Archive | July, 2010

Cup of Comfort Chicken Noodle Soup

31 Jul

A few years ago, my doctor asked me to go on a salt-free diet. Which wasn’t easy–you’d be shocked at how much salt is in seemingly innocuous pantry fare. Canned tomatoes: full of salt. Canned beans: full of salt. Frozen meals: full of salt.

And canned soup: FULL OF SALT. Cups and cups of it. Really, really bad.

I’m not a big soup eater, but every so often, a girl just needs a cup of chicken noodle soup. And so I came up with a recipe that is super easy and tastes really good, without the salt of canned soup. It also freezes beautifully, which makes it perfect to keep around the house for those I-feel-icky soup days. More on that in a moment.

To make healthy (really) chicken noodle soup, you’ll need:

1/2 lb chicken breasts (about two boneless, skinless breasts), diced (this is easier if it’s partially frozen)

1/2 cup carrot, diced small (running a knife through the shredded carrots at the salad bar works great)

1/4 cup celery, diced small (ditto for the salad bar)

1/2 medium onion, finely minced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tsp salt-free poultry seasoning (I get mine at http://www.thespicehunter.com)

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

6 cups no-salt-added chicken broth (that’s 1 1/2 cartons)

2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 cup egg noodles

Coat the bottom of a large stockpot with olive oil and place over medium heat. Once it’s hot (you’ll see ripples in the surface of the oil) add the onion, celery, and carrot, and stir those around until they start to soften–about five minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper and stir, and immediately add the chicken and 1 tsp poultry seasoning before the garlic burns.

Cook the chicken, stirring occasionally, until it’s starting to brown just a bit on the outside but don’t cook it through. Add the broth, water, remaining poultry seasoning, and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Let that simmer about 15 minutes, or up to an hour.

Add the noodles. Cook for five minutes or until on the hard side of al dente and remove soup from heat. Fish out bay leaves and serve immediately or freeze.

I freeze this recipe for my in-laws regularly, putting it into individual serving containers and labeling those with the date. And it does really well–best of all, no salt!

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Baked Chickpeas: Fail

30 Jul

A few nights ago, I had a handful of friends over for a “mid-summer whine and cheese” party, to commemorate the middle of our kids’ summer break and commiserate about the same. I knew I had at least one guest with a nut allergy and planned accordingly, picking appetizers and desserts to make that had no nuts and no worries about cross-contamination from ingredients manufactured in plants that process nuts. No big deal.

But I did want a little bowl out of a crunchy something to replace the traditional bowl of cashews on the table. So I did a search and tried this recipe for baked chickpeas, which should have fit the bill.

Despite following the directions to a T (minus the black pepper, which didn’t seem nut-like to me at all) and leaving these in the oven for more than twice the time called for, the chickpeas never crunched up. They looked like nuts, to be sure, and the spice was good, but they were still chickpeas. Soft and bean-y inside. Which wasn’t at all what I was going for.

I tried a few, and one or two other people tried a few, and then the whole lot went in the trash.

Recipes sometimes fail. It happens. Chalk it up to insufficient testing or perhaps operator error, and move on. But skip the baked chickpeas.

Real Blondies

28 Jul

To those of you who make chocolate chip cookie bars and call them blondies, I love you, but knock it off. Chocolate chip cookie recipes make delicious bars, but they’re not blondies, which are their own little bits of sweet heaven.

The difference between the two is simple: brown sugar. Blondies are made only with brown sugar, so they have a wonderful molasses taste and fantastic tooth feel to them. Just like a really good brownie, blondies are chewy. You get that both from the brown sugar and from melting together the sugar and butter before you mix everything else in. Don’t skip the melt, or you’ll get grainy bars.

I’ve had this recipe since college sometime. As I recall from way back when, the only real change I made was to ditch the nuts in the original and up the vanilla as we’ve chatted about before.

Do not, not, not overbake these. If you lose the chewy, you lose what makes these great blondies. I’d go about 22 minutes in metal and about 30 in Pyrex (assuming your oven temperature is true or you’ve compensated for an off-thermostat), but no longer.

Blondies

2 cups packed light brown sugar

2/3 cup unsalted butter

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Grease a 13 x 9 pan and heat your oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt together sugar and butter until sugar dissolves, stirring frequently.

Cool butter/sugar mixture slightly (you don’t want scrambled eggs) and then with a mixer, stir in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, and baking soda.

