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Homemade Cheez-Its

This is the second post this week about a favorite, go-to snack that tastes even better when you make it from scratch. Why go through the trouble, you might ask, when you can easily grab a box of crackers at the grocery store and call it a day? Well, for one, these taste better. (And I am a huge fan of the non-homemade kind. I once, regrettably, ate an entire box in one sitting, and was very ill as a result.) Second, you know exactly what’s going in them, and there are only a handful of ingredients, instead of odd-sounding preservatives and trans fats. You can use organic ingredients, if you’d like, and local butter and cheese, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to them.

It takes 30 seconds to throw this dough together in the food processor and about 4 minutes to roll and cut the crackers. They bake for less than 30 minutes, and you can clean the whole kitchen and start a load of laundry in that time, so really, it doesn’t count.

Now tell me that’s not faster than a trip to Publix. That’s what I thought.

Homemade Cheez-It Crackers
makes about 40 crackers
Adapted from this Country Living recipe

1 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 (7-ounce) bag grated extra-sharp 2% reduced-fat Cheddar cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, but recommended)
5 tablespoons cold water

Combine flour, butter, cheese, salt, and cayenne in the work bowl of your food processor. Pulse until crumbly. Pulse in water, a tablespoon at a time, until dough comes together. (You may not use all the water.)

Wrap dough in plastic wrap, press into a disc, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350º. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick silicone mats. Set aside.

Place dough between two pieces of parchment paper. (It’s sticky!) Roll to 1/8-inch thickness. Carefully flip dough in parchment over, and gently peel off the top layer. Using a pizza cutter, trim dough into a rectangle, then cut into 2-inch squares. Carefully transfer squares onto baking sheets, using a spatula if needed.

Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until crackers are just slightly turning light brown, and are crisp. Quickly cool and taste one for crispness. If they are not crisp, bake just a few minutes longer. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days (if they last that long!). If crackers are soggy after storing, re-crisp them in a preheated 400º oven for 3 to 5 minutes.

Posted by on October 6th, 2010 31 Comments

Homemade Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a very American snack. I was amused to see it on the “USA” aisle in a French grocery store a few years ago. In fact, in Paris, there is a shop called Thanksgiving, and its shelves are stocked with things like Pringles, McCormick’s gravy mix packets, Oreos, Campbell’s soups, and, yes, peanut butter.

But I really wonder why it hasn’t caught on worldwide as a favorite food item. It’s a favorite in our house, whether spread on soft bread for a PBJ (or PBBH—peanut-butter-banana-honey), warmed in the microwave and drizzled over ice cream, or just eaten out of the jar with a spoon. My friend Amy won’t keep it in her house, because she knows she’ll eat it out of the jar, spoonful by spoonful, until it’s gone.

Amy probably shouldn’t make this homemade version. If you love the store-bought stuff, you’ll find this to be a revelation. (I am being dramatic, but not overly so. This stuff is good.) Easy, cheap, and ever so satisfying, peanut butter is one of those things that’s just better—and, most likely, better for you—when you make it at home.

I used Alton Brown’s recipe, and it worked pretty much perfectly. The peanut butter is on the crumbly side, but spreads easily when warmed for 10 seconds in the microwave, or left at room temperature for a half hour before using. You can always drizzle in a bit more oil for a more spreadable consistency.

You can also customize the flavor…
*Maple: Use 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup instead of the honey
*Cinnamon-Raisin: Process with 1 teaspoon cinnamon; stir in raisins after processing
*Spicy Asian: Process with 2 teaspoons soy sauce instead of salt and 1 teaspoon sriracha
*Honey: Increase honey to 1 tablespoon

Homemade Peanut Butter
Adapted, very slightly, from Alton Brown’s recipe

15 ounces shelled, unsalted roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2  to 2 tablespoons peanut oil (you can sub vegetable oil, as long as it’s flavor is neutral)

Place the peanuts, salt, and honey into the work bowl of your food processor. Process for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Place the lid back on and continue to process while drizzling in the oil; process until the mixture is smooth, adding oil bit by bit until desired texture is reached. Place the peanut butter in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.

