Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Announcement

I just wanted to let it be known that I am still here and care about my blog, but I am in the process of getting a divorce and have not been able to post as often as I would like. I am going to be moving a few days and once things settle down a bit, I'll be back to posting more often.

There hasn't been much to post anyway! The other night I had a beurre blanc separate in the pan, I've accidentally baked some asparagus until it was crispy, and I've resorted to fruit salad for dinner a few nights. I think my cooking is going through the same adjustment period that my family is, so hopefully once I get back into a groove with the other aspects of my life, things in the kitchen will naturally fall back into place as well. Big thanks to everyone for understanding :)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Worcestershire Roasted Carrots and Potatoes . . . Gratin?

Tonight I was seeking something quick and inexpensive to feed myself and the kids for dinner, and I really wanted to make something using all stuff I already had on hand because I did not feel like and could not really afford a trip to the grocery store. The result was a combination of roasted vegetables, grated cheese and panko that reminded me of a gratin. Either way it was gobbled down by both myself and my kids.

To make the "gratin":

Preheat your oven to 400. Begin by combining a quarter cup olive oil, a quarter cup worcestershire sauce, and a quarter cup dijon mustard with a liberal sprinkling of grated romano cheese in a medium bowl. Whisk everything together until it is emulsified, then set the bowl aside.

Give a small dice to one red bliss potato and three large carrots. Keep in mind that I was only feeding myself and two toddlers, so you can use however much more as you need for your own family. Add the vegetables to the dressing you already mixed and fold it all together until everything is thoroughly coated. Empty the entire contents of the bowl into a baking dish, taking care to spread it into as thin of a layer as possible. The larger the dish you use the thinner of a layer you'll be able to create and the thinner you spread everything the faster it will cook.

Pop it into the oven for about twenty minutes. After twenty minutes, stir the vegetables and sprinkle them with some panko and some more romano cheese. Cook for about another twenty minutes, but keep a good eye on things. You don't want your breadcrumbs to become blackened.

After the dish has cooked for the second time, remove it from the oven and stir again. It is now ready to serve. If you are trying to cut costs like me this is filling enough to eat on its own, but it's also a fantastic side dish. Potatoes and carrots are two of the cheapest vegetables you can buy, and you use such a small amount of romano cheese here that this dish is remarkably inexpensive to make, yet bursting with flavor in each and every bite. You will not be disappointed.

Bolognese Part Three; Sloppy Joes?

This is the third and final way that I found to use my bolognese leftovers. I'm sure I could have come up with more delicious ideas but alas, I used the last of the leftovers making this dinner so more applications for leftover bolognese will just have to wait until the next time I make it :) Ironically enough, the idea for this flavorful explosion of bolognese, shredded chicken and bacon came from my sister Robin, who is a vegetarian.

To make the bolognese sloppy joes:

Begin by seasoning five thin sliced chicken breasts with salt and pepper at least half an hour before you're ready to cook. When you're ready to cook, bring a thin coating of olive oil up to medium heat and cook the chicken breasts for about five minutes on each side. Remove them to a plate and place them in the fridge to cool. In the still hot skillet, cook about five strips of bacon (you can obviously use however much bacon as you like, but I got a pretty decent bacon flavor with five strips). Set the bacon aside to cool as well.

You will use the same (still hot) skillet to reduce down the bolognese leftovers. You need at least three cups of bolognese for this dinner. You should remove the bacon grease from the pan before you add the bolognese. Place the bolognese in the skillet and let it heat up, stirring occassionally. You will also want to add at least half a cup of ketchup; this thickens the bolognese and sweetens it a little. You should increase the heat to medium/high to get it bubbling slightly.

While the bolognese is bubbling, return your attention to the meat. You are going to shred the chicken by using two forks to pull it apart into strands. This may take awhile and feel a little tedious, but the difference in texture versus dicing it is so remarkable that you really must do it. After you have shredded all of the chicken, crumble all of the bacon strips.

You may have noticed that the bolognese is slightly less in the pan; this is good. Just like when we cooked the original pot of bolognese, reducing it this way really enhances the flavor. You may now add in all of the chicken and bacon and stir until it is thoroughly incorporated. Once you have all of the ingredients bubbling away in the skillet, cook until the mixture achieves the consistency you want. It can be finished/served at any time.

And there you have it! Sloppy joes, definitely not the way your mother used to make them. You get to eat an extremely super delicious dinner and use the rest of your leftovers. This one was a huge crowd pleaser with every member of my family, and the leftovers of this leftover dinner extraordinaire made a delicious lunch the next day. I served it on wheat bulky rolls.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bolognese Part Two; Gourmet American Chop Suey

As promised, I'm going to tell you what to do with the leftovers of that delicious pot of bolognese that you spent all day making over the weekend. Spending a lot of time when you have it is a great way to ensure that you can still eat great when time is tight, like on a busy week night. The first way I used my bolognese leftovers was to make a casserole that ended up being very comparable to american chop suey. You aren't going to believe how quick and easy this one is.

