Category Archives: Entree

Beet and Goat Cheese Ravioli with Rosemary Browned Butter

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Ah, Valentines’s Day. Loved my many, loathed by many. It’s a spark of love in the middle of an otherwise dark and dreary month. Whether you spend it with your love, in the presence of those you love, a handful of giggling girlfriends, or with your lovely self, it’s a day to express those glittery, pink and red feelings.

And so I bring you these festive little ravioli. Tasty little morsels in a sweet little package that just shouts Valentine’s. If you have a small heart shaped cookie cutter here’s a place to use it, if not don’t fret, ravioli are perfect in any shape they come in. No fancy tools required here.

They don’t have to be hard, either. That’s right, you out there, the one who’s thinking I must be completely nuts for thinking anyone with a job is going to make ravioli on a weeknight. I may be nuts but you can truly do this on a weeknight. The secret? Wonton or gyoza wrappers. Available in your grocer’s refrigerated aisle (in mine, near the tofu products), they make quick work of these. You can use gyoza wrappers (which are a bit smaller but you can still use a cute cutter), round gyoza wrappers, or the larger egg roll wrappers if you’d like to cut out larger shapes. They work just like fresh pasta sheets (and in fact ARE fresh pasta sheets), and take all of the work out of making pasta.

Fresh Pasta

In fact I did make my pasta for these ravs, but up until I got a pasta rolling machine I didn’t bother to try. You just can’t get the same silky, soft, and evenly thin results with your dough if you use a rolling pin. I’ve made many ravioli with fillings as wide as my dreams with gyoza wrappers, and very few were any the wiser. For purposes of this application, go grab your gyoza wrappers and your Valentine and get to work.

Cooking together is fun and can be very sexy. The tactile work of assembling something like this, getting your hands in it and building your filling, using your damp fingers to brush water around the edges of your pasta to seal it, feeling the filled nubs to make sure there aren’t any air pockets that will burst the packets in the boiling process, it’s all very sensual. And knowing, when you sit down together for dinner, that you made this little treat with each other and your own two hands, is a sexy thing.

For those who don’t cook, this is something so simple that you can do on your own that will impress the pants off of your Valentine. (Pun intended)

A few of these tasty ravioli with a quick browned butter drizzle, a light salad with quick vinaigrette (which I’ll give you another day this week), and a nice loaf of crusty bread and even dessert from your favorite local bakery(ies), and you have a great dinner for two or more. This recipe makes a bunch of pasta, and they freeze beautifully for later use.

Beet and Goat Cheese Ravoili
Makes lots, be prepared to freeze

1 package of gyoza wrappers (round or square, your choice)
1 large red beet (skip the nasty canned ones)
Zest of half of a lemon, about 1/4 teaspoon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 4 0z. log of goat cheese (don’t like goat cheese? Use half of a brick of cream cheese, or about a half cup of good ricotta)

You’ll also need:
A small bowl of water, for sealing
Flour for dusting your work surface
A sheet pan to rest your finished pasta on
A 2″ heart shaped cookie cutter, optional

Preheat your oven to 400*F. Wash and dry your beet, wrap it in foil, and place it in the oven. Cook until a knife slipped into the side of the package (no need to unwrap, just stab it) slides in easily, about an hour. Remove beet to counter and gently unwrap, allow to cool, Can be done a couple of days ahead, cool beet completely and refrigerate.

When cool enough to handle, put on a pair of disposable gloves or a couple of plastic bags on your hands and peel the beet – the skin should slip right off. Discard the skin and using a box grater, grate the beet into a bowl. You’re gloving up because otherwise you’ll have purple hands forever. ūüôā Sprinkle the lemon zest over and combine, adding a bit of salt and pepper to taste.

In another bowl, crumble up the goat cheese log so it’s easier to handle. Fill a small bowl with water and get your flour out. Sprinkle a light dusting of flour on your cookie sheet and your work surface, I use a cutting board and usually a piece or two of wax paper for easier clean up – I forgot the wax paper this time around.

Lay out a few of your gyoza wrappers, 6-8, and keep the rest in the package or between the layers of a damp paper towel. Pasta sheets dry out quickly and become difficult to work with. Now, you have a decision to make: large or small ravioli? Large ones will have the filling in the center and another sheet of pasta placed on top of the filling, small will have the filling placed just off-center and be folded over to create the ravioli. Choice is yours, you can flip for it.

if you decide to make hearts, cut out your shapes and toss the scraps, you’re going to be making larger ravioli. I used a 2″ cutter for my hearts

Beet and goat cheese ravs

Now. If you’re making large ravioli, put a scant half teaspoon of beet and scant half teaspoon of goat cheese in the middle of the pasta. Dip a finger in the water bowl, run your finger around the edge of the pasta sheet, and lay another on top of the filling. Seal the pasta around the edges, trying to get as much air out of the pocket as possible. It takes a couple of tries to get the feel for it, and even the pros have a few that get air in them and burst when boiled. Don’t stress about it.

