Father’s day giveaway: Urban Accents Grill Master Gift Kit



Urban Accents Grill Masters kit



Our sad little  gas grill is extremely neglected. After a few winters left uncovered, blanketed in snow, it’s now pocked with rust, covered in a thin layer of dust and coated with remnants of burger and bratwurst from a rare summer BBQ in 2012.

So when it came to testing out my Grill Master Kit and Dryglazes, courtesy of the folks at Urban Accents, I took the stovetop route—with a little help from my trusty grill pan, of course. In spite of my grilling aversion, my wings—coated heavily in the Caymen Citrus Dryglaze—were fantastic. Moral of the story: Grill or no grill, Urban Accents makes the good stuff.

Want to give your dad (or baby daddy) the gift of grilling (or roasting) perfection? Enter my Father’s Day Grill Master contest for the chance to win and Urban Accents Grill Master Kit (a $49.95 value)—complete with Vermont Grill, Santa Fe BBQ, Athenian Herb and Mandarin Ginger Dryglazes; and Chicago Steak & Chop, Kansas City Classic Rub, Argentina Steak Rub and Sonoma Pepper Spice Blends.

Entering is easy: Just follow Better with Butter on Pinterest, pin this post, then come back here, fill out the form below (paste the link to your pin in the “Pin link” form). Contest ends June 6.

Enter to win the Grill Master Kit

The Dryglazes couldn’t be easier to use—throw two pounds of meat or fish into a freezer bag, add the packet of Dryglaze and two tbsp. of olive oil, shake/massage the bag to coat the meat, marinate for 20-30 minutes, throw it on the grill and VOILA—caramelized glaze-y deliciousness.



Dryglazed BBQ chicken wings



5 steps to perfect royal icing sugar cookies



5 tips for perfect royal icing sugar cookies



I always get suckered into those point-of-purchase-displayed royal icing sugar cookies. You know, the ones at Starbucks, decorated in the theme of the nearest popular holiday? That hard, sugary icing gets me EVERY. TIME.

Upon investigation a few years back, I discovered that recreating these diabetic-coma-inducing treats seemed like way too much work, so I abstained from homemade in favor of the overpriced coffee-shop variety. But after my macaron-baking adventure, I gained some newfound patience in the baking department and decided to give it a whirl. Just like the macarons, royal icing sugar cookies are an art and a science—and almost every recipe out there completely oversimplified things, especially when it came to the decorating. Wing it without the fine-print instructions and you’ve got a surefire Pinterest Fail on your hands.

So before you flit off to AllRecipes.com for the highest-rated generic sugar cookie recipe, keep these tips on hand.

1 ) Use a good sugar cookie recipe. I like this recipe from Sweetopia.

2) Learn how to make cookies that hold their shape. The aforementioned recipe includes instructions on making cookies that hold their shape. Here they are, plus more from Sweetopia:

    • Roll the dough out between two pieces of parchment paper and then chill in the fridge for an hour. If you’re like me and always look for a shortcut (freezer!!) be careful—there’s a fine line between perfectly chilled and frozen to the point that the dough cracks when you cut it. Cut the chilled dough into shapes immediately and then re-chill the cut cookies for at least 10 minutes. Re-roll the excess dough and repeat.
    • Don’t over-mix the butter and sugar. Over-mixing can cause excess air, which will cause fluffier cookies that spread easier.
    • No baking powder.
    • Use the correct amount of sugar and higher quality or European-style butter. Too much sugar and low-quality butter can both cause spreading because the sugar becomes liquid when it heats up and cheaper butter has higher water content.
    • Use thicker cookie sheets and parchment paper.
    • Thinner cookies spread less (Sweetopia recommends 3/4 to 1 cm-thick cookies)



royal icing easter bunny cookies 9



3) Start with thick icing. Many of the icing recipes I found were too runny for outlining or detail work. My advice is, start with less water and add more as needed. I went with:

