Friday, January 29, 2010

A Carnival Mexican Style







Picture this; Lady Gaga and Kesha blasting from speakers the size of small houses, a guy yelling into those speakers, "chicas, chicas, chicas", a plethora of neon lights everywhere and women encased in tight clothing with high heels that would make stilts look like child's play. Where was I? I know the first thing that comes to mind is a child's carnival, no? Well, a child's carnival was indeed where I was and let me just say, they don't fool around with in your face fun. Having been in my fair share of dance clubs, the lights, music and people mixed with a million little kids running around was a little disconcerting.

So, after I got past my initial twilight zone confusion upon arrival at this extravaganza, I was able to focus on what I always focus on in any venue, food. I was absolutely fascinated by their snack carts piled high with caramelized bananas, fresh strawberries in tiered rows, enormous fluffy pancakes, hot dogs wrapped in fried soft dough, popcorn and cheese puffs inside bags that were big enough to hold a week's worth of laundry. Upon ordering, fruits and pancakes were doused in a sweetened cream sauce, more fruit was added on top of that, sprinkled with cinnamon and hit with a layer of chocolate. If you have never had a huge fluffy pancake with caramelized bananas on top and smothered in cream, chocolate and cinnamon, run out right now and get on it. It was a messy pile of excessively sweet fun that I could not get enough of. The fact that I was eating this while drinking beer made it a little weird but I like that they mix the morning after food with the night before drinks and make no apologies.

A fiesta loco and so much fun!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mom's Rockin' Guacamole




As my friends and family know, I have a tendency to talk down my Mom's cooking. I love my Mom to pieces but she would take her garden any day of the week over cooking. The beauty of her gardening obsession and her blasé attitude toward cooking is that she hides her disinterest so very well. Over the years, I have seen her host numerous dinner parties, family gatherings, impromptu visits from friends and of course, the dinner she made for my Dad, my Brother and me on a nightly basis. Throughout it all, I never saw her call a caterer, call in extra help, or buy a pre-made meal; she always did it all herself and it was always wonderful. So yes, she can cook but make no mistake, her heart is in her fabulous garden.

So, all of that said, my Mom has been spending her winters in Mexico for a few years now and she has amassed a treasure trove of Mexican friends who have guided her in making this guacamole; add a little of this, take out that, etc. So she has been coached and the result is some serious rockin' guac. Enjoy!

Rockin' Guacamole courtesy of my Rockin' Mom, Linda Jones.

Ingredients:

3 ripe Haas avocados
2 plum tomatoes, seeds and juice removed, diced
1/3 white onion diced
1 small lime
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Kosher salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon chile rellanos, seeds removed, chopped - to taste
1/2 teaspoon sauce/juice from chile rellanos - to taste

Method:

Dice the avocados and place in a large bowl. Squeeze the lime juice into the avocados and toss lightly. Add in the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, cumin, salt, pepper, chile rellanos and juice. Toss all together and taste for seasoning. Pile mixture high on tortilla chips and serve immediately.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

México me encanta!






I think these pictures speak for themselves but a few notes.

The margaritas shown have to be the best I have ever tasted. Perhaps it was just the ultra-relaxed state I was in while drinking but they seemed pretty amazing.

We also had queso cilantro which is pictured and it was a fabulous combination of cheese, cilantro and a marsala like sauce. The combination of flavors seemed odd to me but they definitely worked because it was a creamy and soft explosion of flavor.

We also had flan which I now refuse to eat anywhere else but Mexico. I have tried it in a million places in the states and somehow, the caramel flavor does not come through like it does when I eat it here. How good is it? So good that I devoured it before I could even get my camera out to take a picture.

Finally, El Brujo, the restaurant I always insist on going to upon arrival. It sits on the ocean and the experience of eating incredible food while watching the sun set and listening to the waves crashing in is sublime.

Eventually, I will have to go back to Chicago but I think my Mother will have to shove me on the plane to get me out of here.

xoxo - AJ

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ridiculous Magic Bars



I completely and totally lost control of these bars. There is an insane amount of sweet running through these darlings and if you are not a fan of sweet, you might want to close it up and try back another day.

