Easy Appetizers

I’ve mentioned before in posts that usually, the easiest recipes are the most beloved.  And I’m not talking about the one doing the cooking.  I’m talking the peeps doing the eating!

I’ve never had a huge repertoire of appetizers, but they all tend to be easy.  Lil Smokies in “homemade” barbecue sauce, lots of dips with just a handful of ingredients, etc.  Yet, my maturing taste buds sometimes crave something a little more…fancy.  Luckily, thanks mostly to Pinterest, I’ve found some really great appetizers that only seem to have taken hours to prepare :)

Here we go:

1.) Stuffed Mushrooms

My friend in San Francisco found this gem to serve us as a starter to a delicious Italian dinner last summer.  They have some great heat to them thanks to the red pepper (which, obviously, is easy enough to omit).  Another great thing about this recipe – they don’t call for bread crumbs, so they are gluten-free.  They are highly requested among my friends out here :)

The most time consuming step in this recipe is probably washing the mushrooms and dicing up the stems.  Remember – never submerge mushrooms in water.  Don’t even spray them in a colander.  They’ll absorb the moisture and get all mushy and weird.  Just dampen a paper towel and wipe each one down!

Also – 12 mushrooms is 1) not enough to use up all the cream cheese stuffing and 2) not enough to keep your friends happy.  I can usually stuff about a pound (I like creminis) with one batch of stuffing.

2.) Marinated Mushrooms

Yep, we like mushrooms around here :)  Ali, Chris and I are big fans of the olive bar at Whole Foods (though we don’t really partake in any olives, the mushrooms, artichokes, mozzarella and other offerings are quite delicious).  But at something like $10/pound, it’s easy to really blow through some cash.  I tried these last night and they were delicious.  And simple.  And cheap, since all I had to buy were the mushrooms.  (We always have red wine vinegar and Worcestershire around, turns out).

I used just under 2 pounds of fresh creminis, and doubled the amount of marinade (1 cup of oil total).  I stirred them up a couple of times before I went to bed, and by noon today they looked perfect.  What I like about this recipe is that you can basically experiment with any combination of dried herbs and spices.  I added red pepper flakes and left out the fresh parsley.  They are probably not the healthiest finger food around, as they have been bathed in oil…but who am I kidding?  If I’m making an actual appetizer, I plan on eating many, MANY calories.

3.) Bacon-Wrapped Dates

I picked up this recipe from a close friend’s roommate who happens to be gluten-free.  There are a lot of foods I never ate much of (or even liked) before I moved to California.  Artichokes, avocados, quinoa….dates…I was a little skeptical the first time I tried them.  I don’t know why.  They were amazing.  AMAZING!  Slightly time-consuming, but they don’t take any real cooking skill.

Pick up some dried, pitted dates (I used about 1 1/2 small bags to one package of bacon.  Luckily, they are tasty to snack on plain, so if you have extras, it’s no big deal.)  You don’t need a really thick cut of bacon, but quality bacon is key.  Wrap a small slice of bacon around a date and secure with a toothpick.  Then roll this in a combination of brown sugar and red pepper (or, if you’re a wuss, leave out the red pepper).  Bake at about 375 until the bacon starts to crisp up.  You will probably have to drain off some bacon grease halfway through baking, or said bacon will never actually crisp.  This is one of those recipes that is difficult to screw up.  Bake them at 350 or 400.  Finish them in a frying pan.  Who cares.  The recipe involves bacon, and that automatically makes probably 90% of your guests happy!

4.) Baked Brie and Roasted Garlic

I’ve ordered this combo a few times at restaurants.  It’s pretty freaking delicious served up with some crostini or French bread slices.

Everybody should know of the glory that is roasted garlic.  Garlic gets surprisingly mellow once roasted, which means it isn’t overpowering to spread an entire clove on a slice of bread with some gooey Brie.  When I made baked Brie at home I didn’t even sprinkle it with wine, fresh ground pepper was perfect.  This is one of those things that basically involves putting a pan in the oven for an hour, but seems so sophisticated (it tastes pretty sophisticated too).

I hope these help you impress crowds this summer!


