Caramel Corn with Honey-Roasted Peanuts

Last weekend our neighborhood had its annual Fall bonfire party.  The food was potluck-style so we initially decided to celebrate the season by making Thai Pumpkin Soup.  Then the weather took a crazy turn and it ended up being 85 degrees and humid (very unusual for October in Pennsylvania!) and we quickly realized that no one was going to be in the mood to eat soup.  So, at the last minute we changed course and made a nice summery Mediterranean Quinoa Salad instead.  We didn’t want to be too healthy though, so we supplemented our potluck offering with some delicious homemade caramel corn!

721 Caramel Corn

This was our first time making caramel corn and I was amazed by how simple it was.  Granted, it was a bit labor intensive (we had to stir the popcorn every 15 minutes for an hour and a half) but there were no fancy candy thermometers or gadgets required.  Just a wok, some popcorn kernels, butter, sugar, corn syrup and honey roasted peanuts… easy!

We referred to our go-to Asian cookbook, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, for instructions on how to pop the popcorn in our wok (it’s a great way to season a wok!) and I used this recipe  Leite’s Culnaria for the caramel recipe and baking instructions.  We threw in some store-bought honey-roasted peanuts to kick the recipe up a notch and I would say that our homemade caramel corn turned out pretty perfect.  I think Matt would agree… he couldn’t stop eating it even as I was trying to take this photo!  🙂

738 Matt steals some caramel corn

Caramel Corn with Honey-Roasted Peanuts (adapted slightly from Leite’s Culinaria)

You will need…
1 cup uncooked Popcorn Kernels, divided
Peanut Oil
1 1/2 sticks Butter
1 cup Brown Sugar, packed
1/3 cup Light Corn Syrup
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 cup Honey Roasted Peanuts

Directions:
Pop the popcorn kernels.  To do this in a wok, heat approx. 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in your wok over medium heat.  Put 3-4 kernels in the wok and cover.  (For easier clean up, wrap the inside of your wok lid with aluminum foil!)  When the test kernels in the wok pop, add in approx. 1/3-1/2 cup of kernels and re-cover.  (If test kernels don’t pop, slowly increase the heat until they do, then add in the other kernels.)  Shake the wok over the burner to keep it moving as the kernels heat up.  In a few minutes the kernels will start to pop.  Keep shaking until popping slows down, then carefully tilt the cover open and transfer the popped corn to a large baking dish.

Repeat this process with the remaining kernels until all of your popcorn is popped.  You may need to use multiple baking dishes to hold your popcorn… you’ll be stirring it later so it’s better to leave some extra space!  Add the honey-roasted peanuts to the popcorn and place in a 200°F oven to keep warm.

How to pop popcorn in a wok

Prepare your caramel by heating the butter and sugar over medium heat.  Add in the corn syrup and salt and bring to a boil.  Allow the mixture to boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  After 5 minutes, remove the mixture from heat and carefully stir in the baking soda.  Remove the popcorn from the oven and pour the caramel mixture evenly over the popcorn.  Mix well with tongs (don’t worry if every kernel isn’t coated at this point, though) and return the popcorn to the 200° oven.

Bake the popcorn for 1 1/2 hours at 200°F, stirring and tossing thoroughly every 15 minutes.  Allow the popcorn to cool before eating (if you have the willpower to wait!).  Enjoy it immediately or store it in an airtight container for as long as it lasts (which won’t be long… it’s delicious!).

Stirring the caramel corn

Above: Caramel Corn during a stirring break.  Below: The finished product!

Caramel Corn

Thai Pumpkin Soup

Happy Autumn!  Last Sunday Matt and I celebrated the arrival of Fall by making pumpkin soup.  And this wasn’t just any pumpkin soup… it was THAI pumpkin soup with fresh ginger, coconut cream and jalapeños in it… yum!  We topped it off with a dash of hot Sriracha sauce, a few salty peanuts and some sprigs of fresh cilantro and it was delicious!!

