Anyone can be "the family chef". You just need good recipes and techniques! Chef Amy Fothergill shares her best recipes with you for quick and easy dishes with an emphasis on gluten-free.

Get information here about her cookbook, The Warm Kitchen: Gluten-Free Recipes Anyone Can Make and Everyone Will Love.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From Fish to Fish Chowder

You know the phrase, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"? Well, that's what happened last week. I had a busy schedule planned, company every night, and lots of cooking. On Tuesday, I had been to the harbor for fish (not realizing how crazy it could be and it wasn't even Christmas Eve yet!). I was planning a 7 fishes dinner for that night for some friends. But, in the middle of prepping, life came to a standstill. I needed to bring my 15 yr old dog Buster to the vet. An hour later, he was no longer with us.

When I have been faced with grief in the past, I cook. It takes my mind off of things and keeps me busy. I don't like to cry. The rhythmic chopping, thoughts of what needs to go into the saute pan and grabbing things from the spice drawer fill my head rather than the sadness I really feel. Later that night, it did hit me.

So our Christmas plans were turned a bit upside down. That night, I cooked some of the food intended for the dinner party for my family and some dear friends who helped us get through that rough experience. The next day, I was looking at a pound of cod ling, trying to figure out what to do with it.

A casual Christmas Eve lunch: fish chowder, steamed crab and garlic shrimp

My husband has always had a soft side for creamy chowder. And it's one of those things my kids really like. We often fight for the last spoonfuls. This seemed like a good use for the fish and I had most of the ingredients in the house. Fast forward about 45 minutes later (after I went out for clam juice) and we had delicious fish chowder. It made me happy to hear the yummy noises c0ming from everyone's mouths and it certainly kept my mind off of things for a few more hours. Before we finished, my husband snapped a few good photos. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to show you these creations rather than only write about it. I thought these really captured the day.

As with all of my recipes, I look at this as simple, tasty, and fairly healthy (I mean, I could have used heavy cream, right?!). I might have to search for some other options for clam juice besides Snow's (only because I'm not really sure about the quality) but in a pinch, it turned out just fine. Thanks for listening...

Amy's Fish Chowder
Serves 4 (or in our case 3 adults and 2 little ones)

2 tsp Olive oil
2 Tbl unsalted butter, divided
1/2 medium onion, chopped
Ground pepper
A few saffron threads
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed into bite size pieces
1 Tbl flour
1 bottle of clam juice (about 8 oz)
2 cups whole milk
about 3/4 lb of firm white fish, cleaned and cut into cubes
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat a medium sized pot. It's important to make sure there is enough depth so that the fish will be able to cook in the soup. Over medium heat, add olive oil, 1 Tbl butter and onion. Add a few grinds of pepper and the saffron. After a few minutes, add the celery, then the potato.
Tip: While the onion cooks, chop the celery. While the celery cooks, peel and cube the potatoes.

2. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter, allow it to melt, then add the flour. Mix and cook for 2-4 minutes. Lower the heat a little and then add the clam juice (it's better if it's a room temperature) and stir to combine. Add the milk and stir. Bring it up to a boil and lower to a simmer.
Tip: While the soup is beginning to come to a boil, cut the fish.

3. When the soup is simmering, carefully add the fish into the soup and stir. Keep the soup at a simmer in order to cook the fish, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook the soup until it reaches the desired thickness. Remove a piece of fish and cut with a fork to make sure it's cooked. Check the potatoes for doneness as well. They should be soft but not mushy.

4. Serve with some crusty sourdough bread and a nice glass of white wine, like a chardonnay.

Tip: Before you add the butter and flour (roux), you can add white wine or sherry for more flavor (about 2 Tbl). Make sure it has evaporated before you add the roux.

You can also add other fish like crab, clams or shrimp. If you are adding cooked fish or seafood, for example crab, add at the very end.

Bacon is another good flavor in a chowder. Add chopped bacon to the onions and celery and cook until it is crisp. Reduce butter to only 1 Tbl (add with the flour only).

