Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Slow Cooker Lasagna - Better the Second Day?!

I have a love-hate relationship with slow cooker lasagna.  I LOVE the idea of cooking lasagna in a slow cooker, but hate the results.  I came across a recipe for a slow cooker recipe that celebrated mushrooms - one of my favorite veggies, so I decided to give it a try.

Basically, slow cooker lasagna works much like regular lasagna - prep ingredients ahead and assemble before cooking.  The difference is that the lasagna noodles should be the "oven ready" variety and the prep is with a slow cooker rather than a lasagna pan.  This recipe requires that the ground beef and mushrooms be cooked ahead and then layered into the noodles and cottage cheese.

Were I to do this recipe again, I would 1) sauté the mushrooms and onions separately to build a layer of flavor, 2) brown the ground beef and season BEFORE combining with mushrooms, 3) use spaghetti sauce rather than plain tomato sauce, 4) punch up the flavor with more garlic and dried herbs, and; 5:  sub ricotta cheese for the cottage cheese (personal preference).  It's not that this recipe was bad, but it's just based on what I love for a regular lasagna (and that I have a sentimental attachment to a recipe my husband first made for me when we dated).  Honestly, my taste in lasagna is probably more Americanized, but who cares - it's comfort food any way you want it!

All of that said, slow cooker lasagna is super-easy, though it comes out different than regular lasagna.  It's more mushy and is more something you spoon out than cut out and serve.  However, if you love the stacked lasagna look, cook the lasagna a day early, then put into a container that allows you to stack the lasagna in a double layer.  It firms up nicely and can be easily cut into squares and reheated the next day.  And we all know that leftover Italian food is even better the next day!

I'm giving you a basic slow cooker lasagna recipe, but feel free to modify to your tastes and remember to use a 5-qt or larger slow cooker.  It doesn't cut into squares straight out of the slow cooker - it's more like a spooned up skillet recipe, but it's tasty! It makes a lot, but if you're like me, you'll take it and double stack it  for leftovers! It actually tasted better the second day and because it was chilled then reheated, it's easier to shape into a square before rewarming in the microwave. Happy eating!

Better the second day.

Slow Cooker Lasagna

Adapted from a recipe in Prevention Magazine
1 lb extra lean ground beef or bulk Italian sausage
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms or 1 can sliced mushrooms, drained
1 clove garlic, minced
9 oven ready lasagna noodles
1 jar (28 oz) spaghetti sauce
1 container (16 oz) reduced or fat-free cottage cheese
2 cups shredded reduced fat mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

In a skillet over medium-high heat, brown ground beef and onion until nicely browned and cooked through.  Add in tomatoes, mushrooms, and garlic and saute another 5 minutes.  Coat 4-qt or larger slow cooker with cooking spray. Place 3 noodles, side by side or slightly overlapping, in bottom of cooker. Top with 1/3 each of the spaghetti sauce, cottage cheese, beef mixture, and mozzarella. Repeat layers 2 more times, ending with mozzarella. Sprinkle Parmesan on top. Cover and cook on low 4 - 5 hours or until lasagna is cooked through and cheese is bubbly.  Spoon onto plates (this will be very soft) and garnish with more Parmesan.

For leftovers: place contents in a rectangular or square dish and refrigerate. When ready to eat, cut into squares and place on microwave-safe plate. Cover with paper towels (to prevent splatter) and reheat on medium power (50%) for 1 - 2 minutes or until heated through (time will vary by size of slice and microwave power).  Can also use "reheat" setting on microwave if available. Garnish with more mozzarella and Parmesan.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What to Try Next: Israeli Couscous

I love rice and especially risotto as a side dish.  That creamy, rich goodness is the perfect option to pair with nearly any protein.  Since we always seem to have either rice or potatoes as a side dish, I was looking for an alternative option.  Enter Israeli couscous!  This particular type of pasta is a large pearl shape that cooks up much like instant rice or quinoa.  Add boiling water and simmer about 10 minutes - voila!  By itself, it's plain, but add other ingredients such as a meat, grilled veggies, or cheese, and you have a great main or side dish.

I found a recipe for Israeli couscous with wild mushrooms from one of the most popular and esteemed restaurants in Dallas, Suze.  I loved the idea of sauteed mushrooms and Parmesan cheese added to couscous as these are umami-rich flavors and I use them often in my risotto.  This type of couscous is a larger pearl-shaped pasta that reminds me a bit of tapioca pearls, with a soft texture and starchy consistency.  Adding olive oil following cooking helps combat the sticky starch.

The verdict?  I enjoyed this as an alternative to rice or potatoes and love the versatility of using other ingredients as well.  It would be a great vegetarian main dish or alternative side dish.  Happy eating!

Rich and unctuous

Israeli Couscous with Wild Mushrooms and Parmesan

(adapted from a recipe courtesy of Gibert Garza at Suze Restaurant, Dallas, TX)

For the mushrooms:
2 cups of assorted mushrooms (porcini, shitake, baby bella, etc.), chopped
1/8 cup of chopped thyme
1/2 large shallot, julienned
1/8 cup of olive oil
1/8 cup of vegetable oil
1/2 - 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional - omit if cooking vegan)
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley and truffle oil, for garnish (optional)

In a large pot over medium heat, saute the mushrooms and shallots with the oils until softened, seasoning with salt and pepper.  Rough chop with a knife or food processor (don't puree).  Strain excess mushroom liquid out of mixture and set aside, adding to the couscous.  In a mixing bowl, combine the couscous, mushroom mixture, and liquid.  Add the thyme and Parmesan, if using.  Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley and truffle oil, if using.

For the Couscous:
1 cup of Israeli Couscous (large pearled couscous)
1 1/4 cups boiling water

Bring water to a boil and add couscous.  Stir, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer.  Simmer for 8 - 10 minutes or until water is nearly absorbed.  While couscous is cooking, prepare mushroom mixture.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chicken Soup for the Weeknight Dinner

I confess - I really don't like "traditional" chicken soup.  Truthfully, it wasn't something I grew up eating much of and it just didn't appeal to my childhood palate.  And you know how something you dislike as a child generally follows you to adulthood!  Yet I like brussels sprouts!  Go figure....  Anyhoo, I'd clipped a recipe from Southern Living well over a year ago that actually appealed.  It was chicken and rice soup.  Not only that, it was chicken soup with long grain and wild rice, always a favorite food.  Putting aside my chicken soup trepidation, I finally gathered the courage to make it when my sweetie developed a nasty head cold.  "Southern-style penicillin," if you will.

One thing that kept me from making the soup was how labor-intensive this recipe is.  When you're cooking on a Sunday, slow simmered soups make sense.  Heck, even slow cookers help with this.  BUT, I knew that there were a few shortcuts I could take if I wanted this to be a weeknight friendly recipe.  I do advocate homemade, freshly prepared food, but I also am willing to make a few sacrifices for convenience.

First, to save time, I pre-cooked and shredded the chicken.  You can easily buy a rotisserie chicken and use that, or just throw a couple of chicken breasts in the oven over the weekend, let cool, and shred.  Second, I am a big fan of the "Ready Rice" and "Fast Cook" rice.  Ready Rice microwaves in 90 seconds and is great for serving a side dish quick.  Fast cook rice will boil up in about 5 minutes, rather than the usual 20.  Another trick is to prep and cook the veggies ahead.  I chose to sauté the veggies this evening, and it only added about 10 minutes to my cooking time.  I also cut the butter down, swapped out some with olive oil, and used fat free half and half rather than the full fat stuff (you could even leave that out).

The result of my tweaks? A soup my husband wanted seconds of and my new go-to option if I need some chicken soupy goodness.  Best part?  You can scale it up or down for the size of your family or gathering.  Mine makes enough for about 4 people as a main course.  Complete the meal with crusty bread and a salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette for a great well-rounded meal.  Happy eating!

