Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Feast: Apricot Sausage Stuffing

Whether you are gobbling up turkey, hogging all the ham, or carving a nice slice of roast beast, everyone has his or her ideal Christmas Feast.   Mother Nature and I were up early this morning, and not just for the presents.   She provided the soft serenity of a White Christmas, I was the one banging and clanging with my own “Heavy Metal” in the kitchen.   Warm aromas of apricot glaze poured out of the oven and a saccharine smell of the makings of pecan pie wafted from the stove top.  This year, Christmas dinner featured a crown roast and apricot sausage stuffing.  If turkeys fear Thanksgiving, then pigs probably hate Christmas. 
In the morning, I opened my long-awaited present from Santa: the 13 inch All-Clad French Skillet with lid.  It was my “Red Rider BB Gun”.   I had a foodie moment as I admired the new lifetime cooking partner: sleek stainless steel, curvature of the handle, and aluminum core.  Cooking with it felt natural. “This is the way it’s supposed to be”, I kept repeating as I fried the sausage, onions, garlic, and celery for the stuffing.  It was a family affair as I taught my brother how to brown the sausage and vegetables and my grandparents gathered the other ingredients from the pantry.  I zested lemons, squeezed fresh orange juice, and chopped up dried apricots – eating half of the soft, sweet ones.   But that’s how one stays full until dinner!  A pound of white bread crumbs later, I was shoving a ceramic dish heaping with stuffing into the oven.
When it landed on the dining room table among the other holiday foods, the stuffing was still a standout.  The fluffy golden mass was the marriage of natural sweetness from the fruit and bold, salty flavor from the sausage.   Soaking the bread with chicken broth, orange juice, lemon juice and spices gave the stuffing a savory richness along with a citrus undertone.   We all enjoyed as many helpings as we could until our stomachs stopped accepting visitors.
*Side note: this recipe is adapted from Land O Lakes, Treasury of Country Heritage Meals and Menus for a holiday celebration, so it serves 8. 

Apricot Sausage Stuffing
1 cup (2 medium) onions, chopped
1 cup (2 stalks) chopped celery, chopped
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 (14 ½ oz) can chicken broth
½ cup orange juice
1 T lemon juice
1 cup (6 oz) dried apricots, chopped
1 pound loaf white bread, dried and torn
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 tsp dried sage leaves, rubbed
Salt and pepper (about ½ tsp each)
1 T lemon peel, grated

1.       Preheat oven to 325˚.
2.       While that is preheating, put sliced bread on baking sheets and toast for about 10-15 min, or until dried.
3.       In skillet, cook onions, celery, sausage, and garlic over medium high heat.  Stir occasionally until browned, about 10 min. Drain off fat.
4.       In large bowl, combine all remaining ingredients.  Add in sausage mixture. 

5.       Spoon into large casserole dish.
6.       Bake for 55 to 60 min or until heated through.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I’m Not Full, I’m Stuffed: Stuffed Artichokes

Artichokes are the roses of fresh produce.  Just as every rose has its thorn, so too does this relative of the thorny thistle.  Half the population would never realize that if they only judged the lifeless, mushy canned variety.   Globe Artichokes are what you would most commonly see in stores.  Artichokes are at their prime in the spring, but the season does not always dictate my menu. 
Fresh out of the grocery bag I was staring at a spiky, green globe with coarse, mostly inedible leaves that tightly enclosed a hairy “choke” just above the heart.  How long this will take to get in my belly?!  Minus the fuzz that must be scooped out, the heart and some inner leaves are edible.  Even parts of the outer artichoke leaves are edible, but make sure you chomp down on the lower, fleshy part.   Most of us stopped eating leaves after we finished teething.    Now we have an outlet to satisfy this herbivore urge.   Even adults have fun with their food.
In the store, pick artichokes with tightly closed leaves.  Once they are slated to cook, then you want them to open up wide for stuffing.  To soften the artichokes, you boil them.  An artichoke may seem like a small vessel, but it packs a load of meaty stuffing and bubbles over with melted cheese.   The stuffing is just the opener, though.  The robust, meaty heart of the artichoke is the true show-stopper.   After being boiled, the heart is tender but bold with flavor.  Too soon did I devour the heart and leave myself with only the wreckage of teeth-scraped leaves.  Alas…

