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!

Tomato Sandwiches

The fall growing season is at it’s peak, and despite the near-freezing overnight temperatures my tomatoes are somehow still popping out juicy red orbs every other day. For my first real vegetable patch, I’d say I did pretty well.

Perhaps my favorite way to enjoy these succulent garden jewels was Mediterranean style: raw with little olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh lemon. The deep, tart flavor of the tomatoes intensified with the rich oil and the spicy pepper. It became a staple for my office lunch box. Every day for at least a week in September I would slather two slices of whole grain toast with goat cheese and top them with these marinated tomatoes. My tiny gray cubicle was momentarily transformed into a lush Tuscan garden and I couldn’t wait to go home and harvest for of my delicious Roma tomatoes!

As the season progressed and more ruby orbs ripened in the yard, my mother came to realize that one of her coworkers also grew a lot of tomatoes…only hers were bright yellow! And one more week later, my aunt handed us a bag of fresh green tomatoes from her garden too! Now this was just absurd. So deliciously absurd!

A fraction of the tomatoes, from the garden and gifts

A fraction of the tomatoes, from the garden and gifts

I began to dream up all sorts of ways to incorporate this colorful bounty into my sandwiches, appreciating the variety that arises from just one vegetable in one region of this vast world. But I wanted to make sure of two things: 1) I keep the tomatoes raw to appreciate their natural unadulterated flavor, and 2) I keep these sandwiches relatively healthy, and free of too much processed food (what’s the point of having fresh tomatoes if everything else was created in a lab?).

For best results I liked to marinate the tomatoes in whatever dressing I was using (balsamic vinegar, pesto, olive oil, etc). Put the tomatoes in a sandwich bag, and spread the cheese or hummus or mayo on the bread in advance. It makes for easy and quick assembly, leaving you more time to enjoy your lunch break!

Here are a just a few of the recipes I came up with.

1. Sunny Day: Cream cheese, yellow tomatoes, red onion, lemon juice

best enjoyed outside

best enjoyed outside

2. Caprese: Goat cheese, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, tomatoes, fresh basil
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3. Go Green: Pesto, light Swiss, yellow tomato (I would have added avocados, but they’re not in season!)
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4. Red Hot: Hummus, Roma tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, crushed red pepper
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These are just a few of the infinite ways to enjoy fresh home-grown tomatoes. What’s your favorite way to eat yours?

A Evening at the Topsfield Fair!

Two weeks ago the girls and I piled into car after work and went to the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in the United States! This annual competition features the old-world charm of petting barns and animal exhibitions, but with the new and exciting addition of carnival rides, fried food trucks and mountains of homemade candy and fudge.

TopsfieldCarnival

I hadn’t been to this fair since I was a child, and so the experience was like new to my eyes. There were people of all ages and background (gangs of teenagers to young parents with their infants to old couples with walkers)…all enjoying the wonderful variety of the fall harvest, both traditional and millenial.

TopsfieldHoney

I was so excited to be so close to all the animals and see from close up how much personality and emotion they actually have (vegetarianism was completely reaffirmed). But more than anything else, I loved seeing the young children curiously peeking through the glass as a baby chick hatched or gazing in awe at the mountains of fresh apples available for purchase. It made me very hopeful that new generations of Americans may just decide to put down their video game controllers to enjoy fresh air and the beautiful bounty of nature.

But perhaps the most powerful of all things I saw was the calf and its mother. I had never before seen a cow’s milk actually being given, from the udder, to its calf. It’s incredible. All this milk and cheese and yogurt on the shelves…and never once I have I seen or herd of a cow’s milk being given to her own child. In all those documentaries about farm living and sustainable food, the baby cows have always been bottle-fed…when all along it’s mother’s milk (you know, that thing that every doctor in the world says is the perfect food for baby?!) is just a few steps away being harvested for humans.

CowTopsfield

It’s not like I’m about to go Vegan or anything…it’s just perspective. The farm is where life sustains likes sustains life. From the tiniest little egg to the most enormous and intimidating bull you’ve ever seen, all life supports each other. And despite the dirt and the smells, it’s beautiful!

TopsfieldEggs

And of course, giant pumpkins!

photo 1 (2)

These kings and queens of squash were awe-inspiring and made me reflect, however pathetically, on my own adventures with my first garden. I barely had enough patience (or skill) to grow some decent sized bell peppers and here these guys were growing behemoth pumpkins that dwarf the big burly men who made them. Frankenpumpkin!

But as we passed through the fruits and vegetable exhibition, where all the prize-winning produce (literally everything from baby jalapenos to multi-colored beets) I couldn’t help but smile at how laughable the idea of a “perfect garden” or a “perfect gardener” truly was. Nobody wakes up and says “Today I will plant the seed that yields one hundred yellow tomatoes.” It’s not up to us! Yes, we must water and weed and nourish our plants but how much control do we really have on how big or small our fruits become? That’s the real beauty of gardening and farming: we work with the earth and the elements to create something collectively. It doesn’t matter how unique or prize-winning our crop is. What matters is that we keep this relationship with nature alive…in any shape or color.