Friday, March 27, 2015

Chocolate Truffle Mint Cheesecake

Don't you just want to dive into the middle of this, head first, mouth open!  Or roll face first in it, not unlike the mayor in the movie "Chocolat" who is an exemplary citizen of his French village and a devoted Catholic observing Lent, who is tempted beyond endurance by the new chocolate shop window display. As the saying goes, "One bite is too many and a thousand is not enough" and after a chocolate nibble, the Comte de Reynaud finds himself rolling about in the chocolate confections, stuffing them into his mouth as quickly as a space becomes vacant and finally, passes out on an overdose of cacoa and sugar!  ( I always have an urge to make a chocolate dessert like this one after watching that movie.)  And if you, like he, would find it a violation of what you are giving up for Lent, or a serious infraction to your diet restrictions, check back at this recipe in a couple of weeks - but then you aren't forbidden from looking at chocolate!



Chocolate Mint Truffle Cheesecake
2 cups crushed chocolate wafer cookies
3 tab. sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tsp. peppermint extract
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate - 60%
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup cream

-Mix crumbs, sugar and butter.  Press into 9 inch springform pan.  Bake in 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.

-  Meanwhile, in a small saucepan melt chocolate in cream over medium heat, stirring until smooth. Set aside for 5 minutes. 

-In mixing bowl, combine and mix until smooth, cream cheese, sugar and mint extract.  Add eggs one at a time to cream cheese mixture and beat just until smooth after each. (Do not overbeat as this can cause cracks to form in your cheesecake as it bakes.)  Stir chocolate/cream into other mixture until blended.  Pour batter into cooled crust.

-Bake at 350 degree fro 20 - 25 minutes or until just set.  Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

Topping:
1 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa,
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tab. sour cream

-Mix cream , sugar and cocoa in mixing bowl with wire whip until sugar is incorporated.  Chill with beater in the cream for 2 hours.  Remove from fridge and whip in mixer until almost stiff.  Add vanilla and salt.  Continue to beat until very siff, just short of butter consistency.  Stir in sour cream and spread topping on cool pie.  Garnish cheesecake with chocolate curls and mint sprigs. Chill well before serving, at least 2 hours.


Persnickety P.S.:

**Make sure eggs and cream cheese are at room temperature before combining,to prevent little lumps of cream cheese in your final product.  Because this is a truffle cheesecake, it should be absolutely smooth as silk and creamy.  If your cream cheese isn't ready when you are, unwrap from foil wrapper and zap in the microwave for 30 - 45 seconds until softened.  You can also soak eggs in warm water when in a hurry to take the chill off.

**Chocolate wafer cookies are available in most stores under the brand name of Famous Chocolate Wafers, but if you can't find them, use Oreos.  Twist the cookie layers off and with a knife, scrap off the filling into another bowl.  (For some reason children love this job and I always find when they are finished that there aren't as many cream centers in the bowl as there should be.) Then use the chocolate wafers to make the crumbs.

**Bake the cheesecake only for the length of time indicated.  It should be smooth and creamy in the center not set up and cakey-textured as in a New York Style Cheesecake.  The center of a Lindor truffle should come to mind when you bite into it - thus the name "Truffle Mint".

**For the 60% chocolate, Ghiradelli's Bittersweet Bar (America's Test Kitchen taste test winner)  is recommended and is readily available.

**To make chocolate curls,  place a solid square of milk or semi-sweet chocolate in a microwave for 20 - 30 seconds.  With a potato peeler, or sharp paring knife, pull along an edge of the chocolate, letting the chocolate curls drop onto the top of the cheesecake, or onto a piece of parchment paper to use later.  For bigger curls, use a bigger block of chocolate, often available only in specialty grocery stores.







Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ham and Beans with Potato Parmesan Croquettes

The natural response to a meaty ham bone, left over from the maple-sugared, spiral slices from a family meal is either "doggie dinner" or revamped in a flavorful duet of Ham and Beans with navy beans - the humble, smallish white beans have a way of coaxing the smokey rich flavor from the ham and in their turn when cooked to perfection add a creamy silkiness to the mixture.  This homey stew evokes images of cowboys on the trail gathered round the chuck wagon, summer picnics with the obligatory pork and beans, but for me, an iron hook mortared into the brick inside the fireplace on which hung a perfectly witchy black iron pot.  What is it they say about boys born to the country - that you can't get the country out of them?  My father was such a boy and his penchant for cooking beans and soup over a coal fire in our living room was a symptom of either the "country" in his soul, having lived through the depression or a secret yearning to have been a cowboy.  His concoctions bubbled on for days and often included what we children considered  strange white carrots, that didn't taste right (parsnips). But we were delighted to watch as he added mysterious ingredients to his potion, then with cooing incantations and the sorcery of time, transformed the contents to an edible, if not fantastic soup.
To be blunt, the prepared dish of ham and beans sometimes resembles cow trails on the drive or leavings of the Depression and is humbly lacking in sophistication.  In my effort to prettify the dish, I top each serving with small fried potato-swiss croquettes, breaded with a crispy crust which contrasts in texture with the silky beans.  Swiss cheese with ham is a natural pairing and the potato - a soothing whimsy of superfluous fluff. The fresh bite of the green onions is just the thing to spark the beans up for a night on the trail or in the country and is anything but depressing. No black iron pots or magic required!




Ham & Beans with Potato-Swiss Croquettes
Meaty ham bone (or 1 lb. ham steak, cut into 1 inch cubes) 
bacon, 8 slices, diced and fried crisp (if using ham steak)
2 cups dried white navy beans                      
1 tab. tomato paste
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 cups chicken broth
2 -3 cups water
2 tsp. vinegar
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tab. brown sugar
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 tsp. dried)
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
salt and black pepper to taste
dash of red pepper

-Rinse navy beans.  Cover with cold water and let sit 4 - 6 hours.  Drain and rinse beans.

-In large dutch oven or soup pot, heat 2 tab. oil and saute onions, celery and carrots for about 5 minutes until softened.  Add garlic and continue to saute 1 minute.  (If using ham steak, cook diced bacon until crispy and stir in with vegetables before adding broth to the vegetables.) Add rinsed beans to pot with chicken broth, water, ham bone, thyme, vinegar, tomato paste, brown sugar, black pepper, and red pepper.  Bring to a boil.  Skim off any froth that may rise to the top.  Cover with a lid and simmer 1 1/2 hours until beans are almost tender. 

- (If using ham steak, add to beans at this point.) Remove lid and continue to simmer another 30 minutes, until broth has reduced and beans are very tender.  Remove ham bone from broth and pick off the meat, shred and return to the beans and broth.  Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Stir in parsley.  


Potato-Swiss Croquettes
2 large potatoes, boiled with skins on 
3 tab. butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. salt 
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2/3 cups grated swiss cheese
chopped parsley
dash of cayenne
1 tab. paprika
2 eggs slightly beaten
2 tab. milk
1 cup flour
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 cups vegetable oil (canola oil recommended)
8 green onions, finely chopped

-Let cooked potatoes cool about 10 minutes.  Peel off skins with paring knife.  Cut potatoes into quarters and place in large mixing bowl and mash potatoes with potato masher until all lumps are gone.  Stir in butter until smooth.  Stir in lightly beaten egg, salt and pepper, cheeses, flour, parlsy cayenne and paprika.  Let mixture cool until able to handle.

-Wet hands and roll mixture into small golfball-sized balls.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.  Prepare 3 wide flat bowls; one with 2 slightly beaten eggs mixed with 2 tab. milk, one with 1 cup flour and one with 1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs mixed with grated parmesan cheese and paprika. Roll each ball in flour, then egg dip and finally in bread crumbs. Chill until ready to fry.

-Bring 2 cups oil in heavy-bottomed medium saucepan to 375 degrees or until a bread cube cooks to a golden brown in 30 seconds.  Carefully lower balls into hot oil and fry until golden brown and crispy, about 5 minutes, turning as necessary. Remove croquettes from oil and drain on paper towels.

