Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving blog-readers!

Hope you have a wonderful day. I will be learning new tricks in the kitchen, and hopefully sharing them with you once I've worked the kinks out of them.

Eat well and remember to thank your chef, whoever it may be!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sloppy Joes (not from a can)

I am not here to knock Manwich in a can. It was that stuff that first turned me on to the greatness that is Sloppy Joes. Sloppy Joes are one of two things from my childhood visits to the neighbors' that I seriously thought (and still think) were (and are) some of the best things ever created to ingest, those being Sloppy Joes and Dr. Pepper. Every time I eat a Manwich or drink a Dr. P I am instantly transported to the neighbors' living room, where I frequently sat on their nice leather couch watching Price is Right. Man, that was the life. (Hi Rebecca!)

But anyway. I wanted to learn how to make Sloppy Joes, and I didn't want to have to go hunt for a can of Manwich at the very rare grocery stores that carry labels around here every time I want them. So I found a few recipes, and streamlined them all. And I finally perfected "my recipe," so I want to share it with you. It includes ingredients I always keep in my pantry, so it's pretty perfect for that cold night that you want something easy to make that will keep you warm. Kind of like tonight actually. Too bad I already had Sloppy Joes three days ago. Sigh.

Un-Canned Sloppy Joes

1-1 and a 1/2 lbs ground turkey (or beef if you can tell the difference)
A little olive oil
1 small diced onion
2 cloves of minced garlic
1/2 c ketchup
2 c tomato sauce (1 can)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
2 Tbsp Brown Sugar
1/2 tsp of dried thyme
A pinch of cayenne pepper or chili powder
Salt and black pepper
6 hamburger buns, toasted

You'll want a deep skillet for this, because it will need to hold all of the delicious Sloppy Joe Sauce as well as the turkey. First, brown the turkey in olive oil. You should use a wooden spoon or something hard to break it up as it cooks. Once it is cooked through, and all the liquid is cooked off (if there is still liquid and it's cooked through, you can drain the meat; this step will be necessary if you use beef) add the onions and garlic and cook for a minute or two. Turn heat down to low and add all the rest of ingredients, minus the salt and pepper. Stir everything all together and leave heat on low, so that the liquid comes to a simmer. Let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the heat is spread evenly. It should look like this:

Turn your oven to 350, put buns on a cookie sheet, and toast them up (about 5-7 minutes should do the trick). After the 20 minutes of simmering, taste the Sloppy Joes. If the mixture tastes vinegary still, leave to simmer another five minutes. Once the vinegar taste is gone, add salt and pepper to your liking. I usually put a few shakes of pepper, and 1/2 tsp of salt to counter the sweetness. Scoop onto buns and serve (don't forget napkins)!

Just as easy as using a can I think. The only trick is making sure the vinegar cooks off, so taste it! It's always a good rule with slow cooking things like this. Oh, and also, don't leave your buns to burn in the oven. Believe me, burnt buns do not work well with Sloppy Joes. I've tried it. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Good Stuffed Chicken

Well, after that last blog, I am opting for something a little bit healthier (and more simple) for this next post. Today, stuffed chicken! I know I know, you are thinking of the bland wedding/banquet staple that no one really likes but everyone tolerates. Not so! Stuffed chicken might not seem exciting because of its bad rep, but it is! You can design it to your liking, and make it healthy and delicious. There is so much you can do with stuffed chicken, and it requires relatively little attention. All the work is in the preparation, so it is a great thing to have when guests come over. The prep work will take about 45 minutes, and the cooking about 20-30 more.

My classic stuffed chicken is filled with a mushroom stuffing. Because the base is vegetables cooked in olive oil, and there is no cheese involved, it is tasty but good for you. Here's the recipe:

Stuffed Chicken, Mushroom style

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (cut off any fatty or gross parts around edges)


1/2 a carton of button mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion (or half a big one), sliced thick
1/3 c of flavored breadcrumbs (approximate, see directions: if you only have plain breadcrumbs, feel free to add your own flavorings like garlic, thyme, parsley, etc)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chicken bath

1/2 of chicken broth
1 clove of thinly sliced garlic
1/2 tsp dried rosemary (or thyme)

Special Tools:
food processor, toothpicks, casserole dish

Preheat oven to 375 (you will use this later, so get it ready now.) Start by sauteing your sliced mushrooms and onions in a skillet over medium heat in some olive oil (1-2 Tbsps). You can add them at the same time. Just be sure to turn them every so often so they don't burn. Once they are cooked through (onions should be more translucent and both onion and mushroom should be soft) season with salt and pepper, and put into your food processor. While they are cooling in there, start on your chicken.

My trick for stuffed chicken is not to do that rolling up thing that some people do. I can't seem to get that right. The stuffing always comes out, and I can't properly sear the chicken because there are a hundred toothpicks sticking out in all directions. And not only that, but if you can't remember where you put the toothpicks before cooking someone is bound to get poked in the mouth, and no one likes that. So instead of that mess, I slice the side, as if I was going to cut the breast into two cutlets, but I don't cut all the way through, which creates an open pocket in there. This is much easier not only to stuff, but to keep the stuffing in (which is the part everyone wants to eat anyway). Once the pockets are ready, sprinkle salt and pepper on the breasts, and let sit while you are making the stuffing.

Back to the food processor. Now that the mushrooms and onions have cooled, pulse them until they are chopped small--each piece of mushroom or onion should be about the size of a pea. Once this happens, add in half of your breadcrumbs along with 1/2 tsp salt and a little pepper into the food processor, and pulse until incorporated. The next part is the "use your judgment part". You want this stuffing to hold together, but you also want to be moist. You achieve this by adding a little more breadcrumbs until it holds together, and then just a tad of olive oil. You are going to want to feel the texture and make sure it sticks together. Then taste it for seasoning. It should be a little on the salty side because as the stuffing cooks, some of the flavor will leach out due to the steaming in the oven.

Now for the assembly. Stuff each pocket with as much stuffing as it can hold and still be closed. Then take a toothpick or two, pull the open sides of the pockets together, and sort of "sew" the toothpick through each open flap of the chicken, so that it stays shut. Now you know that the toothpicks will be along the opening, and you hopefully won't get poked by a stray one you forgot the location of before eating. Once you have done this with each piece of chicken, heat some olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat (you can use the same one as you used for the mushrooms if you want). Once the oil is hot, add the chicken. The goal here is to sear each side. You want nice browning on each surface, but you do not need to cook the chicken through. That's what the next step is for.

While the chicken is searing, make the bath. Take a casserole dish that will fit all the chicken in it, and pour in chicken broth. Add rosemary and sliced garlic to the broth. Also grab a piece of tin foil. When the chicken is done searing on each side, place into the broth. Cover the dish with tin foil, and put in the oven for 20-25 minutes. This will not only cook the chicken through, but infuse it with some nice flavor and moisture from the broth bath.

When you are ready to eat, just uncover and serve. You can use the "bath" for sauce if you like. This goes really nicely with white rice and some green veggies. The key tricks here are the side pocket slicing, and remembering where your toothpicks are at. Other than that, you just want to make sure that you test your mushroom stuffing for consistency and flavor, and you'll have a perfect dish every time. Feel free to put your own stuffing in there if mushrooms aren't your thing: sundried tomatoes and goat cheese, spinach feta and pine nuts-- the possibilities are endless!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Apple Caramel Cake! Guest Blog!

Hello my fellow Honest Chef followers! Our candid culinary genius has asked me, her "Honest Eater" to take a turn at the keypad and tell you all about a new, delicious Autumn treat which we discovered this year, and which looked so good, I had to strap on the apron and take the lead. The scrumptious invention I wish to share with you today, is the Caramel Apple Cake as presented in the Food Network Magazine last month. It's a bit complicated, and it has a few different things that need to be happening simultaneously, so recruit some friends to be your sous chefs; they'll thank you later ;) Also, make sure you're not trying to cook anything else for the couple of hours you're working on this. As an experienced eater, I can say that most kitchen mistakes I see come from the chef, honest or otherwise, overextending themselves in the kitchen and letting something slip through the cracks. Just a quick note: you will notice in the pictures that we used a tube pan, with a hole in the middle, but that caused us some problems with leaking caramel, so I recommend sticking with a standard cake pan for this recipe.

