Friday, December 30, 2016

Cast Iron Cooking- Roast Chicken with Herbs and Mushrooms with Sinful Food

Let's talk food trends for a few minutes, shall we? We have all seen some of the current ones and that's not where I'm going right now. Instead, I'm seeing a big trend in returning to some of the great basics. Classic dishes. Familiar preparations. Flavors that bring great memories. Chicken seems to be one of those trends that are super hot right now and especially roast chicken. I love roast chicken. Seriously love it. I could eat roast chicken and roast chicken leftovers pretty much daily and not complain. The leftovers are so incredibly versatile and the roast chicken itself is such a luscious comfort food and with so many herbs, spices and other flavors to enhance it, the boring roast chicken of years ago is long gone.

What does this mean? It means that you guys are going to see a few lovely roast chickens in the coming weeks. You see, I have been reading about chicken a lot. Watching cooking videos and demonstrations to try and figure out some new flavor combinations. Experimenting with different cooking vessels and different temperatures, to baste or not to baste, stuffed and unstuffed. Talking with other cooks and chefs and learning as much as I can about the humble little chicken.

Tonight's chicken was inspired by a cooking video, shared by Bon Appetit Magazine. I have added some of my own touches to customize the recipe but kept the basic bones of the recipe the same- roasting the chicken in cast iron on a bed of fresh mushrooms. The mushrooms roast underneath the bird and absorb all those amazing chicken juices, turning all rich and brown and crusty in places unlike any other mushroom and chicken recipe I have seen. The pearl onions just melt into caramelized heaven. Because the mushrooms take on all that delicious flavor you don't even need to worry about gravy- just toss together a fresh salad and serve with those flavorful mushrooms.

The real highlight of this dish has to be the wonderful garlic olive oil and Signature Seasoning from Sinful Food. I discovered Sinful Foods by way of a Christmas drawing online when I was picked as a winner. Sinful Food is the company founded by Chris Lee, a nutritional industry professional with over 22 years in the business, with an emphasis on blending ingredients. His business acumen and passion for healthy and delicious foods make his a true powerhouse. Chris tells me he spent lots of time with his mother in the kitchen, watching and soaking up everything she did and often helping prepare meals. His grandmother also was a very important influence in his interest in the culinary world, treating him to meals in upscale restaurants, introducing him to chefs and taking him on tours of some of the best restaurants. At a time when many young guys are interested in comic books and sports books, Chris chose a cookbook from the school book fair and headed home to launch his lifelong love of cooking. 

It's only natural that this love of cooking would lead to a desire to create exceptional ingredients and seasonings. Seasonings for meats were the first experiments and a seasoning mixture for salmon became his first success and because of it's versatility became the company's Signature Seasoning. It's delicious on all kinds of meats, fish, poultry and vegetables. Chris is expanding the business to include gourmet flavored olive oils, and gourmet chocolates and eventually coffees. Online ordering will be available soon as well. I know I am super excited to try the many different olive oils. The garlic is exceptional!

I used the garlic oil to toss the mushrooms and onions before roasting, as well as seasoning the bird and vegetables and used the oil in making the homemade rustic croutons. Talk about flavor! The garlic oil tastes like freshly minced garlic and is so light, just like you'd expect from a high end olive oil. I used the Signature Seasoning on the outside of the bird, tossed with the veggies, and sprinkled over the croutons. It's not simply a "seasoned salt", it's so much more. It highlighted the flavor of the fresh herbs and gave the croutons a great savory taste. These products are fantastic and highly recommended.

I used a mix of cremini and while mushrooms.
I had hope oysters or trumpets would be
available but they were not. Almost any
mushroom would work in this recipe.
Roast Chicken with Herbs and Mushrooms

1 3-4 lb roasting chicken
1 lemon
1 head garlic
small handful fresh thyme/parsley/chives (whatever you have on hand)
1/4 cup butter
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
pinch of rubbed dried sage or ground sage
Sinful Foods Signature Seasoning
1 pound assorted fresh mushrooms
1 10oz package pearl onions, peeled
Sinful Foods garlic olive oil

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grab a large cast iron skillet and set aside. You will be roasting the bird and mushrooms right in the skillet.

Set the chicken on work surface. Cut the lemon in quarters, stuff two quarters inside the bird and reserve the other two. Cut the head of garlic in half crosswise. Reserve one half for another use. Cut the other half again in half and stuff in bird along with the fresh herbs.

