Friday, August 27, 2010

Easy Grilled Eggplant

It's a shame there's really no way to make eggplant pretty, because it tastes so much better than it looks. As I've mentioned before, it's also perfect on the grill when it's sliced about 1/2 inch thick - won't fall through the grates and is substantial enough at that thickness that it doesn't get too mushy either! Combining a couple of salad dressings and brushing them on before grilling doesn't hurt.

1 medium to large ripe eggplant, sliced in rounds 1/2 thick
1/3 cup Ken's Lite Sun-dried Tomato Vinaigrette
1/3 cup Kraft Greek Vinaigrette salad dressing
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Kosher salt

Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt and let stand for at least 30 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry. Lay the slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle with garlic powder and pepper. Mix the two salad dressings together and brush half of it over the slices of eggplant on one side.

Grill over medium heat until browned on the bottoms, turn and brush the cooked side with dressing. Continue cooking until the bottoms are browned as well and the eggplant is tender but still firm.

Note: I use a disposable grill pan with holes in it to do this because it makes it easier to transfer the eggplant to the oven, but you can grill it directly on the grate and use a spatula to put the slices back on a baking pan.

While the eggplant is grilling, preheat the broiler in the oven. When the eggplant is cooked, transfer the slices to a baking sheet (or just put your whole disposable grill pan on a baking sheet) and sprinkle with the mozzarella cheese. Broil until cheese is melted and just turning golden. As an alternative to mozzarella alone, feta, a blend of feta and mozzarella or an Italian four cheese blend would also be delicious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cheddar Garlic Biscuits

These are rather like the ones at Red Lobster, but in my humble opinion, better! I use freshly shredded sharp cheddar for more flavor and add a little garlic powder right into the biscuit mix so it can bake in, rather than just being on the top of the biscuits. My other secret to making the biscuits into light fluffly little pillows is to line the baking sheet with parchment paper, and to set the biscuits close together so that they don't get a crusty edge on them.

You can buy pre-shredded cheddar, but I think taking the few minutes to shred it freshly gives a better and sharper cheese flavor. To make cheese easier to shred, freeze the block for 10 minutes beforehand; cleanup is a snap if you freeze the shredder and then just brush the frozen bits of cheese off it before washing!

I have three different size biscuit cutters and I used the smallest one to make these, so I got 13 out of the batch. I think the smaller ones work better as an accompaniment to a stew or chili, which is what I made to go with these.

2 1/4 cups Bisquick (I think it works better than Jiffy Mix)
1/2 cup butter, divided
2/3 cup milk
1 cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 teaspoons garlic powder, divided
2 teaspoons dried parsley

Preheat oven to 450. Melt 5 tablespoons of the butter and add half of the garlic powder and all of the parsley to it. Set aside.

Stir in remaining garlic powder into the Bisquick. Cut the rest of the butter, still very cold, into the Bisquick so that it is tiny pieces and is worked into the baking mix; it should look like small peas. If your oven is slow to preheat, at this point, stick the mixture in the freezer until the oven is ready. Mix in shredded cheddar and then stir in milk.

Turn dough onto a floured surface. Knead 8 strokes, and then roll out 1/2 inch thick. Cut into biscuits and place so they are NOT QUITE touching on a baking sheet covered in baking parchment. Bake on a rack in the top 1/3 of the oven for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, stir the melted butter and garlic mixture and brush generously over the biscuit tops. Return to the oven for 2-3 minutes. Let cool 5-10 minutes before serving warm.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake

Nutella, that wonderfully nutty chocolate spread that is good on SO many things (including a spoon!), is fantastic in this dense, amazingly rich cheesecake. It's very easy to make and the results are mind-blowing.

Normally, I prefer to use Oreo's baking crumbs to make chocolate crusts for cheesecakes, but Publix doesn't carry them, so I grabbed a box of chocolate Teddy Grahams and pulverized them in my food processor. Their lighter chocolate intensity was actually a perfect balance for the milk chocolatey flavor of Nutella.

1 box chocolate Teddy Grahams or other chocolate graham crackers
1 cup whole hazelnuts
1 stick unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350. Toast the hazelnuts at 350 for 10 minutes and let cool. Keep the oven on. While the hazelnuts cool a bit, grind the Teddy Grahams in the food processor to make crumbs. They don't have to be perfectly or uniform. Melt the butter in the microwave and mix in the crumbs. Rub the cooled hazelnuts in a dish towel or paper towels to loosen the skins, and grind the skinned hazelnuts (they won't all come off and that's okay!) in the food processor to coarse crumbs. Add to the crumbs and butter and mix well.

Spray a 9 inch springform pan with non-stick cooking spray and pat crumb mixture into the bottom of it. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Leave the oven on.

While crust bakes, bring several cups of water to a boil and pour into a large baking pan on the bottom rack of the oven after removing the baked crust.

For cheesecake filling:
3 oz pkgs regular or reduced fat cream cheese
1/2 cup brown suar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla or Frangelico liqueur
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 jar Nutella

Beat the cream cheese and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Add vanilla and cornstarch and beat again for a minute until well mixed.

Pour onto baked crust. Using a large tablespoon, drop spoonfulls of the Nutella in 5 or 6 places on the cheesecake batter. Swirl with a toothpick, knife or skewer. Repeat with another 4 spoons of Nutella. Save a little bit for garnish!

Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. Turn the oven off and crack the door. Let cake cool in the oven at least 30 minutes, then 30 minutes at room temp before refrigerating. Refrigerate overnight.

Optional garnish: I made a decorating bag out of waxed paper and warmed the rest of the Nutella for a few seconds in the microwave, then piped it all around JUST THE EDGE of the cheesecake, then used a knife to draw it down the sides. It was beautiful and preserved the lovely swirl pattern in the top of the cake. Serve chilled.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grilled Eggplant and Tomatoes with Feta

Eggplant is perfect for the grill - nice big slices don't have much risk of falling through the grates for one thing. It cooks quickly and pairs very nicely with fire-roasted tomatoes, an Italian dressing with roasted red peppers in it and tomato and basil flavored feta cheese for an easy warm side that pairs well with grilled chicken or can be served on toasts like caponata.

The key to cooking eggplant is salting it and letting it stand, sprinkled liberally with sea salt, for at least 30 minutes before rinsing it WELL and then cooking it. The salt will cause small beads of brown liquid to form on the surface of the slices; it's that liquid that can make eggplant bitter! After rinsing, blot the slices dry and continue as below.
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 5-8 plum tomatoes, depending on size
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, flavored or plain
  • 1/3 cup Kraft Roasted Red Pepper Italian Dressing or other Italian salad dressing
Slice the plum tomatoes in half, lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds and liquid from the inside. Place the halved tomatoes in a bowl and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and pepper and garlic powder to taste. Set aside.

Slice the eggplant into rounds, salt, rinse and blot dry as described above. Brush the slices with a little olive oil and sprinkle with garlic powder and pepper to taste.

Prepare a grill to medium heat, about 250 degrees. Grill the eggplant and tomato halves until lightly blackened and the eggplant is tender, about 5 minutes a side - do not grill the eggplant directly over hot coals - it WILL burn! Let cool slightly and chop the eggplant into roughly bite-size pieces. Place in a bowl.

Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the eggplant. Add salad dressing and feta. Toss to combine. Let stand a few minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Note: I grilled the eggplant directly on the grill grates but used a basket for the tomatoes. It isn't necessary, but it did make the job MUCH easier when they got really soft and done!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mustard Herb Char Grilled Vegetables

I made these for dinner Sunday night and they were really good. I just bought a grilling basket and wanted to try it out - this is the perfect way to use it! Be sure to cut the vegetables in big pieces so they don't fall through the basket.

I made my own vinaigrette-style marinade for the veggies, but any oil and vinegar type salad dressing could work: Italian, a pesto dressing, raspberry vinaigrette - even pesto thinned out with olive oil and white wine vinegar would work. Just don't use anything creamy or really sugary like ranch dressing or honey mustard because they will burn too fast!

Zucchini, small red and yellow peppers split in half and halved cremini mushrooms were what looked good at Publix Saturday, but other vegetables would be great in this too, including asparagus (cut in pieces if desired), onions, eggplant, yellow squash and seeded, halved plum tomatoes.

For the marinade:
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon each dried dill, rosemary and thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Whisk until well-combined.

Cut the zucchini in thick slices and halve those. Halve the mushrooms. Cut the peppers in large pieces. Toss together in a bowl with the marinade. Refrigerate if you are doing this several hours ahead; it can marinate at room temp for an hour or two. If it is refrigerated, take it out 30 minutes before grilling to come to room temperature.

Drain the vegetables and place in a grilling basket, on a perforated grill pan or in a foil packet with several slashes in the top and bottom. Grill over medium heat (gas grill) or over a prepared charcoal grill that is about 300 degrees for 15 minutes, turning occasionally. If desired, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese before serving.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Crockpot "Rotisserie" Chicken

This is sooooo easy to make and it's perfect for throwing together in the morning so you can come home to dinner already done. The recipe is truly only limited by your tastes and imagination. I've included the basic recipe here plus some variations that I've made. I have a crockpot that has a removeable insert, so I've put this together and refrigerated it the night before, then just put the insert back into the heating element before leaving for work.

Before assembling this, make four or five balls of aluminum foil about the size of your fist. Place those in the bottom of the crockpot. They will elevate the chicken so that the juices drain down and it "roasts" instead of boiling.
  • 1 3-4 pound whole chicken
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 head of garlic, sliced in half across
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon softened butter
Rinse the chicken in cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Trim excess fat from the tail or cavity areas if needed. Lift the skin over the breast and rub the meat under it with the butter. Sprinkle the top of the chicken with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity with the garlic and lemon; if it doesn't all fit, just put the rest into the crockpot. Set the chicken on top of the foil and cook over high heat for 4-6 hours or low heat for 8-10. When done, be very careful trying to remove the chicken from the crockpot - I've had them get so tender that the top comes completely off.

Also try these variations:

Mix 2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning with the butter before rubbing it into the breast meat. Sprinkle the chicken with additional Cajun seasoning if desired. Keep the garlic, but skip the lemon.

Italian Salmoriglio
Instead of butter, rub the chicken with 1/4 cup olive oil combined with 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest and 2 teaspoons dried oregano, under and over the skin. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stuff with lemon and garlic as in the basic recipe.

