New York Style Cheesecake

Summer is a time of fun and if you're lucky, family time. That's one of my favorite parts of any holiday, getting to spend time with my fam. Time passes far too quickly for my liking, and so I soak up all the moments I can.

For the Fourth of July this year, my family had plans to knock out an airboat ride in the morning (gator observing is a must-do as a Floridian), then spend the afternoon grilling out. We had beautiful weather predicted for the beginning part of the day, so the plan was perfect. I just had to figure out what I was bringing (do I need to tell you that it had to be a dessert?).

Baked Cannoli

You guys know me by now. "How can I screw with this recipe?" (yes, I used self control in that sentence). It's a fine hobby to turn baking into a science project when possible, and believe me I take advantage of the opportunity.

I got cannoli in my head again after scrolling through some old food photos, recollecting the days of taking photos on my incredibly old Motorola phone - Android OS versions didn't even have delicious names yet! My first cannoli experience was slightly later in the game, though not quite Android v3.0 old. I now shoot on a moderately old Canon DSLR, but as fate would have it, I had left that camera at a friend's house and used my much newer Android phone for this recipe.

How can you improve an already flawless cannoli? Well, I'm not suggesting an attempt to somehow add better flavor. That's just impossible! Can you tell I like cannoli? Seriously, though, can I healthy it up a tad?

Spicy Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

I grew up on a handful or two of steady staple meals. We ate a lot of spaghetti and meatballs (because, c'mon, it's spaghetti), Chef Boyardee pizza, shepherd's pie, stroganoff, and of course, stuffed peppers and cabbage. There's something fulfilling about an all in one dish. Easy to serve, stuffed peppers have become a truly American dish, though not originally. Apparently, history has carried the stuffed pepper through several countries, including everywhere from Spain to Korea.

But the idea of a meal that has everything safely stashed in a portable container is the quintessence of U.S. food habits. Look at Hot Pockets and how fast food companies now make entire meals you can fit into your cupholder. We like portability and simplicity.

For my part, I grew up on a basic recipe. Tomato sauce (or soup, possibly), ground beef, and rice. Mom might have added some chopped onion in there; I can't say for sure. But those were the basics.

I have made them before, both in their basic form and the truly delightful Chicken Philly Stuffed Peppers many moons ago (Have I really been at this since 2012? My word.) But this time, what could I do to spice it up? Well, for starters, I picked up some Hot Chicken Sausage at Lucky's Market that needed a food home. Meat? Check. And then I thought about healthifying it (yes, I made that word up) and cooked up some quinoa. Yes! A plan was coming together.

Let's put a spotlight on this sausage, though, because as a non-pork eater, I often find that turkey sausage is the only alternative, though that is even occasionally offered. Sausage is a breakfast staple, and depending on where I am, I may just be out of luck (same goes with turkey bacon, which can also be done quite well). The first time I tried this hot chicken sausage I did not expect much, but I threw it in a pot of gumbo and was astounded. It has a light heat to it, nothing that'll scald your little taste buds off. I have a strong affection for habaƱeros, and these are more jalapeƱo level. I'll find my dream ghost pepper sausage one day.

In addition to a few peppers, I also needed to use up two tomatoes. This meant I got to play a game of "use it up" while also making something I hadn't tried before. The meal was getting good.


I cooked the sausage on the stove until it was cooked throughout. You can cook raw meat in a dish sometimes, but when it comes to chicken I like to be extra safe. Nobody likes a case of salmonella.


I cleaned the peppers and tomatoes out and set them up in a casserole dish.


I made the filling by breaking up the sausage and mixing it in a large bowl with cooked quinoa, chopped onion and garlic, apple cider vinegar, egg, tomato sauce, crushed red pepper, garlic salt, and white pepper. Rather than bread crumbs, I shredded a slice of whole grain bread (really just by rolling it between my hands and crumbling it) and mixed that in. It's a trick my mom used for meatballs; the bread is moister than bread crumbs. And let's be honest. I was out of bread crumbs so creativity was much needed. Finally, I mixed in some shredded monterey jack cheese and stuffed the filling into the peppers and tomatoes.


I preheated the oven to 375 degrees F and put them in. I suggest putting foil over the top, but in my case I just put a sheet pan on the rack above them to keep them from drying out too much. A little bit is ok, but I didn't want to wind up with a quinoa brick. Just over an hour later, they were ready.