For the Caramel and Apples:

* 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
* 3 cups sugar
* 5 tablespoons light corn syrup
* 1 cup heavy cream
* 4 large Golden Delicious apples (1 3/4 to 2 pounds)

For the Batter:

* 3 cups all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* 1/2 cup sour cream
* 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
* 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
* 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
* 1 1/2 cups sugar
* 3 large eggs


Now here are some general caramel rules (from me) before the official directions:
-Trust the ingredients and the recipe. If it says medium-high heat, use medium-high heat, not high, not medium, right in the middle of those two.
-Dark Amber is the color of a thick, syrup. Don't be afraid to let it get there.
-That being said, caramel needs attention. It should be mixed regularly and checked on almost continuously. It doesn't take long to make, but it is easy to overcook it.
-When it's time to work with it (pour it, spread it, etc.) work quickly, because it hardens as it cools and will be impossible to work with if you let it sit too long.

Butter a 9-by-3-inch round cake pan.

Make the caramel: Cook the sugar and corn syrup in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is dark amber, 7 to 10 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium. Carefully add the cream and 4 tablespoons butter (it will splatter) and cook, stirring, until combined, about 3 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat and let sit 1 minute. Pour 1 1/2 cups caramel into a glass measuring cup and set aside. Pour the remaining caramel into the prepared pan and set aside until set, about 30 minutes.

Some notes about the Apples:
-The recipe calls for Golden Delicious Apples which is what we used but which are not the most common. I believe that any excellent cooking apple will hold up in this recipe and taste just as good.
-If you're following along at home, you see the Caramel needs to sit for 30min. As you know, many apples brown if you leave them sitting out. Therefore, wait to cut the apples until the caramel only has about 10 more min to ensure their freshness.
-Do NOT peel the apples for this recipe.

Cut 3 apples into quarters and cut out the cores with a paring knife. Arrange the pieces skin-side down in the pan (overlapping them slightly) to form a ring about 1/2 inch from the edge. Save any pieces that do not fit for later.

Halve the remaining whole apple crosswise. Scoop out the seeds with a melon baller or measuring spoon, leaving the stem on the top half. Chop the bottom and any of the leftover quartered apples into pieces; set aside.

Arrange the apple top, stem-side down, in the center of the pan. If the quartered apples shift, just push them back into place.

Cake Batter
Notes about the Batter:
-Always remember that in baking, measurement is of the utmost importance. Please double check your teaspoons vs. tablespoons, etc. and don't get cute and do something silly like adding extra vanilla because "everyone loves Vanilla." It doesn't work like that.
-Trust the Butter and Sugar to fluff up. It took ours maybe a little longer than 5 min, but it got there eventually. It should look like a cloud.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the batter: Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk the sour cream, orange juice and vanilla.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Crack the eggs into a small bowl. Slip them into the mixer bowl, one at a time, and beat until the mixture is pale and creamy, about 5 more minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beater with a rubber spatula.

With the mixer on low speed, add half of the sour cream mixture, then half of the flour mixture. Repeat. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula; finish combining the batter by hand.

Spread the batter over the apples in the pan. Top with the chopped apple. Bake on the middle oven rack until the cake is brown on top and springs back when pressed, 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes (don't worry if the top is dark). Cool in the pan on a rack.

Bring 1 inch of water to a simmer in a skillet wide enough to hold the cake pan. Carefully run a sharp knife around the inside of the pan several times, then rest the pan in the water to soften the caramel, about 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the water and dry.

Invert a plate on top of the cake, then flip over the cake and plate. Using pot holders or a towel, wriggle the pan off (see what it should look like below).

Soften the reserved 1 1/2 cups caramel in the microwave, about 2 minutes. Drizzle the cake with some of the caramel. Slice and serve with the rest.

At a certain point it all becomes very straight forward, but good golly, it is delicious. Just look at those gooey, dripping pictures. It has all the pleasure of the great fall delicacy added to a coffee cake like base. It's fun, it's good and it will not disappoint.

p.s. for more step by step photos, you can go to the Food Network website here, and follow along. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes-and-cooking/caramel-apple-cake/pictures/index.html

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mom's Apple Crisp

Nothing says fall is here like apples! This is the first of the "Apple Series" here on the Honest Chef. Today we will be discussing apple crisp.

I love apple crisp because it reminds me of home. During the fall and winter, my mom always made apple crisp for dessert. She says she always makes it because it is easy. And this time, she was actually right (more often than not her "easy" recipes take me three hours during which I curse a lot). And let me tell you, her apple crisp is so delicious. I have had other "crisps" and "crumbles" but what makes my Mom's recipe awesome is not only that it is super easy, but that it is very sweet. In fact, I think that I inherited my sweet tooth from my mom. For example, this weekend when I was home, she was scooping spoonfuls of sugar onto her Life Cereal! Life Cereal is not cornflakes, I mean, you can see the sugar crystals on the pieces! But she likes her sugar. So do I.

The other thing I like about this crisp is that the apples really meld together and become nice and soft. The top gets really crispy and then the contrast is just awesome.

So here's the recipe. You will be super amazed at how easy and how awesome this is.

Mom's Apple Crisp

7 apples (a variety; and mom says don't use McIntosh)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 stick butter (softened JUST A LITTLE BIT, so it's easier to crumble)

Preheat your oven to 375. Your first step is to core, peel, and slice the apples. I have a handy gadget for this, but you can do this by hand. I like to slice my apples pretty thin, so that each slice is about 1/4 inch thick and 1 inch long. I think this really lends the apples to becoming uniformly soft underneath the crust.

The second step is to put all of these into a 9x13 glass baking dish. You will see that the apples fill it up. This is good. When you're done, they will be shrunken to about half that size.

The third step is to get a big bowl, add your brown sugar, flour and stick of butter, and mix it all up until the butter is incorporated throughout (there should be small chunks of butter through the whole thing).

Pile this mixture on top of the apples, and put in oven for about 45 minutes. The crisp should be uniformly brown on the top (see below). You should also notice that the thickness of the crisp has shrunk to half its previous size.

And you're done! See, wasn't that simple? Four ingredients and three steps. Mom was not joking when she said it was easy. And I am not joking when I say it is the best apple crisp ever.

The tricks to remember are to make sure the butter is incorporated throughout the sugar and flour mixture, and to cut your apples thin. That's it! Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The "Whoopsie" Pie

You may think because I post delicious looking things on this blog that I am now a seasoned cook and I really know what I'm doing. Guess again. This blog isn't called the Honest Chef for nothing. Last weekend I really messed up. You know those chocolate chip cookies? That everyone loves and always asks me to bring to things? Yes, friends, I messed those up. I have made them probably 100 times. I hope this makes you feel better about messing up in your own kitchen. I hope you aren't laughing at my idiocy instead. Well, even if you are, I will be vindicated by the great ending to this story, so read on.

Here's what happened. I was making chocolate chip cookies for a birthday party. I put in all the ingredients, one by one, measuring, etc. I was moving right along until I got to adding the chocolate chips, where I stopped. The dough just didn't look quite right to me. It looked too firm, and frankly, not like cookie dough. It tasted ok, but I could tell something was off. And then I noticed them. The TWO EGGS were sitting there on the counter, next to the beater, looking up at me and saying, "Yep, you forgot us down here." NOOOOO. I couldn't make them all over again! I didn't have any more butter, and I had used up the last of the vanilla extract. NOOOOO. And have I mentioned how much I hate to waste ingredients?

So what did I do? Why, called my mom of course. "Oh my god Mom, I am an idiot and forgot to add the eggs to my chocolate chip cookie dough. Is there any possible thing I can make with this wrecked dough?" She replied hesitantly that I could try to make a crust for some kind of pie. She wasn't sure it would work, but she too hates to waste ingredients, so I thought I'd give it a go.

But what kind of pie? Chocolate cream, replied my husband. Perfect! The cookies were supposed to have chocolate in them anyway, plus it didn't require a long cooking time (which was good because the party time was creeping up on us). So, we put a little bit on a cookie sheet and popped it in the oven to make sure that it would taste good once it was cooked. Miraculously, it did! Actually it was really good. But then I tried to roll out the dough into a pie crust shape. Forget it. I could get it to be thin, but it kept breaking apart. At this point, I was willing to do anything to get it into the pie plate, so I took all the small rolled out pieces, and pressed them together into the pie plate. Then I threw it in the oven at 375, and kept an eye on it until it turned brown.

