Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Margarita with Easy Homemade Sour Mix

The Margarita is one of my favorite cocktails. Unfortunately, it's one of those drinks that can be absolutely tragic to order at a bar. You can end up with a beverage that's any number of these: sickly sweet, watery, unbalanced, as big as your head. Just like it's tropical friend, Pina Colada, a lot of injustice has been done to the Margarita.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some bars (often legitimate cocktail bars at the higher end of the classy spectrum) make Margaritas with a lot of tequila, fresh lime juice and a mere touch of simple syrup or sour mix. So you're pretty much drinking a tequila martini. This is supposed to be more authentic, but I like some sweetness in my Margaritas. So, this recipe is a nice balance between the too syrupy and too austere versions of the drink.

And, of course, you can make it more or less sweet according to your taste. That's why I like making Margaritas at home. My husband came up with a really great and easy homemade sour mix that we use for all sorts of cocktails. You do not have to make simple syrup or heat anything at all. He just combines agave syrup with fresh lemon and lime juice in a jar and shakes it up. If you don't want to use agave, you can substitute simple syrup.

I uploaded these pictures before I realized that Cinco de Mayo is actually right around the corner. Total coincidence. Happy drinking!

Perfect Margarita with Sour Mix
The sour mix recipe is below. You need a good, juicy lime; an old, shriveled one will mess up the proportions.

Makes 1

1 lime
kosher salt if desired
1 1/2 oz tequila
1 oz sour mix or to taste
1/2 oz triple sec

Cut the lime in half crosswise, then cut a wedge off one of the halves. Cut a slit in the flesh of the lime wedge and run it around the rim of the glass. Dip in salt if desired (avoid getting too much salt on the inner rim so it doesn't "season" your drink). Stick the lime wedge on the glass for garnish.

Add tequila, sour mix, triple sec and all the juice you can squeeze out of the remaining lime halves to a cocktail shaker. Add a handful of ice and shake well. Taste and correct the proportions to suit your tastes. Strain into glass. You can serve on the rocks if you want. I like it straight up, then I add one or two ice cubes if it gets warm as I'm drinking it.

Easy Agave Sour Mix
Agave is about 25% sweeter than sugar, so we add extra citrus, rather than using an equal amount. These quantities needn't be exact, so feel free to use more or less citrus in your mix. Look for light-colored agave nectar since it is generally milder in flavor.

1/2 cup light-colored agave nectar
5 tbsp fresh lime juice
5 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Add all the ingredients to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake vigorously until combined. Keeps in the refrigerator for a couple weeks.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

No-Bake Peanut Butter Pie Bars

This is a easy, fast dessert that looks more complicated than it is. Great, right? It's from The Daily Cookie, a book I raved about a little while back. If you're a chocolate-and-peanut butter fiend, you'll love this. The base is ground up Oreos and butter pressed to form a firm crust. The middle layer is creamy peanut butter and cream cheese, and the topping is the simplest chocolate ganache. It's a lot like those utterly decadent peanut butter mousse pies that seem to call to me from countless web pages, but in the form of satisfying little bars that come in around 100 calories (so good ahead, eat two!).

These bars are made in a square pan, but I could see using a round cake pan and cutting them into thin slices if you want a more elegant presentation. Serve them on a plate next to some whipped cream. In bar form, they're easy to just pick up and eat out of hand. The filling is so tasty (obviously) that I'd consider doubling the amount for a thicker bar.

No-Bake Peanut Butter Pie Bars
Adapted from The Daily Cookie, 365 Tempting Treats for the Sweetest Year of Your Life by Anna Ginsberg of Cookie Madness

Makes 24 small bars

12 Oreo (or similar) cookies
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

4 oz reduced fat cream cheese (neufchatel), softened
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar (55 g)
1/4 cup chunky or creamy peanut butter
1 tbsp 2% or whole milk

1/4 cup heavy cream
3 oz semisweet chocolate, chips or a chopped bar

Line an 8-inch square pan with nonstick foil (or use regular foil and coat with flour-added baking spray). Process the cookies into fine crumbs using a food processor fitted with the metal blade. You should have 1 1/4 cups. Pour melted butter over crumbs and pulse a few times to combine. Transfer to prepared pan and press tightly to form an even layer. Freeze for 20 minutes to make a firm crust.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Beat the cream cheese and confectioners' sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Beat in peanut butter and milk. Spread over the frozen crust. Refrigerate for about 1 hour, or until peanut butter layer is firm.

