Mushroom Cognac Pinwheels (make ahead!)

For an easy holiday appetizer that looks elegant, try these winter-inspired pinwheels.  They have meaty portobello mushrooms sauteed with thyme and sage, the two most earthy spices.  Thyme and sage are what I imagine a forest must taste like, wild and fresh.  The cognac was a little improvisation.  With 5 bottles of red wine staring at me and not a single bottle of white to impart flavor on the mushrooms, I was stuck between using gin or cognac for the mushrooms.

My husband looooves cognac and got me to try it once, but never again.  In its pure form, cognac has dragon-like fumes that make you light headed when you get within 4 inches of the glass.  When you taste it, the fumes burn down your throat and clear up your sinuses as if it were a hot pepper.    Still, cognac was a better choice than gin and I knew the alcohol would cook off.  Since I’m an avid cookbook reader, I know that cognac is highly flammable, so I took extra precaution, ok, obsessive precaution when I added it to the mushroom filling; I took the entire pan off the stove, poured the cognac in while holding the pan over the sink, then returned it safely to the stovetop.  I didn’t even want to leave the mixture unattended to go put back the cognac because I was afraid it might light on fire.  If you don’t want to go the adventurous route, hopefully you have white wine you can use, if not chicken broth or the ever-friendly H2o, water.

P.S. I will never hear the end of “remember that one time you cooked with cognac…”

Click here for the printable.

Mushroom Cognac Pinwheels
Makes 15-20 large pinwheels or 30-40 small pinwheels (see note)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 portobello mushroom caps, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
5-6 fresh sage leaves finely minced, or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/3 cup cognac or dry white wine or water
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated smoked fontina, gruyere, or swiss cheese
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
1/4 cup of water in a small cup for binding the dough together or 1 egg lightly beaten
1.  In a large saute pan over medium high heat, heat the olive oil, then add the diced onion and saute about 3 minutes until the onions are translucent.
2.  Add the diced mushrooms, salt, thyme, and sage to the saute pan.  Cook another 2-3 minutes.
3.  Take saute pan off of heat and away from flames and add in cognac.  Use caution as cognac is highly flammable.  Cook another 5 minutes or so until the mushrooms are soft and have absorbed all of the cognac.  Add the butter, allow it to melt, then mix with a spoon.  turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool slightly.
4.  On a clean working surface, roll out the puff pastry dough.  Use a sprinkle of flour if the dough has become sticky.
5.  Starting at the bottom (the side of the dough closest to you), sprinkle the puff pastry with the grated fontina cheese.  Make sure to cover every part of the dough EXCEPT the top inch of the side furthest from you.  Add the cognac-mushrooms and spread on top of the cheese in the same manner.  Brush the top inch with water or egg to help bind the dough when you roll it up.
6.  Starting with the side closest to you, roll up the puff pastry like a jelly roll.  It should roll up around itself at least two times.  Use water and your fingers to bind the of dough at the top.  You will have one long piece.
7. Place on a baking dish and refrigerate overnight ( or up to 2 days).
8.  When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Cut the log into 1/3 inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet, leaving space between the pinwheels.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Note: for smaller pinwheels, cut the puff pastry dough in half before topping with the filling and make two smaller logs to cut up.
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Triple Threat Jalapeno Poppers for Football Season

Football season is upon us, and that means finger foods.  If you have people coming over to watch or find yourself over a friend’s house because your TV doesn’t work (ahem), these Jalapeno Poppers are truly addictive.  I brought some over to my friend Dina’s 30th B-day celebration.  Without hyperbole, every single one had been eaten within 5 minutes.

These poppers are what I call a triple threat.  With theater people, a triple threat is someone who can act, sing, and dance.  A Triple Threat Jalapeno Popper similarly performs in 3 gustatory categories: salty, sweet, and spicy.  Move over Barbra Streisand.

Warning these Jalapeno Poppers have an unexplained phenomenon of turning normal humans into ravenous wolves.  Use caution when setting them out.

The management recommends that you double the recipe whenever making them.
Thank You.

