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.

Batter:
  • 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.