Monday, December 27, 2010

"It's Chowda!"* -- Easy and Delicious Clam Chowder

When I was growing up, chowder was one of my mom's go-to recipes partly because all of us kids liked it and partly because it was so inexpensive to make. I love this recipe not only because it's inexpensive and one of my mom's recipes, but because it's really, really easy to make. And in the wintertime, it's hard to resist a steaming bowl of chowder for dinner.

There's a good chance you have just about everything to make clam chowder on hand, with the exception of the clams. I like to keep a couple cans of clams in my pantry during the winter so I can whip up this dinner easily. Here's the list of ingredients, along with the measurements:

2 cups potatoes, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
2 7-1/2 oz. cans of chopped clams
1 quart (4 cups) of half-and-half (I didn't use half-and-half. More on that in a moment...)
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper (and other seasonings. Again, more on that later....)

Cut up all your vegetables. In a large pot, combine vegetables with clam juice (don't add the clams) and enough water to barely cover the vegetables.

When the vegetables are tender, drain, but be careful to reserve a cup or two of the broth. You use the flavorful broth to adjust the consistency of the chowder before serving.

Next, make the white sauce.  First, you'll start with a roux by melting the butter over medium heat then adding the flour. Let the roux cook for about a minute. Add the half-and-half.  Stir constantly with a whisk until thickened and bubbling. Getting it to this stage took a little over five minutes for me.

Note:  I don't know how often my mom even used half-and-half, though her recipe says so. On the recipe I copied from her, she added "2% milk works".  I figure she wrote that because that's what she had on hand whenver she made chowder.  Yesterday, when I made this batch, I used the rest of the whole milk I had on hand (about a cup) and mixed it with 3 cups (or so) of 1% milk. Worked fine. Granted, the sauce will be creamier and will thicken more quickly if you use the half-and-half or even the 2% milk, but you can improvise.

Pour the cream sauce over the cooked vegetables. Add clams. Stir. Adjust consistency with the reserved cooking water.

Season to taste.  My mom's recipe doesn't have specific amounts for seasoning. She just listed some suggestions: salt, pepper, celery salt, garlic salt, parsley flakes, sugar, and red wine vinegar.  Personally, I think this stage is kind of fun because I get to pretend I'm some sort of gourmet chef, adding a dash of this and a splash of that.

In the batch I made yesterday, I used kosher salt, freshly ground peppper (as you can see above), celery salt, parsley flakes, just a dash of sugar, and few good splashes of red wine vinegar. Just do a little bit of seasoning at a time, taste it, and add more if necessary. You can also add more cooking water, depending on how thick or thin you like your chowder.

And that's it. Delicious, homemade clam chowder.  So good, so filling. Even better when served in a bread bowl. It's one of Mom's classic recipes for a reason.

*"Showdaire? It's chowda!"  If you caught that Simpsons reference, you're a friend of mine. Love those classic episodes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Really, Really Good Toffee Recipe I Stole

Yes, I stole this recipe.  The things I'll do for a list of ingredients...

When I was in college, one of my roommates made toffee for everyone at Christmas. Delicious, crunchy, addicting toffee. Of course, I had to get the recipe. Turned out, my roommate was sworn to secrecy by the person who gave the recipe to her. I can't remember exactly why this was, but she was sticking to her promise. After some begging on my part, she told me that she couldn't give the recipe to me, but she also couldn't stop me from finding the recipe that just so happened to be written on a card that was kept between the pages of a certain cookbook. So I found it and copied it down, thus "stealing" the recipe. The only guilt I've felt since is from eating waaaay too much of this toffee whenever I make it.

Anyway, this toffee isn't difficult to make -- you can make a batch in less than twenty minutes. Personally, I think it holds its own against the store bought toffee, even Almond Roca. For that reason, I think this toffee makes for a great gift for family, friends, and neighbors.  That is, if you can stop yourself from eating all of it before you give it away...