Hearty, yet light with great depth of flavor

Chicken, Mushroom, and Wild Rice Soup

1 package fast-cook long grain and wild rice mix, prepared to package directions OR 1 package Ready Rice, microwaved to package directions
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup of fresh mushrooms sliced (can sub 1 can of sliced mushrooms, drained)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion (about 3 green onions or 1 small yellow onion)
1/2 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 stalk halved, then cut into quarters, and diced)
2 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp all purpose flour (I sub Wondra flour for its smooth texture)
3 cups chicken broth
1 - 2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (about 1 cup)
2 Tbsp dry white wine or sherry (optional)
1/4 cup half and half (fat free is fine)

Prepare rice to package directions and set aside.  While rice is cooking, add 1 Tbsp olive oil to kettle and heat over medium-high until warm.  Add mushrooms, onion, and celery and sauté until translucent and soft, stirring often, about 8 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Remove from kettle.  Using same kettle, reduce heat to medium and add 2 Tbsp butter.  Once melted, whisk in flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute or until thick and bubbly.  Gradually whisk in chicken broth, then chicken, and cook, stirring often, 5 - 8 minutes or until slightly thickened.  Reduce heat to medium-low and add in wine (if using) and half-and-half.  Add in rice and heat through, about 5 minutes.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Secrets of Slow Cooking - Tapioca?!

Now that fall is here and I'm craving comfort cuisine, the slow cooker is getting a workout!  One of my frustrations with the slow cooker is having a thin, watery broth-like sauce when the food is done cooking.  It takes extra work to add corn starch or other thickener and then boil it down.  I recently purchased a slow cooker cookbook at Half Price Books that really had some great recipes.  The book, from the editors of Prevention Magazine, was focused on healthy cooking.  While some of the hints don't work for me (IMHO, better to use butter as it's a natural product with good flavor than chemically produced margarine), there is a great variety of recipes and inspiration within.

Today, I was inspired to try a variation on a chicken and mushroom dish that seemed intriguing.  Using very little liquid, the chicken and mushrooms would roast more than braise and the sauce would self-thicken using... tapioca starch!!  As a bonus, if you're allergic to wheat, tapioca is gluten free!  Adding just 2 Tbsp of instant pearl tapioca (NOT the large pearls used for bubble tea) when I began my cooking yielded a thickened sauce 7 scant low-and-slow cooking hours later!  Another hint used in this recipe was reduced fat cream cheese to help thicken and enrich the sauce.

Tapioca is actually the recommended starch if you're going to freeze something, so if you make mass quantities of a dish and plan to freeze it, use tapioca starch in place of corn starch.  I got curious about tapioca since I had never cooked with this product.  I checked out www.foodsubs.com and found the following:
instant tapioca = quick-cooking tapioca = quick tapioca = granulated tapioca = tapioca granules = instant pearl tapioca    Notes:   These small, starchy granules are used to make tapioca pudding and to thicken pie fillings.  The grains don't dissolve completely when cooked, so puddings and pies thickened with them end up studded with tiny gelatinous balls.  If you don't mind the balls, you can also use instant tapioca to thicken soups, gravies, and stews.  If the balls are a problem, just pulverize the instant tapioca in a coffee grinder or blender, or buy tapioca starch, which is already finely ground.  Instant tapioca tolerates prolonged cooking and freezing, and gives the fillings an attractive glossy sheen.   To use it in a pie filling, mix it with the other ingredients, then let it sit for at least five minutes so that the tapioca can absorb some of the liquid.  Don't confuse instant tapioca with regular tapioca, which has larger beads, or with the even larger tapioca pearls sold in Asian markets.  Minute® tapioca is a well-known brand.  Substitutes:    regular tapioca (Use twice as much.  Puddings made with this will have larger gelatinous balls in it.) OR tapioca starch (This is also used to thicken pie fillings.) OR tapioca pearls (Pulverize these first with a blender, coffee grinder, or food processor) OR cornstarch (Use half as much.  Cornstarch breaks down if it's mixed with acidic ingredients, cooked for a long time, or frozen and thawed.) OR arrowroot (more expensive) OR flour (Use a little more.)
The result?  Good overall.  The chicken breasts came out a little dry.  Can solve that with 1) skin-on chicken breasts, 2) larger pieces of chicken, or 3) chicken thighs, which stay moister longer.  The sauce was a revelation - thick, tasty, and WAY easier than having to add a corn starch slurry (corn starch & cold water mixed together) at the end and boiling to thicken.  I used 2 Tbsp tapioca pearls to 3/4 cup liquid.  Why it works so well is that it can thicken at low temperatures, perfect for the low setting on a slow cooker.  This is a great weekday or Sunday supper served with a loaf of crusty bread and some steamed or sautéed broccoli.  Happy eating!

Slow Cooker Chicken with Mushrooms and New Potatoes

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken thighs
1 lb mushrooms, sliced (can use a mixture of cremini, baby bella, shitake, etc.)
2 lbs new potatoes, halved if large
3/4 cup white wine or chicken broth
2 Tbsp instant tapioca (small pearls)
Salt and pepper
3 - 4 oz reduced fat cream cheese

Trim chicken and cut in half, if large.  Slice mushrooms and potatoes.  In 5-qt or larger slow cooker, add wine or broth and tapioca.  Stir to mix.  Add chicken breasts, mushrooms, and potatoes.  Salt and pepper, then cover and cook on low for 6 hours.  Stir and cook 1 more hour.  Add cream cheese to sauce and stir to blend (I recommend moving the chicken and vegetables to the side and stirring into sauce, then combining together).  Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Hatch Chile Heaven

Mid-late August is an awesome time to live in Texas and New Mexico.  Not because we are melting in the heat, but because August means it's Hatch chile season!  The smell of roasted chiles fills the air in and near the better supermarkets in the area and fresh chiles are out in abundance in the grocery store's produce section and farmers' markets.  These chiles are similar in size to Italian peppers, but range in heat from mild (like a poblano) to spicy (jalapeno-esque).

But what to do with this embarassment of riches?  Well, if you're like me, the family gets 2 - 3 meals in the same week, all with Hatch chiles.  Aside from my husband getting a little burned out (or his gut anyway) from that many spicy meals, the season is short, so I want to enjoy the chiles when they're fresh if I can.  That said, canned Hatch chiles are available year-round, so there's no reason not to use them all the time.  You can sub a poblano for the Hatch chile when out of season.

The two recipes I cooked couldn't be more different.  One is a 30-minute stew and the other is major twist on a classic casserole, chicken spaghetti. 

The first recipe I did was a pork and Hatch chile stew.  What I love about it was that it cooked in 30 minutes and used that family-friendly ingredient pork tenderloin.

30 minute spicy perfection

Pork Tenderloin Hatch Chile Stew

1/4 cup olive oil
1 - 1.5 lbs pork tenderloin, cubed
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, medium dice
1 lb mild green chiles (Hatch, poblano, or Anaheim), halved lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, seeded and thinly sliced (optional to add spicy heat)
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Lime wedges (optional)
Feta cheese (optional)
1 package ready-rice (chicken flavor), heated according to package directions or two cups cooked white rice

In a large enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking.  Season the pork cubes with salt and pepper and add to casserole.  Cook the pork, stirring once or twice until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Turn heat down to medium.  Add the onion, chiles, jalapeno, and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Cover partially and simmer until the pork is cooked through and broth reduced by about half, about 20 minutes.  Stir in cilantro, season with salt and pepper.  Serve over rice and garnish with more cilantro, Feta (optional), and lime wedges.

My second recipe is a skillet version of a classic Texas casserole, chicken spaghetti.  Traditional chicken spaghetti generally has stewed tomatoes, cooked and shredded chicken, and spaghetti.  It's then topped with cheddar cheese and baked until the cheese melts.  This recipe involves only one pot and several steps are done concurrently so that it all comes together at the end. 

