Saturday, December 31, 2011

To sweet endings & new beginnings

Happy New Year's Eve everyone! On the West Coast here folks are just winding down their days and getting ready to gear up for the evenings festivities - though I imagine many of you in other areas are well in the swing of things already! Whatever your plans - be safe & enjoy!

Here at Casa de ValleyWriter, we're planning a pretty low-key evening in - a little wine, some good food & good conversation - everybody safe & sound. And because it's no celebration without something sweet (at least in our house!), I did whip up a little something to bid adieu to 2011 and welcome the new year:

Triple Chocolate Cookies
(Makes 1 dozen large, bakery-size cookies)

1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. flour
2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Cream butter and sugars togethers until light and fluffy. Mix in egg and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder and baking powder.
Place chocolate chips in a yet another separate dish - this one should be microwave-safe. Heat chocolate on high for 30 seconds. Stir and continue microwaving in 10 second increments for up to 1 minute until chocolate is fully melted. (Don't over do it or the chocolate will seize up - trust me on this one!!)
Add melted chocolate to butter and sugar mixture. Beat until smooth. Then beat in flour mixture just until combined. Stir in white chocolate chips.
Place heaping balls of dough (about 2" wide) onto baking pan, spaced 2-3 inches apart. Bake at 350°F for 15-16 minutes until crinkly on top with white chocolate lightly browned.

Happy New Year!

Linking this up to Sweets for a Saturday!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Homemade Gift Idea - Cranberry Apple Quick Bread

With the economy still struggling, homemade gifts are on the rise. That's a boon for bakers. After all, who doesn't love fresh baked goods? So, when I was asked to come up with a homemade gift idea using dairy products for teachers as part of the California Milk Advisory Board and Smart & Final "Help Our Teachers, Help Our Kids" campaign to help southern CA schools, I was excited to come up with a new recipe.

Just to recap the program, now through December 31st, students and families can collect Real California milk seals from select Smart & Final First Street products (everything from milk to butter to ice cream) and bring them to school.
That little yellow & black logo is what you're looking for!

Teachers can then collect and submit the seals to be entered in a sweepstakes to win up to $2 million in cash, books and other prizes for their classrooms. Teachers who submit 100 seals get 25 Scholastic books or a $25 school supply gift card. And every teacher gets a Scholastic book just for entering. You can visit to learn more.

I usually bake lots of cookies as homemade gifts around the holidays, but this time I decided to go for something a little different. After happening upon a display of fresh cranberries at Smart & Final (you can check out my shopping trip here), I came up with a Cranberry Apple Quick Bread, which is a little less sweet and more of a breakfast item - giving those busy teachers a well deserved break one holiday morning.

What makes this quick bread extra special is the addition of sour cream, which keeps it very moist and gives it a subtle richness. I also baked the bread in a stoneware loaf pan, which then becomes part of the gift. Wrap it all up in red plastic wrap with a pretty ribbon or bow - and you've got a great gift for a deserving teacher (or neighbor or anyone else for that matter!).

Cranberry Apple Quick Bread
Makes 1 9" x 5" loaf

1 stick (1/2 c.) First Street salted butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
3/4 c. First Street sour cream
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 large apple, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 c. fresh cranberries

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 9" x 5" loaf pan well with vegetable oil or butter.
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, sour cream and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and baking soda. Stir into wet ingredients just until combined.
Fold chopped apple and cranberries into batter until evenly distributed (don't over mix).
Bake at 350°F for 50-55 minutes or until top is browned and toothpick inserted comes out clean.

This #SmartFinalSupportsSoCalSchools project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for  #collectivebias #CBias.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Cookie Testing: Italian Bakery Cookies

It's time to start prepping for this year's cookie blitz! Though I don't have my family and coworkers to give treats to this year, I have lots of new neighbors and friends to introduce to my tradition to. To keep things fresh for myself, I always like to try 1 or 2 new recipes. This year, I wanted to try to recreate one of my favorite cookies from a great little Italian bakery Massachusetts. They're a crispy, airy cookie that's created by piping dough through a star shaped decorating tip before baking. They're often covered with sprinkles or dipped in chocolate. Oh how I miss them. They are simply delicious! 

Now, I did have one little problem. I don't know what these cookies are actually called. I've always just referred to them literally as "Italian bakery cookies." And when you're not exactly sure the true name of a dish - it's hard to find the right recipe. But, with some descriptive terms like "crispy and light" and "sprinkles" matched with "Italian cookie," I managed to find a few that seemed promising.

Tonight I tried out 2 recipes. The first recipe, which was called an Italian butter cookie, called for all butter and granulated sugar. The dough ended up being pretty tough to pipe out, though the cookie did hold its shape fairly well when baking.
Italian Butter Cookie

When all was said and done, I thought these tasted pretty much like a regular sugar cookie. They were pretty flat and just didn't have that airy-ness I was going for. I didn't even bother trying to dress them up with sprinkles; I knew they weren't the "one."

Recipe # 2, which was oddly enough called a "Sand cookie," called for 1/2 shortening and 1/2 butter, plus a couple of unexpected ingredients - including confectioner's sugar and cornstarch. I think the original oven temperature was a little too hot, though, because they lost their shape a big in the oven. However - the taste and texture was SPOT ON! Dressed up with a little white chocolate and red & green sprinkles and I think we have a serious contender for a new Cookie Blitz star:

Personally, I prefer the name "Italian bakery cookie" over "Sand cookie," so that's what I'm going with. This tweaked recipe below also reflects the adjusted oven temperature, which helps the cookies keep the ridges from the star piping tip better.

Italian Bakery Cookies
(Makes 3-4 dozen)

1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening
1/2 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. confectioner's sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. cornstarch
chocolate & sprinkles for decoration, if desired

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cream shortening, butter and confectioner's sugar together on medium speed for 3-5 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix on low-speed until smooth. Stir in flour and cornstarch by hand just until combined.
Add dough to piping bag with a star tip on the end. Pipe dough onto parchment paper in circles or large S-shapes.
Bake at 350°F for 11-14 minutes until golden brown around the edges.
Cool completely.
Dip in melted chocolate and decorate with sprinkles, if desired.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

DIY Evaporated Milk

So what do you do when it's the night before (or the morning of!) Thanksgiving and you want to make pumpkin pie, but you forgot to get evaporated milk? If you've got fresh milk - the answer is simple: make your own!

