Cranberry-Orange Relish with Ginger and Thyme

I have a Thanksgiving confession: neither of our daughters would let the holiday pass without reminding us to open a can of jellied cranberry sauce. Our oldest, in particular, is a big fan. It’s the first thing she eats at the various school Thanksgiving lunches we attend, preferring it on its own rather than as a condiment to be eaten with the turkey or stuffing.

The grown-ups around our holiday table wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but there seems to be some amount of guilty pleasure associated with eating something that retains the shape of the can in which it was packed. For that reason, going back to long before the year my husband and I started hosting Thanksgiving for our relatively small combined clans, there have been TWO dishes of cranberry sauce on the table: the jellied kind, and a cranberry relish.

Now, I thought that this particular dish was the stuff of family folklore — you know, great-grandma’s long-lost holiday recipe that traveled with relatives from jolly ‘ole England or something like that. My sister corrected me. “It was from the cranberry bag.” So much for history. But it has become omnipresent on our Thanksgiving table, so I guess we have invented some history for this dish.

Such a vibrant dish -- in looks and taste too -- for the holiday table.

Such a vibrant dish — in looks and taste too — for the holiday table.

The actual recipe was lost long ago (who holds on to those cranberry packages anyway?), and we’ve tinkered with ratios a bit over time, but this super-simple recipe calls for only three ingredients: cranberries, navel oranges and sugar. It’s quick and easy and requires no real cooking — so it’s a great dish to make with the kids — plus I’ve added some more sophisticated holiday flavors that we mix into half of the batch to change things up a bit for the adults.

The ginger was perhaps the most local of all our ingredients this year, coming from Chickadee Creek Farm in Titusville, NJ.  I was practically giddy when I saw the baby ginger at the Princeton Farmer’s Market several weeks ago. It was a thing of wonder — tender, flavorful, and beautiful to boot! I just had to buy some, and was glad to use the last of it in this recipe.

Beautiful October produce from Chickadee Creek Farm at the Princeton Farmer's Market

Beautiful October produce from Chickadee Creek Farm at the Princeton Farmer’s Market

Baby ginger - what a great find!

Baby ginger – what a great find!

When we made our cranberry-orange relish this year the girls were actually lined up to help, everything from washing the cranberries to peeling the pith off the orange to measuring sugar (always a favorite job) to pushing buttons on the food processor. And they were both anxious to taste, which was great.

Look, it's a cranberry!

Look, it’s a cranberry!

We’ll see, come Thanksgiving, if they make room on their plates for something other than the jellied cranberry. Keeping my finger’s crossed! If you make a batch of your own, please let me know how it is received on your holiday table!

Cranberry-Orange Relish with Ginger and Thyme

12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries (if you have a few more ounces, don’t sweat it…use what you’ve got)
1 navel orange (navels are seedless – if you substitute, do so with a sweet, seedless variety)
Scant 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 – 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger
1 – 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Wash and drain the cranberries, picking over and discarding any berries that are soft.

Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the top layer of the navel orange rind — take care not to get any of the bitter white pith just under the surface. Save the peelings – they go into the relish. Then peel off the remaining white pith and segment the orange into a small bowl by cutting the flesh out from between the membranes. Discard the white pith and membranes of the orange.

Navel orange, rind peeled

Navel orange, rind peeled

In the large bowl of a food processor, combine the cranberries, the orange rind peelings, the segmented orange sections, and sugar. We used a quarter cup measure to measure the sugar — easier for each girl to get a turn — but filled each scoop about three-quarters full…so I guess it was more like 6/16ths of a cup…which is 3/8ths of a cup…but who has those kinds of cup measures? Just eyeball it, and use a very light hand with the sugar unless your family has a real sweet tooth.

Cranberries, in the bowl.

Cranberries, in the bowl.

Orange peels, in the bowl. Orange segments, in the bowl.

Orange peels, in the bowl. Orange segments, in the bowl.

Process the mixture in long pulses in the food processor until all ingredients are finely chopped and combined. You will have approximately 2 cups of relish.

If you want to do what we did and make two versions of this relish, remove 1 cup of relish to a small bowl and refrigerate for at least several hours (but it could be up to three days in advance) to meld flavors and allow the sugar to dissolve into the fruit and create a bit of a syrup. Take the remaining cup of relish in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon finely minced ginger and 1 teaspoon thyme leaves. Mix well and refrigerate as above.

If you are making a solely ginger-thyme version, use the larger amounts of minced ginger and thyme and mix throughout the whole batch. Refrigerate to allow flavors to combine as noted above.

This relish will keep, refrigerated, for a week or more. It’s great on leftover turkey sandwiches, stirred in with a little stuffing and served with a fried egg for breakfast, or go nuts and put it on a hamburger instead of ketchup.

