Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lavender Lovers' Baking 101: Luscious Icing and Cookie How-To

I just returned from a U.S. Lavender Growers conference. My head is still spinning from all I learned, the many friendly people I met, and discovering more of the incredible charms of lavender. In our kick-off event, we sampled lavender champagne punch and other assorted lavender goodies, including spiced pecans and cheese straws, herbs de Provence-seasoned goat cheese spread, and several of my lavender cookies. (They disappeared quickly and several people asked for my recipes, so I've shared one of them below.)

The conference spotlighted many aspects of this enchanting herb: We watch an inspiring video featuring lavender plants, gardens, and picturesque farms of some of the organization's members. We compared the distinct aromas of different types of lavenders and talked about which ones are better for crafting, turning into lavender oil, and using fresh and dried for culinary purposes. (In case you're wondering, several attendees particularly recommended Buena Vista, Royal Velvet, and three pink lavenders, Melissa, Hidcote Pink, and Little Lottie for cooking and baking. I've personally cooked and baked with the well-known Hidcote and Provence and suggest them as well.)

A group of us also attended a workshop on how to identify the various kinds. Fifty different varieties were laid out on long tables, literally filling the room with their haunting fragrance. As you can see the photo at left, lavender comes in a whole beautiful array of subtly different colors, sizes and shapes. Though I loved the look of the deep purple and blue types, after smelling several pink ones and noticing their citrusy sweet scents, I'm definitely going to grow some to cook with this coming summer. I won't give up the deep purple kinds though, because in some recipes, like jellies, sorbets, and syrups, they impart a bit of appealing soft pinkish-purple color.

If you love lavender desserts and sweet treats, but haven't been sure how to make them, this post will help you get started using dried lavender buds. Begin by being sure the buds (the tiny flower parts shown in the bowls at right), are culinary grade. Note that buds are often harvested and sold for craft purposes only; these shouldn't be eaten. 

 If you don't have time to go purchase the very fresh, high quality dried  culinary buds directly from a local lavender farm, some of them do sell on-line from their own websites. Another option is to purchase through venues like Amazon, Etsy, and e-Bay; several American grown lavender options I like are here and here. Like most herbs lavender loses its flavor and fragrance over time, so plan to replenish your supply after at most a year.

Preparing the icing recipe involves making a lavender infusion like the one shown at right above. In this basic step the dried buds simply steep in a little hot water and gradually infuse it with their flavor. The longer they stand, the more flavorful the infusion will be.

Lavender-Infused Cookie Icing and Natural Sprinkles

Here I've left the icing the faint natural pinkish color created by the lavender-infused water, although it's fine to add a little purple food color if you wish. I try to avoid unnecessary chemical additives due to family allergies, so suggest using natural botanical dyes for coloring foods whenever possible.

One brand of natural vegetable dye that works particularly well is Color Garden; order it here or buy it at Whole Foods. The blue color in the Color Garden line is a lavender blue, but you can turn it purple just by adding a tiny drop of lemon juice as you're making the icing.

The sprinkles on the cookies are also tinted with botanical colors; the ChocolateCraft brand of natural purple crystal sugar is available on-line here.

Tip: It's easy to make lavender sugar cookies to go with this icing using your own favorite sugar cookie recipe. (Or use my tried and true rolled cookie recipe here.) Simply combine 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried culinary lavender buds with about 1/4 cup of the sugar called for in the recipe in a food processor. Grind the mixture until the lavender is in fine bits and has been partially blended into the sugar; this may take 3 or 4 minutes of processing. Then, to remove any coarse lavender bits, sift the mixture through a fine sieve back into the remainder of the sugar, and proceed exactly as directed in the recipe. 

2 tablespoon dried culinary lavender buds
1 teaspoon grated fresh  lemon zest (yellow part of the skin)
2 cups powdered sugar, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons egg white powder, optional
1 teaspoon corn syrup
3 to 4 drops lavender extract or 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
Purple crystal decorating sugar, preferably tinted with botanical dye

For the infusion: Stir the lavender and lemon zest into 2 1/2 tablespoons boiling water. Set aside, covered, for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours (refrigerate after 1 hour). Strain the infused liquid into a deep, medium bowl; press down hard on the lavender with a spoon to force through as much liquid as possible.

Add the sugar, egg white powder (if using), corn syrup, and extract (if using) to the bowl. Stir until well combined and smooth. As necessary, a bit at a time, stir in more water or more powdered sugar to obtain desired piping or spreading consistency.