4 tablespoons egg white powder

1 lb confectioner’s sugar

1/4 – 1/2  cup water

Mix all ingredients, starting with 1/4 cup water and adding more veeeeerrrry slowly as needed (one tip I saw recommended adding water via spray bottle—genius!). Mix on low in a stand mixer for several minutes. The icing you use for outlining should be about the consistency of toothpaste. Here’s where the next step comes in …



royal icing rainbow



4) When it comes to decorating, plan ahead. Once you’ve got your big batch of royal icing (which should be the proper consistency for outlining at this point) partition it out in bowls. This is where you’ll have to make some decisions and (gasp!) commit to a color scheme. For example, if you’re making Christmas trees, you’ll want a lot of green icing for the tree, a little brown for the trunk and an even smaller amount of a few other colors for the tree decorations. You’ll likely need an outlining icing and a flood icing (the icing that fills the cookie in) for each color, EXCEPT the colors you plan to use only for detailing (the buttons, nose, eyes, etc. on a snowman, for instance). For those detail colors, you’ll only need icing of an outlining consistency.

Here’s where some people make the rookie mistake of dividing the uncolored icing into separate bowls for outlining and flood, diluting the flood icing appropriately and then trying to match the colors to each other after the fact. Nope. Start with one bowl for each color, mix in your food coloring as appropriate (for extra-saturated colors, use powdered dye so as not to dilute the icing too much) and THEN divide it into two bowls and dilute one for flood icing. Add water slowly to one bowl of each color to create the flood icing (which should be about the consistency of hot fudge sauce).

5) Have the proper tools. Don’t panic—there’s no need for expensive baking tools. I use gallon ziplock bags for the icing (although, you can purchase these or these if you want to get fancy.) and toothpicks to spread the flood icing. Put the bags in a cup/glass and pull the bag over the edge of the cup (as if you were lining a trash bin … lovely!), then fill it with the icing and cinch the bag closed with a rubber band. Snip the corner of the bag when you’re ready to begin icing. To decorate your cookies, outline each one with the outlining icing, then fill the cookies in with the flood icing. Use a toothpick to gently push the flood icing around to fill in any holes. I let my outline icing harden before flooding, but it’s become clear to me, thank to this Sweetopia tutorial, that you’ll get a smoother, more seamless result if you flood immediately.



bear hug cookie 2



I made the bear cookies you see above using a bear cookie cutter and then folding the arms around cinnamon-sugar almonds before baking.

Now all I need to do is find a way to use all 101 of the cookie cutters in the massive kit I impulsively bought on Amazon …

Happy icing!

Milk and cookies



bear hug cookies



I’m happy to report that after nine months of a pregnancy-induced cooking strike, everyone in Casa DiCosola is once again well fed. Our newest addition is perhaps the most nourished of us all—and he has an appetite that trumps even his mama’s. In his three short months on this earth, this little meatball has managed to more than double in weight!

Knowing that every ounce, every roll, every dimple comes from my milk makes me prouder than anything in this world. Even in the sleep-deprived stupor of a 2 a.m. feeding, I’m bursting with love and joy. With every gulp, his little hand rhythmically opens and closes on my chest—and tugs at my heartstrings. More than mastering the most complex recipes and techniques, these are the best meals I could ever offer, and the best person I could ever hope to feed.

Now before you reach your threshold for saccharine-sweet mushiness, allow me to introduce baby Leo, the best thing I ever baked:



Leo



And speaking of sappiness and baking, I have a ridiculously adorable cookie recipe to share with you all soon (sneak peek above!), inspired by my little baby bear and some maternity-leave Pinterest browsing. It will be part of a larger post about tips for royal icing sugar cookies—cookies that hold their shape, flawless decorating tricks, etc. Stay tuned.

