Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mark vs. The Brussel Sprouts

Since September, I have introduced Mark to so many rare bites. Tabbouleh, quinoa, kale, fennel, Panna Cotta, basil ice cream and the list goes on. When it comes to food, there was nothing that I made that Mark honestly didn't enjoy. That was, until, I made him brussel sprouts. I had high hopes that preparing them ever so carefully and seasoning them up with love would make for an enjoyable side dish one night but after one bite, it just wasn't working for him. I am probably in the minority but I absolutely LOVE fresh brussel sprouts. Roasted, sauteed, baked in a gratin...we didn't get along when I was a child but as my palate over the years, I discovered when cooked with a little pizazz, those little sprouts were not so bad. After my failed attempt to make Mark's taste buds fall in love, I put a kabosh on brussel sprouts and just purposefully left them off of our menu.

Fast forward to last week, as I was browsing through recipes, and came across a tasty looking recipe for brussel sprouts and I just had to have them. I sauteed up some veggies for Mark and made this recipe for myself. Well, by the time dinner was over, I think he stole more sprouts off of my plate than I got to enjoy myself! Since I was deprived of satisfying my brussel sprout craving last week, I squeezed them into our menu this week and even made a few extra. The dijon mustard adds nice flavor and lemon always brightens things up! Cook them shorter to keep them crunchy, or roast them a bit longer for a crispy finish. Either way, this recipe is quick, healthy and can turn any vegetable loather into President of the Brussel Sprout Fan Club! Food lesson of the week? Every bite deserves a second chance, and the brussel sprouts won the battle in our house.

Roasted Dijon Brussel Sprouts
recipe adapted from Cooking Light

1 lb brussel sprouts, halved
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp. dijon mustard
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt & Pepper

Wash the sprouts, cut off the ends, and peel off the outer leaves. Cut them in half and place in a small baking disk. Whisk together olive oil and mustard and pour over the sprouts, and zest an entire lemon right over the dish. Season with pepper and very little salt (the mustard adds extra flavor) and toss together to make sure all of the brussel sprouts are coated. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until done to your likeness. We like them crispy, so 40 minutes is perfection.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chicken Fajita Burgers

Burgers have become one of my favorite things to experiment with. With a little creativity, I have found that I can create the American staple with multiple personalities. The best part is that you don't need a big bun or fatty meat to enjoy the perfect patty. Many of our favorite burgers are bun-less creations made with ground chicken or turkey and topped with something full of flavor. The key to our happy burgers is mixing the meat with tasty, fresh ingredients and bright, vibrant spices. My most recent burger creation was inspired by something I saw on Rachel Ray a few weeks ago. She made a similar recipe using ground beef, good veggies and a packet of fajita seasoning. I swapped out the beef for chicken, mixed in some fresh shallots, serrano peppers and cilantro and mixed up a quick fajita seasoning. If you don't have all of the spices on hand, a packet of fajita seasoning will do the trick. The great thing about making your own seasoning is that you can control how much salt goes into it, making for a healthier option! I topped our Chicken Fajita Burgers with homemade Pico de Gallo and avocados, and served them alongside fresh cut and roasted sweet potato fries.

Chicken Fajita Burgers

1 pound ground chicken
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano pepper, minced
2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. red pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 egg, beaten

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. I find that most burgers taste best if you have time to let the flavors love each other for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. Divide into 4 sections and form into hamburger patties. A little trick I learned from Rachel Ray, if you make the patties thicker on the outside and slightly thinner in the middle, the burger will plump in all the right places while grilling. Cook on a grill pan or in a skillet for 6-7 minutes on each side.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Weekend Love

I have lots of new recipes to share but for now, I leave you with a little weekend love. This precious video has been showing up all over the inter-webs and has gained a huge following in the past couple of weeks. Ellen Degeneres even featured this sweet father/daughter duo, Jorge & Alexa, on her show this past Wednesday and I can't seem to get enough of it. I think I want to scoop Alexa up and hang out with her for a few days. (that is if Andi doesn't get to her first!!) If this doesn't make you smile...I don't know what else will!

