Saturday, April 29, 2017

Chocolate Frenzy

The only sure-fire way I’ve been able to drag teenagers away from computers and video games is to say, “Let’s make something chocolate!”  This time the lure was Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

Andy, 16, had already researched the topic online.  He discovered a video about how to make a peanut butter cup that was apparently the size of a dinner plate.  Unfortunately he couldn’t find it again, so we had to fall back on adapting my Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chunks recipe.  It was a lot easier than I expected, mostly because of Andy’s enthusiasm.

I got out my 3 muffin pans, paper cupcake liners and a large economy size bag of chocolate chips.  Then I showed Andy how to melt chocolate—a useful life-long skill.  He dropped cupcake liners into the muffin cups and carefully spooned some chocolate into each liner. 

While we waited for the chocolate to harden, we made the peanut butter filling.  He shaped 1 spoonful into a disc, placed it on top of the chocolate and then spooned more chocolate on top.  The end result looked very homemade, but Andy didn’t care since he was mainly interested in how they tasted. 

We had one unexpected problem—too much peanut butter filling.  Because it had the consistency of Playdough, we decided to shape the leftovers into marble-size balls and dip them in chocolate.  We refrigerated them too for a while before we could sample them.  They were a big success!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups & Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls - makes 18 cups, 7-8 balls 
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips + more if needed
Paper cupcake liners
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2/3 cup powdered sugar
3/8 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons milk + more if needed  
Melt the chocolate in a small, heavy pot over very low heat, stirring constantly.  When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside.  The heat of the pot will melt the remaining chocolate.  
Make the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups first.  Place the cupcake liners into the muffin pan(s) and spoon enough chocolate into each liner to cover the bottom of the paper.  Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes, or until the chocolate hardens.  
While you’re waiting, make the peanut butter filling.  Put the butter, powdered sugar, peanut butter, brown sugar, salt and milk in a food processor or large bowl.  Process or beat with an electric mixer or by hand until smooth and creamy.  Taste to see if the mixture is too dry and crumbly.  If you want it smoother and creamier, add another teaspoon or more milk and mix until it reaches the consistency you prefer.  It should remain firm enough to pick up without sticking to your fingers.  
Shape 1 heaping teaspoon of the peanut butter mixture into a flat disc slightly smaller than the bottom of the cupcake liner and place on top of the chocolate. Repeat until you have filled each cupcake liner.  Then spoon a thin layer of warm chocolate onto the peanut butter filling, making sure it completely covers the filling and touches the edges of the liner.  Refrigerate until firm. 
Shape any remaining peanut butter filling into marble-sized balls and roll in melted chocolate.  Melt more chocolate chips if needed.  Place balls on a plate lined with wax paper and refrigerate until firm. 
Store in a closed container or wrapped in foil or plastic.

                       For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Question for Mom

What’s the difference between parchment paper and wax paper?  Celeste N.

Both are used in baking, but parchment paper is more expensive.  If money is no object, always use parchment paper.  Here are the differences.

Parchment Paper: It is coated with silicone to keep food from sticking to it.  The coating is what makes it more expensive, but it also makes it more versatile.  I use parchment paper when heat is involved. Last night I laid a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and baked crab cakes on it.  They slid right off, and I didn’t have to wash the cookie sheet.  

I also use it to line cookie sheets when baking cookies, Portobello mushrooms, fish or anything else that's not runny.  Parchment paper (cut to the appropriate shape) is good for lining cake pans before adding the batter and baking.  The cakes will come out of the pan easily this way.

Wax Paper: It has a light coating of wax, which makes it particularly useful if you are making your own piecrust.  I put a piece of wax paper on the counter, place the piecrust dough on it and then top with another piece of wax paper.  I roll out the dough between the two pieces of wax paper, pull off and discard the top piece, then lift the bottom piece with the dough attached and lay it across the pie pan.  Then I carefully peel off the wax paper.  Clean-up is easy.

Use wax paper to wrap sandwiches.  If you want to make chocolate-covered strawberries, place the hot dipped strawberries on a plate lined with wax paper and store in the fridge until the chocolate hardens.  The chocolate covering would stick to the plate, but it won’t stick to the wax paper.