The icing may be used as is, or tinted by stirring in a drop or two of whatever color dye (preferably botanically based) is desired. Spread the icing onto the cookies using a table knife. If decorating with sprinkles, add them right away before the icing sets. Let dry at least 30 minutes and preferably longer before packing airtight.

Makes 3/4 cup icing, enough to completely decorate 40 to 50  2 ½ to 3-inch cookies.

For another lavender recipe you may like, check out my fresh lavender-lemon buttercream here:

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Diet 2 Days a Week, Lose Weight, + Lower Blood Pressure, Risk of Heart Disease

This is the time of year when many of us step on the scales, cringe, and resolve to lose some extra pounds. That's what my hubs and I used to do. But not any more!

For the last year we've been following the 2 day a week diet plan, also known as the 5-2 diet, or fast diet. On our diet days we've been using the recipes that my co-author, Ruth Glick, and I created for our enthusiastically received (5-star Amazon-rated) cookbook, The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook.  Containing 250 pages, 50 color photos (see samples below), 75 well-tested recipes, plus loads of helpful tips, menus, and gluten-free options, our book is available in both Kindle and softcover formats here.
To get a preview of all the recipes, check out the quick YouTube video here.

Chili, 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook
Yes, as the title suggests, the book features low-calorie recipes to use while dieting only two days a week! On the two diet days, you limit calories to 500 (men get 600), but the rest of the week you just eat your normal fare--really! Not only is this plan easier to stay with than traditional everyday regimes, but, surprisingly,  research has shown that it also results in more weight loss. (Which the hubs and I have definitely found to be true.) Ongoing research has also revealed that the plan, which was created by a noted British physician, has other important health benefits, including reducing blood pressure, heart disease, and many other ailments. 

 I first began following the diet when Ruth said it was really working well for her, and asked me to co-author a book of recipes to fit the plan. She'd had trouble finding ones that were tasty and easy, partly because most of the books were British and not geared to American tastes or hectic lifestyles. So, since she and I had created many healthful, low-calorie recipes for major publications such as Rodale and Eating Well in the past, we began creating our own much more satisfying collection of dishes, which I also photographed for the book.)

French Toast, 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook
My husband got interested in trying the diet after I'd lost a couple of pounds on it. This might not sound very impressive--except that I'd been trying, unsuccessfully, to shed those same stubborn pounds for almost 10 years! (I've kept them off, too!)

He started using our recipes and following the plan thirteen months ago and is thrilled with the results. First, he's lost 18 pounds! Even better, when his cardiologist checked his vital signs and blood markers at his last visit, she pronounced them the best they've been in the five years she's been treating him! In fact, his blood pressure, fasting glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides were so much lower than before, she said she planned to look into our book herself. The hubs says he intends to keep going and shed at least another 10 to 15 pounds.

In case you wonder, yes, Ruth and her husband have both lost around 20 pounds using The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. They say it's easier than an other diet they have ever tried, and they've tried quite a few. My sister has also shed over 20 pounds following the plan, though admits that she doesn't find sticking to the 500 calorie limit on diet days easy!

Spinach-Mushroom-Pasta Soup

Because homemade soups can be not only healthful and calorie-wise, but very satisfying, we've included a nice variety of them in The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook.  This one, a simple Italian-inspired spinach-mushroom-pasta combo, admittedly looks a bit plain, but it is quite fragrant and flavorful. It is easy and also versatile: Substitute instant brown rice for the pasta for a gluten-free version.

Spinach-Mushroom-Pasta Soup

This soup is good made with either vegetable or chicken broth, so can fit well into a vegetarian meal. While fresh basil delivers the best results, the dried herb will do if necessary.

Tip: To streamline recipe preparations, buy sliced fresh mushrooms and washed, ready-to-use bags of fresh spinach leaves.

Makes 4 120-calorie servings, about 1 1/4 cups each.

