Monday, August 22, 2016

Prickly Pear Lemon Bars


Today I bring you prickly pear lemon bars. They're a great way to use up a bit of prickly pear juice, and they're a fun twist on classic lemon bars. I've made these a few times and have received many compliments from people who normally find lemon bars to be too sweet and puckery, but like the milder sweetness and balance of flavor found in these bars.

Initially, I was suspicious of how well pecans would go with prickly pear, but I trusted the recipe and went for it, and I must say these flavors play together exceedingly well. The pecans add a lovely richness and...well...nuttiness that helps balance the tartness and sweetness of the dessert.

Prickly Pear Lemon Bars
Yield: one 9 x 13 pan (halve the recipe for an 8 x 8 pan)
Adapted slightly from Cupcake Project

Crust Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 cup butter, slightly softened

Filling Ingredients
1-1/3 cups sugar
4 egg whites
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 to 1-1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp. prickly pear juice
1 tsp. baking powder
2-4 Tbsp. powdered sugar (for dusting)

Directions
Preheat oven to 350. Spray a 9 x 13-inch pan with cooking spray.

Use a pastry blender, forks, or a food processor to combine all the crust ingredients until crumbly. Press into your baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes.

Mix together all filling ingredients except powdered sugar (I use an electric hand mixture). The mixture will be really runny. This is good.

Pour filling mixture on top of the pre-baked crust. It's perfectly fine if the crust is still hot. Bake for 20 minutes, until filling is set. Let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar, then cut into squares and serve.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Shrimp Jambalaya


What's a girl to do when she has 10 jars of crawfish stock in her freezer? Seriously, I'd love some ideas.

But to get things going, I gave jambalaya a shot, and was super pleased with how it turned out. The shrimp was perfectly cooked without going all rubbery. The flavors were complex and balanced, with the perfect amount of heat for me (which means it was pretty mild. Apologies to any New Orleans natives out there who are shunning me for this.)

The recipe and techniques weren't difficult unless you struggle with cooking rice. And if rice is your enemy, check out the original recipe for an oven cooking method that the writer claims is much more fool-proof than the standard stove top method.

Pro tip: before you start cooking everything, check to make sure you have the right kind of rice. I didn't bother to check since that's such a basic pantry ingredient, and it wasn't until things were already sauteeing merrily on the stove before I realized that, while I had plenty of brown rice, wild rice, a five-rice blend, brown arborio rice, and white arborio rice (and a whole slew of other grains), there was no plain old ordinary long-grain white rice on my shelf. Fortunately, the white arborio rice worked quite nicely in this recipe! Brown rice could be really yummy, too, but it's not as easy a sub since cooking time is so much longer for brown rice.


Shrimp Jambalaya
Adapted from REMCooks
Yield: 2-3 servings as a main dish

Ingredients
1-2 lbs. peeled and deveined shrimp (see notes)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup diced onion
1 cup thinly sliced green onion
1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
1 cup seafood stock (store bought or homemade)
1/2 cup uncooked white rice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Directions
Pour the shrimp into a colander or strainer and rinse under cold running water to start thawing it. Drain well. Set the colandar inside a bowl. Combine cayenne, 3/4 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper and sprinkle over the shrimp. Toss to coat, then cover the bowl and colander with plastic wrap and put in the fridge to continue draining and thawing gently while you do everything else.

Chop all the veggies and herbs.

In a medium pot, melt butter over high heat. Add tomato sauce. Continue cooking the butter and tomato sauce over high heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches a rich, dark color and the butter separates out (here's a photo from REMCooks). This took me about 6 minutes with this small batch, but would probably take a bit longer with a larger batch.

Add the onion, green onion, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Continue cooking on high heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the seafood stock, rice, and remaining salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice.

Reduce heat to a low simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Now retrieve your shrimp from the fridge and stir it into the hot rice mixture. Re-cover the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes. If your shrimp is fully thawed, you can remove the pot from the burner, and the heat from the rice mixture will cook the shrimp perfectly. Mine was still a bit frozen when I pulled it out of the fridge, so I left my burner on the lowest possible setting for these 10 minutes.

Remove the lid, remove the bay leaf, stir, and serve.

