Wednesday, December 28, 2011


It was exciting to think that maybe, just maybe, winter was going to give us a pass this year, as we've had such uncharacteristically mild weather up until now. But we're starting to see some single digit temps and tonight, there's a predicted wind chill factor of seventeen BELOW by 1am! So what's a gal to do but haul in a ton of wood, stoke the fire until it's raging, do a load of laundry and wash all of the dishes (while there's still hot water) then leave the kitchen tap on a trickle, and lastly, get a pot full of albondigas soup a-crockin. BRING IT, Old Man Winter!

This is a hearty, zesty soup that's pretty easy to make, because it calls for frozen meatballs. But if you have the time or inclination, feel free to make your own from scratch. Authentic Mexican albondigas use rice as a filler and have a touch of dried mint in the mix. So this shortcut version is less than authentic, but yummy and filling on these icy winter nights.

Crock Pot Albondigas Soup

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1/2 bulb fennel, diced
2 very large (or 3 medium) carrots, sliced into coins or large dice
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
4 cloves garlic (or 8!), minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 can Italian-style diced tomatoes (with juice)
1 small can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon beef or vegetable soup base (I like Better Than Bouillon)
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup frozen corn
16-18 (1 oz.) frozen Italian meatballs (or 24 5/8 ouncers)
1 cup frozen peas (if you stir them in at the end, they will retain their color)

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and saute the onion, celery, fennel, carrots, and poblano pepper until tender. Add the minced garlic and seasonings and cook another minute or two. Place veggies in at least a 5 quart slow cooker, then stir in the tomatoes and tomato sauce, soup base, chicken broth, corn, and meatballs. Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4.

Stir in frozen peas 20 minutes or so before serving. Garnish with a bit of shredded parmesan cheese.
Or...better yet, why not put the parmesan in some savory biscotti for dunking in the soup! I came across this recipe from King Arthur Flour, and I thought these parmesan and cracked black pepper biscotti would be a perfect accompaniment to the albondigas soup. The recipe makes a lot (almost three dozen!), and they store well in an airtight container. In fact, these would be perfect for holiday entertaining, perhaps on your New Year's Eve party snack trays?

Parmesan and Cracked Black Pepper Biscotti
(Source: adapted from King Arthur Flour)

6 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons Vermont cheese powder, optional, for flavor (I just used a little extra parmesan plus 1 teaspoon paprika for color)
1 cup, firmly packed, freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups diced pecans or walnuts, toasted
additional grated parmesan for topping the biscotti, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment.
2) Combine the butter, sugar, cheese powder, parmesan, black pepper, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl.
3) Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl after each addition.
4) Stir in the flour, and the nuts (if you're using them).
5) Transfer the sticky dough to the prepared baking sheet, dividing it in half as you do so and plopping the halves so that they're about 2" from each short edge of the pan. You want to leave plenty of space between them.
6) Using your wet fingers and/or a wet spatula, shape each piece of dough into a log about 9 1/2" long, and 7/8" thick. If you've used nuts, the log will be about 3" wide; with no nuts in the dough, it'll be about 2 1/2" wide. Do your best to smooth the tops and square off the corners. If desired, sprinkle the tops of the logs with additional grated parmesan.
7) Bake the logs for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they're beginning to brown around the edges. Remove them from the oven, and carefully lift them off the pan; if you've used parchment, simply lift the parchment off the pan and set it, biscotti and all, on a work surface.
8) Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.
9) Using a sharp serrated or chef's knife, carefully cut the biscotti into 1/2"-wide slices. It helps to start cutting not at the top, but at an outer edge; this seems to lessen any crumbling. For long biscotti, cut on the diagonal; for shorter biscotti, cut crosswise.
10) Set the biscotti, on their edges, back on the baking sheet; no greasing or parchment is necessary. Space them fairly close to one another, so you can get them all onto the same pan.
11) Return the biscotti to the oven, and bake them for 50 to 70 minutes, or until they feel dry and are just beginning to brown. If you pinch the center of a biscotti, it may feel just slightly soft; that's OK, as it'll continue to firm as it cools.
12) Remove the biscotti from the oven, and let them cool right on the pan. If you're not sure if you've baked them enough, turn off the oven, crack the door open several inches, and let the biscotti continue to dry out right in the cooling oven. When biscotti are completely cool, store them airtight at room temperature; they'll stay fresh for several weeks.

Yield: about 32 biscotti

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Supper: Dry Pork and Cheesy Potatoes

I wanted this post to be about the amazing crock pot pork loin and au gratin potatoes that I prepared for our Christmas Eve dinner, but I'm afraid I can only make good on half of that goal. I should have followed my own, time-tested advice, and never try to make any other kind of pork roast than shoulder. Loin these days is just too lean, with barely any fat at all to make it juicy--even cooking low and slow in that moist environment until it falls apart. My friend, Jay, says that my only hope is to BRINE a pork loin roast, and my other friend, Chris, has given me the same advice about pork chops, which I did find to be true. But that's another post for another time.

Suffice it to say, though the meat was dry this time, the cooking liquid was very tasty, and I would certainly make that again. I used a small jar of apricot jam, a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, two tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and a squirt of sriracha (hot sauce); I also added a sliced onion and several cloves of garlic to the crock. Despite my efforts, the entree was a big, (not enough) fat failure!

The potatoes were good, though. And they were pretty easy, if you have a mandoline or food processor with a slicing blade. This recipe goes on the "make again" list.