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
6 cups canned vegetable broth or fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup 1-inch pieces regular or multigrain vermicelli, spaghetti, or other thin pasta (or substitute 1/4 cup instant brown rice for gluten-free dish0
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves or 2 tsp dried basil leaves
1 Tbsp chopped chives or green onions
4 cups (lightly packed) coarsely chopped fresh spinach leaves
2 Tbsp shredded or grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a 4-quart saucepan or similar-size soup pot, combine oil and mushrooms. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 6 to 7 minutes or until mushrooms are nicely browned.
2. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute longer. Stir in broth, pasta, and basil, and bring to a boil over high heat. Adjust heat so mixture boils gently, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 7 minutes or until pasta is almost tender. (Multigrain pasta or instant brown rice will take considerably longer than regular pasta.)
3. Stir in spinach and cook, uncovered, until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Taste and add salt and pepper, if desired. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and fresh basil sprigs, if available. Or refrigerate for later use.
Soup will keep refrigerated for up to 3 days and frozen for up to 3 weeks.

For a preview of all the dishes in the book, look at the YouTube video here. For another delish and easy lo-cal soup recipe, plus more info on The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook go here.  

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Do with Peppadews--Quick Cocktail Stuffed Cherry Peppers

If you are one of the few still unacquainted with the Peppadew, let me bring you up to speed, as you are missing out on a treat. It's a brand of sweet piquanté peppers first discovered in early 1993 and introduced to market later that same decade. Olive bars in supermarkets often include Peppadews, and many upscale grocery stores carry jars of them as well. Their festive look makes them perfect party fare--I'm actually serving the ones pictured here to company tomorrow. (They can be made well ahead so are convenient for entertaining.)

Peppadews have a mild but distinctive and tempting sweet pepper flavor, bright color, and a pleasant bit of heat. Another plus--like many peppers, Peppadews are loaded with vitamins A and C and other healthful nutrients, yet are low in calories. Of course, when the pepper halves are paired with a cream cheese filling and turned into enticing-looking appetizers (as shown above), they no longer qualify as diet food!

The story is that a South African businessman-farmer discovered the Peppadew in the garden of his  Eastern Cape holiday home. It's said that he spotted a 6-foot high bush laden with small bright red fruit about the size of large cherry tomatoes. I'm a little skeptical about the tale because I wonder how any farmer (or his gardener) failed to notice a plant in the yard until it was that tall and already bearing fruit! Every farmer and gardener I know (including me) tunes in to possible weeds right away!

At any rate, the commercial potential of the particular pepper variety was quickly recognized, and this culivar of Capsicum baccatum was given the trademarked brand name that combines the words 'pepper' and 'dew.' The jarred pickled peppers have been a hit "as is" and are also now used in a number of pepper sauces, relishes and other condiments.

 I like to ready a quick, tempting homemade pepper jelly by coarsely chopping Peppadews, then processing them in a food processor with reduced sugar apple jelly. (A ratio of 1 cup jelly to 1/2 to 2/3 cups well-drained diced peppers works well.) For a little more zip I add a couple dashes of hot pepper sauce and lemon juice to taste. The pepper jelly makes a nice dip for cut-up vegetables and chips, as well as a delicious topper for a cream cheese ball or block.

The cultivation of the Peppadew plants is carefully controlled and restricted to prevent competing products from coming on the market, although a New Jersey farm was recently authorized to grow another related variety, Peppadew Goldew. The Goldews I tasted at a gourmet foods show several years ago were not as piquant as the red ones but otherwise similar except for the orange-yellow color.

According to the Hippy Seed Company in Australia, the red Peppadew is in fact similar to a Malawi Piquante Pepper found in the south eastern African country of Malawi. The company's site, which sells the Malawi Piquante seeds, says the plants get about 6 feet tall in a pot and are "awesome" producers. For more info on the Malawi pepper and to see what it looks like fresh you can watch a little YouTube video.

If you can't find Peppadews, Trader Joe's carries a similar-looking pickled pepper from Mexico; these are labeled  Peri Peri Pepper Drops. These, too, are about the size of a cherry tomato but they are usually zippier than Peppadews. They are pickled with peri peri spice (African Bird's Eye Pepper) which is what gives them their kick.

Herbed Cream Cheese Stuffed Peppadew Halves

I've seen recipes that called for stuffing whole Peppadews and serving them, but really they are too big to comfortably eat this way. Instead, I suggest simply halving them vertically so they form little "bowls." These are not only easier and less piggy to eat, but are easier to prepare. 

The quickest way to fill the pepper halves is to put the cream cheese mixture into a sturdy plastic baggie; close the top tightly; then snip off one bottom corner of the bag. Use the bag as you would a piping bag, squeezing some of the cream cheese out the opening into each little pepper bowl. I like to use a light hand when adding the filling, but feel free to be generous for richer appetizers.

