Sunday, October 19, 2014

Italian Butternut Squash & Tomato Soup

When I make soup with pumpkin, I usually gravitate to curry flavors. My favorite pumpkin soup recipe, for example, includes an apple, peanut butter, and plenty of curry. Although I live on a diet that is approximately 35% butternut squash during the fall, there are some things that I do not understand about the way that many like to cook with the king (or queen?) of fall produce. Number one on my list is sweet soups. Cinnamon, brown sugar, and maple syrup with butternut squash in soup form is just not very tasty, despite the sugar. There are so many recipes that really dull down the mellow squash flavor and play up sugar. Butternut has so much to offer the tastebuds on its own, especially if you roast it first to really bring out its full flavor. 

Fall is the best season of all to explore the farmer's market. I went yesterday and picked up some Jerusalem artichokes, butternut squash, eggplant, and purple sweet potatoes. I used the butternut squash to make this fantastic, Italian-inspired take on butternut squash soup. We took one little tag-along with us to the farmer's market and she rested from her big adventure while the soup was simmering away. 

In this soup, I broke tradition for myself (it's curry-free), and for those of you who may be used to bland, thin butternut squash soups that contain tons of butter and heavy cream. I love butter and heavy cream much more than as much as the next girl, but keep all of that away from my squash! Nobody puts butternut in a corner, not even you, butter. 

The flavors in this soup are more robust, Italian-inspired, and acidic (although the soup still maintains that creamy goodness that butternut does so well). I used tomatoes, Italian-inspired spices like thyme and oregano, and a good dollop of pesto to form the major flavor components. I don't think that the flavors are overpowering or "bold" by any means, and I think that the butternut squash is still on center stage, which is right where it belongs. 

Italian Butternut Squash & Tomato Soup
Yields ~8 servings

You will need:
  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 1 leek, thoroughly washed
  • 1 tbsp. garlic
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil, plus a little bit more
  • 28 ounces whole tomatoes 
  • 1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock (low sodium)
  • 1/2 tsp. each oregano, parsley, salt, and pepper
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne (adjust to taste)
  • 1 can evaporated milk or coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup prepared pesto
  • Preheat the oven to 400. Cut unpeeled butternut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and stringy bits from the bulbs. Drizzle slightly with olive oil. Place face-down (i.e. mounded, unpeeled side up) on a baking sheet. Cook for 35-40 minutes, then let cool for another 15 minutes. Discard skins. 
  • Start to cook the rest of the soup in the 15 minutes that the squash takes to cool, 
  • Heat the garlic in olive oil on medium in a large pot. 
  • Prepare the leek by washing thoroughly. Discard green leafy pieces. Thinly slice the white-light green "stalk" of the leek into small pieces. Add leeks to pot. Cook for about 8 minutes, until leeks have cooked down and are mainly clear. 
  • Once the butternut squash is cool and skins are removed, scoop out the center into the pot. Add tomatoes, spices and chicken stock. 
  • Cook for 20 minutes on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. 
  • Add in pesto and evaporated milk or coconut milk. Cook for approximately 10 more minutes, until evenly heated. 
  • Use a hand-held immersion blender (or transfer in batches to a food processor) to puree the soup to your liking. Serve hot, with an extra drizzle of pesto, if desired. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Shepherd's Pie with Pork and Sweet Potato

It's chilly, it's fall, and it's time to pull out the comfort food dishes! I have always loved British comfort food recipes and one of my absolute favorites is shepherd's pie. 

I left most of the key components the same: it's still a ground meat base topped with a layer of English peas and sweet potatoes. However, I changed the traditional recipe a bit by making a few easy switches that I think amplified the flavor tremendously. First, I swapped the traditional potatoes for sweet potatoes. The mashed sweet potato topping has a bit of tangy chevre crumbled in, which adds to the rich texture. Second, I used ground pork instead of lamb or beef. We had a pound of ground pork from the farmer's market that I had been intending to use in dumplings or meatballs. But when the rain started pouring and we had our first freezing (read: 50 degree) weather, I knew I needed to make something far more comforting than Chinese food. 

