Raspberry-Rhubarb “Pop Tarts”

Show me a kid who doesn’t eat pop tarts, and I’ll say that kid doesn’t spend nearly enough time at Grandma’s house. For me, one of the treats of being with Gram—besides that I simply loved her company and always had fun learning and making things—was getting “spoiled” a bit with certain foods that were not necessarily available at home. It isn’t that I loaded up on junk food at her house; that definitely was not the case. But I was allowed to grab handfuls of Cap’n Crunch cereal, right out of the box, to munch on while I watched Saturday morning cartoons from the big wing chair. Gram could be persuaded to purchase an occasional box of strawberry Pop-Tarts (assuming she had a coupon), and I did so love spreading my toast with banana- or cinnamon-flavored peanut butter. Please tell me you do remember Koogle, don’t you?


I would give anything to relive some of those sweet childhood memories and to appreciate the simple joys more than I did in the moment, especially the sputtering sound of Gram’s pressure cooker or the metronome-like sound of the pendulum on the cuckoo clock that hung on the back wall of the den. Just remembering the zipping sound it made when Grandpa pulled down the clock chains to reset it every evening makes me feel calmer inside. And, just like that, my eyes are misty—talk amongst yourselves, I need a moment.


These days, all the clocks in my house are digital display, with blue lights, and most of them keep me awake at night. Sugary cereals and funky-flavored peanut butters don’t stand a chance in my kitchen, and neither do most of the convenience snacks that have all kinds of who-knows-what ingredients. But I have been thinking about how simple it would be to make a homemade version of at least one favorite childhood treat, and to incorporate a flavor that Kellogg’s never would have thought of.

That’s how these raspberry-rhubarb “pop tarts” came to be, and they were ridiculously simple to make with store-bought pie crust dough and a fruity mashup that I made with my most recent score of rhubarb. Gram always had rhubarb in the spring and summer, and I learned to love it when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Why not make it a filling for pop tarts? I cooked it with raspberries, which have pectin for thickening power (rhubarb doesn’t), but there’s no reason you couldn’t use any flavor of ready-made preserves, homemade or otherwise, as a filling for this treat. And you could skip the sugary frosting if you’d like, too. I only made it because I wanted the pictures to be pretty.

OK, pretty and girly. 🙂

Word to the wise, I would not recommend actually putting these in the toaster. The pie crust pastry is more delicate than a commercial pop tart, and I’m pretty sure you’d have a mess on your hands (not to mention inside the toaster). Also, because these tarts are not filled with preservatives, you will want to eat them up once they are made, but I doubt that will be a problem.

This was a fun, whimsical project, and the tarts were delicious. The icing, however, made them very sweet, so I won’t likely make this exact version again anytime soon. But I’ll tell you this much—if I had grandchildren, we’d be making these easy homemade pop tarts every visit, in as many flavors as the little ones could think up!

What flavor would you make?


Ingredients

Enough to make 8 tarts

Pastry dough for double crust pie (I used store-bought)

About 1/2 cup raspberry-rhubarb filling:

1 heaping cup rhubarb chunks

1/2 cup fresh raspberries

1/4 cup cane sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 Tbsp. corn starch, dissolved in 1 Tbsp. cold water


Glaze Icing (optional)

1 Tbsp. heavy cream

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup

About 2 cups powdered sugar

Food coloring, optional

Sparkling sugar, optional


Instructions

Make the fruit filling first, and give it plenty of time to chill in the fridge before making the pastries. Combine rhubarb chunks, raspberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat until the fruit breaks up and mixture is thick, syrupy and bubbling. If the mixture seems thin, whisk in a small amount of cornstarch slurry and cook until it is no longer cloudy in appearance. Transfer to a covered bowl and refrigerate.

To assemble the pastries, spread the pie crust dough out onto a lightly floured countertop or board. If you are using a store-bought rolled crust, use a rolling pin to even out the wrinkles, but do not aim to make it thinner than 1/8 inch. Pinch together any breaks in the dough as best you can. Cut the dough into approximately 3-by-5-inch rectangles. You should be able to get 8 rectangles from each pastry round. Discard the scraps, or do what my Gram always did with extra pie dough: brush the scraps with egg wash and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, then bake them and have the kids try to guess what animal they look like. 🙂

Carefully spread about 1½ tablespoons of the chilled fruit filling onto one set of rectangles, keeping the edges clean at least 1/2 inch on all sides. Top each pastry with a second rectangle. Use a fork to crimp the edges all the way around and to pierce shallow holes in the top surface. It occurred to me while I was doing this step that I could have used egg wash to seal the pastry, but they turned out fine without it. Transfer the pastries to a parchment-lined baking sheet and place the sheet in the freezer while you preheat the oven.

Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack set in center position. If you do not plan to put icing on the tarts, give them a quick brush with egg wash or milk before baking. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven for about 15 minutes, but watch them closely, as the edges of the tarts may want to burn. Carefully transfer the tarts to a rack and cool them completely before icing.

For the icing, whisk together heavy cream and corn syrup until smooth. Gradually add up to 2 cups of powdered sugar, whisking in each addition until smooth. Stir in a couple pf drops of food coloring, if desired, in one of the early sugar additions. The icing should be thick enough to form ribbons when dripped from a spoon, but thin enough to smooth out after a few moments.