Key Lime Pie

This past Thursday, we celebrated Pi Day (3/14).  You know, the number that never ends (but starts with 3.14), that helps us calculate the area of circles and whatnot. (Okay, maybe you don’t know.  It’s okay.  I’ll forgive you.)  I happened to be on call, so I was at home during the day, and Alison suggested I bake a pie in honor of the day.  Witty, isn’t she?

Well, an extremely slow waiter at lunch and a trip to the mall got in the way of those plans, but with little to do Friday afternoon, I got the itch to fulfill her request.  To be honest with you, I don’t know that I’ve baked a pie since I moved to California.  I’ve gotten cravings to do so, but my holidays here have become so non-traditional that there is never really a good reason to go through the hassle, just so I can eat half of it myself.

I found the recipe I used on Pinterest after thoroughly enjoying the Sara Lee key lime pie my friend brought over for a cookout a couple of weekends ago.  I think I had had it before then, but I wasn’t sure…I’ve definitely been a fan of the yogurt version for years!  The whipped topping sounded interesting (you’ll see why in a moment), and the picture looked yummmmmmy.  Though I was close to going with my own personal favorite of lemon meringue, the allure of a new recipe won out.  It didn’t hurt that this is probably Chris’ favorite pie flavor, so I knew I had someone to split calories with ;).

You can find the original recipe here.  It’s super simple, and you more than likely have almost all the ingredients you will need on hand already.

Surprisingly, we were unable to locate fresh key limes.  I know I’ve seen them out here, but we were in a rush (I had a Skype date with my dad!), and let it go after checking Ralph’s and Whole Foods.  I think I found a pretty great alternative, however.  We had a large bottle of Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice on hand for making my new favorite girly drink, the avocado margarita (another post, another post).  We buy ours at BevMo, where it’s conveniently located near the tequila aisle.  The bottle doesn’t specify whether the juice comes from key limes or regular limes, but the fact that it had a recipe for key lime pie on the side told me it was a safe bet either way.  If you also can’t find fresh key limes, I suggest using a juice such as this one over the cheap lime juice you can find in the produce department in the little plastic lime.  It’s got a ton of flavor.

I had a little scare with my crust.  I was busy with about four other projects, and didn’t look in on it until about 18 of the specified 20 minutes of baking time had passed.  It was getting more than slightly brown, but it hadn’t burned yet.  Just a word of caution to pay a bit more attention than I was…  Also, I found I had more crust mixture than necessary to fill my 9 inch Pyrex pie plate.  I think 1 sleeve of graham crackers (just over a cup of crumbs) will yield enough.  Use the full cup and a half if you are using a deep-dish pie plate.  Although most of the time when I make a graham cracker crust, I only add melted butter, I really enjoyed the sugar in this crust.  The sweetness is a nice balance for the tart lime custard.  And as always, if you are lazy or in a rush, I’m sure a store-bought crust works just fine :)

Once I had mixed my filling, I ended up baking it for about 17 minutes.  It probably could have used about a minute longer in the oven, but it was just about perfect.  A custard filling that doesn’t crack or pull away from the crust?  Delightful.  It had that “I’m barely holding my form here” jiggliness about it too, but still sliced and served easily.  I took a nap while it chilled, and then came back to mix up the topping.

As I mentioned before, I was intrigued that the topping here included sour cream.  I’m not sure why, as I am the proponent of using sour cream in everything (banana bread, cupcakes…).  I used regular whipping cream and not heavy whipping cream, but I’m sure either works fine if you already have one on hand.  When I tasted the beater, I was actually a little worried.  The sour cream flavor was obvious.  Chris told me to calm down, so I spooned it over the chilled pie and stuck it in the fridge until we had eaten our dinner.

