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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tips: Know Your Oven

+ Gooey, Caramel and Cinnamon Bread:

Yes, doesn't that sound delicious? Mouthwatering? Sumptuous, delightful... the perfect way to wake up? Well, I can tell you it is, unless you're coming down with the dreaded stomach flu of 2010. Which, let me say, was no walk in the park. Fortunately, I hadn't had the time to really gorge myself on it before the unexpected nausea, pain, sweats and inexplicable weakness hit. And don't forget the two days I couldn't stand to even look at the loaf sitting, barely touched, in the fridge. But, let's just leave the ordeal at that. I ate a few crumbs when it came out of the oven, collected a few globs of chewy, browned caramel on one crispy cinnamon-sugar layer and let me say this: it was fabulous. Just look at it.

But fabulous could easily have been disastrous. I did two things differently from the original recipe, but the most influential thing was definitely changing the shape and size of the pan. Even though I use half the ingredients, my cooking time had to be increased because of the shape and depth of my loaf pan. Also, I lowered the cooking temperature. Why? Know your oven. It might sound dumb to say, but our oven bakes very hot.

Reader: Isn't that the point, Fajita?
Fajita: Well yes, but...

Take for example the fact that most cookie recipes are baked at 350. Our oven, however, bakes about 15-20 degrees hotter than the internal thermometer says. An oven that is too hot, especially when it comes to delicate things like cookies, means one of two things: 1) raw cookies with burned edges, or 2) burnt cookies. Sometimes, it means both. Although I don't usually do it for things like meats or potatoes or biscuits (considerably more heat tolerant) I reduced my temperature to 325 when I first put this "Cinnamon Bread" into the oven. I feared for the butter and sugar concoction at the bottom of the dish. At 30 minutes the top was puffed, just beginning to rise, and slightly crispy. A closer look revealed the ugly truth that the interior was still only partially cooked. Thus, I added another 10-15 minutes to the cooking time. If my temperature had been higher, like the recipe called for, my bread would quickly have become too dark, and the luscious caramel it naturally creates in the bottom of the dish a burned and sickly mess.

So, the moral of the story my friends is this: know thy oven, and you now thyself. There is nothing more disappointing than an undercooked cake, or a pan of cookies as dark and bitter as lumps of coal. So, if you oven tends to cook "hot", try reducing the temperature by 10-15 degrees. You may need to bake them a few minutes longer than you initially expected, but all is fair in love and war when it comes to cooking times. Just be vigilant. Try checking on them 5 minutes earlier than the recipe says. If you have reoccurring baking deficiencies, like burned cookies, look to your oven, and try and figure out if it is a temperature issue, a time issue, or some manhandling of your ingredients.

Well, that's about all the food talk I can stomach today.

Notes: Don't go to a Holiday Party if you're sick, or have been sick in the past two days. Just because you're germ ridden doesn't make you any more festive than the rest of us. Also, wash your hands. Vigilantly.

Gooey Caramel and Cinnamon Bread
Adapted from another recipe I can't find at the moment

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup raisins
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 (12 oz) can refrigerator biscuits
1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325. Grease a medium loaf pan.
2. Combine the walnuts, brown sugar, raisins and butter in a small bowl. Spoon half the mixture into the bottom of the greased loaf pan.
3. Cut each biscuit in quarters and toss with the cinnamon sugar. Arrange half the biscuits in the bottom of the loaf pan. Top with half the brown sugar and butter mixture. Cover with the remaining biscuits, arranging them prettily.
4. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden, and the interior biscuits are cooked. To check, use a knife inserted into the loaf to push the biscuits apart and ensure that they are cooked thoroughly.
5. Let sit in the pan for 3-5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and place a large plate on top of the biscuits. Invert the loaf, remove the pan and serve warm with remaining caramel sauce.

Refrigerate leftovers for 2-3 days, and microwave before serving.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Salted Caramel Corn

Best Efforts:

You know how there are always things you *mean* to do before a deadline, but never seem to? The things that, despite your best efforts, you're still burning the midnight oil to complete the night before. SPUDS doesn't just understand how you feel, we fully support the last minute scramble. We firmly believe that necessity isn't only the mother of invention; it's the reason all those midnight snacks taste so good. Bearing that in mind, we'd like to present you a very easy caramel corn recipe, posted at the last minute and with mere hours to spare before Christmas.

In college, my best efforts to finish my latest submission for fiction workshop, or that twenty-five page Spanish final, with days instead of hours to spare, always managed to fall short. Sure, I turned the assignments in, but never until just before the deadline. And, despite misconceptions bred incestuously in schoolrooms across the country, adults do it too: vehicle registrations, field trip permission slips, lunch money, taxes, holiday shopping. It's the nature of the beast, so let's not pretend we can fight it. And, in honor of embracing our last-minute nature, SPUDS would like to present you a short list of some of our favorite (under $20) Holiday gift ideas selected especially for the deadline crunching shopper, including a delicious treat/gift idea that takes under 30 minutes, and $10, to assemble:

