Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Wants To (Lego) Party?

Well, my younger son's birthday party is a mere 2 weeks away so we are in full Lego party frenzy here. I thought I'd post one of the items I made for his party... Lego marshmallow minifigure heads. These are super cute, and a really good introduction to working with coating chocolate. I'm going to start with a finished product picture, and then walk you through how to do it.
Super cute, right? These are going to be the toppers for his cupcakes. He's so excited and honestly, I am getting there too!! So let's start with ingredients. You'll need 1 bag of large marshmallow, 1 bag of small marshmallows, 1 bag of candy melts (I use Wilton brand), a pack of lollipop sticks, and a food grade marker. I bought the food marker online from Amazon. Here's the items so when you go to buy them, you know you're getting the right thing.

So, the first step is prepare your work area. Line your counter with wax paper. It makes cleanup much easier, and the candy releases from it very easily. One very important rule. Chocolate doesn't play nicely with water!!! Make sure every last bit of you tools, workspace, bowl, etc is completely dry. Not mostly dry, no partly dry, I'm talking Sahara desert dry. Water causes chocolate to bind, which means it turns all grainy and clumpy. Once it's hit that point, you're sunk without a ton of work. Okay, so put all the candy melts into a microwave safe bowl. I use a ceramic bowl because it holds heat so well, so the chocolate stays fluid longer. Put the candy melts into the microwave and set it on 50% power. Start with 1 minute, and stir. Continue doing this at 50% power until the chocolate is fully melted and will run off of a spoon, like this:
While the chocolate is melting oh so slowly in the microwave, cut the mini marshmallows in half like this:
I know you will be temped to crank up the microwave to full power but trust me, don't. There's nothing like the smell of burnt chocolate to help you learn that lesson. Please let my mistake help prevent you from making the same one. If your candy burns, it all has to get throw out. It ruins the flavor of the entire batch.

So now, pick up the half of a mini marshmallow, dip it into the melted chocolate and stick it onto the top of the regular marshmallow. Here's two pics of these steps:
You can see I have a bunch lined up already "glued" together. Now you need to let them sit for a few minutes until the chocolate sets. You may want to nuke the chocolate for another 30 seconds at 50% power and give it a stir. Remember, you want it to be really "liquidy". Once they are set, grab a marshmallow stick and carefully jam the marshmallow onto the stick, almost all the way. It should like this:
Now you're going to dip the marshmallow into the melted chocolate and swirl it around to make sure it's completely coated. Lift it straight out of the chocolate and tap the stick on the side of the bowl. This will help remove the excess chocolate so you don't have a puddle under your candy while they are setting. Use the spoon you stirred the chocolate to carefully scrap the excess chocolate. It doesn't matter if you scrape it bare, because it's the back, and no one should be that picky anyhow! Here's how it looks once it's coated.
From here, I just lay them out on the wax paper, being careful to make sure they don't touch, since they will stick together and make an ugly mess. Here's my work drying.
Once they dry, use the food safe market to gently draw faces on each one. I just grabbed a bunch of heads from the boys Lego bins and started copying them. Now, as the candy sets, it won't be shiny anymore, but that's okay.  That's it! All finished! To clean the bowl, I just run really hot water in it and then add a drop of dish detergent. Easy! Enjoy and happy "Lego-ing"!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Southern Sweet Tea Chicken

I found a recipe for sweet tea brine on Pinterest and was really intrigued. Let's talk about a brine. In it's simplest form, a brine is just a mixture of salt and water. I never never never cook any type of poultry without brining it overnight. I won't go into the complex explanation of why a brine makes poultry so divine (it involves osmosis) but suffice to say my kids don't know that most people think chicken is dry. Here's the other awesome thing about a brine is that any other flavors you add to it enter into the flesh of the meat. It's an easy way to add a lot of flavor to poultry. Every Thanksgiving I brine our turkey using Alton Brown's bring recipe found here. Once we had this, there was no going back. Here's a catering secret: all chicken that comes out of a GOOD catering kitchen has been brined. This includes baked and fried chicken. It makes the chicken retain sooo much moisture, so you don't end up biting into something the consistency of wood. So without anymore chatter, here's the recipe:

