Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Homemade granola bars

A while back I was on a major homemade granola bar kick.

It all started with this recipe. I loved the texture of the bars (soft, chewy) but they were super sweet. I'm shocked at just how much sugar people think tastes good, and I found them difficult to eat. Honestly they surpassed the level of sweetness I like in my desserts, let alone what I want to eat first thing in the morning. But I loved how soft and chewy they were!

So I tried cutting down the sugar in my next iteration. But I think I cut down the honey a bit too much because they were too crumbly this time. Good taste, but not the best texture.

Round 3 was next, and I have to say they were pretty close to perfect for me. Just enough honey for the bars to be a bit pliable, but not so much that you can't finish a bar. And I ended up using almost half the amount of sugar from the original recipe. HALF! (Full disclosure: they're not quite as soft as the original recipe. But seeing I could actually eat these I felt that it was a fair compromise.)

I also had the opportunity to use my brand new baking dish to make the bars (even though they're technically not baked in the dish)! Back in February my best friend surprised me by sending me this gorgeous ceramic dish from Anthropologie for my birthday. It makes me so happy just looking at it!!!

Favorite baking pan + favorite vase (from favorite store) = happy Jackie

A single batch in a 9" or 8" square baking dish makes 12 bars, which are perfect for a grab and go breakfast or snacks when taking a road trip.

Yours in putting the fast in breakfast,

Chewy granola bars, generally adapted from Love and Olive Oil
Yield: 12 bars

My favorite part of making the different iterations were all the flavor combinations I tried. To keep this recipe flexible I'm going to give you the "template" recipe below, and you can mix/match the ingredients as you see fit. Here are some suggestions to get you going!

My favorite combo was pecans + tart cherries + cocao nibs 
The boy's favorite combo was nuts + dried blueberries + chopped chocolate

Nuts: almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts
Dried fruit: tart cherries, dates, blueberries, apricots, figs


2 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 to 2/3 cup nuts, slivered or chopped (see above for ideas)
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, optional
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes (or coconut oil!)
2 TBSP light brown sugar, packed
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/4 cup cocao nibs or chopped chocolate
1/4 to 1/2 cup dried fruit, coarsely chopped (see above for ideas)
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted, optional, for drizzling (I didn't do this, as I felt the bars were sweet enough. But if you wanted to add a bit of chocolate to the bars this would be a good way to do it!)

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a small overhang on two sides. 
  2. In a large bowl, stir together oats, nuts, and coconut until evenly distributed. Spread onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring once part way through baking, until oats are toasted and fragrant and coconut is lightly browned. (Note: This is the only time the bars are going to be baked, so if you really want to get your oats really toasted I'd recommend baking them for ~5 minutes before adding the coconut, then continuing to cook for another 8 - 10 minutes. This will keep the coconut from burning, as I found the coconut toasted faster than the oats.) Cool the mixture slightly.
  3. While the oats are baking, combine honey, butter, and brown sugar in the same bowl. Microwave until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the almost extract if using. (Note: If you don't have a microwave simply do this step in a small saucepan.)
  4. Once the oats are slightly cooled, add to the bowl with the butter/sugar mixture and stir until evenly coated. Stir in the cocao/chocolate and dried fruit. (Note: if you're using chopped chocolate and your oats are still warm the chocolate will melt a bit. This is not a problem! :) This "accidentally" happened to 1 of my batches and the result was a slightly chocolately granola, which was delicious! But if you don't want that make sure the oats are completely cooled.)
  5. Press granola mixture into the prepared pan, firmly pressing into place. (Note: This step is essential, so make sure you really press the granola into the pan. If you don't then your bars may not stay together.)
  6. Chill in the refrigerator until set, at least 2 hours. (Note: Again, this step is essential for your bars to stay together. Allow the bars to completely cool before cutting.)
  7. Remove from pan using parchment paper to lift it out of the pan. Transfer to a cutting board and cut in half crosswise, then into 12 rectangular bars. 
  8. Drizzle with melted chocolate, if desired. Granola bars will keep, layered between parchment or waxed paper in an airtight container for up to one week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cranberry orange crunch muffins

Don't you wish you could go back in time and remember the first time you ate a flavor combination that blew your mind?

