Thursday, February 24, 2011

Soup and Bread

I started a new job recently and have had much (MUCH) less time on my hands, which means I haven't really cooked much lately.  Something else it means is that I have been wanting to eat things that are easy to make, warm and filling, and delicious.  That means soup!  I've had 2 different soups in the last few days, one I've made and one I've bought.  But before I get to that, let's discuss the perfect accompaniment to soup.  Whether grilled with melty cheese in the center, or just lightly toasted, I love me some bread with my soup.  I actually am not the greatest at making grilled cheese sandwiches.  I usually am not patient enough to make proper grilled cheese.  I've learned a few things from friends that have helped me though, and I am getting better at it.

I actually prefer to use basic sandwich bread for my grilled cheese, and I pre-heat my skillet to a medium heat.  Once the pan is hot, I spray the pan with some non-stick spray (instead of butter, it's just easier and healthier, and I don't even miss the butter) and plop down 2 slices of bread.  In a minute or two, I flip one slice over and spray the opposite side of the other slice with the non-stick spray.  I put the second slice non-toasted side down into the pan, slap down a couple slices of american cheese (hey, I can't always be a purist...) and top with the first slice of bread.  This is where the most important tip comes in: cover the sandwich with a lid while it finishes toasting.  This will help the cheese melt all the way through to the center.   That's it, that's how I make my grilled cheese.

Now for the soups: one of my favorites is Trader Joe's Organic Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup.   I love tomato soup and I love roasted red peppers so the combination of the two is perfection.  If you've never tried it, I HIGHLY recommend it!  The other one I made tonight.  My mom's recipe of Chicken Corn Chowder. I had some frozen corn from last summer's fresh harvest on the family farm and a couple of chicken breasts that we grilled a few weeks ago, also frozen, so it only made sense.  I called my mom last night for the recipe and made it tonight after I got off work.  Since my chicken was already cooked, it only took me about 15 minutes to make the soup.  Here's the scoop:

Chicken Corn Chowder

3 T butter
1/4 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 lb chicken breasts, cut into bite sized pieces
1 t cumin
2 c half and half
1 c water
2 t instant chicken bouillon
1 16 ounce can creamed corn
1 4 ounce can green chiles
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese

Saute the onion and garlic until translucent and soft.  Add in the chicken, cumin, water and bouillon and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked.  Stir in the corn, chiles, half and half and cheese.  Heat until warmed through and the cheese is melty.  Top fresh tomatoes, sour cream, fresh diced avocado, crushed tortilla chips, whatever you like!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What to do with Leftover Rice

Leftover rice.  A friend of mine emailed me this morning letting me know that she's tried several different stir fry variations since reading my blog post about it.  One thing she did ask me was what to do with leftover rice.  I must admit, rice doesn't really last too long at our house, but I did do some research and found a couple of common ideas: rice salad, rice pudding, fried rice, and just freezing it to use later.  I found that I've actually had made all of these ideas, I just hadn't thought to make them using leftover rice.  I just made rice to make the recipe.  Next time we make rice for our stir fry, I might just make extra intentionally!

When it comes to freezing it, most places I've found agree that once the rice is cooled, just put single-serve portions into freezer bags and squeeze as much of the air out as you can.  To reheat, just thaw in the refrigerator or on the counter and heat in a microwave save dish with a touch of water.  It should reheat nicely.

Make a rice salad the way you might make a pasta salad.  Toss with a little italian dressing, fresh herbs and some cooled, steamed veggies.  Or for a southwestern flavor, toss the cold rice with some black beans, diced tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, cumin and lime juice.

For a rice pudding, combine 1 cup rice; 1 1/2 cups of milk (or a little extra); 1/4 cup sugar; small pinch of salt; and 1/4 cup raisins, currants or dried cherries (my fave!) in a sauce pan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and add 1/4 cup raisins, currants or dried cherries (my fave!) and 1/2 t vanilla extract.  Let simmer until milk is absorbed (depends on how dry the rice is to start with.  Once the liquid is absorbed and the rice is creamy, stir in 1/4 t cinnamon.  Serves 2-3.

