Friday, March 25, 2016

Eat The World- Kung Pao Chicken

I often moaned and groaned about the lack of good Chinese food while living at the lake. That's the drawback to country living. No Chinese restaurant within nearly an hour's drive, and certainly no delivery. Just means I had to make it myself. I am NO authority on Asian cooking. Never have been. Asian cooking is by far my weakest area so I am always on the look out for easy Asian recipes I can duplicate at home. 

Now that The Chef and I have returned to city life we are surrounded by loads of awesome Chinese restaurants and delivery places- one just a block from the city house. Believe me, Chinese delivery comes in so handy on nights when I just do NOT have the energy to cook, but that doesn't mean I don't still need to perfect my Asian cooking skills. Being closer to the huge grocery stores with all kinds of produce options and specialty ethnic grocery items makes it super easy to try a new recipe as often as I can. 

Stuck in the house one night during a nasty winter storm, I found this amazing recipe from Supper For a Steal on Twitter, and I was super excited to make it myself! I knew The Chef would love it, since he prefers Chinese dishes that are not deep fried and I knew I would love all the fresh veggies and nice kick of heat. The peanuts add a crunchy salty element that really makes the dish. Give this one a try for sure.

Supper For a Steal's Kung Pao Chicken
adapted from Supper For A Steal

1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 3/4 lb) cubed
1 large zucchini, quartered then chopped
1/2 large white onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, sliced
3 clove garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, skin removed and minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons roasted peanuts
1 scallion, chopped

1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Whisk marinade ingredients together in a small bowl. Add chicken and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.

Mix all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Add 1 tablespoon of oil to large skillet, Cook chicken on medium heat for 3-5 minutes or until almost fully cooked. Remove and set aside. Add another tablespoon of oil and cook zucchini, celery, white onion for 5 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, red pepper flakes and return chicken to skillet. Add peanuts and sauce and cook 2-3 minutes til heated through and chicken is cooked. Sprinkle with scallions before serving.

How easy was that? Just as good as any Chinese take out I have ever had!

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."

Monday, March 21, 2016

Italian for Two- Chicken Cacciatore

Here is something I didn't know. Cacciatore means hunter in Italian. Makes me chuckle a little bit when I think about the most common cacciatore I know of- chicken. Have you ever hunted a chicken? Me either......anyway, not really the point so, on with my story.

When I was a young girl my dad was very into cooking. He and his buddy Norman often got together on the weekends for a few games of tennis and then they would cook up a storm for dinner. Around that same time my dad got his first Crockpot slow cooker. Of course, he also got a slow cooker cookbook so he could experiment with all kinds of recipes.

My dad. The Seventies Foodie
We had all kinds of soups and stews and dishes made from short ribs. Back then short ribs were the cast-off cut and not trendy like they are today, so Dad could make a big pot of something awesome for not a lot of money. One of the first recipes Dad made in the Crockpot was Chicken Cacciatore. I remember looking at those whole pieces of chicken swimming in that red sauce and thinking it was....weird. 

Now that I am all grown up I have a different appreciation for food. I still have never hunted a chicken, but I love to cook them! My new challenge is cooking for two, and that's not as easy as it sounds when you're cooking Italian foods. Pasta sauce tends to start out small and end up being enough to feed an entire village. This recipe gives you a generous amount of sauce which is perfect for another pasta dish the next day. 

Chicken Cacciatore for Two

2 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
salt and pepper
olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1 medium bell pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons crushed dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1 teaspoon marjoram, crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
big pinch crushed red pepper
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 quarts chopped tomatoes*
1 pint pizza sauce**

In a large stockpot, heat a couple tablespoons of oil.

Cut the chicken breasts in half crosswise to make 4 equal pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken in the olive oil, skin side down first, until golden brown. Flip the pieces and brown the back side. Remove to a bowl.

