Friday, September 19, 2014

What's For Dinner: Penne alla Vodka


Back in my vegetarian days, I used to joke that I was really a "pastatarian" as I ate pasta for dinner more often than not. Eventually I realized that there were plenty of other delicious options for a vegetarian dinner (you know, with actual vegetables), and my pasta-eating habits fell to the wayside.

While these days we eat pasta now and then, it isn't in the main dinner rotation. So I decided to shake things up and made penne alla vodka for dinner the other night. It was a huge hit.


The vodka adds a bit of complexity to the flavor without overwhelming it (the key is cooking it down). Although the original recipe called for tomato puree, I used diced tomatoes, as I prefer a more rustic-style sauce. If you don't like a chunky sauce, I'd recommend blending the sauce (an immersion blender is my favorite tool for this) a bit before adding in the pasta. 

When served with a hunk of buttered Italian bread on the side and a glass of wine (I paired the pasta with this Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel from Sonoma County), you've got yourself a particularly fancy (but not fussy) weeknight meal.

Penne alla Vodka
makes 2-3 servings

2 cups penne pasta
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, chopped finely
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup vodka
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with garlic and basil
1/4 cup organic heavy cream
1 pinch red pepper flakes
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
grated Parmesan, for garnish
chopped fresh basil, for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the penne according to the manufacturer's instructions. Drain and set aside.
2. While the pasta is cooking, add the butter and olive oil to a large skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until softened and golden, about 5-7 minutes. Add in the garlic and saute until fragrant, 30-45 seconds.
3. Remove the pan from the heat (if cooking over a flame) and add the vodka. Return the skillet to the heat and cook until the vodka has reduced and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
4. Stir in the diced tomatoes and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the heavy cream. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the red pepper flakes. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Add the drained penne to the sauce and stir to combine.
6. Garnish each serving with freshly grated Parmesan and chopped fresh basil.

(adapted from this recipe from The Pioneer Woman)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's For Dessert: Blueberry Chia Jam Bars


So, it turns out I made a lot more fresh jam than I could reasonably eat myself. Jam bars to the rescue! While most baked goods are best eaten within a few days, I've found that these bars get tastier a couple days after baking, as the flavors really start to meld together. Not that they are at all bad on day one, however, particularly if you prefer a crisper texture.


If you didn't happen to make up a batch of blueberry chia jam featured in a post last week (why not?!), just go ahead and substitute in your favorite jam (and you don't have to limit yourself to blueberry, either). I also made my version gluten-free by using an all-purpose gluten-free flour mix. This recipe is quite forgiving and easy to make -- hallmarks of a good recipe in my book.

Blueberry Chia Jam Bars
makes 9-12 bars

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (you can also sub in a gluten-free AP flour mix)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup butter, softened and cut into cubes
3/4 cup blueberry chia jam (or use your favorite jam)

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8x8 square baking dish with parchment paper so that it overhangs opposite sides and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the cubes of butter and incorporate it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your (clean!) fingers until it resembles large crumbles.
3. Reserve 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture. Then spoon the rest of the dough into the prepped baking dish. Use your fingers or a spatula to pat the dough into an even layer.
4. Use an offset spatula to spread the jam onto the dough layer, leaving about a 1/4-inch border around the edge. Sprinkle the reserved crumbles evenly over top the jam layer.
5.  Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before removing from the baking dish and cutting into bars.

(adapted from this Savory Style recipe)

Monday, September 15, 2014

What I'm Bringing to the Game: Vanilla-Bourbon Brown Butter Caramel Corn


Friends of ours invited us over to watch the Packers game yesterday afternoon, and I of course could not arrive empty-handed. So along with a six-pack of Oktoberfest beers, I brought a large bin of freshly-made caramel corn. This caramel corn is ideal for sharing, as it is super-delicious and easy to eat up all on one's own. Not that I have ever done that before, or anything.


Browning the butter adds a bit of complexity to the flavor. Don't be scared if your butter and sugar don't seem to get along at first; after boiling for five minutes, everything should meld together quite well. The addition of vanilla and bourbon at the end of cooking lends a subtle sweet and smoky flavor to the caramel corn.


In the end, the caramel corn was a big hit amongst our game-watching pals, and the Packers pulled out the W, even if it wasn't the prettiest of wins. (Hooray for terribly/perfectly timed timeouts called on the sideline by the opposition!)