Thai Pumpkin Soup

I discovered this recipe in the cook book that came with our glorious Vitamix blender.  The Vitamix (predictably) made quick work of pureeing the soft ingredients for this soup but you certainly don’t need a Vitamix to make this… I’m pretty sure that an immersion blender would allow you to whip up a pretty tasty Autumn soup as well.  🙂  Without further ado, here’s the recipe!

Thai Pumpkin Soup (adapted from the Vitamix ‘Create’ Recipe Book)

You will need…
Olive Oil
1 Onion, choppedThai Pumpkin Soup
1 tablespoon Tomato Paste
2  1/2 cups Canned Pumpkin
2 tablespoons fresh Ginger, chopped
1 clove Garlic, chopped
3 cups Chicken Broth (or vegetable broth, for vegetarian soup)
1 teaspoon Green Chiles, chopped (we used Jalapeños)
1 cup Lite Coconut Milk
1/2 cup Cream of Coconut
1 tablespoon Lemon Juice
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Optional Garnishes:
Chopped Peanuts
Cilantro
Sriracha
Sour Cream

Directions:
In a large pot, saute the onion in olive oil over medium-high heat until translucent.  Add the tomato paste, pumpkin, ginger, garlic and broth and stir well.  Bring the mixture to a slow simmer then remove from heat.

If using a VItamix or other high-powered blender, pour the pumpkin mixture into the blender and add in the green chiles, coconut milk, cream of coconut and lemon juice.  Blend on high power for 25-30 seconds, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

If using an immersion blender, add the green chiles, coconut milk, cream of coconut, and lemon juice to the warm pumpkin mixture.  Use the immersion blender to puree the mixture into a smooth soup.  (Note:  I did not use an immersion blender so I don’t know how long this will take, but I’m sure it’s doable!)

Transfer the pureed pumpkin soup into bowls and garnish.  Our favorite combination of garnishes was a dash of Sriracha with a sprinkling of peanuts and a few sprigs of cilantro.  The Vitamix book recommended a dollop of sour cream with peanuts and cilantro… choose whatever sounds good to you!

Thai Pumpkin Soup

Above: Our favorite garnish combination of Sriracha, peanuts and cilantro.
Below: Garnished according to the cook book with sour cream, peanuts and cilantro.

Thai Pumpkin Soup

What’s your favorite Fall pumpkin recipe?
Tell me about it in the comments or post a link!

Mediterranean Quinoa Salad

We are at the point in the wedding process where glorious wedding gifts are occasionally waiting for us by the garage when we get home from work.  (Thank you friends and family!!!)  One gift that’s had an immediate impact on our cooking habits is our amazing Zojirushi rice cooker.  This countertop gadget cooks every type of grain imaginable and it’s incredibly easy to use.  It’s also so satisfying to pop open the top at the end of the cook time and find perfectly cooked, fluffy, steaming hot rice.  Yum!

In addition to cooking the perfect pot of rice, the Zojirushi can cook quinoa, a protein-packed ‘superfood’ that, according to wikipedia, is actually more closely related to beets and spinach than grains.  Quinoa can easily be substituted in for grains in a well-rounded meal so, armed with our new rice cooker, Matt and I decided that we’d try our hand at a nice summery quinoa salad.  I found a great looking recipe on Garnish with Lemon and, after a few small tweaks (because I never follow recipes exactly), we ended up with a delicious, healthy salad that we’ll continue to enjoy all week for lunch.

