March 25, 2013

Warm Harvest Fruit & Nut Wild-Rice Salad

This wild-rice salad is warm, hearty, and full of protein and nutrition. It's a one-bowl, one pan meal that's ready in mere minutes. I love healthy but sumptuous dishes like this, where you can serve yourself a giant, heaping bowl and scoop up every last bite without regret. It's food at its best, doing what it should do -- fill you and energize you.

I adore this dish because it's a great mixture of flavors and textures. It's got sweet and chewy dried cranberries, the earthy crunch from toasted pecans, hunks of soft and juicy chicken, crisp asparagus, and nutty, wonderfully toothsome wild rice. Plus the zing of chopped mint on top, balanced with the creaminess of feta cheese, is far far better than finding the prize in box of cereal for dinner.

Use your favorite vinaigrette dressing or make your own. Play with goat cheese versus feta, maybe toss in some chopped dried apricots with the cranberries, or use slivered almonds for your crunch factor. Omit the chicken for a great vegetarian dish. 

Like I always say, the kitchen is for playing and personalizing... Don't take it too seriously. After a long day at work, it's time to find delight in dinnertime.

Warm Harvest Fruit & Nut Wild-Rice Salad: serves two generously
1 T. olive oil
1 boneless skinless chicken breast, cubed (optional)
1 cup wild rice
4 cups water
1/4 cup dried cranberries
12 spears frozen asparagus, defrosted and cut into 1" pieces
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 t. Chinese 5 Spice
2 T. creamy vinaigrette dressing of choice
salt & pepper to taste

1/3 cup crumbled feta or goat cheese
1/4 cup toasted pecan pieces

1 t. chopped mint leaves

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, preheat olive oil. Add the chicken breast and cook 4-5 minutes or until just cooked through. Remove from heat and set aside. Add the wild rice and stir 1 minute to toast, then pour in the water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover to cook as directed, about 40 minutes. 20 minutes in, add the dried cranberries. When the rice is barely done cooking, add the asparagus, onion, diced chicken and stir to heat through. Add the five spice and dressing, then salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the cheese, then divide into two bowls. Top with pecans and mint leaves and serve warm.

March 10, 2013

Homemade Soft Pretzels

I might not believe someone if they told me these soft-baked pretzels were super easy to make. I might think, Who makes soft-baked pretzels unless they have an inordinate amount of time on their hands? 

I'd probably be super skeptical of the whole thing, though very interested. But since I made these soft, chewy, salty pretzels myself for our German-inspired book club menu, I can vouch first-hand that they are in fact simple, streamlined, and quite easy -- so, listen up beginner cooks!

For all the writing and talking I do, it's surprising that I'm actually a "show, don't tell" type of learner. I'd rather see what I'm getting into before diving into the task, so I'll do the same for you here. You'll see how easy it really is to make these soft-baked pretzels. The only thing I can't share with you first-hand is the scrumptious and warm end result!

So gather all your ingredients....

Test that water temperature to be about 115 degrees....
I've killed yeast too many times for that!

Add the water, sugar, and kosher salt in the mixing bowl and stir to combine, then pour the yeast on top. 

Add the flour and butter and let the dough hook do its work. 
Put away you ingredients in the meantime. Hum a tune. Wipe your counter.

When that dough is nice and smooth, take it out of the bowl, spray the bowl with cooking spray, return it to the bowl and cover it to let it rise in a warm place.

Get ready for the fun part!!

Divide that dough up into 16 pieces, then roll each piece out into a rope and cross each end over each other to make cute little pretzel bows. 

Guess what? It doesn't matter if they're not perfect. Or if they're pretzel nuggets, rolls, or rods instead.

I put mine on a baking sheet and froze since I wouldn't be baking them until a couple days later. Once they were frozen on the sheet I piled them all into a plastic freezer bag, but you can just skip that step and put them straight onto an oiled baking sheet instead. 

Preheat your oven to 450.... Get your egg wash ready and your Kosher salt on the side....

Pour 2/3 cup baking soda into 10 cups of boiling water. Check out that crazy foam!!

Drop those pretzel babies into the bath one at a time! All right, I admit my impatience made me do it two at a time.

Once they float to the top, rescue them back onto the baking sheet.

