Gourmet Veggie Mama

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Honest-to-goodness queso… with real cheese

When we lived in California, I missed queso. Really, really missed it. It was crazy to me that this delicious Tex-Mex dip (comprised of creamy melted cheese, tomatoes and peppers) pretty much did not exist there. I consoled myself with top-notch guacamole that was available pretty much everywhere, and the occasional trip to the On the Border (a Texas-based chain) 30 minutes away that offered queso. Every so often, we would throw a house party and I’d throw together some simple queso, made with a big old block of Velveeta and a can of Rotel, occasionally with a fresh jalapeño and some chopped cilantro thrown in for good measure. People would marvel at how good it was and ask for my recipe. *Snort*

Someone needs to bring real, good queso to the Golden State.

Moving on, though… we live in Texas now. One of our neighbors had an Easter get-together this weekend, complete with an egg hunt for the kids and a barbecue. Hubby volunteered me to bring queso. Of course, I could have just done the old Velveeta-and-Rotel routine, which is standard fare around here, and quite tasty to boot, but I was feeling up for a challenge. Plus, I’ve never been a fan of the ick that is processed cheese. So, I gave Homesick Texan’s recipe for a “more natural” queso a spin.

queso

It was a hit! Although it is a lot more work than its processed cheese-based cousin (mostly because you have to keep the heat very low and stir the cheese in slowly so it doesn’t break), it was certainly worth it. It was creamy and just a little spicy, and it actually tasted like cheese — imagine that. This will be my go-to recipe for any future queso endeavors. There’s simply no going back to the processed stuff!

Real Texas Queso
Author: 
Recipe type: dip
Cuisine: Tex-Mex
Serves: 8-10
 
Ingredients
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • ½ a medium onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
  • 2 jalapeños, minced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)*
  • 1 small can green chiles
  • 3 cups shredded Cheddar
  • 2 cups shredded Monterrey Jack
  • ½ cup of cilantro, chopped (optional)
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • Salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add the onion and jalapeños and saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir briefly.
  3. Add the flour and stir until bubbly and beginning to color. Stir in the milk a little at a time, making sure to break up any lumps as you go. Simmer, stirring, until the mixture is slightly thickened.
  4. Add the tomatoes and green chiles and stir well. Lower the heat to very low.
  5. Add the cheese by the ¼- to ½-cup, stirring well to incorporate each addition and ensuring that the cheese is melted before you add more. Continue until all cheese has been added.
  6. Stir in the cilantro (if using) and the sour cream. Taste and add salt if necessary.
  7. Keep warm in a crock pot, or serve immediately with tortilla chips and/or flour tortillas.
Notes
* I used canned fire-roasted tomatoes, since tomatoes aren’t in season. I’d suggest you do the same until summer rolls around!

 

Who doesn’t love pancakes?

This weekend, we were up in Fort Worth visiting family. The hubby’s brother was in town, along with his lovely new wife, and in honor of the occasion, we got the whole crew together for a pancake breakfast.

Are they ready yet?

Actually, as my sister-in-law would say, the pancake bar became the occasion. She was the hostess of this shindig, and the mastermind behind the DIY pancake bar, and my other (newly acquired!) sister-in-law provided the amazing pancake recipe, while all four kids and their significant others pitched in to help with the cooking.

A work in progress.

I love the concept: Make a batch of (in this case, insanely good) pancakes, then let people choose their own add-ins and serve ‘em as you cook ‘em. It’s the same basic idea behind our other favorite party idea (DIY grilled pizzas), which is probably why I like it so much.

We made several batches of pancakes and cooked them up in shifts on an electric griddle, four at a time, with such add-ins as blueberries, bananas, chocolate chips, pecans, and even (for the omnivores among us) bacon.

Pancakes, DIY-style.

You guys, these pancakes were good. So, so good. Like I will be dreaming about them good.

Oh, yum.

They were nice and crispy on the outside, but fluffy and soft on the inside. They were thick and rich and they melted in my mouth. The secret, as with so many things, was plenty of butter.

My favorite add-ins were chocolate chips (of course) and pecans. Nora preferred hers with blueberries.

One happy kid.

Even plain, these pancakes would have blown my mind. I can lay no claim to having made these, but I assure you, you can’t go wrong with this recipe. Enjoy, and invite some of your nearest and dearest over to share the occasion with you!

Buttermilk Flapjacks
From Saveur: The New Comfort Food, via One Wife Winging It

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbs sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
12 Tbs butter
2 cups buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl to combine.

