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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Who Thought Corn Syrup Was a Good Idea, Anyway?

Corn products are so prevalent in America because corn is a government subsidized crop. In fact, corn receives more government subsidies than any other crop. It is one reason for the obesity crisis in this country. Not only does it cause waistline problems in the form of sweetner, "But in recent years, environmentalists have branded corn as an icon of unsustainable agriculture. It requires large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which require large amounts of fossil fuel to manufacture."

But does that mean we should avoid corn at all costs? After all, corn was one of the Native American's "Three Sisters" (along with beans and squash). They must have known something our government doesn't. Corn is high in vitamin B1 as well as dietary fiber. How ever, only whole corn gives you these benefits and organic corn is non-genetically modified. So what's the secret to eating corn, and not feeling guilty? Popcorn! When you pop organic kernels yourself, instead of microwave, you get a snack food low in calories, high in fiber, and delicious!

Here is a recipe for caramel corn that uses no corn syrup and still gives kids (and kids at heart) a sweet treat. Maybe not the skinniest of recipes, but it sure beats greasy microwave popcorn. We all need a treat every now and again!

Corn-Syrup Free Caramel Corn

I always wondered what purpose corn syrup plays as it is so prevalent in baking and candy making. Here's the secret (thanks Alton Brown): corn syrup is added when making any sort of candy where sugar is melted. This is because it interferes with the sugar crystals ability to recrystallize and make the resulting candy cloudy and grainy. So in a sense, an agent is necessary in order to assist this process. However, instead of corn syrup, this recipe uses maple syrup and honey to prevent crystals from forming.

3 cups. popped organic corn
1 c. organic white sugar
1/3. c. brown sugar
1/3 c. water
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 Tbsp. butter
1/4 tsp. salt
dash cinnamon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Pop popcorn using stovetop or air popper. Put popcorn off to the side. Begin making caramel in a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Add all ingredients except baking soda and vanilla. Stir until combined, then let simmer without stirring. Watch pot carefully! Cook for about 5 minutes until the sugar becomes a nice caramel color and the bubbles begin to build up upon one another (in other words, you don't just see a single layer of bubbles on the top). Take the pot off the heat. Now you need to work quickly. Put in the baking soda and vanilla and stir quickly. The mixture will foam up quite a bit and sizzle, so don't be alarmed. Mix until well combined, then dump in all of your pop corn. Stir until fairly evenly coated and dump popcorn on a sheet pan covered in aluminum foil (you will thank me when it comes to clean-up time). Spread out evenly (with a silicone spatula) and put pan in oven. Cook for 10 minutes, stir, and bake another 5 minutes. This allows the caramel to become crispy. Let cool completely and enjoy!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Take on a Family Recipe

Sicilian Chicken with Prunes and Olives. This is one of those recipes that is simplicity itself. It seems complicated and tastes incredibly complex, but it is all about good, simple ingredients that come together in a truly unique way. This is a recipe that I first tasted through my Aunt Pat. She is an incredible cook. The one in the family that always does the big, blow-out holiday meals; and never disappoints. I remember tasting this chicken for the first time at a young age, when the extent of my culinary adventurousness was eating mushrooms. Eating this chicken made me think, "Wow. Food can taste like this?" It is such a unique combination of flavors (the Sicilian tendency to combine sweet and savory) and yet, so simple. And the best part about it? One pot! Vary little clean up. It uses the cheapest cut of chicken (thighs). It's all things that can store in your pantry. What could be better?

So, without further adieu...