Drizzle it thinly over cooled tarts and sprinkle with sparkling sugar or candy sprinkles, if desired. I mean, why not?

Just tripping down memory lane over here… ❤


Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!


Tequila-Lime Chicken Tacos with Pineapple Pico

Once upon a time, a busy woman ran out of creative ideas for the package of chicken tenders she pulled from the freezer, and the only thing that could save her from a boring dinner was a spark of inspiration. The woman, of course, was me, and it happened on Friday. It happens more often than I’d like, truth be told.

Isn’t that a familiar tale? Even people who love to cook have creativity blocks, especially when pressed for time, and we all need a boost to pull out of a menu rut. If I had stuck with my ho-hum plan to fry the chicken tenders and plop them on a salad—well, it would have been edible, but uninspired. It certainly would not have been remarkable or interesting enough to share here on Comfort du Jour. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to check my email that morning before heading out for a full day of errands. Right there at the top of my inbox was a cheerful message from my West Coast blogging buddy, Michelle, and her casual sharing of a personal story about “tequila-lime chicken” arrived just in time to twist this plot and save our supper.

What I love most about food and recipes is the rich stories they tell about our lives. It’s one of the main reasons I started a food blog last year, a decision that I did not expect would lead to meaningful new friendships with other bloggers. Recent email conversations between me and Michelle brought us around to the joy of cooking on the grill (or the “BBQ,” as many West Coasters call it), and on Friday, she described this idea that she had invented to serve as a late-night patio bar snack at a restaurant where she once worked. Tequila-lime chicken is the kind of recipe you make by instinct, not by following specific amounts or ratios, and I love that she described the recipe that way—you know, with a little of this and a touch of that and a couple of those. It made perfect sense to me because 99 percent of the time, that’s exactly the way I cook, adding ingredients that fit the flavor profile until it looks and tastes “right.” It sounded perfect, and I couldn’t help but see my boring package of chicken tenders in a new light.

The ingredient list for the marinade was short and easy—tequila, citrus juice, fresh garlic and simple spices, such as cumin and chile seasoning, and it tenderized the chicken beautifully. My ingredient makeup wasn’t identical to Michelle’s recipe—she adds slices of onion to the marinade and I saved that for the pico topping—but the chicken turned out every bit as tender and flavorful as she described it, and I can totally see why her tequila-lime chicken tacos were a frequent “sellout” at the patio bar. We liked them so much at our house, I want to run out and buy a taco truck!

Tender, tequila-marinated chicken with the tropical pineapple pico and fresh cilantro. This was a fabulous twist of events!

The idea for tequila-lime chicken also gave me another excuse to make another batch of easy handmade corn tortillas, and this time I spiffed them up with cilantro puree, which accounts for the slight green tint to the shells. And I topped these “last-minute” tacos with a condiment concoction that I’m calling “pineapple pico,” a super-fresh, spicy, tropical mashup of pico de gallo and guacamole. I’ll share my notes for both at the end. 😊


Ingredients

About 1 1/4 pounds of chicken tenders, patted dry

1/4 cup silver tequila (I’m sure gold would work just as well)

Juice of 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 lemon

About 1/2 tsp. each of cumin, garlic pepper, ancho chile powder and kosher salt* (see notes)

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*


*Notes

I used spices that were within easy reach in my cabinet, and I chose ancho chile powder because we love the bright, fruity flavor of it. You could just as easily use chipotle powder or any kind of bottled chile powder or, as my friend pointed out in her email, even some kind of pre-made taco seasoning. Keep it simple and southwestern, and let the tequila and lime work their flavor magic.

A little oil helps in a marinade, especially when using a very lean meat. My hubby runs the grill pretty hot and I wanted to help protect the chicken tenders from burning or getting dried out. Olive oil is my go-to, but avocado or canola oil would work just as well.


Instructions

Make the marinade first and give the chicken several hours to overnight in the fridge to soak up all the delicious, south-of-the-border flavors. It goes like this:


Grill the chicken on a hot grill (500° F at first, my hubby says), then reduce heat to 350° once you get the grill marks. Chicken tenders are smaller than whole breasts, of course, so they will cook more quickly. Watch them closely and pull them off the grill as soon as the juices run clear.

Hubby gets those perfect grill marks every time! The chicken was so tender, it practically melted in our mouths!

Cut up or shred the chicken tenders (you’ll be shocked at how tender they are!) and serve as desired. We perched them atop cilantro-flavored corn tortillas with crunchy cabbage, radishes, pineapple pico and fresh cilantro.

If you missed my recent post on handmade corn tortillas, follow the link to check that out. I include full instructions and all my best tips for turning out successful tortillas, with or without a tortilla press!


Pineapple Pico

1/2 cup fresh pineapple, cut into tidbit-sized pieces

1/2 cup baby tomatoes, halved or quartered to tidbit-size

2 Tbsp. red onion, chopped

1/2 medium fresh jalapeno, chopped

1/2 ripe avocado, cut into cubes

Juice of 1/2 lime, plus salt and pepper


Thanks for an amazing idea, Michelle! 🙂


Tri-tip Benedicts with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Everyone has hobbies, and one of my favorites is re-creating or upcycling a recipe I have enjoyed in a restaurant. I’ve been doing it for years, sometimes drawing inspiration from memories of something delicious from childhood and other times because I realize an expensive restaurant dish is easy enough to do at home for a fraction of the price, as was the case with mahi Hemingway, which is still the most-visited post here on Comfort du Jour. And occasionally, I will reimagine a meal as I am eating it—not because I think I know better than the chef, but because I know what flavors would elevate it for me. That’s what happened when my husband, Les, and I pondered the final meal of our recent getaway to Roanoke, Virginia. As you can see, we were not exactly roughing it.

