Tuesday, August 31, 2010

5 Recipes for Puff Pastry: #1 Cheese Straws

Parmesan Cheese Straws

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a group of women about hospitality, living a life that says welcome to others.  At the end of the talk, they asked me to share a few practical tips for entertaining, with specific ways we can be prepared for unexpected guests.  Expecting the "unexpected" takes a little advanced planning and prepatation but frees you to enjoy spontaneous entertaining.  Some of the best moments arrive by accident and suprise us with their simplicity and lasting memories.  Maybe rootbeer floats with the neighbors or coffee with a friend.

I shared a few hints with the group including a list of staples that I like to have stocked in the pantry and freezer.  One of my freezer staples is puff pastry.  If you don't have any, you should go out tomorrow and buy some to stash in your freezer.  There are a million different things you can do with it, something for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.  I thought I would share a few recipes for this versatile staple to start you on your way to spontaneous entertaining! 

Parmesan Cheese Straws

2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry (such as Pepperidge Farm), defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
Flour, for dusting
1/4 cup butter, melted  
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
sprinkle of paprika

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Roll out each sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured board until it is 10- by 12-inches. Brush the surface of the pastry with the butter. Sprinkle each sheet evenly (dividing the ingredients between the two sheets of pastry) with 1⁄4 cup of the Parmesan, 1⁄2 cup of the Gruyère, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the thyme, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt, and some paprika. With the rolling pin, lightly press the flavorings into both puff pastry sheets.

Cut each sheet crosswise with a floured knife or pizza wheel into 11 or 12 strips. Twist each strip and lay on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly browned and puffed. Turn each straw and bake for another 2 minutes. Don't over bake or the cheese will burn. Cool and serve at room temperature.

Friday, August 27, 2010

How soon is too soon to put out the Fall Decorations?

Happy Early Autumn

Am I the only one who is ready to be done with summer?  Don't get me wrong, we had a great time, but August is almost over, the kids are back in school and the beach is a fading memory.  It is time to move on, look forward to the cool mornings and falling leaves.  Oh, I forgot, we live in Houston and it is still in the high 90's around here.  The perils of living on the Texas coast.  How I long for four distinct seasons.

My favorite time of year has always been Autumn, which is really unfortunate because as a Texan, you have to pretend your way through this season.  I crank down the AC, light candles in the fireplace and bake pumpkin bread.  I do not care what is going on outside.  The first year we moved to Houston, about a week before Halloween, I threw together some costumes and marched our bunch up and down the cul-de-sac to be greeted by friendly neighbors who offered candy, treats and OFF mosquito repellent.  No more lion and tiger costumes made from fake fur and head pieces (our daughter's favorite), we were switching to something cooler.

So, to answer my own question, which I like to do, I am going to officially state that the Fall decorations can come down out of the attic on September 1st.  You can wait until October if you like, but I will be listening to Christmas music, looking through Holiday magazines and drinking hot cocoa by then. 

Please beware,  the spiced pumpkin candles are lit and the recipes for Fall are already out on the counter, so if you are strict about observing holiday protocols (no white shoes after Labor Day and all that), feel free to file them away.  Just think, you'll have a head start on the holidays, and who doesn't need that!

Biscuit Buddies: Caterpillars for the Kids

A biscuit caterpillar buddy, almost too cute to eat.

We made these cute little critters in our "Sizzling Summer" cooking class.  On the last day of class we have a BBQ blast, where we cook all kinds of food outside while we learn about safety around the grill (there are more safety tips than you might think, especially for small children).

We always make these biscuit caterpillars to go with our shish kebab.  They are fun to make and yummy too.  Try some this weekend with dinner, but be sure and let the kids help.

Little fingers making a masterpiece

Caterpillar Biscuits

Refrigerator Biscuits
Sesame Seeds
Poppy Seeds
Grated Parmesan Cheese
Pretzel Sticks
Butter or Margarine (melted)

Prepare small bowls of sesame seeds, poppy seeds and grated cheese. Using two biscuits, cut each in half and roll into four small dough balls.  Dip the dough balls into the melted butter and then roll them in seeds or cheese. Press the balls together on a cookie sheet to form a caterpillar shape.

