Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Grand Marnier date balls

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2010 is almost upon us so let the New Year’s Party preparations begin!  If you’re just about ‘baked up’ as I am, you’ll be thankful for this easy recipe that takes less than 5 minutes to make and a few more minutes to form into balls for a pretty presentation. 

These Date balls shown in enormous detail above! are a standard dessert item at our annual Eastern Orthodox St. Nicholas celebration every December 19th and continue to please at every occasion beyond.   The infusion of Grand Marnier and orange zest in the dates creates an elegant and decidedly adult treat.  Chocolate plays second fiddle and acts merely as a binder.

I prefer Medjool dates for their dark, succulent flesh and intense honey-like sweetness.  Also known as the Queen among dates, the Medjool palm originated in Morocco and was brought to California in the early 20th Century where it has been cultivated ever since.  Dates were an important fuel for the desert tribes and nomads of north Africa and the Middle East.  Because they travel well, they were successfully introduced to the Greeks and Romans on the other side of the Mediterranean, where they were highly prized and sold at markets wrapped in gilded paper.  

Dates are high in potassium, fiber and  natural sugars which make them a perfect energy snack for athletes.  Check out my date energy bars that I make for my ride during the MS150 every year.  They are also marvelous in savory dishes.

I suggest you make the mixture a couple of days before you plan to serve the balls.  It will allow the rich flavors to ‘marry’ and we all know that good things come to those who wait ….


Place pitted dates, walnuts and Grand Marnier in a food processor

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Process until it’s a coarse mixture 

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Add orange zest and melted chocolate and pulse until it all comes together

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It’s that simple!


Date Balls – if possible, make the mixture a couple of days before you plan to serve.  Makes about 40 balls.

8 oz. (2 cups) pitted whole dates, preferably Medjool

1 cup walnuts

1 tablespoon Grand Marnier, brandy or orange juice concentrate

fine zest of 1 orange

½ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or good quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (Callebaut, Ghirardelli 60% cacao or Guittard would work well.  The cheaper brands have too much sugar and are less flavorful).

sparkling (sanding) sugar or confectioner’s sugar

Put dates, walnuts and Grand Marnier in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped (see photo above).

Melt chocolate slowly in a double boiler or microwave. Add zest and melted chocolate to the date mixture and pulse just until the mixture comes together.  If necessary, add a little more melted chocolate.  Transfer to a bowl, cover and chill for a couple of days so that the flavors can blend.

When you are ready to make the date balls, scoop a little of the mixture (I use a melon ‘baller’) and shape into small balls using your fingers .  Roll in sparkling sugar or confectioner’s sugar.

Serve in decorative paper cups, if desired.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season’s Greetings!

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Look what I picked up at a cookie exchange last weekend!  This pretty cookie came from Paulie’s Restaurant in Houston.  Delivered to the Houston Chowhounds’ cookie exchange by Paul Petronella and made by his mother Kathy, they were part of an array of tasty sweets enjoyed by all. 

Probably the most creative of all were Plinio Sandalio’s Oatmeal sandwich cookies with foie gras buttercream - luscious and decadent!  Bolivian born Plinio, a savory chef turned pastry chef, is rocking the Houston culinary scene with his off-the-wall combinations.  He is gracious enough to share his recipes here.

I wish you, my readers, a magical Christmas filled with endless joy, laughter and love;  and peace, happiness and prosperity in 2010!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Smoked Salmon with Shallot mayonnaise and Meyer lemon slices

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As they say “time flies when you’re having fun”!   It’s been a year since I started Prijatno!  and it has been a most enjoyable and enriching experience.   Since I’m the ‘live to eat’ type and not vice versa ‘eat to livers’ - too skinny - I’ll never be one of them  I take my adventurous palate and relish the chance to try new ingredients and challenges out of the ordinary.  I’ve made my own homemade puff pastry and Chinese dumpling dough.  I have enjoyed sharing my family, my culture and traditions with you as well as phenomenal dinners, programs and places.

Personal issues with computers aside techno geeks – I’ll never be one of them,  I love the blogging process.  It starts with creativity and cooking in the kitchen and moves on to recipe development (if it’s mine), writing and editing,  photographing, organizing it, and finally the most fun of all is pushing the ‘Publish’ button and waiting to receive your comments!  I am thrilled that I have found a suitable avenue for sharing my culinary experiments and adventures with you because I believe good food and recipes are for sharing, after all!

Thanks for the positive feedback from fellow bloggers, readers and followers.   Comments are very important to me so don’t be shy!  If you’ve never written a comment to a blog post, try it - it’s easy!  Just click on “click to leave a comment” at the end of this post and follow the directions.  If you don’t have a “profile”, a Google account takes just a couple of minutes to set up.    

In my last post I talked about our Meyer lemon crop.  We have been enjoying the lemons in desserts, salads, drinking water and in this delicious sandwich with smoked salmon.

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Smoked Salmon with Shallot mayonnaise and Meyer lemon slices

Makes 4 sandwiches

Shallot Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

2 - 3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or parsley

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


4 - 8 thin slices of firm bread (I used homemade oat bread).   That’s 4 slices for ‘open-faced’ sandwiches, and 8 slices if you like your sandwich ‘closed’.

