Monday, July 4, 2011

Flag Icebox Cake

Happy 4th of July! And what Independance day barbecue is complete without a flag cake!

Wait... You want me to turn the OVEN on? In JULY???

No! Of course not! This is a no-bake cake I make for my family all the time by layering graham crackers with vanilla pudding, top with real whipped cream and decorated with berries. I was inspired as a kid by the Uncool Whip commercials they showed during the summer that featured a similar looking cake. Decorating to look like an American flag using berries had to be easier than frosting, right? Right! I've never had an easy time decorating with frosting and an even worse time baking cakes, so I decided I had to combine my beloved icebox cake with the ubiquitous flag cake to make this creation.
The measurements for this recipe aren't exact, I've always had either too much or two little of everything. It depends on how many layers you want and the size of your pan.
You'll need:
-At least one box of graham crackers
-At least 24 oz of vanilla or chocolate pudding (or both!)- you're favorite brand (mine happens to be a store brand)
-a package of blueberries, and one of strawberries or raspberries. (I wanted to use raspberries because they'll look neater and don't have to be cut. But the family wanted strawberries and once quartered they fit rather nicely.)
-A pint of heavy whipping cream , or a container of whipped topping if you must. Note: whipped cream from a can for topping sundaes will not work for this!

In a 9x13" baking dish, put down a layer of graham crackers, nice and straight, filling all available space. You'll need to break some of the crackers into halves and quarters but they will fit. Gently spread a generous layer of pudding on top, followed by another layer of graham crackers, going the opposite direction for stability, as you would with with lasagna. The next layer can be a different flavor of pudding, if you're using both. Keep going until you're out of graham crackers, which need to be your top layer.
Pour the heavy cream into the bowl of your stand mixer and turn it on high. While it's whipping, rinse and thoroughly dry your berries, and quarter your strawberries, if you have them. Top your "cake" with whipped cream, and finally, arrange the berries to the design of Old Glory.
Stash in the fridge for at least 4 hours, overnight is best.
This will not slice up as nicely as a cake but will taste moist and delicious. This has been a hit at every potluck I've been to!

If chocolate and graham isn't your thing try my Strawberry "Shortcut" Icebox cake!

What's your favorite 4th of July dish?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Make-Ahead Monday: Strawberry Shortcut Icebox Cake

This cool, refreshing summer dessert is almost too easy to make. And it uses just 4 ingredients! Icebox cakes are my favorite desserts to make because I'm not much of a baker, and because we don't like to run the oven in the summertime! I also like how versatile the filling options are, but I won't get into those just now. Today's ice box cake features a simple combination of flavors.

The Ingredients
1 Box Vanilla Wafers (I used store brand)
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1.5 lbs strawberries, sliced
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

The cake couldn't be easier to make. I use the stand mixer to make whipped cream, after chilling the bowl, whisk attachment, and cream in the freezer for 10 minutes.

When the cream starts to froth, I add the sugar and let it come together to a fluffy and stiff whipped cream!

When the whipped cream is ready, cover the bottom of a casserole dish (or multiple small dishes) with a single layer of the cookies, followed by a layer of sliced strawberries, and finally the whipped cream. Repeat until the dish is full.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, although you can make this the day or night before. The cookies soften to a cakey texture and the tart strawberries contrast the sweetness perfectly.
You can substitute bananas for strawberries, but that's another article.
Here's the empty dish- guess it was a hit!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Make-Ahead Monday: Slow Cooker Chicken Stock, Shredded Chicken, and Schmaltz

Yeah, I keep a bag of chicken fat in the freezer. Doesn't everyone?

We'll come back to that later.

Today's project promises a triple whammy of ready-made ingredients to keep on-hand in your freezer.  Chicken stock is a base for sauces, soups, and braises, and an easy way to revive leftover rice or grits.  Cooked, shredded chicken is a no-brainer protein when you need to whip up a fast salad, throw in a single-serving soup, or roll into a burrito.  And schmaltz is... well... it's free fat.  You wouldn't throw butter or olive oil in the trash, would you?  Rendered animal fats like bacon, duck, and yes, even chicken fat, are great for sauteing and even frying.  Did I mention they are free?  
Leave the work up to your slow-cooker to make all these freezer staples, to always have the finest home-made ingredients on hand when you need them. 

The Stock
If you're reading this blog, chances are you already know that homemade chicken stock is better than store bought (although the boxed stuff from Costco is an excellent and economical substitute) and that stock is not the same as broth. In other words, stock is more than chicken-flavored water. That would be broth. No, stock is multi-dimensional in both flavor and texture, with a mouthfeel that calls to mind words like unctuous and lip-smacking. Technically speaking, it is a suspension of gelatin in water, extracted from meaty bones and cartilage by simmering for hours, and flavored with aromatic vegetables. 

