Fuss-free Halloween Treats

DSC_0002Because the bags and bags of candy lying around the week of Halloween aren’t enough… I thought, “Hey, let’s make that bark stuff where we pile it all together and coat it in chocolate!”

So easy – and it does kind of look like a party on a plate.

I modified the recipe here because I couldn’t find the Halloween Oreos, so I used brownie crisps, instead. The boys had fun stealing candy while I tried to make it before all the ingredients were gone.

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Oh! And I almost forgot! The other day I made these silly mummy dogs to help us get into the Halloween spirit…also super easy and a big hit.

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Yes, they are exactly what they look like. Hot dogs (organic, non-cured, non-nitrate of course ;-)) wrapped in crescent rolls and baked…with mustard dots for eyes. The boys had a good laugh at breakfast and started asking when they could wear their costumes.

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Well, they aren’t THAT scary. ūüôā

Happy Halloween Week!!

Summertime…and the very best husband.

Well, summer is officially here again. ¬†(And I say “officially” because summer weather is pretty much always here…so without the calendar, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.)

That means I’m already fantasizing about making it through the next 3-4 months without turning on my oven. It’s possible, right?

Especially if you are married to my husband. Who is totally OK with me putting this on the table and saying, “Dinner’s ready!”

The CSA shares these days have tomatoes in them. Beautiful, flavorful tomatoes. And so much basil that it smells up the whole house…which no one minds one little bit. I honestly think I could eat this every day and be perfectly happy.

There’s plenty of ways to have your Caprese Salad…or Insalata Caprese, if you want to get technical. And, according to a tiny bit of investigating, the original salad (popular since the ’50s) is dressed only with salt and olive oil. I personally can’t do without the balsamic vinegar. But I do love the “requirement” for buffalo mozzarella. Heaven.

So here’s to oven-free meals…and fantastic husbands.

Happy Summer everyone!

(Another great Caprese Salad favorite, not as kabobs and with the balsamic reduced…here.)

Best Summer Dessert Ever

That’s what we call this in my house.

It was first served to us at a pot-luck-style dinner party at our house in Seattle by Sarah Casey (well, that wasn’t her last name then, but it is now.) In my recipe box it is filed as “Best Summer Dessert Ever compliments of Dave Casey’s girlfriend Sarah” and, well, he married her…so yeah, it’s pretty good.

The best part…also ridiculously easy.

I serve this in martini glasses sometimes, but this particular night I was feeling nostalgic for my grandmother and these were her glasses. They are funky vintage and I love them. But I’m telling you, you could serve this in a styrofoam cup and it would still be a hit!

Put these things into a serving dish of some kind:

Mango sorbet – not sherbet…a good quality sorbet…which can sometimes be hard to find, so you might have to make your own if you get addicted and then can’t find it in the store.

Raspberries

1 crushed up Bordeaux cookie (by Pepperidge Farms) or gingersnaps…I’m sure most cookies would be good, but I think not too sweet and definitely crunchy.

Slices of candied ginger (this stuff is amazing!) It can be tricky to find in the grocery store, too, sometimes. I find it in the bulk section sometimes and other times it is with all the bagged nuts and trail mix and dried fruits. It looks like this when it is whole:

Credit: Game Widow from Recipes Wikia

If you like ginger at all, you can just eat it like this. It’s like a sugar-coated gummy candy for grown-ups.

The sugary stuff you can see here is the ginger. I sliced it, but some people find that too strong, so grating it is a good alternative.

A sprig of mint

One more cookie for decoration

And then…drizzle some Amaretto over the whole thing. ¬†We used 2-3 spoonfuls, but you do what floats your boat.

I’m telling you all that wonderful sweet, tart, spicy, minty, cool, crunchy put together in one Amaretto-drenched bite is a little bit of heaven. Especially when it is nearly in the triple digits outside. And yes, it’s doing that already here.

Here are the exact directions as given to me in the summer of 2004, all in one place, for those of you who get distracted by photos and my commentary. You know who you are.

Best Summer Dessert Ever

2 scoops of mango sorbet in a fun dish or martini glass

finely grate candied ginger over the scoops

top with fresh raspberries

garnish with mint and gingersnap cookies (Or Pepperidge Farm Bordeauxs)

drizzle with several teaspoons of Amaretto (or more, to taste)

(and then taste and applaud!!!)

Lasagna: Two Ways

For years I’ve been saying that I was supposed to be Italian. And I really, really mean it. I was totally born on the wrong continent.

Cinque Terre in Italy

That’s one of the villages in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. I wish I lived there. And here’s another village in that same region:

(Photo from 321forms.com)

Of course there’s always the countryside of Tuscany – really, who wouldn’t want to run away to this place? It seems the sunshine there is always golden like that. Gorgeous.

