Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Recipe Recap, Part 1

Thanksgiving….my favorite holiday of the year….has come and gone. All in all it was a good one. I woke up on the earlyish side (thanks to the fact that I forgot to turn my weekday work alarm off…oops) and spent the morning finishing my contributions to the Thanksgiving feast, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (the official start of the holiday season!), and prepping our annual pre-Thanksgiving lunch of quiche and ham rolls.

If you remember, I had promised to make three items for Thanksgiving at Jason’s house: cranberry chutney, spinach gratin, and pumpkin crème brulee. I had taken care of the cranberry chutney and pumpkin crème brulee on Wednesday night (more to come on those) but waited until Thursday morning to do the spinach gratin—primarily because I didn’t have a whole lot of fridge space left at that point and also because I wasn’t 100% sure how it would hold up pre-cooked overnight (in retrospect, it probably would have been fine). I chose spinach gratin as a side dish for a couple of reasons—1) I thought that we probably needed another green vegetable to go with all the starches I knew my mother-in-law would be making (stuffing, mashed potatoes and bread) which was good since she also ended up making sweet potato casserole (one of my family’s favorites) as well and 2) Jason has a vast love of creamed spinach and as soon as I told him that one of the recipes I was considering for Thanksgiving was essentially creamed spinach topped with cheese and baked in casserole form, he was sold.

The spinach gratin recipe I chose, from Ina Garten aka the Barefoot Contessa (who else?!), was ridiculously easy. Usually when I make creamed spinach I opt for fresh spinach, but fortunately this recipe called for frozen chopped spinach (otherwise I would have spent half the morning wilting pounds and pounds of spinach to get the amount needed to feed 8 people).  Actually, the hardest thing about this recipe was getting all the extra liquid out of the five packages of thawed spinach that was called for (my secret—squeezing each package through several layers of paper towels and then putting it all in a colander and squeezing anything else that remained with the back of a large spoon).  Once the spinach was fairly dry it was as simple as sautéing onions, making a roux, and cooking milk and cream until it thickened. Fold in the spinach and some cheese and all you need to do is stick it in the oven when the time comes.

If you like creamed spinach, you will love this recipe. I would go so far as to say it is as good any creamed spinach side you will find in the fanciest of steakhouses (which may be why I decided we needed go to Whole Foods and get a steak to cook for dinner tonight to eat with our leftovers!) It is a wonderful addition to any holiday table.

Spinach Gratin
Adapted slightly from Ina Garten

4 TBL butter
2 large yellow onions, chopped
¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
1-2 cups milk*
5 (10-ounce) packages of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper

*the original recipe called for 2 cups of milk but since I was using skim, I ended up using less—probably closer to 1 ½ cup—since I know from previous experience that skim milk can wreck havoc when you are trying to make white sauce using an Ina Garten recipe

 1.Preheat oven to 425 degrees (if you are planning to cook right away). Squeeze as much liquid from the spinach as possible and set aside.
2.Melt better in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add flour and nutmeg and cook, stirring almost constantly, for 2 minutes.
3.Add cream and milk and cook until thickened. Stir in spinach. Add ¼ cup of the Parmesan cheese and mix well. Remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4.Spoon mixture into a 9x13 baking dish. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan and Gruyere cheese on top. Bake for 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly (about 30 minutes if you are baking it straight from the refrigerator). Serve.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's Thanksgiving Eve which means I've spent a good portion of my evening prepping for tomorrow's big event. Jason's mom is providing the majority of our Thanksgiving feast, but I'm contributing three items as well. After a month of research, here's what I've come up with to supplement the usual turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole (Jason's family is into all the traditional dishes as you can tell):
  • Cranberry chutney with ginger and orange
  • Spinach gratin
  • Pumpkin creme brulee
I wish I could tell you that all of these recipes came from the many holiday issues I amassed during the Great Thanksgiving Recipe Search 2010...but the truth is, not a single one did! Can you believe it?! FIVE magazines and I end up going with three internet/blog recipes instead. Sigh. I really do have a problem.