Tip: If you can't find fresh dillweed, just omit it from the recipe; the dried is too bland to make a good substitute. The fresh chives are essential to the dish.

1 8-ounce soft tub-style cream cheese or light cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish

2 teaspoons chopped fresh dillweed, plus sprigs for garnish, optional

1/8 teaspoon onion salt or garlic salt
About 15 to 20 Peppadew peppers, halved vertically 

Combine the cream cheese with chives, dillweed (if using) and salt until evenly mixed. Set aside so the flavors can mingle for at least 15 minutes and longer if desired.

Meanwhile, drain the peppers and pat them dry on paper towels. Put the filling in a sturdy baggie, then use it like a pastry bag to pipe portions into the pepper halves. Arrange them on a serving tray and garnish with chopped chives and dillweed (if using). Serve immediately or, if desired, cover and refrigerate the peppers for up to 24 hours.

Makes 30 to 40 appetizer servings. 

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Biscotti in a Jar Gift Mix--A Gourmet Twist on the Bars-In-Jars Gift

I love making kitchen gifts, so I had to include a whole chapter of "bars-in-jars" recipes in my recent baking book, Simply Sensational Cookies. All sorts of bar and cookie mixes are possible and they make really appealing and attractive holiday gifts for teachers, relatives, holiday hostesses, or anybody else you or your family want to remember with a little something special. (Older kids can have fun preparing the jars themselves; younger ones can make them with a little grown-up or older sibling to supervise.) 

Don't forget that you must provide the recipient a recipe card or printed sheet with directions on how to actually turn the jar of mix into cookies. As the pic above shows in the upper left, I like to recycle the fronts of old Christmas cards and paste the instructions onto the backs. For convenience the information is in presented below in label format so you can print it out and use it the same way. Or just print it out onto colorful, sturdy paper, if preferred.

In case you haven't come across the term "bars in jars" before, it refers to cookie gift mix recipes that call for artfully layering all the ingredients into a clear 1-quart or 1 liter jar or canister. As you can see from the pic, the completed homemade gift jars look a bit like the eye-catching sand art creations millions of enthusiastic crafters were making in America in the 1970s. 

The jars enable recipients to conveniently ready a pan of bars (or in the case of cookies-in-a jar recipes a batch of cookies), simply by combining the whole jar of mix with a couple of fresh ingredients, usually butter and eggs. The idea behind the mix featured here is unusual in that it makes up into sliced crunchy cookies called biscotti. Don't worry--the shaping method is super-easy!

Though I can't prove it, I think the bars-in-jars layered recipes were probably inspired by the sand art creations that were the rage in the late 1970s. The term "sand art" was definitely in vogue then: When I entered these two words into the Google n-gram data base, the resulting graph revealed that more than 90 percent of all mentions of the term from the 1500s through today occurred between 1972 and 1979! 

 It's probably not a coincidence that recipes for layered mixes started popping up then, too: When I recently searched on-line for American cookbooks featuring these homemade mix recipes, the first I turned up were HP Books' Make a Mix Cookery published in 1978, followed by its More Make a Mix Cookery, in 1980. The recipes continue to be popular though; quite a few more gift mix books have been published since then.

Cherry-Berry Biscotti-in-Jars 
photo by Diane Cu and Todd Porter
 Typically, bars-in-jars  and cookies-in-jars recipes are in the homey category--brownies, chocolate chip drops, cowboy cookies and similar treats. But, as the name and the pics here suggest, this particular recipe is a different. It yields nut and berry-laden biscotti and appeals to gourmet bakers with more sophisticated tastes. (If you prefer a more typical and familiar bars-in-jars recipe or that features more economical ingredients, go here.)  The pic at left is from Simply Sensational Cookies and was taken by Diane Cu and Todd Porter.

I'm proud to tell you that our book was nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals "Best Baking Book" award. And, yippee,  it was just picked as a suggested holiday gift book in a Huffington Post article!

Note that this recipe calls for freeze-dried raspberries—the “Just Raspberries” brand is available at some supermarkets and at gourmet and health food stores. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods also carry packages of  freeze-dried raspberries sold under their own label. Several brands are available on-line. They are pricey, but add a distinctive, unusual appeal.

 If you can't find freeze-dried raspberries, freeze-dried strawberries may be substituted--either will give the biscotti an unusual berry flavor and color. If necessary you can even substitute chopped dried sweetened cranberries, which will work fine, but, of course, will lend a rather different taste.

