I made Chicken and Wild Rice Soup yesterday when the temperature lows were in the 40s here in the Northwest. Creamy, hearty, and yummy!! And SOOO easy--cut up the veggies the night before and the soup will go together in minutes. And with the wonders of an electric pressure cooker like the Instant Pot, it can be done in minutes. No thickenings to make--Ultra Gel stirs in to just the consistency you want, with no danger of curdling the fragile milk base.
I've spent a lot of time looking for the perfect apple pie--amply filled with slices of cooked apples, no "cave" between the crust and filling, and no oven boil-over (the Thanksgiving horror). I've tried many different recipes and processes over the years, but I think the real secret is in the process and the thickener. When I judge fairs, one of the things I look for in a fruit pie is the ability to "almost" hold its shape when cut. The filling should not be rigid, but should "bulge" and the liquid should be clear-colored and glossy-well-thickened but not pasty. I think you'll find that this recipe creates a finished product that can make your apple pie your family's favorite!
8 c. peeled and sliced tart apples (about 1/4 " thick) - pack tightly in measuring cup
2 T. lemon juice (if the apples aren't quite tart enough)
1 c. sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. cloves
8 T. Ultra Gel instant thickener (available at Amazon)
homemade or purchased pastry
Peel and slice the apples into a microwave-safe container (a covered casserole dish works well). Add the sugar, spices, and Ultra Gel and toss until evenly coated. Cover with a lid or vented plastic wrap and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Stir the apples carefully to make sure they are getting evenly cooked. Continue cooking if necessary until the apples lose their crispness and a fork can be inserted easily. Let cool at least 15 minutes. You will see that the released apple juice is already being thickened.
Prepare the bottom crust. Add the apples, smoothing the top. Add the top crust and pierce generously to make vent holes for the steam.
Bake in preheated 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350 degrees for another approximately 30 minutes. If the filling starts to ooze through the vents, the pie is done--remember that the apples have already been cooked and thickened, so no need to get to boiling temperatures in the middle.
Many people hesitate to make fresh apple pie because they consider it to be "unpredictable". I have to admit that there are a great many unknowns in baking an apple pie, not the least of which is the variety of apple used. I live in a great apple-growing area, so was able to get farm-fresh apples of many varieties and did a little testing. In my opinion, the flavor of Granny Smiths was great for a pie but the texture was a little mushy. Galas were too sweet, Honeycrisps were good, as were Jonnygolds. My personal favorite, however, was the Fuji which seemed to keep its shape well even when microwave-blanched.
And speaking of microwave blanching--one frequent complaint with using fresh apples in pies is that the apples cook down, either leaving a hole between top crust and filling or a sparsely filled pie, either of which detracts from the end product. The secret to this is blanching the apples before baking just enough to take edge off the crispness so they will pack into the crust better. This could be done in boiling water, but I like doing things the easiest way possible, so I peel the apples into a glass dish with a cover (like a casserole dish) or cover with plastic wrap, leaving a vent. Then a few minutes in the microwave will do the trick. And the lovely juices that accumulate go back into the pie.
Another unpredictability of apple pies is the baking process. As the apples cook, juices are released, which start to thicken only when they get to boiling temperatures if standard cornstarch or flour are used. So the juices tend to merrily bubble out the vent holes, creating a smoky mess in the oven. But when the apples are microwave-blanched with the sugar and Ultra Gel, the juices start to thicken right away, which controls the oven boil-over issue.
I hope you enjoy this method of producing high-quality apple pies as much as I do. I am no longer intimidated by making apples pies (which makes my family very happy!)
Incidentally, the pies can be frozen before baking for the extra convenience you need at holiday time (don't try this with pies thickened with flour or cornstarch) Do not thaw before baking--bake at 400 for to crisp the crust, then turn down to 350 until hot all the way through (remember--they're already mostly thickened). Cover the edges with foil if they start getting too brown.
Best Sugar Cookies Ever!
Finally--Sugar Cookies that taste good!
So--who doesn't like a melt-in-your mouth sugar cookie--crisp on the outside and soft and flavorful on the inside? Just a little bit of vanilla heaven. Sometimes I forget just how good the right sugar cookie can be because its easy to get lost in the masses of cookies with chocolaty goodness or caramel richness or peanut butter earthiness. But Christmas and children always remind me of the perfect sugar cookie. So here is a recipe for the best sugar cookies ever. The big plus is that the Ultra Gel keeps the cookies moist and tender, even if they get rolled multiple times in childish delight.
Incidentally, I think there should only be one shape of Christmas cookie--a Christmas tree--easy to cut out--easy to recognize even at a distance, and no matter what type of decorations find residence, it looks fine. But that's just me. I'll leave the Santas and reindeer to those of you better than me!