Stay tuned this weekend for recipes and reviews. In the meantime, I leave you with an awesome example of how the holidays can bring out the worst in those of us with Type A personalities: Awkward Family Photo's infamous Thanksgiving letter....hopefully I never get this bad!

Happy Thanksgiving :)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Easy Autumn Menu

Our friends Matt and Stephanie came over for dinner last night and since I knew I’d be doing a good deal of cooking this week (with Thanksgiving and all), I was determined to come up with a meal that would be both easy and delicious. I ended up with just that thanks to a soup and salad menu and a jazzed up pre-made dessert.

Soup and salad combinations are great because they are both pretty easy to prepare (which is great when you want to actually spend time with your guests while they are over) and feel like fall to me. I ended up with my favorite curry carrot and squash soup and a tasty salad of arugula, fennel and apple.

But dessert was the real start of the meal, in my opinion. Friday night we drove over to our favorite local spot for ice cream (frozen custard, actually)—The Dairy Godmother in Alexandria—to pick up a couple pints just for this occasion.  DG is unique in that it offers three flavors of frozen custard—chocolate, vanilla, and whatever the flavor of the day is. The flavor of the day varies and can be anything from mint chocolate chip to snickerdoodle or tiramisu. In addition to custard, DG always has a variety of interesting sorbets too (one time I had sangria sorbet).  We ended up bring home sweet potato pecan custard and cranberry tangerine coriander sorbet. To go with it I made Barefoot Countessa’s Ultimate Ginger Cookies and the combination was fantastic! I love these cookies because they incorporate chopped crystallized ginger making the ginger goodness pop on multiple levels.

All in all we had a great evening full of good, simple food and fun with friends. The perfect way to kick off the holiday season!

Ginger Cookies
Adapated from Ina Garten

2 ¼ cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
¼ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1 egg
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
Granulated sugar, for rolling cookies

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper (or grease them if you don’t have parchment).
2.In a large bowl, mix first six ingredients (through salt) together and set aside.
3.In the bowl of an electric mixer, add brown sugar, oil, and molasses. Beat on medium speed for 5 minutes. Turn the mixer to low and add egg and beat for 1 minute. Scrape sides down with a rubber spatula and then beat on low for another minute.
4.With the mixer on low, slowly add the flour mixture. Then mix on medium for 1-2 minutes or until the dough is well combined and it is no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl.
5.Pour some sugar into a shallow bowl or plate. Scoop dough and roll into one inch balls with your hands. Roll dough in sugar and place on baking sheets. Before putting them in the oven, lightly flatten the cookies with the back of a spatula or your fingers.
6.Bake for 11-13 minutes until the cookies are crackled on the outside but still soft on the inside. Cool for a minute or two on the baking sheets and then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Serve by themselves or with your favorite ice cream

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Book Club Miracle

I worked late almost every day this past week (hence the complete lack of posting—blah) with the exception of Wednesday.  Wednesday also happened to be the date of this month’s  book club so the fact that it was my one non-late day was something of a miracle. A book club miracle, if you will. You know what else was miraculous? The cheese ball I made to take to book club!

That’s right I said cheese ball.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of cheese balls, I think of the highly processed versions my mom used to buy from Hickory Farms around the holidays when I was a kid. I did not care for cheese balls back then but I am decidedly a fan of this recipe from Cooking Light (I just so happened to run across it during the Great Thanksgiving Recipe Search 2010).

It’s so easy you can put it together after a long day of work without breaking a sweat. And seriously, cream cheese + blue cheese + shallots + lemon zest + parsley + walnuts = awesome.  Miraculous, even.