No... just me...?

I can't remember the first time I had orange and cranberry together, but I do remember when I was working in a lab at Northwestern over 10 years ago being in love with Dunkin' Donuts cranberry orange muffins. It was my "splurge" breakfast many a times, and I still get sad about the fact that they don't make them anymore. There's just something that makes my mouth happy when you combine tart cranberries with fragrant oranges.

These muffins not only hit the flavor combo spot, they were super light and fluffy with a great crunchy topping.

Though a tad too sweet for me for breakfast (I'm weird like that), I found that they make a great day-time snack when I want just a touch of sugar to satisfy my sweet tooth.

Buen Provecho,

Cranberry-Orange Crunch Muffins, adapted from King Arthur Flour
Yield: 12 muffins

Though I haven't tried it, I think these muffins could benefit from a lot more cranberries. Not sure if it would compromise the structure of the muffins, but next time I make these I'd like to add at least another 1/2 cup of cranberries. I think you could also use more grated orange peel, or use both peel and oil. (Can you tell I like my citrus and cranberry combo?!) 

Also, I was not a fan of the cinnamon in the muffin topping, because I felt it "muddied" the fresh flavors of the orange and cranberry and turned them into more fall-inspired flavors. The boy was a fan though, so I think it's personal preference. Feel free to reduce or cut it out completely.


2 cups (8 7/8 ounces) flour
1/3 cup (2 3/8 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder (I like the aluminum free kind)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) vegetable oil
3/4 cup (6 ounces) milk
1/4 cup (2 ounces) orange juice
1/8 teaspoon orange oil OR 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries, or more to taste

1/4 cup (7/8 ounce) finely chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) brown sugar, dark or light, firmly packed
up to 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, optional

  1. Batter: In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then toss the cranberries in the mix and stir to coat. 
  2. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the egg, oil, milk, orange juice, and orange oil or peel. 
  3. Gently and thoroughly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. 
  4. Using a muffin or cookie scoop, or a 1/4-cup measure, pour the batter into 12 lightly greased muffin cups, filling them about 3/4 full. 
  5. Topping: Combine all of the topping ingredients. Sprinkle a scant 1 tablespoon of topping over the batter in each muffin cup (see picture below)
  6. Bake the muffins in a preheated 400°F oven for 20 minutes, or until they're nicely domed and a cake tester inserted into the center of one comes out clean. 
  7. Remove the muffins from the oven, and run a knife around the edge of each one to separate it from the pan. Carefully tilt each muffin in its cup so steam doesn't collect underneath as they cool. After about 5 minutes, transfer them to a rack to cool completely. 
AFTER (yum yum)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Chicago-inspired hummus

I've written about hummus (hummos?) before, and how it's usually non Middle Eastern people who take really creative spins on the dish because it's almost too sacrilegious for us to stray far from our traditional recipes.

Well, today this Middle Easterner is going to share with you a really insane twist on the classic, which is inspired by Chicago and Greek flavors. Full disclosure: I didn't come up with this combination. (I told you, we just can't mess with our hummos!) But after trying it at a work party I was absolutely blown away by it. So much so that it's now become my go-to dish to bring to gatherings.

The "recipe" itself is incredibly simple and has only 3 main components: hummus, feta cheese, oil-packed giardiniera (which apparently only exists in Illinois and a handful of Midwestern states).

First spread a layer of hummus on a dish or platter (I used a 9" pie plate here). Then cover with a few spoonfuls of giardiniera (drained), and top with crumbed feta cheese (hand-crumble the fresh kind instead of using prepacked crumbled feta; you'll not only save a few $ but the feta won't be quite as dry)

If you want to throw this dish together in record time just go ahead and use some pre-made hummus (my favorites are Trader Joes Mediterranean hummus and Sabra). But if you have a few extra minutes to spare I'd recommend making the hummus yourself to elevates this appetizer to a whole 'nother level!

I've shared my recipe for hummus using canned chickpeas, which is extra creamy if you take the time to remove the annoying skins on each individual pea. But today I'll share my recipe for hummus using dried chick peas, which is naturally super silky smooth!

