Friday, December 30, 2011

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Fennel & Blue Cheese Tartlets

Tartletts so easy and delicious yet it looks like you slaved for hours!  The squash mixture can be made a day ahead and the phyllo shells can be filled hours before your guests arrive.  They're great right out of the oven or at room temperature.

Squash, Fennel and Blue Cheese Tartlets
1 medium butternut squash
olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 small bulb fennel, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped dried figs
1/2 to 1 cup crumbled blue cheese
3 boxes (1.9 oz. ea.) mini phyllo shells

Preheat oven to 400°. Brush  baking pan with olive oil; set aside.
Cut squash lengthwise in have; scrape out seeds.  Place cut sides down on oiled baking pan.  Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until very tender tender. 

Meanwhile, In large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat and cook onion, fennel and ½ teaspoon salt 15 to 20 minutes or until golden and caramelized, stirring frequently.  Remove from heat.

Scrape flesh from squash; In medium bowl mash squash and add remaining 1 tablespoon butter, brown sugar, sage, figs and salt. Stir in fennel mixture and blue cheese. Place mixture in pastry big fitted with very large star tip.
Arrange phyllo shells on baking sheet.  Evenly pipe squash mixture into shells. Bake 8 minutes or until heated through.

Makes 48 appetizers

This also makes a great side dish.  Omit pastry shells and spoon mixture into a large casserole. Cover and bake at 350 degrees about 30 minutes or until heated through.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kahlua Dip

Looking for something special to pair with your champagne for New Years Eve?  Kahlua dip with fresh berries is easy and elegant. 

1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces Neufchatel cheese (low fat cream cheese), softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 to 1/3 cup Kahlua

Beat heavy cream in a large bowl with an electric mixture until stiff peaks form; set aside.

Beat softened Neufchatel cheese and brown sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until smooth.  Add Kahlua and beat just until combined.  Stir about one half cup whipped cream into cream cheese mixture to lighten.  Gently fold cream cheese mixture into whipped cream.  Chill until ready to use.

This makes a great dip for fruit, cookies or brownies.  You can also use it to fill a cake or pipe into mini phyllo cups and top with strawberry slices.  Or, you can do what I do and just eat it by the spoonful!

If you don't prefer a coffee liquor, you can try substituting your favorite liquor.  Chambord, Frangelico or Grand Marnier are all good choices.

It's Christmastime in the City

I'm a big fan of Living Social.  (I'm a big fan of anything that's going to give me good deals on food and drinks!)  If you're not familiar with it, it's the website that sends tempting deals (for all kinds of things) to your email every single day.  I currently subscribe to several Manhattan neighborhoods, North and Central Jersey as well as Philly and Pittsburgh.  So my level of temptation by Living Social is quite high.
Last June, I bought a couple of great sounding deals in Manhattan hoping to increase my frequency of trips into the city.  Here it is 6 months later, and I was under the gun to use them before they expire.

This week, I thought, it's now or never.  It was a beautiful day and what's better than New York at Christmastime?  Eating and drinking through New York at Christmastime!

First stop Lime Jungle on 50th and 9th...just a few short blocks away from the infamous tree at Rockefeller Center.
Instead of avoiding the crowds during the height of Christmas season we decided to forge right through!

me, playing tourist...

Our deal at Lime Jungle was 2 flights of tequila (8 shots) and chips, salsa and guacamole.

Michelada: Mexican beer, lime juice and hot sauce
poured into ice-filled glass rimmed with spices.

Of course you can't have tequila with a beer chaser; in my case I went for a Michelada (which basically is spicy beer).

A couple of empanada's rounded out our stop and we were ready to be on our way.  The biggest drawback was the noise level, as we really could not hear our waitress as she described the tequilas that we were tasting.  Overall, Lime Jungle was a cute little place with inexpensive, authentic food and worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood.

Our second course was down in the East Village at a divey little place called Bento Burger.  Their website describes it as an "Asian Roadhouse future dive"and that's exactly what it felt like.  Once we got past the overwhelming odor of bleach as we walked in, the funky futuristic surroundings provided a great atmosphere.

Michael ordered a Korean Barbeque Pork Burger and I went with the Seafood Burger.

Burgers were served Bento style with Japanese Pickles, Papaya Mango Slaw and Bento chips.
The Japanese twist on the American classic is a novel idea, but the food really fell short.  But our Living Social deal of $40 worth of food for $20 made it easier to swallow!  Not a bad neighborhood place, but don't think I would go out of my way for this one.

Overall, a great night in the city. Sometimes dining out isn't about the best meal, but about the  experience.  Part of the adventure is exploring local neighborhood places, off the beaten path.  I will continue to look forward to my daily Living Social temptations to see where they may take me.

