Wild Mushroom, Sage and Fontina Cheese Quesadillas

I’m reposting this recipe from last year when I told you about how my husband likes to accuse me of having a secret Mexican heritage.  Besides the fact that I go absolutely batty over flavors like cilantro, avocado, jalapenos (or all three combined, like this recipe: cilantro-lime jalapeno chicken salad) my obsession with tortillas is uncanny.  I eat a tortilla at least once a day, wrapped around my morning eggs, and sometimes I’ll have more for lunch or dinner in a quesadilla format.

Quesadillas are one of my favorite go-to meals.  We all face the same challenge of finding the time to cook, myself included.  Many of my days are spent cooking and shopping for clients (and caring for this little lamb chop), leaving me little time for personal cooking.

This is why I think it’s always important to have one or two versatile dishes you could cook in a synch with whatever you have on hand.  If you have a few staples to fall back on its less planning and preparation on your part for at least one or two nights a week.  And, it’s also a great way to utilize leftovers. I am a HUGE fan of re-inventing your leftovers.

Because I’ve been known to put just about anything in the middle of two tortillas and call it a quesadilla, I’ll share with you some of my favorites. Ham, egg and pickle for a little Cuban flair, a skirt steak & caramelized onion version, chicken & chorizo with peppers, or even an herb roasted veggie and cream cheese combo. 

And of course, I can’t forget this little number.  I could eat this everyday and be a very happy girl.

Wild Mushroom, Sage & Fontina Quesadillas

serves 2

  • 4 whole wheat tortillas
  • 4 cup of assorted wild mushrooms (cremini, shiitake, baby portobello) stems trimmed and cleaned
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • about 6 large sage leaves, chopped
  • about ½ -3/4 cup mild Fontina cheese, shredded
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • veg oil
  • salt and pepper

Heat butter in a large saute pan and add shallot.  Cook shallot for about 3 minutes over medium heat or until shallot begins to soften.  Add mushrooms and cook until tender, about 5-7 minutes.  If your mushrooms stick to the pan you need to turn the heat down and add a drop of water.  Add garlic and saute for a couple minutes more.  Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and stir in sage leaves. Check for seasoning.

In large sauté pan heat oil on medium.  Add one tortilla and spread out cheese and mushrooms evenly.  Add top tortilla and press down lightly. Cook on each side for approximately 3-4 minutes or until lightly browned and cheese is melted.

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Kentucky Bourbon Balls

 

 

Believe it or not, I learned most about stereotypes long before I moved to New Jersey (surprising, I know!). 

As a native Ohioan, or more suitably I should say Cincinnatian, we have a serious love-hate relationship with Kentucky.  Depending on the situation, we will either turn up our nose and clearly make known, with all of our stereotypical glory, that the Ohio River creates a solid state line separating modern civilization with that other state.  Followed by some type of joke about cousins marrying cousins.

And then in other cases we’ll proudly proclaim that it is our sister state, our comrade, our next door neighbor that produces arugably the world’s best whiskey, hosts infamous horse races, and is home to the cowboy hat wearing, gun-slinging Mr. Raylan Givens (for all you Justified fans). 

In this case I think it goes without saying that Kentucky would be our friend.  Our close friend.  Dear friend.  Our great Makers Mark-producing, Knob Creek-making, cousin kissing friend!

In honor of the Kentucky Derby coming up I wanted to share these, but they are a really delicious treat for any type of party.  Make them ahead of time and store them in an airtight container for up to two weeks, sometimes I add coconut, sometimes I dip them in an extra layer of chocolate, and sometimes I just nibble on them with a glass of red wine.  Truly an easy and succulent treat.

Kentucky Bourbon Balls

Adapted from Williams Sonoma Cookies Cookbook

Makes about 4 1/2 dozen cookies

  • 1 box Vanilla Wafers, crushed
  • 6 oz dark, or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/3 cup Kentucky Bourbon (or can substitute other bourbon)
  • 2 cups toasted pecans, finely chopped
  • pinch of salt

Begin by crushing the vanilla wafers in a food processor (or by placing them in a large plastic bag and crushing them with the back of a spatula or rolling pin).

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 minute increments, stirring in between.  Remove the chocolate from the heat and add brown sugar, corn syrup, bourbon and salt.  Next, stir in the vanilla wafers and half of the pecans.

Measure out 1 tablespoon of dough and roll into a ball.  Roll the ball in the remaining half of pecans.  Refrigerate the cookies for at least one day prior to serving to allow flavors to merge.  

