Friday, November 29, 2013

Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Cookies

Last Year's Post: Famous Rum Cake
Two Years Ago:  Wild Rice Salad

Those of you who follow this blog will know that this post is a rather dramatic departure from my normal posts of whole grains, fruit and veggies.  I can probably count on the fingers of one hand how many desserts I've ever posted, much less candy and cookies.  So what gives?   Well, the holidays are coming, and for some inexplicable reason that I've never been able to figure out that means you have to make lots of cookies.  I saw this idea (it's too simple to call it an actual recipe) the other day and was intrigued.  We've all seen cookies with a Hershey's kiss pressed into the top.  What makes this slightly different is that you bake the cookies in mini-muffin tins and press the candy into the top when they're still soft, so the cookie ends up wrapped around the candy.  Sort of a little mini candy tart.  Anyway, I thought it was a cute idea that was worth passing along.

The very simplest approach is to use refrigerated cookie dough, although you could also make your own.  Besides the cookie dough all you need are miniature peanut butter cups and a mini-muffin pan.

You can use any flavor of cookie dough that you want.  I found refrigerated chocolate chip, sugar, and peanut butter cookie dough in my local store.  The chocolate chip and sugar came in long tubes (also called chubs) and the peanut butter came in a flat package with pre-cut dough pieces.  I chose peanut butter because The Lawyer loves both peanut butter cookies and Reese's peanut butter cups.  All you do is cut each dough piece in half, stick them in the muffin tins, and bake until puffed (only about half the time stated on the original cookie package).

My only trauma came when I realized I had 5 minutes left before the cookies came out, which were supposed to be immediately topped with the candies.  Do you know that miniature peanut butter cups have not one, but two wrappings?  How fast can you unwrap 24 of them?  I can tell you from experience that it takes longer than you would think.  If you've ever seen the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where she's trying to wrap candies coming down an ever-faster conveyor belt you'll have a rough idea of what was going on, except I was unwrapping instead.  Those wrappers were flying everywhere.

The cookies are puffed but still quite soft.  Pushing a candy into the center of each one sort of de-puffs it.

The candies melt a little and adhere to the cookies.  At this point, the cookies were still very soft so I decided to put the whole pan in the refrigerator to let them set before trying to take them out of the pan.  I'm not sure that was the greatest idea, because the cookies sort of glued themselves into the cups - I think my non-stick spray probably lost something when refrigerated.  I resorted to using a small sharp knife that I ran carefully around the edge of each cookie to pop them out.  It worked quite well but next time I'll probably just let them cool on the counter rather than refrigerating them.

They're cute little tarts of chocolatey-peanut butter deliciousness.  And of course, you could use a different flavor of cookie dough and a different miniature candy - have fun and make your own signature combination.  This would be a great activity to do with children also.

printable recipe
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookies
Makes 24 cookies
Note:  the cookies can be made with any refrigerated cookie dough or homemade cookie dough.  Also, other types of miniature candy may be used.
1 (14 oz) package Pillsbury Simply Peanut Butter cookie dough
1 bag Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Miniatures

Special equipment:  mini-muffin tin pan
 Preheat the oven to 350d.

If using the Pillsbury dough, cut each dough round in half.  If using a tube of refrigerated dough, cut into 1-1.5” slices and cut each slice into quarters.  If using homemade dough, cut into pieces that are approximately ½ ounce of dough for each cookie.

Grease the mini-muffin tin pan and place a piece of dough in each.  Bake in the oven for about 8 minutes, until the cookies are puffed to the rim of the pan.  (Note that this is much less time than listed on the cookie package.) While the cookies bake, unwrap as many candies as you need to fit your muffin pan, one per cookie.

After the cookies are removed from the oven, immediately place one candy on top of each and gently press into the cookie with your finger until the top of the candy is level with the top of the cookie.  The candies will melt slightly.

Let cool in the pan, then carefully remove with a small spoon or by running a small sharp knife around the edges to pop the cookies out.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Turkey & Pomegranate Salad

Last Year's Post: Brandied Cranberries
Two Years Ago:  Essential Foodie Gifts Under $20

You'll probably have some leftover turkey in the very near future, so I wanted to publish a recipe for a healthy, beautiful and delicious salad to help you get back on track after the Thanksgiving Day.  This recipe is a variation on the wild rice salad I published a few years ago, with less wild rice and more greens plus the addition of pomegranate seeds.

