it, as her mother's primary focus was not on the mad rush of the holidays. It was, as always, on HER. I'm some years away from being a grandmother myself, but this has to be similar to how it feels when you watch your own children as parents. Pure joy and pride.

On Thanksgiving, a few of us were having a conversation about cooking, and Jamie expressed that she doesn't do much cooking in her small kitchen. As a working mother, she would rather spend time playing with Claire than in the kitchen preparing a meal. Claire's dad Jason will often barbeque or one of them will bring something home that is easy to throw together. So that's where the gift of food idea was born! Tim and I decided to do some make-ahead dinners that we could freeze and give to Jamie and her family for Christmas. We decided to give them to her early so it would make this hectic time a little easier for them.

Our idea took on a second life and when we were finished we had: Italian meatloaf, turkey chili, turkey soup, penne and meatballs, beef stew, and chicken noodle casserole- all in freezable containers, some that could go right in the oven. The card included the names of the dishes and the cooking directions for each. What a fun project!

I'm including here the recipes for Italian meatloaf (which is Michael Chiarello's) and the chicken noodle casserole (which is based on a recipe from an old family friend). I highly recommend the meatloaf as it tastes like a giant meatball and is the only meatloaf my family wants to eat. I've passed this recipe along before and it is much loved. My friend Stacey triples the recipe when she makes it and freezes two.

Here is the link for the meatloaf:

Mrs. Shaw's Crockpot Chicken (modified)
(can be mixed with noodles and baked in the oven as a casserole)
6-8 chicken breast halves
salt and pepper
Italian seasoning (or a mix of Italian dried herbs)
1/2 cup sherry or Marsala
1 can cream of chicken soup
6 oz. cream cheese
1 Tablespoon minced onion
Place chicken in crockpot. Brush with butter, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning. Mix thoroughly. Cover crockpot. Cook on low 5-6 hours. About 3/4 hour before serving, mix soup, cream cheese, onion and sherry together in pan. Cook until smooth. Pour over chicken in crockpot. Cover and cook 30 minutes more. Break chicken up with a spoon or fork until shredded. Serve over noodles or rice
*We serve this over brown rice but for Jamie's family mixed it with egg noodles for a casserole.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving has come and gone, along with the feeding frenzy that always comes with it. We spend every Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house and it is my father's task to prepare the bird and his much loved Italian sausage stuffing. There were 26 of us this year, all gathered around the long table that takes up their entire living room. Each family prepares a side dish and the selections tend to vary every year. Dad proclaimed that this year, the sides were the best ever and that everyone should make exactly the same thing next year! There was roasted butternut squash with craberries, sweet potato with apples, cauliflower casserole with prusciutto,and twice baked potatoes. And there is always fennel (or finOKE as my dad pronounces it) to munch on to cleanse the palate. Again, the Italians know how to make every occasion all about the food, and my family is no exception.

My contribution to the Thanksgiving meal has always been the pumpkin pies. I make two of the regular recipe and one of the healthy version (scroll back to old posts for recipes). The regular pies go very quickly but I always manage to sneak an extra small piece to my 21-year old nephew Jesse, who has been loving my pumpkin pie since he was a little boy.

Because I don't make a Thanksgiving meal for my own family, big holiday breakfasts have become a Straight family tradition. For the past few years, the aforementioned pumpkin clove pancakes have taken center stage and then the accompaniments vary from year to year. But since we just had the pancakes on Family Day last month, I thought that maybe everyone would want something different. So I texted the girls and mentioned the idea. My response from Gillian? "What were you thinking?" My response from Carly? "Stupid question..."

And so, pumpkin clove pancakes it was. But I had to step it up a bit. I was flipping through one of my favorite recipe books, Food Network Kitchens Cook Book, and I found a recipe for cornmeal pancakes with blueberry maple syrup. Tim and are both very fond of blueberries, so I decided to modify the syrup part of the recipe to serve with the pumpkin clove pancakes. The original recipe calls for maple syrup but I of course substituted agave nectar! Although the kids didn't use it (they like the pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup) Tim and I really loved it, and I would definitely make it again. Don't be alarmed when it is very thin after cooking on the stove. It thickens upon standing.

Along with the pancakes, I served a mixed fruit salad that I also found in the same cookbook. But my biggest accomplishment this year was a new recipe adaptation that I came up with for dark chocolate raspberry pistachio muffins. I am always excited when I can invent another dessert that is both delicious and healthy. It started out as an old Pillsbury recipe from one of their "Classics" softcover cookbooks. I used to collect these when I was in my twenties and they are still on a shelf in the back of my pantry. I really loved the idea of the flavor combination so I just substituted whole wheat pastry flour for the white flour, agave nectar for the sugar and dark chocolate chips for the milk chocolate. They came out super delicious and the pistachios crunch so nicely when you bite into them! I have to be honest- the picture above is not exactly accurate. In the original recipe, they have a little jelly surprise in the center. When I used a raspberry "all fruit" product, the fruit soaked into the muffin. It made for a moist delicious muffin, but the fruit cannot be seen. For photographic purposes, I cut one in half and inserted some of the raspberry in the center. I supposed you could put the fruit in with a pastry bag after baking, but then the muffin would probably not be as moist and delicious so I think I will make it the same way next time.

With another Thanksgiving come and gone, it's time to take a breather before getting out the Christmas recipes. More holiday blogging to come!

based on a recipe from Food Network Kitchens Cookbook
1 1/2 cups blueberries
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Toss the blueberries with the agave nectar in a small saucepan. Add the cinnamon stick and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture boils the blueberries just start to pop, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard the cinnamon stick and stir in the butter and lemon juice. Let stand until thickened, serve warm.

based on a recipe by Sally Vog and published by Pillsbury
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cup agave nectar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup 60% dark chocolate chips plus extra for topping
1/2 cup whole pistachios plus extra for topping
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 tsp grated lemon peel
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup seedless raspberry spreadable fruit such as Polaner
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Lightly spoon slour into measuring cup, level off. In large bowl, wisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate chips and pistachios.
In small bowl, combine milk, butter, lemon peel, vanilla and egg. Wisk in agave nectar and blend well. Add to dry ingredients all at once and combine just until dry ingredients are moistened.
Fill each paper-lined muffin cups half full. Spoon about a tsp or two of the fruit over the batter, then cover with more batter. Muffin cup should be filled about 3/4 full total. Top each with chocolate chips and pistachios.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes, then remove from pan. Serve warm or cool.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Being a Leader, not a Follower

I used to be a recipe follower. If a recipe called for an eighth of a teaspoon of something, I had to buy a set of measuring spoons that included an eighth of a teaspoon. There was no eyeballing it. If I was missing any ingredients, I'd be sending Tim to the store instead of making a logical substitution. When I look back, I enjoyed cooking strictly by the recipe but I missed out on the opportunity to be creative. When you take a recipe and make it your own, you get such a feeling of satisfaction. That is, if you make wise decisions based on at least a little experience and knowledge about food. I'm sure that's why I didn't take risks back then. I just didn't feel confident enough in my skills and the perfectionist in me did not want to risk failing.