Turns out…Chris was right.  Combined with the sweetness of the crust and the tartness of the filling, the not-overly-sweet topping was PERFECT!  It’s a nice touch on a pie that would actually be just fine with no topping at all, in my opinion.  I didn’t bother garnishing this pie, since I wasn’t serving it to company.  This was delicious…such a yummy spring treat, and really pretty easy.  And…I got to have pie for breakfast, just as if it were Black Friday or the day after Christmas :)

I couldn’t tell you how long this recipe has sat neatly written in one of my recipe binders, begging to be brought to life.  Three years?  I remember sitting at my parents’ house, watching Everyday Italian and immediately logging onto the Food Network website so I could copy the recipe down.  I even read the reader comments and wrote notes on the margins such as “probably use less salt.”  :)  However, I never found a reason to make it.  My dad, Alison and I all really enjoy mushrooms, but my mom is only a borderline fan, and has complained before when I’ve made dishes that lean too heavily on them.  So it was never really an option if she was around.  When Holly and I lived together, we were probably just too cheap to go out and buy smoked mozzarella and proscuitto (if we could find them!).  But, now I live with two brave foodie souls, and I am fully employed…no more excuses!

It seems, for now anyways, that this never-ending 2012 Los Angeles summer has come to an end.  Thus, it’s now acceptable to turn on the oven to make dinner!  We were down to one meal on our list from the most recent grocery trip; this one.  Seeing as it was a Sunday evening and I didn’t work until the following night, we went for it.

A word of warning: Giada says this only takes 30 minutes to prepare…however, with 2-3 of us working at any given time, it was probably more like 45.  There is a lot of chopping and grating of ingredients, not to mention three pots and pans going at once before you can assemble the finished product.  So we cranked some Florence + the Machine, opened some red wine, and went to town.

Here’s the recipe.  It’s long, so I thought it was hyperlink appropriate :)

Remember before when I said I had written down the one comment about not using so much salt?  This version has been updated since I copied down mine; Giada now calls for 1.5 teaspoons of salt in both the sauce and the mushroom mixture versus the full tablespoon previously.  We still used only about a teaspoon in each.  8 ounces of proscuitto means A LOT of salty flavor, and I didn’t see any reason to over-do it when it would be so easy to sprinkle a little extra on if necessary.

Let’s see, what else did we change….

  • Black pepper: I love pepper, however, 2 teaspoons in each part of this dish seemed excessive.  We cut that in half, and I thought it was the perfect amount.  There’s a ton of flavor in the dish, and instead of being overpowering, the pepper was just a nice heat in the background.  So…season to taste, and work your way UP to the full amount!
  • Fresh herbs are expensive (though worthwhile, I know…), and since this was already getting to be an expensive dinner, we opted to use the dry versions we already had in the pantry.  Instead of 1.5 Tablespoons of chopped, fresh rosemary and thyme, we used 1 heaping teaspoon of the dried versions.  Again – it was just the right amount, for us at any rate.

As far as mushrooms, we used 10 oz. each of white and cremini.  Trader Joe’s sells them sliced for about $2 a bag; it’s a great deal.  I’m SURE shiitake would have been awesome, but again, the cheapskates in us reared their ugly heads to put the kibosh on that idea :)  Also, please don’t consider substituting regular mozzarella for the smoked stuff.  The flavor is so important to the success of this dish!  If you can’t find smoked mozzarella, try a smoked gouda.  We ended up using regular lasagna noodles, since none of the three stores we checked at carried spinach noodles.  Had we had any on hand, we decided we would have thrown some wilted spinach in with the mushrooms for a little green in the dish.  But the plain pasta was absolutely fine!

Dinner is served!

Forgive my photography skills on that picture.  I had been texting a friend all day, bragging about how good this recipe was going to be, so I snapped a pic on my phone once I sat down to eat.  In fact, forgive my slicing-and-serving skills too!  We did let the dish sit for about 5 minutes once we took it out of the oven, but the smell was driving us all insane :)  Obviously, it didn’t hold its form very well!

And seriously, for essentially being noodles and mushrooms, this dish was so amazing!  Each bite is full of flavors, and none overpowers any other one.  There’s the saltiness of the proscuitto (one of my favorite things, ever).  The pepper and the herbs.  The smokiness of the mozzarella.  If you need a “fancy” dish to impress guests, this would definitely be an option!  With some fresh, crusty bread to soak up all that white sauce and steamed veggies this would look like something you’d pay a lot of money for at a nice Italian place :)

Buffalo Chili

Look at me, on a blogging roll.  As I mentioned yesterday its been quite warm here, and yet that didn’t stop us wanting to make a very cozy fall dinner: chili.  To mix it up, though, we were trying a new recipe from Closet Cooking (found through Pinterest, of course) for a chili loaded with the flavors of buffalo chicken wings.