Get the recipe already: Triple Threat Jalapeno Poppers

We’ll be using a wire rack placed inside a cookie sheet to help crisp up the bacon and catch all the drippings.

Cut 11 pieces of bacon into thirds.  I know my picture looks like I cut the bacon strips in half; that’s because I didn’t think to take a picture until I was 1/3 of the way done, so this is a picture of 2/3 of the bacon I used.  The strips should be just enough to wrap around the jalapeno.

Now the filling: 3 tablespoons of raspberry preserves (please don’t go cheap on me here) and one 8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened overnight on your countertop.  (Or just whip everything together in a handy-dandy stand mixer.  Nothing like pure brute force to cover up lack of planning)

Add 1/3 cup grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Next, prepare your jalapenos.  Lop off the stems.  They’ll look like little hats.

Cut them in half.

Remove the seeds with a spoon.

Don’t touch any part of your face for the next 48 hours.  OK, not specifically that much time, but be careful especially around your eyes.  Optional, for sensitive hands, use gloves.

Take a small spoon and fill each jalapeno half with about a teaspoon of the cheese filling.

Then wrap a piece of bacon around the stuffed jalapeno.

Secure with a toothpick or two.  Although if you don’t have toothpicks because you forgot to pick them up at the grocery store (awkward cough, cough), make sure to wrap the bacon in such a way that the ends meet on the bottom of the jalapeno.  Then place them seam side down when you put the popper on the wire rack to bake.

Lovely.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.  Then flip the poppers over to crisp up the bacon on the other side.  Use a fork and extra carefulness if you don’t have toothpicks securing the bacon wrapped jalapenos.

Bake another 10 minutes until crisp.

Enjoy these Triple Threat Jalapeno Poppers for any football game.

Salsa Verde or Tomatillo Salsa or Green Salsa

I couldn’t make up my mind what to call this post.  Do I use the Spanish?  Will that alienate people?  Offend people?  Confuse them?  Make them try to say it out loud with awful accents?  Oh, well, ni modo.

Green Salsa, Salsa Verde for the true Mexican food aficionados or Spanish speakers, is a tangy salsa based on tomatillos which are small green tomatoes wrapped up like a present in a husk.  These are not under ripe tomatoes, but rather a firm tomato that must be cooked to eat, or if kept raw, liquified into salsa.

Printable: Salsa Verde

Here’s the short version.  Pile all tomatillos, onion, cilantro, garlic, salt and jalapeno into the food processor (tomatillos on the bottom) and pulse 15-30 times to the beat of a great song, like “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” until it looks like this.

Here’s the longer version.

Remove the husks by taking the stem end of the tomatillo and pushing the fruit out.  Like so.

After a whole pound of these, actually after like 2, your fingers will get sticky which is fine, just don’t go around touching everything in your kitchen.

Wash them (and your hands, please) thoroughly and rub with your fingers to remove any excess film from the husks.

Good tomatillos come in a variety of sizes, so use your best judgement for how to cut them.  We want the pieces to be approximately the same size.  Halve the small ones and quarter the larger ones.

Place the tomatillos at the bottom of a food processor.  A food processor is ideal because it will still leave the salsa having small bits and pieces, giving it a thick consistency.

If you don’t have a food processor, a blender will work too.  No blender?  Really?  OK, break out the mortar and pestle.  Don’t have that either?  You poor soul.  Don’t worry I won’t leave you out from the fun.  Go outside and find 2 rocks- one like a bowl and the other like a pestle.  Make sure to wash them really well.

Roughly chop up 1/2 an onion.  Yellow, red, white, doesn’t matter, we’re equal opportunity here.  Whatever you have on hand.

Rough chop a good handful of cilantro, about 1/2 cup.  Don’t be afraid of the stems, that’s where the goodness is.  Just cut off the stem tips.

Or, you can waste your time just breaking off the leaves, if that’s your preference.  This is a free country/recipe.

Now make sure to dice up 2 key ingredients very small: the jalapenos (with gloves if you can, otherwise don’t rub or touch your eyes for awhile)

and the garlic (with a press)

Don’t forget 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Now, pulse everything together to a good song, like “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”  Make sure to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula.