This has changed. And really just within the past year or so. I can't pinpoint exactly when I became a recipe adapter, or leader if you will, but now that it has happened, I enjoy cooking so much more.

My latest recipe adaptation resulted in one of the best chilis we've ever had. I was looking for a turkey chili recipe and I found an interesting one on I would, by the way, highly recommend searching for recipes on that site. Many, such as this one, are from past issues of Bon Appetit magazine and I've had so much success from the recipes that I am considering subscribing! This recipe called for ground turkey, white beans and a really interesting mix of spices, including cocoa powder! If you've never used cocoa in cooking (as opposed to baking...) don't be afraid of it! Tim made some cocoa rub ribs on the grill this summer that were outstanding!

Now let me be clear that I am not taking credit for how wonderful this chili turned out. It is outstanding chili because the original recipe is outstanding. The slight modifications just make it more "mine." Try this chili and make it yours. I would love to hear how it turns out!

TURKEY CHILI WITH WHITE BEANS -original recipe from Bon Appetit, 1997
(my modifications in parentheses)
1 T vegetable oil (Canola)
2 medium onions, chopped (1 large)
(about a cup of chopped red, yellow, and orange bell peppers)
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano (Mexican oregano)
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 lbs. ground turkey (I used 1 lb. ground turkey, 1 lb. chopped turkey filet. We like chunks of meat in our chili!)
1/4 cup chili powder (ancho chili powder!)
2 bay leaves (fresh)
1 T unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch dark cocoa)
1 1/2 tsp. salt (Kosher salt)
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes (I used San Marzano tomatoes)
3 cups beef stock or canned beef broth (Wegman's beef culinary stock!)
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
3 15-oz. cans small white beans, rinsed and drained (I only used 2 cans of cannelini beans and that was plenty)

Garnishes: Chopped red onion, chopped fresh cilantro, plain low-fat yogurt or light sour cream (We used cilantro, light sour cream, shredded reduced fat cheddar, and chipotle tabasco sauce)

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion (and peppers); saute until light brown and tender, about 10 minutes. Add oregano and cumin, stir 1 minute. Increase heat to medium-high. Add turkey; stir until no longer pink. breaking up with back of spoon. Stir in chili powder, bay leaves, cocoa powder, salt and cinnamon. Add tomatoes with their juices, breaking up with back of spoon. Mix in stock and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add beans to chili and simmer until flavors blend, about 10 minutes longer. Discard bay leaves. Ladle chili in to bowls and serve with garnishes/toppings.

**** We served this over brown rice. YUM!!!!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Two Family Favorites

Here are two recipes that my family asks for time and time again. And they feature two ingredients that are plentiful this time of year- cider and sweet potatoes.

The first is a cider brined roasted chicken. We roast chicken often in my house, stuffing the cavity with various things like citrus fruits, onion, garlic, and herbs. Not only does it feed all of us, but it makes the whole house smell fantastic and we almost always make soup from the carcass afterward. You can't beat a meal that produces another meal for the next day and beyond! This particular roasted chicken is our very favorite, and we don't have it terribly often because it does take a little planning ahead as the chicken sits in the brine overnight. But wow, is it worth the extra planning and effort! The chicken itself is moist and delicious, glazed during the last ten minutes with a cider reduction, but making it even more special is the sauce that is made from the pan drippings and additional cider reduction. So good you can hear "humming" at the table when we're all eating it! The carcass and leftover chicken make a very uniquely flavored soup that we get several meals out of throughout the week.

The second recipe is a twice-baked sweet potato. This one was found in the Country Italian cookbook I referred to in one of my first posts. Remember the cod with beans and tomatoes? Same book. These potatoes are very rich and decadent tasting and again, take some patience, but are well worth it. These are baked, scooped out and then mixed with a butter, onion and fresh thyme mixture, fontina cheese, egg, and more butter! Of course sweet potatoes are extremely healthy, and that's how I always justify the indulgence. Interestingly though, I left the extra butter that was to be added softening in the microwave and the mixture went in without it. Quite honestly, no one knew the difference, and they were thoroughly enjoyed without the extra fat.

We had both of these together in the same meal tonight followed by a loaf of pumpkin chocolate chip bread. Yes, I am still baking and eating pumpkin and chocolate things. I am a bit obsessed with that flavor combination. That recipe can be found on

Looking forward to some delicious soup tomorrow. Tim has it cooking on the stove as I type. Of course the meal will be followed by more pumpkin chocolate chip bread. If it lasts that long!

Cider-Roasted Chicken
(original recipe from Cooking Light Magazine)

3 qts water
1 qt apple cider
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 T black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 6-lb. roasting chicken
2 cups apple cider
1 large onion, peeled and halved
4 flat-leaf parsley sprigs
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring until salt dissolves. Remove from heat; cool completely. Remove and discard giblets and neck from chicken. Rinse chicken with cold water; pat dry. Trim excess fat. Pour brine into a 2-gallon zip-top plastic bag. Add chicken, seal. Refridgerate 8 hours or overnight, turning the bag occasionally.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3. Bring 2 cups cider to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until cider has thickened and reduced to 1/4 cup (about 15 minutes). Set aside.
4. Remove chicken from bag; discard brine. Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Place the onion halves, parsley and garlic into the cavity. Lift wing tips up and over back, tuck under chicken. Tie legs. Place chicken on rack of a broiler pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour and 30 minutes or until thermometer registers 175 degrees (we removed it at 165). Remove from oven. Carefully remove and discard skin. Baste chicken with half of reduced cider. Return to oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven; baste with remaining cider reduction. (Today, instead of basting with remaining cider reduction, we added the reduction to the sauce we made from the drippings. It's good either way!)
The rest of the recipe is missing so we just make a sauce from the pan drippings and a little slurry of whole wheat flour and water. Serve sauce with chicken!

Baked Sweet Potatoes With Taleggio
(Patate dolci al forno)

2 sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1 1/2 T unsalted butter, plus 3 T extra at room temperature
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 tsp chopped thyme leaves, plus extra sprigs
1 large egg
1/4 cup taleggio or fontina cheese, chopped (we use shredded fontina, and use more on top)
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the sweet potatoes on a baking paper-lined baking sheet until tender, about 45-60 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
2. Melt 1 1/2 T butter in a small frying pan over moderate heat. Add onion and saute until soft, about 2 minutes. Add chopped thyme and cook 1 minute more. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise. Spoon out the flesh, leaving a 3/4 inch shell of flesh and skin. Place the halves on a baking sheet. Combine the scooped out potato flesh with the remaining 3 T butter (this is the butter I left out tonight... still delicious!), the onion mixture, egg, and cheese in a bowl and mash until smooth. Season with salt (I added pepper too). Pile mixture back into the sweet potato shells, top with additional cheese (my variation)and a few springs of thyme. Bake 20-30 minutes or until golden.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's Still Pumpkin Season!