Yours in breaking out of her people's comfort zone,

Basic hummus, adapted from the Jerusalem cookbook

Warning: this recipe requires you to soak the chickpeas the night before. So don't forget to start this the evening before! :)

As I've said before, hummus is a recipe that needs to be tailored to personal tastes. Use the cooking method I'm describing below, but feel free to modify the amounts of lemon juice, tahini, and garlic based upon what you like. Personally, I love lemon and I'm not a big fan of sesame in general. So I bumped up the citrus by 2 TBSP and reduced the tahini by half from the original recipe. I also cut the garlic by half, because I find that raw garlic can easily overpower hummus (especially after you let the dish sit in the fridge for a while; the flavors become much more pronounced). But if you're a garlic- and tahini-loving fiend, then by all means just keep adding until you're happy with the finished product!

1 1/4 cups (250 g) dried chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
6 1/2 cups (1.5 L) water
1/2 cup tahini paste
6 TBSP fresh lemon juice
2 small/medium cloves of garlic
1.5 tsp salt
up to 6 1/2 TBSP (100 mL) ice-cold water

  1. The night before, put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with at least twice their volume in cold water. Leave to soak overnight on the counter.
  2. The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a medium saucepan over high heat and add the drained chickpeas and baking soda. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the water and bring to boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. 
  3. Cook the chickpeas for 20 - 40 minutes (or longer; the cooking time will depend on the type and freshness of your pea). Once done they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your fingers but not super mushy. Drain the chickpeas when they're finished cooking.
  4. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. With the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. If your hummus needs to be thinned out a bit more, add some or all of the ice-cold water and process for about 5 minutes, until your hummus is smooth and creamy.
  5. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sushi rice

I've made sushi (and sushi rice) many times over the years, but this weekend I was finally able to conquer the technique to great rice! I dare not say I was able to master the sushi rice, because there are chefs that literally spend their lives perfecting this very "simple" technique. But after reading various recipes and watching multiple You Tube videos, I have to say I was finally able to produce rice with both excellent flavor and texture!

Buying pre-cut sushi-grade fish means my sashimi looks awesome!
Now that I've tackled the hardest part of sushi, my next goal is to get better at rolling. My biggest problem is overfilling the rolls (more fish! more avocado!), so some pieces are literally busting at the seams. But that just gives me more reason to practice making (and eating) sushi! And let's be honest--I'm not charging anyone for my meal here so as long as it tastes good, which it did, that's all that matters.

Each roll may not have looked perfect, but arranging the
sushi on a platter really brings out the simple beauty of this dinner.
Usually when I buy sushi-grade fish I get a small piece of tuna at Whole Foods. But this time we went to Joong Boo market in Chicago and got a package of 4 different types of sushi-grade fish (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and smoked salmon). Not only was it half the price of Whole Foods, we had a variety of fish for our meal! All we needed then were a few other veggies (plus a bottle of sake and rice wine) and we were set for the evening.

Since we had a variety of fish, I made 4 different types of rolls.
  1. Oshinko (pickled Japanese radish). I love this sushi roll for its simplicity and salty/vinegary/sweet crunch! Find oshinko at your local asian market (it looks like this.)
  2. Spicy tuna with cucumber and avocado. To make the spicy tuna (or spicy anything) just finely chop the fish and add a touch of Sriracha and mayonnaise, to taste. (Kewpie mayo is excellent if you can get your hands on some!)
  3. Salmon with cucumber. 
  4. "Mexican" roll, which was probably my favorite. It's a combination of yellowtail, avocado, jalapeno, and cilantro and topped with very very thinly sliced lime (or lemon), peel and all. The peel can get a bit bitter and tough, but if you slice it as thinly as possible the flavor just melds into the dish. I think the citrus on top is an essential flavor component of the roll, although the boy didn't love it. So I hope try it... and if you don't like it, just take it off!
Though making sushi at home does take a little bit of investment into some of the ingredients you'll want on hand (nori, ginger, wasabi, rice vinegar, etc), it ends up being eons cheaper than going out to dinner. And it's a hell of a lot more fun too!