Stuffed Artichokes
4 artichokes
¾ lb ground Italian Sausage
½ onion, finely diced
2 cups bread crumbs [can use toasted sliced bread cut into small cubes]
Dried Basil and Oregano, Garlic Powder, Salt and Pepper
Milk – enough to make a ‘wet stuffing’
1 cup Cheddar Cheese, shredded

1.       First, wash you artichoke in cold water.  Make sure that you clean between the leaves.  Dry with clean towel.
2.       Cut off the top 1-2 inches of the artichoke where most of the leaves are tightest.  Remove anything that can be easily removed.
3.       Use a pair of kitchen scissors to trim off the thorns on the remaining leaves. 
4.       Place the artichokes in boiling water for about 30-40 min or until they have softened.  Remove and let cool slightly.
5.       Pull leaves apart as much as possible to remove hairy “choke” and the purple leaves covering the heart [remove enough leaves to make adequate room for stuffing]. 
6.       Meanwhile, in a frying pan, cook the ground Italian sausage over medium high heat. 
7.       Remove sausage.  Reserve about 2 T grease.  Drain excess grease.
8.       Add in diced onions, cook until translucent – about 5-7 min.
9.       In a mixing bowl, combine the sausage, onions, bread crumbs, spices and milk to make the wet stuffing.
10.   Cover top with cheese. 
11.   Bake at 350˚ for about 25-30 min, or until heated through and cheese has browned.   

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Asparagus Quinoa with Spicy Butter

In lieu of traditional holiday foods focused on fattening you up, I decided to go light for dinner.  It’s not that I despise Christmas cookies, mashed potatoes, or dinner rolls.  It’s half the reason I love being home for the holidays.  I’m just trying to cut down the amount of waddling from the dinner table this season.  
Quinoa has been a health food mystery to grocery stores and home pantries alike.  What do you do with it? Is it a grain? Does it taste good? Is it filling? Truth is quinoa [pronounced keen-wa] is a grain-like crop harvested for its golden seeds.   When cooked, it has a fluffy texture much like couscous or rice.  The nutty flavor and snapping sensation you feel when you eat it makes it uniquely ‘quinoa’ to me.  It is gluten-free, high in protein, and goes with just about anything.  It is also a good source of magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus.  It has been used cold in salads, hot in soups, as a side dish for dinner or even as breakfast porridge.  Tonight, I paired the quinoa with asparagus, chicken and a spicy butter.
Forget unsalted vs. salted butter –grocery stores should be advertising ‘spicy butter’.  Finally, a cream that carries a kick!  The heat comes from the hot sauce, obviously.  But it also comes from the puckering taste of vinegar and a pungent aroma of wine in the Dijon mustard.  The hearty, ‘green’ taste of asparagus goes well with the sour tinge of lemon juice and Dijon, and is rounded out by the creamy butter.  Pair with chicken or pork, and enjoy a lighter meal that still satisfies you beyond dinner.

Asparagus Quinoa with Spicy Butter
[Adapted from 101 Cookbooks]
4 T butter, room temperature
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
Tabasco Sauce/ Frank’s Hot Sauce, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 T olive oil
1 bunch of Asparagus, cut into about 1 in pieces
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken

1.       In a bowl, cream first 5 ingredients to make the Spicy Butter.  Keep in fridge until ready to use.
2.       Prepare quinoa.  Keep warm.

