Thursday, September 18, 2008

Berry Delicious

I think we can all agree that berries are synonymous with summer. With autumn on our heals and the nights becoming a bit more crisp, we're being reminded that colder months are on their way.

One way I like to latch on to summer is by making a trifle, which is really just layers of cake, fruit, and whipped cream. Traditionally, it would also have custard and perhaps jelly in it. This is my half-assed version. It's a nice, fresh tasting, light dessert, that's so pretty you won't want to eat it. My mom makes trifle for just about every major dinner: 4th of July, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving... it just goes with everything. We had it after meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Besides, berries won't be in season much longer. Take advantage of them now! The trifle that I made only had strawberries (hey, I'm working on a budget and they were on sale!), but you can add raspberries, blackberries, peaches, bananas... any soft fruit that you can cut into a bite-sized piece.

Berry Trifle

1/2 Angel Food Cake Ring, sliced thin
2 lbs. Strawberries, cut into quarters and rinsed
2 cups Heavy Cream
1/2 cup Kirshwasser (or other fruit brandy)
1/4 cup plus 2 tblsp. Sugar
A hand-full of fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/2 cup Chocolate Chips
You will need a trifle dish (see photo below).

1. In a medium bowl, mix berries, 1/4 cup of sugar, mint, and Kirshwasser. Let sit for (at least) ten minutes. (You can do this at any point before hand. The longer the berries marinate in the Kirsh and sugar, the better. The Kirsh and sugar will break them down a bit and make them syrupy.)

2. Take the slices of Angel Food Cake and line the bottom of your trifle dish. Pack them down.

3. Pour berry mixture on top of the Angel Food Cake.

4. In a mixing bowl, combine heavy cream and 2 tblsp. sugar. Beat them with an electric mixer (or whisk) until stiff peaks form. This means that when you stop beating the cream, and lift the whisk out, the cream will hold its form.

5. Spread whipped cream on top of the berries.

6. Sprinkle top with chocolate chips.

*Make this dessert ahead of time. That way, while you're eating, the Angel Food Cake will soak up the liquid from the berries and Kirsh. Just make sure you keep it in the fridge!


- If you wanted to make this more indulgent, you could do a few things differently. You could a) make your Angel Food Cake from scratch, b) add a layer of custard between the cake and the berries. This is how I would ideally make it. Custard is basically just cream, egg yolks, and sugar.

- Girls night out? Special dinner party? Instead of using a trifle dish, cut your cake even smaller and make individual trifles inside of martini glasses! This is another one of those things that looks impressive with very little effort!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Show Me Some Mussel! (Healthy!)

I had a crazy week last week (hence the lack of posts). There was a lot of back-and-forth between my parents' house and my apartment, an ongoing juggle that lasted about ten days. I found myself at home on Friday night. After six hours of class and the impending trip back to Fairfield that evening (again), the last thing I wanted to do was cook a meal -- but I didn't want take-out either.

We could all agree that we wanted some sort of dessert, blueberry pie to be exact. So we went to the grocery store with the hopes of finding a half-decent frozen variety. I love going to the grocery store, because that's where you'll find inspiration when you're running on fumes.

Lo and behold, Prince Edward Island mussels were on sale for $1.99/pound. Little Neck clams were $5.99/pound. Eureka.

First, let me tell you a little about why mussels in white wine sauce is such a stellar meal:

1) It's a classic. You'll find Mussels Provencale or Mussels in White Wine Sauce in any decent French or Italian restaurant. My youngest sister knows this best, she gets it whenever it's on the menu.

2) It's easy. The prep time is minimal and you can't over cook it. It only involves 5 staple raw ingredients.

3) It's great for "date night". I've been with Jim for over 5 years and this meal still impresses. For you first-daters out there, this meal is great because it looks and tastes impressive, but its so easy! Plus, you'll spend more time interacting with your honey than with your stove. I think that's important. Set a nice table and light a few candles... you can't beat it!*

4) You get a lot of bang for your buck. Pasta is cheap and, if you play your cards right, so is the shellfish.

So let's get this show on the road.

Mussels and Clams Provencale

1 lb Prince Edward Island Mussels
1 lb Little Neck Clams (the little ones are best)
3/4 Cups Butter (1 1/2 Sticks)
4 Cloves Garlic, chopped
2 1/2 Cups White Wine (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc)
1 Cup Fresh Parsley, chopped (optional)
Grated Parmesan Cheese (optional, for serving)
Lemon Wedges (optional, for serving - lemon always tastes good on seafood)

1) The shellfish are alive. First you have to give them a quick rinse, then place them in a bowl with cold water (if you use hot water, they'll start to cook). This gets them to spit out any sand, etc. that might still be inside. Let them sit for 5-10 minutes. If you have an old toothbrush, use it to gently rub any excess gunk off the shells. Drain in a colander and rinse again.