Peace & Love to you all from our snowy abode to yours!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Zucchini Fritters

I realize that it's not summer and I don't have a surplus supply of zucchini from the neighbors' overflowing garden down the street, but zucchini was on sale this week at my local grocery store (of which I am still not in love with) and I have had a little recipe bookmarked that I have been dying to try. I love veggies and can't even name one that I don't like. I wouldn't say that MM is as passionate about them as me but let's face it, guys like their meat. With that being said, I am always looking for creative things to do with my vegetables to mix things up and make our dinner plate more interesting. Last night, I introduced zucchini fritters and I think they will be making an appearance more often. If the potato pancake had a cousin, this would be it. Crispy and light, these little cakes have a creamy center and a surprisingly robust flavor. I topped them with sour cream and lemon zest, served alongside marinated flank steak and we left the table smiling. I should also add that the leftovers I enjoyed for lunch today might have even been better than last night! This recipe couldn't be easier.

Zucchini Fritters
recipe adapted from several sources

2 small zucchini
1 teaspoon salt
4 scallions (green onions), minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp. flour
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for frying

Grate zucchini into a colander and sprinkle with 1 tsp. salt. Let sit for 10 minutes. Squeeze out the liquid. Getting all of the liquid out yields a crispier, yummier crust.

Mix with scallions, parsley, dill, parmesan, egg and flour and season with cracked pepper.

Coat a skillet with olive oil and set on medium-high heat. Place mixture in heaping spoon fulls onto skillet and flatten with spatula. Cook 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and lemon zest.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Salted Caramel Brownies

Every city has its "hidden gem" and I am ashamed to say that even living in Charlotte for over half of my life, I discovered this one less than two years ago! My dear cousins Meg and Jim introduced me to Amelie's one summer night, and my taste buds were forever changed. Upon my first visit to the quirky bakery located in Charlotte's eclectic "NoDa" neighborhood, I explained to the friendly man behind the counter that it was my first visit, and that I wanted the very best item that they had. He pointed to their award winning Salted Caramel Brownie and as soon as I took my first bite...It. Was. All. Over. Not only is this the number one selling item at Amelie's but it was also voted by Charlotte's residents as Charlotte's #1 dessert in Creative Loafing magazine. The base is rich, fudgy and decadent. The caramel topping is sweet, salty and hugs the brownie in all the right places.

Amelie's supplied Charlotte Magazine with their coveted recipe back in October of 2009 and I am so thankful that they did. This just might be my greatest kitchen creation to date. I was apprehensive to even attack this dessert since the original product is chocolate perfection but I was craving a little bit of Charlotte and giving this a whirl was a must. These brownies take time, patience and a lot of love, but I promise you once your mouth meets this masterpiece, you will soon realize it's not possible to just take one bite. If I were asked to describe these babies with one word? Sinful. Whether you give this recipe a try in your kitchen or take a trip to Amelie's and experience the bakery perfection for yourself I promise you that upon your first bite, as far as desserts are concerned, you may have just found your new addiction.

Salted Caramel Brownies
Amelie's French Bakery- Charlotte, North Carolina

6 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
Salted caramel glaze, recipe below

Heat oven to 325 degrees. The original recipe says to grease or butter your pan, but after reading several adaptations to this recipe online, I decided to line my 9 X 13 inch baking pan with foil. It was much easier to lift the whole sheet of brownies out of the pan, resulting in a prettier product.

In the top of a double boiler, over medium heat, melt chocolate and butter, being sure that the water in the double boiler does not touch the top pan. Stir in chocolate and butter until completely melted. Then, stir in the sugar. Blend well and remove from heat.

In a separate bowl, lightly whisk eggs. Stir eggs into chocolate mixture then add flour, stirring until completely blended. Spread batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

Completely cool brownies in pan. Pour caramel glaze over brownies and cool in refrigerator until caramel sets (at least two hours but these are even better the next day). Cut into 2 inch squares, take your first bite and fall madly in love.

Salted Caramel Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons powdered gelatin, combined with 1/4 cup cold water

In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm heavy cream until hot, but not boiling. in a separate tall saucepan, combine sugar and water. Place over medium-high heat. DO NOT STIR. This is where the patience comes in. As the sugar dissolves, the mixture will begin to boil and this where the adventure of making caramel begins. It will seem like you are watching paint dry waiting for the mixture to turn a dark amber color but I promise you, it will get there. Once you see a beautiful caramel color, add cream, butter and salt. Stir gently until everything is smooth and well combined. Remove from heat and stir in water/gelatin mixture. Use immediately.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Three Ways to Toss it Up

