Oatmeal-Raisin-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Before baking these, I had eaten precisely one oatmeal cookie in my entire 26 years. That statement alone probably sums it up - the cookie to blame for such an opinion was consumed years ago, given to me by my piano teacher. It was crumbly, improperly sweetened, studded with parched raisins and reeked of cinnamon (perhaps this is the origin of my cinnamon aversion as well). I promptly wrote them off as repulsive non-cookies I would never go near again, and never accepted another baked good from her - having later learned that she baked everything with whole wheat flour and used carob instead of chocolate. I am of the opinion that dessert should just be dessert...if you're going to do it, don't health it up.

As Josh and I were daydreaming about the impending shipment of the oven control board last month, his eyes lit up with the spark that accompanies a sudden great idea. “Hey, here’s an idea,” he said. “let's make some oatmeal-raisin cookies. Could you do that?”

I sneered. I certainly could make them, though I would have zero interest in eating them. But, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to quell my next baking impulse with cookies I wouldn’t want to shove in my face straight out of the oven.

I searched Smitten Kitchen (always a reliable source) for oatmeal cookies, and came across one recipe that I figured Josh would probably enjoy. Deb claimed the cookies were chewy and thick if you refrigerate them for a while after the dough comes together, which I'd never considered before. For my own twist on the recipe, I supplemented about half the amount of raisins in the recipe with chocolate chips.

I've seen the light.

One taste of the cookie dough later, and I can now call myself an oatmeal-raisin cookie convert. I’m smart enough to know that 1) the cookie I ate as an 8 year old was just poorly done, no two ways about it, and 2) tastes change as we age. The majority of foods I turned up my nose at as a teenager are now among my favorites (hello green beans).

So much for my cookie kryptonite…I ate two.

You will need:

½ cup (one stick) butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla
¾ cup flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ cups oats (not quick oats)
Scant ½ cup raisins
Scant ½ cup chocolate chips

In a mixing bowl with an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar. Add egg and vanilla and beat to combine. Beat in dry ingredients until combined. Stir in oats, raisins and chocolate chips.

Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes, then roll tablespoon-sized balls and drop onto a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Smoky-Spicy Beer-Cheese-Sausage Soup

Josh and I spent 21 hours in Chattanooga last Friday/Saturday. It was a whirlwind trip of good people, great sightseeing, and suffice it to say, phenomenal food. I certainly wouldn't have guessed that Chattanooga was such a foodie destination, but the numerous local/organic/sustainable restaurants and grocery stores prove otherwise. I’ll have a list of recommendations at the end of this post if you ever find yourself in Chattanooga.

My first and most heartily-recommended spot would be the Terminal Brewhouse, on 14th street (next to the Choo-Choo Hotel), the inspiration from which today’s recipe comes. When we find ourselves out of town, we generally try to order whatever appears to be the most special item on the menu, judging by clues in the item’s description or title (look for words such as “house-made” or “best-seller” in the description). Josh landed on a mind-blowing soup entitled simply, “The Soup.”

“The Soup” is your traditional beer-cheese soup, kicked up with the addition of smoked Polish sausage, chipotles and jalapenos. It was creamy, smoky and too spicy, but otherwise perfect. I had to know the secret…I had to have it in my kitchen. I’d say we got pretty darn close, if not dead-on aside from a significant decrease in spice.

You will need:

1 pound smoked sausage, preferably Kielbasa, chopped
1 large onion, diced finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 stalks celery, diced finely
1 medium jalapeno, diced finely
2 small chipotle peppers, canned in adobo sauce (I rinsed the sauce off to control the heat), chopped
2 12-ounce bottles dark beer (I used a combination of Porter and Bock - both Michelob)
2 ½ cups chicken broth
1 ½ cups plus 3 tablespoons heavy cream, divided
1 8-ounce block sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon corn starch

Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot and add chopped sausage. Cook until sausage starts to brown and remove to a plate; reserve grease.

Add onions, garlic, jalapeno, chipotle and celery to pot and cook in sausage grease until soft. Add the sausage back to the pot, and stir to combine over medium heat.

Pour in one bottle of beer (I started with the Bock, but I can’t imagine it makes much of a difference what goes in first). Allow to simmer for 5-7 minutes, until the liquid reduces slightly as the alcohol cooks out. Stir and add chicken broth and salt. Simmer again for 10 minutes until the liquid reduces a little more. Reduce heat and add another bottle of beer (in my case it was the Porter). Simmer for a few moments and adjust seasonings again before turning heat to low and adding 1½ cups heavy cream. Simmer the soup for a good 20 minutes after adding the cream.

In a small bowl, add 3 tablespoons cream to one tablespoon of corn starch, and mix until a smooth slurry forms. Pour into soup and stir.

Once the vegetables are softened, the broth thickened, the alcohol cooked out and the soup is a uniform creaminess (you will know when there’s very little orange grease floating on top of the soup), turn off the heat and move the pot to a cool burner. Add the cheese and stir until melted (do not add cheese over a hot burner; cheddar gets gritty). Serve immediately.

