Sunday, December 30, 2012

Chicken Vegetable Barley Soup

Perfect Pairing:  New Year’s Resolution Diet

Wow!  What a Christmas!  I had such a wonderful time with my family and friends over the last week.  It all started with my mom’s birthday and was a continuous stream of visits, meals, parties, and gift opening. 
Not that I was surprised, but the holidays were filled with lots of really amazing food and drinks.  Lots.  Some of my favorites were homemade chicken and noodles (my dad and I have a tradition of making the noodles on Christmas Eve), butternut squash risotto, pork brined for 48 hours (my brother is a master), hot buttered rum, and lots of delicious desserts.
Like the rest of the population, I like to hit the “reset” button on January 1.  I look forward to clean eating, regular work-outs, and old routines.  Last January 1 I wrote about one of my favorite healthy desserts, berries and cream.  I will definitely make that again if I have a sweet craving. 
One of my absolute favorite diet foods is soup.  My parents have been making this Chicken Vegetable Barley Soup for years. It is so incredibly healthy and tastes great.  The “secret” ingredient in this soup, that makes it different from other chicken vegetable soups, is Chile Lime Salt.  You can usually find this seasoning in the ethnic section of the grocery store.  It adds a great kick.
This soup starts with a whole chicken, so needless to say, it makes a huge batch.  It freezes beautifully so it is the perfect healthy food to stock in your freezer. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

St. Germain Champagne Cocktail, or Fantasy Pants

Perfect Pairing:  Holiday celebration

I have mentioned before how much I love having my girlfriends over for our famous “get-togethers”.  They are always filled with good food, friends, stories, and laughs.  It has become a bit of a tradition for me to host the Christmas get-together.  I always decorate my place so I try to plan parties so I can force others to enjoy it. 
I met these wonderful girls while working at the same company, and we were fortunate enough to have some amazing travel experiences that bonded us.  I can’t believe we have all known each other for almost 8 years!  Where does the time go?
A couple of years ago, before one of our Christmas parties, we were emailing about what everyone was going to contribute.  I mentioned that I was going to make a champagne cocktail with rosemary.  One of my friends wrote back and said, “Ooh! Fantasy Pants!”  I thought that was kind of odd, but also kind of a cute name for a drink…. I guess.  I had no idea where she came up with it but I was going with it.  When she showed up at the party I asked her about it and we realized she was trying to write “Fancy Pants” but that darn auto correct had a different plan and she sent it off without realizing it. 
That original cocktail was just so-so, but I really love this version.  It deserves the name Fantasy Pants.  I have had St. Germain recently in a few cocktails and really liked it, so that was my inspiration for this drink.  St. Germain is a French liqueur made from elderflower blossoms.  Sounds tasty, right?  St. Germain is mixed with fresh lime juice and homemade rosemary simple syrup and then topped off with sparkling wine or champagne.  This cocktail is really refreshing and not too sweet.  The subtle hint of rosemary makes it a perfect drink for the holiday season.  I am definitely keeping Fantasy Pants in my repertoire.   

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Un-Recipe Files – Smoked Salmon, Scrambled Eggs, and Avocado Toasts

Admittedly, this is pretty similar to one of my favorite posts, Smoked Salmon Breakfast. 
Smoked salmon is just so tasty and easy.  In Smoked Salmon Breakfast 2.0, I paired it with rye toast, scrambled eggs (made to your personal preference), and mashed avocado.  The only thing I added to the avocado was salt and pepper.

This is a great dish to put together for a big group.  Perfect for the holiday season!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Truffle Experiment – Peppermint Dark Chocolate, Pumpkin Gingersnap, and Peanut Butter and Bacon Truffles

Perfect Pairing: Styrofoam drying method

 Ok, where do I start?  My mom had some cute trays that she wanted to give as gifts, so we discussed what we could include on the trays.  Truffles seemed like an obvious choice.  Forget the fact that we had never made truffles, let alone tempered chocolate, or made candy in general.  As long as we were getting after it, we might as well make three versions! 
I decided on Peppermint and Dark Chocolate, Pumpkin Gingersnap, and Peanut Butter Bacon truffles.  I made a quick trip to World Market and found some items like pre-chopped peppermint chips, adorable mini liners to hold the truffles, and all of the necessary chocolate.  We were ready to open Willy Wonka’s. 
There are quite a few steps involved in the making of truffles, and they do take quite a bit of time with all of the chilling, but they were actually very easy, and dare I say… fun? The pictures below show the various steps for all three versions.
We kicked things off with the Peanut Butter and Bacon truffles.  I mean, how can you go wrong?