For fried rice, this is an interesting and really helpful article to read before diving into frying rice.  Once you've read it, proceed with this easy recipe, prepping completely before starting, as it goes quickly:

Fried Rice
3 c cooked rice
2 eggs
2 carrots (whole, not baby), cut into matchstick-size pieces
2 c finely chopped veggies (maybe some of the same you used for your stir fry last night?)
2 T vegetable oil
1 T minced garlic
1/3 c soy sauce
1/2 lb meat (pork, chicken, beef -- leftovers from other meals work really well here, too)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and saute the garlic for a few seconds then add soy sauce and heat until simmering.  Place meat in skillet and cook until meat is cooked through. Add carrots and veggies and cook until almost tender.  Push meat and veggies to the edge of the skillet and crack the eggs into the center of the skillet and scramble them.  Once the eggs are cooked, mix them with the meat and veggies, and toss in the rice.  Stir until heated through and serve.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Simple Favorites

The weather has been really nice for a few days and I've just been in the mood to grill out.  So, tonight we grilled steak for dinner, and it was of course, delicious.  However, the steak was not the highlight of the meal, at least for me.  I had been craving two side dishes for the longest time, and a grilled steak set the scene for pan con tomate and grilled peppers with cheese. Both of these dishes use fresh ingredients that require very little manipulation so they are very easy to make and their flavors are simple, crisp and robust.

The peppers are really simple.  I first started eating these a few summers ago when my parents grew banana peppers in their garden, and summers at my parents house involve quite a lot of grilling, so dad would toss those peppers on the grill, top them with some cheese and voila! A really really yummy treat!

Preheat your grill and cut banana peppers or other small, sweet, colorful peppers in half, devein and de-seed.  Cut a brick of monterey jack cheese, or pepper jack cheese if you like it a little spicier, into chunks about the size to fit nicely into the pepper halves.  Place the pepper halves cut side down on the grill until they flatten out a little and are a little soft.  Turn them over and fill each half with the monterey jack cheese chunks.  Make sure the peppers aren't over too hot a spot so they don't char too quickly. Once the cheese is almost melted, sprinkle a little parmesan cheese over the peppers and close the top of the grill, just long enough to finish melting the cheese.  Take them off the grill and just try to keep people from eating them right away!

I was too excited about finished product that I forgot an "after" photo...

Pan con tomate is actually a spanish dish and the name literally translates to bread with tomato.  That's about all there is to it.  It is traditionally served with lunch or dinner as a lighter side dish, or at breakfast even, by rubbing sliced garlic and tomato directly onto toasted bread but I prefer the heartier version.  It's so simple and delicious, it'd be easy to make a meal of it by itself. (I have...)

Pan Con Tomate  (serves 4 as an appetizer or side)

1/2 of a french baguette,
      cut diagonally about 1/4" - 1/2" thick
3 medium roma tomatoes, cut in half
2 T olive oil
2 t crushed garlic
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
sea salt
fresh cracked pepper

Move rack in oven to the highest position and preheat the broiler on high. Place baguette slices on a baking sheet and put under broiler.  Toast until a nice golden brown.  Do NOT walk away at this point! This might only take 30 seconds. I have burned more bread than not by trying to multi-task at this point! Once the bread is toasted and cooled a bit, rub the whole cloves of garlic on one side of the bread slices, maybe only 3 or 4 times.  If you aren't a huge garlic fan like me, you could omit this step.  For the tomato topping, grate each tomato cut side down using a box grater into a bowl.  Grate until all of the seeds, juice and pulp are pressed through (discard the skins).  Add the olive oil, crushed garlic and salt and pepper to taste.  I like a lot of garlic so I usually use more, and I like it fairly salty (another weakness of mine) so I use more salt than I probably should.  Serve the tomato mixture with the toasted bread.

