Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Next Food Network Star: Challenge #3

Ahhh... Chopped. The panic-inducing, time-crunching, totally-bizarre-ingredient-having televised cooking competition. I watch it. Frequently. And, frequently I can even come up with a dish right off the top of my head, just as the infamous basket is thrust open to unveil a collection of ingredients that you would never think of combining. Other times... I sit scratching my head, and thinking, "What the...?"

Episode #3 in The Next Food Network Star was all about Chopped. Dessert Chopped, to be exact. Each team got a mystery basket, then had to compete against the other members of their team to come up with the best dish. Here's the synopsis per Food Network

The 13 remaining finalists meet Chopped judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Scott Conant, and Marc Murphy and are given their Star Challenge: desserts. But it's not just any dessert challenge. Each team must use a basket of ingredients to create their best sweet concoction in a head-to-head inter-team battle -- Chopped style!

This go-round, rather than drawing from a hat, I allowed the Mr. to select the mystery basket components. This could have gone horribly wrong in my favor. But, lucky me (or maybe he was just feeling generous)... he picked the one basket I actually had a GREAT idea for!

The contents: Pineapple, Hershey's chocolate, pasta dough, and black lava salt.

First off, pardon me while I excuse myself for a few minutes to attempt to contain my laughter at the thought of the Mr. actually being able to procure black lava salt anywhere near Fayetteville, NC. 


Okay. I'm back. Oh. You've never had the priveledge of visiting what one old friend lovingly coined "The Armpit of America"? Well, let me tell you... I had visions of the grand ol' south when we first moved here six years ago. Gorgeous, historic churches on every street corner. A mile-long list of mom and pop Carolina BBQ and home cookin' joints to choose from. Living in a turn-of-the-century home with a wrap-around porch that went on for days. Fragrant magnolia trees and hydrangeas dotting the yard.

Reality check: Church is mostly held in run-down double-wides. There are more restaurants of the chain variety than any city should be allowed to contain. And, those gorgeous old homes? Not unless you're Bill Gates. Fayetteville is one of the very few cities in the US where the housing market never completely bottomed out. Not even close. Good luck finding a crappy two-bedroom apartment that doesn't run you $900 a month. So, where culinary delights are concerned? This is the anti-foodie mecca. No black lava salt. Not here. But, I did have some Italian sea salt that I have been hoarding for a year. Good enough.

As soon as they unveiled this basket on the show? What a cinch! I immediately thought of one of our favorite "Chinese" treats: crab rangoon! So, let's get to chopping!

Pineapple Pillows
1/2 C pineapple, chopped into 1/4" pieces
8 oz Philadelphia pineapple cream cheese
Frozen sheets pasta dough
Canola oil
6.5 oz can crushed pineapple
1/4 C, plus 4 fl oz water
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Italian sea salt
2 Tbs brown sugar
3 Tbs sugar
6 oz. Hershey chocolate bar
2 Tbs butter
5 Tbs heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

First off, fill a deep fryer with canola oil, and set to 350*. While the oil is heating up, let's start with the pillow filling. Empty the cream cheese into a skillet over med-low heat. Stir frequently until melted. Add the chopped pineapple.

Stir until combined, then remove from heat. Get your pasta dough ready. It will, most likely, come in long rectangular sheets folded into thirds. The fold marks should mark 3 squares along each length of dough. Use a sharp knife to cut dough into squares.

Spoon 1 1/2 Tbs of the cream cheese and pineapple filling into the center of each square of dough.

Fold the dough in half along the diagonal, and pinch around the filling to seal it in.

Fold the right and left edges in towards the filling.

Finally, fold the top edge over. It will look like an envelope, or... a PILLOW!

Repeat until you have all of your pillows. This recipe makes 8. Set aside. Now, let's start on the pineapple compote. Empty the crushed pineapple, 1/4 C water, cinnamon, brown sugar, and some ground sea salt into a small saucepan. Heat over med-low heat, stirring occasionally. This will form a warm, syrupy compote while we're working on the chocolate sauce and frying our pillows.

For the chocolate sauce, bring 4 fl oz of water plus 3 Tbs sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and butter, broken into chunks, stirring until smoothly combined. Then, add cream and vanilla; stir to combine. Let cool slightly.

