Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Year, New Look

So I'm thinking with the onset of 2013 and considering my goals for the upcoming year, it was time for the Tipsy Cupcake to get a mini makeover.  Page designs are far from finalized and I'd love any feedback anyone is open to sharing (promise, you won't hurt my feelings).

Along with the new look, I'm committing myself to writing 100 thought provoking, inspired posts in 2013 and creating sub pages for reading lists, links, equipment reviews and the like.  While I'm not trying to take the culinary approach of my blog in a new direction, you can expect 2013 to bring on some more health conscious options (along with the occasional indulgence), as I have become bound and determined to take off the final 30 pounds of the "Not Your Average" 50 I've accumulated since moving home to Boston in 2008.  Three years of eating full-fat restaurant food ten meals a week does take its toll and unfortunately, it's twice as hard to get rid of it as it is to put it on.

I can proudly say that six months into my endeavor, I'm down 20 pounds and getting close to the physical strength I had back when I played rugby.  I do see the upcoming year as an opportunity to complete my journey and have resolved to do so - no excuses.

That aside, my cooking philosophies are still rooted in using fantastic ingredients in innovative and exciting ways as to "reinvent" them so to speak and I can assure you that that will continue.  I'm also hoping that my restaurant reviews will be just as thought provoking and inspiring as James and I have resolved to be more discriminating with our eating out practices in 2013 - thus fewer engagements but hopefully a higher caliber of dining to share with you all.  

Ideally, I'd like to see the photography element of my blog improve by the end of the coming year as well.  I know my photos aren't always the most inspiring and I'm hoping to work on changing that.

That being said, I would like to wish all of my readers a happy and healthy new year!  Here's a preview of the dinner I'm preparing for James and I... paying homage to a few of my favorite chefs who truly do inspire me everyday.

- Truffled Egg Custards with Procuitto Chips (adapted from Thomas Keller)
- Caramelized Carrot Soup (adapted from Nathan Myrhvold)
- Scallops Two Ways - Blood Orange Ceviche & with Jalapeño Lime Harissa (adapted from Ken Oringer and Rick Bayless)
- Roasted Oysters (adapted from Amanda Freitag)
- Branzini with Coconut Milk, Kaffir Lime & Lemon Grass (adapted from Michelle Bernstein)
- Calimyrna Figs with fresh Ricotta, Hazelnuts and Blood Orange (adapted from Melissa Kelly)

Recipes coming after the new year.  Stay safe, eat well and drink good booze.

Happy 2013!

Maple Bacon Jam

Yes, you read that correctly - Maple. Bacon. Jam.  It's one of those culinary concoctions I'm really not sure how I lived without for 30+ years of existence.  Yes, this is a culinary endeavor that takes about 6 hours all in (heck, five of them are in a slow cooker) but your time and effort will most certainly be rewarded with gooey, delicious, bacon-y goodness.

First and foremost, I need to give credit where credit it due.  The inspiration and initial recipe (along with a few suggested modifications) were shared with me by Kayte Eckels, someone who's Facebook updates frequently challenge my culinary creativity and inspire some fabulous collaborative creations.  You get some serious props for this one...

Maple Bacon Jam

1 1/2 pounds of applewood smoked thick- cut bacon, sliced into 1" pieces
1/2 of a medium yellow onion
1 shallot
1 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 small Braeburn or Honeycrisp apple
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup pure grade B maple syrup
3/4 cup brewed coffee (I used a Kenya AA)

- Begin by crisping bacon in a large skillet over medium heat (you want to render out as much fat as possible so give it 15-20 minutes)
- Transfer bacon to a paper towel to drain
- Remove all but 1 tablespoon of bacon fat from the pan and return to medium heat
- Add diced onion, shallot, garlic and apple and sweat for about 7-8 minutes
- Add brown sugar, vinegar, syrup and coffee to the pan to deglaze and bring to a slow boil
- Add the bacon back to the mixture and transfer to a slow cooker (I highly recommend using a liner)
- Cook uncovered on high for five hours or until the mixture has reduced to a syrupy consistency
- Transfer to a food processor and pulse on high until coarsely chopped
- Store the jam in airtight jars, refrigerated for up to four weeks
- Warm the jam in a saucepan before serving with crackers, toast or as an accompaniment to sandwiches

Adventures in Holiday Baking - Part 5

I was hoping to postpone this final holiday themed treat post until after I could deliver Miss Jillian Pine her box of holiday goodies, seeing that her love of honeycomb candy inspired this final confection, but alas, my surprise will have to be ruined.  [Thank you snowstorms and stomach bugs.]

Have you ever had a Crunchie bar?  It's a chocolate coated version of my honeycomb brittle - a light, air bubble infused sweet confection that literally melts in your mouth and well, resembles a honeycomb.

