Little Bits of Heaven Shortbread Muffins

or satisfying your sweet tooth on a non-existent budget

So much savory so little time, but life isn't all about the main course (no matter how delicious it may be).  Sometimes you just need dessert.  It's a simple undisputed truth, no matter your age or diet plan, at some point you just want something sweet.  Now before you shut me down and go in search of a "healthy" alternative to these delicious little treats consider this: will that option truly satisfy the craving for sweetness or bring that moment of comfort you are longing for that is reminiscent of childhood joy?  Think of the negative effects all that unresolved stress will have on your body.  And, if that isn't enough, just keep in mind - one little, bitty cookie muffin may well be worth the relief.  Besides, with only four little ingredients the risk falls more on your tastebuds than you pocketbook so why not give it a try?

For me shortbread is an amazingly fond memory of my childhood.  I remember happily sitting on the kitchen counter swinging my legs and singing "momma's little baby loves shortenin', shortenin', momma's little baby loves shortenin' bread" while my mom baked (it's a good thing it was a short recipe, or I very well may have driven her insane).  I couldn't help it, even then I knew the joys that resulted when butter, flour, and sugar all came to the party.  It was a delightful treat when the smells filled the kitchen and that first slice was cut from the pan.  For quite some time it seemed that my mom's famed shortbread recipe had vanished and I was stranded, forced to concoct my own.  Now, not wanting to compete with the comfort food of my childhood, I decided to try my hand at shortbread "cookies."  Not always the most successful, it was a very fussy concoction.  But I kept trying and one day I made some modifications to my most successful shortbread cookie recipe that resulted in the creation of shortbread muffins.  Reminicent of the rich dessert I loved but surprisingly light and fluffy!  Who knew shortbread could puff up like that?  

3 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

First thing's first - before we start I must stress one thing, it's about the butter, it really must be softened.  You don't want it melted into a puddle in a dish but it does need to be soft all the way through in order to get the full fluffed effect we are going for, if you can't wait for it to soften just be warned that they may come out a bit more dense like traditional shortbread.  Now that we have that out of the way -

1. Using a hand mixer, blend softened butter and sugar until fluffy (should only take a couple seconds if soft).  Add vanilla and continue to blend.

2. Slowly add in the flour and blend until well mixed, should be a clumpy but mixed all the way through.

3. Grease muffin cups, mini sized work best but the regular size will work with a bit longer cook time.  Using a tablespoon, scoop out a spoonful of the mixture and compress in the palm of your hand to form a small ball shape.  Be careful not to overwork the cookie dough, if you do it will come out more dense.  Drop one ball of dough into each muffin cup, there's no need to shape any further as the cooking will help it take form.

4. Bake for approximately 12 min for small muffins and 16-18 min for regular muffins.  The shortbread should be getting golden around the corners and the center should rise a bit when done.  Pull out and allow to cool slightly on a cookie rack before removing.

There's no need to rush now, just take your time, go and get yourself a small plate.  Place a single shortbread muffin in the center of the plate, sit down, and enjoy that first bite - that rich buttery goodness, still warm in the center from baking but cool to touch on the outside - and let your mind wander past all that stress from work, all those frustrations with family, and on to that place of happiness we knew best as children. Enjoy the moment.  Just remember to take care to ease yourself back into reality before that peaceful feeling is shattered by the dog barking, kids sceaming, or traffic moving noisily outside your door.  But don't let go of that feeling, that comfort, that you felt in that first delicious bite.  I hope your day is as delicious as mine.  Enjoy!


Puttin' the Pressure on Pork Ribs

or quick flavor infused ribs for the time challenged cook.

I love ribs.  Beef, pork, bone-in, bone-out, country style, baby back, you name it - I love it!  And, true to most rib-snob forms, I will insist on grilled or smoked ribs whenever possible.  Unfortunately sometimes that just isn't possible, well quite frankly most nights that's not possible, but you shouldn't let that stand in the way of a delicious rib dinner mid-week.  Instead I offer you this: pressure cooked, BBQ flavor infused, pork ribs.  I know, I know, it isn't your tried and true cook for endless hours recipe, but this you can make just about any day of the week and for me that's a huge plus.  If you're still feeling finicky just toss them on the grill for some searing with extra sauce when you're done.  Are we all happy now?  Ok, let's move on.  Here's how it's done:

5 pounds* bone-in country-style pork ribs, cut singly
1 tsp paprika
2 tbsp canola oil
2 cup water
3 tablespoons ketchup
1-2 shots whiskey
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp Dried minced onion
Smoked salt, pepper
6-8 very small golden potatoes

* This can be done with any number of ribs that will fit in your pressure cooker.  The key is to have enough sauce to cover the tops and enough head space for the pressure to build (your pressure cooker instructions usually define this if it isn't marked on the pot).