We like our buffalo chicken flavor, and not just on wings: pizza, dip, sloppy joes.  When I came across this recipe I knew it’d be right up our alley.  It was just as delicious as I expected, but I hadn’t anticipated how easy it would be, too!  Aside from chopping some vegetables and opening some cans there’s not much to do but measure out spices and let everything simmer to peak tastiness.  We swapped the called for ground chicken for ground turkey and diced tomatoes for tomato sauce to get the flavor without the chunky tomato bits.

Buffalo Chili

  • 1 – 1 1/2 lb ground chicken or turkey
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup carrots, diced
  • 1/2 cup celery (2 ribs), sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 cup beer or chicken broth (we used beer plus a 1/2 tsp or so of chicken bouillon for broth flavor)
  • 15 oz can tomato sauce or diced tomatoes
  • 15 oz can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 cup hot sauce (more or less to taste)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • blue cheese crumbles for serving

Brown your chosen meat and set aside.  Heat a little veggie oil in a pot and cook onion, carrots and celery about 15 minutes until tender.  Add cumin and garlic, cook about a minute.  Add beer to deglaze pan, then add meat, beans, tomato, hot sauce and remaining seasonings.  Stir together and simmer at least 15 minutes.  Top with blue cheese crumbles and enjoy!

Iced Coffee

I know it’s fall and I wish I could snuggle up in a woolly sweater with a hot spicy latte or tea, but it is 90 degrees in LA today.  So even though I need my morning caffeine fix, I also need to stay cool.  Thus I reached for a Tupperware tumbler instead of a mug and poured myself an iced coffee.

Iced coffee is incredibly simple, with cream and/or sugar to taste just like a regular cup of coffee and poured over a glass full of ice to cool it down.  The only problem I had was that all that ice waters down the coffee when it melts.  I believe it was that mecca of inspiration Pinterest.com that led me to the brilliant idea of pouring left over coffee into an ice cube tray.  Ta da! Ice cubes for iced coffee that doesn’t get watered down!

With a houseful of coffee drinkers we regularly drink a whole pot, but on the days when there is a cup or two left at the bottom of the pot I make up an ice cube tray and keep a small bowl of coffee cubes in the freezer for days like today when a cold cup of coffee sounds more refreshing.

Have I mentioned before my aversion to tomatoes?  I’ve gotten better over the years and actually eat things like marinara sauce when we make spaghetti because its a cheap and fast dinner option and chunky Italian sausage bits make it much more appealing to me.  But when it comes down to it I would much prefer just about any other sauce on my pasta or pizza.

I’m not sure about LA, but back in Wisconsin there are several places with some unique pizza options that feature non-traditional sauces.  Some of my favorites are Ian’s Mac n’ Cheese on alfredo sauce, Polito’s BBQ Steak & Fries with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce, and Glass Nickel’s Thai Pie with its spicy peanut sauce.  Unsurprisingly when a craving for homemade pizza hit I wanted to make something beyond pepperoni and cheese on a classic red sauce (oh, did I mention pepperoni is also probably my least favorite pizza topping?).

I figured since I’ve made this citrus pesto before I could easily whip up a classic pesto for the pizza sauce by omitting the fruit juices and zests.  I’ve made enough batches that I just kind of wing it, I measure out the pine nuts and use a whole package of fresh basil from Trader Joe’s then add olive oil and cheese until I reach a desired consistency.  As far as toppings go I shredded chicken, spinach (slightly wilted) and sliced mushrooms go great with the green sauce.  This week Chris took charge of cooking the chicken while I was getting the dough for the crust ready.  He seasoned it generously with garlic, thyme, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper and I thought it tasted amazing and had a hard time not “testing” it all before the pizza was assembled.

