Friday, November 28, 2014

Beer Cheese

Last Year's Post: Turkey & Pomegranate Salad
Two Years Ago:  Brandied Cranberries

If you've ever had (and liked) beer cheese soup, you know exactly what this spread will taste like except it has a little kick and a slight garlic undertone.  All in all, it's the perfect pub food to snack on while watching sports on a large-screen tv, tall cold one in hand.  It's also a great party appetizer during the holiday season because it can sit out for long periods of time and goes well with wine in addition to beer.

My overall theory on food is that if you serve something very healthy along side something not all that healthy, they balance out.  Diet soda and pizza come to mind.  Here, the vegetables play the virtuous role along with toasty dark rye bread and pretzel crackers as the perfect vehicle for that cheesy goodness.

The spread is remarkably easy to make - there aren't many ingredients, and everything gets whizzed up in a food processor before refrigerating for a few hours to blend flavors. You can vary the taste by adjusting the amount of cayenne and garlic that you use, plus by using a bolder or milder beer.  I used a Negra Modela and was very happy with the results.

If you have any beer cheese left over (not likely), it's excellent spread on lightly toasted buns for brats or burgers.  Or how about beer cheese grilled sandwiches?  Yum.

printable recipe
Beer Cheese
Makes about 2 ½ cups

1 pound sharp yellow cheddar cheese
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon ground mustard
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
¾ cup beer (amber or dark beer will have a more pronounced flavor than pilsner)
Pretzel crackers (or pretzels)
Dark rye bread, toasted and cut into squares
Radishes (sliced or not), carrot sticks, blanched pea pods, celery sticks, etc.

Grate the cheddar cheese, preferably in a food processor.  Remove the shredder attachment and add the garlic, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, black pepper and cayenne pepper and pulse to combine.  With the processor running, slowly add the beer, blending until a smooth mixture forms.

Transfer the beer cheese to a serving bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to overnight to allow flavors to blend.

Serve with crackers, rye toasts, and assorted vegetables on the side.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Couscous with Turkey or Chicken

Last Year's Post: Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Two Years Ago:  Rum Cake

This is an interesting take on leftover turkey, chicken or duck with a Middle Eastern feel.  The couscous, pomegranate seeds, mint and pistachios make it a little exotic while keeping it very healthy.  The original recipe called for pomegranate molasses in keeping with the Middle Eastern theme, which most people will not have on hand although I did for some reason (don't ask) so I tried it both ways - with the molasses and then with balsamic vinegar - and actually like the vinegar better because it balance the sweetness of the dried fruits and pomegranate seeds.

You could substitute any dried fruit for the cranberries and golden raisins - dried apricots would be particularly good - and could substitute other nuts for the pistachios and pumpkin seeds.  What I really liked about this recipe besides the great taste is that it's so fast and easy after all the holiday cooking and baking.  The couscous takes just ten minutes and everything else is just thrown in the bowl.  Make sure you keep your turkey or chicken in big, juicy pieces.  And by the way, this recipe works really well with smoked chicken or turkey as well.

Regarding pomegranates: you can sometimes buy just the seeds in your produce aisle, or they're easy to seed yourself.  Cut the pomegranate in half, spread each half slightly, turn over, and whack it with a wooden spoon over a bowl of water.  The seeds will come out along with a little bit of the white stuff, but the white stuff floats and is easy to remove from the water.  Drain the seeds and you're ready to go.  They add a jewel tone and sweet pop that's like no other.

Don't skip the yogurt because it adds an interesting dimension of creaminess and tang. Greek or regular plain yogurt will both work.  I couldn't find a small container of regular plain yogurt, so I used plain Greek yogurt and thinned it slightly with a little milk because it was really thick.  It was a very delicious, quick and healthy way to use up leftover roast poultry.

printable recipe
Couscous with Turkey or Chicken
Serves 4

Note:  You can also use leftover cooked duck instead of turkey or chicken.

1 cup of couscous
1.25 pounds cooked turkey or chicken, shredded into large pieces
The seeds of one pomegranate
3 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds
3 tablespoons dried cranberries or cherries
3 tablespoons golden raisins
3 tablespoons shelled pistachios
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more small leaves for garnish
Salt and pepper
4 heaping tablespoons plain yogurt
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses or balsamic vinegar

Cook the couscous according to package directions, then fluff with a fork.  Add the turkey or chicken, pomegranate seeds, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, raisins, pistachios, and chopped mint.  Season generously with salt and pepper and toss to combine.

Serve, topping each serving with a heaping tablespoon of yogurt, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses or balsamic vinegar, and additional mint leaves.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cornmeal Herb Scones

Last Year's Post: Thai Lettuce Wraps
Two Years Ago:  Brandied Cranberries

Breakfast is one of my favorite meals, especially weekend breakfast - there's something luxurious about taking the time to have something special.  In a previous life, "something special" often involved large amounts of eggs, potatoes, and toast, or plates of pancakes or french toast that would make me feel like doing nothing more than laying on the couch for the rest of the day.  Ah, the good old days.  I still like a special weekend (or holiday!) breakfast, but I've learned to exercise a little restraint and these days it more often involves a bagel or pastry with a cup of really good coffee.  It's still a treat, it's just a smaller treat.