If you don't have saffron, just eliminate from the recipe. It's nice but not necessary.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gingerbread Cookie Decorating

If you know me, you know I'm not a great baker, at least I don't think I am. I can follow a recipe but sometimes I do things like estimating and eye-balling. Luckily, the things I bake are usually simple so it's easy to make it good.

I mention this because I don't want to take credit for the gingerbread cookie recipe I use; that goes to my friend Amy Andrews. Find her great recipe here on her blog. By the way, thanks to her, I was inspired to create this blog. She has been a big help to me this past year.

Ok, digressing again. I made a couple of batches of these cookies this year. For the first, I used the royal icing and decorated my gingerbread men, girls and bears with hair, faces, dresses, shoes, shirts, pants and all sorts of things. This time, I wasn't paying great attention and I added a wee bit too much water. Instead of making much more than I needed, I decided to approach the whole thing differently and use more of a glaze. It seemed to work out and one unintended benefit was a cookie that was softer and not too crisp.

I'm not even sure of the recipe I used for the glaze but I think it was about 1 cup of confectioner's (powdered) sugar and 1-2 Tbl of water. You could also use milk or cream. Mix until a paste forms and then use a pastry brush to brush onto cookies. Sprinkle right away as the glaze will start to harden immediately. Let these sit out for a few hours, maybe even overnight, to dry.

I put some of these into little holiday baggies with a candy cane and a packet of hot chocolate. It was very festive looking and from what the recipients have said so far, pretty darn good tasting, too. I know it's post Christmas and all but next year, I'll repost this entry in November or early December! Enjoy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Italian Struffoli

Have you ever had a struffoli? To me, it says Christmas with my family. These little fried dough balls are coated with honey and sprinkled with non-pareils (those little colored balls).

Struffoli are honey dough balls that many Italian families enjoy at Christmas. It seems the tradition is most popular in the southern part of Italy.

From what I read, the dough balls are meant to represent the balls on the Christmas tree and the sprinkles represent the many colors. Italians seem to enjoy fried dough so this seems to be the perfect holiday dessert. Although the honey is sweet the dough balls are not which is typical of Italian desserts especially after a big meal.

It was always fun to make them. After the dough is made you roll them out like snakes and then cut into little pieces. Then the dough is fried. When you are ready to serve, top these little mini-doughnuts with honey and non-pareils.

Our family used to make them every year when we were together but we haven't been doing it as often. I made them for an event in early December and then never made them again, although I kept saying I would. I suppose there are still a few days left in the month so maybe I'll try it this week with the kids. If you have time, they are worth the preparation. My tip, though, is to only put honey (or agave nectar) on the struffoli you are serving rather than all of them; otherwise they will become soggy and the little balls will start to "bleed".

The other thing that is nice about this recipe is that it's easy for children; rolling and a simple cut (think plastic knife). I suppose I'd keep them away from the fryer, though! Enjoy.

This is a recipe for a dense dough.

3 1/2 c unbleached flour
6 Tbl sugar
12 egg yolks (save the whites for omelets or meringue)
3/4 c heavy cream
3 Tbl Sambucca or rum (or vanilla)
Oil or shortening for frying (about 1/2-1 cup)
Honey or agave nectar
Non-pareils or colored sprinkles

Mix the flour and the sugar in a big bowl. Make a well in the middle. Mix the egg yolks, cream and Sambucca or rum in another small bowl. Pour into the well of the flour mixture and stir until well combined. If necessary, use your hands. Dough should be tacky, bright yellow but not sticky. If it is, use extra flour when rolling.

Take pieces of dough and roll out into a long log that is about 1/2" in diameter and about 16" long (a little smaller than a pretzel rod in diameter, maybe twice the length). Keep the dough covered while rolling. Using a knife, cut into small pieces, about 1/2". Place pieces on a cookie sheet. Add extra flour on the sheet to prevent the pieces from sticking together.