The Hotel Roanoke

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re correct—I am a very lucky woman. For our 4th wedding anniversary, Les had booked us for the weekend in this luxurious, historic hotel, and we had a wonderful and relaxing time, including a luxury foot soak for couples that he arranged in the hotel spa (far and away the most romantic thing we have done together). We were within easy walking distance to some terrific local restaurants, and thanks to Virginia’s smart COVID policies and the protocols of the restaurants we visited (I was still a few days away from my second dose of vaccine), we were able to safely experience incredible food and drink, including this dramatic entrée, served up at a place called Table 50.

Blackened Ahi Tuna with andouille sausage and crawfish risotto and asparagus garnish. I ate every last bite of it!

By the time we got to Sunday morning, we were feeling pretty darn pampered, and we opted for a pre-checkout brunch in the fancy-schmancy hotel dining room. Les and I both zeroed in on the same entrée, which seems to happen more often than it did in our earlier years together. The benedicts before us were served with steak tips, wilted spinach and hollandaise.

Want to make breakfast fancier? Add a white tablecloth! 🙂

Very classic and delicious, though I’m not a huge fan of hollandaise. Les has picked up on my habit of upcycling recipes, and the gears were already turning in both of our minds. Why couldn’t we add some bold flavors to this otherwise classic brunch staple, and make it our own at home? Of course we could, and so we did.

This is our version of that brunch benedict—a toasted English muffin (only one between us), topped with spinach that was sauteed with onion, thin slices of our zesty coffee-rubbed tri-tip steak, a poached runny egg and a generous draping of the roasted red pepper sauce I shared yesterday. Upscaled, yet somehow more rustic and casual. Definitely a Comfort du Jour thing.


Ingredients

Serves 2

1 English muffin, split, toasted and buttered

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/4 onion, thinly sliced

1 fat handful baby spinach leaves

About 4 oz. thinly sliced coffee-rubbed tri-tip steak* (see notes)

2 large eggs, room temperature

About 1/2 cup roasted red pepper sauce*


*Notes

Obviously, to enjoy the benedict this way, you would need to first cook the tri-tip steak according to the recipe Les shared a couple of weeks ago, and you would not regret it. But maybe you have some steak leftover from a nice dinner out, and you could slice that into the recipe instead. Start looking at your leftovers differently and you never know what kind of fabulous creations will happen in your kitchen.

The roasted red pepper sauce is an extremely versatile recipe, and one that we have enjoyed across a variety of recipes. If you make it in advance, you will have about 2 cups, so this recipe only requires a portion of it.

For me, the biggest pain about any benedict is the eggs. I don’t have a lot of success with poaching eggs, and most of the time I just do a quick steam-poach in a non-stick skillet. I’ve tried various poaching gadgets, including the silicone one you’ll see in the slideshow, but they still argue with me. My first set of eggs was way overcooked by the time I had the rest of the benedict plated. I stuck with it and had better success with the second set of eggs, but the whole thing broke my momentum. Follow your own kitchen rules. And if you have any unusual tricks for poaching eggs, I’d sure love to hear them!


Instructions

  1. Put a pot on to boil if you are poaching the eggs, as this will take some time to be ready. Crack each of the eggs into its own custard cup for easy slipping into the water. Say a prayer—oh wait, that’s just for me.
  2. Slice the tri-tip into thin, even slices and set them aside.
  3. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat and swirl in the olive oil. Add the onions and baby spinach and sauté until most of the moisture is cooked out of the spinach. If it is still steaming in the pan, it needs another minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and lay the slices of tri-tip on top of the spinach. Cover it to keep warm.
  4. Warm up the roasted red pepper sauce, either in the microwave or in a small saucepan.
  5. Stir the simmering water and slip the eggs, one at a time, into the pot. Watch them closely, because they don’t take long. Or cook the eggs according to your own kitchen rules.
  6. Drop the English muffin halves to toast them, and swipe a quick smear of butter across their nook-and-cranny surfaces if you wish.
  7. Start layering—first spinach, then tri-tip slices, the poached egg and, finally, the roasted red pepper sauce.


Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Every now and again, I accidentally cross paths with a recipe that has so many uses I have no choice but to add it to my repertoire. This is one of those sauces, and I can thank my husband, Les, who discovered this one last fall, tucked inside an email he received from New York Times Cooking. The sauce was intended for some kind of “couscous cake,” which sounds interesting for another day, but Les trusted his instinct to believe it a perfect dipping sauce for his spinach ball appetizer recipe, and indeed it was.

First time making the red pepper sauce to accompany these, and it was fantastic!

