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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Curried Peanut Butter Dip for New Year's



Here's an idea for a dip that moves beyond the usual sour cream and onion or even seafood and cream cheese based offerings. It will be a nice alternative for any vegans in the crowd, but make plenty as your non-vegan guests are sure to scoop it up as well. Great for pairing with apple or pear wedges and pita chips, either from the store or homemade, as well as carrot, celery and other vegetable dippers. 

Curried Peanut Butter Dip

1 T canola or olive oil
2 T (1/4 small) finely chopped onion
1 t grated fresh ginger
1 t garlic powder OR 2 finely minced garlic cloves
1 t curry powder
1/8 to 1/4 t hot pepper flakes, to taste
1 T brown sugar, packed
3/4 c peanut butter, smooth or chunky
vegetable broth, apple juice, or water as needed

1.  Saute the onion, garlic, and ginger in the oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent and tender.
2.  Add the curry powder and pepper flakes and continue cooking just until you can smell the curry--probably about 30 seconds or so.
3.  Stir in the peanut butter and brown sugar. Combine all ingredients well and add broth or apple juice as needed to achieve desired consistency. (OR, "deglaze" the pan you sauteed the onions in with a tablespoon or two of water and use this for added liquid.) Continue heating just until mixture is well warmed.

Serve either warm or chilled--will probably need more liquid if served cold.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Date Balls and Reindeer Pretzels

 


Recently, some friends joined me in the kitchen for a little Christmas baking and a lot of fun. We made breads (yeast raised coffeecakes full of apple butter and raisins and cranberry/apricot and pumpkin applesauce quick breads) along with the two choices featured today, Date Balls and Pretzel Reindeer.

Date Balls for Christmas

When I asked my kids a few weeks ago what cookies I should be sure to make, the number one choice was Date Balls. These are dangerously addictive*, but they can be mostly handled by kids who might be lured into the tasks with the promise of getting to sample generously when done.

*A friend. who assures me she has never tried the illegal stuff, calls these the "crack cocaine of Christmas cookies. They do disappear from cookie trays quickly, so you will likely be making them often. Though I have doubled the recipe, getting the cereal and nuts stirred in evenly was much more difficult. My suggestion is to just plan to make this amount again...and again and again. They really don't take a lot of time and, if you have people hanging out in the kitchen looking for things to do, let them do the rolling into balls and sugaring. This really is a good "communal" food to make.


Ingredients:
1/2 c butter
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 c chopped dates
1/2 c flour
1 t vanilla
3 1/2 to 4 c crisp rice cereal (Rice Krispies or similar)
1 c chopped nuts (optional)

1.  Place the butter in a large, heavy saucepan. Melt over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar, eggs, dates and flour. Return to burner and continue cooking, stirring often (these stick very easily!) for about 5 minutes, until the mixture just comes to a bubbling boil.

2.  Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and then the cereal and nuts.
3.  Allow to cool until comfortable to handle. Shape into small balls and roll in powdered sugar. (The best way to do this is to put half a cup or so of powdered sugar in a quart or gallon size plastic bag and shake three to four of the balls at a time.)

Depending on the size you make these, the recipe will make 4 to 6 dozen balls.


Pretzel Reindeer



The Pretzel Reindeer are a nice variation on chocolate covered pretzels, and my friend Joy taught us all how to make them. Sadly for her, the pretzels I had were miniatures, so the reindeer were slightly under-endowed in the antler department. Adding to the proportions problem, the only red available for the mouths were a-little-large-for-the-project red cinnamon candies. As I look at these photos, I have to admit I am more reminded of a turkey than a reindeer, but still, they were fun to make--and if you start out with the right materials, yours will no doubt be spectacular!

Supplies
rod shaped pretzels
full size pretzel shaped pretzels
white chocolate chips
semi-sweet chocolate chips
cinnamon "red hots" candies
miniature chocolate chips (or miniature M&Ms or bits of red candied cherries)

(The amounts for this recipe will depend on how many you want to make and how much chocolate you end up using for each reindeer. See NOTE. )

1.  Place some white chips in a microwave-safe bowl and melt in the microwave at medium power. Depending on the amount you use, this may take two to four minutes. Stir occasionally, as it is not always apparent that the chips have melted--they will appear to be holding their shape even though they have turned to liquid. You do not want to leave them in too long.

