Monday, October 25, 2010

Jerk Beef on Sweet Potato Chips

For as much as I cook and bake, I don't get the chance to make too many appetizers. I'm not one to hold a party where I whirl around the room with hors d'oeuvres on a silver platter. And when I'm invited to such a soiree, I usually bring tasty baked goods. On this occasion, though, I really wanted to try something new and different.

Jerk Beef on Sweet Potato Chips
Makes 40 servings. Adapted from Gourmet magazine.

1 beef tenderloin
2 tsp jerk seasoning paste
1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp cocktail onions, rinsed
1/3 cup cilantro
40 sweet potato chips (or plantain chips)

Quarter beef tenderloin lengthwise and pat dry. Season with 1/4 tsp salt and rub all over with jerk paste.

Heat oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add beaf and sear on all sides, 4-5 minutes total. Remove from pan and let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes. Cut crosswise into 1/2" slices.

Finely chop onions and cilantro together. Top sweet potato chips with beef, then onion and cilantro. Arrange on a platter and serve.

Jerk Beef on Plantain Chips

These delightful bites were quite a success. The sweet potato provides a sturdy base for the savory piece of beef. The meet is bookended by the vinegary onion and the sweet chip. Plus a little cilantro never hurts. These little mouthfuls have all the flavor components you need for a well-rounded amuse bouche.

Soft Pretzel Kit with Homemade Cheese Sauce

I'm not that into sports, but one reason I do like to go to various games is for the food. Roasted peanuts, popcorn, ice cream, jumbo hot dogs. But one of my all-time favorites is the soft pretzel. Soft, doughy interior with a crispy, buttery exterior, studded with large salt crystals. If only there was a way to make them at home... Enter the Soft Pretzel Kit.

Soft Pretzel Kit

The kit comes with a flour mixture and a packet of salt crystals, so all you have to do is add some water. The dough comes together with the help of some elbow grease.

Pretzel Dough Ball

Then you follow the handy little guide for shaping the dough into pretzels. A little melted butter slathered on top, a liberal sprinkling of the provided salt, and into the oven they go.

Prebaked Pretzels

Tasty Soft Pretzels

To celebrate my first soft pretzels, I decided to go the extra mile make a homemade cheese sauce:

2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 tsp mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Mix in flour and salt. Stir constantly until the mixture starts to simmer. Slowly pour milk into the mixture. Continue stirring over medium heat until the mixture has thickened. Make sure there are no clumps. Stir in cheese and mustard and continue stirring until cheese is completely melted and the dip is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve dip warm.

Cheese Sauce

The pretzels turned out great. Not perfectly like the ones at sports games, but they were still really good. And that cheese sauce was awesome. You could almost eat it like a soup, or even drink it because it was so wonderfully cheesy. You could probably decrease the milk content in the sauce if you want it more like the thick, bright yellow nacho cheese you see at convenience stores and wonder if that nuclear color ever exists in nature. All in all, I'll call this pretzel kit a twisted success.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buried Cherry Cookies

There's nothing like food containing a surprise. Savory items can hold surprises, like a Scotch egg (sausage stuffed with a boiled egg) or a turducken (turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with stuffing). Chocolate truffles and cupcakes are the more common confections in which you can hide a little surprise. And what better gift to send someone for their birthday than a delicious treat with something hiding inside.

Buried Cherry Cookies
Makes 42 cookies. From Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook.

10 oz maraschino cherries
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 cups flour
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk

Drain cherries and reserve juice. Halve any large cherries, but leave the rest intact. Beat butter in a standing mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/4 tsp salt. Beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl if necessary. Beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in cocoa powder and flour until just incorporated.

Technically a Thumbprint Cookie

Shape dough into 1" balls. Place dough balls about 2" apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press your thumb into the center of each ball and place a cherry in each center.

Loading Up the Cookies

For the frosting, combine chocolate chips and sweetened condensed milk in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat until chocolate melts. Stir in 4 tsp of the reserved cherry juice. Spoon 1 tsp frosting over each cherry, spreading to cover the cherry entirely.

