Monday, May 30, 2011

Lunch Mediterranean Style

When it comes to mid-day meals, easier is always better in my book.  I like to try and prep stuff that I can easily eat during the week ahead of time because if it really comes down to it, I know that not only will I not want to put in the effort come lunchtime on your average weekday... I won't.  Now sometimes, I just don't have the downtime on my day off to spend an afternoon cooking and I thought I would share one of my favorite quick, nutritious lunch options that I often throw together in under five minutes. 

It's kind of my take on a quick, Mediterranean flat bread.  I take a mini Joseph's Bakery flax seed pita and toast it in the oven (or toaster oven if you have it) for about 3-4 minutes until crisp.  I then add 1 tablespoon of Sabra Luscious Lemon Hummus (or whichever flavor suits your fancy), 1 tablespoon of Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Tabouli, a few dashes of Penzey's Salad Sprinkle spice mix, one sliced plum tomato, a few pieces of sliced red onion, fresh bean sprouts and 1/4 of a fresh avocado (today I used a Hass avocado, but Florida avocados work just as well if they're in season and they have about 1/2 the fat content). 

It's quick, easy, filling, crunchy and super nutritious... all positives in my book! 

Today, I paired my flatbread with a glass of Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills 2007 Pinot Noir which actually worked fantastically.  The creaminess of the avocado played well with the texture and body of the wine.  All of the flavors in the food were light and fresh so I didn't want anything too bit that would wash them out.  The tartness of the lemon hummus helped accentuate some of the sour cherry and cranberry notes in the wine.  It was bigger than I would have expected for a pinot noir, but still subtle and understated enough to work with my light lunch.  Along with today's weather, my back porch lunch by the garden could have worked just as well on a Tuscan vineyard.  :-)

Bacon & Brown Sugar... a marriage made in heaven

I've been told on several occasions that 90% of why my boyfriend is dating me relates back to one of our first dates when I made him my infamous praline bacon.  I can't really blame him because this bacon is truly amazing.  It's found a place in countless breakfasts, brunches, dinners, snacks, and even as dessert in a six-course tasting menu.  I was hesitant at first to share my secrets to bacon bliss, but I feel it would be wrong to deprive the world of such deliciousness.

First, lay out your bacon on a baker's rack over a cookie sheet.  I always use Trader Joe's Applewood Smoke-Cured Bacon, but any thick-cut, high quality bacon will work.  Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and cook the bacon until it's almost crisp, but not quite there yet (usually 8-10 minutes).

While your bacon is in the oven, use a coffee or spice grinder to finely chop 1/2 cup of pecans.  You want the nuts to be close to a powder consistency.  Combine the pecans with 1/3 cup of light brown sugar and mix well to incorporate the ingredients. 

Remove the cookie sheet of bacon from the oven and lightly press the pecan/sugar mixture onto each slice.  Make sure you coat all of the bacon thoroughly.  Now put the tray back into the oven for 5-6 minutes to allow the sugar to melt and form a delicious crust.  Let the bacon cool before eating... we've had a few burnt mouth incidents in my kitchen caused by impatience.  It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week and reheats incredibly well (it's also delicious cold).

Praline Bacon, Tahitian Vanilla Zabaglione with Brandy-Poached Apricots & a "Coffee" Shooter

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tipsy Cupcakes... no, really

So I figured it was about time for me to explain the namesake of my illustrious blog.  As anyone who knows me knows, I like alcohol.  And what do you know, I really like cupcakes.  I think they make the perfect little single serving, compact dessert.  About a year ago, I had what I like to think was a stroke of genius... why not bake cupcakes infused with alcohol?  And so it began... my legacy as the cupcake lady of Not Your Average Joe's Medford.  You see, I love to bake, and if I bake, then there are baked goods in the house.  I tend to eat baked goods when they're readily accessible which is counterproductive when one is trying not to blow up like a balloon.  My solution: bring said baked goods to work.  This was seen as my attempt to sabotage the competition during our "Biggest Loser" contest at work, but realistically, had their been another method of disposal for said treats aside from throwing them out, I would have exercised my options.

