Zero-Proof Sangria (for Dry January)

My husband and I are 16 days into our alcohol-free pledge to start the new year. For the most part, I have not minded this experiment of Dry January. The break from alcohol has already had some positive effects on my body; most noticeably, I feel more hydrated in ways that I did not expect. My skin and hair are not as parched, despite the recent cold snap that has kept us indoors with the heat running constantly. I have found more focus and energy for tasks that need to be done around the house, so that’s a good thing. And I am astonished at how much more sleep I am getting, and that alone makes it worth the sacrifice. Still, I have caught myself counting the days, making it unlikely that this would become a permanent lifestyle change.

When my husband and I made the decision to give our bodies a break from alcohol, we guessed correctly that the biggest challenge to our lifestyle would come on Friday nights. Our ritual, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been to finish the work week with (usually bourbon) cocktails, homemade pizza and, whenever it was scheduled, Quarantunes, the Facebook Live concert featuring our pals Glenn and Oria Alexander.

Ahead of the first dry weekend, I threw all my creative effort into an attempt at zero-proof cocktails. In my mixology experimenting over the past couple of years, I have already learned how valuable infused simple syrups can be for delivering extra flavors into a drink, so that is where I started my chemistry challenge.

For Les, I whipped up a smoky, spicy cherry simple syrup—featuring smoked black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, unsweetened black cherry juice and real vanilla paste—to mimic the essence of an Old Fashioned. For myself, I made another simple syrup—steeped with white peppercorns and coriander seed—and it had a nice balance of bite and spice that I thought could be a reasonable stand-in for tequila in either a paloma- or margarita-style drink. I liked this one so much that I named it “white-hot syrup,” and I expect that I will use it in real cocktails at some point in the future.

When Friday night arrived, I pulled out all my usual tools for cocktail setup—my mixing glass, shaker, citrus juicer, bitters, rocks glasses and giant ice cubes. Only it wasn’t as easy as mixing up real drinks, which I have had plenty of practice doing. I was a novice again, and I measured, squeezed, stirred, tasted, adjusted, stirred again, tasted again and finally ended up with a couple of drinks that were enjoyable.


Les’s drink had the smoky black cherry syrup, mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a couple shakes of orange bitters and a slight splash of oak wood tonic (an interesting find that I’ll describe in a moment), and I even garnished it with a ribbon of blood orange peel and a Luxardo cherry. For my own drink, I blended the white-hot syrup in a shaker with fresh lemon, lime and orange, plus coconut water. I strained it into a salt-rimmed rocks glass, tossed in an orange peel and it called it a “mock-arita.”

Finally, our faux cocktails!

They turned out beautiful, but I spent so much time in the kitchen fiddling with these faux drinks that I missed 35 minutes of Quarantunes, which was the whole purpose of Friday night “cocktails.” And then, cleanup, which was sticky and ridiculous. This past Friday night, I decided on a better, simpler alternative—a zero-proof sangria! I appreciated that I could make it (and adjust to taste) ahead of time so that enjoying it on Friday night was only a matter of pouring it over ice and dressing it up with fresh fruit. No muss, no fuss. More time for pizza and Quarantunes. Perfect!

These were fruity, spicy and delicious. Exactly what we needed for Friday night, and no hangover or sluggish feeling on Saturday morning! 🙂

The base of my zero-proof sangria was a “de-alcoholized” Merlot wine. I have seen no-alcohol “wines” before, but for the most part, they were just unfermented, unsweetened grape juice. In other words, flat and mostly flavorless. But a de-alcoholized wine has gone through the process of fermentation, and then has the alcohol removed, either by vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis, just before bottling. It is a fascinating concept, and one that is gaining traction with a significant audience of adults who aim to reduce their booze consumption, whether short-term or for good.


So how does this de-alcoholized wine taste? I’ll be honest—it’s different. I do taste the Merlot in this bottle, but it is missing the complexity and (obviously) the bite of real wine. I chose this for its base flavor but also its lack of sweetness, as I planned to jazz up our sangria with a few sweet ingredients. If I had used any regular grape juice, the sangria would have been cloyingly sweet, not to mention that it would have smacked of Welch’s grape jelly flavor.

I enhanced the dry “wine” with some of the smoky black cherry simple syrup that I had made the first weekend (recipe is included below), plus cinnamon syrup (also below), fresh citrus, unsweetened black cherry juice, ginger-berry kombucha and (again) the oak wood tonic. This tonic, on its own, has a sharp and bitter flavor with distinctive woodsy flavor. It’s an acquired taste, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate on its own. But blended with the other ingredients, it brings a just-right, edgy bite to make my zero-proof sangria feel more “Friday night worthy.”

Cheers!

