Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Love my cupcake sprinkles and supplies from my good friend Maryn! Check out more of Sur la Table's great decorating ideas and supplies for Halloween. You've still got a few days before the big day to make your creepy table special with appropriately decorated treats!

Sunday Dinner: Roasted Chicken and Potatoes, Buttered Carrots, and Watercress Salad

One of my favorite dinners to make for our family Sunday dinner is a roasted chicken. Especially with the weather getting chilly outside, it warms your house and your stomach. I do a variety of preparations using various herbs and seasoning, but one of my top favorites remains using simple paprika. The sweet, smoky flavor adds warmth and color to your chicken. And by adding potatoes to the roasting pan too, you season the potatoes as the juices from the chicken melt out and baste the potatoes by itself. Two simple sides that come together in 10 minutes are buttered carrots and a watercress salad. This meal hits the spot for a romantic dinner by the fireplace, a hearty meal with the kids, or a special warm treat for family and friends. I love a bottle of pinot noir with this as well. Enjoy it! 

Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
1 roasting chicken (about 5-6 pounds) at room temperature
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 lb yukon gold potatoes
1 small white onion, peeled and cut in half

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove all the giblets from the chicken and discard. Wash the chicken with cool water and pat dry very well with paper towels. It's important that the chicken be at room temperature when you're working with it to ensure even cooking and a moist bird!

Season the cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper, and place the onion inside. Rub the outside of the chicken all over with the butter, making sure to get it everywhere you can. Season the outside of the chicken with a generous amount of salt and pepper, and a little sprinkling of the paprika. Set the chicken in a roasting pan.

To prepare the potatoes, wash and scrub the potatoes and pat dry with towel. Cut the potatoes in half, and even in quarters if needed to get all the potatoes roughly the same size (again to ensure even cooking). Place the potatoes in the roasting pan with the chicken, surrounding the chicken with the potatoes or if your pan is too small to do that, rest the chicken on top of a bed of the potatoes. Drizzle the potatoes with some olive oil and season them with a good amount of salt and pepper and another small sprinkling of paprika.

Place in oven breast side up and roast about 1.5 hours or until a meat thermometer reads 145-150 degrees. If you find your chicken is burning, then reduce the temperature down to 400 degrees and continue cooking until temperature is reached. If it's still burning, loosely cover the chicken with aluminum foil. Cooking chicken will completely depend on how powerful your oven is, so make sure you keep an occasional eye on it!

When chicken temperature is reached, remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes before cutting so juices can redistribute. This will ensure a moist bird for you.

Buttered Carrots
1 lb carrots, peeled and ends trimmed off
1/2 stick unsalted butter
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp granulated sugar

Cut carrots into 1/3 inch pieces. Slicing on the diagonal makes for a pretty presentation, but a rough chop is just fine as well. Place carrots in cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to high simmer and cook carrots until tender -- easily pierced with a fork. Drain and return carrots back to the drained pot. Add the butter, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Watercress Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
2 bunches watercress, stems removed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (eyeball it)
juice of 1 lemon

Wash and spin dry the watercress. Place in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. To make the simple vinaigrette, simply whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Drizzle over the watercress until they're just covered but not completely soaked in the vinaigrette. Give a gentle toss and serve immediately.

Goul Grub: Broccoli-Cheddar Soup with Cheese Quesadillas

Thursday, October 21, 2010

So we all know Halloween is all about the candy. Believe me, I know. I'm currently on the 3rd bag of candy we bought for trick-or-treaters. It'll be a miracle if it makes it until the 31st. Given that, it's important we also sneak in some healthy stuff in between the caramel apples and bite-sized Snickers.

Going healthy doesn't mean boring. I keep the Halloween theme with this super healthy broccoli cheddar soup -- going a little heavier on the broccoli gives it an eerie green color that's perfect for your little zombie or pumpkin. And using cookie cutters to cut out whole-wheat tortillas and low-fat cheese makes for a super fun and festive dunker for the soup.

Broccoli Cheddar Soup with Cheese Quesadillas
1/4 stick of butter (1/4 cup)
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 bag (16 oz) frozen broccoli, thawed
2 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock (recommend: Swanon's)
1/4 cup flour
half n half
finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
whole wheat tortillas

Heat butter in a large pot. Add the onions and carrot and season lightly with salt and pepper. Saute until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook another minute until garlic is fragrant. Add the flour all at once and mix the vegetables in. Stir it constantly so the flour doesn't burn. Incorporate that flour until it coats all the vegetables (takes about 2 minutes). Slowly add the stock, stirring or whisking as you go to melt the flour into the liquid. Scrape up any "brown bits" on the bottom and make sure that flour is nice and melted in. Bring to a boil.

Once boiling, add the broccoli. Cook another 10 minutes until broccoli is very tender.

To puree the soup, either place an immersion blender in and puree until nice and creamy or conversely, puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Once pureed, add about a cup of the cheese and stir until melted in. Add the half n half to taste and stir to combine. Adjust with seasoning and serve hot.

To make the quesadillas, use cookie cutters to cut out the different shapes. Remember: you need two of the same shape to make once quesadilla. Spray one side of each piece of tortilla with cooking spray. Top one slice with some more of the shredded cheese, then top with the other corresponding shape creating a "sandwich." You want the sprayed side up. Carefully place the tortillas in a pan set on medium-high heat. Grill until cheese is melted, about 1 minute on each side. Remove with spatula and serve immediately.