You won't be disappointed with either of these!  Guaranteed!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Garbage Pasta

Sometimes there are times when I just haven't had time to go the store and have no idea what I'm going to make for dinner.  Those times are when I make garbage.  These dishes are combinations of what leftovers I've got in the fridge, freezer and pantry.  Garbage can be in the form of salads, pastas, omelets, or even soups.  I've been traveling a lot for work and haven't had time to do a lot of shopping, but I wanted to make a dish that I could take with me and reheat at work for dinner tonight, so I made Garbage Pasta.

I cooked half a box of rotini I had in my pantry, and cut up half a jar of roasted red peppers (also a stable in my pantry) and a quarter of a package of cocktail sausages that I had in my freezer.  Once the pasta was cooked, I drained it but reserved about half a cup of the starchy water.  I tossed in a couple of cubes of frozen pesto I always keep in my freezer along with the pasta water, peppers and sausage and stirred until the pesto had thawed.  I also added in a pinch of crushed red pepper and about half a teaspoon of crushed garlic, again, always in my fridge.  And that's it!  

My garbage recipes are always a little different each time I make them, and honestly, they don't always turn out to be blog-worthy, but it's always exciting to try something new.  This one turned out pretty good.  It'll be nice to eat something homemade for dinner tonight, instead of something from the drive-through!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

And Presto...Pesto!

So, my last post mentioned freshly made pesto to use in the recipe for the most delicious pizza in the world.  Pesto is another food that I prefer to do myself.  You could always buy it pre-made in a jar but it's always really oily, never tastes amazing, and you never really know what you're getting with some of that stuff.  So, it's another thing in my DIY kitchen!  I'm going to just give you the recipe for basic green pesto but this recipe can be altered to fit your tastes.  If you can't find pine nuts, don't give up. Exchange them for pistachios or almonds.  Toasting the nuts creates a deeper flavor.  Green doesn't always have to mean basil either; try using different greens such as spinach, arugula, mint, flat-leaf parsley or even raw broccoli!  To add yet another dimension, add in some sun-dried tomatoes (dry, not packed in oil), or omit the basil completely and make "red pesto" with fresh (skinned and de-seeded) or sun dried tomatoes.  Find your favorite and make your own!  It keeps for about a week in the refrigerator or your can divide it into a plastic ice cube tray and freeze until solid, then put into a freezer baggie and just pop one cube out when you need it.  One cube is about 2 tablespoons.

Green Pesto
1 cup packed basil leaves
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/4 t cracked pepper

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

What to do with your fresh pesto:

toss it with hot pasta, top grilled chicken with it, spread it on dough for pizzas, toss it with roasted or grilled vegetables, add it to soups to "freshen" up the flavor, toss it with cold pasta for a quick pasta salad, top grilled bread with it for a different take on garlic bread, add to baked or mashed potatoes or use it as a dip for baked french fries, use it as a marinade for chicken or fish, stir into mayo and spread onto your turkey sandwich, mix with olive oil and vinegar to make a really fresh tasting vinaigrette for your salads,  mix into your basic chicken salad,  spread some onto your corn on the cob instead of butter, stir into your potato salad...

the possibilities are endless!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Best Pizza I Ever Ate Was....

...the Pestoral Pizza at The Roman Candle Pizzeria in downtown Middleton, Wisconsin.  The use fresh, organic ingredients, mostly produced or farmed within a 50 mile radius of their locations in the Madison, WI area and you can really tell in the flavors.  We've had other pizzas from them as well and all of their toppings are cut generously enough to get a nice big bite of fresh tomato or sausage with every bite.

