Monday, April 30, 2012

Baked Jalepeño Poppers

I thought I’d miss the fried version of jalapeño poppers but I think I like these better.  The baked topping has all the crunch I crave in a bar snack and baking them means I can make lots and reheat them.  They even freeze well after the first bake.

We make two basic fillings- one with veggie cream cheese mixed with grated cheddar and the other with equal parts soft goat cheese and cream cheese topped with crispy bacon pieces.  Try the goat cheese version using a nice aged goat cheese like Pico or le Boucheron to pass these around at a grown up cocktail party like a wedding rehearsal dinner.  Add the cheddar version to a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Here’s the basic recipe for 12 jalapeño poppers using 6 whole jalapeños.  The recipe can be doubled and tripled. 

Baked Jalapeño Poppers
6 jalapeño peppers, split lengthwise
3 oz cream cheese, softened
3 oz soft goat cheese (try an aged version, rind and all)
2 strips cooked bacon, chopped in large pieces
1 egg + 1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup flour + salt and pepper
1/2 cup bread crumbs

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.  
  2. Prepare peppers.  Seed and de-vein the jalapeño halves.  The curve of a serrated grapefruit knife makes this easy or use a regular serrated knife.   
  3. Place pepper halves in a lightly oiled metal baking dish (like a cake pan or 8X8 brownie pan).  Bake at 400˚F for 10 minutes while preparing filling.  
  4. Mix cream cheese and goat cheese together with a fork.  Turn off oven and remove peppers from oven.  Allow peppers to cool a few minutes so they are easy to handle.  When cool, fill each pepper with about 1/2 ounce filling (a little under a tablespoon) and press a few bacon pieces into each.  
  5. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour (or overnight).  Cooling stuffed jalapeños makes easier breading them before baking easier.   If you are in a hurry, skip this step.  A touch messier but it won’t ruin the final result. 
  6. Preheat oven to 400˚F.  
  7. To bread chilled peppers, set out three small dishes.  Place flour mixture in the first, egg/water mixture in the second and bread crumbs in the third.  Have your metal baking pan ready (lightly oiled).  
  8. Dip the filled side of each pepper into flour, egg and then bread crumbs.  Place in baking pan.  
  9. Bake at 400˚F for 20 minutes, checking halfway through to make sure filling is not oozing out of peppers.  Poppers are ready when top is crisp and cheese is soft and melty. 

Alternate filling:
4 ounces plain or veggie cream cheese plus 2 ounces grated cheddar or Monterey jack cheese.  Bacon optional.

Handling Hot Peppers
The oils from cutting and prepared any hot pepper can linger on your hands and give you a jolt if you rub an eye hours later if you do not wash (not rinse) your hands including nail beds with hot soapy water after you are finished prepping them.  Once roasted, jalapeños retain very little volatile oil and handling requires less concern.  If you are very sensitive, wear food safe gloves when working with peppers.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Poached Pears in 20 Minutes

This is a last minute recipe that can be put together after the main course is in the oven.  You peel the pears while the sugar is melting into the water to create a sugar syrup. By the time the sugar syrup is ready and simmering, the pears are also ready to go into the pot.

Twenty minutes later, the pears are tender but still firm enough to stand on their own and the luscious flavors of the poaching liquid have combined with the pear’s natural character.  The poaching liquid is boiled down to a golden syrup while the peas cool on their serving plate. 

We had these with drizzled with melted chocolate and a dollop of whipped cream.  If we’d had vanilla ice cream we’d have enjoyed Poire belle Helene.  My favorite way to eat these is over pound cake with the extra syrup drizzled everywhere. 

Poaching liquids are simple.  This one uses a light sugar syrup (e.g. the ratio of sugar to water is low) plus a vanilla bean, star anise, lemon peel and a good shot of Drambuie.  If you don’t have star anise, proceed without it’s light anise tone.  Drambuie is a liqueur made from whiskey and provides a mellow butterscotch flavor that pairs really well with lemon peel.  Look in your liquor cabinet for your favorite or use fruit juice if you don’t want to use alcohol.  Dark rum, pear liqueur, port, red or white wine can all be used in place of Drambuie.  If substituting with fruit juice, try apple or pear juice.  Cranberry juice will add a light rosey hue to the pears. 

Poached Pears
4 Bosc pears
Water- place unpeeled pears in a pot so they are close together.  Fill with water so that most of each pear is covered.  Remove pears, measure water. 
Sugar- use 1/2 cup of sugar for every cup of water.
Peel of half a lemon
1/2 vanilla bean
1 star anise, whole
2 ounces Drambuie

  1. Over medium heat, melt sugar into the water.  Stir to help the mixture combine as it begins to simmer.  Sugar syrup is ready when the liquid is no longer cloudy, but crystal clear.  
  2. While sugar melts, peel pears, leaving stem intact.  Slice a small piece from the bottom of each to create a level surface if pears cannot stand on their own.  
  3. Add remaining ingredients to poaching liquid with pears.  Lower heat and poach pears for 20 minutes with the pot covered.  The liquid will barely bubble.  Do not let pears boil; it will damage the flesh.  
  4. After 20 minutes, test the pears with a sharp knife.  They should be very tender.  
  5. Remove cooked pears to a platter and turn up heat to boil down liquid to a golden syrup, about 1/3 its original volume.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.  Pour over pears to serve.  
Store leftover pears in syrup.