As Les and I have repurposed this flavorful sauce for various uses, I have laughed to myself recalling an inside joke from the “Pinch” kitchen, which was how the staff usually referred to A Pinch of Thyme, the catering company where I spent my spare time for about two years. In the Pinch kitchen, it did not matter what kind of sauce you were preparing—it might have been one of the fancy French “mother sauces,” such as a hollandaise or béchamel or velouté, or maybe even a turkey gravy or a cheese fondue—if it was sauce of any type, Chef Rodney had a code word for it: “weez.” I imagined that the moniker might have been adapted from the name of the overly processed spread known as “Cheez Whiz,” but Rodney never confirmed that. It was amusing though, and we all secretly looked forward to the recipes that required creation of a weez, just because it was a funny word to say.

There was such irony in those scenes; while my friend Tammy, the Pinch events manager, was on the phone selling clients on the elegance of a dish such as filet mignon with béarnaise, Rodney was in the kitchen offering instruction for making a “tarragon weez.” He definitely kept things interesting.

This roasted red pepper weez is simple to make, which is surprising, given its depth of flavor and incredible versatility. The sauce begins in the oven, with the roasting of red bell peppers, a tomato and two whole bulbs of garlic, and it’s finished in the blender, where those ingredients come together with a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil and the smallest kiss of maple syrup. The result is perfectly balanced and utterly addictive.

Easy, weezy, and delicious! 😊

Did I eat some of this yummy sauce straight from the spoon? Maybe. 😉

Adapted from Giant Couscous Cake with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Recipe makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

2 medium red bell peppers

1 Roma tomato, halved and seeded

1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 bulbs roasted garlic (link to this post for easy DIY instructions)

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 tsp. real maple syrup (or substitute honey)


 Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the bell peppers into segments, along the natural lines of the fruit. Discard the seeds and membranes. Lay the tomato halves and pepper segments, skin side up, on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush all pieces with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Roast about 40 minutes, until the skins on the peppers are nicely charred.
  3. Transfer the tomatoes and pepper segments to a bowl. Cover the bowl and set it aside for several minutes, giving the skins time to soften for easy release.
  4. Once cooled, carefully peel the skins off the peppers and tomato halves. Transfer them to a food processor or standard blender. I do not recommend a “smoothie” blender for this step, because you will need to drizzle oil in later. An immersion blender would also work. Pulse a few times to chop the peppers and tomatoes into smaller pieces. Carefully squeeze in both bulbs of roasted garlic.
  5. Add the red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and maple syrup. Pulse a few times, then run processor or blender continuously while drizzling in the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sauce to a jar or bowl.


This roasted red pepper sauce has so many easy uses, from appetizers to pasta to pizza and more. It will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of weeks, though we have not been able to make it last that long at our house. Next time, we will make a double batch!


Handmade Corn Tortillas

There are plenty of things I don’t buy pre-made anymore—bread, salad dressing, pizza dough, ice cream, pasta—but corn tortillas are among the simplest, and the flavor is far superior to the ones I find in the supermarket. Even the “authentic” corn tortillas at the grocery are mass-produced with all kinds of processed ingredients, conditioners, preservatives and heaven knows what else. When you make them from scratch, you only need two ingredients—masa harina, which is finely ground corn that has been alkalized with lime (the mineral, not the citrus), and water. The dough rests for a short time, then it is rolled into balls and flattened into discs. Cook them on a hot griddle or cast-iron skillet, and you’ll enjoy tortillas that will make you skip store bought forever.

Flavoring the tortillas is simple, also. I like to put a couple of shakes of onion powder into a basic batch, for a quick little savory “something.” But if you want more noticeable flavor—spinach, for example—simply puree a small amount of cooked spinach with some water and measure it out in the same measurement as water in the recipe. You could do the same with cilantro, pumpkin, garlic, tomato or black beans. If you can imagine it, you can make it. Experimenting in the kitchen has resulted in some of my favorite foods!

I use a tortilla press to create the perfect round shape, but you can also use the flat bottom of a large glass bowl to do this. Once cooked, the tortillas can be used for soft tacos or enchiladas, fried crisp for hard-shell tacos or tostadas (one of my faves), or cut into wedges and fried to become homemade tortilla chips, perfect for dips and salsas.

Making tortillas can be a little challenging at first. The ratio of ingredients is printed on the masa flour bag, but your technique can only be developed with practice. See my tips for success at the end of the instructions. No reason you should go through all the frustrating mistakes I’ve made. One of these days, I’ll make a list of all the cuss words I’ve made up in the kitchen. 😊


Ingredients for Basic Tortillas

1 cup masa harina (I like Maseca brand, white, yellow or blue)

2/3 cup very warm water (or 50/50 mix of water and puree of choice)

A pinch of kosher salt


Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until liquid is absorbed. Knead the dough ball a few times until mixture is smooth, soft and uniform in texture. Cover the dough ball snugly with plastic wrap and allow it to rest at least 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat a cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat, about 375° F.
  3. Divide masa dough into 8 equal pieces, then roll each piece into a smooth ball. Keep the dough balls covered to prevent drying out as you shape and press them into flat tortillas.
  4. Place a dough ball between two squares of plastic wrap, or cut apart a zip-top bag. The thicker plastic gives better results. Use the tortilla press to slowly flatten the dough to a disc that is about 5 to 6 inches across. Alternatively, press the flat bottom of a clear glass bowl evenly over the surface of the dough ball until the tortilla is about 5 to 6 inches across.
  5. Carefully peel one side of the plastic away from the tortilla, then turn the tortilla out into your hand and peel away the second piece of plastic. Be prepared to ruin a few, but don’t panic if you do (see Tips below)!
  6. Turn the tortilla onto the preheated griddle and cook the first side 60 to 90 seconds, until the edges look dry and steam is emerging from underneath. Use a spatula to flip the tortilla over and cook the second side about 60 seconds.
  7. Transfer the hot tortilla to a plate lined with a clean kitchen towel and fold the towel over to keep them warm as you finish the remaining tortillas.