Pour mixture into baking pan and sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Bake for 22 – 30 minutes and let cool. Easiest to slice while still slightly warm.

Pad Thai with Shrimp

27 Jul

The headline of this entry should probably be “Kim finally figures out rice noodles and smacks herself in the head as a result.”

Rice noodles are just that–noodles made of rice–and if you’ve ever had Pad Thai at a restaurant or eaten any other Thai noodle or gluten-free pasta dish, you’ve had them. They’re clear-ish and a smidge more al dente than wheat noodles (if they’re cooked right), and until last night, they were the bane of my culinary existence.

There are two sets of directions on the back of the box. You can either soak these noodles in hot water for about a half-hour and then finish cooking them in a wok or skillet with whatever sauce you’re using, or you can boil the noodles just like you’d cook spaghetti. I’ve been a boiler–it’s my comfort zone–and have always ended up with noodles that taste good, but clumped up into random chewy lumps that made me grimace and my kids howl.

Last night, I tried the hot water soak. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t optimistic when after 30 minutes in a bowl of very hot tap water, the noodles were still stiff and inedible. Wracking my brain for a fast plan-B dinner, I followed the directions and drained the water off and then stir-fried the noodles in the Pad Thai sauce, and somewhere around minute 6, a miracle happened. The noodles softened and soaked up the sauce, and the Pad Thai was perfectly al dente with nary a chewy lump.

The rest of this started as a Weight Watchers recipe. It was too salty for me and called for peanuts and bean sprouts, neither of which I’m wild about in this dish (you can add them at the end if you like them). It was also super dry, and I like my noodles with a little more sauce to them, and it was way too hot for the kids to eat, so I toned down the spice. This would be great with tofu or chicken if shrimp isn’t your thing. My fiddled-with version follows.

My kids love this dinner, so it’s a staple in our house. This recipe feeds four of us for two nights–it reheats really well. Hope you like it too.

Pad Thai with Shrimp

16-oz box rice noodles (find them in your Thai/Chinese aisle)

2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and de-veined (I use frozen peeled cooked shrimp from Trader Joe’s)

6 scallions, chopped (only the green parts)

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 eggs, lightly beaten

4 tbsp Thai fish sauce (same aisle as the rice noodles)

4 tbsp sugar

1/2 tbsp hot chili sauce

1 1/2 tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce

Soak your rice noodles according to the directions on the package. Have faith–they’ll cook up fine.

Whisk together fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and hot chili sauce, and set aside.

Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and the shrimp (if you’re using uncooked shrimp; hold off if you cheat like me and used cooked). Cook shrimp about 3 minutes, until pink and opaque. Add scallions and garlic and cook about 10 seconds (really–don’t burn the garlic).

Push the shrimp, garlic, and scallions to the edges of the pan, and pour the eggs into the center. Scramble them until they’re just set. Give your sauce mixture a quick whisk and pour it into the pan. Stir fry about 1 minute to let everything mix together, and then toss in your noodles. Toss and stir fry those until they soften up; this took about 6 minutes for us using a large wok. If you’re using pre-cooked shrimp, add those next and stir until they’re just hot. Remove from heat and enjoy.

The Mystery That Is Rice

24 Jul

My friend Kristen commented on my coconut red curry shrimp post and asked about cooking rice. Which seems like a simple enough thing if you read the back of the rice bag, but can be disastrous with subtle missteps.

It took me awhile to catch on to rice, but these days, it goes pretty well. We eat a lot of it around here and for good reason–it’s pretty good for your body, it tastes good with all sorts of dishes, and it’s pretty cheap. There are a couple of things to remember about it, and if you can do that, you’re golden.

The first thing is that you might have to rinse your rice. By nature, rice is full of starch. Starch + boiling water = sticky mess. Good old American converted rice (think Uncle Ben’s in the orange box) has been rinsed during processing; if you’re using that, you can skip this. But if you’re using basmati, jasmine, short-grain, or any other rice, you’re best to measure it dry, pour it into a mesh sieve, and hold it under your faucet for a few minutes, shaking or stirring so that every grain gets a good shower. Purists put the rice directly into a bowl of cold water and let it soak for a few minutes, and then change the water a few times, but I have not the time nor the patience for that–I’m a working mom. Rinsing under the tap works.