Salads always tend to get a bad reputation, often being called rabbit food, mixed up plants and other unflattering titles that serve as an injustice to something that I enjoy so much. In my humble opinion, there isn't a more perfect meal or side dish to whip up! Ever since I was little, I have been the salad queen. Always asking for seconds and never complaining about eating my vegetables, I have loved all leafy greens my entire life. In an Italian kitchen, salad is always eaten last in order to help aid digestion and top off the meal. I remember being most excited about this part of our family dinners every single night. As I have grown older and my taste buds have matured, I find myself being the most creative in the kitchen when it comes to mixing up a gorgeous salad. I always keep baby greens and arugula on hand and like to make it a challenge to see what I can pull out of the refrigerator and cabinets to make a winning masterpiece! Just because salads are often healthy, does not mean that they have to lack flavor, substance and personality. When I make a salad, I pick out the perfect sized bowl, cut up all of my ingredients to fill it and make the dressing right on the salad before I toss it up! (which is why you don't see any exact proportions below) Here are a few of our recent creations and a fall inspired favorite that always does the trick.

Mexican Chopped Salad
(Mexican inspired version of our favorite Greek Country Salad)

Vegetables (equal parts), chopped in large chunks:
Red Onion
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive Oil
Lime Juice

Endive, Citrus & Arugula Salad

1 orange, cut in segments
1 grapefruit, cut in segments
1/2 cup black beans
1 head belgian endive
Baby arugula
Salt & Pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
Olive Oil

Apple, Walnut and Orange Citrus Baby Greens

Fuji apple, cut into thin slices
Toasted walnuts
Dried cherries or cranberries
Mixed Baby Greens
Salt & Pepper
1 clove garlic
Zest of one orange
Olive Oil
Apple Cider Vinegar

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Basil Ice Cream

Basil is my favorite herb and since my grocery store is frequently out of it, my love affair with the fragrant green leaves so often found in my favorite kitchen creations has become even more so. We always crave what we can't have, right!? Every trip to the store has become a game and if I can get there before the basil is gone, I am a winner. If not, the college boys working in the produce department are lucky that they don't get hurt and I arrive home an angry Italian- with no basil. It should go without saying that when I picked up my ice cream making supplies on Saturday, I was able to come home with a smile on my face and a huge bunch of basil in my bags.

We may have 2011 underway in a healthy fashion, but that doesn't mean we can't leave a little room to wiggle and indulge in things that fall on the opposite end the healthy spectrum. We decided that Saturdays will be no calorie counting days. Much to my disappointment, this does not mean we can go buy and eat an entire birthday cake like I suggested earlier in the week but it does mean we get to treat ourselves to a little something extra. Hey, any excuse to succumb to my sweet tooth will always be embraced by me with loving arms! I love experimenting with recipes inspired by favorite restaurants so it should not be a surprise that my ice cream creation comes from my very favorite Charlotte restaurant, Ilios Noche. Basil might sound like such a rare bite to pair with ice cream but I assure you, it's fresh, fun and a nice diversion from usual ice cream flavors. I was hesitant to try this at the restaurant but once I did, I fell in love. The flavor is surprising and sweet and just goes to prove that it never hurts to step outside of your culinary comfort zone from time to time. I paired it with a blackberry balsamic reduction drizzled on top, providing a tart and tangy blanket that hugs each bite.

Basil Ice Cream
recipe adapted from Epicurious

2 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup well-chilled heavy cream

Special equipment- an instant read thermometer and an ice cream maker

Bring basil, milk, vanilla, 1/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt to a boil in a 2 quart sauce pan, stirring constantly. Once boiling, remove from heat and let it steep for about 30 minutes. Transfer to a blender (reserve the sauce pan) and blend until finely ground. This is where I altered the recipe a bit. If you click over to the Epicurious link, you will notice that they instruct you to pour the ice cream mixture into a fine mesh sieve. Because I didn't have one, I added less basil than the original recipe called for, chopped it up extremely fine from the beginning and by the time it was blended in the blender, the basil bits were nearly non existent and I was left with a smooth green ice cream base.

Beat together yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer for one minute, or until mixed well and the mixture is pale. Ass basil-milk mixture in a stream, beating until combined well. Pour mixture into reserved sauce pan and cook over moderate heat. stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats the back of the spoon and reads 175 degrees on the thermometer, without allowing it to come to a boil. Immediately remove from heat and pour into a metal bowl. Set bowl into a larger bowl of ice water and stir until cold, 10-15 minutes. Finally, stir in cream and freeze as directed in your ice cream maker. Transfer to air tight container and put in freezer to harden, around 2 hours.