I know it isn't the most photogenic dinner on the planet, but it's a delicious, if humble, little mound of flavor: 

The dish served six, but we ate almost half of it between the two of us for dinner. No side dishes, no appetizers, no desserts. Just a few servings each of this, served steaming hot. Husband, who gets a lot of grief from me for refusing almost all leftovers, woke up the next morning and after telling me how pretty and sweet and wonderful I am asked me if he could have the rest of the leftovers for breakfast. Romance is still alive and well in Bentonville, folks. 

Shepherd's Pie with Pork and Sweet Potato
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe
Serves 6

For the shepherd's pie, you will need:
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3/4 cup leeks, finely chopped
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • Red pepper, to taste
  • 3 tsp. flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp. diced tomatoes 
  • 1 can English peas, drained
For the mashed sweet potatoes, you will need:
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup chevre
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1/2 cup grated sharp white cheddar (optional)
  • Boil sweet potatoes in water with a bit of salt for about 10-12 minutes, until cooked. Transfer the cooked potatoes to a large bowl. 
  • While potatoes are cooking, place olive oil, onions, carrot, garlic, and leeks in a large pot. Heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, until vegetables have softened. 
  • Add meat and seasonings. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, breaking up any clumps of meat with a wooden spoon. 
  • Once meat has browned, stir in flour, Worcestershire sauce, chicken broth, and tomatoes. Continue to cook, stirring constantly for 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off heat. 
  • Transfer meat mixture to the bottom of a 9x9 baking dish. Evenly distribute. Top with peas. 
  • To finish the mashed sweet potatoes, mix in butter, milk, cheese, salt, pepper, and thyme. Mash until thoroughly combined. Spread the mashed potatoes on top of the meat and pea mixture. Scatter grated cheese on top, if desired. 
  • Bake, covered, at 350 for 30 minutes. Remove aluminum foil for the last 5 minutes. 
  • Let cool for at least 10 minutes prior to serving. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Circus Animal Truffles!

I volunteered (well, technically, I was asked to volunteer) to bring a few baked goods to a work bake sale for charity. I turned to a couple of old standby favorites: cookie-based truffles. I love these creamy, crunchy, simple, chocolate-covered delights. I've shared recipes before for three variations of cake batter truffles (Oreo, funfetti, and chocolate chip cookie dough). I adapted the Oreo version to half Oreo cookies and half Girl Scout thin mint cookies (yes, I still had a box in my freezer - I realize I could have sold that on eBay for millions at least twice what I paid for it). 

I got a little creative with my second contribution to the bake sale: these circus animal cookie truffles. Remember those pink and white frosted shortbread cookies? Remember when we were told that animal crackers were a relatively healthy choice, compared to other cookies? Remember when they made animal crackers out of shortbread, then covered them in chocolate (pink chocolate, no less) and took away anything remotely redeeming about the animal cracker? I do. Yes, I do. 

My bake sale volunteerism follows a predictable pattern: 
  1. Agree to / sign up to bring something.
  2. Never, ever specify what that "something" will be (much to the chagrin of bake sale organizers everywhere).  
  3. Set reminder in my phone to alert me three days before the bake sale. Set second alarm to remind me one before the bake sale. 
  4. Ignore first reminder with a swift swipe of the thumb. 
  5. Completely forget about bake sale in just a few hours. 
  6. Receive second reminder. Suddenly remember bake sale. Panic. Rush to convenience store (I can't stand big grocery stores). Grab whatever random baking ingredients I can find. Come home and play a game I like to call "Iron Chef: Bake Sale Edition". Spend more time trying to figure out how I can incorporate the random ingredients I purchased into something bake sale-able than I would have spent going to a normal grocery store with a standard list of groceries. 
  7. Decide on a recipe that takes significantly longer than the remaining few hours I have to devote to bake sale. 
  8. Set alarm for four am. Wake up before alarm due to stress about failing to perform my bake sale duties. 
  9. Passive aggressively bake. Donate baked goods. Vow to never repeat this vicious cycle.
  10. Repeat bake sale cycle. 

