Ginger Crisps with Cranberry Goat Cheese, Pear, and Pepitas

IMG_1298It takes longer to say the name of these delicious, sweet and savory appetizers than it takes to make them. With only 4 ingredients (see picture below) and no cooking or baking required, you can churn these out in a snap, as long as you’ve got the right stuff on hand. Purchased ginger thins are the base, and they can be found at a variety of stores. I used to only be able to find Anna’s Ginger Thins at high end grocery stores like Lund’s, Byerly’s, and Kowalski’s. While they still carry these, you can also find them at Walmart or even Walgreen’s right now. (I believe those two places only carry them seasonly, so if you’ve got a craving for these appetizers in the spring or summer, check at the aforementioned places.) Trader Joe’s carries something called “Triple Ginger Cookie Thins” and are about $4 per box. Again, they only carry them when people are gaga for ginger and pumpkin flavors. Not sure that the “triple ginger” claim makes them taste any different than the other brands… But I think the best value can be found at IKEA, where they sell a large box of Pepparkakor for $7.99, and the cookie/crackers are bigger and sturdier, like any good Swede should be.

FullSizeRenderThe other seasonal ingredient you need is a small log of cranberry goat cheese. Goat cheese straight up is a little too pungent for my taste, but with the addition of the sweetened cranberries, it’s perfect on these little appetizers. They sell this at just about any grocery store in the fall and winter—high end to Trader Joe’s. I even found a brand called Celebriti’s Cranberry Goat Cheese at Costco this year. For the fruit, you can use any type of pear for this recipe (Bartlett, Anjou, etc.), but the Red Anjou looks especially festive on top. 

The last ingredient is a sprinkling of tasty little pepitas, roasted Mexican pumpkin seeds. These are sold in bulk at just about any grocery store, or pre-packaged at the high-end grocery stores. They taste similar to a sunflower seed, but you can eat the greenish shell after they’ve been roasted and salted.

Whew!!! That enough info for you? Believe me, it’s worth the effort to seek out these special ingredients. These little taste treats are a perfect way to start anything—especially a New Year!

Serves 8-10

Rating: Super Easy

1 package Anna’s Ginger Thins, Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Cookie Thins, or IKEA’s Pepparkakor
1 (8 to 11 ounce) package cranberry goat cheese, at room temperature*
2 Red Anjou pears, cored and sliced
¼ to ½ cup pepitas

Spread goat cheese on ginger thins. Top with slide of pear and a sprinkling of pepitas. Arrange on a platter and serve.

*NOTE: It’s easier to spread the cheese and not break the crackers if it’s room temp. You can make these with goat cheese straight from the frig, but you may have a few more broken cookie fatalities.

New England Clam Chowder

FullSizeRenderThis creamy dairy-based clam chowder warms you to the core when there’s a chill in the air. It can be a starter to your meal, or a whole meal in itself. This used to be a staple at our Christmas Eve dinner, but some how it fell off the menu over the last several years. So this year I resurrected the recipe, found in one of my Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks, and our family was glad I did! We’d forgotten what a treat this soup is, with the mild seafood flavor, and bits of hearty potatoes, clams, and bacon. I’ve altered some ingredient amounts from the BH&G recipe, adding more minced clams, bacon, and Worcestershire for fuller flavor.

And does anyone else besides me get confused about the different kinds of clam chowder? When we’re at a restaurant, I have to always remind myself that New England is the more popular cream-based soup, and Manhattan clam chowder is the tomato-based version, so I’m not disappointed when the food arrives. Or at least the New England style is more popular with our family… Give this recipe a try, and see where it ranks in popularity in your home.

Serves 6-8

3 (6.5 ounce) cans minced clams
4-6 slices of bacon
4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2½ cups milk, divided
1 cup Half & Half light cream
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour or Namaste gluten-free flour blend
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
¾ teaspoon salt
Dash coarse ground black pepper

Drain the canned clams, reserving all liquid. You should have close to 2 cups clam juice. Add water if necessary, to get 2 cups liquid. Set aside. In large Dutch oven, fry bacon until crisp. Drain cooked strips of bacon on paper towels. Once cool, crumble bacon, and set aside for a topping. Add onions to the bacon fat in the pan and cook until translucent. Add the 2 cups reserved liquid and chopped potatoes, and bring liquid to a boil. Cover, reduce to simmer, and let potatoes cook about 10-15 minutes, or until tender. Stir in clams, 2 cups of the milk, and the Half & Half. In a small bowl, whisk remaining ½ cup milk with the flour until no lumps remain. Stir into chowder. Increase heat until mixture begins to boil, and immediately reduce to low again. Cook and stir until bubbly. Stir in Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. Serve with crumbled bacon on top.

