Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday Cheese Ball

After the success I've had serving Amy Sedaris' L'il Smoky Cheese Ball, I decided to make another one to bring home for the holidays. Since my sister is a vegetarian and would therefore not enjoy a cheese ball that was reminiscent of bacon, I set out to create one with a different flavour.
I found a forgotten jar of gourmet mango chutney in my pantry, and added a few tablespoons of it to the base recipe of cream cheese and butter, substituting aged cheddar for the smoked gouda in Amy's recipe. Inspired by the pink grocery store cheese ball that my parents usually have on hand, I added a generous glug of port to the mixture. Then, for extra flavour, colour, and texture, I folded in a handful of chopped dried cranberries. Finally, I rolled the cheese ball in a mixture of chopped toasted pecans and walnuts.

This cheese ball couldn't be more different from the earlier version, but it was a fantastic and festive appetizer. The mango chutney and port brought a lot of sweetness to the mixture, which was balanced nicely with the tartness of the cranberries and the sharpness of the aged cheddar. Once again, the toasted nuts brought the taste and texture of the cheese ball to the next level.

I enjoyed this cheese ball as part of a finger food buffet dinner, spread on rice crackers and crostini, and as breakfast the following morning on 7-grain crackers with a big mug of coffee (over the holidays, I will eat absolutely any leftover for my first meal of the day. I think it's a big part of what makes Christmas special).

I'm excited to try even more cheese ball variations. With a great base recipe and tasty additions, how could it go wrong? How about, in 2010, we all live on the wild side, and experiment with our recipes? Try something new, share your results with your loved ones, and feel warm and fuzzy as you stuff yourself silly. Cheers!

Holiday Cheeseball: The Recipe

2 sticks cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature
2 cups grated aged cheddar cheese (I used 4 yr old Canadian)
2 tbsp mango chutney
1/4 cup port
1 cup dried cranberries, chopped
2 cups toasted pecans and/or walnuts, chopped

To toast nuts, spread on a cookie sheet and into a 350F oven for 8-10 minutes. Cool, then chop.

Using an electric mixer, mix cream cheese, butter, and grated cheese. Stir in mango chutney and port. Fold in cranberries. Let mixture chill overnight.

Form mixture into two balls. Roll into chopped nuts, pressing them into the cheeseball. Serve with crostini and/or crackers.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Polenta with Marinara Sauce and Mushrooms

On the first snowy morning of the season, Jeff decided to make himself some cornmeal porridge for breakfast; however, by following the directions on the back of the bag that are meant to feed an entire family, he unintentionally ended up with an entire saucepan full of it. After he served himself a bowl and set to sweetening it with cream and brown sugar, I poured the rest of the plain porridge into a dish so that it would cool completely and mold.

Although traditional Italian polenta is cornmeal that is more coarsely ground, I was confident that this would be a close approximation. Since it's not at all common in my region, I've only tried polenta once before, several years ago in a restaurant in Fredericton, where it was cut into triangles and served under a wild mushroom ragu. I loved how it was an interesting alternative to pasta or potatoes, and how its neutral taste absorbed the flavour of the ragu. Armed with this tasty memory, I set to work on creating a polenta dish to call my own.

To start, I sautéd a mixture of sliced cremini, shitake, and white button mushrooms with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper in butter and olive oil until soft and fragrant.

I then seasoned the sliced polenta and fried it in butter until it was golden brown on each side. This took about 3-4 minutes on each side on medium-high heat.

I placed the fried polenta in the bottom of a shallow dish. I thought of making it arty and having the pieces radiate outward in a star shape, but then I snapped back to reality. That's just not how I operate! Random placement is just fine.

Lucky for me, Jeff had a marinara sauce bubbling away on the stove (made from crushed canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and copious amounts of red wine.) I ladled a generous serving of the sauce all over the polenta, and topped it off with the mushrooms.

The only thing left to do was to add some grated parmesan cheese for garnish, of course.

I was really pleased with this dish. The buttery polenta acted like a delicious sponge, and really took on the flavour of the sauce. I also loved the combination of the different kinds of mushrooms. This was a very hearty vegetarian dish, one that was perfect for the cold weather we've suddenly come into.

I'm grateful for Jeff's culinary mishap, because it allowed me to be creative and try something new.

In fact, from now on when he gets a craving for cornmeal porridge, I'll insist that he follows the instructions on the back of the bag.

