Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Right before the oven died

So, the day started with cookies. That's a good start, right?

Then bread. That's pretty normal around here

Ugh. Of all the things to happen. I was in the middle of baking a loaf of bread ... The bread was at the point where I'd normally spin it around to make sure it's browning evenly ... and it was completely pale.

So I waited a while, and it was the same color. The oven didn't seem as warm as it should be. I used my infrared thermometer to check the oven temperature, and it was only about 230 degrees. Ugh.

Turns out I need new heating element in the oven. The part is on order and I should be back in business soon.

BUT - right before I baked the bread, the cookies worked out pretty well.

I'd just gotten a box full of different mixes from Krusteaz, and I was anxious to try the molten deep dish cookies. I mean, seriously. Cookies. Molten. Deep dish. How could any of that be wrong?

I also had a new dessert bar pan from Good Cook that seemed the perfect match. The basic instructions for the cookies said to bake them in a muffin pan, but I thought the square cookies would be interesting.

So I gave it a try.

First, the cookies fit into the pan perfectly. They were flatter and wider than they would have been in muffin pans. They rose more along the edges and fell in the center.

The good news was that the came out of the pan cleanly. See the pan in the background? That's how it looked after the cookies came out. Of course, I sprayed it with baking spray for extra insurance. But that's not always foolproof. So I was really happy when they slid right out of the pan.

I thought they could have been less brown along the edges - when I think of sugar cookies, I think of something that's slightly browned, but still a little pale. But, no matter what, I really liked them. They were crunchy on the edges and chewy in the middle, with a gooey chocolate center.

And that browning, as well as the odd rising and falling, might have been a hint from the oven that it was about to quit. It's possible it got hotter before it went cold. I really don't know for sure. Or maybe it's because they were an entirely different shape and size than the recipe called for. Or maybe it was a high altitude issue.

But, in the end, that didn't really matter. If you didn't know they weren't supposed to look like that, you'd never think twice. And that divot would be a great place for a tiny scoop of ice cream.

Don't they look good? 

You want a bite, don't you?
I'm going to make another batch the same way after I get the oven fixed - that chocolate cookie with the molten caramel interior sounds pretty darned good. And I'll watch the time a little more carefully.

What do you think? Would you try them?

Disclaimer: I received the box mixes and the baking pan from their respective companies. I was not required to write a post about either.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shrimp with Herbed Olive Oil #PantryInsiders

This is the first of a series of articles I'm writing for Pompeian, makers of olive oils and vinegars. Right up my alley. I go through olive oil like it grows on trees.


Pompeian has three oils in its Varietals Collection, which are oils made from a single variety of olive. I chose to work with the Picholine, since it's an olive I'm familiar with, but I've never tried a picholine olive oil.

The other two oils in the collection are Arbequina and Koroneiki.

One cool thing about these single-source oils is that you can look up the origin of the oil, including the mill, the country, and the harvest date. All you need is the lot number from the bottle. Or use your smart phone and scan the QR code on the bottle.

Mine came from Morocco.

Even better is that these oils are affordable - you're not going to have to dip into the college fund to make a salad - they sell for about $6.99 for a 16-ounce bottle, but I've seen them locally for less.

The picholine was described as "a medium-bodied oil with a green fruitiness, hints of herbs and a pleasing balance of bitterness, great for meats and sauces." So it was the middle-ground between the other two. I tasted it and started brainstorming. I wanted a recipe where you could taste the oil, but not just oil drizzled over something.

I decided to pair it with shrimp. And, I've got two options for you.

This recipe takes advantage of parsley stems - the part you're likely to throw away for other recipes. You don't have to use the stems, but if you bought parsley for another recipe, you might as well use stems for this.

Otherwise, use leaves and stems of about 1/4 of a bunch of parsley. Eyeball it - this doesn't need to be exact.

Shrimp with Herb Oil (or mayo!)

1/2 cup Pompeian Picholine olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, peeled
Stems from 1 large bunch parsley
12 extra-large shrimp, peeled and cleaned
Salt, to taste
1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise (optional)
Lemon juice (optional)

Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil on gentle heat in a nonskillet add the garlic and cook, stirring as needed. until the garlic is cooked and soft. It's fine if the garlic browns a little, but don't let it burn. If it does, start over.