I would absolutely make this again, for myself or for guests who prefer to abstain from alcohol. There are still plenty of ingredients in my pantry and spice cabinet to experiment with in these remaining days of Dry January, and I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll discover the perfect formula for amazing zero-proof cocktails. Of course by then, it will be February. 😊


Ingredients for Zero-Proof Sangria

1/2 bottle de-alcoholized Merlot wine (Pinot Noir variety would also be good)

1 large blood orange, washed and sliced thin

1 good-size lime, washed and sliced thin

3 oz. smoky-spicy black cherry syrup (recipe follows)

1 oz. cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)

4 oz. unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. tonic water (San Pellegrino Oak Wood Tonica, if you can find it)


For each serving:

1 oz. berry flavored kombucha (adds a “fermented” flavor)

1 oz. strong ginger beer (adds bite and effervescence)

Fresh slice of citrus to garnish


Instructions

Load the citrus slices into a 1-liter carafe or pitcher. Add the simple syrups, black cherry juice, de-alcoholized wine and tonic. Stir to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, fill 10 oz. glasses about 2/3 with ice. Pour kombucha and ginger beer over ice. Give the sangria a good stir to blend ingredients that may have settled. Pour over the ice to the top of each glass. Garnish with fresh citrus.


Smoky-Spicy Black Cherry Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened black cherry juice in a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup organic cane sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 2 tsp. smoked black peppercorns and 1 tsp. pink peppercorns. Add to the syrup and stir to blend. When syrup reaches a slight boil, remove from heat. Add 1/2 tsp. real vanilla paste. Cool completely and strain into a canning jar. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cinnamon Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup organic cane sugar in a saucepan. Add 3 pieces of cinnamon stick (each about 3” long) and bring syrup to a slight simmer. Continue to steep the cinnamon in the syrup until it is completely cool. Strain into a jar or bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.



Bloody Mary Shrimp Cocktail

If you are a child of the ‘70s, as I am, you have seen your fair share of shrimp cocktails. It is a classic, but I am waking it up with a fun flavor twist in the cocktail sauce. You’ll find the flavors familiar—from a brunch standard, the bloody Mary—and it’s bringing a zesty jolt of flavor to the chilled freshness of sweet juicy shrimp, which never goes out of style.

If you’re entertaining for New Year’s, this is an easy way to elevate a classic and please any palate. Begin with your favorite ketchup and dress it up with the ingredients you’d enjoy in a bloody Mary; think crunchy pickles, zippy horseradish, herbaceous celery seed, a shake or two of hot sauce or Worcestershire (or both) and, yes, a shot of vodka.

We like our flavors hot at our house, so I used a “hotter” variety of Texas Pete hot sauce, plus spicy Wickles brand pickles and “extra hot” horseradish. But if you prefer milder flavors, adjust accordingly. You could swap any flavors to suit your fancy. Pretty much anything that would work in a bloody Mary will work here. Same with your garnish.

For the shrimp, do what’s best or easy for you, whether purchasing already cooked, steaming them or perhaps trying the roasting method I’ll demonstrate below. Whichever method you choose, be sure the shrimp have plenty of time to chill. Serve them in individual cocktail glasses for an impressive presentation and garnish as you would a bloody Mary!


Ingredients (serves 6)

18 jumbo shrimp* (see notes)

6 Tbsp. ketchup

2 Tbsp. finely minced onion or shallot

2 Tbsp. finely minced sweet, spicy or dill pickle

1 Tbsp. prepared horseradish

2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. cayenne hot sauce, such as Texas Pete or Tabasco

1/2 tsp. celery seed

Splash or two of pickle juice

1 shot good quality vodka


*Notes

Take time to notice where your shrimp has been sourced, as some farming methods are bad for the environment and the seafood processing standards in some parts of the world are rife with human rights violations. Whenever possible, choose domestic (U.S. produced) shrimp that is either wild caught or sustainably farmed. Clean, peel and devein the shrimp, but keep the tails on for best presentation.

I used 16-20 count shrimp, which means there are 16-20 per pound. If you are serving the cocktail as an appetizer, three shrimp per person is a good starting point.

As a side note, it occurs to me that this zesty cocktail sauce would also be terrific with raw or steamed oysters.


Instructions

Cook the shrimp, using your preferred method. Chill it thoroughly in the refrigerator before serving.

Stir all sauce ingredients together in a bowl and chill until ready to serve. For presentation, spoon about 2 tablespoons of sauce into a shallow cocktail glass and hang the chilled shrimp on the edge of the glass. Garnish with a wedge of fresh lemon and a cocktail olive, onion, pepperoncini, etc.

Happy New Year!

Easy Roasted Shrimp

The roasting method may seem fussy, but it is actually easier than boiling or steaming, because it doesn’t move so quickly. It’s so frustrating to accidentally overcook something as delicate and expensive as shrimp.

