bruschetta with drunken figs and ricotta

Bruschetta is a wonderful appetizer for a gathering. You assemble all of the toppings but leave your guests to build their own snacks. This means less work for you, as well as letting your guests choose which toppings and how much of each they want.

For this bruschetta recipe, there are a few ingredient notes. For the dried figs, you can use whatever variety you prefer. Both mission and calimyrna work well. Next, the wine needs to be on the dry side so that you don’t have an appetizer that tastes more like a dessert. Finally, store-bought ricotta is 100 percent fine, but if you’re seeking total indulgence, try homemade. (I have a recipe on the Think Tasty website.)

The most important part of this recipe is the figs. Everything else can be tweaked slightly. Have walnuts on hand? Go ahead and replace the pecans. Craving sourdough? Cut it into smaller slices and forget the baguette! Need to make the figs in advance? That’s totally fine. Add a little extra liquid to the storage container, and they’ll be delightfully moist when it’s time to serve them.

Now, give this recipe a try and see how well dried figs work in an appetizer!

Bruschetta with drunken figs and ricotta
Makes 20

1/2 cup dried figs
1 cup dry red wine
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 sprig rosemary
1/3 cup pecans
1 cup ricotta
20 baguette slices

Remove stems from figs, and cut into quarters.
Combine wine, sugar and rosemary in a small saucepan over high heat.
Once boiling, reduce heat to low, and add quartered figs.
Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While figs simmer, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Chop pecans roughly, and place on a baking sheet.
Bake for 6 to 10 minutes, giving the pan a shake after 4 minutes.
Transfer pecans to a small serving bowl.
Place baguette slices in the oven, and toast for 5 minutes or until golden brown.
When figs are done simmering, remove rosemary.
Transfer all of the figs and some of the liquid to a serving bowl.
To assemble: top 1 baguette slice with a spoonful of ricotta, a few figs and a sprinkle of pecans.

Featured photo: Bruschetta with drunken figs and ricotta. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Chicken Parm meatballs

Sometimes you want chicken Parmesan — a hearty, filling meal that makes you think a nap is a good idea. Other times you want all the flavors of that meal but want to feel a little less weighted. This recipe is here to do just that.

These chicken parm meatballs deliver all of the cheesy, herby flavors of their namesake but are baked, not fried. Even better, as they are meatballs, they could be served on their own as an appetizer, or they could be made into an entrée, either atop a bowl of pasta or nestled in a sub roll.

This recipe is pretty straightforward in its ingredients and directions. For the ground chicken I used a blend of dark and white meat. If you want to make it even healthier, ground chicken breast would work well. For the bread crumbs, panko is essential. It provides more texture than a typical bread crumb would. For the mixing, I highly recommend using your hands. That will allow better distribution of herbs and cheese throughout the mix. Using a spoon most likely won’t provide the same effect.

Say goodbye (or see you later, anyway) to fried chicken parm, and hello to chicken parm meatballs.

Chicken Parm meatballs
Makes 20

1 pound ground chicken
1/2 cup panko
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 large egg
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 cups marinara
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray or a thin layer of olive oil.
In a large mixing bowl, combine ground chicken, panko, Parmesan, egg, garlic, salt, oregano, basil, and black pepper.
Mix well. (I prefer to use my hands to make sure it is thoroughly combined.)
Form mixture into balls the size of walnuts.
Place on the prepared baking sheet, an inch or two apart.
Bake for 12 minutes.
Cover the bottom of a medium-sized casserole dish with marinara.
Add meatballs and top with additional marinara.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven, and sprinkle with mozzarella.
Bake for 15 additional minutes or until the mozzarella is fully melted.

Featured Photo: Chicken Parm meatballs. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Mocha latte cookies

It’s less than a week to Valentine’s Day! What better way to show someone you care than by delivering (or mailing) a batch of homemade cookies? Even better, these cookies are filled with chocolate, which so many people crave.

The ingredients in this cookie are pretty straightforward. There are just two key notes. First, you must use instant coffee for these cookies, unless you want a cookie that is bitter and hard to chew. Second, although the cookies are topped with only a sprinkle of coffee sugar, it’s definitely an important part of the recipe. It elevates the coffee flavor in every bite.

Head to the store and get all the ingredients you need. This may be the most delicious, and thoughtful, Valentine gift you could give.