Mediterranean Quinoa Salad

Mediterranean Quinoa Salad (adapted from Garnish With Lemon)

You will need…
1 1/2 cups raw Quinoa (or about 6 cups cooked Quinoa)
1/3-1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 Red Onion, finely chopped
1 Red Pepper, chopped
1 Cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 pint Cherry Tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup Kalamata Olives, halved
1/2 – 1 cup Crumbled Feta Cheese
1 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Pepper
Juice of 1/2 – 1 Lemon

Directions:
Cook the quinoa on the stovetop according to the package instructions or, if you have a rice cooker, cook it in the rice cooker on the normal white rice setting with a 2:1 water to quinoa ratio.  When cooking is complete, transfer the quinoa to a large bowl, cool for 5-10 minutes and stir in the vinegar and olive oil.

Allow the quinoa to cool completely to room temperature, then gently stir in the next 6 ingredients (onion thru feta).  Season with salt and pepper (add more to taste if needed).  If you have the patience, chill the salad for 2 hours (we ate it immediately and it was still good) and “garnish with lemon” just before serving.

Mediterranean Quinoa Salad 5

Quick and Easy Barbecue Sauce

Last weekend I made oven-roasted pork spareribs and, since I time to kill during the 4 1/2 hours that the ribs were cooking, I also made a batch of homemade barbecue sauce.  This sauce is “quick and easy” because it uses ketchup as the tomato base rather than whole canned tomatoes which would take hours to break down into sauce.

Homemade BBQ Sauce

Quick and Easy Barbecue Sauce (from The New Best Recipe)
Makes about 2 cups of delicious, tangy sauce!

You will need…
1 Yellow Onion, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup Water
1 cup Ketchup
2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon Mustard
5 tablespoons Molasses
1 teaspoon Hot Pepper Sauce (I used Cholula)
1/4 teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Liquid Smoke
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
1-2 Cloves Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Chili Powder
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper

Directions:
Place the onion and water in a food processor and blend for about 30 seconds until the mixture looks like a slushy.  Use a mesh strainer to strain the mixture into a bowl or measuring cup until you have 1/2 cup of onion juice.  Discard the solids.

Mix the onion juice and the next 8 ingredients (vinegar thru liquid smoke) together in a bowl.  Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat until it is shimmering, then add in the garlic, chili powder and cayenne pepper.  Allow to cook for 30 seconds, then stir in the ketchup mixture.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer the sauce for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before using.

Pork Spare Ribs with Homemade BBQ Sauce

Easy Tomato-Basil Bruschetta

In addition to our Shrimp with Penne and Herbed Cream Sauce Matt and I made a double batch of traditional Tomato-Basil Bruschetta for Christmas Eve dinner.  The bruschetta was surprisingly easy to make and everyone loved it!

Super Easy Bruschetta!

Super-Easy Tomato-Basil Bruschetta (from The New Best Recipe)

You will need…
8-9 medium Tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2/3 cup Basil, shredded
Salt and Pepper, to taste
1 loaf of crusty Bread – we used Ciabatta
3 tablespoons Olive Oil
1-2 cloves Garlic, cut in half lengthwise

Directions:
Combine the tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper.  Cut the loaf into 3/4 inch thick slices and place on a baking sheet.  Toast the bread under a broiler, flipping once, until both sides are golden brown.  Rub the cut sides of the garlic clove over the top side of each slice of bread and then brush on a small amount of olive oil.  Top the slices with a generous helping of the tomato-basil mixture and serve immediately.

Candied Yams

Happy Thanksgiving!  Matt and I ate our Thanksgiving meals separately at our parents’ houses but we still got to do some cooking together before the big meal.  For the second year in a row we were responsible for making my mom’s traditional side dish of candied yams and, for the second year in a row, they were a hit!  We joke that this is a “healthy” vegetable side full of brown sugar, butter, and marshmallows but, like so many of the delicious foods that we eat during the holidays, the extra calories are totally worth it!  The brown sugar caramelizes between the layers of soft, moist sweet potato and the melted marshmallows form a crunchy, sugaring topping.  Yum!  Matt’s sister made a similar dish at his family’s dinner and he tells me that she added toasted slivered almonds to her marshmallow topping with delicious results… maybe we’ll have to try that next year!

Candied Yams!

