Archive for Appetizers

How to make Terrific Tapenade

Across back yards everywhere this past Memorial Day, grills blazed at the unofficial start of summer. And while I enjoyed some freshly cut barbecue chicken myself, my thoughts – and taste buds – turned to something much different yet absolutely perfect for this eating season: Tapenade.

Tapenade is an olive-based dish that can be served on top of crusty bread, as a dip for vegetables, or even as a spread on sandwiches in place of mayonnaise.

It’s a dish that has a fancy name and one that you may think is hard to prepare, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you have a can opener, a food processor and 10 minutes, you can make tapenade.

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Homemade vinaigrette is so very easy

Every time I pass the salad dressing aisle in the store these days, I let out a little sigh. It’s becoming such a regular condition that I’m starting to feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Why this reaction over a simple salad staple? Because dressing can be so easily made at home instead of at some factory pumping out high-fructose-laden goop.

The easiest of all dressings to make also happens to be one of the tastiest: vinaigrette. At its simplest, you can make vinaigrette by mixing vinegar and oil in a ratio of one part vinegar to three or four parts oil, depending on your preference. By adding a few more ingredients, you can make it combine better and taste greater.

The process of combining two ingredients such as oil and vinegar that usually don’t like to combine is called emulsification. A vinaigrette is a classic example of a temporary emulsion because, in time, the two immiscible ingredients will separate. That’s why you shake a bottle of dressing before using: to get the ingredients to recombine, at least temporarily.

To make a vinaigrette go from good to great, I like to add a couple of extra ingredients, namely dried herbs such as oregano, and a dollop of mustard. That latter ingredient will not only add a burst of flavor, it will act as an emulsifier to help keep the vinaigrette more stable.

Emulsifiers such as mustard, honey and even the lecithin compound found in egg yolks are like that peacemaking third friend you had in high school who could make the two others who are usually at odds with each other get along.

With or without such extra ingredients, vinaigrettes can be made in countless ways, with everything from basic red wine vinegar and generic vegetable oil to a pomegranate vinegar and high-end extra virgin olive oil.

For this recipe, I use a decent balsamic vinegar and regular olive oil. The result is a delicious, slightly sweet vinaigrette that is outrageous on salads. In addition to a dressing, it will also work wonderfully as a dip and a marinade for meat.

Ready to make your own vinaigrette? Grab a bowl, a whisk, and let’s get to this.

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Make a date with bacon

I’m going to kick off this column with two of the tastiest words you’ll ever hear: “bacon-wrapped.”

Does it even matter what follows this compound modifier of goodness? Wrap anything in bacon and you have the makings for awesomeness in your mouth. You’ve probably had bacon-wrapped shrimp or bacon-wrapped asparagus, both wonderful examples of bacon wrapped around a savory item.

But did you know you can pair bacon with a sweet food for an equally unctuous experience? Bacon is a savory, salty meat; when paired with something sweet, it’s a wonderful contradiction, a yin-yang of pleasure for you taste buds.

In this application, we’re pairing bacon with a date, a sweet fruit. Here’s another case of the sum being greater than the parts. On their own, both bacon and dates are wonderful. When paired, they are both taken to the next level.

Bacon-wrapped dates are super easy to make – basically wrap bacon around a date, insert toothpick and cook on a tray in an oven. They are delicious as a snack and will take any party to the next level as a excellent hors d’oeuvre.

For easier eating, buy dates that have been pitted. As for the bacon, I prefer center cut because it tends to be less fatty.

Ready to make a date with bacon? Let’s do this.

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You, too, can make fondue

During these harsh winter months, there is a certain special recipe that warms the heart and soul like few others, a dish that’s as enjoyable to eat as the conversation that comes with it: fondue.

Yes, that ’70s staple is still around, tempting a new generation to dip into its lush, creamy, goodness. At a restaurant it can cost you an arm and a leg; at home it’s not only totally doable but creates an instant party in the process.

