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Sweet Spring

Mar 18, 2013 08:34AM ● Published by Lisa Drake

Red Velvet Cupcake with Strawberry Icing

By Carol Ritchie

Grass is growing, leaves are budding and flowers are blooming - spring is in the air! The emergence of bright colors and pastel hues inspire fresh and lively flavors from the kitchen. Here is a palette of culinary ideas, from savory snacks to sweet treats, to cook and enjoy in your household.

Healthful Choices
A platter of colorful vegetable crudités (raw veggies such as baby carrots, asparagus, broccoli florets, celery, julienne-cut jícama, sugar snap peas and julienne-cut red, orange and yellow bell peppers), along with a cottage cheese and vegetable spread, is not only a healthy way to snack but something to encourage all to fit nutrient-dense foods in daily diets to balance out the inevitable sweet treats of spring. (And we’ll be getting to those sweet treats shortly!) The cottage cheese spread - or dip as it may be, depending on the consistency and the chosen foods to serve it with - is made by blending (in a blender or food processor) 1 cup small curd cottage cheese, 1/2 cup each of chopped broccoli and carrots, 2 tablespoons of snipped fresh chives and 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped dill. Blend (or purée) the ingredients to the desired consistency. A longer blending time results in a thinner “dip,” perfect for the aforementioned raw veggies. A shorter blending time results in a chunkier “spread,” great for spreading on whole-grain crackers or crostini (toasted thinly sliced baguette or other breads).

A variety of kebabs are easy to make and appealing for all ages. Using wooden skewers, thread some of these combinations for quick-pick snacking: Fruit kebabs - using chunks of pineapple, whole strawberries and grapes, and kiwifruit and banana slices. Serve with fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt for dipping. Veggie kebabs - using colorful bell pepper “squares,” chunks of zucchini and yellow squash, carrot coins (round slices of carrots) and whole button mushrooms (or quartered cremini - baby Portobello - mushrooms), served with low-fat ranch dressing for dipping. Tortellini kebabs - using cooked tortellini, baby mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes, served with a tomato sauce (a favorite pasta sauce) for dipping.

Fresh Veggies
As mentioned above, fresh vegetables are the way to go for a springtime delectable dining experience. Baby vegetables are young, tiny versions of traditional vegetables and seem to be popping up all over in the grocery produce section. It’s fairly easy to find baby red and yellow potatoes, mini bell peppers, baby zucchini, petite pattypan squash, and of course, baby carrots in a variety of colors. You can steam, sauté or roast any of these for a show-stopping side dish. Or stuff the mini bell peppers with chicken salad and serve along with a platter of crudités.

Springtime is when fresh asparagus is in peak season. Preparation is very simple (or simply serve raw as mentioned above) with many cooking options: Grill over medium heat for 2 to 4 minutes, turning occasionally. Cook in a vegetable steamer for 1 to 2 minutes. Sauté in a small amount of olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until tender-crisp. Or you can roast at 400°F for 3 to 4 minutes. Enhance the flavor of asparagus during the cooking process with chopped fresh herbs (such as basil, thyme or dill), balsamic vinegar and freshly cracked black pepper. Top with grated Parmesan cheese for a tasty spring treat.

English peas, also known as garden peas or shell peas, are another springtime veggie delight - a simply delicious way to savor the spring season. One pound of peas in the shell will yield 1 cup shelled peas. Unlike snow peas or sugar snap peas, the pods of English peas are too tough and fibrous to be eaten. The peas will need to be removed from the pods, so get the kids involved to help shell them. Once shelled, give a quick rinse and sauté 2 cups of peas in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or basil and sauté for 5 minutes. Or for a minted pea dish, add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté for 5 minutes. Enjoy!

Easy Entertaining
For a beautiful sunny day, make a plan to prepare and pack a gourmet picnic. How about sumptuous savory crab or lobster rolls? Combine 1 cup cooked and chopped lobster and/or lump crab meat, with 1/4 cup chopped celery, 2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Split 4 brioche dinner rolls and pile on the crab and/or lobster mixture. Team with slender stalks of steamed asparagus, thin-cut strips of carrots and green onions (ends trimmed) for munching, along with the perfect apple (Fuji, Jazz, Envy or Pink Lady varieties are nice and deliciously crisp). Include a small cutting board and paring knife to slice the apple, and perhaps a small container of roasted sunflower butter to serve with the apple slices. (Sunflower butter is like peanut butter, except made from sunflower seeds and has a deep, roasted flavor.)

A fun treat for a springtime meal should occasionally include lamb chop lollypops: Marinate 8 lamb rib chops with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, 2 cloves chopped garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Grill the chops over medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes per side, or until desired doneness. These make a quick and easy grilled meat option to complement all the fresh veggie accompaniments. They’re also convenient to grab-and-go for easy entertaining.