If you need a little help finding places to dine and drink, here's a list to get you started:

Monday, December 19, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things

I admit it...I am incapable of walking past the shoe department without trying on at least one pair of heels. Of course, the higher the better.  Perhaps I am trying to overcompensate for my mere 5 foot 3-1/2 inches.  I am now officially the shortest of the family; my 14 year old has finally surpassed me.  Over the years, in my effort to appear to be 'not short' I have developed a full fledged heel obsession.  But heels in the kitchen you say?  I say yes!  (Personally, I think it takes real talent to sauté in stiletto's.)

And it seems I'm not the only one, as more and more kitchen related shoe gadgets
appear. (now gadgets...that's an obsession for another day.)  So for the girl who has a little
 Sex in the City in her, these heeled helpers are just as fabulous as new pair of Manolo's.
(OK, not really) But they are great stocking stuffers! 

Silver stiletto looks great on the bar
and even better
popping off bottle caps.

Shake up the table.
Classic heel salt and pepper shakers.

That is one sexy stopper!
Have your cake and server too!

For wine time.

You can't have wine without cheese.

All that Glitters.....

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Goat Cheese, Honey and Pine Nuts

One the first books on our Book Club reading list was The Secret Life of Bees.  So naturally, the food theme for the meeting was none other than honey.  Weeknight get together's can be tough; I wanted to bring something delicious, but easy.  I came up with this simple recipe.  It was an instant hit!  With only 3 ingredients and a 5 minute prep, it's perfect for just about any occasion.

1 (8 to 11 ounce) log of goat cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (sunflower seeds or chopped pistachios will work as well)

Place goat cheese on plate.
Drizzle honey over goat cheese until evenly coated.
Sprinkle with nuts pressing nuts into the sides with
your hands.  It's fine if extra nuts and honey fall onto the plate,
they can be scooped up with the spreader.
Serve with crackers.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas gifts from the kitchen

Are you always looking for that perfect gift...not too expensive, but shows you put thought and effort into it?  Well I have what you're looking for!  Vanilla extract made in your very own kitchen.

For the holidays I typically do a lot of baking and bring trays of baked goodies wherever I go.  Last year, one of my foodie friends told me about a blog that showed you how to make vanilla extract.  She was planning to make it to give as gifts for friends and co-workers.  I absolutely loved the idea and proceeded to 'borrow' it!  She gave me her source with everything you need to know from sourcing vanilla beans and bottles to designing your own labels.  Rather than redo what's been done so well, I've shared the link below with step by step instructions.

While these little bottles of goodness are quite economical, they do take some time.  If you start now, and order your materials, you can easily have them done by Christmas.  Just be sure to let everyone know when the vanilla was started so it can steep for an adequate amount of time.  I started a bit late last year but used the back label to get the message out.

Family and friends really enjoyed getting vanilla along with my biscotti last year. I liked the fact that they would think of me as they used it during the year.  There is one drawback to this perfect little gift...I can't think of a thing to top it for this year!

Homemade Vanilla Extract - Step by Step - from The Italian Dish blog

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Guacamole and Margaritas ~ Let's get this party started!

I never go anywhere without bringing a bowl of guacamole..It's one of my most requested dishes and it's incredibly easy to make, but no one seems to realize how easy it is.  There are two secrets to great guac. The first is simplicity - the fewer ingredients the better. The second, is using perfectly ripe avocados.  And this is where, I realized, people get intimidated.  They don't know how to choose them, they don't know when they're ripe and they don't know what to do with them when they get them home.

I was recently at a dinner dance when a friend of mine was talking about the great avocado salad at the little Mexican taqueria in our neighborhood.  She said "I know I could make it myself, but I don't want to have to peel an avocado."  So I proceeded to pick up my dinner roll and demonstrate exactly how easy it is to work an avocado.  Fortunately, there are real avocados in the pictures below!

Lesson 1~ Everything you wanted to know about avocado's but were afraid to ask.

I prefer to use Haas avocados.  These are the smaller ones that are very dark green to black in color with a somewhat bumpy skin.

When buying avocados, look for avocados that have the stem intact.
You also need to know when you plan to use them.  Avocado's don't ripen until after they are picked, so if you won't use them for a few days, buy them when they're very hard, like a rock.  Then leave them on your kitchen counter until they ripen.   As they ripen, the flesh softens.  To test for ripeness, press gently on the skin.  Avocado's are ripe when they yield to gentle pressure.  (Tidbit: Make a very tight fist, with your other hand, press gently on the flesh part between your thumb and forefinger...that is about the same give that a ripe avocado will have.)  Once ripe, avocados should be used right away or stored in the refrigerator and used within in a day or two.