Crock Pot Au Gratin Potatoes

2-3 lbs. potatoes (about 6-8 medium), peeled or not, as you prefer
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 small onion, thinly sliced, optional
1 can cream of mushroom soup
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup flour
2 cups shredded cheese

Thinly slice potatoes and toss with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic. Put sliced potatoes in greased crock pot. Layer with onion slices and cheese. Mix flour and milk together with soup, then pour over potatoes.
Cover and cook on low 7 to 9 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Favorite Christmas Tradition: Cookie Swap at the Padulas!

My friends, Janice and Domenica, host a wonderful annual Christmas cookie exchange, but we didn't do it last year...can't remember why, something about the timing and other obligations getting in the way. That happens sometimes, but I was thrilled when the party was revived this year. In fact, so many people RSVP'ed, that we had to exchange half dozens, instead of full dozens, this year. And of course, Janice made a fabulous Middle Eastern luncheon for us, and as is her way, Domenica made some festive desserts, including the fabulous showpiece--a minty cheesecake with a decadent ganache on top decorated all around with candy canes.

Domenica also hand-formed little marzipan figures (a winter hat, a Christmas stocking, or in my case, a candy cane) on top of each cupcake that served as our place setting. So cute! Those Padulas--SO fun and creative!

As for my cookie offering this year, I used my homemade mincemeat to make some very flavorful cookies that I called "Fruitcake Cookies," so that people would be less scared of trying them. The cookies themselves were lovely and cakey, but I wasn't crazy about the caramel icing. It had good flavor, but despite boiling it for about seven minutes, it remained grainy, kind of like a praline.

Truthfully, the cookies don't even need the icing, but they look rather plain without it. Of course, if I hadn't run out of pecans, they would have looked nicer with a pecan half on top. Oh well. They may not have been the prettiest cookie at the party, but I think they were the tastiest! They are also pretty easy, and I got 70 cookies out of one recipe, using a regular cookie scoop. So I definitely recommend adding this cookie to your holiday repertoire.

Mincemeat (or "Fruitcake") Cookies
(Source: adapted from AllRecipes)

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
*I added 1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/4 cups prepared mincemeat pie filling
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, cubed
1 cup confectioners' sugar
6 tablespoons half-and-half cream
1 teaspoon rum extract (I omitted this because my homemade mincemeat was PLENTY boozy!)

70 pecan halves

1. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs. Add mincemeat; mix well. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Stir in pecans. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls 2 in. apart onto greased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees F for 14-16 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Remove to wire racks to cool.

2. For the frosting, combine the brown sugar and butter in a saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil for 6-8 minutes, stirring twice, or until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat. Add the confectioners' sugar, cream and extract; beat until smooth. Frost the cookies; top each with a pecan half.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bolognese...with a little help from our old friend, the crock pot.

So...I had this idea to make Bolognese sauce in the crock pot. It's not a quick, dump-and-run kind of recipe, but it's delicious. Using the crock pot helps to develop that slow-cooked flavor without having to tend to the sauce all day. However, you might want to assemble the pot the day before you plan to cook it, as it's a bit involved. But your patience will be rewarded!

The length of the recipe might freak you out a little, but it's really not hard. I have amalgamated two recipes, stealing mostly from Once Upon a Chef, with a little help from Anne Burrell. I think this turned out GREAT! Give it a try...

Fettuccine Bolognese
(Source: adapted from the blog, Once Upon a Chef and the Food Network show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef)

3 ounces pancetta, chopped (or bacon will work)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
2 celery stalks, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 pound Italian sausage
3/4 teaspoon salt (plus more for pasta water)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry red wine
2 cups beef stock
28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 cup whole milk
1 pound fresh fettuccine (available in refrigerator section at most supermarkets)*

Optional for serving:
grated parmesan
handful chopped fresh basil or parsley

‎1. Render the pancetta or bacon pieces in a large skillet until crispy. Remove from the pan and set aside.

2. Place onions, carrots and celery in bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse until almost a paste. Add olive oil and veggies to the skillet with the pancetta or bacon fat. Cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the veggies are very soft and just starting to color. Add the minced garlic for the last minute or two of cooking. Transfer veggie mix to the crock pot.

3. Add ground beef, sausage, salt and pepper to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until meat is no longer pink, 5-10 minutes. Add red wine and cook until liquid is almost dissolved, about 2 minutes. Pour this mixture into the crock pot.

4. To the crock pot, add the beef stock, crushed tomatoes, bay leaves, basil, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Add the pancetta or bacon back in, and stir everything together. Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 with the lid cracked open.

5. Skim off any excess fat that has accumlated during cooking. Add milk to sauce. Cover with lid slightly ajar and cook on high for another hour until the milk is fully absorbed. Turn to low to keep warm while you prepare the pasta. Serve with freshly-grated Parmesan and/or chopped fresh parsley.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DIPPY MADNESS at the end of the term!

I know I sing the same song at the end of every semester, but WHOA--this one has been a killah! So I did not feel motivated to make elaborate Christmas treats for my co-workers this year. Of course, it should be noted that I have been treating them nearly every week of the term with crock pots of homemade soup, but I wanted to make a little something special for my nearest and dearest colleagues. Continuing the semester-long crock pot theme, I followed the Crockin' Girls' lead, as I so often do, and made chocolate nut clusters in the slow cooker.

Their recipe is for peanut clusters, but I wanted to take it up a notch, so I used fancy mixed nuts (no peanuts at all), and right before I scooped them out, I also added a bag of frozen caramel bits. YUM! I should note that I changed their chocolate dip a bit, too. The resulting candy was delicious, but very sweet. Next time, I might omit the white chips or the milk chocolate and double the bittersweet. It's easy enough to play around with this recipe and make it your own.