In a small bowl combine the softened butter with the fresh thyme and sage. Rub all over the chicken surface. Season with Sinful Foods Signature Seasoning.

Clean and trim the mushrooms. Cut any large mushrooms into halves or quarters. Pile into cast iron skillet, drizzle with Sinful Foods garlic olive oil and season with Signature Seasoning. Place the chicken on top of the mushrooms, squeeze the reserved lemon quarters over all. Place in hot oven and roast for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and let rest, tented with foil, for 30 minutes. While resting, toss together a quick salad with greens and herbs and a Dijon vinaigrette.

The croutons with the garlic oil and Signature Seasoning were
so delicious I ate all the leftovers for a snack!
Carve chicken and serve with mushrooms and onions and salad with croutons made from crusty bread.

If you cannot find pearl onions you can cut a couple large
yellow onions into wedges but I promise you, the pearl onions
make the difference. The melt into sweet bulbs of flavor
that burst in your mouth. Totally worth the trouble.
This chicken and those mushrooms are so flavorful and filling you will not miss having a starch on the side. For real, grab some zippy salad greens- baby lettuces and peppery arugula, maybe some bright radicchio, and a quick to mix Dijon vinaigrette and that's seriously all you need to have a lovely and impressive dinner that's great for everyday or entertaining.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free as part of a random drawing. There was no requirement of using the products and then providing written promotion. This post is entirely of my own writing. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe are of good quality and safe. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Crockpot Au Gratin Potatoes

It's Christmas Day. I'm up early, not to open presents, as I have no little ones at home anymore, but to get started on my potatoes to take along to my son's house later today as we get together to celebrate all that we have to be thankful for, enjoy the kids and all their new toys and goodies, and share our annual Christmas Dinner. The Chef is still snoozing away and I have the television quietly playing A Christmas Story. I always watch it at least once or twice and since it's just me and the fur kids up and around, this is the perfect time. I love the story of the movie but I especially love the kitchen. How awesome would it be to cook in a kitchen like that with that fantastic old gas stove? It also does not escape my keen eye that the mom goes down to the cellar to get jars of home canned vegetables for meals prepared during the movie. Simpler times, indeed, but surely there was a lot of hard work involved.

For my contribution to out holiday meal this year, I am going to be taking advantage of one of the most handy convenience appliances ever invented- the crockpot. I remember my dad buying a crockpot back in the 70s and it changed the way my dad cooked meals. As you might remember, my dad, back in the 70s, was what we today would call a foodie- very interested in cooking and cookbooks and fine dining. I inherited every one of those genes. My dad sought out crockpot recipes to try every week. Short ribs with onion gravy, chicken cacciatore, all kinds of roasts and stews and soups, even bread pudding and desserts. We even had overnight crockpot oatmeal, and believe me, if you ever have a crowd overnight like the holidays and need a breakfast idea- toss together some oats, raisins or craisins, chopped apples or pears and some brown sugar and cook that on low overnight. Breakfast is ready and holds at serving temp as the family wakes up. Delicious! Anyway, the crockpot is a veritable savior for busy cooks and families on the go. Assemble your meal ahead of time, pop it in the crockpot, turn it on and out the door you go, returning home to a perfectly cooked meal. Tender roasts, slow simmered sauces, even desserts, and these days the internet and Pinterest are goldmines of slow cooker recipes. 

Many times for the holidays I'll make a family favorite, Fat Ass Potatoes. This year however I wanted to try something new. I've made au gratin potatoes in the oven dozens of times, and it's easy enough to put together, but when you have a large group all juggling dishes for oven time, why not try making some adjustments and making these cheesy delights in the crockpot? Saves time, saves oven space, and can be served right from the crock. This truly is one of the easiest potato dishes ever. Unlike traditional au gratin recipes, there is no need to pre-cook the potatoes or make a pot of bechamel before assembling. Instead, the slow cooker does all that for you, cooking the potatoes evenly and turning the evaporated milk and cheese into a cream sauce. If you like, you can briefly saute the onions to get a little color in them but I just used them fresh and loved the flavor. Most of the ingredients you might even hand on hand. This dish comes together quickly and you can get it all assembled, pop it in the crock and head back to bed for a snooze before the big get together. I used a big oval crockpot but you can use a smaller one if you need to feed a smaller crowd- just adjust down the milk and use a little less.