Vanilla-Bourbon Brown Butter Caramel Corn
makes 8+ servings

12 cups popped popcorn (~1/2 cup unpopped kernels)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup golden syrup (or dark corn syrup)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon bourbon [optional]

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with butter or cooking spray and set aside.
2. Pop up 12 cups of popcorn -- I used 1/2 cup mixed-color corn kernels in my air popcorn popper. Pour the popped popcorn into two large bowls.
3. In a medium sauce pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Continue cooking the butter until it is foamy and the butter begins to brown, about 6-8 minutes. Stir in the brown sugar and golden syrup. Add in the salt and stir to combine.
4. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the mixture begins to boil, let it continue boiling for five minutes without stirring.
5. Remove the sugar mixture from the heat carefully stir in the baking soda, vanilla extract, and Bourbon -- the mixture will be very foamy.
6. Working quickly, pour the caramel evenly over the popcorn in each bowl. Stir to combine, then turn the contents out onto the greased baking sheet.
7. Bake for 30 minutes in the oven, stirring after 15 minutes.
8. Remove from the oven, spread the caramel popcorn into a single layer on a large piece of parchment paper, and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight container (if you can handle not eating the whole panful of caramel corn in one sitting!).


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Made From Scratch: Lightly Spiced Blueberry Chia Jam


As I type this, it is pouring down rain outside and there is a bit of a chill in the air. I might or might not be wearing a scarf (among other things, of course), and I can confirm that there are fuzzy slippers on my feet (the dress code is a little lax when you work from home).


The weather is definitely taking a turn up here in the Northwoods, though I can't even put into words how excited I am that the forecasted low of 32 on Friday night has now been increased to 36. It's the little things, I tell you.


On a recent trip to Bayfield (upon which I still owe you a post), we went blueberry picking at Blue Vista Farm. We came home with upwards of 12 lbs of organic blueberries. I ended up canning and freezing the majority of the berries, but I kept a few fresh blueberries on hand for some other recipes. First up, this delicious lightly spiced blueberry chia jam. The addition of chia seeds not only helps to thicken up the jam, but it also adds a bit of an omega-3 fatty acid and protein punch as well. I added a teeny amount of spice (I went with my fave three -- cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger), but the jam would be just as tasty on its own.

Now it's time for me to enjoy a little morning break with a hot mug of chai tea and a plate full of buttery toast covered with a generous slather of this delicious blueberry chia jam. Yum.

Lightly Spiced Blueberry Chia Jam
makes about 3 cups (about 1 1/2 pints)

6 cups fresh blueberries
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, to taste (or other liquid sweetener)
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch ground ginger
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. In a medium non-reactive sauce pot, bring the blueberries and maple syrup to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. After 5 minutes, carefully mash the blueberries with a potato masher or pastry blender, leaving some blueberries intact for texture.
2. Stir in the chia seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger and cook the mixture down until it thickens to your desired consistency, about 25-30 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure even heating.
3. Once the jam has thickened to your desired consistency, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
4. Spoon the jam into a container with an airtight lid. The jam should keep in the fridge for at least 2-3 weeks.

(adapted from this Oh She Glows recipe

Monday, September 8, 2014

What's On the Side: Fresh Salsa


So. Many. Tomatoes. Have I mentioned that we are currently experiencing an explosion of ripe tomatoes in our garden? Yes, I think I have ...

As is the nature of a garden, more and more tomatoes are ripening every day. We currently have two buckets of tomatoes on our hands, with more to come. I'm currently desperately pinning (and searching for) tomato recipes to try. Of course, we could do some canning, and I'm sure we'll can some tomatoes before the season is out. I initially was planning to make a huge batch of salsa to can this past weekend, but I couldn't quite find the motivation to head to the grocery store to pick up the additional peppers and onions that I didn't have on hand.


Our friends invited us over for dinner on Saturday night, so I figured the best way to use up a huge pile of tomatoes (or, okay, at least make a dent in said pile) was to make up a batch of fresh salsa to share. This worked especially well as I did happen to have an onion, green pepper, 1/2 a red pepper, some cilantro, and a jalapeño pepper on hand.

This recipe is pretty forgiving, so do play around with the proportions. For example, if you don't have a giant pile of tomatoes on hand, you can simply decrease the proportions of all the other ingredients to match. Also, full disclosure, D kind of complained about the amount of onion in the salsa (it didn't bother me), so if you aren't a huge onion fan, go ahead and cut down on the amount you use.