Miraculous Blue Cheese Ball with Walnuts
Adapted from Cooking Light

1 8-ounce brick of 1/3 less fat cream cheese
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1 TBL milk
1 TBL finely chopped shallots
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Salt and pepper
¼ cup minced flat-leaf parsley
2 ½ TBL chopped walnuts

1.Place cream cheese, blue cheese, and milk in a bowl and beat with a mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes or until smooth. Add shallots, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste. Beat with mixer until well blended.
2.Spoon mixture onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Form into a ball. Wrap and chill overnight.
3.Before serving, combine parsley and walnuts in a shallow bowl or plate.  Unwrap cheese ball and gently roll in nut mixture. Either serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready. Serve with crackers, bread, or veggies.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mmmmmm Macaroni!

I love me some macaroni and cheese. It really is the best comfort food there is, in my opinion anyway. But it’s not something I make very often. And that is because I’ve never found a recipe that I’ve liked as well as my grandmother’s (which, because it doesn’t have a recipe, is impossible to replicate).

But that excuse wasn’t cutting it for Jason any longer-- a month or so ago he started hinting that he’d really like macaroni and cheese for dinner sometime soon.  Then came October’s Everyday Food with its Three-Cheese and Bacon Macaroni cover recipe and the hinting became pleading.  How could I say no?

Thank goodness I gave in, because this recipe (from Emeril Lagasse’s monthly Everyday Food column) may rival my grandmother’s in terms of delciousness. It was SO good. And pretty easy too. Unlike other recipes I’ve tried in the past, this one does not require making a roux (flour+ butter) and adding milk that cooks until it thickens before melting in the cheese. Instead, this called for mixing evaporated milk, eggs, and three kinds of cheese adding in the cooked macaroni and bacon (BACON!) and letting it thicken in the oven.  But what I think I liked most was the addition of the garlic—it really added a depth of flavor that was absolutely yummy.

I highly recommend this dish for all the macaroni lovers out there!

Three-Cheese and Bacon Macaroni
Adapted, just barely, from Everyday Food

½ pound elbow macaroni
3 slices of bacon, cut crosswise into ½ inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 large eggs
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
Two dashes of nutmeg
6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper

1.Preheat oven to 475. In a large pot of boiling water, cook macaroni for 6 minutes (it will be undercooked).
2.Meanwhile, heat a small skillet over medium heat and add bacon. Cook until crisp, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon and garlic (while leaving the rendered fat) and place in medium-bowl.
3.When macaroni is ready, drain and add to the bacon. Toss to combine.
4.In a large bowl, mix together milk and eggs. Add nutmeg and cheeses. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in macaroni and bacon mixture.  Coat a 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with cooking spray and spoon macaroni mixture into dish. Bake until sauce is bubbling around the edges. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

To Fry or Not to Fry

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had a strict no-fry policy. I’m not a huge fan of most fried foods (with a few exceptions, of course) and was somewhat intimidated by the thought of a pot of hot oil sitting on my gas stove waiting to catch on fire.  Plus there’s the smell; heating large quantities of oil leaves your house/apartment smelling like oil for days.

Nope, frying was just not my thing.

Then about a month ago, I was browsing through Smitten Kitchen (I think as the kickoff to my Thanksgiving recipe search) and came across her recipe for what has to be one of my favorite fall treats: apple cider doughnuts.  Soft and lightly apple-flavored with hints of cinnamon, these delicious doughnuts are not that easy to come by. The only places I’ve ever seen them are apple orchards.  The recipe seemed easy enough—with the exception of the frying part. So I thought about it for a week or two and decided to give it a try.

It was not nearly as intimidating as I had made it out to be (although there definitely was a smell that lingered a day or two). The key is having an accurate candy thermometer. Mine ran cold and so when I put the first doughnut in, it got really brown really fast due to the overly hot oil.

SK’s recipe was pretty true to what I remembered from apple cider doughnuts past—though I did wish that the apple flavor had been just a tad bit more pronounced. Either way it was a fun way to spend Halloween afternoon and may become an annual autumn event.