Smuggling pumpkins



roast pumpkin



It’s an impossibly beautiful, crisp and sunny Chicago fall, my uterus is now the size of a pumpkin (how festive!), and the cooking strike in Casa DiCosola continues. Dinners these days consist of cinnamon toast crunch, apples and peanut butter, fun-size snickers, english muffins and string cheese (yes, all in one night; no, not necessarily in that order).

Good thing I have this little fall-themed gem of a post in my back pocket from last year. In a sea of pumpkin pies, pumpkin breads and pumpkin lattes, these pumpkin pork enchiladas are a refreshing change of pace.



pumpkin pork enchiladas 3



Pumpkin pork enchiladas

You’ll need:

Enchiladas

One batch of carnitas (recipe here)

4 cups pumpkin

24 small corn tortillas

3-4 cups shredded quesadilla cheese (I like La Chona brand, but anything in similar packaging will be good)

1/2 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp chili powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Seasoned baked pumpkin seeds and queso fresco for garnish (optional)

Enchilada sauce

1/2 cup liquid from carnitas

1 cup pumpkin

1/8 tsp chili powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare your carnitas and harvest 1/2 cup juice toward the end of cooking. Set aside or refrigerate if you’re preparing in advance.

For the pumpkin filling, you can use the canned stuff or pie pumpkins. I went the difficult route because I’m fancy like that. If you’re inclined to do the same, cut the pumpkin in large chunks, remove the seeds, drizzle with a little butter or olive oil and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for about 45 min, or however long it takes for the pumpkin to be fork tender. After it cools, remove the meat and discard the skin.



how to roast pumpkin



Mash the pumpkin with the spices and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Prepare the enchilada sauce by combining all sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor. Set aside.

To assemble your enchiladas, place a dollop of the pumpkin mix in the middle of a corn tortilla and some carnitas on top, and roll up the tortilla. Place each enchilada seam-side down in a casserole dish. Arrange the enchiladas tightly in the pan so they don’t fall apart during baking. Once you’ve filled the pan, drizzle the sauce (and spread with a spatula if necessary) over the enchiladas and sprinkle generously with cheese.



pumpkin carnitas enchiladas



Bake enchiladas at 375 degrees for about 15-20 minutes—until the cheese is bubbly and golden and the insides of enchiladas are hot.

Garnish with pumpkin seeds and queso fresco.

Pickled pink (or blue?)



homemade dill pickles 5



Hello my wonderful readers, are you still there? I’ve been MIA for a couple months, but I think I have the best excuse of them all:

I’ve got a bun in the oven … and it ain’t sourdough : )



bun in the oven



We’re over the moon! But the nausea, food aversions and fatigue wreaked havoc on my blog activity—not to mention Dave’s dinner. In the first trimester, most of the time I could barely bring myself to eat, let alone cook something. And while the morning sickness has subsided, I still find myself disgusted by many foods, and turned off entirely by the act of cooking for myself (short of microwaving a burrito or throwing some mac’n’cheese on the stove).

If I do cook, the thought of documenting the meal often seems exhausting. So there you have it: A tiny human is stealing my energy, brainpower and resources. And I’m loving every minute of it.

So what better post to return with than homemade dill pickles? While aversion is more of a theme for me these days than craving, I have had a weakness for that old pregnancy cliche (hold the ice cream). So I thought I’d try my hand at pickling some cukes—quickly of course.

Quick, homemade dill pickles

You’ll need:

10 or so Persian cucumbers (regular will do if you can’t find these, but go for smaller ones)

1 tbsp dill

1/8 tbsp garlic

1/8 tbsp mustard powder

1 cup water

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

salt

Cut cucumbers in thin slices (about 1/8-inch thick) and set aside in a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt and dill and let sit while you prepare the brine.

In a saucepan, mix remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat.

Put pickles in a jar and pour brine over them. Allow to cool to room temp and then chill in the fridge for a half-hour or so.

