Simple Thanksgiving Appetizers and Desserts

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Apologies for postings being fewer and farther between as of late. I too am getting ready for the start of the holiday season. But this year finds me in a predicament, because given my pregnancy condition, I need to take it really easy for Thanksgiving festivities. Normally I do a huge spread, but this year I have to scale down a little bit and be smarter about what I serve. The result? Super tasty, seasonal foods that will surely delight that are fun and easy to make. Here are my tips.


It seems almost silly for such a feast day to include appetizers, but they're a must and I'll tell you why. First, Thanksgiving is a whole day affair for most people, not one isolated 2 hour involved dinner. So as guests come in and out, lounge about the TV to watch football, or mingle while you're prepping in the kitchen, you have to keep them occupied. Think of appetizers on Thanksgiving as more a distraction so you can have time to put together the meal. Or, if you're not into the whole turkey dinner, you can make a day out of it simply from a bunch of great appetizers! Either way, have at least one thing out for guests to munch on so they don't get wasted on cocktails but be careful not to overdo it either; the star of the show is still the bird later!

Here are some tips for super easy to prepare appetizers you can throw together last minute or even prepare a week before. They're still elegant and festive, but no one will know you didn't slave away to make these too.

Puff Pastry is your best friend.
There's something so fancy pants about hot, flaky, buttery pastry dough. You can make your own (like if you're on Top Chef), but most of us will buy the premade sheets conveniently found in the freezer section of your local grocery store (they're usually near the desserts, pies, etc.). You can do a lot with puff pastry. The basics I like to do is squares, pockets, or pinwheels.
  • To do squares, you simply take the defrosted puff pastry and gently roll it out. Then crimp the sides of the pastry rectangle upwards, creating a wall. Then take whatever filling you like and spread it in the middle (the borders help keep the filling inside). Bake in the oven until pastry is puffed and golden (usually about 15 minutes) and then cut into squares.
  • To do pockets or triangles, simply cut the pastry dough into squares. Fill the middle of each square with a little of your filling, then using an eggwash gently moisten the borders of each square. Fold the square over itself (and over the filling) creating a triangle shape. Brush the tops with more eggwash and bake until puffed and golden.
  • Pinwheels are very easy to do. Simply roll out your dough and place the filling in one even layer, leaving about 3/4" inch of pastry border along the whole rectangle. Then starting from one side, gently roll the pastry onto itself, and continue rolling into a log. Pinch the sides a little and slice the log crosswise into 3/4-1" pieces. You'll see each piece will look like a pinwheel. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes.
The trick with puff pastry is to (a) defrost it properly -- overnight in the fridge is best or on the counter for an hour; (b) keep your fillings simple, and (c) use parchment paper on the baking sheets. The fillings you can use are endless, anywhere from a cheese souffle to confit of duck to wild mushrooms to caramelized onions. The key is not to use a saucy filling because it will make the pastry soggy. And the beauty of using puff pastry is that flaky crust. These are great appetizers because they can be made weeks in advance then kept frozen. When you're guests are ready to arrive, simply throw some in a preheated oven and you're done! They're also great to have on hand in case you have extra visitors you weren't anticipating, and need more food!

Smoked fish is an easy "help yourself" appetizer for guests.
Yes, I said fish. For Thanksgiving we often get so consumed with the turkey, we forget what was actually served at the real Thanksgiving! Fish! Being so close to seaside, you bet they feasted on various shellfish and probably cod or bass. You can take a note from history and offer some smoked varieties for your appetizer table. Simple smoked salmon is always a crowd favorite, or for more authenticity try smoked haddock or other fish in oil. Yes, canned food if bought right can be quite tasty. Serve with slices of good bread. If doing smoked salmon, I like thinly sliced pumpernickel bread the best. You can also whip up a super fast chive creme fraiche -- simply combine creme fraiche (or in a pinch sour cream) with a little lemon juice, small pinch of salt (remember the fish is already salty!), freshly ground black pepper, and some finely chopped chives. Place all the components on a platter and let your guests help themselves!

This year I'm merging two cuisines I love for Thanksgiving: Pacific Northwest meets Southern. And one of my appetizers will be a Pac NW style smoked salmon (it's flaky) with the above-mentioned bread and chive sauce. But you can do anything you like, from smoked mussels to even sardines. It will be a crowd-pleasing appetizer that will surprise your guests, and even get conversations going about the original Thanksgiving.

