Kentucky Hot Brown Swirls

The funnest thing about doing a food blog is putting all the new spins on the old dishes. Wait, did I just write “funnest?” Well, a word like that fits the situation, given that I am feeling playful about twisting up a classic. If I’m taking all kinds of liberties with the flavors so beloved for Kentucky Derby, I may as well do it with my words, too.

My celebration of the Kentucky Derby—which is Saturday, by the way, in case time has gotten away from you—is purely vicarious. I’ve never been to the Derby and honestly don’t know how I feel about the way they pressure the horses to perform for profit, but I know that I like the pomp and circumstance, the food traditions, the fancy hats and especially the bourbon! The Kentucky Hot Brown is the most classic dish associated with the Kentucky Derby, and I have twisted it up in several ways already, including a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and a super simple Kentucky Hot Brown Dip. When Derby time rolled around this year, I wanted to make a fun, crowd-ready food that’s easy to pick up and enjoy in just a few bites because, honestly, who wants to sit down in the middle of a party with a knife and fork and eat a messy, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown open-faced sandwich, with all its oozing Mornay sauce? Yeah, these are much easier!

It’s no coincidence that these Kentucky Hot Brown swirls are delicious with bourbon.

If you’re entertaining friends for the afternoon leading up to the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” may I suggest these adorable little puff pastry swirls? They have all the flavors of the beloved Kentucky Hot Brown, including roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and gruyere, plus a touch of sauteed shallot and (in a nod to the catering kitchen where I worked so long ago) “A Pinch of Thyme.”

I expected a few obstacles along the way to these tasty rollups, mostly because puff pastry can be fussy to work with. It bakes up best if it goes into the oven cold, so the first thing I planned was to work quickly. Get all your filling ingredients ready first, and refrigerate the ones that are cooked, such as the bacon and shallots. Cook the bacon long enough to render as much fat as possible, so the lingering fat doesn’t make the pastry soggy, but not so much that hard edges will tear the pastry. Shred the cheese and keep that in the fridge until assembly time, too. Fresh roast turkey is probably better than deli turkey (mainly for keeping the sodium in check), and I confess that I used leftover turkey that we had stashed in the freezer after Thanksgiving. As for the tomato, I knew that my sweet and savory tomato jam would not spread neatly onto the puff pastry without tearing it, and I didn’t want to heat it (see the first point about baking puff pastry cold), so here’s how I overcame that challenge—I added a few tablespoons of tomato jam to the bowl with chopped turkey and stirred it together. Problem solved!

You can put these two-bite treats together in the morning or afternoon, even the night before, all the way up to slicing them into swirls, and then refrigerate them until about a half hour before your guests arrive. A quick egg wash and some extra sprinkles of gruyere just before they hit the oven, and, well—riders up!


This recipe makes 12 swirls, just about right as appetizers for 6 people.

Ingredients

3 slices smoked bacon, cut into pieces no larger than a postage stamp

1 smallish shallot, peeled, halved and cut into half-moons

1 cup chopped, cooked leftover roast turkey breast

3 Tbsp. tomato jam (store-bought or homemade, if you have it!)

1 heaping cup shredded gruyere cheese (or Swiss), divided

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

1 sheet store-bought puff pastry, thawed according to package instructions

1 egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for egg wash just before baking


Instructions

Ready to make them?



Pollo Chipotle

There’s a time and place for the numbered dishes on a Mexican restaurant menu—you know what I mean, the #11 combo platter of one crunchy taco, one burrito and one enchilada, with a side of rice and flavorless refried beans. For me, the time was in my younger years, before I learned to appreciate the Mexican specialty dishes as I do today, and the place was (obviously) an actual restaurant, which I don’t frequent as much as I did in those days because, frankly, we prefer the food we make at home. It has only been recently that I started considering how to make some of our favorite Mexican meals, and those favorites seldom include items from the numbered combo section, and never any crunchy, from-a-box taco shells that I used to associate with Mexican “cuisine.” It’s funny how much has changed.

At one of our favorite local places, called Señor Bravo, the pollo chipotle is the special menu item that always wins over my husband, Les. The chicken (or pollo, if you wish) is tender and bite sized, and it’s drenched in a spicy sauce that has enough smoky chipotle to warrant being part of the dish’s name, but also enough rich cream to soften the edges and give the dish a special flair. I have tried several times to make this dish at home, and on previous attempts found it difficult to replicate the flavor and texture. It seemed something was missing so I fiddled with the cooking process, added ingredients and spices, tried different types of cream—from half and half to heavy cream—and every addition made it less and less like the restaurant dish. Finally, I dialed it all back and kept it simple. Turns out, simplicity was exactly and only what it needed.