The crock pot nut clusters were so much yummy fun, that I did a second batch of white chocolate to do Oreos and even some little Ritz Bitz peanut butter sandwiches (they end up tasting a lot like a Butterfinger!). I found some cute little Santa treat bags at Big Lots, and in each one, I put four nut clusters, two Oreos, and four Ritz Bitz. I like to think the candy will sustain my co-workers through this hellish finals week!

Crock Pot Nut Clusters

two 24 oz. cans fancy mixed nuts (no peanuts)
one 1 1/2 lb. pkg. almond bark, cut into large squares as marked
one 12 oz. pkg. Ghirardelli white chips
two 4 oz. bars Ghirardelli white chocolate, broken into squares
one 12 oz. pkg. Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips
one 12 oz. pkg. Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips
one 11 oz. pkg. Kraft caramel bits, frozen

Place the nuts on the bottom of the crock pot, then all of the chocolates. Cover and cook on low for three hours (I placed two paper towels under the lid to absorb any condensation). Stir, turn off heat, and let sit for 20 minutes. Stir in frozen caramel bits and scoop out onto waxed paper, parchment, or Silpat immediately (I used a small cookie scoop). Chill under the candies are completely set (I put mine out in the garage!).

Crock Pot White Chocolate Dip

one 1 1/2 lb. pkg. almond bark, cut into large squares as marked
two 12 oz. pkgs Hershey's white chips
one 12 oz. pkg. Ghirardelli white chips
two 4 oz. bars Ghirardelli white chocolate

Oreos and Ritz Bitz peanut butter sandwiches

I melted everything except the cookies and the crackers in the crock pot on low for about two hours (once again, with paper towels under the lid to catch condensation), stirring every so often. Keep an eye--and a nose--on it, as it will scorch easily! Dip anything that strikes your fancy (pretzels would be yummy, too), shake on some colorful, holiday-appropriate sprinkles, then let set up on baking sheets lined with waxed paper or parchment in a cool environment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Crockin' through the bitter end of Fall 2011...

Well, here we are at long last; finals week is upon us. And is often the case in the fall, most of my finals are backloaded at the end of the week, and I actually had the day off today. I know I'm going to be sorry come Thursday, but it was nice to have a three-day weekend, and a little time to take a breath before the deluge.

Though I was at home all day, I had a Christmas project underway (more about that later), so I broke out my second, back-up crock pot and made a recipe that I saw a long time ago on the Crockin' Girls Facebook page called Garlic Brown Sugar Chicken for dinner. I tweaked the recipe a little (changes noted below), and it turned out great! The main change I made was to pop the chicken pieces under the broiler for a few minutes after they were done cooking in the crock pot, just to crisp up and color the skin. Then I served the chicken with steamed rice and herbed French-style green beans. YUM!

Garlic Brown Sugar Chicken 

1 large chicken, cut into serving pieces (I used a package of 8 or 9 thighs)
1 cup packed brown sugar (I cut this to 1/2 cup, and it was still quite sweet!)
2/3 cup vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar)
1/4 cup Sprite or 7-Up soda (I used Sierra Mist Natural)
2-3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I upped this to 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon pepper
*I added one thinly-sliced onion, a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger, and a squirt of sriracha hot sauce.

1. Place chicken in crock pot.
2. Mix all remaining ingredients and pour over chicken.
3. Cook on low for 6-8 hours.(When the chicken was cooked through and tender, I broiled the pieces for about five minutes to crisp up the skin.)
4. Serve over rice or noodles.
5. You can thicken the juices after cooking with a little cornstarch. (I used 1/4 cup of flour whisked into a slurry with some of the cooking liquid, then added back to the pot and cooked on high for another half hour or so.)

Here are the chicken pieces right out of the crock pot.

And here they are after a few minutes under the broiler.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Busy week/weekend!

This has been HELL WEEK! Besides it being "term paper week" at school (which is usually rougher than finals week, in my opinion), the Christmas choir concerts that I perform in each year were scheduled a week later than usual, creating a perfect storm of stress and little sleep. On top of all that, it was my roommate Cyd's birthday on Thursday, and my friend June also hosted a belated Thanksgiving (Thanksmas? Christgiving?) yesterday because her daughter and son-in-law couldn't come home in November. So add two baking projects to my never-ending list of things to accomplish this week! AAARRRGGGHHH! But I survived, and judging by my desserts, I'd say I thrived!

Ok, I cheated a little for Cyd's German chocolate birthday cake, but it turned out SO YUMMY that I would definitely take the same shortcuts again. Two things made my life easier: 1) I used a boxed mix for the cake (Duncan Hines' German chocolate cake, which was very good), and 2) I settled for a 9x13 cake rather than the more troublesome layer cake. Cyd is all about flavor and doesn't care much for fancy presentation anyway. I used the excellent King Arthur recipe for the little heart-shaped German chocolate cakes that I made for Valentine's Day a few years ago, but just made the bittersweet ganache icing and the pecan and coconut topping. SUPER-DELISH, and I don't even like coconut!

For June's party, I also volunteered to make a dessert. Around proper Thanksgiving time, I received an email newsletter from Panera, and they included a scrumptious-sounding recipe for a sweet potato cheesecake. Since I have yet to unearth one of my springform pans (yes, yes, there are still lots of unpacked boxes from the move two years ago--don't judge me!), I decided to make mini-cheesecakes in muffin tins. They turned out SO CUTE, and I topped them with some of the luscious and spicy habanero goat's milk cajeta from the Beekman 1802 Boys, and garnished the plates with a little leftover toasted coconut. YUM! Happy Thanksmas, everyone!

Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Toffee Nut Crust
(Source: Panera Bread)
Yield: 16 servings

2 Panera Bread Toffee Nut Cookies
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons melted butter

1 large (12-ounce) sweet potato, peeled and chopped
2 packages (8 ounces each) reduced-fat cream cheese spread, softened  (I used regular, full fat cream cheese!)
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
*I added a teaspoon of vanilla because it seemed wrong not to!

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 350ºF. In food processor, pulverize cookies to fine crumbs (you should have 1 1/2 cups). Add brown sugar and cinnamon, and pulse briefly to mix. Turn machine on and, with machine running, drizzle melted butter through a feeding tube just until crumbs are evenly coated (mixture will not form a ball but remain crumbly).

Turn mixture out into a 9-inch springform pan. Using your fingers, evenly distribute crumbs over the bottom and up the sides of pan, gently pressing into an even thickness. Wrap foil around the outside of the bottom of the pan to help prevent any leaks from cheesecake. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on a rack. (I divided the crust mixture and pressed some into 16 muffin tins lined with cupcake papers--though in hindsight, I should have made a little extra and gone for 24 as I had a lot of filling leftover. The little muffin crusts needed less than eight minutes to bake--start checking at about six minutes.)

For the cheesecake:
Lower oven temperature to 250ºF. Put sweet potato in a microwavable container, cover with plastic wrap and microwave until very soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Measure out 1 1/4 cups packed.

In a clean food processor, combine the cream cheese, ricotta, flour, and pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg). Puree, scraping down sides as necessary, until smooth (mixture will be fairly thick). Scrape mixture into a large bowl. In the processor (no need to clean it this time), combine 1 1/4 cups sweet potatoes, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Puree, scraping sides as necessary, until well blended. Add to bowl and whisk until completely smooth.

Pour into prepared crust(s) and set on a rimmed baking sheet, and then set on the center oven rack. Pour boiling water into baking sheet to about 1/2-inch up sides of cake pan. Bake until almost set (center will be slightly loose when jiggled), about 90 minutes*. Remove pan from water bath and cool completely in pan on a rack. When completely cool, cover with foil and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight.

*I did not use a water bath, just baked the mini-cheesecakes in muffin tins. And DANG IT, I forget how long I baked them...maybe 75 minutes? Start checking at an hour just to be safe. Cool the muffin tins on wire racks, then chill overnight in the fridge. Carefully remove the cupcake papers, top with cajeta or your favorite caramel sauce, and garnish with whipped cream and/or toasted coconut.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Last collegial crock pot of the semester...

Today was the last official office crock pot lunch of the semester, as next week is finals week (though I can't fathom how it could be harder than this week has been!), and everyone's schedule will be topsy-turvy without the traditional free noon hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But gosh darn it, I may have saved the best for last with this dish!

I wish I could give credit where it's due, but I don't remember the name of the person who posted this to the Crockin' Girls forum. Of course, I made a few adaptations, as is my way, but I have to tell ya, this white pork roast chili is some GOOD eats! And the recipe makes a ton, so I thought I would have plenty to share at work today. As it turns out, I barely got a mug-full myself; it was a veritable feeding FRENZY! Even the ladies in the business office who often find my cooking too spicy for their tastes (=wimpy North Country palettes) loved this. This would be a fine meal if you have lots of company coming for the holidays!

White Pork Chili

3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 lb (bone-in) pork roast
salt  and pepper
1 jar of sliced pepperoncini peppers, drained
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
8 garlic cloves, minced (I suppose four cloves would do if you're not a garlic head like me!)

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Season pork roast liberally with salt and pepper, and brown on all sides. Add the seared roast to crock pot along with the peppers, cumin, oregano, and garlic. Cook on low about 8 hours.

Remove roast from pot, place on a large cutting board and chop it and tear it apart, removing any fat. Placed the roast pieces back into the crock with all the broth from cooking.

Add to the crock:
1 small can green chilis
2-3 cans chicken broth (to desired consistency)
1 can cream of chicken soup (maybe 2 if you want it creamier)
1 onion, chopped
1 poblano pepper, seeds removed and chopped (sauté the chopped pepper and onion if you have time, but it's not completely necessary--though I definitely prefer it!)
half a bunch chopped cilantro leaves
3 cans Great Northern or cannellini beans, drained (one of my cans was baby butter beans)
juice of one lime
salt and pepper, to taste

Cook on high another hour and a half. Serve with corn bread or white corn chips, and jack cheese and/or a dollop of sour cream on top.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Decade in the Making: A Povateca Tutorial with Rita and Sarah

For a decade, I lived just down the road from one of my work colleagues, Rita, who is of Croatian descent. And for all of those years, they have been promising to have me over at some major holiday to teach me how to make a Eastern European dessert bread known as povateca (also spelled povitica, pronounced poh-vuh-TEET-zuh or even just potica/poh-TEET-zuh). We finally made plans to meet on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but we had a HUGE snowstorm overnight, and I couldn't even get out of the driveway the next day!

However, by some Christmas miracle, we were able to reschedule and get together today. I must say, I don't know when I've spent a more pleasant afternoon! It looks like Santa exploded at the Ward-Slater house, so there was a lovely ambiance. Rita made a yummy cheese and red pepper bisque that we enjoyed for lunch before donning our gay apparel (=festive holiday aprons) and getting down povateca-making business.

First, daughter (and my former student) Sarah mixed up the brown sugar, walnut and cinnamon filling for the povateca, and gave me the task of stirring and monitoring it as it cooked on the stovetop. Before I arrived, Rita had the dough started in the bread maker. She seemed a little sheepish about the short-cut method, but she says it works great and makes it so much easier.