Yours in waiting for the day she can make sushi again,

Sushi rice, adapted from No Recipes, Morimoto, and other resources.

You should definitely read the full write-up from No Recipes. His step-by-step directions and photos cover a lot of details that I may not describe here. 

Rinsing the rice is essential to remove all that excess starch. Do not skip this step, and make sure to rinse until the water is running almost clear. 

To soak or not to soak? The recipes I found online were pretty split between soaking the rice and not soaking the rice prior to cooking. I soaked mine, so I can't say how the texture is different if you don't soak the rice. I'm sure your cooking vehicle (rice cooker vs stove top pot) and quality of rice will have a bigger impact, so it sounds like you could skip the soaking step if you felt inclined to do so.

Watch videos on how best to cool your rice down to get a sense of the technique. Here are a few that I watched on how to best cool the rice down (one, two, three). This step makes a HUGE difference in the texture of the rice, so take a few minutes to watch how other people do it. In the past my mushy sushi rice came down to the fact that I was cooling the rice by dumping it into a medium sized bowl, so the steam couldn't properly escape. Although I don't have a hangiri (the wooden bowl traditionally used to cool and season the sushi rice), I just used a large 9 x 13" glass baking dish. Sure, a wooden bowl might be preferable as it pulls away some of the moisture from the sushi rice, but what's more important is to have a container large enough so the rice can be spread out to cool (and not steam and turn to mush).

When seasoning your sushi rice the amount of liquid will seem like a lot. And it is, as you end up using ~1/4 cup seasoned vinegar for every ~2.5 cups of cooked rice. But trust me, it's fine. The rice will soak up all that delicious sweet/salty vinegary liquid and give your sushi rice that flavor that is so essential to a delicious maki roll! One more note about the vinegar seasoning: I saw a lot of different ratios out there for vinegar:sugar:salt. For example, Morimoto says 4:2:1 while No Recipes says 4:3:0.3. I didn't want the rice too sweet so I used the sugar ratio as recommended by Morimoto. But I've used the full 4:2:1 ratio in the past and it's a tad heavy on the salt to me. So ended up on a ratio that was 4:2:0.6!

My directions are for a stove-top rice method. The No Recipes link above can be useful if you are going to prepare your rice in a rice cooker.

This recipe is enough rice to make 4 - 5 sushi rolls (serves 2+ people)

250 grams (~1 1/4 cups) rice
1 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 TBSP sugar
2 tsp kosher salt (I used Morton's)

  1. Put the rice in large bowl and wash with cold tap water. Using your hands, gently rub the rice to remove the excess starches. (The water will be so cloudy from the starch that you won't be able to see the rice in your bowl!) Immediately drain the rice, rinse, and repeat the process another 4 - 6 times, or until the water is mostly clear. 
  2. Fill the bowl up once more and let the rice sit for 30 minutes.
  3. After soaking, give the rice a final rinse and drain in a fine-mesh sieve for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the rice to a large heavy bottomed pot and add water. Heat the pot over medium high and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling immediately cover your pot with a tight fitting lid and turn the heat down to low. Cook the rice on low for 15 minutes.
  5. Once the rice is done, turn off the heat and let the rice steam for an additional 10 minutes.
  6. While you wait for the rice to cook, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small bowl. Microwave until the sugar and salt is just dissolved. 
  7. Once the rice is done, dump it into a very large bowl or large baking dish. Holding a wooden spoon directly over the rice, pour the vinegar mixture over the spoon, while moving the spoon around. (Watch the videos in my notes section above for a better description of this step, which helps distribute the vinegar evenly across all the rice.)
  8. Using broad flat wooden spoon in one hand and a fan or piece of cardboard in the other, gently combine the rice and vinegar using a side-to-side cutting motion with the edge of the spoon while fanning the rice. (The side-to-side motion is used to separate each grain of rice, so the vinegar penetrates every surface without mashing the rice. The fan is used to cool the rice and evaporate any excess liquid evaporate quickly, which gives your rice a nice shine and prevents it from getting mushy.) The rice is done when the surface is no longer wet and slippery, the rice is fluffy, and each grain is very shiny. It will still be a little warm, but it should not be hot.
  9. Spread the rice out over the surface of your bowl or baking dish, and cover with a damp towel until you're ready to use it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sausage, swiss chard, and lentil soup

Final stretch of winter is upon us! Which means now's the time to fill your belly with as much soup as you can.