Sicilian Chicken with Prunes and Olives

1 pkg. boneless chicken thighs
1 onion, sliced in thick strips
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 1/2 c. chicken stock (enough to partially cover the chicken when in the pot)
2 Tbsp. capers
1/2 c. large green olives, pitted and halved
1/2 c. prunes, whole
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Salt & pepper chicken. In a 9x13 baking dish (or in a dutch oven with a lid) place all other ingredients in the bottom of the pot or dish. Place chicken in cooking vessel, making sure they are partially submerged in liquid. You may have to move the prunes and olives around the chicken to make sure. Add more chicken stock if it does not come up onto the chicken. Cover the dish with aluminum foil (or put lid on pot) and place in oven. After 30 minutes, remove foil or lid, flip chicken, and increase heat to 425 degrees. This will help to reduce the liquid, intensify the flavor, and brown the tops of the chicken sticking out of the water. Leave in oven for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot with vegetables from the braising liquid on top.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to Make Something OUt of Nothing

Sometimes, the simplest ingredients are the best. Julia Child has a recipe for Vichyssoise (also known as Potato and Leek Soup) that has a total of 4 ingredients, one of which is salt. Her recipe calls for potatoes, leeks, water, and salt. That's it. Maybe a garnish of chives. And it's delicious! How can that be? Well, when you take high quality, flavorful ingredients and treat them right, you get perfection. Now, I'm not going to give you Julia's recipe. Hers is for a chilled version of this soup. But on a cold winter's night, there is nothing better than a warm bowl of soup, made with ingredients that are at their peak in winter! Here's my version of Potato and Leek Soup. Enjoy!

Vichyssoise

3 medium sized Russet potatoes (I don't mind a little texture in my soup, so I wash them thoroughly and leave the skins on. This is where a lot of the nutrients and fiber reside, so I like to keep the skins whenever possible)
3 stalks leeks, split and rinsed thoroughly, chopped (only use the white and light green part of the leeks)
3 cloves garlic (crushed, but not minced-you're going to puree the soup, so no need to make it any harder)
salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried chives (if you have fresh, all the better, but save the herbs for a finishing touch at the end)
Chicken stock, water, or a mix to cover all vegetables.
1 Tbsp. sour cream, plain yogurt, or half-and-half

Begin by washing all the vegetables thoroughly to remove any dirt. Chop potatoes into cubes and leeks into semi circles. Don't worry about them being even or pretty because it's all going in the food processor (or blender) later. Saute vegetables in 2 Tbsp. olive oil (or an olive oil-butter mix) until leeks are soft and barely browned, about 7 minutes. Then toss in the garlic, salt & pepper and dried herbs. Saute for another 2 minutes. Then cover the vegetables with stock or water (I used a mix to save some money on stock) until everything is barely submerged. The more liquid you put in, the thinner your soup will be. You want it thick and luscious, so don't use more than necessary. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. Time to puree. Put contents (in batches) into food processor or blender. Pulse until the soup has become all one color with very little chunks in the mix. Return to the pot and rewarm before serving. Finish soup with sour cream, yogurt, half-and-half, or nothing if you prefer. This only makes the soup a bit creamier, but is by no means necessary as it is a delicious soup all on its own.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sometimes, Frozen Food is Your Friend


During the week, it's really difficult to put together a well-balanced, and healthy meal in a short amount of time. Those drive-thrus can look pretty tempting...but the secret to an easy weeknight meal is to take a little help from the grocery store. And here's the tip: *quality frozen foods are frozen at the peak of their ripeness, just waiting for you whenever you're ready!* So go ahead and use that bag of frozen organic corn. Because it sure is a lot easier than shucking, boiling, and cutting corn on the cob.

Here's an easy, delicious weeknight meal that mixes fresh and frozen foods. I take frozen shrimp (the fish in the supermarket in upstate is almost always frozen on the boat before being shipped to the stores anyway, so don't feel bad about using frozen shrimp), frozen peas, and fresh fennel (a delicious, if not strange looking, vegetable that is in season in the winter) and braise them in crushed tomato to make this flavorful dish.