Once it was ready, I took it out and put it into the freezer immediately. (If you ever want to make this and you have more time though, just let it cool regularly. I was desperate to finish). While this was happening, I made the instant chocolate pudding. After the pie shell had cooled sufficiently, I poured in the pudding, and let it sit in the fridge for another ten minutes. Then I topped it whipped cream, and voila! It was finished. Too bad I didn't know how it tasted. But no matter, we at least had something to bring to the party.

Well let me just tell you, that was the best freaking chocolate cream pie ever! Take that people who were laughing at me! The crust was so rich and delicious it was just awesome! People were talking about how good it was days later. I have to say, it was my best mistake ever. Or best recovery from a mistake. (Thanks Mom!) I might actually do this on purpose again sometime soon!

So, now you know that I make mistakes on things I have made a hundred times. And you might too, but the good news is that now, if you forget eggs in your chocolate chip cookies, you'll know what to do!

*P.S. The photo is not mine. I didn't take a picture because I thought it would be terrible. But it kind of looked like this. And a blog post is boring without a picture.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Summer Tomato Sauce

I have been getting many requests for "things to do with all the tomatoes I am getting." Some people seem to be luckier than me to have lots of tomatoes donated to them by their friends and co-workers. Maybe if this recipe is good enough you can introduce me to them.

The last days are summer are here, and so are the last fresh tomatoes of the season. So here's a simple recipe for sauce that can be made only with fresh, summer tomatoes. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT try this with tomatoes from the supermarket or tomatoes out of season; farmer's market or garden tomatoes are the only ones that will work. Other, than that, there really isn't too much to the sauce. Our family learned this from one of my Italian relatives who makes this sauce all the time; she doesn't realize how delicious it is compared to what we are used to!

Summer Tomato Sauce (from Alessandra, a real Italian)

5-6 BIG tomatoes from the market (or 7-8 medium ones)
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 medium cloves of garlic, whole but peeled (see below for technique)
Fresh basil, about a handful, chopped not-too-small
Salt and pepper

The first step is to peel the tomatoes. I know this is not something we usually do here in America, but I guarantee you it makes a huge difference. No one likes getting stringy bits of skin in their tomato sauce. After peeling the tomatoes, core them, and dice them up. You will have a lot of tomatoes, so make sure you have a big enough bowl to put them in because there is a lot of liquid, and it will spill all over your whole kitchen if you just the cut tomatoes on the cutting board. (Yes, this happened to me.)

Once your tomatoes are prepped, put the oil in a large skillet that can accommodate all of those tomatoes. A skillet is important to use (rather than a sauce pan) because it allows more surface area, and therefore, the sauce can cook down more quickly while maintaining the fresh tomato flavor.

Next is where you need your garlic. The best way to peel a garlic clove is to smack it with the flat side of a chef's knife. For this technique you will need: 1. A 8" chef's knife. I would not recommend trying this with a smaller knife. 2. Force. 3. Courage. Put the whole unpeeled garlic clove on a flat surface (cutting board, counter). Hold the knife so the blade is flat (rotated 90 degrees from how you hold it when you are cutting). Put the thick part of the blade onto the top of the garlic, so it is just touching it and hold the handle firmly. Then take the heel of your other hand and SMACK DOWN right on top of the garlic. You must be forceful, and hold the knife tight. This seems scary at first, but it really is not, as long as you do it with confidence (no looking away in fear or anything like that! that is how you cut yourself.) Once you've practiced a few times, you'll use this trick a lot. It is way better than sitting there for 10 minutes trying to peel it with your fingers and then your fingers get all sticky and smell like garlic for the whole day. Knife technique is better.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the garlic cloves to the oil. Saute the garlic cloves until they become fragrant and start to brown. This usually takes me about 3 minutes. If they brown right away, it's too hot, so turn it down.

Once the garlic is ready, add all the tomatoes to the pan; keep on medium heat. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt onto the tomatoes in the skillet. Then stir once, just so all the tomatoes can get a little oil on them, press the tomatoes down so that they are in a flat layer, and do not stir anymore. Seriously. It is kind of the trick to this recipe. Leave it on medium for a while, as you see the tomato juices start to come out. This will be probably about 15-20 minutes. Do not stir.
It will look like this:

When you see the tomatoes have broken down a bit, and the liquid has been somewhat absorbed, you can turn the heat down so the sauce is just simmering. Keep it simmering for about 10-20 minutes more, until the "extra" liquid is just about cooked off. Then you add your basil, and stir lightly so that the basil is incorporated. Then 3 more minutes and it's done! Season with salt and pepper if you think it needs it. Tasting is always important. Here's the final product:

Now you're ready to add to your favorite pasta (I think it tastes great with spaghetti, fettuccine, or any of the longer pastas). You can also freeze this sauce, but I have to admit it just does not taste quite as good as it does when it is fresh.

Lots of fall recipes are coming up on the Honest Chef. But for now, enjoy the last of summer!

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Nemesis: Turkey Meatballs

As frequent readers may know, I try to eat healthy. Most of the time, this isn't too hard because lots of things that are good for you taste pretty good. However, there are two exceptions: baked goods, and meatballs. Baked goods I am willing to relegate to the "once in a while" category, but I refuse to believe that meatballs can only taste good with beef, veal or any such combination. And let me just say, Mr. Ground Turkey, you almost had me there.

I use ground turkey pretty much any time a recipe calls for ground beef: sloppy joes, tacos, meatloaf-- it makes a big difference in terms of health, and if you know how to flavor this stuff, makes very little difference in taste. Except when it comes to meatballs. My family loves meatballs. My mom makes great meatballs; we have a crock of them at every party. My grandmothers make great meatballs. And I use their recipes, with turkey. And they taste, well, terrible.

At first I thought, oh my god, what is wrong with me? How hard can it be to make a decent turkey meatball, I have made these like 25 times! Then one day, I just used ground beef to see if it really was my anti-intuition in the kitchen. And I discovered, it wasn't! The beef meatballs were delicious.

Well, now this made my problem more complex. I was more determined than ever to make a healthy meatball that tasted good. What did these have that my turkey ones didn't? Fat, yes that is the obvious answer. And I wasn't going to add fat to my turkey because that would defeat the purpose. It definitely wasn't salt or garlic, because I had added as much as possible to my turkey ones and they still were blah.

Suddenly, it hit me. It's the beef taste that's missing. If these could get the depth of beef flavor, without being beef--then we'd be onto something. First I thought of beef broth, but that kind of liquid in the meatballs is definitely a no. Then I had the only ever genius idea I have ever had in the kitchen--ever! Beef bullion cubes!

In case you didn't know, these are little cubes that you dissolve in boiling water to make beef broth. I had bought the package when I needed beef broth but the store didn't have any. This was the "beef" flavor, with no added fat at all!

I crushed up one cube (I found this best to do with a serrated knife; just start sawing), and mixed it into my usual meatball mixture. It made a huge difference; they tasted great. My husband even said, "Did you do something different? These are actually good!" Below is my turkey meatball recipe.

Turkey Meatballs
1 1/2 pounds (about) of ground turkey
1 egg
1 TBSP Parsley
1 small onion, chopped (smaller pieces are better)
1 big clove of garlic
1/4 grated parmesean cheese (optional)
1 beef bullion cube, crushed
Breadcrumbs (about 3/4 cup, but please, approximate! see below)
Makes about one dozen

Preheat oven to 425. Spray a glass casserole dish with pam, and set aside. Put all ingredients into a large bowl, but only 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs. Now, you gotta get your hands dirty, or should I say, one hand dirty. Mix with your non-dominant hand, and once everything is thoroughly combined, test to see if you grab a handful if it can stay in a ball without sticking to everything. If it cannot, you need more breadcrumbs. Use your clean hand to add more breadcrumbs 1/4 cup at a time. You shouldn't need more than 1 and a 1/2 so, keep that in mind. Then, take both hands and form into balls. Line up in the pan, and bake in your oven for about 35-40 minutes. They should be nice and brown on the outside, and you shouldn't see any pink juice coming from any. See also my tip below for testing doneness in turkey (and see photo below for a visual).