Amanda's notes: Something I'd like to try in the future would be to mix herbs and spices and/or cheese into the cornmeal before allowing it to cool.
I think leftover slices of polenta broiled with a sharp cheese on top would make a wonderful breakfast.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Glazed Butternut Squash with Brown Rice and Feta

I just love roasted butternut squash. When the weather turns cooler, I eat it at least twice per week. It's so simple and delicious: cube it, toss with olive oil and salt and pepper, and roast it for about 45 minutes. The result is a deep, sweet squash flavour that makes the perfect side dish.

However, what to do when you want to eat squash, but the oven is busy cooking your main dish? Recently, I decided to find a way to make killer stove-top squash. I'm not a huge fan of boiled and mashed squash, so I went with a sauté. When I roast squash I leave the skin on and it becomes edible, but since sautéing is a gentler method, I decided to peel it before seeding and cubing it.

I sautéed the squash pieces in a few tablespoons of butter, with salt and pepper, stirring occasionally until they were cooked through.

After about 15 minutes or so, I was eager to taste it. The result Kind of boring. I missed the punch of flavour that I'm used to after roasting. I didn't want to settle, so I did a quick search to get some inspiration; as always, Martha Stewart to the rescue!

Inspired by Martha's website, I added chicken broth and water to the pan, and replaced her brown sugar with (what else?) maple syrup. After a few minutes, the liquid boiled away, and the squash was nicely glazed. (As you can see, I ran out of natural light at this point. Damn shorter days!)

Phenomenal! I cannot tell you how well the salty-sweet combination of broth and maple works. The best part was that it really brought out the flavour of the squash, just like roasting does.

Now, it's a fantastic side dish on its own. You really don't need to do anything more to it. However, just to try something different, I decided to take the salty-sweet idea to the next level, and combined the glazed squash with some brown rice and feta cheese. I just mixed everything up in the pan on low heat, and put the lid on for a few minutes to slightly melt the cheese.

Yum!! It looked and smelled so good, that even Bullet the puppy couldn't resist trying to get a glimpse of the leftovers.

Serve this with a simple main, because it will steal the show. I think this is substantial enough for a vegetarian main dish (made with vegetable broth, of course), perhaps with some sauteed spinach thrown in for a green. I just love this combination, and I think it will show up in my dinner rotation as often as roasted squash.

Try making glazed butternut squash with brown rice and feta tonight. Trust this squash lover when she says your tastebuds will thank you.

Glazed Butternut Squash with Brown Rice and Feta: The Recipe

I followed this recipe from Martha Stewart, except I used maple syrup instead of brown sugar.

Once squash is glazed, set heat to low and add 2 cups cooked brown rice and a few handfuls of cubed feta cheese to the pan. Stir to distribute, then cover for 5 minutes until cheese is slightly melted.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Roasted Apple Sauce

An adorable little girl knocked on my door a couple of weeks ago and offered to sell me some apples for her school's fundraising efforts. Who could resist? I ordered 10 lbs of local McIntosh apples; since they're such a great cooking apple, I've been dreaming of what I want to do with them ever since.
Apple sauce, which I've never made before, was the first thing on my list. While I originally had planned to cook it on the stove, I came across a few recipes that used a roasting method. Since I love what roasting does to food, my interest was certainly piqued!

Now that I've made my own apple sauce, I realize that the hardest part is peeling and coring the apples. Needless to say, apple sauce is now on my list of Things People Should Make Themselves Instead of Buying.

Since I'm much more likely to eat apple sauce on pork or cottage cheese as opposed to on ice cream, I barely sweetened mine. A couple of tablespoons of dark brown sugar were all I added; then, on a whim, I drizzled in about a tablespoon of maple syrup. I mixed the sweetened apples with apple juice and lemon juice, a few generous shakes of nutmeg, and a pinch of salt.

I poured the apple chunks into a roasting pan and nestled a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few shavings of lemon peel among them.

After roasting until the house smelled divine, I removed the cinnamon sticks and lemon peel, and stirred the apples. They just fell apart! I used a potato masher to smooth it out a little bit, but it didn't take very much work.

This apple sauce is delicious! It's spicy, with a deep, concentrated apple flavour, and just a bit of sweetness, and I'm not ashamed to say it's the best I've ever had. I'd love to try making some more with the addition of cranberries or blueberries.

I think I'll leave a little bit of it stored in the fridge for this week, and then freeze the rest in small portions. Besides eating it with pork or cottage cheese, as I mentioned earlier, can anyone suggest other ways to use it? Please let me know!

However, even if you don't, I suspect I'll be just fine eating it on its own.