Here’s the Salsa Verde at about 15 pulses, when I scraped the sides down.

Another 15 pulses (“Upside, inside out, she’s livin’ la vida loca…”)

And we’re done!  Easy, huh?  Just don’t cut yourself while cleaning the food processor blade.

If you’re going to make Chilaquiles Verdes, resist all the temptation to gobble up the Salsa Verde with tortilla chips.  I know it’s hard, but sometimes, we have higher purposes for things.

Tangy, Minty Black-eyed Pea Salsa

This black-eyed pea salsa starred alongside Kahlua-Spiked Ice Cream Pie for our End of the World BBQ.  It’s a sweet and tangy salsa with plenty of substance from the black-eyes peas, bell peppers, corn, and tomatoes.  The addition of mint gives the salsa a tropical feel to match its brilliant rainbow of red, green, yellow, mixed with the dual-toned peas.

Printable Recipe: Tangy, Minty Blackeyed Pea Salsa.

First, create the dressing by adding rice wine vinegar, olive oil, cumin, ground mustard, salt, and the zest and juice of 2 limes.  Rice wine vinegar has a sweeter taste than others, not quite as pungent as other vinegars.  Limes feel more tropical to me, but I’m sure lemons would be a fine substitute (although use 1 only since they are larger than limes).  Whisk all of this together and let it sit.While the dressing sets, prep and mix the remaining ingredients.  Finely dice up the red onion.Cut the red and green bell peppers into strips, then turn them to dice into small pieces about the size of corn kernels.  Combine all the diced vegetables in your large bowl.  Add the minced garlic.To prep the tomatoes, I used Roma, cut them in half, then slice each half into 4 long half-moons.  Turn these half moon slices to the side and dice to make small pieces the size of corn kernels (noticing a pattern?).Drain and wash the black-eyed peas and corn and drop them in with the peppers and onions.Pour the dressing on top of the salsa.  Mix with your hands because it’s more fun.Strip the mint of its leaves and discard the stalks.  Layer the mint leaves on top of one another.  Aim for 7-9 leaves, more takes a little dexterity.  Roll up the leaves as if they were a cigar wrapper.   Thinly slice the stacked and rolled leaves.  You will have tiny ribbons of mint.  Your hand will smell like mint and it will freshen up your entire kitchen.  Mint is exhilarating like that.  This simple process has a fancy French name, chiffonade.  Use it at your next cocktail party.

Of course you can start munching on the salsa (I had it for dinner the night before the BBQ), but it really develops its flavor through overnight refrigeration.  Take it out a few hours before the party to bring the salsa to room temperature.  I love it with blue tortilla chips.  I may be a snob, but in my humble opinion, blue tortilla chips have better corn flavor, plus it adds another cool color to the mix.

Crostini with Pea Puree

Crostini is really just a fancy Italian way of saying little toasts.  If you want an infinite food canvas, crostini is a fabulous appetizer finger food.  What you top the little toast with is entirely up to you: tomato bruschetta, mushrooms, pesto, roasted eggplant, the possibilities are endless.  This recipe comes courtesy of the cookbook The Best of Food & Wine The Italian Collection.

To make crostini, simply preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Then slice up a baguette (the long, skinny bread) into 1/2 inch thick slices.  Bake for about 5-6 minutes, until they are your desired crispiness.