Mocha latte cookies
Makes 20

Cookie dough
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ Tablespoons instant coffee granules
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
Coffee sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon instant coffee granules

Make the coffee sugar
Combine ¼ cup granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon coffee in a food processor.
Pulse until the coffee granules are the size of grains of sand.
Set aside.
Make the cookie dough
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine butter and both sugars in a bowl.
Beat on a medium-low speed, using either the paddle on a stand mixer or a hand mixer for 4 minutes.
Add egg, and beat again, scraping sides to combine.
Dissolve 1½ tablespoons of coffee granules in vanilla extract in a small bowl.
Add to dough, and mix until combined
Add flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, stirring until combined.
Add chocolate chips, mixing until distributed.
Line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper, then scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the prepared tray.
Repeat, leaving a couple inches between cookies.
Flatten the cookies slightly using the back of a spoon or your fingertips.
Sprinkle a small amount of coffee sugar on each cookie.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.
Allow to cool for 4 minutes, then transfer to a baking rack to cool completely.

Featured Photo: Mocha latte cookies. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Vegetable vegetarian soup

I love aligning my cooking with the weather. When it’s January and the days are cold, I enjoy a hot meal at the end of the day. Even better than a hot meal is one that has been simmering all day long. After a day of work, it is nice to know that a warm dish awaits me.

Except for peeling the carrots and dicing the fresh veggies, this is pretty much a measure-and-combine recipe. Everything can be prepped and assembled in 15 minutes or less, which probably means it can be completed before your workday begins. Set your slow cooker on low, and you’ll return to a home that smells amazing!

The ingredients for this recipe are pretty simple, but I do have a few notes. I used unsalted broth and tomatoes, so before serving I tasted and added a tiny pinch of salt. If you use regular broth and tomatoes, the soup most likely won’t need salt. As for all of the veggies, you are welcome to add and delete based on your preferences. Broccoli, spinach and potato would make fine additions.

This recipe utilizes a slow cooker for the simmering. However, it can be cooked on the stove, and in much less than 4 hours. Once the fresh veggies have been added, bring the soup to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes. Add the frozen veggies, cook for 5 minutes, and serve.

No matter how you cook it, this soup is a healthy way to warm and fuel up at the end of the day.

Vegetable vegetarian Soup
Serves 6

4 cups vegetable broth
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced green beans
1 Tablespoon dried basil
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
½ Tablespoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup frozen peas

Combine broth and tomatoes in a 5-quart slow cooker.
Add carrots, celery, green beans and seasoning.
Stir well, and cover.
Cook on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours.
Add frozen corn and peas.
Heat for 15 minutes, and serve.

Featured Photo: Vegetable vegetarian soup. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Cinnamon marbled quick bread

What better way to spend a chilly weekend morning than making homemade bread? Since this is a quick bread recipe, you won’t have to wait through cycles of rising, punching down and more rising. Just mix, bake, and cool for a few minutes.

This bread recipe more than likely includes ingredients you already have on hand, if you bake, even on an infrequent basis. Even though the recipe specifies whole milk, which adds a little bit to the texture of the bread, you definitely could replace it with skim milk, oatmilk, almond milk or whatever you have on hand.

The hardest part of this recipe most likely is the waiting. You need to wait 10 minutes before removing it from the pan. Then you probably should give it another 10 to 15 minutes to cool before slicing. Sure, you could slice it right away, but the loaf won’t slice nicely. Let it cool just a bit more, then top those warm slices with some butter, and you have a delicious start to the day.

Cinnamon marbled quick bread
Makes 12 slices

1 cup whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2½ teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Grease the bottom and sides of a 9”×5” loaf pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together milk, egg, oil and vanilla.
Add 1 cup sugar and stir to combine.
Add flour, baking soda, and salt, stirring just until moistened.
In a small bowl, combine remaining ⅓ cup sugar and cinnamon.
Pour half of the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
Sprinkle half of the sugar-cinnamon mixture on the batter.
Repeat layers with remaining batter and cinnamon-sugar.
Swirl a knife through the batter to marble.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean.*
Cool for 10 minutes, and transfer to a cooling rack.
Cool slightly before slicing.
*If the edges are darkening but the middle is not cooked, cover with foil until baking is done.

Featured Photo: Cinnamon marbled quick bread. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Cheesy pull-apart bread

This bread is a deliciously indulgent way to end 2022. It’s a fairly simple recipe but does require a little bit of attention to detail.

