Thursday, September 29, 2011

One For Miss Eva: Buttery Toffee Apple Popcorn Balls

Shortly before my daughter went back to university the two of us celebrated the end of summer with one last girly day at the movies. She’s a big reader and loved the book “The Help” and was really excited when the movie finally came to theaters.

I won’t do a full blown movie review here so I’ll just say that it was a very entertaining story with a feel good ending and the bad guy (uh, girl) got hers in the end. What did strike me was how it took me back to my childhood in Houston, Texas.

When I was a little girl we had a maid named Miss Eva who would come to help my mother whenever she could afford it. We weren’t rich or even wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but every now and then when my parents were a little flush Miss Eva would come to help out.

True to the theme of the movie, Miss Eva loved us and treated my sister and me like we were her own. She would wash, dry and fold our clothes, and let us help her put them away. She would then carefully iron our little cotton dresses while watching her favorite “stories”, never losing her temper with the thousands of questions we would ask her during the most dramatic parts.

On a couple of really special occasions, she would babysit us at night. These were really special times because Miss Eva would then get to cook for us. We loved it because not only was she a great cook but she loved spoiling us with her specialty, pink and blue Karo syrup popcorn balls.

I don’t really know if this was truly her specialty or if it was because we always had the simple ingredients on hand, but this was the pinnacle of our evening with her. She would mix up the ingredients then butter our hands and let us form a ball or two before finishing them herself. Once we were full of popcorn, corn syrup and food coloring, we would crawl up in her roomy white uniform covered lap and watch a Don Knotts movie until bedtime.

Miss Eva passed when I was about 15. Even though we had moved away and hadn’t seen her in several years, I was heartbroken when my mother told me the news. I can still hear her sweet soft laugh, smell her subtle rose like perfume and taste those special popcorn balls. So this one’s for you Miss Eva. My tastes may be a bit more sophisticated these days and my popcorn balls a little bit fancier than yours, but they definitely took root in those that you cooked for us all those years ago.

Buttery Toffee Apple Popcorn Balls

These popcorn balls are super gooey and sticky.  Beware if you have loose fillings because this caramel will certainly remove them for you. 

2 bags microwave popcorn (I like Pop Secret Homestyle)

2 ounces pecan halves

1 – 2.5 ounce bag crispy apple chips (I found Seneca brand in my grocer’s produce section)

4 ounces butter

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk

1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules, crushed to a powder with the back of a spoon

Pop popcorn according to package directions; carefully open popped corn and pour in a large bowl. Shake bowl to force all of the unpopped kernels to the bottom. Transfer popped kernels to another large bowl that has been lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Discard unpopped kernels and old maids.  Set popcorn aside to cool.

Place pecan halves in a non-stick frying pan set over medium heat; dry toast pecans until they are a golden brown and aroma is released; transfer to a plate to cool. Coarsely chop the nuts; set aside.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, condensed and instant coffee granules. While stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a bowl. Add a candy thermometer to the pot and cook until it reads 230 degrees (for softer which I prefer) or 235 degrees (for harder) while continuing to stir constantly.

Carefully drizzle about 1/2 of the hot toffee mixture over the top of the popcorn. Sprinkle 1/2 of the nuts and apple chips over the top of the caramel. With two large spoons that have been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, toss the popcorn to work the bottom kernels to the top. Drizzle the remaining caramel on top of the popcorn followed by the remaining nuts and apple chips; toss again to coat as much of the popcorn as possible.

Now, here’s the tricky part. You have to form the balls while the caramel is still warm but, not so hot that your hands burst into flames. I burn my hands EVERYTIME that I make these, so you might want to get the burn cream ready or just have caramel corn and not form the balls at all. It’s up to you. If you are going to form balls, you might want to use plastic gloves that have been sprayed with non-stick spray or I have seen where people cover their hands in plastic bags.

If you are going to form the balls, grab a small handful and press gently and firmly between your cupped hands to make the balls. I like to make them on the smaller side so they are easier to eat. Let cool and store in an air tight container.

