4.30.2014

Strawberry Margaritas


I've been trying for years to come up with the perfect margarita- slushy, limey, not too sweet- but always failed. The ice would turn into chips, or disappear completely, leaving me with a watery, not slushy, drink. I had issues with lime juice too; the bottled stuff tasted like crap but squeezing fresh juice took a dozen limes and a lot of time.

So I switched my goal from the classic plain lime margarita to a fruity one, and now I've been successful. I use frozen fruit, which really helps to increase the slushy consistency, and I crush my ice in the blender before I add the rest of the ingredients. And since the drink's focus is now fruit (strawberry, in this case) I only need the juice of two limes, so I'm not standing there trying to squeeze out paltry amounts of juice from a million limes.

Strawberry Margaritas, adapted from Cooking Light

3 1/2 cups frozen strawberries (you can swap in other fruits too, like peach or mango)
2 1/2 cups crushed ice
3/4 cup tequila
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice (about 2 limes)
1/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp Triple Sec
1/4 tsp salt (let's be honest, there isn't a chance I measured this. I shook my salt shaker a couple times into the blender)
Lime wedge for garnish

Fill your blender with ice, and crush. Remove to a separate bowl, and measure out 2 1/2 cups.

Combine all other ingredients, through salt, and process until smooth. Pour into a large pitcher, and garnish individual glasses with lime wedge.

Makes only four margaritas, so go ahead and double it.

Make Ahead: You can make this up to 45 minutes before guests arrive and keep the pitcher of margs in the fridge. Any longer than that and your slushy consistency might start to melt away.

4.29.2014

Tropical Fruit Salsa


Despite having absolutely no cultural affiliation to the holiday, my parents take Cinco de Mayo very seriously. 
 
I’m not sure where it started, but years back, my dad suddenly decided this had to be a holiday we celebrated.  He bought sombreros for everyone, a string of jalapeno shaped Christmas lights, a CD of cheesy music, and of course, a boatload of Corona.  We grilled steak and hot peppers, drank margaritas, and lined up empty Corona bottles on the deck, and it became a yearly tradition. 
 
Now, each year we try out new recipes, and I wanted to share some of my favorites.  Today’s recipe is for Tropical Fruit Salsa, a festive, healthy, and delicious addition to the party.  I used this as a dip for chips, but I think it would also be extremely delicious spooned over grilled chicken, or maybe combined with brie into a (admittedly not very Mexican) quesadilla.
 
Take care with dicing your fruit, this is meant as a dip for chips so you want to dice it into very small pieces. 
 
Tropical Fruit Salsa, from Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook
1 medium ripe papaya, small dice (¼ - ½  inch pieces)
1 medium ripe mango, small dice
½ a pineapple, small dice
1 medium jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed, minced (taste your jalapeno first- sometimes they’re super mild and sometimes they are crazy hot! Know what you are working with before you move forward)
1 small red onion, small dice
1 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
1 tbsp lime zest
1 tbsp lime juice
Coarse salt
 
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients.  This can be made up to an hour ahead, but add the papaya just before serving.
 

4.24.2014

Guitar Cookies

I love decorated cookies. Every Christmas and Valentine's Day, I start to see lots of cute ideas popping up on blogs- frosted snowmen, big red hearts, glittery snowflakes- and I always get inspired to bake.

And then I remember how much work it is. Ten minutes into planning out how many frosting colors I'll need and how much powdered sugar to buy, I give up and move on to oatmeal raisins, or something easier.

The only thing that can motivate me into making these is my husband, because they're (of course) his favorite. I recently bought a guitar shaped cookie cutter, and was excited to put it to use. 
  

So here's a tutorial on making guitar cookies. I'll warn you, it's labor intensive. I give my final product a B, it's decent but it lacks that real professional, neat look. Maybe one of you out there might be able to execute a neater cookie. (If so, please tell me how!) 