Roasted Apple Sauce: The Recipe

4 lbs apples (12 large, 16 small) peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup apple cider or apple juice
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp nutmeg
pinch salt

2 cinnamon sticks
few shavings lemon peel

Toss apples with juices, sugar, maple syrup, nutmeg and salt. Pour into a roasting pan and add cinnamon sticks and lemon peel. Roast in a 400F oven for 45 minutes. Remove cinnamon and lemon peel, and mash with a potato masher.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sausage and Cheddar Crepes

Back before Jeff and I got into cooking, we used to go out for breakfast at least once every single weekend. Now that cooking is a hobby and we'd rather hang out in our own dining room, going out is more of an occasional treat. To ensure that we don't feel like we're missing out on anything, sometimes I take it upon myself to recreate dishes that we used to regularly enjoy in restaurants. I've been dreadfully sick for the past few weeks, but since I'm starting to feel human again and it's poor Jeff's turn to lie on the couch, all drugged up on cold medicine, I thought that I would use one of his old favourites, buckwheat crepes rolled around sausage and cheddar cheese, as inspiration for Sunday brunch.

Crepe batter is essentially pancake batter that is thinned out with more milk. I decided to use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose, since they were for a more savoury application and I thought that, like the original buckwheat, the denseness would work well. Making crepes is a little challenging, since you have to work quickly at rotating the pan after pouring the batter in, so that you can spread it out in a thin layer. I realize that my crepes wouldn't win any beauty contests, but I can't be bothered. I'll just call them "rustic crepes." Yeah, that's it!

I roasted my locally-made breakfast sausage links, and laid them on a bed of grated 4-year-old cheddar cheese (the sharper the better!) on the end of each crepe.

Then I just rolled them up and placed them seam-side down in a baking dish.

I topped them with a little more cheddar for decoration, and baked them for about 10 minutes, then broiled them for a few more. Next time I will only cook the crepes until very lightly browned, and then I will bake the rolls for about 20-30 min. (The cheddar in the final product was not as melted as I would have liked, but I was afraid of the crepes becoming too crunchy. Oh well, you cook and you learn!)

These babies don't need much in the way of side dishes. Just a few slices of apple tossed with lemon juice is all you need. Jeff enjoys his sausage and cheddar crepes with maple syrup, but I like them as is.

I can't say that I magically cured Jeff's cold, but I do know that he appreciated my efforts to help him not feel so crummy, at least for a little while. Even though the kitchen looks like a war zone, I really enjoy going to extra mile to enjoy breakfast at home.

Who needs restaurants, anyway, when you can eat delicious dishes like sausage and cheddar crepes in your jammies?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Snippets of Thanksgiving Dinner

Jeff and I had the pleasure of hosting his family for Thanksgiving this weekend. It was our first time cooking a turkey dinner for guests, and I was equal parts nervous and excited. Since it was such a busy day, I didn't get around to documenting things as well as I would have liked, but I do have a few dishes to share.

While Jeff took care of the fresh turkey from Stephen Taylor's farm (stuffed with onions, apples, carrots, and lemons, and rubbed with a lemon and herb butter,) gravy from scratch, and the potatoes (mashed with my roasted-garlic butter, and cream cheese) I tackled the rest of the dinner. First up is homemade cranberry sauce:

I followed a Martha Stewart recipe, but made it my own with a few generous shakes of cinnamon. Mmmm, it was spicy and tasted like autumn. I hated cranberry sauce until I started making it myself; there's really no comparison, and it's only slightly harder than locating the can opener.

Inspired by this month's recipe for Whole Wheat Stuffing with Pancetta, Chestnuts, and Parmesan in Bon Appétit, I tried something different for my dressing. I think chestnuts are more of an American holiday tradition; anyway, I'm not at all familiar with them so I substituted with walnuts. Also, because I have a hard time reading recipes very attentively, I didn't realize until later that this one called for cubed pancetta, and instead asked the kid at the deli counter to slice mine like bacon. While I can see why cubes of pancetta would work very well, texture-wise, with the cubes of bread in this dish, the sliced pancetta was perfectly tasty and added a lot of flavour. I also loved the complimentary, yet subtle, addition of Parmesan in this dressing.

I decided to use dried herbs in this dish instead of fresh, because I was afraid that fresh ones would wilt and lose their oils and flavour during the long baking time. In addition to the thyme and rosemary listed in the recipe, I added some ground savoury, inspired by a friend who raves about her mother's stuffing and credits this herb as a major player. I was very pleased with this dish, as it had great texture (toasting the bread cubes beforehand keeps the dressing from getting soggy) and amazing flavour. I smell a tradition!