Tips for turkey meatballs:

1. These need to cook at a higher temperature, for longer than regular meatballs. This is because they must cook all the way through to be safe to eat (no one asks you for how you want your turkey cooked, right?). You should designate one as your "tasting meatball." You will need to cut it when you think it is done and look inside immediately. If you wait like, even 5 seconds, it will "cook" more and look brown when it is not really cooked. I get pretty panicky when I see pink turkey meat, so use this trick to avoid worrying about that.
2. If you want to save some, put them in the freezer in a ziplock bag once they have reached room temperature. To reheat, put them into the sauce while frozen and warm them up slowly over about 20 minutes while you're cooking your pasta.

So there you have it; tasty turkey meatballs. Share the secret with pride! (After all, it is the only original secret I have.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Best Banana Bread

I know you're thinking, the best banana bread? Really? Ok, well the real best banana bread is my Grandma's. But I don't want to make my Grandma's banana bread, because it never comes out the same. I swear she has some special Italian baking magic in her hands. And I can't teach you to make my Grandma's because, well, you'd need to know my Grandma.

So today we will discuss the best banana bread that I have made, to date. I really like banana bread because it is both delicious and resourceful. In my house, we buy bananas every week. I don't particularly like raw bananas. I try to convince myself that they taste good and are good for me, but I just don't like them. Maybe that's because I see what they could become if I leave them in the bowl until they are brown. And that is, delectable banana bread.

First, a tip. Let's say you have all these brown spotted bananas and you are like, there is no way in hell I am turning on the oven in this heat to make banana bread. Well that's ok, because you can just toss them into the freezer, and use them whenever you do feel like making banana bread. Do not get frightened when you open up the freezer later and they are totally black; the inside will be just fine once it is thawed.

Ok, so back to the actual bread. I love sweet banana bread; I want it to be sugary, and I don't want to have to add anything to it when I eat it like butter or jelly or whatever. And if you know me you know that I love anything sugary. So this recipe for banana bread, with Cinnamon Crumble Topping is exactly what I like; and I'm willing to bet it will be exactly what you like too. I got this recipe from Bon Appetit, by way of the fabulous food blog, Orangette. It is moist, sweet and easy to bake. So here we go.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (3 should do the trick)
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup water

For topping:
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350° F. You will want an apx 9X5 inch bread pan for this. If you go larger, the loaf will be a bit shorter; don't go smaller, or it will overflow. Spray this with cooking spray, use parchment paper, or if you want to get really fancy, coat with butter and then flour. (I really don't like this technique, but I suppose it is the "proper way").

Now you have your typical "wet" ingredients in one bowl, "dry" in another. This is pretty common in baking, and it's always good to recognize patterns. So, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. In different bowl, whisk together the banana, eggs, oil, honey, and water (this bowl will be holding all your ingredients, so make it big). Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. This batter will be pretty liquidy, like a cake batter.

In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle them evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour for a metal pan, give or take a little (I had to take about 15 more because my pan was ceramic). Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, and be careful of the topping. Cool completely before slicing.

The thing about banana bread is, there are only a few rules you need to follow, and really everything comes together on its own.

Rule 1: Do not mash bananas until they are banana juice. Just, mashed bananas.
Rule 2: Do not overmix the dry into the wet. Of course, you want to see no evidence of flour or other dry ingredients, but don't go whisking it up til you see bubbles.
And, the hardest rule of all...
Rule 3: WAIT. You just have to wait until it cools, or everything will go terribly wrong. I have definitely ruined a loaf by waiting say, only ten minutes before trying to take it out of the pan. I have ruined another by trying to cut it when it is "nice and hot" because it might taste better right? Wrong. Let it cool. Reheat it later if you want. The reason? Well, one, it will fall apart and you will cry because all of your hard work is in pieces, and two, it won't taste quite right. It's got to all settle and assimilate together. So let it.

As you can see from the picture below, this banana bread (on the right) is slightly darker than most, so don't worry if it is dark, that does not mean you burned it. It means success! Delicious sugary banana success!

So go ahead, let those bananas in the fruit bowl go rotten. Everyone, even Grandma, will thank you later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to "Take Out" at Home; the story of Udon Noodles

Udon noodles. Up until about a year and a half ago, I didn't even know what they were. I was at my in-laws', and my father in law had picked up the recipe and put it in his weekly rotation; as it was one of his favorites, he made it for us. He already knew how to stir-fry from growing up in Hawaii, and he created his own version using udon noodles. He shared the recipe with us, and I'm going to share my version of that version with you. Udon noodles are almost like lo mein noodles, but they are thicker, and absorb more liquid when cooked. You can get them dried, just like spaghetti, or you may be lucky enough to find fresh ones at your grocery store. Either kind work fine for this recipe.

Now that I know what udon noodles are, and how to stir fry them, they have become one of my favorite meals. I have expressed my dislike for stirfry and other things "over rice" but substituting noodles for rice instantly makes a stirfry a million times better. And if you are like me, and crave take out Chinese sometime, this is a much more delicious and healthy way to satisfy that.

The only special equipment you will need for this is a large deep frying pan. If you have a wok, that is great. I don't. I just have a big frying pan. And it works fine. I am sure some purists of Asian cooking will scoff, but, seriously, no wok, no problem.

Udon Noodle Stir Fry

1 breast of boneless skinless chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 small onion, cut into eighths
3/4 pound of udon noodles
1/4 cup, plus 1 TBSP of soy sauce
3 TBSP of oil (canola is good, but olive oil works too)
1 cup of chopped fresh broccoli
1 cup of snow peas
2 eggs scrambled
* feel free to add any other vegetables you like: asparagus, red peppers, etc.

Start by marinating your chicken pieces in 1 TBSP of soy sauce and the garlic. You'll want this to sit for about 15 minutes. While this is marinating, heat up a pot of water for the udon noodles. You can cook these just like spaghetti; wait til the water is boiling, and then throw them in. But note! These cook faster than spaghetti. Check them after 3 minutes (for dried, earlier for fresh; fresh pasta always cooks faster).
While the marinating and heating of the water is going on, chop your veggies, and scramble your eggs in a separate pan. (I just take the two eggs, mix them together with a fork, pour into a small frying pan, and move them around with a rubber spatula until they are cooked through.)

Now, get out your large wok/frying pan. Heat 2 TBSP of oil in the pan, keeping the heat on med-high. Once it is nice and hot, add the chicken and all the marinade to the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, and then add the raw onion. Cook these two together until the chicken is cooked through.

The one big challenge with this dish is adding the ingredients in such an order that they all get the proper cooking time for their thickness and desired crunch. You want the chicken to cook the longest, then the onions, then the broccoli, because it will take a few minutes to cook through, and at the last minute, thinner vegetables, like snow peas. Asparagus would go in with broccoli; thinly sliced peppers with the peas. You don't want soggy broccoli or floppy snow peas. Part of the deliciousness of this dish is the contrast in texture, and it won't be half as enjoyable if it's all just squooshy. And this has happened to me quite a few times, so learn from my mistakes.

So here's the assembly. You have your chicken and onions. Then toss in the broccoli and cook for one minute. Then add your cooked udon noodles on top, with the remaining oil and half of the remaining soy sauce (3 TBSP). Stir this around, so that all of the protein and vegetables are incorporated in the noodles, and the soy sauce is evenly distributed.

You want to use your muscles here; you need to mean it when you stir these ingredients, or you'll have a big sticky mess of noodles. To avoid this, I use two techniques. The first is to drain the noodles quickly and then add them right to the wok. If you leave the cooked noodles to the side while you are preparing other things, the starch in them will cause them to become really sticky, and hard to undo, though not impossible. The other technique is to make myself taller. If you are short like me, you might want to use a step stool so you can stand over that big pan and toss everything together thoroughly. You will be surprised how much easier this is. It is also very easy to recruit your 6 foot husband for the job.

After this step, add your snow peas, your scrambled egg, and the remaining soy sauce. Stir around and incorporate 1-2 more minutes until the peas turn a bright green. And that green, my friends, means you're ready to eat!

