Thursday, August 29, 2013

Glazed Maple Sesame Popcorn


Popcorn is one of my favorite snacks. Whether it's plain air-popped corn, coated in rich butter and spices, or sugary-sweet. Although I usually go the savory route, I recently decided to make some dessert popcorn for movie night with a friend.

Making caramel can be both fun and terrifying. It really helps to have a candy thermometer. My first couple times making caramel years ago, I didn't have a thermometer and successfully burned every batch. It just helps keep you in check :) Also, cooked sugar can basically melt your skin off. Don't touch it. Just don't.

In this case, making a caramel with maple syrup (the real stuff) and brown sugar is a bit different from traditional caramel. It finishes darker than a traditional caramel, and cooks to the soft crack stage (so it can form a crunchy coating on your popcorn). It's quite delicious and has a nice maple flavor compared to traditional caramel.

I also liked that this recipe only uses 1 tablespoon butter. Most caramel uses a lot more, and although this is not a low-calorie snack (it's pretty high in sugar, let's not kid ourselves), at least it's not high in fat too! There's your silver lining. Enjoy!

Glazed Maple Sesame Popcorn
Makes about 15 cups
(From Popcorn!)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
14 cups popped popcorn
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 large cookie sheets with a little butter. Place popcorn in a large bowl and keep warm in the oven. Place the sesame seeds in a small dish.

In a large pan, over gentle heat, warm the maple syrup, brown sugar, and cinnamon, stirring frequently. When the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Boil until the syrup reaches a temperature of 250 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Stir in 1 tablespoon of butter and cook until the temperature reaches 280 degrees F.

Remove the popcorn from the oven. Quickly pour on half the syrup, sprinkle with half the sesame seeds, and mix to coat the popcorn evenly. Sprinkle on the other half of the sesame seeds and pour on the other half of the syrup. Stir again to combine. If the popcorn mixture hardens too much to mix, set it back in the oven for a couple minutes until softened. Transfer to the greased cookie sheets and set aside to cool before serving. Can be stored for up to 1 week.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Stir-Fried Oyster Mushrooms with Chicken


I have an indiscriminate deep love for Asian food. Whether it's Japanese or Thai, authentic Chinese or Indian, Korean or Filipino, I honestly haven't met an Asian cuisine I haven't liked. I was actually recently thinking it would be fun to cook at least one Asian meal a week.

Something I love about Asian cooking is that for the most part it can be very vegetable-heavy since meat isn't a major part of Asian diets. In fact, the dish I'm choosing to share today is called Stir-Fried Oyster Mushrooms with Chicken, not Stir-Fried Chicken with Oyster Mushrooms.

This is a really simple and lovely dish. The chicken is incredibly tender and has a great background flavor from the Shaoxing wine used to marinate it. Even with slices of ginger and garlic, the flavor of this dish is quite mild and understated. It's not very heavy, and it's not spicy, sour, or sweet, which can be common in some other Chinese recipes, depending on the region.

It cooks very quickly (much like other stir-fried dishes) as the mushrooms and thinly sliced chicken take just minutes to cook through. This was a wonderful centerpiece to a quick weeknight meal I recently made. Alongside this dish, I also put together some Stir-Fried Cabbage with Dried Shrimp.

That recipe will be shared in a later post. For now, please enjoy this easy and delicious home-style Chinese dish.

Stir-Fried Oyster Mushrooms with Chicken
Serves 1 (or more as part of a larger meal)
(From Every Grain of Rice)

1 chicken breast, without skin (5 oz/150 g)
1 spring onion/scallion
7 oz (200 g) oyster mushrooms
3 T. cooking oil or lard (I used less)
A piece of ginger, about the size of a large clove of garlic, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
Kosher salt
Ground white pepper

For the marinade:
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. Shaoxing wine
1 tsp. potato flour (or cornstarch)

Lay the chicken breast on a chopped board and, holding your knife at a right angle to the board, cut it into thin slices. Place in a bowl. Add the marinade ingredients with 2 teaspoons cold water and mix well.