To make the stock, I generally use 3 to 5 pounds of the cheapest cuts of chicken. This is usually legs and thighs, although if you don't want to get as much meat in the end result, you can use wings too. In this case, I am using all legs, because nobody in my family really likes these. Dark meat, and never breast meat, is the only appropriate type for this application. Any chicken bones which you may have saved in the freezer can go in as well. 
Let's talk aromatics. Most stock recipes call for slicing an onion in half and adding to the water, skins and all. That has been my tried-and true method in the past, and has always produced a terrific stock. Lately, I've saved the tough inedible tops from leeks I've used in other recipes, frozen in zip-top bags. Used instead of onion, they give the end result a brighter, fresher, and less sweet onion flavor. A couple of carrots, broken in half, go into the 7-quart slow-cooker.  I season carefully, just three or four tablespoons of salt is enough.  

That's it.  Any other flavorings go in, and I have limitations in where I may use my stock.  I want a clean flavor profile to use in whatever dishes I wish.  
The crock-pot gets filled with water and set on low in the garage.  Why the garage?  Typically, it takes more than 24 hours for the simmering water to extract enough gelatin from the bones.  Your family may not enjoy the smell of chicken soup in the morning.  I'm not sure why this is;  I love it...

After the stock has simmered for 4-5 hours, it's time to do the hardest part of the process- which is still pretty darn easy.  With tongs, I extract all the chicken from the pot and allow it to get cool enough to handle. I remove as much meat as I can from the bones, using my fingers to feel for little bits of cartilage and bone.  The bones go back into the pot and simmer for another 8-10 hours.  After that, I check for doneness periodically by pulling out a chicken bone and breaking it.  The bone should literally crumble when all the water-soluble gelatin has been removed.  

The whole pot gets strained into a large mixing bowl and needs to cool as quickly as possible.  The best way to do this is by using frozen water bottles and a cooler filled with ice.  Then it goes into the fridge overnight.  

A disk of flavorful chicken fat has formed atop my stock and a pool of crud has formed beneath it.  The former must be lifted off and preserved, while the latter must be removed by straining through a fine mesh sieve and two layers of cheesecloth, into a spouted bowl.  Finally, the clearer stock is poured into various jars and containers saved for this purpose.  They're not glamorous, but glass jars can be stored safely in the freezer if enough headspace- at least an inch- is left to allow for expansion.  

The Chicken

The easiest two proteins to have on hand for a weeknight meal come from the same animal.  Chicken and eggs can be used in more dishes than any other protein I can think of.  I love having pre-cooked dark meat chicken ready at a moment's notice.  I don't shred it up too much more than I need to when removing it from the bones.  Then into a zip-top bag it goes, flattened out so I can break off any size piece I need at a time.   

The Fat
What can I say about this kitchen gold?  Rub it on some red potatoes and grill them.  Saute some greens in it.  Just don't throw it in the trash!  

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bento Tuesday- Improvised Lunchbox

This week I forgot to pick up peanut butter for my kids' lunches.  That ended up being okay, because they get tired of eating the same thing --PB & J-- over and over again.  I decided to make them bentos inspired by one of my favorite blogs, Just Bento. I also learned a lot about packing lunches to keep them from shifting, and food safety too, from Lunch in a Box.  The boys enjoy the neatly-packed attractive food, and it sure beats a squished sandwich. 

The food I used for this bento is a combination of food I had on hand and food from my second pantry, the freezer.  The frozen green stuff on top was leftover cooked broccoli that I froze in cupcake cups with just this purpose in mind.  For protein I threw in an Easter egg dyed to look like a Poke-ball, and made cream-cheese sandwiches on thick texas toast.  For dessert, a super healthy-fiber bar (my poor kids) and the cherry tomatoes, sweet and nutritious, act as space fillers to keep the food from shifting in transit. 

Everything was devoured except a couple of the tomatoes, so I'd call this lunch a success!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Make-Ahead Monday: Meatballs and Marinara

How's that for alliteration!?

I have a lot of Mondays off and those are the best time to get some meal starters prepped and frozen for the rest of the week. Spaghetti and Meatballs were requested for tonight's dinner, so I made a gigantic batch of vegetable-packed super healthy tomato sauce-- enough to freeze more than half for later use. With that I made over 50 meatballs whose destination is also the freezer. These will come in handy this summer when running the oven will be outlawed.

Here's how you can prepare several meals' worth of meatballs and red sauce to stash in your "second pantry"

The Meat

Use 6-7 pounds of any combination of meat you want.  Pick at least one fatty meat like pork sausage.  For some reason it costs more without the casings, so I usually just squeeze them out myself.  Choose flavorful meat like lamb.  Ground sirloin was on sale so I picked that.  And finally some ground turkey, which is lean and basically a filler.  