Figs are not only seasonal, but present so beautifully and are tasty too!
bleu cheeses. I take the sweet-savory step a bit further, and stuff sliced figs with roquefort or gorgonzola, then wrap them in bacon and roast in the oven for 10 minutes until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is melted. The combination is incredible, and goes with any cocktail. These stuffed figs also give a sense of the season, and are so beautiful on a plate. Everyone loves these. I'll be doing them this year again.

If you can't find figs, you can substitute with dates. I like using Medjool dates because they are the largest. Simple cut each date in half, remove the seed, stuff with cheese, wrap and roast at 375 for about 10 minutes until bacon is done. These will fly off the platter!

Fancy nuts are always great, especially if you're planning a cocktail hour!
I confess, I'm a fan of the mixed roasted nuts. Like the bulk ones from Costco. Look -- they just get the job done, ok? But for a holiday, I like to make it a little more special. Try getting specialty nuts like marcona almonds for a change. They are to die for and everyone will enjoy them. Or, spruce up a regular nut. Like Ina Garten's idea to take cashews and flavor them with rosemary. Simply take the nuts and place in a dry saute pan (this means no oil because the nuts will release their own oils). Heat on medium-low heat, and add salt (if not salted already) and fresh herbs. Rosemary is really great. Stir constantly in the pan to prevent burning. Once you can smell the nuts and the herbs, it's ready and promptly transfer it out of the pan and into a serving dish (leaving them in will burn them!) You can add a spicy kick buy adding cayenne pepper. Or do a southwestern flare with chile powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and some ground cumin.

The proverbial cheese ball feeds a crowd and can be done days in advance.
Oh yes I did...I said cheese ball. Look, as horrendous as it looks, it feeds a crowd. And when you're having a more casual Thanksgiving or one where football is being watched for hours before the feast, this might be a good bet to have on hand. The cheese ball involves a mixture of cheeses, formed into a ball, then usually rolled in nuts and served with crackers and a knife for self-service. You can make the classic cream cheese-cheddar-rolled in almonds-ball, or you can make it more gourmet. Try a combination of cream cheese, gorgonzola cheese, and a little honey mixed together into a ball, then rolled in toasted chopped pecans or walnuts for a treat.

The classic, the favorite, simple freshly baked bread with good butter.
Yes, I'm dead serious. Still, there is nothing that beats the comfort and taste of freshly baked, right out of the oven bread. A loaf placed at the appetizer table sliced and served with good European style butter is always a favorite, for adult and kid alike. You can make your own bread from scratch, or buy a really good quality loaf from your local baker or store like sourdough or oat grain. Warm it in your oven right before guests arrive, then slice a few beginning slices. Place the slices and loaf with the bread knife on a bread board, along with the butter and let everyone help themselves. I love how rustic and earthy this extremely easy appetizer is, and everyone will enjoy its simplicity and comfort as well.


The other hard part of Thanksgiving is the desserts. Often the desserts take more effort and time than the entire Thanksgiving main meal! If you're overwhelmed this year or just simply don't want to dip into the dessert pool, you have options to dress up ready made desserts or put together with minimal effort quick bake breads and turn them into delicious sweet endings to the feast.

Cranberry Cheesecake

You can dress up any store-bought cheesecake for any occasion, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Purchase your favorite cheesecake from the store or bakery. Then make a cranberry compote to place on top. This recipe from Emeril Lagasse is wonderful. Simply spread the cranberry compote over the cheesecake and serve. Your guests will think you've slaved away all day for it!

Caramel Apples
I saw this recently on a posting from hostess with the mostess for a Thanksgiving-themed dessert table and thought, "wow, that's one of those 'duh' desserts that makes total sense and why aren't we doing this more often?!" Who doesn't love a caramel apple? It's a riff on the classic apple pie, a Thanksgiving favorite, that's far less maintenance. You can make them yourself, or better yet buy them from candy stores. You can either set them on each guest's place setting with a cute note attached, and even decorate your whole table around the apple theme, or set them out on a beautiful silver platter and bring them in "turkey style." By this, I mean I love the pomp and circumstance of The Presentation of The Turkey. You can hit the same note in a fun and casual way buy doing the same thing with these apples for dessert! It will get a good laugh and everyone will be so excited to eat them.

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches
Take this super easy box mix from Williams Sonoma for pumpkin spice cookies and bake as directed. Get a good quality vanilla ice cream and form sandwiches. Voila! Kids (and adults) are beyond pleased for dessert. Consider it an easier version of the more labor-intensive pumpkin pie, with a super fun and casual twist!