To make the chop suey:

Begin by coarsely chopping 1 large onion and 3 cubanelle peppers. I really like the cubanelles because they're not hot but they're not really sweet either. You can easily use bell peppers in this recipe, or if you like it spicy, you can use a couple of jalapenos or anaheim chiles with your other peppers. Saute the onion and peppers in a skillet with some olive oil. Season with salt and pepper as they saute. You are going to take them off the heat when the onions are translucent and the peppers look soft.

While the vegetables saute, set a pot of water to boil and cook one pound of the pasta of your choice. I really favor rotini in an application like this because the shape of it makes the sauce stick to it, but anything you like will work. Elbows are more of a classic choice here.

Combine the cooked pasta and the cooked vegetables in a large bowl and add at least three cups of your leftover bolognese sauce. You are probably going to want to add more sauce, but three cups is a good jumping off point. Mix well, making sure everything is fully covered. Pour the entire contents of the bowl into a baking dish and bake at 350 for about ten minutes. Keep in mind that everything is already cooked so it really doesn't need that much time in the oven, and the longer you bake it the more you risk drying it out.

Voila! After just about fifteen minutes of prep time and ten minutes of bake time, you have a chop suey that tastes like it took much longer. The rich flavor of the bolognese sauce shares the stage with the earthy flavor of the peppers in this dish. Even though you are using something you just ate for dinner the other night, the peppers really make it taste like an entirely different dinner.

Up next, and I'm sure any of my regular followers saw this one coming . . . how to use your bolognese leftovers with bacon to put a very interesting twist on a comfort food classic.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One Pot of Bolognese; Three Delicious Dinners

Last Sunday I spent the better part of the day in the kitchen cultivating a delicious bolognese sauce. Bolognese sauce is a labor of love because it does take awhile, but it is so, so worth it when you're done. I made a large batch so that my hours of cooking would pay off more than just once, and boy did they! We had bolognese over pasta for dinner on Sunday night, then I used it two other tantalizing ways during the week for a total of three hearty, filling suppers all from one pot of sauce. I'm going to tell you first how to make the bolognese, then how to use it in the other two creative ways I used it. Your taste buds will dance.

To make the bolognese:

Begin by dicing carrots, onions and celery. You will need 3 carrots, 3 ribs of celery and 1 small onion (or half of one large onion). Dice these as uniformly as possible. Some bolognese recipes call for the veggies to be pureed, but I like to see them in my sauce at the end and I love the added texture that you get by dicing them. Set them in a skillet with about a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil on medium heat. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. I use garlic powder instead of fresh garlic so as not to burn the garlic during the lengthy cooking process. The vegetables are going to cook down for a long time, almost to the point of caramelization. They should look over done before you move on to the next step.

Once your vegetables begin to look brownish and soft, add one pound of ground beef to the skillet. Cook with the vegetables until the beef is brown, taking your time. There is no rush, and the longer you allow it to cook, the more flavorful it will be. If you want to make a vegetarian bolognese, you can replace the ground beef with three cups of small diced portabellas and two tablespoons of butter. Either way, the cooking should take about twenty minutes and you should mix the contents of the skillet around semi-frequently.

Once the beef is cooked, you're going to add 8oz. of tomato paste to the skillet and mix well to thoroughly coat all of your meat and vegetables. Again, you're going to allow the contents of the pan to cook for about 20 minutes, mixing occassionally. You want to sort of brown the tomato paste so that it is almost burned but not quite. This really, really intensifies the flavor of the paste.

After your tomato paste is starting to look brownish, you are going to add some red wine. You can really use any red wine, but a dryer wine will probably give more flavor. Red wine is like the heart and soul of a bolognese; there are many variations of bolognese, but all of them call for red wine. Red wine is where the distinctive flavor of the finished product really comes from. Now, you know I'm not a real big fan of measuring so what I typically do is add enough red wine to give me the consistency of a thick liquid once it's incorporated well. This should be at least two cups but really, just pour the wine into the pan and mix as you go, stopping whenever you think you've added enough. The wine will bubble up when it comes into contact with the hot skillet, so be careful. As you mix it in, run your spatula along the bottom of the pan to remove the scrapings from the cooking you've already done. The mixture should bubble as it cooks, again being stirred occassionally. During this stage of the cooking, you're going to be reducing the wine. You should see that the liquid becomes thicker as it cooks more. You're going to continue cooking it until it is almost the consistency of a paste again. The depth of flavor from combining the reduced red wine with the almost burned tomato paste is really out of this world.

After the wine has reduced, transfer the entire contents of the pan into a stock pot. Add another cup of red wine, and three cups of water. At this time, you will need to season with salt and pepper again, and you will also want to add in some thyme. Mix well and continue cooking at medium heat until the sauce is bubbling. Allow the sauce to boil for about ten minutes, stirring occassionally. After ten minutes, reduce the heat to low. You're going to simmer the sauce for about three hours, adding more water one cup at a time as you deem necessary. The sauce will reduce slowly as it cooks, which is why you'll need to add more water here and there. This slow cooking process really brings out the flavors of all of your ingredients. After about three hours, your sauce is finished! On the night that I cooked the bolognese, I just served it over some pasta with a crusty piece of italian bread.