When all of the dough is rolled out, heat a large pot and add oil (I used my Le Creuset dutch oven and liked the way it came out). When oil is hot, place one dough ball in oil to test. It should bubble a bit and roll around. Working in batches, fry all of the dough balls.

When ready to serve, place in a large bowl and pour honey or agave nectar on top (I used both) and stir to coat. Top with sprinkles and serve in individual bowls.

Party Food for the Holidays

You walk in the grocery store. The party is starting in 60 minutes. What do you do besides the standard hummus and crackers and tortilla chips and salsa? There are many options out there and I’m here to help. It’s not to say there’s anything wrong with those dishes; you just might want some variety. And other times you want to do something special; you may not have the idea handy.

Here’s a list of quick and easy party foods, everything from appetizers to dessert. I’ve also indicated budget foods, whether it’s making your own or just a tip. I hope you like them and maybe I’ll even see you at one of the parties!

Mezza Platter-hummus is great party food. Try taking it up a notch by adding some other items:
*Regular hummus
*Red pepper hummus
*Tomato jam
*Yogurt and cucumber dip (or raita)
*Pita bread, cut in wedges

Make it a little fancier: Add dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) to the platter. Mix crumbled feta cheese, olive oil, and lemon juice in a small bowl and serve.

On a Budget: make your own hummus in a blender or food processor with garbanzo beans, sesame tahini, olive oil, lemon and salt. Don’t have tahini? Use peanut or cashew butter. Remove half and then add small jar of roasted red peppers and puree. Search the blog for the full hummus recipe. For yogurt dip, use plain yogurt, chopped mint, chopped, seeded and peeled cucumber, chopped red onion, salt and lemon juice. If necessary, skip the tomato jam unless you make it yourself.

Baked Brie-adding a few things to brie and simply baking takes “cheese and crackers” to a new level. Preparation is simple and easy:

*Wheel of brie cheese (for a small group, use a small wheel)
*Dried cranberries
*Walnuts or almonds, rough chopped
*1 Tbl brown sugar or sucanat
*Sliced bread or crackers

Pre-heat oven to 400F (or 375F convection). Remove any wrapping from brie and place wheel on a buttered oven proof dish (preferably something you can serve it in like a nice pie plate). Top with dried cranberries, sugar and nuts. Bake for at least 10 minutes or until cheese is very soft inside (touch the outside to see how soft it is). To serve, place plate on a trivet or pot holder, add a knife for spreading and keep the bread or crackers near by.

Make it a little fancier: Use glazed walnuts or pecans. Or, wrap the whole bundle in puff pastry or pie crust. Make sure to seal well and brush with egg wash. Bake until puffed and golden.

On a Budget: Use a small wheel of brie and skip the puff pastry or pie crust unless you make your own. Buy baguette on sale and keep in the freezer until you need it. Or, buy those wheat crackers when they are on sale and keep in the pantry for occasions like this.

Veggie Stuffed Mushrooms-This is a nice alternative to standard appetizers that you might see. Stuffing the mushrooms with vegetables keeps the price down and the flavor savory. Make sure to use herbs (dried or fresh) and salt; that will make them tasty. And, if you don’t want the veggie variety, add cooked sausage, crab or crisp bacon.

Base: Cook finely, chopped veggies like onions, carrots, zucchini, red pepper, and the mushroom stem with olive oil and herbs. Make sure to add salt and pepper as well. Finish with white wine or sherry. Cool and add bread crumbs. If mixture needs more liquid, add broth and/or olive oil. Instead of bread crumbs, you can use cream cheese for a creamier texture. Add stuffing to destemmed, cleaned mushrooms (use a paring knife to take a little slice off of the top; that way the mushroom won’t roll around). Bake in a 400F oven until mushrooms are cooked and stuffing is brown and/or bubbly.

Make it a little fancier: add crumbled bleu cheese to the stuffing mixture. Instead of white mushrooms, try using baby portabello (crimini) or regular portabello (this could be a single appetizer or vegetarian entrée).

