Chocolate festival winners came from near and far

Chocolatiers beyond Oregon took home some of the top honors at last weekend’s Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland.

For the first time, the 11th annual festival opened competition to chocolatiers in other states. Two California companies placed in the top three.

Best in show was awarded to San Francisco’s CocoTutti. I deliberated with other judges over its Florentine, a liquid caramel infused with citrus, encased in dark chocolate and topped with almonds, but we favored a guava wood-smoked salt confection in the chocolate candy category. Yet CocoTutti’s impeccable miniature pieces for sampling impressed us while its ginger caramel with Thai chili and peanuts blew us away. The newcomers also were runners-up in the People’s Choice vote, which was cast for Holm Made Toffee Co..

First runner-up went to Smitten Artisan Truffles, winner in the chocolate truffle category. The Portland company offers neat, little tastes of flavored ganache, rather than fracturing its truffles to provide samples. The owner says the method, unique to the festival, was inspired by selling a friend’s goat cheese.

Second-runner status delighted Cowboy Toffee Co., of Oakdale, Calif. Folksy but focused branding around its Western theme helped to elevate samples of its ghost-chili and s’mores toffees.

In case you didn’t catch them on Twitter and Facebook, here are the other winners.

Best traditional use of chocolate: Cabruca Chocolates; best nontraditional use of chocolate: Cascade Slushies; best chocolate candy: Waimea Chocolate Co.; best chocolate truffle: Smitten Artisan Truffles; best raw chocolate: The Great Unbaked; best student chocolate creation: Oregon Coast Culinary Institute, Kayla Carrell.

Los Angeles Times photo

I brought home enough artisan chocolate to tide over my family this week. If all you have around is a run-of-the-mill variety, make it extra-special by transforming it into a luscious fudge sauce for dipping and drizzling. This recipe, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, is supposed to be foolproof, so long as it’s heated slowly.

Bittersweet Hot Fudge Sauce

9 to 10 ounces bittersweet (70 percent) chocolate, finely chopped

3/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons corn syrup

In top of a double boiler touching barely simmering water, combine the chocolate, cream, sugar, corn syrup and 2 tablespoons water. Stir frequently until all chocolate has melted, then stir occasionally until sauce is thick and glossy and is 160 to 165 F (exact temperature is not critical, so long as it is close), for 15 to 20 minutes (going slowly is key here). Remove from heat and serve.

Makes about 1 pint.

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Airy mousse rivals ease of pudding from a box

I’m not the only one missing out on tonight’s Chocolate Makers Dinner at Ashland Springs Hotel. Tickets sold out quickly for the popular event, which kicks off this weekend’s 11th annual Oregon Chocolate Festival.

Chocolate in every course is the dinner’s calling card. Foie gras with cocoa-nib mustard and celery-root bisque with a chocolate crouton look particularly enticing.

But there’s plenty more to sample from nearly 40 vendors Saturday and Sunday, when I will be serving once again on the festival judging panel. Look for live updates on Twitter and Facebook of the festival highlights.

It’s been many years since I’ve come clean on this blog about my relative ambivalence to chocolate. I’d choose almost any dessert over the flavor that makes so many people swoon, including my 2-year-old.

This past year, however, has seen us consuming a bit more chocolate around my house. It started with the desire to sample a stash of McCormick’s extracts. The easiest course seemed to spike hot cocoa — homemade from whole milk, simple syrup and cocoa powder — with flavors of coffee, hazelnut, orange, raspberry or peppermint.

Grown-up hot cocoa this is, but my son clings to the cup if offered a taste. The same goes for my occasional indulgence in dark-chocolate with cherries, chilies, sea salt, crystallized ginger and the like. Give him a bite and be prepared to hide the rest of the bar from view.

So I know that chocolate pudding, one of the quintessential kid-friendly desserts, can’t be far behind. And this version, while filled with no small amount of fat, manages to come off exceptionally light and airy, according to recipe testers for the Los Angeles Times.

Filomena’s Italian Kitchen in Costa Mesa, Calif., dubs this a chocolate mousse, although it skips the traditional step of beating and folding in egg whites. Melting chocolate into an egg custard is hardly more involved than mixing up pudding from a box.

Los Angeles Times photo

Filomena’s Vasetto di Crema

6 egg yolks

5 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

9 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped

In a saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, milk and cream, and then cook over medium-high heat until mixture thickens to a custard-like consistency. Remove from heat and gently stir in the chocolate until chocolate is melted and incorporated.

