Thanksgiving Appetizer: Crab Meat Muffins

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving, my now sister-in-law, Lauren, offered to bring an appetizer that had become a tradition at her family’s holiday dinners. The little bites were called crab meat muffins and consisted of a cheesy crab mixture that was spread atop quartered English muffins and baked until golden brown. As I watched Lauren prepare them, I wondered how good these muffins were going to taste—truth be told the mixture looked pretty unappetizing. But Lauren reassured me that once they emerged from the oven, I would be astounded at the results. And she was right. These “muffins” were fantastic. Buttery and warm and just all around good. The platter barely made it to the table before every last one was devoured. My family liked them so much, I got the recipe from Lauren and made them for Christmas Eve dinner.

I thought about the muffins again this summer when they showed up at my friend Heather’s bridal shower, courtesy of her now sister-in-law. The name was different—Jeannine calls them crabbies— but they tasted just as good, as evidenced by the speed at which our guests ate them. Yes this recipe is a crowdpleaser, but there was just one problem: it calls for Old English Cheese spread, which is about as processed a food as they come. It’s made by Kraft and looks like a gelatinous orange blob in a jar. And it’s almost impossible to find in New York City grocery stores, which should probably tell you something right there.

As I started thinking about my Thanksgiving dinner for this year, I began to wonder if there was a way to make my own unprocessed Old English cheese spread. I Googled this, and lo and behold a recipe came up. I decided I would make the muffins using fresh crab meat and multigrain English muffins. And I would try this new and improved version out on our friends Emily and Andy, who were coming over for pre-dinner cocktails last Saturday night.

Things did not go as well as I had hoped. I made the cheese spread and then put it in the refrigerator to chill as the recipe dictated. Only when I went to retrieve it, it had hardened into a firm block, which I then had to reheat, causing the oils from the cheese to separate. The claw crab meat overpowered the other ingredients, I didn’t add enough butter (it called for a 1/4 pound of butter, which I read as a 1/4 cup. But a 1/4 pound of butter is really a 1/2 cup) and the multigrain muffins didn’t mesh well with the other flavors. So while the apps were edible, they weren’t nearly as fabulous as the ones that inspired it.

Before I could blog about it, I knew I had to fix this recipe. Which, thankfully I just did. This new batch just emerged from the oven and they taste delightfully good.  This time I halved the cheese spread recipe and used Mammoth aged cheddar, but I think any medium cheddar will do. (Try and use a brand that’s rbGH free). I also went with canned crab meat, but I opted for white lump and I made sure to read the label—the first ingredient was lump crab meat, which was a plus. I also used regular English muffins rather than multigrain, but I bet whole wheat would be fine too. If you are looking for an appetizer for your holiday dinner, this is it. But be forewarned: they won’t last long.

Old English Cheese Spread

1/8 cup mayonnaise

1/8 cup half and half

1/2 pound medium cheddar cheese, cubed

1/2 teaspoon spicy brown mustard

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/6 cup tomato juice

1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons horseradish

1 tablespoon scallions, thinly sliced

In saucepan, combine mayonnaise, milk, cheese, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and garlic powder. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in juice, horseradish and green onions.

Once the cheese mixture was done, I immediately added the following:

1 6 ounce can of white lump crab meat

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1/2 cup butter

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (I made my own version of seasoned salt, the recipe for which is further down)

You’ll also need 6 English muffins, split in half, and then each half quartered.

Stir everything together and then spread the mixture on top of the muffins. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes.

Seasoned Salt (adapted from Food.com)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon tumeric (I left the tumeric out, but if you have it on hand, add it in)

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon cornstarch

Mix all ingredients together. Store in an airtight container.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

I’ve been on a pumpkin roasting kick lately and am vowing to eat as much pumpkin as possible while it’s in season. I saw this recipe adapted on Brown Eyed Baker’s site, only she used cinnamon chips in her version. I stuck with the original, courtesy of Two Peas and Their Pod. I doubled the recipe and made them in a 13 x 9 inch brownie pan, but if you do so, I wouldn’t double the chocolate chips. Doing so makes them very chocolately (which I don’t mind, but you might) and overpowers the pumpkin a bit. I had trouble cutting mine, which is why they’re more squares than bars, but I put them in the refrigerator which helped them harden up nicely.