Makes about 16 medium size popcorn balls

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Day in the Country: Italian Style Creamy Fingerling Potato and Sausage Soup with Asiago Tomato and Bell Pepper Bruscetta

As of today we have less than a week of summer left and I’m starting to get a bit anxious about my tomatoes. Even though they are heavily laden with fruit, my prized heirloom plants are starting to look pretty tired. To spur them on, everyday I walk past them and give them a cheery, “Hurry Up!” but they don’t seem to be listening.

I am mostly concerned about the future of the smallest of the green tomatoes that dangle from their long leggy vines. It is looking more and more like I will have to eventually pick many of them and ripen them upside down on my countertop instead of watching them transform to their dark ruby goodness on the vine.  Oh well, that will work too.

In stark contrast to my lazy green tomatoes, now is the perfect time to hit the farmers’ markets for corn, carrots, potatoes and colorful peppers of all kinds. As I found out with a couple of friends last week, the pick your own farms and roadside markets are brimming with serious cooks, happy young families and perfect produce. Be warned though; if you mean business and plan to do some serious picking,visit these places at toddler naptime or bring a flask of vodka to soothe your frazzled nerves.

As per usual, I got swept up and went totally overboard buying everything I put my hands on. I am happy to report that my wild and crazy shopping spree cost me less than $20.00. Life is good.

So, for the past two days it has mostly been a vegetarian’s paradise around my house. The first night I just steamed up a plate of mixed veg and sliced some of those aforementioned heirlooms and we gorged ourselves on simple goodness. Last night was much the same throwing some leftover patty pan squash (the yellow round ones with the green ends in the middle left of the photo) and purple bell pepper strips on top of pizzas that we cooked on the grill. Correction, life is very good.

For supper tonight I’m going to add a little meat to our menu. I’m planning on making a soup by browning off some Italian sausage and then mixing in some exquisite little fingerling potatoes (bottom right in the photo) I have been hiding in the back of our vegetable bin. I’m going to pair this with some bruschetta for a perfect late summer meal. So, before it’s too late, grab a carrier bag and hit the closest farmers' market for some seasonal treasures of your own.

Italian Style Fingerling Potato Soup with Asiago Tomato and Bell Pepper Bruschetta

Fingerling Potato Soup:

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage

1 small sweet yellow onion, sliced into thin strips from end to end

1 large garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 – ½ cups chicken broth

1 pound fingerling (or new) potatoes, cut in bite size pieces

1 bay leaf

1 – 2” piece of fresh rosemary

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 – 1/2 cups half and half

Salt and Pepper to taste

Brown sausage in a large saucepan or Dutch oven set over medium high heat, breaking it up as it cooks. When it is starting to brown, add onion and cook until they are wilted and transparent; add garlic and cook for one minute longer, stirring frequently.

Sprinkle flour over the top of the sausage mixture and quickly stir in. At this point the mixture will be very dry in appearance. While stirring, slowly add the chicken broth; stir until it comes to a boil. Add the potatoes, bay leaf, rosemary and red pepper flakes; bring to a boil before reducing the heat to low, covering and simmering until the potatoes are fork tender, approximately 30 – 40 minutes.

Add the half and half and salt and pepper and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Remove the rosemary stem and bay leaf.  Serve piping hot.

Makes approximately 6 cups which will feed 4 hungry people

*This soup is also great with the addition of a little chopped chard and/or sliced mushrooms.

Asiago Tomato and Bell Pepper Bruschetta:

12 thin slices of a French baguette (or any small rustic bread loaf)

1/3 cup olive oil or softened butter

6 tablespoons grated Asiago cheese (or any other flavorful cheese)

2 large tomatoes, seeds and membranes removed and chopped into small pieces

1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped bell pepper (any color you like)

1 teaspoon very thinly sliced and chopped fresh basil

1 large garlic clove, crushed

1/2 – 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Mist or brush olive oil or butter on both sides of the bread. Place bread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for approximately 10 minutes or until the bread starts to brown. Remove from the oven, turn over and sprinkle with the Parmesan; return to the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and brown around the edges.

