Halloween Treats: Pumpkin Smiles and Scary Eyeballs! A Healthy Snack for Your Little Trick or Treaters

Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm a huge fan of the candy. Like, seriously. However, being a parent I feel I need to be responsible and balance out today's festivities with a little health factor. Healthy doesn't mean boring, especially for Halloween. With the color palate we're given to work with and ambience of the day, we have a lot to work with to make any food fun and totally festive.

For our Halloween party over the weekend I put out these healthy treats that tricked the kids into thinking they were having something sweet and special. Haha! Simple and healthy orange slices are renamed "pumpkin smiles" and are easy for kids of any age to eat. And green and purple grape "eyeballs" round out the perfect Halloween color scheme. As you can see, when put together the colors and shapes are irresistable. And you can feel good you're giving your little ones something a little healthy to combat the candy today.

Pumpkin Smiles and Scary Eyeballs
2-3 large navel oranges
3 cups mixed green and purple grapes, rinsed well

Cut the oranges into 1/4-1/2" thick rounds, discarding the ends. Cut each round in half to make half-moon shapes, or "smiles." Mix the grapes together. Layer the orange slices on the perimeter of a platter, then pile the grapes in the middle. Serve.

Halloween Treats: Spooky Ghost Cheese Ball with Crackers

Looking for some last minute, easy Halloween foods to spruce up today? This is something that can come together in literally minutes and is perfect for munching on while trick or treaters grace your doorstep. You can flavor the ball with any cheese combination you like, but I like simple cream and cheddar cheese. Finely chopped sundried tomatoes add a pop of color and tangy flavor as well. Enjoy!

Spooky Ghost Cheese Ball with crackers
16 oz cream cheese -- preferably at room temperature
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese (yellow or white, your favorite brand)
2 Tbsp sundried tomatoes in oil, drained and finely chopped
pinch of kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
small pinch of fresh thyme or basil leaves, finely chopped (optional)
about 1/2 cup cold sour cream
3 large black spanish olives
favorite crackers (I like ritz for this)

Place the cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Add the cheddar, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and herbs if using and mix well with a spatula to combine. Having the cream cheese at room temperature isn't necessary, but it makes this mixing process easier. If you're using cold cream cheese, then try using a handheld mixer or standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to make it easier on you.

Once combined well, simply gather up all the cheese spread "stuff" into a ball form or as close you can get to it. Place the cheese ball on the center of a plate or serving platter and using your spatula, smooth out the tops and sides to create a nice shape. Spread the sour cream over the cheese ball and down to the sides, then press the olives in to make 2 eyes and a mouth. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour, preferably 4 to make sure the form is set. This can also be served right away, but if you do that then try to use the cold cream cheese.

Garnish with crackers and serve. I've found a cheese knife helps for easy service.

You can use any combination of herbs you like -- rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley, chives, scallions finely chopped -- they all will go great with cream cheese. You can use any cheese combination you like too, but cheddar is always a crowd favorite. If you wanted, you can make a spicier version for the adults with some cayenne pepper or hot sauce added in. This version written above is perfect for kids to help themselves too during Halloween prep and before and after trick-or-treating.

Happy Halloween!!!

Halloween Treats: Orange and Purple Marshmallow Pops for Kids (and Adults!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I cannot thank my friend Virginia enough for turning me onto these marshmallow pops. They are so easy to do, and present so beautifully on a food table and are the runaway hit of every single party I've made them for. Kids go nuts for them, and parents do to. The options are literally endless once you've gotten the basic technique down, which is extremely simple. Even better? These are cheap to make and can make a lot.

Candy melts come flavored with a hint of vanilla. You can get or combine virtually any color you like!
Start off with a bag of jet-puffed marshmallows. Don't bother complicating things with homemade marshmallows; they will be far too soft for this project. Then get your candy melts in whatever color you like. I use Wilton brand you can find at any Michael's store or order online. For the party since it's a kid's themed one this year and Little Girl forbade me from doing anything remotely scary or gross, we did an orange and purple theme with hints of black and yellow. You'll also need lollipop sticks, also found at Michael's or can order online, colored sprinkles of your choosing, wax paper for them the dry on, and a couple of pairs of eager little hands to help you out.

bright orange and purple crystal sprinkles are hard to resist for any trick or treater!
Here are the ingredients for what I used exactly for this project:

Orange and Purple Marshmallow Pops
1 bag jet-puffed marshmallows
about 36 lollipop sticks
1/2 bag orange candy melts -- recommend Wilton brand
1/2 bag purple candy melts -- recommend Wilton brand
1/2 cup orange crystal sprinkles
1/2 cup purple crystal sprinkles
wax paper

Here's the step by step to make them:

1. Stick a marshmallow on a stick. Repeat with all the marshmallows and sticks. Each bag will give you about 34-36 marshmallows. 