You will need:
  • Sugar cookies that have been cut in the shape you want, and allowed to fully cool. I always use Carole Walter's Scalloped Sugar Cookies from her book Great Cookies. I've provided the recipe at the end of this post, but if you are a baker, I really recommend this book. It's spectacular.
  • Royal icing, for outlines and details. I use the recipe from Bake at 350. You will have to tint this brown, black, and reserve some plain white. I like Wilton gel food colors.  
  • Flood icing, which is a thinner icing used for filling large areas of the cookies. I make mine with 2 cups of powdered sugar, 1 tsp corn syrup, and water. I start with 1 tbsp of water and keep adding in very small amounts until I reach the right consistency. The right consistency is when you can drip some icing back in the bowl with a spoon, and have it hold its shape for a second or two before it melts back in to the rest.
  • Disposable decorating bags, couplers, and Wilton tips #1, 3, and 12.
Still with me? Let's get baking.  These are my guitars, naked:


And this is what I used for inspiration- my husband's guitar collection, conveniently visible from the kitchen.


Step 1: Tint a small portion of your royal icing dark brown, and add it to a piping bag fitted with a #3 tip. Outline each guitar. The neck will be a different color from the body of the guitar, so draw a line separating the two, as shown:


Step 2: Tint another small portion of your royal icing black, and fill a piping bag fitted with a # 12 tip. Squeeze a black dot in the middle of each guitar. Reserve leftover black icing.


Step 3: Make a big batch of flood icing. Tint half of it medium brown, and half dark brown. Fill the neck of the guitar with dark brown, and the body with medium brown.


Step 4: Get tired and annoyed when you drop your favorite mixing bowl and it shatters on the floor, ruining your icing and mood. Wonder why you started this monstrosity of a project. Grab a beer and annoy your husband while he cleans junk out of his closet. Drink, but don't help him at all.


Step 5: Go back to your reserved black icing, and fit it with the #3 tip. Draw a straight line under the dot.


Step 6: Take your last bit of reserved white royal icing and put into a piping bag fit with a #1 tip. Use it to pipe strings, and add tiny white dots at the top of the guitar.




Done! Enjoy your cookies.


Neil's Scalloped Sugar Cookies,
 from Carole Walter's Great Cookies


1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2/3 cup (1 and 1/3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
3 large egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 or 2 tsp cold water as needed
 
Combine flour, sugar, butter in bowl of food processor, fitted with the steel blade. Pulse to combine, then process for approximately 10 seconds, until the mixture is the texture of fine meal (it will look crumbly and not much like dough).
 
Combine the yolks and vanilla in a bowl, and add to the processor's work bowl. Pulse to combine, and then process for about 10 seconds until a mass forms. If it looks very dry, add a tsp of water. Empty the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disk. It will seem rather dry and crumbly. Don't worry.
 
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 3 days. You can freeze dough at this point.
 
To bake: Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with foil.
 
Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll out on floured surface until about 1/4 or 1/8 inch thick. Using your cookie cutters, cut into your desired shapes.
 
Place on cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until edges are golden brown.
 
Cookies can be frozen for a month or two. To refresh, simply defrost and bake in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes.
 

4.22.2014

Risotto La Fritedda


This particular version of risotto is my mash-up of two Italian recipes, and not an authentic Italian dish.  
 
I was flipping through my Marcella Hazan cookbook, and came across a recipe for la fritedda, a Sicilian combination of peas, favas, fennel, artichokes, and onions.   I thought this would be a delicious topping to a classic risotto.  Plus, I’ve been on this kick of researching my family history, and we’re Sicilian, so I enjoyed pretending that maybe this was something my ancestors ate.  I have no idea if this is the case or not, but I know my grandparents finished their meals with fennel, so let’s go with it. 
 