Now stay tuned for the amazingly delicious ways I used this sauce for the rest of the week. We're going to bring a new meaning to the word "leftovers" people!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mango Cobbler with Oat Topping

After a somewhat lengthy absence I am finally back and ready to blog about the delicious goings on in my kitchen. To make up for lost time, here is a quick post about a delectable yet extremely easy dessert I started whipping up recently; mango cobbler. What's so wonderful about this dessert is that it is relatively good for you, and while you might have to pick up a couple of mangoes to make it, you should have everything else you need right on hand at home. It is so fast and easy to make, and a guaranteed crowd pleaser every time.

To make the cobbler:

Begin by skinning and pitting the mangoes. Dice them into small cubes and set aside in a bowl or on your cutting board. Melt a third of a stick of butter in a sauce pan on medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add in some sugar, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Now you know I'm not a real fan of measuring, but good approximations are 1 tbsp of sugar, 1 tbsp of cinnamon and half a capful of vanilla extract. Mix this well with the butter, then add in your mango cubes. You will cook the mango cubes in the butter mixture on medium heat for about ten minutes.

While they're cooking, preheat your oven to 350. Use the rest of the time to make the oat topping. In a microwave safe bowl, melt 1tbsp of butter. Add a small amount of sugar and cinnamon to the butter, then toss in half a cup of oats and mix well, coating all of the oats.

Remove the mangoes from the stove top and empty them into a baking dish. Top the mangoes with the oat topping and bake until the oats start to look golden brown (about 10 minutes).

What could be easier? This is a super easy way to indulge in dessert after dinner, and you don't have to feel bad about a dessert that is comprised mostly of fresh mango and oats. This dessert is also made using all fresh and natural ingredients, and it is also super inexpensive. No matter how you look at it, this is a dessert that should find its way to your table any day now.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indoor Fajitas

I've been making super heavy comfort foods for Sunday dinners the past few weeks, so today I asked my husband what he was in the mood for. We both had busy, tiring days of serious cleaning and serious yard work, and he thought that tacos would be good because they were both light and filling. My problem with tacos is that I have not been able to make up the ground meat to go in them since I was pregnant with my daughter. We use to eat tacos all the time, but when I got pregnant with her, the smell, taste and texture of ground meat with taco seasoning just made me want to gag. For some reason . . . it still does. Tacos the way we used to have them were out, but he was right about that type of meal being right today. So I compromised and decided to make fajitas.

Then I had another obstacle standing in my way. No propane for the grill! But by now I really wanted fajitas so I was determined to find a way. What we ended up with was chicken strips and peppers that I quickly cooked in a skillet with some olive oil, seasoned with some salt and pepper.

To make the chicken and peppers:

Begin by slicing two bell peppers into thin strips. Coat a large frying pan with some olive oil and set it on medium heat. When the skillet is hot, put in the peppers. Stir until they are mostly coated with the oil, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook over the medium heat for about ten minutes, moving occassionally. Empty them into a bowl when they are finished.

While they're cooking, take out your chicken breasts and season them on both sides with salt and pepper. I used 5 thin cut chicken breasts to feed my family of four. Cook your chicken breasts in the same skillet as the peppers, over the same heat. They will take about five minutes on each side. Once they are cool enough to touch, slice them into strips. They are now ready to serve.

I also made a lime guacamole to go in the fajitas. I've been playing with my guacamole preparation, and tonight I went lime crazy it out to give a bold flavor.

To make the guacamole:

Begin by dicing half of a red onion very finely. Put it in a small bowl. Finely dice one anaheim chile and add it to the onion. Now, what you would really need to accomplish what I did would be a mortar and pestle, but I did not have that so I used the Pampered Chef tool that I use to make tarts :) I ground the onions with the chile to mash them slightly. Add the zest of one lime to the bowl, then juice half of the lime into the bowl. If you want really lime-tastic guac, you can juice the whole lime. Add the avocados to the bowl and mix with a fork. If you like chunky guac, don't mix it too much. This recipe requires no chilling. Your guacamole is ready to serve.

We ended up with a light yet filling dinner that was full of delicious flavors that pleased the whole family. I served the chicken, peppers and guacamole with other fajita fixings like sour cream, shredded cheddar, diced tomatoes and sliced black olives. Easy yet also delicious!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pimento Cheese and Apple Cucumber Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

Last night was one of those nights when my husband worked late, so I was on my own for dinner. I have been seized with the inspiration to try my hand at pimento cheese ever since seeing it on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives a couple of weeks ago. I'm a born and bred New England girl, so I have no first hand experience with pimento cheese and in fact, I had never even heard of it until seeing it on that show.

So . . . I'm sure my version of pimento cheese is not "authentic", but it was still delicious. Very easy to make and full of bold flavors that worked well together. I just spread mine on some whole wheat and toasted it for a quick meal that pleased both me and my kids.