This recipe is so easy you'll never go back to the mix junk again. It's better for you too- you know exactly what goes in the pot, you can choose the variety of potato you like best (I used russets) and you can use whatever cheese you have on hand and your family loves. For my recipe I also used Signature Seasoning from Sinful Food and I highly recommend it. You can use whatever seasoning mixture you have but Sinful Foods mixture is so savory without being too salty.

Easiest Ever Au Gratin Potatoes in the Crockpot

4-5 lbs of potatoes, scrubbed, skin on
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1/4 cup butter
Sinful Food Signature Seasoning
handful chopped chives
3 cups half and half or light cream
3/4 cup flour

Scrub the potatoes thoroughly. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise into half circles. Cut the onion the same way and separate the slices into half rings.

Ready to go in the crockpot
Using a large slow cooker layer about 1/4 of the potatoes and onions. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, some chives and season with the Sinful Food seasoning. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, pressing down on the potatoes if necessary. Top with remaining cheese, the last of the chives and Parm, and seasoning.

Check the potatoes often once you've hit the two hour mark.
In a medium bowl whisk the flour with about a cup of the cream until smooth. Whisk in the remaining cream. Pour the cream mixture over all. Slice the butter into pats and place all over the top to the potatoes. Pop the lid on and cook at High for about 2-3 hours until tender. Check your potatoes at two hours- some crockpots vary in temp, and you may need to go as long as 3 or 4 hours.

If you like them extra cheesy, toss another handful of cheese
on top at the end of cooking, cover and let melt.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free as part of a random drawing. There was no requirement of using the products and then providing written promotion. This post is entirely of my own writing. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe are of good quality and safe. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Recipe Re-do: Santa's Whiskers

One of our family favorites for many years, Santa's Whiskers is an old recipe from an old old version of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. You know the book- the red and white checked cover, widely thought of as THE handbook for new cooks just starting out on their own. For many years I made this version of the recipe which is a sugar cookie base with red and green candied cherries and nuts mixed in, then rolled into logs, rolled in coconut, chilled, sliced and baked. While the original version is pretty easy, you do have to plan ahead so allow the logs of dough to chill completely. My revised version is a drop cookie dough with all the delicious ingredients mixed in. Super easy to make ahead and then scoop and bake as needed or make up at the last minute and bake immediately.

This is a large family sized batch, great for cookie exchanges, bake sales and family baking days. I used a tablespoon-sized cookie scoop for even cookies. They bake up soft and chewy so be sure to store in an airtight container or ziptop bags to stay fresh.

Our Family's Santas Whiskers

2 cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped red candied cherries
1 cup chopped green candied cherries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 cup flaked coconut

Using a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Gradually mix in the combined flour, salt and baking powder until dough is completely mixed.

Stir in the cherries, nuts and coconut.

Scoop the dough onto parchment lined baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool 5 minutes on pan, then remove to rack to cool.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Crazy Easy English Toffee

Our time living at the lake was a unique time for both the Chef and myself. West Central Iowa was a kind of crazy mix of hometown mom and pop cafes and upscale lake resort restaurants, hole in the wall taverns with killer pizza and authentic Mexican restaurants bustling with regular customers. Some of the best hand-breaded tenderloins you could ever taste are served up in these small towns, and on the reverse end of the spectrum quaint little tea rooms with incredibly delicious homemade cheesecakes and daily lunch specials take you back in time. The coffeehouse craze extends to small town Iowa as well and many of these towns have coffee shops that make Starbucks look amateur.

Right up the road from the little lake house is the teeny town of Dexter. Blink and you'll miss it kind of small, home to a well known steak restaurant, an American Legion hall, and a gas station/convenience store/pizza shop. Typical of rural Iowa, not a whole lot going on in the gourmet world here, unless you make it all the way to the western edge of town and a small sign happens to catch your eye as you travel- Drew's Chocolates. Drew's has been in business since 1927 and in all these years not much has changed. Certainly not the quality, the attention to detail and the love the owners put into each hand-dipped chocolate. Drew's is the real deal folks. The shop is in the basement of their home. The teeny tiny showcase and sales area is cozy and welcoming and the fragrance of luscious treats envelopes you. 

They use the same chocolate tempering machine they have used since the beginning and dip each piece of candy with the same dipping fork they have always used. The same recipes. The caramels are so creamy and perfect. So are the fruit creams, nuts, all kinds of nuts dipped by hand into that creamy chocolate, and the toffee- the best English toffee you will ever have. For real, the best. Perfect little rectangles of buttery crunchy almondy happiness covered in milk or dark chocolate will definitely bring a smile to your face.

