Until Brion and I had spent time living in Ecuador, I had never paid any attention to plantains. Really more of a vegetable than a fruit, plantains are larger and firmer than their banana relative but not sweet. They must be cooked to become palatable. With their bland, starchy, somewhat potato-like flavor, plantains take well to many cooking methods.
On one of the first meals we ate in a restaurant in Ecuador, I experienced the flavor of ‘patacones’. I had ordered an Ecuadorian ceviche and they were served as a side dish. The taste was like a potato chip but had almost a corn flavor. At the time I didn’t know what they were but the taste was definitely one that stayed with me.
In regions that compete for its origin, this specialty appears under two distinct names depending on the country. They are called patacones in Ecuador, Columbia, Costa Rica and Peru. In Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Haiti they are called tostones and in West Africa, just simply plantain chips.
The unripe plantain is traditionally prepared with a deep-frying method. The frying is done twice to ensure a crispy chip. You first peel the green plantains and slice them. Then the chips are fried on both sides, removed from the oil and blotted on paper towel. The tostones or patacones are now flattened somewhat and re-fried to provide extra crispiness. Salt may be used to add flavor to the chips. The thicker version (patacones) should be served hot or warm and are nice eaten with guacamole, garlic sauce, grated cheese or as a side dish.
As always, in my quest to bake rather than deep fry, I decided to make some patacones in the oven today. To add some guacamole = yum!!
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Slice plantain into 1-inch thick slices. Place on baking sheet & drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt.
Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven & with the end of a glass, 'squash' each piece down flat. Thinner = crispier. Place back in the oven for another 10 minutes or until crispy to your liking. Serve with guacamole.
In a small bowl, mash avocados. Add minced red onion, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, garlic powder, lemon juice, salt & pepper. Combine thoroughly & serve.
Just for interest, the special or tradional tool used to flatten plantain slices is called a 'tostonera'.
Boxed instant pudding mixes have become an ingredient in many recipes from cake, cookies and pie to trifle and salad. In 1975, a salad recipe was developed by Kraft Kitchens, using two of their products, jell-o instant pistachio pudding and Cool Whip. It was called ‘Pistachio Pineapple Delight’. It seems though, that a forerunner to this salad was one using a lime jell-o powder instead of a pistachio pudding mix.
The lime gelatin / pineapple combination evolved over at least four decades. Research shows the salad on a menu in 1931 as well as another recipe from 1948 that contained NO marshmallows. In 1957, a pineapple pie recipe was printed with a filling made from the same ingredients as the salad.
This particular salad was a huge favorite of our family when I was growing up. One year, family friends that had been invited to Christmas dinner, asked if this salad had something to do with our German heritage because it always appeared on special occasions. It is hard to figure out where this dish belongs — dessert or salad? The fact that it is not so sweet you can get away with having it as a side dish but at the same time, it could also be enjoyed as a light dessert.
I have to be honest, I like both versions — lime or pistachio. Just for something different, I’m using the pistachio pudding mix in cookies and giving them a chocolate cream cheese center.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream together butter & sugar until light & fluffy. Add the egg & extracts; combine then stir in flour & dry pudding mix. Combine well but do not over mix.
Form dough into 1 1/2-inch balls then roll in finely chopped pecans. Place on cookie sheet; make a thumbprint indentation on the top of each cookie. Bake for about 10-11 minutes; remove from oven & press each indent again, slightly. Remove to wire rack & cool.
While cookies are baking, Combine cream cheese & butter in a small bowl until smooth. Add sugar, cocoa powder & vanilla; beat until very creamy. If filling is to thick add a bit of milk to get the desired consistency. Divide filling between cooled cookies. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
The flavor combination of deeply sweet figs and the nutty, creaminess of Gorgonzola dolce is one of those pairings where opposites attract.
Among the oldest fruits consumed by humans, figs tell a complex and symbolic story in culinary history. Spanish Franciscan missionaries brought the fig to southern California in 1520, leading to the variety known as Mission figs.
The deciduous fig tree can live as long as 100 years and grow to 50′ (15 m) tall, though they are more typically 10-30′ (3-9 m). Figs flourish in hot, dry climates where the fruit has all-day sun to ripen.
The Black Mission figs are extremely sweet — sometimes even oozing a bit of syrup. They have a blackish-purple skin and dark pink flesh. Figs are best to use when they are very ripe, a little soft rather than firm. If you have figs that aren’t quite ready, use the heating method as that will soften them and add a bit of caramelization.
