Appetizer as easy as 1-2-3

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I don’t often have an excuse to make appetizers. I don’t entertain, and usually when I contribute to a potluck or other event, I bake.

A couple of my friends and I got together for a movie night. We each agreed ahead of time to bring a couple food contributions. I made stuffed grapes, meatballs, and strawberry shortcake—because dessert is what I’m good at.

The stuffed grapes are something I learned to assemble last year as an easy appetizer. And really, when I say easy, I mean it. It requires three ingredients and a bit of patience. The funny thing is that, of the three things I took for movie night, these were the favorite. Sometimes simple really is best.

Ingredients
1 bunch red grapes
7-ounce log of goat cheese
1/3 cup pistachios, finely chopped

Remove grapes from stems. Cut the curved edge off the bottom of the grape so it can sit up when placed on a plate. Carve a cone-shaped space into the top. Repeat this step with all grapes.

Take a pinch of goat cheese and stuff it into each grape. Top with chopped pistachios.

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Shortbread wreaths pleasing to the eye and the taste buds

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Bon Appetit had a gorgeous cover for their holiday edition. What at first appeared to be a wreath was actually a shortbread cookie beautifully decorated with freeze-dried flowers. The concept seemed pretty simple and, since I usually have shortbread on my platter, I thought it could be a more sophisticated offering for the adults in the group.

Staying with the mantra of always using what I have on hand, I used all regular flour instead of rice flour, as the original recipe called for. I also had no idea where to find freeze-dried flowers—I check the tea and produce aisles and came up short—so I made it easy and chopped up some dried cherries and apricots. Since I don’t like lavender, I used about a half teaspoon of rose water instead. It worked well.

I made one batch and used smaller cookie cutters, so it made nearly four dozen cookies, but they were the perfect size. I was pleasantly surprised at how gorgeous and tasty these ended up being, and my coworkers loved them, too. I can’t wait to see how they’re received on Christmas eve.

Glaze
3 large egg whites
4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir egg whites, powdered sugar, and cream of tartar in a medium bowl until a thick paste forms with no dry spots. Ideally, glaze should sit at least 12 hours for sugar to fully hydrate, but it can be used as soon as cookies have cooled. Or, you can cover and chill up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature before using.

Shortbread
2 1/2 + 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon rose water
Freeze-dried and/or dried fruits, dried edible flowers, fresh and/or dried herbs (for decorating)
*Raw egg is not recommended for the elderly, pregnant women, children under 4, and people with weakened immune systems.

Whisk flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter, sugar, and rose water in a medium bowl until very pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in dry ingredients on low until fully combined. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roll out dough between 2 sheets of lightly floured parchment to 1/8-inch thick. Using large cutter, cut out 16 rounds, rerolling scraps. Using small cutter, punch out centers. Bake on parchment-lined baking sheets until edges are golden, 12–14 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.

Working quickly, dip tops of cookies into glaze, letting excess drip off. Transfer to wire rack and decorate.

Rainbow salad is pure gold

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I love the farmers market in the fall. All of the vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables fill the booths in an enticing display that makes me want to buy everything and then run home and find new recipes to try. But, I only cook for one, so I remind myself to keep it reasonable and pick up different things each week so I can still satisfy my desire to be creative in the kitchen.

Last week, I picked up some homemade root beer, as well as some beets and carrots to use for a recipe I had in mind.

In addition to being ridiculously gorgeous, this carrot-beet slaw is also quite tasty. With the exception of toasting the pistachios, it’s also completely raw.

Because I bought bullseye beets instead of regular red beets, I had to roast them in the over for about an hour to encourage the flavor to come out. Had I gotten normal beets, I’d have used them raw.

As with most first attempts at a new recipe, I always follow the instructions exactly. I was hesitant about soaking the raisins in vinegar, but decided to trust the creative chefs at Bon Appétit because they certainly know more about cooking than I do.

I was floored by how good this was. There was so much flavor and texture to make this interesting and completely delightful. The parsley, mint, and red pepper flakes made the flavor so dimensional. I devoured it. And then went back for seconds because, with this salad, there is no guilt in going back for more.

