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Soup for Dummies: Warm up with this easy-to-make curried cauliflower-apple soup

Soup for Dummies: Warm up with this easy-to-make curried cauliflower-apple soup

Cauliflower Soup 1 logo

When the temperatures start to take a nose dive and it’s finally time to dig out the sweaters, I have one thing on my mind (besides keeping warm): soup! Synonymous with warmth and comfort, no wonder it’s such a popular dish this time of year.

The best part about soup is that it’s so darn easy to make. Seriously. You throw everything into a pot, bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, then let it ride for anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours (depending on what you put in it).

With most soup recipes, especially those that need to simmer for a long period of time, a lid is required during cooking to prevent the liquid from evaporating (or else you’ll just have a pot of soggy vegetables). Also, you’ll notice that soup is always cooked in a pot or saucepan with high sides instead of in a sauté pan with low sides. Why? The high sides prevent some of the moisture from leaving the pot and evaporating, while pans with low sides are designed to help wick moisture away — which is why they are great for making pan sauces and reductions.

Curried Cauliflower and Apple Soup is a creamy, dreamy dish using currently abundant seasonal produce. Cauliflower is a great base for a pureed soup because, when blended, it acquires a creamed consistency; hence no cream (or the added calorie count) is needed. The Madras curry gives the recipe an Eastern twist and a pop of flavor, but feel free to omit it or change it up with your favorite curry blend.

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You say tomato, I say soup: Creamy Sherried Tomato Soup with Herbs

You say tomato, I say soup: Creamy Sherried Tomato Soup with Herbs

This easy-to-prepare tomato soup is comforting goodness in a bowl.

No matter the weather or season, any time is a great time for tomato soup. There’s something comforting and restorative about a warm bowl of tomato soup — homemade tomato soup, that is. For me, it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. This version in particular is so easy to prepare that you’ll be on your way to culinary bliss in no time.

When I first found this recipe and saw some of the main ingredients — tomato juice and chicken base — I worried that it would turn out tasting like something grandma would made or simply like I’d opened a can of Campbell’s (which is decent, but like I said, homemade simply tastes better). Turns out the ingredients totally work — the juice gives it added tomatoey oomph and the chicken base is a shortcut to using broth, which one would have to simmer for ages to achieve the same flavor.

The result is a pinkish-hued bowl of comfort to be served warm or piping hot (depending on your mood and the weather outside). I like to stir in chopped herbs like parsley and basil just before serving for a pop of color and flavor. As for the sherry, Ree used cooking sherry, whereas I prefer to use real sherry wine.

Sherry is a fortified wine that originates in Jerez (“Sherish”), Spain, and is typically served as an an aperitif used to “finish” and add flavor to dishes. I go by the old adage on cooking with booze: “If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” Cooking sherry is a version of sherry which has been treated with salts and other additives so that it can be stored in the cupboard at room temperature. While this is all well and good, I’m not a fan of its flavor and prefer using standard dry (not sweet) sherry wine in its place. Don’t have sherry on hand? Not a problem. Try substituting a cup of dry red or white wine for the sherry — just add it before you throw in the tomatoes to let the flavors meld while they’re simmering together — or leave it out altogether.

Feel free to get a little creative with this recipe and personalize it as well. For added flavor, try throwing in a teaspoon or two of fresh, chopped rosemary or thyme when sweating the onions. Don’t want to use the cream and/or sherry? Not a problem. Try substituting a cup of dry red or white wine for the sherry; just add it before you throw in the tomatoes to let their flavors meld while they’re simmering together.

Not only is this tomato soup approachable for any cooking skill level, it’s perfect for a weeknight meal, as it only takes minutes to throw together and you can get it on the table in a flash. Serve it alongside a gooey grilled cheese sandwich and call it dinner.
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Street Inspiration: Recreating Chi’lantro’s Korean barbecue kimchi fries

Street Inspiration: Recreating Chi’lantro’s Korean barbecue kimchi fries

SIMPLY ADDICTIVE: Korean bulgogi, caramelized kimchi, Cheddar cheese, cilantro, magic sauce, sriracha and sesame seeds atop of a pile of crispy fries.

Back in March, I covered the burgeoning food truck scene here in Austin, Texas, during the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and interactive festival. There’s a food truck/trailer for just about every type of cuisine here, including many that offer their take on fusion fare. Due to a word limit for print, I didn’t get too in depth about the actual food that these mobile eateries proffer, but I felt like it was time to highlight a few of my favorite dishes (and recipes for recreating them).

