Friday, August 29, 2008

[Product Review] Silicone baking cups: Crumb-y innovation or green advancement?

I bought a dozen pastel Wilton silicone cupcake bakers when they first came out more than a year ago just to try them. It has taken me awhile but I finally used them. I baked 24 cupcakes for one of my daughter's birthday parties. [She had two this year; one with each side of the family because they live in different towns.] I have just one cupcake/muffin tin and I didn't want to hold over the second half of the batter.

Here are my observations of the silicone baking cups' performance:

1. The cakes didn't brown as dark (or at all) as the cakes in paper wrappers. Not that that is good or bad one way or the other.

2. Though the cakes pulled away from the sides of the cups as they baked, it was hard to remove them from the holders without tearing the cakes. This is because the cups have to be so sturdy so as not to collapse under the batter. You can't bend and manipulate the silicone holder as easily as paper which will yield or "give", thus leaving the delicate cake in one piece.

I am not greasing each individual cup -- I'd rather use paper liners if I have to do that.

Some "greenies" might argue for using silicone baking cups because they save the environment: They are reusable so they don't fill up dumps, they are not made of paper and therefore no trees died for their producion and they're not printed with ink that might pollute the water or soil.

My conclusion: Use these sometimes -- like when you're going to eat their contents at home and no one will expect to see a whole and perfect confection.

Decorating tip: For anyone who's interested, I was trying to top my cupcakes with frosting quickly and neatly. I decided to pipe the ivory-tinted icing in blobs in concentric circles with a No. 199 tip. I think they looked like mums. Perfect for fall!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Substituting and adapting

I do this thing -- well, I used to do it more often, when I had a bigger grocery budget and reason to be near a big-city grocery store -- where I see an ingredient that I consider hard to come by in rural parts. Rose water, for example. I used to snap up the hard-to-find ingredient -- one time it was haluski noodles -- and bring it home only to find that I had misplaced the recipe I'd been saving to try if I ever found the elusive ingredient. The ingredient would spoil or go stale and I'd toss it, never having found the recipe I wanted to try. That's why I never bought the rose water when the nearest Kroger opened its ethnic section a few years ago. I was tempted, but I knew that recipe would be nowhere to be found at home. But that fear and reasoning didn't stop me from snapping up a package of chorizo, a Spanish link sausage, at a fancy Giant Eagle a few months back. And it stayed in my freezer until I found a good recipe to try.

But to try that recipe required some substitutions. When you live rurally and frugally like I have to you don't always have the luxury of buying the exact ingredient a recipe needs. You should not let that stop you from trying new things anyway.

In this case, fresh jumbo shrimp were replaced with smaller frozen shrimp (just use more of them.)

Portuguese rolls became King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls. At first, I could find only the dinner roll size. I made 12 small burgers, put 12 chunks of chorizo on them and put 1 or 2 shrimp on each sandwich. I think these would be a hit as a heavy hors d'oeurve at cocktail parties. For everyday dinners -- not that we eat this much meat or this richly every day -- now I'm able to get the sandwich bun size in our local Wal-marts.

However, I can no longer afford to go to a big store and buy real chorizo. So I looked up a substitute and found some things with which to doctor regular bulk pork sausage. The recipe follows. Again, I had to substitute to even make the mock chorizo. I couldn't find spicy bulk pork sausage so I bought plain and used chipotle chili pepper to amp up the heat.

I also am running low on things and can't replace them right away. For example, I'm out of sweet paprika. So in the chicken burger recipe I used 1 teaspoons of hot paprika and omitted the hot sauce. It seemed to work OK. I might've been able to go measure-for-measure without too much spice but I didn't risk it. My next experiment will be to chop the shrimp and mix the chorizo into the chicken burger mix and grill the whole thing at once, possibly making six to eight more manageable burgers than the colossal ones that result from stacking the shrimp on the sausage on the burger. I can't finish a whole one.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the recipe for the paella burgers and two more for fries to accompany them. One is my own concoction to dress sweet potato fries. Rachael Ray mixes a pimiento mayonnaise for the burger and her fries. I'm the only one who eats mayo in my family so I don't go to the trouble.

