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Nosh: Fattoush Salad

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MMmmmmmm….fattoush salad.

I adore fattoush salad; I’ve been known to fall upon it like it was my first meal after a week of starving in the desert, and small children have been warned to stay away from me while I’m eating it. It’s that good. And sadly, it’s not terribly well known in my corner of the world.

Fattoush is a beautiful salad that features a gorgeous blend of bright, citrusy flavors, fresh herbs, and savory crisp shards of pita. It’s an amazing Middle Eastern bread salad, and it’s easy, especially as ingredients are more and more readily available, even here in my centrally isolated little burg.  I’m sure there’s some of you out there thinking, a salad is a salad, right? Raw veggies, a dressing, how exciting can it be?  I hear that, I do, and I understand that raw veggies can seem (seem!) a little…meh, OK, what else you got? But the abundant fresh vegetables serve as a healthy backdrop for a freakishly delicious dressing that, combined with fresh herbs and toasted pita, steals the show.  Here’s how to go about a fattoush dressing:

  • 4 teaspoons ground sumac, soaked in 4 teaspoons warm water for 15 minutes
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) pomegranate molasses (local peeps, you CAN get this at the grocery store)
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried mint
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt

Sumac, for those of us unfamiliar with it, is a tart spice that we could, theoretically, harvest from the tons and tons and tons of central PA sumac trees, most of which (I think) are growing in my back yard.

Yep. That stuff.

Yep. That stuff.
Photo from whittleddown.com

Soak the four teaspoons of sumac in an equal amount of warm-to-tap-water-hot water to help the flavors bloom and turn it into a tart, bright flavor base.  Don’t use boiling water; it will turn the sumac bitter. (If you added a cup full of water and then strained it, you’d have a tea, which is apparently a common drink in other parts of the world, and I’ll have to check out for a later blog.) While it’s soaking, assemble things like your lemon and mint.

This is a good start to anything, really.

This is a good start to anything, really.

And yes, of course zest the lemon first. Why wouldn’t you? Lemon zest is just deliciousness; throwing it away seems foolhardy at best.  If you have fresh mint (like I did, see above) use it, just remember to use double the amount of dried mint they ask for in the recipe since fresh herbs are less concentrated than dried ones. And if you don’t have white wine vinegar or prefer champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar (my personal favorite), feel free to use that instead.

Once the sumac has soaked for 15 minutes and everything else is chopped/zested/juiced, put it all in a small mixing bowl and whisk in some good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.  Then tinker. Maybe you want some more pomegranate molasses?  Maybe you want a splash more vinegar? Play with it until the flavors please you, then season with some salt.  The dressing can, of course, be made ahead of time and allowed to sit in your fridge or on a countertop until you’re ready to eat. I always think homemade dressings taste better after giving the flavors some time to mingle, so if you can get this done earlier in the day, bravo! Go for it. As you get closer to dinner time, prep the rest of your salad.  Heat your oven to 350°. Take two (or three, if you want one to snack on later, like I do) pita breads, put them on a cookie tray and brush their tops with some olive oil. Then season them with a dusting of za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend of sesame seeds and (more) sumac and other delicious things as well. Toss the pita in your hot oven and check them after 6 minutes.  They usually take more like 8 minutes to get crispy and golden-brown, but depending on your oven… *shrug*  And there’s no rescue for burnt pita, so check early, check often.

And you’ll get this.

*om nom nom*

*om nom nom*

You want them toasted and brown and dry enough to easily crumble, since they’re going to serve like big flat za’atar-y croutons. Oh, heavens, yes you do want that.

As far as assembling the salad goes, the “official” recipe calls for this.

  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 4 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 pound Persian cucumbers, or one 1-pound English hothouse cucumber, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 Little Gem or baby romaine lettuces, or 1 small head romaine lettuce, trimmed, cut crosswise into 3/4″ strips
  • 2 cups (loosely packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 cups purslane leaves or additional 3/4″-strips romaine lettuce
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves
  • Ground sumac (optional)

But I’m here to tell you, you can use whatever kind of vegetables you want, in whatever proportion. I recommend going heavy on the cucumber and less heavy on the scallions, and adding in some thinly sliced red onions. Personally, I’m not crazy about carrots or celery in fattoush but will say yes to radishes every time. Don’t skimp on the fresh herbs, but feel free to use whatever ones you have handy: basil, mint, chives?  Go for it.  Parsley or cilantro? Yum! I’d stay away from using fresh rosemary or oregano because I think they’d compete too heavily with the dressing, but otherwise? Play with your food! See what you like.  And I also tend to not garnish with more sumac at the end, simply because I want the dressing to shine and not become overwhelming, with the brassy addition of more sumac.  Sometimes, less is more.

When the pita has cooled and your vegetables and herbs are all chopped and in your salad bowl, crumble the pita and mix it in with the salad. Top with some dressing (yes, I always dress salads at the last minute) and…voila!

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's when I could eat this.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s when I could eat this.

The tart from the dressing combined with the freshness of the herbs and the savory crisp pita makes the flavors burst out of this salad. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t love it after the first try, so if you’re looking for ways to perk up your drive to eat more healthily, give the fattoush salad a whirl.