Beet & Goat Cheese Ravioli

If you’re making small, fold over ravioli, place a scant quarter teaspoon of beet and goat cheese, respectively, just off-center of the pasta sheet. Using your finger, dampen¬†half of the pasta, fold over and try to get as much air out as possible. Set the pasta on the prepared baking sheet as you finish them. Repeat with remaining filling and sheets until finished.

Pasta may be refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap, for two days, or frozen for a month. Freeze the pasta on the sheet pan, and when solid transfer to a freezer bag.

Freezing Ravioli

To cook, bring a pot of salted water just to a boil. Slip the ravioli in gently (if frozen no need to defrost, just add 3-4 minutes of cooking time) and boil for 3-4 minutes. Drain and serve in large flat bowls with a drizzle of Rosemary Browned Butter.

Rosemary Browned Butter
Serves 2, can be doubled infinitely

4 T. butter
1 T. chopped fresh rosemary
2 t. grated grana padano or parmesan cheese

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides and butter begins to turn brown. Stir in sage and cook, stirring, until sage is crisp and butter is golden brown. Drizzle over ravioli, dust each plate with 1 t. of grated cheese, and serve.

For the Love of Leftovers

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I read a book last week called An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. If you haven’t read this book, run out and get it, it’s a game-changer. I’ve always considered myself to be a ¬†thrifty and frugal cook, but this book brought me up to a whole new level. I mean, I make chicken stock from my clean-picked birds, but hadn’t thought about saving the skins and ends from onions, scraps and tops of carrots and ends and tops of celery to make my stock with, I always start with whole vegetables that I go out and buy. I’m familiar with the adage Waste Not Want Not, but this,¬†this¬†was different. Her creative use of what’s left and what most people think of as trash is outrageously amazing. We’re talking about saving artichoke cooking water to be the basis of soup, here. Stuff like this was head-slapping realization for me. Why not? As such, I’m rereading the book this week, a bit more slowly, and taking notes. In a time when we should all be a bit more cautious with our spending, I urge you to read her book.

And beyond her uses of these cast-away items, her description of food, how it should taste, her use of salt, her use of olive oil, her encouragement of nibbling and savoring, was, in a word, beautiful. It spoke to my food obsessed soul. Yes.

In reading this book, it’s changed my view of leftovers yet again. I’m pretty good about not throwing away food, but will admit my guilt about the things that compost in the vegetable bins (whoever named them the Crisper Drawers was either a liar or horribly misinformed). Now, though, with some of the new things I learned in this book, I’m armed with some new game plans for lifeless lettuce and dying cucumbers. Not that dinner last night contained either of these things. It did make use of some rather morose looking bell peppers, though.

The weather took a turn toward cooler this week, which I’ll be honest with you is¬†fine by me.¬†After last week’s 100+ degree blitz for more than a couple of days, I’ll take some overcast drizzly mornings, 70 degree afternoons, and cool evenings. Last night I almost wanted to put another blanket on the bed, it was so chilly! (Un)Luckily for me, the cat decided he needed to sleep on top of my feet all night long (no matter where I put them), so I had toasty toes without getting out a blanket. He’s such a needy little beast sometimes.

And with the turn in the weather, my appetite took a turn toward comfort. Last week I could hardly bear to turn on the stove, this week I made Chicken and Rice Soup for dinner on Monday. My mom thought I was crazy but it just sounded so good. I got myself a double-coupon deep discount organic chicken on Saturday (that cost me less than $5 for a 6.5 pound bird), and though I didn’t need one I couldn’t pass up the price. A whole chicken is a poor housewife’s savior if she’s a crafty girl, and can be made into not just one but upward of 4 dinners. Warm chicken bistro salads one¬†night, another night he was Chicken and Rice Soup, last night he was pasta, and today he’ll be chicken stock to re-up my freezer coffers.¬†Chicken stock¬†means polenta, quick soup, and risotto base. I blast through a ton of it any given week and making it is a skill that I’m happy to have.

For those of you freaking out that it’s Friday and that chicken was just used up last night, well, calm down. The mystical powers of refrigeration and high heat made it perfectly safe to eat. I assure you.

And oh, that pasta. Sometimes a girl has to dispatch with the healthy and just have creamy pasta for dinner. On the whole the husband and I eat pretty healthy, but you have to give in every now and again. This pasta jogs somewhere in between. And for those of you who don’t think they like leftovers, I promise you, this pasta will change your tune. You see, the thing about leftovers is that they just need a little finesse to turn them into something else. This isn’t Saturday’s Chicken, this is Thursday’s Pasta.