(Photo from physictourism.com)

If I ever just “disappear,” chances are good that I’ve found myself a little hideaway somewhere in all this beauty. Oh, and I can’t forget Florence.

(Photo from localyte.com)

Florence and Kiev have always been neck-and-neck at the top of my most-captivating-cities-I’ve-ever-visited list. Florence overwhelms me. In a good way.

Look at this gorgeous shot from thesassysteelmagnolia.com

I’m about to pack my bags right now…and I haven’t even started thinking about the food! The food!

I’m working on another food blog project right now – just doing the behind-the-scenes prep work at the moment for something I hope to launch this year (isn’t that a tease?) Anyway, some of the books I’m reading through as research claim to have lists of the “best dishes in the world” or “a global culinary canon” and on these lists there are 80 – 100 different dishes presented. Guess where most of them come from? In fact, on one list nearly one quarter of the entire list was from two places…Italy and France. The French, of course. (Not that I have anything against France…as long-time readers will remember from my French phase…and it’s probably safe to assume that my “French phase” is more of a culinary stand-by than a phase anyway.) ¬†Those French – they’ve got the whole kitchen thing down.

Anyway…back to Italy.

Well, no, not exactly. I’m not in Italy. That’s the problem. I’m never in Italy. (insert sad-pouty face here)

So, that leaves me the food. And in our house, we’re more than happy to oblige.

Lasagna.

Let’s talk about it.

It can be an all-day event. Or not. It can be tomato or Béchamel. With meat or not. With spinach or not. The variations are many.

I could live on lasagna. It’s one of the very few things I have in common with Garfield. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – it seems appropriate. I think I’ve made approximately 213 different versions of lasagna. Don’t worry, I’m only going to talk about two of them right now. One that will take you most of a day. And one that will not.

Let’s start with the longer version.

Second only maybe to Hollandaise, I would say this sauce is my husband’s favorite. He gets a little gleam in his eye when I say I’m going to make it. Bolognese…this is the beginning of the all-day lasagna.

Commonly known as “aromatics” and the base to many, many stocks, soups, stews and sauces, the combination of onions, celery and carrots make up what the French call “mirepoix” (pronounced meer-PWAH.) Creole cooking calls it the “holy trinity” and in Italian it is “soffritto.”

The vegetables are cooked down for a few minutes in a combination of butter and olive oil. The the meats are added and cooked. Then the happy begins.

This sauce gets reduced three times. Yes. You read that correctly. Three. Which means three times the yumminess. And it also means it takes a good part of the afternoon. And makes your house smell scrumptious.

First a quart of milk. Reduce gently for nearly an hour. Then you do the same with red wine and the third time is beef stock.

After the three or so hours of reducing, it will look something like this:

A nice rich color and you can see the reduction on the side of the pot. At this point you should feel free to grab a spoon and just eat it right off the stove top. No one would judge you.

Or you can let it cool and use it to make lasagna. Or drench some pasta with it. And I usually divide it up and freeze some for another time. It freezes beautifully. But whatever you do with it, when you serve it you should immediately feel like that tiny little Italian grandmother who is perpetually in an apron and always seems to make the most wonderful things appear from her kitchen.

Now let’s talk about a lasagna that doesn’t require you to channel “Nonna” or stand near the stove for half the day.

Yes – that’s a crockpot.

I didn’t follow a recipe for this lasagna, so I’ll just show you what I did. The meat sauce is about a pound and a half of ground beef or turkey, browned, and then mixed with one of those packets of spaghetti sauce. You know, the kind you mix with a small can of tomato paste and some oil and water? And I also added some sliced mushrooms. The noodles are the pre-semi-cooked kind.

The cheese mixture is ricotta, parmesan and mozzerella. Then I added in some basil and some Italian seasoning. I have also used that herb-seasoned cheese spread mixture in place of the ricotta before – also yummy. You can see it here all mixed:

Then the parts all get layered into the crock pot.

A little sauce in the bottom, then noodles, then cheese mixture. Repeat. Repeat. You know how lasagna works.

After the last layer of sauce, cover with mozzarella. Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours. (You will have to experiment with the time in your own crockpot…depending on its size and how many layers you put in…it could take more or less time.)

It’s very easy to have the sauce and the cheese mixture in your fridge and it only takes about 10 minutes to assemble it. The last time I made it, I threw it together when I was cleaning up the kitchen from lunch. The boys and I headed out for the park and to run some errands…we got home about the same time as their dad got home from work…I put a quick salad together and dinner was ready.

