Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mini Shell Pasta with Smoked Bacon and Peas

We've passed the middle of winter and fresh, local food is becoming thin on the ground. (Ok, I did manage to buy onions and turnips and cabbage and sweet potatoes and honey at the farmer's market the other day - I even passed on the apples and kale - so we haven't hit rock bottom just yet.) Still, it's time to start feeding ourselves from our own larder.

If you look back at my October canning round-up, you can see some of the food Jeff and I managed to put up this year. We also have a freezer stocked with asparagus, edamame, frozen greens, pumpkin puree, roasted peppers, oven-dried tomatoes, and other goodies. We're starting to arrange our menus around these items, trying to enjoy the bounty we worked hard to preserve. This recipe used up our frozen peas and a few handfuls of leftover baby spinach. Frozen greens would work really nicely in here, too - I just had some fresh stuff on hand that needed a job.

This is a great dinner for a weeknight because it came together so quickly and effortlessly. I was shocked at how little work went into it - the ingredients were prepped and my kitchen was cleaned up in no time at all. It's not the healthiest dish, but it's hearty and satisfying - and what is life without a creamy bacon sauce once in awhile?

Mini Shell Pasta with a Creamy Smoked Bacon and Pea Sauce
Slightly adapted from Jamie's Food Revolution.

3 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 lb mini shell pasta
1 tbsp olive oil (optional)
2 c frozen peas
1 c baby spinach (or 1/2 c frozen greens)
2 tbsp creme fraiche
1/2 lemon
6 oz Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.

Heat a large, high-sided pan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until crispy. Add the peas and cook a minute or two, until heated through.

 Add the spinach and stir until slightly wilted. Add the creme fraiche, stirring well, then add salt and pepper to taste. 

Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 c of the cooking water. Return the pasta to its pot, then pour the bacon mixture over it, stirring well to coat the pasta in the sauce. If the sauce needs to be thinned out, add some of the pasta water. When the pasta is coated, squeeze the lemon half onto it and sprinkle with Parmesan. Toss well to combine and serve.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dark and Milk Chocolate Brownies

This blog post is killing me. I really wanted to get a nice Valentine's Day recipe posted before the day, but writing about brownies while I'm fasting for Ash Wednesday is agonizing.

Fasting is not my cup of tea. I spend my whole day thinking about food, especially when I'm home by myself. I keep flicking my eyes up to the clock, wondering when it would be appropriate to have another snack. I snack a lot. Confining myself to three meals is really hard. Confining myself to two small meals and one regular-sized meal is even harder. Especially when that "regular-sized meal" is a bowl of butternut squash soup that probably doesn't top 250 calories.

I'd like my delicious brownies back, please.

Fortunately, I don't have to fast tomorrow. Tomorrow will be about chocolate hearts, Triumph Brewing Company and the secret treat I made for Jeff. I just have to get through tonight . . .

Maybe I'll stay up until midnight and have a snack then!

Dark and Milk Chocolate Brownies
From Baking Bites.

1/2 c butter, cut into chunks
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 c sugar (I ran out  of granulated sugar so I substituted light brown - I didn't notice a big difference)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 c flour
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c milk chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350° F.

In a double boiler (aka a heatproof bowl set over boiling water), combine the butter and the unsweetened chocolate.

Melt the butter and chocolate together, stirring with a rubber spatula until they form a smooth mixture. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, prepare an 8 x 8" baking pan. (I lined mine with parchment paper, later using the overhangs to lift the brownies out, but I'm not sure they needed that treatment - cooking spray might work fine on its own.)

In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs and vanilla. Slowly pour in the chocolate mixture, whisking constantly, until smooth. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder and salt. Add the wet mixture to the dry and stir until moistened. Stir in milk chocolate pieces.

Pour into prepared pan and bake 35-40 minutes, until set. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Slice when completely cooled.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

Quaker's Chewy granola bars are the best, aren't they? I have eaten tons of them in my time. I always brought the variety pack, but the plain old chocolate chip ones were my favorites. These bars have always seemed like a good, healthy snack option, so there were several years in which I did not leave the house without one in my purse.

But even though Quaker claims on its product site that these are "a tasty option for your active family," the long and involved ingredient list suggests otherwise:

Ok, I admit, it's not as bad as some other processed snacks out there, but there's still a lot of stuff I'm not interested in, like sorbitol, calcium carbonate, and BHT.  We can totally do better.

This recipe I found on Tracey's Culinary Adventures is a great copycat without all the icky preservatives. The flavor is spot on. My only criticism of the original recipe is that the honey made the bars a bit too gooey. Mine fell to pieces whenever I picked one up. In later batches, I subbed in brown rice syrup which creates a much firmer texture. If you hold one of the bars horizontally in the air, it will still start to sag, but it retains its integrity a lot longer than the versions I made with honey, making for a much better portable snack. 

Granola bars have become the staple snack in our house, so I've been trying out lots of recipes lately. This doesn't come in as the healthiest of the bunch (not with half a stick of butter! - my vegan pumpkin-apple granola bars are at the top of the health chart), but these crunchy, chewy bars are high on the yummy list. It's a good thing they're quick to make, because they don't last very long around here!

Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
Adapted from Tracey's Culinary Adventures.