Chicken Bacon Ranch Pasta
Serves 8 (easily divides in half)

1 lb. short pasta (penne, spirals, something that will hold the sauce in. I used gluten free brown rice penne.)
3 strips of thick cut bacon
1 t. butter
2 c. chopped bell pepper, whatever colors your family likes (no bell pepper? Use whatever is about to die in your ‘crisper’ drawer)
1 c. chopped onion
3 c. cooked, shredded chicken (we used white and dark meat, the choice is yours)
¬Ĺ¬†c. low fat buttermilk
¬Ĺ¬†c. sour cream or mayonnaise (use light or fat free if you‚Äôd like, I used good ol’ full fat mayonnaise because it’s what I had)
¬Ĺ t. dry mustard
¬Ĺ t. dried oregano
¬Ĺ t. dried basil
¬ĺ t. dried dill
¬ľ t. salt
¬ľ t. black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 c. shredded sharp cheddar or gruyere cheese
¬Ĺ¬†c. minced green onions
¬Ĺ c. bread crumbs

In a large bowl, combine buttermilk through minced garlic, mixing well to combine, and set aside. Boil pasta according to package directions, drain and set aside. Preheat the oven to 400*F.

In a medium skillet, cook bacon until very crisp, drain and crumble into bits. Drain all but 1 t. of the bacon drippings, add in butter. Sautee’ peppers and onions in skillet over medium heat until cooked and onions are translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Add in chicken and warm through.

Add pasta, chicken mixture, and bacon to the buttermilk mixture, stir together well to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if desired. Pour all in to a 13×9‚ÄĚ oven safe baking dish (if you’re halving the recipe, put it in your favorite 2 quart baking dish). Top with cheese, green onions, and bread crumbs. Bake uncovered at 400*F for 20-25 minutes until cheese is melted and dish is heated through. To crisp breadcrumbs, run the dish under the broiler for 2-3 minutes, if desired.

Waffling

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We were given a waffle iron as a wedding gift that hasn’t seen many daylight hours, to our dismay. Not that we aren’t waffle people, but our old kitchen was so cramped, had so little counter space, and such an INCREDIBLE LACK of outlets (literally, one in the whole kitchen other than what the fridge and the oven were plugged in to) that it just didn’t come out a whole lot. A waffle iron is one of those appliances that you either use every weekend like clockwork or once in a blue moon when the mood strikes and you have house guests and buttermilk laying around. I also have yet to find a couples-friendly waffle recipe that only makes 2 or 3 of them. Why must all recipes make enough waffles for an entire classroom?

I have the tendency to sit down and have a drink with a good friend of ours and talk food. All things food. He and I talk about flavors and combinations of textures and cooking styles, each creation better than the next. And of course this always happens when we’re out camping, or at the pub, or somewhere that making these dreams come true isn’t going to happen. And far be it from either of us to write down these food-soaked dreams. We’ve had a couple of conversations about non-traditional waffles that leave us (and anyone in ear shot) salivating but have yet to make any of them come true. Until tonight.

I was inspired by this recipe but out of pure want for a healthier waffle, I smashed together this recipe and this recipe and topped the whole thing with a fried egg to make what I present to you below. We made these guys for dinner, but they would be equally appropriate and tasty for brunch or lunch as well. And all the while, I was dreaming of yet another waffle dinner that is going to make an appearance someday very, very soon.

Ham and Cheddar Waffles with Eggs

Made 7 in my waffle iron (will depend on the size of your waffler)

1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (or your favorite GF flour mix)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoons honey
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 c. sliced green onions
3 T. shredded fresh basil leaves
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
2 oz. thinly sliced ham, minced

Stir together first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Stir together egg and next 3 ingredients; add to cornmeal mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Add in cheddar cheese, green onions, basil and corn. Preheat your waffle iron, and preheat your oven to 275*F (to hold the waffles at temp).

If your waffle iron tends to stick, give it a pre-spray of olive oil or canola oil cooking spray. Pour appropriate amount of batter in to your preheated waffle iron (usually 1/2 to 3/4 c. per waffle), sprinkle on a scant 2 T. of ham bits. Bake 8-10 minutes, or until your waffle iron tells you it’s done (mine is dummy-proof and beeps at me when the waffle is finished). Transfer to a foil- or silpat-lined baking sheet in the oven.

In your favorite skillet, fry 1-2 eggs per person until desired doneness (I like mine over easy, Nick likes his closer to over medium). Place a waffle on a plate, top with egg(s), and finish with hot sauce, maple syrup, honey and/or sour cream and a crack of black pepper. Devour with reckless abandon.