Enjoy!

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A Word A Week Challenge: Atmospheric

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Skinnywench over at A Word in Your Ear has issued this week’s “Word a Week Challenge“, wherein she picks a word from the dictionary at random and opens her page to fellow bloggers. I often lurk and don’t often participate, but this week the challenge is “Atmospheric” and as I am feeling moody…it’s a natural fit. Getting started.

I snapped this during a beautiful night along Penns Creek. It was the 4th of July, and we’d gone to New Berlin to watch the fireworks.

Along the river in New Berlin, July 4 2013.

Along the river in New Berlin, July 4 2013.

Central PA has its charms, for sure.

Fog rolled off of Buffalo Creek and right into my yard this summer. It was fantastic.

Kind of home-town creepy.

Kind of home-town creepy.

And then there’s sunrise at Belhurst Castle. I apparently rely heavily (but not only) on trees to help set the mood.

Gloom, schmoom. Atmospheric shots can be uplifting, too.

Gloom, schmoom. Atmospheric shots can be uplifting, too.

As nice as uplifting is, the gnarly shots are often more thought-provoking. The following (treeless) picture was taken behind an abandoned mill in Cowan, PA, and I’ve come to think it is atmospheric in the same way Mad Max is atmospheric.

Get your leathers and feathers ready. We're going Road Warrior!

Get your leathers and feathers ready, folks. We’re going Road Warrior!

And finally, crazy psycho clouds over Lake Champlain, as seen from an uncomfortably exposed balcony in Burlington VT. Wherein the atmosphere literally sets the atmosphere.

And that atmosphere is: Don'tPanicDon'tPanicDon'tPanic...

And that atmosphere is: Don’tPanicDon’tPanicDon’tPanic…

Check out the rest of the participants in Skinnywench’s challenge over at A Word in Your Ear. Thanks for stopping by!

Nosh: Falafel

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One of the truths about living in a small town in the US: if you want groovy global cuisine, you’d better learn how to make it yourself.  It’s gotten considerably more food-diverse here in the past few years so I have less and less reason to kvetch, but nonetheless there are foods I like to eat that are difficult to come by. Falafel is one of them. Raw materials = abundant. Final product = scarce. Since we are learning creatures, we adapt. We even compromise. There are not a lot of foods I’m willing to fry in my house, but falafel is one of them. Because oooh, crispy balls of fried chickpeas, how I love you so. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 16-oz bag dried chickpeas, picked through and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Candy and fat thermometer (really, you need this)

This is a recipe that requires a bit of prep work, since you need enough oil for frying, a high heat, fat-friendly thermometer, and time to soak the chickpeas overnight. Don’t use canned. Plan ahead. I also highly recommend getting a kitchen spider, if you don’t have one yet, for working with food in hot oil. Anyway.

Empty the bag of dried chickpeas into a strainer and give them the ol’ once-over to check for stray rocks that have been collected with said legumes. Rinse them, then put them in a pot and cover them by 2 inches with water. Lid, overnight, leave it alone on the stovetop, done until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the next morning...

Meanwhile, the next morning…

Next day!  Drain your swollen chickpeas. They’ll be nice and plump and definitely softer than they were, but not smooshy. Which is good; when you process them, you want them to maintain their integrity, not turn into a paste. Take cumin and coriander seeds and put them in a dry pan. Turn your heat on to medium-low and let them start to toast. In about five minutes (give or take) they’re get slightly brown and super-fragrant. Don’t wander too far away because once they reach the oh-hell-yeah fragrant part, they’re close to burning. Take them off the heat and put them in a spice grinder.  IF you don’t want to do this step–you don’t have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, you just don’t feel like, whatever–that’s fine. You can skip this part. The spices just won’t taste as “deep”. It will still be yummy.  Trust me on this one. :)

Put everything–chickpeas, and everything on the ingredient list from baking powder to fresh cilantro–into a food processor. Whirl it all together until you have a mix that is nicely ground together but not paste-y.  You may have to whirl it in batches (like I do); if that’s the case, once everything is ground to the right size then put it all in one big bowl and mix well until all ingredients are evenly combined.

Et voila!

Et voila!

See how the falafel mix is kind of nubbly and not smooth? That’s what you want. Taste it, then season with salt and pepper and give it another stir.  Roll them into ping-pong sized balls, then put them in the fridge and let them set while the oil heats up.

Of course, the oil is the fun part.

Pour 3 inches of a mild-tasting oil (vegetable, canola) into a nice, deep, heavy pot. I used this fantastic cast-iron Dutch oven my boyfriend has had for years; make sure your pot is sturdy and deep, and can provide a place to clip on a candy and fat thermometer, because you’ll need one.  Clip the thermometer to the side of your pot, making sure the end does not touch the bottom of the pot, since that will give you an inaccurate temperature reading. Turn on the heat and let the oil come up to 375°, which is the temperature you’re going to try and maintain during the cooking process (there will be more on the importance of temperature in a minute). While the oil is heating, set up your workstation. You’re working with hot oil, so you don’t want to mess around.  Get a spider so you can lower the falafel balls into hot oil and retrieve them, with as few burns as possible. Have a plate lined with paper towels as a landing pad. Have more paper towels at the ready so you can stack layers of draining falafel.