To make homemade toffee, you'll need:

3 cups almonds, finely chopped (I measured 3 cups before I chopped them)
One 7 oz. chocolate bar (or as many bars that add up to 7 or so ounces. More about the chocolate in a moment...)
2 sticks of butter (Don't even try using margarine. It's got to be butter.)
1 cup of sugar
3 tsp. water

In years past, I've used the 7 oz. Hershey chocolate bar that the recipe calls for. However, my friend from France has since made me prejudiced against the Hershey milk chocolate bar -- my friend is very open-minded about American food, but she says that those milk chocolate bars "aren't chocolate." So, I splurged this year and bought a different brand. It came in 4 oz bars, so I just used two for this recipe.  People have loved the toffee when I've made it with Hershey's, but I will tell you that my batch this year is even better. Take it for what it's worth.

There are packaged almonds at the store already chopped, but I find it more cost-effective to buy the almonds in bulk and chop them myself. This step is the most time consuming -- once you've got the amonds chopped, the rest goes by quickly. I suggest starting with slivered almonds - they're peeled and half-chopped for you. I'd also suggest using a sharper knife than the one my son was using.

You want the almonds to be finely chopped, but they don't have be uniformly sized, as you can see above. Most of the nuts are small, but there are still a few bigger ones, too. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Put 1/2 of the chopped almonds in two pie pans or in one pizza pan. Break up 1/2 of the chocolate into pieces and place the chunks on top of the almonds. 

Before you start making the syrup, be sure to have the rest of the chocolate broken into pieces. You have to move kind of quickly for the last few steps, so it's good to have it ready.

In a saucepan, combine butter, sugar, and water.  Cook on high, stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture thickens into a syrup and becomes just a little darker than the color of a brown paper bag (see picture below for the side-by-side with the brown paper bag). It took me about five minutes to get to that point.

Here's the part where you have to move kind of quickly, which explains the blurry pictures.

Pour the syrup over the nuts and chocolate. As you're pouring, try to pour it evenly since it's a little hard to spread.

The syrup hardens pretty quickly, so hurry and scatter the chocolate chunks over the top of the syrup in your pan(s).  After a few seconds, the chocolate will start to melt. Once the chocolate is getting gooey, start moving the chunks around to spread the chocolate over the surface. After you've spread the chocolate, sprinkle the rest of the almonds on top.

Once you've topped the chocolate with the almonds, the toffee and chocolate need to cool and harden. I put it in the freezer. I think this helps make it more brittle, which makes the last step easier.

After it has cooled and it's completely hardened (which takes an hour or so in the freezer), break into pieces. From there you can either indulge or package it up and give it away. I think I'll be doing a little bit of both this year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lovely Links: 'Because I'm Not That Crafty' Edition

I'll just say it right now: I'm struggling a little this Christmas season. I was really sick for a good week and half this month, so I feel like I missed out on the whole first part of December. Top it with the fact that I'm now about to settle into my third trimester and with that comes the pregnancy-related lethargy and discomfort. I'm doing the best I can, but not nearly as well as I'd hoped. There is one plus to my Christmas season thus far: I officially got all my Christmas shopping done today. Hooray!

{For some reason, I'm not totally averse to holiday baking and cooking. Cooking and baking relaxes me (for the most part). Next week, I'm going to share a super-easy and delicious toffee recipe.}

Because I appreciate other people's craftiness and creativity and because I'm currently lacking in those areas, I thought I'd share some links to help make your holiday a little more homemade.

A Week of Elving -- SouleMama
This entire week Amanda at SouleMama (I want to be like her) has been posting all of her family's "elving" in preparation for the holidays. Along with the cute pictures of her creative family, she has shared a bunch of great recipes and gift ideas.  The link above is to the first day of the family's "elving" activities -- from there, you can scroll over to the other days.  The things I want to make the most from her posts:  the homemade peppermint lip balm (from day 1), the miniature trees (from day 2 -- my son would have so much fun with that craft. Maybe we'll do it this year after all), and the cute bread bags (from day 4).  

Quick and Easy Holiday Decorating Ideas -- Simple Mom
I love every suggestion in this post. The great thing about them is that they cost hardly anything to make -- you may have some of the materials already. I may still do them, but if I don't this year, definitely next year. I really love the epsom salt candles -- they're pretty and they look so easy to make.  The jingle bell jar is also great.  I love easy crafts -- just my style.

