Saturday, October 31, 2009

Queso Fundido con Chorizo

One of our favorite appetizers at a local Mexican eatery is the queso fundido, a piping hot, melted cheese dish, rich with red, spicy chorizo, and served with warm flour tortillas.

I decided to recreate this flavorful dish to bring over to our friends' house.

Jessica and Peter have invited us for their annual pumpkin carving party for the past several years. Hands down, this is the best tradition I've ever heard of. Every year, they invite a few families over to carve pumpkins in preparation for Halloween. And this is not a BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) party. The family actually cleans out 20+ pumpkins and makes pumpkin pies from the meat for the guests to take home. In addition to the pumpkins and pies, they provide dozens of patterns and the tools to carve. What's more, Peter and his kids draw their own intricate patterns for themselves or at their guests' request.

Don't you wish Jessica and Peter were your friends?

They spread out a giant piece of plastic over their kitchen floor and everyone gets to work. It makes pumpkin carving a lot of fun, and the designs are amazing.

The other reason I wanted to bring over a cheese dish is because the last time I was over for dinner, J&P made traditional Swiss fondue with Emmenthal and Gruyere cheeses. What is queso fundido other than Mexico's version of fondue?

Like Fonda's version, most recipes I found on the web were primarily melted cheese under the broiler. If were home, I would make something like the recipe at Hungry Cravings
or at Recipezaar. There's even an interesting recipe here for a Queso Fundido with lime juice and tequila.

Squirtle the turtle, wolf, scary skull, and jack-o-lantern faces.

But I needed something that would hold up for a few hours in a crockpot, so I wanted something with more liquid. I found the recipe listed below at the Rotel website. Perfect.

I had some Rotel tomatoes, poblanos, and jalapenos from making chili for a cook off (it won, by the way). And my favorite cervezas are Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo (although Xingu Black Beer, a Brazilian dark beer, has been recently capturing my attention). No problem there. And I had a bunch of different cheeses in the fridge.

Dwight from The Office tv show, flaming skull, Scooby Doo, Voldemort-type face, Heath Ledger as the Joker (right side in the back), Welcome.

While the recipe below uses Monterey Jack cheeses, other cheeses that melt well are fine for this recipe. In the U.S., cheddar and fontina are regular suspects, but Mexican cheeses can be more easily found these days in American grocery stores. I found this list of Mexican cheese descriptions at Gourmet Sleuth and a history of Mexican cheese making as a result of Spanish colonization at Mexconnect, which are worth looking at, if you you want to learn more. Queso asadero, manchego, and queso quesadilla all seem like good options.

I also want to mention that it wouldn't be beyond me to use some Velveeta cheese in this dish, along with other cheeses, particularly if it's going to sit in a crockpot for a few hours. Because of the emulsifiers in the cheese, Velveeta would work well in this kind of recipe. It melts well, would create a stable base for other cheeses, and most of all, would prevent the kind of coagulation and separation of oil and protein that can happen with melted cheese dishes that are not stabilized with a roux. It's also salty and can stand up to other flavors. Andrew, who is a Fort Worth Texan and who was at the party, would definitely nix this idea, because he said the mix is supposed to be oily after awhile. The next time I make this, I'll try it and report back.

Note: This recipe is for big parties. Cut it in half if you're serving less then 6 people and it's an appetizer.

Queso Fundido with Beer
From the Rotel website
(Ninette's additions in italics)

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb. chorizo, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced
1 10oz can RO*TEL® Original Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies, drained
1 small diced jalapeño (remove seeds for less heat)
1-2 poblano peppers, roasted, seeded, and diced or cut in strips
1 1/4 cups Negra Modelo or other amber Mexican beer
2 lb. Monterey jack cheese, shredded (or shredded mixed Mexican cheese that they sell in packs in the grocery store)
2 Tbs. cornstarch
Tortilla chips, Italian bread, apples, veggies
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, lightly brown the chorizo in vegetable oil, chopping and crumbling it with a slotted spoon, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chorizo to paper towels to drain.
Pour off all but 2 Tablespoons of grease from the pan, then return to medium heat. Sautee the onions and jalapeño until soft but not browned, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the can of RO*TEL® and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in 2 Tablespoons of beer, transfer mixture to a large bowl along with the chorizo.

Heat the remaining beer in a fondue pot over medium-low heat. Toss the cheese and cornstarch, then add to beer. Using a wooden spoon, stir cheese in a gentle, swirling motion until the cheese melts, about 4 minutes. Add the RO*TEL®-chorizo mixture and mix well. Transfer the fondue pot from the stove to its stand and heat source.

Serve with tortilla chips, chunks of bread, apple slices, raw veggies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pan-grilled Vegetables

However you do it, grilled, oven-roasted, or pan-roasted veggies are nutritious, flavorful and easy to make.

I usually make a vinaigrette of olive oil, smashed garlic, and vinegar (1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil), in which I toss the vegetables. I lay them out on a cookie sheet after they have been oiled and I sprinkle them with kosher salt and pepper. Then it's off to the heat source.

