Thursday, February 25, 2010

Winter Salads – No Tomatoes Needed

I like salads even in the winter when the temperature dips below the freezing point. But iceberg lettuce and cardboard tomatoes just don’t do it for me. Okay, maybe I’m something of a salad snob. I used to always put tomatoes on my salads. One day I complained to a friend about the cost and flavor of winter tomatoes. Her remark was “well, why do you use them?” I answered back “It’s a salad, so you must use tomatoes”. She immediately wanted to know where that rule came from.

Well, needless to say, her comment got me to thinking about my salad making philosophy. I finally decided she was right and a salad could be made without tomatoes. Making a salad without tomatoes has just unleashed my creativity. I now make a salad according to what is in season. During the winter I choose things that are readily available in the winter. The good thing about this is that foods normally taste better when eaten during their growing season. Varying ingredients gives me a little more variety.

Here are my basic rules for a winter salad. Start with a nice lettuce, like romaine or spring greens (I know this probably breaks the winter thing, but oh well). Check your local supermarket and be a little adventurous. I like to use apples, Cheddar cheese and maybe dried cranberries. And if I am in the mood, I may add a few toasted walnuts.

Winter Salad

Per Person
Use about 1 to 1½ cups lettuce
1 Tablespoon grated or crumbled cheese (Blue, Cheddar, Parmesan)
1/4 of a fresh fruit (apple, pear, orange, grapefruit, avocado)
1 Tablespoon chopped nuts
1 Tablespoon dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, raisins)

Season the salad with a little salt and pepper and add your favorite salad dressing. I think you can get the point of my salad. Be as creative as you desire. You are only limited by your imagination.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Potato Gnocchi - Italy

The second dumpling we are going to explore is the potato gnocchi from Italy. “Gnocchi” (pronounced “NYOH-kee”) is an Italian word that means “lump” or “knot”, which probably refers to their shape. This type of gnocchi is very simple and usually has only four ingredients: potato, flour, eggs, and salt. (Some resources use the whole egg and some use only the yolk, so you decide.) It is believed that gnocchi has been prepared for thousands of years, since the time of the Roman Empire. Consequently, gnocchi may be the ancestor for many of the other types of dumplings. There are many variations of gnocchi – you can make it with potatoes, bread crumbs, semolina or vegetables and serve it in various sauces, butter, or cheese. Take a trip to Italy and enjoy potato gnocchi!

Helpful Hints! (‘Cause we all need them every once in a while)
To make the best possible dough for gnocchi it is important to use potatoes that have a lower moisture content, russet. If you don’t have russets, something like Yukon Gold will also work. This recipe calls for 1 ¼ cup of flour. You may need to use more or less depending on the moisture content of your potatoes.

Potato Gnocchi

Serves 4 to 6 (about 10 gnocchi)

2 pounds russet potatoes
½ teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks, beaten
1¼ cup all-purpose flour

Preparing the Dough:

1. Peel the potatoes so there are no visible discolorations. Cut each one into chunks. Place potatoes in a bowl of cold water to prevent browning.
2. Add potatoes to the saucepan and cover with water. Cover. Bring potatoes to a boil and cook until they are fork tender.
3. Drain the water; put the pan back on the stove. Leave the heat on for another 2 minutes to dry the potatoes out. Turn off the heat, add the salt and mash the potatoes with a fork or potato masher until smooth. 4. Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and allow them to cool for 15 minutes.
5. Pour the beaten egg yolks over the cooled potatoes and mix well. Then sprinkle 1 cup of flour on top.
6. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to gently mix the ingredients together until combined.
7. Using your hands, knead dough until it holds together. It may be a little sticky. If it’s too sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time, as needed.
8. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces and roll each portion into a 10 inch long “rope”.
9. Cut the rope into 1 inch pieces.
10. On each piece, use or fingertip to make a small indentation in the center of each gnocchi. This helps it to retain any sauce you may serve with it.

 Cooking the Gnocchi
1. Bring another pot of water to a gentle boil.
2. Add one quarter of the gnocchi at a time to the boiling water. When the gnocchi floats to the top they are done. Use a slotted spoon to collect them and transfer to a plate.
3. Continue cooking the gnocchi in batches until they are all cooked.
4. Serve immediately with sauce or see the sautéed variation below.

Making Ahead
If you’d like to make gnocchi ahead of time, toss the cooked gnocchi with olive oil and refrigerate for up to 2 days. You can also freeze uncooked gnocchi in a single layer on a lined baking sheet. Transfer to an airtight container. They can be frozen for up to 3 months. When ready to eat them, cook them the same as the unfrozen gnocchi.

Sautéed Gnocchi
1. Once the gnocchi has been cooked, you can sauté it in 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil. Over medium-high heat, sauté one quarter of the gnocchi at a time for about 2 minutes or until they develop a golden-brown crust. Sauce Time! We have three different types of sauces for your gnocchi. Pick your favorite or try them all! (We did)!

Pesto Alfredo

Serves 4 to 6.

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/8 cup grated Romano cheese
1½ Tablespoon basil pesto
½ Tablespoon pine nuts
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

1. In a saucepan, heat the olive oil – this happens quickly. Add pesto and pine nuts and cook for 1 minute. Watch carefully, the pesto will burn.
2. Pour the cream into the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cheese, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Serve over cooked gnocchi.

Garlic Cream

Serves 4 to 6.

