Monday, May 16, 2011

Of waiting. And of Butterscotch Pudding

A couple of years ago, a very dear friend gave me a set of footed dessert dishes that were made in France.  Now, if there's one thing that I am slightly addicted to (other then coffee) it would be pretty dishes. I have managed to collect quite a few over the years, but love to find new treasures.  This particular set is lovely perched in my glass fronted cabinet, catching glimmers of  sunshine. This set is special.  Made in France, from a dear friend. So, in my mind, it should be reserved for special occasions.  It's fancy.  Footed, even.  So, again.  Special. Not for the common, the every day.

And so the dishes stay on the shelf.  Perfect. Waiting for exactly the right time. Waiting till everything is just right.  Waiting.  Waiting.  Waiting.  They are collect bits of dust, start to lose the shine. This business of  not getting to live out their purpose - what they were created to be, is dulling. Instead of being filled, bringing delight and joy - they remain empty.

 Sound familiar?  For me at times, perfection becomes a curse. Just what all do I miss out on because life isn't meeting my standard of perfect? "If only  -fill-in-the-blank- then it would be the right time".  "If I could just__________  then, then it would be right." "If he would finally ________"   Life ticks by.  Beauty stays behind glass because of fear.  Chances missed because of the "what-if".

I pulled the dishes out today.  On a Monday.  For no good reason.  And filled them up with butterscotch pudding. Oh, there was joy alright. I'm glad I stopped waiting.

Butterscotch Pudding

I grew up thinking that pudding came out of a box.  You know, add some milk, whisk  and viola - pudding!  And butterscotch - isn't that a candy flavor?  In truth, butterscotch is simply brown sugar and butter cooked together. From there it becomes the base for a decant ice cream sauce, or frosting, or even brownies.   And also in truth, home made pudding is nothing like the boxed imitation.  Oh no, this is deliciously better. My kids love this still warm and then they love it again when it's chilled.  I often make a double batch, so they can have both.

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 packed brown sugar, dark brown if you have it
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • heaping 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon butter

1.In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over low heat.  Add the brown sugar and cook, stirring until melted and bubbly.
2. Gradually stir in 1/2 cup of cream.  Stir over low heat until butterscotch is dissolved.  

3.Slowly add in 1 1/2 cups of milk and the heaping 1/4 tsp of salt.  Be careful as this mixture can really foam and bubble.  Whisk  until everything is blended together.  Take off heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

4. In the meantime,  mix together the cornstarch and the water together until smooth and cornstarch is completely dissolved. 

5.  Stir into the milk mixtures.  Cook, stirring constantly over medium high heat until mixture begins to thicken.  Reduce heat to low,  whisking briskly, bring to a simmer and cook for another minute.  Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla and the last tablespoon of butter. 

6.  Pour the pudding into bowls.  If you can stop your family from slurping this up immediately and if pudding skin bothers you, press plastic wrap directly onto surface of the pudding to prevent skin from forming.  Chill for two hours or as long as you can keep your spoon out of it. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Greek Chicken and Potatoes - Souvlaki

I tried a new recipe tonight and took lots of pictures just in case it was worth sharing. I'll say it was worth sharing! This was simple to make and got thumbs up from everyone at the table. The fact that the meat was on skewers was definitely a bonus in the minds of my boys. Sword fighting tools and dinner at the same time?  What's not to love?!  Bonus for mom was how quickly this came together.

I am always looking for ways to expose my kids to the cuisines of other countries. We have a large, established Greek community in our area. Thankfully, the members of this community have many thriving restaurants and the Greek food they serve has become a family favorite. This recipe is a riff on a dish we've enjoyed often - Chicken Souvlaki.  Fancy name, but it really has simple, basic ingredients that capture some of those sunny Mediterranean  flavors. You can serve with a greek salad or maybe just plenty of tomatoes and feta cheese. 

Greek Chicken and Potatoes

  • 2lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice, 2 lemons
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 6-8 red skinned potatoes, cut into chunks
 In small bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper.  Thread chunks of chicken onto skewers. Place skewers into large resealable plastic bag. Pour about 3/4 of the marinade of over chicken. Turn to coat. Refrigerate for at least four to six hours.

You can either cook this outside on the grill, or inside using the oven. 

Grilling Directions:   Spread potato chunks on large piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with remaining marinade. Fold aluminum foil into a packet by crimping the middle and rolling up the sides, pressing to seal. Note:  I am on the - not coordinated side of things, so it took some doing to get the potatoes sealed in there.  Let's just say I used more then one sheet of foil and by the time I was done, these babies were in there for good.  The main thing is, you don't want leaks or the marinade will drip out and then you will have fire in the hole - or grill.