Since I was using veggies that cook pretty quickly -- zucchini, baby eggplant, onions, red peppers, and asparagus -- I used my trusty stovetop grill pan. Heat it over medium-high heat, and when it's hot, add your veggies in one layer. When they're seared on one side, turn them over and cook through until tender. The vegetables will cook at different rates, so take them off as necessary, put on a platter, and tent some foil over them to keep them warm as the other veggies cook. Cook in batches until you're done.

These are great as as side dish, on a salad, or in pasta.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Roast Chicken a la Thomas Keller

On the way home from school, I stopped at a local grocery store to pick up a rotisserie chicken.

My younger daughter said, "You say the chickens are really small here, and they're expensive."

I replied, "Well, I'm not going to drive to Costco to get a cheaper chicken."

But when I went into the deli section and found my hand hovering over the $7.99 miniscule, wrinkly chicken, I knew that my wise daughter was right. She knows me very well.

I came out with a farm-raised, no antibiotics whole chicken.

What a great opportunity to try out Thomas Keller's legendary roast chicken, which uses only salt, pepper, thyme, and a 450 degree oven. It cooks under an hour.

Whoa, this chicken is divine! A must try. Crispy. Succulent. Delicious.

I served it with pommes frittes (well, they were frozen Ore-Ida french fries aspiring to be pommes frittes - :)), leftover pan-grilled vegetables, and a gravy I made from the pan juices.

Kitty also got a gourmet meal out of the chicken liver in the giblets package, which were simmered with peas and orzo and then ground into a yummy cat mash.

Kitty reading Thomas Keller's Bouchon Cookbook, which I got for my birthday.

A few notes from the cook:

1) An organic or farm-raised chicken is a must, 3 lbs. max. Those mega-brands pump liquid into the chickens, and the natural chicken tastes much better.

2) A dry chicken is a crispy chicken. Make sure you super dry the chicken off.

3) Don't skimp on the salt. A good amount of kosher salt (1 tbs. or a little more) is needed to flavor the whole chicken.

4) Be prepared for your oven to need a run of the self-cleaning cycle after you make this spatter-inducing chicken.

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken

One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. fresh thyme, minced, or 1 tsp. dried thyme

Rinse the chicken, then dry it very, very well with paper towels, inside and out. Let the chicken sit out for 20-30 minutes before roasting, so that it gets to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Generously salt the chicken with kosher salt, inside and out. Remember that the salt needs to flavor the whole chicken. If you're using dried thyme, sprinkle thyme on the chicken and rub it in with the salt. Season with freshly ground pepper.

Truss the bird and put on a rack. (I used a silicone rubber band to tie the legs and then I put crumpled aluminum foil under the sides of the bird, which helped push the wings against the body. The foil also acted as an impromptu rack.) Put it in a roasting pan.

Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. When it's done, the chicken will register 155 degrees with an instant thermometer between the thigh and leg. When it rests, it will reach a temperature of 165 degrees.

Remove it from the oven. Baste the bird several times with the juices. If you're using fresh thyme, add it to the juices before you baste the bird. Let it rest 15 minutes.

Cut and serve.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Daring Bakers October 2009 Challenge: Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose French Macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.


It was one of those days. A day of failures. Including the macarons.

But in failure exists the opportunity to learn something new.

My macarons didn't foot. I have to read a little bit to find out why, but I suspect we didn't beat the eggs to the proper stage, and we didn't mix the dry ingredients into the meringue the right way.

I also burned the bottoms of the tinted macarons, because they were too close to the bottom heat source.

Still, the macarons were tasty. Light, a little sweet, and with an appealing chewy texture.

One was a raspberry swirl with raspberry filling. The other was a cocoa-dusted macaron with nutella filling.

So what did I learn from today's failures?

That I can always try again. After a good night's sleep. :)

For the recipe and to see all the macaron variations made by Daring Bakers members, click here.

For some great tips, click here to read Helen of Tartlette's article on macarons in Desserts Magazine.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pan-roasted Chicken in Orange-Dijon Marinade

This recipe featured on Saveur Magazine's Best of the Web!

Over the last two weeks, I've had my share of beef. Italian-style beef stew. Japanese beef curry. Beef chili and more chili.

I was ready for some chicken with Continental flavors.

I made a vinaigrette/marinade of orange and lemon juices, dijon mustard, olive oil, and spices. I added some agave nectar for some sweetness. Since I had some leftover guajillo pepper puree from a recent bout of Mexican cooking, I added a few spoonfuls of that for some heat.

I marinated the chicken for only a couple hours, but if I had to do it over, the chicken would have benefited from an overnight soak.

After I pan-roasted the chicken like I do my very popular Ponzu Chicken, I took the leftover marinade, defatted it, and made a sauce out of it with the addition of some white wine and chicken broth.