Cranberry Pecan Curried Rice

FullSizeRender-4The combo of sweet craisins and savory ingredients like curry and garlic give this recipe a blend of flavors that really please the palate. It has the versatility to be a main dish if you want to stir in some chopped rotisserie chicken, a suggestion from others who’ve tried this recipe found on I’ve not had the fresh parsley on hand (the three times I’ve made this dish already!), so I’ve used dried herbs instead, which worked fine. We’ve had this gluten-free treat on weeknights with ham, and with turkey, and it would go perfectly with pork chops or roast beef as well. Even though it goes together quick enough to make it an after-work-wonder, it’s going to make an appearance at some holiday dinners in the weeks to come. (Extended family, consider yourself warned!) I’m sure it’ll be gobbled up at those gatherings with gusto as well.

Serves 6-8

3½ cups chicken broth
2 cups basmati or jasmine rice
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
¾ cups chopped pecans
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¾ cup craisins (dried cranberries)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, or 1 tablespoon dried parsley
¼ cup water

In a large saucepan, bring chicken broth to a boil. Add rice and butter and return to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

While rice is cooking, heat oil in large frying pan. Add onion, and sauté until onions are translucent. Add garlic and pecans, and sauté for 1-2 minutes more. Add curry, ginger, salt, and pepper, and toss to coat all ingredients with spices. Cook another minute or two to toast spices. Add fluffed, cooked rice, craisins, parsley, and water. Stir to combine, until all rice is yellowed from curry. Transfer to serving bowl, and serve immediately, or place in airtight container and refrigerate. Reheat in microwave or in frying pan to serve.

Gingerbread City Under Glass

FullSizeRenderMost gingerbread houses can put you into a sugar coma just by glimpsing the confections, dripping with achingly sweet icing, and loaded with candy canes, gumdrops, and peppermint discs. I’ve made my share of gingerbread structures with my kids—either making the dough from scratch and assembling the houses, or using graham crackers for the house, and getting right to the decorating fun. But the cost for all that candy really adds up! And then it seems like a waste to buy all those tasty treats, and then never actually eat them, right? So when I saw this gingerbread city featured in Better Homes and Garden magazine in December 2013, I was intrigued. No messy, sticky frosting? No bulk candy to buy? I’m in!

While I got my templates from the magazine, there is a simple template for the building dimensions online (to download it, you may be required to sign up for receiving emails from BH&G). The template is just the basic shapes—how you define the buildings will require you to call on your own creative juices. Scoring the windows, doors, and rooftops is what gives the 2-D houses their character, and gives the powdered sugar a place to settle and create the frosty outlines on the buildings. It was the easiest, neatest gingerbread project ever! My college-age son helped me, and we were both pleased with the process as well as the end result. And the gingerbread tasted great, too. 

You will need a 2-gallon glass canister, like the Anchor Hocking one pictured here. (I got mine at Walmart.) And you will need to pour a couple inches of granulated sugar into the bottom of the container to anchor the houses, which seems like a waste of sugar again. Not so, Santa’s little helper! If you keep the lid on your “city,” you can re-use the sugar for baking after the holidays are over. And the added benefit is that the sugar smells heavenly from having had gingerbread nestled in it, and it actually enhances your baked goods. So if you’re done with all your shopping, wrapping, and baking, and are just sitting around twiddling your thumbs until Christmas comes (ha!), take some time to create memories with this gorgeous centerpiece.

Makes about 6 buildings, and extra dough for trees, etc. About 72 servings.

5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
Powdered sugar for decorating
Granulated sugar for decorating

In a large bowl combine the flour, ginger, baking powder, salt, white pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl beat together the butter, brown sugar, and molasses on high speed until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add half the flour mixture; beat until just combined. Add milk; beat until just combined. Add remaining flour mixture; beat until just combined. Using your hands, knead dough until smooth then divide in half. Wrap each dough half with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Roll each dough half on parchment paper into about a 15×10-inch rectangle. Using a sharp knife, score free-form building and rooftop shapes (or use templates) on each sheet of dough without cutting through dough. Using a cookie cutter, cut out trees. Transfer each parchment sheet of dough to a 15×10-inch baking pan. Remove excess dough scraps. Using a straight edge or knife, add brick and window scores without cutting completely through dough.

Bake 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Carefully cut along scored lines of building and roof shapes. Bake 10 minutes more or until firm. Remove from oven. Cook completely on a wire rack. Separate gingerbread pieces.

Sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies and gently rub in. Cover with waxed paper and let stand for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours. Arrange cookies in 2-gallon glass container filled with 2 to 3 inches of granulated sugar to help stabilize cookies.