Second trick: You know how the rice package says two parts water to one part rice? Unless you’re using brown rice (more on that in a minute), forget that. You won’t get light and fluffy. You’ll get gummy and mushy (which is great if you’re going for rice pudding, but not so much for savory dishes). The formula that works better is one part rice to two parts water minus 1/4 cup. Making one cup dry rice? You want 1 3/4 cup water. Two cups rice? Three and 3/4 cup water. See? This is true for those wild rice and other prepared rice mixes you buy as well. Try reducing the water called for by 1/4 cup and see what you think. You’ll get fluffier, lighter rice every time.

The exception to this is brown rice. Brown rice needs all that water, so you do want a two-to-one ratio. Two cups water to every one cup rice.

Third trick: Start with cold water. Measure your rice and put it in your pot. Measure the water and pour it over the rice. Stir everything a little bit. And then turn on your burner. Pouring rice into boiling water makes lumps. We want fluff, not lump.

Fourth: Put a lid on the pot and put your burner on medium-high. Don’t go anywhere! Medium-high (instead of high) will keep the bottom grains from burning while the water comes to a boil. Once the water boils–you’ll start to see steam coming from under the lid…

Fifth: Turn your burner down to low as soon as you see steam and shift the pot lid over just a smidge, so you have a little crack of air between the lid and the pot on one side. You want the grains on top to be able to steam (thus avoiding crunchy rice), but you don’t want them to steam into mush. Leaving a little tiny crack between lid and pot will let enough steam stay in to soften the rice, and enough to escape to avoid mush.

Sixth: Stir. Once in awhile. Maybe every 10 minutes. And then put the lid back the way you had it.

Seventh: When you stir and don’t see any water at the bottom of the pot, turn the burner off and take the lid off the pot–steaming is done, so let it all escape. If you’re on an electric stove, move your pot to a cool burner. Fluff your rice up with a fork and leave it there, uncovered, until you’re ready for it.

I don’t add oil or butter to my rice even when a boxed rice mix calls for it. And it’s fine.

Rice is easy to master once you know a few tricks. Let me know if any of this works out for you!

Coconut Red Curry Shrimp

23 Jul

Like most people who work downtown, DH has a favorite restaurant that’s his go-to place when clients or other VIPs are in town. So it wasn’t really shocking to me when he came home one night raving about a dish he’d had there and asking if I thought I could copy it at home.

What did surprise me was that it’s a coconut milk-based recipe. I didn’t know DH was a coconut milk kind of guy (We’ve only been together 17 years; how would I know that?). I’d never bought coconut milk, much less cooked with it or even entertained the thought.

I’ve been pondering this recipe for about two weeks, piecing together bits and pieces of recipes I found on the web, and then adding ingredients that the restaurant’s menu said were in the dish they serve. Last night, I finally got up the nerve to toss everything in a pan and see what came of it.

Nailed. It.

First time out, which was an awesome surprise–that never happens. DH said it was perfect, no revisions needed. We both loved it. It’s sweet with a background of curry (which isn’t hot, exactly, but is spicy), and was filling without being heavy. And the best part is that this literally came together in 10 minutes. The pan barely really warmed up before dinner was served.

As always, a few notes…

I served this over basmati rice. You can certainly use regular white or brown rice, but basmati has this delicious subtle perfume to it, and it’s worth the extra few pennies. The secret to good basmati rice is to rinse the grains really thoroughly before you add them to the pot of water on the stove. It’s really starchy and if you don’t rinse it (I put mine in a mesh sieve and run it under the tap for a few minutes, stirring every couple of seconds and giving it a good shake before I put it in the pot), you’ll end up with a sticky, clumpy pot of porridge instead of light and fluffy rice.

Some of the ingredients here sound exotic. I purposefully went to our smallest, most ill-stocked grocery store to shop for it, and I found everything there without any problem at all. The exception was the shrimp, which they had but I buy frozen at Trader Joe’s for about $8 per pound.

This re-heats beautifully. During the summer, I cook dinner in the morning and re-heat it at dinnertime to keep the house cooler. We nuked this at 50 percent power for about two minutes per plate, and it was wonderful–the shrimp stayed tender and the sauce didn’t yellow, which sometimes happens with milk-based dishes and the microwave. So that’s an option for you.

Here’s what we had for dinner last night. It was so good that I completely forgot to take a picture but trust me: it’s as nice on the eyes as on the taste buds. You could definitely serve this to company even though it couldn’t be quicker or easier.

