Friday, May 1, 2015

Mexican Fiesta Shower

We co-hosted a couple's stock the bar shower this weekend for a couple of friends who would have been elated had we just opened a bag of tortilla chips and unscrewed a jar of salsa. They are very easy to please, which made pleasing them just that much more fun.

This should really be the last party-related post shared here or anywhere else. I've found the definitive answer to every host trying to determine what theme to use for a shower or party. You can de-activate your Pinterest boards. 

The answer: Mexican Fiesta.

From the inexpensive decorations to the delicious food and plentiful libation options, the theme was easily pulled together and provided a relaxing backdrop for a fantastic shower. 

First: the decor. 

We had two pinatas, one each for the bride and groom, which we filled with things that they like (flower seeds for the bride and little plastic bottles of Fireball for the groom). No one really outgrows pinatas, do they? 

The co-hostess has amazing handwriting. How adorable is this "fiesta like there's no manana" chalkboard? And the mini pinatas. I mean, come on. 

There are hundreds of inexpensive touches available online. I am a big fan of Amazon Prime, where I found these mini maracas. 

Yes, those are luchador masks covering the water decanters. 

And the co-hostess found a sombrero with a veil for the bride to wear, plus more papel picado banners to attach to the outdoor lighting. 

Second, the food. A Mexican shower is great because you can decide how much you want to do yourself and how much you want to "outsource." 

We are lucky to live in an area with tons of Mexican grocery stores that sell pre-marinated meats ready to throw on the grill (and they taste infinitely less sugary and chemical-filled than the marinated meats you can buy at the chain grocery stores). We also have plenty of Mexican restaurants that serve a wide variety of salsas, quesos, and dips. We picked up several different kinds of salsas and made a few of our own. 

From the store/restaurant: marinated steak, freshly-made tortillas (heavenly!), three kinds of queso, jalapeno ranch, and a few salsas. 

Homemade: pork, guacamole, mojitos, elote dip, quinoa salad with roasted butternut and zucchini, salsa, chimichurri, and tres leches cupcakes. 

A few of my contributions were from recipes that I have already posted. I made my Chimichurri, which we served as a tangy topping for the steak. I also made my Mexican corn dip, but this time I turned up the flavor by grilling the jalapenos and corn the day before the party.

Husband smoked pork overnight before the party and pulled it for street-style tacos. Right before serving he and other host crisped it slightly on the grill. Perfection. 

I made tres leches cupcakes using Taste of Home's recipe. The only modification that I made was folding in 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon into the batter and adding extra vanilla. 

As you can see, we had a great time putting the details into this party and our friends were ecstatic. Let me know if you ever need to borrow a sarape!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pimento Cheese

Every so often I get a taste of something that captivates my taste buds beyond redemption. Infatuation. Obsession. All-consuming passion. This weekend, I fell under the spell of pimento cheese. I was served a pimento cheese appetizer with house-made bread and butter pickles at a rehearsal dinner on Friday night and ate not only my portion, but Husband's, and quite possible my tablemates' as well. 

I thought I was pretty sneaky, grabbing a bit here off of Husband's plate as he carried on normal conversation. But I was quickly noticed, and the table was made aware of my...pining. Public shaming over appetizers at a rehearsal dinner. New low? 

I've had pimento cheese on plenty of occasions, but the flavor hit me just so this time and I suddenly couldn't think of anything else I've ever cared about other than salty, smooth, rich pimento. 

After returning home on Sunday, I started jotting down notes for me to use when developing my own perfect pimento cheese. Re-reading my handwritten notes (which include rhetorical (?) questions like "Jalapeno?? WHAT? Mustard?!"), I have to admit that I've sounded like less of a crazy person. The finished product, pictured below, was so very worth the effort:

Good pimento cheese relies on the perfect balance of spice and cheese. The heat in this recipe was achieved with the most finely-minced jalapeno bits I've ever produced, plus cayenne pepper and hot sauce. Pro tip: always, always grate your cheddar off the block for pimento - don't buy shredded cheese. It just doesn't mix properly. 