You can change up the protein and the veggies to suit your liking. Just remember to toss in your ingredients in the order of needed cooking time, and you'll be master of the udon noodle!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chicken Marsala

Sometimes I feel like there is a lack of real recipes for "boneless skinless chicken breasts," and frankly, this is the meat that I eat most often. The plus side is that the meat is healthy, but the other side of that is that it can be pretty bland. The technique I see in recipes most often is just a basic saute or grill of a chicken breast with salt and pepper on it. Now, really, can anyone be fooled that that will taste good, no matter what sauce you put on it afterwards?

No. If you want a quick chicken dish for boneless breasts, chicken marsala is the way to go. This is one of my favorite dishes to make, and also one of my favorites to serve at a small dinner party. The recipe is so simple it is magical. The one thing you need that you might not have in your kitchen is a bottle of marsala wine. Marsala is an Italian wine from Sicily that has a sweet taste, and though in Italy it can be used as an aperitif, here it is used as a cooking wine--an excellent one I might add. You can buy it in the grocery store in the "cooking wine" section, or in your local wine store. It shouldn't be too expensive (my grocery store charges $6, and you can make the dish at least 4 times with one bottle). You can store the bottle in your cabinet for a month or two after it has been opened.

This wine is what gives the chicken its unique flavor. In a pinch you can use another white wine, and it will be a good dish, but not as amazing as the marsala.

Here's what you need:

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced horizontally (so they are thin)
1/2 c of flour, for coating
2-3 TBSP olive oil (for sauteing)
1 1/2 c of sliced mushrooms
3/4 c of marsala (eyeball it, see below)
1 TBSP of chopped fresh rosemary (dried is ok too, use half as much)
Salt and pepper to taste

And here's how you make it:

Heat 2 TBSP of olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. If you don't have one that will fit all 6 halves of the chicken, you will have to work in two skillets at once (you can do it!) or in batches. While the oil is heating up, coat the chicken in flour. When the oil is hot enough, put the chicken in (it should sizzle). Keep the chicken cooking on that side until it is nicely browned and crisped. Like this:

Then flip the chicken. If the skillet needs more oil, add the additional tablespoon (the skillet above needs more, for example). Once the chicken is nicely browned on the other side, throw in the mushrooms, and then add about half of the marsala. The heat should stay on medium here. You will want to push the mushrooms into the marsala every minute or so, because you want them evenly cooked. As the mushrooms start to cook, add the rosemary.

Flip the chicken over after about 2-3 minutes. You will notice it has taken on a "soaked quality" which is exactly what you want, on the side that was underneath. Cook keep cooking the chicken until the sauce boils down until it is thickened (It shouldn't take too long). Try not to turn the chicken again, because the flour will be heavy with the marsala wine, and might fall off. And this means the flavor will fall off as well. Add salt and pepper to your tastes (try the sauce).

As soon as the sauce is thickened, serve it, as is! It should look like this:

Just slide the chicken onto the plate, and pour the mushroom marsala goodness onto it. You're done! It is so fast and so flavorful. Trust me, the ease and taste of this dish will make it part of your weekly rotation.

The keys to this dish are:

1. Once the marsala is in the dish, don't turn the chicken over more than once. This way the coating will stay on the chicken.

2. Wait until the sauce thickens before serving the dish. The thickening happens because of the flour on the chicken, so it will happen, don't worry. (If you really want to speed it up, turn up the heat, but watch it carefully!)

3. Serve immediately. This is not one of those dishes that you want hanging around for 15 minutes in the pan. However, if your timing is off (mine always is) and the potatoes still aren't cooked or something, leave it in the pan and just before serving add a tad more marsala, and turn on the heat again. When the added marsala is thickened, serve.

Chicken breasts are no longer boring. Thank you Sicily!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Kielbasa: Sweet, Sour, Simple

I am usually not one of those "over rice" people. I don't like sauces mixing all up with my rice, as in I prefer my stir fry to the side of the rice (more on that later). But this is one dish where I like the sauce so much, I will happily put everything on top of the rice, just so I can get all of it into my mouth.

Keilbasa is a great sausage. It has a nice sweet semi-exotic taste (and the no fennel seeds are a bonus, at least for me). You can simply grill it for a sandwich, but Keilbasa with a sweet and sour sauce is a great filling meal that is easy to make. My mother used to make this when I was a kid, and I was very excited when I found a recipe that recreated the taste of that dish. I like to use turkey keilbasa because it is healthier, and you won't miss the calories.

2 cups ketchup
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 pound turkey kielbasa sausage, sliced in 1/2 in slices on the bias (slanted, so they will look prettier)
Scant olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste.

A deep skillet is good for this recipe, but a large saucepan will work as well. Now watch how easy this is. Saute chopped onion for 1 minute in just a bit of olive oil in the skillet. Then add all of the ingredients to the skillet, with the heat on medium low. Stir until combined, and the sugar and butter start to melt. Turn the heat down to the lowest it can go, and cover. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve over rice.

Easy! There are just a few tips to make sure this dish turns out right.

1. Keep an eye on the pot, because you don't really want this sauce boiling. Depending on your stove and the way your pan heats this can be a little bit of a challenge if the heat keeps concentrating in one area. You can lift up the lid, and stir to prevent this, but just keeping it on low should work fine. The reason why you don't want it to boil is because the casing on the Keilbasa can tighten and sort of bulge out the meat, making it a little tough on the outside. If this happens, it is not the end of the world. It will still taste good, it just will leave a little to be desired in the texture.

2. You will know that it is ready by its smell. The vinegary smell should not be present. The vinegar is a flavoring, but this sauce should not have an acid taste like raw vinegar. If you take off the lid and get a whiff of strong vinegar smell, keep cooking.

3. And of course, taste! Add your salt and pepper to taste right near the end of cooking, so you can judge what you need according to the fully cooked sauce, and not a sauce that hasn't matured yet.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Saving the Cake!

I know, I haven't written in a while. Vacations, weddings, birthdays--sometimes they get in the way of blogging. That's probably a good thing.

So this entry will be short and sweet (excuse the pun). My husband's birthday was a few weeks ago. He really likes white cake with white frosting. I mean really likes it. His favorite cake is what he calls "supermarket white cake," and this was the top tier of our wedding cake, because he insisted on it.

Naturally, this is what I made for his birthday. Or attempted to make. I don't know whether my PAM is way past it's expiration date, or my non-stick pans are lying to me, but I had a big problem getting these cakes out of the pan. The first layer cracked into three separate pieces. AAAHH! I yelled and panicked and thought, well that is ok, I can repair it, as long as the other one is fine. I waited 15 more minutes, to make sure the other layer had cooled, and AHHH! again, only this time, the layer broke into 7 pieces, one of which landed on the floor.

I was very tempted to throw the whole darn thing out, but one thing about me is, I really hate wasting ingredients. So, what did I do? Made an extra batch of frosting, and well, glued it all back together.

What do you think?

This is proof that no matter what happens, you can repair your cake and no one will ever know what a disaster you had earlier! I got many many compliments--who knew just hours before I was cursing at the thing, frosting all over the table? But you should definitely volunteer to cut it, because some of the slices will turn out to be entirely frosting (and you can toss those ones out, without anyone being the wiser.)

Next time though, I will probably use parchment paper the pans. It will take a little extra time, but at least I know it won't stick!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mustard Chicken

If there is one recipe I am famous for, at least around my house, it is mustard chicken. I have made this recipe at least fifty times, which has helped me perfect it, and which has also made it my husband's first guess at what's for dinner. This is the ideal weeknight main dish. It is quick, easy, and actually healthy. I developed this recipe when I had a health problem that caused me to have to remove "fatty foods" from my diet for six months. This was a challenge, but out of it came the famous mustard chicken, and it stayed on the menu even after I could eat fat; meaning it's worth taking a shot at even if you scoff at "health foods."

Mustard chicken is essentially chicken cutlets (I mean, who doesn't love cutlets, right?) with mustard acting as the sealing agent rather than your typical flour/eggs routine. This not only makes the dish healthier, but gives it a lighter more flavorful taste that can go well with a variety of side dishes. Depending on how much you like mustard, or which type you like, you can mix it up. I like to use a pretty strong dijion or grainy mustard, because I like the mustard taste to be prominent. If you are a little afraid of mustard, try a honey mustard, and you'll get a pleasantly sweet tasting cutlet, and the mustard will be your secret.