Candied Yams (aka Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Marshmallows)

You will need…
7-9 Sweet Potatoes (Yams), washed
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) Butter
Approx. 1/2 cup Brown Sugar
Approx. 1 1/2 cups Miniature Marshmallows

Directions:
Place the potatoes in a large pot of water and bring to a boil.  Boil for 25-30 minutes until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork.  Carefully remove the potatoes from the water and place in a colander.  (You can drain the entire pot into the colander but I used tongs to transfer the potatoes individually since the pot was so big.)  Allow the potatoes to cool before moving onto the next step.  If you are doing this step a day ahead of time like we did, transfer the cooling potatoes into large ziplock bags and store in the refrigerator overnight.

Layered Sweet Potatoes, Butter, and Brown Suger

Peel the cooked potatoes by cutting off 1/2 inch on each end and scoring each potato lengthwise.  The skin should peel off easily with your hands.  Slice each potato into 3/8 inch thick disks.  Grease the bottom and sides of a 9×13 casserole pan with butter and layer the potatoes in the pan.  Place a small amount of butter between and on top of every few potato slices and sprinkle the brown sugar over the potatoes as you go.

Candied Yams with Marshmallows before baking

Sprinkle the marshmallows on top of the layered potatoes and bake for 24 minutes in a preheated 390° oven.  Enjoy as part of a delicious holiday meal!

Baking with our other Thanksgiving sides

Baked Jalapeño Poppers

In the last two weeks my “big boy” Jalapeño pepper plant has been producing giant green peppers at an amazing rate.  It seems that every time I go outside I discover a new 4-5″ long pepper hiding under the plant’s leaves just waiting to be picked.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to make 1-2 recipes a week that use Jalapeños, but what the heck am I supposed to do with 15 peppers that all ripen at the same time??  Tonight I found the perfect answer… turn them into Jalapeño Poppers!

These peppers all came from one plant. Time to put them to good use as Jalapeño Poppers!

I found a recipe for Jalapeño Poppers from Emeril on the Food Network.  There are lots of recipes for Poppers on the internet but I liked this one because it was highly rated and involved baking the peppers rather than deep frying them.  I modified Emeril’s recipe slightly to use reduced fat cream cheese and mozzarella (this was our dinner, after all) and the Poppers turned out spicy, cheesy, and delicious.

Emeril’s Baked Jalapeño Poppers (from the Food Network)

You will need…
12 Jalapeño Peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds and veins removed
6 oz. Reduced Fat Cream Cheese, Softened
1 1/2 cups Shredded Reduced Fat Mozzarella Cheese
1/2 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
8 teaspoons Emeril’s “ESSENCE” (mixture of onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and thyme; click for ratios)
1/2 cup Flour
2 Eggs
2 tablespoons Milk
1 cup Bread Crumbs or Panko

Directions:
Combine the cream cheese, mozzarella, cayenne and cumin together with a stand mixer or handheld mixer and then fill each halved jalapeño pepper with the cheese mixture.  Stir the flour and 2 teaspoons of Essence together in a shallow bowl.  In a second bowl, beat the eggs, milk and 2 more teaspoons of Essence together.  In a third bowl, combine the bread crumbs and the 4 remaining teaspoons of Essence.

One at a time, dredge each stuffed jalapeño half in the flour, eggs, and bread crumbs.  Place stuffed side up on a lightly greased pan and bake in a preheated 350° oven for 30 minutes until the cheese starts to melt and ooze over the sides of the peppers.  Serve alone as an appetizer or over rice as dinner.

Shh… It’s a Surprise!!!

Last weekend my mom and I threw a surprise birthday party for her fiancé.  I don’t want to get into too many personal details, but suffice it to say that he was VERY surprised to walk into his own kitchen after a day at the golf course to find 20+ of his closest friends and family ready to party!