Chocolate Cherry Christmas Mice

FullSizeRenderThese darling little mice are adorable additions to any Christmas cookie platter, a welcome relief from all the buttery treats. My Mom introduced these into her Christmas baking ritual a couple decades ago, and has made them faithfully every year since. If you decide to make these, just know they are a labor of love—this is a time-intensive food project! But we all feel it’s well worth my mother’s time to make ’em. (Heeheehee) Chocolate cherry mice have become such a fave with certain family members, that Mom made my nephew Gebre his own personal box of critters for Christmas one year. (The kicker is, she doesn’t even like the chocolate-cherry combo!) When my niece Mikaela was really little, she once asked my Mom, “Are you making those rats again for Christmas, Grandma?” Guess this is one case where it’s OK to have rodents in your kitchen.

IMG_1271While this isn’t really a kid-friendly project, you could enlist the help of youngsters to unwrap (and not eat) the Hershey’s kisses you need for the mouse heads. You will need to have all your supplies out and in order to be ready to assemble these. Once done and cooled, they can be frozen, but preferably not stacked. My mother stores her sweet treats in an old (but clean!) film reel canister, the perfect thing for storing these in the freezer. If you didn’t have the advantage my Mom had of working in an AV department and scoring a find like that, look around for other large, flat containers for storage.

Roughly 48 mice

2 bottles (8-ounces) maraschino cherries with stems, rinsed, drained, and dried with paper towels (FOR BODY AND TAIL)
12-ounce bag of Hershey’s kisses, milk chocolate (or dark), unwrapped (FOR HEAD)
7-ounce container of Baker’s dipping milk chocolate (or dark), heated per directions on package*
100 sliced almonds (FOR EARS)
Tube of red gel decorating frosting (FOR EYES)

Have a baking sheet lined with wax paper ready for assembling mice. Holding cherry by stem, dip cherry and part of stem into melted Baker’s chocolate. Hold above container to let excess chocolate drain off cherry for a few seconds. With other hand, hold Hershey’s kiss by point end, flat side up. Lay two almond slice “ears” on top of Hershey’s kiss, and press on to cherry and allow chocolate to pool around “ears” and “head.” Hold Hershey’s kiss “head” onto cherry for a few seconds until it appears it is cooled enough to stay on it’s own. Once all the mice have been assembled, add two beady eyes to each mouse with the gel frosting. Store cooled mice in airtight container. Freeze.

*NOTE: You will need to reheat dipping chocolate occasionally as you work. If it thickens as it cools, do NOT add water to chocolate!!! It will turn into a solid brick. Add a bit of shortening and heat to make it creamy again.

Corrugate Reindeer Craft

IMG_4906Reduce, reuse, and recycle your way into the holidays with this cool corrugate deer project. If you’re handy with an X-acto knife and a ruler, that’s all the skill you need to make this reindeer and freshen up your Christmas decor. Scout around for clean corrugate boxes, and the only cost will be a the 18″ or 20″ diameter wreath his head is nestled in. (Got my wreath at JoAnn’s for $14.99, and this year they are on sale for $5.99!) I found this pattern on Good Housekeeping’s website, in an article on Nordic Noel, published in 2011. My poor deer has traveled from office to home and back again, and he fits in no matter where he hangs his head. Good Housekeeping craft staff used a red Rudolph nose on their version, and drew the eye on with a Sharpie marker. I cut an “X” in the corrugate and used a 1/2″ black shank eye, like those used for making stuffed animals or dolls. I also made mine with a black nose, as a nod to all of the other reindeer (that used to laugh and call him names…and never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games). Since the link to this pattern is broken on the Good Housekeeping site, I’ve attached pdf’s of the pattern below. You will want to copy each page on 11″x17″ paper. Happy crafting!

Reindeer Head 1 of 2
Reindeer Head 2 of 2

Spicy Sweet Potato Hummus

FullSizeRenderWith the holidays in full swing, you can’t leave your house without a plate of something to share at a gathering, and most often it’s an appetizer involving a brick or two of cream cheese. Here’s a recipe that strays from that formula, yet tastes rich and creamy sans the cheese. This sweet potato hummus was posted on Yummly, sent in by (a food blogger who gives top billing to her dog…go figure!). I made several adjustments to her spice amounts, most notably to the cayenne pepper. The 1½ teaspoon suggested seemed excessive. I preferred to up the smoked paprika and cumin, so there were other flavors and less heat. 

