The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

Holiday welcome cookies

It’s hard to imagine the holiday season without making some sort of ginger cookie—and I’ve run the field, from simple cookies, to decorated gingerbread figures, and handmade houses. This year I’ve made my favorite basic molasses cookie and packed it with an assortment of ginger:  fresh grated, powdered spice, and candied pieces.

These cookies mix up in one bowl.  So fast to make, with little clean up, I’ve gotten in the habit of stirring them by hand without a mixer.  Another bonus with this cookie is that the dough can be prepared ahead, stored in the fridge, and baked on demand.

loaded ginger cookies

For a soft, chewy cookie, take them out of the oven while soft when pressed and slightly under baked. They will continue to cook. If you prefer a crisper cookie, bake them longer.

I like to bake off a batch for immediate enjoyment and shape the rest of the dough into a cylinder, wrap it well, and chill for later.  It’s incredibly satisfying to slice off rounds and pop a batch in the oven for a quick bake.  When family or friends arrive,  nothing says ‘welcome’ like the spicy scent of freshly baked cookies.

Ginger Cookies

Ingredients
1¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking soda
2 tsp powdered ginger
⅛ tsp each salt and cloves
¼ cup crystallized ginger, cut up
⅓ cup butter, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, well beaten
¼ cup molasses
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 tsp mild vinegar
Icing:  ½ cup confectioners’ sugar thinned with 1 Tbsp lemon juice

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with silpat or spray with non-stick spray.
    On wax paper combine flour, baking soda, ginger, salt and cloves.
  2. In mixing bowl, beat butter with a wooden spoon, stir in sugar until well blended and light. Beat in the egg, molasses, grated ginger, and vinegar.
  3. Add the dry ingredients and combine well, it will be thick. Shape dough into 3/4″ balls and roll in granulated sugar if desired. Place on baking sheet 2″ apart for spreading. Bake 15 minutes, until surface begins to crinkle on top, but slightly soft when pressed. Cool on rack.
  4. To ice cookies:  combine confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice to thin. Let icing drip off tines of a fork and drizzle over cookies.  Makes about 2 dozen.

meatloaf magic

Who doesn’t like meatloaf?  Besides, you just might get lucky and have some left behind for the next day.

Since I prefer the leftovers, I like to begin there. I cook the meatloaf on a baking sheet with sides exposed to the heat, thus ensuring flavors are sealed in and the loaf does not simmer in its own juices.

Coppa topped meatloaf

This rustic treatment produces a solid loaf that slices thin the next day and brings an interior dotted with sautéed green leeks and cremini mushrooms for color, flavor, and texture.  If you prefer, the ground beef could be any combination including part turkey, chicken, and/or pork.

For a quick mix of ingredients I like to get my hands into the action… there’s also an egg for moisture, a dash of Worcestershire, and a handful of either dried or fresh breadcrumbs for binder.  That’s it.

The meat mixture is shaped into an oval on a parchment lined baking sheet and topped with a few slices of coppa ham or prosciutto for interest – rather than ketchup.  It’s the ideal time to throw a few vegetables  onto the pan for roasting without any extra effort.  Here, young carrots, sliced onion, and small red potatoes are tossed with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper and tucked around the loaf.

sheet pan meatloaf

While the meatloaf bakes, give the vegetables an occasional turn for even cooking. Soon the homey scents of meatloaf will fill the air…

