Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Ripe is A Perfectly Ripe Banana?

Banana Ripeness.  That's what we're here to talk about today.  I am taking a poll about when a banana is perfectly ripe for eating. There is some debate on this topic.  If fact, in our family there is some disagreement on this matter (which actually comes in handy since there are only 1 or 2 days that each of us deem the bananas "perfectly ripe", so there is usually an eater for each day of the week that bananas are in our fruit bowl.)  I tend to like my bananas a with a touch of green still on the peeling.  My sister has always teased me about liking green bananas, which is a slight exaggeration, as I don't want them too green to be able to peel, or too bitter tasting. However, I do not like them to be spotted at all! (Unless they are mashed up inside of a banana muffin!). My grandmother used to eat them so ripe - the stem was black and shriveled, the skin streaked and spotted brown and the inside was mushy.   But she didn't mind.  She was not picky at all. What about you? 

The great thing about over-ripe bananas is that you can make banana bread and muffins!  In fact, I see a few over-ripe bananas hanging out in my fruit bowl as an invitation to make some banana muffins.   Banana muffins are as simple as you can get, but are a crowd pleaser.

My friend, Connie, gave me this recipe a couple of years ago and I have been making them a lot lately.  It is made with all whole wheat flour (though you can use all-purpose) and because of the bananas, the whole wheat is not evident in look, texture or taste.  The recipe is so easy and healthy.  They are a little salty and have a nice crust and tender crumb.  I have been dusting the tops with turbinado sugar lately and I think it must be the salty/sweet combo and the crystalized sugar on top that take them up a notch...I'm not quite sure but several times lately people have asked for the recipe.  I figured if they want it, you might too.

You can mix in different things: chocolate chips (I like to use the mini ones- not as overpowering and messy), pecans, walnuts, or dried fruit. (You know how much I love varying recipes and customizing them to one's liking.  This week, I got wild and added pecans and dates after talking to my friend Sara Beth about the tastiness and under-utilization of dates in recipes.)  When sending them to the kids' teachers this morning, I stuck with pecan and plain...just to be safe.

Banana Muffins
4 Tbsp. butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3 medium sized, ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup nuts, mini chocolate chips, dried fruit, etc. (optional)
turbinado sugar for tops (optional)

Mix butter, sugar and vanilla together.  Add flour, salt and baking soda.  Blend well.  Add mashed bananas and optional mix-ins.  Scoop into greased or lined muffin tin.  Sprinkle tops with turbinado sugar.  Bake at 350 degrees for 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool on wire rack for a few minutes.
(I told you it was simple!)

the mashing

A tip:  The recipe calls for 3 ripe bananas, if you only have 1 or 2, you can always peel and slice the bananas and place them in a zipped bag in the freezer until you have enough to make the bread.  (You will just need to thaw them on the counter, in the fridge or defrost in the microwave to get them softened before using them in the recipe.)

And a new trick I learned from The Muffin Lady cookbook, which I recently read, is to use parchment paper, cut into squares for lining the muffin tin. The first time I tried it they were a little lop-sided as the bottoms were strangely shaped.  But this time I tried using something to shove the paper down into the tin to form a flat "base".  I tried a few items and found that this water bottle of Lucy's worked well.  I just cut a stack of 5 inch X 5 inch squares of parchment paper, placed each square over the tin, shoved the bottle down to form it, and then lightly sprayed it with cooking spray (so that you don't lose any muffin when you eat it!) I used my scoop to scoop the batter in.  I think they are fun and festive looking and so much cheaper than buying paper muffin liners!  I think I will get my kids to help me cut some out with fun-edged scissors (scalloped, pinking shears, etc) and see how those look.
making parchment muffin liners

For more extensive tips on muffin-making hop on over to THIS PAGE where I share other tips I've learned along the way.

So what do you think?  What is your definition of the "perfectly ripe banana" and what is your mix-in of choice in a banana muffin?
a variety of banana muffin happiness

Friday, May 20, 2011

lemon linguini

This is a simple and zippy pasta main dish.  It is adapted from Susan Branch’s delightful, THE SUMMER BOOK cookbook. Are you familiar with her?
She is creative, inspiring, nostalgic and fun.  Before I had an internet full of blogs to look at for inspiration and to get my creative juices flowing, Susan Branch did it for me, through her books and calendars.  She has handwritten ideas and quotes and sayings and adorable illustrations and detail-work.    

