Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Seasonal Flavors

If you cook with pumpkin, then you probably know there was a shortage last season. If you wanted a jar of Libby's pumpkin, you were more than likely out of luck unless you had a stash in your pantry.

The good news is, this year's pumpkin harvest was a good one and canned pumpkin is back on the grocery shelves, so feel free to start baking your favorite pumpkin breads!

Reading the news stories about this year's harvest made me hungry for pumpkin spiced with cloves and cinnamon and ginger.

I recently bought Cooking Light's Quick Baking publication at the grocery store checkout and was eager to try a few recipes. One of the recipes I marked was for Pumpkin-Cranberry Muffins.

I've made several pumpkin muffin recipes over the years, most that include pecans, but none with cranberries. I love dried cranberries in other dishes -- especially on fresh salads -- so I was eager to try them in this recipe. Might as well use two seasonal ingredients in one recipe, right?

This is a basic recipe that takes only a few minute to mix up. You'll notice it's low in fat, using no butter and only 2 tablespoons of canola oil.

The baking muffins made the house smell so wonderful and made me eager for Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie!

This is a very moist and dense muffin. The spices make it the perfect mid-morning snack with hot tea. And I really like the tart flavor and the texture that the cranberries offer. And the cranberries add such a pretty red color to the orange muffins.

If you like pumpkin muffins, give this one a try!

Pumpkin-Cranberry Muffins was one of many recipes I marked in Cooking Light's Quick Baking. I've also tried Sweet and Salty Peanut Chocolate Chunk Cookies (very good) and I have on my short list of things to bake Orange Pecan Tea Bread, Fresh Apple Cupcakes with Almond Streusel, Fresh Tomato and Zucchini Tart with Mozzarella and Basil, and the recipe that intrigues me most, Cornmeal Buttermilk Biscuits. I have buttermilk in the fridge from my Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins, so I have extra incentive to make those biscuits!

Quick Baking, which costs $11.99, is only on display until Nov. 5. It would make a wonderful stocking stuffer for the cook in your life.

Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* (about 6 3/4 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 large egg
  • 2/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries, chopped (such as Craisins)
Preheat oven to 375°.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking soda, and next 5 ingredients (though cloves); stir well with a whisk.

Combine granulated sugar and next 5 ingredients (through egg) in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 3 minutes). Add flour mixture to sugar mixture; beat at low speed just until combined. Fold in cranberries.

Place 12 paper muffin cup liners in muffin cups; coat liners with cooking spray. Spoon batter into prepared cups. Bake at 375° for 25 minutes or until muffins spring back when touched lightly in center. Remove muffins from pan immediately; place on a wire rack.

* I used self-rising flour and omitted the baking powder and salt.

Cooking Light

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Popcorn Balls

I've loved popcorn balls as far back as I can remember. A neighbor made them for trick-or-treat most years, and my sister and I never failed to make a stop at her house for one of her famous treats.

I've never wanted to make popcorn balls because the recipes all involved a candy thermometer. Nothing turns me off a recipe quicker than a note about how high the temperature must reach soft ball, hard ball, etc. I immediately turn the page of the cookbook and look for something else to cook.

But I was certainly not intimidated by marshmallow popcorn balls. Recipes for these seasonal treats are featured throughout my favorite Internet sites. They each varied a little bit, and some even include flavored Jello to add color and flavor. But rather than copy one of those recipes, I just read them all and made up my own recipe.

If you've ever made Rice Krispies Treats, then you can certainly make marshmallow popcorn balls because the process is very similar.

Rather than pop my corn on the stove, I used a bag of microwave popcorn. My favorite is Orville Redenbacher's Natural, Simply Salted, popcorn. There's no artificial butter flavor added to this particular product, so it's perfect for the popcorn balls.

Once the corn was popped, I spread it out on a large area I had covered with wax paper. With the popcorn spread out, it was easy to remove the unpopped kernels, which you do not want to include in your popcorn balls.

