Archive for the ‘Tracy's Take’ Category

Same Posts, New Place!

October 20, 2011

Late this summer I was asked to write a blog for the Connecticut Post and its family of online publications.  On that new blog, which I named The Secret Ingredient after my Fairfield cooking school, I am posting the same types of recipes, tips, and product profiles that I do here on my Season to Taste blog.  However, publishing both blogs has become somewhat of a time-consuming exercise, on top of teaching all my  cooking classes.  So, for the time being, I will publish my Season to Taste entries over at the Connecticut Post.  Don’t worry—this blog will stay up so you can still access the archived recipes/posts.  If you follow me here, I hope you’ll follow me there as well!

As always, thank you for reading, and happy cooking!!

Don’t miss a post!  You can now find my twice-weekly blog,  The Secret Ingredient at:

http://blog.ctnews.com/holleran/

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Product Profile: Rosemary Crackers

October 10, 2011

Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs.  It is also the only herb I have any success growing on my own, so I use it frequently.  With roasted potatoes, in marinades for meat, or scattered on top of freshly baked focaccia, in a word–delicious.

You can imagine my excitement when I discovered rosemary flavored crackers.  A hint of flavor added to my cheese and cracker platters?  Perfect.  Well, after taste-tests were completed, it was really only half-perfect.

The first crackers, or “crisps” as they are referred to on the box, were Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisps.  As relatively new item at the store,  the pretty green box caught my attention.  The crisps look almost like mini-Melba toasts studded with various additions, including (no surprise here), raisins and rosemary, but also sunflower and flax seeds.  Sounds bizarre?  I agree…but despite its interesting set of ingredients and not-so-pretty appearance, this cracker is truly out of this world good.  I LOVE them.  They combine sweet, salty and savory flavors all at once and somehow manage to be delicious.  I love them with cheese, but they are also great for dips or just by the handful as a snack.

On the other end of the spectrum are Triscuit’s Rosemary and Olive Oil crackers.  They claim to have “natural flavor” but I found the rosemary flavor to be extremely artificial tasting.  Rosemary is actually on the list of ingredients (listed as “Spices-includes rosemary”) but in my opinion, they taste nothing like the woodsy, full-flavored herb I love so much.  I felt they made everything taste ‘off’ and my husband and kids agreed that they were just not good.  I have to say I was pretty disappointed, considering that the original Triscuits are one of my very favorite crackers.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s, I highly recommend their Raisin Rosemary Crisps.  If not, skip the Rosemary Triscuits and stick to the originals!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

“Greek” Guac

September 19, 2011

I looooooooove guacamole.  It leaves salsa in the dust any day of the week in my book.  avocados have a fair amount of fat, but it’s healthy, plant-based fat, rather than the artery-clogging animal-based fat.  Traditional guacamole is simple–mashed avocado, salt, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, and perhaps some jalapeno and minced onion.  Some call for freshly diced tomatoes, others call for sour cream.  I’ve made it in a wide variety of combinations and I love them all.

On a recent night I was making fish tacos and had half of an avocado in my fridge.  Knowing that small amount wouldn’t be enough, I considered how I could ‘stretch’ it a little.  Non-fat Greek yogurt to the rescue!  By adding just a touch of the yogurt, it added creaminess, tang, and smoothed out the consistency of my guacamole.  Best of all, it adds some protein and calcium, which is an added bonus.  Even my all-things-green-skeptical children proclaimed it “mmmmm–delicious!”.

Serve with tacos, on top of a burger, or simply with tortilla chips (check out my easy homemade tortilla chip recipe here).

“Greek” Guacamole

Makes 1.5-2 cups

1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced

2-4 tablespoons non-fat plain Greek yogurt (adjust to taste/desired consistency)

1/4 cup minced red onion

1 lime, juiced

1/2 teaspoon cumin

salt and pepper

By hand, mash the avocado with a fork until creamy.  Add additional ingredients and continue to mash/stir until smooth.

In a food processor, add all ingredients to work bowl fitted with the metal blade and pulse until smooth.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Double Duty Dinner Ingredients

September 12, 2011

Most people who don’t do a lot of cooking say the main reason is because there simply isn’t enough time.  It’s much easier and faster to buy prepared foods, do take-out, or eat fast food.  This convenience also comes at a cost, both to your wallet, and I believe to your health.  Prepared and restaurant foods are often loaded with sodium, fat, and sometimes preservatives.   But back to the issue of time… especially with school and activities in full swing!