Notes
  • I used 1 lb. shrimp, and it was fine, but definitely heavy on the rice. The next time I make this, I plan to use half shrimp, half andouille sausage. The original recipe called for half shrimp, half crawfish tails. So mix and match your proteins to your preference.
  • If you like your food spicy, use more cayenne (up to 3/4 tsp.) and more black or white pepper (an additional 1/4 tsp. or so)



Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Best Refrigerator Dill Pickles


If you know me, or if you have read many of my posts, you know I’m not the most superlative person. While it does come out in some areas of my life, I’m not usually one to gush on and on about a recipe being the best [fill in the blank] I’ve ever tasted and this is my new favorite recipe of all time, etc., etc., etc.

But these pickles are the best. And the only reason I’m willing to cross into “the best” territory is because everyone with whom I’ve shared these pickles has raved about them. And not just in a polite “you gave me food so I’ll compliment it” kind of way. Effusive praise has ensued. A couple people have even gone so far as to declare these the best pickles they’ve ever eaten.

What’s so great about them? I think it’s their simplicity. You get a few fresh, quality ingredients, add a few more basic ingredients, and you’re done. The simplicity allows the freshness of the cucumbers and dill to shine through, and nothing overpowers anything else.

Bonus points: these pickles are extremely easy to make. You put some cut cucumbers in a jar and add some garlic, dill, and a couple spices to the jar. Then you dissolve some sugar and salt in vinegar and water, pour that into the jar, and you’re done.


It’s important to note that these are refrigerator pickles so, as they name suggests, they need to be kept in the fridge (they’re not shelf-stable). That means that there’s no actually canning process to go through, which means they’re super quick and not scary to make (canning still scares me). I think they taste best if eaten within a week or so, but they’ll keep up to a month in the fridge. The longer they sit, the less crunchy and more pickled they’ll get, and the more the garlic, pepper, and coriander flavors will come out.

I’ve made a lot of jars of dill pickle spears and only one jar of slices. For whatever reason, the day I was photographing pickles, my quart of slices looked more photogenic than my half-pints and pints of spears. So slices are what you see in the pictures, but spears are more what you’ll find in my fridge—and several friends’ fridges!

Refrigerator Dill Pickles
Yield: 2 pint jars (or 1 quart jar)
Adapted slightly from A Couple Cooks

Ingredients
1 lb. cucumbers
3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
Handful of fresh dill (6-10 sprigs)
1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds
1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
2/3 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp. sugar
1-1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt

Directions
Trim the ends off the cucumbers and quarter them into spears (or slices). If the cucumbers are long, cut them in half as well so the spears are short enough to fit in the jars.

Pack the cucumbers into two clean pint-sized mason jars, along with 3 garlic clove halves and 3-5 sprigs of fresh dill per jar. Add the coriander seeds and peppercorns to the jar.

In a suitable container, warm the vinegar, water, sugar, and kosher salt, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved. I’ve done this in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, and in a small saucepan on the stove. The stove actually seems easier to me. The original recipe calls for putting everything cold into a third mason jar and shaking it until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Do what works best for you.

Pour the liquid over the cucumber goodness in the jars. Tap the jars on the counter to release air bubbles. Cover jars tightly with their lids, and refrigerate immediately. Let them hang out in the fridge for 24 hours, then dig in.

Notes
  • I was worried that I should peel the more bitter cucumbers but forged ahead without peeling because A Couple Cooks said nothing about peeling. I have not detected any bitterness at all in any of the pickles.
  • The first time I made these I had ground coriander but no whole seeds, so I sprinkled in some ground, and that was fine. For a cheaper alternative, you could probably use some fresh cilantro instead of the seeds.
  • The original recipe also calls for 4 small chili peppers (2 per jar) but I left those out.
  • This recipe is obviously very scale-able depending on how many cucumbers you have or what sizes of jars you have available. 


Monday, June 20, 2016

Coleslaw for Haters


Not long after finishing second grade, I set out on a quest.

You see, my family moved from the land of green bean casserole and strawberry-rhubarb pie to the land of barbecue brisket. Which meant that now, any time we went to a catered meal of some sort, there was a really good possibility that it would feature barbeque meat(s) served with a handful of sides that always included coleslaw. You know the stuff. Kinda soggy chopped cabbage swimming in mayo-based soup that's occasionally too peppery and usually too sweet.

As you might have guessed, coleslaw and I did not become fast friends. But since we were so often in each other's company, it seemed only right to learn to at least tolerate each other. So I began my quest to develop a liking for coleslaw (and baked beans and potato salad, for that matter).

