January 27, 2015

Pretzel Nuggets with Beer Cheese Dip

Your superbowl snack menu is probably filling up by now, especially if you have plans to make some chorizo-stuffed poblanos or some bacon jalapeno poppers, but I think I can convince you to make one more dish: pretzel nuggets with a cheese dip infused with beer. Why this dish? Well, the Packers should have made it to the superbowl (and they would have if the overtime rules weren't so stupid), so we might as well recognize them in spirit with all things Wisconsin--namely cheese and beer and carbs. Betcha didn't think I knew much about football did you, Dad?

Even if you're a Seahawks fan, though, you can still enjoy these delicious little nuggets of happiness. Be warned: these will ruin you for mall pretzels, but they aren't too difficult to make and it's definitely possible to just make the pretzel rolls by themselves so you can munch on pure carbs when they start calling for you.

Pretzel dough is pretty similar to regular bread dough. You have to let the yeast activate in some warm water before you do anything else; I stir in a spoonful of sugar and sometimes a few pinches of flour to give them something to start feeding on so they foam more. After a few minutes, I start stirring in the flour and some melted butter as well as some salt, but I'm really careful to not put the salt directly on the yeast mixture since it can kill it. I then gradually add more flour until the dough pulls away from the bowl and isn't quite so sticky.

If you've made bread before, you know making the dough is only part of the ordeal. These pretzels have to proof twice: once as a cohesive lump of dough for an hour and then for 15 minutes as nuggets. However, pretzels have an extra step. You have to boil them in a baking soda solution, too. Boiling in general gives them that chewy texture that all good pretzels have, and the baking soda gives it that gorgeous mahogany sheen. It's the same thing as with caramelized onions: the baking soda makes the solution basic, which promotes Maillard reactions (browning). I like to use a deep, wide pot and cook them in batches because the nuggets do expand when they boil. I transfer them to a cookie tray and then arrange them in the skillet because it's just too difficult to manage a pretty dish and boiling nuggets of dough and everything else for this recipe.

Now for the cheese dip, which is what really makes this dish special. It couldn't be easier; it's all in one bowl and you can do it all by hand. The key for the simplicity is making sure your cream cheese is thoroughly softened to room temperature since you won't be able to mix it well if it's a cold brick. I start by whisking my spices and the beer together; it's easier to dissolve the spices in a liquid than it is to make sure they are evenly mixed through a glob of cheese. Anyway, I gradually stir the beer/spice mixture into the cream cheese (using a silicon spatula works best at the beginning and after a few splashes you can probably use a whisk). For the stringy gooey factor, I stir in about a cup of shredded cheese. You can use whatever kind you like best as long as it's a good melting cheese, so cheddar and monterrey jack are always good options.

Once all the components are finished, you can start assembling the dish. I like to use a big skillet, but a cake pan or even a baking dish would work equally well. I arrange the nuggets around the perimeter of the dish; depending on how big or small they are you can do one or multiple rings. I then pile the cheese mixture into the center of the dish and spread it so it almost touches the dough; the pretzels will expand and the cheese will melt to fill the gaps. To enhance the color and flavor of the pretzels, I brush them with egg wash and sprinkle them generously with coarse salt. For presentation purposes, I use food scissors to cut a small x onto each pretzel but that's totally optional. I'm sure people will be so into the game and so busy shoving these little bites into their mouths that no one will notice.

2 1/4 tsp Yeast
1 T Sugar
4 1/2 - 5 Cups Flour
1 tsp Salt
1/2 Stick Butter, Melted
1/4 Cup Baking Soda
1 Egg, Beaten
8 oz Cream Cheese, Softened
1 Cup Shredded Cheese
1/2 Cup Beer
1/4 tsp Garlic Powder
1/4 tsp Onion Powder
1/2 tsp Paprika
1/8 tsp Cayenne

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast, sugar, and 1 1/2 cups warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes or until foamy. Using the dough hook, stir in the butter, 3 cups of flour, and the salt. Knead for 5 minutes, gradually adding the remaining flour as necessary until it's not too sticky.

Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour. Line cookie trays with parchment or silpats. Roll the dough into nuggets, place on the prepared trays, cover, and let rise for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Gradually stir in the baking soda. Boil the nuggets in batches for 1 minute per batch, stirring to flip often. Remove with a slotted spoon and place back on the trays.

Heat oven to 375F.

Whisk the beer, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne together. Gradually stir into the cream cheese, then add the shredded cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

Grease a large skillet or cake pan. Arrange the nuggets around the edges; place any extras back on the cookie trays to bake separately. Pile the cheese dip in the middle of the skillet. Brush the pretzels with the egg and use food scissors or a sharp knife to cut an x in the center of each one. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and bake for 20 minutes or until the pretzels are brown and the cheese is bubbly.

