Rocky Road Popcorn Bars

YEAAAAA RED SOX!

Well, now that that’s out of my system…I suppose it’s also Halloween.

When I was growing up in the glorious 90s, Halloween was a time to enjoy the variety of neighborhood tastes. One house would have pure chocolate truffles, another would boast trays upon trays of caramel apples…but the one that I looked forward to the most was the blue house on the corner that made popcorn balls the size of my face. (I was much smaller back then).

But still, these popcorn balls were a special once a year treat, where crunchy met salty met buttery met sweet. They were always individually wrapped, sometimes rolled in crushed peanuts or extra sugar, and were always the first thing I ate when I finished trick-or-treating.

Unfortunately the 90s came to an end, ushering in a new millenium full of paranoia about accepting homemade treats (and rightly so, as apparently there’s a lot more ill will out there now than there were during my childhood. Yikes!). No more homemade popcorn balls and caramel apples. Just regular store-bought plastic wrapped candy. Delicious, yes. But not the same. Not to mention, the measurements for “fun size” seem to be shrinking before my very eyes, in direct correlation to the price increase. How do you figure?

This year for Halloween, I am officially too old for the spooky spirit. Rather than going to some creepy pub crawl, or drinking my weight in pumpkin beer (okay, let’s maybe not rule it out entirely), I will be at home in my pajamas watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, recovering from last night’s World Series celebrations….and eating Rocky Road Popcorn Bars.

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As I attempted to recreate this childhood treat, I wanted a way to make them special. Popcorn is just plain wonderful, especially when bound together with butter and salt and sticky sugar syrup. And it’s a flexible ingredient that will take on any flavor beautifully.

Rocky Road was the perfect solution. The marshmallows would bind the popcorn together, while the chocolate would add richness (and most importantly, chocolate), while the nuts would add salt and crunch. And is a great way to continue the baseball celebrations…it has been quite the rocky road for these Red Sox!

Sidenote: History of Rocky Road
Popularized by the ice cream flavor, Rocky Road was originated in Australia as a treat for miners, as a way to use up candy that spoiled on long ship voyages. Combining poor-quality chocolate, local nuts, and now marshmallow, the name Rocky Road was given as tribute to the long dangerous road that the Australian gold miners had to travel. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_road_(dessert))

TIP: The easiest way to make it is to pretend you’re making rice crispy treats. Melt the marshmallows, butter, and chocolate in a large sauce pan. Add the popped popcorn, and stir/mash until the kernels are well covers. You want to mash them a little so that the kernels get smallers. This makes it easier for the bars to hold a shape (fewer air pockets) and a lot easier to eat.

Ingredients:
4 tablespoons butter
4 cups popped popcorn (about ¾ cup unpopped kernels)
6 cups mini marshmallows (one 10-oz bag)
½ cup + ¼ cup chocolate chips
½ +¼ cup chopped walnuts

1. Pop the popcorn: I did the old-fashioned way, sauteing the kernels in melted butter and stirring like crazy until the all popped. But you could also use the microwave kind. If using the microwave variety, go for a salted one, not a kettle corn. Otherwise it gets too sweet.

2. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is fully melted, add the marshmallows, 1 cup at a time, stirring until fully melted. Adding the marshmallows gradually helps prevent burning.

3. Once all the marshmallows are melted, reduce heat to low. Stir in the popcorn. Don’t be gentle! As mentioned above, breaking the kernels up will actually help the bars form.

4. When the popcorn is well coated, remove the popcorn from heat and add ½ cup chocolate chips and ½ cup walnuts. The chips will melt, but do not despair! We will add more later.

5. Coat a brownie pan with nonstick spray.

6. Scoop the popcorn mix into the pan (remember: smaller pans mean thicker bars, so keep that in mind) and press with clean hands until the layer is even.

7. Sprinkle the remaining walnuts and chocolate chips over the top and press into the marshmallow. Do this quickly, while the marshmallow is still warm and gooey so that the chips and nuts stick to the bars.

8. Let the bars cool (I know, it’s hard) for about 10 minutes. Then cut into square and serve!

YUM!

YUM!

Happy Halloween everyone! And I hope this recipes brings back some delicious candy traditions to your family and taste buds!

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Simplify, Simplify: Walden and the Search for Meaning

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I cannot think of any book that had taught me more, but simultaneously frustrated me, than Walden. After reading the first chapter alone, it was clear to me that Henry David Thoreau is highly misunderstood and taken for granted by those who read his work today.

My friends and relatives asked me repeatedly to remind them why I actively chose to read such a thing. People assumed that because it was old, it was boring; if it was about nature, it was hippie propaganda…and boring.