So I thought I would take a moment and share some of my cupcake recipes that helped inspire me with you all.  The first is a basic cupcake recipe that I've adapted into various "cocktail" incarnations.  The first part of the recipe is just the standard chocolate cupcake base that I use, the subsequent alterations afterward are what ultimately make the dessert "tipsy."

Standard Chocolate Cupcakes
9 oz Dark Chocolate (I prefer Callebaut Chocolate from Whole Foods)
3/4 Cup of Butter (I prefer Kerrygold Irish Butter)
1 Cup Superfine Granulated Sugar
3 Large Eggs
2/3 Cup All Purpose Flour (I tend to use a whole wheat variety)
1 tsp. Baking Powder

*Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
*Line 24 muffin tins with paper liners.
*Break the chocolate into pieces and place into a microwave-safe bowl.
*Dice the butter and add to the chocolate.
*Microwave on a medium setting for 1 minute.  Check consistency and repeat if necessary. 
*Add in the sugar and eggs.
*Using an electric or stand mixer, whip the mixture for 30 seconds on a low setting.
*Add the flour and continue to whip on a medium setting for an additional 30 seconds. 
*[Insert your "tipsy" option here.]
*Using an ice cream scoop, portion the batter into the lined muffin tins.
*Bake for 15 minutes and check consistency with a fork.  Remove if fully baked, if not check every 2 minutes subsequently.
*When done, transfer to a wire rack for cooling.
*Do not decorate until completely cooled.
*These will store at room temperature for up to 2 days, in the refrigerator for 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.

The Espresso Martini Cupcake:
*Add 1 shot of chilled espresso, 2 tbsp. of Kahlua and 2 tbsp. of Vodka
*Add 4 tbsp. Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur to the Butter-Cream Icing 

The Chocolate Cherry Manhattan Cupcake: 
*Add 3 tbsp. of Jack Daniels #7 Whiskey and 1 tsp. of Antica Formula Vermouth 
*Add 3 tbsp. of Pinnacle Cherry Whipped Vodka  and 2 drops of red food coloring to the Butter-Cream Icing

The Grasshopper Cupcake:
*Add 4 tbsp. of White or Green Creme de Menthe
*Add 2 tsp. of Green Creme de Menthe to the Butter-Cream Icing (if using White, add 3 drops of green food coloring)

So I promise more of my liquored up recipes in the not too distant future... next on the docket, my Drunk in Disneyland Cupcake... a cotton candy cupcake with pink lemonade icing and lavender sprinkles.  :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Tater Tot.... a labor of love

You wouldn't think the most amazing thing served in an upscale, white tablecloth steakhouse would be a tater tot, would you?  In my humble opinion, you'd be wrong.  At the Hanover Street Chophouse, we have a side dish of truffled tater tots that is absolutely to die for.  Not realizing my undertaking, this past Sunday, I decided to put my own spin on the amazing little puffs of potato and create my own version.

Now, at the Chophouse, we make the tots and toss them in white truffle oil.  No complaints about this method of "truffling" but I wanted to take it to the next level.  I do love my truffles...

Mashing the potatoes (with Grandma's hand-me-down potato masher of course)
I started by simply boiling some new potatoes, skins and all.  I like a little bit of texture in my tots and the majority of the nutrition in a potato comes from the skin.  Once soft, I drained them off and added 1/2 cup of skim milk, 3 tablespoons of Vermont cultured butter, 1/2 of a finely grated truffle and 2 tablespoons of white truffle oil (when shopping for truffle oil, look for a canola or safflower oil blend.  Olive oils carry a ton of their own flavor and will dilute the truffle).  Mash until you have a semi-chunky but well blended consistency. 

Once you have a good mash, spread the potatoes into a baking dish about 2 inches deep and chill in the refrigerator for about 2 hours. 

Now, we're getting to the "labor" portion of the assembly.  Once your potatoes are cool, take an apple corer and punch out your tots.  Once you've made one pass through the pan, just pack the potatoes together to one side and make another pass.  This way, you can use the majority of the mashed potatoes and have minimal waste.  Place your formed tots in a bowl. 