If you could cook only two or three nights a week but eat homecooked meals double the number of nights, wouldn’t you?  As a self-admitted efficiency freak, this is exactly what I aim to do.  When I’m doing my weekly shopping, I try to think of how many nights I plan to cook.  Then while at the store, I see what is fresh, what’s in season, and what is on sale and decide what my entrees will be.  I also try to double up on ingredients.  For instance, if I know I need cilantro for one recipe, I’ll choose to make something another night that also uses cilantro (this way you won’t use half of it, only to have the other half rot in the back of your fridge).  I also think about how I could make two dinners in one night so I can eat one, and save one for another evening.  Here’s an example of a recent week:

Monday:  pork chops on the grill, with my roasted red pepper salad on the side (photo right).  I roasted an extra pepper, plus a zucchini and a summer squash (all done on the grill) which I then chopped and used to assemble a simple lasagna. While prepping the lasagna, I shredded extra cheese for Thursday.

Tuesday:  veggie lasagna (photo above)—only needed to bake it and make a big salad (don’t dress it so you can put leftovers into an airtight container and use again the next nights)!

Wednesday:  Pork Carnitas (leftover pork from Monday, cut into pieces and wrapped in soft tortillas with prepared salsa and shredded chesse), and leftover salad.

Thursday:  pizza on the grill, using prepared dough and the leftover tomato sauce and mozzarella from the lasagna.  (When you grill pizza it takes less than 10 minutes!)  There was still some salad leftover, so we ate that too.

Friday:  a day of rest—we went out to eat!

With this plan, I cooked Monday, Tuesday I just threw the prepared dinner in the oven, and Wednesday and Thursday I used all my prepped items to make 2 super-fast meals that took no effort at all (and is MUCH quicker than take out, and tastier too!).  I even had a few extra grilled veggies and made myself a delicious veggie panini one day for lunch(photo above)!

The key is planning ahead.  I think you’d be amazed how just a little advance planning can make a world of difference.  Give it a try!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Blood Orange Margarita

September 5, 2011

After the recent storm, we had been two days without power and a friend and I decided to escape to the movies (where they luckily did have power!).  Afterward we went out for a much-needed and well deserved cocktail.  She ordered, what else, but a Hurricane (a mixture of rums and pineapple juice, among other things), and I chose a Blood Orange Margarita on the rocks from the drink menu.  I couldn’t see exactly what went into it, but it was delicious.  The next night, when our power had returned, I thought I’d try to mix up one of those drinks on my own.  Amazingly, I had everything I needed to make it, despite the fact that blood oranges are not in season in early September.

Many speciality and higher-end grocery stores now carry a wide variety of Italian sodas.  Limonata and Aranciata are two of my favorites, but I recently bought a bottle of Blood Orange Soda.  Slightly sweet and carbonated, it is a refreshing drink on its own.  When mixed up with a few spirits… fabulous!  It even gave me a chance to open up the really nice bottle of tequila we received as a gift!  Cheers to that!

Blood Orange Margarita

3 ounces Italian Blood Orange soda

2 ounces tequila

1 ounce triple sec

Mix together all ingredients in a highball glass, top with ice and garnish with a slice of orange.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Late Summer Salsa

August 29, 2011

In late summer, tomatoes are at their peak, so I try to incorporate them into just about every meal.  On my sandwiches, in my salads, as a salad, or in this case, made into a delicious salsa.  I used this salsa on fish tacos, but it would be good on just about anything!  Grilled steak, scooped over some crisp greens, or even just with chips.  It’s easy and delicious!

I used a colorful combination of grape, pear, and cherry tomatoes because I like their shape and they are easy to work with.  Store tomatoes on your countertop at room temperature.  The cold refrigerator can impact their flavor, but if you cannot eat them within a few days, put them in the fridge for longer storage.  I also used an avocado, which adds a creamy texture and rich flavor to the salsa. When choosing an avocado, give it a little squeeze, and if your thumb can make a slight indent, its ripe (or nearly so).  If it’s hard as a rock, choose another one, or else store on your countertop until it softens.

Late Summer Salsa

Makes approximately 2-3 cups

1 pint grape, pear, or cherry tomatoes, cut in half or quarters

1 ripe avocado, diced

1/4 cup minced red onion

1 lime, juiced

olive oil (about 1 tablespoon)

salt & pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and serve as a dip, or over any grilled meat or fish.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Product Profile: Easy Brownies and Sweet Sprinkles

August 22, 2011

I love trying new products, especially when it comes to new foods!  On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s, it was so nice to see so many new products on the shelves.  One that caught my eye was the  “Ready to Bake Brownies“, which is basically pre-mixed brownie batter that you just pour into a pan and bake.  I’m a huge fan of their Truffle Brownie Mix (which I think is the closest to homemade that you’ll get without it actually being from scratch), so I figured this was worth a try.  Not that it is particularly difficult to mix up a batch of brownies, but particularly since I was just in a beach rental house for two weeks, I was thinking how convenient this would be to bring along to a place where you may not have eggs or vegetable oil readily available (this winter, think ski house apres-ski brownies!)