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Once the oil hits 375°, get to it. You want to maintain that temperature as consistently as possible because it will cook the falafel balls thoroughly and create a lovely crisp exterior with a nice light center, without soaking in and making heavy, greasy balls of oily chickpea meal.  If the oil gets too hot it will scorch the outside while the inside remains untouched.  If it drops too cold it will…well, see “heavy greasy balls of chickpea meal”. Both are bad outcomes.  Ideally, this is what you’ll want in a finished falafel.

Not overdone, not cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and soft inside. Yummmm!

Not overdone, just cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and green and soft inside. Yummmm!

Load up your spider with four or five falafel balls and lower them into the…

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Please be careful.

After frying each batch for 4-5 minutes, you can go from raw green falafel to beautiful fried goodness.

Dinner, in process!

Dinner, in process!

Falafel is often served as an appetizer, or in a wrap or pita with lettuce/tomato/cuke/red onion and a tahini dressing, which I love and you are more than welcome to do. BUT. What I don’t love is buying an entire can of tahini paste to make the dressing, using a small portion of it for one recipe, and let the rest go bad in my fridge. Or, I’ll feel a bizarre pressure to use it all (and experience a sense of failure when I have to throw out the gone-bad portion anyway). Who needs their dinner to shame them?  So.  We had a mid-east feast and served the falafel with a super-simple tzatziki sauce (recipe coming soon), over fattoush salad (recipe coming soon).

Dig it.

Dig it.

This recipe will make a ton of falafel and those of you cooking for one or two…or might have a large family with eaters who wouldn’t dream of eating this so you’d only be making it for yourself…cheer up! Cooked falafel freezes beautifully, so you can stash them in your freezer for months with the help of a little wax paper and an airtight container.

Enjoy!

Travel Theme: Wood

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“Wood” is the travel theme Ailsa has bestowed upon us this week at Where’s My Backpack?, and that’s just fine.  Of course, I don’t really know how much “travel” there is in my theme since I chose photos I took locally, but hey…you could travel to the bucolic splendor of central PA to feast your eyes, no?  :)  I’ve been in the car too much, right now I’m interested in staying put.  With that being said, here is my “wood” theme.  Mostly trees.

Like these ones.  Last spring George and I took a walk around Milton State Park.  The air was crisp and fresh and bright green buds were starting to come out on the trees.  (Which, for the record, is my favorite shade of green, but that’s another blog entirely.)  I stepped inside a cluster of beautiful old trees, looked straight up and saw…

Here's looking up yer old...growth...wooded areas...

Here’s looking up yer old…growth…wooded areas…

During a day driving around with my camera in my lap, I noticed this old, charmingly unkempt wooden fence, with one slat of wood warping away from the rest.

No matter what you do, wood has a mind of its own.

No matter what you do, some wood has a mind of its own.

My town has a groovy little rail trail that cuts through a bunch of rustic, scenic farmsteads.  (It helps that I’m surrounded by land that is generally rustic and scenic.)  This gorgeous wooden barn that looks like it’s straight out of a movie set is along said rail trail.  I can’t wait until it’s warm enough to ride again so I can feast my eyes upon it in real life.  Until then, the photo will do.

P.S. Those black walnut thingies really hurt when they fall and whack you in the arm.

Warning: Those black walnut thingies hurt when they fall and whack you in the arm.

And to you cold-weather riders who insist I won’t have to wait until it’s warm to ride the trail again:  No.  But thank you.  But no.

Every year, our local historical society organizes Rural Heritage Days (at least, I think it’s thanks to the UCHS; I’m happy to learn otherwise).  It’s interactive and completely family-oriented and you can learn how to twine rope and make things like lead shot.  You can also watch a man with a steam-powered lathe carve wooden table and chair legs.  I don’t know why, put I’m particularly enamored of the wood chips along his arm.

I know!  Weirdly cool, right?

I know! Weirdly cool, right?

Finally…Not that I’m dreaming of spring or anything as the cold weather has settled on central PA, but in downtown Lewisburg, one resident has a glorious magnolia tree.  It’s huge.  It sprawls across the entire yard.  And it’s one more reason that springtime in this town is extraordinary.  Flowering trees are among my favorite things but this?  Goes beyond the pale of any flowering tree I’ve ever seen.

This?  Is ALL.  One.  Tree system.

This? Is ALL. One. Tree system.

There’s my travel photos.  See you ’round town in the springtime!  :)  Enjoy the other bloggers at Ailsa’s place.

Nosh: Sweet and Spicy Brussels Sprouts

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I know they’re a trendy vegetable, but the fact is: with or without the trend, I love Brussels sprouts.  That wasn’t always true but then, that wasn’t always true for me and most vegetables.  We live, we learn.

So.  What do you do when you’re handed something that looks like this?

Fun with CSA produce!

Fun with CSA produce!

