Monday, September 24, 2012

Pumpkin Crunch Muffin Bites

For me, fall is marked not by the cooler weather and changing leaves but rather the return of Starbuck's pumpkin spiced latte. I literally jumped for joy when I learned that Hershey's is making pumpkin chocolate kisses. I just LOVE pumpkin. Soups, stews, treats, pie...pumpkin everything! My local supermarket was having a sale on organic pumpkin puree, so I am fully stocked for the next month.  Therefore, I hereby officially debut my fall 2012 obsession with these Pumpkin Crunch Muffin Bites.

I explored cakes, loaves, breads, puddings, and cupcakes, but settled on muffin bites for my pumpkin baked treat. My rationale was twofold: 1, as a girl I like all things mini because they are cute, and 2, I have portion control issues, and if I had a baked a loaf of pumpkin bread I probably would've eaten it, sliver by sliver, in one day. [Insert stomachache here]. So! These muffin bites are perfect because I can pop one into my mouth for a sweet pumpkin treat after lunch and dinner every day for two weeks. 
Mollie Katzen describes these as tasting like "an entire holiday season." They do. The ginger spice and orange peel are what differentiate this recipe from other traditional pumpkin muffins: the ginger contributes a spicy biting undertone, like a gingersnap, and the orange peel adds a slight citrusy bitterness that prevents an overly saccharine sweet. These zesty ingredients complement the mild pumpkin well.
Wanting to incorporate another element to complete my mini-treat, I added a granola topping for its signature crunch and the much-loved oat pumpkin combination. I've provided a granola recipe below, but feel free to use any store bought brand (Trader Joes and Kashi make pumpkin themed ones, and Bear Naked is always good too.)
No worries if you don't want to splurge on the extra tools (and time) required to make these muffins "mini", you can easily bake them full size too! I've included directions for both below.

Pumpkin Crunch Muffin Bites

Yield: 25 mini muffins; 8-10 regular muffins

For Muffins:
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used all wholewheat, but feel free to do a half and half mixture too. Also, the original recipe called for 2 cups flour but I thought that was way too much and used less to maintain the appropriate consistency)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice or pumpkin pie spice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup canned organic pumpkin puree
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted or vegetable oil (I used 2 tbsp canola oil and 2 tbsp applesauce. Use a 1:1 ratio to replace some of the fat with applesauce for a healthier muffin, but not the whole thing or else consistency will be off.)

For Granola Topping:
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/8 cup ground flax seed
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
pinch salt
1 tbsp maple syrup 
1 tbsp pumpkin puree
1 tbs melted butter or canola oil
1/8 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking pan with mini muffin cups and lightly spray with nonstick spray. (If making regular sized muffins, spray 8 standard-sized muffin cups, and preheat oven to 400 degrees).
2. Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, spices, granulated sugar, and orange zest in a medium-sized bowl, and stir until well blended. Crumble in the brown sugar, and mix with a fork and/or your fingers until thoroughly combined.
3. Measure the pumpkin into a second medium-sized bowl. Add the egg, milk, vanilla, and cooled butter or oil/applesauce and beat with a fork or a whisk until well blended.
4. Slowly pour this mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon or a rubber spatula from the bottom of the bowl until you have a uniform batter. Don't overmix.
5. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. For a serious time and energy saver, spoon the batter into a plastic bag, sealing tightly, and cut off the bottom corner of the plastic bag, leaving a 2 millimeter hole. Then, similarly to frosting a cake, carefully squeeze 1 dollop of batter through the hole into each mini muffin cup. If making regular sized muffins, fill tins with batter using 2 spoons: One to scoop up the batter and the other to push it into the cup.
6. Prepare granola topping by mixing all ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle each muffin with 1/2 teaspoon of crumbled granola. Press granola lightly into batter.
7. Bake for 15 minutes (20 to 25 minutes for regular sized muffins) or until lightly browned on top, and a toothpick inserted all the way into the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven, then remove each muffin from the pan, and place on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Muffins can be stored in covered containers or resealable plastic bags. .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Cranberry & Leek Black Rice

So I go away for one week and am greeted back in New York with a full-fledged autumn farmers market. Teeming with spaghetti, acorn, and delicata squash; pumpkins, gourds, indian corn, apples, and pears....eek, vegetable anxiety induced panic attack happening now! Unable to resist I buy everything, so now the question is, what to make first??
I envisioned some sort of squash/leek/wild rice combination, and ended up with this Acorn Squash Stuffed with Cranberry & Leek Black Rice. I love wild rice, but its expensive and not always whole grain, so this black rice was the perfect solution. At only $3.69 a pack, I used Lundberg's black & mahogany whole grain rice blend to achieve the color and taste I was looking for. Hesitant to splurge? Mix wild rice or black rice with regular brown rice to dilute the cost but maintain the flavors.  
Braised in a lovely mixture of leeks, broth, sage and cranberries, the rice mixture exudes all the delightful elements of Thanksgiving stuffing.  The dish, which works perfectly on its own as a side to roast turkey or duck, is instead nestled in a baked squash half to deliver the ultimate taste of fall.
I chose acorn squash because it has a great shape for stuffing, and is small enough that I was sure I'd be able to cut it in half with my knife! Not only does the balsamic rice balance perfectly against the subtly sweet squash, but its fun to carve out each smooth spoonful of squash filling and finish with the robust, crunchy rice.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Cranberry & Leek Black Rice (derived from AMA Family Health Cookbook)
Serves 2 main dishes or 4 side dishes