Apple Cider Doughnuts
From Smitten Kitchen

1 cup apple cider
3 ½ cups flour, plus additional for work surface
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon plus 1 ½ TBL cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
4 TBL butter, room temperature
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
A ton of vegetable oil (for frying)

1.In a saucepan set over medium-low heat, gently reduce apple cider to about ¼ cup (about 20-25 minutes). Set aside to cool.
2.Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.
3.Using an electric (or stand) mixer on medium speed, beat butter and 1 cup sugar until mixture is smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until completely incorporated.
4.Reduce the speed to low and slowly add reduced apple cider and buttermilk. Mix until just combine. Add flour mixture (in a few batches to prevent flour from going everywhere!) and continue to mix until dough comes together.
5.Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle with flour. Turn dough onto one of the sheets and sprinkle top with flour. Flatten dough (with your hands) until it is about ½ inch thick. Transfer baking sheet to the freezer until it is slightly hardened, about 20 minutes. Remove.
6.Using a 3-inch round cutter and 1-inch round cutter (for the hole)—cut doughnut shapes. Place the doughnuts and holes on the second sheet pan. Refrigerate the doughnuts for 20-30 minutes.
7.Meanwhile, add enough oil to a deep-sided pan to measure a depth of about 3 inches. Attach a candy thermometer  to the side of the pan and heat over medium heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees. Line a plat with several layers of paper towels.
8.In a shallow bowl, mix together remaining sugar and cinnamon.
9.Carefully add two doughnuts to the oil and fry until golden brown (30-60 seconds depending on how hot your oil actually is). Turn and fry the other side (about 30 seconds). Drain on the paper towels for a minute and then dip in cinnamon sugar mixture. Best served warm!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Good News!

It's been a busy couple of weeks around our little household. Two (wonderful) weddings in two weeks and work that is picking up steam. But there has been some really good news as well. Jason will be starting a new job next week that will cut his 45 minute (on a good day!) commute down to 15 minutes. AND I found out today that I will get to stay in my agency's DC office permanently rather than making the move to Baltimore!

I know the blogging has been a little light lately but I have a couple of good recipe posts on the way (Can you say apple cider doughnuts? How about macaroni and cheese with bacon?) as well as a recap of our recent trip to California. If that isn't good news, I don't know what is :)

A preview of our day in Muir Woods

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day Soup

It was downright cold today. When I left home this morning (to go vote on my way to work!) I worried that I was breaking out the wool coat too early. But no. It was definitely cold out there.  Perfect weather for soup. And it just so happened that I had planned to try out a recipe for Mushroom Barley Soup from this month’s Food & Wine. (Side note: I only recently started subscribing to Food & Wine—thanks to a six issues for $6 special I got in the mail a few months back—and I have to say it is quickly becoming my favorite food magazines. High quality content, all around).

The recipe, particularly as originally written, could not have been simpler. Simply bring a pot of veggies, barley, and beef broth to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. I was a little skeptical as to how a seemingly scant amount of boiled vegetables would amount to a tasty soup so I upped the quantities added some leftover butternut squash from the  two pound behemoth we cut up for risotto on Saturday and sautéed the veggies before adding the broth and barley. Overall the recipe yielded a light and flavorful soup.  I definitely would recommend adding some additional vegetables to make it a little heartier. And Jason said he wouldn’t mind some additional barley so next time we might up to ¾ cup. Otherwise, an easy weeknight meal perfect for watching the election results (or not) this cold November evening.

Mushroom Barley Soup
Adapted from Food & Wine

1 TBL olive oil
½ onion, diced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
2-3 ribs of celery, chopped
1 cup diced butternut squash (left over from when we cut up a whole squash for risotto on Saturday)
1 8-ounce container for cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt and Pepper
6 cups of beef stock
½ cup barley

1.Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan or dutch oven. Add onion, celery, carrot, and butternut squash. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften (about 5-7 minutes).
2.Add mushrooms and toss. Add beef broth and bring to a boil. Add barley, reduce heat to moderately low and partially cover. Cook until barley and vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Check for seasonings and serve.