Sunday, October 16, 2011

Halloween Trifle

I’m going to drop some embarrassingly honest Julie history on you.

A few years ago I ate out pretty much every meal except breakfast. My gourmet kitchen offerings back then? Something along the lines of 2 cans of chili dumped in a bowl with a package of shredded cheese, sour cream, and a jar of salsa, microwaved until melty and disgusting and enjoyed with a giant bag of blue corn chips. No joke. We called it nachos and boy was it ever delicious. Generally, we were happier to pay someone else to prep our plates, so we’d stop at Rubios or Panera. I’d order something one might consider on the healthy side - by comparison to some of their other offerings - a burrito bowl, or a cup of soup and half sandwich. But let’s be honest, I couldn’t say no to just one fish taco on the side, or a stop at Maggie Moos next door for ice cream.

I never exercised with any regularity. I couldn’t run for 5 minutes, let alone a mile. Even the sensation of my heart rate in the proper cardio zone had me asking my doctor if I had exercise induced asthma. Oh, you mean it’s supposed to feel like I’m gonna keel over and die? Ick! There were bouts of motivation where Husband and I would trek out to the gym for a couple of hours - once or twice a month at our best - and eke out some semblance of a workout. But wouldn’t you know it, I only ever put on pounds. Maybe it’s because we’d always stop at Jamba Juice on the way home from those workouts?

I admit, I was a victim of the Chili’s quesadilla explosion salad - the one that famously caught flack when they started posting the nutritional stats on their website. The “healthy option” many of us were outraged to learn actually had 1200 calories. But let’s not blame Chili's for my dissatisfaction with the scale. The choice of where to eat and what to order was all mine. In the end, my seemingly good habits were bad habits, and my bad habits were downright disgustingly awful habits. No wonder every shopping spree had me wondering why the clothes kept getting smaller and smaller!

So what changed? Looking back, everything. But not all at once. I didn’t wake up one day and say to myself "From this day forward I will change all my habits." Heck no! When did it change? I can’t even pinpoint how long it’s been since I lost that first pound. It was so gradual and non-purposeful. Has it really been almost 3 years?  I started reading a food blog or two. I tried a recipe here and there to pretty good success. I started going for walks, and playing around on that new-fangled Wii Fit. I did things that required a small, doable change. And when I got comfortable with that routine, I did a little more.  Can you believe just being a little more mindful of the choices I made and being a little more realistic about what those choices meant would get noticeable results?  How noticeable?  Well, I lost that first pound.  The hardest pound of my life.

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts by food bloggers I follow talking about their struggles with balancing food obsession and a healthy lifestyle. It really got me thinking about my own weight loss journey, and looking back, my food obsession and weight loss developed hand in hand. Go figure.

Now that I eat salads heavy on vegetables and light on dressing (and no cheese quesadillas on top), I can work in a little dessert without totally undoing my day. Like cookies. And mousse. And curd. All together in a trifle. I had never made a trifle. I would even go so far as to say I didn’t think I was much of a trifle person. But I take it back! Trifles are as awesome as the delicious components that are their makeup.

This trifle came about so very randomly. I got a bag of oranges four CSA shipments in a row. I was overwhelmed with oranges! But I didn’t want to just juice them. I wanted to really use their orange essence in something that would showcase their awesomeness. Because oranges are awesome. Sweet. Acidic. So I decided to make a curd. Despite the unfortunate name, curds are delicious. They’re bright and tart; sweet and creamy. But generally not something to enjoy alone. They’re a great accompaniment. 

Accompany what? Chocolate, of course! I originally considered pudding, but Husband requested chocolate mousse. Good call. So glad I listened. The light as a cloud, bittersweet mousse contrasted so nicely with the heavier, creamier sweet yet tart curd.  And this curd was all about the orange essence.  I didn't just use orange juice, you see.  I reduced it first. So I could get as much orange flavor out of those babies as possible!  And if you have to ask if I boozed it up, do you even know what blog you’re reading? I opted for Grand Marnier in the chocolate mousse to compliment the orange curd, and bourbon in the orange curd because I love the dimension the smokiness adds.

