Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cracker Jack ice cream sundae, a dessert my dad would have loved

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My dad was a sugar addict. I don't use the word "addict" lightly, but when it came to my dad and candy, addiction is the only way to describe it.

Daddy pretended he never ate candy. He hid his stash where he thought none of us would find it: the desk drawers and credenza in his office, the bathroom, the trunk of his car.

I think I was a teenager when the family finally caught on. We were sitting at the kitchen table after dinner craving a little something sweet. My mom, ever calorie-conscious, suggested an apple. Daddy went out the door to the garage and came back with jelly beans. "Where'd you get those?" my brother and I asked. "Doesn't matter," he replied with a smile, tossing them on the table. The next time I followed him out to the garage and found him rummaging in the back of his Corvette. I looked over his shoulder and saw his impressive stash - the Corvette's trunk isn't that big, but it holds quite a bit of candy when it's packed to the brim.

Daddy loved licorice all-sorts, jelly beans, Boston "baked beans," and Cracker Jack snacks, but he also kept lollipops and hard candies in a rainbow of flavors. I try not to eat a lot of candy now - my teeth, my waistline! - but sometimes, especially when I'm missing my father, a sweet treat is just the thing. When I do indulge, I always reach for my dad's favorites.


When the folks at the Cracker Jack brand asked if I'd be interested in trying some of their new flavors, I had to say yes. My dad passed away almost five years ago; their email felt like a sign. And when the samples came and I opened a bag and took my first bite, I started to cry. I ate the whole bag without stopping, thinking about the baseball games, fishing trips, and summer family dinners of my youth - many of which included Cracker Jack snacks.

Whether you buy original flavor Cracker Jack popcorn snacks or the delicious new Kettle Corn or Butter Toffee flavors, I bet many of you will experience the same rush of nostalgia I felt. The sweet crunch of the popcorn punctuated by the occasional salty peanut - Cracker Jack snack is one of the iconic tastes of my childhood.

I'm always happy to eat Cracker Jack snack on its own, but for a twist try tossing them on top of an ice cream sundae. This one has rum raisin ice cream because it was my father's favorite, although judging by how many stores I had to hit to find rum raisin, I'm guessing it's not such a popular flavor these days. If vanilla is more your style, go right ahead.

Note: The team at the Cracker Jack brand provided me with free samples of Cracker Jack snacks to use when writing this article. No other payment changed hands. All memories and opinions are, of course, my own.





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Cracker Jack ice cream sundae
This ice cream sundae combines three of my dad's favorite sweet flavors: rum raisin ice cream, gooey caramel sauce and Cracker Jack snacks as a crunchy topping.
Ingredients
  • 3 scoops rum raisin ice cream
  • 2 Tablespoons caramel sauce (make your own or buy a bottled brand)
  • 1/2 cup Cracker Jack snack (Original, Kettle Corn or Butter Toffee flavor)
Instructions
Scoop the ice cream into a bowl. Drizzle the caramel sauce over the ice cream and top with the Cracker Jack snack. Serve immediately.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 serving

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Zucchini scrambled eggs with feta cheese

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A few years ago I realized that if I eat vegetables for breakfast, I'm more likely to satisfy my daily vegetable requirement.

My personal goal is "5 by 5" - that is, five servings of fruits or vegetables by 5pm.

Why 5pm? Because I'm often so tired by the end of the day that all I want is a bowl of cereal.

To that end, I have come up with a million ways to include veggies in my morning meal. This simple scramble uses up a lot of zucchini - a note for those of you with enthusiastic gardens.