Besides being simple and delicious, this dish is also relatively healthy, as I used cream cheese rather than heavy cream to thicken the spicy sauce. This eliminated the need for flour as a thickening agent. And for our at-home pollo chipotle, I jazzed up a simple pot of brown rice with a shake of cumin and a small handful of chopped cilantro and served it alongside a simple salad with fresh tomato and slices of ripe avocado.


Ingredients

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil

1/2 large yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and sliced

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Several twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 or 2 Tbsp. pureed chipotle with adobo sauce* (see recipe notes)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth*

A couple of pinches of dried Mexican oregano*

4 Tbsp. cream cheese, room temperature


*Recipe Notes

The chipotle puree is best prepared in advance, and you may want to start with one tablespoon and adjust up to taste. To make the puree, empty the entire contents of a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. If your processor has a small bowl insert, that will be the perfect size. Pulse a few times, then run the machine continuously until the sauce is completely smooth.


I prefer the more complex flavor of vegetable broth in most recipes, but for this dish, you could certainly use chicken broth. I would still recommend a low-sodium version, as this helps with controlling the overall amount of sodium in the dish.

Low-sodium vegetable broth is one of the most versatile ingredients in my pantry. If you prefer, use chicken broth.

Mexican oregano is very different from the easier-to-find Mediterranean oregano you are probably accustomed to using. It’s part of the verbena family, with a citrusy, slightly floral flavor. Search it out in an ethnic supermarket, at Whole Foods or the international spice section of World Market. If you can’t get Mexican oregano, dried marjoram would be a better substitute than regular oregano.

To make the cilantro rice, simply cook a batch of your favorite brown rice according to package instructions. Use vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor. Stir in salt, pepper, a few shakes of ground cumin and a small handful of fresh, chopped cilantro leaves before serving.

Why serve ordinary rice, if you can make it more flavorful with so little effort?

Instructions



Looking for ways to use the rest of the chipotle puree?



White Borscht

Like many of you, I have been filled with agony over Russia’s violent aggression against Ukraine, disgusted by the flippant and cavalier attitudes presented by deniers and Putin sympathizers, and worried that there is little I can do to make a tangible difference in the lives of the Ukrainian people. And yet I feel a kinship with them and want to do something, anything, to show my support.

One of the primary reasons I started Comfort du Jour was to build community with others who, like me, feel deeply connected to the world through food. It is the most universal need of humanity, yet very personal because of the customs and traditions woven into our individual and collective heritage.

Last week, a message from Sam Sifton, the founding editor of New York Times Cooking, arrived in my email inbox and it confirmed that I am not alone in this desire to use food to demonstrate solidarity. Sifton described being inundated with reader requests for recipes for borscht, a traditional sour soup that is common across all of Eastern Europe, most notably with Ukraine. I could not resist digging into the variety of recipes he offered in response to his readers, and this one in particular caught my eye.

Most borscht recipes are based on red beets, and though I adore their earthy flavor, my husband (whose Hungarian mother used to make beet borscht for herself) does not. This version, named “white borscht” by chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, features potatoes and kielbasa, and seemed more in line with my husband’s palate. The original recipe suggests using real pork kielbasa, but I have substituted a lower fat turkey kielbasa. I also cut the butter amount in half and stirred in a little sour cream at the end rather than the crème fraiche suggested by the recipe’s author.

The sour cream and dill add a touch of freshness to this hearty, humble soup.

As always, my exploration into other cultures’ cuisine has taught me some lessons, and one thing about this soup surprised me. I have long assumed that Eastern European soups are “sour” because of fermentation or added vinegar (and sometimes they are), but this soup is both soured and thickened with a hefty chunk of sourdough bread, which I always happen to have on hand. This method of soaking and pureeing the bread was a genius move by the author, as it gave the soup a sturdy, almost creamy, texture, as well as a distinctive sour flavor. Always more to learn in the world of food, isn’t there?

My only regret is that I cannot make an enormous vessel of this soup to feed and comfort all of Ukraine, but I hope that somehow, sharing this experience will ripple across time and space to ensure the courageous people of that nation that they do not stand alone. 🇺🇦


Adapted from https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1021711-white-borscht

Note: The original recipe linked above is only available to paid subscribers of New York Times Cooking (which I am), but my adaptation is very close to the original, except for the aforementioned substitutions and the fact that I halved the recipe for our family of two.


