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.