Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to All

It’s been an odd holiday season for the Foodie family–for whatever reason, I’ve really been finding it difficult to get into the holiday spirit.  I noticed this around Halloween, when the holiday mojo just didn’t seem to kick in.  Usually, I think of Halloween as the kick-off event for a season of celebrations, so it’s a happy time.  But while I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family, as I always do, I didn’t find myself obsessed with planning the holiday meal, as I usually am.

And now, Christmas.  The Boy decorated our tree single-handedly.  We unpacked the holiday decorations, but they just barely made it out of their storage crates.  They’ve been sitting around in their individual boxes since then.  We did put up wreaths, indoor and outdoor, but that’s about the extent of our decorating efforts.

Because depression runs in my family, I’m vigilant about its warning signs and took some time, a few days ago, to think about whether I needed to make an appointment with my doctor.  But I really don’t think that’s the issue.  I’m eating well, sleeping well, generally pleased with my life.  I’m just not into the holidays this year.  And, after giving that some thought, I came to a few realizations.

1.  It really hasn’t been that long since my dad died–not even six months yet.  While I’m past the point where I spend my days crying, the tears are never very far away.  I imagine the effort of holding things together and being a functional person uses up more energy than I’m aware of.

2.  The Hubs and I spent our Christmas budget on practical things–a new range hood for the kitchen cooktop, a Keurig coffee maker–so we’ve agreed that there will be no Christmas morning surprises for each other.  Neither of us need a thing, really, and we’ll still have gifts to open from the Foodie children.  Also . . .

3.  We are, as The Hubs like to put it, a family in transition.  Our kids are well into their teenage years; Christmas just isn’t the magical holiday it was when they were younger.  So there are no big surprises for them under the tree, either, because they’ve already received their big gifts.

4.  Our church has changed its schedule of Christmas Eve services, offering two instead of three.  The earliest one–which we usually attend–has been combined with the mid-evening service, which puts the new service squarely in the middle of what would normally be our dinner hour.  That means our tradition of eating a big holiday meal on Christmas Eve, and a holiday brunch late Christmas morning, will also need to change (unless we opt for the late evening service, of course–but that doesn’t sound appealing to any of us.)  We’ve decided to have an early dinner of heavy hors d’oeuvres and follow that up with another small meal later in the evening, after church.  It won’t be the Orange Meal  we’ve had in years past, but we’ll still enjoy the Boy-Approved Orange Cake for dessert.

And, of course, we’ll still have our silver bowl of oranges at the center of the table, reminding us of the real meaning Christmas.  It’s a day to take a moment to be grateful for all the many blessings in our lives: our health, our home, the four of us together.  And it’s a day to remember the many sacrifices made for us by others, all of which allow us to enjoy the lives we take for granted.

Holiday blessings to all of you, Foodie faithful!  Thank you for reading, and for making this blog one of the great joys of my life.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Cherry Pecan Coffee Cake

I’m not sure what it is about Christmas and cherries that go together.  Maybe it’s the presence of maraschino cherries in the traditional holiday fruitcake.  Maybe it’s the chocolate-covered cherry cordials that used to show up under the Christmas tree (one box for my former brother-in-law, one for my oldest niece.)  In any case, something about the Christmas season makes me think of cherries.

One problem, though:  I can’t stand goopy cherry cordials.  Or maraschino cherries–except for the occasional cherry at the bottom of my Sonic cherry limeade, which has absorbed enough lime juice to be palatable.  Neither can anyone else in the Foodie family.  The Foodie children won’t touch cherries in any form, for that matter: fresh, in a sauce, on top of cheesecake, in a Pop Tart.  I have no idea where this cherry aversion comes from.  As far as I know, neither of them were frightened by cherries during their early childhood.

The Hubs and I, however, love dried sour cherries.  And the desire to incorporate cherries into our Christmas vacation is where I started the journey that ended, around noon yesterday, with this: Cherry Pecan Coffee Cake.

See that little halo of heavenly light around the slice of cake?  That should give you some idea of how extremely tasty it is.

Many recipes for a coffee cake of this sort will tell you to chop up your dried cherries.  I did not.  Because I’m a rebel like that.  But also because I liked the idea of big, chewy pieces of tart cherry surrounded by softer, sweeter cake.  I used more cherries than most recipes called for as well.  If you think you’d prefer smaller pieces of cherry, of course, feel free to chop them to bits.  I would do this after soaking them, before adding them to the dry ingredients.