To make the pimento cheese:

Start out by shredding equal portions of smoked gouda and sharp cheddar. I used about one cup of each. In a large bowl, combine the cheese with salt, pepper and cayenne. If you don't like it spicy, you don't have to use the cayenne. In a coffee mug, combine 2 tbsp light mayo and 2 tbsp room temp cream cheese. Mix well. Add in a little bit of the liquid from your jar of pimentos; about 1 tbsp. Mix again, then set aside. Dice your pimentos until you have about one cup of them, somewhat finely chopped. Add them to the cheese, then pour the mayo/cream cheese mixture over it. Mix well, taking care to coat the cheese equally. Your pimento cheese is now ready to use.

I needed something to go on the side of my pimento cheese, and I wanted something light. I just diced an apple and half of a cucumber and topped it with a tiny little balsamic vinaigrette. All you do to make the balsamic vinaigrette is combine equal portions balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, then whisk until it's emulsified. It made a cool, satisfying salad that was extremely easy to prepare.

I had a lot of other things to do last night besides cooking. My carpets needed some steam cleaning, I had a gift to wrap for a bridal shower, and I had a ton of laundry calling my name. 'Easy' was the order of the night. But easy doesn't have to mean that it's not delicious ;)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vegetable Stuffed Peppers with Cous Cous

Last night I had the challenge of making something for dinner without really having anything on hand that screamed "dinner". I was in need of a trip to the grocery store, but couldn't get there yesterday. I had all the makings for a spinach salad that I make frequently, so I decided to make that, but I knew I would need something else to go with it in order for my carnivore of a husband to feel like he ate a "real" dinner (insert eye roll here). I saw some red peppers in my fridge, so I decided to do some stuffed peppers to go with the salad.

Now, I usually do a meat stuffing with beef, pork and sausage when I make stuffed peppers, but I didn't have any of those things on hand yesterday. I know my husband doesn't care for a plain breadcrumb stuffing in peppers. So I opened the fridge again. I had a ton of vegetables, so I decided to make a vegetable stuffing.

To make the stuffing:

Begin by dicing 3 large carrots, 3 ribs of celery and half of an onion. Set them in a sauce pan to sautee over medium low heat with half a stick of butter. While they're sauteeing, dice some button mushrooms, and chop some endive spears into ribbons. If you don't have endive I think any leafy green would work in this application, but I liked the flavor of the endive in this dish. After the carrots, celery and onions are starting to look somewhat cooked, add in the mushrooms and the endive. At this time, season liberally with salt and black pepper, and also add a dash of worcestershire. Stir well and cover.

As the stuffing came together and started looking good, I really started questioning whether or not the spinach salad I had in mind would go with these peppers. The salad has a lot of sweet flavors, and I was starting to think that it wouldn't taste good next to what I already had going. Thankfully, fate intervened. When I took the lid off of the sauce pan, I realized that I had much more vegetable sautee than I could ever possibly stuff my two peppers with. Inspiration struck, and I decided to use some of the vegetables in the stuffing, and some in a cous cous.

Using a slotted spoon, I transferred the sauteed vegetables from the sauce pan into a large bowl. There was a lot of liquid in the bottom of the pan from the addition of the mushrooms and the endive, and I wanted to save it to cook my cous cous in it.

Combine about a third of the vegetables with approx. three quarters of a cup of breadcrumbs and mix well. I cut my peppers in half for easier stuffing. Just spoon the stuffing into the peppers with a teaspoon, packing tightly. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with a thin coating of olive oil and place the peppers on it. Bake them for about half an hour at 350. You'll know they're done when the edges of the peppers start to look puckered and the stuffing starts browning on the top.

To make the cous cous:

Add a cup of beef broth and a dash of worcestershire to your reserved cooking liquid and heat it on high heat. Once it reaches a boil, add in your cous cous. I'm not big on measuring so I always eyeball the cous cous, but your cous cous package should have exact measurements of how much you should add if that's your thing. You're adding cous cous to about a cup and a half of liquid. Once the cous cous goes down in the pan, stir it once, remove it from the heat and cover it. The cous cous cooks by absorbing the hot liquid. It is seriously one of the easiest things in the world to make. Forget about it for about five minutes, then lift the lid to see how it's doing by fluffing it with a fork. If it fluffs up and looks good, perfect! If it seems a little dry, it's ok to add some water to moisten it up. Once you get the consistency you want, add in the reserved vegetables and hit it with a dash of extra virgin olive oil and some salt. Mix well and your cous cous is ready to serve.

At this point, I had a delicious looking cous cous and some peppers that were almost ready to come out of the oven, which also looked delicious. I almost called it a meal there. But I knew that making a little sauce to go over the peppers would really make it something special, and it wouldn't take that much more effort either. So I quickly whipped up a little beef flavored romano cheese sauce.