  1. Shake it like it’s a set of maracas.
  2. Check it for alien spawn.
  3. Eat it.

Happily, “eat it” is correct.  Brussels sprouts still on the stalk may look a little daunting but appearances can be deceiving.  Or…well, not deceiving, really, because I think it’s pretty obvious what you’d need to do, which is cut them off the stalk.  It’s just unfamiliar to the average US supermarket shopper. Normally, I opt to roast Brussels sprouts (with just a little soy sauce and some olive oil…yum!) BUT in the interests of branching out–one can’t live on roasted sprouts alone–I figured I’d try something that involved shredding and sauteing said sprouts.  So I made a little sweet and spicy sprout concoction, and it was one of my better ideas.  Here’s what I used:

  • 1 stalk Brussels sprouts (or a bag of, what 20 or so, for two people?)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, dry toasted*
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and black pepper to taste (and I recommend going a little heavy on black pepper, but more on that later)

*You probably won’t need the full half cup of walnuts to make this dish work, but I always prep extra because–not gonna lie–I snack on them like crazy while cooking.  Adjust accordingly.

First, cut the sprouts off the stalk and rinse them, then trim them by removing any weird, gnarly outer leaves.  You’ll go from the mutant alien arm pictured above to…

Want. To eat.

Want. To eat.

…beautiful compact mini-cabbages just waiting for you to have your way with them.  They’re much more recognizable this way, not so far a cry from the sprouts my mother used to get in those cellophane-wrapped cardboard tubs (remember those?).  Anyway.

I usually take care of toasted walnuts first, for two reasons.  Once you get them started, you can leave them alone for a couple of minutes with minimal attention while you tend to other cooking tasks (but don’t wander too far, they will burn easily) AND once they’re ready, the snacking can begin.  So.  Take your walnuts, put them in a dry pan (as in, no oil), and set them on your stove over medium heat.  Let them go–giving them the occasional shake to aid in even cooking–for five minutes or so, until they brown in spots and start to smell toasty and warm.  If you think they’re ready, then pull them from the heat, because it’s better that they’re less browned than if they’re burnt.  There’s no recipe rescue for a burnt walnut.  Once they’re done, set them aside but don’t let them sit in the pan since the residual heat from the pan can push them over the edge.  Put them in a bowl.

Commence nibbling.

Commence nibbling.

Slice the Brussels sprouts into thin ribbony bits, and don’t try and use anything fancy like a mandoline for this.  You don’t need perfectly even shreds, and you’re just asking to slice into fingertips since the sprouts are so small.  Just have at it with your knife, and while you’re at it?  Mince the garlic.  You’ll have a glorious, fluffy mound of sprouty-garlic goodness that will cook very quickly, once you get it in hot oil.

I don't know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.

I don’t know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.  Probably because I’m trying to distract you from the reality that this is not one of my best pictures, but it’s what I’ve got that fits this section of text. And I digress.

To cook: Give the shredded sprouts and garlic a stir to make sure they’re all evenly mixed. Put some olive oil in a pan that’s ready to go at a medium heat, then add in the shredded sprouts and garlic.  Add in thyme and crushed red pepper flakes, give it all a stir in the pan, and then spread it out so it’s one even layer across the pan.  Leave it alone for a three or four minutes.  You want the sprouts on the bottom to start to brown, but don’t go too far because once they brown this dish is almost done.  Give the sprout mix a stir and a shake to knock loose anything that might be adhering to the bottom of the pan and let it saute for a minute or two longer.  Stir in the honey and give that a minute to incorporate evenly through the dish, then add salt and pepper to taste and remove it from heat.  I like a lot of pepper, both for its lovely bite and for the subtle woodsy-floral component it brings.  Mix in the amount of walnuts you feel is appropriate, and kind of crumble them before tossing them in so you have big, rustic walnut chunks.  And that’s it.

You’re done.  Really.

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

The walnuts keep this dish grounded, the sprouts and garlic bring the savory, the red pepper flakes add fire and the honey balances everything with sweetness.  This could, possibly, be a perfect dish.  I’m not sure.  I’ll have to eat a lot more of it to find out.

We served this with two-way fennel and capers with pasta and a crisp green salad, and celebrated the very good fortune we have in available vegetables.  Make this.  Enjoy it.  And when Brussels sprouts stop being trendy, you can still make it and enjoy it and rattle your cane at those crazy kohlrabi-eating kids who don’t know a modern classic when they see it.

Travel Theme: Winter

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This week at Where’s My Backpack?, Ailsa’s travel theme is the seasonally appropriate “winter”.  Cool.  Pun intended.  It’s my favorite season.  Actually, they all are except for summer, of which regular readers have come to realize I am no fan.  Mostly, and especially this week, winter (for me) is nearly synonymous with Christmas, so there’s a reasonable amount of Christmas in this mix.  It’s not always about ladies in red velvety dresses with crisp white fur trim…

…except when it is.  I was recently visiting family in Myrtle Beach, who thought it would be great to go see the Carolina Opry‘s Christmas Spectacular, matinee, for my birthday (which just passed, two days after I totaled my car).  I might have been the youngest person there.  It was a delicious cheesefest.  I knew we were in for a real treat when, not ten minutes into it, Rita Gumm–the First Lady of the Carolina Opry–glided onto the stage, in a horse-drawn sleigh.