In the pantheon of beautiful fruits, pomegranates are arguably the rock star.  Their beautiful color on the outside is exceeded only by the beautiful little jewel-like seeds, which have incredible health benefits and a great tangy-sweet flavor.

So why don't we eat them more often?  Speaking at least for myself, I've always been intimidated by how to get the seeds out.  Since pomegranates are in season and they feel very festive at the holidays I decided to man up and figure it out.  There are a bunch of videos online (just Google "how to seed a pomegranate") such as an underwater seeding technique or the far more interesting and dramatic whack the heck out of it technique.  For the second video you have to be patient because the guy likes to hear himself talk, but it's worth it.  He's so enthusiastic about whacking the pomegranate with a wooden spoon that I was laughing by the end.  I had to try it even though the underwater technique certainly seemed safer and less likely to result in an injury to one or more fingers.  What's life without a little excitement?  (OK, true confession, I actually recruited The Lawyer for this little experiment.)

You score the pomegranate with a knife, pry it apart, stretch each half a little, then turn it over on your hand and whack it with a wooden spoon all over until all the seeds fall out.  And you know what?  It actually worked!  You've gotta try it out for yourself.  We'll definitely be eating more pomegranates now that we've found this tip.

What I like about this salad is the balance of flavors and textures - slightly bitter greens, creamy feta, chewy wild rice, crunchy nuts, sweet-tart pomegranate seeds, and delicious roast turkey.  You could substitute kale for the spinach or arugula, and could substitute a different type of nut or meat to suit your preference - I think chicken, duck, pork and even leftover roast beef would work just as well.  You could also use goat cheese or blue cheese in place of the feta if you like.  The salad dressing also adds a bright note with fresh orange juice and rind that pair perfectly with the pomegranate seeds.

If you cook the wild rice in advance, the salad comes together in about 20 minutes including the pomegranate whacking.  And how entertaining will it be to recruit your holiday house guests to do the whacking?!  Think of it as having your very own little reality food TV show.  Starring your relatives.  That alone should be worth it.

printable recipe
Turkey & Pomegranate Salad
Serves 4

For the salad:
¾ cup uncooked wild rice
2 cups water or low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups loosely packed spinach, arugula or kale, chopped
The seeds of one pomegranate
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 cup good-quality feta, coarsely crumbled
2 cup shredded cooked turkey

For the vinaigrette:
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons fresh grated orange rind
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
¼ teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Rinse and drain the wild rice.  Bring water or chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Add the wild rice; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 45 minutes.  Check to determine if grains are swollen and most are split.  If not, check again every 10 minutes until done (typically 55-60 minutes).  Remove from heat, drain, and set aside to cool.  (May be made a day or two in advance.  Keep covered and refrigerated.)

To prepare the vinaigrette, combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine, or shake in a jar.  Set aside.

To prepare the salad, decoratively arrange the wild rice, spinach, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, feta and turkey on plates and drizzle with vinaigrette.  Alternately, all ingredients may be tossed with the vinaigrette in a large bowl and then plated.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Grilled Sweet Potatoes

Last Year's Post:  Turkey and Gruyere French Dip
Two Years Ago:   Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

Do you ever have the feeling that the cosmos is trying to tell you something?  Last Wednesday my friend Robin sent me a recipe for Grilled Sweet Potatoes and raved about the taste.  Then on Thursday I found this little tidbit in the newspaper: 

"The National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million turkeys will be served on Thanksgiving, but what’s surprising is that more than half — 53 percent — will be cooked outdoors on grills, barbecues or smokers, according to a survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. In addition, one in five hosts intend to cook their vegetables outdoors, and more than one in 10 will prepare their appetizers in the open air. Wishful research? Perhaps, given the association’s vested interest. But snow no longer warrants shutting down home grills." (The italics are mine.)

Finally on Friday I read another article that said people are looking for new twists on traditional side dishes for Thanksgiving.  OK, I get it!  No more hints are needed.  I therefore immediately headed into the kitchen and then to the grill, so I could pacify the cosmos by posting this recipe as a new grilled twist on Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.

I should mention that sweet potatoes, for me, are one of those foods that were ruined in childhood by their preparation method.  (Peaches and wax beans are two other foods I remember with particular horror - I can't eat either to this day.)  In the case of sweet potatoes, they were baked into mush, then mixed up with about a ton of brown sugar and topped with mini-marshmallows.  The whole thing reminded me of overly sweet baby food with gooey white lumps.  Luckily, that particular memory faded with time and distance so I was willing to try sweet potatoes (sans sugar in any form) a few years ago and to my surprise, I really like them when prepared in a savory way.  Score one for conquering our childhood phobias!

