October 27, 2011

Zuppa Toscana

One of my favorite restaurant meals is Olive Garden's soup, salad and breadsticks.  I don't really go there for anything else.  There is something about their salad dressing and perfectly chilled salad, the warm, buttery garlic breadsticks, and steaming fresh soup that makes me happy, its kind of like getting a big hug after a long day.  My favorite soup to order is their Zuppa Toscana: a simple, light, comforting soup with crumbled sausage, greens and potatoes.

Now that there is a chill in the air, (I think that fall is actually here to stay this time!), I've been craving soups... and after a huge bag of pre-washed, pre-cut kale called my name at BJ's the other day, I've been craving Zuppa Toscana.  So, I set out to copy my favorite restaurant soup at home.

The soup was delicious!  My husband and I both enjoyed seconds, and there are some leftovers waiting for us in the refrigerator.

"Zuppa Toscana"

1 lb. spicy italian sausage
1 lg. yellow onion, chopped
2 lg. garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. fennel
4 cups low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
2 cups water
2 lg. russet potatoes, halved and sliced into 1/4 inch thick pieces
8 cups (approx.) chopped kale
1 cup reduced-fat milk

Remove sausage from casings.  Heat a large Dutch oven, (or heavy-bottomed pot), over medium-high heat. Brown sausage, breaking meat into small pieces as it cooks.  When sausage is browned, remove from pot and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium.  Place chopped onion and garlic into pot.  Add salt, pepper and fennel.  Saute until onion is translucent.  Add chicken broth and water to pot, scraping the bottom to loosen up any brown bits.  Add potatoes to broth mixture, simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.  Add kale and sausage, simmer until kale is tender.  Stir in milk.  Serve immediately.

The soup, along with a crisp, fresh salad made a great dinner... if only I knew how to re-create their breadsticks!!

Notes on this recipe:  The other copy-cat recipes I stumbled upon called for heavy cream- I used reduced-fat Lactaid, (my husband is lactose intolerant).  Another healthy revision I made was the omission of bacon- several recipes I looked at for this soup included 2-4 slices of bacon.  I omitted the bacon mainly because I didn't have any, and I didn't miss it.  Next time I make this soup, I will use turkey sausage... the pork sausage was good, but the brand I used was a little fattier than I would have liked.

October 23, 2011

Spooky Dinner

As I mentioned in my last post, we've been very lucky to have family and friends bringing us food to help us get through the adjustment to having a newborn, sleep deprivation, and figuring out how to get anything done when all you want to do is stare at the beautiful baby...  For three weeks, we felt like we had a personal chef- it was fantastic!

Our last catered dinner, provided by my husband's Aunt was a themed, "Spooky Dinner."  I am not a huge fan of Halloween (I'm terrified of clowns, and most people in masks), but not surprisingly, my favorite childhood Halloween memory involves creepy food - and this meal reminded me of it!  Dinner was a lot of fun, and I hope that in a few years my son will think I'm fun (and not totally lame/nuts) and enjoy a meal like this too!

One year, when I was a kid, my Aunt threw a Halloween party for me and my cousins.  She put a lot of thought into how to make creepy food, and we had a lot of fun putting it all together.  We had hot-dogs that were carved to look like fingers, peeled grapes that felt like eyeballs (that we had to feel and guess for a game), she even made punch that featured a 'frozen hand' as an ice cube.  That was a great Halloween.  We had a great time getting into our costumes, (we even dressed up the dog), playing games, and trick-or-treating.

Fast forward about 20 years...

My husband's aunt and cousin went all out.  We had a cheese ball made to look like a mummy, breadsticks that looked like witch's fingers, salad with worms and eyeballs, sausages mummies, and manicotti bones.  For dessert, Matt's cousin made delicious cookies- Snickerdoodles decorated with black icing spider webs, and Devil's Food cookies decorated to look like witch's hats all on display on a haunting platter.

It was a great night!  Even though I'm not crazy about Halloween, it has me excited and looking forward to years of Halloween parties and fun costumes and coming up with spooky dinners of our own.

October 14, 2011

Edible Flowers

First, I would like to say "Thank You" to our family and friends who have helped us during these past two weeks.  We have been very grateful for every meal, load of laundry and chore you have helped us with!!  We have been lucky enough to have every dinner for the past two weeks prepared and brought to us so that we could relax and spend time adoring our baby, and not have to worry about shopping, cooking and cleaning... it has really been a lifesaver.

