Saturday, November 30, 2013

Coconut Infused Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Frosted Blueberries and Toasted Coconut

I hope everyone that celebrated Thanksgiving this year had a good one. I am so proud of myself for not overcooking this year. I bought a little 10 pound turkey and made just three sides not counting the cranberry sauce and rolls. Besides the soup carcass and a couple slices of crème caramel, we are done with the leftovers.

Since our refrigerator isn't packed full of the remnants of our turkey dinner (i.e. nothing falls out when you open the door), I kind of felt inspired to do one more recipe for the Highbush Blueberry Council using their little blue dynamos while I still had the chance, and since I've had a craving for panna cotta, the timing is perfect.

There isn't a dessert that I love much more than panna cotta.  This eggless custard is thickened with gelatin and even though it is made with heavy cream is anything but. My coconut infused version has subtle coconut and vanilla flavors and just the right amount of sugar to perfectly compliment the sweetness of the frosted blueberries and toasted coconut on top.

This recipe really is something special if you are serving it for guests, but easy enough you can make it and keep it in the fridge as a weeknight treat for your family. You're going to love it. I promise.

Coconut Infused Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta With Frosted Blueberries and Toasted Coconut

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut
2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup whole milk, slightly warm
1 - 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pasteurized dried egg whites
1 tablespoon water
1 cup frozen blueberries
1/3 cup super fine sugar

Place 1 cup of coconut and heavy cream and vanilla bean in a medium size sauce pan over medium heat. Slice vanilla bean down the middle and scrap seeds out with the edge of a knife. Add the pod and seeds to the cream; stir. 

Bring cream mixture to a low simmer and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for 15 minutes or until just warm to the touch.

Sprinkle the gelatin powder over the top of the warm whole milk. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften.

Strain coconut and cream. Push coconut against the side of a strainer with the back of a spoon to extract any cream from the coconut.  Return the cream back to the saucepan over medium heat and bring back up to a simmer.

Add the warm whole milk/gelatin mixture to the simmering cream, stirring until all the gelatin has completely dissolved.

Pour the mixture into 6 containers that are approximately 4 ounces each.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.

About an hour before serving, place the egg white powder and water in a small bowl and whisk until it is completely incorporated. You may also use a fresh egg white for this step if the pasteurized powder is not available.

Pour over the frozen blueberries and very gently toss to coat.

Place blueberries in a shallow bowl and place in the freezer for at least one hour. Just before serving, remove blueberries from the freezer. Pour the superfine sugar onto a small plate and roll berries around in it to coat.

Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of coconut in a small frying pan that has been preheated over medium high heat.  Stirring frequently, toast the coconut to a golden brown.  Transfer toasted coconut to a small bowl or plate; set aside until ready to use.

Panna cotta is ready to serve when it is firmly set and chilled through. Finish by topping with equal amounts of toasted coconut and frosted blueberries shortly before serving.

Serves 6 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Highbush Blueberry Council's "Blueberries Meet Their Match" Blogger Recipe Contest: Spicy Blueberry Balsamic Sauce and Drizzle

I recently found out that the US Highbush Blueberry Council is presently holding a blogger recipe contest, and I am really excited.  I'm not just saying this to butter up the blueberry folks, but blueberries are without a doubt one of my absolute favorite fruits.

For this year's contest called "Blueberries Meet Their Match", they are asking bloggers to create recipes that pair blueberries with one of four flavors which include, coconut, bananas, rosemary or balsamic vinegar. Ok, I'm up for that!

Even though I love cranberry sauce, it is so nice to step out of the box a bit and serve something a little unexpected, so I thought that I'd create a new type of holiday sauce. For my sauce I have combined sweet, plump blueberries with a little orange zest for brightness and just enough sriracha to add a little spark. The result is a sauce that really works on everything.

This time of year I prepare all sorts of nibbles and sides that are in great need of a sauce or drizzle to bring out their flavors, from grilled meats, my favorite bleu cheese spread and crackers, sausage, sage and onion stuffing balls, and of course my leftover holiday turkey baguette with a little arugula and brie, they are all made better with a little drizzle of my spicy blueberry balsamic sauce.