Combine 1/4 cup olive oil with 2 tablespoons of your favorite taco or fajita seasoning mix. Rub the chicken above and under the skin with that mixture. Stuff the cavity with a few cloves smashed garlic, 1/4 yellow onion and a small handful of fresh cilantro. If you like it spicy, add a coarsely chopped fresh jalapeno pepper!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Garlic Herb Simmered Zucchini

This is an easy and delicious way to cook zucchini. My boyfriend's 18 year old son ate it accidentally and loved it, when he avoided zucchini like the plague before that (he thought it was cucumbers and ate it!). I used Lipton's Savory Herb with Garlic Recipe Soup mix to make this and several other new dishes that will appear in the next few weeks. I bought it with a coupon and fell in love with this stuff! I can't imagine it as soup, but it is delicious for cooking all kinds of things.
  • 1 1/2 pounds zucchini, sliced into thin disks (about 3 good sized ones, 4 medium)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pkg Lipton Savory Herb with Garlic Recipe Soup Mix
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups water
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium high heat. Add zucchini and saute until zucchini begins to soften. Whisk soup mix and 1 cup water together, and add to zucchini. Simmer over medium high heat until zucchini is as tender as you like it and soup mix has reduced a bit. If it cooks down too quickly, which can happen depending on how wide your pan is, add another half cup of water. Sprinkle with pepper and serve. I use a slotted spoon to serve this so the soup is mostly left behind; just discard it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Symphony Cake

I came up with this for my boss' birthday, and it is so named because I included the flavors in her favorite candy bar, which happens to be Hershey's Symphony with toffee and almonds. My good friend Sarah Bramblette gave me the base recipe, which is called Chocolate Cavity Maker Cake and is on Of course I couldn't leave it alone so..... here's the end result. I reduced the sugar in the base recipe quite a bit, which is a good thing given what I ended up with as a final product!

  • 1 box Pillsbury Reduced Sugar Chocolate cake mix
  • 1 large box sugar-free, fat-free instant chocolate pudding
  • 16 ounces fat-free sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup triple strength instant coffee or double strength espresso
  • 1 bag Heath toffee bits for baking
  • 1 1/2 cups sliced almonds
  • 1 jar Smucker's Hot Caramel Ice Cream Topping
Spray a Bundt pan with no-stick cooking spray and flour it (or use Baker's Secret Spray that already has flour in it - much easier!). This cake requires some arm muscle to stir it together. Combine the dry cake mix and pudding mix. Stir in eggs, instant coffee and oil, then sour cream or yogurt. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the toffee bits and add the rest to the cake. Reserve 1/4 cup of the sliced almonds and add the rest to the batter. It will be VERY thick!

Bake cake at
350 for 50 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes before removing from the pan. I let mine cool overnight. Turn the cake onto a plate. Heat the caramel topping until liquid; 30 second bursts in the microwave at half power work great! Pour hot caramel over the cake and sprinkle with reserved almonds, then toffee bits. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Amazing Creamed Spinach

This is easy, light and versatile. Even people who don't like spinach love it! Besides eating it as is, try using it as a topping for baked potatoes, toss with cooked pasta or add mozzarella cheese to it for spinach dip, perfect for serving with pita chips or tortilla chips.

The secret for the flavor in this version of creamed spinach is exactly that: flavor! It's not just spinach and cream like some are.
  • 1 small shallot, peeled and minced (or 1/2 a large one)
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (or 1/2-1 teaspoon garlic powder)
  • 4 tablespoons light butter or margarine
  • 1 Knorr chicken stock cube
  • 16 ounce bag frozen chopped spinach
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups fat free half and half
  • 3 wedges Laughing Cow Light herb and garlic cheese
  • 1/4-1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook until softened. Break chicken stock cube into small pieces and dissolve it into the butter. Add frozen spinach and 2 tablespoons water. Cook for two minutes, then cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until spinach is completely thawed and heated through, about 10 minutes. Add dill and pepper.

If there is a good bit of water in the pan, raise heat to medium high and cook the liquid off until it is almost gone. Stir in half and half and wedges of Laughing Cow cheese and cook over medium heat until cheese is melted and incorporated smoothly. Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes to reduce the half and half a bit. Stir in Parmesan cheese and serve!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Faves & Fails: Cheerios, Two Sisters Gourmet, Yogi

Yogi Granola Crisps
I'm not usually a fan of so-called health food, but my friend Clayton brought a bag of these Yogi Granola Crisps to work one day, and we were ALL hooked on them immediately. They have a great crunch and just the right amount of sweet blueberry flavor in the Mountain Blueberry Flax variety. Yogi also makes these in Fresh Strawberry Crunch and Baked Cinnamon Raisin. Other than being low in fat, they aren't spectacularly healthy, but they taste GREAT! They are sweetened with evaporated cane juice, so no high-fructose corn syrup, which is always a plus. (No trans-fats either!) I can't wait to get the strawberry flavor and toss them onto some frozen yogurt. The crips are also "all-natural," which means nothing to me because there are plenty of awful things you do not want to eat that are also all-natural (cyanide, arsenic). I will say that I read the ingredient list and there was nothing overtly chemical on it: Oats, Barley, Spelt, Amaranth, Quinoa, Brown Rice Flour, Evaporated Cane Juice, Vegetable Oil, Flax Seed, BlueberryFruit Puree, Natural Flavors, Corn Flour, Salt, Barley Malt Syrup and Natural Vitamin E. The website also has a full ingredient glossary with great and accurate descriptions of each item, which backs up the all-natural claim. Yogi also makes teas and cereals.

