Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cheese Stuffed Mini Peppers

My kids are awesome. No, really, I'm not biased. Honestly, when it comes to eating I have very few picky eaters in the bunch of 7. Mostly, they eat whatever I put in front of them. In fact, the two youngest request fresh veggies!

Anytime I'm in the kitchen chopping veggies for a recipe, they head on out and ask for whatever it is I'm prepping. Their favorite is red peppers, but they also love celery, carrots, sno peas, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini.

I don't believe in recipes that hide vegetables. First off, over-processing causes them to lose much of their nutrition, and second, kids will never learn to love veggies if they don't realize they're eating them. Once they're old enough to leave the nest, who will make cupcakes or pasta sauce for them with pureed vegetables added in? Likely, nobody.

So, around here we celebrate veggies for what they are. We choose them fresh, wash them gently and serve them well. This recipe is perfect for warm weather and the kids love peppers this way. Mini peppers are available in most supermarkets and are sweet and tender. If you can't find them, cut larger peppers into 1 1/2" strips and spread with the cheese mixture. Either way, a plate of these won't last long!

Check out other veggie-centric recipes and posts at The Country Crock Chronicle while you're at it!

Cheese Stuffed Mini Peppers
Makes 24 mini peppers
Printable Recipe

24 mini peppers
8 ounces cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 green onions - sliced thinly, green and white parts
2 teaspoons Country Crock Spread
2 Tablespoons fresh basil - finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut peppers in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Set aside.
Set cream cheese in a bowl and allow to soften at room temperature.
Cook white parts of green onions in Country Crock Spread until golden brown.
Add feta cheese, onions, basil, salt and pepper to cream cheese. Blend well.
Spoon or pipe cheese into pepper halves. Garnish with green onion if desired and serve immediately or chill several hours until serving time.

*Disclosure: My posts for Country Crock are sponsored, compensated and/or reimbursed by Country Crock and Unilever. As such, all content and opinions are required to be honest and belonging wholly to myself.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Walnut Shrimp

Walnut Shrimp

Just about a year ago I had Walnut Chicken for the very first time. I found it on the menu at a Chinese restaurant in Stroudsburg, Pa. It was one of the best dishes I've ever had in the Americanized Chinese realm. That day happened to be the beginning of a very big life-change and so I've had good feelings about life in general each time I have Walnut-Anything.

At a local Chinese buffet/hibachi hot-spot, there is a dish almost consistently served called coconut chicken. I never tasted coconut myself nor were there any shreds or pieces of coconut visible, but the sauce was white and creamy and studded with bite-sized morsels of battered and deep fried chicken. It's very good stuff.

Tried as I might, I couldn't find a dish similar in any of the Chinese take-out menus I had and each time I stepped foot in a Chinese restaurant, I looked for it. So, when I was in Stroudsburg at that particular restaurant, they had a photo of what looked like coconut chicken on the menu; it was Walnut Chicken.

It was the same sauce, but instead filled with chicken and candied walnuts. Too much was too much, but in moderation ... well, you wanted to eat until you reached the too much stage. I couldn't, however, figure out the sauce. Sweet, but not too sweet, creamy, but not a sauce thickened with any starch ... I was completely flummoxed.

I searched the internet and finally, finally found a recipe. I had to make it, and so I did, but the chicken wasn't the same and I didn't have candied walnuts. In stepped Guy Fieri. Well, not for real, but I did watch and episode of Triple D that had a recipe for Walnut Shrimp. It was all so simple. I ran to the store, ran back home (I run everywhere) and made it for the first time. I was hooked and so was my Chinese-food-addicted oldest daughter.

Enter California Walnuts. When we hooked up on Twitter, I knew my Walnut Shrimp and they would be a perfect match. And they are. Before I pass on the recipe, though, you need to know, these walnuts are oh-so-good.

Walnut Shrimp

They are larger than other walnuts I've used and unlike many others, there is no bitterness to them ... just sweet, tender nuts that are really difficult to keep from snacking on when you need them for a recipe. Once I had them measured out and tried one ... I had to re-measure a couple times. Oops.