Spicy Blueberry Balsamic Sauce and Drizzle (shown here served room temperature with some of my sausage, sage and onion stuffing balls, recipe coming soon)

6 ounces fresh or frozen blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 pinch salt
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon orange zest
2 teaspoons sriracha
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Place blueberries, water, sugar, salt, thyme and orange zest in a small sauce pan set over medium heat.  Stir until sugar is melted and mixture starts to simmer.

With the back of a spoon or a potato masher, mash about half of the blueberries.  Allow the mixture to simmer, stirring frequently for 5 - 10 minutes to reduce and concentrate the flavors of the sauce.

Add the sriracha and the vinegar and simmer for 1 minutes longer, stirring well to incorporate.

Remove from the heat and serve warm for dipping or drizzling or at room temperature or chilled as an accompaniment to meat and side dishes.

Yields about a cup of sauce.

*If you are interested in entering a recipe of your own or your would just like more information about this contest and see lots more great recipes, please visit by clicking on the link.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Getting Back to Normal: Epicurean Butter and Pechugas de Pollo

Right in the middle of all the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest hoopla in the last few days prior to my departure for Vegas, I was invited to attend a luncheon at The Seasoned Chef Cooking School here in Denver.  It was a welcome distraction from all of my preparations and anticipation, and I was also very excited to learn about a local product.

The gathering was organized as a way to introduce bloggers, food writers and others affiliated with the food industry to Epicurean Butter. Epicurean butter is a line of grade AA butter that is infused with all natural ingredients resulting in compound butters that can instantly dress up the simplest of dishes.  Developed by Denver Chef John Hubschman, Epicurean Butter comes in 14 different flavors, in both sweet and savory varieties, and are intended to bring gourmet restaurant quality chef preparation to the home cook.

For our tasting luncheon, Chicago based Chef Julius Russell, owner of A Tale of Two Chefs, prepared a variety of dishes containing different flavors of Epicurean Butter for us to sample. These dishes ranged from a goat cheese bruschetta, sauteed shrimp, and roasted pork loin to a buttery cake crouton apple concoction that was indescribably delicious.  It was a tasty afternoon to say the least.

Now a couple of weeks later, all the dust has cleared from my trip and I'm settling back into my routine. I am ready to start creating, and all those tubs of butter waiting in my fridge have inspired me to get busy. We were given several recipes to try, but I cannot for the life of me put my hands on any of them. Makes me kind of wonder what went on around here while I was gone.

In the absence of those recipes, I decided to come up with something on my own. After tasting a couple of the butters I kept coming back to the chili lime. The subtle, fresh Mexican flavors reminded me of a dish that I loved and haven't had in a very long time.

Years ago there was a little Mexican restaurant in Houston that my posse and I used to frequent. On their menu they featured a grilled chicken breast entree complete with mushrooms, onions and a little bit of cheese all swimming in a tasty butter sauce that I absolutely loved.

This little restaurant simply called their dish pechugas de pollo.  After a little research I discovered that pechugas translates to "breasts" and pollo translates to "chicken", so you can obviously call any breast of chicken dish by this name if you want. I guess this leaves me wide open to do my own pechugas de pollo any way I like.

Since I wanted to really focus on the flavor of the butter, I simplified the ingredients for my pechugas. I used pan seared chicken and the flavored butter mixed with the pan juices to form the sauce. Really all you need is a perfectly cooked chicken breast and a dollop of this butter and there you go, the simple is turned into the sublime in just minutes, just as Chef Hubschman envisioned.

Pechugas de Pollo

2 medium size chicken breasts, approximately 6 -7 ounces each
Salt, pepper and garlic or your favorite seasoning blend to taste
1 - 2 tablespoons light olive or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Epicurean chili lime compound butter or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, a squeeze of fresh lime juice and 1/8 teaspoon chili powder (mild or medium), plus 2 additional tablespoons for finishing dish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse and pat the chicken breasts dry. Place them between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound thicker end of breasts to even the thickness as much as possible.

