Sunday, October 31, 2010

Candied Walnuts

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

When planning my menu, I looked at many ideas for appetizer soups involving pumpkin or other winter squash, but when I looked at all of the other dishes I had planned, they just seemed like too much food.  Plus, carrying bowls of hot soup around a big table with a bunch of kids seemed like a bad idea!  Instead, I decided a light spinach salad would be a good way to start the meal.  I am a big fan of salads with some kind of cheese, fruit, and nut.  Salads are so often served with goat or blue cheese, neither of which I like.  However, I've recently discovered Ricotta Salata, a salty, hard, crumbly cheese (not unlike feta) that creates a similar effect to more traditional salad cheeses but I much prefer.  As for fruit, normally dried cranberries are my go-to in salads, but with cranberry sauce coming later in the meal, I replaced that idea with sliced apples.  And apples go really nicely with walnuts - thus my salad was created.  Of course, I couldn't just throw plain old walnuts on top - this was my first big holiday, after all, and I wanted a little extra something.  Like candied walnuts!

I started my recipe search and learned that making candied nuts is not so simple - most of the recipes either involved making a sticky sugar mixture requiring a candy thermometer or very careful monitoring, or else were deep fried.  Both of those methods were entirely too complicated and messy for me, not to mention unhealthy - who needs deep fried sugared nuts??  I finally found one on Epicurious that seemed really simple, and it turned out great.  The sugar mixture just needed to come to a boil, but was watered down so it didn't get too sticky or risk burning, and the nuts were baked instead of fried.  The resulting walnuts were just a tad sweet with great flavor from the roasting process, and added the perfect special touch to my salad.

In the chaos of getting dinner on the table for Thanksgiving, many of my dishes didn't quite get photographed.  But since then I've made these walnuts again and added them to a mixed green salad, this time with my dried cranberries!  So the photo is from round 2, when they were equally delicious :)

Candied Walnuts
adapted from Epicurious

2-3 cups walnuts (or mixed nuts - see original recipe for ideas)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line baking pan with foil and spray lightly with oil.

Place walnuts in a mixing bowl.

Bring sugar, water, and honey to a boil in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Pour over nuts and stir until nuts are well coated. Transfer nuts with a slotted spoon to baking pan (discarding syrup), sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and roast in 1 layer in middle of oven, stirring and redistributing nuts occasionally, until golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

Carefully remove foil with walnuts on it from baking pan and put on a rack to cool completely.  Break apart any nuts that are stuck together (they will get more sticky as they cool).

Do ahead: store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cornbread (Muffins)

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

I've already told you about the Classic Lasagna I made to serve upon arrival for our Thanksgiving weekend guests, but I thought one more home-cooked meal (in addition to the big Thanksgiving feast!) was warranted that weekend.  Lunch the day after our big meal seemed like a good time to have something I made, but again, it had to be freezable in advance since there was no way I was going to feel like cooking anything that day!  I looked through my Recipe Index and decided that Chili was a good option - freezes beautifully, and pretty much everyone likes it. 

As an added touch, I decided to make some cornbread to go along with it.  I've made cornbread muffins in the past, but I was not blown away - they were tasty in chili but a little dry, so I thought it was worth trying out a new recipe.  Plus, hubby had requested cornbread that had actual pieces of corn in it, so I had to do some digging to see if it was as simple as throwing in some frozen corn, or if I needed to make any other modifications.  After going in a lot of circles, I ended up being inspired by 2 posts from Smitten Kitchen.  The primary one my creation was based on is intended as more of a breakfast muffin, but she recommended cutting the sugar a bit which I thought would make it more chili appropriate.  The other post inspired the cheese and jalepeno I ended up adding, although she doesn't even seem to like the base recipe herself, so I thought a combo was in order!

I ended up making 2 versions - a cornbread muffin with cheddar and jalepeno, and then, because I'm a wimp and really can't handle jalepeno at all, a plain cornbread with just the frozen corn.  In the plain version, I also experimented with replacing the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour.  In both cases I did not have buttermilk, so I used a combination of plain whole milk yogurt and 1% milk mixed with a little vinegar to make a sort of homemade buttermilk (see note below).  The texture and moisture in the muffins was definitely better, but it's hard to say whether it was because of the cheese, the all-purpose flour, or the fact that I had no idea how long to bake the cornbread and may have overdone it a bit (I adjusted the directions below accordingly!).  That being said, I thought the plain whole wheat version was great, and if I hadn't been doing a side-by-side comparison I would have had no complaints.  Next time I make this I'll probably use the whole wheat flour, but also add cheese and leave out the jalepenos :)   

