Sunday, February 12, 2012

Warm Nutty Yogurt Cheese

If you're ever looking for an impressive, delicious, crowd pleasing appetizer for a dinner party then I highly recommend considering my yogurt cheese recipe.  Serve it with herbed wafer crackers and you can tell your guests that you "made your own cheese"... that's right, you technically make your own cheese.

Warm, Nutty Yogurt Cheese
2 cups plain, 2% Greek yogurt
6 tablespoons honey, divided
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

-Line a colander with cheesecloth and place over a mixing bowl
-Whip 2 tablespoons of honey and spices into the yogurt
-Place yogurt in the cheesecloth lined colander and leave to strain overnight
-The next day, form the cheese into a ball (leave the bottom flat so it sits on the serving dish)
-In a small saucepan, heat the remaining honey
-Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and drizzle warm honey over the cheese ball

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stocking the Perfect Pantry - Part 2

So here starts the epic conclusion on my entry guiding you to stocking the perfect pantry to be able to make a meal at the drop of a hat.  I feel inspired to possibly follow this series up with a Stocking the Perfect Fridge and Freezer as well, but that's neither here nor there.  Let us continue...

Nuts.  Every pantry should have a good variety of nuts.  These can be used for quick, satisfying snacks, in baking, to add texture and crunch your cous cous, rice and quinoa dishes and to enhance the perfect cheese plate.  I always buy my nuts unsalted... you can always add but it's hard to take away salt.  My personal favorites and staples are raw almonds, Spanish marcona almonds, raw cashews, shelled pistachios and toasted pecans.

Building off the nut topic, we have seeds and dried fruits.  You can mix them together to make your own custom blended trail mix and add sweetness and crunch to most recipes.  I love pumpkin seeds for a high protein, crunchy snack.  I'm also a fan of shelled sunflower seeds to use in breads and salads.  On the fruit side, golden raisins, dried cranberries and dried apricots give you a pretty solid base to work off.

Next let's take a look into the baking shelf.  Here's an area that I fully admit that my stock is significantly more expansive that then average kitchen needs to be.  My baking rack actually extends out of the kitchen to a shelving unit in the basement because I have 9 different types of flour.  Bearing in mind that the average person doesn't bake all of their own bread, I feel I can adequately par down this list.  Let's start with a good all purpose, unbleached flour, baking soda, baking powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, corn starch, dark brown sugar, granulated sugar, confectioners sugar, unsweetened flake coconut, powdered gelatin, active dry yeast and dark chocolate chips.  This will give you the foundation to make most cakes, brownies, cookies and breads from scratch without any issue.   You can then figure out where, if anywhere, you want to develop from there.

Finally, I want to touch on my favorite shelf... spices.  Spices are the foundation of flavor in cooking and I firmly believe they're worth the investment.  I've written a previous entry on Penzey's in Arlington, Mass.  They're the best place I've found for developing a solid spice cabinet affordably.  Best part... they ship from their website so they're accessible to everyone.     If you happen to have one of those spice spinners that came prefilled from Target or Walmart, please throw them away.  They've been sitting in that box for months (often longer) before you purchased them and every herb and spice is past it's peak.  When possible, you want to grind for each use (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc...).  This ensures you are really maximizing flavor and getting the freshest possible product.  I've put together a shopping list for "revamping" your spice rack.  Any item with a * is a Penzey's blend and I'm sure there are suitable substitutes available, just check out their website to see what's in it.  I also recommend buying smaller jars of spices as to maximize the flavor profile.  I know this goes against my belief in value shopping and technically spices don't go "bad" but if you really want to experience them for their full intensity of flavor, it's worth the investment.

Shopping List for Spices:
BBQ 3000*
Black Peppercorns
Bold Taco Seasoning*
Cayenne Pepper
Chinese Five Spice
Chipotle Pepper
Cinnamon (Sticks)
Cloves (Whole)
Curry (Sweet or Hot)
Himalayan Pink Sea Salt
Montreal Steak Seasoning 
Herbs de Provence 
Nutmeg (Whole)
Ozark Seasoning*
Pasta Sprinkle*
Pure Vanilla Extract (Not Imitation) 
Sandwich Sprinkle*
Sesame Seeds
Smoked Paprika 
White Pepper

Quick lesson... spice refers to the root, seeds or bark of the plant, herb refers to the leaves, stems and stalks. If possible, use fresh herbs.  Dried ones really only carry a fraction of the flavor of fresh.  Another good option, pureed or frozen herbs.  Check your grocery store's produce section for tubes of pureed fresh herbs or the freezer for little ice cubes of frozen ones.  This will let you pack the full flavor punch without worrying about spoilage.