Sheet Pan Meatloaf with Roasted Vegetables

Ingredients
Meatloaf
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ leek or onion, slice
½ cup cremini mushrooms, quarter
1 tsp fresh thyme
1½ lean ground beef
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
½ tsp each salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
½ cup breadcrumbs, approximate
4-6 slices coppa or prosciutto ham, to cover top
Vegetables
4-5 red potatoes, halve or quarter
4-6 young whole carrots, scraped
½ onion, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fresh rosemary
salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  2. For meatloaf, sauté the leek and mushrooms in olive oil to soften and release mushroom moisture adding salt, pepper and thyme.  Cool.
  3. To assemble meatloaf, in mixing bowl break up the ground beef. Using hands, mix in the sautéed vegetables, Worcestershire, salt, pepper, and beaten egg.  Add enough breadcrumbs to absorb and bind all.  Shape and mold the mixture on baking sheet into an oval loaf.  Cover top with coppa or prosciutto.
  4. Toss the potatoes, onion, and carrots with olive oil, salt, pepper and part of rosemary.  Arrange around the meatloaf and sprinkle with remaining rosemary.
  5. Bake at 375°F for 1½ hours, turn the vegetables occasionally to cook evenly.  Serves 3-4

Freekeh to the rescue

Mujadara is a delicious mid-Eastern specialty typically made with rice and lentils and topped with caramelized onions. My mouth was watering thinking about this plus spoonfuls of Raita (here), a yogurt topping seasoned with cumin, green onion, cilantro, and such.

It wasn’t until I began pulling out the lentils and rice that I realized I was completely out of rice! How does that happen?  I debated a run to the store but spotted a bag of cracked freekeh.

cracked freekeh

Well, I reasoned, freekeh is certainly nutritious, it has a lovely nutty flavor and a chewy bite… It might actually be good with lentils.  Why not give it try?

I had the Instant Pot ready to go, so I proceeded pretty much as usual in making mujadara, by first caramelizing the onions and then set them aside. Yum.  I quickly sautéed the aromatics: cumin, allspice, and smoked paprika, added garlic and a dollop of the onions. The freekeh and lentils were tossed in next with water and such, and the pot was set to Hi Pressure for 11 minutes.

Once complete, I decided to let the pot rest with a 7-minute quick release.  I carefully opened the lid, relieved to see that both the lentils and freekeh were cooked. It was a little soupy but it set up as it sat in the pot. I had forgotten to add lemon rind, so I stirred in a spoonful of preserved lemon, which perked it up nicely.

Freekeh and Lentil Mujadara

The very exotic mujadara was ready and waiting when dinner was served 30 minutes later—along with caramelized onions, raita, and more lemon.

I could have stopped there; it needed nothing more. I buckled and added a little tomato for fresh color… and pita bread.

Freekeh & Lentil Mujadara

Ingredients
1 Tbsp butter and 1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, thin sliced lengthwise
½ tsp cumin, ¼ tsp allspice, ½ tsp hot smoked paprika or to taste
1 clove garlic, mash and sliver
1 cup cracked freekeh
½ cup brown lentils
2½ cups water
½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper
1 bay leaf
1 tsp grated lemon rind or preserved lemon

Instructions

  1. To prepare the caramelized onion, set Instant Pot to Sauté Medium, melt the butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When bubbling, add the sliced onion, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir often with flat a spatula until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Reduce heat to Sauté Low, drizzle in a little olive oil to coat bottom. Add the spices, stirring until aromatic. Stir the garlic into the spice mixture for a minute and then a spoonful of the caramelized onions.
  3. Add the lentils and freekeh, then the water. Increase heat to Sauté High; stir in salt, pepper, bay leaf, and lemon. Seal pot, reset to Hi Pressure for 10-11 minutes. When complete, let stand 7 minutes and carefully release pressure. Open the lid, stir in preserved lemon  if using. It thickens as it sets.
  4. Serve with caramelized onion, fresh lemon, and homemade raita. Serves 4

fast, fresh, homemade

I needed ricotta cheese for Thanksgiving and decided to make my own in the Instant Pot. It’s not complicated, and you can certainly make ricotta in a pot on the stove. But if you have an Instant Pot, you simply set the Yogurt button and let the pot do the rest. In about 30 minutes the milk reaches a boil at a controlled pace, thus reducing the risk of scorching the bottom of the pot.