Two chicken breasts cut crosswise gives you four nice portions
Cut the onion into halves and then slice. Slice the bell pepper. Add to the stockpot and cook over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes until slightly softened. Mince the garlic cloves and add them to the pot. Cook for a few minutes but watch carefully so the garlic does not burn. Add the herbs and spices to the pot and stir until fragrant.

Sauteing the herbs for a minute or two really makes a huge
difference in flavor and aroma in the food.
Add the undrained tomatoes and wine to the pot, and the pizza sauce. Stir well. Place the chicken pieces into the sauce. Cover, reduce heat and cook at least an hour, until chicken is cooked through. The longer you cook, the better the dish becomes. Serve the chicken and sauce over hot cooked pasta.

* I used home canned tomatoes. You can use 2 of the larger cans of chopped tomatoes, or 8 cups chopped fresh tomatoes.
** I used home canned pizza sauce. You can use 2 cups commercial pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce or tomato sauce. If you use tomato sauce you may want to increase the basil and oregano a bit. I used pizza sauce because I had it on hand.

I had plenty of sauce leftover to make another whole dish too. You can also pop the leftover sauce into a container and freeze for future use. I like a thicker sauce so the majority of the cooking I did with the lid ajar, which lets steam out and helps evaporate the sauce, making it richer and thicker. The garlic melts in the tomato sauce, the onions and peppers taste so fresh and the herbs are classic Italian seasonings.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday Flatbreads

Friday. The work week is over. The wine is chilling. My chef is at work, meaning I am left to fend for myself this evening. After a long day in the office I often don't feel like cooking a big huge meal when I get home, and living in a rural area limits my options for a quick meal. That's where Flatout Flatbreads come in. 

Usually when we make pizza at the Little Lake House we break out the Kitchenaid and make dough the old fashioned way. Tonight, however, I'm cooking just for me, and cheating just a little bit by using the flatbreads. 

Because I like to shake things up a bit, I won't be using the usual pizza toppings. The bottle of white Merlot chilling in the fridge calls for something a little lighter that won't weigh down the thin and crispy flatbread crust. I want something that will compliment the wine, taste fantastic, but be easy to pull off. Few things in life taste better than perfectly caramelized onions. I prefer Vidalia or red onions for caramelizing. They have a higher sugar content and become so sweet and tender they are irresistible. 

To get things started, I am going to caramelize a large red onion that's been cut into slivers. Cutting the onion was fun itself- I broke out the brand new ceramic chef's knife and I must say, I am sold! It cut the onion effortlessly and nothing stuck to the blade. Cooked slowly in a heavy skillet with a pinch of salt and a little bit of butter until golden brown, I'll add a couple cloves of minced garlic for the last 5 to 10 minutes. I don't want to overcook the garlic- it gets very bitter. Spoon the onions into a bowl and set aside.

Melt another tablespoon or so of butter in the same skillet and add a handful or two of sliced mushrooms (depending on how many pizzas you plan on making) and saute them until golden brown. Mushrooms are a great accompaniment to the caramelized onions. They soak up a little of the buttery sweet drippings in the pan and if left to become golden brown before turning, they take on a whole new savory dimension. Once the mushrooms are cooked, set aside to cool.

We love all kinds of sausage and charcuterie around here, with sopressata and salami being the big favorites. Artisan sausages are easy to find and in any price range but I find cotto salami or Genoa salami to be the best choice for this pizza. I always ask the deli clerk to slice it as thin as possible. Cut several slices of salami into strips, again, using the amount you need for the number of pizzas you are making. It's super easy- roll the slices up like a cigar and slice using that awesome knife, separate the slivers with your fingers.

Lay a flatbread on a pizza stone or baking sheet. Brush evenly with olive oil. This is also a great way to use infused oils or others such as pumpkin seed oil. You can get a huge variety of flavors just by switching up the oil. I used the leftover butter from the sauteed mushrooms with a touch of oil added to be sure I had enough. Over the oil, scatter shredded mozzarella cheese, using a little lighter hand than if you were making traditional red-sauced pizza. Sprinkle the caramelized onions, mushrooms and slivered salami over. Give each pizza a couple grinds of fresh ground black pepper and a little drizzle of olive oil on top. Pop in a 425-450 degree oven and bake about 10 minutes until bubbling and brown and crispy on the edges. Keep an eye on them- remember, you aren't baking raw dough here so they finish a LOT faster!

