Risotto for Spring

Risotto is one of those recipes that oftentimes people reject as being too hard or too much work, like cheesecake or baklava.  There are just a few ingredients that are easy to find, and uses basic equipment, yet the method is intimidating.  Yes, it takes some time and attention, but the results are worth both.

It’s important to gather all of the ingredients FIRST.  For experienced cooks it’s not always necessary, but when timing is important and things move quickly, it’s a good practice.  It’s also a good idea to limit multitasking when the dish is in progress.  Just a minute or two of inattention and you may end up with scorched rice, which isn’t always a bad thing, but not the results desired here.

First saute diced shallot in olive oil and butter.  Shallot tastes like a combination of garlic and onion.

This is arborio rice, a short-grained, starchy variety.  It’s easily found in the regular grocery store, but you don’t need much for this recipe.  Store the remainder in the freezer to keep it from going rancid.

Here are some of the “finishers”:  thawed frozen peas, chopped flat-leaf parsley, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

An additional finisher:  parmesan cheese.Dry white wine.  I use chardonnay.

Combine the butter, olive oil, shallot, and salt/pepper in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Cook until shallot is translucent.  Add the rice all at once and stir so it all gets coated with oil.

Then add the white wine and about a cup of hot chicken broth.  Stir.

Stir again, then stir some more.  The goal is to release the starch granules from the outer surface of the rice.  As the starch absorbs the broth it gets soft; when you stir, it releases into the broth.  The more you stir, the creamier it gets.

As it absorbs more broth, it gets stiffer, and you shouldn’t add more broth until you can see the bottom of the pan when you pull the spoon through.  This is just about there…

There!  Time to add about a cup more broth.  Then stir.  Contrary to popular belief, you DON’T have to stir constantly, just occasionally.  But careful not to leave it too long or it will scorch and won’t get creamy.  Then repeat until all the broth is used.

It’s important to taste to see if the rice is cooked enough.  It shouldn’t be mushy… it should have just a bit of bite in the very center of the rice grain.

Now it’s time to add your finishers:  lemon zest, lemon juice, peas, parsley….

…and parmesan cheese.  Stir thoroughly.  Taste now for seasoning.  I over-salted this recipe, not taking into consideration all of the salt in the broth and parmesan, and the fact that the lemon will add tremendous flavor.  I did add more pepper (because I’m a pepper FREAK).

The finished risotto!  Creamy, savory, popping with peas and fresh flavor!

I served myself a nice portion alongside perfectly grilled pork tenderloin.

The beautiful thing about risotto is that it can take on just about any persona by changing the vegetables and seasonings.  It can also be made sweet, like a warm rice pudding, using apple juice or milk instead of broth.

After almost six months of winter, what a gorgeous way to celebrate the arrival of spring.


Serves 6 (1/2 cup servings)

1 teaspoon butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium purple shallot, diced

1/2 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, kept warm

1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen green peas (or other vegetable)

1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

zest and juice of one lemon

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Heat butter and olive oil in a 2 quart saucepan over medium heat.  Add shallot; stir and cook until shallot is translucent.  Add the rice and stir so that all of the rice grains are coated with oil.  Add wine and 1 cup of chicken broth, and stir to combine.  Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring often.  When rice has absorbed most of the moisture, add one cup of broth, and stir to combine.  Repeat the process until all of the broth has been used.  Check the rice for doneness; it should remain a bit firm in the center.  Remove from heat and add peas, parsley, lemon zest and juice.  Stir in parmesan cheese.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Serve immediately.

Posted in rice, risotto | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Conquering the Chocolate Castle

Last year was my husband’s 40th birthday.  Unfortunately I was not able to mark this milestone with something special due to work commitments.  So I was determined to make it up to him this year.  He’s a special guy who does all kinds of wonderful things for me and puts up with all manner of bitching, drama, and opinions from “moi.”  He’s always supportive of anything I want to do; of course, he was extra supportive of my effort at making this cake!

When I saw the chocolate castle cake below, I knew I had to make one for his birthday.

But if you know me, you know I don’t do anything half way.  The original cake was just an inspiration…  I started thinking of all the things I could do to make it even better.

Everything is edible, with exception of the cake board base (which is concealed), the flag poles (sucker sticks), and the knight (it’s plastic).  The turrets are sugar cones coated in chocolate and crushed cookies.

The flags are fondant and I painted the shamrocks with food coloring.   

The sides of the castle are covered with chocolate bars – the ones that look like stones are cookies-n-cream.  The mortar is chocolate buttercream.  The rocks around the base ARE rocks… made of chocolate!  If the doors look familiar, that’s because they’re Milano cookies.

The best part is the part you can’t see.  The cake is a sugar-free cake mix and I used Greek yogurt instead of oil, two eggs instead of three.  The filling, however, makes up for it.  It’s bourbon-pecan buttercream and its to die for.  Four layers of delicious cake with three layers of to-die-for filling.


Layers of goodness

The cake was served at a small party of friends who gathered to play the card game Munchkin.  The cake drew ooohs and ahhhhhs, cools and wows, and is now legendary.

