Sunday, December 29, 2013

Oyster Spinach Artichoke "Dip"

Oysters with a cracker crust bake on a bed of nontraditional spinach-artichoke "dip."  For two oyster lovers, this is a meal in itself served with crusty bread or buttered linguinni.  It is also an elegant hot buffet item that will serve several guests or a first course portion for four at a formal New Year's dinner.  

Oyster Spinach Artichoke "Dip"
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a first course, 6-8 as a dip

2 bags fresh spinach
1 can quartered artichokes, drained
2 8-oz containers freshly chucked oysters
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
6 butter crackers (like Ritz brand)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
optional: 2-3 slices cooked bacon for garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 375˚F. Lightly oil two pie plates or four oven proof dishes.
  2. Steam spinach 2 minutes. (Use the microwave or a stove-top steaming basket over an inch of water.  Not water needed for the microwave.)  Remove spinach to a chopping board and chop.  Allow any excess water to drain.  
  3. Mix spinach with mayonnaise, sour cream, cheese, dill, salt and pepper.  Taste for seasoning. 
  4. Drain liquid from canned artichokes and arrange over spinach.
  5. Divide spinach among baking dishes.
  6. Drain liquor from oysters (reserve or freeze for another use) and place each oyster alongside artichokes, alternating to create a nice pattern.  
  7. Crush crackers finely and sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon of ground crackers over each oyster.  Dot oysters with butter.  
  8. Bake 12-15 minutes oat 375˚F until oysters are cooked through and crackers crumbs are lightly browned.  
  9. Serve with more crackers, warm pita triangles or baguette slices.  Set out a serving spoon for guests to spoon "dip" onto bread. 
Do ahead notes: the recipe can be prepared through step 6 several hours ahead.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  When ready to bake, remove from refrigerator.  Preheat oven while you take care of step 7.  Bake 5 minutes longer to ensure spinach and oysters heat through.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

No Fail Scalloped Potatoes

A new technique, updated oven temperature and revised cooking time makes scalloped potatoes easy. A cheesy topping makes them company ready.  Use this no fail recipe when you want an elegant company potato side dish next to roast beef, baked ham or steaks.

Scalloped and Au Gratin Potatoes are winter classics.  The trouble is many cooks struggle to determine when the potatoes are cooked and at their most tender and no one likes to bite into a hard potato at the center of the casserole.  A thin here, lumpy, curdling there white sauce is the other issue that is taken care of with this technique. 

The trick is to ensure the potatoes cook in hot milk while the flour and butter create a creamy white sauce.  Most recipes use milk right out of the refrigerator so the casserole stays cool in the oven too long and the potatoes do not cook through.  In this recipe, you create a simple slurry with flour, salt and pepper and some of the milk that is layered in with the potato slices.  The slurry ensures a smooth and evenly distributed sauce.  The remaining milk is heated and poured over the casserole as it goes into the oven.  The hot milk starts cooking the potato slices immediately.  The result is a no fail white sauce that the potatoes bubble in from the start.

Also, very thin potato slices helps this dish presents a fabulous layered look when cut into.  If you have a slicer or mandolin, this is the perfect time to use it.  If not, be patient and slice by hand.  Keep things safe by cutting off a slice at the bottom of each potato so it remains stable on your cutting board.  You will be surprised at how quickly you can peel and hand cut 6-8 medium potatoes. 

Our Scalloped Potatoes 
6-8 servings
Cook Time: approx1 hour 30 minutes

4 cups thinly sliced peeled potatoes, about 6 to 8 medium Eastern potatoes
2 tablespoons flour or potato starch
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons butter plus extra to butter backing dish
2 cups whole milk* separated into 1/2 cup; heat remaining 1 1/2 cups
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar or Gruyere cheese

*Whole milk works best but you can use 1% milk.  Up to 1/4 cup cream can replace whole milk for an extra rich dish. 

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.  Generously butter a 2-quart baking dish.
  2. Whisk together flour (or potato starch),  salt, pepper and 1/2 cup milk. 
  3. Place a layer of the potatoes in the bottom of baking dish.   
  4. Pour a small amount (1-2 tablespoons) of the flour-milk slurry onto the sliced potatoes and dot  with about 1/2 tablespoon butter.  
  5. Repeat with remaining layers—potatoes sliced on a mandolin will be very thin and you will have 5-6 layers.  Potatoes sliced by hand will give you 4-5 layers. 
  6. Dot top of casserole with the last of the butter.
  7. Heat remaining 1 1/2 cups milk and pour over potatoes. Use a spoon or fork to shift potatoes slightly so that hot milk flows down into casserole. 
  8. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and place on on a rack at the center of the oven. Place a cookie sheet or large baking pan on the rack beneath to catch any milk. 
  9. Bake at 400° for 45-60 minutes.
  10. Uncover and check center potato slices with a knife.  Potatoes should be almost tender, yielding to the knife.  (If potatoes are still hard, recover and continue to bake another 10-15 minutes before moving to final step.  Thicker, hand cut potatoes may take a little extra time.)
  11. When potatoes are tender, sprinkle cheese over the top. Return to the oven and bake, uncovered, for an additional 15 minutes until cheese has melted and begins to bubble.  
 Allow casserole to rest 10 minutes before cutting in wedges to serve.