However, when I peeked in the window at the top of the machine, I could tell something wasn't right. The dough was very dry and crumbly. Apparently, the base wasn't secured properly, so the dough hadn't mixed, and instead of rising, the flour mixture was just sitting there, drying out. So we secured the base, added a little water, and restarted the dough cycle, hoping for the best. In the meantime, we cooled the cooked filling out on the porch (the North Country walk-in...or would that be a walk-out?) while we watched a favorite Christmas movie, as Ward-Slater tradition dictates.

By the time we finished watching "Elf," the alert was sounding on the bread machine. When we went to check on it, the dough had risen so much, it had EXPLODED in the machine! OOPS! But we scraped it all out of there and soldiered on. Next, Sarah needed the very soft dough with a lot of bench flour, and then rolled it out to approximately two feet wide by three feet long.

Next, Rita poured the cooled filling and Sarah spread it evenly over the dough. Working together, they then began rolling it up, jellyroll style, just like you do with cinnamon rolls, pinching the seam closed.

But instead of slicing it, they folded it like snake curling into itself (actually, for you linguist nerds, it looked like a giant "schwa"). Then they carefully lifted it up (Sarah said it was like holding a big dough baby in your arms), and dumped it into a large baking dish lined with parchment--like a lasagna pan size (12x15?).

Then we let it rise for another half hour or so while the Ward-Slaters introduced me to my new favorite show, "Top Secret Recipes" on CMT. By the time I was done learning how to clone a Cinnabon, the povateca was ready to go in the oven. After it had baked, they let it cool in the pan, then turned it out, cut it into big square chunks, and put each piece into a Christmas treat bag for gift-giving. DELICIOUS!

TA-DAH! And yes, it tastes as good as it looks...maybe better. The dough is tender, and the filling is nutty, buttery, and sweet. A perfectly luscious holiday treat! (Hey, I made a Christmas rhyme!)

Povateca (A Croatian/Serbian/Slovenian Nut Roll)

3/4 cup milk, scalded and cooled
3/4 cup warm water
3 pkgs active dry yeast
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs (room temp)
3/4 cup softened butter
4 1/2 cups bread flour (up to 7 cups--you add more while kneading)

Dissolve yeast in water, and stir in warm milk. Add sugar, salt, eggs, butter and two cups flour. Beat until smooth. Mix in remaining 2 1/2 cups flour. (Or add all of the ingredients to the inner vessel of a bread machine and set to the dough cycle.) While dough is mixing and rising, prepare the filling.

4 1/2 cups ground walnuts
3/8 (6 T) cup cinnamon
1 1/2 cups ground graham crackers
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
2 1/2 cups milk
2 sticks (1 cup) butter
1 tablespoon vanilla

Add all of the filling ingredients to a large stock pot. Stir over medium-high heat to boiling point. Turn heat down to medium, then cook for several more minutes until it becomes difficult to stir. Cool while dough is rising.

Roll dough about 1/4 inch thick in a 2 x 3 ft. rectangle. Spread filling over dough to 1/2 inch from edges. Roll longer side in, then shape into large oblong cake pan lined with parchment.

Let rise 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover with foil. Bake 45 minutes (or up to an hour). Remove foil and bake another 15-25 minutes (or just 10 minutes if it baked for an hour covered) until deep golden brown all over.

Let cool in the pan until the bottom is warm not hot. Turn out carefully, and cut into large squares to be packaged as gifts to share.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tired of turkey yet? Try this.

I was reading a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated today when I came across a recipe for pissaladière, a Provençal pizza with olives, caramelized onions, and anchovies. Also, Anne Burrell was making a similar thing on her show, "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" today, so I took this as a sign from the universe. Thus, moving on from turkey and dressing, tonight I tried my hand at pissaladière, but instead of the salty little fishies, I substituted some crispy bacon when it came out of the oven. Also, I added a layer of my homemade ricotta as in Chef Burrell's Tarte Flambee.

Here is one of the pissaladières before it finished baking. It was quite delish! Would have been better if I had bread flour, though. I thought I did, but as it turns out, I have two bags of self-rising. Oh well. It was still YUMMY!

(Source: Cooks Illustrated)
Yield: Makes 2 tarts, 8 to 10 first course servings

2 cups bread flour (11 ounces), plus extra for dusting work surface
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional oil for brushing dough and greasing hands
1 cup water (8 ounces), warm (about 110 degrees)

Caramelized Onions:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds yellow onions, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon water

Olives, Anchovies, and Garnishes:
olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup niçoise olives, pitted and chopped coarse
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped coarse (about 2 tablespoons)*
12 anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted dry for (optional) garnish*
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves (optional)

1. For the dough: In workbowl of food processor fitted with plastic dough blade (see note), pulse flour, yeast, and salt to combine, about five 1-second pulses. With machine running, slowly add oil, then water, through feed tube; continue to process until dough forms ball, about 15 seconds. Generously dust work surface with flour; using floured hands, transfer dough to work surface and knead lightly, shaping dough into ball. Lightly oil 1-quart measuring cup or small bowl, place dough in measuring cup, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and set aside in draft-free spot until doubled in volume, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

2. For the caramelized onions: While dough is rising, heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until shimmering but not smoking; stir in onions, salt, and brown sugar and cook, stirring frequently, until moisture released by onions has evaporated and onions begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until onions have softened and are medium golden brown, about 20 minutes longer. Off heat, stir in water; transfer to bowl and set aside. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, set baking stone on rack, and heat oven to 500 degrees.