When I cut it I couldn’t bear to go through the front so I laid siege to the back wall in a surprise attack, leaving the front intact, so the legend could continue just a little  while longer.

And that’s how I conquered the chocolate castle!

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Sunday was Super!!

Now I know you have questions about these cookies that I made for our Super Bowl party. ( I believe their successful completion makes me a Level 1 Cookie Goddess.)
Just to make it fun, see if you can guess the question by reading the answers first.. (the questions appear at the bottom of the post).
1.  Yes I did.
2.  Hours.
3.  It’s easier than you think.
4.  Labor of love, mostly.
5.  Yes, I know they’re supposed to be black!  It’s just a representation for crying out loud!
6.  With a toothpick.
7.  Yes, there was fighting.  12 cookies, 30 people… you do the math!
8.  I was on the fence.
Now that football season is over … I need to find something to do with my Sunday afternoons.  That big rodent up in Pennsylvania said spring will be here early, so I should probably start thinking about my garden.  And go to the gym and clean my house… oh and work on my taxes.  (Forgot about that… ugh… someone stab me please.)
The Questions
1.  Did you make these?!?!
2.  How long did it take you?
3.  Was it hard to do?
4.  Why in the world would you spend so much time and effort into them?
5.  But… aren’t the Steeler’s helmets black?
6.  How did you make those little things on the Steeler’s helmets?
7.  Did people fight over who got a cookie?
8.  Who did you root for?

Oh Big Ben... you let us down... So we had to eat your arms!

Thanks to everyone who came to watch the game and party with us!!  Fun times!
Posted in Cookies, food, Royal Icing | 1 Comment

You had me at Cheesy…

I have always said that a day without cheese is like a day without… CHEESE.  Oh cheese.  How I love cheese.  Just the word.. c h e e e e e e e s e… no wonder it’s used to get people to smile!!
When I started my lifestyle change to healthier eating I mourned the loss of cheese.  I couldn’t imagine my life without it and I was pretty sad.  BUT I started reading food labels and realized the low-fat versions (not non-fat, never, no, dear lord, NEVER) are pretty darn good and that I didn’t need a fistful of it to satisfy me.  A pinch would do quite nicely.
From a healthy eating perspective, this recipe really appealed to me because the crust is a simple corn tortilla.  The original called for only one but of course when I see a recipe I say, to myself, “Hmmm… how can I make this better?”  So a second tortilla stuck to the first with a little cheese assures the cheesy chickeny goodness will be properly supported.  It also appealed to me because with the chicken, cheese, and eggs, it’s a great high protein meal.

The ingredients are simple to come by and so easy to put together.  What makes this great for weeknight meals is that it uses a deli roasted chicken.  I’ve discovered that for between $5-8, depending on where you get it, you can get a succulent roast chicken that yields enough meat for two pies.  Or one pie and enough chicken to make something else with, like chicken salad, chicken soup, chicken fajitas, or anything that calls for about two cups of shredded chicken.

In this case it IS easy bein’ CHEESY.  Easy as pie!
Cheesy Chicken Chilie Pie
Serves 6
2 large yellow corn tortillas
2 cups shredded 2% cheddar cheese
1 can chopped green chilies
2 cups shredded roast chicken
3 large eggs
1 cup low-fat sour cream
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon dried thyme
S&P to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F.  Coat a 9” glass pie plate with non-stick spray.  Place one tortilla on the bottom of the pie plate, top with a few shreds of cheese, and place the second on top of it.  Layer half the chicken onto the tortilla followed by half the cheese.  Spread green chilies on top of the first cheese layer, then repeat the layers of chicken and cheese.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream, cumin, thyme, and S&P.  Pour the egg mixture carefully over the ingredients, then gently shake the pie plate to distribute evenly.  Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a butter knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.  Allow the pie to rest for 10 minutes before cutting into six wedges.
Garnish with additional sour cream, salsa, and sliced green onions.  (And a scoop of guacamole never hurts!)
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Adventures in Cupcaking + Local Subs Get a Taste!

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My first blog post included a reference to my personal renaissance in 2011 and my desire to get back into my kitchen.  Progress report:  it’s going very, very well!  The snowflake cookies were such a success that I am on the prowl for interesting and useful cookie cutter shapes to add to my small but soon-to-be-growing collection. (GIFT HINT!!!)

I’ve also started keeping a little notebook with me at all times so I can write stuff down, the stuff I don’t want to forget.  OLB (old lady brain) is a terrible thing!  As I have been thinking of stuff I want to do/buy/cook/stamp , etc., I have been writing it in my little notebook.  It’s never far from me and has really helped me keep it together.

So for this first foray down the cupcake path, I consulted my little notebook (which is bright pink so it’s easy to spot) and chose two: vanilla bean cupcakes with Chai spice buttercream, and mocha cupcakes with cookies-n-cream buttercream.