SPUDS Holiday Gift Ideas:
  1. For the English Major: "The Glamour of Grammar" by Roy Peter Clark
  2. For the Music Major: Os Tribalistas "Velha Infancia"-for a taste CLICK! (or) Jack Black's "Brutal Legend" for XBOX, PS3 and Wii
  3. For the Co-worker: Give a "Global Giving" gift card, and let them choose a project that inspires them.
  4. For the Room-mate: Socks, to replace the ones you keep taking by accident.
  5. For the Coffee-addict: Cafe gift card + homemade: chocolate chip cookies, snicker-doodles, biscotti, orange zucchini bread, easy toffee or Salted Caramel Corn.
Making candy corn is deceptively simple; the caramel part doesn't even require a spoon to stir it. That being so, I was a little unsure of this recipe at first. Wouldn't the sugar burn at a high heat? What if it stuck to the pan? Are you sure caramel corn is really that easy? But, after a quick turn about the kitchen after work last night I realized it was easy, and easy to make on a whim because of the simple ingredients that *all* students have on hand: sugar, popcorn. Because this recipe does not require a candy thermometer it feels even more accessible and fool proof. The key is, like most things, not to burn the mixture. I kept my heat a little lower than the original recipe suggested because I'm skittish that way. But, other than a little organization, and a good eye for color, this recipe is hard to ruin. As I'm sure most any chem major could tell you, the bonds created by the sugar and water when applied to high heat are really incredible. In fact, it is this process that gives crunchy treats like toffee their distinctive snappy texture. And the best part is, the sugary residue left in the pot is easily broken down with the reapplication of water and a little time in the sink. So, take a deep breath. The land of sweets is just within your grasp.

Notes: As soon as the caramel is a light golden color turn off the heat (see photo), it will continue to deepen in color. If you let the caramel get too dark before you turn off the heat it might burn and become bitter. Be sure to add the popcorn to the pot, and not the other way around to ensure the corn is totally coated with caramel. Once the popcorn has begun to cool, (to the point where you can handle it without burning yourself) be sure to break it up into small clusters. Don't be afraid to add mix-ins like marshmallows, chocolate chips, nuts or candy pieces once it is totally cool. Package in air tight containers, or cellophane bags, and you've got the perfect stocking stuffer, or late night snack for frosty winter nights in front of the tv.

Adapted slightly from Gale Gand's "Caramel Corn with Salted Peanuts and Cherries"
6 (1 cup) servings

2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
6 cups popped popcorn
3/4 cup toasted pecans
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Line a baking sheet with tin foil. Toast your pecans over low-heat, and set aside.
2. Add the sugar to a deep sauce pot. Slowly, pour the water around the perimeter of the pot, being carefully not to splash sugar up on the sides of the pot. Draw your finger through the sugar to form an "x". DO NOT STIR.
3. Cook the sugar over medium-high heat. When it comes to a full boil, cook it for 10-15 minutes. The sugar should be lightly golden brown in color. During the last two or three minutes of cooking, swirl the pot gently to even out the color.
4. Turn off the heat and then stir in the butter. Quickly add the popcorn and pecans.
5. Immediately turn the mixture out onto the greased cookie sheet, add the salt and toss to coat. Let it cool for a few minutes, until it is cool enough to handle. Break the mixture up into clusters and cool completely at room temperature before storing in an airtight container.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Easy-Peasy Toffee

I know I said I wouldn't:

But I just ate a still warm Peanut-butter cookie, chased by two glasses of milk; skim milk of course. It wasn't my fault. I came home from ballet class, quivering thighs and puffy toes and all, and what should my wandering eyes find? Cookies?! Cookies?! Yes, yes that's what I need to really nail that double pirouette... cookies.

... or chips, spicy chips. I ate the most amazing bag of hot and spicy chips today: "Mama Zuma's Revenge." I saw a bag of them last weekend while working an event at our local Whole Foods. Somehow, despite the fact that I was simultaneously in the wine section and hot foods bar, I left without buying anything. I guess that's what standing for three hours hawking gourmet chocolates does to you. Regardless, when I hopped (literally, the high was only 25 degrees today) down the street to grab lunch this afternoon, I couldn't help noticing these chips again. Who is that saucy, voluptuous woman? Why do I feel like a super hero sidekick holding the bag? What is she doing with those chili peppers? I can tell you: making the most amazing chips I've ever had give me heartburn. If you like spicy, "Mama Zuma's Revenge" gives you double the fun. Eaten by themselves, or layered between cool slabs of avocado and Jarlsberg Swiss on a sandwich, they are some of the most delightful chips I've ever singed my lips on. They are also, sort of locally made, if you live in Virginia. SPUDS is proud call Route 11 Chips our neighbor (sort of). Did I mention that they were really spicy? That's an understatement, of course.

So what better way to cut the burn than with something sweet, and maybe a little cool? Well, start with a good, tall glass of milk. Then, when you've quenched the flames, try making a batch of this toffee! I, personally, relish the confetti of red and white peppermint dust on top of the chocolate. It also adds a welcome freshness, and cuts a little bit of the fatty sweetness that comes with a grocery store bag of morsels. I know, I'm a snob. I can't help it; it's my job (snubbing inferior chocolate, that is).

My Mom makes these bars every year to great acclaim, and usually only with milk chocolate; although, I think we tried white chocolate once to really amplify the festivity factor. But, considering you won't have to invest in a candy thermometer, and you don't even need to temper the chocolate, the recipe is really a no-brainer no matter what kind of chocolate you use. We like to package it up in little cellophane bags with some pretty ribbon and give them away as gifts. For about $6 you can whip up a number of delicious, yummy favors in a flash. Or, you can always keep them for yourself... no one will really now if you do. Unfortunately, I was at work all day today, and missed the third round of toffee making that has taken place at home in the last 72 hours, so photos are a little scarce. I do hope you will forgive me. It really is an easy recipe! Be creative with your toppings, and if you find something that is undeniably extraordinary tell SPUDS about it!