Chocolate Cheerios
Who doesn't love Cheerios? One of the earliest foods we ate as kids, they are now available in 11 flavors. I already loved the Fruity Cheerios because they tasted like Froot Loops but without that oh-so-lovely greasy taste (yuck!) and enough sugar to require a visit to the dentist; ditto for the Apple Cinnamon flavor versus Apple Jacks. When Chocolate Cheerios were released, I grabbed a box at the first opportunity and fell in love. Think Cocoa Puffs, but again without the shock-inducing levels of sugar. They taste great, with a deep cocoa flavor that I love. I don't think of them remotely as breakfast; instead, I eat them as a great healthy (well, healthier!) alternative to a rich dessert at night. Dry out of the box, with milk, stirred into vanilla yogurt or sprinkled over low-fat ice cream, they are a chocolate-lover's dream. Like all Cheerios, they are made with oats, so they also have more protein and fiber than the junk cereals we ate as kids.

Two Sister's Gourmet Over the Edge Herbed Spinach Dip Mix
I tasted this at a PartyLite candle party my friend Sherri hosted; Two Sisters was merged into PartyLite about a year ago, and PartyLite consultants now sell the products. I will say there were a lot of delicious products to taste including some inventive preserves such as Ripe Pear Chardonnay and Blackberry Cabernet. The Snickerdoodle Cheeseball mix, mixed with cream cheese and rolled in crumb topping, was also a hit, but my favorite item a dip made with Over the Edge Herbed Spinach Dip Mix. I bought a gift set that included it as well as three other seasoning blends: Peppery Herbed, Outrageously Garlic and Lemony Dill. So far all have been delicious, but the one I couldn't wait to get to was the spinach dip mix. It includes dehydrated spinach, garlic, salt and other seasonings, and it is delicious. The major drawback though - and this may be because of the volume of spinach in the bottle - is that you have to use a LOT to get any real flavor. I mixed some with 1/2 cup sour cream to top baked potatoes, and I had to use almost three tablespoons in that amount of sour cream for the flavor to come through. At $7.45 a bottle, plus tax and shipping, that's annoying! The Peppery Herbed blend packs a lot more punch for the same price. So although I can attest that the mix makes a lovely dip, and it is great in scrambled eggs, the amount needed to get the real flavor of it is NOT justified by the price.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Southwestern Simmered Chicken

I made this one night because I had marinated chicken in McCormick's Southwest Marinade, planning to grill, and it rained. I had Rotel canned tomatoes with chiles on hand, and I came up with this as a way to use them together, along with some white wine and chicken stock. It was very easy and incredibly tasty. Because others in my house don't love spicy food the way I do, I used 1/2 can of the Rotel tomatoes and 1 can diced tomatoes with olive oil and garlic in them. Feel free to use 1 can of each kind of tomatoes or reverse those proportions to suit your taste.

To make dinner easier to pull together, I served this with Betty Crocker's Roasted Garlic Cheddar Mashed Potatoes and leftover grilled zucchini from the night before.

To serve 6:
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
  • 1 pkg McCormick Grill Mates Southwest Marinade Mix
  • Vinegar and water required by marinade mix - omit oil
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup water with 1 Knorr reduced sodium chicken stock cube dissolved in it
  • 1/2-1 can Ro-tel tomatoes with green chiles
  • 1/2-1 can Garlic and Onion or Olive Oil and Garlic diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup shredded 2% milk sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3 tablespoons cold butter
Cut chicken into 6 servings. Combine marinade mix with vinegar and water. Marinate chicken in the fridge, up to 24 hours. Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade.

Spray a skillet with non-stick cooking spray and heat over medium high heat. Brown chicken all over, adding more spray if needed. Add white wine and raise heat to high. Cook wine down until syrupy.

While wine cooks down, pulse tomatoes in a food processor or blender. You don't want them perfectly smooth, more of a chunky puree. After wine has concentrated, add chicken stock cube and water, plus the tomatoes, to the skillet. Stir well to combine and let simmer over medium high until tomatoes are very thick. Remove chicken from pan, top each piece with a scant spoonful of sauce, sprinkle with cheese and cover with a pan or metal lid to let residual heat melt the cheese.

Add COLD butter, cut into small pieces, into remaining sauce, and swirl through it until melted and sauce is creamy. Serve sauce with chicken.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Carrot Cake Swirled Cheesecake

This cheesecake came out of a conversation about pot roast, which led to the topic of over-cooked carrots, which I personally loathe. That led to a question to me, from my friend Clayton: "Have you ever heard of carrot pie?" I said I hadn't, but "if you think about it, it's not far removed from sweet potato or pumpkin pie, and there is carrot CAKE." A minute later, inspiration hit. The BEST part of carrot cake, everyone knows, is the cream cheese frosting! At that point, I decided to skip trying carrot pie and went straight to a carrot cake swirled cheesecake.

My initial thought was to brighten the carrot part to a more dramatic orange, thinking it would be great for Easter (because bunnies love carrots, right?). Then Clayton, also privileged to be an alum of the University of Miami, said "What about making it orange and green? A Hurricane cheesecake!" That sounded like a bit much to me (at first... I do bleed orange and green), but with St. Patrick's Day coming up, it occurred to me that I could do an orange, green and white swirled cheesecake - all the colors of the Irish flag.