Preheat the oven to 400° F, with oven rack in center position. Peel and de-vein shrimp and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Give them a quick spray of olive oil (or toss them lightly in olive oil) and sprinkle both sides lightly with Old Bay seasoning or (more simply) salt and pepper.

Roast for 7 minutes, until shrimp are just opaque. Immediately transfer shrimp to a bowl and chill them down quickly in the freezer for several minutes or plunge the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice. The goal is to bring down the temperature quickly so that the shrimp don’t overcook to become tough.


Peppermint Bark Ice Cream

Ice cream is one of my favorite desserts to make. It’s usually just me and my husband at the table, so I rarely make cakes, pies or other large-scale desserts because we don’t want all those leftovers in the house. But ice cream. Now that’s a treat that we can enjoy over a week or two, and for the holidays this year, I wanted to do a Christmas-y flavor. I had considered doing an ice cream with My Dad’s Irish Creme, which I made last week for sipping by the chiminea, though it has been unseasonably warm in North Carolina so we have only done that once. I’ll need to give that one some thought, because so much of the flavor comes from a hefty amount of Irish whiskey and that will hinder the freezing. I also considered eggnog ice cream, which can be made with less alcohol, but I could not find a commercial eggnog that wasn’t made with high fructose corn syrup (bleh). Maybe next year, with more careful planning.

You can only find this flavor during the holidays, and this week, it will probably be on sale!

This peppermint-and-chocolate combination won me over after my husband tasted one of these little peppermint bark candies. Mint is not a favorite of his, but combined with the chocolate, he declared it a winner. I wanted to include these candies in the finished ice cream, and I also wanted the ice cream base to have a minty flavor.

My inspiration for that part came from a post shared recently by one of my blog pals, Chef Mimi, who presented a gorgeous peppermint chocolate cocktail made with vodka that had been infused with candy canes. I thought, “well, why wouldn’t that kind of infusion also work in a base for ice cream?” And, as you can see, it does!

Unlike most of my ice creams, which begin with a cooked egg custard base, this one gets its rich texture from sweetened condensed milk. The base peppermint flavor and pretty pink color are the result of having dissolved a couple of candy canes into the milk portion of the ice cream, and I added chopped up chocolate peppermint bark squares at the end for a fun candy surprise.

An ice cream machine is recommended for this recipe, which will yield 1 1/2 quarts.

This was a fun way to capture the flavors of the season in an ice cream!

Ingredients

1 cup whole milk

2 regular size candy canes (if you have mini candy canes, I recommend using about 4 of them)

14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk* (see notes)

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 tsp. peppermint extract oil

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

9 Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark squares, chopped

1 oz. good vodka*

Your favorite hot fudge sauce (optional, but yum!) for serving


*Notes

Sweetened condensed milk is great for ice creams that do not have a custard base, especially when you want to have a brighter “white” base color. I used the whole milk version of Eagle brand, but I expect you could also use a reduced-fat or even fat-free version of condensed milk; if you choose a lower fat option, expect a slightly “icier” texture in the finished ice cream.

A small glug of vodka, mixed in for the final minute of freezing, ensures that the ice cream will scoop easily straight from the freezer. If you prefer not to add alcohol (or, certainly, if you intend to share the ice cream with children or non-drinkers), you can skip this ingredient. Simply take the ice cream from the freezer about 10 minutes before scooping.


Instructions


Heat whole milk and candy canes in a small saucepan, over medium-low heat. As the milk warms, the candy canes will melt into it, creating a pretty color and a delicately sweet minty base. As I think of it, I imagine that this milk could also be used to make a minty version of hot cocoa. Maybe next Christmas!

When candy canes are fully dissolved, remove milk from heat and cool then chill in the refrigerator.

In a large bowl or mixing pitcher, blend together the sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream. Whisk in the peppermint milk. Stir in the peppermint and vanilla extracts. Cover and chill for several hours (maybe even overnight) until the mixture is very cold.

Put the chopped chocolate-peppermint bark in the freezer while you freeze the ice cream mixture.

Prepare your ice cream machine, following manufacturer’s recommendations for freezing the ice cream mixture. When the ice cream reaches the fully churned stage, add in the chopped peppermint bark pieces and churn an additional two minutes to evenly incorporate the candy pieces.

Finally, add the vodka and churn until the liquid has disappeared. This trick will improve the texture of the ice cream for very easy scooping straight from the freezer. The vodka is indiscernible in the ice cream, but if you (or someone you are feeding) avoids alcohol, it can easily be omitted.

Transfer the finished ice cream to an insulated freezer container and place it in the freezer for several hours, or preferably overnight. Serve it with warmed hot fudge topping for an extra special holiday treat!




