Sunday, March 30, 2014

Strawberry Cream Cheese Panini

My mother used to make us cream cheese and strawberry jam sandwiches.   Made with tightly crumbed white bread, with the crusts cut off and perfectly square,  they added elegance to any child's tea party.  All grown up and more rustic, these strawberry and cream cheese panini provide the same flavorful delight plus a little whiff of spring during March's slow melt into sunnier days.

The filling in our panini is made with frozen strawberries that have been defrosted and macerated with a little lemon juice and cinnamon. Be sure to look for unsweetened strawberries.  You can always add a little sugar or honey if your strawberries are not as sweet as you'd like.  If you are seeing fresh strawberries that have some flavor, go ahead and use those.  The cream cheese is flavored with lemon zest.  A good quality (or homemade) strawberry jam is the only other essential ingredient.

For the bread, use a fairly plain loaf that will not compete with the filling.  Sliced plain white bread is fine and so is brioche, challah, a country loaf or french bread sliced on the diagonal.

We think of these as a daytime snack or breakfast fare, but if you are serving them after dinner try blending a little liquor into the cream cheese or the jam.  If you have some Chambord, creme de cassis or Grand Marnier you can highlight the fruit notes in the sandwich or try something more unusual but complimentary like Drambuie or Amaretto.  You won't need much, just a teaspoon or two.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Panini
Makes 2 sandwiches

3 ounces cream cheese
1 lemon
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
pinch cinnamon
2 tablespoons strawberry jam
4 slices bread
1 tablespoon butter (if using skillet method or panini press allows)

  1. Place cream cheese in a small bowl.  Zest the lemon and mix into the cream cheese.  Set aside. 
  2. Defrost strawberries and give them a rough chop. (You can defrost strawberries quickly in a microwave.  Use half power for 2-3 minutes.)  
  3. Mix in juice of quarter of the lemon (about 2 teaspoons) and a good pinch of cinnamon.  Set aside while you prepare the bread slices.  
  4. If you are using a panini press, preheat it now.
If using a pannini press, follow manufacturer's directions for oiling or not oiling the surface of the bread....
  • Slice the defrosted strawberries and taste one.  Sprinkle a teeny, tiny amount of sugar on them if needed.  Set aside while you prepare the bread. 
  • Spread some good quality strawberry jam on one side; the flavored cream cheese on the other.  Spoon the sliced strawberries over the jam side and cover with the cream cheese side.    
  • Place the cream cheese side down and close the press. Most will beep when the pannini is ready.  Remove and cut in half or in quarters to serve. 

If using a skillet....
  • Place the pan over medium heat. Slice the defrosted strawberries and taste one.  Sprinkle a teeny, tiny amount of sugar on them if needed.  Set aside while you prepare the bread. 
  • Spread some good quality strawberry jam on one side; the flavored cream cheese on the other.  Spoon the sliced strawberries over the jam side and cover with the cream cheese side.  
  • Brush the top with some melted or softened butter.  Place the cream cheese (buttered) side down and cook until browned on that side.  
  • Lightly butter the top (jam side) while the flip side grills.  Flip and cook until browned on the jam side.  Remove and cut in half or in quarters and enjoy. 

Serving suggestion: These really are terrific on their own but if you know someone who loves chocolate, a little bowl of melted dark chocoalte or warm ganache can be served along side for dipping or drizzling.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fried Chicken Tenders and a Buttermilk Smoothie

Buttermilk Smoothie
This one is 1 cup buttermilk, ½ banana, ½ cup blueberries (fresh or frozen), ¼ teaspoon vanilla, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon.  Puree in the blender and enjoy.  This is a pure and simple way to get buttermilk, a fermented food into your digestive system today. 

Recipes using buttermilk, especially cake recipes, often use just a ½ or ¾ of a cup yet buttermilk is most often sold in quart containers.  Having a few easy recipes like a smoothie or Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders to use up this valuable food item will make buttermilk a more frequent staple in your refrigerator. 

Using chicken tenders is what makes this buttermilk fried chicken dinner easy to make.  The thin strips of chicken brown quickly. Placing the fried tenders in the oven to finish also keeps the fuss to a minimum.  Serve the chicken over a salad of sturdy lettuce like iceberg or romaine.  Drizzle with buttermilk dressing (recipe below).

If you have the time, prep the buttermilk marinade  .a few hours ahead and let the chicken strips soak and tenderize.   When you are ready to cook, you can start at the flour dredging stage.  If you have less time, let the pieces soak for about 15 minutes before flouring. 

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders
Serves 4
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons hot sauce*
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Optional: dash or two of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders (or boneless chicken breasts cut into strips)
1 cup flour
¼ cup corn starch
¼ teaspoon each salt, pepper, paprika
½  cup canola or grape seed oil for frying

*These are spicy.  If you want a less hot version, omit the hot sauce and use ½ teaspoon each paprika and dried dill weed.

  1. In a re-sealable plastic bag,  mix together buttermilk, hot sauce, salt, black pepper and cayenne, if using.  Place chicken tenders in bag and refrigerated at least 15 minutes, preferably a few hours.  
  2. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400˚F degrees.  
  3. Mix together in a shallow bowl the flour, corn starch salt, pepper and paprika.  
  4. Turn on the stove’s exhaust fan.  Pour the oil into a deep skillet and heat on medium-high until it reaches 375˚K.   
  5. Dip 5-6 soaked chicken tenders in flour mixture and carefully lay in hot oil.  Do not crowd your pan (a pound and a half of tenders should take 3-4 batches).  
  6. Turn chicken tenders after 2 minutes or when lightly browned.  Fry another 2 minutes and place on a baking sheet.  
  7. Put baking sheet in the oven while you fry the next batch.   Bake chicken in oven about 6-8 minutes, until it reaches an internal temperature of 165˚F.  
Serve over a chopped salad.  Drizzle with buttermilk dressing.