Well, there you have it.  A pantry stocked with staples that will help you take a basic chicken breast and turn it into a delicious meal.  I hope you enjoyed this tour of my cabinets... I've posted a few pictures below just to show you how much space my pantry actually takes up (I know I'm a freak...)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Stocking the Perfect Pantry - Part 1

So per the request of a good friend, I'm putting together a basic pantry essentials list to stock a kitchen that you can use to prepare a fantastic meal without much forethought.  I view my pantry as the nerve center of my kitchen and fully recognize that half the reason I need a kitchen as large as I do is because my spices, oils, vinegars and teas take up a cabinet that the average person would use for, oh, I don't know, dishes and glassware.  I recognize the expansiveness of my kitchen "basics" and I've pared down that list so you can start to develop your own pantry with a collection of dry goods that will give you a great base of staples to work from.

Let's start with grains.  Whole grains make a great base for any meal.  You can take a multi-ethnic approach depending on the spices, meats and vegetables you add... think curry, stir fry, biryani, jambalaya, enchiladas, you name it.  The three staples every pantry should have: brown rice, quinoa and cous cous.  All three are versatile (think side dish or hot breakfast cereal) and relatively quick and easy to cook.  I also like to keep a box of high quality rotini on hand for pasta salads.

Next, we move on to the canned goods shelf.  Canned beans are a great value, incredibly easy to use and high in nutritional value.  Every pantry should have a can of black and garbanzo beans on hand to make quick and easy hummus, stews and chilis.  Dried beans are also a great, inexpensive option if you're willing to take the time to soak them.  Beluga lentils are fantastic for soups and dips.  I'm also a fan of canned water chestnuts to add to stir fry for some crunch and texture.  Canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes are perfect for making simple marinara sauce and a box of low sodium chicken broth is the most versetile cooking liquid available.  I tend to avoid canned vegetables in favor of frozen ones if fresh isn't an option to help reduce excess sodium.

In my opinion, anyone who tells you that all olive oil is the same has no taste buds.  While I'm a die hard for the classic, fruity light flavor of a Tuscan extra virgin, I've recently started finding a love for Chilean pressings.  They're significantly less expensive and carry a lot of bright richness in salad dressings and sauces.  The basic pantry should have one bottle of extra virgin olive oil to make bread dippers and dressings, a bottle of less expensive, cold pressed olive oil (not virgin) for cooking, a vegetable oil for frying and baking, a nut oil for breads and desserts (I prefer walnut) and a bottle of white truffle oil (make sure it's blended with safflower or canola oil, not olive so the flavors aren't competing).  I buy most of my oils at TJ Maxx or Home Goods.  You get a great value and most of the time, they have a much better selection than your average grocery store.

I haven't purchased a bottle of premade salad dressing in over 10 years, nor do I ever intend to again.  There is no advantage to buying a bottle of Wishbone or Good Seasons.  If you try to convince me that your surrendering to convenience, that's a cop out answer.  Making your own salad dressing literally takes less than a minute if you have the right ingredients in your pantry, which takes me to our next category... vinegar.  Now this list may be slightly longer than some of my other categories, but trust me, each one has a benefit.  Red wine vinegar for Caesar dressing, rice wine vinegar for stir fry and Asian inspired dressings, balsamic (make sure it's from Modena), malt vinegar (this one's only a necessity if your from New England and love malt vinegar on french fries... I'll share my malt vinegar aioli  recipe at some point as well) and a fruit based vinegar for sweeter salads (I like pomegranate or pineapple).

To wrap up this entry, let me throw in some miscellaneous items that I feel no pantry is complete without... (1)  panko bread crumbs, (2) rice paper spring roll wrappers, (3) cellophane noodles, (4) packets of tuna and salmon and (4) steel cut oatmeal.

Tune in to complete your well stocked pantry for Part 2 and a shopping list of staple spices no kitchen should be without.