Make the topping: In a small saucepan, heat the cream until it just begins to simmer. Remove from heat and immediately add the chocolate. Let it sit for 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is melted and very smooth. If still very hot, cool up to 5 minutes. Spoon chocolate over the peanut butter layer and spread evenly with an offset spatula. Refrigerate until chocolate is set. Cut into 24 bars, or desired size.

Note: For 24 servings, 1 bar contains approximately 104 calories and 7 grams fat according to my calculations on nutritiondata.self.com.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Curried Lentil Soup with Ginger

I've posted two other red lentil soup recipes over the years, but I feel justified in adding a third. It's not that this one is wildly different from the others. Nor is it shockingly innovative. I just thought it turned out so well, that I wanted to write it down.

In a soup like this you can always tweak the spices and their amounts. The fresh ginger, however, was a key ingredient for me and using ground wouldn't be the same. I love over-stuffing a soup with vegetables, and this one packs carrots, tomatoes and spinach. Super-hearty and nutritious. I added sauteed shrimp to make this a one-bowl meal, but serve it any way you want. And don't forget the lime. Never underestimate the power of citrus to lift the flavor of legumes with a bracing zip!

Curried Red Lentil Soup with Ginger
You can serve this soup with a sandwich, as part of a meal, or as a main dish topped with sauteed shrimp. It's great any way. I kept the recipe instructions simple, short and sweet. This is a soup you can throw together any night of the week.

Serves 4

1 Tbs canola oil
1 large white onion, chopped
2 Tbs chopped fresh ginger
1 Tbs (approx.) curry powder
Indian chile powder or cayenne to taste
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
2 cups chicken broth
3 cups water
1 1/4 cup red lentils
3 large carrots, sliced
14 oz can diced tomatoes
6 to 9 oz spinach leaves (optional)
1 juicy lime, plus wedges for serving if desired
Greek yogurt and sliced scallions for serving

Heat canola oil in Dutch oven or large pot on medium high. Add onion and saute until tender. Add ginger and spices and cook 2 minutes, stirring often. Add broth, 2 cups of the water and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add lentils and carrots and simmer, uncovered, until tender. Add additional water as needed if soup gets too thick. Add spinach leaves if using and simmer until wilted. Add the lime's juice and season to taste with salt, pepper and more chile powder if desired. Serve with yogurt and scallions.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Braised Flanken-Style Short Ribs

I've been watching Top Chef for years, but it's only during this past season that Tom Colicchio finally grew on me. I never doubted that he was a good chef, but I never really "liked" him until recently. So, when I was searching for a good short ribs recipe and came across this one he did for Food and Wine, I was excited to give it a try.

Spoiler alert: It's a great recipe! I had a feeling it would work out well just by reading it. There aren't a lot of ingredients and the steps are simple. You do have to start the dish the day before, but only so the meat and braising vegetables can soak overnight in a red wine bath.

I did skip the step of basting the cooked ribs in their liquid and broiling them in order to create a glaze. I was dubious and didn't want to toughen the meat. I also thought the delicious braising liquid was too thin to coat the ribs or caramelize well. I don't think anything was lost due to my choice not to broil. It just seemed too fussy. The recipe below reflects this change, and I'd definitely make it again the exact same way!

Tom Colicchio's Braised Short Ribs
Adapted from Food and Wine magazine
This recipe calls for flanken-style short ribs, which are cut across the bone. I think you could also use English-style, which are cut parallel to the bone, but the cooking time may vary slightly. Either way, either cut should come from the chuck where the ribs are meatier, rather than the plate of the animal. A fat separator is really nice for de-fatting the braising liquid. I have this one, and I use it all the time.

Serves 4 to 6

2 tbsp vegetable oil
4 lbs flanken-style short ribs, about 1" thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
3 celery ribs, sliced
3 garlic cloves, thickly sliced
1 bottle dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
4 thyme sprigs
3 cups chicken broth
Chopped parsley for garnish

  1. Heat half the oil in a large heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Add half the ribs to the skillet and cook, turning once, until browned and crusty, 8 to 12 minutes. Repeat with remaining oil and ribs. Transfer to a shallow baking dish in a single layer.
  2. Add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic to the skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft and lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Add the wine and thyme sprigs and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour the hot marinade over the ribs and let cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning the ribs once.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350°. Transfer the ribs and marinade to a large, enameled cast-iron casserole. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and cook in the lower third of the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the meat is tender but not falling apart. Uncover and braise for 45 minutes longer, turning the ribs once or twice, until the sauce is reduced by about half and the meat is very tender.
  4. Transfer the meat to a clean shallow baking dish, discarding the bones as they fall off. Strain the sauce into a fat separator, discarding vegetables (or strain sauce into a heatproof measuring cup and skim off as much fat as possible). Pour de-fatted sauce over the meat; there should be about 2 cups. Serve with sauce, over polenta or mashed potatoes if desired. Garnish with parsley.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies with Cornstarch

I couldn't resist trying this recipe after seeing it on a few food blogs and pinterest, which means you've probably seen it too! I wanted to post it to this little recipe journal of mine because it's a good, easy chocolate chip cookie that I would make again.

