Sunday, March 30, 2014

Loaded Granola

In my mind, granola is one of those foods that just goes with Christmas. It fills your house with the smell of sweet spices. My mother made huge batches every holiday season, cycling through various recipes and filling cellophane bags for friends and neighbors. This year, I followed suit, but had to make a completely different recipe, of course, 'cause you just can't compete with the goodies that come out of my the oven at my mama's house.

This granola is crisp, quite sweet, and full of nuts, seeds, spices, and dried fruit. And it's salty, so it makes a great anytime snack. (If you don't go for the salty/sweet thing so much, dial the salt back to one heaping teaspoon.) It's also flexible. So if you aren't a fan of pepitas—a.k.a. hulled pumpkin seeds—or have trouble finding them, you could swap them out for slivered almonds or another favorite nut. If you're questioning the pistachios, I highly recommend trying it at least once, unless you have an allergy, because their texture and flavor adds a lot to this recipe, since the nuts stay a little soft and taste almost creamy in this mix.

 Granola is rather forgiving, so you can play with ingredients quite a bit. I find that it stays crisper if you don't mix it with the dried fruit until serving; at home I liked to keep my dried fruit mixture chopped up and ready to use in a separate bag, so my granola doesn't loose its crunch.

Loaded Granola

This recipe makes enough to fill two cookie sheets. But it's irresistibly snackable, so you might want to bag it up and put it out of sight as soon as it cooled. The Mr. and I have demolished quite a bit just with walk-by munching. Cardamom can be tricky to find, and the granola won't suffer greatly without it. But it adds a little extra something special, a flavor that's a bit unfamiliar with just a hint of piney scent that seems fitting, especially for holiday granola. 

5 ½ cups rolled oats

¾ cup pepitas

¾ cup sunflower seeds

¾ cup pistachios
½ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3 tsp. salt
2 ½ tbs ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger 
½ tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cardamom 

½ cup maple syrup
½ cup honey
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup coconut chips

1 cup dried sour cherries, chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup dried golden raisins

1. Preheat your oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or wax paper. (Parchment won't scorch like wax paper.) In a very large bowl, combine oats, pepitas, sunflower seeds, pistachios, salt, and spices. Add brown sugar, breaking apart the packed shapes from your measuring cup and sprinkling it over the other dry ingredients to help it incorporate more easily. Stir. 

2. Pour olive oil, maple syrup, and honey over dry ingredients. If you measure them all in the same measuring cup, they will make cool layers, like shown below. As you can see, I used a bit more maple syrup in this batch, because that's what was left in the bottle in my cupboard. So if you want your granola a little extra sweet, go for it. Stir granola mixture until all dry ingredients are moistened. 
Oooh, Science.
3. Pour granola on to parchment-lined baking sheets and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and stir granola with a large spatula, turning over the mixture so the bottom doesn't scorch. I also like to switch which pan is on which shelf at this point, since the bottom of my oven is much hotter than the top. Set timer for 15 minutes, and stir again. At this point, add the coconut flakes, sprinkling them evenly over each pan and mixing in to the granola. Bake for at least 10 more minutes, until some of the coconut stars to turn slightly golden. Baking times may vary with altitude and humidity levels. After 40 minutes, I like to scoop some granola onto a plate, let it cool until edible, and test its crunchiness. If you want your granola a little more crisp, continue to bake it, testing at 5 to 10 minute intervals. 

4. When is granola crisp and golden (usually about 45 to 55 minutes), remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight container or large ziploc bag. Toss with dried fruit before serving (or gifting). Granola will keep for up to two weeks. But good luck with that. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bring the Heat: Fiery Tomatillo & Avocado Salsa

March is a tricky month. If you're like me and live in a climate with all four seasons, Spring is teasing you with hints of green poking through last Fall's detritus and blue skies with cotton candy clouds. But, if you live in somewhere northernish, like New York, it is still bitterly cold. You might believe the promise of those brilliant blue skies and run outside in an optimistically light jacket, only to return, windswept and numbed, a short time later. Yes, there are crocuses blooming, and I'm sure in a few months I'll be roasting, but for now, I want thick socks (highly uncharacteristic) and warm baked goods with melty chocolate (all too typical).

March is tricky for cooking, too. You still want something warm and a bit substantial, but after months of root veggies, casseroles, hearty soups, and creamy sauces...all that sort of hearty warmth has lost a bit of its comforting appeal. We're ready for crisp spring vegetables and vibrant colors of summer farmer's market stalls.