1/2 c. butter, softened (don't substitute margarine--it has a different moisture content)
1/2 c. butter flavored shortening
1 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla
1 t. vinegar
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
4 T. Ultra Gel
2 1/2 c. lightly stirred all-purpose flour (about 360 g)
Cream the butter, shortening, and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
Mix in the vanilla and vinegar, then eggs one at a time and beat well.
Mix the salt, baking soda, Utra Gel, and flour together and add to creamed mixtures slowly. Dough should gather into a ball easily. Add extra flour 1 T. at a time if needed.
Gather the dough together and work until smooth. Roll out immediately (do not refrigerate or wait to roll out). Roll out to about 1/4" thickness and cut as desired. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake immediately in a preheated 375 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Don't overbake unless you prefer your cookies crispy!
Note: The combination of the vinegar and baking soda provides leavening without the "baking powder" taste that ruins many sugar cookies. That's why the cookies need to be baked immediately.
Another Note: Baking sheets will have a great deal to do with the texture of the finished cookies. A dark pan will absorb heat and produce crispier cookies--a shiny pan will reflect heat and produce softer cookies.
If you (or the kids) get tired of rolling and cutting, just form the rest of the dough into a "log" in your hands, then roll in cake decorations and slice into discs and cook for a quick finish!
No-Cook Teriyaki Sauce
Summertime means time for grilling! Time to get out of the house and enjoy family and friends. And what better way to liven up a grilled meal than to add a tangy, salty/sweet sauce that goes great with everything? Common folklore says Teriyaki was born when Japanese emigrants to Hawaii combined traditional Asian ingredients of soy sauce and ginger with pineapple juice from the island and served it with grilled meat.
Teriyaki is traditionally used as a marinade for soaking meats before grilling. Unfortunately, the high sugar content of teriyaki usually results in a "burned sugar" taste when subjected to the high heat of the grill. But you can get all the flavor without an overtone of "burn" by using the marinade AFTER cooking the meat rather than before. Stay posted!
Combine the soy sauce with the pineapple juice. Using a measuring cup to mix in is really handy because of the pour spout!
Add the brown sugar, ginger power, and salt and stir until the brown sugar is dissolved.
Add the minced garlic. Lazy cook's hint: The bottled, minced garlic is a great time-saver--Use 1/2 t. for 1 clove garlic.
Stir the Ultra Gel® in gradually. GRADUALLY! Lumps will always stir out eventually, but sometimes it takes more time than you want to spend, so just take it slow.
Allow to thicken for five minutes.
If you want the sauce thicker, add more Ultra Gel® 1 teaspoon at a time. If you want the sauce thinner, add 1 tablespoon at a time of pineapple juice or water.
Here's a trick--cook your meat to the recommended temperature (165 for chicken breast), then add it to the marinade in a ziploc bag and let marinate for 15 minutes, turning a couple of times to make sure all surfaces are covered. All the goodness and none of the burned taste!
Or brush on kabobs after the last turn for that salty/sweet island goodness!
Editor's note: I've had requests for the kabob ingredients.
Thread the meat and vegetable pieces on skewers alternately. Grill over a hot grill, turning frequently, until the chicken registers 165 degrees in the center. At the point, the vegetables should be seared and beautiful. Brush the teriyaki marinade on the skewers and let cook about 30 seconds, then turn and repeat with the other side--should be enough to put some color on the skewer ingredients, but not enough to char. Remove from the grill and serve. Add more sauce if desired.
Low Sugar Strawberry Freezer Fruit Spread (Jam)
Love seeing those luscious bits of sun-ripened strawberries on newly-baked bread? Love the fresh taste of freezer jam? Love tasting the fruit rather than sugar?
Standard freezer jams are made from crushed fruit combined with pectin and massive amounts of sugar. The recipe has to be followed exactly, because if the sugar is reduced, the jam won't set up, which causes a lot of frustration for health-conscious parents. Chemically, there is a complex relationship between fruit, acid, pectin, and sugar to form the fruit gel we call "jam".
The issue of low-sugar jams can be approached from a different angle using Ultra Gel®, an instant thickener which has been used for many years to thicken fruit purees. Since Ultra Gel® provides thickening without sugar, the jam-maker has full control over how much and what kind of sweetening is used, including sugar substitutes.
According to the FDA's definition, "jam" requires pectin. Thus, Ultra Gel®-thickened gels are designated "fruit spreads". But most people can't tell the difference between a pectin jam and a fruit spread, and the cost savings and ability to adjust the sugar are worth making a change. And as a bonus--the recipe can be doubled or tripled, so the project goes super-fast! And your family will love seeing the fruits of summer all year long!