All in all, I was really pleased with this recipe. Johnny took some to work and his colleagues liked them as well, though they suggested adding fruit and nuts to the mix to make them more like traditional granola bars. Hmmm…

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

3 1/4 cups old fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup pumpkin puree
¼ cup applesauce
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8 by 8 baking pan with cooking spray and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk oats, spices, and salt together. Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk brown sugar, pumpkin, applesauce, honey, and vanilla extract until smooth. Pour over oats and stir well, until all of the oats are moist. Stir in chocolate chips.

Evenly press oat mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. The pumpkin keeps the bars moist, so make sure they are golden and set-you don’t want them to be under baked. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

Using a sharp knife, cut into bars. Remove from pan and let cool completely.

Makes 10-12 granola bars

Homemade Pickles

Last month, I was reading the August issue of Real Simple when I came across a recipe for homemade pickles. I was intrigued. I had never canned anything before and this seemed like a good place to start since the pickles only needed to marinate for a day before being ready to eat. I added the ingredients to my shopping list, bought a one-quart glass jar and prepared to get to work. There was just one problem: I couldn’t find dill seed ANYWHERE. Whole Foods has an extensive array of spices and though dill weed was abundant, dill seed was not. I went to a few other stores and they, too, did not have dill seed. This was—pardon the pun—a bit of a pickle. And the irony of this recipe coming from a magazine that celebrates simplicity did not escape me. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I back burnered the homemade pickles idea for a few weeks, and then I remembered a site I had read about on Brown Eyed Baker called called MySpiceSage.com. They carry every spice known to man—and some I guarantee you’ve never heard of before. The prices were pretty reasonable and I got free ground chipotle pepper and a free ounce of a spice of my choosing. (I went with vanilla bean because I want to make ice cream once more before the summer is over.) Sold! I ordered an ounce of dill seed and an ounce of bay leaves and prepared to resurrect the pickle project once again! I bought Kirby cucumbers at the farmers market and once the spices arrived, I got to work for real. (By the way, if anyone needs bay leaf let me know. I’ve got a bagful. Who knew an ounce would yield so much?)  After two days, Johnny and I tasted the pickles.  Delicious!

I had some for lunch today with an open faced turkey sandwich topped with a slice of heirloom tomato, one of God’s greatest creations, which also happens to be in season right now. The pickles are crispy and just the right amount of sour. Plus, since they’re homemade, I know they aren’t loaded with sodium and preservatives. And despite the difficulty of getting my hands on dill seed (a dilemma which MySpiceSage.com solved for me) the pickles were “real simple” to make. Sandwiches anyone?


Almost Hands-Free Dill Pickles

4 Kirby cucumbers (about 1 pound)

3/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 small sweet onion (Vidalia or Walla Walla) thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon dill seed

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

1 bay leaf

Place the cucumbers in a 1-quart jar or some other container with a tight-fitting lid. In a bowl, combine the vinegar, onion, garlic, sugar, dill seed, peppercorns, bay leaf, salt and 3/4 cup hot tap water. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour the vinegar mixture into the jar with the cucumbers, cover, and refrigerate for at least one day before serving. The pickles will last up to one week.

**Note: I bought four cucumbers, but I couldn’t fit them all in the jar, so I’d go with three. Otherwise I followed the recipe exactly.

Fried Squash Blossoms

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I grew up in an Italian-American family, which meant that Sundays were characterized by a mid-afternoon dinner of pasta, meatballs (the kind actually made of red meat and fried, not baked), crusty bread and salad. But on some summer Sundays, when the bright orange flowers that grow atop squash plants populated the garden, we’d have fried squash blossoms with our meal. Only we didn’t call them blossoms. No, in our house they were known by an Italian slang word which I have no idea how to spell, but is pronounced like “shoe-deal.” Whatever you call them, for those of you who’ve had these battered buds, you know they are delicious. I’ve had fried squash blossoms since then, at various restaurants in the city, but none taste like the ones my mother, and my grandmother before her, used to make.