Once they're all out of the bath and back on the baking sheet, work your egg wash magic and sprinkle with salt.

Bake for 15-18 minutes or until deep golden, or looks like the picture below....

Cool on racks for 5 minutes before gorging on them while they're still hot!

See, you can do it, too! It's well worth the effort (pretend it was very involved and arduous, and you'll impress your friends and family to no end).

Maybe you'd like some spicy brown mustard with that? Cheese dip? Pants with an elastic waistband?
I'd recommend being prepared with all of the above.

Homemade Soft-Pretzels: makes about 16 palm-sized knots.
1.5 cups water, warmed to about 115 degrees
1 T. sugar
2 t. kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4.5 cups all-purpose flour
2 oz. butter, melted
Vegetable oil spray
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk, beaten
extra kosher salt

Combine water, sugar, and kosher salt in the bowl of a standing mixer with dough hook attached. Stir to combine, then add the yeast on top and allow to foam, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and butter and mix on low speed until well combined.

Change to medium speed and knead until smooth and pulling away from sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Add more flour, 1 T. at a time, if the dough seems too sticky. 

Remove the dough from the bowl, spray the bowl with cooking spray, and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly spray with cooking spray. 

Bring 10 cups water to a rolling boil. In the meantime, divide the dough into 16 pieces and roll into a long rope. Hold each end of the rope and cross them over each other to create a pretzel knot. Press the center of the knot to adhere dough and ensure it keeps its shape in the boiling water. Place on the baking sheet, and repeat until all 16 are created. 

Pour 2/3 cup baking soda into the boiling water, then add the pretzels 1-2 at a time. Remove from the water after 30 seconds or it rises to the top. Return to the baking sheet. Brush each pretzel with egg wash and sprinkle generously with salt.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, turning to evenly brown if necessary. Cool 5 minutes on a wire rack, then enjoy! Best eaten immediately, but if you must store them do so in a brown paper bag. 

March 6, 2013

Feel-Good Carrot Cake with Cinnamon-Pecan Frosting for One

It was exactly what I needed on this terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad, day.  

Oh, and it was ready in just minutes! And I made it in the microwave! Best yet, it was actually healthy... because who needs more guilt or upset on a no-good-bad day? On the emotional side, I contemplated stopping by the bake shop on my way home from work, promptly changing into my PJ's, and gorging on sweets on the couch. But the rational side of me thought this idea through... I realized a sugar binge would make me feel even more yucky. 

Sometimes being an addictions counselor is just plain tough!

I only needed good feelings, delicious indulgence, and the comfort that could only be provided by layer cake.  But how? I Googled around, and ultimately adapted an already healthy and fast carrot cake recipe into this recipe below. 

I included everything I love about carrot cake: the sweetness of carrots and brown sugar, the tropical tang of pineapple, the hint of coconut... and obviously the best part: thick cinnamon-pecan cream cheese frosting! 

I'm sitting down to my personalized plate of layered carrot cake now, and I'm thinking about how my day just got so much better. No guilt, emotional spikes, or regret in sight. I can leave all of that at the office., thank you! Tonight's dessert experience is pajama attire only. 

Feel-Good Carrot Cake for One
2 T. white whole wheat flour
2 T. white flour
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. pumpkin pie spice
1/8 t. salt
1/8 t. baking soda
1/4 t. baking powder
1 packet stevia or Truvia
1.5 T. dark brown sugar
1 T. vegetable oil
carrots and pineapple, food processed into 1/3 cup worth
(I used baby carrots I had on hand, and frozen pineapple chunks)
1 T. shredded coconut
1 T. milk
1/4 t. vanilla extract
1 egg white, lightly beaten

In a small bowl combine all dry ingredients through dark brown sugar. In a medium bowl, add all wet ingredients through egg white and stir to combine thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir to barely combine (do not overmix). Spray two small ramekins (one is fine, too!) with cooking spray and evenly divide the batter between them. Microwave on high for about 3 minutes, using less or more time depending on your microwave wattage, until the cakes are firm. Remove and allow to cool before gently prying out of the ramekins. Frost with frosting below, and eat immediately!!