I discovered this trick not due to forgetfulness at the grocery store, but due to an over abundance of milk. Mr. ValleyWriter is the only dairy milk drinker in the family - and he really only uses it on cereal - so we often find ourselves with way too much milk quickly approaching the expiration date. This is a great recipe to use that up!

This will make 12 oz. of evaporated milk, which is the equivalent of 1 can (and how much you need to make that famous "back of the can" pumpkin pie recipe).

DIY Evaporated Milk

36 oz. (4 1/2 cups) regular milk

1. Pour 12 oz. (1 1/2 c.) milk into a wide bottom saucepan or pot. Make a note of how high up the milk comes on the side of the pot.
2. Now add the rest of the milk to the pot. Bring it to a very gentle simmer (not boil) over medium-low heat.
3. Reduce heat to low, just so milk is steaming, but not bubbling or burning.
4. Cook for 1 1/2 - 2 hours, skimming off the "skin" that forms on the top of the milk occasionally, until milk is reduced to 1/3 the original amount and reaches that spot you noted on the side of the pan in step 1.

Now your evaporated milk is ready to use. You can make it ahead and store it in the fridge for a couple of days, too. See how simple that was?!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living the good life

I think almost every culture has their version of "the good life." For the Italians, it's "la dolce vita," for Americans, perhaps it's the "American Dream." For Greeks, the good life means combining good food and fine taste to live a life filled with health and well-being.

As a foodie, I am, of course, intrigued by a culture that puts so much focus of "the good life" on food. Food is a major part of my life - and always has been. But it hasn't always been a "good" part it. You see, for years struggled with my weight. I equated food with happiness. The more food I ate, the happier I would be, right? Well.. obviously not.

When I met my now husband in 2005, my world view really changed. He was so kind and caring and fun and genuine - he made me see so many other ways life could bring joy. He accepted me exactly the way I was - overweight and unfit. And he encouraged me to get out there and take life by the horns despite that. For one of the first times in my life, someone didn't want me to be active and travel and try new experiences in an effort to help me lose weight. He just wanted me to experience the joy in those things. And so, I did!

In a period of about 3 years, I went from spending my weekends watching reality TV marathons eating unhealthy amounts of ice cream and chinese takout to taking off for hikes, running, tending a garden, making thoughtful meals with thoughful ingredients and even eventually blogging about my culinary (and other) adventures. Oh, and did I mention losing 70 lbs? Yes - 70 lbs!

I don't have any pictures of myself at my highest weight. But here's a "before" picture circa 2002 - probably 50 lbs heavier (excuse the bow on my head - it was Christmas!):

And "after:"

When I tell people how much weight I've lost, most think I've either had weight-loss surgery or only ate lettuce for a year. But I assure you that's not the case. Sure, I cut back on calories. I ate smaller meals, more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. For lunch, I traded slices of pizza for delicious baked sweet potatoes. For dessert, I traded pints of ice cream for cups of creamy fat-free Greek yogurt. I got out more. I walked. I hiked. I biked. I ran. I swam. And, perhaps most importantly, I found the joy in not only eating good foods - but also in sharing them with others as I cultivated relationships and tried new experiences.

The weight has stayed off for over 3 years now. As far as I'm concerned - it's all thanks to living a version of the good life similar to the Greeks' - having respect for what the Earth gives us and what I put into my body, and being good to myself. As I've opened myself up to these things, I've gained confidence in myself, found both a career and a hobby I love and built a family I adore. That's my definition of the good life.

How about you? What do you think it means to live the good life? Leave a comment to let me know - and check out the link below to enter to win a trip to Greece to experience the good life for yourself!

As part of the Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program, I have been entered for the chance to win a trip to Greece courtesy of FAGE. You too can enter to win one of three trips to Greece by entering the FAGE Plain Extraordinary Greek Getaway here

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Help Our Teachers, Help Our Kids - with Sweet Potato Souffle!

Right now I bet you're wondering - what on Earth is she talking about with that title? Well, I'll tell you! The California Milk Advisory Board has teamed up with Smart & Final to create an awesome campaign to help southern California schools. Now through December 31st, students and families can collect Real California milk seals from select Smart & Final First Street products (everything from milk to butter to ice cream) and bring them to school.

That yellow & black seal in the corner is gold for southern California schools!

Teachers can then collect and submit the seals to be entered in a sweepstakes to win up to $2 million in cash, books and other prizes for their classrooms. Teachers who submit 100 seals get 25 Scholastic books or a $25 school supply gift card. And every teacher gets a Scholastic book just for entering.

Official sweepstakes winners get announced in February, BUT Smart & Final is so awesome that they're doing a separate sweepstakes! If you live within 20 minutes of a Smart & Final store in SoCal, you can go to and tell why your favorite southern Californa school deserves to win. You'll be entered to win $500, $300 or $200 to be donated to the school EVERY MONTH from now through the end of the year!

I'm supporting this campaign because I think it's a great way to support our schools, which need all the help they can get given the current economic climate in the state. Even if you don't have school-age children, pick a local school in your neighborhood - they ALL deserve help!

To help kick off the campaign and give you an idea of what you can do with some of those First Street milk products after you cut off the Real California Milk seal, I was asked to come up with a recipe for a Thanksgiving side dish. You can check out my shopping expedition here.
After perusing the Smart & Final aisles, I decided to try making a sweet potato souffle. It took a couple of tries in the kitchen to get it just right, but I assure you, this final recipe will make a great addition to your Thanksgiving table. It's creamy yet fluffy, with just the right amount of sweet and spice. (My father-in-law loved it so much, he had thirds!)

Sweet Potato Souffle
(Serves 6)

3 large sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled (I baked them; you could also boil them)
1 c. First Street fat free milk
1/4 c. maple syrup
2 eggs
4 Tbsp. First Street salted butter, melted
1 oz. low-fat cream cheese, softened
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
6 Tbsp. chopped pecans

Grease 2 4-cup souffle cups (or a large, round casserole dish). Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place fat free milk in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat. When milk starts to simmer, reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 20 minutes or so until milk is reduced by half, skimming off the "skin" that forms at the top every so often.
In a large bowl, whip sweet potatoes and cooked milk. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add maple syrup, 4 Tbsp. melted butter, cream cheese and spices. Beat just until combined.
Spoon into greased souffle cups.
Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix remaining 2 Tbsp. melted butter, brown sugar and chopped pecans.
When the 20 minutes are up, top souffles with nut mixture and bake another 5 minutes.
Let cool 10 minutes before serving (souffle cups will be HOT!).