The usual seven-layer or magic bars have a graham cracker crust with flaked coconut, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, nuts and a layer of sweetened condensed milk on top. Sometimes these are made with white chocolate, sometimes not. What these bars are never made with is caramel squares.

Why would anyone use caramels you ask? Well, my single life sometimes has an odd affect on my baking. The night before I was set to make these, my Dad came over to babysit while I went out to partake in shenanigans among friends. The next day, I went into the cupboard to find my one and only bag of butterscotch chips half eaten. Since I had been out to the wee hours of the morning, I was not in a position to a.) complain to my very understanding Dad, b.) looked like night of the living dead and a trip to the grocery store to buy another bag would have scared little children and c.) my head was pounding and the thought of going out in broad daylight was a little too daunting. So, when in a baking bind, substitute. I happened to have a bag of caramels and I compensated for the loss of butterscotch with about seven caramels. Did it work? Like a charm! Absolutely sublime. xoxo - AJ

Recipe:

1 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup salted butter, melted
1 package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 package butterscotch chips
1/2 package white chocolate chips
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup shredded coconut, sweetened
7 caramels chopped
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F and lightly grease an 13x9-inch baking pan.

Stir together graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Pour into prepared pan and press into an even layer, using your fingertips,the back of a spoon or a spatula. Spread chocolate chips, butterscotch chips and white chocolate chips in a layer on the graham crackers. Spread walnuts in a layer on the chocolate chips. Spread coconut in a layer on top. Pour sweetened condensed milk over everything. Sprinkle caramels evenly over center of dish.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until coconut is golden brown.

Cool completely before slicing.

Bars can be served at room temperature or chilled.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Walnut Pesto Pasta



I am watching Chicago and having a few glasses of wine. If this post contains poor sentence structure, mis-spellings or questionable grammar, my apologies.

How many ways can pesto be used? In my opinion, in about as many savory ways as something like Nutella can be used in sweet ways. Pesto should never just be relegated to pasta dishes and I believe it should be set free to roam among the surfs, turfs and salads of the world. So besides pasta, here are a few ideas:

1. Topping for green peas or incorporate the peas into the pesto and add that as a topping on a meat dish
2. Spread on a turkey sandwich
3. Spread on a hamburger
4. Topping on a salad instead of dressing
5. Topping a steak
6. Awesome on roast beef sandwiches

This list is obviously not exhaustive but I think you get the idea. For the picture, I put the pesto with pasta, a handful of walnuts, green peas and a diced chicken breast. Bliss!


Recipe:

1 cup tight-packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup tight-packed basil leaves
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated gruyere cheese
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Method:

1. Make the pesto: Place parsley, basil, walnuts, cheeses, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse until well combined. Add the olive oil to parsley/basil mixture in a slow stream, pulsing to combine. Taste and season to taste.

Serve immediately on top of warm pasta and peas and sprinkle whole walnuts and parmesan on top or freeze (see Step 2).

2. Freeze the pesto: Divide pesto into preferred serving sizes and place in small resealable plastic bags or small plastic containers with airtight lids. Force excess air out of the container and freeze for up to 3 months.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Peanut Butter Cookies



So, I received a request...ok, maybe not so much a request as a complaint. I volunteer at a homeless shelter one to two days a month and during the holidays, one of the patrons looked at the holiday cookie dessert display and remarked that they he could never find good peanut butter cookies. This was a guy who was already clearly down on his luck and among the hard knocks in life, would it be so much to ask to have a decent peanut butter cookie? I think not. I told him that I would be back on New Year's and that I would bring him the best Peanut Butter Cookies that I could find a recipe for.