Here is what you will need (serves 3-4):

Mustard Chicken

3-4 Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts, sliced in half through the middle of the breast, and pounded thin (you can use a saucepan if you don't have a mallet)*
1 cup of breadcrumbs (both regular and panko work fine, but panko gives a good crunch)
3-4 Tbsps of dijon or grain mustard
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Toasted Sesame seeds (optional)
*you can also brine the chicken breasts in salt water beforehand, to bring out more flavor


The first step is to have all your materials ready. I use a kitchen brush and a fork, and this way, I never have to touch the chicken, and I don't get my hands all covered in breadcrumby mess. See sample "station" here.

Now, the first thing you'll want to do is spread your mustard onto the chicken with the brush. You want a nice coating, but you don't want globs of it on one part and barely anything on another part. If you don't have a brush and are using a knife to spread it, that is fine, but just be sure not to put too much. It's a coating; the mustard should not be dripping off at any point. See photo.

Now, take one cutlet and set it mustard side down in a plate of breadcrumbs (put your toasted sesame seeds in the breadcrumbs if you are using them). Press it into the crumbs with the back of the fork. While it is still in the breadcrumbs, use your brush to coat the other side with mustard. Try your best not to touch the breadcrumbs. You will want to keep your ingredients as separate as possible to avoid mess. Once finished, use the fork to pick it up, and put the side you just coated down into the bread crumbs. You may have to use the fork to push the breadcrumbs onto the sides of the chicken if your cutlet is large.

Repeat this for all cutlets, and put aside on a plate. Once they are all finished being coated, get a frying pan ready with some olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pan, but not too much (the chicken shouldn't sink into it). Wait, can you leave the coated cutlets while you are busy tending to your side dishes? Why yes you can. These cutlets cook in about 5-7 minutes, so if you have other things you want to prepare, go for it. These cutlets can stay breaded for a while and not lose their texture because there is no flour. With a flour coating, you want to cook your cutlets right away or the flour will congeal, yielding a weirdly textured product. Here, there is no worry about that. Just don't leave it out for too long (more than 20 minutes or so); if it's going to be longer, put them in the fridge.

Ok, so you've got your pan with olive oil. Set this on medium high, and when the oil starts to shimmer, it means it is good and hot (if it starts to smoke, it's too hot!) Then take your cutlets and put them right down in the pan with enough space between them so they are not touching.

The goal here is to only flip these once, kind of like fish. The reason for that is that there are no eggs holding these breadcrumbs. They will stay on, but you don't want to be constantly turning them because then they will fall off. Keep that one side down for a few minutes--the oil will be very hot, so be careful of spatters! I wear long sleeves for this because I really hate getting hot oil on me. Then, when you think it's ready, just peek at the underside. It should be golden brown. You should also start to see the edges of your chicken turn white from the raw side. Then, flip them. Using a flat spatula works, but I like to just use a fork, that way I don't scrape any of the crumbs off accidentally.

After this side is cooked, you are done! You should serve them right away to ensure crispiness.

Here are the tips to remember:
1. Pound chicken so it's thin; you only want to flip the chicken once and thin cuts will ensure that the chicken is cooked through after one flip.
2. When spreading the mustard on the chicken make the layer thin; you want the flavor but if you put too much, it will overwhelm the breadcrumbs.
3. Don't let the oil get too hot; if you see smoke or if all the oil gets soaked up, replace it fast, and turn down the heat. You want crispy cutlets, but not burned ones!

Now mustard chicken can become famous in your house, too. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scallops and Spaghetti

I am always looking for ways to incorporate more seafood into my diet. Not only is it good for you, but it tastes great. The only problem is that it can be very expensive, and in some places not very tasty. Because I live in the city I shop pretty much solely at Trader Joes--even they have a so-so fish showing. Virtually all of it is frozen, and much of the good quality stuff costs more than the steak they have. However, I have found good use for their frozen bay scallops. These are really great to have handy, especially to throw in for a quick saute, or pasta dish, like the one I'll be showing you today.

This recipe is adapted from Mark Bittman, who is known for his simplistic recipes that taste great. It is a great quick meal, one that you can make any night (especially those nights when you forgot to take something out of the freezer that morning.) The best part about this recipe is that it has a delightful "creamy" taste, but it requires no cream or cheese (though feel free to add a sprinkle of parmesan). It is good for you, good tasting, and quick. What could be better for dinner on a night when you really don't have the time to cook?

You will need:

1 pound of spaghetti (or linguine)
20-25 bay scallops, thawed (these are the tiny ones; if you have big ones, cut them into quarters)
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1-2 Tbsps of butter
1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
1 tsp of parsley
1/2 a can of diced tomatoes, drained
Salt and pepper to taste

To thaw the scallops quickly, you may want to use a trick that I learned a while back. A metal frying pan conducts the heat from the air more rapidly to the frozen food, so put the scallops in one layer in the pan. After a few minutes, turn them over, and you'll notice that the underside is already thawed. It should only be a few minutes before the other side is all set.

Heat up a pot of water with salt for the spaghetti, and add it once the water boils. Meanwhile, add the olive oil into a medium sauce pan, and put it over medium heat. Once it is warm, add the garlic. Cook it for about three minutes, or until it turns a tan color. Then add your butter in, and mix it around until it melts. Turn up the heat to medium high, and add your tomatoes and scallops. The scallops need to cook for about 3 minutes. You'll know they are done when they turn opaque. Once they are cooked, take the sauce pan off the heat.

This is the trickiest part of this recipe, but it's actually not bad, you just have to be patient. Once the pan is off of the heat, mix in the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and parsley. You want this mixture to be evenly incorporated, and then let it sit, and allow the breadcrumbs to absorb the mixture. You don't want to see any extra oil or liquid in the sauce pan, otherwise it is not ready. If you've waited more than 5 minutes and there is still oil, try to drain it out. You should look for this type of consistency below, and you'll know it's ready.

You will need to warm up the scallop mixture just a bit before adding it to the pasta. Drain the pasta, and reserve a half a cup of pasta water. Put the pasta back in the pan and add the scallop mixture. Then add the pasta water, and stir until the pasta is evenly coated. And you're done! You'll be so surprised that breadcrumbs have made this pasta have such a delicious creamy texture; it is hard to believe.

Now if that wasn't quick, I don't know what is.

Just remember:

1. To thaw the scallops quickly, lay them on a metal frying pan.
2. Wait for the breadcrumbs to soak up the liquid of the scallop mixture before adding it to the pasta.

And there you have it! Another quick meal to add to your weeknight arsenal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chicken, au naturel

My favorite meal in the world is roast chicken--I used to ask for it every year on my birthday (I know, who would ask for that, right? My mom is that good.) It is so easy to make, and yields such great results that I don't know why people don't make it more often.

Well I do know why. Here are some of the reasons I've gotten.

One, it is gross to touch, and you have to pull out all the organs. Rebuttal: not true. I have never once bought a roast chicken that didn't have all the organs in a nice neat sack for you to pull right out of the cavity and drop into the trash. And you're going to have to get over touching raw meat if you want to learn to cook. Also, it can be fun--try making it dance around and you'll see how fast you get over the gross factor.

Two, it looks hard. Rebuttal: It is not. See recipe below.

seems too fancy for an everyday meal. Rebuttal: again, untrue. You could make this for a weeknight dinner if you get home at five and want to eat around 7:30. Or if one of your older kids/significant other is willing to turn on the oven and put in the pan for you.

I won't say that roast chicken is without its challenges. I think its biggest problem is that sometimes, even when it looks delicious on the outside, the meat is actually pretty bland. This has definitely happened to me before, and it took me a few tries (and sometimes extra time) to beat this. However, an excellent gravy, also covered in this entry, always saves the day.

Gravy, too, you say! No problem. If I can do it, you can do it. No lumps, no flour taste, and no jar--just deliciousness you made yourself.