2.  Press a pretzel-shaped pretzel into the melted chips or use a spoon or knife to spread one side of the pretzel with coating. Lay the pretzel, coating side up, on waxed paper. Repeat with remaining pretzels. Set aside.

3.  Meanwhile, repeat step 1 with a bowl of semi-sweet chips. Dip the top half of a pretzel rod in the chocolate, swirling to coat all sides--or use a knife or spoon to spread the chocolate. Immediately press the rod on to the center of one of the coated pretzels. Hold for a few moments to be sure that the two pieces are well-adhered. Set aside until cool and well-hardened. (Briefly place in refrigerator or freezer if your kitchen is very warm from baking.)


4.  If necessary, rewarm some of the white chocolate. Carefully place two small drops of the white coating in place for eyes. Press a miniature chocolate chip "eyeball" in each. Using a dot of the coating, adhere the red candy of choice for a mouth. Cool completely.

5.  For presentation, cover the reindeer heads with non-zippered sandwich size bags. Tie a ribbon at the base of the bag, around the "neck" of the reindeer.


NOTE:  These really don't take a lot of chocolate for each reindeer. We coated almost two dozen with about a cup or so of each kind of chocolate, and we had quite a bit left over. The extra coating was remelted and used to decorate other Christmas cookies. (More on that next time.)













Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thirty Minute Savory Pumpkin Soup, Two Ways




For many years, I will admit that I resisted trying pumpkin soup, thinking of this fruit of fall only meant for pies and maybe some sweet breads. However, once I tried it, I became a fan. 

Now, with so much pumpkin pureed (see the last post for details), it seemed time to do some experimenting, and I discovered I could use a basic format to make both curried and Mexican themed soups with only a few variations--and, best of all, either version took less than 30 minutes from start to finish and both are easily doubled. As with most soups, both are especially good reheated. (The best way to reheat soup is to warm individual servings in the microwave.)

Whichever you choose, this is a great way to make a quick week night supper that helps you get a serving (or two!) of this beneficial dark orange vegetable. Frugal, fast, healthy, and fun!

Following the recipes are a few hints for quick preparation and ideas for turning the soups vegan. 


Spicy Curried Pumpkin Soup

1 T canola or olive oil
3/4 c chopped onion (1 medium to large)
1 t garlic powder
1/2 t turmeric
1 t (or more, to taste) curry powder
sprinkle of cayenne pepper, to taste
2 bouillon cubes--chicken or vegetable (using the latter will keep this vegtarian)
2 c water
1 c pumpkin puree
1 c evaporated milk (small can OR half a large can)
1 t sugar, to taste (optional)

1.  Saute the onion in the oil until golden and just barely tender. 
2.  Stir in the seasonings and cook for a minute or less, just to release some of the flavor but not long enough to burn. (The house is going to start smelling really wonderful about now!)
3.  Add the pumpkin, bouillon cubes, and water. Stir and continue cooking over medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. 
4.  Transfer the mixture to processor or blender and blend into a smooth puree. (I don't have an immersion blender, but this would probably be a perfect place to use one if you have it.)
5. Return the soup to the pan and stir in the evaporated milk. Taste for seasonings, adding sugar if desired. Bring the mixture back to steaming hot, but do not boil.

If desired, garnish with some chopped cilantro. Makes about a quart, enough for 4 to 5 servings.

Mexican Style Savory Pumpkin Soup

1 T canola or olive oil
3/4 c chopped onion (1 medium to large)
1 t garlic powder
1 to 3 t chili powder, to taste
2 t cumin
1/2 t oregano
sprinkle of cayenne pepper, to taste
2 bouillon cubes--chicken or vegetable (using the latter will keep this vegtarian)
2 c water
1 c pumpkin puree
1 c evaporated milk (small can OR half a large can)
1 t sugar, to taste (optional)

1.  Saute the onion in the oil until golden and just barely tender. 
2.  Stir in the seasonings and cook for a minute or less, just to release some of the flavor but not long enough to burn. (The house is going to start smelling really wonderful about now!)
3.  Add the pumpkin, bouillon cubes, and water. Stir and continue cooking over medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. 
4.  Transfer the mixture to processor or blender and blend into a smooth puree. (I don't have an immersion blender, but this would probably be a perfect place to use one if you have it.)
5. Return the soup to the pan and stir in the evaporated milk. Taste for seasonings, adding sugar if desired. Bring the mixture back to steaming hot, but do not boil.