BEHOLD! Rita Gumm, the First Lady of the Carolina Opry!

BEHOLD! Winter in South Carolina.

That is some dress, my friends, red and vibrant as a Carolina sunset.  It was a Christmas miracle.

Winter for me means decorations and sparkly things, and the decorations can be elegant and beautiful or whimsical and sweet.  I love this penguin.  It was given to me by a friend and former co-worker who I adore, and we all know penguins = snow and ice and snow and ice = winter.

Yay, decorations and sparkly things to brighten up dreary winter nights!

Yay, decorations and sparkly things to brighten up dreary winter nights!

While driving down to South Carolina, we stopped in a grim little restaurant with uninspired food and faded, 1930s-era cabbage rose wallpaper in the main dining room.  I’d say what restaurant it was but I’m hoping to extort them for hush money (*cough cough* Shamrock).  Anyway.  So the food was uninteresting (I think I’m still getting over my sodium headache) and bizarrely expensive, and left me feeling as though I’d been tricked somehow.  But you know?  The surroundings, at the foot of the Catoctin Mountain Ridge?  When they were heavy with fresh snow?  Were fantastic.

Out back behind The Restaurant That Shall Remain Nameless (Shamrock).

Out back behind The Restaurant That Shall Remain Nameless (Shamrock).

Closer to home, my little ‘burg has an annual tree lighting and high-school-chorus-singing ceremony, that takes place in the town square with the frilly street lamps and the absolutely frigging enormous tree that has to be strung with fancy lights thanks to the use of a cherry picker.  Or maybe the town keeps a de-toothed bumble in the maintenance shed.  Off camera there’s a gazebo.  It’s insanely picturesque, and I live here.

Did I mention the art deco movie theater and the overall cool architecture?

Did I mention the art deco movie theater and the overall cool architecture?

And finally…

No winter in recent memory has been complete without a trip to see my former Russian professor.  She lives just outside of Boston and YES, I go north in the winter.  Judge me for it, I don’t care.  It’s the most snug and welcoming house in the world, filled with great conversation and lovely people and delicious food.  While we were there this past February it snowed big fat flakes, giving me an eye-feast from Elena’s cheerful kitchen window.

IMG_0071-001

This is one of my favorite places no matter what season, but for me? It’s extra-special in the winter.

This is a relationship in which I consider myself incredibly lucky.

Have fun checking out the rest of the participants at Ailsa’s place this week!

Nosh: Chocolate Caramel Peanut Nuggets

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First things first: the original recipe I adapted this from calls them bars, but I cut them small so they’re nuggets.  OK?  Plus, it’s cuter that way.

Anyway.  Hi!  Holiday snack creation under major way in the House of Paisley, since someone (who would be me) is way, way, waaaaaay behind in her baking this season.  I have no idea what happened.  Time just got away from me.  Anyway.  This recipe is mostly easy, though it does come with a little bit of caution.  It takes a chunk of time because it involves layers setting up in your freezer and you can’t rush that.  And, I always want people to be aware when something requires working with hot sugar, which is no joke and can cause a burn.  I worked from a recipe online (that you can find here) but altered it…beeeecause…I can’t help myself.  Here’s what I used:

  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, divided
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
  • 6 ounces white chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup peanuts (meaning, 1 cup’s worth after they’ve been removed from their shells)
  • a sprinkling of kosher or sea salt, to taste

First things first: take the cream out of your fridge and let it sit on the counter.  You really do want it to be warm…or at least warm-ish…when the time comes to use it.  Shell your peanuts.  The original recipe called for the use of salted, roasted peanuts, but I used unsalted because I am a bit of a control freak and want to determine for myself how much salt goes into a recipe.  Get 4 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate melting in a double-boiler.  Line a bread pan with baker’s parchment, and give the parchment a good shot of your favorite non-stick cooking spray.

Getting this parchment set may be the most difficult part of the process.

Getting this parchment set may be the most difficult part of the process.

When choosing the chocolate that’s currently melting, remember: you can use whatever sort of chocolate you’d like.  I used semi-sweet because it’s my favorite for desserts, and recommend against using milk chocolate because the caramel is pretty sweet and milk chocolate won’t provide any bitter balance.  I also wouldn’t use a chocolate that’s higher than 70% cacao unless you’re making this for hardcore chocofiends.  But.  Once the first four ounces of chocolate have melted, pour it into your prepared bread pan and add a sprinkling of salt over it.

Step one: complete.

Step one: complete.

Put this in the freezer to set for 15-ish minutes.  Keep your double-boiler handy, since you’re going to use it again for the second batch of chocolate.

While this is heating, gather up the peanuts and cream (measured out to 1/3 cup, so it’s ready to use).  Put the sugar and water in a sauce pot and start heating it over low-to-medium heat, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns clear.  Stir it occasionally, but not too much.  While the sugar is turning into syrup, chop the white chocolate.  You will want it to be fairly small.

Try to resist nibbling.  But go on, have a taste.  :)

Try to resist nibbling. But go on, have a taste. :)

So, peanuts, cream, white chocolate, and a heat-proof silicone stirrer, all close at hand?  Great.  Because this stage moves along fairly quickly.  Get the chocolate layer out of the freezer and have that handy, too.  When the sugar starts to look like this:

Looks like sweet toasty napalm!

