Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweet and Spicy Cranberry Sauce

Step away from the can!

Isn't it time to make your own cranberry sauce? If you haven’t tried yet, hopefully this recipe will serve as inspiration. It’s so easy!

This sweet and spicy version tastes great not only with the Thanksgiving turkey, but also with ham, pork and chicken. Just adjust the amount of red pepper flakes to fit your family’s spice tolerance. Best of all, the sauce can be made up to three days in advance and kept in the refrigerator. 

Now, if you’re cranberry sauce must be shaped like a can, I’m sorry. 
I can’t help you.

Perhaps cranberry sauce therapy?

Sweet and Spicy Cranberry Sauce
Serves 6

1 package fresh cranberries
Juice and zest from 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Pinch of salt

In a saucepan over low heat, combine all of the ingredients and stir occasionally until sugar is melted. Then increase the heat and let the mixture simmer gently until it thickens slightly and most of the cranberries have popped, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool. Refrigerate covered until needed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chicken Pad Thai with Spaghetti Squash

Recently I confessed my lack of enthusiasm for winter squashes. However, I am intrigued by spaghetti squash. I love how the solid flesh turns into strings after cooking. Kids think it’s magic!

Spaghetti squash is a tasty substitute for pasta or noodles. In the past, I've served it with homemade marinara sauce over the top. This time, I wanted to try something with an Asian flair.

The resulting Pad Thai recipe was delectable. The flavors were a perfect balance of savory and slightly sweet, and blended well with the spaghetti squash. I made the dish for dinner one night and enjoyed the leftovers for lunch the next day.

One note: The recipe calls for bean sprouts, which I love in Pad Thai recipes. However, on the day I wanted to make this dish I couldn't find any in the grocery store. So I made it without the sprouts, and it was still terrific. So put them in or leave them out. It’s up to you.

Chicken Pad Thai with Spaghetti Squash
Adapted from The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchens
Serves 4
1 large spaghetti squash
8 to 9 tablespoons oil, divided
Juice of 4 limes
6 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into strips
2 small shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups bean sprouts (optional)
4 tablespoons chopped unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves

To prepare the squash, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the squash lengthwise into two halves. (Be careful, since the skin is tough.) Scrape out the seeds (I do this with an ice cream scoop) and place the squash halves cut side up onto a baking sheet. Brush each halve with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a fork easily goes into the flesh. Remove from the oven and allow the squash to cool until it can be handled. Using a fork, scrape the squash flesh into strands and place in a bowl. Set aside.

To make the sauce, whisk together in a small bowl the lime juice, water, brown sugar, oyster sauce, 3 tablespoons oil, rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken until browned. Remove from the skillet onto a plate and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, and add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the skillet. Add the shallots, garlic, and a pinch of salt, and saute until the shallots are a light golden brown. (This happens quickly.) Pour in the beaten eggs and scramble until just done (this also happens quickly.) Add the chicken back to the skillet, along with any juices that accumulated on the plate. Stir in the sauce, bean sprouts, and half the scallions and peanuts. Allow the mixture to simmer for 2 to 4 minutes so the sauce can thicken a bit.
To serve, divide the spaghetti squash between four plates. Spoon the chicken mixture on top of the squash. Sprinkle the remaining peanuts, scallions, and the cilantro leaves over the top.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Cup of Tea and a Romantic Tale

In the past, I've written many times about how The Picky Eater and I connected on Match.com and met for our first date in a grocery store parking lot. But I've never told you about the other man that was a part of that first evening. So, sit back with a cup of your favorite tea, coffee, or hot chocolate and let me tell you about our dinner with the other man…and how magic movie moments can happen in real life.

By the way, I’ll give you tips on making the perfect pot of tea at the end of this post.

It was Thursday, November 11, 2010—Veterans Day. After spending the day at the Montessori preschool where I taught…and spending a few moments after work in the teacher’s bathroom fixing my hair, touching up my make-up, and changing clothes…I headed to the Dillons Supermarket in North Topeka to meet Michael. We had talked on the phone for hours the previous three nights, but now it was time to meet face to face. Needless to say, I was nervous.

