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.

RockyRoad1

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!

Seasonal Ingredients: Fall

A quick afternoon post as I plan for the week!

Fall is most definitely here, flashing it’s vibrant red-and-rust colors all over my front lawn. This week, as I enjoyed a peaceful retreat in the mountains with my family, the house was filled with the warm smell of pie and hot mulled cider…and all those other great seasonal favorites that this cozy time of year carried with it.

It really got me thinking about how much I love living in New England. Most of the associations people have of this season come from here! Pumpkins, apples, cranberries…not to mention Thanksgiving… yea, you’re welcome!

In all serious, I wanted to set out and discover which other foods were seasonal to this area  besides those popularized by various Starbucks concoctions. I found this handy dandy tool that shows you which produce items are in season in your region in any given month.

Seasonal Ingredient Map US:  http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/seasonalcooking/farmtotable/seasonalingredientmap

Of course, if you are like me and live in Massachusetts there is a big gap in the growing season from about November to April because the ground is just plain frozen…but it really puts it in perspective the impact of place on the diet, and also sheds some light on the nature of the modern food system and the supermarket. If you live in a climate similar to mine, and you see bananas and oranges in mid-January…WALK AWAY! Chances are they are covered in pesticides, were picked a month ago, and required a lot of polluting fuel to arrive in your grocery basket.

For anyone who may be interested in seasonal  cooking (or is following my endeavors to keep my pantry as in-season as possible), here is a list of ingredients I will be trying to optimize from October-November while they are still fresh and (hopefully also) local. Again, these are from Massachusetts, so if you want to see what in season near you, click on the link above.  The list may just surprise you:

– apples (so many possibilities!)

– broccoli

– cabbage

– carrots

– celery

– cranberries

– eggplants

– lettuce

– peppers

– potatoes

– pumpkins (I love living here)

– radishes

– raspberries (didn’t know that! will have to stock up!)

– tomatoes

– turnips

– watermelon (another pleasant surprise)

– winter squash

Here also is an interesting article on the benefits of local seasonal eating, both on your health and the environment: http://food-hub.org/files/resources/Seasonal%20Foods%20A%20New%20Menu%20for%20Public%20health.pdf

Happy cooking! And more importantly, happy autumn!

Butternut Squash Stuffed Shells

We all know how obsessed I am with butternut squash. I also happen to be obsessed with pasta and ricotta cheese. This recipe was meant to utilize a staple fall ingredient (the squash, of course!) while also turning up the volume on a classic comfort food.

My family loves vegetable lasagna and all its relatives, especially stuffed shells. If it has spinach and cheese…we will eat it! The only problem is that all that delicious creamy cheese can be a bit heavy (both on the body and the waistline). I suppose the red sauce and spinach count as vegetables…but most of the time the richness of the cheese filling can be a bit overpowering. The squash adds a level of complexity to the dish and also gives you a great way to eat a healthy seasonal veggie. It allows provides creaminess, allowing you to cut in half (or more) the amount of cheese and butter you would normally use. By also adding fresh spices, pesto, and low-fat cream sauce you get all the flavors you love bundled up into a creamy little package.

(PS: you could also use canned pumpkin puree for an even easier, more flavorful recipe!)

Recipe: 

1 butternut squash, cooked and mashed

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1 egg

Italian seasoning (as much as you like!)

Fresh cracked black pepper (as much as you like!)

Jumbo shell pasta

2 cups low-fat milk

1 cup fat free half and half

1/4 cup white flour

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1-2 large garlic cloves, minced

Pesto (optional)

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

2. Cook the shells as directed (usually about 10 minutes in rapidly boiling water). Strain and set aside

3. Make the white sauce: start by melting the butter in a saucepan. Cook the flour in the butter until golden brown, stirring constantly. Stir in the garlic and salt. Add the milk and lower to medium heat. Let it boil, stirring frequently with a whisk, until it’s thick and creamy. If it gets too thick, add more milk. When it’s done, remove from heat otherwise it will keep getting thicker.

4. Chop the squash into 1-inch pieces and boil until soft (about 15 minutes) and drain the water.

5. Defrost the spinach by cooking it in the microwave for about 3 minutes. Strain it completely, squeezing all the water out with your hands.

6. In a bowl, mash the squash into a pulp. Whisk in the egg until well mixed. Stir in the ricotta and mozzarella cheese, spinach, pepper, and Italian seasoning.

7. Coat a 9-11″ baking pan with nonstick spray and a very thin layer of the white sauce.

8. Using a spoon, fill each shell with 2-3 tablespoons of filling

9. Lay each shell carefully into the pan, open side up, trying to keep them upright if possible.

10. Ladle the sauce carefully over the shells ensuring that the ends are covered so they don’t burn or get chewy.

11. Optional: Top each shell with a small dollop of pesto.

12. Bake for about 20 minutes and let set in the oven for another ten. Shell are ready when the filling is a bit puffy.