While chocolate is cooling, and compote is working away, go ahead and drop your pillows into the hot oil. Fry until they reach a nice, golden brown. Remove pillows from fryer; place on a plate lined with paper towels to drain for a couple of minutes. 

Spoon some of the compote onto a plate, and top with one of your scrumptious pineapple pillows...

Drizzle with chocolate sauce, and enjoy!

Admittedly, I am not a huge sweets fan. Give me a good savory dish any day! But, this dessert... this one I am proud of. The tangy cream cheese filling, combined with the comforting, sweetly cinnamon compote, and that drizzle of decadent chocolate... heaven! This is a sweet that I would make an exception for any day!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chicken Redux

I have been so extremely spoiled with foods lately. With the littles being out of town for a couple of weeks, the Mr. and I were left with a surplus of money jingling around in the food budget. After all, we're only feeding 2... not 4-5. We've taken that opportunity to enjoy the luxury of shopping at Durham Farmers' Market for the last two weekends. A girl could get used to this! Fresh garlic, a million (okay, maybe 20) different cuts of bison, purple carrots, fresh sweet corn, juicy blackberries that burst with sweetness in your mouth. Le sigh. 

But, driving to Durham takes us over an hour and a half. Our car inhales gas like it's on its dying breath. Once the littles come back, we'll be lucky to get this trip in once a month. Even then, it will one rife with complaints. "Are we there YET?" "This is SO boring." "When can we leave?" Grrrrrr. Well, my dear market... it was nice while it lasted. We shall make our way back soon. I hope.

I will admit... this last weekend, we discovered the best market treat ever: free-range chicken. I am all about the concept and benefits from eating free-range animals. But, aside from the bison... I'd never really gotten my hands on any free-range meats. Probably because things like a 3.75 lb chicken sell for $13.88. That isn't the most feasible pricing for a single-income military family. And, I was skeptical that it would really taste any different than a store-bought chicken. Boy, was I wrong

What does it taste like? Tastes like chicken! Har har har. Not funny? Okay. Sorry. But, this is what chicken was meant to taste like. It is so moist, so robust and flavorful, so... chickeny! Sure, it's not affordable for everday consumption. But, trust me... you have to try it at least once! You'll be hooked! Promise. We'll continue to buy it as often as we can. And, when we move to Kentucky in the fall... we're raisin' us some chickens!

My favorite way to eat chicken? Roasted. With roasted veggies.

Roasted Chicken & Vegetables
1 (3-5 lb) chicken
2 Vidalia onions, quartered
1 head garlic, cloves and skin removed
Carrots, halved lengthwise, then again width-wise
Potatoes, cut into 1" chunks
Shallots, quartered
Fresh thyme
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper

Place the quartered onions around the edge of a cast iron skillet. Place the chicken in the middle. Stuff the chicken with thyme, and place a couple of sprigs on top. Drizzle the chicken with olive oil; sprinkle with kosher salt, and pepper.

Roast in the oven at 450* for 1-1.5 hours, or until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 180*.  Remove from the oven, and let rest for about 10 minutes before carving.

For the veggies... spray the bottom of a baking sheet lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Carrots. We used these gorgeous purple carrots we found at the market. They had the sweetest, most earthy flavor after being roasted. Potatoes. We mixed some Purple Majesty potatoes with some buttery Yukon Golds. Garlic. Of course, fresh from the market. Shallots. Well, I can't say enough good things about shallots. I cook with them so very often. Toss those veggies onto the baking sheet. Throw on a couple sprigs of thyme. Drizzle veggies with olive oil; sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast at 450* for 30 minutes. I put the veggies in about 20 minutes before the chicken is done. That way, they're still roasting away while the chicken is settling on the counter.

Look at those crisp, roasted veggies!

You think the roasted chicken itself is yummy? Wait until you taste what we're gonna' do with the left-overs! Usually, the birds we cook are much bigger than the 3.75 pounder we got at the market. So, we typically have a good bit of meat left-over. But, between me and the Mr... we had to exhibit some self-restraint not to devour the whole thing so that I had enough for my signature Rustic Chicken Salad Sandwich!