For my first installment, I feel it’s necessary to feature the first food truck dish I fell in love with: Chi’lantro’s Korean-American fusion kimchi fries. Though I can appreciate a wide range of cuisines and top-notch ingredients, it’s simple comfort food that I end up craving at the end of the day (or after a long night hitting the local bar scene) and this dish is just that. Exotic and tangy Korean barbecue and kimchi is piled atop a bed of warm, crispy French fries and topped with cheese, cilantro, “magic sauce”, Sriracha and sesame seeds. Not the healthiest pick, but it’s for darn sure one of the best eats in the city.

I had been itching to recreate this recipe at home but couldn’t figure out their exact formula for some of the elements in it. Lucky for me, Chi’Lantro’s chef and owner Jae Kim shared his secret recipe in the May issue of Food & Wine Magazine. While the original formulation is divine, I can never follow a recipe without putting my own spin on it. So here’s my take on this Korean barbecue junk food treat. Try it once and I promise you’ll be hooked.

One quick note on the kimchi (or “kimchee”): While fermented cabbage may not sound very appetizing, this element is key to the dish. If you’re ambitious and have the necessary ingredients on-hand — like Korean chili powder and salted shrimp — and a month to ferment it, make your own at home. Otherwise, you can most likely find it already prepared at at your local Asian market. It’s a fabulous condiment to have in your fridge whether you’re making this, serving it alongside a traditional Korean dish, or even slapping it in a grilled cheese sandwich (which is also amazing).
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Everyday exotic: Korean Barbecue Beef and Rice Bowl with Bok Choy

Everyday exotic: Korean Barbecue Beef and Rice Bowl with Bok Choy

Being that I’m always experimenting with food, I’ve been on a Korean kick lately. Korea’s food obviously has some similar elements to Chinese and Japanese dishes, but as a whole it’s nowhere near the same. Japanese food seems to be more on the minimalist side of things — with simple, clean flavors — while Chinese cooking (in most regions) uses many ingredients and flavors. Korean cooking lies somewhere in the middle.

Korean cuisine is based on vegetables, meat and rice, and often includes garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, sesame oil, black pepper, vinegars, doenjang (fermented bean paste) and gochujang (fermented red chili paste) — yielding an array of tangy, savory and sometimes spicy dishes.

For my experiment, I took inspiration from two popular Korean dishes: bulgogi and bibimbap. Bulgogi is traditionally thinly sliced beef sirloin that has been marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and other ingredients. It is then quickly grilled or stir-fried and served with lettuce (to wrap the meat in) and a dipping sauce.

Bibimbap is a staple of Korean cooking comprised of a bowl filled with rice and topped with meat, usually beef, gochujang, varying combinations of vegetables and a fried egg. The contents in the bowl are typically mixed together while being eaten, which is very fitting as the word bibimbap in Korean literally translates to “mixed meal.”

Put the two dishes together and you get this Korean barbecue beef and rice bowl with bok choy. (See recipe below.) I didn’t have any gochujang on hand, so I substituted red pepper flakes in the marinade. As for the beef, I used the flat iron cut, which is a thinner piece of meat cut from the shoulder section, similar to skirt or flank steak. Flat iron, or “top blade,” steak is a tender, flavorful and inexpensive cut that takes well to marinating and should be cooked quickly over fairly high heat. Don’t go much past medium or it will become tough.


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French breakfast muffins that are c’est magnifique!

French breakfast muffins that are c’est magnifique!

As I’ve confessed before, I’m no pastry chef. I have little patience for exactly measuring and weighing flours, leaveners and extracts, then precisely mixing and baking until a dish is just perfect — but looks too good to even touch. But once in a great while, I get the baking bug and can’t wait to nosh on some carb-laden goodies warm from the oven.

And then I saw them.

While perusing through one of my favorite new cookbooks, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl by food blogger and now Food Network personality, Ree Drummond, I came upon the recipe for her French Breakfast Puffs. These fluffy, cinnamon- and sugar-topped beauties jumped off the page and called to me, “Bake me … bake me …” It was settled. I had to find an excuse to make them.

And ohh … they were so worth it. Tender, fluffiness on the inside with sweet and spiced, slightly crunchy tops — they were pure heaven. Their flavor reminds me of a cinnamon-sugar doughnut. I also like that the actual muffin batter isn’t overly sweet — notice there’s no vanilla extract used — which lets the sugary topping take credit for the sweetness. And talk about easy to make! One large bowl and a handheld mixer were the only items dirtied in the making of these muffins, and they took only five minutes to whip up. I will admit that the hardest part in the process was waiting the 25 minutes for them to bake, then letting them cool enough so I could handle them to apply the topping.