My apple corer is one of my favorite kitchen tools... although I don't think I've ever used it to core an apple.
Tots... phase 1
Once you've formed all of your potatoes into tots, chill them for at least 30 minutes.  this will help them stay "tot-like" during the breading.  Once you're ready, set up a flour, egg wash and panko breadcrumb station.  Mix about 2 teaspoons of cracked black pepper and sea salt into your panko breadcrumbs.  Dip each tot in the flour, egg wash and panko and place on a cookie sheet.  The panko should fully coat each tot.  If necessary, you can double bread them to get a full, even coating.  I highly recommend using Trader Joe's panko breadcrumbs if possible.  They're coarsely ground so you can get an even coating with just one pass. 

Tots... phase 2
It is now time to fry your tots.  Cover the bottom of your fryer basket with a single layer of tots.  Do not overcrowd the fryer or you won't get them to crisp properly (and let's be honest, who wants a soggy tot?).

Tots... phase 3
Once each batch comes out of the fryer, lightly toss them in white truffle oil and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt.  I used a black truffle infused sea salt, but as we have already established, I love my truffles.  The finishing touch, truffled ketchup for dipping.  Normally I would have made my ketchup from scratch, however after forming, breading and frying each individual tot, my desire to actually eat them was overwhelming and I cheated a bit.  I mixed 1 teaspoon of black truffle oil with 4 tablespoons of organic ketchup.  Not quite as good as homemade, but absolutely served its purpose!

The final product

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Balsamic Fig Chicken with Fresh English Peas & Cucumber Dill Salad

Like most people in America, most night's I don't have time to sit down and ponder what I'm going to make for dinner, shop for specific ingredients and intricately plate each piece into a spectacular masterpiece. My goal is to maintain my creativity, but find something relatively quick and simple to prepare that's not overly time consuming.  Sound familiar?  Last night being no exception, the compilation of ingredients in my refrigerator lead us to balsamic fig chicken, steamed English peas and a quick salad of Persian cucumbers, white onion, fresh dill and lemon.  If I do say so myself... the result was quite delicious.

We started with chicken tenderloins and sliced Turkish smyrna figs.  The marinade was a combination of 12 year old Modena balsamic, grapeseed oil, dried herbs de Provence, stevia, chardonnay, and a touch of black truffle oil.  Just pour evenly over the tenderloins and fig slices and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. 

The peas couldn't get much easier... steam them.  I actually steamed about 3 times as many as I needed for dinner because I had a plan for the leftovers.  We'll touch on that later. 

The salad was a simple combination of thinly sliced Persian cucumbers, white onions, fresh baby dill, lemon juice and just a tiny sprinkle of stevia to offset the acid.  I did cut a few extra cucumbers and onion slices to help me get my "leftover" recipe jump started. 

All in, dinner was really fantastic.  We paired it with the leftover Portuguese Dao that we had opened 2 nights ago.  It worked fabulously with the sweet acidity of the chicken, but honestly, I would not pair it with a strong onion dish again.  The flavors just didn't marry as well as I would have liked.  That's part of the art of wine pairing though, you can't learn what doesn't work without trial and error.

Now to fill you in on my "leftover" plan.  I love fresh peas.  They're loaded with vitamins and I feel like they have this distinctive, bright "spring" flavor to them.  So to prepare my lunch for tomorrow, I combined the extra steamed peas, sliced cucumbers and onions, fresh mint leaves, red Hawaiian sea salt and white pepper in a food processor to make a chilled minted pea soup. Perfect for spring and absolutely delicious!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Even if you don't love the wine, it always has a purpose

So a few days ago, James and I opened a bottle of Hunter Valley Semillion.  Now this is a noted, revered "gem" of the white wine world, hailing from Australia's New South Wales region.  It's unoaked, limey and overly aggressive with acid; nothing like what you would get out of a a Bordeaux semillion (although styles range from dry to sweet, the acidity is toned down with a substantial amount of oak aging).  Although I can appreciate this wine as being technically fantastic, it just wasn't my cup of tea.  I'm no stranger to acidity and an avid sauvignon blanc lover, but this was unbalanced on my palate and just far too aggressive.  I do however, firmly believe that all wines have a purpose in my home, even if not consumed from my Riedel stemware.