Serves: 8 – 10

Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. My sister and I kind-of need this on the table every year. Go easy on the sugar and it’s a tart alternative to the jellied cranberry. Great foil to all the other heavy foods on the Thanksgiving plate. Great with roast beef or ham during the holidays as well. Keep it in rotation from Thanksgiving through mid-April without batting an eyelash.
Kid rating: a solid four stars. Both Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 were anxious to try the fruits of their 10 minutes of labor, and both liked the relish very much. Different reviews though: Daughter 1 thought it tasted strongly of oranges, and Daughter 2 found it a little “too sweet.” Just speaks to how palates are very different in kids. I’m excited to see how this goes over on Thanksgiving! At the very least, the girls will be excited to let everyone else try something they made. And I’m thankful for that.

Mini Ricotta Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crusts and Apple-Walnut-Dried Fruit Compote

I envy those organized folks who have their Thanksgiving menus planned weeks in advance. Turkeys ordered, Parker House rolls made and frozen, pantries stocked with cans of pumpkin purée. Truth is, I’m usually deciding on dishes up until the last minute.

My husband, wise man that he is, is a big fan of “tradition,” which to him means making many of the same tried and true — and loved — holiday dishes every year. I’m a lot less decisive than he is (and by “a lot,” I really and truly mean a LOT). Tradition could certainly help us avoid the “ew, yucks” with the two young kids in the house. I mean, who, really, could turn their nose up at a big bowl of creamed corn? But every year I’m tempted to try something new. Personally, I think it’s because I like food so much that I just can’t commit to any one dish. And I think the family is patiently waiting to see what dish that will be this year.

If you’re like me, one of the few areas of the meal where you can spread your culinary wings is dessert. Sure, pumpkin pie is a staple on our table (tradition!), but the girls and I made a wonderful dessert this week that they both declared a winner. These were fun to make, fun to eat (they are so small that portion control is automatically built in!), and I could easily see us serving these along with the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving…leaving our more “traditional” side dishes alone for once.

Ready for dessert - miniaturized

Ready for dessert – miniaturized

Several notes on ingredients: this was yet another opportunity for us to highlight the fresh ricotta cheese from Fulper’s Farm that we picked up at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market. It’s a creamy, moist ricotta which needs to be drained for several hours in a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl before using. You don’t want watery cheesecakes, believe me. For the gingersnap crust, I’m partial to using Sweetzels Spiced Wafers, a regional Philadelphia cookie that my sister and I remember having with warm apple cider when we were kids. To me, they are the epitome of fall.

The stuff of memories. Love these cookies.

The stuff of memories. Love these cookies.

And speaking of all things apple, we picked the apples for the compote at Terhune Orchards in Lawrenceville, NJ. You’ll want firm-fleshed apples for this recipe so that they hold some shape and texture when cooked. I even thought about using the last of our Asian Pears from Stultz Farm (also picked up at the farmer’s market) in this recipe, which would have been just as good. Maybe next time. And finally, do yourself a favor and use local honey for the compote if you can — nothing too fancy, either. Clover honey works just fine, but there is something special about fresh honey when it comes from a few miles, vs. a few states, away. It just tastes better.

Terhune Orchards Farm Store - the farm cats are a big draw

Terhune Orchards Farm Store – the farm cats are a big draw

Oh – you’ll want a mini muffin tin for this as well, though I suppose you could use a regular muffin tin and just be careful not to fill the cups up too much. Ours is non-stick, which really helped us when it came time to un-mold these babies. This recipe made 12 mini-cheesecakes so portion accordingly.

Making crusts with gingersnap crumbs and butter

Making crusts with gingersnap crumbs and butter

So, if you’re feeling stuck in your menu planning and want to add something new onto your holiday dessert table give these a try. Who knows — you just might start a whole new tradition in your house!

Cinnamon and cardamom marry nicely in these little gems

Cinnamon and cardamom marry nicely in these little gems

Mini Ricotta Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crusts and Apple-Walnut-Dried Fruit Compote

Cheesecake ingredients:
8 gingersnap cookies, crushed to a medium-fine crumb
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese, drained for at least 3 hours and preferably overnight
1 egg, separated
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 ounce dark rum
1 quarter-sized slice of fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of Kosher salt

Apple Compote ingredients:
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large or 3 medium firm-fleshed apples, cored but NOT peeled, and cut into medium (1/2 inch) dice
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom (if you don’t have a 1/16 teaspoon measure, eyeball it by only filling half of a 1/8 teaspoon measure
1/4 cup honey
Pinch of Kosher salt

Begin by preheating your oven to 325 degrees.

Mix together the gingersnap crumbs and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter until the mixture resembles moist sand. When you squeeze a handful together in your palm it should just barely hold together.

Using half of the remaining melted butter, grease the bottoms and sides of the cups in a non-stick mini muffin tin (one dozen capacity). Pack about a teaspoon to a teaspoon-and-a-half of the cookie crumbs into the bottom of each muffin cup, packing them down gently. The bottoms of each should be covered, but not too deeply.