To Serve Ham & Beans:
-Place ladle full of  warm ham and beans into individual serving bowls and top with 3 potato croquettes.  Garnish with sprinkle of green onions.

Persnickety P.S.:
**When you don't have a meaty ham bean on hand (or the dog has skulked off with it to bury it in the backyard) use diced or shredded ham from a ham steak or boneless ham.  To obtain the intense rich flavor provided by the ham bone, substitute bacon in recipe.

**Beans:  Great Northern beans are often used in this recipe but I prefer the daintier navy bean, but either white bean is fine.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Alsatian Bretzels

Still drowsy from a long trip sitting on the floor of the cafe car on the TGV (overbooked - another story) and waking up at what seemed to us the middle of the night - or so it was in the U.S.-  we stumbled out into the village square of the Medieval village of Riquewehr, France to find something to eat.  Located in the northeast corner of France, near Strasbourg, "Capitale de Noel" (capital of Christmas) it certainly lived up to the season, and the festive, magical Christmas scenes created on every window sill delighted us almost to the point of forgetting our hunger. But festooned among the pine boughs and sparkling ornaments, giant pretzels hung from the overhangs of the bakery stalls like snowflakes from a darker heaven.  "Savory" sounded like just the right bite to waken our jet-lagged stomachs before visiting the creperies.   We were hungry and in the land of good food, and so assumed that a pretzel by any other name would be as satisfying. (B works just fine in place of the P for this distinctive savory treat - not unlike the B used in place of the P in Arabic, which makes Pepsi, pronounced "bebsi". An interesting diversion?)  Back to the Bretzel.  This Alsatian version of a pizza-like snack is topped with a white, intense Munster cheese, produced in a nearby village in the Alsace region and studded with bits of lardon, a thick local bacon, cut into cubes, and fried crisp. (A pile of these crispy bits placed in front of the children was the culinary hit of this family Christmas trip, that is when a crepe wasn't within reach.) The pretzels themselves are of the large and soft variety, 8 - 10 inches in diameter, with an appropriately chewy, salted skin. This tasty concept lit a memory in my mind of my father's culinary creation, "Byron Broils" which were small squares of toast topped with cheddar and bacon bits, that he made to delight us.  That's why I love Bretzels!  All you need are pretzels, cheese and bacon to make them at home, no jet-lag or dirty train floors required but for the charming French village,
you will have to cook that up in your imagination!




Alsatian Bretzels:
8 large soft pretzels (fresh or frozen)
2 cups sliced or shredded Munster cheese (domestic or 
                              imported)
8 ounces bacon, diced and fried till crisp
1 cup coarsely chopped onion, sauted until caramelized in 
                             2 tab. oil (optional)

-Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.  Arrange pretzels, 4 per sheet.  Cover each pretzel with Munster cheese and sprinkle with bacon (and onions). Heat in a 375 degree oven until cheese is melted and bubbly - about 10 minutes.  Serve warm.  





Persnickety PS:


-Pretzels:  Homemade pretzels are fun and interesting to make, but tedious. (If you feel so inclined, check out the following video:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/homemade-soft-pretzels-recipe.html.) If you have access to a bakery that makes fresh pretzels, that is a great first choice.  Soft pretzels are also available frozen in most large grocery stores which are convenient and can be transformed into Bretzels right from the freezer, allowing you to thaw just as many as you want to use.


-Munster Cheese is not to be confused with Munster Cheese or Muenster Cheese!  The American variety is a soft white cheese with an orange rind with a mild flavor which melts smoothly. The Freanch version is much stronger - the longer it's aged, the stronger it is - and is considered the "real thing", but unless you're a fan of strong cheese, best stick to the poor American relation.  It's easier to come by and cheaper too.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Creamy Chicken Soup with Mashed Potatoes

