Best build-your-own party snack mix | writes4food.com

Rock your own homemade party snack mix.

Ah, yes. It’s Super Bowl time again. Which means I just had to share my very favorite football snack recipe: DIY homemade party snack mix.

The beauty of this recipe is its flexibility. While I love the classic “nuts ‘n’ bolts” snack mix (my mom still uses the recipe from the back of the Chex cereal box in the 1980s … lots of butter). But why not add other savory, crunchy bits to the mix? Why not cheddar fish crackers, or seasoned pretzels or Fritos?

So herewith, I give you permission to improvise your own party snack mix for the game. Love you some Corn Nuts? Throw ‘em in. Fiery Cheetos? Go for it. (Hey, it’s the Super Bowl; we can all agree to throw our usual tendencies toward healthful and local eating to the wind.) Game on!

ultimate build-your-own party snack mix

Seasoning
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt (I use Jane's Crazy Mixed-up Salt)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Cayenne pepper to taste

Snacks (see notes below)
6 cups base snacks
1 1/2 cups nuts
4 cups flavored snacks

Base snacks
Unsalted: Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Cheerios, oyster crackers, plain popcorn
Salted: Bugles, Fritos, sesame sticks, salted pretzels, plain bagel chips, potato sticks

Nuts
Dry-roasted peanuts, salted roasted peanuts, salted roasted mixed nuts, sunflower seeds, honey nuts, pumpkin seeds, salted roasted cashews, salted roasted almonds

Flavored snacks
Wasabi peas, mini cheese crackers, cheddar goldfish, Terra Sticks, Corn Nuts, sweet potato chips, flavored bagel chips, Bar Chips, Cheetos, Combos, cheese puffs, flavored pretzels, puffed veggie stix

Preheat oven to 225°. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. In a large bowl, stir all the seasoning ingredients to blend; add 6 cups of base snacks and 1 1/2 cups of nuts and toss everything gently to combine thoroughly. Spread mixture on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and spread 4 cups of flavored snacks on top of the base snacks. Let everything cool, then transfer back to the large bowl and toss gently to combine.

For the version you see above, I used 5 cups Cheerios, 1 cup Fritos (broken into bite-size pieces), 1 1/2 cups dry-roasted peanuts and, for the flavored snacks, 2 cups Snyder's Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper Pretzel Pieces and 2 cups Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish.

couscous with roasted vegetables recipe | writes4food.com

Couscous and roasted vegetables.

Do you have favorite recipes that you make, then forget about, and then discover again? That’s this recipe for couscous with roasted vegetables. I went on a kick and made it regularly a few years ago, and then promptly forgot about it … until I recently opened Ina Garten’s classic “Barefoot in Paris” (from which it’s adapted). “Oh, yeah, I LOVE that dish!” And it was on the menu the next night.

Rob and I had big bowls of this hearty, healthful couscous-and-veggie concoction as our main dish that night, with a small green salad and a piece of crusty sourdough. For the next several days, I enjoyed leftovers for lunch. Warm, room temp, right out of the fridge — doesn’t matter. It’s always good.

This couscous and vegetable recipe would be a great side for grilled or roasted chicken or fish. You can also tinker with the vegetables: Red bell pepper would make a great addition or substitution, as would sweet potato, red onion, mushrooms or eggplant. Make sure to cut the vegetables into same-sized pieces for even cooking.

Again with this recipe, I’m tinkering with the format — in paragraph style rather than a list of ingredients and instructions. Let me know what you think!

COUSCOUS WITH ROASTED VEGETABLES

makes 4 generous side-dish servings

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil. Cut the following vegetables into roughly 3/4-inch pieces: 1 small butternut squash, 1 large onion, 1 medium zucchini and 2 large carrots. Divide the vegetables between the baking sheets, and toss them with a splash of olive oil; season with kosher salt, freshly ground pepper and 1 teaspoon cumin. Roast for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not soft (test with the tip of a paring knife). When the vegetables are done, transfer them to a large bowl; add 1 big handful parsley, chopped.

In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup chicken stock and a pinch of saffron threads, plus a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil; stir in 3/4 cup couscous. Cover the pan and turn off the heat; let sit for about 5 minutes until the broth is absorbed. Fluff the couscous with a fork. Add the couscous to bowl of vegetables and toss gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

tomato fennel soup

Roasted tomato and fennel soup.