I made a few small changes from the original recipe, like swapping butter for shortening. Using real, quality butter gives these muffins a more, well, buttery flavor. My recommendation, butter-wise, is to use one with a high butterfat content, like the Irish Kerrygold or Plugrá. They’re pricier than store brand butter but have incredibly rich flavor and take baked goods to the next level. If I’m going to be consuming some empty calories, I’m going to make them worth it.

Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly French about these muffins, but it doesn’t matter because they’re damn good. Great for breakfast, brunch or even a late-night snack, these French Breakfast Muffins are now going to be a staple of my baking repertoire and I highly encourage you to try them out as well.


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Dreaming of Rio: Cachaça is Brazil’s answer to rum

Dreaming of Rio: Cachaça is Brazil’s answer to rum

Cachaça! Brazil's national booze produced from sugarcane (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Though most of the U.S is stuck in the doldrums of a chilly, gray winter, I’m in sunny Brazil. While the temperatures are averaging somewhere in the 50s at home, it’s a balmy 80 degrees and I’m on a beach in Rio with a cold drink in my hand. In my mind, at least.

Instead of waiting for the warmer months, I’m imagining they’re already here with an exotic cocktail straight from the other side of the Equator — thanks to my new friend cachaça. Made from sugarcane, cachaça (“ka-SHA-sa”) is Brazil’s answer to rum. While rum is typically made from the distilled byproducts of sugarcane (like molasses), cachaça is produced straight from fresh sugarcane before being fermented and distilled. It comes in two varieties, unaged (white) and aged (gold), but is more familiarly seen as the former.

Unaged cachaça has the slight flavor and aroma of fresh sugarcane, and it reminds me of a cross between silver tequila and light rum — light and aromatic like tequila but with a smooth end note like rum.

Cachaça makes a great substitute for white rum, vodka or even tequila in a cocktail, but I find that it is best showcased in Brazil’s fabulous and refreshing national cocktail: the Caipirinha (“kye-pur-een-yah”). Very similar to the Cuban Mojito, it’s a simple mixture of lime juice, sugar and cachaça. It can be made with rum if you haven’t any cachaça, though the flavor will be a bit different. I like to add a splash of tonic to my Caipirinha to add a bit of effervescence.

While cachaça used to be harder to find in the States, a few producers — Leblon, Velho Barreiro, Ypioca — are making their way onto the scene. Best of all, cachaca is fairly inexpensive — between 15 and 25 bucks at spirits retailers.

My recommendation: Grab yourself this exotic spirit to inject a bit of sunny Brazil into your day (or night).
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No beans about it: Deep in the heart of Texas, the chili is all beef

No beans about it: Deep in the heart of Texas, the chili is all beef

Now that winter is officially here, there’s nothing more comforting than a hot bowl of stew to warm the body and the soul. My go-to is chili. It’s hearty, comforting and just about foolproof to make.

I had always been a fan of chili with beans, as those little legumes add nice texture and have a fair amount of fiber in them (yes, I care about these things). But since moving to Texas, I’d been meaning to give the state’s signature bean-less style of chili (aka “chili con carne”) a try in the kitchen.

Texans take much pride in their “bowl o’ red,” hence rules number one and two for Texas chili: absolutely no beans included, and it must have a tomato base, be it from the addition of tomato paste and/or canned tomatoes. No white, green or bean-laden types can be called true Tex chili here. Typically you’ll see Texas chili made with beef chuck or brisket, but if you don’t have all day to wait for it to cook, use ground beef (and don’t even think about using that lean stuff).

As for the cooking vessel, cast iron is the way to go. Its even heat distribution means everything inside gets cooked evenly — no scorched bottom and lukewarm surface. If you don’t have a cast iron, don’t fret; just make sure you stir your chili occasionally so that the bottom of the batch doesn’t burn. To finish off the dish, fresh cilantro, shredded cheese and onions are great options. I used a smoked cheddar to top mine and it added a smoky kick that nicely complemented the toasted chiles and spices in the dish. A side of cornbread or warm, soft tortillas to dip in the chili also make tasty accompaniments.
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Braised red cabbage with apples is a simple and versatile addition to any meal

Braised red cabbage with apples is a simple and versatile addition to any meal

Now don’t turn up your nose right away. I know, I know — sometimes the word “cabbage” brings up images of bland cole slaw or bitter and flaccid boiled green cabbage. Yecch. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect recipe to change your mind about this cruciferous vegetable, and lend color and dimension to your holiday table.