Holding your knife at a steep angle, cut the spring onion on a bias into 3/8-inch (1 cm) slices, keeping the white and green parts separate. Clean the oyster mushrooms if necessary and tear or cut lengthways into bite-sized pieces, discarding any hard bits at the base of their stalks.

Heat a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil or lard, swirl it around, then add the mushrooms and stir-fry for a couple of minutes until nearly cooked. Set aside.

Reheat the wok over a high flame, then add the remaining oil and swirl it around. Add the chicken and stir-fry to separate the slices. When the slices are separating but still pinking, add the ginger, garlic and spring onion whites and continue to stir for a few moments until you can smell their fragrances. Then return the mushrooms and stir to incorporate, adding salt and pepper to taste. Finally, stir in the spring onion greens, then serve.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Swiss Chard Gratin


The third green I'm featuring for my Thursday series is Swiss chard! Chard stalks magically come in a variety of colors. Rainbow chard, for example, has a mixture of white, red, and yellow stalks. Ruby chard features red stalks, while most traditional Swiss chard is white-stemmed. Swiss chard is one of the healthiest greens around. It's high in vitamins A, K, and C and is also high in protein, fiber, and magnesium.

Swiss chard in the garden

I was immediately enraptured by a recipe in I Love NY, the newly released cookbook by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park. The book is incredibly beautiful and tells the story of local farmers and food artisans, along with recipes for these highlighted ingredients. The book even includes an email address to contact if you have any questions or issues with any of the recipes in the book.

The Swiss chard ragout

Well, let's just say I had questions and issues when I first attempted the book's Swiss Chard Gratin. Its mornay sauce called for 1 1/2 teaspoons each of butter and flour for the roux, which is meant to thicken 3 cups of milk. In a million years I knew this ratio would never work. It would never thicken that much milk, even when simmered for 30 minutes as it stated. When my sauce turned out extra watery, I emailed for help and eventually got a response, about a week later.

I decided I would adapt the recipe to fix it, even before I had gotten a response from my lifeline. I increased the roux and reduced the milk (since the full amount of mornay wasn't even originally used in the recipe) to make a more viscous sauce for this delicious gratin. The adjustments I made were very similar to the ones that were later emailed to me (with apologies for the recipe's error). I was relieved to see that the changes I made used the same ratio of roux to milk as the updated version.

I also increased the amount of chard (all from our garden!), because it really shrinks down a lot when cooked. For the record, I left the chard leaves whole (the recipe didn't state anything about cutting them down) to keep some of their structure, but you can easily roughly chop them to make it a bit easier to serve and eat.

In the end, the result is far superior to my original attempt. I could immediately see a difference in the sauce. It was significantly thicker and richer, but not too cheesy. It cloaked the Swiss chard ragout much better, and even after cooking with the vegetables and ham (all of which are notorious for releasing water) the sauce was still thick and had lots of flavor from the onion pique and spices.

I am sold on this gratin. I would definitely make it again and I hope you'll give it a shot next time you want to incorporate more greens into your diet! Even though this dish contains a slightly rich sauce, it's really not that heavy (and you can definitely use low-fat milk as well for the mornay). It uses the stems AND leaves from the chard (all the vitamins) with some extra protein from the ham and cheese. It's pretty much a complete meal, but also perfect as a side dish :)

Swiss Chard Gratin
Serves 4
(Adapted from I Love NY)

Mornay Sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/4 onion, peeled
2 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Ground nutmeg
Kosher salt
Ground white pepper

Swiss Chard Ragout:
20 to 25 leaves Swiss chard
3/4 cup diced (1/4-inch) onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cup diced (1/8-inch) ham
Ground nutmeg
Kosher salt
Ground white pepper

To Finish:
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

To make the mornay: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir, cooking until the mixture is lightly golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the milk, whisking to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to simmer. To make an oignon pique, use the cloves to pierce the onion and the bay leaf, tacking them together. Add the oignon pique to the sauce and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally (the onion pique will inevitably fall apart, but it will be strained out later). Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the cheese. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste.