The flavors together were wonderfully indulgent, and the layers of orange and deep brown made me think instantly of Halloween. But I wanted a crunch element for texture, and what’s a Halloween treat without pumpkin? I love pumpkin! It pairs great with chocolate and orange. So I made the crunchiest cookie I could think of: biscotti! Pumpkin biscotti to be exact. It’s crunchy yet slightly crumbly texture was perfect for crumbling in between the chocolate mousse and orange curd layers, or leaving whole and dunking.

Who needs chili reminiscent of dog food in nachos when you can have this?  Definitely a small change for the better.

Any personal Halloween confections being made in your house this year that are strictly for personal, non-treat-or-treater enjoyment? 

Halloween Trifle

Makes ~8 individual trifles, depending on your container, or 1 big one

4 cups chocolate mousse (recipe below)
3 cups orange curd (recipe below)
8-10 pumpkin biscotti (recipe below)
  1. In a 4-6 oz. glass container (like a glass mug or jar), spoon in a layer of chocolate mousse, about 2 TB. Add a layer of orange curd, a little shy of 2 TB. If you want the biscotti crumbled directly into the trifle, crumble about ¼ of the cookie over the orange curd. Continue layering until you reach the top of your container, ending with a chocolate mousse layer. 
  2. Repeat for as many containers as you would like to prepare.
  3. Alternatively, if you are doing one big trifle, just follow the same procedure, but increase the quantities until you have an inch or so for each layer (or however you prefer it!). 

Chocolate Mousse

Adapted from David Lebovitz

Makes 6-8 servings

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used 70%)
6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¼ cup dark-brewed coffee
¼ tsp of sea salt
4 large eggs, separated
⅔ cup, plus 1 TB sugar
2 TB Grand Marnier (or bourbon)
1 TB water
½ tsp vanilla extract
  1. In a bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water, melt together the chocolate, butter, coffee, and salt, stirring frequently. Once smooth, remove it from the heat to cool down.
  2. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside.
  3. In another bowl set over the pot of gently simmering water, whisk the egg yolks with the ⅔ cup of sugar, liquor, and water for about 3 minutes until the mixture is light and thick, like runny mayonnaise. Whisk constantly so the yolks don’t curdle. 
  4. Set the bowl with the egg yolk mixture in the bowl of ice water and beat until cool and thick (it will make thick ribbons when you bring your whisk out of the bowl). Then fold the chocolate mixture into the egg yolks. It might look broken at first, but just keep mixing, and it’ll smooth out.
  5. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or by hand if you have the stamina), beat the egg whites with the salt on medium-high speed until frothy. Continue to beat until they start to hold their shape. Whip in the tablespoon of sugar and continue to beat until thick and shiny, but not completely stiff (don’t over-beat!), then add the vanilla and mix on low to combine.
  6. Fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then in two increments, fold in the remainder of the whites just until incorporated, but don’t overdo it or the mousse will lose volume. It’s ok to have a few white streaks.
  7. Transfer the mousse to a serving bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until firm.

Orange Curd

Adapted from Ina Garten

Makes about 3 cups

4 oranges, at room temperature
¾ - 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from the 4 oranges above)
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
¼ cup bourbon (or Grand Marnier)
⅛ tsp sea salt
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the orange juice to a rapid simmer and reduce until you have ½ cup of liquid. Set aside to cool.
  2. Remove the zest from the oranges with a vegetable peeler or zester, no pith please. Put the zest in the bowl of a food processor. Add the sugar and pulse until the zest is very finely minced and evenly distributed among the sugar. 
  3. Cream the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the sugar/orange zest mixture and beat on medium speed until it is light and fluffy, a few minutes. Add the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, then add the reduced orange juice, liquor, and salt. Mix until combined.
  4. Place a mesh strainer over a medium bowl and set aside. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and cook over low heat stirring constantly for about 10 minutes, until it is thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon (~175 degrees if you have a candy thermometer). Be careful not to overcook, or it will curdle. Remove the mixture from the heat and pour it through the strainer set over the bowl. Refrigerate the curd until fully cooled, a few hours. It will thicken further as it cools.