Chattanooga Recommendations:

The Terminal Brewhouse
Aretha Frankenstein's - home to one of the best biscuits I've ever had.
Rembrandt's Coffee Shop - try the chocolate cappuccino cup, Italian soda and sweet tea.
Bluff View Bakery - I couldn't help but deviate from Atkins for this one. Asiago Cheese Boule. Oy.

Sweet Potato Fries

First of all, I have to get this out: OH MY GOD we have an oven.

You're thinking, ok - so do I, overly-emphatic oven lover, stater of the obvious and sharer of nonessential news. Well, try living without one for almost 6 months and then re-read this post. Maybe you'll get it then.

Back when we were putting the kitchen together, I have to say with complete dorky honesty that I was most anticipating sliding the stove in its little nook. That seemed so final. It meant my kitchen was functional and finished, and that meant I could get to cooking. But something went wrong. Josh is a whiz when it comes to household stuff - he can do plumbing, lighting, electrical work, construction and carpentry. There's not much that falls beyond his grasp, which I am continuously amazed and confused by.

Talent notwithstanding, he accidentally crossed some wires when hooking up the stove (appropriate electrical technology description fails me) and we watched in brief horror as the clock display zapped off the screen and the top of the stove began to smoke. There was no going back - the computer controlling the clock and oven settings was fried, and the oven was rendered useless. Palpable disappointment aside, we consoled our loss with the realization that the stovetop still worked, the oven control computer could (eventually, as it was a $170 part) be replaced, and we could use the toaster oven and outdoor grill in the meantime.

I'll tell you what - in the last 6 months or so I've become a toaster oven whiz. I can cook just about anything in that thing, and I have - successfully. That may be another post in the future - how to get more mileage out of your oft-neglected toaster oven.

More about sweet potato fries now. Last night I had to use the oven. I just had to. Because it was there, and because I could - finally. So I roasted some julienned sweet potatoes. The trick here is to let the potatoes soften in the oven for a significant amount of time - soft enough that you could technically call them "done" and eat them, but you could never call them "fries." Once they're softened in the oven, you have to throw them in some hot oil. You just do.

When they're fried in oil after baking in the oven for the majority of their cook time, all the sugars and starches have softened and will very easily caramelize when dunked in hot oil. The outside of the fry becomes crispy like the top of creme brulee, but the inside stays mushy like any french fry should be.

You will need:

2-3 sweet potatoes, sliced julienne
Olive oil for coating
Sea salt
Garlic powder
2 cups vegetable oil
Table salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the sweet potatoes julienne, then dunk in a bowl of cool water to soak for 5-10 minutes.

Pat dry, and toss sweet potato fries in olive oil, add sea salt and garlic powder, and toss around in a bowl to coat. Dump onto a cookie sheet or baking pan in one layer; make sure they don't overlap one another. Bake for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, heat vegetable oil in a large pot. When the fries come out of the oven, drop a tester fry in the oil (350 degrees). It should float on the surface of the oil and brown relatively slowly - you don't want the oil to get too hot. When you're at the right temperature, drop them all in there at once. If they get tangled up, I don't care, but maybe you're a french fry purist. In that case, take your time and drop them in small batches. Actually, if you were a french fry purist, would you even consider sweet potato fries?

Let them fry away for 2-3 minutes, watching them fervently as they crisp and bubble away without burning, if you've been careful enough with your oil. When crispy, remove to a paper towel to drain, and sprinkle table salt over them immediately.

I like to serve these with a mix of ketchup and Sriracha - the spicy chili sauce really balances out the sweetness of the potato. I also like a mixture of wasabi powder, onion powder and mayonnaise.

Guest Post: Monkey Bread

I have a guest blogger today - my brother Craig! You may remember Craig from the time I beat him in our family's chili cookoff.

Aww, poor Craig.

I'll be fair, though. Craig's chili was excellent and I was scared for a little while that I might not win. Cooking ability clearly runs in the family and Craig has surprised me on many occasions with his concoctions. To boot, he's a hilarious writer. Hopefully this won't be the last time he contributes - what's a little good-natured ribbing between siblings, anyway?

Cinnamon-Sugar-Pull-Apart-Bun-Roll-Shaped-Thing (Name not cool)

I think there is an official recipe for this, but I'm not certain. All coincidences are unintentional.

I was a third-grade plumper when I started playing baseball with Austin's little league program. I played for the Oakland A's; this was back when little league was allowed to use actual baseball team names, not this new business where every other team is either a Shark or a Jet, West Side Story notwithstanding. The first year we were terrible but we kept our hopes high, mainly because we were all nine or ten. The games were usually on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, meaning during morning games we either had to wait until after our beating to eat or some team mom would bring granola bars or a poster board with syrup on it. We would usually get by with Big League Chew or sunflower seeds. But one day, one fateful day, our catcher's mom brought in the coolest breakfast for us: it tasted like a gigantic cinnamon roll that we could pick chunks from and run off while we finished our pre-game warm up. As fate would have it we won that game, maybe. I actually don't remember. But the season ended and it faded away.

The next year came around and all the younger players were now the older players and we had that magic meal before every morning game, and the parents forced us to eat it with oranges so we at least got something good in our systems. For every handfull of it you also got a handfull of oranges. We finished second place that year, and I now blame the losses on not having our magic snack with us during night games.