Pimento cheese serving ideas:
  • Spread pimento on white bread and top with thick tomato slices and hot bacon for a sandwich.
  • Replace all or some of the cheese called for in macaroni and cheese or potatoes au gratin with pimento. 
  • Serve as a spread with crudites (celery, mini bell pepper, carrot sticks, radishes, etc.). 
  • Use in a hot dip with spicy Rotel tomatoes and ground beef. Bake until bubbling hot and serve with tortilla chips. 
  • Grilled pimento cheese sandwiches. 
  • Spread generously on top of a burger. 

Any bets on how long it will be before I eat myself sick and never, ever want to see pimento cheese again? 

Pimento Cheese
Yields ~1 1/2 cups

You will need:
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley (or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 4 tablespoons pimentos
  • 1/2 jalapeno
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped 
  • Dash hot sauce (to taste, optional)

  • Combine cream cheese, grated sharp cheddar, and mayonnaise in a medium mixing bowl on medium speed until the consistency is even. Add spices and continue to mix. 
  • Finely chop pimentos and add to the bowl. 
  • Remove the seeds of the jalapeno and finely mince, then stir into the cream cheese mixture. 
  • Add lemon juice and hot sauce (if using) and mix for a couple more minutes, until the consistency is even and the pimentos have broken down somewhat (the mixture will be slightly orange). 
  • Scatter toasted nuts on top of the pimento cheese immediately prior to serving. 
  • The dish can be stored in the refrigerator for two months in an airtight container. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Avocado Chimichurri


Christmas may be heralded as the most wonderful time of the year, but I think that's pretty unfair to spring. Oh spring. I'm so glad you've arrived. The sun is still up when I get home and we have a couple of hours of daylight left to grill on the patio and catch up, sans television background. 

To stave off the unhealthy snacking cravings (intensified by the smell emanating from the grill), I recommend serving a round of avocado chimichurri as an appetizer. 

You start with fresh green things, including limes, cilantro, parsley, jalapeno, and green onions. 

You add a few more things, then you puree until smooth and toss with chopped avocado. That's it. The whole process, start to finish, takes no more than 10 minutes. You can use a food processor or blender to make a perfectly smooth flavor. I make this with my immersion blender to achieve a coarse consistency (I like finding a few leafy bits here and there). 

Chimichurri is a versatile sauce. You can use it as a marinade (especially fantastic with steak), as a topping (throw some on grilled zucchini and tell me your life isn't better), or as an appetizer and salad dressing, as I've done here. 

You can use these tasting spoons for aesthetic purposes, or to micromanage make sure no one has more than his or her fair share. 

Or if you're the trusting type, a small plate works just as well. 

But I prefer spoons. And keenly observing my dining companions. This dish verges on too delicious to share. 

I recommend serving the chimichurri with about half of a ripe avocado per person. I use about three avocados when I make the full batch. 

As a salad addict (an addiction that complements my other favorites - cookie dough and wine), I love to add baby kale, chopped cherry tomatoes, and chevre to a bowl of avocado chimichurri.  

The chimichurri flavors intensify overnight (do not add avocado until immediately prior to serving). This is a great dish to make the day before, refrigerate, and enjoy the next day. You can adjust the heat somewhat by removing or keeping the jalapeno seeds. 

Avocado Chimichurri
Yields ~ 1 1/2 cups

You will need:
  • 1 bunch parsley (~1/2 cup, when chopped)
  • 1 bunch cilantro (~1/2 cup, when chopped)
  • 1 jalapeno, chopped
  • 3 green onions
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
  • Juice of 2 fresh limes
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 avocado per person (use 3 avocados for the entire batch)
  • Coarsely chop parsley, cilantro, green onions, and garlic.
  •  Puree all ingredients (except avocado) in a food processor to desired consistency. 
    • I use an immersion blender because I prefer a coarse texture. 
  • Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve. The flavor becomes more intense on the second day. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lemon Madeleines with Clementine Glaze

I generally shy away from foods that require their own cooking vessels. My life kitchen is sufficiently cluttered without single-purpose utensils, dishes, and molds, thank you very much. A happy exception to this rule is the madeleine mold. 

Madeleines are simple, slightly-sweet French butter cakes. They require few ingredients, rarely "flop", and are one of the rare pastries that tastes better the next day. Plus, they look and sound so chic, don't they?

