Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Carbonara

Christmas time is a season of great joy and happiness. But with all the extra things on the to-do list it can be overwhelming and tiring. At times I find myself longing for simple, comfort food like this flavorful rendition of spaghetti carbonara. 

I adapted it from a recipe given to me many years ago by my dear friend Kelly. The recipe came from the section of Gourmet magazine where readers sent in their favorite recipes. I have changed it a bit over time, but the end result is a deeply satisfying plate of pasta. My children request this dish more than any other. Add a simple green salad and it becomes a meal.

It is not difficult to make. It just takes a little time for the onions to cook. You want them to almost melt away leaving their delicious, sweet flavor. The sauce can be made ahead of time and then warmed to add to the cooked pasta. In fact the whole dish rewarms quite well making excellent left-overs. During this busy holiday season it is sure to bring comfort and joy.

Using a mandolin slicer makes cutting the onions quick and easy with the added bonus of no tears.

Sauté the bacon until brown. Remove most of the bacon drippings. Add the onions and continue cooking until the are very soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and ham.

Spaghetti Carbonara

6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch (about 12 mm) strips
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed or chopped
1 pound (16 ounces/454 grams) ham or smoked pork chops, cut into 1/2-inch (about 12 mm) cubes
1/4 cup (60 ml) dry vermouth
3/4 cup (180 ml) beef broth, preferably homemade
1 bay leaf
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1 cup (200 g) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 pound (16 ounces/454 grams) spaghetti

Brown the bacon strips in a large heavy skillet over medium to low heat. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat (reserve the bacon fat in a bowl in case you need to add more as the onions cook down). Add the onions and stir to coat with the bacon drippings. Cook over low heat until the onions are very soft and begin to brown, 20-25 minutes. Add the garlic and ham. Stir to combine. Add vermouth, broth and bay leaf. Simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes until mixture reduces a little. Add cream and Parmesan cheese, stir until melted. Keep sauce warm.

While sauce is simmering, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente.  Drain spaghetti (do not rinse) then toss with warm sauce to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve 4-6.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mini Oreo® Cookie Cheesecakes

Ask any kid in America what is their favorite store-bought cookie and more often than not the response will be the Oreo®. The iconic chocolate sandwich cookie with the cream filling that has been around since 1912 is the best selling cookie in America. 

In recent years the Oreo® has created a new flavor of sweets - cookies and cream. Whether you like to eat your Oreo cookie whole or torn apart this dessert is sure to please. It combines two favorites - Oreos® and cheesecake into one delightful dessert. 

The recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart's Cupcake cookbook. With only a few ingredients and the clever use of a whole cookie as the base for the cheesecake batter these mini-treats are a snap to make. The only challenge is eating just one.

Line muffins tins with paper liners. Then place a whole cookie in the bottom of each cup.

Crush remaining 12 cookies in a plastic bag. I wrap the plastic bag in a kitchen towel and use a meat tenderizer. It is very therapeutic.

Beat the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, eggs, sour cream, and salt until nice and smooth. Stir in cookies.

Fill the muffin cups until almost full. Bake until the cheesecakes are set in the middle.

Allow to cool before refrigerating for at least 4 hours.

Maddie wanted these to celebrate her birthday. In her honor, and with a nod to Martha, I added a Monogram 'M' to make them extra special. 

To make the monogram melt a small handful of chocolate chips in the microwave in a glass bowl. Transfer the melted chocolate to a small zip-lock bag, snip the corner with sharp scissors and write on the cooled cheesecakes.

Mini Oreo® Cookie Cheesecakes
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes, by Martha Stewart

42 Oreos® or chocolate cream-filled cookies
32 ounces (900 g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (227 g) sour cream
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 275℉ (140℃). Line 30 muffin cups in standard muffin tins with paper liners. Place one Oreo® cookie in the bottom of each paper lined cup. Coarsely chop the remaining 12 Oreos® and set aside.

Beat the softened cream cheese in a mixer with a paddle attachment until smooth. Scrap down the sides of the bowl a few times. Add the sugar and beat until combined. Add vanilla. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add sour cream and salt mix until combined. Stir in the chopped cookies. 