Cider Doughnuts
Get help by simply purchasing cider doughnuts from your local doughnut shop! Everyone loves ending a feast like Thanksgiving with coffee or cocoa or better yet, a hot cup of mulled cider! What better to go with a piping hot beverage than doughnuts?! They're not just for breakfast, and again will surprise and delight your guests, especially if you have kids coming.

Pumpkin Bread with Orange Scented Whipped Cream
One of my all time favorite things from Williams Sonoma is their pumpkin bread mix. It's super easy to put together and tastes incredible. You can dress up a fancy bread dessert by simply baking this bread as directed, then serving it with freshly whipped cream. To do the cream, simply pour some very cold heavy whipping cream (it has to be cold!) into a chilled bowl (stainless steel works best if you've got it). Then either with a handheld mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a standing mixer fitted with its whisk attachment, begin whipping the cream on high speed until stiff peeks form. Add a little bit of vanilla extract and some freshly grated orange zest at the end, whip another minute to combine, and serve a dollop of the cream on a slice of the bread. Garnish with a sprinkle of finely grated nutmeg or cinnamon.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Although I'm usually a fan of From Scratch foods, even I have to be humbled that sometimes it just can't be that complicated and fancy. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and take a shortcut. Hope these help and Happy Thanksgiving!

Autumn Side Dish: Butternut Squash Lasagna

Friday, November 11, 2011

I love this recipe for a few reasons. First, It's really delicious. Second, it prepares easily and in advance, making it perfect for an upcoming busy weeknight dinner or even Thanksgiving. And thirdly, the colors and flavors and textures are very, very "fall."

Using sweet butternut squash and then roasting it along with garlic adds not only more caramelized sweetness, but an earthiness as well. To balance out the sweetness, I use sage and thyme, a pinch of nutmeg (or mace), then a combination of pecorino romano cheese and nutty gruyere. The creamy bechamel sauce brings it all together. The prep time can be a little daunting in the sense you have a multi-step process, but you can cut corners by using no-boil lasagna noodles and pre-cubed butternut squash. You can even find shredded gruyere cheese now in some stores. Enjoy.

Butternut Squash Lasagna
for the butternut squash filling:
1 (1 1/2 lb) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2" thick cubes
3 Tbsp olive oil + more for puree
1 small white onion, chopped small
4 cloves roasted garlic*
about 3 sage leaves (more or less to taste)
about 3 stems fresh thyme, leaves picked off (more or less to taste), OR 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg or ground mace (about 1/4 tsp or to taste)

for the bechamel sauce:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups half n half
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese
1 cup shredded gruyere cheese

for the lasagna:
no-boil lasagna noodles -- or lasagna noodles par-boiled according to package instructions
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare the butternut squash filling first. Take the butternut squash and place in a large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on top, then season with some salt and pepper. Gently toss the squash until coated. Layer out on a large baking sheet (you may need to use two) and roast in oven about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and bottom is starting to caramelize. Once done, remove and set aside.

While the butternut squash is roasting, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onion and season with some salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat about 10 minutes, until softened and just beginning to caramelize. Set aside.

Combine the butternut squash, sauteed onions, roasted garlic, herbs, nutmeg, and a little drizzle of olive oil in a food processor. Process until smooth. Add a little more olive oil if needed to get a smooth but still thick consistency. Taste and adjust with seasonings to taste. This can be done up to 3 days in advance.

To prepare the bechamel sauce, simply melt the butter in a saucepan. When completely melted, add the flour all at once and immediately begin whisking. Cook on medium-low heat about 4 minutes in order to cook the raw flour taste out, but be careful not to burn the flour! Add the half n half, a little at a time, whisking as you add until all is incorporated into the roux (the butter-flour mixture, which helps thicken the sauce). Switch to a wooden spoon, add some salt and pepper to your taste, and cook until sauce has thickened a little, about 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and add the romano and gruyere cheese. Stir until the cheeses are melted in (the heat from the sauce should be enough to melt them, but if you have stubborn cheese, return the pot back to the burner on low heat to help it melt faster). Set aside.

To assemble the lasagna, butter or spray the bottom of a lasagna or casserole dish. Ladle enough of the sauce to cover the bottom of the dish. Add a layer of the lasagna noodles, then drizzle a little more sauce on top. Spread out some of the butternut squash puree, then top with more sauce. Then another layer of noodles, then sauce, then butternut squash, etc. until you end with a final layer of noodles and enough sauce to completely cover this top noodle layer. How many layers you will do will depend on the dish you've chosen to cook it in; you can have two layers of butternut squash or up to four even, so you'll have to gage it with your eye when assembling. Top the lasagna with the shredded mozzarella, then take the butter and "dot" small pieces all over the top. Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil (or if your dish has a corresponding top to use) and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes or until top has browned.

