Friday, June 29, 2012

Meringues with an Enjoyable Chocolate Surprise

Lately, Pinterest has become my go-to source for all sorts of inspiration - from organizing my kitchen to planning the lunch and dessert for my brother's wedding shower to quotes that make me giggle and general crafty diy to tempting food.  When I stumbled upon these Raspberry Meringues, I was in love.  They were so beautifully crafted.  But even more tantalizing was the piece of chocolate inside.  How clever!

Darla at Bakingdom wrote a wonderful recipe for the meringues - if you don't have a stand-by favorite, be sure to check hers out!  Simply line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, add a piece of chocolate, and pipe out a kiss on top!  Couldn't be easier.

To make mine dairy free, I used some of Enjoy Life's semi-sweet chocolate Mega Chunks the company recently sent me.  I am not one to keep it small when creating desserts, and meringues are no exception.  The larger size of the chocolate chunks was perfect for my meringues formed with the 1M decorating tip from Wilton.  My biggest problem was keeping the chocolate on the cookie sheet - I unfortunately kept observing the "one for the recipe, two for my belly" rule...  I have had my fair share of semi-sweet dairy-free chocolate chips and Enjoy Life's are some of the best.  Knowing that they are also gluten and dairy free (and top 8 allergen free and vegan and all that good stuff) is especially comforting - I have not found any other chocolate chip labeled even dairy free.  Who knows what the other companies do to make sure that pesky milk chocolate is not co-mingling with my semi-sweet or dark chocolate!  It is always a gamble with other chips, well, they don't list that milk is an ingredient so I should be okay, right?  Right?  *crickets*

Each bite into these meringues were delicious.  Not only did I get the usual egg/sugar mixture, but the addition of the chocolate was such a sweet surprise.  I never would have thought to combine pieces of chocolate into my meringues, but I'm glad I did!  This is an excellent recipe with a superior piece of Enjoy Life chocolate waiting inside.  This recipe is a keeper - it may even make an appearance at my brother's upcoming wedding shower - their colors are brown and pink!  I'll just need to get my hands on some raspberry extract before then...

Pour open bag of Enjoy Life Mega Chunks. Consume a few.
 Evenly space out the chocolate chips.
 Separate the egg yolks from egg whites.
 Put your Kitchen Aid to work! 
(Not pictured because this part got a little too messy) Add the 1M tip to a piping bag.  Add the meringue.  Make beautiful drops directly on the chocolate. 
Impatiently wait for the meringues to cook (1 hour 40 minutes) before quickly photographing them before gobbling them up.

If you have leftover chocolate (and didn't eat most of the bag like I did...sometimes I have no shame...), the mega chunks are great as a dairy-free ganache!  1 part soy milk, 2.5 parts chocolate heated up in a pot over low heat. Perfect for drizzling on fruit!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lehman's Orchard

Next up for Farmer's Market Thursdays, celebrating the vendors who sell at the Daley Plaza Farmer's Market in Chicago, is Lehman's Orchard.
Lehman's Orchard is 61 acres of a family operated farm in Michigan (55 of those acres are for fruit!)  They kick off the farmer's market season with strawberries and by the time fall hits, they will be selling pears, sauces and relishes.  From a variety of fruit to nut butters (nuts are not grown on site) to cider to sauces, they seem to do it all!  Their farm even has a winery - 100% of the fruit used in the wine is grown on site and all the work is done by their employees. 

I recently spoke with Steve from Lehman's Orchard.  When asked about his favorite product, he said it changes with the season.  Right now, he told me, "The raspberries are pretty tasty.  I haven't had them in a while."  I agree!  Raspberries and blueberries just started and we are at the tail end of the strawberry season, Steve told me.  Raspberries are one of my personal favorite fruits (we grow them in my mom's garden), but Lehman's Orchard has twelve different varieties!  There are black raspberries, white (golden) raspberries and ten different kinds of red ones (although Steve says it is harder to tell the red raspberries apart.)

With so many different products available, it is easy to make healthy choices to eat locally.  I'm excited to use their apple cider vinegar in my recipes.  Their trail mix mas been fantastic as a quick and tasty mid-afternoon pick-me-up while at work!

You can like Lehman's Orchard on Facebook - they are great with updating what they are selling that week.  After seeing them for a few years at Daley Plaza, I can vouch for their ever changing selection.  It's like a new store every week!