Twofer: Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloin

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It can be cumbersome coming up with a dinner idea some nights. I have a handful of ‘standards’ that I can whip up in a moment’s notice but there are evenings when even that fails me because I just don’t want to eat it. It’s hard for me to put my heart into something that I know I don’t want to eat, even if it is one of my favorites. These uninspired nights generally end up being bacon and egg nights, or even (eeek) ramen and toast nights. Don’t judge.¬†Having the foresight to think up two dinners and only have to do the real cooking once is a life-saver. Most of those types of dinners around our house come from the Sunday Night Chicken Roast, but who’s roasting a bird when it’s a million degrees outside? Certainly not I, even with air conditioning. And to be honest, I’m kind of chickened out these days, we eat a lot of it.

Pork tenderloins aren’t something that make regular appearances at our house. The only pork persuasion ¬†items that I generally buy with any sort of frequency are bacon and Italian sausage, and the occasional pork shoulder for a dinner party or carnitas. Sometimes I’ll buy a ham when they’re on sale around the holidays that warrant their immediate consumption. I sometimes get some fat¬†pork chops when I’m blue and need gravy. I grabbed a couple tenderloins and froze them last week but only because they were fire-sale priced and really make for a fast dinner, as they cook in no time flat.

I managed to come up with a new twofer this week, which I’m a bit proud of. Night 1 was this Honey-Gingered pork tenderloin, with brown rice and foil-roasted green beans. ¬†To make this a twofer, save about 1/4 of the pork tenderloin, and make double the amount of rice that you will need for dinner and save it for Night 2 Pork Fried Rice later in the week when you don’t feel like thinking up dinner (recipe to follow later this week).

I only made one pork tenderloin and used the entire amount of marinade. If you’re making two tenderloins like the recipe calls for, double the marinade so you have enough to boil down for sauce for dinner later in the week. The marinade was probably one of the best I’ve ever had, I didn’t even get to marinate it the entire time, either. I can only imagine how good it would have been if I pulled my life together and made it the night before like the recipe said!¬†Also, for those who don’t eat pork, this would be amazing with turkey ‘tenderloins’, turkey breast or chicken breast.

Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloins
Adapted from Gourmet magazine

Two 3/4-pound pork tenderloins (I only used one)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce (or tamari)
1/4 cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh gingerroot
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pat pork dry and arrange in a shallow dish. In a bowl whisk together all remaining ingredients and pour marinade over pork. Turn pork to coat well. Chill pork, covered, turning it once or twice, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

Prepare grill.

Remove pork from marinade, reserving marinade, and arrange on a lightly oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over glowing coals (or over medium high heat on a gas grill). Grill pork, basting with reserved marinade and turning it every 5 minutes, 15 minutes total. Continue to cook pork, turning it every 5 minutes, until a thermometer diagonally inserted 2 inches into center of tenderloin registers 155¬įF., about 10 minutes more. Let pork stand 5 minutes before thinly slicing.

For Sauce: Save the left over marinade! Pour into a saucepan, add 1/2 c. water, bring up to a boil and reduce the whole mixture by half. Drizzle a little over the sliced pork for tonight’s dinner, and save the rest for dinner later in the week.

Next up: Pork Fried Rice

Putting it together

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I was on my feet all day working a wine event and realized I didn’t have a dinner plan. The horror. Being food obsessed, this isn’t something that gets past me very often. I make my meal plans for at least 4-5 days at a span so I always have something yummy in the wings waiting to be prepared. That day, though, my mind was melting in the heat and my best-laid plans were all but gone. This, roughly translated, means that nothing that I had on my plan sounded good.

When I hopped in my car at the end of the day and tried to put something together that wasn’t a vat of frozen yogurt consumed in an ice cold shower. Something that didn’t require standing up too long since my dogs were barking, and something that was tasty and cool and refreshing, that didn’t require an additional trip to the store. Once I had slipped in to the sublime coldness of my air conditioned car I wasn’t getting back out until I was home sweet home.

I first made this shrimp cocktail many years back on an equally mind-melting night. I packed up my picnic hamper with cold beer and fresh tortilla chips and went over to Nick’s house, where he had a pool and air conditioning (I had neither of these things). We sat on the deck in the breeze and stuffed ourselves with chips and shrimp cocktail and ice cold beer, and declared this dish a withering-heat winner.

Food Purists take note: yes, I do know that this isn’t traditional ceviche. For those who are unsure what ceviche is, it’s fish and seafood cooked only with citrus juices, generally lime, whose acids ‘cook’ the fish. But Rick Bayless knows his Mexican cuisine, and I trust his naming of this concoction. It’s very similar to the coctail de camarones you get in a Mexican restaurant. And¬†yes, it calls for ketchup. Think of it in this application as a pre-seasoned tomato sauce base (and don’t even try to use tomato sauce as a substitute, it won’t taste the same and you’ll be severely disappointed. You’ve been warned).

