Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review

I can’t believe we are almost to 2012!  How did that happen?  I had a great year in 2011 and I hope all of you did as well.  I am so blessed to have such wonderful family and friends, a great job, cozy home, a fantastic boyfriend, and fun opportunities.  I can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring!
A big highlight of my year was starting Perfecting the Pairing.  It had been on my mind for years and I finally made it happen in late August.  I have had so much fun cooking, tasting, writing, photographing, and discussing the blog.  I have also had some frustrating moments cooking, tasting, writing and photographing…. but that is all part of it!  Thank you to everyone who has read my ramblings, commented, and especially tried the recipes!  I can’t tell you how much it means to me.  I get excited every time I receive a new comment or hear about someone new reading the blog.
I also need to thank my friends, family, and boyfriend for being such willing taste-testers.  I apologize for making you wait while I photograph a plate at 60 different angles or for making you hold a lamp over your head so the lighting is “just right”.  I also think Mariano’s (my favorite grocery store) should thank me for being such a good customer.
I have a long list of post ideas, recipes, and pairings that I can’t wait to share with you in 2012 but I thought it might be fun to do a review of some of the highlights of Perfecting the Pairing since it started in August.

Most viewed recipes according to the Blogger statisticians, in descending order:
Outrageous Brownies (which is kind of crazy since I just posted this…. People love chocolate!)

Personal Favorites (please note, I would not put something on Perfecting the Pairing unless I thought it was great but these are my absolute favorites):
Tomato Pie (this is good anytime)

Spicy Tomato and Avocado Shrimp Dip (Be sure to check out the organized grocery list!!)

Main and Sides:


Is there anything you would like me to try in 2012??  I am always open to suggestions and I would love to hear from you!
Have a safe, happy, and fun new year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sweet Potato Strudel with Brown Butter

Perfect Pairing:  Dino:  The Essential Dean Martin Album

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas.  I definitely did!  My family had so much fun together opening gifts, enjoying good food and just being together.  I am sad the festivities are almost over.  We still have a couple of days together and I plan on making the most of it!

Are you browning your butter?  If not, you should start.  It was only recently that I realized how awesome brown butter tastes.  I had heard chefs refer to it on cooking shows, but had never really done anything with it myself.  Side note…. I have a weird addiction to any competitive cooking show.  They should start some sort of fantasy competitive cooking league.  I would be a killer.  Anyway, brown butter seemed very fancy to me, but honestly, there is nothing fancy about it.  It does not require any special equipment or ingredients.  By browning the butter the flavor completely changes and it goes from being plain old butter to this complex, nutty, savory delight. 
This strudel takes full advantage of the toasty butter but is also slightly sweet because of the dried cranberries, raisins, carrots, and sweet potatoes.  Everything is rolled up in layers of phyllo dough.  I know some people are a little intimidated by phyllo dough because it is fragile and comes with care instructions.  While it is important to keep it covered with a damp towel it is surprisingly easy to work with.  Don’t get flustered if it bunches up in one area or breaks, no one will know.  That is the beauty of layers, everything just melds together! 
I wish I had a better picture of the finished product.  This was served at the weenie roast and it was full-on darkness by the time I was ready to photograph it.  You’ll just have to trust me on how attractive and delicious it is.  The flaky crust melts in your mouth and the creamy filling has just the right amount of sweet and savory.  It was also surprisingly good leftover. 
The Perfect Pairing for this strudel is Dino: The Essential Dean Martin album.  When I think of strudel, phyllo dough, and brown butter I think of something very fancy.  This recipe is actually just good food.  That is kind of like Dino.  He has this air of sophistication around him but his music is relatable and fun.  I love this album.  It has so many great songs and is the perfect thing to play during a dinner party.  That voice is something else.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chili Spiced Soup with Stoplight Peppers and Avocado Relish

Perfect Pairing:  Sharp chef’s knife

One of the best fall meals is a great bowl of soup.  It is so comforting and filling.  This soup is my new favorite.  It is full of flavor and incredibly healthy.  It makes a big batch but it just gets better each day.  This recipe tells you to make your own seasoning blend, which has a kick.  If you are not a fan of spice you may want to cut back on the chili powder.  When you are mixing it up it may seem like a lot of spice but it does not overwhelm, just adds great flavor. 
Don’t skip the relish that goes on top of the soup.  It really makes it special.  If you can’t find queso fresco you could use feta cheese.
The Perfect Pairing for this soup is a really great chef’s knife.  There is a lot of chopping involved in this soup, but it can be quite enjoyable if you have the right knife.  Good knives can be pricey, but think of it as an investment.  If I was told I could only take one thing out of my kitchen it would be my Shun knife set.  That may be cheating seeing as it is a set of knives… but I think of it as clever game-playing.  There are lots of great brands out there but I am a huge fan of Shun.  My brother and sister-in-law got them as wedding presents and as soon as I tried them out I knew I needed these knives.   While I was looking for the link to Shun I realized they are having a pretty good promotion right now on their knives, click here to see it.  They would make a great holiday gift for the cook in your family!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Outrageous Brownies

Perfect Pairing:  A crowd of chocolate lovers

I apologize in advance for sharing this recipe.  These brownies will not be tagged with “healthy”.  I did not come up with the name Outrageous Brownies, but it is fitting.  My cousin, Julie, made these over the summer and everyone loved them.  I recently made them for a family get together, and received lots of compliments.  These are not your everyday, cake-like brownies.  There is only 1 ¼ cups of flour in the entire batch.  That tells you something.  There is also a LOT of chocolate involved! 