I came across this recipe excerpted from Cook Like a Rock Star by Anne Burrell. What a great and unbelievably simple hors d’ oeuver.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Place fig halves sliced side up on a baking sheet. Using your finger, make a depression in the center of each. Place 2-3 drops of vinegar in each depression and sprinkle figs with salt.
Fill each fig with a dollop of cheese & top with a walnut piece. Bake until cheese melts & is bubbly, about 5 minutes.
With New Years Eve gatherings fast approaching, these little gems come to mind in the form of hors ‘d’ oeuvres. Of course, they are always great for a main dish as well.
The Swedish word for meatball, ‘Kottbullar’, first appeared in print around 1754. They are traditional Swedish ‘old-world’ fare at Smorgasbords and other festive occasions. Initially Swedish meatballs were only enjoyed by upper class Swedes but the increased availability of wood stoves and meat grinders in the 1850’s made meatballs accessible to the middle class as well. In northern Scandinavian countries beef was considered a luxury item, which meant meatballs were highly prized.
The meat content can vary based on geography. In southern Sweden, they are most often a 50/50 mix of beef and pork whereas further north in Sweden 70/30 of beef to pork is typical. Likely other options would be veal, venison, lamb or moose. Size-wise, they are smaller than those of Italy or Germany, typically not larger than a golf ball or smaller than 3/4″(2.5 cm) across.
The cream gravy (sauce) and spices play a big part in the taste of this dish, traditionally served with lingonberry preserves, mashed potatoes and pickled cucumber salad. The ‘pressed cucumber’, as it is called, provides some crunch, saltiness and acidity to the sweet creaminess of the rest of the meal.
In America, Swedish meatballs were very popular in the beginning of the 20th century and again in the 1950’s-1960′.
Brion and I have always enjoyed these tasty little meatballs so we are having them as our main course meal today.
Soak breadcrumbs in 2 cups of 1/2 & 1/2 cream. Fry onion in margarine. Combine all meatball ingredients & mix well. Shape into 1-inch balls. Preheat broiler to a high setting.
Place meatballs in a large baking dish, allowing a bit of space in between each one. Broil about 4" (10 cm) from heat until the tops are browned nicely. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Set oven to bake & reduce temperature to 300 F. Bake until meatballs are cooked through, depending on their size. If it seems they are getting too brown, cover lightly with a piece of foil to finish baking.
Cream Sauce (Gravy)
In a small saucepan, cook margarine & flour until bubbly. Slowly add broth & cream; boil for a FEW minutes, add soy, salt & pepper. Pour over hot meatballs.
This recipe can easily be made in whatever amount you need but I find making the whole thing & freezing them in various amounts works great for quick future meals. Freezing them without any sauce also gives you the option to adapt them to other types of meals.
Appetizers, starters, hors d’oeuvers or whatever you want to call them, are such an important part of any gathering. They provide the ‘welcome’ and set the stage for what comes next.
A comfort food and party food all in one, Christmas and New years celebrations would not be complete without cheese. Brie, one of the world’s best known soft cheeses, originated in northeast France, but is now produced all over the world. A decadent cheese that evokes thoughts of sophistication and elegance.
Brie, a soft, creamy, off-white or yellow cheese with an edible rind is produced from whole or semi-skimmed cow’s milk. Typically described as tasting earthy, nutty, fruity, grassy and even mushroomy.
In France, Brie is very different from the cheese that is exported. ‘Real’ French Brie is unstabilized and the flavor is complex when the surface turns slightly brown. When the cheese is still pure-white, it is not matured. If the cheese is cut before the maturing process, it will never develop properly.
Possibly, the most incredible way to serve brie, is to bake it, but of course that’s just a personal opinion. However, it can be difficult to find the perfect balance between under and over baking. If you remove brie from the oven too soon, it will only stay melted for a few minutes. On the other hand, if it is left in the oven to long it will lose it’s shape and be difficult to handle.
There are a variety of brie options on the market and any of them technically work. ‘Double Cream’ (227 gm) is an excellent choice, whereas ‘Triple Cream’ will become too runny when melted.
After all these years, our memories of France, it’s food, culture, beauty and not to be forgotten — the wine (and Brion’s favorite goat cheese) have not lessened. My sister, Loretta joined us on that first trip any of us had ever made to Europe, which added to those memories of a lifetime.
I wanted to share a few BAKED BRIE recipes today that have been favorites of mine to use at this time of the year. Hope you will enjoy.
227 - 375gram wheel of Brie cheeseIf you plan to make all 3 kinds you will need 1 wheel of brie for each.