This #SmartFinalSupportsSoCalSchools project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #collectivebias #CBias. All opinions expressed are my own.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Cookies

Have you ever had cookies that were both sweet and salty? Up until now, I'd only heard of them. I remember someone at a place I used to work making potato chip cookies once and my instant thought was "eww" - why ruin a perfectly good cookie? So, I didn't try them.

Fast forward nearly a decade and my palate has changed a lot. I definitely appreciate the salty-sweet combo these days (salted caramel? heaven!!). So, when I found a recipe for "Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink" cookies in my latest cookbook acquisition The Cookiepedia, I decided to give them a try. The recipe calls for a 1:1.5 ratio of sweet mix-ins to salty mix-ins. But, since the only salty snack food I had in the house was tortilla chips, I decided to swap that around and go with 1.5 sweet to 1 salty. The result was this coconut-white chocolate-semi-sweet chocolate-cereal-tortilla chip creation:

I enjoyed the mix of salty and sweet, crunchy and soft. But Mr. Valley Writer wasn't so sure about the corn taste from the tortilla chips. I think he might have liked potato chips better. The original recipe also suggests trying salted nuts, pretzels, corn nuts and cheese puffs (of all things!). Bottom line: it's definitely a versatile recipe and a nice change of pace from the usual chocolate chip (though chocolate chip still reigns supreme in my book). The recipe halves well, so if you even think you might like it - go ahead and give a small batch a try.

Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Cookies
(Makes 18 large cookies; adapted from The Cookiepedia by Stacy Adimando)

1 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 whole egg
1 egg white
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups sweet mix-ins (I used a mix of white chocolate chips, regular chocolate chips, flaked coconut and breakfast cereal)
1 cup salty mix-ins (I used crumbled tortilla chips)

Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed until fluffy. Add vanilla, whole egg and egg white. Beat until fully combined.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda and baking powder. Add to butter mixture and beat just until combined.
Stir in sweet and salty mix-ins.
Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto greased cookie sheets, keeping each ball of dough about 2" away from the others (these cookies spread a bit when baked).
Bake at 375°F for 14-17 minutes until evenly browned.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trip Report: Maui

I have a good excuse for my radio silence the last couple of weeks: vacation. And not just any vacation - a trip to Maui!! I have wanted to go to Hawaii for as long as I can remember, and thanks to all the traveling Mr. Valley Writer did last year in prepping for our relocation, we had enough frequent flier miles to make going to Maui a lot more budget friendly (Hawaii is expensive!!!).

We enjoyed lots of relaxation by the pool, strolls on the beach, as well as some snorkeling & volcano touring. It was absolutely beautiful! See for yourself:
Snorkeling Molokini Crater

 Black Sand Beach - Makena

 Tide pools - Black Sand Beach
 Mt. Haleakala Crater
View of the big island of Hawaii from 10,000 feet up on Mt. Haleakala

Of course, we also enjoyed lots of good food and drink. One my favorite experiences was the luau we went to in Lahaina (the Old Lahaina Luau). We enjoyed yummy tropical cocktails, great food & views and an entertaining hula show, too! (Sadly, there were no fire dancers. But I say that's just an excuse to go back someday!)

 Kalua pig - cooked in an underground oven (imu)

Happy Valley Writer!

I even tried the famous (or should I say infamous) Hawaiian poi (a taro root paste) - which, if you never make it to Hawaii, I assure you that you aren't missing anything! It's like cold, gummy mashed potatoes. Not quite my thing.

In addition to the luau, one standout food that deserves mention was the Black Pearl dessert we had at Mama's Fish House in Paia. Check out this presentation:

I'm slowly making my way back into "real life" - slow being the operative word. That includes getting back to creativity in the kitchen. While I love to cook, it is nice to give it up for a while (not to mention the cleaning and shopping that goes with it!). No worries, I'm sure I'll be whipping up some fall recipes soon; after all, Thanksgiving is just around the corner!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Homemade Caramel Pecan Bark Latte

I'm normally pretty simple when it comes to coffee. When I make it at home, I use a plain ol' French roast and take it straight up black. If we go out to breakfast, I might order a flavored coffee or add a little cream (sometimes restaurant coffee is just too bitter for me!). In part, my simple approach is because I like the taste of coffee as it is. And it part, it's because I don't really like to "drink" my calories. I will admit though, that when I lived in Massachusetts, I would "indulge" occasionally in a latte from my favorite coffee place a couple of times on a month.

Now that we've moved to California, the major source of lattes is just expensive (I'm too frugal to pay $5 for a coffee!), so I've only had 1 latte in 6 months. But, when I received 2 bags of Godiva Limited Edition flavored coffee as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, the wheels in my head got turning on how I could bring back my latte indulgence right in my own kitchen.

I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to steam the milk at first, but it turned out to be REALLY simple. All I did was put a cup of low-fat milk in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk it for about 2 minutes until it was nice and foamy:
Then I added a bit of caramel sauce to the bottom of my cup, filled 1/2 way with freshly brewed Godiva Caramel Pecan Bark coffee and the rest of the way with the milk - and ta da!
Homemade Latte!

The nice thing about the Godiva coffee is that it's got great flavor on its own, so you really don't need to do a whole lot to make a really tasty latte. Here's my simple recipe:

Caramel Pecan Bark Latte
(Makes 2)

12 oz. brewed Caramel Pecan Bark Coffee
1 c. low-fat milk
2 tsp. caramel sauce (+ extra for drizzle, if desired)

Put 1 tsp. caramel sauce in each tall coffee cup. Add about 6 oz. of coffee to each cup and stir to dissolve caramel.
Pour 1/2 of steamed milk into each up. (No need to stir - it will mix on its own.)
Drizzle with extra caramel, if desired.