It’s not Italy. I know.

But it kind of smells like it. Or at least a kitchen in Italy.

And, if you close your eyes while eating that Bolognese sauce, you just might be able to transport yourself to this place:

Bologna Countryside (cscaduta)

It’s worth a try.

Bolognese Sauce

adapted from Martha Stewart, 2003

3 TB unsalted butter

3 TB extra-virgin olive oil

2 onions, ¬ľ inch dice

3 stalks celery, ¬ľ inch dice

3 carrots, ¬ľ inch dice

2 pounds ground sirloin

2 pounds ground pork

1 quart whole milk

2 1/2 cups dry red wine

1 quart beef stock (2 14.5 oz cans)

1 cup tomato paste

1 ¬Ĺ teaspoons coarse salt

¬ĺ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

In a large cast-iron or enamel pot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat.  Add onions, cook until they soften (5 minutes.)  Add celery and carrots, cook until vegetables are tender (8-10 minutes.)  Add ground sirloin and pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink.  Add milk, cook at a gentle simmer, skimming fat from surface until liquid has reduced by half (about an hour.)  Add wine, simmer until liquid is reduced by half again (about 45 minutes.)  Add beef stock, tomato paste, salt, pepper and simmer gently until sauce thickens (about an hour.) Makes about 3 quarts.

Boiled Eggs…Really.

Lately both of my children are semi-obsessed with hard-boiled eggs. I think if I let them eat as many as they wanted…well, I’d have to start keeping chickens.

So I boil a lot of eggs. Often.

My youngest just likes the whites. He will politely hand the mushy yolk back to me if I put them in front of him.

My oldest has taken to requesting his eggs “doubled.” Which is actually deviled…but I think it’s cute, so I don’t correct him. “I’d like some doubled eggs, please.” Cute.

For plenty of years I was boiling eggs incorrectly. Did you know that was possible? I mean, it’s boiled water…and an egg. How can that get messed up? But it can.

I’m in the middle of some serious holiday baking right now. My eyes are starting to cross from counting out cups of flour and sugar. Consider this post my break. Water+egg. This I can handle right now.

Have you ever seen the yolk of a hard-boiled egg that is all gray-greenish?  Like this double-yolk egg photo I found at ask.com:

Ewwww. That gray-green coloring is due to ferrous sulfide which forms when an egg is overcooked. It’s tasteless and harmless as long as you aren’t offended by the awful color created when you use those yolks to make “doubled” eggs.

To avoid this is simple.

Place your eggs in cold water in a pan. Bring the water to a boil. Just as a full boil is reached, cover and turn off the heat. Let the eggs stand for 10 minutes. Then drain the water and replace with cold water and/or ice to stop the cooking process. (I usually just put the whole pan in the sink and fill with water/ice and let it sit until four hours later when I realize I forgot all about them later… and then I put them in the fridge.)

Photo from slashfood.com

Then they turn out so pretty and yellow. Every single time.

There you are. Helpful tip for the day. Just one step above “how to boil water.”

I feel refreshed. Now, back to the oven mitts and cooling racks and tiny little loaf pans…it doesn’t look like I have any little elves who are going to show up and do it all for me!

Mini Burgers

Most people who know us are aware that for long periods of time we go without any TV. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a television in our house, we do. But for months and months on end we don’t have it hooked up to anything (cable or satellite) except a DVD player. And a Wii.

But it’s football season. So, the television is alive again.

There’s a game on right now. We are in two different fantasy leagues. When a game starts, my four-year-old asks, “Which guy are we cheering for? And which guy do we hope gets no points?” Of course, he’s partial to whichever team has the most red in their uniforms because, as everyone knows, that’s the fastest color.

One great thing about football/party/finger foods is that they usually double pretty well as kid food. We love the idea of the mini burger, “sliders” some call them. However, I do not like how time consuming it can be to make those little patties and then stand at the grill and flip all those little patties. So I make them all at one time. In the oven.

This is super lean, all-natural, grass-fed beef with chopped onions, garlic and salt and pepper. You can also add in herbs like parsley or your other favorite flavorings. I kept it simple because of the kiddos…and, actually, I should have cut back on the onions (or just made them much, much smaller) because my four-year-old was not so enthusiastic about them.

Once the ground meat and seasonings are well mixed, you press it into a cookie sheet. This is about 2 pounds of ground beef pressed into a baking sheet that is roughly 9x13x1. It bakes at 450¬į for about 10 minutes.

The beef will shrink up a little as it cooks (the leaner, the less it will shrink) and, after pouring off any liquid, you will have one giant patty to cut into little squares…or circles…or whatever shape your bread is.