Bake the biscuits according to the directions on the package. When the caterpillar biscuits are done, you can poke 2 pretzel sticks into the head of the biscuit caterpillar for antennae. You can use the raisins for eyes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Suma's Chicken Curry

Suma teaching me how to make Chicken Curry

My sweet friend Suma is a wonderful cook.  She bakes, tries out all kind of recipes and makes the best lasagna I've ever tasted.  I especially love the spicy Indian food she makes.  For some time now, she has promised to show me how to make some of the traditional Indian dishes she and her family have enjoyed for generations.  So last Saturday night Suma honored us with a wonderful dinner that included chicken curry, fried catfish, spicy cauliflower, lentil stew and rice.  So many delicious dishes, I hope that I'm not forgetting anything. 

Beautiful and delicious spices used in her Chicken Curry

I came to her house early so that she could show me how she prepared each dish.  The first step in making the chicken curry was showing me the traditional spices used in the dish.  I think the combination of spices is beautiful; all the colors looked like fall and smelled divine.  On the plate above you can see the ground coriander, turmeric, chili powder,  and garam masala.  Suma told me that her mother makes the garam masala (far right in picture) by roasting and grinding cinnamon, cardamom and anise.  The chili powder we used is not the same as the kind we might buy in the grocery store.  It's not as hot which allows for more powder in the recipe imparting flavor, color and thickness to the dish without too much heat.

We sauteed the onions after the mustard seeds
 popped in the dutch oven.

I also learned that curry is a generic term used to describe a variety of dishes in various Indian and South Asian cultures sometimes identifying the spices like coriander or the fact that the dish is "wet" with gravy or sauce.  Suma cut a whole chicken into pieces for the dish, but I asked her if you could make a faster version with chicken breast.  She said that of course the bones and skin of the chicken add a lot of flavor to the dish, so it wouldn't taste exactly the same.  This is one reason I usually buy chicken breasts with the bone and skin.  One option is to marinate the chicken breasts in buttermilk beforehand to tenderize the meat and add flavor.  Another option might be to buy bone-in chicken breasts, cut them into smaller pieces and substitute for the whole chicken.

SPICE ALERT:  This dish is probably a little spicy for the kids.  You can reduce the amount of spices but it will affect the taste and consistency a little.  My kids love what they call "sticky rice" so we served the chicken on the side without a lot of extra sauce.

Suma adds the garlic-ginger puree to the roasting spices.

Suma's Chicken Curry
3 heaping teaspoons of ground coriander
2 heaping teaspoons of chili powder
1 heaping teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
4 cloves garlic
1 inch (about) of peeled, fresh ginger
1/2 large onion, chopped to a small dice
1 tomato, chopped to a medium dice
2-4 lbs chicken, cleaned and cut
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 cup vegetable oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pot)
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Before you start the dish, puree the garlic and ginger together in a food processor and set aside.

Pour oil in a large pot or dutch oven, enough to coat the entire bottom of the pot and place on stove over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and let them "pop" open to impart flavor.  When you hear the "popping" sound, add the onions and saute until golden brown.  Add the first four spices  and let them roast them on low heat, stirring them into the oil and onion mixture.  When thoroughly combined and after a few minutes of "roasting" add the garlic-ginger puree.  Remove pot from heat and add chopped tomato.  Add chicken and coat in the seasoning my mixing with a large wooden spoon until all the chicken is covered in the spice.  Return to low heat and add enough water to cover just chicken, approximately 1 1/2 cups.  Add salt, stir well and let cook, covered with a lid for 20-25 minutes (checking and stirring occasionally).  Remove the lid and let the dish cook an additional 10-15 minutes which will allow the sauce to thicken.

Remove from heat, transfer to a big bowl and serve while hot over rice.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

High Ho, High Ho, It's off to work we go!

Our family's fancy chore chart!

Don't you love chores!  Come on!  I am not feeling the love.  What is better than doing all those household chores.  I will tell you.  Trying to get your kids to do them.  For many years, way too many years (in fact, I would be embarrassed to admit how many) I just did not make my kids do regular chores.  It was always so much work to get them motivated or keep myself motivated to make them do it. 