Remove from oven and let rest a couple minutes. Top with chopped fresh herbs or fresh baby greens if you like. Cut each flatbread into pieces and enjoy with that chilled bottle of wine!

Now, wasn't that easy? There is almost no excuse for greasy deep fried drive thru food when you can get dinner together with only a handful of ingredients and in the oven in minutes. Can't find Flatout Flatbreads? I can't always get them either, so I often substitute large flour tortillas. Sometimes I use traditional tomato sauce and all the regular pizza toppings. Remember- use what you have on hand, and use what you like to make it yours. 

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."

Monday, March 14, 2016

We didn't intend to eat healthy. Sometimes it just happens.

Ever get excited when you find a recipe that uses a vegetable you actually grew and really bought the plant just because and even though you know you will use them, you don't really have anything planned? Ya, me neither. Are you kidding! Of course I do!  If you remember a couple of summers ago I grew kale for the first time and well....... I was just a little over the top silly about it. Guess what? This recipe also has kale in it- and poblano peppers!! 

Our weeknight dinner was accidentally healthy- swai fillets
baked with lemon and herbs and this healthy quinoa kale toss.
I found the original recipe on a food blog called Eat Drink Garden With Valerie and immediately thought it fit perfectly in my quest to use up some of my quinoa stockpile and get lots of fresh veggies into my lunch. This salad has a Latin flair with the poblanos, black beans, cilantro tossed in a cumin lime dressing. Valerie used feta cheese in her recipe but I decided to pass on the cheese.

Have you ever used poblano peppers in a salad? I think most people use them in Mexican recipes, but I am always looking for something different. Of course I was minding my own business looking for cherry tomato plants at the garden center one day when the poblano plant fell into my cart *wink wink* I might as well get it since it ended up there, right?  Poblano peppers really are a great choice for experimenting with chilies. They aren't hot, I like to call them "warm" and they have such a nice pepper flavor. Roasting them makes it incredibly easy to get the skin off and adds a smoky hint. You can roast peppers on a grill or under your broiler. Need help? Click HERE to read about roasting Hatch chilies- use the same method. Hmm, speaking of Hatch chilies, those would be awesome in this dish too.

Black beans are a pantry staple at our house. They show up in all kinds of dishes here and salads are perfect for beans. So are nachos, but I'm trying to be healthy for a day.

Quinoa Salad with Black Beans and Kale

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and diced**
1 3/4 cups cooked black beans, rinsed
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
2 cups baby kale, lightly packed*
1/4 cup Lemon Herb Dressing, plus more for serving (recipe follows)

* You can use any salad green you like if you don't have baby kale. Radish greens, arugula, tatsoi are all great choices. If you have regular kale, tear it into bite sized pieces. I used a package of Kalettes, chopped coarsely.

** I didn't have any poblanos, sadly, so I used a green bell pepper. It was good, and I think next time I'll use a mix of colors of bell peppers. I didn't roast the pepper and really liked the fresh crunch.

In a dry saucepan, toast the quinoa for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until golden brown. Add the water and turn up the heat. Bring the quinoa to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let rest 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork, and then spread it out onto a lightly oiled sheet pan to cool.

Roast the peppers, then remove the charred skins, stems, seeds and membranes and dice. I just used a fresh unroasted bell pepper so if you go with that too just dice it up. Chop the kale into nice bite sized pieces. Roughly chop the cilantro.

Toss the quinoa, peppers, beans, cilantro and kale in a large bowl with the dressing. Add the cheese and toss again. Serve!