Notes: Be careful to keep your temperature low. If you singe the butter and brown sugar, or the bars get too dark while baking, you had better start again. If the toffee burns, like garlic, it will turn bitter and be all but inedible.

Toffee Bars

2 stick butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 packages saltine crackers
1 (11.5 ounce) bag milk or semi-sweet chocolate chips

ground nuts, peppermints, espresso beans or sprinkles to decorate

1. Line a standard sized cookie sheet with tin foil. Try to use a single sheet of foil, or carefully overlap two pieces. Otherwise, your toffee will bubble down onto the tray and stick. Preheat the oven to 325.
2. Line the cookie sheet with saltine crackers, breaking the crackers to fit against the edges of the sheet so that all the foil is covered.
3. Melt the butter and brown sugar together in a saucepan on low, stirring constantly until the butter and brown sugar are totally combined.
4. Once the mixture is combined, let it bubble gently for another minute or minute and half. If the mixture darkens significantly it has burned and will taste bitter. If this happens: return to Start, do not pass go!
5. Immediately pour the butter mixture over the crackers, spreading with the back of the spoon gently only where necessary. Once it is smooth, bake it for 13-15 minutes or until it is only golden brown (never brown).
6. Remove the toffee from the oven and immediately scatter the chocolate chips over the toffee. Let them sit for 1-2 minutes, or until they being to soften. Then, smooth them with a knife or the back of a spoon, being careful not to disturb the crackers.
7. Scatter chopped peppermint dust or ground nuts over the toffee and set aside to harden. Once the toffee is totally cool, break it into pieces and store in an airtight container for 7-10 days.

Monday, December 13, 2010

White Chicken Pizza

French bread snow day:

There is a place here at home where white pizza isn't just sinful, it's down right damnation on a plate. My brother and I have been known to consume 3/4 of an entire pizza even before we sit down to pasta. It's just impossible to stop and say, "gosh let me save room for that amazing pasta with a whole head of garlic and two bushels of mushrooms bathed in the finest imported olive oil." I mean, who does that? There is always more room when you're eating pasta.

The restaurant is minute, housing two booths and maybe a half dozen tables. The line is, typically, out the door and the wait is even longer. It is totally worth it. I just wish I was taller, so I could better observe the white pizza preparation through the crowd. From what I can tell they dredge the dough in olive oil, scrub the crust with garlic, smear it with a blend of cheeses and bake it until the crust blisters and curls without a sprig of parsley in sight. Heaven. Bliss. Oh dear. Bottom line: it is the best and only white pizza I have ever let anywhere close to my waist line. Well, that is a little exaggeration; I love white pizza, in a fiery red pepper flake kind of way.

For me, the most important part is attaining an equally crispy and chewy crust. And, although I have a real weakness for making crust by hand, because it is one of those times I feel like a real chef, I love a good French bread pizza for reasons of taste as well as convenience. Make it a white pizza and I'm there. What could be easier, or more inexplicably crusty, chewy and soft all at the same time? Using a baguette also cuts prep time in half; you can even use your crumb catching toaster oven! Because, as college students I'm sure you aren't using it enough already... Just be kind to your fastidious type-A roommate, (every apartment has one) and use a little tin foil this time. Oozey, blackened bubbles of cheese are a real pain to clean.

The complexities of a good crust aside, this recipe is as close to delicious as we kitchen peons will ever get when it comes to a great pizza.
Just be generous with the garlic, and sparing on anything that will make the bread sink and get slimy. Less is more when it comes to cheese, mainly because cheese brings extra oil to the table when it gets hot. Personally, I really dig the idea of smearing the bread with a film of ricotta cheese; because, I love it. But, if you don't have any on hand, or don't feel like buying it, you can always skip it. This pizza is best hot, straight from the oven. Adding the chicken brings the pizza up to speed with a simple dinner, but you can even cut it into smaller squares and serve it as an appetizer with a little white wine: something citrusy and crisp like a sauvignon blanc. But, that's just me wanting a glass of the grapefruit heavy sauvignon blanc I had in Charleston once. Oh dear.

PS> Happy snow day for those of you who are experiencing winter weather!

Variation on a recipe by Rachael Ray + my dreams and imagination

1 loaf French bread, split
1/2 cup pre-cooked chicken
1/3 cup ricotta cheese (optional)
olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
fresh parsley
black pepper

1. Preheat the broiler to high.
2. Split the loaf of bread in half and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle the cut side of the bread with olive oil, according to your preference.
3. Toast the bread 1-2 minutes under the broiler. Remove from the heat and rub vigorously with garlic.
4. Smear the toasted garlic bread with a thin layer of ricotta cheese, if using it. Don't put too much on or the bread will get soggy. Top the ricotta cheese with the chicken and a layer of Parmesan.
5. Put the pizza back under the broiler for another 1-2 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and the bread looks toasted. While it is toasting chop the parsley.
6. Top the warm pizza with fresh cracked black pepper and the parsley. Serve very warm.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scrambled Breakfast Burrito

+ 5 Awesome, Amazing "free" Ingredients:

Is it twenty-three degrees where you live, too? Maybe it's just me, but whenever it is extraordinarily cold I regress to breakfast at every meal. Point in case: I ate cereal for breakfast and lunch today. Not because I craved cereal, but because it was all I had time for. I was late getting ready for work, largely because I hibernated until the last minute in my 80 degree bedroom, and partially because I was writing thank-you notes for early Christmas gifts.

