Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Christmas Eve Tradition

I've only been married for two years, so my husband and I have not started many of our own holiday traditions yet. At this point we spend the holidays with his family, since they are only a 90 minute drive away. My family is an 8 hour plane ride, so we tend to celebrate by phone calls at this point. Since we're away from my family, I've working on showing Joe our traditions from Christmases when I was younger. He's a good sport about it, especially with the food traditions.

Linguine with Clam Sauce was my family's Christmas Eve meal for as long as I can remember. We'd dress up in our Christmas best for Mass, then have this formal meal at home after church. This is at least the third year Joe and I have shared this Christmas Eve tradition. Two years ago, we got to celebrate Christmas Eve with my family, since they were in town for our December 29 wedding. Last year we did this meal at home just the two of us, and we really enjoyed the quality time and savory food. This year was a little different, because I had to work until 5:00 on Christmas Eve, so we ended up having it as the second Christmas Eve when we got home from his parents house on December 26th.

This pasta always surprises me, because I seem to forget quite how delicious it is. It's RICH and full of butter, so it really is a once a year treat. I find I always want to eat more than I can actually handle, because it's richness makes it much more filling than other pasta dishes. This pasta is a special treat for any celebration, but make sure you're ok with sharing garlic breath with your dining companions!

Linguine with Clam Sauce

1/4 lb. butter (1 stick)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp oregano
3 Tbsp basil
3 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 cups minced clams (about 3 cans)
1 cup clam juice*
1 lb. linguine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp minced parsley

Melt the butter in a large saute pan. Add the olive oil, spices, garlic, clams and clam juice. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for 30 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, boil water and cook the linguine. Try to time it so the pasta is finished right around the 30 minute mark.

Add salt to the sauce, then toss with the pasta. Toss with Parmesan cheese and minced parsley, and serve immediately.

* You can buy a bottle of clam juice, or you can use the juice that the canned clams are packed in. As long as the clams you buy are in "clam juice", then it's the same as the bottle.

Can you just taste the butter?! I think Ina Garten and Paula Dean would be proud!

I made a salad with dried cranberries, scallions, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese, tossed with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. It was great! I wanted to share the combination, and also show you the bowl we got in Mexico on our trip in October. Isn't it cool?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cookie Baking Frenzy!

Yes, frenzy is the only way to describe my recent cookie baking. In the last week I've baked 9 batches of cookies... and six varies among those batches! I baked four types last Sunday, and after giving them to my 3 coworkers as a Christmas gifts I already determined I needed to bake more. That lead to one batch on Thursday, one on Saturday, and three more today. Does this sound like a math problem to anyone else?!

I have enjoyed this baking immensely, though, because I really don't usually bake as much as I would like. Joe and I are not frequent sweet eaters (ok, I am not... he might be!). And living in Chicago means I have to carry treats on the train with me if I'm going to try to share them with coworkers, which is a pain in the neck. Therefore, I tend to put more of my energy into cooking. But this Christmas has been an excuse to coat my kitchen in flour and really get my oven working. I'll share a few recipes today, and save some for another post.

These three recipes are all from my mom. She has a great collection of Christmas cookie recipes that make their appearance each year, so I knew she was my first source for ideas. Each of these cookies was just the crowd pleaser I remembered. Maybe because of the pounds of butter?? But what better time then -28 degree windchill (no joke) to add a little extra insulating body far? The jam thumb prints were the most popular, and the almond extract gave them that extra special flavor. My favorites are the toffee bars, and of course the snowballs are classic. If you've shared some holiday cookies on your blog, let me know. I have a feeling my crazy holiday baking is not over quite yet!

Grandma's Christmas Snowballs

1 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup chopped nuts

Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla to blend. Mix in flour and salt. For the nuts you can use walnuts right out of the bag - you can toast the walnuts first for a nuttier flavor - or, my favorite, you can use pecans and toast them first. Chop them pretty fine then add to batter.

Form into small balls. Bake at 325 15 or so minutes. Depends on your oven. Here I have to turn them up a bit and a bit of time. You might want to start with 15 mins at 325 and see if you need more time.

Toffee Bars
(From Virginia Hospitality cookbook)

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, packed (light or dark)
1 egg yolk
2 cups flour
1 tsp. vanilla
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup nuts chopped

Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in egg yolk. Add flour gradually stirring to blend. Add vanilla. Spread about 1/4 inch thick into 10 x 15 jellyroll pan (I use the big pyrex baking dish and it works just fine). Bake 20-25 mins. until golden brown.

Remove from oven and sprinkle choc. chips on top. Let them melt to soft spreading consistency. Smooth chocolate over surface and sprinkle nuts over top. Pat nuts down lightly with your hand. Cut into bars while still slightly warm.

Raspberry Almond Thumbprints
(From the Land 'O Lakes butter carton years ago!)