Sprinkle both sides of the breasts liberally with salt, pepper and granulated garlic or seasoning blend; set aside.

Pour oil (enough to coat bottom) into a heat proof medium size frying pan (for this recipe I LOVE my cast iron skillet) set over medium high heat. Heat oil until it is shimmering. Add prepared breasts to hot pan and fry them on each side until golden brown.

Carefully transfer frying pan to the preheated oven and cook for an additional 5 minutes or so or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees and/or juices run clear. *If you feel that your chicken breasts are cooked through after browning them on top of the stove, you can omit this step if desired.

Remove pan from the oven and transfer chicken breasts to serving plates, cover, set aside and rest for 5 minutes.

While the breasts are resting, add the two tablespoons of Epicurean Butter (or plain butter, lime juice and chili powder) to the hot frying pan to deglaze it, scraping bits up off the bottom with a whisk or fork, being careful not to burn the butter. This should take just about a minute.

Pour equal amounts of the butter sauce over the top of the chicken breasts. Finish with an additional pat of butter and a sprinkling of chopped fresh cilantro if desired. I prefer serving my chicken breasts on a bed of rice to absorb the chicken flavors and butter.

This recipe serves 2, but is easily doubled.

I would also like to try changing this dish up sometime by replacing the chile lime flavor with Epicurean's Tuscan Herb Butter or the porcini and sage flavor and serving it over pasta.

Just because Epicurean Butter's home is in Colorado, doesn't mean it is only available in Colorado. Click here for a list of the many retailers that carry this product.  Don't see a retailer in your area? Epicurean Butter can also be ordered on line.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest: Million Dollar Loaded Potato Pinwheels and My Eagle Brand Signature Recipe Award Winner

Well, after months and months, it is all over. The fabulous 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest has now come and gone and it is time to get back to normal. Even though I didn't win the much sought after and dreamed about million dollar grand prize, I am thrilled to say that my Amazing Doable Dinners recipe for Bacon Corncakes with Warm Maple Cream won the $5,000 Eagle Brand Signature Recipe Award and the golden Doughboy statuette that goes along with it.

I am going to be really honest here when I admit that at the time when host Padma Lakshmi called my name for this award, I was just a tad bit disappointed for a fleeting moment. I know that makes me sound like I am an ungrateful brat, but fact is once you win one of the sponsored prizes, you are out of the running for the big one, so I had to take a few minutes to come to terms with that.

Please don't get me wrong, I am so honored to have been a part of this exciting contest and to have been selected as the winner of this prize. I am also very aware that 93 other finalists went home without a check or a golden Doughboy, but winning the grand prize is like winning the only gold medal at the Olympics, and letting go of that dream takes a moment or two to process.

Now, any shred of disappointment is long gone and I have a hard time leaving my award at home to go to the grocery store.  This is without a doubt one of my most favorite all time recipes. Akin to the Something From Nothing recipes that I post here, I am proud of the fact that I came up with a really delicious main dish using only 6 out of the 7 allowed ingredients. I am also very honored that nine food professionals that were vetted and approved by General Mills liked my recipe enough to honor it with this prize.

As the Bake-Off Contest rules state at present, you can only compete in this contest three times and then you are out, forever. Since this was my second time, I'm already brainstorming for something genius for my third and final trip. If I don't feel like I can win with any of my ideas, I'm going to pass on entering until I can come up with something that I deem to be a contender.

I've got my fingers crossed that someday they'll do away with this three times rule and just let the best recipes compete no matter how many times the writer has made it through, although I read yesterday that one of this year's judges believes that this rule is in place to keep prolific contesters from taking over the event.

I do understand that line of thinking, but I'd like to make the point that even though I have been very lucky to compete in many contests, it took me nine years to go back to the Bake-Off for the second time. I think that makes it apparent that even though I might be able to write a good recipe, I don't possess any special knowledge that gives me an advantage over anyone else.

