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!

Butternut Basil “Fries”

French fries are delicious! But the effect they have on our bodies (inside and out)…not quite so. We catch of whiff of the buttery smell as we drive by the local McDonald’s, gaze longingly across the table when our skinny friends order them on ladies’ night dinner. And when we give in to our primal need to fatty foods and relish in one crispy salty bite… we immediately hate ourselves and feel a little dirty, as if we cheated on our waistline or clean-green diet plan or what have you in the worst way possible. I have never been the type to feel guilty about what I ate. “Everything in moderation” means I am allowed to eat one French fry at ladies’ night dinner with one hand without promptly slapping myself with the other.

Aren’t I?

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A few months ago I posted a recipe on Sweet Potato Satay, and this recipe is in that same ilk: taking unhealthy foods that I crave and love, but transforming them into something wholesome, with more taste and pep than my original favorite (better still, it comes without the side dish of guilt and self-loathing). It’s the flavor you want to focus on, not the name. While “Satay” makes us think of chicken, we can have the flavor without the mean. While “fries” brings to mind fat and dangerous hydrogenated oils, we can have even better flavor and nutrition without losing the salty crisp we love.

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Why I love Butternut Squash:
I developed this recipe while making one of my favorite comfort foods: butternut squash mac and cheese! Traditional macaroni and cheese packs a lot of butter and multiple varieties of cheese, and is consequently fantastically rich and creamy and perhaps the most glorious dinner ever. However by using stronger cheese, like a sharp white cheddar or Swiss or even blue cheese, we can use less than if we used a mild cheddar. And replacing half the cheese with butternut squash (and adding plenty of fresh herbs and spices like basil, scallions, chives and nutmeg) not only eliminates a lot of the fat, but also adds a lot of nutrition and flavor! Recipes for this are to be found in most cooking website and women’s health magazines, and is usually suggested as a way to get children to eat vegetables (however unknowingly). But it’s also great for adults who love this classic casserole and would like to enjoy it without hating themselves for it. While Butternut Squash is aptly named for it’s (you guessed it) buttery texture and flavor, it also have a unique taste of its own, very like pumpkin but much less powerful. It’s also loaded with fiber and Vitamin A, and herein lines the beauty of swapping this delectable ingredient into classic macaroni and cheese. Butternut squash is also really easy to find these day, and you can buy it already peeled and cut and cored.

It’s the same story with French fries: while potatoes my themselves are healthy, any inkling of nutrition is lost from them once they hit the fryer. Sure, if you make fries at home you are welcome to bake them. But while you revamp the nutrition, why not also transform the flavor?!

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Like other squashes and potatoes, it is hard to get butternut squash to mimic the crispy-crunchy (yet soft in the middle) texture of the average fast-food fry unless it is deep fried in oil. Scrumptious, but quite contrary to my purposes. By roasting, and then sauteing the “fries”using canola oil (much heart-healthier than hydrogenated oils used at fast food chains) I came as close as ever to the soft-center/crunchy-outside combo that I wanted by. It takes a little longer, yes. But I promise the few extra minutes will be well-worth the wait!

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Recipe:
1 bulb butternut squash, peeled and cored
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Fresh basil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 tablespoons canola oil
salt and pepper
fresh lemon

Instructions:
1. Slice the butternut squash into strips, about the size of steak fries. Thinner fries will cook faster, but may also fall apart due to the softness of the squash, so aim for a good 1/2-3/4 inch thickness.

2. Toss the slices with 2 cloves of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil (use pure, not extra virgin). If you don’t have pure olive oil, Canola is fine.

3. Bake the slices until soft at the edges, about 15-20 minutes. While they bake shred your Parmesan cheese and finely chop a few basil leaves. Go crazy with your herbs! If you don’t have basil, go ahead and try scallions, rosemary, parsley, oregano…and FRESH Italian herb you have. Do not use the dehydrated kind unless you have nothing else.

4. In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil over medium-high heat. Carefully add the fries and cook until the sides are browned and crispy, about 5-10 minutes.

5. Remove from heat. Toss with Parmesan cheese, basil, salt, freshly cracked black better, and a spritz of fresh lemon juice.

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This is such an easy, heart-warming, and flavorful treat. It’s not only a great alternative to regular fried snacks, but it tastes a lot better too. The combination of creamy squash, sharp cheese, and fresh herbs and spices make make it a perfect appetizer for football games, dinner parties of just a night in with friends (no more envying the skinny girl!). These tastes great by themselves, but also pair well with your favorite pasta sauce (red or white), a pumkpin-flavored beer or a refreshing glass of chilled white wine.

Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Satay

I mentioned in an earlier post that the biggest challenge since becoming a vegetarian has been cravings: having tasted the flavor-loaded bounty of bar snacks and take-out classics, like buffalo chicken and teriyaki beef, it’s easy to crave those bold flavors and comforting familiar flavors. Add to that the irresistible combo of sweet-spicy-salty…please excuse me while I wipe the drool off my chin!

This week’s craving: chicken satay.

Is there anything more crave-able than sweet and salty? When you’re in the mood for an afternoon treat, or a midnight snack (or you’re just watching daytime television and want to stuff your face)…it’s often hard to choose between chips or chocolate, popcorn or candy. Sweet and salty solves all these problems. Anyone who’s eaten an entire bag of chocolate-covered pretzels in one go knows this. But the ultimate example? Peanut Butter.

That’s why chicken satay (and all Thai food in general) is so addictive. Whether it’s drunken noodle or pineapple fried rice, every bite of this cuisine packs a peanut buttery, sweetness with just the right kick of cayenne pepper to keep us coming back for more. A CNN.com article from July 2011 also elected masaman curry as the most delicious food in the world, thanks to the juicy chunks of mango, crunchy peanuts and spicy sauce it offers.

(Make sure you have a snack while you read this. It’s torture to an empty stomach

http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/eat/worlds-50-most-delicious-foods-067535)

Returning to my agonizing craving…how can you enjoy the flavors of all your favorite meat dishes while maintaining your vegetarian diet?

I soon realized it was the sauce I wanted, not the chicken. Easy enough to make peanut sauce…but what to eat it with? It’s not exactly the type of thing you dip your potato chips in…but potatoes, especially sweet potatoes, are a delicious and very healthy vehicle for any form of sauce. Most Thai curry dishes (especially masaman curry) contain big filling pieces of both sweet and yellow potatoes. They’re perfect in that they’re filling, cheap, and absorb pretty much any flavor you throw at them.

I chose sweet potatoes for this because they’re not only healthier (they are very high in fiber, protein, and vitamin A), but they have a naturally earthy, sweet (obviously) flavor that complements the sweet-salty-spicy flavor of satay sauce. And I was not disappointed!

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Instructions:

Start by peeling 2 or 3 medium-large sweet potatoes, and cutting them into wedges (cut the whole potato into fourths, and then make slices).

Next spread them onto a greased cookie sheet and bake them until they’re soft in the middle but not limp, about 20 minutes.

While they’re baking, prepare the sauce (recipe below): First combine the garlic, ginger, oils, vinegar, teriyaki, and brown sugar, cayenne pepper. Once they’re evenly mixed, slowly stir in the peanut butter with a spoon. NOTE:I wouldn’t recommend whisking this! I tried to, but the thick heavy peanut butter sloshed a wave of oil and garlic all over the counter and my clothes. A spoon is much gentler. Once the peanut butter is combined and smooth, taste it and make sure you’re spices are how you want them. All peanut butter is different. Sometimes it will enhance the salt, while other times it will be way too sweet. Once you’ve gotten your spice level where you want it, gradually add the hot water.

The water serves several purposes. First, it allows the mixture to be smooth without using fat. Peanut butter already has so much oil in it, and you don’t want to keep adding more if you can avoid it. Second, when you saute/grill the potato wedges in the sauce, the water will allow the sauce to stick to the potato and not the pan. Third, it breaks down the thickness of the peanut butter and allows it to be a thin dip as opposed to a thick paste.

Once the sweet potatoes are out of the oven, heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok on high heat (or heat up your grill pan, those lucky people out there who have one!) and add the wedges. I like to let mine get a little burnt, as the smoky charred flavor really balances the sweetness of the peanut butter and brown sugar. When they have a nice crisp to them, lower the heat to medium and add about ⅓ – ½ the sauce (if you add the sauce to high heat it will burn and get all crumbly and weird!). Once the pieces are all evenly coated and the color changes to the sauce (about 3 minutes), take them out. You may have to work in batches depending on the size of your skillet and the amount you’re making. You really want to avoid crowding them.

Garnish with chopped scallions and serve with the remaining sauce!

This will please both your vegetarian and meat-eating friends! It pairs especially well with a good amber beer, like Sam Adams (my favorite).

Got extra sauce? Dilute with water and use it for stir-frying tofu and veggies, or as a marinade for Thai BBQ chicken (or you could always make more sweet potatoes!).

Lots of love! Enjoy!

Recipe:

2-3 medium or large sweet potatoes

½ cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)

1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon teriyaki sauce

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil (optional. it adds a wonderful smoky flavor)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Warm water (not boiling)

2-3 chopped scallions (optional)