Some of the bacon was set aside to top the truffles.  We ran into some issues with people snacking on it.
 Next up were the dark chocolate versions with peppermint.  After the inside of the truffle is made you have to let it chill until it starts to harden.  Then, you scoop out the desired size and chill again.  We wanted to make them on the small side, since you really just need a bite.  This mini stainless steel spring scoop was a great time-saver. Scoop, drop, scoop, drop…. You get it.

 After another round in the freezer they are ready to be rolled into perfect spheres with the palms of your hands.  Then you stick a toothpick in the middle of each truffle and return them to the freezer.  The toothpick is part of my perfect pairing, “Styrofoam drying method”.  Stick with me.

 Next up is melting/tempering the chocolate.  Tempering the chocolate is not 100% necessary, but it is supposed to make the surface shiny and the chocolate will “snap” when you bite into the truffle.  I was stationed right by the chocolate over the double boiler so I could remove it as soon as it got to 110 degrees F.  For some unknown reason when I took it off the heat the temperature kept going up.  I think it got up to 135 or something.  I blame the thermometer.  So, for the record I did attempt to temper the chocolate but I’m pretty sure I screwed it up.  Either way, it worked out just fine.  My truffles may not snap in your mouth, but I’m over it.
Time to dip! My mom is so smart.  She came up with the idea to cover Styrofoam in plastic wrap to hold the drying truffles.  Brilliant.  The plastic wrap keeps the foam clean so you can use it again next year.  Holding the toothpick I would dip the truffle into the melted chocolate (or almond bark for the pumpkin version) until it almost completely coats the truffle.  I left a little space at the bottom so it did not stick to the toothpick and so they would stay put and not roll away.  Then you stick the toothpick into the foam.  We set the blocks outside in the chilly air until they hardened.  Then you slip the truffle off the toothpick and they can be gently stacked in a container and frozen until ready to use.

My mom came up with another great idea for displaying the truffles on the small tray.  She was afraid the liners would slide around so she put a dot of chocolate on the bottom of the liner and stuck it to the tray.  It worked beautifully.

Since we made about 180 truffles we had to come up with innovative ways to give them away. 
 We also ordered these cute confection boxes.
The truffles may not be as easy as the Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels, but I think we may have found a new tradition.  They are delicious and so stinking cute!  I love them and I love giving them away.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

German Sugar Cut-Out Cookies

Perfect Pairing:  The most amazing decorating trick I have ever seen

When I was in high school I decided to have a Christmas party with all of my girlfriends.  I had visions of Harry Connick Jr. tunes, apple cider, and cookie decorating.  I told my mom that everyone was SUPER excited to decorate cookies so she should double whatever recipe we use.  Mom did not have a favorite cut-out cookie recipe so she called her good friend, Jan Sanger.  Jan is one of the most amazing cooks we know, so we knew she would have a great recipe, and she did.  She gave my mom this German Sugar Cut-Out Cookie recipe and we have used it every year since then.  The cookies are thin and slightly crisp, but still chewy, and have just the right amount of sweetness.  They are also really easy to roll out and the finished product keeps beautifully in the freezer.
The original recipe makes A LOT of cookies.  In fact, the recipe below is actually cut in half and it still makes a lot.   Since my high school Christmas party was the first time using the recipe, and I insisted on doubling, mom doubled it.  Oh. My. Cookies.  Predictably, my squirrely girlfriends and I lost interest after frosting a few each and moved on to giggling in the basement.  My poor mom and dad were left with the never-ending cookie production line.  I laugh every time I think of my poor dad being forced to frost a million cookies.  He really lost his Christmas spirit that night!  Towards the end he was just dunking them in the bowl of frosting. 

We have used a few different frosting recipes, and really you can use your favorite, but this year we used this recipe for meringue powder buttercream.  It worked beautifully.  We used the same frosting to frost the base of the cookie and for the colored decorations. 
I am sure most people would agree that one of the most frustrating parts of frosting cookies is cleaning out the decorator bags.  It is so obnoxious.  While searching for the frosting recipe I came across this video clip on Karen’s Cookies on how to use a decorator bag without getting it dirty, AT ALL.  Too good to be true??  No!  It works!  It blew my mind.  It is so simple!  How had I never heard about this?  Life changing. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Slow Cooker Coq au Vin

Perfect Pairing:  Elegant dinner party
Right after my parents moved into their new home I made a quick trip to help them get settled and unpack.  I mentioned in this cupcake post that I was really not much help to them because I was completely distracted by the kitchen and wanted to cook the entire time. 
I truly did have good intentions to help, and when I was thinking about what to make for the weekend I thought chicken in the slow cooker would be a great idea.  I could prepare it in the morning and forget about it all day while we unpacked.  Then I got the brilliant idea to make Coq au Vin in the slow cooker.  Well I am so glad I did because it was absolutely delicious, but it was not your standard “throw it in and forget about it” slow cooker recipe.  Not even a little bit.  Admittedly, there are multiple steps in this recipe and a lot of ingredients, but it is totally worth it.  It makes a delicious dish that is rich and comforting.  Trust me, it was scrumptious.