F.R.O.G. Jam Rugelach

Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.

As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.

Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.

It’s a perfect, little two-bite cookie.

The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.

No frogs were harmed in the making of these cookies. 🙂

The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.

As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.


Ingredients

4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)

1 stick cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

1 Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade

2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking


*Notes

For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.

I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉


Instructions

Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.

Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.

The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.

Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.

Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.

Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.

When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.

Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.

Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.


Happy Christmukkah!


Hot Artichoke-Cheddar Dip

When you make a recipe so many times, you no longer need to review the ingredients list or even bother measuring, and that is the case for me with this hot artichoke cheddar dip, which I made umpteen dozen times during my stint as a prep cook for a catering company called A Pinch of Thyme.

The holiday season was wild in the “Pinch” kitchen, as many of our regular, affluent clients planned and hosted extravagant parties and, naturally, they did not prepare the food themselves. My friend, Tammy, was the events manager for Pinch, and she often shared colorful stories about some of the luxurious homes where our food was delivered (like the one with copper pipes running hot water underneath the marble floors to keep everyone’s tootsies warm), and I often wondered if those hosts supposed the food came from an equally posh kitchen and was prepared by consummate culinary professionals donning crisp, white chef coats and hats.

If they only knew.

My day job at the radio station usually had me out the door by noon, which gave me plenty of time to change into my most worn-out jeans and a WKZL T-shirt before tackling the party menus at the kitchen. The rock music would be blaring, Chef Rodney would be barking orders to everyone, the dishwasher would start running full-steam ahead and, somehow, we’d get it all done in time for the serving crew to load the truck and shuttle our delicacies to the client. The menu for such a shindig might have included a whole roasted beef tenderloin and buttered red bliss potatoes, some exquisite pastry dessert that I probably can’t even pronounce, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese and, more often than not, this artichoke cheddar dip. Because, simple though it was, everyone loved it.

Warm and bubbly from the oven, this artichoke cheddar dip is delicious served with pita chips or crostini!

No matter how elaborate (or not) you intend your holiday get-togethers to be this year, I promise this dip will bring rave reviews. From memory, I scaled down the recipe to make it at home and, over time, I have modified it to reduce the ratio of mayonnaise in favor of smooth cream cheese; I think it endures better, especially when guests will be mingling for a while. The cream cheese keeps this dip silky, the cheddar gives a little sharpness and the artichoke hearts are satisfying and tart with their lemony zing.

If you want to go overboard, as we usually did in the Pinch kitchen, you might serve the dip in a silver chafing dish with handmade toasted herbed pita chips, which we typically made in quantity to fill up a hotel laundry cart. We would cut pita breads into wedges, split them to expose the shaggy insides, brush them with melted butter and then toss them with dried oregano, basil and garlic powder before baking them to perfect crispness. It was delicious, for sure, but at our house this year, we simply baked the dip in a pie plate, opened a bag of Stacy’s multigrain pita chips and had ourselves a party!


Ingredients

8 oz. brick of cream cheese (full fat or Neufchatel)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt

A few shakes hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete

2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

8 oz. brick cheddar cheese (medium or sharp), freshly shredded* (see notes)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, finely chopped*

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

A pinch of dried thyme (of course)

1/4 cup parm-romano blend*


*Notes

I know that it’s tempting to use pre-shredded cheese from a bag, but don’t. The stuff is coated with a powdery substance that keeps it from clumping, which may be great for the purpose of packaging, but not great for cooking because it does not melt well. Break out the box grater and shred the cheese yourself. You’ll be glad you did!

I use artichoke hearts that are marinated in spices and oil, and I usually scoop them out of the jar with a slotted spoon without draining them. The herbs and oil add a pleasant layer of flavor. If you use artichoke hearts packed in water, drain them thoroughly and also drizzle them with a bit of olive oil before mixing into the dip. If they are plain, consider increasing the dried herbs slightly.

I use oil-marinated artichoke hearts. There is no need to rinse or drain them, and the herbs add flavor.

We make our own parm-romano blend, which is easy to do and super convenient, because we love the piquant flavor in so many dishes. If you don’t care to do this (or if you just don’t have the time), substitute a good quality grated parmesan from the supermarket.

Before we get into the making of this recipe, I have a confession (as you’ll see in the photos). To satisfy our shopping list on the day I made the dip, my husband had to visit four grocery stores. I decided not to wait for the new package of cream cheese, and I dipped into our fresh batch of spreadable scallion cream cheese, which we make regularly as a bagel schmear. The spread has a bit of sour cream in it, plus chopped scallions and a touch of dill. I scooped out a heaping cup of it for this recipe and it worked great. Improvisation has led me to some of my favorite flavor discoveries, and I’ve learned to not be strictly bound to a recipe.