There are a few kinds of fondue, from chocolate that can be a dip for fruits, to sizzling oil that can be used to cook pieces of meat tableside. But when most people think of fondue, it’s that sumptuous mixture of wine and cheese, a wonderful combination if there ever was one.

To make the kind of traditional cheese fondue made famous in the Jura region of Switzerland and France, you basically just melt cheese in simmering wine, add some seasonings and then thicken it with cornstarch.

Kept warm at the table via a Sterno or a similar fire-emitting device, and you have an instant party favorite that is then dipped into with day-old bread, crudités (that’s fancy raw veggies, you know) or anything else that fits on a small fork and can be slathered with cheese sauce, which in my book is just about anything.

Who says grown adults can’t have fun with their food? Now, if you’re ready to get you own party started, I’ll show that you, too, can make fondue.

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Oven-baked potato fries: More flavor, less guilt

I have a culinary confession to make, and I might as well just get it off my chest: I’m a sucker for fries.

Thick, thin, crinkled or in wonderful fat wedges, there is just something magical and comforting about potatoes that have been deep-fried in oil. Of course, the very thing that makes them so tasty – being deep-fried in oil – also makes them much more fattening than their baked-potato cousin. I always feel a tinge of guilt and an obligation to go to the gym after ordering a batch.

Luckily I have found a happy medium between the plain-jane baked potato and that oh-so-tempting, fat-infused order of French fries, one that packs more taste than the former and less fat than the latter. Let me introduce you to my oven-baked potato fries.

Like traditional French fries, this oven-baked version can be in the form of thin strips or larger wedges, depending on your preference and how handy you’re feeling with a knife. Also like French fries, the best potatoes for this are good old Russet, or Idaho potatoes, which have a higher starch content versus smaller “waxy” spuds like new potatoes or fingerlings.

I prefer mine with the skin on, but of course they can be peeled if you like yours naked.

To make them, you only need to slice some potatoes, coat them with oil and a blend of spices, then let the oven do the hard work of generating the heat. Cooking time will depend on how you like your fries: If you dig ’em soft, you need only cook them till they are that way; if you’re like me and want some crunch, let ’em keep baking until they get crisp on the outside.

All told, you’ll be looking at anywhere from 25-40 minutes in the oven. While that isn’t nearly as quick as deep frying, the results are worth it, and less fat now means less time at the gym later.

Ready to give this a whirl? Here’s how to make a less guilty version of fries:

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Corn Avocado Bacon Salad is a picnic all-star

Summer unofficially began this past Memorial Day weekend, and with it comes picnic season. That means loads of fried chicken, sandwiches and salads will be dished out on lawns near and far for the next few months.

Regarding the last of those picnic staples, potato salad and macaroni salad are the usual suspects, but did you know that you can bring so much better to the party than those mayonnaise-drenched excuses for side dishes so popular in supermarket delis?

One easy alternative is a corn-based salad.

While corn probably isn’t the first thing you think of when the subject is salad — after all, most of us eat corn slathered in butter on the cob or microwaved from a frozen state in a bag — this vegetable actually makes for a great salad base. It’s got crunch, it’s bright, it loves being covered in a simple dressing, and is a total team player when other ingredients want to join the fun.

Corn is also low in fat and provides a good dose of fiber. And, of course, it’s inexpensive. In fact, for the recipe below, I purchased most of the ingredients at my local 99 Cent Only store.

With my Corn Avocado Bacon Salad, the kernels will provide the foundation for other delicious and vibrant ingredients to build upon. Tomatoes, avocado, bacon bits and cilantro add some serious pizazz to this salad, which for a dressing uses a light and bright lime vinaigrette.

Still skeptical about this whole corn-as-salad thing? Try making the one here, and after one bite you’ll never go back to boring old potato salad.

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How about some homemade hummus?

Hummus is one of those party favorites that’s hard not to dip into, but if you quiz the average person on how to make the stuff, they might respond with something like, “Hummus? Hmmmmm.”