Yes, it's still pumpkin season! And as it turns out, I did make the pumpkin clove pancakes for our annual Family Day. Every year, we choose one day for the five of us to spend together, with each of us coming up with something special to do. Before setting off for our day, we had breakfast together and the pumpkin clove pancakes were once again requested.

These are pretty special pancakes and what I really love is that we can all enjoy them, including the health fanatics of the family (Tim and I), the neutral ones (Gillian and Connor), and the one who is highly offended when you sneak whole grains into her food (Carly). In fact, Carly came over while I was just getting the ingredients out to make them and she stopped and said, "Wait- you're not going to make them with whole wheat, are you?" And I delighted in saying that as a matter of fact, they've always been made that way!

The kids like these with butter and pure maple syrup. Tim and I had them with Greek yogurt mixed with a little agave nectar and berries. Very special!

The next recipe is pumpkin cookies with dark chocolate chips. I made these today for Halloween, and again they pleased my non-healthy eater as well as Connor's friends before they went out trick-or-treating. I started out with a recipe I found on the Food Network website and made my usual adjustments. The longer you bake them, the crispier they are, although they are still going to be cake-like. Lots of flavor, and again, you're getting the whole grains (whole wheat pastry flour), vegetables (pumpkin) and antioxidants (dark chocolate).

Continue to enjoy pumpkin season! I know my family will, well through November.

Pumpkin Clove Pancakes
(original recipe from, but this recipe is the one I make with some substitutions)

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
6 tablespoons raw cane sugar or organic brown sugar (I've also used agave nectar instead, but needed to add a few more tablespoons of flour or the batter will be too runny)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup canned solid pack pumpkin
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 250°F. Mix first 6 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Whisk buttermilk, pumpkin, eggs and melted butter in medium bowl until well blended. Add to dry ingredients and whisk until smooth.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, drop batter by 1/4 cupfuls into skillet. Cook pancakes until bubbles form on top and bottoms are golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes. Turn pancakes over. Cook until bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to baking sheet; place in oven to keep warm up to 20 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more butter to skillet as necessary for each batch.

Serve pancakes hot with your favorite toppings!

Pumpkin Chip Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 or 3/4 cup agave nectar
1 cup natural cane sugar or organic brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups (12-ounce bag) 60% cacao chocolate chips (I use Ghiradelli)
Nonstick cooking spray or parchment paper
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray cookie sheets with nonstick spray or line them with parchment paper.

Using a mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Beat in the agave nectar and brown sugar, a little at a time, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time, then mix in the vanilla and pumpkin puree. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Slowly beat the flour mixture into the batter in thirds. Stir in the chips. Scoop the cookie dough by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cookies are browned around the edges. Remove the cookie sheets from the oven and let them rest for 2 minutes. Take the cookies off with a spatula and cool them on wire racks.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's Pumpkin Season!

Every October, my family waits in earnest for the first pumpkin pie of the season. I have become the pumpkin pie maker of the family, and that includes my extended family as well. Thanksgiving is at my parents' house every year and my contribution is always enough pumpkin pies to satisfy the 25 of us!

I think the biggest difference between my pumpkin pie and one made from the recipe on the Libby's can is the texture. Most pumpkin pies are thin with a highly concentrated pumpkin flavor. Mine is thicker, creamier, less pumpkin and more spice.

Now as pies go, pumpkin is one of the healthiest and lowest in calories. But you had to know that I would create an even healthier version, one with no processed sugar and a whole wheat crust. I made both versions recently when we had Tim's brother and his girlfriend over for dinner. The healthier pie was admittedly not as good as the original, but still very satisfying. Oh, and in case you are wondering, the healthy version is on the left. It comes out darker in color.

Pumpkin season doesn't have to begin and end with pies! Today, I made a batch of pumpkin muffins that started with a recipe I found online and with a few substitutions turned out to be both delicious and healthy. Try them- no one will ever know they aren't indulgent!

Enjoy pumpkin season! I know my family will. They are already asking for the pumpkin clove pancakes I make on Thanksgiving morning. If they weasel them out of me before then, I'll post that recipe too!

1 lb. pumpkin puree
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine all ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Pour into an unbaked pie shell. I use this one :
Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes (I use a pie shield to prevent the crust from over-browning) and then reduce heat to 350 and continue to bake for 30-40 minutes until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

THE HEALTHY VERSION: Omit both sugars. Substitute 3/4 cup agave nectar. Increase the spices as the agave may overpower flavors. Use this whole wheat crust: You will need to bake this pie slower on a lower temperature because agave nectar will chrystalize at high temperatures. Start it at 375, then turn down to 325 until done.

1/2 cup dried berries
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup raw brown sugar
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (I used 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. ginger, 1/8 tsp. nutmeg and 1/16 tsp. cloves)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
3/4 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup oil (grapeseed, almond, hazlenut, canola are good choices)
1/2 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup chopped pecans (or other nuts)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12 cup muffin pan, or line with paper liners. Place the dried fruit in a cup, and add enough hot water to cover. Let stand for a few minutes to plump.
2.In a large bowl, stir together the whole wheat flour, brown sugar, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the center, and put in eggs, pumpkin, oil and agave nectar. Mix just until the dry ingredients are absorbed. Drain excess water from fruit, and stir in along with the nuts. Spoon into muffin cups so they are about 2/3 full.
3.Bake for 18 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the tops spring back when lightly touched. Cool in the pan before removing from cups.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thai Pizza- Inspired by Rochester Public Market

I have a new obsession- Rochester Public Market. Winner of the 2010 America's Favorite Public Market title, this place is a foodie's heaven. I visited the market today for only the second time in the fourteen years that I have lived here. The produce is abundant and inexpensive, and both times I was happy to score a whole basket of Asian pears for $2.50 since they are $2.00 for only one at the grocery store!

Two of my sisters and I talked and laughed as we swam upstream like salmon through the crowds of people with strollers, rolling carts, and bags full of already purchased items. It is a great place to people watch, as well as look for interesting food finds. One woman smuggled her little dog in (there are no dogs allowed for obvious reasons) by wrapping him up in a blanket and pushing him in a stroller. Really? You can't leave your dog alone for an hour or two while you are at the market? My sister Jen bought some amazing maple cashew granola. She pretended to balk at the price while the granola man gave his sales pitch, but as granola is one of her very favorite things- she was easy. As we walked away I told him, "You had her at 'hello.'"