Bake the crusts in the 325 degree oven for 10 minutes and remove to cool. Leave the oven on at 325 degrees.

Combine the 1/2 ounce rum and ginger slice in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and then reduce heat to low for another minute before taking the mixture off heat. Add the vanilla and allow ginger to infuse the rum/vanilla mixture for at least another 10 minutes. Remove the ginger and discard.

Put the ricotta into the small bowl of a food processor and process for about one minute, until the cheese is quite creamy and smooth. Add the egg yolk, granulated sugar, the infused rum/vanilla mixture and a pinch of salt and process until all ingredients are very well incorporated.

Ricotta mixture, coming together

Ricotta mixture, coming together

In a separate medium bowl, whip the egg white using a hand mixer until it holds soft peaks. Carefully fold in the ricotta mixture.

Using the remaining melted butter, grease the sides of the muffin cups one more time and pour the ricotta mixture onto the crusts, leaving about 1/4 inch of space at the top. Be careful not to over-fill the cups even if you have a little ricotta batter left or they will run over. Believe me. Salvageable, but messy.

Cheesecakes in a water bath, waiting to go in the oven (hint: don't fill your muffin tins this full!)

Cheesecakes in a water bath, waiting to go in the oven (hint: don’t fill your muffin tins this full!)

Place the muffin tin on a larger rimmed baking sheet and fill it 1/2 full with water to create a water bath around the cheesecakes. Cook the cheesecakes at 325 for 45 minutes, until they are set but the center is just barely cooked through. They shouldn’t be too jiggly, but you don’t want them to dry out and crack either. Take a peek through the oven window about 35 minutes into baking to gauge progress. The tops may develop a bit of a skin, and that’s OK.

Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least another 3 – 4 hours and preferably overnight.

While cheesecakes are cooling make the compote. Begin by toasting the walnuts in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Stir frequently so they will not burn. When they are toasted, remove to a deep-sided bowl and crush into slightly smaller pieces. Do not pulverize — you’re looking for walnut chunks, not crumbs.

Wipe the sauté pan clean and bring to medium-high heat. Melt butter until it is foaming and add the apples, cranberries and raisins. Sauté for one minute until the apples are slightly soft and add the vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Stir well and add the honey. Stir again and continue to cook over medium heat until the honey begins to bubble vigorously and thicken, coating all the other ingredients. When the honey is thick and has cooked down a bit, turn off the heat, add a pinch of salt and stir well, and allow the compote to cool completely.

To serve the cheesecakes, run a sharp knife around the edges of each cheesecake and carefully un-mold (if you’re using a non-stick muffin tin, try not to scratch it with the knife!). Top each cheesecake with a tablespoon or so of the compote. Keep the cheesecakes cool until ready to serve.

Makes: 12 mini cheesecakes.

So good I can't move my hands fast enough....

So good I can’t move my hands fast enough….

Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. These are really good — almost too cute to eat. Almost. They are a great way to end a holiday meal. Next time I make them I may add just a little more cardamom. Cardamom is, in my opinion, an under-used spice but it has a very specific flavor. It’s rich and perfume-y but pairs quite nicely with cinnamon and ginger and gives a great autumnal flavor to these cheesecakes. By the way, if you’ve gotten this far and just don’t think you have the time to make these, do yourself a favor and make just the compote. Spoon it over a wedge of softened brie cheese and serve with crackers. Delish.
Kid rating: it’s unanimous: four-and-a-half stars from the kids as well. Both girls gobbled these up (turkey pun intended). I actually held out a small portion of the apple compote before adding nuts, and Daughter 1 had the no-nut version (no allergies, but she isn’t a fan). Daughter 2 had the walnut version. Both were delighted. Dessert dilemma, solved!

Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

Risotto, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of our go-to dishes. Our daughters will reliably devour bowls of this stuff. It’s as much a comforting family meal as it is a crowd pleaser and it takes no more time to prepare a monster pot than it does four servings, give or take the slight amount of extra effort to chop a few more veggies. This past summer we had it with fresh corn and herbs and now, with autumn squarely upon us, we’ve reinvented it with more hearty seasonal ingredients like butternut squash, leeks, mushrooms and sage.

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

As I wrote in my earlier risotto post, I’m a pressure-cooker convert when it comes to cooking risotto. The whole “four minutes and it’s done” thing won me over at a time when every meal-prep minute was precious. And even though I’m spending more time now cooking family meals — sometimes even WITH the family — time is no less precious. I can almost guarantee that something will come up over the course of an evening to derail even the best timeline. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to stop cooking to dress a Barbie, or undress a Barbie, or mediate a good old-fashioned round of “torment your sister by putting the Barbie somewhere she can’t reach.” Which is only bested by “retaliate by whacking your sister with the remaining Barbies,” by which time I’m challenged to even get a bowl of cereal on the table in time for dinner. But four minutes…that’s hard to beat. And so risotto wins again. Take that, Barbie! (But you and that big T-Rex friend of yours are still invited for dinner….)