Rustic Chicken Salad Sandwich
1 1/2 C pre-cooked chicken, shredded
1 Tbs spicy brown mustard
1 Tbs horseradish sauce (I always use Boar's Head)
1 tsp dried thyme
3 left-over roasted garlic cloves, mashed
Left-over roasted shallots
Cheese slices (I use pepper jack because we're all about the spice around here. Swiss or Muenster would be nice too)
Fresh baby spinach
A good loaf of artisan bread (or loaf of French bread)

Start by mixing the chicken salad. To the shredded chicken, add the mustard, horseradish sauce, thyme, and mashed garlic cloves. Mix until just combined; set aside.

Slice the bread into 1" thick pieces; toast them. Assemble the sandwich by spooning a generous amount of the chicken salad onto on slice of bread. Add shallots and spinach atop the chicken. Finish off with your cheese slices, then the other piece of bread. 

These sandwiches are so rustic, and yummy! They always remind me of fall, but are just as tasty in the summer! And, they go quite nicely with a side of sweet potatoe fries along with some horseradish sauce to dip 'em in! 

Back on Wednesday with Next Food Network Star Challenge play-along Episode #3. Still playing catch-up!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Next Food Network Star: Challenge #5

It's Sunday! Time to pop some corn, pour a soda, and get comfy on the couch... tv remote in one hand, laptop opened to Twitter in the other. 9:00 pm EST... The Next Food Network Star! And, here on the blog... time to play along with last week's challenge. Here it is per The Food Network's episode synopsis...

A Food Network Star must be ready at any moment for Food Network to ask them to participate in a television special; this week, each team will do just that. Each finalist will have to create and perform a live, themed television special based on a holiday or event. Food Network Star season two winner Guy Fieri hosts each special and gives feedback on which team and individuals performed the best.

Each of the three teams were given one of the following themes: Halloween, Cooking with Kids, and Game Day. So, we tossed them in a hat and got this...


Halloween? Ummm... yes, please! Team Alton was dealt Halloween, and I'm totally Team Alton all the way! He has the most unqiue individuals on his team, and their POV's are the most appealing to me. My favorites are Justin, Emily, and Judson (although he was, in my opinion, unjustly eliminated last week). He made this vegetarian chili that sincerely made me want to crawl right through the television screen and scarf down a bowl! It sounded that great. Justin made fried fish skeletons... uber creative, and Halloween-y. And, although the initial thought of munching away on fish bones was unappealing to me, they ended up sounding plenty tasty. Emily canned applesauce. See? My kid of girl... CANNING! And, Martie made hot wings. 

I had grand plans of making this full Halloween spread. But, things have been a bit out of sorts around here this week. Out of sorts in a good way. The Mr. is on block-leave from the military after being deployed for the last 9 months. I hardly ever get to enjoy having him home for 2 straight weeks. Plus, my littles have been gone to their grandparents' since last Friday. Never do I get him to myself for 7 straight days. Never. It has been great fun, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time together. But, I'm a girl that tries to stick with her commitments, so here we are. One recipe pegged down. But, it's a good one. All the creepy-crawliness of Halloween. Tasty to children and adults alike. Simple, simple, simple to make!

This recipe has been a family favorite since I was a little girl...

See? Serve 'em up in little flower pots? Fun idea for a Halloween party! You could get super-crafty with it and decorate the pots. Then dessert and a party favor! And, don't think for one minute that I didn't have every intention of decorating those pots. I can't stray from my crafty roots forever. It is, afterall, what this blog was born from. But, again with that time-with -the-Mr. thing!

Dirt Cake
2 (15.35 oz) pkgs Oreos, crushed
1 lg pkg vanilla instant pudding
3 1/2 C cold whole milk
1 stick butter, softened
1 (8 oz) pkg cream cheese, softened
1 C confectioner's sugar
1 lg. tub Cool Whip
1 pkg. gummy worms

Start by crushing the Oreos. I dump the entire container of cookies into a sealable plastic bag, set it on top of a hard, flat surface and use a rolling pin to crush the cookies into bits. This is a great stress-reliever. If you don't feel like simply rolling over the cookies... take the rolling pin, and whack the heck out of 'em!

Whisk the instant pudding and milk together for 2 minutes; set aside for 5 minutes to soft-set the pudding. I know the package insists that only 3 C of milk is needed. Ignore that. You want a different consistency.

