Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Soup That Made This Place a Winter Wonderland
The winter break is in full swing. Kids are out of school and enjoying the time they have off to play with their Christmas presents. Adults get some playtime too, as offices just don’t run at the usual clip this time of year. Some of us won’t clock back in until it’s 2013. Folks are going to the movies, having big elaborate family dinners, and some of us are even playing outdoors. That would be us this year!

You can see us gathered right here, in the photo with the morning winter sunlight coming through the windows.
We’re all getting ready to go sledding—and we get back from all that fun, but nevertheless intense exercise in fairly deep powder for the mountains of North Carolina, we’re going to be hungry!
So I pulled out a favorite from Fresh Traditions and dusted it off for a special Sunday lunch with the family: Red Onion Soup with Sun Dried Tomato andGruyere Crouton. Since hours of sledding can feel a lot like the first day of a New Year’s resolution to beat yourself up at the gym, I can guarantee you that we earned the grilled cheese sammies we dipped into the cheese laden soup. I made our soup in the morning and placed it under the broiler, just as soon as I took off my boots. On the side, I served a fresh tossed salad and the whole presentation made for an easy-tummy filling meal.

Just a note on the ingredients: I like to use the robust red onion in this soup for both the taste and the color, but you can use Vidalia if you want. You can alter the slab-of-bread topping; what I call “croutons” in my Sunday Best frame of mind—by substituting chopped olives or marinated artichokes for sun dried tomatoes.  You can also substitute with your favorite combination of cheeses, providing you choose a soft cheese - one that will melt in just a few seconds. Don’t you just love this kind of talk? What’s best about this dish is that it’s a lot of food that comes together for you in just one hour, and it’s the perfect thing to take with you into the room with the big fireplace—like the one pictured (thank you, Chris!) here.
I can’t wait to hear what you’re eating over the winter break. I’m sure your breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners are, in and of themselves, satisfying dishes that are every bit as special as the time you’ve had together this holiday season. This is the last weekend of 2012 and boy was it delicious. Happy New Year everyone!

Red Onion Soup with Sun Dried Tomato and Gruyere Crouton

Servings:  6 to 8
Preparation Time:  1 hour

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 large red onions, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 quart beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme

8 (1/4-inch) slices French bread baguette
4 tablespoons julienned sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained 4 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
4 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (about ½ cup)

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large soup pot over medium high heat.

Stir in the onions and season with salt and pepper.  Cook until the onions are soft and just beginning to brown, stirring often, about 20 minutes.

Pour in the red wine and stir in the tomato paste. Pour in the beef broth.  Add the bay leaf.  Bring the soup to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir in the fresh herbs.  Simmer for 5 minutes more.

Preheat the broiler.

Toast the bread slices on one side until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Spread a teaspoon of sun dried tomatoes onto the center of each slice.  Ladle the soup into oven proof crocks.  Place the crocks into a baking dish or jelly roll pan.

Top the soup with a bread slice and generously sprinkle with both cheeses.  

Broil the soup until bubbly and just beginning to brown, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sunday Best Shopping Excursion...You Won’t Believe Where!

When was the last time you were at Costco? Its been years and years since I went, but a tip from a friend sent me back. Apparently, Costco is one of the few places one can find “prime” meat. In preparation for my annual holiday party I went in search of beef tenderloins. What I found was a series of boutique counters within the gargantuan warehouse. There were sausage tastings and seafood so fresh the crabs’ claws were still moving! The bakery put out muffins and croissants, and the gourmet cheese counter was to die for. Costco made me forget I could also buy a pallet of swivel office chairs and a corrugated shed while I was still in foodie heaven.

Just look at the crabs I was talking about!

Look at the meat!

And look at all those little white crockpots full of surprisingly high end nibbles.

Costco is Perfect for Big Party Prep, and that’s why it gets my “Sunday Best” Seal

What I loved the best is that Costco has changed their packaging. When I used to go, I would buy bulk poultry and beef, and then come home and spend another hour or so packaging them into smaller portions for the freezer. This warehouse retailer has figured it out.  You can still buy 18 chicken thighs, but they come in 6 different packages all bundled together. It’s wonderful!

Yes, there are still long lines at the checkout counter, but the packagers are friendly and helpful. Luckily, I was on a schedule, or I would have spent the entire day shopping at Costco. I’m back home now, and getting ready to start preparing for my party. Here’s a sneak peek at the menu and a link to the item that I think will be my guests’ favorite: Chipotle Spiced Candied Bacon.

