Archive | May, 2012

Dinner in Dante’s Inferno

30 May

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Well, hi there, summer!

We enjoyed an exceptionally cool and pleasant spring here in the mid-Atlantic, but summer showed up last week. All at once. Like, on Friday. You could almost hear the sound of millions of thermostats switching to cool simultaneously, and the peaceful quiet of my morning walk was instantly replaced with the hum of AC units.

This, I know, doesn’t do any of us any favors in the kitchen. I still have a pot roast in the freezer, and who wants pot roast when it’s a billion degrees and eleventy-hundred percent humidity outside? By the same token, cereal only sounds appealing for dinner so many nights in a row.

I don’t claim to have all the answers–hot is still hot–but there are a few simple strategies and meals that work particularly well when the weather goes all center-of-the-sun like it has:

  • Cook ahead. This is the time of year I have dinner going by 8 a.m. Lots of things reheat beautifully (roast chicken, meatloaf, all sorts of casseroles and such, most pasta sauces), and if you can get those dishes cooked and popped into your fridge early in the morning, the kitchen will recover its cool by lunchtime, and the microwave steps in to get hot food on the table without incinerating the chef in the process.
  • Cook even more ahead. Work in an office? Figure out a few dishes you can cook all at once and get hopping on Saturday or Sunday morning. Get one thing going in the oven and one or two on the stovetop with perhaps a third on your outdoor or indoor grill, and then package it all up into portions and freeze it all for the week. This takes planning, I know, but it can be done. Promise. (The other option, of course, is to cook at 9 or 10 at night, right before bedtime. Yes, the kitchen will heat up. But in most cases, the bedroom won’t, and you can run away right when the oven shuts off.)
  • Embrace your slow cooker. You can (I’ve done it) plug your slow cooker in out in your garage or on your deck or patio (watch for rain), and it works just as well as on your kitchen counter. Most of my Crockpot recipes work just as well in the summer as they do in the winter, and you can select that category in the drop-down menu to the right to see them all. If you then buy ready-cooked rice at your grocery store. you can even have a side without heating up a single burner (and stop looking at me like that–it’s fine).
  • Rethink leftovers. That chicken you roast on Monday will make fine fajitas, quesadillas, or tacos on Tuesday with just some salsa, cheese, guacamole, and lettuce. It’ll also be lovely in a big salad full of fresh veggies, and so will the fish you grilled or roasted, that pot roast that’s in the freezer (and that can be cooked in the aforementioned Crockpot outside)…just about anything. There’s no shame in a cold salad or sandwich dinner, y’all, and it’s a great way to get some extra nutrients in.
  • Embrace your broiler. Didja ever hear Alton Brown talk about broiling? Broiling is grilling upside-down (the man is a genius, I swear). Only most of the heat is contained in your oven. Beautiful. Think fish, steaks, burgers, chicken, veggies. Put your cookie cooling rack on a baking sheet (with sides), spray it with nonstick yumminess, stick your oven rack about 4 inches below the broiler flame or element, and grill away right there in your oven. If it’ll work on your grill, it’ll work under your broiler.
  • Think quick. I can have a pizza on the table in 10 minutes if I have dough ready at dinnertime. Ten minutes of oven is nothing. Crank that puppy up to 450, load up that crust with veggies and garlic, and enjoy a light summer dinner without a ton of heat. You can also make pizza on your outside grill, which is another option for summer.
  • Love your Foreman. I know. Infomercial city. But they do a decent job of indoor grilling and really generate almost no external heat. I use mine as a panini press, too. Tons of possibilities thanks to boxer George.

Finally, spend some time in your grocery store to see what possibilities exist there. Mine, which has shelves that are just this side of a third-world country, will steam seafood while I wait and offers hot rotisserie chicken every day of the week for something like $5. The gourmet market across the street has a beautiful steam bar and an entire deli counter of ready-to-go hot foods. It’s not an every day solution, but really, when it’s 10 billion degrees out, you use what you have, yes?

Any of you have hot-weather strategies? Leave them in the comments–we’re all looking for ideas!

Steakhouse Mushrooms

22 May

We had steak for dinner last night (marinate flank steak all day in soy sauce, Worcestershire, lemon zest, garlic, honey, sherry, and red pepper flakes, blot it dry, spray it with a little olive oil, and broil it 3″ from the flame on a cooling rack in a baking sheet until the meat hits 145 degrees in the center, flipping once). I didn’t eat beef for a long time–12 years–and rarely missed it, but I’m glad it’s back in my diet. Lots of iron. Lots of yummy. Moderation.