3.       In a frying pan, sauté asparagus with olive oil until fork tender.

4.       Mix together the asparagus, quinoa, butter, and chicken.  Serve warm, with extra hot sauce if desired.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Meat Sauce

For the last three weeks I have been starving. Exams starve you of nearly everything: time, energy, food, brain space, will-power, and…did I say food? My kitchen table has been piled high with scraps of paper, highlighted text books, and coffee stains. But I am ready to put food back on the table where it belongs. After finally grasping the “meat” of my classes, I have had my fill of “brain food”. Homemade meat sauce was the warm, Italian welcome that I needed.
The sound of sizzling was no longer associated with my brain cells frying. It was the 2 pounds of ground beef and sausage singing “That’s Amore” on the stove top. The extra effort of hand-dicing tomatoes is therapeutic and I believe it makes the sauce taste better. It is also a practical way to make sure you don’t get any skins or pits in your sauce. Cutting up a whole can of tomatoes yielded me only half a can of hand-diced tomatoes. But that is because my mantra for tomatoes is: “One for me, one for the sauce”.
Meat sauce was one of the first secret family recipes I learned. Because it’s based in the “Holy Trinity” of spices: basil, parsley, and oregano, it’s unlikely the flavor will ever go wrong. Plus, I have been formally trained to be a vigilant taste-tester with anything I make. It’s really for the good of all, I say. This batch of meat sauce hit the fresh herbs lottery. A heaping handful of basil, rosemary, and thyme was tossed in along with dried oregano and parsley, courtesy of those who keep plants better than I. Fresh herbs jive well with meat sauce.
The torturous, bold aromas had me pacing the kitchen. “Are we there yet?!” was all I could think. Finally, it was dinner. The meat sauce gently blanketed the al dente angel hair, and parmesan fell soft as snow on top. Meat sauce is a romance food. Light a few candles, turn on some jazz, and you are in love. It has bravado and sexiness without being overbearing. It will keep you warm at night. And it will appeal even to kids. Some call it the “full package”, I call it meat sauce.
Meat Sauce
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground Italian sausage
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans (28 oz) whole tomatoes, hand-diced (remove pits and skins) *DO NOT DRAIN
2 cans (small) tomato sauce
1 can (small) tomato paste
Basil, Parsley, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Salt and Pepper (to taste)
1 bay leaf
10 mushrooms, sliced
1. In large pot, fry ground meats over medium high heat.
2. As soon as just browned, remove meat and drain off most of the excess grease. RESERVE about 1 tablespoon.
3. In same pot, sauté onions and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Add meat back in.
4. Cut up tomatoes and add to meat and onions, along with the reserved tomato juice, tomato sauce and tomato paste.
5. Add herbs, s&p, bay leaf and mushrooms.
6. Bring sauce to a boil, reduce to simmer. Let simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour – flavors embolden with time. [I let mine simmer for about 4 hours]. Occasionally stir and check liquids.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

No Knead to Fear: No Knead Bread

If there was an “Easy Button” bread recipe, this would be it. Bread is not a novice endeavor; there is a reason we buy weekly bread at the grocery. Bread-making can be time consuming, messy and frustrating – even with a bread machine. Before, I had to approach the whole process with an attitude of “whistle while you work”. Making it was reserved for special occasions only. While I still find the extensive kneading, pulverizing, and punching of bread therapeutic, this new recipe requires little more than a mixing bowl and wooden spoon.