Either in a stand-mixer with the paddle attached, or with a hand-mixer, combine butter, cream cheese and powdered sugar until smooth.

If using a stand-mixer, switch to the whisk. Add the pudding mixture to the creamed butter mixture. Mix, starting on low speed and working up to high until smooth.

Fold in the Cool Whip with a spatula. Now, grab your pots (I've also served this in plastic beach pails and regular trifle dishes). If there is a hole in the bottom of the pot, just place a piece of duct tape over it.  Place the pots on a baking sheet to contain any pesky, stray cookie crumbs. Start with a layer of crushed Oreos on the bottom of the pot. 

Pour a layer of the pudding mixture on top. Repeat with another layer of cookies, then another layer of pudding.

End with a layer of cookies on top. Adorn with some creepy-crawly gummy worms, and you're done!

Now, I know that the contestants were responsible for presenting their dish as well. Although, being in front of a camera is a bit unnerving, I had planned to play along. This time, it has nothing to do with time-with-the-Mr. He is quite supportive (after all, it was HIS idea for me to do this whole play-along gig in the first place). He was going to film it for me. This time it is about the logistics of filming in my ridiculously small kitchen, and the fact that every. single. counter. faces a wall. There is a huge open space in the middle that is totally going to waste. I'm trying to save up money for one of these soon. Problems with filming in my kitchen? Eliminated.

In the meantime, give these little pots full of creepy deliciousness a go! They might look like your 3 year old took a shovel to your garden right after a rain storm, but they taste like fluffy, cookies-and-cream heaven!

Don't forget to check back on Wednesday while we play catch-up with Challenge #3. Now. If you'll excuse me... it's time for The Next Food Network Star!

Friday, June 15, 2012

This one's for Sarah...

One of my best friends, Sarah, and I have been on many cooking adventures together. Which is to say... while I was briefly living with her last year, I decimated her Fry Daddy and nearly burned down her kitchen. This is so unlike me. Truly. The fire in the oven... not my fault. I don't know that we ever figured out what happened there. The food was still raw when that started. The Fry Daddy? Every fryer I had ever worked with... you could put the top to the unit on it even while it was frying. Not this one. Well, there was hot grease flying at my face. And, rather than searing my eyeballs with boiling grease, I grabbed the top to contain it. Not such a good idea. I killed the Fry Daddy...

Sarah was a pretty good sport about it. Although, I still owe her a new Fry Daddy. In the meantime, I'll try to make it up to her with my recipe for bruschetta. This is hands-down one of our favorite summertime meals in this house. It's light, refreshing, and super-easy to make.

While I have no specific history on bruschetta, aside from the fact that originated in Italy (no kidding, huh?)... the way that Italian foods entered the mainstream diet is rather interesting. In the 1930's, many American-born children of immigrants had built their own families and began to steer away from many of the dishes that made up their heritage. For reasons ranging from not wanting to be embarrassed to open their strangely-filled lunch sacks at school, to simply deciding that their ancestral dishes were just too heavy and spicy or too time-consuming to make... many immigrant families began to adapt their tastes to a more"Americanized" diet. The one major immigrant group to hold out against this trend? Italo-Americans. The fact that Americans came to love the Italians' "signature" dish: spaghetti and meatballs, didn't hurt either. Food editors began to pick up on the trend, and various recipes for spaghetti could be found in a variety of American publications. The interesting part? Rarely did the recipes include the (at the time) dreaded garlic clove. From the original American recipes made up of anything from tomato soup with Worcestershire sauce, to just plain ketchup for the spaghetti sauce; and a combination of beef suet, horseradish, and "bottled condiment sauce" for the meatballs... today's spaghetti and meatballs recipes have come A LONG WAY! Thank heavens that our palletes became more diverse, and our cooking skills more cutting-edge!

But, back to bruschetta! Just the ingredients look mouth-watering before even being prepared...