The benefit of using a slow cooker in this recipe is not convenience, but rather it makes the chicken fall off the bone tender.  Letting the wine simmer for hours with the vegetables and herbs gives the sauce a lot of depth.  It may seem strange to throw away the carrots, celery, etc., after it cooks but they are in the recipe purely to add flavor to the sauce.  Of course, Coq au Vin is best served with homemade mashed potatoes so you can fully enjoy the fantastic sauce.
The Perfect Pairing for this recipe is an elegant dinner party.  I made this dish for myself and my parents but we all remarked that it would be great at a nice dinner party.  Ok, so maybe my dad did not say this, but I am sure he agreed with us.  I am hoping to make this for my family on Christmas.  It makes the entire house smells rich and fabulous.  Don’t be dissuaded by the steps and ingredients.  You will feel like Julia Child when you put this on the table.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Un-Recipe Files – Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels


How could Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels be bad?  Answer:  Not possible.
A few years ago I participated in a cookie exchange and had the brilliant idea to make chocolate covered peanut butter and caramel pretzels.  Basically I spread a little peanut butter and melted caramel on pretzel twists and then dipped the whole thing in chocolate.  Holy mess.  They tasted great (how could they not?) but it was not worth the time and mess.
Fast forward a few years and I came up with this version.  The store bought peanut butter pretzel nuggets make this process so easy.  My mom and I made these over the Thanksgiving weekend to have for parties and gifts throughout the holiday season.  They keep really well in the freezer so they can be made well in advance.

I melted the chocolate in a double boiler (metal or glass bowl over simmering water).  I used chocolate almond bark and added about a teaspoon of shortening (1 tsp for every 6 oz of almond bark) to thin it out a little bit.  You could also use semi sweet chocolate chips or dark chocolate. 

Once the chocolate melted I threw in a handful of the pretzels and rolled them around until they were coated.  I fished them out with a fork and let them harden on waxed paper.  You can see in the first picture that I started out using a wire rack.  That really did not work out because they stuck to the rack.  Waxed paper is the way to go.
Wine is optional, but recommended. 

We used the great outdoors to finish the chilling/hardening process.  Make sure they are completely hardened before putting them in a bag or container. 
I think these are going to be a new holiday tradition.  They were so easy and delicious.  They are the perfect thing to add to a cute little basket or dish to give as a gift!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Basil Slice and Bake Crackers

Perfect Pairing:

I don’t know about you, but all of the Cyber Monday/Week commercials/e-mails/banner ads last week made me feel like a chump for not taking advantage of the deals.   Ack!  YES!  I DO want to save gobs of money and take advantage of free shipping! 
It is just barely December and I have major guilt about not having my Christmas shopping done., stop pressuring me.  
Early December also means full swing party planning mode.  I have a few get-togethers scheduled this month and I have a running list of possible appetizers to make.  These Basil Slice and Bake Crackers are perfect for holiday parties.  They can be made way in advance and frozen until party day.  Slice and bake what you need right before the party.  They smell crazy good while they are baking.
These savory homemade crackers are packed with good stuff like parmesan cheese, pesto, fresh basil, and nuts. 
After making the dough you divide it in half and roll each half in plastic wrap and freeze until you are ready to bake the crackers.

 Basil Slice and Bake Crackers are the perfect pairing for a glass of wine!  
A couple of years ago I heard about, a discount wine website.  They only sell one wine at a time at a discount of 30% - 70%.  They always offer free shipping when you buy the minimum amount, which is usually about four bottles. 
My dad is a tough guy to shop for, but my brothers and I have had great success with WTSO gift certificates for his birthday and Father’s Day.  He enjoys looking at the different deals and has ordered some amazing wines.  I happen to know a few of the orders went through on his smart phone while out on the combine. gift certificates could be the perfect gift or stocking stuffer for your loved ones this holiday season.  Fortunately, there is no need to worry about cyber Monday deals, they are always discounted!