Christmas Cards Hanging on the Line -- Make It Do
I love this simple display for Christmas cards. It only costs a couple bucks to make and it looks like it takes no time at all.  And while you're at Make It Do, you should check out her fun advent calendar pattern (I was totally going to do this one, but ran out of time before the month began) and her stove-top potpourri, among the rest of her awesome Christmas posts.

Holiday Decorations Made with Food - Small Notebook
In my last post, I mentioned how my mom and I made decorations out of gingerbread. Using food is an easy and inexpensive way to decorate for the Christmas season. This link to Small Notebook has a lot of great ideas, both in the actual post and in the comment section. I really like the orange garland and the cranberry advent wreath. So pretty!

"Seeing Christmas Through New Eyes"
If you're feeling a stressed over all that's left to do or if you're feeling a little ashamed that you're not as together as all the people in the links I've mentioned (*raising hand* I'm feeling it.), check out this beautiful presentation from one of my favorite speakers ever.  It's a great reminder of what this season really is about.


{This isn't a crafty link or anything, but I thought I'd let you know that all of Dave Ramsey's  (if you don't know already, he's my finance guru) books, CD's, software, and other select items (like that envelope system wallet I have) are only $10 each. He's also selling some of his programs and packages at lowered prices. Here's the link to his online store -- definitely worth a look!}

Monday, December 13, 2010

Only in December -- The Best Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

Seriously, these are THE best gingerbread cookies. Ever. Not only are they delicious, but they're soft, too.  In fact, whenever people try these cookies, the most common response is, "Soft gingerbread cookies?!"

But I have to say from the get-go:  I can take almost no credit for their wonderfulness. My mom picked up the recipe years ago at a gorgeous four-star inn and restaurant in my hometown (my husband and I also had our wedding reception there almost eight years ago. We love that place.). The only change I made to the recipe was the amount of flour in it -- I think the amount indicated in the recipe was a misprint (when I followed the amount on the original, the cookies were like pancakes).

Anyway, without further ado, the gingerbread cookies that I wait all year to make...

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened
1 cup brown sugar (I use light brown, but I'm sure dark would be fine, too)
2 large eggs
1 cup molasses
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
5 cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs one at a time until incorporated.

Add molasses. Mmmmmm....the smell reminds me of Christmas (and my dad, who loves old-fashioned molasses candy). Mix. 

In a separate bowl, combine the soda, salt, spices, and flour.  Add to the wet mixture. Mix until smooth. 

Before you roll out the dough, you need to let the dough chill for a couple hours.  Before I put my dough in the fridge, I like to split it up, flatten it on a piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up, and stick it the fridge. This makes rolling out the chilled dough a little easier because it's ready to go.

Once your dough has chilled, roll it out on a floured countertop until it's about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut into desired shapes.  This is my boys' favorite part of the process, right up there with eating the dough.

While you're doing this, you should also be preheating your oven to 350 degrees.

On a lined or greased baking sheet, bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes. It can be a little tricky to tell when they're done (wait until they're golden brown?). Just mess up one of the uglier cut-outs to test for doneness.

Let the cookies cool on wire racks before you decorate decorate with frosting, candy, and/or sprinkles.

Or just eat them sans frosting (sometimes they don't last long enough to get frosted -- my family eats them so quickly!) Serve to your family and friends and bask in the deliciousness that is homemade gingerbread.  Just one of the reasons I love December.

{Note:  A couple years ago, my mom and I thought it would be fun to use the gingerbread cookies as decorations around the house. When we did that, we added a couple extra cups of flour to the dough. The extra dough makes the cookies really hard but suitable for using as decor. When we cut out the cookies, we put a little hole in the top with a skewer so we could hang them once they were baked. We frosted them like we usually do, looped some ribbon through the holes at the top (we also used fishing line on some of them, too).  My gingerbread snowflakes looked great on my tree.  Talk about cheap homemade decorations!}

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One of the Basics: Homemade Whipped Cream

I never know when I post things if it's just me spouting obvious stuff.  Take homemade whipped cream. Maybe everyone who reads this knows how to make it. Then again, most of the time at church and other social functions, I always see a can of the aerosol whippped cream or a tub of Cool Whip. Never the homemade stuff. This makes me wonder if lots of people either, A) just don't know know how to make homemade whipped cream, and/or B) think it's time consuming and not worth the effort. Let me just tell you here and now, homemade whipped cream isn't only really easy to make, it also costs hardly anything and it is soooo much better than the stuff than comes in a can or tub.