Posted by on October 4th, 2010 3 Comments

Bacon and Cucumber Sandwiches

The other day, my friend Lainie commented that she’d like to see a recipe using bacon. And with that comment, I couldn’t think of anything else but bacon. I’d type a few words, and then…baconbaconbacon. Got up to run some errands, and baconbaconbacon. You see, I am a bacon lover of the highest degree. I truly think I’d eat it every day and never tire of it. I used to make it as an after-school snack in the microwave, and I always order it when I’m out to brunch. My grandmother’s house always had a pleasing aroma of bacon made earlier in the day. (I think she cooked it every morning.) I prefer it chewy, not crispy, but I’ll take it any way I can get it.

So the day Lainie mentioned bacon, I went to the fridge with my fingers crossed that there were a few slices inside. And there were—two lonely pieces of bacon, just begging me to make them into something tasty.

I remember someone telling me that bacon and cucumber make a lovely, unexpected combination. And what goes better with cucumbers (besides bacon, of course) than sour cream and dill? So I tossed the three together on top of whole-wheat toast for a lovely afternoon snack…a step up from my microwaved-bacon days.

Open-Face Bacon and Cucumber Sandwiches
Serves 1

2 tablespoons sour cream
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 slice sandwich bread, lightly toasted
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
6 slices cucumber, peeled if skin is very thick
2 slices bacon, cooked until just crisp

Stir together the sour cream, salt, pepper, and dill. Spread it on the toasted bread, then top with cucumbers and bacon.

Posted by on August 18th, 2010 4 Comments

Avocado Toast

I really thought I had turned over a new leaf with this here blog…I had three, count ‘em, three consecutive posts in less than as many weeks, which was quite a feat (for me). And then…and then. Then I didn’t post. And now it’s been 10 days, and I know it’s not as bad as 3 weeks, which has been the average span between posts in the past, but it’s not exactly the regular pattern I was hoping I’d started. Anyway…there’s always tomorrow. (Or today, as the case may be.) I’m trying for regularity. Fingers crossed.

Earlier this summer, Jason and I were on an avocado kick, where we’d eat at least one a day. Calorie-wise, it’s not the best idea to consume so many of these little green orbs, which are, in essence, all fat. But we were comforted by the fact that it’s heart-healthy fat, which somehow seemed to excuse the actual fat grams. I digress. I have always loved avocados, with their silky texture and their barely there flavor. I used to say, when I was little, that they tasted like water, which I now realize makes zero sense. I’ll eat them any way I can get them, and sometimes they’re brilliant with just a squeeze of lemon and a bit (or a lot) of salt on top of a saltine cracker.

Or, on toast. One day, I found myself craving this simplest form of avocado consumption, but I was lemon-less. So I reached for the closest acidic thing my pantry could offer, which happened to be rice vinegar. So then I sprinkled it with soy sauce, because—let’s be honest—those two Asian condiments sing a bit louder when put together. And the whole thing was delicious. So, this isn’t exactly a recipe, but more of an encouragement… go get a ripe Hass avocado (no offense to my sweet Sunshine State, but the avocados that grow here are not so good), smoosh it on some toast (the crustier the better) and then sauce it with some rice vinegar and soy sauce (organic tamari if you have it). A few drops of sambal olek or sriracha definitely don’t hurt. Chow. Enjoy. Try to keep it to one avocado, for your girlish figure’s sake.

Posted by on August 13th, 2010 No Comments

Icy Treats for Hot Days

I don’t know what summer is like where you live, but here in Central Florida? It’s hot. As in plants-are-wilting, hair-is-sticking-to-your-neck, asphalt-is-melting, feel-like-fainting-after-one-minute-outside hot. It’s all we can do to take the dogs to the park in the morning before the sun gets so oppressive even they don’t want to spend time outdoors. (And who ever heard of a dog who didn’t want to go outside?)

On days (or weeks, or months) when the heat is such that even turning on the stove to boil a kettle of water seems inhumane, the meals we crave tend to be cool, light, and easy to make. Snacks should be the same, and that’s exactly what these popsicles are—cold, refreshing, and so simple. I have always been a popsicle fan…I lived for the tri-color rocket pops that counselors handed out in the afternoons at summer camp. If I spotted a Frozfruit coconut bar in a freezer case, I had to have it. I loved the strawberry popsicles in the Disney World ice cream cart so much that one time, my tongue got stuck to the bar when I couldn’t wait even one second to take my first lick. (The painful incident was eased by the sweet pink treat.)