Honeycomb Brittle

Nonstick cooking spray
1 1/2 cups of raw cane sugar
1/2 cup honey or Lyle's Golden Syrup (depending on preference - Lyle's will yield a buttery taste)
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon baking soda

- Spray a rimed baking sheet with your nonstick cooking spray
- Combine sugar, honey (or syrup) and water to a boil in a large sauce pan (use a pan larger than you think you need)
- Stir the mixture constantly and reduce the heat to a high simmer.  Bring the mixture up to 300 degrees (using a candy thermometer to track).
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the baking soda.  The mixture will bubble up and expand to about 4 times it's original volume.
- Pour onto your greased baking sheet and allow to cool 2-3 hours before breaking.
- Gently tap the brittle with a hammer to break it into pieces and serve or package.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adventures in Holiday Baking - Part 4

In this installment of my "Adventures in Holiday Baking" mini series, I'm sharing a recipe that I've worked for quite some time to adapt and perfect.  In the quest for my perfect biscotti, there's been a lot of trial and error.  I did take a page out of my good friend, Jenny Morrison's baking book and strive for a slightly cake-ier biscotti as opposed to the typical tooth breaking texture that leaves no choice but to dip it into a cup of coffee.

On a side note, Jenny writes an incredible blog and is a phenomenal baker.  Check her out here.

Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti

1/4 cup light olive oil
3/4 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups pistachio nuts

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- In a large bowl, combine the oil, sugar, vanilla and almond extracts
- Whip the eggs and add to the oil mixture
- In a smaller bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder
- Whisk your dry ingredients into the wet until they form a thick dough
- Gently fold in pistachios and cranberries
- Form the dough into two logs, the dough may be a bit sticky and it helps to wet your hands before you work with it
- Bake the logs for 35 minutes
- Remove from the oven and allow them to cool for a minimum of 10 minutes
- Slice your biscotti into 3/4 inch cookies and arrange in a single layer on your baking sheet
- Bake for an additional 10-15 minutes (shorter for a cake-ier consistency, longer to crisp)

*You can replace the cranberries and pistachios with any fruits or nuts you prefer.  I like the "holiday" look of the red and green and the flavor profile works well together.
**For an more traditional Italian flavored biscotti, substitute the almond extract for anise. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adventures in Holiday Baking - Part 3

This next recipe that I want to share with you holds a nostalgic place in my heart.  It's one of those recipes that I'm pretty sure originated in a 1960's Betty Crocker cookbook - you know, the one's where every ingredient comes with a brand name.  Along with a cool, retro vibe however, comes an opportunity to add some really interesting and modern twists.  Heck, all else aside, this stuff just tastes really good.

Saltine Toffee Brittle

1 sleeve of Saltine crackers (salted tops)
1 stick of unsalted butter
1 cup of dark brown sugar, loosely packed
1 1/2 cups of semi sweet chocolate chips
1 cup of your choice of toppings, finely chopped/crushed (suggestions below)
Nonstick cooking spray

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Line a 1 inch deep baking sheet with tinfoil, completely covering the edges
- Spray your baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray
- Cover the sheet with the Saltine crackers in a single layer
- In a heavy bottom saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar until they begin to boil and are well incorporated
- Pour the butter mixture over the crackers and spread evenly with a rubber spatula to distribute
- Bake for 10 minutes
- Sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly across the top and allow 5-6 minutes for the chocolate to begin to melt
- Spread the chocolate with a rubber spatula to evenly distribute and sprinkle the with your toppings
- Allow to cool in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 hour
- Break into chunks like peanut brittle and serve

Topping Suggestions:
- Peanuts (you can also substitute 1/2 of the chocolate chips with peanut butter chips)
- Almonds & Cranberries
- Pecans & Gogi Berries
- Candied Ginger, Cashews and Toasted Sesame Seeds
- Candy Cane pieces
- Candied Citrus Peels

Get creative!  The toffee really lends itself to a variety of flavor combinations.  My only suggestion is to make sure your breaking, crushing or chopping your toppings finely so that they stick to the chocolate well when your breaking the brittle.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Adventures in Holiday Baking - Part 2

Okay, so this recipe isn't really "baking" per se.  It's still quite delicious and adds a nice savory element to our holiday gift boxes each year.  I always feel with all the sweet selections, it's nice to have a touch of salty every now and then.

Roasted Garlic & White Truffle Popcorn

yields 4 cups of popped corn

1/2 cup white popcorn kernels
1/4 cup of corn oil
2 tablespoons of cultured butter
2 tablespoons of la tourangelle white truffle oil (other brands will work as well, but this is my favorite)
2 cloves of roasted garlic (directions below)
2 teaspoons of kosher salt
1 teaspoon of Penzey's Italian seasoning blend (I've used Good Seasons in the past and it's work well)
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

- In a large covered saucepan, heat the corn oil and the kernels until fully popped (about 2-3 seconds between pops)
- In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the cultured butter and add truffle oil, salt, pepper and seasoning
- Smash the garlic cloves with a fork until they form a chunky paste and add to the melted butter mixture
- Allow the butter mixture to simmer for 10 minutes on low heat to infuse the flavors
- Transfer the popcorn 1/2 cup at a time into a bowl, drizzling the butter mixture over each layer and gently shaking to evenly distribute

Roasting the Garlic:
- Take a full head and slice off the stalk end (the pointy top part) to expose the top of each clove
- Pour 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over the head, fully coating the top
- Roast for 30-45 minutes at 325 degrees until each clove is tender
- Allow to cool for 15 minutes before removing the cloves from the peel - they should squish right out

Adventures in Holiday Baking - Part 1

Having recently begun our holiday baking, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the recipes I've developed over the past few months.  I love this time of year and truly take it as an opportunity to share something I'm truly passionate about with the people I love.  Being able to create something delicious to give to the people I care about, gives  me a much truer feel for the art of gifting.