Spicy Good Comfort Food

Spicy Chicken Spaghetti

1 lb pasta - spaghetti, penne, etc.
1 lb chicken breasts (bone-in, skin on for best flavor or boneless skinless)
3 green onions, white and green parts sliced
2 mild (or hot) Hatch chiles, seeded and sliced thin
1 - 8 oz package mushrooms, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced or 1/2 tsp dried garlic powder
1 tsp oregano
1 can tomatoes with green chiles, regular, mild or spicy (Ro-tel)
1 can cream of chicken soup (lighter version is fine)
4 oz shredded cheddar, cheddar-jack or Hatch chile cheddar (seasonal)
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place chicken breasts on a baking sheet lined with tin foil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake for 30 minutes or until juices run clear.  Let cool slightly.  While chicken is baking, bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add pasta and cook until al dente (according to package directions).  Drain pasta and mix with 1 tsp olive oil to prevent sticking. After the pasta has cooked, and using the same pot, heat 1 Tbsp canola or olive oil over medium heat until shimmering.  Add green onions and Hatch chiles to pot.  Saute until the onions and chiles are softened, about 3 minutes.  Add in sliced mushrooms and season with salt and pepper.  Cook until mushrooms are lightly browned and have given off their juice, about 8 - 10 minutes.  Add in garlic and oregano and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add in can of tomatoes with green chiles and cream of chicken soup.  Bring to a bubble and simmer  5 minutes.  Remove from heat and add in pasta; stir to combine.  Top with cheese and parsley.

Happy eating!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Quick Quesadillas for Back-to-School Dinner

Dallas-area students started back to school this week and I've seen many of my friends struggling with fitting all of evening activities into already full days.  So, what do you do if family dinner is a priority?  No, do NOT hit the drive thru 4 times in a week (if you can help it).  Instead, whip up a meal in about 10 - 15 minutes.  Yes, I said 10 minutes! :)

A great go-to meal is a quesadilla.  You can make it vegetarian with refried beans or canned black beans (drained and rinsed first!), use leftover meats (bbq brisket, cooked chicken, or even ham), whatever type of cheese you like, and veggies to your liking.  Served with a side of carrot and celery sticks or apple slices, you have a great meal.

But what about other types of quesadilla-inspired options?  I personally love Italian food, and I frequently make a dinner panini.  I thought, why not take the idea of a quesadilla, but make it Italian-style (you can go Asian, Mexican, Greek, whatever)?  Instead of tortillas, I used flat bread, usually found near the deli or bakery in a grocery store.  Prosciutto (Italian ham), provolone, and mozzarella combine into melty perfection and pair perfectly with crispy veggies on the side.  While the sandwiches were baking, I peeled and sliced a cucumber and served it sprinkled with just salt and pepper. 

No real recipe to this, just improvise with what you have. Here's what I did:

Flat Bread Quesadilla Sandwiches

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
You can warm up and slightly toast the bread (flat bread, pitas, or tortillas) by placing it in a pan over medium-high heat just until heated through and lightly browned in spots
Spread mustard, mayo, pesto or whatever you like onto one side of a flat bread. 
Layer on the cheese and meat toppings (ham, salami, turkey or what you like or have around)
Fold over bread (to a half moon shape).
Place on a baking sheet, then bake until the cheese is melted and sandwich is heated through, about 5 - 8 minutes.
Cut into wedges and serve.

Happy eating!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summertime Recipe Inspirations

I have to confess, I cook a lot this summer - A LOT.  But, I've posted the pictures of what's cooking on Facebook and sorely neglected my blog.  Apologies!  So, what has inspired my cooking this summer?  LOTS of trips to the Dallas Farmers Market and deliveries by Greenling.com.  In the mix since we last chatted was a trip to San Francisco (aka Foodie Heaven!).

Summer is so much about the fresh produce and grilling that almost all of the pictures below were based around one of these two concepts (dessert is the exception).  Okay, I also put in two killer dessert recipes that were neither grilled or considered summer produce, but they were darn tasty! Rather than do a bunch of different blog posts to cover everything, here are pictures of some items that really hit the spot in the warm weather.  Since Texas won't actually cool down for another month, these recipes are still great to try.  If you want the recipe for any of these, comment and I will send it to you via personal email!

Produce Recipe Pics

Tomato Soup 
Grillin and Chillin: Grilled & Chilled Tomato and Onion Soup with Basil Chiffonade,
Olive Oil Drizzle, and Crumbled Feta

Even insipid winter Roma tomatoes are brought to life by grilling them.  In winter, I would just use a grill pan indoors to the same effect and add a pinch of sugar to the soup to bring out the sweetness that winter produce lacks.  For a vegan version, omit the Feta crumbles.

Quinoa Salad
Plenty of Protein: Red Quinoa Mediterranean Salad

If you haven't yet tried quinoa, you are missing out.  It's one of the "ancient grains" that have existed for centuries and is actually a complete protein.  This salad takes the flavors of the Mediterranean and combines them with quinoa for a nutritious, tasty, and CHEAP lunch or dinner option.  I was playing with the camera to make the picture look like it was in motion, so sorry for those that may feel dizzy!

Grilled Recipe Pics

Meaty Good!
Better meat = Tastier Burger: Grilled Waygu Mini-Burger with Bacon, Guacamole, and Blue Cheese

We have a wonderful organic and local produce and more delivery service called Greenling in our area.  They ran a special on local Waygu ground beef, so I took a chance....  If you don't know Waygu, it's American Kobe beef.  These are happy beef cows pastured and kept from getting stressed.  Rumor has it, in Japan these prized cows are even fed beer!  Happy cows = tasty meat.  Two tricks: manipulate the meat as little as possible - don't knead it to death and cook no more than medium for a really juicy burger.

You Grilled That?!: Grilled Angel Food Cake with Sliced Strawberries

The Dallas Farmers Market hosts a wonderful cooking class series each summer and I had the opportunity to attend.  Once of the chefs grilled angel food cake and served with fresh berries and whipped cream.  I thought - how easy and simple would that be and so I tried it.  What a revelation!  The angel food cake takes on a marshmallow-like taste from the grill markings and the berries and fresh whipped cream really offer a taste of summer with a side of naughty richness from the cream.  Since my sweetie prefers strawberries, I just sliced some up and put some sugar on them to punch up the sweetness.


A meal isn't complete without a killer dessert.  Here are two that I tried.  One is a take on a French apple cake and the other is a crazy take on a calzone, courtesy of a killer pizza restaurant in town, Il Cane Rosso.

A Taste of Fall in Summer
Oui! French Apple Cake

Consider this a preview of fall - a cake made with sliced, cooked apples baked into a custardy cake with a toasty sugar topping.

Trust me - this is awesome
OMG Good: S'mores Calzone

When I tasted this at the summer cooking class, I couldn't wait to try this at home.  If you are lucky enough to have a pizza oven that goes to 900 degrees like Il Cane Rosso, lucky you!  Us mere mortals can only get our ovens to 500 degrees, but we can still make it tasty good.  How can you not love a pocket of pure, gooey, chocolatey goodness?  The marshmallow is both fluffy and carmely, while the chocolate is melting and rich.  If you're making pizzas, take some of the extra dough and try this. 

Happy eating!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Some Clip Coupons... I Clip Recipes

I think my husband is a pretty understanding guy, but we definitely agree to not discuss how many cookbooks I own or how many cooking magazines I receive each month.  To help preserve household harmony, I am vigilant about reading the magazines and pulling out the recipes I want, then recyling the carcass, so to speak.  It keeps down the clutter of extra magazines pretty well. 

That is perhaps the biggest secret to how I cook such a variety of items.  While I rarely make a recipe exactly as written, they are a great source of inspiration.  Bottom line: I read A LOT of cooking magazines and cookbooks.  I watch cooking shows and "The Chew."  Every time I see a recipe or an idea within a recipe I want to try, I clip it and even write notes on it.  I also keep a small notebook that I jot down ideas in and refer back to.  Sometimes, I just write an idea on a post-it and throw it in the recipe file!