The most important ingredient in this recipe is the bread. Although it’s going to be coated in butter and stuffed with cheese, the bread is the base for all that goodness. I highly recommend using sourdough for its denser dough and nice flavor. However, if you can’t find sourdough, a plain, crusty boule will work. Also, salted butter is preferred to give a little extra seasoning to the filling. The remaining ingredients are self-explanatory.

When assembling, it is important to be patient as you make this. You need to make slices into the boule, but you do not want to go through the bottom. The intact base will hold all of the buttery, cheesy goodness in place. When it’s time to pour the butter and add the cheese, go slowly. The more you can get inside the crevices you have created, the more buttery gooeyness you’ll have when it’s eating time. Once it’s done, I have one more piece of advice. Eat it as soon as possible!

Cheesy pull-apart bread
Serves 4-8

1 boule, preferably sourdough
½ cup (1 stick) salted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, diced
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Make cuts in the loaf of bread in ½-inch-wide rows and columns, stopping ¼ inch above bottom of the loaf. (You should have a cross-hatch pattern when done.)
Place butter in a bowl and microwave for 1 minute or until melted, stirring every 15 seconds.
Add garlic and scallions to butter. Stir well.
Place two long pieces of aluminum foil on top of each other, laying them perpendicular to each other, so that an X is created. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
Place the bread in the center of the X.
Pour butter mixture over bread, attempting to get it into all of the cut areas.
Wrap foil around bread, covering it completely, and place in the oven to bake for 10 minutes.
Remove bread from the oven and add the cheeses, pushing it down into all of the slices. (Be patient. It takes time to get all of that cheese into place!)
Rewrap foil around the sides, leaving top open.
Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Unwrap and enjoy!

Featured Photo: Cheesy pull-apart bread. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Apple cranberry compote

I am back to thinking about snacks again this week. Why not? December is basically a month-long eating festival.

In the world of snacking, although charcuterie boards are ever so popular, sometimes it is nice to offer just one type of cheese and cracker. However, you can elevate that pairing by adding some toppings. You can keep it simple with some Dijon mustard or honey to drizzle on the cheese and crackers, or you can make it just a bit fancier with this apple cranberry compote.

And if you have leftover compote, a night at home and time to cook a meal, you can serve the compote with roast chicken or pork. Fancier than plain applesauce, it adds a nicely sweet component to your protein.

Let’s talk about the ingredients. For the apple, you want a firmer variety. I prefer a Granny Smith or Fuji; you can choose any apple that would work well for baking. As you’ll see in the recipe, I add a tablespoon of brandy. It’s optional, but it does add a tiny bit of flavor as well as a hint of warmth. The rest of the ingredients are fairly straight forward. If you’re looking for a bit more pop to this recipe, feel free to finish it with the tiniest pinch of salt. It will make the sweetness of the compote shine even more.

Apple cranberry compote
Serves 4

4 apples, peeled and cored
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon brandy, optional
3/8 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup dried cranberries

Dice apples into small, bite-sized pieces.
Combine apples, lemon juice, brandy, sugar and cinnamon in a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat.
Bring to a boil, then turn to low and cover.
Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add dried cranberries, cover, and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Remove from heat, uncover, and allow to cool slightly.
Serve or transfer to a storage container and refrigerate.

Featured Photo: Apple cranberry compote. Courtesy photo.

Slightly sweet butternut squash soup

I know we are deep into the season of snacking, and yet I am sharing a soup recipe. There is some reasoning behind this. If you have a free evening or weekend afternoon at home, you might be craving a healthier dish that is also easy to make. This recipe has the bonus of being best when served piping hot, which is perfect for the chill of December.

This homemade soup is about as simple as a homemade soup can be. You can make the cooking portion as minimal as you want. Personally, if I have free time, I like to roast my own squash, as I think it delivers more flavor. However, in a pinch, I also have been known to use frozen squash to save on time. The broth definitely can be store-bought. The flavors of the squash and cinnamon will be most prevalent, so creating a homemade vegetable broth isn’t necessary. The finishing piece of this recipe is dried cranberries. They add a nice pop of sweetness and texture to an otherwise silky soup.