To make the sauce:

Begin by building a small roux. Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a small sauce pan. Once it's melted, add 1 tbsp of flour and mix well. Allow your roux to cook for about five minutes on medium low heat, then add in some beef broth. Just add a little at a time, whisking constantly. The roux will seem to suck up the beef broth and expand. You're going to add about half a cup total of beef broth. You should still have a clump of light brown "roux" in your sauce pan after all of the broth goes in. Add some skim milk to this, whisking constantly, until you get to the consistency of a thick liquid. It shouldn't take much, because we're only making a small sauce to go over our peppers. Continue whisking to keep your sauce from settling. Bring the heat up to medium high. The sauce should bubble for about ten minutes to cook the starchiness out of the flour. After about ten minutes, reduce the heat to low and add about 2 tbsp of grated romano cheese. You will also want to season with salt and pepper to taste, but you will need less salt than you might normally want because the romano cheese is pretty salty. Whisk together well and leave on low heat until you're ready to use it. You should spoon it directly from the hot pan onto your peppers when they're done.

And that was what we had for dinner last night; peppers stuffed with sauteed vegetables, topped with a beefy romano cheese sauce, and sauteed vegetable cous cous. After dinner, my husband and I agreed that a phoenix had risen from the ashes because don't forget, this meal was the creation of a woman who did not want to drag her butt to the grocery store :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bacon, Onions and Gouda = Decadent Mac n Cheese

I'm sorry for not posting all weekend, but I was a little busy with plans for a surprise dinner party for my husband's thirtieth birthday, which went off without a hitch last night. But now I'm back, and today I'm going to talk about the comfort food classic I allowed my family to indulge in for Sunday dinner; homemade mac n cheese.

Now, I'll admit something totally geeky. I'm a big fan of Next Food Network Star, and I like cooking something spectacular on Sunday nights so that when I watch the show afterwards, I can feel like I could dominate if I ever went on that show. Yes, I warned you ahead of time that it was totally geeky :) Anyway, I was craving mac n cheese something fierce, and I decided to kick it up a notch with some bacon. Nothing terribly original went on in my kitchen on Sunday night, but it was something terribly delicious.

To make the mac n cheese:

Begin by cooking 8 strips of thick cut bacon over low heat on a skillet. This will probably take as long as half an hour (flip them when they look mostly browned). You might be tempted to use higher heat to speed the process along, but don't do it. Cooking it slow over low heat allows your bacon to develop more flavor. While your bacon is cooking, dice a block of smoked gouda into small little cubes. You will want to end up with about a cup and a half of gouda cubes. You should also use this time to finely mince half an onion. Set both aside. Once the bacon is cooked, reserve it on a plate in the fridge and set a pot of water with a handful of salt to boil. Now you will move onto your sauce.

You will begin the sauce by adding about half of the bacon grease into a sauce pan over medium heat. Throw in the onions and sweat them a little until they are just beginning to become translucent. At this time, add in 3 tbsp of flour and combine it well with your onions and bacon grease. This is your roux. Cook it over the medium heat for about five minutes, stirring occassionally. While your roux is cooking is the best time to chop up the bacon. Reserve three strips to use as a topping, but chop the other five into crumbles. Now it is time to add the milk to your roux. Making this sauce is not an exact science, and you will just need to add however much milk as it takes to create the consistency of a thick liquid, whisking constantly as you go. It might seem too thin at first, but it will thicken up as it cooks. You may find that you need to add more milk as it thickens. That is ok. Still over the medium heat, bring this to a boil, continuing to whisk frequently. Any time you make this type of sauce, it is of paramount importance that you give it time to boil (about ten minutes). The boiling breaks down the starchiness of the flour to give your sauce a smoother texture and better flavor.

Now would be a good time to add your pasta to the boiling water. I used fusilli, but any pasta would work in this application. Stir your pasta occassionally as it cooks. Return your attention to the sauce. Reduce the heat to low and add in your gouda, whisking slowly to incorporate it. It will take a bit of time to melt since those are cubes of cheese. Once the gouda is melted, add in about a cup of shredded sharp cheddar. This will melt much faster. Once the cheese is all in, add the bacon crumbles. Your sauce is now ready to top the pasta whenever it's ready, but you will have to continue whisking it frequently until you use it.

Drain your pasta and then return it to the pan you cooked it in. Pour the whole sauce over the pasta and mix well. Pour the whole thing into a baking dish and bake it at 350 for about twenty minutes, or until it is bubbling. While the mac n cheese is in the oven you will want to chop the remaining three pieces of bacon. When your mac n cheese comes out you will top it with the extra bacon crumbles. Fresh chives are a great garnish for this dish as well.

If you are craving comfort food, nothing will satisfy that craving quite like this dish. I thought fleetingly of adding some celery to the sauce to sautee with the onions, or of sauteeing some mushrooms to add here, but I decided against those things because I felt like unadulterated bacon, onions, cheese and pasta in a dish really personified comfort food. The best part of all is that aside from how long it takes to cook the bacon, this is not a really labor intensive meal, and it yields enough to feed six people who will all be very happy when they're done.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Chicken Soup and Shortbread

I started today thinking I'd probably just have a PB&J for lunch, but a few things happened to change me from doing that, to spending a good hour cooking my brains out.

