Thursday, June 29, 2017

Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad

Ugh, the heat and humidity continues. That's an Iowa summer for you. I am not a fan of this miserable weather at all, but vegetable gardens, and farmers, love it. The farmers markets are starting to grow bigger by the week as some of the early summer vegetables and fruits are coming into season. I still have not been to our big downtown farmers market but I hope to soon. Instead I trudged off to the grocery store, the air conditioned grocery store, and stocked up on delicious things to cook.

The Chef is off working today, and that means I have the house, and kitchen, all to myself. It's time for music. My music, whatever I want. Of course, metal, anything metal- death metal, speed metal, hair metal, is my first love. Megadeth rules my heart with Avenged Sevenfold a close second. Black Label Society and Metallica inspire many a singalong in the car when they are played on satellite radio. I'll even perk up and get excited when Ratt, Slaughter, Motley, Scorpions and a handful of other 80s greats come up. However, when The Chef is away that's when I break out the other two loves in my music heart- Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. Don't laugh. Both of these women have left a permanent mark on music and the world, Gaga with her diverse musical ability and always changing style, and Amy Winehouse with her soulful sultry voice and sad story. 

Today I was feeling a little meh so Amy filled that need for me. I just put her on and let it play while I did my thing- put all the groceries away, prepped vegetables for Persian salad and later made a quick dinner. Amy's haunting voice tells a story of deep rooted pain and I love her so much it's as if I actually knew her. Every song tells a story, whether it's of heartbreak or heartfelt love. She is definitely an unusual addition to my metal-heavy music collection but sometimes I just need her, I just need to hear her voice. I miss her terribly and wonder what might have been had she not been taken from us so young. 

But enough of that sad stuff. Today is also all about the fresh vegetables. Like I said, it's HOT and when it's hot, I just don't want to do a lot of cooking, and salad becomes our go-to dinner choice.  I came across this recipe while looking for healthier options for lunches and so on. This salad is quite an enigma. At first glance, I thought jeez, this is not going to have that much flavor. There are no herbs, no spices. I couldn't have been more wrong! The unusual addition of preserved lemon is the secret. As I sat there munching on my little bowl of salad I kept thinking the lemon is oddly umami and savory and so satisfying. I did not miss the herbs at all. You'll also notice there is no added salt- you do NOT need it. The lemon is preserved in salt, so it adds all the saltiness you need. I minced it up super tiny and much of it broken down in the simple dressing. If there ever was a recipe that was vastly improved by the use of preserved lemon, it must be this one. You get loads of flavor for almost no calories at all. 

Preserved lemon can be found in many larger supermarkets or gourmet stores, but if you plan ahead, you can make it yourself easily. It stores in the fridge for a long time. Click HERE for my recipe for preserved lemons.

When using preserved lemons, you scrape off and discard the
soft inside pulp and use just the peel. The amount of flavor
packed in that lemon peel is ridiculous!! You have to try it.
This recipe also features Sinful Food Garlic Olive Oil. I love fresh garlic, but in a salad, raw garlic is just not your friend. This olive oil is exactly what I needed to add garlic flavor without the harshness of raw garlic. You can get your Sinful Food oils by clicking HERE.

Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad
adapted from Eating Well Magazine

3 cups diced unpeeled cucumber
1 1/2 cups assorted cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/4 cup diced onion
2 teaspoons minced preserved lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons  Sinful Food garlic olive oil
ground black pepper

Toss all ingredients together in a bowl. Cover and allow to rest at room temperature up to two hours to all flavors to develop. Refrigerate after serving.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. 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."

Monday, June 26, 2017

Nothing Special but Delicious- Tuna Noodle Casserole

Sometimes when we cook at home, we go way out, and other times we just make something "not special." We aren't too proud to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, or even hit a drive thru someplace and get something fried and not healthy. We might make a fabulous meal with seared scallops and meticulously prepared risotto, but we are just as likely to slap a couple grilled cheese together. It's not surprising that on this Monday evening after a long day at work, neither one of us wanted to cook. Sadly, it's a necessary evil and I drew the short straw.

Recently I made a batch of my Mom's famous shrimp salad. The Chef gobbled it all right up and said it was something I needed to make all the time. Duly noted. My next trip to the store I stocked up on pasta and salad ingredients. I happened to stop in a smaller store and unbelievably they didn't have the baby shrimp I needed, so I grabbed some tuna. Mom used to make it with tuna once in a while so I figured I'd just tuck it in the cabinet until I made the salad again. 