The interesting thing about the recipe is that it includes a little bit of cornstarch, and that ingredient is rumored to create a truly chewy texture. These cookies are chewy, but I'm uncertain whether or not that small amount of cornstarch is the precise reason. If you baked these too long, they would definitely not be chewy. But baked to right degree, the edges get slightly caramelized and the centers are tender and not cakey. They didn't spread a whole lot either, so fans of flat, crisp cookies should give this one a pass.

I might add more cornstarch next time I make these cookies. I think this recipe might stem from the idea of using cake flour or a combo of cake flour and all-purpose. This seems feasible because the standard method for making d.i.y. cake flour is to add 2 tablespoons cornstarch to 3/4 cup of AP. All that aside, I really liked these cookies!

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies with Cornstarch
Adapted from Just Baked
If you're feeling adventurous, increase the amount of cornstarch to 2 tablespoons and subtract 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp flour. This would be similar to using 1 cup of cake flour and 1 cup of all-purpose (read the accompanying blog post for more info on this). If you don't have a scale, measure the flour with the spoon and sweep method.

Makes about 3 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour (250 grams)
2 tsp cornstarch (see head note)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups chocolate chips or chunks (I like Ghirardelli semisweet)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and both sugars on medium-high speed until light-colored and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat on medium speed until combined.

Add about half the flour  mixture and beat on lowest speed just until almost combined. Add remaining flour and repeat until just combined (batter is very thick). Stir in chips by hand. Cover dough and refrigerated at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.

Preheat oven to 350 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (I used nonstick insulated baking sheets, but regular light-colored baking sheets are fine too. If you have regular dark-colored baking sheets consider lowering oven temp to 325 to avoid over browning). Scoop rounded tablespoon-sized balls and place on baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven until edges are barely golden (centers will look under done, but they won't taste raw when cooled), 9 to 11 minutes. I did my batches for 11 minutes, but I think going slightly less would work well. Cool on baking sheet 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack. Repeat with remaining dough.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Roasted Cauliflower and Shrimp Risotto with Spanish Flair

It's amazing how watching someone else perform a task can be so enlightening. In this case, I'm talking about the mundane kinds of tasks that you already know perfectly well how to do. This happens with cooking all the time. Whether we're in the kitchen with a friend or watching a chef on TV, there's always a little trick or tweak that can transform how you do things in your own kitchen.

This happened to me, and I didn't have to go far at all! My husband was making risotto and I was helping. We just came up with a mish-mash of ingredients that sounded delicious and put them together (that's the great thing about risotto: it never has to be the same dish twice). That day, we topped the rice with the world's greatest roasted cauliflower, shrimp sauteed with a little dry Sherry, Manchego cheese, parsley and pine nuts.

Anyway, the revelation came in how my husband actually prepared the risotto. He simmered the rice very low and slow and never stopped stirring. It was amazing the difference this made to the finished product! I love to make risotto and have definitely gotten cavalier about my technique over the years. It still turns out well, but his attention to detail made a big enough difference that I'll always put in the extra bit of care.

As I wrote in the head note below, I'm not including a full risotto how-to in the recipe. Instead, I included all the ingredients and technique tips along with full instructions for the (world's best) cauliflower and shrimp. This was one of the best meals I've eaten in a while. If you are a risotto lover, I hope this is helpful!

Roasted Cauliflower and Shrimp Risotto with Spanish Flair
This particular risotto is an assembly job. The components are cooked individually for incredible flavor and texture, then it's all put together before serving. It's easiest to do with 2 cooks in the kitchen. This recipe is informal--just one idea for a risotto dish that I am absolutely crazy about--and I haven't written detailed risotto steps, just the new tips I learned from my husband to make it great. Here's a step by step risotto recipe if you need a refresher on the process, or you can google to find loads of general recipes (but you  know how to do this, right?). Instructions for the cauliflower and shrimp follow separately. 

Serves 2 to 3

For risotto:
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 large shallot, sliced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup Arborio rice

For my husband’s perfect risotto:
Cook very slowly, maintaining a low simmer and adding liquid only when the previous addition is nearly gone. You should not use any additional liquid and may have some leftover. Stir almost constantly. Risotto should be tender yet a bit firm to the bite in 28 to 30 minutes. Add black pepper and a pinch of salt to the shallot at the beginning if desired, then don’t season until risotto is nearly done (and remember the shrimp, cheese and cauliflower will add salt).

