August 28, 2011

nutella buttercream

Have you all seen that commercial where the token busy mom sings the praises of Nutella for breakfast?  She claims it’s perfect for families on the go because it’s nutritious and made with simple, healthy ingredients like skim milk and just a ‘touch’ of cocoa. 
Get real.  The first two ingredients in Nutella are sugar and oil. 
Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love Nutella.  It is delicious.  It’s amazing.  Sometimes nothing in the entire world tastes better.  Sometimes it’s hard to stop eating it.

But let’s call it what it is: dessert. 
Now I’ve just created something that will likely have fellow lovers of Nutella saying “thank you for changing my life.”  Are you ready?

Oh, yes, I did.  I went there.  I added more sugar and butter and alcohol to an already perfect food and – gasp – made it better. 
So here’s what happened.  I was making this amazing Nutella cookie recipe to bring to an event, thinking I’d double the batch and leave some for my husband.  He loves Nutella.  Duh – who doesn’t?  Problem is, he also likes his desserts kicked up, oh, twenty notches.  Ok, a challenge.

Some of us in the Nashville food world have been singing the praises of The Sweet Stash & Whitney’s incredible oatmeal cookie sandwiches.  Something about putting really decadent buttercream in between two really decadent cookies makes a simple, yet over the top dessert.  So that was my theory (and my friends who like Friends will appreciate this): Cookie, good.  Nutella, good.  Double the amount of cookies and Nutella, GOOD.
So I took two almost perfect Nutella cookies – and, between the layers – put a silky, buttery, barely salty Nutella buttercream.  At this point all readers should be at least 18 because I’m pretty sure my eyes rolled in the back of my head. 
Nutella Buttercream
½ cup Nutella
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp Frangelico
½ tsp coarse or flaked sea salt

Using stand or hand-held mixer, mix butter and Nutella together until creamy.  Add both sugars, Frangelico and salt and blend until fluffy. 
I think the dark brown sugar is crucial, but you can of course use all confectioner’s sugar. 

Best thing?  You can use this buttercream for anything.  Spread it over brownies, cakes, toast, or you know, just eat it with a spoon.  (I’ve never, ever done that.  Ever.  I also didn’t use my fingers.  I also didn’t wake up with a smudge of Nutella buttercream on the side of my face.  Never happened.)

August 25, 2011

nachos: a perfect food

My most favorite meal in the world will come to no surprise to my friends over on Twitter.  I love nachos.  They are a perfect food.  Think about it.  When done right, they hold a gorgeous balance of crunchy and melty, fresh and cooked, hot and cold, spicy and mild.  Plus, you get to eat them with your fingers, people.
Members of both sides of my family are no doubt cringing right now.  The Italians have given me beautiful recipes and food memories of pasta, pasta, pasta.  The Germans and Polish have taught me to make amazing food with humble ingredients, resulting in comfort food that puts Southern meat & three to shame.  But I can’t deny it: I love me some nachos. 
My love of nachos reaches as far back as I can remember, but I have a specific recollection of creating the perfect nacho bite at my table-waiting job in college: the nachette.  I lovingly crafted the nachette during those long double shift days when I had no time for a break but needed a snack, placing a variety of goodies atop a chip or two.  This was before I had knowledge of tapas or small plates, but I suppose that’s what I did. 
Nachos should be a personal (read: life changing) experience, so I can only give you my basic nachos recipe:
yellow corn chips
jack/cheddar blend shredded cheese
whole pinto beans, rinsed & drained
cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
tiny diced white onion
thinly sliced fresh jalapeno
Past that, I mix it up depending on my mood and what’s on hand. 
I pile it all high atop the chips and broil until everything bubbles and the edges of the chips have browned (this is crucial).  I sprinkle fresh lime juice and chili powder over the top and use way more sour cream than I’d like to admit.  Salsa on the side.
Nachos are something I love to order in restaurants because I get to try new kinds.  I welcome any/all variations.  In fact, I discriminate against no nacho, regardless of the interpretation.   Here’s a list of some of my favorite nachos in Nashville:

Whiskey Kitchen’s Nacho Nirvana – these nachos may have gotten me through my pregnancy.  The firehouse chili is something special, and these are cooked in a fire oven so the crispy, almost-burned edges that I love so much are a perfect touch.  Oh, and these nachos include FIVE cheeses.  Five.   All my favorites come with it: sour cream, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes.  Warning: they slab a big, bitter chunk of cilantro on top.  I’m one of those people who think it tastes like soap.
Tin Roof – I have outgrown this college bar, but not the nachos.  My favorite part about these nachos is that they’re customizable.  You get a pen and a notepad full o’nacho ingredients, and you get to choose what you want.  Their cheese dip is serious business.  These are probably the largest, most generous-toppinged nachos in town.  These are my go-to to go nachos.    
Rosepepper’s Gringos – These are a bean and cheese nacho and upon first glance, they’re really basic.  But these nachos are built atop a pile of homemade, deep fried flour tortilla chips.  The flour holds the grease, and that is a good thing.  Also, Rosepepper’s ranchera salsa is my most favorite salsa in the world.  It’s a warm, chunky and mild, and I could slather it on anything. 
El Burrito Mexicano – Located in the Nashville Farmers’ Market, this is a standard fast food Mexican joint.  The nachos are a great deal – lots of food for little cost.  What makes these stand out is that there’s more cheese than chips.  They also have this really fatty, perfectly seasoned pork that’s an unusual topping for nachos. 
Suzy Wong’s House of Yum’s Asian Wonton Nachos – These are the least nacho-like nachos I’ve ever had, but I love them all the same.  They deep fry wonton wrappers in the shape of chips, and top them with edamame, tomatoes, lots of lettuce, and a bunch of stuff I can’t remember.  I know there’s a delicious cheese and Sriracha.  Great, I said Sriracha.  Now the hipsters will be ordering these like crazy.

Neely’s BBQ – I love BBQ nachos.  There are probably places in town that have better than Neely’s, but that’s the last place I had them.  I love the combination of smoky pork, sweet BBQ sauce, onions and sour cream.  I’d much rather have this than a BBQ sandwich. 
I am eager to try Chuy’s, which is coming to Nashville soon.  Rumor has it they serve free nachos during happy hour.  Get this: they serve them in a car.  I’m intrigued.  And free is good. 
So you tell me, are there nachos I should know about?  What do you consider a perfect food?

August 16, 2011

I won! (der why I didn't win)

This year’s Tomato Art Fest recipe contest was anticlimactic (read: I lost).  Lesley, Amy and I bantered all week long in preparation, swapping theories, words of support, contest details and even a little smack talk.  We vowed to keep our individual recipes secret until the actual contest, where we were sure we’d get to view and sample each others’ brilliance.  Not so much. 
Upon arrival, we signed away our lives and dropped our entries at the door.  That’s right.  We couldn’t even go inside.  We weren’t privy to anything.  I don’t know how many dishes were entered or what was made.  I don’t know who the judges were.  I certainly don’t know what they said while tasting my dishes. Though I didn’t win, here’s how I imagine it went:
JUDGE 1: This is the most unique tomato salad dish I’ve ever laid eyes on.  I must try this creative culinary creation immediately!
JUDGE 2: Never have my taste buds encountered such flavors.  It’s as if the tomatoes are serenading the other ingredients, and it’s the sweetest song ever written.

JUDGE 3: The wheel! Fire! Sliced bread! And now, this salad! The world will never be the same.
Since I’ll never know what was really said about my entry, I’m going to go with this.  Humor me and do the same.  Joking aside, I do wish we knew more.  A fellow Nashville blogger took home third prize, but I wouldn’t have known that without Twitter.  We all stood outside in the heat, anticipating an announcement of winners that never came.  Ah, well. 

So, want to make the losing recipe?  If nothing else, I have to give myself points for creativity.  I’ve never heard of this recipe before.  There may be others out there, but if there are I don’t know it and this one is 100% mine.  So there’s that.  You should make it, if nothing else for the bonus Bloody Mary mix that’s left over.  Yeah, I planned it that way.
Bloody Mary Panzanella
Six slices good quality bakery bread, cut into squares
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
5 fresh, local medium-sized tomatoes (2 peeled & chopped, 3 chopped skin-on)
1 tbs worchestershire sauce
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp hot pepper sauce (I used Texas Pete)
1 tsp prepared horseradish
coarse salt & cracked black pepper to taste
¼ c vodka
½ c red onion, chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 tbs fresh jalapeno, seeded and diced
12 Spanish olives, cut into thirds + 1 tbsp reserved juice
Preheat oven to 400˚. Place bread cubes in large bowl, drizzle 2 tbsp of olive oil slowly and toss to coat.  Arrange bread cubes in single layer on a baking sheet.  Bake 15-18 minutes, turning once at 10 minutes, until toasted.  Cool bread to room temperature.