Fresh Salsa
makes about 6 cups

5 cups chopped tomatoes (6-8 tomatoes, depending on size)
1 cup chopped white onions (about 1/2 large onion)
1/2 cup chopped red pepper (1/2 red pepper)
1 jalapeño, seeded, deribbed, and chopped fine
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste if necessary
juice of 1 fresh lime
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a large serving bowl, stir together the chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, chopped red pepper, and chopped jalapeño. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Let sit for a few minutes, then drain off some of the accumulated liquid.
2. Stir in the fresh lemon juice and chopped cilantro. Season to taste with pepper and additional salt, if desired.
3. Serve with tortilla chips. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's For Dessert: Banana Pudding Pops


Earlier this summer, I had a random craving for banana pudding. Like, the classic kind with layers of vanilla wafers and banana slices. So, I made up a batch, and it was delicious.

And then I thought, what about banana pudding pops? All the delicious flavor of banana pudding, but in popsicle form?


The only thing missing from these pudding pops is the vanilla wafer component, and I think the next time I make these pudding pops, I'm going to roll them in some vanilla wafer crumbs right after I pop them out of the popsicle mold. How good would that be?


If you just want to make a standard banana pudding, after the pudding has chilled, simple spoon the pudding into a serving bowl with alternating layers of vanilla wafer cookies and banana slices. Add some fresh whipped cream on top and you've got a delicious nostalgic dessert to share with friends.

Banana Pudding Pops
makes 10 pudding pops

3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 cups organic whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 cubes and chilled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 bananas (medium)

1. Add the sugar, cornstarch, and salt to a 3-quart sauce pan. Whisk in the eggs and egg yolk. Stir in the milk and whisk until well-combined.
2. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat until it reaches 172 degrees (this should take 5-10 minutes) and has thickened.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and add the butter, one cube at a time, stirring after each addition until each cube is entirely incorporated before adding in the next butter cube. After all of the butter has been incorporated, stir in the vanilla.
4. Pour the pudding into a large glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for 1-2 hours.
5. After the pudding has completely cooled, pour it into a blender or food processor bowl. Add the bananas and pulse to combine, leaving the banana bits as chunky or smooth as you prefer.
6. Pour the banana pudding into a popsicle mold and let freeze completely (4-6 hours or overnight).
7. Unmold the frozen banana pudding pops (douse the mold with hot water to help the popsicles release if necessary) and serve.

(adapted from this Alton Brown recipe)




Friday, August 29, 2014

What's For Dinner: Heirloom Tomato Tart


From peach tarts to tomato tarts -- yep, after a brief interlude, we're back on the tomato train. They're just ripening so quickly! Luckily, another couple is sharing gardening duties with us, so we don't have to eat all of the tomatoes ourselves. But ... even so, we planted a number of tomato plants, and they are quite prolific at the moment. I'm particularly enamored by the unusual-looking Polish tomatoes, which are pepper- or sausage-like in shape. I can't wait for those to be ready for harvest.


Today's tomato tart features Mortgage Lifters and Lemon Boys. The filling is a savory mixture of ricotta and goat cheese, eggs, and a bit of fresh basil. This tart would work well for brunch, breakfast (perhaps with an egg on top?), or as a dinner entree served alongside a fresh salad. Or, cut into smaller pieces, it would also make for a delicious appetizer.

Heirloom Tomato Tart
makes 9-12 servings

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
unbleached all-purpose flour, for rolling the pastry
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup whole-milk ricotta, drained
2 large eggs
1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh basil, chopped + 1 tablespoon chopped basil for garnish
3-4 small to medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silpat or parchment paper and set aside.
2. Lightly flour a large work surface. Roll out the puff pastry to a 10x15-inch rectangle (or to a size that best fits your baking sheet). Carefully transfer the puff pastry onto the prepped baking sheet.
3. Use a paring knife to score a border about one inch in around the edge of the rectangle. Do not cut through the dough. Prick the interior of the rectangle (inside the border) with a fork. This will allow the border to rise but not the interior. Brush the border edge of the dough with olive oil.
4. In a large bowl, stir together the goat cheese, ricotta, and eggs. Then stir in the basil, salt, and pepper.
5. Spoon the cheese mixture onto the center of the puff pastry sheet and spread it, being careful to not stray across the border. Top the cheese mixture with the sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
6. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the puff pastry is golden brown and the filling has set.
7. Garnish with the remaining chopped basil and serve immediately.

(lightly adapted from this Beekman Boys recipe)


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