For the chicken (serves 4, or a very hungry husband and yourself):

Roast Chicken

1 whole roasting chicken (3.5-4.5 pounds is good)
1 small onion
1-2 cloves of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic
1 tsp of dried rosemary, fresh is even better (use a bit more)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or not, if that's not your thing)
2 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
olive oil (about 3 Tbsp)
and a little bit of butter if you aren't watching your calories
a roasting pan and rack (or inverted ovenproof saucer if you don't have a rack)

Preheat oven to 375. Cut the ends off of the onion, and peel it, but leave it whole. Set aside. Take out chicken, take off plastic, and remove any other padding/packaging that might be sticking to it. Reach into cavity, grab sack of organs, toss. Rinse the chicken under sink both outside and in the cavity. Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Let rest while preparing the rub.

In a small bowl combine garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Stir so that all the ingredients are incorporated. Then slowly add olive oil to the bowl while stirring until you make a thick spreadable paste consistency. (You will want to use your hands for this next part). Take the chicken and rub a little bit of the mix onto the bottom, and place it in the roasting pan, on the rack if you have one. (The bottom is the opposite side from the part where the leg joints are. The wing tip should be the furthest from the pan, not the furthest into the pan. Don't scoff, this can be confusing.)

Then take the rest of the rub and rub all over the skin of the chicken, putting a little bit inside the cavity. You want to leave those good tasting chunks of garlic on the chicken--they crisp up and taste delicious! Then, if you are adding the butter, cut it into thin pats. At the top of the breast, you will see that the skin can be separated from the meat--slide the butter pats under the skin, spacing them out evenly over the breast meat. This step is not necessary, but everyone knows butter makes things taste better. [Stop here if making it the night before--refridgerate, and complete the next steps 2 hours before you want to eat.]

Next, in order to ensure a moist and flavorful chicken (learned this trick from my mom) put the onion into the cavity (push it as far back as it will go). If your onion is too big, cut it in half. It will work fine just the same. Put in the oven for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours depending on the size. (If the juices from the meat are running pink, it's not ready.)

And you're done! (well aside from occasionally basting after the first hour, and basting often in the last 20 minutes--be sure to get all of it, meaning the legs and wings too!). You will want to let the chicken rest, covered with foil, for 10 minutes after it is finished. Don't put it on its platter to rest, or it will look like your chicken is taking a bath by the time you serve it. P.S. You can eat the onion after the chicken is cooked--I love it!

When the chicken is about 10 minutes from finished, you'll want to start your gravy. Gravy needs to be on the stovetop for at least 10 minutes in order to cook the flour completely.

And now for the roux--and a little science. For gravy you need three things 1) a fat, 2) a thickening agent, and 3) a flavoring agent. Though the fat makes things taste good, the fat's most important purpose is to incorporate the thickener into the liquid flavor (ie. chicken broth in this case), and do the job of thickening the liquid. The roux incorporates the fat and the thickener on its own, before the liquid gets any attention, because they need to become blended in order for the gravy to really work (similar concept to creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs in my chocolate chip cookies post).

Chicken Gravy (makes one cup)

1 cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp fat (either pan drippings, or butter)
2 Tbsp flour (your thickening agent)
Salt and Pepper to taste (Be SURE to taste your gravy. Why serve something that's under-seasoned when it could have been great if you had just tasted it?!)

The first 1-2 minutes of making gravy will need your rapt attention, so make sure you can devote yourself to it the whole time, and that you have your liquid measured out ahead of time. Get out a sauce pan that you can use a whisk in (if it is non-stick, use a coated whisk, if it's stainless steel, whisk type doesn't matter). Put in your fat and then your flour, and turn on the heat to medium high. Whisk the ingredients rapidly--they should form a paste. Make sure that the fat and flour are incorporated, and that you keep mixing as the paste heats so that part of it doesn't burn. Continue mixing and heating for 1 minute. The flour needs to cook a little here, but don't be afraid; you can control it.

After one minute, pour in the chicken broth slowly, but in a steady stream, while continuing to whisk the roux. After all the liquid is in there, keep whisking to ensure there are no chunks of roux, and then, turn the heat to med-low, and just wait. It will magically thicken. I promise. If it doesn't write me a comment and we'll figure it out. Stir the gravy every now and then, and once it has come into a consistency that looks like normal gravy, add your salt and pepper to your taste. Leave the gravy on low heat for at least 10 minutes. It's ok if a skin forms. Once you stir it in it will disappear.

So there you have it folks! A dinner to impress, and a dinner with--well a lot less stress than you thought right?

Let's review the things to remember:
1. A whole chicken is not gross!
2. Add the onion inside to make it moist.
3. Put the chicken right-side up! This is imperative, or all the juices will flow the wrong way. See the photo below if you're still confused.
4. Once the chicken is cooked, let it rest in it's pan--not on the presentation platter.
5. Don't be afraid of the gravy! But make sure that for 2 minutes your attention is devoted completely to it.
6. Be sure to full incorporate the flour and butter, and to cook the roux for a minute before adding your liquid.

Hope you enjoy it. Be on the look out for a little higher maintenance "Chicken under a brick"-- for when you have a little bit more time, and have gotten this guy under your belt.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day (or any day) Sugar Cookies

Since it was literally snowing sideways today, I spent the day inside, baking (and watching movies, and those other things normal people do on snow days). Since Valentine's Day is fast approaching, I decided to make sugar cookies and use the heart sugar cookie cutter that I have never managed to use before. I just don't make sugar cookies unless it's Christmas time...that is until I learned about royal icing. I mean, sugar cookies are time consuming, and even though they taste good, there are many other cookies I'd rather eat. But what a sugar cookie has that no other cookie does is visual appeal. I love that you can decorate them like a blank canvas, and sprinkles are great and everything, but royal icing really gives them that professional look. You may have seen seasonal sugar cookies decorated in stores and thought, how do they make them look so good? The answer, my friend, is royal icing (and a lot of practice drawing with a pastry bag).

Today, I just went for something simple but appealing. Pink hearts.

The following is the recipe for sugar cookies. I am telling you, this dough is so easy to make, and so easy to roll, you won't believe it. Here's the recipe:


* 1 1/2 cups butter, softened
* 2 cups white sugar
* 4 eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 5 cups all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. (If you are using a stand mixer, add flour gradually). Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight).
2. Preheat oven to 375. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on cookie sheets (give them a quick spray if you like, but I find you don't need to grease them).
3. Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely.
Makes about 60 cookies.

Now the first thing you'll want to be sure of, especially if you've never made sugar cookies, is to have enough time to chill the dough. An hour is fine, but I usually leave mine overnight so I can minimize the mess in my tiny kitchen by cleaning up from making the dough before settling in to roll, cut, bake, and decorate them.

Once you've chilled the dough, you'll need a flat, clean surface to roll your dough on. Some people have pastry boards or cloth, but I just use my kitchen table. That way I don't have to worry about whatever I'm rolling on sliding around. Sprinkle a bit of flour on -- a bit! You want just enough flour on the surface to create a thin film, and you should still be able to see the surface through the flour. Also put some flour on your rolling pin. Oh no, you don't have a rolling pin? That's alright! A wine bottle (preferably empty) will do just fine.

When I roll dough, I like to make one good flattening roll, and then flip the whole piece of dough over to begin the "evening out" roll. I suggest you roll out as much dough as your space can hold. If you keep breaking off small pieces to roll and only make 8 cookies or so with every piece of dough, you'll run into he problem of consistent height in your cookies. Some might be closer to 1/8 in. thick, and others 1/4 in, and you might think they all look the same but, usually they aren't. This will cause different cooking times in the oven, and some will be more browned than others, which is not ideal. However, if you only have a small space, just try your best to watch the thickness of your cookies, and compare them to the previously cut ones.

Thickness is also another personal choice. For Christmas, when I use a lemony icing and sprinkles, I like my cookies thin, about 1/8 of an inch. But for these Valentine's cookies, with thick royal icing spread on them, you want your cookies on the thicker side as well. Something needs to balance out the extreme sweetness of the frosting, and a thin little cookie isn't going to cut it.

Move the racks of your oven to the two topmost rungs. I find that if I bake sugar cookies too close to the bottom of the oven, they burn on their bottoms, and look uncooked on top. You can certainly put two sheets in at once though if they are on the top two rungs. You will want to watch them carefully as these little buggers can really burn fast. As soon as you see any eensy bit of browning on the bottom edges, yank them out. Then cool them on racks after they've been on the sheets for a bit.