I'll admit now, when I was a kid, I wanted Mom to buy the aerosol kind of whipped cream. I still think it's kind of fun.  And even if it isn't made from scratch, there aren't too many crazy ingredients in the aerosol kind -- usually cream, milk, sugar (or corn syrup).  Depending on the brand you may or may not find the artificial flavors or dextrose. The propellant is usually nitrous oxide. In all, the ingredients are fairly pure. I mean, cream is the first ingredient listed. That said, you do pay more for the can of whipped cream than you would if you made it yourself. 

As for whipped topping (aka Cool Whip), the first ingredients listed are water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and then some light cream or skim milk.  With whipped topping, according to an article I read, you're spending around 41 cents per ounce for mostly water and air -- that's twice the cost of homemade whipped cream. Meh.

If you're still hesitant about switching from can or tub, just at least try to make the homemade stuff and compare it to what you're used to. You'll instantly be able to tell that whipped topping doesn't taste a thing like the real stuff and you may not want to go back. And like I said, homemade whipped cream is easy to make and cheaper. Why would you go back?

To make about 2 cups of whipped cream, you'll need:

*1 cup very cold heavy whipping cream
*1 to 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
*vanilla extract and any other extracts, liquers, or spices (optional)

Not too complicated, right?  It cost me somewhere between 60 and 75 cents to make a single batch of this stuff.

As for the tools to make the whipped cream, you have a few options:

According to Julia Child (yes, I actually consulted my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for you), the best whipped cream is made by hand, with a large balloon whip. I'm sure she's right, but that is a lot of work. If you want to skip the arm workout, she also suggests using a hand-held electric beater. Mrs. Child wasn't too keen on using a stationary mixer, though, because she says they don't produce as light and smooth of a whipped cream. I'm sure she's right and who am I to argue with a master, but I used my KitchenAid mixer with success.  So, really, the choice of tools is at your discretion.

Before you start, it's a great idea to chill your bowl and beaters (or whisk) in the freezer for about 15 minutes or so. Doing this not only makes the cream whip more quickly, but it also increases its volume.

In a deep mixing bowl, beat the cream until soft peaks form.

For those not familar with the term, the soft peak stage means that you can pull the whisk or beater out of the bowl, flip it over, and the peak will fall over on itself. See how the tip of the peak down in the bowl is standing up but the tip is curling over? 

Once you've reached the soft peak stage, sprinkle the sugar over the top of the cream and beat until the soft peaks return.  If you're going to add vanilla extract (which I recommend. Yum!) or any other extracts, liquers, or spices, add them with the sugar. Be careful with this stage -- you need to mix the cream enough that you don't have granules in it, but you don't want to overbeat it either. In my experience it doesn't take too long to get back to the soft peaks.

For optimal and fluffy results, keep it chilled and use within a couple hours. That said, it's still good for a day or two after you make it, it just won't be fluffy like before. But when you put a dollop of day old whipped cream in hot chocolate, who cares, right?

And that's it.  Easy as pie. Mmmmmm....pie....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dirty Truth: Get Rid of Your Kitchen Sponge

I'll just cut to the chase: the kitchen sponge is the dirtiest thing in your house.  Seriously.  Apparently, you are more likely to find dangerous bacteria in your kitchen sink than in and on a flushed toilet. This was just one of the things I learned from the book I just finished, Organic Housekeeping.

The author, Ellen Sandbeck, goes on to tell about two microbiologists who collected kitchen sponges and dish rags from a thousand kitchens in five American cities. On 2/3 of the sponges they tested there were dangerous bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus. Turns out the reason why these dish scrubbers were so filthy was because the cellulose sponges provide a perfect habitat for bacteria: the sponges are porous and easy for bacteria to cling to, there's a constant food supply, and the moisture of the sponge keeps them alive. According to this book, a damp sponge can nurture a population of bacteria for up to two weeks. On a dry surface, bacteria only live for a few hours.