I absolutely love soup, but never make it enough during the winter. One reason is that I tend to focus more on main dishes, and my soup recipes got lost in the mix. Plus they're not often hearty enough, and the boy isn't a huge fan of making them the star of a meal.

The solution: this soup!

The lentils, sausage, swiss chard, and veggies result in a soup that hearty and meaty and filling and bursting with tons of flavor and textures. Serve this with a piece of crusty bread (and a glass of red wine!) and you're set for the night.

I would apologize for the lack of a cute photo, but I'm not going to for 2 main reasons:
  1. This soup was too damn good, and eating took precedence over photographing this deliciousness!
  2. I live in Chicago and the sun sets well before I even leave work, so there's 0% chance I have any kind of great lighting when cooking these days.
Yours in sharing delicious food and recipes, even if the pictures are a bit sub par,

Sausage, swiss chard, and lentil soup, from Smitten Kitchen

Serves 6


For the soup
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large links of Italian sausage or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, sliced or diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into half-moons or diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced (reserve half for later in recipe)
Kosher salt
A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups shredded or thinly ribboned Swiss chard leaves or kale

For the garlic oil finish (I didn't try this, but Smitten Kitchen says it makes the world of difference)
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil and 2 cloves of sliced garlic in a small skillet over medium heat until garlic softens and hisses.

Grated Pecorino Romano cheese to finish, optional

  1. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot on medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional). 
  2. Cook until the vegetables soften a bit, another 5 minutes. Add the lentils, bay leaves, tomatoes, water, more salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook until the lentils are tender, about 40 minutes. (Add more water if your soup is getting too thick during the cooking process).
  3. When the lentils are cooked, add the chard and cook until the leaves are tender, just a few minutes. Discard the bay leaves. 
  4. To finish, divide soup among bowls, and drizzle with the garlic oil finish (see above). Top with fresh Romano. Leftovers will keep for several days in the fridge.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Multi-course birthday dinner

Happy belated birthday to me!

Last Saturday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I decided to spell out 'thirty fifth' because for some reason it doesn't look quite as bad spelled out versus in numerical form. (35!!!!)

Though I've had some pretty awesome birthdays over the years, I'll be blunt: sharing your birthday with Valentine's day sucks. When I was in my teens and twenties it was a constant reminder that I was perpetually single. I'm now in a relationship, but then the one thing I'd love to splurge on for my birthday (going to a really nice dinner) gets hijacked by couples looking for "romance" on this cheesy Hallmark holiday (which is about 492,340,039 times worse when Valentine's day falls on a Saturday). Ugh.

So we decided to postpone our nice dinner at Herb and planned a fancy 4-course dinner at home instead.  (Menu generated from this site!)

This meal was perfect for so many reasons, but the main one was that there is very little active time to prepare each of the courses. All the work was either on the front end (french-onion soup, crème brûlée) or required a relatively fast cooking time (scallops, lamb). It was also nice preparing each course individually, and you didn't have to worry about timing multiple courses such that everything would be magically ready at the same time. Stress-free cooking and eating fabulously fancy food--exactly what you want on your birthday.

First course: French-onion soup

Who doesn't love the salty and savory French-onion soup topped with copious amounts of cheese?! Normally this soup is pretty labor intensive, but I found a fabulous recipe that cooks the soup entirely in the slow cooker.

YES! You heard me. Slow cooker. Just make sure you start this at least a day in advance, because the onions need to first caramelize in the slow cooker 1 day (or night) and the soup simmers the next day. But once it's done you just pop in an oven-safe bowl, throw a slice or 2 of bread on top, and cover with some grated gruyere.

It just needs about 30 minutes in the oven to get the cheese and bubbly and melty. Soooo goood!