Pour the oil and garlic into your food processor add the parsley and the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Process until the mixture is as smooth as you can get it to be.

Strain the mixture through a fine strainer and discard the solid bits - we're just after the flavored oil. Taste and add more salt, if desired.

Heat the skillet again with the residual oil - you can add more if you think you need it, but you shouldn't need more than a teaspoon or so.

Cook the shrimp in the skillet, turning them over when cooked on one side, until just cooked through.

Serve warm, drizzled with the herb oil. Drizzle with a bit of lemon juice, if you like.

Shrimp with Herb and Olive Oil Mayo

These shrimp, served cold, are excellent with a green herb-olive oil mayo. Here's how.

Put the 1/4 cup of prepared mayonnaise in a small bowl. Drizzle the flavored oil into the mayonnaise, whisking to incorporate it.

If you add it slowly and keep whisking, the oil will emulsify into the mayonnaise and it will stay thick, rather than thinning out.

Taste, after you've added two tablespoons of the flavored oil and add more oil, if desired - how much you add is totally up to you. Add more salt, if needed. You can also add a bit of lemon juice, if you like.

Serve the mayonnaise with chilled shrimp.

If you make more mayonnaise than you need, you can thin it with a bit of buttermilk or or milk and use it as a salad dressing or drizzle over vegetables.

This post is sponsored by Pompeian as part of the #PantryInsiders program.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Almond Caramel Rose Cake

Here's a round cake!
So, my mother-in-law called up and said, "hey, three of father-in-law's sons are coming to town for his birthday. Could you bake him a birthday cake? I can only bake square cakes."

Well, hmmmmm, that's interesting.

"Any flavor but chocolate," she said. But if I was too busy, she'd go to the grocery store and buy a cake.

And I said, sure, no problem. And then I started plotting. If I'm gonna do a cake, I'm gonna do a show-off cake. So I hunted down a few recipes.

Right off the bat, I knew nuts had to be involved, because FIL loves nuts. Then I decided that caramel would be a good idea for a filling.

Betcha that's not chocolate!
And then I decided I wanted four layers, because I had a cake slicer I wanted to test.

First, I found this yellow cake on The Kitchn. It looked pretty good, and the recipe said it would fit a 9x13 pan or two 9-inch round pans. Well, okay, then.

First problem was that I didn't have two matching 9-inch round pans. Which is totally weird, but true.

So, I baked one layer in a dark pan and one in a light pan. The cake in the light pan took longer to cook, but the one in the dark pan browned a LOT more.

I wasn't really happy with the huge difference in color on the outside of the cakes, but as my husband pointed out, "It will all be covered in frosting, right?"

Those are 8-inch layers right there.
The worse problem was that the layers were much too thin to be sliced in half to make four substantial layers, and I didn't want super-thin layers for this cake.

On the plus side, the cake tasted pretty good and the texture was nice. So I didn't want to have to hunt down another recipe. I figured I'd make the cake AGAIN but this time in two 8-inch cake pans.

Guess what else I didn't have a matching pair of?

Yup, no pairs of 8-inch round pans, either. Don't ask me how this happens. I haven't a clue.

So I went out and bought two light-colored 8-inch cake pans with straight sides. I had to go to FOUR different stores before I found what I wanted. But I got them, and proceeded to make cake.

Oooooh, pretty! And tasty, too!
I used the same recipe from The Kitchn, but used 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Butternut flavoring and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. Oh, and since I live at high altitude, I decreased the baking powder from 3 1/2 teaspoons to an even tablespoon.

Where the instructions said to add all the flour, then all the liquids, I added the flour in thirds, alternating with the milk in two additions. Just because. The cakes took about 35 minutes to bake.

Perfect! They came out of the pans flawlessly, and when they were cool, I evened out the tops, then sliced them in half, vertically, to make four even layers. Then I froze them to make the filling and frosting easier.

Four layers of cake. The caramel was PERFECT.
For the caramel. I wanted something thicker than a sauce, but not as chewy as a caramel candy. Soft, but not runny and drippy. So I found a recipe on Cake Central for a thick caramel sauce or filling.

It sounded perfect.

But, after it cooled, it seemed a little too dense, so I reheated it and added more cream. In all, I added an additional 1/2 cup of cream to get it to a state I wanted. So far, so good.