I don't get out that way very often anymore and I do really miss stopping in and getting a small box for a special treat. Here in the city there are lots of options for candies but none are quite as good or anywhere near as dear to my heart as Drew's. 

As a baker I often feel the pull to expand my skill set and learn to work with candies more frequently. Since the creation of Pinterest candy recipes, such as fudge, are a dime a dozen and get easier by the day. No more boiling pots of chocolate and sugar to soft ball stage and beating by hand to just the right consistency. Now it's a matter of opening a can of sweetened condensed milk and melting with some chocolate chips. Add nuts. Done. Don't get me wrong, it's delicious, and blissfully easy. I remember my late mother in law making divinity every year at the holidays. She carefully beat those egg whites and cooked that syrup until the exact temperature was reached and then combined them into fluffy clouds with never a mistake. Today? Jello. Use Jello. "Perfect No Fail Divinity." Heck I have even found a recipe for making caramels in the microwave!

Buried in a drawer full of utensils in my kitchen there is a candy thermometer hiding somewhere. I know it's there. I've used it. I just haven't seen it in a long time. Making English toffee is my assigned task this week and I figured I would need to dig until I found it or go buy a new one. Daughter in law to the rescue! We had our family baking day planned and she was going to make some English toffee and had a foolproof recipe that you can make without the thermometer! I am saved! Janelle's toffee recipe is crazy easy and makes a good sized batch- enough to split among our four homes. This is quick to put together and doesn't require any hard to find ingredients. 

Be sure and use REAL BUTTER and only real butter for this recipe. Margarine will not work! Margarine is mostly water and you will never get the toffee to reach the correct consistency. This toffee is crispy and crunchy and so so good. 

Crazy Easy English Toffee

1 1/2 cups butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt
2 cups chocolate chips
1 cup chopped toasted nuts*

*Pecans, almonds, walnuts are all delicious in this recipe.

Prepare a large baking sheet by lining with parchment paper and set aside.

In a medium saucepan melt the butter. Add the sugar, vanilla and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick and very dark amber color. If you use a candy thermometer you want to shoot for 285 degrees. 

Pour toffee mixture onto parchment lined sheet and shake pan to spread the toffee out. Immediately sprinkle with the chocolate chips. Let sit for two minutes, then spread the chocolate evenly over the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with nuts.

Chill for one hour, then break into bite sized pieces.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

Every summer the State of Iowa for one week the State of Iowa is home to the annual RAGBRAI- the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. The Des Moines Register, the city's largest newspaper, has hosted this annual event for close to fifty years, and it's famous for attracting people from all over the world, of all athletic abilities, and everyone who absolutely loves biking and pie. Seriously. Ask any RABGRAI participant and they will have a pie story from every stop along the way.

A table full of classic- apple, strawberry rhubarb, Dutch
apple and key lime pie.
Last summer the ride began in Glenwood and ended, six days and just over 400 miles later, in Muscatine. Every town along the route gets in the spirit and welcomes riders with carnival-like celebrations, live music, a place to pitch a tent for the night, food and drink, partying, and of course, pie. Do a quick Google search if you don't believe me- "RAGBRAI pie" and you'll see exactly what I mean. Each town along the route assembles an army of volunteer bakers and servers to meet the pie demand of the visiting riders. No store bought pie will do for these folks either. Hand rolled crusts, fresh berries and fruits or handed down recipes for creamy fillings, baked with love. Cut and served by volunteers to keep the hungry riders full of pie.

I decided in my quest for the perfect pie to try and master the perfect meringue. This was more of a challenge to me than I expected. I am not a huge fan of meringue on a pie. Crispy meringues, sure, I'll eat those all day, like crunchy meringue cookies that are baked at low temperature and left to dry in the cooling oven. I love those. Meringue on a pie though, it's soft and squishy and eggy and a little like marshmallow and I am more of a crispy flaky crust kind of person. Pie crust I mastered long ago so I accepted the challenge and decided to make a couple classics, a key lime pie and a lemon meringue pie. I really love the tangy lemon filling, and homemade is so easy and fresh. Don't forget to give your lemon a really thorough scrub as you will be using the zest from one whole lemon to add incredible lemon flavor to your filling. Invest in a good quality rasp-style zester and you'll get all the delicious zest without the bitter pith underneath.

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

4 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons butter- NOT MARGARINE!!!!

