Saturday, December 31, 2011

A look back at 2011

I've never done an end of the year "best-of" post before, but after seeing so many of them this year, I've decided to do one. Rather than posting the most viewed or commented posts, I'm going to follow the example of my friend Christine and choose my favorite for each month. I'm so grateful to have discovered this outlet for writing, storing recipes, sharing them with others, and becoming a part of the amazing food blogging community. The main reason I started this blog was to begin to document my cooking progress because I knew I needed to take control over the food going into my body if I was ever going to take control over my health. I'm glad to say that I've noticed a lot of changes in myself and that 2011 had more ups than downs.

Now, here's my look back at my favorite recipes from 2011.

January
Cashew chicken korma: While this does happen to be one of my most viewed recipes, I think it is my favorite from January because it was one of my first attempts to make my own Indian food. It was delicious and I really should make it again! 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sweet and spiced glazed mixed nuts


These are probably one of the most addictive snacks I've ever made (or eaten). In one bite you get sweetness from the maple and brown sugar glaze, spice from the cayenne and cinnamon, and the saltiness from the healthy sprinkling of sea salt. One top of that, you have some wintery herbs mixed in there and the different textures and tastes of the rich nuts. I love the little flecks of green herbs stuck all over these nuts. I think the herbs set them apart from most glazed/spiced nuts that I've had. I've made this recipe the last two years to give away as a Christmas gift to some family members. Last year, I made only one batch and my husband and I had to pack it up right away to keep from eating it all before we could give it out. This year, I made a double batch so we could keep this small bowl for ourselves and still have enough for gifts. Everyone who received a container of these nuts seemed pretty excited (and most were sampling them immediately). I love that these nuts are something different from all the baked goods and sweets that are (still) surrounding me, too.

You can change up the nuts in here to include your favorite(s), or you can even do all of one kind if you prefer. I adapted this recipe from Not without Salt and it is a pretty forgiving recipe. You can change up some of the spices, too. While it may be too late for Christmas gifts this year, it's definitely not too late to work these into your New Year's party or as a host gift for any holiday gatherings you have remaining. Just be sure to make enough for yourself, too. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sugar plums


This is my first experience with sugar plums (but it certainly will not be my last). Actually, I never really knew they were a real recipe until this year. And, now that I've tried them, I can see why the sleeping children had visions of them dancing in the heads as the slept on Christmas Eve. Sugar plums contain various dried fruits and spices along with nuts. There appear to be numerous recipes out there, each one utilizing some different nuts, fruits, and spices. The recipe I'm sharing is a combination of inspirations from both Nourished Kitchen and Alton Brown. Sugar plums invoke in me a sense of days past and make me think that they would have been something my great-grandmother may have enjoyed. They smell of Christmas and taste of it, too. I think these are best made while listening to Bing Crosby or Perry Como - something relatively old-fashioned, soft, and relaxing.

If you are looking for one more Christmas treat, give these a try. They are pretty simple to make and you don't have to turn on your oven either. They will make a perfect snack or gift. Plus, they are full of pretty healthy stuff! This recipe will make approximately 30 sugar plums. I think next time I'll add some figs, too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Curried sweet potato, lentil, and spinach soup


After all the cookies and other Christmas treats I've been eating making, I thought that we could use a light and healthy dinner full of fiber and nutrients. The heaviness of winter foods, especially at Christmas, can sometimes get to be too much. I was craving some spicy food along with some greens. Aside from the spinach, all of the ingredients were already in my pantry or fridge (I love when that happens). I try to keep well-stocked on basic cooking items like spices, stocks, dried and canned beans, diced tomatoes, and other items that I use all the time. I also do a lot of menu planning so I know what meals I'm going to be making for the week. I don't want to have to stop at the grocery store everyday on my way home or wonder what we are going to eat. I like to know and plan this out at the beginning of every week. I find that this is especially important this time of year. We are already eating a lot of sweets and other things that we don't eat regularly, so I think it's even more important to have some quick and healthy dinners up your sleeve and all the ingredients at home. This way, you won't be as tempted to get take out during this busy time of year. I think menu planning helps a lot.