Recipe Adapted from Host the Toast

January 21, 2015

Chorizo-Stuffed Poblanos

It's definitely time for a Southwestern recipe given my recent trip to Arizona and the upcoming Superbowl in Phoenix. I wanted to cook something a little unique but still full of complex, spicy flavors. If you loved my bacon jalapeno poppers, you will want to make these as soon as you get the ingredients. They are a little bigger since I use poblanos instead of jalapenos, but you could easily switch to jalapenos instead, though it would make quite a few of them. The stuffing is meat and vegetables rather than cream cheese and bacon, which means these can be pretty filling and you can serve them as more of a meal if you so desire. They're also baked in a spicy tomato sauce and covered in cheese and baked until bubbly, so it's easier to cook them for the proper time without burning them.

I start the filling by browning some chorizo. There's two types: Mexican and Spanish. Spanish is dried and cured, so it will hold its shape when sliced and doesn't need to be cooked. I usually prefer Mexican since it crumbles when it cooks and releases lots of flavorful fat that I can cook other ingredients in. In this recipe, I remove the chorizo from the pan but leave the fat so that the meat doesn't burn.

I then add some diced onions, which soak up the flavor better than the other vegetables. After those are tender, I stir in some corn, black beans, and tomatoes. Right now, I'd recommend sticking to canned vegetables since they aren't really in season, but if you make these again in the summer, fresh corn and tomatoes would be delicious. I only cook them for a few minutes since it all bakes in the peppers for a long time, but I use a slotted spoon to remove the filling from the pan so that the sauce can cook in the drippings, which are packed with flavor from the chorizo and, of course, the veggies. Once it cools down, I stir in some of the cheese to help hold everything together and add that gooeyness factor that all good appetizers should have.

The sauce is incredibly easy to make, and you can use it on quesadillas, nachos, or anything else you can think of.  All you have to do is whisk some crushed tomatoes, canned green chiles, and a bunch of spices together in the drippings from the filling. You can adjust the amounts of the spices to your liking and how spicy you want the dish to be. The filling is fairly mild (depending on how hot the chorizo is), and poblanos aren't particularly spicy (for reference, ancho chiles are just dried poblanos).

To assemble the dish, just cut the tops off of the poblanos and remove the seeds; make sure you keep the top with its matching pepper. Pack in a few spoonfuls of filling so that it just reaches where you cut the top off, then use two toothpicks to anchor the top of the pepper back on. I soak my toothpicks in water for at least 30 minutes or so to prevent them from burning, but you do have to make sure to remove them or warn everyone about them so nobody accidentally eats one. Anyway, once all the peppers are stuffed and covered, arrange them snugly in a deep baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Bake it until the peppers are almost tender and the sauce is bubbly, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and bake until the peppers are fully cooked and the cheese is golden and gooey. You can probably guess that these get a little messy, but it's a great dish for Super Bowl festivities and regular meals.

10-12 Poblanos
1 lb Chorizo
1 Onion, Diced
1 15 oz Can Corn, Drained & Rinsed
1 15 oz Can Black Beans, Drained & Rinsed
2 Plum Tomatoes, Diced
1 28 oz Can Crushed Tomatoes
1 4 oz Can Diced Green Chiles
1 tsp Chili Powder
1 tsp Paprika
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1 tsp Onion Powder
1/2 tsp Cayenne
1/2 tsp Cumin
2 Cups Shredded Monterrey Jack Cheese

Heat oven to 375F and grease a large, deep baking pan, at least 13x9". Soak 20-24 toothpicks in some water.

Cut the tops off the poblanos and remove the seeds. Set aside the peppers and their tops.

Heat some oil in a skillet and cook the chorizo until browned, crumbly, and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Cook the onions in the chorizo drippings until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the corn, black beans, and diced tomatoes and cook for 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour into a bowl and set aside. Stir in 1 cup of cheese when cool.

In the same pan, whisk the crushed tomatoes, green chiles, chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, cumin, and some salt and pepper together.

Stuff each pepper with some of the chorizo and vegetable filling. Anchor the tops on with two toothpicks and place in the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining peppers and pour the tomato sauce on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until bubbly, top with the remaining cheese, and bake for another 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is browned and the peppers are tender.

Makes 10-12
Recipe Adapted from Nutmeg Nanny

January 14, 2015

Mushroom Soup

I'm in the middle of packing to go back up to college, which means a few things. First, I'm trying to cook as much as possible to make up for the next few weeks. Second, it's going to be frigid and snowy and windy and just plain cold. Also, any healthy eating I've accomplished while I've been home may or may not come to a screeching halt. In an attempt to cope with all this before I have to deal with it, I made this mushroom soup, which is hot, delicious, and secretly vegan (if you want it to be).

I start with a good amount of butter; you can use a vegan substitute like margarine, shortening, or even a splash of oil instead. Whatever you use, melt it in a big pot and use it to saute some onions and garlic. Once those are tender, I add a full pound of sliced baby bella mushrooms, along with some diced potatoes and herbs. The potatoes thicken the soup and add a surprising amount of creaminess, which makes them a great substitute for fattening alternatives like, well, cream.

