Tag Archives: Holidays

Earth Day 2012

Every day is earth day here in the Bounteous household…but for the rest of the world, Sunday is your opportunity to give back to the planet!  Here are a few ideas to get you started…
Beautify your community.  Take a look at your newspaper, or google around for some ideas and inspiration — many organizations will sponsor tree plantings, beach cleanups, and other volunteer opportunities to get your hands dirty, feet wet and the feeling of having contributed to make your world a better place.  Here in the DC area, the Anacostia Watershed Society will be sponsoring cleanups throughout DC, Montgomery and PG counties.  The Casey Trees Foundation sponsors tree plantings all the time throughout the region.

Commit to learning.  Ever wanted to take a workshop on butterfly gardening?  Composting?  Urban chicken raising?  Earth Day is a great day for your environmental resolutions.

New habits.  Continuing along the new Green Resolution theme…choose one thing for the earth you will start to incorporate into your routine.  Maybe you can commit to meatless Mondays, start recycling, bike to work at least once a week, switch your coffee to shade-grown, fair trade…Rome wasn’t built in a day; choose just one habit to begin with and let it slowly build into a more sustainable lifestyle.

I will be joining some friends this weekend at the Baltimore Eco-fest and hope to check out some of their vendors and activities, such as tree plantings, nature walks and workshops!

How will you be celebrating Earth Day 2012?

-R

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Irish Soda Bread

A day late, yes, but this is a recipe you’ll want to have all year.  Sweet but not too sweet, dense and crumbly and yet moist, with the surprising flavor of caraway seed, this bread is just irresistible.

Irish soda bread is often so dry, dense, and sweet, I can’t say I’ve always been a fan.  But when this version was served at a work function last week, I  knew I had to get the recipe.  It had been adapted over generations, brought over from Ireland, and finally translated into replicable measurements.  I made a batch this morning to take to my ailing grandmother who has just been released from the hospital.  I think half the loaf was gone before I left from my visit!

Irish Soda Bread

Ingredients
1/4 lb (one full stick) butter, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons caraway seed
1.5 cups buttermilk
1 cup raisins

Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add raisins, turn off heat.

Cream butter and sugar together with a mixer.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and caraway seed in a separate bowl.

Once the butter is creamed, begin slowly adding the dry ingredients and then the buttermilk, alternating between the two about three times total, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Finally, strain the raisins and mix those in until everything is combined.

Turn into a well-greased loaf pan and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes-one hour — until the bread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Bread?  Appetizer?  Dessert?  All of the above :).

-R

Christmas recap

Greetings!  I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.  As promised, here is a run-down of the recipes, successes and failures of our 2010 Christmas Eve dinner.

Appetizers

For this we just put out a plate of assorted cheeses.  The only thing that required any assembly was brie wrapped in phyllo.  Just stack 4 sheets of thawed phyllo, brushing melted butter between each one, place a round of brie in the center and wrap it together.  I baked this in my toaster oven for about 30 minutes, until brown and crisp.  Top with a fig spread.

Beverage

Beyond the usual beer and wine, I prepared some wassail in the slow cooker several hours before guests began to arrive.  Combine about two parts apple cider to one part cranberry juice — the amounts are not exact and depend on how sweet the juice is.  Just pour a gallon or so of apple cider into your slow cooker or stovetop, and add cranberry juice, tasting after each addition until it is the desired tartness.
Add a few cinnamon sticks, clementine or lemon slices, a bay leaf, a few cloves and balls of allspice.  Use a mulling ball or cheesecloth tied together with kitchen twine to hold the spices.   Simmer for a few hours and serve with some dark rum.

Main course

The centerpiece of this year’s dinner was a classic beef wellington — inspired by this spread in the latest issue of Fine Cooking.  I obviously did not try it but thought the assembly was kind of neat.

It first involves making a madeira sauce.  Mr. R  made the beef stock himself several days earlier.  It is quite simple but you do need to dedicate several hours of simmering on the stovetop, as well as a lot of room in your freezer.  I do think you could make the stock in a large slow cooker, however, if you don’t have the time to attend to a simmering pot all day.

Mr. R also made the paté, crêpes, and puff pastry from scratch.  Puréeing chicken livers is not a task for the faint of heart, but most of the guests were surprised that while they don’t normally enjoy eating internal organs, the paté meshed quite well with the beef.

The crêpes were not difficult to make and can keep several days, stacked between pieces of parchment paper.  They prevent the puff pastry from getting soggy.