This is a Barefoot Contessa recipe.  Ina (Barefoot Contessa) often includes instant coffee in chocolate desserts because she says it balances out the chocolate without adding a coffee flavor.  I could detect a slight coffee flavor in these brownies so if you are not a fan I am sure it could be reduced.  I opted to make them without walnuts. 
I lined the pans with foil before baking the brownies so they were easy to lift out and slice. I would recommend refrigerating them overnight before slicing.  It will make your life a lot easier.  I cut off the edge so that they all have straight lines.  What you do with those “scraps” is up to you!
The Perfect Pairing for these brownies is a crowd of chocolate lovers.  Ina’s original recipe called for a 12x18x1 inch pan.  I do not have one of these, so I had to improvise.  I used 2, 9x13 pans and it worked perfectly.  That is a LOT of brownies so you will want a crowd to help you out or you could reduce the recipe. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Goat Cheese with Cranberries and Pistachios AND Party Appetizer Roundup

Perfect Pairing:  Holiday Party
I absolutely love entertaining this time of year.  I decorate my house immediately following Thanksgiving and start planning Christmas get-togethers.  My place is pretty small so it does not take long to hang the stockings by the chimney with care, so to speak.  My favorite part about Christmas decorating is hanging the ornaments on the tree.  Every ornament on my tree means something to me.  I love pulling them out of the box and thinking about who gave it to me, where I was when I bought it, or the memories it invokes. 
Years ago I started buying ornaments as my souvenir whenever I was traveling.  I used to travel a lot with my job and I went to some fun places.  In fact, I was lucky enough to travel to six continents.  Buying an ornament in each place was the perfect thing to do because they were affordable, small, and easy to bring home.  When I got home I would write when and where I got it on the bottom of the ornament. 
Here are some of my favorites.
A tangoing couple from a trip to Buenos Aires
The first ornament I remember on my personal Christmas tree in my bedroom as a little girl.
Every year my mom gives me the Hallmark Noelville light up Gingerbread House ornament.  I love these because you just pop in the tree light and do not have to pull out the bulb.
Mom has also given me the Swarovski snowflake ornament for the last 12 years.  I love the sparkle they add to my tree.
There were times that I was not able to find an actual ornament so I settled with a keychain.  Hey, if it hangs on the tree, I say it counts. 
This particular keychain was from a trip to South Africa.  I absolutely had to get it because of this guy that I met on the road while I was there.  Hey buddy!
I guess sometimes the ornaments don’t have a meaning; I just think they are cute. 
I also seem to have a lot of ornaments that fall into the tropical/sparkly/pink category.

When I have Christmas get-togethers at my house I usually serve a variety of appetizers rather than a full meal.  The key is to have a few appetizers that are easy to throw together or that could be made ahead of time.  This year I plan on including roasted vegetable dip, manchego cheese with brown butter honey sauce, rosemary cocktail nuts, Scottish oatcakes, and prosciutto wrapped breadsticks in the menu because they are all so easy and delicious. 
I will also be making goat cheese with cranberries and pistachios.  It does not get any easier than this…. You just cover a 4 oz log of goat cheese with chopped dried cranberries and chopped pistachios and serve it with crackers.  It takes minutes to make and looks so festive!  It is easy to keep the ingredients on hand in case you have some unexpected visitors stop by.  That is why goat cheese with cranberries and pistachios is the Perfect Pairing for holiday parties!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Flatbreads with Thyme, Honey and Sea Salt

Perfect Pairing:  Maldon Sea Salt

I have been on a thyme kick lately.  There is something about this herb that has been calling out to me for the last couple of months.  I have been adding it to soups, salads, and whatever else I happen to be making.  I think the recipe I posted for oven roasted mushroom tapas is what got me hooked on fresh thyme.  When I saw a recipe that added fresh thyme to homemade flatbreads along with honey, salt, and cheese…. Well, it was something I needed to try immediately.
These flatbreads could almost be called a cracker because they are so thin and crispy.  The combination of honey, cheese and salt is crazy good.   These would be the perfect thing to serve at a cocktail party or alongside your favorite soup recipe.  If you left off the thyme I bet these flatbreads would also be pretty amazing with a little spread of Nutella.  Let's be honest.... what is not improved by Nutella?
When you are rolling out the flatbreads they will seem a little oily but after they bake they are crispy and light.  I used BellaVitano Gold Reserve Cheese, which was lovely, but you could use Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese.
The Perfect Pairing for these flatbreads is Maldon Sea Salt.  I have the Maldon Sea Salt Flakes and I am a huge fan.  I always use it as a finishing salt rather than cooking with it.  The flakes are much larger than usual kosher salt but they are not overwhelming because they have a delicate flavor. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Slow Cooker Beef Short Ribs

