Saturday, March 15, 2014

My new favorite snack!

So simple! And yummy! Sweet and spicy, with the crunch of a fresh raw apple - cut your apples into 12 slices, skin on or off - your preference;  using an adjustable grinder to spice the apples to taste (I like a thicker grind as you can see from the pictures) grind rock sugar and chopped cinnamon stick onto your apple slices; and let sit for a few minutes to let the sugar and cinnamon do their thing.

Sliced apples sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon
let the mixture sit for a few minutes to let the
sugar and cinnamon do their thing...and then enjoy!

Want to change it up even more? Put cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, white or pink peppercorns into your grinder with the sugar, want to leave the sugar out - no problem, use pears to add a little different touch too.

Use an adjustable grinder filled with rock sugar and chopped cinnamon sticks
to spice up your daily dose of apples
I have found this to be a great appetizer to put out next to a tray of cheese, mix up the apples and include a few hard green apples, or a few heirloom options and your guests will be really happy. This is so super easy...what simple great ideas do you have to share? I'd love to hear about your favorite super simple yummy idea.  From my table to yours...enjoy...Mama Caruso

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Host a Throwdown Today

Today’s Throwdown - Bring something you have always wanted to make and haven’t dared

The winter weather here in Minnesota has certainly made national news this year and instead of getting overwhelmed with the weather – Mama Caruso invited foodie friends to warm it up and have some fun. There’s nothing better to warm a spirit than friends, food and fun. Today’s post features a Throwdown!

The Throwdown Theme – Bring something you have always wanted to make and haven’t dared

These were the ingredients for my dish - something I have always
 wanted to make but haven't dared - what did I make?
Planning for this event began several weeks in advance so that the challengers could have enough time to choose their dish, prepare it and then deliver the goods and what an incredible event it turned out to be. Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was when everyone shared why they choose what they did, and why they hadn’t dared until now – it was great.

Hosting this event was one of the easiest Throwdowns I’ve hosted because everyone came self-contained, so the only hosting prep that was needed was checking in with everyone about fridge and oven space, any utensils or special serving requirements (that would have been a good time to have been told about the need for a fire-extinguisher…)

These ingredients were for my
youngest daughter's dish...
what did she make?
The most difficult part of hosting this event was me being a challenger as well which took all of my focus and so it was lucky that the hosting prep was minimal. I would not change both hosting and participating because of the minimal requirements for the hosting prep (plus I was cooking up to the last minute on my third attempt at my dish and would not have been able to get something on the plate were it not for being held at my house). Note to others – host it yourself so you have those few extra precious minutes.

Because we choose not to tell what we were making with any of the participants, it was interesting to have to sit back and wonder if there would be a good cross-section of food that would be edible, and so I did have a platter of cheese and fruit ready to pull out if necessary (which it was not).

Perhaps the greatest lesson that we all learned was that there is a reason we had not yet previously dared…many of the dishes took far longer than we had calculated, with one challenger rising at 4:00 am on the morning of the Throwdown to get his dish done by the 5:00 pm “hands-up” Throwdown start time.
As my dish was crashing and burning (almost literally) and I was starting again for the 3rd time fifteen minutes
My husband crafted a
masterpeice with these
ingredients - What did he dare?
before everyone was supposed to arrive, the phone began ringing and ringing and then ringing again. Every challenger was running late and the final entry arrived an hour after our intended start time – note to others – set a time and be flexible. When we do this again, I will encourage the challengers to do a practice run, or encourage them to begin earlier than they originally intended.

But I am getting ahead of myself - let’s back up and start with – what’s a Throwdown, how do I host a Throwdown and finally, what food did my foodie friends dare to bring to this fabulous Throwdown?

What is a Throwdown? A Throwdown is a food related challenge – it can be related to an ingredient, a specific dish, any themed challenge that involves food. The host of the event sets up the rules, criteria and theme and sometimes the prizes. A Throwdown can be as complex as you want to make it with judges, scoring, and prizes or as simple as this Throwdown which involved bringing a dish that you have always wanted to make and never dared – those were the only rules, bring a dish that you have always wanted to make and never dared.

We have had more complex Throwdowns such as the chocolate mousse night which had an overinvolved scoring system that took 2 scientists (albeit 10th graders) several hours to calculate – but since we had all been judges and had each sampled (devoured) five different chocolate mousses, we weren’t planning on sleeping anytime soon and we waited for the results – it was a fun Throwdown and I have had recent requests to reprise it.