We've tried some of their different pizzas: The Professional with feta, mozzarella, broccoli, bacon, green pepper, chicken breast and jalapeno; The Bacon Cheeseburger with ground beef, bacon, onion, cheddar and mozzarella cheese; The Supreme with sausage, mushroom, green pepper, onion and pepperoni.  And they have lots of other interesting pizzas: The Algo Malgo with alfredo sauce, beets, garlic, walnuts, caramelized onions, blue cheese and arugula; The Dead Man Walking with premium cut bacon, ham, pepperoni, prosciutto and sausage, and The BBQ Chicken with barbecue sauce, chicken breast, green pepper, red onion, bacon, cheddar, mozzarella and jalapenos.

We easily ate Roman Candle Pizza at least 3 times a month, since it was within walking distance to our downtown Middleton apartment.  So it was convenient in nice weather for us to walk down and grab a pizza, or in bad weather, it would be delivered to us piping hot!!!  While all of their other pizzas are very different and delicious in their own right, we always went back to The Pestoral.  It's no wonder why it's Roman Candle's best selling pizza.

So when we moved away from Wisconsin, and my pizza cravings kicked in, I had to get creative and make my own Pestoral pizza.  Here's what I did:

Pestoral Pizza
1 large 16-inch thin crust pizza crust (I get mine fresh from the Italian counter in our local grocery store)
1/4 cup fresh made pesto 
2 to 3 medium roma tomatos, sliced as thin as possible
1/2 cup artichoke hearts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 15-oz jar roasted red peppers, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces
6 oz feta cheese
6 oz fresh mozzarella cheese (I like the Bel Gioioso "pearl" sized pieces, because as they melt, the flatten out to the perfect size)     

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spread the pesto on the crust up to 1/2 inch from the edge.  Top with the tomato slices, artichoke and roasted red pepper pieces, and feta and mozzarella cheeses.  Bake for 20 minutes until the mozzarella cheese is melted.

That's it.  So delicious!!!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Spread

In football, the spread is the term used to define the difference in points scored by the two teams.  The spread for tonight's Super Bowl was Packers by 3.  Which is a good thing, because my boyfriend is a huge Packers fan.  Our spread was 9, because that's how many things were spread out on the table...  I went all out this year, even though it was just the two of us.  We could have just done the easy thing and ordered a pizza, but what kind of post would that have created?

So, what was my spread?

Crudites with 3 different dips: green goddess dip, onion dip and chili dip
Taco wonton cups
Little smokies with homemade cocktail sauce (equal parts chili sauce and grape jelly, trust me!)
Chips and salsa
Low-fat buffalo chicken strips with yogurt blue cheese dressing
Low-Fat chicken and wild rice soup for after the game (if we're still hungry)

Low-fat buffalo chicken strips

3 T nonfat buttermilk
3 T hot sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot, divided
3 T distilled white vinegar, divided
2 lbs chicken tenders
6 T whole wheat flour
6 T cornmeal
1 t cayenne pepper
2 T canola oil

Whisk buttermilk, 2 T hot sauce and 2 T vinegar in a large bowl.  Add chicken and toss to coat.  Transfer to refrigerator and marinate for 10 minutes up to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Meanwhile, whisk together flour, cornmeal and cayenne pepper in a shallow dish.  Whisk the remaining hot sauce and vinegar and set aside.  Remove the chicken from the marinade and roll in the flour mixture until evenly coated.  Discard remaining marinade and flour mixture.  Heat 1 T oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add half the chicken, placing each piece in a little bit of the oil.  Cook until golden brown and cooked through, 3-4 minutes per side.  Transfer to a platter and repeat using the remaining 1 T oil and the rest of the chicken, reducing the heat if necessary to prevent burning.  Transfer to the platter.  Drizzle the chicken with the reserved hot sauce mixture.  Serve with carrots, celery and blue cheese dressing.

Low-Fat Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced into 1/2 to 1/4 chunks
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup diced celery
2 cups cooked wild rice*
5 cups fat-free low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup fat-free half-and-half
3 T flour
butter-flavored cooking spray
2 T dry sherry
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 t thyme

In a large stock pot, saute chicken until cooked through and remove to a bowl. Add the wild rice to the bowl.  Add the half and half, sherry and flour.  Set aside.  In the same pot, spray the onion liberally with the cooking spray and cook until soft and translucent.  Add carrots and celery, salt and pepper and thyme.  Cook, stirring, about 5 minutes.  Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the wild rice and chicken mixture.  Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until heated through.