Although I used light sour cream in this recipe, you could easily substitute plain yogurt.  Or vanilla yogurt, in which case you could halve or omit the vanilla extract.  Lemon yogurt might also be a nice flavor addition.  Pairing cherries and almonds is pretty common practice, but because I had pecans on hand I decided to go in that direction instead–which means I used vanilla extract instead of almond.  If you have almonds (or would prefer almonds), I’d suggest using one teaspoon of vanilla extract and one of almond extract in your cake batter.  The amount of nuts used for the topping can probably stay the same–although this is, of course, a suggestion.  There’s no law to stop you from going pecan-wild on the top of your cake.  Also, if you don’t have turbinado sugar on hand, just use plain granulated sugar for the topping  instead.  You won’t get the same texture, but the top of your cake will be nice and shiny.

Finally, I used a gluten-free flour blend when making this cake, but all the recipes I consulted called for plain old all-purpose wheat flour.  Use whatever makes you happy. Remember, though, that gluten-free baked goods need time to cool before you eat them; otherwise, your cake will be gummy and stick to your teeth when you try to enjoy it.  (Never mind how I know this.  Just trust me.)

 

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Cherry Pecan Coffee Cake

Ingredients:

3/4 cup dried cherries
Hot water (enough to cover the cherries)
1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup light sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 egg white
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1 T. turbinado sugar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch round pan with cooking spray and set aside.

Place dried cherried in a shallow bowl. Add enough hot water to cover them. Let the cherries soak and soften up while you assemble the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Stir to combine the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add the sour cream, vegetable oil, egg, egg white, and vanilla. Stir again, just until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated into the wet ingredients.

Drain the cherries and dry them between two layers of paper towels. Stir the cherries into the batter just to distribute them evenly. Turn the batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle the chopped pecans over the cake batter; sprinkle the turbinado sugar over everything.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted at the center of the cake comes out clean.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

White Chili with Chicken and Fennel

It’s been raining in my neck of the woods, on and off, for a week now.  We’ve  been struggling with record-breaking drought and heat this year, though, which means I’m not allowed to be annoyed by the suddenly omnipresent clouds and drizzle–we need every drop of moisture we can squeeze out of the sky.

So, this afternoon, I decided to make the best of the cold weather by making a big batch of chili.   I wanted something a little different than the usual beef-and-kidney bean concoction, though; I had a package of ground chicken that needed to be put to use and a hankering for something more savory than spicy.  That’s when I happened upon this recipe by Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis, and  I was sold the minute I realized the recipe was seasoned with fennel seeds.

Fennel is, in my humble opinion, a sadly underused spice.  The Hubs and I fell in love with it while living in Iowa City, where our favorite pizza place used large quantities of fennel in its pizza sauce.  The bulb, fronds, and seeds of the fennel plant are all used in cooking, and each has a slightly different flavor; the seeds have a slightly licoricey taste. (And if you’re thinking that you won’t like it because you can’t stand licorice–well, I don’t like licorice either, but I just love fennel.  Go figure.)

This recipe also features Swiss chard–which, like its fellow dark leafy greens, is packed full of nutritional goodness.  If you don’t have chard on hand and don’t want to make a trip to the grocery store to buy it, a package of chopped, frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed dry, of course) would be a perfectly acceptable substitute.  If you go with the fresh chard, you may be afraid that you’re using too much when you stir it into your chili.  Never fear, though; the chard is going to wilt in the heat of the chili before you know it.  One bunch of chard is exactly the right amount to give this chili some color and nutritional oomph.

Finally, if you’d prefer a vegetarian version of this recipe, just add a third can of beans and use vegetable broth in place of chicken broth–the fennel is the star here, and it will shine through either way.  I’ve adjusted the quantities of other spices to make sure fennel gets its much-deserved moment in the sun.

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White Chili with Chicken and Fennel

Ingredients:

2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground chicken
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 T. (heaping) fennel seeds
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. chili powder
2 T. flour
2 cans (15 oz.) white beans (like Great Northern), rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
3 cups chicken broth
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems removed, cut into bite-size chunks
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and allow it to soften, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to coat with the olive oil; add the ground chicken, breaking it into chunks as it begins to brown.