I love the art and beauty of handwriting and I love to hand write things. In fact, having to blog in typeset is really disappointing to me, because I would so much rather it be in handwriting.  That is much more my style.

I have always looked closely at Susan Branch’s books to try to discern if she really writes each word by hand or if her handwriting is a font.  The moment I think, “this is too perfect, it has to be a font” I see a slight variance in the letters from one sentence to the next, which then leads me to believe that she actually does hand write each piece.  She says she does! Her watercolor whimsy, illustrations and borders are sweet and quaint and endearing.

This book, from 1995, has been a go-to book.  The pages are warped and stained from splashes of ingredients as it was sitting opened on my recipe stand in my kitchen for years.  I made my first Bruschetta from this cookbook.  This lemon linguini, and a wonderful pineapple salsa, to serve on top of grilled meat, are favorites of mine from this cookbook.

One of my greatest pleasures is connecting people I love with other people or things that I love.  You know... sharing the joy!  Well, with this recipe, I like to connect Susan Branch to Ina Garten.  I think they should be friends (for all I know they play bridge in Martha’s Vineyard every Thursday evening). I think they are both fabulous, in their own, very authentic way. They have each been influential in my life and my kitchen.  I love Ina’s lemon grilled chicken and I love Susan’s lemon linguini. I think the two together make a dynamic pair.

We had it this week and mmm, it is so good.  I made a vat of it and we devoured it.

Lemon Linguini (adapted from Susan Branch)
1 lb. linguini
½ cup olive oil
zest from 1 lemon
juice from 2 lemons
½ cup chopped purple onion or green onion- you choose
lots of parmesan cheese
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

and whatever accompaniments you'd like:
Sauteed shrimp
or grilled chicken strips
Asparagus spears
or Roasted green beans
chopped tomatoes
toasted pine nuts
fresh parsley or basil
or whatever you like or have on hand!

Cook linguini in boiling salted water till done; drain well. Meanwhile, combine next 4 ingredients in a large serving bowl.  Add pasta & toss well.  Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper- toss in Parmesan to taste.  Top with additional ingredients of your choice.  Add more Parmesan!

This week we added Ina's grilled lemon chicken tenders, roasted asparagus, chopped tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts.  I would highly recommend this combination!

[for directions on roasting asparagus click here]

Grilled Lemon Chicken (adapted from Ina Garten's recipe)
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (or from a bottle..don't tell Ina)
3/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme or 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme (I omit sometimes
              for kids)
2 pounds boneless chicken tenderloins (or breasts)

Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.  Pour over chicken in a nonreactive bowl.  Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, but can marinate overnight.  Heat grill and cook over medium heat until cooked through.

Buy some lemons, put them in a dish and set them on the counter- they might inspire you to whip up some of this zesty pasta and chicken this week!   

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Strawberries Are Here!

Strawberry season is here.
It’s time to pick.
It’s time to buy.
It’s time to eat them!
During this prime strawberry season, my family pretty much eats strawberries at every meal!

the gift on my porch

A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my sister letting me know that there were freshly picked berries on my porch- to look for them!  What a fun and welcomed surprise!  She and her kids had gone picking at a nearby berry patch and brought us some to enjoy. YUM!  

lucy & the basket of berries in the patch
We, too, went on a strawberry picking adventure last year, and are going to try to get picking in the next several days.  Have you ever been picking?  It is so fun.  Our family loves picking all kinds of produce:  blueberries, apples, strawberries and peaches (my favorite to pick).  Check your chamber of commerce to find a list of local farms that are open to public pickers and what dates each product is available.  We have learned, that at times, the fruit can be as pricey, if not more, than at our grocery, so beware.  The benefits are the experience, the freshness, and supporting local farmers.  

Strawberries have shown up a lot lately on our table. Here are a few examples :

Breakfast- yogurt/granola/berry parfaits and waffles with berries and whipped cream
Lunch- PBJ & S  or PBPB & S (peanut butter, peanut, banana, & strawberry) sandwiches- or wraps!

and Dinner- strawberry green salad or fruit salad, 

and of course, dessert with berries: We had Poundcake with berries and whipped cream on Saturday and Strawberry shortcake- the classic strawberry dessert, on Monday.  
There are many variations on "strawberry shortcake", from angel food cake with berries and whip, to poundcake, to the spongy cake sold in the grocery.  But the "original" is made with a sweet biscuit, not unlike a scone, with berries and whipped cream sandwiched between or poured on top.