Tip: The recipe calls for completing the baking in two 4- by 8-inch loaf pans. If you think the recipient might not have these, simply supply two foil pans along with the jar of gift mix.

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup coarsely chopped slivered almonds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup coarsely chopped dried sweetened cherries
2/3 cup coarsely chopped freeze-dried raspberries 

Preliminaries: Set out a clear glass, transparent plastic or other attractive 1-quart or 1-liter jar, along with its lid. Set out a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil to use as a funnel. (If you have a funnel that fits the jar, by all means substitute that!)

Center the flour, baking powder, and salt on a large sheet of heavy foil. Stir together until well blended. Using the foil as a funnel, pour into a 1-quart jar. Shake, then rap the jar on the counter to even the layer. Combine the sugar, almonds, and cinnamon on the foil, stirring to blend well. Add to the jar; shake and rap it to even the layer. Wipe down the jar sides, if necessary. Add the cherries, then the raspberries to the jar. Again shake and rap the jar to even the surface. If the jar will be shipped, firmly stuff the empty space at the top with crumpled wax paper. Attach a tag or card with the recipe instructions to the jar.

Yield: Makes 1 quart of mix, enough for about 25 to 35 biscotti.
Storage: The unopened mix will keep up to 1 month unrefrigerated, or 2 months refrigerated.

For the label/tag for the jar:

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Healthy Meatless Tacos after Too Much Holiday Turkey & Ham

 After a holiday of too many hearty, meaty meals of turkey with stuffing and ham and sweet potatoes, I'm worrying that the hubs and I might now be starting to look like  stuffed turkeys or hams!  So, I'm taking a break and going meatless for supper.

 Not only is this vegetarian taco menu zesty and full of color and crunch, but it features a healthy mix of beans, brown rice, and assorted vitamin- and fiber-packed vegetables. Of course, it's perfect for serving vegetarians (and also those who can't eat gluten), but those who generally demand meat will be satisfied as well. In fact, they may not even notice that anything is missing.

For convenience, I like to prepare the filling completely ahead, and simply reheat it at 50% power in a microwave oven at mealtime. (It can even be frozen, then thawed and reheated.) Once the crisp taco shells and garnishes are set out, diners just ready their own servings as desired.  BTW, tossing fresh chopped tomatoes with dried oregano and a little bottled salsa as directed below gives even ho-hum hothouse tomatoes a lot of zing.

Quick 'n Healthy Vegetarian (and Gluten-Free) Bean & Rice Tacos

For a tame taco filling, choose a mild chili powder and mild bottled salsa; for one with a  kick, use a medium-hot brand of chili powder and bottled salsa. If the filling is still not hot enough for you, feel free to add a couple dashes of hot sauce or pinch of cayenne at the end of the cooking.

Tip: The recipe calls for cooked brown rice. If you like, ready it ahead from either regular long-grain brown rice or "instant" brown rice following the package directions. It will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 36 hours and frozen (airtight) up to 3 weeks.  (I make a large pot and stash the rice in 1 cup plastic packets in the freezer--very handy!)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon mild or medium-hot chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups drained, canned garlic and oregano seasoned diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cooked (unseasoned) instant or regular long grain brown rice
1 cup rinsed and well-drained canned black beans or kidney beans or pinto beans,
1/4 cup bottled mild or medium-hot tomato salsa

Accompaniments to set out with the taco filling:

 8 to 10 crisp corn taco shells, warmed if desired
3 cups diced fresh tomatoes seasoned with 2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves and 3
   tablespoons bottled mild to medium-hot salsa
2 to 3 cups shredded iceberg lettuce or coarsely chopped romaine leaves
1/2 cup sliced Kalamata black olives, optional
3/4 to 1 cup shredded regular or reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish, optional

In a 12- to 13-inch deep-sided nonstick skillet over medium heat, combine the oil and onions and cook, stirring, until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the chili powder, oregano, and allspice and cook, stirring, 1 minute longer. Add the salt, tomatoes, and rice to the skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes, until the tomato cooks down and the flavors blend. Transfer mixture to a food processor. Process until well blended and almost smooth, scraping down the bowl sides as necessary. Add the beans and salsa to the processor. Process until the beans are chopped, but not completely pureed. 

Use the filling immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days, then rewarm slightly before serving. Set out the filling along with the accompaniments and let diners make their own tacos. Makes 4 or 5 serving.

For another healthy, flavorful supper recipe, check out my hearty lentil-rice soup here.

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