For our Celebrate Spring Dinner, (other recipes from this dinner include To-Die-For Hot Fudge Sundae Sauce, Spring Salad with shaved asparagus, Chicken in a Fennel Mushroom sauce, and Spinach with Raisins and Pine nuts) I decided to try my hand at a pea puree, and, for the first time ever, try to actually shell my own peas.  Sure, you could just use a 10 ounce bag of frozen peas, but it’s more fun to get your hands dirty and play with your food.Plus, peas are actually quite beautiful when you reveal them like treasure from their protective shell.  The alive green color, the dew-like water droplets that you find on some of the round globes; peas are just playful vegetables.You’ll need about 2 cups of fresh peas, or 1 10-ounce bag of frozen peas, 5 cloves of garlic DON’T PEEL THEM (if you feel daring, like me, use 1 entire small head), and about 1/3 pound thinly sliced pancetta (about 5 ounces; just get it from the deli counter), plus some extra virgin olive oli, salt, and pepper.1.  Chop up 2-3 slices of the pancetta, enough to get 1/2 cup.  Cook this 1/2 cup of pancetta over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes.
2.  Remove cooked pancetta and place in a side bowl. “Roast” the garlic cloves by putting them, skin and all, in the pancetta juices (alright, fat).  Cook until well browned.  Remove skins and place in a food processor.
3.  Add remaining pancetta to the garlic in the food processor.  Puree.
4.  Place puree back in your saute pan with about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil.  Add fresh peas and about 1/4 cup of water, enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.  Cover and allow peas to steam for about 20 minutes.  (Frozen peas will not need any water and will only take 10 minutes max)  If you have it, you can add a couple of springs of fresh parsley at this point, completely optional.
5.  Place everything back in the food processor and puree until smooth and creamy.  Add salt and pepper to your taste.  You could also add some lemon juice at this point to give the puree a tang.
6.  Spread on top of crostini and sprinkle the cooked pancetta on top.

According to this cookbook, peas are a classic Easter ingredient for Italian cooking.  Usually served whole, they are part of the first spring vegetables representing new life.  This recipe twists tradition in a tasty way.

Spanish Croquettes- the recipe

This recipe is based off of an Edward Schneider post for the New York Times, a random tip of a 2 to 1 ratio of potatoes to bechemal, and my own nostalgia.

Makes about 30 1″ croquettes

1 pound of potatoes
1 shallot, minced finely
5 cloves of garlic, pressed
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2/3 cup milk (I used 2%, I’m sure whole milk would be better)
2/3 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
dash of nutmeg
3/4 cup finely diced ham steak
1/2 cup Manchego cheese
dredging assembly line: 1/2 cup flour, 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cup of bread crumbs

1.  Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil.  Cook for about 15 minutes, until just tender.

2.  To make the bechemal, melt the butter in a small saucepan.

3.  Add minced shallot and garlic.  Sweat the shallot and garlic until they’re translucent, about 5 minutes.

4.  Add the flour and mix with a small wire whisk to create a roux.  Cook the roux, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes.

5.  In a liquid measuring cup, combine the milk and chicken broth.  Slowly add the milk/broth mixture to the roux, about 1/4 cup at a time.  Mix thoroughly each time you add in liquid.  Cook at a simmer for about 10 minutes, stir occasionally and make sure the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pot or start to boil.  The sauce will thicken considerably.

6.  Unpeel the potatoes and place in a food processor.  My potatoes came out very sticky I think because of their starchiness.  I also added a smidgen of milk to help them puree.

7.  In a medium sized bowl, mix the bechemel, it will be very think by now, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and pureed potatoes.

8.  Fold in the ham and Manchego.

9.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge until cool.  We placed it overnight, then formed the croquettas the next afternoon.

10.  Line a baking sheet with wax paper.

11.  Form the croquettes by grabbing about 1/4 cup amount in your hands, then roll it into a ball shape.  They should hold.  Form ALL croquettes before dredging anything.  Place them on the baking sheet.

12. Prepare a dredging assembly lines by placing 3 medium plates next to each other.  In the first one place the flour, the second the eggs, then third the breadcrumbs.

13.  Heat a solid 2 inches of oil (I used olive oil, but sunflower or another neutral would be good too) between 325 and 350.  I don’t have an oil temperature gauge, so my way of seeing if the oil is hot enough is by putting a tiny bite in and seeing if it fries up.

14.  Grab a croquette, roll in the flour until lightly coated.  Place in the egg until lightly coated, then roll in the breadcrumbs.  Place back on the wax paper until you’ve finished coating all the croquettes.

15.  Fry the croquettes in batches until golden brown all around.  Serve immediately.

It is not recommended that you keep them heated in a low oven.  I tried this and my croquettes that came out of the fry pan plump and shapely, came out of the oven looking like popped balloons.  Keep their perky shape, it’s part of what makes them irresistible.