Lemon Herb Dressing

1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon lemon garlic seasoning (I used Trinidad from Penzey's)
2 teaspoons herb seasoning of your choice (I used Feiny's Everything)

Combine everything in a bowl or jar. Whisk or shake to combine

I'm a big zest lover, since it has so much flavor, so I added some lemon zest and tossed that in the dressing too. 

I really love kale in this salad because it's a sturdy green and doesn't get wilty and gross. I love the flavor of kale too. I often grow baby Russian kale or mixed baby kales and they are perfect in salads like this. I love this dressing with lime too. So bright and flavorful. Salads like this make perfect lunches too- just pack a couple bowls ahead of time and tuck in the fridge. No last minute fuss in the morning. We had our salad served alongside some delicious and very healthy baked swai fillets, drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with herbs. Lots of healthy protein, lots of fiber and virtually no fat except for the olive oil in the dressing.

The best thing about having a garden is being able to grow vegetables I can't always get at the store, and I get to try a lot of different veggies as well. Here in Des Moines we are lucky to have some of the best farmers markets anywhere and the selection of fresh produce is fantastic. Since this will be my first farmers market season back in the city you can bet I'll be going crazy with all the fresh produce!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Foodie Field Trip- Allspice in Des Moines' East Village

It's not like I don't already have enough spices. Really. You have all seen the entire bookcase of spices, right? Amazingly enough, there are a few I don't have, and there is one place to go to get them. Allspice. Allspice Culinarium in Des Moines. Located in Des Moines' historic and trendy East Village, it's a beacon to me, a nesting place, a place of comfort where I can indulge my deepest desire- to smell, to sample, to browse and most importantly, to possess all spices and herbs. Seriously.

In your run of the mill grocery store I can easily spend an hour standing in front of the spices. I'd guess the average supermarket in this city has maybe 100 or so spice and seasoning options, so just let this sink in for a minute- at Allspice they carry over 350 spices, herbs, oils and balsamic vinegars. Three hundred and fifty. There is no hope for me at this point. Anyone and everyone who knows me KNOWS this will spell my certain doom, sine I am utterly helpless when it comes to trying new spices and new flavors.

In all seriousness, the store was founded in 2010 by Alex and Jennifer Rhoads. The store has become the ultimate buy local success story with a dedicated customer base and a superior product, including full online shopping. It's taken me an unbelievable five years to make it here. I have no excuse really. Just that I lived in Guthrie County and rarely ventured downtown. I'm kicking myself. Let's check out the store.

Just to demonstrate my superior photography skills, you can
see the reflection of my car, and me, taking this picture. Sigh.
Now I made a couple attempted trips to Allspice over the winter months and was discouraged by the parking challenges- limited street parking and mounds of snow everywhere (for which the city is responsible, not the store), but on this sunny warm spring day I lucked out and got a spot right outside the front door. I wasn't planning on shopping, I really wasn't. I was driving home after a visit to Dad's house and had no plans to stop anywhere, but on my cruise through downtown I noticed that empty parking spot....... The warm temps had long melted the mounds of snow and I was able to park just steps from the door. The door was wide open and the lovely fragrance of many mixed spices wafted out to greet me. The store was bustling with several couples browsing, sniffing and sorting through the enormous selection of spices. I stuck to the front half of the store where all the herbs and spices are. The back half of the store holds rows and rows of olive oils, nut oils, vinegars and all sorts of delicious things and will be the focus of my next visit to Allspice so I can nab some goodies to sample. 

What's on my shopping list? Some unusual spices this time. Here is what I'm looking for and a little bit about them.

Ammaza suocera. Translates literally to "kill the mother in law" and is an intensely spicy blend containing garlic, cayenne, and other herbs.

Kaffir lime leaves. Used fresh, frozen and dried, common in Thai and Lao cuisines. Often used in chicken dishes is Vietnamese cuisine. The rest of the fruit is also often used in many Asian cuisines.