Ingredients
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
6 medium carrots (about 1 pound), peeled, julienned
2 medium beets (any color; about 1 pound), peeled, julienned
1/2 cup (packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 cup (packed) fresh mint leaves
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup unsalted, shelled raw pistachios

Combine garlic, raisins, and vinegar in a large bowl; let sit 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread out pistachios on a small rimmed baking sheet; toast, stirring occasionally until golden brown, 6–8 minutes. Let cool; coarsely chop.

Remove garlic from raisin mixture and discard. Add carrots, beets, pistachios, parsley, mint, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes; season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Add oil; toss gently.

Beets make for a satisfying salad

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Since I now have a job with normal hours, it’s a lot easier to plan meals ahead of time.

It wasn’t until I started cooking with beets about a year ago that I really started to enjoy them. I usually use them in either salads or cook them in my dutch oven with a roast.

This salad is all about texture. It has hearty beets, a nutty crunch, creamy goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar that really sets off the flavor. It’s one of the Barefoot Contessa’s recipes. Her version called for almonds and arugula, but I only had pistachios and romaine lettuce, so I went with it. Arugula probably would have been better, but it was good just the same.

This is a great meal on a warmer day. As we head into summer, I’ll be looking for more great salads to make at home.

Ingredients
3 medium-size beets, tops removed and peeled
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoons Dijon mustard, such as Grey Poupon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces baby arugula or romaine
1/4 cup raw pistachios
4 ounces soft goat cheese crumbled

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and place them on a sheet pan. Roast them for 50 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size, until a small sharp knife inserted in the middle indicates that they are tender. Unwrap each beet and set aside for 10 minutes, until cool enough to handle. Peel the beets with a small, sharp knife over a piece of parchment paper to prevent staining your cutting board.

Meanwhile, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and set aside. While the beets are still warm, cut each one in half and then each half into 4 to 6 wedges and place them in a large mixing bowl. As you’re cutting the beets, toss them with half of the vinaigrette (warm beets absorb more vinaigrette), 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Taste for seasonings.

Place the arugula in a separate bowl and toss it with enough vinaigrette to moisten. Put the arugula on a serving platter and then arrange the beets, almonds, and goat cheese on top. Drizzle with additional vinaigrette, if desired, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Beautiful black rice salad is all about texture

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I was originally going to post a soup recipe as my first entry of 2014, but something better came along. I tried a new recipe Wednesday and am still enjoying the leftovers.

I don’t often stray from more typical grains such as white or brown rice and cous cous, but when a friend moved away last year, she left behind a bag of black rice which I knew I needed to figure out how to use.

That bag of rice sat in my cupboard for about six months, up until this month’s edition of Bon Appétit arrived. In this month’s issue, some of the magazine’s staff provided recipes for dishes they cook at home. Among them was this recipe for Black and Wild Rice Salad with Roasted Squash. The accompanying photo was stunning and it included butternut squash, which I love, but most importantly it used black rice.

I wasn’t sure how much I would like this, but I really enjoyed it. The sweetness of the squash and the tartness of the red wine vinegar added delicious layers of flavor. It was even better the next day and, while it can be eaten cold, I prefer it hot.

I omitted the pomegranate seeds in the recipe because the seeds drive me crazy, though I imagine the flavor of the arils would have complemented the rest of the flavors in the dish. I also substituted sliced almonds for the pistachios, since I didn’t have pistachios; and I used curly parsley and carrot greens instead of the microgreens. The curly parsley was a bit harsh, but the carrot greens worked well.

One of my favorite things about it was the texture. The sticky rice and soft squash are balanced by crunchy nuts and rough greens. This must be the amuse-gueule, or “amusement for the mouth,” that celebrity chef Robert Irvine talked about when I interviewed him last year.

It’s not often that you find such an abundance of color, texture and flavor in one meal, but you definitely do in this rice salad. Try it. You won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups black rice
1/2 cup wild rice
Kosher salt
1/2 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, cut into pieces
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup microgreens or sprouts
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Cook black rice and wild rice in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, 35-40 minutes; drain and rinse, shaking off as much water as possible. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and let cool.

Meanwhile, toss squash with 1/4 cup oil on another baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Roast, tossing once, until golden brown and tender, 20-25 minutes; let cool.

Whisk vinegar, honey, and remaining 1/4 cup oil in a large bowl. Add black rice and wild rice, squash, scallions, pomegranate seeds, microgreens, and pistachios; season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.