Hey big boy, come here often?

Hey big boy, come here often?

We picked up most of the ingredients for this version at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market in our own back yard. I’m kind-of bummed that this coming Saturday is the last day the market is open for the season, but was really happy to hear that there will be a slow food winter market opening soon to get us through the colder months. The butternut squash and the leek were from Jeff’s Organic Produce in Monroe, NJ, and the mushrooms from Davidson Exotic Mushrooms in Kennett Square, PA — that mainstay of mushroom production.

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer's Market

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market

Butternut squash at Jeff's Organic Produce stand

Butternut squash at Jeff’s Organic Produce stand

I’ve got to admit that risotto was not on my mind as I shopped, but I’m also a believer in the “things that grow together, go together” philosophy…both geographically and seasonally. So with these goodies in the larder and some leftover baked chicken to use up, a plan came together quite nicely if I do say so myself.

By the way, I baked the butternut squash in advance as part of another dish, but if you either don’t have the time or don’t want to go through the effort of baking a whole squash for a measly half-a-cup of squash flesh, you can use about half-a-cup of frozen butternut squash cubes and this dish will turn out just as well. You can also increase the amount of butternut squash in this recipe (either from a baked squash, or the frozen cubes) quite easily if you’re a fan. Our girls are still working on their squash taste buds so I held back a bit. Maybe it would help if I told them Barbie LOVES squash (she does, doesn’t she?). I was also judicious in how we incorporated the mushrooms, but more on that in the recipe below.

Anyway, with apologies to Mattel, here’s the action-figure-approved version of our autumn risotto:

Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 leek, sliced down the middle and cleaned very well to remove any grit between the layers, white and light-green parts sliced into thin half-moons
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, canola oil, or another neutral vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup roasted butternut squash flesh or 1/2 cup frozen butternut squash cubes*
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
3 1/2 – 4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you have it)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast (from leftover baked chicken…or you can pre-cook one chicken breast for this recipe)
1 1/2 cups freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for garnish
1/2 cup grated cheddar (or cheddar/Monterey Jack blend)
1 pint fresh mushrooms (we used a mix of criminis and shiitakes), cleaned and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
4 – 5 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped, plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons good-quality dry (fino) sherry
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Begin by melting 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. When bubbling, add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring often, until the leeks are quite soft. Do not allow the leeks to burn or scorch or they will be bitter. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low if that begins to happen and stir to redistribute the leeks in the pan.

When the leeks are soft and almost done cooking — this could take 10 minutes or so — heat the grapeseed oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in a pressure cooker. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, take a look at this Laid-Back Risotto recipe from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site and adjust this recipe accordingly for the stove top…it will take a little longer, but not too much.) Add the Arborio rice and sauté for about 1 minute, until the outer covering of the rice grain turns slightly translucent. Add the leeks, stir, and then deglaze with the white wine or vermouth — whichever you are using. Allow the wine to evaporate slightly and add the butternut squash, stir, and then add 3 1/2 cups chicken stock. Place the lid on the pressure cooker, secure, and bring the pressure cooker to high pressure for 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, wipe clean the sauté pan used to sauté the leeks and, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. When foaming, add the mushrooms and a generous pinch salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms start to brown. Continue to cook until all the mushrooms are golden, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep them from burning (you can add a little more butter if necessary). Add the chopped sage, stir, and deglaze the pan with the sherry. Allow sherry to evaporate and take the mushrooms off heat.

Mushrooms - crimini and shitake

Mushrooms – crimini and shiitake

When 4 minutes are up on the pressure cooker — and this will probably happen at some point as you are sautéing the mushrooms — carefully release the pressure and remove the lid. Stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente. If you’re making this on the stove top instead of a pressure cooker, just keep adding warmed chicken stock to the rice until it is creamy and al dente.

Add the shredded chicken to the risotto and mix well. Off heat, add the Parmesan and cheddar cheeses and remaining 1 tablespoon butter and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

There are several options for plating this dish. You can either fold the mushrooms into the risotto at this point, or you can serve the risotto topped with a scattering of mushrooms and a sprinkle of Parmesan and a sage leaf or two. Which is what we did, since our girls don’t care for mushrooms very much. The parent portions got mushrooms, the kid portions did not.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Big bowl of risotto - are you sure there is squash in here?

Big bowl of risotto – are you sure there is squash in here?

Parent rating: four and a half stars. If we didn’t love risotto so much we probably wouldn’t make it as often as we do. This version is especially warming and comforting without being too heavy. The mushrooms, with their buttery, sage-y, slightly sweet finish really enhances the overall dish for the adults in the house. I think this was on the table in 30 minutes, even with the Barbie distractions.
Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 asked me more than once whether there was actually any squash in this dish, and she said that in a good way. Which probably means there was not enough squash in the dish if you know what I mean. We got a thumbs up from her. Daughter 2 ate almost her entire portion and didn’t seem to care about the squash one way or the other. One clean and one almost-clean plate equals success. We can now get back to the Barbie wars.