Kitchen Basics: The Easy Poached Egg Because It's Not Poached But Still Tastes Like It And You Will Thank Me For This

Many people love poached eggs. They're pillowy soft, filled with creamy gooey egg yumminess and when that golden deliciousness oozes out on some crisped bacon or toast, it can be simply heaven for a light breakfast treat. And the fact they don't involve any butter or oil makes them a much healthier alternative to the fried egg.

But poaching scares the ever-loving shit out of everyone. It did me for the longest time.

I tried it. I did the water with the vinegar and cracking the eggs into a small bowl and gently sliding them into barely simmering water. It never worked. It didn't work for 5 years. I bought poaching devices, bullshit guaranteed kitchen helpers that now serve as a device to throw at The Hubsters if he ever pisses me off. Thankfully, that's rare.

But what do I do when I'm seriously craving Eggs Benedict? Go out and pay $30 at my nearest restaurant for a version that still uses powdered Hollandaise? No thank you.

Instead, I make a soft boiled egg.

My grandma used to make me these as a kid all the time. They were great! She'd carefully remove the top part of the shell only, place the egg in the most adorable white egg pedestal ever, and then give me the spoon to dive right in. Then a couple of years ago I figured this is practically the same damn thing as a poached egg, but without all that inane hassle to make! Voila! Eggs Benedict on Saturday anyone??

My technique can't be easier. Try it. The hardest part is peeling the egg. That's it. And the egg stays warm and toasty until you're ready to use it. I love it on toast, on an English muffing with some Canadian bacon and a little chive (admittedly I'm not a huge fan of Hollandaise as a general rule), and it's awesome broke right atop a crispy crabcake!

Soft Boiled Egg
cold water
a timer or watch

(I'm serious, that's it)

Place the egg in a pot or small container for boiling. Cover with cold water until the water just covers the egg. Set on a high heat and bring up to a boil. Boil the egg for exactly 1 minute. After 1 minute, turn the heat completely off and let the egg sit in the water for another minute. Run the egg under cold water to make it cool enough to handle. Very gently crack the egg's shell and remove it. You now have a mock-poached egg. Serve immediately.

Ain't Yo Mama's Butternut Squash Soup!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'll be honest with you here. I'm not the biggest fan of butternut squash. All squash frankly. I find them bland. And I like flavor. So I developed this butternut squash soup recipe that has a lot of flavor. I mean, a lot of flavor. I'm not using a lot of ingredients, but I am using powerful ones. Bacon offers both flavor and fat which gives another background layer of flavor (you'll see what I mean in the recipe), and sage is a power-punch of fall that works perfectly with both the squash and bacon. I'm warning you thought: this is not a bland soup. If you like your butternut squash soup bland, this is not for you. Pass. If you like bold flavors, then giddyup y'all!

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Bacon and Sage
1 butternut squash
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 strips applewood smoked bacon, chopped small
1 white onion, chopped small
2 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh sage, finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried thyme (or fresh)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Wash the butternut squash and dry with a paper towel. Cut off both ends, then very carefully split the squash in half length-wise. Scoop out the seeds and stringy part and discard them. Lay the butternut squash down on the baking sheet, skin side down. Brush with olive oil all over and season generously with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast for 45 minute to an hour or until squash is very easily pierced by a fork.

Once squash is cooked, remove and set aside. Prepare the base of the soup.

Place the bacon in a pot. No need to add oil or anything because the bacon will render it's own fat. Cook bacon on  medium heat until golden and crispy and fat has been rendered, about 8 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside for garnish later. Pour out some of the bacon fat and leave about a tablespoon's worth left in the pot. Add the onions all at once and season with a small pinch of salt and some pepper to taste (remember: the bacon is naturally salty so don't kill it by adding the normal amount of salt! Taste before you add!). Cook onions on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. You'll find the water naturally found in the onions will come out; use that bit of moisture to help pick up the "brown bits" left on the bottom of the pot from the bacon. This is going to help you flavor your soup!

Once onions are softened, add the garlic, half of the sage (reserving the rest for garnish), and thyme and combine. Cook another minute or so until garlic is fragrant. Remove from heat.

Scoop out the butternut squash from the skin using a spoon and place directly into the pot with the onions. Use a wooden spoon to help mash it up and incorporate it into the soup. Place the pot back on the burner on medium heat and add the stock. Crank the heat up to high and mix the squash and onion mixture into the stock, melting and incorporating it all together. Once boiling, reduce and continue to cook another 10 minutes so flavors can meld together.

Now it's time to puree the soup. Take the soup off the heat. If using an immersion blender, carefully blend the soup until creamy consistency is achieved. If pureeing in a blender or food processor, then transfer the soup in batches (it'll take you 3-4 for this) and puree until smooth. Return to a new pot if using the blender/food processor; leave it in the same pot obviously if using the immersion blender. Taste and adjust soup with salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, simply garnish with the bacon pieces and some chopped sage.

My Notes:
For added creaminess and richness, you can add cream at the end as well. This soup is quite creamy on its own, so it really doesn't need the added calories but if you feel like being luxurious, then go for it!