So, now, royal icing.

Here's a recipe that will make enough to ice the cookies from the recipe above (and 60 is a lot of cookies!)

2 cups confectionary sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp Meringue Powder (you can substitute egg whites, but some people don't like raw egg whites in their food; use 2 medium egg whites)
1/2 tsp vanilla or lemon juice or another flavor you like
Several Tbsps of room temperature water (start with 3)
Food coloring

Royal icing is different from frosting. It will be spreadable and seem pretty liquidy at first, but it dries solid with a matte finish. Therefore, you would never want to ice a cake with this, since you'd probably need a saw to cut it open (not to mention it would not taste good). Royal icing is used by professional bakers to make roses and other flowers for cakes ahead of time; they are then transferred to the cake once they are hard. They also use it to decorate cookies, like we will be doing here. When it is dry, it won't be smearing off if you accidentally bang into it (like a cupcake frosting), which I think is a great thing. The other nice thing is that royal icing is water based, so it comes off of things very easily (can't say as much for the food coloring though).

So, you put all the frosting ingredients in your mixer, and beat it on high for 10 minutes, stopping as necessary in the beginning to scrape down the sides and make sure it is all incorporated. You will need a stand mixer for this, because you definitely will not want to be holding a hand beater for 10 minutes, and it could burn out your motor on it. (If you don't have a stand mixer, you can make a different kind of icing, with confectioners sugar, a little lemon juice, and a little milk, which will be like a glaze). Don't move that icing until it's been 10 minutes. It might look ready but trust me, it is not. I have done this more than once and I have been very unhappy with the results (I told you I'm not very patient).

Now you need to check the thickness. Chances are, it is pretty thick now. You'll want to add at least two more tablespoons of water. You want the frosting to be easily spreadable if you are going to spread it on the whole cookie, and even if you are going to pipe it, it needs to be pretty thin. It will still work if thick, but won't give you as smooth a look on your cookie. Once you've got your thickness the way you want it, add your food coloring.

I like to take a little bit out and put it in a small piping bag for white, and then separate the other colors out as necessary. I just added some red into the whole batch for this one though. As you can see, they are pink, not red.

It is very difficult to get red frosting, and even if you manage to, you've probably used your whole food coloring jar, and the frosting will probably have an odd chemical taste. Here are your options: 1. Buy "no taste red" food coloring. This is specially designed not to make you gag when you add a lot of it in. or 2. only make a little bit of red. There is no way you could make the whole bowl red, but a small cup, sure.

Then, you're ready to decorate. You can pipe designs with this, or just spread a coating. Whatever you want to do is up to you. Don't layer it too thick though: you do want to be able to taste cookie, right? Let them dry for a few hours. The test that they are ready is that the frosting has become a uniform color. If you see dark pink and light pink, the frosting is not set.

So, the things to remember:
1. Coat surface and rolling pin for easy rolling.
2. Roll dough to an even thickness and roll as much as you can at once for uniformity in cooking.
3. Take cookies out at the first sign of browning on bottom edges.
4. The frosting isn't dry until the color is uniform. Don't eat until you see that!

These are a great treat for kids, to bring to a party, or even to make for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. They will be very impressed. I mean, who wouldn't want a Valentine's message in cookies?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

And now for the second installment on cakes. This time, cupcakes! But not just any kind of cupcakes, carrot cake cupcakes! These are my all time favorite, and the weird thing is, I don't really care for carrots on their own. Although many think that carrot cake is an "adult cake," kids will like this version as well. No raisins and no nuts (yuck!) But, if you are a real adult, you can certainly add them to the recipe. I got the base recipe from smittenkitchen (great site for recipes), and altered it a little bit to fit my tastes. It's a really simple recipe but it yields great results. There are also just general cupcake tips if you have a different recipe you prefer. Read on!

So for carrot cake you've got to have two elements; first the cake, and then the cream cheese frosting. If you don't have the latter, well, no one will like your cupcakes :).

Here's the cake:

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups canola oil
4 large eggs
3 cups grated peeled carrots
1 cups coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cup raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.

Line 24 cupcake molds with papers, or butter and flour them.

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in medium bowl to blend. Whisk sugar and oil in large bowl until well blended. Whisk in eggs 1 at a time. Add flour mixture and stir until blended. Stir in carrots (and nuts/raisings, if using). Divide batter among cupcake molds, filling 3/4 of each.

Bake cupcakes 14 to 18 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let cool in pans for five minutes or so, then transfer cakes to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before icing them.

And here's the great twist on the frosting: maple!

Two (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup

In a stand mixer beat all the ingredients on medium until fluffy. Chill the frosting for 10 to 20 minutes, until it has set up enough to spread smoothly.

So let's start with the cake. First of all, if you have a food processor, you'll want to use it for the carrots. Once peeled, cut then into 2-3 inch peices and plop them in there. Grind it on pulse (so you can control how fast and how long it chops for, so you don't end up with carrot juice, which has happened to me on more than one occasion.) You want your carrot pieces to be small because no one likes crunchy carrot cake (see photo). If you don't have a food processor, then you can grate them with one of those large cheese graters, or even mince them all by hand, but that will take a very long time and you will probably never want to make this ever again.

So you've got your carrots, and then you want to get your dry ingredients ready in a separate bowl. Then mix the sugars and the oil. They have to be incorporated completely, forming a sludge (see photo). Then you'll want to crack eggs in, one at a time, meaning to incorporate one egg into the sludge before adding the other.

Now, maybe you have a strategy for cracking eggs, and maybe you don't. But if shells are a constant problem for you, here's a tip: crack your eggs on a flat surface (counter) not an edged surface (bowl). Why? Have you ever noticed that thin almost skin-like layer underneath the shell? Well that is your friend. If you crack on an edge and break that skin and separate shells from that skin, well then its up to chance whether those shells get in your batter. But by breaking it on a flat surface, the shell fragments remain attached to the skin, and never come off (well, almost never). This technique has always worked for me.

Now, you mix all the separate ingredients together, according to the instructions, and your batter is ready. So now it's you versus the cupcake tray. One of my friends mentioned to me that she hates making cupcakes because not only is it a huge mess getting the batter into the individual cups, but that all of the cups come out different heights no matter how close she tries to get them. I agree--those things are very annoying. And here is how we fix that. An ice cream scoop.

If you have an ice cream scoop that has one of those metal pieces inside that rotates to clear the ice cream out (I have a smaller version as well for dropping cookies onto cookie sheets), you are in luck. You have the perfect tool to lessen your cupcake-making stress. Even if your scooper is just a level half-sphere it will help you out. By scooping the batter over its bowl, and then putting it into each cup with the scoop, you have a pretty perfect measuring cup and a less messy way of transporting the batter. Try this next time. I had a small scoop, so I put two scoops in each cup, and the results are below. They are pretty even and definitely the most even batch I've made.

Cupcakes complete. Now for the frosting--this is the easiest and best tasting frosting ever. The tips I have for this are the same as I had earlier for my other cake frostings: make sure the butter is at room temperature, as well as the cream cheese. These bases need to be soft or you'll have lumps in your frosting (it will still taste good though). Also, incorporate the fats (cream cheese, butter) a little before adding the powdered sugar so it doesn't spray out of the bowl and onto you during mixing. After trying this recipe a number of times, I found that there wasn't enough maple flavor for me, so I put about 2 TBSP more maple syrup, and I preferred it. But you can do as you like.

If you don't feel like getting out your cake decorating supplies (or don't have them) put the frosting in a ziplock bag, and force all the frosting into one of the bottom corners. After refrigerating, cut of a small part of the corner, and make a swirl with the frosting on top of the cupcake. Yours can and will be much prettier than mine (cut way too big of a hole at the corner).

To recap the tips for this recipe.:

1. Shred carrots small to avoid raw carrots in final cupcakes.
2. Crack eggs on flat surface if you have problems with egg shells dropping in your batter.
3. Use an ice cream scooper to help you limit the mess and get even sized cupcakes.
4. Make sure cream cheese and butter are soft before making frosting.
5. Add a little extra maple syrup to the frosting if you hope to get a kick of maple flavor.

Bring them to your next party, or make them for someone special. I promise that they will convert any carrot cake haters in your life.