Strain mixture to remove any lumps, then divide custard among 6 ramekins or tea cups. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled and set, for at least 2 hours.

Makes 6 servings.

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Pizza is a canvas for season’s freshest veggies

If you’ve signed up for a CSA, the action is an expression of optimism.

Community-supported agriculture, explained in a previous post, represents hope for a bountiful harvest months in the future. Maybe shares will yield enough produce for favorite dishes: eggplant Parmesan or stuffed peppers, perhaps.

Looking forward, the seasonal cook won’t compromise with vegetables that have yet to attain their prime. Not when weeks and weeks of nonstop enjoyment lie ahead. It’s why eggplant Parmesan, as I’ve explained several times over the years, won’t ever grace my table in March.

As farmers markets return to operation this month, and growers are planning for their heyday of summer and fall, now is the time to appreciate the scant but precious selection of locally grown vegetables.

That’s why I love this pizza recipe from McClatchy News Service. Instead of relying on tomato sauce and basil, decidedly summery flavors, it celebrates spring radishes and the first herbs to emerge from barren soil. The ricotta cheese adds richness without overwhelming the delicate vegetable. Honey tempers the radishes’ peppery bite.

The flatbread would make a lovely light meal with the salad featured in the last post to this blog. Or I would top it with the arugula or pea shoots that came with my last CSA share.

Chicago Tribune photo

Roasted Radish Flatbread With Ricotta, Honey and Herbs

1 pizza dough recipe

1 teaspoon olive oil

3/4 cup ricotta (full-fat)

5 plump spring radishes, sliced paper-thin

2 teaspoons honey

2 tablespoons chopped chives

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Flaky sea salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 500 F. If you have a pizza stone, preheat it, too. (Otherwise, use a baking sheet.)

Stretch the dough into a thin round. Brush with the olive oil and spread the ricotta over dough. Lay radishes in a single layer on top. Bake in preheated oven for 7 to 8 minutes, until crust edge has golden spots.

Remove flatbread from oven. Drizzle with the honey, and sprinkle on the herbs and salt. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Support local CSA farms by signing up Saturday

The last load of farm-fresh vegetables arrived today from my community-supported agriculture program — just in time for subscription renewals. Small farmers and local-foods advocates tout Saturday as National CSA Sign-up Day.

As explained in a previous post, my family participated in a winter CSA designed to provide locally grown produce when local farmers markets are on hiatus. But most CSAs operate at the height of the growing season, supplying shareholders with summer’s bounty.

The model is based on supporting farmers when they most need it to plan for the year’s crops, which is now. Seven Rogue Valley farms offer CSAs, each a little different. Find the list on THRIVE’s website. Then browse individual farm websites to find the best fit for your food budget and preferences.

Expanding beyond boxes of produce, some farmers include add-on options for eggs, homemade breads, meats, cheeses, fruits, flowers or other farm products. Sometimes, several farmers group their products together, to give members the widest variety. About 6,000 farms across the country operate CSAs since their advent in the 1980s.

Although the selection is smaller in winter, greens — particularly kale and chard — are mainstays of my CSA, with arugula a more recent addition in the past month. This salad using chard and arugula won’t be quite as sweet come summer but still tasty.

Swiss Chard and Arugula Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette and Toasted Walnuts

Detroit Free Press photo

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste

1 bunch (about 1/2 pound) arugula or spicy greens mix, thoroughly washed, torn into pieces if leaves are large

1 bunch (about 1 pound) chard, thoroughly washed, stems trimmed, and leaves cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips

1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts

In a small bowl, whisk together to emulsify the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, honey, mustard, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the arugula, chard and onion. Sprinkle with a few pinches of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Starting out with about 1/4 cup vinaigrette, drizzle it around sides of bowl. Using salad tongs, toss salad into dressing working from sides in. Divide mixture among 6 plates. Sprinkle with the walnuts, and serve with remaining vinaigrette on the side if desired. Dressing will keep at least week in refrigerator.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe from the Detroit Free Press

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Clean anything with lemons, baking soda, vinegar

Lemons as cleaning agents will be a sidelight to today’s citrus class with Master Food Preservers.