The name of this dish should actually be "Triple Carb Chicken Soup, Idaho Style, for When You Have Recovered from Your Cold and Flu with Weak, Good-for-the-Soul Chicken Broth, and Have Graduated to the Feeling-Better for-the-Soul Chicken Soup." Quite a mouthful isn't it - but so is this soup! This is a perfect remedy to a snowy day, when you're stuck inside because it has snowed an inch and everything is cancelled for the day, as where I live.  The kitchen becomes a gloriously warm and aromatic domain in which you can satisfy the stomach and creative itch as the soft world of white outside satisfies your view out the window.  I owe this recipe to a friend, who is a native of potato-growing Idaho and first served me, to my surprise, chicken soup with mashed Idaho spuds on top - or the potatoes on the bottom and the soup on top, like a gravy.  Who would have thought that no one from Idaho had let this marvelous culinary combination out to those of us in Utah just across the border.  But then, we were slow to tell them about Navajo Tacos (earlier blog).  A meal in itself, this soup is now a frequently requested family favorite with several inspired renditions resulting.  The homemade noodles are not necessary but help keep the kitchen warm and humming.  The thicker chew of the homemade noodle, or "noodle-ette" which my daughter created because she was tired of rolling out the stiff dough and so simply rolled small portions of dough into little balls that she plopped into the broth, give you more of a carb high and a textural contrast with the creaminess of the soup base and the velvet of the mashed potato.   It's snowing outside now, in fact a respectable 8 or so inches.  I feel a batch of Creamy Chicken Noodle coming on!  I think I'll make it a big one - we may be snowbound for days and nothing eases a serious bout of cabin-fever like cooking!



Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup with Mashed Potatoes
5 tab. butter
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
6 small carrots, diced
2 chicken thighs
2 chicken breasts bones and skin
4 cups water
2 tsp. chicken bouillon paste
1/3 cup flour
1 bay leaf
5 crushed peppercorns
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of fresh thyme (or dried)
2 cups whole milk
8 ounces wide egg noodles (or home-made - see directions )
2 tab. finely minced parsley
3 large russet potatoes, boiled in skins until fork tender
3 tab. soft butter
3/4 cup buttermilk, slightly warmed
1 cup milk, slightly warmed
salt and pepper to taste

-In medium saucepan, heat 1 tab. oil and saute chicken pieces until slightly browned.  Salt and pepper chicken to taste then pour 4 cups water over the chicken. Add the bay leaf, crushed peppercorns, chicken bouillon paste and the fresh thyme.  Cover with a lid and simmer the chicken over medium-low heat, a gentle boil, for about 20 minutes.  Set aside and keep covered another 30 minutes.  Remove chicken from the broth and allow to cool. Strain the broth and set aside.  When chicken is cool, remove bones and skins and shred the cooked chicken into small mouth-sized pieces.

-In large soup pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter and add the onion, carrot and celery.  Saute over medium-high heat until vegetables have softened, stirring frequently.  Stir in 1/3 cup flour with the vegetables, with a wire whip cooking over medium heat about 1 minute.  Then slowly stir in the 2 cups milk, mixing with the whip as you do to incorporate the flour. Bring soup to a low boil, stirring frequently, until soup thickens.  

-Carefully pour the chicken broth into the milk base and mix until smooth as you bring it to a slow boil - medium-high heat. 

-Add store prepared noodles or fresh homemade noodles to the soup and cook over medium-high heat, uncovered until the pasta is tender.  Add the shredded chicken to the soup, then check seasoning for salt and pepper.  Stir in parsley.  Let soup cool for 10 - 15 minutes before serving.  Soup will thicken as it sits.

-To prepare potatoes:  bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil over high heat.  Add 1 tab. salt and potatoes to the water.  Cover with a lid and bring the water back to a boil.  Turn heat down to medium-low and continue to cook potatoes until they are fork-tender, about 45 minutes - depending on the potato and your elevation.  Drain off water and let potatoes sit in skins about 10 minutes.  Peel the skins off the potatoes with a paring knife and place the meat of the potatoes into a mixing bowl.  With a potato masher or electric mixer, mash the potatoes until smooth, then add butter and buttermilk and mix again until smooth and all lumps are gone.  Add milk, salt and pepper and whip until potatoes are smooth and fluffy.  Keep covered and warm until ready to serve.

