Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Now Thatsa Meatball!

I just shared a lovely day with my sister.  She and her new hubby are getting ready to take off on their honeymoon and we decided we needed a sister's day - complete with pedicures - to send them off in style!

The two of them are a great couple, filled with the cute little routines of newlywed-dom.  One of their routines includes errand running most Saturday's with my sister's new, 98 year old mother-in-law. They take her to the grocery store, library, lunch and any other errands she needs to run.  Somewhere in developing this Saturday routine, they discovered an amazing butcher shop where they have made it a habit to stop by every Saturday to purchase their meats for the week.  I have been the beneficiary of many a tasty meal and even the occasional special delivery courtesy of this routine.

So we sent her new hubby off to take care of weekly errands with his mom while we decided that not only were we going to get pedicures, but that we would also do some shopping at the mall, have lunch and stop by Double D Meats so I could finally experience it in person.  I must say, it was quite a treat and the prices were surprisingly reasonable.  I was in a cook's paradise!  They had not only the counter of meats you would expect to see, but they had aisle after aisle of bbq sauces, rubs, hot sauces, marinades and some specialty food items.  They also had a cheese case and a huge freezer and cold storage in the back where they had self serve packages of many of the items they sell at the main counter.  We started there and worked our way back around to the main attraction where I was instantly drawn to this Spinach and Mushroom Sausage:

I looked over everything in the cases, taking it all in, then let inspiration guide me in my purchases.  I had already picked up some pancetta from the self-serve case (I believe Pasta alla Carbonara is in our future too), but this sausage inspired me to finally make the meatballs I have been promising my husband for months.  So I ordered a pound of the sausage and a pound of the lean ground beef and off we went.

This morning, I set the sausage, beef and eggs out on the counter to take the chill off.  Then I went on a search through my Grandma Carbone's recipes to find a couple meatball recipes I knew were there and that I wanted to use as a blueprint.

The recipes are dated 1967 & 1969 and both indicate they were used for some large functions at her church.  One notes that it made approximately 1180 meatballs!

Of course, I didn't need to make anywhere near that many meatballs, so I pared it down quite a bit and trusted my instincts to guide me with regards to how much of everything to use.

To start with, I dried some slices of french bread in the oven, then tore it into pieces, added some buttermilk (any milk is fine - just drizzle it over the bread enough to wet it and stir it around) and freeze dried parsley and let it soak a bit...

...until it looked like this:

Then I added the meats and cracked in an egg...

...grated in a few cloves of garlic...

...and topped it all off with some parmesan cheese.

The fun part is getting in there with your hands and mixing it all together - but be gentle,  you don't want to overwork it.  Once it's all mixed together it should look like this:

Before you start forming the meatballs themselves, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, , spray a cooling rack with non-stick spray (on both sides) and place it on top of a foil lined baking sheet.  This will allow the meatballs to bake up crisp on the outside while any excess fat drips into the pan below.

I like to use my favorite cookie scoop to portion the meatballs, I spray it with non-stick spray first...

Then I form them into balls with my hands and place them on the prepared rack.  They aren't going to rise or spread so you can place them very close together on the rack as long as they are not touching...

I baked them for about 25 minutes, until they were nicely browned on the outside and fully cooked on the inside.

These are so delicious (shhhh, don't tell anyone, I've eaten 3 already!), moist on the inside, slightly crisp on the outside and delightfully savory, you can just pick up on a hint of the parmesan cheese and the seasonings in the sausage.  You can even see the cheese and spinach running through them.

This made about 35 meatballs - far more than Steven and I can eat for one meal, so I'll be using some of them in Spaghetti tonight and the rest will go into the freezer for future use.  I'll drop several of the meatballs in the sauce just before I put the water on for the pasta and they should be hot by the time the pasta is ready.  When I use the meatballs from the freezer, I'll either add them to a simmering sauce, heat them in a crockpot right from the freezer or thaw them first and bake them in the oven to reheat them.  I love having things like this in the freezer for quick meals after a busy day at work!

Here's the recipe:

Italian Meatballs

1 lb Italian Sausage
1 lb lean ground beef
6 slices, dried french bread torn and soaked in milk (or buttermilk)
1 egg
3 large cloves garlic, grated or minced
1 Tbls parsley (I used freeze dried)
1/2 Cup parmesan cheese (I used shredded, but grated would be better)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Spray a cooling rack (or broiling pan top) with non-stick spray and place over a foil-lined, rimmed, cookie sheet.

Mix all ingredients together.  Form approximately 2 Tablespoons of the mixture into meatballs about 1 - 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  (You can make them larger too, they will just require more cooking time.)  Place on wire rack so meatballs are not touching.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned on the outside.

