Friday, July 27, 2012

Homemade Crackers: Wheat Thins & Oyster Crackers

Crackers are not something I find myself craving often. I will sneak a goldfish or two from my son's highchair tray on occasion, or snarf down a couple of Triscuits at a party, but that's about it.

And so, when the Daring Baker Challenge for July was crackers, I wasn't that thrilled.

But my hubby does like Wheat Thins, so I thought it would be a fun way to make something he would really enjoy.

Our July 2012 Daring Bakers’ Host was Dana McFarland and she challenged us to make homemade crackers! Dana showed us some techniques for making crackers and encouraged to use our creativity to make each cracker our own by using ingredients we love.

And here's what I learned: crackers are really not hard to make. At all. A bit labor-intensive, yes, but not at all difficult. Think roll-out cookies, only thinner and savory. 

In the interest of full disclosure, the challenge was to make two different kinds of crackers using two different methods. I will admit, these are both roll-out crackers. I had intended to make some Parmesan Thyme refrigerator crackers, but I just ran out of time and energy. So... there you go. Perhaps someday soon I will make them up for you. But to make up for it, I did make two different kinds of crackers all the same. And they are both awesome!

Far and away my favorite part of cracker making was using the end of a pastry tip to cut tiny rounds for homemade oyster crackers. I thought it might be tedious, but it was so fun! Somethings about small things makes them so much more awesome. True for humans, true for crackers. :D

My second favorite aspect of cracker making is that I had all the ingredients for these on hand. I could make these any time I wanted! It was quick, too. And the doughs were both really, really easy to work with.  So the next time you want to make something new and fun, give crackers a try. You could easily make these with kids, who will love cutting out fun shapes, and you won't have to wait for them to come down from the sugar the way you would with making sugar cookies. Bonus!


Homemade Wheat Thins

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for topping
1/4 teaspoon paprika
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup water (you might need to add a little more)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Set aside.
Add the flour, sugar, salt and paprika to a medium bowl and whisk to combine.  Cut the butter into small pieces and add it to the bowl.  Using a pastry blender (I used my hands), mix the butter into the dry ingredients thoroughly. The mixture should resemble sand.  Combine the water and vanilla in a small measuring cup or bowl.  Add to the butter/flour mixture and mix until a smooth dough forms. If the dough is still dry, add a little more water.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces.  Work with one piece at a time, keeping the others covered with a towel so they don't dry out.  Lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin and roll the dough into a large rectangle.  Lift the dough and turn it as you roll to ensure it's not sticking.  You want to roll the dough as thin as possible, try to make sure it's 1/16-inch thick at most.  If you want all of your crackers to be perfect, trim the edges of the dough so you have a rectangle with even sides.  Use a pizza cutter to cut the rectangle into squares about 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide. Or do as I'm doing and use small cookie cutters of your choice.
Transfer the cut dough to the prepared baking sheets. You can place them close together because they will not spread.  Sprinkle the squares lightly with salt.  Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the remaining 3 pieces of dough.  Save all of your scraps under the towel to keep the dough from drying out; reroll them all at once to create a final batch of crackers.
Bake the crackers, one sheet at a time, until crisp and browned, about 5-10 minutes.  Check the crackers at 5 minutes, and if some of the thinner ones are browning too quickly, remove them from the oven.  The crackers can burn quickly so you want to keep a close eye on them.  Remove crackers from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.  Store the crackers in an airtight container.

Homemade Oyster Crackers

2 ¼ c. flour
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt, plus more for sprinkling on top
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
2 tsp. instant yeast
1 Tbsp. cool water
¾ c. cold milk

Blend (or mix by hand very well) in a food processor flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Dissolve yeast in cool water (it will make a paste) and mix in with milk. Pour milk into processor and mix together. Let sit for a few minutes, then roll out onto parchment paper and stamp out small circles or hexagons. I used the bottom of a pastry tip, dipping it in flour every few stamps to prevent sticking. Peel away the trimmings carefully, leaving your little circles on the parchment, then place the parchment on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 9-12 minutes, shaking about halfway through so that all crackers have a chance to brown on both sides.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quinoa "Meatballs" in Zucchini Boats

I'm pretty sure I spotted this recipe for quinoa "meatballs" via Pinterest, but I don't remember precisely. But in any case I could not wait to give it a go. Which is funny because I'm often found to be going on about how I think it's silly for vegetarians to eat "fake meat" products. But this is different. Don't ask me how...