1 Meyer lemon, sliced as thin as you can

4 oz smoked salmon slices

1 tablespoon chives, chopped

To make the Shallot mayonnaise: combine mayonnaise, shallots, cilantro or parsley, and black pepper in a small bowl. Set aside or refrigerate if using later.

For open-faced sandwiches: Toast 4 slices of bread. Spread with Shallot mayonnaise. Top with thin slices of Meyer lemon, smoked salmon, a small dollop of Shallot mayonnaise and some chopped chives.

For closed sandwiches: Toast the remaining 4 slices of bread and top the sandwiches with them. Slice in half and enjoy!

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Meyer lemon ice cream

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There was a mad dash last week to harvest the Meyer lemons, Key limes and basil from the yard in anticipation of a hard freeze.  Both procrastinators to the max why do it now when you can do it mañana?, Husbie and I waited until the temperatures plummeted to grab the shears and head outside.  He was smart enough to don gardening gloves, but I grabbed my more appropriate fur coat (my friends would expect nothing less from me!) and clipped and clipped until I could no longer feel my fingers.   Frostbite aside… LOOK AT MY BEAUTIFUL MEYER LEMON BOUNTY!

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Also known as the Valley Lemon in citrus growing areas of southern Texas, the Meyer lemon is native to China.  It was introduced to the US in the early 20th Century.  Each tree is potentially a prolific producer, and can con many into believing that it is fake – the lemons are like perfect golden orbs that lighten up the winter landscape alas, mine is now stripped naked… 

The Meyer lemon is a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange and produces fruit that is larger, sweeter and less acidic than the true lemon.  It is edible in its entirety because its skin is thin and devoid of a thick and bitter pith.  It is high in dietary fiber and vitamin C.  Popular with chefs because of its mild acidity and fragrant skin, it was first popularized by Chez Panisse Restaurant’s Alice Waters in Berkeley, California..

I’m going to have so much fun cooking with them!   I am planning on making Meyer lemon marmalade, this Torta della Nonna, limoncello, lemon tarts, lemon cookies, lemon infused olive oil and lemon-basil pesto and still not be sick of them!  But first up is this custard-based lemon ice cream that is fresh, cool and creamy.

Meyer Lemon Ice Cream
from Ultimate Ice Cream in Asheville, North Carolina, found on Tartelette’s fabulous

finely grated zest of 3 Meyer lemons  
1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice, freshly squeezed and strained
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
pinch of salt
1 cup milk
2 cups heavy cream

Combine the lemon zest, juice, and sugar in a non-reactive bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally so that the acid in the lemon juice dissolves the sugar. 

Heat the milk in a large saucepan until just barely boiling and remove from heat.  In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and whisk the warm milk into the yolks.  Pour the egg yolks and milk back into the saucepan.  Over medium low heat, stir constantly until it starts to thicken and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat immediately as the eggs may curdle.  Strain the custard through a sieve and refrigerate for a couple of hours until completely chilled.

Mix the egg custard, heavy cream, and the lemon slurry together.  Check the taste of the lemon cream – you can add up to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice now if you prefer it to be more tart.  Follow your ice cream maker’s instructions and enjoy!

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Scottish oatmeal with Cranberry-orange compote for a *snowy* day

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A thrilling and arousing event took place on Friday, my friends: it snowed in Houston!   A rare sight in our subtropical part of the world, it caused squeals of excitement that could be heard all the way from the end of the street!  The earliest snowfall in any year on record, some areas near Galveston received as much as one to three inches.  Quite an experience for some kids who have only seen the white powder in pictures.

The following (cold and icy) morning our droopy roses looking like they were made of crystallized sugar.

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And the clouds gave way to beautiful crystal clear skies.


With all the Holiday parties, cookie exchanges and baking, it’s a good idea to make sure that one’s system is moving, if you know what I mean!  Oatmeal is a heartwarming way to start the day, especially when you’ve braved a snow storm and sub zero temperatures, such as we have! 

I like to use Scottish oats because they are ‘steel-cut’ and minimally processed . The oat groats are ground into a coarse meal, resulting in a chewy, yet creamy oatmeal.  Irish oats (also steel-cut) are coarser, and must be cooked longer.  Steel cut oats differ from rolled (old-fashioned) oats because rolled oats are groats that have been flattened and softened into flakes which are then steamed, thus allowing them to cook quicker.  High in iron, protein and fiber, it is best to cook steel-cut oats al dente to maintain their nutritional benefits.  Instant oats are precooked, prefabricated and dried and provide far fewer nutritional benefits.  The faster the oats cook, the quicker they will cause a spike in insulin - so don’t bother with Instant oats at all, plus the packets are loaded with way too much sugar

Fresh cranberries are a staple in my refrigerator at this time of year, but they can and should be eaten year round - they freeze well and maintain their juices and flavor.  I must be one of the few crazy people who can tolerate their tartness and eat them rawpucker!   I’m always looking for new and inventive ways to incorporate them into our meals and desserts, other than with the standard turkey or ham stay tuned for more recipes.  They are loaded with Vitamin C and are high in fiber and when made into a tangy compote, they will perk up your everyday oatmeal!      

