Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sherri Williams' Avocado Ranch Dressing

Nobody cooks like Sherri!!!  With her incredible resume of culinary victories and visits to the World Food Championships and now television, she has become a force to reckon with in the food world for sure. 

Last summer Sherri kicked some culinary butt on the Travel Channel show American Grilled. On the episode titled Pensacola Beach Brawl, Sherri beat out her three competitors to take home the win. I think the whole country was cheering her on, as she has friends literally everywhere and a very supporting family!

photo from The Travel Channel
Sherri shared this recipe with her friends on Facebook for Valentine's Day with her beautiful Pan Seared Sirloin, Butter Poached Lobster and Mixed Green Salad with Pork Chop Croutons and Avocado Ranch Dressing. That expertly seared steak would have been plenty to make this girl happy, but Sherri brings the flavor big time with the butter poached lobster and that salad.

photo by Sherri Williams
Yes, yes I did say Pork Chop Croutons. How did she make them? Cubes of leftover breaded and fried pork chop rind, recrisped in a little olive oil. Amazing!!! How does she think of this stuff? 

The salad dressing though, really really sounded delicious. I have never been a fan of store bought salad dressings. I don't like foods that have ingredients with half the alphabet in their names. Sherri's dressing started with a perfectly ripe Hass avocado and creamy mayo, sour cream, herbs and spices. Nothing chemical or artificial, just fresh, handmade and delicious. Not sure what a Hass avocado is? It's the typical dark green bumpy-skinned avocado most often seen in the grocery stores.

Here is what you need for Sherri Williams' Avocado Ranch Dressing:

1 Hass avocado
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
juice and zest of a lemon
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
1/8 teaspoon dill
salt and pepper

Combine everything in a food processor- pulse/process until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste. Sherri mashed the avocado first so I did as well- makes it quicker to get that great smoothness.

Use on beautiful salad greens and if you have a leftover chop- make Sherri's Pork Chop Croutons too!

Sherri's domination of the cooking scene is still going strong. As a competitor on Food Network's new show, All Star Academy, the lucky duck gets to meet and work with some true giants in the food world- Alex Guarnaschelli, Michael Symon, Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone and Ted Allen along with several other very talented home cooks! I'm still star struck just thinking about Alex Guarnaschelli!

photo by Sherri Williams
Anyway, All Star Academy starts on Sunday, March 1 at 9/8 central time on Food Network. Set your DVRs people! #TEAMSHERRI !!!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Canning Cookbook- Spiced Kumquat Jam

Lots of ladies in a canning group I am in have been talking about kumquats lately. Some people like to can them whole in a light syrup. I thought they would be better in a jam, which is how I'd be more likely to eat them. If you haven't seen them before, kumquats are teeny tiny citrus fruits, about the size of grape tomatoes.

Because kumquats are relatively expensive here in the frozen Midwest, I didn't have pounds of fruit to work with. I had to buy a package and work with that. I wanted something not too similar to a marmalade, as the kumquats have very tender peels, and wanted to use as much of the pulp as possible. I also supplemented the pulp with a couple of oranges, cheating, I know, but I didn't want to shell out $10-15 in fruit for a single jar of jam. 

Spiced Kumquat Jam

1/2 lb kumquats
2 oranges
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 cups water
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
1 stick cinnamon
4 whole cloves

Cut the kumquats into quarters. Scrape the pulp into a bowl and set the peel aside. 

Remove any seeds from the pulp and any large pieces of membrane. I was glad I bought the oranges because the inside of the kumquats were not juicy at all. 

Finely chop the peel. Zest both oranges and add to the kumquat peel. Cut the orange into pieces and cut out as much pulp as possible, leaving the peel and membrane behind. It's easier if you cut the orange into supremes first, but you don't have to go to so much trouble. Be sure to do so over a bowl to catch all the juice.

Combine everything in a saucepan and bring to boil. Adjust the sugar according to the tartness of the fruits. Simmer until you reach the jelling point. If you use a thermometer, it's 220 degrees.

Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves and ladle the jam into a jar. Cover and store in the fridge.