Instructions

Using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream together. Add garlic and hot sauce and mix until smooth. Give it a taste and adjust hot sauce to your liking. Add about 2/3 of the shredded cheddar and mix again. Season with about 15 twists of freshly ground black pepper. Blend in the chopped artichoke hearts until evenly distributed. Add oregano and, in keeping with the original recipe, a pinch of thyme.

Pile the mixture into a deep pie plate or 8 x 8 glass baking dish. Sprinkle on the parm-romano blend. Top with remaining shredded cheddar.

Bake at 375° F for about 25 minutes, until dip is heated through and cheese is bubbly. Serve warm with pita chips, sturdy crackers or crostini.



Smoked Maple Cranhattan (a holiday signature cocktail)

Holiday preparation is fun for me—all the excitement, decorating and special trimmings gives me an exuberant sense of energy. But the extra fussing can also pile on unwanted stress, and having a “signature” cocktail for the holidays relieves some of the pressure when guests will be joining the fun.

Sure, it’s nice to be able to offer up an open bar, and ours is fully stocked with everything our friends and neighbors might ask for (and a few things they probably wouldn’t—I’m looking at you, absinthe). Imagine what that would look like if I related it to other aspects of our entertaining though; say, the decorations or the table settings. Our guests don’t choose those; we decide based on the occasion. Too many drink options can overwhelm a guest and leave them standing there contemplating, when they’d probably rather just enjoy a well-thought-out adult beverage, and I’d rather be back in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Naturally, a few people may request their own favorite (a beer or glass of white wine, perhaps), but most of our friends enjoy the unique tipple that we put together for them, and I do my best to keep the flavors within the season. Not too strong, not too sweet, always with a special ingredient twist.

This year, I agonized over my signature cocktail, not because I fell short of ideas (as if that would ever happen in my crazy brain), but because my best experiments this year felt too similar to the signature drink last year, the Pom-Pom-Hattan. At first glance, this drink may seem almost the same, given that cranberry has a similar tartness to pomegranate and both drinks are made with bourbon. But friends, this is no ordinary bourbon, and it was pleading with me to become part of my signature drink.

Drop what you’re doing and go get a bottle of THIS.

Before I get carried away, I’d like to emphasize that this distiller is not paying endorsement fees for my shameless raving (and if they did, I’d probably just spend it on more bottles). This is just between us bourbon lovers, and it’s what friends do—share the news about great things we find. The maple notes in this bourbon are very smooth, excellent for sipping neat, and I’ve done my share so far this season. The smokiness is subtle, but present, and a little tang of cranberry (spiked with some spices) is a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail that celebrates the warmth of the holidays.

The spiced cranberry syrup takes a few minutes to make, but it’s easy.
The smoked maple bourbon and red vermouth definitely give this drink a Manhattan feel.

The ingredients are simple, though one required a bit of advance effort. Rather than use a store-bought cranberry juice (which I didn’t even consider, frankly), I made a simple syrup infused with fresh cranberries, cinnamon for warmth and pink peppercorns for depth. Simple syrup is exactly that—simple. Just equal parts by volume of sugar and water, and for this one, I added the flavor infusers long enough to draw out the color of the cranberry. The rest of the drink is very Manhattan-like; a quality brand of red vermouth and a few shakes of bitters, with a premium cocktail cherry as garnish.

At our house, we enjoyed these on Thanksgiving and again on Saturday night with appetizers before our Ultimate Thanksgiving Leftover Pizza. But just as with last year’s Pom-Pom-Hattan, I have no doubt that this smoky-sweet-tangy cocktail will carry us through all the way to New Year’s.

Cheers!

Ingredients (makes two cocktails)

3 oz. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon

1.5 oz. red (sweet) vermouth

1.0 oz. spiced cranberry simple syrup

2 dashes ginger bitters

Good quality cocktail cherries, such as Luxardo brand


Instructions

Measure bourbon, vermouth, spiced cranberry syrup and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker. Add one cup of ice and stir well for about 20 seconds. Strain into coupe (or martini) cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cherry.

Repeat as desired.


Spiced Cranberry Simple Syrup

My confession is that my first attempt at the simple syrup was not great. Cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and I let them simmer a bit too long, releasing all that thickener. It did not taste bad, but left an odd, almost sticky residue in my drink (serves me right for multi-tasking). Keep a close watch over it, as I did with the second batch, and it will be delicious!

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat, stirring until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add 1 cup rinsed cranberries, 2 pieces cinnamon stick and 1 rounded teaspoon pink peppercorns. Bring to a slight boil, and then reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer until the cranberries begin to pop and the syrup takes on a pinkish-red color. Remove from heat and let the berries steep for a few minutes before straining into a jar.

Use the cooked cranberries in another recipe if you wish or discard them.