Despite the fact that I had high hopes for my own recipe, you have to just trust that the judges chose the best one for the grand prize and move on.  In case you are not aware, first time finalist Glori Spriggs, not a seasoned contester, won for her Loaded Potato Pinwheels from the Simple Sweets and Starters category.

Way back in 2004 when my Dinner Made Easy category winning recipe for Inside Out Taco Salad Wraps was passed over in favor of the Oats and Honey Granola Pie for the million, I didn't have a blog to hash it all over and talk it out. Maybe if I had been writing one, I would have been more inspired to prepare the winning recipe and review it. To this day I haven't made that pie, but there is no doubt in my mind that it must be delicious.

Since I now have a platform to discuss my feelings about things, I thought I would make the big winner and hopefully tell you all how wonderful it is. As always, I pride myself in honest and unbiased opinions on anything I review here, and this recipe is no exception.

Before I get to my review, I have to preface my statement with the fact that I take reviewing someone else's recipe very seriously. I carefully prepare it exactly the way it was written, being careful not to make any changes or substitutions which might alter the intended flavor or consistency.

I do this because in the past I have had to bounce back from some pretty negative comments about some of my own beloved creations. Some of them were deserved, but some of them were made after the reviewer obviously misread and improperly prepared the recipe.

Now while this year's winning recipe looks pretty good, I have to be honest and say that it is just OK in my opinion. The stuffed baked potato flavors are pleasant, but seem to be slightly overshadowed by a strong bell pepper flavor from the Green Giant frozen potatoes that form the base of the recipe's stuffing.

Add some grated cheese and bacon, wrap it up in the familiar flavor of Pillsbury's Crescent dough, top it with a dab of sour cream and a sprinkling of green onion and more bacon, and there you have it. Nothing earth shattering or life changing, just a simple little nibble that I don't know if I'll be adding to my appetizer rotation anytime soon.

On the upside, this recipe is easy to make, it looks pretty on the plate, yields 28 nice size pieces and the ingredients (some I found on sale) only cost me about $7.00.  Even though it isn't exactly my cup of tea, I'm attaching the recipe below just in case you'd like to make it too. Since everyone's tastes are different, you might make it and love it as much as the judges.

Loaded Potato Pinwheels

1 bag (11.8 ounce) Green Giant Seasoned Steamers frozen backyard grilled potatoes
1 - 1/2 cups (5 ounces) finely shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup cooked real bacon bits (from a jar or package)
3 tablespoons milk
1 can Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations refrigerated seamless dough sheet
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion tops (3 medium)

Heat oven to 350 F.  Spray large cookie sheets with Crisco Original No-Stick Cooking Spray.

Microwave frozen potatoes 3 to 4 minutes to thaw. In a medium bowl, with fork, mash potatoes leaving some small pieces.  Stir in cheese, 1/3 cup of the bacon bits and the milk until well blended.

Unroll dough on cutting board; press into 14 x 8-inch rectangle. Cut into 2 rectangles, 14 x 4-inch each. Spread half of the potato mixture on one rectangle to with in 1/4-inch of long edges. Starting at one long side, tightly roll up dough, pinch seams to seal.  Using serrated knife, cut roll into 14 slices. Place slices cut side up, on cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Bake 17 to 21 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove from cookie sheets to serving plate.

Top each pinwheel with sour cream, remaining bacon bits and the green onions. Serve warm.

The next Pillsbury Bake-Off is already gearing up and I can't encourage you enough to start thinking about what you can create. Pillsbury really knows how to put on a fun party. 

For more information, rules and winners lists, please visit their site by CLICKING HERE. You never know, I just might be reviewing your million dollar winning recipe here next year, and like Glori Spriggs you can cry all the way to the bank! Until then, here's a few images from the competition in Las Vegas.

The group finalist photo.

The Bake-Off Contest floor, ready to go.

No introduction needed.

Padma Lakshmi hosting the awards dinner.