2011 was a lot of trail and error with regard to baking.  While the majority of the final products were quite delicious, far too many of my confections didn't quite turn out as planned.  This year, I took a much more strategic approach.  Each of my recipes was developed and and adapted using some the new techniques I've learned recently (thank you James and my wonderful birthday gift of Modernist Cuisine for helping me understand the science and the why behind cooking) and I'm more than pleased with the outcome.  

The first recipe I want to share is my buttery, crumbly, not too sweet Lavender Shortbread.  The following will yield about 20 cookies, but can easily be increased to up to 4 times in a standard Kitchen Aid Mixer.  

Lavender Shortbread

1 stick of room temperature, unsalted butter
1/4 cup demerara sugar (white sugar will also work)
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
1 cup of whole wheat all purpose flour
1/4 cup of corn starch
1/2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons dried lavender flowers, divided
2 tablespoons sanding sugar (white sugar will also work) 

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees 
- Cream your butter in a stand mixer for 3 minutes to incorporate air pockets and add demerara sugar
- In a small mixing bowl, combine flour, corn starch and salt
- Add 2 tablespoons of lavender into the butter and sugar mixture and continue to mix on low speed
- Add vanilla bean paste and combine well
- Slowly incorporate your dry ingredients 1/4 cup at a time until well combined into a sticky dough
- Turn out the dough onto a silicone pastry mat and gently kneed to incorporate any dry pockets 
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and form 1 1/2 inch balls, smoothing the surface of each
- Press each ball to about 1/4 inch thick and sprinkle with remaining lavender and sanding sugar 
- Bake for 18 minutes or until cookies are lightly golden brown at the feet (all ovens differ to watch your first batch carefully)

The packaging is a Ziploc bag with scrapbook paper and a printed name label stapled over the top.  I think it makes a clean presentation and keeps the cookies fresh and delicious.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

For my 31st birthday celebration, James brought me to Ken Oringer's Clio in Boston.  The ten-table restaurant is located in the Elliot Hotel and truly achieves a fine dining atmosphere without being remotely stuffy.  We began our evening by perusing the overwhelming cocktail menu at the bar; even with several spirits certifications and an innate passion for vintage mixology, I found the list to be impressive.  Our bartender took the art of handcrafting a cocktail incredibly seriously, treating it with the culinary respect so many people in our industry neglect.  Unable to make a decision after perusing the 25-page menu, we both left our selection in what we [correctly] presumed to be his capable hands.  I enjoyed a slightly bitter concoction of Plymouth Gin, Lillet Blanc, housemade bitters and lime while James had a Torched Cherrywood Old Fashioned: cherrywood barrel-aged bourbon, burnt housemade demerara sugar cubes, orange bitters, Luxardo cherries and a torched orange slice.  Both were fantastic aperitifs, making an exceptional start to our dinner.  

We selected the 10-course Chef's tasting menu (actually, it's 12 courses) with wine pairing accompaniments, rather than selecting a single bottle to carry though the meal.  Ken Oringer is knowns for creating complete, balanced flavors and after seeing the attention to detail his restaurant put into their bar service, I had full confidence in their wine pairings.  

Our meal began with an amuse bouche Financier Cake topped with fois gras threads over a salted lycée puree.  The dense consistency of the cake created a rich mouthfeel paired with the creamy fois gras definitely did its intended job of waking up the palate.  

Nexted, the "awakening of the palate" theme continued with a bright Tomato Water, basil oil emulsion, jicama, caper berry and pulp "popsicle" martini.  Think of taking a tomato puree and spinning it incredibly fast to separate the "water" of the fruit from the pulp (which was used to make a popsicle).  The result is a bright, refreshing concentration of flavor in a crisp, watery liquid.  Think of literally drinking a freshly picked garden tomato drizzled with a touch of fresh basil.   

Our third course was a Hamachi Sashimi prepared ceviche-style in a kumquat vinaigrette, topped with a negi (sea celery) salad and a puffed rice "roe" meant to mimic the popping texture of caviar.  The fish was incredibly fresh tasting and the buttery texture played well with the acid of the vinaigrette without either overwhelming the dish.  The course was paired with Tozai Living Jewel Junmai Sake which played into the creaminess of the fish and was sharply brightened by the acid and mild sweetness.  

As an interlude to our next course, we were poured a tasting of Lucien Albrect Pinot Gris from Alsace. If I were blind tasting, I would have quickly concluded it was a riesling, only lacking the distinct floral notes that are typically present.  The characteristic minerality of Alsatian wines was easily recognizable on the forefront of the wine with a distinct lycée note.  All in, it was quite enjoyable - sweet, but not cloyingly so and well balanced with the classic earthiness of a European wine.  