I was at the Union Square Greenmarket last week and squash blossoms were listed on the chalkboard announcing the market’s daily harvest. That got me to thinking that I’d like to try making them—and blogging about them of course—so when I went back today, I promptly bought myself a bunch.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fried Green Tomatoes

I’ve been intrigued by fried green tomatoes since I saw the movie of the same name several years ago. I’ve had them a couple of times, most notably at a restaurant called The Smith in New York. Their version comes in a small cast iron skillet topped with fresh melted mozzarella. Yum! But they’re also sitting in a pool of oil, which I could do without. So when I saw green tomatoes at the farmer’s market last summer, I decided to try making my own. I still fry them, but I use the oil sparingly. I’ve been waiting for green tomatoes to reappear at the farmer’s market this season so I could blog about them, and lo and behold, there they were on Wednesday. The key is to choose firm, almost hard green tomatoes. (If they start to ripen they will be too mushy to withstand the frying.) Don’t you just love the color of these babies?

I’ve read several recipes on how to bread the tomatoes, many of which require less steps than the one I use, but I like this method. The breadcrumb adheres really well and doesn’t slide off once the tomatoes are in the oil.

I was very pleased with the results! We ate the tomatoes with red snapper, salad, and some leftover risotto. Another reason to love summer.

Fried Green Tomatoes

3 medium, firm green tomatoes
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup milk
2 beaten eggs
2/3 cup fine dry bread crumbs or cornmeal
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Cut unpeeled tomatoes into 1/2 inch slices. Sprinkle slices with salt and pepper. Let tomato slices stand for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, place flour, milk, eggs, and bread crumbs in separate shallow dishes.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Dip tomato slices in milk, then flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs. In the skillet, fry half of the coated tomato slices at a time, for 4-6 minutes on each side or until brown. As you cook the rest of the tomatoes, add olive oil as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bridal Shower Bites

What a busy and fun weekend I had! I was in Connecticut for the bridal shower and bachelorette party of one of my oldest friends. Heather and I have known each other since childhood (we were in the same Brownie troop together) but we didn’t become close friends until our sophomore year of high school. In fact, one of the best summers of my life was the summer of ’94. We were turning 16 in August (Heather’s exactly one week older than me) and were together constantly, hanging out with our group of guy friends. It was a carefree, happy time when summer vacation meant little more than lazy days spent floating in the pool.

But now we are grownups, and I am incredibly fortunate that Heather is still in my life. She was one of my bridesmaids when I got married last year, and now I am serving as her matron of honor, along with her friend Erin.  When Heather’s mom, Cathy, suggested we have the shower at her house, I immediately offered to make most of the food. Cathy happily agreed and gave me carte blanche to prepare whatever I wanted.  I decided on a Mediterranean theme, a perfect complement to a warm weather, outdoor gathering. Plus, many of my favorite recipes fall into this category. Like hummus and pita chips, which I’ve written about on this blog before. While you can definitely buy both of these items, if you have a little extra time, it’s worth it to make them. You can tailor the seasoning of the chips to your taste, and since you control the amount of olive oil you brush them with, they’re bound to be healthier. I seasoned this batch with salt, pepper, Cavender’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning and a pinch of cayenne.

The pita I bought was nice and thin, so I only baked the chips for 10 minutes and they were perfectly crisp. In addition to the hummus and chips, I also made bruschetta. I started experimenting with this tomato tapenade a few years ago, and my friend Isabel raves about it. I’m always surprised because although it requires a lot of chopping, bruschetta is so easy to make. I do mine by taste. I chop up tomatoes, onion and basil and then drizzle the mixture with olive oil and season it with salt and pepper. Then it goes into the fridge to marinate for a few hours. I lightly toast fresh bread, then top with the mixture. For this batch I used seven vine-ripened tomatoes, half of a large white onion, and around 10 leaves of basil, though adjust these measurements based on the serving amount and your particular palette. I had a lot of the mixture leftover which can be eaten the next day with crusty bread.

As another appetizer, I made bacon-wrapped dates, which are always a crowdpleaser—Heather’s guests kept coming up to me and telling me how delicious they were. They took very little effort! I bought some dates and some bacon (nitrate free) wrapped the bacon around each date and into the oven they went. One tip: make sure you put the dates on a baking sheet that has a lip. I foolishly put one batch on a flat sheet and the grease dripped into the oven, which is a recipe for a fire. Also, if you have a toaster oven, cook the dates in there. I find they come out much crispier in a shorter amount of time than with a regular oven.