Most recipes recommend purchasing frozen puff pastry, but I suppose Mr. R wanted to up the ante.  At the last minute he decided to give making it from scratch a try.  If you’re comfortable working with dough it isn’t hard, but again, it just requires a stretch of several hours to complete.  By layering butter between sheets of flour, the pastry will “puff” up during the baking process as a result of the steam created by the butter.  The butter must be soft enough to work with without melting, so the dough must be chilled for 30-60 minutes between each step.  Here is a video tutorial.

Assembling the beef wellington

The seared beef is wrapped in crêpes that have been spread with paté.

And then that is wrapped in the puff pastry.

It is kind of a two-person job…

The wrapped beef is then cooked according to instructions.

Side courses

I have made orechiette with roasted brussels sprouts and pecans before, and felt it would go well with the rest of our menu.  As before, I used significantly less cream, thinning with stock and wine, but this time I switched out the gorgonzola entirely for parmesan.

I also made mashed parsnips, loosely following this recipe (added some roasted garlic).  I have never cooked with parsnips before but kept hearing about how they are a healthier alternative to potatoes.  They look like white carrots and have a kind of peppery-sweet flavor.

I am not a huge fan of mashed potatoes to begin with, as they are so bland, and rather preferred the more complex flavor of parsnips.  But I guess some are just partial to their potatoes and so this dish didn’t make much of an impression on guests.

Finally, we made some pears stuffed with gorgonzola and hazelnuts, served on a mâche salad.  I thought these tasted good, but more like a dessert to me. They certainly looked pretty on the table, though.

Dessert

The centerpiece of our dessert table was a croquembouche, a traditional french tower of profiteroles (creme puffs) coated with caramel.  It wasn’t difficult but required some techniques that were new to me  — I’d definitely recommend watching the video that goes along with this recipe, which is the one we followed.

The profiteroles were totally different than any kind of sweet I’ve ever made — but I thought they were so cool!  I piped them right on a cookie sheet (didn’t have a half-inch tip so I just used the bag alone) and they magically came out of the oven all puffy.

I filled them with a small tip, and thought it was kind of difficult to gauge how much to fill them.  Luckily this recipe makes plenty of extra profiteroles and so there is room to make mistakes.

Mr. R and I made a bunch of different cookies.  I had been hoping to dedicate some space to each one but I have honestly lost track!  Here are some of the highlights:

Strawberry Tart Cookies — so good with homemade strawberry jam!
–  Rum balls — a hit with the kids, surprisingly

Chocolate chunk cookies with nutella –#4 on this page.  Instead of nutella, which we thought would be too chocolatey, Mr. R pureed hazelnuts until they made a paste.  Delicious!Spicy cheddar thumbprints — #24. These were an awesome savory cookie.

And of course, we served our ginger-pear pie — I really enjoyed it!

So all in all I would say our Christmas dinner was a success — now, however, it is time to detox from the sugar and butter overload and get back into a healthy routine.  Happy holidays to everyone!

-R

 

The twelve days of PIE

My husband has become something of a pie connoisseur over the past few years.  While it is no secret that baking is not my forte, I have happily enjoyed the results of Mr. R’s culinary pursuits in the art of pastry.

And so as a tribute to his passion for pie-making, and in conjunction with the holidays (and the completion of his third semester of law school) we have decided in these last two weeks before Christmas to conduct the Twelve Days of Pie.  That’s right, beginning tomorrow, we will bake a pie daily until Christmas spanning everything from classic favorites to new twists on traditional recipes, from healthy, savory pies to completely decadent, buttery treats.  And then post about it here.

So get ready!

But first, a primer on the most important and defining aspect of pie:  the crust.

Pies have been a part of our diets at least as far back as we have written record of what human civilizations have consumed.  There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians ate a primitive sort of pie involving items mixed into a dough, and the ancient Romans are believed to have created the more recognizable form of pie crust known today.  In the days before kitchen utensils and cooking wares, dough was used as the primary vessel in which food was cooked and served.  It fulfilled a highly functional purpose and was likely not terribly tasty.  But after several centuries, numerous cultural interpretations, and the advent of the modern kitchen, the creation of a pie crust has become something of an art form.

When baking a pie, despite whatever filling you choose, the crust is always the common denominator.  It can truly make or break a recipe and elevate an otherwise forgettable pie to something of the divine.  So allow me to begin by imploring you to resist the temptation to use pre-made pie crusts.

Actually, let me say that again.

Do not ever use a pre-made pie crust!

Yes, making pie dough from scratch and rolling it out into perfection is intimidating and takes a bit of practice.  Do not expect your first attempt to look particularly attractive.  But I promise you it will taste 100 times better than whatever kind of crap they stock in the freezer of your local supermarket.