Blackberry Balsamic Reduction
recipe adapted from several sources

1 cup fresh blackberries
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon raw sugar
Pinch of salt

In a saucepan, combine berries and water. Macerate berries with a whisk or potato masher and bring to a boil. Add balsamic, honey, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil for at least 5 minutes, or until mixture reduces by half. Let cool before serving over ice cream.

Special thanks and love to my sweet sisters for our Cuisinart Ice Cream maker. If you are looking for shower/wedding gifts, this little gem is perfect! It's also the top rated at home ice cream maker on the market.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

I have never done a book review on my blog before but my recent read had such a profound effect on me and a week after finishing it, the message is still resonating. Jodi Picoult has quickly become one of my favorite authors. She writes from the view points of all parties involved and her stories often revolve around controversial life decisions and events. The topics she writes about are not all smiles, rainbows and pixie dust, but neither is everyday life. Every Jodi Picoult book I have read has given me a new eye for the things going on around me. To put it simply, she makes you, the reader, think.
I could not put this book down. I was so consumed with this story and its characters as if they were friends of mine. Let me back up a few months to last Spring. Both of my sisters raved about this book and demanded I read it. I found out what toe subject matter was and immediately flinched. Nonetheless, I started the book but after only 50 pages in, I made a premature judgement and thought it was too much to handle. To quit reading a book is something I never do. While I was home for Christmas, I pulled the book off of the bookshelf and decided to give it another chance. Best. Decision. Ever. (Thanks, Andi & Nat!!)

I will not divulge too much information about the book so that I won't ruin the book but I will say that this book centers itself around a violent school shooting and the severe bullying and and pain that so often becomes the cause of these awful events. This book does not lessen the seriousness of such events nor does not insist that Peter Houghton was right in entering his school shooting at his peers but it does give us another perspective that is so often overlooked when events such as these happen. My high school years are not too far behind me and I remember students just like Peter. I now look back and wonder what may or may not have gone through their heads while enduring torture and torment day in and day out and never feeling like they were good enough. After the story unraveled through the pages and after I cried many tears, I know I have finished this book with new eyes and reassurance that things and people aren't always what they seem. The message was powerful and was even required reading for teachers of a Charlotte elementary school a few summers ago. All in all, this novel was a poignant reminder that everyone has a story and at the end of the day, all that anyone wants is to be loved. Snow is on the way and there is no better time to curl up with a good book and some hot tea. I highly recommend adding this one to your winter reading list!

Image via: Google source

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Queen City Christmas

The 12th Day of Christmas is upon us and the celebrating is about to come to an end. Our tree is still glowing and gorgeous but I do believe it's time to un-deck the halls and tuck the ornaments in for 11 months. I cannot believe that December appeared then disappeared even faster than the jingle of Santa's bells. Our first Christmas together was wonderful and I am loving some of the new traditions we have already started together. Hopefully there won't be many more Christmases that we are living so far away from our families because the trips are so quick and barely enough time to soak in all of the magic. I got to partake in all of my most cherished family traditions including Christmas eve pajamas with the lovies, beautiful and breathtaking as always, Midnight Mass and we cannot forget the famous post church Creme Brulee that MFN loves into existence every year. I live for this dessert! Anyone who spends time with my family can tell you that there's something special about the Nido house at Christmas time. It certainly is extra special and my mother's knack for extra special touches is bar to none! To top off the magic of Christmas with our families, The Carolinas saw a WHITE CHRISTMAS! Surprisingly enough, even growing up in Michigan, I hardly remember any holidays with the white stuff but we left snowy Illinois only to find ourselves playing in the flakes in North and South Carolina. We had a little snow fight with our sweet SC nieces and nephew and warmed up with homemade hot chocolate. There is something more beautiful about snow in places that hardly get to enjoy it. There are few better feelings than celebrating Christmas with the people you love the most. We made it back to IL, enjoyed our very first visitor (which was wonderful and must be saved for its own post) and before we knew it, we were toasting in the New Year with a tasty dinner, homemade lemon sorbet and a bottle of champagne.

2011 is already off to an amazing start! We are on a bit of an extra health kick repairing the damage of the inevitable Christmas calories. This whole being married thing is working out nicely because on top of all of the wonderful things that we enjoy about being married to each other, we each got a bonus! Mark has a personal chef and I have a personal trainer. I would say this is a winning combination! During the week it's been pretty healthy around here but we decided that Saturdays we can indulge a little extra. On this weekend's radar- basil ice cream with a balsamic blackberry drizzle.

Wishing everyone a happy end to the magic of the holiday season, a delicious upcoming weekend and a delightful year ahead! (filled with extra peace and love, of course!)