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.