Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Naughtiest French Toast in the World

I missed out on the Nutella craze. Completely. And on purpose. I thought it sounded disgusting and rich and too sweet and just could not imagine putting it into everyday food, let alone spreading it on my toast for breakfast. Then this happened-

I just had to go in IKEA. a trip to Minneapolis would EVER happen without a stop at IKEA. I love looking at the cool Euro-modern furniture and all the awesome kitchen and cooking stuff, but I REALLY love the grocery section. I'm a sucker foreign foods and Scandinavian especially. For one thing, I always grab my dad a few cans of "fiskerballer"- or fish balls, and no, not THOSE balls, but fish meatballs, which sound utterly repulsive to me, but he loves them. And for myself I like just browsing everything, stocking up on the old standards like lingonberries and European chocolates (Hershey's chocolate flavored crayon bars never pass my lips- I am spoiled by my European upbringing) and unique sauces and spice mixtures.

So anyway, I found no fish balls but my eyes did land on a display of this chocolatey naughtiness. I don't know WHY I had to have it, but I just DID, and so into my shopping basket it went, and ended up in my rural Iowa kitchen just daring me to make something outrageous. Since I haven't tasted Nutella, I can't really compare this, but I can best describe it as an indulgent mix of creamy and crunchy- the smooth chocolate reminds me of ganache, and the crunchy butterscotch pieces taste like crushed English toffee. Utterly delicious! I could have gone with the usual ideas- a cake filling, crepes, anything Nutella-filled, but the first time I tried it was on a piece of toast and I couldn't help but think this would make KILLER stuffed French toast. So that is just what I did!

You can SEE the crunchy toffee bits. It's sooo delicious- and NAUGHTY!

Here is what you need to make this indulgent treat:
  • sliced bread 
  • Chokladkrokant Bredbar (or Nutella, etc- see below)
  • 2-3 eggs
  • splash of milk or half and half
  • butter
  • whipped cream and maraschino cherries
Slice bread as thin as normal sandwich bread, if not already sliced. Make sandwiches with the bread and chocolate spread. In a shallow bowl or pie pan, beat the eggs with a splash of half and half. 

Heat a tablespoon or so of butter in skillet. Dip the sandwiches in the egg mixture, allowing excess to drain back into bowl. Fry in the melted butter until golden brown on both sides. Place on serving plates garnished with whipped cream and cherries. I didn't have any cherries, so a strawberry took it's place. I also gave just a little drizzle of caramel to dress it up a little- go easy though! This is rich!

Is it breakfast? Dessert? Snack? That's up to you, but one thing is for sure- it's delicious!

Now, if you can't find this IKEA product you can substitute Nutella or another brand of chocolate spread. And I wouldn't bother with any maple syrup- just a nice plop of whipped cream and maybe a cherry or four. Is it a healthy option? Probably not, but for a once-in-a-while treat it's not going to ruin your diet or send you to an early grave. Enjoy the naughty foods in moderation and you will be just fine.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Oh no!! No pasta!! What would Mother Hubbard do?

You have filled the house with the wonderful aromas of garlic, tomatoes, herbs simmering away. Anticipation builds as you plan your dinner and dream about that luscious saucy, cheesy goodness and then you realize...... you have no spaghetti in the cupboard! Disaster? End of the world? Not if you know how to make fresh pasta!

A generation or two ago, every mom and grandmother made homemade noodles and pasta. How I love that dumpling-like texture of homemade pasta. Before I ever owned a pasta machine or stand mixer I learned to make pasta dough with eggs, flour and a fork on the kitchen counter- the hard way. Rolling it out with a rolling pin to the perfect thickness was quite a workout!

Besides being FRESH you are once again in charge of what's going in your food! No preservatives, no chemicals. Whatever flour you like, herbs, flavorings, all kinds of variations- it's totally customizable. So let's make The Chef's fresh pasta.

You will need:

olive oil

Depending on the amount of pasta you want, use one egg, one cup of flour, 1 tb olive oil and a pinch of salt for 2 servings. The Chef used 6 eggs and about 6 cups of flour. Beat the eggs, add the oil and salt, then gradually add the flour until you have a smooth, elastic dough that is not sticky.

Using additional flour, roll out to desired thickness using either a rolling pin, or a pasta machine. Cut into desired shape and length. Cook immediately, or hang to dry.

Fresh pasta cooks A LOT faster than commercially made pasta. If you cook it immediately you can expect it to be done in 3-5 minutes, maybe a minute or so longer if dried, and depending on thickness. The fun thing about using a pasta machine is the different kinds of pasta you can make with just the turn of a crank- fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine, even lasagna sheets. Homemade ravioli and tortellini are a breeze if you moisten the pasta sheet around the filling and seal it well. 