I digress. Popsicles are lovely, satisfying summertime snacks, and when you make your own, you can experiment with lots of different flavors. Below are two we’ve been enjoying on these endlessly blistering, humid days.

Watermelon Popsicles with Lime and Salt
Makes 8 (1/4-cup-capacity) popsicles

3 cups diced seedless watermelon
1 to 4 tablespoons sugar, depending on the sweetness of your watermelon
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges, for serving
Coarse sea salt, for serving

Combine watermelon and sugar in a blender; puree until very smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Pour into popsicle molds, and freeze overnight.

Serve popsicles with a lime wedge and a small pile of salt. Squeeze the lime over popsicle, and sprinkle with or dip into salt.

Striped Tropical Popsicles
Makes 8 (1/4-cup-capacity) popsicles

1/2 cup diced seedless watermelon, pureed and strained
1/2 cup guava nectar
1/2 cup passion fruit juice

Pour watermelon puree evenly among popsicle molds. Freeze for at least 4 hours, or until frozen solid. Top with guava nectar; freeze for 4 hours, or until solid. Top with passion fruit juice; freeze for 4 hours, or until solid.

Posted by on July 26th, 2010 6 Comments

Granola…a work in progress

I have always loved granola. Well, as far as I can remember. When I was young, we lived in a house about a half mile away from a TCBY. I remember when it first opened, when frozen yogurt was a new concept. The swirly stuff was considered healthy, and the toppings bar was unlike the one at our old haunt Baskin Robbins.

This one had granola in a little toppings cubby, neighbor to the colored jimmies, hot butterscotch, and candied walnuts. I don’t remember if I’d had it before, but from the first time I had it sprinkled onto my chocolate-vanilla swirl, I was hooked. From then on, it was granola that topped my TCBY, which became an almost daily treat when my mom was pregnant with my little brother (it was summertime, after all).

Granola remains a favorite ice cream topping, but it’s also a go-to order when dining anywhere that claims to make theirs from scratch. I’ve made it before…realizing it tastes best when coated in a generous mixture of oil and honey, making it a pretty unhealthy choice for breakfast, even if it’s made with oatmeal.

Last week, I tried a combination of a few different recipes I found online, modified to suit what I had in the pantry. I also cut the sugar and fat down. It was pretty good, but I’m going to keep tweaking until I find just the right mix. Until then, here’s the recipe to get you started. Adjust as you see fit.

Basic Honey-Almond Granola
Makes about 5 cups
I didn’t have any dried fruit on hand, so I didn’t put any in, but cranberries and cherries are both delicious add-ins. I’d add them after baking so they don’t get too dried out. If you don’t have almonds, walnuts and pecans are both good substitutes. And play around with sweeteners…try agave nectar or even apple juice concentrate instead of the honey/molasses combo for a taste and texture you like. The wheat germ not only adds nutritional goodness, it also helps everything stick together and get crunchy.

4 cups old-fashioned (not quick) oats
1 cup wheat germ
1 to 1 1/2 cups sliced almonds
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons molasses
2 to 3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Place oven racks in middle two positions. Preheat oven to 275º. Line 2 baking sheets with a Silpat or parchment paper. Set aside.

Combine oats, wheat germ, and almonds in a large bowl. Combine honey, molasses, 2 T water, and vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is uniform and melted.

Pour honey mixture over oat mixture and stir to combine, using your hands or a wooden spoon. Divide mixture in two on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake, stirring mixture and switching positions of pans halfway through, until granola is golden, about 15 to 25 minutes. (It won’t feel crisp until after it cools.) Keep an eye on it, as it goes from golden to burned in a matter of minutes. Cool on baking sheets set on wire racks until granola is cool to the touch and crisp. Store for up to a week in mason jars with tight-fitting lids, tupperware containers, or zip-top bags.

Posted by on February 9th, 2010 2 Comments

The Easiest Crusty Bread Ever

bread1I have high hopes for myself. I hope one day I’ll be the kind of gal who makes bread from scratch, cans and pickles the leftovers from my organic garden, and feeds my family things I made myself.

I figured bread would be the best thing to start with, because…have you heard? There are bundles of recipes that don’t require kneading or, really, much effort at all. It’s a dump-and-stir kind of thing, only way better than what those dump-and-stir recipes normally yield.