Whisk togther the buttermilk, vanilla, and eggs. Melt 4 Tbs butter and cool slightly, then whisk into the buttermilk mixture. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add 1 Tbs butter. Let it melt until the foam subsides. Spoon in about 1/2 cup of the batter and cook until bubbles come through the flapjack, up to four minutes on each side. Once cooked, place the flapjack on an oven-safe dish in a warm oven.* Repeat. Makes about eight flapjacks.

* Or, if you are lucky enough to possess one, make them several at a time on an electric griddle.

Grilled pizza with eggplant

Before we moved away from Northern California, my favorite pizza place was Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria,* and my favorite pizza there was called the Boston. It was simple pizza with fried eggplant and mozzarella, plus a little tomato sauce. Add some crushed red pepper and dip the crust in ranch dressing, and it was a great, indulgent meal. What it has to do with Boston, I never quite figured out.

*Yes, on the West Coast.

My sister-in-law and her husband were in town a couple of weekends ago, and we had lots of eggplant from our CSA box, so I decided to broil some as a pizza topping. Grilled pizzas are, of course, our favorite casual meal for guests, since everyone can customize their own. I made a pizza for myself with just a smidge of tomato-basil sauce, the broiled eggplant, a handful of shredded mozzarella, and some basil from our garden. It was delicious.

Yes, please.

Recently, the hubby duplicated the experience for a super-easy weeknight dinner. I had a committee meeting and didn’t make it home until after 9, but there was a pizza waiting for me! He had breaded and pan-fried the eggplant this time, but otherwise followed the same recipe, using crusts we had made ahead and frozen. What a great meal to come home to!

I have since found a great new pizza place in my neighborhood, with the hands-down best vegetarian combo I’ve ever tasted (spinach, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, ricotta cheese, garlic, and mushrooms with a white sauce), but at least now when I’m craving a little eggplant pizza, I can make my own!

I don’t really do recipes for pizza, but if you want to see what the fuss is all about, broil or fry some eggplant and give it a try! Just slice the eggplant thin and lay it out on doubled paper towels. Sprinkle it with kosher salt and allow it to stand for 30 minutes. Blot off the moisture with paper towels, and then broil until golden brown on both sides.

Oasis in the desert

We just finished a weekend with our friends Bob and Leslie, who have a vacation home in La Quinta (near Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley). Not only do they have a beautiful home with plenty of room for the three of us to stay, they share our taste for good food and good wine, and they are pretty much the best hosts I have ever met. The wine is always flowing, they are both fantastic cooks (who don’t mind accommodating my vegetarian preferences), and there is a hot tub and pool in the back yard. What more could you want?

After two days on the road, this visit was just what we needed. We put Nora to bed* the first night and then sipped wine and munched on olives, almonds, and a cheese plate while Bob and Leslie cooked.

*In her travel crib in a walk-in closet. It was dark and cozy, and insulated from noise.  I am a good parent, I promise!

Nibbles.

I offered to help several times, but was told, basically, to fill up my wine glass and shut it, so that worked for me!

Don't mind if I do.

Dinner that first night was Eggplant Marrakech, made using a recipe from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. It was phenomenal. Bob added some roasted spicy peppers (grown right there in his yard, no less), and the heat was the perfect counterbalance to the sweetness added by the raisins.

Sweet and spicy.

The second evening, after a busy day of sightseeing and lounging by the pool while the little one napped, we grilled pizzas for dinner. My favorite combination was the mushroom, olive, and tomato with mozzarella, but the prettiest entry (which was also very tasty) was the fennel, mushroom, pesto, and goat cheese pizza.

Gorgeous noms.

On Sunday morning before we left, they bid us bon voyage with a Cretan cauliflower omelet from a cookbook they picked up on their recent trip to Greece. It was delicious. Plus, we even left with cuttings from Bob’s fig trees to start in Texas, and some of Leslie’s homemade jams.

Lovely parting gifts.

This was a bittersweet visit for us, since Bob and Leslie embody pretty much everything we’ve loved about living in California. The wine, the food, the gardening… that’s pretty much the California lifestyle, to me. Ah, well. Hopefully we can do some California livin’ in Texas!

Goodbye, Sunnyvale

Today is our last day in the place we’ve called home for almost 8 years. Our furniture is being loaded on to a big truck bound for Texas, and we’ll spend one last night here, on the floor, before we head off to follow it. We’re making a big road trip of it, taking a week to make the drive and stopping some interesting places along the way. Before all that, though, it was time to say goodbye to our friends here, so we threw a little party over the weekend.

