Saturday, November 29, 2008

Top Chef: The Rochester Episode

My Top Chef post is MUCH later than usual. My excuse: I was on the road for Thanksgiving and the internet connection at my Grandma's house had been disconnected. Almost three days without Internet -- the horrors! I think I'd rather go three days without chocolate! OK, that might be a slight exaggeration but still...

Anyhoo, I did get a chance to watch the Top Chef episode on Wednesday. It was the first time I've watched the show real time instead of Tivo-ing it and zooming through the commercials. Who knew there were so many dang commercials? And was it my imagination, or did they put a snippet of TC in the middle of some commercials to fool you into running back to the TV?

Anyway, as Rah Cha Chow readers know, I was soooo excited to see a Top Chef episode set in Rochester. But first a couple of comments about the Quickfire:
- It was interesting that they chose Grant Achatz as guest judge. Since he was from Chicago, I would have thought he would have been in last year's season, from Chicago. I've read that he had cancer recently, so maybe he was going through treatment when last season was filmed. I'd say something about his personality, but since he's a recent cancer patient let's just say he didn't bring any comic relief to the episode and leave it at that.
- I thought the Quickfire started off interesting -- put a spin on a past contestant's dish that appeared in the Top Chef Cookbook -- gotta have a plug for the cookbook! But then they surprised the cheftestants halfway through their cooking time by telling them they had to turn it into a soup -- conveniently turning the challenge into a plug for Swanson's broth. Eh ... I would have rather seen their original dishes.
- Wouldn't you know that Leah won the Quickfire ... I booted her off my fantasy Top Chef team because I thought she'd be distracted with all her flirting. That decision cost me eight points!

Next, the chefs learn that they will be divided into teams, and will cook "Thanksgiving" dinner (in the summer) for the Foo Fighters before a concert. The winning team gets to go to the Foo Fighters concert, and the losing team gets to clean up. What is this, Hell's Kitchen?

For winning the Quickfire, Leah not only gets immunity, she also gets to choose her team. She curiously picks the two Europeans (Fabio and Stefan) to work on this very American meal, as well as Hosea (the object of her flirting last episode), Jamie, Melissa and Radhika. They dub themselves Team Sexy Pants -- very professional. The other team is Jeff, Richard, Alex, Ariane, Carla, Daniel and Eugene, and they call themselves Team Cougar.

The cheftestants are also given the Foo Fighters' rider, which is all the stuff bands demand backstage at venues. My buddy, Lorraine, has done a lot of catering for bands and has told me that bands ask for some crazy stuff (unfortunately I can't remember a single example). The combination of a Thanksgiving meal in the middle of summer and the Foo Fighters' rider is a pretty good challenge, I think.

So they take route 490 to Rochester -- no mention that it's six to seven hours away -- and arrive at the War Memorial ... er, now it's unfortunately called the Blue Cross Arena. FYI, the arena is a reasonably nice place to see a concert. At the BCA I've seen Bruce Springsteen (twice), James Taylor, Paul Simon, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Carrie Underwood & Keith Urban and some others. Since it's a smallish arena, even the bad seats at the BCA are better than a lot of seats at bigger nearby venues, like the Carrier Dome in Syracuse (I saw Billy Joel there and only a Beatles reunion including George and John rising from the dead would make me go back) or the State Fair in Albany (I saw Keith Urban there and he was about the size of a grasshopper from where I was sitting). I've also seen Rochester's hockey team, the Rochester Americans, play at the BCA countless time -- back in the good old days when the team was well run and was the farm team to the Buffalo Sabres. But I digress...

A roadie shows the chefs their kitchen, and surprise! It's outside and consists of a bank of toaster ovens and microwaves, as well as a couple of burners -- and no refrigerators. The lack of refrigeration must be especially unwelcome, because the show was filmed in the summer.

Next, they go grocery shopping. At this point I'm sure they will show the culinary mecca of Rochester -- Wegmans. Specifically, the Pittsford Wegmans. Wegmans is one of the best grocery chains in the country, and their Pittsford store is their flagship store. When visitors come to town, this is one of the first places Rochesterians take them. I figured the chefs would go "ooh ... aahhh ... we shopped in one of the most beautiful grocery stores I've ever seen!" But NOOOOO!!!! They go to Hegedorns!!!!!