The almond filling was easy. I bought a can of SOLO filling.

Then came the buttercream. I knew that I wanted to decorate with roses like the ones I Am Baker makes, so I used her buttercream recipe.

Some assembly required.
Or sort of.

I started with her Perfect Crusting Buttercream, but used 1/2 butter and 1/2 butter-flavored shortening. Then I added 1/2 teaspoon of salt. For flavoring, I used 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon almond extract, and 1 teaspoon vanilla butternut.

The frosting was a pleasing cream color, which was nice. Not wedding white, and not too yellow or tan.

Assembly was easy.  Seriously. Much easier than I expected it to be.

The caramel got a little more dense as it hit the cold cake, but the frozen cake stood up to me spreading that caramel around. Another option might have been to use a slightly warmed caramel so it would have spread easier, but it still would have cooled as it hit the frozen cake, so I don't know if that would have made any difference.

I slathered the almond paste on the middle layer and used about 3/4 of a can. I had plans for the rest.

Buh-bye cake! Have fun at the party!
Since the almond paste was soft and I knew I'd be putting a bit of pressure on the cake to get that next layer of caramel down, I put the caramel on the next layer before I put that layer onto the cake.

One of my smartest decisions of the day.

I used about half of the caramel that I had made for the two layers of cake. I'm sure I'll think of some uses for the rest.

Spoon, maybe. It's insanely good.

Then, a crumb coat. The buttercream crusted quickly on the cake, so I didn't even need to freeze or refrigerate before I moved on to the roses.

This is my second attempt at making a rose cake using the tutorial from I Am Baker, and I have to say that these things are FUN.

The result looks good even when the flowers are a little off kilter, and you can fill in the holes with little frosting swipes or stars. I wasn't totally happy with all the stars, but that's just because I need a teeny bit more practice.

You wanted a slice, right?
I could see some flaws, but overall, I thought it looked pretty good. And really, who is going to study a cake that close? You slice, you eat, it's gone.

If you're wondering how I got photos of the sliced cake, my mother-in-law sent the cake to me for photos the day after the party, and then I returned to so they could keep enjoying it.

And ... this is probably going to sound a little weird, but when I got the cake back for photos, I saw a few smudges of melted birthday candle wax on top, and that made me happy.

I heard that all the guests were impressed with the cake, and my father-in-law was over the moon about it. Mission accomplished.

So ...

Remember those two 9-inch layers? Well, I decided that since I had no idea whether I'd get to sample my cake (it was attending the party without us), I'd use one of the layers to make a half-cake.

Six layers of cake, five layers of filling.
I split the layer into three very short horizontal layers, then cut the layers in half, so I had six half-moon pieces. I layered the cake with two layers of caramel, two very thin layers of almond filling, and one layer of buttercream.

I got a little boggled as I was making the layers. I had planned on having the buttercream in the center, but for some reason it ended up second from the top. No biggie. This was just for fun, anyway.

I didn't have a lot of frosting left, so I had enough for a super-thin crumb coat and then a thin top coat. No flowers or anything fancy. But that's okay. I like cake better than frosting, anyway.

The other 9-inch cake layer is in the freezer, waiting for me to be inspired. Or hungry. Whatever.

Want some cake?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Gadgets: Kuhn Rikon Spill Stopper

Most of my kitchen problems are my own darned fault. When I find a product that saves me from myself, it makes me very happy. Like the Kuhn Rikon Spill Stopper ($19.71).

My self-imposed disasters usually go something like this:

I put potatoes into a pot of cold water and crank up the heat, waiting for it to come to a boil so I can lower it to a simmer for the duration of the cooking time. Then I get impatient and slam a cover on the pot. Then I get distracted, leave the room, and the pot boils over. It never fails.

Or, even with no cover on the pot, at a boil it's probably going to at least sputter and spew a bit, even if it's not a total boil-over. Even with that little sputtering, it makes a mess on my stove. At worst, I've had spillovers that extinguished the flame, which is downright dangerous.

The Spill Stopper is a big concave silicone disk that's designed to stop spillovers. There's a removable piece in the center that acts as a vent and allows liquid to bubble up and collect in the "bowl" of the Spill Stopper rather than spilling over the sides of the pot.

