Friday, February 26, 2010

My 1200 Cents

I am a pretty tough critic when it comes to anything I buy. But, every once in awhile, a great product comes shining through. I have been amazed and thrilled to find a product I can honestly rave about.

Over about the past month, my lips have been slowly driving me loony. I always get chapped lips in the winter, but that is par for the course considering the dry winter skin I always get as well. This year, however, is a completely different story. They were dry, the itch, the crack, they peel, they flare up and radiate outward until I look like a walking, talking clown with a bad makeup job. I was seriously considering going to the doctor.

Something abnormal had to be going on, some infection or bacteria or fungus....SOMETHING. I tried every over the counter lip remedy available. I finally found a tube of Neosporin Lip Health, which really did help, but if I stopped using it, the creeping crud threatened to make an encore appearance.

My girl Sylvia, being a total nail polish freak, introduced me to the Art of Beauty website awhile back and since I once placed an order, I get occasional promos and email offers from them. A few weeks ago, they offered a tube of their Qtica Intense Lip Repair Balm for free with a purchase of some kind. I couldn't justify it at the time. Later they sent me another offer for two free bottles of polish with a ten dollar purchase. Having suffered with the lip-tastrophe long enough, I decided it was time.

The lip balm is $12 for a .5 ounce tube. Pretty pricey, but it was just right for my $10 purchase. At a certain point in the suffering process, price ceases to matter. I received my order Tuesday morning. Today? Today my lips are perfectly healthy again. Less than four days. I will never be without this little miracle worker again. I cannot say enough good things about it. It is thick, but absorbs well, and has staying power. A little goes a long way, and it does not have a medicinal or otherwise offensive taste.

I am not an advertiser, and I am not being compensated for this message, I just had to put in my two cents...or, rather, my 1200 cents. 1200 cents very well spent.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Balsamic Popcorn with Cracked Pepper and Parmesan

In some ways, I am very much a purist. For example, do NOT put lettuce and taco sauce on my pizza, and don't even THINK about putting cottage cheese in my lasagne.
On the other hand, in some ways I am quite radical. Take this popcorn. I can't remember where I first got the inspiration, but its been on my mind for weeks now, and last night, I just couldn't take it any longer.

For this batch, I simmered 1/4 cup good balsamic vinegar until it was reduced by about half. Then I stirred in a half a stick of butter until it was all incorporated. Since I'm lazy and I didn't want to dirty another pot, I cheated and used microwave popcorn instead of popping my own. This makes about enough for two bags of popcorn. I tossed the popped corn with the balsamic butter mixture, and then I couldn't resist adding a bunch of fresh cracked pepper and Parmesan cheese on the top.

What a feast! Rich and buttery, but with the tang of the balsamic. A real treat! It went quite nicely with a glass of prosecco from the bottle my friend Chris just brought me from Chicago (sorry Ginny, it was supposed to be for us to share, but yeah, I drank it!) What do you think?

Monday, February 15, 2010


Where I work (and maybe where you work, too) this is how we say, I'M OUTTA HERE!!! I have something better to do and I'm not coming in! OOTO is Out of the Office. And that's exactly what I'm going to be for a few days.

I'll be heading out on the plane to Baltimore this Friday. Little Man and I are off for a long weekend of playing with the newest member of our family, my phenomenal niece, Linnea. Oh yeah, and my sister and her husband and our parents, too. But, as I learned when I became a mother, everyone but the new baby becomes a second class citizen.

As I'm sure you know (unless you've been living under a rock), the east coast has recently been completely SCHMUCKED with snow, but (crossing all our fingers and toes) we hope that won't cause any issues in regard to our trip.

The point? I'm going to be incommunicado for a little while! I hope to have lots and lots of new stuff to post when I get back, but in the meantime I'll be soaking up snuggle time with a sweet little cutie. Ciao!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Like Water for....well...CHOCOLATE!!! Cook the Books

I'm actually ahead of the game for our next edition of Cook the Books. After posting my last entry, I immediately picked up our next book (Like Water for Chocolate) and started reading. I had it finished before the weekend was over. I really thought I remembered reading this book previously, but I must have been thinking of Chocolat, because I'm pretty certain I would have remembered disliking a book as much as I disliked this one. Don't get me wrong, that didn't stop me from reading it. I'm ever the optimist, always thinking, "it has to get better"....yeah, but it didn't. Maybe I'm food snob. I like real recipes, not fanciful ones with unreal ingredients. I mean, I enjoy a good piece of fiction, and I'm all about the supernatural, and Latin American cultures, so I really should have liked this book. But I just couldn't make myself enjoy it.
That being said, not much will deter me from pulling something tasty from my kitchen, no matter the motive. So, I thought about the book; its name obviously had some inspiration lying in it (I mean, really, its CHOCOLATE....) and the burning desires that Tita felt throughout the book reminded me of one of my favorite candy recipes. Aztec Chile Truffles.