Christmas gifts?! Yes, two to speak of that directly effect all of you! One, is the most beautiful baking handbook by, who else, the Angel of the Kitchen: Julia Child. Every page is an ode to the glorious, wondrous world of breads, bagels and brioche. The glossy insert pages are so crisp and so beautifully composed I wouldn't be surprised if I could reach right in and pull off a wedge of the "Rustic Potato Loaf". But, if delusions of edible grandeur are happening I think I'll satisfy my sweet tooth with the "Gingerbread Baby Cakes" instead. Or, maybe the "Hungarian Shortbread" with soft cakey layers and a jammy satin ribbon of rhubarb that would make the Sugarplum Fairy green with envy. "Baking with Julia" is a steal at $26. 40 on Amazon.com, and would make a great gift. But, if you don't get around to buying the whole book before the new year, SPUDS will be posting a recipe of your choice to help ring in the festivities! Cast your vote today!

Disclaimer: SPUDS is not giving away a free copy of "Baking with Julia" due to budget restrictions.

What is gift number two, you ask? Well, that one was even more of a surprise. Some of you who might have been reading last month, may have noticed a new badge on the blog spot. Sadly, "SPUDS" did not make the Iron Foodie competition as an official contestant; however, we did receive some very expensive consolation prizes for free! Free!! The catch, isn't really a catch at all. Marx Foods, a wholesale gourmet products distributor, sent SPUDS 5 product samples of our choosing to encourage recipe creativity that showcases their exotic ingredients. Here's what SPUDS chose:
  • Ginger salt
  • Lavender Buds
  • Star Anise
  • Black Trumpet Mushrooms
  • Saffron Threads
SPUDS is very excited to start working on recipes. (Got ideas for something you'd like us to cook up? Leave a comment on this post OR our fan page on Facebook). But, in the mean time graduate applications, work, wrapping presents and, of course, eating will be taking priority. It all feels a little daunting. Since every meal these days is a scramble to the finish, you might as well enjoy an incredibly easy breakfast/dinner burrito. Just be sure to eat it it in your pajamas... in front of the t.v., or in bed if you can convince someone to bring it to you.

Makes 2 very happy burritos

4 eggs
1/8 teaspoon salt, pepper
1/4 cup finely diced onion
3/4 cup shredded cheddar/jack cheese blend
1 cup pebre (or your favorite fresh tomato salsa)

sour cream, to serve

1. Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat.
2. Finely dice the onion and set aside. Break the eggs into a small dish and whisk briefly with the onions, salt and pepper.
3. Add half the cheese to the eggs before adding both to the skillet. Scramble until the eggs are opaque and no longer runny.
4. Warm the tortillas in the microwave and then fill with the cooked eggs. Serve with the fresh salsa, more fresh cilantro and sour cream. Enjoy immediately.

Want to jazz it up? Add some cooked turkey bacon or black beans... or both!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Make & Bake Bran Muffins

now w/ bananas:

I'm not entirely sure how to say this, but it has to be said and whether I say it quickly, or ramble aimlessly, doesn't really make much difference. We bought an artificial tree; yes, the kind that has static, plastic needles and a spidery wire base. The sort that still catches fire, although not as often, and comes pre-lit with strands of white lights that are bound to die out in sections year after year. We didn't want to do it, but it was out of our hands: there were only six blue spruce trees in our city of 200,000+, and they were squat little brutes at that. I, personally, have been moping since 3:00pm Sunday and bringing down the whole event.

Of course, SPUDS has nothing against artificial trees. In fact, SPUDS admits that they are just as beautiful as their live counterparts... so long as they are in other peoples houses. There are many amazing trees out there, and not all of them are the sticky, fragrant pines that I can't help but smash my nose against the car window to oogle at as we drive by. I don't mean to make myself out to be the victim of a holiday marketing travesty; although, that would be a pretty good description. Still, it would be selfish and cruel of me to do so. I say this only so that when I tell you we spent two days looking for our beloved blue spruce, you know that I mean it.

Luckily, I had a whim to make some bran muffins Saturday morning before work, which meant that Sunday started off on a very optimistic note. In addition, we had our first dusting of snow, I had a day off from work and one toasty pair of flannel pajamas. In college, as soon as I got my hands on my own kitchen in college, albeit one filled with appliances from the late 80s, I made raisin bran bread on an almost weekly basis to enjoy in said pajamas. I especially liked to smear cream cheese or peanut butter on slices of it when I was trying my hardest to postpone finishing a paper. (Whether it was 3pm or 3am I was usually in my pajamas). But, if I didn't have bread ready I was forced to wander around in a foul temper, looking for a replacement.

Then, I found this recipe on the back of a box of bran we had at home last year. Now, I only have to mix up the batter once every three weeks to enjoy my favorite muffins any time. I mean you can leave the stuff (unbaked) in the fridge for up to three weeks! For someone who likes to spend their entire Sunday and Monday evening wandering around frigid Christmas tree lots this "make and bake" feature is very important. Disappointment tastes even more bitter on an empty stomach. And, since it is December, I took it upon myself to use some dried fruit: apricots, apples, papaya, raisins, pineapple etc.

Which reminds me: it is December. We've got a few changes here this month, maybe you've already noticed one. Thanks to a friend, also known as the Burrito Bandito, SPUDS will have twice as many delicious photos per post! Apparently, it has something to do with this thing called HTML. I know. The other changes? I haven't quite decided yet... For the sake of bellies grumbling before finals, SPUDS will be returning to our usual broadcast schedule: easy every day meals. But, great inexpensive gift ideas like Puppy Chow, Toffee Bars, Chocolate Dipped Peppermint Sticks and the like will manage to squeeze into the lime light every once in a while, too. So, keep your eyes peeled for more tasty dishes later this week.