The first thing I noticed when we met were Michael’s dancing blue eyes. And he gave great hugs!

I followed him in my car to the Prairie Band Casino and Resort for dinner. That may seem like a strange place to go on a first date, but I was excited. I had heard great things about the food (always a plus with me!) and was looking forward to checking it out. Plus, I didn't mind trying my luck on a slot machine or two.

After we arrived, we headed for the Longhouse Buffet. Since veterans could eat free that day, the line was long. As we neared the front, the man ahead of us turned and said to Michael, “I’m all by myself. Would you two like to share a table with me?”

Now, I’m thinking since this was our first date, Michael would turn him down. So you can imagine my surprise when he said, “Okay!”

The man’s name was Floyd. I don’t remember too much about him. He was a veteran from the Marines and very friendly—and talkative. Most of the dinner was spent listening to him tell about his troubles with his stepson.

We shared a booth—Floyd on one side and Michael and I on the other. At one point, Michael excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came back and sat down, I put my hand on his arm.

It was magic! Electric! Michael looked into my eyes, and it was one of those moments you see in the movies but think never really happen in real life. He put his hand on mine. My heart was racing and I’m sure my face turned bright red. It was overwhelming.

I moved my hand to my lap and everything returned to normal.

Later that evening, Michael and I were talking in his car. He had his arm around me, my head was on his strong, comfortable shoulder, and a Kenny G Christmas CD was planning in the background. He said, “I could see myself married to someone like you.”

Three days later, on our second date, Michael told me he loved me and, again, he could see being married to me. What did I say? I pointed at him and said, “Don’t you dare propose to me! You hardly know anything about me yet.”

His response was, “I know what I feel.”

I said, “But we need to get to know each other better. Besides, it’s the holiday season when everything is sparkly and romantic. Let’s see how we feel in the middle of January when it’s cold and

Then I added, “I tell you what, if you still feel this way in the middle of January, and I feel the same way, then I’ll marry you on Christmas Eve 2011.”

And that’s just what I did.

One evening, sometime after we were married, I asked Michael if there was a moment when he knew he was in love with me. He answered, “When you put your hand on my arm at that first dinner with Floyd.”

I guess he felt the magic, too.

Remembering our dinner with Floyd always brought a smile and a laugh to us both. My sister-in-law thinks Floyd was an angel sent to make sure Michael and I fell in love.

Today, four years later, I’m spending the day with my memories of how The Picky Eater and I joined our lives together. He always made a big celebration of our first-date anniversary, even more so than our wedding anniversary. I kept the e-mails we exchanged in those early days and we would spend time every Veterans Day reading through them and remembering how our love began. After Michael died, I was going through his e-mails and found he had saved the one from Match.com that was my response to his interest in me.

That’s the kind of man The Picky Eater was.

I was a lucky girl.

I want to keep Michael’s tradition, even though he’s gone. (Tomorrow it will be five months since he died.) Today I’ll read those e-mails and drive to the casino, with a quick stop at the Dillons parking lot and Kenny G playing on the CD player. I still adore him, and miss him desperately, but I don’t want to be too sad today. So, I’ll think of Floyd, the magic of a touch, and meeting the love of my life. 

Michael could always make me smile.

The Perfect Pot (or Cup) of Tea
I love black teas, particularly sturdy English Breakfast and smoky Lapsang Souchong. The Picky Eater loved Earl Gray. Many evenings, when he wasn't on his courier route, we would share a cup while watching television.
To brew the perfect pot or cup of tea:
  • Bring cold water to a boil. (Cold water has more oxygen and makes a better tasting tea. Also do not let the water boil for too long or it will release the oxygen and the tea will taste flat.)
  • Fill the tea pot or cup with some of the boiling water and let stand for a moment or two to warm.
  • Empty the pot or cup, add the tea leaves or bags and pour the boiling water on top. Allow the tea to steep for three to five minutes or until the tea reaches the desired strength. Note: Steep green tea for only one to three minutes to prevent bitterness.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Squash, Cranberry and Apple Bake

Lately, I've felt the need to confess my lack of enthusiasm about certain foods that seem to be all the rage right now. Every day I see a new recipe for kale or lentils. Well, I’m not a big fan of either. Believe me, I've tried! I can deal with a little kale in soups or salads, but not much. And lentils…well, I just don’t like them.

