Sunday, February 26, 2012

Balsamic Marinated Asparagus

Did you know that asparagus is a woody, flowering bush most closely related to onions and garlic?  Well, it is.  It even grows berries - which are poisonous to humans.  Strange, huh?  The asparagus spears that we eat are the first 8 inches or so of new growth, as anything else quickly becomes too tough.

I never ate much asparagus as a kid, but now I've come to really like it.  It's fantastic grilled, but I've been experimenting with marinating and roasting it lately to great success.  This is a simple preparation, but nonetheless full of flavor - give it a try if you need an interesting side or appetizer.

You'll only need a few ingredients.  Asparagus, obviously, is the first.  The marinade is made up of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, brown sugar, lemon pepper, salt, and a splash of lemon guide. I discovered at the last minute that I was out of the real thing, but minced garlic is preferable to the garlic powder I used.

After giving the asparagus a quick rinse, you'll need to snap off the tough bits at the bottom of the spears.  If you're making a lot of asparagus, this is most quickly accomplished by just slicing off the bottom 2 inches or so of each spear with a knife.  You can avoid waste, however, by snapping off each spear by hand.  The spears will naturally snap at just the right point if you bend them a bit from the bottom.

With the asparagus rinsed and the bottoms snapped off, combine all of the marinade ingredients in a large plastic bag.  Add the asparagus and rest in the refrigerator at least an hour, flipping over halfway.

When you're ready to cook, heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Drain away the excess marinade, and arrange the asparagus in a single layer on a lightly greased baking dish or baking sheet.

Roast the asparagus at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes until tender, turning halfway.

This dish can be served warm or room-temperature, and I particularly like it garnished with some toasted almonds.  It's a great one to bring to a get-together as an appetizer or side - it travels well, is easy to prepare, and goes over well.  Give it a try!

Recipe: Balsamic Marinated Asparagus
Prep Time: 70 Minutes | Cook Time: 20 Minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 4

  • 1 bunch Fresh Asparagus
  • 1/3 cup Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Olive Oil
  • 2 tbsp Brown Sugar
  • 2 tsp Lemon Juice
  • 1 tsp Garlic Powder
  • 1 tsp Lemon Pepper
  • Salt to taste
  1. Slice or snap off bottom 1-2 inches of each asparagus spear.
  2. Combine balsamic vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, lemon juice, garlic powder, lemon pepper, and salt in a large plastic bag.  Add asparagus and marinate at least 1 hour, turning halfway.
  3. Heat oven to 450 degrees.  Grease a baking dish or baking sheet.
  4. Drain excess marinade from asparagus.  Arrange asparagus in a single layer on greased baking dish.
  5. Roast asparagus 20 minutes at 450 degrees until tender, turning halfway.
  6. Optional: Toast slivered almonds in a skillet.
  7. Serve warm or room temperature, optionally topped with toasted almonds.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Easy Baguettes

For the longest time, I was afraid to bake my own bread.  Yeast, after all, is mysterious and scary.  Do I need  to proof it?  What if it doesn't rise?  What if it rises too much?  Which kind do I need?  I finally got over it and decided to just give it a try.  After my success at making a loaf of No-Knead Bread several weeks ago, I've been emboldened to try more.  These baguettes were another first-attempt, and turned out fantastically well.

The baguettes are obviously a different shape from the no-knead bread, and the texture differs, too - the crust, in particular, is much crisper, but the interior is still airy and fluffy.  Kristin and I gladly ate them up with some pasta, and I'll definitely be making more soon.

Could the ingredients be any simpler?  All you need is flour, yeast, water, and salt.

To get things started, mix together the flour, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Add water and mix.  Knead for a few minutes until you've formed a rough, sticky, dense dough.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rise someplace warm for two or three hours.  The dough should at least double in size.

Now it's time to form the dough into baguette shapes.  Divide it in half, and flatten into a rough oval on a floured surface.  Fold that oval in half into a sort of thick half-moon shape, then fold again in on itself until you've formed the long tube shape of a baguette.  Press together the creases and taper the ends a bit until you've got a rough baguette shape, about 14 inches long and a few inches wide.

Cover your newly-shaped baguettes and let them rise again at least a half-hour until they have re-doubled in size.  You'll notice that in this case, one baguette rose more in width than height - both still baked up just as delicious as the other.  This isn't a recipe that guarantees artistic results, but I find I actually prefer the more rustic, "artisan" look.

Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees while the loaves rise.