Last fall, I finally made a list of all the chores that I found myself doing each week in an effort to get organized.  Nothing like making a list to get organized.  First, I realized there were way too many things on the list for one person to accomplish in a week.  Second, I realized that "picking up" was one of the most time consuming chores on the list.  The very next week, I made a quick trip into Hobby Lobby and saw this cute "chore chart" for 50% off.  You gotta love Hobby Lobby.  The main reason I bought it was because "pick up" was included on the list of chores!!  Plus, I love the "whistle while you work" theme.  Happy hearts and singing voices help with the chores.  We put on some loud music and jam our way through the list!

Hallelujah, I had found a way to share the "love" with the rest of the family!  I made little hanging tags with the kids names to assign the jobs. (Of course, I had to use cute color-coordinated ribbon.)  I rationalized that the time I spent making the chore chart would pay off when the kids helped me with all the housework.

It paid off!  There is something psychological about pointing to an inanimate object when everyone is complaining and asking, "What do I have to do?"  It actually take the focus off of "mean old mom" and moves it, however ridiculous this may sound, to the "mean old chore chart.'  I was telling a teacher friend about this yesterday and she said they learned this technique in a workshop...moving the focus away from yourself.  There was some fancy teacher word explaining this, which I don't remember, but I felt good that I had hit upon some recognized method of controlling behavior!

Our chore chart is "set in stone" or rather, "wood" so the chores can't be changed, but they work for us.  We have three kids in our family and there were six chores listed.  I divided the chores in half and color-coordinated the cards so that three of chores get rotated separately.  In other words, three of the chores (pick up, dishes and garbage) are more "every day" chores and three of them (vacuum, sweep and helping mom with laundry) are more "once a week" chores.  It seemed a better divide this way.  Each child (or mini-adult) has two chores for the week.  Now, I would be lying if I said we are getting 100% commitment from Mom and kids on this system.  But, I am telling you, 75% is really great!!!!  (There are not enough exclamation points for this...and you know I love exclamation points).  So, break out the chore chart and share the "love" of cleaning with those sweet kids.  Or else make them watch an episode of "Messiest House" and tell them how lucky they are to have a mom who makes them clean!  It works in our house.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Honey Lime Fruit Salad with Poundcake Croutons

CORRECTION:  Just fixed the mistakes to the recipe.  The translation was lost when I copied it from my curriculum!  So sorry, let's try again!

Honey Lime Fruit Salad with Pound Cake Croutons

Honey Lime Fruit Salad

How to make the Fruit Salad:
1 tablespoon orange zest 1 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 apple
1 cup grapes
1 cup blueberries
3/4 cup melon (such as honeydew or cantaloupe)
1 cup pineapple chunks 3/4 cup seedless red or green grapes, cut in half
1 cup strawberries, hulled and quartered 1/3 cup blueberries or pitted cherries

To make the Fruit Salad, place the orange zest, orange juice, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Cut the apple, pineapple, strawberries and melon into cubes, adding the fruits to the bowl as you cut them to prevent them from browning. Add the remaining fruits. Stir, coating the fruits with the juices, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

How to make Honey-lime Dressing:
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 1 lime)

To make the Honey-lime dressing whisk together the honey and lime juice in a bowl until smooth.

How to make the Pound Cake Croutons:
8 oz pound cake, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon minced mint leaves

To make the Pound Cake Croutons heat the oven to 350°. With a knife, slice the pound cake into cubes. Place them on a baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes, turning twice, until golden. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the mint, then add the toasted pound cake. Sauté for 1 to 2 minutes or until golden.

Spoon the salad into serving bowls, drizzle it with the Honey-lime Dressing, and then top with Pound Cake Croutons. Makes about 6 cups.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kid's Fruit Kebabs

I have served fruit kebabs for breakfast with an egg casserole.

This week is "eat your fruit" week.  OK, I made it up, but doesn't it sound good.  Most of the time it is easier to get the kids to eat their fruit than to eat their veggies, but unfortunately with all the prepackaged sweets offered at the grocery store a fresh peach may not sound as tantalizing as a chocolate sandwich cookie.