To make the ragout: Clean the chard, separating the leaves from the stems. Dice the stems into 1/4-inch pieces. In a medium saute pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sweat the chard stems and onion until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a simmer, cover with a parchment paper lid, and sweat until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the parchment paper, add the chard leaves, and wilt over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the ham, remove the pan from the heat, and season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste.

To finish: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Pour 1 1/2 cups of the mornay sauce into a shallow 1-quart gratin dish (I used a 9-inch pie dish). Spoon the Swiss chard ragout into the dish and drizzle the remaining mornay sauce over the top. Top the gratin with the cheese and place in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, and then broil until lightly browned, 30 to 45 seconds (or more depending on your broiler).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Pesto Pasta Salad with Peas and Sun-dried Tomatoes


Even though summer is almost over, I feel like picnic season is still in full swing. In fact, with fall around the corner, the weather will be even more perfect to enjoy outdoor time with your loved ones without the oppressive heat and/or humidity that summer usually brings.

Pasta salad has a reputation for being pretty boring. A lot of times it's either drowned in mayonnaise or bottled Italian dressing (or maybe both). Either way, it needs a makeover. I started by using gemelli pasta, which is a short, chewy, twisted pasta shape. It's a bit less traditional, but it's a great choice for pasta salad!

My pasta salad features homemade pesto utilizing Armenian basil (a more purple-and-green variety than traditional basil). I make tons of this nutless pesto (it's lower in fat and cheaper this way) and then freeze it (without cheese) in ice cube trays. Then I simply defrost, mix in some Parmesan and I'm ready to go. I used some of this pesto for my pasta salad, but you can use any homemade or store-bought pesto of your choice.

I actually mixed equal parts pesto and light mayonnaise to make the dressing, with just a bit of lemon juice to brighten up the flavor. The mayonnaise makes the pasta salad glossy and creamy. The Parmesan flavor in the pesto really shines too. I do find that the pasta absorbs the dressing and is far less creamy if served the next day, so definitely eat this the day you make it, or just keep the dressing separate from the pasta and mix it the day you plan to enjoy it.

Sweet peas and sun-dried tomatoes are great additions to this less-traditional spin on pasta salad. Not only do they both add a burst of color, but they are a perfect pair flavor-wise. I will definitely make this pasta salad again and again. It is so simple to make with ingredients I already have (especially easy if you freeze pesto like I do!).

Pesto Pasta Salad with Peas and Sun-dried Tomatoes
Serves 8 to 10 as a side

1/2 cup basil pesto (preferably homemade--mine is nutless, but a nut-based pesto is fine too)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (light is fine)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Kosher salt
1 pound short pasta, such as gemelli, rotini, or farfalle
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
18 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced

To make the dressing, stir together the pesto, mayonnaise, and lemon juice. If your pesto is homemade, it should already be well-seasoned, but if not, adjust the seasoning as necessary. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until a minute shy of al dente. Add the peas and blanch them during the final minute of cooking, just until the peas are heated through, but still bright green. Drain the pasta and peas in a colander. Run cold water over the colander to shock the cooking process and cool the pasta and peas.

Add the drained pasta and peas to a large mixing bowl and add the dressing and sun-dried tomatoes. Mix until well combined. The pasta salad is best the day it is made, before it begins to absorb the dressing, although it's still tasty the next day.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Braised Collard Greens


The second leafy green I'm featuring on my Thursday series is collard greens. They are a Southern standard. They fit the bill next to the likes of fried chicken and blackened catfish like none other. Collards are a great source of vitamins C and K and soluble fiber.

Although collards can be eaten without the low-and-slow process of braising them, this is most typical because it helps break down the tough stalks of these resilient greens while imparting lots of flavor! I started mine with pancetta instead of bacon and also added some chili flakes to impart some heat. This dish was very easy to prepare and the results were delicious. They featured now-tender greens with a nice savory and meaty undertone from the pancetta and chicken broth.