Right before you're ready to bake, use a sharp knife to make several angled slashes across the top of each loaf at roughly 4-inch intervals.  As soon as you do this, the loaves will begin to deflate a bit - so it's time to get them into the oven!

Baking 25-30 minutes at 450 degrees will handily counter that deflation.  Your baguettes are done when the top is nice and brown.

Cool the bread on a wire rack several minutes before slicing.  Serve warm or room temperature, with butter or without, preferably with some soup or sauce to dip into.

Recipe: Easy Baguettes
Prep Time: 3-4 Hours | Cook Time: 25-30 Minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 2 medium baguettes

  • 3 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 tbsp Instant Yeast
  • 1/2 tbsp Salt
  • 1 1/2 cups warm Water
  1. Combine flour, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add water, mix, and knead 3-4 minutes into a rough, sticky dough.
  3. Cover dough and let rise 2-3 hours until doubled in size.
  4. Once dough has risen, divide in half.
  5. Press each half of dough into a rough oval on a floured surface.  Fold over twice lengthwise into baguette shape, approx. 14 inches long.
  6. Cover baguettes and let rise 30 minutes.
  7. With a sharp knife, make angular slashes across the top of each loaf at 4-inch intervals.
  8. Bake at 450 degrees 25-30 minutes until well-browned.
  9. Cool several minutes on wire racks before slicing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pork Chops in Wine Sauce with Mushrooms and Carrots

This meal was born out of uncertainty.  Kristin and I generally try to shop just once a week or so, and so we  need to get to the store with several meals' worth of ingredients on our shopping list.  This time, we were drawing a blank, and so decided to just see what was decent and on sale and improvise a meal from there.  

We'd just eaten a phenomenal quantity of pork in the week before, so were hoping to find some good beef on sale, maybe.  As it ends up, the beef was enormously expensive, and the fish at the fish counter was underwhelming, so we were back to pork.  I picked up some carrots and some pasta to go with it, and decided I'd figure out how to combine them when it came time to actually cook.

I eventually decided that I wanted to make a hearty wine sauce for the pork using the carrots, along with some mushrooms and onion.  My on-the-spot invention turned out pretty tasty, in the end.

Here's what I used: pork chops, fresh mushrooms, sweet onion, carrots, white wine, dijon mustard, lemon juice, tomato sauce, thyme, basil, salt, and pepper.  At first I hemmed and hawed over whether tomato and mustard could get along - it's a combination I also use in baked beans, and - obviously - goes together on hot dogs and hamburgers all the time.  It worked well here, too.

First, generously salt and pepper both sides of the chops.  Cook under the broiler, 4-5 inches away, 7-8 minutes per side (more for thicker chops, less for thinner ones).

While the chops cook, rough-chop the carrots and onion.

Saute the carrots and onion in a fairly deep pan with a bit of oil until the onions are getting translucent and the carrots are quite tender.  This can take a while.

When the vegetables are tender, it's time to transform them into sauce.  Add mushrooms, tomato sauce, plenty of white wine, a dash of lemon juice, and seasonings - I like thyme and basil here.  Simmer over medium heat to combine and cook the mushrooms - about 10 minutes should do the trick.

Somewhere during that ten minutes while your sauce simmers, your pork chops should be finished.  Perfect timing!  Let them rest a few minutes and they'll be ready to serve.

Once the sauce is done simmering, you're ready - that's it!  Serve the pork with a generous helping of sauce and vegetables on top, accompanied by your favorite starch.  I used some buttered, herbed noodles and liked it quite a lot.

Recipe: Pork Chops in Wine Sauce with Mushrooms and Carrots
Prep Time: 10 Minutes | Cook Time: 35 Minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 6-8

  • 6-8 inch-thick Pork Chops
  • 1/2 lb Baby Carrots
  • 1 large Sweet Onion
  • 12-16 oz. White or Portabella Mushrooms, chopped
  • 2 cups White Wine
  • 1/3 cup Tomato Sauce
  • 2 tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1 tbsp Lemon Juice
  • 2 tsp Thyme
  • 2 tsp Basil
  • Salt and Pepper to Taste
  1. Season chops generously with salt and pepper on both sides.
  2. Broil chops 4-5 inches from broiler, approx. 8 minutes per side until cooked through.
  3. Roughly chop carrots and onion.  Saute with olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until tender.
  4. Add wine, lemon juice, tomato sauce, mushrooms, basil, and thyme to skillet.  Simmer over medium 10 minutes until mushrooms are tender.
  5. Serve chops with a generous helping of sauce and vegetables, accompanied by your choice of starch. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Strawberry Cream-Cheese Danish

There was a time in my life when I didn't understand the point of a danish.  "Why eat this strange thing when I could just have a donut", I wondered.  I was a troubled youth.  I've since come to my senses and discovered just how pleasant a good danish can be, especially still warm from the oven.  Kristin and I have worked this recipe through a few permutations and several different fillings, and every time it's tasted utterly fantastic.  It's not the prettiest thing in the world, but really, isn't it what's inside that counts?  In this case, what counts is cream cheese and strawberry preserves.  Yum.