The verdict?  Well, the brownies couldn’t have been easier.  Just pour into a greased 8×8 pan and bake for 20-22 minutes.  As for taste, well, I don’t like them as much as I like the TJ’s Truffle Brownies, but they weren’t bad at all, especially considering they took all of 30 seconds to prepare for the oven.  I found them a little more cake-like than I prefer (I’m a chewy brownie fan), but based on how quickly my daughter’s group of girlfriends gobbled them up, they passed the taste-test.

The other new item I picked up was the “Sugar, Chocolate and Coffee Bean Grinder“.  I had to look at it for a minute or two to even figure out what it was, but I liked the name!  Basically, it’s a little pepper grinder filled with, no surprise, sugar, chocolate and coffee beans.  The label suggests grinding it over “cupcakes, coffee, tea, buttered toast, or ice cream…”.  Since I’d just picked up the brownie mix, I thought, “or brownies!”.   I spread some white vanilla frosting on a few of the brownies and ground away, and not only did it make a pretty topping, but gave the brownies a tiny bit of crunch and extra sweetness I loved.  I think it would also be great ground over a cappuccino or latte as an alternative to cinnamon.  Okay, it’s a bit of an indulgence item, but what the heck.  Live a little.

Testing these items certainly didn’t fit in with my post-vacation diet plan, but hey, it was ‘for work’!  Enjoy!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Party Planning 101

August 8, 2011

Planning a menu can be stressful…especially when it’s for a large party or celebration.  Planning party menus is something I happen to really enjoy, but based on the number of questions I receive on this topic during my Connecticut cooking classes, I’m well aware that it isn’t exactly fun for most people.   How to begin, what to make, how much is enough, and what can be done in advance?
Dinner party

I have a few rules of thumb for party planning, designed to simplify the process and allow you as the host to actually enjoy your gathering:

Start planning well in advance of your party.  Depending on the size of the party, I start at least a week ahead of time.  I take this time to come up with menu ideas, make grocery lists, and make a timeline of what can be prepared in advance and what needs to be done the day of the event.

Come up with a menu.  The key to a good party menu is that you choose items that are not last-minute-labor-intensive, meaning you can do most of the work before anyone even walks in the door.   This way when everyone arrives you can have a glass of wine and enjoy your party!

I think of the menu in four parts:  hors d’oeuvre, main meal, dessert, and drinks.  For hors d’oeuvre, I try to keep it simple by having mostly, if not all, cold items (cheese and crackers, chips and dip, etc).  I might make one hot item only if it doesn’t interfere with my oven schedule.  For my main entrée, I don’t go overboard with too many side dishes.  For a smaller dinner party (10 people and under) I’ll choose some sort of protein (meat or fish), a green salad, and one to two side dishes (one vegetable, one starch).  If I’m having a larger, buffet-style party, I’ll usually have two entrée options (maybe a pasta as the first and a meat dish as the second), the same green salad, and one to two sides.  I also always get a good loaf of bread from my favorite local bakery to have sliced up in a basket.  I almost always purchase my desserts because baking is time-consuming and not my forté, so I leave that to the professionals.  And last but not least, beverages.  To alleviate having to set out a full bar of various bottles and mixers, I usually have wine/beer/seltzer on hand, and then I’ll mix up a big pitcher drink that goes along with the theme of my meal—Sangria for a Paella party, Vodka Lemonade for my cookout menu.

Come up with a theme.  I like to theme my menus based on the season.  No mid-winter barbeques or July chili parties.  I also like to give them some other sort of theme, whether it be ethnic/regional (southwestern food; Thai food), surrounding an event (Independence Day; football season), or even around a particular food (I once did an entire menu based around lemons).  Of course this part isn’t necessary, but it makes it fun and also gives you some direction when planning the menu.