Next I cooked a bag of marshmallows, 4 tablespoons of butter and a º cup of brown sugar in the microwave for about 2 minutes, then stirred until the marshmallows were melted. I gradually added the popcorn to this marshmallow mixture, stirring as I worked, until I had almost used it all. Along the way, I mixed in some Halloween sprinkles that included chocolate jimmies that melted a little bit; that was OK with me. I had some of the marshmallow mixture left over, and I really wished I had about 1 to 2 cups more of the popcorn to work with. Next time I make this recipe, I will probably pop a second bag; we can just eat the popcorn that I don't use for the popcorn balls.

After everything was mixed in, I started forming the popcorn balls and placing them on the waxed paper. This is the tricky part because the mixture is so sticky and hard to work with, but I learned a good lesson. I mixed them the best I could, first using waxed paper as gloves and later buttering my hands a little. But I finally realized if I could just get the mixture divided into something that resembled balls, then I could easily go back and shape them like I wanted once they had cooled a little and were less sticky.

I added a few sprinkles to my finished popcorn balls for a festive touch.

I really enjoyed my Easy Marshmallow Popcorn Balls and so did others who tried them. I liked the crunch of the popcorn and the blend of salty popcorn with sweet, creamy marshmallows.

Easy Marshmallow Popcorn Balls
  • 1 bag of microwave popcorn*
  • 1 10 oz. bag marshmallows
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • Sprinkles, if desired
Pop popcorn and spread out on waxed paper. Take out any unpopped kernels.

Place marshmallows, butter and brown sugar in large, microwave save bowl. Microwave for 2 minutes. Stir. If marshmallows haven’t melted, cook an additional 30 seconds or until melted. Stir to combine.

Mix in popcorn a little bit at a time, until it’s all incorporated with the marshmallow mixture. *Pop a little more popcorn if needed. Mix in sprinkles if desired.

Form mixture into balls and place on waxed paper. The mixture will be very sticky. Work with it the best you can, using waxed paper as “gloves” or buttering your hands. Form into loose balls, then go back after the balls have cooled and pack a little tighter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Slow-cooked minestrone

Sometime back in the summer, I read a recipe for Slow-Cooker Minestrone in an issue of Cook's Country magazine.

I thought the recipe sounded delicious, as well as healthy, and I couldn't wait to try it. But I did wait because I didn't want to make the soup when the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees outside.

But the gorgeous fall weather last week inspired me to give it a try.

I've seen many recipes for the Italian soup over the years, with different vegetables and different processes. Like most minestrone recipes, this one has beans, onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, chicken broth and a small pasta. This basic recipe was adapted for the slow cooker by Cook's Country writer Diane Unger. In the story that accompanies the recipe, she describes how she chose her beans, her greens and her pasta.

I did make a few changes in Unger's recipe. I cut back on the olive oil to saute the onions and carrots, used only four cloves of garlic instead of eight and about one cup of fresh basil leaves, which I cooked with the soup. I also omitted the red pepper flakes and used fresh spinach instead of chard and diced tomatoes instead of whole. I didn't add additional basil or olive oil at the end of the cooking process either.

This is not one of those recipes that allows you to throw everything into the slow cooker and let it cook. There's quite a bit of prep work and advance cooking, but it's worth the extra effort.

In Unger's recipe, the zucchini, chard and pasta cook in the slow cooker during the last 20 minutes of the cooking process. I got held up at work the day I made this and had my daughter turn off the slow cooker at the designated time. I've had trouble in recent months with food tasting scorched in my slow cooker and didn't want to overcook my soup. But when I got home, the soup was no longer simmering, so I knew the pasta wouldn't cook in 20 minutes. So I improvised. I cooked the pasta (I used ditalini) and the zucchini in separate pots on the stove and stirred the spinach into the hot soup. When the pasta and zucchini were cooked, I drained them and added them to the soup as well. Problem solved.

We loved this recipe, and I felt good about serving it to my family. The flavors combine for a delicious, Italian-style soup with a wonderful garlic/ basil flavor. The combination of textures with the ingredients is very appealing, and the shaved Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top just makes it even more delicious. And make sure you serve this with a loaf of crusty fresh bread.

