This week we had a special guest in the test kitchen. Just in time for my birthday, I got a surprise visit from my sister, Christine, who flew all the way from Phoenix for my big 3-2! When Matt took me out for dinner last Friday night, my parents were there waiting for us in the restaurant with my sister carefully hidden in the corner of the table.

Even though my family kept this plan secret from me for over six months, there was something inside my head that evening telling me that she might be there. Maybe it was when I received her birthday card a few days earlier with the note, “Hope to see you all soon!”, that I began to wonder. Or maybe I was just hoping. Either way, it was a great surprise and when I found out that she was staying with us until the following Wednesday, I got even more excited. “Oh yeah, you can cook with us on Tuesday!”

So it was only fitting that this week’s recipe be supplied by Christine. That first night, at the birthday dinner, we ordered a dish of hummus and pita to share with the table. The taste was just okay and the color seemed a little gray. Christine offered that we should try her Roasted Red Pepper Hummus recipe. The flavor and color would be much better and so easy to make.

Tuesday afternoon I hopped between three different grocery stores to find one of the key ingredients: sesame tahini sauce. After an exhausted search of the ethic foods aisles, I was hoping that maybe we could do without it. Dad and I were used to “winging it” and I was sure that there would be a way to make up for the missing ingredient. But Christine insisted that it was vital to the mix, so I pressed on.

The Nature’s Way food store finally yielded the score. If you’ve never had to purchase tahini sauce before, immediately find any natural foods store and look in the peanut butter aisle. The sauce has a similar texture and consistency of peanut butter, only it’s made with sesame seeds and is a little runnier. Make sure you stir it really well before adding it in with the other ingredients.

Here’s a picture of the one I found so you know what you’re looking for. It’s also not cheap. It was $6.69 for this little can, but Christine says it lasts for a while in the fridge. No more store bought hummus for us!

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

  • I can (16oz -19oz) of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame tahini
  • 1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoona olive oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoon water

1. Wash and dry red bell pepper. Chop into ½ inch strips.

2. Spread in a single layer on baking sheet or shallow baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat.

3. Place in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes or until soft.

4. In a blender or food processor, blend the chickpeas. Add red bell pepper, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, water, and salt until the ingredients form a creamy, paste-like consistency. Red pepper should be ground up enough so you can see small red bits in the mixture and everything turns light orange in color.

5. Taste and add more seasoning or tahini until it’s to your liking.

6. Serve immediately or best when covered and refrigerated for at least 30 minutes.

The best part about this recipe, aside from the taste, is how fast and easy it is to make. When you realize that the recipe minus the peppers is your basic plain hummus, the possibilities become endless with the flavors you can add. Instead of red pepper, you can use sun-dried tomatoes, spinach or even fresh basil to make a pesto flavored hummus.

For dipping purposes, I bought some Naan bread at the bakery. I sprayed it with a little butter and dusted some garlic powder over the top. While the hummus was chilling, we lightly toasted the Naan on the grill, just long enough to warm it up and get a few grill marks. After it was done, I cut it up into small strips for dipping. The hummus served as an appetizer for the steak dinner we were having for Christine’s last night with us. We made a double batch so unfortunately the Naan didn’t last for as much hummus as we made. The flavor was bold and the texture creamy; not too pasty like some store brands can be.

Matt and I had no problem taking home the leftovers and it came in handy the next day when Bob joined us for the USA v. Mexico soccer game. Combined with some toasted wheat crackers, the hummus was a big hit and made for a great game time snack.


A gorgeous afternoon meant grilling in the backyard on this Test Kitchen Tuesday. This week’s brainstorm came from a corn salsa recipe that Mom had clipped from the grocery store circular. After a few minutes planning, we had our vision and headed to the IGA for some extras.

I’ve had this easy chicken burrito wrap in my mental recipe Rolodex for years. I’ve made it with fresh chicken or pre-cooked short cuts. I’ve grilled the outside of the burrito on my trusty grill pan or zap fried it in the microwave. I’ve used fresh salsa and the ole jar standby. None of these methods are wrong. It might just be what suits your needs at a particular moment in time. But if you can spare the time, using fresh marinated, grilled chicken with homemade salsa and cheese wrapped inside a toasty tortilla is definitely the way to go.

This falls under the “barely needs a recipe” category because you can tweak it so many different ways to suit your taste. The basics are 2 large chicken breasts (about D-cups, as Dad would say), shredded Mexican cheese, 4 large burrito size wraps, and salsa. Place some sliced grilled chicken, a few tablespoons of salsa and a small handful of cheese in a wrap, roll it up and grill until warmed through.

If you really need some steps, do this:

Before making salsa, place all the chicken in a large ziploc bag and add 1/2 bottle of your favorite marinade. We used a Chipotle Lime flavor from Lawry’s. Refrigerate until ready to grill.