Grip the avocado gently with one hand.  With a large knife, cut the avocado lengthwise, bringing the knife around the avocado, to cut around the pit.  Hold cuts sides in each hand and gently twist.  The two sides will separate.  To remove the pit hold the avocado half in your hand and gently but firmly tap the pit with your knife so the blade of the knife wedges firmly into it.  Twist the knife to loosen the pit, remove and discard. (Tidbit:  If the pit sticks to the knife, rap the base of the knife on the edge of a plastic bowl and the pit should fall right off.)

Once avocados are halved and seeded you can slice, dice or mash, depending on what you're making.  An easy way to remove the flesh is to run a spoon between the flesh and the skin to separate. Now you're ready to make the Guac.

Classic Guacamole

6 ripe Haas avocados, halved pitted and smashed
1 large ripe tomato, finely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
lime juice (1 half or whole lime) to taste
Kosher or regular salt (about 1/2 to 1 tsp)
2 to 4 Tbsp fresh chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients...serve with chips and tequila!
 That's it! 
(Tidbit: To easily smash avocados use a large fork or a pastry blender.)

Nothing goes better with Guac than a margarita.  Just as with guacamole, simple quality ingredients make the best margarita.  Serve them on the rocks or straight up.

Classic Margarita

2 ounces Petron tequila
1 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce lime juice
Rub lime wedge around rim of glass and dip in coarse salt to coat.

Combine all ingredients and pour over ice or shake and and strain into margarita or martini glasses.  Garnish with lime wedges.

(Tidbit:  Make the Margarita's first so you can enjoy them while your making the Guac!)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Grandma's kitchen

I don't think I was ever a picky eater.   As far back  as I can remember I was always pretty willing to try anything.  I think it has something to do with living in a 2 family house with my Czechoslovakian grandmother living upstairs.  It really was like a one family and I spent nearly as much time in her kitchen as ours.  It was there, that I was exposed to my first ethnic dishes. Grandma would bring out huge pans of Studenina (jellied pigs feet) and my parents would literally go crazy for it.   Cirak (Slovak egg cheese) would hang for days in cheesecloth from her kitchen cabinets.  We'd save jars for months so she could fill them with Chow-Chow (pickled vegetables).  Whenever I was sick, she would head upstairs and make bowls of caraway seed soup with home-made noodles; so simple, but amazingly good!
This is my Grandma, she always had her hand on her hip!
Thinking about it, I suppose I owe my 'food is an adventure' attitude to my grandma. I've tried to pass this attitude on to my own kids.  I didn't typically bribe or reward them with money when they were growing up; but when it came to food, I wanted them to be open to everything. (So I suppose I did resort to a bit of bribery when necessary.)  When introducing something new and unusual,  I used to offer them a dollar to try it, and two to like it.  They usually did like it and I like to think it wasnt' because of the cash reward.
(Hannah has always been the adventurous one, and would always try anything before the offer of cash was on the table.)

I am always amazed when people are reluctant to try new foods.  I often think starting with a familiar ingredient will make the leap a bit easier.  Following are 2 recipes that start with a very familiar ingredient: Pasta Sauce.  You can use your own sauce or your favorite jarred brand and transform it with some simple spices and seasonings to something, just a bit more adventurous.

Mexican Chicken Parmesan Enchilada's

2 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into about 1-inch pieces
coarse salt
1 medium onion, sliced,
1 medium red or green pepper, sliced
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 teaspoon ground cumin,
1/2 to 1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
2 cups pasta sauce
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
3/4 cup crumbled queso fresco, divided
6 small flour tortillas

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and season with salt.  Cook chicken about 5 to 7 minutes or until lightly browned; remove from skillet. 

Add remaining tablespoon oil.  Add onion and pepper, season with a little more salt.  Cook over medium heat about 5 minutes until tender.  Stir in garlic, cumin and chipotle chili powder and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Stir in pasta sauce and broth and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 5 minutes or until chicken is thoroughly cooked.  Stir in chopped cilantro

Remove 1 cup sauce.  Spread 1/2 cup sauce on bottom of 12 x 8 inch baking dish.  Stir 1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco into remaining chicken mixture.

 Divide mixture among 6 tortillas.  Roll up and arrange in baking dish, seam side down.  Pour reserved 1/2 cup sauce down the center of the tortillas and top with remaining queso fresco.

Cover and bake 30 minutes until hot an bubbly and cheese is melted.

Indian Cauliflower Curry

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups pasta or tomato sauce
1 cup vegetable broth
4 cups fresh cauliflower florets
2 medium red potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 15-ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen peas
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil over medium heat in a 12-inch nonstick skillet.  Add onion and salt and cook until onion is tender and beginning to brown.  Add spices and cook for 1 minute stirring constantly.  Stir in sauce and broth and bring to a boil.  Add cauliflower and potatoes and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes until vegetables are tender.  Stir in chick peas and peas and cook until hot.  Stir in cilantro.  If you like you can add a little lemon juice or stir in some plain nonfat yogurt.