The reward of fresh baked bread is well worth the effort. But now they say they’ve cut out the effort. Skeptical at first, I spared the ingredients in the name of experimentation. My faith in this blubbery mass of dough was lukewarm. Without getting my hands dirty, I felt a loss of connection to the dough. But 450 degrees later, my delight in the final product burned through the trepidation. As my knife lay upon the bread dome, I could already hear the crackling of its crust. It began to flake off as I sliced it, revealing a steamy, spongy body. Fresh from the oven, it was an airy, eggy bread – almost like Challah. Every bite was a new crunchy crescendo. Although the crispness wore off as the loaf condensed, it still remains my solid standard for easy bread-making.
Now no one has an excuse for the infrequency of a homemade loaf. Ready? Preheat…BAKE!
No Knead Bread
3 cups bread flour [NOT all-purpose]
¼ tsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt [I added a pinch or two more]
1 tsp sugar
1 ½ cups lukewarm water
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add the water, stir. [Should end up looking like a shaggy, goopy mess]
2. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Place somewhere warm for 12-20 hours.
3. Dump onto a floured surface. Wet hands and fold down in towards the middle, forming a smooth, tight surface.
4. Drape a moist towel over the dough; let it rest and rise again for 2 hours in a warm place. It should double in size.
5. 30 min before the dough is done resting/rising, preheat oven to 450˚F. Place a Dutch Oven [cast iron stove, i.e. something that can withstand the heat – no cheap aluminum or plastic] in as oven is preheating. Makes sure that the pot is either well seasoned, greased, or you put some sort of parchment paper down on the bottom so that it does not stick.
6. After preheating, remove the pot, and plop the blimp-like mass into it. Doesn’t matter how it falls, it will end up looking rugged and rustic regardless.
7. Bake covered for 30 min. Then uncover and bake another 15-20 min. To check, tap the bread [should sound like a low, hollow drum].
8. Remove and let cool. Spread a slab of butter on top and enjoy.
**Note: the crust will be best right from the oven. As it sets, the moisture will soften the crust. To re-crispify, place back in the oven for about 10 min at 350˚F.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Carrot Risotto

A challenge taken to the next level may qualify as an obsession, but none have enjoyed the fruits of their labor more than hungry college kids. With Arborio rice rounding out to about $3.25 a pound, we have selected the vegetable additions carefully so we do not waste a morsel. But honestly, how often does a risotto go to waste? This time around we chose carrots, inspired by the most recent episode of Iron Chef, Battle Carrot.
Mushroom Risotto is often the first thing people rattle off when asked about risotto. With a rustic combination of wine and mushrooms, it entices even the staunchest opposition. It always has my mouth watering, although I have been disappointed in the grayish color it takes on the plate. Even a garnish couldn’t rescue it from its storm-cloud appearance. It needed a punch of color.
Teeny, vibrant orange chunks of carrot and a carrot puree gave the entire dish a warm, orange hue; specks of fresh parsley added more than just a contrasting color. Caramelized in a fatty mixture of butter and oil, the carrots melted in your mouth like soft, sweetened snowflakes. Shredded Parmesan cheese tightly hugged each piece of risotto rice, even as the broth swam in between. Every heaping spoonful coated my mouth with a creamy cover, carrots giving me a sweet kiss at the end. In just a few bites, you are full. It’s both the beauty and the cruel joke of risotto. It demands you to save some for lunch tomorrow, even if your eyes tell you to gobble it all up now.
Carrot Risotto
2 T vegetable oil, divide
3 T butter, divided
4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped very finely and evenly [about 2-3 cups]
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1 t pepper
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ cup minced onion
1 ½ cup Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup Parmesan and Asiago Cheeses
2 T butter
3 T fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 T fresh thyme, chopped
1. Heat 1 T and 1 T butter over medium heat in medium sized pot.
2. Add carrots and stir until well coated. Add ½ cup water, ½ t salt, and the sugar. Cover and cook 5 min, or until tender.
3. Uncover and cook, until water evaporates and carrots are just starting to brown, stir occasionally.
4. Reserve half the carrots. In a blender, puree the other half with ¾ c hot water.
5. Heat broth in another pot, keep at a simmer.
6. Heat remaining oil and butter over medium heat in same pot used for the carrots.
7. Add onion, cook until translucent, about 3 min.
8. Add rice, coat with butter and oil. Lightly brown.
9. Add wine and cook until wine evaporates, stirring.
10. Add carrot puree and cook until mixture no longer looks soupy, stir constantly.
11. Add ½ cup hot broth, stirring constantly, until rice absorbs most of the liquid. Repeat until rice is al dente [about 20 min; remaining broth: about 1 cup].
12. Fold in reserved carrots, cheeses, butter, parsley and thyme.
13. Add in broth to loosen the risotto. Season with salt and pepper.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Homemade Tomato Soup