Now, there is nothing wrong with Hegedorns. It is in Webster, about ten minutes away from my house. It is a small, old-timey store, and probably an OK store if you live in most cities. I go there when I'm in the neighborhood, need a few things, and don't want to shop in a store that's the size of four football fields (Wegman's stores tend to be large). But the face that we Rochesterians would want to project to the foodies of the world? No way! I almost wept.

So they are shopping in Hegedorns and the place is empty. Which makes me wonder -- what was the time sequence of this episode? Did they close their doors for a few minutes to make this happen, or did the shopping take place at some odd hour? And as I watch, I wonder why in the world they would choose Hegedorn's over Wegmans. Some theories:
  1. The Top Chef staff doesn't know anything about Rochester and are too lazy to find out. But that doesn't make sense because this Top Chef staffer/blogger spent some time in the area, and even put a link to Rah Cha Chow in her blog post about this episode! Thanks, Team Top Chef, whoever you are!!!!
  2. Wegmans stores are too big for the time the chefs have to shop. But that doesn't make sense, because the East Avenue Wegmans is really small, not to mention a lot closer to the arena.
  3. They wanted Wegmans to pay to be on the show, and Wegmans said no. Possible...
  4. They wanted Wegmans to close while the chefs were shopping, and Wegmans said no. Also possible...
  5. Whole Foods has some kind of agreement with Top Chef in which the show doesn't go to its biggest rivals, one of which is Wegmans. Maybe...
  6. They wanted to make things harder on the chefs. Seriously, why? The chefs didn't have it hard enough with this challenge?
Anyhoo, the cheftestants return to their "kitchens" and start cooking. And here's the thing that threw me: they were supposedly cooking Thanksgiving dinner in Rochester, and they were cooking outside with their shirt sleeves rolled up. This didn't jive with reality at all. When I left Rochester last Tuesday, there was at least six inches of the snow on the ground. It's not always that way on Thanksgiving -- I'm sure I've experienced some in the 50s or even 60s -- but most visitors to the area in November will be at wearing at least a sweater outside.

And then it starts to RAIN! Oh joy, that will make Rochester look just wonderful!

So the chefs make a whole lot of Thanksgiving-type food ... and frankly I'm bored with it all, because I'm just not that excited about the food. So I'm not going to describe who made what -- you can find it on another blog.

Then it's time for the Foo Fighters and the judges to eat their Thanksgiving dinners ... in the dreary basement of the BCA. Could they pick a more depressing location?

I wonder what the Foo Fighters thought of this. The band members are fans of Top Chef, but now they find themselves eating a heavy Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer, in the basement of the arena. I wonder if this didn't exactly live up to what they thought they'd experience as guest judges on the show.

The high points of the meal: Ariane does a good job on her turkey after a couple of rough weeks. I had a feeling she'd pull something out of her hat this week. Dreamy Fabio does a dreamy sounding pumpkin Tiramisu. Tom C. points out that this is clever because he uses a traditional American ingredient (pumpkin) in a dish that's familiar to him (Tiramisu). But I wonder -- how did he make it without a fridge? Didn't whatever custard-y stuff he put in there have to cool?

Team Cougar loses the challenge and cleans up while their buddies enjoy the Foo Fighters concert, a la Hell's Kitchen. Why? Were they trying to create some drama among a group of chefs who seem fairly amiable? What will they do next, get Gordon Ramsay to be a judge so he can scream obscenities at the cheftestants? I really don't like that turn of events. I stopped watching Hell's Kitchen because I don't want to give an audience to shows in which contestants are abused. I hope this is a one-time thing.

And then BOOM, they are all back at judges table and the stew room in NYC! Woah, did they get beamed back there via the Star Ship Enterprise? Or maybe Jeannie came and blinked her eyes? Or Samantha wiggled her nose? At any rate, it was a jolt for those of us who know the geography.

After some grilling from the judges, the bottom three are: Daniel, for undercooked potatoes, Richard, for Banana S'mores with a sauce that a smart-assed Foo Fighter (I don't follow the band enough to know his name) says looks like spit, and Jeff, for spoon bread and pumpkin mousse. Jeff gets a pass because he was a team leader and probably took on too much. That makes sense to me, even though I don't like the guy. Richard gets cut for the S'mores, which was a bit of a surprise to me.

And then, Richard cries and cries. A sad ending to an episode that featured a sad grocery store, sad weather, and a sad dining location. I'm afraid Rochester came off as a rather sad place. If I worked for the Rochester Convention & Visitor's Bureau, I'd be banging my head against the wall!