Leftovers! Make this dish for a small group and enjoy leftovers that you can slice and reheat like wedges of pie.  Reheat for about 15 minutes in a low oven, 325˚F, uncovered to get a crispy crust  around the edges.  Reheat on low power in the microwave if you prefer a non-crispy crust.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chocolate Bark Gifts

Chocolate Bark is fun and easy to make-- your own custom, pure chocolate bars and you control all the ingredients.  This year we concocted several flavor combinations we think will please the elves on our list. Left to right in the candy tin are Cranberry-Orange-Nut, Peppermint-White Chocolate, Strawberry-Almond and Sugared Fruitcake sprinkled with colored sugar.

The classic Peppermint-Chocolate Bark has minted white chocolate and crushed candy canes poured over milk or dark chocolate.  We're a dark chocolate family and used that as our base.  We covered the melted chocolate with peppermint patties cut into strips to reveal their white centers and some mini white chocolate-mint morsels.

Dried cranberries, toasted slivered almonds and freshly grated orange rind on a dark chocolate bed got a final drizzle of chocolate to create a pretty pattern.

We raided the dried fruit supply we normally use in granola and found dried strawberries to mix into a very special dark chocolate bark.  Other ideas include crystallized ginger, dried almonds, coconut,  raisins and dried cherries.  Make a Rocky Road version with mini marshmallows, walnuts and pretzel pieces.

Lastly, Sugared Fruitcake Chocolate Bark will win over even the picky with a combo of dried orange, lime and citron peel, almonds and a little glitter from colored sugar used to decorate cookies.

We plan a special chocolate pouring for our chili-loving friends that includes freshly roasted and ground chili peppers and cinnamon melted into the chocolate and topped with toasted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds).

To experiment with several flavors, make small batches that use only 8-10 ounces of chocolate and small trays or pie tins.  Line the tins with foil to make the bark easy to peel away when the chocolate has set.  To make a large batch, use a larger cookie sheet lined with foil and melt 2 bags of chocolate morsels.

Slabs of chocolate bark ready to be broken apart
Chocolate Bark Master Recipe
Easy to double and triple

1 10-oz bag chocolate morsels (we like dark chocolate, at least 65%)
1cup toppings: a combination of toasted nuts, dried fruit, candies and mints, toffee bits
optional: mini marshmallows or chocolate morsels, more melted chocolate to drizzle over finished bark

  1. Prepare a pan by lining it with aluminum foil.
  2. Assemble the bark toppings.  (Once the chocolate melts you only have a few minutes to add the toppings and decorate.)
  3. Melt chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl in 30-second increments.  Stir between each interval.  Cut back to 12-15 seconds as chocolate is almost melted.  Stir and allow chocolate to finish melting out of the microwave.  This will ensure a glossy sheen to your finished bark. 
  4. Pour melted chocolate into prepared pan.  Use the back of a metal spoon to spread and smooth chocolate.
  5. Scatter your toppings over the chocolate.  If pieces are large, use the back of the spoon to press the toppings into the chocolate.
  6. Finish with a little extra melted white and dark chocolate drizzled over the toppings.  Now is also the time to dust the bark with sprinkles, jimmies or colored sugars.
  7. Place pan, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, until chocolate is set.
  8. Remove foil and chocolate from pan.  Peel away foil and break bark apart to set out on cookie plates, pack into wax-paper lined tins or bring to the next party. 
A nice way to break the bark apart in semi-regular pieces: Turn the bark over and lightly score the back of the chocolate bark with a sharp knife.  Bark will break along the scored lines. 

With just twenty more days until Christmas, it's nice to have a few fast and easy gifts from the kitchen.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Scallops, White Beans and Fennel

Just about any pasta dish can transform into a bean-based dish.  Seafood like scallops go so well with white beans and get a mild lift from fennel in this simple, pure dinner.

The pure foods bonus is that this is so effortless to pull together using canned beans and frozen scallops. Just as easy as a pasta night.  A few fresh ingredients-- fennel and spinach-- add sophistication with no additional fuss.  You can even use frozen spinach and replace the fennel with celery if the cupboard is bare and a trip to the grocery store is not in the cards before dinner has to get on the table.

This is a good recipe to hold onto when holiday errands get a little hectic and eating properly becomes an afterthought.

Scallops, White Bean and Fennel Ragout
Serves 4

1 pound frozen bay scallops
2 cans low sodium white beans, drained
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, divided
1 can chicken broth (low sodium)
2 bulbs fennel, sliced
1 8-ounce package fresh baby spinach (use 2 if your family loves spinach)
salt & pepper to taste

  1. Thaw scallops according to package directions. 
  2. Place drained beans in a large pot with chicken broth.  Heat beans over medium heat. When they begin to bubble, lower heat to a simmer while you prepare remaining ingredients. Do not cover beans.  
  3. Cook spinach and set aside.  If fresh,  microwave 2 minutes.  
  4. Slice fennel and saute in a wide skillet over medium-high heat in 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil. Salt and pepper vegetables to taste.  Add cooked fennel to beans.  
  5. In same skillet, quickly saute thawed scallops in remaining tablespoon butter or olive oil.  Add scallops to pot and turn off heat.  
  6. Stir in spinach or use as a giant garnish.  
Serve ragout in wide bowls.  This meal is very happy alongside a simple salad or a slice of crusty bread to wipe up the juices.

Options: Frozen or canned artichokes, peas, freshly steamed asparagus or wilted kale are all good additions to this simple repast.  Any of these vegetables can be roasted instead of sauteed.  In fact, this meal was made for leftover roasted veggies like fennel, onions, carrots, etc.