 

 

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Homemade Herbed Mayonnaise

If there is anything that I could say to convince you to make your own mayonnaise it would be: watch this video.  Although my days of learning to make mayo began long ago in culinary school, after watching Michael Ruhlman’s video I was in the kitchen urgently cracking eggs before it was even half way over.  Not only does he demonstrate how it takes less than 2 minutes to make with ingredients you most likely already have on hand, but he reminds us of the smooth luxurious taste that is incomparable to any type of store-bought kind. 

The video could not have come at a more appropriate time as I had just been informed that my husband was bringing company over in less than an hour.  Because I eat salads frequently I had arugula and cherry tomatoes in the fridge and because bacon is, well bacon, I always have bacon.  I took some leftover baguette from the prior nights dinner, (very) lightly toasted it, covered it with a smooth layer of herbed mayo, and although I secretly wanted to stop there, I topped it with arugula, tomatoes and bacon for a nice little BLT appetizer (and I still had time to snap a few pics!).  

You can use whatever type of herbs you’d like, but I used what I had growing on my window sill.  You can also add a little more lemon and garlic for a tasty dip, serve it with roasted veggies, make deviled eggs, eat it with hot crispy french fries or just pack it in your brown bag for your turkey & cheddar on wheat.  Whatever you decide to do with it, I’m fairly certain you’ll be a homemade mayo fan for life.

Homemade Herbed Mayonnaise

(adapted from Michael Ruhlman)

  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • freshly chopped tarragon, chives and parsley

The fastest and easiest way to make mayo is by using a handheld blender (as shown in the video), but if you do not have one you can achieve the same results with a whisk.  Just ensure you are whisking vigorously enough to properly emulsify your ingredients.

In a medium bowl combine the yolk, salt, water and lemon juice.  Ensure your bowl will hold steady on the counter while you are whisking by folding a towel or moist paper towel underneath and begin to whisk ingredients together.

Slowly add the oil, in a wire-thin stream, while whisking vigorously.  Once your emulsion starts to become creamy, you can add the oil a little faster. From the beginning the mixture should be thick enough to hold its shape and look luxuriously creamy. Add the oil too quickly and it will break, that is, it will turn soupy.  When all the oil is incorporated add the chopped herbs and adjust the lemon if needed. 

(If the mayonnaise is too thick, it can be thinned by whisking in a little water or

If it breaks, put a teaspoon of water in a clean bowl and start the process over by drizzling in the broken mayonnaise while whisking.

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Roasted Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Candied Pecans and Bleu Cheese Crumbles

Give me a handful of asparagus and I will give you two million different ways to eat it.  Or more.  You all know how I feel about the sleek veggie (see: Feta, Walnut, Sundried Tomato Asparagus) — I could simply eat it every day.  And because asparagus season is upon us, I am literally eating it every single day.  In every kind of way.

But this little number?  Brace yourself, because I’m not sure there is even a word to describe it.  Delicious just doesn’t cut it…

Roasted Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Candied Pecans and Bleu Cheese Crumbles

(The candied pecans are really what make this recipe stand out, so if you’re going to skip a step – don’t skip candying the pecans — it just takes 5 minutes!)

  • Roasted Asparagus (recipe below)
  • Candied Pecans (recipe below)
  • about 2 cups loosely packed arugula
  • 1 ½ cup blue cheese crumbles
  • Balsamic vinaigrette (or olive oil and balsamic vinegar)

Roasted Asparagus

  • 3 bundles thin asparagus
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

(I used the very thin asparagus, but if you use the more average size you will need to cook the asparagus for about 10-15 minutes longer)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Chop ends off of asparagus and lay out on a baking sheet.  Drizzle olive oil over to coat completely, season with salt and pepper. Roast Asparagus for about 8-10 minutes ( again, you’ll have to cook them longer if you have the larger asparagus).  Remove from oven, cool and then cut in half for the salad.

Candied Pecans

  • 1 cup roughly chopped pecans
  • 4 tbs sugar

The candying process with the sugar only takes a few minutes and happens fast, so you want everything set up and ready to go ahead of time.  Line a baking tray with wax paper (or a silpat mat) and set aside and have your cup of pecans waiting nearby.

In a small, heavy bottomed sauce pan heat the sugar on medium heat, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the sugar dissolves and reaches a golden amber color.  Add the pecans and quickly stir to coat and then transfer to the lined tray.  Spread the nuts out (I like to keep some of them in clumps, but you can spread them out thinner if you’d like) let cool.