From "365: No Repeats" by Rachael Ray
1 1/2 pounds ground chicken breast
2 or 3 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
3-4 garlic cloves
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons hot sauce
zest of 1 lemon
2 1/2 tablespoons grill seasoning, such as McCormick's Montreal Steak Seasoning
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound chorizo, casings removed, cut into 4 3-inch pieces and butterflied if you're making full-size burgers OR 12 2-inch pieces if you're making hors d'oeuvres. OR I prefer to smoosh the meat together and make thin little patties to sit atop the chicken burgers.
4 (or 12) jumbo shrimp (8 count per pound), peeled, deveined and butterflied
Coarse salt
4 Portuguese rolls (slightly sweet rectangular crusty rolls), if you can find them
2 cups chopped romaine lettuce

Preheat a large griddle or nonstick skillet over medium-high to high heat.

Place the chicken in a bowl. Finely chop the parsley. Add it and the garlic to the chicken. Add the onions, paprika and hot sauce, the lemon zest and the grill seasoning. Pour a healthy drizzle of EVOO around the outside of the bowl. Combine the mixture and form 4 or 12 patties. Place the patties on the griddle and cook for 5 minutes on each side or until done through. When you remove it from the pan, keep it warm on a plate tented with foil on the back of the stove.

Place the chorizo on the griddle, weighting it (if it's butterflied links) to keep it from curling by placing a heavy small skillet on top.. Cook for just 2 to 3 minutes on each side. The chorizo is already fully cooked; you're just crisping the edges and heating it through (if you make your own you have to fully cook it.) Transfer it to the platter with the burgers and keep warm.

Squeeze lemon juice over the shrimp, season them with coarse salt, drizzle with EVOO. Grill the shrimp about 2 minutes on each side. Keep them warm with the meats. You can do the shrimp and chorizo alongside the burgers if your griddle is big enough (mine isn't.)

Drizzle the cut sides of the rolls with EVOO and place cut side down on the griddle. I usually just toast mine on the bagel setting before I add oil because the griddle has lots of grease from the meat.

Mound some chopped lettuce on the roll bottoms, then top with chorizo, chicken patties and shrimp. Slather the bun top with mayo if you prefer and set in place. Serve with fries.

My Lightly Spiced Sweet Potato Fries

Prepare a sack of McCain Sweet Potato Fries according to package directions in the oven. When they come out, sprinkle with brown sugar, coarse salt, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and chili powder. Add or omit spices and seasonings to your own liking.

Rae-Ray's Spanish Fries
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 sack extra-crispy-style frozen fries
a handful of parsley leaves
Prepare the fries according to package directions.
Melt the butter together with the chopped garlic over low heat until the garlic sizzles in the butter. Toss the butter with the fries. Add chopped parsley and season with salt and toss again. Rae-Ray, who you remember has a staff to clean up after her, does this in a separate bowl. I just put the fries in the pan with the butter and toss it there.

1/2 pound spicy bulk pork sausage
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine pork sausage, cider vinegar, cilantro, chili powder, garlic and cumin. Mix well, but do not over-handle.
Form sausage into patties and fry about 4 minutes on each side.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hot wings, warm memories

Five years ago today the weather was unrelentingly steamy, a lot like today's 89 degrees. About this time I was waking from a nap, 41 weeks pregnant, exhausted from a busy day walking around a charity chicken wing cookoff and getting a flat tire on the way home. Within hours I would realize I was in labor. Arabella would be born the next afternoon.
I was past my due date and I did a lot of walking and had some stress with that flat but I teased that the "special" wings from Legends bar put me in labor.
Legends wasn't at this year's wing-off, held last weekend. But our favorite bar, Archie's, was. We love love love their Corona wings.

In past years, when we had more patience, we dutifully sampled two wings from each vendor standing in line after long line, cast our ballot for our favorite and went back to our favorite with more tickets for a whole dozen.

This year, we divided our tickets and chose four of the nine vendors -- knowing we were going to vote for Archie's anyway. We brought all of the wings back to the pickup where we sat in the bed and ate.

Perhaps it's all Arabella's wing-off experience since she was in utero -- look how clean my baby can pick a bone!

Happy early birthday, my little chicken picker!

Winners of the 2008 Chicken Wing Contest held in Morgantown, WV, benefiting Ronald McDonald House
Judges' Choice: Jersey's Subs
People's Choice: Bucketheads (I have a feeling it was more the hot pink string bikinis on the servers than the wings that brought in votes. It was odd because their line was really short during the time I was there.)
I am glad however to see both winners are independent, local businesses and not big national chains like BW3 and Firkin & Fox.