Hungry for tomato soup where you can taste more than canned, milky tomato paste? Try it homemade. Adding broth and allowing fresh herbs to steep in the mix embolden the flavor; flecks of real tomato flesh fill the texture void. Smoothed out by a creamy finish, it ends lightly on the pallet and replenishes an empty growling stomach. Ideal for snow days and chilly nights, homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese side-by-side is a classic childhood meal. Only now, we’ve grown up and grown out of the Campbell’s kind.

Sure, Campbell’s still has the pop-top can. But at the end of the meal that’s a one trick pony headed for retirement. Homemade tomato soup teeters the edge between being a lighter, broth-based soup and a thick and heavy, creamy one. It sure can walk the line. One ‘taste test’ easily becomes a sampling of nearly half the soup before it makes its way into a bowl. Once it did make it to the bowl, the surface shimmered like buttery gold on a red sea. Dunking toasted grilled cheese into the soft red soup struck all the right cords. A creamy tomato soup paired with a grilled cheese oozing gooey American cheese was the climax of the meal, and maybe even the week.
After a bowl I’ll bet the Campbell’s kind will start to taste like ketchup with a faint metallic tin finish.

Tomato Soup
4 T butter
1 whole onion, diced finely
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans [14.5 oz] diced tomatoes
40+ oz tomato juice [use your discretion]
Salt and pepper
Fresh sprigs of basil, rosemary, thyme
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
½ cup whipping cream
1. In a large pot, melt butter until bubbly over medium high heat.
2. Add finely diced onions and garlic, sauté until translucent – about 5-7 min.
3. Remove pot from heat; add tomatoes to help onions cool.
4. Put all contents of pot into blender or food processor, blend.
5. Reintroduce mixture back to pot. Add a good amount of tomato juice [**how much you add depends on how thick you want the texture to be**]
6. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs then add chicken broth.
7. Bring this to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Reduce liquids to desired thickness.
8. Add whipping cream and heat until warm.
9. Garnish with fresh sprig of basil if desired.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hot Fudge Mondays

Ever have those days when you have a chocolate meltdown? A chocoholic without her fix is a dangerous beast, indeed. Suffering from the delirium of Monday withdraw, I opened up a stark kitchen cupboard. Behold!! …oh wait, it’s just cocoa powder. Feeling limited by the unsweetened brown dust, I racked my brain for ideas. It landed on hot fudge. I gathered the six ingredients needed for the recipe and the race to stuffing my face was on. In about 10 minutes, I had hot fudge the consistency of molasses and almost the taste of my grandma’s old fashioned chocolate pudding. Still warm, I ate a few spoonfuls. With a gooey chocolate smile, I concluded that Hershey’s would be proud.

Being a babysitter for years taught me that there is no greater 6-year-old bliss than dumping fudge on a mound of ice cream. Being a college student taught me there aren’t too many cheaper ways to go about making something chocolate. Plus, its utility isn’t too shabby either. Put it on ice cream or brownies, use it to make chocolate milk or hot chocolate, eat it plain [what I have commonly been caught doing], make a molten lava cake with it, etc. You can add different flavorings like bourbon or some other extract flavor to add variety. It’s a great alternative if you are in between grocery trips and have a hankering for chocolate.

[Sorry for the lack of pictures. If I end up with something to put the fudge on I will certainly update. But for now, I keep my secret stash hidden in the back of the fridge in a mysterious unmarked jar.]

Hot Fudge


1 cup sugar

2 T flour

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1 cup milk

3 T butter

1 tsp vanilla


1. Whisk together dry ingredients, make sure you get all the clumps out.

2. In a saucepan, heat milk, butter and vanilla over medium heat until butter has melted.

3. Add in dry mix, whisk until bubbling. Constantly stir until thickened, about 5-7 min.

4. Store in cool place.