Second Course: Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon

I'm a purist when it comes to scallops. No cream or herbs or crazy flavors for me. Just sear them and throw a bit of melted butter on top and I'm in food heaven. But then I came across this twist: serve the scallops with browned butter. Genius! The recipe also called for some fresh lemon zest in the butter which did wonders in brightening up the flavor of the dish. Definitely a great twist on one of my favorite meals.

Third Course: Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic

So remember how I told you that a Valentine's birthday messes with my plans to go out to eat every year? Well, turns out it can also mess with your plans to make your own fancy dinner! Originally this course was supposed to be a lamb chop (you know, the kind with the fancy bone), but of course the grocery store was completely sold out. Luckily though they had lamb loin chops, which were incredible. I was able to use the same recipe I'd planned on, but instead of pan searing the rib chops, the butcher recommended grilling the loin chops.

Oh. My. Goodness. I can't even describe how good this meal was. The lamb was so flavorful, tender, and melt-in-your mouth delicious that I think it may have even surpassed my love of rib eye!

Third Course: Lavender crème brûlée

If you've followed this blog for a while you'll know that I have an unhealthy love of lavender in my desserts. Particularly creamy ones (ie, chiffon cake with lavender creme, lavender cookies, and lavender ice cream). So when I decided to make crème brûlée (and 'treat yo-self' to a kitchen torch for my birthday) I knew I had to put lavender in it. Best. Decision. Ever.

We probably had a bit too much to eat on my birthday dinner (we could have made our 2nd and 3rd course portions a tad smaller), but everything we had was perfect, so it's hard to complain. Though it was probably the most expensive meal we've cooked ourselves at home (~$40 for all the food in total), it's still a ton cheaper than getting all this incredible food out at a restaurant. So you can call it a budget-friendly option for a splurge meal.

Buen Provecho,

Recipes for each course are below, in order of appearance:

Slow-cooker french-onion soup, adapted from the Kitchen

3 pounds yellow onions, peeled, sliced, and cut into quarter-moons
2 TBSP unsalted butter, melted
2 TBSP olive oil
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
8 - 10 cups beef broth (I like the Better than Bouillon concentrated broth)
3 TBSP brandy, optional

To serve
baguette slices, toasted, for each bowl
Gruyere cheese, grated (1/3 - 1/2 cup per bowl)
Chopped shallot or fresh onion, optional

  1. Caramelize the onions: Place the onion slices in a 5-quart (or larger) slow cooker. Stir in the butter, olive oil, salt, and black pepper to taste. Cover and cook on LOW for 12 hours. After cooking the onions should be dark golden brown and soft. (Note: Since my slow cooker is quite good at retaining liquid/steam, the next morning I felt like the onions were still a tad watery and I wanted to caramelize them more. So I removed the lid from the onions and left them in the slow cooker for another hour or so, stirring regularly to make sure they didn't char. Not sure if this made a big difference, but wanted to note what I did...)
  2. Cook the soup: Stir in the balsamic vinegar and up to 10 cups of beef broth. Cover and continue cooking on LOW for at least 6 to 8 hours. (Notes: I only added 8 cups of broth because my slow cooker retains quite a bit of liquid and I didn't want it to be too watery. Adjust as needed for your slow cooker and to taste. You can also cook your soup for longer, as long as there is enough liquid in your slow cooker.
  3. Finish the soup: Once you're done cooking the soup, taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired, and stir in the brandy if using. Adjust the oven rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Ladle the soup into oven-safe bowls and place the bowls on a baking sheet. Top each bowl with a slice of toast and a generous quantity of shredded Gruyere cheese. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese is completely melted. If you'd like to broil the cheese, turn the oven to broil and broil the soup for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and browned. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes, then serve with chopped fresh onion on the side, optional. 
Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon, adapted from Simply Recipes
Serves 2

* When cooking scallops make sure to sear them quickly to avoid overcooking. I have had issues with the scallop sticking to the pan in the past, so I cannot claim to be an expert on how to avoid that problem. I like using a stainless steel pan to get a solid crust on the scallops, but they have a tendency to stick to that type of pan, so make sure to use an oil with a high smoke point and a metal spatula to "scrape" the scallops off the pan (without messing up that gorgeous crust). Luckily only 1 of my 6 scallops stuck to the pan and lost its gorgeous sear in the cooking process, so I'm slowly getting better in my scallop technique!