Mayan (Mexican Celebration for 40 guests) I had a little bit of fun with all the end of the world talk this December!
Christmas 2012 


Merry Berry Margaritas
Chipotle Spiced Candied Bacon
Chorizo Hogs in a Blanket
Grilled Shrimp Mini-Tacos
Taco ‘Shrooms
Five Layer Mexican Dip n Chips
Ham and Potato Chip Tortilla


Latin Spiced Tenderloin Sliders
Chipotle Chicken Thighs
Pescado a la Veracruzana
Veggie Enchiladas with Mole Sauce
Chopped Salad with Peppery Thousand Island Dressing
Spanish Rice and Sherried Black Beans
Creamy Corn Bread


Cinnamon Pound Cake with Sangria Spiked Cherries and Lime Sorbet
Pumpkin Tres Leche Cake
Chocolate Chipotle Brownies
Salted Caramel Brownies
Pumpkin Flan
Mexican Coffee

Sunday is the day for food exploration—it’s also a golden standard; if I wouldn’t serve it Sunday, chances are I won’t serve it at all. Sunday is also the day for Sunday excursions – afternoons spent strolling through markets, galleries,  and country fairs. The next time you are looking for a eye-opening food experience – check out Costco.

I look forward to raising my glass with you and toasting to a 2013 that’s filled with Sunday Best dishes. 

Chipotle Spiced Candied Bacon

1 pound bacon
1 cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon dried ground chipotle pepper or chili powder

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix together the brown sugar and ground chipotle pepper.

Cut the slices from 1 pound of bacon in half (about 4 to 5-inch lengths). Dredge each piece in the brown sugar.
Place onto a rack set into a baking pan with lip. Bake until the bacon is crisp, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove to a parchment paper lined pan. Cool to room temperature.
Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Going Dutch on SUNDAY BEST Short Ribs

Behold. These are my lovingly assembled ingredients for the best slow roasted short ribs on earth—at least this was the general consensus among my family members, who ate the ribs before I had a chance to photograph the finished product. Thanks guys. I can’t take all the credit for how good they came out; I think I owe some of the success to the Kitchen Must Have du jour: my Le Creuset Dutch oven. I put the ingredients into it first thing in the morning, put it in a screaming hot oven and walked away—but not too far. I’ll save my Sunday Excursions for a slow cooker day. That’s one of the chief distinctions between a Dutch oven and slow cooker; you don’t want to leave the house with the oven on. The good news for this ribs recipe is that it’s easily done in a slow cooker as well. Just reduce the liquid ingredients by half and put the setting on high for about 8 hours. You’ll see my note when you click the recipe link for Chipotle Spiced Slow Roasted Beef Short Ribs.    

Le Creuset is, well...a little expensive, but pays for itself in less than a dozen dinners, so good you’ll remember them forever. The background information about this company almost seems like a deleted scene from a movie about Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Creuset translates into simply “cauldron”, and the first one off the French assembly line in 1925 was in the color of flame—because its creators wanted to mimic the vibrant color inside a caldron when it reaches boiling point.  Le Creuset has the special glory of being the first kitchenware company to make cast iron pots and pans in a rainbow of enamel glazed colors. You could say they prettied up gray metallic kitchens around the world. I know my Dutch oven has been responsible for its share of smiles on Sunday—and this short ribs dinner couldn’t be a better way to show what it can do.  
What happens when you go Dutch?

Some may ask, “why not make short ribs in a slow cooker?” Well, my answer to that is, you definitely could; a slow cooker produces the same result, really, as a Dutch oven and many will turn to the slow cooker because they feel more comfortable leaving the house with it switched on than they would an oven. I do believe, however that a Dutch oven is better at locking in hearty beefy flavors that stand up to robust sauces, like the sweet fire of commingling cinnamon and hot peppers. I think the Dutch oven reduces sauces better, leaving them thicker and juicier—and I also love how you can braise and bake in the same dish when you use one. When you go Dutch, you won’t miss a pan sear as much; you can skip the browning of the meat in a skillet as a first step.

And since we’re using short ribs in this recipe—not side ribs or spare ones—the meat is going to be a little tougher (think top sirloin tough) until it’s slow roasted into the rich, soft texture my own family has seen falling right off their forks when I serve this favorite as a Sunday dinner. And, oh goody, so many more of these days to come! Look how many Sundays between now and forever, that I can bring you my weekly Sunday Best edition! Au Revoir, until we meet again!    

Chipotle Spiced Slow Roasted Beef Short Ribs


Melt in your mouth comfort with a hint of heat. Prepare these ribs in the morning and slow roast in the oven while you enjoy your Sunday afternoon. 