Bake in a 350 degree F oven for about 10 minutes or just until edges are firm. Cook on cookie sheet for one minute, then transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Buried Cherry Cookies

These cookies are an excellent addition to anyone's repertoire and look great on a holiday cookie plate. They are also a delight to make and wonderful to eat. Not only does the fudgy frosting have a light cherry flavor, but then *wham* you bite right into the maraschino cherry surprise in the middle. Don't listen to your parents - go ahead and play with your food.

Penne with Tomato Pesto

I've penned a few pesto posts in the past. The main mantra for making pesto is nut + green or other vegetable + oil = delicious sauce. But I still keep finding surprising combinations for pesto, including corn pesto and Thai (cilantro-peanut). To add to the growing list of pestovations (pesto innovations) is this recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

Pesto alla Trapanese
Makes 4 servings. Adapted from Cook's Illustrated.

1/4 cup slivered almonds
12 oz cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup packed basil leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1 pound penne
1 oz Parmesan cheese, grated

Toast almonds in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, 2-4 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Place almonds, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and 1 tsp salt in a food processor and puree until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl and, with the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil. Run for about 30 seconds to thoroughly mix the sauce.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking liquid and drain pasta. Transfer pasta back to pot. Add pesto and Parmesan cheese to pasta. Toss and add pasta water until sauce acquires the desired consistency. Serve immediately with additional Parmesan on the side.

Pesto alla Trapanese

When preparing this dish, I did have my doubts. I thought I didn't have enough sauce or that it would be too plain. But I was quite surprised. This tomato pesto had an amazing flavor. It was so bright and a bit acidic that it went really well with the penne. Normally a bowl of pasta with sauce does not sound like much of a meal, but this pasta was the exception to the rule. There's something about the simplicity of the meal that makes it even more satisfying. Leave it to Cook's Illustrated to find a new twist on pesto.

Fig-Gorgonzola Pizza

Figs are one of the most ephemeral fruits of the summer growing season. For as sad as I am when strawberry season finishes up its few week run, it seems like figs are only around for a few days. I'm often underwhelmed by the ones available at the grocery store. They go moldy within a day or two of purchase. The fruit itself goes from green to ripened to gross within a very short time window. That fact makes it difficult to transport figs very far from their source. The only alternative to planting a fig tree myself is to go to the farmer's market. Once bought, plan on using your figs within a day or so to make sure they have the best flavor and texture. Here's the one recipe I managed to cook up during this year's fig season:

Fig-Gorgonzola Pizza
Makes 4 servings. From Bon Appetit.

1 lb pizza dough
1.5-2 cups Gorgonzola
6 figs, thinly sliced
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, divided
8 slices prosciutto
1 tbsp olive oil
8 cups arugula

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Sprinkle cornmeal on a large baking sheet. Roll dough out on a floured surface to approximately a 12"x10" rectangle (mine looked more like a triangle, but that's ok). Sprinkle Gorgonzola over dough (use whatever amount you are comfortable with; 2 cups is a pretty intense Gorgonzola flavor). Sprinkle with pepper. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown on the bottom, 15-20 minutes.

Naked Gorgonzola Pizza

Meanwhile, toss figs with 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar in a small bowl and set aside. When pizza is golden brown, immediately drape with prosciutto slices, covering the pizza completely. Arrange fig slices over the pizza. Bake until figs are just heated through, about 1 minute more. Transfer pizza to cutting board.

Pizza Topped with Arugula

Whisk remaining 1 tbsp vinegar and oil in a large bowl. Toss arugula and season with salt and pepper. Mound arugula on top of pizza. Cut into pieces and serve.

Pizza Slice

Dried figs, available year round, are quite delicious and make a lovely accompaniment to salty cheese or even in a sauce for meat. But fresh figs are a different animal (or plant) altogether. They are fresh and fruity with a very particular figgy flavor. Combine this sweetness with some salty Gorgonzola and meaty prosciutto and you've got a winning pizza. And why have a side salad when you can put it right on top of the pizza? The crisp crust forms a great base for all these toppings. And unlike the pizzeria versions, one quarter of this pizza is enough to make a good meal. Or cut it into smaller pieces and serve it as an appetizer. Whichever you choose, enjoy the figs while they last.