Rahchacha is so much better than it appeared on this episode! Believe me! I'll make it a point to point out happy stuff about Rochester in some upcoming posts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pretty Little Pumpkin Breads

As I was making my recipe for Bread Baking Day #14, I was reminded of a story from a few summers ago, when our family hosted a boy named Tyrod through the Fresh Air Fund.

My younger son was so excited to show Tyrod, who was from Harlem, everything he might not have experienced in the big city. My son made lists of things to show Tyrod and places to take him. One of the first things my son proudly showed Tyrod was our small, overgrown garden, and the pickles we had made from the cucumbers that had grown there.

Tyrod was impressed with a lot of things -- our pool, our basketball hoop, our car (a Plymouth Voyager with about 100,000 miles on it), our basement (he hadn't been in a house with a finished basement) -- but one thing he was not impressed with was our homemade pickles.

"They don't sell pickles in stores here?" he asked. He couldn't understand why we'd go to the trouble of growing cucumbers and making the pickles when you could get perfectly good ones at the store. It cracked me up.

When I cook fresh pumpkin to use in baking, I often get a reaction that reminds me of Tyrod and the pickles. Canned pumpkin is so inexpensive that cooking fresh pumpkins seems hardly worth the effort. I have nothing against canned pumpkin, but I think that the bright orange color of cooked fresh pumpkin is so much prettier than the brownish color of canned pumpkin. That's why I figured a pumpkin bread from fresh pumpkin would be a good contribution to November's Bread Baking Day, which has a theme of colored breads (many thanks to Boaz, the event's host).

Roasting a pumpkin is easy. Just wash the pumpkin and cut off the stem end (although I've seen recipes that leave the stem on). Cut in half through the stem end. Scoop out the seeds -- I use a grapefruit spoon that has jagged edges. Place cut-side down on a baking pan lined with foil. (I have seen recipes to put water in the pan -- you don't need to do that. )

Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until it is very soft (check it by sticking it with a fork).

Once the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out the soft insides and discard the skin. Put it in a food processor and puree.

Now, there's a very important trick to getting the pumpkin to the consistency that you can use it in recipes calling for canned pumpkin, and a lot of recipes skip it.

Line a colander with coffee filters and place the colander in a large bowl. Spoon the pureed pulp into the lined colander and let sit for a few hours. You will find that a lot of liquid drains into the bowl that's under the colander. From the two pumpkins I cooked, about a cup of water drained out, and I was left with a little more than two cups of puree to use in recipes. Now the pumpkin is ready to be used in a recipe!

I wanted to make some mini loaves to freeze and give as hostess gifts during the holiday season, and this was a new recipe to me. If I were to be perfectly honest, I'd say that the bread looked and tasted good, but was not worthy of ooh's and aah's. You could barely see where the streusel was -- maybe it needed more cinnamon for color and flavor. The loaf was moist and flavorful, but not that much better than a healthier pumpkin bread recipe I've made in the past. Given that these loaves took 3/4 of a pound of butter, next time I'll probably use my healthier recipe and tinker with the streusel for it.

Little Pumpkin Streusel Loaves

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of Kosher salt
1 stick cold butter

2 sticks melted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
2 cups puréed pumpkin (I made my own but you can use canned)
2/3 cup milk
4 eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp Kosher salt
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts, divided

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Spray 7 mini loaf pans (about 5 3/4" by 3 1/4" by 2") with Baker's Joy (or another cooking spray).

For the streusel:

Mix together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until it creates pea-sized crumbs. Set aside.

For the bread:

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together melted butter, sugar, pumpkin, milk, eggs, and vanilla until combined. In another bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, ginger, nutmeg, baking powder, and half of the chopped walnuts. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture and mix with a rubber spatula just until combined. Do not overmix.

Spoon half the batter into the prepared loaf pans. Divide 3/4 of the filling over the batter and cover with the remaining batter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining streusel and the rest of the walnuts.

Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire cooling rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Using a thin knife or spatula, release the bread from the pan and let cool to room temperature. Makes 7 small loaves.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Top Chef coming to ROCHESTER!!!

OK, an astute Rah Cha Chow reader figured this out before I did ... but it appears that next week's episode of Top Chef will take place in Rochester!!!

An anonymous reader asked me whether I had heard about Top Chef coming to Rochester, and I blew it off, just because it seemed unlikely geographically (for those of you not familiar with New York geography, we are six hours away from the Big Apple. If we want to go to a big city, we're more likely to head to Toronto).