Scottish oatmeal for two

½ cup Scottish oatmeal (I like Bob’s Red Mill, available in many grocery stores)

pinch of salt

1½ cups cold water

pinch of ground cinnamon

milk, optional

Whisk oatmeal, salt and water in a small pot and bring to a boil on medium heat. Reduce heat to low and allow oatmeal to cook for about 8 - 10 minutes, whisking occasionally. Remove from heat and serve with cinnamon, Cranberry-orange compote and a little milk, if you so wish.

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Cranberry-orange compote for two

½ cup fresh cranberries

1- 2 tablespoons white or brown sugar

zest from about  half an orange

¼ cup water

Place all ingredients in a small pot and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 8 minutes or until the cranberries are soft and the compote has thickened.

Serve hot with Scottish oatmeal.

I couldn’t resist grating some extra orange zest on top of it all!

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Beef stew with portabella mushrooms, pearl onions and red wine

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The word from the weatherman is that we’re expecting sleet and “if the timing is right” maybe even a dusting of snow in Houston tomorrow.   It means that I’ll be off the roads and away from the local yahoos who will become quite a bit more dangerous than they already are in normal conditions.  Some drivers just refuse to slow down for nuthin’!

Ah…snow!  Love it for short periods of time only…like four or five days in the spring when we’re skiing!  I love the powder crunching under my skis;  love its beauty when it cloaks the mountains and in contrast with the blue sky;  love its shimmer when the sun shines;  love the snowflakes... Yes, I’ll take advantage of it for a few days a year, BUT I much prefer our temperate Houston winters, thank you very much! 

I’ve had my fair share of a Winter Wonderland when I lived in Toronto for almost 4 years.  One of my most vivid memories was walking to the bus stop to catch my bus to the university.  I had to walk backwards to protect my face from the pelting wind.  Hunched over, step by treacherous step on the icy sidewalk, I kept on thinking:  this is it - I’m going to fall on my bum and break my bones and it’s going to be sooo embarrassing, and I’m going to hit my head and be brain-damaged!  In hindsight, it would have been a little easier had I not been wearing my trendy high-heeled boots!  But fashion always came before comfort when I was a young lady in my early twenties – wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of flat rubber-soled boots…not on your life!

I love our Houston winters.  The sun visits almost every day and we rarely need our heavy coats.  But every few years we can expect a sharp dip in the temperature and tiny snowflakes that have the staying power to blanket the ground.   It’s short-lived…the warmth of the sun takes care of that!

With the chill in the air, here’s a good recipe that will warm your insides –  beef stew with hearty mushrooms, delicate pearl onions and red wine.  Use wine that you would enjoy drinking with the stew.   I opened a 2007 Côtes-du-Rhône from Saint-Esprit, our newest best buy - inexpensive but quite good.   

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Beef stew with portabella mushrooms, pearl onions and red wine

Serves 6

2 thick (1/3-inch) slices of pancetta, cubed into ½-inch pieces

2 - 2½ lbs beef stewing meat (beef chuck is good)

cooking oil, for browning

1 bag frozen pearl onions, about 14oz (they’re peeled and ready to go!)

1½ cups red wine. 1½ - 2 cups low-sodium beef broth

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, if available

1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

16 – 20 ounces baby portabella mushrooms, sliced thick

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ - 1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons flour

¼ cup freshly chopped parsley

Sear the pancetta in a heavy pot (I used my Le Creuset Dutch Oven) over high heat. With a slotted spoon, remove pancetta to a bowl and set aside. Brown the stewing meat in the remaining fat in about 3 batches, adding cooking oil if necessary. Sear meat until brown on most sides, turning the pieces quickly. Remove each batch of meat and add to pancetta in a bowl.

Add the pearl onions to the remaining oil (it’s ok if they’re still frozen) and brown them until caramel in color.  Be careful not to burn the juices and bits of meat on the bottom of the pan.

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Carefully add the red wine and cook for about a minute, scraping the bottom with a spatula.  You want the wine to loosen all the delicious flavors at the bottom of the pot.  Add beef broth, bay leaves, paprika and black pepper. If most of the meat is not covered with the liquids, add more wine or broth. Reduce the heat to ‘low’ and allow the mixture to simmer slowly until the meat starts to become tender, about 1 - 1½ hours, depending on the cut of meat you use.  

Add mushrooms and red pepper flakes to meat.  Season with salt to your liking and continue to simmer until the mushrooms and meat are very tender, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

When the meat is tender and the mushrooms are soft, whisk the flour with ¼ cup water in a small bowl until smooth. Add to stew and cook for an additional 10 minutes to thicken the broth.

To serve:  Add fresh parsley to the stew and serve with mashed potatoes or polenta.  It’s even better the next day!  Here I served it in individual soup dishes with mashed white and sweet potatoes.  Broil for a few minutes to brown the tops of the potatoes if you wish.

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