Classic Crispy Latkes

Crispy outside, soft and chewy inside. A hint of onion and just enough salt. That’s what you want in a classic latke, the delightfully simple, traditional food of Hanukkah. Getting them just right takes practice, and what I lack in personal heritage, I hope to make up for in effort. When I started dating my husband in 2015, I found myself intrigued by the foods that are central to the Jewish holidays, and latkes have been on the menu every year since then. Let’s review:


My recipe has evolved, as has my technique. I’m not sure what I was thinking in my first couple of efforts, except that I wasn’t giving enough attention to the oil. And that means I was missing the point, because Hanukkah is all about the oil.

Hanukkah, nicknamed the “festival of lights,” is an eight-day observance of an ancient miracle. The story is multi-layered and, frankly, hard for me to fully understand, let alone explain. But the gist of the story is that God came through for the faithful, and a small jar of oil that was only enough for one night’s lighting of the eternal lamps at the Temple, somehow (miraculously) lasted for eight nights.

In observant Jewish homes, families still mark the occasion by lighting candles on a menorah for eight nights during Hanukkah, and foods are fried in oil in remembrance of the miracle. Traditional fried foods served during this eight-night celebration include jelly-filled doughnuts and, of course, latkes!

Those crispy, golden latkes make me wish Hanukkah lasted for more than eight nights!

The secret is in the starch

The key to crispy latkes is removing the excess liquid from the shredded potatoes, while simultaneously preserving the starches that aid in holding those shreds together. After you shred the potatoes, which you can do either by hand on a box grater or (the easy way) in a food processor, simply soak them in ice water long enough to draw the starch out of the shreds. Next, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes, then reunite them with the sticky starch that has settled at the bottom of the soaking bowl. Add in some shredded onions (also squeezed dry), a beaten egg and a few sprinkles of flour, and you’re good to go!


The miracle of the oil

Frying latkes is the traditional way, and I don’t recommend trying to fry them in a thin film of oil as I did those first couple of years. You may get a nice crispness on the outside, but the inside won’t be done. You need about a half-inch of oil in a hot skillet to make a crispy latke, and the type of oil can make a difference as well. As much as I love and rely on unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil for most of my cooking, its smoke point is about the same temperature as you need for frying the latkes, so it is not the best choice. For this kind of frying, I’ve chosen grapeseed oil, which has a higher smoke point and produces a nice crispy exterior with a neutral flavor.

Grapeseed oil is a good bet for frying at high temperature. I’m pretty sure this bottle will last well beyond the eight nights of Hanukkah!

Enjoy latkes your own way

Not all latkes are the crisp-textured, straw-colored wafers that I am sharing today. Some cooks make their latkes with a soft, almost mashed potato-like texture, and those are delicious also. Onions are usually included in the mix for flavor, but I have seen latke recipes that lean toward the sweet side and there are plenty of other vegetables that can be substituted for potatoes, if you don’t mind a less-than-traditional treat.


Not all spuds are created equal

Although it is true that you can use different ingredients to make latkes, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of certain potatoes. For best results and crispy latkes, choose a starchy potato, such as russet or Yukon gold. Potatoes that are described as “waxy,” such as red potatoes, are higher in moisture and lower in starch. That isn’t to say you can’t use them, but you would need to give extra attention to the step of moisture reduction and supplement the starch a bit to hold them together. Also, be prepared for a slightly less crispy latke when using waxy potatoes, or any other substitute that doesn’t measure up in the starch department.

Use starchy potatoes for best results, such as russet and Yukon gold. It isn’t necessary to peel them, but I usually do for presentation sake.

What to serve with latkes

Traditionally, latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream, and therefore I asked Les to cook up a batch of his mouthwatering overnight applesauce for Thanksgiving. With Hanukkah falling so close behind this year, I hoped to carry over some of that delicious, chunky applesauce as a side for what has turned out to be one of my best batches of latkes to date.


Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes (I used a combination of russet and Yukon gold)

1 smallish sweet onion

1 egg

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

Kosher salt and black pepper

A few shakes ground cumin (if you are not keeping strict kosher)

Grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil with high smoke point, such as canola)

Sour cream, and Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce, for serving