One of the more simple Throwdowns I hosted was for everyone to bring a potluck dish that described their personality, while simple for the judging (all participants had to guess who brought what and there were prizes for the most correct vote getters and vote placers), the trickiest thing about this Throwdown was coordinating the dishes as they came in so that no one could see who brought what – but it was super fun.

My oldest daughter has always wanted to make this...what is it?
One element that Throwdowns have in common besides being a challenge related to food, is that they are very interactive and lots and lots of fun. The challenge pushes everyone out of their everyday food experience and gives us something new to laugh and bond over. And making the rules flexible enough gives people permission to get really creative – at the last Throwdown, one of the kids involved brought a boxed cake that he made and when he was describing why he had never dared before he said that who in the world would dare to bring a boxed cake to a foodie festivity! Of course, great dare and it was then that my husband admitted that he had considered making hamburger helper – because that would be a pretty daring move!

It does not take a lot to host a Throwdown, just some willingness to create an environment where people can have fun – that’s what it is all about and so here’s how I hosted this Throwdown

Throwdown – Bring Something That You Have Always Wanted to Make and Haven’t Dared
  • The title determined the direction – when asked if something would fit or would be okay, I reiterated the title
  • I selected a date and called a bunch of friends to invite them to participate
  • Participating as a challenger was an option and I left it really open – I wanted to see what would happen and as it turned out leaving it open gave some people an opportunity to decide at the last minute to get involved – several entries were decided upon the morning of the Throwdown
  • The only instruction I gave them was to prepare for at least 20 people
  • I planned to begin eating at 5:00 and people didn’t finish arriving until 6:00, in the future I would still invite everyone to gather at 5:00 and then tell them we would begin eating at 6:00
  •  Telling people what time you will eat is important to some of the timing of the dish, so that is critical in the invitation
  •  Hold your event on a Saturday so that people can take the time they need to cook their dishes
  • Start early because this kind of event, from getting the various food on the table, in the appropriate courses takes a lot longer than a regular dinner party
  • Food allergies – each challenger needs to bring an ingredient list that gets posted by the dish and people with food allergies need to be alert to those ingredient lists
  • I had several people with food intolerances or allergies and encouraged them to make something that they could eat so that there would be something for them (I struggled with this because I usually uber-cater to people with food-specific issues, but in this case I was asking my foodie friends to cook their dreams and their dares)
  • Knowing that there would be some dished that participants couldn’t taste (different than wouldn’t taste) the prizes were related to best dare story and things like most ingredients, most time to prepare, best worst and worst best – in the future I would add a category that would include, most number of times having to remake the dish and dish that required most physical sacrifice!
  • I provided large platters (to eat off of), plastic utensils and bowls – we had so much food that it was fun to continue to go back for more and then more and then more again – I usually like to serve off of fun plates with real silverware – but I just wanted to have fun. We did use real wine glasses.

This was really simple, really fun and will certainly be back again on the Throwdown list. We do have a few more planned and I will write about those in another post. I wanted to get you going on your plans for a Throwdown – pick up the phone, plan a Throwdown and let the fun begin!

The food that we ate was some of the best food I have ever had and there were scant leftovers. Come back again for the entire menu for our Throwdown…and get the answer to why I needed a fire extinguisher, or what could someone possibly have made that put themselves in physical peril…and finally…how many eggs did I go through on my three attempts to remake my dish…and went through how many eggs??? The answers to these and more next time on Mama Caruso Cooks – until then, enjoy this recipe from the Throwdown – a Cuban Beef recipe for Ropa Vieja – it won the most number of ingredients prize and was enjoyed by all. Until then, from my table to yours...Mama Caruso.

Ropa Vieja – Cuban Beef Recipe
Mike Farrand - foodie

 Below is my variation on the Cuban Beef dish. It can be served over rice, or on tortillas with sour cream, cheese, and fresh cilantro on the side. This recipe uses 4 pounds of flank steak, but you can cut it in half to serve 8 or so. 

4 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 pounds beef flank steak
1 cup beef broth
4 oranges (juiced) - or tangerines, or tangelos
2 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
2 small onion, sliced
2 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (12 ounce) can tomato paste
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon onion salt
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 C chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoon white vinegar


Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the flank
steak on each side, about 4 minutes per side.
Transfer beef to a slow cooker. Pour in the beef broth and tomato sauce,
then add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, onion salt,
cayenne pepper, salt, cilantro, orange juice, olive oil and vinegar. Stir
until well blended. Cover, and cook on High for 6 hours, or on Low for 10
hours. In the last hour add spice to taste and test beef to make sure it is
breaking apart.

When ready to serve, shred meat and serve with tortillas or rice. Garnish
with sour cream, cheese, and fresh cilantro.