-Mound a serving of mashed potatoes into each serving bowl and ladle soup over the top.  Garnish with a sprinkle of parsley and paprika.

-If making your own noodles.....read on.

Homemade Egg Noodles:
2 cups flour
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup water - more or less

-Place flour in medium mixing bowl.  Make a well in the center and add the lightly beaten eggs and yolks with salt.  With a fork begin to mix the flour into the eggs.
-Add water, a little bit at a time and mix thoroughly after each addition, until dough begins to hold together and you can form it into a ball.
-Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic (5 - 8 minutes). dusting the surface and your hands as needed to keep the dough from sticking.  Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rest 10 minutes.
-Cut the dough into 4 equal parts, then on the well-floured surface, roll out 1 section at a time into a very-thin rectangle.
(Don't worry if the shape isn't a perfect rectangle - noodles that are a bit crooked taste just as great!)  Keep remaining dough covered as you work so it won't dry out.
-With a sharp knife or a wheel pizza cutter, cut the dough into 1/2 - 3/4 inch wide, long strips.  Then cut across the width so that each noodle is about 2 inches long. (Alternatively, roll the pasta up into a long roll, and cut across dough to make strips of pasta. Unroll each strip.)
-Drop fresh noodles into the simmering soup and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until the noodles are tender.





                                                                        

Persnickety P.S.
-If you want to make shorter work of the recipe, store-prepared mashed potatoes are fine.  
-Another shortcut is to mix in 1 can of condensed cream of chicken soup combined with 2 tab. flour, after the vegetables are tender, before adding the milk.  (Reduce 5 tablespoons butter to 2 tab. and 1/3 cup flour to 2 tab. flour)
-You can dry your homemade noodles for future use by tossing lightly with flour and spreading them out on a cookie sheet. Let dry at room temperature for 2 hours of more, then place in a plastic bag for later use.
-If soup becomes too thick, thin it down with the addition of a bit of milk or water.  
-If soup is too thin, place 2 tab. flour in a small mixing bowl. Add 3/4 cup of the hot broth from the soup to  the flour and combine well with a wire whip.  Pour the flour mixture through a fine mesh strainer back into the soup and return the soup to a boil until it thickens to the desired consistency.
-To avoid lumpy potatoes, be sure to mash potatoes well before adding any other ingredients.
-Sour cream can be used instead of buttermilk in the potatoes. A bit of cream cheese as well adds a nice tang to the mashed potatoes.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Chocolate Mint Cheesecake Cupcakes


It was a snowy day, with a blanket of white so fluffy and soft that if you were a dog you couldn't resist bounding about in it. But my dog was forced to resist as I wouldn't let him out. I wanted to use the blanket of undefiled purity as a background for a food photo, which inspired a culinary creation of something cool and refreshing - and of course, sweet. Chocolate mint!  Further reflection suggested a cupcake though I have ridden somewhat reluctantly on the outskirts of the cupcake craze of the past several years, sampling the best in Charleston, S.C. and Middleburg, VA.  Magnolia's, Georgetown and Sprinkles Bakeries in NYC top several lists in our family and it has been scientifically determined that their cupcakes are winners. In fact, a Sugar Fest is "officially" conducted once a year by my daughters and their cousins in NYC, which involves a pilgrimage about the city bakeries in pursuit of the best cupcake and bouts of sincere indigestion after.  I enjoy the cupcake but have always wondered why we didn't just stick to the cake and have more of a good thing. I suppose it's the appeal of a personalized serving neatly wrapped, topped and seemingly custom-made for each individual, bringing back the nostalgia of childhood tea parties.

Now to the flavors:  I have learned a thing or two about chocolate and mint over the years, as the first flush of the love affair with this combination has matured to a mature, lasting relationship of trust and commitment.

#1 - Mint grown in the home vegetable garden will take over everything non-mint and insists upon scenting its world,   confident it goes well with everything. My raspberries are not impressed, but getting cozy with chocolate was truly inspired. That makes me wonder, does mint grow in Cacoa tree territory?