2 c instant oats (Tracey's recipe says that rolled oats should not be used - I tried a batch with them and thought they were fine, however it was the instant oats version that got Jeff to stop in his tracks and exclaim that they looked like "real" Chewy bars!)
1 c crispy rice cereal (I use Whole Foods' organic brown rice crisps - the only three ingredients are brown rice, cane syrup and salt)
1/3 c light brown sugar
1/4 c brown rice syrup
4 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp mini chocolate chips (the only processed-sounding ingredient in my recipe is in here: soy lecithin)

Line an 8 x 8" baking dish with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on each side. Lightly coat with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats and rice cereal.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. When nearly melted, add the sugar and brown rice syrup. Stir well to combine and dissolve the sugar. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low for about 1 minute, still stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour the wet mixture onto the dry mixture and stir well to moisten everything.

Transfer to the prepared pan, pressing the mixture down firmly with a spatula and evening out the thickness. (Compressing the bars with the spatula will keep them from falling apart as much later, particularly when you're cutting them.)

Scatter the chocolate chips evenly across the top. Compress the top with your spatula one last time, so that the chips are firmly embedded within the mixture.

Set the pan aside to set for at least 2 hours. Then use the parchment overhang to remove the bars from the pan, slice them and store them in a tupperware at room temperature. (You can individually wrap them, but I saw no need, since we eat most of ours at home. I haven't had problems with the bars sticking together in the container either.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bacon and Butternut Pasta Bake

Are you holed up in your house waiting for the blizzard to start? Maybe it's time for a warm and tasty winter pasta dish!

I'm not going to lie to you - we made this a few weeks ago already, but I think it would be great for a cozy snowy evening. Bacon and Gruyere may not be good for the body, but they're totally good for the soul! And the kale and squash bump up the health factor a bit, don't they?

Ok, maybe not. It's not the healthiest dish, but it is tasty. And you'll probably burn those calories off with all the shoveling you'll have to do tomorrow.

Happy blizzard.

Bacon and Butternut Pasta
From Cooking Light January/February 2012.

5 c butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
12 oz ziti
4 c kale, chopped
2 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
2 c onion, sliced vertically
1 tsp salt, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 c chicken broth, divided
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 c creme fraiche
1/3 c Gruyere, shredded

Preheat oven to 400° F. Put on a pot of boiling salted water for the pasta.

In a large bowl, toss squash with oil. Transfer squash to a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for 30 min, until tender.

Meanwhile, cook pasta about 7 min, until almost al dente (you want it underdone because it will continue to cook in the oven later). When the pasta has 2 minutes to go, add the kale to the water and cook with the pasta.

In a large nonstick skillet, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Add onion to the pan with the bacon drippings and cook for about 6 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp salt and garlic and cook another minute, stirring.

Meanwhile, bring 1 3/4 c broth to a boil in a small saucepan. In a small bowl, whisk remaining 1/4 c broth with flour. Add flour mixture, remaining 1/2 tsp salt and red pepper to the broth. Cook 2 minutes, until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the creme fraiche.

Combine the squash, pasta, kale, bacon, onion mixture and sauce in a large bowl and toss to combine.

Transfer to a 13 x 9 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbly and beginning to brown.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Maple Pecan Granola

I present to you one of my favorite things: maple pecan granola.

I'm not a big breakfast girl. I'm not saying I skip it - I'm gunning for food as soon as I wake up in the morning - but I'm content with a nice bowl of cereal. The problem with cereal is that it tends to be super-processed, especially if it's fortified with vitamins and minerals (not bad things in themselves, but I'd prefer to get them naturally). That and a desire for more whole grains inspired me to move to granola. But if you've ever bought a lovely bag of artisanal granola from the grocery store, you know that it can be incredibly expensive.

Enter this recipe from Naturally Ella, which solved all my problems. I've been making this stuff nearly once a week for the past eight or nine months. I never get tired of it. Sometimes I branch out and try different granola recipes, but this is what I always come back to. Just a few simple ingredients, but packed with flavor. It's not clumpy, so it's better as a cereal than for random snacking, but I still grab messy handfuls throughout the day to munch on, which keeps me from munching on less healthy snacks.

I can also throw in a health claim (in case you miss all the propaganda from your cereal box): this granola has been a staple in the diet that brought my cholesterol down forty points over the past year. Yes, that's right - eating a plant-based diet full of vegetables, whole grains and legumes and avoiding animal products can make a huge difference if you're willing to stick to it. The deliciousness of this oat-y, nutty, crunchy granola in a bit of skim milk helps me stick to it every day.

Maple Pecan Granola
Adapted from Naturally Ella.

2 c rolled oats
1 c chopped pecans
1/2 c wheat germ
pinch of salt
optional: 1/3 c shredded coconut (I throw it in if I have it around, like this time)
1/4 c nut oil (I've used peanut, walnut, almond - roasted peanut was my absolute favorite)
1/4 c grade B maple syrup

Preheat oven to 275° F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the oats, pecans, wheat germ, salt and coconut.

Add the oil and syrup and mix until the oat mixture is evenly moistened. Pour onto the baking sheet in a single layer.

Bake for 1 hour until toasty and brown, stirring every 15 minutes to keep the granola from sticking to the foil. Remove from the oven and cool completely before removing to a sealed container for storage. Enjoy with cold milk, over yogurt or by the handful!