It's always this time of year that I dive into stir-fries with Thai influences, Indian curries, and, citrus-infused Mexican food. Sweet and sour becomes my sauce of choice and everything gets doused with citrus, just to ward of any scurvy that might be setting in. I realize that the possibility of developing scurvy pretty much doesn't exist, but that $#!% is terrifying, so, why even get close to risking it? Plus, limes are delicious.

So just don't. Try this salsa instead. Its vibrant kick is sure to brighten up tacos, salads, burritos, fajitas, or even just a big bowl of chips. I had, um, somehow managed to forget that serrano pepers are quite a bit hotter than jalapeños. I only used one, so the salsa wasn't too fiery, but I probably could have done without the pinch of red pepper flakes I added...

This is a terrible photo from my phone. But it's all I've got as far as
photography equipment goes right now. Wah wah. 

Fiery Tomatillo & Avocado Salsa

The flavor of this salsa is deepened by roasting some of the veggies before dumping everything in your blender and buzzing it to perfection. It's almost TOO easy. If you want less heat, you could definitely exchange the serrano for a jalapeño

3 or 4 medium to large tomatillos
1 small green bell pepper, seeded & halved
1 small yellow onion, halved & skin removed
1 serrano pepper
2 limes
1 avocado
Large handful of cilantro, about 1/2 cup
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp cumin
dash paprika
olive oil
salt, to taste (a heaping 1/2 tsp, for me)
water, for thinning consistency of salsa
for hotter salsa, add a pinch of red pepper flakes

1. Preheat your oven to 375°F. Peel skins from tomatillos and wash thoroughly. Place whole tomatillos, serrano, half of the onion, & half of the bell pepper on a baking sheet lined with foil or in glass pan. Toss veggies with a drizzle of olive oil, and roast until slightly charred; this should take about 15 to 25 minutes, depending on your oven. My oven heats very unevenly, so to get the char I wanted on my veggies, I had to turn on the broiler for the last minute or two of cooking time.

2. Let roasted veggies cool. Once they are cool enough to touch, break open the serrano pepper with your fingers and remove the seeds and membrane. (You can skip this step if you want atomic heat.) Add tomatillos, roasted peppers & onions to blender along with raw green pepper & onion, garlic, spices, and salt. Cut avocado in half, remove the pit, and scoop the flesh into the blender. Add the juice of both limes and a 3 tablespoons of water. Blend until smooth. 

For thinner dressing-like salsa, add more water. 

Serve with chips, bell pepper strips, or on top of your favorite South-of-the-Border foods! 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Becoming Fearless

There are a lot of things that hold us back from becoming what we want to be. Sometimes it's a lack of ability or training, sometimes we just aren't ready to move forward, sometimes we get stuck in situations and just can't seem to free ourselves. But I think the root of most of these limitations, as we see them, is just our own fear. 
I didn't actually want to cause fear with this image that is supposed to represent fear. 
And there are so many things we can be afraid of—spiders, aliens, failure, developing a gluten allergy, rejection, pain, and supernatural creatures that move in that creepy jerky horror-movie fashion, just to name a few from my List of Scary Items. (Incidentally, I don't recommend googling images for "fear" because there are lots of twisted things on the internet.) 

But what holds us back most is the fear of failure. We all want to succeed, to do well, be accepted by our peers, and feel like we've accomplished something worthwhile. I definitely want that. I want to do things that I can be proud of that make me a better and stronger person. Blog things and job things and travel things and life things and maybe even running-long-distances things. But I get scared. Like, hide-under-the-covers scared, sometimes. And it's holding me back. 

So I've decided to become fearless. 

Me, being fearless on a beach in India
This is a lofty goal, and will probably take awhile, but I've got a bit of a head start. A few months back, I'd coerced my husband into watching "Julie & Julia" with me again. While watching the scenes that detail Julia Child's first experiences at Le Cordon Bleu, I realized that I already had an area in my life where I am fearless—the kitchen! I've decided to use this kitchen fearlessness to conquer other fears, like blogging again after a year of not much.

I love trying new recipes, hardly ever don't make tweaks of my own, and often cook and bake without even using a recipe. I love the triumphant feeling when I make something new and it turns out exactly how I'd hoped: delicious. And I want to share that feeling of triumph. 