Then I got another question and looked at this video of Top Chef on YouTube ... at .21 the Rochester Aqueduct appears to be in the background, and at .29 there may be a shot of the back of the War Memorial (technically called the Blue Cross Arena).

Then the reader above found this article, which said Top Chef served the Foo Fighters at a stop in Rochester.

And I got this right off the Foo Fighters Web Site:

Foo Fighters on Top Chef Next Week
posted on Nov 17, 2008 by Foo Fighters

"The holiday season has arrived, and the chef'testants have a lot to be thankful for. And this year it's not just family these cooks must impress; but also six-time Grammy Award-winning rock band, Foo Fighters, as they join the band for a tour stop in Rochester, New York. Grant Achatz, American chef, restaurateur and recently named Best Chef in the United States for 2008 from the James Beard Foundation, serves as guest judge."

The previews for next week's episode showed the Foo Fighters, so I'm guessing next week's episode is in Rochester!

Here's my prediction: they'll be doing something atThe Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Here's why:
- The first article talks about Dave Grohl cooking a strip steak at a barbecue.
- The Dinosaur is right about where the shots in the video seem to be taken from.
- The Dinosaur also has a location in New York City.
- I know the Dinosaur caters to the stars that visit the War Memorial, because I saw a big bag of Dinosaur grub being taken in the back door when Keith Urban was here (the story of me by the back door of the War Memorial when Keith Urban was here is a bit pathetic, so let's not go there).
- In the shots I mention in the video above, the chefs are cooking outside.
- The Dinosaur was mentioned in one of the Top Chef blogs last season -- I noted it in the P.S. of this post -- there must be a Top Chef staffer from Rochester.
- (Later) ... I did some more Googling, and it appears that the Top Chef judges were spotted at The Dinosaur.

Let's see if I'm right. (I almost picked up the phone and called the Dinosaur, but tonight is their busy night. Plus I'm a blogger, not an investigative reporter -- but if I'm right, you read it here first!) The Dinosaur scenario is infinitely better than the alternative: the chefs doing a spin on that notorious Rochester delicacy, The Garbage Plate. OH PLEASE do not let the Top Chef contestants do a spin on the garbage plate! Oh please, oh please, oh please...


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best Rochester Bakery?

City Newspaper, Rochester's "alternative" newspaper, recently ran the results of its voting for the Best of Rochester 2008. I found the Food and Drink winners list to be a little disappointing, just because I think the winners are the places that are the most top of mind for their categories, and not necessarily the best. But the list happened to include a few spots that have been on my backlog to write about, so this seems to be as good time as any to do so. The first is the place that won Best Bakery, The Little Bakery.

I had been hearing about the place for a few years but had never had reason to visit it, until my son attended a camp at the Eastman School of Music last summer. As I drove past the bakery, I almost slammed on the brakes when it caught my eye -- it is so cute! The building is, as the name implies, very little. An abundance of flowers as well as grapevines growing around the doorway, make it look quaint and inviting.

Even the view from the side parking lot is cute!

Inside, I was astounded that such a little building could turn out such a huge assortment of baked goods!

My younger son and I stopped there twice, and both times we had a hard time deciding what to get.

One time, I got an almond croissant, because a good, buttery, flaky croissant is hard to come by in Rochester.

I am sad to say that I wasn't thrilled with the croissant. I was hoping the outside layer would be delicate, buttery and a little crispy, and the inside would be tender layers, but it had the same bread-y texture throughout. We were there on a humid day, which might have made it hard to make a good croissant, but in any case I wouldn't get one there again.

The other time I was there I ordered a nutty scone.

The scone itself had a nice texture -- not dry or crumbly -- but I would have liked it to be just a little sweeter. It was topped with a super sweet frosting -- almost like a fondant -- that was too thick and dense for my taste. To be honest, I'd pick a Starbucks Maple Oat Walnut scone (or whatever Starbucks calls it) over that one.

My son got a chocolate chip cookie, and it was just ok -- kind of skimpy on the chocolate chips. I prefer the texture and abundant chocolate chips in the chocolate chip cookies at Wickham Farms and at Elegant Expressions (both in Penfield).

Another day my son got a cute flower cut-out cookie. The cookie was rolled very thin and was less sweet than most cut-out cookies I've had. The frosting layer was almost as thick as the cookie itself and was very similar to the frosting I had on the scone. I liked the cookie but my son didn't.