Why do I bother?  part of it is that I get bored eating the same things over and over (there are some recipes I love again and again, but that's not the norm).  Part of why I do it is because I love learning and experimenting and want to make more meals at home.  Plus, by clipping recipes, I can creat a shopping list each week and stay more organized (read: less stressed) during the week and still cook a good meal.  Here are my tips and tricks to staying organized and eating a variety of meals!

Grocery shopping: I shop once per week.  When I make out my shopping list, I pull out my folder of recipes and any cookbooks I want to reference and make out a list of meals and ingredients.  That way, I have everything I need when I'm ready to cook.  But, if there is something on special, I'm not afraid to change my cooking plans or buying and freezing things on sale.

Fresh food: Spring and summer are the best seasons at the farmers' markets.  Try and shop the markets and take advantage of the local offerings.  If they are available in your area, services such as greenling.com bring together produce, meat, and other items and deliver them to you each week.  Not always the least expensive, but if you can afford, it's worth doing.  For meat, get to know your local farmers and buy from them - the meat comes frozen and keeps a long time.  It may cost more, but you're supporting local farmers and escaping the industrial food chain.
Organizing recipes: When I clip the recipes, I keep a simple accordion folder with tabs for each month. I file the recipe under the month I might want to try the recipe. We get bored eating the same things over and over, so it motivates me to try new things. Once I try the recipe, if I don't like it, I throw it out. If I do like it, I add to my "permanent" file with a date I tried it and a note about how I cooked it or anything special about the recipe. (My permanent file is actually a set of recipe files - one for recipes I like and one for the "heirloom" recipes I make again and again).
How I keep recipes organized - filed by month
Cleaning out recipes: At the beginning of the next month, when I'm making out my shopping list, I pull out the recipes I didn't try that month.  If I think I still might make them, I put them in the pile for the current month.  If not, I throw it out.  No use in cluttering up the file.  I have recipes I find in March that I want to make in November.  Having a file by month means I can easily put the recipe in the right place where I won't lose or forget about it.
Following recipes exactly: My honey dislikes bell peppers... and most vegetables... and many fruits... and..., well you get the idea. There are many recipes that have one or two ingredients he won't touch. Rather than just not make the recipe, I omit the items he won't eat. That way, I customize to our tastes and still get to try a potentially delicious recipe. It may not taste quite the same, but it works for us. 
Cook ahead:   A big secret about restaurants is they cook everything they can ahead of time.  That beef rib you're eating on Friday?  It might have been partially or fully cooked on Sunday and just reheated the day they serve it!  If you can find time on the weekend to even cook some of the ingredients ahead, all you have to do the day you wat to eat it is assemble and reheat.  When I took night classes, I cooked 2 or 3 meals on Sunday and divided them into portions for the week. I may have had to run the dishwasher more often to clean all of the Tupperware I used for storage, but dinner was ready in less than 10 minutes most days. 

If you're going to try this, summer is a great time to begin.  Start simple - try grilling a couple extra chicken breasts on Saturday night and serve a chicken Caesar salad Monday with the leftovers! Make a steak salad with an extra steak you grill up.  Serve as a salad with mixed greens, sliced red onions, blue cheese, and balsamic vinegar dressing.  Two meals for the effort of one!

Happy eating!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

10 Years in the Making... Restaurant-Style Mexican Rice at Home

One of the biggest frustrations I've always had is that I couldn't master the technique and style of Spanish or Mexican rice.  Sometimes called "arroz rojo" (red rice), it's  a style of rice you see in any Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant in this area.  While I've found the flavors to work in many recipes I've tried, I never could get that "dry" (non-starchy) texture just right.  After over 10 years of trying different recipes, I've hit rice nirvana! 

How did I do it?  A LOT of patience and time.  This isn't a shortcut recipe, but I promise, the payoff is rice you would swear came from a Tex-Mex restaurant.  I've summarized several key steps you HAVE to do for success.  The rice will come out non-starchy, a "dry" texture, with a decent depth of flavor.  Vary it up from there with the addition of veggies and serve with your favorite Mexican-style meat.

Success tips:
- Use regular long-grain rice, NOT instant
- Rinse the rice under cold water in a colander or fine-mesh sieve until the water runs clear.  This is a CRITICAL step to wash off all of the extra starch.  It will affect the final texture of the rice if you don't
- Dry the rice on a clean towel or paper towels for 5 - 10 minutes before cooking
- Saute the rice until it starts toasting (the grains start to look translucent and some have some browning)
- NO PEEKING at the rice during the 20 minutes of cooking!!

Here is a basic recipe for the rice.  The recipe is tasty without the Sazon, but feel free to add in a Sazon packet if you like.  Many recipes also use frozen peas, but add after the rice has cooked so that they don't get too mushy.  Pull out the peas from the freezer when you start cooking the rice so that they thaw a bit before adding.  Happy eating!

Mexican Rice
1 cup long grain white rice
1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup diced carrot
1/4 cup diced onion (white, yellow, or red)
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 1/4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (reduced sodium)
1/2 cup fresh chopped tomato (seeds and all)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 - 1 packet "Sazon" seasoning, if desired
1/2 cup frozen peas, optional

Place rice in a colandar or fine-mesh sieve and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear.  (Move the rice around as you rinse to ensure all the grains are rinsed).  Should take 2 - 3 minutes.  Lay the rice out on paper towels or a clean kitchen towel to dry.  Meanwhile, dice the carrot and onion and mince the garlic.  Chop the tomatoes.  Puree the stock and tomatoes in a blender on high speed until smooth.  Set aside.  Heat a skillet or 2-quart saucepan on medium-high heat.  Add oil to coat pan evenly and heat until shimmering.  Add the rice and stir to coat.  Saute the rice, stirring frequently until it starts to look translucent and is lightly toasted.  Once rice is starting to toast, add in carrots, onions, and garlic.  Saute 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Add in the tomato/stock mixture and stir.  Bring to a low boil and add in bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper, and sazon if using, to taste.  Cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes over low heat (NO PEEKING!).  After 20 minutes, remove from heat but KEEP COVERED another 5 minutes.  Uncover and sprinkle on the peas if using.  Let sit 5 minutes before gently fluffing.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Key Lime Pie Basics

One of the tastiest desserts ever invented was Key Lime Pie.  The dessert is named after the fruit from which it comes, key limes.  These are special limes grown in the Florida Keys and have a slightly sweeter taste than regular limes.  We were in Key West, FL last May and I had a slice of frozen chocolate dipped key lime pie while attempting not to melt in the afternoon heat.  Nothing makes me feel more like throwing on my flip flops and finding a hammock for a nap than eating this rich pie.  It's like a taste of the pie brings back the ocean breezes and sounds of palm trees. 

While a trip to the Keys isn't on my list this year, it's easy to recreate the flavor of the pie I so enjoy.  The recipe is a custard (milk and eggs) with a citrus juice to create the sweet-tart flavor balance.  Other juices could also work (lemon, orange), but the taste may be more or less sweet.  All it takes is a pie crust.  Personally, graham crackers or ginger snaps are a favorite.  For a chocolate twist, crushed Oreos also work really nicely.  The custard itself is just the lime juice, sweetenend condensed milk, and egg yolks.  Topping is traditionally a sweetened whipped cream, but in the quest to cut fat and calories, I use the fat free option of meringue, which is something DH and I both like more anyway.  Fat free sweetened condensed milk works fine in the recipe too.  The pie can be mixed and baked in about 30 minutes, but you have to let it cool before indulging.  Happy Eating!