Click here for more about "5 by 5"



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Zucchini scrambled eggs with feta
This vegetarian scramble gets your day off to a healthy start. My version goes heavy on the zucchini and light on the cheese, but feel free to add more cheese if you prefer.
Ingredients
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh zucchini, grated
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • salt and pepper to taste
Instructions
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, zucchini, and green onions, and cook about 10 minutes, until the zucchini is soft, has released its water, and is starting to brown. If there is still excess liquid in the zucchini, pour it off before the next step.Add the garlic to the zucchini mixture and cook another 2 minutes. Pour in the eggs and cook, scrambling the mixture in the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon. When the eggs are almost set, add the feta cheese and cook until the cheese is melting and the eggs are cooked to your liking. Remember that the moisture in the zucchini will keep the eggs looking somewhat wet even after they're actually done.Tip the scramble onto a plate and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 serving

Friday, June 14, 2013

The birth of Trufflepalooza: "Meanwhile, Back at Cafe du Monde..."

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Last month I did something I've never done before: I agreed to get up on stage and tell a story.

When Peggy Sweeney McDonald asked me to be part of her food memoir performance series Meanwhile, Back at Cafe du Monde... I said yes. And then, later, I thought: Wait a second. I just agreed to get up on stage? Among professional actors and comedians? And recite a monologue about the birth of my annual Trufflepalooza party?

I experienced a moment of panic. No, not a moment - several weeks.

Turns out once I was up there it wasn't too bad. In fact, look at the length of the video: I couldn't shut up.

I'd written a seven-minute essay that I planned to read. But after hearing a few of the other performances I decided reading to the crowd wasn't going to cut it. When it was my turn, I tossed aside my script and started talking.

Feel free to watch some or all of the video above. Apologies for the length. Next time someone needs to wave red flags at the back of the room (Patti Londre, I'm looking at you).

It's bittersweet for me, watching this, as I just announced yesterday that I'm not holding Trufflepalooza this year due to scheduling conflicts. But I'm already looking ahead to Trufflepalooza 2014.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fresh cherry cobbler

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Every June the kids and I head up to Leona Valley to pick cherries. It takes a bit more than an hour to get to Leona Valley, a tiny town in a long, thin valley cozied up against the mountains that separate the Los Angeles basin from the high desert of the Antelope Valley.

For five or six weekends each spring the town is crawling with urban tourists like me who come to pick cherries. There are a dozen pick-your-own orchards, one huge and borderline industrial, the rest small and dusty. We like the dusty ones.

This year we went to Rolling Thunder Cherry Ranch because I've been following them on Facebook and I like to reward forward-thinking businesses that embrace online marketing. They could not have been sweeter, and that goes for both the people and the cherries. Ten pounds of Bing cherries later, we drove home, dusty, happy, stomachs filled with cherries that didn't quite make it into our buckets.

I got up early this morning and made cherry cobbler. Sweet syrupy red cherries with a fluffy biscuit topping - in my book there's no better breakfast.

Note on preparation: Pitting cherries is a pain in the neck. There's no way around it. Sometimes I use my OXO Good Grips Cherry Pitter. Other times I rip the fruit apart with my fingers and endure the stains on my skin. There are larger cherry pitters with handles that look cool, but they do miss pits and I'm never in the mood for broken teeth. I'd rather do it by hand and make sure the pits are gone.





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Fresh cherry cobbler
Sweet, syrupy red cherries with a fluffy biscuit topping - there's no better way to enjoy the season's best fresh cherries.
Ingredients
  • 6 cups fresh cherries, pitted
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 2 Tablespoons coarse raw sugar
Instructions
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.In a large bowl, toss the cherries with the cornstarch and 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Let sit 15 minutes. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and pour in the cherry mixture. Slip the baking dish into the oven and bake about 20 minutes, until the cherries are hot and the juices bubble around the edges.Meantime, while the cherries are in the oven, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Quickly stir together the melted butter and buttermilk in a bowl or measuring cup, then pour over the dry ingredients. Mix with a fork until the dough just comes together. Using one hand, knead quickly by flipping the dough over on itself three or four times in the bowl, then turn the dough out onto the counter. Pat the dough into an 8-inch square.Pull the cherries out of the oven. Using a large spatula or your hands, lay the biscuit dough on top of the cherries. Sprinkle with the coarse raw sugar and return the pan to the oven. Bake another 30-35 minutes, or until the biscuit topping is golden brown, the fruit is bubbling furiously, and the house smells wonderful.Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving to let the juices firm up a bit. Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6-8 servings

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Roast chicken thighs with blueberries and rosemary

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Chicken thighs with a sauce of fresh blueberries, white wine, balsamic vinegar and rosemary

[This post is sponsored by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.]