Cornbread (Muffins)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup all-purpose flour or whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup plain yogurt + 1/2 cup milk or "homemade buttermilk"*)
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg

Optional add-ins
1 cup corn kernels – fresh, frozen or canned (in which case they should be drained and patted dry)
1 cup shredded cheddar (approx 4 oz)
1 small jalepeno, diced very fine

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper muffin cups (or grease an 8x8 baking pan).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk the buttermilk (or equivalent), honey, melted butter, oil, egg and yolk together until well blended. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend.  Gently fold in optional add-ins.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups or pour into baking pan.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes for regular muffins, 12 minutes for mini muffins, or 20-25 minutes for an 8x8 pan, or until the tops are golden and a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean.  Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing muffins/bread.

Makes 12 regular muffins, 24 minis, or 16 pieces of cornbread

* To make "homemade buttermilk", mix 1 tablespoon vinegar with enough low-fat milk to make a cup, and let sit for about 10 minutes.  In this recipe, I think just a yogurt/milk combo would work just fine, too!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Classic Lasagna

---This meal is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

Hubby's family had a long trip to our house for Canadian Thanksgiving - about 8-10 hours.  So before I could worry about the Thanksgiving feast itself, I wanted to have a nice meal for them when they arrived.  I decided that I needed something that could be made and frozen in advance but could also be reheated multiple times in case hubby's parents and sister arrived at different times.  My first thought was baked ziti, until a friend recommended a Barefoot Contessa recipe for lasagna that she's had great success with in the past.  After a few failed veggie lasagna attempts recently I've been kind of avoiding it, but this recipe sounded very safe and not complicated at all to make.

I got to work, making a couple of changes - the original recipe calls for chicken sausage and goat cheese, both of which would make this dish very special but also not as universally liked, so I wanted to stick to more classic flavors.  If those ingredients sound good to you, though, please check out the original as it gets amazing reviews from my friend and reviewers over at the Food Network website!

I have to admit, making lasagna is a pain in the neck - every step was simple and the components were easy to pull together, but it took me a solid 20 minutes just to layer everything in the pan!  The result, however, was delicious, and accomplished my goal of still tasting good even after being reheated several times.  I was especially excited to get rave reviews from my mother-in-law who makes a great lasagna herself!  The proportions were great - cheesy but not too much cheese with plenty of sauce, and I think the fresh mozzarella adds a really special touch - I got several comments about it.  I served this with caesar salad and home-made whole wheat rolls, but I ran into some issues with those so the recipe on that will have to wait until I get it right :)

Classic Lasagna
adapted from Ina Garten

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in tomato puree
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/2 pound whole wheat (or regular) lasagna noodles
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Romano or Parmesan, plus 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400 F.  Take out a 9x13 baking dish (I used a disposable foil pan so as to not tie up one of my others while the lasagna was in the freezer).

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the beef over medium-low heat, breaking it up as it cooks, until no longer pink. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat, for 15 to 20 minutes, until thickened.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl or dish with the hottest tap water (I used instant hot). Add the noodles and allow them to sit in the water for 20 minutes. Drain. (If you are using no-cook noodles, follow directions on the box - you may be able to skip this step.)

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, 1 cup of romano cheese, the egg, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.

Ladle 1/3 of the sauce into baking dish, spreading the sauce over the bottom of the dish. Then add the layers as follows: half the pasta (this should fit nicely in one layer), half the mozzarella, half the ricotta mixture, and 1/3 of the sauce. Add the rest of the pasta, mozzarella, ricotta, and finally, sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of romano. Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling.

Do ahead: Entire lasagna can be cooked according to directions above and frozen.  Place frozen lasagna covered in 350 degree oven for approximately 90 minutes, until lasagna is steamy when uncovered and knife inserted into the middle feels hot when removed.
Serves 8 for dinner, or 12 for lunch

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thanksgiving in October!

So be honest, how many of you out there know that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving about 6 weeks before we do in the US?  I'm not sure I would have ever learned this tidbit if I hadn't married a Canadian, but interestingly enough Canadian Thanksgiving coincides with our Columbus day, which means we all have a long weekend at the same time.  That made it the perfect opportunity to invite hubby's entire family down to see our new house in the burbs and have a big holiday meal at the same time :)  To add to the fun, we decided to invite my family as well, since our families very rarely see each other.  The grand total for the feast would be 10 adults, 2 big kids, and 3 toddlers, not a huge crowd for experienced entertainers, but until a few months ago I lived in an apartment where 6 people for a sit-down meal was tight.  I was excited to host my big holiday meal as entertaining is always the perfect motivation for me to try out new recipes - who better to experiment on than family?