My highlight was when my sister Linda urged me into a little Italian cheese shop called Giordana Import, Inc. I've never seen so many varieties of cheese in my life- all Mediterranean and unique. In addition they have Italian meats, olives, oils, vinegars, and other Mediterranean foods. They do specialty sandwiches and gift baskets too. This was obviously a family owned place with a grandpa singing in Italian and a little girl helping behind the counter. Everyone was warm and friendly and entertaining as I held my number waiting to be called. When it was my turn, I ended up trying a Stilton with lemon that I was in love with!! I bought a nice big hunk without caring at all about the price.

But I haven't yet told you how this trip to the market inspired tonight's dinner. One of my purchases was at the homemade sausage case. During my first time at the market, my dad had bought me some Italian sausage with onions and peppers and I had used it in my sauce. Very delicious! So I decided to get some more sausage this time. The Thai chicken sausage caught my eye, and not knowing what I was going to do with it, I bought a pound. The girls and I started brainstorming and when I said, "What about a Thai pizza?" both sets of eyes went wide and I knew I came up with an interesting idea.

So after some searching for ideas online, I came up with a whole wheat Naan pizza with peanut sauce, peanuts, Thai chicken sausage, green onions and fresh mozzarella. The peanut sauce came from a Paula Dean recipe and it made so much, I now have leftovers to make chicken satay. Tim, Gillian, Connor, and I all loved this pizza and I will definitely make it again. Next time, I think I will drizzle a little of the straight Thai peanut sauce over the top of the cooked pizza for some extra color and zing. And if you can't find Thai chicken sausage, you can always substitute cooked chicken breast.

**One hint I have for making Naan pizzas-- If you bake them in the oven, as soon as the cheese melts, transfer it to a pan on the stove and the bottom will get nice and crispy! Or you can cook the whole thing in a pan or panini maker. Just be sure to only cover it partially- just to melt the cheese but not completely or the steam will make it soggy.

Naan Pizza with Thai Chicken Sausage

For sauce: Warm half a 11.5 oz. jar of Thai peanut sauce with a can of lite coconut milk. Mix 2 T cornstarch with 2 T water. Whisk that into the sauce and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and cool.

Pour sauce on Naan, sprinkle with chopped unsalted peanuts, chopped grean onion, and cooked Thai chicken sausage. Top with shredded or sliced fresh mozzarella. Bake at 375 until cheese melts. Transfer to a pan to crisp bottom of crust. Drizzle with some of the leftover jarred Thai peanut sauce before serving.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Recipe Inspired

I am thrilled to share with you how a friend took one of my recipes from this blog and was inspired enough to create her own version. Michelle is the step-mom of a very special young lady whom I had the pleasure of having in my 6th grade class a few years ago.

The recipe I am referring to is the spaghetti squash casserole. Instead of mussels, she used boneless chicken breasts. First she sauteed them in olive oil, shallots, garlic, and white wine. Then she added the tomatoes and threw in pesto and spinach at the end. For the rest of the recipe, scroll down to the post entitled "These Days I'm Loving Leftovers."

Michelle reports that her family loved it! Clean plates, and full bellies all around! Thanks for sharing this, Michelle, and I definitely plan on trying your version. It looks delicious!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Big Event

Well, it finally arrived. The big event, my sister's wedding. Those of you who know me well are aware of how long I have been planning, changing, planning again, stressing, and obsessing over this one. Everything went well and I was very happy with the result, but there were some last minute changes along the way.

I ended up making the tiramisu cake as planned, but instead of cutting the two layers, I made four separate layers to make it a larger cake. I decorated the outside of the frosted cake with the rolled wafer cookies and a ribbon around it, but the colors were so.... BROWN. So- I looked over at the sugared flowers that my daughter Carly did for me (she just started culinary classes so was excited to come and help with the baking!) and it occured to me to place them on the top of the cake. They were originally meant to garnish the limoncello cupcakes but as it turned out, they were a bit too big for the cupcakes so this was perfect. It's amazing how that little bit of color on top of the cake made it extra special.

The cupcakes recipes went through a sort of evolution through all of this. I knew I wanted an Italian theme to go with the tiramisu, so the first one I picked was a limoncello. There were several recipes to choose from, but in the end I decided to make the cupcakes from Jamie Oliver's website and the frosting and garnish from a website called "Tartlette." (I also borrowed the idea of using the nut cups from that site, instead of using cupcake liners. Second, I knew I wanted to do something with Nutella, so I found a recipe for a cupcake with one of those hazlenut truffles- Ferero Roche baking right into the cupcake. Then I decided to frost it with the Nutella buttercream frosting from This is the site where I get most of my cake and frosting recipes. And last but not least, I wanted to make a Sicilian cassata cupcake and since it doesn't seem to exist, I had to invent it myself!

I made a cassata for my dad's 70th birthday party and it got rave reviews, so naturally I thought all I needed to do was to make the cake and pour it into cupcake liners, fill it with the ricotta filling, frost it with chocolate and garnish it with candied citrus and pistachios. Wrong. The cake recipe (originally Emeril's...) does not lend itself to cupcakes AT ALL, so I had to start all over. So I went to my tried and true and made their wonderful yellow cake as a base. I fully intended to fill it with ricotta but then I realized that I had a whole bunch of mascarpone filling leftover from the tiramisu cake so I decided to use that instead. I didn't like the looks of the candied citrus peels at the store, so Carly and I made them ourselves. That was a lot of fun! And when it is done, you're left with a citrus simple syrup. So I cut out the center of the vanilla cupcake, drizzled the hole with the syrup, filled with the mascarpone filling, replaced the top, covered it with the "glazy" chocolate from the original cassata recipe and topped it with the candied citrus and a few pistachios. I invented a cupcake!

Perhaps the biggest surprise in all of this is that I made the cupcake display from stuff I found at JoAnn Fabrics. Now, other than knitting, I am NOT a crafty person, and I had no idea what I was doing. But sometimes I just jump right in even when I have absolutely no experience or knowledge. Thankfully it turned out well (this time anyway....).

I will say what I said after I made the baby bump cake for my niece Jamie's baby shower. SO MUCH WORK BUT SOOOOOO WORTH IT! I don't think I could ever do this for a living like my talented friend Jill, but to cook, and bake and create for the special people in my life I truly care about-- it's a labor of love.

Monday, September 6, 2010

These Days I'm Loving Leftovers!

These days I'm loving leftovers. That's when I've been venturing out of my recipe comfort zone and becoming more inventive.

Over the weekend, we had a family cookout and I had asked Tim to make his famous, mouth-watering mussels. Well come to find out, only a few people in my family care for mussels. So although the mussels were thoroughly enjoyed by my mom, my sister Jen, her husband Dave, Carly, Tim, and me, I don't think anyone else even tried them. And so we were left with lots of mussels and the delicious sauce he makes them with.

