Monday, January 30, 2012

How to Use a Marbling Technique to Decorate Valentine's Cookies, Plus an Icing for All-Natural Food Colors

Recently I posted about my switch from decorating with regular commercial liquid food dyes to all-natural botanical alternatives. I explained here why I think this was a smart health decision and provided a lot of other details.

I promised that I'd follow up with an icing recipe to use with the "naturally beautiful" dyes. In the meantime, I also got an e-mail asking how to create the interesting geometric designs shown on some of these cookies (like most of the ones at left). 

So, I here I show you step-by-step how one very eye-catching effect is created.

The technique is called marbling, and it's a classic decorating method European pastry chefs have long used to quickly dress up fancy tortes and other pastries. Don't worry, it's easier than it looks!

Yes, the marbling can involve using a variety of different colors and very tidy piping (my pink striped cookie in the top left pic features red, brown, lime green and white!). But it doesn't have to be at all elaborate or even perfectly piped to look impressive.

The main thing to remember is that the designs need to be completed while icings are still wet.  So, it's best to have everything ready and within reach in advance. The toothpicks should be handy, the icings made, and the accenting icing(s) placed in a piping bag or cone.

As the four pics at right reveal, the basic technique is fairly simple: After covering a cookie with a fairly fluid icing,  immediately pipe spaced lines in a contrasting color (or colors) over the first layer. You can use a piping bag fitted with a fine writing tip; or a paper decorating cone; or a sturdy plastic baggie with one tiny corner snipped off. Don't worry if your piped lines aren't perfect; the finished cookie will still look very impressive!

As soon as the lines are completed, use a toothpick to draw across them to marble the colors and create the geometric design. It may be easiest to start in the middle, then draw down through at regular intervals on each side, as shown at right. It's also possible to draw through the lines working from the bottom to the top, or by drawing downward with one line, then upward with the next for another interesting look.

In smaller heart cookies three vertical lines is enough to dress up the entire surface. However, five marbling lines looks great on larger cookies. The only real key to success is to finish working while the two icings are still wet enough to blend and flow together and dry with a smooth surface. (If you are curious about how to create the little heart designs on several cookies pictured below, the how-to for this slightly different marbling technique is here.)

As all these pics prove, the “au naturel” dyes come in a nice variety of colors, so cake and cookie decorations can be just as pretty as they ever were. (All those shown were decorated with plant-based dyes from the Natural Colors line sold here.) The botanical food colors do have to be handled a little differently though because they are more prone to fade when exposed to heat, air, and light.  Tint your icings, buttercreams, and such a little brighter than the final shade desired to accommodate for this. And store the bottles of colors tightly capped and in the refrigerator to keep the shades vivid.

Some brands of liquid botanical colors have a slightly thicker consistency than comparable synthetic dyes, partly because of the natural color pigments themselves and partly because the au naturel brands often incorporate plant glycerin instead of the more fluid but risky propylene glycol found in “regular” food dyes.  Propylene glycol is the main ingredient in some kinds of antifreeze!

 Don’t add lemon juice or other fruit juices to flavor icings tinted with botanical colors, as some natural dyes, especially blue shades, react with acid ingredients and immediately turn pink or red! If you really want a lemon, orange or lime flavor, add a couple pinches of very finely grated fresh citrus zest to the icing.

Easy Powdered Sugar Icing for Au Natural Food Colors

Here’s an easy powdered sugar icing suitable for using with botanical dyes (or with regular food colors if that’s what you have).  A double batch of  the same icing was tinted different colors and used to decorate all the cookies pictured. (If you don't have purchased botanical dyes, you can make pretty cookies using cranberry juice concentrate instead; the recipe is different and is posted here.)
You’ll notice that the recipe calls for optional meringue powder or egg white powder.  Add it if you’re working with very bright contrasting colors that you don’t want to bleed into one another as the cookies stand.  Meringue powder can be usually  found with other Wilton cake decorating products.  Plain egg white powder is often stocked in supermarket baking aisles.