So do I think the Little Bakery is the best in Rochester? If you're judging on atmosphere and selection, yes. As for the taste of the baked goods -- well, I think I'd have to take a few more trips there and try some more goodies before I say for sure. (It's a tough job, but anything for my loyal readers...)

Little Bakery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate chips - in one cookie!

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

Yes, that's snow you see in this photo! We had quite a snow overnight -- maybe 4 inches or so are on the ground. And no, that's not a reason for a snow day! The roads are mostly clear.

Whenever it snows, I feel like baking. Today I decided to make cookies that combined oatmeal and peanut butter -- with chocolate chips thrown in for good measure.

I hunted on the Internet for the kind of recipe and found this one, on This recipe is a good example of what I love and hate about that Web site. I love that there are reviews and ratings. But what is annoying is that people will rate a recipe (good or bad) based on making a lot of changes to the recipe! Here's an example:
This is my favorite cookie recipe on I have taken suggestions: Add 1tsp Van., use 1 1/2 c. flour, use 2 c. oatmeal, 1c. chunky PB and 1/2 c. creamy. They also taste incredible with white chocolate chips added.
That cook sure did make a lot of changes to his/her favorite recipe! In the world of cooking contests, if you've made three or four changes to a recipe, it is considered to be a different recipe. I did make several changes and boy, were they yummy -- chewy, peanut buttery, chocolaty -- the boys will love them with hot chocolate when they get home from school!

This time of year there are lots of blogging events related to holiday baking. This one is going to Joelen's Culinary Adventures for her holiday cookie swap blogging adventure! Check her blog sometime after December 7 for lots of other cookie ideas!

Since I did make several changes to the original recipe, here's my version:

Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Rah Cha Chow recipe

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup peanut butter
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

In a large bowl, cream together shortening, margarine, brown sugar, white sugar, and peanut butter until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well blended. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt; stir into the creamed mixture. Mix in the oats and chocolate chips until just combined.

Drop 1/4 cup ice cream scoopfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake for 17 to 19 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown on the edges. Don't over-bake. Let cool for two minutes on the cookie sheet, then put on cooling racks to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Buttercup Squash and Leek Soup

I've been a member of the Porter Farms CSA for a few years now, splitting the membership with my friend, Jackie. I have to say that this is my least favorite time of year to be a CSA member. Our bags are full of cabbages and squashes, and neither are my favorite veggies. But the reason I joined the CSA was to stretch my cooking skills and try more veggies, and that definitely applies at this time of year.

Last week's bag included this homely squash, a buttercup squash. I did some Internet searches for buttercup squash recipes, and I found that they can be used interchangeably with butternut squashes. That seems strange to me; the various winter squashes look so different that I'd imagine they'd taste different as well.

I cut open the squash and found a bright orange flesh, similar to that of a butternut squash. But the insides smelled like celery to me.

Even though I have a butternut squash soup recipe I like, I thought this squash called for more of a savory approach, so I messed around with a squash soup with leeks. I served it for lunch with my friend, Marie, who said it was "fabulous." Of course, it was garnished with bacon, which makes everything fabulous!

Buttercup Squash and Leek Soup
A Rah Cha Chow recipe

1 large buttercup squash
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large leeks, white and tender green parts, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3 cups (or more) chicken stock or unsalted chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 slices bacon, fried crisp and crumbled

Cut stem off squash. Cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and discard.

Preheat oven to 350. Place the squash, cut side down, on a baking sheet and bake until tender, about 40 minutes. Let cool. Using a spoon, scrape the squash from the skin. Discard the skin.

Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the leeks and thyme, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and browned, about 40 minutes.

Stir in the stock and the squash. Simmer over moderate heat for 20 minutes. In a blender or food processor, puree the soup in batches until smooth. Pour the soup back into the pan and season with the salt and pepper to taste. If the soup is too thick, add some more chicken stock.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish each serving with bacon.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A refreshing seasonal salad from a local chef

This recipe, by a chef from one of my favorite local restaurants, was posted in our local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, on Tuesday. It wasn't anything spectacular but at this time of year, the dishes I make tend to be on the heavier side, so it was nice to have a lighter dish.