Served with some roasted veggies and pasta with a little butter and parmesan, the chicken was a nice dinner for a fall Sunday.

I should say that I would like to do more work on this marinade to get it up to Big, Bold, and Beautiful standards. Maybe I need to add more mustard. What do you think?

Pan-roasted Chicken in Orange Dijon Marinade

Chicken thighs, bone in (or chicken breasts)

Paul Prudhomme Poultry Seasoning
Kosher salt and pepper

1 medium onion sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tsp. fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tbs. lemon, juiced
2 tbs. dijon mustard
2 tbs. worcestershire sauce
2 tbs. agave nectar (or honey)
1 tbs. guajillo puree (or you can use red pepper flakes to your liking)
1 bay leaf

Generously season chicken on both sides with kosher salt and pepper, paprika, and Prudhomme's seasoning or other seasonings that you like. Put in Ziploc bag and let sit for 15 minutes in the fridge.

In the meantime, make marinade. Taste to adjust seasonings.

Add marinade to chicken and marinate overnight or for a few hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove from marinade, pat dry. In a hot skillet over medium heat, sear chicken 5 minutes skin side, 3 minutes on other side until it's nicely browned.

If your skillet is oven proof, put directly in oven. If not, put browned chicken on a cookie sheet or roasting pan in 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until cooked through (175 degrees internal temperature.)


Friday, October 23, 2009

SippitySup and Seafood Watch

Picture credit: SippitySup

Every day I learn something new. And today my new thing came from SippitySup.

I felt so grateful for the knowledge that I thought I would share it with you.

The two guys who write SippitySup are not only innovative cooks, but they're smart, committed people.

Click here to read Gregs's entry on seafood sustainability and use your influence as a fellow blogger and member of mankind to make a difference.

As Ben Franklin said, “The good an individual can do is insignificant compared to the collective good a group can do.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Go Hot or Go Home Beef Chili (Award-winning!)

Serendipity. This is what happened when Corey, a new faculty member, happened to mention his past experience starting a BBQ club at school, to Mike, a hardcore Q-er. Mike mentioned it to me, and we hatched the idea of doing a smaller test of the idea at school -- a chili cook off at Homecoming.

I talked to a few other fellow foodies, including Kate, whose Amish friendship bread gets a lot of hits on this site, and Julia who's been featured here several times. Before you knew it, we had a full-fledged cook off planned, including a logo, nicknames, and a lot of smack talk among the six contenders.

The good lookin' chili crew with aprons made with a logo designed by Julia, who has been a guest blogger here. Check out her post on galley cooking. Photo credit: Jeorge Yankura.

For my first cook off, I decided to use my new, favorite toy.

Can you guess?

The Big. Green. Egg.

The Big Green Egg at work. For more Big Green Egg recipes, click here.

By cooking my regular multi-chile chili in the Big Green Egg, I added the flavor of mesquite smoke and the memory of many a campfire over which the old cowboys cooked their chili.

I won ... by a mere two votes, and the chilis were all within five votes of each other. Second place went to Corey, who created an intriguing sausage veggie chili with a little maple syrup to act as a counterpoint to the heat of chili powder.

All the chilis were excellent. Kate used TVP to make a vegetarian chili, so that most people didn't know it was meatless. Julia used Mexican cinnamon as her secret ingredient. Desiree created a silky and very appealing texture by browning her meat cubes in flour, like beef stew. Mike, whose cooking mind works very similarly to my own, softened dried chili pods in hot water and then pureed them. He also made use of chilis from Penzey's Spices, of which I'm a big fan.

I like a chili that is deep and flavorful, with layered flavor components. It's taken me years to get my chili where it is now, and I'm sure it will keep evolving. That said, there are certain constants for me in chili:

1) Beef. Maybe I'll get to making other meat chilis, but beef is it for me. Sometimes I cube it. Sometimes I use ground beef. It depends how lazy I'm feeling. Cubed is more authentic but ground beef is definitely more convenient. My friend, Andy Pforzheimer who owns the Barcelona chain (this is a must-try restaurant if you haven't been there), has a friend who uses short ribs as his chili meat.

2) Smoky, deep, rich undertones. I use bacon, Guinness beer, beef broth, coffee, and semisweet chocolate to complement the dried chilis. I don't use all of these ingredients all the time -- it depends on what I have in the pantry -- but I believe these ingredients are why people ask for my chili recipe. If this were music, this chili is definitely in the bass section, no question.

3) Tomatoes and acidic components. If I use ingredients to bring out the smoky flavors of the chili, I firmly believe in the importance of the acidic to provide contrast. I know traditionalists don't use tomatoes, but I do, both diced and crushed, and depending on how the chili is going, I've been known to add Ortega's diced green chilies, Frank's red hot sauce, salsa, Trader Joe's salsa verde or even ketchup to brighten up the chili. Acid is what makes chili 3-dimensional and sassy.

