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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cranberry Pear Scones! And they're light!!

It's been a while since I've experienced a culinary success worthy of inclusion here, but over Christmas I made a tremendous discovery with this light (LIGHT!) scone recipe.  If you knarf down a scone at a coffee shop, they're definitely tasty, but they pack a calorie wallop at about 500 a piece.  Good news, fellow sugar addicts: this produces a soft, flaky, deeply flavored scone at....ready?...about 230 calories!  It sounds complex, but it really isn't.  Just follow the instructions. You can find dried pears at specialty grocers (like Trader Joe's) and cardamom (a spice, in case you're not familiar with it) at most large mega marts. Enjoy!

1 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
1/2 C. whole wheat flour
1/4 C. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. cardamom
3 T. chilled butter, diced into small pieces
1 large egg
10 T. buttermilk
1 t. lemon zest
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 C. chopped, dried pears
1/2 C. dried cranberries
2 t. flour, for dusting
1 egg white lightly beaten

Begin by combining the dry ingredients (flour through cardamom) in a large mixing bowl, whisking gently to combine.  Add in the diced butter pieces and blend with a pastry blender (or, if you don't have one, a fork and a knife) until the butter is coated with the flour mixture and most pieces are about the size of small peas.  The butter won't melt or incorporate fully.  That's good.  Pieces of butter in pastry dough create the flaky texture that we want.

In a separate medium-sized bowl, lightly beat the whole egg with a fork.  Add in the buttermilk, lemon, and vanilla and stir to combine.  Add in the pear and cranberries and stir again.

Pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredients.  Mix with a fork until the dough comes together and forms a loose ball.  You will have some flour that doesn't want to mix--lightly knead the dough mixture together in the bowl with your hands until all of the flour is incorporated.  Try to do this as quickly as possible.  The more the dough is handled, the tougher the scones become.

Place a piece of waxed paper on your counter and lightly dust with flour.  Turn the dough onto the waxed paper, dusting lightly with flour, and form it into an 8 inch circle with your hands.  Spray a cookie sheet (or a pizza pan--that's what I use) with nonstick spray.  Invert the pan on the dough, then, grabbing the edges of the waxed paper, flip the whole thing over so your dough is on the greased pan.  Discard the waxed paper.  With a large knife, cut through the dough to form 8 equal wedges.  Do not separate the wedges.  You want this to look like a pizza--sliced, but still together.  Using a pastry brush, spread the egg white lightly over the scones.  Bake at 350 for 25 minutes, or until golden brown.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cranberry Orange Pound Cake

As anyone who watches the news can tell you, we're having a bit of a rough go of it in terms of the economy.  Christmas, although a wonderful time for celebration with family, can be very stressful for those trying to find a way to give gifts to the people that they care about without breaking the bank.  My solution?  Baking!  This is a delicious cake that is rich while remaining brightly flavored, and it has the decadently small crumb characteristic of pound cakes.  I gave them out this year in cute, ceramic holiday loaf pans for the recipients to keep.  You can't go wrong with this.

Cranberry Orange Pound Cake

3/4 C. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 C. plus 1 T. granulated sugar
1 1/2 C. ricotta cheese (don't use fat free--light works fine, but whole milk is best)
1 1/2 C. cake flour (yes, this is important--don't use all-purpose flour)
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
3 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
1 orange, zested
1/4 C. dried cranberries

In a large bowl, beat the butter, ricotta, and sugar together until light and fluffy.  As that mixes, combine the dry ingredients--the cake flour, baking powder, and salt--in another bowl with a whisk..  Set aside.  One at a time, add the eggs to the wet mixture with the mixer running constantly.  Once all of the eggs are well incorporated into the batter, add in the vanilla and almond extracts and the orange zest.  Slowly, working in small batches, introduce the dry ingredients to the wet in the mixer.  As soon as the dry ingredients are incorporated into the mix, add in the cranberries and mix until blended.

Generously grease the bottom and sides of a loaf pan.  Pour the batter into the pan and bake in a 325 degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes.  Keep an eye on the cakes after 45 minutes have passed, as the top can over-brown while the interior continues to cook.  The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.  Let the cake rest for 10 minutes after removing it from the oven, then turn it out onto a rack to cool.  If giving as a gift, return to the loaf pan or wrap in aluminum foil and tie a festive holiday bow on top.  Voila!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

White Wine Parmesan Risotto with Basil Cream Chicken

There are few things that make my husband happier than Parmesan cheese, so I decided to design a low calorie meal around it.  The good thing about Parmesan is that it's low fat (that's why it's a harder cheese), and it packs a flavor punch even when you use a small amount.  I think that these two components go well together (the risotto and the chicken), so I'll explain how to make them together.  I know that timing things in the kitchen can be kind of tricky, so here's how I did it:

For the chicken:
One chicken breast per person
1 t. olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the Basil Cream Sauce:
3 T. all purpose flour
1 1/4 C. skim milk
Pinch salt
Pinch pepper
2 T. shredded, fresh Parmesan cheese
1 t. dried basil

For the White Wine Parmesan Risotto:
1 C. onion, chopped finely
1 t. olive oil
4 C. chicken broth
3 C. water
2 C. Arborio rice
1 C. dry white wine
1 C. shredded, fresh Parmesan
1 T. unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First, trim the chicken of all visible fat.  Heat 1 t. olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot and shimmery, add the chicken breasts to the pan and brown on both sides.  While the chicken browns, chop the onion for the risotto.  Once, the chicken is golden, remove it from the skillet and transfer it to an 8 x 8 glass baking dish.  Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Combine the chicken broth and the water for the risotto in a large pot (like a dutch oven).  Cover it, and bring it to a boil over high heat.  When it reaches a boil, turn the heat down to the lowest setting on your stove and replace the lid.  Meanwhile, in another large sauce pot, combine the chopped onion, the olive oil, and a pinch of salt.  Cover it, and place it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened (about 10 minutes). In between stirrings, heat your oven to 400 degrees for the chicken.  Remember, we only browned the outside and we'll need to finish cooking it.

Once the onion is soft, add the rice to the onion mixture and stir until the edges of the rice turn translucent.  You'll know it when you see it.  Add in the white wine and keep stirring until the rice absorbs all of the moisture.  Then, add 3 C. of the hot broth mixture to the rice.  Stir frequently, but not constantly.  When you can pull your spoon through the rice and see the bottom of the pan, you need to add more broth, about 1 C. at a time.  Between each addition of broth, stir and allow the liquid to be absorbed, using the spoon trick to time each addition.  I easily used 6 C. total broth tonight, but it's okay if you have some left over at the end.   

After about your 2nd broth addition, pop the chicken into the oven.  It'll need to bake for 20 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temp of 170.

When the rice is soft but still al dente, take it off the heat.  Different rices need different amounts of broth to soften to the right consistency, so you'll have to play it by...tongue?  Stir in the Parmesan and butter and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Cover it, and set it aside.

Now that you have a burner free, use a small sauce pot to whisk together the flour and the milk for the cream sauce.  When there are no more lumps, season with pinches of salt and pepper.  The sauce will thicken in about 3-4 minutes, and after it does, remove it from the heat and stir in the Parmesan and the basil.  When your chicken breasts are ready, spoon the sauce over the chicken on the plates.  Plate your risotto next to it. 

This dinner sounds complex and tastes divine, but it's truly easy and low calorie.  My calorie calculation came out to 490.  Not bad for something that would easily break 1,000 at a restaurant.  :-D

Friday, December 10, 2010

Luscious Legumes: Italian Lentil Soup

Unless you're Italian or Indian, you might not be familiar with lentils.  Lentils are a legume, like beans, that are high in protein and in insoluble fiber (the stuff that keeps your tummy happy).  It's hard to mess up a recipe that starts with the French mirepoix: carrots, celery, and onions, and this recipe demonstrates that clearly.  It's very tasty, very healthy, vegetarian, and easy to make.  Try it!

Italian Lentil Soup

1 1/2 T. olive oil
3/4 C. carrots, chopped
3/4 C. celery, chopped
1 1/2 C. onion diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
1 lb. lentils (usually 1 bag)
10 C. chicken broth (I like Swanson Certified Organic)
2 T. dried thyme
2/3 dried elbow pasta
1 C. shredded Parmesan

In a heavy pot (I use a cast iron dutch oven), heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic.  Stir to coat, and season with salt and pepper.  Saute until the vegetables are tender, but still crisp (between 5 and 10 minutes).  Add the can of tomatoes and saute until the tomatoes start to soften and the juices evaporate by about a third.  Rinse the lentils in cold, running water and drain.  Add to the pot and stir.  Once the lentils are incorporated, add in the broth and the thyme.  Simmer on the stove over medium low heat for about half an hour, or until the lentils are tender, but still toothsome.  Add in the pasta and cook for another 8 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.  Remove from the heat and ladle into bowls.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan (and I like a little extra black pepper).  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spicy Spinach

There are few foods as frequently maligned as spinach, but ounce for ounce, it's one of the most nutritious foods available.  So what can we do to make it more palatable?  Well, as any Mexican restaurant will tell you, spicy tastes good.  If you have trouble getting yourself or others to eat spinach, you and your mouth will be rewarded with this recipe.

