Saturday, November 21, 2009

My breakfast at Cracker Barrel and a poll

In case you haven't noticed my new feature yet, off to the right hand side of my blog is a little "choose my next recipe" poll. For my first topic, I chose a selection of menu items from Cracker Barrel restaurant, since I enjoy their food so much. I ate there again this morning for breakfast and snapped a few quick and somewhat blurry shots of three of the items in the poll. I meant to get a picture of the cake too, but I forgot to order a piece to take home.

The apples are a regular side dish staple at the restaurant. Generously sized wedges of soft, tender Golden Delicious apples, sauteed in a brown sugary buttery glaze. I get them nearly every time I have breakfast there. They are so popular that they even started selling them in jars to take home. I do have a nice version of something very similar that I have served alongside steak and ham that is really yummy.

The cranberry orange pecan muffins are a special item they have on their holiday menu right now. It is a luscious orange juice-drenched fluffy muffin, full of cranberries, and encrusted with oats, chopped pecans and brown sugar. I kind of hope they let this one stick around as a regular part of the menu.

The pecan pancakes are really scrumptious. Chock full of nuts and light and airy... with a crispness around the edges and an almost lacy appearance. I know they use buttermilk pancakes as their base, but I am not totally certain about how they make them so lacy. I have a few ideas that I could test out though.

The missing cola cake is a nice big square of moist warm dark chocolate cake with a thin layer of gooey fudge icing on top, which they serve with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side. They bring this menu item out only during their anniversary or perhaps during other special occasions.

I might end up making them all at some point, but right now, your votes will determine which I try to tackle first. Hope you enjoy my new feature and I look forward to seeing which recipe wins :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Copycat Recipe: Attempting Cracker Barrel's Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad

This past fall, Cracker Barrel restaurant introduced a limited time menu called Applefest. All of the dishes featured apples in some form, and all of them looked really good. I was able to sample a few of the dishes from this special menu, since I tend to eat at Cracker Barrel a couple of times a month. One of the items I enjoyed most was their Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad, which was a marinated grilled chicken breast served atop a bed of lettuce, with chunks of gorgeous red crisp Gala apples, crisp bacon, candied pecans, a generous sprinkling of blue cheese crumbles, and served with a sweet and tangy apple cider vinaigrette on the side. It was absolutely delicious and a refreshing dinner. It also looked beautiful when they presented it, with the little chunks of apples all around the rim of the plate.

What you see pictured above is my attempt to recreate the recipe at home. The salad was very easy to get right, since the basic elements were pretty standard. I did try to make an apple cider vinaigrette clone, but my first attempt was not very successful. I tried mixing up some canola oil, apple cider, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper, and a bit of cinnamon. This sounded like a good plan to me, but unfortunately I got my proportions a bit off as I was paying more attention to the grumbling in my tummy than I was to careful dressing concoctions. The dressing tasted good, but was not quite what I had tasted at the restaurant. Hopefully I will be able to nail the recipe and update this in the future. However, in the meantime, the raspberry walnut salad dressing tasted really nice with this salad. I think any of the fruitier, sweeter salad dressings would go equally well.

I also added a new feature on my blog... off to the top right side there is now a weekly poll. This week it is about Cracker Barrel recipes, but the topics will change as the mood strikes me. I will try to prepare the selection with the highest votes.

Copycat Cracker Barrel Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad
(serves 2)

2 skinless boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup raspberry walnut salad dressing (roughly, I didn't measure)
1 bag mixed salad greens (iceberg, radish, carrot, romaine)
2 firm Gala apples (or another crisp sweet-tart red eating apple), cut into chunks
lemon juice, to keep apples from turning brown
4 strips bacon, cooked crisp, drained
2 tbsp blue cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp Maple Glazed pecans, chopped (or any glazed/candied pecan)
apple cider vinaigrette or raspberry walnut salad dressing, to taste

Place about 1/2 cup or so of salad dressing into a ziptop type plastic bag along with the chicken, seal, and smoosh the sealed bag to coat chicken pieces evenly. Marinate in the fridge overnight. Grill until cooked all the way through on an indoor grill, thin slice and set aside, keeping warm.

Divide salad greens between two plates. Set the apple chunks in a ring all around the outer edges of each plate, red skin side facing outward. Sprinkle nuts over the salad. Place the chicken slices in the center, then sprinkle blue cheese crumbles over the top (I had this backwards in the photo). Break each piece of crispy bacon in half or crumble it up if you prefer, and place over the top of the salad. Serve with apple cider vinaigrette or another fruity, sweet salad dressing of your choice on the side.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moist & Tender Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread

Yes, I know, I have already blogged about zucchini bread previously. I'm sorry to be a bit repetitive here, but zucchini bread is, after all, one of my all time favorites and I make a lot of it. It isn't even because it is "healthy" or that I am trying to pass off vegetables to my kid through baked goods (although those are quite pleasant side perks). I simply love the taste, the scent, the glorious smell of zucchini bread baking. It is delicious, moist, wonderful. If you have avoided eating it because you fear veggies in your baked goods, time to dig into your courage box and give some a try.