             See all Questions for Mom

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 81

If a recipe calls for buttermilk and you don’t want to buy a whole quart of it, here’s how to make it yourself.  Add I tablespoon lemon juice to a cup of milk.  Wait 5 minutes and it’s ready.

                   See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 106

Eggplant tastes a lot better when you peel and discard its purple-black skin before cooking it.  Once I figured this out, I began to like Eggplant Parmesan.
Simple Eggplant Parmesan – serves 2-3 
1 large eggplant
2 tablespoons olive oil + more if needed
1 24-ounce jar spaghetti sauce (some sauce will be left over)
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 
Peel the eggplant and slice it lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices. 
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Add as many slices of eggplant as will fit in a single layer and cook for about 2 minutes, or until they begin to brown on the bottom. Turn down the heat to medium if the eggplant starts to burn.  Turn the slices over and cook for another 2 minutes.  Transfer the cooked slices to a plate and repeat the process, adding another tablespoon of oil to the pan. 
Begin preheating the oven to 400 degrees. 
Put 1/2 cup of the spaghetti sauce in a large casserole or baking dish and spread the sauce around to cover the bottom. Lay half the cooked eggplant slices in a single layer on top of the sauce.  Spread about 1 cup of spaghetti sauce on top of the eggplant slices.  Scatter half the mozzarella cheese over the sauce.  Sprinkle 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese on top.  
Then add a second layer of eggplant, spaghetti sauce, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese. 
Bake uncovered for 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce bubbles and the top begins to brown.  Serve immediately.

                                   See all my Cooking Tips!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ramen Noodles Not Just for College Students

If you toss out the flavor packet (too much salt), packaged ramen noodles can be the basis of a reasonable emergency meal.  I proved it last night when I was scrambling to get dinner on the table and discovered two lonely packages of ramen noodles at the back of a pantry shelf.  They were just what I needed for the leftover pork stir-fry I wanted to make. 

I’ve always been a big noodle lover, and I could live on Spaghetti and Garlic Sauce.  Until recently I fixated on the many varieties of Italian noodles.  But most of them take so long to cook.  Ramen noodles are ready in 3 minutes.

I never ate Ramen Noodle Soup in college because I was on a meal plan, but apparently my cookbook/co-author/son was a whiz at making it.  Now it was my turn.  He was right.  The only way to mess up ramen noodles is to overcook them. 

Now a whole new noodle world is opening up for me.  I have a lot to learn, including how ramen noodles, soba noodles, udon noodles and sōmen noodles differ. 
Spicy Ramen Noodles – serves 3-4 
2 3-ounce packages ramen noodle soup (discard the flavor packet)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 scallions, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil + more if needed
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup leftover cooked pork, chicken, shrimp or tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 - 1 cup edamame, green peas or cooked asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces 
Half-fill a medium pot with water and bring it to a boil over high heat.  Add the ramen noodles and cook for 1 minute.  Immediate drain and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Separate the noodles, put them in a bowl and set aside.
Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic and black pepper in a small bowl and set aside. 
Add 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil to a wok or large frying pan and begin heating over high heat.  When hot, add the red bell pepper slices and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, or until they begin to soften.  
Transfer them to a large plate, return the wok or frying pan to the fire and add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil.  When the oil is hot, add the soy sauce mixture and the partly cooked noodles.  Stir-fry until the noodles are covered in sauce.  
Add the beaten egg and continue stir-frying until it has been absorbed by the noodles.  Return the cooked red bell pepper pieces to the pot.  Add the meat and vegetables and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, or until the whole mixture is hot.  Transfer to a large bowl or platter and serve immediately.
                        For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 105

After serving ice cream, put plastic wrap directly on top of what’s left.  That will help prevent ice crystals forming inside the container.

      See all my Cooking Tips!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Mom’s Basic Bootcamp: Salmon

This is the third in a series of basic recipes anyone can easily make.  They have existed for centuries because 1) they are simple, and 2) they taste good.  Once you master their preparation, you’re free to improvise…or not. 

A popular restaurant menu item, fresh salmon is very easy to cook at home.  You can grill it, roast it, poach it or pan-fry it.  You can serve it whole or as fillets, steaks or kebabs.  You can make it into a soup or an appetizer spread the British call Potted Salmon.  If any salmon is left over, you can turn it into Salmon Cakes or add it to Risotto or a salad.  If you’re adventurous, you can even make your own smoked salmon.