* The original recipe called for capers, which I did not use, as I wanted my scallops more mild in flavor. But I've included them below if you'd like to try the recipe with capers.

2 - 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1-2 Tbsp canola oil, rice bran oil, or other high smoke point oil
6 sea scallops (ours were 0.9 pounds for 6 pieces, which were quite large scallops!)
1/3 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp capers, drained (optional)

  1. Brown the butter: Place butter in a light-colored saucepan and melt on medium heat. The butter will first foam, then recede. At this point do not walk away, as the butter will brown (and then burn!) relatively quickly quickly. After a few minutes, the milk solids will brown slightly and sink to the bottom. Once they are deeply caramel-colored (but not a burnt brown), remove the pan from the heat and pour immediately into a separate bowl to stop the cooking process. Set aside. 
  2. Pat the scallops dry. Heat the oil in a sauté pan on high heat until the oil is shimmering. (If the oil gets so hot that it begins to smoke, remove the pan from the heat, and turn down the heat a notch before returning the pan to the burner.) When the oil is shimmery hot place the scallops in the pan, flat side down.  Do not touch the scallops once they are in the pan so that they can get a nice sear. After about 3 - 4 minutes the edges of the scallops should be getting quite brown. Use tongs (or spatula if they stick a bit) to flip the the scallops. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until nicely seared. Once both sides are browned, remove the scallops to a warm plate, and turn off the burner. 
  3. Pour any remaining oil from the pan, leaving any browned bits in the pan. Add the white wine to the pan and return the pan to the burner on high heat. Let the wine boil and reduce until you have ~1 tablespoon of liquid left in the pan. Turn off the heat, add the browned butter, lemon zest, and capers (if using) to the pan. Swirl to combine. 
  4. Place scallops on serving plates and pour sauce over them. Serve immediately. 
Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic, adapted from Simply Recipes

* For directions on how to cook lamb rib chops, check out the post from Simply Recipes. She has great step-by-step directions for rib chops that are both 1 or 2 bones thick. I used her recipe for the rosemary rub, but we grilled our loin chops instead of pan searing them. 

* I'd recommend cooking your lamb on the medium rare side for the most tender chops (~130 degrees). Decrease by up to 5 degrees for rare.

* These chops were a tad on the salty side (but so good!) Feel free to cut down by 1/2 tsp if you're really sensitive to saltier food.

4 pieces lamb lamb loin chops, thick cut (1 1/4" - 1 1/2"; these ended up being over a pound for us)
2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary (or 1-2 tsp dried rosemary if you don't have fresh)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided

  1. In a small bowl, mix the rosemary, salt, pepper, garlic, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil together. Coat the lamb chops with the mixture, massaging it into the meat with your fingers. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes. 
  2. Preheat your grill to high with the lid down. Once the grill is heated, oil the grates. Sear the lamb chops for 3 minutes per side (open lid), or until the chops reach 130 degrees for medium rare. Remove chop from the grill, loosely tent with foil, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. 
Lavender crème brûlée, adapted from Shutterbean (via the girl and the fig cookbook)

* This crème brûlée recipe was a touch on the soft side. It still held together very well, but if you like your custard to be more firm I'd assume that a recipe with a higher eggs-to-liquid ratio would be your preference. For example, this recipe is 2.6 yolks:1 cup cream + milk whereas Cooks Illustrated has a recipe that is 3 yolks:1 cup cream. I'll have to try that recipe soon and see which I prefer!

* I cut the recipe down in half (hence the odd liquid measurements) and it was still enough for 4 - 6 people! 

