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Monday, November 15, 2010

Tomato-Basil-Parmesan Soup

This recipe came to me from my friend Jennifer, who saw it in a magazine and gave it a try. She was amazed by how well it went over with her teenage boys; I was amazed at how much my family liked it, given that it has no meat in it. It's perfect for a cold night. The aroma alone makes it worth the effort.

Tomato-Basil-Parmesan Soup
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes, with juice
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced carrots
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup finely diced onions
1/2 bay leaf (I took a walk on the wild side and used a whole one)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano (you can substitute 1 teaspoon of dry oregano)
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped (you can substitute 1 tablespoon of dried basil, but I think you'll probably regret it)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
1 cup parmesan cheese
2 cups half and half, warmed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a large slow cooker, combine tomatoes, celery, carrots, chicken broth, onions, bay leaf, oregano, and basil (if you're using dried herbs, add them an hour before serving instead). Cover adn cook on low for 5 to 7 hours until flavors are blended and vegetables are soft.

About an hour before serving, prepare a roux: Melt butter over low heat in a skillet and add flour; stir constantly with a whisk for 5 to 7 minutes. Slowly stir in 1 cup of hot soup from the slow cooker. Add another 3 cups of soup and stir until smooth.

Add the soup and flour mixture back into the slow cooker. Stir and add parmesan cheese, warmed half and half, salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low for another hour until ready to serve.

This recipe has an amazing combination of flavors. Some of the kids were a little freaked out by the chunks of vegetables, though. I tried an experiment with the leftovers that made the soup more elegant: I pureed everything in the blender until it was smooth and creamy. It made for a lovely soup:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Coconut Cream Pie

I have to confess that this recipe is straight out of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. But it's a classic that we make over and over again. I justify putting it here because it's written in the BC Cookbook as a variation of banana cream pie; therefore, following the directions is always a little tricky for me.

My own finishing touch is the toasted coconut on top. Toast a few tablespoons by putting it under the broiler for a couple of minutes. Check it frequently and toss it when it starts turning light brown. Be careful; it burns quickly and then won't have the desired effect on your pie.

Coconut Cream Pie
1 pie crust, unbaked
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup flaked coconut
1 cup sweetened whipped cream (1 cup heavy cream beaten to stiff peaks with 2 teaspoons sugar)

Bake the pie crust. In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks with fork; set aside. in a 2-quart saucepan, mix sugar, cornstarch and salt. Gradually stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir 1 minutes. Be sure it's really boiling when you start timing the minute. Otherwise you'll end up with a gooey mess that will taste good but not look pretty.

Immediately stir at least half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, then stir back into hot mixture in saucepan. Don't skip this step and try putting the egg yolks straight into the custard; you'll end up with little fragments of scrambled eggs in your pie, which tastes fine but, again, isn't very pretty. Ask me how I know this.

Boil and stir 1 minute; remove from heat. Stir in butter, vanilla and coconut; cool filling slightly (this is another step that I believe makes a difference in whether the pie sets up properly, although I have limited empirical evidence). Pour filling into the pie crust. Press plastic wrap on filling to prevent a tough layer from forming on top. Refrigerate at least two hours until set. Top the pie with sweetened whipped cream and toasted coconut.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lo Mein

In my never-ending quest for easy meals that are also tasty, I came across this little gem. It's originally from Rachael Ray, although I've modified it just a bit here. Lo mein is without a doubt Bob's favorite Chinese entree, and he usually makes a more elaborate version. But even he gave this one a thumbs up (each of us agrees that dinner always tastes better if the other person cooked it).

I was surprised to find that the 30 minute prep time estimated in the recipe is actually pretty accurate--15 minutes for chopping and making the sauce and another 15 minutes for cooking it and putting it together. I think this was universally popular at our house, and is destined to be a regular on our menu.

Lo Mein
3 rounded tablespoons hoisin sauce (you'll find it in the Asian section of your grocery store)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons of water
1/4 teaspoon Sriracha sauce (Sriracha sauce is a Vietnamese hot sauce. It's very hot, but I felt it should be used in this recipe because it is, afterall, Asian food. The original recipe just said hot sauce and called for 2 teaspoons. I put in 1/2 teaspoon and it was a little too hot for us. So proceed at your own risk; tabasco sauce is somewhat more mellow than Sriracha, so you might want to add a little more, depending on your tastes).

