Friday, November 28, 2014

Candied Cherry Opera Fudge


Is it too early to start in on Christmas desserts? I'm usually a pretty staunch Christmas-must-wait-until-after-Thanksgiving type, so with Thanksgiving barely 24 hours behind us, I almost feel bad posting such a Christmas-y recipe. But not that bad, because Christmas desserts are the absolute best! This unique opera fudge is a Christmas recipe I've been wanting to try for ages, ever since I saw it featured in a Better Homes and Gardens December issue years ago. I had never heard of opera fudge and had no idea what it was, as compared to regular fudge. I just went along with my imagination and assumed it was some old-fashioned confection that used to be served at the opera. Visions of ladies in fancy ruffled dresses being served cherry fudge in their theater balconies danced in my head. 

But apparently, this is not the source of the name opera fudge. When I looked it up, I found that opera fudge is a candy originating in Lebanon, Pennsylvania--the authentic version is still sold and shipped from there. No one knows why it was named opera fudge, though there did used to be an opera house in the town in the late 1800s. As for the candy, it's technically not a fudge. (So no opera and no fudge...if it weren't so delicious, I think I'd be getting disappointed right about now.) In its most traditional form, it's a fondant made with heavy cream, then coated with chocolate. This candied cherry version, however, is chocolate-free, allowing the pretty red candied cherries to give it a visual pop to match its tangy-sweet taste. For me, it was fun to make something that turned out so festive-looking. If you stop by my house this Christmas season, I just might whip some out of my freezer (yes, it freezes well) and make you sample some! 


Candied Cherry Opera Fudge
(Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens)

Ingredients:

3 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. milk
1 c. half-and-half
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. coarsely chopped candied red cherries

Directions:

1. Line an 8 x 8 square pan with aluminum foil, extending foil over the edges of the pan. Spray with cooking spray and set aside.

2. Spray the inside of a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan with cooking spray. In the saucepan, combine sugar, milk, half-and-half, corn syrup, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and mixture comes to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan. (Yes, you need a candy thermometer. Making an educated guess about temperature will be very difficult with this recipe.)

3. Continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring occasionally, until thermometer registers 236 degrees (soft ball stage--about 20 minutes). Adjust heat if necessary to maintain a steady boil.

4. Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter and vanilla but do not stir. Cool, without stirring, to 170 degrees (about 20 minutes). Remove thermometer from the pan and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon about 5 minutes. Add candied cherries and stir 1 more minute. Pour into prepared pan, spreading evenly. Let stand until firm. Use the foil to lift the fudge from the pan and cut with a sharp knife.

Makes 1 8 x 8 pan.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The B.E.L.T.CH.


In June 2005 when my husband and I were frivolous young things living on love and Hamburger Helper and a combined annual income equivalent to two days at Disneyland, we took a trip to beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. We spent our days exploring Stanley Park, making fun of Canadian money (ever heard of "loonies and toonies"?), and wandering the neighborhood of Kerrisdale, where we were staying at a lovely B & B. These were the days before Yelp, so as we strolled the neighborhood, our dining choices were left to chance. Luckily for us, we ended up at a fantastic little cafe called The Red Onion Restaurant. (It's still there, come to find out.) As far as I remember, I think we ended up eating there several times during our 5-day stay. (This may have also had to do with the fact that we hadn't rented a car.) But the other reason we kept coming back was for a inappropriately delicious sandwich: 

the B.E.L.T.CH!

This amped-up version of the classic BLT packed in a fried "E"gg and "CH"eese to compose the (B)acon (E)gg (L)lettuce (T)omato and (CH)eese sandwich. You know a sandwich is a true great when it's been nine years since you had it and you still think about it semi-annually. So when my husband made it today, it brought back only good gustatory memories. See, the regular BLT has always seemed a little skimpy and skinny to me. Like, go eat a sandwich, sandwich! This version solves that problem with creamy Havarti and a hearty fried egg. It's like breakfast met lunch and they both lived happily ever after. So thanks, Red Onion Restaurant! And thanks to my husband for making such a big, beautiful B.E.L.T.CH. It's what he does best. ;)


The B.E.L.T.CH.
(A Love Letter to Food Original, inspired by The Red Onion Restaurant)

Ingredients:

Cooking spray or 1 tsp. butter
1 egg
salt and pepper, to taste
3 slices thick-cut bacon
2 slices whole wheat toast
1 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 slice Havarti cheese
Tomato slices
Lettuce or spinach leaves

Directions:

1. Cook bacon as desired until crispy. 

2. Meanwhile, fry the egg: coat a small skillet with cooking spray or melt 1 tsp. butter over medium heat. Crack the egg directly into the skillet and let cook 3-5 minutes, or until the yolk no longer looks runny. Flip the egg with a spatula and cook on the other side an additional minute. Season with salt and pepper. 

3. Assemble the B.E.L.T.CH.! Spread mayo on toast slices and layer with tomato, lettuce, bacon, fried egg, and Havarti.

Serves 1.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fennel-Crusted Pork Roast with Autumn Vegetables


The first time I ever bought a parsnip (which was only last year) was at a local farm. We had taken the kids to enjoy the pumpkin patch and while they were occupied picking out a pumpkin or snuggling a chicken or some other agrarian activity, I strolled over to the market where the farm sells its crops. At some point in my browsing, a pale, waxy-colored cyclone of a vegetable caught my eye. I knew I should be able to identify it...but what the heck was it? Was it a turnip? Some funky tuber? An oversized albino carrot? No, my friends, it was in fact......

a parsnip! (Isn't parsnip one of those words that when you say it over and over it sounds totally ridiculous? Parsnip. Parsnip. Parsnip. Try it.) I decided then and there to buy a bag of parsnips, if only for the fact that I had never tried them before and was feeling up for a culinary adventure. When I got to the counter to pay, the farmer/cashier looked at my purchase and said, "You're not from around here, are you?" First I took offense, like is my city slicker-ness that obvious? I mean, geez, I only live like ten miles from this farm. I tried not to appear chagrined as I answered.