I had intended to make these for meatball subs with some simple, sauteed zucchini on the side, but ler me tell you a true story about Oregon: the bread molds much faster here than it did in Utah. Since I typically shop for groceries on Monday, there are lots of opportunities for ingredients needed later in the week to find their way to spoiling. Such was the sad end of the sub rolls I was saving for meatball subs the fateful day I made these. And without rolls, all we had were quinoa meatballs and zucchini.

Little did we know how heavenly this combination was going to be!

My husband took a bite of "meatball" and pronounced them "quite good". And they were yummy but they didn't really taste like meatballs UNTIL you eat a bit of zucchini WITH a bite of quinoa meatball. That's when the magic happens.

So when I made the quinoa meatballs again, I knew for sure that zucchini was going to be in the picture again. One of my favorite things to do with large zucchini from the garden is to slice them down the center, hollow them out a bit, and stuff them with yummy fillings. I love to do meatballs with marinara sauce or barbeque sauce, which brought me back around to the quinoa meatballs.

And that, in shell of nut, is how this dinner was born.

The Perfect Bite
My husband says, "It's the perfect summer dinner!", and I tend to agree. (Even though it does require you to turn on the oven... sorry.) It is light yet filling, and so satisfying. It will probably please everyone, carnivore and herbivore alike. If you want to make it even easier on yourself for a weeknight, you can easily make the "meatballs" in advance and freeze them. Just bake them off according to the directions given, then freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet before transferring to a zip-top baggie. Then all you have to do is toss with some sauce, and bake them with the zucchini until warmed through (since they're already cooked). Easy peasy!

Quinoa "Meatballs" in Zucchini Boats

For the "meatballs"
adapted from Aida Mollenkamp

3/4 c. uncooked quinoa, rinsed
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, stems discarded and caps finely diced
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 c. Panko breadcrumbs
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish sprinkling
1/4 c. finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus more for garnish if desired

marinara sauce of your choice
zucchini boats (instructions follow)

Bring 1 1/2 cups of water and a few big pinches of salt to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Stir in the quinoa, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until you can see the curlicue in each grain, and it is tender and the water is entirely absorbed, about 15 minutes. If the water is not entirely absorbed, drain any excess.

Remove from heat and turn the quinoa into a mixing bowl. (Can be made up to 4 days in advance. Store refrigerated until ready to use.)

Place a large frying pan over medium heat and coat with the oil. When oil shimmers, add the onion, salt and pepper, and cook until soft. Stir in the garlic, thyme, and some additional salt and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in the mushrooms and continue to cook until lightly brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and scrape into the quinoa. Set aside to cool, at least 5 minutes.

Add the eggs, bread crumbs, cheese, and parsley and mix thoroughly. If you find the mixture isn't holding together, add some more panko breadcrumbs until it does. Dampen hands with water and then measure out 1 tablespoon portions and roll into 30 to 32 (1-inch) balls. I use my small cookie scoop, which portions perfectly with way less mess.

Arrange “meatballs” on a rimmed baking sheet sprayed with oil, and bake at 350º until golden -- about 15 to 20 minutes. (Can be done up to 4 days in advance and refrigerated, or frozen for a couple of months.)

For the zucchini boats
2 large (but not monstrous) zucchini, sliced in half lengthwise
cooking spray or oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350º. Run a spoon along the insides of the zucchini halves to remove seeds and make a trench for the filling. Spray with cooking spray or brush with oil, and season the inside with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes until it begins to soften.

At this point, gently toss some of your "meatballs" with marinara sauce and scoop them into the hollows of the zucchini. Sprinkle with parmesan and bake 10 or 15 minutes more, or until zucchini is fork tender but not mushy.

Serves 4 -- half of a large zucchini will be plenty for one serving. Particularly if you add a salad. :)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Crockpot Butter Chicken

I am amazed at how little time it takes me to get out of the swing of things. My mom was in town last week, and blogging just fell by the wayside without a single thought! Maybe it was the cooking disaster on the second day of her visit (which happened to be my birthday) that just left me feeling less than enthusiastic about sharing cooking tales... That particular story is a whopper, though, and all I can bring myself to say just now is that I will never again try to make Cafe Rio-style Pork Barbacoa, and that I'm so glad my Le Creuset survived to cook another day. Oy to the vey.