Why yes, I am the fancy girl who brought homemade madeleines. Oh, you brought cookies? How very common. 

I should probably go ahead and drop this link to Marcel Proust's madeleine reference right here, just in case madeleines aren't pretentious enough. 

My madeleine recipe adds a subtle hint of citrus (lemon extract and lemon zest) to the batter. I also topped the madeleines with a clementine glaze for a sweet, tangy topping. 

It's probably very American of me to add a sugary glaze to a simple French treat, but such is life. I'd add a witty French phrase here, but I don't know of any other than the one that Patti LaBelle taught me. So, how about another picture:

Lemon Madeleines with Clementine Glaze
Yields 12 madeleines

For the madeleines, you will need:

  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cup flour, plus extra for madeleine molds
  • 10 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra for madeleine molds
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
Madeleine method:
  • Preheat oven to 375F. 
  • Grease 12 madeleine molds with butter generously. Dust with flour and set molds aside. 
  • In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, vanilla extract, lemon extract, and salt on high speed for approximately four minutes (until the texture is light and airy). 
  • Gradually incorporate sugar, mixing on high speed for five minutes. 
  • Reduce mixer speed (or use a wooden spoon) and gently fold in flour, then stir in butter and lemon zest. 
  • Spoon batter into the madeleine molds and bake for 12-14 minutes, until madeleines are golden and slightly browned on the edges. 
  • Remove madeleines from oven and let cool, then drizzle with clementine glaze (if desired) and let set for 15 minutes before eating. 
For the clementine glaze, you will need:
  • 1 clementine, juice and zest (remove seeds)
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar
Clementine glaze method:
  • Whisk together clementine juice and powdered sugar until no lumps remain. 
  • Stir in clementine zest. 
Store madeleines in an air-tight container for up to a week. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sweet Potatoes: A Love Story

If you follow The Sparkle Kitchen on Instagram, you may have seen me post a picture or twenty of meals that involve sweet potatoes substituted for all things carb (sandwiches, tortillas, tortilla chips, etc.). I wanted to pull together a post that highlights different ways that I've made my lunch or dinner a bit healthier by using a sweet potato base. 

Why the sweet potato? The answer for me is that they're delicious. Plus, it's the easiest way that I've come across to avoid preparing two meals for dinner for a Husband who craves comfort food and a wife who prefers kale and quinoa. But I can sell the sweet potato for many other reasons. 

Sweet potato perks:

  • Sweet potatoes are both inexpensive and have a very long shelf life when stored in a dark, dry place (especially compared to the shelf life of a pack of rolls or a loaf of bread). 
  • According to the USDA Nutrient Database, a medium sweet potato has 162 calories, over 100% of the daily recommended Vitamin A, and six grams of fiber. 
  • Portion control: you're pretty well limited to the size of the sweet potato (except for my sweet potato French dip bowl pictured below), so it's easy to keep indulgent ingredients to a level that won't make you feel guilty (see my Mexican queso sweet potatoes below with no more than two tablespoons of queso - that would never work with tortilla chips!). 
  • Sweet potatoes are also rich in beta carotene, Vitamin C, potassium, and Vitamin B-6. 
  • They're easy for a work-week lunch without worrying about your sandwich being squashed in the back of the communal fridge. 
  • Sweet potatoes are versatile (microwave, bake, fry, grill, steam, or roast) and need minimal "work" to enjoy (I've been known to simply microwave and drizzle olive oil over a sweet potato, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, when I'm pressed for time or want a no-fuss meal). 
Sold? Good. Now for the ideas!

French dip sweet potato bowls Husband was craving for a French dip last week, so I made Rachael Ray's recipe (plus sauteed mushrooms ,thin-sliced Provolone, and parsley) for a "his and hers" dinner. He got to enjoy the classic French dip:

And I had mine in a sweet potato (bonus: my serving was significantly larger than Husband's!). 

To make my sweet potato French dip bowl, I microwaved the sweet potato until softened, then cut it into large chunks and placed in the bottom of a bowl. I added the au jus first, then placed a slice of Provolone on top and returned to the microwave for just a few seconds to melt the cheese before topping with beef, mushrooms, and parsley. 