This recipe makes a lot of soup. We froze as much as we ate, which is a good thing!

Slow-Cooker Minestrone
  • 1 cup dried medium-size white beans, rinsed and picked over
  • 6 tablespoons extra olive oil*
  • 2 onions, chopped fine
  • 4 carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
  • 8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise, seeded, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, stemmed, leaves chopped
  • 1/2 cup small soup pasta
  • Salt and pepper
COOK BEANS. Bring beans and enough water to cover by 1 inch to low boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until beans are just beginning to soften, about 20 minutes. Drain beans and transfer to slow cooker.

SAUTE AROMATICS. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and carrots, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and cook until pan is nearly dry, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in broth, water, 1/2 cup basil, oregano and pepper flakes and bring to boil. Transfer to slow cooker. Cover and cook on low until beans are tender, 6 to 7 hours.

FINISH SOUP. Stir zucchini, chard and pasta into slow cooker and cook, covered, on high until pasta is tender, 20-30 minutes. Stir in remaining basil and remaining oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.

Cook's Country

* I made several changes to this recipe when I prepared it. I cut back on the olive oil to sauté the onions and carrots, used only four cloves of garlic instead of eight and about 1 cup of fresh basil leaves, which I cooked with the soup. I also omitted the red pepper flakes and used fresh spinach instead of Swiss chard and diced tomatoes instead of whole. I didn't add additional basil leaves or olive oil at the end of the cooking process either. We sprinkled shaved Parmesan cheese on top of our hot soup.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chili Time

I'm determined to expand our weeknight dinner options at home and to continue to try new things. Towards that end, I made Quick Southwestern Chicken Barley Chili last week. Not only did I make it, I ate it!

I'm not much on Southwestern foods. I don't usually like salsa, not in the least bit, and my stomach and I aren't fans of spicy foods. So when I make tacos and such at my house, I normally pass.

But I had tried this chili last winter, and I really liked it. So did my family. My cousin Betty had brought it to our family after my mother's death. The chili was delivered in a slow cooker and was delicious. Over the course of the next two days, my family enjoyed it so much, especially my daughter, who scooped it up with chips.

Anna has mentioned it from time to time, and when it was cool and rainy last week, I decided it was a good time to try it and surprised her with it when she came home from school.

This is a very simple, very quick recipe -- two factors that make it a great weekday option.

The back-of-the-box recipe from Quaker features quick barley, something I've never cooked with.

I made only a few changes to this recipe. I didn't use no-salt tomatoes because the store was out of them, and I used a small can of corn instead of frozen corn.

I boiled a pound or so of chicken strips on the stove while I did the rest of the prep work for the chili. (A review I read on this recipe suggested using cooked ground chicken, which I'm sure would be a good substitute.)

When the chili is complete, it's not very thick and could easily be considered a soup. But as it sits, the liquid is absorbed by the barley, and it thickens.

I made this at lunchtime and put it in my slow cooker on low to keep it warm. By the time Anna was home from school, the chili had thickened, and she was able to eat it with chips, like a dip. Just the way she likes it.

I used mild salsa in my chili, and even I agreed it was too mild. I went back and added another 1/2 cup of medium salsa to spice it up a bit. So choose your salsa depending on your family's taste for saucy food!

This is definitely a healthy recipe. Cooked as prepared, according to Quaker, it has 210 calories, with a total of 2 fat grams, sodium at 250 and dietary fiber at 6 g and protein at 19.

Quick Southwestern Chicken Barley Chili
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, no salt added, undrained
  • 1/2 cup salsa
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) fat-free chicken broth
  • 1 cup quick barley
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup frozen whole kernel corn (I used canned corn.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
  • 3 cups cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 1 1/2 pounds boneless before cooking)
In 6-qt saucepan, combine first seven ingredients. Over high heat bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beans, corn, pepper and chicken; increase heat to high until chili comes to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for another 5 minutes, or until barley is tender. If upon standing the chili becomes too thick, add more chicken broth or water until chili is desired consistency.

Yields 10 cups

Quaker Oats Company