Ingredients

1 lb. smoked turkey kielbasa, cut into three or four pieces

6 cups filtered water

2 dried bay leaves

4 Tbsp. salted butter, divided

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

1 large leek, cleaned and cut into thin half-moon slices

Kosher salt and about 1 tsp. ground black pepper

A large piece of dense sourdough bread*, crusts trimmed (see notes)

1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled

About 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth*

Sour cream and fresh dill for serving


*Notes

Note that real sourdough bread is made from a sourdough starter. Some grocery bakeries take a shortcut that embellishes yeast bread with citric acid, and it is not the same. If you don’t have sourdough bread, consider picking up a loaf from an authentic bakery or use a (seedless) rye. I confess that the sourdough loaf I had on hand was dotted with pumpkin seeds, but after pureeing, this did not have a bad effect on the finished borscht.

The recipe that inspired me did not call for broth, other than the one created by simmering the kielbasa, but in my first-attempt jitters, I accidentally simmered my soup longer than I should have and needed more liquid to keep it from becoming mashed potatoes. It isn’t a bad idea to have some broth at the ready for this purpose. I used a version of vegetable broth called “No-Chicken” broth, and it was perfect for making up the difference in liquid without affecting flavor.


Instructions

  1. Place the kielbasa chunks in a large soup pot and cover it with the filtered water. Add the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  2. Prep the potatoes by cutting off the sides and ends, creating mostly flat sides on the potato. Keep the potato scraps in one pile and cube up the rest into a separate pile.
  3. After simmering, the kielbasa should be noticeably swollen, and small droplets of fat from the kielbasa will be swirled throughout the broth. Use tongs to transfer the kielbasa to a cutting board. Pour the broth into a large bowl or measuring pitcher.
  4. Into the same pot, melt two tablespoons of the butter and sauté the yellow onions and garlic with salt and pepper for about five minutes, until tender. Add the remaining butter and leeks to the pot and sauté two more minutes, until those are also tender.
  5. Add the scraps of potato and the large chunks of sourdough bread to the pot. Pour about 2/3 of the reserved broth into the pot and simmer until the bread looks completely bloated, about 10 minutes. Use a large, slotted spoon or tongs to pull out the sopping bread into the measuring pitcher with the remaining reserved broth. It’s OK if some of the leeks and onions tag along. Set the pitcher aside to cool for a few minutes.
  6. Add the potato cubes to the pot, along with enough broth or water to just cover them. Heat to a boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes until potatoes are slightly tender. While that simmers, use an immersion blender to puree the sopping sourdough with the liquid in the bowl or pitcher.
  7. Stir the puree mixture back into the pot, along with the kielbasa. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Simmer just until heated through, as continued cooking will cause the potatoes to turn mushy.
  8. Serve the white borscht with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill.



Easy, Creamy Potato Soup

As far as I am concerned, the best thing about winter is the soup. When the weather is cold, damp or just generally crummy, a piping hot mug of soup is like a reset button for my winter-weary soul. And you know what makes soup even better? An easy recipe that doesn’t take all day, uses the simplest of ingredients (so I don’t have to run to the store to make it), and can be customized with almost any extra flavors one could imagine. This creamy potato soup is ticking all those boxes for me.

Soup is one of my favorite comfort foods ever, and that probably dates back to days that I stayed home sick from school. On those rare occasions, I would get dropped off at my grandmother’s house, where I’d spend the day napping to the soothing sound of her cuckoo clock, sipping some variety of last-minute, homemade soup and watching TV under a soft afghan from the big, upholstered wing-back chair in her den. My Gram could whip up a soup from thin air, it seemed, and to this day, a “what’s-in-the-fridge” soup is my favorite kind. Is it possible that I may have feigned illness on occasion, just to enjoy that kind of day? Why, yes, that is certainly possible. Sometimes a kid just needs a little extra comfort—the kind only a grandma and a warm cup of soup can deliver.

I have outgrown the days of pretending to be sick, but I still yearn for the cozy comfort of a warm mug of soup, especially when gloomy weather has me down. I’ll take any kind of soup; chowders, stews, bisques, broth with noodles, minestrone—they are all on equal footing for me. My husband loves soup, too, but his preference is specifically for cream-style soups, so this one was a double win at our house.

Sour cream, shredded cheddar, bacon and chives makes this easy soup a satisfying meal!

We had fun dressing up our creamy potato soup like a loaded baked potato—with sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese and crispy bacon pieces on top. But it would be very easy to keep the base of the soup and swap in different enhancers, such as roasted broccoli florets, sautéed mushrooms, frozen corn, cubes of ham or whatever else takes you to your happy place.

