Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas is Like a Lite Brite

I recently was reminded of one of my favorite toys from my childhood. It was a Lite Brite. Light Brite was a creative toy where you put colored pegs into a board, perhaps following a pattern. The board was black and was lit from behind. So when you looked at it with the lights off, it was colorful and Christmas-tree-like.

My happy Lite Brite memories shot me out of the gate to decorating for the holidays.

Not wanting to wait several weeks so that a freshly cut real tree wouldn't dry out, I bit the bullet and splurged on a beautiful faux tree at one of my favorite stores. I also got a few little goodies for my babies to express their good cheer as well.

As soon as I cleared off the dining room table, I ran downstairs to dig out the boxes of ornaments, lights, figurines and other items. Then I got right to work. Here's the tree:

Then, up when the lights. It's so warm and cozy in here and I'm full of peacefulness looking at my adult-style Lite Brite.

Getting back to the goodies for my boys, here's Petey to wish you all some happy holidays!

And Elvis likes the tree too! He's having happy puppy dreams.

May you all share in the warmth of the season!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Butternut Squash Casserole

Last week I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office, flipping through the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. I will admit that I go straight for the last pages of the magazine because that's where the recipes are. And that's where I found the original recipe for this dish.

I love butternut squash. Its so awesome when it's roasted. It's sweet and savory and so colorful too. And the texture is so awesome.

So it was just me in the waiting room, and I knew I had to make this dish. My first instinct was to rip out the recipe from the magazine. But I decided to be big, and I resisted, and as soon as my appointment was over I went running home to look up the recipe online.

I'm sure that the recipe would have been wonderful without the changes I made, but I wanted to add some more protein and make it a meal in a bowl. So I added spicy apple chicken sausage.

For the pasta, I chose a noodle called campanelle. I'm guessing that campanelle means "bell" or "little bell" (campana in Spanish). And they do look like little bells!

They are really pretty when they're cooked.

The results were really nice. It was a hearty, warm-you-up-on-the-insides kind of meal; the perfect flavors for this time of year. I'll admit that I was expecting it to hold it's shape once it was cooked and it did not. But I didn't load it up with gooey cheese either.

I liked this dish a lot and I can see myself making it again. But since it didn't hold it's shape, I thought of an alternative approach for next time: add more liquids so it's sort of in a sauce. I'm thinking of milk with a flower thickener and going a little heavier on the Parmesan than I did this time.

So once you get through all that leftover turkey and the sides, here's a dish you may want to consider making!

1-1/2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut in 1-inch cubes (3 cups)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz. dried noodles (I used campanelle)
4 tablespoons butter
6 shallots, minced
6 chicken sausages (I used apple flavored, but Italian would be good as well)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 8-oz. carton mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped
1 cup panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs or soft bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Toss the squash, oil, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Place the squash into an 15x10x1-inch baking pan. I line my pan with tin foil because it saves me from washing it, which can be tough if any of the vegetables stick to the bottom.

Roast, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes, until the squash is lightly browned and tender. Stir the mixture twice during the roasting period.

While the squash is roasting, cook the noodles according to package directions in a large pot. Drain them and set them aside.

Saute the shallots in butter. Remove them from the pan and set them aside.

Remove the casings from the sausage and cook it in the same pan you just used so that it crumbles. You might have to actually chop it some with your spatula.

When everything is ready, add the noodles back to the pot. Then stir in the lemon juice, mascarpone, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, 1/4 cup parsley, and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and black pepper. Mix it up well and transfer it to a greased baking dish.

In small saucepan melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter; stir in bread crumbs, remaining Parmesan, and parsley. Sprinkle it onto the noodle mixture. Bake, uncovered, 10 minutes, until crumbs are golden.

Serves 8-10.

Butternut Squash Casserole

Last week I was sitting in the waiting room at ...

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Sweet Potato Casserole

I'm on cloud nine having just had a small helping of my sweet potato casserole. It's perfect and I'm making a second batch on Wednesday to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. I'm sure to get lots of complements with this one!

I began my quest for the perfect sweet potato casserole last weekend when I saw a picture of a sweet potato casserole recipe in one of the many magazines I subscribe to. I was dying to make it. The picture was mouth-watering and how could any sweet potato casserole be bad?

I remember that I was surprised that the recipe called for cream, but no butter. There were no eggs to give it structure. I should have trusted my instincts - it was a clunker! There simply must be butter! Also, the sugar just has to be brown sugar. So I tossed the batch and I started over this weekend on my pursuit of an acceptable sweet potato casserole to share with you.