Below, I included a recipe for strawberry cream cheese dip to serve alongside the kid kebabs.  I have found that kids are a lot more likely to eat something if one, they helped make it and two, the food is separated into small piles and they get to dip their food.  You would think I was talking just about toddlers, but I have found it to be true of older kids, too.  Kids love dip...I could do a whole week on dips.  I know some parents are hesitant to offer the extra calories, but the point is to get children to try new things and acquire a taste for healthy foods.  Hummus with carrot and celery sticks (OK we throw in pita chips, too) is one of my kids' favorite snacks.

I love this recipe because it is fun for the kids to make and to eat.  You can add protein for a delicious lunch or after-school snack by including chunks of cheese and lunch meat.

Kid's Fruit Kebabs

watermelon, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew
deli turkey & ham, cubed
cheddar cheese, cubed
bendable drinking straws
wooden skewer

Cut fruit into bite-size pieces. Use a wooden skewer to make a hole through the center of each piece of food before layering them onto the straw.  Turn a drinking straw upside down and fold the bendable part of the straw around, creating a handle. Slide a piece of food onto the straw, pushing it to the bottom and onto the hooked part of the straw to secure the handle. Continue layering the meat, cheese and fruit until the straw is full. Serve chilled alongside strawberry cream cheese dip.

This dip is so good you can serve it at a party!

Strawberry Fruit Dip

1 cup yogurt (vanilla)
1 8 oz. package of cream cheese
1/2 cup strawberry jam

Put all ingredients in the blender. Blend until smooth. Makes a pretty pink fruit dip. Very kid friendly.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fun with Fruit

Fruit Smiles!

Fruit can be fun!  There are lots of ways to get kids to eat their fruit and veggies.  Try a few of these fun recipes for fruit.  Some are good for school lunches, afternoon snacks and some are fun for the kids to make themselves.  I will post a few fun recipes to try over the next few days.  First try these yummy fruit smiles.

Cantaloupe fruit smiles with strawberry jello.

Fruit Smiles

1 melon (cantaloupe or honeydew)
1 package Jell-O brand gelatin
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup mixed fruit

CUT 1 melon (about 3-1/2 lb.) in half lengthwise; remove and discard seeds. Scoop out melon, leaving each half with a 1-inch-thick shell. Chop removed melon; drain well. Cut thin slice off bottom of each melon shell to allow it to stand upright.

STIR 3/4 cup boiling water into 1 pkg. (4-serving size) Jell-O Brand Gelatin in large bowl at least 2 min. until completely dissolved. Stir in 1/2 cup cold water. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved chopped melon and 1/2 cup fruit to each melon shell.

POUR gelatin evenly into melon shells. Pour any remaining gelatin into small bowl to enjoy later. Refrigerate 4 hours or until firm. Cut each half melon into four wedges to serve.



For each one, push half of a red grape onto a trimmed wooden skewer for the head. Next, push on a hulled strawberry body and score the back to create wings. For spots, use a toothpick to gently press mini chocolate chips, tips down, into the fruit. Arrange the skewers on a honeydew melon half.

Carefully thread grapes onto a pretzel stick to make a caterpillar. Stick 2 sunflower seeds into one of the end grapes to make eyes. You can also use 2 kinds of grapes to make a multi colored caterpillar.

Bumble Bees
Cut off the last 2 inches of a banana, so you have a piece with a slight curve and a tapered end. This will be the body. Carefully stick a pretzel stick into the cut surface so half is in the banana and half is sticking out. Core a strawberry and carefully stick in onto the other half of the pretzel stick to attach the "head". Cut a raisin in 1/2 and stick the cut side onto either side of the strawberry to make eyes. Cut 2 slices of apple and carefully stick into the banana to make wings.

Have fun making your own critters using different fruits! 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Texas State Fair Corn dogs

Big Tex, an icon at the State Fair of Texas

Food is the prominent feature at the State Fair of Texas, aside from Big Tex, and one of the main reasons to visit Fair Park in Dallas every year.  Fried food is the real star with the Big Tex Choice Awards, an annual contest judging the best-tasting and most creative fried foods this side of the Mississippi.  Past winners include chicken fried bacon, fried banana split, and deep fried peaches and cream.  Everyone in Texas remembers last year's Most Creative winner, deep fried butter.  Yes, I said "deep fried butter."  It is hard to wrap my mind around the fat and calorie count of deep fried butter, but it may be best not to think about it.  Fried foods are special-occasion foods after all, and though we can look down our "nutrition-focused" noses at deep fried butter, even  the healthiest among us has a hard time resisting funnel cake.  I mean, c'mon, have you ever tasted that stuff.  Add Belgian waffles, strawberry lemonade and corn dogs and more than the kids are going home with full bellies.