2/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 cups flour
1/2 cup raspberry jam

Heat oven to 350. Combine sugar, butter , and almond extract and beat until creamy. Add flour until well mixed. Shape into 1"balls then make thumbprint. Fill hole with jam. Bake 14-18 mins. Cool then glaze.

1 c powdered sugar
1/2 or so tsp.almond extract
2-3 tsp water.

I don't always glaze them and they are still good. If you are going to freeze them don't glaze. I've done it and they turn pink! But you can freeze them then defrost and glaze before you serve them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quick and Easy Mexican Chili

My mom went through many cooking phases as I was growing up, and one I distinctly remember was the Mexican phase. And I guess really, it was more than a phase, because the Mexican cooking (as well as every other phase) has stood the test of time. But there was a time when Mexican cuisine seemed to be her favorite to cook, and I've experienced numerous flavors and ingredients because of her.

Hominy is one of the Mexican ingredients my mom introduced me to. It was most likely in the form of Pasole, a Mexican stew made with pork and this variation of corn. Hominy is a type of dried corn that is treated to remove the hull from the kernel, which leaves it dense yet puffy. It isn't much on it's own, but when added to a soup or stew it takes the dish to a new level.

I haven't found many ways to use hominy besides in a soup like the Chili I made last night. I need to find other recipes, though, because each time I cook with hominy I'm reminded how much I enjoy it. This recipe for Pork and Hominy Chili is a keeper, for sure. Not only is is great tasting, but it's FAST. Seriously, I was done in less than the 30 minute Rachael Ray time limit. I am not usually the fastest in the kitchen, so I was pretty shocked at how quickly this came together. The pork stayed nice and tender, and the seasoning blended nicely. Other than adding a little oregeno I stuck to the recipe. If you're looking for an easy weeknight meal with a new ingredient mixed in, I think I've found the recipe for you!

Pork and Hominy Chili
Cooking Light, September 2007


2 teaspoons canola oil
8 ounces boneless center-cut pork chops, trimmed and cubed
1 cup chopped onion (about 1 medium)
3/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/4 cup no-salt-added tomato paste
1 (15.5-ounce) can golden hominy, rinsed and drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained
1 (14-ounce) can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup light sour cream


Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add pork to pan; sauté 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pan; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in chili powder and next 4 ingredients (through red pepper). Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in tomato paste, hominy, tomatoes, and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Serve with sour cream.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Potato-Mushroom Gratin

I have always been a sucker for creamy potato dishes, so when I read about the Potato-Mushroom Gratin in the December 2008 issue of Bon Appetit I knew I needed to try the recipe out. Variations of potato gratins are always popular at my house, and adding mushrooms was a great enhancement I wouldn't have thought of on my own. This was a pretty simple dish, and I just walked around the grocery store with the magazine guiding me when I decided to make this last night.

I tweaked it enough that it became my own creation, but the following Bon Appetit recipe was my guide. I added thinly sliced shallots to each layer, which added a nice flavor. I did 1/2 Parmesan cheese and 1/2 emmentaler cheese, but only because that's what was in the fridge. The combination was nice, but I might stick with just Parmesan if I managed to plan better next time! The only other change I did was to use 2% milk instead of heavy cream, because I had some 2% milk left over from baking that I wasn't planning to drink. I wouldn't recommend this substitution, because it turned out runnier than I would have liked. Next time I make this I think I'll use fat free half and half, because it will have a better texture while still being lighter than heavy cream. I felt like my first stab at this dish was not perfect, but the flavors were enough to make up for the slightly watery texture. I have a feeling this dish will be just about perfect with a few adjustments next time.

Potato-Mushroom Gratin, from Bon Appetit December 2008

- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 1/2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick slices
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt plus additional for mushrooms
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus additional for mushrooms
- 1 1/4 cups (or more) heavy whipping cream, divided
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces), divided
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
- 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 12 ounces fresh crimini (baby bella) mushrooms, sliced
Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush 13x9x2-inch glass or oval ceramic baking dish with 2 tablespoons oil. Arrange 1/3 of potatoes, slightly overlapping, in dish. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour 1/3 cup cream over; sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese. Repeat layering 1/3 of potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/3 cup cream, and 1/4 cup cheese 2 more times. Bake uncovered until potatoes are tender, adding cream by tablespoonfuls if dry, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven; maintain oven temperature.

Sprinkle thyme and garlic slices over gratin. Toss mushrooms in medium bowl with 3 tablespoons oil; sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper. Arrange mushroom slices atop gratin around edge of dish. Drizzle with 1/4 cup cream; sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese. Continue to bake uncovered until mushrooms are tender and potato edges are golden brown, about 20 minutes longer. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool 1 hour in dish; cover and chill. Before serving, cut gratin into 10 pieces. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Cover with foil and rewarm in 350°F oven, 10 to 15 minutes.