Marcella, as always, is bossy about the ingredients, warning that you should really use freshly picked young peas, favas, and artichokes, lest you wind up with a weaker version of the dish. I’m inclined to agree with her, but as winter is never ending here and the farmer’s markets have yet to appear, I resorted mostly to the frozen stuff. Sorry Marcella. 
 
I did prep the artichokes myself, though I feel frozen would taste exactly the same in the dish, so that is what I call for in the below recipe. I probably wouldn’t use canned though, I kind of hate that watery, salty liquid they sit in. 
 
Risotto La Fritedda
We’re working with two recipes here, one for the risotto and one for the fritedda. You simply prepare them both and top the risotto with the fritedda. 
 
La Fritedda, adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
1 cup frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
½ cup frozen fava beans, thawed
½ cup frozen peas, thawed
½ cup white onion, sliced thin
½ cup fennel, sliced thin, handful of fronds reserved for garnish
¼ cup olive oil
Salt
 
This can be done while making the risotto. Using a large skillet or heavy bottomed pan that can hold all the ingredients, put the onion, olive oil and fennel in and cook on medium low, until translucent. 
 
Once translucent, add in the artichoke hearts and cover the pot tightly. After five minutes, add in the peas and favas and cook another five minutes, tightly covered. You may need to add in small amounts of water to keep everything from sticking.  
 
Taste and correct for salt. Let sit until risotto is ready.
 
Risotto, from Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
5 cups chicken broth (if you need more, use water)
¼ cup chopped white onion
3 tbsp butter
½ cup Parmesan cheese
 
Bring chicken stock to a simmer in a small pot. 
 
In a large saucepan, melt butter and add onions. Saute until softened but not browned, about five minutes. Stir in the rice and let it toast in the butter and onions for a minute or so. Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. 
 
Add in ½ cup of broth and stir until absorbed. Then add another ½ cup and stir again until absorbed. Keep going until the rice is creamy and firm to the bite, with no hard white center. It will take about a half hour.  
 
Mix in the Parmesan, top with the fritedda, and serve.  

4.17.2014

Recent Reads: Thrive, by Arianna Huffington

 
Photo from Amazon

A $22 credit appeared in my  Amazon account the day Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive, came out, so I immediately purchased it.  I’ve been attempting (and failing) to work my way through the ever-popular Lean In, and I wanted to see what Sheryl Sandberg’s peer had to say. Sandberg has a message of jumping into work, and Huffington has a metric of adding more balance to working hard, an idea I like better.

Huffington calls thriving the “third metric” of success, after money and power. She explains that she, and many other top CEOs and execs are considered “successful” based on standard parameters like money and power, but their lives reflect exhaustion, a lack of interpersonal connection, and poor health.  She says money and power are two legs of a stool, and without the third metric of thriving, a successful person’s life is unbalanced and they’ll eventually topple. 

The purpose of the book is to expound on what thriving actually means, and how we can attain it in our overworked, overscheduled lives.  Huffington divides thriving into four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.  Experiments, science, research, and personal stories (both hers and other high powered execs) underscore the importance of focusing on these four items in everyday life. 

My favorite chapter was the well-being one, which delves into the benefits of meditating, mindfulness, exercise, and connection.  Huffington talks about the idea of a centered place of peace being within each of us, and how to get there.  It’s a truth that’s seen in a lot of religions, including my personal one of Catholicism, and something I definitely need to continue to work on.   Reading this chapter, and the rest of the book, reminded me to put my focus on the moment I was living, and helped me to calm down a bit and stop jumping ahead to the future.  It alleviated some of the constant “rush-rush-rush” I feel in my daily life. 

It’s important to me to see a successful woman in charge of a powerful company discussing the need for us to all take care of ourselves. Too much connectivity, too much working, too much phones and Internet drives me a little crazy and I think has a lot of negative impacts on humanity, and a private sector leader getting behind the idea of calming it down could hopefully be the start of cultural changes.  

