Monday, November 30, 2009

Cranberry Oat Bars

For the first time, I am enjoying some experimentation with fresh cranberries. After a few unsuccessful attempts at homemade cranberry sauce that just didn't surpass the guilty pleasure of the canned jell, I gave up trying a few years ago. I mean, who doesn't love ridges that let you know precisely where to cut the jiggling goo into perfect slices? Trader Joe's has a pretty good cranberry chutney that I liked for a while, but this year, a very simple recipe that I linked to last week revived my interest in the bags of fresh cranberries that are piled high in all the stores these days. I've made that recipe several times now, and expect that I will continue making it through the winter. Cranberries freeze well, so you can stock up now and have some available until next Thanksgiving.

Recently, I came across a recipe for cranberry oat bars that looked appealing and seemed easily adaptable to qualify as a "healthier" dessert with a one-to-one switch of whole wheat pastry flour for the specified white flour. Unfortunately, I had completely missed the last line of the ingredient list which called for 1 and 1/2 sticks of butter. By the time I noticed this little deal breaker, I had already preheated the oven, put the cranberries, sugar and orange zest into a saucepan, and, most importantly, had already started craving the taste of one of these bars. I guess that's why it's better to prep the whole dish before starting the recipe.

What to do? I kept one half stick of butter in the recipe as I thought the crust would require some. I substituted one half cup of canola oil for another half stick. Lastly, as there was already orange zest in the filling, I used 4 tablespoons of frozen orange juice concentrate that I had in my freezer, instead of the third half stick.

Though more butter might have produced a crisper crust, we loved the tart flavor and texture of these cranberry bars. The oats, which I really like, come through loud and clear. This is still a dessert, though it is probably not any worse than some of the granola bars and lunchbox snacks floating around.

Cranberry Oat Bars

(greatly adapted from the Washington Post, which says it adapted it from Rick Rodgers' Christmas 101: 100 Festive Recipes With Menus and Timetables for Stress-Free Holiday Entertaining. At this point, who knows?)

makes 16 bars

for the filling:

2 cups fresh cranberries
3/4 cup sugar (I used organic cane sugar)
zest of 1 large orange (get out the Microplane!)
3 tablespoons water

for the crust:

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not the quick cooking or instant kind)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter (1/2 stick) cut into small cubes
1/2 cup canola oil
3 - 4 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8 inch square baking pan with cooking spray.

2. Place cranberries, sugar, orange zest and water into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower heat to medium and let the mixture simmer for about 5 - 10 more minutes, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened and reduced a bit. Take off the heat and let cool.

3. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter cubes and with your fingers, begin to work it into the dry ingredients. Once partly combined, add the oil and 3 tablespoons of the orange juice concentrate and continue using fingertips until wet ingredients are well incorporated. If it feels too dry to be able to mold a little, add another tablespoon of the orange juice concentrate and incorporate.

4. Press half the flour/oat mixture into the greased pan so that the bottom of the pan is entirely covered. Spread the cooled cranberry filling on top. Sprinkle the rest of the flour/oat mixture over top of the cranberry filling and tap it down gently so that the top is even and all the cranberry mixture is covered.

5. Bake on the middle rack for about 45 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Take pan out of oven and let cool completely.

6. Cut into 16 bars. Once bars are removed from pan, let bars cool further. Store in a container with a tight fitting lid.

Monday, November 23, 2009

This is a Bird Free Blog

It seems that every blog, magazine, newspaper food section and cooking show is all Thanksgiving all the time right about now. I have been lucky enough not to make Thanksgiving dinner in several years (thanks Karen and Jon!!!), instead hosting a big buffet the following evening, with many cousins and extended family in attendance. It's more people, but no china required. As a result, I'm bursting with seasonal recipes and versatile ideas for a fall potluck or a winter dinner party. Thanksgiving dinner? Not so much. So I'll remain silent and defer to some others who have some great holiday recipes.

For a really easy cranberry sauce that is fresh and tart, check out Bea at La Tartine Gourmande's recipe here: I've tried it both as-is, and substituting half the sugar for agave nectar and although both taste great, the recipe, as written with the sugar, has a better consistency. I took Bea's advice and have been swirling some into my morning yogurt!

For stuffing, check out the stuffing contest on I am torn between the two finalists: one is a vegetarian stuffing featuring challah or brioche with mushrooms, celery and vegetable stock, and the other using ciabatta, sweet potato, shiitake mushrooms and chorizo. I might make both to bring to Thanksgiving dinner!

I will be spending Thanksgiving and the days before and after, with my extended family. We'll share many meals and conversation, and hopefully some long walks in the park as well. Whatever your plans, I hope you enjoy a very happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fall Farro Salad

I first came across farro a few years ago in a cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis, in which she used farro as the grain to support a coarse herb pesto. I've made that dish many times with great success and often bring it to picnics and other summer events. I've been a fan of farro ever since. The taste is a little nutty and the texture a little chewy, in a good way, and it provides a welcome and healthy change from the usual pasta.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, farro is a wheat grain grown and used in Italy since ancient times. It is also known as emmer wheat and although it looks like the much less expensive spelt, it is not the same grain. Please don't make the mistake I made and substitute the one for the other as whole spelt grains take forever, I mean forever, to soften up to an edible texture. After I'd been purchasing farro for a while at Balducci's, one day they no longer had it. During my quest for another source, I tried my local organic market, where a helpful clerk assured me spelt was the same thing. I learned after attempting to cook the dish I'd made many times before, that spelt just doesn't want to loosen up. I pretty much simmered it to death and was still left with hard bits of rock instead of the tasty chewy kernels I usually had.