What have you bought from Lehman's Orchard?  What products to you love?  Have you tried any of their packaged goods or are you too distracted by their tempting fruit?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Farm Fresh Egg, Spinach, and Basil Bake

Through my church, I am participating in a Food Faith and Substantibility small group.  This week's focus was on Food and the Environment.  For our potluck style meeting, we were asked to bring something made with local ingredients and I volunteered to cook an entree.  On Sunday, at the last minute, I saw my uncle at a graduation party.  He had four dozen eggs in the fridge for the taking.  He said I could have some - his chickens lay five eggs a day and he has plenty.  Eggs don't get any more farm fresh than ones from an uncle's backyard farm in Wisconsin!

I took a vacation day off from work in order to explore some new farmers markets throughout the city.  (Some people use vacation days to visit the beach; I use it to drool over fresh veggies.)  Today, I visited the Lincoln Square Farmers Market, which is literally steps off the Western brown line stop.  It is open on Tuesdays from 7am to 1pm.  There was a great selection of plants (edible and non), baked goods (for gluten loving folks), fruits and green veggies.  I bought some asparagus for $3.00 and a bunch of basil for $1.50 for my entree.
For cheese, since every recipe involving eggs seems to require cheese, I used Teeze Vegan Mozzarella "cheese" from Chicago Vegan Foods (sold in Whole Foods).  I love the product and support the company's core values: veganism (sorry for using eggs with your product!), environmental responsibility and commitment to customers.  This dairy-free cheese melts, grates well, and is a breeze to substitute for dairy cheeses.

With the help from Uncle Mike's Farm Fresh Eggs, a visit to a nearby Farmers Market, and vegan cheese, I created this Egg and Spinach bake. Even if you do not have your own uncle with chickens, I hope you try some cage free eggs for this recipe!  (You'll get hooked.)  As written, the only top 8 allergens the recipe contains are soy and egg; it is naturally gluten-free.  This recipe is easy enough to substitute in other herbs or cooked veggies for endless varieties!  I got a lot of compliments from my group (unofficial taste testers) - everyone really enjoyed this "crustless quiche".  It pairs quite deliciously with other local foods! (Such as quinoa with beans and corn, corn on the cob, strawberry salad, rice with green beans...)

Farm Fresh Egg, Spinach and Basil Bake

1 bunch of spinach, washed, with large stems removed
2 T olive oil
Cooking spray
2 cups basil (loosely packed when measuring) then thinly sliced
1 package (10oz) of Teeze - Mozzarella vegan cheese
10 cage free eggs

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray a casserole pan with cooking spray.

Heat oil in a pan.  Add the spinach, tossing it around to coat the spinach leaves with oil.  Cover and let cook until it is wilted for about two minutes.

Add the spinach to the casserole pan.  Add basil.  Grate Teeze one top.
Add salt and pepper (to taste) to the eggs and beat.  Pour the egg mixture into the casserole pan and give it a quick stir.
Bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes or until the mixture is set and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Let cool before cutting.

What do you do to eat locally?  What farmers markets do you visit?

Smits Farms Herbs

Nothing beats turning a great recipe into a suburb recipe with the addition of some fresh herbs.  One of the staples at the Thursday Daley Plaza Farmers Market is Smits Farms.  I have been buying herbs from them for the past three years.  No other stand sells so many ready to use herbs.  Smits gets major props for conveniently labeling all their herbs, which is always tempting me to try something new.  They also sell a large variety of herbs in pots, ready to find new homes in your garden.

One my most recent visit to their stand, I spoke with Kayla from Smits Farms.  Their farmer's market stand is filled with a great variety of herbs, flowers, and later in the season, a lot of vegetables, like corn and tomatoes.  The farm has been family run for around twenty years and is located in Chicago Heights.

 Her favorite herb is basil.  "I really like pesto - later we will have a ton of basil.  It's super good," she says.

One of the biggest misconceptions about herbs is that people think they are never going to use it.  That's not the case - you can always use it for something, Kayla told me.  Her three favorites herbs are bail, cilantro and dill.

"Come and smell them.  They smell pretty good," Kayla says, inviting everyone to check out their delicious herbs.  Their prices are great - some of the lowest prices around for fresh herbs.  With only a few dollars, you can easily enhance the flavor in any dish.

Daley Plaza not your scene?  Don't worry - Smits Farms is part of nine Farmers Markets in Chicago in 2012!

What are your top three herbs?  Mine are basil, tarragon and flat parsley.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Salsas Vallartas

Every Thursday, I attend the farmer's market in Daley Plaza in the Loop.  Earlier last week, I (very easily) convinced a co-worker to come with me to shop for veggies and more on our lunch break.  My co-worker is a real trooper - even in the pouring rain without umbrellas - we did not let the storm ruin our quest for delicious food.

Each week while the downtown Farmer's Market is in session (click here for the calendar), I am going to spotlight a different vendor.  First up is Salsas Vallartas!