* To bake a butternut squash, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut side of the squash and place it, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour, until you can easily pierce the skin of the squash with the sharp tip of a knife and meet no resistance. Remove from oven and allow to cool before scooping flesh out of the squash shell.

Twice-baked Potatoes with Broccoli and Three Cheeses

Hot potato, hot potato. Brings back memories, no? I kind-of felt like we were playing an uber round of it this week when we cooked up a batch of russets for some twice-baked potatoes that were packed with things our girls (and we!) love: butter, cheese, sour cream, and broccoli.

Food geek that I am, I was excited that we worked in some local ingredients too: broccoli from Cherry Grove Organic Farm and fresh ricotta cheese from Fulper Farms in Lambertville, NJ, that we picked up at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market. The ricotta alone would have made the dish – it is so creamy and light I could eat it right out of the tub. Which, I’ll admit, I actually did. Well, a spoonful anyway. So good.

Ricotta from Fulper Farms

Ricotta from Fulper Farms

The kids really got into this recipe too, helping scoop potato flesh out of the baked potatoes and mixing it with all the other ingredients. I actually had to mediate who got to add what as we went along, and realized the more that went into the bowl, the more they both wanted to taste the mixture we were making.

Scooping out the potatoes - perfect job for small hands

Scooping out the potatoes – perfect job for small hands

Oooo, with all this cheese these are going to be good

Oooo, with all this cheese these are going to be good

Until the scallions.

Who knew what havoc could be wrought by those unsuspecting little Alliums. I’ve always kind-of enjoyed them as a milder alternative to onions and I found myself thinking that our dinner smelled an awful lot like ranch-flavored potato chips as the potatoes baked. And I mean that in a good way.

But…apparently the scallions were the deal breaker for Daughter 1 and Daughter 2. After the happy scooping/mixing/tasting party, I was actually surprised to meet resistance at the table as the great “hunt for the scallions” began. Daughter 1 loves broccoli (yea!) and fished it out of her potato in order to eat it. And then she proceeded to eat around the scallions, if that is even possible. Daughter 2, who had happily taken a few bites when we served the potatoes, took up the torch on behalf of her sister and declared that she, too, “didn’t like scallions.”

Hot out of the oven, cheesy and broccoli-y

Hot out of the oven, cheesy and broccoli-y

So those hot potatoes…turned into “not” potatoes. However, all was not lost. My husband and I really enjoyed them. And I mean really. So much so that (don’t tell anyone) I found myself sneaking bites of the rejected potato from Daughter 2’s plate. When I asked Daughter 1 whether she thought she’d like them without the scallions, I got an enthusiastic “yes” in reply. I bet if we added bacon that would seal the deal…though I rather like that these are vegetarian-friendly just the way they are.

So next time we make these I’ll do two batches: one with scallions, and one without.

Hmmmm, I wonder how they would feel about chives….

Twice-baked Potatoes with Broccoli and Three Cheeses

2 russet potatoes
1 cup broccoli florets, washed and trimmed into bite-size pieces
1 tablespoon butter. melted
1/4 cup sour cream
1/3 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 scallion, sliced into thin rings
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste

Bake the russet potatoes in advance: pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Wash the potatoes well and stab several times with a paring knife or fork. Place potatoes on a baking sheet in the oven and bake for 90 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

Steam the broccoli in a steamer set over boiling water until just tender – no more than 5 minutes. Remove broccoli from steamer and set aside.

When potatoes are cool enough to handle, split each potato in half lengthwise and scoop out as much of the flesh as possible into a medium mixing bowl, keeping the potato skin intact. Set skins aside.

Gently mash the potato flesh – no need to mash too finely as a bit of chunky texture is good. Add the butter, sour cream, ricotta cheese, shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack and all but 2 teaspoons of the scallion rings and mix well to distribute all ingredients evenly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and gently fold in the broccoli. Mound the potato mixture back into the potato skins.

Place the filled potato skins back on the baking sheet and return to 375-degree oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until filling is hot.  Set oven to broil for two minutes to brown the tops, taking care not to burn the potatoes. Remove potatoes from oven as soon as the filling begin to turn golden.

Serve potatoes with a sprinkling of the remaining scallions — if your kids will let you!

Serves: 4 (one-half potato per person)

We're going on a scallion hunt....

We’re going on a scallion hunt….