By the way, I made the cookies using the Good and Easy Sugar Cookies recipe in Simply Sensational Cookies, but for another a rolled sugar cookie recipe that works well, go here.

 Tip: Don’t leave out the corn syrup—it’s what gives the icing its sheen.

3 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon commercial meringue powder or dried egg white powder, optional
1  1/2 teaspoons light corn syrup, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla, almond, lemon, or raspberry extract
5 to 6 teaspoons water, plus more if needed
1 to 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder combined with enough water to make a smooth paste, optional
Natural botanical food colors (or regular food colors), as desired

Put the powdered sugar in a large bowl. Thoroughly stir in the meringue powder if using. Stir the corn syrup, vanilla, and 5 teaspoons water into the mixture, adding more water if the mixture is too dry to come together smoothly.  Divide the mixture among three or four bowls if you want make an assortment of colors. Stir in botanical or synthetic food colors, as desired.  The natural dyes will fade a bit as they dry and the baked goods are stored, so make them a bit brighter than you want the final shades to be.  For a natural brown color, make a cocoa powder paste and stir it into one of the bowls until thoroughly incorporated. If necessary, thin the icings with more water to make them for fluid and spreadable; or thicken them with powdered sugar until stiff enough to hold their shape when  piped.

Decorating options:
>For rolled cookies--Spread  out a smooth layer of icing  the cookies tops,  then for a marbled  effect  immediately top with a contrasting piped icing as desired. Directions for forming little hearts are here.  Or immediately garnish the tops by adding colored sprinkles or decorator sugar as desired.
>For dropped or mounded cookies, dip their tops into the icing when it is very fluid. Or stiffen the icing with powdered sugar and enough to swirl or pipe onto their tops. 
This recipe is designed so you can make smallish batches of 3 or 4 different colors--bright pink, light pink, chocolate and white. For the intense pink shown, mix the ingredients with all cranberry juice concentrate. For a light or medium pink, use about half cranberry juice concentrate and half water.  For the rich, reddish chocolate color shown, use mostly cranberry juice concentrate instead of water when you mix up the icing. By the way, the berry juice adds a very pleasant fruitiness and tang to the icings. (Of course, for a plain white icing, you simply use all water and omit the juice.)

All together these batches of icing will yield enough to generously decorate 40 to 60 cookies, depending on their size. I often decorate a number of cookies using the medium and bright pink colors, then stir in some white to tone them down for cookies in additional complementary slightly softer shades. Both the chocolate and the white contrast the bright pink nicely. Yield: 1 batch of icing will generously decorate 30 to 40 2 1/2- to 3-inch cookies.

 See how to make marbled heart cookies here.
Check out directions for my "jeweled" stain-glass heart cookies here.
Learn how to make all-natural homemade sprinkles in any color desired here.
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pastry Decorating the "Naturally Beautiful" Way--How to Avoid Synthetic Food Colors & Use Botanical Dyes

Over the past decade I’ve been exploring how to  minimize the use of synthetic food dyes in my pastry decorating.  In fact, all the icings pictured here were tinted with botanical dyes.

If you are inspired and want to buy natural colors immediately, Whole Foods now carries the Color Garden brand; the colors are attractive and work well in the icing recipe provided below.  The only problem is that the colors tend to fade and blur over time, so the cookies need to be eaten in a day or two or stashed in the freezer until needed. The Color Garden brand was used on the cookies at right above and at the very bottom. (BTW, I have a really good/easy way to roll out my cookie doughs; see it in the short, fun video here.) 

The rest of  the cookies shown below are decorated using natural dyes from the Chocolate Craft Colors “Natural Colors” line, available from a few retailers and on the Internet here. As you can see, all the cookies are pretty, but the shades are a little different from the colors produced by the petrochemical-based brands. I actually like their look better, especially on Valentine's Day cookies, because they are softer and seem more romantic.

I first got interested in “au natural” decorating when I developed an allergy to the usual red dyes in lipsticks. My lips burned, then peeled every time I applied lipstick; eventually I couldn’t use the standard cosmetic counter brands at all.