Before I continue with my post about leftovers, I need to take a little jaunt to describe how these mussels are made. Several of my friends have asked for the recipe, but Tim rarely uses a recipe and the mussels are no exception. So I've pinned him down to explain the process. First, he sautes garlic and shallots in oil and butter (more butter than oil). Then he throws in the mussels and about a cup to a cup and a half of dry white wine, and steams them until they open. He finishes it off with his homemade pesto (I'll have to share that another time, but let me say it is so good he should bottle the stuff!!) and some grape tomatoes. He gives it a stir, allowing the tomatoes to heat. That's it! We usually dunk a hearty whole grain bread in the sauce which makes it even more enjoyable!

So as I was explaining, we had mussels and sauce leftover. Typically, I would just make whole grain pasta the next day and pour the mussels and sauce over it- and that is really delicious, but Tim and I wanted to avoid the heavy pasta the day after the big cookout, so my wheels started spinning.

This is what I came up with: I started with spaghetti squash, which we have substituted for pasta before. If you've never done this, you really should try it! You feel like you are eating pasta but instead you are getting a nutritious vegetable! I roasted the spaghetti squash in the oven on 375 for 40 minutes. You'll need to cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the pulp and seeds like a pumpkin and put the two halves cut side down on a baking sheet. After the squash was roasted and somewhat cooled, I stripped it into long strands with a fork and transfered it into a glass baking dish. Next, I dumped all of the mussels (we'd removed them from the shells the night before) and sauce (with the grape tomatoes)into the dish. I mixed in some thawed spinach which I had LEFTOVER from a turkey recipe a few nights before and some dallops of ricotta cheese. I sprinkled some grated pecorino over the top and baked it in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Five minutes before it was ready I topped it with a few fresh mozzarella slices.

What do you know? I invented a recipe! And it was delicious. AND I used food that may have remained unused and eventually thrown out.

But that's not the end of the leftover story. We also had a huge gallon-sized bag of grilled chipotle lime chicken leftover after the same cookout. (There is always too much food at our get-togethers!) So I cut some of it up to equal two cups, exactly what I need for my chicken enchilada recipe. I labeled that and put it in the freezer since we've had the enchiladas recently. It will be ready for next time! And now we still have plenty of chicken to use for sandwiches during the week.

So as you see- I'm the leftover queen lately!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crisis Averted

As I've previously mentioned, I am responsible for the baking for a special wedding reception coming up in September. Now that it is safe to reveal the details, the happy couple is my sister Lisa and her new husband Joe. They were married on the beach in Key West a few nights ago and their reception is less than a month away.

I have changed my mind about the oreo cupcakes. They were a hit with the 13 year old boys at Connor's birthday party, but I really want the desserts at this occassion to be elegant. I've chosen a new theme (thanks to Jill who suggested coming up with some kind of theme!) and have some recipes saved. I'll share all of that after the fact as I want some of this to be a surprise and Lisa reads this blog!

What has remained in the plans from the beginning, however, is the "star of the show," the tirimisu cake. Tirimisu is Joe's favorite dessert and a special request from Lisa. Research indicates that tirimisu cakes are becoming quite popular for wedding cakes but they can be tricky. So I have been doing some practicing. I found a picture of one that gave me some great ideas for how to garnish and decorate the cake. The next step was to look for a recipe, make a practice cake, and find some guinea pigs to try it out.

My first attempt produced a beautiful looking cake, but the sponge layers were very fussy to work with and came out so thin that it had to be a two rather than a four layer cake. I served it at home to the kids and Gillian's friend Abby after dinner one night and everyone liked it. The cake stood up well and was still good a few days later when I shared it with some people at work. I was basically happy with the outcome, but knew I would need to find a different sponge cake recipe and try again. Additionally, I felt like it was missing something; like it needed more traditional tirimisu flavor...

...which brings us to round 2. Last night we had friends coming to the house for dessert after going out to dinner, so I thought I would try a new sponge cake recipe. I also decided to try a mascarpone filling recipe that was part of a traditional tirimisu. It involved making a zabaglione with marsala wine, cooling it, then adding it to whipped cream and the mascarpone. It made so much filling- about twice as much as was needed, so I decided to frost the whole cake with the filling as well. Big mistake. Since this filling was intended to be layered with lady fingers, it is much softer than a frosting and can't really stand up to a cake. An hour later I checked the cake and the top two layers had slid over and I was in disaster mode.

There was really no way to salvage this as a cake, and I didn't have the time (or ingredients) to start over, so I decided to try turning the whole thing into a trifle. I cut the cake up into big chunks, whipped up some cream with sugar and little Tia Maria to blend with the coffee soaked cake, and layered the two in a trifle bowl. The result is shown in the picture above. Baking crisis averted!

So now I feel ready for the final tirimisu cake without having to make another practice one. I'm going to use the sponge cakes from the second cake, the filling and decoration from the first cake and just spike the whipped cream frosting with coffee liqueur for a little extra flavor. You'll have to wait to see the finished product and the other desserts after September 19th!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quinoa, the Protein Powerhouse!

I was introduced to quinoa a few years ago when Carly was working at a contemporary restaurant called "Tasteology." I'd heard of it before, but not being able to pronounce it, didn't brave asking about it in the grocery store. I know now that it is pronounced "keen-wa" and it is a nutty, delicious grain that behaves more like a protein.

Since I gave up many of the breads and starches of my past long ago, it's exciting to me when I find a healthy grain that is fun to work with and interesting on the plate. Quinoa has been compared to a couscous, but it's smaller, more delicate, and its appearance is unique. It can be combined with vegetables, herbs, cheese, etc. and eaten hot or can be used in a cold salad. Until recently, I've only used the light colored quinoa, but I'd seen several recipes that called for red quinoa and was anxious to try it.

So this is my first dish using red quinoa: Grilled Lemongrass Chicken with Red Quinoa and Vegetables. I found it on but it originally came from SELF magazine. The dish is very flavorful and I would definitely make it again! The chicken is marinated in lemongrass, shallots, ginger, canola oil, lime juice, and tamari (Japanese soy sauce), and I'm sure you would guess, a substitution of agave nectar in place of the brown sugar! It is then grilled and served over the red quinoa which is toasted, then cooked in chicken broth. The dish is complimented by a mix of red bell pepper and sugar snap peas sauteed in canola oil and tossed with fresh mint.

Red Quinoa has a little bit more of an "earthy" flavor, in my opinion and was perfect for this dish. Another first-time ingredient that I used was lemongrass. This is a fun ingredient to work with because in order to bring out the flavor, you need to whack it a few times on your countertop. You can take out a little frustration, then smell the lemongrass and be soothed by the wonderful aroma!