This potato soup is very easy to make, and despite the ultra-creamy, silky appearance, it has no heavy cream whatsoever. Buttery Yukon gold potatoes were the key element for my recipe, but you could use any combination of gold, red or russet potatoes, as long as some of them will hold their shape after simmering. Peel or don’t—whatever works for you. I thickened the soup with a slight amount of roux, made from the drippings I had from crisping up the bacon (but you could swap in butter or olive oil), and a combination of low-sodium vegetable broth and milk, then I used my trusty immersion blender to puree it halfway. It was every bit as luxurious and comforting as a cream-based soup, but with far less guilt!

We still have almost four weeks ’til the official arrival of Spring. As luck would have it, there is at least a pound of potatoes remaining in the kitchen, so I’m pretty sure this one will be on the menu again by the weekend, just in time for another round of colder temperatures.


This recipe makes 4 entrée servings or 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. bacon drippings, butter or olive oil

1/2 large onion (about 1 cup), chopped

3 ribs celery hearts, trimmed and chopped

Salt and pepper

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (gluten-free 1:1 flour works for this also)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth* (see notes)

2 cups milk*

About 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

About 1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cubed (peel if you wish)

Toppings and stir-ins of your choice


*Notes

Vegetable broths vary widely in ingredients; for best results, choose a broth that does not contain tomatoes. The brand I like for this is Imagine vegetarian “no-chicken” broth. It has a rich golden color and seasonings that are very reminiscent of chicken broth.


I used a combination of whole milk and canned evaporated milk in my recipe, primarily because I only had 1 1/2 cups of fresh milk. Feel free to substitute 2% or skim milk if you’d like; the flavor will be less rich overall, but the roux will still give the soup a thick and creamy consistency, and you can also achieve creaminess with the immersion blender technique.


Instructions

Step up to the stove with me and I’ll walk you through this easy recipe. Keep scrolling for a downloadable recipe that you can save or print for a rainy, gloomy day. 🙂

Old Man Winter, you are no match for this soup.


New Haven-style Fresh Tomato Pizza

Right here in the middle of gray, dull, Dry January, I think we could all enjoy a warm-weather trip down memory lane, and a taste of sweet summer tomatoes like the ones on this pizza. I’ve been waiting many months to share this story with you, and because this month is such a drag, I’m actually thankful that it took me so long to get to it. Life has been busy since we wrapped up our kitchen remodel, but now that the holidays are behind us, I’ve been looking at these pictures again and remembering the sweet time my husband, Les, and I had on our vacation through New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Our road trip presented a unique opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things—research of famous local foods—and this time, I was studying different but not necessarily opposed pizza styles. And after my extensive research (which was essentially just eating a lot of pizza), I have a confession. More of an announcement, really. For all the times I have claimed victory in the challenge to make homemade pizza that rivals my husband’s memory of his beloved N.Y.-style pizza, I stand corrected. My pizza at home does not at all rival the pizza of New York. It rivals a completely different style of pizza.

New York pizza is, of course, known for its gigantic slices and an ultra-thin and crispy crust that is easy to fold for eating on the run as you dash off to catch the subway or, if you’re lucky, a Broadway show. We had a taste of this N.Y. pie on our day trip into the city last August, as we stopped at one of the more acclaimed pizzerias, Bleecker Street Pizza. A friend of ours who is a native New Yorker (like my hubby) swears it is the best, so we put it on our “must do” list.

Legendary pizza slices, served up daily!

Notice their media props outside? Those are well-deserved, and the pies looked great, with the seasoned tomato sauce swirled out onto the dough (as I’m still learning to do at home, with hubby’s coaching) and, of course, all that cheese. It was good, but the crust didn’t feel or taste like the one I have developed at home—the crust that Les says is “just right.”

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the Bleecker Street dough was dusted with rice flour. This is a simple trick that puts a crackling-crisp texture on the bottom crust and it’s good for reheating the slices, as they do to order, but it does not add flavor. Our research into pizza excellence would continue the next day, because we had plans to visit another legendary pizza town—New Haven, Connecticut. And that’s where I had my epiphany.

Greetings from New Haven, home of a whole different kind of pizza.

Les spent 19 years in the New Haven area, and I have heard plenty from him about various food joints he loved there, and especially about the white clam pizza, which we have worked to perfect over the past few years and now serve at home every New Year’s Eve. A random internet search for this unusual seafood pizza will lead you directly to New Haven, and particularly to Frank Pepe Pizzeria, which has been making white clam pizza since 1925. My mouth was watering from the time we arrived just before noon, and for the entire 30-minute wait, as there was a line of hungry pizza lovers wrapped all the way around the restaurant. We had waited so long for me to have a taste of real Frank Pepe’s pizza, we ordered three of them!