Following last week’s recipe for homemade vegetable stock, I wanted to share a soup recipe that you can make with your homemade veggie stock.

This recipe for tomato and fennel soup has two sources of inspiration: 1) a recipe for Two-Tomato Soup with Fennel from the November issue of Food and Wine (with an accompanying photo by my friend and collaborator Evi Abeler — yay!!). And 2) my general love of the flavor combination of tomato and anise-y fennel or tarragon, like in this recipe for spiced sun-gold tomato sauce.

The F&W recipe seemed a little fussy, preparation-wise. So I’ve taken the basic flavor combination and the key technique (caramelizing part of the tomatoes with sugar), and simplified the recipe. Like all soups, this one gets better with time; the bowl I had for lunch the next day was fantastic, and the day after, even better. The recipe makes a ton of soup, so I stashed half of it in a quart container in the freezer.

Note No. 1: The recipe calls for a large can of whole peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped. I like using kitchen scissors as a mess-free way to chop tomatoes — just stick the scissors (make sure they’re clean, of course) into the tomatoes and cut away. Do not be a chucklehead and do this directly in the can, as I did, lest you wind up, as I did, with a nasty gash on the knuckle from the sharp lid. Instead, just dump the tomatoes and juices into a bowl and use scissors to cut them into chunks.

Note No. 2: I’m experimenting with writing recipes in paragraph form, rather than as a list of ingredients and measurements, followed by instructions. I’m seeing this style — which is, in fact, very old-fashioned — in some cookbooks and magazines. My hunch is that the paragraph style is easier to read on a computer screen or tablet. Let me know what you think!

roasted tomato and fennel soup

makes about 8 cups

Preheat broiler. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with foil; on the baking sheet, toss 2 pints cherry tomatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar. Broil  10 minutes or until the tomatoes are charred and the sugar is caramelized. Remove from the oven.

In a big soup pot, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until it shimmers. Add 3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, 3 shallots, thinly sliced and 6 cloves garlic, sliced. Season the vegetables with salt. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring several times, until the vegetables are soft. Add 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped, 3 sprigs fresh thyme and 3 sprigs fresh tarragon, salt and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Fill the empty tomato can with water or vegetable stock (or a combination) Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes, until the fennel is very tender. Let the mixture cool slightly, then add the roasted tomatoes to the pot.

Working in batches, puree the vegetable mixture in a blender to your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls with a fennel fronds and shaved Parmesan cheese.

making homemade vegetable stock | writes4food.com

How to make homemade vegetable stock.

Here’s the thing (two things, actually): It’s cold. And we’re all looking to eat more healthfully after being so indulgent during the holidays. Which makes homemade soup the perfect meal right now.

Delicious as it is, soup can also fall into the not-so-healthful category if we load it up with fat and salt. But a big pot of homemade vegetable soup can be super flavorful and satisfying. It all starts with good stock. Here’s a trick to making great homemade (low fat!) vegetable stock, which I learned from my fellow food writer Karen Gibson (find her at SoupAddict.com). Karen writes the gardening column for Edible Ohio Valley magazine, and last fall she wrote about non-canning ways to preserve the bounty of end-of-season garden produce.

She shared this technique for making homemade veggie stock: Keep a gallon-size zip-top bag in the freezer at all times. Fill it with vegetable trimmings as you accumulate them (see the recipe for a list of veggies for stock), and with produce that’s past its prime and lurking in the back of the fridge. When the bag is chock-full, defrost the contents, dump them in a big pot, cover them with water, add a few spices—and boom! Easy homemade vegetable stock that’s lower in fat, salt and calories than the store-bought version. (Pro tip: Save the rinds from Parmesan cheese in a freezer bag, and add a piece to the pot when you’re making sauce or stock. Instant umami.)