I purposely set a pot of potatoes on high boil with the Spill Stopper on top and waited for disaster to strike. I was giggling with delight when I saw the liquid bubbling madly in the center without a single drop spilling over the sides.

Not a pretty photo, but it's not spilling!
While the Spill Stopper looks most dramatic when working with things that tend to get foamy like potatoes or pasta, it also worked to thwart spillovers any time I had a pot that was filled perilously close to the top. Yes, I know I shouldn't do that. But I do.

And, it works as a universal lid, as long as you don't mind a little air venting. At about 11 inches in diameter, the one I received fit most of my cookware except the very largest and smallest (other sizes are available, as well).

You can also use it as a splatter guard by removing the center piece to vent steam while frying. You'll still get some spattering through that center portion, but even the mesh splatter guards aren't perfect. You can also flip it over to use it as a plate cover, vented or not, in the microwave.

The Spill Stopper is dishwasher safe.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Having fun with sous vide: Rib Roast

A little while back, I got an immersion circulator from Anova Culinary to test. I'd been itching to try one since the first home units came out, but the last thing I have room for in my kitchen is a big tank of water. The Anova immersion circulator doesn't include any sort of cooking vessel. Instead, it's the heater, pump, and controls in one fat cylinder.

The nice thing is that it doesn't take as much space to store. The nicer thing is that you can affix it to different pots. Sure, there's a size range. But I've used it with two different stock pots, and it's great with both.

I've been muddling around with it since I got it, and I'll admit that I haven't a clue what I'm doing. But I'm having fun and learning from mistakes. My fault, not the device's fault.

After cooking pork and chicken, I decided to move on to beef. I picked up a couple bone-in ribeyes, then noticed that the rib roasts were on sale. Like, half the price per pound of the steaks.

Okay, then, roast it is.

When I got home, I poked around online a bit, and found quite a few people who thought that using sous vide to cook a roast was a bad idea. I found just a few who liked it. Many of them cooked their beef roasts at about 145 degrees, which seemed odd to me. I wanted a roast that was medium rare, at most. Not medium.

So, I threw caution to the wind and went my own way.

I seasoned the roast with Healthy Solutions Bold Beef Rub. I just got samples of that, and figured it was a good opportunity to try it. Then I bagged the roast, and sealed it, and bagged and sealed again. I had run out of FoodSaver bags and bought a cheaper brand, and I didn't completely trust the bags, so I figured two bags was a good precaution.

Turns out, I didn't need to worry about the bags. But anyway ...

I set the temperature to 130 degrees and let the roast cook for seven hours. Yup, seven.

When that was done, I put it in the fridge - I was cooking it for the next day. So, I let it chill.

The next day, I took the roast of out the fridge about an hour before cooking.

This is the roast, sliced the next day, cold.
I cranked the oven to 450 degrees, took the roast out of its bag, got rid of the liquid, and put it on a foil-lined baking sheet.

I rubbed the top with a little more of the spice mix, then tossed it in the overn and let it cook for 30 minutes. I took it out of the oven, covered it with foil, and let it rest for 30 minutes before I sliced it.

It was about as perfect as it could be, and unbelievably tender. This was a basic supermarket on-sale rib roast, not a super-fancy prime cut of beef. They're never tough, but this was meltingly tender. I was totally shocked, and I'm definitely doing this again.

Because of the sous vide cooking, the meat was the same doneness all the way through. The short high-heat cooking browned the outside edge and warmed the meat, but it didn't affect that all-the-way-through doneness at all.

Want a slice?
And, I have to say I liked the flavor that the beef rub gave it. It wasn't overpowering, but it definitely added flavor.

I'm thinking the leftovers will make great beef sandwiches, either hot or cold. And the ribs will no doubt end up being lunch for me very soon.

Definitely a win all the way around.

To go with the beef, I cooked some potato chunks in the Phillips Air Fryer that I wrote about here. (See, I do use these things after I review them.) I drizzled the potatoes with olive oil and sprinkled them with another spice mix from Healthy Solutions. This time I used the Herb Crusted Tilapia mix. I know it sounds weird to use a fish-centric seasoning for potatoes, but the first three ingredients were onion, garlic, and parsley, so I knew it would work with my potatoes.

And I was right. The mix is relatively mild - which is what you'd want with delicate fish - and it was perfect for the potatoes. They tasted like potatoes with flavor rather than potatoes obliterated by spices. I think this would work well with pretty much any vegetables, as well as with fish.