Crisp Romaine and Pear Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Cranberry Vinaigrette
Adapted from Gina Ruggiero, sous chef at 2 Vine, via the Democrat and Chronicle

3 packages (1 package) romaine hearts
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 green Bartlett pears (original recipe called for red)

1/2 cup prepared cranberry sauce (I used whole berry)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (original recipe called for raspberry wine vinegar)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Toast walnut pieces in a small saute pan over medium heat. Heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until fragrant.

Trim, wash and chop the romaine hearts and thinly slice the pears.

Combine all ingredients for vinaigrette in a blender and puree until smooth.

Combine romaine hearts and pear slices in a bowl. Toss with vinaigrette just before serving, then top with walnuts. (I didn't toss ... I just drizzled the vinaigrette over the salad.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Banana Pecan Chocolate Chip Muffins

Boy, did Charlie want to have a bite of these muffins! He couldn't, though, because there were chocolate chips in them.

I found the recipe on the fabulous blog, Chocolate & Zucchini, a woman who lives in Paris and has published a couple of cookbooks. I can't read it regularly because I find myself getting too envious! The original Chocolate & Zucchini recipe is here.

These were a nice way to use up a couple of black bananas, because they were a tasty breakfast. I added some white whole wheat flour to add some whole grains, and some chocolate chips ... because chocolate chips make everything better!

Banana Pecan Muffins
(adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini)

1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, softened
2 ripe bananas
1/4 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Yields 12 regular muffins

Preheat the oven to 360 F (that's right - because it was adapted from a European recipe!), and line regular muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large mixing-bowl or in a food processor, cream together the sugar, the egg and the butter. In a separate bowl, mash together the bananas and milk. In another separate bowl, sift together flours, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with banana-milk mixture in two parts, stirring by hand until just combined (don't overmix). Stir in the pecans and chocolate chips.

Scoop the batter into the muffin tins and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the muffins are nice and golden. Allow to cool for a few minutes then turn out on a rack to cool.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How cool is this?

Since Buffalo is just over an hour away, and my husband is from Buffalo, I think of Buffalo as a neighbor, and therefore fair game for occasional inclusion in this Rochester-based blog.

So I had to post what a Buffalo cake artist, Zilly Rosen, made on election day. Barack Obama in 1,240 cupcakes. Very cool. If you want to read an interview with this cupcake artist, there's an interesting one at Cupcakes Take the Cake. If you want to go to the artist's Web site, it's here.

I'm kinda in the mood for a cupcake right now...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A good dish ruined by a few flakes!

I wrote this post and then hit "preview" and saw that it looks like I'm calling this woman a flake. I'm not, really -- I like her! I'll get to the flake reference soon...

Anyway, if you don't recognize her, she's Anne Burrell, star of "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" on the Food Network. If you haven't caught that show yet, you may recognize her from "Iron Chef America." Anne is (was?) one of Mario Batali's chefs, and she's easy to spot by her spiky yellow/blonde hair.

Her show debuted this year and I think it has been met with some mixed reviews because of her big personality. Me? I like her a lot. I like that she's not skinny and that she doesn't wear low-cut shirts and that she seems real. She uses words like "crud," which you don't hear much on the Food Network. Plus, from watching ICA I know that she kicks butt in the kitchen. The only thing I don't like is that she does this growly thing, like she's Louis Armstrong, when she's talking. A lot. I do a little of that when I'm singing "Sweet Home Chicago" in the band, but a little goes a long way. It gets annoying after awhile, plus it's not good for your voice. Anne -- love ya tons, but give your voice and your viewers a break, and cut back on the growly voice.

Anyway, I thought I'd try one of her recipes, and the one that caught my eye was Fregula with Braised Butternut Squash, because I had the ingredients on hand (except for Fregula, but I did have Israeli Couscous, which she said was a good substitute).

This recipe calls for butternut squash in 1/4-inch dice. Funny thing, they don't show her doing the chopping on the show. After doing it, it's no wonder! It takes for-friggin'-ever!

Other than that, this recipe was easy to pull together and was a different use for butternut squash. Unfortunately, when I tasted the dish, I went "YOW!" because it was REALLY hot. My "pinch" of of red pepper flakes must have been generous! If I ever made it again, I'd measure the red pepper flakes in an 1/8 teaspoon. Restaurant chefs can get away with not measuring, but I really can't.

Also, you don't see any chives, which were called for in the recipe. That's because I sent my husband to the store for chives, and he returned with rosemary! It didn't matter, though. Once I had tasted the overly hot dish, I wouldn't have wasted the chives in there. I toyed with adding extra chicken broth and making it into a soup, but I didn't bother. I might make this again, with the rest of the 1/4-inch squash cubes I cut and froze.