Now, there are sweet potato casseroles with pecan crunchy toppings (struesels), and there are those with the mini marshmallows. I am combining them here and using a special little twist that came from the recipe I tried last weekend: the pecans are toasted in butter and sugar, and they have a little zing and smokey flavor from our spice rack friend, Mr. Chipotle Chili Powder.

And you can make the pecans days ahead of time. In fact, you may like the pecans so much that you make them and keep them for snacks! I have been picking at the ones that broke and weren't photogenic.

I baked my sweet potatoes days ahead of time. Bake them at 350 degrees. Mine were large, so they took over an hour. If you aren't familiar with baking them, just make sure you poke them with forks and I recommend putting them on tin foil. As they become good and cooked, the sugars will escape through those holes. So if you don't have the tin foil underneath them, the sugars will clump up and stick to the oven grate and drop to the bottom. Then, every time you turn the oven on, they will re-burn and stink up your house.

After I made my sweet potatoes, I stored them in the fridge for a number of days. So as I began preparing the casserole this morning, I took off the skins, and I reheated the sweet potatoes in the microwave.

By the way, I won't feel guilty eating this entire batch throughout the week because I cut back on the typical amount of butter and sugar that most other recipes have. Sweet potatoes are a wonderful thing, and they don't need that much sweetening. The butter is great, but let's not overdo it! Baked sweet potatoes are creamy enough with less butter.

Without further ado, here's the recipe. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sweet Potato Casserole

For The Sweet Potatoes:
3 cups mashed sweet potatoes (from baked sweet potatoes)
½ stick butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten

For The Topping:
1 (6-oz) bag of pecan halves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup honey (I used chestnut honey)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

Let's begin with the topping.

Melt the butter in a pan. Add the pecans, sugar, honey, and chile powder. Toss them around for about 8-10 minutes so that the sugar and honey caramelize around the pecans. Empty out the mixture onto parchment paper so it can cool. Store the pecans in an airtight container till you are either ready to eat them or put them on this special casserole!

The only utensil you will need to mash the sweet potatoes is a fork. In fact, you won't need to even mash them, just cut them into large chunks with the fork and ass you mix in the butter, vanilla, and brown sugar, they will fall apart into the perfect consistency.

Add the eggs once everything else is mixed.

If your sweet potatoes are especially hot, you should temper the eggs. That means, that you take a hunk of the hot sweet potato and mix it into the eggs separately. That evens out the temperature before you add it to the rest of the sweet potatoes. By doing this, you prevent cooking the eggs before they are mixed in. If that were to happen, you'd have scrambled egg hunks in your casserole, and that wouldn't be pleasant.

Coat a 9 x 9 inch baking dish with cooking spray and spread the sweet potato mixture evenly throughout the dish. Top with the marshmallows. Personally, I think I had too many marshmallows on mine (just a bit too may). I would have one layer of marshmallows - no extra. Place the pecans on top with plenty of space between them.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40-35 minutes. Check toward the end so that the marshmallows brown, but do not burn.

Sweet Potato Casserole

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Roasted Parsnip Soup with Balsamic Syrup

I just love parsnips. I had my first ones just a few years ago. Where had they been all my life?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with parsnips, they look like white carrots. But their flavor is stronger, a bit more bitter, and deeper. I wouldn't eat them raw (though Wikipedia says you can), but when they are roasted, they caramelize and have a fabulous, earthy flavor.

In this soup, parsnips are roasted with pears and onions and the result is beautiful in this flavorful and hardy fall soup. The soup alone is great, but the balsamic syrup knocks it out of the ballpark.

Oh, you can use boxed broth, but why? When I cook, I save the liquids in the freezer. I had enough to use in this soup so that I didn't have to go for the box. But let it be know, if the box were all I had, I'd have used it without thinking.

But I was fortunate, and instead of using boxed broth, I had my own stock on hand along with 1/2 cup of liquids that came from some butternut squash I recently cooked. Using that instead of the boxed stuff really added a level of depth to the soup.

I've been eating it for dinner with a big hunk of crusty wheat bread, and it's great! I also think this soup could be a huge hit at any one's Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Roasted Parsnip Soup With Balsamic Syrup
Adapted from Eating Well Magazine

Makes 7-8 servings, generous 1 cup each

2 pounds parsnips, peeled and chopped into equal-sized pieces*
2 pears, peeled and cut into eighths
1 small yellow or white onion, peeled and cut into eighths
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup balsamic vinegar
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 ¼ cups low-fat milk

Position the rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 450°F.