Fast forward to Monday evening and our choices were a whole chicken that would need to be butchered before cooking, and cans of tuna. We weren't feeling a cold salad for dinner so...... why not whip up a tuna and noodle casserole and dinner is done? That's exactly what I did. I had a bag of frozen mixed vegetables in the freezer, plenty of cheese and some fun pasta shapes so dinner was in the oven in a snap. Here is how I made it.

The Baker's Tuna Noodle Casserole

2 cans tuna in water, drained and broken into chunks
1 lb package pasta such as farfalle or shells
1 can evaporated milk
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, thawed
2 teaspoons onion powder
salt and pepper
fresh chives or scallions
panko bread crumbs
3 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook per package directions until just al dente. Do not overcook- the pasta is going to be baked. 

Place the frozen vegetables in a large colander. Drain the pasta right over the vegetables. Let stand to completely drain pasta.

Meanwhile, in the same pot, add the evaporated milk and one can of water. Bring to boil, then remove from heat and stir in the cheese until melted. Season with salt and pepper and add fresh chives or scallions (a couple tablespoons is fine) and the onion powder. Return the pasta and vegetables to the pot. Add the tuna and gently stir to coat the pasta.

Pour into well buttered 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle the top generously with panko bread crumbs. Melt the butter and drizzle over. Pop in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly and golden brown on top. Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Wasn't that easy? No canned cream of something soup needed to get a rich and creamy sauce. The panko make a butery crunchy top crust and those vegetables. LOVE those vegetables. Who doesn't love lima beans?!?!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Summer Shrimp Salad, Just Like Mom Used to Make

Well, Memorial Day is now in the rear view mirror and the unofficial kickoff to summer has begun. While I'm not looking forward to the heavy humid August air that hangs over Iowa like a wet blanket, I certainly will take the breezy 70s and 80s of June! It's the perfect time of year for dining al fresco. Living back in the city, I am blessed to be surrounded by hundreds of choices for some lovely patio dining. The suburban restaurants, of course, have patios. They have lots of room for building that in when the restaurant is built. Now even the downtown restaurants are setting up patios. Sidewalk patios, or little nooks carved out of alleys and access ways are popping up like mushrooms allover downtown Des Moines.

When I was a little girl, Mom and Dad bought a house. I remember them looking at several houses that I really thought we should live in. Lots of cute two story homes in neighborhoods on the south side of the city. They decided we should live in Thornton Place and found a lovely ranch house, nothing too fancy, just the right amount of room for our family of four. I think the selling feature for my dad was probably the porch. Around the back of the house, just steps out of the kitchen was a screened in back porch easily the size of the living room. Dad loved this porch, and quickly set about decorating it and finding the right furniture. A couch for relaxing, a telephone and television to bring a little of the inside outside and a dining table and chairs filled the back porch and basically became another room of the house. Most nights we had our dinner out there during the summer months. Even if it was a rainy day, if it wasn't a crazy thunderstorm with wind, we could still enjoy the fresh outdoor air. 

Dinners in the summer at our house also meant some of Mom's traditional dinners. One thing she made that we all loved was a big pot of green beans, baby potatoes and ham. She had a German name for it, but I couldn't even begin to spell it, but just for fun, I'll try. Bohnen Gamese. Whatever that means! Because Dad always had a decent garden going, it wasn't uncommon for use to have an all-veggie dinner of sliced tomatoes from the garden, sprinkled with the tiniest bit of sugar, sliced cucumbers with vinegar and oil and a massive pot of hot sweet corn. How I loved those dinners. By far, though, my favorite summer dinner my mom made was her pasta salad with baby shrimp. I have no idea where she learned to make it, but it hands down is my favorite summer salad. She always, and I mean always, used the medium shell pasta. No farfalle, no penne or campanelle. Shells, always. Pasta, a can of baby shrimp (always the canned shrimp too, Mom preferred this over fresh), some chopped vegetables, usually whatever she had in the fridge, always celery and onions, and you might find diced cucumber in the bowl. Diced radishes sometimes. Black olives, always. The simplest of dressings- mayonnaise, not the salad dressing junk, a squeeze of plain yellow mustard and a splash of pickle juice, a little salt and pepper, and that's it. 