The crust on the first pizza—roasted red pepper with pepperoni—seemed instantly familiar, with more of the character I had been making at home, and Les agreed it was superior to the pie we had enjoyed the day before on Bleecker St. And there was something different about the flavor of the dough as well, something more complex, and we supposed it had to do with the higher heat ovens than what is used in the N.Y. pizzerias.

Frank Pepe’s uses an enormous coal-fired oven with a brick floor, and the pizzaolo has a pizza peel with a handle that is about 7 feet long—giving him access to load and spin the pizzas in the oven, but at a safe distance from the intense heat.

The coal-fired oven at Frank Pepe’s must be enormous inside, because they are churning out pizzas every few seconds.

My interest was piqued when the other two pizzas arrived at our table. First, there was a fresh tomato pizza, which is a limited-season thing and quite a big deal in New Haven, and it was very fresh and bright, exactly like summer. Finally, the legendary white clam pizza, and I was certain it would be pure nirvana for my taste buds.

Sometimes your imagination (or even your memory) of something can outrank the real thing and maybe that’s what happened, but it wasn’t until I finally dared to lean across the table and whisper the words, “I think ours at home is better,” and Les instantly agreed, that the reason occurred to me. As quickly as they were churning out specialty pizzas at Frank Pepe Pizzeria, there is no way they can manage using freshly shucked clams, as we do at home every New Year’s Eve. Nope, these clams had to be from a can. Still, the crust was very good and more like the one that Les has encouraged me to emulate. What I didn’t like was the dusty black char that was prevalent across the bottom of the pizzas, and even a bit on top of my white clam slice—it was the stuff we avoid at home by scraping off the hot steel before sliding another pizza into the oven. But I get it, they are slammed busy with a line out the door even as we left. Overall, it was still a great experience, and we boxed up our leftover slices to continue our journey through New Haven.

We had one more pizza joint to experience and it turned out to be the best of the bunch, not only for the pizza but for the overall experience. So much so, in fact, that it deserves its own post—tomorrow!

Until then, please enjoy this recipe—my own—for fresh tomato pizza, which I created at home the first weekend after we returned from our trip!

We don’t have a huge, coal-fired oven, but we are still getting it done at home!

My version used farmers’ market, late-season heirloom tomatoes and some fresh basil I plucked from a plant that was growing on my kitchen counter. It was post-Labor Day, but we were technically still in the final days of summer, and this pizza captured all the beautiful freshness of that.

The base, of course, is what I have long called My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough, but obviously I will have to update that because my careful, ahem, “research” proved my dough more closely resembles what the locals in New Haven call “apizza.”


Ingredients

2 heirloom tomatoes, cut in 1/4’’ slices

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ball of pizza dough at close to room temperature

1/3 cup simple tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend cheese

About 3/4 cup freshly shredded whole milk mozzarella

A handful of fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil


*Notes

As always, the oven should be as hot as a home oven goes—550°F.  and heated for an hour with a heavy pizza steel for the best-ever, crispy texture. If you do not have a steel, use a pizza stone and preheat to the hottest temperature possible for your particular stone. This combination of steel or stone and very high heat will emulate the brick oven baking that makes this style of pizza so special.


Instructions

Spread the tomato slices out onto a large plate and sprinkle kosher salt over them. Be generous with the salt, as it will draw out excess moisture, concentrating the flavor of the tomatoes. Let this rest 20 minutes while you enjoy a cocktail (or whatever you do before dinner). Transfer the tomatoes to layered paper towels and pat dry.I actually poured the salted tomato juice from the plate right into my martini for a savory twist. When Dry January is over, I may do that again! 😉

Shape the dough into a 14” round and place it on a flour and cornmeal-dusted peel. Swirl on sauce, then sprinkle parm-romano evenly, not minding if some of it lands on the dough edges. Scatter the mozzarella on top, give it a few quick twists of freshly cracked black pepper, and arrange the drained tomato slices and basil leaves. Lightly drizzle the top of the pizza with olive oil and dash it off into the screaming-hot oven for about six minutes.



Quick & Easy Refried Bean Soup

This recipe was shared with me many years ago by a friend who had the craziest schedule I’d ever witnessed. When she wasn’t running full speed ahead with her two middle-schoolers—to dance classes, soccer practice, music lessons, birthday parties, etc.—she was leading a high school youth group, teaching aerobics classes, volunteering at church and befriending every newcomer to the neighborhood. Her door was always open to visitors, even during the hectic holidays, and she always seemed to have something tasty to nibble on when someone appeared unexpectedly.