After researching lipstick dyes and various related allergies, I eventually decided to limit not just red synthetic  colorants, but all the government approved  FD & C (Food, Drug & Cosmetic  Act) food  dyes, including the familiar little 4-bottle food color sets  stocked in grocery stores for home bakers.

Typically, these sets include mixtures containing FD&C red 40, red 3, yellow 5 (aka tartrazine), and blue 1: All of these are synthetic  petrochemical colorants , and all have shown at  least some evidence of being irritants or allergens in certain people.  Red 40 and the particularly troubling  tartrazine  (both in a chemical class called azo dyes) are often considered the most suspect and have been banned from use in foods in some countries.
Another disturbing ingredient in the “regular” food dyes is propylene  glycol.  The unfamiliar name on the label may not ring any alarm bells because people often don’t know what this chemical is—it's the  main ingredient in some kinds of antifreeze!  (Propylene glycol is used to keep the liquid dyes flowing smoothly.) I decided the various  additives just weren’t worth the risks and vowed to find some naturally beautiful alternatives.

Initially, I began substituting the colors readily available in the form of fruit juices from the supermarkets. In many cases, these produce not only a beautiful look, but they contribute appealing flavor to frostings and icings. Cranberry juice and orange juice have been particularly handy; check out my buttercream frosting recipe here and my “painted daisies” sugar cookies here.

Lately, I’ve been trying out various “au naturel” botanically-based commercial food color products.  Although different companies have their own unique formulas, they all rely on plant pigments—such as red from beets, purple and blue from red cabbage, orange from annatto, yellow from turmeric, and, in one instance, an intense, unusual bright blue from hydrangea blooms.  

As you can see from the Valentine’s cookies, the results from these dyes can be very pretty, and they will likely satisfy all but the most finicky home pastry decorator.  Note that while the Valentine's cookies here feature pastels, you can also purchase holiday red and green and even botanically based sprinkles from Chocolate Craft Colors as are shown in the photo below and in more photos in the post here.

If you're interested in how to create designs featuring little hearts like those shown in the romantic shot above, the step-by-step pics and directions are here.)  Incidentally, my Simply Sensational Cookies book--which makes a fine holiday gift-- features all kinds of  "au naturel" decorating ideas. Watch a quick fun demo video, or see my Pinterest board featuring pictures from it here.

The botanically-based liquid colors are  a little different from their synthetic counterparts in a number of ways.  Here are some basics you need to know about natural plant dyes:

>They are usually not as shelf stable as the synthetic food colorants and will fade over time; most manufacturers recommend that they be kept refrigerated.  Also, tint your icings, buttercreams , and such a little brighter than the final shade you want, because they lose a little intensity as the finished baked goods stand.  Finally, when the natural colors are swirled together as on the heart cookies, they tend to bleed together during standing. To keep them looking picture perfect freeze them and bring them back to room temperature right before you plan to serve them.

>They are sensitive to heat so are best for tinting fillings, frostings and other enhancements normally applied after baking or to raw doughs that are baked briefly and/or at low temperature.

>Au naturel dyes don’t come in every conceivable color.  Ones that precisely duplicate Christmas green and red are hard to find, but IMHO these are overused and a bit garish anyway.  The typical botanically-based greens and reds are plenty festive and have a fresher, more natural look. 

> Some botanical food dyes change color in the presence of acid. Blue shades, for example, often turn reddish.  One easy solution is to avoid adding lemon juice and other high acidic ingredients to fillings and frostings  when using botanical dyes.

Another is simply see what happens when  you  add lemon juice to a small amount of tinted frosting —sometimes the shade is beautiful, not to mention totally unique.  For example, the blue icing shown at far left in the pic turns pink (shown right), while the purple (back left) turns a slightly brighter, pink-orange shade (back right).

Yes, these issues mean that switching to botanical dyes isn’t always just a matter of swapping out the typical supermarket colors. Which is partly why even though the au naturel alternatives on the market are plenty attractive and are much safer, the food industry doesn’t want to bother with them.  But I’m told by folks in the natural foods business that many large mainstream companies  have  plans in place to switch to the botanical colorants when the public  or the government demands that we stop eating the iffy petrochemical additives. 