Squash is another one. I like to use it in recipes, such as my Shaker Squash Rolls and Harvest Bisque. But on its own, I just don’t like very much.

Except for this dish! I like the squash in this recipe. Yes, it's mixed with apples and cranberries, both of which I really enjoy. And the orange-maple sauce adds to the appeal. However, if that is what it takes to get me to eat cubes of good-for-me squash, then it works!

This recipe, which I developed for a Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper article, would make a great side dish for Thanksgiving. I used kobocha squash, but you could try it with butternut or pumpkin. The recipe, minus the cubed squash, would also make a great filling for the inside of an acorn or carnival squash.  

Winter Squash, Cranberry and Apple Bake
Adapted from Rolling Prairie Cookbook by Nancy O’Connor
Serves 4 to 6 people

Juice and zest of 2 small or 1 large orange
4 tablespoons pure maple syrup (the real stuff, not imitation)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds of peeled and cubed winter squash 
1/2 pound fresh cranberries (or 1/4 cup dried cranberries) 
2 large apples, pealed and cubed
1/2 cup raisins
Cinnamon, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, orange zest, maple syrup, and salt. Set aside.

Butter an 11- by 7-inch baking dish. Add the squash, cranberries, apples and raisins and stir to combine. Pour the orange juice mixture over the top. Sprinkle a light dusting of cinnamon over the top. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Stir to coat the mixture with the sauce in the bottom of the baking dish before serving.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Chicken Chowder for Halloween

Happy Halloween!

I enjoy this festive night. Young ones finally get to wear the costumes they have talked about for weeks, beguiled by the promise of full candy bags and the mystery of a nighttime adventure in streets filled with spooky creatures. Their parents spend the evening juggling tasks: Taking the kids trick or treating, handing out candy, and trying to get everyone to eat a healthy meal before diving into the candy pile.

Yes, grown-ups, this includes you, too. I know the seduction of a full Halloween candy bowl!

To simplify the evening, make a big pot of this easy Chicken Chowder. The recipe features leftover chicken (a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket works), and can be made in advance and kept warm until time to eat.

I made this recipe many times last winter. The Picky Eater loved it, except for one ingredient. He asked, “Why do you put potatoes in it?”

I answered, “Because chowder traditionally has potatoes.”

“I don’t like potatoes in soup,” he said. (This was news to me!) “Can’t you put noodles in instead?”

“Um, sure,” I said. “Then it’s creamy chicken noodle soup.”

He was happy.

Whether you use potatoes or noodles, this soup will fill-up and nourish all the goblins in your house.

(It is also a great basic chowder recipe. Just switch out the chicken for corn, clams, fish or anything else you would like in chowder.)

Chicken Chowder
Serves 6 to 8 people

4 slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
1 large onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
4 tablespoons flour
10 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 to 6 carrots, sliced
2 large potatoes, cubed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 cups diced cooked chicken
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium high heat. Add the cut-up bacon and cook until brown and crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with paper towels, leaving the bacon fat in the pot. Set the cooked bacon aside.

Lower the heat to medium and add the onion and celery. Saute until the onion is tender and translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the onion-celery mixture and stir for 1 minute, until the fat is absorbed by the flour. Pour in the chicken broth, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the carrots, potatoes, and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to low, cover and simmer until the carrots and potatoes are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Once the vegetables are tender, add the cooked chicken to heat through. Then pour in the cream or half and half. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

To serve, ladle the chowder into bowls and top with the cooked bacon.     