Note: if you're using par-boiled lasagna noodles you won't have to cook it as long; the above cooking time is based on using the no-boil lasagna sheets!

Let stand 5 minutes before cutting and serve.

Goes very well with turkey, roasted pork loin, roasted chicken, or by itself with a side of roasted brussels sprouts or roasted shallots.

*You can find already roasted garlic cloves at the supermarket now, usually in the salad kit section. If you can't find them or don't have time to go, simply take fresh garlic cloves and peel them, then toss them in the olive oil right along with the butternut squash. When you layer out the squash onto the baking sheet however, make sure you place the cloves on the top of the squash so they won't burn; they'll burn if they touch the base of the baking sheet!

Kitchen Basics: Baking Soda v. Baking Powder....The Mystery Revealed!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

They're both white. They're both used in baking. And they both look like crack. But often we have no idea which is which, and why we use one versus the other in recipes, or even more confusing, the times we have to use both! With holiday baking rapidly coming upon us like ants on a picnic, I jumped at the chance to write a posting about it at my good friend Chandra's suggestion. So, here we go!

Baking Soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate. This is fancy pants AP chemistry class lingo for "salt with stuff in it." In fact, the natural appearance of baking soda is more like kosher salt, but often it's ground up into a powder form that we all are familiar with. Specifically, it includes the combination of the chemical compound known as nitrate and sodium carbonate, which is effectively limestone. Sodium carbonate (basically a naturally occurring salt found in rock, plants, etc.) has been and is continued to be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from cooking to softening water in washing machines to aiding taxidermists in taking flesh off of skulls in the needless preservation of killed animals. But when combined with the compound nitrate, it becomes a cooking tool, so we'll just focus on that for now.

notice the sandier texture of baking soda

Sodium bicarbonate or baking soda in cooking is used as a leavening agent. This means, when added to stuff it helps the stuff rise. So this is why we use it in baking and not in savory cooking. Basically it reacts with the acid in your baking ingredients. So when your recipe calls for ingredients like buttermilk, yogurt, cocoa powder, vinegar, cream of tartar, coffee, etc. the acid in these ingredients will react with the baking soda to let the batter rise by way of releasing carbon dioxide. When you place the batter in the oven, the hot temperature activates the reaction, and the the air created from the carbon dioxide adds mass to the stuff you're cooking.

So basically baking soda when working with other acidic ingredients makes your stuff get bigger and puff up in the oven, which is what you're looking for when you're making cakes and stuff.

Now it gets complicated...

Baking powder is basically baking soda with extra acid added to it, then ground up into a powder form. Why would we need to add extra acid to baking soda you may ask? Well, what if you don't have easy access to more "expensive" ingredients like buttermilk, yogurt, oranges (orange juice is obviously an acid and was a rather luxurious commodity back in the day) or even cream of tartar (also considered a lower level acid)? Now you get to use baking powder to make your cakes, scones, and muffins and biscuits. The way baking powder works is all you need is flour, eggs, flavorings (spices, etc.), liquid (often plain milk) and the baking powder to make your batter or dough rise. So it affords you more options, which is why you'll see more often than not that baking powder is included in recipes instead of baking soda, unless you're specifically working with OJ or buttermilk, etc. that require the use of baking soda.

Baking powder works the exact same way -- the added acid to the powder combines with the other ingredients to create carbon dioxide, which in turn creates mass and volume when heat is applied.

baking powder has a more powdery appearance, like flour
Now, does this mean you can never use baking powder when working with other acids like buttermilk or yogurt? Absolutely not. What happens is you need to adjust the amounts. So if you have a recipe or are fiddling with a batter that has buttermilk in it and you're shit out of luck and only have baking powder to work with, simply reduce the strength of the baking powder by half. If you don't, you're doubling up on the the acid in the batter/dough, which will create a metallic or acidic taste after baking.

Another big difference between the two is timing. Baking soda reacts instantly to the liquid acid in the batter, so you need to mix it all, throw it in the pan, and get it in the preheated oven immediately before it begins to lose it's leavening power. If you don't, it won't rise properly in the oven and look weird. Baking powder on the other hand has a longer life -- you can let the batter sit for up to 20 minutes before putting it in the oven. In fact, some recipes may even call for you to do so. And you will notice when working with baking powder, it will begin to puff up and thicken if you leave it out before filling your cupcake tins or what have you. So for this reason many people prefer the kindness of baking powder's longevity.