*To cook 2 cups wild rice: rinse 3/4 cup wild rice under water until the water runs clear.  Bring 3 cups salted water to a boil and add rice.  Reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes, or until rice is tender, stirring occasionally.  Drain excess water and rinse with hot water until water runs clear.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Football Party Food; Part 4

This dish can easily be made with whole chicken breasts and served as a main dish, but since it's the day before the Super Bowl, and I've been doing Football Party Food all week, I'm using chicken breast tenders to make my delicious Italian Dressing Chicken.  One thing I really like about this dish, besides that it's super-easy, is that if you double the recipe (using whole breasts), you can use the leftovers to make make-shift chicken parmesan.  I'll get to that in a minute.

Italian Dressing Chicken Tenders
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast tenders
1 packet of dry italian dressing mix (we use the fat-free Good Seasons brand)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs (I always choose panko over regular breadcrumbs, they get crispier)

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with non-stick spray.  On a dinner plate, mix together the dressing mix, cheese and bread crumbs.  Get your stations set up next to the sink: sink, plate of bread crumb mixture, baking dish.  Take each chicken tender, trim any excess fat off rinse under cold running water and let extra water drip off but don't dry, roll the tender in the bread crumb mixture and then place into the baking dish.  Continue until all of the tenders are coated with bread crumbs and in the baking dish.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the chicken is cooked.  To serve as tenders, serve with some marinara sauce or ranch.

Leftover Make-Shift Chicken Parmesan. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Put the chicken in a baking dish and bake for about 10 minutes or until it's heated through.  While it's heating, heat up about 1 cup marinara sauce and boil some pasta for the base.  When the chicken is hot, top with about 1/4 cup marinara sauce and about a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese.  Put under the broiler until the cheese is bubbly and melty.  Serve on top of a nice pile of spaghetti.

Oh, so delicious!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Discussion About Crudites...

Remember in one of my last posts I mentioned how much I loved vegetables?  Well, I'm touching on that one again.  Fresh, raw, crisp, cold veggies are one of my favorite snack-y foods!  In fact, I snack on some almost every day. At a party, they can provide some crunchy, freshness amidst a table of hot and gooey foods.  They balance it all out.  And, anything you can eat on a cracker, you can eat with crudites ("cr-ood-eh-tay").  At home, I like to dip mine into Trader Joe's Roasted Red Pepper Hummus (oh, so delicious), but almost anything will work.  What goes onto a great crudite platter? Red, green and yellow bell peppers, baby corn, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, green onions, radishes, snow peas, cherry and grape tomatoes, olives, etc...  Cut everything to about the same size, the peppers, celery and carrots into strips; the broccoli and cauliflower into florets, and the cucumbers and radishes into thin, round slices.  Also, it's much cheaper to buy the whole veggies and cut them yourself, than it is to buy them pre-washed, pre-sliced and pre-packaged.  I'm a big fan of the DIY kitchen!

Some Ideas:

Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip
Boil 1 cup thawed, chopped frozen spinach and 1 1/2 cups chopped artichoke hearts in 1 cup of water until tender and drain.  Heat 6 ounces cream cheese (I always use fat free) in microwave 1 minute or until hot and soft.  Stir in 1/4 cup sour cream (fat free, again) 1/4 cup mayonnaise (low-fat, here), 1/3 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 t red pepper flakes, 1/4 t salt and 1/4 t garlic powder.  Serve hot.

Hot Crab Dip
Combine 1 lb jumbo lump crabmeat, 1 cup grated pepper jack cheese, 3/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/4 cup minced green onions, 2 cloves minced garlic, 3 T Worcestershire sauce, 2 T fresh lemon juice, 1 t hot pepper sauce (I love Cholula, but Tabasco is fine), 1/2 t dry mustard, salt and pepper in a casserole dish.  Bake for 40 minutes at 325 degrees. Serve hot.