Make your favorite sauce, ours was marinara sauce with mushrooms and no meat, and serve!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In my garden- San Marzano tomatoes

On a recent walk through my favorite of all greenhouses in the world, Harvey's in Adel, Iowa, I was browsing the tomato selection, looking for nothing in particular. Not because I needed more tomatoes but because.....well.... I was there! So long story short, I'm browsing..... passing over cherry tomatoes of numerous kinds, yellow pear tomatoes, Romas, beefsteaks, nothing really jumping out at me, mostly since I really didn't have any more space to plant something and I began to make my way back to the exit. There, snuggled up between the Mr. Stripey and Yellow Boy was the Holy Grail of Tomatoes- the San Marzano.

Now, if you are even remotely familiar with Italian cooking, tomatoes, Romas, or anything vegetable history wise, you get it. This. Is. A. Big. Deal. After all, Romas are a genetic descendant of San Marzano tomatoes, which are the standard by which all cooking tomatoes are measured! Ok, I might be exaggerating a little there but you get what I mean- this is exciting!! San Marzanos are thought to have been brought to Italy in the 1700s and grown for many, many generations.

What makes this tomato so special? Everything! It has a much thicker, meatier flesh than even a Roma tomato. It has a very small seed area and very few seeds. This means more tomato pulp per tomato. They are sweeter, making them an excellent choice for sauces, and tomato paste. They have a "bigger" tomato flavor than other tomatoes and with a thicker flesh, that means less water, less cooking down to get a nice, thick finished product. They are an heirloom tomato, obviously, if they've been around since the 1700s......and open-pollinate, so you can save your own seed for next year and get true San Marzanos again- not some weird golf-ball size tomato, like modern hybrids give you. And get this- if you want to make a TRUE Neapolitan pizza, only San Marzano tomatoes are considered acceptable- very interesting.

It's very very early in the garden season here, so you will have to stay tuned to see how my little San Marzanos grow and turn out. I have 4 perfect little plants nestled into their summer homes, now it's up to Mother Nature to do her thing. 

*photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Friday, May 23, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal- Gallo White Merlot

I know, I know. Gallo. The Walmart of Winemakers. But hey, my small town grocery store was having one HECK of a sale and I couldn't pass up the price. Actually, for the money, they aren't a bad wine for the price. And if I just want something to sip on the patio at night, you almost can't go wrong with a four dollar bottle.

So what is white Merlot anyway? It's a rose style wine made with Merlot grapes- the crushed grapes and juice are kept together for a short time to just impart a little hint of color, then it is strained off and fermented into wine. Without the skins and seeds, much of the tannins are absent. It's a semi sweet wine, with lots of fruit notes. 

Merlot is known for it's plum flavors, berry notes and as a white Merlot is the perfect wine to tame spicy foods like Mexican or Asian. All those same fruity essences are there. I thought this wine was also a great wine for newbies- a step beyond moscato but nowhere near "dry." I'm thinking nice breezy summer day, sitting in the shade, my big floppy black sun hat, a great big glass of white Merlot and some friends. Cheers!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal: Stone Cliff Cabernet

As many of you know, the state of Iowa is becoming quite an exciting wine region in the US. About 300 vineyards are in Iowa and nearly 100 wineries, the majority of which use Iowa-grown grapes such as Vignoles, Brianna, and many others, but some also bring in grapes that cannot survive our cold climate, like Cabernet and Chardonnay. The grapes may not be grown here but the vintner's expertise still shows in the finished wines.

Stone Cliff Winery in Dubuque is a family-owned winery and vineyards. The vines were planted in 1996, and the first bottles were released in 2001. The vineyard is in the country but the winery and tasting room are in Dubuque in the historic Star Brewing Building, along Dubuque's trendy Riverfront district.

Spending a quiet evening at home with a bottle of wine on Saturday night is just about as perfect an evening as I can imagine. While I have not been able to visit the Stone Cliff Winery yet, I am very lucky that our local small town grocery store carries a good selection of Iowa wines. Cabernet was the wine in my glass tonight as yes, I broke several of "the rules."

First of all, I did chill my bottle. Not ice cold like a soda, but just enough to make it cooler than room temperature. I'm a firm believer in throwing the rules out the window. Drink what you like, however you like. If you like your Chardonnay at room temperature, go for it. Likewise, if you like your red wine on the cool side, or even well chilled, do it! The important thing is that you enjoy your wine. Second, I drank my Cabernet without a meal. It's not really considered a "sipping" wine but instead a big, bold red best suited to pairing with hearty beef dishes, pastas and other foods. I just wanted a bottle to open, and enjoy in the cool spring air.