Previously I had pre-cooked the peppers, but I prefer some crisp to my sweet peppers so I filled them raw. This resulted in a fully cooked but not totally  mushy pepper - right up my alley! A pulpy texture is great for a philly chesesteak, but other recipes require a little more firmness. So the filling. I'll admit, quinoa was a totally random thought and I wasn't so sure it would replace the rice properly. I mean, I have done this before with Qunioa Rice Pudding, but that doesn't guarantee that all results will be a success. BUT. IT. WAS.

Not because I knew it was healthy. Not because the texture was perfect and the sauce was the right fit for that chicken sausage. But because it was just plain good.

I mentioned that I grew up with stuffed peppers as a regular dish in our household. So, I passed a few of these along to my parents. After all, I have a habit of overcooking (quantity-wise, of course!). Dad loved it. Mom loved it. And my mom ONLY likes hthe traditional dish. She doesn't like "weird" stuff, a.k.a. anything I make with some kind of improvement that benefits the human body. I kept quiet about the quinoa and just mentioned the addition of chicken sausage (man, I am one sneaky B). Sure enough, the food critics were on board and told me I'd knocked it out of park. Yayasaurus Rex.

Spicy Quinoa Stuffed Peppers Recipe

Ingredients:

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 pieces hot chicken sausage, cooked
2 bell peppers
2 tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa
1 egg, beaten
1 can tomato sauce - 15 ounces
1-2 teaspoons white pepper
2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 slice whole grain bread, crumbled
1/4 cup shredded monterey jack cheese

Instructions:

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Break up the sausage and mix with cooked quinoa, chopped onion and garlic, apple cider vinegar, egg, tomato sauce, crushed red pepper, garlic salt, and white pepper. Shread or tear up bread slice into small piece and mix in along with monterey jack cheese. Add filling to peppers and tomatoes. Cover and bake for 60-70 minutes.

Shiraz Brisket

I love this local market called Freshfields Farm, which I have mentioned before. It's like paradise walking in there. Coming from the Florida heat, you walk into this nice, cool oasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. You grab a cart and wander the aisles, finding different goodies on each trip. The air smells fresh, and I find myself calmed by the experience. This time, I decided to grab a boniato and see what I could do with it. It was an ugly little vegetable, but I knew this could work out. Checkout is orderly (seriously, this process can ruin a shopping trip if done poorly).

Though small, that market is mighty. But wait, there's more. After coming out of veggie heaven, you walk a few steps over into a man's paradise, meat central. All the steak, brisket, ribs, chicken thighs, and salmon you can dream of.

This is a place I feel safe buying meat at. Their suppliers are mainly local, and I am mistrusting of large meat plants for the most part. While I know quality and welfare standards are nothing like they formerly were, I still prefer to go local when I can, especially if costs are comparable. And theirs are a great value.

The brisket is hard to pass up. I walk by these gorgeous cuts of meat and suddenly my creative juices are flowing and before you know it I am feeling bound and determined to make something new. That is my thing, right?

I've made oven roasted and crock pot beef brisket. No smoker, yet, tragically. But though amazing, I am a firm believer in using various cooking techniques. So how about something new in the oven? After all, I'd only used that method once, and you can't use your first time as your only benchmark. Time to up the ante.

On a side note, I would like to say that I think chopped brisket (or in the case of slow cooking like this, shredded) is the way to go. I am just not into eating it sliced on a sandwich. Chopped. Always. Just another reason to take it slow in the heat.

For this oven roasted variety, I picked up a 1 and a half pound brisket, and started with a dry rub of salt, white pepper, chili powder, paprika, and ground mustard. I also added some chopped onion and portobellini mushrooms to the pan.


I roasted the brisket for 1 hour at 350 degrees F, with the goal being to get a nice crust on the outside. That was certainly accomplished. The reason I put the onions and mushrooms in for this part was to give them a chance to cook down before adding the liquids.


To keep the meat from drying out during the rest of the cooking process, you have to add some liquid. In my last oven-roasted brisket recipe post, I used beef broth. This time I went in a whole other direction and poured in shiraz and soy sauce. Soy sauce can be a good substitute for beef broth in a pinch, so I knew it would bring that meaty flavor to the liquid. I also added some fresh garlic and diced jalapeno. Time to get real, brisket.


At that point I covered the pan with tin foil, lowered the oven to 300 degrees, and let it go for a little over 2 hours, until that meat was just falling apart when poked with a pork. I was going as nuts as my cats were smelling this business cook. Two hours felt like forever. LOOK AT THOSE MUSHROOMS. Cooked down into perfection. And that sauce I had left? Yeah.


It shredded with just the touch of a fork. *drool*


To make matters even better, I made that crazy boniato I found the same fresh market. It's also known as a "white sweet potato", and has the health factors a sweet tater is known for but is less sweet. I cubed it, boiled it, mashed it, and mixed in butter and sour cream just as I would have a regular potato and yeah, that sucker was GOOD with some of that sauce and mushrooms on top.