Mom's Salad recipe doesn't change much when I make it. I might add a shredded carrot if I have one, or some diced cucumber if I don't have any celery. If my celery has nice leaves, I go ahead and chop those up and throw them in too. Sometimes I swap a can of tuna for the shrimp, because, yes Mom did that too quite a bit. The only "upgrade" I have made to Mom's family favorite is to skip the salt and pepper and use Sinful Food's Signature Seasoning. Best decision ever. It literally has everything in there you could possibly want to season your dish, and then some. Even The Chef remarked how good the salad is with the seasoning.

You can get your Sinful Food Signature Seasoning by clicking HERE.

Mom's Summer Shrimp Salad 

1 pound medium shell shaped pasta
1 can baby shrimp
1/2 cup sliced black olives
2 ribs celery
2 scallions
1/4 cup diced dill pickle
1 cup mayonnaise, plus more
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
splash of pickle juice
Signature Seasoning 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a full rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, drain and rinse with cold water. Add to a big bowl. 

Drain the baby shrimp and add to pasta in the bowl. Drain and add the olives. Finely dice the celery ribs and add to bowl. Slice scallions, and in the bowl they go along with the diced pickles. Sprinkle the fresh dill over and Signature Seasoning, toss, then add mayonnaise and mustard, mixing well. Taste and add additional Signature Seasoning to taste. 

Cover and chill overnight. Stir before serving, adding additional mayo if needed. 

I'm telling you, when I was a kid this was a big time favorite at our house for summer dinners in the screens in porch. The backyard was so shady and cool, the screens kept the bugs out but it still felt like we were eating outdoors. I loved that old porch, and wish I had one where I live right now. Good memories....... 

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. 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, June 20, 2017

Here's something new- Italian Chicken Burgers

This weekend was a scorcher! Wow! Not the kind of day that makes me want to spend a bunch of time outside. I'll be honest, when it comes to heat, I am a wussy and I'm perfectly ok with that. So, what did I miss by being a party pooper over the weekend? A popular local "urban farm" was hosting their first garlic festival. Live music, food and drink, but 95 degrees out there. The Greek Food Festival was also this weekend. Three days of authentic Greek food, beer, entertainment, but again, temps in the nineties. Instead of roasting alive outside I decided to spend the days in the air conditioning cooking.

One of my projects was a brunch dish loaded with fresh berries. Don't worry, I have already shared the recipe. Another recipe was a cheesecake- a matcha and hibiscus raspberry swirl cheesecake to be exact. Talk about stunning color and flavor. You are going to love this recipe. That left me with chicken, and I had a couple great chicken ideas, one that involves a lot of herbs and gets roasted and delicious, and one of which was a burger. Wanna hear about it?

Ever look at a plate of Chicken Parmesan and think..... "man, that's going right to my thighs"......?? I have!! With this clever twist on a burger, you get all those delicious flavors without all the breading and frying and piles of cheese. The burgers are made with chicken (or turkey if you prefer) and are loaded with tons of flavor. You get the HINT of that crunchy fried coating with the dredge in herbed cheesy panko, and the garlicky mayo is just bursting with flavor. If mayo is not your thing, you can also serve the burgers topped with a couple tablespoons of marinara sauce.

To get your Sinful Food products, click HERE.

Italian Chicken Burgers

1 lb ground chicken (you can sub turkey)
1/4 very finely diced provolone or mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup minced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 or 5 pieces sun dried tomato, minced
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, plus more
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Signature Seasoning
2 tablespoons panko or Italian dry bread crumbs
Sinful Food garlic olive oil
sliced Provolone, if desired
4 toasted burger buns
garnishes such as lettuce, sliced tomato

In a mixing bowl, break up the chicken with a fork. Add the provolone cheese, onion, sun dried tomato, garlic, 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese and the herbs. Season with Signature Seasoning. Mix lightly until combined, adding a splash of wine if needed. Form into four patties and set aside.

In a shallow plate mix the remaining Parmesan with the bread crumbs. Add some chopped parsley if you like.

In a large heavy skillet, heat a couple swirls of olive oil until hot. Dredge each burger patty in the crumb mixture then place in hot oil. Cook until golden brown, flip and cook until cooked through. You can top each burger with a slice of Provolone if you like. Serve in toasted buns spread with Garlicky Herb Mayo (recipe follows) and topped with desired garnishes.

