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.