I'll me sharing more sous vide experiments as I come up with things that work. I want to try some vegetables, and then maybe some shortribs - I hear those are great. Have you tried sous vide? Is there something you;'d like to see me try?

Disclaimer: I received the immersion circulator and the spices as samples from their respective manufacturers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pineapple Margarita, and an Organic Margarita

Happy Earth Day!

The first time I ever heard of Earth Day, I was in Pittsburgh on a work assignment. Since I was there for three months and staying at a hotel, I had plenty of time to visit all the tourist spots, the non-tourist spots, the festivals and the restaurants.

It was actually a pretty happy-go-lucky three months, since I didn't have to worry about housework or yardwork ... or really any work, once I was home from actual work.

I did some cooking, since I was staying in a place that had a kitchen, but I went out quite a bit because I wanted to explore and sample what the area had to offer. And there was always food at the festivals and art fairs and other celebrations I went to.

That year, Pittsburgh celebrated Earth Day with a festival at one of its prominent parks, and I spent a good part of the day there, just soaking in the ... earthiness. Since then, Earth Day hasn't been big on my "must celebrate" list, unless someone reminds me.

So when the folks at Casa Noble tequila asked if I wanted to sample one of their organic tequilas for Earth Day, I had nothing else on the calendar. And I'm always up for cocktails. I wrote about Casa Noble once before, so I knew I was going to like the product.

My first thought was a margarita, but I didn't want to go with the typical lime-based cocktail. I happened to be cutting up a pineapple and thought, gee, why not use pineapple juice?

I gathered up some pineapple scraps - not the tough rind, but the bits of mostly-fleshy-parts that got removed when I was cutting out the pineapple "eyes." And the core, too.

I threw all that into my juicer and ended up with enough pineapple juice for a few cocktails. And a pretty nice-sized glass for breakfast, too. Good enough for me.

Pineapple Margarita

1 ounce Casa Noble Reposado tequila
2 ounces fresh pineapple juice
Blood orange, for garnish

Combine the tequila and pineapple juice in a shaker with ice. Shake-shake-shake ... shake-shake-shake.

Strain into a margarita glass over ice and garnish with blood orange.

For color, I added blood orange to the margarita, but you could use any citrus you happen to like - a regular orange would be good. Or tangerine or clementine or grapefruit, even. Or go traditional and use a lime.

You can just rest the fruit on the rim of the glass, or squeeze some of it into the cocktail, like I did here to add some of the juice color to the cocktail.

A few chunks of pineapple speared onto a skewer would have made a great garnish, but somehow I didn't think of that until too late. Oops.

And of course, if you're a fan of a salt rim, go for it. I usually don't.

But that ain't all. The folks at Casa Noble offered this recipe, which is more traditional. And little more potent than the ones I mixed. Their recipe uses the Crystal (clear white) tequila.

Casa Noble Organic Margarita

2 ounces Casa Noble Crystal
1 ounce fresh lime juice (or the juice of 1 whole lime)
3/4 oucnce La Sierra agave nectar
Garnish: lime wheel and/or kosher salt rim

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake, strain, serve up or on the rocks. Garnish with a lime wheel. To salt rim- moisten rim of glass with lime, gently roll in a plate of kosher salt.

More about Casa Noble

The tequila I chose came in a pretty blue bottle, but it's a bit hard to see the color with the tequila in it, like in my photo below. But I have a feeling I'll be using the bottle for other things once it's empty.

Along with my tasty bottle of tequila, Casa Noble supplied some extra information about their products.

The Reposado (which is the one I chose) is aged in French white oak barrels for exactly 364 days. I'm sure there's a reason for that. precise timing, but I have no idea what it is.

They described it as smooth, sensuous and full-bodied; light amber in color with hues of bright copper. They're serious about their tequila, hmmm?

They say the tequila has aromas of soft vanilla, delicate white oak, and light but persistent lemongrass and floral citrus notes. Sounds like a fine wine.

And then we come to flavor. "The lightly charred French White Oak gives this tequila notes of vanilla, chocolate and butter in addition to the citrus and sweet agave. The intensely sweet taste is introduced with oaky tones followed by a long finish with hints of caramel and candied nuts shadowed by a subtle spice."