The poaching liquid is very clear until boiled down.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Solving Tomatoes

While we wait for our gardens to grow and farmers markets to stock up on the real thing—a perfect, vine ripened sweet tomato—there are those if us who still need a good tomato now.  What look very much like ripe tomatoes are masquerading in grocery stores this very minute but none of us are really fooled.  They may be red, they may be soft, but they just miss the mark and we all have the taste bud sense to know it.

My mother used to say that the great benefit of modern food distribution in America is that we all get to eat a tomato.  The only problem is, it will not taste like a tomato.  She used to resort to canned peeled tomatoes for salads when she sought that sweet red flavor in February.  Years later, the winter supermarket can provide tomatoes on the vine and greenhouse grown globes but still the flavor is a little sapless. 

I have two solutions that will bridge the gap until summer provides for us tomato fans.  Fried Red Tomatoes and Roasted Tomatoes.  Both concentrate the flavor of the red-looking but green-tasting fruit to bring out the right balance of sweetness to acid. 

Roasted Tomatoes
are like sun-dried tomatoes you make in your oven except you don’t go quite so far as to actually dry the tomatoes.  Just dehydrated enough to concentrate the flavor.  Preheat the oven to 350˚F, cut tomatoes in half or in thick slices and lightly dust with a few grains of salt and if they look very under-ripe upon slicing, the merest wink of sugar.  Place tomatoes on a aluminum foil lined roasting pan coated with a thin film of olive oil and bake 30 minutes for halves, 15 minutes for slices.  Allow tomatoes to cool then use in sandwiches (drain on a paper towel), sauces, vegetable dishes and salads.  We topped halves with chopped black olives, capers, red pepper, red pepper flakes and a smear of pesto then ran them under the broiler with some grated parmesan cheese.  These were great eaten politely with a knife and fork but exquisite on a slab of rustic homemade bread.  Ultimate bruschetta. 

Fried Red Tomatoes are perfect when you suspect your tomatoes will rot from the inside before they come near to ripening on the kitchen windowsill.  Last year, while visiting family in North Carolina and sampling fried green tomatoes at every restaurant where I could find them, I learned the secret to a good fried tomato that photos in magazines and cookbooks had blinded me too.  All the pretty pictures show thick tomatoes with a golden crust.  But everywhere I enjoyed a good fried green tomato, the slices were no thicker than a 1/4 inch.  The thickness, or rather thinness, makes all the difference. 

Slice firm tomatoes, coat them with fine cornmeal spiked with salt, black pepper and a little oregano, then fry in a scant amount of vegetable or olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, flipping once*.  Throw that into your BLT with a red pepper mayonnaise until the vines are ripening near you. 

* Most recipes have you dip lightly floured tomato slices in some buttermilk or an egg wash to help the cornmeal stick better.  Recommended if you have the patience but not absolutely required for this version.  Also, if you don’t have fine cornmeal, use bread crumbs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Side of Mashed- Cauliflower

Mashed cauliflower has been a staple at spa restaurants for years.  Low in carbohydrates, cauliflower is an excellent and satisfying alternative to potatoes.  If you’ve tried mashing boiled or steamed cauliflower yourself, you might have found that something was missing. The resulting mouth feel is a little lean instead of the voluptuousness of mashed potatoes.  One smart addition-- that still keeps it pure- can make all the difference.

Our secret ingredient is cream cheese.  It adds body, depth of flavor and a little protein to the mix.  Now your mashed cauliflower can stand up to any entrée.

Mashed Cauliflower
1 head cauliflower
1 14-oz can chicken broth or water
1 ounce cream cheese (low fat OK)
salt and pepper

  1. Cut away green leaves at bottom of cauliflower.  Cut remainder, including stem into small chunks if similar size.  
  2. Place cauliflower in a large pot with a lid. Pour broth or chicken stock over cauliflower until it is just covering the vegetable.  Bring to a boil then lower temperature to simmer.  
  3. Cover and cook until cauliflower is almost fork tender, about 15-20 minutes. 
  4. Remove lid and allow liquid to boil off, watching carefully and stirring as needed for about 5 minutes.  
  5. Remove from heat when cauliflower is soft enough to mash with a fork with no resistance.  Drain any excess liquid.   
  6. Using a potato masher, mash cauliflower until smooth,  (You may put cooled cooked cauliflower in a food processor to create smooth texture and reheat).  Stir cream cheese into hot cauliflower so it melts into the mixture.  Add salt and pepper to taste.