One advantage to this method is not having to worry about individual patty shrinkage…the patty can always match the bun perfectly since it is cut to fit after the shrinking happens.

There are endless possibilities for the little buns. Individual rolls, those bake-n-serve kind or little specialty rolls from the bakery. These are whole wheat hot dog buns.

The ends are trimmed off and then the buns are cut into thirds. That way they are already split for you! This will make burgers that are pretty tiny – which is good for kids – but, if you are doing these for a more grown-up party you could certainly go with a larger roll of some kind and simply cut the large patty to the appropriate size.

We keep a bag of bread scraps in the freezer “For The Ducks.” My four-year-old doesn’t like the crust on his sandwiches, like a lot of kids, but it irks me to throw them away. So we stash them in the freezer with plans to take them to the park with us and make friends with the ducks. Ask me how many times we’ve arrived at the park just moments after I say, “Oh man. We forgot the bread, again!” Someday, I’ll remember to take the duck food.

Another fun way to have these mini burgers at a party would be to have a toppings bar alongside of a big platter of plain burgers. Guests could dress them up with pickles, different kinds of cheeses,¬†saut√©ed mushrooms and onions,¬†jalape√Īos,¬†green chili, guacamole, pesto, roasted tomatoes, bacon, chili…you get the idea.

Mini Burgers

1.5 – 2 pounds lean ground beef (or turkey or lamb)

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 medium onion, finely minced (more finely than in that photo!)

salt/pepper

other herbs/seasonings of your choice

hot dog buns, trimmed and cut in thirds (total of 24 mini buns)

sliced cheese

pickle slices

mayo, mustard, ketchup…you know what goes on a burger! ūüôā

Mix the ground meat and minced garlic and onions and seasonings, salt and pepper. Firmly press the meat into a baking sheet. Bake at 450¬į for 10 minutes (until pink is gone…careful not to over cook – these can get dry easily.) Drain any liquid off the pan. Cut into 24 squares. Top with cheese, if desired. Build little burgers to your heart’s content.

Moroccan Chicken and Couscous

I had clients to see this afternoon and one of my most favorite people on the planet was going to watch the boys. So I threw together a quick dinner for them (and so I wouldn’t have to cook when I got home!) ¬†There was even enough left to jazz up the boys’ lunches for tomorrow, too.

Moroccan Chicken and Israeli Couscous

This recipe is simple and a nice flavor change from the usual one-skillet dinner. And with the chicken and onions and mangos and almonds, it’s got a little bit of everything.

So a little more on lunch box lunches…don’t worry, I’ll get tired of these before we’re halfway through September!

Lunch for the littlest pumpkin is chopped up chicken and couscous, apples and grapes, ham and cheese, banana-flavored puffs and mandarin oranges.

And the other lunch is strawberries/apples, chicken and couscous, rice cakes, wheat thins with almond butter and cheese with a pickle. He loves the sour/dill/pickle thing. Always has.

And yes, I’m aware…not enough green vegetables. We’re working on it.

Moroccan Chicken with Israeli Couscous

slivered almonds (I used about 1/4 cup)

1.5 lbs chicken, in chunks

2-3 TB seasoning – see note below

olive oil

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

14 oz chicken broth

1-2 mangos, cubed (about 1 lb)

10 – 12 oz. couscous (I use the large pearl Israeli kind)

fresh cilantro, chopped, about 1/4 cup

Mix the chicken chunks with a TB or so of olive oil and 1-1.5 TB of the seasoning. Let this sit for as long as possible to “marinate.” Over medium heat, toast the almond slivers for 3-4 minutes. Set aside.

Add a TB or so of olive oil to a pan over medium high heat – until it is shimmering but not smoking. Add chicken chunks and cook for 4-5 minutes, until there is no more pink. Set chicken aside and keep warmish.

In same pan, sauté red onion slices until almost caramelized, about 5-6 minutes. Mix remaining seasoning with chicken broth. Add to onions and be sure to scrape up any brown bits that might have been in the pan. Bring broth to a simmer. Add in chicken and mango and couscous. Cover, turn off heat and let sit until couscous absorbs all the liquid. Before serving toss in the toasted almonds and cilantro.

*Seasoning mix: I used a pre-mixed “Moroccan Seasoning.” However, the recipe said you could substitute curry. That doesn’t really seem an adequate substitute to me, so here’s the list of ingredients: spices (that’s helpful, huh?), raw sugar, salt, paprika, onion, lemon peel, soy sauce, garlic. ¬†When I taste the seasoning mix, I mostly taste the curry, paprika and sugar…oh, and the lemon, too. Hope that’s helpful.

Get yourself a belly dancer and enjoy!