Disclosure: I received the Godiva coffee free as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, but all opinions expressed above are my own.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Focaccia Pizza and A Smart & Final Giveaway!

Who loves Italian food? Who loves wine? Who loves free stuff? Me, me, me - and hopefully you, too! You see, Smart & Final contacted me to try out their La Romanella line of Mediterranean foods - so I created a yummy focaccia pizza recipe to share with you. You can check out my La Romanella experience (including a guest appearance from Miss Piper!) here.

But before we get to the recipe, I have to let you in on some goodies Smart & Final wants to send your way. From 10/5-10/18, when you buy a bottle of Redwood Creek Wine, they'll give you a free 16 oz. bag of La Romanella pasta. And... they're also giving away a trip to Sonoma wine country!!

To be eligible, you have to live in CA, NV or AZ and within 20 miles of a Smart & Final store. If that sounds like you - then hop on over to Smart & Final's Facebook page and "Like" them to enter the contest.

If you're not eligible to enter, all is not lost. Pour yourself a hearty glass of red wine and try out this recipe for focaccia pizza for a little taste of wine country & Italy all in one. The focaccia gives you a crispy rich outer crust and a light, soft inner crust. It's almost like a lightened up version of Chicago style pizza. Delicious!

Sausage & Roasted Red Pepper and Veggie Focaccia Pizzas
(Makes two 9" pizzas; serves 4-6)

For the focaccia:
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. dried rosemary, finely chopped
2 1/4 tsp. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 1/3 c. water
4 Tbsp. La Romanella olive oil, divided
1 tsp. salt
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. La Romanella Parmesan cheese

Pizza toppings:
1 c. La Romanella Tomato & Basil pasta sauce, divided
1/2 c. La Romanella marinated artichoke hearts
2 La Romanella whole roasted red peppers, cut into strips, divided
1 link La Romanella mild Italian sausage, cooked & crumbled
2 Tbsp. chopped sundried tomatoes
1 1/2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

For the focaccia:
In a small saute pan, heat 1/2 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add minced garlic and rosemary. Saute 1-2 minutes until garlic is fragrant and lightly browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix yeast, sugar and water. Let sit 10 minutes until frothy.
Add cooled garlic mixture, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 cups flour and 1 tsp. salt to yeast/water mixture. Stir until dough pulls together.
Flour a board with a little of the remaining flour. Dump dough onto board. Knead for 8-10 minutes until smooth, adding a little flour at a time as needed if dough gets sticky.
Coat a large bowl with 1 tsp. olive oil. Add kneaded dough and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise 30-40 minutes until doubled in size.
Meanwhile, use 1/2 - 1 tsp. olive oil to grease two 9" cake pans.
When dough has doubled in size, punch dough and break into 2 even pieces. Spread each half into a greased cake pan. Use your finger to make 1/4" dimples evenly over top of each piece of dough.
Let the dimpled dough rise 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Brush 1 Tbsp. of the remaining olive oil over the top of each bread.
Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan over the top of each.
Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes until top of bread is lightly browned.
Let cool 10-15 minutes before using for pizzas. (You can also make the focaccia a day or two ahead of time.)

To make the pizzas:
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Top each focaccia with 1/2 c. tomato & basil sauce.
Spread the artichoke hearts, 1/2 of the roasted red pepper strips and the chopped sundried tomatoes evenly over the top of one of the focaccia breads. Top with 3/4 c. mozzarella cheese.
Spread sausage and remaining red peppers over the top of the other focaccia bread. Top with remaining 3/4 c. mozzarella.
Place pizzas on a cookie sheet and bake for 12 minutes or until cheese is melted and lightly browned. Let cool 2-3 minutes before cutting & serving.

This project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #LaRomanella #collectivebias #CBias. All of the opinions expressed above are my own.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sausage & Rice Baked Stuffed Pumpkin

Once a month, my book club has a potluck dinner where we all bring a dish to share and then discuss the latest month's read over dinner. Sometimes we do a dinner theme related to the book - like when we made Mennonite dishes the month we read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (loved the book, by the way; if you like David Sedaris' style, I'd highly recommend it). This month's theme isn't related to the book (The Forgotten Garden - haven't finished it yet, but so far, so good!), but rather to the season. We're doing Halloween inspired dishes!

I haven't decided what to make. The obvious choice, to me anyway, would be a dessert. But I want to make sure there's some "real food" there too. So, I was looking through recipes online and this Sausage Stuffed Pumpkins recipe really caught my eye. I decided to try it out first to see how I liked it and if it would work in a potluck setting. As you can see - it's a pretty neat presentation:

And with the changes I made to suit our tastes (no mushrooms, cut way back on the onions/shallots) and my less-fuss cooking attitude - it was absolutely delicious! The pumpkin totally softens up, so with each bite, you get both the sweet, soft pumpkin and savory sausage and rice. It's a perfect fall meal, if you ask me.

In the end, I decided it's probably not the best potluck dish where people will be eating on couches and balancing plates on their laps, since the filling isn't super stiff. But assuming you eat dinner at the table, that shouldn't be an obstacle - so I'd highly recommend giving this a try. It would also make a great Thanksgiving dish!
Here's my adaptation:

Sausage & Rice Baked Stuffed Pumpkin
1 cup instant brown rice
1 1/2 + 1/4 cups chicken broth (about 1 can)
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. olive oil
2 links mild Italian sausage
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 shallot, minced
3 Tbsp. white wine
1/4 c. dried currents
1 tsp. dried sage
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1 sugar pumpkin (about 2.5 - 3 lbs.)
salt & pepper

Carve a circle around the top of the pumpkin to cut the top off, as if you were getting ready to carve a jack o' lantern. Scoop the seeds & pulp out and discard. (You can save the top for presentation if you want; I did not.)
Sprinkle the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper. Place in a 2-quart casserole dish or other baking pan filled with 1/2" water.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a small sauce pan, bring 1 1/2 c. chicken stock and 1/2 tsp. curry to a boil. Add 1 cup instant brown rice and reduce heat to low, simmer for 10-15 minutes (as recommended by package directions) until cooked.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp. olive oil in a small saute pan over medium heat. Cut sausage links open and crumble meat into pan, discarding casing. Saute about 5 minutes until no longer pink. Push the sausage to the side of the pan and add minced garlic and shallots to the open space. Saute 1-2 minutes until soft. Add currents, sage, parsley, 1/4 c. chicken broth and 3 Tbsp. white wine to the sausage/shallot mixture. Stir to combine. Let cook over medium-low heat until most of the liquid is absorbed.
Add cooked rice to sausage mixture and stir well to combine. Scoop mixture into pumpkin. Top with pumpkin topper, if using. Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F. Loosely cover with foil and bake another 30 minutes until pumpkin flesh is soft.
Let cool 5 minutes. Then cut pumpkin into 4-6 wedges. Carefully place on plates, keeping as much filling on top of the wedge as possible. (I just scooped what fell off onto the side of each plate.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We've been Boo'd!