Preheat grill to high.  Lay potato packet on grate.  Let cook for 10 minutes. Turn heat to med-high and flip packet to the other side.  Let cook for another 8-10 minutes. Turn heat under the potatoes to low.  Meanwhile - on the other side of the grill, turn back to med-high  Add chicken skewers, turning every few minutes until the meat is cooked through.

Oven Directions:  Preheat oven to 400. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a 9X13 pan. Add potatoes and drizzle with remaining marinade, stirring to coat.  Roast potatoes for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes, lay chicken skewers across the top of potatoes. Spoon some of the chicken marinade over skewers. If you are worried about using marinade that raw chicken has been in, don't be.  That marinade is about to be blasted with  400 degree heat.  It will be well-cooked.  The thing you don't want to do, is use raw meat marinade on something that won't be cooked through. Roast for another 20 minutes or until chicken is done, turning skewers at least once.

This simple dish would be good served with traditional sides like steamed green beans and a basic salad. This time though,  I really wanted to incorporate more of that Mediterranean vibe.

 I couldn't resist making a batch of Tzatziki to serve on the side. Tzatziki is a cool, refreshing cucumber sauce that is often served on gyro's or on the side of other greek food.  We love it with wedges of toasted pita bread to dip in it.  Delish!

  • 2 cups plain yogurt (whole milk or low fat)
  • 1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled and seeded
  • 2 tsp plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh dill
  • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Use a thick Greek yogurt. Or, if you don't have that in the house, do what I did. Place the yogurt in a  paper towel-lined sieve and set it over a bowl. Let this sit and drain for several hours and you will have a nice, thickened yogurt.  Meanwhile, grate the cucumber and toss it with 2 tsp of kosher salt. Place it in another sieve, and set it over another bowl. Let drain for several hours.

Put the thickened yogurt in a big bowl. Squeeze as much liquid from the cucumber as you can and add the cucumber to the yogurt. Mix in the sour cream, vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, dill, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper. You can serve it immediately, but I prefer to allow the tzatziki to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours for the flavors to blend. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Easy Home-Made Granola Bars

When my oldest kids were small, I remember spending inordinate amounts of time convincing them to eat.  "Here, try this.  Just a bite. Yummy, yummy, yummy." Funny how quickly the moments of trying to get them to eat have flown by.  Now I find myself thinking things like "Oh NO, surely they can't be hungry agaaaaaaaiiiiiin!!  What will I feed them this time?"  These  used-to-be-pudgy-legged toddlers have stretched up into long, lean, eatin' machines.

So, my solution to the constant drumbeat of "I've starving - what's to eat?"  One of them was packaged granola bars. Easy to grab, portable, and it says granola right on the box, so it must be healthy right? Up until recently, I could split a single granola bar two, even three ways. That made for a perfectly sufficient snack and a box lasted a good week.  Ah the good old days. Now, with 4 kids and a husband who brown bags it for lunch, a box is emptied in a day.  Yikes!  At two bucks a box, that adds up quickly.  And already know where this is going, don't you?  I turned the box around and read the ingredient list. There it was. Chock-ful of high fructose corn syrup, chemicals, even artificial colors. All the things we are trying to avoid.

What to do?  Make my own bars of course. I've been playing around with different recipes for the last couple of months and I have finally landed on an adaption of Smitten Kitchen's granola bars as a keeper.  These bars are thickly moist, packed with nutrition rich ingredients. The nutrition thing is good of course, but  better yet, these taste amazing. Not dry and dusty, not boring and flavorless, these are really great.

Thick, Chewy Granola Bars
This makes a pretty large batch. I easily get 20 bars out of one pan. If you need a smaller amount, make half a recipe. They do freeze well.
    This recipe is highly adaptable.  I have made more variations then I can count. And they just work.  It's hard to break this one.  For the fruit/nuts, I have tried(not in the same batch) walnuts, dried cranberries, coconut, raisins, dates, figs, puffed rice cereal, dried cherries & blueberries, snipped dried apricots, chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, pecans, almonds. I usually use  2 cups of nuts and then dried fruit. Whatever you have on hand will probably work.  I love the flexibility of a recipe like that.
      •  4 cups oats- old fashioned, quick or a combination
      • 1 cup brown sugar
      • 1 cup oat flour ( what is oat flour? I never have it, so I have swapped in ground flax seed, wheat or oat bran, wheat germ or whole wheat flour. They all work just fine)
      • 1 tsp salt
      • 1 tsp cinnamon
      • 5-6 cups dried fruits and nuts- use whatever you have on hand
      • 1 cup peanut butter or other nut butter (Hmmm. Do you think Nutella is a nut butter?  That is one variation I haven't tried yet.
      • 6 Tablespoons butter, melted
      • 6 Tablespoons applesauce (if you are out, use butter instead. Or oil. Or maybe yogurt.
      • 3/4 cup honey, maple syrup, corn syrup,or molasses.  If you choose to use molasses, I would use only use that for part of the 3/4 cup it calls for. To much molasses can really overpower.
      • 1egg
      • 1/4 cup water

      Preheat oven to 350.  Spray a 9X13 pan generously with pan spray.