Once your nuts are cool, assemble all of the ingredients in the salad and lightly drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette or just a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

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Easy Easter Cookie Pops

 

These are just too great not to share.  Inspired by my 60-Second Cookie, it’s a similar concept – buttery crackers, creamy peanut butter, and smooth white chocolate.  They are just as delicious as they are simple to make.  

They are perfect to make with kids, you can use them as favors, create a centerpiece display, or just eat them all before anyone else has a chance to try them (oops).  Luckily they can be made in a snap. 

  • Buttery Crackers (like Ritz)
  • Peanut Butter
  • White Chocolate for Dipping
  • Lollipop Sticks
  • Styrofoam board
  1. Spread Peanut Butter between crackers and insert stick.
  2. Place the cookies in the freezer while you are melting the chocolate so that the peanut butter hardens and your stick doesn’t fall out while dipping.
  3. Once your chocolate is melted dip the cookies into the chocolate.
  4. Insert the lollipops into a styrofoam board for chocolate to set. Decorate as desired.

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Eggs Benedict with Ham and Polenta Cakes

  

Brunch.  Ahhhhhhh, brunch!  It’s the little things in life that make my stomach smile and brunch makes that smile stretch just a little bit wider.  Like perfectly poached eggs on a sunny afternoon or a hot, strong cup of coffee…well, anytime of the day.  This is my idea of heaven. Heaven I tell you!

Springtime is filled with lots of celebratory occasions from Easter to Mother’s Day to Memorial Day and I like to take full advantage of these opportunities to break out the fine china and snazzy linens and start cracking open the eggs.

Since eggs benedict is the epitome of all breakfast dishes – and one of my favorites – I thought I’d share with you a slight spin on the classic. Traditionally, the poached egg tops Canadian bacon and an English muffin before getting drizzled with a creamy hollandaise sauce.  Here I have substituted shaved ham for the bacon and a crispy polenta cake for the muffin.  And, I will have to say — it is nothing short of sunny perfection. 

 Happy Spring y’all!

Eggs Benedict with Ham and Polenta Cakes

(serves 6)

  1. Polenta Cakes
  2. Poached Eggs
  3. Ham
  4. Hollandaise Sauce

Polenta Cakes

(*Make this ahead. It needs at least 2 hours to set, or you can make it the day before and let cool overnight).

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup milk
  • salt
  • 2 tbs butter

In medium saucepan combine cornmeal, water and milk.  Whisk together continuously while bringing to a simmer.  Add a generous amount of salt, cover and let cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the cornmeal becomes thick, the liquid is all absorbed and the cornmeal is tender, whisking occasionally.  Once cooked stir in the butter, check for seasoning and add more salt if needed.  Pour into a buttered 8×8 pan and cover with plastic wrap (to avoid a crust from forming on top).   Cool completely and refridgerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 24.

Once the polenta has set, slice the polenta into six squares (or if you have circle cutters, whatever shape you desire).  Heat a little vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet and sear the polenta cakes for about 5 minutes on each side, OR until they become nice and brown on each side. Serve warm.

Poached Eggs

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 tbs vinegar

First begin by heating up a medium-sized pot full of water to a simmer.  You want the water to be hot and bubbles starting to form, but NOT boiling. 

Next crack your eggs into an individual bowl or cup, so you are not cracking the egg directly into the water.

Once your water is hot enough, add the vinegar and with a large wooden or slotted spoon swirl the water in a circle making a circular whirlpool like effect.  Slowly drop your egg into the water and cook for about 3 minutes.  Remove with slotted spoon.  Repeat with remaining eggs.

Hollandaise Sauce

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 1 tbs lemon juice  
  • salt and pepper
  • water

Place a metal bowl over top of a medium sauce pan filled with about an inch of water, creating a double boiler. Bring the water to just a simmer.  Put the egg yolks in the bowl and whisk continuously until the yolks begin to thicken and they double in size (be careful not to get the yolks too hot or else they will curdle).  Once the eggs have thickened, add the lemon juice and combine and then slowly drizzle the melted butter into the eggs while continuing to whisk.  Whisk until the butter is completely incorporated and you have a thick, sauce-like consistancy.  Add salt and pepper and remove from heat.  If the sauce thickens up before you are ready to serve add a little water to thin it out.

When you are ready to serve, place the egg on top of the ham and polenta cake on the bottom.  Top with hollandaise sauce and garnish with chopped parsley, if desired.