My mom and I had a blast planning the menu and secretly hiding the food in the days before the party.  By the morning of the party my mom had managed to successfully conceal 2 dozen brining chicken breasts, impressive amounts of peppers, onions and potatoes, and all of the dips, dressings, and glazes in the refrigerator behind little walls of soda and beer cans and a few strategically placed bags of salad greens… good job, Mom!

One of my culinary contributions to the party was a platter of single-serving Caprese Skewers.  Combining each bite of cherry tomato and mozzarella onto skewers allowed our guests to snack on the caprese with just one hand (leaving the other free for a beverage!) which made this a great appetizer for a party.  It’s also an easy dish to make for a party because you can assemble the skewers several hours ahead of time and then simply garnish with some fresh basil right before serving.

Bite-Sized Caprese Skewers with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Basil & Balsamic Glaze

You will need…
2-3 small handfuls Arugula
25-30 Marinated Mozzarella Balls, approx. 1″ in diameter
2 pints Cherry Tomatoes, cut in half and kept “paired” with their halves
Toothpicks; can use the slightly longer “sandwich picks” for a little extra space
6-8 extra Cherry Tomatoes, cut into quarters
Balsamic Glaze (use a bottled glaze or make your own balsamic reduction)
10-15 Basil Leaves

Directions:
Arrange the arugula along the center of a serving tray.  Slice each mozzarella ball into 4 pieces by slicing off the rounded ends (2 pieces) and cutting the center of the ball in half (2 pieces).  Set the small rounded ends aside.

Skewer the top of a tomato half with the toothpick and slide the tomato onto the stick.  Next, slide one of the center mozzarella pieces onto the toothpick.  Skewer the bottom half of the tomato and slide it into place on the toothpick as shown in the photo.  Repeat with all of your halved tomatoes and mozzarella, arranging the skewers onto the arugula as you go.

Sprinkle the rounded mozzarella ball ends and the quartered tomatoes onto the arugula as a garnish.  Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the entire tray.  If needed, you can refrigerate the tray until party time at this point (that’s what we did!).  Before serving, roll up the basil leaves and use kitchen scissors to cut them into long slices.  Arrange the basil slices over the caprese skewers.  (The basil isn’t shown in my photos since I took them a few hours before the party started.)

Adding Some Pizazz to Weeknight Tortellini

Despite what you might think based on all of the semi-complicated recipes on this blog, there are plenty of nights when Matt and I resort to quick and easy dinners like take-out pizza, frozen dinner entrees, and basic pasta. One of our go-to pasta dinners is tortellini with a sprinkle of garlic powder and Parmesan cheese (healthy, I know!), but last week we decided to add a little pizazz to the dish by incorporating a few simple ingredients.

This entire meal only takes about 15 minutes to make… including the time it takes for your tortellini to cook! The asparagus gets added to the pasta water for the last few minutes and, after straining, all of the ingredients are tossed together in the same pot, making this a simple one-pot meal.

Quick and Easy Pesto Tortellini with Asparagus and Tomatoes (makes 3-4 servings)

You will need…
1 lb. Tortellini (we love Drake’s Frozen Cheese Tortellini)
1 bunch Asparagus, cut into 2″ pieces
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
2-3 tablespoons Pesto (I used 2 “Pesto cubes” that I froze in an ice cube tray last week)
1 cup Cherry Tomatoes

Directions:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the tortellini according to package instructions. When there are 3-4 minutes left on the cook time, add the cut asparagus to the pasta water and allow the pasta to finish cooking. Drain pasta and asparagus and return the empty pot to the stove over medium-low heat. Add the Olive Oil and drop in your pesto “cubes.” Stir constantly as the pesto thaws. (If using fresh pesto you can skip this step.)

I made this pesto last week using basil and garlic from our garden. For easy storage I spooned the pesto into an ice cube tray and made 10 frozen pesto cubes — perfect for use in quick weeknight meals!