1 (8 oz) container cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 lg garlic cloves, minced  *plus one whole clove to rub on the bread
1 handfull basil, chopped
8 oz cheese, cubed (typically, we use mozzarella but this time we used paneer)
Kosher salt, to taste
Extra-viring olive oil
1 loaf of bread, sliced (typically, we use Italian bread but this time we used a rosemary olie oil loaf from the market)

We start by quartering the tomatoes, mincing the garlic, and cubing the paneer. In comparison to mozarella, paneer is softer and a bit sticky. It is mild in flavor, but goes perfectly with this dish and melts in your mouth with every bite. If you are priveledged enough to be in North Carolina, and can make a trip to the Durham Farmers' Market... stop by Chapel Hill Creamery, and pick up some paneer. You won't regret it! 

Basil. Lord, how I love basil! The smell is just heavenly. I could bury my nose in a fresh bunch of basil, and not come up for days! And, chopping basil is super easy! Grab several leaves, lay them on top of one another, then roll them up kinda' like a cigar. Start slicing, and you'll end up with lovely little "chiffonade" pieces...

Toss the cheese, basil, garlic, and cheese into a bowl. Drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt. Gently toss to combine.

You can cover that dish, and put it in the fridge while you move on to the bread. Sometimes, I will make it a couple of hours ahead... especially on the girl child's cheerleading nights. By the time I come home, the flavors of the tomato dish have mingled nicely and all I have to do is fry the bread.

Start by lightly coating a frying pan with olive oil. I use a paper towel to wipe away the excess. Using a basting brush, brush on a layer of olive oil onto one side of the bread slices.

Place the slices of bread oil-side-down into the pan, and brush the side facing up with olive oil...

Fry on each side until nicely browned and toasted; remove from frying pan. Immediately slic the tip off a clove of garlic, and rub it on each side of the bread. 

You will be amazed at how the garlic melts onto the bread until you have barely a stub left in your hand. Serve a bowl of the tomato mixture with several slices of bread. Use a spoon to pile a generous helping of the tomatoes onto each toasty bite of bread.

I can guarantee this will fast become one of your favorite summer meals too! Don't forget to join me on Sunday for Challenge #5 in the Next Food Network Star play-along!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Challenge #1...

Or Challenge #4 if you want to get technical about it. My Mr. has some misguided idea that I should send in an audition for Next Food Network Star. Personally, I think he's nuts. I watch the show religiously. And, for 90 minutes every Sunday I sit in awe of some of the amazing things the contestants come up with. Let's totally set aside the fact that 95% of the individuals on that show are actually trained chefs. Sure, they will throw in a food blogger, or a food critic, or just some random person that has some talent for cooking with a side of crazy personality. But, those people are few and far between. It's not being in front of a camera that intimidates me. It's not even the fear that my cooking wouldn't measure up (okay, maybe a little). I find the time constraints that they work under to be the most disconcerting. 30 minutes to think up a brunch recipe, prep, cook and serve it? Ummmm... I don't know about that.

But, when the Mr. suggested that I play along with the challenges at home? That, I could handle. I don't work in a fully stocked kitchen with everything that I need right at my fingertips. I have to go shopping. And, my kitchen is seriously lacking in counter space. I couldn't do anything in 30 minutes, aside from scramble some eggs and make toast, if I tried. But, this isn't TV. This is my house. I can take my time... to some extent. So, game on! 

I know that I am a few episodes behind. Thanks to my kids, and their busy little fingers with the DVR settings... I lost the first handful of shows. But, last Sunday morning I sat down and watched them all. Normally, I will post my version of the past Sunday's challenge on the following Sunday's blog. So, the challenge from just this past Sunday, I will work on this week and post this Sunday. However, until we are caught up, I will post on Wednesday too. Those will be my catch-up days. And, we're going to work backwards. So confusing, but not. Tee hee. There's a method to my madness. They have aired 5 episodes thus far. Episode 5 will be Sunday's blog. Today, we're going back to episode 4.

Here's the episode synopsis according to Food Network's Next Food Network Star page: 

"It's Fashion Week in New York and the finalists are thrilled to learn that, as potential stars, a "makeover" is essential ... but THEY aren't being made over; it's a food "makeover!" Each finalist will have to "make over" a bland dish, making it look (and taste) good for the most fashionable crowd on the planet. Ted Allen will be on hand to judge the fashion shows, plus an extra prize is announced for the winning finalist."

I wrote down, on little slips of paper, each of the dishes that the contestants were assigned on the show and drew out of a bowl. What did we end up with?