Served hot or cold, salmon is hard to ruin.  And if you overcook it, you can disguise any dryness with Garlic Mayonnaise

If I’m serving salmon to a crowd, I buy the largest fillet available (usually half of one salmon split down the middle with the bones removed) or several smaller fillets, adding up to 2 -2 1/2 pounds.  Then I put it on a heavy-duty cooking sheet, skin side down, cover it with slices of lemon and roast it in a 425-degree oven for about 10-12 minutes until it falls into flakes when I poke it with a fork.

If I’m serving salmon for just a few people, I pan-fry it.  It’s simple, quick and effective.  I can’t ask for more than that.
Pan-Fried Salmon – serves 4 
1 large salmon fillet or several smaller fillets (at least 1 1/2 pounds) or 4 salmon steaks of equal size and thickness
1-2 tablespoons bottled 30-minute marinade
1 teaspoon canola oil 
Rinse the salmon and remove any bones (salmon steaks will have bones).  If you’re working with a large fillet, cut it into 4 pieces.  Set the salmon on a large dish or tray, skin side down they’re fillets.  Spread the marinade over the top only of the fillets or over both sides of the steaks.  Let sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. 
Put the oil in a large frying pan and begin heating over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the steaks or fillets, skin side up.  Cook for about 4 minutes, or until the salmon seems cooked halfway through.  To make sure it isn’t burning, check underneath by carefully lifting up a corner of one piece with a metal spatula.  If the salmon is beginning to blacken, turn down the heat to medium. 
Turn the salmon over carefully and cook for another 3-4 minutes, until it flakes when poked by a fork.  When removing fillets from the pan, slide the metal spatula between the bottom of the fish and the skin, leaving the skin in the pan.  Serve immediately, either on a platter or individual plates      

For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 80

Did you know you can freeze grapes?  Buy some extra seedless ones when they’re on sale.  Wash and dry individual grapes and put them on a tray in the freezer.  Make sure they don’t touch each other.  When they're frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag, seal it tightly and store in the freezer.  They will last for several weeks.  Serve them frozen, if you like, but they taste like fresh grapes once they have defrosted..

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Everything Is Better with Chocolate, Even Pizza

When I first floated the idea of making Chocolate Pizza, my kids thought I was nuts.  They said that chocolate did not belong in the same sentence with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, sausage, anchovies or pepperoni.  And I agreed. 

I’m not about to waste chocolate on a cockamamie idea, but I could visualize this pizza.   Maybe it’s because I make regular pizza at least once a week, or maybe it’s because I’m slighted obsessed (some would say demented) when it comes to chocolate.  

Why couldn’t Chocolate Pizza physically resemble pizza but be made of ingredients normally found in desserts: chocolate, sugar, flour, butter, vanilla and eggs?

The pizza crust would be a gigantic thin-crust brownie.  Instead of tomato sauce, I would use chocolate icing or ice cream to cover the crust.  The toppings would come from the candy aisle, not the delicatessen.  For a truly authentic look, diners could sprinkle on shredded coconut, which looks remarkably like shredded mozzarella. 

The best part: you can customize your own slices of “pizza.”  Just put out small bowls of chocolate or peanut butter chips, M&Ms, strawberries, tangerine segments, kiwi and banana slices or anything else that appeals.  You might have to eat this pizza with a fork, but so what!