Pumpkin Biscotti

adapted from Simply Recipes

Makes about fifteen cookies

1 ½ cups of flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup of sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp ginger
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp kosher salt
2 eggs
½ cup of pumpkin purée
1 TB bourbon
1 tsp vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and spices.
  2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin purée, bourbon, and vanilla extract. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the flour mixture. Give it a rough stir to incorporate the ingredients.  The dough will be crumbly.
  3. Flour your hands and a clean kitchen surface and lightly knead the dough until it is uniformly mixed. It will be a little on the sticky side. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, form the dough into a large log, about 1 inch tall and 15 inches long. Bake for 22-28 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch. 
  4. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Let the biscotti cool for 15 minutes and then, using a serrated knife cut into pieces about an inch wide. Lay the cookies flat on the baking sheet and bake for another 15-20 minutes. Let them cool completely.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fall Vegetable and Beef Bolognese

Fall is here. Almost. I’m ready for warm stews and casseroles. Almost. I’m ready to stop eating anything that doesn’t involve a whole can of pumpkin. Getting there. But it’s also still sunny and warm out. I’m still hanging on to the late summer peaches and plums. And does zucchini even have a season in San Diego? Seems like I can get it locally and cheap year-round. Fine by me! So I made this sauce. It’s warm and comforting like I’ve been craving, but I don’t even have to turn on the oven. Because this sauce is made, for the most part, in my crock pot. How about that? Don’t use that thing nearly enough. With my uber-busy new schedule, this recipe is definitely one I’m remembering when it’s Wednesday night and I haven't got much in the way of food for Thursday.

This sauce is a bolognese. It’s got beef (but you could totally use turkey, chicken, or bison if you want to be fancy). It’s got milk and wine, which sounds weird, but actually makes the meat flavor more succulent and delicious. True. Besides the tomatoes, it’s chalked full of other vegetables. Because I’m me, and I up the veg. Always. It all bubbles away all the live long day or night and when it’s done it’s chunky and meaty and savory. I would argue one doesn’t even need to serve this on anything besides a spoon headed for my mouth. 

But I didn’t serve it that way. I didn’t serve it over spaghetti either. Or penne. Or bowtie. Not even spaghetti squash, though I’ve done that before and I highly recommend it. I had red potatoes and an idea. I roasted those suckers until they were cooked through. Then I carefully smashed them flat, about ½ inch thick. Then I heated some olive oil in a skillet, and fan fried my roasted/flattened potatoes until they were golden and crispy on the outside and soft and wonderful on the inside. Then I topped those suckers with my bolognese. Then I ate them. Well, the ones Husband would let me get to. Men really are all about steak and potatoes at heart, aren’t they?

But that explains the funky pictures. That and the fact I was photographing my lunch container for the next day. But don’t let the funk fool you. This sauce is just what the don’t-leave-me-late-summer-it’s-almost-fall season calls for.

Fall Vegetable and Beef Bolognese

adapted from The Kitchn

Makes about 8 servings

1 TB olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium eggplant, chopped
2 medium zucchini, chopped
8 oz cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb. ground beef
⅛ tsp nutmeg
a few pinches of kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup milk (I used 2%)
1 cup white wine or dry sherry
2 28 oz. cans of whole peeled tomatoes, drained and finely chopped (juices reserved)
1 cup reserved tomato juices
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped for garnish

  1. In a large saute pan or pot heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the beef and let it sit, undisturbed for a few minutes until it browns. Flip the beef over and break it into pieces using a wooden spoon or spatula. Once the other side has browned, remove the beef from the pan and set it aside. Lower the heat to medium and add the onion, celery, and carrot with a pinch of salt and cook until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Add the eggplant, mushrooms, and zucchini, and cook until their water releases and evaporates, another 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, and then add the nutmeg, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and another pinch of salt. Add the beef back into the pan and any juices that have accumulated, and stir to combine.
  2. Stir in the milk, bring it to a simmer and cook until the milk has reduced completely and very little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Stir in the wine and simmer again until reduced completely, about 10 minutes.
  3. In your slow cooker, add the beef mixture, the chopped tomatoes and one cup of the reserved tomato juices. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on HIGH for 6 hours or LOW for 8 hours.
  4. In the last hour of cooking, make sure the cooking temperature is set to high and remove the lid to allow any excess liquid to evaporate and reduce the sauce. Stir every 15 minutes or so, until the sauce is chunky.
  5. Serve over pasta or smashed roasted potatoes, and garnish with chopped parsley and Parmesan cheese.