#2 - There is endless ingenuity among cooks when necessity is the mother of invention.  Expat friends shared the experience of being served a delicious chocolate mint dessert in an African country where neither mint nor mint flavoring was available. When pressed, the cook confessed that he used toothpaste for the flavoring.  Why not?

#3 - I've also learned that our palettes sense taste from color as well as other properties.  There have been occasions when I've served chocolate mint brownies with all the ingredients, except the mint, but the green frosting convinced the eaters that they were eating mint brownies.

Being supplied with eager taste testers (is there ever a shortage?) I asked them to taste both versions of these cupcakes and tell me which they preferred and why:  one variety being topped with a chocolate ganache  and the other with a minty, fluffy, buttery frosting.  Opinions were divided and I had to taste one and then the other myself, changing my opinion of "favorite" as quickly as I sampled the other in a flurry of chocolate crumbs and cupcake liners.  In the end, I preferred the fluffy frosting - a unique flour/milk paste base into which creamed sugar and butter are added - which should become a staple frosting for cakes it is so uniquely satisfying. My husband preferred the ganache. I prefer them both to toothpaste!



                                     Cupcakes on Snow

Buttermilk Chocolate Cake
1 12/ cups flour
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup oil
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs

-In large mixing bowl with electric mixer, beat all ingredients on low speed until blended.  Beat at medium speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.  Set aside and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream Cheese Filling:
1 -  8 ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
pinch of salt
1/2 - 1 tsp. mint extract, depending on taste
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

-Combine cream cheese, sugar and egg and beat until smooth.  Add extract and salt and stir in chocolate chips.

-Line 18 cupcake tins with cupcake liners for Flour Frosting or simply grease tins for the ganache topping version (without using liners). Fill each tin half full with cake batter.  Place tablespoon full of cream cheese filling in the center of each cupcake and then top with one more tablespoon of chocolate cake batter.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

-Allow to cool, then frost with frosting and add a mint candy to the top for garnish  (Dove - Chocolate Mint Swirls or Andes Chocolate Mint Sandwiches)

Ganache Topping:
Bring 1 cup cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Remove from heat and pour in 1 cup semi-sweet or bitter-sweet chopped chocolate or chocolate chips.  Allow to sit about 15 minutes without stirring.  Then mix with a wire whip until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Allow ganache to sit until thickened to spreading consistency, 1 - 2 hours at room temperature.   Spoon about 1/4 cup of ganache mixture over each cupcake removed from tin so that the ganache runs over the top and down the sides of the cupcake.  Place cupcakes on wire rack set over cookie sheet, to catch the excess ganache.

Flour Frosting
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup whole milk
1 /2 cup softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
dash of salt
1/2 tsp. mint extract

-Place flour into medium sized saucepan.  Slowly pour milk into the flour, beating with a whip, a little at a time until all the milk is incorporated into the flour.  Slowly bring the milk to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until very thick.  Remove from heat.  Cover with a lid and allow to cool about 30 minutes.

-In another mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla together until smooth.  Stir in 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa and dash of salt.  Add the cooled flour/milk mixture to the butter/ sugar mixture and beat at medium-high speed until mixture is very smooth and fluffy.  Stir in mint extract.

-Frost cooled cupcakes wtih frosting or place into pastry bag and pipe onto the cupcakes.  Garnish with a chocolate mint candy.



                                          Cheesecake filling ripple in Chocolate Mint Cupcakes

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cauliflower Con Queso Soup


Cauliflower Con Queso soup was a naturally evolved creation from a spicy cheese sauce for broccoli and cauliflower, which in its turn, evolved from dipping fresh vegetable crudites into a Mexican queso dip back in the 1980's  And though our hairstyles have changed since then, the appeal of this particular taste combination has not.  A recipe for potage, a creamy French soup, provides a silky foundation and the ensuing pas de deux or tango of tastes created by combining French and Mexican dishes was an easy step and a personal favorite.  But I didn't know that it would become my mother's favorite; in fact it became one of her table staples and at each subsequent visit to Mom's I filled up her freezer with  plastic containers of "cauliflower soup".   I am a fan of this vegetable immigrant from the Middle East and like me, you may be attracted to anything "cauliflower".   That would include my daughter....since her name means cauliflower in Arabic she was a star at the produce stands in Jordan!  The vendors were delighted to learn her name, flattered that Americans would give their child an Arab name, and would often present her with a free head of cauliflower - she was too young to be offended.  I can't imagine any of them suggesting that she resembled her name for she was a beautiful child.  Luckily, her name also means rose, but I don't remember anyone ever offering her a flower. And although she does like to eat it, I'm not sure she would be flattered by a comparison to it. The addition of crunchy fried flour tortilla strips as a garnish to the soup and a sprinkle of fresh cheddar on top might help to ease the sting of such an insult! 