What I liked too about this book was that it was kind of an ode to her late mother.  Huffington’s mother seems full of wisdom and insight, and the little clips and stories added a great human touch to the book. 

Loved this one and recommend everyone read it!!

4.15.2014

Easter Menu

Easter will be at my cousins’ this year, but that hasn’t stopped me from putting together my own little Easter brunch menu. Below, some of my favorite recipes from this blog that make a perfect Easter afternoon.
 

The Menu:
What's on your Easter menu?

4.14.2014

Passover Coconut Macaroons

Today I have a last minute Passover classic for you- coconut macaroons. Perfect for throwing together at the last minute, since they take less than five minutes to put together and only 25 to bake. 


Coconut Macaroons, from Food Network Magazine
3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 14oz bag sweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup chocolate chips, melted 

Preheat your oven to 325 and line two aluminum baking sheets with parchment paper. (I used a Silpat, which I do not recommend, as the macaroons stuck a bit).

In a large bowl, whisk together egg whites, sugar, salt, and almond extract until combined. Fold in coconut until evenly coated with egg white mixture.

Using a tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop heaping tablespoons of mixture onto baking sheet. Push together with your hands if necessary to keep it neat. 


Bake for 20-25 minutes, until browned.  Let cool fully on baking sheet. 



To decorate, melt chocolate chips in microwave. Once macaroons are completely cooled, use a fork to drizzle melted chocolate over macaroons. Let set until dry and serve. 

4.10.2014

Spring Sides: Green Beans and Favas with Parmesan


This is an example of a dish born on the spur of the moment. My family was coming for dinner and I planned to make a side of roasted broccoli, only I completely forgot to pick up the broccoli at Shoprite. 
 
Not inclined to go back there, I rummaged around the fridge and found some fresh green beans, and frozen favas. I decided to combine the two in the simplest way possible: a simple sauté with garlic, topped with Parmesan. 
 
The result was bright and springy, and the Parmesan was a great touch. I shaved it over the dish with a vegetable peeler, and it melted deliciously into the hot beans.  I think we all fought over the pieces with the most cheese! 
 
One note- I used a bag of frozen shelled favas from Trader Joe’s, but I prefer favas shelled twice, so after blanching I went through the ridiculous step of secondary peeling. I’m a perfectionist, I wanted to see the bright green!
 
This makes a perfect Easter side dish.
 
Green Beans and Favas with Parmesan, by me
Serves 6 as a side dish
 
1 lb skinny green beans
1 cup frozen pre-shelled fava beans
Parmesan cheese, to taste
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 big cloves garlic, smashed
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
 
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a bowl filled with cold water and ice. 
 
Drop in your green beans, and boil for 1-2 minutes, until they just lose their vegetal taste but remain crisp. Lift out using a skimmer and immerse immediately into ice water.  Keep water boiling. 
 
Add fava beans to boiling water, and cook about 3 minutes. Remove to ice water and let cool completely.  Peel second shell, if desired. 
 
At this point, beans can be prepared a day ahead. (I like to store them in the skillet I’m going to cook them in, so when my guests are over I can just pull out the whole thing and go).
 
When ready to cook, combine olive oil butter in skillet and melt over medium high heat. Add pepper flakes and garlic, and sauté until garlic is golden brown. Add green beans and sauté 5 minutes, until warmed through. Add salt and pepper to taste.
 
Place in a serving bowl, and using a vegetable peeler, shave Parmesan cheese over the beans. (Alternately, use grated cheese). Add as much as you want, and enjoy!

4.09.2014

Passover Recipe Roundup

Passover is around the corner, and though I’m not hosting, I wanted to provide a roundup of some of my favorite Passover recipes. This is a meat menu, so no dairy here.
 
Saveur's tahini dip with crudites is a great healthy, non-dairy appetizer.
.
 