4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

One baked pastry shell, 8 or 9 inch

For the meringue, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar a spoonful at a time while eating until firm peaks form and sugar has completely dissolved. Check by rubbing meringue between fingertips- you should not feel any graininess. Set aside.

For the filling, beat the yolks with the sugar. Add the remaining ingredients except the butter. Cook over medium low heat until mixture bubbles and thickens. Whisk constantly!!!! Stir in the butter.

Pour the filling into a baked pastry shell. Immediately cover with meringue, spreading to edges and sealing against the crust. Place in a preheated 400 degree oven until the meringue browns slightly. Cool completely before serving.

Besides the tangy lemon meringue pie I also made a key lime pie at the same time. Key limes are teeny tiny limes sold by the bag full and if you are going to juice your own you'll need quite a few. You'll also want to zest several of them- you usually want a generous tablespoon of shredded zest for your filling.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Company Cookbook Project

Of all the cookbooks on my shelves, those put together by churches, clubs, civic groups and other organizations are often my favorites. There is something comforting about the old casserole recipes, the easy to make cakes and desserts, and the funny names of those old recipes. Why have plain old sliced carrots when you can serve your family "Copper Pennies?" When is the last time you had "Wacky Cake?" If you're like me, probably not since you were in elementary school. I can always count on these assembled cookbooks to bring back the memories.

Often there is a salad section and it's usually packed with sparkly jello creations. Some of them are savory with cabbage and veggies and others are so sweet they should be a dessert. It's also common to find a few pickled veg type recipes too- like cucumbers and onions, or a tomato salad. My mom always made cucumbers and tomatoes with chopped onions in a vinegar and oil dressing. Pasta salads and potato salad are usually favorites. You might find a couple different family versions of bean salad, and don't forget the entree salads- like egg salad, chicken salad, and taco salad.

Just a few of my many club cookbooks
The entree section is usually where the real comfort foods are hiding. Casseroles of just about every kind lurk in there, with family secret spaghetti sauces, Dad's famous barbeque sauce, Gramma's bean soup and inventive ways to make tuna into something delicious. Up here in the Midwest, and especially Minnesota it's very common to see something called "Hot Dish" in those cookbooks. Hot Dish is a curious thing. It means something different to every cook. For some people it's tator tot casserole. For others it's something made with creamy soup. For my family it was some browned hamburger with chopped onion, a can of drained mushrooms, a couple handfuls of peas, cooked elbow macaroni and cream of something soup, stirred together in a big saucepan until everything is heated through. Completely NOT gourmet and not always delicious but it fills bellies and my mom made this on a fairly regular basis. Not a childhood favorite of mine but still a fun memory and it's interesting to talk with others from around here and learn about their family's hot dish recipe.

A few weeks ago my company sent around an email inviting associates to submit a recipe for a company cookbook that was being assembled. My employer places a great deal of emphasis on community involvement, inclusion and volunteerism. In an effort to raise money to support local food banks the company launched the cookbook project. Of course I had to get in on this deal. Picking a recipe wasn't all that tough, I knew I wanted to go with something relatively easy to prepare, with readily available ingredients and family friendly. I typed up my recipe for Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna, attached a picture and sent it off to the committee. 

Weeks go by, my recipe is proofed and sent back to me for a final look over. I can't wait for the day I can actually buy a copy of the company cookbook. One day I am busy working away on an account and I get a message- "Monica!!!!"  What's up, I reply, wanting to know what's so exciting. "Did you see the email?" Nope, I was busy with a client, haven't checked email in a bit. I finish up what I'm working on, check my email, and holy moly, there is an email from the company announcing not only the purchase days for the company cookbook but the cafeteria in our building selected five recipes from all the recipes submitted, to be prepared and featured as a lunch special for everyone to try and mine is one of them!! To some people this might not be too big of an accomplishment. After all, I know a lot of very successful chefs, competitive cooks, cookbook authors and recipe developers whose accolades far exceed mine, but in my small world and my little hobby food blog, this is big. 

Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna Day arrives in the cafeteria. I can hardly wait to see how my recipe is prepared by someone else. The clock ticks ever so slowly all morning while I wonder how it's going to turn out. I get an email from a member of the cookbook committee telling me to be sure and stop down at the table to introduce myself and when I finally make my way down to the company cafeteria I am met with hugs and smiles and lots of introductions to the kitchen staff. Lucy, the executive chef/kitchen manager came over to talk about how much she loved the recipe, and how well it's been selling as the lunch special. 

