Sour Cherry Trail Mix

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced lately has been finding healthy snacks. This is especially true when my daily 3:00 chocolate craving hits and there I am, trying to focus on work with the only options nearby a candy machine and tube of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies I hid in the office freezer. And sadly, neither presents a healthy choice to squash the craving.

Enter trail mix. I used to make this nut, dried fruit and chocolate mixture all the time, then sadly let it fade from memory.

It’s back now with a new twist: dried cherries! I found them during a recent outing to Costco, otherwise known as my excursion of random purchases, and thought the sour cherries would make a great substitution for my standard dried cranberries and work just as well with the almonds, peanuts and semi-sweet chocolate chips.

The dried cherries are delightful. They’re a little sour, a little sweet, and much larger and chewier than the cranberries and hold up better next to the whole almonds.

My work station is going to be such a happier place this week.

Here’s the recipe/ratio for this healthy, go-to snack:

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Pretending It’s Summer Quinoa

Pretending It's Summer Quinoa

Pretending It's Summer Quinoa

I’m over winter. Quite frankly, I just don’t feel like dealing with it anymore.

Now I get that this is what happens when one chooses to live in the Midwest. And generally I can accept it. What I get sick of is the tease. Yes, Weather, I said it. You’re a tease and I don’t appreciate it. You give us two gorgeous days when I was able to leave the house in jeans and a sweater MINUS a coat and scarf, then it snows. Snow! And wind! Lots and lots of wind.

I’m over it. I just am.

So in protest I made a summer quinoa dish with avocado, tomatoes and black beans. It was delicious and even made me temporarily forget that my winter boots are still sitting by the front door because, you know, just in case… (we don’t like to jinx things here in Cubs land).

If you’re anything like me and aching for Spring to start in reality and not just on the calendar, then make this dish. It’s easy, is great as leftovers, and can be served cold or heated if you really need to ward off the winter’s chill.

Pretending It's Summer Quinoa

Pretending It's Summer Quinoa

Here’s the recipe:

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Marshmallow Mish Mash

Way back when – okay, this past New Years – I made Marshmallows Treats coated in peanut butter and chocolate and they were a smashing hit. At the time, I told my dad about the marshmallows and he asked me to save him some. Considering I wasn’t going to see him for another month, I told him no. By then any leftover marshmallows would be stale and, quite frankly, I didn’t like the idea of serving something I bragged about and not have it live up to expectations.

The solution: I promised to make him marshmallows for his birthday, which just so happened to be this weekend. I know, two Pisces in a family, what a mess!

But my family being my family, they’re always a little particular. I’d already decided to mix the fresh marshmallows with chocolate and cut them into squares, something I’d seen done not very well when I was in Florida last month but took note of anyways.

I pushed for adding peanut butter or salted caramel, nuts or pretzels – anything to add a salty crunch to the SO sweet milk chocolate. But my dad was adamant that his birthday dessert only consist of chocolate and marshmallows.

Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I made the Marshmallow Mish Mash two ways by adding crushed pretzels to just half the mixture. That half will me known as “my half.” The family can eat the other half, which is still delicious but very sweet. I also drizzled¬† leftover mocha ganache over the top for even more richness.

The best part of the Marshmallow Mish Mash is that you get the same ooey, gooey texture and flavors as the dipped version but in half the time. And there are so many ways to experiment. Next time I might try adding salted caramel and crushed pecans to the mix instead of pretzels.

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Eggplant Lentil Soup

Eggplant Lentil Soup

Eggplant Lentil Soup

When I was in Florida a few weeks ago, I came across a classic flavor combination that I hadn’t experienced much: eggplant lentil soup. I was intrigued and ordered a cup, but found the soup to be bland and basically nothing special. I then proceeded to spend the rest of the meal thinking about how to turn those flavors into an incredible soup.

The answer came this week when I recreated it in my kitchen. The first key is to roast the eggplant to lessen its natural bitterness and enhance its other flavors. This requires almost no work and takes just 25 minutes in the oven.

At the same time, simmer the lentils with onions, garlic and broth, then bring out the secret weapon: the blender or food processor! Use it to puree the whole mess into a luscious, thick soup.

And finally, enhance the natural and fairly neutral flavors of the eggplant and lentils with spices. I used curry powder, which offered the perfect level of aromatic spice.

Originally I’d planned on eating the soup on its own, and even did one day this week when I brought the leftovers for lunch. But the night I made it, I had some leftover baked cod in the refrigerator and added it to the soup for a complete meal. It was AMAZING!

Cod is a healthy, flaky, neutral-flavored fish that added just the right level of texture to the soup without changing the flavor. In the end, I had a healthy, nutritious and filling meal, with plenty of leftovers to last throughout the week.

Here’s the recipe for Eggplant Lentil Soup:

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French Macarons, a Journey

For most of my life I stayed away from all macaroons, believing the only type that existed were the nasty, dried out, coconut, cardboard can variety served during Passover. To clarify, they are indeed nasty, and they’re macaroons with two “o”s.

It was during my stint working on a cookbook a few years ago that I tried a French-style macaron (note: just one “o”). When I was first offered one by the pastry chef, I immediately said “no thanks,” expecting a coconut puff thing. Later that day, leftover light green sandwich cookies made an appearance at family meal (restaurant speak for a meal that employees eat together before service) and I grabbed one thinking “this looks interesting.” I took a bite of this airy-crunchy-chewy cookie with a soft, nutty, lightly green-tea flavor, and knew I had discovered something. It was then I discovered that it was a macaron, which set off a lengthy debate about the term.

Pierre Herme's Famous Ispahan Macaron

In the end, I was converted to a full-fledged macaron fan and begged the pastry chef for the recipe. He gave it me, but his descriptions of aging the egg whites and releasing the cookies from the parchment paper using steam had me questioning whether my impatient baking habits would be able to handle it, so the recipe was put on the back-burner.

A few months later I visited Paris for the first time and immediately sought out Pierre Herme’s macarons. I may not have found love in Paris, but I did become even more infatuated with this fascinating and mysterious cookie, yet still intimidated by the idea of making them myself.

Lauderee's Macarons, Paris

It’s now been just over two years since my first marcaron and I finally worked up the nerve to try it. I used Tartelette’s macaron recipe, which she claims is “part of her DNA” and David Lebovitz’s chocolate ganache filling. I played with the flavors of both to create a delicious mocha* and while I think I nailed the ganache and macaron flavors, the cookies still needed some work.

These are known for being fickle cookies. Per Tartelette’s instructions, I aged the egg whites in the refrigerator for four days, then let them come to room temperature before using. The one step I skipped was her recommendation to let the piped cookies sit for an hour before baking.

Frustratingly, but not surprising, the results were mixed. The first batch of cookies turned out beautifully, with just one cracking and all developing the coveted “foot” at the bottom. The second batch, on the other hand, almost all the cookies cracked and I had trouble getting them to bake all the way through. Quite frankly, while they tasted great they were a bit of a mess.

For now, we’ll call my macaron ambitions a journey, as I think this is an instance of practice-makes-perfect.

Mocha Macarons

*For Mocha Macarons: add 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder and 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee powder (perfect use of Starbucks Via) to the ground almonds; add 1 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee powder to the ganache.

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