It may surprise you to hear that "ethnic food" isn't really my thing -- or hasn't been until recently. The first time I tasted Butter Chicken was at my brother's rehearsal dinner last fall. It absolutely won me over. My husband, too! It seriously helps to have your spouse on board when you want to go to the trouble of recreating a foreign dish at home. And, unlike the aforementioned pork, making this at home is something I can highly recommend!

Butter Chicken is probably about as much an authentic Indian dish as Spaghetti and Meatballs is an authentic Italian dish, but that makes it a great introduction to Indian flavors. And with minimal effort to boot! Just throw it all in the slow cooker and walk away, friend. It's a gateway dish.

So even if you don't think you like Indian food, give this a try. It will probably change your mind!

Crockpot Butter Chicken
adapted from Meal Planning 101

2 Tbsp. oil
4-6 boneless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1, 5.5 oz. can of tomato paste
2 tsp. curry powder
1 Tbsp. curry paste (like Patak’s mild curry paste)
a tiny pinch to 1 tsp cayenne powder (we're on the tiny pinch end of the spectrum)
2 tsp. tandoori masala
1 tsp. garam masala
15 green cardamom pods (If you wish, put them in some cheesecloth.  I like the adventure of picking them out... and I am also too lazy to deal with cheesecloth. Not that it's that hard. Moving on...)
1, 15 oz. can coconut milk (I use light)
1 c. plain yogurt (Nonfat is fine)
salt and pepper to taste
1 c. frozen peas (optional)

Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over med-high heat. Add chicken and saute to get a little color. Place chicken in crockpot.

To empty skillet, add remaining Tbsp. of oil, then add onions and saute until translucent. add garlic and saute one minute. Then add tomato paste, all spices except cardamom, and curry paste. Stir it all together to enliven the tomato paste and spices.

Scrape contents of the skillet into the crockpot over the chicken. Add coconut milk and cardamom. Stir to thoroughly combine.

Cook on low heat 6-8 hours, or on high heat 3-4 hours. When ready to serve, shred the chicken (or dice, if you prefer). Stir in the yogurt. Taste, and add salt and pepper to your liking. If you want to add the peas, add them now and stir them around in the warm sauce to thaw them through.
Serve with basmati rice (we use jasmine rice because we always have it on hand) and warm naan bread.


Friday, July 13, 2012

THE Most Perfect Brownie on the Planet

That title is quite the statement, I know. But it is, in fact, a statement of fact. Maybe you've heard of this brownie, since it has been earmarked by America's Test Kitchen as their favorite, and has even made Oprah's list of her "favorite things". There's a lot of good press out there for this brownie, and with good reason.

They. Are. Incredible.

Moist, dense, fudgy, and rich, with the perfect crust on top... And, *bonus*, the recipe makes a 9x13" pan full! None of this 8x8" nonsense. It is what dreams are made of. Well, what my dreams are made of.

Which is why, on this the auspicious date of my birth, I am sharing it with you.

I have always adored brownies from a mix. They are always moist and fudgy. In the past, my homemade brownies were not chocolatey enough or were too cakey, and left me wanting brownies from a mix -- isn't that just wrong? Homemade should always be better. You just need the right recipe.

This is the right recipe.

It comes from the Baked Bakery in NYC (previously referenced here), and was published in their first cookbook, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. Every recipe I've tried from this book is fantastic, but this recipe is worth the price of admission alone.

Happily for you, however, I will share it with you. And once you've tried this one, go get the book. Call it my birthday present to you. ;D

The Baked Brownie

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 oz. dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 c. (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tsp. instant espresso powder (optional, and I skip it)
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9×13-inch glass or light-colored baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder together.

Put the chocolate, and butter (and instant espresso powder, if using) in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey. (And that's just unacceptable.)

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then lift them out of the pan using the parchment paper. Cut into squares and serve.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container or wrap with plastic wrap for up to 3 days. (Ha! Like they would hang around that long...)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pasta with Easy Summer Sauce

 So, true story: Almost every night for the past week it has reached 80 degrees inside our air-conditioned house by dinner time. And I live in Portland, OR, not Death Valley. Can you say broken A/C? There is nothing like a heat wave to put a serious damper on your intentions to cook. By the end of a hot day, I am just drained and want nothing more than to flop down directly in front of a fan with a giant snow cone in hand.