Through the years I've grown to like coleslaw okay, but usually only a few bites before the soggy, creamy sweetness is just too much.

Then one day I met mayo-free coleslaw.

She's happy and bright and tastes like summer. She's fresh, crunchy, and SO not fussy, and she’s got a bit of sassy tang. Mayo-less slaw has become my go-to sidekick when going to a cookout, especially if I’m short on time. I've brought her to a LOT of gatherings in the last few years, and nearly every time, someone says a variation of, "I don't like coleslaw, but this is really good."

I couldn't agree more.


Mayo-Free Coleslaw
Adapted from Marc Matsumoto
Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup lemon juice (I use the juice from the zested lemon, then supplement with bottled lemon juice)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 bags of coleslaw mix, about 14 oz. each*

Directions
In a jar, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt, and pepper.** Give it a good shake. Dump the coleslaw mix into a serving bowl and pour the dressing on top. Toss well. That’s it.

I prefer to serve mine within 30 minutes to an hour after dressing the slaw. If you like a softer, more pickled slaw, store it in the fridge for a few hours.

Notes 
* I usually use 1 bag regular mix (green cabbage, red cabbage, and carrots) and 1 bag broccoli slaw.
** Alternatively, you can add all the dressing ingredients to your large bowl, whisk well, and add the slaw mix on top. I like the jar method because I usually end up taking the slaw and dressing separately to wherever I’m going and dressing it as soon as I get there.

Variations
Marc Matsumoto sometimes uses vinegar or lime juice instead of lemon, or brings whole grain mustard into the mix. I imagine cilantro would be a delightful addition with lime juice and lime zest. For years now, I’ve had great intentions of trying one of these variations, but I like the original so well that I have never strayed! So if you try one of the variations, I’d love to hear how you like it!



Thursday, June 2, 2016

Crawfish Stock

My friends suggested that the first step in this recipe's instructions be, "Start with a jar of crawfish carcasses." It does make for an exciting start, don't you think?


We did a crawfish boil last week at house church, and partway through the meal I decided that I wanted to make crawfish stock out of the claws, heads, and shells that otherwise would have gone in the trash. They thought I was joking until I brought out a half-gallon mason jar, filled it with crawfish remnants, and forced them to drink the rest of the tea and prickly pear limeade I'd brought so I could fill those jars with crawfish as well.


A few observations about the stock-making process:

  • It felt resourceful to make homemade broth from stuff that would normally be thrown away. If I were really resourceful, I would make a habit of tossing into the freezer carrots, half-used onions, and other trimmings that I won't be able to use before they go bad, so I could use those for stock instead of buying all fresh veggies for this.
  • Prepping the ingredients was extremely quick and easy. Since all the solids get strained out, it doesn't matter how roughly everything is chopped. I didn't even peel the carrots or garlic.
  • What took me a long time was washing pots and colanders between batches. I don't have a pot large enough to do this entire recipe in one batch, so I had to split it in half and do two rounds in my 7(?)-quart stock pot. I think I spent more time washing dishes than chopping, cooking, and straining everything.
  • Crawfish stock is basically the color of mud. It looks kinda gross, I'm not gonna lie. I felt discouraged when I saw the end result. But it tasted fine when I sampled it, and tasted even better when I used some to make jambalaya a couple days later.
  • If you have some shrimp tails, toss those in as well.
  • Open your windows to help the fishy smell dissipate.
  • Who knew a cross-section of a head of garlic could be so pretty?


Crawfish Stock
Adapted from crawfishboil.org
Yield: A little over 1 gallon of stock, which yielded 10-1/2 pint-sized mason jars, since you have to leave some head room in each one

Ingredients
6 quarts crawfish shells
2-1/2 large onions
10 stalks celery
5 large carrots (about 1 lb.)
2 heads garlic (whole heads, as opposed to individual cloves)
2 lemons
5 Tbsp. butter
2-1/2 small bunches fresh parsley (or 2 medium bunches)
10 bay leaves
1-1/4 tsp. dried oregano
12 stems fresh thyme
15 whole peppercorns
Very modest sprinkle of salt

Directions
Roughly chop the onions, celery, and carrots. Lay each head of garlic on its side (so the stem end points to the side rather than up or down) and slice down once through the whole head. Quarter the lemons.

In batches, rinse the crawfish shells very well. You want the stock to taste like crawfish and veggies, not like crawfish boil seasoning.