The Color Garden dyes comes in little plastic packets in boxes as shown here: The multi-pack box contains 1 each of red, blue, yellow and orange; the other boxes contain four packets of the same shade. The Natural Colors 6-bottle set from Chocolate Craft Colors comes in ½-ounce bottles with a nifty dropper-style tip. The colors include berry red, yellow, orange, green, blue and purple.

  I’m thrilled to have shifted to “naturally beautiful” decorating.  It means I can enjoy cookie baking and decorating with my grandchildren and serve up eye-catching baked goods to my family without wondering about potential risks.

Powdered Sugar Icing for Botanical Dyes

If you are using botanical dyes make piped or "marbled" cookies, you need to use an icing that includes dried egg white powder or meringue powder, like the recipe here.  It will help set these more fragile colors and keep them from fading, blurring together, and becoming splotchy during storage. Egg white powder is sometimes stocked in the baking section of supermarkets; meringue powder is often found with Wilton baking/cake decorating supplies in discount department and craft stores.

Don’t omit the corn syrup from the recipe, as it increases spreadability and enables the icing to flow more smoothly and evenly. If you prefer to avoid high-fructose corn syrup, use the Karo brand, which is free of high-fructose corn syrup.

Tip: Be sure never to replace the water called for with lemon or orange juice or any other other acidic ingredients. Even small amounts will react with the pigments in the natural dyes and cause their colors to change or fade in unpredictable ways.

1 1-pound box or 3 cups powdered sugar, if lumpy sift after measuring
1 1/2 tablespoons commercial dried egg white power or meringue powder
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract or lemon extract
4 to 6 tablespoons water, as needed
Drops of botanical food colors, as desired

In a large bowl thoroughly mix together the powdered sugar and egg white powder or meringue powder.  Add the corn syrup, vanilla (or other extract), and 4 1/2 tablespoons water. Stir them in, gradually adding more water as necessary for the desired consistency. For piping, the consistency should be stiff enough that the icing holds its shape but can be piped through pastry tips. For spreading, the icing should have a fluid but not runny consistency. Divide the icing among up to 5 or 6 smaller bowls for cookie icings and stir in food colors as desired. Keep covered with plastic wrap when not being used so they don't dry out.

Use immediately or store them in the refrigerator for up to 4 or 5 days. Stir well and bring to room temperature before using.

If you're interested in making your own homemade sprinkles with botanical (or regular) food colors, go here. For recipes using green tea and fruit juices to tint icings, as shown left, go here.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sweet Valentine's Cookies--Beautiful & Botanical, too

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A Good-for-You Spiced Applesauce Muffin That's Actually Tasty!

I’m constantly (happily) creating recipes, pics and stories for Kitchenlane. Not surprising, they often reflect what we're eating at my house. Like this applesauce muffin recipe, for example--which I’ve been experimenting with (and eating for lunch with a nourishing soup) for the past week. The muffin fits in with our current goal to eat more healthfully.

I recently read in the Harvard Health Letter that though people tend to think of muffins as much more healthful than, say, doughnuts, the gigantic, sumptuous-looking ones typically found in coffee shops and bakeries are often fattier and more calorie-laden than the average glazed doughnut. Even the low-fat muffins aimed at health-conscious customers often aren’t really nutritious, the article points out, because to compensate for the reduced fat they increase the salt and sugar. The article notes that an even greater failing of these so-called healthy treats is that they usually don’t incorporate any whole grains and contain little fiber. Experts now feel that these issues are much more important than merely avoiding fat, especially if it’s low-saturated, heart-healthy fat such as olive oil, corn oil or canola oil.