The concept didn’t make the cut for Wednesday’s story in A la Carte on preserving citrus. But I figured most savvy cooks know they can freshen a sour garbage disposal by feeding it a lemon half or two. Hands sullied by garlic, onion or fish also can be deodorized with a cut and salt-sprinkled lemon.

These are just a few of the tips I gleaned from a workshop on all-natural cleaning at Ashland’s North Mountain Park Nature Center. Several years after writing a story on the topic, I still save squeezed lemon halves to remove cheese residue from a grater or to shine my stainless-steel sink. That’s before consigning them to the garbage disposal. It doesn’t get much thriftier than that.

And in an effort to save money on petroleum-based cleaning products that, in my experience, don’t work all that well, I combine baking soda with the cleansing potential of lemons. The other ingredient in this do-it-all triumvirate is distilled vinegar, which I buy by the gallon. In addition to being a nontoxic and versatile cleanser (window wash, hard-water descaler), distilled vinegar has myriad culinary uses.

Here is a list of ways from the Fresno Bee to put distilled vinegar to work:

Wash fruit and vegetables. Produce has all kinds of experiences before it arrives at the market, let alone on the kitchen table. Remove the residue of those adventures by washing fruits and vegetables in a solution of three parts water to one part vinegar. Rinse thoroughly. According to research, a vinegar wash kills up to 98 percent of bacteria and removes pesticides.

De-funkify the microwave. Microwave a bowl of water with a tablespoon of white vinegar for five minutes. Remove the bowl and wipe down the gunk. The steam from the water mixed with the mild acidity of the vinegar removes and sanitizes the microwave.

Disinfect wood cutting boards. After carving meats, wood cutting boards require a good scrubbing and disinfecting. After washing the board, wipe it down with undiluted white vinegar to make sure all the germs and other wee beasties are removed.

Remove the sticky. Need to remove a sticker from a jar, or adhesive left from a bumper sticker? Vinegar to the rescue. Wet a rag with vinegar and wipe the sticker with it until soaked. The paper and the adhesive will come off in no time.

Soothe sunburns and scalds. Hard to believe until you experience it first-hand: Rubbing white vinegar on a sunburn or a scald not only removes the pain instantly, but depending on the severity of the burn, may relieve the pain entirely and helps keep the burn from blistering. (Reapply as needed.)

Stop scratching. Used topically, distilled vinegar is a simple anti-itching remedy for bites and stings. Stop or reduce the itching by applying the vinegar with a cotton ball directly to the bite. (Reapply as needed.)

Buff windows. Vinegar is probably the most inexpensive glass cleaner you’ll find. In an empty spray bottle, mix equal parts white vinegar and water, then clean as usual. It will leave windows streak- and residue-free.

Mop floors. For no-wax floors, using a vinegar and water solution is a great eco-friendly floor cleaner and disinfectant. The mix: 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar to a half-gallon of water.

Clean baby toys. Little ones are like puppies: They indiscriminately chew on just about everything. Using an equal-part solution of distilled white vinegar and water is a great, nontoxic way to disinfect plastic or rubber toys. Simply spray or wipe down the toy with the solution, let it sit, then wipe off any remaining wetness after 15 minutes.

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Citrus fruits shine in foods fresh and preserved

Like rays of sunlight, citrus brightens just about any food it touches, observed a local chef quoted in this week’s A la Carte.

Once the weather is reliably warm and sunny, it’s easy to forget that the citrus season is waning. So with citrus at its best, now is the time for capturing its essence in curds, marmalades, chutneys, vinegars and more, as explained in this week’s story.

At least a dozen recipes await participants in Tuesday’s class at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. And a rainbow of citrus fruits will be represented, promised Master Food Preservers teaching the class.

Harboring no fewer than a half-dozen types of citrus for the past week in my refrigerator, I immediately ponder uses for the zest before peeling the fruit. Clementine zest acidified a salad of white beans and fennel, along with the fruit’s sections, that I recently prepared. And since I’ve found a reliable source for Meyer lemons at Food 4 Less, their juice and zest are no-brainers in everything from beverages to desserts.

Common oranges are cited for this recipe, perfect for Chinese New Year, when citrus fruits often are bestowed and consumed for good fortune. But tangerines, tangelos, mandarins and the like could be substituted.

Slightly freezing the meat strips, according to recipe testers for Tribune News Service, makes them fry up crisp and crunchy, while still staying tender inside.