The recipe can be found at the following link:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Cobblers

This is a tale of two cobblers. The first, an indulgent delicious mix of berries topped with a blueberry scone; a creation of one of the three Food Network stars I mentioned in an earlier post, Tyler Florence. The other, my variation of a cobbler I found on the Mayo Clinic website. Again, a delicious mix of fruit but with no white sugar and a 100% whole grain pastry topping. Both were successful desserts but not exactly what I originally intended.

To start with, I made Tyler Florence's "Summer Berry Cobbler" when I was asked to bring a dessert to my daughter Gillian's boyfriend's family's lake cottage. (how's that for a triple possessive???) I would highly recommend the recipe as it bakes up beautifully (as shown in the bottom picture) and the flavors are wonderful! However, I do have a few suggestions. First of all, the recipe calls for way too many berries to fit in a tart pan: one pint each of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I had a good sized bowl of berries leftover. Since there is a quart of blueberries mixed right into the scone on top, I would leave the other pint of blueberries right out of the fruit mixture. Secondly, the dessert is meant to be served warm, but I had to bring it somewhere, and needed to cover it for traveling. So by the time I served it, the scone had softened somewhat and was room temperature. Still, it was delicious, especially topped with fresh whipped cream.

Now here is where my plans went awry. I originally wanted to make a healthy version of the same cobbler. And I actually attempted to do this a few nights ago. My plan was to substitute agave nectar for the sugar and whole wheat pastry flour for the white flour. So I went out and spent another small fortune on berries and did some research on the substitutions (apparently you need to use 1/8 cup less of whole grain flour for every cup of white flour, and agave nectar to taste because it is sweeter than sugar and a liquid instead of a solid......). I proudly put it in the oven and ten minutes later I realized that I never put the egg in the scone mixture. YIKES!!! It was really too late to save it and the whole thing went in the trash.

Well. How depressing. And I didn't have the heart to do it all again. So I searched for healthy cobbler recipes instead and stumbled onto this apple-blueberry cobbler from the Mayo Clinic. It is an overall healthy recipe but I did make some changes to suit my preferences (like using whole wheat pastry flour instead of half whole wheat, half white and agave nectar for the sugar, among a few other minor changes). I was very pleased with the result. I served this to three adults and four children, and only one child said "no thanks!" It definitely does not taste like a diet dessert, was plenty sweet and just as pretty as Tyler's cobbler. I loved the cut-out pastry flowers on top and I had a few left over which I baked up with cinnamon as cookies for the little "no thanks" guy! I'm showing two pictures of this because the little cut-outs hid the filling. I'd definitely make this again, and recommend serving it up warm with whipped agave sweetened cream.

I'm leaving you the link to Tyler's cobbler and my adjusted recipe for the Mayo Clinic one. I may someday give the healthy version of Tyler's a try, but for now I am "cobbled out!"

Tyler Florence's summer berry cobbler is at:

Apple-blueberry cobbler
(based on a recipe from

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 Tbl fresh lemon juice
2 Tbl agave nectar
2 Tbl cornstarch
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a tart or deep dish pie pan. Pour lemon juice and agave over apples in bowl. Mix to combine. Mix cornstarch and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Sprinkle over apple mixture and combine with your hands. Gently mix in blueberries. Pour fruit into prepared dish.
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbl cold butter cut into pieces
1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 Tbl agave nectar
Extra cinnamon to sprinkle over topping.
In large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Cut in the butter. Add buttermilk, vanilla and agave and mix only until combined. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead a bit with floured hands. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thickness and cut out desired shapes. Place shapes on top of fruit to cover. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake until fruit is bubbly and topping is brown, about 30 minutes. Serve warm with whipped agave sweetened cream.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cupcake Surprise

In my welcome post, I hinted that you'd see some sweet treats here. I LOVE to bake for special occasions and it so happens that there is a very special occasion coming up next month- a wedding reception that I have been asked to bake for. I'm so excited about doing this, but a bit nervous because I want everything to be perfect. So I decided that I would use every opportunity I could to do some "rehearsing."

For the wedding, I will be making one special dessert (more in a later post about this...) and a few different kinds of cupcakes. I'm not 100% set on the cupcakes yet, so if anyone has seen (or eaten) something really special, I'd appreciate your ideas!

My first cupcake idea was to make a cupcake topped with an oreo ball. For those of you who have not tried oreo balls, they are the most simple little gems to make but they go over so well that they disappear quickly and I get many requests to make them. So then I decided it needed to be an oreo cupcake with a cream cheese frosting (since the oreo balls are made with cream cheese). I looked at several recipes and finally relied on a website I've used for cakes, fillings, frostings, and decorating many times before. They have a white cake recipe that is very special and I figured I could just mix crushed oreos in with the batter. I used the same website for the cream cheese frosting. And here it is: As they say on the website, "unleash your inner cake diva!"

Here is where we see why rehearsing a recipe is a good idea. If I make these for the wedding, I think I will use a white frosting instead of the cream cheese which was softer than I would have liked and too yellow.

And here is where the surprise comes in. There is a whole oreo cookie on the bottom of the cupcake that serves as a kind of crust. It is a very cool idea, but not original. I found it on a website called Very simple- just put a whole oreo cookie on the bottom of the cupcake liner before you fill it with the dough. Ingenious!

These practice cupcakes went to Connor and his friends for his birthday party. There are LOTS leftover so I will be giving them away this week. Check back for more wedding recipe rehearsals!

*See website mentioned for a highly recommended white cake recipe. It makes a three layer 10 inch cake. I got 30 cupcakes and one layer out of it!! The cake is light and flaky an the top has a little crunch on it due to the whipped egg whites folded in at the end.

Oreo Ball directions: Put a whole package of oreo cookies in a food processor and process into fine crumbs. Add an 8 oz. package of cream cheese and process until it becomes a dough ball of goodness! Refrigerate until very cold and roll into small balls. Dip each ball in melted "candy melts." Leave on wax paper to dry. Store in a cool place (or fridge).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Everything tastes better when it's a baby. Eat a baby today.

It's true- everything tastes better when it's a baby. Baby cow- VEAL. Baby sheep- LAMB. Baby pig- SUCKLING PIG. Ok, so I've never eaten a suckling pig, but you have the idea.

I have no idea what is wrong with people who say that they can't eat lamb because lambs are cute. Seriously? Eating only the ugly animals means missing out on some truly delicious dishes. Now try saying that three times fast.

People who say they don't LIKE lamb probably never had it made well. We've had many a lamb stew on St. Patricks's Day (and when March looms closer, I'll definitely blog about our huge St. Patrick's Day feasts...)and enjoy the lamb lollipop appetizer at Bistro 135, but the best lamb I ever ate was tonight's dinner.