Fregula with Braised Butternut Squash
Slightly modified from the Food Network site

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or a pinch, if you're brave)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes, passed through a food mill
2 cups peeled and diced 1/4-inch pieces butternut squash
1 to 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Bay leaf
1 1/2 cups medium fregula* or Israeli couscous (I used couscous because I couldn't find fregula at Wegmans)
1 bunch chives, finely chopped (I didn't use)

Coat a large saucepan generously with extra virgin olive oil. Add the onions and bring to a medium high heat. Season generously with salt and add the crushed red pepper. Saute until the onions are translucent and very aromatic, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another minute. Add the tomatoes. Rinse the tomato can with water and add to the pan. Season with salt and cook over medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the water has reduced. Add the squash, stock, and bay leaf. Taste for seasoning and season with salt if needed. Cook until the squash is cooked through and most of the liquid has absorbed, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Bring a pan of well-salted water to a boil. Add the fregula and cook until it is cooked through but still al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Strain and add to the pot with tomatoes and squash. Stir to incorporate. Add more stock or water if the mixture is dry and cook longer if it is too soupy. When done it should have a stew-like consistency. Stir in the chives. This will be really good today but even better tomorrow!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

At my Aunt Sue and Uncle Mike's house on Thanksgiving, the whole family pitches in. Everyone brings a dish -- the same one every year -- and there are a lot of people in the kitchen when it's time to do the last-minute tasks. Dad carves the turkey (in his undershirt). Uncle Jim makes the gravy (with giblets, which my generation don't like). And at some point in my childhood, my job became making the mashed potatoes. Someone would peel, boil, and drain the potatoes, and then I'd use the hand mixer to mash them, adding butter and milk along the way. We'd taste them until they were right. I liked my job. I felt important and grown-up, working in the kitchen with the adults.

Then I moved to Western New York and wasn't home for every Thanksgiving. The next time I went to Aunt Sue's house for Thanksgiving, I wandered into the kitchen when I thought it was about time for me to make the mashed potatoes.

"When you left, we switched to Butter Buds," Aunt Gretta said. "Nobody knew the difference, so we just stuck with them."

Ack. I was so disappointed. My important job displaced by a box of flakes. And I could tell the difference. At least I thought I could.

Luckily, my cousin, Kristen, married Dan, who was from New Orleans. Folks from New Orleans are accustomed to really good food and Dan is no exception. Dan has brought all kinds of taste treats to Thanksgiving dinner -- Turducken graced the table one year -- but the best has been real mashed potatoes, made ahead and rewarmed in the slow cooker. As much as I miss being a part of the last-minute hustle-bustle in the kitchen, at least we're eating real potatoes again.

I don't know exactly which recipe Dan uses -- I've tinkered around with various versions -- but all in all it's pretty forgiving. You can use less of one "add-in" and more of another. I usually use Russets, but Yukon Golds are also good. The one thing you can't do is rewarm them in a hot oven (like 400 degrees). Take it from me, because I've done it. The side and bottom develop a brown crust that people don't like in their mashed potatoes.

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

5 pounds russet (Idaho) potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
2 (3 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened (Lite cream cheese works fine)
2/3 cup sour cream (Light works fine)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup milk (skim works fine - you may end up using less or more)
salt and ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes in a large pan with water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until tender when pierced with a thin-bladed knife, 20 to 30 minutes.

Using a potholder, peel and drop them into a bowl. Mash using a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. You may have to do this in two batches. (One recipe I have says you can process unpeeled potatoes through a food mill into a medium bowl. I haven't tried this method but I plan to.)

In a large bowl, mix mashed potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, and butter. Gradually add milk until the mixture reaches your desired consistency (you may use less or more). Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large casserole dish or slow cooker insert. Refrigerate until needed -- can be done up to two days head of time.

To rewarm, cover and bake at 325 degrees F (no hotter) for 50 minutes. Or put in a slow cooker and cook on "low" for several hours.

Friday, November 07, 2008

For those who dream of SWEET!

I bring baked goods to band practice from time to time. Once I wondered out loud if the guys keep me in the band because of my treats (as opposed to my musical talent).

"Well, it doesn't hurt," our keyboard player replied. (He was joking ... I think.)