Since I’ve been taking steps to eat better, I decided to create a nutrition-wise muffin that was particularly good for snacking.  This recipe incorporates whole grains in the form of whole wheat flour and oats, plus more fiber from applesauce and raisins.  It calls for a fairly modest amount of a “good,” fat; provides some high-quality protein from fat-free yogurt and an egg; and cuts back a bit on the usual amount of sugar and salt found in muffins. Note that the honey isn’t added because it’s particularly nutritious (it's not), but because it boosts flavor and helps keep the muffins moist.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t add more whole grains and reduce the sugar and fat as drastically as some recipes circulating around, it’s because I want the results to be tasty, too. I learned while writing a number of heart-healthy cookbooks that if recipes are stuffed with too much fiber and stripped of too much of their normal sugar and salt, they will come out looking and tasting like hockey pucks.  And at my house, nobody will eat hockey pucks no matter how wholesome they are!

Good ‘n Healthy  Spiced Applesauce-Raisin Muffins

These are good for breakfast, with a bowl of soup for lunch, or as a snack with a glass of milk or a cup of tea.

Tip: Whole wheat pastry flour yields tenderer muffins than regular whole wheat flour and, fortunately, is becoming easier to obtain. I found bags of the Hodgson brand, which worked great, stocked on my local supermarket shelves. Whole Foods and smaller health food stores are other good places to look.

1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (if unavailable, substitute regular whole wheat flour)
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose white flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Generous 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 6-ounce carton plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt
1/4 cup corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless, low-saturated fat vegetable oil
1/3 cup clover honey or other mild honey
1 large egg, or 3 tablespoons liquid egg substitute
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup dark, seedless raisins or golden raisins (or a combination)
3/4 cup quick-cooking rolled oats (not instant oats)

            Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 15 or 16 standard-sized muffin tin cups or coat with non-stick spray. 

            In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the sugar and cinnamon.  Measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons of the mixture and set aside for garnish. Thoroughly stir the whole wheat and white flours, baking powder, allspice, baking soda, and salt into the large bowl with the remaining sugar.  In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together the applesauce, yogurt, oil, honey, eggs, and vanilla until evenly blended. Add the raisins and oats let stand 5 to 10 minutes so they can thoroughly hydrate. Stir the applesauce-raisin mixture into flour mixture, mixing gently just until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened and incorporated; don't over-mix or the batter may toughen.  
Using a 1/4-cup measure or large spoon, immediately divide the batter among 15 or 16 muffin cups; the cups should be fairly full. Sprinkle the muffin tops with the reserved sugar-spice mixture, dividing it equally among them.

            Bake in the middle third of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes or until the muffins are tinged with brown on top and springy to the touch; a toothpick inserted into the thickest part of a center muffin  should come out clean. Cool on wire rack 3 or 4 minutes; gently run a knife around cups and remove muffins from their cups. Let stand until cooled. These can be kept airtight for up to 3 days or frozen, airtight for longer storage. Let return to room temperature before serving.

            Makes 15 or 16 standard-sized muffins

Another muffin you may like--Cranberry-Pear with Crystallized Ginger. In that recipe the pears and cranberries provide the fiber.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hearty, Wholesome & Easy Curried Lentil Soup--Another Recipe to Help You Eat Healthier & Lose Weight

If you, too, made a vow to eat better this year, this recipe, which is one of 75 in my new Kindle book, The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook, may be a big help. Aside from being low-cal yet hearty, it definitely achieves some of the goals most of us are setting for ourselves these days—to eat more veggies, whole grains, and fiber, and less meat and fat.

Whether or not you are following the 2 day a week diet (learn more here), or any weight loss diet, this soup is really handy. With a pot of it stashed in the fridge you can conveniently pull it out and heat up a fuss-free, calorie-wise, meal-in-a-bowl. And it guarantees that some of the nutritious veggies, fiber, and whole grains are routinely in your menu.
Wow! Introductory Amazon Kindle book price- $3.99 !

Maybe you’re thinking that lentils and brown rice sound boring and too health-foody, but believe me they are amazingly satisfying in this soup. Despite the fact that it's low in fat, it has an enticing full-bodied vegetable and curry flavor, and  nobody misses meat at all.