Garlicky Herb Mayo

1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Signature Seasoning

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and chill until serving time.

So good! Mixing the onions into the meat helps keep the patties so juicy. You are going to love the cheese mixed into the meat. It adds a salty savory component you really can taste. The breadcrumbs and Parmesan on the outside make a crispy coating that's just as delicious as the deep fried version, plus, come on- it's a burger! How fun is that?

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. 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."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Berry Good Brunch Idea

Brunch brunch brunch. It's the new buzzword isn't it? Great idea too, for late risers like myself. That's not what we're going to talk about today though.We are going to talk about a couple things I really am excited about this year- Aldi and berries. You probably already know what Aldi is, chances are there is one in your neighborhood. I live about two blocks from Aldi and it's one of the best things about my neighborhood. My neighborhood is pretty awesome. It's not fancy. It's an older neighborhood of cute little houses on quiet streets. Most of the houses are cottage-like. Some of the yards are beautifully maintained, and a few haven't seen a lawnmower yet this season. The location is convenient. A quick drive up the road and I can access the bypass, or the freeway in the other direction. The fairgrounds is close enough to walk to if you're up to it. We can sit in the front yard on a summer evening and hear the concerts from the grandstand clear as day. The fireworks light up our big front window, and right around the corner and up a block is Aldi.

I'm sure I have talked about Aldi before. This is not the Aldi of my childhood. For one thing, they have really upped their game in regards to the quality of the products they sell. I cannot resist the German grocery items they sell. They remind me of the packages my Grandmother Else used to send us from Germany several times a year. I love the bags of dried spaetzle and always have to buy a couple. They are perfect with rich brown gravies and roasts. They carry an astonishing amount of organic products at incredibly reasonable prices, everything from fresh produce to meats and packaged items. Then there are the grains- I know I've already talked about that.

On this day I went into Aldi for a bag of onions. Fifty three dollars later I came out with onions, fillets of flounder, several different fresh vegetables, fresh chicken, great big gorgeous scallops, tuna, sparkling mineral water, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, pasta, bread, and fresh berries. Those fresh berries are destined for my latest Sinful Foods creation, and I think you guys are going to like this. This is where we switch the convo back to brunch. The Chef and I have different schedules so the weekends for us are late nights and lazy mornings and we often don't feel like getting dressed and battling the brunch crowds, so I have been working on some ideas for things I can basically assemble the night before, and pop in the oven in the morning. Baked French toast fits the bill nicely and is ridiculously versatile. I have a savory French toast brewing in my mind, but today we are working on a more traditional version, with maple syrup and berries. It's so easy and delicious. I am using "day old" white sliced bread I grabbed at the bakery, but you can use whatever kind of bread you like. Let's make some!

This recipe features a very unusual product- but keep an open mind here. Basil is often paired with fruit and Sinful Food Basil Olive Oil is the perfect way to get that fresh basil flavor. Get yours by clicking HERE.

Berry Brunch French Toast

10 slices stale bread
8 large eggs
3/4 cup half and half or coconut milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (I used raspberries and blackberries)
2 teaspoons Sinful Food basil olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
cooking spray

Cut the bread into cubes and place in a mixing bowl. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, and then whisk in the half and half, maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. 

Pour over the bread cubes, stirring to coat, and cover. Pop in the fridge and chill overnight.

The next morning, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 2 quart baking dish with cooking spray.

Place the berries in a small bowl, drizzle with the olive oil. 

Spoon about half of the bread cube mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle half the berries over. Repeat layers using the rest of the bread and berries. Cut the butter into little cubes and top the bread mixture. 

Place dish in the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Check with a toothpick- the pick should come out clean, and the top will be golden brown. Let the dish rest for about 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve with additional berries and maple syrup.