4) A combination of fresh and dried chili peppers and spices. I'm still learning about chili peppers, so this is where it gets fun. I like a medium-spicy chili that has a slow-building, even heat and have been experimenting with different peppers to obtain that.

Before I talk about what I'm doing, I want to say that I believe you can make a perfectly decent chili with the 2-Alarm Chili packets or other packets they sell in the grocery store, if you add the bacon, Guinness beer and chocolate. You also can follow the recipe below and use only chili powder and leave out the other peppers, and you'll turn out a fine chili. However, I like to use a combination of dried and fresh chili peppers in my chili. If I use chili powder, I like to know that it's as fresh as it can be, which is why I buy Penzey's spices in small lots.

In this chili, my foundation is Penzey's regular chili powder, cumin, and oregano. To that, I add diced fresh chilis like poblano, jalapeno, and serrano peppers, which I saute with the onions and garlic. Fresh chilis add a fresh, grassy flavor to the chili, and they are also a little acidic.

I also like to add some chipotle in adobo. These are definitely smoky and rich, and a little goes a long way.

After that, I pick from a growing collection of dried chili peppers in my cabinet -- arbol (spicy, acidic), New Mexico (earthy), guajillo (fruity, piney), cascabel (nutty, tannic) -- and depending on what I'm doing, I'll either soak them in hot water or coffee, puree them, and add them to the chili, or I'll let them cook in the chili whole and pull them out. I always remove the seeds first, for both fresh and dried peppers, so that the chili is not too spicy for my family.

There are so many peppers that it's interesting to try them out and see what happens. I found a list of dried chili pepper descriptions at the Cook's Thesaurus if you want to get an idea of what's out there.

5) No beans. My husband doesn't eat carbs, so there are no beans in my chili. But if I did put beans, they'd be black beans or red pinto beans. I don't like kidney beans.

6) Thickener. I've never used flour, or the more traditional thickener of masa, in my chili, but after having Desiree's chili, I may have to change my mind. Using a starch to thicken the chili liquid creates a smooth, silky texture, and yet another taste sensation. If you can't find masa, I'm sure that taking two corn tortillas, soaking or simmering them in some chili liquor to soften, blending it in a blender, and then adding it back (some or all of it depending on how thick you want the chili), would do the job.

7) Season with salt at each stage and fry the spices.

Those are my thoughts on making a great chili. I should add my chili is never the same. I wrote down what I did today, which is the recipe below, but depending on my mood and what I have in my kitchen, my chili is always different. That said, it must be layered and flavorful, smoky and tangy, rich and memorable.

Chili shown with cubed beef instead of ground beef and with the addition of softened and pureed corn tortillas to thicken it up and get a silky texture.

Go Hot or Go Home Beef Chili

2 ½-3 lbs. ground beef or beef chuck hand cut into small 3/8"-1/2" chunks
7 slices of bacon, cut into ¼ inch pieces
2 medium onions or 1 large onion, finely chopped
3-4 garlic cloves minced
2 tbs. cumin
1 tbs. oregano
4 tbs. chili powder (ideally one like Penzey’s which is ancho chile and new Mexican chile or you can grind your own in a coffee grinder)
Green chiles in small can (e.g, Ortega brand)
1/2 chipotle chili in adobo sauce (or more if you dare; you can freeze the rest of the can in spoonful-sized portions for future use)
1-2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
2 poblano chilis, seeded and diced
1-2 serrano chili, seeded and diced
1 dried cascabel chilis, seeded (optional)
1-2 dried guajillo peppers, seeded (optional)
1 cup coffee (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes (put 1/2 a can first and see if it's enough)
1 14 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes (preferably Rotel)
1 11.2 fl. oz. bottle of Guinness beer
1 tsp beef concentrate or 1 cup beef broth
1 block of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate (Baker’s chocolate comes in blocks)
1 can of kidney, red pinto, or black beans (optional)
1 corn tortilla (optional)

Before you start to cook, combine onions, poblano, jalapeno and serrano together. Also, mix the chili powder, cumin, and oregano together in a bowl. Puree the chipotle in adobo with a little water.

Render bacon until crisp in dutch oven; set bacon aside.

Brown meat cubes in bacon fat in batches, setting aside when browned. Salt and pepper meat to season. If using ground beef, brown meat in bacon fat and then drain. Salt and pepper to season. Set aside.

Add some vegetable oil to the dutch oven, and when hot, add onions, poblanos, jalapeno, and serrano peppers and cook until translucent(5 minutes); add garlic for a minute, being careful not to burn it.

Add chili powder, cumin, and oregano mixture to onions and fry for a couple minutes to release flavors.

Add beef to onions and spices. Mix together and cook for a few minutes.

Add the Guiness beer and pureed chipotle in adobo and bring to a simmer. Let cook for five minutes.

Add tomatoes, and beef concentrate or broth. If you have a cascabel chile, add it; if you don’t, don’t worry about it. Stir everything together.

Bring to a simmer and cook for one hour.