Squeeeeee! That's my dish on the line!
To be honest, it made me feel a little bit like a celebrity for a few minutes! My coworkers in my department raved about the dish, and I have to say, the kitchen did a fantastic job replicating my recipe. They put considerable effort into making it just like I would have- caramelizing the onions, browning the mushrooms until they are golden brown, and NOT skimping on the cheese. It was delicious. I ate every bit, including the garlic toast.

I can't wait to get the actual cookbook in my hands. My copy has been ordered and soon will occupy a place of honor on my cookbook shelves. I know I will enjoy preparing all the recipes submitted by employees from all over the country and will always cherish the memory of this special opportunity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling

I've shared stories about my mom many times. Funny stories about board games gone wrong, wonderful memories of some of my favorite foods she made. My mother was a one of a kind. Just an itty bitty woman with a personality larger than life, she had a mouth that would shame a sailor. I always say it's because she learned to speak English on an army base. True story.

My mother is the one thing that connects me so closely to Europe. Born and raised in Wiesbaden my mother was a late in life baby born to older parents. Her brother and sister were grown and married with kids of their own by the time Mom came along. Her life was very simple. Her father was a tailor, her mother a homemaker, living in a small apartment when World War II erupted and changed Germany forever. Her father served in the German military when she was a little girl and was taken as a prisoner of war in Russia. 

My grandfather, Karl Betz
Mom told stories about the air raids conducted by the Allies, sleeping with your shoes and clothes on in case the alarm sounded and you had to flee to a bomb shelter. Mom had to flee several times as Wiesbaden came under attack. Nearly a quarter of the city was destroyed and nearly 2000 people killed. During and after the war food was pretty scarce around Mom's house. Mom said after Wiesbaden was liberated by the Allies the American GIs brought them big bags of food. Dehydrated vegetables mostly, and her family received a huge bag of dehydrated sweet potatoes and another of corn. I can honestly say I never saw my mother eat sweet potatoes ever, and while she always made corn for the rest of the Iowa corn-loving family, she did not eat it herself.

L to R- Mom, her brother Hienz, cousin Gisele,
my Oma Elsa and Opa Karl Betz
Fast forward to the late 1950s, when a skinny young kid from Minnesota enlisted in the U.S. Army and shipped out to Germany. Times were still tough in Germany and my mother took cleaning jobs from the "rich Americans" on the base and by some stroke of luck, met that skinny Minnesota boy, and the rest is history. They married, they moved to Minnesota, she became a U.S. Citizen and life fell into place. Mom's family still lived in Germany and with visits from my Oma to the United States and one fabulous summer spent traveling eleven different countries in Europe, my love for Europe was born. I learned to enjoy foods many adults would not eat, and while many kids were dining on hot dogs and mac and cheese, my sister and I were eating steak tartare, sauerbraten, trout cooked within minutes of being in the water in Italy, bread still warm from the boulangerie, and pasta on a shady terrace in the shadows of the Alps. And yes, we often had that small glass of wine.

Mom and Dad
Maybe it's my German heritage, or maybe it's just my taste buds, but as I grew to love wines I found myself really gravitating towards German Rieslings more than any other white wine. As a kid, I was able to try lots of different wines as is common in European families. By the time most of my friends were just starting to chug from beer bongs, I already had a pretty well experienced wine palate. The older I became, the more experience with wines I enjoyed, the one thing that never changed was my love of Riesling. As a wine tasting guide, Riesling class was one of my favorite classes to have. This wine is amazing and varied and so influenced by its terroir. German Rieslings are less sweet than Oregon and Washington State wines, not as acidic as versions from the Southern Hemisphere. Wines from the New York Finger Lakes Region are completely different still. Which brings me to this recipe. Choose a German or other European Riesling to make this easy take on chicken schnitzel. It won't overpower the dish with sweetness and it won't be too acidic for the lemon notes.

My Dad

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling Sauce

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
salt and pepper
all purpose flour
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup butter
1 cup Riesling
one lemon
1 cup heavy cream
snipped fresh chives or thyme for garnish

Place the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper and gently pound out to even thickness. Season with salt and pepper; dredge in flour and set aside. Cut the lemon in half crosswise. Juice one half and thinly slice the other half.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides and cooked through. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Add the mushrooms to the skillet. Cook and stir for several minutes until tender and starting to brown. Add the garlic for the last one to two minutes. Don't let the garlic get brown.