Coconut Red Curry Shrimp

1 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk (try your Thai or Chinese food section)

2 tsp Thai red curry paste (ditto–it’s not with the spices)

2 tbsp light brown sugar

2 tsp lime juice (about half a lime’s worth of juice)

3 or 4 leaves of bok choy, chopped (near the lettuce at the store)

1/2 cup of roasted red peppers (jarred), chopped

2 tbsp mango chutney (either the Thai/Chinese/Indian aisle or near the jellies)

1 lb shrimp (I used cooked, peeled, frozen shrimp, but raw are fine too)

A handful of basil leaves, sliced into ribbons

1 1/2 cups uncooked Basmati rice, well rinsed

Cook the rice in 2 3/4 cups of water (trust me–we’ll talk about rice another day) until light and fluffy.

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the coconut milk, curry paste, brown sugar, mango chutney and lime juice until you start to see steam. Add bok choy and red peppers and let everything come to a simmer. Add the shrimp and either heat through (if you’re using cooked) or cook until they’re pink (but no farther–overcooked shrimp are yukky!). Stir in the basil and remove from heat. Serve over rice.

Could that be any easier??

Hope you all try this. It sounds really exotic, I know, with ingredients some of us don’t normally cook with, but boy, it’s good. This is absolutely becoming part of our regular dinner repetoire.

Cool Kitchen Chicken Fajitas

21 Jul

Had a hankering for chicken fajitas last night, which normally means hauling out my cast iron skillet (for caramelizing onions) and my cast iron grill pan (for the chicken and other veggies). No big deal, except it’s been deadly hot around here this week and two burners (three, if I use my two-burner grill) firing up at once seemed a little melty to me.

I’m a big fan of my Crockpot, but I like my fajitas grilled. In a fit of curiosity, I hauled out my George Foreman Grill. Don’t tell me there’s not one gathering dust in the far reach of a high cabinet in your house, because you’re lying and I know it. I hadn’t used mine in at least two years. But I got it wiped down and plugged in and beeping away, and know what?

First, the fajitas kicked butt. Seriously. Seared peppers with beautiful char marks and grilled chicken with tons of flavor.

And second, grilling these on the Foreman took half the time of using my cast iron pan. Honest injun.

(My friends from Texas are all cringing and gagging right now. Sorry, ladies. I’m sure this is some kind of sin against nature in your eyes. You can use your real grills and call me an east-coast grill wimp. It’s all good.)

A few notes:

A trick I learned from Bobby Flay is to sprinkle onions with chili powder (I like this one) when you’re caramelizing them. Just a little bit–a dusting. Such a huge flavor boost, and the spicy/sweet thing is irresistible. I could eat a whole bowl of just these onions.

A trick I learned…somewhere…is to slice the chicken super thin across the width of the breast, not lengthwise. It grills perfectly when it’s really thin, and cutting it against the grain like that makes it deliciously juicy, even grilled.

The rest is self-explanatory. This recipe serves my family for two nights. Ready?

Chicken Fajitas

Three boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced very thin widthwise

One sweet onion, cut in half and then sliced, rings separated

One red bell pepper, cut into strips

Two green bell peppers, cut into strips

A pinch of chili powder

Fajita seasoning (I like this one but I buy it at thespicehunter.com)

Two tablespoons of olive oil

One tablespoon of butter

Tortillas

Add-ins–guacomole, salsa, sour cream, cheese, etc.

Heat up a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium-low heat. When it’s hot, add the butter (which is great for browning and flavor and raises the smoke point of the oil) and olive oil and swirl them around. Add the onions and sprinkle them with the chili powder. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes or until golden brown and delicious, like this:

When they’re done, drain them on a folded paper towel laid on a plate.

In the meantime, heat up your Foreman grill or grill pan. My Foreman lets me set a temperature, and I cranked it all the way to 425. Let yours get as hot as it can or put your grill pan on medium-high. Grill your peppers on both sides until they start to char. Remove from the grill.

Sprinkle your sliced chicken with fajita seasoning on both sides. Grill on both sides until cooked through and it has nice grill marks. Mix with the peppers and onions and serve on tortillas with your add-ins.

If you really want a “wow” with this, grill up some jalapeno peppers when the chicken and veggies are finished, but do it last or everything will have a bite to it. And if you’re low-carbing it, just eat your fajitas as a salad, over greens or spinach, using your salsa and other fixings as dressing.

We eat this about every other week and nobody ever complains. And now I don’t even have to heat up the kitchen to do it.

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