2 Chicken leg quarters
4 tea bags
4 cups of water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 lemon sliced as thin as possible
1 small onion, sliced very thin as well
3 cloves of garlic or 3 Tablespoons of minced garlic in a jar
1 Tablespoon cracked black pepper
2 cups of ice

Bring the water to a boil then remove it from the heat. Add the tea bags and let it steep for 10 minutes. Remove te tea bags and throw them away, they've given up their goods. Add the salt, sugar, lemon, onion, garlic, and pepper and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. This is your brine. Let it sit for about 45 minutes to 1 hour until it's not hot anymore. This is a really important step. You never want to add any raw protein to a warm liquid. It puts the food into the temperature danger zone for too long and this is how people end up with food poisoning. Once it's cool to the touch, add the 2 cups of ice. At this point, you have a choice. You can either put the chicken in a Ziploc bag and add the brine to it, or you can do like I do. I have a plastic 1 gallon pitcher I use just for brining chicken. (it's labeled so my hubby doesn't make Crystal Light in it, lol) I put the brine in the pitcher, then add the ice, then add the chicken. That way I can make sure all of the chicken is submerged. If it's not completely submerged, add some water and stir it. Now put the whole ting in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.
Next day, about 1 hour 10 minutes before you want to eat, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with foil and set a roasting rack or cookie rack on top of it. Spray the rack with cooking spray (like PAM). Remove the chicken from the fridge, drain it, set it on a plate and pat it dry with paper towels. Make sure the skin is very dry, as this is key to crispy skin. Place the chicken on the rack, making sure none of it is touching and put it in the preheated oven. Set the timer for 40 minutes and turn on the oven exhaust fan. This is a very smoky recipe, but if you can bear with it, it's well worth it! I had to open the windows during the last 15 minutes but that's because I didn't have the fan on from the start. When the 40 minutes are up, you'll be tempted to think the chicken is done, but it's not. Decrease the oven temp to 350, rotate the pan so the back is now in the front, and bake it for another 20 minutes. Now remove it from the oven. It should be 160 degrees when checked with a probe thermometer. Cover the whole pan with foil and let it sit for 10 minutes. Again this is an important step that shouldn't be skipped because it lets the juices redistribute throughout the chicken. Anyone who has cut meat as soon as it comes out of the oven can tell you it's not delicious when all the juices are sitting on the cutting board.

Here is what the finished chicken looks like. I wanted to show a picture of all the pieces before I cut them, but the boys we're screaming that they were starving to death, so I was only able to snap a shot of my own piece. It was so incredibly juicy, I just can't describe it!
Is your mouth watering yet?? My stomach was growling while I was trying to get the best picture, lol!! Here is a picture of my setup to bake it. You'll see why I line the pan with foil, so I don't spend the rest of the night scrubbing the pan clean. I just let it cool, pull the foil off and toss it in the trash. Easy, peasy!
Enjoy! We sure did!!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oven Roasted Lobster and Vegetable Stir Fry