Looks like sweet toasty napalm!

And by “this” I mean, golden on the edges with slow thick bubbles, then take the pot and slowly start to swirl the sugar, over heat, until it turns rich brown and smells like deep caramel.

For the love of all that is holy, resist sticking your finger in to have a taste.

For the love of all that is holy, resist sticking your finger in to have a taste.

Move this off the heat and be ready to move fast.  The cream goes in first, and it will bubble fiercely.  Don’t freak out, it’s OK, just stir it in really quickly.  Follow that with the peanuts and chocolate.  You may notice that the candy is giving some resistance; it’s cooling and trying to set, which it will do as soon as it’s able, which is why you A) don’t want to use cold cream, because the cold will make the sugar set even faster and B) need everything close by and ready for use.  Give it all a couple of stirs until everything is fully incorporated, then pour it on top of the frozen chocolate and smooth it out into a nutty layer.  Sprinkle with a little more salt, if you’re so inclined.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas noms.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas noms.

Put this back in the freezer.  Go have some lunch, because this should set for about 45 minutes.

Once your peanut layer is frozen, put the second batch of chocolate on the double-boiler.  Melt that, pour it on top, put it back in the freezer.  Leave it alone for another half an hour.  When it’s fully frozen, take it from the freezer and lift it out of the bread pan with the parchment.  Peel off the parchment and put it on a cutting board.

Like so.

Like so.

Then take your trusty chef’s knife and cut it into whatever size pieces you want.  I like bite-size, because they’re adorable and you don’t have to commit to an entire bar.  These are kind of like biting into a slightly harder Snickers, and oh…they’re so good.  Creamy, chocolately, peanutty…if you show up with these at a family event you’re sure to become the favorite niece or nephew soon enough, and work your way to the top of crazy Uncle Arthur’s will.

All is nommy and bright.

All is nommy and bright.

If only I had a crazy Uncle Arthur.

And so.  The biggest problem I find with these?  Is that they manage to get in your mouth.  Relentlessly.  :)  Enjoy!

Travel Theme: Sky

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Ailsa’s got her travel theme on at Where’s My Backpack?, and thankfully, it doesn’t have anything to do with stuffing oneself silly with turkey and mashed potatoes.

…mmmm…mashed potatoes…

Anyway. The theme this week at Ailsa’s joint is sky.  Big sky, open sky, cloudy sky, blue sky.  As you’ll see, I tend to like sky with water.  Whatever works.  And so.  With no further ado, I give you…sky.

This first picture was taken as the sun was starting to set and finally dipping below the clouds, from a hotel room looking over Seneca Lake toward the city of Geneva, NY.  I always thought the colors in this photo were vaguely ethereal, and I don’t know why but I’m totally amused by the wind turbines in the background.

Hello, pastel sunset.

Hello, pastel sunset.

The next picture was taken much closer to (my) home.  Like, in my home town.  Like, I rode my bike here to take this picture.  If you’re going to find a place full of bucolic splendor and fat, chuggy clouds, so you can catch your breath, this is the place.

Behold the mighty Susquehanna.

Behold the mighty Susquehanna River.

Gary, Indiana, presents travelers driving along Route 90 with kind of a depressing, totally industrial landscape.  The black cloud in the sky to the left of the photo just lingered…and lingered…and never dispersed.  It kind of freaked me out.

There's almost no room for sky here.

There’s almost no room for sky here.

The next photo was taken during a crazy-windy day at Grand Marais along the North Shore of Lake Superior.  I like that the clouds here look like waves, almost.  As it is on the ground, so it goes in the sky, too.

Water, water everywhere.

Water, water everywhere.

And finally, this picture was taken in Burlington, VT, while the weather on Lake Champlain was experiencing a totally split personality.  You’ll see.

Even the Lake Champlain monster stayed under cover.

Even the Lake Champlain monster stayed under cover.

What sky shots do you have?

Enjoy the travel theme!  See you ’round Ailsa’s place.

Nosh: Tangerine Butter Cookies

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It’s baking season! It’s baking season! I mean, yeah, the holidays are coming and Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and it’s late this year so Christmas is hot on its heels. But whatever.  It’s baking season! It’s baking season!

I don’t know why I don’t bake more often.  Clearly I enjoy it.  And I’m pretty good at it.  But, you know.  Ovens…measuring.  Pfft!  Who needs it?  (Other than people who want to make accurate recipes or care about things like proportion, but I digress.) My first cookies for the year were these beautiful, rich, citrusy tangerine butter cookies.  This is a gorgeous recipe.  It’s crisp, it’s satisfying, it’s got a great, round mouthfeel and it’s slightly savory from olive oil (and perhaps an additional thing or two).   As it is baking and successful baking relies largely on successful manipulation of chemistry, I deviated only slightly from the recipe.  I’ll just fill you in as we sit here and discuss.  Anyway.  Let’s get started. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 3/4 cup  butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups  sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon  salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons  finely shredded tangerine peel or orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon  vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon  orange extract
  • 3/4 cup  olive oil
  • 1/2 cup  white cornmeal
  • 4 cups  all-purpose (AP) flour
  • 1/2 cup  sugar