This is one of the treats I brought to practice. To be honest, they weren't everyone's favorite -- they were extremely sweet. If I ever made them again, I might double the buttery crust to offset the sweetness of the topping.

Dream Bars

1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
1/2 cup (4 oz) dark brown sugar
1 cup (4 1/2 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups (16 oz) dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup (3 1/2 oz) shredded coconut -- I used sweetened
1 cup (4 oz) diced nuts -- I used pecans

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt; the mixture will be crumbly. Pat the crumbs into a lightly greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Bake for 10 minutes (prepare the topping while it’s baking).

When the base is done baking, turn the oven up to 325.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, and baking powder. Stir in the eggs, mixing until smooth, then add the coconut and the nuts, mixing until well combined. Drop the topping onto the crust in dollops. Wet your fingers and spread it out as evenly as possible.

Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool completely. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Reese's Pieces Oatmeal Bars

I had every intention of making Halloween Bark for my coworkers at Wickham Farms, but I never got it done (sorry, farmers). As a result, I had a whole bunch of ingredients sitting around. I can use a lot of them in a similar bark at Christmas time, but Reese's Pieces don't fit in the Christmas color scheme.

I found this recipe online for using up the Reese's Pieces and boy, was it good. I loved the chewy oat bars contrasted by the crispy/creamy texture of the Reese's Pieces. My husband didn't particularly care for the extra crunch from the outsides of the Reese's Pieces. My sons and I were ok with that -- more for us!

Reese’s Pieces Oatmeal Bars

2/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 1/2 cups Reese's pieces, divided

Cream shortening and both sugars in a large mixer bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla; beat well. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture to the sugars mixture and beat until combined. Add milk and beat well. Stir in oats and 1 cup of the Reese's Pieces. Spread into a greased 13 x 9 inch pan. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup Reese's pieces. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely in pan. Cut into bars.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Fluffmutt for First Dog!

What an amazing night! McCain gave a gracious concession speech, and Obama's speech was inspiring, with the beautiful city of Chicago as its backdrop. Even if you voted for McCain, I would hope you could appreciate the significance of last night's election.

It's kind of like when the Bears lost the Super Bowl in 2007. I was disappointed my hometown team lost, but the fact that Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy -- both classy guys -- got their well-deserved Super Bowl rings (and Dungy became the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl) took the sting out of the disappointment.

So on to the next matter at hand: the promised puppy for Obama's daughters. I believe they should get a rescued fluffmutt like Charlie. Getting a rescue or pound dog would be a great example for the country, with its overpopulation of dogs. I've heard that someone in the Obama family has a dog allergy, and a Bichon/poodle mix like Charlie doesn't shed and therefore is less allergic.

Charlie is the cutest, smartest and funniest dog I've known. I think a dog like him would charm the country. Fluffmutt for First Dog!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote today!

I'm not a political junkie by any stretch of the imagination, but I love election day in the U.S.A. There's something uplifting about the idea that no matter how divisive and bitter the campaigning has been up until this point, the process for voting and the transfer of power will be peaceful. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it?

I vote in every election. Living in the hometown of Susan B. Anthony, I'm inspired by all she went through to get women the right to vote, and I'm not going to take that right for granted.

So whatever side of the political divide you're on (and I'm going to keep mine to myself), I hope you vote today.

Oh, and the tart? I made it for our Fourth of July party this year. I loved the way it looked but the filling was sort of ok. If you care to try it, you can find it here, on

Monday, November 03, 2008

Superfast Salisbury Steak - an easy weeknight meal

Here's a dish I've made a number of times for weeknight meals. It's quick, easy and tasty. I like to serve it with mashed potatoes and roasted carrots.

The photo is actually of the one leftover serving from the last time I made it. I often have a hard time fitting in taking a photo when I'm trying to get dinner on the table!

Superfast Salisbury Steak
(adapted from Cooking Light)

3/4 pound 90% lean ground beef
3/4 pound ground turkey breast
1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs
1 egg
Cooking spray
3/4 cup water
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (10 1/2-ounce) can condensed French onion soup (such as Campbell's)

Combine ground beef, turkey, breadcrumbs and egg. Divide meat mixture into 6 equal portions, shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty.

Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add patties; cook 6 minutes or until browned, turning after 3 minutes. Remove patties from pan; keep warm. Stir in water and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil; add patties. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Uncover and cook until wine mixture is reduced to 3/4 cup (about 10 minutes).
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