While the bread is toasting, place the tomato, bell pepper, basil, garlic, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper in a medium size bowl. Toss to combine.

Spoon equal amounts of the tomato mixture on top of the toasted bread or serve on the side.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Dreaded Expiration Date: Peach Kolaches

For years before I became so knowledgeable about food (ok well, kind of sort of knowledgeable about some food) I collected spices like some people collect decorative spoons.  I had all types of spices, herbs and roots just in case I ran across an exotic curry or something that I just had to prepare at the spur of the moment. I even had some spices in my cupboard that were aged five years or more.
Then one day I read that every six months you should purge your stale spices and buy new.   If that wasn’t bad enough I noticed that a new box of baking soda I had just purchased was only good for 3 more months. You’ve got to be kidding me!  We’re not the Kennedys!  I can’t afford that, so I refused to conform.  Ok, I’ll be honest I must admit that there is nothing like the taste of fresh cinnamon, but I still just can’t bring myself to throw away that ground thyme that I bought the week before my son was born sixteen years ago.
Nowadays “The Man” puts expiration dates on EVERYTHING.  Before, I always trusted the sight, smell and taste test to see if my ancient can of green beans was still good.  Really, we never used to even think about canned goods or dried noodles going bad.  If the can wasn’t rusty, moldy or puffy, we called it dinner.  Those were the days boy.
It kills me to admit it, but I finally succumbed to this expiration date peer pressure a few years ago.  I hate to think about all of the food that I have thrown away because of these menacing dates, mumbling all the while about how ridiculous it is, but better safe than sorry.
If you're like me and don't really know what to think, click here for more information about the shelf life of the foods we eat, and decide for yourself whether or not you should eat that two year old canned ham in your cupboard.  I’ll tell you what; you just might be surprised at the answer.
What caused me to get on my soap box you might ask?  Well, I recently helped a neighbor can some peaches which reminded me of some preserves that I canned last year.   Out of curiosity I Googled food safety guidelines for home canned goods and realized that if I don’t use my preserves within the next 2 days, they will probably kill my family.  Ok, I’ll get cooking, but I still don’t know if I believe it.
So, how to use 3 half pints of peach preserves is the question I now find myself searching to answer.  In my opinion, the answer is obvious, peach kolaches.    Brought to south central Texas by Czech immigrants, these soft doughy pastries are great for breakfast, with coffee or for dessert.  Akin to open face jelly doughnuts, but far superior by comparison, these pastries are a great reason to use up any ingredients with a looming expiration date.


1 - .25 ounce envelope fast acting dry yeast
1 cup of warm milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter (5 – 1/3 tablespoons), melted and cooled
1 egg, beaten
3 – 1/4 to 3 – 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour (I used 2 cups all-purpose and 1-1/2 cup of bread flour with great results)
1/2 pint jar peach (or your very favorite) preserves

Cinnamon Streusel Topping (recipe follows)

Sprinkle yeast over the warm milk in a large bowl or better yet, the bowl of a stand mixer that has been fitted with a dough hook.  Let sit for 5 minutes or until foamy.
Add the sugar, salt, butter and egg to the milk mixture in the bowl and stir until the mixture is combined.  Slowly add the flour, one quarter at a time until it is completely mixed in and dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.  Knead for 5 minutes.
Spray a large bowl with non-stick cooking spray.  Place the dough in the bowl and spray the top with more cooking spray.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a cotton towel.  Place in a warm, draft free space and let rise until double in size, approximately 1 hour.
Roll dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide into 16 equal portions.  Roll portions into balls and place in a greased baking dish (you may have to use 2 pans to fit all the dough).  Don't worry about crowding them just a bit as they will bake together, making soft edges that my family loves.
With the back of a tablespoon or your fingers, make an indention in the middle of each ball of dough.  Fill each indention with a heaping teaspoon of preserves.  Sprinkle the tops with Cinnamon Streusel Topping.
Cover with additional plastic wrap and let rise again for 30 minutes. 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Place risen kolaches in the preheated oven and bake for approximatey 20 minutes or until light golden brown.
Makes 16 nice size kolaches