Awesome. Couldn't have picked a better dish! And, shockingly enough... my brain immediately started churning out an idea. And, even more amazing... I had everything I needed already in my kitchen. Huh. Maybe I wouldn't be so bad at this after all. I know this looks complicated, but it all goes together really fast. Make sure you read through the entire recipe first. Most of the steps can be worked through simultaneously. 

Chicken Bowl Pie

(For the chicken)
3 chicken breasts
1 (750 ml) bottle dry white wine
3 1/2 C. chicken stock
1 1/2 C. water
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp salt
2 sprigs fresh thyme

(For the spinach)
1 Tbs olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bunch baby spinach, stems removed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 Tbs unsalted butter

(For mushrooms)
8 oz baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
Olive oil

(For filling)
1 can artichoke hearts, drained & chopped
2 (8 oz) pkgs. cream cheese
1 1/2 C. chicken broth
2 lg. shallots, chopped
Freshly ground pepper

(For bread bowls)
2 tubes crescent rolls (I used Pillsbury)
1 Tbs butter, melted

Start with the chicken breasts. We're going to boil them. But, not in just plain old water. That's boring, and does no favors in the way of flavoring the chicken. We're going to make that chicken yummy enough to eat on its own. And, boiling is better than baking for this. It keeps the chicken deliciously moist. Add the chicken and all remaining ingedients into a large soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, cover pot and adjust heat to medium-low. Allow chicken to simmer 15-20 minutes, or until it is cooked through. When it's done, pour pot into collander set over the sink. Remove the chicken breasts, and discard the rest of the goodies.

Slice the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces.

Backtracking to while the chicken is still boiling away, start to saute your spinach. Heat the olive oil in the bottom of a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, and saute for 1 minute making sure it doesn't brown. Add the spinach to the pot along with the salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Put the lid on the pot, and allow spinach to cook for 1 minute. Remove lid, adjust heat to high and stir spinach constantly for 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to remove the spinach from the pan. You will end up with a bowl of yumminess that looks like this:

Now, start on the mushrooms (the chicken is still working away on its flavorful magic). Add a thin layer of olive oil to the bottom of a skillet, and heat over med-high. Add mushrooms to the pan. Make sure not to crowd the mushrooms. They won't brown properly. I worked in two batches, and they came out wonderfully. Saute the mushrooms until nicely browned. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl.

While the mushrooms are browning, go ahead and chop up your artichoke hearts. By the time the chicken is done, you should have two bowls full of veggies and one full of mushrooms to add to your filling...

Now, let's prepare our bread bowls. Take 4 small glass bowls, and grease the outside of them generously. Roll out one crescent square rectangle. Lay it over the bottom side of the bowl like so...

Pinch together that perforated line in the middle. Take another rectangle of dough, and lay it crosswise over the top of the first one, and mold the dough until it is conformed to the bowl...

Using a basting brush, brush the tops of the pastries with the melted butter like so:

Bake in the oven at 350* for 10-15 minutes, or until nicely browned. While the bowls are baking, put together the filling. Start by melting the cream cheese in a large saucepan over med-high heat, stirring frequently so the cheese doesn't burn. Once melted, slowly whisk in chicken broth. I added maybe 1/4 C. at a time. This will thin out the cream cheese to give a consistency more similar to pot pie filling, but still slightly thicker. Stir in the chicken, chopped shallots and pepper. Fold in the mushrooms, artichoke hearts and spinach. 

Now, remove your bread bowls from the oven. Allow to cool slightly, and remove bread from bowl molds. If it doesn't readily come off, slide a knife around the edge of the bowl to loosen the pastry. Fill your bowls with the chicken filling. Voila! You're done!

I might not be serving this to a panel of Food Network big-wigs, but the Mr. can be quite the tough customer. I was a little nervous to serve this to him. It's the first time I've created something under such pressure. But, it received rave reviews. He even went so far as to say that it was absolutely, hands-down the best thing I have ever cooked. And, trust me... he's eaten hundreds of meals cooked by these hands. I can tell by the food coma that he is currently in while lying in bed next to me... he ain't lying! WIN! 

It is a tasty, creative, modernized spin on the traditional comfort food of chicken pot pie. Now, as far as the fashionable part of the challenge? I think it's prettier than a regular old pot pie. Was I to serve it to a panel of judges, however, I would have used one triangle of dough on cupcake molds and make tartlets out of them. Cuter. More fashionable. But, I'm feeding a big, hungry man here. That wasn't really practical. 