These cookies, as you may be able to surmise, were based on my excitement at seeing circus animal cookies on the shelf of my favorite miniature-format grocery store. My sleep-deprived brain grabbed two packages of cookies during my 3 am grocery run, as well as two tins of evaporated milk (?), a box of cereal that I don't eat and that isn't really suitable for baking (?), and a gallon of iced tea (?). So I was left pretty much where I started the day, just with the addition of circus animal cookies. Did I stop there and make chocolate chip cookies like a normal person? Nope. I made this delicious little recipe that I think turned out delicious and adorable (read: pink, with sprinkles). 

Circus Animal Truffles
Makes ~4 dozen truffles
Adapted from Six Sisters Stuff

You will need:
  • 24 ounces (2 packages) frosted animal cracker shortbread cookies
  • 8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 8 squares white chocolate almond bark
  • Rainbow sprinkles (optional)
  • Crush animal cracker cookies in a food processor (or, if you're really redneck, use a hammer) until they are small crumbs. 
  • Mix cream cheese, vanilla, and animal cracker crumbs on medium speed for about five minutes, until mixture is evenly incorporated. 
  • Stir in graham cracker crumbs gradually based on texture preference of the truffles (I don't like mine too creamy). Start with a couple of tablespoons at a time. If the mixture is too creamy, use the full 1/2 cup of graham cracker crumbs. 
  • With clean hands, roll the dough into balls about one inch in size. Place on a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat with remainder of dough, leaving a little bit of space between each truffle. 
  • Transfer baking sheet to refrigerator and chill for at least on hour. 
  • When ready to make the truffles, melt white chocolate almond bark in a microwave-safe bowl according to package directions (do not overheat and stir as frequently as instructed - do not skip this step). 
  • Use two forks to roll truffles in white chocolate. Transfer truffles back to parchment-covered baking sheet to set. Top with sprinkles if desired. 
  • Let truffles set for about 15 minutes, until white chocolate bark has hardened. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Baked Avocado, Corn, and Feta Wontons

These oven-baked wontons are rich in flavor and so much lower in fat than the deep-fried versions that we know and love. I'm going to take credit for making a healthy recipe as an alternative to all of that indulgent tailgate food. My recipes always stress healthy eating, especially on gameday. Oops. 

Now that I've officially taken credit, the real reason that these wontons are baked instead of fried is that I just hate hovering over the stove with hot grease splattering on my clothes. Yes - I was driven to choose a healthy alternative because I didn't want to show up at the family watch party smelling like oil, nor did I want my gameday outfit to be ruined. 

The result, though, is delicious whether or not the dish is bursting at the seams with calories. This was a bit of an "aha moment" for me; I didn't realize that wontons taste roughly the same baked as fried. And as you may be able to discern from the tone of this post, I clearly have a general preference of "fried" over "baked." I also can't stand it when recipes swap all of the components of the original and then claim it "tastes just the same as..." No. Your applesauce- and date- sweetened, butter- and oil-free, gluten free, paleo chocolate chip cookies taste nothing like a chocolate chip cookie. 

The flavors in this dish are slightly southwestern. I made a quick guacamole by mashing fresh avocado and stirring in onion, lime juice, garlic salt, cilantro, and jalapeno. For the corn component, I used a store-bought spicy corn relish. The relish is vinegar-based and slightly sweet, dotted with bits of bell peppers. The guacamole and the corn relish play well together; since making this recipe, I've actually started adding just a bit of the corn relish to my homemade guacamole. The bit of feta cheese scattered into the wonton was a wild card thrown in by Husband at almost the end of cooking. I like the addition of the tangy, creamy cheese and was surprised that I hadn't thought of the idea on my own

I suggest serving with a dip. I made a quick creamy salsa by combining equal parts store-bought salsa with sour cream. I also added 1 to 2 tablespoons of ranch mix. I thought that the simple, creamy flavor of the dip contrasts will with the crunchy wontons without overpowering over the flavor. 