Swirling three colors of batter was trickier than I anticipated, but the resulting cheesecake is orange and green swirled on top, with a few flecks of white, and a white layer underneath. Obviously, the green is not at all necessary, but like I said, it's St. Patrick's Day!

Despite some skepticism from people I talked to, the carrot cake part of the cheesecake was really easy, if a bit labor-intensive. It got rave reviews from everyone who tried it, and the carrot cakey-flavor was balanced nicely by the vanilla cheesecake. I only put walnuts in the crust, but they could certainly be sprinkled on top too. If you want to really go all out, a piped border of cream cheese frosting would do the trick.

For a 9 inch cheesecake:
First the crust:
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine
Combine all and press on the bottom only of an 9 inch springform pan. Bake 8-10 minutes at 350. Let cool.

  • 4 8 ounce pkgs cream cheese, softened
  • 4 eggs, room temp (take them out when you take the cream cheese out to soften)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
Beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. Add sugar and continue beating until sugar is absorbed. Add eggs one at a time, beating for one minute after each one is added. Add vanilla with one of the eggs. Sprinkle cornstarch over the batter and stir by hand, then beat one more minute with the mixer.

Divide batter in thirds. Set two thirds aside. To the other one third, add the following:
  • 3/4 cup carrot puree (see directions below - do not use baby food!)
  • 1-2 teaspoons cinnamon (depending on your taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon additional cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2-3 drops each red and yellow food coloring, optional
Whisk gently until combined.

Spray the sides of the springform pan with cooking spray. To fill the pan, place half of plain batter onto crust. Top with carrot batter. Repeat with plain batter and then swirl with a knife, working across and back and forth over the batter.

If you want to do the tri-color version above, take out 3/4 cup of the plain batter and add several drops green food coloring to it. Dot the green and orange batters on top of ALL of the plain batter instead of layering as I just described. Swirl the colors together and continue below.

Place a big roasting pan in the oven and fill with boiling water. Place cheesecake on rack above the roasting pan. Bake 50 minutes at 350 -- resist the temptation to peek! -- and then turn the oven off and open the door a little bit. Let the cheesecake cool in the oven for an hour, remove and finish cooling before refrigerating it. Refrigerate at least 8 hours before serving.

Cheesecakes crack -- it's a fact of life. This recipe is written with the tips and tricks that help stop that from happening: greasing the sides of the pan, adding cornstarch to stabilize the batter, not over-beating the eggs and adding a pan of water to the oven. If it still cracks, and it may, that's what whipped cream is for. UPDATE: When I made this again, I used an extra shot of cooking spray on the cheesecake pan ring, and lowered the oven temp to 325 and baked for 60 minutes. PERFECT!!! See here:

Carrot Puree:
Scrub and trim 2 large carrots. Cut into small pieces. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer 15-20 minutes or until VERY tender. Drain and let cool. Puree in food processor, adding a teaspoon or two of water to help make them smooth if needed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Faves & Fails: Products from Jell-O, McCormick and Green Giant

I'm trying something new this week.... instead of a recipe, I'm writing reviews about new (or new-to-me) foods that I want to share. Some of the reviews are good, some not so good. This will be an ongoing occasional series, and I'd love feedback from readers about my opinions, whether you agree or not.

Jell-O Mousse Temptations
I already liked Jell-O's line of 60 calorie puddings, especially the dark chocolate varieties, so when I saw the new Mousse Temptations in the store, I grabbed the Dark Chocolate Decadence right away. Last night I tried the Caramel Creme for the first time. Wow! Both are delicious, and the Dark Chocolate Decadence really tastes like chocolate mousse and has a great flavor, but it is lighter and airier than "real" chocolate mousse. The Caramel Creme tastes like creme brulee and is also light and airy. Both of these are great for anyone looking for a guilt-free dessert fix. I love chocolate, but I'm very glad Jell-O included a caramel variety for people who don't... or those who just want a change. The name has it right: these are tempting so don't give in and eat the entire six pack at once! At around $3 for six, even the price is guilt-free.

McCormick GrillMates Mojito Lime Marinade Mix
I love McCormick GrillMates dry marinade mixes. They come in a variety of flavors, are inexpensive, use the oil and vinegars I already have on hand and do a great job flavoring and tenderizing meats whether they are meant for the grill or not. The Zesty Herb and Tomato Garlic and Basil are two of my favorites. I also love the Baja Citrus, especially the variation on the package that uses orange juice and honey, so when I saw Mojito Lime, I was more than willing to try it, despite my concern that the mint might be overwhelming. It, like all the GrillMates mixes, has directions for making the marinade with oil, vinegar and water, as well as a variation version. For the Mojito Lime, the variation is to use lime juice and honey with the oil. I tried it on chicken breast, letting it marinate overnight in the fridge, and then threw it on the grill. It was outstanding. The mint was very subtle and blended perfectly with lime and a hint of Caribbean flavor including garlic and a slight chile spark. I loved it and will be trying it again soon with boneless pork loin ribs.