Got a great gift idea? Want to share a recipe? Be sure to join our fanpage on Facebook: cool kids and post/message recipes to the Wall. We've got 31 followers and if we make it to 50 by December 24th SPUDS will personally consider it a Christmas miracle. Not on Facebook? Email your thoughts, concerns and ideas straight to SPUDS @ stbreadwater@gmail.com or leave a comment here on the blog spot.

Adapted from Hodgson Mill

1 1/2 cups wheat bran
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 small banana, mashed
1/4 cup butter
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup raisins (or other dried fruit)

1. Mix half the wheat bran (3/4 cup) with the 1/2 cup of boiling water in a small boil. Let sit to absorb the water.
2. In another bowl blend the sugar and butter.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Combine the moist bran with the egg, banana, remaining bran, buttermilk, butter mixture and flour and spices.
4. Stir until blended. Fold in the dried fruit and either refrigerate for up to 3 weeks or bake at once.
5. To bake: preheat the oven to 350 and either line a muffin tin with liners or butter them. Stir the batter (if it has been sitting) and spoon 3/4 of the way full with batter. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean. Cool slightly before serving.

*Batter will keep up to three weeks in the fridge. Baked muffins are good up to two weeks in an airtight container.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pumpkin-Cranberry Oatmeal

Show someone you love them:

Looking at this photo, uploaded earlier this week, I just remembered I had dried cranberries at home. Since I'm currently at work, this picture makes my mouth water and stirs up the first bubbles of regret for forgetting them-as if I haven't had enough cranberries in the past thirty-six hours...

I shouldn't complain; last night's belated family Thanksgiving was especially good. The cranberry-apple-pecan crumble was perfect (not too runny, not even close to burned). The yams were spicy and cooked just right (thanks to a real cinnamon stick and fresh grated nutmeg). The bird was juicy, browned and oh... what gravy. And, to top it all off, games of Spades and Scrabble were played, The Wizard of Oz was watched and commented upon, candles were lit and, in a distant corner, my Aunt's Christmas tree was resplendent in an early ode that auspicious day. That's what happens when you become an adult: holiday decorating happens when you have the time to make it happen (no matter how early), not when you don't feel like studying for your organic final a week before Winter Break.

Whether you're gearing up for a marathon of essay writing, or just fighting the crowds to go shopping, you need the proper fuel to keep you going. Look no further than this delicious oatmeal to charge up your battery. I found it on one of my favorite lazy afternoon cooking blogs: Tasty Kitchen. Not only is it quick and delicious, but you won't have to feel an ounce of guilt for enjoying it. I've even made a double batch Sunday morning and refrigerated it for a hectic Monday breakfast that takes no more effort that pushing "start" on the microwave. And, for those of us who would rather see muffin tops at the bakery than in the mirror, this hot cereal is waist-line friendly: pumpkin and old-fashioned oats add healthy fiber, milk provides protein and the raisins or cranberries add just the right amount of natural sweetness-making brown sugar rather superfluous really.

It tickles me to say that oatmeal played a significant role in my college diet; thanks to my natural affinity for oats, whole grains and anything else that tasted like dirt or, as my roommates liked to joke, cardboard. The beauty of oatmeal is that it not only doubles wonderfully (half a cup of cooked oats per person is plenty), but can be made with any number of ingredients: instant oats, skim milk, half and half or even water. The oats themselves are cheap and versatile and almost never go bad. Plus, they cook up quickly, with very little clean up, and keep you full for hours. If you're feeling especially generous whip up a big pot of Pumpkin-Cranberry oatmeal for your roommates to enjoy on the first snow day of the semester, or just when you feel too cozy to go to class.

Notes: Delicious. Feel free to substitute 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice in place of the other spices.

Disclaimer: SPUDS does not encourage skipping out on lectures; however, SPUDS does acknowledge the fact that skipping happens, and encourages students to at least eat well while doing it.

Recipe by livelife(kim), courtesy of Tasty Kitchen
Makes 2 hearty servings

1/2 cup oats
1 cup milk + 2 tablespoons
1/4 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon (scant) nutmeg
1 pinch cloves, if you have them
1/4 cup raisins or cranberries

1/4 cup toasted, chopped pecans

1. Add the oats, milk and pumpkin to a pot, stirring until the pumpkin is combined.
2. Add the spices and cranberries or raisins and stir. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal starts to bubble (4-5 minutes).
3. If you like your oatmeal thinner add the two tablespoons of milk and continue cooking until the desired consistency is achieved.
4. Serve warm with a little vanilla yogurt or, for added sweetness, a little maple syrup.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tips: Shortcuts

Cut corners not friends:

A few years ago I would have been filling up my theoretical Thanksgiving table with friends and colleagues, not characters from TV, film and my imagination. But today I would much rather be writing this post than any number of serious, pivotal graduate school application essays after gorging myself on thanksgiving brunch. Just like a diverse and colorful menu sings, so do dinner conversations when you take the time to give a little thought to your seating arrangement. For example: place your chattiest friend at the center of the table, so neither end becomes conversation heavy; or group friends with similar interests to encourage conversation. Don't be afraid to invite friends from different circles either. But, before you get on to pivotal decisions like who you're going to seat beside Darth Vader, and if Captain Malcolm Reynolds enjoys cranberry sauce or green bean casserole more, take a moment to simplify your to-do list. After all, isn't the whole point of Thanksgiving to reunite and bond with family? So in the spirit of spending more time with your guests here are some "Shortcuts" to help you get your Holiday dinner on the table faster and with a lot less work.