These are intensely rich, and not on the lower end of the calorie spectrum. But, they make for a deliciously decadent dinner every now and then! Thanks for stopping by! Stay tuned for the Episode #5 Challenge on Sunday!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Easy as 1, 2, 3...

I can remember eating beer bread since I was quite little, and sneakily thinking, "Ha ha ha. Beer! I'm 8, and I'm getting beer!" Silly kids. They just don't understand that the inebriating effects of alcohol are cooked off when you add it into things such as bread. Which might explain why my picky girl child wouldn't touch the stuff for the longest time. The boy child will eat nearly ANYTHING, the embodiment of the human garbage disposal. But, ever since her dad gave her a sip of his beer a few years back... the girl was disgusted at the thought of anything containing the libation. After much coaxing, I finally got her to try some bread. It was love at first bite. Same for the Mr., who had never had it before he met me. Good thing it's the easiest bread in the world to make. We eat lots of it around here!

Beer is one of the oldest products of civilization. It might very well have been the pre-cursor to the invention of leavened bread. In the early days, beer provided protein to people that unfermented grain just couldn't supply. Found on an ancient Sumerian engraving, the depiction of bread being baked, crumbled into water to form a mash, and then made into a drink that was recorded as making people feel "exhilarated, wonderful, and blissful!" Yup. That's beer!

Beer Bread
1 (12 oz.) bottle or can of beer, room temperature
3 C. self-rising flour
3 Tbs. sugar

See? Literally... easy as 1, 2, 3! As far as selecting the beer goes, our two favorites are Guiness and *cover your eyes all you beer snobs*... PBR!

My favorite is the Guiness bread. The stout beers give the bread a sweeter, more robust flavor. While the lighter American lager-type beers produce something similar to an insanely more delicious variant on the long-beloved white bread. You can use any beer that you like. Experiment. Find one that you like best. But, be forewarned: whatever beer you choose, your bread will take on the same flavor... just in somewhat milder tones. 

I distinctly remember one year when the kids' dad bought a 6-pack of a limited edition winter ale. Now, I love me some specialty winter ales. Blue Moon's Winter Abbey Ale is my all-time favorite. But, whatever he brought home tasted like Christmas in a bottle. And, not in a good way. It was as if someone infused the beer with a pine branch, and simmered in a few poinsetta leaves for good measure. Neither one of us could stand it. I figured I'd use it to make bread. Surely the sugar, flour, and some time in a toasty oven would soften that flavor. Wrong-o! It tasted like a loaf of freshly baked Pine-Sol. So I'm just sayin'... careful what you add!

Grab your mixing bowl. Toss in 3 C. of self-rising flour. *It is of utmost importance that you use self-rising flour. It already contains a leavening agent. Without it, you'll end up with a dense beer brick... rather than a loaf.* Add the 3 Tbs. of sugar. I like to use Sugar In The Raw. But, plain ol' granulated sugar works just fine. Then, slowly poor in the room-temperature beer. Stir until ingredients are just combined. It will be lumpy and gluey, and look like this:

That's probably the least appetizing photo you'll ever see on this blog. But, trust me... pour this into a greased and floured loaf pan, bake at 350* for an hour, and you'll end up with a beautiful loaf like this:

This beer goes great with hearty soups and stews. You can use it to sop up all the lovely broths and gravies that remain at the bottom of your bowl. But, it is also quite a treat first thing in the morning, toasted with a little apple butter smeared on top. Yum! One of my favorite fall treats!

And, feel free to get creative with it! This bread lends itself well to mix-ins. Dried cranberries, sundried tomatoes, basil, cheeses, rosemary. Your options are unlimited. And, if you find a combo that you truly fall in love with, please let me know!

Check back with me tomorrow. We start the Next Food Network Star play-along challenge!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Home on the Range

Yesterday, we came home with a pound of bison stew meat from Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm. Throw in some fresh veggies from the farmers' market... I couldn't wait to get home, and put together a mouth-watering stew for dinner. This is so simple, and will fill your house with a heavenly stew aroma in no time. Plus, it's a slow cooker meal... perfect for those families on the go!