Well, I'm not sure I tasted all of that, but it's a pretty smooth tequila. and quite tasty. This is one you could serve over ice and sip, if you wanted to. I'm going to have to go back and do a heck of a lot more sampling, just to see if I can detect all those flavors. Tough job, but someone's got to do it.

If you want more information, you can hunt them down on Facebook. They're also on Twitter as @casa_noble and on Instagram as casanoble. I was provided with a bottle of tequila in order to create my recipe.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Okie dokie, Artie-chokey: Lemony globe artichokes with peas and herbs

Someone's cooking here, and it's not me.

Yep, the fella went into the kitchen, and he did an outstanding job. He shopped, he prepped, and he cooked. I photographed and gently guided. And I giggled a little bit. But that's to be expected. He never cooks.


Okay, there was the Nashville Sneakers episode, but that was in the last century.

But I digress. Or I'm ahead of myself.

You see, I'm in this group called Cook My Book, and the idea is that everyone picks a cookbook from their collection and those books get mailed around in a big circle at regular intervals.

People cook recipes from the books and they write notes next to the recipes they've made.

And maybe cause some accidental spillage and staining. Oopsie. And then we sign the front or back of the book with notes to the owner and send the book to the next person on the list.

As we cook recipes, we post about them on our little Facebook group - what we liked, what we didn't like, what worked, and what we'd change next time. It's a great way to get familiar with a bunch of books and hang out with people who like to cook.

And eventually the books all make their way back to their owners with all sorts of scribbled notes and messages.

This is my first year. I'm thinking I might be a life member. It's a blast.

So, Bob's been hearing about this group and watching cookbooks come and go. And when he heard that my friend Sandra was in the group, he said, "I'd like to do something for her. I want to cook from her book."

My jaw dropped. Not that he wanted to be nice. But that he said the words, "I want to cook" and he was awake and not hallucinating or anything. But ... there's a reason.

 I had told him how Sandra took over this blog while he was in the hospital, and how she became such a good friend when I needed friends, and he wanted to do a little something to surprise her.

I don't know how surprised she is, but I'm still a little woozy at the thought of him using one of my sharp knives.

Coincidentally, I had my own copy of the book Sandra was sending around (Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi), so I gave him my copy so he could pick out a recipe.

He paged through it and mentioned that there didn't seem to be any meat. Maybe he was hoping for a pot of chili or a rack of ribs, but that didn't stop him. He was on a mission to cook something.

The book disappeared into the garage for a couple weeks, and when it emerged again, there was a sticky note on the page for Lemony Globe Artichokes.

I expected that he's pick a few and ask my advice. But no, he picked artichokes. Why? Because he knows how much I like them.

Okay, everybody ... awwwwwww

I had just gotten some glorious artichokes from Frieda's, so I was set with those. I told him that it made sense to cut the recipe in half (making two artichokes instead of four), which made the recipe slightly more challenging. But I was confident.

I wrote up a shopping list for him, so he could pick up a few things we needed. Mostly fresh herbs. Some lemons. Nothing too challenging. Frozen peas. I went with to document the adventure, and gently guided him close to his targets, but I let him do the hunting and gathering on his own.

He probably could have found everything without my help ... eventually, but I figured that asking him to figure out how much fresh tarragon was needed to yield 1/4 cup might be a little too cruel.

Even finding the tarragon could have been a challenge - I mean, it's not all that common. And cilantro sometimes masquerades as parsley, and we sure as heck didn't want to see that happen.

So I guided him to the right decisions, and to the correct peas in the frozen section. I like the petite peas, although the recipe didn't specify.

And then, before he got cooking, I set out a cutting board and provided him with tools as he needed them. Measuring cups and spoons. String. Hot water in a pot. A lemon squeezer.

As he used things and he didn't need them any more, I whisked them away. Just like magic.

Weirdest moment might have been when I was using my fingers to try to grab an artichoke leaf to see if it would tear off easily. While it was bobbing in simmering water.

And he said, "Don't you think you should use a tool to do that?"

Um, maybe. But this is - ouch - just as - ow, hot - easy - owie - and it just takes a second. When you do it all the time, it doesn't seem so odd.

So, I instructed a bit, helped just a tiny bit, and mostly just observed to make sure nothing went totally off the rails. I have to say that I was very impressed with his attention to detail.