Chocolate Pizza – serves 10-12 (adapted from “Chocolate on the Brain”)  
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter + more for greasing
3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt 
Chocolate Icing 
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup sour cream 
Choose 2-3 toppings from the following: 
1/2 cup semisweet, milk or white chocolate chips or coins
1/4 cup peanut butter chips
1/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 cup sliced strawberries, bananas or kiwis
1/2 cup fresh raspberries, blackberries or tangerine sections
10-12 maraschino cherries 
Kids’ Toppings 
1 cup M&Ms or other little candies
1 cup mini marshmallows
1/2 cup sprinkles 
To make the crust
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Cover a 12-inch pizza pan with foil and lightly rub the foil with butter.  Set aside. 
Melt the butter and chocolate in a small, heavy pot over very low heat, stirring occasionally.  When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside to cool.  The heat of the pot will melt the remaining chocolate. 
Put the sugar, eggs and vanilla in a food processor or large bowl.  Process or beat with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes on high speed, or until pale yellow and frothy.  Add the chocolate mixture and process or beat until well blended.  Add the flour, baking powder and salt, and pulse for about 10 seconds or beat on low speed just until blended. 
Pour the batter into the foil-lined pizza pan and spread evenly with the back of a spoon.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the crust is firm to the touch.  Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. When cool, gently place a large plate on top of the pizza pan and carefully turn the plate and pan over together so that the brownie is face down on the plate.  Remove and discard the foil and then carefully re-flip the brownie onto the pizza pan.  Set aside to cool completely. 
To make the icing
Melt the chocolate in a small, heavy pot over very low heat, stirring occasionally.  When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside to cool.  When all the chips have melted, stir in the sour cream and keep stirring until it’s well blended. 
When the brownie has cooled, cover it with icing and slide it onto a large serving platter.  You can decorate it yourself or cut it into slices and let the diners decorate their own, using the toppings you provide in small bowls.           

For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bok Choy: What Is It and How Do I Cook It?

Baby Bok Choy
The first time I saw bok choy in the produce department, I thought it was a new kind of celery.  One end had thick white stems attached to a base and the other end had big leaves.  Since I was tired of my usual beans, broccoli, spinach and asparagus, I bought a large bok choy so I could try it out.  Here’s what I learned:

Bok choy is a member of the Chinese cabbage family and is popular in Asian dishes.  The stalks can be white or green, but the leaves are always green.  Because the stalks take longer to cook, I cut them into 1/2-inch slices and add them to a stir-fry or soup when I add the onions.  These slices can also be eaten raw, as you would celery, or dropped into salads.  I cut the leaf portion into strips and add them to a stir-fry or a soup a minute or two before serving—just long enough for them to wilt. 

A large bok choy will last for several meals.  You can also buy miniature versions, called baby bok choy.  Sold loose or in bundles of 4, 6 or 8 in Asian markets and some grocery stores, they can be quickly boiled or steamed and served whole, 1 or 2 per person, as a side.  The flavor is delicate, so I add some seasonings (see below) to provide pep. 
Spicy Asian Baby Bok Choy – serves 4 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room!”)  
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1-inch piece fresh ginger or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons dry white wine (or water)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
8 baby bok choy
1/2 cup water 
Put the sesame seeds in a small dry frying pan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring continually, for about 3 minutes, or until they begin to turn light brown.  Remove from the heat and set aside. 
If you are using fresh ginger, peel and finely chop it. 
Heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat.  Add the fresh or ground ginger and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring frequently, for a few seconds, or until the spices begin to sizzle.  Add the wine (or water), soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat and set aside.
Cut each baby bok choy lengthwise in half and rinse thoroughly, making sure to get out the dirt between the leaves.  Trim the stalk ends slightly but keep them attached to the base.  Lay the bok choy in a single layer in a large frying pan.  Add the water, cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Turn down the heat to medium and cook for about 2 minutes, or until a sharp knife enters a stalk with just a little resistance.  The leaves will have wilted.  Immediately drain and transfer to a bowl.  
Pour the sauce over the top, sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve.  This dish can also be served cold.
               For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 104

Frying Chicken Tikka
Use tongs rather than a fork to turn meat as it cooks.  That way the juices won’t drip out through the holes made by the fork. 

See all my Cooking Tips!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Free Cookbook Bonanza

My California small town has free book kiosks throughout the community. Residents donate books they don’t want, and other residents take them and then add their own unloved volumes.  It’s a great way to find old cookbooks. 

The first cookbook I discovered was one that I didn’t know existed.  However, once I saw the cover, I realized it was a companion volume to a book—“Thoughts for Festive Foods”—I used faithfully when I was learning to cook.  Published in 1964 and illustrated with line drawings instead of the gorgeous color photos we’re used to today, the book is very much of its time.

My roommate brought it with her when she moved in, and we both found it useful as we staggered through the ritual of cooking dinner for ourselves every night.  The book’s focus is on planning dinner parties, and even though we barely entertained we enjoyed the suggested menus for such occasions as the Bon Voyage Dinner, Teacher Comes to Dinner and Circus Party for Pre-Schoolers. 