Sprinkle the chicken with the salt, cumin, fennel seeds, oregano, and chili powder. Stir until the chicken is evenly coated with the spices. Allow the chicken to continue cooking for another five minutes, then sprinkle with flour and stir again. Make sure all the flour is sticking to the chicken before you add the beans, corn, and chicken broth.

Stir everything together and allow the broth to come to a simmer while you cut up the chard. Use a sharp knife to cut the green leaves away from the center stems, then cut the leaves into bite-size pieces. Stir the chard into the simmering broth; it will wilt and soften as it heats up.

Simmer the chili for about an hour, uncovered, until the broth has reduced and thickened slightly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with chopped parsley and grated Parmesan.

Inspired by a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Easy Gifts for Your Favorite Foodies

Every year around this time, I find myself in the same little boat–wondering where the year went, how it’s possible we’ll need a new calendar in just a few short weeks, and what on earth am I going to give people for Christmas?  I’m not a big fan of the mass-produced holiday gifts you can find at your local discount store.  I am, however, a fan of letting the people you love know they’re appreciated.  Fortunately, that’s easy to do with a minimum of effort if you head for the kitchen rather than the mall.

I know what you’re thinking.  Foodie, I’m a very busy person.  I have no time for making gifts.  I swear to you, none of these gift ideas will take very long to prepare.  Certainly much less time than you’d spend prowling the mall in search of inspiration.  The only secret to making gifts in your own kitchen is being prepared ahead of time:  check out the recipes, make a list of what you need, and rest assured that you have it on hand before you even get started.  Buy a package of canning jars (usually four to package) at the grocery store, and run them through the dishwasher so they’re ready to fill as soon as you’ve finished cooking. Buy some small plastic bags with zipped tops–craft stores like Hobby Lobby often carry these in their baking section.   Also, think creatively about packaging; don’t spend time wrapping gifts when you can use festive containers (like colorful but inexpensive mugs or bowls) that serve this purpose.  That’s thoughtful and eco-friendly.  Go you!

Flavored Sugars. Vanilla Sugar and Lemon Sugar make the perfect gift for people who love a sweetened warm beverage on a chilly winter afternoon.  To make Vanilla Sugar, measure two cups of granulated sugar into an airtight storage container.  Cut a vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the insides.  Stir to distribute the vanilla bean “caviar” throughout, then bury the bean pod in the sugar.  Seal the container and let the vanilla bean stay buried for about two weeks before measuring the Vanilla Sugar into zip-top bags.  For Lemon Sugar, zest one large lemon directly into the sugar; stir to distribute the lemon zest throughout, then let the mixture dry, uncovered, for about an hour.   That’s it!  Your Lemon Sugar is all ready to package.  Tuck a bag of Lemon Sugar and an assortment of teabags into a cute holiday mug and you’re ready to gift.  Alternatively,  a sample-size package of coffee and a bag of Vanilla Sugar will also delight your caffeine-addicted friends.

Butterscotch Sauce.  I recently discovered how very easy it is to make this Super Simple Butterscotch Sauce (just in case the name didn’t tip you off.)  If you know someone who enjoys a dish of ice cream in the evening, line a festive bowl with a cute napkin and nestle a jar of this sauce inside for a thoughtful present.   This sauce is also a great compliment to fresh fruit slices, so a small gift bag filled with an assortment of pears and apples would be a terrific alternative to that ice cream dish.  Be sure to remind your loved one that this sauce needs to be refrigerated.

Pumpkin Butter.  It’s delicious spread on toast, stirred into oatmeal, or as the featured ingredient in a pumpkin spice latte.  This recipe for  Pumpkin Butter  makes enough for four 8-oz. jars, which means you can share the love with four friends or family members.   Tuck a fresh loaf of artisan bread into a gift bag, add a jar of Pumpkin Butter, and you’re ready to gift.  Again, be sure to mention that Pumpkin Butter needs to be stored in the fridge.

Lemon Curd.  Recently, this has become my go-to recipe for lemon curd–it’s made in the microwave.  What could be easier?   This recipe makes enough for two jars, so you can take care of two loved ones at once.   It’s terrific with shortbread cookies.  Add a teacup and some teabags and you’ll be gifting someone the perfect afternoon snack break.  (And–you guessed it–don’t forget to mention that the lemon curds goes in the fridge.)