Bacon can also be substituted with pancetta. I actually like the applewood smoked bacon for this because the applewood gives the soup a hint of sweetness to balance out the salty smokiness of the bacon. If that's not your thing and you'd rather have a pulled back bacon flavor, then use pancetta -- it's salted pork that hasn't been smoked so you won't get that "bacony" flavor but still get the crunchy topping and background salty goodness.

Go easy with sage. Sage is extremely potent when used fresh. Big time. Shockingly, moreso than rosemary in my opinion. It's not forgiving and won't go away like thyme or chive; it will linger and beat your ass if you use too much. Always better to start off small and if you want more, then add it chopped fresh at the end. You want butternut squash soup, not sage soup!

Cheese Ball Goblin: A Halloween Appetizer for Kid and Goul Alike!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I love the "cute" in Halloween as well. I love me some scary, but I have to bow down to the simply adorable aspect of the holiday as well. Continue the balance between scary/gross and cute when you do your table if you're hosting a party. Paula Deen's recipe for a simple and simply adorable cheese ball goblin fits the bill just right. Go nuts with the decorations; I love that they all are edible as well. And this simple appetizer will appease kid and adult alike, as well as be a focal point on your food table. Enjoy it and Happy Halloween!

Cheese Ball Goblin 
    - recipe from Paula Deen, Foodnetwork

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature, plus 2 (8-ounce) packages whipped cream cheese

4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon milk
2 cups shredded mixed cheeses, such as cheeses for tacos
Green food coloring
2 large tortilla chips
1 whole pepperoncini pepper
2 pimiento-stuffed olives
1 bell pepper, cut 2 thin strips and 6 small triangles
6 pitted green olives
20 small carrot sticks
3 cups shredded red cabbage
Assorted crackers
Assorted vegetables

Place 2 packages of cream cheese, butter, and milk in a mixing bowl, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth and combined. Add the shredded cheese and mix until well combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or up to 24 hours.

Remove the chilled cheese mixture from the refrigerator. Place the mixture on a piece of waxed paper and form the cheese ball into a head-like shape. Place 3 pieces of waxed paper around the edges of a serving plate, leaving open space in the center. Place the cheese in the center of the platter so some of it is right on the platter, but the edges are on the waxed paper. This will ensure that the platter does not get dirty while you make your goblin.

In a medium bowl, stir the remaining softened cream cheese until totally smooth. With a spatula, spread the whipped cream cheese over the head. It's O.K. if it's not totally smooth - this will give your goblin spooky skin.

Place a few drops of green food coloring in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of water and mix well. With a pastry brush, paint the tortilla chips with the food coloring until they are the desired color. Set aside to dry for a few minutes.

Once the chips are dry, press them into the sides of the cheese ball to form ears. Skewer the pepperoncini with a toothpick and then attach it to the center of the head to make a nose. Press the pimiento-stuffed olives into the head to form eyes. Use the 2 red bell pepper strips to make eyebrows. Take the pepper triangles and insert them into the holes in the pitted green olives. The green olives will serve as toes, and the red pepper strips will be scary toenails. Once the olives are assembled, press them into the bottom of the head to form the toes.

Press the carrot sticks into the head to form teeth. Leave them sticking out a bit to make scary teeth. It's O.K. if your carrot sticks are different lengths and thicknesses. Hold the head onto the platter with a spatula and gently pull away the waxed paper. Finally, press the cabbage into the top of the head to make hair.

Serve with crackers and assorted vegetables.

Happy Halloween: Witch Hat Cake!!!

I love making treats for Halloween in addition to giving them out. This Paula Deen recipe is super cute for a Halloween party, festive dinner, or bring-to-work treat to brighten everyone's day. It's not as complicated to make as it seems. Just takes some imagination and a creative spirit. Enjoy! 

Butter, for greasing pans
Flour, for dusting pans
1 box white cake mix, mixed according to package directions
Red food coloring
1 conical sugar ice cream cone
3 cans chocolate frosting
1 (8-inch) wooden skewer
1 tube marzipan
Confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
Colored sugar crystals
Decorative candies

Grease and flour 1 (9-inch) round baking pan and 1 (9-inch) square baking pan. Prepare the cake mix according to package directions, adding a few drops of red food coloring to batter. Remove cakes from pans and cool completely on wire racks. Trim the tops of each cake to make them an even thickness.

Cut a 5-inch, 3 1/2-inch, 2 1/2-inch, and a 2-inch circle from the square cake layer. Press the cutter straight into the cake without twisting. Twisting can cause the cake to be uneven. Remove the scraps and use them to fill the ice cream cone. Pack the scraps firmly into the ice cream cone.

Drape a cake stand with black fabric. Place 3 pieces of waxed paper around the edges of the stand, leaving an open space in the middle. Place the large round cake in the center of the stand, on the waxed paper. The waxed paper will prevent the cake stand from getting dirty while making the cake. Ice the cake with the chocolate frosting.

Place the 5-inch circle in the center of the cake. Ice the top completely. Place the 3 1/2-inch cake in the center of the 5-inch cake. Ice the top completely. Place the 2 1/2-inch cake on top of the 3 1/2-inch cake and ice the top. Place the 2-inch cake on top of the 3 1/2-inch cake and ice the top. Insert 1 end of the skewer into the cake stuffed ice cream cone. Press the other end of the skewer through the center of the cake layers to stabilize the cake and attach the ice cream cone.