The thing I did miss all that time, though was sauteed mushrooms. And I don’t know why on earth I didn’t just make some. They’re traditional to serve with steak, sure, but it’s so easy to whip some up and they go with so many things (I may or may not have had a bowl as a snack this week, all on their own) that I really should have made them much sooner. Spoon some over a burger. Serve them up with roast chicken. Snarf them down right out of the pan. Whatever suits your fancy.

These are super easy and very economical–use whatever cheapie mushrooms are in your grocery store. Buttons, baby bellas, whatever. You can make them with larger ‘shrooms too, but cut them up first. And they are delicious. Beefy tasting and yummy-savory-garlicky in a subtle kind of way, and the kind of thing you’d likely get aside your steak in one of those chi-chi restaurants none of us can afford.

Pull out your pan and a few pantry staples, kids (speaking of, my kids wouldn’t touch these. Fine with me–pile my plate high, picky people). You’re going to love these mushrooms. You need:

1 pint mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 1 tsp olive oil

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp soy sauce

1 clove garlic, very finely minced (or a Dorot frozen garlic cube, which is what I used)

salt

Put a small saucepan or saucier over a medium burner and let it heat up for a few minutes. Pour in the olive oil and swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan. Dump in your mushrooms, hit ’em with a pinch or two of salt, and stir for a second. Then leave them alone for stretches of about 5 minutes. You’re going to see a lot of liquid in the pan and think things are going wrong, but have patience. After a little while, your mushrooms are going to start to brown and then they’re going to soak up all that liquid like magic.

Once your mushrooms get a nice light brown on them, stir in the Worcestershire and soy sauce, and then stir in five-minute increments again. Your mushrooms are going to soak up the sauce and then start to caramelize on the bottom of the pan. Once they are a deep golden brown, stir in your garlic and keep everything moving constantly for about two minutes–you want to get rid of the sharp raw garlic taste, but you don’t want to burn it. Take it off the heat and sing a little song to the mushroom gods, because this, my friends, is heaven.

Spaghetti Sauce and Happiness

18 May

I’ve tried to be a runner over the years, and my body simply won’t do it. I can do 75 minutes of martial arts once a week (that’s something like 11 Weight Watchers points to give you an idea of the exercise involved), but I can’t run a mile. My knees scream and my shins threaten to splinter off and my lungs rebel and I get all kinds of grouchy and begin wondering why in the world a grown woman with a reasonable IQ is trying to hard to do something that makes me so miserable. And so then I don’t.

I do, however, walk. Fast. This morning, I walked 2.18 miles in 24 minutes, dragging an angry 94-pound labrador retriever behind me (SNIFF! Woman, I need to SNIFF!). I used to listen to music on these jaunts, but have recently become addicted to the NPR Ted Radio Hour podcast. And as soon as I heard today’s installment, I had to share it with you.

You all know Malcolm Gladwell, yes? Bestselling author of books about the economy and human nature and life in general? Great stuff. He was invited a year or two back to give a TED talk, which are 18-minute long addresses given by all sorts of fascinating people on all kinds of interesting topics. So Malcolm Gladwell gets up to do his TED talk in front of an audience of several thousand, and do you know what he talked about?

Spaghetti sauce.

Specifically, he talked about food and human nature and believing what we do about what we like, and how all of that makes us happy.

It is fan-flippin-tastic, and I have now listened to it twice in a row. Laughing, nodding along. It’s everything I love about playing with food, boiled down to real science and human nature.  Here it is for all of you–18 minutes of wonderful foodiness and how what’s on our plate relates to the joy in our hearts.

Enjoy!

Must-Have Gadget: Fish Spatula

17 May

Before you start whining about fish and how you don’t like fish and don’t eat fish and don’t want to deal with fish and your kitchen and smells and picky children…this has nothing to do with fish.

(Can you tell what kind of morning we had?)

I made cookies last night (and again this morning, thanks to my evil, evil dog figuring out after two years that she can actually reach the goodies on my countertop. Anybody want a dog who may or may not have gastro issues later? Cheap?) and realized that I’d never talked to you all about my fish spatula. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is about the best $12 you can spend in the gadget aisle at your local Target.

Fish spatulas were designed for seafood. They’re long and slim and wafer-thin, and were made that way to support flaky fillets between your pan and plate. But that same skinny, slender design makes them among the best multi-taskers in your kitchen. They slide right under all sorts of fragile things. Cookies, pancakes (oh my gosh, they revolutionize pancakes), omelets, poached eggs, tortillas…you name it. And because they’re much longer than normal spatulas, they’re super easy to handle without worrying about your sensitive fingertips, particularly when you’re working with a grill or griddle.