Key Lime Meringue Pie
1 (9 inch) graham cracker pie shell
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup key lime juice
4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar (optional)
4 Tbsp white sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Place pie shell on a cookie sheet.  In a mixing bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk and the key lime juice until blended.  Add in egg yolks and mix until all combined.  Pour into pie shell.  Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes (center will be slightly jiggly).  Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl or with a stand mixer, whip egg whites until frothy.  Add in cream of tartar if using (helps stabilize meringue) and whip until soft peaks form.  Add in sugar and blend until meringue is in stiff peaks.  Top pie with meringue, spreading to edges of filling and making swirls in meringue.  Raise temperature of oven to 350.  Bake pie 10 minutes, rotating halfway through baking or until top is lightly browned.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.  Once cooled, refrigerate pie at least 2 hours before serving.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chocolate + Puff Pastry = YUM

I have a weakness for most anything chocolate.  From my early start eating Nestle's Toll House Semi-Sweet morsels by the handful to today when I enjoy them alongside the likes of Ghiradelli or Valhrona, I really try not to go a day without chocolate.  I was perusing Food Network magazine (I'm not a subscriber) at the store because their chocolate issue caught my eye.  How could it not, what with nearly every recipe having or centering itself around delectable chocolate!

Honestly, while I enjoyed this foray into food porn, I didn't actually take many recipes from it.  Much like when I was confronted with the gargantuan chocolate buffet on a cruise, the sheer volume of options proved overwhelming and I ultimately went away disappointed.  On the cruise, maybe it also had to do with some really rough seas and nausea... just saying!

But, the one recipe I vowed to make was a chocolate pinwheel.  First, I'm always looking for new ways to make something with puff pastry.  Second, it's CHOCOLATE!  The Food Network treatment of these two ingredients was pretty simple - chopped chocolate, heavy cream, and puff pastry rolled, cut, and baked.  I liked the results, but I thought it needed an even sweeter touch, so I created a glaze of peach jam to provide a fruity punch.  These are great with a cup of coffee, served as a crunchy biscuit with ice cream, or just when you're craving a bit of chocolatey sweetness.  Plus, my modifications make the ingredients even easier to find and less messy (love mini chocolate chips!).  Happy Eating!

Chocolate Pinwheels
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 cup miniature chocolate chips
1/4 cup peach preserves or jam

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Brush puff pastry with 2 Tbsp heavy cream leaving 1/4 inch border.  Sprinkle on chocolate chips to edge of cream.  Roll up puff pastry jelly-roll style.  Trim 1/4 inch off each side with a sharp serrated knife.  Slice into 12 pieces, abour 1/2-inch thick each.  Place on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for about 10 - 15 minutes or until lightly browned.  Remove to cooling rack.  Meanwhile, microwave peach preserves or jam in microwave for 20 - 30 seconds or until softened and liquidy.  Brush each pinwheel with peach preserves.  (Can also spread with preserves when you eat and leave off as they will soften).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Healthier Springtime Eating - Curried Bay Scallops with Brown Rice

Though Dallas weather certainly isn't reflective of the entire country, toward the end of February spring has sprung!  We still get some random "chilly" days (read: high in the 50's), but our grass greens up from the rain, the weather is generally mild, and we all turn our thoughts to "bikini bodies" for summer.  Ok, maybe a flattering one-piece swimsuit for some of us, but still. 

I've thought for a while that I need a jump start into eating less and eating healthier.  I still love to cook and will always cook a variety of dishes, but there is nothing wrong with adding in healthier recipes or tweaking to make favorites healthier.  I recently subscribed to Eating Well magazine to get more ideas on sophisticated (read: more like Bon Appetit than Cooking Light) yet healthy cooking options.  I've previously subscribed to Cooking Light, so I appreciate the variety they offer and the efforts at mass appeal.  Eating Well pushes the envelope on ingredients a bit more and is a little more aggressive on the health focus.

My sister-in-law is a personal trainer and getting a degree in health promotions, so encouraging all of us to eat better and adopt better lifestyle choices is a mission for her.  She encouraged us to get healthier and, embarking on a 24-day challenge, I sought out healthier recipes.  Copious consumption of butter and sugar aren't the easiest habits to break, but I was going to give it the best try I could.  I saw a recipe in Eating Well for a curried scallop and rice dish and decided to make it my own. 

Goal 1: Dramatically reduce the cost below the $25+ it would cost for the large scallops plus other ingredients
Goal 2: Add in more veggies to up the nutrition
Goal 3: Make dinner in 30 minutes or less

To meet the first goal, I changed jumbo scallops to bay scallops, though shrimp is an excellent substitute.  Buying frozen scallops or shrimp also cuts down on the cost.  Second, the recipe didn't have any added veggies.  Spring means fresh asparagus.  Since asparagus can be hit-or-miss, I went for frozen green beans, which is available year-round, is very nutritious, and has a low cost.  Third goal is best met with "fast cooking" brown rice.  "Fast cooking" brown rice is partially pre-cooked so that it cooks up faster, in about 10 minutes.  Beyond that, though the original recipe calls for lemon juice, I'm a huge fan of Chipotle's cilantro-lime rice, so I did a riff on those tastes to create... curried bay scallops and green beans with cilantro-lime rice.  Happy Eating!

Curried Bay Scallops and Green Beans with Cilantro-Lime Brown Rice
2 cups (uncooked) of quick-cooking brown rice, such as Minute Rice, prepared according to package directions
1 lb bay scallops or shrimp, patted dry with paper towels
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp curry powder
1 tsp salt, divided
1/2 tsp black pepper, divided
1 bag frozen green beans, microwaved according to package directions
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 - 4 scallions, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lime

Begin cooking rice according to package directions.  While rice is cooking, pat scallops dry and sprinkle both sides with curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper.  Heat butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until sizzing.  Add scallops and cook until browned, 1 - 2 minutes per side.  (They will cook quickly).  Remove to a plate.  Can cook in two batches if your skillet is small.  Add the green beans to skillet and saute 3 minutes.  Add cilantro, scallions, lemon juice, and remaining salt and pepper.  Mix, then add in rice and cook, stirring until heated through, about 1 minute.  Add in scallops or serve on top.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tasty Crackers... from Won Ton Wrappers?!

I love eating crackers and chips with different dip options.  From childhood, we always had chips and usually French onion dip on hand for snacks.  I love making homemade pita chips, but I was looking for something different to try.  One of the best shortcuts to "homemade" pasta is to use refrigerated won ton wrappers (usually found in the produce section of the grocery store), but when I use them to make ravioli I always have way more wrappers than I do filling.  What to do....

Fried won ton strips (like they serve with hot and sour soup at Chinese restaurants) are always yummy, but the fat and calories aren't ideal.  I started searching the web for recipes involving baking won ton wrappers.  I found inspiration at Sam the Cooking Guy's website.  His recipe doesn't specify any seasonings, so I played around with some options.  I modified the recipe slightly and added some bbq spice to a batch, salt and pepper to another, and a third included garlic powder and parmesan.  Here's the basic recipe:

Won Ton Crackers

1 package won ton wrappers
Non-stick cooking spray
Salt, pepper, and seasonings of choice (bbq, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, etc.)

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Slice won ton wrappers in half lengthwise to form rectangles.  Place in a single layer on a baking sheet.  To help crisp them and adhere the seasonings, spray with cooking spray.  Sprinkle with seasonings of choice (salt, pepper, Italian Seasoning, etc.).  Bake for 12 - 15 minutes or until browned and crispy.


The cracker was important, but so is the dip.  I had lemons and lemon juice handy, so I whipped up a dip with light sour cream (Greek yogurt is a great sub), creamy prepared horseradish, and lemon juice and zest.  The result?  A light and tasty dip with crunchy, thin crackers.  I know my snack for this week! PS - this dip could be a great twist to serve with prime rib.

Lemony Horseradish Dip

1/2 cup light sour cream or Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp - 1 tsp prepared creamy horseradish to taste
2 tsp lemon juice, preferably fresh
Zest of 1/2 - 1 lemon (depending on size)

In a small bowl, combine sour cream, horseradish, lemon juice, and zest.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  If desiring more horseradish flavor, may add more to taste.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Got a cast iron skillet - you got great pizza!