Jam.  If you tried this Vanilla-Fig Freezer Jam last summer, you might have a few jars left in the freezer.  Thaw them out and share them as gifts, along with a nice package of crackers and some fresh goat cheese.  The combination of figs and goat cheese can’t be beat.

Cookies.  The old standard is always welcome.  These Key Lime Pie Drops require no baking, just stirring and chilling, but they’re tart and chewy and delicious.  If you’re in the mood for something slightly more involved, Skillet Cookies are a crunchy, buttery, coconutty option for the holidays.

None of these gift ideas will take you more than an hour to make–considerably less time and energy than it takes just to fight the traffic at your local mall.  On top of that, a home-made gift tells the people you love that you’ve thought about what they might like and prepared a gift especially for each of them.

 

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tamales! A Festival of Food

One of the things I love most about San Antonio is that it’s a place where people value all kinds of food–Mexican food, yes, but not only that.  There’s no end of great places to eat, from the gluten-free Little Aussie Bakery to the gluten-full Saweet Cupcakes, from Rosario’s (a terrific place to get a plate of fish tacos) to The Cove (where you can listen to live music while eating a beef or veggie burger on a gluten-free or regular bun.)  As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses–especially those that buy their supplies locally as well.

So when there’s a festival of food going on in San Antonio–specifically, a festival of tamales featuring local food vendors–you know I’m going to be there.  As you can see, I was not the only person with that idea.

The forecast for today was rain, rain, and more rain, but we woke this morning to overcast skies and intermittent drizzle.  It seemed like the sort of weather we could brave for the sake of the local economy.  And, okay, tamales.  The Hubs, The Girl and I took a stroll through the Pearl Farmer’s Market before we headed over to the tamale festival, but the farmers had been at it since 9:00 this morning and were largely out of produce.  Even they seemed ready to pack it up and head out for lunch.  So we wandered through the breezeway of the Full Goods Building before too long, and there found ourselves in food heaven (along with about a bajillion other people.)  Among the things we sampled:

The Rajas Con Crema–”slices in cream”–the slices being of poblano pepper–were so spicy that I was very grateful we’d also bought a Diet Coke.  A bite of the sweet, creamy Tres Leches cupcake also helped to put out the fire.

Our selection process was pretty unscientific:  we went for the booths with the shortest lines, figuring that even the least popular tacos and tamales in San Antonio are still going to be phenomenal.  Unfortunately–or fortunately, depending on how you look at it–that strategy worked very well, and all the food we bought was so delicious that we gobbled it up before I had a chance to take pictures.  Any time you get the chance to eat slow-roasted pork in San Antonio, I’m going to advise you to take advantage of that opportunity.

From there we headed over to the holiday mercado, where all the things I really wanted were either out of my price range (see the big pink chair) or very affordable, but hard to justify (see the Diego y Frieda wall clock).

Big Pink Chair

Gorgeous mosaic stepping stones

Diego y Frieda wall clock

 

Floral hair ornament with psychotic eyeball center. It spoke to my soul.

After we’d browsed our way through the gift market, we decided to head back toward the food area for one last look around.  The Girl wanted to buy a little something for her boyfriend, who’d been dutifully taking his SAT this morning rather than wandering the streets in search of food with us.  The Hubs wasn’t up for braving the crowd in the food tent again, so he headed over to the Culinary Institute’s bakery booth to survey their wares.

The Girl bought two chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks (i.e., Chocolate Lollipops) from Ms. Chocolatier–one dark chocolate, for herself, and one milk chocolate, for The Boyfriend.  I bought a bag of Mexican Chocolate Toffee which is, I just have to say, out of this world.  It’s buttery, a tiny bit salty, covered in dark chocolate spiced with cinnamon, and sprinkled with crunchy almond slices.  It does not get better than this, and I say that with some degree of authority.

By that time, we’d all had enough of the crowds and drove home sharing bites of the cranberry-orange scone that The Hubs had bought from the CIA bakery–soft and buttery, flecked with chewy dried cranberries and big pieces of orange zest.

And there you have San Antonio in a nutshell:  a little bit of everything, all in one convenient location.  When we moved here ten years ago, we arrived with the intention of staying only as long as it took for me or The Hubs to find a job somewhere else.  We just couldn’t envision ourselves as Texans.  Ten years later, I’m pretty sure we’ve never lived anywhere that we’ve loved more than this crazy city, and it’s hard to imagine ourselves living anywhere else.

 

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