I particularly like this recipe because it's fresher and lighter than your typical Thanksgiving sweet potato concoction, and it can be served either warm or at room temperature.  My friend Jon in Phoenix just got a brand new smoker and is planning to smoke his Thanksgiving turkey - I think this would be the perfect side dish.  It would also pair beautifully with pork, duck or chicken in addition to turkey.  You could alter the dish by adding other vegetables or nuts or using different herbs - add cilantro for a southwest twist, add walnuts and tarragon for a french feel, or add a sprinkling of zatar seasoning for a middle eastern variation. During the summer, mix in a little barbecue seasoning and this would be a great side for grilled ribs.  But I tend to like simpler recipes for Thanksgiving side dishes - there are so many different competing flavors already on the plate that making complex side dishes seems like overkill.

Finally, I should also mention that sweet potatoes are a very healthy food - low in sodium, and very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The heart-healthy olive oil in this recipe actually helps the absorption of the vitamins. Sweet potatoes a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B6 and potassium, and a very good source of vitamin A, vitamin C and manganese.  That's more than you can say about most Thanksgiving dishes!   I hope you enjoy it - and thank you, Robin!

printable recipe
Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Serves 6

Note:  for a southwest version, add 1 teaspoon ground cumin and use cilantro as the herb.

2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 green onions, cut into small pieces at a diagonal
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Lime wedges
¼ cup fresh herbs of choice – cilantro or thyme are good
In a large saucepan cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch and bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer for approximately 15 minutes (depending on the size of the potatoes) or until a thin skewer may be inserted but the potatoes are not yet tender.  Drain the potatoes in a colander and rinse under cold water to cool.  When cool enough to handle, peel potatoes using a peeler or sharp knife and cut crosswise into ½” thick slices.

In a small bowl whisk together oil, salt, and cumin (if using) and brush some onto both sides of potato slices, reserving the remaining oil.

Prepare a grill for medium heat.  Grill potatoes on an oiled rack until golden and grill-marked, about 90 seconds per side.  Transfer to a bowl.  Whisk lime juice into remaining oil with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over potatoes; toss gently.  Transfer to a platter or shallow bowl and sprinkle with green onions and fresh herbs.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thai Lettuce Wraps

Last Year's PostHoliday Breakfast Strata
Two Years Ago:  The Best Cranberry Relish

Street food is all the rage right now, which basically translates into anything you can eat while walking around, especially without utensils.  I think the popularity of food trucks has a lot to do with it.  The issue is that most food truck food is really high in fat and calories.  I'd put this recipe up against the best Asian food truck in town without hesitation from a taste standpoint, but it gets even better because the wraps are very healthy.  They're made with lettuce and ground turkey, and they're bursting with big flavors and crunch.  Although they're are very good on their own, the dipping sauce elevates them to a whole new level.  I found this recipe who-knows-where about 20 years ago and have been making it ever since, because it's that good.

The recipe makes twelve wraps, enough for six main dish servings, and the meat freezes very well so you can pull these out and warm them up any night of the week for a quick meal.  They're also great for lunch at work the next day. The turkey can be either grilled or broiled which means you can make them any time of the year.  If you're serving them for a party it would be fun to let people assemble their own wraps with the garnishes of their choice - bean sprouts, red bell pepper strips, chopped peanuts, cilantro, and some lime wedges.  I'd even put out some sriracha (Thai chile hot sauce) for those who really like it hot - there's always at least one in every crowd.

Start by making the sauce, which is really easy because you just chop a little cilantro and stir everything together.  The sauce is pungent, slightly sharp, slightly hot, and a perfect counterpoint to the lettuce wraps.

For the turkey filling, you mix aromatics, seasonings and other ingredients with ground turkey (best done using your hands, wearing disposable plastic gloves).

The turkey mixture is shaped into little logs and then grilled or broiled.