My husband loves lobster. I mean he really loves lobster. It kills him that he can't order it every time we dine out because the price tag usually resembles the U.S. debt. So, for Valentine's Day I decided to make lobster for dinner and make his day/week/year. First I will cover the stir fry recipe, with details to every step, then the lobster, since that was by far the easier item. Make no mistake, neither portion of this dinner was technique-heavy or difficult, but the stir fry does require that you are prepared and ready to cook for 10 minutes straight. It's going to be very picture laden, so be forewarned! Here goes:
I start with fresh veggies that I know everyone will eat, plus a few they won't recognize once cooked in. For tonight these included broccoli, carrots, red bell peppers, baby bok choy, and red onion.
 So at this point all these raw veggies needed to be chopped into bite sized pieces. This is important, especially if you have kids. You won't want to stop eating so you can chop up broccoli or carrots for the little ones! Plus, they just plain cook quicker that way. Here's a tool that's nearly indispensable in my kitchen
It's called a mandoline, or mandoline slicer. It has a thin, VERY SHARP blade and another piece that holds the intended veggie victim. Please don't try to slice on a mandoline without the guard. That blade looks innocuous, but it's really sharp. With it, I turned 2 red onions and 3 pounds of carrots into this:
in less than 5 minutes. Now here's a confession...I didn't use the guard for the carrots. It's just too difficult to get even slices without the carrot rolling all over, but PLEASE don't do what I did. I am used to this particular slicer. Here's what I suggest, cut your carrot in half lengthwise, then use the slicer. Ok, end of my mommy voice and back to dinner. All told, it took me about 10 minutes to end up with this:

Before you even THINK about turning on a burner, make sure you are at this point. Don't say, "oh, I can chop as I go along..." You can't. This goes really fast once the heat gets involved.

Here are the ingredients for the stir fry sauce
From left to right it's: Soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, black pepper, (ignore the salt), minced garlic, ground ginger, and dark sesame oil. All these things are available in the grocery store. If you have any problem, check the ethnic food aisle. Also there's chicken broth, but I keep that frozen in cubes, so no pic of that.

Mix together 1/2 cup chicken broth, 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each of rice wine vinegar and dark sesame oil. Just set it out of spill range for now. Also, in a separate bowl, mix together 2 teaspoons of cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of cold water and set it aside as well.

Ok, now this stir fry takes 10 minutes to cook. That's all. It's fast, it's hot, and believe me, you don't want your kids underfoot while you're doing this part. Grab a really large saute pan or skillet. I mean LARGE. I use one that's similar to a wok, but with a flat bottom. Put it on the burner, add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and turn that burner up to high. Go ahead, don't be scared. Get that thing screaming hot! If you're cooking on electric your burner should be bright red. Be patient here and let that pan get good and hot. It's key to a crisp stir fry. One it's really hot, grab a heat-resistant spoon or spatula. In my pics you'll see I use a rubber spatula but it's heat resistant up to 500 degrees. Now let's cook:
Add the sliced onions and cook them until brown but still crisp. This should only take about 1-2 minutes.

Add 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic and let this cook 1 minute.
If you're using the same veggies I have pictured here, add them in the same order. You're going to add the longest cooking veggies first. So in go the carrots. Keep tossing everything around the pan or it will burn. Move everything around. Cook for about 2 minutes or until they look like this:
Next add the broccoli. Again cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. The broccoli will turn bright green and look like this:
Now add the red bell peppers. Same thing, 2 minutes until bright red and still crisp.
Now add the bok choy and cook for 1 minute until it's bright green and wilted. Make sure everything is mixed through well. Now add the sauce (the mix of stock, soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil) and toss until all the veggies are well coated. Let this cook for about a minute, then add the cornstarch water mixture (called a slurry) to the pan and cook. This will cause the sauce to thicken and make it nice and glossy. YUM! This is what the finished stir fry looks like
It smells fabulous! It tastes even better. Give it a taste test and make sure it tastes how you like it. If the sauce is too thick, add a little chicken stock. If it's too thin, just let it cook a bit longer. Tah-dah!

Now to the lobster, this couldn't be easier. I buy the tails from the seafood department. First preheat the oven to 425. Then cut the shell down the back with a pair of sharp scissors like this:

 Don't cut through the meat, just the shell. then slide your fingers inside the shell and make it crack open so the meat is visible. it should look like this:
Next drizzle the lobsters with sesame oil and sprinkle with cracked black pepper. Once the oven is preheated, slide them into the oven and cook for 13 minutes. The shell will turn red and the meat will be bright white. Like this:
Here is the finished plate, just waiting for us to devour it. I sometimes like to add a squirt of lemon juice too, but I felt it didn't need it in this case. Enjoy!!