I sanitized a jar by boiling it in hot water for several minutes, but these quick pickles—assuming you plan to eat them within a week or so—should be fine in the fridge without that step.



homemade dill pickles 6



Greens on greens on greens



green pasta salad



My garden is filling in nicely, and all this green has me inspired. This pasta salad is a little taste of spring—exploding with nutritional superstars. There are enough greens to make it healthy, but enough pasta and cheese to make it a treat.

Dave devoured it, so you can trust that it’s delicious in spite of itself.

Don’t skimp on the lemon—it brings the taste to the next level.

Go green pasta salad

You’ll need:

1 lb pasta

1 cup peas

3 cups baby arugula

12 stalks asparagus

12 large brussels sprouts

4 green onion stalks, chopped

Juice from one whole lemon

A block of pecorino or other hard italian cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

For pea pesto:

1/2 cup peas

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1-2 large cloves garlic

1/2 cup baby arugula



greens



Blend all ingredients for pea pesto until smooth.

Cook pasta to al dente. Strain and then toss with pea pesto (add gradually—you might not need all of it). Set aside and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. Chop asparagus and brussels sprouts into small, bite-sized pieces and cook in boiling water until slightly tender. You’ll want to remove the veggies from the heat before they lose their green color (and all their nutrients) so have an ice bath ready. When they begin to get tender, strain the veggies and add them straight to the ice bath.

When the pasta has cooled, add brussels sprouts, asparagus, chopped green onion, peas and arugula. Finish with a generous shaving of cheese, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.



green pasta salad



Better with Butter in Women’s Health



Better with Butter in Womens Health



I’m famous y’all! Well, as famous as I’ve ever been (but not quite as famous as my husband, the Taco Bell TV commercial star).

You can catch me and this little blog o’ mine in the May issue of Women’s Health magazine. The article is “50 cooking tips that will change your life,” and I’m in some pretty great company. I may be a little biased, but it’s a fantastic read, and I learned some great new tricks. Some of my favorite below:

  • “Don’t throw out those last drops of jam in the jar; shake up a fruity vinaigrette instead. Add equal parts oil and vinegar to the jar, give it a good shake, and season with salt and pepper to taste”  - Marisa McClellan from FoodinJars.com
  • “Soak bitter greens, like arugula and kale, in a bowl of ice water in the fridge for about an hour to cut their bitterness. Run the leaves through your salad spinner several times with a paper towel to get them nice and dry and crisp.”  - Dina Avila from  LeekSoupBlog.com
  • “Never throw away a rind of a piece of cheese. Drop it into a pot of soup—any kind!—for added flavor. Remove it with a spoon and discard before serving.”  - Jenny McGruther from NourishedKitchen.com
  • “Light Italian salad dressing is a marvelous shortcut for adding flavor to homemade salsa. Add 1/4 cup to three cups of salsa.”  - Clay Dunn of TheBittenWord.com
  • “Spritz your cheese grater with nonstick spray before using it to make shredding—and cleaning—easier.”  - Aida Mollenkamp

Pure genius, right?!

Merle wasn’t nearly as impressed …



BWB in womens health



Photo Files: Confessions of a prop-aholic



food photography props



My name is Jada and I have a problem. I can’t stop bringing home props for my food photography. Gilded glass bowls from estate sales; fabric scraps from JoAnn’s; paper straws from the dollar bins at Target.

If $1 vintage pastel parfait bowls are wrong, I don’t want to be right …

So, it’s only appropriate that the first post in my Photo Files series is:

PROPS.



where to buy props



Tips on using props to improve your food photos

1) Color. Not all food styling should be perfectly matchy-matchy. I get a lot of ideas for great color combinations from design and wedding blogs. Pinterest is another endless source of inspiration. Slight variations on complementary colors can make for the most beautiful photo setups—sage greens and deep oranges, vibrant blues and muted peaches—play around and have fun. Here are some of my favorite recent color palette inspirations:



Color inspiration



1.  The Sweetest Occasion  2. Griottes  3. All Things Stylish (David Hockney)  4. Magnolia Rouge

2) Set the mood. Food photography isn’t all about making your audience salivate; it’s about evoking feelings of warmth and comfort; aching nostalgia; playful vibrance; and the many other emotions that go hand in hand with food and eating. For example, look at the differences in mood in the images below. The photo on the left uses a rustic, intricate silver platter and dark bottle of balsamic vinegar to set a romantic mood. The gold-accented dishes and pink and blue floral tablecloth evoke fun and light-heartedness. Of course the props aren’t the only factor in creating this mood—lighting, backgrounds (stay tuned!) have a lot to do with it—but they are important elements. Before you go grabbing that tarnished vintage serving spoon or modern neon placemats, think about the story you’re trying to tell. 

photography moods



3) Bright white, crystal clear. Not every dish and prop in your setup should be colorful and attention-grabbing. Never underestimate the importance of a solid collection of white and clear dishes. White dishes make almost any foods look particularly photogenic, because the food can shine without any interference, and help bounce the light; clear dishes allow unobstructed views of the food from any angle.



canellini beans 3 cropped



The best place to buy props

You likely already have a number of good “props” hiding in your kitchen. But, as I can attest, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to hunt for more. Here are my favorite prop sources:

  • Estate sales. Estate sales are, far and away, the best source for props. At least the ones I’ve had the pleasure of rummaging through in Chicago and the surrounding ‘burbs. Not only are they completely LOADED with vintage kitchen wares and linens, but the stuff is cheap. Some of my recent finds include a vintage, cast iron pizzelle maker ($6); a beautiful glass bowl with an etched floral design and gold rim ($11); retro milk glass snack dishes ($5); and colorful, like-new table linens (between 50 cents and $6).
  • Joann Fabric (or any fabric/craft store). This is a good place to start building a collection of fabric swatches to use as tablecloths and napkins in your photos. Buy a yard of each of your favorites and you’re set.
  • Vintage/thrift stores. Chicago has some fantastic thrift and vintage shops, but, in my opinion, they pale in comparison to the estate sales (both in price and selection). Still worth a try if you’re looking for something specific … or just need an excuse to go shopping.
  • HomeGoods. I freakin’ love this place. If you’re looking for modern, stylish props and quality kitchen goods at a great price (discounted Le Creuset anyone??), this is your spot. This is also the place I buy almost all of my white dish ware. The discounts are deep and the stock is fantastic.
  • Etsy.com. You’ll find some really special stuff on Etsy—if you have the patience to search through the millions of items on the site. Fortunately, many popular design blogs and magazines often highlight their editors’ favorite Etsy finds, so keep your eyes peeled.

Happy prop shopping! Stay tuned for future Photo Files on backgrounds, lighting, food styling and more.

Ravishing radishes



Radish



Spring has not quite sprung here in Chicago, and the natives are restless.

We’re all ready for it, and the husband is ready for the plants to go outside. My seedlings—now more like full-fledged plants—are spilling out of their containers, straining toward the windows and begging for fresh air. Despite less-than-balmy temps, I’m willing the warmth to arrive—and maybe some fresh seasonal recipes will help.

I don’t ever cook with them, but these radishes caught my eye last weekend, and just seemed very springy: fresh, dewy, earthy.

I suspected the fatty, creamy richness of avocado might complement the crunchy spice of the radishes, and after paging through my trusty Flavor Bible, I got some affirmation. The resulting recipe would be perfect for a spring picnic, a tea party or an afternoon snack.



radish avocado crostini by Better with Butter



 

Radish, avocado and herbed goat cheese baguette

(Makes about 2 dozen slices)

You’ll need:

1 french baguette, sliced thin

8-10 radishes

8 oz goat cheese

dill, sea salt and pepper to taste

2-3 avocados, sliced thin

Slice radishes paper thin with a sharp knife or madoline.