Since we published that column in Edible Ohio Valley, I’ve continuously maintained a stash of vegetable trimmings in my freezer. I currently have 2 gallons of vegetable stock, frozen and ready to use. Here’s the basic technique for making easy homemade vegetable broth.

homemade vegetable stock

makes 6–8 cups

1 gallon-size bag (packed full) of vegetable trimmings, including:

  • fennel stalks, core, fronds
  • carrot tops and stems
  • corncobs
  • fresh herb stems (parsley, basil, thyme)
  • onions (peels included)
  • celery stalks, roots and leaves
  • tomato cores/peels
  • broccoli stems
  • mushroom stems

6–8 cups water, or to cover
10 whole black peppercorns
1–2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
pinch red pepper flakes
1-inch piece Parmesan rind (optional)

Place the vegetables (it's OK if they're still partially frozen) in a large stock pot. Add water to cover by 1 inch. Add peppercorns, bay leaves, red pepper flakes and Parmesan rind, if using. Bring the liquid to a boil, skim off any scum that surfaces, then reduce heat and simmer for at least 2 hours, up to 3. Let the pot cool to room temperature (the vegetables will continue to "steep" as the stock cools), then strain into a large bowl, pressing down on the solids to extract the most flavor. Wait to season the stock until you use it, then add salt to taste. Use the stock within a day or two, or transfer it back to your gallon zip-top bag and freeze for up to 12 months.

gougères (French cheese puffs) recipe | writes4food.com

Black pepper gougeres.

… aaaannnnndddd, we’re back!

Honestly, I kinda hit a wall toward the end of December. (You did, too? Whew! Glad it’s not just me.) Between a whole to-do list full of client projects, some very fun promotional opportunities for the cookbook and general life busy-ness, my calendar was jam-packed right up until the 22nd, when I sort of shut down for the rest of the year. I tried (only somewhat successfully) to keep my laptop shut and contain my e-mail and social-media tendencies. We put up the Christmas tree, tuned in some football, opened some really great bottles of wine, had fantastic feasts on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, played games and worked puzzles and basically went analog for about 2 weeks. Whew.

Here it is, the first week of January, the first week of 2015. Time to get back on the horse.

With this: a recipe for black pepper gougères. Wait, you don’t know the gougère? That ethereal yet intensely flavorful puff of cheesy French pastry goodness?

My mom (she who has absolutely mastered the art of pulling an assortment of completely delicious little nibblies seemingly out of thin air, or rather out of her freezer, at the drop of the hat) introduced me to these luscious cheese puff pastries years ago. And it’s a rare thing when I don’t have a stash in my freezer. The gougère is made from pâte à choux, a light pastry dough that can be either sweet (as in, profiteroles or eclairs) or savory. With a food processor, the dough is ridiculously easy to make, and the little cheesy puffs are just so fun.

I began with Ina Garten’s recipe from her most excellent “Barefoot in Paris,” and made a couple of adjustments, including topping each puff with a very generous sprinkle of coarsely cracked pepper. These freeze beautifully (up to 6 months in a zip-top plastic bag), and you can just pull a dozen or so out and warm them in a hot oven to wow any drop-in guest. They’re perfect with a glass of wine before dinner.

black pepper gougères

(makes about 4 dozen)

1 cup whole or 2% milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of finely ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Gruyère
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
1 large egg, whisked with a bit of water
Cracked black pepper for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 400°; line 2 baking sheets with parchment and place the metal blade in your food processor. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and butter; warm the mixture until the butter melts. Whisk in the salt, fine black pepper and nutmeg. Heat the mixture until very fine bubbles form around the perimeter; do not boil. Whisk in the flour until no lumps remain. Cook the milk-flour mixture, whisking constantly, until it's thick and smooth and smells like buttered toast, about 2 minutes. Scoop the mixture into the food processor; add the eggs and both cheeses and process until the mixture is completely smooth and glossy. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the pastry dough — it will be very thick — to a gallon-size plastic bag. Cut about 1/2 inch off one of the bottom corners of the bag, and squeeze the dough out onto the parchment, making mounds about 1 inch in diameter, spacing them about 1–2 inches apart. When you've piped out dough to fill both baking sheets, dip your index finger in water and gently pat down the swirl or glop at the top of each mound of dough. Brush each puff with egg wash, then sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Grind black pepper generously over the puffs. Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350° and bake an additional 15–20 minutes, until puffs are deeply golden brown.

Best Christmas cookie recipes, and a giveaway.

