Archive for March, 2010

In our pursuit of the ultimate delicious bite, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of fancy gourmet ingredients and showy culinary jargon.  When you spend so much time reading about the latest food trends and discovering new techniques, your mind becomes seduced by the exotic. You spend weeks hunting down that elusive vegetable you saw on someone else’s blog, and you pay $45 for imported spices you don’t even know how to pronounce. But submitting to this seduction is not bad at all – we are after all, chefs, and chasing after the bizarre and unknown is our way of pushing our limits and challenging ourselves to be better.

But once in awhile, we can’t neglect that solid good dishes can come out of simplicity, whether it’s something straight from the farm, or straight out of the package. Yes, I’m talking about packaged goods. I may be biased because I work in the industry, but if you only knew the amount of labor and scrutiny we give to each innovation, you would appreciate that although they take the fun out of making things from scratch, they truly simplify your life and if you pick the right brands, your food will end up just as good.

So the recipe I want to introduce you to today is a twist on the popular Spinach Artichoke Dip – Spinach Artichoke Party SQUARES – made from mostly packaged goods. I first had the honor of tasting this simply delicious dish when I visited Brian’s parents for Thanksgiving 2 years ago. Their friend Connie, whom I knew as a superb chef, brought over these party squares and I was shocked/suprised to see the components of the recipe, because it tasted so sophisticated and complex that you would’ve never guessed that the hero ingredient is Lipton Vegetable Soup Mix.

It’s a great party pleaser dish you can whip up in an instant, when you feel in the mood to ditch the exotic and return to the simple. After all, everyone would rather hang out with the down-to-earth fun-lover over the stuffy highbrow bore.

Spinach Artichoke Party Squares:

  • 1 package Lipton/Knorr Vegetable Soup Mix
  • 1 cup Crème Fraiche (can be substituted with a combo of mayo or sour cream)
  • 2 packages Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
  • 10 oz box Chopped Spinach, drained
  • 14 oz can Artichoke Hearts
  • 4-8 oz can Water Chestnuts
  • 4-6 oz grated Monterey Jack/Havarti/Fontina/Mozzarella cheese
  • 1 handful of grated Parmesan Cheese

Party On!

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Combine soup mix, mayonnaise and sour cream and set aside.
  3. Unroll crescent roll dough and press into a baking dish, making sure to seal perforations and press dough up sides of baking pan to form a crust. Bake 10 minutes or until very lightly browned.
  4. Meanwhile, drain spinach and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Chop spinach, artichoke hearts and water chestnuts.
  5. Mix in the soup mix, crème fraiche, and grated cheese.  Spread evenly over partially baked crust. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
  6. Bake another 10-12 minutes or until heated through. Cut into squares and get the party started!



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Surprise! It’s me!!! Miss me? Because I’ve missed you dearly. It’s been too long since I’ve been here and I am appalled at how delinquent I’ve been, and surprised at how much I have really missed the blogosphere.

I think I rather like surprises. It’s the element of the unexpected; the feeling of wonder and astonishment. It represents endless possibilties for you to chance upon, but truly embracing it requires lots of bravery and a sense of adventure. We are all familiar with the pleasant surprises in everyday life – a surprise party, unexpected flowers from a significant other, or a welcome phone call from a long-lost friend. But what about the surprises that aren’t so agreeable? The ones that throw your plans off course and make you spin around at a loss?

I woke up Friday morning to such a surprise – a shroud of furious white storm spinning outside my window, threatening my  flight to Vegas for the weekend. Still in bed, I checked my iPhone dejectedly as flight after flight showed cancelled statuses. As I got ready for work, Surprise! A text from my coworker: “Office closed for the day due to storm. Yay!” With work out of the way, I decided to head straight to Newark Airport to ensure my spot on a non-cancelled flight. On the NJ Transit Train, I optimistically looked out the window as the snow started to lighten up into gentle wispy flakes. Then Surprise! A text from Brian: “Honey, check your flight status. I think your flight has been cancelled.” WHAT?! But what was a girl to do? I continued on my way and hoped to sweet talk my way into another flight.

Newark Airport was mayhem that day. Lines long enough to compete with the queues of Disneyworld, and irate airline workers and customers cursing one another out in voices loud enough to compete with the noise volume of a trading floor.  But at the Continental counter, another Surprise! The gracious rep took a look at Brian’s Platinum Elite status on my boarding pass, typed in a bunch of keys, produced another boarding pass and said “I went out on a limb and put you on the ONLY Newark-Vegas flight that is flying out today. It’s boarding now but you can still make it if you run. Now RUUUN!” I passed the security checkpoint in a daze, picked up my snowboots and ran in my socks to the boarding gate and into the airplane just as they closed the cabin doors behind me. Then it was my turn to text Brian: “Surprise! I got on a flight and I’m landing even earlier than I’m supposed to!”

So you see, I do like surprises. They keep you on your toes, sprinkle some adventure into the everyday mundane, and in the end, things usually turn out all right.

Take these Paella Cakes for example. This recipe started out as Risotto Balls, but as I started cooking the arborio rice, my mind drifted back to thoughts of Spain and the unforgettable stations of paella cooked in the largest pans I’d ever seen, and all of a sudden, I found myself chopping up veggies, adding in tomato paste and red wine, and finally saffron water (a bit out of usual order). But I had already made the “surprise” filling that was meant to go into the milder flavored risotto balls – a tangy, creamy mango-cream cheese stuffing that I wasn’t so sure would go well with the bold flavors of the paella.  So I made some with and some without.  At the end of the day, it was clear that the ones with the surprise filling were the winners. Although at that point, it was impossible to tell which one was avec or sans, so we had no option but to pick them at random, and Be Surprised!

Surprise! Paella Cakes

You will need:

  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1.5 c. veggie stock
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced into coins
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 4-6 oz bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/4 c. of red wine
  • 1 tsp saffron threads
  • paprika
  • red pepper flakes
  • salt & pepper
  • 1/4 c. cream cheese
  • 1 mango, diced
  • lime zest
  • lime juice
  • cayenne pepper
  • lots of bread crumbs (regular or panko – I tried both)

Surprise Yourself:

  • Dry fry saffron threads over low heat, crumble into small bowl of water (about 3 tsp of hot water) and infuse
  • Pour in some olive oil. Cook leeks over medium heat until soft and aromatic. Add all the veggies (bell peppers, zucchini, mushroom) and cook for another few minutes
  • Add rice and cook until coated with veggies and glossy. Add stock, tomato paste, tomatoes, saffron water, paprika, cayenne, red pepper flakes, and bring to a boil
  • Simmer for 15-20 min until rice is completely cooked. Let cool
  • Meanwhile, make the surprise filling by mixing in cream cheese, mango, lime zest and lime juice

  • Spread a bed of bread crumbs over working surface. Divide the rice mixture into walnut sized portions and form into cakes. With your thumb, make a ditch into the center of the rice and spoon in a little of the filling and seal the cake
  • Roll cake around in bread crumbs until covered and place on oiled baking dish
  • Bake at 400 for around 20 min until golden brown

If you want to shake things up, make some with and some without filling and decide for yourself which is tastier! Now pour a glass of Rioja and enjoy!

And if you have any leftover paella (like I did) you just pour more Rioja and enjoy the Paella in its purest delightful form!

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