Instructions

  1. Peel and rinse the potatoes. Shred them by whatever means is easiest for you and transfer the shreds immediately to a bowl filled with ice water. Allow them to soak for about 45 minutes.
  2. Trim, peel and shred the onion. Use paper towels to wick away the excess moisture from the onions.
  3. Beat the egg lightly in a measuring cup. Add the shredded onion and mix to combine evenly. I have found this easier for even mixing of the onion into the potato mixture.
  4. Pour enough grapeseed oil into a large skillet or electric frying pan to measure about 1/2″ deep. Heat oil to 375° F.
  5. Use your hands to carefully scoop the soaked potatoes from the bowl and onto a clean kitchen towel. Try to avoid stirring up the starch from the bottom of the bowl. Spread the potato shreds out over the towel. Roll up the towel and twist to extract as much moisture as possible from the potatoes. Empty the shreds into a large, new bowl.
  6. Sprinkle the cumin and flour over the shreds and toss with your hands to evenly distribute.
  7. Pour out the water from the soaking bowl, and take it slow enough to keep the powdery white starch in the bottom of the bowl. Scoop the starch into the bowl with the dried potato shreds and toss again with your hands to combine. Finally, add the egg-onion mixture and toss until evenly combined.
  8. Form a clump of potato mixture in the palm of your hand, pressing to shape it as best you can into a flattened ball. Do not try to shape it as a disc at this point. Carefully lay the ball of potato mixture into the hot oil and repeat until you have three or four clumps in the oil. When the edges begin to turn golden, use the back of a small spatula to gently flatten the balls of mixture into more of a disc shape. Turn the latkes after all edges (and the bottom) are golden brown. Fry the second side until golden. Transfer to a rack over layers of paper towel and repeat until all latkes are fried. Season the latkes with kosher salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.


Long Live the King! (a bourbon cocktail)

This is my version of a cocktail my husband and I enjoyed during our recent whirlwind tour through the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. At the end of the first full day of our road trip, we stopped for a live music show at Hailey’s Harp & Pub in Metuchen, N.J., and the cocktail menu called this drink “Long Live the King!”

We had not intended to order quite so many rounds of drinks that night (we had four apiece over five hours), but it was an easy way to spend the extra time we had, given that we arrived way early for the performance by our musical pals, Glenn and Oria of Blue Americana. These are the friends who ushered us through the chaos of COVID with their weekly “Quarantunes” concerts on Facebook Live, and the honorees of my Tequila & Lime Pie post back in the spring. We thought our 5:30 pm arrival at the pub would be just right, allowing us time to have a drink and a bite to eat before the show. Except for one thing—because it was a rainy, miserable night, what was supposed to be an outdoor 7 pm show was changed to indoors at 8 pm! So we got cozy at a table right in front, and just stayed and enjoyed. The food was delicious, the drinks were great and the company was delightful.

Blue Americana with Glenn and Oria!
We finally met them in person!

Les and I played the role of geeked-out groupies and Glenn and Oria played along—they signed our CDs and even posed with us for a picture. It was such fun meeting them in person after so many months of rocking out with them (virtually) on Friday nights during Quarantunes. And as was true for so many of the adventures we experienced on that end-of-summer vacation, I found something tasty to bring home and enjoy later. With only twelve days left to decide on a Thanksgiving signature cocktail, I’d say this one is a strong contender. It delivers the warmth of bourbon, the freshness of citrus and just a hint of sweetness.

Long Live the King!

I have not been able to figure out a good reason for the name given to this drink by Hailey’s Harp & Pub. It’s made with Bulleit bourbon, red vermouth, blood orange liqueur, orange bitters and a lemon peel garnish. It’s a smashing combination—almost a perfect meet-in-the-middle between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned—but also reminiscent of a Boulevardier without the bitterness of Campari. If I had to give it a name myself, I would call it “One Night in Metuchen,” because I will always remember that fun evening whenever I make it.

Most of the ingredients are easy to find, and I’d encourage you to seek out the Solerno blood orange liqueur. Solerno has a brighter, slightly sweeter flavor than other orange liqueurs, and it is a very nice accompaniment to the bourbon and sweet vermouth. If you cannot find Solerno, I would recommend substituting Cointreau rather than Grand Marnier, which has strong cognac undertones. You want the citrus to shine in this drink.

Cheers!


Ingredients

It’s not quite an Old Fashioned, not quite a Manhattan, and just shy of a Boulevardier.

1.5 oz. Bulleit bourbon
1.0 oz. red (sweet) vermouth
0.5 oz. Solerno blood orange liqueur
2 quick shakes orange bitters
Lemon peel garnish


Instructions

Combine bourbon, vermouth, blood orange liqueur and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about one cup of ice and shake or stir vigorously until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain over a large ice cube into a double rocks glass. Express the lemon peel over the top of the glass, swipe it around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink to garnish.

If you prefer, you can strain the cocktail into a chilled coupe glass and garnish the same. That’s the beauty of this drink—it can be served on the rocks or up, depending on how fancy you’re feeling.

I used the spent ice from the rocks version of the drink to chill the coupe glass for the “up” version.

One recipe, but two ways to serve it!


Oz-mopolitan – a “wicked” fun cocktail for Halloween!