Tonight, I was feeling like something light for dinner and opted for some fresh tilapia.  I was walking through the produce section of the supermarket looking for key limes for my marinade and then it hit me... let's skip the lime juice and use what's left of the semillion that's just haning out in my fridge.

Normally when I use a wine in a marinade (which is quite frequently), you can't actually recognize the wine by the time the meal is prepared.  This was an exception to that normality.  One taste of the poached tilapia and it was as clear as taking a sip of the wine on it's own.  The flavors imparted on the fish beautifully to give what could have otherwise been a bland protein the zip that it needed.  Add in some fresh dill, cilantro, spring onions, vine ripened tomatoes and fresh spinach and you have a fresh, delicious entree that celebrates spring and it's amazing ingredients.

Now for a side dish that can stand up to the flavor explosion that tonight's entree is providing.  The winner: Chilled Quinoa Salad with Red Peppers and Mango.  It's a great blend of sweetness and toastiness to compliment the acidity of the fish.  It's a super simple combination white onion, red pepper, fresh mango, sea salt and pepper tossed into some toasted quinoa.  Just make sure that you dry toast the quinoa before you add it to the boiling water/olive oil mixture used to cook it.  This will help bring out a rich, delicious toasty flavor that will carry through to the salad.  The finishing touch to the salad... one of my personal favorite all-purpose ingredients, Penzy's Spices Raspberry Enlightenment.  This "sauce" is absolutely amazing and in my opinion, should be in every kitchen.  Yes, if eaten right out of the jar, it tastes like a sweet, slightly loose textured raspberry jam, but when mixed into savory foods, it has this amazing ability to bring out flavors that you didn't even know where there.  I do use it all the time as a cheese pairing in it's raspberry-licous form, but trust me... try it on a rosemary roasted chicken breast.  You'll be amazed, I promise!

Toasting the quinoa

Diced mango and my secret ingredient... shhhh!

So yes, dinner was delicious.  But let's be honest, what fun is dinner without a fantastic wine pairing.  Tonight's option: Grilos Dao.  Yes, they do make white Dao.  Quick wine education... Dao is a wine region of Portugal that produces 90% red wines from the Tino family of grapes. These are usually big, aggressive reds that pair well with rich, gamey meats.  Tonight's selection was a combination of Encruzado and Cerceal Branco... both acidic white grapes indigenous to Portugal.

Yes, the wine is acidic... not nearly as acidic as the Hunter Valley semillion, but enough so to pair with the fish beautifully.  Think of the acidity levels of a sauvignon blanc, only with peach/apricot notes instead of citrus.  It's an odd wine for the distinctive Old World-style of Portugal, but nonetheless quite delicious and refreshing. I would recommend it with any fresh, light seafood, shellfish in particular.  It's pretty readily available, give it a try!

And the radishes take an early lead...

So just to give all of my faithful readers and update on the progress of the garden, although we are no where near the point where I would consider its output food, the scarlet globe radishes have sprung out to an early lead. We're seeing some great little sprouts popping up all over the bed, but see for yourself from the pictures, the radishes are the clear leaders.

The radishes are in the upper, left portion of the center of the bed.  The lettuces are an undisputed second in the right, central area.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bang for your buck

So I have to admit, value is not exactly my first concern when I'm shopping for wines.  I'm a die-hard bargain hunter when it comes to clothes, furniture, appliances... heck, 3/4 of my wardrobe comes from TJ Maxx, but wine has always been an area I've indulged a little.  I've just always associated "cheap" wine with that horrible, "I just drank wine out of box" headache you feel the next morning.  I also have scary visions of Barefoot White Zinfandel and Boone's Farm. 

I have however decided, it's time for me to overcome my own stigmata and accept that not all value priced wines are created equal.  This past January, James and I were at the Boston Wine Expo and had the opportunity to try the line from an up and coming California label called Bear Flag.  First off, you can't help but notice the graffiti-laden label art that covers the bottle.  It's more than a little eccentric, but honestly, so are these wines. 

The good news: On average, each of their wines retails for about $9 a bottle so we're definitely playing in bargain territory.  The even better news: These wines drink a lot bigger than what I would expect for a single digit price tag. 