 

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How to Cook Like a Pro

There are very few things in life that are more disheartening than finding an amazing sounding recipe, making the time to seek out and buy the ingredients, spending your entire afternoon cooking it for your family, and then you end up feeding it to the dog.  Who is probably only eating it out of sympathy.  Huge disappointment (not to mention a waste of your time and money). Sometimes it’s not even that bad, but doesn’t nearly live up to the expectations you had for it. I can see why this would make people want to throw in the kitchen towel. 

The joy of cooking is to be able to produce food that moves you.  That makes you eager to cook it again and again so that each time you put it in your mouth you say Wow all over again. You want to be rewarded for your work and to be proud to share it with others.  This is how cooking should be.

I know that I often times take for granted a lot of little things while in the kitchen and what seems obvious to me may be easily overlooked by the home cook. For this, I wanted to compile a list of the most important tips that I believe separate the professionals from the home cooks. These are always a given for the pros and if you stick to these guidelines you will easily be getting professional results at home.

 1.Keepin’ it Real – Good food begins way before you start cooking.  Sourcing out the freshest ingredients will always yield better results.  I know many of you will curse me for saying it, but you won’t get the same flavor from garlic in a jar that you will get from freshly grated garlic.  It is really worth the extra step!

As a general rule, stay real and keep it fresh.

 

2. Salt is a man’s best friend – Many home cooks underestimate the power of salt. It is absolutely the important ingredient you will ever use in your kitchen. Salt is what brings out the flavor in your food and makes it come to life.  It is that one crucial ingredient that could possibly be keeping your food from going to new heights.  If you’ve prepared a dish from a recipe and it tastes good, but it’s just missing that “something,” often times you need to add a little more salt to take it from being good to being GREAT.

Also, it is important that you start salting your dish from the beginning and continue slowly salting throughout the cooking process. 

A brief example of this is to begin by salting your water when cooking pasta to help boost the flavor of the pasta.  Then continue by salting your sauce (a little at a time – be careful not to over salt, you can always add more, but can’t take away).  Once the pasta and sauce are cooked and combined you check it one last time for seasoning and add a little more salt, if needed. 

Start practicing with salt and you will begin to notice a world of difference.

3. Embrace fat- Don’t be afraid of fat. Using just the right amount — whether it be vegetable fat or animal fat — adds an unparalleled flavor and texture to your food that you won’t find with any other ingredient.  I know that many of us associate the word fat with negative connotations (it’s hard not to in our stick figure-crazed, yet overweight society), but it’s all about being balanced and remembering that our bodies actually need fat. Everything in moderation.  Just remember that being healthy means being balanced.

4. It’s all about the Technique – This is the one that really sets the experts apart from the rest.  It is what pros have spent tons of time in culinary school learning or hours in professional kitchens doing over and over again. It does take some practice, but if you’re willing to learn, you will be able to pick up on the important techniques that help produce stellar results. Start paying close attention to the directions when you read recipes and you’ll notice patterns.

For example, the first step in making Beef Bourguignon is to get the pot very hot with your oil or butter and then add the beef and brown on all sides.  The first step to making a roasted Pork Tenderloin is to get the pot very hot with your oil or butter and then add the pork and brown on all sides.  The first step to making a Rack of Lamb is to get the pot very hot with your oil or butter and then add the lamb and brown on all sides. You notice a pattern? Get a few solid techniques under your belt, and then it doesn’t matter what you are making you can follow the technique and you know your results will be delicious each time.

A great cookbook that I highly recommend is a book by Michael Ruhlman, called Ruhlman’s Twenty.  It has 100 recipes categorized by 20 different techniques and complete with step by step pictures.  It’s a great way to get the essentials down pat.

5. Layer the flavor – There are many, many powerful ingredients in the kitchen that allow you to build flavor and add dimension to your dish (think acidity, spices, garlic, onions, etc). I’ve spoken with many people who omit these types of ingredients from recipes because they dislike their strong flavors.  Let’s take onions for an example.  There is a distinct difference between making a dish that has onions in it and using onions as a flavor base for your dish.  If you dislike onions, you are probably not going to go for an onion soup, but if you use those onions as the foundation to your vegetable soup, it will help give that soup a deeper flavor and extra dimension.  And it won’t taste like onions –  I promise! 

So, lastly learn the difference between using an ingredient in your dish or using it as a flavor additive.  Don’t be afraid to use those powerful flavors!

 

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