After a few minutes, I stir in some white wine and veggie or chicken broth. The mushrooms have plenty of liquid to evaporate but not quite enough to make a whole soup from, so I use over 4 cups of liquid. It only has to simmer until the potatoes are cooked through, which means the whole dish should only take 45 minutes or so.

Anyway, once the potatoes are cooked, it's time to puree the soup. I like to use my immersion blender because I can do it right in the pot and avoid washing more dishes, but a regular blender or even a food processor would work, too. However, I still want some texture, so I blend the soup until smooth but leave some mushrooms to brown and stir in after.

I saute the remaining half pound of sliced mushrooms in some more butter and then stir them into the pureed soup along with a splash of soy sauce for a unique salty, savory flavor that you can't quite place. It's a great soup for keeping up with your healthy eating and staying warm at the same time, and it's definitely a plus that it's so easy to make and can be made vegan with just a few tiny switches.

1 Stick Butter
1 Spanish Onion
2 Cloves Garlic
1 1/2 lbs Cremini (Baby Bella) Mushrooms, Sliced
3 Yukon Gold Potatoes
1/8 tsp Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1/4 Cup White Wine
4 Cups Vegetable Broth
2 T Soy Sauce

Chop the onion finely. Mince the garlic. Peel and cube the potatoes.

Melt 6 T butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add 1 lb mushrooms, potatoes, thyme, and bay leaf.

Cook, stirring often, until the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated, 10-15 minutes. Add the wine, then add the vegetable broth once most of the wine has evaporated. Simmer until the potatoes are cooked, about 15 minutes. Cool slightly.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in another large pot. Add the remaining mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until browned, 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in the browned mushrooms, soy sauce, and salt and pepper.

Serves 6
Recipe Adapted from Mike Ryan

January 7, 2015

Thai Vegetable Stir Fry

It's only January 7, but I'm willing to bet there's a lot of people already struggling with their new years' resolutions. It's definitely difficult to maintain them when, let's say, you decide to eat healthy (again) but all the recipes out there have random expensive ingredients that don't even sound that good and take hours to make. Luckily, I have a few that won't kill your savings or your taste buds, including this one for a stir fry with eggplant, bell peppers, and tofu and/or meat tossed in a savory sauce.

To prep the eggplant, I cut it into slabs, salt it, and press it for 30 minutes to draw out the bitterness and reduce the moisture. I cube it after I press it so I end up with perfectly uniform pieces that don't get squished in the process and soak up all the delicious sauce when I cook them. The peppers and onions require even less prep; just slice them thinly and they're ready to cook.

Healthy veggie dishes aren't that healthy if they don't fill you up and you end up eating another meal 30 minutes later. That's why I throw in some tofu, which needs to be pressed as well to remove all the extra moisture. If tofu's not really your favorite, you can replace half or all of it with a lean protein like ground or sliced turkey or chicken breast. If you're a little short on time, I'd recommend buying a rotisserie chicken, cutting it into bite-sized pieces, and tossing them in when the dish is almost done cooking. You still get your protein, but you don't have to spend hours slaving over the stove.

I combine everything by first cooking the eggplant cubes in batches. Even my largest skillet isn't big enough to brown all of them at the same time, and this dish tastes so much better when everything is browned properly. I do the same with the tofu, then I cook the peppers and onions together. When they are almost done, I stir the eggplant and tofu (and/or the meat) in as well as the sauce, which is hoisin, soy sauce, a little sweet chili sauce, and some cornstarch to thicken it. It's perfectly salty and savory with a little hint of spice from the chili sauce, which of course you can increase to your liking. You can also play around with different combinations of vegetables and proteins; one of the reasons stir fry is so great is because it's so easy to adjust the ingredients.

2 14 oz Blocks Firm Tofu*
1 Eggplant
2 Bell Peppers
1 Yellow Onion
1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce
1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
1 T Sweet Chili Sauce
2 tsp Cornstarch
*Or use 14 oz tofu and 1 lb ground or sliced meat

Cut the eggplant into 3/4" thick slabs. Sprinkle with salt and place between a few layers of paper towels. Place a cutting board or other weight on top and let sit for 30 minutes. Rinse and cut into cubes.

Cut the tofu into 3/4" thick slabs and pat with paper towels until most of the water is absorbed. Cut into cubes. Slice the bell peppers thinly. Cut the onion pole to pole and slice thinly.

Whisk the hoisin, soy sauce, chili sauce, and cornstarch together until smooth.

Heat some oil in a large skillet. Add half the eggplant cubes, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until browned. Remove from the skillet and repeat with the remaining eggplant. Repeat with the tofu cubes.

Add some more oil to the skillet and add the bell peppers and onions. Cook, stirring often, until almost tender. Stir in the eggplant, tofu, and soy sauce mixture and cook for 3 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.

Serves 6
Recipe Adapted from Vegetarian Gastronomy