Bear Flag produces four different (and very distinctive) blends: Smooth Red, Dark Red, Soft White and Bright White.  Their wine maker, Beth Cutler, takes some of the most interesting approaches to blending that I've ever seen, using combinations that prior to reading the Bear Flag label, I never would have thought of combining.

My personal favorite wine in the lineup is the "Dark Red Blend."  It's a bold and somewhat aggressive blend of Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel, Petite Verdot & Temparanillo.  It's not overtly tannic and still very drinkable with or without food despite its boldness. 

Their other blends include a "Smooth Red" (Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Zinfandel & Alicante Bouschet), "Soft White" (Muscat of Alexandria, Symphony, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay & Colmbard) and a "Bright White" (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc & Gewurtztraminer)... all very much worth trying. 

Their website,, has a really great search feature that allows you to enter your zip code and it will tell you where retailers and restaurants that carry their wines are in your area.  Give them a try and please let me know what you think!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Opening Day of Gardening Season

So it's official!  My garden is in the ground!  After an afternoon of weeding, tilling (without a mechanical tiller), and de-rooting my mini backyard plot, I have a garden that I'm hoping will produce a bountiful crop of herbs and vegetables over the next few months.  It's been quite a while since I've been able to have an actual garden.  Living in Boston definitely put a strain on space as well as how much time I actually wanted to spend in my "backyard."  See, living in the sticks (I guess I'm exaggerating a little calling Nashua the sticks but remember, I'm speaking in relative terms here) has it's benefits. 

So below is a map of what I opted to plant for the first round of the season.  I'm holding back on the tomatoes until it gets a little warmer.  I'd love some feedback from anyone who has more experience with growing their own produce.  Books are great but experience is invaluable...

Gluten Free Goodness

So this weekend, I was graced with a visit from my wonderful friend Angela.  Now Angie isn't the most adventurous eater... she knows what she likes and sticks to that for the most part.  Add to that the fact that she's gluten free and that poses what could be considered quite the challenge for this weekend's meal preparations.  It did take a little more thought and label reading than I'm usually accustomed to but all in all, I think we had a pretty tasty weekend!

Last night for dinner, we had beef enchilada night... classic corn tortillas filled with a lean ground beef sauteed with vine ripened tomatoes, yellow onion, caved-aged cheddar cheese and queso fresco.  Super simple, but quite delicious.  We made a traditional enchilada sauce with tomato paste, cayenne pepper, smoked habaneros and paprika and topped it off with a bit more cheese to up the gooey factor (can you ever use too much cheese?). 

Rolling the enchiladas before baking

As good as the enchiladas turned out, the real gluten free jewel of the night was dessert... which came with my first taught, gluten free cooking lesson.  I took a recipe cue from my dear friend Jennifer King (who is an exceptional cook if I may say so myself) and added a few small adjustments to make it Angie-friendly.  For your enjoyment, I've even included the recipe below... (DISCLAIMER: there is nothing remotely healthy about this cake... please do not misconstrue gluten free to mean good for you.  It is however, chocolaty, decadent and delicious).

Gluten Free Chocolate Molten Cake  
9 oz of dark chocolate (chips or shavings off of a larger block)
2 sticks of butter
   -Melt chocolate and butter together (microwave or stove top) stirring frequently.  Set melting mixture aside.
   -Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

4 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup of sugar
1 tbsp real vanilla extract
1/4 cup Frangelico hazelnut liqueur (this can be substituted with amaretto, grand mariner or liqueur of your choice)
   -Whip eggs and yolks together until frothy with an electric mixer.  Add sugar, vanilla and liqueur. 
   - Add in chocolate/butter mixture and whip until blended.

3 tbsp coconut flour
   -Add in flour and whip until blended.  The batter will have a loose consistency.
   -Spoon batter into greased muffin tins (do not use paper liners).  Fill each tin to the top.
   - Bake for 8-10 minutes.
   -Remove from oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before removing from the tins.
   -The result will be a very dense, chocolaty cake with a soft center. 
   -Refrigerate any uneaten cakes for up to 3 days.