Yep, if you've ever had Mexican hot chocolate, you're going to be all over this one. You can make these chocolates as mild or as spicy as you want (yes, that's right, I used 'chocolate' and 'spicy' in the same sentence.) Don't judge, just give it a try. And if you're still unsure, I'm including my other favorite truffle recipe for dark chocolate-orange truffles (another classic combo).

For the ganache base:
Start with 24 ounces of good quality dark chocolate (or milk chocolate, if you're a wussy, but you know that dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, so we can justify eating it). Roughly chop the chocolate (if you are using a bar instead of chips) and put it in a double boiler (I use a stainless steel bowl over a saucepan of simmering water - no need for fancy equipment here.) with about a half a cup of heavy cream. Stir until the chocolate is smooth, then add in your spices:

For the Aztec Chile Truffles:
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper (depending on your heat tolerance)
1 tsp good quality cinnamon (I recommend Vietnamese cinnamon!)
1/8 tsp each ground ginger, allspice, and cloves

For the Dark Chocolate-Orange Truffles:
1/2 tsp orange extract
the zest of one orange

Let the mixture cool enough to handle and roll into bite size balls. Then roll the balls in cocoa powder or sanding sugar to finish; or if you have candy molds, spoon the ganache into them to set. I have some nice silicone molds that work well.Note: if you do use candy molds, be sure to gently (but firmly) tap the trays against the counter several times to work any air bubbles out of them and help guarantee a nice shape. I do recommend letting these set up in the fridge, versus the freezer. They seem to have a better texture that way, although I'm not sure why. You can also melt more chocolate and coat the finished truffles with it, but I am too lazy for that, which is why I bought the pretty shaped molds. These keep best in the fridge, so that the chocolate doesn't soften too much (if they aren't coated).

Now we can all feel the burn, just like Tita. Enjoy!

Neck Bones and Gravy

As much as I aspire to live up to my Italian heritage, I have to admit that as a child, I did not have a great deal of exposure to Italian cooking. So, when I run across a recipe like this, that just has "Italian Comfort Food" written all over it, I suffer a combination of food lust, and dismay that I didn't have an Italian grandmother coaching me in the kitchen during my youth. No disrespect to my mom, trust me, its just not how I grew up.

Well, I'm making up for all of that now! I ran across this recipe over at Proud Italian Cook and couldn't wait to give it a try. Growing up in the city, I was never exposed to the more...ahem....rustic cuts of meat. Since moving to the country, I have learned all about buying meat in quantity. And by this, I mean when we buy pork, we buy a whole hog. Literally. Right down to the oink. That's right, we work with a farmer, who delivers a hog to the butcher for us, where it is processed and packaged for us. Admittedly, there are always a number of mysterious brown packages left in our freezer after about a year. Pork Heart, Liver...and, yes, neck bones. People have told me to use them in soup, but really, they are more fat than they are meat, so I was kind of grossed out by the idea of putting that in my soup. And so, without fail, these "parts" inevitably go to the dogs (yes, really, our dogs get them for treats.)

No more! The poor dogs are going to have to settle for the hearts and livers (which I still refuse to cook or eat), because the neck bones are all mine. The hubs may not even be lucky enough to share with me. I emailed Marie of Proud Italian Cook, and she graciously sent me some guidance on making this dish, which I am thrilled to be able to pass along to you (with my own modifications, naturally!).

Start with some neck bones. I am estimating I had about 6-8 pounds (I found 4 brown paper packages of them in my freezer), but you can use however much you have available to you. Keep in mind that there is very little meat on these babies, so you may want to err on the heavy side.