Ick. I've always used those green and yellow sponges. To keep mine sanitary (and so I wouldn't have to replace it as often), I'd run them through the dishwasher. Turns out most dishwashers don't get hot enough to kill the bacteria completely and the drying cycle doesn't dry the sponge out adequately. I've also microwaved mine after seeing someone suggest it on TV.  If the sponge isn't wet enough, though, it can ignite in the microwave. I've heard you can boil sponges, but that seems a little much.

So what's a person to do? Live in paralyzing fear of the germs that lurk on our sponges?  Buy cases of sponges and replace them daily?  Is boiling or microwaving them the only option?  Nope. Here are a couple alternatives -- one is a 'random reuse' suggested by Sandbeck; the other is a recent money-saving discovery of mine.

Sponge Solution #1

In the book, Sandbeck recommends ditching the sponges altogether and using dishcloths instead. Dishcloths work okay, but they don't offer the scrubbing power that sponges have. To fix this, the author suggests cutting the tag off one end of a plastic mesh bag from a bag of onions or oranges. This will make the bag into a tube. Fold the dishcloth a couple times and slip in into the mesh bag tube and then fold it until it's the size you want. Once you're done using it, pull the discloth from the mesh tube and throw the dishcloth into the laundry. Rinse off the mesh bag and hang it up to dry. Whenever the mesh bag gets too worn, toss it out and use another. Easy enough.

I was dubious of this at first, but once I tried it, it worked better than I thought it would. I'd even go as far to say that it worked just as well as the green side of my old kitchen sponge. The only drawback is that it felt a little cumbersome -- I liked having that little sponge to get in all the corners and edges of my dishes and pans. Even so, I threw out my supposedly bacteria-laden sponges and was ready to use the mesh bag srubber exclusively. That is, until I found out about my next solution...

Sponge Solution #2

It's kind of funny, serendipitous even, that I found out about this next solution right after I'd read about kitchen sponges. I was flipping through a catalog and came across something called a 'spaghetti scrub'.  I went on to read the review of the product, Goodbye Detergent's Original Spaghetti Scrub.

This little scrub is made of peach pits, cotton, and polyester. It's made up of a bunch of little strands of the material, hence the name 'Spaghetti Scrub'. Because of the materials used and the design of the thing, it can't harbor bacteria because it dries quickly and completely. Even better, the scrub doesn't require dish soap to work. Even with my old green and yellow sponges, I had to give it a squirt of dish soap to get it really working. Not so with the Spaghetti Scrub.

 In the catalog, the reviewer said she'd never use anything but this scrub for her dishes. Intrigued, I went to Amazon and checked out some of the reviews there. Again, nothing but positive things. So I ordered one. For a package of two scrubbers, it costs around $10, which seems a little steep at a first. However, these scrubbers are supposed to last for months. I was buying my old sponges fairly often, every few weeks for about a dollar each. Plus, I'm using a less dish soap than I usually did while washing.With the Spaghetti Scrub, I get a better and more sanitary product that lasts much longer than the old sponges I used.

I got my scrub in the mail last week and let me tell you, I'll never use anything else. It works better than anything I've ever tried! Just get the scrub wet, give it a squirt of dish soap if you want (it holds onto the soap much longer than the sponges did), and wash away.  The true test of this scrub came when I had to wash my stainless steel skillet. I'd cooked eggs in it for breakfast and I always dread cleaning it because it takes a bunch of dish soap and intense scrubbing to get all the egg off. With the Spaghetti Scrub, it came off easily, with hardly any dish soap at all.  Is it weird to get kind of giddy about a scrubber? Because I totally did with this thing. It made doing dishes way easier! And just as advertised, I just hang it from my tap and it dries right out.

The mesh bag method is a good way to do dishes without a sponge, but the Spaghetti Scrub is even better. The best thing about either method, though: no more worries about that filthy kitchen sponge. Send it to the trash where it belongs!
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