While the chili is simmering, simmer the guajillos in hot water or coffee to cover. When the guajillos are soft, puree in blender.

After one hour, add the piece of chocolate. Add guajillo mixture to taste (you want to taste; if your chili is too spicy for you already, then you don't want to add that much). Simmer another hour or until meat is softened. If you’re adding beans, add them 15 minutes before you finish cooking. Pull out cascabel chili before serving.

Adjust seasonings to your taste. If you feel it needs something to brighten it up, you can add a couple tablespoons of salsa and/or a squirt of ketchup. Serve alone, or with rice, nacho chips, shredded cheese, sour cream, and hot sauce.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Un-Red Velvet Cupcakes

Crumbs cupcakes have hit the school by storm. Mackenzie, one of my advisees brought them in, and then my daughter Christina, who had had them in her advisory, begged me to take her to Crumbs so she could get a red velvet cupcake.

I was all in, until I saw that Crumbs charged $3.75 a cupcake and $18 for a pack of 12 mini-muffins.

Are you kidding me?

And true to the name, crumbs were all over the front seat of the car after Christina ate her cupcake.

I decided I would try to make some red velvet cupcakes to bring to advisory and make them Halloween-themed eyeball cupcakes, an idea I got from Annie's Eats.

I was going to make them from scratch, but then thought I would take chocolate cake mix and add buttermilk, a little vinegar, red dye, and vanilla. If the experiment was a disaster, I wouldn't cry about it since the cake mix was only .44 on sale.

The results:

They were delicious -- chocolatey, moist, and a little tangy from the buttermilk and vinegar. Paired with the cream cheese frosting, the cupcakes were a homerun.

BUT, I needed a lot more red food coloring. I used up one whole container of the red food coloring they sell in packs with other colors (yellow, green, blue), and then I used some Wilton burgundy frosting tint, probably about 3 tbs. of coloring, but it still wasn't enough turn the cupcakes an eye-popping red. In fact, they looked like really dark brown chocolate cupcakes.

Next time, if I use the 6 tbs. of red food coloring I wrote below, I would add it to the buttermilk/water mixture, so that they all add up to the 1 1/3 cup of liquid called for in the recipe on the box. I wonder though if it's impossible to dye chocolate cake mix red since perhaps there is brown coloring worked into the mix. I'd only know if I made it from scratch and saw the difference, or if a friendly reader shared his/her knowledge.

Perhaps it would be better to use vanilla cake mix with 2 tbs. of cocoa powder for the chocolate flavor. Since that would be a lot lighter in color, the dye would probably take rather well.

By the way, The Way the Cookie Crumbles blog did a really interesting comparison of four red velvet recipes. It's worth looking at.

Un-Red Velvet Cupcakes

Duncan Hines Chocolate Cake Mix
1 tsp. white vinegar
3 1 oz. (6 tbs.) bottles of red food coloring
3 eggs
1/2 cup oil

Follow the recipe on the back of the box, except for the 1 1/3 cups water called for, combine the vinegar, food coloring, 3/4 cup buttermilk, and water until it adds up to 1 1/3 cup.

Cook as directed and let cool.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix cream cheese, butter and vanilla together. Slowly add sugar until fully incorporated.

Halloween Eyeball Decoration

Cream cheese frosting (white and red)
Gummy lifesavers
Brown or black M&Ms

To make the Halloween eyeball cupcakes, make the cream cheese frosting. Set a bit aside and add some red food coloring. To make it super easy, you can just buy white frosting in the tub at the grocery store and/or a little squeeze tube of red writing gel (also in the baking section).

Frost the cupcakes. Put a gummy lifesavor in the center with a brown M&M in the center of that. Pipe little squiggly pink lines to make the eyes look bloodshot.

Cream cheese frosting does need to be refrigerated.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Apple Turnovers

Ever since the kids were babies, we've gone apple picking every year. What was once a fairly rural experience has now become a bit of a circus as the apple orchard has added different attractions for people coming from the big city and all around. It's crowded, there are lines, and one has to weave and dodge the milling families and couples.

Still, it's tradition to get our apple picking bag, board the tractor-pulled wagon and make our way up the steep hills that lead to whatever section of the orchard that has apples ready to be picked.

This year we were there for the Cameos, Sun Crisp, and Mutsu apples. The Mutsu apples were huge and recommended for use in pies, although they are also superb eating apples -- I think the best of all I've tried.

Well, we did use some of the Mutsus for apple pie. And since I had some leftover homemade puff pastry from a Daring Cooks challenge, I decided to also make some apple turnovers.

If you follow this blog, you know I'm not much of a baker. Before I started this blog, I would call myself a non-baker. However, since I joined the Daring Bakers and have baked beyond my comfort zone, I am slowly getting better.

I've also realized that, like cooking, you can wing it in baking once you know the rules.