I ended up with about a half pint of jam, so it wasn't something I would process for shelf storage. Now if I lived in a warm climate and had access to several pounds of kumquats I sure would, and follow the processing time for orange marmalade.

The spice flavor was very subtle in this jam, and the kumquat peels are so delicate they really softened up during cooking. I like marmalade but the peel in marmalade has a definite "bite" to it- not the case here. This is something I'd definitely make again but heat not quite to the jelling point and use it as pancake syrup. This jam is going to be perfect with freshly baked biscuits!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dinner for Two- Shrimp and Pasta with Pesto

Some nights I just need a quick dinner idea. Today was one of those days. Nothing fancy here, I don't even need to worry about a written recipe. This is about as easy to throw together as a grilled cheese sandwich. If you keep a jar of ready made pesto in the cabinet, some shrimp in the freezer and a box of pasta around, you can have a pretty nice dinner for two in no time.

Start with pasta- whatever you have on hand works just as well. I had a big package of spaghetti so spaghetti it is!

Thaw your shrimp, if frozen, and clean them. Make sure you are using nice BIG shrimp instead of the littler salad size shrimp. Be sure to get that nasty vein out of there- you DON'T want to eat that!! Rinse them and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 cup pesto and 2 cloves garlic. I use a microplane grater to grate the garlic. Season well with salt and pepper. Let marinate for half an hour or so.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta til al dente, then drain (reserve some of the water) and toss with 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup pesto. Add a splash of the pasta water of you need. Cover and keep warm.

You want a heavy skillet or a grill pan to cook the shrimp. I used a cast iron skillet and it worked great. Heat the skillet til screeching hot, then add a tablespoon of oil. Add half the shrimp, without crowding, and cook 1-3 minutes per side. The heat of the skillet will sear the shrimp nicely. You want a beautiful golden brown crust, but don't over cook the shrimp. They cook very quickly.

To serve, pile a nice mound of pasta in a shallow bowl, and top with several shrimp. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese if you like. Serve with Insanely Easy Breadsticks- use a can of refrigerated breadstick dough, spread with garlic butter with fresh minced parsley stirred in. Twist, place on baking sheet, and bake as directed on package.

This dish would have been even better if I would have had some fresh asparagus or mushrooms to toss in the pasta- use whatever you have on hand to dress it up as much as you like.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with an Iowa Twist

Nothing says winter food quite like winter squash. From pumpkins to acorn squash, I love them all. One of the most popular winter squash is the butternut. It's a firm squash and holds it's shape well, making it a great squash for roasting. I love tossing some cubed butternut squash and potatoes and roasting them alongside a pork loin or turkey breast. Butternut squash lends itself well to both savory and sweet preparations and makes a great "pumpkin" pie.

Butternut squash also makes a very wonderful soup! Roasting first brings out it's sweetness and sauteed onions and herbs combine to make a delicious and filling fall soup. This soup is a little lighter than some recipes, with no added heavy cream, and gets a little Iowa personalization with the flavor boost from bacon. Iowa pork farmers are proud producers of some of the best bacon in the world. This soup makes a great first course, a light lunch or a great dinner by the fireplace with a thick and gooey grilled cheese on hearty artisan bread.

Let's make our Iowa Butternut Squash Soup! You will need-
  • 8 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 medium onion
  • olive oil
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 6 slices bacon
Melt the butter in a shallow roasting pan. Add the cubed squash, toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 375 degree oven until tender but don't let the squash brown. Remove from the oven and set aside. I am using butter-
nut squash that I had canned previously, so I can skip the roasting step. I still want to season with salt and pepper though.

In a large stockpot heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, season again with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until translucent and tender. Add the thyme sprigs, the cubed squash and chicken stock and simmer for about 20-30 minutes.

While the soup simmers, prepare the bacon. Cut the bacon slices into lardons. Cook in a skillet until crisp and browned. Remove to a paper towel and let drain. Add a teaspoon of bacon drippings to soup.

Remove the thyme sprigs from the soup. Using a food processor, puree the soup in batches until smooth. Return to stockpot. Reheat over low heat.

