Monday, October 26, 2009

Celery Apple Risotto with Crispy Pancetta

You may have noticed an abundance of delicious fall flavored treats floating around the food blogs these days. Creations rich with pumpkin, squash, apples and rich harvest spices are some of my favorites, regardless of the season. Fall has always meant trips to the pumpkin patch, bringing out those great snuggly sweaters to keep the chill away on cool fall days, apple cider, the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, and the smell. That smell of fall is distinctive, earthy and delicious enough to make you close your eyes and contently smile while drawing in the biggest whiff your lungs can take.

Here in California, I'm learning fall really isn't that different. Kids still go wild at the pumpkin patch, leaping and bounding from the hay bales while in pursuit of the perfect pumpkin. A few leaves litter the sidewalks here and there, and apple cider doughnuts were a welcome find at a downtown cafe a few days ago. Our neighborhood is festooned with fake spiderwebs, witches, goblins and ghouls. Despite the lack of cool crisp fall weather I grew up with, I've learned that the seasons are what you make of them, regardless of your location. I can't wait to carve pumpkins, hoping that I can recover from a carving contest whooping that I received from Mr. SoCal last year. The thought of our 2 and 3 year old nephews all decked out for Halloween in their bat costumes makes me grin from ear to ear, and the thought of them hopped up on sugary goodies makes me grin even more. The smell of fall is different here, so I decided to fill our kitchen with a rich, comforting scent of a treat that may not be as snuggly as those great fuzzy sweaters, but warms your heart and belly just the same.

Celery Apple Risotto with Crispy Pancetta
(adapted from Bon Appetit, 2007)

3 - 14 oz cans low sodium chicken broth (or stock)
1 cup celery, diced (about 4 stalks)
1/2 cup onion, diced
3 apples, diced
2 cups arborio rice
1 1/2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/8 cup shredded Parmesan reggiano cheese
3 oz pancetta, diced
Salt and Pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Fresh chives

In a small saucepan, pour chicken broth and simmer on medium heat.

In a large sauce pot, melt 1 Tbsp butter and oil together. Add diced onion, celery and two of the diced apples, and lemon juice. Saute on medium heat for 5-10 minutes, until onions and celery are soft. Add minced garlic and continue to stir.

Add arborio rice to large sauce pot and stir until well mixed. Slowly add chicken broth 1/2 to 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly.

Continue to mix with each addition of chicken broth, until all liquid is incorporated (25-30 minutes total). When all liquid is absorbed and rice is just past al dente, remove from heat and all Parmesan reggiano cheese and remaining butter and stir. Add remaining finely diced apple and stir thoroughly. The risotto will be done when it no longer can absorb additional liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cook diced pancetta over medium heat, and place cooked pancetta on paper towel to absorb excess grease. Plate risotto, and top with chopped chives and pancetta crumbles.

I really wanted a subtle apple sweetness to be the predominant flavor of this dish. When the risotto finished cooking, the apple was masked behind the earthy flavor of the celery and a hint of garlic. I used a softer apple (Macoun)and both the flavor and texture of the apple was lost in the risotto. Using a finely diced up apple mixed in after cooking gave it the perfect balance I was looking for. Next time around I would opt for a firmer apple, like a Braeburn or Granny Smith. The pancetta could just as easily be bacon and still get that great sweet salty balance. Happy fall to you and yours, and best wishes for a safe and happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Moonshine Whoopie Pies

I've been reveling in the picture perfect weather here in sunny California, and the kitchen at Chez SoCal is definitely open for business once again. One of my favorite food blogs to frequent is also a local LA gal, Sara, over at Culinerapy. Perusing her site a few nights ago, I was delighted to see a recipe for a New England staple, the whoopie pie. I've been pondering, mulling, and plotting this recipe ever since.

I've had this recipe for Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes bookmarked from Smitten Kitchen for entirely too long. Variations have popped up around the web, found here and here among others. Yesterday, in a search for inspiration, I revisited my overflowing folder of bookmarked recipes and ran across this very recipe. I now believe this was an act of divine victual intervention. Conveniently, Guinness, Jamesons and Baileys happen to be the go to trifecta of libations in our household. Why, you ask? It just so happens that Mr. SoCal happens to be Irish. Really, really Irish. I'm talking red hair and green pointy shoes short of a leprechaun Irish. In the spirit of full disclosure, I also enjoy Baileys in a piping hot cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. There's nothing wrong with having some liquid deliciousness in house, and it worked to my full culinary advantage today. The following is what happens when two amazing concepts unite in a brainstorm, complete with a dash of the hooch for good measure.

Moonshine Whoopie Pies
Makes 9 - 10 whoopie pies

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter, salted (softened)
2 cups Guinness stout
1/4 cup strong brewed coffee
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup butter, salted (softened)
8 ounces cream cheese (softened)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3-4 Tbsp Baileys Irish Cream

Whoopie Cookies:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two baking sheets with non-stick cooking spray, or line with parchment paper.

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa. In another large bowl, mix together brown sugar, butter and oil until well combined. Add egg and vanilla and mix thoroughly. Add coffee and half of the Guinness. Slowly incorporate dry ingredients into wet mixture, one cup at a time. After adding half of the dry ingredients, add the remaining Guinness. Mix in remaining dry ingredients.