Again, I have relied on Giada's expertise. Her "Grilled lamb with salsa verde" was to die for! All five of us loved it and I had to stop Connor from going back for thirds. You can find this recipe in her book- Giada's Family Dinners, but I'll post it here as well. This is the first time I have bought a leg of lamb and I asked if it could be butterflied for the recipe. I was told that it was already deboned and that it would be easy to just slice it down the middle and open it up. Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as he described it, and there was also a very thick layer of skin that I had to wrestle off! It was quite a scene and I was in fear that I might be ruining a very expensive piece of meat. Fortunately, I won the wrestling match and the lamb was wonderful. I would, however, recommend asking the butcher to do all of this for you and make your prep easier!

Here is the recipe- It's enough for about 6-8 people. We'll eat the leftovers in a bit of whole grain pita and yogurt sauce tomorrow!

Grilled lamb with salsa verde

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (3-4 lemons)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup salted capers, soaked, drained, and coarsley chopped
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
3 1/2 tsp. coarse salt (I used sea salt)
1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 (41/2-5 lb.) boned and butterflied leg of lamb
1 Tbs. minced garlic
Nonstick cooking spray

In a large bowl, stir the oil, lemon juice, parsley, scallions, mint, capers, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes to blend. Whisk in 1 1/2 tsp. of the salt and 1/2 tsp. of the black pepper. Set the salsa verde aside.

Place the lamb in a 15X10X2-in, glass baking dish (I used 13X9 and it worked fine). Rub the remaining 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper and the garlic all over the lamb. Pour 1/2 cup of the salsa verde over the lamb, turning to coat it evenly. (At this point, lamb can be covered with plastic wrap and be refrigerated up to a day).

Spray a grill rack with nonstick spray and prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium-high heat. Grill the lamb, turning occasionally, until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest parts registers 130 degrees for medium-rare. (The recipe says about 40 minutes, but it only took about half that time on our gas grill. Transfer the lamb to a work surface and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Cut the lamb across the grain into thin slices. Arrange the lamb slices on a platter and drizzle with some of the reserved salsa verde. Serve with remaining salsa verde alongside.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Few Recipes from my Favorite Food Network Stars

The Straights are Food Network fans. We watch the shows, we get the recipes online, etc. I can't say that I like ALL of it though. If Rachel Ray suddenly appears on the television set, everyone in my family knows to turn the channel immediately! Her voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I don't find any of her cooking unique or interesting.

Two of the FN stars I go to time and time again for recipes are Giada and Bobby Flay. Although Tyler Florence pops up quite a bit and I do make an outstanding Italian meatloaf that is Michael Chiarello's... but I'll save those two for another time.

I am going to start with Giada. Even though she is a stick with a head, even though she seems to have an obsession with push-up bras, and even though her "over-pronunciation" of Italian ingredients can be annoying, she is a genius in the kitchen. It was so hard to narrow down to one Giada recipe to share. But since I made this Israeli couscous salad just recently for a party and so many people asked me for the recipe, I have to go with this one. It's full of flavor, healthy, and great to take to a picnic since it can sit out longer than mayo-based salads. What I really enjoyed is that I could use our fresh herbs we have been growing. And to be honest, this is the first time I have ever used Israeli couscous and now I am a big fan! I have one recommended substitution. You may have already guessed---- use AGAVE NECTAR instead of the maple syrup!! And if I haven't quite convinced you yet to have agave on hand in your kitchen, use honey. I'm not sure I would love the maple syrup in it, but if anyone wants to try this the way Giada intended, let me know how it is. Here is the link:

The next dish is a little adaptation of a Bobby Flay (the god of grilling )recipe- Buffalo style French cut chicken breasts with bleu cheese sauce. He also includes a recipe for Jicama and watermelon salad, which I did not make. I had never heard of French cut chicken breast, but apparently it is bone and skin on with the wing attached. Like many of the posters who commented on this recipe, I used boneless breasts instead. Then I decided to make the whole thing into a Buffalo chicken salad and served it over iceberg and romaine with celery. What I really like about this dish is that it has all the flavors of Buffalo hot wings which I love (and miss!) The hot sauce is made with LOTS of ancho chili powder and Frank's Red Hot, butter, etc. and for me it is exactly the right amount of spicy. The contrast of the hot chili sauce and the cold bleu cheese sauce is really nice. There were leftovers of both which we will definitely use again. Both sauces are pretty rich, so if you are watching calories you may want to use them sparingly. Here is the link to the original recipe:

If you make either of these, make sure you leave a comment! And tell me who your favorite Food Network Stars are!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Amazing Agave

One of my very favorite ingredients is agave nectar. Once you start using it, you will always want to have it on hand. The amazing thing about agave is that it is a natural sweetener with wonderful flavor but it has a low glycemic index so it won't spike your blood sugar like other sweeteners. It is similar to honey, but thinner- in fact it's called "honey water" in Mexico! But in my opinion the flavor is MUCH nicer than honey. You can use this stuff straight up on anything to enhance the sweetness. I drizzle it over my fresh fruit salads and use it as syrup over whole wheat pancakes.

The pictures above show a few ways I've used this amazing ingredient. The bottom one is a fantastic banana cake that I've made several times. It pleases everyone- because it DEFINITELY does not taste healthy! If you are not fond of coconut, you can leave that off. The original recipe can be found on which I highly recommend. GREAT recipes on there, especially the desserts. Now here is where the agave nectar comes in. I ignore the part of the recipe that calls for cane sugar mixed with oil. Then I add agave nectar and canola oil in its place. I've done 3/4 c. agave and 1/2 c. oil and that makes it very flavorful and very moist. Trust me you are going to want to make (and eat) this cake over and over again. It tastes like a giant super-moist banana bread and the frosting is to die for. OH YES- and the agave nectar comes back into the scene for the frosting. Instead of the honey, use agave. YUM!!

The left picture is my new favorite way to treat myself. Four simple ingredients, high nutritional value and amazing taste! All it is- is Greek yogurt, agave nectar, blueberries and cinnamon. If you've ever eaten/used all natural Greek yogurt you'll understand why you can't substitute regular yogurt. The texture is thick and creamy and wonderful. I use Fage 0% fat all natural Greek yogurt. Then I drizzle some agave nectar for sweetness and top with blueberries and a sprinkle of cinnamon. If you are not fond of blueberries, use strawberries or another fresh fruit. I could eat this every day. So special!!