A brief history of stew: Stewing meat is a manner of cooking that has been around longer than any other method of cooking. What classifies a stew? Any dish containing meat as the main component that is cooked over direct heat in a liquid base. Stews are perfect for tougher cuts of meat, as making a stew is a practice in patience. But slow cooking will break down the meat, making it tender and quite flavorful. Stews of yore were known to be cooked in the animal's own paunch, turtle shells... even mollusk shells. Modern-day stews can range from simple to quite complex dishes. Allow your creativity in the kitchen to take-over... the sky's the limit!

Bison Stew
1 lbs. bison stew meat
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. rendered bacon fat
4 cloves garlic, crushed
5 small potatoes, quartered (we used 3 "Purple Majesty" potatoes, and 2 red potatoes)
4 med. carrots, sliced
6 oz. portobello mushrooms, sliced
2 shallots, quartered
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. parsley
4 Tbs. flour
1 bottle of stout beer (we used Guiness)
1 C. beef stock
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

We start of with the stew pieces. Pat them dry with paper towels so that they will brown evenly.

Heat up a skillet over med-high heat. Add the olive oil and bacon fat. I'm one of those weirdos with a mason jar full of questionable-look white goo in the back of my refrigerator at all times. Every time we cook bacon, I allow the grease to cool (but not solidify) and add it into the jar. It adds amazing flavor to meats whilst cooking. But, if you don't keep a stockpile of lard in the back of your fridge, just fry up a couple pieces of bacon and use the remaining rendered fat left in the pan for this step.

That succulent fat will melt right in the pan with the olive oil. Then, you're ready to add your meat. Don't crowd it. Cook it in batches if you must. It will cook more evenly.

Cooked the bison until it is just nicely browned on each side. Meanwhile, collect your vegetables...

Everything we used came fresh from the farmers' market. Earthly, freshly picked carrots. Fresh garlic. This was the first time I have ever had the pleasure of cooking with truly fresh garlic. I was surprised to find it quite different than the store-bought variety. It is moist... even the skin. The stuff you get in the grocery store is parched in comparison. The outer layers peel so easily. And, oh my... is it ever fragrant! When you crush the cloves, they are actually juicy. Such a lovely experience to cook with. We tried some "Purple Majesty" potatoes mixed in with some red potatoes. The purple variety is sweet, buttery and packed with flavor. Plus, if you stick with the "rainbow food" theory... all of those bright colors provide varied antioxidants, vitamins, and health benefits. This meal is colorful. So, it must be super healthy too! 

Add the thyme, parsley, and flour to the veggies. Toss to mix. Then, add the beer and beef stock; season with salt and pepper. Toss in your cooked bison, and stir to get everything covered in a rich coating of the beer and stock mixture. Cover that crock pot, set it on low and cook for 5-6 hours (stirring periodically). Once the potatoes are soft, and the meat is practically falling apart... you'll know your stew is done!

I'm a fairly modest person. And, not to toot my own horn... but this is quite possibly the best stew I've ever had in my life. And, the perfect accompaniment to sop up the delicious gravy left in the bowl is some freshly-baked beer bread. I'll be back tomorrow with that recipe!

The blog will keep going with new posts this week. But, I am in the process of a redesign. So, it ain't looking so hot around here right now. Bear with me... the new reveal should be done by next Sunday. We're also working on getting some lighting. I'm used to cooking in a very open home with lots of windows. Our new house is more cozy. But, with cozy... comes poor lighting situations. I have one window in my kitchen. If I get done with a recipe after dark, the photos just plain suck. But, I work with them as much as I can. Like I said... we're trying to get some lighting in here. And, payday is coming. That means new dishes too! While these turquoise ones go fabulously with my kitchen, they photograph terribly. New white dishes coming for me! Just stick with me... things are improving around here. Slowly, but surely.

* I am a huge fan of Food Network's "Next Food Network Star." So, I'm going to add a fun play-along feature to the blog and play along each week. I know, I know... I'm about 4 episodes behind. But, thanks to my kids' busy little fingers with the DVR controls... I lost all of the episodes, and had to play catch-up watching them today. In light of that, we'll just have to play a little catch-up around here too. Be looking for the first round to begin this coming Wednesday!