This was so delicious, almost like bread pudding. The berries stay plump and juicy and the basil flavor adds this elegant touch to the berries. You could serve this for a dessert too, with a little cloud of whipped cream on top, or if you have a kitchen torch, a little cloud of meringue that's been kissed by the flames. You could even booze it up with a tablespoon or two of your favorite kirsch, Framboise or Chambord liqueur whisked in with the custard mixture. This recipe makes a generous six servings, so I had plenty left over to take to work for breakfast the next day, and a snack too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. 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."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Make It Yourself- Rosewater

Part of the charm of living in England was living in a small village, well away from the air force base and all the American things, the hamburger place, the convenience store, the big grocery store (commissary). Adapting to life in rural England was very easy. I fell in love with the town of Stanton, where we lived, and surrounding bigger towns like Bury St. Edmunds, Thetford and Diss. There were no big shopping malls where we lived, and you had to travel a fair distance for a larger super market. We came to rely on the tiny grocery shop in Stanton for last minute items.

Because the weather was always so lovely the kids and I would often walk into town and visit the chip shop for lunch, the bakery for bread, and the grocery shop for a few items to complete a meal and a treat, like ice cream. Sometimes instead of ice cream the kiddos would opt for candy, and sometimes I would even have to join in. British candies are quite different from American candies. For one thing, the chocolate is much better quality. To me, growing up with a European family and always getting big boxes from Germany, I was raised enjoying the wonderful chocolates common in Europe, instead of the waxy tasting chocolate common here. One of my very favorite chocolates was Cadbury Flake. I can't even imagine how they make this unusual chocolate bar. It literally is a long bar of flaked chocolate, barely holding together. The first bite would often send a cascade of chocolate down the front of your shirt. There is absolutely nothing like that here in the U.S.

The chocolate was wonderful, and so was the caramel. Hard caramels and soft caramels, or toffees as they are called there, were a favorite of mine. Licorice All Sorts were fun, if you enjoy black licorice, which I love, but by far the most unique, and delicious candy I had while living there was something called Turkish Delight. Talk about different, Turkish Delight is a milk chocolate covered jelly bar. Yes, jelly. Not hard like gummy bears or crazy sticky like say, sugar coated orange slices, but a firmer version of a gelatin-like sweet jelly that's intensely flavored with rosewater. It's almost impossible to describe the flavor. It tasted like you think roses should taste. Floral notes, perfumey, subtly sweetened. It smells like roses and the dark chocolate heightens the flavor. It was such a unique and complex flavor it was surely created for adults. Paired with a light white wine, on the dry side, Turkish Delight is totally dessert worthy, and I've had a terrible time trying to find it now that I am back in the United States.

Sooooo hard to find but soooo worth it if you do.
As a baker I often experiment with different extracts and flavors- in cakes, fillings, meringues. In pastry cream. Citrus extracts such as orange or lime bring such a bright flavor to desserts that is a stark contrast to the warm and familiar vanilla. Spicy extracts add their own unique flavors, but I find myself continually gravitating towards florals. Flowers make lovely jellies, and they ar the perfect essences for baking too, especially rosewater. Rosewater can be a bit difficult to find unless you have a very well stocked market or specialty store nearby. Once you find this gem, you can use it in so many incredible ways both in and out of the kitchen. It makes a great facial toner, a lovely spritz to remove wrinkles from clothing, and in the kitchen you can use rosewater to bring a soft floral hint to so many things, baked goods, of course, ice cream, dairy foods like yogurts, cheesecake filling, frostings, beverages, cocktails. You can replace vanilla in most recipes and have a whole new flavor profile.

So we are going to make rosewater at home. There are a couple key things to keep in mind. First, choose roses that are fresh and brightly colored natural red or pink preferably.Red, pink and orange roses make the prettiest rosewater. Be careful to avoid roses that have had their color enhanced. When choosing roses, be sure to let the florist know they will be used in food so you can purchase roses that have not been sprayed with waxes and preservatives. I think you will find many larger florists in most cities keep food-safe flowers on hand, so be sure to ask. If you grow your own roses, or have a friend who gardens, even better! Our recipe calls for two cups of distilled water and 3 or 4 roses. These roses would be comparable in size to the typical long-stemmed variety you find in arrangements, so if you are using smaller roses from the garden, adjust the number accordingly.  Use only the petals, be sure you discard the rest of the rose, and choose very fragrant roses. You will be much happier with the result. Distilled water gives you a crystal clear finished product. If you don't have any you can use regular bottled or tap water but you might have a little cloudiness. And finally, I add a teaspoon of vodka to the finished rosewater. This acts like a preservative but is purely optional. You can omit the vodka if you like. 