Pulled pork stuffed sweet potatoes
We received a smoker for Christmas and have been feasting on ridiculous quantities of smoked meats ever since. I've been pulling in the sweet potato to avoid developing gout keep flavor interesting and meals somewhat healthy. 

Here's my Husband's amazing pulled pork (seriously, he's become a pro at the helm of the smoker) the way that he enjoys it best: 

And here's my dinner on the same night: 

Mexican-style sweet potatoes
In addition to sandwiches, I have substituted sweet potatoes in place of tortillas or tortilla chips when a Mexican craving strikes. And Mexican cravings strike often in the Sparkle household. Sweet potatoes pair exceptionally well with spicy flavors (in my opinion), downgrading the heat level of the hottest salsa to "tolerable". 

Below: sweet potato with guacamole, salsa, and refried beans. 

The sweet potato below may be my favorite of the bunch. I had leftovers from dinner at Chuy's and resisted the urge to eat all of the takeout in one sitting with a delicious sweet potato dinner. Now this is one of my go-to ways to enjoy Mexican food without overdoing it!

Below: sweet potato with Chuy's jalapeno ranch, leftover queso, salsa, and fresh avocado.

Other sweet potato-based recipes you may enjoy, if I've made a fanatic out of you:

What are some of your favorite sweet potato ideas? 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Roasted Cauliflower, Butternut, and Chickpeas in a Tangy Tahini Vinaigrette

When I have a good recipe on my hands, I make it repeatedly until I either run out of ingredients and get over the craving.I can incorporate the same leftovers into three meals a day and not feel bored at all. That's the story of this little recipe for roasted cauliflower, butternut squash, and chickpeas in a tangy tahini vinaigrette. 

I've only officially served this dish twice: on Valentine's Day with rack of lamb, and for lunch with my sister. But I'm not going to admit how many times I've made it for a quick weeknight dinner (hint: more than twice) or even a savory breakfast quinoa bowl (or two). 

I used just cauliflower in the version that I served my sister (pictured at the top of the post). I also used half parsley and half cilantro in the vinaigrette and added a bit of fresh basil. I happened to have all three on hand and I have no restraint to speak of when it comes to fresh herbs, so in they all went to the food processor. Although I am a huge fan of cilantro, I may actually prefer the vinaigrette with just parsley. 

On Valentine's Day, I incorporated butternut squash and chickpeas into the vegetable assortment. Because they're two of my favorite things to roast. That seems like as good a reason as any. I served the dish on the side of the lamb with a mustard-red wine sauce and soft Italian polenta. 

Sidenote: I modified Food & Wine's recipe for the rack of lamb (I used red wine instead of white and doubled the whole-grain mustard) and Emeril Lagasse's recipe for creamy polenta (I added bacon, corn, garlic powder, and chive and herb cream cheese). 

The chickpeas become slightly crispy when roasted at 425 Fahrenheit for 25 minutes. I think that crunchy chickpeas are divine, but if you don't agree, you may add them halfway through the roasting process to keep their soft consistency. I think that this dish would also be great with roasted carrots and beets. 

I've kept a jar of this vinaigrette in the refrigerator since whipping up my first batch. I have been pouring it on absolutely everything. Pictured below: a quinoa bowl I made with sauteed broccoli, summer squash, baby kale, leftover smoked pork, and (you guessed it) tahini vinaigrette. 

In addition to the daily occasional quinoa bowl, I've been pouring the stuff on salads as a dressing and dipping celery and carrot sticks into it as an appetizer. I've also been drizzling a good tablespoon or two of the vinaigrette on top of baked sweet potatoes and topping with fresh avocado for a quick and healthy lunch. The tahini flavor adds a great nutty depth and creaminess to a light dressing flavor. The dressing is thick and is great as a spread on sandwiches, too. Really, what can't this vinaigrette do? 

As I said at the start of this post: I can live on the same recipe or dish until everyone else completely hates it. I think I'll re-brand this characteristic as evidence of my dedication to the pursuit of recipe perfection. How very noble of me. 