      Stir together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In separate small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, applesauce, syrups, nut butter water and egg. Toss the wet into the dry and stir, stir, stir or until mixture is evenly crumbly.  Spread firmly into prepared pan and by this I mean really exert some force here.   Press the bars into the pan.  I usually lay a piece of waxed paper over the pan and press down hard on the back.

      Bake bars for 30-40 minutes -  until they are browned around the edges.  Now comes the hard part. Let these cool to room temp and then pop them into the fridge overnight. They smell incredible, so this will be hard! However, the bars will tend to be really crumbly if you try to cut them while still at all warm.  It's a wonder what a cooling off period will do.

      After the bars are chilled, use a thin sharp knife to cut them into squares.  Wrap each bar individually in plastic wrap. There you go! Easy, healthy, on-the-go kind of snack.  The perfect thing to get us through the next few weeks of soccer season.

      Thursday, May 5, 2011

      Perfect Guacamole or - What Lies Beneath

      Avocados, like people, have a rather deceiving appearance. Judge these little oddities by their protective cover- hard, black,  warty and you may turn up your nose.  Can there really be value worth discovering when a thing looks like that? They are not normal. Unusual. Don't quite fit in or have it all together. After all, do you see anything else running around the produce aisle in a get-up like this?  With an avocado, and with people,  finding out what is really there takes some time, some effort,  a willingness to set aside initial impressions. It takes believing that there is value, even treasure on the inside, in spite of first glance . Take the time to slow down, to get out of your comfort zone, look past the obvious. Be willing to dig a little deeper You might make a new friend, or else some really great guacamole.

      I wouldn't have touched an avocado with a 10 foot pole. But then, oh then, I met (later married) this guy who broadened my horizons. See, he had a tiny love affair with the things.  He had lived in the Caribbean for a couple of years with an avocado tree in his back yard and was convinced that a little avocado made just about anything better. He convinced me to see things his way and now I am a whole-hearted fan.  These little nutritional powerhouses pack a whallop of Vitamin K, potassium, protein and fiber, not to mention a good dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. We love to add a couple slices to a BLT sandwich or really - about any excuse to have them.

      Over the years I've tried and tried to make good guacamole. Some of those first attempts still make me shudder. Sour cream or Ranch dressing mixed in?  What was I thinking?! Finally,  I've come up with a hit. This  recipe has made guacamole lovers out of people who hated it before. Puddle of green goo squirted on the side of your plate at the chain Mexican joint? This is nothing like that. Fresh flavors exploding in your mouth? Yeah, this is more like that.

      The method takes a little effort. There is lots of chopping and dicing. But the end result is a bowl of fresh salsa and a bowl of guacamole. Who could say no to that?

      3-4 ripe avocados
      2 large tomatoes, seeded and small diced
      1 large sweet onion, small diced
      1 jalapeno pepper-seeds and membranes removed if you don't want heat
      1 bunch of fresh cilantro
      2 soft, juicy limes
      kosher salt - this is one time when regular table salt really won't do.
      It is hard to give accurate measurements for this recipe because there are many variable factors. Are your avocados big or small? How ripe are they?  How juicy are your limes?  This is a recipe that you have to judge as you go along.

      Here's what I do. Finely dice onion. Measure out a heaping one cup measure and pour into a bowl. Add about 2 1/2 half cups of finely diced & seeded tomatoes.  Stir it around. Add in 1/2 a jalapeno pepper. Depending on how much heat you like, add more or less. If you take out the seeds and membranes, jalapenos are not very hot. Grab a small handful of cilantro, about half a cup. Chop off stems. Don't  drive yourself crazy trying to get rid of every stem. Just cut off the first several inches of stems and discard. Finely chop the rest.

      Stir together tomatoes, onions, jalepenos and cilantro. Squeeze the juice of one lime over all. Add a generous teaspoon of kosher salt.  Taste!  Add more lime, cilantro or salt as needed.  Yummy!  You just made a delicious fresh salsa. Stop there, pull out the chips and enjoy, OR keep going and make guacamole.

      Grab avocados and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove pit and discard.Using a spoon, scoop out the soft, green flesh. Mash avocado with a fork, leaving it somewhat chunky. Puree is not what you are going for here.

      Now, this is what makes it good. Scoop in about a 3/4 cup of the fresh salsa. Stir. Squeeze in another lime. Add another 1/2 tsp salt. Taste and add more lime, cilantro or a  little more salt if needed.  Avocados really shine with a good dose of salt.  Give one final stir and serve with your favorite tortilla chips.  There now, wasn't a little effort worth it to find treasure?  Go...and look at people knowing there is treasure there.