Tip 1: Help the grocery store, help you.
I'm not a proponent of mixes and pre-made delicacies, however delightful they can be sometimes, but a large dinner party is an obvious exception. Save yourself the time it takes to make some harvest staples from scratch like:
  • Stuffing
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Rolls or a crispy, bakery fresh country loaf
  • Green veggies (green beans, peas etc)
Simplify your table by offering some basic dishes like plain steamed green vegetables, pre-made cranberry sauce, rolls and boxed stuffing that take only a few minutes to prepare. Serving too many rich or exotic dishes, especially those with complex flavors, can overwhelm guests (and you too). Choose a few show stoppers, like a homemade pie, and fill in the gaps with selections from your grocer. Plus, these items are naturally inexpensive and abundant during the Holidays so you shouldn't have any trouble squeezing them into your menu.

Tip 2: Embrace reality, not dishes.
It is unlikely that the average college student has enough place settings, serving dishes and other tableware to feed more than four people all at once, and that is if the dishes have been done. Don't worry if you don't have the perfect number of over-sized spoons or stemless wine glasses. Mixing place settings is not only acceptable, but it makes you look like one of the cool kids (which, mind you, you already are). If you can, stick to a color family-it won't matter if the cups are different from place to place if they both evoke a rich butter cream or a vibrant blue. If not, embrace your rainbow tribute and group each setting in a single color. Using paper plates, napkins and disposable bake ware is acceptable too, but remember, if you're going disposable, go all the way.

Tip 3: Be a good neighbor.
If you find yourself short on tables, chairs or parking it's okay to ask your neighbors for a little help.
Just remember the golden rule of being a good neighbor: invite them too. Not only will your neighbors
appreciate your offer, but they will likely to lend you chairs, an extra table or baking dish or
that infamous stick of butter all good cooks are short on at least once. Plus, they can't come raining on
the charades parade after pie and ice cream if they're at the party too!

Tip 4: How to: Make from-scratch gravy
Put that packet of powdered gravy down. Making gravy from scratch isn't only easy, but it's also
easy to fix if you make a mistake.
  1. Let the drippings come to room temperature. Note: If you have the time, refrigerate the broth first. This will bring the fat to the surface, allowing you to skim off the excess. You will need to heat your broth slightly before you begin to make your gravy.
  2. Drain the juice from your cooking bag or roasting pan into a measuring cup. Skim off any excess fat that rises to the top.
  3. Add enough chicken broth to make 2 cups of broth and drippings. Check for seasoning. Add to a sauce pot, off the heat.
  4. In a small bowl whisk 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of water until smooth.
  5. Off the heat, add the flour mixture to the broth. Whisk until combined. Turn the heat to medium-low, stirring constantly. Note: This is a pivotal step, if you do not stir the gravy constantly it will form lumps.
  6. Once the broth has thickened sufficiently, season to taste and continue stirring for a minute. Then remove the gravy from the heat.
If your gravy forms lumps: Run the gravy through a sieve to remove the lumps.
If your pan drippings and broth is too salty: Before you thicken the gravy, peel a raw potato and add large slice to your broth. This will remove some of the salt from your broth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pecan and Goat Cheese Salad

+ some other salad that doesn't have goat cheese:

I would like to take a moment to apologize for the misused semicolon in the first paragraph of last week's "Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes" post. I'm ashamed I left it squatting there for seventy-two hours before noticing; be assured, it has been dealt with severely for it's impudence. It is just that, sometimes, I really love semicolons. Perhaps too much... Speaking of love, I hope you don't think that I don't adore the second recipe in today's post. I do. I just got so excited about the chance to post some of my favorite things, namely pecans, goat cheese and beets, that I couldn't think of anything remotely catchy to say about a decidedly simple fruit salad. I suppose that is catchy enough: Decidedly Simple Fruit Salad.

Since I can remember, our holiday table has always been graced by the ethereal presence of fruit salad. The recipe, passed down through generations, is much more precious than the simple tag "fruit salad" denotes. You have to marry into the family to even get close to it. Like peanut butter birthday cake, it was the kind of thing I ate secretly in the dark of early morning so I didn't have to feel guilty not sharing it with my roommates. (Sorry roommates) But, since I believe that fruit salad is as necessary and natural as breathing, I have chosen to post two delightful salads here that we can all share in. The first, is a traditional green salad for those of us who crave greens, and a little guiltless pleasure in the midst of trenchers of rich fare. The salad itself can be prepared, but stored separately, the night before:
  • wash and dry the lettuce. Slice the red onion and store with the chopped lettuce the night before, either in a zip lock or an air tight container with a paper towel.
  • Toast the pecans, cooling them and leaving them at room temperature.
  • Drain and slice the beets, and store in the fridge.
  • Measure out your olive oil and apple cider vinegar, or lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small jar or Tupperware. Store in the fridge. Just remember to shake before serving.
In fact, allowing your washed and dried lettuce to crisp up in fridge is preferable. The salad is not only delicious, made even more so by the creamy goat cheese and fresh mint, but it creates quite a fuss thanks to its bold presentation and festive color. If you don't like goat cheese (shame on you) you can also substitute in some crumbled Feta cheese, although this will have a sharper, more distinctive bite. I chose to use mandarin oranges for the sheer convenience of not having to peel them, and because we had them on hand. But, you are welcome to substitute fresh navel orange segments or clementines as well.