In the largest pan you have, pour a little oil, then salt and pepper the bones generously, and caramelize them until they are nice and golden. This caramelization gives the gravy an amazing flavor. You will have to do this in batches if you are using more than a couple of pounds. Set the browned bones aside.In the same pan (you want all those yummy brown bits in the gravy!) saute some chopped onion (I used about 2 small onions), plenty of fresh minced garlic (about 6 cloves for me), and cook until soft. Then toss in a bunch of basil. You know I can't resist throwing some red wine in any sauce I make (and its a really good excuse to open a bottle, as if I need an excuse), so I poured in about a cup of a nice local Norton to deglaze the pan.

Toss your caramelized bones back in the pan, and cover with tomatoes. Marie says to only use San Marzano tomatoes, and I would have loved to, but they are just simply unavailable here unless you have the time to drive to St Louis, which I did not. So, sorry Marie, but I got the best crushed tomatoes I could get my hands on, and I threw in a can of fire roasted tomatoes for extra flavor.Let that concoction simmer until the meat is falling off the bone. I let mine go for about 3 hours, which may have been overkill, but the little buggers just didn't want to let go. When you are getting close, boil some of your favorite pasta (In my case, I boiled up a package of bucatini, which is by far my favorite cut of pasta. It just grabs the sauce and drinks it in like a straw.) and get ready for food porn (yes, my parents just read that).Yes, that's right, it is beautiful, and messy, and you will make sounds you didn't know could come from a person while you are eating. You should either eat this dish while no one else is around, or make sure you have a partner in crime so that you have someone to share your dirty little secret. Oh, and lots of napkins. And bibs wouldn't hurt either. Damn. I mean, really, there are just no words. Try and take these from me and you might just get stabbed in the hand with a fork. After I was done, the kitchen table looked like the scene of a homicide investigation.

I know what you are thinking. Neck bones? I've had more than one friend be unable to process the appeal. You've got to be open minded, but trust me, it is worth it. I didn't even tell my friend Susan about this because it would probably make her semi-vegetarian stomach heave just thinking about it. But I have a few girls who are with Memphian friend Whit was so proud of me for taking on the pork parts previously unknown. Between her and Ginny, we're gonna throw down on this another time. You can, too. I promise I won't tell.....but send me pictures.....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut....HOT FIX!

I am an organizer by nature, and admittedly, I tend to plan our weekly meals in advance, along with many of the other dishes and treats that I make. That being said, every once in awhile, something comes along that just has to be taken care of as quickly as I can get to my kitchen. In my work, we would call that a "Hot Fix". And since this week's crash course in sugar overdose came from a co-worker, that's what we're calling it.
Sitting in our group lab yesterday, one of the lovely ladies I work with asked me, "So, are you a 'baker' or more of a 'cooker'?" Being a loaded question, I replied that I do tend to gravitate more toward cooking than baking, but I do make my fair share of sweets as well.
She had been in a nearby town over the weekend, and had lunch with her sister at a local eatery. From the dessert menu, she had ordered a treat dubbed "Almond Joy Pie" and wanted to know if it could be re-created. After doing some research online, I found a recipe that sounded close to what she described and after making a few modifications, realized that I already had all the ingredients for it at home. Since the dinner I had planned last night involved allowing a coup to simmer for awhile, I decided I had time to try this one out.
The recipe I found and am including below, also had instructions for a homemade crust. However, one of the deciding factors enticing me to make it was the fact that I knew I had one lonely frozen pie shell tossing about in my freezer, begging to to be used up. So, I skipped the crust and moved on to the filling. As it turns out, this is going to be a dangerous addition to my repertoire, because it has only a few ingredients, none of which are perishable and can be kept in the pantry indefinitely, and it goes together in about five minutes. Seriously. The original recipe is below, but here are the instructions, including my changes. Here's how it goes.
Preheat the oven to 350.
If you are a slacker like me, break out a frozen pie shell. Pour a think layer of chocolate chips in the bottom of the shell.Top with about a cup and a half of shredded coconut.Pour a can of sweetened condensed milk over the top of the coconut. Then let the concoction rest for five minutes or so to let it soak in a little.Top with whole almonds. After tasting the pie, we decided it could have used more almonds.Cover with greased foil (I used my trusty Reynolds Release wrap), and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the foil and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the coconut is golden on top.Melt about a cup of chocolate chips with about a quarter cup of half and half and spread it over the top of the pie, then allow it to cool thoroughly.NOTE: the pie looked a little sloshy to me when I pulled it out of the oven, but I was afraid if I left it in any longer, the coconut might burn. I needn't have worried. The filling was firmly set when I cut into it this morning.
The original recipe says it can be stored at room temperature, but I put it in the fridge just to help it set up last night.If you have enough people around, it won't last long enough to worry about leftovers anyway. I brought the pie in this morning and it wasn't even 9:00 before we cut into it.
Aside from being slightly stickier than an Almond Joy bar, it tastes exactly like one. WARNING - this pie is extremely rich. You will want to make sure you have a large quantity of coffee or cold milk on standby when you are serving this one.Original recipe:

Almond Joy Pie
Most "Almond Joy Pie" recipes I see use the actual candy bar in the recipe. This one does not, but the finished product takes like an almond joy.

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups finely chopped almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat egg whites until foamy; add cream of tartar. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until stiff and glossy. Fold in almonds. Spread mixture over bottom and sides of a greased 10-inch pie pan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool.

1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
1 can sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour chocolate chips into cooled pie crust; top with coconut. Drizzle sweetened condensed milk over the top. Set aside 3 to 5 minutes.
Spray a sheet of foil with cooking spray. Cover pie loosely (try to keep the foil from touching the pie) with greased foil and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20 minutes, or until coconut is golden brown. Cool completely before cutting. Store at room temperature.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Its Happy Hour! Nigella Style....

Although I am a total slacker and I haven't posted a submission for I Heart Cooking Clubs in WEEKS, suffice it to say that after the week I have had, I was completely in tune with this week's theme - Happy Hour. For whatever reason, posting a recipe every week seems to be too much of a struggle for me lately, and this was actually meant to be my submission for the recent "Exotic Places" theme. When I think of exotic places, I think of one of two things; Asian food, or swim-up bars in Mexico. Don't ask me why, its just how my mind works.
Thinking this over, I remembered seeing a recipe in Nigella Bites for a Watermelon Daiquiri. Recalling that when Ginny and I went to Cancun, watermelon was my fruit of choice, this struck me as a perfect solution.
Keep in mind, it is January. And I live in Illinois. I wasn't convinced that I would be able to find watermelon at this point in the year, but I ventured out in search of it anyway. My local grocer was a bust (no surprise there), but imagine my delight when I walked into the produce section at walmart and strolled right up to several seedless watermelons, presenting themselves to me happily (ok, maybe they weren't actually "happy" watermelons and it was just the thought of the alcoholic beverage to come that was influencing my vision)!
I quickly chose my victim, paid my $3.98, and headed for my kitchen.
So, what do you do when you cut into a seedless watermelon and find it overrun with little black seeds? If you're like me, you curse a lot. Then, you attempt (briefly) to scrape them out of the melon, only to discover that you are losing more melon than seeds. Had this been a regular watermelon, I probably could have picked them out and been fine, since those seeds are large and visible. However, I'm guessing since this melon was MEANT to be seedless (damned over-achieving fruit), the seeds were small and plentiful, and there was just no recourse. My next question is, can you return a hacked up melon to walmart and complain about it not being "as advertised"? I chose to refrain. I'm not very attractive when I'm being kept from my goal.
That being said, I had fortunately had the foresight to also purchase two lovely mangoes while I was at the store, so I peeled those, chunked them up and threw them in the freezer. It was at that point that the week got away from me and I didn't get a chance to make the daiquiris.
However, when I saw that this week's theme is Happy Hour, I decided it was the perfect time to liberate the mangoes from the frozen tundra (and gift myself with a lovely little libation in reward for a nasty week).
Nigella's recipe for the daiquiris is simple. Frozen fruit, rum, and a little sugar. Rev up the food processor and you're ready to go. Since I don't like my beverages overly sweet, I skipped the sugar. In the processor went two mangoes, chopped and frozen, and about a third of a cup (thanks to a buddy of ours who left a nearly empty bottle on my wine rack) of Captain Morgan 100 proof (hope he wasn't really planning on using that the next time he comes to visit).
Just look at this lusciousness.... I enjoyed this frozen treat with a spoon, wrapped up in my fluffy robe, reading Like Water for Chocolate on my couch last night. The hint of spice in the Captain Morgan mingled nicely with the mango, and I really enjoyed getting tiny little bits of fruit in every spoonful. Ahhh Happy Hour indeed. SO, it wasn't technically a Nigella recipe, since I substituted every ingredient, but its the thought that counts, right?