Grind about four tablespoons of fennel seed until it is only half pulverized.  You still want to have some whole seeds.  Find in your pantry your favorite Italian seasonings .  Mine are shown below.  
Grab your largest bowl.  This is mine!  

Heat your oven to 375 and line 3 or 4 baking sheets with foil.  Take off all your rings, and using your hands combine all the ingredients in the bowl.  
With an ice cream disher or two spoons, form your meatballs and line them up on your sheet pans.  

Throw them in the oven for 25-30 minutes, and gather some vegetables for your veggie-packed marinara!  

The Sauce

Spaghetti sauce is the best way to hide vegetables from picky kids.  I don't have those, fortunately, but this is nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.  

What veggies to use depends on the season, and during this warm summer, squash are a fantastic price.  Carrots are always nutritious and cheap, and mushrooms add a meatiness to the sauce.  And the pre-cut tri-color pepper blend was on sale today so that will be included as well.  

After roughly chopping and seasoning all the vegetables, brown them in olive oil, in batches, transferring each batch to your largest pot when the onions are transparent and the water cooks off.  

When the last batch has browned, deglaze the pot with some wine.  Cook for a minute before adding it to the larger pot.  

Add three 14-ounce cans of diced tomatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  When the carrots have softened completely, use an immersion blender to puree the sauce.  

If you do not have an immersion blender skip this step; this sauce is delicious served chunky.  

Simmer until the sauce thinkens, then allow it to cool and store in your freezer.  

I use glass jars for this, only because I have a ton of them lying around.  If you are going to do this, make sure there is an inch of headspace in the top of the jar, to allow it to expand when frozen.  

Better yet, freeze flat in zipper bags alongside your meatballs.  Using this recipe today, I made 54 large meatballs to use on future pasta or in sandwiches, smothered in melty provolone.  This is a great make-ahead because it's my family's favorite, so they don't mind seeing it again and again!  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cheesy Poblano Grits with a Fried Egg

Now this is a breakfast worth waking up for...
Good morning! It's your old friends runny yolk and fresh-cracked pepper! Oozing lovingly over leftover grits!
Rise n Shine!

Last night I made a pretty amazing side dish consisting of cheesy grits into which I stirred poblano peppers which I'd charred on the grill, peeled and cut into rajas (strips), topped with grilled mushrooms and asiago cheese. A pretty good use of what was lying around, if I say so myself.

But of course, I didn't take any photos of that. Instead I present you with what I had for breakfast this morning. In only a couple minutes more than it takes to make a bowl of cereal (ew) you can have what I think I'll call grits rancheras.

Now that I'm a breakfast person, I've discovered that anything with a fried egg on top can be breakfast. I love the way runny yolk is both a protein and a ready made sauce, and the only augmentation needed is some freshly-cracked multicolored pepper.

close up of multicolored pepper

Here comes the recipe!

Cheesy Poblano Grits
Grits reheat pretty well in the microwave provided you add a bit of chicken stock or milk to moisten them up.

2 whole poblano peppers
1 cup instant grits or polenta
4 cups water or chicken stock (or 50/50 if you like)
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar

On a very hot grill, toss the peppers and walk away for 8-10 minutes. When the skins are charred on all sides, remove to a bowl and cover for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle (I have never been able to wait so I don't know how long this takes) gently remove blackened skins, seeds, and stems, then slice into thin strips.
Bring stock to a boil and gradually whisk in the grits. When just shy of the desired consistency, remove from heat and whisk in the cheese, and then gently stir in the pepper strips.
Serve immediately topped with grilled veggies, or a fried egg.

As a token of my appreciation at your stopping by, here's a gratuitous stretchy-cheese shot:

What would you top with a fried egg for breakfast?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Leftover Madness-Pot Roast Hand Pies

Ok, so I'm not a food photographer. But I am a leftovers artiste. Why is this skill so important? Frugality aside, repurposing leftovers is just plain fun, another way to get creative juices flowing in the kitchen. Plus, some foods just don't do well in the microwave, and need to be revived more gently than being nuked for a minute and a half.
I had a great deal of leftover pot roast in the fridge yesterday and decided to make some hand pies. This recipe for the pastry is specifically for meat pies, and is supposed to hold up to a relatively liquidy filling and handheld eating. It did, and was pretty easy to make using my food processor.
The next time I make these, I'll try using frozen puff pastry sheets, which would shave off enough prep time to make this a weeknight meal. As for filling options, there are more leftovers in my freezer than I can name that can be stuffed into hand pies, such as chicken curry and meaty marinara.
What leftovers do you have that would make great hand pies?