1 16-ounce package of spaghetti (this was one of the things I loved most about the recipe; no bewildered looks from the staff at the Asian market when I asked them what kind of noodles I needed for lo mein. I already had maybe 20 pounds of it in my basement!)
1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
2 large eggs, beaten
3 chicken boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced into strips
Black pepper
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 inches fresh ginger, chopped or grated
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 green onions, cut into 3-inch lengths then sliced lengthwise
1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped (the recipe calls for shitakes; we don't care for shitakes all that much so I used regular button mushrooms)
1 red bell pepper, cut into quarters, seeded, the sliced
1/2 pound shredded cabbage

Mix together sauce ingredients and reserve.

Bring pasta water to a boil, ad a little salt and cook spaghetti according to package directions.

While noodles cook, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large, nonstick skillet over high heat. WHen oil ripples, add beaten eggs and scramble them to light golden brown. Remove and reserve.

Season the meat with salt, pepper and coriander. Heat the remaining vegetable oil to a ripple, then add meat and stir-fry 4 minutes. Push meat to the side and add ginger, garlic and veggies. Stir-fry veggies 2 minutes, then drain and add pasta and eggs back intothe skillet. Pour sauce over the spaghetti and toss to combine. Turn off pan. Toss 30 seconds and let the liquids absorb.

A couple of notes: the original recipe calls for 3 thin cut pork chops, thinly sliced into strips. I think this would be delicious and would make it a heartier meal. I didn't include it in my version this time.

Also, we've found that powdered ginger works every bit as well as fresh ginger, but the fresh ginger will make your house smell great, so it might be worth the few cents and few minutes it takes to use it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Kirkland Brand Mayonnaise

By now I'm sure you're convinced that we never shop anywhere but Costco. And you would be almost correct.

I've posted before about the  vast quantities of mayonnaise consumed at our house. Traditionally we have purchased the gallon-size Kraft brand at Costco because it was cheap. We have looked at the Best Foods brand right next to it with longing in our eyes, dreaming of the day when we would be rich and have fewer children to feed. Do we really think we'll be buying mayonnaise by the gallon when there are just two of us at home? If we do we'll have to also be buying some much bigger pants to wear.

Recently Bob spotted this dream come true in the mayonnaise aisle at Costco. It is a) of about the same quality and texture as the Best Foods brand and b) cheaper than Kraft. We are in Mayonnaise heaven.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Split Pea and Ham Soup

I hated split pea soup as a kid. Or I hated the idea of it. The only place I actually saw it was in the school cafeteria where it looked like something that was fairly unappetizing. It was canned. Overcooked. Pureed to death. Ugly.

As an adult, I find split pea soup comforting. It's a perfect way to use leftover ham. And while you have to start a little in advance, it's simple to put together.

I've discovered two keys to making this soup delicious instead of disgusting. First, don't cook it too long. Most recipes will tell you to leave it in the crock pot all day. Don't believe them. Four or five hours cooking on low will be plenty of time for the peas to soften. Add the vegetables even later than that, maybe one or two hours before you plan to serve the soup. Otherwise you'll get mush. I also like to add a cup or so of small diced ham a half hour or so before it's done for a little extra flavor.

Second, be sure there is enough liquid in the soup. Dry split pea soup has a heavy, mud-like texture that is hard to choke down. Well hydrated soup is a joy to eat. Trust me.

Slow Cooker Split Pea Soup

9 cups water
1 (16 ounce) package dried split peas, rinsed and sorted (2-1/4 Cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 medium carrots, cut into 1/4 inch slices (1-1/2 Cups)
2 stalks celery, finely chopped (1 Cup)
1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 ham bone or 2 lbs ham shanks or smoked pork hocks

Mix peas, ham bone and water in a five quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours or until peas are starting to become tender. Add vegetables an hour or two before the soup is done. When the peas are soft, remove the ham bone and pull any cooked ham away from the bone. Add it back into the soup and serve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Peanut Butter Cookies

My kids go crazy for peanut butter cookies. If you want to drive them really wild, put a few chocolate chips in. For years I tried to find the perfect PB cookie recipe with no success; they were dry and hard as hockey pucks. I went to my friend Kip for advice and he posted this little gem.

Chunky peanut butter works best in these cookies; for this batch I was forced to use creamy and tried dressing them up with some chopped peanuts. Next time I'll go back to the chunky stuff.

Peanut Butter Cookies

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup peanut butter (I like to use chunky peanut butter, but that's just a personal preference)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
3/4 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in scant 1/3 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour

Cream shortening, peanut butter, and sugars. Beat in egg. Then add water and baking soda with the dry ingredients. Roll the dough into balls and bake at 350-375 degrees until done (about 12-13 minutes).

You can tell these are done when they're golden brown but still a little gooey. They'll cook a little more after you take them out of the oven. You want them slightly underdone in order to preserve the soft cookie goodnes.