December 22, 2010

Holiday Pretzel & Nut Mix

If you are still looking for one little thing to tuck into your holiday gift baskets, or if you need to bring a snack to a holiday gathering (and you have more tact than to "re-gift" those crumbly cookies that the neighbor kids brought over), this post is for you.

I made this snack mix to tuck into holiday gift baskets, and I brought a bag of it to the office with me.  It was so well received that I think maybe next year I'll give individual bags to everyone in the office.  (This year I handed out hot chocolate mix and gingerbread biscotti; a nice combination, but given the multiple boxes of See's Candy that we've picked through during the last month, by the end of December a savory treat is in order.

Is it just me, or when someone gives you "Hot Cocoa Mix," do you have qualms about its source?  The stuff I handed out, I assure you, was good stuff, not just the stuff from the blue can repackaged as my own.  No, this was made with good-quality semi-sweet and bitter-sweet chocolate, organic sugar, even a vanilla bean... Oh, I might as well give you the recipe.  It's good stuff. The kind you can mix with steamed milk and shot of espresso to make a real mocha.

And this Pretzel & Nut Mix: it comes together quickly, makes use of local almonds and pecans and it has a pleasantly sweet, spicy flavor that people apparently like.  You may even have all the ingredients on hand.  I prepared a triple batch, which takes no more time than a single batch, and yields about eight 1.5 cup gifts.  Having all the seasoning ingredients on hand, I only had to purchase the nuts and pretzels, which cost about $20.  Not a bad price for eight gifts.

Pretzel & Nut Mix
adapted from David Lebovitz

The 3/4 teaspoon cayenne may seem like a lot, but given the volume of nuts and pretzels that the seasoning mixture coats, it seems to have the right spice level.  Not too spicy.  Don't whisk the salt into the seasoning; for a good salty crunch, David notes, sprinkle it in with pretzels.  A single recipe makes about 4 cups of snack mix, but can easily be multiplied for a larger batch.

2 cups raw nuts, such as whole almonds, pecan halves and cashews
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt or kosher salt
2 cups mini pretzel twists

1.  Spread nuts on rimmed baking sheet and toast in 350 oven for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice.  Keep a close eye on the nuts, especially those toward the edges of the pan to prevent burning.

2.  Meanwhile, in large mixing bowl, whisk together butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cayenne and maple syrup.

3.  Add warm nuts and stir with a rubber scraper to combine.  Add salt and pretzels.  Stir to coat pretzels and nuts evenly.  Spread mixture back onto baking sheet and return to 350 oven.  Cook 12-18 minutes longer, stirring once or twice for even toasting.  Cool snack mix on baking sheets.

Snack Mix may be stored in an airtight container up to one week.

December 18, 2010

Curled Caramel Cookies

Here's a fun little cookie.  I suppose it would be at home on a Christmas Cookie platter, but it's more like a garnish.  You know, like those wafers that Swenson's and other ice cream parlors would put on their sundaes.  Except that I don't think this would be called a wafer.  And it doesn't have that lightness that those have.  What I am trying to say is that it is thin and crisp and nutty, and if you tried to serve these alone, your guests might feel a bit jipped.  They are the kind of thing that dresses up a dish of ice cream or takes a simple pudding to the next level.  I suppose you could also fill them with custard, but these are meant to be crisp, buttery little bites, so you would have to fill them right before serving, otherwise they would get soggy.

This recipe makes a manageable amount--about 24 cookies, which should be sufficient for one evening.  Normally I like to make large batches of cookies and freeze them, but these don't freeze well.  They are delicate and would shatter.  Besides, rolling them is a finicky process, and my guess is that by the time you get to number 24, you'll be in the mood for a new task.

Still, it's a simple recipe.  You may have everything you need on hand.  And it might be just the thing to dress up Bananas Flambé or a creamy Fall Holiday-tini.

Curled Caramel Cookies
adapted from Joy of Cooking

1/4 cup butter at room temperature
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla*
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup ground or minced nutmeats* (I used hazelnuts.  Rombauer recommends Black walnuts or hazelnuts. I'd like to try it with local almonds.  Oatmeal might be a good nut-free substitute.)

1.  Preheat oven to 400º.  Grease 2 cookie sheets.  In bowl of electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar.  Beat in egg.  Blend well.  Scrape down sides of bowl.  Beat in vanilla, salt and flour.  Stir in nuts.

2.  Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto prepared cookie sheet.  Leave plenty of room between cookies. A rounded teaspoon of batter will spread to about 3 inches.  Use wet hands to flatten the cookies.  And because you will need to handle each cookie individually when it comes out of the oven, don't bake more than about 12 cookies at a time.  If you have great confidence in your cookie rolling skills, start one cookie sheet, then start a second cookie three minutes later.  Bake cookies 6-8 minutes, until dark around the edges, but golden brown in the center.

3.  Let cookies cool on cookie sheet briefly, then remove from pan with a thin metal pancake turner.  Flip cookie into your hand and roll over the handle of a wooden spoon, or over a rolling pin, or over your finger.  If the cookies cool too quickly, set the cookie sheet back in the oven briefly to reheat.  And do not dismay, if some of your cookies don't get rolled, they still make a good garnish.  Let cookies cool completely.  Ideally, serve the same day they are made.  If they are to be served more than one hour after being baked, cover tightly to keep them crisp.

