Saturday, July 30, 2011

Can't Take the Heat? Step Away From That Oven!

As the mercury of summer rises, who wants to crank up the oven to bake dessert?  Summer is the time for chilled and frozen treats to indulge your sweet tooth cravings.  Ice cream always tops the list of summer favorites, whether you make a batch at home or take an evening drive over to your neighborhood ice cream shoppe.  Within a short driving distance from my home on Long Island are two such meccas: McNutty's in Miller Place and Hollywood Sweets in Ridge both serve up that creamy decadence which defines summer. Both venues offer quality ice cream in an array of flavors, and an extensive selection of toppings and cones for even the most creative minds of sundae construction.  A much better option than chasing after the good humor truck for some not-so-good corporate frozen glop on a stick.  For anyone taking a weekend trip to Mystic, Connecticut, do not come home without stopping at Drawbridge Ice Cream in Mystic, where you will experience the creamiest example of ice cream indulgence.  For New York city day trippers, a cup of gelato from a gelato stand in Little Italy will take the chill off and send you right to heaven.

Cheesecake can be a refreshing summer dessert option, especially when the farm stands can provide ingredients for some luscious and opulent toppings, like blueberries or raspberries.  Some other chilled oven-free desserts include panna cotta, an Italian custard which can be crowned with fruity toppings like strawberries, traditional French chocolate mousse, old-fashioned ice box cake, and Brian's favorite: peanut butter chocolate mousse pie.  We first had this dessert at a resort on vacation in St. Thomas.  I then tried to duplicate it at home and, in my humble beginnings as a home cook, managed to accomplish that using a lot of short-cut processed ingredients.  I wanted to surprise Brian today with his favorite, only this time I took my years of learned culinary skills and set out to make this dessert with better ingredients, and I amped up the wow factor with an added topping.  The result: well let's just say I don't think we need to do a pre-rinse before running his plate through the dishwasher, or the pie dish for that matter!


14 chocolate graham crackers or chocolate wafers, ground in food processor
1/3 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup melted semi-sweet chocolate
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Lindt dark chocolate bar, chilled, then broken into shards
1/2 cup salted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
5 peanut butter cups, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Thoroughly combine graham cracker crumbs, 1/3 cup sugar and melted butter.  Press into bottom and up the sides of 8 or 9-inch pie dish.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the peanut butter, melted chocolate and condensed milk until well blended.  In a mixer bowl with a wire whisk attachment, whip heavy cream, 3 tablespoons sugar and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form.  Fold whipped cream mixture into peanut butter mixture until well incorporated.  Empty contents into prepared pie crust.  Place in freezer for at least six hours.  In a medium bowl, combine remaining ingredients, then cover the top of the frozen pie with this mixture.

Should serve six, but it never does seem to go that far in this house!  This dessert covers all the bases: a cookie crust, that sinfully creamy frozen mousse filling, the chocolate-candy-nuts topping ... no one who loves that all-American flavor combination of peanut butter and chocolate will be disappointed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Taste of the Tropics

Remember your Caribbean vacation?  I sure do.  Life is so relaxed, yet the food and the music are so lively.  I've never understood the typical American tourist who goes on vacation, stays in a five star resort, and dines in the resort's Americanized restaurant on chicken fingers and french fries!  Whenever Brian and I go on vacation, sure we stay at the resorts, but we usually boycott these eateries and seek out the dining establishments where local inhabitants serve up their local fare.  We've never been disappointed, and usually end up adding a local cookbook to our shopping list of must-buy souvenirs.  As a couple who embraces food of all nations, tropical dishes are no exception.

Tonight I will be serving it up hot with grilled Jamaican jerk chicken.  Jerk is a very spicy marinade which is not only great on chicken, but I have used it on pork tenderloin and also shrimp.  There are many variations of recipes for a jerk marinade, probably as many as there are Jamaican grandmothers; but the one important commonality among them is the ingredient of the habanro pepper, also referred to as the Scotch bonnet pepper.  It is one of the hottest peppers in the world, so it gives a jerk marinade plenty of heat.  We'll be cooling things down with a pitcher of mojitos, a Cuban cocktail containing mulled mint, simple syrup, rum,  lime and seltzer.  The coolness of the mint and the fizziness of the seltzer make this a very refreshing drink.  For a side dish I am making black beans and rice.  Just about every Caribbean locale dishes out beans and rice or peas and rice on the side.  I came up with a version of my own which seems to work well not only as a side for Caribbean food, but also with Mexican food and southwestern fare as well.



1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup brown rice 
2 cups chicken stock (I like Kitchen Basics, nothing in there that you wouldn't use if making your own)                          
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can black beans

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and saute until transleucent.  Stir in the garlic and saute for one minute.  Stir in the oregano, salt, pepper and rice, until everything in the skillet is combined.  Add the stock, tomatoes and beans.  Stir, then bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the rice is tender.   

Serves four.

This is a recipe that is meant to be tweaked of you want to experiment with combinations more specific to your menu's ethnicity.  You could substitute red beans for the black ones.  Or you could switch out the brown rice for white rice, add some saffron, and use pigeon peas instead of the black beans.  Or instead of tomatoes, use a cup of diced bell peppers in whatever color strikes your mood and maybe add a teaspoon of chili powder.  When you're the cook, you get to play with your food!

Remember, ambience makes the meal more enjoyable and memorable.  Music is one key ingredient, so with this dinner I'll be putting on CDs of reggae greats, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.  Table setting for a tropical meal should include boldly-colored tropical blooms in the vase and vivid shades, such as  turquoise, in either the table linens or the plates.  Some strategically placed sea shells on the table will work too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Buy Local

It's a great time to be a Long Islander.  The farm stands are all brimming with fresh produce, colorful, bountiful, and bursting with flavor.  Excursions to these venues also offer spontaneous surprises on the dinner table.

Tonight I made roast salmon with a creamy mustard sauce, farfalle pasta with homemade pesto and chopped plum tomatoes, and the farm stand's contribution: a medley of sauteed squashes with garlic and fresh herbs.  As the slices of squash browned in the pan, the aroma was comforting and enticing.

Yesterday we snacked on local blueberries and grilled local corn on the cob with dinner.  If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with farm stands to browse, take a ride to them at least once a week, see what looks good, and plan the dinner menu around your purchase.  Summer is prime time for fresh corn, tomatoes, summer squashes, peppers, eggplant, herbs, berries, watermelon and peaches.  Local is always fresher, because the provisions have not had to be transported across the country.  Many farm stands carry other locally-produced foods, such as cheeses and honey.  While you're browsing, there are often some fun, whimsical items to dress up your patio, deck or garden.

Another plus to being a Long Island dweller: the wine scene.  The entire twin forks are peppered with vineyards and, as with produce, I feel good about supporting our local growers, thus making the effort to pour locally-produced wines with dinner.



4 zucchini, sliced into quarter-inch slices
2 yellow summer squash, sliced into quarter-inch slices
4-6 small pattypan squash, sliced into quarter-inch slices
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large saute pan on medium-high heat. Add all the squashes and saute, allowing the slices to start browning. Add minced garlic and continue to saute until squash is very tender. Stir in the herbs, season to taste with salt and pepper, continue to saute for another minute, then serve.

4-6 servings