Fresh Corn Salsa:
1 1/2 cups of fresh or frozen corn, lightly cooked
1 small green or red bell pepper, diced
1 small tomato, diced
1-2 scallions, diced
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
pinch of dried parsley

1. Combine all salsa ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble wraps.

2. Grill chicken until well cooked through and slice into thin pieces.

3. On a large burrito-size tortilla, place 2-4 tablespoons of the salsa, about 1/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese and top all with about 1 cup of sliced chicken.

4. Wrap burrito up, making sure to tuck in all the sides so nothing sneaks out. Place back on the grill, seam side down. Turn a couple of times until each side of the burrito is lightly browned and has some nice grills marks. You really only need them on there just long enough to melt the cheese inside and make the outside a little crispy.

The Verdict:

Direct quote from Mom, “Excellent.”

Grilling really does make everything better. It’s probably second only to melted cheese. Half the pleasure of eating this wrap is just realizing how easy it is to make. Sometimes it’s the simplest recipes that are the tastiest. (Maybe stress makes food taste differently. Somebody should do a study on that.) This afternoon’s lunch couldn’t have been more relaxing. Mom, Dad and I dined at the picnic table while the breeze gently round across the lawn, perfectly pleased with ourselves.

Here’s my only tip. You don’t have to marinate the chicken. Many times I just season it with a little fajita seasoning and olive oil. If you do choose use a marinade, make sure the flavor doesn’t compete with the flavor of the salsa.

When we first made the corn salsa, the cayenne gave it a little too much kick and we were worried that the combination of the bold chipotle flavor in the marinade was going to be overkill. With a few revisions, we mellowed out the salsa and after the chicken was cooked, the marinade turned out not to be as strong as we thought it would.

In short, my advice would be to taste both the chicken and the salsa before putting both in the wrap. That way, if one is way more overpowering than the other, you might want to consider grilling the wraps with just chicken and cheese inside and leaving the salsa as a topping.

I wish I could come up with a loftier explanation why I decided to choose gnocchi as our next text kitchen. It is in no way a summer type food. It is not light and refreshing or made with healthy ingredients like fruits or vegetables. It is more so, a comfort food. One that should probably be reserved for a cozy fall or winter afternoon. This summer, however, hasn’t been real light and refreshing itself with our many dreary days, so maybe it was as good a time as any. Perhaps the best reason is that I’ve never made homemade pasta before, it was simple and fun. Done and done.

Even more puzzling than why I chose to make gnocchi, was that out of all the traditional potato-based recipes and being a HUGE fan of the potato myself, I chose the one recipe that had absolutely no potato in it at all. (For those non-believers, the potato really is an awesome vegetable. Fried, baked, mashed, tots, hashed; it’s so versatile. And best of all: potato as soft pillows of pasta-like fluff surrounded in your favorite sauce. There. I’ve said my peace.) This Ricotta Gnocchi is made primarily with ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan and flour. The original recipe came from the ever popular allrecipes.com. The steps below have only a few adjustments, the biggest being that we ignored the sauce recipe included and just made a giant pot of Dad’s homemade sauce.

1 (8 ounce) container of part skim ricotta cheese
2 eggs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup all-purpose flour, or as needed

handful of shredded mozzarella

1. Stir together the ricotta cheese, eggs, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and garlic powder in a large bowl until evenly combined. Mix in 1 cup of flour. Add additional flour if needed to form a soft dough.

2. Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces, and roll into 1/2-inch-thick ropes on a floured surface. Cut each rope into 1-inch pieces, and place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Try pressing each piece with the bottom of a fork to give a ridged texture. Place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

3. When your sauce is ready, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Boil the gnocchi until they float to the surface, 1 to 2 minutes, then drain.

4. To assemble the dish, transfer warm gnocchi into a large serving bowl. Ladel some sauce liberally over the top. Stir in the mozzarella cheese.

The dough was very wet and needed more flour to become kneadable, which could have been due to the high amount of humidity in the air on this particular day. Perhaps just another reason why it didn’t quite make sense for me to choose this recipe on a hot and sweaty afternoon.

The taste and texture was quite good. Not quite as melt-in-your-mouth as others I’ve had, but these were also not made with potato, so maybe that’s how it should be. The dough was a little sticky and stuck to the edges of my teeth when I took a bite. I also noticed that for the amount of cheese in the recipe, the flavors didn’t come through as I expected. If I were to try this one again, I would probably dial up some seasonings and definitely make it on a less humid day. This probably would also be a good dough to try our luck with some homemade ravioli.

While I was still proud of myself for making a pasta from scratch, my sense is that the secret to any great pasta, is mastering the art of the dough. Later that day, Dad emailed that they had whole wheat flour in the cabinet and that we could have tried the recipe using that instead for a healthier option. There will be other afternoons. Let’s save it for later on this winter.