In another 30 minutes you have fresh, homemade ricotta.

fresh ricotta

If you make lasagna or other ricotta-based dishes, then you can appreciate a flavorful well-constructed ricotta—it makes a difference. That’s why I’ve come around to using whole milk ricotta. For the same reasons, it’s wise to look for milk that is not ultra-pasteurized.

Ricotta curds are made by adding acid to the milk, either lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid. In my opinion, vinegar is a bit harsh and its flavor may be detectable in the cheese. Citric acid is reliable, but harder to find. I prefer lemon juice because it is convenient, mild, and the curds seem less chewy.

Once the milk has reached between 180° and 185°F the lemon juice is added to the pot and gently stirred to assimilate into the milk. Curds will begin to form; when the milk has visibly separated, let the curds set 15 to 20 minutes. Then, it’s time to drain them. I use a slotted spoon to transfer the curds to a colander lined with cheesecloth or coffee filters. Let them drain 15 to 20 minutes and then move the curds to a bowl to use right away or into a storage container to chill up to 5 days.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese

Ingredients
6 cups whole milk, not ultra-pasteurized
1 tsp salt (optional)
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
supplies: digital thermometer, spatula, slotted spoon, colander with bowl, cheesecloth

Instructions

  1. Set multi-cooker or Instant Pot to Yogurt; press Adjust and select Boil. Pour in milk, add salt and stir with a flat spatula to keep from scorching on bottom. Bring to simmering boil (180-185°F), about 30 minutes. If more time is needed, reset pot to Sauté Hi to reach temperature.
  2. Remove from heat, add the lemon juice, and gently stir to combine and form curds. Cover, and let stand undisturbed to set curds, 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile line a colander with 2 layers or fine cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and set it over a bowl. Once curds have rested, skim all the curds into the colander, leaving the whey behind for other purposes (it’s highly nutritious). Let the curds drain 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how dry you prefer it.
  4. The ricotta is ready to use or transfer it to a covered container and store refrigerated up to 5 days. Makes 2 cups.

Brussels Sprouts, the easy way

Once again, yesterday I was reminded why I like brussels sprouts, especially on a day like Thanksgiving. As a fall vegetable they really work, they have lots of flavor and I love their green addition, but I’m disappointed when they turn out bitter and either undercooked and hard, or overcooked and mushy.

Bacon is always a solution, its smokiness can mask some of that off flavor, and roasting sprouts is an interesting compromise. That is, until the oven is taken over by turkey and other sides and sprouts get shifted down in priority.

So, here’s my solution. I’ve discovered that brussels sprouts cook in a flash in the microwave, and when an everyday balsamic vinegar is pulled into the equation, things really shift. The sweet-sour action tends to balance out any potential bitterness, and used judiciously, balsamic vinegar adds dimension and is hardly detectable.

I dribble on a dash of balsamic when precooking the halved brussels sprouts for 2 to 3 minutes in the microwave—before all the madness begins. Then, it’s a simple matter of quickly reheating them with the precooked smoky bacon and perhaps a bit of onion, plus another dribble of balsamic for re-enforcement. Give it a taste before serving and add another dribble, if so inclined.

It’s that easy and so tasty.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Balsamic

Ingredients
1-pound brussels sprouts, trim and cut in half lengthwise
3 slices pepper bacon, cut into strips
½ small red onion, peel and slice
1 Tbsp olive oil, divided
½ tsp each salt and pepper
2-3 tsp balsamic vinegar, to taste

Instructions

  1. Ahead, cook bacon in microwave between toweling until crisp, about 2 minutes total. In microwaveable bowl, toss onion with 1 tsp oil and heat in microwave until it softens and begins to color, 2 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Toss the brussels sprouts with remaining olive oil, salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon balsamic. Microwave 2-3 minutes uncovered. Set aside until needed.
  3. To finish, reheat the sprouts with 1 additional teaspoon balsamic, the bacon and onion on top in microwave, 1-2 minutes. Drizzle lightly with balsamic vinegar to taste, toss and serve. Serves 4.