I started really, really craving shortbread. Now that I know how wonderful my Kitchen Aid mixer is, making shortbread should really be a quick and easy thing, right? Well it was. Shortbread went into the oven with extremely limited preparation. All I had to do was add ingredients then press a button. Add ingredients, press a button. I could get used to that.

Then my husband came home from work sick with bronchitis and strep throat. He went upstairs to rest, and his only request was some soup. So I got to work making him a little chicken soup too. I have a couple of really fantastic short cuts that make it possible to create a really delicious soup in just thirty minutes, with a minimal number of dirty pans.

To make the soup:

Begin by quickly cooking a couple of boneless chicken breasts in a small skillet with a thin coating of olive oil. You may wish to season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Once they have cooked on both sides, set them aside on a plate in the fridge to cool.

Fill a small bowl with hot water from the tap and put a cup of uncooked orzo in there. Let it sit on the counter.

Melt half a stick of butter in a medium stock pot on medium low heat. Once the butter is completely melted, add salt, pepper and garlic powder. After the seasoning has been in for a couple of minutes, add 32 oz. of chicken stock. You can always use your own, and the soup is better for it if you do. If you use your own, you can probably avoid the butter. But if you're trying to make something in a hurry, this is one time where there's nothing wrong with using a store bought stock. Add the stock and let it warm up. Chop up 3 large carrots, 2 ribs of celery and half of an onion. It's important to get them all about the same size so that they cook evenly in the soup. Add the vegetables to the stock and turn it up to medium heat. Turn your attention to the chicken breasts. Coarsely dice them and add them to the stock pot. At this time, you will also add a 15 oz. can of tomato sauce and about a cup of corn.

At medium heat, the soup should start bubbling. When this happens, add the orzo. The final thing you are going to add to this soup is a "roux" of corn flour and warm water. In a coffee mug, combine 2 tbsp of corn flour with some warm water from the tap. You're going for the consistency of a thick liquid. Stir well with a spoon, getting all clumps out, then add this roux to the stock pot. This will give your broth a little body. Stir your soup well and bring it back to a bubble. After it has bubbled for ten minutes, it's ready to serve.

This only took me thirty minutes and it was greatly appreciated by my husband. I appreciated it too. After just one bowl, I was extremely full, and very happy about it. Now I also have a pan full of shortbread waiting for me to dive into it, and let me tell you, it smells divine in my house.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Grown Up English Muffin Pizzas

Last night I made some pizzas for dinner. Homemade pizza is nothing interesting or special, but it is a quick and easy crowd pleaser with my whole family. What's special to me about homemade pizza is what I do with the leftover sauce the next day.

I make english muffin pizzas, and I make them a tiny bit more sophisticated than what you probably ate when you were a kid. The english muffin pizzas of my childhood involved my mom opening a can of "pizza sauce", spooning it onto english muffins, topping it with one slice of american cheese, then toasting it. Now, if that nostalgic flash back is what you're going for when you eat english muffin pizzas then by all means, don't let me stand in your way. But if you'd enjoy trying something that still sends you back, but with some bolder flavors, try my recipe for grown up english muffin pizzas.

It starts with the sauce. My sister gave me this idea, and we should all bow down to her because with one simple suggestion, she made preparing homemade pizza and all of the resultant english muffin pizzas a million times easier and tastier.

To make quick and easy "homemade" pizza sauce:

Combine a 15 oz. can of tomato sauce and a 6 oz. can of tomato paste in a microwave safe bowl. Add in a dash (about 2 tbsp) of red wine, 1 tbsp of sugar, 1 tbsp of salt, 1 tbsp of grated romano cheese, and 1 tbsp of oregano. Mix well, then microwave for 1 minute. It's that ridiculously easy. If you had the time and desire to take it a step further, you could do this in a sauce pan and begin with some minced garlic, but you will still get a flavorful sauce if you do it in the microwave. I don't microwave very often when I'm cooking, but this is one time when it's a good idea. The result is a relatively thick, sweet tomato sauce, perfect for pizza.

The english muffin pizzas only require 4 things; english muffins, garlic, your leftover sauce, and some grated romano cheese. I start by toasting the english muffins plain. This is important because if you put all the sauce and cheese on before you toast them, you're going to end up with a soggy mess. Toasting them first preserves the integrity of the english muffin. While they're toasting, microwave your sauce until it's lukewarm. Once the english muffins come out of the toaster, rub them with a clove of garlic. Just peel one and cut it in half so that the juicy side is exposed, and rub it against the flat side of your english muffins. Top them liberally with the sauce, then sprinkle a liberal amount of romano cheese onto them. Press the romano cheese into the sauce. It will almost end up like a paste.