For a vegetable side dish, I cut butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots into equally sized pieces, tossed them with olive oil, salt, and freshly cracked pepper, and roasted them at 450C for 20-25 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through. I then drizzled the vegetables with a bit of maple syrup, tossed them some more, and put them back in the oven for 10 minutes to glaze.

They were delicious. Once roasted and caramelized, it was difficult to tell which vegetable was which, because the dish was a bright and shiny mass of orange. This side dish was full of deep, sweet flavour, and I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Finally, my crowning achievement. I made cheesecake for the first time, a pumpkin one. I followed yet another Martha Stewart recipe, replacing the graham cracker crust with one made from gingersnaps (I used a bit more crumbs than the recipe called for, and omitted sugar.) I also made my own pumpkin pie spice by combining ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
The cheesecake cracked in the oven, which I hear is a common problem. I just brought individual slices cut from the intact portion to the table for our guests, instead of displaying the cake before serving. No one seemed to mind! Made with 4 blocks of cream cheese, this dessert was incredibly rich, and required no sauce or whipped cream for garnish. Pure decadence!

For the first time, I truly appreciate how much work goes into putting on a Thanksgiving dinner. Although exhausting, it was very satisfying to invite people into our home to enjoy a holiday meal. I hope that this year's dinner was only the beginning of new traditions, and look forward to future feasts with loved ones.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Auchentoshan Chocolate Pecan Pie

When Jeff had a milestone birthday this summer, our dear friends bought him a bottle of 12-year-old Auchentoshan. As this was his first nice bottle of single malt scotch whisky, they offered to host a tasting for us. Since they are both scotch connoisseurs, we knew we were in for a treat; in fact, one of them, Mortie C, is the blogger behind The Spirit Safe. Definitely check it out; he is very knowledgeable and informative. I've learned a lot from him!

Mortie and I thought that it would be interesting if I used the Auchentoshan in a dessert, so that we both could blog about the tasting (for Mortie's complete review of the Auchentoshan at The Spirit Safe, click here.) I knew exactly where to look for a delicious recipe: Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, is a book full of classic-with-a-twist desserts that includes Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie. As a novice baker, most of their recipes are a little advanced for my abilities, but the book is so gorgeous and inspiring that I've read it from cover to cover at least 4 times. The Baked pecan pie recipe, I thought, seemed manageable, and I was excited to actually use the book for the first time.

Another first for me was making my own pie crust. Oh, boy. On my list of "Things that Terrify Me to My Very Core," making my own pie crust is sandwiched between being mauled by a grizzly bear and burning the house down with my hair straightener. So, as I began my pie adventure, I was even more frazzled than usual. Thankfully, after two attempts, I ended up with something that looked OK; in fact, I was quite pleased with myself!

Once the crust had a chance to freeze, the recipe called for a single layer of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Clearly, the gentlemen behind Baked know what they're doing!

Onto the custard filling. I combined eggs, corn syrup, white and brown sugars, butter, salt and vanilla. I replaced the bourbon in the recipe with Auchentoshan, of course, and increased its amount from 3 tbsp to 1/4 cup so that I could be sure it would shine. I mixed in some chopped toasted pecan halves from the farmer's market, and poured it carefully onto the chocolate layer.

Then, it was time to arrange the rest of the pecan halves on top of the filling.

After about an hour of baking, the pie was done. I had a moment of sheer panic when I realized that the pie looked like a soufflé! The custard had puffed right up to a dome that was three times as high as the crust! I set it out to cool, and thankfully, while I was pacing around the kitchen, sweating and muttering, it settled down to a normal height for pie. I've since done some research, and it turns out the puffing up is typical. Apparently, this is common knowledge to the point where no recipe that I looked at even bothered mentioning it. What, am I the only moron in the world who would bake a pecan pie and not expect this hot air balloon phenomenon? How are we beginners supposed to know these things?! WHY WASN'T I WARNED?!?!!!

Aaaaaaah, much better.

When I finally cut into the pie at the tasting, it was clear that something had gone awry with the dough. Although it looked nice, the texture was all wrong. The crust was too tough, and more crunchy than flaky (both Jeff and Mortie's wife likened it to phyllo). I was somewhat comforted by the fact that it had a really nice, buttery taste, which motivates me to perfect my method. I've read Deb's tutorial at Smitten Kitchen, and I suspect that I added too much ice water to the dough before resting it. Oh well, you can't win 'em all, and I've read many times that it takes a lot of practice to master pie crust. I shall soldier on!