In a large saucepan, combine all chutney ingredients; mix well. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Boil 1 minute. Remove cinnamon stick. Cover & cool.
Gingered Grape Chutney
Slice grapes in half. In a saucepan, stir wine with cornstarch until dissolved. Add sugar, candied ginger & grapes. Stir over high heat until it comes to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, stirring often until liquid thickens, 4-6 minutes. Remove from heat & stir in green onion. Cover & cool.
Place fig jam/preserves in a microwave-safe dish. Microwave for 30 seconds to soften. In a small bowl, combine the sliced, dried figs with chopped pistachios & walnuts. Add half of the fig jam & mix well to coat the nut mixture.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Set the brie on prepared baking sheet.
For the Blueberry or Grape Chutney: You can either bake the cheese FIRST & then add the topping or TOP it & then bake it.
For the Fig & Nuts: Before baking, coat the brie with the remainder of the jam. Top the brie with the fig & nut mixture.
Bake the brie for 12-13 minutes. At this point it should be starting to bubble on top. The trick is to leave it in the oven for as long as possible before the wheel begins to lose it's shape. You may have to leave it a bit longer. Serve the brie warm with crackers.
For best results, allow the brie to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before baking as it will ensure that the cheese melts evenly all the way through.
Brie tastes equally wonderful with a mix of both savory and sweet toppings.
Cream puffs are unusual pastries. Flour is added to a boiled mixture of butter and water, then baked at a high temperature until the mixture becomes a smooth ball of dough with a hollow center. This fairly tasteless mixture is known as choux pastry. When served as a sweet dessert they are called cream puffs — when served with a brown gravy & roast beef, Yorkshire pudding.
Although a very basic shell, these puffs can be made into some pretty elegant desserts. One idea that I had originally developed for a company Christmas party, used Chambord (raspberry) liqueur.
Chambord, France’s Liqueur Royale is a magnificent liqueur created using all natural ingredients. The finest black and red raspberries are blended before being steeped in Cognac to achieve a highly concentrated base. The mixture is then extracted and a second infusion captures the remaining flavors from the berries. The final step marries the berry infusion with Cognac and extracts of Madagascan vanilla, Moroccan citrus peel, honey and hints of fragrant herbs. The result is an unprecedented level of all natural complexities, flavor and aroma.
To fill the puffs, I made a simple pastry cream using instant vanilla pudding mix, spices, whipped cream and some rum flavor to give it an eggnog taste. Once the puffs were filled and placed on a serving dish, I drizzled them with the sauce. Any remaining sauce was served in a dish in the center of the cream puff ‘wreath’. It definitely brought the spirit of Christmas to the dessert buffet table!
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a saucepan, heat water & butter to a rolling boil. Whisk in flour & salt. Stir vigorously over low heat until mixture forms a ball, about 1 minute; remove from heat. Beat in eggs, all at once; continue beating until smooth.
Drop dough by scant 1/4 cupfuls about 3 inches apart onto an ungreased or parchment lined baking sheet. Combine 2 Tbsp milk & egg yolk; brush over tops. Bake until puffed & golden. about 35-40 minutes. Cool away from drafts. Cut off tops; pull out any filaments of soft dough.
Eggnog Fluff Filling
In a large bowl, combine DRY pudding mix, milk, rum extract, nutmeg & ginger. With a mixer blend on low speed; Add whip cream, beating on high speed until soft peaks form, about 1-2 minutes.
Raspberry Chambord Sauce
In a food processor, puree raspberries with water until smooth. Strain into a small saucepan, pressing puree through a mesh. Whisk sugar, cornstarch & liqueur into sauce. Cook all ingredients together over medium high heat until thickened & clear. Remove from heat & add remaining sugar IF DESIRED. Transfer to a non-metalic container, cover & chill until ready to use.
Fill puffs; arrange on serving platter & drizzle with fresh raspberry Chambord sauce. Place remaining sauce in center of cream puff wreath. Serve immediately or cover & refrigerate no longer than 3 hours.
Christmas gatherings would not be complete without pate’. For many people, pate’ brings to mind a fancy goose liver-based hors d’ oeuvre spread — but not all pate’ is made from liver!
While traditionally served baked in a crust, today pate’ simply describes a wide variety of smooth blends of meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables, dairy products, liquors like sherry or cognac with herbs and spices.
Pates’ can be smooth and creamy (mousse) or firm and chunkier (country style). Mousses spread effortlessly on crackers or bread while country style varieties can be sliced or cubed for appetizers or sandwiches. Equally flavorful hot or cold, pates’ are best served at room temperature.