Newly minted millionaire, Glori Spriggs (Center).

Finalist, Christine Wilson (front) and her daughter, Donna Fogel (middle), made up two of the four mothers and daughters to participate at this year's Bake-Off Contest.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dinner's in the Freezer: King Ranch Chicken Casserole

My #1 fan

It was about 10 months ago that I entered a couple of recipes for the Pillsbury Bake-Off.  I was tentative about the whole thing since it involved consumer voting, but fortunately a miracle happened and lots of great people voted for me, which pushed me through to the finals.

Now after all these months of waiting, it is time for me to go.  In just a few hours Mr. H will take me to the airport and drop me off for my trip to Las Vegas and a couple of days of highly organized play dates with 99 other people who managed to get there too. We will cook on Monday and the prizes will be awarded that night. To be sure, if I don't win, there will be lots of alcohol consumed afterwards with some of the other non-winners before we fly home the next day.

Even though I am really looking forward to getting away and competing, I kind of hate to see my time in Pillsbury limbo come to an end.  You see for the past 7 months or so I have been living in the thought that I could win that million dollars with my little genius (my word, not theirs) pancake recipe. Now, as "they"say in Texas, "This is where the rubber meets the road."

This past Wednesday I made my recipe one more time. Honesty, it is so quick and easy that I really don't know why. I tell myself that it was for practice, and maybe it was a bit, but I think mostly it was so my adoring public could rant and rave and tell me that I am surely the big winner one more time.

In addition to packing and shopping for that pair of Spanks that will make me look 20 pounds lighter, I have also been cooking and freezing food for my boys so they don't forget me when I'm gone. Even if they decided to eat take out every night, like I suspect they will, something homemade and delicious will be available to them just in case.

For this trip I decided on making a batch of King Ranch Chicken Casserole. The first time I ever made this was before my first trip home shortly after I was married.  My husband and his friends loved it (they were easily impressed) and it became my signature dish for a time.

Since I lost that original recipe years ago, my recipe has kind of morphed into the simple recipe I am giving you today.  There's not a ton of ingredients (even made less if you use cream of chicken soup, but I just can't do that), but the ones that are in it are super flavorful and combine to make one great dish.

King Ranch Chicken Casserole

Rumor has it that the only connection between this dish and the famous ranch in Texas is the name, but I prefer to think that maybe Mrs. King developed it to feed her family while she headed off to Vegas. Could be!

3 tablespoons cooking or light olive oil
1/2 medium size onion, chopped
1/3 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 medium size poblano pepper, roasted, peeled and chopped (or a small can of chopped green chiles)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cup chicken broth
1 - 10 ounce chopped can tomatoes and green chiles (like Rotel)
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
8 corn tortillas, cut into quarters
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
3 cups shredded cooked chicken (leftover rotisserie or baked chicken is great for this)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat oil in a medium size frying pan over medium high heat.  When the oil is hot add the onion and bell pepper; saute until they are soft.  Add garlic and poblano pepper saute for one minute longer.

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir in to coat vegetables completely. Reduce the heat to medium.

In a medium size bowl quickly stir together the milk, broth and tomatoes.  Slowly pour into the the vegetables, stirring constant and vigorously until it is completely combined.  At this point feel free to kick the heat back up to medium high to get it simmering a bit quicker.  Continue to stir until sauce is bubbly and thickened.  Stir in the cilantro; remove from heat and set aside.

Spray a 9 x 9" glass baking dish (or a 7 x 11" dish like I used) with non-stick cooking spray.  Ladle about 1/2 of a cup of the sauce into the bottom of the pan.  Arrange 1/2 of the tortillas on top of the sauce.  Top with 1/2 of the chicken, 1/2 of the remaining sauce, and 1/2 of the cheese.  Repeat with the remaining ingredients ending with the cheese.

Place into the preheated oven and bake until it is heated through and the cheese is melted and bubbly, approximately 20 - 30 minutes.  Since the ingredients are all cooked, you are heating it more that cooking it.