Using an ice cream scoop, scoop batter onto baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake until cookies are just starting to crack on top, about 15 minutes. Cool completely.

Beat softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually add powdered sugar, until fully incorporated. Add vanilla, then add Bailey's until desired flavor level is achieved. Spoon into large zip top bag or pastry bag, and refrigerate.

Making the whoopie pies:
Remove filling in bag from fridge for 10 - 15 minutes prior to assembling whoopie pies. Lay half of cookies flat side up on a large cutting board or clean baking sheet. Working from the outer edge of the cookie towards the center, pipe a spiral of filling, covering entire flat surface of cookie. Top with remaining cookies. Wrap whoopie pies in plastic wrap (individually or between stacked layers) and refrigerate before serving.

I simply cannot get over the pillowy, light texture of the whoopie pie batter. Its akin to a more dense version of a meringue, that's the only thing I can compare it to. These whoopie cookies are delicate little flowers, though. Do take extra care in their storage after they cool. In my attempt to clean the cocoa-laden, sugary booze bomb that went off in my kitchen in the process of making these, I layered the nearly cooled cookies in a zip top bag. After the cleaning frenzy had passed, I found my beloved whoopie cookies a bit worse for wear. Stuck to their neighbors and painfully eager to fall apart, I humbly salute the 6 dearly departed whoopie cookies who are no longer in their intended form. Good thing there was leftover filling, or their crumbling would have been in vain.

Make sure to have plenty of ventilation when you whip these guys up. I was amazed with how, well, perfumed my kitchen was when these were baking. In plain English, when these cook, the Guinness cooks out and makes the air ripe with the aroma of beer. And chocolate. Strange, but a welcomed aroma in my house from here on in, if these awesome whoopie pies are the end product. Cheers and enjoy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Popcorn POM Bars

Greetings and salutations from the wild wild West. My absence from blogging likely has been much more palpable to me than any of you lovely folks, but I hope my absence hasn't turned you off from this site. If it has, my sincere apologies. A variety of events and circumstances have kept me away, including a broken camera, but more importantly a serious family illness that required I head back East for a few months. My time there was precious and I am happy to say, the maker of the best chicken pot pie in the great state of New York, otherwise known as my mom, has recovered and is back to her feisty self. I'm now back in southern California, and settling back into the joyous drudgery of daily life. I've missed this part of my world and look forward to getting back into the swing of things. I hope that you will enjoy it too.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive some delicious POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice from the fantastic folks at POM a few days ago. I love POM Wonderful and knew that it was a serious source of antioxidants, but had no idea the depth and breadth of research POM has done to support this product. These folks picked a great person to send this to, because deep down in my soul stirs a big old nerd who adores all things science. I know this is a cooking and food blog, so you are free to skip the medical mumbo jumbo if it doesn't appeal to you. Go ahead, I'm not mad at ya. For those of you fellow nerds that stuck around, get this. POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice has been the subject of over 35 peer reviewed research articles in the Journal of Nutrition, American Journal of Cardiology, and Clinical Cancer Research among others. It's been shown to improve blood flow to the heart in patients with coronary heart disease, decrease arterial plaque (the gunk that narrows your arteries), decrease the risk of recurrence of prostate cancer, as well as improve erectile function. See what all the people who didn't want to read this missed out on? Who knows when that will be your go to talking point at your next social event! You can thank me later.

And I digress... thanks for those of you who slogged through my nerdtastic wandering diatribe. I just love that stuff. When I received the POM juice, I got stuck on an idea of making popcorn balls. Since the starring element is so darn good for you, I didn't want to muck it up with the traditional unhealthy ingredients like butter and sugar or corn syrup. What unfolded and developed was a healthy, delightfully satisfying treat.

Popcorn POM Bars

16 oz POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice
1/4 cup popcorn kernels
5 oz ricemellow creme (or traditional marshmallow fluff)
2 oz dried cherries
4 oz chocolate chips

Pour POM juice in small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat for 40-50 minutes until reduced to a thick syrup consistency. Let cool. Pop popcorn, and mix with berries. When reduced POM is cooled, mix in large bowl with popcorn and cherries. Mix with spoon to evenly coat all popcorn. Mix in chocolate chips and firmly press into a greased 9 x 9 pan. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours and cut into 9 squares.

Fast, simple and ridiculously healthy. If you wanted to double down on the antioxidant punch that these pack, switch to dark chocolate chips. Throw in a handful of almonds of walnuts for some healthy fats and protein. Don't like dried cherries? Try raisins, cranberries, or whatever other tasty dried fruity bits your heart desires. This is truly my ideal type of food creation; simple, successful, and with endless interchangeable ingredients. It is a sticky project, which might be fun for you brave parents to try with your kids. I'd never used ricemellow creme before, and was a bit taken aback by the airy, almost crystalline appearance of it. Turns out if you stir it all up, it looks just like traditional fluff, and tastes remarkably similar. Simple joys right? Good to have you back, and I promise I won't be leaving you high and dry, or hungry and annoyed, again any time soon.