Monday, November 30, 2009

Creative Pizza Combinations

Lately I've been on a homemade pizza kick. But basic pepperoni won't do here in the ValleyWriter household. No; we like toppings that are a little more inspired - like my Valley Cowboy Pizza with fresh corn and BBQ chicken.

Now that corn season is over, however, we have to move on to other options. Within the last couple of weeks, we've come up with:

Chicken, Bacon & Gouda with Honey BBQ Sauce


Chicken, Artichoke, Bacon & Gouda with Garlic Cream Sauce

Out of the 2, I like the latter combination best. The garlic cream sauce was just a lovely change of pace from typical red sauces (or BBQ sauce - as we often use). Here's the recipe:

Chicken, Artichoke & Bacon Pizza


Your favorite pizza dough

Garlic cream sauce:
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp. salted butter
2 tsp. flour
1 cup fat-free half-and-half

1 small jar artichoke hearts, drained
4 oz. smoked Gouda cheese, sliced thin
3 slices bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add flour and mix into a paste. Slowly add half-and-half, stirring constantly so flour mixture dissolves. Bring to a boil and simmer until sauce thickens.
In a skillet, cook bacon over low heat until crisp. Add chicken thigh pieces and cook until no longer pink.
Pre-bake crust for 10-12 minutes before adding toppings. When done, spread the garlic cream sauce on the bottom, top with bacon and chicken pieces, artichoke hearts and slices of Gouda cheese. Bake another 10-12 minutes until cheese is melted.

So - I showed you mine - now you show me yours. What are your favorite pizza combinations?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks

In the last few weeks, I've become acutely aware of the fact that I tend to use my blog, Facebook, email, etc. as an outlet for my gripes about life. If you look at my Facebook status updates, you might think I'm a miserable person. I complain that I can't run because of my RA, that our mailbox got smashed in over the weekend, that people are annoying me at work. But in reality, I'm not a miserable person at all! I can be so positive sometimes that I actually annoy other people! :-) But, like everyone, sometimes I get caught up in the momentary and fleeting annoyances of life. However, when you start a thread about those annoyances online, they tend to become less fleeting and momentary - sometimes taking on a life of their own. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and the holidays, I'm trying to cut back on my griping (well, at least online; Mr. ValleyWriter may still get an earful on occasion, but that's just healthy off-gassing).

As I've started to try to let go of those negative thoughts quicker than I can type them, I've come to making lists in my head of all the things I'm thankful for. Turns out - that list is pretty darn long! And I find that the more I make these lists, the less annoyed I get about the little things in life. Long line at the store? Oh well, at least I have the money to be shopping. Construction on the way to work? Hey, at least I have a job to go to.

So here's my (shortened) list of things I'm thankful for this year. I'm thankful that I have an amazing, supportive, loving husband who's also my best friend. I'm thankful for a close family that I know I can always rely on. I'm thankful to have a good job and a roof over my head. I'm thankful to have good health insurance. I'm thankful to have legs that carry me out of bed and about my day, even if my gait is sometimes imperfect. I'm thankful to always go to bed well fed, warm and secure. I am thankful for all those who serve to protect us every day. I'm thankful for all of the warm relationships I have in my life and for the happy spirit that courses through my days.
Your turn. What are you thankful for? (Even if you don't leave a comment, I hope you take the time to consider it. I bet it will make you happier today!)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A new twist on Thanksgiving squash - Cranberry, Apple & Butternut Bake

Last fall, my mom served this amazing butternut squash bake for a family get-together and ever since then, I crave it every time I see butternut. This bake is sweet, yet tart and beautifully colorful. I think it would make a great addition to any Thanksgiving table. The red and green would also make it great for Christmas!

Cranberry, Apple & Butternut Bake

1 medium butternut squash
1 granny smith apple
1 cup cranberries
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
2 Tbsp. butter, cut into small cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel butternut squash. Cut in half and scoop out seeds. Cut remaining flesh into 1/2" cubes.
Cut apple into 1/2" cubes (do not peel).
In a 7" x 11" dish, combine butternut squash, apple and cranberries.
In a separate bowl, mix together sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon and cloves. Sprinkle evenly over squash mixture. Dot with small pieces of butter.
Bake 50 minutes until squash is tender.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Looking for an inexpensive hostess gift? Try Opera Prima wine!

Since the weather has turned cooler, we've taken to enjoying a glass of wine next to the fire most nights. Of course, if you're on any kind of budget, you can't be buying a few $20 or $30 bottles of wine for everyday use. So, I'm all about trying budget wines. "How low can I go?" is my eternal question. This doesn't always pay off. Let's just say I'm not a big fan of most wines that have cute little animals on the label - no matter how cheap they may be.

My latest source for decent, inexpensive wines is our local co-op. This week, I stumbled on a very nice, inexpensive red wine - Opera Prima Tempranillo ($5.99 for a 750mL bottle).

This Spanish wine is a beautiful dark ruby color. It has a light bouquet with cherry notes and a smooth, full bodied taste with notes of raspberry, cranberry and spices. It's these flavors that make me think this wine would make a great holiday hostess gift. And at $6 a bottle, you can afford to buy plenty! I will definitely be stocking up on this wine.

If you don't want to trust my review (because, honestly, I'm not a wine expert) - consider this - Wine Enthusiast says this is a "Best Buy" and Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar gives it 87 points.

Prefer a different kind of wine? Check out Eat Well, Eat Cheap for a great collection of wines around $10 a bottle. They have reviews for 30 Bargain Wines of the Week (plus some great recipes!).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrating National Pomegranate Month - Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce

November is National Pomegranate Month. November is the perfect time to celebrate pomegranates, since they ripen in the fall and are at their freshest. What's more, I've discovered they pair amazingly well with the other flavors of fall. Cranberry, butternut squash, turkey - pomegranate goes with it all!