I'm separating the ingredients into three sets: the dough, the cream-cheese mixture, and the frosting.  For the dough, you'll need milk, flour, baking soda, salt, butter, and almond extract.  Preserves of your choice will top the dough and form the center of the danish.  We used strawberry preserves this time around, and have also particularly liked blueberry in the past.  I imagine just about anything would be tasty.

The cream-cheese mixture is a simple blend of cream cheese, an egg, a bit of white sugar, and a splash of vanilla.

The frosting is also quite simple: powdered sugar, just enough milk to liquify the sugar, and a tiny dash of both vanilla and almond extracts.  Topping everything off with toasted almonds is optional, but highly recommended.

We'll start with the dough.  Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then work in the softened butter.  The texture will resemble a cake mix - slightly lumpy and powdery.

While your hands are still relatively un-messy, you'll also want to pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Add the milk and almond extract and mix well.  Press by hand until you've formed a loose, rough-textured dough.  Take care not to overwork it or the pastry may become tough.

Press the dough between sheets of wax paper and roll into a thick rectangle, about 12 inches by 8 inches.    Leave it here for a moment while we put together the filling.

Beat the cream cheese until it's soft and relatively smooth, then add the sugar, egg, and vanilla.  Beat again until smooth and creamy.

Time to assemble!  Place the pastry dough on a greased baking sheet, and mark out the dough lengthwise into thirds.  Spread a thick layer of preserves down the center of the middle third - try to keep it no more than 1 1/2 inches wide.

Add thick layers of the cream cheese mixture on either side of the preserves.  Try to leave a little peek of the preserves in the very center if possible for presentation's sake, though as you can tell, sometimes that's not easy to do.

Cut the outer thirds of the dough at a slight angle into strips about an inch wide.

Fold those strips up across the filled center of the dough.  They probably won't quite meet in the center.  Bake your assembled danish 12-15 minutes at 425 until the pastry is golden-brown.

In the meantime, toast up some almonds for the top.  Also, mix together the frosting using 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1 tbsp milk, and a tiny dash of vanilla and almond extracts.  Whisk together with a fork until smooth.

When your danish is done baking, drizzle the frosting over the top and cover with toasted almonds.

Serve warm, one inch-wide slice at a time - but expect to go back for seconds.

Recipe: Strawberry Cream-Cheese Danish
Prep Time: 15-20 Minutes | Cook Time: 12-15 Minutes | Difficulty: Medium | Servings: 10-12 Slices

  • 2 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup unsalted Butter
  • 1/2 cup Milk
  • 1 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1/2 tsp Almond Extract
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1/2 cup Strawberry Preserves
  • 8 ounces Cream Cheese
  • 1/4 cup White Sugar
  • 1 Egg
  • 1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2 cup Powdered Sugar
  • 1 tbsp Milk
  • 1/8 tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1/8 tsp Almond Extract
  • 2 tbsp Toasted Slivered Almonds

  1. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, rand salt.  Add softened butter, milk, and almond extract, and mix well.  Press together by hand until a loose dough is formed.  The texture will be rough.
  3. In another mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth.  Add sugar, egg, and vanilla and beat until combined and creamy.
  4. Press dough between two sheets of wax paper and roll into a large rectangle, roughly 8 by 12 inches. Discard wax paper and place dough on a greased baking sheet.
  5. Mark the dough out by thirds lengthwise.  Spread preserves down the center of the middle third, then add cream cheese mixture on either side of preserves.
  6. Cut the outer thirds of the dough into strips roughly 1-inch wide.  Fold strips over across the center.
  7. Bake at 425° 12-15 minutes until pastry is golden-brown.  Toast almonds while danish bakes.
  8. In a small mixing bowl, combine 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1 tbsp milk, 1/8 tsp vanilla and almond extracts and whisk together with a fork to create frosting.
  9. Drizzle frosting over baked danish, and cover with toasted almonds.  Serve warm.