Cauliflower Con Queso Soup:
5 tab. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head of cauliflower, cored and broken into florettes
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
3 cups rich chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup salsa, mild or medium, to taste
1 1/2 cup milk or half and half
3 tab. flour
6 ounces American processed cheese
1  cup shredded colby jack cheese
4 flour tortillas, cut into 1 inch strips

-Melt butter in large soup pot. Saute onions, carrots and cauliflower in butter until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pour chicken stock over vegetables, cover pot and simmer until cauliflower is very soft, about 30 minutes.  Let soup cool for about 15 minutes.  Remove about 1 cup of cauliflower florettes and place the rest of the vegetables and broth in a blender and puree until very smooth.

-Melt another 2 tablespoons butter in bottom of soup pot.  Stir in flour with whisk until smooth and cook over medium high heat until roux is smooth and bubbly, about 1 minute.  Stir in milk and bring to a boil until thickened, stirring frequently over medium high heat. Remove from heat, add cheese and stir in until melted.

-Return pureed soup to pot with milk/cheese sauce and stir in salsa.  Heat soup through stirring frequently.  Stir in reserved cauliflower.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

-Heat 1/3 cup canola oil in small saute pan and fry tortilla strips in batches until crisp and golden.

-Serve soup in individual serving bowls and garnish with a sprinkle of grated colby jack cheddar cheese and tortilla strips.

Persnickety P.S.
**Freezes well.
**A soup is only as rich as its base, so take the time to make sure the base, the chicken broth, is flavorful.  In a hierarchy of best flavored bases, the bottom spot goes to the lowly bouillon cube which is often bland and relies on salt for the weak flavor it imparts and at top of the list is a rich homemade stock.  But our lives are often governed by practicality so take what you have on hand and the next time you make soup, try one of the other options and compare the tasty results!

             Flavor Hierarchy of Chicken Bases for Soup:

                   1st Place:    Homemade Stock
                   2nd Place:  "Better than Bouillon" paste
                   3rd Place:   Boxed Chicken Stock
                   4th Place:   Boxed Chicken Broth
                   5th Place:   Chicken Bouillon Cubes
                                        (Magi Cubes recommended)


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mujadara

Poor man's dish?  Any man would be lucky, a fortunate poor man in fact, to feast on this hearty  Lebanese dish of rice and lentils.  "Mujadara" translates as "poor man's dish" and was at one time, considered a standard meal for those that couldn't afford meat. At least one might subsist on it.  But once you've tasted it you might agree with me that it is better to insist than subsist.  This is a dish worth insisting on! With several onions in the mix, the legumes and rice are infused with the rich, silky sweetness of caramelized onions, and "Arab-ized" with the addition of spices such as allspice and cinnamon - just a pinch.  I am careful to add "just a pinch", especially for those that are not acclimated to cinnamon in non-sweet dishes.  Though I am acclimated, cinnamon isn't really my first choice of seasonings for some dishes - including pizza.  When the first Pizza Hut in Amman opened down the street from where we lived at the time, we were thrilled to have a taste of home nearby.  But as the months passed and the local chefs couldn't resist, the ground meat on the pizza began to taste more and more like kefta, an Arab spiced ground meat mixture.  They had a hard time leaving hamburgers alone too and Fuddruckers completely lost their franchise for straying too far from the American recipe). But in the Levant cuisine, cinnamon is an absolute must and so we will happily defer to their spices for their native dishes.  The version of mujadara I was taught to prepare, is topped with a middle-eastern salsa of tomatoes and cucumbers which tweeks the earthy grains in the dish to freshness;the accompanying yogurt sauce does its part to tang it up. My children loved it for a quick weekday dinner - if you train them up on beans and rice, they will learn to love this healthy, hearty combination! One of my early experiences serving mujadara to some unsuspecting Americans was wrought with disaster, when one of my guests stood up abruptly at the table and rushed into the kitchen to spit out a bite full of gravel.  A lesson indelibly learned - clean the lentils of stray bits of chaff and gravel, before cooking.  Who'd have thought!!  A more polite guest would just have swallowed them down and discreetly declined seconds!