All of our nearest and dearest — and many of their little ones — showed up to say goodbye and help us clear out our pantry and liquor cabinet in one last hurrah. I made (among other things) Oreo truffles, which I had been meaning to try for a long time. I covered some with milk chocolate, and some with white chocolate, both of which I had hanging around my pantry begging to be used.

A little messy, but very tasty!

In one of my greater strokes of genius, decided to try Thin Mint truffles, too. Two adorable Girl Scouts showed up on my doorstep the morning of the party selling cookies, and I just couldn’t say no. I do love Thin Mints,* so why not Thin Mint truffles, too?

Minty goodness.

**Although, really, I am not a lover of the chocolate-mint combination in any other context. One of those great mysteries of the universe.

The truffles were a hit, and a good time was had by all… including Nora, who hung out with the big kids as well as the little babies, and enjoyed a good ol’ cup of dirt at one point in the evening.

Good eatin'.

I won’t say I’m not feeling wistful about this transition, but I am trying to stay positive — there are so many good things waiting for us in Austin. But I will miss this house we’ve come to call home (especially the great backyard for throwing parties!), all the good friends we have made here, and the great things about living in the Bay Area.

So, goodbye, Sunnyvale. We will miss you. Don’t be a stranger — and please accept some Thin Mint Truffles as a parting gift.

Thin Mint Truffles
Inspired by this recipe for Oreo truffles

1 8 oz block of cream cheese, softened
2 packages of Thin Mints
12 oz good-quality semi-sweet chocolate

Pulse the Thin Mints in a food processor until they are finely crumbled. Using a fork, thoroughly mix the cookie crumbs with the cream cheese. Using clean hands, form the mixture into 1-inch balls and place onto a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Chill the balls in the refrigerator while you melt the chocolate, about 15 minutes.

Using a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring frequently, until smooth. Remove the chocolate from the heat and coat the chilled balls, tossing one by one with a spoon. Remove to the wax paper-lined cookie sheet and chill for about an hour before serving.

Birthday bash

Sorry I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus — birthday partying really takes it out of you! I am pleased to report, however, that Nora’s birthday party this weekend was fun for one and all.

We did a nature theme, since Nora loves being outside (and leaves and grass and dirt) so much, and just held the shindig at our house. I was shocked by all the “yes” RSVPs we got — people sure do love this little girl! My mom even flew out for the occasion, which was fantastic. I wasn’t sure how Nora would do with so many people around, but she had a blast. After hanging back and checking things out for a few minutes, she became the life of the party!

She has great taste in beer.

It was a lot of work making this party happen, but it was so worth it. You only turn one once! I cut “leaves” out of green napkins and alternated them with plain white napkins to add a little nature flair, we hung puffy clouds (made using this tutorial) all over the house to bring the outdoors in,* and I spent an inordinate amount of time making a birthday banner out of scrapbook paper and ribbon sewn across the top, of which I am quite proud.

* We weren’t sure what the weather would be like in early December, and we wanted to make sure our nature girl got a healthy dose of her favorite thing — the outdoors! It turned out to be a beautiful day, though, so we were able to do most of our partying outside anyway.

Party time!

The ladybug cupcakes were also a success — much better than the trial run!

Nature-licious.

Making a full batch of the frosting made all the difference, as did using gel paste food coloring, instead of the natural stuff. Liquid food coloring does alter the consistency of frosting, and I just didn’t have the time to play around with it to get it just right, so I figured using scary bright green food coloring wasn’t the worst thing in the entire world. I made a couple dozen cupcakes just frosted with plain white buttercream, so there was an alternative for those not into the bright green thing. I will not say the ladybug cupcakes were easy, exactly, but the decorating was the hard part, and once I got the hang of it, it was a proverbial piece of cake. Har.

We did make-your-own grilled pizzas, with the hubby manning the grill, and that’s always a hit with kids and adults alike. Good times were had by all — the kids enjoyed hubby’s homemade cardboard box fort in the yard,** while the adults helped us polish off a magnum of Sokol Blosser pinot noir that we’ve been looking for an excuse to open.

** A much cheaper alternative to the bounce house, which seems to have become de rigueur at birthday parties these days, and greener, too (reduce, reuse, recycle, and all of that).

At the end of the festivities, we lit a candle in a cupcake and sang happy birthday to the guest of honor. She had a ton of fun demolishing her cupcake.

Nom nom nom.

I wouldn’t change a thing. Happy birthday to my little sweet pea!

Party girl!