Time passed and my roommate moved out and took this cookbook with her, so I had to buy my own copy.  I never imagined that someday its publisher, Houghton Mifflin, would publish my own cookbook, “HELP! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!”

Gradually “Thoughts for Festive Foods” lost out to other cookbooks, and it migrated to a hard-to-reach shelf.  However, when I saw “Thoughts for Buffets” sitting there in the free kiosk, I had to bring it home.  Published in 1958, it too reflects a bygone era, although that doesn’t mean its recipes are bad.  Perhaps they have more salt and fat than today’s eaters want, but that’s easy to fix.

For nostalgic reasons I tried the Clover-Leaf Potato Rolls, and they turned out perfectly.  Now I am going to look out for the other volume in this series, “Thoughts for Food,”  published in 1946. 
Clover-Leaf Potato Rolls – makes  22-24 rolls 
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
2 small potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 large egg
1 tablespoon butter
2-to-3 cups flour + more if necessary
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon canola oil + more for greasing muffin cups 
Combine the yeast and water in the bowl of a food processor, mixer with dough hook or regular large mixing bowl.  Let stand for 5 minutes until bubbles form. 
Add the mashed potatoes, egg, butter, salt and 1 cup flour and process or mix thoroughly. 
Add the milk and 1 cup flour and process thoroughly again.  If the dough is sticky, add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time, and process or mix until the dough comes together in a smooth ball.  
If you are not using a food processor or mixer, tip the dough onto the counter and knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed.  Work it into a smooth ball. 
Put the canola oil into a large bowl and spread it around.  Place the dough into the bowl and flip it over so that both sides are greased.  Cover the bowl with a tea towel and set aside, away from drafts.  Let rise for 2 hours. 
Grease the muffin cups with canola oil and set aside. 
When the dough has finished rising, cut or break off pieces the size of large marbles and shape them into small balls.  Place 3 dough balls into each muffin cup.  The balls should be touching each other.  
If you have more dough than muffin cups, divide the extra dough into 2-inch balls and place them on a greased baking sheet.  Cover the muffin cups (and baking sheet) with a tea towel and let rise for 45-to-60 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. 
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Bake the rolls for 12-15 minutes, or until they are golden brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Serve immediately or reheat briefly in the oven.
             For easy recipes, get a copy of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Question for Mom

Does it matter if I start baking with a cold oven or must it always be at the pre-heated temperature when I put food into it?  Alyssa D.

If you’re baking cake, cookies, pies or most breads, the oven needs to be at the exact temperature the recipe requires.  However, if you’re roasting potatoes, beets, other root vegetables or large pieces of meat, starting them in a cold oven is fine.

 See all Questions for Mom

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 79

Baked Chicken + 4 Sides: Cauliflower, Green Beans, Couscous and Bread
Add extra side dishes to your dinner menu.  If you traditionally serve one vegetable, try serving two or add a salad or bread.  That way you can serve less meat, which is usually the most expensive item on your plate.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bulgur Wheat: What Is It and How Do I Cook It?

Bulgur wheat (bulgor wheat) is made of whole wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried and ground.  It needs to be cooked before eating.  Its high amount of fiber and nutrients make it a popular ingredient in Indian, Turkish and other Middle Eastern cuisines.

Many diners first come across bulgur wheat when eating Tabouli Salad (Tabbouleh Salad), a Middle Eastern dish made with fresh tomatoes, fresh parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, a few spices and some of this grain. 

When you’re tired of rice or potatoes, bulgur wheat is an excellent side dish.  Simmer 1 cup bulgur wheat in 2 cups water for about 15 minutes and drain.  Or pour 2 cups boiling water over 1 cup bulgur wheat in a heatproof bowl or pot, cover and let sit for 15-20 minutes.  You can serve it plain or add sauted onions for more flavor.

When I make Whole Wheat Bread, I add 1/4 cup bulgur wheat to the dough for texture and nutrition.  I also add a few handfuls to Homemade Vegetable Soup to turn it into a main dish or to Beef Stew to bulk it up.

You can find bags of bulgur wheat in health food stores, Middle Eastern grocery stores and some supermarkets.  It is usually available in three different sizes, based on the how coarsely it has been ground: #1 is fine, #2 is medium, #3 is coarse.

                           For easy recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"