Serve hot in spaghetti sauce, meatballs subs or whatever tickles your fancy - Mangia!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Casual Entertaining: Baked Potato Bar

This past weekend was another gaming weekend for me.  My friends and I get together around noon and game until late night - usually wrapping up around 10:30 or 11:00 pm.  For us, this means that for every game session, we need to plan 2 meals, plus snacks. We usually start the day with lunch, almost as soon as my friend walk through my door. This gives us a chance to chat and visit before getting into game mode.  Luckily we like food, and we like to cook.  We handle the meals in a variety of ways sometimes potluck (with or without an overall theme or plan), more often than not I prepare one meal and they prepare the other.  Everyone provides their own snacks and drinks (for the most part) for munching throughout the day.

This game session we decided to go with a Baked Potato Bar for lunch (we both wanted photos from the potato bar for our blogs) and sandwiches for dinner.  Bars like this are really ideal for casual entertaining.  They set a festive atmosphere, while providing plenty of options to meat a wide variety of dietary needs and, bonus, they are a great way to deal with picky eaters - letting them choose what they want.  We generally handle sandwiches in this way too, everyone makes their own.  We've done taco bars as well with options to make crunchy or soft tacos, nachos, taco salad or a taco style rice bowl and they've all been a big hit.  

This time, I was in charge of baking the potatoes and we each provided a few of our favorite toppings to fill out the bar.  I planned one large russet baking potato per person (I knew we would have more than enough additional food choices to appease anyone with a larger appetite), which I washed...

... Then I poked each one with a fork.  This allows the potatoes to vent as they cook and prevents them from splitting open...

...Next, I rubbed butter all over them.  This allows them to develop a crispy skin so they hold together when you split them open...

... I placed them in a pan, rather than wrapping them in foil.  This also helps the potatoes to become crispy on the outside.  I baked them for an hour at 425 degrees, adding the pulled pork to the oven to reheat 30 minutes into the baking process,..

... Altogether we had chili, pulled pork, bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce, scallions and sour cream for toppings.

Each of us topped our potatoes with the toppings we wanted and we all enjoyed a delicious...


 and hearty lunch to get our Gaming Day off to a great start - YUM!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Chorizo Chili

A few weeks ago, I was gaming online with my sister and her husband.  We always Skype while we play so that we can talk about our game strategy, chat, etc., and they mentioned they were making chili.  Every so often they would have to take a break to stir the chili and whatnot.  It was definitely a chili kind of day.  You know the kind - soggy, chilled to the bones weather that just makes you crave hot, hearty comfort food.  Hearing them talk about it really made me want chili too so I started to think about what was in my pantry and fridge and thought even wondered out loud how the chorizo in my fridge would be in chili.  We all thought it would be really good and I knew I had canned beans and tomato products, onions, garlic and plenty of spices in my pantry so....  I went for it and made this Chorizo Chili.  

The Chorizo itself provided most of the flavor for the chili making it an ideal choice if you're running low on spices but it also provides a good base if you like 5 Alarm style, very hot chili - just add you favorite hot chilis, or chipotle in adobo (or both), more chili powder, some cayenne - whatever helps you achieve the level of spiciness you crave.

Chili is wonderful because it's so versatile and forgiving - it's truly hard to mess it up, plus I knew it would be the perfect thing for Game Day - I could have it all ready to go and hubby could dish up at half-time.   Use your favorite beans - I like pinto beans or black beans for chili, personally, but I know lots of people who like to use kidney beans or red beans.  Whatever floats your boat is fine. You can also change up the tomato base - I used crushed tomatoes last time I made this and today I'm using tomato puree.  You can adjust the thickness and texture in this way too.  Crushed tomatoes will result in a chunkier chili that's fairly thick, tomato sauce will be a happy medium between thick and thin and tomato puree will be so thick you'll probably need to add liquid - I used chicken stock for this today but beef stock, water or beer would all be great choices too.

This time, I made the whole thing in my deep cast iron skillet, which makes it a one-pot wonder!  (can I get an Amen for less dishes to wash?)

Start by browning the chorizo in the skillet, stirring here and there, but giving it a chance to caramelize (you can add a little oil to the pan, if needed).  When the chorizo is about half-way done, add the chopped onions and garlic.  If you're using peppers, add them now too.

Meanwhile, you can drain and rinse the beans.  I do this because canned beans, even the low sodium ones I try to always purchase, can be very high in sodium and the liquid in the can is often very starchy.  If you need that starch to thicken your sauce up, you can skip this step.

Continue cooking and stirring until the chorizo is nicely browned and the onions are translucent.  Add in the beans...

... and spices, then...

... stir in your tomato product of choice (I'm using tomato puree here).