Crispy Orange Beef

Tribune News Service photo

1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak tips, trimmed

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

6 tablespoons cornstarch

10 (3-inch) strips orange peel, sliced thin lengthwise (1/4 cup), plus 1/2 cup juice (2 oranges)

3 tablespoons molasses

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

3 cups vegetable oil

1 jalapeno chili, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced lengthwise

2 tablespoons peeled and grated, fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

2 scallions, thinly sliced on bias

Cut the beef with grain into 2- to 3-inch-wide pieces. Slice each piece against grain into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut each slice lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips. In a bowl, toss beef with 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce. Add the cornstarch and toss until evenly coated. Spread beef in a single layer on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. Put sheet in freezer until meat is very firm but not completely frozen, for about 45 minutes.

In a bowl, whisk together the orange juice, molasses, sherry, vinegar, sesame oil and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce.

Line a second, rimmed baking sheet with a triple layer of paper towels. Heat the oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until oil registers 375 F. Carefully add 1/3 of beef and fry, stirring occasionally to keep beef from sticking, until golden-brown, for about 1 1/2 minutes. Using a wire-mesh skimmer, transfer meat to paper towel-lined sheet. Return oil to 375 F and repeat with remaining beef. After frying, reserve 2 tablespoons frying oil.

Heat reserved oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the orange peel and jalapeno and cook, stirring occasionally, until about half of orange peel is golden-brown, for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring frequently, until garlic begins to brown, for about 45 seconds. Add soy sauce mixture and cook, scraping up any brown bits, until slightly thickened, for about 45 seconds. Add beef and the scallions; toss. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe from “Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2014, $40).

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It’s time to lavish love on heart-healthy lentils

Lentils will anchor a cooking demonstration I’m putting on this evening as an ACCESS volunteer.

Participants in an Asante employee wellness program will get a taste of these little legumes in tortillas topped with common taco fillings. The idea, of course, is that lentils are a protein-packed yet fiber-rich alternative to meat or even more commonplace beans that show up in tacos and burritos and other Latin fare.

Ideal fare for American Heart Month, lentils prevent cardiovascular disease, as explained in a 2013 story for A la Carte. They’re also the richest plant-based source of folate, an often elusive but vital nutrient.

And because I happen to love lentils, I plan to offer plenty of suggestions beyond tacos. My personal favorite is the warm or room-temperature salad with French lentils, which hold their shape and texture better than other types. It can incorporate any seasonal vegetables: the typical, summertime mélange for ratatouille or the braised fennel of which I’m so fond this time of year. See a photo of the former on my Facebook page.

The following recipe from a recent Washington Post article is an ideal example of this comfort-food concept. I prefer mine with a poached egg, rather than sunny-side-up, because the oozing yolk doubles as a salad dressing.

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Braised Lentils With Mushrooms and Kale

1 cup dried French green lentils

3 cups homemade or low-sodium, store-bought vegetable broth

12 ounces assorted mushrooms (such as cremini, shiitake and oyster), cleaned

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine (may substitute sake or sherry)

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (may substitute half-and-half)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

4 large eggs (optional)

8 ounces kale, stemmed and coarsely chopped

Rinse the lentils thoroughly. Combine them with the broth in a medium pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat until liquid is barely bubbling and cook, uncovered, until lentils have swelled and absorbed most liquid and are barely tender but intact and not mushy, for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat.

Remove and discard stems from any of the mushrooms of the tough-stem variety, such as shiitakes. (For oysters, remove and discard just thickest part of stem’s bottom, and leave creminis and button mushrooms intact.) Coarsely chop mushrooms.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat; cook for a few minutes, until it is lightly browned. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for another minute, until onion just starts to get tender. Add mushrooms and salt in an even layer. Cook undisturbed for 2 minutes or until bottom layer is deeply browned. Stir a few times, pack mushrooms into an even layer again and cook undisturbed for another 2 minutes or until bottom layer is browned. Repeat another time or two, until all mushrooms are deeply caramelized and have shrunk, for 7 to 9 minutes total.

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute, then pour in the wine. Deglaze pan by scraping up all flavorful brown bits from bottom. Cook to reduce wine until no liquid remains.