 What to do, what to do... oh, right, here we go:

1. Heat the oil in the bottom of the slow cooker pot while prepping the ribs.  For the ribs - on one side season with the smoked sea salt and press in firmly.  Now I'm not huge on all the fancy salt variations but the smokiness of this type is well worth the trip to a spice shop or specialty grocer once a year, it gives that rich smoky undertone that they get from cooking on the grill whether you're indoors or out.  But if you don't have this on hand or don't want to make the trip you can substitute smoked paprika for the standard kind and kosher salt for the smoked salt and that should help.  On the other side season with paprika and pepper and press in.  If you like additional garlic flavor, add some garlic powder to one of the sides when prepping.

2. Now that those seasonings are pressed firmly into the ribs add them to the oil in the pot.  Toss in the onion and garlic to sizzle.  Allow the ribs to brown on each side before flipping.  You may need to add a little extra oil while doing this if they start to stick.  If the ribs don't fit in the bottom of the pot, no worries, just work in a couple batches, it won't take long.

3. Smell all that flavorful goodness...  While they are browning mix together the sauce base.  Start with 1 cup of water and stir in the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and whiskey until smooth.  You may need to pull out a whisk for this, an excellent opportunity to release some stress by taking out any lingering frustrations on that lumpy sauce (you'll be amazed how quickly it becomes smooth when your stress level is particularly high).  Once it is ready, and you are feeling a bit more relaxed, pour it over the ribs.

4.  Nestle the potatoes in among the ribs and add enough water to cover the meat without going over the fill line.  Secure the top according to your pressure cooker guidelines and heat to high pressure.  Maintain pressure for about 20 min then turn off heat and let set for about 10 min.  Once that time has passed release the pressure slowly.  Stir well before serving.

These ribs practically fall off of the bone, a gentle tug is all it needs to release, and with the potatoes this makes a great one-pot meal.  Just think of how productive you can, or can not, be while it's cooking.  It's almost like dinner is saying "sit back, relax, I got this handled" and who would want to argue with dinner?  Certainly not I.  Now if you happen to find yourself wanting just a little more flavor simply toss the ribs on the grill, or in a cast iron skillet, with a light coating of your favorite BBQ sauce.  That extra searing may just push them over the top but that's a risk I would be willing to take, and you should be too, all in the name of ribs.  Glorious, smoky, tender, delicious ribs.  Enjoy!


Italian Mini Meatloaves

or comfort food come healthy, meatloaves even your kids will love

Ground beef or turkey is such a versatile ingredient that I am constantly trying to find new recipes or new ways to put a twist on more traditional ones - I can't go rogue all the time or people will never venture to try the recipes on their own.  So, after several weeks of more riske ideas, today I bring to you a peace offering - a simple twist on a home style classic - meatloaf.  While I ran in fear of this dish as a child, I have since found that it can not only be made in many different and delicious variations but it can also be made to be fun.  My two favorite recipes are Italian and BBQ mini meatloaves.  Today we're going Italian.

First - the healthier side (eluded to in the subtitle above).  In place of red meat, I like to use a low fat ground turkey with reduced fat cheeses.  Another benefit is the preset size of each loaf, making it easier at mealtime to stick to the right portions/ratios.  Also, making a lighter version of this comfort classic can help prevent that heavy, weighed down feeling that often slides in stealthily post-dinner (and nobody want that).  Definitely a bonus.  Ok enough of that health food talk, on to my second point - meatloaf can be fun!  Crazy, I know, but it's true.  As I was a meatloaf phobic child myself I can relate to those that shy away from such nondescript dishes, so let's just toss that word out and replace it with "muffins."  Sound a bit more pleasant?  I thought so.  Now lets take a winding trip down memory lane, with a few creative touches added to the landscape.

1 lb ground turkey
1 egg
2 tbsp low fat ricotta cheese
1/3 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Reduced Fat Parmesan Romano cheese
House spice blend
1 tbsp Dried minced onion
1/2 tsp Garlic powder
1/4 tsp Basil
1/4 tsp Parsely
1/4 tsp Kosher salt

1. Dump all ingredients except a palmful of the Panko into a large bowl.  Roll up your sleeves and remove any jewelry on your hands and wrists, this is gonna get messy.  Now dig in!  Using your hands to mash together the ingredients, folding and pressing, squeezing and turning, punching if necessary, until it is blended throughout.  Take a deep breathe and relax as all that stress you didn't realize you had is released from your body. 

2. Use non-stick spray on two 6 muffin baking pans (silicone works best, it's much easier to remove). Shape balls of the turkey mixture into evenly sized "muffins" and place in pan. If they are resisting formation just add some extra breadcrumbs to the mixture, but don't force it dry - the moistness is one of the best parts!

Optional step: To make this a more decadent treat we'll add a bit of Brie.  Use your finger to make a small indent about halfway deep in each "muffin" and press in a 1/2" cube of brie, cover with ground turkey from sides to seal securely.  Now that the "treasure" is in place, we can continue..

3. Dust tops of the muffins with the remaining Panko Crumbs and bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 min. or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.  Let them cool for a couple minutes before releasing from the pans.  If using silicone they will just pop out, otherwise slide a small fork gently down the side (so as not to damage the delicate package) and lift from the bottom. 