      Wednesday, May 4, 2011

      Cinco De Mayo - just about


      I love Cinco De Mayo.  For the deeply thoughtful reason that it's a great excuse to make yummy Mexican food, and usually avocados are on sale for nice and cheap. So in honor of that, I am posting a string of Mexicanish-type recipes this week. Maybe in between times, I'll do some research and see exactly what it is that I am celebrating.

      Lime-Honey Marinated Chicken Fajitas
      Spring has been sprung here in SC for a good month or two now.  This is my favorite time of year to be outside. The weather is sunshiny, clear and warm with not a trace of our summer humidity.  Grilling dinner is perfect reason to step out of the kitchen and spend time outdoors.

      First of all, let me be perfectly honest here and admit that I have some issues when it comes to grilled chicken.  Really, I should just get over it and try to be normal. But there is nothing worse then enjoying the tantalizing fragrance of chicken on the grill, only to be disappointed by dried up, tasteless chicken breasts that have all the appeal of sawdust.  After much trial and error, here are my tips to keep sawdust from happening to you.
      • When grilling boneless, skinless chicken breasts, before anything else, puh-leeze take the time to pound the chicken to the same thickness.  In it's natural state, a chicken breast is much thicker at one end. If you cook the thick part until it is done, the thinner parts will be completely dried out. To pound chicken, place a single chicken breast in a heavy resealable plastic bag or between waxed paper. Find a can of soup, or a meat mallet, or a heavy skillet - whatever you have is fine  -  the idea is get some thing heavy. Now whack away on that chicken.  You'll see it start to spread out.  That thick part will get thinner.  Flip it over and do the other side.  This is a great time to let loose of all aggressions that you have been trying to suppress. Imagine the chicken is - well, I don't know.  Whatever/whoever you'd like to beat. Try to get the whole thing around 1/2 an inch thick. There! Not hard. You can also try slicing the chicken breast in half, technically known as butterflying, but be careful of your fingers. Or purchase chicken cutlets, which are already cut nice and thin.
      • Marinate your chicken breast. A little marinade will go a long way to impart delicious flavor and tenderness to your chicken.   5-6 hours of marinade time is a good target to aim for.  Less time and the chicken will not absorb much flavor. Let it go for overnight, and the chicken can start to get mushy and the marinade flavor too strong. Bone-in chicken is a different story and can hold up to a longer marinade.

      • Once your chicken is nice and thin, all soaked in a marinade bath, it's time to throw it on the grill. Turn grill on high. Let it get good and hot. Lay your chicken on it. Turn heat down to medium and leave it alone for about 4 minutes(if that). Flip the chicken over.  Let it cook for another 4-5 minutes. Juices should run clear when you cut into it with a sharp knife.  Cover and set the chicken aside for 5-10 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute instead of running all over the plate when you slice it.
      Uh - I sort of got carried away with the tips there didn't I? I'm kind of obsessive about this grilling thing.  If you are still reading after all that blathering, here is the recipe!

      2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast, pounded to an even thickness

      6 tablespoons vegetable oil
      Juice and zest of one lime
      1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
      3 Tablespoons honey
      4 cloves garlic, minced
      1 generous teaspoon cumin
      2 tsp kosher salt
      1/2 tsp black pepper

      1 large sweet onion
      2-3 medium bell peppers, a combination of red, green, yellow or orange
      vegetable oil
      salt and pepper

      8 flour tortillas, cilantro, diced tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole

      Method:  Pour oil, lime juice and zest, vinegar, honey, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper into large resealable bag. Stir and shake around until well combined.  Add chicken and turn, coating it in marinade. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours, turning now and then. 

      Core, seed and cut peppers into strips. Peel onion and cut into thick slices. Brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

      Heat grill to high heat. If you are really coordinated, you can lay veggies directly on the grate. I always manage to lose some down  the cracks, so I lay a sheet of aluminum foil over grate, splash on some extra oil to keep things from sticking and grill veggies on that. Grill veggies over high heat for about 10 minutes, turning once.When done, remove to a skillet and set aside.

      Remove meat from marinade. Place on hot grill.  Turn heat down to medium and cook, covered for about 4-5 minutes. Turn chicken over, baste with marinade and cook for another 4-5 minutes.  Discard remaining marinade.  Cover chicken and set aside for a few minutes while you set the table and chop lettuce. After chicken has rested for at least five minutes, slice thinly on the diagonal.  Combine with grilled onions and peppers in skillet. Turn heat on high, just for a minute or until everything is nice and hot.

      To assemble, pile sliced meat, onions and peppers into a flour tortilla. Add your favorite toppings and enjoy. Isn't May a great month?!