Green Giant Health Blends Frozen Vegetables
Green Giant is one of the most reliable names in frozen foods, and I liked the idea of their Health Blends, which include a mix of veggies targeted at a health goal plus a flavored sauce. There are five varieties: Healthy Weight, Healthy Vision, Immunity Blend, Digestive Health and Healthy Heart. They were on sale at my local Publix supermarket so I grabbed the Immunity Blend and the Digestive Health because they both contained vegetables I love and the sauces on the label sounded good. The Digestive health was navy beans, yellow squash and spinach in a garlic sauce; the Immunity Blend included carrots, red bell peppers and broccoli in an herb and garlic sauce.

I tried the Digestive Health blend first and was completely disappointed. First of all, I have learned that I do not like these "steam fresh" packages that require you to grab the sides of a package of boiling hot food and PULL on them to open it. To me, that's a recipe for burns and I'm sure someone will be suing over that sooner than later. Second, navy beans, squash and spinach have radically different cooking times in the real world and the end result, after following the microwaving instructions on the box, was that the navy beans were undercooked and the squash was a mushy disaster. Third, the sauce was revolting. I know it was supposed to be garlic, but I don't know what was really in there because I have never tasted garlic like that! After two bites, I threw the whole package away.

After that experience, I waited a while to try the Immunity Blend and it was just as bad. The sauce ended up watered down and had a very odd flavor - what little flavor there was, the broccoli was mushy and the carrots were still partially frozen, despite an 1100 watt microwave and following the directions; in fact, the package itself was so hot I had real trouble opening it - yet part of the contents was ice-cold. Again, I threw the whole package away after a couple of bites. I do not have ANY interest in trying any of the other three blends and I think the whole thing is a bad idea. It's much less expensive and better tasting to buy family size bags of vegetables, mix them if you want to and season them yourself. These by Green Giant cost too much in my opinion, and far worse than that, they taste awful.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chicken with Shallot Cream Sauce

I made this for Valentine's Day dinner, from stuff I happened to have on hand. It is absolutely incredible, and insanely easy at the same time. Braising (browning in fat then cooking in liquid) is a great cooking method for chicken because it ensures the chicken is cooked completely with no risk of drying it out. Shallots, wine, chicken broth and cream come together for a rich sauce that is simple to make.

Because it was a special occasion, I didn't bother with my usual low-fat cooking and used real heavy cream that I had left from creating a cake for a colleague's birthday. To lower the fat and calories, fat free half and half or a can of evaporated skim milk with 2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed into it would work as substitutes. Either one will require longer cooking time to thicken. The butter for browning the chicken can also be swapped for cooking spray - just keep a close on it to prevent burning.

For two servings:
  • 2 8 ounce boneless skinless chicken breasts (or four chicken tenders)
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine, divided in half
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 cup white wine (I used Lindeman's Chardonnay Riesling blend)
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Mix the flour with the garlic powder, salt and cayenne pepper. Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, making sure it's well coated. Melt half the butter or margarine in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Brown the chicken on one side, add the rest of the butter to the skillet, let it melt and brown the other side.

Add the chicken broth, shallots and thyme to the skillet. Raise the heat to high and let cook until the chicken broth is more than half gone. Add the wine and cook until thick and syrupy and reduced by half. Turn the chicken occasionally while it is braising. Remove the chicken from the pan. Add the heavy cream and whisk to combine. Cook over medium high heat until thickened. Let it bubble but not boil, and stir constantly. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

This is great with simple sides like steamed green veggies and rice pilaf or plain mashed potatoes. It's rich, so you don't need to put a ton of effort into complex sides to go with it. Of course, serve the same wine used in the sauce with the chicken!

A picture will be added soon - it was devoured before I took any!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Caesar Salad Burger

I love Caesar salad, but I'm tired of them with grilled chicken or shrimp. I love burgers, and since I live with a guy who loves them even more than I do, I grill them at least once a week. Pollo Tropical, a local grilled chicken chain in south Florida, used to make a chicken Caesar sandwich, so I thought "Why not translate that to a burger?" I'm sure I'm not the first, but I really liked the results. The burgers are seasoned with some of the ingredients that go into Caesar dressing, and then basically topped with Caesar salad.

When I make burgers, I only use 90% lean sirloin ground beef. I know a lot of grilling experts will say to use 80% lean ground chuck, but I hate dealing with all the flare-ups from the extra grease dripping on the coals. There's also a lot more shrinking with chuck, so even though the price per pound is generally lower, you need more meat to start with to have a decent-sized burger at the end.

Since I use a charcoal grill and only lump hardwood charcoal, the fire takes a while to get going. I light it before I do anything else!

For four burgers:
  • 1 1/3 pounds 90% lean ground sirloin
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
Combine meat with seasonings and shape into four patties. I tend make mine a little larger and thinner so they cook more evenly. Place on a plate and freeze for 20 minutes. If your charcoal fire isn't being cooperative, don't put the patties in to freeze and have to take them out... just wait a while before freezing them. The point of freezing is to solidify them a bit so they go on the grill more easily and don't fall through the grates, since the added liquid from the Worchestershire can cause exactly that.

Before grilling burgers, spray both sides with Pam or other non-stick spray. Trust me - it's worth the few seconds effort! Grill burgers until at least medium-well, which is 155 degrees internal temperature and should take about 5-7 minutes per side.

While the burgers freeze and cook, assemble the rest of the burger materials.

Fry 8 strips center cut bacon until crisp; drain on paper towels.

