When the fuss is worth it

Cynthia Stone
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When we get home from work or hockey practice or grocery shopping, most of us don't have the energy left to spend hours in the kitchen fussing over supper. But when the mood strikes to try something new or unusual - or put a little extra effort into a birthday or anniversary celebration - it's nice to have a few recipes standing by that you can count on to wow the crowd.

The trick is to pick just one or two courses for your all-out extravaganza.

This week, I'm offering up a fabulous new soup and scrumptious dessert for your consideration. Serve one of both of these and beans on toast or a fried egg would be fine for the main.

These dishes are special in every way. Go all out on the fresh ingredients, don't substitute a bottle of spice that's been in your cupboard for more winters than you can remember, and be prepared to accept compliments.

Curried sweet potato and red pepper soup

I developed this aromatic and exotic concoction based on all the things I like best in or with a curry. There's a bit of fussing, no getting away from it, but the result is spectacular. Serve half a cupful as a perfect starter, but a medium-sized bowl with crisp toast and a green salad would make a great lunch if you're looking to impress the in-laws or bridge club. This modest amount will easily satisfy 8, as you really don't want huge servings.

1 tbsp. each butter and vegetable oil

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 large onion, diced

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed

2 red peppers, seeded and diced

1/2 hand ginger, coarsely chopped - don't bother to peel

4 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 tbsp. garam masala (available in most grocery stores)

1 tbsp. hot curry powder (or mild if you prefer)

2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. fenugreek seeds

6 cardamom pods (or 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom)

1 medium tomato, chopped

1 tbsp. tamarind paste (optional, available in specialty or large grocery stores)

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 large bunch cilantro, leaves separated from stalks

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 can coconut milk (I used regular but low-fat would work.)

Melt butter in oil in a Dutch oven. Over high heat fry celery, carrot, onion and sweet potato until the edges start to brown.

Add red peppers, ginger and garlic and fry another minute. Stir in garam masala, curry powder, cumin, fenugreek seeds and cardamom; cook together until fragrant but keep moving the mixture around so it does not burn.

Add tomato, tamarind paste, chicken broth, cilantro stalks (reserving the leaves for later), bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce heat, cover and simmer together until vegetables are starting to melt together and collapse - about 45 minutes.

Puree in batches in a blender or food processor and strain to discard the solids. Return to pot, add coconut milk and reheat almost to the boiling point.

Stir in reserved cilantro leaves, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Apple pecan cheesecake crumble squares

Artificial sweetener is usually best left to diet soft drinks, but here's one of the few legitimate exceptions.

You can substitute up to half the brown sugar in the crumb layers with the equivalent type of sweetener, and all the granulated sugar in the cream cheese layer.

Not all substitutes are safe to bake with, so check the box or bag to make sure.

This delicious dessert is every bit as good if you use low-fat cream cheese and light sour cream, as well - it's not as good for you as a fresh apple, but goes better with a cup of coffee after a fabulous dinner party.

Tart apples would definitely work best in this recipe, and it's special enough to be worth a trip to the store. You have to go anyway because you will also want premium vanilla ice cream to serve on the side.

These dessert squares are best when lukewarm, but they are also delicious chilled the next day.

Oh, if you're wondering where the name came from, I brought samplers to the office and my colleagues were kind enough to come up with the descriptive moniker.

2 cups flour

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tsp. cinnamon

3/4 tsp. salt (cut by half if using salted butter)

1/2 tsp. cardamom

1/2 cup cool but not ice-cold unsalted butter

1 cup pecans, chopped fairly finely but not turned to dust

8 oz. cream cheese, softened (light if you like)

2 tbsp. sour cream or plain or vanilla yogurt (low fat would work fine)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/4 cup white sugar

2 tsp. vanilla

3 large apples, peeled and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)

A food processor makes for less work but isn't necessary. Don't be tempted to add the nuts into the flour mixture before cutting in the butter - if you want to chop them in the food processor, do that first.

Whisk together, or process for 5 seconds, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and cardamom. Cut in butter or pulse a few times until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in pecans. Set aside 2 cups of the crumb mixture.

Press remaining mixture into a greased 9 X 13-inch baking pan. Beat cream cheese with sour cream, egg, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Pour over crumb mixture.

Top with apples, then sprinkle on the reserved crumbs. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. Cool 20 minutes or so before cutting into 24 squares.

Next week I'll see if I can come up with the most fabulous main and side dishes to round out that special menu.

Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John's. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John's, NL, A1E 4N1.

Organizations: Apple, The Telegram

Geographic location: St. John's

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