Get out a large mixing bowl and an electric mixer (or stand mixer…or wooden spoon).  Gather up the first five ingredients (butter, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt) and have them ready to roll.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

The butter should be nice and soft so it will cream easily, which is a pretty way of saying it can be whipped into pillowy peaks; this should only take you about a minute.  I used a big bowl and a hand mixer; a stand mixer would also do the trick.  If you only have a whisk you’ll face a hearty workout for your stirring arm, but it can be done since your ingredients are so pliant.  The butter shouldn’t be liquid, but it should be entirely squishable.  Once it’s whipped, add the sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt, then cream all that together until it looks fluffy and the butter’s turned a lighter color.  Then get ready to add the flavorings.

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

I have the shredded zest from two tangerines sitting in a bowl with the orange and vanilla extracts.  I thought it would be fun to let those flavors mingle.  And, know how I always warn that you should crack eggs into a small bowl and then into a batter so you can easily pick out a piece of eggshell if it chips off?  Today I was grateful that I took my own advice.  I did, indeed, have to pick out a bit of shell, which is so much easier to spot and retrieve in a small cup than in a large mixture.  And who wants sharp, crunchy eggshell cookies?  Not this girl.  Beat in the eggs and extracts and then…. I knew that things like cornmeal and olive oil were waiting in the wings to get used, so I also knew this cookie could stand up to a little savory manipulation.  Here’s where I get all crazy-like.  I added a teaspoon of coriander because I think it plays incredibly nicely with citrus (and the orange family in particular) and a few grinds of fresh-ground black pepper.  The black pepper flakes look interesting, and it adds a slightly spicy, savory undercurrent.  If pressed for a measurement, I’d say it was no more than a (scant) half-teaspoon.

Then beat in the olive oil, followed by the cornmeal and then the AP flour (which, as its name indicates, is general-use, generic building block flour, and I think outside the US it’s called “plain flour”, FYI), which should be added in incrementally.  If your beaters start to labor while adding the flour, make sure you mix the rest of it in by hand.  You’ll end up with a thick pile of dough that’s surprisingly soft and malleable.

...and I can't do a thing with it.

Truth: my cat goes berserk over raw dough. I have to put him outside when I bake.

Notice how it pulls cleanly up off the sides of the bowl?  Perfect.  Cover your dough mound with plastic wrap and let it chill in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes.  It can sit overnight (like mine did). When you’re ready to make your cookies, set up your mise en place, which basically means get yourself organized to process food efficiently.  Lay the recipe nearby for easy reference, set up your bowl with finishing sugar (I used two different colors because…holiday…festive…but you can use regular granulated sugar and that’s just fine), your cookie trays, and take the dough out of the fridge.

I know all y'all covet my turkey.

I know all y’all covet my turkey.

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Then stick your impeccably clean, freshly washed hands into the dough and roll roll roll.  You want dough balls that are about an inch across.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Line them up on the ungreased cookie sheets (because who needs to grease a sheet when you’re making cookies that are mostly butter and olive oil?  No one, that’s who).  The recipe wants you to make an X-pattern in the top of the dough by pressing a toothpick flat into the dough; first one arm of the X, then the other.  It does look nice.  Sounds time-consuming.  If you happen to have something–like a wire beater from your hand mixer–with a conveniently-X’ed butt end, press that into the cookie instead.

Work smarter, not harder.

Work smarter, not harder.

And bake, 9-11 minutes in the 350° oven.  My oven heats unevenly and it’s always hottest in the back, so I have to rotate my cookies once half-way through.  It’s always good to check, anyway.  When you’re finished…

Life = good.

Life = good.

You’ll find yourself with rich, beautiful, delicious, buttery-zesty cookies that freeze well, so they’re easy to make ahead for the holidays.  And this recipe makes a ton of cookies so you can give them to a bunch of people.  And it’s easy to mix and adaptable to your lifestyle, so you can park the dough overnight if you realize you don’t have adequate baking and cooling time.  Score!  This recipe rocks.

Enjoy!

Nosh: Roasted Spiced Beets and Sauteed Beet Greens

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What do you do when you have a beautiful batch of beetses?

Are they tasty, Precious?

Are they tasty, Precious?

We got these from our CSA and they were totally gorgeous.  Plus, somewhere along the line (and I really don’t remember how) we ended up with extra beet greens.  So.  Beautiful beets, and a ton of beet greens; this sounds like the beginnings of a feast to me.

I love…LOVE…LOVE roasted beets (as I’m sure you may have noticed from previous posts) but the thing about them is, they’re so distinct in their flavor I often find that recipes don’t do much other than emphasize their beety goodness.  Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you.  But, you know.  Beets is beets.

However.

My restless search for beet diversity paid off handsomely when I came across this recipe, which plays on different nuances of the flavor of the noble beet.  Of course, because I am me, I had to change it a little, largely because who has fresh lemon thyme laying around?  (OK, I know some people do, but I don’t.)  And I wanted a peppery bite because I totally dig the interplay between cinnamon and black pepper.  Here’s what I used.