If the Chorizo Chili is thicker than you prefer, pour in 1/4-1/2 cup of stock, water or beer.  If it's too thin, you can add masa flour to thicken it.  I used chicken stock today because I have some I need to use up.  Stir it in and let it just come to a boil, then turn down the heat to your lowest setting and let it simmer.  I prefer to let it simmer for a few hours to really develop the flavors, but the first night we had this, it only had about 20 minutes to simmer and it was still very good.  I know this because Steven asked me if I remembered what I did so that I could make it again!

Here's the recipe:

Chorizo Chili
Serves 4-6

1 lb Chorizo (make sure to get the bulk-style sausage, not the cured salami-style version)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can beans, drained and rinsed (I used black beans today, pinto beans, kidney beans or red beans are also great choices)
pinch of salt
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin, ground
1 tsp cilantro
1/2 tsp coriander, ground
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1, 28 oz can tomato puree (or crushed tomatoes, or tomato sauce)
1/4 - 1/2 cup stock (I used chicken, you can also use beef stock, beer or water)

Preheat cast-iron skillet or dutch oven on medium high heat.  Add Chorizo to the pan and brown for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add onion and garlic.  Cook another 2-3 minutes, until sausage is fully browned and onions are translucent.  Add beans and spices, stir in to blend well.  Add Tomato puree (or your tomato product of choice), stir in.  If you need to thin your chili a bit, stir in stock, water or beer, then bring just to a slight boil.  Turn down heat to lowest setting, cover and simmer for 2-3 hours or all day.

We like to garnish our chili with cheese, onions and sour cream and serve it over rice or with cornbread on the side.  Serve hot and enjoy!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Twisted Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies are the hands-down favorite in my house.  If I ask my husband what kind of cookies he'd like me to make, he'll always request Chocolate Chip.  Its my favorite to bake and experiment with too.  I love to change up the extracts and stir-ins I use and Twisted Chocolate Chip is not only one of my favorite variations, but it's also my go-to choice any time I make cookies for people who don't eat nuts.

What makes these Twisted Chocolate Chips twisted is the addition of pretzel twists.  I love how the crunchy texture of the pretzels holds up in the cookie dough and ads a similar texture to nuts with the addition of that touch of saltiness.  I love my sweet with a little salty crunch!

I start these cookies by melting the butter and creaming the melted butter with the granulated and brown sugars.

I've found that the to achieving a lofty, chewy cookie when using melted butter is to beat the melted butter and sugar together until you have a truly emulsified mixture.  If you can still see the liquid butter at the edges of your bowl - it's still separating from the sugar and you need to keep mixing.  I use a whisk for this whole process...  

...see the separation here...

...and fully emulsified here:

Once the sugar and butter is completely blended together, set it aside to cool a bit while you break up the pretzel twists.  I prefer the twist to pretzel sticks, they just seem to blend into the dough a bit better.  I also like to break them up by hand, you want coarse chunks of pretzel, not tiny crushed up bits that disappear into the dough.  They should look like this:

The sugar and butter emulsion should be cooled enough at this point to add the eggs, mix them in well, then add the baking soda, salt and vanilla.  Blend well.

Add the flour and top the flour with the pretzel pieces and chocolate chips.  Stir it all in until the flour disappears into the dough.  I do it this way because I've found it helps to suspend the chocolate chips and other stirred in additions in the dough - so you get a nice, even distribution of ingredients in every bite. 

The cookie dough will be sticky and a bit too loose to scoop at this point.  

Cover it tightly with plastic wrap and chill it for 1 hour.  Then preheat the oven to 375, prep your cookie sheets with either non-stick spray, silicon baking mats or parchment paper.  Scoop the cookies and place on the prepared sheets about 1-2 inches apart.  I use a scoop that allows me to fit 12 to a sheet and makes standard sized cookies, but feel free to use whatever size you prefer.

Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes.  Allow cookies to set on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to finish cooling.  We like to have a few while they are still warm, fresh from the oven - preferably with a cold glass of milk.

Twisted Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, melted 
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cup flour
1 cup pretzel twists, coarsely broken
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Melt butter in the microwave on high for about 1 minute.  Add granulated and brown sugars and mix well, until completely emulsified.  Set aside to cool.  Add eggs and blend well.  Add baking soda, salt and vanilla and stir to mix.  Add flour, pretzels and chocolate chips.  Stir in and mix until all the flour is fully incorporated into the dough.  Chill for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray cookie sheets with non-stick spray or line with silicon baking mats or parchment.  Use a cookie scoop or a spoon to drop cookies onto sheet 1-2 inches apart.  Bake 8-10 minutes until golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow cookies to set for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

This recipes makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies using a 2 tablespoon scoop.