Now, on to what I know you’re all waiting for — the recipes! I used the recipe for yellow cupcakes from Baking Illustrated for half of the cupcakes (including the ladybug ones), but the chocolate cupcakes were the clear winner, based on guest chatter. So, without further ado, I present to you the recipes for the chocolate cupcakes and buttercream frosting (so easy and the best frosting ever!). If you want to try your hand at the ladybug cupcakes, the instructions are here, except that I highly suggest you invest in a Wilton #233 decorating tip (multi-opening grass tip) instead of doing each individual blade of grass by hand, because that’s just ridic (but would you expect anything less from Martha??).

Chocolate Cupcakes
From I’m Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown, with my modifications

8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/4 cups brown sugar
3 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer.

Pulverize the chocolate in a food processor until nothing is left but chocolate dust and very small chunks.*** Add the flour and pulse several times until the flour and chocolate are completely homogenized. Mix in the baking soda and salt.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract to the creamed butter and sugar and mix until thoroughly combined. Mix in the sour cream. Add the flour mixture gradually and mix until combined. With the mixer on low, pour in the boiling water and stir until a uniform consistency is achieved (no lumps).

Line cupcake pans (this recipe makes about 2 dozen), and pour batter into the cups, about three-quarters full each. Bake for 15-20 minutes, remove, and let cool completely before frosting.

*** You should actually use the food processor instead of just trying to chop it by hand like I did to avoid having the clean the food processor yet again. Despite the chocolate being chopped very fine, my cupcakes came out more like chocolate chip than real, uniform chocolate. No one complained, though!

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Based on this recipe with a couple of small tweaks

2 1/2 cups sugar
10 large egg whites
4 cups (8 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 tsp vanilla extract

Place sugar and egg whites in the heat-proof bowl of an electric mixer. Set bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, and whisk until sugar has dissolved and egg whites are hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. Test by rubbing the mixture between your fingers; it should feel completely smooth.

Transfer bowl to mixer stand. Using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until mixture has cooled completely and formed stiff and glossy peaks, about 10 minutes. Add the butter, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated after each addition. Add vanilla, and beat just until combined.

Remove from mixer stand and fold with a spatula to remove any air pockets. If using buttercream within several hours, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside at room temperature in a cool environment.

Cupcake mania

I baked a test batch of cupcakes for Nora’s birthday party* today, and let’s just say it’s a good thing I did a test batch. Don’t get me wrong — they tasted good. But, I am hardly an experienced decorator, and I was attempting some pretty advanced stuff (for me).

*I don’t want to talk about it. *sniff*

The party is going to be nature-themed, and I set out to make a batch of cupcakes based on these — ladybugs on a bed of grass.

Hitch-in-the-works #1: I didn’t want to make a whole batch of 24 or 36 cupcakes just for a test, so I halved the recipe. It actually worked out pretty well for the cupcakes themselves (although they were maybe a little denser than I’d prefer), but since the buttercream called for 5 egg whites, it was a little tough to halve.

Hitch-in-the-works #2: The all-natural food coloring I picked out for the “grass” was a little more bluish-green than grassy-green. Not a huge deal, but I think I can fix it by either adding in a touch of yellow (if I can find it), or just giving up the ghost and using gel-paste colors, scary artificial ingredients be damned.

Hitch-in-the-works #3: When I got ready to pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes using my brand-new Wilton #233 tip, I realized that it didn’t fit my decorating bag — arrgh! Thanks to a handy husband, It was jury-rigged with duct tape to work acceptably, but I will be in the market for an appropriate decorating bag before the main event. The icing also seemed to heat up a bit too much as I piped it on, too, making my later cupcakes a little messier.

Despite all of that, they actually turned out okay. Not too pretty, but tasty!

Eh.

You have to imagine the marzipan ladybugs, since I didn’t have the energy to trial those tonight, too.

Importantly, though, I think I know how to fix the issues I encountered, so the actual birthday cupcakes should be fab. I will have a Plan B ready, though!

Whew. Quite a Saturday evening around these parts.

Slapdash Halloween

Picking up where I left off yesterday, we arrived home from our weekend trip to Healdsburg exhausted. Too bad I had already invited a bunch of people (and their babies!) over for a Halloween party the next day. Oops!

Since I basically collapsed on the couch on Sunday night, I had to get ready for the party double-time on Monday. It was never going to be anything too fancy (just a play date with costumes, really), but I had to at least have a passably clean house and some decorations. After Nora got up from her morning nap, we headed to Michael’s to pick up a few simple indoor decorations.

