Wednesday… er, Thursday Recipe: Monster Balls

Delicious edible monsters

Hi, all. My apologies for not posting on time. Last Monday being a holiday (Indigenous Peoples’ Day!) threw me off, and I just never quite caught my stride. This week, I’m a day late due to excessive creativity.

Halloween is drawing near, less than two weeks away. I’ve been experimenting with no-bake recipes that I could conceivably make at school visits. This one from Baker Mama caught my eye because it also happens to be fairly nutritious, a mixture of peanut butter, honey, and oats with chocolate chips and mini M&Ms thrown in for fun.

Peanut butter isn’t a great choice for schools however, so I’ve altered the recipe to use sunflower butter and nut-free mini chocolate chips.  (Check the labels to make certain your ingredients are made in a nut-free facility.) It happens to be naturally gluten-free, and it can be easily made vegan by substituting brown rice syrup for the honey. I suspect molasses might work as well, and today at Spindler Confections, I discovered the existence of cider syrup, which would probably be marvelous in this.

ALLERGEN-FREE MONSTER BALLSMonster Ball ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup creamy or crunchy sunflower butter
  • ½ cup honey (or brown rice syrup)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup Enjoy Life or other  mini chocolate chips
  • Halloween-themed sugar sprinkles to taste

Combine the oats, sunflower butter, honey, and vanilla thoroughly, Stir in the chips and sprinkles and mix until roughly homogeneous. Roll into 1- to 1.5-inch balls. If you can refrain from instantly eating them all, refrigerate for up to two weeks.

Unadorned monster ballsWe made the basic monster ball recipe above to bring to my daughters’ FIRST LEGO League meeting last Monday night, but Nora and I both thought they were entirely too plain to be called monster balls. Nora tried to decorate the balls but couldn’t get the decorations to stick. Then I had a brainstorm: honey. I happened to be at Michael’s today for other supplies and picked up a few extras: candy eyeballs and candy mustaches, sized for cupcakes but perfect for this purpose. We added coconut and edible green glitter gel for hair, candy corn for horns and legs, candy coated sunflower seeds for eyes, noses, and spines, and some apple raspberry fruit leather for mouths and tongues.

Goblin, Unicorn, and, warthog monster balls

Cyclops, unicorn, and, um, warthog?

The result: far less healthy but much more fun snacks! I wish I’d thought to get red licorice whips for hair, too, and I could see using pretzel sticks or regular licorice for legs. Oh, and if you’re more of a chocoholic, there’s also a version of this that uses Nutella. I don’t quite dare. I may not be able to stop eating them. But if you’re brave enough, try it, and share your photos on my Facebook feed!

EDIT: Remember there are more recipes from A Witch’s Kitchen here.

A hideous lineup of monster balls

Wednesday Recipe: Ukrainian Borshch

A bowl of Ukrainian borshch and a shot of vodka

Here’s the recipe I’d intended to post last week, before that heat wave hit. Today, it’s cool and in the 60s, with fog in the morning and just a nip of autumn in the air: soup weather.

I have never been a fan of cold soups. They just taste wrong to me, none more so that Russian borscht, beet soup served cold with sour cream. I love beets, but if I’m eating them cold, I want them pickled or in a salad. Even warm, borscht doesn’t thrill me. It’s too simple, just beets and onions and broth and sour cream.

Then I met my husband, whose mother was Ukrainian, and she introduced me to Ukrainian borshch (shown above with a shot of vodka for cold winter nights), which is a rich and varied vegetable soup rather like minestrone, but made entirely with winter vegetables. In the summertime, when my garden is bursting with produce, I will often make something I call borschtrone, and its Italian or Ukrainian character is determined most by whether I have basil or dill to season it with.

The following recipe is the version used for Sviat Vechir, the traditional twelve-course meatless Christmas dinner (more on that later this year), so it works very well as a vegan entree. It can also be easily “beefed up” by substituting chicken stock and adding red kidney beans and/or chunks of kielbasa. Delicious with pierogies (varenyky if you’re Ukrainian) and fresh rye bread.