Schools ban baked goods

A parenting rite of passage has been stripped from me the same year my only child starts kindergarten.

We met my daughter's teacher at an open house and received some of the paperwork we need to fill out. Among the documents was the school handbook, in which I read this little gem:

Under "Unauthorized Articles"
"FOOD: New state [that'd be West Virginia] policy prohibits homemade or unpackaged food items to be brought to school. Snack or party treats must meet nutrition guidelines and come in unopened."

A literal reading of the first sentence would lead you to believe that you can't send chocolate-chip cookies in a lunchbag. I wouldn't be surprised since some schools have banned peanut butter because of allergies. But I think the second sentence gets at the meat of the message. Don't send homebaked goodies for your child to share with others.

So I can't send cupcakes decorated like groundhogs on Feb. 2 or snack mix in plastic food service gloves to look like witch hands for Halloween. No heart-shaped pink frosted cookies on Valentine's Day.

I can only guess at why -- it being Saturday I can't exactly call the school board for a definitive answer. If I do on Monday, I'll be sure to update. I suppose it's one or a maybe a little bit of each of several things.

1a. Nutrition. Public schools aren't the best examples of healthy eating but I gather that they are trying. They are fighting childhood obesity by banning sales of vending machine soda and other nutritionally suspect snacks.

1b. Allergies. Maybe they worry someone will accidentally put peanut butter into something or not follow other directions regarding food allergens.

2. Fairness. It's unlikely, but I've heard stranger things, that they are trying to prevent singling out haves from have-nots -- whether it's money to buy and make fancy snacks or the ability to craft impressive cupcakes. With more moms working outside the home, it's easier for many of them to buy something prepackaged and send it on the bus with their child than to bake and deliver it.

3. Cleanliness. It's scary 'cause it's true. Not everyone keeps a clean house or uses sanitary cooking practices. Back when I was a PartyLite consultant I watched a woman put the finishing touches on her party food on a filthy counter strewn with days-old dirty dishes, roamed by cats and speckled with flies. I politely refused refreshments.

I hold fond memories of school day snack time and holiday parties. My mom brought in strawberry gelatin Knox Blox (before there were Jell-O Jigglers) cut into heart shapes for Valentine's Day. She also fumed when she had to assemble two dozen pudding bags for us to mix ourselves but it was still a pretty cool treat. For my birthday (March 16) in first grade, she brought in a cake with 32 shamrocks on the frosting so when the cake was cut each classmate got her own. I was proud because my mom made something and it tasted really good and that made my classmates happy and in turn like me. A picky kindergartener, I didn't like pretzels and I needed my apples and oranges peeled for me so those snack times weren't as fun. Only now I can appreciate the homemade popcorn balls one mom made and I only picked at. And oh the heartbreak the day one of my teachers took the class gingerbread house -- made by a parent for us to demolish and eat at our Christmas party -- sprayed it with shellac and took it home to use in her own decorations!

Now I can only look longingly at the cool ideas for class parties and try not to be bitter when it's my turn to bring snack. I'll channel my creativity into a brown bag and make her lunches the envy of the cafeteria. Then they'll see what they're missing and they can blame the school board. My bragging rights as "cool mom" are on the line.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Farmers' markets have everything under the sun

Weekends are the time for farmers markets. Here are some of my finds from recent trips and what I've done with them. I'm lucky to live across the street from my community's farmers market. It's also on Friday mornings so I can go to neighboring towns' markets on Saturdays. To find a farmers market near you, go to

Sheesh! Blackberries are expensive! Ads in our local paper range from $15 to $18 a gallon. I paid an indulgent $7 for a quart at the market. Next time I'll just pick them myself. But these made a lovely cobbler with my mom's crust recipe.

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup Crisco
3/4 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9-by-9 glass baking dish. If you have enough berries to make a 13-by-9 pan, double the crust recipe.
Rinse and pick over berries. Sweeten with sugar as desired (maybe 1/2 cup). Stir in cornstarch or tapioca -- I'm bad at estimating this and my filling is always runny.
Mix the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar together. Cut in the Crisco until well-blended. Stir in the milk until the dough comes together. Knead on a floured board until smooth. Separate into 2 balls. Roll one to fit in the bottom and up the sides of the dish. Put it in the pan. Put berries in crust. Roll other ball of dough to fit on top of pan. Place it on top of the berries. Bake for 30-40 minutes until crust is browned and not doughy in the bottom.