Fill muffin cups until almost to the top. Bake for 20-22 minutes rotating the pans once until the cheesecakes are just set in the middle. Allow to cool on a rack before refrigerating. Keep the cheesecakes in the tins while cooling and when in the refrigerator. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to overnight before serving. Makes 30 mini cheesecakes.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Chicago… My Kind of Town

Chicago is my kind of town. It exudes raw energy that ricochets off the skyscrapers. You cannot help but feel the excitement of the city. There is an endless array of things to see and do. I feel so invigorated when I visit this vibrant city.

While the snow swirls around outside I thought I would continue my adventure with friends from this summer. After our lunch at Three Floyds and a night at Karen's we spent a few days enjoying Chicago

Whether you look up or down there is always an interesting gem to admire, be it an architectural detail or an inviting space. It is a wonder I have never twisted an ankle while visiting Chicago I am always gawking up, down, and all around, breathing in the beauty of the city.

One of the things I admire most about large cities is their ability to squeeze out every inch of possible green space. With all the concrete and steel every bit of flora is appreciated. I love the stark contrast between the rigid architecture and the graceful plants. They definitely compliment one another.

With all the energy of the city it is nice to have the calming effect of beautiful flowers and soothing water whether from Lake Michigan, the Chicago River , or a secluded fountain. 

Chicago's Michigan Avenue, also known as the Magnificent Mile, never fails to impress, not only for the world-class shopping, but for the creative mix of plants and art that border the streets. Each block has its own theme. How clever to use picture frames to 'frame' the plants. 

The undulating curves of the skyscrapers creative a feeling of vertigo as the flowers cling to the sides to soften the hard exteriors.

Chicago elevates their landscaping to fine art. The giant heads crowned with floral headdresses certainly made a dramatic statement. 

Luxuriant planters tucked into the windowsills create a lush backdrop for the bright blue bicycles that wait patiently to be ridden. 

Classic and modern architecture live in harmony in Chicago's impressive skyline. 

Chicago my kind of town indeed!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Three Floyds

Truth be told I much prefer wine to beer. But I will admit I did enjoy the beer I drank while in Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague this summer. They were so complex, yet smooth and flavorful. When I asked my travel agent what she enjoyed most about those cities her response, somewhat surprisingly, was the beer. 

Thankfully many micro/artisan breweries have sprung up all over the United States. Some in unexpected places like Three Floyds Brewing Company in Munster, Indiana. Each summer I have the privilege of spending a fun-filled weekend with dear friends from college. We begin in Northwestern Indiana at Karen’s home. She is a hostess extraordinaire. 

We kick off the weekend with lunch at a local eatery. Last year Karen recommended Three Floyds Brew Pub for its delicious food, as well as, tasty beer. So impressed by our experience I asked to return this summer. Not being a beer aficionado I did not realize the cult following Three Floyds Brewing Company enjoys with people flocking to it from around the globe to snatch up their imaginative brews. 

Part biker-bar, part eatery, Three Floyds Brewing Company is a study in contrasts and a great place to people-watch. Located in a nondescript industrial park, you would not know there was anything special about the place if not for the packed parking lot over-flowing with cars whose license plates hail from all corners of the United States. Or the fact that regardless of the time of day there is always a wait for a table. Men in business suits, bikers, and ladies out to lunch all wait patiently for their turn to dine. 

Each of their beers has its own personality, which you can read about while nibbling on their addictive popcorn from the 'snacks' part of the menu. But equally impressive is the creative food that compliments their different beers. You wouldn't necessarily expect a place so devoted to making great beer to care that much about the food they serve, but the skilled kitchen staff certainly does. Crafting outstanding beer and food is a religion at Three Floyds.

One of the benefits of dining with my college friends is we enjoy sharing, so we can sample a variety of tastes. The food is hearty, yet well-thought out to hold up to the robust brews. An added bonus is the kitchen is supported by their own organic herb and vegetable garden.

If you find yourself in Midwestern American between Indianapolis and Chicago do take the time to visit Three Floyds Brewing Company. You may have to wait a bit, but it will be worth it. You will be glad you made the detour.