He followed the recipe directions carefully, one step at a time:

Picking leaves off of stalks ...

Chopping parsley ....

Measuring chopped herbs...

Dicing onions ....

Prepping artichokes ...

It was interesting to see a non-cook cooking. The only slight glitch was that the artichokes could have been rubbed with lemon a little sooner, but no big deal. He did what the instructions told him to do rather than reading the instructions like a more experienced cook would have.

The biggest challenge was neatly tying the halved stuffed artichokes so they'd stay together while they simmered.

I estimated that we'd have artichokes on the table in an hour, but it was a tad longer. I didn't take into account the extra prep time needed when someone's not familiar with tools and methods.

But in the end, it was totally worth it. I liked the recipe, and it was a lot of fun to see Bob in the kitchen. I doubt it will become his new hobby, but maybe we'll try again another day.

As we were eating, I asked him if this recipe was easier or harder than he expected. He said it was harder. Then he asked if the recipe was easier or harder than what I normally do. I said it was about the same.

So there ya go.

Sandra, this one's for you!

Lemony Globe Artichokes

Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

2 globe artichokes
2 lemons, halved
3/8 cup fresh dill (a shy half-cup), finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh tarragon, finely chopped
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 medium-small onion, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup frozen green peas
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 clove garlic, smashed (through a garlic press, or finely minced)

Trim the artichokes so they can sit flat on their bottoms, and remove the toughest bottom leaves. Cut the artichokes in half vertically, from top to stem. Remove and discard the choke (cough-cough) and some of the small innner leaves, to make room for the stuffing. As you work, rub the cut surfaces with one of the lemon halves to keep the artichokes from browning. As you finish each artichoke half, place in into a bowl of cold water.

Mix the chopped herbs and onion with plenty of salt and pepper.

Drain the artichokes. Stuff the cavity of each half with the herb/onion mix so it's full but not overflowing. You're going to be reassembling them. You should have excess stuffing. Hang onto that - we'll be using that shortly.

Put the artichoke halves together and tie them with string to secure them.

Put the assembled artichokes in a pot that they will fit into snugly (this keeps them from floating or coming apart). Add the juice of one of the lemons (two halves), and then toss in the squeezed lemon halves. You might as well toss in the lemon half you used to rub the artichokes, as well.

Add enough water to cover the artichokes, leaving about 1/4 inch out of the water. Add  generous amount of salt. Simmer on low heat for 20 to 35 minutes. The artichoke bottoms in particular need to stay submerged, since that's the edible part and you want to make sure they cook. If need be, you can put a small plate on top of the artichokes if they want to float. Cover the pot during cooking, and cook until the artichoke heart is tender - stick a knife into the base to check - and a leaf should pull out easily.

Remove the artichokes from the pan and let them drain for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the remaining stuffing with 2 tablespoons of olive oil for about three minutes, then add the peas, sugar, garlic and a few tablespoons of the artichoke cooking water. Cook for 2 minutes more, then taste and add more salt, pepper, or lemon, as needed.

Transfer the artichokes to serving plates or a platter. Remove the string and lay the halves with the cut side up. Pile the peas on top of each artichoke. Drizzle with olive oil and serve hot.

You can serve with a few wedges of lemon, if you like.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Basil pesto, shrimp pasta, and some container gardening

This is a Sponsored post written by me on behalf of Gro-ables. All opinions are 100% mine.

It's spring and it's snowing. Welcome to high-altitude Colorado, where we're likely to get snow in mid- or even late-May. Yes, I'm not kidding.

I started the Gro-ables pods that I wrote about here, so I could harvest some herbs for a recipe, but let's be honest here. It's SNOWING.

I considered planting them outdoors, but then decided that wasn't a good idea.

So, I started the pods indoors in pots, and I'll be moving them outside as soon as the weather becomes a little less hostile to tender green growing things.

They can stay in the pots I planted them in, since the basil, dill, and lettuce aren't going to need tons of space to spread. They'll be just fine.

This sprouted after just a few days!
When I got the herbs, I planned on making a basil pesto to go along with shrimp. Since my little herbs are, at this point, still itty-bitty babies and I needed quite a bit of basil for this recipe, I bought some.

And then I added pasta. Because it sounded good.