Mujadara (Lebanese Lentils and Rice)
1 1/3 cups brown lentils, cleaned of gravel or chaff and rinsed
1 cup olive oil
1/2 - 1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium yellow onions, thinly slivered
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups water or vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, cumin and allspice
salt to taste
1 tsp. sugar
dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup basmati rice, (soaked for 15 minutes in cold water and 
                 then rinsed until water runs clear)

Yogurt Sauce
1 1/3 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tab. chopped fresh mint (optional)
2 tab. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt

Tomato-Cucumber Salsa
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 English cucumber, finely chopped, with skin on
½ red or yellow onion, finely chopped
4 tab. chopped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste

-Place the slivered onions into a microwave proof mixing bowl and toss with 2 tsp. salt.  Microwave the onions for 5 minutes on high and then rinse in a colander.  Spread the onions out on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and blot out as much moisture as you can.  Set aside.

-Place the cleaned lentils into a medium saucepan. Fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about one inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.


-Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, place a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm for a minute, then add the cracked peppercorns and cook, stirring briefly for about 1 minute.  

-Add the chopped onions, sprinkle with a dash of salt and cook stirring often for 25-30 minutes until onions are a dark caramel brown with a slight crispiness developing on some of the onions. Using a slotted spoon, remove about half of the onions to a paper towel-lined plate; these are for garnish later. Leave the other half in the pot. Pour off the onion oil until you have about 4 tab. left in the pot.  (Reserve any remaining onion oil for later use.)

-Add the ground spices, cayenne pepper, sugar and garlic to the oil and onions in the pot and cook about 1 minute over medium-high heat.  Add the rinsed rice and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often but gently until some rice grains turn wheat-colored (2 minutes). Add the cooked lentils to the pot, 3 1/2 cups of water (or chicken broth)  and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt; bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low to simmer; cover then cook 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, place a towel over the pot and return the lid.  Let rest for 10 minutes then fluff rice with a fork.  (The towel absorbs extra moisture so that the rice will be fluffier.)

-While rice is cooking, combine tomatoes, cucumber, diced onion, parsley, garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.  

-Prepare the yogurt sauce by combining yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, (mint), salt and pepper.  Chill until ready to serve.


-Taste the rice for seasoning. Place lentil-rice mixture in a large or individual serving dishes, top with yogurt sauce, then the Tomato-Cucumber salsa and garnish with reserved caramelized onions.  A squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sumac add an extra level of flavor!

Persnickety P.S.:


Sumac:  Not be confused with poison sumac, this spice comes from the flowers of the sumac bush known as Rhus which are ground into an elegant crimson-purple powder with a bit of a glittery quality to it.  It is my favorite spice discovery in all my time in the Middle East and adds a truly stunning lemony pop as a garnish to salads, soups and meat in Jordan.  In fact one dish, musakkhan, composed of chicken postitively swimming in oil and sumac, makes you smack your lips in satisfaction!  Sumac is available in Middle Eastern and global grocery markets or via Amazon online.


Lentils:  You''ll be glad to know that the best, most autehntic lentils for this dish are the common brown ones we find easily in U.S. grocery stores in the dried bean section.  They tend to cook faster than other color lentils and hold their shape well.  Easily done!


Leftovers:  Mujadara makes excellent leftovers.  Heat a bit of butter or oil in a frying pan and cook until heated through or popping and crispy.