And voila! English muffin pizzas that are slightly more flavorful, slightly crispier, and extremely easy to make. When you factor in the added bonus of using up your leftovers, why wouldn't you want to make these? I almost look forward to english muffin pizzas the next day more than the pizza we had the night before.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tuna Tartare

Yesterday I hit up my local seafood mart and picked up one thick, fresh tuna steak. The goal was to make tuna tartare for dinner one night when my husband would be working late. It didn't occur to me until I already had the tuna in hand that he won't be working late again until Thursday, and by the the tuna will definitely not be fresh enough for tartare. D'oh! So I decided "I'm worth it", and made the tartare for lunch.

I am a self confessed seafood-aholic. I was born and have lived all my life in New England, and some of my fondest childhood memories are based on the time I spent out on the boat with my father, and the time we spent cooking the resultant seafood together. I have always known that I love all types of shellfish. Any way you can prepare them, I'm ready to eat. But actual fish was different. I have never cared for a cooked fillet of fish. It just doesn't dance on my tastebuds. I thought I was a seafood-aholic poser for a long time, until about seven years ago when my sister introduced me to sushi.

Raw seafood and myself are a match made in heaven. I loved sushi from the first bite, and after that, I quickly discovered a whole new world of fish with various raw preparations; carpaccios, tartares, sashimis. I love them all. I might turn my nose up to cooked fish, but I will never say no to it raw. It's a different flavor, a different texture, and a different eating experience all together.

I don't know why it took me so long to decide to try my hand at my own raw preparation of seafood, but I finally bit the bullet yesterday. Tuna is one of my very favorite types of fish, and I thought it would be very hard to screw up. I chose to make a tartare because I enjoy using my knives, and all you really do when you're making tartare is chop, chop, chop. Few things make you feel like a real chef quite like wielding the largest knife you own at the speed of light over a piece of meat until it is pulverized.

To make the tartare:

I started with a red bell pepper. I minced one half of the pepper finely. Then I used half of a small onion, which I also minced finely. I put the chopped vegetables into a bowl together and chopped 2 tbsp of capers to join them. I added 2 tbsp of lemon juice, 2 tbsp of olive oil and some salt and pepper to my bowl and mixed.

Then I got to work on the tuna. I had a half pound steak, and I started by dicing it. Once it was diced, I just ran my knife through it and over it until it was beginning to resemble a paste. Don't be afraid to bring your knife down on your cutting board hard; it just expedites the process. I added my finely, finely chopped tuna to the bowl and mixed well.

I served my tartare on toast points, but you could use any serving vehicle that suits you. Tartare is such a delight to prepare and eat on a hot summer day because it doesn't involve any time in front of a hot stovetop, and it is just a nice, cool, crisp flavor in your mouth. I will definitely be making tuna tartare again.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chicken, Bacon, Mushroom Casserole in a Bacon Cheddar Bechamel

Today we took it easy at home. My husband mowed the lawn, I did a little cleaning, the kids played . . . it was just a run of the mill Sunday.

And what does a cooking happy mama think of on a run of the mill Sunday? Sunday dinner of course. Tonight I had some boneless chicken breasts and some button mushrooms that both needed to be used or tossed, so I brainstormed ideas for using those ingredients together. I was bored to tears at the idea of just making chicken breasts in some way that you'd eat them with a knife and fork, so I decided to get more creative and try a casserole. The results were a huge crowd pleaser that my kids both gobbled down, and that had my husband going back for thirds.

I started by crisping some bacon on a griddle, then reserving the fat in a coffee mug. I used the same griddle to cook the chicken breasts (4), which I had just lightly salted and peppered. I set all of the meat in the fridge to cool. I chopped 5 ribs of celery and one small onion and put them in a sauce pan with half a stick of butter. Once they were sizzling, I added the mushrooms (about a cup and a half, chopped). I cooked that until the onions were translucent and the mushrooms looked sauteed, then I transferred the entire contents of the sauce pan into a large bowl.

I set a pot of water to boil, and poured my bacon fat into the sauce pan I had just used to sautee the vegetables. When the bacon fat was hot, I added some flour to make a roux. I cooked the roux for about 5 minutes, then added enough milk to get it to the consistency of a thick liquid, whisking constantly. I let the sauce bubble for about ten minutes. During that time, I put my pasta into the boiling water. I used ditalini, which are small little cylinders. While the sauce bubbled and the pasta boiled, I chopped up my chicken and bacon. I diced the chicken, but it would have been fantastic shredded too. I threw the chicken and bacon into the same bowl with the sauteed vegetables. I drained my now finished pasta and added it to the bowl as well.

Then I turned my attention back to the sauce. The sauce was really the star of the show. It took a bunch of otherwise good tasting ingredients and tied them together so that they became one in a fantastic dinner that was the very embodiment of comfort food. Once my sauce had bubbled for awhile, I added two cups of shredded sharp cheddar. The cheese melted very quickly, and then I had a beautiful, fantastic smelling, delicious sauce. I poured the entire sauce into the bowl with all of the other ingredients and mixed it well. I transferred the contents of the bowl into a baking dish and baked it at 350 for about 20 minutes.

The end result involved two toddlers telling me that my cooking is "ishish" (delicious) and one husband clutching his stomach as he went back for thirds because "it's so damn good". Can't beat reviews like that!