When the doorbell rang at 8:45pm the other night, I had no idea who it might be. We're still fairly new to the area and don't know too many people yet - especially people who would be coming for a visit at that time of night. So, I flipped on the light and peered out the peephole - nothing. So I peeked out the window. And there I spied a little package on the front mat. It was a bright Halloween goody bag. When I opened it up, I found some goodies and this poem inside:

I'd never heard of this game before, but apparently it's been around a while. Basically, whoever starts it makes up a few bags of Halloween treats and copies of a "Boo" sign and the above poem and secretly drops it them on a few neighbors' doorsteps. Then those neighbors each make 2 more goodie bags and copies of the poem and secretly drop them on other doorsteps. Rinse, lather, repeat. I just think this is such a great idea! It's a fun way to build a sense of community and do something even people without kids can enjoy.

So, of course I had to participate. I found copies of the "Boo" sign and poem here, so I printed them out and attached them to Halloween treat bags filled with chocolates and a miniature pumpkin. Last night, after dark, I snuck up to the neighbor's front door, dropped the bag, rang the bell and ran like heck to the next neighbor's house. I dropped the other bag there and then hauled it home before anyone could see me. I felt like mischievous kid - so much fun! And Mr. Valley Writer got some amusement from watching my shenanigans from our 2nd floor window, too. I hope our neighbors got as much of a kick out of it as we did.

Have you ever heard of the Boo game? Do you do it in your neighborhood? (If not - why not start a new tradition?! All the instructions are included in the link above!)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Grilled Chili-Lime Steak with Chimichurri & Roasted Fall Veggies

I remember a few months ago when we were still exploring our new town, we passed a store and I remarked "What do you think they sell there?" The name of the store was Smart & Final. Was it a closeout store - your final chance to buy an item? Was it an auction place - all sales were final?

Of course, then that lead to a bigger discussion of how, when you move to a new place, you really have no idea what stores are just by their names. Many times they're named after original owners and not very intuitive. You really have to go in and check it out to figure it out - or ask a local who knows. After that tangent, I pretty much forgot about Smart & Final.... until I got an email asking me if I'd be interested in checking out an area grocery store chain called Smart & Final. Ah ha! A grocery store! How could I have missed that? Well, not to worry, I was about to get my chance to check it out as I shopped the store to create a beef recipe.

Turns out, Smart & Final is kind a warehouse club/restaurant depot hybrid. It offers larger packages of food for a better price - as well as restaurant/catering goods like chafing dishes, sterno and paper goods. Their Extra stores, like the one I visited, combine the warehouse/restaurant items along with typical household sized offerings of produce, meat, dairy and frozen foods. It's really quite a varied collection of things. What I was most pleased with was that I was able to find everything I needed for the recipe I decided to make all under one roof. That rarely happens. I usually find myself heading to at least 1 other store for some elusive item - the right herb or spice or something. But not this time. And everything was well-priced to boot.

You can check out a photo diary of my experience here.
And, of course, here's the recipe I was inspired to create:

Grilled Chili-Lime Steaks with Chimichurri and Roasted Fall Veggies

2 Cattleman’s Finest Beef Loin New York Steaks*
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 large garlic cloves
1/2 c. fresh parsley
1/3 c. fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

2 large Russet potatoes*, peeled
1 sweet potato, peeled
2 cups Brussels sprouts
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Mix lime juice, cayenne pepper, ¼ tsp. salt and 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a freezer bag. Add steaks and mix to coat. Refrigerate for 4-8 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat grill to 400°F. Preheat oven to 425°F.
Cut russet and sweet potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Cut Brussels sprouts in half. Add to a bowl and toss with  2 Tbsp. olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and bake 25 minutes, turning half-way through.
To make chimichurri sauce, combine remaining ½ c. olive oil, garlic, parsley, cilantro, lemon juice and red wine vinegar in a blender. Puree until smooth. Add salt to taste.
Place steaks on preheated grill. Grill for 5 minutes on each side. Remove from heat and let rest 5 minutes.
To serve, top steaks with chimichurri sauce and veggies with grated Parmesan cheese.

*Live out West like me? Then visit your local Smart & Final store next week to get these items on sale for a great deal!

Note: This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #collectivebias. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding

Ever since I saw Giada rave about panetonne on one of her shows, I've wanted to try it. (Say what you will about TV-star chefs, I just love Giada. She's too cute!) So, when I had the opportunity to try some out for free, I jumped at it. Bauducco was generous enough to send me 2 of these Italian specialty cakes - a chocolate chip and a raisin:

Seeing as I was in a chocolate kind of mood last night, I decided to try that one first. When I opened it up and cut into it, I quickly learned this "cake" is much more bread-like, as you can see:

While it is moist, it's not quite as moist as cake - and it has a larger crumb. As I took a bite, a surprising orange flavor came through. Looking closer, I could see little bits of dried fruit in the cake, along with those delicious chocolate morsels. It really is a very unique flavor - a little bit along the lines of a friendship bread, but more refined. On its own, it would be a great snack along with a cup of coffee or tea.

But I wasn't looking for an accompaniment to coffee or tea. No, I wanted some straight up delicious dessert. So, I decided to use the cake for a bread pudding. When I make bread pudding, I often use leftover hamburger or hot dog rolls that are taking up space in the freezer. Their soft texture is perfect for bread pudding - and this panetonne is very similar, so I thought it would work well. 

To go along with the chocolate and orange flavors already in the cake, I added some cherries and a touch of rum. Topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, the results were delicious, in my opinion. 