Shrimp with Fennel and Peas

1 bag frozen shrimp
2 heads fennel (discard the dark stems and peel back the harder outer layers), sliced thing
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, grated (or minced)
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 c. frozen peas
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
a handful of olives (if you like a salty bite, which I do, try kalamata olives)

Begin by thawing the shrimp in the sink by running cool water over it until frozen. If they come with shells, discard the shells after they have been thawed. Put 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a pan over medium heat and grate the garlic into the pan. Top with the fennel and season with salt & pepper. Stir the mixture and cook for about 3 minutes until the fennel begins to soften. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, basil, pepper flakes, and olives to the pan. Let this simmer with a lid on for about 7 minutes. Remove the lid and add the shrimp, peas, olives, and vinegar. Cook until shrimp is pink, about 3 minutes. Serve with a crusty bread (we did a sourdough boule) to mop up all the savory juices!

Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Take Inspiration From Favorite Restaurants

I love Mexican food. And I don't mean Tex-Mex...and I certainly don't mean your friendly Taco Loco-stuff your face with something resembling a burrito and call it food. I mean the kind of stuff a Mexican grandma might make on a Sunday. True Mole. Tamales hand wrapped in corn husks and steamed on the premises. Shredded meat, slow cooked in sauce, and not a processed cheese in sight Mexican food.

There is a place in the small city of Canandaigua, NY that embodies this spirit. Great food, good drink (true margaritas-premium tequila and real lime juice), and a really fun atmosphere. It's the kind of place that every time I go there, I wish I had all their recipes. So I try to recreate them at home. I have come no where near any of their recipes, but I take inspiration. Tonight, I'm making enchiladas. And the inspiration I am taking from Rio Tomatlan is to make the sauce from scratch. That's right. That stuff in the can is not enchilada sauce. I'm making the real deal.

Red Enchilada Sauce:

1 large white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large dried chile, whatever you like
1 128 oz. can crushed tomatoes (tried fire-roasted, if you can find it)
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar (you can use apple cider or white also)
1 Tbsp. Chipotle sauce (Tabasco makes a great one with no weird ingredients)
1 tsp. chile powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. coriander seed
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
salt & pepper

Begin by sweating the onion and garlic over low heat in about 2 Tbsp. olive oil. When they look translucent, put in the tomato paste and vinegar and reduce for about 2 minutes (try to avoid breathing in the steam, as the vinegar makes it quite potent!) Add the dried chile as well as the spices and saute for about 2 more minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce heat to low. Let cook for about 15 minutes on low heat. When you are finished, you can puree the sauce, or strain it through a sieve, which is what I do since I don't have one of those fancy hand-held stick blenders.

To assemble enchiladas, dip each tortilla (look for some with no hydrogenated oils or corn syrup) into the sauce and place in the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Fill with your choice of filling (I am doing shredded chicken with about 1 c. of the sauce mixed in and 1 Tbsp. sour cream) and roll up. Top with more enchilada sauce, some cheese (I use monterey jack because it melts nicely) and pop it into a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes. You will have yourself some delicious, and healthy enchiladas.

Enjoy!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Making Better Food Choices

One thing I love about cooking is how it teaches me to make better food choices. Think about it. How likely are you to eat your aunt's chicken casserole (a relatively unassuming dish) after you know that it contains sour cream, a stick of butter, cream cheese and cream of mushroom soup? I at least would think twice about it after knowing.

Let's just say that the phrase "what you don't know can't hurt you" doesn't exactly apply when it comes to the food you choose to put in your body. This is especially true when eating out. I've made pasta carbonara before. Just the sauce contains bacon (or pancetta-Italian bacon), egg yolks, cream and lots of butter. Not exactly figure friendly. So I'm gonna pick the red sauce over the white sauce when I'm trying to stay on track.

Also, think about baked goods. I love to bake and try new recipes. I'm even taking a cake decorating class as a resolution in the new year! However, this means that I also know what goes into them. Butter, sour cream, shortening, copious amount of refined starch- ever heard of a mayonnaise cake? But I love sweets! What's a gal to do?? Well, I also happen to know that there are good choice to make when it comes to baked goods. For instance, try making an apple crumble instead of a double crusted apple pie (a crumble has no bottom crust-saving you a ton of calories-and even provides fiber if made with oats in the topping). Or, instead of double chocolate cookies (loaded with fat, sugar and starch) try these ethereal meringue cookies. Egg whites can do some amazing things and these babies contain little more than egg whites and sugar.