For the beets:

  • 2 cups of beets (-ish, that’s hard to measure, it may have been more like 2.5 cups, but ultimately, use what you’ve got), trimmed and peeled and cut into thick wedges
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper (admittedly this can be a little intense, so if you’re not ready for that much black pepper, be kind to yourself)
  • 1/4 tsp (or more, to taste) Aleppo pepper/crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp each Balsamic and red wine vinegar
  • salt to taste

For the greens:

  • One large bunch beet greens, with leaves separated from thicker stalks (this saute would also work nicely with Swiss chard, FYI)
  • Half a medium yellow onion
  • As much garlic as you’d like (I generally use 3-4 cloves)
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 c veggie broth/water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and drain your beet greens and stalks, and then set them off to the side because you won’t need them for a while.  Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Scrub, peel, and trim the beets, then cut them into nice thick chunks.  Be forewarned…beets have…you know…THAT quality, wherein the beet juice will get all over your hands and the cutting board if you don’t coat yourself in rubber and…oh, GOD, the stains, the stains…

Really, I’ve discovered that beet juice stains are not so tragic.  It washes out.  If you don’t have a plastic cutting board and rubber gloves to protect against stains, then do yourself a favor: Don’t panic.

Toss your chopped beets into a baking dish.

Ooh, chunky.

Ooh, chunky.

Aren’t they pretty?  I think they’re kind of bad-ass.  Anyway.  Once your beets are in the roasting pan, add in everything else.  Yes, everything else that is beet (not greens) specific, and toss it with a nice glug of oil.

Yup. That's it.

Yup. That’s it.

And into the oven wit’ ye!

Not bad.

Let these cook for 25-30 minutes, turning once halfway through the cooking time.

While they’re in the oven, turn your attention to your beet greens.  I love beet greens!  The sweet flavor of the beets is somewhat preserved in the greens (primarily in the red stalks) but there’s also the peppery bitterness that you find in all good greens.  They’re an awesome flavor package.  Beet greens are nutritional powerhouses (as opposed to rhubarb greens, which can kill you), packed with Vitamins A, C, and K, and are also a good source of calcium for those looking for non-dairy calcium sources.

Yes, you can get calcium from something other than milk. No, you don’t need a supplement if you eat right.  Moving on.

Cut the onion into a small-ish dice and chop your garlic.  Get them off the cutting board if you don’t have a spacious one; chopping large amounts of greens can take up a lot of room, so you’ll need as much choppable workspace as possible.  Take your rinsed and drained greens and separate the stalks from the leaves–both are perfectly edible, but the stalks are thicker so you need to start their cooking earlier and give them a few extra minutes.

Just hack away, where the leaf meets the stem. Done!

Just hack away, where the leaf meets the stem. Done!

Start the onions and garlic sauteing with some salt and pepper, and after a minute or two add thyme.  Chop the stalks into delicious bite-sized morsels and then?  Once the onions are nice and soft and translucent?

You know what fate awaits these beet stalks.  NO MERCY!

You know what fate awaits these beet stalks. NO MERCY!

Oh, yeah.  Don’t forget to use a nice, roomy pan that you can cover, because there’s a lot of stuff you’re going to try and cook and later you need a lid.  So.  Beet green stalks are in the pan, getting chummy with the onions and garlic.  Start on your leaves.

The easiest way to chop leaves like this is to stack them and cut them into ribbons.  If you want smaller greens after that then have at it with your kitchen knife.  What can I say?  It’s not rocket surgery.

Give the stalks a few minutes to cook in with the onions, and by a few I mean a few.  No more than five minutes, really.  Then toss in your greens, and sprinkle nutmeg (or freshly grate it if you have the whole nut and a handy microplane) and a shot of salt and pepper on the greens.  Give it a stir and let them saute.

Almost home, my brothers and sisters.

Almost home, my brothers and sisters.

They’ll probably start to sound kind of loud and angry pretty quickly as the water cooks out of them, which is fine, but don’t let that go on for more than a minute or two, because you want to make use of their moisture (plus some).  Give another stir to make sure nothing’s stuck to the bottom of the pan, then add the 1/4 cup broth, put the lid on the pan, and remove it from heat.  The objective is to let the greens finish cooking in their own steam.  If the rest of the dinner is still cooking and you aren’t ready to eat the greens after a few minutes of steaming, knock the lid back so the steam can escape.

Put it all together.  If you can put it on polenta, it’s a happy day!  When corn (polenta is corn, after all) and beets get together, they pull out each other’s green grassiness.  When that’s combined with the sweet and the cinnamon and the pepper and the bitter-ish crunch?  OMG yes.

THAT is what I'm talking about!

THAT is what I’m talking about!

We ate this with Baked Pumpkin with Yogurt Sauce, roasted parsnips (recipe coming soon) and George’s extraordinarily delicious polenta, which is his specialty so you may have to ask him how to make it.  I’ve never done it.  He’s good at it.  Win!

Do you have a favorite way to eat beets?  And do you always eat the greens?

Enjoy!

XOXO —  Terri