Just as a reference, here are the ingredients in a Pillsbury frozen pie crust:

Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Partially Hydrogenated Lard (Adds a Trivial Amount of Trans Fat) with BHA and BHT Added to Protect Flavor, Water, Sugar, Whey, Salt, Baking Soda, Sodium Metabisulfite (Preservative), Colored with Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Um, gross.

Even the most organic, natural, highest-rated pre-made pie crust I could find contains palm oil.  Palm oil! Not going to get into that issue right now, but I think I’d rather have butter myself…

Really, the results of making your own crust from scratch will be worth the effort.

The following instructions are adapted primarily from the book Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal.  This book is Mr. R’s go-to resource for many of the pastry recipes he makes and you are likely find it open on our counter on any given day of the week.

Alton Brown also has a good tutorial on making pie crust (though his ingredients differ significantly):

Pie crust
yields two single or one double crust

Ingredients

3 Cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, chilled
4 Tablespoons shortening
7 Tablespoons cold water

Instructions

Preparing the dough
Sift together flour and salt.  Cut chilled butter and shortening into pieces and mix into flour by hand until fully combined (Alton Brown uses a food processor for this part).  Texture will still be coarse and only slightly less dry.  Avoid overworking; you want the butter to remain cold (re-chill in refrigerator if this happens).

Keep a bowl of icewater next to you and work it in, tablespoon-by-tablespoon.

When dough is complete, divide into two pieces, wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes.  Dough can also be chilled overnight or even frozen, but will be a bit harder to work with.

Rolling out the dough
Remove one piece of dough from fridge and turn out one piece onto a lightly floured surface.  You want to avoid using too much flour, which will dry out the dough, but do use enough to prevent sticking.

We have a silicone mat for this purpose which helps prevent sticking and over-flouring.

If dough is very hard (such as after freezing) you may need to knead the edges a bit to get it going.  When it is soft enough to roll out, sprinkle with a bit of flour, and press outward, not down.

Dough can be quite finicky; sometimes, as in the above picture, it is easy to work with, and other times, as below, it is difficult.  It depends on a multitude of factors, such as how long you knead it, how long it has chilled, or even the ambient temperature and humidity.  Don’t get discouraged if your dough looks more like the second picture — this crust had been frozen, which exacerbates the cracking — no one can tell the difference once the pie is assembled.

You may wish to shift the dough around or turn over, to prevent sticking and ensure even rolling.

Roll out until it is roughly a circle with a 13.5 inch diameter.

Again, do not worry about aesthetics.  The results will be the same whether you have a beautifully crimped crust or one that took a little finagling.

Assembling the pie
Fold the crust in half, and then into quarters, so that you can easily center it over a pie pan.

Press the pie into the pan.  If pieces have torn or broken off, don’t fret — just stick them back together.

Trim the edges as necessary and use them to patch up any holes or cracks.  For a decorative look, crimp with a fork or with your fingers like so:

For most pies, simply pour the filling into the pan and bake per the instructions of the recipe.

Some recipes, however, do call for a partially or completely pre-baked crust.  To pre-bake a crust, just line the bottom with a piece of foil and add some dried beans or rice to weigh it down.  Bake at 450 for 8 minutes, remove, and prick bottom all over with a fork. Return to oven for another 8 minutes and remove for a partially baked shell.  If the recipe calls for a fully baked crust, first check if any more pricks are needed (crust is puffing up excessively), and then bake for a final 8 minutes.

See?  It’s not so bad.  One bite into that pie and you will be so thankful you took the time to make the crust yourself.

-R (and Mr. R)

Thanksgiving Recap

How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?  Mr. R and I had a lovely time with his family and are now back home — and gearing up for the next holiday!

Each year my inlaws take care of the traditional foods — turkey, mashed potatoes, etc — and Mr. R and I experiment with some new sides and desserts.  Here is a recap of some of the dishes that really worked.

Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good

This recipe was AWESOME.  We will definitely make this again.

Find a medium-sized pumpkin intended for carving (a pie pumpkin will not have a large enough cavity) and stuff it with deliciousness.  You may want to select one a few weeks in advance; it seems stores cleared out their pumpkin inventory right before Thanksgiving and we had a difficult time tracking one down at the last minute.

Cut off the top and clear out all the seeds and pith.  Season inside with salt and pepper.

Combine bread cubes, cheeses, garlic and spices.

Mix cream and nutmeg and pour into pumpkins.

Replace cap and bake for 2 hours.  Remove from oven CAREFULLY and serve on a platter.  Be sure to get some of the pumpkin flesh as you serve it!