Recipes are not always extravagant and widely vary from the humble appetizer prepared at home to one of the most expensive dishes served in world renowned restaurants.
There are no rigid rules for cooking or serving pate’. Nearly any flavor profile that appeals to you can be made into one. Today I wanted to feature a couple of very simple but tasty pates’ you might enjoy to try somewhere throughout the Christmas season.
In a food processor, combine turkey, onions, sour cream & mustard; process until mixture is well blended & smooth. Add relish; process about 30 seconds or until JUST combined. Spoon into lined bowl; cover with plastic wrap & press gently. Refrigerate 1-2 hours to blend flavors.
Unmold onto serving; remove plastic wrap. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios; gently press onto plate. Serve with a variety of crackers. Yield: 2 1/2 cups.
Walnut & Wild Mushroom Pate'
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast for 10 minutes, or until fragrant & lightly browned.
In a large skillet, saute shallots in butter over medium heat until translucent.; add chopped mushrooms, garlic, parsley, thyme, salt & pepper. Cook, stirring often, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Process toasted walnuts & olive oil in food processor until mixture forms a thick paste. Spoon in the cooked mushroom mixture; process to desired texture. Pack mixture into a well oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap & refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Serve on baguette slices or crackers of your choice. Yield: 20 servings
Christmas is known for bringing out the ancestral origins in all of us, with every culture celebrating the holidays enjoying their specific holiday foods. Although my parents were born here in Canada, our German heritage was very evident in my mother’s cooking and baking.
One cookie that has been made specifically for holidays for hundreds of years is gingerbread. Across Europe you will find many versions of the spicy cookies in different shapes, colors and textures.
‘Lebkucken’, a traditional German gingerbread was invented by medieval monks in Franeonia, Germany in the 13th century. Prepared in monastery bakeries with ingredients that not only had symbolic religious meaning but were highly prized for their healing properties.
There are a variety of types of lebkucken, each distinguished by slight alterations in ingredients. Most common ingredients include: * honey, flour, sugar and eggs * gingerbread spice mix or ‘Lebkuckengewurz’ * almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts * candied lemon and orange peel. The most critical ingredient being the ‘exotic’ spices from all around the world such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander and ginger.
Lebkucken can be round, square or rectangular. They can be glazed or not. Sometimes cocoa is mixed in with the dough making it rich and chocolaty. Other times, roasted apple, marzipan or cashews may be mixed in to add different flavors and textures.
‘Elisen lebkucken’ are the highest quality made. They must have at least 25% almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts and must contain no more than 10% flour if any. The ‘Nuremberg lebkucken’, baked in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, are known worldwide to be the best. Marzipan is often an ingredient in these gingerbread.
Of course this brings me back to another memory. Some years ago I had the experience of spending some time in the presence of a Dutch baker. At Christmas time, he would bake these incredible Dutch cookies called ‘Speculaas’ that were filled with marzipan and had that glorious similar spice blend. I just loved it and can’t resist making some version of it every Christmas season since.
Today, I’m making a large batch of lebkucken which I’m going to divide. Half of it is going to be made into ‘glazed’ triangles and the other half I want to dip in white chocolate and add a little holly decoration. Should be good!
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet & toast until the skins blister, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer nuts to a clean kitchen towel & rub together to remove the skins. Cool completely.
In a small bowl, combine almond meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. Transfer hazelnuts to a food processor, add walnuts, candied citrus rind & crystallized ginger along with 1 cup of the dry ingredient mixture; pulse until very finely chopped. Add remaining dry ingredients & pulse ONLY to combine.
In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat butter with brown sugar until creamy. Add honey & beat until smooth. Add eggs & vanilla, beating to combine. Fold in dry ingredients then beat until evenly combined. Divide the dough in half. Wrap in plastic wrap & chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking dish with 2 pieces of parchment paper (this will allow you to easily remove squares fro the pan). Spread the half of the chilled dough evenly into baking pan & bake in the center of the oven until surface is dimpled & a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. The cake should be springy but firm. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk powdered sugar with your choice of flavoring & water to make a thin but spreadable glaze. Spread glaze on just-warm cake & let cool completely. Remove cake (with parchment) from pan onto cutting board. Cut 16 squares then cut each square into 2 'triangles' giving you 32 pieces.