The second salad is even simpler, and perhaps a little more humble than its counterpart. Tossing sliced, easy to find fruit in a little yogurt and fresh juice brings a much needed brightness to an otherwise starch heavy table. Even picky eaters enjoy the sweet, slightly tangy sauce created by the combination of fruit juice and yogurt. The addition of toasted pecans and plumped, dried cranberries makes it even more delightful. However, I would not suggest making this dish more than two hours before serving, and then I would wait to add the bananas at the last minute. Sprinkling your sliced apples with fresh lemon will buy you a little more time, but not much. Although apples are in season, I suggest using two different varieties to ensure good texture, juiciness and flavor. Because this salad isn't cooked whatever eating apple you like best would be perfect.

Notes on grammar: Some experts believe that semicolons are one of the most daunting punctuation marks in the English language. Here at SPUDS, however, we believe in empowering oneself through technical mastery. Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone) that are closely related: I love punctuation; semicolons are one of my favorite punctuation marks.

Pecan and Goat Cheese Salad
Variation on two salads: this by Real Simple and that by Rachael Ray
Serves 4-6

3 hearts of romaine, washed and dried
1 medium red onion
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1 (14.5 ounce) can of sliced beets
1 (15 ounce) mandarin orange segments
2-3 ounces crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, or lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon each salt, fresh black pepper

1. Chop the lettuce and add to a large bowl.
2. Peel and thinly slice half of the red onion, adding to the lettuce.
3. Drain the beets and mandarin orange segments. Add the orange to the onion and lettuce. Stack a few beets, one on top of the other, and slice into matchsticks. Stack on top of the orange segments.
4. Shake the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small jar or Tupperware container until combined.
5. Just before serving add the toasted pecans and crumbled goat cheese. Pour dressing over the greens and serve.

Decidedly Simple Fruit Salad
Adapted from Kraft Healthy Living
Serves 4

1 cup vanilla yogurt (low-fat is fine)
1/3 cup orange juice
2 medium apples, Fuji and Macintosh are good
lemon juice
2 cups grapes
2 bananas, sliced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

1. Whisk the yogurt and orange juice in a bowl until combined.
2. Chop the apples into bite sized pieces and sprinkle with a little lemon juice. Split the grapes in half and add to the apples and yogurt.
3. Microwave the cranberries in a little water for 1-1 1/2 minutes and let sit until cooled, allowing them to plump up a little.
4. Add the cranberries to the rest of the salad, along with the bananas and pecans. Toss to coat and serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes

+ baked sweet potatoes with cinnamon butter:

Having spent the last two days working out of town I am just getting to a post very close to my (our) heart: spuds. In fact, I just got back from an Open House at our shop where I ate a dozen chocolate dipped dates, salted dark chocolate caramels and a half cup of sinful, eternally-damning-but-totally-worth-it sipping chocolate. In a single word it was divine, but you can bet I'll be at morning yoga tomorrow to make up for it-physically and psychologically. This week, it seems, has been especially delectable: white bean salad with lemon vinaigrette, fresh baked raisin pecan bread, mouth-watering elderflower chocolate, tempura-fried sweet potato sushi. I also got to glimpse some real food bloggers, in the flesh, which was almost as delectable. Part of me quivered with anticipation and longing to be a successful, well known food blogger, the likes of which wear black rimmed glasses and jeweled vintage jacket pins and get invitations to open houses like ours. But, I shouldn't complain; I got to be at the opening too, even if it was just as a lowly chocolate devotee. And here I am, sated on exquisite cuisine, writing about it. Still... I hope there is room in those eclectic ranks for the likes of at least one more hungry spud-aficionado with a mindless love of homely produce.

Speaking of homely, let's talk about mashed potatoes. It would be a travesty if any Thanksgiving table was lacking this fluffy, buttery side-what would you do with all the gravy without it? I've posted two simple potato recipes here: one for a traditional mashed potato and another for a baked sweet potato with maple and cinnamon butter. Both recipes are incredibly simple. The mashed potatoes get a subtle kick from some sour cream and a little Parmesan cheese, making them decidedly savory. The sweet potatoes take even less work, and are great if you are in a pinch (they cook up in under 5 minutes in the microwave, and wrapped in a little waxed paper, they turn out moist and sweet). The maple and cinnamon butter for the sweet potatoes is a delightful addition to your table and just as enjoyable on warm rolls or a bowl of pumpkin oatmeal the next day.

Notes: If you want extra smooth and light potatoes use your hand mixer to eliminate any lumps. Personally, I like mine a little more rustic so I just mash them with a fork or wooden spoon. If you don't have the time to make your mashed potatoes right before serving you can make them the morning of your event, refrigerating them in between. Just allow time to warm the potatoes up and beat them with a little extra milk to smooth them out again. The maple cinnamon butter can be made up to a week in advance. For a little extra elegance try piping the room temperature butter in a pastry bag, with a large star tip, onto waxed paper to make pretty butter rosettes. Then, refrigerate them as usual until they retain their shape. Serve the rosettes slightly chilled so they don't get smeared around the serving plate too easily. Otherwise, be sure to let the butter warm up before you put it out on your table so it is spreadable.

Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes

4 large red-skinned potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon each salt, fresh cracked pepper (or to taste)
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup milk, more or less

1. Wash potatoes with mild soap and water. Peel the potatoes and remove any brown spots or "eyes".
2. Cut the potatoes into uniform slices, about 1/2 an inch thick. Place in a sauce pot and fill with cold water. Bring the potatoes to boil. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until fork tender.
3. While the potatoes are cooking, heat up the milk in the microwave 1-1 1/2 minutes or until it is steamy and warm.
4. Drain the potatoes and mash with a fork or hand-held mixer. Add the sour cream, cheese, salt and pepper and butter and then beat until combined.
5. Add the milk in thirds, blending between additions, until the potatoes are fluffy and smooth. You may need more or less milk than the recipe calls for, depending your potatos.
6. Serve warm.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon Butter:

4 small to medium sweet potatoes
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of nutmeg, optional

1. Wash and dry the sweet potatoes before piercing them a few times with a sharp knife or fork (this will keep the potatoes from bursting). Microwave the spuds using the "potato" setting your microwave-they are perfect every time.
2. Beat the butter, cinnamon, maple syrup, vanilla and nutmeg in a bowl. Pipe into rosettes onto waxed paper, if preferred, and chill until ready to serve. Alternatively, serve at room temperature in a small serving dish with your potatoes.
3. Split the potatoes and serve warm with the cinnamon butter.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aromatic Carrot Soup

+ Copper Pennies:

I watched "Billy Elliot" for the first time yesterday. I don't know what I was expecting, but I don't think crying until you laugh at yourself, and your less than British humor, was one of them. What can I say, I have a real affinity for homely, precious things that get notoriously hard knocks for just being themselves: prunes, Italian greyhounds, that disastrously misunderstood monster Grendel and, in today's case, the gnarled carrots you always seem to leave as a last resort in your vegetable keeper (baby carrots have all the fun). Maybe that is why I love this superbly easy, and delicious, carrot soup with crumbles of goat cheese. Did your heart just skip a beat too?

When it comes to homely edibles, one of my greatest weaknesses, Thanksgiving dinner really takes the cake (er, pie). Carrots are some of the most misunderstood, and most affordable, vegetables in the kitchen. Who says they are only good for stocks or picket-lining around ranch dip? It is time for the carrot to take a stand, and at only a few dollars this recipe is the perfect time and place. Throw in some affordable goat cheese, or sour cream/plain yogurt if you're in a penny-pinching mood, and you've got a great weeknight dinner or an impressive side dish for under $10. And while not traditional, this soup is the perfect starter or chic appetizer for your harvest dinner. Yesterday, I had the hankering to serve it in some tall shot glasses as an easy to eat appetizer before dinner. I don't know what it is, but there is something wonderful about turning knotty, scrubby carrots into a velvety soup that looks so "Top Chef" in a shot glass. I guess we can call it the Cinderella effect. With only ten minutes of preparation, and twenty unattended minutes of cooking time, this soup can be made before dinner and served warm, or prepared the night before and reheated just before serving. The cumin, an affordable multipurpose spice, is subtle and blends perfectly with the little bit of honey that enhances the natural sweetness of even the most stubborn carrot. Using a reduced sodium vegetable broth (or your very own) to make this vegetarian option as healthy as it is delicious.

For a more traditional side dish, go no further than the "copper pennies", or glazed carrots, you might have seen at your dining hall. These are a sure winner for your holiday table-even friends who are sworn-off vegetables dig into these. A little less exotic than Aromatic Carrot soup, but just as wholesome "copper pennies" are a traditional harvest side. Plus this dish rings in at about $3-4. The trick? No one likes a mushy carrot. I like to prepare this dish just before serving to ensure the carrots don't get overcooked being reheated. But, if you're looking to save some time peel and chop your carrots the night before; it will take under a minute to toss them in a little butter, honey and cinnamon once they are cooked.

Notes: Treat your vegetables like you would pasta: aim to serve them "al dente". Not only will the vegetable retain a vibrant healthy color but they won't turn to mush either. When making up a harvest menu think about texture and color as much as flavor. If you plan on serving this carrot soup, for example, serving whipped sweet potatoes might be a little uninteresting since both have a soft, delicately sweet flavor and, well, they look alike too. Try a scalloped white potato that differs in color, taste and texture from this semi-sweet soup instead. That said, I've never turned down a sweet potato in my life.

The bottom line: for the most "wow" factor, make your harvest table as colorful and interesting as possible.

Aromatic Carrot Soup
Bon Appetit, April 2010 (serves 4 as a side), more as an appetizer

2 tablespoons butter
salt, pepper
1 cup diced onion (one large)
2 2/3 cup peeled, chopped carrots
2 1/2 cups (vegetable or chicken) broth
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon all-spice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1. Melt the butter in a pot. Add the diced onion and cracked black pepper and stir, cooking for 3-4 minutes.
2. Add the carrots to the onions and stir. Pour in the 2 1/2 cups of broth and bring to a boil.
3. Cook the carrots and onions in the broth for 20 minutes.
4. Remove the broth mixture from the heat and allow it to come to room temperature. When the broth has cooled add it in batches to a blender. Puree until smooth.
5. Return the soup to the pot, adding remaining honey, all-spice, lemon juice and cumin. Taste for seasonings, adding salt and pepper as necessary.
6. Serve warm or chilled with goat cheese crumbles or a spoonful of sour cream. Can be made up to two days in advance (without garnish). Keeps well in the refrigerator.

Copper Pennies
Serves 4

3 cups carrots, sliced
3-4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons honey
orange peel, (optional)

1. Peel and slice the carrots on a bias. Add to a sauce pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
2. Boil the carrots for 2-3 minutes or until they are just fork tender.
3. Drain the carrots and set aside. Melt the butter, honey and cinnamon in the same pot. Stir until it is combined.
4. Return the carrots to the pot, turning gently to coat in the butter mixture. Serve immediately with the zest of an orange.