Peel two of the tomatoes and chop.  Place tomatoes in blender and puree until smooth.  Add next six ingredients and olive juice, and blend until fully incorporated.  Add 1 tbs olive oil and blend.

Heat remaining tbs of olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat.  Lightly sauté onion, celery and jalepeno until translucent but still crunchy.  Cool to room temperature.

Place remaining four tomatoes, red onion, jalapeno, olives and celery in large mixing bowl and toss with bread cubes.  Just before serving, add desired amount of Bloody Mary dressing and toss to coat.  Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes, then serve. 
Makes two entrée or four side dish servings.
I actually threw together a second entry about two hours before the contest, which they chose to publish.  Can’t lie – I’m pretty stoked about that. 
Win or lose, I had a good time doing this.  My family rallied.  My food friends were the best competition I could ask for.  It was a fun process, which is what it’s all about.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the title of my blog.  Though if I had won, I may have had to change it to “Heck Yeah I Won Two Years in a Row: The Blog.”   

August 10, 2011

soup's on, and so is the competition

I love tomatoes.  I also love contests, especially the winning part.  This is the story of how I won a contest that I had no business winning.   
I’m far from alone in the conviction that local tomatoes are the silver lining to the sweltering cloud that is summer in Tennessee.  In fact, people ‘round here love tomatoes so much that there’s an annual festival in honor of the little gems. 
Last year’s Tomato Art Fest included a plethora of activities, contests and events.  The thing that caught my eye was the recipe contest, calling for tomato-based soups.  I knew I wouldn’t make gazpacho.  That’s about all I had to go on, but I signed up.  I ended up making something using ingredients I had around the house, titling it “Pantry Raid Tomato Soup.”  
The day of the festival, I balanced my Dijon-colored Le Creuset on my five-months-pregnant belly and hesitantly walked into Margot.  I was nervous as all get out, realizing almost immediately that Margot McCormack and Kay West were among the judges.  One makes arguably some of the best food in Nashville, and one eats all of the best food in Nashville regularly.  My humble entry seemed insufficient for these palates, but I set it down beside the eight or so other entries. 
My family braved the scorching, unwavering, unforgiving August sun for me, waiting the two hours or so until the winners were announced.  It was too hot to enjoy much of the festival, though the vendors and events were many.  (We spent quite awhile borrowing the cool, cool air conditioning shopping at The Turnip Truck during that time.  It’s a great local grocery and we did score some goodies while there. )
Long, hot story short, I won!  The judges noted something to the effect that while none of the entries were stellar, my concept was clever and, well, not gazpacho.  If least bad equals first place, hey, I’ll take it. 

I will say, I think the soup is delicious.  The double-whammy of acidity from the tomato and lime make it a bright, zingy soup, and the combination of cooked and fresh tomatoes screams summer.  It needs less than 30 minutes’ cook time, so it’s a great weeknight dinner dish.  I’ve also used it as a chunky pasta sauce. 

Inspired by the tomato’s tendency to unite, this recipe was created with ingredients found in my home pantry.  
1 tsp olive oil
6 locally grown tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
dash cayenne pepper
course salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Juice of one lime
Heat olive oil to medium in soup pot.  Add garlic and five of the six chopped tomatoes and cook until tomatoes begin to break down and create juice, about 10 minutes.  Reduce heat to low, and add beans (entire can is not necessary – add as many as desired), cayenne, salt and pepper to taste, about 10 minutes.  Just before serving, add lime juice to taste and the remaining chopped tomato.  If a thinner soup is desired, chicken or vegetable stock may be added.  Serve immediately.
While none of my kids will eat this dish, I have memories and photos of this family affair.  I hope someday my children adopt my love of food and cooking.  The process was certainly prize enough.
This year’s Tomato Art Fest includes a tomato salad recipe contest.  I hope to defend my title, but there’s some stiff competition this year.  I’ve been tweaking this year’s entry, and win or lose I’ll post it next week.