Roasted Cauliflower, Butternut, and Chickpeas in a Tangy Tahini Vinaigrette 
Serves 2 as a main course / 4 as a side dish

For the roasted vegetables, you will need:
  • 2 cups butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded, and cubed
  • One 16 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon garlic
  • Salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
For the tangy tahini vinaigrette, you will need:
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tahini
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon light agave nectar
  • Dash cayenne
  • Optional: 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, 10 basil leaves
  • Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit. 
  • Remove the majority of the stems from the cauliflower. Chop into thin slices and chunks; no need for uniformity. 
  • In a large bowl, toss together cubed butternut squash, chickpeas, and chopped cauliflower. Pour in olive oil, garlic, and spices. 
  • Toss to combine, then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. 
  • Bake for 25 minutes, until cauliflower is golden brown. 
  • Meanwhile, prepare the tahini vinaigrette. 
  • Coarsely chop parsley, discarding stems. Add parsley and remaining ingredients to the bowl of a food processor (or blender) and puree until smooth and light green in consistency. Add additional olive oil if needed. 
  • Transfer roasted vegetables to a large bowl and toss with tahini vinaigrette. Serve warm. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2 Quick Ideas Featuring Nicoletta Foods' Blueberry Jam

Disclaimer: I was given free product to review for Nicoletta Foods. All opinions are my own. 

Nicoletta Foods is a new small business based in Maryland that makes all-natural jams and marmalade using family recipes. The proprietors sent me a jar of their blueberry jam, and I have been savoring it ever since! The jam tastes fresh and fruity, less sugary than the mass-produced jams available at the grocery store. Some jams taste like pure sugar, with the tiniest note of artificial fruit flavoring. This is not such a jam. The jam features bits of fresh blueberries and a slightly tangy flavor. The website says that the company has been told that the blueberry jam tastes just like summer, and I agree. 

This will definitely be a pantry staple for me from here on out, and you'll probably feel the same way once you try it. Truth be told: I have probably eaten a good quarter of the jam straight out of the jar. It's very, very good. After staging my own self-imposed intervention, I decided to use the rest of the jam in two easy recipes that I could share with you all. 

First, I made a blueberry whipped butter with orange zest. 

The name of the recipe includes all of the ingredients in this one. It's about five minutes total of effort, but it's very much worth it. Flavored butters add the perfect touch to homemade biscuits or fresh bread. I co-hosted a bridal shower last weekend, and now I wish I would have done a biscuit bar with several whipped butter options! Whipped butter keeps well in the fridge or freezer and can last through multiple house-guests. 

Second, I've shared a "recipe" (i.e. not a recipe) for a quick happy hour nibble featuring brie, blueberry jam, and an optional drizzle of balsamic glaze. 

I love having last-minute cocktails with my friends and keep a few key ingredients on hand to ensure that I never have to serve corn chips and packaged cookies with a good bottle of wine. The ingredients are brie (I strongly recommend Saint-Andre Triple Cream Brie, it's heavenly and so soft), blueberry jam, and balsamic glaze (optional) on a bagel chip. It doesn't get much easier, and it really doesn't get much more delicious. 

Blueberry Whipped Butter with Orange Zest

You will need:
  • 1 stick butter, room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons blueberry jam
  • Zest of one orange
  • Fresh blueberries, optional garnish
  • Blend all ingredients in a standing mixer using the whisk attachment. Mix for about five minutes, until thoroughly whipped and fluffy. 
  • Serve butter at room temperature, topped with a few fresh blueberries (if desired). Store any excess in freezer. 
Blueberry, Brie, and Balsamic Bites
No quantities are used here as you can very easily customize this for any size. It's a great go-to recipe when you have unexpected company. 

You will need:
  • Triple-cream brie cheese, room temperature, rinds discarded
  • Plain bagel chips
  • Blueberry jam
  • Balsamic glaze, optional
  • Spread a thin layer of brie onto a bagel chip. 
  • Top with a small dollop of blueberry jam. 
  • Drizzle with balsamic glaze, if desired. 
  • Serve on a platter with fruits (recommended: grapes, dried apricots, strawberries) and nuts. 

Nicoletta Foods' jams and marmalades are available on their website. The blueberry jam used here retails for just under $7 per jar.