They are the perfect addiction, er ... addition, to this recipe and I already know they'll be tops when I add them to maple syrup to drizzle over my souffle-like pumpkin pancakes. Heaven.

You can find California Walnuts online at:
Twitter: @CaWalnuts

Now for the recipe! Usually I skin the walnuts by boiling them in water for several minutes and rinsing well, but I found the California Walnuts don't need to lose their skins as they are not bitter. You can skip skinning them all together if you are using these walnuts. Most walnut shrimp recipes contain honey, this one does not, hence the simple name of Walnut Shrimp.

Walnut Shrimp

Walnut Shrimp
Serves 4
Printable Recipe

1 1/2 cups walnut halves
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 pound large shrimp peeled and deveined
1 egg white
1/2 cup cornstarch
4 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil
1/2 cup mayonnaise (Japanese Kewpie is best for this, though regular mayo is yummy, too)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
2-3 Tablespoons sweetened condensed milk (I use the lesser amount, it's your choice)
1/2 pound sno peas - steamed, for serving

1. Boil walnuts in 3 cups of water for 5 minutes, drain well and rinse thoroughly to remove skins. Let cool and dry for several hours before moving on.
2. Combine water and sugar in a heavy pan and heat until sugar is melted. Add walnuts and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from sugar with a slotted spoon and place on a well-greased baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees, turning often, for 15-20 minutes or until golden in color. Cool completely.
3. Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Set aside.
4. Beat egg white until slightly frothy and add shrimp and cornstarch. Stir well to coat all shrimp.
5. Heat oil in a wok or large skillet and add shrimp. Cook, turning once or twice, until shrimp is pink and coating is crispy but not overly browned - about 5 minutes.
6. Remove from oil, drain and keep warm.
7. Combine mayo, condensed milk and lemon juice until smooth.
8. Add walnuts to shrimp in a large bowl and pour sauce over all. Toss to coat and serve over sno peas.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Green Almonds

 Fresh green almonds.

The first time I believe I saw green almonds was on an episode of Chopped, "One in a Hundred". I honestly don't recall what the chefs made with them, but when I saw them at a local store, I scooped up handfuls of the soft green fuzzy fruit and ran home to investigate and see what I could make with them.

Mostly it seems that green almonds, also called spring almonds and immature almonds, are eaten straight-up and lightly salted as a snack, mostly in the Middle East. There are other preparations from salads to stews and sometimes they more mature of the immature (if that makes sense) are sprinkled over ice cream and the like. Let me explain.

The center of very young almonds.

Very young almonds are edible as a whole. While mildly crunchy, they are pliable and very green in flavor with a slightly bitter finish. The very center, which would become the actual nut once fully mature, is a gelatinous mass. If the nuts are left to mature for even a few weeks' time the center becomes more nut-like though still softer and smaller than the usual nut we're all used to finding readily available in any corner market across the globe.

Gelatinous centers of green almonds.

The ones I bought were the very young variety, being fully fuzzy on the outside (a few still had leaves attached) and gel-like in the center. The first one I tried was as-is. I washed it well and took a bite. Green. I salted the other half lightly and noticed a slightly bitter finish to the fruit. I was still very unsure of what to make of, or with, them.

As part of a lovely Facebook group belonging to David Leite's, owner of Leite's Culinaria, I noted that one of the readers was making a stew she had found on a friend's blog ... the recipe is here. Stew sounded great, but I was still unsure of what to do with the almonds I had. The most common stew is heavy in spices and I couldn't reconcile the soft spring-green color of these almonds with so much spice. I had also read in several different places that heating them caused them to be more bitter. I can say I didn't encounter this in any way.

I decided on fennel, spring onions and pork for my stew. Fennel in its fresh state is deep in flavor, but stewed or braised, it becomes subdued and very delicious. With the green almonds being slightly lemony, I thought the pairing would go well, and I was right. I added to that new potatoes and flat-leaf parsley, which carries over the lemon theme, and a bit of cream to pull it all together. The end result was a very smooth and flavorful stew - the almonds still had a bit of crunch to them, which contrasted well with the sweet pork, tender potatoes and fennel.