Most of these have metal business ends. Mine is plastic, and it works just fine. It’s a KitchenAid only because that’s what was on sale–you absolutely do not need any kind of fancy-schmancy brand. I bought it about six months ago and can’t believe I survived so long in my kitchen without one. They’re very reasonably priced on Amazon or in the gadget aisle of whatever store is near to you, and I highly recommend picking one up and putting it to use, even if fish doesn’t enter your house.

That’s my gadget o’ the day. So tell me: What’s your favorite?

Twofer! Cilantro-Lime Scented Rice, and Easy-Peasy Burrito Bowls

10 May

My poor blog.

My poor kitchen.

Ignored, ignored, ignored.

Y’all have these weeks, right? (Please say yes.) These weeks when the day starts and you blink and it’s over? Spring seems to be the worst for it. School is insane and work is crazy-busy (which is a good thing!) and activities are ramping up and the things that are non-necessary go right out the window for awhile? It’s been like that around here, and we’ve been eating lots of favorite dishes–the things I can make with my eyes closed and what’s in my freezer and pantry. Stuff I’ve already shared with you.

The other day, though, I moved my office into my kitchen and started playing with food in between returning calls and doing all the must-dos, and do you know what happened? Besides my house smelling glorious and my mood improving immensely (playing with food is zen!)?

My kids declared this the “best dinner ever.” Cleared their plates and asked for more, and it was healthy! Thank you, hour of happiness!

Today, you get a twofer. I’m going to tell you how to make my burrito bowls, which are a combination of cilantro-lime scented rice (I call it that because the flavors are subtle but delicious) and the fixings to turn that into a whole meal. Let’s start with the rice.

To make it, you need:

1 1/2 cups of uncooked white rice

1 tbsp butter

The juice of a lime

A small bunch of cilantro (trust me–it’s not overpowering here)

2 3/4 cups of water

A dash of salt

Put a small saucepan over a medium flame and melt your butter in it. Stir in your lime juice and rice and cook it for just a moment or two, to let the rice soak up the flavors. Once the butter and juice have been absorbed, add your water, put a lid on it, and bring it to a boil. Then lower the heat, crack the lid a little bit (to avoid mushy rice), and let it simmer until all the liquid is gone–about 20 minutes(ish). Once that happens, chop your cilantro (you want a tablespoon or so of very finely chopped herb), remove the rice from the heat, and stir everything together. Eat immediately or pop this in the fridge for later–it reheats beautifully.

Easy, right? Smelling yummy? So now you need to make the rest of the stuff for your burrito bowls.

I’m using beef for this recipe. I bought a 3-pound pot roast and cut it in half. Half went into this dish, and the other half was wrapped tightly and put in the freezer for another night. Pot roast was on sale and we’ll get another dinner out of it. Always good. But you can use chicken or pork just the same–whatever you like. It’s all going to act pretty much the same.

This is one of those dishes, actually, that you should tailor for your own family. Use my directions more as a method than a recipe. Use the veggies you like, the toppings you like, the meat you like. Totally versatile. You could even do this with fish, but I’d recommend grilling it rather than putting it in the slow cooker as we’ll do with meat.

So. Burrito bowls. Best dinner ever. Ready? You need:

1.5 pounds of beef (use chicken, pork, or turkey if you’d rather)

2 cups of beef broth (use chicken broth if you’re going with white meat)

1 tbsp fajita seasoning (I get mine at the Spice Hunter; use the grocery store stuff if you want, but watch the salt)

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 onion, halved and cut into half-moon slices

2 peppers (I used red bell. Use whatever veggies you like)

Toppings: We used cheese, salsa, and chopped avocado.

Spray your slow cooker with olive oil. Pour the broth into it.

Combine all the spices above and gently rub your meat with them on all sides. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes at room temperature (you won’t die unless it’s a super hot day. Room temp for a bit lets the meat and rub get to know each other. If it’s super hot and you don’t have your A/C on, do this in the fridge for an hour or two.). Gently put it in the slow cooker and cook on low 8 hours or high 4, or a combination of the two.

I suspect you could pitch the veggies in the crock right along with the meat–if anybody tries that, please come back and let us know. But I made mine on the stovetop:

Heat a heavy skillet (I like cast iron for this) over medium heat and add a little olive oil. Immediately stir in your onions with a pinch of salt. Let those cook until they’re nice and dark brown and crunchy-like around the edges. Remove them from the pan and set aside.