Start by washing the berries. This is one case (8 lb). Discard any with mold spots.
Trim the hulls off with a small knife and remove any hard cores.
If the berries are very firm, a minute or two in the microwave (for a large bowl) will make them easier to handle without compromising the fresh taste. A pastry blender works well to start the fruit crushing process. Then use an immersion blender if you want a finer puree (use it sparingly if you like a chunky jam.)
Add the lemon juice and stir.
Add the sugar and stir until dissolved (about 5 minutes) The mixture will become more clear-colored.
Add the Ultra Gel gradually, while stirring with a wire whisk or a fork until smooth. Start with 1/2 cup of Ultra Gel®, then allow to thicken for five minutes. Add another 1/4 cup if the product needs to be thicker. It will depend on how juicy the fruit is.
Freezer jam will have a soft set. When jam has thickened fully, package and freeze.
Package the fruit spread as desired. (Personally, I don't use glass in the freezer because of possible breakage, but used glass in the photos because it is an easy way for the viewer to see the amount made from the batch.)
Nothing matches home made bread with Low Sugar Strawberry Freezer Jam!
Here is a comparison of jams made by different methods. The one on the left was made from a standard Sure-Jell pectin recipe. The center sample used the Sure Jell pectin for low sugar. The right-hand sample used Ultra Gel®, which is about one-third the cost of standard pectins per batch.
The fresh taste of strawberry freezer spread is a sure winner for all ages!!
Strawberry Cream Cake--So Much Easier than it Looks!
Looking for a Mother's Day treat that really says you care? That you care enough to take on a dessert that uses three different bowls? Plus a baking pan? That sound like real love! Just don't tell anyone that this cake is so easy it's practically criminal. If you can bake a box cake, you can make this elegant dessert.
First, put the ingredients together for a box cake according to the package directions. I put in the ingredients from a Duncan Hines cake mix, but your mix might be slightly different. The big thing is that you end up with a thin layer of cake for the base of the dessert. Author's note: Sometimes people ask why I made this cake so large (one-half sheet pan size) and the reason is that it just makes everything come out right--the cream cheese, the whipped topping the glaze and the berries. But if you don't want to make this much, use a 9x13 pan and only use half of the prepared cake batter and other ingredients. The other half of the cake batter will make some yummy cupcakes! Whatever baking pan you use, you only want the cake batter to be about 1/2" thick.
Be careful when you bake--the batter is thin and will cook quickly. Just cook until lightly browned--no more than twenty minutes.
Set the cake aside to cool. Put it in the freezer if you want to hurry things up.
While the cake is cooling, start the glaze by combining the sugar, unsweetened drink mix, and Ultra Gel in a bowl. Stir the ingredients lightly, then add the water all at once and continue stirring with a wire whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to thicken.
To make the cream filling, cut the softened cream cheese into cubes for easier handling, then mix with an electric beater until smooth.
Add the thawed non-dairy whipped topping and continue to beat with the electric beater until smooth.
Assemble the cake using the following process:
Spread the cream cheese filling onto the cooled cake.
Arrange the strawberries over the cream cheese filling
Drizzle the glaze over the top of the strawberries. Smooth if desired.
Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to blend the flavors before serving.
And there you have it! A Mother's Day treat that looks hard for the one that made motherhood look easy!
Fresh Potato and Leek Soup
Potato and leek soup--pure comfort food! This classic French soup has a place in any kitchen--easy-to-find ingredients and mild flavors--perfect for a chilly Sunday afternoon. Or a quick weekday meal--pair it with crusty bread and curl up with a blanket!
Leeks look like really big green onions, and are a very mild and flavorful member of the same plant family. I put the lemon in the photo to help show how big leeks can really be! I've seen them in a variety of sizes, so I think a measurement of the quantity of "sliced/chopped leek" is more accurate than "one leek". Leeks are often used in soups and other dishes where their mild flavor is treasured.
Leeks sometimes pose a challenge to clean, as they often have dirt packed firmly in the leaves. This is because during the growing process, dirt is piled up around the leek plants to help develop more of the tender white part. That just means that you need to be careful about washing. The white and light green parts are most commonly used, so the green fibrous leaves can be peeled back during slicing and any dirt rinsed away.
It's always a good idea, though, to put sliced leeks in a colander and rinse them well before cooking.
Lazy man's trick--you can measure multiple items in the same measuring cup if it is big enough to "add to". Here the diced onions were measured, then the diced leeks added to them. Less dishes to wash!