On a Budget: stick to white mushrooms and use veggies. Instead of bleu cheese, try grated Italian cheese like a parmesan blend.

Polenta Stacks-These are so easy and delicious, you can serve them all year long. If you don’t like pesto, just use sun-dried tomato or even a thick tomato sauce (but not too chunky).

*Tube of pre-made polenta
*Sun-dried tomato spread or thick tomato sauce
*Grated Italian cheese

Cut 1/2” slices of polenta. Layer polenta, pesto, polenta, sun-dried tomato, polenta and then top with cheese. Serve at room temperature or warm slightly in a 350F oven.

Make it a little fancier: Use a fancy biscuit cutter with fluted edges to cut out the polenta pieces. Add pesto and sun-dried tomato (separately) to cream cheese and pipe each onto pesto using a pastry bag with a star tip. Top the top layer with grated cheese and toasted pine nuts.

On a Budget: Make your own polenta. Make your own pesto and keep in the freezer (or if you buy it and don’t use all of it, put in the freezer for another time). A thick tomato sauce will probably be less expensive than sun-dried tomato.

Brownie Bites
: Bake brownies in a silicone pan or use a pan lined with foil so you can remove. Once baked and cooled, invert onto a cutting board or large plate. Cut into small squares and sprinkle with confectioner sugar. You can also bake them in a mini muffin tin but bake at 375 degrees F for about half the time. Make sure to test for doneness before then.

Make it a little fancier: make a ganache (1/2 c semi-sweet chocolate chips heated with 1/4 c heavy cream) and spread over cooled brownie that has been inverted. Make some fancy lines with a fork and cut into triangles.

On a Budget: Make brownies from scratch. Mixes can be good but from a food cost perspective, they are expensive. Skip the ganache.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No Time to Cook

The other night, we had eaten a late lunch. The kids didn't eat that much (do Christmas cookies count?). So, around 5:30, I looked in the freezer. Lucky for me, I had just been to Trader Joe's. I love their spinach lasagna and used to feed it to the kids when they were younger when I needed a quick dinner. I also like that there are about 5 ingredients in it, you know, sauce, pasta, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and spinach. And, I think it tastes good.

I also picked up some frozen breaded tilapia. Maybe for me the fat content is a little high, but I don't worry about that for them. They always seem to like the taste and the crunchiness. I have always fed them fish but, looking back, it really was good fish (it helps to live on the coast where we can get it, as well). I bring this up because recently, while traveling, I ordered fish sticks for my daughter. They were shaped like fish and stars; very cute. We gave her ketchup for dipping and thought she would like it. When she took a bite, she turned her nose up and scrunched her face. Well, then I tried one and realized I probably wouldn't eat it either. It really had a fishy taste and a funny texture. I learn so much from just watching my kids. Yes, maybe it's because this is what she's been exposed to but I just thought it was funny that she wouldn't eat something that was breaded, fried and covered in ketchup. She really does care about the taste.

So, back to the other night. I didn't say "What do you want for dinner?" which the answers could be "cookies", "french fries", "pizza" really need to be careful of open-ended questions with children. Instead, I said "Do you want lasagna or fish?" My daughter said lasagna and my son said fish, with sugar. My first reaction of course, when any child asks for sugar is no. But, I thought about it for 2 seconds and thought, well I could put some maple syrup on the side. If he wants to dip it in that, that's fine with me. At least he's eating fish.

While everything was cooking, I found some carrot sticks in the fridge and leftover spaghetti. I ended up giving them each the lasagna and the fish and put a little bit of maple syrup on their plates (I like to use those divided plates for dinners like this). And you know what, they polished off their whole dinner. My son ended up getting some of his spaghetti in the syrup which he didn't like too much; oh well. I can't even remember if he dipped the fish in the syrup or not. My daughter ate all of her fish (it tasted good) and gobbled the lasagna.