Serves 6

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Something From Nothing #18: Basic Cream Sauce

Basic Cream Sauce

When I was in junior high school, home economics was one of only two elective classes offered at our school. The other being shop class, which I had no interest in, and even if I did it probably would have taken a school board vote for me to get in.  Bear in mind this was back in the day when boys did boy stuff, and girls did girl stuff. Period.

Mrs. Graves was the home ec. teacher at our school. A June Carter Cash look alike, she was just a plain old country girl who was married to the shop teacher.  No doubt she and Mr. Graves lived in a little white clapboard house on 10 acres on the outskirts of town with one dairy cow and a stable full of horses. I'm sure he built their house with his own two hands and she grew all the vegetables and baked the bread on their dinner table. Back then they were looked upon as old fashioned country folks. Today we would see them as cool.

Mrs. Graves was a very wise woman.  She knew that sooner or later, whether we went to college or not, got married or not, had kids or didn't, we would most likely need to sew on a button, clean our own houses and make ourselves something to eat at some point in our lives. I guess it was this knowledge that kept her from giving up on us despite our youthful antics and frequent disinterest in her curriculum.

Under Mrs. Graves's tutelage, I somehow learned how to read a dress pattern, cut it out, sew it together and make it fit (kind of). She taught us about the right cleaners to use for what chores and how to properly scour a kitchen sink. She also taught us what kitchen ingredients would double as household cleaners in a pinch. I still think about her every time I use vinegar and newspaper to clean glass. All these things may sound pretty simple, but I have used one of the things I learned in her class almost every day of my life.

While very knowledgeable about cleaning and sewing, looking back I realize that cooking wasn't exactly Mrs. Graves's strong suit.  I remember towards the end of the school year we showcased our culinary knowledge by preparing meal for ourselves.

All I can really recall about our menu was that the main dish consisted of some type of Bisquick/ground beef roulade with a heavenly, super cheesy sauce poured over the top. It was at this meal that I learned the most valuable cooking rule of all.  Kids will eat anything if you douse it in enough cheese sauce.

Easy and Cheesy

As unappetizing as this simple meal might sound, I really need to cut her a break.  Afterall she was trying to orchestrate a class of fifteen, thirteen year old girls, give them all a part in the meal preparation, eat it,and clean up, all in fifty-five minutes. God bless her.

Even though I've never made that hamburger roulade ever again, I have made that cheese sauce no less than a thousand times. More accurately, I have actually made the simple creamy base to that cheese sauce, over and over and over.

Made with just a few simple ingredients, this recipe is the great beginning of many sauces.  Cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, bechamel for an authentic Italian lasagna, a creamy mustard sauce for baked ham and the creamy goodness inside chicken pot pie, it's all a possible with this recipe.

Basic Cream Sauce

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups warm to hot milk (I usually just microwave mine for a minute or so)
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a medium size sauce pan over medium heat, until is starts to sizzle.  Whisk flour into melted butter, stirring until a smooth paste is formed.

Slowly pour in the warm milk, whisking vigorously until it is completely incorporated. Continue to cook until it starts to boil.  Cook for 1 - 2 minutes, while stirring constantly.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or stir in additional ingredients as desired.

Whisking vigorously will usually smooth out any small lumps that you might get in your sauce. If this doesn't work, pour the sauce through a strainer, pushing the lumps through with the back of a spoon.

For bechamel sauce, add a pinch of nutmeg.

For mustard sauce, stir in 2 - 4 tablespoons of your favorite prepared mustard or dried mustard to taste.

For cheese sauce, stir in 1 cup grated cheddar cheese or 1/2 cup Parmesan or bleu cheese (or to taste), and a pinch of ground cayenne pepper. If I am using a mild cheese I also like to stir in 1 teaspoon of prepared mustard.

For garlic and herb sauce, saute garlic and shallots in the butter and add your favorite herbs at the end.

Once you get the hang of this sauce, the possibilities are endless.

Cream Sauce with Mustard