To serve, ladle into bowls, sprinkle with the crumbled bacon and additional thyme leaves or chopped chives. 

This soup just screams comfort to me. I have loads of quarts of butternut squash canned in the pantry so it's super easy to get dinner on the table- just drain, drizzle with butter and give it a quick roast and you're ready to go. With all this bread-baking I've been doing, this soup is going to be a mainstay for the winter. I'm going to switch it up and use Hubbard squash, Delicata and some of the other squash I have stored away too!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

My mom's Mushroom Steak- a 70s classic

It's the stuff 1970s era casseroles were made of. Good old cream of something soup. 

Maybe your mom or grandmother made tuna and noodles back in the day. In the upper Midwest our mothers often made something called "hotdish" and every mom had a different recipe. Some moms made tator tot casserole. Whatever she made with it, most of the time these familiar dishes started with the same basic food- canned cream of something soup. Whoever invented this stuff surely didn't intend that people actually eat them as is. Yuck. Cream of celery soup in a big bowl? No thanks. But add some cheese, chopped veggies, some noodles and a can of tuna and we're in business!

Cream of chicken and some rice made a great base for some pork chops or chicken pieces- baked until the edges of the rice were crispy and browned. Cream of celery and tuna and those crunchy chow mein noodles made a great quick dinner that I used to love. Cream of mushroom went with everything- meatballs, chunks of stew meat, chicken, pork, and of course.....tator tot casserole.

My mom was the Queen of Round Steak. Oh how she loved the stuff. She made everything beef with round steak. Pepper steak. Stroganoff. My favorite- smothered steak. She would cut up some round steak (back then it was common to find big round steak cuts as big as serving trays with the bone in the middle), pound it with her meat mallet, dredge in some flour and sear, and pour over a couple cans of cream of whatever- usually mushroom or celery- pop it in the oven for a couple hours, and that cheapo cut of meat would be as delicious and tender as any good roast. She often added a can of mushrooms (she was a steadfast supporter of the Richelieu Stems and Pieces in a can) and an onion sliced into rings spread out on the bottom of the pan and a little sprinkle of parsley on top. 

My tastes have changed significantly over the years and I rarely buy food items like canned soup these days, preferring to make my own from homemade. But every once in a while I just get a craving for some of those wonderful food memories and I grab some cream of something soup.

Erika's Mushroom Steak, Lakehouse Style

minute/cubed steaks- enough for 4 portions
1 small onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 bay leaves
2 cups beef stock
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
flour, salt and pepper
cooking oil

In a Dutch oven, heat a couple tablespoons of oil.  Season the steak pieces with salt and pepper; dredge in flour. Brown in the hot oil until nicely browned on both sides. Remove from pan. If needed, add another tablespoon or so of oil. Add the onions, garlic and dried seasonings, stir well.

Deglaze the pot with the beef stock. Whisk in the cream of mushroom soup. Return the steaks to the sauce and cover. Bake in a 300 degree oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Gravy will be nicely thickened and steak will be tender and delicious.

**Note- You can slice up half a package of mushrooms, saute them, and add to the sauce with the steak before popping in the oven, if you like. I didn't have any or I would have.

This dinner is nothing even remotely gourmet. It's not something a talented chef would create. It's not something you would order in a restaurant. What it is, is a memory on a plate for me, like a visit my mom again. Laughing over her hilarious stories and funny broken English. Teasing her about the rolls she burned in the oven. Remembering a time in my life when Mom was just a phone call away. Those were the best times.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Country Life: Patriotism, one Iowan's perspective

Patriotism is a big subject during these trying times for our nation. Many people tend to think only the bigger cities have monuments dedicated to our fallen, current and past veterans, and future military men and women, and that the small towns are just farm towns. In Iowa, they couldn't be more mistaken.

Just off of Interstate 80 at the Greenfield, IA exit is one such monument, one that is carefully, thoughtfully and with great dedication, repainted every year before Memorial Day to honor our military heroes. I'm sure the artist has been interview many dozens of times, and told his story many dozens of times, but it's one of such dedication and humbleness that it should be told again and again.