For a few years, I’d been seeing things here and there about Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread. When I saw this post on the gorgeous blog Honey and Jam, it finally inspired me to give it a go. Not a mistake. This was the easiest recipe with the most satisfying outcome.

bread2

A few notes: For me, perhaps because it was a rather humid, rainy day, it took around 7 cups flour to get the dough right. But start with the 6 1/2 and go from there. Also, it yielded a nice, big loaf that I shared with our new neighbors (that started out as a grapefruit-size ball of dough), and a smaller loaf (that started out as a softball-size dough ball) I kept for us. Next time I’ll try to split it more evenly.

Even my dad, a devoted bread kneader, a traditionalist at heart, really liked this bread. I’m going to try variations throughout the next few weeks, and I’ll post the results as they come.

breadoverhead

Posted by on February 8th, 2010 5 Comments

Hummus in a New Home

hummus1Well hello there. I’m so glad you’re reading this, because it means two things: one, I didn’t lose every single reader I ever had during my little blogging hiatus, and two, it means I finished my first blog post in two months. I don’t usually post much (if anything) about my life outside of the kitchen here, but I figure that if you stuck around this long, you deserve an explanation.

Let’s see…it all started with a slight (but short) lull in my desire to cook. OK, pretty normal. We had pasta for a few nights. Well then the holidays hit, with after-work cocktail parties, dinners out, and days off. And I left my Canon in Florida when we were home for Thanksgiving, so the meals I actually did cook while I was cameraless went undocumented. (Bad excuse, you say? Sigh. I know.) Then came the Big Changes.

First, I decided to leave my job at the magazines to pursue a freelance career. That was Big Change number 1. Big Change number 2 came when we decided that since our families live in Florida and—aside from our incredible friends—the main thing keeping us in Birmingham was my job, we were ready to move back to the Sunshine State. Big Change 3 was the decision to buy our first house…which we found, put and offer on, and closed on within a month. We weren’t wasting any time!

So, all the changes afoot, the month of January became a whirlwind that is a cross-state move. That, along with numerous last dinners out and some lovely farewell parties, meant I didn’t cook a real meal in four weeks. Four! A whole month!

But now, we’re here. We’re officially Florida residents again, and we’re getting settled into our new (to us) bungalow. We’re still working on the cardboard-box-as-furniture thing, but one of my favorite parts of the house is the gorgeous kitchen. New appliances, great lighting, and granite countertops…oh, guys, it’s an absolute dream compared with our old kitchen. There are many culinary adventures to be had in there! I promise to show you soon.

If you’re still reading, this is where I will wrap things up, since I’ve been blathering on for paragraphs. I’m so happy you’re still with me…and I promise there are good things to come. For now, I’ll leave you with the first thing I made in the new house: healthy hummus. It’s a Cooking Light recipe, so I’ll link it and give you my modifications.

hummus2

Classic Hummus
Adapted, ever so slightly, from Cooking Light magazine
Makes 3 1/4 cups

2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 to 3 big garlic cloves (depending on how much you like garlic), smashed and peeled
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste, find it on the ethnic food aisle of grocery stores along w/ matzah and other kosher foods)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Place beans and garlic in a food processor; pulse until chopped. Add the water, tahini, lemon juice, 3 tablespoons oil, salt, and pepper; run processor until very smooth, scraping down sides as needed.

Note: I like to stir in about a teaspoon of sambal olek into 1/4 cup of hummus and use cucumbers to scoop. It adds a nice tang and spiciness.

hummus3

Posted by on February 3rd, 2010 4 Comments

Imjadara (Arabic Lentils + Rice)

lentils4_web

After my somewhat anxiety-inducing msakkhan attempt, I felt like taking on a simpler Arabic dish. Fortunately for me, imjadara, one of Jason’s very favorite meals, is pretty fail-safe. A couldn’t-be-simpler combination of brown lentils and white rice is topped with a tangle of super-soft, golden onions that are cooked until melted and sweet and a crunchy little salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. The onions are, in the opinion of chez Thin Chef, what really makes the imjadara (say im-JUH-duh-ruh…roll the r) come together.

Fragrant cumin is the only spice my mother-in-law uses for this. (I think some recipes call for cinnamon, or other sundry warm spices.) This relies on very inexpensive ingredients that can be stocked and kept on hand at all times. A study in simplicity, this is a perfect meal for Arabic cooking 101.