She didn’t have what I would call a passion for cooking, and certainly not much time, but she was incredibly skilled at getting a healthful and satisfying meal on the table in no time flat. This soup is one example, and when I pulled it out of my old recipe box the other day, I thought, “of course.” This is not an all-day-simmer kind of soup; rather, it leverages the already developed flavors of two key ingredients—jarred salsa and canned refried beans. Add some fresh onions and bell pepper, some veggie broth and your choice of chili beans and dinner is served.

There’s plenty of hearty comfort in the bowl, with beans, onions and peppers. And your favorite salsa lends a flavor that defies the quickness of the recipe.

The soup is every bit as comforting as any other homemade soup, but only takes 20 minutes, start to finish, which just happens to be the exact amount of time you need to throw a batch of Jiffy corn muffins into the oven (they’re perfect on the side).

What could be easier after a hectic day of shopping and errands during the busy holiday season?


Simple pantry ingredients and a few easy things from the fridge.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 bell pepper (any color), chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Cumin, salt and pepper

1 cup prepared salsa from a jar* (see notes)

2 cans beans (mix and match; pinto, black, kidney, navy are all good here)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable (or chicken) broth

1 can refried beans

Corn muffins for serving (optional, but yummy)


*Notes

Any kind of savory salsa will work here. It can be mild or spicy, green or red, thick or runny. If you have a can of Rotel tomatoes on hand, you could also substitute with that.


Instructions

  1. Get your corn muffins in the oven, if you’re making them. This soup can be made while they are baking.
  2. Drain and rinse the canned beans.
  3. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Saute onion and pepper until softened. Add garlic and saute another minute or two. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
  4. Increase heat to medium-high. Add canned beans, salsa and broth, and stir to combine. When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to medium. Stir in the can of refried beans, taking time to swirl and blend it into the broth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer until ready to serve.


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 Bourbon Crème Brûlée

WARNING:
Consumption of this rich and decadent dessert after a big meal may result in excessive lazing on the sofa, and may also force extended procrastination of post-entertaining kitchen cleanup.


At least, that’s what happened at our house—twice.

We had a very small gathering at our home for Thanksgiving—just me, my husband and our friend, Maria. I knew when I was planning dinner that it would not make sense to have large pies, cakes or other desserts that yielded 12 portions. As it is, we are scarce on refrigerator space for the leftover turkey and sides, and we certainly did not need extra portions of dessert hanging around. I wanted to make something special for our intimate holiday, and this crème brûlée definitely fit the bill, both for Thanksgiving Day and again for “leftovers” night on Saturday. And let me tell you, even after said lazing kept us up until after 11 pm washing dishes, I had no regrets about this dessert.

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know about our recent discovery of the Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon—the amazing dark spirit that became the star of our 2021 signature cocktail. I have made crème brûlée before, using the incomparable Ina Garten’s recipe as a guide, but I have never added bourbon to it before now. The warmth of the smoked maple bourbon married so perfectly to the creamy silkiness of our individual little custards, and the maple sugar that I torched on top was exactly what it should have been; crunchy, sweet and toffee-like. The custard inside was silky, sweet and creamy, with hints of the smoked maple bourbon. Yes, it was divine, as you’d expect from a dessert that is made from egg yolks, cream and sugar.


I can only hope that when we smashed the tips of our spoons into the crème brûlée, some of the calories fell out. On second thought, who cares?


Adapted from Barefoot Contessa | Crème Brûlée | Recipes
Recipe yields ~32 ounces, good for 6 to 8 ramekins, depending on their size

Ingredients

3 cups heavy cream

1 small pinch kosher salt*

5 large egg yolks + 1 large egg (at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple sugar* + extra for torching (see notes)

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon


*Notes

I purchase maple sugar online from Big Tree Maple, a company that is based near my hometown in upstate New York. You might also find it in the baking aisle of a specialty market, or substitute caster sugar, which does not have the maple flavor but is also finely textured for easy dissolving.

Ina’s recipe does not call for salt, but I like to put a pinch in most dessert recipes because it highlights the flavors and balances the sweet.

If you use a stand mixer to make the crème brûlée, keep it fitted with the mixing paddle rather than the whisk, and work on the slowest speed so you don’t create a lot of bubbles. If you mix by hand, use a whisk but keep a gentle touch when adding the hot cream to the eggs.

As if our holiday was not already joyful, I also had the pleasure of finishing our dessert tableside with my kitchen torch, a dramatic endeavor that just pleased the dickens out of my Leo personality.