Inspired by the movie "Saving Private Ryan" the artist, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen felt a need to honor our veterans in his own personal way. As a very gifted artist, he does just that, each year starting over and repainting most of the Freedom Rock with a new theme honoring our servicemembers and their sacrifice.

The helicopter side of the Rock will never be repainted, as the green paint contains
the cremains of several Vietnam veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
He does this not because he has to, or is paid to, but because it is his way of giving back. The Freedom Rock has become such a dear Iowa treasure, now people donate to help cover the costs of materials needed to complete the new murals each year. That's just how we do things here in the midwest, we support one another. 

Adair County's wonderful treasure has caught on! In the last year a program has been launched in which each of Iowa's 99 counties can raise the funds and provide a boulder and location for their own Freedom Rock, which Ray will travel to, and complete. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley and journalist Kyle Munson were important leaders in getting this program off the ground.

Family and friends of those who served often place memorial items
on a pole next to the Rock. It's hard to put into words the sense of loss.
You might also notice many of the small towns in West Central Iowa have large murals in their towns, usually a city park or the side of a very visible building. Ray paints murals all over the country now but has not forgotten the humble beginning in Iowa......that all started with a rock, a dream, and a few cans of paint.......

You can learn more about the Rock, see galleries of past murals and much more at

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dessert- French Style

I feel like cooking. Something really good, something rich and hearty, something wonderful for a cold day. Something that braises all day and is filled with beautiful vegetables and red wine and mushrooms and rich beef. As long as I have the oven on all day, I might as well make dessert too, right? Of course!

A while back I was invited to attend a cooking class given by my friend Wini, the author of Chez Bonne Femme Cookbook and a well-known local food writer and reviewer. Sadly I was late for class (such is my luck- a day late and a dollar short) but I was just in time for dessert. Wini taught the group how to master the classic French dessert- clafouti. If you have never had a clafouti you are truly missing out. Wini made her clafouti that night with stone fruit, including big fat juicy cherries. I however, was totally in love with the creamy, eggy custard that surrounded the fruit. Eggy is the perfect way to describe the custard. It has more body than a baked custard and really, you can use any fruit you like. I have a freezer full of fruit, so I'm going to poke around in there and decide what my fruit will be.

When you think of the typical French home cook, you might think of a cook who is busy creating multi-course feasts with encroyable dishes from appetizers to cheese plates to fabulous pastry creations. Not so. The French home cook is much like the American home cook- they just want to get dinner on the table without a lot of fanfare. The French do enjoy their sweets however, but instead of spending hours fussing with pastry and creme Anglaise and meringues and pate choux, they are more likely to pop into a bakery or make a simple, delicious dessert like a clafouti. You will love this recipe. It's easy to make, no outrageous ingredients, and you can use whatever fruit you have on hand. Stone fruits, such as cherries or peaches are super delicious. Wini's recipe uses cherries, I used chunks of juicy peaches and blueberries.

Wini's Cherry Clafouti
  • 12 ounces pitted fresh or frozen sweet cherries, thawed and drained well
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon kirsch (cherry brandy)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter and sugar a 9 inch round nonmetal baking dish with 2 inch sides. I didn't have a round ceramic dish so I used an oval casserole- it works just as well.

Spread the fruit in the baking dish. In a bowl combine the eggs, sugar, vanilla, kirsch and salt. Beat with electric mixer until combined. Add the flour, milk and cream until combined. Pour the batter over the fruit.

Bake until a thin knife inserted near the center of the clafouti comes out clean and the top is a deep golden brown, about 40 minutes. If the top browns too quickly, cover loosely with a sheet of foil. Cool slightly on wire rack. Serve warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

A little bit of spiked whipped cream goes beautifully with this dessert but it's just as delicious without. Like Wini said at the class, leftovers are amazing for breakfast the next day. A nice cup of coffee or cappuccino alongside- perfect! Now you MUST own this cookbook. Wini has graciously given me permission to share a recipe or two, but you truly must own this book- the recipes are amazing and easy for us to make at home. Click HERE to get your copy!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."