With the turnover filling, I just sauted 2 diced apples in a little butter, sprinkled apple pie spice, and about 1/2 cup of a mixture of brown and white sugars, and added a shot of lemon juice. Apples are going to be at different levels of tartness, so if you have sweet apples, you'll use less sugar and vice versa. If your resulting filling is seasoned enough so it can hold its own with the puff pastry, then its good to go.

I rolled out my puff pastry 5 by 5 inch squares, added some filling in the middles, and brushed the edges with egg wash to help hold the seal. I folded the edges over to make triangles and then crimped the edges with a fork. I brushed the triangles with the egg wash and then cooked them in a 400 degree oven until puffed and lightly browned, about 20 minutes.



1) Any great baking apple, like Granny Smiths or Macintosh apples, will work here.
2) Raisins, nuts, and other additions would work well in the filling. Of course, the world is your oyster with the filling, which would be anything, sweet or savory.
3) Because puff pastry cooks quickly, I pre-cooked the filling to make sure the apples were soft.
4) If you are looking for a more precise recipe, I found this one at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Italian-style Beef Stew

Today it's Columbus Day, or Native Peoples Day, depending on where your politics are.

Either way, it was still a holiday.

I went to work for a couple hours and then took my kids out to a movie.

Since it was quite chilly, beef stew seemed the way to go for dinner. I bought two 1 1/2 pound packs of beef stew cubes and made beef stew two ways, this one and Japanese beef curry.

I'm teaching my girls how to cook without recipes, so I laid out the meat and asked my girls how many potatoes and carrots they thought they should have in ratio to the meat. I then asked how big they thought the potatoes and carrots should be cut, so they could stand with the big cubes of beef.

For the almost 3 lbs. of meat, they picked three potatoes and three carrots. After we cut up the veggies in medium-sized pieces, they thought there was too much potato, so we didn't use all the potato.

I'm glad they're learning to eyeball ingredients and make judgements along the way.

They learned a few more lessons, including how much aromatics (onions, garlic, etc.) they could use, the choice and ratio of liquids (beef broth, water, wine, tomato puree, etc.), and the variety of herbs and spices they could employ.

The best part of learning how to cook is being rewarded with dinner. Good job, girls!

Italian-style Beef Stew

1 1/2 lb. beef stew meat, dried and salted and peppered
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups beef broth
3/4 cup cabernet sauvignon
1/2 a large can of whole plum tomatoes (5 of the tomatoes chopped, and 2/3 cup of the tomato juice in the can) or you can use 1 small can of chopped tomatoes.
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut in medium-sized pieces
2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut in medium-sized pieces
1 pack of mushrooms, cleaned and cut in halves or thirds
A few dried mushrooms, soaked in a little hot water
1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf

Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add a little oil and brown meat on all sides, making sure that there is air space all around the meat and the pan is not crowded. Cook meat in batches if necessary and set aside.

Turn down heat to medium, add a little more oil, and brown onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic at the last minute of cooking.

Add back meat to the pot and add beef broth, wine and tomatoes. Keep the skillet you used to brown the meat and onions to use for the mushrooms. Bring to a simmer and cook until beef is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. (You can also do this in pressure cooker and cook the beef for 35 minutes or cook it in the oven at 350 for 1 1/2 hours).

While the beef is cooking, heat up the skillet over medium-high heat and add a little oil. Cook the mushrooms until they're browned. Salt and pepper and set aside.

When the dried mushrooms that you have been soaking in hot water have softened, cut them in small pieces. With a fine strainer, strain the mushroom water to remove any dirt and then add the chopped mushrooms back. Set aside.

When the beef is tender, add the potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and mushroom juice, and cook at a simmer until the potatoes and carrots are tender.

Adjust seasonings and serve with noodles or rice.

Japanese Beef Curry

When I lived in Japan after college, I got hooked on Japanese curry.

It's everywhere, as ubiquituous as pizza is in the U.S. It's served on a daily basis in schools and factories.

After I moved back to the States and I lived in the Big City, it was easy to get Japanese curry in restaurants or the ingredients to make curry. But when I moved out of the city to the burbs, I was in new surroundings and didn't know what was around. Pregnant and craving-driven, I said to my husband,

"I MUST have Japanese curry."

We looked in the phone book and found a Japanese hibachi restaurant.

Yes, I said "phone book." No wisecracks.

I called hurriedly and said, "Do you have Japanese curry?"

No was the answer. I proceeded to call all the Japanese restaurants in town and got the same answer, until I called the last one, and they said Yes.

My hopes rose like a phoenix ablaze...

until they finished their sentence:

"Yes, we have curry, but it's only for the workers."

I cried.

Since then, I've found the local Japanese food store and can buy boxes of Japanese curry to my heart's content. The curry comes in blocks, almost like the blocks of baking chocolate.

I usually buy S&B brand Golden Curry, medium hot, because that's the one my Japanese neighbor told me to buy when she taught me to make curry. The other big brand is House Vermont Curry.

Since curry was introduced to Japan via the British, the curry is made like a gravy with a roux and is fairly mild. Almost any palate can enjoy this curry, and it's a great introduction to curry for those who say they won't like curry.