For future reference, the day of Halloween is not a great time to shop for Halloween decorations. Shocking, right? Obviously, the selection was picked over and mostly sold out, but at least what was left was on sale. I grabbed some rolls of Halloween-themed wide ribbon (one sparkly orange and the other a black and orange damask pattern) and a pack of Halloween paper plates and called it a day.

The ribbon served pretty well as festive streamers hung from the chandelier, although I’d definitely buy at least a couple more rolls next time. I am pretty bad at judging yardage, so next time I should probably buy at least twice what I think I’ll need.

Man, I hate that chandelier.

Ghetto decorating 101.

I supplemented our new decorations with a fake pumpkin and black cat we had in storage, plus a Halloween wreath on the door, and then went into overdrive cleaning mode during Nora’s afternoon nap,* set the plates out with some Dancing Deer cookies (cats and bats), and called it good.

* Side note: What am I going to do when she transitions to one nap??

Cats and bats, mmm...

Once Nora was up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I wrestled her into her penguin costume. I was planning to make her costume this year, but with my oh-so-novice sewing skills (the machine is not even out of the box yet, people!), limited time and lack of a pattern that I liked, I decided to buy something on Etsy instead. I was not disappointed! The sheer miracle of this particular costume is that the hood does not really seem to bother Nora, and she hates anything on her head. I’m not sure quite what it is, but she’ll usually half-heartedly tug on it a couple of times when I first put it on, and then leave it alone. Plus, since she is walking, she waddles a bit like a penguin, which is just perfect. I was a proud mama!

My toddling penguin.

When the partiers started arriving, there was nothing left to do but ooh and ahh over the cute babies in costume! They had fun playing together, and the mamas had fun chatting, and it was a good time. That’s what really matters, right?

Yeah, I am a terrible hostess these days, but I’ll get my entertaining mojo back at some point, maybe when I have a little more time to plan!

Pizzas on the grill

So, you know that fall-ish weather I was talking about a week ago? Not so much anymore. It has been in the 90s here for the past few days. I don’t know why Indian Summer always surprises me, but it does. Fall is such a tease.

In any case, the other day we decided it was too darn hot to cook inside, so we scrapped our previous meal plan (cauliflower mac and cheese) and made grilled pizzas instead. Pizzas on the grill are one of our summer staples, since they’re easy, tasty and versatile. As luck would have it, a few weekends ago we had a get-together at our house and made a ton of dough ahead, some of which was already chilling in the freezer, pre-grilled and ready to go.* We also happened to have plenty of awesome tomatoes on the counter, basil growing in the yard, and some shredded mozzarella, so pizza margherita was a given.

Tomatoes. Om nom nom.

* This is one of Pat’s favorite tricks, since making the dough is the most time-consuming part of grilling pizzas. He uses Cook’s Illustrated’s recipes for wheat and herb pizza doughs. Trader Joe’s also makes great refrigerated pizza dough that’s ready to use, which takes one step out of the process.

We also had a head of radicchio in the fridge, and the CSA newsletter suggested quartering and grilling it and serving it with a nice drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some shaved parmesan.

Good stuff.

It was great as a starter salad, but the interior was a little bitter. The outer leaves were tender and wonderful with the balsamic, though, so maybe it just could have used a little longer on the grill.

We had quite a large head of radicchio, and the hubby was feeling inspired, so we also made a couple of pizzas with grilled radicchio, balsamic vinegar, just a sprinkle of mozzarella and shaved parmesan.

Dinner is served.

Using a great balsamic vinegar is key. It’s expensive, but worth it, since a little goes a long way.

Hello, gorgeous.

Although hubby is the pizza chef, I’ll pass along his secrets for the public good. Prepare the dough on a well-floured surface, and then sprinkle the top with olive oil and good salt. Heat the grill to medium-high heat, and using your hand, quickly flip the crust onto the grill. Cook on one side for 5-8 minutes. Move once in the first 30 seconds or so to make sure it doesn’t stick to the grill, and stab a few times with a fork once bubbles start to appear. Turn over and cook for about 2 minutes. The second side will be undercooked, but that’s okay. Add your toppings** to the well-cooked side, and then put it back on the grill to finish cooking. Voila!

** One of our favorite combinations is sautéed greens, garbanzo beans, mozzarella, parmesan and harissa. Good stuff.

Grilled pizzas are great for casual parties, too, since everyone can make their own. It both reduces the cooking burden on the hosts and makes sure everyone gets what they want. Win-win!

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