The other night, my mother-in-law made a large pot of soup, and my friend Jennie made a salad... not just any salad, however... It was the most beautiful salad I think I have ever seen, all thanks to the edible flowers tossed in the mix.

I know that edible flowers aren't a new phenomenon, by any means... but it was the first time in a long time that I had seen and eaten them... and the first time that I had ever been able to enjoy them at home! The flowers she used in the salad, (which was made up of greens and goodies that she had grown herself), were begonias and nasturtium.  The begonias were my flower of choice, their lemony/citrus flavor added something bright and summery to the salad, whereas the nasturtium added more of a spicy/peppery flavor.

The flowers prompted me to do some research into edible flowers, and I learned quite a bit.  There are many different edible flowers out there, many of which I never even thought of as flowers.  For example; cauliflower, broccoli, chives, garlic, capers and artichokes- what I would consider normal vegetables, all qualify as edible blossoms.  So, I guess I've been dining on flowers more than I thought...  Other blossoms are a little less likely to show up at the grocery store- who knew you could eat pansies and chrysanthemums??

Other cultures have been using blossoms in food and in medicines for many years, while it seems like here in the United States, edible flowers are most typically used as garnish or in teas- chamomile being a common example.  Hibiscus tea, a little less common, was studied by the USDA in 2008.  The study found that volunteers who drank hibiscus tea while maintaining their usual diet and exercise level achieved a 7.2 point drop in their blood pressure.  While further research is needed, this study points to the fact that drinking hibiscus tea may help some people manage their hypertension!  Pretty exciting stuff.*

Even though I am perhaps the worst gardener ever, (I've even killed mint...), those begonias have me thinking of trying to grow some edible flowers next year, and experimenting with some new flavors.  We'll see.  I will definitely be seeking out menus that feature blossoms- I'm dying to try a stuffed zucchini blossom!!

A report on the USDA study can be found here.

*I am not offering this study as medical advice in any way.  This study merely interested me, and I thought it worth sharing.  Any type of medical treatments or regimens should be discussed between yourself and your doctor before beginning. 

October 08, 2011

Birthday Cake!

I am proud to report that my son Ben turned one week old yesterday.  This milestone was cause for celebration in our house... and an excuse to eat some birthday cake!!

With the help of my mother, who is visiting from out of town, we made him a delicious birthday cake from scratch to complete the mini, grandparents-only celebration dinner we had at home.  We used a Martha Stewart recipe for yellow cake, and matched it with the Hershey's recipe for the amazing chocolate frosting, (which I raved about here).  The end product was delicious!  The cake was moist and light, and had a good, simple vanilla flavor which provided the perfect backdrop for the chocolate frosting.  

The cake recipe is very simple, and I am looking forward to re-making it and experimenting with it to see what other combinations I can come up with.  I think that the cake will work very nicely with fresh berries in the summer, or maybe with sliced apples and a hint of spice for fall? Perhaps some light chocolate mousse and a brushing of Kahlua?? I will try it out sometime and let you know...

Yellow Butter Cake
Martha Stewart: Makes 2 9-inch cakes

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk, *I used 1% milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans; line the bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter parchment, and dust with flour, tapping out excess; set aside.  Into a medium bowl, sift together flours, baking powder, and salt; set aside. 

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla.  With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour; beat until combined after each addition.

Divide batter between the prepared pans, and smooth with an offset spatula.  Bake, rotating the pans halfway through, until cakes are golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.  Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool 20 minutes.  Invert cakes onto the rack; peel off the parchment.  Reinvert cakes and let them cool completely, top sides up. 

It has been an incredible week in our house, and I'm glad that I could share one of the many special moments with you! I hope that you have the chance to try out this cake- if you do, and you come up with something delicious, please share!!!

You can find the original recipe here on marthastewart.com.

October 05, 2011

Taking a Little Blog Vacation...

Hello all!!

I'm very proud, elated, and amazed to report that our son, Benjamin was born on Friday!

I will be taking a little break from blogging, until we have our new schedule figured out... but, no worries, I have every intention to return.  I'm already thinking of what to write about next! (Like my delicious Apple Pie)...

See you soon!