Fit a pastry bag with a flat, thick tip. Alternately, use a resealable plastic bag and snip off 1 corner. Fill the bag with the remaining frosting. Pipe icing onto the cake from the 5-inch layer, up to the tip of the cone. Using this method, pipe icing all around the cake. Don't worry if everything is covered. Once the icing is roughly piped on, holding the tip of the ice cream cone, spread it evenly on the cake with a spatula.

To make the hat band: Cut a 2-inch piece of marzipan off the tube. Dust a work surface with confectioners' sugar. Place a few drops of food coloring on the marzipan and knead with your hand until desired color is reached. Roll out the marzipan, dusting the surface with confectioners' sugar as necessary to prevent sticking. Roll out to a 17-inch long rectangle that is about 1/8-inch thick. Cut into a 16-inch long by 1-inch wide strip. Brush the strip lightly with corn syrup. Sprinkle with colored sugar crystals. Set aside to dry for 15 minutes. Use extra marzipan for another purpose.

Wrap the hatband around the 5-inch cake. Decorate the cake with candy. Hold the cake still with a spatula and gently pull out the waxed paper.

From Scratch?

My good friend Christa recently posed an interesting question: "What qualifies as 'from scratch'?" Does using store-bought pizza dough but grilling all the rest of your vegetables and making your own marinara sauce count as "from scratch?" Does store-bought BBQ sauce versus making your own prevent your dish from taking the title From Scratch? Does it even matter at the end of the day?

A famous or shall I say infamous From Scratcher is non other than the cooking demi-god, Martha Stewart. She's built a name for herself from making even the most preposterous things from scratch. And don't get me started on the kumquats! For a pasta dish, she'd typically make her own pasta dough, roll it out and cut it, make her own sauce from the vegetables and herbs in her garden, bolster it with a stock she made last week, and then top it off with some fresh mozzarella she made Tuesday for shits and giggles.

That's great and all, but realistically we all don't have the time, money, and resources to do all of that from scratch. Am I a worse cook because I don't make my own pasta every time? Or I rely on the Great Mario Batali's bottle marinara for my pasta dishes? And fuck anyone who says my dish isn't "from scratch" because I'm using imported Parmesan. Newsflash dickheads: imported Parm is what's making it authentic! And so are the canned San Marzanos I'm using too.

On the other end of the spectrum living in the Land of No Return, we have the great Antichrist of Cooking -- Sandra Lee. In fact, she built a whole brand off of not making anything from scratch, but rather just throwing stuff other people made already together in a cauldron of horrors. This stupid bitch can't even chop an onion, let alone make a roux or bbq sauce from scratch. And we're supposed to pay her for her "tips" in her bibles of destruction and watch her shows like brainwashed sheep?


No, I think realistic "home-made, from scratch" cooking lies somewhere in the middle. On a continuum. A scale, measuring degrees of cooking techniques and from scratchiness, whereby Martha is a 10 and Sandra is a -2.

But does "from scratch" even matter? It seems to on competitive cooking shows like Top Chef. I distinctly remember a contestant getting reamed for using frozen puff pastry. Seriously Tom? You're gonna sweat him for puff pastry? When was the last time you made your own puff pastry? Oh that's right, you don't. And you rest on the laurels of your "Italianness" and instead make fresh food with an Italian flare, avoiding such poppycock as buttered thin sheets of goodness. Save that sort of nonsense for the silly French!

Ok, so puff pastry or phyllo dough are the exception. What about pastry dough? Simple to make: cold butter, flour, salt and ice water in a food processor comes together into a ball in literally 8 seconds. Cover and chill and voila! you have pastry dough for savory and sweet alike. But we buy Pillsbury's pastry dough at the market for $4. Is one better than the other? They probably taste the same (I don't know; I always make my own dough because I'm important). If I add herbs and seasonings to my dough, then it's different. Arguably better? Maybe not, but I'm getting brownie points for at least having something different.

Maybe that's what it is. "From scratch" is not indicative of tasting better, but rather showcasing the cook's abilities. Often you'll find "from scratch" tastes better though because the cook is taking the time to taste and adjust seasonings, as they are afforded the opportunity to manipulate the dish from the beginning. On the flip, some cooks just can't make stuff as good as stuff already out there. I suck at making pizza dough. So I shall buy it. And my pizzas rock because I manipulate the combinations, flavors, and textures on top. I make my own pesto, make my own and use bottled sauce, and definitely use bought cheese. And my pizzas are well known and adored. So are my pasta dishes, and I think I've made fresh pasta maybe once in my life? And it's usually lasagna, low-maintenance, "from scratch" and awesome at Christmas.

So what's considered "from scratch?" I don't know, but I'm more concerned with what tastes good. If you made your own puff pastry for that pot pie and it tasted like shit, I'm going for the other dude's topped with Pepperidge Farm. But if you've got a marinara brewing back there with tomatoes and basil from your garden, chances are I'm coming to dinner over at your house. I'll bring the wine. And the parmesan cheese from Italy.

Where do y'all stand on From Scratch? Sound off below...

Kitchen Basics: How To Boil An Egg

Friday, October 15, 2010

In a new feature here on The Enchanted Spoon, we'll cover some Kitchen Basics: I Swear To God You Can Master These Things Too. These posts aim to explain some basic cooking techniques, use of ingredients, and specialized kitchen equipment. I think you all will find them informative and thoughtful, and maybe give you a new idea or approach even if you know the stuff already.