Last year, I fell completely in love with grilling up a pizza for a quick, light meal.  Crispy, slightly charred crust underneath, any pre-cooked toppings you can imagine, and crazy, wonky shaped dough - yum!  Even though this winter is abnormally pleasant and we could probably grill most any night, typically, pizza in winter would mean a call to Papa John's.  I've tried so many pizzas in the oven and just can't really groove on most of the deli and frozen pizzas out there. 

I came across a recipe for a pizza cooked in a cast iron skillet and was intrigued.  Cast iron is a magical tool in the kitchen - an absolute must-have item.  I received a cast iron skillet as a wedding present - probably a $20 gift, but perhaps one of my most treasured kitchen items.  It pretty much can go anywhere and cook anything... except in the microwave.  Anything that uses the cast iron skillet intrigues me since it's easy to use and easy to clean.  Plus, a recipe that's ready in 30 minutes with minimal fuss is even better.

A few hints about making skillet pizza:
- pre-cook your toppings - the crust will burn before raw sausage is cooked in this type of recipe
- think outside the tomato sauce box - add pesto, or use olive oil, parmesan and garlic powder to make a "white" pizza
- use less cheese for a healthier option - I love using little fresh mozzarella pearls.  They spread out as they melt covering more of the pizza for far less calories
- Living gluten free?  Making your own pizza lets you control the crust, toppings, and prevent gluten issues

For this recipe, I just used store-bought pizza dough in a can, but you can get dough from a pizzeria, frozen dough, or make your own.  Since we love mushrooms, I sauteed some with some shallots before starting the pizza.  I went mediterranean with chorizo, fresh mozzarella, and olive oil.  The interesting part of how to cook the recipe is that it actually cooks on the stove in the skillet part of the way and then finishes in the oven.  It's rustic and homey comfort food.  Try this recipe with your favorite toppings and you can have fresh pizza in 30 minutes for the whole family.  Happy eating!

Cast-Iron Skillet Pizza
1 tube of refrigerated pizza dough
Cornmeal, for dusting skillet
Toppings of choice - veggies, cheese, meat, etc.

Heat oven to 500 degrees.  Heat cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.  While skillet is preheating, sprinkle cornmeal on counter and roll out to 12-inch circle.  Once heated skillet is heated, sprinkle cornmeal in skillet and place dough in skillet.  Spread out dough to edges of skillet.  Brush crust with olive oil, sauce (tomato sauce, pesto, etc.) if using, and top with items of choice and finishing with cheese.  Cook over medium-high heat for 6 - 8 minutes periodically turning crust slightly to prevent sticking and burning.  Finish cooking in oven for 6 - 8 more minutes or until crust is golden and cheese is melted and beginning to brown.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What a Top Chef Taught Me....

I had the pleasure last week of reading Tom Colicchio's cookbook, "Think Like a Chef."  As I've explored new culinary realms, I keep coming back to the same message in so many cookbooks - learn the basics.  What does that really mean?  In case you're not sure, boiling water is probably the most basic!   The idea is that if you learn a technique, say sauteeing, you can saute anything.  Same for roasting.  If you can roast beef, you can roast pork, chicken, fish, etc.

The other idea is to cook for the season with veggies.  Start planning a meal with the veggies and add in the protein and starch from there.  I'm not quite at that point, but I have friends participating in veggie co-ops that definitely have that technique mastered!  This is really a contrast to complicated recipes like those in "The Silver Palate" Cookbook.  I re-read the book after TC's tome and my head was spinning at the level of complication to most every recipe.  While I'm sure the food is faboo, recipes with so many ingredients and complicated steps are not the way to cook most days and have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour!

The idea that stayed with me from the books was to jazz up something simple with a special touch.  It goes back to the basics - use a technique to cook, then add something special to elevate the dish.  I was inspired to try pasta with truffle butter.  What, you ask, is truffle butter?  It is, admittedly, a luxury ingredient.  Pieces of black truffle are mixed into butter adding a rich, intensely mushroomy musky flavor.  A little bit goes a long way, so even though it's a pricey buy, it lasts a while.  In the recipe below, for example, they call for a whole carton.  I used about a Tablespoon and enjoyed a subtle, mellow flavor.

Reading Colicchio's book re-inspired the desire to make a simple dish with great flavor.  I originally saw the recipe for a truffle butter pasta on "Barefoot Contessa" and was dying to try it.  And the taste?  Mushroomy, earthy, cheesy, and a nice touch of onion from the chives!  Here's a pic of Ina's dish and a link to the recipe.  Happy eating!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breakfast for Dinner - Quick and Easy Hash

Having breakfast for dinner seems almost naughty, like I'm breaking a rule I was brought up to obey.  I made a really delicious beef roast this weekend, but with only two eaters (ok - 2 1/3 since one of the cats loves beef), I had a ridiculous amount of leftovers.  One of our favorite meals is a steak with baked potato and a side dish of sauteed mushrooms and onions.  Why not put those same flavors in a one-dish meal of hash?

Foods cook faster if they're cut in small pieces, so to get dinner on the table fast, chopping up all of the ingredients cooks everything faster.  The beauty of this dish is the use of leftovers.  Anything can go in a hash - vegetables (yes, even broccoli or zucchini), potatoes, meat, etc. 

My kitchen staples include potatoes, onions, and mushrooms, so with the leftover roast, I was set!  I chopped up the mushrooms into rough pieces, cubed the potatoes small (frozen hash brown potatoes would work fine too), and cut the roast into pieces.  I started by sauteeing the onions on medium in a little oil; then when they were translucent, I added the mushrooms and cooked them until their liquid was cooked off.  I moved that to a bowl and cooked the potatoes until browned.  Once done, I added in the meat and the mushroom mixture and heated it through.  Though the potatoes took a while to cook (about 20 minutes since I cooked them at medium heat), it was worth it when the hash came together.  A recipe isn't important - use what you have available - heck, cook breakfast sausages and cut them, use ground beef, whatever!  Add browned potatoes (frozen, refrigerated, or fresh), and whatever vegetables (cooked to your liking).  Voila!

No "breakfast for dinner" meal is complete without an egg, so I fried one up to order (use the same pan as the hash!).  Ice likes his over-medium to over-hard (shown above) with lots of pepper, while mine is over easy.  That allows the yolk, when broken, to run over the hash and make its own sauce.  What elevated the dish to a different realm was the "homemade" ketchup.  This is what separates the kids' dish from the grown-ups!  Ketchup + Sriracha = heavenly hash condiment with just the right amount of spicy and sweet to balance out the richness of the egg, potatoes and steak.

Sriracha Ketchup
1/2 cup store-bought ketchup of choice
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons of Sriracha (based on level of spice preferred)
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1/2 tsp diced shallot (optional)

If using, mince shallot finely and mince parsley finely.  Set aside.  In a small bowl, add ketchup and Sriracha to taste.  Once desired level of heat is reached, add in pepper, parsley, and shallot (if using).  Serve with hash.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Oreo Cake Balls - a Rock Star Dessert!

To say I love sugary, chocolately treats would be an understatement.  I'm generally dreaming of chocolate morning, noon, and night.  I also love to bake and cook (if you haven't noticed).  A few months back, I jumped on the cake ball bandwagon and made some traditional cake balls - cooked up a cake in a pan, let it cool, turned it into crumbs, mixed with frosting, chilled, then dipped in melted chocolate.  It's not complicated, but it does take time since you have to first BAKE the cake, THEN cool it (overnight is best), THEN crumble and add frosting, THEN chill it for at least 15 more minutes before dipping.  All told, it was a two day process!  I'm not opposed to spending that time for special occasions, but if I need some instant gratification, I now have an easier way... Oreo Cake Balls!

My sister-in-law shared the recipe and it earned two thumbs up for both simplicity and taste.  Truth be told, I ate half of them before ever sharing!!  I also love the versatility of chocolate options for dipping.  To experiment, I used two different types of chocolate for dipping - some in milk chocolate and some in semi-sweet.  Bake sale, chocolate emergency, whatever the situation, MAKE THEM! :)  You will be a rock star to your family, bake sale, and tummy.