Despite my promise to the gentleman at the shelter, I am not usually a fan of peanut butter cookies but I think that's because I never had a homemade version before I made these. Tragic I know but I have to say that these cookies seriously made up for the lack of homemade in my life. These gems pack some serious peanut punch; they were soft in the middle with a light crunch on the outside and they melt like butter in your mouth. Once again, it is a miracle that these even made it into the oven. Along those lines let me just say that I consider my myself a batter (cake, cookies, cupcakes, etc.) connoisseur and among all of the wonderful batters of the world, this one ranks near the top. xoxo - AJ

Recipe adapted from "The New Best Recipe", from the Editors of Cook's Illustrated

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup Skippy extra-crunchy peanut butter
2 large eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup salted dry-roasted peanuts, ground in a food processor to resemble bread crumbs

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two baking sheets with non-stick cooking spray.

Whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a bowl; set aside.

Beat the butter in an electric mixer until creamy. Add the sugars, beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl as necessary. Beat in the peanut butter until fully incorporated, then the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla. Gently stir the dry ingredients into the peanut butter mixture. Add the ground peanuts and stir gently until incorporated.

Roll tablespoon size pieces of batter into balls and place them on the cookie sheet about 2 1/2 inches apart. Press each dough down with a fork to make a crisscross design. Be sure to dip the fork into cold water before pressing on the dough to prevent sticking.

Bake 10-12 minutes until puffed and slightly browned around the edges but not on top. Cool on sheet for about a few minutes and transfer to newspaper or wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Alone Food


I am reading my new favorite book, "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone" edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. This book is a compilation of essays by famous foodies describing what they cook and eat when they are alone and no one is watching or judging. I love the list of people who contributed to this book namely Nora Ephron, Steve Almond, M.F.K. Fisher, Ann Patchett and several others. What I love even more is that I can compare my own single habits with others and I am pleasantly surprised to learn that I am not the only who has odd eating habits when no one is watching.

So, with all of the cooking and blogging that I do, what is it that I eat when no one is watching? I am sorry to reveal that my eating habits are dreadfully boring and my dinner time reading shows that I am also a big nerd. Pictures do not lie and yes, what you are looking at is a dinner of steamed cauliflower and broccoli with salt and pepper and a little parmesan sprinkled on top. Next to the plate is my nightly glass of wine, the computer and some reading material related to my day job.

Here is a sample of some of my other alone/comfort food (please do not judge too harshly): grapes and saltines dipped in bittersweet chocolate, buttered noodles with a poached egg on top sprinkled with walnuts and parmesan, peanut butter and jelly on toasted bread, buttered peas with salt and pepper and one of my all time favorites; white rice with a ton of salted butter. Finally, anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with goat cheese and I eat it on a daily basis. One of my most favorite desserts is goat cheese with walnuts drizzled with honey and a glass of champagne if available; bliss my darlings, absolute bliss!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rum Balls



This recipe always brings me back to my childhood. Every Christmas Eve, without fail, we would spend the time with my Mom's side of the family. A huge dinner was served, the entire family was there, we opened a bunch of presents and these rum balls were served as kind of an appetizer, middle of the meal and after meal treat. My wonderful Aunt Irene would always bring these little chocolate confections to the festivities along with some other tasty treats. Although there were other cookies to dive into, I was always enamored with these little balls of nuts, rum and chocolate. I was a little skeptical about them as a very young child and as I got older, they became my favorite treat. Go figure! My Mom's side of the family no longer gathers for the holidays which makes me a little sad. To compensate for sparser yule-tide gatherings, I make these rum balls to bring back the happy memories. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chopped
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 jar or 7 1/2 ounces marshmallow fluff
1 container sweetened condensed milk
2 cups chopped pecans
1 cup drained and chopped maraschino cherries
1 tablespoon dark rum
2 cups crushed graham crackers
cinnamon and sugar for coating

Method:

Melt chocolate and fluff in a double boiler. Let cool slightly and mix in condensed milk and combine until completely incorporated. Mix in rum and add more to taste.

Zap nuts, maraschino cherries, and graham crackers in a food processor. Mix the nut mixture in with the chocolate mixture and combine.