Last time I shared with you a recipe that came from one of my good friends. You can find that scrumptious and very different version here. This is yet another recipe I begged off of a former neighbor shortly after devouring several slices that she happily handed out to everyone who happened to be standing outside in the courtyard one fall day. She didn't say one peep about what was in it, or as it turns out... what was not in it. She just smiled and passed her plates around. Men, women, children, picky teens, all took a slice and came back for more. Not one single word about it being a whole wheat bread. And no one at all could have dreamed that this bread contains not one drop of butter, oil, margarine or shortening.

I had always thought of "diet" baking to be the sort of thing you suffered through if you had to cut something out for a sick relative or a person trying to lose a few inches. Diet baked goods usually taste rubbery or gummy or flat or well....just plain awful. I avoid them. I would rather just eat less of the real thing. This recipe doesn't taste remotely healthy or "dietized." It tastes like there is a heap of butter or something in there to make it taste so good. That would be the zucchini folks. Try it, it is really quite amazing.

Carol's Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread (you can see my printable version here)
(makes 1 round 9" cake layer sized loaf)

dry ingredients:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves

wet ingredients:
6 egg whites
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup buttermilk (or use milk soured with some lemon juice)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh shredded zucchini, unpeeled, about 1 medium (measured by volume not weight)

Spray a 9" round baking pan with nonstick spray and preheat your oven to 350F. Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of this mixture.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites just until foamy, but still liquidy. To the beaten egg whites, gently stir in the buttermilk, applesauce, vanilla, using a wooden spoon not a mixer. Stir in the zucchini. Pour this wet mixture into the well you made int he dry ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir together the wet and dry ingredients into a wet batter, just until there are no more dry patches.

Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan and bake in the center of your preheated oven for about 40-50 minutes, or until a tothpick tests clean. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes in the pan before attempting to remove to a wire rack to cool fully.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My attempt at the California Salad from The Melting Pot

One night fairly recently, my daughter and I stopped in at The Melting Pot, a restaurant that serves nothing but fondue in various forms. I knew nothing at all about the place, only that the idea of fondue for dinner sounded fun and delicious. I also had some vague recollection of some tv chef like Rachel Ray stopping at a similar place (for all I know it may very well have been another branch of the same chain) and chatting it up with a family who was having a blast dipping their meal. A hasty glance at the menu reassured me that if we shared our meal, it was going to be somewhat affordable, so we took the plunge and gave it a try.

I have to say the prices are a bit steep. Ok, perhaps more than just a bit. Out of touch with reality steep, so much so that there was no question we would not be ordering a fondue that included any form of meat. Just the cheese fondue starter alone was $15 and that was only cheese and some veggie dippers! Our waiter was very nice and said that many people share the orders and recommended we start small. We could always order more things if we found our tummies still grumbling. We ordered their famous Swiss fondue, which was a mix of Swiss cheese, flavored with some garlic, wine, and Kirschwasser. Then the waiter proceeded to make the fondue right at the table (each table is equipped with a hot plate). Me being me, I watched carefully and took notes on how this was made, so that I could make my own version at home. You will have to wait for that recipe, but it is definitely on my menu - it seemed very easy to prepare and I am certain I can make it for less money at home.

Since a meal of melted cheese didn't sound terribly filling, and it was not, we also ordered two of their salads. Unlike most restaurants that only have a small selection of side salad choices, The Melting Pot had quite a few different and tasty sounding options. My daughter stuck to the familiar, a Caesar Salad, while I chose the California Salad, which was described as a mixture of greens with walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette. It was served with a shaker of their own brand of Garlic & Wine seasoning that you can sprinkle over the top if you like. It was really good and I was happy to discover that they sell their seasoning at the restaurant.

With the taste of the salad fresh on my mind, I wrote down what I could remember about it and on my next trip to the grocery store, bought the ingredients. I originally planned to make my own dressing, but the cost of the ingredients I had been planning to use were a bit steep, so I decided instead to buy a bottle of Paul Newman's Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette, which sounded exactly like what I had been served at the restaurant anyway. The rest of the ingredients were very basic, fresh ripe plum tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese, a mixture of salad greens, and chopped walnuts.

Melting Pot's California Side Salad
(serves 1)

1-2 handfuls of mixed salad greens (red oak lettuce, romaine, Bibb, endive, etc), torn
1-2 plum tomatoes, diced into cubes or sliced
1 Tbsp chopped black walnuts
1-2 Tbsp Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (I went a bit too heavy on mine)
1-2 tsp red onion, finely chopped (I am not sure if they actually included this, but I thought it added a nice burst of color and flavor), optional
2 tsp Paul Newman's raspberry walnut vinaigrette, to taste
1/4 tsp Melting Pot's Garlic & Wine Seasoning, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, optional

Place tossed salad greens on a serving plate, and then sprinkle on the tomatoes, cheese, and nuts. Drizzle with a bit of salad dressing to taste, and a sprinkle of salad seasoning and some freshly ground black pepper, if desired.