I served this next to some grilled pork chops, but it would compliment a variety of dishes. Being Southern is not a requirement. Just beware about how often and how much you salt these greens. They may taste bland if you don't season them with enough salt, but if you dare to overseason them, when the mixture reduces you will end up with salty collards. Be reasonable. You can always add more salt later.

Braised Collard Greens
Serves 2 to 4 as a side (depending on serving size)

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 ounce finely diced pancetta
1 small red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red chili flakes
1 (14.5 ounce) can chicken broth
1 bunch collard greens, washed, trimmed, and sliced into 1-inch crosswise strips (my bunch weighed about 11 ounces)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook for a few minutes until the fat begins to render and the meat starts to crisp. Add the onion and continue to cook until softened, a few more minutes.

Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook for another minute, being careful not to burn the garlic (lower the heat a bit if necessary). Deglaze the pan with a splash or two of the broth, scrapping the bottom to make sure any browned up bits of pancetta and onion are released.

Add the greens to the pot along with the remaining chicken broth, red wine vinegar, and sugar, stirring to make sure everything is well-coated. The greens will begin to wilt. Season with salt and pepper (you can season more throughout the cooking process as needed--be careful not to oversalt, as the greens can get salty as the mixture reduces).

When the liquid comes to a boil, lower the heat to maintain a simmer and cover the pot. Continue to cook, covered, for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until the greens are tender (test the center stalky part). Adjust seasoning as needed. Serve hot.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blueberry Picking + Blueberry Lemonade


One of my favorite memories while growing up was going apple picking with my family in the fall. During summertime, we would occasionally go strawberry picking as well, and I can still remember the aroma of my grandmother's strawberry jam cooking away on the stove after those excursions.

One fruit I had never had the pleasure of picking during my youth was blueberries. It occurred to me recently that this would be a great opportunity to take my nephews blueberry picking so they could take part in this summertime tradition as so many others have.

We headed to Harmony Farms, which almost felt like it was in the middle of nowhere (it wasn't, but it was far into parts of Rhode Island we had never before ventured).

Harmony Farms features pick-your-own options for blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, and apples, depending on the season.

During the time that I visited, raspberry season was already over, but blueberries, blackberries, and peaches were all available to be picked. The farm also sells honey that they produce, along with jam and local maple syrup.

Rows upon rows of blueberry bushes invited us to pluck sweet berries from their branches.

I could have spent all day there, honestly. Even though I made off with nearly 3 1/2 pounds of berries (for $9 and change--not a bad deal!), I would have happily collected more.

My 4 1/2-year-old nephew had a blast picking blueberries and periodically running over to show me how many he had, and compare his box to mine. Auntie fared a bit better, but she has bigger hands and a focused determination :)

My 1-year-old nephew pretty much just ran around (making my sister chase him) and ate blueberries off the bushes, and sometimes off the ground (whoops!).

As he ran through the blueberry bushes, it reminded me of the scene at the end of The Godfather when Vito Corleone has a heart attack while his grandson is running through the orange trees :)

It was so nice not only to share this great experience with my nephews, but also to pick some really lovely locally grown fruit that I could use in a myriad of creations.

The toughest part of the experience was deciding how to utilize my newly acquired stash of ripe blueberries.

Blueberry jam

I actually used them in a few different ways. First of all, I made a batch of blueberry jam. This way I can enjoy my pickings well into the winter (if the jam even lasts that long). I ended up with 4 pints, but I can see us polishing that off before the first frost. I also used some blueberries in a rustic peach, cherry, and blueberry tart.

Peach, cherry, and blueberry tart

Finally, I recreated a fabulous cocktail I enjoyed this summer at Castle Hill Inn in Newport, RI. This Blueberry Lemonade is spiked with Blueberry Stoli vodka and St. Germain (an elderflower liquor), but it doesn't taste strong at all. It's so refreshing and light, one could easily mistake it for a virgin cocktail. It's not :)

A friend recently made this same cocktail with fresh raspberries and Raspberry Stoli and it was equally delightful! It's a great drink to make for company, but also when you need a summery pick-me-up.