Let’s do this!

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle for a water bath. Prepare your ramekins by arranging them in a handled pan with sides at least as high as the ramekins.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling. Stir in a pinch of salt. Transfer the hot cream to a measuring cup with a spout for easier blending in the next steps.
  3. Combine the egg and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually stir in the maple sugar until the mixture is smooth and even, and the sugar appears somewhat dissolved.
  4. Very gradually pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. This is easiest with a stand mixer, but you can do it by hand as well. I recommend placing your mixing bowl on something that will prevent it from slipping while you stir or whisk.
  5. Strain the custard mixture through a mesh strainer over a pitcher bowl or large measuring cup. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will help strain out any curdled bits of egg.
  6. Stir vanilla and bourbon into the custard. Slowly pour the custard into the ramekins. I did this by filling each of them halfway, then “topping them off” around the pan until all were filled equally.
  7. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, taking care to not splash it into the ramekins. The water bath should be about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer the water bath pan to the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custards are just barely jiggly. They will continue to cook when you remove the pan from the oven. Allow the pan to cool until you’re comfortable handling them. Remove the ramekins and cool on a rack, then cover and transfer them to the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.
  8. To finish the crème brûlée, remove ramekins from the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle about two teaspoons of maple sugar over the entire surface of each custard. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar evenly. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon onto each, and torch again. Allow the crème brûlées to cool for at least a minute so the melted sugar will harden and create the beautiful, shiny crust.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to make this again. You know, just to be sure.


Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce

When Terrie asks me to share a recipe for her blog, my immediate thought about the specific post is where my recipe came from. In the case of applesauce, which I make at various times throughout the year, I have no answer.

I simply cannot recall the origin of my homemade applesauce. I suspect it came about originally because of my son’s absolute love of apples; he started eating apples before he was 2, and had one daily into his high school years.

I do know my recipe took a turn when two things happened. First, somewhere along the way, I decided to do with the applesauce what I have done with mashed potatoes, which is mix varieties to increase the flavor and texture. Rather than two varieties (russet and Yukon gold), as I do with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes, I decided three was the perfect mix for apples in applesauce. Second, back about 2013, for my annual gift to self for Thanksgiving (a story unto its own), I bought a Cuisinart multi-cooker, a juiced-up version of a slow cooker. This is the same slow cooker that saved many a day for us during our recent kitchen remodel.

For applesauce, the slow cooker suffices—and it is easier than tending a cast-iron pot, my old method. As for varieties, I’m quite consistent in using Honeycrisp for sweet and Granny Smith for tart; then, the third variety is whatever strikes my fancy. Unless, that is, I can find my all-time favorite, Jonagold, which happen to be extremely tough to locate in North Carolina. This year, the third variety was Kanzi, a style of apple that basic research reveals comes from Belgium. The name means “hidden treasure,” and the apple is considered a cross between a Gala and a Braeburn. It is a mix of tangy and sweet, a fine add to the first two. All three apples are in the crispy category, which I believe makes for better applesauce.

A couple of years ago, Terrie asked me to make this for Thanksgiving as an add to the usual cranberry sauces on our table. It had more to do with the proximity of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, where applesauce is a wonderful complement to Terrie’s homemade latkes. This year it was a complete no-brainer, as Hanukkah begins the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

This recipe requires some upfront labor in peeling and dicing the apples. But after that, the slow cooker does the rest and a few hours later—voilà!—a homemade applesauce that will have your dinner table guests thinking you’re a genius in the kitchen.

This recipe could not be simpler. Combine your ingredients in the slow cooker and wait nearby with a spoon.

Ingredients

Eight to nine large apples, three varieties

One small lemon, juiced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

Vietnamese cinnamon to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)


Instructions

Peel and core the apples, then cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the slow cooker. Juice the lemon over the apples and toss to prevent browning. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat. Turn the slow cooker to high and let it cook for four to six hours. I usually set it up at bedtime and by morning, the cooker has cooled. Mash the softened apples by hand (I use a potato masher). If you like the applesauce chunky, use a light mashing touch. Chill and enjoy.


Slow Cooker Turkey Chili Soup

Can someone please explain to me how time works? Because it has only been nine days since my last post, but it feels like 29. Some of the days have been a blur, as we have had non-stop activity in the kitchen during the demolition of the old and especially the arrival and installation of the new. And then, other days it has been so quiet it seems that even the crickets are on vacation. This morning, I literally had to ask my husband, “what day is today?” because amid the ruckus, I couldn’t quite remember. Only one week down and at least five to go—oy, vey!