Saute the onions and leeks in the butter until the vegetables are tender.
Then add the potatoes and chicken broth, cover, and cook until the potatoes are tender.
Add the half and half or heavy cream, then stir in the Ultra Gel® gradually with a wire whisk. Continue heating at a low heat to serving temperature. Keep a close eye on it--it will scorch easily!
If you want the soup thicker, add more Ultra Gel®, a tablespoon at a time. If you want it thinner, add more chicken broth or half and half.
You can serve it "chunky", or use a hand-held blender to smooth it into a silky smooth creamy puree that soothes both the stomach and the soul.
Best Potato and Pork (or Chicken) Sheet Pan Meal
So--I've always kind of wondered about what the big deal was with sheet pan meals? I mean, meat and veggies roasted together on the same baking sheet. And it seemed risky to me--What if things didn't get done at the same time? Who loves limp, lifeless veggies and underdone meat? Seemed like scary business.
But then I spent a substantial amount of time on roasted potatoesfor a recent post and kind of got my head around roasted veggies. . And they . . are. . .SOOOO. . . GOOD!!! And the really good thing is--cook's secret here--while they roast, you can do something else!! And suddenly I got it--time to greet guests--or make a salad--or set the table. While your dinner is merrily roasting away. And it can go straight from the oven to the table on the baking sheet if you like a "cottage" style meal.
I recently served this Potato and Pork Sheet Pan Meal for a Sunday evening group of 6 adults and 4 kids. I made one pan just as the recipe says, and another that was 1 1/2 of the recipe. So in theory there should have been ten servings. I served it with a simple fruit salad, and everyone had their fill with about a quarter of a sheet pan remaining. As we sat at the table and talked at the conclusion of the main course, forks leisurely picked away at one piece of roasted goodness after the other, until every single piece was gone--and everyone was wonderfully stuffed. Easy ingredients, easy to prepare ahead, and easy cleanup. I get it!
6 c. raw potatoes, preferably red or yellow, unpeeled and cut in 1" dice
2 T. Ultra Gel® Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix
1 T. vegetable oil
1 lb. pork loin, chicken breast, or other TENDER meat cut cut in 1 1/2" dice
1 T. Ultra Gel® Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix
1 T. vegetable oil
1-2 c. onion or shallot pieces, large dice
4 c. firm zucchini squash, sliced about 1/3" thick
1 T. Ultra Gel Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix
1 t. chili flakes (optional)
1 T. vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Wash and cube 6 c. potatoes.
Immediately toss with 1 T. Ultra Gel® Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix. The moisture left on the vegetables and will combine with the Ultra Gel® in the Salad Dressing and Seasoning mix to create a nicely seasoned coating that will crisp up during roasting.
Add 2 T. oil and toss to distribute evenly.
Spread out on a half sheet pan (12" x 18") or other shallow baking pan. Line with foil if you wish.
Trim the meat and cut into 1" cubes.
Immediately toss with 1 T. Ultra Gel® Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix.
Add 1 T. oil and toss to distribute the oil evenly on the meat.
Add to the potatoes on the baking sheet.
Sprinkle the onion or shallot pieces across the baking sheet.
Put the baking sheet in the hot oven and set a timer for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the zucchini by slicing, tossing in 1 T. Ultra Gel® Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix with chili flakes, then in 1 T. oil.
When the mixture in the oven has cooked twenty minutes, add the zucchini and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Check to make sure veggies are tender and meat is no longer pink (ovens vary substantially!)
Wash the potatoes and cut into generous cubes. Sprinkle with 1 T. Ultra Gel® Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix and shake to evenly distribute. It's important that the vegetables are still moist, as it will allow the seasoning to adhere, creating a flavorful starch coating that will provide crispness as well as flavor. I like the visual effect of yellow and red potatoes, and I've even substituted sweet potatoes with really yummy results!
Add 2 T. vegetable oil, and shake the bowl of potatoes until the oil is evenly distributed. Pour the potatoes out onto a half sheet pan or other shallow baking tray.
Prepare the meat by removing visible fat, then cutting into cubes.
For ease, you can use the same bowl you used for the potatoes. Toss the meat cubes with 1 T. Ultra Gel® Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix, then with 1 T. oil., then add them to the baking tray. Tuck the pieces of onions or shallots in among the meat and potatoes
Roast for twenty minutes in a hot 450 degree oven. Prepare the zucchini by washing and slicing, then tossing with the Ultra Gel® Ranch Salad Dressing and Seasoning Mix and chili flakes, then oil.