3. To shape, top, and bake the dough: When dough has doubled, remove from measuring cup and divide into 2 equal pieces using dough scraper. Working with one piece at a time, form each piece into rough ball by gently pulling edges of dough together and pinching to seal. With floured hands, turn dough ball seam-side down. Cupping dough with both hands, gently push dough in circular motion to form taut ball. Repeat with second piece. Brush each lightly with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cut two 20-inch lengths parchment paper and set aside.

4. Coat fingers and palms of hands generously with oil. Using dough scraper, loosen 1 piece of dough from work surface. With well-oiled hands, hold dough aloft and gently stretch to 12-inch length. Place on parchment sheet and gently dimple surface of dough with fingertips. Using oiled palms, push and flatten dough into 14- by 8-inch oval. Brush dough with oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Leaving 1/2-inch border around edge**, sprinkle 1/4 cup olives, 1 tablespoon chopped anchovies, and 1 teaspoon thyme evenly over dough, then evenly scatter with half of onions. Arrange 6 whole anchovy fillets, if using, on tart and sprinkle with fennel seeds, if using. Slip parchment with tart onto pizza peel (or inverted rimless baking sheet), then slide onto hot baking stone. Bake until deep golden brown, 13 to 15 minutes. While first tart bakes, shape and top second tart.

5. Remove tart from oven with peel or pull parchment onto baking sheet; transfer tart to cutting board and slide parchment out from under tart. Cool 5 minutes; sprinkle with 11/2 teaspoons parsley, if using. Cut tart in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise to form 8 pieces; serve immediately. While first tart cools, bake second tart.

*I skipped the anchovies and added 1/4 pound of crispy bacon pieces to the top of each pissaladière when it came out of the oven.
**Here is where I added a layer of ricotta, about a half cup to each pissaladière.

And if you AREN'T sick of turkey yet, you might want to make this: a crock pot version of my very favorite turkey and wild rice soup. I wait for it every year! (Though I don't know why. It would be very good with chicken, too.)

Crock Pot Turkey and Wild Rice Soup
(adapted from Taste of Home)

8-10 cups turkey or chicken stock, divided
8 oz. uncooked wild rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery ribs, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons chicken soup base (I like Better Than Bouillon)
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups half-and-half or cream
2 cups diced cooked turkey
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped (or one tablespoon dried parsley flakes)
salt and pepper to taste

Add eight cups of stock and the uncooked wild rice to a crock pot set to high. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and saute onion, celery and carrots until onion is transparent, about 10 minutes. Season with the black pepper, and add the sauteed veggies to the crock pot. Stir in the chicken soup base. Cook on high for 3-4 hours (or on low for 6-8 hours) until the wild rice and veggies are sufficiently tender.

In the same skillet over medium heat, melt 1/2 stick of butter. Whisk in the flour, and cook for a minute or two. Gradually add the half-and-half or cream, whisking constantly. You may wish to thin this mixture out with an additional cup of stock at this point. Once thickened and completely smooth, add the white sauce to the crock pot and stir to combine. Add the turkey and the parsley (and perhaps another cup of stock if you prefer a thinner soup), and cook on high for another 15-20 minutes until heated through. Taste to correct seasonings before serving.

Yield: Between 4-5 quarts

Friday, November 25, 2011

Crazy Cranberry Concoction

Despite ALL the other things I made for Thanksgiving, Cyd had the nerve to gripe that there was no cranberry element. Now I don't miss it on the table, but I do like it as a zippy condiment for my turkey sandwich. And yet, I didn't have all the stuff to make a salsa, chutney or Jezebel. So working with what I had on hand, I've invented (drumroll, please): CRANBERRY STRUMPET! She wantonly breaks all the rules, but she's temptingly spicy.

Cranberry Strumpet

12 oz bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 large red onion, finely diced
2 Fresno peppers, seeded and finely diced (serranos would be good, too)
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (I like a LOT of garlic!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

Wash and pick over the berries. Put orange juice and sugars in saucepan (large enough to prevent boil over) and bring to a boil. Add berries, onion, Fresno peppers, and garlic and return to a boil. Cook on medium for 15 to 20 minutes from the time it returns to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, then stir in the salt, pepper, Dijon mustard and ginger. Refrigerate for a few hours at least and enjoy!'s how you make the world's greatest turkey panini. First, sprinkle some turkey pieces with a little granulated garlic and black pepper, then on one side of the (oat nut) bread, put a slice of baby swiss, then a layer of the zesty cranberry strumpet, the turkey, then provolone, then the other slice of bread spread with a wee bit of mayo. Griddled in the pan with a pat of real butter and pressed until GBandD. OH SO YUM!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It's Turkey-Lurkey Time!

I hope everyone enjoyed a great meal and quality time with loved ones today. We were supposed to go out of town for a dog event in New Jersey, but then my roommate thought she had to work Saturday, and I didn't want to drive all that way by myself, so we didn't end up going. We did have an invite to a friend's house, but we just decided to stay home and make our own feast.

Of course, I had to carry on the tradition of the Thanksgiving pickle bucket (which usually lasts until the New Year). It had only my favorites this year: dill pickles sliced into thin spears, baby carrots, yellow wax beans, and pepperoncini cut in half. Everything was homemade except the peppers. YUM!

As for the turkey, I tried something that I have been thinking about doing for years--spatchcocking the bird (or butterflying, which is much less fun to say), rubbing it underneath and over the skin with an herbed compound butter (can you believe that I still have fresh herbs--parsley, sage, thyme, and oregano from my garden in late November?!), and roasting first at a high temperature--450 for 30 minutes--and then lowering it for the remainder of the cook time, about two hours at 350. Turned out FANTASTIC--flavorful and perfectly moist in only 2 1/2 hours for a 14-pound hen!