Our fourth course was a Nantucket Bay Scallop served in its shell with a pomegranate yuzu, shallot and osetra caviar paired with a chenin blanc heavy sparkling Vouvray blend.  There was a slight [intentional] fishiness to the scallop that complimented the sweetness in the pomegranate.  It was comical watching the guests dining at the table next to us trying to eat them with a fork and knife; I'm an advocate of shooting back any shellfish served on the half shell.  

Course number five brought us back to fresh, garden note with a Red & Golden Beet Salad over a spicy Thai peanut sauce, crispy chicken skin and dehydrated black onions paired with a bright Albarino.  My first reaction when we were presented the course was quite skeptical.  I eat a lot of beets and would never think of peanuts being a strong pairing.  Oddly, it worked rather well.  The rich chicken skin chips and intense flavor of the dehydrated onions stood up well to the boldness of the peanut as well.  The wine pairing, although both independently delicious, was my least favorite combination of the night.   I really just felt the salad was too bold for the crisp, light wine and when paired, it faded into the background behind the peanuts and onions.  

Our sixth course, which was one of my favorites of the evening, was a Lobster and Sea Urchin Milk Foam with green onions and pulled chili threads.  Texturally, the dish was spectacular and the heat of the chili offset the sweetness of the seafood beautifully.  The dish was paired with Punkt Sparkling Gruner Veltliner, a delicious and incredibly unusual wine that provided the perfect balance to the heat. Although this is my first time tasting a sparkling Gruner, the Austrian specialty is a classic pairing with spicy, southeast Asian influenced flavors.  

The seventh course continued along the pescatarian theme with a Black Lime and Butter Basted Swordfish, fava and lima beans, salsify puree, black garlic sauce and turmeric gelee paired with Aia dei Colombi Falanghina from Piedmont.  The wine was lightly aged in French oak (I'm guessing about 3 months) and then transferred to steel barrels which gave it a crisp, yet still buttery quality.  Think about taking the best aspects from a big California chardonnay and marrying them with the best aspects of an unoaked chard.  The balance of the wine complimented the heaviness of the fish and the puree incredibly well, creating another one of our favorite courses. 

The eighth course, and my personal favorite of the evening, offered some personalization for each of us.  I had a Seared Fois Gras Medallion with quince jam, milk and honey puree, cornichons and a pulled honey chip.  James, not being a fan of organ meat, received a seared pork belly with the same preparation.  Both dishes were paired with a Sotimatto Mate, an unusual red wine, similar to a Brachetto.  The course was silky, balanced and decadent bringing together elements of sweet, savory and acid in perfect harmony.  

Course nine, while conceptually good, was undoubtedly our least favorite course of the evening.  A Black Cherry-Braised Short Rib with bok choy and pearl onion sounded incredible but fell short of expectations.  The short rib wasn't as tender as expected and was ribboned with unmelted fat, making it a bit rubbery.  I did however enjoy the Langhe Nebbiolo pairing.  

We then moved on to our cheese course, once again individualized due to James' dislike of goat cheese.  I enjoyed a Tomme de Feremac semisoft goat's milk cheese paired with a preserved fig and Armagnac vermouth.  I found it to be mild for a goat's milk cheese but it still brought a nice after bite that was complimented by the sweetness of the fig.  The pairing was a Le Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage dessert wine which played off the notes in the vermouth beautifully.  It was a great marriage of sweet and salty with the candied fruit notes in the wine bringing out the boldness of the cheese. 

Course number eleven was a palate cleanser consisting of a white chocolate coconut sphere with kafir lime sorbet, cashew and pinenut crumble and a spicy Thai basil grenada paired with a La Caliera Moscao di Asti.  Both the dish and the wine were refreshing with a bit of aggression (mostly from the Thai basil) that woke  up our palates fabulously after three very rich, heavy courses.  It made a beautiful prelude to dessert.  

Finally, our evening concluded with a Deconstructed Apple Crumble with Buttermilk Ice Cream and a Yamamomo Mountain Peach.  The caramel dotted on the sides of the dish may have been both of our favorite single components in any dish.  When eaten together, you really did get each of the delicious flavors that are so familiar in an apple crisp.  The Yamamomo mountain peach was an interested "berry" that balanced sweetness and acidity that concluded the dish with a refreshing note.  

The meal was capped off with a glass of Thienot Champagne and a goat's milk rosemary caramel.  It was such an amazing dinner and I feel so blessed to have been able to share it with someone who I care  about.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Side Dishes with Proven Holiday Success

First and foremost, I hope all my readers had a fantastic Thanksgiving holiday this past week and were able to indulge in some phenomenal cuisine.  Although there are some staples that are hard to get around when it comes to the classic holiday meal (mashed carrots and turnips, I'm talking about you), I think every holiday table needs to stretch a few culinary boundaries.  Yes, I love a juicy, well roasted (or smoked or deep fried) turkey with all the fixings, but who says those fixings have to be bland and boring.  I'd like to share a few new side dishes I tried for our family dinner(s) this year... hey, who says stuffing is exclusively for Thanksgiving?