Baked Avocado, Corn, and Feta Wontons
Yields ~ 36 wontons

You will need:
  • 1 package wonton wrappers 
  • 2 large avocados, ripe but slightly firm
  • 2/3 cup spicy corn relish
  • 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2 tbsp. cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1-2 tbsp. finely chopped jalapeno (adjust to spice preference)
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped onion
  • 1 tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 egg white
  • Preheat oven to 400. Spray or lightly grease a baking sheet. 
  • Beat egg white in a small bowl gently (about 1 minute). Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, mash avocado until mostly smooth (a few chunkier bits are fine). Stir in jalapeno, cilantro, garlic salt, onion, and lime juice. 
  • Add corn relish and feta. Evenly mix. 
  • Add about one tablespoon of the avocado mixture to each wonton wrapper. Lightly apply egg whites around the edges of the wrapper. Fold one edge to the opposite side to create a triangle. Press down on all corners to seal. Place wontons on baking sheet. Repeat. 
  • Lightly brush the tops of all wontons with any remaining egg white. 
  • Bake at 400 for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot.
Note that the wontons are best enjoyed right after cooking. They don't make very good leftovers. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

{Crock Pot} Butter Chicken

I like to take pride in the motto that I can "sleep when I'm dead." Although it may not be the most sustainable mantra (as I plan to remain not-dead for a significantly long time), it's been my operating model these last few months. 

Lately I have been so busy that I lack the energy to order and pick up takeout after work. How terrible is that? I've put off pretty much every chore and errand until the last possible minute. Example: poor Mops has gone about two months since her last trim - and this girl needs all the help she can get in the beauty (relative beauty) department. Mops, as "nature" intended: 

I promise, I'll get that lady-beard trimmed. Within the quarter. Pictured behind my mini-lion are the remains (RIP) of a stuffed duck I bought for Ketch to cheer him up after our last foster was adopted. I didn't even bother to pick up the debris after Ketch's brutal assault on that toy. 

I know, I'm pathetic. But that pathetic-ness brought me to today's recipe, so it's all worth it. For all of us except Mops and her hipster mustache. For those days when I know I'm not going to slowly shuffle my feet elegantly waltz into the kitchen and throw together something as fabulous as the ridiculously uncomfortable heels I've been wearing all day, there's the slow cooker. 

I could live on butter chicken. Or, at least, enjoy it weekly. I love the creamy, tomato-based sauce laced with curry and garam masala. I consider this to be a slightly lightened up version, with Greek yogurt in place of the heavy cream. I also just love serving mine on a bed of quinoa (instead of rice) with chopped cilantro. This dish takes no work whatsoever - give yourself an extra fifteen minutes in the morning, then come home to a simmering pot of Indian-inspired goodness. You can use the time you are saving on cooking dinner to do chores, or feel free to come over and do some of mine!

{Crock Pot} Butter Chicken
Serves 4

You will need:
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2/3 onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. freshly-grated ginger
  • 1 tbsp. yellow curry powder
  • 2 tbsp. curry paste
  • 3 tbsp. garam masala
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 6 ounces tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. lime juice
  • 14 ounces coconut milk (1 can)
  • 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • dash each salt and pepper
  • Cilantro (to serve, optional)
  • Chop chicken into bite-sized pieces. 
  • Add all ingredients to crock pot. 
  • Cook on low for four to five hours or on high for six to eight hours. 
  • Serve on quinoa or basmati rice with cilantro (if desired). 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tzatziki Sauce and a Greek-Style Grill Feast

I absolutely love tailgating. I love planning the menu, inviting friends, and setting up a stunning table. It's like taking a dinner party on the road, but you can skip anything remotely healthy and just graze on appetizers. What's not to love? 

Well, the only thing "not to love" is the prep work. It takes a few days of planning and prepping to execute a seamless tailgate. I do all of the chopping, slicing, marinating, etc., at home so that when it's gameday, any grilling that we do or things that we heat up are as assembly-free as possible. 

We opted to skip the first home game of the season this year, with mixed emotions. Although I love the gameday atmosphere, we had been asked to bring a new foster home with us. And since her name was "Karma," we couldn't really decline the offer, could we? 