2) In the meantime, get your spices ready. Chop the garlic (you can keep the pieces somewhat larger than usual), and quickly run your knife through the parsley. Basically you just want to release the flavors.

3) In a shallow sauce pan, over medium heat, melt a stick of butter (1/2 cup). Tip: If you cut it up a bit, it will melt faster.

4) Once the butter is melted, add and saute the garlic. Cooking the garlic in butter, over medium heat, will keep it from cooking too quickly and burning. When garlic cooks slowly it looses its sharpness and gets a nice sweet flavor, which is what we're going for here. Saute until the garlic begins to soften and break down.

5) Throw in the mussels and clams. Right in the pot. They'll steam a minute and start to open up.

6) Add the white wine. About 2 1/2 cups should do. This is all of the liquid you'll be cooking them in, so you want to make sure there is enough to just about cover them (be careful when eyeballing this... mussels float!) Also add the remaining 1/4 cup of butter. The butter makes the dish a little more rich and creamy, and helps the sauce hold together.

7) Turn to high heat to bring to a boil, once it boils reduce to a simmer and cover them up. Let them simmer for about 10-15 minutes until all of the shellfish open up and the alcohol in the wine cooks off.

8) Once they all open up, they're done!

9) Toss in the parsley and throw it all in a bowl!

Now for some eating options!

- You can make it a pasta dish. If you do, use a box of linguine, it holds the sauce really well. Dump the mussels and sauce over the pasta and toss it with some tongs. Just make sure you have a big bowl.

- You can get a French baguette or a loaf of Italian bread and use that to soak up the sauce. You can eat the bread as it is or...

- Cut the Italian bread into thick slices. Drizzle with olive oil and toast in the oven until the crust begins to crisp. When you take it out, rub it with a clove of garlic that has been cut in half. Make sure you do this while the bread is still crispy and hot. This is my favorite because the sides and crust of the bread get a nice crisp and then the inside is still soft. Great for soaking up that Provencale sauce!

This really is a stellar meal. You can see how excited I get about it. It takes no effort to cook and very little skill. I spent about $8.00 on the mussels and clams - that's about the same you'd spend on a pack of chicken breasts and way less than a steak. The box of pasta only cost me a dollar. I always have garlic and wine in my kitchen, and you don't have to use a good wine. This is a great "some for me, some for the pot" recipe! Plus, it fed me and two growing boys!

*This is especially helpful for the guys out there. Nothing is more impressive than a charming guy who can cook.

P.S. Chef Pierre makes an amazing frozen blueberry pie!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

This Bread is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

There is something you should know about my mother: She gets out of bed at 6:30 AM at the latest every morning. Every morning. One of the perks of having an early-riser mother , particularly my mother, is that most weekend mornings I'd wake to the smell of something cooking (I feel like a lot of entries are going to start like this). I was never a big breakfast person, but I always got a little excited when my mom made banana-nut muffins.

Well, with an allergy developed later in life, and a sensitive belly, banana bread has become a staple in my diet. Bananas are the 'B' in the BRAT diet-- which stands for Bananas Rice Applesauce (and) Tea. While I used to be ordered to pick up the BRAT diet by doctors, I now adopt it when my stomach is extra sensitive... and of course I've adapted it a little to make it a bit more exciting (Banana bread, Rice pudding, homemade Applesauce, and Tea).

You could make muffins instead of a loaf, I just hate dealing with those little cups. I always make a mess. So here's how you do it:

Banana Bread
1 1/2 Cups Four
1 Tsp. Baking Soda
1 Cup Sugar
2 Eggs
1/4 Cup Melted Butter (plus, 1 Tblsp.)
3 Bananas
1 Pinch Salt

Preheat the oven to 350*f
1. Combine the flour, baking soda, sugar, eggs, butter, and salt in a medium bowl.
2. In another medium bowl, mash up the bananas.
3. Add the bananas to the flour mixture and mix thoroughly.
4. Grease a loaf pan with 1 Tblsp. butter and flour the pan to be sure the loaf doesn't stick.
5. Pour in the batter and stick it in the oven!
6. When a wooden dowel inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean, the bread is done.

A few notes:
- To make a loaf, the bread does take a bit of time to cook. The best part? Cooking it nice and slowly makes for a nice crispy, crusty, top, and a soft, sweet inside!

- This is a great recipe for old bananas. When the bananas start to get brown spots on the peals and get really soft they're kind of funky to eat, so use them to make bread or muffins instead. If you don't want to make bread right away, throw them in the freezer until you do.

- You could really go to town with this bread. Nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, dried cranberries, even chopped apples taste great in it!