I don’t start a Jewish holiday dinner without making Smitten Kitchen's matzo ball soup. Everyone loves it, and it's super easy.
 photo matzoresize2_zpsaac87d64.jpg


I know brisket is traditional (and here’s my favorite brisket recipe), but I love the idea of serving a chicken tagine, like Food52's,'s, instead. Like brisket, it can be prepared in advance and reheated, but chicken is a little lighter for the springtime (and a change of pace from every other Jewish holiday).

Couscous makes a perfect (and easy!) side dish for that, as does a nice springtime roasted asparagus


Potato kugel, like the one here from Food and Wine, is substantial, especially if you have vegetarians attending, and can be made the night before.
 
Round it all out with a salad of your choice and a stack of matzo, and serve some classic and simple coconut macaroons for dessert.
 

 
**Please note I am not Jewish and my husband’s family is not observant of any dietary laws so this menu works for us. If anything is really nonkosher, my apologies!

4.04.2014

Fashion Friday: Caring for Leather Boots

I don’t know about you, but I consider good shoes an investment. I spent close to $300 on my Frye boots, intending to get at least five years’ use out of them.  So far, they’re holding up well, though it takes a little effort on my part. 
When spring arrives, I like to handle all the maintenance on my boots to ensure they’re put away in good shape and ready to go in the fall.  
Here’s my tips on caring for your leather boots:
Remove winter:

I live in an urban area, so road salt has attacked my favorite shoes. 

The good news is, it’s easy to remove these salt lines yourself. Simply mix equal parts white vinegar and water together, dip a clean cloth in them, and rub along the salt lines. Then, dip another clean cloth in water and go over one more time. Let the boots dry, and the salt marks will be gone. 
Condition the leather:  

Invest in leather treatment products and regularly condition your leather. Certain brands, such as Frye, sell products formulated to work best with their materials. 
Take bigger fixes to a pro:
This is a good time to have any non-DIY repairs done: resoling, fixing zippers, touching up ripped seams. Repairs can take your shoes out of commission for up to a week, have them done when you won’t want to wear the shoes.
Find a reputable cobbler (seriously- don’t just go to the cheapest dry cleaner, find an actual cobbler), and bring your shoes over. Depending on what you need done, it could cost you upwards of $50. But if the boots cost $300, and the repair gets you another couple of years, it’s a good investment. 
You can also have your cobbler take care of the conditioning and stain removal above, for an additional cost. 
Storing: 
I like to use boot shapers to help my boots hold their shape, otherwise they wind up tossed and creased at the bottom of my closet. If you still have the original shoebox, keep them in there as well, to avoid dust.  I also toss a little Gold Bond in the shoe to keep them fresh.  Cedar boot shapers would accomplish that too.
Finally, if you’re purchasing any new boots in end of season sales, it’s a good idea to take them to a cobbler before you wear them and have a thin rubber strip added to the sole to protect it and prolong its life.

4.03.2014

Baked Rigatoni with Broccoli, Pancetta, and Olives



My husband is not really that into food. It’s rare that he makes dinner requests, and when he does, it’s always something simple like “chicken. And salad.”  

So I was very surprised the other day when he saw me flipping through the latest Food and Wine, and pointed out a recipe. 

“You should make that” he said, pointing to a recipe for a baked rigatoni with broccoli, tomato, olives, pancetta and ricotta.  

Didn’t seem like Mr. B’s usual eating habits, but I thought it looked delicious, so I jumped on the opportunity and really liked it. It was a nice change of pace from usual red sauce baked pastas, and if you happen to have leftover roasted vegetables, it would be a great way to use them up. 


Baked Rigatoni with Broccoli, Green Olives, and Pancetta, adapted from Food and Wine
Serves 6

2 tbsp unsalted butter, and more for greasing
1 ½ lbs plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise (I used yellow cherry tomatoes, as I had them)
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt
Pepper
1 ½ lbs broccoli, cut into florets
4 oz pancetta, diced
¼ cup chopped onion
1 cup pitted green olives (I used kalamatas)
1 lb rigatoni
2 cups fresh ricotta
¾ cup good Parmesan

Preheat oven to 425 and butter a 9x13 baking dish. 