1 medium onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup butter
3 to 4 Tablespoons flour

1. Chop the onion and thinly slice the garlic.

2. Add the butter to a large sauté pan, cook the onion over medium heat until browned. Add the garlic.

3. Stir in the flour a little at a time until smooth and let it brown slightly. Slowly add the cream, stirring constantly. Heat this until it’s thickened. Pour over gnocchi and serve.

Marinara Sauce

Serves 4 to 6.

1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 can (28 ounce) whole or diced tomatoes (not drained)
2 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the onion. Sauté the onion until it’s translucent. Add the garlic and let it cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and Italian seasoning. Simmer the ingredients together for 20 minutes. Toss with gnocchi and enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chocolate – Eat Up, for Health Benefits, Of Course

Chocolate, we love it. And now, it’s good for you! We love it and it’s healthy, too. I never thought those two statements would ever be seen together. Before you rush out to empty the stores of chocolate, let’s take a deeper look.

Theobroma cacao, the botanical name for chocolate means “food of the gods”. We enjoy chocolate in many forms, hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, cakes, candies and everything in between. Chocolate can be used in savory and sweet foods. The web is brimming with chocolate recipes to delight the tastebuds. Cook books have been devoted entirely to the subject of chocolate.

Although Americans love chocolate, we are not the number one consumer – that title belongs to Belgium, consuming about 10.74 kg per person. Americans consume about 5.58 kg of chocolate per person, ranking 10th in consumption.

If you consume chocolate for the health benefits and that is why we choose it, right? Here are a few things you may want to know. The health benefits of chocolate come from a group of compounds referred to as flavonoids. These compounds act as antioxidants and may help lower LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and increase blood flow to the brain. To get the maximum health benefits, eat dark chocolate. It contains a higher level of cocoa and therefore a higher level of antioxidants.

Before overindulging, chocolate does contain fat and sugar. A one ounce portion should provide the health benefits without increasing the waistline. If you want to indulge in chocolate on Valentine’s Day or any day, give the recipe for chocolate fondue a try. It makes two servings – one for you and maybe one to share.

Chocolate Fondue

Serves 2.

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 Tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half
Pinch of salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Assorted fruit (strawberries, fresh pineapple, pears, apricots, banana)

1. Place chocolate, cream and salt in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium. Stirring every 20 seconds, until melted. Add vanilla and stir.

2. To serve, use skewers to dip fruit into warm chocolate.

Note: If desired, substitute 1 tablespoon of coffee for 1 tablespoon of cream. Chocolate will harden upon cooling. If you have leftover chocolate, add dried cranberries and almonds. Drop on wax paper and allow to harden.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits

I like biscuits, fresh, hot from the oven and dripping with butter. Now doesn’t that picture just make you want to go and bake up a batch.

For a long time I believed that I could not make biscuits. I made them. They were just terrible biscuits. What I have learned is that with science, patience and practice, I, too, could make biscuits. Part of my learning how to make biscuits was to understand the scientific role of each ingredient. Once I accomplished that I was able to make a better biscuit.

Let’s start with the ingredients. Once you understand the function of each ingredient, you will be better able to manipulate the recipe and make the type of biscuit you prefer.

Flour – to make good biscuit you need what is referred to as soft wheat flour. Soft wheat flour is used by Southerners to make biscuits and has less protein than other types of flour. Flour with less protein yields a biscuit that is more tender and flaky. White Lily ( is a good brand, but there are also others. If you don’t have soft wheat flour, try using ½ all-purpose and ½ cake flour.

Fat – yes, some people consider it a bad word, but it does have a vital function in biscuits and other baked products. Fat prevents the development of too much protein (gluten). The development of too much gluten will toughen the biscuit. To make a tender and flaky biscuit, a solid fat is needed. Our grandmothers most likely used lard to make biscuits. Most cooks today use shortening or butter. Some recipes use 1/3 cup of fat to 2 cups of flour. I find that ½ cup of fat works best. It yields a more tender and flaky biscuit.

Leavening is what causes a biscuit to rise. Biscuits normally use baking powder and/or baking soda. Baking powder is composed of an acid and baking soda and reacts with a liquid. Baking soda is an alkaline and is used with an acid, like buttermilk.

Milk – usually buttermilk is the milk of choice for making biscuits. Buttermilk provides the acid for the baking soda and gives the biscuits a slightly tangy flavor.

Mixing Biscuits
Biscuits are made by what is referred to as the biscuit method. Dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt) are combined. Fat is cut in with a pastry blender or two knives. This should be done as quickly as possible to prevent the fat from melting. Liquid is added to make a dough.

Biscuit dough is kneaded slightly, about 5 to 6 times. Overkneading the dough will cause the formation of too much gluten and make biscuits tough. Roll out dough to ½-inch thickness. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Press straight down without twisting. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they touch. Reform dough and continue cutting. Biscuits from the reformed will not be as tender and flaky as the first.

Baking Biscuits
Preheat the oven to 400 to 425F for about 12 to 15 minutes. Some recipes state that the oven should be preheated to 500F. I tried that and got raw tops and burnt bottoms. For your dining pleasure, a biscuit recipe is included. Please give it a try and let me know how works. If you have any biscuit secrets, please add them to the comments section.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Yield: 10 – 12 biscuits.

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening or butter
½ cup buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 425°F.

2. Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in shortening or butter with a pastry blender. Mixture should resemble a coarse meal or the size of peas. Add buttermilk; stir with a fork until dry ingredients are moistened.

3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly 3 or 4 times. Roll or pat dough to ½-inch thickness. Cut with a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter. Place biscuits on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.