In the couple of years since, farro has become more readily available. I try to buy it at my local Italian grocery as it's least expensive there. They still have it at Balducci's, and now have it at Whole Foods and that same organic market that mislead me with its bulk spelt. Many regular grocery stores carry it now too. The only brand I've ever seen, though, is rustichella d'abruzzo from Italy. I've seen it anywhere from $7.00 to $10.00 for a 1.1 pound package, which seems like a lot until you see how much the farro grows during cooking and how many this one pound-ish package serves.

I've been seeing more and more recipes lately using farro in the risotto style - sometimes called farrotto - and in lieu of pasta in other dishes and soups. I call this dish a salad because I finish it with what amounts to a vinaigrette, but it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature. One of the beauties of farro is that it doesn't get soggy in sauce or dressing and doesn't harden up in the refrigerator.

This recipe can be adapted quite easily to become vegetarian. I use a little pancetta or prosciutto to start it off, but you could easily substitute caramelized onions for the smoky flavor (see my April 02, 2009 post on caramelized onions!). Just substitute vegetable stock or water for the chicken stock and you'll be all set.

Though I don't actually include them in the recipe, you also see brussels sprouts in the photo above. I added them in this time as I had some sitting around in the refrigerator. If you want to add brussels sprouts, add them halfway through the time for the cauliflower to cook as they cook much more quickly.

While the instructions on the package of farro advise you to soak the farro before cooking, I've never needed to when I've cooked it this way. This is a delicious complement to fish, chicken or meat. I've made it with all of them.
This is what the package looks like:

Fall Farro Salad

(serves 8 - 10 when served as a hearty side dish)

1 large head cauliflower, cut up into small florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
sprinkle of salt
4 cups no or low sodium added chicken or vegetable stock (if making vegetarian version)
4 cups water
1.1 pound package of farro, rinsed
4 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 large stalk celery, diced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
juice of one large lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
handful rinsed capers, optional

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Toss the cut up cauliflower with 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a Ziploc bag or bowl. Make sure all pieces are coated with olive oil. Spread cauliflower in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. I use a half sheet pan lined with foil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over cauliflower.

3. Let cauliflower roast, stirring and turning pieces over occasionally, until tender and golden brown, about 25 - 35 minutes.

4. While cauliflower roasts, bring the stock and water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Once the stock boils, add the rinsed farro and stir. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the farro, covered, until tender, about 20 - 25 minutes. Drain farro and set aside in a large serving bowl.

5. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat, saute the diced pancetta until it darkens and gets a little crispy. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and carrot has softened, about 10 minutes. You can season these vegetables lightly with salt and pepper while they cook, if you like.

6. Add onion mixture to serving bowl with farro.

7. Add cooked cauliflower to serving bowl.

8. Add parsley, oregano and half the chives to serving bowl.

9. Add lemon juice and olive oil to serving bowl and mix contents well. Taste for salt and pepper and add if necessary.

10. Garnish with remaining chives and some capers if you like a little extra, salty tang.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

And Now for Something a Little Different

Smoked trout pate is not the most practical dish I've ever made, but once I indulged myself by purchasing the smoked trout offered by the fish seller at my local farm market, I had to come up with something to do with the one pound plus piece of smoked local fish. I served this as an hors d'oeuvre at a potluck dinner recently and one guest told me "I just can't stop eating this!" We liked it so much, I made it again the following weekend with the rest of the fish! I got the idea after reading a small blurb that a chef in NY makes her restaurant's trout pate with cottage cheese and creme fraiche, with no actual recipe given. I just experimented until I got a taste I liked.

Once you have the ingredients, this is as easy as can be to put together. This is also a dish that you can adapt to your taste and play around with the ingredients and quantities a little. The first variable is the fish. Taste a piece before you begin mixing. Some will be saltier than others. Mine was not salty at all, just smoky, so I added salt at the end. Likewise, choose the kind of cottage cheese you prefer, but a smaller curd would definitely be preferable. I use 2%, but you could try 1%, no sodium added, or, if you want something really rich, full fat. The creme fraiche transforms this from an everyday recipe in terms of health, to a once-in-a-while treat, but who doesn't need a treat every now and then.

Smoked Trout Pate

(serves a small dinner party as one of an assortment of hors d'oeuvres with cocktails)

Smoked trout fillet (about 1/2 pound)
2/3 cup cottage cheese
2 heaping tablespoons creme fraiche
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

1. Remove the skin from the fish and discard. Crumble or flake the fish into a bowl using two forks (one in each hand moving away from each other in the bowl) or your hands if you prefer. If the top of your fillet has a hard crust from the smoking process, you can pick out the larger, hard bits if you prefer. I like to leave in most, as they have the smoky flavor, but I try to make sure to break them down.

2. Add cottage cheese and creme fraiche and mix well with a spoon. If the mixture seems dry, add another dollop of cottage cheese. I like a smooth consistency so using the back of the spoon, I "smoothed out" some of the cottage cheese curds against the side of the bowl.

3. Sprinkle a pinch of salt (if your fish isn't particularly salty), a couple of grinds of pepper and 2 teaspoons of olive oil into the bowl and mix well.

4. Add chives, reserving a pinch for a garnish. Mix gently, and taste - add salt if need be.

5. Put into serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining chives on top. If not serving right away, refrigerate, but take it out about 1/2 hour before serving so it can come to room temperature which will make spreading easier. Serve with thin slices of baguette.