3 eggs
2 cups grated zucchini
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
3 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 cup nuts
1 cup oil

Beat eggs, sugar, zucchini and spices together. Add all remaining ingredients. Mix until blended. Pour into a greased floured 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.

3 medium firm green tomatoes
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup milk
2 beaten eggs
1/3 cup fine dry bread crumbs mixed with 1/3 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Cut unpeeled tomatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Sprinkle slices with salt and pepper. Let tomato slices stand for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, place flour, milk, eggs and bread crumb-cornmeal mixture in separate shallow dishes.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Dip tomato slices in milk, then flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs. In the skillet, fry half of the coated tomato slices at a time, for 4-6 minutes on each side or until brown. As you cook the rest of the tomatoes, add olive oil as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Food-centric lifestyle

I'm all about food, and sometimes that's a bad thing. Like when I can't get to a grocery store that carries chorizo, Manchego and membrillo (quince paste). Or when I don't get my expected freelance check and have to eat canned soup instead of another "splurge." But I digress. I had hoped this would be a light-hearted post about how food-centric and quirky I am. I noticed it a few months ago when I responded to a silly MySpace game asking me to blog about six weird habits/things associated with me. Four of the six were about food. Here's the text of that post.
"Tia tagged me to blog about six weird habits/things associated with me. It wasn't easy coming up with them probably because there are some really weird things about me that I consider perfectly normal. And further, if I consider it weird, then why do I want to point it out?
"All this to get to No. 1: I tend to overthink things.
"2. I put ketchup on my scrambled eggs, too, Tia! And I put m&ms in my Cream of Wheat.
"3. I take Flintstones vitamins (hey, doctor's orders! They are absorbed better than the turtle-wax coated ones.)
"4. There is a year's worth of unread New Yorker magazines beside my bed that I won't throw out until I've read them all.
"5. There's a freezer in my bedroom – one of the best purchases we've ever made!
"6. I take pictures of my food – to illustrate my food blog."

Here's a gem I took today when I got back from the farmer's market across the road from my house:

These berries, grown by a cute-as-a-bug 4-H'er named Courtney, starred in a lovely late breakfast for us. I also picked up some blackberries for a cobbler. That post is to come so please check back!
Happy Friday!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Choc-oat-chip cherry cookies

My husband rolled his eyes at the name of this recipe. Hey! I didn't make it up! But he changed his tune once he bit into a warm, chewy cookie. "These cookies rock!" is his totally subjective and not all that descriptive opinion.

(All props to the recipe writers at Quaker Oats)
2 sticks margarine or butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups Quaker Oats (quick or old-fashioned, uncooked)
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup dried tart cherries

Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In large bowl, beat butter and sugars with electric mixer until creamed. Add eggs, milk and vanilla; beat well. Combine flour, baking soda and salt; add to the butter-sugar mixture and mix well. Stir in oats, chocolate chips and cherries; mix well.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 9 to 11 minutes for a chewy cookie or 12 to 13 minutes for a crisp cookie. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered.
Makes about 5 dozen.

I love that these cookies come together easily with an electric mixer. And when you mix in the oats, chips and cherries, the dough isn't so stiff it hurts your arm to stir. Really easy. A great recipe to let kids help with -- measuring and adding ingredients.

In the future I may cut back on either the chips or the cherries and add a half cup or so of chopped nuts. Mmmm maybe toasted pecans! I can't wait to try it!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Food Find: Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos

Impulse buy: The girl who never buys junk was lured to this item in a Dairy Mart convenience store. Was it the pretty purple bag, the promise of "spicy sweet" goodness or just a hormonal urge for salt and plenty of it? I dunno.

But at least it's a blog entry.

I don't care for regular Doritos. I could take 'em but mostly leave 'em -- ever since they were popular with the slumber party set in the late '80s and my girlfriend Donna and I ate ourselves sick of them and then decided we'd much rather lick the flavored powder off them and throw away the corn chips. Plus I think they make your breath smell like feet.

But these new Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos have captured my tastebuds if only fleetingly. "Good" not a very good descriptor so I will draw on another childhood memory to be more precise. Growing up, sometimes my snack crackers were either Chicken in a Biscuit or Vegetable Thins or those buttery rectangles you spread with "cheese" using the accompanying red plastic knife. These Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos taste like Vegetable Thins -- with bite.

99 cents for a 2 5/8 ounce bag in West Virginia. Check 'em out -- but only in moderation.
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