Thursday, October 23, 2008

Italian Style Pesto Soup

Yesterday, Christian's mother mentioned politely how cold it is beginning to get up in Minnesota. She mentioned how lovely soups are during this time of the year, and I completely agree with her. When there's frost on the ground, is there anything better than settling down to a steaming bowl of herb soaked vegetables and other goodness? I don't think so (unless Mulled Wine is an option of course!).
As my basil plant has, verily, exploded this last week, I was planning on making a pesto dish. Now, my thoughts turned to a pesto soup. But how to manage the delicate flavors ... Chicken broth and leeks would form the base, I thought. I would add in other vegetables for the main flavor. I'd try to keep things tame, so the pesto would shine.

I had a second helping, but you tell me if I succeeded ...

Italian Style Pesto Soup
rves 5-8 (with leftovers)

What you'll need:
A large stock pot
A food processor/mortar pestle
-- a knife and cutting board work just fine, if more work.

Soup Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, de-fatted
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pint chicken stock (unsalted, if you can)
1 leek, chopped
6-7 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons red pepper flakes (optional)
3-4 tablespoons dried basil
6 russet potatoes, quartered
3 carrots, roughly chopped
4 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1/2 lb asparagus, roughly chopped
1 stalk broccoli, roughly chopped
1/2 lb whole wheat penne
Pepper, to taste

Pesto Ingredients:
1 large handful fresh basil leaves
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
3 handfuls spinach leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons whole pine nuts
3-4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons olive oil
Sea Salt and Pepper to taste

In your large pot, place chicken breasts and coat with olive oil and pepper. Cook on medium heat until nearly cooked (still pink on the insides, about 15 minutes). Be sure to turn breasts regularly to ensure even cooking.
Over partially cooked chicken pour 3 quarts of water and add in chicken stock. Bring to a rolling boil. Chop leek (discarding the top quarter of green section and rinsing throughly to avoid mud), and add into stock. Add chopped garlic, potatoes, carrots, dried basil and red pepper flakes. Cook at a simmer over medium heat until potatoes are soft.
(Hint: While your soup is simmering, take advantage of the downtime to make your pesto- instructions below.)
Once your potatoes are soft, add in asparagus, broccoli and celery. Continue to simmer for another 5-10 minutes, then add your penne. Cook until pasta is al dente.
Pepper to taste (try to resist the urge to salt, your pesto will have plenty).

Using a very sharp knife (or scissors) chop basil leaves into small pieces. Combine basil with other ingredients in to mortar/pestle or food processor. (If using a knife and chopping block, chop all ingredients finely and mix together in a large bowl.)
Add olive oil to moisten and continue to mix until ingredients begin to break down (you want a chunky consistency, not smooth, so don't over do it).
Salt and Pepper to taste.

To Serve:
Dish up into individual portions and serve with a large spoonful of pesto on top. Before eating, mix pesto into soup and enjoy!

  • Pesto will store in the fridge for a couple of days, beyond that it will freeze nicely.
  • If you are sensitive to garlic, try oven roasting it first, this will mellow the taste.
  • Feel free to substitute different vegetables due to season or location. This soup needs fresh veggies to be at it's best, so use what looks good. (Some further suggestions include: winter squash, artichokes, zucchini, onions, eggplant ... )
  • You can add the pesto directly into the soup pot, as opposed to on individual portions.
  • Instead of penne, try using an Orzo type pasta or rice.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Twisted Mac and Cheese

A good friend of mine once challenged me to a Macaroni and Cheese-off. We then proceeded to try her amazing recipe; however, I never managed to make mine. Nicole, consider this my entry!

I learned to make Macaroni and Cheese from my mother. As one of the simplest recipes, I could make it unassisted fairly reliably ... and without burning myself. This early recipe was almost overpoweringly cheesy. Calling for pats of butter and slices of Kraft American Cheese, it was the classic homemade American macaroni recipe. I loved it. Kraft-in-a-box had nothing on this stuff.

I can remember my mother trying to make additions to the "tried-and-true," and I hated it. If she used anything but American cheese, I found it unpalatable. American gave such a smooth texture to the sauce, how could I ever eat a substitute?

Luckily, as I grew up my tastes evolved. Today my macaroni and cheese recipe has a couple of twists, as well as a spicy bite. It also rarely uses macaroni (a pasta style we don't often have on hand). I have my mother to thank for the process of this recipe, though the ingredients vary fairly far from the "American Original" of my childhood.

As Autumn comes on stronger and stronger, try this mac and cheese to warm you up!

Twisted Mac and Cheese
(serves 2-3)

What You'll Need:
A medium saucepan
A cheese grater

1/2 lb whole wheat Rotini pasta (any style pasta with notches/holes to collect sauce will work)
1/2 cup roughly grated Colby/Jack cheese
1/2 cup roughly grated Habanero (or other spicy peppered) Cheddar
1/4 cup roughly grated White Cheddar
1 1/2 cup skim milk (may use other fat % as desired)
1 teaspoon whole wheat flour
2-3 tablespoons Olive Oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3-4 fresh basil leaves (or a teaspoon dried basil)
Ground Black Pepper, to taste

Boil pasta in well salted water until nearly al dente. Refrain from "finishing" the pasta. If left slightly uncooked, it will "finish" cooking while you are making the cheese sauce. This will save you from lifeless noodles that fall apart.