One could go about the shrimp preparation a number of different ways. The suggested poaching in lime water makes for succulent, soft shrimp, but in a pinch I’ve poached them with out the lime water when I didn’t have enough for the completed dish. I’ve also made this with defrosted, precooked, previously frozen deveined shrimp and no one was any the wiser. It’s a great dish to take to a barbecue or potluck, as well as for company. It’s surprisingly filling, too. So on a hot night when you have some folks over, a margarita or two or some icy cold Mexican beer and a great big communal bowl of this is a festive alternative to a sit down dinner. Make it ahead and stir in the avocado just before serving (it gets cloudy otherwise), serve some grill-roasted corn on the cob with chile powder and lime, and it meets or beats every taqueria whose coctail de camarones you’ve dared to try. Give it a whirl, you won’t be disappointed.

Ceviche de Camaron: Shrimp Ceviche “Cocktail”
by Rick Bayless, via Epicurious

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 generous pound unpeeled smallish shrimp (I prefer the ones that are 41/50 count to a pound)
1/2 medium white onion, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup ketchup
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegary Mexican bottled hot sauce (such as Tamazula, Valentina or B√ļfalo, the latter being on the sweet side)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin (optional, but recommended to smooth out sharpness)
1 cup diced peeled cucumber or jícama (or 1/2 cup of each)
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
Salt
Several lime slices for garnish
Tostadas or tortilla chips, store-bought or homemade or saltine crackers for serving

1. Cooking and Marinating the Shrimp.
Bring 1 quart salted water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Scoop in the shrimp, cover and let the water return to the boil. Immediately remove from the heat, set the lid askew and pour off all the liquid. Replace the cover and let the shrimp steam off the heat for 10 minutes. Spread out the shrimp in a large glass or stainless steel bowl to cool completely. Peel and devein the shrimp if you wish: One by one lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back and scrape out the (usually) dark intestinal tract. Toss the shrimp with the remaining 1/2 lime juice, cover and refrigerate for about an hour. Spare yourselves, kids – get the shrimp that are already peeled and deveined. No one will know but you.

2. The flavorings.
In a small strainer, rinse the onion under cold water, then shake off the excess liquid. Add to the shrimp bowl along with the cilantro, ketchup, hot sauce, optional olive oil, cucumber and/or jícama and avocado. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. Cover and refrigerate if not serving immediately.

3. Serving the ceviche.
Spoon the ceviche into sundae glasses, martini glasses, or small bowls: garnish with sprigs of cilantro and slices of lime. Serve with tostadas, tortilla chips or saltines to enjoy alongside. We dispense with the additional dishes and eat it out of the big bowl like savages. You may do as you wish, it IS lovely in a tall glass with a couple of shrimp hanging off the side, with the extra lime slices and cilantro sprigs.

Working Ahead:
The ceviche is best made the day it is served. The flavorings can be added to the shrimp a few hours in advance.

Getting Warmer

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Do you ever get a flavor stuck in your head that you just HAVE to eat? Something that just calls to you, a craving so deep that you simply must make it happen as soon as possible? I know I do, and it’s not just chocolate. I find that I cook in waves sometimes: a week of Mexican inspired dishes here, a few nights of peasant Italian dishes there, a smattering of barbecued goodness. Lately, though, it’s been Thai style: peanut sauce, fish sauce, cilantro, lime. It hit me one night that I had ‘Pinned’ 3 different Thai-leaning foods in one sitting, and two meals on my weekly menu planner were deeply Asian influenced. Time to make this puppy happen!

Last night was the night; it was warm out, the husband had a long day at the office, and I had been cleaning like a banshee after being gone last weekend and a day or two of wine-club shipment packaging. We had everything we needed and it was a quick dinner that didn’t heat the house (though I secretly didn’t care because I would take the opportunity to BLAST our brand new A/C).

I found myself short some soy sauce, and so added in a tablespoon of fish sauce as detailed below. I personally think it made it better with the fish sauce, as it added a little something extra to the dish. Feel free to sub it out with regular soy (or sub all the soy with tamari for my GF pals out there). After it had cooled and the sauce really stuck to the noodles it was even better. And tonight? Well, tonight it’s sublime, with a nice cold glass of sauvignon blanc¬†by my side and the A/C on. It’s definitely feeling more like summer out there!

Almost the weekend! Stop in tomorrow for a killer cocktail recipe.

Peanut Noodles with Shrimp
Makes a monster pile, about 6 large servings

1/2 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
8 ounces spaghetti (half a box, and go on ahead and sub in quinoa or brown rice noodles
1/2 lb. large shrimp, either raw or precooked, peeled, deveined and the tails removed
1/2 large red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 English cucumber, sliced into strips
3 scallions, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
8 oz. sugar snap peas
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Cook the pasta according to the package directions; if using raw shrimp add in 2 minutes prior to pasta being finished; drain and pour into a large mixing bowl.