Red cabbage, in my opinion, is green cabbage’s more attractive and flavorful sister, and she’s cheap and easy to boot — inexpensive to buy and easy to cook, that is. Besides using it in the obvious slaw, red cabbage is also great when braised and served as a side to just about any chicken, pork or meat dish, and lends a punch of fuchsia to a table otherwise filled with drab browns and greens.

It’s all about playing with the flavors to pair them with the rest of your meal. Typically, many of us serve Americanized versions of European dishes during the holidays — spiced roasts, herbed vegetables, etc. So for this particular flavor profile, I’ve kept this German-style braised cabbage fairly simple, seasoning it with tart apples and apple cider vinegar, red wine, caraway seeds (often seen in rye bread), sugar and a hint of cinnamon. If you’re planning an Asian-inspired feast, I’d suggest going with flavoring agents like rice wine vinegar, five spice powder, ginger and sesame seeds; for a Latin American fiesta, go with cumin, garlic, chile powder and lime juice.

To kick this dish up a notch (and to please the carnivores), fry a few slices of bacon in the pan and use the drippings in place of the oil or butter. If you’re expecting vegan or vegetarian guests, start the dish with canola or vegetable oil as I’ve done in the recipe below. And any diners with gluten allergies will also be plenty pleased with this edible offering.

Best of all, braised red cabbage is even better the day after it’s made and would make a tasty addition to any leftover turkey sandwich.
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Mastering the fine art of mashed potatoes

Mastering the fine art of mashed potatoes

Glory Foods via Flickr

Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes? They’re an American comfort food staple, a great addition to your holiday table or a simple Sunday dinner. Their preparation seems easy enough in theory — boil some potatoes, then pulverize them along with some butter and salt — but making the “perfect” mashed potatoes is like the search for the Holy Grail. Many have failed miserably on this quest.

First, you must figure out which type of tuber best suits your needs. After researching “perfect mashed potatoes,” I noticed that Yukon Golds were the spud of choice across the board. Hey, if they’re good enough for the likes of Alton Brown and Martha Stewart, they’re good enough for me.

Yukon Golds — a.k.a. “all-purpose” potatoes — are a cross between the moist new potato and starchier Russet types, making them versatile in just about any culinary situation. You get the best of both worlds: starchy enough to hold up when slathered in butter and gravy, but maintaining just the right amount of moisture to produce light and fluffy mashers.
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Freakin’ adorable: Apple-pecan-bourbon hand pies

Freakin’ adorable: Apple-pecan-bourbon hand pies

Autumn and winter are the only times of the year when you’ll catch me baking. I’ve been known to over-bake, over-whisk and over-mix many a dessert, and I have little to no patience for exactly measuring out ingredients. But the chillier months surrounding the holidays always get me in the mood to bake cookies and pies utilizing the bounty of fruits and spices available at this time of year.

A self-proclaimed “anti-pastry chef,” when I do take on the oven and create sweets I opt for simple baking recipes. I weaned myself off boxed mixes (it’s just plain cheating), but I’m still a fan of pre-made pie crusts and dough found in the freezer aisle at the grocery store. They’re very versatile, and defrosting them makes a smaller mess than making it from scratch — though more power to you if you’re into that.

My newest baked concoction (created with the help of a friend) is a play on the traditional apple pie that many folks enjoy during the holidays. These mini apple-pecan hand pies are a cinch to throw together and a great (and easier) alternative to making one huge pie.

The hand pie recipe uses puff pastry dough — often used in turnover pastries, strudel and for covering Beef Wellington — which can be found in your grocer’s freezer and creates a light, flaky crust when baked. The apple filling is sautéed in a pan first for a softer filling, but feel free to leave your apples raw if you want a crunchier texture. Just remember: If you don’t cook your apple filling first, you can’t pour bourbon in it and set it on fire (aka: flambéing) — which is the best part about making these.

As for apples, take your pick and go with your taste preference. I love the sweet taste of Galas and Comice apples, so that’s what I used in this recipe. For a tangier filling, opt for Granny Smiths.

Feel free to get creative with this recipe, and play with different spices, use an alternate filling — pears, chocolate, berries — or add mix-ins to your crust, like grated sharp cheddar, ground spices and nuts.
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