I warn you that it's addictive. With white rice and a sprinkling of Japanese red pepper, ichimi togarashi, you'll be a goner.

Japanese Beef Curry

1 lb. beef stew meat, dried and salted and peppered
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups water or beef broth
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut in medium-sized pieces
2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut in medium-sized pieces
1/2 box of S&B Curry (mild, medium hot, or hot)

Ichimi togarashi, optional

Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add a little oil and brown meat on all sides, making sure that there is air space all around the meat and the pan is not crowded. Cook meat in batches if necessary and set aside.

Turn down heat to medium, add a little more oil, and brown onions until translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add back meat to the pot and add water or beef broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until beef is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. (You can also do this in pressure cooker and cook the beef for 35 minutes).

When the beef is tender, add the potatoes and carrots and cook at a simmer until they're tender.

Take 1/2 of the curry in the box (there should be two containers in the box, so you would just use one of them) and cut it up in smaller pieces. Put it in a bowl and add some of the water from the pot and mix to dissolve the curry cubes. Add to the pot and mix carefully, so you don't break up the potatoes.

If the curry is too thick for your liking, just add more water until it's the right consistency.

Serve with white rice and ichimi togarashi.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Halloween Sugar Cookies

My daughter and I were in one of our favorite places on earth -- the cookware store -- and we came upon a collection of Halloween cookie cutters.

Even though we went there to buy a giant ladle for a chili cookoff I helped organize (more on that later), guess what also ended up in our bag?

I whipped up a double batch of cousin Karen's perfect sugar cookies, and Christina and I cut out different Halloween shapes. Trust me, these are good.


Using Wilton cookie icing in orange and black and black sugar, we made smiling pumpkins and shimmering black bats.

I brought a box to friends R & B's house, and I brought some to work. My colleague Zoe said that it was the best sugar cookie she had ever had.

These cookies are delicious, whether plain, covered with store bought icing, homemade glaze, or homemade royal icing. Enjoy!

Karen's Sugar Cookies

Dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt

Wet ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
½ tsp. vanilla

Sift together dry ingredients in one bowl. Set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar in large bowl. Beat in egg and vanilla. Incorporate dry ingredient mixture until a dough is formed.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for two hours.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out dough to 1/8" and cut with cookie cutter of choice. Bake about 6 minutes. Cookies should be cooked but not browned.

1 cup confectioner's sugar
5-6 tsp. water
Food coloring

Mix together frosting and spread on cooled cookies.

This glaze never fully hardens so the cookies have to be treated gently and never layered.

Royal Icing

A great recipe for royal icing can be found here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Non-Baker Bakes Apple Pie & To Die For Vodka Pie Crust

I wrote this entry in March, but wanted to post it when I had a "do-over" on the apple pie, which was today (picture is above). We went apple picking, and I had some lovely, extra large Mutsu apples that were begging to be in a pie. Second time's a charm.

By the way, if you think using vodka in a pie crust is a little whacky, think again. Since vodka is an alcohol, it evaporates during cooking and leaves the flakiest, tender dough. This is definitely a must-try recipe.

My friend Coleen loves apple pie. It's her favorite. She lives an hour away in another state and was coming over today with her daughter to spend the weekend with us. When talking to her on the phone, she mentioned driving out to a farmstand that is an additional 45 minutes from my house to pick up an apple pie. I thought to myself, "Coleen is going to drive almost 2 hours to get pie? That's crazy."

So I surfed on, found a recipe at, hit the grocery store and picked up the requisite ingredients. I am admittedly not a baker. Baking requires reading recipes and actually following them, something that doesn't meld well with my laissez faire cooking style. But this was for Coleen, one of my dearest friends, so I jumped right in.

I have never made a double-crusted pie before. My mother-in-law is the piemaker, and when I was going through the recipe, I found myself wishing that I had paid attention when she was making pies (apple, pumpkin, and pecan) during the holidays and during the summer (blueberry).

I got through the dough mixing -- I've made galettes before, which are free form pies (no pretty edges required). I even made the pie filling, no problem. Rolling out the dough? That was okay too. I got kind of stuck when it came to taking the rolled dough and putting it in the pie pan. What was the edging on the bottom layer supposed to look like? How was the top pie crust supposed to go on? How was the crimping to go? How were the cut outs supposed to work?

Since pie crust waits for no man, I just winged it, as you can see from this picture. Poor ugly pie.

Homely looks aside, the pie tasted just fine. The vodka pie crust was as flaky as flaky can be, and the filling was firm and not runny, sweet and redolent with the aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg. Coleen mmm-ed her way through her first slice and went back for another. Thank goodness, she didn't miss her farmstand pie.