Toss the parsnips, pears, and onion in the oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Put it in a roasting pan. Roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until very soft and starting to brown, about 50 minutes.

While your fruit and vegetables roast, boil the vinegar in a small saucepan (I used an omelet pan) until syrupy and reduced to about 1/4 cup. It takes 10 to 14 minutes. Watch the syrup carefully, especially at the end, so it doesn't burn. When it is done, you can pull a spoon through it and it see the bottom of the pan without the syrup immediately covering it back up. See my picture below. When you reach this point, remove it from the heat.

In small batches, puree the roasted fruit and veggies in a blender with the liquids. You may find that you have more liquid than you need. I added 2 cups liquid to the original recipe because it just wasn't enough! And still, my soup was very thick.

Add it all the saucepan and stir in the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Reheat the soup over medium heat, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
Gently reheat the balsamic syrup if it has become thicker than syrup while standing.

Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle with the balsamic syrup (I used a spoon sprayed with PAM so the syrup would drizzle). Garnish with chopped chives, if you like.

* Eating well said to remove the fibrous, woody core of parsnips before using. But I didn't know what they were talking about. There were no woody cores in my parsnips.

Roasted Parsnip Soup with Balsamic Syrup

I just love parsnips. I had my first ones just ...

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

I'm Back, People!

Dear Readers,

I totally apologize for my absence. I have been so incredibly bogged-down with a class I was taking that I had no time left for the good things in life: cooking, blogging, keeping in touch with my online blogger community.

The good news is that my class ended - and I got an A. God, do I love an A. I simply must have it!

What class did I take, you ask? I took a class in Web design, and learned how to make a Web page using Dreamweaver. I also learned a lot about Photoshop. I'd like to now learn flash.

For the most part, though, I was completely overwhelmed with class and work. I didn't think the workload was going to be as big as it was. So, I'm left glad that I took the class, but glad that it's over!

During my absence, I did get to do a few things, but I was unable to post the good ones, and unwilling to post the experiments that had gone wrong.

For the Days of the Dead I made sugar skulls for my students and they decorated them after school one day. Oh, and I kept one for me.

But since I was running behind, I didn't even think of getting a chance to post about it until now. The holiday was two weeks ago. So I'll save the recipe and such till next year.

Lets see, I also made my first tamales ever. They were based on a recipe for butternut squash and goat cheese tamales. I made it a bit more Mexican. I added sweet potato, poblano peppers, and replaced the goat cheese with queso fresco:

But you know what? I wasn't so pleased with them and I didn't want to post the recipe I used. I do want to make them again, but I think I need to make them more fattening. It was sort of a light recipe and I didn't like the dough. But I will chalk it off to being a great learning experience and I'll make better tamales next time.

Then there was the day that I was going to make a gateau de crepe. I made a stack of crepes (they were good) and a pastry cream:

But I turned my eyes away from the pastry cream to take a picture of something else, and the cream curdled. I tried to save it, but I wasn't happy with it, and had to toss it with the hopes of having more success next time.

Oh, and there was the ganache I made.

It was a pumpkin ganache - actually had pumpkin in it. And some pumpkin-type spices too. I was going to make truffles with it. But it seemed a little too delicate. I think the cream to chocolate ratio was too high in the cream department. It was okay in the fridge, but less okay in the room temperature. So I ate it, little by little with a spoon. But ultimately, I threw most of it away and vowed to try again another time.

A few weeks ago my husband took a business trip to San Francisco. Lucky him! I would totally LOVE to go to San Francisco. But during the school year a trip like that is out of the question.

What did I want from San Franciso? Chocolate, of course. So I chose a chocolatier on line, and sent Joe on a mission. He visited Christopher Elbow chocolates for me, and they were wonderful. I will post about them within a few days or so.

I also had recipe success with a roasted parsnip soup. That was just a few days ago, and I still have a little left over. I will be posting the recipe very soon. I just don't like the pictures I have of it, and it's rainy now, so the light doesn't make for a good picture.

Oh, and I want chives for the picture. So when Joe left for the grocery store about an hour ago, I put chives on my list. Can't wait to get them on top of that soup!

Today, though, I'm dealing with some severe back and neck pain - probably from the stress of finishing my class. I'm taking some very strong meds. I hope my writing doesn't show that I'm really out of it! But as soon as I'm able to chop some vegetables, I'm going to make a moussaka - a lamb moussaka. I just know it's going to be good. I'll post that too, now that my dance card is open.

So hi, everyone! It's so good to be back.