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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!


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!