Strawberry shortcake parties became popular in the United States around 1850, as a celebration of the coming of summer.  I love this!  I think I might start having an annual strawberry shortcake party.  

According to, shortcake gets its name from the use of shortening or butter in the dough. The name "shortening" for butter or lard comes from the term "to shorten"- a 15th century term which meant "easily crumbled", probably because its fibers were short, unlike bread.

Strawberry Shortcake:
The Biscuit (adapted from Everyday Food Magazine)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)- I used 1 cup regular, 1 1/2 cups white whole wheat 
1 stick cold, unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  In a food processor, combine flour, butter, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder and salt; process until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Add milk; pulse just until moistened- 4 or 5 times. Do not over-process.  Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. With floured hands, gently pat dough into a 4 X 8 inch rectangle.  Dust a large knife with flour; cut dough into 8 squares.  Transfer to a baking sheet.  Sprinkle with remaining sugar.  Bake until golden, 20-30 minutes (depending on the heat of your oven). Cool on baking sheet.  

patting out the dough

slicing the dough
golden brown
The whipped cream:
I have loved fresh whipped cream for as long as I can remember, but I will never forget the first time I saw the miracle of a pint of cream becoming a bowl of fluffy, sweet whipped cream.  I went to my friend, Hannah's house when I was in graduate school and she made key lime pie for dessert.  She said she was going to whip some cream to put on it.  She attached a wire whisk attachment to her Kitchen Aid mixer, poured whipping cream in and let it go full speed, and I beheld the glory of the whipping of the cream.  She poured a few drops of vanilla in and a hefty spoonful of sugar and voila! I've never been the same since.

whipping the cream
The berries:
It is best to prepare (wash, hull, slice) the berries,  and add some sugar so that they are sweetened, and let them sit for a while before serving.  The juices and the sugar also create a nice sauce.  You can add a couple of splashes of orange juice too if you'd like.
Assembling the Shortcake:
Split the biscuits in half with a serrated knife.  Layer with berries and whipped cream.  Gobble it up!

Some tips for the berry season:
Berry Care:
You will really benefit from sorting through the berries when you get home from the store.  One or two rotten berries can spoil the entire carton if they are left un-tended (I have learned this the hard way). If you find rotten spots, cut those parts off and salvage the rest.  Use them first!  If you find berries that are "too ripe" put them in a plastic bag and store them in the freezer for making smoothies.

Now whether or not you should refrigerate the berries is debatable. “They” say you shouldn’t refrigerate, as it will change the berries- shrivel them and make them soggy.  However, it can extend the life of the berries as well.  What are your thoughts on this one?

Stain treatment:
When eating lots of berries you might need some tips for how to treat berry stains in clothing, especially if you are as messy as some of the people in my house are. It is high risk for berry stains over here.  

My mom, the stain queen, as we lovingly call her, has found a great remedy for these highly acidic, strongly colored stains.  Distilled white vinegar and liquid dish soap.  Pour some of each on top of the stain and rub into the stain BEFORE washing the garment.  Leave it soaking in the vinegar and soap for a little while.  Rinse and see how effective it was.  You may have to give it two rounds, but if you see that the stain is changing in color or reducing in size that is a good sign that it is reacting and you should continue with the treatment.

Enjoy the bounty and beauty of this season of strawberries!  Let them inspire you in the kitchen this month!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mom, You Are Sweeter Than Chocolate!

Happy Mother's Day!  I've gotten out my red special plate, getting ready to celebrate my mom!

This Sunday is Mother's Day (in case you missed the memo) and it is a special day to me.  I really love to be with my mother on Mother's Day.  Often times it doesn't happen because of circumstances and schedules, since we live in different cities. However, this year I pleaded for us to find a way to be together for Mother's Day!  I want to focus on being the daughter and honor my mother rather than being the mother, wishing my kids were honoring me!

I have to say, when it comes to mothers, I have been very blessed to have a mother that is a remarkable woman.  There is much I could say about my mom, and I already have.  Her mark is on so many of my posts.  But since this is Mother's Day weekend and since this blog is foodie,  I think I will focus my list of accolades for my mother in this direction.  My mother taught me (and continues to teach me) so much.  Here are just a few pieces of her philosophy on life that relate to the kitchen:

  •  "When you are feeling sorry for yourself, you should go do something for someone else (rather than having a pity party)."  I think my cookie-making skills are due to the enormous number of times I have made cookies as the remedy to my self pity throughout my life.
  • "Let the children help in the kitchen when they are too young to be good help.  They will slow things down and make messes, but it pays off."  You are able to capture them when their interest for cooking is great and they will help in the kitchen when they ARE able to be helpful.
  • "Many hands make light work" is a phrase she often quotes, and her involving others in the kitchen tasks are evidence that she believes it.
  • "Haste makes waste" is another quote she often states to try to slow herself down in chaotic moments in the kitchen.
  • "When life gives you lemons make lemonade" or in mom's case: when life gives you a dry cake or broken cookies make a trifle. 
  • "There should always be a "brown dessert" if you are serving more than one dessert (she is a self-proclaimed chocoholic).
  • "Don't forget to entertain strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware (Hebrews 13:2)." For my mom, it seems as though no one is a stranger!
  •  If there is no dessert in the house, chocolate chips from the pantry can inspire some great treats (like in a spoon with peanut butter, or as a s'more in the microwave).

This is just a sample of the wisdom that rings in my mind as I am in the kitchen and beyond.

When trying to decide what recipes to share on this Mother's Day post, I decided to post 2 chocolate recipes.  I felt it was the proper tribute to my Chocolate-adoring mother.  The first is a classic of hers: Homemade Hot Fudge and the other is one that she and I have made together recently: Chocolate Bark.

Elaine's Hot Fudge 
1 stick butter
1 16 oz. can Hershey's syrup (2 cups)
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup chocolate chips
a little milk to make the right thickness

Combine first 4 ingredients in bowl and microwave at least 5 minutes.  Stir occasionally, and continue cooking until completely combined and thickened. Add a little milk if needed to make the right thickness. Store unused portion in refrigerator until needed.

It is simple, rich, thick and wonderful! Perfect for banana splits, brownie sundaes and just about anything your finger.

Chocolate Bark (Homemade Candy Bars)

Recently I saw an ad in a magazine for custom handmade candy bars.  I loved the idea but am entirely too cheap to spend the money to indulge in that way (the website is really fun- but the candy bar I dreamed up would have cost $8 for a 3.5 oz. bar!).   I started thinking about how much I enjoy making Peppermint Bark at Christmastime and how simple it is.  I was inspired to make some Custom Chocolate Bark Candy Bars! So, when my mom was in town in February, my son, my mom and I did it.  It was fun and the options are limitless (you can find creative ingredient ideas from the Chocomize website).

Prepare Mix-ins (chop items, toast nuts/coconuts)
Melt chocolate of choice- as directed on package (we used white chocolate Ghirardelli bark and semi sweet chocolate chips)
Spread chocolate in thin layer on parchment lined baking sheet
Sprinkle toppings on top and gently swirl together or press in.
Drizzle some remaining chocolate over the top, to secure the goods on the chocolate and to add a flair.
Place in the refrigerator to harden.  
When hardened, break with hands into hunks the size of your liking.  

mix ins: toasted pecans & coconut, almonds & craisins

sprinkling the mix ins

Mom and me making chocolate bark- Asher photographing

swirled and chock-full, ready to cool

finished product- sampler platter

Over Easter weekend, after seeing a post about Easter Candy Bark from Gingerbread Bagels Blog, we decided we needed to try it and it was amazing. Ridiculous, actually.  I had to take it to work because I couldn't get my hand out of the dish!
The Easter Candy Bark

It was crazy good

Easter Candy Bark (Recipe adapted from Gingerbread Bagels blog)
8 ounces, weight Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
8 ounces, weight Milk Chocolate Chips
7 ounces, weight Vanilla Candy Melts, Any Color Is Fine- we used pink
½ cups of assorted Easter candy (including: Mini Cadbury Eggs, Cut In Half, Mini Robin Eggs/malt balls, Candy Corn, Peanut Butter M&Ms, Jelly beans, Oreos)

Measure out the candy and cookies. Set aside.
Put the semi sweet chocolate chips and milk chocolate chips in a microwavable bowl. Melt the chocolate
chips in 30-second intervals, stirring in between each interval. Careful not to overheat the chocolate.
Spread the melted chocolate onto the parchment lined baking sheet.
In a microwavable bowl, melt the vanilla candy melts in the same manner you did above. (You can use
whatever color of vanilla candy you like.) Be careful not to overheat the candy melts. Drop the melted
candy on top of the chocolate bark.
Using a knife, swirl it up and down. Then swirl it back and forth.
Place the candy and cookies on the melted chocolate/candy melts. Press down lightly.
Place in refrigerator to harden.

So go eat some chocolate and honor a Mother in your life!