Bet you can't eat just one!
Oreo Cake Balls
1 package Oreo cookies (regular kind)
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese
2 packages chocolate chips of choice (white, milk, or semi-sweet)
Assorted decorative sprinkles

Place Oreos in food processor and grind until crumbly.  Cut cream cheese into 8 squares and add to Oreo crumbs.  Run food processor until cream cheese is incorporated into Oreo crumbs and mixture starts to form a ball.  Line a sheet pan with tin foil or waxed paper.  Using small cookie scoop or teaspoon, portion out mixture and roll into balls.  Chill in freezer for 10 minutes to firm.  While chilling, place chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 2 minutes to melt.  Stir and continue microwaving in 20 - 30 second intervals until all chips melted.  Remove Oreo balls from freezer and dip each in chocolate.  Place dipped balls back onto lined sheet pan.  Sprinkle with decorative sugar or sprinkles.  If using different types of chocolate, melt them separately.

Happy eating!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

No-So-Ordinary Grilled Cheese

This winter, comfort foods are my craving and soup/sandwich suppers are tops on my list.  They can be both quick and satisfying with about a zillion combinations.  Around our house, grilled cheese rules the dinner hour, so I've come up with some creative variations on the traditional grilled cheese.  I'm a big fan of cheesy sandwiches, so I use a 2-1 ratio of cheese to meat, but you can use a slice of cheese to two slices of meat if you prefer. 

I came across a recipe from Cooking Club of America that inspired the whole idea of grilled cheese with special ingredients. 

The inspiration sandwich, from CCA
The keys to making a good grilled cheese great? Plenty of meat and cheese and a special sauce to fit the sandwich.  The best part of a sandwich and soup supper?  You can have a hot sandwich ready in 15 minutes or less.  Pair that with a canned soup of choice (microwaved in about 2 - 3 minutes) and dinner is served!  Here's a few ideas to turn grilled cheese on its head; directions are the same - only difference are the ingredients.  Happy eating!

Roast Beef, Cheddar, and Horseradish Panini (serve with tomato soup) - Makes 4 sandwiches
8 slices sandwich bread or sourdough
8 slices deli roast beef
8 slices sharp cheddar
8 slices mild cheddar or jack cheese
1 tsp creamy horseradish
3 Tbsp mayo
1 cup arugula (optional)

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  I like to put the meat in the skillet and warm through before assembling the sandwiches (this is optional).Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side.  Mix horseradish and mayo in a dish (can use less horseradish for a milder sandwich).  When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/horseradish mix and place butter-side down in skillet.  Add one slice of  sharp cheddar cheese and 1 - 2 pieces of roast beef.  Add 1/4  of the arugula and 1 slice of the mild cheddar or jack.  Top with other slice of bread.  Repeat to make one more sandwich.  To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes.  Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich.  Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Hot Italiano (Makes 4 sandwiches)
8 slices of Italian bread or 4 crusty rolls, halved
4 thin slices salami or 8 thin slices prosciutto (may substitute 8 slices pre-cooked bacon)
4 slices of honey ham (if small or thin slices, use 8 slices total)
4 slices of Provolone cheese
4 slices of Swiss or mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 tsp Italian dressing
3 Tbsp mayo
4 thin slices tomato (optional)

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  Once heated, add ham and prosciutto (if using) to the pan and heat through, 2 - 3 minutes.  This helps cook off some of the extra moisture.  Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side. Mix Italian dressing and mayo in a dish. When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/dressing mix and place butter-side down in skillet. Add one slice of  Provolone cheese and 2 pieces of prosciutto/salami or bacon. Add 1 slice of tomato, 1 slice of ham, and 1 slice of the Swiss or mozzarella. Top with other slice of bread. Repeat to make one more sandwich. To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes. Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich. Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Mediterranean Turkey with Pesto (Makes 4 sandwiches)
8 slices whole-wheat bread
8 slices deli smoked turkey
8 slices Provolone or mozzarella
4 tsp crumbled Feta cheese (preferably with mediterranean herbs)
3 Tbsp mayo
2 tsp store-bought pesto
1/2 cup fresh basil or 1 cup baby arugula

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side. Mix pesto, Feta and mayo in a dish. When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/pesto/Feta mix and place butter-side down in skillet. Add one slice of Provolone or mozzarella cheese and 1 piece of turkey. Add 1/4 of the arugula (if using), 1 slice of turkey, and 1 slice of the Provolone or mozzarella. Top with other slice of bread. Repeat to make one more sandwich. To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes. Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich. Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pork ribs - versatile, economical, and TASTY!

I'm a self-proclaimed pork hound.  I love me porky goodness in just about any form.  Friends and family have swooned (literally) over my pork candy (for the unfamiliar, it's bacon coated in brown sugar and cayenne pepper and baked), and I grew up in a household that cooked more pork than chicken.  In other words, I come by it honestly. 

The one pork product I didn't really eat much was a bone-in pork rib.  Mostly, in my head, it was a great bbq option, but not an everyday item.  Was. I. Wrong!  In the last six months, I realized how economical, versatile, and tasty pork ribs can be.  Any flavor works well - Mexican, Italian, whatever your taste.  Finding some pork ribs discounted ($5 for $9 worth!), I decided to experiment, but what to do....

It's January, so braised dishes are comforting and seasonally-appropriate.  Braises also make food both flavorful and tender, cooking low and slow.  Looking in the pantry, I decided to cook the pork in beer with a little OJ for flavor and brightness.  I cut the ribs into individual portions, sprinkled them with a bbq rub, and browned them to get the flavor jumping.  Then, I added 1 can of beer and 1/2 cup of oj.  I cooked it on high in the slow cooker for about 4 hours and they were falling-apart tender.  But I wasn't done there!  I wanted to get even more flavor into the ribs.  How?  Really simple - I boiled down the sauce, thickened it with some flour, and added sriracha!  Five ingredients for dinner?  Yes please!  If you don't like my combo, use the combos that work for you!  I served the ribs with a side of steamed broccoli and mac and cheese.

Beer, OJ, and Sriracha Pork Ribs
2 1/2 lbs pork ribs, cut into individual pieces
2 Tbsp barbecue rub of choice
1 can lager beer
1/2 cup orange juice
1 Tbsp Sriracha or Chinese hot garlic sauce
2 Tbsp flour

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 Tbsp oil.  Season the pork ribs with the barbecue rub or salt and pepper.  Brown the pork ribs on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Remove from pan.  Transfer the pork ribs to a slow cooker or oven-safe pan.  Add beer and orange juice to slow cooker or baking pan.  Cook on high heat in slow cooker for 4 hours or up to 8 hours on low.  Alternatively, bake covered at 250 degrees for 2 1/2 hours or until done.  Once ribs are done, remove from sauce and wrap in tin foil to keep warm.  Bring cooking liquid to a boil and add 2 Tbsp flour mixed with 2 Tbsp. cold water to braising liquid.  Boil until thickened.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and add Sriracha.  Add ribs to sauce and reheat 5 minutes.  Drizzle sauce over ribs.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Phyllo Perfection, Mediterranean Style

I've waxed poetic before on puff pastry.  It elevates an ordinary dish into something extraordinary.  Phyllo dough has similar charms, but requires much more work.  With puff pastry, the butter is already worked into the dough, so it's perfection without the work.  Phyllo requires the cook to layer tissue-thin dough with melted butter to create the flaky texture that comes from baking.
Since we plan to entertain during the holidays, the more items I can make ahead and have chilling (or chillin') out in my freezer now, the better.  I love Mediterranean flavors - tomatoes, olives, and feta, so a recipe that I can make ahead AND look like a rock star for making it sounds good to me! 

I found inspiration from my Fine Cooking cookbook.  I'm "retiring" the cookbook to Half Price Books, but I snagged a few recipes before parting. 