When I sat down to start planning, I realized there was a bit of a catch here - I didn't just need to plan a holiday menu, I needed to plan a long weekend meal plan since hubby's parents and sister + her hubby and 2 kids would be staying with us.  That certainly complicated things a little more, but really just added to the challenge!  I decided I would selectively cook meals and plan other meals to bring in food (e.g., bagels, sandwiches, etc) or have people fend for themselves in a well-stocked kitchen (e.g., eggs, cereal, frozen muffins, and home-made bread for breakfast).  For this weekend I made EXCELLENT use of my extra fridge and freezer in the basement, planning a menu carefully so that I could get a lot of the work done in the weeks ahead.

Thought it might be helpful to share my ideas for do-ahead vs. freshly made options in case any of you find yourself in my shoes.  Most of the new recipes will be posted in the coming week or two, so stay tuned - I'll add links to this post as I do!

Dinner on arrival:

Traditional Lasagna (frozen in advance) - absolutely delicious!

Home-made Dinner Rolls (frozen in advance) - I made the dough in my bread machine and par-baked the rolls before freezing.  They were delicious, but required some troubleshooting so I will try these again before sharing the method.

Caesar Salad - I decided to save myself a task and bought caesar dressing from Trader Joe's, but did make home-made croutons a couple of days in advance.  That left chopping and washing some romaine hearts to be the only work for that evening.

Post Thanksgiving Lunch:

Chili (frozen in advance) - I've shared this one before, and I still love this recipe!

Cornbread (frozen in advance) - I tried a new recipe this time, and made both Cheddar Jalepeno Cornbread Muffins and Corny Whole Wheat Cornbread.

Thanksgiving Dinner:

Spinach Salad with Candied Walnuts, Crumbled Ricotta Salata, and Sliced Apples - I made the candied walnuts about a week in advance, and crumbled the cheese and sliced the apples in the morning so that the salad was ready to be plated by one of my wonderful assistants at dinner time.  Salad was drizzled with my standard balsamic vinaigrette (recipe to come!) that's always in my fridge.

Simplest Roast Turkey with Red Wine Gravy (made that day) - something went wrong with the cooking time and/or my thermometer and the turkey wasn't completely cooked when we cut into it.  Will need to test this one again before sharing.

Traditional White Bread Stuffing (made 2 days in advance and refrigerated) - there is nothing healthy about this recipe, but it is wholesome in that I made the bread myself and used all organic ingredients.  This method is a little labor intensive, but delicious and can be made ahead which is a big help!

Silky Smooth Mashed Potatoes (made that day) - I decided to go a little more decadent for the holiday than my typical Smashed Potatoes and tried out a new recipe that was a huge hit! 

Sweet Potato Pie (outsourced to my mom) - I don't even want to know what goes in this - rumor has it there's a lot of butter and sugar, and that's before you even get to the pie crust and toasted marshmallows on top, but for me Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without it!

Waldorf Salad (outsourced to my mother-in-law) - this fruit & nut salad tossed with whipped cream is apparently a traditional side dish in hubby's family, so my mother-in-law threw this together Thanksgiving morning.

Cranberry Sauce (store-bought) - I served this from a can.  I have made this recipe in the past which I think is delicious and is also easy to make, but hubby insists that people prefer the canned stuff.  I can't really understand that; the stuff in the can grosses me out, but who am I to create more work for myself and have it not be appreciated at all?!?  In my defense, I did at least get the organic version at Whole Foods ;)

Thanksgiving Dessert:
oh, you thought there was enough at dinner??

One Bowl Brownies (made 2 days in advance) - still love this recipe, and I don't think they suffered at all from being made ahead.

"Baked Bars" (frozen in advance) - this recipe for 7-layer bars was from a cookbook written by the guys who own the Baked bakery in Brooklyn.  They were unbelievably delicious, but the recipe is neither simple nor wholesome, so I don't think I'll be posting that one here!

Apple Crisp (frozen in advance) - I finally made my mom's recipe myself, and it is delicious! 

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cake frozen in advance; frosting made 1 day ahead) - this was a last minute addition to the menu when I got nervous about how well the apple crisp would freeze.  As it turns out, the crisp froze perfectly but the pumpkin cake was delicious anyway! 
Lemon Pound Cake (outsourced to my mother-in-law) - this cake is always a hit, and a special request for my dad who wouldn't have been excited about any of the other sweets.

Fruit Plate (outsourced to my mother) - putting some fruit on the table negates how unhealthy the rest of the meal is, right? :)