Parent rating: five stars. Really, with butter, sour cream and three additional cheeses it’s difficult NOT to like these. But this is just the right amount of dairy – lots of flavor, but all in moderation. The potatoes are creamy and well-seasoned, but unlike other versions, aren’t dense with cheese.
Kid rating: oh, how I’d like to award five stars to this recipe, which is what I thought it would get when Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 started eating the filling right out of the mixing bowl. But that was before the scallions got folded in. Oh, those evil scallions. Somehow they tipped the kid balance from “yummy” to “don’t like it.” So maybe two stars for this particular version, though Daughter 2 told me that next time, if I keep the scallions out of her potato, she thinks she’ll enjoy it. Like, five stars worth of enjoyment. So if you have scallion-haters in your house, be warned. But if not, go for it!

Chicken & Rice Soup with Leeks, Mushrooms and Carrots

Who turned off the lights?

That’s the question I want to ask at about 5:00 PM every day in the weeks that follow the end of Daylight Savings Time. And I’m not the only one asking. The kids are genuinely confused as to how their afternoons end so abruptly with the sudden onset of night. Not twilight, with its languid transition into a gentle evening. But inky dark night. You know — the “one minute we were playing, and the next minute we couldn’t see anything because it was so dark” time of the year.  It’s enough to make a body want to hibernate.

And so it was this past Saturday. Hibernation mode was in high gear as my typically-motivated meal preparation just kind-of fizzled. And with a refrigerator full of produce from our CSA and a morning stop at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market (it was sunny when we got there a little before noon!), I was feeling somewhat guilty to boot.

Enter my husband, who had put in some pretty long hours in his home office. He must have felt those wearying effects of reduced daylight as well. His dinner request: something light but comforting.

Light but comforting. Hey, I can do that. I can even do that in my sleep…which came pretty close to describing my state of mind at that particular moment. Then the wheels started turning and visions of chicken soup danced in my head. No better use for the lovely leeks and mushrooms I’d picked up earlier in the day, or for the leftover baked chicken from Friday night’s dinner party, or the fresh carrots and garlic from Cherry Grove Organic Farm, and the parsley and thyme that are still growing in the garden. Genius.

Fueling up for hibernation: leeks, carrots, mushrooms and garlic

Fueling up for hibernation: leeks, carrots, mushrooms and garlic

I love it when a plan comes together, and this one was like a dream. The total prep and cooking time took little more than half an hour, dishes and clean-up were kept to a minimum (one pot plus cutting board), and the kids and I were back on the couch watching a Saturday night flick in no time at all. And really, if you’ve got a long, chilly night ahead of you…doesn’t that sound just about perfect?

For your own perfect chicken and rice soup, check out this recipe:

Chicken & Rice Soup with Leeks, Mushrooms and Carrots

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large leek, split down the center and well washed with the white and light green parts sliced into thin half-moon slivers
3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
5 – 6 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced (from roughly 1/2 pint of mushrooms)
1 garlic clove, minced
4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you have it)
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves removed from stalk
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 cup of brown rice, cooked and kept warm (if you don’t have brown rice, or just don’t like it, use white rice…but we liked the earthy/nuttiness of the brown rice in this dish)
4 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

Begin by melting the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the slivered leeks and a pinch of Kosher salt and sauté for 3 – 5 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the carrots and continue to sauté for another 5 minutes, until the carrots soften. Add the mushrooms and sauté for another 3 – 5 minutes until the mushrooms soften. Add the minced garlic clove and sauté for another minute, until fragrant.

Add the chicken stock, bay leaves and thyme leaves and bring to a low simmer. Add the shredded cooked chicken. Cook soup for 15 – 20 minutes, reducing the heat if the soup begins to boil rapidly — it should be kept at a simmer.

Correct for seasonings and add salt and freshly-ground black pepper as needed.

Serve by spooning about 1/2 cup cooked brown rice into a bowl and ladling soup over the rice. Finish with about 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley.

Serves: 4

Hot, comforting, and on the table in no time

Hot, comforting, and on the table in no time

Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. This is a warming soup that, as my husband said, really hit the spot. It’s not easy for a soup to be both comforting and light, but this one is. Somehow reminiscent of childhood, it has just enough tooth and earthiness to satisfy on a cold autumn night, but still has a purity of flavor that isn’t too aggressive. It’s the kind of soup that leaves you saying “ahhhh” after you’ve finished your bowl.
Kid rating: Four stars. It took a little coaxing but both Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 confessed to really liking this soup. They slurped the broth and easily nibbled their way through the chicken chunks and carrots. They didn’t even notice the leeks and ate those up too. And I snuck a couple of mushrooms into their bowls to see if they would try them…which they did without even knowing it. Their portions did not include parsley…they just aren’t into it. But hopefully someday they will be, because in my opinion, this soup just isn’t the same without it. Bellies full, we finished the night watching Monsters U over a big bowl of popcorn. Now, that’s a weekend!

Warming Miso Ramen with Broccoli, Cauliflower and Carrots

When in doubt, go with the noodles. That about sums up my approach to many situations. Ordering at a new restaurant, conquering cold and flu season, or making dinner for a picky pack of pre-teens. There is something oh-so-comforting about noodles, whether served hot or cold, with or without sauce, as the star of a dish or playing a supporting role.