Mr. ValleyWriter says he thinks the raisin panetonne would make a more "traditional" bread pudding (which he prefers) so we may have to give that a try next. But for me, chocolate takes bread pudding to the next level - a definite must try!

Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding
(serves 4)

1/3 c. fresh cherries, chopped
2 Tbsp. rum
1 1/3 c. milk
1/4 c. sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 1/2 c. cubed chocolate chip panetonne
2 Tbsp. chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 4 custard cups and place in a larger casserole dish.
Combine cherries and rum in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine milk and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved. 
In a separate bowl, whisk egg and egg yolk. Slowly whisk in hot milk/sugar mixture. Add the cubed panettone to the liquid and let sit 10 minutes.
Stir in rum-soaked cherries and pour evenly into prepared custard cups. Sprinkle 1/4 of the chocolate chips evenly over the top of each one.
Place casserole dish containing custard cups in the preheated oven. Create a water bath by carefully adding warm water to the bottom of the casserole dish until it comes about 1/2 way up the sides of the custard cups. 
Bake pudding at 350°F for 35 minutes or until set in the center. Remove from water bath and let cool 5-10 minutes before serving.

Disclosure: I received the Bauducco panettone free as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, but the opinions expressed above are my own. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Not Your Mamma's Fish & Chips

On the continuing quest to find new and interesting ways to prepare fish, I decided to try a coconut encrusted tilapia - along the lines of coconut shrimp. I served it with a spicy sweet chili dipping sauce and sweet potato oven fries. While it wasn't my original intention to create a modern "island" version of fish & chips - that's exactly what we ended up with!

Now, I must admit that normally I'm averse to frying, given that it's not the healthiest way to go. But I knew that would be the best way to truly get these crispy. And as it turns out, the coconut covering really didn't soak up a lot of the oil, so the fish wasn't greasy and didn't really feel like "fried food." If you're still really opposed to frying though, these could be baked at 350°F for about 15 minutes with a flip half-way through.

Coconut Tilapia with Sweet Potato Oven Fries
(Serves 2)

2 tilapia fillets
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 egg, beaten
3/4 c. sweetened coconut flakes, finely chopped
2 tsp. cajun seasoning
1/2 c. canola oil
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 sweet potatoes, cut into french fry strips
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. paprika
sweet chili sauce for dipping (usually found with the asian foods in the grocery store)

Preheat oven to 425°F. In a large bowl, combine 1 Tbsp. olive oil, cut sweet potatoes, cumin and paprika. Toss to coat sweet potatoes evenly. Bake in oven for 15-20 minutes until evenly browned, turning every 5 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat 1/2 c. canola oil over medium heat to 350° F.
On a plate, mix chopped coconut and cajun seasoning.
Coat tilapia filets in cornstarch, then dip in beaten egg. Roll in spiced coconut mixture until both sides of each fillet are evenly coated.
Carefully place fish into heated oil. Let cook 4-5 minutes until coconut is golden brown. Flip and cook another 3-5 minutes on the other side. Carefully remove from oil with tongs or a spatula and place on paper towels to drain off any excess oil.
Serve with sweet potatoe fries & sweet chili dipping sauce.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ghirardelli Flourless Dark Chocolate Torte

As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, I was lucky enough to receive a generous sample package from Ghirardelli Chocolates. Often sample packages are just that - small samples. But Ghirardelli means business, hooking me up with 3 full size bars and 2 bags of the individual chocolate squares:
When I opened the package, I was totally psyched! I love chocolate - especially rich, dark chocolate like Ghirardelli's Intense Dark line. Of course, Mr. ValleyWriter and I had to do some sampling - diving into the Sea Salt Soiree (I love how the salt really brings out the flavor of the chocolate and the almonds give just a little bit of texture, almost like a crispy chocolate bar) and the 86% Cacao (very intense - Mr. VW was a big fan, but it was a little too dark and not quite creamy enough for me).

I pulled aside the 72% Cacoa bars right away, though, knowing I had a special treat in mind to create with those. I've had the 72% Cacoa before, so I knew it was just the right blend of bitterness and creaminess for this amazing flourless chocolate torte:

It's dense, creamy, fudgy and oh-so-heavenly - without being so sweet you feel like you're eating chocolate frosting. I made a mini one (in a 4" souffle dish) because it's just the two of us - and really, all you need is a little slice to feel satisfied.
(served here with a little strawberry syrup)

The recipe below can also be scaled up to make a full-size 10" torte that's sure to wow at your next gathering (just triple the ingredients). Also, it's my understanding that the Ghirardelli chocolate bars aren't gluten-free, but their baking chips are, so if you used the 60% bittersweet chips in this recipe, it would make a terrific gluten-free dessert. Enjoy!

Ghirardelli Flourless Dark Chocolate Torte
(Serves 6)

3 Tbsp. water
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 c. granulated sugar
6 oz. Ghirardelli 72% Cacao chocolate bars, chopped into pieces
1/3 c. unsalted butter, cut into 5-6 chunks + extra butter for greasing
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 300°F. Grease 4" cake pan or souffle dish liberally with butter. Cut a 4" circle out of parchment paper and put it in the bottom of the pan.
In a small saucepan, heat water, salt and sugar over medium heat. Stir constantly until dissolved. Remove from heat.
In a double boiler, melt chocolate. Add butter 1 chunk at a time, whisking after each addition until fully melted into chocolate.
Beat eggs into chocolate-butter mixture 1 at a time.
Beat water-sugar mixture into chocolate.
Pour into greased pan.
Place the small pan inside a larger baking dish. Fill the larger dish with hot water until the water comes about 1/2 way up the sides of the smaller pan with the torte batter. This creates a water bath that will help your torte cook evenly.
Bake at 300°F for 35-40 minutes until torte is set (it should not jiggle when you give it a bit of a shake). Remove from oven and carefully pull out of the water bath. Cool completely before inverting onto serving dish. Refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.

Disclaimer: I received the Ghirardelli chocolates free as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, but the opinions expressed above are my own.

Also posted to Sweets for a Saturday #35

Friday, September 9, 2011

VW's Rules for Beating Blackouts

As some of you may have heard, we had a huge blackout here in the San Diego area yesterday. It stretched from the Mexican border north to Orange County and east to Arizona. It was HUGE - 5 million people without power. Thankfully, we were back up in about 12 hours, so it wasn't too bad in the end.