Practice makes perfect.  It’s best to make recipes with which you are comfortable, preferably, ones you’ve made before.  Unless you’re extremely comfortable in the kitchen, don’t make something for the very first time when 25 people are on their way over to your house!  Even the most experienced cooks can have this backfire.  So, stick with what you know, or if you do want to try something new, it’s probably not a bad idea to do a ‘trial run’ before your party!  To make things even lower stress, when I find a menu I really like, I write it down in a little notebook I keep on the shelf with my cookbooks for future use.  I also write who I made the menu for so I don’t do the same one for the same group of people twice!

Make lists.  I’m a bit of a list-freak, but I usually have no fewer than three for any given party.  First my menu.  Second, my shopping list.  And third, my timeline of what needs to be done when.  This helps me get as much done ahead of time as is possible, plus it keeps me from forgetting anything the day of the party!

Have fun!  So many people tell me how they never get to enjoy their party because they are so busy working at it!  As I mentioned, do-ahead items are key.  I also think keeping the sheer number of items to a reasonable number is important (do you really need seven different hot hors d’oeuvre and five side dishes?).  Also, there is absolutely no shame in purchasing prepared foods!  The truth is that most people are just happy to be out, happy that someone else is cooking, and especially happy not to have to clean up afterward!  It doesn’t matter if everything isn’t perfect or restaurant-quality.  What matters is that everyone has a good time.  And that includes YOU.  So enjoy!

Smokefest ’11

July 25, 2011

Three summers ago our friends started what has become a July tradition.  “Big Mike” as my kids call him, has been brewing beer and  smoking meat for years, and his girlfriend is a fabulous cook, gardener, and all-around party planner.  When these New York City mice decided to buy a New York country house, they put their talents together and Smokefest was born.

Of course the highlight of the party is the meat.  Mike gets up at 7am  to start the smokers and prepare the 16 racks of  pork ribs and 15 lbs of brisket.  The brisket and half the ribs are prepped simply with salt and pepper, and the other half of the ribs get a dry rub the night before.  He may be a barbeque weekend warrior, but he’s no hack.  In fact, while smoking ribs for a charity event in Connecticut, Jacques Pepin stopped by for a taste and proclaimed “THOSE are some great ribs!”

Daniela makes a wide variety of side dishes—fresh from the garden.  This year she had a 6 foot grill loaded up with summer squash, zucchini, eggplant, onions, and 4 dozen ears of corn.  If that wasn’t delicious enough, she and Mike make a Cilantro-Lime Butter sauce (see recipe below) to brush on the corn which is De. Licious.  There are also salads galore—from potato, to tomato-peach, to cucumber, and more.  This year one neighbor brought some killer mac-and-cheese which you just couldn’t stop eating.

My favorite thing is the “Tavern”, a quaint little outbuilding (which Mike says is a character itself for this party), where little lights are strung along the ceiling, and coolers are filled with homebrewed beer (I loved the “6” a blonde beer), chilled whites and roses, water and soda.  Out back is a fire pit—where my kids spent most of the day filling s’more orders (you could choose from ‘burned’, ‘golden brown’ or ‘plain’ marshmallows, and could have your chocolate ‘very melty’ or just ‘kind of melty’).

It is so much fun to go to a party that’s all about the food.  It’s not anyone’s birthday and no one is being feted.  It’s just a gathering of people who love food, hosted by people who REALLY love food.  I can’t think of a better reason for a celebration!  Go Meat!

Smokefest Cilantro-Lime Butter

Courtesy of Mike and Daniela

3 limes, juiced

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 small bunch cilantro, chopped

salt

In a small saucepan, reduce the lime juice until it is syrupy. Add butter, and melt.  Season to taste with salt and add cilantro at the end.  Brush on grilled corn or any veggies (also makes a great topping for clams!)

Hint:  Mike says you can spice it up by adding 1/2 tsp of chipotle!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts…VOTE!

July 18, 2011

One last push before voting closes on July 25th!!!

Ages ago I entered a recipe contest on a whim, and ended up the first runner-up.  The prize was the Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s Cookbook, which became one of my favorites.  It also began a nice collaborative relationship with the authors, Deana Gunn and Woni Miniati.  I’ve been contributing recipes to their cookbooks ever since.

When I saw that one of my favorite magazines, Saveur, was having a Home Cook’s Recipe Challenge and the topic was “BBQ side dishes” I knew exactly what to enter.  It’s one of my favorite recipes which I’ve been making for something like 15 years.  My Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts is not only delicious, but simple to prepare (the peppers roast right on the grill next to your burgers or ribs).  It also happens to be delicious!

Check out the recipe, give it a try (you won’t be sorry!), and cast your vote today!  Thank you!

Vote for Season To Taste’s Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts here!

 

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.