Drain water from pasta. If you removed the pasta to drain the water, place pasta back in the saucepan. Over a medium heat, toss rotini with 2-3 tablespoons of Olive Oil (enough to coat all pieces of pasta). Add in milk. Heat milk until it begins to bubble, stirring occasionally to prevent scalding.

Into milk, slowly stir in grated cheeses. Stir constantly to avoid excessive burning or sticking. Add in flour, and stir well to combine. Stir in basil, red and black pepper, as desired. Continue stirring until cheese is well combined with milk.

To ensure the proper consistency of sauce, add grated cheeses slowly. Creamier sauces will use less cheese, while a thicker sauce will take more.

Serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

European Style Self-Saucing Chocolate Pudding

Don't be confused by the title. This chocolate pudding isn't like the kind you find in the Jello Brand pudding cups. This kind of pudding is a cake-like fluffy dessert covered in a dark chocolate sauce, which is easily created as the dessert bakes.

Are you intrigued yet? Oh my, you should be.

Just think ... you want a delicious and rich chocolate dessert, but you don't feel like spending ridiculous amounts of money for one at a restaurant or spending hours mixing carefully in the kitchen. Instead, you can toss this baked deliciousness together and sit around with friends while it does all the hard work for you. Perfect? Perfect.

All the mixing and preparation took me about 15 minutes, and it was well worth it. The hardest part is waiting for the dessert to finish baking, I suggest not peeking through the oven door. The beautiful vision inside might just drive you nuts with anticipation.

I adapted this recipe slightly from a great baking resource I picked up in the Border's Bargain Books section. While a European cookbook, the dishes are well worth the time it takes to convert the recipe measures into American. I've since found out that this book is difficult to find in the US, but more easily obtained from

European Style Self-Saucing Chocolate Pudding
--adapted from Baking, A commonsense guide
serves 6-8 (or 4 if you're really greedy)

What you'll need:
A 6 cup capacity soufflé dish (or any high sided baking dish), greased
A medium mixing bowl
Something to boil water in (such as a bowl and a microwave)
Ice Cream, to serve

3/4 cup milk (room temperature)
1/2 cup sugar
2.5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg (room temperature)
1 cup whole-wheat self raising flour (*see note at bottom for preparation technique)
1/3 cup Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa, divided
1 generous handful roughly chopped dark chocolate (we used Ghirardelli 60%)
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, beat egg. Add in milk, sugar and melted butter and whisk together vigorously. Once well mixed, sift in flour and half of the cocoa powder. Add chopped chocolate and mix well. Pour this mixture into the greased soufflé dish.

In the mixing bowl, pour in brown sugar and cocoa. Over this, carefully pour boiling water. Quickly mix together and pour over top of mixture in prepared dish.

Place dish in middle of oven and bake for approximately 40 minutes. When done, the pudding will be firm on top, though some of the sauce may be peaking wetly from the side. Don't fear, as long as the top has a firm crust, the dish is done.

Remove from oven and generously serve warm with ice cream. We used strawberry swirl ice cream, and it was delicious. Also excellent when drizzled with mint chocolate Bailey's Irish Cream. Try both!

* To make self-raising flour, mix 2 teaspoons of baking powder per 1 cup of flour. This works fine with regular all purpose flour or whole-wheat all purpose. If you use white flour, expect a lighter, fluffier consistency. Whole-wheat tends to be heavier with a denser bite.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Roasted Cauliflower

The other day, a friend of mine mentioned a slight food problem to me. It's hard to eat all the produce he buys before it goes bad. With the price of produce skyrocketing, I think this is a pretty big problem. For example, I really dislike finding that I have throw away a bunch of asparagus due to neglect issues. It makes me feel like a bad Queen of the Refrigerator. It also makes me feel like I am throwing away part of my food budget.

To help, I am posting a delicious recipe that can help you guys use up a whole head of cauliflower (or less, if you wish). This recipe can be replicated with broccoli as well, so get out there and buy that produce!

Roasted Cauliflower
serves 5-7 as a side, or one very hungry person as a dish

You will need:
A baking dish (preferably a 9x13 brownie pan), coated with cooking spray
An oven, preheated to 400°.

1 head of cauliflower, chopped into medium florets
4 cloves of garlic, minced finely
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2-4 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Salt and Pepper to taste

Mix together cauliflower and olive oil until cauliflower is somewhat coated (don't drench it, you just want enough for the cauliflower to hold the spices). Toss with minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Place in baking dish and bake for 20 minutes, or until cauliflower begins to brown.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with grated cheese. Serve.

This makes a delicious side dish, or a great lunch/snack item. It refrigerates well, and can be eaten cold.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Candy Corn Comfort Food

As I sat down this morning and opened the payment schedule for my student loans, I felt an inexplicable need for comfort food. Caffeine too. Something about the phrase "variable interest" caused my stomach to call out for something both full of sugars and fats. Luckily, we had just the ingredients on hand to create a snack that was both fulfilling, as well as a little better for me than a butter scone.