Cut your pepper into strips and lay them, skin-side down, in the same skillet. Let them cook about 5 minutes or until charred. Put those to the side with the onions.

When your slow cooker time is done, carefully remove your meat to a cutting board and shred it with two forks. You’re ready to assemble your burrito bowls!

Put a scoop of rice into each bowl and top it with the charred veggies, meat, and toppings. How stinkin’ easy is that? Happy dinner! Ole!

 

Chicken Enchilada Pie

1 May

Y’all are going to have to forgive my photos today–it’s been one of those days. Apologies.

You know how you have those weeks (months, whatever) when you try to be inventive in the kitchen and you work with ingredients that everybody in your family likes, and then you put a steaming dish of deliciousness on the table and somebody under four feet tall pronounces it “disgusting”?

Been there. Been there a lot lately, actually. My daughter has decided that really, only mac n cheese (out of the blue box) and ham sandwiches are worthy of her increasingly discriminating palate. I’ve been doing a lot of shrugging and “more for me, then” talking, but it’s terribly frustrating, especially because she’s rejecting food I know she actually likes. And after awhile, it starts to wear a person down to the point that approaching the stove comes with a sigh, because the cook already knows that nothing is going to be good enough.

Right? If it makes you feel any better, we all go there. Plowing through is tough, I know (especially if you kind of put your heart and soul into dinner), but must be done. So today, I bring you our dinner from last night, which my little darling actually ate without complaint. I’m not sure if she actually liked it or she was just tired of being hungry, but she ate it. I’m calling it a success; I liked it, anyway.

This is a great dinner to make ahead and there are several stopping points along the way. This is awesomeness for working parents or busy parents who may not have the full 45 minutes or so all in one shot to make this. If you do, rock on and get ‘er done in one fell swoop. It’s all good.

The inspiration for this was a Cooking Light recipe. That one used ground beef; I’m using whole chicken breasts. It also had one more tortilla layer in there and used commercial taco seasoning, which the rest of us know is mostly salt and pretty well horrendous and expensive. They called for canned broth. Because I started with chicken, I could skip that.  I used a few different methods than they did as well, to further cut calories and to simplify things a bit.

The result is a chicken enchilada dish without the rolling, that bakes in a pie plate. Kids think real food that looks like pie is cool. Who am I to argue?

To make chicken enchilada pie, you need:

1 pound chicken breasts

1 tbsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 cup chopped onion (I used half a Vidalia)

2 cloves of garlic, minced (I used frozen Dorot garlic–look by the veggies in your grocery freezer)

1 1/2 tbsp flour

1 8-oz can tomato sauce

2 tsp fajita seasoning (I get mine at the Spice Hunter and use it for all sorts of things–it’s salt-free)

1/2 tsp dried oregano

2 tsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

3 whole-wheat or regular flour tortillas

1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese (cheddar, jack…whatever you like)

Garnishes of your choosing: Guacamole, salsa, olives, onions, jalapenos, sour cream, etc.

Fill a saucepan 2/3 of the way with water. Bring that to a boil. Add in the first amounts of chili powder and cumin, and then carefully drop in your chicken breasts. Poach them until they’re cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Carefully fish them out (don’t dump the liquid–you need some) and shred them with two forks (do this while they’re hot–it’s easiest). If you’re stopping here, put the chicken in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate, and do the same with one cup of the cooking liquid.

Coat a pan with olive oil, heat it over a medium burner, and cook your onions until they’re soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, give it a stir to incorporate it into the oil, and add the flour, stirring constantly for about two minutes (to get rid of the raw flour taste). After that, stir in the rest of your spices. Stir in the tomato sauce and one cup of the chicken poaching liquid, bring everything to a boil, and let it cook for about two minutes. Turn the heat off.

Scoop out 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce you just made and set it aside. Into the pan with the rest of the sauce, stir your chicken to coat it all–it will not be super wet.

Spray a deep pie dish with olive oil and lay a tortilla in the bottom. Spread half the chicken mixture over the tortilla, Top with another tortilla, and layer the rest of the chicken on top of that. Your last tortilla goes on top. Pour the reserved 1/2 cup of tomato sauce on top of that, sprinkle your cheese over the sauce. If you need to stop here, cover the pie with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge. Otherwise, keep going.

When you’re ready to finish dinner, heat your oven to 400 degrees. Put your uncovered pie dish on a cookie sheet (just in case it bubbles over), and bake it for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and everything is hot. Pull it out of the oven, let it sit for five minutes, cut into wedges (I got eight out of mine), and serve with your garnishes.

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