Cinnamon-Pecan Frosting:
1.5 t. Truvia or more to taste
1/3 cup 2% or whole-fat Fage greek yogurt
1 T. cream cheese, room temp
a couple drops vanilla extract
pinch cinnamon
1 T. chopped pecans

Directions: Beat together the Truvia and Greek yogurt, then beat in the cream cheese and vanilla extract. Stir in the cinnamon and pecans and slather on your cake!

March 3, 2013

Split Pea Soup with Whole-Wheat Parmesan Croutons... a nod to Easters of my past

For all of my 27 years, and likely longer, my family has hosted our Easter holiday meal. It's a favorite season for me, and a day I look forward to year after year. I can almost smell the day in early Spring, slightly damp and cool; aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, gathering around trays of antipasto and clamoring loudly over glasses of wine as the ham bakes in the oven. If we're really lucky we'll get an unexpected bout of warmth and sunshine, enough for all the cousins play kickball or SPUD in the cul-de-sac for hours after dinner,  our bellies over-full as we distract ourselves until dessert. 

The Easter meal is always fantastic. Holidays are the best excuse to over-eat, of course. But there's another dish my father always had ready on the back burner... our post-Easter supper which used the best parts of the ham leftovers: Split pea soup. 

This soup is tied to my Easters past, when I still lived at home to enjoy it the nights after our guests had gone. My father had the bag of dried split peas already on the counter long before Easter, as a reminder to himself about the soup. Later, it simmered away on the stove with the ham hock for a boost of flavor. His pea soup was simple, salty. I loved it. Hunks of deep pink, almost red, chunks of our leftover ham were like prizes worthy of celebration, waiting in every bite... There were bits of sweet carrots that, admittedly, bothered me as a picky child but today feel like a craving in my memory. We'd eat it with big crusty bagels slathered in butter.

Could I create a soup like dad's and make it my own? 

Yes. Enter crisp bacon (another best of the pig, if I can't have a whole leftover spiral-cut!), hearty stock, pureed carrots, leeks, onions, and to top it off, crunchy fresh-made whole wheat Parmesan croutons. Be careful with this utterly addicting bread addition. I couldn't help but adorn each spoonful with a crispy crouton. My love for this soup was getting out of control. 

My own version of this pea soup has a texture as velvety as butter, thanks to the immersion blender, so there were no carrot hunks in sight. It is thick, savory, and truly lovely; just as Easter, just as the spring, and just as a memory of a wonderful dad with a trusty recipe.

I hope I did dad proud. 

Post-Easter Pea Soup: serves 4 generously
2-3 strips thick-cut Applewood Smoked Bacon
1 T. butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup diced leeks
1 T. salt
32 oz. chicken stock
1 bag (about 2.5 cups) split peas, rinsed
additional water as needed
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
1/4 t. ground nutmeg

*top with whole-wheat Parmesan croutons

Place a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat. Melt the butter, then cook the bacon until crisp and brown. Remove and set aside on a cutting board, reserving the fat in the pot. Add onion, carrots, leeks and salt, and saute until soft and fragrant, covered and stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.

Pour in the stock and scrape the bottom of the pot for any flavorful brown bits. Add the peas and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the peas are soft to the bite, about 25-30 minutes, adding extra water to thin if necessary. Meanwhile, dice the cooked bacon into small hunks.

Add pepper and nutmeg to the soup, then puree with an immersion blender until completely smooth. Stir in the bacon. Season with salt and extra pepper to taste. Serve topped with whole wheat croutons.

Whole-Wheat Parmesan Croutons

In 20 minutes you'll arrive at the perfect, fresh, and healthy topping for any soup or salad. These whole wheat croutons are wonderfully crunchy, flavorful, and make use of the ends of the loaves of sandwich bread that might otherwise go to waste.

Whole-Wheat Croutons: makes about 2 cups
4 slices of whole wheat bread (stale, or the ends, it doesn't  matter!)
4 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
1 T. grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 t. crushed dried basil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Stack the bread and cut it into about 1" hunks. In the bottom of a large bowl, add the olive oil, salt, Parmesan  and basil and stir to combine. Add the bread to the bowl and stir to coat evenly with the olive oil. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and bake 10-15 minutes, then stir, and bake another 10-15 minutes or until crispy and golden. Serve immediately and store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.


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