These boots were not made for walking...

Every summer we have a day of cooking class honoring the fair and we fry up everything we can get our grubby little hands on.  This year we even tried deep fried Oreos...not our best concoction, but eaten none the less.  We make Belgian waffles, drink our strawberry lemonade, then sit back with full tummies and look forward to the next few healthy classes focused on summer fruit and veggies.  But oh what a day it is!
The stars at night are big and bright!

So, I thought I would honor the great State Fair by sharing our corn dog recipe with you.  The Texas State Fair is still a month away but who has time to fry up corn dogs after school is back in session.  You have a week and a half left to try these out.  Put out some celery and carrot sticks and enjoy your fried creation guilt free. 


3 c. cornmeal
1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1 1/4 c. water
1 eggs

In large mixing bowl mix all dry ingredients. Add buttermilk and water. Beat in eggs and mix well. If batter gets stiff add small amount of water.

To prepare corn dog, use hot dogs right out of the package; insert stick in one end of the hot dog and coat it by rolling it in the batter. Hold on to stick and gently lower into deep, hot oil. Turn the corn dogs until browned on both sides. Leftover batter may be kept a few days in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer Bread Salad

Summer Bread Salad

There are several recipes out there for bread salad.  Essentially you make your own croutons and toss quite a few of them with everything you can get from your summer garden.  Make your own dressing or use your favorite...we like Paul Newman's Low-Calorie Balsamic Vinaigrette.  This time I made a variation of Rebecca Rather's Rustic Bread Salad with fresh basil from the garden.  We really enjoyed this Saturday night with roasted chicken.  (See earlier post for recipe.)  I halved the recipe and we still had a huge bowl of salad, enough for leftovers the next day.  My version of the recipe is listed below, so if you have a big crowd you can easily double the salad.

Remember the salad is called "Summer Bread Salad" so the bread makes up more of the salad than the traditional croutons.  Pile them on!  The salad is very hearty and could be a meal in itself.  All the fresh summer corn and heirloom tomatoes are at their best in the summer, of course.  It's not too late to try your own version!  I know little kids can be picky about mixing everything together in one big bowl.  Why not separate a small portion of each ingredient on their plate.  Add some ranch on the side and before too long, maybe they won't notice when you mix it all together.  It's worth a try! :)

Summer Bread Salad with Roasted Chicken & Shaved Parmesan

Summer Bread Salad

1 whole round loaf of sourdough bread
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I used "Mediterranean Garlic" flavored oil for extra taste)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 ears sweet corn, shucked and boiled for 3-5 minutes
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and coarsley chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and coarsley chopped
1 medium zucchini, cut in 1/8-inch slices and quartered
1 medium yellow squash, cut in 1/8-inch slices and quartered
3/4 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
3/4 pint of sweet, yellow tomatoes, halved
1 heirloom tomato (favorite variety) cored, sliced and cut into bite size pieces
8-10 large basil leaves, cut into ribbons
1 bag of baby arugula (I used romaine and it was delicious- you could use 1/2 bag of each)
Parmesan curls, for garnish

TO MAKE THE BREAD:  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes.  Combine the melted butter, flavored olive oil and salt in a small bowl. 
Spread the cubes on baking sheet in a single layer (may take two small baking sheets) and toss with the butter mixture to coat evenly.  Bake, turning occasionally, until the cubes are browned and crisp, about 30 minutes.  Cool the bread thoroughly on the baking sheet.
TO MAKE THE SALAD:  Cut the corn kernels off the cob and place in a large serving bowl along with the bell peppers, zuchinni, squash, cherry tomatoes, basil, arugula and heirloom tomato.  Toss to mix evenly.  I kept the salad and bread separate until serving.  In fact, I combined individual servings so that leftover bread could be stored separately from the salad and still be good the next day.  For a gathering, just toss the bread into the salad right before serving.  Top with Parmesan shavings and dressing and serve immediately.