I recommend pairing this delectable, Halloween-time snack with a strong sweet coffee (I used the Highlander Grog from Java Haute). A little heavy cream in the coffee and you are good to go.

While not technically a recipe, I feel this snack needs to be shared ... just in case there are those out there who are not partaking.

You will need:
A large bowl

Brach's ® Autumn Mix (or a mix of Indian Corn and Regular Candy Corn)
Honey Roasted Peanuts

Mix peanuts with candy in a large bowl. A ratio of approximately 3 peanuts to 1 candy corn works best. Enjoy liberally alongside coffee.

Caution ... eat in moderation. Will cause a stomachache.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Apple Crumble

The time has come for warm deserts slathered in vanilla ice cream (vanilla bean please!). The best warm desserts I know of are pies, but I am not much of a pie person (cherry pie, yuck!).

Baked apples though ... those speak to me. Oh geez. They don't just speak, sometimes they raise their voices in a mightily building crescendo. Each tender apple slice melding its voice together with that of the nearby cinnamon, brown sugar and butter. Each piece simple, but adding to the glorious music of dessert. Wow. I mean, wow. Baked apples. That's the way to go.

This crumble was inspired by a wonderful Plum Crumble recipe in the GI High-Energy Cookbook. I changed a few things, and baked the whole thing in a 9x9 brownie pan. How delicious!

Apple Crumble

serves 4

What you will need:
A 9x9 baking dish (I used a glass Pyrex dish, this probably affected my baking time. Remember to keep an eye on your dishes as they bake)
1 medium mixing bowl

6-8 small Macintosh apples (or any other type of baking apple)
3 tbsp light brown sugar
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (may use all purpose)
1/4 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp butter, room temperature
3 tbsp additional light brown sugar
2/3 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 c water

Peel and core apples. Then cut into chunks and place in bottom of baking dish. Sprinkle 1/2 the water over the top of apples, and mix in brown sugar. Mix until brown sugar is evenly distributed.

In separate mixing bowl, combine flour and baking powder. Using your hands, mix together the flour and butter. The mixture should eventually become very crumbly, almost like breadcrumbs. At this point mix in the brown sugar, oats and spices. Add water sparingly and mix with a fork to create larger clumps.

Spoon crumble mixture over the top of apples. Bake at 350 for 1 hour. Serve warm with ice cream.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Penne Arrabbiata with Mushrooms and Chicken

Italian food is my specialty. There is just something comfortable for me about boiling pasta and mixing together a sauce. It's easy, and it's delicious. Plus, I get to make things as spicy or garlicy as I want without altering the original recipe, which is particularly nice.
This arrabbiata sauce is one that adapts very well to being spicy and filled with garlic. Plus, it's so simple it can be thrown together in no time at all and can use just about anything you might already have in your fridge, which makes it great for those evenings where every minute seems to be scheduled for something other than dinner. Of course, it's a little slower than just microwaving a pizza, but if that's what you wanted ... why are you here?

Penne Arrabbiata with Mushrooms and Chicken
Serves 3

What you'll need:
a pot for steaming vegetables
a large saucepan (large enough to toss pasta and additions with the sauce)

For Sauce --
Olive Oil
1-2 tsp chili powder (we used hot)
2-4 dried red chilies (number will dictate spicy factor of your sauce), finely chopped (may use red pepper flakes)
4-5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1/4 c finely chopped sweet onion
4-5 fresh basil leaves or 1-2 tsp dried basil
4 Roma tomatoes, finely diced
Salt/Pepper to taste
For Additions (may be substituted at will) ---
1/2 package (1 lb box) penne
2-3 cups chopped broccoli
2 Portobello mushroom caps, diced and cooked
3 small breasts chicken, cooked and diced

In a large saucepan, drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil. Add chili powder and red chilies, and cook on medium heat until olive oil turns brown (only a minute or so). Add in garlic, basil and onions. Make sure not to burn, and cook until onions are softened. Stir to coat garlic/onions with the infused olive oil.
Once the onions are soft, add in the tomatoes and cover. Simmer gently until tomatoes are easily broken up with a spoon (about 15-20 min).
While your tomatoes are cooking, cook your pasta and steam your broccoli (or just toss your broccoli in for the last minute your pasta is cooking). Also make sure your chicken and mushrooms are cooked and diced. We grilled ours with salt and pepper, but you could bake or sauté your own.
Once the tomatoes are done, use a spoon to break them up into small bits. Toss in the pasta, vegetables and chicken and continue to cook, mixing well. Cook for another minute or so, until flavors are well combined.
Remove from heat and serve, garnish with a little Parmesan.

For a more traditional arrabbiata, serve with pancetta (Italian bacon) instead of chicken. Arrabbiata is supposed to be spicy, so make sure to dial the spice to your individual tastes!
This entrée goes well served after a light spinach salad with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Oooh, I just love Italian!