On the bright side, I really enjoyed the filling. The pecans were nice and toasty, the custard was sweet and gooey, and the chocolate provided an added layer of richness. I particularly enjoyed the Auchentoshan, which I thought came through nicely in the final product. With notes of toffee, vanilla, and nuts, it complemented the pecan pie in the most delightful way.
Mortie C kindly provided this picture of a leftover slice of pie, so that you can better appreciate its layers. He reported that he enjoyed the pie even more cold, right out of the fridge, as the custard had a chance to set.

Baked does flavour right, and I know I will make this Auchentoshan Chocolate Pecan Pie again when I'm more confident in my technique. Although I was disappointed, what's important is that I had a wonderful evening with great friends and a good spirit. You know you've found nice people when they'll not only hack through a pie with a rock-solid crust without complaint, but even give compliments. Today's lesson: when in doubt about your dessert, be sure to serve it with copious amounts of delicious scotch whisky!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Embracing Fat

Like any other person in our society who watches TV, reads magazines, and associates with other human beings, I am constantly bombarded by two little words. Two words that make my skin crawl, two words that invite me to bash my head against my desk, two tiny little words that represent everything I think is wrong with the way we eat.

Those two little words? "Low" and "Fat".

I have rage, people! Low-Fat Rage! I hate how "low-fat" has become the gold standard qualifier against which we judge the nutritional value of food. Actually, in a lot of cases, "food." Here are some food items that you may hear are worth gorging on, due to the fact that they're low in fat (or, LOW-FAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! as certain magazines love to exclaim):

-angel food cake
-gummy bears
-jelly beans
-Crystal Light
-Frosted Flakes
-birch bark

That list sure represents the foundations of a healthy diet. I wonder why those clowns over at Canada's Food Guide haven't jumped all over this!

In all seriousness, it's a shame that fat has gotten such a bad rap over the years. Every single cell in your body is made up of fat. Your brain? Mostly fat! Fat fuels us. Why has it become the Boogey Man?

We have been misled, for years, about what is healthy for our bodies. It's no longer a secret that most food that is labelled as low-fat contains a terrifying amount of sugar (which, in abundance, is actually more like the Boogey Man, if you ask me, but I digress.) Forget our bodies for a second. What about our minds? We've been made to beat ourselves up and measure our self worth over what tasty things we put in our bellies! That's no way to live.

You know what tastes great? Butter. Eggs. Cheese. Cream. Real mayonnaise. Olive oil.

You know what tastes awful? Guilt.

Just let it go! I promise that you will be much happier. Isn't that what really matters? A few years ago, after reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingslover, I decided to forget all of my Fat Guilt. It felt so wrong for a while, but I soon got used to my 2% milk, regular cheese, full-fat mayonnaise, and butter, because my life was so rich (pun intended) with deliciousness.

I have news for those who read things like this and say, "My stars! That's so unhealthy! Surely you're sabotaging your health by eating such evil things as butter!" Actually, eating fat does not equal getting fatter. Since making the transition to eating real food (that is, anything that grows in the ground, or on trees, or comes from an animal) I have never been healthier. I'm in better shape and at a lower weight than I ever was when I eat what I had been brainwashed into thinking was good for me. Even though I include fat in my diet, my blood pressure is in the healthy lower range, and the results from my routine blood work are better than average. My doctor loves me!

Here's the thing about real, natural fat: it tastes so good, that you only need a little. A small piece of real applewood smoked cheddar is far more satisfying than an entire block of low-fat, rubbery cheese. I'd rather eat one tablespoon of real, thick, 6% fat yogurt lightly sweetened with honey or maple syrup, than an entire 750mL container of thin, runny, non-fat yogurt sweetened with acid rain, or whatever it is they put in there.

So, in the spirit of embracing fat, I thought I would share part of what I had for brunch this morning. Since it's Saturday, I wanted it to be special.

I whisked three eggs with a splash of milk and some kosher salt, and poured it into a pan that was coated in a bit of sizzling butter.

I added some feta cheese, which was left over from Greek Finger Food Night (a popular Friday night meal at our place.)

Once I folded the omelette, I put some more cheese on top, just to make it look pretty.

I then finished it off with a dollop of tzatziki sauce. Mmmmm...

I'm convinced that if I had instead made an egg-white-from-a-carton omelette fried in margarine or cooking spray, with low-fat cheese and a dollop of non-fat yogurt, my foodie self would have been so unsatisfied, that I would have run to the store and bought an armload of (LOW-FAT!!!!!!) licorice for lunch to console myself. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating...but right now I feel satisfied, nourished, and, most of all, content. And nothing tastes better than that.