Vegetarian gravy

I am really the only one who eats this and in the past we have always had store-bought varieties.  But I decided to make it myself this year.  After perusing myriad recipes I came up with this one:

Ingredients
1 1oz package dried woodland mushrooms
2 large or 3 small shallots
1 dried chipotle chili
3 cups vegetable broth
3T butter
3T flour
1T marsala wine
Salt, pepper to taste

Directions
Rehydrate mushrooms and chili in warmed vegetable broth for about 20 minutes, then bring to a simmer for 5 minutes more.

In the meantime, chop the shallots and measure out other ingredients.

When mushrooms are done, strain, reserve broth, chop mushrooms into small pieces and discard the chili.

Saute shallots and mushrooms for several minutes in a small saucepan.  Deglaze pan with marsala wine.  Add reserved broth and keep warm.

Make roux:  heat 3T butter and add in 3T flour.  Whisk together until brown.

Whisk in broth with shallots and mushrooms and continue to stir until thickened, about 5-10 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Yum!

Dessert

Mr. R made some beautiful pies:

Pecan in the foreground, derby to the left, and pumpkin pie in the rear.

I will have to make a separate post on these very soon.

And now it is time to start planning for Christmas!  What new recipes will you be trying this year?

-R

 

 

 

 

A green Thanksgiving

The last of the leaves are falling and harvest season is here

A week from today, like most Americans, I will be joining friends and family for a hearty meal that symbolizes our communal gratitude for all of life’s blessings this year.  As we think about the many things we are thankful for, this holiday is also a wonderful opportunity to consider the larger impact of our actions and promise to give back in a mindful and sustainable way.

Luckily, celebrating a green Thanksgiving is not difficult — most of the traditional foods are seasonal and easily obtained locally.  And remember, every small effort counts — it’s not necessary to banish every last ingredient that wasn’t obtained within 100 miles!  I mean, how could you make a pumpkin pie without cinnamon?  Regardless, choosing local products whenever possible, cooking with real ingredients, and insisting on humanely raised meats makes a difference in creating a healthier, cleaner, kinder world.

Mr. R and I spend each Thanksgiving with his family, and thus, while we love to help out, we usually defer to their traditions.  As much as I enjoy food and cooking, however, it is hard not to compare and contrast all the advice, recipes, table settings and menus that pop up in stores, online, and in publications this time of year.  I picked up the book The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Ideas to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition by Diane Morgan the other day, unable to resist the absolutely delectable ideas for everything from appetizers to desserts — even table decor.  Of course, the most recognizable symbol of Thanksgiving is the turkey.

The turkey
I am a vegetarian — it is a decision I made long ago for reasons that become less and less clear as time goes on. 🙂  The meat industry has one of the largest ecological footprints imaginable, and here in Maryland, the poultry industry is a particularly egregious source of Chesapeake Bay pollutants.  From an ethical standpoint, however, I personally do not have a problem with consuming sustainably and humanely raised animals from local farms that take responsibility for properly managing the waste products.  From a health standpoint, free range animals fed a natural diet are less susceptible to disease and do not require routine, non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, saving these drugs from the development of resistant strains of bacteria.

You cannot always trust what you find in your grocery stores — unlike the label “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, “free-range,” “natural” and other eco buzz words have no legal meaning, and can be slapped on the packaging of just about anything without any serious repercussions.  That is why it is best to order your turkey directly from a local farm, where you can see the conditions in person and be guaranteed of what you’re purchasing.  You’ll also be supporting local farmers and helping to preserve traditional techniques and heirloom varieties.

While this meat may be more expensive, remember that it is taking into account the true cost of meat production to society.  Your wallet may save by purchasing industrial meat — but the costs do not disappear. They are just are shifted elsewhere, manifesting as environmental degradation, health problems, and socioeconomic inequality.  Not exactly the kind of symbolism I’d like on my Thanksgiving table.

Preparation
I obviously don’t know much about preparing turkey — though I know that most purists would consider brining to be essential.  I do know that many have concerns about sodium intake, and to what extent brining meats adds to our daily sodium totals.

First of all, it is important to remember that only about 10% of the sodium consumed by Americans is added during cooking or at the table.  The vast majority is found in processed and pre-made foods (source).  If you are making most of your Thanksgiving dishes from scratch, you probably don’t have to worry about exceeding your daily sodium limits (just be careful when using certain premade ingredients such as stock, canned tomatoes, etc.  Check the sodium amounts on the nutrition label and choose the ones with the lowest percentages.  Making your own low-sodium stock is also fairly easy, not to mention much more flavorful than store-bought).  Nonetheless, if you are on a sodium-restricted diet, brining may be something to take into consideration.  Here is an article from Cooks Illustrated that explains the results of a lab analysis of sodium content of brined meats.  According to this article, on average, one serving of brined meat had about 1/8 teaspoon of salt, which is about 1/8 of the daily recommended maximum.