It's times like this when I reflect upon their eating. Why did they eat that? What are some of the strategies? Here's what I think works for my children:
  • To be successful at anything, you have to have the right tools. When I food shop, I buy the foods that I know they like. I keep things in the freezer and pantry for those times I'm not going to cook from scratch. It keeps me sane.
  • Hungry children tend to be less picky. I try not to give them big snacks.
  • I use specific language about food. It's not "Do you want dinner?" It's "We are eating now."
  • I try not to say "No". I don't mind if they have a cookie or ice cream if they eat something healthy first. They are learning what that means.
  • The food they eat tastes good. Knowing how to season and prepare food really helps. This is why I started teaching people how to cook.
I hope these tips help you; feeding your children can be a difficult process. Keep at it and try not to get discouraged. I know it's a lot of work but try to stay positive. Happy eating!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Birthday Party Ideas for Children

I thought I would try something different for my 3 year old's birthday party. It was going to be small (just a few children along with the moms) and I didn't want to spend all morning cooking. I'm always trying to find the balance of making something that tastes good that doesn't require too much time. Pre-kids, I would not mind spending the time to prep; now it's not an option.

Since the party was going to be all girls, I thought why not do tea sandwiches? Seems easy enough. I had had a few ideas but when it came down to it, I just went with a simple array that I thought would satisfy everyone:

  • Peanut Butter and Jelly
  • Turkey and Avocado
  • Smoked Salmon, Cucumber and Cream Cheese
I estimated the children would eat about 1/2 sandwich and the moms would eat 1 sandwich. I cut off the crusts and then cut each sandwich into 6ths. Since I made them ahead, I wrapped plastic over and put back in the fridge. It didn't take long but I couldn't make too far in advance or the bread would either get dried out or soggy. Oh, and I used a whole grain bread that was quite yummy.

When it was time to serve, I just took them out of the fridge and we were ready to go. Nothing to cook; so easy! I had some carrots, edamame and cucumbers on the side along with snap pea crisps. Although I'd like to think they are a serving of vegetable, when I look at the label I realize it's more like a potato chip. But, most kids like them so I added it to the mix.

The kids loved the little bite size sandwiches. They all ate a little bit of everything, including the veggies. I'm always amazed what some children will eat if it's available. And of course, the promise of a flower cupcake afterwards was a good motivation!

If you are looking for something a little different, try the mini sandwiches. It's very fun. Here are some other ideas you could use for both children and adults:
  • Thinly sliced apple (pour lemon juice over apples to prevent browning) with cream cheese, a sprinkle of bleu cheese and walnuts
  • Thinly sliced apple and Boursin cheese
  • Ham and butter
  • Cucumber and cream cheese
  • Cucumber, butter and watercress (very traditional!)
  • Any kind of salad like tuna, chicken or turkey
The key to a good tea sandwich is something to hold it together like butter, cream cheese or mayo. Make sure the bread is soft but not too much so. The vegetables, like cucumbers, should be thinly sliced. The cucumber should also be peeled. Besides a birthday party, you could also make these sandwiches for brunch or lunch.

Here are some other children's party food ideas I thought of as well:
  • Crustless quiche in different flavors (see my website for recipe)
  • Mini muffins and fruit
  • Homemade macaroni and cheese (make the cheese sauce ahead, boil the pasta and then toss together). Get the recipe here.
  • Sauteed or grilled chicken tenders or chicken tidbits with a sauce on the side (peanut, honey-mustard or maybe bbq)
  • Chopped Caesar salad with shredded carrots
  • Mini meatballs in tomato sauce (make your own meatballs or use pre-made; simmer in tomato sauce and serve)
  • Grilled chicken sausages with dipping mustards
  • Pumpkin dip (recipe here-thanks Michele!) with apple slices and pretzel sticks
  • Sliced calzones (just rolled up pizza!)
I hope this post offered you some good suggestions. Don't get too hung up on all of this if you don't have the time. Most people I talk to feel like they don't have the ideas...I'm here to help.