When we bring a new pup home, we try to clear our schedules for a couple of days so we can get to know the new dog and make sure the dynamics are good with our other dogs (i.e. make sure Mops doesn't terrify the new foster too much). By the way, she and Ketch fell in love immediately. As usual. 

Since we were skipping our usual over-the-top tailgate, I felt like making some extra delicious food for us while we watched the game at home (despite Husband's gentle, but persistent request to just order a pizza). I handled the grill like a pro (once Husband lit it and cleaned it for me, of course) and put together quite the spread for the two of us. 

I used a Greek-style rub, a few drizzles of olive oil, and red wine vinegar on the grilled chicken. I served the grilled chicken with tons of veggies: zucchini, sweet potato, eggplant, and avocado. If you haven't grilled sweet potato or avocado before, you're in for quite a treat. They're divine. 

For the veggies, I used the same Greek seasoning blend that I did on the chicken. I also used a splash of lemon juice and a bit of red wine vinegar. The sweet potatoes got some special attention: a drizzle of honey and a dash of cayenne pepper. They grill for slightly longer than the rest of the vegetables. 

I served the grilled goodness on a platter with tzatziki sauce so we could sample everything. I also did grilled chicken wraps in lettuce with grilled zucchini and used the tzatziki sauce as a dip. Husband went right after that sauce with pita chips - he absolutely loved the flavor. I used some of the tzatziki as a salad dressing and had a big salad with the rest of the grilled veggies. I also used an Arkansas-shaped cutting board, so it was totally tailgate-appropriate. 

So many ways to enjoy this sauce - and we didn't even have to leave the house to call those hogs! 

Tzatziki Sauce and a Greek-Style Grill Feast
Makes ~2/5 cups

You will need:
  • 1 pint non-fat, plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 medium cucumber, seeded and finely chopped (peel if desired)
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 6 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • Dash each salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp. fresh dill, minced
  • 1/3 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

  • Combine all ingredients in a large bowl with a spoon. Don't over-mix. 
  • Serve chilled. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Soft Rosemary & Asiago Polenta

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. I was given free product to sample and to develop a recipe from Asiago Cheese Consortium. All opinions are my own. 

The inspiration for this recipe is from an amazing dinner that I had at Vetro 1925. This is one of our favorite restaurants in Fayetteville. I had the lamb, with herbed polenta and asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. Amazing. 

I made my version of the polenta using two cuts of Asiago. I shredded a cup of authentic, fresh Asiago PDO and also cut another 1/2 cup of the same divine cheese into different-sized morsels. I wanted to make sure that plenty of cheese melted into the polenta, so that every bite had that savory, cheesy goodness. I also wanted to ensure that there would be plenty of chunks of Asiago within the dish. I love those hidden morsels of cheese that just burst when you take a bite. 

If you haven't cooked with real Asiago before, you're in for a treat. The Italian cheese (from the Asiago plateau) is made with cow's milk, which provides a sweet and slightly sour flavor. Real Asiago bears the mark "PDO", which means that it's made in a tradition that goes back a thousand years - make sure that you use the "real stuff". The flavor and quality are unbeatable. 

The polenta was so divine that I woke up craving it the next day. I made a quick baked egg breakfast by cracking an egg on top of a bed of polenta, roasted tomatoes, and - again - a bit more marinara (and perhaps just a few extra pieces of crumbled bacon). I baked for 30 minutes at 275 and sprinkled some Parmesan on top. Delicious. 

Soft Rosemary & Asiago Polenta
Serves 4-6

You will need:
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp. fresh rosemary
  • 1 cup freshly-grated Asiago cheese
  • 1/2 cup Asiago, sliced into chunks or coarsely diced
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil

  • Add chicken stock and garlic to a medium-sized pot. Cook on medium-high heat until the stock begins to boil. 
  • Reduce heat to low-medium and add cornmeal, stirring constantly. Break up any lumps that appear. 
  • Add salt, pepper, and fresh parsley. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the mixture has thickened. 
  • Remove from heat and stir in milk, butter, olive oil, and Asiago. 
  • Serve hot.