Hibiscus powder. Hibiscus blossoms are often used to make teas and this deep purple powder makes a vivid color component in many culinary uses. It's often used to color meringues and other sweets like buttercreams, fondants and sweet beverages. Since I have dried hibiscus flowers on the shelf already that I have not used, don't ask why I think I need this one too- but I do.

Cubeb berries. Also known as Java pepper, these pungent berries are a flavor mix of allspice and black pepper. It's sometimes used to flavor gin.

Amchur. This powdered spice is made from ground dried green mangoes and is a citrusy sweet spice with an aroma like honey. Sometimes the flavor is sweet and tart depending on the fruit. 

Grains of Paradise. Member of the ginger family. Alligator pepper. North African cuisine. Also used to flavor gins. 

Baharat spice. Turkish spice blend of paprika, dried chilies, allspice, cardamom, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Used to season lamb, fish and other meats. Used in Turkish, Iranian, Israeli, Kurdish cuisines

Shichimi. Japanese Seven Flavor Chili Pepper. Includes chilies, citrus peels, nori, sesame seeds. Used as a seasoning for soups and noodles and other Japanese dishes including rice.

Thai coconut green curry. Lovely Thai spice blend of dried coconut, shallots, green chilies, lime peel, garlic, cilantro, brown sugar and more.

Since I had forgotten my actual paper shopping list I tried to go from memory. I didn't exactly stick to my list. There were a couple on the list I wanted that I could not remember, and I decided to pass on the grains of paradise in favor of a couple others so darn it, looks like I'll have to go back in a few weeks. Somehow ancho chilies, Hawaiian black salt, dried porcini mushrooms, nonpareils, wasabi, tomato powder and red wine vinegar powder snuck into my shopping basket along with the Ammaza Suocera, kaffir lime leaves, baharat spice and hibiscus powder.  Now you need to check back and see what I do with all these amazing new flavors!

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."

It's All About The Pie

Country folks really do love pie. Seems like every small town cafe we stop in for a quick bite has a pretty impressive selection of homemade pies. You can't argue the simple deliciousness of this classic dessert, and small town folks are pretty down to earth and usually pass on the froofy stuff.

So they love pie.

Naturally as a baker I am drawn to this phenomenon. I think of myself as more of a cake person but really, I love making pastry. I love the idea of the homemaker spending the afternoon cutting up fresh apples or sorting berries, piling it all into a flaky crust and baking it until a perfect golden brown. In a different time it might have been me in that kitchen, wearing a pretty apron, flour sprinkled on my shoes, rolling out the pastry to the perfect thickness. Maybe I picked the apples or peaches just that morning, from a tree in my own yard, or maybe I stopped at the market in town and bought a basket full.

Life has moved on from those simpler times, but even in the midst of our busier lives, there is something so special about a perfectly baked pie. Maybe it reminds us of our grandmothers, or Mom's homemade chocolate cream pie, or family time over the holidays with pumpkin and mince pies. Whatever our individual connections to those memories might be, the fact is, we all need to make time for pie, and while the era of the homemaker spending hours in the kitchen making homemade desserts all the time may be gone, but the generosity and friendship you find in America's small towns remains. A neighbor with an apple tree means everyone has fresh apples. 

I love hearing my friends' stories about their mothers and grandmothers and the different pies that were popular in their families. My friend Tina has a wonderful story of her mom's award-winning- and drop dead gorgeous- apple pie. Seriously, this pie looks like a giant sunflower and every time I see Tina make it and share pictures I can just imagine her mom in the kitchen peeling apples, rolling dough, crimping edges.

Almost everyone loves apple pie, but a very very special lady who was once a huge part of my life taught me to make an old fashioned creamy apple pie that her mother used to make, and I loved it, and when I make it now it reminds of her and all the time we spent together. She taught me so much about life and strength and how to always be gracious. It just seems fitting that I would make "her" pie and share it with you.