Fifteen years ago today, I was eating blueberries.

How do I know? Because 15 years ago today I was eight weeks pregnant with my older son, and all I craved during my first trimester were blueberries. I ate at least two pints of blueberries a day for the first three months of my pregnancy.

The Biggest Loser star Alison Sweeney and her family love blueberries too. Sweeney, who's working with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council to spread the word about the healthy benefits of blueberries, answered a few questions recently about her family's blueberry habits:
Alison's favorite breakfast with blueberries: "Oatmeal + blueberries + agave nectar + cinnamon. There are only 80 calories in a cup of blueberries and it gives me fiber and vitamin C. And my kids love the flavor combo." 
Most unusual blueberry dish Alison's ever tasted: "Blueberries on pizza!"
Alison's pregnancy cravings: "Pickles. When I was pregnant I had to ask the deli counter if I could eat one while waiting for my sandwich, and another for after. Ellen (DeGeneres) even teased me about it by giving me a massive tub of pickles. It was hilarious."
(Okay, I realize her answer to the pregnancy craving question had nothing to do with blueberries. But I thought it was hilarious too!)


Most of the fresh blueberries I buy get washed and eaten out of hand, although occasionally I have some left over for baking (try the best blueberry muffins in the world). But I've been looking for ways to incorporate more blueberries into our meals. Turns out blueberries and chicken were meant for each other. Try this simple recipe combining roast chicken thighs, fresh blueberries, white wine, and rosemary - the sauce has a sweet-and-sour fruity tang my whole family loved.

Thanks to the Blueberry Council for sponsoring this post. My mother thanks the Blueberry Council too - she's been begging me for more chicken recipes. Opinions and recollections of pregnancy cravings contained within this post are, of course, my own. Follow the Blueberry Council on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube for more blueberry inspiration.


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Chicken thighs with blueberries and rosemary
Chicken and blueberries are a match made in heaven. The tangy sauce tastes delicious and looks beautiful drizzled over the crispy-skinned chicken thighs.
Ingredients
  • 4 large chicken thighs (bone in, skin on)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 3/4 cup onion, diced (about 1/2 of a large yellow onion)
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 3 cups fresh blueberries
Instructions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.Sprinkle the skin side of the chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper. Put a large oven-proof skillet on the stove over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the chicken thighs skin side down. Sear without moving at least 8-10 minutes, until the skin is a deep golden brown. Remove the chicken thighs from the pan and put them on a plate.Pour off all but 1 Tablespoon of the chicken fat in the pan, then add the butter and onion. Cook the onion about 4 minutes, until it is softened and starting to brown around the edges (if it cooks too fast, turn down the heat a little). Add the wine, vinegar, mustard, rosemary, and blueberries. Bring the blueberry mixture to a boil and let it cook about 10-15 minutes. The fruit will start to pop and the mixture should start to thicken and reduce - it won't be thick, but it shouldn't look incredibly watery.Put the chicken thighs back in the pan, skin side up this time, nestling them on top of the sauce. Try to keep the blueberry mixture off the chicken skin so the skin can crisp in the oven - if you bathe it now in the sauce it will taste good but the skin won't crisp and will turn out soft and rubbery.Put the skillet in the oven and roast the chicken for another 45 minutes. When the chicken is done, let it rest on the counter 5 minutes before serving. To serve, carefully remove the chicken thighs from the pan, put them on a platter, and drizzle the blueberry sauce around them and down the middle of each piece of chicken, leaving some of the crispy golden skin showing.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4 servings