Side dishes

Pasta with roasted brussels sprouts

As a vegetarian, the sides are my main course at Thanksgiving.  I was very pleased to see a whole section dedicated to vegetarian dishes in the book mentioned above — from acorn squashes stuffed with veggies and wild rice, pumpkin lasagna, and butternut squash pastitsio.  I’ve also made my several of the dishes I’ve posted on this blog for Thanksgiving and other fall family gatherings, including curry spiced butternut squash soup, pasta with roasted brussels sprouts, pasta with kale and lentils, and delicata squash soup.

I am also pretty excited about some of the recipes provided here:  Well’s Vegetarian Thanksgiving, which includes a number of dairy and gluten free recipes as well.
So many ingredients are still available locally:  all kinds of winter squash, potatoes, greens, broccoli and cabbage, chestnuts…the list goes on.  Featuring at least one side dish that highlights local produce would be a wonderful way to show your gratitude for the local farmers who work hard to put food on our tables.

Dessert
What would Thanksgiving be without pumpkin pie?  While most default to using canned pumpkin purée, you can again support your local farmers by getting the real thing.  At my farmer’s market last week, one vendor showed me a couple heirloom varieties that are perfect for recipes:  cinderella and Australian blue.  She said these have much lower fiber and moisture content than your average decorative pumpkin — just cut them apart, remove the seeds, bake them an hour or two until tender, and scoop out the flesh.  Moisture content can vary so you may want to cook down the purée before adding it to any recipe.

Cinderella (rear) and Australian blue pumpkins

My husband is truly the baker extraordinaire in my family, and maybe I can coerce him into typing up a guest entry on creating the perfect Thanksgiving pie.  Until then, peruse this collection of Thanksgiving pies and tarts — plenty of classic recipes as well as new twists that I can’t wait to try!

Well now I am even more eagerly anticipating the holiday.  I hope everyone enjoys a safe, happy and GREEN Thanksgiving this year!

-R

Halloween!

I love holidays.  Any excuse to indulge in sugary confections and partake in somewhat silly traditions (see above jack-o-lantern) is okay in my book!  With the temperatures dropping rapidly, whipping up a warm batch of cookies is always a nice distraction.

To be honest, baking is definitely not my forte — I’m just not one for following directions —  but I can never resist the lure of cutesy decorated sugar cookies.  Mr. R and I make them every year at Christmas, but this year, inspired by this blog post, I decided to make some for Halloween as well.

I use Alton Brown’s sugar cookie recipe, which is simple enough, and roll them out with the help of these rubber bands and a heavy-duty rolling pin.  And of course, copious amounts of powdered sugar.

I picked up pumpkin and ghost cookie cutters, and then used a biscuit cutter to make circles.

I used this method of making and decorating with royal icing.  I have tried numerous royal icing recipes and this one has been the most successful for me.  You just have to be careful not to add too much water (as you can see from the sloppy leaves on the pumpkins below!) I don’t have any special decorating equipment; I just used a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner and some plastic squeeze bottles.  I am not the most artistically inclined person, so maybe investing in a real icing bag with piping tips would help?  Maybe some day.

Perhaps not professional quality, but still delicious!

I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have any black food coloring — but, randomly, did have black sprinkles!  These sugar cookies are so sweet and fluffy, and just melt in your mouth.  Mmmmmm.

Well given the number of Alton Brown recipes  I post in this blog, I suppose I have revealed myself as an avid follower of Good Eats.  Watching his latest Halloween episode the other night, I was astonished to see him MAKE candy corn!  I didn’t even know that was possible!  Obviously, I had to try it.

Here is the recipe.  I have never ventured into the art of making candy before.  But this looked simple enough. Heat some sugar to 230 degrees, and add yet more sugar to make a candy “dough.”

Divide into three sections, add food coloring, roll into snakes, press together, and slice!

The reality was a bit harder than he made it seem on the show.  The dough quickly hardened and was difficult to work with toward the end. I am not sure if something went wrong in the prep, or if that is how it is supposed to be.

Either way, I thought the candy corn was delicious — a bit harder and chewier than store-bought, but it had a lovely flavor that certainly surpassed that of the soy protein,  “confectioner’s glaze” (what on earth is that??), dextrose, artificial flavor, and titanium dioxide that comprise your average candy corn.

Well I may have a stomach ache tomorrow after all these sweets, but it will be so worth it.  I hope that everyone is enjoying a safe and happy Halloween!

-R