Evelyn's Sour Cream Apple Pie

pastry for one pie shell
6 or 7 apples*
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
several grinds freshly grated nutmeg
big pinch of salt
1 egg
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Crumb Topping (recipe follows)

*Choose apples that are good for baking, but not too tart. I like to mix up a couple kinds of apples.

Peel, core and cut up the apples into small pieces. Toss with lemon juice in a large bowl. Sprinkle with flour, spices, sugar and salt and toss to coat apples completely. 

In a small bowl combine the egg, sour cream and vanilla. Pour over apples and mix to coat well.

The velvety sour cream mixture coats the apples and
makes this pie so extra special.
 Roll out the pastry and fit into 9 inch pie plate. Crimp the edges. Pour the apples in the crust and place in a 350 degree oven. Bake the apples in the crust for 45 minutes. Watch the edges of the pastry closely and cover with foil if it's getting too browned.

While pie is baking, make the topping. After 45 minutes, remove from oven, sprinkle with crumb topping, and return to oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. 

Serve slightly warm or cool.

Crumb Topping

1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup sliced almonds

Combine everything except almonds and pulse in food processor to make crumbs (use a whisk or pastry blender to make by hand). Stir in the almonds. Sprinkle over the pie and continue baking.

Just the aroma of this amazing apple pie makes me smile and think of Evelyn. She taught me all about babies, when I knew absolutely NOTHING about how to care for a baby, all about canning (although she did things the "old" way and I don't), all about saving money and always making sure to have a secret grocery stash- a "squirrel cupboard" as she called it, and to always put my children first. She was a great role model, a hardworking strong woman, a cancer survivor, a volunteer, a loving wife, mother and grandmother. She helped me through some very difficult times over the years and told me to always hold my head up high. She was my mother in law, and I miss her every single day.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Star Spangled Cake

Mother Nature is certainly weird. So many gorgeous tropical fruit are in all the stores during the coldest time of the year, when I am most definitely not feeling very tropical. Just yesterday I walked into the grocery store and was accosted by mountains of perfect pineapples, giant papayas, rambutans, kiwi, baby red bananas and carambola. I just cannot pass up a carambola when they're in season. Besides being juicy and delicious, they are so fun to eat and beautiful in recipes.

This time around I wanted to do something a little different than the cliche fruit salad. It was a cold gloomy day and I needed something to do while waiting for the furnace serviceman to come and fix our heat which had gone on the fritz overnight, so what better thing to do in a chilly house than fire up the oven and bake something? Sounded like a fine idea to me. Plus I had a few random fruits to use up, so I got busy playing with cake batter. A few leftover blackberries were hanging around the fridge, and a last orange that needed to be used soon, a small amount of coconut leftover from baking and the ingredients for an easy scratch cake batter and I started to incorporate that carambola......when it dawned on me- upside down cake!

Pineapple upside down cake is familiar to most people, right? Pineapple is tropical, and bright red cherries add a pop of color, so I'm looking at what I ave spread out on the counter and decided slices of carambola would work perfectly with those last few blackberries tucked around there in between. Add the coconut to the batter along with some orange zest,make a quick gooey caramel for the pan bottom and it's all set. Let's bake this!

Carambola Coconut Upside Down Cake

2 carambola
1/4 cup melted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 tb orange juice
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest of one orange
1/2 cup coconut

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 9 inch pan and set aside.

In a small bowl stir together the melted butter, brown sugar and orange juice. Set aside.

Thinly slice the carambola, remove any seeds. Arrange in the greased pan. Pour the butter sugar mixture over. I had about 10 or so blackberries I tucked in and around the sliced starfruit. You can use any berries, pitted cherries or even nuts if you like.

For the cake, beat the butter with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and then the eggs. 

In a small bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Alternately add the flour and the milk to the butter mixture, until all have been combined. Stir in the zest, vanilla and coconut.

Pour the cake batter over the fruit in the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until cake tests done. Remove from oven and cool about 5 minutes before inverting onto a serving plate.