As this year’s installment of Christmas Cookie Palooza winds to a close, and as a way to thank you for your support and readership, I’d like to offer you a gift. Or, rather, an opportunity to win a gift: A copy of “The Findlay Market Cookbook” and the Holiday issue of Edible Ohio Valley magazine, packaged in a fun burlap Edible Ohio Valley tote.

Here’s how it works: In the comment box below, post your favorite Christmas cookie (whether it’s a recipe you’ve discovered here, or your longtime family standby). NOTE: You must include an e-mail address so I can contact you if you win. At noon (ET) on Tuesday, December 23, I will randomly draw one winner from among the people who’ve commented. You’ll receive your gift before the end of the year.

Thanks for reading, and happy holidays to you!

seven layer bar cookies with pretzel crust recipe | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: 7(ish) layer bars.

If I dig waaaaayyyy back in the recesses of my memory, I can imagine a scene from a long-ago Christmas Day: a gathering of extended family (second- and third-once-removed cousins, great aunts and uncles), with the adults crammed around the table in a small dining room somewhere in Indianapolis. At the center of the table, inevitably, is a platter of homemade cookies … and at the center of the platter, inevitably, is a pile of seven layer bars.

I remember seven layer bar cookies: teeth-shatteringly sweet and filled with coconut — which I could not then and cannot now abide. But still, c’mon … they’re seven layer bars.

This, then, is a super-hacked recipe for seven layer bar cookies. I started with a recipe from the new “Special Collector’s Edition America’s Test Kitchen Best-Ever Christmas Cookies” magazine — which, by the way, I highly recommend. ATK recipes are dynamite, of course, and foolproof. But given my less-than-sweet tooth and aversion to coconut, I altered this recipe in quite a few ways.

Most notably, I cut the recipe in half. Because, really, two people Do. Not. Need. a full 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish full of seven layer bars. These things are like candy. I halved the recipe and baked the bars in a 9-inch baking pan, and ended up with 36 1-inch squares, which is plenty, truly.

Second, I replaced the traditional graham cracker base with crushed pretzels. (Cue heraldic trumpets.) Hello, salty sweetness! Finally, I omitted the toasted shredded coconut, which you could certainly include.

Give this updated recipe a try and let me know what you think of the tinkering!

seven layer bars with pretzel crust

makes about 3 dozen 1-inch squares

1/2 cup Heath milk chocolate toffee bits
3/4 cup crushed thin pretzels (from a generous 1 1/2 cups thin pretzel sticks)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup crisped rice cereal (see Note)
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted sweetened flaked coconut (optional, see Note)
1 14-ounce can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with foil, leaving several inches of overhang so you can lift the cookies from the pan. Spray the foil well with baking spray. In a food processor, process the toffee bits until they're pulverized almost to a powder. Transfer to a bowl. Put the 1 1/2 cups thin pretzel sticks into the processor and pulse repeatedly until the pretzels are finely chopped; measure out 3/4 cup. Combine the toffee bits, pretzels and melted butter; press the crust mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the milk chocolate over the crust; let sit for about 2 minutes to melt the chocolate, then spread it into an even layer. Scatter the rice cereal, then the pecans, then the chocolate chips, then the optional coconut. In a small bowl, whisk together the condensed milk and vanilla; pour this mixture evenly over the bars. Bake until very golden brown, about 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking time. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the bars completely (a couple of hours). Use the foil overhang to remove the bars from the pan, and cut into 1-inch squares.

Note: If you omit the coconut, use 1 cup of crispy rice cereal.

chocolate sea salt shortbread cookies | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: Snowy chocolate sea salt shortbread.

When I was thinking about posting a chocolate shortbread Christmas cookie recipe, I had in mind something fancy, with a drizzle of melted chocolate and some crushed peppermint candies. But when I sampled a smidge of this chocolate shortbread dough [you do that too, right?] I decided that it wanted nothing more than a dusting of snowy flake sea salt.

Salt and chocolate isn’t a new thing, of course. But the sweet-salty combination never fails to land me hook, line and sinker. You’ll want a very flaky sea salt for this cookie, to give the impression of freshly fallen snow.

I’ve had this recipe forever and recently rediscovered it in my recipe box as I was scouting ideas for Christmas Cookie Palooza. It was handwritten by a long-ago colleague whose script I don’t recognize on a page of Story magazine stationery (Story being a now-defunct literary magazine published by my former employer).