Many cooking newbies say "I'm fucked, I can't even boil an egg." Well, I thought that would be the perfect place to start with Kitchen Basics. So here's how you boil an egg...

#1: Use Good Eggs
Organic v. not, whatever but make sure the eggs are fresh! Nothing is shittier or more depressing than an old, crappy tasting egg. So get them fresh, pay attention to that expiration date, and eat them faster rather than letting them sit in the fridge forever. Farm-fresh eggs are obviously the best. They will give you a more yellow yolk which is both pleasant to see and tastes richer. Do organic, cage-free taste better than a caged fucked up chicken egg? Not necessarily, in my opinion, but I just feel bad for the chickens so I buy cage free. I have heard some people say though that it does in fact taste different. Up to you.

#2: Size Doesn't Matter
What's the difference between a medium and extra large egg? The extra large one is bigger. Does it taste better? No. It will just give you a bigger boiled egg. Choose as you wish.

#3: White v. Brown
Are brown eggs better than white eggs? No. Then why are they more expensive? 'Cuz. Ok, here's the difference: white chickens lay white eggs, red/brown chickens lay brown eggs. That's it. There's the difference. Then why are brown ones more expensive? Because the red/brown chickens a larger than their white counterparts, and therefor eat more. So the grower needs recuperate that cost, so he puns it to you, the consumer. All chickens pretty much now eat the same shit anyway (a standard mix) so they all taste the same. Only difference will be when you get into that local farm territory where the farmer maybe manipulates the chicken feed  to enhance the eggs' flavor -- there might be a difference between that brown one and white when then if he's feeding his brown hens different food than the white guys. 

#4: Boiling The Egg
Always start with cold water. Why? It ensures even cooking. 
Place your eggs (brown or white, medium or extra large) in a saucepan or pot that's large enough to hold and not crowd the eggs, but small enough so they're not moving all over the place. We're going for a snug hot tub here. Cover the eggs with cold water.  From the tap is just fine. Set the egg on the stove to boil on a medium-high heat.
Once the water is boiling, turn the heat completely off and let the eggs stay in their hot water bath following this scale exactly:
medium size egg: 10 minutes
large size egg: 11 minutes
extra large egg: 12 minutes

Walk away. That's it -- you've just boiled an egg.

#5: Avoid the Mistakes
Most people improperly boil an egg by keeping the poor bastard at a roaring boil for 15 minutes or more. The egg is bobbing up and down from all the bubbling in the water, moving and knocking into the sides of the pot and into other eggs, causing them to crack. Not good. Not necessary. Eggs need only come to a boil and then just hang out in hot water to get fully cooked. That's it.

#6: Peeling and Serving The Perfect Boiled Egg
Carefully remove the pot of eggs and place in the sink. Run cold water right over it, letting the water spill over and transfer the cold water into the hot one. Now your eggs are cooled enough to handle but still warm to eat. Ha ha! Take each egg and gently crack it. Remove the shells and run it again under some warm water to remove all the small shell pieces. Cut in half and serve.
Your yolk should be a golden yellow color. Most people tend to overboil their eggs, creating a pale yellow yolk that turns into powder when you touch it. Not tasty. And it smells funny. You want a nice, moist and tender yolk to eat; not chalk. I like my yolks to be cooked but still a little creamy to the texture; not hard powder.
To serve, simply season with some good salt and freshly ground black pepper. Enjoy.

How To Mull A Cider

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

As the leaves start falling outside and the night gives way to pumpkin spiced chill, it's time for an old favorite: mulled cider.

Mulling is a process of heating a beverage to just under boiling and adding various spices to infuse into the beverage. It's generally served warm or hot and sometimes with accompanying garnishes such as fresh orange slice and even almonds. Many drinks can be mulled, but most popular throughout the world include red wine and apple cider here in the United States and Canada. I love getting a freshly pressed cider from a local farm and mulling it. You can find some interesting combinations using a variety of apples, and you can taste the difference in the drink!

Many stores offer mulling spices -- the traditional allspice berries, clove, cinnamon sticks, orange and/or lemon peel, and sometimes star anise and even vanilla bean -- that are affordable and easy to use. You of course can make your own combination using a variety of spices you like. Romanians tend to add whole black peppercorns to their mulled drinks, while Nordic people use cardamom. Whatever you use, be it store-bought or home-made it's sure to be warming in your throat and make your whole house smell just wonderful!

In this post I'll teach you to mull apple cider. Mulling wine requires a couple more ingredients, so we'll cover that later. To mull cider, simply put desired amount of apple cider in a saucepan. Add your spices -- for 1 cup of cider 2 tablespoons of spices is a good rule -- and set on a medium flame to come to a boil.

When the cider starts to boil, you want to reduce the temperature to low.

And I mean low:

Reason for this is you don't want to evaporate your juice! If you set it on a high boil you'll burn off the water in the apple cider too fast and then be left with a spiced reduction. Which, is not a bad thing actually if you're making a vinaigrette. But we're not here. We want to drink this. So keep it on a low boil.

You might be thinking, "Well why not just turn it off completely then?" Well yes, but spices need heat in order to release their essential oils. Keeping a steady, low simmer will allow the spices to permeate throughout the cider while not evaporating it.

Simmer that cider for about 10 minutes then turn off the heat. Let it stand another 3 minutes or so.