Refrigerate mixture until completely cool. Roll by teaspoons into balls and coat with crushed nuts or cinnamon and sugar mixtures.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spiced Sweet Potato Fries





One of the biggest disadvantages of growing up in the 80's was the lack of variety and flavor that existed on dinner plates. There was no such thing as the Food Network, the internet did not exist in households, cooking magazines consisted of Redbook and the only cookbook on our shelf was the "Joy of Cooking" which in our house, when opened, the seams cracked as seams do when a book goes completely unused. On top of this, my Mom was busy being the 80's superwoman which meant she did everything that was expected of a 50's housewife while working the job of a man. My Mom was and still is incredible so I will not give her flack on what wound up on our dinner plates. There was a protein, a starch and a vegetable and fast food never made an appearance and I think that is quite a feat for everything she was juggling.

So, that said, I like to put as much variety on my son's plate as possible and to that end, I absolutely adore sweet potatoes! Not only do they look appetizing which is vital in getting it into the child's mouth but I love the taste. I never had these growing up and I remember tasting them for the first time in my early 20's and falling in love on the spot. You don't even have to use this recipe. Sweet potatoes can be peeled, cut into spears, tossed with olive oil and salt and roasted at 420 for 45 minutes and still be amazing. However, this recipe does dress them up quite a bit and can be a special treat. Enjoy!

**P.S. Hug your Mom, tell her you love her and everything she did/does for you.

Ingredients:

3 sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
pinch of cardamon
pinch cinnamon
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
kosher or fleur de sal to taste

Method:

Preheat oven to 420 degrees.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut into speared fries. Place the spears on a rimmed sheet pan, set aside. In a separate bowl whisk together the olive oil, brown sugar, maple syrup, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until smooth. Pour the oil and sugar mixture onto the sweet potatoes and toss together with a spoon or clean hands. Place in the oven and roast for 45 to 50 minutes until tender. Turn the pan once and re-toss the mixture with a spatula halfway through roasting.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Chicken Marinades 101




I have gained some knowledge that I would like to share; newly minted college grads need a starting point on cooking. Top Chef and the like are overwhelming, the cookbooks are ridiculous purchases when that money could be spent on beer, concerts, sports events and beer. If this crowd is going to cook, it better be simple and it better come from an online source or forget it. They can run NASA off of their iPhones but ask them how to caramelize onions and I guarantee many blank looks.

Where did I receive this knowledge and moreover, why do I care? Well, as a singleton I meet some interesting people in bars and I happened to have a conversation with one of those previously mentioned college grads. I received a request from him for some easy marinades that was not a "witch's brew" but a little more interesting than just salad dressing showboating as a marinade. We talked about a few different options and I decided that I needed to do a post on easy marinades. To the question, why do I care? The best answer I can offer is that I am not so old and removed from that time in my life that I don't remember what it was like trying to cook when I didn't even have a pan, literally. I was also totally broke at that age which I am trying to take into account with the ingredient list.

So here are four (4) chicken breast marinades. I tried to keep the ingredient list to a minimum which is like tying my hand behind my back but I think I showed an amazing amount of restraint. Enjoy!

Marinade 1:

1/2 cup fresh lime juice
6 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon minced garlic

Marinade 2:

3 garlic cloves
1 large onion, cut into large chunks
1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro, basil, or parsley leaves
One 16-ounce container plain low-fat yogurt
Grated zest of 2 limes
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt

Marinade 3:

1 tbsp. Olive oil
1 Rosemary stem
2 cloves of garlic chopped
Salt/Pepper to taste
Chicken Stock or Broth

Marinade 4:

1/4 cup chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cups fresh orange juice
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup olive oil
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

Marinate overnight if possible or a minimum of two hours. These marinades are meant for a skinless, boneless breast of chicken of about six ounces. Grill the breasts or pan fry them for approximately 6-8 minutes per side depending on the thickness of the breast. Transfer the breast to a plate and cover it with tin foil for about 5 minutes to allow the juices to flow back into the breast. Serve with vegetables or put it on a roll with your favorite toppings and have it as a sandwich.