Now I am a believer in home-made stuff most of the time… but cake just isn’t one of them.  My philosophy is this: it’s fine to use a convenience food (especially cake mix because they are pretty darn good these days) and spend more time being creative to make the convenience food better.  I used one cake mix and was able to get 25 cupcakes in two flavors out of it.

I used a reduced-sugar cake mix which called for either 3 eggs and 1/2 cup of oil plus water or 4 egg whites and 1/2 cup of oil plus water.  Because I’d rather load my fat & calories in the frosting instead of the cake (and let’s face it, we all know the cake is just a vehicle to transport the icing to our mouths… serving icing to your guests in a bowl with a spoon is just plain… it’s something you do in private!!!)  My healthier substitution was 2 eggs and 2 white equivalents of liquid egg whites plus 1/2 cup of unsweetened applesauce.

Then I divided the batter in half.  For the vanilla bean cupcakes I added a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract and the seeds from half a vanilla bean.  To the other half I added 1/4 cup of cocoa, 1/4 cup yogurt, and 2 T coffee.  The extra volume is what enabled me to squeak out another mocha cupcake.

The buttercream was another creative endeavor.  I pondered recipes and didn’t want to use all butter; it’s just too fattening, too greasy, too unstable.  So I used some leftover royal icing (from the cookies), adding a thickened milk/flour combo for stabilization, butter, low-fat cream cheese, plus French vanilla flavoring and almond extract.

I did go the distance and made my own Chai spice, which was totally worth it.  Cardamom, allspice,  cinnamon,  freshly-grated nutmeg, ground ginger, ground clove, and black pepper.  The nutmeg and pepper gave it a bit of a grainy texture which was surprisingly pleasant.

The cookies-n-cream addition was simply reduced-fat Oreo cookies, crushed and added to half the buttercream.  Larger pieces of crushed cookies were added after piping on the icing for extra yumminess.

I’m still on the hunt for what I could consider the perfect buttercream, one that I can adapt to be lower in fat but fluffier than what I have made so far.  I’m also on the hunt for a 1M open-star tip so I can make those lovely, deeply-ruffled swirls atop my cupcakes… and yes I added that to the list in my little pink notebook.

Posted in cupcakes, food | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A humble little legume

Here in the south (YES Kentucky is in the south… the Mason-Dixon line says so) there is a tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.  Their shape and abundance represent coins, and they are thought to bring prosperity.

Wow that’s a lot of pressure on a humble little legume!!!

It is also tradition to accompany them with a leafy green vegetable, such as kale, collards, or cabbage, the leaves of which are the color of money, again assuring prosperity. I’m not typically superstitious but I can get behind this delicious one!

I always get the urge to clean, rearrange, and organize stuff right after Christmas.  Good thing, too, because it’s the only workout I get during the holidays.)

So in an effort to clean out my fridge, I used some leftover Italian roast beef I’d thrown in the freezer afew weeks back.  It had some yummy sauce with it, so I used it instead of the stew beef and omitted the tomato paste.

I added some brown rice to my serving and enjoyed it with some Glory brand seasoned collard greens, which I hit with a little red wine vinegar.  A leafy green salad could substitute; it would be a good way to get back to healthy eating after over-indulging on sugar, carbs, and alcohol for six weeks.

If you’re southern… if you’re superstitious… even if you’re neither… it’s a great meal to to assure luck and prosperity for the coming year.  All thanks to a humble little legume!

Happy 2011!

Lentil Soup

Serves 6

1 lb beef stew meat, cut into small pieces (or leftover beef roast)

3 T olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 T tomato paste

2 T Worcestershire sauce

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

6 cups beef broth

Salt and pepper to taste

½ pound lentils, rinsed and inspected for rocks and other weird stuff

¼ cup hot sauce

¼ cup dry sherry

Heat olive oil in a 3 quart saucepan over medium-hi heat.  Add beef in two batches, and brown the surface, about 3-4 minutes per batch. (Omit this step if using leftover beef.)  Remove the meat and set aside.  Add the onion, carrots, and garlic; saute until the onion is translucent.  Add the meat to the pan along with the remaining ingredients except the hot sauce and sherry, and stir to combine.  Bring to a simmer, then  reduce the heat to low.  Simmer and stir occasionally for 30-40 minutes, or until lentils are soft.  Add the hot sauce and sherry, adjust salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately.

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The best kind of snow…

After the red and green of Christmas is played out, my mind always turns to snow, snowflakes, and twilight colors like sky blue, teal, pink, and plum. And after the frenzy of baking and candy-making for holiday gifts, my mind turns to cut-out cookies with detailed designs. The result: snowflake cookies!

Part one of my renaissance for 2011 is to get back into the kitchen, experiment, be creative. Cooking is my first love and I feel a strong desire to reconnect with it. I’ve been reading other food blogs which have given my culinary imaginings a jolt.

For this first blog post, which I hope to follow with one about every two weeks, I offer winter colors atop sugar snowflake cookies decorated with royal icing and sprinkles galore.

It’s the best kind of snow…

Posted in Cookies, food, Royal Icing, Snowflakes, Uncategorized | 5 Comments