Homemade Rosewater

3 or 4 fresh roses
2 cups distilled water
1 teaspoon vodka

Pull the petals from the roses and discard the remaining parts of the flower. Combine with distilled water in a small saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer approximately 30 minutes. The petals will become very pale and the water will take on the color of the roses.

Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vodka.

Allow mixture to cool slightly, then bottle. Store in a cool dark location.

Use your homemade rosewater in Turkish and Middle Eastern recipes, cakes, whipped cream, candies. It's delicate floral flavor will be subtle but you will know it's there. You can make a similar tincture from any edible flower, the brighter the color, the better the water will look.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Foodie Field Trip- Blu Toro Cantina and Grill

It's another hot hot hot Saturday in Des Moines, and it's only June. Ugh. So hot that I abandoned my idea of going to the farmers market downtown- not feeling like battling a hot and sweaty crowd- and the Greek Food Festival was off the table. The Chef has to work and that was something he and I would have enjoyed together. Maybe tomorrow, right? Jessica, one of my very best friends, and I decided we should find something fun to do so we decided to go grab some dinner. Like always we had trouble deciding where to go, but I have a new secret weapon. Remember those tiny spiral notebooks you could carry in your purse or pocket? Yep, I went totally low tech. I've had a list on my computer, but who carries their computer around? Had a smaller list on my phone but didn't keep up with it. So the notebook just makes sense. I can write the name and address of each restaurant I want to check out, along with notes- what other people recommend, what their specialty is, if they have brunch, what the style of cuisine is, important info like that. We narrowed our choices and settled on someplace neither of had been before- Blu Toro Cantina and Grill. Blu Toro is somewhat new to the city, opening as a new upscale Mexican restaurant.

Walking into the restaurant is like stepping into a shishi Beverly Hills or Los Angeles eatery. The space is gorgeous. Sleek lines, contemporary furniture and that trendy open kitchen add to that first impression. The bar is just of the dining room and features a large open wall, open to the outside patio. Handcrafted cocktails are the new thing, and Blu Toro is on top of the cocktail game. The margarita options alone are impressive. Chili Mango Margarita? Yes, please! Of course tequila is the real king here and the selection is impressive. Several options for tequila flights are available too. I was tempted, but I was really in a wine mood, as was Jessica, so we ordered four different wines. Acrobat Pinot Gris, Lagosta Vinho Verde, Piccini Memoro Rose, and Bodega Colome Torrontes. Each wine brought something different to the meal. The Pinot Gris was fresh and crisp and absolutely delightful. The Vinho Verde was fruity and green. If you like Vinho Verde you'll understand the green thing. It has aromas of citrus and freshly cut grass. It's The Rose was Jessica's favorite and the one she went back to when we ordered dessert. The winner for me that night was the Torrontes, and I enjoyed this one so much I had another! Fruity, not too sweet and with a flinty aroma it was lovely with my tart and sweet dessert. More on that later.

The dinner menu is amazing. You'll see some familiar things featured- quesadillas, fajitas, enchiladas, but they're not the everyday Mexican recipes. Upscale ingredients and expert preparation makes these dishes not only delicious but beautiful. Steaks, seafood, chicken and pork entrees have expertly crafted Mexican flavors throughout, the pork chops are prepared al pastor style, one of my favorit Mexican foods ever. Slow braised short ribs are draped in poblano cream sauce, steaks get the Toro treatment, scallops, halibut and salmon all get their own Mexican flavors. For dinner we again ordered several different tacos. Jessica chose three different street tacos- beef barbacoa, carne asada and chicken tinga. My two tacos were lobster and chicken tinga, with some beautiful and huge asparagus spears as a side. 

First, the beef barbacoa. Tender, flavorful and delicious. The carne asada was every bit as delicious. We both chose chicken tinga for one of our tacos. The tinga is made with chicken thighs, and I'm so glad they were. Chicken thighs are so much tastier than chicken breast and you would have to cook the life out of it to dry it out. The chicken tinga was expertly flavored and the little pile of shredded radish and a lime wedge was the perfect accompaniment to all three taco choices.

Now, the only other time I have had a lobster taco was in Galveston. It was delicious, but it was more like a Mexican version of the lobster roll- cold chunks of lobster meat in a mayo based sauce served with shredded lettuce in a flour tortilla. It was good. Didn't wow me. That taco pales in comparison to the lobster taco I enjoyed at Blu Toro. Big chunks of lobster, including claw meat on corn tortillas, crunchy shredded cabbage and a lovely spicy crema. The chunks of lobster meat were so big I had to cut them up! Honestly, this is one of the best things I have eaten in a long time.