I'm still undecided about these fuzzy little fruits, but as they're only available 8 weeks a year, I may buy them again and if I do, I'll share the recipes and results here.

Green Almond and Pork Stew

Green Almond and Pork Stew
Serves 6 - 8
Printable Recipe

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large fennel bulb
1 bunch spring onions (green onions)
2 pounds pork - cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
8 ounces green almonds - cleaned well and cut in half
2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 small bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley chopped
1 cup half and half
1/2 Tablespoon Kosher salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Wash green almonds well and dry. Set aside until ready to use.
2. Heat oil in a large heavy bottomed pot and add fennel and onions. Saute briefly - do not brown.
3. Add pork and cook until no longer pink on the outside.
4. Cut the stem end from each almond and then cut almonds in half following the natural seam in each.
4. Pour stock into stew and add almonds. Simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Add potatoes and cook for another 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
6. Remove stew from heat and stir in parsley, salt and pepper and half and half. Serve hot.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Crispy Ravioli with Asparagus

Crispy Ravioli with Asparagus
Crispy Ravioli with Asparagus

This dish is something I make often. The very first time was a spin on one of Michael Symon's recipes for a get-together I had. I couldn't find gnocchi that I liked and didn't have time to make my own, so I substituted ravioli and the rest is history. The other ingredients are also loosely based on the original recipe, but I like asparagus here and nobody but I would eat morels, so mushrooms were out.

We've had this with green beans and peas as well, and the addition of fresh shrimp is perfect for a heartier meal. It goes together very quickly and can be adapted to tastes. I really like this method for ravioli - it's a bit like a fried pierogi with onions, but with a brightness from the lemon zest and Italian parsley. The next time you go meatless, give this one a try!

Crispy Ravioli with Asparagus
Serves 4
Printable Recipe

2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, diced fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh cheese ravioli (I prefer mini)
1 pound fresh asparagus, washed and woody stems cut, cut into 1" lengths
zest of one lemon
2 Tablespoons freshly chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon or more Kosher salt
1/2 cup shredded fresh Parmigiana cheese

1. Melt butter in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add olive oil. Saute shallots and garlic briefly and add ravioli - you do not need to cook the ravioli ahead of time.
2. Keep the ravioli moving so they will brown but not stick and add the asparagus. Cook until asparagus is crisp-tender, about 4 minutes.
3. Remove from heat and add lemon zest, parsley and salt. Toss to coat.
4. Add shredded cheese to each serving.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Easy Decoration and Yummy Cake

It's no secret around here that my cake decoration skills are sub-par. Actually, they're flat out bad. So, any chance for me to make a cake look good without too much effort is perfect for me - and for those being subjected to my "skills". The kids always love cakes made by mom, but even they have to admit to them being not exactly nice to look at.

This cake topping is not only so very pretty, but also so very easy. Start with any type of berry you like (save the strawberries for a large sheet cake) and add fresh mint leaves. That's it. A white background makes it more dramatic, but I imagine any lighter colored icing would do.

Arrange them first on a surface the same size as your finished cake so you can rearrange as needed to get the right look. Dusting with powdered sugar adds a nice touch, as well. I like the contrast of dark berries and green leaves, but red berries would be equally pretty.

Now, to this cake. This one is simple to throw together, dense and moist in texture and not too sweet. It reminds me of a pound cake and, as such, goes well with a variety of toppings, but I find the lighter frosting I've included to be the perfect complement to heavier icings.

Sour Cream Cake and Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes one 8x8 square cake
Printable Recipe

1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and add parchment paper to an 8x8 square baking pan. Set aside.

Cut butter into small pieces and combine with sugar. Beat with a hand mixer until light. Add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Stir in sour cream. Add flour, salt, soda and powder. Blend well until smooth. Batter will be thick.

Smooth batter into pan and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely and turn out onto a serving platter, bottom side up.

Mix frosting:

4 ounces cream cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar

(Note: if you like you can use non-dairy whipped topping in lieu of the cream and sugar.)

Soften cream cheese and beat until smooth. Beat heavy cream with powdered sugar until cream forms stiff peaks. Fold into cream cheese until smooth. Spread on cooled cake and add berries and mint in desired pattern.