In the same pot, combine 1 cup water with the peanut butter, rice vinegar, tamari/soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, and ginger. Blend until smooth.

Add the peanut mixture, bell pepper, cucumber, cilantro, snap peas, and sesame seeds to the mixing bowl with the pasta and shrimp, and toss to combine.

Taking it Back: The Grilled Cheese

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Grilled cheese is on most people’s Top 10 comfort food list. What is more cozy than grilled cheese, I ask you? It’s just not a cozy night without that toasted cheese sandwich.

I’m here to tell you that, while a grilled cheddar (or Velveeta, if you dare) on sliced white with gently buttered sides is sublime, you can take it up a notch and make it a very special sandwich that is even company-worthy. With a side of oven fries or a green salad (or both) it can be a glamourous little bistro lunch or dinner for as many as you please.

Around here, we make grilled cheese with leftovers on nights that serious cooking can’t be mustered. I know many of ¬†you are leftovers-averse, but pitching the rest of dinner is so wasteful and expensive. Why not take those leftovers and make something new out of it? Odds are you won’t even know it was Sunday’s roast of you make a killer sandwich out of it. Enter the Adult Grilled Cheese. There are a few rules to follow, but the mix and match of fillings is yours to create and play with.

The ‘rules’ are simply the stacking and layering of the sandwich, to ensure that each bite is cheesy and that the whole business sticks together. I generally stick to this basic theory:

Starting with your bottom slice of bread:

  • Butter the outside of the bread
  • Mustard of your choice on ¬†the inside of the bread
  • Top with grated cheese of your choice (we use lots of extra sharp cheddar or jalapeno jack)
  • Top with meat of choice, if using
  • Another smattering of cheese (just a pinch or two)
  • Top with vegetation (usually caramelized onions, leftover baked apples, pepper jam, sauteed red peppers, pickled jalapenos or banana peppers or pepperonicinis)
  • Top with more cheese
  • Top with second slice of bread, buttered on the outside and with either mayo or mustard (or both) smeared on the inside

Yes, this is a loaded sandwich. Each layer, however, is a very thin layer, so it doesn’t get all Dagwood on you. Sometimes when there are many layers, I’ll build them in the pan I’m cooking them in, to avoid explosion when transferring from the board to the pan. Also, during cooking, I smash the sandwich on the flip, either with the back of my spatula or, if I’m making two or more sandwiches, with a foil sheet placed over the top of the flipped sammie and a well-placed heavy pan on top, and then pressed with my hand. Voila, instant panini press.

Some regular combinations of grilled cheeses in our house (again, usually made from left overs) are as follows:

  • Sliced sourdough with horseradish mustard, pork loin, baked apples, and caramelized onions, with cheddar cheese (this one is also good with pork roast or deli ham)
  • Sliced rye with pastrami, well drained sauerkraut and swiss with a slathering of thousand island (instead of the mayo/mustard)
  • Sliced sourdough with tri tip or roast beef, blue cheese, mayo, horseradish mustard, arugula and balsamic onions
  • Sliced cinnamon swirl bread with ham, brie and spicy pepper jam (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)
  • Foccacia with mayo and dijon, shredded chicken, bacon, pepper jack and pepperoncinis
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with peanut butter, jelly and banana
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with nutella, peanut butter, chocolate chips and banana, with a dusting of powdered sugar (oh yes, I have)

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Leftovers are the ultimate grilled sandwich! Is it lunchtime yet?

Taking it Back: Spaghetti Sauce

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For a few posts, we’re going to take it down a notch or two and go back to the basics at the request of one of my readers. Granted my cooking prowess has made me adventurous and has wooed me into making more complex things, but the best homemakers have a handful of their very favorites they can pull out at any time that please a crowd, are down-home tasty and have very little muss or fuss involved. It’s also nice to have a set of standard recipes that you can turn to that are cost-friendly and don’t break the bank. In times like these we can all stand to save a few bucks but also deserve to have a home cooked meal that we can sit down to and be proud of.

Enter the classics ~ well, my classics. In my freezer there are always a couple of things that are my go-to items for dinners: chicken stock, whole chickens, varying types of sausages (both pre-cooked and raw), boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and spaghetti sauce.