Me: "Um, yes, actually, I live not far from here."
Farmer/cashier: "But did you grow up here?"
Me: "....Yeeeesss.I grew up in Chandler."
F/C: (suspiciously) "You're not from the East Coast?"
Me: "No...?"
F/C: (grunts) "Huh. I never had someone from Arizona buy parsnips."

A-HA! I was relieved to realize it was not my freaky face or some strange accent I'm unaware of that made appear alien. It was the fact that I was purchasing parsnips. (Though it did make me wonder why this farmer grows parsnips if no one around here buys them.) At any rate, his surprise made me even more determined to take these exotic vegetables home and give them a try. Which I did, and discovered them to be like a sweeter version of carrots--quite tasty when roasted with olive oil.

As it turns out, parsnips have a long and privileged history. The Roman Emperor Tiberius accepted part of the annual tribute paid from Germany to Rome in parsnips, and they were considered a luxury food for aristocratic Romans. In the Middle Ages parsnips were a staple starch, significantly more popular than potatoes. So if you're inclined to try this recipe for fennel-crusted pork with roasted carrots, onions, and parsnips, you'll be continuing the rich and storied saga of this root vegetable. More than that, you'll enjoy a succulent pork tenderloin surrounded by an earthy crust of fennel seeds as well as oven-crisped carrots and red onions. For a simple, less-is-more weeknight dinner, our family loved it. So guess what, farmer-cashier-man? I'm gonna keep on buying your parsnips, even if I AM from around here. How do you like THEM parsnips??

Fennel-Crusted Pork Roast with Autumn Vegetables
(Adapted from Real Simple)

Ingredients:

3/4 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch sticks
3/4 lb. parsnips, peeled and cut into 3-inch sticks
1 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper
1.25 lb. pork tenderloin
2 Tbsp. fennel seeds, crushed

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss carrots, parsnips, and red onion with 2 Tbsp. olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 15-18 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, season the pork with salt and pepper, then coat with crushed fennel seeds. (You can do this by spreading the seeds on a plate or piece of wax paper and rolling the tenderloin over them.) Heat the remaining 2 tsp. olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet large enough to accommodate the length of the tenderloin. Cook the pork, turning occasionally, until all sides are browned, about 8-10 minutes.

4. Remove vegetables from the oven and stir. Make room in the center of the baking sheet and place the pork on it, surrounded by the vegetables. 

5. Return the whole thing to the oven and continue to roast another 16-20 minutes. Let the pork rest at least 5 minutes before slicing.

Serves 4. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Baked Spiced Pumpkin Oatmeal


Are you pumpkin-ed out yet? It seems like our national obsession with large orange vegetables gets more intense every year. This October Trader Joe's was offering over 60 pumpkin products--everything from pumpkin coffee to pumpkin ravioli (tried them both and they were both tasty!) I've seen pumpkin spice Hershey kisses and pumpkin M & Ms and have heard tell of pumpkin spice Doritos (!). And so far this season I myself have made pumpkin pie, pumpkin cake, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin cornbread, with plans to make pumpkin butter and pumpkin ice cream pie this afternoon. Looking at that list, I feel like I need a Pumpkin Intervention. 

But I JUST CAN'T STOP! Living in the desert, making seasonal foods is just about my only connection to feeling like the fall season is actually happening. Here in the Phoenix suburbs, we don't get changing leaves, we don't get sweater weather, we don't get harvest time. You know how some adults spend Christmastime going through rituals and traditions  to "recapture the magic" of Christmas when they were a kid? Well, I have this fairy-tale notion of autumn just like that (even though I didn't experience it as a kid). It's as though if I surround myself with seasonal produce I will magically feel the feelings of fall. And what, you may ask, are the feelings of fall? I suppose it's the typical fantasy of snuggling up in chilly weather, crunching leaves underfoot, and storing up for winter. There's a poem by Donald Hall called "Kicking the Leaves" I used to read every October that epitomizes this romantic notion of fall. Part of it goes:

"I remember Octobers walking to school in Connecticut,
wearing corduroy knockers that swished
with a sound like leaves; and a Sunday buying
a cup of cider at a roadside stand
on a dirt road in New Hampshire; and kicking the leaves."

Now, doesn't that just sound like the archetype of fall? (Ignore the next line where he says "knowing my father would die when the leaves were gone.") That's the fantasy I'm trying to achieve when I cook and bake with pumpkin. And what could be more warm and nourishing on a blustery autumn day than a bowl of pumpkin oatmeal? I've heard of this trend of people eating oatmeal cold, but to me that sounds like a total anathema, like eating ice cream hot. Please, if you eat this oatmeal cold, don't tell me, so that in my mind, in my delightful fantasy of fall where people get cider at roadside stands and wear corduroy knockers (whatever those are), I will picture you eating this oatmeal steaming out of the oven, warming you inside and out.

Baked Spiced Pumpkin Oatmeal
(Adapted from Budget Bytes)

Ingredients:

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree (or about 2 c. homemade)
1/2 c. brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. milk
2 1/2 c. old-fashioned oats

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 square baking dish.

2. In a large bowl, mix pumpkin, brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, baking powder, and vanilla until smooth. Whisk in milk. Add oats.

3. Pour mixture into prepared baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes, removing foil after the first 30 minutes.

Serves 6-8 and reheats beautifully in the microwave with a little added milk.