Refusing to believe that there was nobody else out there who enjoyed this, I checked the ever-useful Goodreads.com to see what other people (people who actually enjoy reading) had to say. While I didn’t read every review, a few words stood out to me: “Smug”, “like bran flakes”, “could never be friends with him”, “phony”.

That last one got me. People felt Thoreau was insincere in his years at Walden because he simply wasn’t removed enough from society. He was but two miles from Concord center, and could even hear the train whistle in his quiet little cabin. He borrowed tools to build his home from his neighbors, frequently entertained visitors, and even strolled into town himself on occasion. And to some readers, this behavior was just too “social” and “dependant” for Thoreau to consider himself a “survivor” and adventureman. But to these skeptics I say just this:

Walden is not about surviving with nothing; it’s about thriving with less.

Thoreau’s retreat into the Concord woods was not an exercise in isolation, or abandonment of society. It was an escape from the fruitless labors and pointless excess of city life and an attempt to discover peace and simplicity in a rapidly evolving nation. While Thoreau certainly expresses love and reverence for the nature that surrounds him, his musings from Walden Pond pertain more to agriculture and economics more than the flowery, rough-and-tough image that most people have of him.

In the opening chapter, “Economy”, Thoreau explains his move to the woods through a financial, almost business-like, perspective. He views his neighbor’s constant toil to make a profit as futile, since no matter how hard they work neither their land nor their products are truly there. Every dime goes towards paying off the mortgage or some other loan, and this lack of ownership over one’s labor is (in the words of Karl Marx, not Thoreau) “alienating” and therefore lacks value beyond it’s basic price.

“The twelve labors of Hercules were triflings in comparison to those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men captured or slew any monster or finished any labor.”

It’s not like Thoreau went on vacation to the woods. He had a great deal of work to do, from building his own home to growing his own food. And while it was exhausting and often difficult, he sincerely felt that he got more personal benefit from his work than his neighbors did from theirs, despite the lack of help or companionship. He was quite dissatisfied with modern economics and the notion or working towards and invisible end. But while he opted out of conventional lifestyle, Thoreau’s distrust of modern society is perhaps strongest at the level of external appearance. He seems to be generally distrusting of people who desire material wealth and opulent or showy clothing.

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

He feels as if the internal material must be severely neglected if so much attention is to be placed on the outward appearance, and that such fanciful items are masks that prevent people but recognizing the utility and aesoteric beauty of the people and things wearing them. Fancy clothes in particular are simply another item which we never truly own, as they cost a lot of money but hide the true self. While we may financially possess the clothes, we do not possess ourselves.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Certainly this idea has many modern implications, and though Thoreau did not realize the extent that technology would reach in today’s world, he absolutely foresaw the effect it would have on our society.

“Our inventions are wont but pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

While Thoreau’s discussion of economics are perhaps the most instructive, he spends ample time in Walden discussing the spiritual benefits on a frugal and purposeful life. In my favorite chapter of the book, “Solitude”, he begins the feel lonely and questions whether or not a human neighborhood is actually necessary, and starts feelings insane. At the same moment, it begins to rain…and this simple response from nature to his worries washes all his doubts away.

“In the midst of the gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at ones like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” (pp. 106)

This borderline mystical experience with nature reveals Thoreau’s true intention in retiring to the woods. Not to be alone, or reject society, but to appreciate and connect to something beyond fast trains and silk gowns and high profits.

I have a lot more to say about this book, but for now I want to leave you with this thought: Once start wanting more there is no limit to how much we will continue to want. In today’s world it is easy to get more and bigger and faster and richer. Value and meaning therefore comes when we decide to minimise…Or as Thoreau would say, “simplify, simplify”.

Photo Credit: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Live-The-Life-You-Have-Imagined-Henry-David-Thoreau-Quote-Poster-Posters_i8831946_.htm

Herb Mashed Potato Bites

Is there anything more comforting than mashed potatoes? They’re warm, they’re creamy, and buttery and smothered in salty sweet gravy. Yes, I’d have to say that if there were any food that could mimic the feeling of a big bear hug or a fluffy down comforter…it would be mashed potatoes.

But in spite of all these warm and fuzzy magical feelings…most mashed potatoes today are sadly uninspired. Just because it’s a potato, doesn’t mean it can’t have character. Yes, butter and cream and salt take the simple ol’ spud pretty far…but doesn’t a food that provides so much joy deserve more?

I got the idea for this recipe from an appetizer I had at a local restaurant. They served cheesy risotto fritters with a sweet and spicy mayonnaise dip. The outside were golden and crunchy (no doubt deep fried) with creamy salty cheesy risotto on the inside. It was like a mozzarella stick with more melty cheese and a lot more crunch. I wanted to try making these at home for the Patriots game this past Sunday…but kickoff was in one hour and I had none of the ingredients or patience on hand. Mashed potatoes would have to do.