We sneaked a peek at the dessert menu before we ordered dinner so we knew we needed to number one, save room, and number two, which wine to have with it. We had already made our wine decisions, so now it was all about dessert. Ever since we got here Jessica has had her heart set on the Tres Leches Cupcake. The cupcake arrived  topped with a cloud of fluffy whipped cream and grated chocolate. Inside the cupcake was a layer of dulce de leche. The flavors were awesome and the cake itself tasted good, but it was just a touch dry. A couple minutes less oven time, or a more thorough soaking in the caramel before serving and this would be spectacular. Jessica had the Rose with her dessert and it was a great match for the rich and creamy cake.

I chose the lime tart. It was out of this world. The lime curd was tart and absolutely smooth. The crust on the bottom was still crisp and had absolutely no sogginess at all. The tart was topped with a beautiful swirl or meringue that was torched to browned perfection. I swear I'm going to get the recipe come hell or high water! I had the Torrontes with my dessert and it was the perfect accompaniment. 

Our server was great. We had never been there before, so we had menu questions, and she had answers. She not only knew the dinner menu but she also knew every wine on the drinks menu and recommended wines based on the different dinner selections. The chef. Josh, came out to visit with us too. The entire staff was friendly, professional and very welcoming. Overall the experience was one of the best I've had in this city in quite some time. I hope to visit Blu Toro many more times in the future. I highly recommend it when you're looking for someplace new in Des Moines.

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."

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

She Bakes- Rhubarb Mini Muffins

Rhubarb recipes are continuing from my little kitchen, as we're venturing into baking territory. If you ever spend any time looking through old church cookbooks, you probably noticed there are a LOT of people who used to cook with rhubarb. Like I have said before, back a generation ago it seems like every backyard in Iowa had a rhubarb patch and everyone's mom or grandmother had an arsenal of delicious rhubarb recipes. I just can't get enough of this stuff!

I know I could buy it at the store or the farmers market, but jeez, enough people still have it in their yards and so many people think they don't like it or don't know what to do with it that I can usually get a decent sized score from friends for free, and this year is no exception. My good friends Paul and Jennifer offered some freebie rhubarb and I've been playing around with it the last few days. I've been trying to be better at bringing food from home to work for breakfast and lunch instead of spending too much in the cafeteria all the time, and what better way to ration it out than to make muffins? Mini muffins? Even better (plus I couldn't find my regular size muffin pan so......).

As a baker, I can whip up a batch of basic plain old muffin batter with ease, but rhubarb is a bit of a challenge. It's heavily loaded with water so baking with it can be a bit tricky. If you overbake it, the rhubarb can break down and become soggy. Using it in pies, which have a long bake time, you definitely need a thickening agent like cornstarch or flour tossed with that fruit to make it saucy and delicious. You also have to think about the size of the cuts- the smaller they are, the less time they need to cook through. If you cut it too large, it won't cook enough during baking. Mini muffins presented quite a challenge! One way I altered my recipe was to use sour cream instead of the cup of milk I would normally use- it moistens the batter with just the right amount of "wet" so the muffins don't end up soggy from the fruit, and the diced rhubarb is just the perfect size to cook through during the baking without becoming mush. You can finish your muffins with a drizzle of glaze made from powdered sugar, or a quick roll in some cinnamon sugar. They are so delicious!

Cinnamon Rhubarb Mini Muffins

2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups finely diced rhubarb (1/4 inch dice)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Cooking spray

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and spices in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sour cream, melted butter and vanilla. Combine well.

Add the rhubarb to the dry ingredients and toss to coat the rhubarb. Add the wet ingredients all at once and mix, folding gently, until just combined. Don't over mix. Mix remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

Spray your mini muffin pan with cooking spray. Use a small scoop to evenly add the batter to the pan. Sprinkle each muffin with the cinnamon sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned. 