Cinnamon Streusel Topping
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons slightly softened butter
Combine the flour, sugar and cinnamon in a medium size bowl.  Cut in the butter with a fork, pastry blender or your hands.  The mixture will look like coarse sand.   Sprinkle over the top of the kolaches.  Freeze any unused topping for use later.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Lazy Sunday: Sauteed Collard Greens and Blueberry Lime Buttermilk Pie

It is a beautiful day here in Colorado. The temperature is in the 70s and there's not a cloud in the sky. The only disturbance is a soft cool breeze gently blowing through the Aspen trees in my backyard. In my world all is well and everyone is happy.

There is a serenity in the air on this lazy Sunday. Soon all of the remembrances of that horrible day in NYC 10 years ago will stir our memories and remind us that our happiness is fragile; but today the world is quiet and we are free to savor days like this and appreciate them for the great gift that they are.

On this particular beautiful day I plan to slice some heirloom tomatoes from my patio garden, sauté some collard greens and bake a pie. I will enjoy these blessings with my favorite people in the whole wide world and we will laugh and drink glasses of wine.

Since you can’t be here to share this gorgeous day and good food with us, I’d like to give you a couple of these wonderful recipes for you to make on your own. The first recipe is for sautéed collards. Even if you don’t think you like these greens that can admittedly be a bit bitter, this recipe mellows the bitterness and accents the flavor which results in a savory side dish that everyone on my guest list loves.

For dessert we will enjoy a family favorite, my version of buttermilk pie. I’ve added some blueberries for sweetness and some lime for a bright fresh twist. Please don’t be put off by the buttermilk in this recipe, it adds a tartness that kind of reminds me of cheesecake but it is easier to prepare and no cream cheese is harmed in the making of it. You will LOVE it, I promise.

Sautéed Collard Greens

3 slices bacon
1/2 medium size onion, roughly chopped
1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 pound collard greens (approximately 10 ounces once stalks are removed)
1/2 cup chicken bouillon, water or white wine
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon chipotle hot sauce (such as Tabasco Chipotle)

Place bacon in the bowl of a mini food processor and process until it is finely ground or finely chop by hand. Place bacon in the bottom of a large saucepan that is set over medium high heat. Cook until it is browned, stirring frequently.

In the same food processor, add onion and garlic and process until they are finely ground. Add to the pan with the cooked bacon and cook for an additional 3 minutes or until the onions are soft and transparent, stirring frequently.

While the onions are cooking, wash and dry the collard greens. Remove the large spines from each leaf. Lay the collards in a flat stack one on top of the other. Roll them up cigar fashion. With a very sharp knife, slice the collards in 1/2” wide pieces across, then once in the opposite direction. Add to the bacon and onions in the hot pan and sauté, stirring frequently for approximately 5 minutes. Add the water to the collards. Stir well, reduce the heat to medium low and cover. Cook for an additional 5 - 15 minutes (and up to 30 for softer greens) stirring frequently to prevent burning.

Remove the lid from the collards, add the salt, pepper, vinegar and hot sauce; stir well. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Blueberry Lime Buttermilk Pie

1 – 9” pie crust
3 eggs, room temperature
5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Zest from 1 lime
2/3 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line prepared pie crust with foil then fill with beans or pie weights. Place in the preheat oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes.

In a large bowl beat eggs with an electric mixer set on medium until frothy. Slowly add the melted butter, then the sugar and flour, beating well to combine. While continuing to beat, add the buttermilk, salt, lime juice and lime zest.

Remove the pie weights or beans and foil from the pie crust. Sprinkle the blueberries over the bottom of the crust before pouring the pie filling over the top.

Place in preheated oven and bake for approximately 45 - 60 minutes (higher altitude cooking like mine may take the full 60 minutes) or until the filling is set in the middle and golden brown. Be sure to check frequently towards the end of the baking time and if the top begins to brown too deeply or burn, cover loosely with foil.