UKRAINIAN BORSHCH

  • 1 cup fresh or dried mushrooms
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
  • 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil (canola or sunflower work well)
  • 2 cups beets, diced
  • 1 cup carrots, diced
  • 1 potato, diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dill (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh parsley
  • 3 cups shredded cabbage (I often substitute kale and/or beet greens)
  • 1/2 cup tomato juice or canned or fresh diced tomatoes
  • 3 peppercorns
  • lemon juice to taste
  • salt and pepper
  • 8-9 cups water or vegetable stock

If you are using dried mushrooms, place in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to soften and reserve the liquid for later. Slice mushrooms (fresh or reconstituted).

Saute the onion and garlic in oil until transparent. Add mushrooms and saute slightly. Add beets, carrots, and potato and saute until just beginning to soften around the edges. Add cabbage/greens, dill and parsley and cook along with the tomatoes/juice and water/stock. If you used dried mushrooms, include the reserved liquid here, reducing the amount of water/stock accordingly. Season to taste. Simmer until all vegetables are tender. (if you are using an Instant Pot, set it to Stew for 25 minutes). Add lemon juice with caution since you want the borshch tart, not sour. (I have a daughter who dislikes sour things, so I often omit it altogether.) Garnish with additional dill and parsley and serve with optional sour cream or tofu alternative. Serves 6-8.

Wednesday Recipe: New Mexican Ceviche – FAIL!

Preparing ceviche

It happens to all of us. Every cook tries new recipes, and they don’t always go right on the first try. Or the second. Today, I attempted to make ceviche, a unique Latin American appetizer in which fish is “cooked” using acid rather than heat, the preferred acid being lime juice. It’s a very tricky dish to do well, as I found out.

I had a different recipe all ready to go – Ukrainian borshch – but we hit a record 93 degF in Cambridge today. In the midst of a heat wave, root vegetable soup seemed completely out of season.

I wandered the Arlington farmers’ market, looking for inspiration, and I found it at a stall selling fresh fish. Not heating up my kitchen on a day of record heat sounded like the ideal solution. Half a pound of haddock and several fresh vegetables and herbs later, I was ready to make ceviche.

Saying that this is New Mexican ceviche is something of a contradiction in terms. New Mexican cuisine is largely dictated by local food: chiles, tomatoes, beans, corn. Rice and avocados are imports from Mexico, but even that’s not so far away. One thing that’s almost impossible to get in landlocked, high desert New Mexico is fresh fish. I have caught trout in mountain streams and have fond memories of one amazing morning on the Chama River when the browns were so hungry they were striking bare hooks. Fresh, pan-fried trout remains one of my favorite breakfasts. Still, I can’t imagine trout would work in ceviche. (Know otherwise? Tell me in the comments!)

I have never seen ceviche offered in New Mexican restaurants, which makes sense, since fresh whitefish must be flown in daily at tremendous expense (I’m betting that some insane place offers it anyway). It’s not surprising, then, that my first experience of ceviche was in Burlington, MA, and that was shrimp ceviche, tasty but not outstanding. Then we went to Cape Cod this summer, and my husband and I dined at Tumi, a Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurant, where I tried the mixed seafood ceviche.

It was a revelation. The acidity balanced with the delicate fish captivated me. I couldn’t get enough and ate more than my fair share of the appetizer, which was fine because my husband was having a similar experience with his rocoto relleno appetizer. By the time I had finished the last bit of grilled octopus, I knew that I had to try making ceviche myself as soon as possible.

My first attempt was a dismal failure. Ceviche requires careful timing. I didn’t really understand how long it took to “cook” the fish in the lime juice, and we had to go out that evening, which meant that it was disastrously overdone mush by the time we got home. Today marks my second attempt, using this recipe from Laylita’s Recipes.

It was AWFUL: too acidic, not salty enough, terribly bitter. I made several mistakes.