A few key points here are that you can't over flavor the chicken or the vegetables. I tend to fall into the trap of "more is more", and I want to add a little bit of every spice in my pantry. I didn't this time, and it was the right call. Also, and this is the most important part of recreating this meal, you must boil the sauce. Anytime you make a sauce or gravy that starts off with a roux, you must boil it to cook down the starchiness of the flour. Trust me. I've been in a hurry and thought, "How different can it really taste?", and just taken my gravy off the heat before it really came to a boil. It matters. Do yourself a favor, and let your sauce boil for at least ten minutes. When you're doing a cheese sauce like I did tonight, don't add the cheese until after you've boiled the sauce.

I created the perfect ending to the perfect day just because I had to use up some food that would have gone bad otherwise. Now I also have a pretty big bowl full of leftovers that I can't wait to dive into for lunch tomorrow. What could be better?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blue Cheese Stuffed Celery Sticks and Banana Bread

Tonight is another night when my husband will be working late, and I have a bunch of leftover guacamole and peppers from last night, so I'll be nibbling on that again. I wondered what I could blog about today, because just telling you that I'll be enjoying my leftovers is pretty boring, right?

Well I'm also taking my kids over to the grandparents' house for a visit, and it's going to be a small cookout. At the request of my mother in law, I'm bringing an appetizer. My first choice when I need something I can throw together quick is always stuffed celery sticks. This extremely simple yet also very flavorful appetizer is something that I learned from my father. He's been making this for holiday get togethers since the dawn of time. All you have to do is cut some celery hearts into sticks, and fill them with Kraft roka blue cheese spread. Delicious. It's a crowd pleaser every time.

The only problem is that Kraft roka blue cheese spread is not always available at the supermarket. In the past when I've been planning to make stuffed celery sticks but haven't been able to find the roka blue cheese spread, I've given up and made something else. But today I put my foot down. Why should I let the absence of a pre-made, convenience item on the supermarket shelf deter me from making what I want to make? I grabbed a few quick ingredients to make my own blue cheese filling.

Easy, homemade blue cheese filling:

In a medium bowl, combine 16oz of cream cheese with 1 tbsp of butter and microwave for 1 minute. Mix together well. Add in about 3 tbsp of lemon juice and half a cup of blue cheese crumbles. Mix well again. If you want a chunkier filling, you're done. If you want a smoother filling, microwave again for one more minute, then mix well again. This will better incorporate some of the blue cheese crumbles. Chill for two hours before using.

I just did this this afternoon, and in just five minutes, and with only one dirty dish to show for my effort, I had a blue cheese filling that was less expensive and much more delicious than the store bought kind I typically use.

The other interesting thing that went down in my kitchen this afternoon was the christening of my Kitchenaid stand mixer. We've had this thing for over a year because my husband, who never, ever cooks, really wanted one. Why he wanted one, I'll never know. Anyway, I'm not much of a baker and the things I typically whisk or beat are small and easy enough that I have never felt the need to dirty a whole big mixer.

Well today I had some bananas that were very close to the end of their useful life, so I decided to attempt to make some banana bread. The recipe I used was not my own so I won't post it here, but I used my Kitchenaid mixer for the first time and . . . I was bowled over. It was so easy to use and it made such quick work of the exhausting hand mixing that I would have had to do otherwise. I'm still not sure if I'm much of a baker, but at least now I know that when I want some home made shortbread (the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, as far as I'm concerned), I can just throw some butter, sugar and flour into the Kitchenaid mixer and let it do all the work.

Also . . . now I have a delightful loaf of banana bread to come home to tonight :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chunky Guacamole on Blue Corn Tortillas

My husband is the owner of a successful bar in our area and he works a lot of late nights. This suits me fine when it comes to cooking because he and I have some different tastes, and on nights like these when he's not going to be home for dinner, I can cook whatever my little heart desires without regard for whether he'd like it, or whether he'd think it was substantial enough to be a meal. On the agenda tonight is homemade guacamole with some blue corn tortillas. I prefer blue corn tortillas to plain ones because I think they have a richer flavor, but yellow tortillas would be just fine here as well.

To make the guacamole:

Peel two avocados and put the meat into a bowl. Add about a quarter of a cup of chopped cilantro, a quarter of a cup of finely chopped onion, 2 tbsp of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. I like my guac spicy, so I also added a liberal dash of tabasco and about half a tsp of cayenne. Of course, my sister (who REALLY likes spicy food) would tell me that half a tsp of cayenne is nothing, so when it comes to the spicy ingredients, do whatever feels right and TASTE as you go. Depending on what you like, you can add more or less of any of these ingredients.

Mix everything together with a fork, mushing the avocado however much you want. I like mine to be a little chunky so I err on the side of mixing less.

My guacamole is chilling in the fridge as we speak. In about two hours, I'm going to grill up a couple of red peppers I have here and probably build some quesadillas using the guac, the blue corn tortillas, the grilled peppers and some pepper jack cheese. I'll keep you posted ;)