1 cup + 2 TBSP heavy cream
1/3 cup milk
3/4 TBSP dried lavender, plus more for garnish if you'd like
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 TBSP honey
turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar, for the sugar topping (you'll need ~1 tsp or a bit more per ramekin, depending on the diameter of your ramekin)

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender steep for at least 15 minutes (I went a full 30 to enhance the lavender flavor).
  2. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and honey in a separate bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk into the lavender-cream mixture. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any foam. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350F and bring a kettle or large saucepan of water to boil over high heat.
  4. Pour the mixture into ramekins. Set the ramekins in a deep baking pan and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil and place in the oven. 
  5. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes or until set. (Note: Cooking time may be shorter for the wide and shallow brûlée ramekins. When the custard is done it will be set on the sides while still a little jiggly, but not wet, in the center. If you have a digital instant-read thermometer, the temperature in the center should register 170 to 175 degrees F.)  
  6. Remove the baking pan from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.
  7. When you are ready to serve the custard, remove ramekins from refrigerator and uncover. If condensation has collected place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1 1/2 teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. To set the sugar and re-chill the custard, refrigerate ramekins uncovered for 15 to 30 minutes (no longer than 45 minutes).
  8. Serve with a mini spoon and crack away!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slow-cooked salmon

Happy New Year!

A month has already passed in 2015 (how is that possible?!), so are we all continuing our healthy-eating habits? If so, great! If not, no biggie, it just means you're a totally normal human being.

No matter what your eating has been like this past month, how about we get February going on a positive note?

Today I bring you my absolute favorite way to cook salmon—low and slow.

Pair that technique with high-quality salmon, like the Coho I have here, and you'll have the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth, tastes-like-buttah salmon. No joke, this salmon was better than anything I've had at a restaurant. There's just no comparison to anything you've had!

Coho salmon deliciousness--I can't get over that deep color.

We kept the recipe insanely simple (butter, salt, and pepper) so that the flavor of the salmon really shines, but you can use any seasoning, glaze, or topping you want on this fish. In fact, the original recipe was for pesto-rubbed salmon, so clearly anything goes!

Some warm chili-oil buckwheat noodles accompanied this salmon, but really any side dish will do.

In theory the noodle dish was a perfect partner to the salmon. Soy sauce and vinegar dressing with a touch of sweetness on the noodles sounded good, and the green onion-garlic-star anise-ginger-and red pepper flake-infused chili oil drizzled on the dish sounded even better. But the proportions were way off for me; the nuances of the garlic, ginger, and star anise in the oil were lost under a blanket of extreme heat from the pepper flakes and the noodles just didn't have enough flavor on their own. In retrospect, I should have added fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions to the noodle dressing. I'd also cut down the red pepper flakes in the chili oil so I could add more of that flavorful oil without burning my mouth. I haven't had a chance to play with the proportions to my liking, but if you're interested, you can find the original recipe to the noodle salad here. (Other people who left comments seemed to like the salad, so who knows, you may like the recipe more than I did!)

Buckwheat noodles make a great side dish. Still on the hunt for a perfect recipe.

Side dish or not, this salmon is the star of the show. I hope you'll try this technique at least once; I have a feeling it'll be your go-to method for salmon.

Butter makes everything better.
Buen provecho,

Slow-Cooked Salmon (aka, the most amazing salmon you've had)
Adapted from Geoffry Zacharian of the Foot Network

As I said above, you can use any seasoning, topping, or glaze you like for the salmon. This recipe is purely a technique for how to bake the most tender salmon. We served this as is with just salt and pepper and it was perfection.

salmon, any thickness, skinless or skin on (I love Coho salmon if you can find it)

  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

  2. Brush a baking dish with a thin coat of softened butter and sprinkle salt and pepper over the surface (this is especially important if you are using skinless salmon, probably doesn't matter as much if using skin-on fish).

  3. Place salmon filets skin-side down, brush with softened butter all over each fillet, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

  4. Bake until desired doneness, ~10 to 20 minutes. For our 1" thick fillets, mine was perfect after 15 minutes (maybe medium rare-ish?). The boy liked his a tad more done, which was medium-ish after 20 minutes. 
Note: The original recipe says to bake the fish 8 – 10 minutes for a 1.5" fillet, but the salmon would still be pretty rare at that point. Other reviewers seemed to have the same issue, so I think something might be a bit off with the timing on that recipe. Just trust your eyes, fork, and taste buds when figuring out how long to cook the salmon.