8 beef short ribs, about 3 pounds (choose ribs that are thick and meaty)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon coarse black pepper
1 cup (or more) unbleached all-purpose flour for dredging
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced, about 1 cup
2 large carrots, diced, about 1 cup
2 medium celery ribs, diced, about 1 cup
6 medium garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced, about ¼ cup
2 large jalapeno peppers, seeded and deveined, diced, about 2 tablespoons
1 750ml bottle red wine
1 quart home made beef broth, or low sodium beef broth
1 cup tomato paste
1 cup chili sauce
1 large chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeded and diced, about 2 tablespoons
2 cinnamon sticks
Chopped, fresh cilantro

Preheat the oven to 250°. Season the ribs with chili powder, salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven (or large roasting pan) over medium high heat. Dredge each rib in flour, shaking off the excess. Place each rib into the oil and brown on all sides. Remove the ribs to a platter. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic and jalapeno to the pan. Cook until the veggies are soft.

Pour in the wine and beef stock. Stir in the tomato paste and chili. Bring the liquid to a boil. Return the ribs and any juices on the platter to the pan. Bury the cinnamon sticks in the sauce.
Cover the Dutch oven with the lid (or place aluminum foil over the pan). Place the pan into the oven and cook until the meat is tender and pulling away from the bone, about 6 to 7 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven. Remove the cover. Place the ribs onto a platter and spoon the sauce over top.

**The good news for this ribs recipe is that it’s easily done in a slow cooker as well. Just reduce the liquid ingredients by half and put the setting on high for about 8 hours.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

What Sundays Mean From Now On. It starts with Chunky Chocolate Cookies!

If this blog post were written down on a piece of paper there would be a few crumbs left behind. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin my Sunday series: between now and Easter Sunday, EVERY SUNDAY, you’ll find food and creature comfort on my blog that’s worthy of your Sunday best. That old saying “your Sunday best” refers to so much more than clothes. It’s a state of mind—when you’re in the mood to roll out something extra special.
That being said, there’s nothing better than home baked cookies. Picture it: a little coffee klatch after church, where there’s a cookie exchange, or better yet, blue winter skies, great smelling cookies straight out of the oven and hence the perfect excuse to take a batch of treats over to a friend. Chocolate, peanut butter, lemon and sugar, ginger bread, oatmeal, cranberry and pecan….the litany of possibilities when it comes to Christmas cookies is longer than that holiday parade you can hear coming down your street.

Cookies are such a grand idea when it comes to gifts, that the concept is practically a franchise at Christmastime. Everyone is doing it; packaging up their homemade creations, and bringing them over to friends and family with a big smile. It’s affordable, it’s sweet and if you have a reputation for making really good cookies, people actually look forward to it. Seriously! They’re so used to enjoying your holiday confections, that seeing you come over with that loaded December plate helps them know it must be that time of year again. Drag out the treadmill, folks. Those cookies are goin' down with a big ol' glass of milk!
So in the spirit of all this, I’d like to introduce my Sunday Best Chunk Cookies. What makes them worthy of the Sunday badge? Well, in a word: add-ins! You can take the basic cookie recipe from the back of the semi-sweet chocolate package, and add anything—virtually ANYTHING sweet—to make it your personal best. For instance, I used Ghirardelli’s 70% Cacao Extra Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Bar and their White Chocolate bar to make these chunk cookies.

Last Sunday when I made them, it was a teachable moment indeed. I learned that toasting the walnuts for a few minutes in my preheating oven, gives the cookies an extra nutty crunch! The oats, aforementioned walnuts and two different kinds of coarsely chopped chocolate helped these cookies earn the name “chunk”! 
So spend a couple of minutes this Sunday creating your own favorite chunk cookies and share them with everyone at Life is Sweet. If you don’t stop and have a cookie every once in a while, you could miss it!

Sunday Best Chunk Cookies


These cookies are just what you need on a Sunday afternoon. Chewy on the inside and packed with surprises, they are a mouthful of cookie bliss.

2 ¼ cups whole-grain pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup shortening, room temperature
1 cup peanut butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon into a bowl. Use an electric mixer to combine the shortening, peanut butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in the eggs and vanilla until all of the ingredients are combined.  Stir in the oats, chocolates and nuts.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (or you can use Silpat liners).  Drop the batter by rounded tablespoons into about a 2-inch ball. Bake until the cookies are golden, about 10 to 12 minutes.  Cool on baking sheet for several minutes.  Transfer to a baking rack to cool completely.
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