2. Melt the candy melts. Place the candy melt chips in a microwave safe bowl. A glass bowl works best. Then on 50% power (or on the defrost setting), microwave for 1 minute, then at 30 second intervals until melted. Using a spatula, stir to combine and smooth out. You're now ready to dip.

3.  Dip the marshmallow stick into the melted candy and swirl it around to coat. You can coat as much or as little of the marshmallow as you like. I personally like the marshmallow part to be visible so people know what it is they are eating, but if you want the whole thing covered then go for it!

 4.  Tap off excess candy melt from the marshmallow. It helps if you gently tap the stick on the side of the bowl as you slowly rotate the stick between your fingers. You want enough coating so the sprinkles will set on top, but if you have too much of the candy part it will drip down and make a bizarre shape when it dries. Use your judgement.  

5.  Roll the dipped marshmallow in the sprinkles. I've found using a combination of gently tapping the marshmallow as you roll it in the sprinkles works best. You can cover as much or as little of the marshmallow as you like; for this I liked having the entire candy melt part covered with the shiny sprinkles, but I also like when some of the candy melt peeks out on its own as well. Up to you.

6.  Lay out a layer of wax paper on a sheet pan or counter top, then place dipped marshmallows on top to set. Using wax paper lets you remove them extremely easily after they're set and the candy melt is hardened. You can use parchment paper, but wax paper really is the best for this kind of thing. Once you've set them down, don't touch them until they're completely hardened or else you'll ruin the shape. It'll take about 2 hours for them to completely dry and be ready to be stored.

Chances are you'll have the candy melts that you melted left over. Don't throw it away! Simply lay out another layer of wax paper and pour out the melted candy like this. Let it set up again (about 2 hours), then crack it into pieces and store in a Ziploc bag for future melting projects!

You can make these up to a whole week in advance. You can keep them in the refrigerator uncovered! (if you cover them and put them in the fridge, the condensation from the moisture in the fridge will soften your sprinkles and make them soggy) or place in gallon-sized Ziploc bags and store at room temperature in a dark place away from heat or the sun.  

You can serve them in cups, canisters, out on platters, bundled up into plastic candy bags and sealed with a pretty ribbon and given away as treats, however you like! These are perfect to give away at kids' school Halloween parties, after church, to the neighborhood kids on Halloween, or put out for a party at home like I'll do this weekend. Again, you can use any color combination or sprinkle you desire -- the technique remains exactly the same. In fact, Wilton puts out seasonal colors and for Halloween right now you can get jet black for a super spooky treat or a creepy slimy neon green color. Love that green with some tiny bone sprinkles! Use your imagination and have fun with it.

And this makes a really fun and easy project to do with kids too. Mine loved dipping and twirling and sprinkling the marshmallows. It's a fun project to teach the kids at school too if you're a teacher. It's fun, it's cheap, and makes tons of treats.

Happy Halloween!!!

Week Night Yum Yum: Shrimp n' Grits

Monday, October 10, 2011

No picture....because it was THAT good, no one could stop one second to let me take the picture. Everyone devoured this dish. So, you'll just have to make it and see!

I'm going to get some slack on this one for using par-cooked grits, but in my defense I plead: (1) pregnancy and (2) sickness so please forgive. However, the "instant grits" does make this a super easy week night meal. So there.

Shrimp n Grits...the class combination of creamy polenta-style hominy grits with sweet shrimp flavored with savory andouille sausage, the trinity, and garlic is a time-honored tradition in many southern households. Browsing through a recent edition of Bon Appetit, I found a recipe for shrimp n grits as a breakfast item. Indeed, with the addition of a fried egg on top, you can make this traditional supper dish into a brunch delight. The other day I felt like breakfast for dinner, and the combination of warm, comforting grits with spicy andouille and shrimp and topped off with a creamy fried egg just sounded divine. Just needed the rain to start up to finish the atmosphere, and so it did.

Here's my version, adding a bit more flavor with the addition of the trinity in the shrimp part of the dish and scallions and parsley on top for the perfect topping. The best part? Breaking the yolk into the creamy hot grits. This is the definition of comfort food folks. Enjoy it.