You can find pomegranate as whole fruit, fresh juice and as a liqueur. It's this last incarnation that I was lucky enough to get a sample of this past week. PAMA pomegranate liqueur is real pomegranate juice blended with vodka and a touch of tequila.

It's a beautiful cherry color and tastes slightly sweet, but still packs a little tartness at the end. It's tastes smooth and fresh, unlike some other mixers out there that are just too fake for my taste. PAMA would be great in a pomegranate martini (one of my favs!) or one of the many other cocktail recipes they have.

But I decided to forgo the cocktail route and instead incorporate the PAMA liqueur in place of the orange liqueur I usually use in my homemade cranberry sauce. Oh heavens! The pomegranate and cranberry flavors go so well together; they make for a lovely, tart sauce that really wakes up your taste buds. This will definitely be making an appearance on our Thanksgiving table. To boot, the recipe is super simple.

Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce
(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

3 cups fresh cranberries
4 Tbsp. PAMA liqueur, divided
3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. water

In a medium saucepan, combine cranberries, 2 Tbsp. PAMA liqueur, sugar and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover (to avoid cranberries popping all over the place), reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer 10 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and mash berries with a wooden spoon. Stir in remaining 2 Tbsp. PAMA and let cool. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. (The sauce will thicken and set as it cools.)

Later, I'll post the amazing turkey breast I served this with. The pomegranate cranberry sauce really sends it over the edge!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oh Baby!

Ah ha! Did I get ya? Did you think this would be a pregnancy announcement. Nope! Well, not mine anyway!

Today at work, we had a baby shower for one of my fellow writers. We decided to do a "Baby Desserts" party, where everyone brought in small desserts, like cookies or mini-cheesecakes, etc. I decided to do cupcakes - both mini and regular. I'm just tickled about how the regular cupcakes turned out so I had to share:
See that? It's a little baby face! Too cute! Not my original idea. I adapted it from here (minus the pacifier, obviously). I don't know if anyone else really thinks it's as cute as I do... maybe it's all the sugar from that dessert party.... Anyway - just thought I'd share my amusement for the day!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Ravioli in a Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Anyone who knows me well knows that I do not like cold weather, and as a consequence, I'm not particularly enamored with fall and winter. It's not so much the cooler temps that we get in the fall that bother me. It's the fact that fall is the faithful, unfailing predecessor to winter. There is no other option; no turning back. Once fall is here, winter will soon follow.

But the last couple of years, I've really been trying to be less of a grouch about fall and winter and instead find things to truly enjoy about them. Turns out, finding things to like about fall isn't that hard at all. I like the crispness in the air on fall afternoons, the bright colors on the trees - and of course, all of the wonderful flavors of fall, like fresh apples, cider and pumpkins. Plus, in my mind, fall is a time for comfort foods, like pastas and hearty stews.

So this weekend, after the Halloween hullabaloo had settled down, I set about making a dinner to encompass some of those great things about fall... and ended up with pumpkin & sweet potato ravioli. I will admit that the addition of sweet potato to the ravioli overpowered the pumpkin a bit, but I was still really happy with the results. Even if you don't have the ambition to make your own ravioli, buy some at the store and make the brown butter sauce. It is super simple - and so tasty! It's rich, yet still lets the flavor of the sweet potato come shining through.

Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Ravioli in a Sage Brown Butter Sauce
(Feeds 4 adults generously)

For the ravioli:
3 cups flour
1 cup warm water
2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 c. pumpkin puree
1/2 c. baked sweet potato
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 c. grated Pecorino cheese

1 egg white

For the sauce:
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
8 fresh sage leaves

Dump 3 c. flour in a large bowl, making a well in the middle. To the center, add 1 c. water and 2 Tbsp. oil. With a fork, begin mixing the water and oil, slowly pulling flour in from the sides as you go. Continue until all of the flour is mixed in (you may need to mix with your hands instead of your fork at a certain point - that's what I do).
Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it's a uniform consistency. Cover with a wet towel and let rest 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make your ravioli filling by combining pumpkin, sweet potato, nutmeg, cinnamon and Pecorino cheese in a blender or food processor and mixing until smooth.

Back to the dough. Break off 1/4 of the dough and begin rolling it out using a pasta maker. Starting at the highest setting, run the dough through, flour it and run it through again. Repeat 1-2 times until dough is smooth. Then start running it through one pass at a time (NO flour in between), lowering the setting with each pass so the dough gets thinner and thinner.

I usually only roll my ravioli dough out to the 2nd or 3rd to last setting ("2" or "3" on my machine) - otherwise it gets too thin. In the end, you should have 4 sheets of pasta, each about 5 inches wide (and really long - not sure how long - just really long!)

Lay the sheets out on a floured surface. Place heaping teaspoons of filling toward the front of each pasta sheet, spacing about 2-3 inches apart as you move lengthwise down the sheet.
Beat the egg white slightly and brush lightly around the edges of the pasta dough and in between each spoonful of filling. Fold the back side of the pasta over the top of the filling, lining the back edge up to the front edge. Press around each mound of filling, pushing any air bubbles out of the center and through the ends of the dough.

Cut the dough between each mound of filling and crimp all 4 edges of the resulting ravioli with a fork to seal.

Boil a large pot of water. Place raviolis in water in batches, cooking for 4-5 minutes at a time.

While cooking the raviolis, bring 1 stick of butter to a boil over medium heat. Cook about 5 minutes until frothy, then add in sage leaves. Continue cooking the butter just until it starts to turn brown. Then remove from heat and cover to keep warm.

Once the raviolis are cooked, drizzle a little bit of brown butter sauce over each serving. I also sprinkled mine with a little extra Pecorino cheese. Absolutely delightful!