The basic recipe for meringue can be used to do many things. Think lemon-meringue pie. But, when piped into a circle (using a ziploc bag and star tip) you can make these little nests like the ones pictured at right (ignore the title text, please) which can be filled with fresh fruit (in winter try pears). Healthy, low fat, and looks completely decadent. You won't miss that coconut cake for a second!

This recipe was adapted from Barefoot Contessa's (Ina Garten) Meringues Chantilly:

Ingredients

  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a round template (cookie cutter, drinking glass, etc.) trace circles onto the parchment paper with a pencil. Turn the paper face-down on the baking sheets so the pencil writing is down, but you can still see the marks. The pencil lines will be your guide for piping the meringues.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a large pinch of salt on medium speed until bubbly. Add 3/4 c. of the sugar and raise the speed to high until the egg whites form very stiff peaks. This means that when you take the whisk out, and hold it upside down, the peaks still stand up straight (with a slight fold over at the tip). Whisk in the vanilla. Carefully fold the remaining 1/4 c. of sugar into the meringue. With a large star - shaped pastry tip, fitted into a ziploc bag, pipe on the pre-made circles, filling them in (if you don't have a star tip, just use the hole in the ziploc. It will work just as well, but wont' have the pretty ridges). Pipe another layer around the edge to form the sides of the shells (double up the walls so they have some height.

Bake for 2 hours, or until the meringues are dry and crisp but not browned. Turn off the heat and allow the meringues to sit in the oven for 4 hours or overnight. Most recipes call for letting them rest overnight to dry them out. If you don't have time, you can up the oven temp (don't go past 300) and cook them for less time, you just have to watch them carefully. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Greens

This New Year's, why not follow the ancient (and healthy) tradition of eating leafy greens for prosperity! It's a southern tradition to eat collard greens in the hopes that their green color will signify an abundance of more green things in the New Year ($cha-ching$). And who couldn't use a little more luck this year in that department?

Every country has it's traditions when it comes to what to eat when the clock strikes 12. In Spain they eat 12 grapes, one for each clang from the clock at midnight. My tradition? Champagne. Or Prosecco. Anything that's bubbly! Check out this link to read more about traditions around the world.

But, like many people in this country, I will once again resolve to eat more healthfully. Now, I am pretty conscious when it comes to what goes into my mouth, but that seems to go out the window when the holidays (spanning the entire length of November, December and January) roll around. Therefore, the New Year is my cue that it is time to get back on track. One thing I will resolve to do will be to eat more leafy greens. And I don't just mean spinach. I mean those dense, leafy, bitter greens that kids hate. But, if treated properly, cooked until tender, and with proper seasoning, these greens can be not only good for you, but incredibly delicious.

Here is my New Year's recipe for Braised Kale with Cherry Tomatoes:

Ingredients:

1 bunch kale, chopped and washed (only use the stem closest to the leaves-the ends get pretty tough and can be tossed)
1 clove garlic, minced
Handful cherry tomatoes
3/4 c. chicken stock (Kitchen Basics, if you can find it)
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat a large pan on high heat for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add 2 Tbsp. olive oil to the hot pan. Add garlic and kale to pan and saute for about 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, salt & pepper, and balsamic vinegar and cover the pan. Let steam for about 4 minutes until the greens have wilted. Remove the cover and stir the kale. Add the cherry tomatoes and pepper flakes and cook until the tomatoes burst. The liquid should be mostly reduced. If not, increase the heat and continue cooking until very little liquid remains in the bottom of the pan. Serve as a side dish with chicken, fish, as an alternative to creamed spinach...you name it!

Enjoy! And a healthy and prosperous New Year to all!