Portioned bites
Filling time!  Chopped up some kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil), and mint.  Added chopped parsley on a whim and incorporated frozen spinach that was thawed, drained, and squeezed dry.  Added the feta cheese for a salty tang and mixed. 

Layering begins
The phyllo was hanging out in my fridge ready and waiting to be rolled and folded into triangles of crispy perfection.  A warning - phyllo is fussy!  I had to keep it covered with plastic wrap so that it would not dry and crack.  I took out one sheet, brushed it with butter, topped it with a second sheet, brushed that with butter, then cut the sheet into three strips. 

Ready to roll!

Two teaspoons of filling per piece later, I had triangles of Mediterranean munchies fit for a casual get-together or fancy soiree.  Well, at least I had unbaked, ready-to-freeze munchies.... They still required covering to prevent cracking and drying out, but they were at least done and ready to bake.
Once I had the triangles ready to freeze, it was time to bake and taste.  A cook always does a quality check, right?  Sometimes, my quality checks cause me to make a double recipe in the case of chocolate chip cookies and other desserts! 

Protect me!  Hungry people are around
All I had to do was wait. Since I actually squeezed in making these while also cooking the tomato sauce for The Lasagna Debacle Part II, I actually finished up the tomato sauce work while these baked. Once done, I could get off my feet and enjoy.
But, I'm ahead of myself.  Once I pulled these babies out of the oven (not the prettiest triangles of the bunch, but that's why they were my taste-test triangles), I wanted to sink my teeth in right away.  Since I've learned tongue and mouth burns are both painful and tastebud killing, I waited a few minutes for them to cool.  The results?  Well, I think the picture tells the story.  They tasted as good as they looked.  Happy eating!

Phyllo Perfection!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Tribute to Family

I know those that read the blog probably wondered where I've been for 2 months.  Sadly, I've been absent due to some family events.  Unexpectedly, my Uncle Dale passed away the afternoon of October 30th.  That same week, I lost my Grandmother, Ruth.  The events were a true tragedy for my family as those were the only two immediate family elders on that side remaining.  With them passing, a part of me was lost as well.  I am amazed the entire clan passed in the months of September, October, or November and I will probably be forever fearful of family losses in those months.

While I haven't posted on my blog (words failed me), I was busy working on a culinary tribute to the family - a cookbook.  So many family memories centered on the food and family gatherings - what better tribute to a family legacy than a cookbook!  You may wonder whether I used a software program or other "template" to make the cookbook.  Actually, I didn't!  It's easy to format your own in Word.  Using "landscape" setting and 8.5 x 11-inch paper size, I formatted the cookbook using two columns per page and size 8 font.  Family photos were scanned and incorporated, as well as essays on family events and other recollections.  What I love is that there is no right or wrong - the recipes are those we loved and remembered as well as others that I believe were made for my father and uncle when they were children. 

The cookbook project was part of my grieving process, as well as a way to remember and honor the memory of this family.  What I will continue with is to make and document the heritage recipes of the family.  I will still write in this blog from time-to-time, but I'm creating a new blog for heritage recipes that I will make as a celebration of our loved ones now gone.  I hope you'll follow my blog www.recipesoffamilyheritage.blogspot.com and comment/contribute your own heritage recipes as well.  Help me to create a blog that becomes a living tribute to our loved ones and their treasured family recipes.

Happy New Year and keep cooking!

Jazzing up home cooking, inspired from "twisted" comfort food

This post isn't as much about a recipe I've made as it is a celebration of turning tradition on its ear.  IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to dine at an amazing restaurant, Rathbun's Blue Plate.  This isn't our first time there, but it was good enough  the first time to have a date night this week and go back. 

Many people unfamiliar with the Dallas restaurant scene may not know how casual you can be when dining on fine cuisine.  Good food does NOT mean pretentious decor, snooty service, or tie/jacket required.  There are places known and celebrated for that level of expectation and service, but I think, especially in a down economy, casual atmosphere with five-star food is a smart twist on tradition.

Comfort food is iconic - almost anyone can name a classic comforting dish from chicken fried steak to collard greens to sushi (hey, if you grew up eating it, that counts as comfort food to you!).  The food is generally hearty, satisfying the soul and the appetite.  While I enjoy tradition, tastes have evolved and chefs draw influences from all over the world.  Blue Plate personifies this style.

What I hope you take from this blog postThe rest of the blog will be devoted to describing the food, and giving suggestions for how to turn tradition on its ear in your home kitchen.  While you may never make lobster and truffle risotto, you just might take a technique and jazz up your own rice dish.

Twist on tradition #1: Scallops with lobster and truffle risotto
Rathbun's Scallops with a Lobster and Truffle Risotto
I confess - I LOVE scallops passionately.  IceDaddy was still jealous from the phenomenal scallop dish I ate in Key West last May, so he attempted to best me by ordering the above entree.  Most everyone has a comfort dish with rice.  Risotto is an Italians' comfort food  rice dish, so it's natural to have it on a menu.  How did they "twist" it?  First, they used a rich lobster stock to cook the rice.  Second, big, buttery chunks of lobster were found mixed in.  Third, they added a lot (A LOT) of butter and cream.  Finally, they mixed in truffle oil, adding an earthy punch.

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Use stock when cooking!  Make your own, buy some, whatever.  It adds a punch of flavor.  That lobster added to the dish?  I bet the chef used the shells to make the stock!  I guarantee you, the next time I make risotto, it's with stock, not just broth.

2) Buy truffle oil.  Unless you're Tony Bourdain and believe it's an abomination, it's an inexpensive way to add some "gourmet" flavor to almost any savory dish.  What is a truffle?  Sparing you the scientific explanation, it's like mushroom flavor on acid.  Super earthy with some funk, restaurants shave delicate slices onto food as a garnish.  Truffle oil may not capture the full essence, but at $5 - $10 a bottle versus $200 a pound, it's an affordable choice.  A small drizzle at the end of cooking or when plating is all you need.

Twist on tradition #2 - Seared duck breast with white beans and greens

Tried duck?  If you haven't it's worth considering.  It's rich like dark meat chicken, but with a spicier flavor.  While I could make duck at home, I usually reserve the treat for eating in a restaurant.  That said, what I loved about this dish are the Asian-inspired flavors of the sauce.  Stewed white beans, toothy and tender, braised greens, tender and flavorful, and this rich brown sauce made with duck jus (read; pan drippings and essence) and star anise. 

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Experiment with proteins.  Like chicken? Try cornish game hens.  Have a hunter friend?  See if you can get doves.  Meat lover?  Try buffalo or venison.  Just changing the protein brings a whole different dimension of flavor

2) Spice it up - try spices that are somewhat unfamiliar.  Buy spice blends from the store or make your own.  Adding Chinese Five Spice powder to chicken breasts changes up the normal sauteed chicken considerably!

And finally, the absolute, "the best I ever ate" menu item that twisted up tradition....

Twist on tradition #3 - Duck confit mac and cheese

Duck fat rules!

OMG is this amazing!  I've heard the gourmet crowd praise french fries cooked in duck fat as one of the best foods you can get, but this mac and cheese elevates duck to another level.  Duck confit is a duck leg cooked slowly in duck fat until it's meltingly tender.  By iteself, it's rich, somewhat gamy, and flavorful.  With the mac and cheese, it adds a flavor dimension combined with the tang of aged cheddar and melt of gruyere.  I thought I might have to fight my sweetie for even one bite.

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Ok, aside from how good this was and that you have to try it for yourself, elevate your mac and cheese.  Add a specially aged cheddar, splurge on gruyere.  Use bacon fat to make the roux for the cheese sauce.  Incorporate flavor everywhere you can. 

2) Make your own pasta.  It's so simple - flour, eggs, salt, oil, and water.  30 minutes - that's it!  Try it and you'll always want fresh pasta.  Sauce clings to it and begs for more!  It makes that everyday dish more special.

I hope these ideas inspire you to think about how you can "twist" your favorite home cooking and comfort foods to make them different.  Happy eating!