I also really wanted to avoid deep frying if I could. I know people often think that tailgating food must necessarily be unhealthy and fried and smothered in sauces or melted cheese. But I feel as if the best way to “participate” in sports is to not stuff our arteries with saturated fats. Honestly people, if we want to scream at our running backs to “RUN RUN RUN” then we should be able to move ourselves, no?

Anyway…back to the recipe…

I started by making basic mashed potatoes, with the skin, and adding roasted garlic, salt, pepper and chopped scallions. Then I formed them into balls and tried to skillet-cook them like meatballs. They ended up looking a lot like pan-seared scallops. The top and bottom were golden and crispy but the sides were un-crunched.

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I forgot one of the basic rules of cooking potatoes: the absorb everything! Unless you want french fries…don’t fry potatoes in oil. The inside wasn’t the soft and creamy like I imagined, but crumbly and a little greasy. Yikes!

So instead I tried to bake them. I am always so hesitant about baking anything with breadcrumbs on the outside because 1) it takes so long, and 2) sometimes it doesn’t get crunchy. Like that time I tried to make baked eggplant parm only to get, 30 minutes later, soggy cutlets.

But also like those eggplant cutlets, I eventually learned that the key to crispy “oven-fried” teats is not baking…it’s broiling!

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The main difference between baking and broiling is where the heat in the oven comes from. For baking, the heat comes from the bottom on the oven, cooking the items from the bottom up allowing thorough cooking and a hot internal temperature of the food. Broiling, apart from being a tad bit hotter, sends heat from the oven ceiling, allowing the direct heat on the top of the food, uninterrupted by the cookie sheet or pan or whathaveyou, and allowing the outside to brown and crisp up but not necessarily cooking the inside..

By using a combination of baking and broiling I was able to get these mashed potato morsels warm and creamy in the middle, but crunchy and golden on the outside. The other culprit in the crunch? Panko. Yes yes, you absolutely have to use panko breadcrumbs and those regular kind. Panko doesn’t absorb oil the same way, and therefore it keep the outside dry and more likely to get crispy.

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The scallions added a perfect onion-y zest and a pop of color and the roasted garlic took the taste experience to a cozy earthy place. I served mine with pesto, because I had it on hand but also the nutty herb flavor complemented the roasted garlic really well. This is one of those recipes designed to transform something we traditional into something unique, so feel free to mix and match with the herbs. Hot sauce, blue cheese, marinara, or BBQ sauce would all be great with this

Recipe:
2-3 Russet potatoes
3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic
½ cup fat-free half and half or whole milk
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 ½ cups unseasoned panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup chopped scallions
Canola oil

Instructions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F

2. Scrub the potatoes so that the skin is clean and free of dirt

3. Boil the whole potato until thoroughly cooked, about 15 minutes. Let cool.

4. Wrap the garlic cloved in aluminum foil and roast until soft. You can either place them in the oven (about 10 minutes) or place the foil packet over the flame of the gas stove on medium heat (about 5 minutes). When the garlic is cool, mash is with a chefs knife, using the side of the blade and chopping/pressing it until it forms a smooth paste. (Best do this on a cutting board)

5. Cut the potatoes into cubes and mash, ensuring that the skin is broken up into small pieces.

6. Mash in butter and half and half first. Then stir in the roasted garlic, salt, pepper, and chopped scallions.

7. Using your hands, form balls of the potato mixture about the size of meatballs. Roll them thoroughly in the panko breadcrumbs. Place the coated bites on a greased cookie sheet and drizzle the tops with a little canola oil to encourage that crimpy brown crust.

***Cooking Tip: it’s very easy for potatoes to get dry. It test if your have enough moisture, pay attention to your hands as you form the balls. If the potato mixture leaves a gritty, starch film on your hands then the mixture is too dry. Add for milk or half and half, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mix is moist but firm enough to form a ball. If the mix leaves a slightly wet feeling on your hands but the balls still hold their shape, the mix is perfect! If you think your potato mixture is too wet, add instant mashed potato mix or let the mix sit uncovered for a few minutes. Potatoes are natural absorbers, so they will take up a lot of liquid if given time.

8. Bake for about 7-10 minutes, until the tops are slightly golden.

9. Switch the oven to broil and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Baking and then broiling allows the outside to get crispy while also ensuring the inside gets nice and hot, much the way a deep fryer does but using much less oil).

10. Serve immediately with your favorite dips and dressings

(PS: Next time…I may try them with sweet potatoes! Yum!)