Hummus has been a Mediterranean staple for eons, and its popularity here in the U.S. has exploded in recent years, to the joy of pita chip makers everywhere. It’s a creamy mixture that, in addition to being a dip, is also wonderful used as a spread on sandwiches in place of mayonnaise or dressing.

The stuff sells like wildfire at places like Trader Joe’s and Henry’s Farmers Markets, and is also commonly found in mainstream stores as well, usually costing several dollars for a small tub.

But here’s a secret: Hummus is actually a snap to make, and doing it yourself will only cost around a buck fifty. Heck, you don’t even need any cooking utensils (well, OK, a can opener, if that counts). The only device required is a blender or food processor.

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Perfecta Trifecta Pasta Salad

Spring has officially sprung, and in the cooking world that means out with warm and hearty soups and in with cool and fresh salads.

So go ahead, conjure up the image of a wonderful salad.

Did something with lettuce come to mind — a side of ranch, perhaps? Very likely so.

Yet a salad needn’t suffer from being the same old wilted field of greens slathered in heavy buttermilk dressing.

In fact, one of my favorite salads doesn’t involve even a shred of lettuce.

No, this salad’s base is pasta, the same stuff we often drown in marinara sauce. Well, it makes a wonderful partner for salad, too, and I find it much more filling for a lunch than those of the lettuce variety.

Of course, pasta alone a salad does not make, and I’d shutter at the thought of using plain old macaroni that is only a shade lighter than cardboard. Enter tri-colored pasta, a much more colorful affair, accompanied by wonderful additions such as tomatoes, cheese, olives and onions, all splashed lightly in the easiest herb vinaigrette you’ll ever make.

Get ready to wow your friends and be the star of the next picnic with a healthful, flavorful salad that only costs a few dollars to make. All it takes is half an hour and a little shaking and chopping. Let’s get to it.

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Homemade salsa is seriously simple

After reading this, you may never buy a bottle of salsa again. That’s my hope, anyway.

Here’s the deal: Salsa is ridiculously easy to make. It’s also a lot cheaper to make yourself, and best of all tastes way better than that bottled stuff, even the ones not made in New York City.

By making your own salsa, you’ll also be able to tailor it exactly to your taste. Prefer it mild? It’s easy to tame. Rather have fire coming out of your ears? No problemo.

There are, of course, myriad varieties of salsas based on different peppers, but most of us know it as the tomato-based derivative that regularly battles ketchup as America’s most loved condiment, and that’s the type I’m going to show you how to make.

To make salsa in its most basic form, you’ll only need four main ingredients and a blender. Si, I’m serious.

Tomatoes, onions, jalapeño peppers and a squeeze of lime juice are the foundation, and once you start making your own salsa, you’ll have a taste-bud blast varying the quantities to your liking and then even adding a few extra herbs and spices. For now, let’s start with the basics.

Here’s how to make it happen.

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Think you can’t bake? Make a johnnycake

Seldom do you find a recipe with so few ingredients and such awesome results as the humble johnnycake. What’s a johnnycake, you ask?

Think of it as a pancake made with cornmeal instead of wheat flour. That’s the simplest way of putting it, but like any old recipe, the johnnycake has as many interpretations as it does spellings. (You might also see it as “Johnny cake,” “jonnycakes” or even “journey cake,” an apparent variation for when these were eaten by travelers long before their cross-country trips were in vehicles running on gasoline.)

In their purest form, johnnycakes are made with just four things: cornmeal, salt, sugar and water. That’s it.

Unlike muffins or even the good ol’ pancake, johnnycakes require no leavening agent — that’s a fancy way of saying stuff like baking powder or yeast, which makes baked goods puff and rise.

No, johnnycakes come alive with just a few ingredients mixed together and then cooked in a skillet — you don’t even need an oven, for crying out loud! What you’ll end up with is a delicious, hearty oval similar to cornbread that’s crunchy on the outside and moist within.

Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on the merits of johnnycakes, you might be wondering when to eat them. I think the more appropriate question is, When can’t you eat them? Johnnycakes have the unique characteristic of being great eaten as either a savory food or as a sweet one.

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