Toss 3 cups torn romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing to taste. My favorite is Cardini's; Caesar Cardini invented the Caesar salad at his famous Tijuana restaurant in the 1920s - why use any other brand? Remember that Caesar dressing is very fattening; use it sparingly or buy the light version if you're watching calories and fat.

When burgers are done, top each one with one tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese and continue cooking so cheese can melt. It likely won't melt completely - that's fine!

While the grill is still hot, brush each inside surface of four buns (any style is fine!) with melted butter or liquid margarine - I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray is great! - and sprinkle with garlic powder. Grill buns until golden on the inside surfaces.

To assemble, put a bit of salad mix on the bottom half of the bun, top with a burger, then bacon, then more salad and the top half of the bun. If desired, more Caesar dressing can be added to the buns or burgers. If you are serving serious salad fans, serve more salad on the side, with croutons and Parmesan cheese added to it.

For a lower cal version, of course you can use ground turkey or chicken, but the point for me was to make a real beef burger!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I have come to love sweet potatoes since I got away from my nightmarish childhood versions loaded with brown sugar, honey, marshmallows or some ungodly combination of the three. The truth is that sweet potatoes don't need ANY additional sugar... hence the name... and in my opinion, savory or spicy flavorings compliment their natural sweetness without being cloying. This roasted version cooks up crispy with no fat and tons of flavor - my favorite combination.

Making these is easy except for ONE thing: cutting the whole potatoes into halves and then quarters. Sweet potatoes are HARD. If you don't have a lot of arm strength, either find someone who does to help or get the smallest sweet potatoes you can find. Even with a freshly sharpened chef's knife, I had to exert major pressure to cut through the large sweet potatoes I had on hand. I don't have a cleaver and I'm not comfortable with them, but I imagine that might make the job easier too.

For 2-4 side servings:
3 large sweet potatoes or 6 small ones
1 1/2 tablespoons Caribbean jerk seasoning (McCormick is great) or Cajun seasoning (I use Zatarain's)
Non-stick cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 375. With a vegetable peeler, scrape the peels off the potatoes. Cut each potato in half, then in quarters and then into bite sized chunks.

Spray a large baking pan heavily with cooking spray. Lay the potatoes in the pan and spray them with cooking spray. Sprinkle with the seasoning of your choice. (note: jerk tends to be hotter than Cajun!). Toss to distribute the seasoning and re-arrange the potatoes so they are in a single layer. Use multiple pans if needed.

Roast 30-40 minutes, shaking the pan a few times during cooking and turning once if desired.

Note: these do not keep well - they get soft when chilled - so don't make more than needed.

Variation: if both Cajun and Jerk are too spicy for your tastes, try this combination: 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. It's almost the same flavorings I use in my Mashed Sweet Potatoes recipe.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pesto Perfection

I realize a lot of people are over pesto because it was used (overused!) on so many restaurant menus for so long. But used correctly, and taking advantage of the different flavors that are widely available today, pesto can be absolutely invaluable to a busy home cook. A little goes a long way, so pesto is also a cost effective way to add a spark to other dishes easily. I usually have classic basil pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto on hand because both are available at virtually every grocery store in America, thanks to Classico. Additionally, I find specialty flavors like roasted red pepper and artichoke at Italian markets and Whole Foods.

No matter what kind of pesto you like, it's easy to add a little to basic dishes to jazz them up. Try some of these tips to get a lot of flavor with almost zero effort!
  • Add 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato pesto to any packaged noodle dish like Knorr Pasta Sides Alfredo or PastaRoni Angel Hair Primavera. This also works with refrigerated alfredo sauce.
  • Thin pesto with an equal amount of very hot water. Brush on chicken, pork, steaks, fish, shrimp or vegetables on the grill.
  • Thin pesto with an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil - about 1 tablespoon of each - and toss over hot cooked veggies. Very good on zucchini, summer squash, grilled eggplant and asparagus.
  • Blend a teaspoon or two of your favorite pesto with plain or veggie cream cheese to build a better bagel.
  • Spray a whole wheat tortilla with no-stick cooking spray and sprinkle with garlic powder. Bake until crispy (you might need to poke it with a fork during baking.) Spread with one wedge Laughing Cow Light Herb & Garlic Spreadable Cheese, top with pesto and, if desired, a little shredded mozzarella or grated Parmesan. Return to the oven for a few minutes until melted and bubbly. Perfect in the toaster oven!
  • Whisk a couple of teaspoons pesto into two large eggs and 2 tablespoons milk or 1/4 cup Egg Beaters. Spray a 8-10 inch skillet with no-stick spray and heat over medium high heat. Pour in eggs, cook a few minutes until the bottom is set, flip over and finish cooking. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, roll up and enjoy a cross between a French omelette and an Italian frittata.
  • Spread a little of any variety of pesto on crescent roll dough and sprinkle with grated Parmesan before rolling and baking.
  • For an easy pesto pizza, spread a Boboli pizza shell with pesto, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and top with mozzarella cheese. Top basil pesto with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomato pesto with fresh basil leaves and spinach, and red pepper pesto with fresh spinach and black olives. Top with more mozzarella and bake according to shell package directions.
  • Of course, classic pasta with pesto is always easy with jarred pesto. The mistake most people make when using pesto on pasta is using too much pesto! For 1/2 pound pasta, cook pasta and - this is KEY - before you drain the pasta, save 1 cup of the cooking water! Return drained pasta to pot, add a few tablespoons pesto and 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Mix well to combine, allowing the hot water to dilute the pesto and help it coat the pasta evenly. Add pesto and water until it tastes right to you. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Seasoned Breadsticks and Crescent Rolls

Everyone loves crescent rolls - Pillsbury's breadsticks, made of similar dough, are equally irresistible. Make either one often enough though, and they can get a little boring. It is SO easy to add some flavor to either one, without adding any calories or any extra work. Since you're already rolling dough into crescents or twisting it for breadsticks, what could be easier than adding a spritz of liquid margarine a sprinkle of seasonings? Just choose seasonings to compliment whatever is already on the menu.