In case you aren't familiar with the 2 Day a Week Diet (aka the 5-2 diet or Fast Diet), it's becoming the rage because scientific studies have shown that more people lose weight on it than they do on the traditional 24-7 diets. In creating the recipes for The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook, my co-author and I, and our husbands, all lost weight.  (The book has 75 carefully-crafted recipes and 50 photos.)

Also, we all agree that since we diet only 2 days a week, it is the easiest  weight loss plan we've ever followed.  It involves our eating 500 calories a day (the guys get 600) on 2 diet days, then just normally the other days of the week. Since this soup is only 160 calories for a very generous 1 2/3 cup serving, it fits very nicely into our 2 Day a Week Diet budget.

Hearty Curried Lentil, Brown Rice-Vegetable Soup

This soup recipe not only satisfies key nutritional goals, but it goes together quickly, cooks in about 30 minutes, and is extremely economical. Plus, it smells wonderful as it cooks, keeps well, and, if you use vegetable broth, is fine for serving vegetarians. It's just one of 15 varied, tasty, calorie-wise soups in The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook, including Home-style Chicken-Rice Soup and Clam chowder.

Makes 4 160-calorie servings, about 1 2/3 cups each.

A generous bowl of this soup makes a great lunch served as is, but it can also be rounded out with some crackers and cheese. Garnishing the bowls with a dollop of plain yogurt is another easy way to boost the protein in the meal.

To streamline prepping tasks as much as possible, cut the vegetables into 1-inch chunks, then pulse until them in a processor until roughly chopped. Though the recipe calls 1/2 cup each of the onion, celery and carrot, feel free to use more or less depending on what you have on hand. Sweet peppers have a lot of vitamin C and add pleasing flavor, but they can be left out, if desired. If you don’t have red lentils, the more commonplace brown or greens ones can be substituted; they’ll just take 10 to 15 minutes longer to cook through.

If possible use reduced-sodium broth in the recipe; since many curry powders contain salt, the soup can actually come out too salty if regular broth is used. In a pinch, substitute broth made by reconstituting bouillon powder or cubes. I find that using half low-sodium and half regular bouillon powder produces a broth with about the right degree of saltiness.

Tip: For a healthful muffin to go with this soup, check out my Applesauce Muffins here.

1 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
3/4 cup each coarsely chopped onion and celery
1/2 cup each chopped sweet red or green pepper and carrots
6 cups fat-free reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
1/4 cup each uncooked red lentils and uncooked long-grain brown rice
2 to 3 teaspoons mild to medium hot curry powder (your preference)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or 1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground hot red pepper flakes, optional
1 14.5-ounce can diced or chopped tomatoes, including juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, for garnish, optional

Combine the oil, onion, celery, sweet pepper if using in a 4-quart pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until they are soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the broth, lentils, rice, and the herbs and spices to the pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring well. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils and rice are almost tender, about 20 to 25 minutes; take a taste to check.

Stir in the tomatoes and their juice, and, if the soup is thick, enough hot water to thin it to a soup consistency. Bring back to a boil; taste and add salt if necessary. Serve in soup plates, garnished with fresh cilantro, if desired.

Keeps, covered and refrigerated for up to 4 days. May be frozen for up to 2 weeks.

For another sample recipes from The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook, try the recipe shown at right,  Mexican-Style Vegetable Soup here. (It has only 110 calories per 2 cup serving!

Try my savory autumn bisque here. Another tempting soup, the minestrone pictured below is here.
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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fresh Blueberry Muffins--With No Apologies to My Locavore Friends

I know, I know. It’s the dead of winter, so the blueberries in my pictures were definitely not grown here in Maryland. In fact, right now blueberries aren’t in season anywhere on this continent. The staunch locavores who believe that shipping food huge distances is scandalously wasteful of resources will not be happy that these beauties were flown in from Chile.