On a rimmed baking sheet, combine tomatoes, 1 tbsp olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. Roast for 20 minutes. 

On another sheet, combine broccoli with 1 tbsp olive oil, more salt and pepper, and roast for 15 minutes. 

In a large, deep skillet, combine pancetta and last tbsp olive oil. Cook until crispy, about 5 minutes, then add onion and cook until softened, 5 more minutes. Add olives, then stir in the roasted tomato and garlic mixture, including juices, and add 2 tbsp butter. Keep warm. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add rigatoni. Cook until al dente, then drain and reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid.  Add pasta to skillet, then add ricotta and broccoli, plus ½ cup Parmesan, and mix well.  Transfer to baking dish, sprinkle with last ¼ cup Parmesan, and bake for 15 minutes, until golden. 

Let stand 5 minutes and serve. Can be made ahead and reheated.

4.02.2014

Lazy Girl's Guide to a Great Brunch


Recently, some friends in town invited a few people over for brunch, and it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning.  I loved lazily showing up in comfy clothes, munching on delicious food, and spending time with friends yet still having lots of time left in the day for other things.  
It got me thinking that I should really do brunch with friends at home more- it’s a nice change of pace from typical boozy brunches out. Though I also love those, I get tired of the same places and the no-reservations wait.  Opening your home to friends is a great way to switch it up, and all you really need to do is put out a bagel spread to make people happy.  And that’s no effort, so it will make you happy too.

Below, my recipe for a no-fail, stress-free brunch:

The Must-Haves:
Bagels and Lox Spread: 
 

Run out in the morning to pick up bagels, and set out a few flavored cream cheeses, lox, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. (See this post for tips on arranging).

You can also add whitefish or tuna salad, though I usually skip those. 

Something Sweet:

Some people like sweet breakfast, and some like savory, so you should always provide options in both categories. I pick up muffins wherever I get my bagels, and ask a guest to bring fruit.  My mother-in-law always provides her “berry bowl,” a yummy and color-coordinated mix of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. 

 photo BerryBowl_zpsc485516a.jpg

Drinks:
Coffee, tea, water, and mimosas, of course. 

Not Necessary but Nice:
Something Hot:

 photo PotatoFetaBaconFrittata_zpsc91900bb.jpg

I always do my go-to frittata, which I posted about last week.  But you could make scrambled or baked eggs (like my Shakshuka recipe). Baked French toast or cinnamon buns are nice too, but definitely not a lazy way out. 

Or hey, take it really easy and just heat up the bagels. You can slice them in half, put the halves back together, and put in the oven for a few minutes. They’ll steam inside and have that still-warm-from-the-bagel-shop taste.  The point is to enjoy your company, not spend hours getting ready. 

What are your tips for an easy but fun brunch?

4.01.2014

Easter Table Settings

Today I wanted to share a little inspiration for your Easter tables! I love the cocktail of springtime colors to choose from for Easter- frilly pinks, baby blues, and pretty purples- light and fresh after the deep reds and glitz of the holidays.

My only rule? Bring out your best stuff. This isn't the time for the rustic look- a holy day calls for china, silver, and a beautiful table.

I'm totally in love with everything about this pastel place setting- especially the pretty pink peony in the middle!

Also loving this gorgeous flower arrangement:

Gold flatware is a nice addition:

I really love this little set up too- it reminds me of my grandma. She had tons of lamps and decorative objects with those gold, vintage cherubs:

This appetizer display looks insanely elegant on all this beautiful silver:

Finally, I have to share my mom's gorgeous table settings. She uses her Lenox Autumn china, with gold accessories, and always adds pretty Easter baskets. (Yes, my brother and I are edging in towards 30 and we still get Easter baskets).
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