Roll your crescents or twist breadsticks as directed on the can. Place on baking sheet, and spray each one with liquid margarine (like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Spray), non-stick cooking spray or olive oil if you have a Misto or something like it. If you don't have any of those, melt a little margarine or butter and brush that on, or do the same with olive oil. Then sprinkle rolls with a little of any of the following:
  • Cajun seasoning blend
  • Lemon Pepper seasoning
  • Garlic powder and freshly ground black pepper (pictured above)
  • Dried basil, oregano and garlic powder - perfect for Italian food, with or without Parmesan cheese and some sauce for dipping!
  • Garlic powder and grated Parmesan cheese
  • Old Bay seasoning (great with seafood!)
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Barbecue seasoning blend - better on breadsticks than crescents, and don't over do it!
  • Dried thyme leaves and black pepper - great with Loaded Baked Potato Soup!
How easy is that? Now that they are widely available, I use the reduced fat crescent rolls whenever possible - that little bit of melted butter I add with the seasonings is that much less waistline damage. Honestly, once I forgot the butter step altogether and just sprinkled the rolls with garlic powder and fresh black pepper and they were still wonderful.

TIP: when I bake crescent rolls on a less-than-shiny-new baking sheet, I put a liner of parchment paper (NOT waxed paper!) on the pan first. The paper makes a layer of insulation between the hotter dark pan and the rolls and keeps them from getting too dark on the bottoms.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BBQ Chicken Quesadilla

This is so easy I hate to even call it a recipe, but it's too good not to share! Grocery store rotisserie chickens are a gift to busy people who still want to eat well, but using up leftover can be a challenge. This quesadilla is easy and still good for you; even if it's not made with the low-fat cheese and whole-wheat, low-fat tortilla I used, it's still not bad! 1/2 cup leftover cooked chicken, sliced or shredded
  • 1 soft taco size (medium) flour tortilla - I used Mission Plus 96% Fat-free
  • 1 tablespoon BBQ sauce of your choice - I used Sweet Baby Ray's Honey Chipotle
  • 2-3 tablespoons chopped onion - pre-diced frozen makes this recipe even faster!
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-fat shredded Mexican blend or cheddar cheese
  • Non-stick cooking spray
Heat the chicken in the microwave for about 45 seconds to warm it through. Spread BBQ sauce on tortilla; arrange chicken on one half.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat, spray with cooking spray and cook onions for 3-4 minutes, until they are softened and beginning to brown a little bit. Top chicken with cooked onions and then cheese. Fold tortilla in half (some brands need to be warmed for a few seconds to make that easier!) and spray the top half with cooking spray.

Place quesadilla in hot skillet, spray side down, and spray the new top of it with cooking spray. Cook, turning once or twice, until as golden and crispy as you like it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Citrus Butter Sauce

My sister Andrea made this sauce for an Irish Christmas dinner she did for a Christmas Around the World event at her church. She served it with a roasted goose, the first one she'd ever made. The photo here is of their table, with the sauce in the front in the lovely shamrock bowl. She gave me the recipe, and although it is delicious as it is, I couldn't resist tweaking it with some variations.

First, the basic sauce:
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 cup orange juice
Melt butter over low heat and add brown sugar. Cook, stirring constantly, until brown sugar is melted. Whisk orange juice and cornstarch together. Raise heat under butter mixture so that it is bubbling. Slowly pour in OJ mixture, stirring constantly. Let simmer, stirring constantly - don't let that sugar burn! - until thick and smooth.

As I said, Andrea served that as an accompaniment to roasted goose. When I made it, I had marinated chicken tenders in McCormick Grill Mates Baja Citrus marinade mix, a sort of southwestern citrus flavor. I browned the chicken in an oven proof skillet and let it bake for 20 minutes and then served it with this basic sauce. Amazing!

Now, some variations... because this sauce is SO good on its own, I didn't want to overwhelm it with a lot of other flavors. My advice is to try any ONE of the following, added when the orange juice first goes into the pan. Always taste before serving - you can add more herbs if you want, but you can't take them out!
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crumbled - perfect on roasted pork or simply seasoned pork or lamb chops
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 2 teaspoons fresh chopped dill - serve with grilled salmonor other meaty fish
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon crumbled sage - great with roasted turkey
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon dry Jamaican jerk seasoning
For my Caribbean take on this sauce, replace 1/3 of the orange juice with lime juice. Add 2 smashed garlic cloves to the butter as it melts. Season with 1 teaspoon dried oregano and a little fresh ground pepper. Remove garlic before serving. This will give you a sweeter thicker take on Moko Criollo, a classic Cuban marinade. Serve for dipping grilled shrimp, add a couple of tablespoons into a lobster or chicken salad recipe or serve with just about any grilled meat.