Imjadara (Arabic Lentils + Rice)
serves 2 for dinner with leftovers
My in-laws serve this with plain yogurt for spooning on top. I love the yogurt added in, but it’s also perfectly fine without it.

5 large yellow or white onions, sliced thinly
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 cup white rice
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large, ripe tomato
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 small lemon

Combine onions and 3 T oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding splashes of water when the pan looks dry, until onions are very soft and quite brown, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine lentils, rice, water, salt, and cumin in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat to medium-low. Keep mixture at a bare simmer, stirring it every so often. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until water is absorbed.

While imjadara cooks, dice tomato and cucumber, and place in a medium bowl. Squeeze lemon over bowl (watch for seeds) and drizzle with 1 T oil. Add salt to taste, and stir to combine.

Fluff imjadara with a fork, drizzle with remaining oil, and taste for seasoning. Serve with a generous topping of caramelized onions, the tomato-cucumber salad, and plain yogurt, if you so desire.

Posted by on November 10th, 2009 4 Comments

Quick + Easy Miniature Meatloafs

35219_2086{image via stock.xchng}

Note: this is a re-write of sorts of a post from February 2008. Meatloaf, though unrefined, is classic comfort food. It’s the perfect thing to serve in the early days of fall…and I’ve found that dinner guests are always pleasantly surprised when they find out meatloaf is on the menu, especially when it’s a delicious new version of the classic.

Meatloaf is definitely retro. It evokes visions of 1950s TV dinners, school cafeterias, and beehived waitresses in all-night diners. It’s a product of the Depression when meat was scarce and it went a lot farther when mixed with bread, eggs, and veggies. In today’s crazy economy, it makes sense to take cues from a time when stay-at-home moms used every trick up their sleeves to stretch a buck and keep their families well fed. Though it’s not the prettiest or most impressive thing one can make, with the right recipe, meatloaf can be very worthy of your dinner table.

With meatloaf {as well as just about any savory thing you make in the oven} I think the best part is the crusty edges. In that regard, mini loaves make much more sense to me…maximize the crust so everyone gets his own share. Ground turkey is flavorful and has less fat and saturated fat than most kinds of ground beef, so I generally go to it as my meatloaf foundation.

This version is inspired by a recipe from Culinary Confessions of the PTA Divas, which is a cookbook my mom and a friend wrote together. The recipe may seem kind of ho-hum at a glance, but the flavors are spot on. I make it into mini loaves and add pancetta, which makes the crust even more delicious and adds moisture and fabulous flavor throughout. With a spoonful {or three} of mashed potatoes on the side, and maybe some rosted Brussels sprouts, this is 1950s comfort food at its best.

Mini Meatloaves
Serves 2

In the vein of being budget friendly, feel free to substitute some of these ingredients with things you already have on hand. If you don’t have Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs, use
plain breadcrumbs with 1/2 tsp dried oregano and 1 tsp dried thyme added in. Four strips of thin-cut bacon cut in half can easily stand in for the pancetta—or it can be omitted altogether. As is the case with most of my recipe for two, this can be doubled to serve 4.

1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup Italian-seasoned dry breadcrumbs
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons ketchup, divided
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 pound ground turkey
4 1/4-inch slices pancetta
1/2 tablespoon honey
1/2 tablespoon hot sauce (I like Texas Pete’s or Krystal for this…if you use something hotter, dial it back to 1/4 tsp.)

Preheat oven to 450˚. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.

In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and garlic, and cook, stirring, 4 to 5 minutes or until onions are golden and very soft. Put cooked onions and garlic in a large bowl and cool for 10 minutes or so. (Spread them out so the cool more quickly.) To the same bowl when the onions are cooled, add breadcrumbs, soy, Worcestershire, ketchup and turkey; mix lightly with hands until combined. Add egg, and mix until combined.

On the prepared baking sheet, form mixture into two loaves, and top each with 2 slices of pancetta, slightly overlapping to fit. Mix together remaining tablespoon ketchup, honey, and hot sauce. Set aside. Bake meatloaves for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully spoon ketchup mixture over top. Return to oven and cook 5 minute more, or until the sauce is bubbling around the edges.

Posted by on October 14th, 2009 2 Comments