In a large stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the crawfish shells and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients to the pot, then add water so the ingredients are almost covered. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about an hour.

Now it's time to strain the stock. There's not one correct way to do this, but here's how I did it. Place a large colander inside another large pot or bowl. Scoop ladlefuls of stock (with solids and all) into the colander. This will take care of all the big pieces of vegetables and crawfish, but you'll still have some thyme leaves and flecks of stuff in your broth. So now pour or ladle the broth through a fine mesh strainer. Discard all the solids.

Don't be worried that your stock is the color of mud. It will still taste good.

Portion out the broth into jars for freezing, being sure to leave an inch or so of head room since liquid expands when it freezes. Since this is shellfish, I would suggest cooling it as quickly as possible (i.e., in the fridge, freezer, or an ice bath...not by leaving it out on your counter for a couple of hours). Use the stock within 3 days or freeze it.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mulled Cranberry Apple Cider

For quite some time now, one of my coworkers and I have been planning to make some warm, festive beverages to share at the office. Originally the plan was to do pumpkin cider in celebration of autumnal weather. Buuut we didn't manage to make it happen until after December 1, so something more Christmasy seemed like the way to go.

Enter cranberries. I've shared before, I always associate cranberries more with winter than fall, even though they're mostly mostly in the stores around Thanksgiving. They look festive, and their tart flavor is perfect for brightening up sometimes-dreary winter days.

So last week I whipped up this mulled cranberry apple cider, my friend whipped up some hot cocoa, and our coworkers rejoiced. I've made this cider once before and love the flavors and the ease of prep.


Mulled Cranberry Apple Cider
Adapted from Rachael Ray
Yield: 12 servings (3 quarts total)

Ingredients
2-inch piece of ginger root
1 orange
4 whole cloves
4 cinnamon sticks
2 quarts cloudy organic apple cider
1 quart cranberry juice
1-2 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed (frozen is fine)
Slow cooker

Directions
Peel the ginger and cut it into 3-4 smaller pieces. Cut 2-3 slices out of the center of the orange. Then use a paring knife to remove some of the peel from the "heels" of the orange that didn't get sliced. Try to get as little of the white pith as possible, but don't stress about it. Stick the cloves through the piece(s) of orange peel. This basically just makes it easy to fish out the cloves later. (Alternatively, you could just throw in some orange slices and some loose cloves.)

Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker (4-quart capacity or larger). Cook on high for 2-3 hours, checking it after an hour or so. If it's hot enough, turn the slow cooker down to warm. If it's getting too spiced, then fish out some or all of the ginger, cloves, and cinnamon sticks.

Tips
  • If you need to expedite this, then warm the apple cider and/or cranberry juice in the microwave before adding to the slow cooker. I warmed my apple cider in the microwave, and after an hour on high in the slow cooker, everything was piping hot. If you're really in a hurry, follow Rachael Ray's stovetop directions.
  • I bought a gallon of cider and roughly a half gallon of cranberry juice. I used half of each to make one batch of this cider. Since I don't normally drink either of these things on their own, I poured the leftover cranberry juice into the cider jug and stuck it in my freezer. I'll pull it out for round two when my family is in town for Christmas later this month. 
  • The above tip sounds frighteningly like a story problem from math classes of yorn: If Karissa has 4 quarts of cider and 2 quarts of cranberry juice, then pours half of it into her slow cooker, how many quarts of juice are left?


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Nerdiest Christmas Album Ever