*See my notes on vanilla here and on ground hazelnuts here.

December 7, 2010

Chicken and Mushroom Marsala

In our lifelong quest to find simple, dare-I-say delicious chicken recipes, we recently tried Chicken and Mushroom Marsala from Smitten Kitchen.  When staring at a package of three boneless skinless chicken breasts, where else would I turn?  I can't think of a better resource for a go-to meal than Smitten Kitchen.  And it was indeed delicious.  Well, all of it except the chicken.  Like many recipes using boneless skinless chicken breast, the chicken itself turned out dry and rather flavorless.  The short cooking time that boneless skinless chicken requires doesn't give it sufficient time to absorb flavors.

But the flavor in the mushroom sauce was so satisfying we almost didn't care about the chicken.  Almost.  Next time we do this we'll make some adjustments, though I don't know what.  Deb advises (in the comment section) that you brine the chicken, and we did, but the end result was still rather tasteless.  Next time we might marinate the chicken first?  Or maybe using organic chicken, which I've read might be more tender than the stuff we bought at Trader Joes.  Simply checking for doneness first, could solve the moisture problem, and there's truly enough flavor in the sauce...  Or, our six-year-old recommended substituting beef.

Before I share the recipe though, I must note that this was a quick weeknight for us.  We had no chicken broth or marsala wine.  I've read somewhere that you can substitute red wine with a splash of brandy for marsala, so that it what I do when we don't have marsala on hand.  And in this case I substituted diluted apple juice for the chicken broth.  There's no rythmn or reason to that substitution; I just wanted something with a little flavor, so I used apple juice.  The apple flavor doesn't come through, but like I said,  the finished product was really good.  The mushrooms are definitely the star of the show, so good, in fact, immersed in the marsala gravy, that one can almost forget the chicken all together. 

This is one of those recipes that demonstrates the amazing power of butter.  A sauce is created using the pan juices from the chicken, sauteed onions and mushrooms, marsala wine and chicken broth.  It's just mushrooms in a brown sauce until you take it off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter.  That butter kind of draws it all together, creating a silky gravy, full of delicious meaty mushrooms to serve over the chicken.

Chicken and Mushroom Marsala
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen where it was adapted from Gourmet Magazine.
Deb says this serves 6.  I say 2-4 servings with leftover chicken that can used for something else.  Believe me, these mushrooms are so good, you won't have any leftover no matter how many people you intend to serve.   Add a loaf of crusty bread to complete the meal.

3 boneless chicken breasts, with or without skin, cut in half (about 2 1/2) pounds
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, sliced thinly
3/4 pound mushrooms sliced thinly
1/2 cup marsala
1 cup chicken broth (or apple juice diluted by 50%)
Garnish: 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
To serve: crusty bread.

1.  Pat chicken dry.  Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper.  Heat olive oil and 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in large heavy skillet over medium high heat.  Brown chicken in two batches.  Transfer chicken to a plate.

2.  Discard all but 1 tablespoon of fat.  Saute onion and mushrooms over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  After a few minutes, the mushrooms will give off some liquid.  Turn the heat to medium high and saute until most of the liquid is evaporated.  Add marsala and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the marsala is almost evaporated.  Add chicken broth, chicken pieces and any liquid that has accumulated on the plate.

3.  Cook uncovered, turning the chicken once until cooked through, 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the pieces.  Transfer cooked chick to a clean, preheated platter.  Continue to cook mushroom sauce until the liquid is reduced to about half a cup.  Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.  Spoon mushroom sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley.

December 3, 2010

Carrots, Shredded and Baked

This is a 'different' preparation for carrots.  Since I got it from my 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking, and since that book has just so darn many recipes that include canned soup and other things I associate with my grandmother's cooking, I assume this might be a 1950s way of cooking carrots.  But since I was not alive in the 50s, I really don't know.  Anyhow, I wanted something different, and easy, and wholesome.  I served this with Joy of Cooking's Green Peppers Stuffed with Meat and Rice (p. 316), which we found to be too bland.  Stuffed Peppers, my family has agreed, need cheese.  The carrots didn't really serve a purpose with the peppers.  They would, however, be a nice base if you like to serve meat on a bed of vegetables.  They are soft and sweet and I imagine a nice sliced steak with the carrots underneath to absorb the juices.  Add some parsley to garnish and a simple steak (or a plate of baked chicken pieces) is taken up a notch. The cloves make this dish feel very appropriate for autumn and the butter in the background rounds out the flavor nicely (and epitomizes grandma's 1950's cooking).

Baked Carrots
adapted from Joy of Cooking (p.297)

3 tablespoons butter
1/4 chopped onion or leek
2 cups shredded carrots
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (or, for a different flavor, 1 teaspoon dry mustard)
1/3 cup stock (I used turkey stock, because that's what I had on hand, but use whatever you have on hand.)

1. Preheat oven to 350º.  Melt butter in medium skillet.  Sauté onions in butter for about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in carrots.  Transfer carrot mixture to an oven proof casserole dish.  Combine salt, brown sugar, cloves (or mustard) and stock.  Pour over carrots.  Cover casserole dish and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.