Apple Sausage Cornbread Dressing

1 small cortland or honeycrisp apple
1 10oz package of cornbread (preferably 3-4 days old)
1 pound sweet Italian fennel sausage
1 white onion
1 shallot
12 fresh sage leaves
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- Break cornbread into 1/2 inch cubed pieces and lay out on a single layer on a cookie sheet
- Toast the cornbread for 15 minutes to remove excess moisture
- Heat a cast iron skillet on the stovetop
- Brown sausage and break into bite sized chunks, remove from skillet and reserve
- Melt butter
- Finely chop the onion and shallot and sweat out in the butter until translucent
- Chop sage, rosemary and thyme and add to the pan
- Dice apple into 1/4 inch pieces and add to to the onion mixture
- Add cinnamon, garlic powder, fennel, celery seed, salt and pepper
- Return sausage to the pan, combine well and remove from the heat
- Gently fold the sausage mixture and the cornbread together in a 9'x12' baking dish
- Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and crispy

Bacon Mushroom Risotto 

1 pound assorted mushrooms
5 strips of high quality, thickly cut bacon
2 tablespoons truffle oil
1/2 white onion
1 shallot
2 tablespoons herbs de provence
1 tablespoon porcini powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups arborio rice
2 boxes of low sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons mushroom stock base
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup marscapone cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

- In a nonstick skillet, toast dry rice granules until lightly golden brown
- Remove from heat and reserve
- Slice bacon into 1/4 inch strips and crisp in skillet
- Finely dice onion and shallot and add to the bacon
- Add truffle oil, porcini powder, herbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper
- Roughly chop mushrooms and add them to the skillet, sauté until the mushrooms are soft
- Remove from heat and reserve
- In a small sauce pan, combine chicken stock, mushroom base and wine and bring to a low simmer
- In a large sauce pan, combine rice with 2 ladles of the stock mixture (just enough liquid to cover the rice)
- Allow the rice to absorb the liquid (about 3 minutes) and then add 2 more ladles of the stock mixture, continue this process for approximately 20 - 25 minutes or until the rice is cooked  al dente
- Add marscapone cheese to the rice and combine well to a creamy texture
- Gently fold the mushroom mixture into the rice, adjust salt and pepper to taste

Friday, November 16, 2012

Baked Spaghetti Squash

If you love Italian flavors, but hate the carb overload that typically accompanies them, this recipe was designed for you.  I love a good fresh pasta, don't get me wrong.  There are however times when I don't want that weighed down feeling in my stomach and would love the same flavors in a lighter version.  Enter, the spaghetti squash.  If you haven't tried spaghetti squash, you're missing out on a fabulous culinary element.  It gives a dish a rich, fiber-filled quality that is incredibly filling but not calorie dense.    I was able to make a 6-serving casserole (and I mean six full servings) for well under 300 calories per portion.

Start by stabbing a whole spaghetti squash with a fork to form air vents and roast in a 425 degree oven for one hour.  Next, heat a cast iron skillet, slice four links of sweet Italian sausage and lightly brown on each side.  Set the sausage aside on a plate and use the fat rendering from the meat to brown one diced shallot, three tablespoons of minced garlic and one quarter of a medium sized white onion.  Add one chopped red bell pepper and one can of diced tomatoes to the pan.  Allow the liquid to reduce by half.  Stir in salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.  Next, add 1/4 cup creme fraiche, 3 tablespoons of milk and 1/4 cup of beef stock and combine all ingredients well.  Turn down the heat to a low simmer and add 6 fresh basil leaves (chiffonade thinly), one tablespoon of fresh oregano and one tablespoon fresh thyme to season.  You can also add two tablespoons of nutritional yeast if you'd like to up your protein levels.

Once the squash is cooked, slice it in half (carefully, there's a lot of steam built up inside), clean out the seeds and shred the flesh of the squash with a fork into spaghetti-like strands.  As your pulling the strands, begin mixing them into your sauce in the cast iron skillet.  If you're skillet isn't large enough, you can also transfer it to a casserole dish.  Once the entire squash has been emptied and combined with the sauce, top with the seared sausage slices and 1/2 cup of grated romano cheese.  Lower your oven heat to 350 degrees and bake for 20 minutes.  This gives you six entree sized portions or 10 side dish portions.  The entire casserole clocks in around 1600 calories.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scottish Gin... Who Knew?

After many years of being an avid whiskey purist, about two years ago while I was studying for one of my exams, I started opening my eyes to the world of white liquor.  Frankly, I always looked at is at boring and one note; my deepest apologies for prejudging.  Throughout my recent journey of discovery, I've tended to gravitate toward bolder gins - Hendricks, Plymouth and the like.  Never would I have thought twice about a gin distilled in Islay, Scotland by Bruichladdich, a company primarily known for their un-peated scotches.