If you love corn tortillas and want to make them at home more regularly, I recommend investment in a tortilla press because it makes it so simple. I picked mine up in a specialty market that carries a wide array of foods and products for Mexican cuisine, and you can easily find them online, too. But what if you’re jonesing to make them right now? Here’s one easy way to do it, using a flat-bottomed glass dish as your “press.” For this batch, I used the blue corn masa harina, and I demonstrate how to incorporate another ingredient: black beans!


Once you get the hang of it, you’re good to go!

Tips for Success

Follow the same guidelines for measuring the masa harina as I offer for measuring flour—fluff it up, sprinkle over the measuring cup to overflowing, and then level it off. If you dig a measuring cup directly into the masa bag, you’ll end up with too much and the dough will be dry. The masa should be soft and loose in the measuring cup, not packed tight.

Use warm water, not cold, to mix with the masa flour. I’ve found that the warm water is more easily absorbed and helps to create better dough. Knead the dough until it is soft and smooth, which is usually only a minute or two, though longer kneading will not cause any harm.

Don’t skip the rest time after mixing the masa. This gives enough time for the masa to hydrate fully. If you rush this step, you may find the dough crumbly or sticky (or both) during pressing.

When you roll the dough into balls, it should hold together easily without sticking to your hands, and only showing slight cracks. Trust your instinct; if it feels too dry, wet your hands and knead a few more times. If it’s sticky, lightly dust it with additional masa flour, then knead and rest it again.

I have found a modified zip-top bag more useful than plastic wrap for pressing the tortillas. Use a freezer bag if possible, as it is thicker than a sandwich bag. Cut off the zipper top entirely, and cut down the sides, leaving only the bottom of the bag attached.

Shape the sections of dough into balls all at once, and then place one dough ball inside the zip top bag layers. Keep the other dough balls covered with a damp paper towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out. When placing the dough ball in the tortilla press, arrange it slightly off center toward the hinge side. Close the press and use the lever to apply gentle pressure. If the tortilla is noticeably thinner on one edge, turn it and gently press again to even it out. Until you get used to this process, it may help to make slightly thicker tortillas. If you are using a flat-bottomed dish to press them, press your hands on it in a rocking motion all the way around until the tortilla is about 5 inches across. It’s helpful to have a clear dish so you can see the progress.

Focus on peeling the plastic away from the dough, not the other way around, and accept that you may find the first few tries unsuccessful. Hold the plastic bag flat in one hand, and use the other hand to peel, keeping the plastic at a sharp angle to the tortilla. Don’t peel straight up or the tortilla will tear. If the tortilla falls apart, just scrape it into a ball and try again. There is no gluten in corn tortillas, so they will not get tough from extra handling. If the dough feels dry after a few failed attempts, wet your hands and knead it a bit.

The initial cooking of the tortillas should be on a dry skillet or pancake griddle. If you want to fry them later to suit a dish you are making, that will be a separate process. Think of it as a form of bread, which must be baked before it can be toasted or grilled.

Give your griddle or cast-iron skillet enough time to pre-heat, and plan to let your first tortilla be a test. It may take some practice to get the right temperature on your stove or griddle. Be ready to flip them when they look “right,” not by the clock, but aim for somewhere between 60 and 90 seconds.

Have a plate ready, lined with a clean kitchen towel. You’ll want to keep the freshly cooked tortillas wrapped as you complete the rest of the batch—for warmth and also for softness.

If you decide to use pureed vegetables to make flavored tortillas, start with a liquid mixture that is at least 50% water. Pureed vegetables such as spinach or pumpkin are wet, but there is also fiber in them that may change the consistency of the masa. I recommend making basic tortillas a few times to get used to it. As you gain experience making them, you will instinctively know what the dough should feel like, and how to best adjust ratios of other ingredients to produce fun colors and flavors. Here are a few of my favorites: spinach, black bean, pumpkin, cilantro, roasted garlic.


Roasted Pork Loin with Gingered Rhubarb Chutney

I had all but given up hope on finding more rhubarb this spring, after my earlier, monthlong, city-wide search that resulted in my first few stalks of this tart, springtime treasure. But my sweet-toothed husband, Les, made a bold announcement after his first taste of the Rhubarb-Berry Crunch dessert—“OK, I like rhubarb,” so the hunt was on for more. I lucked out, at the same store I had found it before, and I bought the last of what they had. As with any rare find, I have been trying to ration my rhubarb stash to enjoy it in as many forms as possible, and I have a few more ideas brewing in the back of my mind that I’ll spring on you soon.

The ginger addition to the rhubarb filling in the crunch dessert was so delicious; I wanted to pair the flavors again in a sweet-meets-savory chutney for pork roast. A smart lesson I learned in my part-time catering years was the easy trick of “echoing” flavors across various dishes in a meal, and I put that idea fully to work here, giving the chutney a shout out with complementary flavors in both the brine and dry rub. I incorporated cardamom, star anise, more ginger and one colorful ingredient I purchased recently from the gourmet kitchen section of TJ Maxx:

These pretty little dried berries are not related to black peppercorns, and they are very easy to crush.