As far as the crust went, I use this recipe that was printed on the packet of yeast and whole wheat flour.  I roll or shape it into a thick rectangle to bake on a cookie sheet because the short list of cooking/baking things we don’t own includes a pizza stone.  After the crust of the first couple pizzas we made turned out a bit underdone in the middle I precooked the crust a few minutes before adding sauce and toppings and baking for the last 10 minutes or so.  Then we cut it into big pieces and enjoyed!

So…about this list.

I haven’t physically updated it since the end of September, but I have knocked off a few more entries since then!  I have moved to a foody Mecca in Los Angeles.  My neighborhood is a dream come true: crepes, tapas, Thai, pizza…all amazing, all within walking distance.  However, it took a few out of state trips for me to be able to cross most of these items off my bucket list!

1. Sushi  Hmm.  My first experiment with sushi ended poorly this spring.  The friends that took me out that night were worried/convinced it was the sushi that made me ill a few hours later, but I’m sure the combination of vodka and sake bombs did not help the situation ;)  I’ve successfully eaten sushi a few times since then, which further confirms my inkling that it was the booze and not the raw fish that did me in.

I’ve tried multiple types of rolls (California roll, crunchy shrimp roll, more authentic rolls I’ll never recall) at a few different places.  I’ve realized a few things.  I will never crave sushi like some people do.  I crave pizza, Mexican, burgers, Chinese, Thai, and any number of other foods…but I will never crave sushi.  Also, sushi will never feel like a complete meal to me.  I’ve never really eaten enough to feel full and satisfied.  Likely because, it’s just not up my alley.  The flavors are too alien.  I like new flavors, but I like to be eased into them.  It can be hard when traveling or trying ethnic cuisine here, because some foods are just far too pungent and different.  I have that problem with a lot of African dishes…foods that should be savory taste all wrong because of the excessive use of allspice, cinnamon, and the like.  With sushi, it’s the saltiness of the seaweed, the fact that it’s cold, and the odd and unknown flavors that combine to give me only a faint interest in eating it on a regular basis.

Of course, the fact that I can barely use chopsticks does not help…

2. Burnt Ends Mmmmmmm…

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Kansas City over Memorial Day.  After research that involved polling friends and an extremely amusing episode of No Reservations, my friend Holly and I decided it would be Arthur Bryant’s that popped our burnt end cherries.  Ali and Chris had sampled them in November and had decent things to say about them.

I’m trying to judge the meat on its own, and not factor in the rude woman who took our order or the fact that the sides consisted only of fries or cole slaw.  Obviously, a deep fried corn cob couldn’t have hurt hehe ;)  Hol and I split a pound of the ends and generously sauced them up with each flavor on our table.  When you got a nice, meaty chunk, it was a delicious experience.  However, in the end I longed for a lean slice of Pappy’s brisket.  I was stuffed and happy, but not like I’m happy after Pappy’s.  2+ years later, and it’s still my barbeque Mecca.

5. A Malt from Crown Candy Kitchen, St. Louis

Ahh, St. Louis.  I flew into town in January for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday with friends.  We actually completed the entire Man vs. Food trifecta in one trip this time.  Iron Barley provided another awesome meal, and Pappy’s…well…see above!  At Crown Candy Kitchen, the malt itself was not particularly mind-blowing.  It was delicious, but it’s hard to screw up a malt when you’re using quality ice cream.  Likewise, it’s hard to distance yourself as something special when you’re making something as easy as a malt or milkshake.  I’m from America’s Dairyland, as were all of the girls that accompanied me into the ghetto to have dessert.  We all enjoyed our cheap treats, but we all commented that they were nothing extraordinary.  Maybe the St. Louisians are starved for quality dairy, and that’s why the place gets such a reputation for awesomeness.  What made me happy here was squeezing into two tiny booths, reminiscing about the time we spent at the custard shop back in our hometown as high schoolers, snapping pictures, and checking out the truly awesome looking handmade candies behind the counters.  I’d come back the next time I’m in town, although Ted Drewe’s is also highly recommended by locals.

By my count, I’m now 5 for 10 on my original list.  It may be time to actively seek out some of the other entries, and start brainstorming some new ones!


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