Add the lemon juice and wine to the skillet. Raise the heat and let mixture reduce slightly. Add the heavy cream and heat to bubbling. Add the chicken breasts and lemon slices to the sauce.

California Rieslings are very similar to German.
Delicious served over fluffy mashed potatoes or freshly made spaetzle, sprinkled with snipped chives or fresh thyme, with fresh green beans or asparagus on the side. This is very much like something my mother would have made. 

Speaking of spaetzle, I have discovered, just by chance, that Aldi carries a nice selection of dried spaetzle. I'm surprised every time I go in there- they have so many European grocery items, organic products and healthy options. Check it out if you're lucky enough to have an Aldi store nearby.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pumpkin Love and the Experimental Dinner- Cajun Style

It's almost Halloween. I didn't decorate this year. I didn't even look for any of my Dracula collection, or any jack o'lanterns or scary ghosts. I did, however, buy a pumpkin. Yep, I sure did. It's a pretty big one too. The Chef and I made a very rare trip to Walmart last weekend and they had a massive display of pumpkins outside the store entrance. Snagged me. Mouse in the trap, they snagged me. I batted my eyelashes at The Chef and made a pouty face and before I knew it he was loading my big bright pumpkin in the cart.

Since then it has been sitting on the kitchen island. He wants to carve it. I don't want to carve it just yet. I thought about setting it on our front step but I don't want to look outside one day and see my precious pumpkin smashed to smithereens in the street because some punk kids were bored and out prowling. I don't really want our feisty squirrels to start eating it just yet. I want to enjoy it for a while before the inevitable happens- mushy bottom, moldy interior, smelly mess heading for the trash. Of all the seasons, autumn is by far my favorite for a number of reasons. The flavors- spicy, rich, creamy- pumpkin flavored coffees and rich beefy stew, fragrant bowls of soup. The weather- crisp cool days, chilly nights, windy and rainy and drizzly grey skies. The holidays- Halloween of course, with all the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, haunted stories, trick or treating and candy, and Thanksgiving with all the wonderful foods, family, and time for giving thanks. The colors- all the browns and greens and golds and reds of fallen leaves, crops in the fields waiting to be harvested, bright pheasants strutting on the roadsides, and fields of orange pumpkins.

I really cannot explain why I am hanging on to this pumpkin so closely. Maybe I will give in and carve it, maybe I will cook it and eat it, or maybe I'll just sit and enjoy looking at it as long as I can.

On this brisk October night I was home by myself looking for something to inspire me for dinner. I had some odds and ends in the fridge and a package of Cajun chicken sausage I grabbed on impulse at the grocery store. If you haven't tried the different chicken sausages, you need to. I never knew chicken could make such a tasty link. Chicken of course takes to seasonings incredibly well and herbs and spices can create some fantastic sausages. I've tried chicken sausages with apples and warm spices and others seasoned like kielbasa and even Italian links. When I saw the Cajun sausages I figured I better give them a try as well. I always have rice on hand, and other pantry staples like onions, bell peppers, spices. Whipping up a Cajun-inspired dirty rice-style dish was a snap and perfect for a cold evening. An Experimental Dinner was on the table in a flash!

Earlier in the summer I made a Saturday trip to the Amish vegetable farm and snagged a case of tomatoes. Those red beauties found themselves roasting to charred perfection in a hot oven and then canned with the pressure canner for use all winter long. The roasted flavor is perfect in this dish. You can also use canned fire roasted tomatoes, and if you use the juice, adjust the water accordingly. You don't want the rice to cook to a mush.

Experimental Cajun Sausage and Rice

1 package Cajun sausage*
1 chicken breast**
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 large green pepper, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced 
2 cups fire roasted tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 teaspoons dried savory
Cajun seasoning to taste
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
sale and pepper
olive oil

* Use whatever Cajun sausage you like, Andouille, kielbasa, hot or mild. I used a Cajun chicken sausage. Choose a 12-16 oz package

**You can also use leftover cooked chicken- just cube it up and add when adding the water.

Slice the sausage into thin coins. Cut the chicken breast into bite size chunks.

In a large pot heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sausage slices and cook until beginning to caramelize and brown. Add the chicken, Cook and stir for a minute or two. Add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic. Cook one minute.

Sprinkle the savory and Cajun seasoning over and stir in. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the rice. Add the tomatoes and 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve in bowls with hot sauce for sprinkling and sour cream if desired.