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn Mulled Wine for the Holidays

Now that autumn has chilled the air, my thoughts turned to beverages that warm the body and soul. Besides a morning cup of coffee (or two...maybe three) and afternoon tea, I wanted a grown-up drink to sip in the evening while watching seasonal movies or reading a cozy book.

My first thought was hot apple cider with a little added brandy or cinnamon schnapps, but that didn't strike my taste fancy. Then I considered hot chocolate with the addition of a coffee or Irish liqueur, but it didn't seem cold enough for such a rich drink.

Ah, mulled wine! I've always wanted to try it, ever since watching George Bailey and Clarence, Angel Second Class, order drinks at Martini’s—or what George thought was Martini’s—in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. When Clarence decides it’s not nearly cold enough for a flaming rum punch, he orders, “Mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Off with you, me lad, and be lively.”

My version starts with a bottle of Missouri’s Baltimore Bend Vineyard’s C2, but any good dry red wine will do. The addition of apple cider and brown sugar provides sweetness, balanced by fresh orange juice and zest. Cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and half of a nutmeg add spice, and a final splash of brandy gives warmth beyond the stove’s heat. 

Mulled wine not only warms up a late autumn evening, it will also be lovely served as an after-Thanksgiving-dinner drink. Plus, I can vision keeping a pot on the stove for a holiday party, Christmas Eve celebration, a wind-down drink on Christmas evening, or a warm beverage to see in the New Year.

Mulled Wine with Apple Cider

1 (750 ml) bottle dry read wine
4 cups apple cider
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 to 4 cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
1/2 whole nutmeg
The juice and zest of 1 large orange
1/4 cup brandy
Cinnamon sticks and orange peels, for garnish

Combine all of the ingredients except the brandy in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the brandy. Serve in mugs with a cinnamon stick and an orange peel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Slow-Cooker Ham and Beans

I’m beginning to feel more like myself again. While the underlying sadness of losing The Picky Eater is still there, now memories of him bring more smiles than tears. I’m glad. He was such a happy person and I want to remember him in happy ways.

Here is one example: A few days ago I was organizing my freezer. You know how it is when items migrate to the back and you discover a pork chop from 1999. Well, my freezer wasn't that bad, but it could be if I didn't keep on top of it.

In my digging, I discovered a large bone and bits from a ham The Picky Eater ordered off of a home shopping channel last holiday season. My sweetie was a very trusting person and believed every sales pitch he saw, which got scary when he watched those channels when I wasn't around to help him see the reality of what they are selling.

That’s what happened on a late November afternoon. I came home from somewhere to his excited announcement, “I just bought a ham. It looks so good!”

Oh no! I tried to be equally excited. “That’s great,” I said, then asked the inevitable, “How much did it cost?”
“It’s only three payments of $23,” was the answer.

After a pause, I said, “So you bought a $69 ham?”

I could see the wheels turning in The Picky Eater’s mind. Then he gave me a sheepish smile. “Yeah, I guess I did. That was too much, wasn't it?”

Actually, the ham was both delicious and huge. We had many dinners and sandwiches from it, and my just-discovered the leftovers would make one more meal—a pot of old-fashioned ham and beans.

I grew up eating this dish a lot, usually with a large slab of cornbread on the side. It was a meal I missed when living in New England, where a leftover ham bone was used for split-pea soup, and no one seemed to like it paired with beans. When I moved to Kansas, I was thrilled to find ham and beans on many restaurant menus. Of course, The Picky Eater didn't like it, so I never made it at home.

My only complaint about this dish is it can be a little bland. So instead of using all water, I used part water and part chicken broth. I also added thyme and a bay leaf. One important note: Don’t add salt. Ham is very salty, so there should be plenty in the finished dish. If you don’t have a ham bone, just use a ham hock or ham steak instead.

Slow-Cooker Ham and Beans
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound dried Great Northern beans
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 large onion, diced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 leftover ham bone, or 1 ham hock or ham steak

Rinse the beans and remove any stones or discolored beans. Add them to the slow cooker. Add the remaining ingredients. Cook on low for 7 to 9 hours, or until the beans are tender. Remove the bone and cut up any large bits of ham before serving.