For cauliflower:
Preheat oven to 450 F. Break 1 head cauliflower into bite-size pieces and dry thoroughly if damp. Coat baking sheet with cooking spray. Drizzle cauliflower with 1 to 1 1/2 tbs olive oil; toss with curry powder (enough to add flavor and color, but not overwhelm), salt and black pepper. Roast in the lower 1/3 of the oven until bottom sides are deeply browned, 12 to 15 min; toss and roast until opposite sides are deeply browned and cauliflower is very tender, 7 to 10 minutes.

For shrimp:
8 to 10 medium shrimp per person, peeled and deveined
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
Red pepper flakes to taste
Dry Sherry
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter

Try to finish the shrimp at the same time the risotto is finished. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet on medium high and coat with cooking spray. Add shrimp and cook until opaque and not quite cooked through, turning once or twice, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low, add garlic and a bit of red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add a splash of dry Sherry, enough to thinly film the skillet, and simmer until reduced by about half. Add 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, broken up into small chunks and stir just until melted. Remove from heat. You should have a small amount of intense, slightly creamy sauce.

To serve: Top risotto with shrimp and its sauce. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over shrimp (mostly) and rice (a little), or pass wedges at the table for personal taste. Add cauliflower and sprinkle liberally with grated Manchego cheese. Finish with toasted pine nuts and plenty of chopped fresh parsley.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Italian White Bean, Sausage and Kale Soup

I made this soup a while ago and wasn't going to post it because I had no good pictures. Soup is one of the less exciting types of dishes to photograph after all. But, I loved how this turned out and didn't want to forget how I made it, so here we are.

The key thing that makes this hearty, stew-like soup so noteworthy is dried beans. The texture and richness they add to the cooking liquid just wouldn't be present if canned beans were used (I have nothing against canned beans! If using them means the difference between cooking and not cooking, then by all means.).

The other things that make the recipe for me are miso paste and sun dried tomatoes.A scoop of light miso is my absolute favorite trick for adding savory depth to hearty greens and slow cooked dishes. The sun dried tomatoes are just tossed in at the end, but they add so much flavor, both sweet and acidic, that they're easily a key ingredient.

I don't know about you, but it's cold and wintry in Chicago today, so writing about soup in April doesn't seem so out of place to me!

Italian White Bean, Sausage and Kale Soup
This is a thick, satisfying soup with layers of Italian flavor and the richness you get from simmering dried beans. I love using light-colored miso to add depth to vegetable-heavy soups and braises like this one. If you don’t want to use it, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, which is also a good umami ingredient, instead. Note that miso adds salt to the soup, while tomato paste is generally very low in sodium.

Serves 6 to 8 as a main course

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
2 to 3 carrots, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon light miso (optional, see head note)
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups water, plus more as needed
1 pound Great Northern or Cannellini beans, soaked overnight, rinsed and drained
Nonstick cooking spray
3 fresh Italian turkey sausages (such as Jennie O brand)
14 ounce can diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning
3/4 pound trimmed, chopped curly kale with ribs (1 to 1 1/4 pounds before trimming)
1/3 cup (approx.) chopped sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed or not)
Pecorino-Romano cheese, for serving
Lemon wedges, for serving

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or soup pot on medium-high heat. Add onion, carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in fennel, oregano, thyme and red pepper flakes and continue cooking until lightly browned, about 5 minutes more. Push vegetables to the side and add garlic and miso. Cook, stirring constantly and breaking up the miso, 2 minutes.

Add broth and 4 cups water, cover and bring to a boil. Add beans, cover and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until beans are bulked up in size, but still slightly firm, about 1 1/2 hours. If liquid level gets too low, add water as needed; conversely, simmer the soup uncovered if you want some of the liquid to evaporate.

While beans simmer, cook the turkey sausages: Heat a medium skillet on medium-high heat and coat with cooking spray. Squeeze the sausages out of their casings into the skillet. Cook, crumbling meat with your spoon, until cooked through. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and lightly press with another paper towel to drain.

To the soup, add the tomatoes and about half the kale and cover just until wilted. Add remaining kale in this manner, as well as additional water if needed (soup should be thick, but you should still be able to stir it without too much muscle). Simmer until beans are tender, but not falling apart, and kale is very tender, 20 to 30 minutes (tender or Tuscan kale will cook faster). Reduce heat to low and stir in the turkey and sun-dried tomatoes just until heated through. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Shave cheese with a vegetable peeler over each bowl and serve with lemon wedges.