Four mini muffins in a zip top bag make a great on-the-go breakfast for busy work days, or tucked in a lunch box for a mid day snack. The rhubarb keeps the muffins moist and remind me of something my mother would have made wen I was growing up. I think I should seriously start my own rhubarb patch right in my own backyard.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Greek Lemon Chicken Pizza

Friday night! The end of the work week and two days of peace and quiet with no phone ringing and clients needing help and payments not processing and claims and applications and enrollments and....... 

So I'm sitting here working out some recipe ideas......tossing things around in my brain..... thinking about the upcoming recipe contest Sinful Food is holding, and wishing I could enter. I think I have a winner here.....

Everyone loves pizza, right? I do, but I do get tired of the same red sauce and cheese, pepperoni and mushrooms pizza we always seem to go with. Instead of using red pizza sauce I've gone with a brushing of olive oil- Sinful Food garlic olive oil to be exact. Then instead of fatty sausage or pepperoni, boring mushrooms and peppers, I went to the Greek Isles with Greek-marinated chicken, Kalamata olives, preserved lemons (a Mediterranean mainstay) and feta. You don't want a thick bready crust for this pizza- think thin and cracker-like crust. You can use homemade or store bought pizza dough or mix, or even pre-made crusts. I've also included a recipe for easy pizza dough if you want to make it homemade. It's a breeze with a stand mixer- mix the dough with a dough hook instead of kneading it.

If you haven't tried the Sinful Food oils yet, you absolutely MUST!! Get yours by clicking HERE.

Greek Marinated Chicken

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/3 cup Sinful Food olive oil, garlic or Italian herb
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely minced preserved lemon
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
salt and pepper

In a medium bowl whisk together the oil, vinegar, juice, preserved lemon and herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove about 1/4 cup of the marinade and refrigerate for later.

Place the chicken breasts in a large zip top bag. Add the marinade, seal the bag and pop in the fridge for a minimum of four hours. Overnight is best.

To cook, remove the chicken and discard the marinade. Pat the chicken dry. You can either cut the chicken into cubes before you cook it or after. Heat a skillet, grill pan, or grill until hot. Add a couple teaspoons of oil to the skillet or grill pan. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, until cooked through. Set aside until cool enough to handle. When chicken has cooled, cut into bite sized cubes and place in a clean zip top bag. Drizzle about half the reserved marinade over. Seal bag, and refrigerate until ready to use. Save the last of the marinade too.

You can make the chicken a day or two ahead of time or double the recipe and serve chicken with grilled veggies for dinner one night and reserve a couple boneless skinless breasts for pizza night. This Greek chicken is delicious in sandwiches and salads too.

Greek Lemon Chicken Pizza

pizza dough
Greek lemon chicken
1/2 cup halved pitted Kalamata olives
1 small onion
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons finely minced preserved lemon
8 ounces shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup feta cheese
chopped fresh parsley
Sinful Food garlic olive oil

Cut the onion in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise. Cook in a small skillet until just beginning to brown. Add garlic, cook for one minute. Set aside.

I mixed the cooked chicken, the onion, garlic and lemon
together before topping the pizza.
Stretch the pizza dough to form a thin crust. You want a cracker-like crust, not a heavy doughy crust. Place dough on baking sheet and prick all over with a fork. 

Brush a couple tablespoons of Sinful Food garlic olive oil over the crust. Scatter chicken cubes, olives, onion mixture and minced preserved lemon. 

Sadly I forgot to save some kalamata olives for this recipe.
I had to use sliced ripe olives in their place. 
Top with shredded cheese and feta cheese. You may not need all of the mozzarella. Drizzle with additional olive oil. Bake in 450 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and cooked through. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve.

Remember that reserved marinade? I like to make a small salad of arugula and Italian parsley leaves dressed lightly with the marinade and piled on the baked pizza. So fresh and delicious. As promised, here is that pizza dough recipe: 

Homemade pizza crust recipe

1 packet yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
3-4 cups all purpose flour
Sinful Food Italian herb olive oil

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Allow to rest about 5 minutes. Pour over 3 cups of flour in a large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Mix the dough together gently, adding more flour as needed until you have a smooth dough. Knead for about 3-4 minutes, or use a stand mixer. Form into a ball. Wipe out the bowl, pour a couple tablespoons oil in the bowl and brush it around. Place the dough ball in the bowl and turn over to coat with oil. Cover with a towel and place in a warm spot for an hour or so, until dough doubles in size. Punch down, and you're ready to make pizza.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. 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."