Hence the scones.  I've discovered that scones purchased in a bakery or restaurant can vary from cakey - much like a muffin - to hard and dry, so I've learned to rely on making them at home.  My ideal scone is tender and somewhat crumbly, but not cakey and not overly sweet.  I was attracted to this recipe because I like crunchiness of cornmeal and had never put it in scones before.  The original recipe called for a fingerprint of plum jam on top of each scone, which I swapped in favor of some minced herbs.  I expected the scone to be on the savory side, but was very surprised that it went incredibly well with raspberry jam - something about the herbs really complemented the flavor of the jam.  The scone itself is lightly crunchy from the cornmeal, yet not really what I would call overly savory or sweet - just right in the middle.  I was very pleased with the recipe.

The scones are very easy to make in a food processor, and they freeze beautifully.  You could make them a day in advance if you want to serve them right away in the morning, then reheat them briefly in the microwave.  (Ideal for busy holiday mornings.)

The recipe calls for the egg and the butter to be at room temperature which I've noticed before, and led me to wonder why.

Here's what I found at after a little searching:

At room temperature, eggs, butter, and milk bond and form an emulsion that traps air. During baking, the air expands, producing light, airy, evenly baked treats. Batters made with room temperature ingredients are smooth and evenly incorporated. Cold ingredients don’t incorporate evenly to bond, resulting in dense cookies, rock-hard breads, and clumpy cheesecakes. Batters made with cold ingredients won’t come together smoothly.

Take eggs, butter, and other dairy products out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before baking. 

If you’re short on time, cut your butter into small pieces and microwave for a few seconds at a time, checking often, until they’re just malleable. Make sure to keep eye on it because microwaves vary.  Bring cold eggs to room temperature by placing them in a bowl of warm water for 15 minutes. Don’t use hot water or put eggs on top of a hot oven—this will heat them unevenly, and the whites will start to set.

I always thought "room temperature" meant the ingredients had to sit out for hours, so I was glad to find this info.

printable recipe
Cornmeal Herb Scones
Makes 8 scones

¾ c heavy cream
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon minced mixed herbs (thyme and rosemary)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

Heat oven to 400d.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the egg and cream.

In a food processor, pulse together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt and herbs.  Add the butter and pulse until the mixture forms coarse crumbs.  Drizzle in as much of the cream mixture as you need to make a smooth, moist but not wet dough.  Save remaining cream mixture for brushing.

Turn dough out onto prepared baking sheet.  Pat into a 1 ¼ -inch thick round.  Using a small knife, cut into 8 pie-shaped wedges and push them ½” apart using a small spatula.  Brush dough with the remaining cream mixture.

Transfer pan to oven and bake until uniformly golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating once.  Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  Serve scones with butter and jam.

Note:  the scones freeze well wrapped in foil or in a zip top bag.  Thaw and reheat briefly in a microwave oven.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Brussels Sprout Leaf Salad

Last Year's Post:Halibut Provencale
Two Years Ago: Turkey and Gruyere French Dip

The Perfect Holiday Salad
Brussels sprout leaves?  Yep, that's what happens when you use a little knife to cut the bottom off each sprout and peel off the outer leaves.  So why on earth would you want to take the time to do that?  Well, because after you blanch them and toss them with arugula and endive, they make a most beautiful and delicious salad.  It's worth the effort, trust me.  OK, maybe you don't want to make it every day, but it's perfect for large gatherings because the sturdy leaves don't wilt as the salad sits on a buffet table.  And it's the perfect salad for your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner because the bright lemon dressing and crunchy, slightly bitter greens are a refreshing contrast to all the other heavy rich foods.

Peeling the Brussels sprouts does take a little time, but I've done way more time-consuming things in my life.  Think of it as a labor of love.  Or, recruit one of the relatives that are milling around your house (preferably one that you like) and peel together while sipping on a glass of wine and chatting.  Sounds very holiday-ish, doesn't it?

The only trick is figuring out how to peel the little guys.  You just take a small knife and cut off the bottom, then peel off the first layer of outer leaves.  Make another thin cut on the bottom to peel off the next layer of leaves.  Use your judgment regarding when to stop peeling - you want the bigger, greener outer leaves but not the core.

A quick blanch in boiling water helps set the beautiful green color and mellows the leaves just a little.  The dark green of the arugula and Brussels sprout leaves looks beautiful against the pale yellow and white of the endive.

A topping of toasted almonds is the perfect final touch.  If you don't like almonds you could substitute walnuts or pecans, but I really liked the almonds with the greens.

You can prep all the ingredients several hours in advance and refrigerate - just don't add the dressing or almonds to the salad until right before serving.  And you'll probably want to double the recipe if you're serving a big group as part of your holiday dinner.  Have fun!

Brussels Sprout Leaf Salad
Serves 4-6

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (approximately one large lemon)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ lbs Brussels sprouts
2 cups baby arugula
1 head Belgian endive
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted

To make the dressing, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl to combine.  Set aside.

Using a small paring knife, cut the end off each Brussels sprout and remove the outer layer of leaves.  Make another small cut on the end to release another layer of leaves, then remove a third layer of leaves in the same way.  Reserve the cores for another use.

Bring a large pan of water to a boil over medium-high heat; add the leaves and cook for 1 minute.  Remove immediately and place in a bowl of ice water to cool, then drain thoroughly in a colander, shaking to get rid of excess moisture.

Cut the end off the Belgian endive, then cut crosswise into ½” pieces. 

Note:  at this point the dressing, endive, arugula and Brussels sprout leaves may be refrigerated, covered, for several hours.  Do not add the dressing to the salad until right before serving.

Put the arugula, endive, and Brussels sprout leaves in a large salad bowl.  Add the dressing just before serving and toss together, then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.