I have to say that I like the idea of having home grown herbs waiting for me outside - so much more convenient than running to the store when I need a spring or a snip of something.

The basil, according to the Sprout It site, is easy to grow, and likes full sun and normal watering.

All of the plants varieties are listed on the site, with tips on growing, and suggestions on how many plants per household are recommended. It's handy information for new gardeners who might not know the average yield from different plants.

But meanwhile, dreaming of summer and swaths of fresh herbs and produce, we have this:

Basil Pesto

1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon macadamia nut butter*
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove black garlic
Pinch of salt

Combine all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. It's fine if there are tiny bits of basil leaves, but you want it as smooth as possible.

*You can use any nut or seed butter you like here. I thought the macadamia nut butter was fun.

Shrimp and Pasta with Basil Pesto

1 pound shrimp, cleaned and peeled, and cooked as desired
1/2 pound rotini pasta, cooked
24 grape tomatoes, halved
12 kalamata olives, halved
Basil pesto (recipe above)

Combine the shrimp, pasta, tomatoes, olive, and pesto.

 Serve warm.

Drizzle with olive oil for serving, if desired.

Want more info on the Gro-ables? Check out the video!

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gadgets: Philps Airfryer

I don't do much deep frying. It's not that I'm particularly worried about fat - it's that I hate the idea of using a vat of fat and then disposing of it. Yes, you can use it a few times before you get rid of it. But still, it seems like a bit of a waste.

The Philips Airfryer ($249) has a basket that food goes into, like a deep fryer, but that's where the similarity ends. Rather than dunking the food into hot fat, you coat it with a little bit of oil (or not, depending on what you're cooking), and let the fryer blow hot air over it.

It's like a convection oven on steroids.

The first thing I cooked was French fries. Of course. I have a feeling that's the first thing most people make when they get one of these.

While the results weren't exactly like fries cooked in oil, they were pretty close, with a crisp exterior and soft interior.

The best results came from soaking the fries in water first, then drying them, then cooking them at a lower temperature until they were cooked through, then cooking them at a higher temperature to brown and crisp them.

It sounds a little complicated, but it's a common way of cooking French fries. I also tried cooking them without soaking, cooking them without drying, cooking at one temperature, and a whole bunch of other non-recommended methods. The major difference with alternate methods was that the fries didn't brown as evenly as when I soaked, blanched and browned them.

While I was testing potatoes, I also cooked some skin-on potato wedges. I think I liked those even better than the fries. Next, I tried frozen battered onion rings - simple enough, and they crisped up nicely, even without any added oil.

But side dishes weren't the only thing I fried. I started with four pounds of chicken wings, drizzled them with oil, and sprinkled them with seasoning. I cooked half of them in the oven using a standard recipe and the other half in the air fryer.

The wings in the airfryer were cooked through in about half the time it took the oven-baked wings, and the air-fried wings were noticeably plumper and juicier. The skin on the oven-baked wings was slightly darker, but not by much. They were both good, but we preferred the air-fried version.

The air fryer came with a recipe booklet that includes recipes for foods you'd normally fry, like croquettes and fish. It also includes as well as a few unexpected things, like grilled cheese, flan, meatballs, and frittatas.

For kicks, I tried making a grilled cheese sandwich in the airfryer, and it worked just fine - browned on the outside, melty cheese inside. I have to say that I wouldn't haul this out of storage just to make a grilled cheese sandwich, but if my stove was dysfunctional, it would be good option.

The only "fried" food that wasn't completely successful was potato chips - they tended to brown a little more than I wanted them to. I'm still trying to work out the perfect chip thickness, cooking temperature, potato variety, and cooking time to get a perfectly golden potato chip.

If you're watching your fat intake or you don't want to heat the oven for a small batch of potatoes or wings this works nicely. Frying without oil is never going to be the same as frying with oil, but I can live with that if I don't have to buy, store, and then dispose of large quantities of oil. The fact that it cooks faster than using the oven is a plus, and it needs very little attention, except occasional shaking of the basket for more even cooking.

The cooking parts of the unit are dishwasher safe, but the tray doesn't fit well in my dishwasher. Luckily, the interior is nonstick, so it's simple enough to hand wash.

The product was supplied for the purpose of a review on Serious Eats; this was previously published on Serious Eats.