Now you need to drain out your spiced cider! Taking a fine sieve, pour the cider out into a large measuring cup or directly into mugs. Conversely, you can just fish for them with a spoon. If you want your cider spiked, simply add a shot of brandy or cognac or whiskey to your mug and pour the hot cider right over it. No need to mix -- it will dissipate naturally.

Now enjoy your mulled cider!

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Easy Pasta Wheels Pesto with Sneaky Green Veggies!

Ok, I have to admit here that my kids actually eat their veggies, especially Little Girl. I actually have trouble giving her meat, believe it or not! Little Boy is a lot harder to get to eat the veggies, so when I can sneak them in, I've hit a mommy home run. Easty pesto (get recipe here) brings this dish together in miliseconds. I like keeping the green theme so I use a combination of frozen peas, asparagus (frozen or any leftover from night before is great), and broccoli for this. The kids gobble it all up in seconds flat and I feel good that they got a big dose of their veggies.

When cooking for kids, I like to use fun pasta shapes like mini-wheels shown here, or mini bow ties or corkscrews. Anything fun will help entice a picky eater! And a confession: they're fun as an adult to eat too!

Easy Pasta Pesto with Sneaky Green Veggies
1/2 lb mini pasta wheels (or your favorite pasta shape)
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup asparagus (frozen, fresh or leftover), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup broccoli florets (frozen, fresh or leftover), roughly chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Easy Walnut Pesto
grated parmesan for garnish

Bring a pot of water to a roaring boil. Season the water with a good amount of salt, about 2 tablespoons. Add the pasta and frozen vegetables that you are using together in the same pot. Cook according to pasta directions, approximately 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain the pasta and accompanying vegetables and place in a large bowl for mixing or back in the pot (it's dirty anyway, right?). Add any fresh vegetables using (if you used frozen peas, asparagus, and broccoli, then don't worry about this step) and pesto in desired amount. I usually use about 1/4 cup's worth give or take. Gently toss the pasta and vegetables in the pesto sauce. Place in bowls and garnish with some grated parmesan cheese.

My Notes:
You can cook the frozen vegetables together with the pasta. It's all going to be mixed together eventually anyway, so why bother dirtying another pot for veggies? If you're using a mix of frozen and fresh or leftover veggies, just add the frozen ones with the pasta and toss the fresh ones later along with the pesto.

For adventurous eaters (or adults) you can add some sun-dried tomatoes and cut up fresh mozarella cheese. Want some protein? Add cooked chicken for a classic dish or serve grilled chicken or fish as the main and the pasta dish as a side.

Spice Cake with Cinnamon-Sugar Pecans

I love this cake in fall. I make it probably a half a dozen times between October and December for various reasons. It's incredibly easy to make and can be literally whipped up in less than 5 minutes and then baked off. Therefore, it's a great Emergency Dessert or Breakfast Item for unexpected guests who drop by at the last minute or a quick and seasonal alternative to donoughts to bring by church on Sunday morning. It transports very easily, so bring it to your neighbor's house or next dinner party you've been invited to. I've even added a little royal icing on the top, added candles, and served it as a birthday cake! My grandma still requests this every year in January for her cake!

It's Paula's Deen recipe but I've tweeked the directions a tad to be more clear. The best part in my opinion is the unexpected vein of cinnamon-sugar chopped pecans through the middle of the cake. So good! And it goes perfectly with that morning coffee!

Spice Cake with Cinnamon-Sugar Pecans
1 box spice cake mix
1 (4 serving) box instant vanilla pudding mix
1 cup sour cream
4 eggs
1/2 cup corn oil
5 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a bundt pan with nonstick spray. Set aside.

Using a handheld mixer fitted with the paddle beaters (or a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), beat together the cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, eggs, and oil until well combined. The batter will be very thick. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, and pecans. Set aside.

Portion out half of the cake batter into the sprayed bundt pan, evenly spreading it out. Top this layer with the pecan mixture, like so:

Then cover the pecan layer with the rest of the batter. You will probably have to dollop the batter around, as it's very thick and not easily spreadable. You don't want to diturb the pecan layer too much, so spoon out smaller amounts around, then using a spatula or knife smooth out the top like this:

Bake in oven for 40 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let stand to cool in pan 3 minutes. Then turn out the cake onto a serving platter. To do this, place a plate or serving platter on top of the bundt pan with the cake still in it. Then grabbing hold of the plate together with the bundt pan, flip it over so the bundt pan is now resting on top of the plate. Tap the top of the pan around to help losen the cake, then carefully lift the pan off. You should have a perfectly positioned bundt cake now on a plate or platter. Dust with confectioner's sugar if desired and serve.

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad

I bought a butternut squash because...it's fall, and that's what we're supposed to do! To be honest with you, I find all squash a bit bland for my taste. In particular, I really like any fall squash I eat, be it pumpkin, butternut, acorn, or spaghetti, to have lots of flavor and different textures going on. They're a great ingredient to use -- easily manipulated to take on any flavor profile you wish, adds instant color to any dish or menu, and cheap! -- so I thought I'd research and play around with different recipes to share with you all.

The first I tried out was Barefoot Contessa's Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette. I basically used her beautiful recipe as a starting off point and added a little here and there to get it the way I wanted. Only thing missing was some bacon!