Stone Cliff's Cabernet is a very well crafted wine that can go head to head with any California Cabernet. It's deep and rich, with big grape aromas. Lots of tannins make this one a great wine for aging, plus they use natural cork to seal the bottle, which allows the wine to continue to breathe and age. The color is deep, dark purple, very grape jammy and lush. I wish I'd had some sharp cheese to nibble on. This wine would be an awesome pairing with cheeses and even dark chocolate. It also is big enough in flavor to make it an excellent choice for cooking, especially Julia Child's Bouef Bourguingon. I'd even make a sangria out of it.

While I'd like to see an Iowa winery use locally grown grapes for winemaking, Stone Cliff does a very good job with the wines they do craft. I hope to visit the tasting room and historic location very very soon.

Friday, May 16, 2014

German with a sweet twist

Sticking to traditional recipes is very important to me. I love the history and stories and uniqueness foods from other cultures have. Growing up with a German mother, I often had REAL German food, prepared by a real born and raised German cook. Simple flavors, meat and potatoes meals, the occasional splurge of something truly remarkable, my childhood of German cuisine was filled with deliciousness. Whether it was my mom's German lentil soup and potato pancakes, or weiner schnitzel from a German restaurant in Chicago, or lunch on a Rhine River cruise, I got to experience it all.

While I have an immense respect and curiosity for truly genuine regional and ethnic cuisines, it's also fun once in a while to try a little fun spin on flavors, shake things up a bit and see what happens. Americans are famous for doing this. We recreate "Mexican food" to suit our eating habits. Italian dishes have met the same fate. It's not a bad thing, just something we do.

Some foods just invite some adventure. Take sausages, for example. A renewed interest in charcuterie and sausage-making has spawned a generation of chefs and foodies that like to get creative with the grinds and flavors and bring new life to ages old recipes. Bratwurst happens to be one of those foods. Seems simple enough- ground meat, flavorings, stuff in a casing. But some combos just don't add enough "oomph" and others are way over the top.

Here in Iowa we have a chain of grocery stores called HyVee. Over the years HyVee has grown from the smallish neighborhood grocery store of my childhood to these giant, cavernous, overwhelming behemoths that contain everything your culinary heart could desire. Endless varieties of produce, both organic and not. Meat counters half a city block long. Bakeries cranking out artisan breads alongside the peanut butter cookies. Aisle after aisle of every ethnic food you can possibly imagine. You can get supplies to make sushi, Froot Loops, organic canned tomatoes and red wheat berries from the bulk foods section. Toss a couple Calphalon skillets in the cart, stock up on Dr. Pepper and off you go. 

It should be no surprise then that the meat counter included at least ten different flavors of bratwurst. Seriously. Jalapeno. Pineapple. Green onion. Traditional. On and on they stretch. So many choices. Of course we had to try the pineapple (yum!!) and the jalapeno (double yum!!) but one flavor really jumped out at me, and said "Cook me.......with a creamy mustard sauce and fried apples" and that was the Apple Spice Bratwurst. I just had to have it!

So today for dinner, we won't really have a "recipe" to work from, other than the sauce. Instead we are going to pan fry the sausage to get some delicious fond going on as a flavor base for our sauce. Bratwurst works well for this because of the pork fat, and the added sweetness of the apples will add sugar to the mix, creating crunchy, tasty browned bits that will be so amazing. A hit of grainy German-style mustard, finished with cream and some butter, and we will have a yummy masterpiece! Fried cabbage and onions on the side will tie it all together nicely.

How were the bratwurst? Fantastic! The pork stays nice and juicy inside the casing when you use tongs to turn them instead of poking with a fork. The apple and spice flavors are the perfect accent to pork and don't disappoint in these sausages.There were lots of chunks of juicy apple in the sausages and the spices reminded me of a sweet breakfast sausage. I wasn't too worried- after all, the pineapple and jalapeno bratwurst were delicious also. 

Next time you're out and about, cruise by the meat counter of your favorite store. Look for something new and different and interesting. Step outside of your comfort zone and check out new flavors. You might be very happy you did!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Farmers' Market Season is here!

It's my favorite time of year again- farmers' market season! The spring produce is just starting to be ready, the days are getting warmer, and all the small towns in west central Iowa are starting their farmers' market season. It won't be long and gardens will be bursting with fresh, delicious food. 

For the first time since I moved from the city, the nearby town of Dexter now has a farmers market. Tuesday afternoons the historic Roundhouse will be filled with vendors selling locally grown produce, homemade baked good, jams and jellies, handcrafted items and more. Nearby Stuart has their market on Wednesday in the city park. Almost every night of the week you can find a market within a few minutes drive.