It would be premature at this point to show you the progress of our remodel, given that we don’t yet have a countertop and the floor is covered in protective cardboard and there is new and ongoing discussion about how much we can configure our backsplash for a couple of design features I’ve been desperate to have. Well, OK, maybe just a few quick photos, but I want to save some for the big reveal!


There is much more to be done, and some of the details our contractor is working through are special enough to be considered “fussy,” so we are fine with some intermittent slowdowns. As far as we know, and barring any future catastrophes, things are still on track for us to be back in the kitchen by mid-November!

The biggest challenges have been exactly as expected—keeping the pets calm and cared for, which has been manageable so far because the weather is nice enough for our cat to chill outside (which she loves anyway) and our next-door neighbor has generously invited me and the dog over for some peace and quiet whenever things get wild over here. The other obvious challenge has been cooking without a kitchen, and today I’m sharing the first real, “cooked” recipe I’ve made since we started the remodel project. Breakfast doesn’t count because we are mainly just using the toaster. And until Friday of last week, we had relied on take-out and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. And (of course) cocktails for me, but that will be another post. 😉

Our first real meal could not have been more perfect for the fall season, and it also could not have been simpler to make, despite the fact that I did not have a stove, a microwave, a sink or a countertop. How did I pull it off?

It’s my multi-purpose friend, the slow cooker!

Say hello again to our multi-purpose slow cooker, the same one I used for our final “Chopped” challenge when Les tricked me into cooking all that kielbasa. The “browning” setting on this 7-in-1 appliance saved the day for my new adventure of “cooking without a kitchen.” I browned the ground turkey and onions, then added all the other ingredients, switched it to the slow cook setting, and let it simmer until Les walked in the door at the end of his workday. I was so excited to have actually cooked, and there was something very comforting about having the aromas of that chili soup filling the house. We needed a good, home-cooked meal at the end of such a crazy, noisy week. And, because it all came together in one pot, even the cleanup was easy.

This original recipe is one of my favorites, and it conjures warm and fuzzy memories for me. A few years ago, on a gloomy February day during another crazy time in my life, I’d scrambled through the cabinets for something to make that did not require a trip to the grocery store. I didn’t have a whole can of tomatoes, but I did have a small can of salsa, plus some roasted green chiles, half a bag of frozen corn, a can of beans and a carton of chicken broth. When I settled in with a bowl of this delicious concoction, which is not quite chili and not quite soup, I loved it so much, I took time to write it all down, and I’m glad I did because it was just right for such a crazy time as this. And there’s another benefit to it—easy leftovers!

Of course, you don’t need to have a special slow cooker to make it. Feel free to use a soup pot or Dutch oven. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ll do next time—you know, when I have a shiny new kitchen!

If I had an oven this week, I would have made a batch of cornbread to accompany this tasty chili soup!

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small sweet onion, chopped

1 lb. ground turkey (or turkey breast, if you prefer leaner meat)

3-4 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ancho chile powder

Salt and pepper

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

4 cups chicken broth (this is equal to 1 large carton)

7 oz. can roasted green chiles, chopped

1 small can Herdez salsa (about 8 oz.)

1 1/2 cups frozen roasted corn

1 can black beans, drained

Tortilla chips for serving


Instructions


  1. Add olive oil to the slow cooker (or pot), on a medium heat setting. Saute the onions until they are soft and translucent, then push them to the outside of the pot.
  2. Add the ground turkey, about half at a time, breaking it up into bits with your fingers as you go. When you brown ground meat, it’s a good idea to cook a small amount at a time to maintain a steady heat. Otherwise, the meat will just steam. When all the turkey is browned, add the chopped garlic and the spices, plus salt and pepper, and cook about one minute until the garlic is fragrant.
  3. Sprinkle the flour over the ground meat mixture and stir it around to evenly coat all the meat. It should seem a little dry on the surface of the meat; add a touch more flour if needed to get this appearance. Cook the mixture two minutes, add the green chiles and cook two more minutes.
  4. Add the chicken broth to the pot all at once. Stir gently to mix the broth with the roux-covered meat mixture and cook until it reaches a slight boil, then reduce the heat and simmer about one hour. At this point, I switched the slow cooker setting from “browning,” which is essentially the same as cooking on a stove top, to “high slow cook.”
  5.  Add the roasted corn, black beans and salsa and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer on low setting for two hours or more, until you’re ready to serve.

For our first “cooking without a kitchen” meal, I served this comforting turkey chili soup with tortilla chips, but it’s really delicious with a fresh batch of skillet cornbread.