Add the hot pasta and asparagus back to the pot and stir to combine with the pesto (if the pesto wasn’t already completely thawed it will be after a few stirs!). Add in the uncooked tomatoes, stir a few more times, and serve!

Tomato Salad with Guajillo Chile Dressing AND a Giveaway Contest Sponsored by Slimkicker!!

I’m excited to announce that the team over at Slimkicker.com has asked me to host a Giveaway on my blog!  Slimkicker is an online “game” that helps you reach health goals by setting a series personalized challenges and rewards for yourself… but more on that in a moment.  First, I want to share a recipe for a healthy meal that Matt and I enjoyed last week.

Oh… and I have to brag a little here – those perfect little rosy red tomatoes are from our garden!  They were delicious.  🙂

Tomato Salad with Guajillo Chile Dressing (from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless)

You will need…
3/4 cup Olive Oil (can also be a mixture of Olive Oil and Veggie/Canola Oil)
2 Dried Guajillo Chiles or New Mexico Chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 Garlic Cloves, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar (also try Sherry Vinegar or White Wine Vinegar)
Salt, to taste
6 Green Onions, wilted leaves and white root tips removed
1 1/2 cups Cherry Tomatoes, halved
Handful of Watercress Leaves
2 oz. crumbled Queso Fresco Cheese

Directions:
To make the Guajillo Chile Dressing, pour the oil into a large skillet and place over medium heat.  Add the chiles and garlic and saute, stirring constantly, for approximately 30 seconds until the chiles become fragrant.  Remove from heat and carefully transfer the chiles (leaving the garlic and oil) into a blender.  Add the vinegar and salt and blend for 30 seconds.  Once the oil and garlic have cooled, add them to the blender and blend until smooth.

Return the unwashed skillet to medium heat.  Brush the green onions with oil and place them in the skillet, turning occasionally, until wilted and browned.  Remove from skillet and slice into 1/4 inch pieces.  Reserve a few of the smaller onions as a garnish if desired.

To assemble your Tomato Salad, arrange a layer of watercress on a small plate.  Next, add a handful of the tomatoes (sprinkle some coarse salt on the tomatoes if desired) and add the green onions.  Add the crumbled queso fresco and drizzle on a few teaspoons of your Guajillo Chile Dressing.  Enjoy as a healthy main course or as a satisfying appetizer.

And now on to the Slimkicker Giveaway!  One of my readers will win this digital kitchen scale simply by commenting on this post!  Cool, right?

Slimkicker is an online “game” that helps you track your calorie intake and exercise.  Why is it a game, you ask?  Well, with Slimkicker you set a series of fun challenges (things like quitting soda for a week or cooking your dinner five days in a row rather than getting takeout) and you earn “points” if you complete your challenges.  After you earn a certain number of points you are eligible for Slimkicker giveaways and the program encourages you to reward yourself with a self-selected “perk” like indulging in something really tasty, taking a day off from your workout routine, or (if you earn a lot of points!) buying yourself a new iPod.

Since creating and sticking with fun challenges is an important part of the Slimkicker program, the folks at Slimkicker would like to read YOUR ideas for a Healthy Challenge!  To enter the contest and be eligible to win the digital scale, simply leave me a comment below with your own idea for a Healthy Challenge.  Slimkicker will select one person who leaves a comment in this post (pretty good odds, right?) as the winner of the digital scale.

My personal healthy challenge is to sit with good posture at work for one hour every day for a week.  Other challenges that have piqued my interest are to drink a glass of water before every meal (helps with feeling fuller sooner) and to replace juice with unsweetened iced tea for a week.  What are YOUR ideas for a healthy challenge?  Please share!

Contest ends at 11:59PM EDT on Wednesday, August 1st.  Comment before then for your chance to win!

Disclosure: The Ozeri Professional Digital Scale and all information about the program have been supplied by Slimkicker.  I downloaded the Slimkicker App but haven’t used it yet… I’ve been too busy sitting with good posture!