P.S. Since Dad was overseeing the production of his excellent sauce, I was left to make the dough and roll little gnocchis on my own. With my hands completely covered in dough, there would be no way for me to prevent Dad from snagging up the camera and taking some video of me for a change. I owe him this one of, I’m sure, many to come. Further witness the evidence of that humid day in my crazy frizzy hair.

(Sniff….Sniff) This week, since I had an on-site freelance assignment, the test kitchen pressed on without me. Dad and I usually take turns each week choosing the recipes and this week was his turn. So on Sunday, when the four of us were out for lunch and a movie, I informed him that he now an extra week to come up with his idea. In an attempt to sneak past me, he reasoned that since we were skipping his week, next week was really my turn again.

Nice try, daddio.

So when I joked that he should cook without me, take pictures and do a write-up for the blog on his own, I didn’t really expect him to call me on it. But there it was, in my inbox by 11:35 this morning; a Double Chocolate Cookie article, complete with recipe and pictures.

Jealous, that they were baking while I was working, I replied to his email,”Sniff…Snifff…You soldiered on without me. Are there any left for me to ‘test’?” Mom wanted to know if the sniffs in my email was tears or just me trying to smell the cookies all the way from work. Maybe a little bit of both.


Since Kathy was busy this week, Mom decided to take over the test kitchen. Her recipe was for double chocolate cookies. She decided to cut down the amount of chocolate chips in half. They are really good. The recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Double Chocolate Cookies

About 6 oz. of semi-sweet
chocolate chips divided into two portions

1 -1/2 cups sugar
1 cup butter softened
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
2 cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

1) Heat oven to 375° (350 degrees with the pans we use)

2) Melt 1/2 the chocolate chips in the microwave for 30 seconds or until melted. Stir and set aside to cool.
3) Beat sugar, butter, and vanilla on medium speed until creamy. Beat in eggs until light and fluffy. Mix in cooled melted chocolate.
4) Mix in flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt on low speed until well blended. Stir in remaining chocolate chips. Using the cookie scooper, place batter on two un-greased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. (If you don’t have a cookie scooper, shape dough into 1-1/4 inch balls.)

5) Bake 9-11 minutes or until set and just beginning to crack. (9 minutes worked good here for Mom). Cool on cookie sheet for 2 minutes and then transfer to wire rack to cool.

Of course I tried them before they got cool. You’ve just got to check these things out. The smell was drifting all through the house. Mom says I owe her one for getting me off the hook this week. (Like I was ever going to get off the hook.)
– Dad, From the Test Kitchen

Inspired by the shortbread crust in last week’s fruit tart and still having ice cream on the brain, I got the idea to make ice cream sandwiches. By rolling out the dough and cutting circular cookie shapes, I hoped to create cookies that would be firm enough to hold the weight of the ice cream.

We used the same steps and ingredients for the crust from the White Chocolate Fruit Tart, but doubled the recipe to get more cookies. Using a circular cookie cutter that was about 3.75″ in diameter yielded about 14 cookies to make 7 total sandwiches.

Never forgetting the photo op, we used a couple of quick tricks to ensure a pretty cookie. Dad dug out an antique metal tin that was filled with Grandpa’s cookie cutters. The one we chose to use had a scalloped edge around the outside. Once we cut the cookie dough out, I used a small juice glass, with a diameter about a half inch less than the cutter and lightly pressed it into the dough to make an inner border. For the big finish, Dad pulled out a steak brand in the shape of an “H” that a friend had given him as a gift and we stamped the center of each cookie.

Ingredients & Steps:

  • 1 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 gallon of half fat, Neapolitan Ice Cream
    (Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry in the same box.)

(Variation to consider: Swap out the confectioner’s sugar for granulated Splenda)

1. In a small mixing bowl, cream butter and confectioners’ sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add flour; mix well.

2. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Roll to about 1/8″ thick. Cut dough with cookie cutters.

4. Combine scraps of dough and re-roll to make more cookies. Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

5. Bake at 300° between 28-35 minutes. Transfer to cooling racks and then refrigerate between 45-60 minutes or until firm.

6. When cookies are ready, squeeze the entire gallon of ice cream onto a cutting board. Cut half inch thick slices of ice cream, using the circular cookie cutter to create a round chunk to go in between two cookies.

7. Immediately wrap with plastic wrap or wax paper and place back in the freezer.

The Verdict:
This week’s experiment was a clear winner of the Pretty Award. The cookies were good, but could have been a little thinner. There’s definitely a magic formula to finding just the right cookies for an ice cream sandwich. Either the cookie is too stiff and snaps in half when you bite into it shooting the ice cream out the other side or the cookie is too soft and you’re left with doughy finger prints. (I hate that!)