Like all good shortbread, these cookies are intensely buttery, and they keep well at room temperature for several days. To make them last through the holidays, freeze them in a plastic container.

Sure, you could gussie them up with a drizzle of melted semisweet chocolate and some crushed peppermints. But they’re great under a little snowy white salt.

sea-salt chocolate shortbread cookie recipe

makes about 4 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Coarse sea salt flakes, for finishing

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift together the flour, cocoa and salt into a medium bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer) cream the butter until it's very soft, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and cream together until the mixture is light, about 1 minute. Spoon 1/4 cup of the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl and stir to completely blend. Continue adding the dry ingredients, 1/4 cup at a time (unless you want your kitchen to be enveloped in a cloud of flour and cocoa), until the dough is completely blended. In a small bowl, whisk together a couple of tablespoons each of flour and cocoa for dusting the dough and rolling pin (this will prevent unsightly white flour residue on the cookies). Divide the dough in half; roll one half of dough out to 1/4 inch thick. Use a cookie cutter (I used a 2-inch fluted square) to cut shapes; reroll scraps. Place the cookies on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough. Cover the cookie sheets and refrigerate 3–4 hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 350°. Just before baking, sprinkle the cookies with flaky sea salt. Bake cookies for 12–15 minutes, or until cookies are dry and set. Cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.

almond butter dark chocolate blossom cookie recipe | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie Palooza: dark chocolate almond blossoms.

This time of year, I turn into a real tradition freak. I adore the Christmas ornaments that I’ve had since I was a child. I break out the same wintery faux garland for over the mantel that I’ve used forever. I carefully unpack the sequinned, hand-stitched Christmas tree skirt that I made the first holiday season after Rob and I were married.

And I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas cookies, too — making the same favorites from one year to the next.

But for the first of several upcoming posts on Christmas cookie recipes, I’m going to upend tradition. Only a little bit. Stay with me here: This update of the classic peanut butter blossom cookie recipe, if I may say so, totally rocks. The idea to use dark chocolate kisses came last Friday when I hung out with my cousin Liam and his friend Ariel, who raved about how great the dark chocolate was on the two batches of peanut blossom cookies they’d made last week. Of course, what pairs better with dark chocolate than almond?

So this unconventional Christmas cookie recipe updates the traditional peanut butter-chocolate blossom — a recipe I’ve used for decades — with bittersweet chocolate and almond butter. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

dark chocolate almond blossom cookie recipe

makes about 4 dozen

1 (11-ounce) package Hershey's Special Dark kisses
1/2 cup vegetable shortening or solid coconut oil
1/2 cup smooth almond butter
1/3 cup (lightly packed) brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar + more for rolling
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt

Preheat oven to 350°. Lay parchment paper on two baking sheets. Unwrap 48 chocolate kisses; pour about 1/2 cup of granulated sugar in a shallow bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream together the shortening/coconut oil and almond butter until well-combined. Add the sugars and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extract and blend well. Add the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir to combine thoroughly. Scoop teaspoons of dough and use your hands to roll them into balls no more than 1 inch in diameter. Roll the balls in granulated sugar to coat; arrange them on the baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking time. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and top the cookies with Hershey's kisses, pressing lightly. Bake 5 minutes more. Cool before transferring cookies to a wire rack. Store 3–5 days at room temperature, or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Findlay Market cooking demo

Upcoming book signings and events.

Cincinnati friends: Here’s an open invitation to join me in December for a whole bunch of fun food events featuring yummy recipes and stories from “The Findlay Market Cookbook!” I’ll be sampling recipes at Findlay Market during the festive Holiday Market, signing books in OTR and teaching a class at Midwest Culinary Institute.

Saturday, December 6
11:00–1:00 — cooking demonstration during Christmas @ the Market, south side of Findlay Market

Sunday, December 7
11:00–1:00 — book signing at Park & Vine, Main Street, Over-the-Rhine

Thursday, December 11
6:00–9:00 — Creations cooking class and “girls night out” at Midwest Culinary Institute

Saturday, December 13
11:00–1:00 — cooking demonstration during Christmas @ the Market, south side of Findlay Market