Making Individual Cookies
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Scoop about 1 1/2 Tbsp dough out at a time. Roll into balls. Place on parchment about 2-inches apart & bake at 350 F. for 15 minutes or test with a toothpick. Remove from oven & cool completely.
White Chocolate Icing
In a microwave safe bowl, melt white chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp shortening on HIGH for 10 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until melted, smooth & fairly runny. Dip half of each cookie in melted white chocolate mixture then run bottom of cookie slightly along edge of bowl to remove excess. Place on parchment paper to set at room temperature.
For the holly decoration, melt candy melts, one color at a time. Place in a small piping bag with a #4 tip & pipe decorations. Allow to set up at room temperature. You should have around 26 cookies.
If you would like a dark depth of flavor, add 2 Tbsp dark, unsweetened cocoa to your cookie dough as well as using a dark brown sugar instead of the light.
If you prefer to not make 2 different versions, make the whole recipe into either bars or rounds -- your choice!
This is one of those cookies that gets better as it ages.
Something I did & found it worked well was to portion out my cookies before chilling the dough.
Creativity and imagination is part of the fun of baking from scratch. The pairing of flavors been going on ever since people put food to mouth, but the science of it has now become big business.
As a rule of thumb, desserts usually have one or two predominate flavors, but some may have small amounts of additional flavor elements to help support the main flavor combination.
I have always loved the sweet, nutty flavor of hazelnuts especially in baking. The other day I was thinking about a square my mother used to make at Christmas. It had a very simple ‘shortbread’ base that was neither too sweet or buttery. My next thought was to pair hazelnuts, dried cranberries and glazed citrus peel to form the top layer. To add a little pizzazz, I baked them individually in different shaped tartlet pans.
I was real curious to see what Brion would think of these little ‘bites’. After tasting one, he felt they had good flavor but were a little dry. My solution to this was to make an orange coulis sauce to serve with them.
There’s something about the citrus notes of orange with the tarty sweetness of cranberries that makes for an aromatic amorous marriage of flavors. The end result produced a great tasting Christmas dessert!
Hazelnut & Dried Cranberry Bites with Orange Coulis
In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt & orange zest. Add butter, mix until well combined. Divide shortcrust among 24 tartlet pans. Evenly press pastry on bottom & up the sides of each. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar, flour, extract, corn syrup & melted butter. Fold in chopped hazelnuts, cranberries & citrus peel.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place tartlet pan on a foil lined baking sheet. Carefully fill tartlet pans (should be enough for 24). Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven & cool on a wire rack.
Peel orange in a circular fashion, being careful not to go to thick & getting the pith. Cut in slivers. Juice the orange, straining into a small saucepan. Heat water, orange juice & sugar, bring to a boil. Add slivers of orange peel; simmer about 15 minutes until peel is cooked.
When ready to serve, make a design with some coulis on dessert plates, place tartlets on top. Decorate with a bit candied orange rind!
If you don't care for the orange coulis, try serving these little bites with a bit of Grand Marnier flavored whipped cream OR some white "Old English" cheddar.
The humble meatball is one of the most versatile foods. They seem to exist in just about every culture and can be used in any number of ways, not only with pasta and rice but as a tasty little hors d’ oeuvres.
I find apricots to be a good compliment to meatball hors d’ oeuvres. Using Mediterranean (also known as Turkish) apricots is a good choice as their flesh is thicker and plumper as well as having great flavor.
Many people prefer to fry meatballs but it seems to me that usually ends up with a charred outside and they are still raw inside. Baking them in the oven will result in a much more even cooking. Personal choice I guess.
This recipe for APRICOT-SPICE MEATBALLSis one I’ve used many times over the years. They work well at Christmas events when hot hors d’ oeuvres are in demand. Make the meatballs up, bake and freeze ahead of time — thaw when needed! At serving time, make the spicy apricot nectar sauce and your ready to go.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan with foil; lightly grease. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine bread crumbs & milk. Let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in egg white, onion, apricots, salt, garlic & chili powder. Add ground pork & turkey; mix well. Shape meat mixture into 30 meatballs. Place on prepared baking pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked. Remove meatballs from pan to paper towels.
Spiced Apricot Sauce
In a small saucepan, combine sauce ingredients. Cook & stir over medium heat until thickened & bubbly.
Place meatballs in a slow cooker. Add sauce, stirring gently to coat. Turn heat setting to low. This should keep meatballs warm, while being used by guests for about 2 hours.
If you find your sauce gets to thick or you prefer it thinner to begin with, just use a little more apricot nectar.
This meat combination makes a real flavorful meatball.