And there they are - little savory muffin delights.  Whether you opted for the Brie or not tis is still a nice way to dress up a classic weekday meal.  For an easy throw together dinner you can prep these ahead of time and store them in the fridge under plastic wrap, then all you need to do is toss them in the oven when you get home!  This is an quick and simple dinner that makes both me and my hubby happy, while being healthy at the same time. The fun shape and hidden "treasure" makes this more fun for kids at any age.  Serves great with baked potatoes or salad, and of course a side of galic bread.  Personally I like to make extra, the moistness from the ricotta results in them reheating very well for lunches.  Well, I must run off now.  I hope you take this little twist on a home stye classic into your kitchen for a spin, it's always a hit in mine.  Enjoy!


Stress Prevention Sicilian Tomato Sauce

or It's Home Canning and I Helped!  An instant homemade meal.

Now, before you go running off at the thought of canning your own food let me lay it out for you.  This isn't your grandmother's canning.  Now I'm sure what she did was great, and the hard hours she put into it made it delicious, but much of that has gone by the wayside.  There are many tools that make it easy for you to preserve jars of delicious foods with only a few extra tools and your stock pot.  So never fear, modern home canning* is here!

Ok, I admit it, I am biased.  I love canning.  I only began canning on my own over the past year and it is already a mild obsession.  This recipe was one I created when I first started canning last Fall to make gift baskets for the holidays but my husband loved it so much that I soon had to make more.  To be honest, it was surprising how nice it was to be able able to pour out the slow simmered, homemade sauce over pasta and have such a delicious meal in the same time it takes to make a box of macaroni and cheese.  It does take some time to lovingly cook all those flavors into the sauce but just think of how many meals you'll have at your fingertips in the cupboard and it will all seem worth it again.  It took some adjusting, but I made a close replica of my Sicilian grandmother's spaghetti sauce base that is hot water bath canning safe.  And really, who doesn't want easy access to the grandmother's comfort foods?  Let the idea marinate as you read on, and maybe - just maybe - you'll find your inner strength to give it a try.

Beef bullion granules – 4 tbsp
Tomatoes - 1 can crushed or 28 oz fresh boiled and crushed
Diced tomatoes – 1 can, with basil & oregano, or 12 oz fresh diced and spiced
Onion – 1 large, minced
Garlic – 3 tsp fresh minced garlic
Seasoning salt
Parsley, Oregano, and Basil - 1-2 tsp each, dried
Garlic powder – 2 tsp
Tomato paste – 1 can, 12 oz
Wine – red, ½ a cup (perhaps an extra glass for the cook)
Parmesan cheese – ¼ cup, to taste

1. Get a big pot and sauté garlic and onions with some seasoning salt.  As they start to sizzle and brown soak in those savory aromas.  Once the onions begin to turn translucent it is time to move on.

2. Stir in the crushed and diced tomatoes until well blended. Bring to a simmer.

3. Now it is time to add the tomato paste, 2 cups of water, and wine. Stir until the tomato paste is incorporated in the sauce and the aroma of the red wine mixes almost seamlessly into that of the tomatoes and garlic.  Keep the pot at a simmer and add the beef bullion granules, stir until completely dissolved and start to cook down.

4. Mix in the remaining spices, adding additional amounts to taste. If you love garlic as much as I do use a more generous amount of garlic powder.

5. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring whenever you happen to be in the kitchen to prevent neglect induced bottom burning. Remember to add water as needed, and season with salt and pepper. Keep cooking down and attending to the sauce lovingly generally for about 2 hours or so.

6. Taste throughout and add more herbs or salt and pepper as needed. Separate out any that will not be canned and during the last 30 min add Parmesan cheese, stirring well. Heat all the way through.

7. If canning, prepare jars and lids according to guidelines below and complete while sauce is hot.

You did it!  Your first canning experiment is now complete, and believe me it will be worth it.  After a long stressful day at work, chasing kids around, fixing other people's problems, or just about anything else that gets under your skin, just crack open a jar, boild some noodles, and enjoy!  I love to use this in my slow cooker lasagna recipe (coming soon to a blog near you) and also adding some browned ground beef or crumbled Italian sausage for a quick meat sauce.  If you are having guests or just want to dress it up a bit, toss it wiith pasta after adding the ground meat and then throw in the oven topped with mozzerella for a quick baked dish that will taste like it took hours to make.  And of course, you can't forget the garlic bread.  With so many options, and a great back up supply, this can be a perfect go to dish for instant stress relief, but maybe that's just the Italian me.  Either way, I hope you enjoy!

Canning tomato sauce:
1.) Prepare boiling water canner or stock pot. Heat jars and lids separately in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
2.) Ladle the hot sauce into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a non-metal utensil if needed by sliding it gently down the side. Wipe rim. Center hot lid on jar. Apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight.
4.) Place the filled jars in a boiling water canner or stock pot for 35 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.

* You have to be careful to use tried and true recipe ingredients for hot water canning or it may go bad (some ingredients can only be pressure canned, a bit more expensive process).   As long as you stick to safe ingredient combinations, the options are endless!  So let loose and let those creative juices flow; just keep in mind a touch of restraint to keep from crossing over into forbidden ingredient land.