  1. I was preparing the ceviche at the same time as some pork carnitas, so I missed the part where the onion and tomato are marinated separately at the end of the cooking process, and I threw in the onion and part of the tomato to cook with the haddock. I suspect the onion may have contributed to the bitterness.
  2. I also forgot to add salt to the fish before cooking it in the lime juice.
  3. When I drained the fish, I noticed – too late! – that some of the fish was not fully cooked, and I was out of limes. So I pulled out a bottle of lemon juice, covered the fish again, and cooked it for another 45 minutes. This was a terrible mistake. The lemon juice clashed with the lime juice and was much more acidic without any balancing sweetness. I suspect that this was the main source of the bitterness.
  4. I tried to salt the fish after adding the remaining tomato, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro. This just made it salty and acidic and bitter. And mostly inedible. Bleh.

My one success: Hatch green chile. I don’t have Ecuadorian peppers, nor is New England well known for any of its hot peppers, but I did happen to have some Hatch green chile in the fridge that I’d been meaning to use. Even with the nasty bitterness, I could taste the mellow burn of the chile, and I think it would be really excellent in a ceviche done properly.

So, the moral of today’s cooking adventure: do not attempt to cook something totally new while also making something else complicated. Ironically, the pork carnitas was probably the best I ever made, with a wonderful, rich umami flavor to it. I would post that recipe, except that I don’t actually know exactly what I did. I was paying too much attention to the ceviche to really notice. I browned the pork, took it out of the Instant Pot, sauteed the onions and garlic, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar, a dollop of tomato paste, some low sodium chicken broth, mexican oregano, cumin, mustard powder, and Worcestershire sauce, with a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. Fantastic!

But the fact that I can pull off things like that makes me cocky. I forgot that I’ve made carnitas a million times before, and that ceviche is in a class of cooking I am wholly ignorant of. Next time I try ceviche, it’ll be on a lazy afternoon when I have absolutely nothing else to do, and I can really focus on getting everything right. And I’ll be sure to have extra limes.

 

Marinating vegetables for ceviche

Tomatoes, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro, all headed to their DOOM.

Finished ceviche

It looks soooooo good, but it tastes soooooo bad.

Wednesday Recipe: Curried Butternut Squash Bisque

butternut-squash-109131_1280

Here in New England, the leaves are just starting to turn from green to gold and orange and flaming red. The remnants of Hurricane Jose have been drifting in as fog and wind and rain. It’s chilly and clammy outside, the kind of weather that makes you want to wrap up in a warm blanket, sip a mug of tea with honey, or maybe indulge in a bowl of soup.

This is also the time of year when squash starts appearing at farmers’ markets, when zucchini and crooknecks and pattypans are supplanted by spaghetti, delicata, acorn, and butternut, their sweet golden flesh ready to be put to a vast array of uses. My favorite thing to do with winter squash is to balance its sweetness with something savory, and curry works beautifully.

This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Gardeners’ Community Cookbook compiled by Victoria Wise and given to me by my friend and fellow meals adventurer, Megan.

CURRIED BUTTERNUT SQUASH BISQUE

1 medium butternut squash (about 1-3/4 lb.)
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large cooking apple, such as Cortland or McIntosh, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and pepper to taste
Whole sage leaves for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degF. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray or coat with butter and place the halves cut side down on the sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until a fork pushes easily into the thickest part of the squash. When mostly cooled, scoop out the flesh.

Melt the butter in a large soup pot. Add the onion, garlic, and apple and cook over low heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the curry, nutmeg, and flour and stir until the flour disappears.

With a food processor or blender, puree the onion-and-apple mixture along with the squash and 1 cup of the broth. Return the puree to the pot and stir in the tomato paste, half-and-half, minced sage, remaining broth, and salt and pepper. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it just begins to boil. Serve immediately, garnished with whole sage leaves.

Variations: for a richer flavor, use light cream in place of half-and-half. For a little more kick, increase the amount of curry, or add 1/2 teaspoon red chile or chipotle powder. If you don’t have butternut squash available, you can substitute 2-3 acorn squash or even a similar-sized pumpkin. If you use pumpkin, save the seeds, roast them, and use them as garnish along with the sage.

If you’re looking for a vegan version of this, I recommend this recipe in the New York Times.