Shrimp n' Grits
for the shrimp:
1 small white onion, chopped small
1 large celery stalk, ends trimmed and chopped small
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped small
1 cup andouille sausage, chopped small
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp vegetable oil + 2 Tbsp for eggs, divided
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp chopped fresh scallion

for the grits:
1 cup chicken stock
2 cups hominy grits (instant or par-cooked)
1 Tbsp good unsalted butter
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (orange or white is fine)
kosher salt
splash of heavy cream

Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saute pan. Add the andouille sausage and cook until browned and fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Lower heat to low, and using a slotted spoon, take the sausage out and set aside (you'll put it back in later). Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the onions, celery, and bell pepper all at once and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until tender, about 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and shrimp and stir to combine. Add the broth and using a spoon, gently scrape up the "brown bits" on the bottom of the pan. Cook until the shrimp are firm and turn bright pink. Add the andouille back in, stir to combine, and sprinkle with some of the parsley and scallions (reserving some for garnish). Set aside.

To make the grits, heat the broth in a pot and bring to a simmer. Add the grits all at once, and using a whisk, stir to combine. Cook the grits about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until creamy and golden and tender. Keep the lid on the grits when you're not stirring it, and make sure the flame is on low once you've added the grits. Once the desired texture of grit has been achieved, remove from heat. Add the butter, cheese, salt to taste, and a splash of cream and mix to combine. Serve piping hot.

*You can make the grits ahead of the shrimp or start them at the same time.

To fry the eggs, add the oil to another clean preferably non-stick pan. Crack the eggs (or do them one by one) into the oil and cook until the bottom is set. Use a spoon to gather the oil from the pan and throw it back onto the top of the egg to help cook the top a little if you dislike "runny" eggs; this is called "basting the egg." Cook until bottom is firm and set (you can flip them over too if you like them over-easy). Season the eggs with a small pinch of salt and pepper.

To plate, divide a portion of grits into deep bowls. Spoon the shrimp mixture on top of the grits. Add an egg to each dish, and garnish with a small sprinkling of parsley and scallion. Serve piping hot.

Autumn Date Night: Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking for a fancier dinner for a stay-home date night? Perhaps having a small dinner party coming over and want to impress them without getting too complicated? This is the perfect dinner for you!

Nothing is more comforting than a nice roasted chicken. However, even I get sick of the same ol' chick. When I feel like something different, something with a little more "awe" factor I go to cornish game hens. You'll find not only do they taste amazing, but they're even easier to prepare than a big roasted bird.

Cornish game hens look like mini chickens but taste a little more like turkey with a slightly gamey taste that's just wonderful. They can be prepared the same exact way you would a chicken or turkey -- brined or not, often roasted, flavored with pretty much anything -- and they take just a tad over an hour to cook. They are low-stress and make a stupidly easy food to make for a special occasion dinner or for company, because you can prep them in advance then pop them in the oven and actually enjoy your guests. For this recipe, I used simple salt, pepper, and good olive oil for seasoning and some fresh thyme and sage to stuff in the cavity for aroma and flavor. So easy and so good.

To go along with, I wanted something a little more special than rice or potatoes (which you can certainly do for this dish as well). Israeli cous cous is not only super easy to prepare, but it's fun to eat. Prepared just like pasta or other cous-cous, you can flavor it as you like and make it in advance, keeping it at room temperature until ready to serve. I wanted to go the spice route in the dish with the cous cous, so I cooked it with chicken broth (always adds richness) and flavored it with a cinnamon stick, then fresh scallions and mint, currants, and toasted pine nuts. It offered a wonderful contrast to the hen and the different textures were so much fun to eat.

To round out the dish, hearty (and healthy!) kale. The easiest of the three to prepare, I simply braised fresh kale leaves in some olive oil, garlic, and chicken broth until wilted and tender. I think the total prep-to-cook time was maybe 10 minutes, if that. Also can be done in advance and simply rewarmed right before serving.

Plating them together in a restaurant-style adds Fancy Factor to the dish and will be sure to impress. This meal is all inclusive, tastes amazing, and will delight your senses and guests. Enjoy it!

Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale
for the hens:
2 cornish hens
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
fresh thyme and sage leaves  (you can use any combo of herbs you like)
extra virgin olive oil

for the cous cous:
1 3/4 chicken stock
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (or olive oil)
1 cup Israeli cous cous
1 cinnamon stick
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh scallions
2 Tbsp fresh mint leaves, torn
2 Tbsp dried currants (or cranberries)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts

for the kale:
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves torn or cut into pieces
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wash the hens and gently pat dry with paper towels. Getting them as dry as possible will enable you to season them properly and let the brown properly in the oven. Either spray or rub with some olive oil an oven-proof dish that the hens can fit into snugly. Season the hens on the outside generously with salt and pepper, and inside the cavity as well. Stuff the cavity with the herbs and fit into the baking dish. You can tie the legs together with kitchen twine if you wish, but if you chose the right dish they will fit snugly enough so you don't have to tie them. Place in oven and roast for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until juices run clear when cut. The last 20 minutes of roasting, begin basting the hens every 10 minutes like you would a turkey to ensure even browning and nice color. When done roasting, let stand 5 minutes before serving so juices can redistribute.

To make the cous cous, heat the chicken broth and butter in a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the cous cous all at once as well as the cinnamon stick and salt. Give a stir, cover with lid, and reduce heat to low. Let cook stirring once or twice until all the liquid is absorbed and the cous cous is nice and plump and tender, about 10 minutes. If you have to, add more broth. Once the cous cous is ready, add the scallions, mint, currants and pine nuts and toss with a fork to incorporate and fluff up the cous cous. It is now ready to serve.

To make the kale, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan or pot until warm. Add the garlic and cook stirring often until the garlic just begins to turn golden brown. Add the kale all at once -- the water from the kale will make the oil jump and crackle, so don't be alarmed -- and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute the kale a few minutes, then add the broth. Cover with lid, and let simmer at medium-low heat until kale is nice and tender, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.

To plate the meal, spoon out some cous cous in the middle of a plate. Place the hen right on top of the cous couscous cous. Dot the kale around the cous cous (or serve on the side for people to help themselves). Serve.

*This recipe is enough for 2 people, with some cous cous left over. To make for 4, simply add 2 more hens and season them appropriately; cooking time will remain the same. And add 2 more bunches of kale to the recipe, and up the broth to 1/2 cup for the braise. The cous cous should be just enough for 4 people, but you can make more if you wish. Adjust according to cous cous package instructions.

Make Ahead Tips:

1) you can season and stuff the chickens the morning of or even night before the party; bring to room temperature (15 min) before ready to place in oven.

2) the cous cous can be done a few hours in advance and just kept covered at room temperature.

3) the kale can be done a few hours in advance, then rewarmed before serving.

Another American Classic: The Waldorf Salad

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Everyone's heard of the famous Waldorf Salad. Conceived at the Waldorf Hotel in NYC in the 1890s, it traditionally consisted of simply apples, celery, walnuts and a mayo-based dressing. It remained a popular salad appetizer for years, coming and going back en vogue over the years with different variations and updates to serving the classic combination.

Variations include adding a protein (usually chicken or turkey), green or red grapes, and lightening up the heavy mayo-based dressing with healthier yogurt. I took a cue from both history and modern, and made up a version I think combines both without compromising the integrity of the original salad. I add chicken for substance, making this a very servable luncheon menu just perfect for a shower or light dinner with the girls. I keep the sweetness coming from carefully selected apples, and add a balance of savory with onion and celery. The dressing is half mayo and half yogurt, the tangy yogurt being balanced out perfectly with the sweetness of the honey and apple cider. I think the combinations of all the ingredients are perfectly balanced in taste, and make for a very pretty salad.

This is great in smaller portions for a fancier classic dinner party or just perfect for a bridal or baby shower, lunch, or lighter dinner. Enjoy!

Waldorf Salad with Chicken
for the salad:
2 whole chicken breasts, boneless and skin less
3 Tbsp olive oil or nonstick cooking spray (such as PAM)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 sweet apples -- such as Fuji, Gala, or Pink Lady -- cubed
3 ribs celery, chopped small
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 cup walnuts
1 head boston or bibb lettuce, leaves washed and left whole

for the dressing:
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp good quality honey
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the chicken breasts with the olive oil (or spray them) and season liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Bake in oven for about 20 minutes or until cooked through. Once cooked, remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before cutting; this will let the juices redistribute and give a moister chicken. Cut the chicken against the grain into strips, and then into cubes. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 or even 3 days in advance. Conversely, you can use store-bought cooked roasted chicken breast and cube them into bite-sized pieces.

Place the apples, celery, red onion, and walnuts in a mixing bowl. Add the chicken. Set aside. Take the lettuce and portion out onto plates, about 2-3 leaves per person.