Sweet Treats
Fresh and light desserts are often popular for spring. Mint is a fresh flavor for desserts and drinks, and conveniently, it is growing like crazy by now. For a mint-flavored dessert, try a layered trifle: Layer cubes of angel food, sponge or vanilla cake with sliced strawberries, blueberries or blackberries, vanilla pudding and whipped cream. Top with sprigs of mint. (You can use mint-infused milk to make the pudding - warm the milk slightly with 4 sprigs of mint, then strain, and make the vanilla pudding according to package directions.)

For the kids, there is always room for gelatin dessert treats. Frozen pudding cups are easy and quite tasty: For frozen chocolate-peanut butter pudding cups, prepare a 1.4 ounce package of chocolate pudding mix according to package directions, however, use 2 cups milk and 1/4 cup chunky peanut butter. Stir in 1 cup vanilla ice cream and pour mixture into 8 paper cups. Cover and freeze for at least 2 hours. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts for garnish. For an alternative flavor choice, try frozen lemon pudding cups with berries. Prepare a 1.4 ounce package of lemon pudding mix according to package directions, again however, use 2 cups milk. Stir in 1 cup vanilla ice cream and fold in 2 cups fresh or frozen berries (raspberries, blueberries and/or blackberries). Pour mixture into 8 paper cups, cover, and freeze for at least 2 hours before serving.

And what could be a better dessert for springtime than pastel mini fun cakes with fluffy frosting and sparkling sprinkles? The bright colors of spring inspire festive cupcakes with shades of the rainbow and plenty of colorful candy toppings. Sprinkles, also called jimmies, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, flavors, and of course, colors. Quarried-like crystals of tinted sugar, mini candy stars, fashionable dragées and nonpareils (colorful confectionery with a hard shell coating), and simple mini-chocolate chips add allure and charm to scrumptious frosted cakes. Sprinkles - randomly “sprinkled” tiny candy decorations - transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, elevating delectable desserts to tantalizing treats. Even a smaller-than-usual-size “mini cupcake” can create that justifiable “well, just one perfect bite is enough!” element for those who are determined to watch calorie intake. For “just a bite” of an irresistible indulgence, try my Red Velvet Cupcakes with Strawberry Icing and Sprinkles (see recipe).

Refreshing Beverages
Spring is also the time for the traditional Kentucky Derby horse race. The drink of choice is the mint julep, a delightful beverage to enjoy when watching the race at home, or to sip on the patio anytime during the spring season. Traditionally, a mint-infused simple syrup is combined with bourbon and crushed ice in a frosted silver or pewter cup. A quick and easy method is to muddle 5 to 6 leaves of fresh mint with 1 teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of a glass, top with crushed ice and add whiskey to taste (usually a couple ounces).

Perfect for spring entertaining - especially bridal and/or baby showers - mix together an easy orange creamsicle sherbet punch for all to enjoy. Combine 1 quart vanilla ice cream, 1 quart orange sherbet and 1 liter chilled ginger ale (or lemon-lime sparkling beverage) in a punch bowl and stir. Garnish each serving glass with an orange wheel - a round slice of fresh orange with a slit cut to slide over the edge of the glass.

Fresh and Lively Springtime
Keep it light, keep it fresh, keep it colorful, keep it lively! Springtime welcomes change, new growth, vibrant colors and inspiration to live well and be well. Reflect these characteristics in your culinary endeavors. Add variety and fresh flavors to everyday cooking and entertaining and enjoy all that is great and exciting about the spring season!

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Strawberry Icing and Sprinkles
Makes 24 cupcakes (or 48 mini cupcakes)

2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup oil
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons red food coloring
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Icing:
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
1/4 cup strawberry purée (see note below)
4 cups powdered sugar

Assorted candy sprinkles for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, buttermilk, eggs, red food coloring, vinegar and vanilla extract. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture and stir until just combined. Line two cupcake pans (24 cupcakes total, or 48 mini cupcakes) with paper or foil cupcake liners. Spoon the batter evenly into the cupcake liners (about 2/3 full) and bake for 20 minutes (10 minutes if making mini cupcakes), or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack. For the icing, beat butter in a bowl using an electric hand mixer on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds. Add powdered sugar and strawberry purée and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, or until icing is fluffy. Pipe or frost the cupcakes with strawberry icing and top with desired candy sprinkles. Enjoy!

Note: For strawberry purée, place 4 to 5 large strawberries in a blender or food processor and add 1 to 2 teaspoons of water. Blend for 10 to 20 seconds, or until puréed. When mixing the icing, add this purée gradually to achieve the desired consistency.

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