Friday, November 30, 2012!

Well it only took me 15 months but I finally changed the official address of my site to instead of  No more pesky extra words and dots!  If you have grown attached to original address it will still bring you here, but you may just want to try the new sleek URL.  Not exactly big news, but I am pretty pleased with myself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Garlic and Onion Biscuit Ring

Perfect Pairing:  Quick side dish

This is a dish my mom and I have been making for years.  It takes just minutes to make and the result is quite pretty, if I do say so.  I usually serve it alongside an entrée salad.
Biscuits are dipped into a mixture of melted butter, onion, garlic, and poppy seeds and then arranged in a bundt pan. 
Once the top is golden brown and the biscuits are cooked through it can be flipped onto a platter to serve.  I would recommend pulling the biscuits apart with a fork to make sure they are cooked in the center.
The Perfect Pairing for this recipe is to use it as a quick side dish.  Biscuits last for a long time in the fridge and pantries are usually stocked with onions and garlic.  It is great to have the ingredients on hand for a delicious side dish that is done in minutes.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pork Loin (or Turkey) Crostini with Green Apple, Mango Chutney, and Brie

Perfect Pairing:  Leftover Turkey

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! I had a fabulous time with my family filled with lots of good food and laughs.  My mom and I spent the last couple of days getting a jump start on the Christmas baking.  We decided to try our hand at truffles, three different varieties.  At times the kitchen felt a little like Willy Wonka's, but they turned out great.  I will definitely be posting about them!
The internet is flooded with ideas on what to do with your leftover turkey.  In fact, (a website dedicated to "stuff guys want") did a feature on how to use your leftovers, and included a link to my recipe for customized bread bowl breakfastsIt is hard to beat a turkey sandwich with a little mayo and cranberry sauce, but if even that is getting a little old, try out this crostini.  When I made them I used leftover pork loin, but I think it would be lovely with turkey. 
If you don’t happen to have mango chutney on hand, or if you are not a fan, orange marmalade or apricot preserves would work well.  The tart green apple adds crunch and melted brie makes anything better.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pumpkin Pecan Shortbread

Perfect Pairing:  Caramel Sauce

Most families have Thanksgiving dinner down to a science and the menu does not vary much from year to year.  I think this is especially true for desserts.  Obviously, pumpkin pie is always on the menu and in my family we always have pecan pie as well.  I went my entire childhood thinking I did not like pecan pie.  I took a bite a few years ago and realized I was really missing out. 
Pumpkin Pecan Shortbread is like the bar-cookie-child of pumpkin and pecan pie.  I absolutely love shortbread, so I was crazy about this dessert.  If you are not the pie-baking type bring this would be the perfect dessert to bring to Thanksgiving.  It is super simple to make and very tasty.
The Perfect Pairing for this dessert is store bought caramel sauce.  I am not a fan of super sweet desserts, so I prefer just a tiny drizzle but it definitely adds something to the bar cookie.  I recommend serving the caramel on the side so everyone gets just the right amount for their tastes.
I hope you all have a blessed Thanksgiving! 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Butternut Squash and Chickpea Tahini Salad

Perfect Pairing:  Thanksgiving

How is it almost Thanksgiving?  Seriously, where did the last few months go?  It seems like everyone I talk to feels the same way.  What kind of weird time warp are we in right now?
Weird time warp aside, I live for this time of year.  Gathering with family and friends is my favorite thing in the entire world. Add in great food, good wine, games, laughter, and you pretty much have perfection.  My family kicked off the holiday season a little early this year.  We had a “pre-Thanksgiving” celebration since we could not all be together on the actual holiday.  It was a great time! 
 My mom and I have it pretty easy for the actual Thanksgiving dinner.  We have been tasked with dessert and stuffing.  I actually insisted that we make the stuffing, because my mom’s stuffing is without a doubt the highlight of the Thanksgiving meal.  She does not really follow a recipe, but it includes sausage and dried cherries.  Amazing.
Also amazing?  Butternut Squash and Chickpea Tahini Salad.  I ran across this recipe on Smitten Kitchen while searching for recipes that used tahini, and thought it looked unique and healthy.  I had only used tahini in hummus and had a jar hanging out in my pantry begging to be used.  I am so glad I ran across the salad recipe, it is absolutely delicious.  The roasted squash is slightly sweet and pairs nicely with the nutty tahini and fresh cilantro and red onion. 
The Perfect Pairing for Butternut Squash and Chickpea Tahini Salad is Thanksgiving.  If you are looking for a great side dish to bring to your family’s table, this just might be it.  I found that I can make the dressing and roast the squash the day before and then assemble before the meal.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Apple Cake with Warm Caramel Sauce

Perfect Pairing: Whipped cream

I think it is fair to say that some of the best recipes come from our grandmas and grandma’s friends.  Am I right?  My mom got this recipe from her mother’s friend years and years ago.  The recipe card is yellowed with age.   I think that this might be the best fall dessert ever.  Seriously.  It is amazing.  You know the famous book, How to Win Friends & Influence People?  You don’t need that book, just this recipe. 