Reduce heat to medium-low and add the cream. Let it bubble gently for 2 minutes, until slightly reduced and thickened, then add cooked lentils and their liquid. Stir to combine, taste, and add more salt if needed. Cover pan and let it cook, barely bubbling, for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, if using the eggs, pour the oil into a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crack in eggs and sprinkle lightly with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until whites are just set but yolks are still runny. Use a spatula to transfer eggs to a clean plate while you finish lentils.

Add the kale to lentils. Cover and cook until kale is tender but still bright-green, 2 to 3 minutes.

Taste, and add more salt, if desired. Divide lentils among serving bowls and top each with an egg, if using. Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Washington Post from “Date Night In,” by Ashley Rodriguez (Running Press, 2014).

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Custard mashup omits scary step for amateurs

Given the choice between custard and cake, I’d take the former any day.

So the only decision left for someone of my ilk is which creamy, sweet iteration: pot de crème, crème brulee, crème caramel or maybe panna cotta. If only there was a dessert that combined them.

And actually, there is. The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., has been serving a sweet called chocolate custard cream — a mashup of crème caramel and chocolate pot de crème — since it opened in 1978. A recent article in the Washington Post declares it an easy dessert still worthy of a romantic meal.

That’s partly because chef Patrick O’Connell eliminated the scary part for amateurs: creating and cleaning up a pot of scalding sugar syrup. The classic French custard’s caramel, too sweet in his opinion, has been replaced here with cooked honey.

The following recipe produces a dessert that’s luscious, yet not too rich. It can be refrigerated for a few days in advance of serving.

Photo for The Washington Post by Renee Comet

Chocolate Custard Creams

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 2 1/2 cups whole milk, 1/2 cup sugar and the scrapings of 1/2 vanilla bean. Bring to just below a boil (scald) and turn off heat. Stir in 3 ounces coarsely chopped, bittersweet chocolate (at least 64-percent cacao) until melted.

2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together 3 large, fresh eggs and 3 large, fresh egg yolks. Gradually add milk-chocolate mixture, whisking continuously.

3. In a saucepan over medium heat, cook 1 cup mildly flavored honey for 3 minutes, or until it bubbles, darkens and becomes slightly thicker. Turn off heat.

4. Grease eight 6-ounce ramekins with cooking spray. Spoon about 1 tablespoon cooked honey into each one; swirl to coat bottoms. Invert ramekins over a bowl or sink to let any excess honey drip out, then arrange them in a 4-inch-deep baking pan. Ladle about 1/2 cup chocolate custard mixture into each ramekin. Fill pan with enough boiling water to come one-quarter of the way up sides of ramekins. Cover pan loosely with foil. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until custards are barely set.

5. Carefully transfer ramekins to a platter; cool, then refrigerate until well-chilled.

6. To serve, dip bottom of each ramekin into hot water, then run a hot knife around inside edge. Invert custards onto individual plates. Top with fresh raspberries, a dollop or piped rosette of lightly sweetened whipped cream and a chocolate curl. Serve at a cool room temperature.

Makes 8 servings.

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Braise chicken with fennel for one-pot feast

Biweekly deliveries of fresh, organic vegetables from a local farm go far toward filling my family’s produce needs.

The highly seasonal nature of community-supported agriculture, however, requires me to use carrots, turnips, potatoes, kale and spinach week in and week out. I can think of worse fates for a cook who prides herself on preparing what’s in season. But my less-frequent grocery store trips do offer the chance to branch out a bit.

Frisee, Belgian endive, avocados and lots of citrus were on my list for this week. In lieu of the greens, the produce section offered the heftiest fennel bulbs I’ve probably ever run across. And the price, $1.59 apiece, couldn’t be beat.

“Thank goodness someone else knows what that is!” a fellow customer exclaimed in the checkout line.

Thinly sliced fennel is one of my favorite foundations for salads, particularly with citrus. This recipe from a previous post is a prime example.

But these fat fennel specimens were just begging to be braised. My other preferred preparation method, braising yields a silky, soft, subtly sweet vegetable that I typically serve as a side dish.

One-pot meals, though, can go a long way toward convincing cooks to try unfamiliar produce like fennel. This recipe from the Los Angeles Times calls for braising fennel with chicken thighs. I might leave the fennel in larger chunks here to highlight its succulence.

Food writer Russ Parsons says the dish is more about technique than an actual recipe. “About as basic as cooking can get,” it can be adapted to other meats and veggies. But the fennel here is the perfect foil for briny olives, earthy mushrooms and zesty lemon.