Although their methods are a bit unconventional, the end product is pretty amazing.  They start with a brew of nine standard gin aromatics - juniper, angelica root, cassia bark, coriander, etc. - and then combine 22 indigenous, wild botanicals making this gin uniquely spectacular.  The 17-hour distillation produces a floral, but not perfume-y spirit.  On the nose, the first inhale is more traditional pine and cedar notes, but looking a bit deeper, you find subtle aromas of apple, menthol and lemongrass which carry over to the palate.  It finishes smooth with almost no burn, despite being 92 proof.  Try it mixed with Fever Tree Bitter Lemon soda over ice for a refreshing, not too sweet cocktail.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cucumber Avocado Rolls with Tuna Ceviche

Lately, I've been trying to put more focus on plate presentation.  You do eat with your eyes first so it's an aspect of culinary arts I feel that I've put on the back burner for too long.   Yes, ultimately it's more important that what I make tastes good, but it I can elevate my food to appeal to multiple senses, I'm up for the challenge.  

For one of my first attempts, I took something that I know I can make well - ahi tuna ceviche, and thought about ways I can make a pile of pinkish grey chopped fish more aesthetically appealing.  The best answer I could come up with was to hide it.  Start by taking a sushi rolling mat (you can get one a Home Goods or Bed, Bath & Beyond for about $5) and wrap it in cellophane. Next take a ripe (but not too ripe) avocado, slice it in half and gently scoop out the flesh, trying to keep the halves as intact as possible.  With a Y-shaped peeler, very carefully shave off layers from the outer side of the avocado and arrange them on the mat, slightly overlapping the edges.  Next take an English cucumber, slice it in half and peel.  Once again, with your Y-shaped peeler, shave off thin layers from the cucumber and form a layer onto of the avocado.  

To make your ceviche, dice a block of fresh ahi tuna into 1cm square cubes.  The higher quality the fish, the better your final product will be.  Since ceviche is essentially a raw preparation, you won't be able to mask imperfections in the fish.  If you live in the Greater Boston area, H Mart is Burlington has the best tuna I've ever had the pleasure of cooking with.  

In a separate dish, combine the juice of 1/2 of a tangerine and one lemon with 1/4 cup high quality olive oil, three tablespoons cider vinegar, one tablespoon freshly grated ginger, one tablespoon finely chopped cilantro, kosher salt and white pepper. Pour over your tuna, gently mix to combine and allow to rest for about 10 minutes.  

Using a mesh sieve, drain the ceviche to remove any excess liquid.  Spoon a small amount onto the front side of your cucumber slices.  Using the mat, gently roll the ingredients together, pressing lightly to seal.  Use a wide spatula to transfer to your plate and score the roll to ease in cutting.  Sprinkle the top with white and black sesame seeds.  Much prettier than a pile of fish on top of a cucumber salad.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Buzz from the Vine - volume 2

So this is a subset of my blog that I've really let slide and I've decided I need to get better at.  Just because I'm not working with wine on a daily basis doesn't mean that I should be slacking on my tasting.  Having worked as hard as I have to study wine, I don't want to loose the skill set I've developed, so I just need to make a more conscious effort to keep sharp.

First, I'd like to talk about 2007 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon.  I happen to think this wine is a fantastic value at around $35 a bottle.  The deep ruby color with strong notes of bing cherry, green bell pepper and a slight hickory smoke on the finish make for a big, deep, rich cab that drinks like a much more expensive bottle.  It was slightly tannic, but not cloyingly so and I found it surprisingly well balanced for a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.  By U.S. standards, the 500 case production would be considered a small boutique winery so it's not the easiest wine to come by, but in my opinion, worth the search.  It should age pretty well for up to 10 years and I would predict it to peak in the 6-8 range.  We paired it with a balsamic fig-glazed pork loin and the sweetness of the dish offset the tannins in the wine quite nicely.  It definitely needs to be drank with food and I could see it pairing well with a hearty beef stew or a nutty dark chocolate.

With tonight's dinner, we opened a bottle of 2008 Justification.  This Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend is an interesting and unusual mix that pays homage to the Pomerol and St. Emillion regions of Bordeaux, showcasing their signature grapes.  It starts out a bit more earthy and rustic than your traditional California wine but mellows out on the palate with blackberry, cedar, pepper and nutmeg.  I would definitely recommend decanting it and giving it about half an hour to breathe prior to drinking.  It retails for around $46 per bottle and could easily stand up to 10 plus years of aging making it a great investment wine.  Although it's complex and smooth enough to drink on its own, if your pairing it with food, make sure the flavors aren't anything to aggressive as to overwhelm the subtle complexity of the finish.  We paired it with a mustard crusted pork loin and a roasted acorn squash with raisin chutney.  The slight spiciness of the dijon crust played against the pepper notes in the wine making them more pronounced, but still letting the wine be the star of the show.

Dijon-Crusted Pork Loin with Slow Roasted Acorn Squash in Almond Raisin Sauce

Pork loin was on sale last week at the market, so guess what we've been eating a lot of lately.  I'm very much pro-saving money whenever possible and let's face it, food isn't cheap now a days so I watch sale flyers and cut coupons for things we use anyway (I can't stand the idea of buying something just because I have a coupon).  Needless to say, we stocked up and I was presented with the challenge of making pork loin into something delicious and unique each time we eat it.