I know cooking can be a rather fearful thing for those who don't love it. I mean, there are knives and fire involved and things can go awfully wrong. But when you've figured out a few basics, the next step to being a fearless home chef is having a few "wow-factor" recipes in your back pocket. It takes a bit of courage to make dishes that go a bit beyond the realm of normal weeknight dinners. Often, those recipes take a bit of finagling or are things that are always better at a restaurant. For me, one of those things were meatballs. But I tackled it anyway, and the results would make an Italian grandma proud. 

If anyone has an Italian grandmother that I can test this recipe on,
please let me know.

This was a recipe that I finagled with for a while, but conquering and creating the perfect meatball felt like quite a feat. I found that using real bread instead of dry breadcrumbs made a huge difference for the texture of the meatballs, and using a sourdough loaf added a nice little tang. Substituting the Canadian bacon for the various types of ground pork suggested by most recipes gave the meatballs greater depth of flavor and a very porky punch without a lot of extra fat. When it comes to parsley and basil, I always feel that fresh herbs trump dried, but the dried version will do, if you can't easily get them fresh.

Making meatballs is a bit of a labor of love, but it's worth the time. Things go much smoother (terrible pun) with a food processor or powerful blender, but you can do the chopping and dicing by hand, too. 

Without further ado, 

Fearless Italian Meatballs

For the breadcrumbs, I recommend using a few thick slices of day-old sourdough or another type of rustic bread. French bread would also work well. Trim off most of the crust, cut into cubes, and pulse in a food processor or blender until, well, crumby. Also listed among the ingredients is a mediterranean spice blend that I love, from Dean & DeLuca. You can use a similar Italian blend with red pepper, rosemary, oregano, and lemon, or skip it all together. If you have a food processor, this is an excellent time to put it through its paces!

1 lb. ground beef
1/3 cup ground parmesan cheese
5 oz. Canadian bacon
1 cup fresh bread crumbs 
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp mediterranean spice blend
1 tsp oregano
pinch red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup onion, finely diced
2 to 3 cloves of minced garlic, to your taste
1/4 cup parsley
1/4 cup fresh basil

2+ tblsp warm water, as needed 

olive oil, for frying

1. In a large bowl, whisk together parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, salt, black pepper, and other dried spices. In a food processor, pulse Canadian bacon until finely ground, and stir in to bread crumb mixture. I also use my food processor to finely dice the onion and garlic before adding them to the bread crumb mixture. Finely chop the parsley and basil (you can use the food processor here, too), and set aside. 

2. Add ground beef to bread crumb mixture. It's easiest to use your (clean!) hands to thoroughly mix the bread crumb mixture with the beef. Add the finely chopped parsley and basil, and mix well. Add egg and warm water by 1/2 tblsp until all ingredients come together smoothly. Now wash those hands! 

3. Cover a baking sheet or portion of your countertop with waxed paper. Shape meatballs to desired size by hand; I prefer meatballs about the size of a golfball, as they cook well but are still hearty. I find rubbing a bit of olive oil on the palms of my hands helps prevent the meatball mixture from sticking. As you finish each meatball, place it on the waxed paper. Letting the meatballs rest a bit before cooking or frying helps them keep their shape a bit better. 

4. You can add the meatballs directly to a bubbling pot of your favorite red sauce to cook them, but I prefer to give them a quick sear first, as this not only adds a lot of rich flavor, but also will help preserve the shape of the meatballs. If you are going to be adding them to your sauce for part of the cooking time, you needn't cook the meatballs all the way through, as they'll finish cooking the the sauce. 

5. If searing first, heat a large skillet or frying pan over medium heat. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and heat until shimmering slightly. Cook meatballs in small batches; using long tongs, turn each meatball every minute or so, rotating so most of the surface browns. LONG TONGS are needed, as the hot oil will splatter. If you aren't finishing the meatballs in a sauce, cook them until there is just a hint of pink in the center of the meatballs. (You might have to eat the one you cut in half to check. Bummer.) Remove cooked meatballs from pan and drain on a large plate or cookie sheet lined with paper towels. 

6. I love to serve these meatballs with a yummy marinara over a pile of spaghetti, and garnish with basil and plenty of parm. Since making the meatballs is a bit time consuming, I usually cheat and use a jar of Tomato Basil Marinara from Trader Joe's.  

So cook these up, eat up, and be fearless.