2 acorn squash, about 1 3/4 pounds each, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 leeks, white parts removed, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
3/4 cup black rice, rinsed
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 3/4 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sprinkle the squash with salt & pepper and arrange in a baking dish cut side down. Bake, uncovered, in the preheated oven, until the squash begins to soften. After 25 minutes, turn squash so cut halves are facing up and bake until tender, about 20-25 minutes more.
2. While squash is cooking, prepare rice. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add leek and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
3. Add 2 1/2 cups of broth along with rice and salt, stir once, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 30 minutes.  If liquid is absorbed at this time, add 1/2 cup more broth.
4. Add cranberries and sage and continue to cook until rice is ready, about 10 minutes, until liquid is absorbed.
5. Stir the vinegar and pecans into rice. Season with black pepper and more salt to taste.
6. Remove squash halves from oven and carefully scoop rice filling into squash. Serve warm.

American Medical Association. Family Health Cookbook. New York: Pocket, 1997. Print.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Linguine with Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce and Shrimp

Summer might have officially come to a close this past weekend, but lets give it one last hurrah with Linguine with Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce and Shrimp, featuring that final batch of farmers market-fresh colorful heirloom tomatoes. There is really nothing like a ripe, fresh tomato roasted and caramelized in its own juice, olive oil and garlic. You will be swooning.

Speaking of which, I am going to dub this pasta "date night dish": The authors of the original recipe, which hails from Spoon Fork Bacon, describe this recipe as the perfect go-to for the first time you cook for a boy - it's universally delicious and hard to mess up! As long as you have quality tomatoes you are really set up for success: whether you splurge for a totally authentic meal that would make Mario Batali proud with a good quality olive oil, fresh pasta and specialty Parmesan cheese, or cook this with a store-bought 99 cent package of Barilla (a la me), I promise this dish will taste good. A slow-simmering tomato, oregano, basil and wine sauce just cannot fail. Still nervous for your date? Luckily this recipe only calls for 1/2 cup of red wine, so pour a glass during prep time and serve the rest of the bottle during dinner. The dish begs for a glass of good wine alongside it.
The original recipe called for pappardelle, and I think any long noodle- linguine or spaghetti too- would work well in this dish. I added shrimp for a protein boost, and then topped with feta to go along with the Mediterranean theme. However, Parmesan is the obvious choice for a cheese if serving plain or with meatballs. I also added onions to the sauce for a chunkier medium. I realized this midway through and tossed them in with the wine to the simmering sauce, but in retrospect, I would definitely roast them alongside the tomatoes next time.

One last suggestion: make sure you do not include the juices in the canned whole tomatoes if you are going to add the pasta water at the end of the dish. Because I used both, the sauce ended up a tad too liquidy. I would only add the pasta water in the end on an as-needed basis.

Linguine with a Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce and Shrimp (from SpoonForkBacon)
Serves 3 to 5

1 ½ lbs cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon thyme, minced
1 garlic clove, lightly smashed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes with the juices
1 cup basil, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons oregano, minced
½ cup red wine
1 lb pasta (papardelle, linguine or spaghetti)
½ Vidalia onion, minced

1 lb cooked shrimp, deveined

2 tablespoons basil, chopped

feta or Parmesan cheese
optional: hot red pepper flakes

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Bring a large pot up to a boil.
3. Season with a generous amount of salt and add pasta. Stir.
4. Cook until al dente, about 4 to 5 minutes for fresh pasta and 8 to 10 for dry.
5. Drain, reserving ½ cup of pasta water, and gently toss pasta with olive oil. Set aside.
6. Place the cherry tomatoes, thyme, garlic, onion, and olive oil onto a baking sheet and toss together.
7. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, or until soft and lightly caramelized.
8. Pour half of the cherry tomatoes into a small bowl and set aside.
9. Pour the onion and remaining cherry tomatoes into a blender with the canned tomatoes, basil and oregano. Season with salt and pepper and puree until smooth.
10. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and stir in the red wine.
11. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
12. Toss the sauce, pasta, shrimp, and pasta water (if needed) together and finish with remaining roasted tomatoes and chopped basil. Sprinkle with cheese and/or hot red pepper flakes, if desired. Serve warm.