Spread a baguette slices with a thin layer of goat cheese.

Layer on sliced avocado and top with a generous amount of sliced radish.

Sprinkle with dried or fresh dill, course sea salt and pepper to taste.



radish avocado crostini by Better with Butter





radish avocado crostini by Better with Butter



 

Getting in the mood



strawberry balsamic salad_small



One of my biggest blog goals for 2013 was to step up my photography. It’s one of my absolute favorite parts of food blogging—sometimes even more than the actual cooking—so it’s been a fun, exciting and inspiring journey.

I’ve also been insatiable when it comes to finding new resources that can help me take my blog to the next level, and I love that there are so many great bloggers out there who share their secrets on photography, blog monetization, post layout inspiration, etc. I’ve been saving these tips on Pinterest, and plotting my own series of posts to pay it forward (stay tuned!).

One of the many tutorial posts that has inspired me lately is this one on “moody” food shots. I didn’t follow the tutorial step-by-step, but rather was inspired by the images in the post, since I’m working with an already decent understanding of photography, lighting, editing, etc. Here’s what I came away with …



Dark moody lighting photography tutorial by Better with Butter



Important things to remember:

  • Dark background. This is crucial, and it’s easier than you think. I bought two pieces of cheap, thin wood from Home Depot, and stained them dark. Cost me less than 10 bucks. For the shoot, I grabbed a chair and slid it up against my sliding glass door. The “countertop” board laid flat on the seat of the chair, and the “wall” board was propped up against the back of the chair. In many of my photo setups, I’ll use a big white foam board to bounce the light and eliminate shadows, but in a “moody” shoot you probably won’t need it since, 1) shadows would actually be desirable and 2) the background will likely be so dark that the shadows won’t be an issue anyway. This brings me to the next tip …
  • Diffused light. Moody shots require diffused light. Assuming you’re setup near a window, clouds can act as a natural diffuser, but if it’s fairly bright out, you’ll need something to prevent harsh lighting. I use either a white sheet or a slightly transparent shower curtain liner (tacked up against my sliding glass door/window). Works like a charm.
  • Exposure 1 to 2 stops below standard exposure. You can play around with this, but I found that anything higher was just too bright for the “moody” vibe. Keep in mind, if you don’t have anything light-colored or reflective in the photo, such as a white dish, brighter ingredients, etc. (and in my case, a silver platter) your photo will be underexposed, so you may have to compensate for this with your exposure settings or in post-processing.
  • Shallow depth of field. I shot at 1.4 aperture to get a nice dreamy, blurry background.
  • Good photo editing software. I use Lightroom 3, and with this shoot, my VSCO presets helped me get the film-like coloring/grain/etc. You don’t need a preset, of course, but it can help make editing quicker and more effective, especially if you’re like me and don’t have a formal education in digital editing software.

I’d love to see your “moody” shots—link away in the comments.

And, for those who could care less about food photography and just wanted the damn salad recipe …

Balsamic-roasted strawberry salad with crispy pancetta



strawberry balsamic salad



You’ll need:

3-4 handfuls spinach

6 oz. thinly sliced pancetta

1/3 cup almonds

1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese

For dressing:

8-10 large strawberries, sliced

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons high-quality balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Mix sugar and balsamic vinegar and pour over strawberries. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the pancetta and cook in a skillet over medium-high heat until crispy. Drain on a paper towel and let cool.

While the strawberries finish, toast the almonds on a baking sheet until golden and fragrant (about 10-15 minutes). Remove both from oven and let cool.

Reserve a few balsamic-roasted strawberries for garnish, and mix the rest, with the balsamic vinegar sauce and olive oil, in a blender until the strawberries are pureed. Refrigerate.

Once chilled, toss all ingredients and dressing until fully incorporated (you may not need all the dressing). Top with strawberry garnishes and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.



strawberry balsamic salad by Better with Butter



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