The other wonderful thing about noodles, from my perspective, is that just about every culture and cuisine incorporates them in some way. Spaghetti and meatballs. Chicken noodle soup. Beef Stroganoff. Lo mien. It makes me hungry just to think about all the options.

Of all the noodle dishes out there I’m really partial to a good bowl of ramen soup – that Japanese/Chinese hybrid that is really considered a junk food in Japan — albeit an addicting and indulgent one. Ramen reminds me of a particularly fun evening in Kyoto, where my husband and I honeymooned. We were on a mission to find a little ramen shop — a Ramen ya — recommended in one of our travel guides. We stumbled in and sat together at a small counter wrapped around the tiny open kitchen, ordered some things by gesturing and nodding at the menu and other diners’  dinners, and slurped our way through steaming bowls of noodles with pork in a salty broth and plates of some of the crispiest fried chicken I think I’ve ever eaten, complemented by cold beer. Lots of cold beer. And I think the trip back to our hotel included some singing, though I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a true memory or one inspired by both the beer and the conviviality of the evening.

My favorite part - the noodles!

My favorite part – the noodles!

Junk food or not, the secret to a good ramen is two-fold: start with a good broth, and use the freshest noodles you can find — the soft, pliable ones in the refrigerated section of the grocery vs. instant dried. Avoid the semi-cooked variety if you can (too many preservatives). And if dried is all you can find, go for plain old dried vs. instant dried. Frankly, if your choice is between dried and semi-cooked, choose the dried. And please don’t succumb to using the little flavor packets that come with some noodles. Nothing but chemicals and flavor enhancers. We can do better, which is what I’m going to share with you shortly.

Ramen broth is the subject of pretty lively debates too. If you’ve ever watched the film Tampopo (No? Then download it this weekend and enjoy!) you know the lengths to which the heroine went to make the perfectly seasoned, not-to-greasy, soul-enriching broth for her Ramen soup. And though it wasn’t one of Tampopo’s go-to seasonings, one of my favorite broths uses miso in the stock — something often used in northern Japan — making it a perfect autumn/winter soup. Rich, satisfying and warming and a great base for seasonal veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.

Now, real Ramen aficionados get picky about the toppings and their placement in the bowl, but I just can’t get too caught up in all that. While I appreciate the authenticity, I’m more interested in getting a tasty meal on the table and having some free rein with the flavors my family appreciates. So we omit things like bean sprouts and mushrooms and sliced fish cakes when we make this at home, though personally I like them and you could certainly add them to your version. We load up on carrots and broccoli — both on the girl’s “approved” veggie list. And the thinly sliced meat that goes on top tends to be something that is leftover — roast pork or steak. It punctuates the dish but the broth and noodles are the real stars. Use what you have on hand, from chicken to shrimp to tofu, depending on your taste.

Imagine digging in to this colorful ramen bowl

Imagine digging in to this colorful ramen bowl

If all this has you licking your lips, here’s how you can make a bowl of your own.

Warming Miso Ramen with Broccoli, Cauliflower and Carrots

10 ounces fresh Ramen noodles, or three single-serving packs of dried noodles
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable, canola or grapeseed oil
1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed into bite-sized pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch rounds
1 small head of broccoli, trimmed into bite-size pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed in a garlic press
4 cups good-quality chicken broth
3 tablespoons miso paste (brown if you have it, but white miso works fine)
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 scallion, white and light green parts sliced into thin rounds
Several washed handfuls of mizuna, tatsoi, arugula or baby spinach (optional)
Approximately 6 ounces of leftover roasted meat, like steak or pork, thinly sliced…you can also use cooked chicken or shrimp or tofu
1/2 thinly sliced hot chili pepper — jalapeño, Serrano, Thai bird chili, etc. (optional)
Roasted sesame oil (optional)

Begin by heating the vegetable oil in a large sauce pan. Add the cauliflower and carrots and sauté until just barely softened, 3 – 4 minutes. Add the broccoli and garlic and sauté until the broccoli begin to turn a vibrant green and is firm-tender. Add the chicken broth, miso paste and soy sauce. Bring to a slow simmer.

Meanwhile, bring a large stock pot filled with water to a boil and cook the noodles until they are just done. Drain and rinse and divide them into serving bowls.

Ladle the broth over the noodles and divide the veggies evenly among bowls. Top each serving with several slices of whatever protein you’ve chosen, some of the sliced scallions, and several leaves of mizuna/tatsoi/arugula/baby spinach if you’re using it. Add several slices of the chili pepper and a drizzle of roasted sesame oil if you’d like.

Serve immediately.

Serves: 4 – 6

Isn't it considered polite to slurp?

Isn’t it considered polite to slurp?