What follows is one of my favorite ways to a) get dinner on the table in a hurry, b) keep the heat in my kitchen to a minimum, and c) use up garden produce. It also helps me give my garden herbs a little haircut, which they need often to keep from going to seed in the summer months.

(PS: Later this month I'll be doing a follow-up to my Windowsill Herb Garden post, so stay tuned!)

One of the other things I love about this recipe is that you can really change it up to suit your taste or use what you have on hand. How do I mean? Well, if you don't have grape tomatoes, go ahead and dice those Romas hanging out on the counter. (Please tell me you've stopped keeping them in the fridge!) Don't like feta? Trade it out for crumbled chevre (as I did for the dish in the photo) or ricotta salata, if you can find it. The black olives could be traded out in favor of kalamata or manzanilla olives, or even briny capers if that's what floats your boat. You get the idea.

The only cooking involved is boiling pasta, to which you add green beans in the last few minutes. The rest is chopping, all of which can easily be done in the time it takes to cook the pasta and beans.

And so, in closing, all I have to say is this: Winner, winner, easy summer dinner.

Stay cool, friends!

Pasta with Easy Summer Sauce

8 oz. (1/2 lb.) short cut pasta -- orecchiette, farfalle, and penne are good choices
2 c. cut green beans (2" lengths)
2 c. quartered grape or cherry tomatoes (or any variety of tomato cut in 1/2" chunks)
1/4 c. chopped black olives (or other olives you prefer)
2 Tbsp. to 1/4 c. minced red onion (I lean toward 2 Tbsp.)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1.4 c. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar (optional, but recommended)
1/2 c. (4 oz.) crumbled feta

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a hefty pinch of salt, then the pasta.
Let the pasta cook while you chop the remaining ingredients, reserving the green beans and combining all the other ingredients in a large bowl.

When pasta is three or four minutes from being al dente, add in the green beans. Once the pasta is done and the beans are tender-crisp, drain the pot and add it to the rest of the ingredients in the bowl. Stir to melt cheese and coat.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Garlic Parmesan Popcorn

When I was little, my family had this awesome air popper for making popcorn. I loved that thing. I can still remember the whirring sound it made as it spit out fluffy clouds of popcorn goodness. It even had a section on top for melting butter. My brother and I would stand right next to it and marvel, eagerly holding the bowl until the last of the kernels floated down from the yellow plastic spout.

In high school, my girlfriends and I used to set up the TV outside and watch movies on the lawn once the summer sun went down. (Notably one particularly giggle-inducing viewing of Witness with Harrison Ford... oh, memories...) We passed around a giant bowl of the microwave stuff, but it would have been so much better if we'd done ourselves, I'm sure. With no air popper in sight, what's a girl to do? (Pop Secret Homestyle, is what we did, for the record, and I still stand by that choice.)

But I didn't know until adulthood that no fancy, bulky gadget is needed. Homemade popcorn is super simple to make, and it takes about the same amount of time as those convenient microwave bags, even if it is a little more hands-on. Kids will love this as much as I used to love our air popper!
Here's how it goes:

Basic Homemade Popcorn

3 Tbsp. canola oil
pinch fine salt
1/2 c. popcorn kernels

Grab yourself a wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid. (I use my 5.5 quart enameled Dutch oven.) Add canola oil, salt, and popcorn kernels to the pot. Pop on the lid, leaving it slightly ajar to allow steam to escape, but still shield you from violently popping kernels.

Heat over medium heat, shaking occasionally to allow popped corn to rise to the top and unpopped kernels to sink to the bottom. Continue cooking and shaking every so often until popping slows and almost stops. Remove from heat and shake a bit to allow any rogue kernels to pop before transferring to a large bowl.

While your corn is popping, melt your butter and grab salt so everything will be ready when the corn is popped. (I'm an instant gratification kind of girl, as you probably know.)

It's great just like this, but if you want to guild the lily, just a couple of extra ingredients will make it extra special.

Garlic Parmesan Popcorn

8 c. popped popcorn (one recipe of the above Basic Homemade Popcorn)
4 Tbsp. butter (okay, 5...)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced or put through a press
1/2 c. finely grated parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. dried parsley (optional, but it does make it pretty)
salt (and pepper, if you're like me) to taste

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until golden, about 3 minutes. Pour over the popcorn and stir to coat evenly. Stir in parmesan and parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

Now, go forth and movie night it up!