It's fun to watch the weekly offerings change as the season progresses. Early markets boast loads of asparagus, radishes, peas and spring greens. If you're lucky you might find a market with morels for sale. Mid-summer brings all the warm weather fruits and vegetables- strawberries to sweet corm, tomatoes to zucchini. One of the best things about the weekly market is the ever-changing variety of fresh ingredients. I love to stop after work and grab something I see and create a dinner with vegetables picked just hours ago.

Pick your own farms are a big hit in the area as well. It's a great way to get a large quantity of something like cucumbers for pickle-making, or tomatoes for canning, and usually saves a lot of money. It's a great resource for people like me who love home-canned foods but just don't have the garden space to grow so much.

Most of the farmers' markets continue until the end of October. Fall markets boast apples, pears, winter squash, decoratives like cornstalks and of course, pumpkins!

From the humble road side corn stand to the bustling big city Downtown Farmers Market, summer is all about celebrating the wonderful fresh foods we have available, so get out there and shop your local farmers' markets!

(Top photo of produce in baskets courtesy of Online Farmers Markets Group)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Garden Season is upon us!!

Finally! I thought that winter was NEVER going to end! Finally the birds are chirping, the dandelions have opened their sunshiny faces, my yard is filled with violets. The hope of morel mushrooms, that secret spot where I dig ramps- these are happy happy days. Spring is also garden season. Many of our wonderful recipes depend on garden fresh produce and herbs picked immediately before using and having a garden is the surest way to have fresh, delicious food. 

Many people these days are concerned with what commercial growers do to the food crops in the field. Raising your own garden puts you on control of everything- from the type of tomatoes and peppers to the type of plant food or amendments you make to your soil. If going organic is important to you, gardening is the perfect way to do so.

Baby kale!!
It's also very economical. A packet of seeds costs just a dollar or two and  can provide dozens if not hundreds of food-producing plants. Some seeds are easy to start, others more difficult, just grab a garden book or head to Google and read up! Garden centers are also full of transplants ready to go right into your garden- every year I do a little bit of both. Some plants, like radishes and carrots, need to be direct-sowed too.

Baby lettuce in one of several pots.
I used to have huge gardens in the ground, and eventually switched to large raised beds, but as my family has grown up and gone out on their own, I don't need such a large garden anymore. Plus, I like to switch it up and try new things every once in a while. This year I am growing some veggies in containers, some in the ground, and some in straw bales.

For now, I've got four tomatoes planted in their pots, two habanero peppers, two serrano chilies, loads of herbs, zucchini, lettuce, kale. In a few days I'll be starting the straw bales and getting the in-ground things in. I have a few new and interesting things to share with you as soon as get the rest done- so stay tuned!

Friday, May 2, 2014

The easiest dessert you'll ever make!

At least once in your life you are going to need a special dessert to cap off a memorable meal. Maybe it's the first time you make dinner for that special someone. Dessert and champagne after a night out with friends. You are invited over for dinner and need to bring a dessert.

Well, you're in luck. I have the SIMPLEST dessert you will ever make yet it looks like you spent hours in the kitchen. Seriously, if you can operate a rolling pin and a microwave, you've got this! The only "special" equipment you need is a tart pan. You might already have one. A food processor and a rolling pin finish your pastry-making needs.

So let's get started-

You will need pastry for a one crust pie. I have a simple and foolproof recipe for you-

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cold butter, cut into chunks
2 tb sugar
1/4 cup ice water

Place flour and sugar in food processor. Add cut up butter, pulse until you have a crumbly mixture. DO NOT USE MARGARINE or you will have paste. Add ice water a tablespoon at a time until dough forms and is not sticky, but holds together. Turn out onto floured board. You can chill the pastry at this point or you can roll it out now. Flour the rolling pin well and roll it out to about 1/4 inch thickness and the size/shape of your tart pan. I used a rectangle pan. Roll dough over rolling pin and lift into pan. Trim excess pastry, prick all over with fork. Line the pastry with foil and fill with baking beans. Bake in 425 oven about 10-15 minutes or so, until light golden brown. Remove from oven and cool. gets REALLY good- the filling. You can make this in the microwave or in a saucepan, whichever you like. I prefer the micro because I can use the same bowl I'm going to mix it in. The ingredients are ridiculously simple:

8 oz. chopped semi-sweet chocolate (or chips- high quality chips)
1 cup heavy cream

Bring the cream almost to boiling then remove from micro or off burner. Add chocolate. Stir until all chocolate is melted and smooth. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour into baked pastry shell while still liquid.

Decorate the top of your tart with fresh fruit. I used halved strawberries because that's what I had, but raspberries are excellent for this dessert. Chill completely before serving. Cut smallish servings- it's very very rich!