After the first twenty minutes, add the zucchini pieces to the pan and roast an additional ten minutes. Remove from oven and check to make sure the meat pieces are no longer pink and the vegetable pieces are tender. Serve as desired
Instant Pot Spicy Chicken Thighs
Instant Pot (or other electric pressure cooker) and Ultra Gel®? What a great combination! The Instant Pot relies on superheated steam to cook food quickly, which means there has to be a source of liquid. That means that there is usually a sauce or gravy as a part of the Instant Pot dish. But that raises the eternal question--if I don't like to make gravy ANYTIME, why would I like it any more with the Instant Pot? I mean, you still have to make a cornstarch slurry or flour thickening, and there's still the lump thing to worry about. . .
Ultra Gel® to the rescue! Because Ultra Gel can be poured directly into hot cooking liquid, it's incredibly easy to get a meal on the table quickly and without drama!
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are a great choice for Instant Pot meals. Because dark meat has a higher fat content than breast, it's more forgiving and stays moist much more gracefully. Boneless, skinless thighs often need a little trimming, but don't get carried away--trim out the large fat globules, but don't worry too much about every piece of fat--much of it will cook out.
1/2 c. pineapple juice (I save this from a can of chunks when I drain them--freeze for later use)
1/2 c. soy sauce
5 T. brown sugar
2 T. Sriracha (this is pretty mild--add up to 2 T. more if desired)
2 T. hoisin sauce
6-8 T. Ultra Gel®
Set the Instant Pot to the "Saute" function.
Add the oil.
When the oil is shimmering, add the chicken thighs a few at a time to brown. For best flavor, don't crowd them. Remove to a plate when browned (the chicken will not be cooked at this point!) and add more pieces until all are browned and removed to the plate.
Add the onions and garlic and cook until translucent.
Add the chicken pieces back to the Instant Pot.
Combine the pineapple juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, sriracha, and hoisin sauce in a cup, stirring until the brown sugar is largely dissolved, then pour the sauce over the chicken in the Instant Pot.
Add the lid to the Instant Pot, close the steam valve and set to manual, pressure, high for 14 minutes
When done, release the steam slowly, then lift the lid.
Remove the chicken to the serving platter, and gradually stir in the Ultra Gel®, using a wire whisk, until the desired consistency.
Pour the sauce over the thigh pieces, garnish with cilantro, and serve.
Start by browning the meat pieces on manual in the electric pressure cooker. You can add a little oil to the Instant Pot to keep the meat from sticking at first, but fat will begin to accumulate, so keep any added oil to a minimum. Brown both sides well, working in batches if necessary, then remove the meat to a plate. It won't be fully cooked at this point!
Add the onions to the fat and browned meat bits in the Instant Pot pan. Continue cooking on manual, stirring occasionally, until the onion pieces are translucent and tender.
Measure the pineapple juice into a measuring cup, then add the soy sauce.
Add the brown sugar, hoisin sauce, garlic, and sriracha sauce to the pineapple juice/soy sauce mixture. Add the meat back to the Instant Pot pan and pour the sauce over all.
Add the lid to the Instant Pot, and set to high pressure for 15 minutes. Release the pressure, slowly, then remove the lid. Remove the chicken from the pan.
Stir the Ultra Gel into the remaining sauce gradually. Adjust to your desired thickness by adding a little more Ultra Gel if too thin, a little more liquid if the the sauce is too thick. Totally adjustable!! Add more Sriracha sauce to taste if desired.
Arrange the chicken pieces on a plate or serving tray with rice. Cover with the sauce. Garnish with cilantro and serve!
The really good news is that Ultra Gel® thickened sauces refrigerate and freeze beautifully, providing a good meal for another day. It certainly makes it worth making a double batch for a future night off!!
There are some people who, looking at our fridge, think we get a little territorial about these "plan ahead" meals. I'm not sure exactly how they get this idea! But when you're competing with two other desk-jockeys for future lunches, everything is fair!
Quick, easy, and delicious! Plan to try it soon!!
Hearty Hamburger Soup
Cool evenings call for warm soup, and here's one that makes a pound of lean ground been go a long way. Lots of nutritious veggies and a soothing milk base. Light on calories and long on flavor!
Brown the ground beef with the seasoning salt in a heavy 4-quart pan until no pink remains. Add the onions, green pepper, carrots, and diced potato and cook for about ten minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent. Stir in the water and beef bouillon, then cover and cook on a low heat until all the vegetables are tender.
Stir in tomato juice and heat to a boil. Add milk, then stir in ULTRA GEL gradually, using a wire whisk. Continue heating to serving temperature. Please, don’t let the soup boil after the milk is added or the liquid might curdle, resulting in a soup that isn’t smooth!