Tribune News Service photo

Chicken Braised With Fennel, Mushrooms and Olives

1 cup flour

Salt and pepper

3 pounds chicken legs (thighs, drumsticks or a combination)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 bulbs fennel, quartered and sliced 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick, fronds reserved

1/4 cup minced shallots

1 cup white wine

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 pound mushrooms, trimmed and halved

1/2 cup green olives, pitted and chopped

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Lemon juice, if necessary

Place the flour on a plate and stir in 1 teaspoon of the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pat the chicken thoroughly dry and dredge it in flour, shaking off any excess.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. When it’s hot enough that a piece of chicken dipped in oil sizzles, add chicken, skin-side down. Cook until chicken has browned, for 5 to 6 minutes, and then turn and cook on other side, for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and keep it warm.

Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the fennel and cook until it starts to become tender, for about 3 minutes. Add the shallots and cook until fragrant, for about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and reduce by one-third, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the mustard and add the mushrooms and green olives.

Add chicken thighs back to pan skin-side up, resting them on top of fennel. Cover pan, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until chicken is done through, for about 10 minutes.

While chicken is finishing, chop together the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the reserved fennel fronds.

Taste sauce for chicken and correct seasoning, adding lemon juice if necessary to sharpen flavor. Divide fennel and mushrooms among 4 warmed pasta bowls. Place chicken on top and sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds and lemon zest.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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Cupcakes can be good for sweetheart’s heart

More than a decade since “Sex and the City” made cupcakes chic, the frenzy has faded around these cutesy desserts.

The essential character of a good cupcake, however, hasn’t changed, according to local bakers. And the decades-old concept has only improved with innovations spawned from cupcakes’ status as sweet-treat sensation.

Among the cupcake’s attributes is automatic portion control. The temptation to take a hearty helping of a larger dessert doesn’t exist with a cupcake. And polishing off a whole one just doesn’t come with as much guilt, so say bakers interviewed for this week’s story in A la Carte.

And given the right ingredients, a cupcake doesn’t have to be all empty calories and fat. A recipe previously posted to this blog touts the anti-inflammatory properties of bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened cocoa powder and tart cherries. At least one scientific study showed that heart-attack survivors who ate dark chocolate had lower mortality rates than those who went without.

So during American Heart Month, you could do worse for your sweetie than a homemade cupcake. Because recipes accompanying this week’s story pretty much covered chocolate, here’s a cocktail-inspired cupcake developed with heart health in mind by dietetic staff at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Egg whites lighten the recipe, which also forgoes a dairy-based frosting for processed whipped topping. While it’s not my favorite move, I do give the recipe developers credit for including some actual coconut, touted as a superfood in some circles for several years although its saturated fat content still doesn’t sit well with the American Heart Association.

Note that a 20-ounce can of crushed pineapple, well-drained, will yield about 1 1/4 cups of pineapple juice, the amount called for in this recipe.

Piña Colada Cupcakes

1 package (18.25-ounce) trans-fat-free white cake mix

1 1/4 cups pineapple juice or water

3 egg whites

1/4 cup canola oil

2 tablespoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon rum extract

3 teaspoons coconut extract, divided

1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple packed in juice, drained, juice reserved and divided

1 (8-ounce) container fat-free whipped topping

1/4 cup toasted coconut (see note)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 24-cup medium muffin pan with 2 1/2-inch foil liners or spray with floured baking spray; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, pineapple juice, egg whites, canola oil, rum and 2 teaspoons of the coconut extract; beat according to package directions. Fold 1/2 cup drained crushed pineapple into cake batter.

Fill each baking cup 3/4 full with batter and bake in preheated oven for 16 to 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow muffins to cool completely on a wire rack.

In a small bowl, combine the whipped topping, remaining drained, crushed pineapple and 1 teaspoon coconut extract. When ready to serve, top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons whipped topping and sprinkle with some of the toasted coconut.

Makes 24 cupcakes.

NOTE: To toast coconut, spread out shaved or shredded coconut on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place in 350-degree oven for about 6 to 8 minutes. Stir it once it starts to lightly brown. Watch carefully because it burns easily.

Created by Ashlee Carnahan, Henry Ford Hospital dietetic intern for Heart Smart, and tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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