Spaghetti sauce, in my family, is the generalized term for what a lot of people call ragu, meat sauce, or ‘gravy’. Gravy is an entirely different thing to some Italian families than it is in the rest of the country; Italian gravy is a tomato based meat sauce, rather than a brown sauce made of pan drippings after roasting meat. I always have at least one container in the freezer, and the ingredients to make it are part of my general pantry so I can whip up a batch in a flash. When I want spaghetti sauce with dinner there’s very little that can be done to sway me. And while it benefits from all day, low and slow cooking, it is just as tasty when it’s simmered for a half an hour and then served.

This sauce is the basis for my lasagna, or is served either tossed with short pasta and ricotta or cottage cheese and baked, spooned atop a mountain of spaghetti, pooled on polenta, and I’ve even used it as a filling for calzones before, mixing in some cubed mozzarella and sauteed spinach before tucking into a pizza dough blanket (and it’s soooo gooood). By having some in the freezer, in the time it takes to boil pasta, defrost the sauce and make a salad, dinner is ready. It’s not just a mid-week must eat staple though; I like to think that my sauce is good enough for company, and none of my dinner guests have ever said otherwise.

Feel free to riff on this sauce and make it your own. If your grandma made hers with finely diced carrots and celery, then by all means add them. Same goes for fresh or canned mushrooms, fresh spices instead of the dried, the world is your oyster with this sauce. And the more you make it, the more it becomes ‘your sauce,’ evolving each time to become your signature dish.

This sauce is mildly spicy because of the hot Italian sausage, but it isn’t kid-unfriendly in the heat department so far as I’ve found. If you’d rather skip the spicy, go ahead and use a full pound of the mild sausage. To keep your calories and fat down, you can sub in turkey Italian sausage and plain ground turkey for the meats (but you’ll also lose some of the richness). Go ahead and add more of the aromatic spices to your liking, and even extra garlic if the mood strikes. And, if you aren’t a household that generally has an open bottle of red wine around, don’t go open one just for this. There are several bulk wine producers that make split bottles (they come in 4-packs) of wine that are readily available at your grocery store. They are nice to have on hand for something like this: use what you need, and freeze the rest in an ice cube tray and save it to toss in marinades and sauces that call for a bit of wine.

One thing you have to do, though,¬†is¬†taste your sauce while it’s cooking. I know that every diet magazine on the planet is shouting at everyone about the number of calories you consume while tasting dinner as you make it, but it’s essential to good cooking to taste as you go. I personally like to taste my sauce by dipping a slice of french bread in it. MMMMmmm…

Spaghetti Sauce
Makes 12-14 cups of sauce

1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. mild (sweet) Italian Sausage
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (whatever fat level you’re comfortable with)
1 large ¬†yellow onion (we’re talking softball sized), diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 T. dried basil
1 T. dried rosemary
1 T. dried oregano
1 California bay leaf
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
Red wine
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large stockpot with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mild sausage, breaking up with a spoon, and cook until brown. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, and  cook off the hot sausage (if using), and then the ground beef, in the same manner. Avoid putting them all in the pot at once and crowding it, as it will steam your meat bits instead of browning them.

Remove excess grease from pan if necessary, leaving behind a tablespoon or two. Add the meats back to the pan, along with your diced onions and garlic. Sautee the onions and garlic until they are translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

Add in all spices (basil through bay leaf) and stir to marry with the meat and vegetables, then add in your salt, and cans of tomatoes and sauce. Using the 8 oz. sauce can as a measure, fill it with red wine and add it to the pan, along with a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Stir in thoroughly, and taste to adjust seasonings. Lower heat to a simmer, and let it go for at least a half an hour or as long as you can stand it.

Cinco de Mayo ~ Taco Bar and Side Dishes

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A taco bar is one of the easiest, most festive buffets that you can lay out for people. I love having sit-down dinners for a handful of people, but sometimes we have open house-style get togethers where people are coming and going throughout an afternoon and it’s nice to be able to have food come out in waves, or to be able to replenish as the day goes on. With a little bit of careful planning and menu construction, you can have a full-blown taco bar for an entire day.

My favorite taco bar set-up includes the following:

Carnitas or Carne Asada
Margarita Marinated Chicken or Shrimp
Tortillas, corn and flour (because my gringo self loves a flour tortilla)
Salsas, rojo and tomatillo (green)
Diced green onions
Pickled red onions
Shredded cheddar and crumbled Cotija cheese
Shredded cabbage or iceberg lettuce
Chopped cilantro
Lime wedges
Many, many hot sauces (and in fact I have been known to host a hot-sauce competition, getting everyone to bring one and we vote on which is best)
Fruit salad
Black bean and corn salad (mine is similar to this one, without the salad greens and sometimes with cucumber instead of mango)
Tortilla Chips
Refried beans
Guacamole (lots and lots of guacamole)

And of course, beverages:

Sangria Rojo (or Blanco, but only if the weather is REALLY hot)
Mexican beer selection
Lots of cut up limes

What, no margaritas? Depends on the size of the crowd, but usually, no. I’m too cheap to buy stuff for marges, because I only like them top shelf. Tequila also has a way of turning a party into a Par-Tay so I usually steer away from it. I never turn a soul down that wants to bring them, though.