If desired, garnish with some chopped cilantro. Makes about a quart, enough for 4 to 5 servings.


Variations:

Both soups use garlic powder, but fresh minced garlic (2 to 4 large cloves, to taste) could also be used. I used garlic powder because it does cut off a few minutes of prep time. 

If you have broth available, that could be substituted for some or all of the water; omit the bouillon cubes if all broth is used. 

For a vegan version, the evaporated milk could be replaced with soy milk or, especially with the curried version, coconut milk. 

*******************************

And then, one last, totally unrelated, picture:


The week before Thanksgiving I visited my favorite local orchard (Sekapps in Rochester MN--great place to go!) and discovered that one of their farm suppliers had brought in a last load of watermelon.  Minnesota watermelon in November! Turned out to be pretty good too, amazing for this time of the season in the #11 city on a list of the coldest US cities.

So, until next season, farewell to watermelon too.




Friday, December 2, 2011

Farewell Pumpkins as Decorations; I'm Turning You into Food

I love so many of the sights, smells, and sounds of the yuletide season. Trees, lights, spicy baking smells, and classic Christmas music (we'll ignore for now the less than wonderful stuff that fills too many background music channels at malls and stores).


It's all really wonderful, especially when we finally get a couple of inches of snow outside to add to the decorations. (Having lived in the desert Southwest for many years, I know that this is not really a part of everyone's Christmas, but the white frosting on the trees today just seems more traditional.) With the forecast of snow, I knew it was time to be done with the fall decor. The nice thing about using pumpkins, apples and other fall fruits and vegetables for decoration is that they can become the start of some wonderful meals.





And so, today, a pumpkin "tutorial"  for turning the Halloween/fall decorations into the basis for soups, breads, etc., along with some thoughts on pumpkin seed roasting.

Pumpkin Puree

I started out with two pumpkins that had been part of the front door fall decorations;  one was a little pie pumpkin, the other a medium sized jack-o-lantern.  The small pie pumpkins are generally better for cooking we are told, but my large pumpkin looked just too good to throw away, so I hacked away at it, pulled out the seeds for later, put the pieces on a cookie sheet (with a little water to keep the pan from being too hard to wash), and placed it in a 350 degree oven until the largest pieces were really soft when I poked at them with a fork and a well-gloved finger. For my larger pumpkin, the time was a little over two hours. You will need to adjust the time depending on the size of your own fruit.

You want to be sure the pumpkin is really well done, maybe even a little brown on the edges (note the pictures) so that you get maximum sweetness from the roasting.  My oven had no room for both pumpkins, so the smaller one went in later alongside some other baking; that one took barely an hour to reach full tenderness.




 

The next step is to let the pumpkin cool until it is easy to handle.When it is ready, use a soup spoon or serving spoon to scrape out the pulp into a bowl. My large pumpkin yielded over nine pounds of pulp, so I had to be prepared with a very large bowl.



When all the pulp is out of the shell, begin pureeing it, batch by batch, in your processor. A blender might also work, but I think you will definitely need one of the "mechanical" modes of getting the pulp as smooth as you will want for most recipes.

 When all of the pulp is pureed, you can prepare extra amounts for the freezer. I have discovered that placing a sandwich bag inside a large coffee mug and then scooping the pulp into the bag is virtually mess-free. A little experimentation with your mugs will provide just the right size for you. I package my pumpkin (as well as squash and applesauce) in two cup portions. The scale, adjusted for the weight of the mug, makes my job even easier.






Zippered bags will allow you to lay the bags flat until frozen, but I didn't have any available this time. Whichever kind of bag I use, I will put them into a larger, freezer weight bag after they are frozen solid, for maximum protection.


Pumpkin Seeds
 
Search for "toasted pumpkin seeds" and you'll find all kinds of approaches, from the oven to skillet to microwave. Some are just rinsed and popped into the oven while others are cooked for a few minutes first.  Last year, I used the method that calls for brining the seeds and then baking them, and it turned out much better than just putting the seeds directly in the oven. This year, however, I decided to play test kitchen and try a couple of different preparations.

The winner, surprisingly, used the microwave. This is really good to know, as there have been times when I had only a few pumpkin (or squash) seeds, and it hardly seemed worthwhile to run the oven for so little product. The microwave is perfect for these small batches, and it seemed like it was a lot easier to get the seeds really crispy throughout the whole batch. Here is the final method I used.