For the lettuce wrap, choose relatively large and flexible leaves - leaf lettuce or bibb lettuce work well.  Don't use romaine - it's too stiff and the rib is too big. Pile on the garnishes, fold them up and dip away!

printable recipe
Thai Lettuce Wraps
Makes 6 entrees or 12 appetizers

1 beaten egg
½ cup coarsely chopped water chestnuts
1/3 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 green onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon chili oil or a dash of ground red pepper
20 ounces ground raw turkey
12 large leaves of bibb or leaf lettuce (red or green)
Fresh cilantro sprigs
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
½ cup chopped peanuts for garnish, optional

Dipping Sauce:
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Combine all dipping sauce ingredients in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine the egg, water chestnuts, bread crumbs, green onion, soy sauce, lemon juice, ginger, sugar, salt and chili oil.  Add the turkey and mix well.  Shape into twelve 4 x 1.5 x .75” cigar-shaped logs.  Grill over medium-hot coals or broil 3 inches from heat for 12 to 14 minutes or until juices run clear, turning once.  Place in lettuce leaves and top with pepper strips, bean sprouts, cilantro and peanuts (optional).  Fold lettuce over to form wraps and serve with dipping sauce.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Halibut Provencale

Last Year's Post:  Greek Shrimp and Orzo
Two Years Ago:   Double Chocolate Biscotti with Walnuts

I recently read a very interesting interview with Michael Pollan, a best-selling author who writes about food (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food).  I think of him sort of as a foodie anthropologist - he writes about our relationships with food and how they're evolved over time.  Anyway, he was interviewed as part of a PR tour for his most recent book "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation".  The most interesting part of the interview for me was his concept of mindful cooking.  I had heard of mindful eating - the concept of paying attention to what you are eating and stop doing anything else at the same time - but not as it applies to cooking.

Here's a short excerpt from the interview:
I have always cooked, it’s not like I just learned how to cook, but I've always approached it with a great deal of impatience, and always kind of fought against it. Learning to be in the kitchen and not try to be multitasking, aside from conversation or listening to the radio, has been a great gift. I mean I approach it with a very different spirit. One of the most important life lessons of this book is “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” ..... Slow down and you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll squeeze more out of the experience. 
(Reprinted with permission. You can read the entire interview here.)

If you pay attention while you're prepping and cooking, you can learn some pretty interesting things about smell, taste, texture and the transformations that cooking can cause.  For example, this recipe includes fennel.  If you haven't worked with it much, it's an interesting lesson in how to cut it up, what it smells like (licorice), what it tastes like raw (crunchy, with a slight anise flavor), and what it tastes like cooked (mild and sweet).  Be sure to smell and taste as you go, and you'll find all kinds of new foods that you like.  This is a great approach to take with kids also. (Not to smell and taste kids before cooking them, but to include kids in the food smelling, tasting and prepping process.)

Anyway, this is a great light and healthy recipe for baked halibut from Provence that includes tomatoes, fennel, white wine, olives and plenty of herbs.  The mild, sweet fish is complemented beautifully by the Mediterranean flavors and stays very moist because it's covered in sauce while it bakes.  You could also use sea bass. tilapia, cod or any other mild white fish if you prefer.

Here's how to prepare the fennel - start by cutting off the long skinny stems and fronds and just use the bulb.

Cut the bulb in half and cut out the solid core by making diagonal cuts.

Slice and chop the fennel (be sure to smell and taste the raw fennel so you can compare it later to the taste and texture when cooked).

The fennel, onion and garlic are sauteed, then tomatoes are added and cooked briefly before adding the herbs.

Half the tomato mixture goes into the baking dish, then the halibut and the remaining sauce are added.  Isn't halibut pretty?

After baking, a breadcrumb/olive topping is added and browned briefly.

It's an easy, foolproof and very healthy dish.

printable recipe
Halibut Provencale
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fennel bulb, cored and chopped
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt, divided
4 cups diced tomatoes with juice
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 (5-6 oz) halibut fillets
1 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence or French herb blend
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 450d.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds.  Add fennel, onion, and ½ teaspoon salt; sauté 8 minutes or until lightly browned.  Stir in diced tomatoes and juices; cook 2 minutes.  Remove from heat; stir in fresh basil and parsley.

Spoon half of tomato mixture into a baking dish large enough to hold the fish fillets in a single layer.  Place fillets over tomato mixture.  Pour wine into dish; sprinkle fillets with ¼ teaspoon salt.  Spoon remaining tomato mixture over fillets.  Bake at 450d for 15 minutes.  While the fish bakes, combine the breadcrumbs, olives, herbes de Provence, 1 teaspoon oil, pepper, and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt in a small bowl.  When 15 minutes have elapsed, remove the fish from oven; preheat broiler.

Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the fillets.  Broil 5 minutes or until lightly browned, watching closely so the topping doesn't burn.  Serve immediately.