Salsas Vallartas sells salsa (of course), guacamole and hummus.  Their products are all natural with no preservatives - which quickly sets it apart from the supermarket varieties!  Give me all natural products any day! I spoke with Eliza from Salsas Vallartas - the only product I needed to avoid as someone who is gluten and dairy free was the Spinach and Feta Cheese - it obviously contains cheese.  That is actually one of her favorite types of hummus - and actually the product that sets them apart from other hummus makers.  Dairy lovers - check it out!  Her other two favorites are Cilantro and Jalapeno ("goes well with tortilla chips and beer") and Three Peppers - "The fusion of the three peppers keeps it smoky - medium - not over the top."

Eliza's dad has been in the food industry for over 15 years and all of his recipes come from his family - great-great-great grandma, actually!  They use very authentic ways of cooking.  Salsas Vallartas is bringing big taste with their products to the community while still maintaining a small-town feel in this bustling city.  Everything is made in a small kitchen in Lincoln Park.  In addition to the Daley Plaza farmer's market, they attend others as well, such as the one at Clark & Division.

It's fairly easy to incorporate hummus into your diet - use it on wraps, with chips, with veggies and more!  Uses salsas with omelets or as marinades.  Couldn't be easier!

I tried a few varieties of their salsas and hummus.  Everything was very tasty - after deciding between many tasty options, I ended up buying their lemon hummus.  The hummus and salsa are $5.00 a tub.  It seems like a lot of money, but the quantity is easily two or three times the supermarket varieties with more flavor, quality, and natural ingredients.  The hummus lasts for about a week and a half - everything is labeled with the "best by" date.  Check them out at the next Farmer's Market!  (Note: the chips they use for sampling are labeled "gluten free" on the bag.  Win!)

And as for my co-worker who weathered the storms with me?  She bought hummus as well and introduced her family to something tasty that they now love.  (And we got drenched in the rain.)
 Have you tried Salsas Vallartas before?  What's your favorite salsa or hummus?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Better Batter Yellow Cake

Looking for a tasty yellow cake mix?  Look no further than Better Batter's certified gluten free Yellow Cake Mix.  Better Batter was kind enough to send me a box to sample.  The baking couldn't be simpler: mix plus 1 cup water or milk (I used Pacific Natural Food's hemp milk), 3/4 cup oil and 3 eggs.  Mix everything together, pour into two 8" pans and half an hour in the oven later, you have cake!

I was bringing the cake to my cousin's housewarming party, so I couldn't sample the cake ahead of time.  (That's why I like cupcakes, no one notices if one is missing...I'm sneaky like that.)  From my Wilton classes, I learned how to properly level a cake.  I adjusted my cake leveler and was shocked to discover that the cakes were already level.  In my almost two years baking gluten free, this has never happened.  While I was delighted that I saved a step, I was bummed that again, I couldn't sneak any cake in advance.  At that point, I decided the cake better be worth the wait!

After placing my cake on a foil covered board and carefully positioning one layer, I piped a some frosting onto the cake and spread it around.  Then the next layer was added and the cake went to the fridge to cool to prevent any crumbs from seeping into the frosting.  Once the cake was cool, I plopped a ton of light green thin-consistency frosting on top and began to ice my cake.  I used a stencil to make the decorative swirls on the top of the cake.  I added another two toothpicks worth of green dye to darken up my leftover frosting before adding in some piping gel and a tiny bit more water.  The stencil was outlined using a #3 tip and then surrounding freehand dots were added.  Using a #21 tip, I formed a shell border around the base of the cake in the remainder of the dark green frosting.  A two-tone yellow gum paste Gerbera Daisy (made earlier) found its way in the center of the cake.  Viola!  Beautifully decorated cake without my kitchen turning into a mess!


Later that day after toting my cake up to the Illinois-Wisconsin border for my cousin's party, I FINALLY got to try the cake!  Was it a better batter than I'm used to?  You bet!  The cake was deliciously moist, very soft and tasted like cake!  (I've tried some gf cake mixes that felt like I was biting into sand; Better Batter thankfully tastes like a decadent cloud.  And look at those air pockets!  The batter is not too dense.)  At the party, my cousin's other side of the family happily tried the cake and complimented how great it tasted...before they even knew it was gluten free!  Everyone loved it!  I am happy to add another brand of cake mixes to my pantry.  Having a naturally level cake is a huge draw for me since I love to cut corners and find faster ways of doing things without compromising the final product.  The edges of the cake browned a bit too much for my liking, but no one will ever see that after the cake is smothered with frosting.  Better Batter's Yellow Cake is a winner - it even converted my chocolate loving self into a huge fan!