To complicate things even further, some recipes calls for both baking powder and baking soda. WTF would you need to use both, if both of them are doing the same exact thing the same exact way? Turns out there is a method to the madness...

One teeny tiny caveat to using baking soda is sometimes baking soda by itself isn't enough to handle the work. Remember, baking soda puffs up the stuff you're working with, but it also neutralizes the acid from the other ingredients you're using. So it raises your batter/dough at the same time it balances out the flavors for you. Now, sometimes the ingredient you're using may be a little too acidic. Hello freshly squeezed orange juice or lemon juice! When the acid in certain ingredients are simply too overpowering, there's not enough oompf in the baking soda alone to lift the batter; all the energy is going to neutralizing the acid. So, baking powder joins forces with baking soda, so one can do the neutralizing and one can do the heavy lifting. And together they make cake.

This is why it's very important to read your recipes carefully when baking. Measurements need to be exact; a little too much of this will throw the balance off of that. And with baking unfortunately and unlike savory cooking, you can't taste as you go; you need to wait until the finished product to see if you fucked up or not. Which is why I personally hate baking cakes and all of it. But, with a little knowledge and research, you can make the call for a good recipe and one leading you down the path of disaster.

A couple of other notes to close...

These are considered "active" ingredients. They're ALIVE!!!!! You're basically using baking soda and/or powder in place of yeast (also alive) when baking. So you have to make sure they're not dead. To do this, simply pay attention to your expiration date -- if it's expired it's done, don't even try to push it like you do with the milk or yogurt a few days after. Second, you can take a tablespoon of the stuff and dissolve it in water -- if it bubbles or fizzes then it's alive and ready to use; if it duds it's dead.

Before any period of intense baking coming up like now, I just go out and buy a new container of each to be on the safe side.

In terms of the acidic compounds you should know commonly used in baking, they include (but are not limited to):
  • buttermilk
  • sour cream
  • yogurt
  • citrus juice -- orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, etc.
  • cocoa powder -- EXCEPT for Dutch unprocessed
  • chocolate
  • vinegar
  • honey
  • molasses
  • brown sugar (because it includes molasses in it)
  • maple syrup
  • fruit juices -- strawberry puree for example, canned peach, nectars, etc.
The reason I give you this list is to double check the recipes you're working with. Make sure the adjustment for baking powder has been made. Well, first make sure that if you're working with the ingredeints, baking powder is included someone in there! And if not, skip the recipe and try something else.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the differences between the two, and it helps decipher some confusion among baking recipes and making treats this holiday season. Happy baking!

Date Night: Butternut Squash Risotto with Spicy Shrimp

Friday, November 4, 2011

I love this dish.

I love the fall color from the butternut squash. I love the rich aromatic flavor of the saffron. I love the creaminess of the risotto. And the spiciness from the shrimp. It's warm and comforting as the nights grow darker and colder, the bright orange color from the sweet roasted butternut squash just reminding you with every bite how special this time of year is.

Risotto can be funky -- it's one of those "labor of love" dishes that requires constant attention. This is not a dish to throw together and then go busy yourself with other things. The good news is it's pretty easy to make and comes together quickly enough (around 30 minutes start to finish) so although it looks complicated, it's actually not. And it tastes so divine.

I used Ina Garten's recipe for butternut squash risotto as a starting point here but took it a few steps further. First, I kept the risotto restrained and caramelized the onions for a deep, rich flavor that's irresistible. Second, I paired the delicate sweetness of the butternut squash against a more aggressively spicy shrimp by using smoked paprika and cayenne pepper for a balanced "bite" to cut against the sweetness. The combination was incredible and truly a perfect dish. I used chicken broth for the whole thing, but if you're up for it you can sub 1/4 cup of the broth out with some white wine for even more flavor. But using chicken stock completely doesn't lose flavor at all. Enjoy and happy fall everyone!

Butternut Squash Risotto with Spicy Shrimp
for the risotto:
1 cup butternut squash, peeled and seeded, then cut into cubes (about 1/2 of a smaller butternut squash)
1 Tbsp olive oil for squash + 1 Tbsp for risotto, divided
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp saffron threads
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock or broth (or 2 3/4 cups broth and 1/4 cup white wine)
2 heaping Tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese
finely chopped chives for garnish

for the shrimp:
1/2 lbs raw peeled and deveined shrimp -- extra large size
1 Tbsp olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
pinch of smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the cubed butternut squash in a bowl with the tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper to taste. Layer out on a baking sheet and roast in oven until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Set aside. This can be done even a day in advance.