But, when it first went out, we had no idea how long it would be. So, I put my usual "the power is out" plan into action and started thinking about what I would do if it went more than 24 hours. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, I've dealt with a lot of power outages. Some last 3-4 days (or more). So, this is old hat for me. I actually had a lot of fun last night sitting outside with my hubby, candles going, drinking wine and looking at the stars. So, I thought I'd share my general rules/strategies for dealing with power outages.

The first 24 hours:
-Gather all your candles, lighters and flashlights and keep them in a central location. Carefully use candles when possible (and safe) to save flashlight battery power. Don't forget to take advantage of any solar lights you may have outside your home. They make great backup flashlights!
-In summertime, keep windows and shades closed until it's cooler outside than inside. Then open everything up to cool the house down.
-Keep the fridge and freezer closed as much as possible. Try to save opening them for when you have several things to get out. For example, last night, I made a list of all the ingredients I needed for dinner and pulled them all out at once. We drank water (and, let's be honest, here - wine!) we had in the closet to avoid opening the fridge.

-Eat the most perishable items you have (milk, eggs, yogurt, etc.) first, if possible. After the first 4-5 hours, move them to the freezer. The freezer should keep things cold for 24-48 hours (though you should probably eat your ice cream ASAP. Not such a bad deal!)
-Use hand sanitizer in place of washing your hands when they're not very dirty. (If you have city water, it may still work during a power outage - but sewer systems may leak. I suggest not using the water unless you really have to. And if you have a well - your pump won't work anyway!)

24 hours and beyond:
-Start cooking/eating. Focus on using up as many of your perishables as you can first (after that, you can move on to your nonperishable items - canned goods, dry goods, etc.) While your microwave and electric stoves won't work, you can still use gas. This includes outdoor BBQs, which you can use your regular pots and pans on in a pinch, if needed.
-Continue to open the freezer as little as possible. While things won't stay frozen, they will stay safely cool longer than things in the fridge. Cook and eat meats as they defrost.
-For washing up, boil water on the BBQ or gas stove. Let it cool until it's comfortable to touch. Use a washcloth and the water to "freshen up" without a shower. You can also wash dishes this way.
-Do as much "fun" stuff during daylight hours as you can - read, play board games, go for walks, etc.
-Make nighttime special - not boring. Pretend you're camping. Look at the stars, tell family stories, etc.

What are your tips for coping with a power outage or blackout?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A surprise visit from the Fairy Hobmother - you could be next!

If you read a lot of cooking blogs, you've probably heard of the Fairy Hobmother by now. She hails from Appliances Online and goes around granting kitchen wishes to lucky blog commenters. (Hob, by the way, is the term for a stove top in England. So, the Fairy Hobmother is really quite a fitting name for a granter of kitchen wishes!)

I recently left a comment on Kahakai Kitchen's recent post and low and behold, this morning I found the Fairy Hobmother had visited me too! She left a nice gift certificate to Amazon, which I think I may use to buy some bread forms. (Though at 100° F today in sunny southern California, I'm rethinking the desire to bake!)

If you'd like a visit of your own from the Fairy Hobmother, leave a comment on this post. If you're lucky, she might just grant you your very own kitchen wish!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Vanilla Bean Popovers - Sunday Morning Breakfast

In our household, most mornings breakfast consists of little more than a bowl of cold cereal or a cup of yogurt. But on the weekends - Sunday especially - we make an effort to make a nice breakfast for ourselves. Since moving to sunny California, we've been able to enjoy it out on the patio, too - which is an extra bonus!

This morning's breakfast was simple, yet elegant - and delicious. I made some light and airy vanilla bean popovers (served with homemade orange marmalade) and a nice fruit salad. If you've never had them before, popovers are a wonderful treat - crunchy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside:

Right out of the oven, they look especially impressive:
Best of all, they're actually very simple to make - using ingredients you probably always have on hand - eggs, milk, flour & salt. I like the addition of the vanilla bean for a little extra dimension, but it's not entirely necessary. 

Vanilla Bean Popovers 
(Makes 6)

2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 vanilla bean

Let eggs and milk sit out on the counter for about 45 minutes - 1 hour to come to room temperature.
Spray popover pan (or muffin tin) generously with oil spray. Place in cold oven.
Turn oven and preheat to 450° F. 
While oven and pan are heating up, beat eggs on medium speed until frothy. Beat in milk, flour and salt on low speed just until combined.
Split vanilla bean down the center, lengthwise. Use your knife to scrape the seeds out. Place them in the batter and mix again on low speed for 15-30 seconds to distribute seeds evenly.
Carefully remove hot popover pan from oven. Fill each cup about 1/2 way full with batter. 
Return to fully heated oven. Bake at 450° F for 20 minutes (do not open the oven during this time - not even for a peek!!). Reduce heat to 350° F and cook for another 20 minutes until popovers are fully browned. 
Remove from oven and pierce with a knife to allow steam to escape (this keeps the popovers from getting soggy). 
Serve warm with butter or your favorite jam.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spicy Grilled Tuna with Mango-Nectarine Salsa

We finally got a grill at our new place, so I've been cooking outside a lot lately. I'm pretty comfortable grilling most meats - chicken, steak & pork - no problem. But I've always been a little hesitant about fish. I think part of it is that I'm not as comfortable with fish in general as I am with other proteins. My go-to fish recipes are fish tacos (pan-fried) and white wine poached fish in the oven. Always on the lookout to bring more healthy foods into our diet and new recipes on to the menu, I decided to branch out and try grilling up some tuna.

I poked around for recipes and used this recipe as my inspiration. I changed things up to make it a little simpler (there were way too many ingredients in that first recipe!) and use up the last of my fresh nectarines. It came out really, really good! There was nice heat from the spice rub and jalapeno, with the mango and nectarine providing a sweet, cooling contrast. Served with a side of cous cous, red quinoa and baby garbanzo beans (Harvest Blend from Trader Joe's - so good!), it was a very tasty - and healthy - meal.