The best thing about these kinds of dishes is the versatility. You can adjust the heat to your family's taste- use a flavorful kielbasa instead of spicy Andouille and use a mild Cajun spice mix. Kick up the heat to blazing if you're a heat lover. It's an experiment so have fun with your food!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Visit With Dad Results in a Crusty Bread Experiment

It's finally autumn weather. Here in Iowa you would think we'd have a normal four seasons experience but we have some of the goofiest weather. It's mid October and we have still had days in the 80s, near 90s. But that appears to be in the rear view mirror now. What a wonderful week of cool breezy days, a little slight nip of frost, leaves blowing in the breeze, red, yellow and orange. Misty autumn rain and foggy mornings. All the smells I love so much. The kind of day you want to pile on a sweater and rake. Make chili. Watch football. Bake something.

My day started out with a lovely visit from my dad. You would have to know my dad to really get it. Larry is a character. We talk about all sorts of things. What he is up to, other old dudes at the V.A. that Dad is hanging out with these days. His new shoes. How the Vikings are doing. These visits are priceless times with my dad because, as we all know, human life is very fragile. In a perfect world our parents will grow old and pass on, and I know that eventually that will happen. In the meantime I am just going to continue to enjoy time spent with Dad and his kooky stories about bunions, hearing aids, and terrible football.

One thing Dad has always done is advise me on which new authors- usually Minnesota authors- I need to be reading. We share a love for John Sanford novels and he always has me on his mind when he is picking up books at the library sale or a book exchange at the V.A. This weekend he had a different book for me by an author I did not know. The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz. Apparently this is a continuation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books with a new author taking over for the prior author and Dad insisted I'd love it. So, read it I shall. My dad also always brings me some weird food item. Sometimes it's a big bag of macaroni, or a sack full of canned tomatoes. It might be a 20 pound hunk of chicken of the woods. You never know what to expect. Today it was a big bag of dried cranberries. This could be fun!

I am always up for baking something- that's no secret. I began to wonder what in the world I was going to do with 3 pounds of dried cranberries. My bakers brain immediately began to come up with ideas. Cookies of course, but I had no oatmeal.....cake?? Maybe apple cranberry cake? Oooooo quick bread!! Nooooo, I have all this yeast. I flipped through some of my recipes and wondered where I could incorporate some of these tasty little bits with ingredients I have at home to avoid going to the store. Flour? Check. Whole wheat flour even- check. Honey, pecans, check, check. In the freezer I still  have some of the crystallized ginger I made a while back. This was coming together like a perfect plan. Borrowing the same technique as the Skillet Bread Nathan and I made a few weeks ago I was able to come up with a delicious crusty loaf of fruity nutty healthy bread.

Cranberry Ginger Pecan Skillet Bread

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
4 tablespoons honey
1 packet yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
butter for skillet

In a large bowl combine the flours. Add the cranberries, pecans and ginger. Toss to coat the fruit and nuts well.

I looooove craisins. They are so sweet and tart and taste
like fresh cranberries. These are way better than raisins.

In a large measuring cup measure the warm water. Stir in the honey until dissolved, then add the yeast. Allow the yeast to bloom and become foamy. 

Mix the water into the flour and fruit mixture and stir until combined. Cover with plastic and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour and a half.

Generously butter a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. I used my regular skillet- about 10 inches. Gently remove the dough from the bowl and place in the skillet. Dough will be sticky and soft. Form into a round disk, it doesn't have to touch the sides of the skillet. It will rise to fill the skillet. Again cover loosely and allow to rise another hour. Make sure to CHECK the dough about halfway through both rising times. The temp in your kitchen will affect the rise of the bread and if it's nice and warm it might rise faster. You want the dough to double in size. It may take as little as 30 minutes each time.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the skillet in the oven and bake the bread for 40 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool- the bread will pop right out of the skillet. It's absolutely delicious served warm with lots of melty real butter.

In case you haven't caught on, I am absolutely hooked on these easy breads. No-knead doughs just couldn't be easier, and this is a fun and easy recipe to make with kids. I love the crunchy crust of the bread and the dense texture- it's not a fluffy bread like the sliced white bread you get at the store, but more like the rustic artisan breads you find in bakeries. They look impressive with their round shapes and look like something you spend a ton of time slaving over. Your secret is safe with me. Trust me, try one of these loaves, especially warm from the oven, and you'll be hooked too.