Tonight's creation: Dijon-Crusted Pork Loin.  Take your loin (mine is about 2 lbs) and rub it down with salt and pepper to season.  Next create a mixture of 2 tablespoons dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons stone ground mustard, 1 tablespoon chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon herbs de provence.  I also added fresh cut herbs to the roasting pan to help infuse flavor.  Rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano all work nicely.  Thoroughly coat the meat and roast in a 425 degree oven for about 25 minutes or until 165 degrees in the center.  Side bar - if you don't have a meat thermometer, get one.  It's the best $5 investment to prevent dried out meat.  Unless of course, you like chicken that resembles shoe leather.

As a side dish, I prepared acorn squash in our slow cooker (love the slow cooker) with an almond raisin sauce.  Combine 1 tablespoon butter, 3 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons honey, 1 teaspoon apple pie spice, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in your slow cooker (I always recommend using a liner for easy clean up) with a small handful of golden raisins and slivered almonds.  Quarter your acorn squash and clean out the seeds.  Lightly salt the squash and lay them in your slow cooker face down on top of the sauce mixture.  Cook on low for 5 hours or on high for about 3.  It'll make your house small amazing as a bonus.  Spoon the sauce over the squash to serve.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Faro & Veggie Stuffed Peppers

So this past Thursday, I wanted to make a side dish for dinner that was hearty, filling, nutritious and under 200 calories.  Both James and I had late evening runs planned so I didn't want anything too heavy or overpowering, but more "stick to your ribs" kind of food.  I also wanted to avoid dairy as to keep it easily digestible.  Final product - red bell peppers stuffed with faro, summer squash, mushrooms,  vine ripened tomatoes, shallots and nutritional yeast.

For those unfamiliar with nutritional yeast, it's actually a pretty cool product.  It comes in a large spice shaker, looks like cream colored flakes and has a distinctively savory aroma to it.  Vegans use it as a substitute for cheese because it's high in protein and gives a "cheese-like" nuttiness when added to food.  It gets a bad rap for being an extreme health food, but give it a shot sometime.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Set your oven to 400 degrees.  Clean your pepper by removing the stem and seeds and slicing it in half lengthwise.  Place the pepper in the oven while it preheats and you prep the other ingredients.  This will start to soften it without overcooking.  Prepare your faro using 3:1 liquid to grain.  I used 3/4 cups of chicken stock combined with 1/4 cup white wine to 1/3 cup far.  Season the water with salt, pepper and granulated garlic prior to adding the grains.

In a skillet, saute 1 tablespoon olive oil with your finely diced shallots, minced garlic, diced tomato, summer squash and mushrooms (adding the vegetables in that order).  Season with salt, pepper, paprika and crushed red pepper flakes.  Once your vegetables are cooked  nearly through (but still firm), add 1 1/2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast and combine the mixture well.

Once the faro has finished cooking, drain any excess liquid off and add your vegetables.  Combine well and fill your bell peppers.  To make 2 servings, I used 1/2 of a small summer squash, 4 button mushrooms, 1 medium sized tomato and 1/2 of a shallot.

Bake the peppers at 400 degrees for about 8 minutes to finish roasting the pepper and infuse the flavors.  We paired with with a spice rubbed grilled chicken breast, but it works well with most proteins.  They clocked in at 200 calories, 10 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber each.

Quick plug for a product I love - my mother gave me my Pampered Chef toaster oven-sized stoneware pan back when I was in college.  You know the little metal pan that comes with your toaster oven and gets warped in like a week?  Yeah, it sucks.  The stoneware version is fantastic - it distributes heat and cooks food evenly and like cast iron, it gets better the longer you use it.  They make larger versions which are great as well, I just love the convenience of this size, especially when I'm just cooking for the two of us.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Beer for Dessert

I've decided that hurricanes are horrible for diets.  (1) Power outages encourage eating out of boredom and (2) you fear that everything in your refrigerator and freezer is going to spoil so you want to make sure you eat it beforehand.  Let's just say my clean eating plan was thrown a bit off kilter this past week.  We're back on track now but in our fear of loosing everything in our freezer, we did come up with a fantastic concoction that I wanted to share.  

On one of our many trips to The Beer Store, we picked up a large format bottle of Southern Imperial Creme Brule Stout (and letting beer skunk would have been sacrilegious).  I had also made a batch of Gingerbread Stout Ice Cream to go with mini pumpkin pies the previous week (and come on, who lets homemade ice cream go to waste?).  Although the ice cream was incredibly tasty, it was a bit tannic from the stout we had used so it needed a sweet component to offset it.  Enter the Creme Brule Stout.  This beer really was like drinking a liquid Guinness Creme Brule.  I would have preferred it if it actually was  bit hopper and less cloyingly sweet, but that really did make it a great paring with the ice cream. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Take that S. Truett Cathay!