As for folks bringing things, you can make this a less expensive party if your friends are like ours and offer to bring things. Make a list of what you want on your bar (or snacks you’d like to have) and when people ask, say ‘why yes, if you’d bring four avocados it would be awesome!’ You can also word your invitation to have your pals bring a bottle of inexpensive red wine to keep the Sangria pot full or a 6 pack of their favorite Mexican beer. The hooch is by far the most expensive part of a party but spread out this way it becomes a lot more affordable for everyone involved.

On ¬†my taco bar, the condiment that always seems to fly off the buffet, that I can never seem to make enough of, is the pickled red onions. They’re not traditional by any means, but a smattering of them gives a nice vinegary brightness to the food that cuts through the richness of the fillings. And they are so, so easy to make.

Pickled Red Onions

In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup of rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice, a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Bring up to a simmer, stirring occasionally, to dissolve the sugar and salt.

Meanwhile, dice a medium-large red onion and place in a non-reactive, heat proof bowl or jar (I use canning jars for this). Pour your vinegar mixture over the top of the onions, submerging them in the liquid. Make these several hours ahead of time so they can really get pickle-y, or even a day or two ahead and cross it off of your list.

Cinco de Mayo ~ Carnitas

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Mexican food is a staple in our house. The husband and I eat many tacos, taco salads, enchiladas, rice plates and quesadillas, filled with different savory meats, beans, rice or grains, and cheeses. Chicken, steak, fish, shrimp, it all makes for great fillings. Because a lot of our favorites come together quickly and have bright, fresh flavors, they are weeknight staples for us. The secret to Mexican cooking? It’s the spices. In order to whip up a fiesta in a flash, you need to have ground cumin, ground coriander, red chile flakes, New Mexico chile powder, chipotle powder, ground cinnamon and Mexican oregano in the cabinet and a handful of varied citrus or citrus juices (lemon, lime and orange) laying around. Fresh cilantro is also a must. Luckily, most of these spices are not expensive and can be found in the spice aisle of your grocery store. Look for the ones that come in the little pouches in the Mexican spice area, rather than your traditional spice bottles, to save some money.

For this recipe, though, you actually don’t need the spices listed above. This is a very simple recipe that only takes patience and a heavy cast iron pan to make it happen. Carnitas are one of my taqueria go-to items. Tender, succulent shreds of pork roast that have been slow roasted to perfection are the name of this game. Traditional carnitas are cooked covered in lard over very low heat in a very heavy pan until they quite literally fall apart, but for the sake of our arteries we won’t go there in this recipe.

Because of our love of all things Mexican food and in honor of Cinco de Mayo, I’ll give you some of our favorite recipes this week. This first one is still not healthy by any means, but sometimes only carnitas will do. And as part of a bigger meal, one little taco won’t hurt anyone.

Carnitas

Serves 8-10 hungry caballeros

1 fatty pork shoulder roast, about 4 lbs, stripped from the bone if bone-in, and cut into 3-4″ chunks
2 c. orange juice, freshly squeezed or from concentrate
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. dried Mexican oregano
3 chiles de arbol, crushed, or 1 t. of crushed red chile flakes
1 t. salt

In a large plastic zip-top bag or deep bowl, combine the orange juice, garlic, chiles or chile powder and salt. Put in pork pieces and let marinade in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, and up to 4. Remove from refrigerator about a half hour prior to cooking.

Preheat oven to 300*F. Heat a large cast iron skillet (I use a 10″ skillet) over medium high heat and pour in about a tablespoon of canola oil. Remove the pork pieces from the marinade and pat dry, reserving 3/4 cup of the marinade.

Sear the pork pieces on all sides in the skillet until they develop a nice brown crust. Pour reserved marinade over the pork pieces in the skillet and place in the oven, uncovered. Bake at 300*F for about 3 hours, or until pork shreds easily with a fork.

Remove skillet from oven, and raise oven temp to 450*F. Carefully shred the pork into bite-sized shreds and place the skillet back in the oven. Cook at 450*F until the liquid has nearly evaporated from the skillet and the pork shreds have a nice brown crispy crust on them, about 20-30 minutes.

Serve with lime wedges, cilantro, radish slices, your favorite salsa*, and warmed corn and flour tortillas.

* Pssst, about salsa: I RARELY make my own. If you have a great taqueria near you whose chips and salsa you love, swing by and ask if you can buy a quart of their salsa and a bag of chips. It will generally set you back less than $5 for the lot, and it’s fresher and tastier than anything you’re going to get at the store.