Parent rating: Three-and-a-half stars, which kind-of splits the difference between my “I hope there are leftovers” rating and my husband’s “I’m not crazy about miso” rating. I still encourage you to try this version, especially if you’re a miso lover. You can always add more garnishes, from the previously mentioned bean sprouts and mushrooms, to things like Sriracha Hot Sauce and sesame seeds. Likewise, use the veggies you have on hand. It may not be a traditional Ramen soup, but I guarantee you’ll be very happy with this dish by loading up on the produce you enjoy.
Kid rating: We did some creative plating and left the scallions and chili peppers off their portions and served the veggies on the side, which resulted in a four-and-a-half-stars rating. Both our daughters really like this dish and enjoy slurping noodles as much as my husband and I did back in Kyoto. There is just something so homey about this soup and you can’t help but feel good after a bowl!

Smashed Sweet and Russet Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Herbs

Last week we got together with some friends for a “top your own potato” party that was inspired by a recent post on The Kitchn. Highly recommended. Everybody took the meal at their own pace by choosing either a baked sweet or russet potato and some toppings that included Pulled Barbecue Chicken, cheese, butter and sour cream. Mmmmm.

We baked enough potatoes to feed a crowd with spuds to spare. In thinking about how to use the two sweet potatoes and one russet we found in the refrigerator the next day I remembered an episode of Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals where he made Piri Piri chicken and dressed potatoes, the potatoes being a side-dish that was a mixture of baked sweet and white potatoes roughly mashed together on a large wooden cutting board and dressed with lemon juice, chopped cilantro, sliced chilies and chunks of feta cheese. I’ve made and re-interpreted that dish a number of times — there is something really magical about combining sweet and white potatoes. I took another go at it with our leftovers and other ingredients we had on hand and was really excited about the empty plates at the end of the meal.

We made this particular version of smashed potatoes, as I said, with refrigerated leftover baked potatoes, but you could obviously start by baking your potatoes and then just moving on to the smashing part after they have cooled a little.

A warming fall dish

A warming fall dish

And my own two cents about “smashed” vs. “mashed.” The former implies something rustic and rough; the latter, something more homogenous and uniform. I rather like rustic in this case — large and small chunks of white potatoes mixed in with the creamier and softer sweet potatoes, pockets of goat cheese melting into them, and a mix of herbs scattered throughout. Not too fussy. That makes for a great kids’ dinner that you really can’t mess up.

Some of the essentials: sweet and white potatoes and goat cheese (love these single serving packs!)

Some of the essentials: sweet and white potatoes and goat cheese (love these single serving packs!)

Here’s what went into our most recent version of this dish:

Smashed Sweet and Russet Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Herbs

2 large sweet potatoes, washed and pricked several times with a sharp knife or fork
1 large russet potato, washed and pricked several times with a sharp knife or fork
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
2 ounces fresh goat cheese (chèvre)
Several generous pinches of Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Begin by baking the potatoes in a 375 degree oven for 90 minutes. You may want to wrap the potatoes in foil or place a baking sheet under them because the sweet potatoes, especially, will ooze some of their sticky sugar during baking. The skins will not be as crisp if you wrap them though. Your choice. Remove from the oven when finished and cool, removing foil when cool enough to handle if you’ve used it.

Roughly crush the potatoes, with skins on, on a cutting board. This does not need to be a homogenous mush – it should have large and small chunks of white potato along with the softer sweet potato.

Heat a large (preferably non-stick) skillet over medium high heat and add the butter and oil. When hot, add the smashed potatoes. Allow to brown slightly for additional texture and flavor, flipping them in the pan occasionally.  When ready, crumble the cheese as best you can over the potatoes, breaking it into smaller chunks with your fingers as you add it. It will be moist but try to get as much onto the potatoes, and off your fingers, as you can. Add the herbs, several pinches of salt and grinds of pepper and mix everything together. Serve.

Serves: 4 (and can be easily doubled or tripled to feed a crowd)

Great fall meal of smashed potatoes and a barbecued pulled chicken sandwich

Mmm mmm: smashed potatoes and a barbecued pulled chicken sandwich

Parent rating: Five stars. I also like that this dish can be re-interpreted and mixed up every time you make it. Add the herbs you have on hand with a complementary cheese (aged cheddar, feta, even a smoked gouda would be good). Squeeze in a little citrus (lemon/lime) or some freshly-grated lemon or orange rind for a brighter taste. I love Jamie’s suggestion of adding a spicy chili pepper, cut into thin rings or finely diced. As we were having this my husband and I commented that some diced jalapeño would be really good in the dish…but I’m not sure the girls would have appreciated it.
Kid rating: Four stars. Two clean plates speak for themselves. Daughter 1 loved this dish and had seconds. Daughter 2 is a little more skeptical of sweet potatoes (go figure) but, since they were mixed with chunks of white potato and cheese, seemed to enjoy what was served to her. Confession: I dished theirs before adding the herbs, so no complaints about “green things in their food.” We’re working up to that!