While it may not be the prettiest soup, it was satisfying, filling, and very flavorful. It was pitch dark when I took this photo, so if it looks unappetizing, I apologize. It's really quite delicious, I promise. This recipe will make enough for about four large bowls of soup. I reserved about a tablespoon of the coconut milk to drizzle on top.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eggnog-glazed nutmeg sugar cookies

I've never been a huge fan of eggnog...until this year, this is. I've found these small containers of eggnog from a local farm that are absolutely delicious. The eggnog is not very thick, but yet it's super creamy. It's full of nutmeg and cinnamon flavors. The best part? It doesn't have any added ingredients that you find in most commercial eggnog like guar gum, "spices," "flavoring," or high fructose corn syrup. So, this season, we've really been enjoying our eggnog (especially with a bit of rum and ice). When I found a recipe for these cookies from Better Home and Gardens (via Pinterest), I just knew that they'd be a perfect new cookie to try this year. I was right. These cookies are sweet, but the spice of the nutmeg counters the sweetness well. They don't taste overly like eggnog, but have just a hint of it as the spices are reminiscent of the holiday drink.

As usual, I did change the recipe a bit. The original recipe says that it will make two dozen cookies, but I think this is very dependent on the size of your cookie cutter. At this point, I've only baked off half of the dough (I'll bake the other half later in the week) and I already have almost two dozen cookies. My star cookie cutter is about 2-ish inches in diameter, and the original used a 3-inch diameter round cookie cutter - so it really makes a difference. I cut down the icing/glaze a bit as well because I don't like it thick. And, for good measure, I added a little rum to it! If you want to use/view the original recipe, you can find it at the above link.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Date-walnut bars

Dates are one of those food items I buy every year at Christmas. I like to eat them whole just as a snack. This year I wanted to add them into one of my holiday baked goods or cookies. I found a recipe for date bars and knew that it would be the winner. These bars have a filling of stewed dates and walnuts sandwiched in-between two layers of a buttery oat crust. They are delicious, sweet, and full of holiday goodness. If you like dates, I guarantee you will love these bars.

I modified the recipe, mainly to cut down on the amount of sugar that it uses. Dates are already so sweet, I didn't want to them to be over-powering with sweetness. Even though I cut it down in the below recipe, I think you could still cut it even more (maybe only 1/4 cup in the date mixture or 1/2 cup in the crust). Depending on the size of your bars when you cut them, you will get about 20 bars. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sesame-cranberry cookies


These are my first Christmas cookies of the season! I always have trouble choosing my cookies because there are the traditional ones that I want to include every year (like rosemary shortbread Christmas trees) but then I find a bunch of new ones that I want to include, too. I like to bake a variety of cookies and to stagger them throughout the month so that we don't have too many all at once. I made these cookies for a work gathering so we only ate a couple of them ourselves. This was a new recipe that I found and I was unsure how they would turn out because they don't have a lot of the traditional cookie ingredients -- not a lot of flour, no baking soda/powder, no eggs... What I really loved about these cookies is that they were low in sugar and they used maple syrup for their sweetener. So, I would say as far as cookies go, these are a relatively healthier choice than some...

These cookies had a hint of maple taste, a tang of cranberry, and a really nutty taste from all the toasted sesame seeds. The combination was good and they weren't overly sweet, which is nice this time of year when there are so many sweet treats. Also, they are a snap to make - perfect for a last minute party treat or easy holiday dessert! The below recipe will make about 20-22 cookies. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mixed mushroom ragu with pasta


Mushrooms are one of those things people either love or hate. When I was a kid, I had more of a hate relationship with mushrooms, but it has definitely shifted to more of a love relationship as an adult. There are so many types of mushrooms available in the grocery store now that you aren't stuck with just the white button variety. I enjoy trying all the different kinds and my husband has started learning wild mushrooms and foraging for chanterelles are other edibles. I gave him a copy of the book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystic of Mushrooms for Christmas last year. I just started reading this book recently and I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying it. It combines science, ecology, and cooking all in one book - what could be better?