We all know red wine has a potent, rich flavor (which is likely why it took a few years of drinking white wine for me to finally convert over to the dark side, which for the record is much better), and braising brisket in there just allowed some of that flavor to transfer into the meat. The result was an incredibly moist, deeply flavored brisket. What I mean by deep is that the flavor is complex, like a marsala that has had plenty of time to simmer. The mushrooms cooked in the wine each had their own richness, as portobellos are a meatier type of mushroom and these are similar in taste, though milder (and significantly smaller in size). The jalapenos added a hint of spice, but as I've learned in other recipes, when you cook a jalapeno down it winds up much sweeter. Long story short: this brisket was phenomenal.

Red wine is known to make stews better, and using it here was definitely the right move. This was a fairly lean cut of meat, so I didn't have a lot of fat in the remaining sauce. This made it perfect to add on the shredded meat and the potatoes, as cooking on that low heat caused it to thicken. It was heavenly.

Special shout out to my adorable Bridesmaid glass which was a participation award after one of my closest friends got married last year. Perfect glass for both the photo and my tasty beverage.

Shiraz Brisket Recipe

Ingredients:

1.5 pound beef brisket
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon white pepper
2-3 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped mushrooms (I used portobellini)
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1 1/2 cups shiraz
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeno, diced

Instructions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray pan with avocado oil to prevent sticking. Combine salt, pepper, chili powder, paprika, and ground mustard together in a small bowl and rub into both sides of brisket. Place in pan along with onion and mushrooms and add cook for 1 hour. Add green onion, shiraz, soy sauce, garlic, and jalapeno to pan and cover with foil. Lower heat to 300 degrees and replace in oven. Cook for an additional 2-3 hours, until meat shreds with a fork. Serve with remaining wine as sauce.

Crock Pot Chicken Parmesan


The crock that started it all. That should be the sign I put up in my imaginary museum of my life, hanging right in front of my first Crock Pot. If not for experimenting in that 4 quart slow cooker of wonder, I am unsure where the confidence to continue on my cooking expedition would have come from. Way back before the days of actually picking up a few tips about photographing food, I documented my first several meals with an old cell phone.

Black Bean Brownie Cheesecakes

Potlucks are great. They are best when everyone participates, of course. You can't show up empty handed and get to eat on the first go around. And no one likes the guy who signs up to bring plates. No one.

It's significantly more fun when people bring recipes dear to them. At this particular one, a colleague brought in a very unique Russian salad that was unlike any salad I'd ever tried. Another made hot chicken and pasta which was just mind blowing (seriously, spicy fried chicken = *drool*).

Apple Hand Pies

At this point it must be pretty clear that I love to bake. I'm not sure what gave it away, but somewhere along the line I let the secret slip out. What this means for me is that I am frequently sent recipes by colleagues, friends, and fam in the hopes that I will break down and make it. Well, often they are right. Of course, lots of work means less time in the kitchen than I used to have, so finding a balance is something I'm working on. The kitchen is my happy place, and this gets me in there.

As fate would have it, it happened to be a colleague's birthday week when she sent this one over (*hint, hint*). As she is working hard on maintaining a lean diet, we didn't want to blast her with the usual chocolate on chocolate on chocolate (yes I am serious) cake that we typically get, so I suggested this as an alternative. Yes, apple pie is still a dessert. But I am going to make an educated guess and say that apple pie is likely a smidge healthier due to the fruit content. And there's no way these have as much sugar as that cake! Listen, no need to correct me if I am wrong. I want to remain blissfully ignorant here.

At any rate, the decision was made: Apple Hand Pies were on the agenda.

Blueberry Bread

Have you ever heard anyone talk about "happy accidents"? You trip and break the heel off your shoe, wander over to the store to track down a replacement, then randomly find your favorite style on sale for half off (a girl can dream, right?). Sometimes, an accident leads to a better outcome.

That is exactly what happened with Blueberry Bread - less the shoes, of course. A colleague of mine celebrated her birthday recently, and a close friend of hers happens to have a birthday the following day. She had requested my Bananas Foster Cupcakes, as last year that was her birthday baking gift from me and obviously they went over well (always my favorite news!). She said that her friend requested some banana bread, and that got me in the zone. Banana bread was one of my grandmother's best recipes. The woman could cook anything, and I mean anything, and do it spectacularly. Banana and zucchini bread were two of her famous baked goods, yet somehow I had skipped over banana bread. Oops.
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