I'm definitely going to have to do a do-over as a chance for redemption. The second time around, I will reduce the cinnamon and nutmeg -- I actually grated both the nutmeg and cinnamon, so the flavors were pretty strong to my palate -- reduce the sugar a little bit, and add a squirt of lemon juice to the filling. With the crust, I have watched some apple pie making videos on and am armed with new knowledge on how to place the top crust on the pie and flute the edges. The great thing about the videos was that the demonstrator had a series of mishaps (ripped pie dough, thin edges, etc.) while filming and showed how to fix them along the way.

I don't know if I'll ever be a master baker, but making pie every once in awhile for a friend? Sure thing.

Vodka Pie Crust

(Makes enough for one 9-inch double-crust pie)
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
½ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into small bits
¼ cup cold vodka
¼ cup cold water
1 egg slightly beaten

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. (I mixed it by hand and it turned out fine.) Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 350.
Roll out one disk of dough and place it into 9″ pie pan.
Press firmly around edges to adhere to pan.
Fill pan with apple mixture arranging apples however you please.
Roll out second disk of dough.
Place over apples.
Seal and flute edges.
Trim off remaining dough.
Pierce vents.
Brush top crust with egg.
Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.
Bake for 25 minutes.
Cover with foil and bake for additional 20 minutes.
Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Chocolate Chip Scones

My friend and colleague Claudia invited me and my kids for a tea party at her new house, which is on the water.

My beautiful friend Claudia

Mirna, who was also coming, said "Ninette will bring scones!"

She was kidding, but then again, she doesn't know who she's dealing with.

Or, to the contrary, she knows exactly who she's dealing with.

Mirna and I doing what we do, which is laughing.

I've never made scones. The first time I ever heard of or had scones was many years ago at the parents' house of my friend James McGill. He and his wife were married at the house, and the next morning, they had a lovely buffet spread which included scones, clotted cream, and jams. I never forgot my first bite of those tender, buttery scones.

At James' wedding where I first had scones. Can you tell how long ago this was? Look at my shoulder pads! LOL. Answer: it was 1993.

Since then, I've had an assortment of things parading under the name of scones that were awful. Flavorless, dry, and hard as a rock. Ew.

With some trepidation, I went about making this test batch of scones. Would these be a home run or a cratering disappointment?

These scones definitely took first place as the best I've ever had. And I think the ladies who drink tea agree.

Claudia's tea party posse

Gracias, Mirna!


1) The inspiration for this recipe came from Thibealt's Table.

2) In different recipes I looked at, the butter could be as much as 2 sticks of butter. I liked this recipe as it only used 6 tbs., which did the job.

3) Cold butter is key, because when those little pearls of butter melt in the oven, the steam they generate results in lovely pockets of air and thus tender scones. I grated frozen butter into the flour mixture and then stuck the bowl into the freezer as an extra precaution.

4) Liquids in scone recipes included whipping cream, heavy cream, buttermilk, milk, and sour cream. I decided to use a mixture of half and half and sour cream, and it worked out great.

5) After adding the liquid, the dough seemed so crumbly that it wouldn't hold together, but then a few quick kneads got it to hold together enough so I could shape it and cut it.

6) Scones can include any number of flavorings. I used chocolate chips, but fresh, frozen, or dried fruits, nuts, cheese, etc. are all game. The sky's the limit!

7) I think scones are best when they're freshly baked, although I'm sure they can be heated up later or eaten at room temperature.

8) This time around I grated frozen butter, and I thought it was a bit of a pain. Next time I will use my food processor.

Chocolate Chip Scones

2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tbs. cold butter (frozen if you're going to grate it)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup half and half
3/4 cup chocolate chips
Extra cream and sugar (sugar in the raw or turbinado sugar preferred)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix the flour, sugar, baking, powder and salt together. Measure sour cream and half and half and put back in the fridge. Measure chocolate chips and put in the fridge too.

Grate frozen butter into the flour mixture and mix together (or you can cut the butter into smaller pieces and mix together with the pastry cutter until the flour resembles coarse meal). If butter is getting soft, stick the whole bowl in the fridge until it hardens up again. If using food processor, pulse the flour mixture and butter which you've cut into smaller pieces together until it resembles coarse meal).

Prepare the place you're going to knead and cut the dough into wedges by lightly flouring it. I usually use a Silpat silicone mat. Have a little extra flour on hand for your hands.

Mix the chocolate chips into the flour mixture and then add all the sour cream/half and half mixture, mixing with a fork as much as you can. If necessary, use your floured hand to press the dough together in the bowl and then dump it out onto your countertop, board, or Silpat. The mixture is pretty crumbly.

Knead the dough a few times until it just holds together and shape it into a circle. Flour your rolling pin and roll it until it's about 7 inches around. Cut in eight triangular pieces and put on your cookie sheet (I usually have a Silpat on my cookie sheets as the baked goods will not stick).

If you want to make smaller cones, you can divide the dough in half, roll each into a 7 inch disk and cut in eight pieces each, so you have 16 smaller scones.

Brush the tops of the scones with a little half and half and top with turbinado sugar.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until lightly brown.


View from Claudia's gazebo.