What if everything we have always assumed about the Wicked Witch of the West turned out to be smear campaign, orchestrated by someone else, whose own reputation was at stake? What if the Wicked Witch was misunderstood, mischaracterized and scapegoated? What if she was driven to be wicked or what if she was never wicked at all?

These are all questions I have pondered, after my husband, Les, and I enjoyed seeing the touring performance of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Neither of us had seen or heard much about the story, which began as a book in 1995, and was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2003, ultimately skyrocketing into the $1 billion+ range in ticket sales. There has been talk for more than a decade about a live-action film based on the story, which remains to be finalized, but I have my fingers crossed!

No recordings or photos were allowed during the performance, but the beautiful backdrop was perfect for selfies before the show!

The performance we attended in Greensboro, N.C. was delightful, funny, magical and thought-provoking. The set decoration and costumes were breathtaking, and the music was simply spectacular! I had often heard the tale of Wicked described as a “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz, but we found it to be more departed from that classic, beloved story—perhaps more of a re-telling or an alternate perspective with more context. The tale revolves around the unexpected early connection between Glinda and Elphaba (see?—the wicked witch actually had a name), their rivalry in magic school and in a love triangle, and the final straw that became the wedge to drive them apart. Well, sort of.

There is a flashy scene near the middle of Wicked, when Glinda and Elphaba first discover the glitz and glamour of the Emerald City, and Glinda remarks that it’s “all very Oz-mopolitan!” When Les and I left the theatre, I removed my mask and said, “You know I’m gonna have to make a Wicked cocktail, right?”

I will not present any spoilers, in case you have not seen the play, but I will say that my cocktail is a very slight riff on a classic drink called “The Last Word,” and there’s a reason (other than the color) that I chose this drink. The story of Wicked is itself a riff on a classic, and in that magical tale, it is Elphaba, the perhaps-not-so-wicked witch, who has the last word, and that is what left me with all the questions I pondered at the beginning of this post.

Now, about this green drink. 😉

It’s a shimmery, green, dramatic version of a classic Prohibition-era cocktail. Perfect for Halloween or any other time you are feeling a little “witchy.”

The original drink, The Last Word, was a Prohibition-era classic—made with equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and freshly squeezed lime juice—and it is all at once herbal, sweet, citrus-y and complex. I have not altered the recipe of The Last Word; rather, I have pushed it into “wicked” territory by use of three simple but dramatic special effects.


And for those special effects, I have renamed my version “Oz-mopolitan.” Enjoy!


Equal parts of gin, Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice make up the classic cocktail called “The Last Word.”
You are also getting a sneak preview of my new kitchen in these images!

Ingredients (makes one cocktail)

3/4 oz. dry gin

3/4 oz. green Chartreuse liqueur* (see notes)

3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur*

3/4 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice

Special effects

Black sugar sprinkles*

Pearl green edible glitter*

Green food coloring


*Notes

Chartreuse is a French liqueur, and there are two varieties of it—yellow and green. The green version (used in this drink) is strong, bold and herbaceous, almost medicinal on its own. For the most part, it is enjoyed as part of a cocktail rather than as a cordial.

Maraschino liqueur is also generally used as a mixer with an anchor spirit, such as vodka or gin. It is not as “cherry flavored” as you might expect, but it does lend a tart cherry accent to a cocktail. Luxardo makes a terrific version of this liqueur.

The black sugar and edible shimmer dust I used for this were very easy to find on Amazon, but you might also check the cake decorating section of a well-stocked craft store, such as Michael’s. Be sure the products you choose are clearly marked as “food grade” or “edible.”


Instructions


Prepare a martini or coupe glass by swiping a slice of lime all the way around the rim. Sprinkle black sugar onto a clean paper towel and roll the outside rim of the glass over the sugar, repeating the roll as needed for full coverage. It’s best to do this several minutes ahead, giving the sugar time to “set up” on the rim of the glass.

Combine the cocktail ingredients in a shaker, add ice and a drop or two of green food coloring. Shake vigorously for about 20 seconds.

Sprinkle a small amount (I used just shy of 1/8 teaspoon) of edible shimmer dust into the bottom of the rimmed glass.

Strain the cocktail into the glass and watch the shimmer dust create a gorgeous, magical swirl!



Moroccan Zucchini “Boats”

One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.

You can make a generous meal from a foot-long zucchini!

On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.


This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.

 

Harissa is a staple seasoning of North African cuisine. It packs a spicy punch, so use it sparingly.

Ingredients

Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out

Olive oil spray

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*

1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*

Fresh chopped parsley for garnish


*Notes

Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.

I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂

There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.


As usual, Nilla is ready and waiting for a piece of vegetable to fall! ❤

Instructions

Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
  3. Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
  4. Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
  5. Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
  6. Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
  7. Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
  8. Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.

Delicious and satisfying!