This recipe is inspired by a similar one from Wegmans' magazine. I was seeing a lot of nice mushrooms in the store and thought that a pasta featuring them was in order. You can use any combination of mushrooms you want for this recipe - whatever is available in your store and whatever looks good and fresh. Crimini, shiitake, white button, chanterelle, oyster, etc. - they will all work. I like to use a mixture to have different flavors and textures. The three I chose were based on what was available the day I went shopping. This recipe will serve about six people.

Lastly, today is my two-year anniversary since my first blog post! When I look back at my older posts, I think that I've grown a lot in my writing. I am trying more and more foods and learning so much by cooking and blogging about it. I'm so glad to have all of you other great bloggers and readers out there to share recipes and stories with. I truly love hearing your comments. For the next year I plan to continue to try new foods and to keep cooking to ensure my husband and I are eating real food. Thanks for all the support! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guinness gingerbread

If you have Nigella Lawson's cookbook Nigella Kitchen and you have not made her Guinness gingerbread yet, well, after you read this post, you should do so immediately! If you are looking for a holiday treat that is different from the usual cookies, look no further. This gingerbread (and, let's be honest, it is basically a gingerbread cake) is so good - it's moist, sweet, spicy, and just all around good. Plus, it gets better as it sits for a day or two - so try not to eat it all on day one! I served up a piece with some vanilla ice cream while it was still warm, but I thought it was better plain (for breakfast) the next day after the flavors continued to develop.

I did change the recipe ever so slightly so what I've posted below is a little different than in the cookbook. For one, I added molasses, so mine is a bit darker. I combined the molasses with the golden syrup that Nigella has in her recipe because I like my gingerbread to have that molasses flavor in it. The golden syrup is nice because it is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup that is made with corn sugar. I found it in the European section of my grocery store (if you can't find it though, I would use a combination of molasses and corn syrup). I also added a bit more ginger because I knew her two teaspoons wouldn't be enough for me. There were a few other changes I made including adding some salt and decreasing the brown sugar. It was splendid. The only problem was that I accidentally put it in a baking dish that was too small because I wasn't paying attention. This caused some of the batter to ooze over the sides. So make sure your baking dish is large enough (13 x 9 x 2). Depending on how small or large you cut your gingerbread, you should get between 16 and 24 pieces.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Roasted butternut squash with baby spinach and pomegranate

When pomegranates appear in the grocery store, I am always trying to come up with ways to incorporate them into my cooking. Pomegranate seeds are crunchy and tart and they make a great topping for salads, vegetables, oatmeal, etc. Pomegranates can be messy and a little time consuming to get out all the seeds - and, you don't want to lose the juice and just let it run out all over your cutting board. You want to save it to use in the recipe. Here are some pomegranate tips if you've never tackled one before or if they still give you some trouble. I like to seed it over a bowl and then use a colander to separate the seeds from the juice.

I made this side dish utilizing the bottom half of a giant butternut squash I had saved. This squash came from my father-in-law's garden and it was so big. I fed eight people with the top half at Thanksgiving and still had more than enough! I really like to pair sweet winter squash or sweet potatoes with a bitter green. I generally use dried cranberries and or some toasted nuts to add tang and crunch, but this time I went with the pomegranate seeds. The result is an easy, healthful, and colorful side dish that is full of complimentary flavors. The colors would make this a lovely dish to serve as a side to a holiday meal, too. The recipe is very forgiving and can be adjusted to feed more people by just eyeballing the amounts of vegetables so that they look to be in a good ratio to one another. The recipe below made enough to feed about three people as a hearty side. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Apricot glazed chicken with almonds


Chicken is something that people always seems to get stuck as to how to make it differently or new, especially chicken breasts. I never seem to have that problem - I'm always finding new ideas and new recipes I want to try out for chicken. This recipe is from Gourmet Today (which is really one of the best cookbooks ever - I seem to find a new recipe every time I look through it). This chicken is simple and flavorful - plus, it's easy to make which is perfect for a weekday dinner. The glaze ingredients are likely items that you already have at home. The base of the glaze is apricot jam. I like to buy Crofter's brand jams because they are organic and made with fair trade sugar. The sweet jam is mixed with soy sauce and mustard, which balances the flavor of the glaze. I served the chicken with some steamed green beans and baked garnet yams for a complete meal. The recipe will make about four servings.