And last but not least, on the right is a recipe I tried for the first time last night- Juicy agave and basil turkey burgers. If you want this recipe, go to This is a website run by a young woman in Manhattan. This is the first recipe I've tried from this site but she has tons of healthy recipes and after tasting this turkey burger, I'll definitely be trying more. I only made a few changes. The mixture seemed a bit wet to me, probably because I went a little overboard with the lime juice! So I decided to add some panko breadcrumbs to hold it together a bit, probably about 1/3 cup. I was really happy with the texture of the burgers, so I think the decision to add the panko was a good one. I also seasoned them more than the recipe called for- a little extra sea salt and some extra coarsely ground pepper right on top after the patties were made. There are some great suggestions for spreads and toppings at the recipe site. We used roasted red pepper humus, grilled tomatoes and onion.

Enjoy some amazing agave today! Hmmm-- maybe the next time I should just follow the alphabet and talk about an ingredient I love that starts with B....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dinner Revisited

I love the challenge of using extra ingredients from a dinner and coming up with something new to make. Last week I had lots of limes and some prusciutto leftover, so I just did a search on lime and prusciutto and among the recipes that popped up was turkey wrapped in prusciutto with a melon salsa. I also had a half a bag of hazlenuts that needed to be used, so I found a mixed green and grilled asparagas salad with hazlenut vinagrette. Well, we all loved this dinner so much, that we ended up repeating the whole thing tonight, substituting chicken for the turkey since that's what I had on hand.
I can tell you how to do the chicken (or turkey) without a recipe since it's very simple. The salsa recipe will follow.
First, take your chicken or turkey cutlets and pound them out a bit if they are thick.
You'll need to grate some lime. I needed two limes for four large chicken breasts. Sprinkle lime zest and freshly ground pepper on both sides of each breast. Then take thin slices of prusciutto and wrap them around the chicken. The packaged prusciutto we get comes in slices that fit perfectly. I used one slice on each side of the chicken. If it doesn't quite fit, don't worry, you can piece it together. The prusciutto sticks very well to the meat and there is no need for any toothpicks. Honestly! Now all you do is grill the chicken, just like that. Don't get "turn happy" now- or the prusciutto will not adhere and brown up nicely! Just turn once.
Fresh Melon Salsa*
juice from one lime (I also added the zest from that lime)
1 1/2 c. chopped cantaloupe
1 1/2 c. chopped honeydew
1/2c. shredded cucumber
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
salt and coarsely ground pepper
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Makes about 3 cups. Lots of leftovers!
*adapted from a recipe on
Be sure to let me know if you tried this and how it turned out! :)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Relationship with Food

I partially blame my obsession with food on the Italian half of my family. No, blame is not the right word. Credit. I credit the Italians with my food obsession! I have vivid memories of visiting my grandmother, the only grandparent I ever really knew, in her little house on Swansea Ave. My sisters and brother and I would wait in her living room, peeking down the bumpy hallway to watch her scurrying back and forth, preparing the meal.

I can still smell her sauce and meatballs as though it was yesterday, and no one so far in my eyes has duplicated that aroma, although some of us have come close. I can still see the way the powdery Romano would melt on top of the sauce, and hear my mother say, "That's enough, that's enough!" as I tried to get away with loading on as much as I could.

Even after Grandma moved to the apartment, visits to her home were always food occasions. After the hugs and her shy giggles, she'd immediately go to the refridgerator and fill her table up with all kinds of delicious things. We'd say, "GRAM! We can't possibly eat all that. And she'd say, "Just taste of it..."

From what I have been told, Grandma learned a lot about cooking from her mother-in-law, Stefana, a native of Termini Imerese, Sicily, who spoke not a word of English. Family members say that Stefana was well known in Syracuse circles as a fabulous cook, a wonderful confidant, and even a natural healing doctor. Her life was spent cooking and caring for people and it gave her much pleasure. Although she was gone long before I was born, I feel a real connection with her through my own grandmother and through the recipes and love of food that have been passed down.

From my great-grandmother, grandmother, and father, I have inherited that love of pleasing people by cooking for them. That is why even though I cook almost exclusively healthy food for myself and my family, I still enjoy making super rich meals and decadent desserts for special occasions. Just ask the gals I work with. I have become the dessert maker for all the birthdays and I have made desserts like chocolate cheesecake, peanut butter pie, and chocolate hazlenut cream puffs. But I just make them, I don't eat any myself (except maybe a little bite to be sure it turned out the way I wanted..).

So how did I convert to the healthy side? Growing up and into my adult years, I always struggled with my weight. I had lost and regained the same 20-30 lbs. over and over again. I'd tried all sorts of diets and exercise routines. And finally, when I reached my 40s (gulp), I gave the South Beach diet a try. It was the only diet that worked for me in the long haul. I lost weight and I kept it off. But more importantly, I felt so much better physically! It wasn't long before I stopped dieting and just completely changed how I looked at food. I no longer wanted anything in my body that was fried, processed, or unnatural. I even gave up diet soda, which was a long time habit. So now, I don't count or measure a thing. There are just things I eat, and things I don't eat. A friend of mine jokes that I don't eat anything white. And that is partially true! No sugar, white flour, white rice, white pasta.... she threatens to find something white that I will eat. But I beat her to it. It's natural coconut. YUM!

People have said to me that they could never do what I do because they love food too much. And that is just shocking to me. Because I adore food! And healthy food that is made well is incredibly delicious!

And so, most of what I post here will be food I've cooked at home for the family, and health AND taste will definitely be priorities. But you'll also occasionally see some treats and goodies that I make for special times. Look for a new recipe with my next post!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Welcome to Food Straight Up! After a bit of urging from a few friends and some tech help from my friend Raina, the Straight family food blog is finally underway. We are definitely a family of "foodies," and we're constantly talking, planning, sharing, and sometimes obsessing over food. Although I have initiated this project, it is my hope that the rest of the family will chime in from time to time with their thoughts, ideas and recipes.

In my next post, I will share some thoughts about my relationship with food and my emphasis on healthy eating. For now, I will leave you with a recipe of the week (see picture above). It's from one of my favorite cookbooks: Italian Country Cooking- the Secrets of Cucina Povera, by Loukie Werle. Mangia!

Guazzetto di pesce e fagiolo
(Fish fillets with beans and tomatoes)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 t chili flakes
1 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 c. dry white wine
1 c. dried cannelini or great northern beans, cooked
good handful flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
4 white fish filets (I used cod), cut into 2-inch pieces or left whole
lemon wedges and grilled bread to serve
Heat the oil in a large saute pan over moderate heat. Add the garlic, chili flakes, tomatoes and wine and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, about 10 min. Drain the beans and add them to the pan, together with the parsley, and cook another 5 min. Check seasoning.
Lay the fish on top and season with salt. Cover the pan with a lid and cook over low heat until the fish is just cooked through, about another 10-15 min., depending on thickness. Serve in deep, heated plates with lemon wedges and grilled bread.
Note: The book's author does not recommend the use of canned cannelini beans but if you don't have time to soak the dried beans overnight and cook them slowly before adding them into the recipe, canned beans should be rinsed several times to avoid a metallic flavor.