I’ve seen them, of course, but didn’t know much about pink peppercorns, other than their occasional appearance in one of the “mélange” blends that goes into my Peugeot peppermill. As it turns out, pink peppercorns are not related to black pepper at all! They are named merely for their resemblance to peppercorns and also for their slight peppery flavor, but they are brighter and fruitier than ordinary pepper, and they turned out to be a nice complement to the tart rhubarb. They are also much softer than regular peppercorns, as I learned when I easily crushed them with my mortar and pestle. Another fact about pink peppercorns—one that is more on the serious side—they are closely related to cashews, so they pose a significant safety risk to anyone with allergies to tree nuts (yikes).

The pork loin was a great find at a local farmer’s market. The seller was mindful to point out the advantages of local, pastured pork, which is more humane and sustainable than most conventional processes, and I have no problem paying the higher cost for those benefits. It is also more flavorful than typical, bland grocery store cuts. The loin is a very lean cut, prone to become dry, so I brined it for a few hours before roasting. The end result was perfectly tender, juicy and flavorful, and the gingered chutney was just the right touch, though a bit intense for Les, so I would ease up on the ginger next time. We served this delicious roast with simple boiled red potatoes and our favorite homemade collard greens, another prize from the farmer’s market.

I dipped each slice in the roast pan juices before serving with the gingered rhubarb chutney. A perfect Sunday Supper!

The extra layers of attention that I gave to this meal earns it a spot in my Sunday Supper category, which I suspect has been feeling a little neglected recently. We have done a lot of very casual cooking at our house in recent months, but after so many weeks of playing “hard to get,” this rhubarb deserved a special seat at the table. Enjoy!


Ingredients & Instructions

Brine for pork loin

2 1/4 lb. pasture-raised pork loin

4 cups cold water

1/4 cup canning and pickling salt (or kosher salt)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 Tbsp. crushed pink peppercorns

2 cardamom pods, crushed

1 piece star anise

Be sure your brine container is non-reactive; a large, deep glass bowl works great. It isn’t necessary to heat the water, as pickling or kosher salt will dissolve pretty easily. If you do choose to heat the water for quicker dissolving, be sure the brine has time to cool completely before you add the roast to it.

Stir brine ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved; submerge pork loin, cover and refrigerate 4 to 5 hours; remove from brine, pat dry all over with paper towels. Rest a few minutes, pat dry again, then follow rub instructions.


Rub for pork loin

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. five spice powder

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Spray olive oil onto dried pork loin, and sprinkle rub all over, especially the lean surfaces. Let roast remain uncovered at room temperature for about an hour before roasting.

Preheat oven to 450° F. Place loin roast (fat side up) on rack above parchment-lined baking sheet, or inside a shallow glass baking dish. Roast at 450° for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400° and roast or convect roast for 30 to 45 additional minutes, or more as needed to reach 145° F internal temp. Rest at least 10 minutes, then slice thinly. Dip slices into any clean pan drippings for extra flavor at serving.


Rhubarb Apple Chutney

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup diced sweet onion

½ tsp. pink peppercorn, crushed

1 cardamom pod, crushed

1 heaping cup diced rhubarb

1/2 cup chopped apple

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

2 Tbsp. minced crystallized ginger

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Kosher salt and black pepper

Leaves from about two sprigs of fresh thyme

Heat olive oil in a small saucepan and sauté onions until softened. Season with salt and pepper, pink pepper and crushed cardamom pods. Add rhubarb and apple and toss to combine. Add brown sugar and crystallized ginger. Cook over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved and fruit begins to break down. Add vinegar and continue to cook over low heat until fruit is completely softened and mixture is thickened. Stir in thyme leaves. If not using immediately, chill then reheat.




Waste Not.

For someone trained from a young age to “waste nothing,” dealing with sourdough discard has become quite the dilemma. From the time I first “birthed” my beloved starter, I have been in a regular habit of making homemade bread at least once a week, and that has kept me on a healthy schedule for feeding and refreshing the starter. But cutting off the edge of my finger on a mandoline slicer has messed up more than just my cooking goals—it has also suspended my favorite activity of baking, and that is tougher for me to accept.

I have my KitchenAid stand mixer, which is my trusty assistant for many of my bread recipes, but the mixer cannot replace my hands for stretching and folding, final kneading or shaping my loaves. I miss doing those things. And I imagine that my starter, Pete, is confused and lonely, sitting untouched in the dark, cold refrigerator with no attention. OK, probably not. It’s me that is wrecked inside, and I look forward to reuniting with bread dough, and I will probably go nuts and make so much extra that I’ll be dropping it off for all of the neighbors.

Until that time, I am finding other ways to use my discard starter—that is, the portion of starter that must either be used or thrown away at feeding time. When the natural yeast has consumed all the usable nutrients in the previous feeding, the starter becomes “flabby” and lifeless, and isn’t suitable for leavening anything. I don’t often waste starter, given that I am baking frequently, but these are desperate times. So this morning, I made my favorite sourdough waffles. The recipe begins the night before, when a generous lump of flabby sourdough discard is combined with flour, a dab of sugar and a cup of buttermilk. In the morning, egg, oil, salt and baking soda go into the mix and then—waffle magic!