I recommend using homemade or very good quality store-bought lemonade. The last thing you want to do when you have beautiful fruit and expensive liquor is to ruin it with a corn syrup-laden excuse for lemonade. My drinks weren't quite as bright purple as the ones at Castle Hill Inn (you can see a photo of theirs in the link below), but they were every bit as delicious! I think I went a little light on the ice and therefore used more lemonade to fill the glass (which lightened it up a bit in color).

Blueberry Lemonade
Makes 1 drink
(Adapted from Castle Hill Inn via In Style Magazine)

1 ounce fresh whole blueberries
1 1/2 ounces Stolichnaya Blueberry vodka
1/4 ounce St. Germain
Juice from 1 lemon wedge
Lemonade, to fill
Lemon wedge, for garnish
Fresh whole blueberries, for garnish

Muddle the blueberries in a highball glass. Fill the glass about halfway with ice and add the vodka, St. Germain, and lemon juice. Fill the rest of the glass with lemonade and stir. Garnish with a lemon wedge and a few fresh blueberries. Serve immediately.

Harmony Farms
359 Saw Mill Road
Harmony, RI 02857

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Spaghetti with Kale and Sun-dried Tomatoes


For the next few Thursdays in August, I will be sharing some great recipes utilizing a variety of leafy greens. Although typically referred to as winter greens, they grow amply in the summer and are as great on warm days as chilly ones. They are also packed with nutrients! The first leafy green I will be featuring is kale. Kale is super versatile. It can be used in salad, made into chips (omgsogood), put into smoothies, and sauteed in a variety of ways. Next to spinach, I think kale is probably the most popular and most used leafy green of the moment. Very trendy.

It is chock full of vitamins C and K, calcium, and beta carotene. It plays well with others, and although it is slightly bitter (it is a green after all), that flavor really softens up in the right setting. There are several varieties of kale, but the most common are typically curly kale and lacinato kale, also known as Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale.

I made a simple and healthy pasta dish utilizing some whole-grain spaghetti, a bunch of Tuscan kale, some sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, chili flakes, and tomato sauce. The sun-dried tomatoes and tomato sauce offer a slightly sweet and acidic counterpart to the more aggressive kale. When the sauce comes together (in a matter of minutes) the bright green contrasting the red from the tomatoes reminds me a bit of Christmas.

This is a considerably healthy pasta dish (if you exercise portion control, just like any pasta), and it's high in fiber and vitamins. Sun-dried tomatoes can be overplayed at times, but I really love them and think their sweetness is a great addition to nearly any pasta dish.

Spaghetti with Kale and Sun-dried Tomatoes
Serves 4

1 (13.25 ounce) box whole-grain spaghetti
Kosher salt
8 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, thinly sliced, plus 1 teaspoon of their oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch dried chili flakes
1 1/4 cups tomato sauce (I used simple canned tomato sauce because of its smoothness, but you can use fresh tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, etc)
1 bunch kale, washed, trimmed, and sliced crosswise into 1-inch strips (I used Tuscan kale)
1/4 to 1/2 cup pasta-cooking water

Add the spaghetti to a pot of boiling salted water and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some pasta-cooking water for later.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the sun-dried tomatoes in their oil and saute for a few minutes until they soften and sizzle. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook for another minute. Deglaze the pan with the tomato sauce, scraping the bottom to make sure any dried up bits loosen up into the sauce.

Add the kale, season with salt and stir. Cover the pan and allow the kale to wilt down for a few minutes. After it has wilted and become slightly tender (it should still have a bit of a bite to the stalk), add the cooked spaghetti and toss to coat over low heat. Add pasta water, a little at a time, until it loosens up the sauce and begins to nicely coat the pasta. Serve hot.


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