In another mixing bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing. Season it with the salt and pepper to taste, then drizzle it over the apple and chicken mixture. You want the dressing to very much evenly coat the salad, but not completely drench it; you'll probably have some dressing left over. Toss the salad in the dressing to evenly coat.

To assemble, simply spoon out the chicken salad mixture into the middle of the lettuce on each plate and serve.

Make Ahead Notes:
You can cook the chicken ahead of time as stated and make the dressing up to 2 days in advance. Cover each and refrigerate until ready to assemble. You can also wash the lettuce and even portion it out onto plates a head of a dinner party, cover the plates with plastic wrap and refrigerate until right before serving.

You need to cut the apples right before serving, however, to prevent them from oxidizing and turning brown. You can technically cut them and keep them in lemon juice, but I personally find the added acidity throws off the delicate balance of the salad. Just cut them before you're ready to toss the salad and serve it.

An Evening with Boardwalk Empire: Delmonico Potatoes, Officially My New Guilty Pleasure

Monday, October 3, 2011

I'm warning you right now, these potatoes are SO good but so fatty and bad for you. But you'll make this anyway and eat them and be in heaven.

For the main course of our Boardwalk Empire inspired menu, I took a cue from famous New York steakhouse Delmonico's at the time and did a simple Delmonico style top sirloin (salt, pepper, grilled) and their famous Delmonico Potatoes to go with. I did lots of research on the potatoes and found a few variations. The common theme includes: cubed potatoes, white sauce, melted cheese on top. Some variations had the potatoes cut in hash shape (or shredded), while others included breadcrumbs in the topping mixture. One even had sliced tomatoes. I took a really simple approach and added my own twist on top with some paprika for color. The potatoes are tender, savory without being overpowering, hot and comforting and just so amazing, complimenting the steak just perfectly.

par-cooked potatoes smothered in the white sauce

For this recipe I made it completely from scratch, cubing the potatoes myself and then blanching them in hot water. You can make this a totally week night friendly meal by using a bag of frozen cubed potatoes or even the hashbrown style potatoes (unseasoned -- just the shredded kind) instead to cut down on about 20 minutes of prep time. I also made the white sauce from scratch which is basically an alfredo sauce. Another corner cutter is to use a jarred alfredo, but I personally find making my own so easy and I can control the flavor and salt much better.

As for the cheese you must use cheddar. I used a sharp English cheddar because that's what I love and that's what I had, but any cheddar (white or orange) will do just fine. I used Hungarian paprika, but you can use regular if you like. Smoked would even be amazing in this. Just go light with the dusting -- you're using the paprika here for color more than flavor!

Delmonico Potatoes
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely minced white onion
kosher salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream (or 1 cup of half n half in place of the whole milk + cream)
2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
4 lbs brown potatoes (like russett or idaho), peeled and diced small then blanched*
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
pinch of paprika for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan or pot. Add the onions and season with some salt. Saute for a minute or two, then add the garlic and saute another minute, stirring often so as not to burn the onions and garlic. Add the flour all at once and mix in. You're creating a roux between the butter and flour, so you'll notice the mixture clump up together after about 30 seconds. Cook the flour out about a minute, then add the cream (or half n half) a little at a time, stirring it into the roux as you go. You'll see every time you add the liquid the roux will clump up; this is normal, just stir it well to make it all blend together. Once the cream has been added, add the milk slowly but all at once, and give it all a good stir. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn off heat.

Stir in the parmesan cheese (off the heat) until it's nicely melted into the sauce. If your pan or pot is large enough, add the potatoes right in and give it a good fold; conversely place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl then pour the white sauce over them. Don't stir the potatoes because that will break up the pieces; rather using a gentle folding technique to cover them with the sauce.

topped with shredded cheese, parsley, and a dash of paprika for color
Pour the sauced potatoes into a baking dish, then top with the parsley, cheese, and paprika. At this point you can cover and refrigerate until ready to bake (even make it a day before). Place in oven and cook until top is golden and bubbly, about 10-15 minutes. Remove and let stand for 2 minutes before serving. Serve hot or at room temperature (better hot!)

baked to golden, oozing perfection
*To blanch the potatoes, simply bring a pot of cold water salted with 3 Tbsp of kosher salt to a roaring boil. Dump the cubed potatoes inside the water all at once, and cook for about 5-8 minutes or until a knife can just start to penetrate though. You don't want the potatoes cooked like for mashed potatoes (too soft), nor for them to still be raw (too hard). When the knife or fork just begins to penetrate the outside, the poatoes are done.