While the butternut squash roasts, prep your shrimp. Wash the shrimp well and pat dry well with a paper towel. Place in bowl and add the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, the cayenne and smoked paprika and toss to coat evenly with the seasonings. Set aside. This can be done a day in advance, but note the shrimp will taste spicier the longer they sit in the seasonings.

Place all of the broth in a saucepan and warm up to a low simmer. Once simmering, cover with lid so it doesn't evaporate and keep the flame on very low. (You need to use hot broth when making risotto, so don't plan to use room temperature or cold at all for this.)

To make the risotto, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to a large saute pan or pot and the butter. Once butter has melted, add the onion and season with a small pinch of salt. The salt helps the onions caramelize. Cook about 10 minutes on medium-low heat stirring occasionally until onions are well softened and begin to turn a caramel color. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the rice all at once and cook for 2 minutes to toast, stirring often. Add the saffron and 2 ladles of the heated broth. You'll notice the broth will sizzle when it hits the pan -- this is normal. Using a sturdy wooden spoon, gently mix the rice with the broth. Stirring occasionally and keeping the heat on medium, let the broth soak into the rice. Once you've noticed the rice has absorbed all the broth you put in, add another ladle of broth, stir it occasionally again until the rice absorbs this amount. Keep doing this until you use up all of your broth and the rice is plump and tender, but still al dente to taste. Take occasional bites of the rice as you get towards the end to make sure it's softening. If you use up all the broth and your rice is still very hard, just add more broth and repeat the technique until it's tender, but the amount stated really should be enough.

Once the rice is al dente you'll notice it's also gotten considerably thicker and has a creamy texture to it. Don't cook it to the point where the liquid is 100% absorbed; you want to keep a little moisture there because the cheese when you add it will soak it up and you don't want the risotto to be too "hard." Quickly turn off the heat, add the butternut squash and parmesan cheese to the risotto and gently fold them in. Add some of the chives, reserving some for garnish at the end. Set aside and quickly cook the shrimp.

Heat a nonstick pan to high. Dump the shrimp in the pan and cook about 1 minute on each side, or until shrimp is cooked through -- turns opaque in the white parts and bright orange/pink and is firm to the touch.

Week Night Yum Yum: Stewed Halibut, Veracruz Style

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A little while ago I made a most fabulous dinner using a recipe from my friend Lisa. As you know, I have fish literally up the ass in the freezer from The Hubsters fishing trip over the summer, and I was running out of ideas on how to deal with halibut. I adapted Lisa's recipe for Huachinango a la Veracruzana, which is basically fish prepared Veracruz style. Tender fillets of fish are simmered in a briny but sweet tomato and olive sauce, then served over rice. It's sort of a stew but without all the fuss and long-term preparations.

Lisa's original recipe calls for red snapper, which you can most certainly use. But like I said, I had to get rid of some halibut so I used that fish with major success as well. Here's my version below (I omitted cilantro for certain pint-sized picky eaters) and subbed a couple of things. I highly recommend you check out her blog for the original recipe as well, and some great pictures. Enjoy!

Stewed Halibut, Veracruz Style

4 fillets halibut
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups diced canned tomatoes with juice, recommend San Marzano tomatoes
½ cup sliced olives (large pimiento stuffed)
splash of broth (chicken, vegetable, or fish)
1 small bay leaf
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp finely chopped scallions for garnish (optional)
lime quarters
cooked white rice to serve

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat until softened, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes, olives, broth, and bay leaf and stir to combine. Bring sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes.

At this point, taste the sauce and adjust with salt and pepper to taste. Remember -- the olives will seep out some of their salt so it's important not to salt the dish too soon, and rather wait for the olives' salt to cook out into the dish during those 15 minutes!

While the sauce cooks, wash and pat dry the fish. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Gently place the fish into the sauce and using a spoon, scoop up some of the sauce up and onto the fish. Add more broth if needed -- you want a little liquid there to keep the fish moist -- cover with lid and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the fish over and finish cooking them -- another minute or so, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Once they are white and firm to the touch, they are done.

Garnish with a sprinkling of the scallions. To serve, mound some cooked white rice onto a plate or bowl. Add a fish piece and a generous portion of the stew, and garnish with freshly squeezed lime juice.