I can hardly believe Thanksgiving is a week away!  This apple cake would be a perfect way to round out your holiday dessert table.
When the first fall weather hit my mom wanted to make apple cake.  My parents were in the process of moving and she had no idea where her recipe cards were, probably in a storage unit somewhere miles away.  She decided to make a cake that she saw made on the Food Network by a certain gorgeous Italian vixen.  Well it didn’t go over well.  Apparently it was not good at all and my dad told her to throw away the recipe.  This coming from the man who could win the eating section on Fear Factor meant it was really not good.  He likes everything!  Lesson learned, stick with the original family recipe. 
I learned another lesson with this dessert.  The original sauce recipe said to use cream or milk.  When I went to make the sauce I figured I could use evaporated milk instead of normal milk, and if that worked why not use fat free evaporated milk?  BAD idea.  It still tasted great but was not pretty.  After a little experimenting with an immersion blender it was just right, but not worth the work.  Just use whole milk or cream. Mmmm K?  Trust me.
 The Perfect Pairing for this apple cake with warm caramel sauce is whipped cream.  Why not?  Just do it. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chicken and Pineapple “Fried” Quinoa, not Rice

Perfect Pairing: Pre-rinsed quinoa

Since my parents just moved my mom has had an opportunity to analyze all of her kitchen tools before storing them in their new home.  She ran across a lot of duplicates, and superfluous gadgets that did not make the cut.  She called me the other day as she was organizing her pantry and asked if I could think of any reason for her to keep the electric skillet.  We went over what we have used it for in the last few years and pretty much came up with one thing, fried rice.  We both agreed that this was not a good enough reason to keep a bulky piece of equipment and into the trash it went.
That discussion got me thinking about the fried rice she used to make.  I loved it.  It was salty from the soy sauce, filling, and about as ethnic as we got growing up.  I decided I was going to make my own variation of fried rice.  My recipe is very different from that original.  I guess they both had peas, soy sauce and eggs in.  That is where the similarities end!
Instead of rice I decided to use quinoa.  I LOVE that stuff.  Side note: If you are a fellow lover of the grain you may want to try this Spicy Quinoa, Tomato, Spinach and Chicken Sausage Soup and this Quinoa, Shrimp, Asparagus and Goat Cheese Salad.  Quinoa's health benefits far outweigh even brown rice.

To keep it extra healthy I used lots of vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, peas, and edamame.  Fried rice from the local restaurant is going to be full of oil; this recipe uses only two teaspoons.  It is spicy, slightly sweet from the pineapple, filling, and delicious.  Most importantly, it is good for you!   
The Perfect Pairing for this recipe is pre-rinsed quinoa.  I made the mistake of buying un-rinsed quinoa once, and will not be doing that again.  I didn’t have a colander small enough to rinse it and had to come up with alternate methods.  I tried coffee filters, paper towels and draining through my fingers.  Long story short, I had a bit of a mess on my hands (literally) and a lot of wasted quinoa.  Do yourself a favor and buy the pre-rinsed variety!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Caramelized Onion Dip

Perfect Pairing: Ruffles Potato Chips

I think most people have fond memories of the French onion dip made from a packet.  It is a staple at most Super Bowl parties and potlucks.  It is consistently tasty, especially if you have very limited time to whip something up.  This caramelized onion dip takes extra time but not much effort and is far superior to the packet stuff.
I absolutely adore caramelized onions.  They are so versatile and add a ton of flavor with not many calories.  Try putting them on a grilled cheese or on a homemade pizza.  I put them to good use in this Caramelized Onion, Fontina, and Prosciutto Flatbread.  
Caramelized onions are the star of this dip.  Admittedly, you do need to set aside some time to get the onions perfectly golden, but once they are in the pan you can pretty much ignore them aside from the occasional stir. 
You should know that this dip is also good as a spread on a sandwich.  Just saying.
The Perfect Pairing for Caramelized Onion Dip is the good ol’ Ruffles Potato Chip.  Some things never change.
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