Roasted Butternut Squash Sald with Warm Cider Vinaigrette      
by Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

1 (1.5 pound) butternut squash, peeled and 3/4 inch diced
olive oil
1 Tbsp pure maple syrup
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs dried cranberries
3/4 cup  apple cider or apple juice
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 Tbsp minced shallots
2 tsp Dijon mustard
4 ounces baby arugala, washed and spun dry
1/2 cup walnut halves, toasted
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place the squash on a sheet pan. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the maple syrup, 1 teaspoon salt, adn 1/2 teaspoon pepper and toss. Roast the squash for 15-20 minutes, turning once, until tender. Add the cranberries to the pan for the last 5 minutes. 

While the squash is roasting, combine the apple cider, vinegar, and shallots in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cider is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Off the heat, whisk in the mustard, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Place arugula in a large salad bowl adn add the roasted squash mixture, the walnuts, and grated Parmesan. Spoon just enough vinaigrette over the salad to moisten, and toss well.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immetiately.

My Notes:
As you can see above, I didn't use Parmesan cheese. I used a triple cream brie instead and loved the combination. I also think some crisped bacon or pancetta couldn't hurt this salad at all. Overall, a wonderfully colorful and flavorful salad for autumn.

Pesto Decoded: Basil 101 and The Miracle of Life

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


We all have it growing in our gardens like an unstoppable rebel force. We eat it every single time we go out for Italian food or Vietnamese. We see it sold in bulk at the market and we buy it because it's only $2 more than the considerably smaller package and so we figure we're actually saving money by getting the larger one only to find we come home and 2 days later it's all gone brown.

But what do we do with it? We make pesto.

Pesto is an Italian concoction of pureed basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil that forms a paste capable of being spread on a sandwich or tossed with cooked pasta. It's green, extremely flavorful, and stupidly easy to make. I'm serious here. If you have a food processor, there is no reason why you should be spending $4 at the store to buy store-bought pesto. Sorry - no excuses will be had here.

Pesto is actually a lot older than we thought. Basil originated in Northern Africa and then was cultivated in India. It made it's way in ancient times to Rome, where it found a home as a staple ingredient in Liguria (modern day Genoa) and Provence (in France). The Romans made it by grinding up basil, garlic, hard cheese similar to parmesan or romano, pine nuts, course salt, vinegar and olive oil in a morter. They called the spreadable paste moretum. This basil-nut-cheese concoction stayed very popular throughout Roman times and into modern day, gaining popularity outside of Europe only in the 1980's believe it or not. In France, a similar combination called pistou involves grinding basil and parsley, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and oil to make a chunkier consistency that is often used as a finisher in soups and stews. Other cultural "pestos" include chimichurri and gremolata, using the same basic principle of ground leavage, a lot of garlic, acid (by way of vinegar or citrus), and oil.

Green isn't the only color either. Sicilian style pesto involves using tomatoes and almonds instead of basil and pine nuts. Other variations include sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red bell peppers, and even cooked artichoke hearts. But if green is your thing and you don't have basil on hand, then just use watercress, spinach, parsley, cilantro, or even mint in combination with almonds or walnuts for a Mediterranean twist on the Roman classic. Want it spicy? Add red pepper flakes like the Sicilians or fire-roasted jalapenos like the Argentinians.

Pesto can be made with a variety of nuts. Most authentic, of course, is using pine nuts. But given how expensive they are, other nuts can be substituted in these economic times to achieve the same goal. Walnuts work extremely well as a substitute. Considerably cheaper, they offer the same earthy background flavor as pine nuts but at well under half the price. So given these economic times and all of us on The Budge, I thought I'd post a recipe here using walnuts. Go ahead and substitute the pine nuts if you want to make the authentic classic version. I do!

I call pesto "Miracle of Life" because it's so versatile. If kept properly, you can freeze it and have an instant sauce for pasta in an emergency lunch or dinner. It's low calorie and very little fat. It can top grilled anything from chicken to fish to even steak. It can spread on a sandwich for an amped up turkey on sourdough. It can be spread on grilled bread and topped with cheese and prosciutto for a super quick appetizer. And it can even be a dip for veggies for a party. It is dependable, always available, and like a good friend, will bail you out of everything without judging your laziness and poor decision making. It is the Giver of All Things, and the Miracle of Life.

Basic Yes Even YOU Can Make This Pesto For Everything Miracle of Life
1 cup of walnuts
4-6 cloves of garlic (to taste), peeled
about 4 cups of fresh basil (3/4 of the large package or approx 2 bunches)
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil

Place the walnuts and garlic in your food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Next add the basil, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Just top it high like this:  

Pulse until finely chopped. Next, remove the cover to your processor's feeder tube. This is the very top part that can be removed so you can add liquid while the processor is still running without making an epic mess in your kitchen:

With the processor "on", pour in enough oil until a paste consistency is formed:

You want the end product to be thick enough to be able to spread on bread easily, but not too thin so it falls apart. It should look something like this:

 Your pesto is now ready. If using immediately, go ahead and toss it with cooked pasta or use on sandwich or transfer to another dish. If planning to use later, simply place pesto in an air-tight container. Top the pesto with a layer of olive oil like this:

This will help prevent the pesto from turning brown on top (which happens when it comes into contact with air for too long -- the basil oxidizes). At this point you can store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer until ready to use. To defrost, simply leave out for an hour or two or submerge in warm water halfway up the container for 40 min.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Honestly, who doesn't love spaghetti and meatballs? If you're vegetarian, I know deep down you still love spaghetti and meatballs. It's ok -- you can admit it -- I won't tell anyone. (winks) Regardless, if you're a kid you definitely love it. And with all the horrendous versions permeating our dining out options (hello Brick Smothered In Sauce), I choose to make it home from scratch because it's shockingly easy and this way I can control the fat and MSG going into my kiddos' tummies.