Time went by and it was forgotten about, and on a trip to Disney World it hit me again: There it was, but this time in the shape of Mickey Mouse. And it was free! Every morning we were there I would rip off his ear and drop it on my plate, remembering how badly I played baseball but also remembering how much fun I had at sucking.

Again, time went by and I had forgotten about it then one day earlier this year it hit me on how to make it. I went from a third grader who only got on base by a walk or by being hit by the pitch to a Premed college guy who still freakin loved it. Think of it as the Madeline story from that French guy.

After raiding the grocery store for the stuff I needed, I paid about three dollars. If that, actually. If you're like me you have two containers of cinnamon but barely started on the first one because, let's be honest, no one does an inventory of their cinnamon supply. I bet you also have regular sugar, brown sugar and butter. All you need now is the dough. I admit I get a head start by buying store brand giant biscuits, sans the flaky layers. Get yourself some type of baking vessel, be it a bundt pan or a bread pan or even a tall cake pan, anything you can stack and flip works fine. Get the biscuits and open it up (the trick is to smash it against the counter really hard) and cut the biscuits in half, then four slices across each semicircle. Start off using one roll of biscuits, but if your pan is bigger you may need to use two. When it's uncooked it should come up about halfway up the pan. Make yourself a mixture of the cinnamon, sugar, and brown sugar. Do about one tbsp of the cinnamon, about ½ cup of regular sugar and a whole cup, yes a whole cup of brown sugar. Lightly wet the biscuit pieces and toss them in the mixture, a hand full of chunks at a time. Make sure they're covered. In the cooking pan, spray it with some nonstick spray and add four thin pats of butter to the bottom. Add the hand full of dough and add some extra mix and the same amount of butter. Do that until you're out and toss it in a 375 oven for about 20-25 minutes.

This is not healthy. Serve with thickly-sliced oranges because your mom says to.

Editor's note: because I prefer a list of ingredients to a paragraph, and because I want to:

1-2 canisters refrigerated large biscuits (the poppin' fresh kind)
1 tbs cinnamon
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
Nonstick cooking spray
2 tbs butter/ 8 pats

Sweet and Spicy Award-Wining Chili

With swimsuit season looming, and butterscotch blondies in my not so distant past, I have delved hardcore back into Atkins. I feel good, but I'm not on a mission to make this into a low-carb blog, so I've decided against posting the majority of what I've cooked this week. The only exception would be the unBELIEVABLE German Chocolate cake we baked for Josh's mom's birthday, of which I totally forgot to take pictures. Guess that means I'll just have to make it again someday soon...5 pounds from now.

Anyway, tonight's meal was an honest-to-goodness award winning Sweet and Spicy Chili. Really. It won my family's annual chili cookoff award last Christmas. Say what you want, but that was some pretty steep competition. I'd never felt simultaneously bummed and satisfied in one moment until I saw my brother's face after it was annouced I beat him by precisely one vote.

That was my trophy, by the way. Rather appropriate for a chili cookoff, wouldn't you say?

I wish I could remember where the original recipe came from, but whoever dreamed it up is a genius. The flavors in this chili are out of this world, but of course the trick here is to let the chili cook long and slow to allow all the different flavors to meld. What's even more amazing is that even as they combine, you can just barely pick out everything individually: coffee, brown sugar and dark porter beer (Guinness is preferred) are unexpected but oh so welcome.

It's a good thing this stuff freezes so well, because it makes more than we could ever hope to eat in a week. I've already eaten it three times since Monday night.

You will need:

2 tbsp. vegetable oil
16 oz. coarse ground beef
12 oz. sirloin (prime grade is best), cubed into 1/4 in. chunks
1 large yellow onion, chopped into 1/4 in. dice
1 shallot, diced finely
4 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 red bell pepper, diced 1/4 in.
1 green bell pepper, diced 1/4 in.
3 jalapeno peppers, chopped with seeds and ribs intact
1 1/2 cups tomato paste (2 6-ounce cans)
1 1/2 tsp. fine-ground instant espresso
Scant 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
3 tbsp. chili powder
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground cayenne
1/4 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. salt (may find you need more - I kept it to about 3 1/2 teaspoons)
3 15 oz. cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups beef stock
1 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped (drained)
12 oz. dark beer (Guinness recommended)

Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, shallot, garlic, red and green bell peppers and jalapeno peppers and saute for 5 minutes until vegetables are translucent.

In the meantime, heat a separate skillet and cook ground beef and sirloin until no longer pink. Drain excess fat and add beef to vegetables. Stir to combine. Sautee for a couple of minutes, then add tomato paste, espresso, sugar and all seasonings, including salt.

After 10 minutes, add beans, stock, tomatoes and beer. Stir well and reduce heat to medium-low; simmer for about an hour.

This is not traditional chili, nor is it Texas chili (my apologies to my homeland). It is, however, very unique and a must-try for the foodies out there. You can still serve it up traditionally with sour cream, cheese and green onions, and cornbread crackers if you can get your hands on them. If you try this one, please report back!