My first impression when I lifted off the pan was PARTY cake! Perfect for a potluck or Fourth of July picnic the star shaped carambola looked so festive,and the blackberries added a pretty color- red raspberries and blueberries would be perfect for an Independence Day cake. My second impression was tasting that first bite of the still-warm cake. The gooey buttery caramelly edges were so so so seriously need to try this cake. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Waiter, there is a fungus in my soup!

The Chef and I are mushroom people. It's one of those things- you either are or you aren't. We love mushrooms of all kinds. We have been known to wander aimlessly in the woods looking for the elusive morel, and for bringing home creepy looking enoki mushrooms from the Asian grocery store. Stuffed, sauteed, fried, over a steak, dipped in sauce, you name it- we will eat it. So it's not surprise that since we're on a homemade soup kick mushrooms make an appearance. 

Another thing we are really into is roasting things. Especially vegetables- the high heat seals in flavor and brings a smoky element to whatever type of veggie you are roasting. In this recipe, the high heat brings out the earthiness of the mushrooms, caramelizes the leek and shallot and gives you lots of roasty toasty browned bits in the pan to add tons of flavor to the soup. I am cooking bacon in the oven at the same time so I'll add a drizzle of bacon drippings to really bring out the smokiness in the flavors. Deglazing the pan with cognac, which is a classic partner for mushrooms, brings a note of sophistication to the soup. Finished with cream, this soup has loads of character, flavor and warms you up on a chilly day. Homemade croutons and big bacon chunks finish it off with a rustic flair.

A quick word about mushrooms- The mushrooms I have chosen to use are easy to find in almost every supermarket. The typical package of mushrooms is 8 ounces and if you can't find all three types, or if you want to try a different mushroom, such as porcini, as long as you have a pound and a half, mix it up! I don't care for shiitake mushrooms much, but if you use them, remove and discard the entire stem-it's tough and woody. You can use just about any other mushroom except morels. Even if they are in season, they don't work well with roasting. If in doubt, just roast a few in the mix and taste test them. If you want to play it safe you can even use 3 packages of white button mushrooms and still have great results.

Creamy Mushroom Soup
  • 1 pkg button mushrooms
  • 1 pkg portobello mushrooms
  • 1 pkg cremini mushrooms
  • 3 leeks, cleaned well and chopped
  • 3 medium shallots, chopped
  • big pinch dried thyme, crumbled
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup cognac
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 8 slices bacon
  • Homemade croutons 

Make croutons ahead of time and store in airtight container.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wipe mushrooms clean. Trim off stem ends. Halve or quarter any large button or cremini mushrooms. Cut the portobellos into similar size chunks. In a large roasting pan toss the mushrooms, leek, shallots, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-45 minutes, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are brown and tender.

While the vegetables are roasting, place the bacon slices on a sheet pan with a rim that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake until crispy and brown. This should take about 20 minutes. Drain off about 1-2 tablespoons of bacon fat and toss with vegetables. Remove bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. Break into large pieces. Set aside for later.

When the vegetables are done, remove to a large bowl. Use the cognac to deglaze the roasting pan, stirring to loosen up any browned bits from the bottom. Add the broth. 

Working in batches, puree the vegetables with the broth mixture in a food processor. Pour into stockpot. Add the cream. Heat to serving temperature. Serve soup in bowls sprinkled with homemade croutons and several pieces of bacon per bowl. A teensy sprinkle of something green looks pretty too- fresh thyme leaves or minced parsley work nicely.

Homemade Croutons
  • several slices crusty white bread
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, bruised
Cut the bread into large cubes. Set aside. In a small saucepan heat  the olive oil with the bruised garlic cloves. Allow to steep for at least an hour. Remove the garlic cloves (save for use in another recipe or throw in the vegetables when making this soup) and drizzle oil over the bread cubes- you may NOT need all of it. You can use the leftover oil in the soup or refrigerate and save for another use. Toast the bread cubes in a hot heavy skillet- good old fashioned cast  iron is great for this- until browned and crispy. Drain on paper towels.