Now let’s talk about the blessed sweet potato we’re all so obsessed with, and give credit where credit is due! Admit it. We’re all guilty of it. Lumping yams in with sweet potatoes, that is. Truth be told, most of us have never even tasted a yam, but since our grocery stores use the names interchangeably, we think yams are darker orange versions of the sweet potato. But true yams have black or dark brown skin, white flesh, and are drier and starchier. You have to go to a specialty grocery store to find them, if they can be found at all in the USA. Sweet potatoes come in two categories: firm sweet potatoes (with golden skin and paler flesh, sometimes even close to white), and soft sweet potatoes (with red or copper skin and orange flesh). We tend to prefer the soft sweet potato, which cooks up moist and creamy. The soft sweet potato that’s prevalent in our stores closely resembles the true yam, so that’s why they are often labeled as such in the bins. 

Enough with the food source education! Let’s get back to this delicious dip! It’s awesome with Simply Naked pita chips, corn chips, or the gluten-free “Food Should be Good” brand cracker-chips (sold at Costco and other stores). I made this for a couple parties over the weekend, and was told it was quite tasty. I myself have yet to verify that, as I’ve got a nasty cold and can’t taste a dang thing. But I trust my taste-testers. They wouldn’t lie to me. Although one of my taste-testers (and son) Justin said there was zero heat in the dip. The guy who practically puts Sriracha sauce on his Cheerios thinks I’d say mayonnaise has “kick.” So consider the source.

Serves 8-12

2 medium sweet potatoes
1 (14.5 ounce) can garbanzo beans (aka: chickpeas), rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, peeled, and quartered
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼–½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used ½ teaspoon. Add ¼ first and taste!)

Preheat oven to 375° or 400°. Place 2 potatoes on a sheet of aluminum foil and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until tender when pressed. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Scoop sweet potatoes out of the skins, and place in bowl of food processor or blender. Add garbanzo beans, olive oil, tahini paste, garlic, lemon juice, smoked paprika, cumin, salt, and cayenne. Process until smooth. Serve with chips or cucumber slices and carrot sticks. Store in airtight container and refrigerate any leftovers.

Slow-Cooker Beef Stroganoff

IMG_1190Have a Crock Pot® and need more slow cooker recipes in your arsenal? Try this delicious beef stroganoff, and you’ll never go back to the Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and hamburger stuff again. I have to admit, that was my stand-by for years until I stumbled upon this recipe for stroganoff in one of Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food” magazines (December 2006). She used cornstarch to thicken her version, but I prefer to make a roux (there’s that word again, Tom!) as the base for a beautiful, creamy sauce. Don’t be afraid of that French food word! Simple directions for making a roux are in the recipe below.

FullSizeRenderA dab of Dijon mustard and sprinkle of dill add subtle flavor twists that enhance the meat and mushrooms, turning this into a meal that makes even my non-beef-eating son say, “I don’t normally like beef, but this is GOOD!” Get the meat and onions simmering in your slow cooker (any shout outs for my 80’s harvest gold pot pictured here?) on low in the morning, and you’ll come home to a meal that’s 95% done. Finish the sauce on your stove top, boil some cous cous (since it only takes 5 minutes), and voilà! Dinner is served.

Serves 6-8

Rating: easy to medium

3½-4 pounds beef round bottom roast or beef stew meat, slightly frozen*
1 large yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon dill weed
8- to 10-ounce package white button mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

Prepared egg noodles, cous cous, or brown rice for serving
Grated Parmesan cheese for topping, optional

Slice meat into ¼-inch thick pieces, about 2 or 3-inches long, cutting against grain. Toss in 5- or 6-quart slow cooker with onions, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or high for 6 hours. Stir once while cooking, if possible.

Once meat is done cooking, scoop as much of the liquid from pot as you can into a 2-cup glass measuring cup. You will probably get 2 cups-worth of beef juice from that amount of meat, but add water if you need to, in order to get 2 cups worth of beef broth. Set aside. (Leave slow cooker set on low while you prep the sauce and mushrooms.)

To make a roux: In frying pan set on medium heat, melt butter. Sprinkle flour on top of the melted butter, and stir to combine. Turn heat to low. All flour should be incorporated, and mixture will become paste-like in consistency. Gradually whisk the reserved beef broth into the roux (butter/flour mixture), until it is all combined and no lumps remain. Turn heat up to medium-high. Stir in sour cream, Dijon mustard, and dill until thoroughly combined. Pour sauce back into slow cooker, and stir to coat meat.

Sauté mushrooms in fry pan on high, stirring often, until mushrooms begin to brown slightly. Once cooked, stir mushrooms in with beef and sauce. Serve over cooked pasta, cous cous, or rice. (Serve with rice if you need this meal to be gluten-free.)

*PREP TIP: The meat is easiest to slice thin if it’s slightly frozen. You will want to trim off visible fat as well, and that’s also easier to do when the meat is chilled. I usually pull my meat out of the freezer and let sit about an hour so it’s not rock-solid, but still cold enough to slice.