I think it's wrong to tease people.  I've never been a fan of dangling a carrot in front of someone, knowing that they're never going to be able to reach it.  Frankly, it's just plain rude.  Much like Chick Fil A advertising during Sunday football games.  I get it, your a company that embraces Christian values and wants to give your employees Sundays off as "family" time.  Heck, I even respect it (despite the fact that the only time I really crave your food is on Sunday), but if you're going to be closed, don't air your commercials during halftime on Sunday afternoon.  It just isn't nice.

Fast forward through several weeks of torment to this Sunday.  I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands and with a little research, managed to pretty closely replicate the amazing wondrousness that is the Chick Fil A chicken nugget in my own kitchen.  Yes, you read right, you too can make your own knock off Chick Fil A with just a little help from my recipe.

Start by cutting 1 lb. of chicken breast (or tenders) to bite size chunks (about 1 inch square).  Put them into a ziplock bag with 2 cups of pickle juice and roll out as much of the air as possible .  Yes, pickle juice.  This brines the chicken and keeps it moist during the cooking process.  It's best if you can let this sit for around 12 hours.

Drain off the pickle juice and add 3/4 cup milk and 1 egg to the bag.  Combine well to coat all the pieces of chicken.  Again, squeeze the air out and let this sit for about 3 hours.

In a mixing bowl, combine 2 cups all purpose whole wheat flour, 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon white pepper, and 1 tablespoon granulated garlic.  Mix well and set aside.  This is going to be the breading for your nuggets.

In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of peanut oil to around 350 degrees fahrenheit.  Ideally, you'll want to use a candy thermometer to monitor the temp of the oil as your cooking.  If your oil gets too hot, it'll start to smoke, if it gets too cold, you'll end up with oily chicken.

Taking about 4 pieces of chicken at a time, coat them thoroughly with the flour mixture and place them in the oil.  Don't try to cook too many pieces at once or you'll drop your oil temp too quickly.  Each batch takes about 6-8 minutes - cook until golden brown (I use a meat thermometer to check random pieces periodically and make sure they're cooked to 165 degrees).

I made two dipping sauces to accompany them - a healthy buffalo ranch and a knock off Chick Fil A sauce.

To create the ranch, combine 1/4 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt with 2 tablespoons lowfat milk, 1 tablespoon Penzey's Buttermilk Ranch seasoning mix, 1 teaspoon toasted minced onion, salt, pepper and tabasco sauce to taste.  If you eat the entire batch, you're looking at about 70 calories - no too bad compared to Hidden Valley.

The Chick Fil A sauce is a combination of 3 tablespoons BBQ sauce, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon light mayonaise, 1 tablespoon honey and salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Plan B (no, not the morning after pill)

So one of the great perks of my job is that I get to learn about all these new restaurant concepts that I wouldn't otherwise be exposed to.  One of which, being the Hartford, CT based company Locals 8 - owners of Tisane, The Half Door and Plan B Burger Bar (I still can't help but wonder if they thought about the dual meaning of the name).  With Plan B being their flagship brand (six locations to one each of the other two), the company has recognized and capitalized on the up and coming upscale burger trend.

Taking our nation's economic status into account, the restaurant industry has seen a lot of changes in the past two years.  Guests still want great food - that tends not to change no matter how bad their financial state - what changes is where they go to look for it.  While high end steakhouses and fine dining may be seeing a hit, the causal sector of the industry is actually experiencing a surge.  That being said, Locals 8 truly has recognized this opportunity and has developed a growing brand around it.

The atmosphere is relaxed, causal and accessible for nearly any patron.  Jeans are the standard dress code - for staff and management - which leads to the almost rustic, hipster vibe.  The bar in the West Hartford location has a fantastic backdrop wall decked out with bottles of small batch bourbons and craft beers.  It's an atypical display approach for a backbar, but it works (and well).

Since we were en route to a party (with food) when we stopped by Plan B, James and I decided to split the pretzel burger.  I thought it was pretty cool that when you split an entree, for nominal $2 up charge, you can each pick your own side item (their list of sides is pretty insane).  Rather than taking meat temps, they break it down to "some pink" or "no pink" and being that I typically order my beef to the point where a good vet could resuscitate my dinner, we opted for "some pink."  Despite being what I would have typically viewed as an overcooked burger, it was surprisingly juicy.  They actually use a technique they call "loose packing" which does lead to a slightly more crumbly consistency but also keeps you from feeling egregiously full.  The pretzel bread was fantastic - I'm a sucker for good pretzel bread.  

The fancy fries (which are really just shoestring fries but as our server explained, we're in America, not France) were quite tasty... think of a McDonald's style fry that actually came from a potato.  James opted for onion rings and both of our sides came in a quite generous portion.  

If you're a bourbon drinker, their selection is truly unmatched anywhere I've ever been.  They carry all the standards, but also offer a great list of small batch and specialty selections that are truly worth a try.  You can select your pour (just a sip or 2 fingers) which means you could design your own bourbon flight.  Who doesn't love a progressive bourbon tasting?  They also use proper whiskey tulip glasses which really do make a difference in maximizing the aromas (yes glassware really does make a difference but that's a whole blog post unto itself).

If you happen to be in the West Hartford, Simsbury, Glastonbury, Milford, Stamford or Springfield area, Plan B is definitely worth a visit.