Microwave-Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
pumpkin or squash seeds
brine
olive or canola oil
seasonings to taste

1.  Wash the seeds well, to remove all clinging pulp.
2.  Put the seeds into water to cover, adding about a teaspoon of salt per cup of water. Place in refrigerator for several hours or overnight. (They can actually sit in the brine for a couple of days if you don't get to them earlier.)
3.  Drain the seeds in a colander. If desired, pat lightly with a towel.
4.  Spread the seeds in a microwave safe dish large enough to allow the seeds to be only a layer or two thick across the bottom. 
5. Sprinkle with a small amount of oil--probably about one to two teaspoons per cup of seeds. Using your fingers, mix the oil into the seeds, making sure they are evenly coated. 
6.  Shake the pan to spread the seeds evenly and then put in microwave on full power for about 3 to 4 minutes per cup of seeds. After a couple of minutes, remove from microwave and shake to stir.
The amount of time that will be required will depend on your microwave as well as the amount of seeds you are toasting. They should just barely be turning golden and look dry; do be careful not to overbake. If necessary, if you take the seeds out and they are not yet crunchy, you can return them for another few minutes even after they have cooled the first time.
7.  After removing from the microwave and before the seeds have cooled, sprinkle with your favorite seasoning blend. I like cajun seasoning, but you might want to try a little curry powder on some or an Italian seasoning blend with a little salt. With the small batches you will be making, you can have fun trying new flavors.





Thursday, December 1, 2011

Flexible and Spicy Lentils and Vegetables



A local grocery chain has their 15 oz cans of tomatoes and chiles on sale this week and I was getting hungry for lentils. A little rummaging in the cupboard and I came up with a vegetarian main dish that would be great for left over baked or boiled potatoes* and can be made with a wide variety of other vegetables added in, depending on your own leftovers or freezer selection.


Spicy Lentil Stew--Vegan

canola or olive oil
1 c (or more) chopped onion--one medium
1 c French or other lentils--about 8 oz
1 14 to 15 oz can diced tomatoes and chiles
enough water to rinse can 2 times (about 4 cups)
2 t garlic powder OR 4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
1 t cumin
1 to 2 t curry powder, to taste
salt to taste
1 large or 2 medium cooked or baked potatoes, cut in large chunks--about 12 oz
1 sweet potato, about 6 to 7 oz, peeled and cut in large chunks or slices
other vegetables as desired--see list below

1.  Saute the onion in a small amount of oil until it is just turning golden.
2.  Stir in the lentils, seasonings, tomatoes and chiles and water. Turn burner to medium low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes
3.  Stir in the sweet potatoes, add more water if needed, and cover. Cook another 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils and sweet potatoes are tender.
 4.  Add the cooked potatoes and any other vegetables as desired. Taste for seasoning, cover pan and allow to cook another 5 to 10 minutes, until all is heated through and flavors have blended a bit.

Optional vegetables can be anything, really. However, the most "traditional" would be these:
  • frozen peas
  • frozen or lightly cooked cauliflower
  • spinach, kale, or other greens--if using fresh, add about 10 minutes before serving so they are just cooked through
This is a good place to use up leftover vegetables or those small amounts of frozen vegetables left when you followed that recipe that called for 10 oz of peas or corn or whatever and you had a 12 or 16 oz package.

Other notes:
Squash or carrots could also be substituted for the sweet potatoes.
If  you don't have any leftover potatoes, scrub the potato or potatoes, pierce, and put in the microwave for 3 to 6 minutes, depending on your own oven, until they are just barely tender.  You can do this while you are beginning the lentils. Allow the potatoes to cool enough to handle and cut into chunks.


*About "boiled potatoes" for younger and/or non-midwestern readers: Back in the meat and potatoes days, a very common way to make potatoes for "everyday" meals was to prepare and cook them as for mashed potatoes. When they were finished cooking, the water was drained--often as the liquid in gravy for the ubiquitous chops or steaks or meatloaf or whatever--and then served as is. Perhaps a little butter would be drizzled over along with some salt and pepper, but that was the extent of their preparation. I hardly ever see any reference to potatoes prepared in this way any more--you might want to try it out if you've never tasted this old-fashioned dish.