Perfect Pairing:  Celery Root and Apple Puree

I am a little intimidated by certain kinds of meat.  I am not likely to take on a big rack of ribs because I know there are experts out there that would say I am doing it all wrong.  Ribs are religion to some people.  I will leave them to the professionals, at least for now.  I think short ribs are much more approachable.  It seems like they are becoming extremely popular these days along with pork belly.  Has anyone else noticed that? 
I had never done anything with short ribs before but decided to give them a try in my slow cooker.  Ohmygoodness.  They were so extremely good and easy!  Since they are so fattening I will not be making them on a regular basis, but they are great for a special dinner.  The slow cooker does all the work for you so that when you are ready to serve them the meat has fallen off the bone.  You can barely get them out in one piece because they are so tender. 
There are quite a few ingredients in this recipe because I was using what I had on hand.  It is definitely not a science, and I think you could leave out a couple of items if you don’t have them on hand, or don’t want to buy them.  I don’t think it would compromise the flavor.
The Perfect Pairing for this short rib dish is the celery root and apple puree I featured here.  You are definitely going to want something to soak up the sauce on these ribs.  You could also serve them with mashed potatoes but I really liked the flavor of the celery root puree because it was lighter than your standard mashed potatoes.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Herbed Tomatoes

Perfect Pairing:  Leftover herbs in your crisper drawer

You may have noticed that things have been a little quiet lately on Perfecting the Pairing.  I had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with my friends and family, which kept me pretty busy.  Even though I was quiet on the blog I was definitely still cooking and photographing.  There are lots of fun things coming up! 

I got home last night from an absolutely amazing vacation in Grand Cayman.  We had delicious food, great service, perfect weather, and lots of great memories.  I have been a little heartsick all day thinking about that blue sky and sea.  I can tell you that, without a doubt, a Perfect Pairing is a pina colada on the beach.
Now that I am home I am thinking about healthy, while still flavorful, dishes.  These herbed tomatoes fit the bill. They are such an easy and flavorful side dish.  I am a big fan of grape tomatoes.  They are the first thing I go for on a veggie tray.  It seems they are always in season, which is nice since the regular tomato season is so fleeting.  The grape tomatoes in this dish burst in your mouth with the flavors of garlic and herbs.  They are so good.
The Perfect Pairing for this recipe is the leftover herbs in your crisper drawer.  If you are like me you have half-used packages of basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, etc. roaming around your refrigerator on a regular basis.  Any combination of herbs works in this recipe but I really like basil, thyme and parsley. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Not Your Standard Potato Salad

Perfect Pairing: Potato scrubbing gloves

There are so many versions of potato salad, and they can range from really fantastic (my mom’s version with homemade mayonnaise) to pretty awful (grocery store version).  I am calling this recipe “Not Your Standard Potato Salad” because it is exactly that.  This version has no mayonnaise, includes bacon and cheese, and has a spicy kick.  The potatoes are boiled with a bag of Zatarain’s crab boil.  It gives great flavor to the potatoes even before anything else is added. 
I can’t label this as healthy but I definitely lightened it up from Guy Fieri’s original version. He recommended using all of the bacon grease AND a stick of butter.  WHAT??  That is complete craziness.  I also used half the amount of bacon, reduced the amount of cheese, and used light sour cream.   
The Perfect Pairing for this salad is potato scrubbing gloves.  Potato gloves are made out of a rough-textured nylon material that easily scrubs off dirt and grime from potato skins.  They are not a kitchen necessity but are kind of fun to have.  My mom put them in my stocking at Christmas, and they are great when you have a large amount of potatoes to clean.  The last time I made this recipe I tripled it for a big group.  That meant a lot of potato cleaning and these came in really handy.  Actually… I think my mom scrubbed all of the potatoes, but she really appeared to be enjoying the gloves.  Thanks mom!

* I have not figured out how to take a pretty picture of potato salad.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sweet and Spicy Spinach

Perfect Pairing:  Leftover bacon from the freezer

Full disclosure… this dish is not very photogenic, but it is tasty!  This sautéed spinach is not your typical steak house version that is full of garlic and oil.  This recipe has a savory and sweet profile because of the red onions, bacon, and pineapple.  One thing I have learned is that you should buy more fresh spinach than you think you will need.  The recipe below calls for 10 oz of fresh spinach, which seems like a lot, but cooks down so much that it only equals about three servings.
The Perfect Pairing for this dish is leftover bacon you have in your freezer.  When I buy bacon for a recipe, I rarely need the entire package so I toss the leftover in the freezer.   I can’t stand defrosting meat in the microwave.  I always cook it too long and it gets rubbery around the edges. Blech.  I hate that!  I saw a great tip on the Food Network about using bacon directly from the freezer when you need bacon pieces.  Pull out the frozen bacon and put it directly on a chopping board.  Don’t worry about trying to pull the pieces apart.  Using a sharp knife, cut small pieces off of the end of the bacon strips until you have enough for your recipe.  You can put the frozen bacon pieces directly in the pan and break them up once they start to defrost. 
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