Unfortunately in this case, the cookie got really hard in the freezer and the ice cream didn’t get hard enough. (This might have been because I used the Churn Style ice cream which tends to be a little more creamy.) I left four sandwiches at Mom and Dad’s house, who were having the Cohen’s over for dinner. I gave two to my friend, Beth, to share with her husband, Joe and Matt and I shared the last one. Matt liked the cookie but, we had to ultimately take the sandwich apart and just eat it open-faced with the ice cream spread on top. I liked using a shortbread style cookie for the sandwich as opposed to the traditional chocolate cookie. We’ll just have to work on tweaking the consistency of the dough next time.

It’s a test kitchen Fourth of July, Charlie Brown!

(Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

What fun is trying out new recipes if you can’t use your close friends and family as guinea pigs?! With an adventurous spirit and a couple of inspiring e-mails from my sister, Christine, Dad happily announced that we were having ribs for the Fourth. In my whole life, I don’t think we’ve ever strayed from the traditional holiday standards of hamburgers and hot dogs. Maybe an occasional kielbasa or sausage, but never have we ever tried ribs.

Dad got a recipe from their neighbor, Larry, for a Memphis style dry rub. He seasoned and prepped them the night before the picnic and then, almost in the tradition of Thanksgiving, he got up at 6AM the next morning to put them into the oven. There they slowly baked at 250° for over 8 hours with Dad rotating them every half hour. After all the guests had arrived, he put the ribs on the grill, brushing them with the mop sauce from Larry’s recipe (see below). The smell was incredible! All the seasonings working together to create that classic backyard barbecue aroma.

After a short stay on the grill, we offloaded them to a large serving pan and placed them back in the kitchen to complete the buffet line. Rounding out this culinary rodeo were some great barbecue sides dishes like Mom’s Mac Salad, Aunt Mary’s Watermelon Fruit Basket, Mom V’s Antipasto Squares, Texas Caviar Bean Dip, Cole Slaw and Cucumber Salad.

Mom’s famous Mac Salad and Dad’s Cole Slaw

Joining in with the test kitchen Fourth of July spirit, Matt and I tried a new recipe for corn bread as our contribution to the party. Corn bread always goes great with any barbecue and this one I got from AllRecipes.com seemed to over pretty well. It had all the great elements you would ask for in a warm hunk of cornbread; moist but not mushy, buttery but not greasy. I made two 8 x 8 pans for our small party of twelve or so and all the servings went pretty quick. I wish there was some more leftover, because it would have made a great breakfast treat. I think the next appearance for this recipe will be to accompany a thick and spicy beef chili later on this summer.

Lunch was great, particularly the ribs, which were tender on the inside with a well-seasoned bark on the outside. I’m not a big rib eater, because I don’t want sauce or spices stuck in my fingernails all day. (I can be girlie once in a while.) But this meat came off the bone very easily and I was really impressed how the spices soaked into the meat.

While in the oven, the ribs were stacked four tall in the baking pan. Every half hour, Dad had to take the slab that was on the bottom of the pan and move it to the top. Since the one at the bottom was the hottest, it created the most juices, so when it was moved to the top, all the juices would run down the stack to the drier racks below. This, undoubtedly, was the key to making sure the flavors spread evenly throughout the meat.

The Crazy-Long List of Seasonings

Dry rub:
3 TBSP sweet paprika
3 TBSP chili powder
1 TBSP salt
2 Tsp ground pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp cayenne pepper
MOP Sauce:
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 TBSP salt
2 TBSP dry rub from above
4 racks baby back pork ribs (6 – 8 pounds)
Salt & Ground black pepper

No picnic or party is complete without desserts, especially if my Mom has anything to say about it. When all were rested from lunch, she laid out the dessert table. She personally created Peach Pie, Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookies, Mocha Fudge Brownies and the ever popular (with Matt) Texas Sheet Cake. Larry’s wife, Sally, also came bearing her famous Chocolate Chip Cookies with nuts and toffee chips. Mom’s review, “Wait til you try Sally’s cookies! They’re to live for!”

Dinner on Sunday night: BBQ Rib Meat over Salad

That night, Matt and I headed home thoroughly stuffed and bearing a ton leftovers. Saturday night was definitely as dinner-less night, but Sunday saw the need for some vegetables in our life. I warmed a few of the ribs in the oven at 350° for about 30 minutes, de-boned all the meat and sprinkled it over a well appointed green salad. The meat was even more tender and flavorful then the day before and some light Italian dressing drizzled over the top helped to re-activate the spices.

A great holiday was had by all, left with memories of ribs, extra helpings of mac salad and some very full bellies. But most importantly, it was best spent with family, friends and good food; just the way it should be.

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