Buttermilk-soaked chicken can be grilled or baked too.  Just wipe away some of the marinade and cook as your recipe directs

Pure Buttermilk Salad Dressing

This dressing uses fresh herbs for a bright taste.  If you are using dried herbs, measure 1/3 the amount (1 teaspoon dried for every 1 tablespoon fresh) and be sure to allow the mixture to rest at least ½ hour for the dried herbs to hydrate and flavor the dressing.

½ cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

More Buttermilk Ideas
The easiest ways to use up buttermilk is to swap it for milk in recipes:

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Substitute all or half the milk in mashed potatoes with buttermilk. Or use half buttermilk and ½ low sodium canned chicken broth. 

Buttermilk Biscuits
Swap out all or part of the milk in any mix or recipe from scratch for biscuits.  This works for any fruit cobbler recipe too. 

Buttermilk Pancakes
Again, you can use buttermilk for all or part of the milk. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pass the Peppers, Please

Here are two easy and pure things to do with the colorful bell peppers in markets now.  First, a simple roasted pepper and mozzarella salad that will carry you through to summer when ripe tomatoes can be swapped in.  Next, homemade vegetable cream cheese that packs more punch than store bought versions that charge $3-4.00 per container.

When you roast bell peppers, their sweetness is concentrated and they contrast nicely with fresh mozzarella.  A drizzle of flavorful extra virgin olive oil is all you really need to pull together a non-lettuce side salad.  If you'd like, you can add in other roasted vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms and plum tomatoes.  (Roasting concentrates the sugar in these hardy tomatoes too. See Pure Foods post for  April 16, 2012 for more information.) Salad leftovers can be tossed with cooked pasta for another pure side dish or quick lunch.

Cooking shows roast peppers whole over open flames.  I have a simple method that is less messy and takes less supervision.  By cutting the peppers into large pieces first, the pieces can lay flat under a broiler and the inside seeds and veins can be removed discarded right away.   See Pure Foods post for the January 13, 2010  to see this simple technique.

Before roasting, reserve a small amount of your raw bell pepper, about one tablespoon minced, for a homemade veggie cream cheese.  This is a real treat with a weekend bagel.  We also use it on rye crackers, rolled into ham or turkey cold cuts and on a cheese platter complimented by a hot pepper jelly.  You can also stuff this flavored cream cheese under chicken breast or thigh skin for a moist and crispy-skinned baked chicken dinner.

Along with the diced bell pepper, mince a scallion, half a small carrot and a small celery stalk. Mince is just a very small dice. The smaller you can get the vegetables the more successful this recipe is.  Add these vegetables to 4 ounces softened cream cheese and finish with a few grinds of black pepper and the zest of half a lemon. 

 You can customize your mixture to suit your tastes, the items in your refrigerator or your meal.  Try minced radish, jicama, even tart apple along with the bell peppers. Add herbs like dried dill, marjoram or basil.  A large pinch will do the trick.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tofu Parmesan with Zucchini and Mushrooms

Getting a nice crust on the tofu before it goes in the casserole is the key to satisfying Tofu Parmesan.  I tried a few methods and like this simple one combining flour, Parmesan cheese and a little black pepper.  Just before dredging I brush the tofu steaks with a few teaspoons of red wine and a touch of olive oil.  Tofu absorbs flavors so this is even better the next day. 

Most recipes recommend using a firm or very firm tofu, well drained.  I cut mine before draining and like a pretty thin tofu slab, no more than 1/3 inch think.  This makes for a nice ratio of crisped flavor to soft inside in the casserole.  Once cut, lay the tofu slabs or steaks on a paper towel lined plate and cover with a second paper towel to wick away moisture. 

The tofu can be coated and sautéed ahead of time so that the actual assembly and baking for dinner is fast.  Cover the cooked tofu with plastic wrap on a large dinner plate and refrigerate until ready to cook. 

Baked Tofu Parmesan

Serves 4
For tofu:
1 pound firm or very firm tofu, cut into 8 slabs brushed with 1 tablespoon red wine + 1 teaspoon olive oil
½ cup flour
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons oil for sautéing tofu

For casserole:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ½-3 cups marinara sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. In a shallow dish, combine flour, Parmesan cheese and pepper.  
  2. Dip tofu slabs in flour mixture. Tofu can be brewded as is or brushed with a little red wine and olive oil to enhance its flavor.  
  3. Turn each slab a few times and press with fingers into flour-cheese mixture to get a nice coating on tofu.  
  4. Heat half the oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot place four tofu steaks in oil and cook, turning once, until both sides are lightly browned.  This will take 1-2 minutes on each side.  Set cooked tofu aside on a plate to cool slightly. 
To make the casserole
  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Coat the bottom and sides of a casserole dish with olive oil.  
  2. Coat bottom of pan with 1 cup marinara.  
  3. Layer tofu on sauce and cover with more sauce.  Leave a little of the edges of the tofu uncovered to get crisp in the oven.  Reserve any extra marinara sauce to serve alongside.  
  4. Cover tofu with a layer of mozzarella and a dusting of Parmesan cheese.  
  5. Bake, uncovered for 20-25 minutes, until tofu is hot all the way through and cheese is just beginning to brown.  
  6. Let Baked Tofu Parmesan sit for 10 minutes before serving. 
Extra: Toss thickly sliced zucchini and mushrooms along sides of casserole.  They will cook and flavor the sauce as the casserole bakes.  Serve with a side of pasta, rice or tucked in some Italian bread.  Maybe garlic bread!