Old-Fashioned Maine Sourdough Waffles | King Arthur Baking

This King Arthur recipe is the best I have found for making exceptionally light and flavorful waffles with a crispy exterior. Half the recipe is more than enough for the two of us, and we usually have at least an extra serving that we can toss into the freezer for a future “lazy” breakfast. We served up today’s sourdough waffles with real maple syrup (of course) and the best bacon we have had in a very long time. Simple, but delicious, and I am relieved of guilt because I have not wasted my starter. If you’re riding the sourdough train, but haven’t yet tried waffles, they are a fun way to enjoy the fermented goodness of spent sourdough. And please, share with me your favorite uses of sourdough discard, too. I will appreciate the ideas.

It’s Saturday, and we missed our chance this morning to visit the weekly farmers’ market for more of this amazing breakfast meat. I don’t know what has been going on in the world of bacon lately, but we have been repeatedly disappointed with our usual, favorite “no-nitrite” brands from the grocery store. And that’s a good thing, in the sense that it led us to the farmers’ market last week. We made a terrific haul of local, sustainable, home-grown foods. Something about the just-picked freshness makes me feel like I’m doing good in the world.

I was especially excited about the beets and the pork loin roast.

I’m always tempted to buy up everything that looks amazing, but we kept it reasonable this time, purchasing only what we knew we would finish in a week, and I took it to the limit with the collard greens, which I cooked as usual, but then I quick-pickled the stems with a couple of radishes and garlic cloves. You know, waste nothing. I will probably never be the wonder kid that my grandmother was—but I’m working on it!


My Big Fat Greek Pizza

If this were a normal year, the Greek Orthodox church in our city would not have had a long line of cars snaking around it this past weekend, with drivers waiting to purchase prepared food in white Styrofoam take-out boxes. It would not have been nearly so quiet, and it would not have been the impersonal experience my husband, Les, had when he picked up our Saturday night meal. The string of taillights ahead of him and the line of vehicles in his rear-view mirror were a stark contrast to a “normal” mid-May visit to the church’s annual fundraiser.

The Greek Festival should have been a noisy, three-day celebration for all ages, packed with singing, music, dancing, eating, drinking and intermittent yells of, “Opa!!!!” There would be authentic heritage costumes and colorful art for sale and scheduled history lessons inside the Orthodox Church sanctuary. But this has not been a normal year, nor was it last year, when the Greek Festival was cancelled altogether for safety reasons. This year, at least, the church gave it a go by offering drive-through pickup of its most popular food items—some prepared and some frozen. Sadly, the take-out box did not do my hot meal any favors, but I have higher hopes for the spanakopita we tossed into the freezer.

The food is one of the things I usually love most about the Greek Festival, and you can bet I will be there next year when things (hopefully) look more normal. The flavors of the Greek culture are so bold and fresh, and I cannot resist applying them to foods that don’t necessarily speak Greek, including this inspired pizza.

This pie has all my favorite Greek flavors in one bite!

Les and I enjoyed this one a couple of months ago, and I am finally sharing it here on Comfort du Jour. We have a regular tradition of Friday night pizza at our house, and though we do enjoy a classic Italian sausage or pepperoni pie, you know I also love to twist them up with other flavors. Visit the Pizza Party page for a quick review if you are looking for some new topping ideas.

For this tantalizing “Big Fat Greek Pizza,” I started with my own N.Y.-style pizza dough and a simple tomato sauce base, the same as I would use on a traditional Italian pie. Next, I crisped-up bits of “Greek God” sausage, an offering of one of our local butcher counters. The sausage is full of bright herbal flavors—oregano, basil, garlic and rosemary—and I had been imagining it on a pizza for quite some time, though I’m quite sure this pizza would be just as good with no meat. I piled on spinach, red onions, Kalamatas, fresh cherry tomatoes and a whole bunch of feta, and that should have been “Greek” enough. But my favorite part was the dollops of cool cucumber-garlic tzatziki that went into place after the pizza emerged from the oven. The combination of all these ingredients was like a flavor explosion, giving me my very own Greek festival, all in one delicious bite.

Opa!!!


Ingredients

Tzatziki:

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt, stirred

2 Tbsp. half and half

1/4 cup diced cucumber, seeded and patted dry

1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves, chopped (chop some extra for sprinkling over the finished pizza)

Combine ingredients and keep refrigerated until ready to serve pizza.

Pizza:

1 ball pizza dough (here’s a link for My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough*, if you’d like to try it)

About 1/4 cup pizza sauce or fresh tomato sauce

A few shakes of grated parm-romano blend

1/2 cup shredded firm mozzarella

1 link cooked and sliced Greek God sausage* or similar product (see notes)

1/2 medium red onion, sliced

1 fat handful baby spinach leaves

Handful of pitted Kalamata olives*, roughly chopped

6 or 7 cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and halved

3/4 cup fresh feta, crumbled*

Additional chopped fresh dill, for serving


*Notes

If you decide to try my version of N.Y. pizza dough, note that it takes a few days’ time in the fridge, so plan accordingly. This recipe is intended for a thin-crust pizza, and my heating and bake time instructions are specific to baking on a pizza steel or stone. If you prefer to bake on a pan or at lower temperature, adjust your baking time to your preferred method.