But they showed up in my supermarket looking so pristine and gorgeous that even though I myself have occasionally spouted the locavore line (especially when it comes to peaches, which IMHO are only worth eating fully ripe from local trees) I had to buy them. The thought of a big bowl of fresh, summery tasting berries for breakfast on a cold, dreary winter day got to me. And I’d been wanting some good homemade blueberry muffins for a while, and though frozen berries will work, they usually drip and turn the batter an odd purple-gray.

Anyway, these berries turned out to be every bit as tasty as they look—full of flavor, succulent and possessing a pleasing tang. And I’m not feeling guilty that I bought them either. Besides being a healthful winter treat on my table, these goodies are helping put food on the family tables of many hard working Chilean farmers.

Tom Tjerandsen, North American director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association says the export crop will be about 78,000 tons this season, three-fourths of it coming to the US. And farmers there are striving to expand production to perhaps 120,000 tons by 2015. If any of my locavore buddies try to chide me on buying shipped-in fruit, I’ll point out that we’re providing a vital market to agricultural workers elsewhere around the globe.

Good ‘n Easy Blueberry Muffins 
It seems like blueberry muffins have been around forever in America. According to the American Institute of Baking they are our most popular flavor (banana-nut is second); and muffins in general are a huge category in the baking industry.

But actually, fruit muffins of any kind are relative newcomers to our baking repertoire. One of the earliest recipes I’ve found was published in the 1905 edition Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book: It called for 1/4 cup sugar and 1 cup of berries (the berry variety wasn’t specified). Note that 1/4 cup sugar is far less than most modern recipes require, so apparently muffins have gotten a lot sweeter over time. In fact, my version calls for a generous 3/4 cup of sugar in the batter and a little more sprinkled on top (which adds a wonderful crunch) and most people don’t find the muffins overly sweet at all.

These are plump, generously studded with blueberries, and stay pleasingly moist. They are easy to make, too, as ingredients are quickly stirred together and no mixer is required. In case you are curious, the small amount of baking soda helps facilitate proper browning.

Tip: Fresh blueberries will look and taste better in these muffins. However, if you want to use frozen berries add them before they are completely thawed and pat them dry with paper towels before folding them into the batter. You’ll need to add a few minutes to the baking time to compensate for the cooler temperature of the batter.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
Generous 3/4 cup granulated sugar, plus 1½ tablespoons more for garnish
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
Generous 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3/4 cup whole or low-fat milk
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups fresh or partially thawed (and blotted dry) frozen blueberries
1½ tablespoons blueberry flavored sugar for garnish (or substitute regular granulated sugar if necessary)

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Grease 12 standard-sized muffin tin cups or coat with nonstick spray.
Thoroughly stir together the flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the butter till runny over medium heat; then set aside. Measure the milk in a 2-cup or larger measure. Stir the butter into the milk. Then, using a fork, beat the egg and vanilla into the milk mixture until well blended. Add milk mixture to flour mixture, stirring until just until dry ingredients are evenly moistened and incorporated; don't overmix or beat. Gently fold in the blueberries just until distributed evenly.
Using a heaping 1/4-cup measure or very large spoon, immediately divide batter among 11 or 12 muffin cups. (They should be fairly full.) Sprinkle the tops with the reserved 1 ½ tablespoons sugar, dividing it among them.
Bake for 14 to 18 minutes or until muffins are golden and springy to the touch; a toothpick inserted into the thickest part of a center muffin should come out clean. Cool on wire rack 3 or 4 minutes; gently run a knife around cups and remove muffins from pan. They are best when fresh.
Makes 11 or 12 standard-sized muffins.

In a muffin mood now? Check out my healthful applesauce raisin muffins here or my cranberry muffins here.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Resolving to Eat Better , Walk More, Weigh Less--Starting with This Handy, Wholesome Meal-in-a-Bowl Salmon-Veggie Chowder

In the hope that something has been learned from past experience, I’m drastically scaling back on my New Year’s resolutions this year. No more grandiose plans to walk two miles a day (or even to walk every day); shed 10 pounds; completely reorganize my rat’s-nest of an office; or eat more healthfully.