Hot Caramelized Onion and Blue Cheese Dip
Caramelize 2 large vidalia onions, halved and thinly sliced.  (To do this: heat 2 T vegetable oil and 2 T butter in a large skillet.  Add the onions and 2 cloves minced onions.  Cook, about 20 minutes, until the onions are soft and a caramel color.)  In a food processor, pulse together 4 oz blue cheese, 2 8-oz packages of softened cream cheese, 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1/2 cup sour cream.  Place in a bowl and add the caramelized onions.  Season with salt and pepper and pour into an 8 x 8 baking dish.  Sprinkle with 1/3 cup bread crumbs.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes and serve hot or at room temperature.

Cold Green Goddess Dip (the fresh herbs in this dip really pop with crudites)

Place the following into a food processor or blender (chopped up): 1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted and peeled; 2 scallions (green onions), coarsely chopped; 1/4 cup fresh tarragon; 1/4 cup fresh parsley; 3/4 cup buttermilk; and 1/2 t salt.  Puree until smooth.

Onion Dip (from scratch!)
Caramelize 1 1/2 cups diced onions with 2 T olive oil and 1/4 t salt (read directions above), set aside to cool.  Mix together 1/2 t salt, 1 1/2 cups sour cream, 3/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 t garlic powder, 1/4 t ground white pepper.  Add the cooled onions and refrigerate until cold. Stir again before serving.

Guacamole Dip from This Guac Rocks! posted 1/28/11

Of course, you could use those prepackaged dip powders mixed with sour cream, but when you can make it from scratch with fresh ingredients, why wouldn't you?

(FYI: Most of the leftover veggies from your crudite platter can be steamed the next day or perhaps used in a stir fry. )

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Football Party Food; Part 2

Wonton wrappers are another really versatile thing to have in your kitchen.  You can find them packaged in the produce section of your grocery store and they keep really well in the freezer.  Just portion them off, maybe 25 or so in a portion, wrap them really well with plastic wrap, put them into a zip-lock freezer bag and freeze.  You can bake them or fry them, leave them open as little cups or close them up like raviolis, and the filling can be left up to your imagination.

To use as cups, push 1 wrapper into each cavity of a non-stick muffin tin leaving the sides up and bake for 5 minutes or until crispy.  If your filling is cold, just cool, fill and eat. If your filling is hot, fill and bake another 3 minutes or until filling is bubbly.  To use them closed, put 1 teaspoon of your filling into the center of an uncooked wrapper, fold over diagonally and pinch closed.  Then you can bake them or deep fry them.

Filling Ideas for approximately 25 cups:
Southwest Chicken
2 cups cooked diced chicken, 1 cup southwest ranch dressing, 1/2 cup diced red peppers, 1 small can sliced black olives, 1 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cup Monterrey jack cheese
2 cups taco seasoned hamburger, 1 cup salsa, 1/2 cup black beans, 1 small can diced green chilies, 3 cups shredded pepper jack cheese
Crab Rangoon
4 oz fat free cream cheese, 4 ounces fresh or canned crab meat, drained and flaked, 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce, 1 green onion finely sliced
Zesty Italian
3 ounces Italian turkey sausage, 1/8 cup chopped white onion, 2 oz shredded mozzarella cheese, 1 T grated Parmesan cheese, 1 T chopped parsley
1 package pepperoni diced, 4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese, 1 cup marinara or pizza sauce

Sweet options:
Bananas and Nutella with chopped nuts; ice cream and chocolate sauce; Pumpkin pie filling, pumpkin pie spice and sugar

Wonton wrappers can even be sliced into strips, fried and then topped with sea salt and used on salads or in soups, or topped with cinnamon and sugar and eaten with ice cream

The possibilities are endless! Enjoy!