To make it healthier, I choose organic lean ground sirloin (only 7% fat) and then bake them rather than fry them. Add a box of dry spaghetti and a jar of your favorite organic sauce (or Emeril's or Batali's of course) and you have a hearty meal in 30 minutes. And I'm not Rachel Ray -- I don't bullshit you -- this actually tastes good and is ready, in fact, in 30 minutes. Not 50.

The recipe is based on Andrew's Sicilian Mama's recipe for meatballs, with a couple of tricks I added to make them tastier and moister. The problem is when using such lean meat, you'll get a dry ball. And no one likes dry balls. Moist balls are better than dry balls. So follow my directions exactly and you won't get a brick smothered in sauce, but rather a still-moist and tasty ball. Make it tonight!

Spaghetti and Meatballs
For the meatball:
1 lb lean, organic ground sirloin, at room temperature
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried oregano
2 Tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp Italian bread crumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp cream or half n half

For the spaghetti:
1 lb dried spaghetti
kosher salt
1 jar favorite marinara sauce (recommend: Batali's or Emeril's)
1 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
freshly grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a rack on top (if using).

Place the ground beef in a large glass bowl. Season liberally with salt and pepper (about 1 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp of pepper is what I usually do when making it for the kids; if for adults then do a full teaspoon of pepper). Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onions. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper (will help caramelize them) and cook on medium heat until softened, 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook another minute. Remove from heat and add the onion and garlic mixture right on top of the ground beef in the mixing bowl. Add the basil, oregano, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, egg, and cream all at once. Then using a spatula or your hands, gently fold the mixture to incorporate all of the ingredients. Be careful not to over mix as that will yield a tough meat ball. You want the mixture to hold together enough but not be too grainy. Once just combined, take out about a heaping tablespoon's worth of meat mixture and gently roll and press it into a ball. Repeat with the remaining mixture. This should yield you 12-15 balls depending on how small or big you make them.

Place each ball on the baking sheet, evenly spacing them out, and place in oven. Cook for 15 minutes.

While the balls cook, make the pasta portion. When water comes to a roaring bowl, add a good tablespoon of kosher salt -- be careful, the salt will make the water jump and bubble so take a step back! Add the pasta all at once and give it a good stir with tongs. Cook according to package directions, about 10 minutes. Drain once cooked and place back into the pot.

Place the pasta sauce in a saucepan and heat through. Once hot, add the remaining basil and give it another stir.

To assemble the dish, simple toss the drained pasta with half of the marinara sauce right in the pot. Reserve the rest of the sauce to top the meatballs. Portion out the pasta on plates or place whole thing in a large serving platter. Portion out the meatballs on individual plates or nuzzle them in with the sauced pasta. Pour the remaining sauce over and top with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

My Notes:
If beef isn't your thing, you can certainly substitute ground turkey or chicken for the meat balls. But keep in mind you'll probably need to add a little more cream to the mixture then so they stay moist. You want the consistency of the meat mixture to be soft and moistened, and not grainy but still be able to hold together in a ball form.

You can fry the meat balls if you really want to -- just coat the bottom of a pan with olive oil and cook balls on all sides until golden brown. But by cooking in the oven you get a healthier version and easier clean up!

Fall Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just because summer's over doesn't mean we have to stop with the salads! In fact, fall ushers in a whole basket full of new ingredients we can incorporate with our leafy greens for a healthier main meal or colorful side dish. In keeping with my fruit-nut-cheese combination, I use fall fruits including apples, pears, cranberries, and grapes in conjunction with almonds, pecans, and walnuts with virtually any cheese out there. I love the goats, and so a smoked or aged goat pairs awesomely with apples, while bleu cheeses still go great with grapes, dried cranberries, and ripe sweet pears.

I whipped up this quickie salad using some local honey for the vinaigrette. Don't have honey? You can use Dijon mustard and a 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar but you should really have a jar of good quality honey in your pantry especially this fall and winter season! Enjoy it!

Fall Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
1 bag baby romaine and butter lettuce (or mixed greens)
1/4 of a red onion, very thinly sliced
1 apple (recommend honeycrisp or fuji), diced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup good quality feta cheese, diced
1/4 cup thinly sliced almonds, toasted
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp honey
2 Tbsp white balsamic vinegar or the juice of one lemon
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Place the lettuce in a large bowl. Add the red onion, apple, and cranberries. Season with salt and pepper to taste. To make the vinaigrette, simply whisk together the olive oil, honey, vinegar/lemon juice. Drizzle over the salad then toss gently to coat everything with the vinaigrette. Top with the feta cheese and almonds, then give another gently toss. Serve immediately.

My Notes:
To toast the almonds, simply place the sliced almonds in a dry pan and heat through on a medium flame. Make sure to move them around with a spatula or spoon so they don't burn. Once just beginning to change color, remove promptly and into another bowl (leaving them in the pan will burn them as they will continue to cook!).

You can use any fruit-nut-cheese combination. I like having the saltier feta cheese against the sweeter cranberries and apples. A smoked gouda would work wonderfully if using just apples.