These have all been on my New Year’s to-do list many times before, and though they doubtless seem piddling compared to many people’s resolutions, they’re apparently overly ambitious for me.  So, I’m lowering the bar to more modest aspirations, including simple walking more frequently, losing three pounds, at least starting to tidy up my office, and eating a little less meat and more fish, vegetables and whole grains. My thinking is that following through on any of these means heading in the right direction—which  is better than doing nothing or sliding in the wrong one.  (If these goals interest you, but the salmon really doesn't, check out my spicy, healthy, easy lentil-rice soup here.  It's pictured at the bottom of this post.)

In case you wonder, no, I won’t be providing any embarrassing reports of either personal achievements or failures. (There are enough “big loser” sorts of TV shows out there to satisfy any interest in intimate, humiliating details.)  In fact, unless I make enough progress on office cleanup to post a pic (highly unlikely) probably the only evidence you’ll see of any of my plans being carried out is an occasional posting of a healthful fish or veggie recipe. There will definitely be NO before and after shots of me, although since my goal is losing only three pounds you probably wouldn't notice any difference anyway!

Fresh Salmon and Vegetable Chowder

I know that not everybody thinks that eating salmon is a healthful step. The naysayers point out that it's sometimes contaminated and that farm-raised salmon have a negative environmental impact.

Those who recommend salmon mention the benefits of its Omega-3 fats, which help reduce inflammation in our bodies. (Inflammation is thought to be a root cause of many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers and arthritis.)  Recently, some studies have shown that omega-3 fats may help slow cognitive problems such as Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline and help alleviate depression and aggressive behavior.

In any case,  this convenient meal-in-a-bowl recipe is definitely on the healthful side because, in addition to the salmon, it features a lot of vegetables and is low in fat. It's fairly fuss-free, savory, and nutritionally well-balanced. The flavor will be greatly enhanced by the addition of either fresh dill weed or dried tarragon leaves: Each herb lends its own distinctively different and appealing character. Fresh dill weed isn't always readily available in markets, but is well worth using when you can find it. (Don’t bother substituting dried dill weed; it has very little taste.)

Tip: Be sure to check along the fleshy side of the salmon fillet and remove any bones along the lateral line before adding it to the pot.

1 tablespoon corn oil, canola oil or other low-saturated fat cooking oil
1/2 cup each peeled and chopped carrot and diced celery
5 1/2 to 6 cups low-fat reduced-sodium chicken broth (or reconstituted reduced-sodium chicken bouillon from granules), divided
1 12-ounce fresh or frozen (thawed) north Atlantic salmon fillet (skin intact), cut in half if very thick
2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) cauliflower florets, coarsely diced
3 tablespoons fresh chopped chives or scallions, plus more for garnish, if desired
1/4 cup chopped fresh dillweed (coarse stems removed), or 2 teaspoons dried tarragon, plus more for garnish, if desired
1 1/3 cups instant mashed potato granules, preferably low-sodium
1 tablespoon prepared mustard, preferably Dijon-style
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a 4-quart saucepan or similar-size soup pot, combine the oil, carrot, and celery. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes, until the vegetables just begin to brown. Add the salmon, searing 1 to 2 minutes on the flesh side, then laying skin-side down. Add 2 1/2 cups broth and bring to a simmer. Poach the salmon, uncovered, for 6 to 10 minutes or until just cooked through. Place it skin-side up on a cutting board. Add the cauliflower and chives (or scallions) and dill to the pot. Cook until the vegetables are almost tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, scrape off and discard the salmon skin. Flake the flesh into bite-sized chunks using a fork.

Gradually stir the mashed potato granules and mustard into the pot until well blended. Stir in 3 cups more broth until evenly incorporated; thin the chowder with more broth if desired. Bring back to a boil. Add the salmon and reheat until piping hot. Add black pepper to taste. Garnish the chowder with small sprigs of dillweed and fresh chopped chives before serving if desired.
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts, 3 or 4 main dish servings.

Check out ne of my fave healthful one-dish meals, lentil-rice soup here.
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