And the process of spatchcocking was easier than I anticipated: You just use strong kitchen shears (and maybe a cleaver) to cut out the backbone, then flip the turkey over and press down with both of your hands until the breastbone breaks. I tucked the wing tips underneath so that they didn't burn, and I roasted it on a rack over some chunks of carrot, celery and onion to give more flavor to the gravy that I would create later.

For my make-ahead sides, I prepared my basic sausage and herb stuffing, and for the first time ever, a green bean casserole! I have actually never made one before because I loathe canned green beans. But I made this with fresh green beans, real mushrooms, and a proper from-scratch cream sauce. I did use the pre-fab French fried onions because, well, I love them! I prefer them to croutons on a salad, in fact. Anyway, I forgot to take a picture of the casserole, but I assure you, it was DELISH! It's going to be a new holiday staple around here.

Best Ever Green Bean Casserole
(adapted from Alton Brown's recipe)

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
12 ounces mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken or turkey broth
1 cup half-and-half

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in a large stock pot. Add the beans and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the diced onions and sliced mushrooms, one teaspoon salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid and the onions are transparent, approximately five minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook for one minute. Add the broth and simmer for one minute. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the half-and-half. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the green beans. Pour into a 13x9 glass baking dish. Place into the oven and bake until bubbly, approximately 15 minutes. Top with one can of french fried onions and return to the oven for five minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

Besides prepping the dressing and green beans a day ahead, I had to enlist my trusty crock pot in the holiday preparations. I used it to make some excellent garlic mashed potatoes from the Crockin' Girls Fecebook page. I made a few substantive changes, though: butter in place of the olive oil, chicken stock rather than water, plain cream cheese instead of flavored (and only 4 oz.), and buttermilk in place of the milk or cream. Oh, and I peeled my potatoes--personal preference. Definitely a make-again, and not just for special occasions. But this recipe is particularly useful at holiday times when oven space is at a premium.

Garlic Smashed Potatoes
(adapted from the Crockin' Girls)

3 lbs. small red potatoes (I used Yukon Golds)
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil (I used butter)
2/3 cup water (I used chicken stock)
1 cup cream cheese with onions and chives (I used 1/2 cup plain)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk or heavy whipping cream (I used buttermilk)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut potatoes in large chunks. Place potatoes in the slow cooker. Add garlic, onion, olive oil (or butter), salt and pepper to taste, and water or broth. Mix to coat.

Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours, or until potatoes are tender. Remove lid and mash potatoes to desired consistency. Stir in cream cheese, butter, and add milk or cream (or buttermilk) to your desired consistency.

Serve right away, or switch your slow cooker to warm.

And naturally, I have saved the very best for last. I made the most INCREDIBLE pumpkin pie with a walnut crunch topping that was the 2005 National Pie Championships pumpkin winner. And BOY HOWDY, did it deserve it! Oh, and as a flattering sidebar, if you are into the pie championships (as aired annually on the Food Network), I am unabashedly delighted to report that TWO past winners were kind enough to comment on the beauty of my pie when I posted this picture to Facebook. I know...I'm such a foodie geek!

Walnut Crunch Pumpkin Pie

Christine Montalvo, 2005 First Place Pumpkin Category, National Pie Championships

Pastry Dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2-teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor, add flour and salt. Pulse to mix. Add cold butter and shortening, which has been cut into small pieces. Pulse 6 to 8 times until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small pea-size butter lumps. Drizzle 4 tablespoons ice water evenly over and pulse 3-4 times more until dough holds together. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time until dough holds together. Form into 2 balls, and then flatten each into a disk. Wrap disks separately in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Divide dough into 2 pieces. On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin roll out one piece of dough into a 10-inch round (about 1/8 inch thick). Fit a 9-inch pie plate with one piece of dough and flute edges. Reserve 2nd piece of dough for another time. Refrigerate (or freeze) while preparing filling.

2/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 cups canned solid pack pumpkin
2 tablespoons mild-flavored (light) molasses (I swapped out dark maple syrup)
3 large eggs
1 cup whipping cream (I used evaporated milk)

Place baking sheet in oven and preheat to 450F. Whisk first 8 ingredients together in large bowl to blend. Whisk in pumpkin, molasses, eggs, and whipping cream. Pour mixture into frozen crust. Place pie on preheated baking sheet in oven. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325F and bake until sides puff and center is just set, about 40 minutes. Cool completely. Preheat broiler. Prepare walnut crunch topping.

Walnut-Crunch Topping:
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1-cup whipping cream plus 3 Tbsp powdered sugar

In a small saucepan, over low heat, melt butter. Stir in walnuts and brown sugar and mix until well mixed. Spoon evenly over pie. Broil pie 3 minutes, 5 to 7 inches from broiler, or until topping is golden and sugar dissolves. Cool pie again on wire rack.

In a small bowl, beat heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar with electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Pipe around edge of cooled pie. (I skipped this part and served mine with Breyer's Natural Vanilla Bean Ice Cream!)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ready to Call It: The BEST Dish of 2011

I know we have close to six weeks remaining in the year, but I already declare this the BEST dish to come out of my kitchen in 2011! This is Bon Appetit's red wine-braised short ribs that I served with homemade buttermilk, parsley and garlic mashed potatoes. WOWZA! Here's the recipe, which I HIGHLY recommend! It's a lot of prep, but sooooooo worth it in the end--layers upon layers of rich, succulent flavor! And SURPRISE: I did NOT make this in the crock pot! I made it in the old school French version of a slow cooker, my beloved Le Creuset Dutch oven. However, I think you could transfer everything to a crock pot at the point where the recipe calls for you to put it in the oven, then cook for 5-6 hours on high or 8-10 on low. But anyway you make it, MAKE IT!

Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs
Bon Appétit, October 2011
Yield: Makes 6 servings

5 pound bone-in beef short ribs, cut crosswise into 2" pieces (I used about four pounds, left on the whole bone, cut into 2-bone sections)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
3 medium onions, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled, diced
2 celery stalks, diced (I used 3 stalks)
*I also added 1/2 pound of sliced Baby Bella mushrooms--next time, I would use a whole pound!
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 750-milliliter bottle dry red wine (preferably Cabernet Sauvignon)
*I also added about 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
8 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs oregano
2 sprigs rosemary
*I tied the fresh herb sprigs with kitchen twine
2 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
*I also added a pinch of red pepper flakes
4 cups beef stock

Preheat oven to 350°F. Season short ribs with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in 2 batches, brown short ribs on all sides, about 8 minutes per batch. Transfer short ribs to a plate. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons drippings from pot.

Add onions, carrots, and celery (and mushrooms) to pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until onions are browned, about 5 minutes. Add flour and tomato paste; cook, stirring constantly, until well combined and deep red, 2-3 minutes. Stir in wine (and balsamic vinegar), then add short ribs with any accumulated juices. Bring to a boil; lower heat to medium and simmer until wine is reduced by half, about 25 minutes. Add all herbs to pot along with garlic (and red pepper flakes). Stir in stock. Bring to a boil, cover, and transfer to oven.

Cook until short ribs are tender, 2-2 1/2 hours. Transfer short ribs to a platter. Strain sauce from pot into a measuring cup. (I fished out the herb bundle and the bay leaves, but I did NOT strain the sauce. Why would I want to throw away all of those yummy vegetables?) Spoon fat from surface of sauce and discard. (Alternately, refrigerate overnight, remove the solid fat, then reheat.) Shred the meat with two forks, and season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in shallow bowls over mashed potatoes with sauce spooned over.

Cooks' Note:
To test if the ribs are done, pull on a bone. It should slide out freely.

As for the potatoes, I peeled and cut into big chunks about three pounds of gold potatoes, boiled them in salted water until tender, drained, added a stick of butter(!), maybe 1/2 cup of buttermilk (or to desired consistency), 1/2 (up to a whole) teaspoon of granulated garlic, a few tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. YUM!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Yep. More crockpot soups.

You might be sick of me and my crockpot soups by now, but I think it's a theme that is likely to recur until the spring get used to it! I really hadn't expected to make another squash soup so soon after the last one, but one of my best friends, Stacey, posted a really yummy-sounding one on Facebook, and as I still had lots of "mystery squash" left in the freezer, I felt compelled to try it. And of course, I adapted the recipe to be made in the crock pot. I love the flavor of the roasted squash in this soup. And you can make it even more delicious by adding any number of tasty toppers (see below).

Savory Roasted Butternut Squash Soup (Crock Pot Method)

6 cups of cubed, roasted butternut squash--or any winter squash you have on hand*
olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
2 medium onions, diced
4 stalks celery, diced (leaves and all)
4 carrots, diced
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
4 teaspoons dried thyme (I used a tied bundle of fresh thyme instead)
2 bay leaves
2 quarts chicken or veggie stock (preferably, homemade)
1 tablespoon chicken or veggie soup base
1 cup half and half, optional

Add the celery, carrots, garlic, herbs, stock and soup base into a 5 or 6 quart crock pot. Start on low while the squash is roasting, then add the roasted squash to the crock pot and continue cooking on low for 8-10 hours. Using a stick blender, puree the soup, and if you like, blend in some half and half or cream to desired taste and consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Makes five quarts.

fresh lime juice
chopped crispy bacon
cojita cheese crumbles
sour cream
cayenne pepper
cilantro leaves

*Roasting the squash:
You can peel, seed, and cube the squash, sprinkle it with oil, salt and pepper, and bake it at 400 for 30-40 minutes. Or you can do it the lazy way and halve, seed, cook cut side down, and then when it is done, just scoop out the soft flesh.

The second recipe that I'd like to share is a classic French onion soup. It is a particularly good idea to make this in the crock pot, because the onions take SO LONG to caramelize, and you have to keep a careful eye on them when they cook on the stovetop so that they don't scorch. But with the crock pot, you can chuck in  the onions and walk away! Then to finish the dish, you top each bowl with croutons and cheese and run it under the broiler for a couple of minutes. MMM!

Crockpot French Onion Soup

4 tablespoons butter
4 large onions, cut in half and then sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup chocolate stout (or another dark beer)
1 bunch fresh thyme, tied into a bundle with kitchen twine
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 quarts beef stock
3 tablespoons flour

Add the butter, sliced onions, and garlic cloves to a preheated crock pot. Cook on high for about an hour, until the onions start to color. Pour in the balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, beer, and the bundle of fresh thyme. Cook for another seven hours on high, stirring occasionally. Fish out the thyme bundle, then add 2 quarts of rich beef stock to the pot, plus the flour that has been whisked into a slurry with some of the stock. Cook another couple of hours on high, or as long as you prefer on low.

Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls or crocks, top with large croutons (I like those Italian panetini that I buy in a big bag at Sam's Club), then a couple/few tablespoons of shredded Gruyere. Broil for a minute or two until the cheese is brown and bubbly.