Heather’s aunt Betsy made goat cheese tomato cups, which were delicious, and her future sister-in-law, Jeannine, made “crabbies” which my sister-in-law, Lauren, introduced me to a few holidays ago. A happy coincidence!  They are to die for tasty and also very simple. I will get the recipe from them and post another time. For the lunch portion of the shower, I had suggested to Cathy that we order the main components (in this case, balsamic glazed chicken and salmon with roasted peppers and olives) and make the sides. I would highly recommend this when party planning. While I could have made both, it’s expensive and time consuming to do so. And if they aren’t cooked perfectly (which is highly likely when you’re also making several other things and greeting guests) your meal will be ruined.  Stick to something that can be served at room temperature, and plan your side dishes around that. I made my barley salad once again (I know the recipe by heart by now!) and we also had potato salad and a green salad.

For drinks, I used a recipe for Basil Strawberry Lemonade Punch With Vodka that appeared in a story I wrote for InStyle last July. It’s from celebrity caterer Mary Giuliani, and is light and refreshing.

As a parting gift to go with our favors (starfish wine bottle stoppers, which coincide with Heather and Jeff’s wedding theme) I had Christie make cookie tags that matched Heather’s shower invitations, which she also designed. I baked two kinds of biscotti—cranberry walnut and almond chocolate chip—and filled a cellophane bag with one of each, before fastening it with the cookie tag.

If you are interested in purchasing cookie tags for your own event, please let me know and I can put you in touch with Christie! Here’s one last party tip before I go: If you are hosting an outdoor party, consider purchasing a few paper lanterns like the one in the photo below. They’re inexpensive (sometimes you can even find them at dollar stores) and they really elevate an event.

That’s the bride cutting her cake, which was filled with chocolate mousse. To die for. This circle of confectionery heaven came from Creative Cakes by Donna, a delightful bakery that also made my wedding cake.

Throughout this post I’ve hyperlinked to my recipes, but please leave a comment if you have questions. The punch recipe is below. And finally, a special thank you to Cathy, Eileen, Betsy, Jeannine and Erin for all of their help in making this such a successful event. Congratulations Heather! I can’t wait for your wedding!! xoxo

Basil Strawberry Lemonade Punch With Vodka

1 bottle (750ml) of vodka

2 liters of sparkling water

2 10 oz packages of fresh or frozen strawberries (I used fresh)

1 12 oz can of frozen lemonade

1 bunch of fresh basil

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stir and serve.

A Cinco de Mayo Fiesta

I look forward to Cinco de Mayo every year. I love Mexican food (and margaritas) and if the weather is warm, as it is today in New York, Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the start of summer for me. In the city, every restaurant that has even a hint of Mexican cuisine on the menu is packed with revelers spilling onto the sidewalk (or as is most often the case, waiting in line on said sidewalk to get in) and the mood is festive and fun. But also really, really crowded. So after navigating SRO bars for years for what usually amounted to a sickly sweet, half melted marg, I decided to start hosting my own Cinco de Mayo fiestas. Last year our friends Emily and Andy came over for turkey tacos and this year, we’re having them over again. Only I’ve decided to kick up the menu a notch. Tonight we’ll be starting with corn fritters, a recipe I found in the book Fabulous Parties by Mark Held, Richard David and Peggy Dark. I recently interviewed Mark for a story and he was fabulous. I’ve never made fritters before but they look relatively simple and I already had the ingredients, so I’m going to give it a go. I wanted an easy aioli of sorts to dip them in and I found a recipe for cilantro dip on Epicurious which I’m also going to make. We’ll have chips with fresh guacamole and salsa and then for the main course, skirt steak and grilled-chicken tacos, both recipes adapted from Food & Wine’s May issue. The chicken has been marinating overnight in a mixture of lime juice, tomatoes, water and salt.

As for drinks, I’m always on the hunt for a margarita that isn’t too sweet so I consulted my mixologist friend, Matthew Biancaniello, who I also recently interviewed, for an easy, tasty margarita recipe. He suggested a ratio of 2 oz of tequila, 3/4 oz of agave nectar, and 3/4 oz of fresh lime juice. I’m going to make a pitcher, so I’ll adjust the quantities accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Weekly Blogs.