The “Greek God” sausage I used for this pizza is a specialty product from a specific local grocery. It is a fresh pork sausage, seasoned with basil, oregano, garlic and rosemary, and we cooked (actually, smoked) it prior to using it. Any mild pork, chicken or turkey sausage would make a fine substitute, or you could easily omit the sausage altogether. The other flavors on this pizza are more than enough to elevate your happy.

Kalamata olives are specifically grown in the Kalamata region of Greece, and they are not the same as inexpensive, canned “black” olives. They are more oblong than round, and they are usually packed in a briny liquid with wine or olive oil. It’s easy to find them in jars or on specialty olive bars, if your supermarket has one. They can be a little pricey, but as far as I’m concerned, they are worth their weight in gold. Be sure to select pitted olives for this recipe, unless you find it exciting to crack a tooth.

I prefer to use fresh blocks of feta, as it has better flavor and texture than most crumbled feta. If the feta block is packed in brine, be sure to pat it dry with paper towels before crumbling, to minimize excess moisture.


Instructions


  1. Preheat pizza steel for one hour at 550° F, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone, with oven rack about 8 inches from the top heat element. If using a metal pan, place rack in lower third of oven.
  2. Prepare toppings: sauté red onion just until softened, then sauté spinach until wilted. Transfer both to a dish to cool.
  3. Shape pizza dough into a 14-inch round and transfer to a floured pizza peel that is dusted with cornmeal (or place on a greased pizza pan). Brush or spray dough with olive oil, and season with kosher salt and a few twists of black pepper.
  4. Spread tomato sauce evenly over the dough, all but 1 inch around edge.
  5. Distribute the shredded mozzarella, then the cut-up, cooked sausage pieces (if using), onions and spinach, Kalamatas, tomatoes and feta cheese.
  6. Transfer pizza to preheated steel or stone, and bake for about 7 minutes, until crust is golden brown and toppings are bubbling.
  7. Arrange small dollops of tzatziki sauce over pizza, sprinkle with remaining dill leaves.

Interested in more delicious, Greek-inspired recipes?


Bleu Cheese Potato Salad

Here’s a truth I have learned in the past couple of weeks: you don’t realize how much you use all of your fingers until one of them is out of commission. It has been almost two weeks since my little accident with the mandoline slicer, and I’m constantly reminded of my limitations in the kitchen. I am not in any kind of pain, mind you, but the urgent care doctor was specific to instruct that I should not let my injured right ring finger get wet during the healing process. That means asking for help (not one of my strong points) with washing dishes, prepping vegetables and moving hot pots. Everything takes longer than usual, and my husband, Les, has done half (or all) of the cooking, or we have ordered takeout.

I am pleased to report that on Thursday, the two-week mark after my second COVID jab, we ventured out to a real, honest-to-goodness restaurant—one of our favorite casual, but delicious, places in our city. We sat inside (gasp!) and enjoyed a lovely dinner that included this incredible plate:

This plate was a work of art, and as delicious as it was beautiful!

OMG, it was sooo delicious! The grilled shrimp accompanied a salad of arugula with candied bacon and vinaigrette, flanked by walnut-crusted goat cheese medallions, chilled, roasted carrots and dollops of fresh pesto with microgreens, artfully arranged on a roasted carrot puree. We even ordered an appetizer and a glass of wine, and I literally wanted to lick my plate. It was a real treat, and so good to see the friendly, familiar staff at West End Cafe after such a long separation.

At the same time, with the CDC announcement last week that vaccinated people can relax a bit, we are eagerly anticipating some in-person time with friends, and excited that our social re-entry will coincide perfectly with the start of summer grilling season. For practice, we prepared one of our favorite grilled items—the coffee-rubbed grilled tri-tip steak that Les shared yesterday, and an easy side that takes a favorite steakhouse combination down into casual mode. This bleu cheese potato salad was Les’s idea, as we were pondering what to make as a side for the bold and spicy tri-tip. Think of it as a bleu cheese-stuffed baked potato, but cold. And creamy.

The slight funk of bleu cheese is such a great complement to grilled steak, and it worked out great in this easy potato salad.

The bleu cheese flavor is assertive, which is exactly what we wanted, but the combination of mayo with sour cream gives the salad a creamy texture without the slick greasiness of too much mayonnaise. This potato salad was a perfect complement to the tri-tip, and equally good over the next couple of days with sandwiches. I love that his creative flavor idea and my kitchen instincts made it such a winner on the first effort. Yeah, this teamwork thing is working out pretty well.


Makes about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes, boiled tender and chilled

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

A few shakes granulated garlic

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup bleu cheese crumbles

2 large scallions, cleaned and sliced (white and green parts)

Small handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Romaine or leaf lettuce leaves, for plating (optional)


Instructions

  1. Cut up the chilled cooked potatoes into bite sized chunks.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine mayonnaise and sour cream, plus granulated garlic, salt and pepper. Fold in bleu cheese crumbles and half of the scallions. Fold in chopped parsley.
  3. Add the chilled, cut-up potatoes and gently fold to combine with the dressing mixture. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Plate onto a lettuce-lined platter and sprinkle with remaining sliced scallions.

Easy to notice that I was working with one good hand. My lettuce-lined plate is a little lopsided!

Catering tip: When serving any kind of side or salad for a group, present it on a platter rather than in a bowl. It allows guests to serve themselves from both sides of the table, and it looks prettier and larger!