Gather ‘round, ye children come
Listen to the old, old story
Of the pow’r of death undone
By an infant born of glory.
Son of God, Son of Man.
By far the nerdiest Christmas album I own—and hands down one of my favorites—is Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God. It’s usually the first CD I listen to each Christmas season (yes, I still use CDs) because it does such a good job of setting the scene and putting Christmas in context. Now, I like Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree just as much as the next person, but ultimately Christmas is about a God who craved relationship with and wholeness for God’s people—so much so, that this God did the most radical thing I can think of, and became human, stepping into our shoes, into our swaddling clothes, into our mess. And Behold the Lamb of God does an excellent job of telling the story of this God, this people, and this baby. It begins with a teaser of the story to come. A movie trailer, if you will, highlighting the hero of the story.
Instead of going straight to Bethlehem, we instead begin in Egypt, where we meet Moses, Pharaoh, the enslaved people of Israel, and a Passover lamb. We hear the cries of a people who long not only for deliverance but also for God’s mercy and closeness even as they find deliverance.
Lord, let your judgment passover us
Lord, let your love hover near.
Don’t let your sweet mercy passover us
Let this blood cover over us here.
This longing continues as these people enter the Promised Land and seek strong leaders: Moses is dead, Joshua isn’t kingly enough, and what they need is a king. Saul is a disappointment, though David is pretty awesome. But eventually exile happens and “the people of God are scattered abroad.” They ask the prophets if they’ll ever have another king like David—one who’s wise, loved by the people, and powerful “with a sword in his fist.” And Isaiah responds that yes, a King is coming, but he’ll be different than expected. As the years stretch on, Israel’s longing for Messiah—for ruler and deliverer—intensifies:
Our enemy, our captor, is no Pharaoh on the Nile,
Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand.
Our ankles bear no calluses from chains yet, Lord, we’re bound.
Imprisoned here we dwell in our own land.
Deliver us, deliver us, O Yahweh, hear our cry
And gather us beneath your wings tonight.
Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay.
Our shackles, they were made with our own hands.
Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give.
So, Yahweh, break this silence if you can.
And at the end of this song, we catch a glimpse of Yahweh’s longing that mirrors Israel’s:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed
To gather you beneath my gentle wings.
I think that what I like so much about this first portion of the album is the desperation and the honest treatment of pain in the lives of God’s people. Most Christmas music is festive, happy, celebratory. These songs revel in the pleasures of sleigh rides and jingle bells, marvel over a child in a manger, and paint pictures of angelic choirs filling the sky with their brilliance and good news. And this is good! God becoming human is remarkable and worthy of every praise we can muster!
Also, sometimes life is hard. And it’s comforting to find a collection of songs that doesn’t gloss over that. It’s been a rough year for me and some of my close friends. As a community we’ve dealt with loneliness, burnout, many miscarriages, work and financial uncertainties, death. And it’s been a rough year for our country and our world. It’s nearly impossible to log onto Facebook without seeing some fight break out over whether we’re destroying our planet, or whether refugees and immigrants are coming here as terrorists and/or freeloaders, or whether members of the LGBT community are abominations, or whether racism is still a thing, or whether this religion or people group or political party or fill-in-the-blank is offending me or challenging my rights, or . . .
Deliver us, deliver us, O Yahweh, hear our cry
And gather us beneath your wings tonight.
I love that in this album, there is longing and deliverance, sorrow and praise. Because the centuries of slavery, imperfect leaders, exile, and growing distance from God made the arrival of the Messiah that much more powerful and miraculous.
As the story continues to unfold, we get a review of Christ’s lineage through a playful little song called Matthew’s Begats. You know, Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob and so on? Kind of a brilliant song, if you ask me, and unlike any other Christmas song I’ve heard! We then meet Joseph and Mary and follow them to Bethlehem. We hear Mary’s pained cries and see her and Joseph in a non-glamorous and far more realistic birth scene: in a cold, unclean stable, with “blood on the ground,” “tears upon her face,” and “no mother’s hand to hold.” We join the shepherds in marveling at the angels’ proclamation that the Savior—this king from David’s line, this long-awaited Messiah—has arrived! We join in the angels’ unfettered hallelujahs, then slip quietly back to the stable for the ballad that serves as the climax for this story that has taken centuries to unfold.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away our sin.
Behold the Lamb of God, the life and light of men.
Behold the Lamb of God, who died and rose again.
Behold the Lamb of God, who comes to take away our sin.
There’s a celebratory reprise of the album’s opening song, calling us to “sing out with joy for the brave little boy, who was God but made himself nothing,” followed by a no-frills recording of the simple chorus of O Come All Ye Faithful. And then tucked away at the very end of the CD is a recording of Andrew Peterson’s little boys singing a song that many of us learned as kids: “Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.”
I always assumed Peterson threw that in there because he wanted to show off his sons’ cuteness. And maybe that was part of his motivation. But if you think about it, the song actually fits pretty well. Because our God is so big! Our God is mighty enough to do crazy things like delivering an entire nation out of slavery, bringing them priests and prophets to facilitate relationship, sharing their griefs, fiercely pursuing a fickle bride, and dwelling among us as a baby, then a kid, then a man who overturned social and religious norms and demonstrated his power by choosing humble sacrifice over political and military prowess.
Indeed, there is nothing our God cannot do.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

All quotations taken from various songs on Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson, originally released in 2004.