Pictures of our meal to come later, but for now here are recipes for the corn fritters and cilantro dip. And on a completely unrelated note, today is also the ninth annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a cause I have worked on extensively over the years. Check out an article I wrote on the topic on Tonic.com.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Corn Fritters
Makes 20-30 appetizers
2 cups whole corn kernels (either fresh cut from the cob or frozen, do not use canned)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup finely chopped scallions, white part only
1/4 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
corn oil, for frying

Heat the oil in a large frying pan until very hot. Mix all of the ingredients together. Using two spoons or your fingers, drop small dollops into the oil and fry until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm.

Cilantro Dip
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2 garlic clove, minced
1/8 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

Mix all ingredients in small bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until flavors blend, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Sweet Potato Fries

Oh potatoes, how I love thee. You are indeed my favorite carbohydrate, especially when you are in french fry or potato chip form. (I’ve yet to meet a bagful of kettle cooked chips I could resist.) Thankfully, I also have a hankering for sweet potatoes, a healthier root veggie that performs as well as its starchier sister. Sweet potatoes make especially good french fries, though these “fries” don’t require a vat of oil. Instead, you can bake these babies, which not only releases their nutty flavor, but still retains the crunchiness of a frite. We often have them with turkey burgers, which is on the menu for dinner this evening.

Tonight, I’ll be using a garnet yam, which is technically not a sweet potato, but close enough. The garnets have a delightfully deep orange color and a slightly sweeter aftertaste. I usually serve them sans sauce, but they’d also be great with an aioli of sorts, as they were at our wedding last September. (Johnny is also a sweet potato fan, so we chose sweet potato fries as one of the hor d’oeuvres at our cocktail hour.)  Those were by far the best sweet potato fries we’ve ever eaten, but the ones I make at home are pretty tasty, and almost certainly healthier.

After scrubbing the yam or sweet potato, cut it into fry-like strips, leaving the skin on. (The thinner you slice them, the crispier they will be.) Put the strips in a bowl, drizzle some olive oil over them and toss to coat. Spread the fries on a baking sheet, sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper (you can also use cayenne or cumin if you like a spicier spud) and bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until the fries are crispy. Turn them at the 20 minute mark to ensure even cooking.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates

I haven’t posted much this week because it’s been a busy one. I’ve been working on an essay for Redbook which is due tomorrow, I’ve been furiously trying to finish a knitting project (I’ll post pictures next week) and I’ve been working on another food-themed project, which I’ll also reveal at a later date. Sorry to be so secretive!

Tonight, however, I’m hosting knitting group at my apartment, and one of the appetizers I’m making is bacon-wrapped dates. These are so simple and always a crowd pleaser. The saltiness of the bacon melds perfectly with the sweetness of the dates.

Here’s what you need:

A package of bacon (preferably nitrate-free)

A container of pitted dates

You can also stuff the dates with cheese or almonds but I’m going to leave them unstuffed tonight, because I’m also doing a cheese plate, and frankly, I’ve eaten enough cheese this week with all of our Easter leftovers to last me for months. Anyway, to make this appetizer, slice the stripes of bacon into thirds cross wise and wrap each piece around one of the dates. Place seam side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees until bacon is crispy, about 15-20 minutes, turning once. Drain on paper towel or parchment paper, and insert a toothpick into each date, before serving.

 

Pita Party

One of my favorite ways to use up leftover or slightly stale pita bread is to make chips with it. They are SO simple and since you’re making them yourself, you know exactly what you’re putting into your body. To make, begin by slicing the pita in half so that the front and back are separated into two circles. Then cut each circle into eighths (if you’re using mini pitas, fourths will probably do) and place on a baking sheet. Brush olive oil over each wedge and then season with salt and pepper. For spicy chips add a bit of cayenne or some garlic powder. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees. Check the chips at the 15 minute mark to see whether they’re crispy enough. Let cool before serving. You can store the chips in a Ziploc bag for up to a week, but be warned: you may eat them all in one sitting, especially if you have some hummus or guacamole on hand.

In other news, the Easter basket story I wrote about last month is finally on newsstands in the April issue of Time Out New York Kids. Click here to read it online. I had such a good time making these baskets. Thanks to all of the companies who donated the supplies!

Photo courtesy of Caroline Voagen Nelson

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