1 t. olive oil
1/2 t. minced garlic
1/2 t. minced shallot (or white onion)
4 cups loosely packed spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes (depends on how spicy you like it)
Fresh lemon slices

Begin by heating a skillet (10 or 12 inch) over medium high heat.  When it's hot, add the olive oil and allow it to heat until shimmery.  Plop in the garlic.  Stir constantly for about 30 seconds until it just starts to brown.  Add the shallot and stir for about 15 seconds, turn the heat down to medium, then dump in the spinach.  (I know--it looks like a ton.  Trust me, the spinach will cook down.)  Salt and pepper the spinach.  You'll need to stir the spinach constantly so that the leaves on the bottom don't get cooked faster than the leaves on the top.  When the spinach starts to wilt, add the red pepper.  Now, I like mine just slightly wilted, but some people prefer to cook the holy heck out of the spinach until it looks like a pile of wet, green limpness.  It's up to you.  When the spinach gets to your desired doneness, divvy it out into servings (this would make 2 servings for me because I like me some spinach), and serve with a lemon slice.  The acid really brightens up the flavor.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Perfect Waffles

One of my Black Friday triumphs was a $40 Belgian waffle maker for $6.99, so I've been experimenting with different recipes with varying degrees of success since then.  The following recipe is my definition of waffley perfection.  This is certainly a "from time to time treat," but it is glorious.  Enjoy!

4.75 oz (approx. 1 rounded cup) all-purpose flour
4.75 oz. (approx. 1 rounded cup) whole wheat flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
3 T. sugar
1 t. cinnamon powder
3 eggs, separated
2 oz. (approx. 4 T.) unsalted butter, melted
8 oz. reduced fat buttermilk
8 oz. skim milk
1 t. vanilla extract

Combine dry ingredients (the first 7) in a large bowl and whisk.  In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks and combine with the melted (AND COOLED--if the butter is hot, it will scramble the eggs) butter.  Add the milk and the vanilla to the eggs and butter.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry.  Mix the absolute minimum necessary to bring the ingredients together.  Stirring too much leads to tough waffles. 

Finally, with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Scoop about 1/3 of the egg white fluff into the waffle batter bowl.  Stir it in normally to lighten up the mixture.  With the remaining egg whites, carefully fold into the batter.  Small clumps of egg whites are fine and to be expected.  Just get it mostly incorporated.  Let the batter rest for 5 minutes.  Just leave it alone.  This allows the flour to absorb the moisture and the leaveners to do their job.

Drop the batter onto your waffle iron according to the manufacturer's instructions.  For my Belgian waffle maker, I use a scant 1 C. of the batter and it makes about 7 waffles.

You can get creative and add in fresh fruit (I used blueberries successfully) if you like.  I usually make a berry compote to put on top, but maple syrup by itself is always a hit. I hope you like it!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tutorial: How to make a vinaigrette

Let's face it: premade salad dressings are tasty.  However, like many other tasty things, they are of dubious nutritional value and questionable ingredients.  My philosophy of moderation dictates that it's okay to indulge in these gustatory delights from time to time, but we can make--arguably--an even more delicious dressing that incorporates those healthy fats--remember, about 17% of our diet should be composed of healthy fats--that we can happily enjoy on a daily basis. 

So what's the magic recipe?  It's actually a magic ratio: 3:1.  All vinaigrettes are composed of three parts vinegar and one part oil.  Regular white vinegar leaves a bit to be desired as a salad dressing, but there are tons of other kinds to choose from: red wine, balsamic (my personal favorite), champagne, raspberry, white wine, etc.  Similarly, you can choose which type of oil you'd like to use.  I like olive oil because of the healthy fatty acids, but you could use canola or anything else that floats your boat.  Now, as you might remember from 6th grade science class, oil is a bit antisocial and doesn't like to mix with anybody else.  So, how can you make a vinaigrette, then, if your oil won't mix?  Veeerrrryyy slowly.  Always start with your vinegar in a bowl.  Vinegar first--don't do this backwards.  It won't work.  Then, drop by drop (yes, drop by drop), while continuously whisking, add in the oil.  Adding it very slowly allows the whisking to break the oil up into tiny droplets and we can make our vinaigrette come together more easily if the oil droplets are teeny.  Whisk, whisk, whisk until all of your oil is added.  It should form a homogeneous emulsion (an combined mixture).

It's important to season the vinaigrette.  A pinch of salt and pepper usually does the trick.  If you want to get crazy and dangerous, you can add lemon juice or another type of acid to complement the vinaigrette, but I'm kind of a purist and I like it simple. 

So there you have it.  Vinaigrette.  Takes a total of about 1.23 minutes.  Not so bad, huh?