Remove from the oven and cool before serving. This pie is great served warm with vanilla ice cream or room temperature with heavy cream or just plain. I think this pie is best served on its first day out of the oven, so baking any more than a couple of hours in advance isn't advised for optimum flavor and texture.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Door to Door Organics: Summer Squash Parmesan

A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from Door to Door Organics asking if I’d like to do a review of their produce to get the word out about how good it is. I agreed and just a few days later I found a nice size box waiting for me on my doorstep. Now, I do have to say that there is nothing like a box on the front porch with my name on it to put me in a good mood, but I calmed myself down so I could truly be objective. I carefully opened it and inside found a delightful mix of Colorado produce.

Door to Door Organics is similar to a CSA in that fresh regional fruits and vegetables are delivered to your door from farms in your area but without the waiting lists that are usually involved with most CSAs. To find out more about their service and availability in your area, please click here.

Inside my “Bitty Local Farm Box”, Door to Door Organics had sent me a very manageable selection of beautiful fresh veg. There was 1 bunch of green onions, 1 cucumber, 2 yellow squash, 5 heads of garlic, 1 Napa cabbage, 1 small head of romaine lettuce, 1 small bunch of green chard, 1 small bunch of collard greens, a big beautiful eggplant and an ice pack to keep it all cool on its way to my door.

It was a really hard decision for me as to what my first creation would be. After much deliberation, I decided that I was going to prepare a simple summery fresh version of Eggplant Parmesan only this time with yellow squash and a little bit of kale and a simple green salad on the side.

I know that using squash may seem a bit strange since there was a beautiful eggplant inside, but I have to admit that I really don’t like eggplant much so yellow squash is the perfect substitute for me. If I would have read up on them a little earlier, I would have known that if there is something in their box that you don’t care for, you can easily customize your box with just a short notice.

If you’re not like me and don’t necessarily enjoy creating your own recipes, the folks at Door to Door Organics have developed a recipe section called “Kitchen” on their site to help you figure out how to make the most of your box. These recipes are developed by food bloggers and home cooks like me so you know they have to been good, if I do say so myself. Be sure and check it out.

If you’d like to order a box of produce of your own to try them out, Door to Door Organics is offering my readers in their service areas in Colorado, Kansas City, Chicago and Michigan a one-time 40% discount on their “Bitty Box”. All you have to do is enter the discount code “eatdrinkwashup” at check out. Keep in mind that they deliver all year round, but their local farm boxes are only available June thru October, so if you are interested don’t wait too long to place your order.

Summer Squash Parmesan

2 large leaves kale
4 large size yellow squash
1/2 cup oil for frying
1 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons milk
4 – 5 slices bacon, cut into 1/2" wide slices across
1/2 medium size sweet yellow onion, sliced into very thin slices
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 tablespoon sugar
1 – 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cups shredded Italian blend cheese

Wash and dry kale well. Remove spine before rolling kale cigar fashion and slicing in thin strips and then down the middle; set aside.

Wash and dry the squash well. Remove both ends before slicing in half lengthwise. Cut the halves in half lengthwise; lay on paper towels in a single layer.

Place oil in a medium size frying pan set over medium high heat and heat until the oil is hot and shimmering.

While the oil is heating, place the flour, eggs and breadcrumbs separately in three large shallow bowls.

Dip each slice of squash first in the flour, then the egg and finally in the breadcrumbs; place in the hot oil and brown on each side for approximately 3 minutes or until it is golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining squash; set aside.

In another medium size frying pan, fry bacon until it is brown but not quite crispy. Add the onions to the bacon and its drippings. Cook until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning, sugar and tomatoes; stir well and set aside.

Grease a 9” square pan. Ladle 1/2 cup or so of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the baking dish; layer 1/2 of the squash on the bottom of the dish in a single layer. Sprinkle half of the kale over the top followed by half of the cheese and half of the remaining sauce. Repeat the layer with the remaining ingredients ending with the cheese on top.

Place in the preheated oven and cook for approximately 45 to 60 minutes or until it is bubbly and heated all the way through. Remove from the oven and rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Serves 6 – 8.