Now, the question that remains is what to serve with this soup. Since the goal of the dish is simplicity, you could go with a loaf of bread. You also could make some grilled cheese sandwiches, if you are feeling energetic. If you want to feel like a kid again, a sleeve of saltines or other crackers would be just fine as well.

Here’s hoping you have some quiet time at home to enjoy this soup in the coming weeks.

Slightly sweet butternut squash soup
Serves 4

4 cups vegetable broth
3 cups cooked butternut squash
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1/3 cup dried cranberries
salt and pepper, if desired

Put broth and squash in a blender.
Purée until smooth.
Transfer mixture to a small saucepan, and place over low heat.
Add cinnamon, brown sugar and cranberries. Stir well.
Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Featured Photo: Slightly sweet butternut squash soup. Photo by Michele Pedula Kuegler.

Raspberry jalapeño spread

Another weekend, another social gathering, right? If it is an at-home occasion, you may need to bring an appetizer to share. Since we are all busy hustling and bustling, why not bring a homemade snack that is simple yet addictively delicious?

This recipe is a play on the ’80s classic of cream cheese topped with jam. However, it is a recipe with much more depth but not much more effort. First, we are starting with goat cheese. While cream cheese is nice and creamy, its flavor is one note. Goat cheese offers a nice bit of tanginess for the base. Then we get to control the flavor of the spread topping the goat cheese. Raspberries are the star, but there are other elements. Sugar is added to brighten the fruit. Feel free to add half the amount and check for sweetness levels. Finally, there is minced jalapeño. Nothing like a little heat to make a snack more memorable. Of course, you also can adjust the amount of heat. Like minimal heat? Use only half the jalapeño. Like a lot of heat? Include the ribs and seeds.

Now, the only decision you have to make is the type of crackers to serve with this spread. I personally like a whole-wheat cracker for the crunch and flavor, but the options are limitless.

Make the raspberry jalapeño spread early in the day and let it chill all day long. When it’s party time, simply pour it over your goat cheese, grab your crackers, and you’re ready to go!

Raspberry jalapeño spread
Serves 4-6

2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed
8 ounces goat cheese

Combine raspberries and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Stir occasionally, using some force to smash the raspberries.
Dice jalapeño finely.
When sugar is dissolved, add jalapeno.
After spread begins to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the spread thickens.
Remove from heat; refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours.
Place goat cheese on a small serving plate; top with raspberry spread.
Serve with crackers.

Featured Photo: Raspberry jalapeño spread. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

Rosemary Mixed Nuts

Over the next month, odds are likely that you will be hosting or attending a gathering where you are requested to bring an appetizer to share. There are bound to be an assortment of dips and charcuterie trays. Why not make something simple, different and utterly memorable? Let me introduce you to this mixed nut recipe.

You may be wondering why you can’t just buy a container of mixed nuts at the grocery store and bring that to the party. The answer is simple: The flavors in these mixed nuts are not going to be found on a grocery store shelf. The combination of sweet, salty and herbaceous delivers a snack that is truly unique. It will work as a part of an appetizer menu, as well as a dessert menu.

Let’s talk about the ingredients. The ratio of walnuts to pecans is up to you. In fact, if you want to use only one type of nut, that is fine. The butter should be unsalted. If you only have salted butter, you should use only 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Fresh rosemary is preferred, as dried rosemary has a pine needle sort of texture.

I have made this recipe for many a gathering, and it is always popular. Thankfully, you can easily double or triple the recipe to feed a big, hungry crowd. Let the season of eating continue!

Rosemary Mixed Nuts
Serves 4-6

2¼ cups walnuts and pecans
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
2½ Tablespoons brown sugar, divided
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
1 Tablespoon water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread walnuts and pecans on a rimmed baking sheet; bake for 10 minutes.
Right before the nuts are done, melt the butter in a small bowl (15 to 30 seconds in a microwave).
Add 1 tablespoon brown sugar to melted butter, and stir well.
Remove nuts from the oven, and push into a pile using a spatula.
Pour melted butter mixture over nuts, and toss to combine.
Spread nuts into a single layer; sprinkle with salt and rosemary.
Bake for 10 minutes.
Combine water and remaining brown sugar.
Remove nuts from the oven, and drizzle with sugar syrup.
Bake for 5 more minutes.
Serve warm, or cool and transfer to a storage container.

Featured Photo: Rosemary Mixed Nuts. Photo by Michele Pesula Kuegler.

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