Peanut Butter-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

I love cupcakes. The idea itself is genius. I would like a piece of cake that I can eat with my hands. Wherever, whenever. With a cupcake you are one paper wrapper away from a small indulgence. So, for the hell of it, I decided to open up one of my cupcake books and give this recipe a whirl (or rather, a swirl).

Peanut Butter-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 12 cupcakes. From Martha Stewart's Cupcakes

2/3 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

Peanut Butter Filling
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Put butter and chocolates in a heatproof bowl of a double boiler; stir until melted. Alternatively, microwave butter and chocolates in 10-15 second bursts, stirring in between, until melted. Cool slightly.

Whisk sugar into the chocolate mixture. Add eggs and whisk until mixture is smooth. Stir in vanilla. Add flour mixture and stir just until incorporated.

Swirling the Cupcakes

Prepare peanut butter filling by stirring together all ingredients until smooth. Spoon 2 tbsp chocolate batter into each paper liner, followed by 1 tbsp peanut butter filling. Repeat with another tbsp chocolate batter, and top with 1 tsp filling. Swirl top of cupcake batter and filling with a toothpick.

Bake until a cake tester inserted comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Transfer tin to a wire rack to cool completely.

PB-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

There are two keys to making this recipe work. Firstly, remember that this is a chocolate cupcake filled with peanut butter, not a swirl cupcake. The difference is not much, but the peanut butter filling will not bake into a cake texture. Instead it stays pretty separate from the chocolate cake. Secondly, the directions are written in a very exacting Martha Stewart style. But if you follow them, you'll end up with a tasty end-product. If you're going to indulge, then chocolate and peanut butter is a great way to do it. While chocolate is always a good thing, adding peanut butter makes these cupcakes more sumptuous and rich. You may be glad you only have this mini-cake to eat per serving, because a full-sized cake of this sort would be a meal unto itself.

Greek Turkey Burgers

Over the summer, I had a plethora of cucumbers to use. From my small porch garden, the cucumbers were the most productive this year. And since I can only tolerate so many pickles and salads, it was time to go Greek. One of my favorite Mediterranean sauces is tzatziki, a cucumber-yogurt sauce served on gyros and souvlaki. So, with the help of a Bon Appetit magazine recipe, I decided to make Greek turkey burgers (or in Iron Chef speak "turkey burgers with cucumber 2 ways").

Greek Turkey Burgers
Makes 4 servings. Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine.

1 1/3 lbs ground turkey
4 oz feta
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp salt
Cooking spray
1/2 cup cucumber, grated
6 oz Greek yogurt
1 tbsp mint, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
4 hamburger buns, split and toasted
Lettuce, for topping
Tomato, sliced, for topping
Cucumber, thinly sliced lengthwise, for topping
Peperoncini, for garnish


Pheta Cheese

For this recipe, I used the "Pheta Cheese" from the local Chapel Hill Creamery. It came in large blocks in a salty brine. It wasn't as soft as some fetas, but it was still very a very tasty cheese. Stir together the turkey, feta, red onion, oregano, lemon zest, and salt, making sure not to overmix. Shape mixture into 4 patties, about 1/2" thick.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat and coat with cooking spray. Place burgers on the grill and cook each about 5 minutes per side or until they are done all the way through. Remember, this is poultry and not beef, so there's a fine line between fully cooked (not pink) and dried out.

Stir together cucumber, yogurt, mint, and 1/2 tsp salt in a small bowl. To assemble burgers, spread buns with tzatziki and load with burger and toppings of your choice. Garnish plate with peperoncini. I also prepared some oven roasted potato wedges to serve on the side that I seasoned with salt, pepper, and dried oregano.

Greek Turkey Burgers

I love burgers because they can make for a quick dinner on a busy weekday night. Form 'em, grill 'em and eat 'em. These burgers tasted great without being too greasy. In fact, the yogurt sauce and cucumbers gave them a fresh taste. Feel free to use whatever fresh herbs you want in the tzatziki. The mint in this version is a traditional Greek flavor, but fresh oregano, parsley or thyme could be great. So take a break from the weekly plain cheeseburger and go Greek!