Spicy Grilled Tuna with Mango-Nectarine Salsa
(Serves 2)

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
2 (4-6 oz.) tuna steaks

1 small mango, peeled, pitted and diced
2 small nectarines, pitted and diced
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. chopped mint
1 jalapeno, minced (seeds & all)
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice

1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. cumin
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. salt

Mix olive oil, 1 Tbsp. lime juice and minced garlic in glass dish. Add tuna steaks and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 and up to 3 hours.
Meanwhile, mix mango, nectarine, cilantro, mint, jalapeno and remaining lime juice in a small non-metal bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. (Letting it sit a couple of hours allows the flavors to meld.)
When fish is ready to be cooked, spray grill with oil, then turn on heat to medium-high. Let the grill heat up for about 5-10 minutes.
While grill is heating up, combine spices and salt in a small bowl. Remove the fish from the lime marinade and place on a clean plate. Sprinkle spice mixture evenly on both sides of each steak (it will be a fairly thick coating).
Place tuna steaks on preheated grill and cook 3-4 minutes on each side or until fish reaches desired doneness.
Top with mango-nectarine salsa before serving.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Easy Salsa Fresca (fresh tomato salsa)

The second weekend after we moved into our new house, I popped down to the local garden center to get some tomato plants. It was already early June - too late to start with seeds. But even getting the young plants, I wondered if we'd be waiting until September to see any fruit. (That's what happened to us last year in Massachusetts. In fact, we got our first frost before we harvested our first tomato!)

But, as we know, California's climate is much different than New England's. And so, the first week in August, our first little red beauties started to come in. I planted cherry tomatoes and 2 kinds of full-size varieties (Early Girl and Beefsteak) for a total of about 9 plants. There wasn't time to amend our garden area (it's so dry, it looks like the surface of the moon at this point!), but these plants have done very well in pots.

One of the first things my hubby requested was some fresh salsa - without onions. Yes, in addition to his lack of love for potatoes, he's not into onions either. Now, you might think that salsa without onions would be bland. But with a touch of garlic powder and some salt, the flavor pops right back up and you don't even miss the onions. Here's the recipe I came up with:
(Note: I just used a canning jar to store my salsa in the refrigerator. This is not a proven "canning-safe" recipe.)

Easy Salsa Fresca (fresh tomato salsa)
(Makes about 2 cups)

5-6 medium-sized ripe red tomatoes, diced
1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/4 c. fresh cilantro, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced (seeds and all)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

Combine all ingredients in a non-metallic bowl. Stir well to help dissolve salt and garlic powder. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before serving to let flavors meld.

So good - you'll have a hard time going back to store-bought!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nectarine bounty part 3 - strawberry nectarine jam

As I got toward the end of the nectarine harvest, I knew I had to come up with something to preserve these amazingly sweet little fruits. Yes, they were great to eat raw and made for some yummy desserts, but we were getting a little nectarined-out. Not to mention that I want to be able to enjoy some of the fruity goodness come winter. (That may sound strange considering I live in California where some kind of fruit is usually available - citrus at a minimum. But having lived in New England for the first 30 years of my life, I can't imagine anything other than a long, cold winter. It will be interesting to see how I feel about it after the first winter here!)

So, I decided to make a nectarine jam. And on my way to the store to get pectin, I passed a sign for a strawberry stand and decided we needed to add some of those, too!

The result was a naturally sweet (but not overly sugary) jam that's wonderful on freshly made bread and heated up and drizzle over ice cream. (That's what I've tried it on so far!)

I ended up having enough fruit to make a big batch - 8 jars in total. And because I wanted to can my creation, I followed the directions for 100% nectarine jam to ensure there would be enough acidity. (Strawberry jam doesn't require added acidity in the form of lemon juice - but peach/nectarine jam does.) Here's the recipe I came up with courtesy of the guidelines on the Ball® low/no-sugar needed pectin bottle:

Strawberry Nectarine Jam
(Makes 8, 8-ounce jars)

5 cups peeled, pitted and chopped nectarines
2 1/2 cups hulled and chopped strawberries
4 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/3 c. water
6 Tbsp. low/no-sugar needed pectin
1-1 1/2 c. sugar

Sterilize canning jars and hold jars and lids in a hot water bath until jam is ready.
In a separate large pot (at least 8 quart), combine chopped nectarines, strawberries and lemon juice.
Mash with a potato masher until mixture is only slightly chunky.
Add water and pectin. Bring to a rolling boil that can't be stirred away. Skim off any foam that rises to the top.
Add sugar until jam reaches desired sweetness. (I added between 1 and 1 1/2 cups - you can add up to 3 cups, if desired.
Continue boiling for 1 full minute. Then cover and remove jam from heat.
Carefully remove jars and lids from hot water bath.
Ladle jam into jars, filling to within 1/4" of the top of the jar. Cover each jar with a lid and metal band.
Once all jars are filled, return them to the hot water bath. The jars should be covered with at least 1" of water.
Cover canning pot and bring to a gentle, but steady boil. Boil for 10 minutes (longer at altitudes above 1,000 feet). Turn off heat and let jars sit 5 minutes. Carefully remove from water and allow to cool. After 24 hours, check your lids to make sure jars are fully sealed. (Unsealed jars can be refrigerated. The jam should be used within a few weeks.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Nectarine bounty part 2 - Nectarine muffins

After the cobbler, nectarine muffins were my next experiment. I based this recipe on an simple blueberry muffin recipe. With a little cinnamon kick and a sprinkle of brown sugar, it makes a lovely little breakfast treat (and another great way to use up those nectarines!).

This recipe makes about 16 regular-sized or 3 dozen mini muffins, and they freeze very well. (Just defrost overnight on the counter or pop in the microwave for about 45 seconds to enjoy again.)

Nectarine Muffins

3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
2/3 c. vegetable oil
2 eggs
2/3 c. milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 c. diced nectarines
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400°F.
Mix flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, beat oil, eggs, milk and cinnamon. Stir liquid mixture into dry ingredients. Mix until well blended (batter will be thick). Fold in diced nectarines.
Ladel batter into lined or greased muffin tins. Fill each tin 2/3-3/4 full.
Sprinkle brown sugar over top of each muffin (about 1/4 tsp. per muffin).
Bake at 400°F for 15-17 minutes (for regular-sized muffins) or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
For mini muffins, bake about 8-10 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.